I've Been Getting Messages
2013 YEAR-END BALLOT1. “Knowing We'll Be Here,” Daniel Avery: Occupies some space between bliss and grace, like “Inspector Norse” from last year, minus the crazy drug fiend in Todd Terje’s video. Words like “bliss” and “grace” are the limits of my ability to write about a song like this-- sometimes I’ll throw in “serene,” too, and that’s about it. I was checking one publication’s list of Top 50 Dance Songs online, and along with every video clip there was a capsule write- up, seemingly all of them by the same writer. As I idly read a few while playing the clips, I found myself more and more impressed by the writer’s ease and assuredness in micro-differ- entiating between songs and sub-sub-genres that would blur together for almost anyone, me included. Not that the songs all sounded the same, they didn’t, but the language this writer was able to summon went above and beyond the call of duty. I couldn’t do it. I’m also impressed, and amazed, by the way “Knowing We’ll Be Here” and “Inspector Norse” are able to reach me. I’m as far away from their intended audience as possible. My only connection to the clubs where they were meant to be heard is when I drive across Richmond Street, through Toronto’s club district, after a late film at the Lightbox. Drunken sparkly people half my age spill onto the street--I’m worried one of them will pound the side of my car as I come to a stop at an intersection, which might cause me to want to intentionally run that person over, and that’d be bad. I navigate my way through, drive the rest of the way home, listen to “Know- ing We’ll Be Here,” and construct my own club in my head. 2. “Echelon (It's My Way),” Angel Haze: I’m so enamored of this song, I want to quit my life and go help her out in all these feuds she’s having with record companies and rivals. “These bitches is awful”--such a great line; I hate them all. The Mary-Kate and Ashley clones, I hate them too. (I thought it was Mary J. clones until I checked a lyrics page.) I’m starting to get worked up just thinking about these people. I’m starting to get aggy. The anomalous celestial- choir voices that pop up initially threw me, but I’ve come to love the way Angel Haze cuts across them, followed by my favourite part of the record, the “killing those motherfuckers” chorus that sounds like, I don’t know, the Go! Team or something else I can’t quite figure out. Listening to this young black woman curse and fulminate probably amounts to the same illicit thrill that’s been placing profane hip-hop songs on my year-end lists since Schoolly-D in 1986. I’m so white, it’s awful. 3. “I’ll Be Around,” Yo La Tengo: My favorite video this year was, predictably, the one that Vania Heymann put together for “Like a Rolling Stone.” Next--I see very few videos these days-- would be Yo La Tengo’s for “I’ll Be Around.” I can’t imagine where it would ever get played, so I’m sure it exists nowhere except on YouTube. Close to 200,000 views, though, some of them not by me. It’s set in a forest clearing, then in a kitchen. Text is all over the screen--what looks to be a short story but on closer inspection is a mishmash of Yo La Tengo lyrics past and pres- ent, excerpts from said mishmash, and a recipe for Spicy Tortilla Soup. Once inside the kitchen, the band putters around and makes their soup, they sit down to dinner, then a couple of cops come and take James McNew away. Ira and Georgia look perplexed. I’m not sure...maybe the joke is trying to introduce some adventure and intrigue into three of the most domesti- cated lives imaginable. (A title card early on says “Based on Actual Events,” which is then amended to “Inspired by Actual Events”--there may be some poetic license.) Or maybe McNew is about to leave the band, and this is their way of breaking the news. It’s quite cryptic. Fade has everything you might love or despise about Yo La Tengo. After two or three songs I don’t care for (including “Om,” the one song that seemed to get some attention), I think it’s a perfect album. “I’ll Be Around” continues a tradition (shared by Neil Young) of stealing titles from famous songs; the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” is one of my favourite songs from my favourite year ever, and I think I like Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around” even more. Their whispery ambience has never felt closer, or, at the same time, just as out of reach. Always just out of reach. 4. “Nothing Is Real,” Boards of Canada: My favourite most-hated film ever is American Beauty, and my favourite most-hated scene--quite reviled--is Wes Bentley’s paper-bag monologue. You know the scene--the one where he gets a catch in his throat and starts tearing up because he can’t find the words to adequately express the beauty of the world. “It was one of those days, when it’s a minute away from snowing,” and off he goes--so overcome by the benevolent force that watches out for him and makes him not afraid, an “entire life behind things,” that he says his heart’s going to cave in. I’ve written about that scene before. I bring it up here because I’d ask anyone who shares in the widespread revulsion to give “Nothing Is Real” a listen and decide whether it isn’t trying to capture something similar. Maybe the objection is simply Bentley, maybe it’s spill- over from the rest of the movie, or maybe it’s simply the presumption and pretension of trying to find words for feelings that can’t be contained by words. I watched the entirety of Six Feet Under for the first time earlier this year (same writer as American Beauty), and it aimed for some of the same feelings--and every so often found them, I’d say. “Nothing Is Real” reminds me of a song by the Hylozoists, “Soixante-Sept,” about Canada’s centennial in 1967. Same stillness, same calm--the Hylozoists overlay French horns, and some audio of Montreal’s then-mayor, Jean Drapeau. This is the first Boards of Canada song I’ve ever heard. Reading that they took their name and something of their approach from old National Film Board documentaries makes sense when I think about “Soixante-Sept.” 5. “Avant Gardener,” Courtney Barnett: Australian--same part of the world as Lourdes, give or take a time zone or three. I thought “Royals” was striking the first few times; skip forward a few weeks of hearing it constantly as my grade 7 art classes listened to the radio, and I’d had enough of “Royals” for several lifetimes. Would that be true of “Avant Gardener” if it had been the fluke hit instead? I don’t think so--or rather, I think it's a song that would eventually emerge on the other side and sound fabulous again. That hap- pened to me with “Loser” once. When I finally had a chance to write about it in my old fanzine, soon after it had fallen off the charts, I was so tired of it I just gave it a rating and left the gushing to everyone else. Today, it again sounds like the greatest thing in the world. “Avant Gardener” does in fact meld Beck, one of his spacier slide-guitar songs, with Liz Phair. Instead of fragmentary gibberish about loveseats and chimpanzees, I’m guessing Barnett is an actual asthmatic singing drolly of her actual daily ordeals. (I don’t know-- tried to confirm this and couldn’t.) She neologizes as imaginatively as Clipse: “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing/Feel like I’m emphysemin’.” I’ve never seen an episode of Breaking Bad, but “I guess the neighbours must think we run a meth lab/We should amend that” makes me want to catch up. As everything winds down, there are a few seconds of noodling around that sound like they’re lifted from Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” which was also about someone who had trouble catching his breath. 6. “Adjustments,” Benoit & Sergio: “Sometimes I think the DJs don’t understand”—contempla- tive, like when Hot Chip’s “The Warning” ruminated on silence, broken melodies, and getting lost. I can never make out the next line, though, so I’ve never found out exactly what it is that the DJs don’t understand. But the rest of the song makes that clear anyway--no need to check a lyrics page. Silence, getting lost, it’s all there. 7. “Work Bitch,” Britney Spears: A lot of songs on here appeal to--embody--my sense of beauty, so I’m glad to include this one bit of insanely funny shamelessness. Britney Spears has been pretty much the most useless pop star on the planet for me the past 15 years--I think the only song of hers I didn’t mind was her first single, but enough about my bilious private life. Somewhere along the way, rock critics started to like her. I remember “Toxic” did very well in year-end polls. Couldn’t stand it; just checked, still can’t. I could have listed her twice this year, though--also like “Scream and Shout” a lot. The first time I heard “Scream and Shout,” via video, I thought that if any song ever had a chance to redefine gruesome, this was the one; before long, it added to my sense that Will.i.am possesses a peculiar kind of pop- music genius. “Work Bitch” makes me think back to TLC’s “Waterfalls,” where they counselled moderation and patience right around the time they were setting things on fire and declaring bankruptcy. Here, the lecture is on initiative and perseverance--if you want stuff, really important stuff like parties in France, you need to stay focussed, hold your head high, call the governor, make the bubble up...well, she starts speaking in tongues a bit, but the message is clear. And if it isn’t, there’s always the helpful “You better work, bitch/Now get to work, bitch!” to clear things up. Good show: if I could hold up one person for my students whose every public action exemplifies the very meaning of work ethic, Britney Spears would be my first choice. (Cheap shot--I imagine she works 40 times harder than I do, albeit with a little bit of messiness attached.) The music here is amazingly propulsive. I think it’s “Superstition,” more or less, trashed up and amped up and sped up beyond lawsuits. It slows down and coalesces in all the right places. She throws in a fake English accent on the word “hot.” Why, I don’t know. She says “bitch” at least as well as Angel Haze, and better than Young Thug. She’ll probably make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day--everyone except England Dan and John Ford Coley does now--and because of this song, I’ll be okay with that. 8. “An Impression,” No Age, and 9. “North Sea Girls,” Wussy: This is the fourth year in a row I’ve voted for Wussy, so I’m running out of things to say about them. Wussy, you’re not going to be famous. Looking forward to Attica--great meet-me-where-I-come-from title. I’m late to No Age. At first I was going to list “C’mon, Stimmung,” which is about as melodic as skronk ever gets, but here and there the vocal bugs me. No such problem with “An Impression”; quite beautiful, especially when it morphs into Another Green World. I want to go back and hear all their previous records. My exposure to both bands came via Christgau. A few months ago, the Consumer Guide bowed out for the second or third (fourth?) time. (It hasn’t always been called the Consumer Guide, but as long as there were capsule reviews with letter grades, it still felt like the Consumer Guide.) My guess is it won’t be back this time, and that saddens me more than I would have expected. After devouring his ‘70s book in my 20s, and then really caring about Pazz & Jop results all through the ‘80s, I basically shut out Christgau through the ‘90s. I’d been writ- ing for a few years by then, and was putting out a fanzine with a number of Pazz & Jop voters as contributors. I was mad that I wasn’t getting a ballot myself (why I thought Christgau would know about my fanzine without someone actually giving him a copy, I’m not sure). Somewhere in there a friend and I put out a book on pop music in the ‘70s, and I made sure that we omitted Christgau in the acknowledgements, where we listed a few key music books covering the decade-- against mild objections from my friend, as I remember it, but he didn’t make an issue of it. One review made mention of Christgau's ‘70s book, hinting that it was an odd omission. Anyway, for as long as it lasted, it was an excellent grudge. Like many of my grudges it was secret, so the world went ahead as before. These days I defend Christgau when message-board posters pick over some CG entry from 40 years ago. (“How did he not know that Black Sabbath would have critical cachet in 2013? What the hell was he thinking?” I’m exaggerating, somewhat.) Not that there’s a great deal of that right now--after he left the Voice, the number and intensity of arguments about him seemed to diminish. People who were edited by him almost always single him out as the best line-editor they ever had. I wish I’d had that chance, but I don’t know how enjoyable that would have been--whatever stylis- tic influence he had on me disappeared soon after I started writing, and I like to leave in all the “well”s and “I don’t know”s he obviously had no patience for, so maybe it would have been a demoralizing experience. But as someone who got into my bloodstream early on--I continued to check the Consumer Guide reflexively, through all its incarnations and right to the very end (if it is...)--he belongs up there with Kael, Marcus, Bill James, and Stanley Kauffmann as a compass. Kauffmann died this year, and I paid tribute to him elsewhere. Call the Wussy and No Age songs partly my belated tribute to Christgau. 10. “Picacho,” Young Thug: Not sure what he’s going on about. The very un-thuggish backing track is pretty enough that he could be singing about Pikachus for all I care.