I’m going to be honest: this year was rough. I am happy to see it go. For some reason I have never had very good luck with my odd years. But on the bright side, even years are usually more forgiving, so I guess I have that to look forward to (hopefully the Mayans are full of shit).
Because I spent an inordinate amount of time in my house this year, revisiting all the records I listened to had this sort of weird, inverted time capsule effect. Re-listening to songs is supposed to evince specific, emotive, transitive memories, but as I listened back through my favorite albums from this year, I recalled, with alarming specificity, mundane locations and quotidian actions – like, “Right on! I remember taking a rad shower just after I listened to Yuck’s album for the first time! Pantene me, bitch! (I said to the bottle?)”
This was decidedly strange and got me thinking about a discussion I had earlier in the year with a good friend about the difference between routine and repetition. My friend and I were trying to delineate the point at which repeating an action on a consistent basis mutates from constructive reinforcement into sheer rote. We figured that the difference could be attributed to approach: The same activity could be construed as routine if goal-oriented, or mere repetition if just a shortsighted fixation. But then what did this mean about my listening habits this year? Were they repetitive or part of a routine, and what did it mean if they evoked memories of other routines? So meta.
To be frank, I have no idea about the psychological implications of my listening habits. What I do know, however, is what my friend and I decided. For me, an album can be a crutch as easily as it can be a distraction as easily as it can be an impetus.
Without further ado, here is my top ten-ish list (in a loose order, because ranking is fun but unfair)
12. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
So the first time I listened to EMA I was brushing my teeth with this sick new toothpaste. Just kidding. What if I followed through and just listed a bunch of boring shit that I did for each album? Anyway, this debut from Erika Anderson is hard for me to listen to, not because it isn’t beautiful or poetic, but because I always feel voyeuristic, like I’m experiencing something that is so earnestly someone else’s, and so vulnerable, that my presence is intrusive. Listen to “Marked” and I think you’ll know what I’m talking about.
11. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
I will forever be a D’Angelo apologist, but ever since he traded his neo-soul for alleged solicited sex and bong hits, I have been trying to fill the void by seeking out R&B that has as much gravity and ingenuity as his work. Though stylistically incomparable, Frank Ocean is akin to D’Angelo in the spirit of inventive enterprise. Ocean cobbles together his debut mixtape from a disjointed palette of influences: he finds a way to mix original material, interstitial Nintendo references, and a Coldplay cover –not a typical recipe for success. But it works, and works well.
10. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80
This was the year of the New Underground for hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar emerged as the most adroit emcee of the pack. His wit is as quick as his flow, and I always end up wanting more than just an hour-long album from him. With Roots-esque moxie, he made his debut a concept album about growing up in the crack era during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. A bold move, but “Fuck Your Ethnicity” is the most relevant hip-hop track I have heard in a long time.
One word: “Rubber” (I think I gave myself tinnitus listening to this song so much. Also check out my profile of frontman Daniel Blumberg)
8. Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation
Trevor Powers is probably in my top 5 for nicest dudes of all time (see my profile of him), but his warm demeanor completely belies the brooding emotional flurry that prompted his debut, The Year of Hibernation. His album constantly straddles the line between youthful limitation and maturity, but always manages to avoid platitudes. While I can’t decide if his wispy pop is homesick or escapist, he is definitely the most interesting act to come from Idaho this year.
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Poignant, affecting, maturing, gossamer, mythological, home-bred, convalescent, Hornsby-esque, bearded. What is left to say about Bon Iver? There is no way you haven’t heard this album yet, and so much about Bon Iver has been committed to paper that you could just mad-lib a sentence together with the above adjectives and sound totally on point. Irritating, but this attests to the universal approbation of Justin Vernon’s song crafting. Although mythology (see above list) is something that inexorably comes up when discussing Bon Iver, I think the second album has finally adopted its own lore: A former bedroom-ambition now has four Grammy nominations.
6. A$AP Rocky –LiveLoveA$AP
Kendrick Lamar may be the mind of the new hip-hop underground, but A$AP is the hustle and grind. Also, he is just the fuckin’ man. Chalk it up to being photogenic or having a really listenable flow, but this album was on repeat for two weeks when it came out. My favorite part of the album turned out to be what some took issue with: It took me one solid listen to memorize all the lyrics. Perhaps he is repetitive –“I be that pretty mothafucka,” “purple _____.” “swag” – but as a result, each song is anthemic, and I love shouting along in my car.
5. Clams Casino – Clams Casino
This album might have been my number 1 if I hadn’t started listening to it so recently. In the same caste as Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky, Clams Casino, aka Mike Volpe, has been the most prominent producer of the new hip-hop scene. I had been familiar with Volpe’s work as it appeared on A$AP’s album, but his isolated instrumentals are unbelievably transfixing as specter-sampling headphone music. If this is the sonic direction that hip-hop is leaning towards, I could not be more excited for next year.
4. Neon Indian – Era Extrana
Chillwave has callow limitations as far as emotive expression (I don’t think “Terminally Chill” was ever meant to be a heavy song). But on Era Extrana, Alan Palomo kept true to his synth aesthetics while taking a much-needed step in maturity. I love listening to this album because of my aural associations: Era Extrana is Michigan in September, running on the beach, waking up at 5 pm, growing a patchy beard, and parking outside Oleson’s Grocery for free Wi-Fi. It turns out I didn’t need to take the same step of maturity to thoroughly enjoy this album.
3. James Blake – James Blake
I wonder how long it took music illuminati to create a genre for James Blake’s sound. Dubstep, though it is the obvious influence, didn’t quite fit, so “post-dub” was the go-to subgenre I encountered most when reading about Blake. What does that even mean? It means that the often-misguided critical impulse to identify a sound with a hyphenated phrase fell short, simply because of, well, complexity. Blake’s inimitable sonic instincts and musicianship – that voice! – generated one of the most addictively challenging records of the year.
2. Drake – Take Care
This album was a crutch. I listened to it over and over and over. I started getting homesick; I started listening to Drake, and just….didn’t stop. Take Care is an album so unapologetically nostalgic that it only finds strength in recalling former vulnerabilities. Sure, Drake boasts his millions and his success, but it is a front, and not all that convincing. The bulk of the songwriting focuses on his hometown -Toronto, familial travails, and former loves that “fell through.” Consequently, Drake’s identity is so steadfastly grounded in his roots that his insecurities about fame and fruition are the only logical upshot. In so many ways, Take Care moves forward by looking back. Curiously enough, I checked my play count and the last time I listened to all of my favorite tracks was on the same day; I haven’t really touched the album since.
1. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
This was the album for me this past year, and anyone who lives with me or stalks my Spotify feed could have guessed that Kurt Vile topped my list. The dude is just a genius. My biggest regret of this past year was not saying anything to Kurt backstage at Pitchfork Festival. Instead, I just kind of stood there staring at him, you know, making him feel weird. But what are you supposed to say to someone whose art has been so important to you on so many occasions? “Hey, good job” is shallow beyond rationalization. So I stuck with staring. The closest I got to telling him how significant his work had been to me was a really drawn out conversation with his drummer about the difference between the free beer line and the free wine line backstage: “The rest of the band was making fun of me for goin’ to the free wine line, but…I’m pretty drunk!” There is no moral to that story, except this one: Go Listen To Kurt Vile!!
Post List Notes: “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj was my favorite song for an entire month. Did anyone else notice that despite the imperial takeover of Odd Future, Goblin barely made any year-end lists. And is anyone else sure that Azealia Banks is going to be huge in 2012?
Also, follow me on twitter! @MattGrosinger