Saturday, August 18, 2012

List-o-mania: 1996–2011

Over the past week or so, Pitchfork has been polling readers, staffers and contributors re: their favorite albums from the years 1996 through 2011, i.e., the 15-years-and-counting lifespan of the site, via a project called the People's List. My friend and former TONY staffer Colin St. John tipped me off to the project—check out his own list and commentary—and after a little procrastination, I began frantically compiling my top 100 in time for yesterday's deadline. You can view my list here, and those of other Pitchfork writers here.

Lists of this nature are strange; that fact is well established. They are strange because when it comes to such a vast and vastly diverse art form as music or movies or books, consensus is pretty damn near impossible. Phil Freeman wrote passionately and persuasively on this topic last January, with regard to his feelings of alienation from the Kanye-obsessed hordes of fellow Pazz and Jop voters. In one sense, I do not share Phil's feelings; I really enjoyed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the consensus critical pick for best album of 2010), and I included it on both my year-end top 10 list, and this most recent 15-year-spanning list. On the other hand, when I view friends' and colleagues' contributions to the People's List—here's a typically well-rounded one from another FAFTS ("friend and former TONY staffer"), Corban Goble—I can't help but feel a little apart from the Conversation at Large.

Again, this not out of hostility or reactionary-ness re: what I'll call the Indie-Rock Canon that has cohered during this Pitchfork lifespan (and which has in recent years expanded to included hip-hop/R&B—both mainstream and underground—as well as certain strains of metal, electronica, experimental music, etc.). I included quite a few records in that zone, including three Strokes albums, a bunch of Will Oldham selections, LPs by Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Dinosaur Jr., Battles, Dr. Octagon, Deerhoof and Sia, and a few more. And I like a lot of the other consensus faves, albums by Radiohead (I haven't listened to OK Computer in a good while, but I got really into it in college), Joanna Newsom (Ys is a beautiful, epic album), Built to Spill (ditto re: Keep It Like a Secret), Modest Mouse (the first song on The Lonesome Crowded West destroys me, but on the whole, I like This Is a Long Drive… better; didn't realize that was from ’96—probably should've included it!), Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes, Japandroids, Fucked Up, Wavves, the Flaming Lips, Animal Collective and on and on. But it would've been disingenuous for me to include any of those latter albums on my top 100, because none of them has captured my heart and mind the way that, say, Colossamite's Economy of Motion (to pick one great yet largely off-the-radar album from my list) has. So my list is simply what it is, all that it really could be, i.e., a totally subjective catalog of normalcies, idiosyncrasies and, in some cases, by virtue of what is not included, blind spots, one very major one being hip-hop.

Over the past couple years, I've definitely tuned in to hip-hop more than I had in the previous decade. But I'm still no expert, and that's much of the reason why even in the case of a lot of rap I know I like (Ghostface, Outkast, Eminem), I didn't include those records; I simply haven't put in the time that in and of itself is an indication of love for an artwork. That is to say, when compiling my year-end best-of lists each December, I try not to overthink them, i.e., I simply reflect back on what I spent the most time voluntary listening to throughout that time period. In other words, you don't pick your favorites; they pick you. Last year, the Frank Ocean was a no-brainer, as was the Francis and the Lights the year before that, and the Propagandhi the year before that (speaking of Supporting Caste, which came in at No. 5 on my People's List ballot, I've started to think of this as an all-time-great album, certainly the best new record I've heard since I started to work as a full-time writer-about-music). These are simply the newly released albums that demanded my sustained attention, obsession, care, zeal, etc. during this time period. And that is all I have tried to do with this 1996–2011 list: catalog, in hasty digest form, that sustained attention over these past 15 years. I speak for no one other than myself, which is why I prefer to consider lists of this sort as lists of "favorites" rather than reflections of some monolithic "best"-ness. Taken as honest reflections of a single person's tastes, they become a whole lot less threatening and a whole lot more fun. Coming upon a list like Colin's and Corban's, where in the case of about half the selections, I know them only by title or maybe a lone track, is a chance to know more. Conversely, if even one person who checked out my picks was inspired to take a first listen to John Fahey's Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites (in TONY, I said: "During five lengthy ruminations, in which original and public-domain material mingles with Ellington, Artie Shaw and Bola Sete, you hear the haunted, heartbreaking sweep of American music as filtered through a single encyclopedic mind"), Tim Berne's The Shell Game, or anything by craw [sic], Keelhaul or Cheer-Accident, that would make me extraordinarily happy.

And that possibility, of turning someone on to something new, or inspiring them to reconsider something they thought they knew fully, is really the only reason I can see for this whole writing-about-art thing to exist in the first place. These albums speak for themselves, but for some reason, the babble of history drowns them out and we have to dig them up and praise them and let them reiterate what it is they have to teach us. Which brings me to Colin's final point, i.e., what are the sleeper 1996–2011 picks, the great albums, in any style, yet uncovered by any of the participants in this hive-mind People's List exercise? I'd be grateful for any readers' comments.

P.S. I'm already kicking myself over the purely accidental omission of Boys Life's Departures and Landfalls. I did include a record by the related Farewell Bend (Brandon Butler and John Rejba were in both bands), but Departures is a true all-time fave ’round these parts. And all of the following were records I intended to include but had to cut to get myself down to a nice, round 100:

William Parker Clarinet Trio Bob's Pink Cadillac
The Octagon Nothing But Change
Cannibal Corpse Evisceration Plague
June of 44 Tropics and Meridians
Behold… the Arctopus Skullgrid
Yukon Mortar
Territory Band–2 [Ken Vandermark] Atlas
Dan Weiss Trio Timshel 
Obituary Darkest Day 
Charred Walls of the Damned Charred Walls of the Damned
Ornette Coleman Sound Grammar 
Axis of Advance Obey

Also a shout-out to Nicki Minaj's mixtape Beam Me Up, Scotty, a shrewd selection by Corban that I totally forgot about.

P.P.S. The 1996 cut-off point was interesting for me, as it comes just a few years after the release dates of some of my favorite records of all time, albums that surely would've ended up near the top of the list had the initial year parameter been, say, 1993: two more masterpieces by craw (craw and Lost Nation Road), Morbid Angel's Covenant, Face of Collapse by Dazzling Killmen, Slip by Quicksand, Helmet's Betty, Death's Symbolic and many more.

P.P.P.S. There isn't a whole lot of jazz or improvised music on this list. I'd attribute that to a couple of factors: I didn't start listening to jazz seriously till about 1999, and much of my jazz attention up through about 2005 was devoted to playing catch-up, i.e., schooling myself on the music's vast recorded history, a project that still persists: I'd estimate that older, non-contemporary jazz still accounts for about two thirds of my current jazz intake. Also, I'd say that on the whole, album-oriented lists favor song-based, i.e., largely non-improvisatory, music. It's a silly generalization to make, I know—I'm already second-guessing it—but it's the best way I can think of to account for the fact that there's nothing by, say, Joe McPhee, Wadada Leo Smith, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Henry Threadgill, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton on my list. All of these artists have meant a lot to me over the past 15 years, but my high estimations of their work have formed from a composite impression of live performances I've seen, records I've heard new and old, interviews I've conducted  and just a general kind of "living with" the work and attendant philosophies of figures such as these. But on the other hand, the jazz records I did include—albums by Andrew Hill, Tim Berne, the Bad Plus and others—are all albums I've savored in much the same way as the mostly rock-oriented selections on my People's List ballot: via repeated, sustained, voluntary attention. I'd like to hear folks' thoughts re: great 1996–2011 jazz records I might have overlooked; I'm sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, especially from the period before ’05, when keeping up with current jazz releases wasn't yet part of my job.

P.P.P.P.S A running list of other worthy records from this time period, listed as I think of them:

Henry Threadgill Where's Your Cup? 
Anthrax Worship Music 
The Raconteurs Broken Boy Soldiers 
Weezer Pinkerton 
One Day as a Lion One Day as a Lion 
Björk Medúlla 
Xiu Xiu The Air Force
Coptic Light EP and LP

P.P.P.P.P.S Here's a great, jazz-heavy list by Destination: Out's Jeff Golick. Wadada Leo Smith's Tabligh is one of many shrewd selections here.



GREAT list. So many fantastic records.

What I find interesting personally about your list is that I see so many bands I would also choose, but not the specific album I would choose. Some swap-outs I'd make (limiting myself to one album per band):

-"The Bed Is in the Ocean" for "In Place of Real Insight"

-"Mass Nerder" for "Problematic"

-"Vapor Trails" for "Test for Echo"

-"Formulas..." for "Heretic"

-"Robot Hive/Exodus" for "The Elephant Riders"

-"Mirrored" for "EP C/B"

-"The Battle of Los Angeles" for "Evil Empire" (MAYBE)

-"Colors of Home" for "Proving Winter Cruel" (MAYBE)

Those last 2 are close calls.

Great to see some relative "underdog" albums on there, too ("Aftertaste," "No Code," "Everything Sucks").

This has got me all fired up. I may well have to assemble my own top 100 list...

evan said...

Building off last comment...gonna add one last swap-out (and agreed you got a great list):

"End Hits" for "The Argument"