Monday, February 19, 2018

Fat's HEAVY TUNES of the Year 2017

0. Introductionalizing Maunderings

Rough year, 2017.  Music seemed, through the early months, beside the point and inaccessible somehow.  Nothing new landed, everything just slid off of me for months.  Eventually, though, a perhaps predictable combination managed to crack my stasis: a couple powerful live shows plus the inordinate potency of perfect pop.  After about midyear, I felt open again to the delivery of novelty and pleasure from music.  Better late than never. 
Looking over what meant most to me this year, what I came back to most, I'm struck by, again, how little truly new stuff I adopted, and how much I came back to Big Melodies and Deep Textures.  I assume this was because my soul needed soothing and my life needed joy.  If you're in similar straits, maybe this list will do you some help, as it did me. 

I. List + Links (TD;LR crowd)

II. Fat's Diary Action

I wrote about EMA earlier in the year, declaring her 2011 song "California" the song of the summer 2017 (prematurely, as it would turn out), but it would be difficult to sum up how much time I spent listening to Past Life Martyred Saints and The Future's Void in 2017.  For much of the year, the only things that made sense were EMA's folk-melodies-into-explosions-of-guitar-noise and pretty, clean vocals, mostly saying upsetting things.  (Because I saw Mary Timony playing Helium last night, this makes me want to declare EMA the rightful heir to Timony's guitar-hero-with-dark-lyrics throne, but don't quote me on that yet.)

Past Life is a brilliant collection of overlapping musical and lyrical themes, treated in frequently experimental ways, ranging from extended guitar solos so simple and satisfying you'd swear only Lou Reed could have written them to self-harmonizing rounds; Future's Void is a more polished, narrower exploration of a couple ideas (musically: sadness, electronics, etc.; lyrically, technology, sadness, fame, etc.) that along the way earns a place as the most interesting and sustained engagement with the work of William Gibson I've ever encountered.  I didn't listen to anything more than I listened to these records this year, and I didn't listen to anything better than these records this year. 

A lot of the power of this music comes straight out of EMA's throat: 3Jane shows off her emotional singing beautifully.  Her sense of simple melodies is wonderful: the synth figure in Dead Celebrity is maybe the best example, or her unexpected appropriation of Camptown Races in California, a seriously weird moment that surprises and works every time I hear it.  Appropriation really works for this band: while everything feels forward-looking and even futuristic, there are frequent lyrical references to what's come before, so in a synth/guitar-noise dirge you might get a Bo Diddley callback, or even something like So Blonde would have been the best b-side on Hole's Celebrity Skin, which sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you understand that most times, the b-sides are a band's best, and that Celebrity Skin was, and is, a record without flaw.  Complicated emotions and sounds, the future and the past blending, stuff you can whistle.  Sounds like a good future to me. 

The one that came out last year, Exile in the Outer Ring didn't do much for me.  Then again, neither did either Past Life Martyred Saints or The Future's Void for 6 and 3 years, respectively.  I think I'll catch up with Exile in a couple years, at which point the band will probably be another couple years ahead of me... 

Völur landed in front of me via Twitter, shockingly, when Kim Kelley of Vice's Noisey mentioned them.  Something about the deep doom drones and the no-guitar instrumentation worked for me nearly perfectly all year.  Rocking, yet soothing: very useful in a nerve-jangling year where nothing seemed in-rhythm and everything had the power to annoy.  Indecipherable (German) lyrics helped, too, in a time where everything is far too explicit.  Metal can be a nice place to hide, and Ancestors built a sturdy shelter to rebuild one's stamina.  (A lot of other people really liked the Big Brave record, but I had trouble getting that one to work for me; as always, I'll probably come around to it in like two years.)

I have this pet theory about punk that says that what punk really is is consuming art made mostly by your friends.  Magazines, music, other performances, whatever.  Anyway, my friend Dan is in a lot of bands, like Wolf Parade and, for me, especially, like Operators.  I liked the Operators records I heard, had them in rotation all over the place.  Then I had some computer work to do and threw on some YouTubes of live sets, at which point I graduated to loving Operators.  Great textures and phenomenal urgency inhabiting beautifully structured songs—what's NOT to love? 

Hard to pick a favorite, but probably my choice for The Single is True, with its amazingly layered synths and unstoppable chorus.  Also if you can line up a friend who makes music you love and is willing to text with you about D&D, I highly recommend you do so. 
  • Swans

If you have a chance to see Swans live, see Swans live.  Resets the heart and mind. 

A surprisingly emotionally intense show was Magnetic Fields performing some of the 50 Song Memoir project.  The night of, "Me and Fred and Dave and Ted" provided the most life and lift—something about the humor directed at dark times vibed with me.  The few times I've tried to go back and click with the album, different bits have enveloped me, but never the same one twice, I don't think.  It may be that the album is a live show, different each time and only approachable on its own terms.  It also may be that I'm high? 

While EMA by a kilometer or two provided all my songs of the year, my song of the summer was, same as everybody's, Cardi B's stunning hypnotic manifesto.  Shame it had possibly the worst, most inept/inane video in recent memory, but even that could hardly tarnish the undeniable all-conquering compulsion of this single. 

Somewhere in the year, we saw the Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile tour.  The second-best songs were the ones from the albums they'd made before their collaboration.  The best songs were a Belly cover and "Elvis Presley Blues" which I had never heard before, and which I instantly fell in love with, and which I was taught later that night was a Gillian Welch song from a decade-plus ago, and which I now think is one of the greatest songs anybody's ever written. 

Another year-end list, another Future of the Left appearance, ho hum.  But in all seriousness, this live album was ridiculously good, bringing everything you want in a live document: a tight, excellent performance, just enough slop or mistake or equipment failure to remind you it was live, actually funny banter, and pre-show music that made at least me laugh.  The song here was new to me, somehow, and for long stretches of autumn, the anvil-dropping-onto-concrete riff and shouty bits made a lot of car rides significantly more tolerable. 

Voivod's Dimension Hatröss, is, as you know, the best record ever made.  But sometimes a person wants to listen to something the same as something they've heard before, but new.  That's where Vektor comes in: the same great pre-major-label Voivod taste you crave, but with new songs you haven't heard before!  Absolute shredders, incredibly technically proficient, but rarely boringly so. 
Terminal Redux is maybe a little bit too long, and maybe a little bit too samey, but my three-song edit, featuring all the songs with clean singing (first song, second-to-last song, last song) has put frothy joy into my soul each time I've tried it.  And, because metal, those three songs? add up to a half-hour of music.  Value for money.

I can't really remember why I decided to revisit Alice Cooper.  But after marching through Spotify for a few concerted days in the fall, I realized a couple things.  First, Alice Cooper's best record is probably Billion Dollar Babies, which came like 5 albums and 7 years into their career.  That was a different, better time; bands don't get the support they need to grow into themselves anymore.  Second, the record you want to own is the very early Greatest Hits compilation, particularly side 2.  Third, "Hello Hooray" is his (/their?) best song, and the single best exponent of a truly HEAVY TUNE that links itself to the Beatles, which all of these dudes love beyond belief, that I've ever encountered.  (No matter what the press kit for Black Sabbath's last album said.)  Anyway, it doesn't really rock all that hard, and it's always on the light side of heavy, but if you're not interested in big Broadway melodies, what are you doing listening to metal in the first place!?
If that doesn't sell you, my pal dB described Alice Cooper as "David Bowie's ugly cousin", so. 
  • Yes

Yes, it's more Yes.  What can I say?  I read Dave Weigel's book The Show That Never Ends, and all it did was make me like Yes, and Jon Anderson's basically down-to-Earth (if a little bit stoned), hopeful lyrics, and legitimately beautiful melodies even more.  Plus Chris Squire's bass playing just makes me laugh, particularly in the songs where everybody gets their own solo, which he happily solos underneath, and then he gets his own, which he solos over, but like twice as hard. 
It's what I turn to at work, when I need a little boost.  What's a bigger recommendation than that? 

III. Conclusatory Thinkery

Not a bad music year: more diversity than I'd've expected from a year of frank comfort-seeking.  Beyond that, I got nothing.  Technology-wise, I still loathe Spotify, but have found something it seems to me to be good for: creating playlists that replicate experiences I had, live shows, albums that aren't easily available to me anymore, etc. 

Anyways, I bought everything on this list, other than the Operators live show, wich I stole off of YouTube, and the Gillian Welch / Magnetic Fields / Cardi B, which I just stream a lot, and Yes, which I own some of but mostly just Pandora at work. 

I saw Less Art this year, and really had a great time at the show.  The record I returned to a couple times, but it really demands a certain volume-in-the-open-air listening experience I don't enjoy as often as I should, being a headphone weenie, mostly.  Also, too, I demand that they appropriate the old SS Decontrol song "How Much Art Can You Take?" and make a t-shirt reading "How Much Less Art Can You Take?".  If you really think about it, it works on multiple levels. 

IV. Previously in Years in HEAVY TUNES