Monday, January 19

A Year In Old Music OR #listeningtoallmycds

Here are my reflections on a very silly 2014 year in music. Not 2014 music, I listened to every single one of my CDs from start to finish in 2014.  Listen in, after the jump!

First of all, I have a lot of CDs.  No, I'm not like those people who have boxes upon boxes in storage, my list ended up topping out at 529-- That includes some CD singles. Yes. I bought those. Why? Who knows. But I ended up with a CD single of No Authority's Can I Get Your Number.  Which, if you haven't heard, is a "perfect 10" and by perfect 10 I mean perfectly time locked in 1998.  Before we dive too deeply into some of the lesser hits of my collection, let me tell you about what I did.  I generally set this up so that song links open in Spotify and album links open in Amazon.

The Mission
I have no idea how I got this idea into my head. But at some point in early 2014, I had this idea to listen to every single one of my CDs.  Well, the album.  It didn't need to be heard on the original plastic, iPod was acceptable.  There were rules and a spreadsheet (for tracking), of course.  I had to listen to the album in order, start to finish-- not necessarily in one sitting, but more or less.  This meant no skipping tracks, no fast forwarding, no shuffle.  It often meant that I had to listen with intention and a chunk of time because I was listening to things the whole way through.  I decided not to listen in alphabetical order because that would have given me a month of Bright Eyes and a subsequent suicidal tendency.

What I Learned Over Summer Vacation
Not exactly.  But this experience was wonderful.  I had a deadline.  I had a goal!  I got to re-experience old favorites and snuggle up with new ones.  I heard things I absolutely would not have listened to otherwise.  I also got to experience hundreds of albums across many decades and genres in order.   The issue of listening to albums on shuffle has certainly been touched on by many-- rightfully so.  The magic of listening to an album the way it was put together for your ears is a gift and one I rarely accept.  I learned to love the luxury of a skip button... because I denied myself its usefulness.  At times my hand reflexively leaped to the skip button and only to then find that I didn't now hate what I was accustomed to skipping.  Some albums are works of Gestalt; they are more as a whole than the sum of their parts.  There were surprises in what held up and what didn't.  There were also some which were not surprises.  I got to see which threads hold together all the music I love and what is missing from my library.

Gestalt Albums
Gestalt albums are those which are best heard together, all at once.
  • The most specific version of this I had was Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips.  Zaireeka is 4 CDs which are meant to be played synced together across 4 different sound systems.  In the past I have listened to this album sitting in a circle of friends with boom boxes around us.  This time it was me in my house with external speakers, a few iPods, and a laptop.  Some of the magic was lost that way.  But the intentionality of listening to that album is always splendid.  You have to really try to listen to that album and it's not an easy listen.  Zaireeka sits deep in the Flaming Lips' experimental territory and is at times scary (imagine that the speakers behind you have been silent for 30 seconds only to then blare some masked screaming and screeching).  It was the very last CD I listened to, 12/31/14.
  • Hospice- The Antlers It's sad. It's about watching someone die. It's a complete story and it sounds like your emotions trying to regain balance.  Get swept up in the deep, rolling build of "Kettering".
  • Reflektor- Arcade Fire Great as a piece of art, less great when these intense, experimental tunes show up on shuffle.  As a whole, this thing sets a mood, sticks with it, and does it well.
  • Bringing It All Back Home- Bob Dylan Starts out with those great 1960's era set pieces of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm" and closes with the one-two punch of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".
  • Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground- Bright Eyes Conor Oberst has said in interviews that he intentionally makes the first tracks of his records difficult to engage with so as to discourage the casual listener.  Here, it's part of the journey, a difficult entry point but by the end of the 10 minute final track, you'll want to join in the group sing.  Bright Eyes was my favorite band for a very long time. I have his words tattooed on my body.  This album, I'll call his masterpiece.  The musical arrangements are rich and beautiful in spots, his voice, shaky and spare-- things less pronounced in other work.  Probably one of my favorite albums of all time.  There's honest sexuality, wistful hope, mawkish hope, suicide attempts.  It feels like life to me.  "Laura Laurent" hits them all.
  • Figure 8- Elliott Smith Take a tour of depression.  These songs are sad and gorgeous, but I rarely listen to them on their own.  Taking in the whole album in one gulp (which you have to do in the proper mood; not too depressed, not happy) made me remember why Elliott Smith had made such an impression on me.  Just that back to back lineup of "Everything Reminds Me of Her" and "Everything Means Nothing to Me." Beautiful, beautiful.
  • In Roses- Gem Club Listen to this album while you're alone watching the sun come up and it will change your life.
  • FutureSex/LoveSounds- Justin Timberlake There was a reason we were begging for a new Justin Timberlake record (related to that video: "I don't know how to pleasure myself to Bruno Mars" might be funniest thing someone said in 2011).  And, yes, ok, it was a bit of a be careful what you ask for lesson. But this album is PURE GOLD.
  • Let Go- Nada Surf This is an incredibly rich, tight collection of songs.  They all work well on their own, certainly.  But when you listen to this perfect package of pop tunes together, you gently sink into the notion of don't we all just want to be loved?  If you haven't heard Nada Surf since "Popular" they've changed, but are just as earnest.  Listen to "Inside of Love" and "Neither Heaven Nor Space" to become a convert; they are wonderful, delicate, melodic gems.
  • Haunted- Poe A lot of people remember Poe as a one hit wonder with "Angry Johnny" which is nice, but they are missing her best work.  Haunted comes as a reflection following the death of her father and tells a story, asks questions, and creates an eerie, ambiance.  The title track does a nice job of setting the mood.
  • Heartbreaker- Ryan Adams Ryan Adams isn't known for even releases, but this one is. It's all beautiful, contained, cohesive.  A feat, considering the uptempo "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)" and the very spare "Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)", but somehow, that heartfulness he has pulls it all together.
  • Elephant- The White Stripes Such an eclectic bundle of tunes, but they are all killer and you can say a lot of things about the White Stripes, but you can't say that they don't have a distinct sound.  Something about that long jam on "Ball and Biscuit," damn.
The Passage of Time Has Been...

Very unkind to you
Oh, so good to you

Charming Oddities
  •  Lux by Brian Eno Ambient music, not for everyone.  It's bells and tiny sounds with a lot of space between some of the notes.  It's beautiful.  People seem to suggest it as meditation or study music.  I suggest putting it on, listening, and doing nothing else but hanging on the breath of every note.  The album is only 4 songs, they are long and beautiful.  Here's an excerpt from Three.
  • Dead Inside by Golden Palominos It's the poetry of Nicole Blackman set to music.  Nicole Blackman's poetry isn't exactly "light" and she provides the vocals.  It's a chore to listen to if you're not in the mood, but it's a trip when you're in the right frame of mind.
  • Not For Kids Only by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman  Ok, it might have songs like "Teddy Bears' Picnic," but it also contains some damn fine folk music and you'll be hard pressed to find a better mandolin player than Grisman.  I think "A Shenandoah Lullaby" is one of the most beautiful songs in the world and it makes me want to go camp out in the mountains under the stars.
  • Fast and the Furious Soundtrack I... I have no idea why I have this, but I bought in 2001.  And it does have some pretty great hip hop on it.
  • Playmate of the Year by Zebrahead Most people have never heard of Zebrahead, if they have, most people know "What's Going On" which struck me for having information about sexual assault at the end of the track.  These songs are silly and earnest and sometimes you just desperately need earnest and silly, like how great one might feel upon getting new pornography.
  • The Gorey End by Tiger Lillies with the Kronos Quartet The work of the great and masterfuly Edward Gorey set to music, well, turned into songs.  It's completely absurd and I love it to pieces.  You didn't know it, but you need to hear Gorey's amphigories and acrostics in song.  Thing is, it's kind of hard to find.  Come on over, we can listen together.
  • All Day by Girl Talk If you don't know Girl Talk, Greg Gillis makes music out of other people's music. Which, on spec sounds dumb and, sure, most people have heard a good mash up but... this is so beyond that.  Girl Talk is worlds above a mash up and All Day was described as his fantasy rock concert.  It's dancey and it's impressive; at worst it's a musical scavenger hunt, at best it's a throbbing dance mix imbued with familiarity.  The albums are available from the Illegal Art website, most pay what you want or free.  A dear friend gave me a copy of All Day and it stayed in my car CD player for over a year.  If my reflected the time I spent with that album, it would be the most played, by far.  The album is also on youtube, because these dancers danced out the entire album and it's a glorious spectacle.

I Love Punk and Pop Punk
It's true.  As my musical tastes morph and change, I had forgotten how drawn to punk music I am.  But younger me bought a bunch of CDs which reminded me.  I will assume that you won't argue the value of pop punk with me.  Rediscovering why The Ramones, The New York Dolls, Social Distortion, The Clash, and the Velvet Underground first moved me was a priceless experience as a lost 20-something.  Remembering why MXPX, NOFX, New Found Glory, and Blink-182 were important to me as a teenager was also great.  I love punk.  I love the spirit of punk.  It's something I thought I'd lost over the years, but I didn't.  It's still in me and it shows its face now and again.  But the Ramones and the Clash are back on regular rotation and it's been soothing.  Don't you dare ever forget how great of a song "Police On My Back" is.  Don't you dare.

Feelings Are Things I Have 
As evidenced by being a human person with Bright Eyes lyrics tattooed on my body, it would be fair to call me a bit of a sap.  I connect so strongly to music that when people tell me they don't really care what music they listen to, I honestly can't imagine what that's like.  As much as I have few feelings in my day to day responsibilities and experiences, I feel deeply when I listen to music.  Music lets me process things, music helps me process things.  Music makes me remember things.  When I listened to Gem Club's In Roses this year while I drove through the green mountains as the sun came up, I was moved to tears.  Everything I was hearing was enhancing what I was seeing and for the moments of that record, life was enhanced.

Not just love and beauty.  Anger (see: "Song for the Dumped" by Ben Folds Five).  The agony of discovering you've been cheated on (see: "Salome" by Old 97's).  Silly (see: "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" by the Flaming Lips).  Fear (see: "The Curse of Millhaven" by Nick Cave).  But, yes, on top of that are all the ones about love and beauty-- doesn't make them any less valid.  If you're sick of songs about love and beauty, you're listening to the wrong ones.

There's an emotional safety in emotional connection with music because it's a piece of art which will always be consistent and there, even if your experience with it changes (yeah, John Cage, let's chat) and you get to be titillated by a new experience with an old favorite.  I had connected with "Do You Realize??" by the Flaming Lips because of the sentiment, "Do you realize that everyone you know some day will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast, it's hard to make the good times last, you realize the sun doesn't go down, it's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round."  Over the years I have heard that song hundreds of times and been able to hear it with new ears.  Once I heard, "Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face," and it was as though I had never heard that before-- it had never registered.  During my year of hedonism and joy, I saw the Flaming Lips and when they performed that song I heard the line, "Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?"  Again, it was as though as many times as I have heard that song, I had never caught that line.  I hadn't listened to The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips in ages and when a friend took me to Amoeba Music in Los Angeles where The Soft Bulletin happened to be playing and I was overwhelmed by all the music in front of my eyes, they welled with tears.  In that moment, everything seemed beautiful and I was happy.  When I was a teenager I made a mix cd of gut punching songs and I'm mostly that same way now.  I was fascinated by ( ) by Sigur Ros because they set out to make an album which evoked emotion by gibberish lyrics (not that it would matter to me, I don't speak Icelandic) and music.

It was such a joy to re-experience my own music collection, start to finish, like this.  To remember why I had fallen in love with Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst continues to shock me, I think because he's a few years older than me and keeps writing about the life I'm experiencing), to ponder why the shit I had bought the sound track to Fast and the Furious, to sit with the greatness of the Beatles and the Clash.

Music caresses my heartstrings in a way that nothing else ever has.  Not even close.