(pictured below: a piece from Chad Wys’s American Tapestry series)
“Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the direction
You are staring at”
– Björk, “All Is Full Of Love”
When people ask me what kind of music I listen to I’ve often said, “Weird stuff.” I honestly believe my iPod could win a “most weird/disturbing/random” contest. I’ve also told people that I like music that’s difficult or emotionally challenging. “I don’t know,” I reply, half-joking. “Depression rock? I think that’s what I listen to.”
I discovered that a large chunk of what interests me has an actual name: slowcore (otherwise referred to as sadcore). In a way this genre encompasses my “best of” list, although I wouldn’t say it reflects the year. These songs are just an extension of my musical philosophy. Tom Waits sums it up best: “I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
As always I see themes. Last year was marked by the voices of women who had passed away too early. I’ve noticed that this year was dominated by men, in particularly gay men: Mike Hadreas, Bradford Cox, Jónsi or the side projects of Grizzly Bear. Not all of them made the list, but I couldn’t help but see a pattern. 2013 was a landmark year for gay rights, so perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence.
Classical, choral and opera music was also significant. I chalk up this influence to Grimes, my cousin Peter and my mother. I ended up appreciating Schubert, Bach and Vivaldi more than I ever have before, and continue to explore whatever comes my way (I downloaded some Satie recently, for example).
Some of these songs were influenced by conversations, social issues and personal experiences. Looking back I see that sexual abuse, rape culture, incest and the exploitation of children were a recurring theme, but it was something people wanted to talk about in 2013. In some cases it made national news. That’s reflected here, particularly in James Brooks‘ controversial “On Fraternity.” (“The way they say they can’t just stop being friends with him because of what happened” may be the most damning, nauseating line I’ve heard in a song this year.)
In spite of this I’d say this compilation is thoughtful and rooted in hope. I found myself discussing love and acceptance with several friends this year, in particular finding their place or purpose in the world. Many look to the traditional ways, but I think we’re being driven to find alternatives. A co-worker confessed to me that she was unlucky and doomed when it came to love. I couldn’t offer any solutions but told her, “I haven’t found love in the traditional sense. I’ve just been lucky to feel and experience love wherever I’ve found it.”
I suppose writing and sharing these things are how I express love and give of myself. This is an example of that and appropriate for the holiday. I wish everyone well.
As usual, the music I’m providing is free and available here (via Box).
Simply click to download and enjoy.
(Also, feel free to skip through the descriptions to the “too long, didn’t read” alternatives…)
1) Perfume Genius – “Learning”
Mike Hadreas was my biggest discovery this year, and songs like “Learning” make me grateful he exists. In his own quiet, unassuming way, he gives a voice to individuals and experiences that are simply plot points in our culture. It’s humbling when I think of someone like Hadreas standing in for these people, being direct in a way I’ve never heard, anticipated or imagined.
When it comes to down to it, “Learning” may be the most accurate and empathetic thing written about its subject matter. It may also be the cruelest. It’s simple but intensely personal, repeating a few lines until it branches out in an unexpected way. It’s as if Hadreas is simultaneously saying, “You aren’t alone” and “It’s happening to everyone- no one cares.”
I’ve avoided talking about Hadreas and haven’t mentioned him to many friends and family that much. I’ve mostly kept him to myself (until now). Although I don’t know him I consider him one of my favorite people. This is one of the reasons why.
TL:DR – Have you heard of Perfume Genius? You should.
– – –
2) Thee Oh Sees – “Minotaur”
I found out about this song entirely through chance. The track was previewed on Stereogum and something compelled me to listen to it. I’m not sure why. I had never heard of the band, had any personal connection to the title and I didn’t understand the cover art (above).
From what I can tell, “Minotaur” is about the repercussions of work- namely how it can make you compromise your life or lose focus on what’s important. The references to being perpetually sick, underpaid and lost resonated, and at one point John Dwyer intones, “There is no cure but to stay away / Stay away, without pay.” Eventually he concludes, “Stay at home today, go to the beach instead.”
It turns out that was exactly what I did. I quit my job and moved to the coast for a while.
TL:DR – This song kind of told me to quit my job. So I did.
– – –
3) Capital Children’s Choir – “Untrust Us”
Johnny Rotten once said, “Crystal Castles are the most offensive band since the Sex Pistols.” This is precisely why this song is one of the most badass things I heard this year. You wouldn’t expect children from ages 7 to 18 taking on the broken-up samples and vocal fragments of “Untrust Us” and turning it into a choir piece.
There’s something touching about hearing all of these kids taking something so complex and adult and turning it into something else. It’s also worth noting that Castles’ lead singer, Alice Glass, has repeatedly referenced child abuse, murder and neglect in her lyrics, as well voicing her anger about the sexualization of children. I can’t help but wonder if listening to this was an emotional moment for her.
After a video was released the band posted it on their Tumblr, implying the band had seen it and approved. To my knowledge it’s the only cover of their music they have publicly acknowledged.
TL:DR – Crystal Castles + Children = Badass
– – –
4) Atoms For Peace – “Default”
It’s funny. As long as I’ve known about Thom Yorke I’ve thought we couldn’t be more different. However, over the past several years I keep encountering songs he has written and think, “Yeah, what that guy said.”
Atoms For Peace’s “Default” is one of those songs. Every line sounds like narration from my life, only written and interpreted by someone more talented. As a result I listened to it often, turning the lyrics over in my head (“I made my bed / I lie in it,” “I fall between the waves,” “I turn out of phase / A pawn into a queen”).
A few months after discovering “Default,” one of my friends mentioned Enneagram tests, something required in his workplace. I took the test myself and the result was an “Enneagram Five with a Four-Wing: ‘The Iconoclast.'” I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but one of the examples I was provided with was Thom Yorke. I immediately thought about this song, then, “Maybe we’re not so different after all.”
TL:DR – Thom Yorke, get out of my head.
– – –
5) The xx – “Together”
Films can be disappointing, with only one song on their soundtrack to redeem them (I’m thinking of “Dull Tool” in This Is 40 or “The Enemy” in Wuthering Heights). I couldn’t say the same about “Together,” which closes Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, but it will be what I remember most about the film. It was an appropriate way to end the story, and more effective than when I had heard it on its own.
I will note that Luhrmann has the uncanny ability to choose the right song for this kind of thing, particularly Romeo + Juliet‘s “Exit Music (For A Film)” or Moulin Rouge‘s “Bolero.” “Together” conveys the coldness I felt after reading Fitzgerald’s novel, mostly because it details what its titular character wanted but couldn’t attain.
By then the audience is filing out of the theater, knowing better. Everyone in Gatsby loses in the end, both the living and the dead.
I thought, “Well played.” Afterwards the song simply wouldn’t leave my head.
TL:DR – Well played, Baz Luhrmann. Well played.
– – –
6) Stina Nordenstam – “Now That You’re Leaving (Fold Remix)”
It’s been nearly ten years since Stina Nordenstam has recorded anything. The last I heard she was doing sound installations in Sweden, with no updates on resuming her music career.
I miss her.
Apparently I’m not the only person who is curious in her absence. A British musician named Fold remixed the closing track off of 1997’s Dynamite and posted it online with the following note:
“I recently contacted Stina Nordenstam’s acting agent who graciously forwarded this remix to Stina on my behalf as a gift to say thanks for all the music over the years – I have yet to hear back.”
Needless to say, I enjoyed this reinterpretation of “Now That You’re Leaving.” It has an addictive quality that caused me to revisit Nordenstam’s catalog. But for now she remains sphinx-like, with nothing on the horizon.
TL:DR – God, I miss her.
– – –
7) Keaton Henson – “Mary Celeste”
The first time I heard Keaton Henson was on an Anti compilation and my first thoughts were, “You’ve got to be kidding. There’s no way this guy is serious.” However, within thirty seconds I realized Henson was serious. Dead serious. In fact, he is so heart-blisteringly sincere you hardly understand who or what you’re dealing with.
His Wikipedia page is a puzzle (“his music was meant for no one to hear”). His tendency toward crippling stage fright and social anxiety results in one-person shows and interviews answered in illustrations. His lyrics detail a person who is impossible to know, at times bitter and terminally depressed. He does, after all, market himself with videos of Sophie Thompson sobbing and a puppet repeatedly killing himself.
But my God, the guy can wield a pen. The first song I heard was “You,” which could be initially written off as trite. Then a line arrives at the two-minute mark: “If you must die, sweetheart / Die knowing your life was my life’s best part.” And I thought, Damn. Goddamn it. That’s such a good line. Keaton emerged as some sort of lyrical genius that day, the epitome of the guy who knows the perfect thing to put in a love letter and slaughter whoever reads it.
Personally, my favorite song of his is “Mary Celeste” (I deeply, deeply love it) which isn’t as crippling or personal as his other work. A large part of his repertoire is the result of a messy and somewhat public break-up with Soko, including “You.” Although I considered including it I decided otherwise- it’s such a candid representation of Henson I can’t apply it to myself. It does, however, contain the best unintentional advice in a love song ever, something I’ll always keep with me.
If you must fight
Fight with yourself and your thoughts in the night
If you must work
Work to leave some part of you on this earth
If you must live, darling one
Henson may be a perplexing figure in the music world, but he unknowingly gave me something to walk away with. His despair and devotion resulted in hope.
TL:DR – Meet Keaton Henson. He’s a terminally depressed puzzle of a man.
– – –
8) Default Genders – “On Fraternity”
2013 was a landmark year for discussions on rape culture and bullying, with national coverage and outrage over cases in Ohio, Connecticut and Nova Scotia, as well as debate about recent cases in Kentucky and California. It seemed everyone put their two cents in, including journalists, feminists, Anonymous and the victims themselves, but the most interesting contribution I encountered was James Brooks’ “On Fraternity,” which garnered as much attention as it did vitriol and controversy.
I was lucky to have seen Brooks perform last year (at the time he was recording under the name Elite Gymnastics), so I understood his context. He is concerned with the underdog and a feminist, so “On Fraternity” didn’t surprise me at all. Brooks is angry as could be expected, and although he delivers the lyrics in an even-handed way, the sound backing him is incredibly intense and somewhat frightening. Writer Jessica Hopper theorized that “he was addressing — or even trying on — a woman’s everyday fear of rape and harassment.”
In my opinion I thought it was a brave and thought-provoking move. Hearing a man step forward and not only say, “This is wrong,” but put himself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t happen in our culture that often. I found myself admiring Brooks for taking that risk, and in the end he got a lot of shit for it. People considered the song calculated, contrived or insulting. Writer and critic Michelle Myers stated she simply didn’t want to hear “a paraphrasing of the words I’ve been screaming for years gently sang back to me in a male voice.” I didn’t get as upset. I’d rather be listening to a man trying to understand other peoples’ experiences than multitudes of other male voices out there.
TL:DR – Apparently sympathizing with rape victims gets you into a lot of trouble.
– – –
9) Daughter – “Perth / Ready For The Floor”
This track by Daughter made the list because they covered two songs I didn’t care for but had a tenuous connection (one is about the death of Heath Ledger, the other about Tim Burton’s adaptation of Batman), transforming it into something completely different.
This song outshines all of the on-air mashups I’ve heard on other radio shows. Elena Tonra elevates the lyrics to another realm that’s as beautiful as it is foreboding. I can’t tell if they’re a prelude to a sexual encounter or a mass execution.
TL:DR – The most unexpected and original mashup of the year (with Batman references).
– – –
10) Perfume Genius – “Dark Parts”
For some reason I found myself returning to “Dark Parts” this year, even though I had heard it months before. All I knew was it was a tribute to Mike Hadreas’ mother, but it turned out to be much more. The first verse describes her rape at the hands of her father, which was confirmed in the months following its release.
“It can be a very lonely thing,” Hadreas said in an interview with NPR. “I wanted to clap for my mom, I suppose, and just let her know that all that courage is filtered down to me, hopefully. Or at least I admire it a lot.”
This didn’t only elevate it to the best tribute I’ve heard for a parent, but perhaps the best thing a human being has written for another human being, ever. I could only imagine what it would feel like to be abused by your father then have your son write such a beautiful reassurance years later. And of course I couldn’t help but think of how his mother must have felt when he first played the song for her.
“It was very emotional for us,” Hadreas admitted. “I’m really proud of that song.”
TL:DR – You should just read what I wrote. The music video is worth a look too.
– – –
11) Lissy Trullie – “Madeleine”
The only song I knew Lissy Trullie for was a Biz Markie cover with Adam Green several years ago. I wasn’t aware that she had released an album at all, and when I heard it I thought, “Wow, she’s like the second coming of Nico.” Like many singers I love, her voice is unusual and off-putting to most. Nevertheless, it’s perfect for a slow burner like “Madeleine.”
It turned out the title is a reference to Trullie’s sister, and that seemed appropriate to me. The song made me think of my own sisters, of each of us at different points in our lives, sometimes feeling vulnerable and uncertain. It’s a state Trullie calls a “a calm, fragile wild / The critters roar and we can’t sleep.”
I was tempted to talk with my sisters about the song, but never found the appropriate time. I suppose writing about it here makes up for it. “Madeleine” became surprisingly personal.
TL:DR – Lissy Trullie wrote about her sister; in turn it reminded me of my own.
– – –
12) Cool Angels – “Don’t Feel Like Holding On”
I fell in love with Nick Ray’s music just over a year ago. He mainly records under the moniker Speculator, and his scuzzy, lo-fi songs sound like a Sofia Coppola score playing through an A.M. radio.
By chance I found out about his side project, Cool Angels, which includes collaborations with Young Prisms‘ Stef Hodapp. The tracks “Are U Real?” and “Don’t Feel Like Holding On” became instant favorites. Although Ray’s style is rooted in the ’80s and a style I don’t normally respond to, they became essential. I simply couldn’t stop playing them.
I was fortunate to have an actual exchange with Ray near the end of this year via e-mail. When I purchased Demure there was an option to leave a note for the artist, which I did. All I said was that I loved Speculator and thought of Cool Angels as its female counterpart, like trading in ties for dresses.
Within a day I got an e-mail back, expressing surprise that I had written anything at all. Apparently Ray wasn’t used to hearing from fans. I said, “That was why I wrote it. Artists need to hear these things.”
TL:DR – When it comes to lo-fi ties and dresses, Nick Ray is my personal tailor.
– – –
13) Ulf Bästlein – “Wandrers Nachtlied II Op. 96 No. D. 768”
I listened to a lot of classical, choral and opera music this year, but out of 20+ songs I downloaded, “Wandrers” took precedence. For one thing, Goethe’s legendary poem is considered one of the most beautiful things written in the German language. When set to music it’s not only beautiful, but disarmingly gentle.
The poem itself is relatively brief and simple. Goethe wrote it in 1780 while in isolation, staying in a wooded lodge and surrounded by nature:
Above all summits
it is calm.
In all the tree-tops
scarcely a breath;
The birds in the forest are silent,
just wait, soon
you will rest as well
Schubert’s musical interpretation of “Wandrers” became one of my favorite songs while at Headlands and ended up on my Autumnals mixtape. Including it here seemed appropriate as well, summing up my own time in isolation. It wasn’t only calming and contemplative, but productive.
I’m sure Goethe would understand.
TL:DR – Out of all the classical/choral/opera/chamber music I listened to this year, it turned out that it was Schubert FTW. Well, him and Bach (seriously- such a close second).
– – –
14) Chelsea Wolfe – “The End”
I was lucky to see Chelsea Wolfe at the Doug Fir Lounge at the beginning of this year. I was especially happy when she closed her set with a cover of Sibylle Baier’s “The End.” Ever since she had played it on Glassroom Sessions I had been hoping to hear it played live.
It’s remarkable how much Wolfe has evolved since I first heard about her. She has strengthened her presence as an artist, becoming less shy and willing to reinvent herself. Her cover of “The End” and subsequent release of Pain Is Beauty proved she will continue to evolve and make interesting choices.
For example, at the Doug Fir show she played a softer, acoustic of one of her earlier songs, “Moses.” It was the third version of the song she had done, and you would never guess what its first incarnation had sounded like. Although it was only January, I knew this was going to be one of the highlights of my year.
Turns out it was.
TL:DR – Chelsea Wolfe has only gotten more interesting.
– – –
15) Colleen – “This Place In Time”
This was the first song I added to the list. Still, it’s fitting that it ended up being last.
“This Place In Time” is measured and meditative. It’s not only a culmination or the “end credits” of the year, but a testament to Colleen, who is one of the best instrumentalists around (“I’ll Read You A Story” is one of my favorite songs of all time). Her music is perfect for late nights, for writing, or any quiet moment you have to yourself. I had many of those.
Looking back, this piece is a bookmark, holding the spot I was in this January. Things have changed since then. Now when I listen it seems to say, “Remember that?” and “That was a time. And that was all it was. It’s gone now.”
TL:DR – Listen to this. Remember a time. Lean back, close eyes.
Happy Holidays, everyone. Until next year…