Last night I went to see Future Islands, and took some photos and wrote an essay for my local paper, the Portland Press Herald. I don’t fancy myself as much of a concert photographer, but I rather love this shot and wanted to share it. There’s something here that cuts to the very heart of rock ‘n’ roll in a 1950s way—the minimalism of the lighting, and the notion of the rock song as sermon—and to me it just works. For the actual publication (in the below link), they went with one that is a bit more dynamic and exciting, and includes more band members, and I can’t blame them for that.
My concert review attempts to get to the heart of why people are taking to this particular band at this particular time, which is something I find fairly interesting. Check it out here.
FW: Do you ever listen back to any New Pornographers records and hear an argument that you lost and think, “They were right!” or “I was right!”?
CN: Yeah, I definitely hear that. I don’t know which is worse: when you’re listening back and regretting one of your own choices, or when you’re regretting somebody else’s choice. But, ideally it’s nice when enough distance comes between you and the record, where you can just listen to it for what it is. I was listening to [2007’s] Challengers for the first time in a long time a few weeks ago, and it was nice to listen to a record and not remember what comes next — to not even remember how songs go and be a listener to my own record. It was a little fascinating.
FW: And what did you find?
CN: I found that I liked it more than I remembered. I think Challengers was the first record where people backlashed against us. And well, obviously I took it personally. But I think I believed the criticism, which can be a bad thing. So it was interesting to listen to my own record years later and think, “Those critics were full of shit! This record’s great! What’s wrong with them?” It was empowering. It was like, “I’m taking back my album!”
1. Kanye West, Yeezus (2013)
2. Father John Misty, Fear Fun (2012)
3. Destroyer, Kaputt (2011)
4. Cat Power, Sun (2012)
5. Angel Olsen, Half Way Home (2012)
6. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening (2010)
7. Phosphorescent, Here’s To Taking It Easy (2010)
8. Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)
9. Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Record (2013)
10. Beach House, Teen Dream (2010)
Some quick notes:
MBDTF seemed like the last rap album of the 00s era—impressively so, but to results that were bloated and often predictable. Yeezus feels like the first album of a new era. It’s lean, bold, purposeful, and imaginative. It has something to say—whether or not you agree with all the messages—and is very clearly the best album of the last five years. I have trouble imagining the case for anything else.
It was really hard getting to 10 records for this list. I liked at lot of stuff these past five years—a lot of stuff— but I’ve loved barely anything. I listen to music for a bare minimum of six hours a day and very little of it penetrates my life beyond surface values, at least in terms of albums. Individual songs are a bit different. I also left instrumental albums from the list, even though I listen to them a lot.
I typically went with stuff that saw a clear artistic vision through, and either had a modicum of wit (so hard to come by these days), empathy, or insight. I tried to steer away from anything with too much filler, but albums are so bogged down with filler of late that I genuinely wonder if many artists throw ideas out. Out of the albums that made my list, Sun, Good Kid MAAD City, and Personal Record could all use some pruning, but I’ve gotten so much mileage out of the songs I like that they’re worthy of the list. I don’t mean any of this in a “kids these days” way, but I wonder if there’s a financial or technical reason for any of it (not the wit part; I assume wit just isn’t in vogue at the moment).
The final spot could have gone to any number of albums, most of them from 2010. In addition to the three 2010 albums I listed, I gave actual momentary consideration to Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, Four Tet’s There Is Love In You, Spoon’s Transference, Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two, of Montreal’s False Priest, Vampire Weekend’s Contra, Hot Chip’s One Life Stand, the Roots’ How I Got Over, Midlake’s The Courage of Others, and more. And as mentioned I don’t even care for MBDTF. So yeah, good year. 2014? Not so good. Time usually colors these impressions, but there hasn’t been anything close to a great album this year.
If you have any questions or anything you want to discuss feel free!
These are my favorite songs of the decade at the halfway point. Yes, I like music with #feels. No, I did not whip this up in light of Pitchfork announcing they’re doing their similar lists this week (I made some mix cds of this stuff for a road trip to Vermont two weeks ago). Here they are, ranked and all:
1. Eleanor Friedberger, “My Mistakes” (2011)
2. Cut Copy, “Need You Now” (2011)
3. Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey” (2013)
4. Okkervil River, “Down Down the Deep River” (2013)
5. Future, “Move that Dope” (2014)
These are all stone classics, and to my mind some of the best songs ever written—particularly the first four. And I’ve listened to that Future song probably around 50 times this year.
6. The Shins, “Simple Song” (2012)
7. Bon Iver, “Holocene” (2011)
8. Miranda Lambert, “Platinum” (2014)
9. Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (2010)
10. Haim, “The Wire” (2013)
This part gets a little Zach Braff, and I’m not proud of that. That said, “Simple Song” is a masterpiece of pop composition; lyrically, structurally, and in terms the production itself. I don’t know what to say to people who don’t agree. “Holocene” is arguably the weirdest song to impress itself upon the public consciousness this decade and that counts for something; I still don’t know how or why it works, and works every time at that. “Sprawl II” is such a clear manifestation of everything Arcade Fire does well that they probably should have broken up after its release (especially going by Reflektors). And the other two songs are pure gold.
11. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx, “My Cloud” (2011)
12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Despair” (2013)
13. Hidden Cameras, “Doom” (2014)
14. tUnE-yArDs, “Doorstep” (2011)
15. Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake, “Love Never Felt So Good” (2014)
“My Cloud” is personally very moving to me, it’s uplifting and full of wisdom, and brings into sharp focus my lifetime of loving music. The next three balance lyrics that reflect of the bleakness of the world with music that conveys (to my ears) the triumph of the spirit. And that MJ & JT song has the best disco strings in so, so long (yes, counting “Call Me Maybe”). My God, what a euphoric sound.
16. Hot Chip, “Thieves in the Night” (2010)
17. Ellie Goulding, “Anything Can Happen” (2012)
18. Miguel, “Do You…” (2013)
19. Phosphorescent, “Song For Zula” (2013)
20. Spoon, “Mystery Zone” (2010)
“Thieves” is so open and empathetic, and smartly builds up to its delirious climax. “Anything Can Happen” is the glittering anthem people thought they got with M83, and almost manipulative in its pop tropes, but it’s the element of intrigue that keeps me coming back. “Do You…” and “Song For Zula” show us that R&B and country, respectively, have an endless well of new tricks to show us. “The Mystery Zone” contains some of my favorite lyrics this decade, they’ve science fiction in nature and I’ve been plumbing them with delight for almost five solid years now.
Later, I will post my favorite 10 albums of the decade to date (very little overlap with this list btw), and favorite 10 movies.
And here is a Spotify playlist of the 20 songs:
Another of my very favorite songs of the 2010s to date.
It is flatly devastating in light of events this past week.
Billy Joel, “My Life”
I learned about adulthood from Billy Joel.
No, that’s not true. I learned about adulthood from Billy Joel, Stephen King, and being an introverted oldest-child who was a voracious reader that pretty much always got on better with adults than with my peers, among many other things. But Billy Joel was a primary tutor.
I hungrily consumed other bits of my parent’s music collection, such as The Beatles and Elton John, but that all seemed like kid’s stuff—Honky Cats and Rocky Raccoons; men who mixed potions at traveling shows. I also adored their Stevie Wonder and David Bowie records, but that was a bit too alien; clearly a step removed from my grade-school existence. I also loved the pop radio at the time—Prince and Cyndi Lauper, stuff like that—but that stuff was a million steps removed from my existence.
Billy Joel was on my level. He was a bit schlubby, hopelessly average looking, born with bags under his eyes. He never pandered to teens and never reached out to kids. I got this. Like Springsteen (who I never quite warmed to), Joel spoke to his listeners the way my parents spoke to their friends, when you’d listen close at the times they didn’t think you were listening. But better. Billy Joel’s voice, like Bruce’s, was who your parents wanted to be—not who they were—and even as a kid, you knew this instinctively.
So I’d listen to Joel like I’d listen to my parents at parties and I’d slowly put together pieces of what adulthood might be like, trying to assemble a full view with just a few parts. It would be years before I’d understand the geography of “walk through Bedford Stuy alone”, or when I’d understand that “Dom Pérignon in your hand and a spoon up your nose” was not referring to the kind of utensil I ate cereal with. Those songs were still clues. When a friend of mine’s dad, who’d done a prison stint a few years earlier, told me how much he liked, “An Innocent Man,” that was a clue.
It helped that Joel spoke plainly about things that even children experience: love, desire, disappointment, frustration, feeling lonely, feeling elated, showing off. He name-dropped Sesame Street. He handed out advice such as telling people how you feel about them and holding on until your second wind came along. Like all kids, I wasted too much of my childhood—and, let’s be honest, my adulthood—trying to figure out who I was, and many of Joel’s songs are about trying to cut through the bullshit and figure out who you are.
On a recent drive through Cape Cod, I recalled that as a young child I was frightened of “My Life.” I was actually afraid of it—at least I was in the abstract way that certain chords or lyrical imagery can get under your skin and create anxiety. Pop singers were good at this in 70s and 80s. There’s no real explanation for this fear; “My Life” is a harmless bit of disco-lite, infused with the spirit of Paul McCartney and packaged as an easy-going strut of a song—the kind of slickly recorded choogle that was condescended to then as MOR; today, I guess, as “yacht rock.” (Rockist drummer Liberty DeVitto even grumbled about playing that “disco bullshit” until the gold records started enabling all the Dom Pérignon and spoons he wanted).
Listening to “My Life” now, the crux of my unease likely stemmed from the keyboard—a Rhodes that Joel and producer Phil Ramone ran through tape phasing to transform it into a slightly unnatural sound. Joel follows each line of the verses with a response from an accompanying riff, as if in conversation with an abstract consciousness. He most likely drew inspiration for it from songs like Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” I find it to be not terribly unlike Marc Bolan and his otherworldly guitar in “Monolith.”
The lyrics are highly alluring a child. They’re a smattering of Rebellion 101, and an introduction to the concept of taking agency over your life—a sentiment that could make it a grandfather to Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” When I first discovered Joel, I was far too young to be actively rebellious, but I sensed rebellion in the friction around me. I always pictured my parents telling their parents, “I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life” and I always wondered if they listened to songs like these and imagined doing the same. Childhood was a series of other people telling you how to live your life, and from my vantage, it looked like adulthood was more of the same. I’m now well into adulthood and know this to be true.
One last thing that always got under my skin is the jarring key change that occurs a few times in the song, but happens most dramatically after the lines, “They will tell you you can’t sleep alone in a strange place / Then they’ll tell you can’t sleep with somebody else / Ah but sooner or later you sleep in your own space / Either way, it’s OK to wake up with yourself.” It recently surfaced in my memory that, coupled with the handclaps, I always instinctively thought of the key change as “the car crash part of the song.” Why I thought that remains a mystery, but it also still remains. The lines clearly seem like an eff-you to slut-shaming, or an unapologetic approach to doing as you please, but I’ve never gotten hold of why such empowering lines are followed by such a chilling chord.
Admittedly, there are aspects of adulthood that I never will understand.
The track listing for “This is Next Year, a Brooklyn music comp that came out in 2001, a couple years after I moved there. Fairly interesting portrait of a “scene” (hate that word) just before it blew up and people started moving there en masse solely because it’s where you go to draw attention to your band.
Electronic dance music has a big night at Cross Insurance Arena.
I rarely write professionally (for media outlets) or review concerts these days, but I thought this would be fun and a cool experience, and it was.
Prior to fixing dinner tonight, I hadn’t heard this song in like 10 years. This was a mix-tape staple for me for a couple years there back in, I dunno, the late 90s?
Recommended for: making time just kind of hang there when you’re cooking up dinnertime eggs on a sweltering summer day, holding a bottle of cheap, cold beer that sweats in your hand while you watch folks slowly drive past your front lawn.