(Some of) The Music that Devastated Me This Decade

(h/t to Oskar Blues for this sign)

End of decades only come every ten years (look it up), and should inspire reflection, rededication to personal goals, conciliation, and, hopefully, proper perspective, including the fact that, no matter how challenging things can get, it’s better to be around and making new year’s resolutions that won’t last a month.

I learned many things this past decade: about the world, about myself, about how to accommodate the things you learn (too late) to fully appreciate or implement. I’ve learned to continue trying to accept the things I can’t change, including the fact that, obviously, we’re killing the environment, everything causes cancer, and an alarming percentage of white people decided to double down on being douchey. Everything sucks and nothing’s ever been better (look it up). Half of our country can’t wait to party like it’s 1959 (or, heaven forbid, 1919); the other half hopes cancel culture, enculturation, and inevitability will accelerate our intellectual, moral, and spiritual capacities a century or three.

In other words, everything is different and nothing has changed.

Politicians continued to politician, racists continued to rage, idiots continued to vote Republican, and –thankfully– artists continued making art. Same as it was last decade; same as it shall be until we lose our capacity for delight and wonder, which hopefully will only happen once the sun finally explodes us into stardust.

But mostly, it’s all about the music.

In closing, a few celebratory words about the ways the music industry has changed, for the better.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that music today, by virtue of so many streamed services catering to every taste, can be cataloged according to specific genre and style. One problem, of course, is that music is increasingly roped into predetermined corners, and increasingly created with these considerations in mind.If the shift from analog to digital has, among many other things, undeniably democratized content and the ways it is created, distributed, and consumed (music signaled the first revolution, closely followed by the book publishing industry), we should celebrate that — despite the info overload it ensures — more artists can avoid gatekeepers and fly their freak flags for more of us to discover and enjoy. More musicians can — and do — bring colleagues together to record, without the agendas or idiocy of corporate middlemen. This is good for artists and it’s great for fans. Of course, the implicit message here is that we should feel obliged to support these notes from the underground any way possible, including — and especially — with our wallets.

As James Brown would say, “Can I kick this off?”

Orlando Juluis (with the Heliocentrics), “Buje Buje.”

The Heliocentrics, “Made of the Sun.”

Speaking of The Heliocentrics, what more could (should) I say than that they are far and away my favorite band of the last decade: pound for pound, tune for tune, it’s not even close. I implore you to check them out. Hear me now and believe me later (and then believe your own blissed-out ears).

(Think I’m kidding about The Heliocentrics? Does your soul need a jump start? Check THIS shit out.)

The Budos Band, “Nature’s Wrath.” (My full review of this masterful album here.) About this song, I wrote “(it’s) an instant masterpiece: this dirge-like number sways and soars, sounding like a somber celebration that makes you want to dance and sob at the same time.”

The amazing Mulatu Astatke, “Radcliffe.” (I celebrated this album at the end of 2010; here’s a taste: “So…what does it sound like? World music, mood music, great music. It is definitely from another place and, perhaps, another time, with what some may call “exotic” instruments, but it is soothing, refreshing and some may even find it inspiring. And just in case that sounds too safe by half, there is also an air of James Bond theme music, only the action is on another continent and the dude too often typecast as the sidekick (or worse, the villain) turns out to be the hero. The way it’s supposed to be.”

Bill Frisell, “Reflections from the Moon.”

Beach House, “Lover of Mine.”

The Black Keys, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (Before they became The Black Keys of Leon (TM, Sean Murphy), these guys made music. (Incidentally, after doing remarkable covers on all of their albums (including an entire album dedicated to the late, great Junior Kimbrough) The Black Keys have irrefutably established themselves as the band who does the best covers, period. To have the cojones to attempt covering Jerry “The Iceman” Butler is impressive (this is the same band who has tackled The Beatles, The Kinks and Captain Beefheart); not surprisingly, they pull it off. (Check out the original here).

Lloyd Miller & Heliocentrics, “Bali Bronze.” From EASILY one of my favorite albums of the last decade. Full review here. A taste: “Not only reminiscent of Sun Ra, it’s reminiscent of peak Sun Ra, circa The Futuristic Sounds album (which, for anyone interested, is an ideal gateway to that wonderful and eccentric artist’s intimidating catalog). But that comparison is inadequate, because even Sun Ra, circa 1958, was incorporating Eastern sounds and rhythms into his Arkestra. Eventually those tapestries would grow larger, and longer and, for many ears, overwhelming. But from the mid-’50s until the early-to-mid-’60s his compositions were tight, focused and brimming with musical delights that –despite the bizarre persona he cultivated and encouraged– were very much of this world. All of which is to say it is probably more accurate to observe that Miller (and The Heliocentrics) are invoking similar sounds and motifs, from a more ancient-feeling place: far East passing through a syncopated prism of strings, flutes and percussion.”

Causa Sui, “Soledad.” If this track does it for you (and how could it not?) check out everything they’ve done, because it’s all good. (This is technically from late 2009, but I make the rules so I’ll break them.)

Opeth, “Marrow of the Earth.”

Mogwai, “Rano Pano.” (My obligatory “BUT THESE GO TO 11!” shout-out from the last decade. TURN IT UP.)

Garage a Trois, “Omar.” Full review of Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil here. (This too.) A taste: “I have a dream: If I could get some of what I envision, we would live in a world where peace, love, and understanding wasn’t funny. The Wall Street miscreants and the super-sized weasels enabling their machinations would be having a house party in the Big House. Reality TV would not be real, and Oprah Winfrey would be unable to infantilize millions of women looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places. A modicum of the bilious exhaust Rupert Murdoch spews would back-up and cause him to explode like a Spinal Tap drummer. Electric cars, solar panels, and science would be accepted (and venerated) the way billionaires, right-wing prophets, and camera-ready politicians are in our scared new world. A lot of other things, obviously, but not least of these that jazz musicians would get the attention American Idol contestants receive. In this right-side up society, Skerik would be a household name.”

Gary Clark, Jr. “Freight Train.”

Bonus GCJ: “Things Are Changing.” (and a lot more on him from my review, here.) A sampler: “If you have a chance to check him out live, do so. Like most of the better acts, especially in the jazz and blues circles, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future. For now, this latest, most welcome installment, will tide us over until he returns to make us believe, all over again.

Postscript: If this album entices anyone to check out Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King or, hell, Jimi Hendrix, Clark deserves extra accolades for being a brilliant ambassador for the legends whose torch he carries with style and pride.”

Curtis Harding, “As I Am.” Check this guy out and keep on checking and checking.

Michael Kiwanuka, “Hard to Say Goodbye.” If you take my advice on ONE thing, start here, savor his latest masterpiece, and work backward through his catalog.

Grizzly Bear, “Neighbors.” From my dark horse album of the decade; after loving their previous work, this album left me cold the first several listens (as so many memorable albums inexplicably do), and I’m grateful I was smart enough to reengage and let it work its magic.

Moses Sumney, “Self-Help Tape.” UNBELIEVABLE AND NOT OF THIS EARTH. This is the shit that makes you stop and celebrate, no matter how tough a day or week or year or decade you might be having, how miraculous it is to share the planet with such beauty. THIS IS EVERYTHING.

Christian Scott, “Ruler Rebel.” Deep and deeply beautiful.

Kamasi Washington, “Desire.” Check this out, check out all his work and catch him live if you can (saw him on a double-bill with Herbie Hancock this summer and it was bucket-list, life-changing stuff.)

New Zion Trio: all of it. I’ve written about this band, and Jamie Saft, and have even chatted with him about the shifting culture of art-making.

Zion 80, “Metatron.”

I’ve written a BUNCH about my boy Jon Madof and I can’t encourage you more strongly to check out every single thing he’s been involved with. Start here, go here, and definitely go here.

Bonus footage: one of the coolest and most gratifying experiences I had this past decade was improvising, in real time, in Brooklyn (!) with Jon. (He and I have also rapped about music and stuff.)

Aram Bajakian, “Medicaid Lullaby.”

Listen: Aram Bajakian made a lot of amazing music this decade, including two of my favorite albums (not just of the last ten years, either). My full review of Kef is here and my rapturous appraisal of there were flowers also in hell is here. A taste, which I offer with maximum urgency and love: “This is not jazz, nor is it necessarily rock or blues; it’s a reflection of the mind and soul of the man who made it, like all great art must be. As such, it is also a reflection of the frenzied times we live in: the turmoil, apathy and information overload, yet it prevails as an antidote for the very urgencies it addresses. The best instrumental albums are always soundtracks. They are soundtracks to the worlds they create, and his second album is the soundtrack of Aram Bajakian’s world, right now. We are witnessing the evolution of a significant talent, and we should anticipate important work from him for many years.”

Schizophonia, “B’rosh Hashonoh.”

My full review of this album here; my review of Pitom’s Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is here.

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues.” This album is a masterwork. My love letter to it is here. A teaser: “The lyrics and melodies attain (and remain at) elevated levels throughout, and as the album builds an impression similar to the debut –rich, ethereal, elegant– emerges. Only more so. Most of these songs are so fully and robustly developed they make much of the excellent first album (not to mention just about anything else on the scene these days) seem like sketches and snippets. Let’s just put it out there: even though comparisons (meant to compliment or take down a notch or three) have crept into the conversation, invoking heavy hitters like Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel and CSN, it is not easy to name many songs by any of these acts that combine the vocal and musical proficiency demonstrated on songs like “Bedouin Dress”, “Grown Ocean” or, especially “The Plains/Bitter Dancer”. If their influences are obvious, so too is the fact that they have incorporated these elements into the cultivation of a sound that is impossible to categorize.”

P.J. Harvey, “On Battleship Hill.” I love this woman; I love this album. If I made a top 10 list for the decade, this would be in the top 3. Here’s my full assessment of Let England Shake. A taste, below:

“On Battleship Hill” again invokes Gallipoli, albeit from the perspective of the present day. Naturally this calls to mind comparisons with current, controversial escapades that have left grieving widows and mind-boggling body counts. A whiff of thyme (a spice traditionally utilized in funerals for its pleasing scent and alleged spiritual properties) in the wind reminds the singer that “cruel nature has won again.” Commenting on the “caved-in trenches (and) jagged mountains…cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, Harvey once again uses the scarred land as an explicit reflection on the physical toll (on our countries; on our people) war inexorably extracts. The plodding pace of the song is like Nature itself: relentless, non-negotiable. After a propulsive introduction all sound ceases and it’s just Harvey’s voice: that siren wail, lustrous, fragile, immortal. Her voice, as those in the know can attest, is one of the miracles of modern music. Acquiescent and almost operatic, she sings out for the fallen soldiers, buried in the hard earth and rendered history by the unlucky circumstances of their ages and the age they lived in; the age we live in still. As the song spins itself out from the past into our possible future the doleful refrain “Cruel Nature has won again” is a requiem for our recklessness, which is unending as it is unnatural.

In the final analysis one is tempted to say that PJ Harvey has created a musical equivalent to Tim O’Brien’s celebrated collection The Things They Carried. Of course, being music, it’s different, and where O’Brien offers a first-hand account from the fields of fire, Harvey immersed herself in source material to give voice to people who never had a chance to account for themselves. Music and voices lend a solemn, ultimately beautiful import to words meant to shake and redeem.

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S. Eliot’s despondent narrator laments “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/I do not think they will sing to me.” On Let England Shake PJ Harvey has willed herself to become one of those mermaids, and this elegiac cycle of songs is her lone voice crying out to all those anonymous spirits. It is an act of witness and it is a call of defiance: against folly, against forgetting.

The Mattson 2, “Mexican Synth.” It would make me incredibly happy if a lot more people discovered these two, (twin brothers, incidentally) whom I discovered via this fantastic piece.

JEFF the Brotherhood, Live on KEXP (!!!!)

Khruangbin “Mr. White.”

Oh Sees, “Face Stabber.” (This album rules.)

Shall I continue?

For now, let’s leave it with an example of how music can take us to different times and places, and hope the next decade has more of all of this in store. How could it not?

Tinariwen, “Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim.”

P.S. We lost two legends of music this year.

RIP Ginger Baker. (My celebration of his life, via PopMatters, here.)

A complicated, brilliant man, Ginger Baker made it his business to make enemies. After eight decades and almost as many grudges under his belt as gigs played, it seems fair to conclude that his worst enemy was himself. With a capacity for self-destruction as epic as his musicianship, it’s difficult to believe he managed to make it to 80-years-old. Unless, one reckons, all that anger fueled and fortified the hot blood boiling his bilious heart. He was too angry to die.

Those in need of a deeper dive.

RIP Ric Ocasek (my full tribute from PopMatters, here.)

YES. YES! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So many pop musicians burn out or fade away, but even though the Cars didn’t end in 1984, the last cut on their last great album, Heartbeat City [Elektra, 1984] manages to do a slow burn and fade away. It’s the ideal coda for that album, that era, this band. Like all their best songs, it epitomizes the year it was made. It’s somehow ecstatic but cut with a tinge of melancholy. I first heard the title song while a teenager, caught in the crossfire of so many things beginning and ending, eager for the future and already nostalgic about what will never come again.

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