31 January 2009

friends not trends: 2008 in review (and otherwise)

the going assumption; the working understanding during much of 2008, in my head and at least a decent many others', was that it was an off year for music; lackluster, mediocre, no great shakes. in some ways, i'd still say that was pretty true – as i've harangued before, it was a sucky year for big pop singles, with nothing that felt truly epochal and zeitgeisty, or even especially inspiring ("low"? "single ladies"? "american boy"? dandy party-fodder all, my rather irrational distaste for the latter aside, but hardly the stuff of enduring greatness) – at least not until m.i.a. blasted in from the past with what was pretty undeniably the song of the year, only a year late.

if you ask me, it was also an underwhelming year for albums of the crit-o-sphere consensus-pick variety – fair enough that there are plenty people who, unlike me, were smitten by the fleet foxes, tv on the radio, and bon iver records, but you can't convince me that any of it is urgent and compelling music (tvotr could almost be if they'd get a new producer already.) but i've gotten pretty far away from the indirok party line, so it's pretty irrelevant to ask me anyway. save for the break-out indie-dance triumvirate of swoony sweeties cut///copy, niche-revivalist anomaly hercules & love affair ('08's biggest crossover success story?), and bona-fide auteurs hot chip, the widely-repped alb i dug the most this year was vampire freakin' weekend, by a band whose most notable (and greatest) quality was their endearing ordinaryness.

meanwhile, the year's biggest attention-getters, lil wayne and kanye west, mostly failed to engage me all that much, musically or otherwise. and there weren't really any other major narratives to latch onto, genre-wise or what-have-you, my valiant attempts to herald a big-beat revival notwishstanding (but just wait until '09, oh right it's already here!) save perhaps the perplexing hodge-podge of the auto-tuned/art-attuned afro-techno revolution, which isn't so much an emergent trend as a multi-strand interpretive lens that may or may not be coming into focus.

[there weren't even major genres or trends that got me excited on a more personal level, although i did listen to a fair amount of sleepy twinkly ambientronica (colleen, lullatone, theodore, yokota) and the still-scarequote-worthy "balearic" (hatchback, studio, air france) and glanced briefly at b-more (tittsworth, rye rye.) i've had flirtations in recent years with soul, country, folk and reggae, none of which made very strong showings on my radar this year, but the ethno-beat likes of nomo, el guincho, m.i.a. (as a guest-shotter and general booster), and most especially my recent enthusiasm over radioclit in their various guises – not to mention the shaabi cds i picked up in egypt, or reading about the international selections in tom moon's 1000 recordings book – have me feeling like 2009 may be a year that i try to delve deeper into world music, whatever that ends up meaning. in '08 however, much of my extra-curricular investigation focused on various strains of "classic" british indie-pop from the '80s and early '90s: in an effort to shore up my historical understanding of this stuff (which seems to have influenced a lot of swedes), and under the guidance of AMG (and the liner notes to the legends' facts and figures), i bought albums by felt, lloyd cole, momus, heavenly, the field mice, the auteurs, prefab sprout, and dexy's midnight runners, exactly none of which have managed to make much of an impression, thus far. oh well...]

so much for all that. on an almost completely unrelated note: 2008 was an awesome year for music. as has been pointed out more than once, there's no such thing as a bad year for music. an uninspiring spell for music-that-other-people-like is nothing but a perfect chance to go out and discover what else there is out there to get excited about.

in this case, i found it, by way of my AMG gig – this was my first full year back to being a music journalist (by vocation, even!) several years after having packed it in – and the opportunities it allowed me to hear some artists that i may not have encountered otherwise, especially scandinavians: the astonishingly sincere twee-meisters billie the vision & the dancers, bleeding-heart synth-disco purists juvelen and cloetta paris, art-pop songstresses britta persson, maia hirasawa, and firefox ak, and lo-fi texturalists silje nes, fredrik, and hanne hukkelberg. (a few scandi-pop artists i'd heard before, who didn't release anything of note in '08, nonetheless formed a significant part of my aural diet for the year, largely through my "expert" AMG assays of their excellent back-catalogs: the tough alliance, the ark and bertine zetlitz.)

i also found it with some trusty old favorites, like crypto-fantasist kelley polar, pavlovian powerhouse rex the dog, and neato neo-beatnik why? (what's up with this spelling it in all-caps business? it's as bad as the mysterious made-up comma in the tvotr album title.) also true-blue troubador billy bragg, sludge-rawk guitar-hero al sparhawk (whose retribution gospel choir made the only honest-to-goodness rock album to make my list, right up there at #37), domestic vignettist darren hayman (a lovely rediscovery, both with his new bluegrass bandmates watkins trout & lee and the slightly older project the french), transatlantic twin sweethearts of the radio marit larsen and taylor swift, and the trustiest oldest favoritest of them all, david byrne, who seemed to get way more attention this time around for a way more low-key album, mostly because he got another old dude to write less interesting chord structures for his songs. [sadly, i didn't find it with my other, increasingly-less-dependable old favorite, fat elvis the talk-show-host, who put out, come to think of it possibly the worst, and certainly most slapdash, album of his entire career, and with the silliest title to boot - but, sigh, i've gotten over that one. interestingly, i did find it with my goodfriend matthew sweet, not so much on his 2k8 offering but the delightful four-year-old kimi ga suki * raifu.]

i found it, too, with some total weirdos. it was a great year for weirdos – or perhaps i should qualify that; weirdos who mix some amount of pop in with their weirdness, or vice versa (which makes it far weirder than straight-up weirdness, which is old hat and mostly just boring.) i'm thinking in particular of abstract-expressionist melody masher/noise-terrorist nerd dominique leone, foppish imps (impish fops?)/goofball space-cadets the chap, dadaist retro-wonk/blues-addled alien lifeform pop levi (a late addition to the party, but a tremendously welcome one; his sophomore-step-up, never never love, which shot way up on my list after just one listen, was otherwise dissed and generally slept-on, which is both a shame and a mystery since it's totally accessible and fresh and fun...the weirdness there is more about him than his music per se.) somewhat less enthrallingly, there were those nutsos nôze, whose album was more of a befuddlement than anything. and most of all, there was the incomparable, irrepressible max tundra, who both out-weirded and out-popped the lot of 'em, and also has the distinction of holding down the top spot on my last.fm most-played artists list.***

but best of all, i found it right here in west philly – to be specific, over at the vegan luncheonette, which is where i met '08 great emily bate... already my neighbor, soon to become my friend, and now my bandmate – but first, first, first came the first-rate the fever in the feast, which grabbed me from first listen, and which i just can't say enough good about.

should i be apologizing? look, loving music is absolutely subjective; writing about it ("critiquing") is hardly any less so... and what could possibly be a better way of relating to a musician than, well, relating to her? to be honest, though, our friendship is only one, reasonably insignificant, contributing factor in my fondness for tFitF. which, incidentally, i can actually quantify, about as objectively as is conceivable: as my last.fm charts corroborate, when you factor out "compulsory" listening for review purposes, as well as the fact that the higher-placing artists all had multiple albums contributing to their tallies, it was almost certainly the album i chose to listen to most often in '08.***

although i submitted a request for the assignment, i didn't review emily's album (that is, i haven't yet) – not so much because of bias concerns or conflicts of interest, but more because i feel like i won't be able to write about it in a way that conveys how special it has been to me... or, maybe, more precisely, because i'm afraid that examining it with a view to expressing it in words will force me to see my friend's funny li'l folkysongs as, "objectively," maybe not entirely so special after all.

(which is a silly thing to worry about. that's the whole game of criticism, after all, but it hardly ever has that effect; at least in my experience, reviewing is far more likely to increase my enjoyment and appreciation of albums than to diminish it. which is what explains my tendency for rave inflation.)

or maybe that's not it. a simpler explanation might be that i just enjoy it too much to want to do much of anything else with it besides keep on listening. and singing. and sharing.

2008's been a great year for friends, both musical and actual. here's to hoping that i find at least a few, at least as fine, in 2009.


***[bonus mini-essay!]

2k8 was definitely a different year for me in terms of my relationship to music. it was the first year that i did the vast majority of my listening with mp3s rather than physical objects. over the course of many months, i transferred my entire cd library to digital, all of it stored on my trusty (if sometimes a bit pokey) drobo: the current tally is 57660 songs, or 424.9 days. correspondingly, i spent untold hours in accreted discrete moments of intermittent frittering, pleasurable or painful or both, attempting to organize the constant flood of incoming iTunes data. also, i taught myself a fair bit about laptop djing; also, i got my first iPod (rubylith), lost it, and got another one (obsolith); also, i signed up for the rather ominously-named last.fm.

i'm still not sure if that was a good idea – i did it out of curiosity, but it has become a kind of compulsion; i check it constantly, avoid listening to undocumentable media (cds, for instance) as much as possible, and i'm inordinately peeved that the legends (whom i really don't think are all that great) are still standing as my third most-played artist, just because i apparently took a long time to review a couple of their albums back in the summer sometime...

anyway, last will tell you that my fourteen most-played artists of 2008 (or rather, from the time i joined, around may, until right this instant) were as follows: max tundra, cex, the legends, emily bate, marit larsen, owusu & hannibal, kelley polar, britta persson, firefox ak, cloetta paris, laurel music, amy diamond, miss li, billy bragg. i don't buy it, or at least not completely... i do a lot of my listening, and especially computer-listening, for practical purposes; mix-making, as well as record-reviewing [the names in italics are those that i didn't write reviews of in '08, which is pretty telling.] my continuing gig at amg was, of course, another huge aspect of my musical milieu this year, and the direct reason there are so many scandinavians on that list... all of which means it doesn't entirely match up to my "pure" preferences.

anyway, it's obviously an imperfect (though fascinating) system, and it's not really worth griping or quibbling about... on the other hand, though what's the fun of lists if not to argue about them.

No comments: