My fellow hindsighters,
Don’t get me started on what I left off my lists. Just like James Brown, I have regrets—and they began surfacing almost the minute my beloved editor Jacob pressed publish on my Top 15. (Already, I was pushing the envelope; who gets 15 choices at year’s end? This whiny baby, that’s who.) That afternoon, I got in my car and let the Bluetooth randomly sync, and my phone immediately began mocking me: All it would play was TV on the Radio’s Seeds, a November release that I omitted, but which I’m now realizing did everything I wanted an album to do in 2014. The first release for the heroic indie rockers since the 2011 death of bassist Gerard Smith, it’s a reckoning with impermanence, but also a huge rejuvenation. The songs crackle and spark with danceable beats and catchy New Wave choruses, showing this most multifarious bunch of collaborators pooling resources to make hits for an imagined, utopian Afropunk Top 40. Those choruses! That urge to swing my arms around wildly while rocking to “Lazerray”! For sheer pleasure, Seeds is my current go-to listen, and I bet I’ll still be cursing myself for leaving it on the side when next year’s list-making season comes around.
That’s only the beginning. On my desk I have a teetering pile of albums I only got around to really absorbing in the first frantic week of December, when it felt too late to mess with the groupings I’d constructed after so much agony. From the top: Sean Rowe’s carnivalesque soul album Madman. The sweet, perfectly seasoned blues of Ruthie Foster on Promise of a Brand New Day (produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, who also put out a fantastic album this year). Jennifer Castle’s mysterious Pink City, which I know Carl also loves, and which comes close to my favorite Jane Siberry albums for magical-realist enrapturement. Curve and Shake, by my lifelong favorite Walter Salas-Humara, a subtle rocker that offers some of the sharpest sideways insights I’ve heard in a while. Viper’s Drag, the utterly winning omnibus of early 20th-century jazz classics from New Orleans singer/pianist Henry Butler and New York trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein. Another return after too long, Seven Dials by Aztec Camera main man Roddy Frame: just lovely, pristine, shimmering guitar pop. A debut that should be at the top of the charts, it gives Katy Perry such a run for her money: Secret Evil by Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. The extraordinary, genre-exploding Terminals by drummer Bobby Previte and his mind-boggling bunch of collaborators. Another group effort, Map to the Treasure, in which the pianist Billy Childs coaxes top-shelf performances from singers like Renée Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, and Lisa Fischer in honor of the groundbreaking songwriter-performer Laura Nyro. Humanoid Void by Hightek Lowlives, a young Seattle soul-psych project that anyone who digs Janelle Monáe needs to know about.
Hey … it’s an alternate Top 10! And this list is seriously just what I’d put aside throughout the year, the way we critics do, vowing that we’ll get to it just as soon as we’re done weighing in on the latest Jay-and-Bey related controversy.
Pot, meet kettle, right? You all know that I consider celebrity culture a veritable rainforest of rich texts, deserving of ongoing serious consideration. Maybe my favorite self-penned piece this year was about Iggy Azalea, among others. I crave ambitious writing on the mainstream like Carl’s contemplation of Tay’s metaphorical midriff and Lindsay’s analysis of 1D and Nick J all grown-up. And I’m especially thrilled that so many women are writing about mainstream music now, in confrontational, deeply self-reflective, historically informed ways. (Check out this embarrassment of riches on The Pinkprint alone.) The conversation is unprecedented.
But there’s this problem of time. Listening requires it, especially deep listening, as the composer Pauline Oliveros definitively described it: encountering the whole time-space continuum of sound. Applied to the pop critic’s job, deep listening means immersing in music as it moves you through a particular hour or environment, really relaxing into it, so that it can change your consciousness for a short duration. To be less New Age-y about it, deep listening involves taking something in without worrying about what it means—what it reflects—until after you’ve fully absorbed it.
We critics aren’t rewarded for this kind of receptiveness. The ping-pong game of social media demands instant judgments and contextualization; we screengrab sounds, pin them down, and squeeze them into retweetable bon mots. Plenty has been written about how being online is restructuring our brains, and I’m not here to yell some jeremiad about the need to disconnect. I live in a relatively small town far from many of my loved ones and peers, and honestly, without being wired, I’d suffer a death of imagination. But I know for myself, 2014 made me feel burnt out when the din around those few big names we’ve already discussed grew too loud. I needed to walk away, make a space, contemplate something … smaller? Or simply big in a different way?
One inarguably huge work that makes space for thought is John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, an orchestral work that I was blessed to see in its Seattle Symphony debut in 2013. My date for that astounding evening, Alex Ross, wrote of the piece that “it may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.” Adams, who lives in Alaska, writes works shaped by the humbling landscape that, for him, is a backyard view. (Have you been to Alaska? It’s mind-blowing.) They have a political side, bringing to mind environmental issues like the rising tide of climate change. But mostly, they’re simply, unreservedly sublime. A recording of Become Ocean by the Seattle Symphony was released this fall; spend some time with it if you haven’t. I turn to it, not when I need a break exactly—it’s too consuming, too disturbing and ecstatic and shiveringly pleasurable. I think I turn to it when I need to remember what time is, what it offers when I let it lead.
What are your balms when the data flow overwhelms? How do you turn your ears into renewed organisms? I’d love some other recommendations for deep listening as we move toward another year of bouncing off each other via the Interwebs.