Monday, January 23, 2012

January Mixtape

Highlighting the songs I've discovered, rediscovered, or repeatedly played each month.  The order reflects an attempt to create a cohesive mixtape, not to rank the songs in any way.

  1. M83 - "Intro."  I never listened to Zola Jesus before, but she's a guest vocalist here, and her vocals really make the song.  Anthony Gonzalez shouts urgently to "carry on," while she sings with more equanimity.  The atmosphere of "Intro" is incredible, almost intergalactic (now there's an adjective I've never used to describe music!): it sounds like the song is about to explode, take off into space, and once the mounting tension finally releases, keys rush by like shooting stars.  It almost reminds me of the sounds you hear in Mario Kart when the balloon animal thing shoots out a trophy.  I know it's a specific and silly example, but it's fitting for a group whose music focuses on nostalgia--capturing the glories of childhood without the bitterness of the present.

  2. M83 - "Midnight City." These songs have to be placed back to back; they work so well together and are two standouts from 2011.  I can't just stop listening to this album after "Intro;" once I hear the MGMT-esque synths, I have to listen for the sax solo (which I would usually find cheesy, but here it just works), and then I can't turn this album off.  It's a glorious song, one that reminds me, importantly, that great music doesn't have to be sad.

  3. LCD Soundsystem - "Someone Great."  This is an older song from 2007 that I finally discovered.  I've been listening to this album a lot; it's cold, brooding, mechanical--its sounds fit its album title perfectly: "Sound of Silver."  I like "Someone Great" so much because it perfectly encapsulates the feelings of loss: "There shouldn't be this ring of silence / But what are the options? / When someone great is gone."  How else can you feel when you lose touch with someone you love?  It's not a profound metaphor or anything; it's brutally straightforward, fitting for an uncomplicated feeling--loss sucks.

  4. The National - "Terrible Love."  Remember that thing I said about great music not having to be sad?  Err...might be wavering a bit here.  I really like this band but their most recent album was so overhyped that I didn't want to bring in exceedingly high expectations to my initial listens.  So I waited, a long time, actually--and now I see why it was almost unanimously loved.  I love the staticy guitars and heavy, somber vocals, and how all the lyrical/instrumental tensions ("I'm walking with spiders") lead to crescendo, possibly the most powerful moment on the album (though there are many).  I also love how unpolished the album sounds; it's not just raw, but it actually sounds like there's a wall preventing the sounds from really blooming, from bursting out of the speakers.  Does that make sense?  Despite all the dynamics and orchestral outbursts, the song still feels very confined.  The whole album feels very bleak, but I guess that's what you'd feel if you were experiencing "terrible love."

  5. The Antlers - "Putting the Dog to Sleep."  This song might not be appreciated as much on its own as it would on its album.  It's the most minimalistic song on the Antlers' most recent record, concluding an album full of layers and diverse sounds with something relatively straightforward: staccato guitars and lucid vocals.  It's surprising and startling and marks both the album's emotional climax and end.  I love how the lyrics present the singer as a pet dog (there's dog imagery throughout the whole album) when he sings: "Don't lie to me / If you're putting the dog to sleep / That pet you just couldn't keep / Couldn't afford ...My trust in you / Is a dog with a broken leg / Tendons too torn to beg / For you to let me back in."  Pretty bitter, violent stuff here, but it's still crazy catchy, beautiful, ambient.  That's the Antlers for you: poignant lyrics, atmospheric sounds.  It reminds me of what Pitchfork accurately and, uh, brilliantly wrote about them: "Their band name simply describes their music: a delicately branching instrument of force."

  6. The XX - "VCR."  I love the XX: their name, album cover, sound, concept, this song.  I love the xylophone contrasted with their signature spacey guitars.  The contrast of vocals makes them unique and the warmth/intimacy both singers exude makes their music seem inexhaustible.  It's almost like a letter you can read time and time again because it's so personal.  Even if you know all the words, even if there are no surprises left, you still want to turn back to it.

  7. Real Estate - "It's Real."  Breezy, carefree. This song is summer to me.  Here's what I wrote on my top 11 albums about it: "It's cool, laid-back simplicity; you can easily get lost in the sprawling guitars and low-key vocals or you can bang out the drum beat to 'It's Real.'  Real Estate doesn't seem to want to fit in with the lo-fi, SO-CAL 'chillwave' movement that's trending on indie blogs; their music seems to just flow naturally without trying to conform to a style or trend.  It's genuine and unadorned music--or, simply, 'it's real.'"

  8. Clams Casino - "Numb."  Ah, finally something I haven't written about yet!  I listened to this mixtape nonstop during my paper-writing spree in December.  There are almost no words, just texture-heavy, ambient beats.  It's great music to get lost in and, despite lots of repetition, there are subtle changes that keep the songs flowing, making for interesting close-listens.  I picked this song in particular because I really enjoy washed out vocals; typically, they convey more feeling than idea, which is a nice change of pace from most music.  Though what's special about "Numb," I feel, is its ability to present both an emotion with an idea; I feel there's some serious imagery grounding the ambiance.  And that's how I define great instrumental music: that which turns the abstract (emotions) into the concrete (specific moment).

  9. Sonic Youth - "Teen Age Riot."  My aunt got me into Sonic Youth and once I started listening to this album, called "Daydream Nation," I could not stop.  They pretty much perfected noise rock in the late 80s, capturing so much about the music I love now over 20 years ago.  That's pretty incredible to me.  "Teen Age Riot" is the first song off of one of the most influential  albums of the 80's (and is one of the few rock albums chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry, for what that's worth).

  10. The Weeknd - "XO/The Host."  My favorite artist from 2011.  I really enjoy the way he molds different songs/sounds together.  In this example, you can hear the seamless transition from the seductively sinister "XO" to the more desperate pleas of "The Host," which breaks down into the violent "Initiation."   I will be writing a seminar paper partly about this guy, so I'm going to save my poetic inspiration for then!

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