A bit of a warning—I am not capable of creating a best-of list. I have missed too much of the music released in this past year. I have barely made time to listen to what I have bought. And I am no fan of the role such lists play as promotional vehicles, geared as they so often are to accelerating the sales of releases before they disappear beneath the onslaught of next year’s offerings. Instead, I have tried to give you a sense of musical moments from the past year that managed to demand my attention and that compelled me to listen several times—music that gave me something I need.
What seems consistent about these moments is their deceptive cadence quality. I do not mean the technical musical term precisely (not simply a V-vi chord change) but more of the metaphorical quality that the technical term gestures towards. This has been a year of false endings, of final firm stances that turned into embarrassing retreats, of the end of everything and the beginning of nothing resulting in no real change at all. The music that worked for me this year made sense out of that feeling of deceptive cadence, making it possible to live in this year’s suspended moment of obscurity.
Most of these moments consist of music released in the 2013. But not all of them are. In fact, the first item is not music at all, but a brief critique of the current state of commentary that had me nodding along to its inaudible exactness.
So, before the music, a prelude:
n+1, “Against the Rage Machine”. I read it in print, in their issue #14 Good News (Winter, 2014). It captures the exhaustion I feel every time I open my Facebook feed, every time I look at my Twitter home, every time I open my email to “Guess what the RIGHT WING WANTS NOW!” fundraising pleas. I feel so emptied out by all of this. I no longer want to be a citizen of this world. I don’t want to retreat into a hole, either. But I need some armor to protect me from this flood of demands I cannot satisfy. More and more, this longing for protective covering has been the motivator for my musical listening.
War Requiem, by Benjamin Britten
Live recording from Coventry Cathedral featuring Erin Wall, Mark Padmore, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus.
On November 3, I was sitting in a hotel in Munich, coordinating Skype calls back to the States. It was my birthday, and I had just completed a week of conference talks and intense intellectual exchange. Finishing up one call and waiting for the next, I tuned the television to the Arte channel. Emerging from the background, the overall sound hit me first, as it always does. Initially so quiet that it could have been anything, it slowly grew tendrils of conflicting harmonies, intertwining firmly muted voices, orchestral strings, horns and percussion, following the intentional gestures of a sweating conductor, building a musical architecture of loss. Then I recognized the Coventry Cathedral, one of the few monuments deserving of the term, redesigned and rebuilt to keep war’s destruction at the forefront of the worshiper’s consciousness. Britten, in Coventry. Sitting in Munich, I closed the lid of my laptop.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Driving to Cleveland for the Midwest chapter of last year’s Pop Con, this 2 CD set—largely absent of standard song forms but filled with twisted chanting vocals, the flap of detuned drumheads, sounds that might be voices and might be squeaking hinges, interrupted beats, partially erased timbres and empty minutes—gave me the momentary illusion that we can indeed feel-think our way out of this mess we have made. Maybe we are smart enough. Maybe we are creative enough. Maybe we are sensitive enough. A couple of days later, I listened again while reading the comics that came with the discs. Once the illusion that we might escape our fate was shattered, I loved this record even more.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
An album of astoundingly precise observations of emotional dependence and vulnerability. Case matches her lyrical accuracy to almost traditional drum/bass/guitar arrangements that leave enough room to allow their complex feelings to release fully. Mothers attack their children. Lovers ignore increasingly desperate signs. This happens everyday. “All of us lie about something.” The echoing “no, no, no” of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” creates a haunting that frames Case’s cover of that other Nico’s “Afraid.” Those regrets you wake up with at 2 am? Here they are. Despite all the betrayals and hurt, however, Case knows we still need each other.
Juana Molina, Wed 21
Not everyone in the world is depressed. Really. Sometimes heavily reverbed vocals and empty spaces shaped by humming strings, synthesized bells, and guitar chords hit in 7/4 time signal joy and celebrate the quiet ferocity of a rising future. Even melodic lines that shade into dissonant drones can be used to expand the sense of the possible. Dancing becomes an option again—if you really feel like it. Molina doesn’t force anyone to join her. There could be unforeseen consequences. Quite probably the world will look different by the time the dance ends. But the open invitation is nearly impossible to decline.
Rokia Traoré, Beautiful Africa
I listened to a lot of music from Mali in the past year. Writing about Tinariwen, I studied their catalogue and worked my way through the repertoire of several other Tuareg bands. I read obsessively about the civil war in this country, in large part because the fundamental conflict between Bamako and Timbuktu (more or less) seemed both irresolvable and eventually beside the point. Warriors with entirely different agendas swept through the dry desert in the northeastern part of the country and imposed a discipline foreign to almost all who lived there. There was no easy listening for the political in this context. War destroys communities, flattens homes, kills and cripples people, institutions, and traditions. In war there are no heroes, only killers. The great celebration of Malian music, the Festival au Desert, was cancelled. Tinariwen did not release a record. Instead they spent the year touring the US, Europe, and the UK, earning hard cash that was nearly impossible to find at home. Rokia Traoré’s record emerges from this context with unromantic passion. Recorded in the UK but firmly rooted in the sounds of southwestern Mali (Bamako), Beautiful Africa captures the sensibility of a nation torn by war yet not defined by it. Nothing is simple on this recording. Guitar ostinatos decorate the edges of songs with an intensity that forces the listener to recognize the need for beauty as a survival mechanism. Traoré sings with a quiet power that must not be mistaken as some mystical ability to endure but instead is a hard-crafted carefully forged weapon of musical beauty.
Bill Callahan, Dream River
Callahan is another musician who knows how to use minimal angular lines articulated by smoothly toned traditional instruments to create a three dimensional frame for unspoken implications. Economy. Care. Intuition. Musicality. Creating a place where you can calmly admit, “The only words I have said today are beer… and thank you.” I love the sound a flute makes isolated amidst guitars, keyboards and hand drums. I think Bill Callahan breathes inside the armor that I seek.
A final word on the center of the musical universe. I did listen a lot to Kanye’s Yeezus. And I loved the way that “Get Lucky” ruled the summer. I’m happy that Pharrell had the amazing year he had. And I bow down to her majesty, Queen Beyoncé. I’m confident that other contributors will share insights about their work. But their cadences are not deceptive. They seem to know where their home is. As for me, I am old Father William, standing on my head, unsure as to whether or not it is right.
Barry Shank pursues research in the political agency of music, commercial popular culture and cultural history. His books include A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (Columbia University Press, 2004), Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), The Popular Music Studies Reader (Routledge, 2005) (edited with Andy Bennett and Jason Toynbee), and American Studies: A New Anthology (Wiley/Blackwell, 2009) (edited with Janice Radway, Kevin Gaines and Penny Von Eschen). He has published in such journals as American Studies, boundary 2, and Radical History Review, and he has served on the editorial boards of American Quarterly and Popular Music. His current book project is The Political Force of Musical Beauty, forthcoming from Duke University Press.