Rewind Reviews #9: A Very Long Year - By Volume

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Rewind Reviews #9: A Very Long Year

It's all right. I love you. Author: on August 9, 2013
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Artwork: Christian Harrop, The Christmas Unicorn

Lists that culminate a certain period of time (such as “best of” year-end lists) often engender a groaningly awful barrage of stupid comments from people feeling the need to bemoan the fact that obscure band x didn’t make Pitchfork’s, or Rolling Stone’s, or NME’s list, or that said band was placed to low, usually coming across via the ever so clever “list is shit” comment. I wish this wasn’t the case because I actually quite like the prospect of coming up with a certain hierarchical ranking for the music you have encountered over the course of a certain time frame—ranking things as a general rule can be problematic if you’re a big taste-maker/gatekeeper in the critical arena, but if it stays personal it can be an interesting exercise. Looking over some of my old lists, I think I can quite clearly chart my own personality developments to an alarming fault. And that’s fascinating. Putting together these lists force us to conceptualize what exactly we like about one album over another. There are interesting questions about framing; how do we want to think about the list (do we list chronologically? By favourites? Alphabetically? Why?)? Most importantly, compiling lists can give an avenue for thinking about music not just in isolation from other music, or as only interacting with other kinds of music in the sense of referentiality and indexicality, but also as a system of being in the world entire.

So for this installation of Rewind Reviews I am composing a special list (of five entries!) looking at five songs that I feel are my favourites of the past year (so, yes, this does include the end of 2012). I currently finished the latest phase in my academic career and so the end of my one year Master’s program feels like a fresh start—ends and beginnings. After compiling these five songs, I noticed that only one band was entirely new to me this year and that only one thing here is particularly unlike the others. This isn’t to suggest I have stopped exploring new musical tastes, genres, or bands, nor do I think its stagnation or a stunting of my love for music. Not at all: I think it indicates that in a year full of big changes and big challenges, more often than not I wanted to have music be something of a cushion—and at this point in my life I know what I like and what I can rely on. As the Deafheaven entry suggests, however, I wasn’t simply staying in my comfort zone, avoiding listening challenges for the sake of sweet, sweet escapism. So, here is the list, in no real order, of my five favourite songs from August 2012 to August 2013. (Honourable Mentions: Jessie Ware—Wildest Moments, Japandroids—The House that Heaven Built, Andrew Bird—Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses, James Blake—Voyeur)

1. Menomena Pique

Moms came out pretty soon after I moved to a new city to start a new program in a new school and I remember listening to “Pique” for the first time while I was cooking my first meal in my new kitchen. That’s a lot of firsts, but something about “Pique” made it the perfect fit for that moment in time. While I like Mines quite a bit, I do find that it is quite particular, that at times it can be too finicky when Menomena have always been at their best with a little less tightly bound tether. Moms, after the turmoil surrounding the making of Mines, found Menomena back in that energetic raw groove that made their first two albums so wonderful. Still, the maturity in sonic layering and composition that was most prevalent in Mines has stuck around. “Pique” perfectly captures this kind of finely tuned balance that really makes Moms such a brilliant record; the song starts as a semi-melodramatic march before some well-placed horns brighten things into something a little funkier in the chorus. The song has a great flow, a great composition, but it’s that guitar solo—so unexpected—that really shows the sort of unbridled energy that place Menomena above their peers in the indie rock arena.

2. Sufjan Stevens — Christmas Unicorn

If last August you had told me that in a year’s time one of my favourite songs would be a thirteen minute Christmas epic about unicorns ending with a retro-futurist cover of Joy Division…well, actually I would have just assumed it was by Sufjan, so I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. The lyrical themes of being caught in the ambiguous liminality of Christmas as both a secular, consumerist marketing ploy and a day of spiritual joy for many is hardly new fodder for Stevens. In fact, it’s hardly new fodder for a lot of artists tired of the cheesy schmaltz; but the difference with Sufjan is the particular reason why I always find myself needing to listen to the deeply depressing “Justice Delivers Its Death” before flowing into the unbelievably joyous “Christmas Unicorn.” Despite this ever-present personal battle Sufjan has with the Christmas of shopping malls and the Christmas of churches, “Christmas Unicorn” does not pander to wanton bemoaning—Sufjan recognizes that despite it all, there’s still room for celebration, hence the refrain: “I’m the Christmas Unicorn / You’re the Christmas Unicorn, too / It’s all right, I love you.” The music, then, is suitably playful and fun; I’m pretty sure this was originally meant to be a two minute song put on that throwaway second disc but at some point Sufjan said “hey, this melody sounds a lot like Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and then proceeded to write another 10 minutes of stuff so he could eventually sing “Love Will Tear Us Apart” over sleigh bells. And that’s awesome. Plus that Phil Collin’s drum fill. You know the one.

3. Deafheaven—Dream House

As previously mentioned, this is the ugly duckling of the group—and that word ugly is such an interesting entry point into thinking about this song. It’s not ugly and it is ugly. Those vocals, those blast beast; these things are ugly if we take the word at its etymological roots to mean fearful or dreadful (what I mean is that in this case I don’t consider ugly a negative adjective). But the song is also aglow; it’s effervescent, transcendental, and downright uplifting. Look, these are the kinds of things you’ve heard all year with the hype machine behind Sunbather, but Deafheaven have proven to be one of those fabled few bands who back up their hype train with an end product that overshadows the pre-release near-deification of its qualities. In the album’s opening minute, Sunbather introduces its intentions with the gorgeous explosion of blast beats and sunny distorted guitar haze that is “Dream House.” Through its mazy, blurry ten minutes, “Dream House” sets the tone for the rest of the album—with smart touches of melody and sonic layering over top of that ugly, black metal-ish skeletal frame. The song—and the album—never really falls into any single genre, but more importantly it also never really feels like an experiment, or an exercise in genre fusion. It just is. And it is something huge. Call it what you want: “Dream House” is enthralling.

4. The National—Pink Rabbits

I don’t think Matt Berninger and co. could possibly have written “Pink Rabbits” at any other point in their critically heralded career. Don’t get me wrong, it is still quite cleary a song from The National, but there’s something about its composition that suggests it needed five previous albums and a handful of EPs to finally surface. I think there is a deftness in the melodic structuring and arch that makes “Pink Rabbits” one of The National’s best songs. Let’s not even get started on the lyrics; I mean, when Berninger sings “You didn’t see me I was falling apart / I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park,” the number of interpretive paths seems infinite (and always labyrinthine). But we’re used to that from The National by now. No, outside of the genius lyrics there is something that allows the song to reach an entirely different dimension. How about the singing? We’ve heard Berninger sing in the upper registers before, but it wasn’t always the most successful (i.e. “Vanderlyle Cry Baby”). In “Pink Rabbits,” though, Berninger’s singing is so wonderfully melodic, and the strain in his voice to actually hit the right notes is no longer a mark of overreaching, but rather it is an element of the song’s lyrical and melodic make-up. Every melody itself feels strained in that it is reaching for something always just beyond—such is desire, after all. But it’s a wonderful strain, as it is wonderfully painful. That’s why, when you think you have figured out the pattern of the song in its opening two minutes, it completely adds a different melodic layer to the proceedings, and once you think you have figured that out, it switches gears again. Brilliant.

5. Colin Stetson—To See More Light

For anyone aware of the magical tapestry that Stetson weaves with the bass sax, “To See More Light” is nothing surprising. And yet, and yet: no matter how “used to” Stetson’s otherworldly, hypnotic compositions I might think I am, I still get floored by the incredible talent of its creator. The third volume of Stetson’s New History Warfare is actually the biggest departure from the rest of his solo output as it places far more emphasis on vocals and other layers (including some guest spots from Justin Vernon). In this way, “To See More Light” is one of the more “traditional” (what a word to pick in this moment) tracks on the album when considering Stetson’s repertoire. But, having said that, “To See More Light” is his magnum opus, it is everything that Stetson has been building his style toward—and it is all wrapped up in one thirteen minute epic. Everything is here: looming, ominous foghorn-like dirges; slow burning loops, steadily building layer upon layer of colourful, interweaving textures; and what can only be described as a cathartic, almost heartbreaking denouement. No better word comes to mind for describing “To See More Light” than amazing because there is a sense of mental bewilderment (another great word for describing this piece), that is, there is something in which one might get lost here. There are things hidden in the many parts and furies of this song that can trap and ensnare its listeners into the tautology of its labyrinths. I for one am ready to get lost.

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