updated precisely as often as the gods demand, and not more
Last year at around this time I put a Top 5 Albums of 1998 entry into the top 50 things. I got pretty into that. I knew what was going on the top of the list (Archers and Aisles by the Spinanes, although I haven't listened to it as often this year as I have to my fave of 1997, Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One). For the rest of the list I spent a good hour or so rooting through my disorganised CD collection, picking out things that had been released in '98 but which I'd forgotten about, listening to tracks, and weighing the contenders. Unfortunately I don't archive my old Top 50s so I don't remember the rest of the list exactly. Soul Coughing was on it, and Boards of Canada. But anyway, the experience has been in the back of my mind all this year, as I've bought new CDs, at an average rate of about 2 per week.
Music is an enormous part of my life. It's a bigger part of my life than is obvious, since its role lately has been confined to listening to records, and making songs up in my head. (A month or two ago I finally bought my own drum set, so that's going to change. And notice what the working world does to your sense of time - it could have been three months ago that I bought the drums, I'm not sure. I hope it doesn't affect my sense of meter the same way.) But I am still a bit compulsive about buying records. (By which I mean CDs, and shut up about the way people still use the word 'record.' I mean, they're recorded, right? So take it easy. 'Record' = 'album.') I get frustrated in the record store, stalking up and down the aisles trying to think of something to look for, because I just know that something new and amazing is out there, if only I knew what it was.
I've been writing songs in my head my whole life. They don't tend to be very carefully considered, nor do I make any effort to record them in any way - I'm talking about the sort of mental soundtrack-making that any media-saturated grade-schooler does while playing make-believe. But I may be unusual in that I kept doing it past the age of eight. If I'm not walking around town wearing a Walkman (and the last time I used mine was months ago), I'm often imagining a running score or a tune. And I think I've gotten pretty good at it. I can certainly generate a song for myself that's not terribly derivative, and as interesting as many of the actual records I purchase. They tend toward the repetitive end of the spectrum, because that's mostly what I listen to - rock, electronica and meditative quiet stuff. But I can also come up with some good bridges and interesting chord progressions if I push myself. (I never seem to be able to pick out the notes that'll make those exact same chords happen, if I take an idea to a piano or a MIDI program, on which more in a moment.)
Besides all that, my imaginary audio-production skills are, of course, flawless. And I hardly ever make accidental noises out loud anymore. (Although I sometimes grind my teeth making beats.)
Lately I've taken some more steps towards making music that other people can hear. I finally found a free MIDI program I can use to "sketch" with, plugging in just enough notes of a chord progression to loop it and eventually use it to convey a song idea to a band, or maybe use it directly. I know plenty of musicians, and it's just a matter of getting them together and trying some shit, seeing what clicks and what doesn't. It's a matter of letting go, too, because having two or more people making music together means having two or more incompatible ideas of what the final product should be. It's best to have no ideas about what the final product should be, and take what comes (if it's any good).
This year has been a particularly frustrating one on the music-buying front. It's not that all the news has been bad. Plenty of good stuff has come out, and the enervating experience of The Alanis Effect (the bait-and-switch tactic of the hit single that sounds way different and ten times better than the album, combined with the very-'90s lack of an actual, purchasable single) has had the bite taken out of it by the wide availability of MP3s. So, for all the cheesy pop singles that I take a liking to for some reason, I've got an inexpensive solution. Still, though, very few recordings have given me the same kind of emotional satisfaction that I've gotten from my top picks of the last two years.
There were big disappointments like the latest Orbital album, The Middle of Nowhere, which reminded me quite a bit of the new Star Wars movie: my sky-high expectations weren't likely to be met by anything, but, despite some brilliant moments, the whole thing just relies too much on technological wizziness and some oddly aged sentiments. There were predictable-in-retrospect disappointments like Underworld's Beaucoup Fish. There were almost-very-very-good disappointments like the Magnetic Fields' opus 69 Love Songs. There were, um, recent disappointments like Beck's newest, and the new Salaryman. And, frankly, I'm even a little disappointed in my number one pick for the year. I don't find myself throwing it onto my system or mentally playing it in my head quite as often as I did when it was a month or two old - I don't get excited about it the same way, probably just because I played it too much - but I can't honestly say that anything else released this year was better. And while I'm being truthful, I haven't taken many of the disappointments back to the store for a trade-in, either. I think I'm going to learn more from them over the years, as I relax a little bit more, and the whispers that keep me interested grow stronger.
With that, let's get to the list:
#1 - The Roots, Things Fall Apart. If you don't believe that hip-hop can be sophisticated music, listen to this. When I first put this in the Top 50 Things I wrote that it was definitely the best-produced thing I'd heard in a long time. There's no outside producer masterminding this, either; what you hear is a group of extraordinarily talented musicians purposefully and carefully (maybe a bit too carefully) crafting a subtle and full-bodied masterpiece of its genre. (And yes, we're talking about musicians, for all you doubters out there. You can get a taste, but only a taste, of the Roots live experience on their new live double CD.) One of the best things about this album, and one of the things that helps build the unusually close-knit community around this group, is the way it stands against mediocrity and hip-hop norms. Not just in lyrical I-don't-care-how-many-records-you-sell-you're-still-wack boasting, but in actual, positive creative steps forward. (I liked Mos Def's Black On Both Sides for a lot of the same reasons, but it's a little more conventional. Maybe I haven't listened to it enough yet. That's another thing I do too often, I buy something, listen to it a few times and forget about it. And then I never have the sense to sell it.)
#2 - The Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby. There are a few reasons to be ashamed of liking this album - appropriation of hip-hop sounds and techniques by white artists, the sellout factor. But fuck that. These guys are making exactly the kind of music that I've been wanting to hear lately. The songwriting is unassailable, diverse, melodic; the production occasionally kicks harder (and smarter) than most of the electronica I've heard this year. Lyrically, it's hard to top Lou Barlow, who can write a song about being a "Mechanical Man" and make it sound just like cool pop, not corny, not contrived... sensible, clear-eyed, sad, resigned, happy, beautiful. Sad boy rock, baby.
#3 - Pinback, s/t. Last year I had Tortoise's TNT on my list. (That's four out of five that I remember from last year.) Later on, I started to wonder about it - I still like it, but I suspect that I may be ashamed of having liked it in ten years' time. It has that Rush-y aspect to it, that throwbacky indulgence and counter-trendiness that magazine columnists and comedians like to laugh at. But a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop letting fear of what my future self would think have too big a hold on my cultural decisions. Because, hey, that's just silly. With that in mind, I just found Pinback and I really like it. It's calm, a little on the lo-fi side but clean, very melodic, lightly rhythmic, and always focused. The lyrics don't always make much sense, but at least they avoid the self-consciousness you sometimes find in co-vocalist Rob Crow's other project Thingy, and the late Heavy Vegetable. (I love both those bands, but they do tend to get cute.) Rob Crow and his 5000 side projects make up the core of the free-music site MP3it, so I suppose I should just steer you clear of my inadequate descriptions and send you there. Basically what I'm trying to say is that "Loro" nearly makes me cry every time. So pick up that one. (Honorable mention in the obscure-ambient-rock category goes to Papa M, Live From A Shark Cage.)
#4 - Poster Children, New World Record, and Burning Airlines, Mission: Control! (tie) Yeah, so I'm cheating a little. These are somewhat similar records in that they both rock harder (and are more pure straight-ahead rock) than anything else on the list. Both bands mess around with weird time signatures (Poster Children does it more). Poster Children have escaped from the majors and sound jubilant with freedom compared to their last disc - they're jumping up and down, cracking jokes but making them count, and kicking hard beats on beautiful music. "Accident Waiting To Happen" is the king of album-openers. Burning Airlines comprises three-quarters of the dearly departed Jawbox, and they sound freer as well, a bit less serious and more straightforward, or maybe just less scrutinized. I haven't made tapes of either of them yet; maybe I should fix that now. (These days I only use tapes in the car.)
#5 - Bis, Social Dancing. This is a prime example of the ways that I'm kind of not as psyched about this year's selections. I mean, don't get me wrong, this album is great music and great fun and worth your money. It's poppy as hell, political without being overserious, dance-y but not at the expense of rocking out, it's loud, it's fast, and I just generally feel good about supporting it. But nothing on this year's list really reached into me the way I always want it to. Not the way Yo La Tengo or the Spinanes did, or even Soul Coughing.
No electronica made it on the list this time. (The current standard to beat is still Boards of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children. Breakbeat Era made the great step of using drum-and-bass to actually make songs, but it didn't bother to make very many good ones.) No women made it on this time either - hey, Rebecca Gates won top honors last year, okay? And Sleater-Kinney's The Hot Rock seemed oddly slack compared to Dig Me Out from '97 (which definitely would have been my #2 pick for that year, had I made any picks). And Dealership and The Aislers Set, two great local groups I discovered this year, unfortunately released their albums in '98, disqualifying them.
What is this about the list, the importance I give it, all the ridiculously minute attention that I (we) regard (our) pop music with? It's self-definition, I suppose. Self-proclamation. What flags do you fly, what tribe are you from? And it's also a way to give you a picture of the inside of my head. There are lots of us folks who want to see the insides of other people's heads, and have ours seen. It's the only kind of comfort I get sometimes, and when I'm in it, it's the only kind of study that seems important. I don't know. See Home Page for further elaboration. And send me your top five albums.
Tales from the Dork Side are copyright 1999 Mike Sugarbaker. Email for permission to redistribute.