The Year in Music

Northern Lights
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 22 2006 6:12 AM

The Year in Music

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Hi again, clubhouse gang,

If nothing else this week, as Jon noticed, going by readers' comments in the Fray, we've given a shot of ground rhino horn to the public's collective hate-on for music critics. One minute, we're celebrating the apparent death of rockism and its rigid, artificial distinctions; the next, someone is saying (I paraphrase), "Clearly they have no interest in real artists who write their own songs."

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It's healthy that we're available for bashing—just as Nickelback does the culture a service by providing, in these fractious times, a common enemy against whom to unite. If I had a dollar for every conversation I had this year that included a Nickelback joke, perhaps I could buy back my country's sullied reputation.

But still, Canada had a fine year. With Nelly Furtado, we actually eked out a couple of nonhumiliating pop songs that charted internationally. That's never really been the country's specialty. As a second-banana republic, we excel at bedroom-poet eccentricity—our postage-stamp saints are Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. (Who, speaking of political songs, Jody, spent 2006 putting his adopted American identity to good use. The succinct opener, "Let's impeach the president for lying," is one sound clip I'll carry away to help sum up this year.)

Their heirs are apparent in the likes of Vancouver's Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, who, after years of unheralded masterpieces, broke through to a wider audience with his opus, Destroyer's Rubies. He also made a "supergroup" album—a form he knows well, as a guest member of the New Pornographers—as Swan Lake, with his fellow Pacific Northwest visionaries Spencer Krug (of Wolf Parade and the promising Sunset Rubdown), and Carey Mercer (of Frog Eyes, whose forthcoming record is one to track in 2007).

Both albums, but Destroyer's Rubies especially, are like particle accelerators, bombarding their subjects (from romantic nostalgia to the status hierarchies of contemporary art) at every turn with polymorphous rhetoric, while never settling into a single point of view. Along the way, Bejar throws out musical references ("Have I told you lately that I love you?/ Have I failed to mention there's a sword hanging above you?/ Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd/ I cast off these couplets in honor of the void") as well as casually indelible licks and melodies, as if they were accidental byproducts of the mental friction and speed.

This is the game Dylan invented in the mid-1960s. Bejar even has parallels as a singer, with limited pipes but meticulous, detailed intelligence as an interpreter, twisting the sounds of words to suit his cross-purposes. Like a great rapper, he's got tremendous, albeit perverse, flow. That's a quality I prize about Joanna Newsom's recitative style on Ys, too, and one way to get past knee-jerk reactions to both voices. (It's not true of many of the other indie-rock "yelpers," whose mysteriously panicked stylings make me worry, "Exactly how desperate are these times?")

When I listen to Destroyer, I'm hearing one of the few people ever to have the nerve not only to borrow those Dylanesque techniques, but to keep advancing them as if his life depended on it. I'm afraid that's not what I get when I listen to Dylan's own Modern Times, a lovely but wool-gathering set of saloon-crooning numbers elevated by their welcome sense of humor. All I feel at stake there is the 21st-century Bob's campaign to consolidate his legacy, of a piece with 2001's (far better) Love and Theft, his 2005 memoir, and the Scorsese documentary ... oh, and his new XM satellite show, Theme Time Radio Hour, which was actually Dylan's greatest contribution to 2006—go scour those file services for bootlegs.

In honoring what Canada does well, the big step this year was the Polaris Music Prize, designed as our answer to the Mercury in the U.K. I had the honor of sitting on the final jury, which, in a surprise upset (in a field that included Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, Quebec's Malajube, and Canada's best new hip-hop artist, Edmonton's Cadence Weapon), went for a violin-playing savant named Owen Pallett, who records as Final Fantasy. He's better known as a part-time member and string arranger for the Arcade Fire (yes, we do band together here), but Owen's solo work is extraordinary.

Like Newsom, description doesn't do him justice: He's classically trained, his new album is called He Poos Clouds, it prominently features harpsichord and a string quartet, and it's loosely based on the schools of magic in Dungeons and Dragons. But what emerges is not some geek-intellectual exercise, but a tragi-comic exploration of magic as a metaphor for emotional experiences in everyday life, of family and death and real estate and unrequited longings, in combinations of inspired rawness and sophisticated music that would make Sufjan Stevens go sulking home to his pastor.

Pallett has shared stages with one of my proudest discoveries of the year, Toronto's Laura Barrett, whose Christmas-themed Robot Ponies got the nod from critic Douglas Wolk this week in the PaperThinWalls.com year-end wrap-up. Barrett plays the kalimba (African thumb piano) and, like Pallett, writes impossibly imaginative songs informed by the sensibilities of video games and instant messaging, and she will break your heart. Newsom fans owe it to themselves to watch for her debut full-length in 2007.

Pallett's also donated much of his $20,000 Polaris prize to his fellow members of the aforementioned Blocks Recording Club, an indie label structured as a workers' co-op that is poised to put out a half-dozen killer albums in 2007. Blocks is part of a "think locally" answer to the problem of indie music now—with the dimming of the old music-industry model, indie has morphed into its own industry and has no particular spine but self-importance, no ideology but smug superiority, which is served by the alt-business model of MP3 blogs. That's why my best live experiences in the past several years happened in abandoned warehouses, grassroots festivals, and people's living rooms, where the profit and/or buzz-status models were way off the table, and something about the idea of music for its own sake was rescued. That's an aspect of the geographic diversification of rap that, for all its many benefits, I mourn: As "Houston" becomes a recognized idiom, it is less and less Houston in itself.

That's one sense of the embodied politics I've mentioned. Another is incarnated in my second-favorite record of the year (my whole list is on my Web site), which is Matmos' The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast. Here's a San Francisco duo, better known as collaborators with Björk, who take electronic music back to the physical level, paying tribute to a series of intellectual heroes by using sampling as a form of fetishization, so that gay disco pioneer Larry Levan is toasted with a dance-mix concoction of sequins, while late punk idol Darby Crash (subject of an upcoming biopic) gets his due with a track that's built on the sound of a cigarette burning flesh (in homage to the notorious "Germs burn") and the buzz of clippers shaving someone's head. It's all made more than a parlor game by their sharp ears for rhythm and texture, which transform their experimentalism into a series of notions under a groove. In keeping with their art-world roots, it's also one of the most sumptuously beautiful packages to hold in your hand of any CD in 2006, which has always been a major reason to buy records, even if you can't easily roll a joint on it.

I'll close by noting one political record I don't think anyone has heard as such: Howe Gelb's 'Sno Angel Like You, which the Arizona-based alt-rock veteran (head of Giant Sand and progenitor of Calexico) recorded with—surprise!—Canadian artists in Ottawa, including the Voices of Praise gospel choir. Rather than the language of protest, Gelb turns to a mode of introspection that is transformed by the choral background into a kind of revival meeting for secular people at risk in an era of falsehood and despair. The meld is uncanny, much more a realization of the mashup sensibility than anything on the Girl Talk album, which, like DJ Danger Mouse's place in Gnarls Barkley, feels like an old party trick compared to the revelations of true cultural collageists (look up DJ/rupture). Surely, the mashup is about leveling barriers rather than nudging and winking at the familiar. It needs to be the same useful myth we were told by 2006's genre blur: that technology fails if it becomes a way to shore up our differences and rides around shining when it is a hot link to the better angels of our nature.

Jon, Ann, and Jody, it's been an enormous privilege to share a pew with angels like you this holiday season, and I hope all the promise of 2006, not just musically but in every way, finds a voice to sing to you in the coming year.

Carl

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