December 12, 2013
2013 Year-End Lists

I’ve reflected a lot on the reasons behind making these lists and what they represent before, so I won’t write about that this time. In fact, I’m trying to limit the length of this introduction because I don’t have an awful lot to say about 2013 and where it stands in the progression of pop music. I don’t feel like there was a lot of cohesive forward motion that spanned across genres and audiences. In my mind, there were two main types of releases in 2013, and not a lot in between: Immaculate throwback homage (e.g. Random Access Memories, Waking on a Pretty Daze, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic), and aggressive, confrontational experimentation (e.g. Government Plates, Shaking the Habitual, Yeezus).

A lot of the experimental albums that came out this year didn’t make it onto my list because I didn’t “like them” per se. They didn’t have any staying power in my rotation. I can’t include them in good conscience because, at least for me, year-end lists are about our personal relationships with records—the emotional and intellectual connections we make with them. The opaque experimental fare that I heard this year rarely crossed into the realm of accessibility. There just didn’t seem to be any compromise. That’s a middleground I wish more musicians would strive for—pop artists thinking more abstractly and experimentalists being unafraid to express sincerity and connect with the listener. That’s the kind of stuff that resonates with me. I can feel the envelope being pushed when I hear Death Grips, The Haxan Cloak or Dean Blunt, but where’s the soul? I certainly recognize the value in challenging music, and I know that many of these artists aren’t concerned with forging meaningful connections with listeners (and often seek to intentionally challenge and alienate pop-oriented audiences by filtering them out). But even experimental music shouldn’t feel lifeless. Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven is one of the few experimental albums that walked that line beautifully—it is a genuinely emotionally moving and boundary-pushing LP. The reason an aggressive album like Kanye West’s Yeezus is so high on my list is because I feel like it straddles the pop and experimental divide well and maintains some semblance of authenticity. Sure, he’s deliberately assuming a “punk rock” aesthetic, but there’s still real vulnerability lurking in many of those songs (albeit thickly veiled by a shroud of machismo). And it’s funny! Contrary to what many people say, the dude has a great sense of humor, and he’s far more self-aware than people give him credit for. What does all this mean for next year? Maybe what I perceive as the sterile, soulless avant garde will converge more with pop music grounded in sincere expression. Or maybe my difficulty identifying with the experimental records that came out in 2013 is indicative of my getting older and losing my edge. I certainly hope the former is the case.

This isn’t to say I didn’t have profound moments of connection with records that came out this year. When I look back at the albums that I played the most in 2013, I can trace each of them to a specific time and place. Some are completely mundane memories, and others are poignant connections with friends and family. 2013 was a hugely transitional time for me. I finished graduate school and began plotting out the next steps in my life (a process I’m still knee-deep in). As cheesy as it sounds, these albums have served as the soundtrack for that entire process, and I like to think they affected me in a meaningful way. So for each of my top five records, I’m going to explain exactly why that record meant something to me, and what it reminds me of when I hear it now.

So much for limiting the length of this intro. I look forward to checking out everyone else’s lists and hearing what 2014 has in store for us. Below is a link to a Spotify playlist with my favorite tracks of 2013.

 Top Albums of 2013

1. Deerhunter - Monomania: This album came out the day after I turned 27, and coincidentally my worldview was changing pretty fundamentally around that time. I was forcing myself to step further outside of my comfort zone, and even though I was still in the thick of graduate school, the end was in sight. I gave fewer fucks. I was coming to terms with the chaotic aspects of my life and just learning to have a good time and make the most of my situation. I like to think that Monomania reflected a lot of the manic and ecstatic feelings I was experiencing. I needed a blown-out rock n’ roll album full of anxious energy and huge hooks, and that’s exactly what I got. I can’t really think of another album that I connected with that way in 2013. I found it at just the right time, and it kept a prominent spot in my rotation until the end of the year.

2. Disclosure - Settle: During September I spent a week visiting friends in Los Angeles. This album soundtracked most of my drives through the city, and for some weird reason, my brain now associates a record steeped in UK dance music with Southern California. Settle is the completely-out-of-left-field electronic masterpiece I never expected. You’ll see plenty of dance music on my year-end lists, but rarely placed this high. This record takes the subtlety of the best UK bass music and combines it with the purest forms of uptempo pop and RnB. This is a sound that was hinted at by artists like SBTRKT in the past, but it’s never been this fully realized.

3. Phosphorescent - Muchacho: I was in a rut when this album dropped in March. Grad school and work were wearing me down. I was generally having a difficult time connecting with other people in meaningful ways. But I think this album kind of helped me get through that. I listened to it a lot while driving, played it on my radio show, and basked in it’s glow on the stereo at home. I’ve been a fan of Matthew Houck’s music since 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry, and I always thought 2007’s Pride was his creative peak. Then Muchacho seemingly came out of nowhere and proved me wrong. “Song for Zula” is not only one of my top tracks of the year—it’s one of the most impactful set of lyrics I’ve heard in years.


4. Steve Gunn - Time Off: Another record I associate with my vacation. I saw Steve Gunn perform in a crowded dive bar at the Louisville Turners Club for Cropped Out (one of the weirdest, coolest festivals out there). After that performance, I kept visiting Time Off, and it became a huge part of my fall. For an experimental solo acoustic John Fahey disciple, Gunn has an exceptional ear for melody and great songwriting chops. He’s got classic rock instincts. His time as an “Auxiliary Violator” in Kurt Vile’s backing band comes through on this album. It’s a warm, enveloping and challenging record best enjoyed next to a fire with a glass of bourbon.


5. White Fence - Cyclops Reap: This album reminds me of sitting on the deck at my old house in April, overwhelmed with school work but instead ignoring it and grilling with my housemate and friends, drinking Tecate and soaking in the hazy sprawl of “To the Boy I Jumped in Hemlock Alley.” This album breaks free of everything I’ve come to associate with the San Francisco garage rock revival, while retaining it’s finest elements. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of psych, garage, glam and lo-fi in a way that I’ve never really heard before. Tim Presley’s brand of appropriation looks into the future by mining the unconventional past.                                                      

6. Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

7. Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic

8. Kurt Vile - Waking on a Pretty Daze                                       

9. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

10. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety                                                                  

11. Kanye West – Yeezus                                                                          

12. The National – Trouble Will Find Me   

13. David Bowie – The Next Day

14. The Woolen Men – S/T

15. Cass McCombs – Big Wheel and Others                                         

16. William Tyler – Impossible Truth                                                   

17. Julia Holter – Loud City Song                                                        

18. Fuzz – S/T

19. Bill Callahan – Dream River    

20. DJ Rashad – Double Cup         

21. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

22. James Blake – Overgrown                       

23. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

24. Arcade Fire – Reflektor                                 

25. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap                                                           

26. Yo La Tengo – Fade                             

27. Jonwayne – Rap Album One

28. Drake – Nothing Was the Same            

29. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe                                            

30. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name                                                                             

31. Darkstar – News from Nowhere              

32. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

33. Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind            

34. Forest Swords – Engravings             

35. Kal Marks – Life Is Murder                                                            

36. Quasi – Mole City

37. The Flaming Lips – The Terror / Peace Sword EP             

38. Atoms for Peace – AMOK                                                                 

39. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

40. The Blow – S/T                                                             

Top Tracks of 2013

David Bowie - Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA) (The Next Day Extra)

Daft Punk - Get Lucky (Random Access Memories)

Phosphorescent - Song for Zula (Muchacho)

Disclosure - White Noise (Settle)

Drake - Hold On, We’re Going Home (Nothing Was the Same)

Kurt Vile - Waking On a Pretty Day (Waking On a Pretty Daze)

Cate Le Bon - Are You With Me Now? (Mug Museum)

Arcade Fire - Reflektor (Reflektor)

James Blake - Retrograde (Overgrown)

FKA Twigs - Water Me (EP2)

Autre Ne Veut - Ego Free Sex Free (Anxiety)

Cass McCombs - Brighter! (Big Wheel and Others)

Dutch Uncles - Flexxin (Out of Touch in the Wild)

Kanye West - Black Skinhead (Yeezus)

Holy Ghost! - Dumb Disco Ideas (Dynamics)

Blood Orange - It Is What It Is (Cupid Deluxe)

The National - Pink Rabbits (Trouble Will Find Me)

Mount Kimbie - You Took Your Time (Feat. King Krule) (Cold Spring Fault Less Youth)

Deerhunter - T.H.M (Monomania)

Foxygen - San Francisco (We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic)

Baths - Miasma Sky (Obsidian)

Wild Nothing - A Dancing Shell (Empty Estate)

White Fence - To The Boy I Jumped In Hemlock Alley (Cyclops Reap)

DJ Koze - Nices Wölkchen (Amydala)

Shy Girls - Under Attack (Timeshare)

Jessy Lanza - Keep Moving (Pull My Hair Back)

Jonwayne - The Come Up Pt. 2 (Rap Album One)

Darkstar - A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work (News From Nowhere)

DJ Rashad - Show U How (Ft. Spinn) (Double Cup)

Pusha T - Numbers On the Boards (My Name Is My Name)

Jon Hopkins - Open Eye Signal (Immunity)

Chromatics - Cherry (After Dark 2)

Beck - Gimme (“Gimme” Single)

Toro Y Moi - So Many Details (Anything In Return)

White Denim - At Night In Dreams (Corsicana Lemonade)

Fuzz - Fuzz’s Fourth Dream (This Time I Got a Reason b/w Fuzz’s Fourth Dream)

Yo La Tengo - Cornelia and Jane (Fade)

The Woolen Men - Submission (S/T)

Quasi - See You On Mars (Mole City)

Steve Gunn - Lurker (Time Off)

My Bloody Valentine - Who Sees You (m b v)*

Chance the Rapper - Juice (Acid Rap)*

Atoms for Peace - Ingenue (AMOK)*

*Not on Spotify playlist

Spotify Playlist: Top Tracks of 2013

January 31, 2013
"When I write the songs, I never think about the other end. I’m just sitting there, desperate to connect. And when you get frustrated you want to tantrum into the music. What I really want to do is write songs that I think are great, and I still don’t think I’ve ever really done that. That’s something I’m really hard on myself with. Considering the amount of time and love that I put into trying to write songs, and the fact that I haven’t come up with a really amazing one, it makes me think I really must suck! It’s insane. I want to know what field I would have been better at, that wouldn’t have taken so much time, or been as fruitless."

— Marnie Stern in a really entertaining interview about her songwriting. I think it’s inevitable that every songwriter feels something along these lines. Powering through it is the difficult part.

December 20, 2012
2012 Year-End Lists

Every time I make one of these lists, I want so desperately to claim that it was a great year in music, and 2012 is no exception. I was blown away by a lot of records I heard this year. But every year it gets harder to put together my list without feeling completely overwhelmed. The sheer amount of music being released that’s worth listening to is just unreal. It’s hard to even comprehend. The number of records I’ve listened to over the past year is so miniscule compared to the huge expanse of forward-thinking records floating around on Bandcamp pages that I won’t ever visit. I suppose 2012 was the year I came to terms with my relative insignificance in an enormous musical universe.

Here’s what I can say about what I listened to in 2012: it was a fascinating year. It was a year that delivered releases from huge flagship indie rock bands, some of which fulfilled their promise (Shields, Lonerism), and others that fell somewhat flat but were good nonetheless (Centipede Hz, Bloom). It was also a fine year for mainstream rap. Not only did we get an indisputable classic in the genre (Good Kid, m.A.A.d City), but Killer Mike and El-P turned in one of the most relevant, playful and aggressive rap albums in recent memory (R.A.P. Music). San Francisco’s garage rock renaissance proved it’s not just a flash in the pan, with Ty Segall churning out not one, not two, but three gloriously fuzzy records (not to mention excellent releases from Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps and White Fence). We also got some seriously underrated electronic albums from big names like Flying Lotus, Daphni, Actress and Burial.

The most important records for me over the last year—the ones that never really left my rotation—were those that challenged me with the honesty of their songwriting. Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan is one worth mentioning. I was really touched to hear a band with such experimental pedigree turning around and making a record that, while less compositionally adventurous than their earlier output, is brimming with honest-to-goodness love songs. Lambchop’s Mr. M rattled me to my core and helped me realize how minimalism can breathe new life into country music. But the record that cast a shadow over my entire year and dominated my headphones, car stereo and turntable, was Father John Misty’s Fear Fun. Dolorean’s Al James wrote a fabulous essay on why, at least from a songwriting perspective, this album is so important. I couldn’t agree with him more. Fear Fun is a challenging, cohesive and rewarding listen that never loses its sense of humor or purpose.

I can’t summarize this year without rambling more, so here are my top 40 records and songs of 2012. Thanks for reading.

My Top Albums of 2012

1. Father John Misty - Fear Fun

2. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

3. Lambchop - Mr. M

4. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d City

5. Tame Impala - Lonerism

6. Grizzly Bear - Shields

7. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

8. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

9. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…

10. Mac DeMarco - 2

11. Lower Dens - Nootropics

12. Ty Segall - Slaughterhouse / Twins

13. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa

14. Actress - R.I.P.

15. Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes

16. Dan Deacon - America

17. Burial - Kindred

18. The xx - Coexist

19. Matthew E. White - Big Inner

20. Liars - WIXIW

21. Thee Oh Sees - Putrifiers II

22. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes

23. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

24. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself / Hands of Glory

25. Moonface - With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery

26. Field Music - Plumb

27. Death Grips - The Money Store

28. Mount Eerie - Clear Moon / Ocean Roar

29. Animal Collective - Centipede Hz

30. Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves

31. Menomena - Moms

32. Wild Nothing - Nocturne

33. Deep Time - S/T

34. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems

35. Daniel Rossen - Silent Hour/Golden Mile

36. Beach House - Bloom

37. Netherfriends - Middle America

38. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp

39. Broken Water - Tempest

40. Chris Cohen - Overgrown Path

Other Albums I Enjoyed

Au - Both Lights

Chromatics - Kill for Love

Daphni - Jiaolong

Daughn Gibson - All Hell

DIIV - Oshin

Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky

Godspeed! You Black Emperor - Halelujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend!

Grass Widow - Internal Logic

Grimes - Visions

John Talabot  - Fin

Julia Holter - Ekstasis

Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action At A Distance

Melody’s Echo Chamber - S/T


Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream

Pure Bathing Culture - S/T

Schoolboy Q - Habits and Contradictions

Scott Walker - Bisch Bosch

Sic Alps - S/T

Swans - The Seer

My Top Songs of 2012

Spotify Mix

MP3 Mix

1. Tame Impala - Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (Lonerism)

2. Usher - Climax (Looking 4 Myself)

3. Jai Paul - Jasmine (Jasmine Single)

4. Blur - Under the Westway (Under the Westway Single)

5. Kendrick Lamar - Backseat Freestyle (Good Kid, m.A.A.d City)

6. Trimbal - Confidence Boost (Harmonimix Remix) (Confidence Boost Single)

7. Ty Segall Band - Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart (Slaughterhouse)

8. Killer Mike - Southern Fried (R.A.P. Music)

9. Daphni - Yes, I Know (Jiaolong)

10. Grizzly Bear - Yet Again (Shields)

11. Pure Bathing Culture - Lucky One (S/T EP)

12. Dirty Projectors - About to Die (Swing Lo Magellan)

13. Twin Shadow - Five Seconds (Confess)

14. The Shins - Simple Song (Port of Morrow)

15. Chromatics - Lady (Kill for Love)

16. Wild Nothing - Nocturne (Nocturne)

17. Mac DeMarco - Baby’s Wearing Blue Jeans (Rock & Roll Night Club)

18. Lotus Plaza - Monoliths (Spooky Action at a Distance)

19. Why? - Sod in the Seed (Sod in the Seed EP)

20. Hot Chip - How Do You Do? (In Our Heads)

21. Divine Fits - Like Ice Cream (A Thing Called Divine Fits)

22. DIIV - Doused (Oshin)

23. The Magnetic Fields - Quick! (Love at the Bottom of the Sea)

24. Au - Get Alive (Both Lights)

25. The Walkmen - Heaven (Heaven)

26. Liars - A Ring on Every Finger (WIXIW)

27. Animal Collective - Today’s Supernatural (Centipede Hz)

28. Deep Time - Clouds (S/T)

29. Father John Misty - This Is Sally Hatchet (Fear Fun)

30. Schoolboy Q - There He Go (Habits & Contradictions)

31. Bat for Lashes - Marilyn (The Haunted Man)

32. Fiona Apple - Werewolf (The Idler Wheel…)

33. Sharon Van Etten - Serpents (Tramp)

34. Melody’s Echo Chamber - Some Time Alone, Alone (S/T)

35. Japandroids - The House That Heaven Built (Celebration Rock)

36. Jacques Greene - Prism (Ready EP)

37. Four Tet - Lion (Jamie xx Remix) (Jupiters Single)

38. Susanne Sundfør - White Foxes (The Silicone Veil)

39. The Sea and Cake - Harps (Runner)

40. Toro Y Moi - Dead Pontoon (June 2009)

December 1, 2012
"If I work really hard on the lyric and get it right, then it will tell me whatever else to do, where to go. In that sense, I’m different from the way a lot of writers work, because there’s no way you can play it on guitar. [laughs] So I’ll start sketching it out right away. I have a very limited amount of presets, so I’ll think of what it should be, and when I get into the studio with the more sophisticated stuff, I’ll find that sound in my head. All the drum figures are more or less sketched out, the bass, the strings. Then we improve them and wait for accidents to happen."

— I’m impressed by how much emphasis legendary experimental musician Scott Walker places on lyricism. In this great Pitchfork interview, he essentially says his lyrics are a springboard for the recording process, and he views the musicians he brings in as “actors” intended to bring his vision to life based on his description.

November 14, 2012
The National Agenda

This 2010 profile of The National by Nicholas Dawidoff might be one of my favorite pieces of music writing.

November 9, 2012
"That’s what Berman was thinking about when he approached the front desk. “Give me the Al Gore Suite,” he demanded. He must’ve been a sight in the lobby of Nashville’s nicest hotel, overdosing on crack and pills. But he was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, and they gave him the room. Riding the elevator up to the eleventh floor, Berman laughed at the bellboy. “I want to die where the presidency died!” So he stumbled down the hall, opened the doors to the Al Gore Suite, and did just that."

I originally read “Dying in the Al Gore Suite,” Nick Weidenfeld’s brilliant profile of David Berman’s 2003 suicide attempt when I was an undergrad in Chicago. I was on a huge Silver Jews kick at the time, and I was still reeling from Berman’s incredible poetry collection, Actual Air. This is a piece of music writing that has stuck with me over the years, primarily because of how deeply personal it is. Weidenfeld does a great job at providing an intimate glimpse into Berman’s incredible mind. He’s still one of my favorite songwriters. I’m happy I was able to see him perform before he retired, and I hope he continues to write in any capacity. This piece isn’t online, but can be found in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2006 collection.

November 8, 2012

I’ve been enjoying using this blog as a place to write about the music and songwriters that resonate with me over the past couple months. Muddling through embryonic thoughts about a song in a blog post helps me develop a more fleshed out interpretation. I think it’s helping me articulate my observations and develop my critical instincts as a listener and writer. But I also feel like I’ve fallen into some analytical habits that I would like to get rid of. As I look back at my posts, I feel like I’m emulating and drifting in the direction of a lot of music blogger/rock journalism tropes that bug me when I see them used by others. Rock journalism has developed its own distinct vocabulary, and I think a lot of writers fall back on this safety net of vague descriptors that don’t really say much about the music and depend a lot on meaningless comparisons. Songwriting is an intensely personal thing, and many writers and music critics attempt to scrutinize songs by picking them apart and suggesting they’ve found exactly what the songwriter was intending to communicate. Needless to say, I’m guilty of doing all of these things on this blog at one point or another. What I want to do is establish some goals and constraints for my writing here that steer me away from these habits. I’m hoping this helps me explore songs that impact me in a way that is meaningful to me, but respectful to the songwriter.

I guess the first step in doing this is to recognize that I know absolutely nothing about what a songwriter is trying to communicate. Anything beyond the literal meaning of the words is pure speculation and my own interpretation of their writing. But I do think there is value in this kind of analysis, and a listener’s critical interpretations can actually help reframe a song in a way that is valuable to the reader and the songwriter themselves. The listener’s reaction is just as important as the songwriter’s intent—both sides just need to be respectful in how they express it. In other words, I don’t want to downplay the validity of listener interpretation. It’s crucial.

I’ve written songs before that consisted of hastily cobbled together ideas and feelings, as well as words that were formed just because a certain vowel or syncopation matched with a chord progression. I didn’t place a lot of stock into what the listener would take from it because I was just trying to finish writing the song. There have been a couple times when I’ve shown these songs to friends in their early stages, and they’ve reacted by providing their own interpretation of what I meant in a specific lyric. This happened to me recently, and while my friend’s interpretation of the line was not what I was trying to communicate, it was definitely something that I felt. It was honest, and I remember thinking there was some truth to it. It was a cool moment in which the listener helped inform what my own song meant to me.

The song that got me thinking about all this is from one of my favorite records of this year, Damien Jurado’s Maraquopa. Recorded by Richard Swift at his National Freedom Studios in Cottage Grove, Oregon, this elegant record is stacked with the kind of gorgeous folk songs that I tend to gravitate to when the leaves have fallen and I have to scrape the ice off my windshield before going to work. “Working Titles” runs a gamut of subject matter, but the two opening lines of the song stick with me. “You could mess up my life in a poem / Have me divorced by the end of the chorus / There’s no need to change any sentence / When you always decide where I go next / Many nights you would hide from the audience / When they were not in tune with your progress / In the end you are just like the journalist / Who turns what you sing into business.” What an amazing set of lyrics. To me, this is all about meddling and misinterpretation. And the funny thing about it is that my interpretation could be completely off base.

From here on out, I’m going to be very explicit about the fact that these are simply my interpretations of the songs I’m writing about. I’m also going to start branching out from analyzing songs, and post links to rock journalism that I feel is positive, respectful to the artist, and innovative. Hopefully I’ll be able to explain why I think that.

As a final thought, I love how Jurado tapers this song off with a sad, beautiful and melodic refrain. It’s one of the most memorable moments on the record for me.

November 6, 2012

Although my Spotify subscription has relegated my iPod Classic to the dusty corner of a drawer on my bedside table, I often enjoy the opportunity break it out and listen to older albums. For me, the entire experience of listening to music on the iPod seems more immediate and tangible than streaming it on Spotify. I realize this is kind of meta-commentary on the whole physical vs. digital media distinction, but it has definitely impacted the way I interact with and consume music. There’s something really nice about scrolling through a library of albums (like thumbing through a vinyl collection), as opposed to typing an artist’s name into a search bar. I’m not going to go on about this because it’s a pretty overwrought subject that doesn’t really pertain to what I want to talk about in this post. What I’m trying to get at is that listening to music on an iPod can lead to rediscovering older albums and gleaning new interpretations from them. This happened over the weekend with what is in my opinion one of the most criminally underrated rock albums released in the last decade, Spoon’s Transference.

I think most critics would probably agree that Spoon never really made a bad album. Their discography is frighteningly consistent. Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga are considered the high points of their catalog, which is hard to argue with. But I think Transference outshines those albums in some pretty significant ways. One of the most impressive things about this band is their approach to studio experimentation. While Transference might not be the best indicator of Spoon’s recording genius, I would argue that it might be a high point in the caliber of Brit Daniel’s songwriting.

As I had this album on repeat over the weekend, I was struck by an emerging theme in my interpretation of this batch of songs. To me, this album is concerned with communication barriers. These are songs about trying to break through to someone and achieve some kind of meaningful connection when they are completely isolated. It’s about the frustration that comes with trying to communicate and show affection sincerely, but being completely shut off. And how does a normal person react to this? Dissatisfaction, exasperation, and in the case of Transference, liberation. These are heavy subjects to wade through, but Daniel manages to do so with an effortless sense of cool. This is the most honest and emotive he’s ever been on a Spoon record, and it’s also some of his sharpest songwriting.

Most of these songs exemplify this theme in one form or another. “Written in Revese” might be the most obvious instance, with Daniel lamenting “I’ve seen you blankly stare / and I wanna show you how I love you / but there’s nothing there.” These lyrical observations weave throughout each song on the album. Lights are turned off leaving the subject in the dark (“Out Go the Lights”), pieces of oneself are lost (“Got Nuffin’”), regression and the arrival of some major issues (“Trouble Comes Running”)—the list goes on. This is a cohesive collection of songs that all center on the same issues of communication and deterioration.

“Got Nuffin’” is the specific song I want to focus on in this post. I think this is the moment of liberation I referred to above. Daniel writes “When I can’t find a way to reach you my love / I’m just not the same / Just ain’t the same / When I know you’re watching out for me / I know what I’m knowing / I can see what matters / and I’ve got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows.” Sometimes people bury themselves in their own frustrations and insecurities, focusing all their awareness inward. This line is the realization that in order to communicate, you’ve gotta get out of your own head and engage in the world around you. Lose the loneliness, patterns, bitterness and hang-ups, start communicating and notice what matters.

October 14, 2012
"I have a macro approach. There’s people’s emotions, there’s their intellect, their experience, their creativity— all these different reactions people have to a recording situation. It’s my role to take stock of what’s going on and pull something articulate from chaos."

— Chris Taylor on Grizzly Bear’s recording process. I think this is much easier said than done, but certainly something to aspire for.

September 21, 2012

I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Father John Misty last night in Portland, and as stereotypical as it might sound, J Tillman’s performance felt like a religious experience. If I did a mental inventory of the records from this year that have truly meant something to me, Fear Fun is definitely at the top of the list. Dolorean’s Al James (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) sang the record’s praises earlier this year much more eloquently than I ever could, but I figured I would take a stab at articulating why this album means so much to me, and how it has changed the way I write songs and think about music.

"Every Man Needs A Companion" closes out Fear Fun in an astonishingly fitting fashion. J kicked off his encore last night with this honest song brimming with complex lyrical turns. He prefaced it by saying "Now I’m gonna play my sappiest song." Indeed, "Companion" is the closest thing resembling a traditional love song on Fear Fun (possibly with the exception of "O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me"), but to leave it at that would be reductive. It is a summation of all the beautifully fucked up terrain the album has tumbled through over the course of the previous 11 tracks. It is a cathartic epilogue underpinned by one of the most lyrically earnest and sincere moments on the album. "Companion" addresses almost every major lyrical theme Tillman fixates on—religion, yearning for youth, debauchery, rock and roll, mythology, the meaninglessness of a name, the Don Draper-esque notion that anyone can wipe their slate clean and be reborn—and ties it all off in a wistful, fatigued, melancholy exhale.

The primary way Fear Fun has inspired my own songwriting is Tillman’s approach to lyrical and conceptual esotericism. A song like “Tee Pees 1-12” could easily be interpreted as nonsensical babbling over a barn burner of a 70’s country rock song. In fact, it seems like that on the surface. But he’s somehow able to find a way to embed profound meaning into the nonsense he’s spouting, and the whole track comes across as the euphoric ramblings of someone deeply in love and deeply confused. I hope that in my future songs, I am able to synthesize opaque lyrics with actual honesty and meaning.

I’m not going to pretend I definitively understand what Tillman means or feels on this album, because no matter how clearly a song articulates a feeling, I think the listener inevitably injects a little part of their own experience and persona into it. But I can certainly say I’m inspired by Tillman’s ability to write sincere, playful, funny, seemingly nonsensical yet honest songs. I feel like that’s something practically every songwriter should strive for.

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