Okay, so this is tooooooootally off-topic, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I please. If Richard Carrier gets to blog about music, then so do I.
Years ago, I embarked on a quest to listen to every genre of music I could find – from Mozambique folk music to Argentine experimental university music to British avant-jazz to… everything. I then made a list of the Best Rock Albums Ever. These days I don’t listen to much music anymore, but here are a few of my recent first-time listens…
Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid is as ambitious as pop albums come, effortlessly flowing between catchy riffs on rap, funk, hip-hop, 60′s kitsch, psych rock, dream pop, disco, new wave, 70′s tape experiments, soul, folk, cabaret, neoclassical symphonic overtures, and more. The synthesis achieved is almost invisible, which is to say: perfect. Monae is perfectly at home singing in each genre. You might say she’s “showing off” but, well, isn’t that why we go to see the best of the best perform, rather than the mediocre? ArchAndroid: best mainstream pop album of the past 10 years? Possibly. Oh, and she’s my age. Fuck me.
David Lang’s Child is a 5-movement suite (commissioned separately, but envisioned as a whole, and collected on one disc) drawing on his usual influences: minimalism and rock music. “Sweet Air” is my favorite movement, while “Stick Figure” is a throwaway. The piece is more subdued and less rockin’ than my favorite works in this genre, for example Michael Gordon’s Weather and the pieces collected in Bang on a Can’s Renegade Heaven. I have yet to hear the 2008 piece for which Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in music, his Little Match Girl Passion.
Experimental electronic rock music duo Autechre invented new languages of music on Incunabula, Tri Repetae, and Chiastic Slide, and even to a lesser degree on Confield. Their latest, Oversteps, is not a return to greatness, though it is a return to ambience. Major publications like Drowned in Sound and NME are reviewing this one ecstatically, though I suspect they are trying to make up for having missed the profundity of their earlier works. I keep hoping Autechre have one more masterpiece in them, but Oversteps offers no more hope than their previous, Quaristice.
But let’s move on to some good news. After dropping the best album of the last decade in Ys, Joanna Newsom’s three-disc followup, Have One on Me, is superb. It is not as musically ambitious or emotionally flawless as Ys, but it retains all the marks of a master songwriter. Newsom’s progressions are pure joy, and Newsom shows her expressive subtlety in, for example, “Occident,” which repeats a simple riff but shifts imperceptibly from funerial to aggressive to meandering to whimsical, all while maintaining its emotional coherence.
I suppose most people know Nels Cline as the lead guitarist for Wilco, but he has spent most of his career performing experimental and free-jazz guitar pieces. Coward is his first solo overdub album, and while it contains many interesting ideas, they are not focused toward any particular intent or effect. Pitchfork reviewer Marc Masters hits the nail on the head when he writes that much of the album plays “more like exercises in Derek Bailey or John Fahey scholarship than coherent songs.”
Okay, I’ve had my fix for music writing. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…