I've been seeing a lot of "Best of" lists in recent days, and been thinking about my own favorite music discoveries of the year. This isn't a "best of 2011" list, since most of the albums and artists I've been listening to recorded their work years ago. But, it was all new to me.
This year marked a significant shift in my music listening habits. Save for a few rare instances, I'm buying 100% of my music online now. As a result, I'm spending a lot more time mixing my own playlists, and I buy a lot of single tracks to fill these in. Gone are the days when I'd have to shell out money for a CD to get one good song. So, this means that if I find an album that holds my attention, it's a really good album.
Probably my favorite album discovery was How We Quit the Forest by Rasputina. Rasputina is progressive cello rock with hints of steampunk and goth. Her literary and historical interests are very strong, and half of the pleasure of listening to Rasputina is researching the obscure historical trivia she's referencing, or else having her sing a song about something that you knew about, but had never known was songworthy until now. Alas, Rasputina is so far ranging in her topics and musical approaches, most of her albums are a mess of stuff that doesn't really fit together. She has an annoying fondness for gimicky, jokey songs that really stop being interesting the second time you hear them. But, her instincts also drive her to write songs with haunting lyrics and beautiful melodies, and can produce songs so perfect they give me songasms.
How We Quit the Forest has only a few joke songs (Onward Christian Soldiers, Diamond Mind, and Dwarf Star). And, as her joke songs go, these are pretty good ones. But, she really goes all out on more serious topics, singing about relationships in The Olde Headboard, senility in Rose K, human cruelty in Herb Girls of Birkenau, and standing by a troubled/sick friend in Sign of the Zodiac. And, if there has ever been a better song, wierder, more perfect song about alienation and love than The New Zero, I can't think of it. Seriously, my friend Mike Edmonston told me about this band last spring, and I've been hooked since the first you-tube video I sampled, a cello driven cover of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.
In contrast to my online discoveries, I happened to run across Radiohead's albums Amnesiac and Kid A while I was in a thrift store. The CDs were only 99 cent, so picking them up wasn't a huge gamble. I've like Radiohead in small doses, but never really fell in love with their albums before. But both Amnesiac and Kid A are works of art that need to be listened to in thier entirity. They are atmospheric, moody, and haunting, with most of the voice work digitally altered until it's nearly impossible to understand. But, rather than being annoying, the warped voices add to the overall emotion of the albums, and seem to be a statement in themselves about how difficult it is to communicate honestly. I don't use drugs, but these albums give me a feeling of altered consciousness, of sinking into a surreal landscape where the familiar becomes unrecognizable.
While I'd been lukewarm to Radiohead, I've loved the Decemberists since I first heard them, and have nearly all their albums. One I didn't have until recently was The Hazards of Love. It's a concept album, where all the songs blend together to tell the story of a shapeshifting son of the forest who seduces a mortal woman. When I heard about it, it was a bit too fairy-tale for my tastes. Also, I had the bad luck of listening to The Rake's Song out of context, and was just put off by it. It's sung by a man who boasts of murdering his three children after his wife dies so he can return to the life of a wanton bachelor. The Decemberists have a flair for dark humor, but, out of context, this song was too dark even for my tastes.
Now, I've heard it in context and, wow, The Hazards of Love is easily the Decemberist's best album. Ironically, it manages to do this without having any of thier best songs. There's nothing from this album I'm going to pull out and put onto my Decemberist playlist. The songs really only make sense in the context of the other songs. The Rake's Song doesn't work unless it's matched by the revenge song that comes near the end of the album where the spirits of the dead children rise from the water to greet thier murderous father. Many of the catchiest songs echo and thread throughout the work, like the refrain of the title, "The Hazards of Love," or the chorus from the song "The Wanting Comes in Waves." Most of the characters in the musical play are matched with musical themes, and the music will shift from theme to theme as the characters interact. I find myself looking forward to driving places that take more than an hour to get to, so I'll have the chance to listen to the whole album at once, which is really the only way to approach this. Otherwise, it would be like trying to watch a movie in three and four minute snippets.
One last note: My year got off to a good start with Jonah Knight released an EP of songs based on my novel Nobody Gets the Girl. While it seems like that should be on my list of favorite albums, I confess that Jonah really knocked the Nobody soundtrack out of my year end thoughts by putting out an even better album, The Age of Steam: Strange Machines. Steampunk is a growing trend in a lot of media, and some artists embrace of it seems more opportunistic than inspired. But, The Age of Steam is a perfect blend of geeky and creepy and just sounds sincere. You can tell Jonah loves the subjects of time machines, airships, haunted guitars and the restless dead. Also, he does a cover of "Bad Moon Rising" that will make you forget the original version, which had a pop, upbeat melody. Jonah's slow, haunting take really highlights the menace woven through the lyrics. This version really makes going out at night when a bad moon is on the rise sound like a very poor choice.
I feel like I need to note an absense on this list: For the first year in almost a decade, I didn't find any new Mountain Goat albums to obsess over. This is a combination of having filled out nearly all of his back catalog, and being somewhat let down by his new album this year, All Eternal's Deck. AED had one song that produced one of the aforementioned "songasms," High Hawk Season. Damn These Vampires and Prowl Great Cain are also very strong songs. But, past that, the album just never caught my imagination. I felt like John Darnielle pulled back on this album and didn't do many songs that were really personal or daring. I know it has to be emotionally draining to produce albums like The Sunset Tree or The Coroner's Gambit, but there was something clinical and clean about All Eternal's Deck that robbed it of emotion. But, I'm not losing faith, and await the next album he produces so it can wipe away my rather feeble memories of this one.