The Explanatory Mumbling About 2011 That I Neglected To Send In Along With My Pazz & Jop Ballot
In 2011 I found myself in an unfamiliar place. Literally, I mean: much of the year was spent either in hotel rooms or in a hyper-minimalist (which is to say: empty) new work space; as a consequence, I was separated from physical sources of music for the longest period since the summer in college when my stereo was stolen and all I had for sonic companionship was a clock radio. During the few occasions in 2011 that I did play a record or a CD, it felt clunky and cumbersome, like something an old person would do.
Anyway: at first out of necessity, and then by preference, Spotify was responsible for about 80% of my music consumption this year (I think most of the other 20% consisted of downloaded Les Rallizes Denudes bootlegs). And because streaming services make it easy to hear things within seconds of being made aware of their existence, I listened to more—much more—mainstream pop and hip-hop and country in 2011 than I had in an extremely long time.
I love the immediacy and novelty of pop, but the pleasures it evokes in me are fleeting; my inner seismograph needle moves, sure, but not always by much and seldom for long. And the unending glut of STUFF—the “yeah, yeah, I get it” feeling 90 seconds into any given track; the constant, gnawing, ADD-inducing suspicion that a better song is always a click away—has made me ruthless: when I look at the play counts of all the songs that made it into my iTunes library in 2011—a far smaller number than in 2010 because there’s not much point in clogging up your hard drive any more, is there?—I see an awful lot of ones and twos and not so many fives and sixes or tens. The singles I liked this year are basically a handful of dots on a grid-map of flickering instants: the early mid-summer blast of “Otis*,” the late mid-summer slinkiness of “Niggas In Paris,” the wintry moment when Gaga seemed to own the world before falling to earth like Thomas Jerome Newton (have you noticed how easy it is to sing “hubris” in place of “Judas”?); the day in September when the woman on the elliptical trainer next to mine at the gym gave me a funny look and I realized I’d been yelling “Michael Jackson/one million dollars!” out loud; the spring afternoon when I had a terrible I-need-coffee headache and heard “Someone Like You” for the first time and I thought: whoa, that’s a fuckin’ SONG. (I vacillate between thinking that “Someone Like You” is perfect as is and wishing that someone had hired Jim Steinman to turn it into a ten-minute orgy of bombastic overproduction.)
The albums that have stuck with me this year seem like a reaction-formation to all of that poptastic ephemera; they are concerned—or maybe it’s just that I myself am concerned—with duration and patience and the willingness to sit down and experience something other. The first four albums on my list are all vocal-less and song-less. You cannot dance to them. You would have great difficulty humming along with them on the subway. In the case of Chris Watson, it’s arguable that what you are hearing may not even be music at all. They give up their pleasures slowly. And they are all, in a sense, about repurposing material: Watson’s montaged field recordings; Hecker’s unidentifiable specks of analog something-or-other squeezed from dying machinery; clusters of guitar coiling and uncoiling and decaying in endless Frippertronic loops; Villalobos’s barely-there sculptures based on old ECM records. These recordings make almost no sense in small chunks; they can only be understood in the fullness of one’s willingness to engage with them over time. The more I listen to them the more I appreciate them, but I appreciate them precisely because I have listened to them, entered into their spaces and allowed them to rattle around in my head. It was that kind of year.
Errata: I meant to include Shabazz Palaces on my albums list but forgot. Just pretend it’s on there in place of War On Drugs, okay?
*To be honest, I’m not even all that interested in most of “Otis”; it’s the hip-hop equivalent of a Hal Needham buddy comedy in which lots of shit gets blown up real good. But the moment, thirty-five seconds in, when Jay-Z enters the track by stepping on the Otis Redding sample we’ve been hearing with “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?”—that moment is pure magic.