Record Year for Rainfall

Does it always look so gray, before the fall?

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It’s been a record year for a lot of things, none of them good. Some of us are making peace with saying goodbye to the world as we know it. We may be witnessing the fall of an empire, not from a safe distance – because there is no such thing – but in the front and center of the world’s arena. And yet, as people are wont to do, we go about our lives amidst catastrophes and insist that our lives are meaningful and our feelings are the most important thing at stake at any given time. It is a wonder, maybe a miracle of some sort, that people in a dying world still believe that their love is not like any other love, or even that they still take the time to love at all. (Don’t get me started on people who still think that passing on their genetic material is somehow a good idea.) The world may still end with a bang, which might just be the best we can hope for, but for most of us, it’s going to end with a mournful song. We may be neck deep in record rainfall but we still want to be told that our feelings amount to a hill of beans in this world. And that’s why we have art, ladies and gentlemen.

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The Rake’s Song

Here is a song about infanticide, and I couldn’t be more here for that. I can’t condone the practice itself, but I’m also tired of hearing about love all the time. It takes a brave creative visionary to make such a dark and twisted little song and make it their big hit single, but The Decemberists are nothing if not uniquely visionary. They know, even if you don’t, that epic narrative songs about horrific things used to be every bard and minstrel’s bread and butter. Perhaps not so much the cold-blooded sociopathy narrated here, but definitely murder and bloodshed galore. How do you think people entertained themselves before God created binge-watching? They wanted to hear about, in great detail, what terrible things could befall those less fortunate than themselves, just as we do. This isn’t a novelty song that somehow found its way onto indie radio, it’s the scion of a narrative folktale tradition as old and deep rooted as human language itself. It reflects what evils humans may do, and the cultural salves we create to comfort each other. Narratives tie us together, they warn and educate, they condemn and they comfort. The night is, in fact, dark and full of terrors.

Raincoat Song

You turn to the Decemberists, like you turn to a midcentury novel, for reminders of the near-forgotten; words and concepts like ‘spinster’, ‘always the bridesmaid’, even ‘raincoat’. Literature and music have always been better at recording history than history itself, in the biased hands of historians, ever has. We look back at the last stretch of living memory, and its memorabilia, and witness society steadily lurching itself out of the dark ages. Here it stands, a bit battered, unsteady on its feet, still coated with the filth of history, but at we’re slouching forward, at least. Nobody says spinster anymore, but unmarried women are still treated like apples rotting under the tree. We can toss our raincoats aside and blithely not own an umbrella, because we’re children of science who don’t remember that a sniffle and a cough used to foreshadow a visit from the grim reaper. Sometimes it seems that the only reason we remember history at all is because it still clings to our language.

Philomena

When you think of The Decemberists, burning eroticism is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. (Or maybe it does, I don’t know what you’re into.) But if this Decemberists song were a novel, it would be an historical bodice ripper (or, at the very least, some very adult Anne of Green Gables fan fic.) A tale of forbidden love set in some prudish isolated community in mid-1800’s Montana, in which the ambitious young schoolteacher falls clandestinely in love with the postmaster’s lonely unwed daughter. It doesn’t have to be the kind of book that has the title printed in cursive, slightly raised, lavender letters. It could, in fact, be serious work of highbrow fiction, preferably written by Louise Erdrich or Annie Proulx. Or, oh, maybe Maile Meloy. Or Colin himself. I’m starting to really want to read this book. Maybe I should just write it myself.

The Perfect Crime No.2

Nobody exceeds at the fine art of narrative songs like the Decemberists. Small wonder Colin Meloy writes children’s books in his spare time; I haven’t read them but I would and I would read any adult book he might write. In the meantime, we can enjoy the most literary canon in pop music right now. The Decemberists’  discography is more like a miniature library stuffed with novels, leaning heavily towards historical fiction, but also not without the serious family dramas, not without explorations of folklore, not without the fantasy epic, and not without the occasional hard boiled crime thriller. If the diversity of subjects and genres is any clue, I’d guess that Meloy is the kind of person who picks up boxes of books at garage sales and behind dumpsters, then reads all of them.

O Valencia!

I love a good narrative song, and a good blood feud, and a good updating of Romeo and Juliet. And all of those things in one, of course. This being The Decemberists, though, the tale of gang rivalry is about as raw-nerve relevant as the misadventures of the Ancient Mariner. That is, an intellectual curiosity, a quizzical stretch of the poetic imagination. Hence the music video that’s more Wes Anderson than anything that might occur in the real world, or even on an episode of The Sopranos. But we don’t turn to The Decemberists for verisimilitude or social commentary; they occupy the intellectual high ground of the NPR demographic, the elite circle of New Yorker subscribers, the endangered American Proffessitariat. We are the demimonde who reward ourselves for getting each other’s obscure literary references with an extra helping of Pinot Noir. We sagely pretend to remember a time when Gore Vidal was relevant. We care deeply and hypothetically about social issues we’ve never experienced. We know what tagliatelle is and how to pronounce it. Colin Meloy is our rock god.

The Best of 2015

Part One. The Albums.

The less said about 2015 the better, and 2016 has already established itself as the worst year in all of recorded history. But at least we still have music.

  1. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

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Mark my words, Father John Misty is going to take his place as one of the most important living artists in the canon. In fact, on the strength of only two albums (at least under that name and persona), he kind of already is. I can’t think of a better songwriter, capable of the most intense romanticism and the darkest sarcasm. A great voice, a sexy look, a charismatic presence, a rock star who hits all the points.

Bored in the U.S.A.

Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)

I Love You, Honeybear

 

2. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – The Decemberists

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The Decemberists’ hiatus didn’t last too long, thank goodness. The world needs their brand of hyper-literate musical anachronism. In a culture where erudition often seems to hold no value, it’s pleasing to see the erudite succeed outside the small circle of the NPR crowd. See, Americana can still be a relevant influence!

Make You Better

The Wrong Year

Carolina Low

 

3. Strangers to Ourselves – Modest Mouse

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The hiatus of Modest Mouse was a long one, and hard to take. Promises of new material were made and rescinded. The words ‘long overdue’ were on everyone’s lips. When it finally came, it didn’t disappoint. Modest Mouse are up to their usual weirdness, mixing the catchy with the abrasive.

Lampshades on Fire

The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box

Coyotes

4. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

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It’s been a couple years since songs from Courtney Barnett’s EP began getting play on indie radio, but this full length debut was most people’s first introduction to her music. Now the world is heralding the arrival of a very major talent. As the title of the records suggests, Barnett’s talent is spinning wordy, witty songs out of the mundane, all delivered in a heavily accented deadpan sing-speak reminiscent of Lou Reed, if he had been born a snarky Australian lesbian with bangs.

Pedestrian At Best

Dead Fox

Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party

5. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence and the Machine

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The title of the album refers to the Pacific Ocean, but it could refer to Florence herself; a force of nature. She’s grown into a bona fide Major Artist since her debut, and it seems she’s still gaining momentum, if this third album is any sign. I’ve rarely seen anyone so commanding, and especially someone so young. As a performer, she was born to fill coliseums, yet despite its grandiosity her music retains intimacy.

What Kind of Man

Ship to Wreck

Queen of Peace

 

6. Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather

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Not even entirely new material, but new to us, and that’s enough. The Dead Weather churned out more material than one record could hold when they were at their most active. This is the overflow, with some new jams thrown in. It certainly doesn’t feel like leftovers. Alison Mosshart remains a goddess of the highest caliber, a love child of the lizard king.

I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)

Be Still

Three Dollar Hat

 

7. I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler – Yacht

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An unfairly under the radar release from socially conscious electro Utopians Yacht. Claire L. Evans is an electropop genius, from her pixie cyborg style to her witty take on the issues of modern life. This is music you can dance to and think about at the same time. And it’s not without the kind of romantic sentiment a classy lady can get behind, either. How Yacht isn’t basking in fame, I have no idea, but I love this record so much I actually paid for it. So.

I Though the Future Would Be Cooler

I Wanna Fuck You Till I’m Dead

War On Women

8. The Fool – Ryn Weaver

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A debut from a new talent I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Ryn Weaver is a singer who broke into my consciousness as an opening act for Billy Idol. So right away you know that she rocks. She also has impressive songwriting ability, a varied palette of influences and a voice that that brings to mind everything from the tremolos of folk singers like Judy Collins, to the breathy sultriness of Lana Del Rey, to the open-throated high notes of Florence Welch herself.

OctaHate

Promises

Pierre

9. Vulnicura – Bjork

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Bjork had been lying low for a while, but now she returns to purge the experience of her separation from Matthew Barney. So, here’s Bjork’s take on the classic genre of Big Divorce Album. As expected it’s a soundscape of emotion, with cryptic lyrics and surreal atmosphere, and of course, support from friends like Antony Hegarty, always on hand to bring a touch of the otherworldly.

Black Lake

Lionsong

Mouth Mantra

10. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

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Here’s a band that went from near-unknown to everybody’s favorite in a blink of an eye. But you can’t say they don’t deserve it. If it seems like the throughline of rhythm and blues has gotten lost in the last two or three decades, well, it turns out it hasn’t. To call it ‘retro’ would be too obvious; it’s a reminder that roots music will never not be relevant.

Don’t Wanna Fight

Gimme All Your Love

Future People