The Year End List That Never Was
It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. But the fact is, I’ve been doing A LOT of writing in 2017. More than I ever have before. I finished draft three of the book I’m writing and handed it off to my second reader. If you find yourself curious, I tweet (#amwriting) about my writing and have found a lot of support and comfort in the confusing lifestyle that is the creative process. It’s a memoir that explores my idiosyncratic relationship with music (and radio). I also delve into myself as a person with anxiety, and my general thoughts on the world and my place in it. (It’s a memoir. You get it.)
The music I have such a relationship with is not new music. Since my early blogging days, I’ve completely lost touch with The Music Internet, Music Twitter, and new music in general. I spent the year previous to this one working in book publishing after getting my MFA and essentially having a nervous breakdown, quitting that line of work, and finding solace in a retail food job at a local store. World, I no longer have a back up plan. I’m a writer and it turns out, I’ve been one all along.
So I feel the need to make a year end list of my favorite music for a number of reasons. The first is, reading everyone else’s feels like peer pressure. The second: I am awaiting feedback on my manuscript from said friend, and need to keep my writing muscles warm. Third, I want to see if I can still do it.
There is a year end list for everything now: television shows, television episodes, action movies, the best books, the best lyrics, best sex toys, the worst songs of the year, and Vulture even put out a list of all the best year end lists worth reading. (Dear intern, whoever you are, I hope they pay you.)
Much to my love-hate, The Fork made a list of The 10 Best Music Moments on TV. Since I last regularly wrote on this site, The Fork was purchased by Condé Nast. And even though I have a lot of opinions (and experiences with/) about corporate media, I am glad they’re doing this because music supervision is basically my favorite genre of music. But I cannot let that get in the way of how I’m feeling about music in this particular day, age, time, and space because The Fork isn’t just a weird taste-making enemy of mine anymore. They represent the progress of capitalism now, just like everything else in this stupid fucking country does, despite being a champion of independent artists everywhere. (Their tagline: “The most trusted voice in music.”)
Also since I last regularly wrote on this site, I do not listen to music from a library that I control. I am a streamer now, via Spotify, and my 160 gig iPod died this year (after about 10 years, maybe more) of serving me and my Music Brain. Once I started listening to Spotify, I had to get used to what was even available on their platform. I’ve “saved” too many albums to my library and constantly have to save and un-save choices (and remember what I’ve un-saved). And I’ve downloaded too much in order to listen to music while away from cell service, and therefore can’t always listen to whatever I want, when I want. There are a lot of rules with Spotify. There are also a lot of playlists.
Spotify turned me into a playlist listener. It is a place that champions songs instead of albums. Liz Pelly wrote a piece about the streaming world, specifically Spotify’s relationship to big record labels, and how said relationship creates a problem for independent artists who don’t have the means to break into Spotify’s branded, curated playlists: The Problem With Muzak. (Side note: I am of the opinion that there’s a missed opportunity here. I wonder if the title “Fear of Muzak” was considered.)
Spotify also presents a new and complicated extension of hyper-commercial webspace, and it’s a development that could prove to be particularly harmful for musicians: the corporate-branded playlists. This “feature” could be explained as the platform’s interpretation of corporate personhood, where paid-for brand accounts can create their own profiles and make playlists in the manner of the platform’s regular users. This has led to a proliferation of playlists made by brands. For example: the “Coffeehouse Pop” made by the official Starbucks page, or the “Running Tempo Mix” created by Nike Women. So long as corporations have at least twenty songs on their playlists and don’t include an artist more than once, they’re good. In the past, such an arrangement would require a given artist to sign a licensing or advertising deal, and it often appeared transactional, hence the traditional notion of “selling out.” Today on Spotify, artists often have no idea they’ve been added to these playlists.
This feature piece, which I wish I could just copy-paste entirely right here, is not the only time Liz Pelly has written about Spotify’s playlists: here’s one about the Spotify-branded “Rap Caviar” playlist, and another about “[the] authority over how music is distributed, discovered, and paid/not-paid for.”
(I find it ironic that Liz Pelly’s twin sister, Jenn, is a writer and editor for The Fork and has been for years. This year Jenn published the 33 1/3 edition on The Raincoats self-titled record. The Raincoats are an all female DIY post-punk, feminist, experimental band that started in the 1970s. At one of her book parties, she managed to reunite Bikini Kill and The Raincoats on stage for the first time in decades at the non-profit art space The Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan. The Kitchen is the reincarnation of the Mercer Arts Center, home to the beginning of DIY originals The New York Dolls, among others. Meanwhile her twin Liz is a collective member of the Bushwick all-age art space, The Silent Barn. And while both Pelly sisters use their platforms to focus press towards women artists and independent musicians, one of them, I guess, is fine compromising those values for a paycheck from Condé Nast. Like I said, I find this ironic…and unsettling. But I guess you gotta make a living and everyone needs health insurance.)
(I guess I do follow music news and those who write about it more than I realize.)
What Liz Pelly wrote about Spotify and their ability to make “challenging music” unsearchable, or worse, impossible to categorize, and how they manage to profit major record labels and let smaller bands drown in obscurity, makes me never want to listen to a playlist again. Combine that with the fact that my personalized, quantified Top 100 Songs of 2017 playlist was a list of songs that I’ve heard a majillion times (and a few were even on my Top 100 from last year), I’m feeling like a sell-out myself. Just from listening to music I thought I liked. (I must admit, the first song on my list this year is Sublime’s “Don’t Push” and I have NO IDEA how that happened.)
On the other hand, Spotify has allowed me to discover a lot of music. (Their algorithmic “Discover Weekly” playlist that updates every Monday morning has turned me onto plenty of music–music, I’m told, that is “like” what I listened to for the entire previous week. But ask me to name you some of this newly discovered music, and I can’t.) Because it’s connected to the Internet, I can find things instantly that weren’t already downloaded and uploaded to my carefully curated iPod. I can link to discographies and artists that I’ve never heard of before instantly. But I also cannot save them to my library if I’m at capacity. So then how will I remember that I need to listen to this record or artist in the first place?
A lot of curating a library and being what I call an Active Listener requires a lot of personal accountability. It can be like a full time job (and is for many). New music is a lot to keep up with simply because of the Internet. There is so much of it that it can take me all year to finally discover music released back in March. And I guess this is thanks to the year end list, but it’s also thanks to over-saturation of content. My journals from my obsessive new music discovery era (circa 2011-2013) are filled, FILLED, with lists and lists of bands to listen to, new and old. I am still reckoning with the fact that I don’t have the energy for this any more, feeling simultaneously like a lazy failure and relieved.
So when it was time to think of the new albums from 2017 that I loved, I named three (one of which I’m not even that crazy about) and then instantly drew a blank. It took me a week and a few conversations with friends to remind me what was even released this year. Step outside of The Music Internet and you’ll lose your way. Ask me to name ten albums released this year and you couldn’t even pay me ten dollars to do it.
As I review the year end lists of my favorite music writers (now I follow writers and not publications) and I’m hearing it all for the first time–Big Thief, White Reaper, The Weather Station, Jlin, Fever Ray, etc–these names read like weird ingredients now, like Xanthan Gum. I have become main stream and boring. And I’m afraid my year end list is the same:
I love Kendrick Lamar, and DAMN. was the first thought that popped into my head. Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy was the second. I saw him live up in West Chester (to avoid the Kings Theater prices and the Brooklyn crowd, that, honestly, traveled upstate too–talk about a sausage fest) and it was so incredibly divine. When he toured for Fear Fun, I saw him at The Black Cat in D.C. with a few hundred other people. Watching his tours change, his popularity balloon, and his music shape shift has been incredibly rewarding as a fan. Say what you will about him (there’s another blog post in that) but I find his apocalyptic narratives and understanding cynicism comforting. I spent three weeks after the election listening to I Love You, Honeybear, waiting over and over for that perfect line: “getting high on the mattress/while the global market crashes.”
Jeff Tweedy put out a solo record this year, mostly Wilco recordings but a few b-sides from the Uncle Tupelo era. I was really hoping it would be new originals but ultimately not disappointed as I would listen to him whisper One Hundred Years of Solitude on tape if you asked me to. St. Vincent put out her fifth record this year, Masseduction. I went bananas for the last one, St. Vincent, and followed along with the extensive press tour for Masseduction. Only the back-end of the record fell flat for me. The slow songs sound forced, and since Jack Antonoff is a regular in the store where I work, I’ve had too many personal run-ins with him and I cannot see past those (inquire within). Clark’s corporate hawking of Tiffany’s jewelry (I guess when you gotta re-brand, you re-brand) let me down, too, especially since her press cycle of Instagram videos were satire press interviews making fun of the gendered, corporate power structure that is capitalism in music.
Waxahattache’s (Katie Crutchfield’s) fourth record Out In The Storm is a further meditation on what it’s like to be a woman with feelings and in love. I love this record, and was grateful that it wasn’t forgettable like her last, Ivy Tripp, where every song sounded the same.
Other than that, I didn’t pay attention. You’ll have to give me an incomplete on Lorde, SZA, Japanese Breakfast, Alvvays, Laura Marling…and I’m not sure what else. I love Courtney Barnett, but the record she put out with Kurt Vile is monotonous. I’ve never liked Jay-Z. The new Japandroids was a total bummer–they evolved as a band and I didn’t follow them. Perfume Genius has yet to do it for me, I’ve always hated The National (a.k.a. The Most Boring Band on Planet Earth), and the new The War On Drugs might be the only record I truly did not investigate (but from what I’ve heard, it’s all Greek to me). The new LCD Soundsystem, american dream, I am not crazy about but keep revisiting. I’m seeing them on Friday and gotta gear up for whatever scene awaits.
The actual list I recently made is a list of Things That Changed Me In 2017:
1) The election of Trmp to the WH: I don’t want to devote my time to this because I hate him. I cannot stand the sound of his voice. He’s a fascist, misogynistic, racist, homophobe, xenophobic, rubber stamp for pedophile-capitalists in the GOP, and it is the defining moment of my generation. I have no control over this and I think about it every day.
2) Watching the David Lynch films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet for the first time: I’m not consuming music but I am consuming movies. (I also watched Mulholland Drive for the first time this year but it didn’t quite leave a mark on me like the other two. I’m not sure I even understand it…yet.) Eraserhead is a physical manifestation of anxiety and is by far one of the most demanding pieces of art/movies I’ve ever been a consumer of. Like Apocalypse Now and The Deerhunter did for me when I saw those for the first time, Eraserhead changed me as an artist and as a human being.
3) Tom Petty dropping dead of a heart attack at the age of 67: I am not a huge fan of TP, but I do love his music. (I am not a maniac.) The fact that he just dropped dead is very real and I still think about it, almost every day.
4) I fell in love with my partner more this year which is one for me and not for you.
5) Investigative reporter Joe Hagan published his biography of Jann Wenner ‘Sticky Fingers’: I have A LOT of opinions about this. You can read about them here. They also make an appearance in my memoir.
I guess this year, life became more important to me than music. Which is hard for me to understand, even as I type it. What I actually did this year was write. I wrote probably close to 200k words, but I’ve lost count. This year has been frustrating and confusing. I am angry and sad about something different every day. Half of this is as a person living with anxiety. The other half, I think, is being a 29 year old Millennial where the generational divide feels larger every six months. There is so much to take in every day and now, for me, music isn’t the only thing in my life, like it was for so many years.
TL;DR: I listened to a lot of jazz this year (Miles Davis Quintet, Mile Smiles, Monk, Mingus, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis Quartet, Cannonbal Adderley, etc.) and The Grateful Dead (Europe ’72 mostly, there, for a solid month). They’re good writing music.
This year I was published for the first time in a literary magazine. I spent three, four months writing and editing a personal essay about Bob Dylan. Last year I read a 1k page biography of him, he was my “top artist” on Spotify this year, and I went to see him for the first time for my birthday this year. You can read it here.
Next year, I’m planning on spending January playlist-free. I’ve already got a head start and I want to see how long I can last. Could you last?