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This Year In Songs - 2009

We're gonna do this one a little bit differently this year. Having already presented what I think is the best thing I’ve listened to that came out in 2009 yesterday, this here list is a more accurate representation of my real listening habits. There’s a lot of music out there, and a whole lot of what I listened to that defined by experience of the year didn’t come out this year. So I submit for your approval, the ten best songs and albums I listened to in the last twelve months, along with the dates they were added to my iTunes collection.

Animal Collective – My Girls (1/20)

A song to remind us of the importance of the simple things. Global recession zeitgeist-y, maybe, but also a good point.

Andrew Jackson Jihad – Powerplant (2/8)

Oh Just Download The Dang Thing Right Here. This song has one of the best and most simple metaphors for that real kind of essential love: it generates this world. While AJJ are definitely just a couple of punks who use four chords to write simple jams from the Kurt Vonnegut songbook, this is perhaps where they shine the most. One of two songs on this list that has a personal connection to a very traumatic / wonderful / painful part of my life.

New Order – Age of Consent (2/14)

I did a lot of growing up in the year two thousand nine, and this song perhaps provided the primary soundtrack for one of the central events surrounding it - breaking up with my high school sweetheart. The lyrical sentiment of the song has nothing to do inherently with the situation. It's not a breaking-up-is-hard-to-do kind of thing. But this song very specifically takes me back to a time and place, and that alone makes it worth recognizing. Jim and I, at a houseparty, on the evening before it all happened, drinking beer in the back of the house. Then we both hear that unmistakable bass line, and it is the greatest thing we have ever heard. And for five minutes we both just danced. I wouldn't call my first time hearing this song a spiritual moment, but there was definitely a kind of transcendence that occurred.

Dirty Projectors – Cannibal Resource (6/9)

Like Animal Collective, this one isn't strongly tied to a moment or emotion of twenty aught nine, it's just a solid freaking beginning to the best album of the year.

Paul Simon – The Boy in the Bubble (6/28)

One from an album my parents raised me on, at least in part, because I recognize so many of the songs. But this one took a dang long while to actually get into my life. First there was my high school choir director who played us Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes to introduce us to great singing and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Then there was making Hamentaschen with my roommate Ben while listening to this record. But it wasn't really until Sarah was telling me how her mom would sing her this song as a lullaby that it truly bit me. Another song-of-the-summer for the record books.

Michael Jackson – P.Y.T. (6/28)

Dorothy Gambrell summarizes my feelings on the death of Michael Jackson here. In my lifetime at least, a freak and media circus while living, and while dead, a saint of pop music. Gives me some hope about how we're all remembered when we die. So yes, this song by the most famous person to die since at least JPII, was a major part of my summer. Then there was that awesome email that Bryan Duff sent around about his first day as a real adult at real work and this song got stuck in his head. Sold.

The Feelies – Invitation (7/15)

Not going to lie, I first heard this song when I saw this YouTube video by a girl I dated in grade school. And it has stuck with me. Then a few weeks ago I rented a Jeff Daniels movie where this band was playing the band at a high school reunion. Feelies! You are following my life in accidental and curious ways!

El Ten Eleven – Connie (9/9)

Proof positive that Pandora works. Guys, this twenty first century thing is pretty scary. I was in the admissions office, writing something while listening to a Pandora Radio, and this song came on. I can't lie, I thought it was freaking fantastic. So then I went out and bought their album. See, Record Industry? Sometimes the idea works. Now excuse me while I go throw a blanket over the .mp3s I have torrented in my lifetime. Nothing to see here.

Taylor Swift – You Belong With Me (11/1)

The best pop song about the most earnestly true feelings of high school. I mean, if I could bottle this song and pour it on peoples' heads, I think it would turn them back into high schoolers. Whatever, I know an anthem when I hear one. But this one is more than that. Anthems somehow always feel removed and above the action. But Taylor Swift, foal* that she is, seems incredibly close to those feelings. It's more genuine than an anthem. It's just a complete jam.
*Foal is my mom's personal term for a young girl who is all legs.

The Books – Classy Penguin (11/18)

I'm a huge fan of the Books, and how they seamlessly toss in just the right sound-byte to punctuate their classically trained but experimentally geared guitar and cello. This song of theirs, which is criminally only available on DVD and not in any other purely audible format (unless you extract the sound file from the YouTube video, word to the wise), doesn't have that extraneous found-sound information. And it still works, so well.


This Decade In Music

No need to specify which decade I'm referring to. By the time 2020 rolls around, I'm sure we'll by on mega-blogs directly implanted into your brain, and I will be a thirty year old grumpy man with no joy left in my heart. I'll see the kids running around saying "Hey old-man Rosby, where the lists at?" And I will just shake my fist at them and continue to not update this here Blogger, which is so Web 2.0.

However, as it stands, I'm in a pretty spectacular position to be doing decade in review at this age. If I were still in high school, how could I possibly wrap up my music tastes at age six? I didn't have any. Essentially, my entire musical development occurred in the last ten years, which is really frightening and exciting to think about. So what we're going to do here is take a quick look back at ten significant albums in my life from each of these ten years.

2000 - Kid AThere is probably nothing else to be said about the most critically acclaimed album of the decade from arguably the most important band of the decade. At least about their music, there isn't. But from a personal perspective, this album, which I first heard no sooner than 2003, represented a major departure in my tastes from your standard rock and roll drum and guitar and vocals instrumentation.

Apologies to: Sleater-Kinney - All Hands on the Bad One

2001 - Take Off Your Pants and Jacket
Here's probably the pick on the list most guilty of nostalgia-factor-over-excellence based decision making. But I still contend that the totally goofy pop and poop sensibility these three had is of critical merit. It also was the perfect backdrop for Jewish sleepaway camp at the peak of pubescence. And I'll really be an old man when I stop laughing at "he's always fucking shitting his pants."

Apologies to: The White Stripes - White Blood Cells, Andrew W.K. - I Get Wet, The Strokes - Is This It?

2002 - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I bought this record for my dad's fifty second birthday, but I am positive I got the most playtime out of it. This very quickly brought down my pop-punk leanings, and showed me that powerful lyrics can really drive forward the songs. And who doesn't still get chills from "I want to salute / the ashes of American flags." Again, awash in critical praise, so I'll spare you that, but a totally solid and unforgettable record.

Apologies to: Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things, Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights

2003 - The Lemon of Pink
One that really gained its importance in more recent years, but an incredible demonstration of the power of cello, guitar, bass, and found noise. And it really is spectacular found noise - a perfectly manufactured sonic landscape. And while we're talking about context appropriate, I think I've listened to this mostly late at night, writing papers, with headphones in. This has been my post midnight brain fuel for all of college.

Apologies to: The Rapture - Echoes

2004 - Seven Swans
If Christian music is garbage, how can music about Christianity be important, touching, and personal? Perhaps because the central message of Sufjan Stevens' best album is that religion is complicated, troubling, and difficult. It's also pretty, and achieves an economy of sound. It sounds enormous and ambitious while being relatively toned down compared to his more-is-more swirling achievements in the 50 states project.

Apologies to: Ted Leo / Rx - Shake The Sheets, Arcade Fire - Funeral

2005 - The Sunset Tree
I've had an attraction to things about dysfunctional and downright frightening family situations, I think, because I was raised in a totally loving home. This album, about J.D.'s abusive and downright scary father, is his best collection of songs. There is such satisfaction earned through a complete listen to the album cover to cover, especially when you arrive at that final sighing " she told me how you'd died at last, at last" in the final verse of Pale Green Things.

Apologies to: Animal Collective - Feels, Nujabes - Modal Soul

2006 - Ys
Don't this just say it all:
And though my wrists and my waist seem so easy to break,
Still my dear I would have walked you to the edge of the water.

And they will recognize all the lines of your face
In the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter.

And darling we will be fine but what was yours and mine
Appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes.
Apologies to: The Hold Steady - Boys & Girls in America, Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

2007 - Neon Bible
Yes, this is the best album they have done in their young careers. Funeral had its own moments of beauty, but this one captures the early 21st century Zeitgeist perfectly. Fear of religion, the future, the captivity of the self. And yet through it all, the briefest moment of hope "between the click of the light and the start of the dream."

Apologies to: Andrew Jackson Jihad - People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People in the World, Les Savy Fav - Let's Stay Friends

2008 - Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst is the most important songwriter in my life. Fevers and Mirrors was there when I needed catharsis, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was there when I needed a steady hand and understanding, and this, his best album, isn't tied to any particular time in my life. The lyrics are honest without being diary-page cloying, the songwriting is Mexican influenced without aping, it's just really solid songwriting.

Apologies to: Girl Talk - Feed the Animals

2009 - Bitte Orca
This is the thesis statement album Dave Longstreth's entire career has been leading up to. Seeing them play live this summer only reinforced this belief. They are the tightest, most unified band out there now, pushing music forward by looking backward and drawing on history itself. Their re-imagining of Black Flag in 2007 was good, but this record pushes their distinctive musical style to its fullest evolution here. It's no mistake that the back of this album features Dave staring down Nietzsche. Right, the music. Frenetic guitar play that borrows from Africa (who isn't doing that these days?) but also classic good-old-USA-American rock riffage. The female vocalists are incredible, I can tell what they mean by "Mariah Carey" influence as a positive adjective. Accessible while mysterious, familiar while strange, this album is just the best of 2009. Oh, and seeing it performed live really pushed it over the top.

Apologies to: Japandroids - Post Nothing, Dan Deacon - Bromst

Music Criticism Fall 2009 - Ludwig & Bertolt

It's December, which means I must be writing about music. Here's the final installment in this music criticism series. Come back in the next couple of days for lists about something more contemporary. The recording I've included here is different than the one for the essay, but it's worth a spin given no suitable substitute.

Bertolt Brecht, a playwright of the 20th century, pioneered the Verfremdungseffekt: the process of making of strange things familiar and familiar things strange. The primary theme of the third movement of the 21st piano sonata composed by Beethoven works in a similarly disorienting fashion. When the theme becomes familiar, it reoccurs as something far removed from its origins, only to return again to its familiar form. The musical parameters of the theme both assimilate to surrounding characteristics of the sonata and disassociate from their surroundings. The primary theme flows through Beethoven’s Rondo, taking listeners to a place that is both comfortable and unsettling.

The theme is introduced as a pianissimo polyphonic melody that transitions seamlessly from the previous movement. Its timbre is bright, the articulation relaxed over a moderate tempo. At (0:39), there is a slight crescendo, with the left hand’s bass melody being more accentuated. Paul Lewis establishes a soothing mood with these musical parameters. At (1:05) there is a very rapid rhythmic treble trill that swells into a great crescendo and the loudest instance of the main theme at (1:10). This playing of the primary theme highlights three separate melodies being blended together in polyphony. The high treble trill mixes with the left hand’s upward and downward moving melody and the original right-handed melody. Having reached such an alarming crescendo in just over a minute, the sonata feels like a symphony: the dynamics soar to asymptotic levels, with an army of pianos pounding away at multiple melodic lines.

The first variation from the main theme in this movement (1:43) uses pitch as the primary contrastive element – alternating in a call and response fashion between unharmonious low and high notes. As this variation drifts away, there is a callback to the primary theme at (2:06), in which the theme has been lowered in pitch, matching the properties of the dissonant melody preceding it. The dynamics are also altered – the first low note of the primary theme at (2:10) and the following two higher notes are played emphatically, not with the same grace and legato articulation from the beginning of the composition.

Following a quick decrescendo, the sonata returns to an unadulterated opening theme at (2:32). This next segment is a carbon copy of the opening, where (0:00 = 2:32), (3:13 = 0:39) and (3:40 = 1:10). Beethoven plays with his audience’s expectations – will this be a standard Rondo, returning to the same theme as he did at (2:32), or will it further change, as happened at (2:06)? Ludwig employs disorientation to keep his audience aware of how quickly familiar territory can change.

At (4:49), the primary theme returns, again exploiting the difference between high and low pitches, its dynamic curve quickly rising into crescendo before slowly fading into a diminuendo by (5:12). The timbre becomes somber and grim, as a funeral hymn. Yet at (5:17), the rhythm of the piece returns with a danceable beat: a Danse Macabre. The rising and falling melody that begins at (5:33) has a circular shape that invokes the life cycle. The melody falls into dissonance and a lower register from (6:16 – 6:45). The rhythm slows to a dead crawl, the dynamics are pianissimo, and the sonata is now almost painful to listen to. If the first instance of the theme were like an infant’s lullaby, then this is the child’s death rattle. The morbid quality of the varied primary theme passes on to influence the rhythmic section that follows it while maintaining the principle elements of the opening theme. Around (2:06), the theme was influenced by its surroundings, but a variation of the theme can also influence its surroundings.

The theme at (6:49) seems to represent another return to the beginning of the movement, until (7:44) expands the melody upwards, unhinging the theme from its polyphony. Playing homophonous cyclic melodies that progressively increase in pitch while the left hand plays soft, grounding bass notes creates a celestial atmosphere. Just as this extension from the end of the theme reaches a climactic finale at (8:10) signaled by emphatic pairs of homophonous chords, it begins slowly descending. The chords, which were once finalizing, lead the transition into in to a low register, dissonant, and extremely slow rhythm. The entire composition suddenly comes undone after reaching an apex.

Suddenly, just as all the energy is sucked out of the music, the primary theme returns at a breakneck pace at (8:49). The prestissimo primary theme revisits various elements of the initial theme. This is accompanied by a rising and falling tone to the melody – a flock of pigeons suddenly frightened and flying about. This final section also creates a motive from the main melody of the primary theme at (9:17), to further deviate from the primary theme itself. There is also a callback to the anxious treble trill of (1:05) at (9:57). This trill is juxtaposed with a sudden modification to the primary theme that now has darker timbre and minor key at (10:04). This briefest of diversions, before returning to a concluding, mostly unadulterated instance of the theme at (10:22) is a classic example of the role it plays in the entire movement. Just as soon as the audience is comfortable, they are unsettled again.

There is no clear pattern as to how or when the theme will change, so a sudden key change reminds listeners how the theme can unpredictably change the entire shape of the movement. Any anticipations or predictions for what changes may come are dashed as the theme goes from soothing, to macabre, to soaring, and to soothing again. But the site of all the change is a familiar home listeners return to several times through Beethoven’s “Waldstein.” Strange things sound familiar. Familiar things sound strange.


Music Criticism Fall 2009 - Fond But Not In Love

It's December, which means I must be writing about music. Over the next few days, I'll be presenting some essays I've written for Music Criticism this Fall 2009.

The computer was the most emotional voice I had ever heard.
-Thom Yorke, on "Fitter Happier," before the album's release.

I'm not standing behind the lyrics anymore.
-Thom Yorke, following the album's release.

One of the first conventions of essay writing taught in classrooms is that a paper’s thesis statement should come in the opening paragraph. “Fitter Happier,” the seventh track on Radiohead’s OK Computer is a densely packed song that conveys the album’s central claims about isolation, fear, and society heading into the 21st century. It is a thesis statement hidden away in the track listing, the title displayed in a type so small it could be considered an afterthought. The artists themselves have wrestled with ownership of the song’s lyrics, read neutrally by the computerized voice Fred. Countless owners of the CD have skipped past these uncomfortable 117 seconds, although the soul of OK Computer is found here. It is a multimedia piece that when taken together with the album’s futurist-primitive art style offers a chilling commentary on modern values.

Structurally, “Fitter Happier” consists of six main sections broken up by the instrumentation used in the background of the song. It opens with no background noise, and only Fred reading the first words “fitter happier more productive”; it acts as a title piece to the composition. At (0:04), undulating white noise flickers into the background of the song, fitting in with the unnatural non-human soundscape that has been created. The only truly human voice that is ever found in the entire song is a brief sampled sound from Flight of the Concord that begins at (0:09): “This is the Panic Office. Section 917 may have been hit. Activate the following procedure.”

This line cycles and repeats throughout the entire song, and offers a key into unlocking the feelings that were put into the writing of “Fitter Happier.” The song is future shock – panic – and the procedure that is being followed to deal with such trauma is to restate the values and principles most important to the narrator. The voice does not appear as being human, because the trauma of whatever incident sent the narrator into this state has robbed them of all human characteristics, save the principles outlined in the lyrics. The response to the panic is to repeat this mantra about being healthy, happy, productive, good, and safe. By staying “fond but not in love,” we can avoid the damage of heartbreak and feelings that are “ridiculously teenage and desperate.” Ultimately, this way of life may reduce us to being the same as a “pig in a cage on antibiotics,” but it is our own personal Panic Office’s way of ensuring our survival. The panic caused by living in modern society leaves us to worry about survival first, and the ideals of life second. What is perhaps most chilling about these lyrics is their suggestion that many of the things it seems normal to idealize in a good life (regular exercise, charity, crying at a good film) are emblematic of survivalism, not humanism.

Largely, this lyrical sentiment is felt throughout the entire album of OK Computer. “Paranoid Android” shows an outer aggressiveness to the materialistic phonies of late 20th century Britain, “No Surprises” is a balletic lullaby about the serenity of suicide when your heart is too full of pain, even “Electioneering” expresses panic about the falseness of our political system. The musical composition here on “Fitter Happier” shows a clustered collusion of soundscapes that induces the same sense of panic and disorientation felt by the Fred-voiced narrator.

The sounds of the song come from various sources, which when blended together sound alarming, frightening, and almost non-musical. A filtered piano enters the composition at (0:19), which sounds as if it is being played through an old record player, distant and scratchy. Its melody is played at a legato tempo, with a non-simple rhythm of play. By varying the dynamics of each piano stroke, it feels like a child, not a professional musician, plays the piano. The most clean sounding instrument is the strings that begin at (0:38), which play a minor-key long articulated sound that almost fades into the background of the loud text and white noise background. At (0:52), the lyrical mentioning of the savage and wrong pleasures of torturing insects, a theme that recurs throughout the album (Let Down - “shell smashed / juices flowing”), cues a loud cycling sci-fi sound. Rather than sounding modernist, it sounds like a 1970’s Doctor Who noise – a futurist impression of a 21st century with flying cars and rocketships. The lyrics spoken during this noises span are said quicker than other parts of the song, and reflect wrong feelings and emotions as opposed to positive ones. Particularly salient is the line “Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate nothing,” which epitomizes the suppressed feelings of rage and violence mentioned in the lyrics. The sound eventually fades out by (1:10), and the soundscape is returned to the removed humanistic sounds of static, found text, piano, and strings as well as more positive words of the mantra “still kisses with saliva.” Finally, the sounds fade out into digital blips and nothing with the final reprise of “Fitter healthier” at (1:43).

The art direction of the album expresses many of these same central themes. Most literally, there is the image of a pig obscured by waveform – literally caging the animal in blankets of white noise as described in “Fitter Happier.” Beneath it, the small image of a child playing is drawn crudely, showing that while there is an inner desire to be childish and reckless, recalling that time in any sharp detail would be too painful. The broad and smudgy white strokes of the background art are like cave paintings – simple cries out for humanity and attention, while being superimposed with low-resolution strings of numbers or visualizations of highways. Radiohead sees a dual nature of people living in 1997 – desiring the simple, primal desires of human life, while feeling panicked and trapped by the technologies and rigid structures of modernity. The art shows how this future shock leads to future panic, which in turn causes the Panic Office to activate the procedure Fred reads in “Fitter Happier.”

OK Computer is considered a modern classic because like a great piece of writing, it has core thematic elements artfully and cohesively expressed through the lyric and music of its thesis “Fitter Happier” and the album art that surrounds it. Thom may reject the lyrics now, or find it far too dark and depressing for the actually intended tongue-in-cheek message, but the use of word, sound, and image creates a perfect storm of bleakness that goes beyond the beauty of Fred’s voice or the rejection of the lyrical meaning. “Fitter Happier” completes and defines the soul of the album.