Jonathan Donaldson is a Hassle comrade who has written for just about every publication in Boston including The Boston Phoenix, The Weekly Dig, and BDCwire. He’s a great dude and we’re happy to have him on board in 2014 and beynd!
So it’s the end of the year and hopefully by now we all understand that such a demarcation is fairly meaningless. Especially when it comes to the matter of music—a time machine that is always in flux. While it is true that we are (mostly) moving forward through time, a new discovery can just as easily come by way of reading Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler (How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds With Rock & Roll) or by listening to Moondog’s madrigals from the ‘60s, or even by bringing the Carpenters into your home than by listening to any of the 20,000 records that came out in the last 12 months.
This is not to say that trying to keep up with and/or digest the slew of “new” music is not a noble pursuit (for it certainly is), but rather that too much is made of the “newness” that new music possesses. This is largely because, much like our very ecosystem, the pool of ideas is largely caught in a wonderful process of recycling itself again and again. Don’t get me wrong—recycling is good. I loved the heartiness of Happy Jawbone Family Band’s new album as they arrived to my ears in 2013 like the merry Time Bandits of yore. Stealing from all my favorite years and making something new and better, what dimension did these misfits come from? And are they built to last? These are the questions I wonder upon as I file their vinyl record into the “H” section like the giant CD that it is.
Yes, today’s music is good. But when measured in its very instant, pop has been grander. Lo-fi has been crummier. Heavy music has been blacker and more bruised. Amateur art has been more foolish and more haphazardly exposed. Always and forever, since the cavemen bashed rocks together and howled at the moon, the past has been a much more reliable source of the fringes than the present. But give 2013 time. Wait ‘til 2023 to judge the year and we’ll all see it much more clearly. The best things almost always come to light. Check out this year’s reissue of the Anonymous prog-folk LP Inside the Shadow (1976) to understand why the future might be the music lover’s best friend. The left side of Fleetwood Mac’s moon and the right side of Jefferson Airplane’s casting one long copious shadow.
New things are happening, but they are often unstable—almost as if the musical chemists of today are trying to fill in those missing heavy elements on the periodic table of sound that require such incredible conditions to be created, let alone persist. So much of what is happening right now is happening via the fusing of technologies (and mediums) and also through the splintering and synthetic hybridization of musical forms into something new, but these are forms that are probably not lasting in the conventional sense. Yes, I sound like a right rockist prick, I know. It’s a biological thing. I seek things that balance just enough backwardness with forwardness to help ease my nerves and inwardness more than for any aesthetic concern. This is why Grouper’s The Man Who Died in his Boat, with its trustworthy threads of silken comfort, was one of my personal favorite records of the year.
2013 was a defeating year for whatever is left in my rockist side. I stumbled upon the Beatles Christmas albums (in a single YouTube clip) and those guys came across as worse twats than the H&M models in One Direction. I read Pete Townsend’s book and found his portrayal of the ‘60s rock lifestyle frankly embarrassing. Then Morrissey’s book and Johnny Marr’s album showed that neither of them understands the Smiths anymore than I do. Money changes everything. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (who cares, I know) puzzlingly announced the induction of Nirvana—a band that was never once what the media made them out to be, but one who left the lasting legacy of being incredibly open-minded group towards bands that were well outside their circle. Kurt Cobain’s love of Scotland’s Pastels comes to mind; a band that has remained cozy in their middle-class obscurity, even releasing their playfully warm Slow Summits LP this year to much of my personal acclaim. Even more confusingly My Bloody Valentine released their long-awaited follow-up to Loveless and pressed un-pause on the year 1991 in a way that threw everything out of flux. Did the world of music change more between 1991 and 2012, or 1970 and 1991? I’m really not sure.
As the pop song (or the country song, or the alt-rock song) with its verse/chorus/bridge and pen and paper melody continues to become passé, (it’s not to me at least, and I present Bostonian Corin Ashley’s New Lion Terrace album as a testament to why not), it is at least worth asking—what do we want to last? Or phrased like this, what kind of music do we want to leave our kids? In 1975, passing-on Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children” from father to son was a pretty genuine expression of everything that he hoped the world would be. Yes, it was a domesticated rock song, and yes, it was reactionary in an almost Christian way, but it was heartfelt nonetheless. In 2013, is it a little less clear what we want to sing to our babies? Odd Future? Pissed Jeans? Maybe Haim? (Even if you hate the question about babies, you probably have an answer for it—much like you probably know if your hypothetical marriage would involve any name changes).
If music isn’t built for forever, than what’s it for? Is it something that we know is meant to be for just now? Maybe this very idea of music as a true moment of ephemera is more absolute than it was in the past. After all, “Time of My Life” from 1987’s Dirty Dancing was meant to be about one very specific moment. Yet it lived forever. And it was from a movie about the past. I wonder how a situation like this would play out today?
Perhaps part of the equation is that we aren’t really building music for the duration after all. We were building music for tonight. The idea of the remote and distant cult star on a mountaintop (Liam Hayes maybe, whose post-pop pastiche work on the Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III soundtrack is another of the year’s best records) is more and more remote. Whether it’s in a club where dancers (many producers themselves) are communing with their favorite boutique DJ who made their favorite remix on their iPod…or at a basement show where listeners (many musicians themselves) are supporting music made by their friends or their friend’s friends, 2013 was a time where everyone wanted to be only one-generation away from the music being made.
A personalized amalgam of the social life and musical life melded into one single experience where there are no more untouchable chimeras….save for the gilded Olympians of Top 40 radio that are very occasionally excellent—my favorite was “The Way” by Ariana Grande, because it’s a very sincere slow jam with a melody that goes somewhere—though they are mostly as robotic as the sound of your GPS as you drive from Brighton to the airport.
And so inasmuch as we want our musical lives to be the same as our social experiences, it is important to also look into all of those other places in which we have no social connection—like the music of Jan & Dean, still the most unsung and misunderstood band of the rock-era. Check out their Folk & Roll (1965) for one of the most surprisingly wry political albums of the era. But regrettably under the construct of what has become important today, the music of the past mathematically cannot be as interesting as the music of the present simply because those people aren’t around to commune with us anymore. Is there anyway to bring them back?
And if the radio is as robotic as I think it is, it’s a fitting choice then that my favorite song of the year is “Doin’ it Right” by Daft Punk, whose vision of electro-pop is as old fashioned as mine is. I admit to being completely clueless as to what is happening in the world of techno, and so I’m willing to be graciously spoon-fed Daft Punk’s Spielburgian vision of the dance floor with light-up tiles. Old-school 808 drum machines, grooving sub-bass and California harmonies sung by a robot that sounds like Conky from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse giving me the word of the day. That word of the day would have to be “listen” for me. Listen listen listen.