Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2005

Every year since I started this blog, I put myself through a soul-wrenching struggle to create a satisfying “best-of” list.  I don’t have too much trouble coming up with representative entries.  That aspect is mostly a matter of record-keeping, which kind of takes care of itself in the process of writing.  Ordering these titles in a way that will stand the test of time, however, is a bit more difficult.  Occasionally, some albums that I have ranked very highly in their respective years have not come off of the shelf much since, while other lower ranked entries and honorable mentions have proven to be more durable.

Creating a “best-of” list retroactively for a year gone by is no less problematic, but the issues of accuracy and durability seem to be inverted.  This is especially the case in the early oughts, as record stores were still kind of a thing.  If I did not purchase an album on Amazon back then, I have few definitive calendrical references for what I was listening to and when.  The slippery nature of memory resists definitive sequencing, making accuracy a primary concern.  Once I can sketch out a clear picture of what was in rotation during a given year, however, hindsight allows these selections to fall into order relatively easily.  

The list for 2005, however, has been probably the biggest struggle yet. The records from that year hang in between online purchases and record store walk-ins. Stitching these together with my memory episodes was particularly difficult because I was existing at the crossroads between being a band director, a graduate student in ethnomusicology, and being increasingly involved in my "significant other's" world.

10. Green Carnation - Light of Day, Day of Darkness: I listened to this hour-long track a whole lot in 2005 on my old Zen player as I walked to Cross-Cultural Ensemble rehearsal with my Stick strapped across my back.  Although I have not listened to it much since, upon revision I found it pleasantly familiar, if a bit thin in the production department.

9. Porcupine Tree - Deadwing:  Although it may not be apparent from Lazarus, which is included above, Deadwing was Porcupine Tree’s heaviest album to date.  It also followed their most commercially successful album and I have always felt that the writing, which is still more nuanced than most, suffered a bit under the burden of following its standard.  

8. Panjabi MC - Beware: By 2005, my ethnomusicological studies had given me a deepened appreciation for intercultural popular music and a growing interest in the music of India.  Not only did Beware sit at the intersection of these two fields, it was catchy enough to win over my significant other.

7. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema: Although I had been introduced to The New Pornographers during my late 90's power pop jag, it was 2005 before I wandered into a record store in Massachusetts and picked up Twin Cinema. I have been a staunch advocate ever since.

6. Frank Zappa - Studio Tan:  Zappa’s music was always finding its way from used CD bins into my collection during the oughts, so although his music was ever-present, it is nearly impossible to unravel specific dates.  I do know for certain, however, that I took a Summer class on the music of Frank Zappa in 2005 and Studio Tan was in heavy rotation during that time, along with Broadway the Hard Way and several volumes of the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series.

5. Fountains of Wayne - Utopia Parkway:  Perhaps one of the best post-Jellyfish power pop albums in my collection, mostly because it is stylistically distinct.  For the most part, Fountains of Wayne relies on outstanding songwriting more than overt semiotic nostalgia for their success.

4. Ramnad Krishnan - Vidwan: Music of South India: Songs of the Carnatic Tradition: On the suggestion of my Indian music teacher, this was the first album of Indian classical music that I ever purchased. Although I started unpacking it in 2005, I am still unraveling its nuances.

3. Rumah Sakit - Rumah Sakit: To this day, the details about Rumah Sakit remain vague - they are references to them everywhere, but it is difficult to pin down their origins and history. Nevertheless, my expanding appreciation for rhythmic complexity in Indian music allowed this album to spark my interest in so-called "math rock."

2. The White Stripes - Elephant: In direct contrast to all of the deeply complex stuff I was into in 2005, Elephant's focus on low-technique rock songwriting rose to the top of the heap. Pardon the video in the playlist, by the way - I will always remember showing that to the Pop Music and American Culture class I was TA for a couple of years later.

Album of the Year: 2005
1. Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love: Although I was a fan of Brendan Benson's since One Mississippi, this album convinced me that he could do no wrong as a songwriter. There isn't a single dud in the bunch.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2004

2004 was a year of beginnings that were fueled by equal parts confidence and, if I am honest with myself, delusion. At the end of the previous year, I acquired a Chapman Stick, and the practice that I had been using as therapy started to manifest in some real musical output. Determined to master this non-traditional instrument and use it to somehow subvert academia, I began coursework for a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology. My studies included jazz improv courses and a seminar in global pop music, both of which began to further diversify my listening.

At the same time, I continued to teach out at Krum. The breadth of these new experiences make connecting the dots between my memory episodes and the reality of the calendar particularly confusing. My propensity to listen to older albums or to let albums simmer for a while complicates matters further.  I’ve had to refer to school records, Amazon shipping statements, and even dates on old pictures to flesh out specifics.  Still, after toying around with my memory and all available information, the 2004 list is, like its predecessors, a good representation of what I was into at the time.

This project is making me realize the extent to which memory episodes resist lining themselves up in neat chronological order.  They seem to arise in vivid flashes as I revisit this music, bringing to mind seemingly random events that must then be categorized.  This all might seem to be more trouble than its worth, but organizing my life story by the music that I surround myself with has, in recent years, emerged as a satisfying narrative in this blog.

10 The Drowners - Think of Me: I continued a steady diet of inexpensive power pop albums throughout 2004, many of which were unremarkable. The Drowners’ Swedish identity provided a unique perspective on the style that was slick and compelling.

9 Muse - Absolution: It has been a rare occasion for me to favorably compare any band to Rush. In 2004, however, I discovered Absolution, which earned Muse that distinction for a time by virtue of its accessible songs, impressive chops, and intense energy.

8 Blackfield - Blackfield: I supported Porcupine Tree’s move towards heavier and more identifiably progressive territory, but part of me missed Steven Wilson's relatively straightforward songwriting on Stupid Dream. Blackfield became the place where I could get my fix.

7 The Decemberists - Her Majesty the Decemberists: I saw The Decemberists in Denton on a lark, without ever hearing a note of their music, one night in 2004. Their show was impressive, and within 24 hours, Her Majesty the Decemberists had the dubious honor of being one of the few albums that I uploaded through ITunes in its earlier iteration.

6 Green Day - American Idiot: I saw American Idiot as the 21sy century Tommy - a punk rock opera of resistance for the Bush administration. Alas, within a few years Green Day would jump the shark with this great album and run it as a broadway musical, but at the time it was quite the statement.

5 The Trey Gunn Band - The Joy of Molybdenum: As I was getting more and more into transcription, I started making more of an effort to find other Stick and touchstyle guitar players that I felt a connection with. Gunn’s style was, and still is, a baffling exploitation of the instrument’s affordances, but his melodicism and conceptual adventurousness makes him one of my favorite players and The Joy of Molybdenum remains my favorite of his solo works.

4. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue: I owned Kind of Blue for decades, but in retrospect, I had never really engaged it beyond mere background music. Transcribing solos from it for an improv class changed all that, however, and provided me with a deep appreciation for the clarity of Davis’ ideas.

3 Brian Wilson - SMiLE: Brian Wilson finally released the long awaited follow-up to Pet Sounds in 2004 with compelling results. The tour that followed provided one of the best live shows I had ever seen.

2. Fela Kuti - Zombie: A seminar in Global Popular Music fleshed out my understanding of Fela and his unique political position. I ended up getting several Fela albums this year, but Zombie remains the best of the bunch.

Album of the Year: 2004

1. Opeth - Damnation: Opeth’s one-off experiment in melodic melancholy would, in hindsight, serve to pivot them from their black metal roots into their current progressive rock incarnation. In itself, however, it remains a unique masterpiece in their catalog.