Oh. My. GOD. Love love love love love love.
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Oh. My. GOD. Love love love love love love.
The end of the year brings us gift giving holidays, piles of baked goods (and subsequent carb-bloat), and a party or two. But what is any of that in comparison to the year-end “Best of” lists? I generally have my list of Best Albums and/or Tracks of the Year in mind by mid-December, then lollygag, dilly-dally, and loaf my way to mid-February before I post it. Well, hold on to your hats, lovers, ‘cause it’s still 2011 and I’ve got my Best of 2011 post ready to go. The caveat is that I was completely unable to listen to music1 from May – November (give or take), so my list is short. On the bright side, this gives me more time to critique everyone else’s list, which is so much more fun that coming up with my own anyway. My favorite lists are by Pitchfork, Other Music, and Urban Outfitters (they’re offering a free download of their Top 25 picks – it’s still up as of today). Flavorwire has a cute post called Stereotyping You By Your Favorite Album of 2011 – it’s good fun. Unlike past years, I have no overwhelming favorite for 2011. If I were forced to pick one, I’d say The Weeknd and their album House of Balloons. The title track samples from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House,” so it’s kind of inevitable that I’d love it. One huge standout for Best Live Show was LCD Soundsystem in March. I was sick with a sinus infection and running a fever, and still I danced for 3 hours straight. That is some serious live show mojo, and it put it on my Top 5 Shows of All Time list, hands down. I was introduced to three bands as openers for a couple favorites that were very, very good: The Lonely Forest opening for The Joy Formidable, and White Fence and Widowspeak opening for Woods. Having an opening band blow your mind is like finding sexy 4” stilettos that are as comfortable as old slippers. You’re expecting to suffer a bit but instead you get double the pleasure. I’m still finding dubstep and its many variations appealing, and 2011 provided a lot that captivated me. Bassnectar and Burial are two, with SBTRKT making me happiest of all. If I wasn’t so old and not-British-Club-Kid I’d totally be deep into the dubstep scene. Experiencing SBTRKT live surrounded by a mass of believers would be bliss. EMA finally released her album, Past Life Martyred Saints. I went to her show hoping and praying she’d do something from her Gowns days, but the most we got was a decent live version of California. Looking forward to seeing where she takes her music and creative pursuits. Can’t have a year without 4AD. This year I’m loving Tune-Yards’ new one, Whokill, and Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact. Gang Gang Dance sounds like Kate Bush in Bollywood, while Tune-Yards sounds like a yard sale full of wonderful, quirky treasures. I got to attend the listening party for the Tune-Yards album earlier this year (thanks, Other Music!) and discovered quickly that every song is good, a rare feat these days. DJ Quik, Shabazz Palaces, and my old faves Kanye and JAY Z got me wiggling my lil booty this year. Highly recommend the 2011 releases by all three of these insanely talented hip-hop outfits (The Book of David, Black Up, and Watch the Throne respectively). If anyone can remember back to the early 90s, and loved as I did the unique hip-hop trio Digable Planets, you’ll be delighted to know that “Butterfly” is the creative force behind Shabazz Palaces. It is a stellar album. If you want to buy one hip hop album to represent the best of 2011, buy Black Up. I’ve got a smattering of other alt/indie rock favorites in my Best of 2011: War on Drugs, The Joy Formidable (love you guys!!), Kurt Vile (another exceptionally good album – Smoke Ring for my Halo), Real Estate, and Thee Oh Sees. Notice two of my all time favorite bands who had new albums on 2011 are not on my Best of 2011 list: Radiohead and PJ Harvey. Radiohead’s King of Limbs is OK. PJ Harvey has lost me. Every year I say this, and it’s true for 2011 as well: much great music is out there only slightly off the beaten path. If you do one thing for yourself in 2012, go see a band you’ve never heard of at a tiny little club in your town. Pick one based only on what its name evokes in you. I’ve chosen to listen to tracks from most of the bands I love based only on their names initially.2 Worst case is you get a night out and a story to tell; best case is you fall in love. 1 Don’t want to bring the party down, but suffice to say the death of my brother this year continues to affect me in strange ways. 2 I choose wine this way, too.
I first heard Throwing Muses on a 4AD compilation I purchased in college called Lonely is an Eyesore. It’s a showcase of the British label’s artists at the time, bands with esoteric names like Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins. I loved every track on that album, and it formed the foundation for what continues to be my favorite kind of music: discordant, rhythmic, weird, poetic, and a little dark. To sum up, I love everything 4AD puts out. I loved it all in 1989, and I love it all now. Back to Throwing Muses. My favorite track on Lonely is an Eyesore, and a song that remains one of my top 10 songs of all time to this day, is the one by Throwing Muses, the first American band to be signed by 4AD. It’s called Fish, and it reshaped my brain buds in 4 minutes and 39 seconds.
Bizarre, fever dream lyrics, right? I’m sure you caught that the name of the album was taken from Fish. “Lonely is as lonely does, lonely is an eyesore. The feeling describes itself.” And the music – it was like nothing I’d heard before. My heart knew I loved it long before my brain could form enough new synapses to process all the twists and turns. Throwing Muses is led by Kristin Hersh (one third of my music trinity, for those keeping score. PJ Harvey and Kim Deal complete it. And me.) She is a genius. I have yet to say anyone is a genius that I’ve written about on this blog (not even PJ) so it means something. Her songs are trippy, harsh, genuine, mind expanding poems set to the tightest rhythm section and most ferocious (yet delicate) guitar work I’ve ever heard. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s, and keeps getting more powerful and resonant with each year. Seeing a woman my age up on stage shredding, melting the paint off the walls just with her voice, and basically kicking ass feeds my soul. It nourishes me. I got a big All You Can Eat buffet of nourishment on Sunday night at the Bowery Ballroom. As Greg Garry writes in his Huffington Post article Throwing Muses Did It the Hard Way, “The band’s blistering set at Bowery Ballroom this week showcased how accomplished a guitarist Hersh is, and how tight her longtime rhythm section of drummer David Narcizo and bassist Bernard Georges are. For three little people they make one BIG ass sound.”1 Kristin came out alone for the first few songs as the “opening act.” The second song… Fish! Done with her guitar and voice only, no rhythm section. Pretty amazing. I was absolutely ecstatic. The rest of the band (David Narcizo on drums and Bernard Georges on bass) joined her for the remaining 16 songs, one of which was off their first self-titled album (a British import that I don’t think was ever released in the States) and is my favorite song after Fish, called Vicky’s Box. I had a grin plastered across my face the entire time they played it. They killed this song. Her voice was unreal. She hit every note perfectly – no, BETTER than the album. Age seems to be adding intensity to her voice, which is giving the songs even more depth than when she first recorded them.
The show was perfect in every way. The drums and bass were glorious: tribal, heavy, bone shaking. Add in Kristin’s artistic, mind blowing guitar work and voice, and you’ve got one hell of a performance. Kristin’s music resonates with me all the more since my brother’s passing. A few years ago it came out that Kristin has battled bi-polar disorder for most of her life. She’s what I would call a success story – a survivor. My brother lost his battle with it on May 10, 2011 at the age of 36, after 18 years of fighting it every day. A lot of her music sounds like she’s exorcising demons, and maybe that ability to channel the internal disharmony into a creative work has been her salvation.
“A real song is something very difficult, it’s difficult to harness and it has nothing to do with your brain,” she says. “In fact, if your brain has anything to do with it, it will wreck it. It’s not easy for humans to let go of their brain.”
That’s from an article by DJ Lamphier called Kristin Hersh Reflects on Bipolar Disorder and ‘Harsh’ Youth in Memoir. Here’s more from her recently published memoir Rat Girl, about learning to create music out of the chaos in her head: “Play colors, I think to myself, as the swishing voices conspire against me. This song doesn’t sound like colors, it sounds like… machines. That nurse was right. I do hear machines. “There are notes in there though. I find them and play them, reduce the industrial orchestra I hear to a pathetic plunking. That melody needs a bed and chords come only through trial and error. So when a sound the guitar makes matches the sound that’s filling the Bullet, I keep that chord and move on to the next one. It gets easier each time, as one chord will set up the next, words in a sentence, then sentences in a paragraph.” Throwing Muses ended their show (see the Bowery Ballroom set list) with another favorite, and one that resonates with me particularly, called Mania. This one’s for you, Jimmie. Welcome home.
____________ 1 Kristin and friends/bandmates/handlers walked right past me outside the club before the show – they really are way tinier than you’d expect given the sonic force of their music.
As London is in the midst of figuring out what the hell just happened, the news of England’s largest independent music label distribution center burning to ashes made it’s way across the Atlantic and into my email inbox. On Tuesday morning, the second night of rioting in London, the Sony/PIAS distribution center in Enfield was set on fire and burned to the ground. All stock was lost. Among that stock was CDs and vinyl from labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian, Matador, XL, Rough Trade, my beloved 4AD, and Subpop. Full list of labels affected by London fire, compliments of Pitchfork. I’m relieved to report that the new box sets from Throwing Muses and This Mortal Coil were unaffected by the fire as they were in transit at the time. More from Beggars Banquet on their recovery from the loss. Many small indie labels may not be able to recover from such a total loss. In a post entitled [PIAS] & AIM Establish Fund for Labels Adversely Affected By The Sony DADC Fire the UK Association of Independent Music is encouraging indie music fans to purchase digital copies of music on the labels’ websites. I’ve read that a few fund raising concerts are being planned as well. Other Music wrote the following, and I agree whole-heartedly:
We were deeply saddened earlier this week when we learned that the PIAS distribution warehouse in London had been destroyed in a fire during the riots. This was a crucial storage and shipping hub in the UK for so many of the great independent labels whose music is so important to us (and to anyone reading this Update) — we’re just thankful that no one was injured in the blaze. Along with all of the terrible violence and turmoil currently raging in Britain, this monumental setback for so many passionate and forward-thinking labels and artists should give any thinking person pause, and our hearts go out to all those touched by this senseless destruction.
I’ve been keeping my eye on the stories of rioting and looting and general mayhem coming out of London all week. I spent a semester there in college, and lived not far from Tottenham. My experience with the English has always been one of good manners, self-deprecating humor, and a quiet civility1. I’ve read books about footballers and hooligans, and have crossed paths with some very obnoxious British tourists2, but overall am surprised to find out how bad it has gotten over there. A couple criminologists were interviewed by the BBC and have theories around why and how the riots started and, more surprisingly, how they have kept on going night after night. They mention everything from lack of strong father figures to welfare dependency. If that’s the case, why isn’t every major US city filled with rioters every night? Hopefully the freshly holiday-ed PM will be able to pull it together somehow. He’s asking the US for advice… let’s see how that plays out. Meanwhile, reach deep into the pockets of your skinny jeans and donate to the cause here: LabelLove has been set up to help out the indie music labels affected by the fire. ______________________________ 1 except after a few pints 2 I spent three summers wearing polyester Lederhosen at Busch Gardens in swampy southern Virginia.