The Year in Music

Waking Up New
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 20 2006 10:49 AM

The Year in Music

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J-Car, A-Pow, and Lil Jo':

I became sure 2006 would be "the day the rockism died"—to trump Jody's list of lame anthems—the moment a brilliant young Torontonian who helps run one of the world's best indie labels told me what he was currently into: early Hall and Oates. (I'm setting aside their new Xmas album for him.)

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This is what SoulSeek, iTunes, and their kin have wrought. Along with the existing music industry, what's vanishing are the genre prejudices, sham distinctions between fake and real, and other myths that have been brain-sucking parasites on rock talk since the 1970s.

A decade ago, would you have found even two, let alone four critics in this kind of exchange who'd praise in the same breath an aesthete like Joanna Newsom, a sweaty popthlete like Justin Timberlake, and a whole lot of quick-witted make-believe drug dealers? Now anti-rockism writers reign at most credible publications. Even indie juggernaut Pitchfork has shed some blinders. It's the age of anything goes: When a blogger last spring joked that the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt would be collaborating with Snoop Dogg, I got e-mails from friends who couldn't wait to hear the track.

But Jon, I think this chat is showing that the anti-country sneers of blue-state rock critics are fading, too. If anything, it's alt-country that's now more prone to get spanked: Who talked about Richard Buckner's great 2006 album? The alt-twang 1990s traits, like genre fusion and intermittent class consciousness, have long since moseyed back into official Nashville, ever since 2004, the Year the MuzikMafia Broke. (This year, Willie Nelson teamed with alt-brat Ryan Adams on that album Jody loved, though I preferred Willie's Cindy Walker and Brokeback Mountain tributes.)

Granted, country is still hampered by regional and political barriers. Poor white Southerners remain one group you can slander freely—Michael Richards' N-bombs notwithstanding, "white trash" is a bit of hate speech never effectively reclaimed or defused. But now more of those kids listen to rap, and country has moved to the exurbs. That's a better explanation of its rise than the idea that it's turned into rock. Rock is in there, but so is bluegrass; country is more old-school than it was 10 years ago.

Either way, absorbing withered pop styles has been Nashville's game since forever. In the 1970s, they copped moves from 1950s crooners. Country's brand of escapism is permanently nostalgic; it doesn't jones for the novelty jolt that other pop styles do. Nashville evolves while pretending not to believe in it.

Then there's the equally stigmatized heavy metal. It was tracked as remedial hesher rock since its inception, with rare hall passes for overachievers like Metallica. Now the class average has shot up faster than an arpeggiated power solo. Has the phrase "hipster metal" ever been invoked as much as in 2006? Or at all? It may have started with artsy stompers such as Sunn0))), but the effect stretched from Ann's faves Mastodon (though I liked 2004's Leviathan more than the new Blood Mountain) to chart metal such as Lamb of God and even the outer reaches of grindcore.

And it ran both ways: Metal mag Decibel enshrined 63-year-old avant-crooner Scott Walker's harsh, but not exactly shredding, The Driftamong its top 30 extreme albums of the year ... right where it belongs. Metal and its spittin' cousin, hardcore, now blur into the big bouncy young noise underground, which may be the closest thing there is to a 1980s-style alternative scene, with its brash oppositional ethos (even inspiring a hoax marketing-ploy scandal early in the year).

Some credit also might go to John Darnielle, who's long stumped for metal as a critic— his current series "Thirty Short Poems About My Favorite Black Metal Band" deserves a Pulitzer—but is a beloved indie songwriter as the Mountain Goats. Then again, his latest album, Get Lonely, is his least thrashin' ever, a whispery coda to last year's landmark The Sunset Tree. (It does include my personal totem single of the year, Woke Up New, with which I stake my claim to out-wuss Jody.)

So mainly, metal can thank plastic and silicon for its head-banging good health.

So, as Jon asks, is there anything that really isn't on critics' collective playlist? Well, the aforementioned noise scene trades in volume in more ways than one—its CD-Rs, vinyl and cassettes come in avalanches we seldom bother to sift. Which may be their intention. I also see little discussion of breakcore, the beats-and-blats clusterfucks conducted by the Cock Rock Disco label (best band name: Duran Duran Duran) or my countryman Venetian Snares.

I'd also count jazz and improvisation as underserved genres. Ornette Coleman's comeback, Sound Grammar, was my pick there this year, but I must nod to the disc on my top 10 least likely to make anyone else's— Black Vomit, a historic live set that united high-profile noisicians Wolf Eyes with sexagenarian egghead-jazz composer and born-again-noise-fan Anthony Braxton. Shape of things to come? (Either way, I have to rate it high: I requested its release.)

As ever, American critics mostly overlook new European dance sounds, such as this year's maturing dubstep/"hyperdub" movement in England. Check out Skream, Burial and Kode9 & the Space Ape, whose Memories of the Future is like Linton Kwesi Johnson doing the chicken noodle dance with Philip K. Dick.

And overall, critics' international tastes just seem fickle. We chase the next exotic rush. Last year, it was Congotronics and Rio Baile Funk, this year it's Swedish pop, Brazilian this- and- that, Balkan brass bands (partly due to the great Borat and the regrettably named Beirut) and, in half-answer to Ann's current-affairs concerns, Turkish psychedelic reissues. Blame downloading for that distractibility, too.

Still, Ann's right—the main absence in the disembodied-music age is the body. What we overlook are real human beings in real places. And not just at shows, but in locally specific scenes and communities, which frankly mattered more to me this year than any disc or mp3, and will in 2007, too. More on that next.

Carl

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