Many friends are telling me this has been a bad year for music, and lots of music websites seem to be backing them up by publishing end of year lists with top tens full of universally disappointing records like the new national album. Some friends aren’t even doing top tens this year because they don’t think there is enough good music. I can’t believe that with millions of people making music, able to work from a wider palette of instruments than ever before, exposed to more influences than ever before, we as a planet can’t have made 10 great records. But I don’t think I’ve found them this year either. I made a top 15 of the best I’ve found but I think it will be eclipsed by records made in this year that people will rediscover and later claim as classics. This has probably been the same for a few recent years. I’ve only just caught up with stuff like linda perhacs, liturgy and the pale saints and they blow away everything this year. They particularly blow away most websites lists’. But that’s the lists not the music. Whether the music’s been good, bad or Ok, it’s clear it’s been a bad year for recommendations by music websites, prizes and newspapers.
In an attempt to be well listened I’ve tried to hear all the most important records this year. This has been a string of disappointments. Bands like my bloody valentine, arcade fire, the national, the knife, foals, chvrches and boards of Canada have disappointed. Artists like Kanye, Daft Punk, Drake and Timberlake are just pop that’s been overrated because most people needed a break from those failures. But all of these records are well reviewed generally and placed high in lists. I have a interpretation. It’s pretty mental. Skip 3 paragraphs ahead to the list or strap in. I see these websites and other reviewers as a little like bankers. They have a combination of goodwill, authority, reputation and position that makes them read. Bands need this same stuff to get listened to. I mean most of the million people making music don’t even have the magic attractive something to get their friends to listen to them. When a website gives a good review it lends a little bit of this to a band. If the band that received the good review is actually good the listener will remember having been sent to it by website and the band will be repaying back to the website the goodwill etc that it needs to make it well read in the first place. It’s almost easier to talk about this is in the jargon of French thinker Pierre Bourdieu. The review lends cultural capital to the band which is either returned with interest or defaulted upon based on the listener’s experience.
This should make it in the interest of the website to recommend good records. But the problem comes when a website says something like “Arcade Fire are the most important band in rock right now” in the hope of getting exclusives or getting this band known as a Drowned in Sound or wherever band. The cultural capital has been lent out before the album is released. People will hear the rubbish album and blame the website even if they haven’t seen the review. The website might not declare the band a loss and instead try and trick the listener into thinking they will enjoy it when they’ve listened enough, or that it’s good but just not their taste. The disappointing album will still be well reviewed. The other problem is that individual writers aren’t interested in the overall cultural capital of the website, they might instead just want to avoid getting fired. So instead of lending or withdrawing cultural capital from the band (writing a good/bad review) they will instead hedge their bets and say , “this record shows an interesting transition” or , “may become an important part of their oeuvre”. These statements can only be falsified in a few years time and the writer hopes to be writing somewhere better or to be safely ensconced by then. So the rubbish album escapes without a panning.
But the band does not completely get away with the rubbish album. A few years ago The Flaming Lips released a series of jams, “Embryonic”. The effect we saw in the last paragraph kicked in and it was Pitchfork album of the year. Pitchfork lost a lot of cultural capital on that. They also released a soundtrack to a homemade Christmas movie. They released a covers album fooling around with guests. To get somebody to listen to this kind of stuff costs cultural capital. I mean how many thousands of people listened to the lips jam? The same people would never even think of listening to Dylan jam, when Dylan is a far more important artist. When the release is that poor the capital is gone and the reviewers cut their losses on the band. So when the flaming lips released a good record this year it was underrated. The same will happen to this year’s underwhelming bands like The National.
So this year’s poor music recommendations are due to the coincidence of so many big name bands producing duds at the same time. But 5 years ago this might not have mattered. Back then it was newspapers and magazines that had complicit relationships with bands where they advanced cultural capital in order to get exclusives and features. Back then websites had carte blanche. They had not already advanced cultural capital they then had to be loss averse about (the human instinct is to always cut our losses too late). The discovery of the good material released this year will be by websites not beholden to bands. But because no bands have given them cultural capital I don’t know of them. It’s enough to make you turn to drink or depressing records…
So here are the best 15 records of this year I’ve found so far…
15 – Lucky Pierre – The island come true
It’s a sort of weird library music electronica. It sounds like the music used in seaside resorts or lifts but twisted into strange and interesting forms. Like the accidental beauty of sounds made by machines but then looped for a track.
14 – Stara Rzeka – Ciem Cmury Nad Ukrytym Polem
The sort of strumming guitars and proggy scapes you assume to have been made by a 70s commune but punctured by some bursts of right now black metal.
13 - Teeth of the sea – Master
Some awesome Krautrock meets Vangelis but exciting movie soundtrack style electro combined with some slow patchy and trumpety stuff makes this great at times but hard to listen through to.
12 - Grumbling fur – Glynnaestra
A kind of Coil esque vocal style and vibe but far more dense and pleasurable sonically with loads of pastoral type electro stuff going on.
11 - Bonnie prince billy – Bonnie prince billy
This is some of Will Oldham’s very best songwriting and on that front is a return to the form of the classic “lie down in the light”. He writes really calmly of religion and sex. Unfortunately the album is all on acoustic guitar making it a bit too minor musically to be a classic. He’s good on guitar but he’s no Robbie Basho.
10 - Italians do it better – After dark 2
Italo disco party. Feels crisp and wintery. Just fun.
9 - Torres – Torres
A singer songwriter playing her electric guitar like an acoustic. Mostly great songs too. Mostly.
8 -Flaming lips – The terror
At it’s best more psychedelic and spiritual than they’ve been before. Becomes boring in the second half. Probably it’s hurt by the fact that most mp3 rips of it include bonus tracks that detract from it.
7 - Vampire weekend – Modern vampires of the city
Ya Hey > Hey Ya
6 - Savages – silent yourself
Urgent Post punk. I think it’s the sound of Brazilian post punk. Their name nods to this as the most famous compilation of the sound is called the sexual life of the savages. They have the peppiness and urgency of As Mercenarias along with the Bauhaus style stuff of Chance.
5 - Deafheaven – Sunbather
A real exciting listen. It’s a sound I’m starting to love. The combination of the screaming and guitar sound of black metal with the dynamics and ambition of post rock or post metal. I wouldn’t say it’s the best album of the genre though, that has to be Weakling – Dead as Dreams or Liturgy – Aesthetica.
4 - These New Puritans – Field of reeds
This took 4 or 5 listens. There aren’t many musical hooks. It washes and it’s the vocals I finally hooked on as kind of plaintive calls come out of the ambience. It all seems quite unmusical but everything is in perfectly the right place. You can’t say any better than that. But it only works in the right place and time at the right volume.
3 - Earl sweatshirt – Doris
Earl stepped out of Odd Future Wolf Gang kill them all and matured. He’s stopped rapping about rape. But I hope he used to do that to horrify and disquiet. Now he’s managed to disquiet through strange productions and disturbing sounds. They really match his voice. It’s frontloaded though.
2 - Fuck buttons – Slow focus
This music seems so simple and powerful I wonder why all music isn’t exactly this. It moves, it pumps and it disquiets. One track is a complete dud. There are 6 tracks.
1 - Julia Holter – Loud city song
The richness of her voice perfectly matches swelling horns and detailed waves of samples. It seems calculated to create EPSM effects (head orgasms in plain English). The lyrics are really impressionistic. It’s got everything good I said about these new puritans but it creates the atmosphere it needs for itself.Julia HolterGrumbling FurFuck ButtonsEarl SweatshirtThese New PuritansFlaming Lipsbest ofBonnie Prince BillyTorres