Holy cow I have procrastinated. Finally, my ten favorite albums of the year! We are almost done, you guys. To paraphrase John Darnielle, “I am going to make it through this list if it kills me.” Without further delay, here are the top ten albums of 2012 according to whatever.
10. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Currently, people performing in the sort of R&B/ pop mix will usually be compared to either Michael Jackson or Prince. It usually depends on what gets designated “mainstream.” If an artist could have wild commercial success, they get the Michael tag (not saying “the next Michael Jackson” but more like lines of “channeling their inner Michael.”) If you are not considered a mainstream lock, you get the Prince label. Not the worst thing in the world! By no means is being compared to Prince a bad thing. However, the net is cast too widely in order to avoid more detailed description. The-Dream gets a lot of Prince comparisons, and most make sense. The-Dream realized that Prince’s keyboard sounds were incredible, so those sounds are all over Love King and even lurked on “Body Work/ Fuck My Brains Out.” The-Dream also has a bunch of songs about “Nikki” like how Prince had “Darling Nikki” (Fun thing to do: PRETEND IT’S THE SAME NIKKI). Also, this. The comparisons are an entry point. They are not a detailed description.
I guess Miguel might get Prince comparisons because he plays guitar. I am not denying Miguel’s Prince influences because everyone who has heard music since 1985 has been influence by Prince (and a host of others, but I digress). This is tenuous at best, but the closest I can get is Miguel might be what happens if Prince replaced his sacramental aspects with drugs. With Prince, we get “I Will Die 4 U” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” (sacramental in what Prince has altered these to mean, and I should stop before we are down the rabbit hole). In Miguel’s case, we have “Use Me” and “Do You . . . ” and the slowed down, wet, codeined version of “Time of the Season” in the second half of “Don’t Look Back.” It is living in a post-psychedelics world alongside the world where everyone is spending every weekend in Houston and all your favorite songs are half-time (I mean, even Beyoncé is chopping/ screwing her versus now).
I don’t mean to pigeonhole Miguel. There is just a lot of stuff going on in his sexy, slinky, funky, smooth, and pounding music. Everything is weird and out-there, but it is also incredibly inviting. In the past few months, “Adorn” has been in heavy rotation of New York radio [(or at least New York radio when I am driving to the mall) also, holy cow “Adorn.” You are a dream and will soundtrack all my fantastical daydreams for months]. Kaleidoscope Dream is mystifying in the best sense.
(Seriously, this track!)
9. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
The Dirty Projectors are an institution now, as far as rock bands go. They have played late night shows, they have played Carnegie Hall, they have made companion movies for their albums, they have covered Usher. They can do whatever they want. Much of that comes from the success of Bitte Orca, but capitalizing on success means never putting your head on the pillow to fall asleep.
Swing Lo Magellan seemed ridiculous from its cover art, but all the songs proved Dirty Projectors are still capable of the breadth of sounds they played with on Bitte Orca. From the sweet folk of “Two Doves” comes the straight California sway of the title track and “Impregnable Question.” The glitchy drums from “Stillness Is the Move” and “Useful Chamber” float to the background of “The Socialites” and “About to Die.” It’s not like Swing Lo Magellan is more of a BAND album than Bitte Orca, but I can’t shake that description from my head! I like to imagine Dirty Projectors just rented a rural-ish mansion, brought in a bunch of equipment, took frequent walks, met the locals, and recorded an album. Perhaps a tree or a bird or a person or a sunset caught their fancy one day and they recorded a song about it. Maybe the next day, they forgot about that theme. Just moving along, going with flows, rolling with punches, et cetera, et cetera. Sometimes doing those things works out perfectly fine, thank you very much.
8. Joey Bada$$ – 1999
Joey Bada$$ was four in 1999. He was three for twenty days of it, but his birthday is in January. You know how aging works. He’s eighteen now (math). I am twenty-six. With most athletes/ celebrities/ musicians younger than me, I get a wave of insignificance. Joey Bada$$ does not elicit this response from me. It is not because I do not find his talent extraordinary (it is extraordinary). It is not because he is so young that there is enough distance between us that I can rationalize the distance between our stations in life (Again, I still do this with other eighteen year olds. I feel like I am Corey Matthews standing in front of his celery poster when he meets Alexandra Nechita). As far as I can tell, I think my feelings about Bada$$ begin from a mutual admiration for a time we did not get to experience directly. Joey was four in 1999 and I was probably listening to something shitty. Now, we are attracted to the faded, sort-of lo-fi hip-hop of that time. Obviously, Joey Bada$$ is more active in his attraction, but he touches the music in a way that makes it fresh. If you were never part of it, how can you be nostalgic? Also, he calls it the BEast Coast, which is wonderful and take that Mississippi River.
Fun story: I was at a party during last summer. It was winding down and people had moved inside. There was a stereo and I had my mp3 player. I decided to make an impromptu mix and include a Joey Bada$$ song. I had intended on including “Waves” or “World Domination” but accidentally included “Survival Tactics” which is VERY political. Sorry people at that party! (It’s not that aggressively political music is bad. It just did not fit the mood at the time. That’s life!)
7. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
WHAT IF I JUST DID THIS PART IN ALL CAPITALS!?! Just kidding I have friends who do not like Celebration Rock very much. They are Japandroids fans, or at least they were fans of Post-Nothing. Celebration Rock is bigger, louder, and maybe dumber than Japandroids’ first album. “Young Heart Sparks Fire” and “Wet Hair” would fit right in on Celebration Rock, but “I Quit Girls” might be a risk on Celebration Rock. One of the stories going around when Celebration Rock was being covered was how guitarist/ singer Brian King had some health issues that cut touring short. Stemming from that, it’s understandable the band would focus on the immediate parts of their sound, cutting through the build-up and just getting to the choruses as soon as possible. I have not seen Japandroids live, so I cannot say the songs work best in that setting. However, from the record, you can tell that the conception of the songs was based on getting them performed.
The songs on Celebration Rock seem messy but never slapdash. The album doesn’t pack itself with fourteen quick chorus verse chorus chorus songs. Every song, save for the previously released “Younger Us,” is over four minutes. We think of that as a short time, but considering these guys are bashing these songs out as quickly and loudly as they can, you can see how it might get exhausting.
The end of the album stands out for the trio of starting with “Younger Us.” I was listening to these songs as I brushed my teeth the other night. I was flossing and saw the wrinkles next to my eyes. I am young, but I am not as young as I used to be (duh). So much about getting older is upsetting, but the most upsetting thing is how we can do nothing about it. We can care for ourselves, but that does not stop time. Thinking about this, as the Listerine swished in my mouth, I remembered the appeal of screaming over rock songs. It’s cathartic and a rebellion against time. Sure, I am older and wiser but Jesus it feels so good yelling seemingly epic and raspy lines like, “Tell them all they’ll love in my shadow!” and “Cause death’s got no respect for love/ and you’ve no respect for me.” These are not the best things Japandroids have done, but they feel good, they feel so good.
6. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
A). In 2011, I tried to explain/ defend Odd Future to someone. This was before Goblin came out and people were either high off of the existing mixtapes or upset with the general recklessness and hate speech the group was using. I did not convince the person (and I guess I did not convince myself. OFWGKTA never captivated that year like they did when they burst on the scene with that Fallon performance). Thinking about it, we did not discuss Frank Ocean during these conversations.
B). Going over it, Frank Ocean rose to prominence very suddenly. nostalgia, ULTRA was released and intrigued audiences. Then it was supposed to get a CD release, but sample and label troubles stopped that. Suddenly though, Ocean was in the studio with Beyoncé. Ocean was on Watch the Throne. Everyone was talking about Frank Ocean before his debut album had been released.
C). Frank Ocean gained more – well, I don’t want to say notoriety or fame, since he was already famous. I guess the discussion shifted a bit when Ocean penned a letter on twitter about his sexuality and love and his broken heart. It explained the pronouns that might appear on his album because that is a weird thing people care about (I do not mean Ocean’s orientation here; I mean the discussion that comes up whenever a singer or musician works outside of the heteronormative pop landscape. Songs are many things. Sometimes stories, sometimes confessions, sometimes editions of the truth, sometimes lies. However, the public tends to freak out and take uses of “him” and “her” as more important than an album or the music itself.) Ocean did not have to address this, and he did not owe an explanation to anyone. However, he gave it. He gave the public more information about himself. He complicated Odd Future’s hate speech, like Syd tha Kyd had previously. Whenever we clamor for answers to questions, we want easily labeled answers. We almost never get those labels.
D). My job put up a pre-order for a vinyl version of channel ORANGE in May. This was scheduled to be released in July. Delays happened and dates moved. The distributor and label took it off their release schedule, but said the packaging was being re-evaluated. Everything was vague. Customers asked about the album initially, but everything died down for a while. At the end of the year, people started talking about their albums of 2012. People wondered about the record again, but it would never come. Finally, in January, the label canceled everything. Someone at work said, “I guess they don’t like making money.” Business-wise, it might have been a strange move not to release a vinyl version (it might not have been. My grasp of what makes money in the music industry is tenuous at best). But eventually, what’s the point? The music is out there, the music revealed. Like his letter, once the music was out in the open, it changed. It still belonged to Ocean, but the public could change their perception. They could layer it with information pertinent and trivial. Ocean does not care. He should not care. Confession is not about telling secrets. It’s about honesty.
E). Frank Ocean might miss out on the comparisons I mentioned when talking about Miguel just due to his presence. People loved this album. The visibility might have spared it the same discussions. It’s in the zeitgeist in a major way. Everyone knows what is happening, everyone knows what the record sounds like. Because of this, we don’t need to discuss it from a common shared cultural memory.
F). Frank Ocean and John Mayer are friends. What a small world!
G). When I first heard channel ORANGE, I did not give it a full shot. If people asked me about it, I said simply, “It’s good.” However, I am not sure if I meant that. The album washed over me quickly and I formed my opinions over what I was supposed to think. Revisiting this album made me realize my mistake. I heard strings and spare drums and figured the combination worked like it usually does when people bring in quartets or use two patterns from an old drum machine. Eventually, when I was honest, I realized more of Ocean’s vision (or at least what I surmised his vision to be). The vapid, privileged set flowing in and out of the world, the inability to connect with people initially, the realization of hard truths at the end, the miracle/ good timing of getting Andre 3000 to do a guest verse in this day and age. Ocean ties it all together in a story that is both confession and revelation. What is Ocean trying to tell everyone? It doesn’t matter. He just has to get it off his chest.
5. The Men – Open Your Heart
Over 2012, Open Your Heart came to me in waves. It came out in March of 2012, but I did not get into it as much until the fall. Between the months, it floated around based on the recommendations of friends, co-workers, and various music publications/ sites. It is very good now and it was very good then, but I strayed for a bit. Some of this was probably due to Leave Home, the Men’s album from 2011. I bought Leave Home under the advice of a person who worked with me. I bought it to impress the person who recommended it. The recommender was always so sure about what was good music and what was bad music. Every time I tried to throw a curveball about what I believed to be his taste, he would give an explanation into his like or dislike that fit exactly with his musical views. It was frustrating. He once said True Widow was doing American Analog Set riffs but with a distortion pedal. The simplicity of that observation killed me. Why couldn’t I come up with stuff like that?
So, I bought Leave Home. Leave Home rules, but it is abrasive and unrelenting. Leave Home is all release. The opening “If You Leave. . .” has three minutes of build-up, but after, the album overdrives and strengthens. The songs’ words bleed into each other as a mix of screaming and distortion. Everything goes to eleven. The album bangs away at your ears, but it sprints in spurts. Some of the loudest songs are built on held chords with yells over them and drums beat for emphasis instead of rhythm. Leave Home is not scattershot, but it is nothing expected of a rock record.
In that sense, Open Your Heart functions more as what we expect of a rock album. Some songs build and release, some ramp into the release of the next song (the end of “Oscillation” to “Please Don’t Go Away”), some are mellow, some riff and shred like there is no tomorrow. Dan Deacon was describing two of his albums, and to paraphrase, he called one a party and one a celebration. There’s a similar dynamic with Leave Home and Open Your Heart. The earlier album was an unexpected bender that lasts a long weekend. Open Your Heart is a meeting with a friend where you shoot the shit, talk about newly broken hearts, and drink the bar closed. It’s purposeful self-destruction. It’s intentional catharsis.
No matter Open Your Heart‘s successes, it still took me a while to get into it. Then, around August/ September, I was going through the year’s music (as I am apt to do since I have the coolest hobbies and the freshest ways to spend my time). I listened to Open Your Heart again. The songs chugged along and I realized how the album was able to make all its noisy and bashing parts into a coherent whole. And oh my God, “Please Don’t Go Away” is perfect.
The Men’s song reminds me of the Magnetic Fields song “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” As I listened to “Please Don’t Go Away” over and over, the simplicity and sheer heft of the song reminded me of it. Where the Magnetic Fields track is about going crazy in and out of love, a duet turning to a murder, the Men’s repeated lyric of “Please don’t go away” backed by echoing “Ooohs” recalls desperation, adoration, submission, and a host of heavy things with one sentence. You can listen to the song over and over, wondering about all your past loves and almost loves and friendships and good memories. You can listen to the song over and over again and remember how those things aren’t present in your love anymore. You can listen to the song over and over and shout into your pillow, “Please. Don’t go away.”
4. Clams Casino – Instrumentals 2
The credits on the second instrumental mixtape from Clams Casino are not vastly different from the credits on the first. Tracks for Lil B and Main Attrakionz show up on both, and there are some single tracks peppered in from other dudes on both, but the amount of A$AP Rocky tracks and remixes on Instrumentals 2 make it distinct.
The first three tracks are three of the tracks Clams contributed to Live.Love.A$AP. Of course, other producers helped make that tape such a wild success, but there seemed to be a special bond between A$AP and Clams (to the point where Rocky called Live.Love.A$AP. his and Clams’ album at a Creators Project event). It’s strange hearing “Bass” and “Palace” without A$AP on them, but the tracks get a different flavor in their instrumental skeletons. The songs I most look forward to if Instrumentals 3 ever drops, are “LVL” and “Hell.” I am a fan of those tracks, but they do not succeed as much as other A$AP/ Clams tracks. Getting their instrumental versions would shed light as to whether that is because of the tracks, the raps, or the make-up of Long Live A$AP as an album. Separately, if we are lining the tapes up, I guess Mac Miller is Instrumentals 2‘s Soulja Boy.
But yeah, the remixes. Clams pulls three remixes from three different genres – hip-hop, pop, and chillwave. The Washed Out remix gives Clams a space to work without drums. Blown-out synths billow for almost a minute before any beats drop. When they do come in, the percussion is less drumpad and more metronome. The “Swervin'” remix shows Clams Casino can tailor his style to an existing track without giving in to any unnatural tropes. The Lana Del Rey remix instrumental at the end of the tape is crazy for so many reasons. “Born to Die” isn’t an explosive pop hit by any means, but the way he breaks it down and fucks with it is bold. It’s even bolder considering he drops it on the tape right before his arguably best track, “I’m God.”
Between the remix work, and the Weeknd track, I thought Clams was going to blow up to ridiculous levels by now. I figured every track on the next Drake album would be a Clams track. The second part of 20/20 Experience will be Clams Casino taking Timbaland’s place. Taylor Swift would be releasing a special edition of Red that was all Clams Casino remixes and reimaginings. However, these are my dreams, not reality. We are going to get new music for Clams (ScHoolBoy Q maybe? He might just be excited for that album. Mikky Ekko? That would be great. CLAMS REMIX OF “STAY” AND OH MY GOSH DOES ANYONE HAVE A PAPER BAG INTO WHICH I CAN BREATHE?) and we might later get the chance to compare the bare tracks to their full counterparts. It’s crazy how good the songs are in both versions.
3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
A lot has been said about Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, so what else is there?
AHAHAHA just kidding you are still going to get some text here.
A while ago, two sportswriters I enjoy were talking via Twitter to each other about Section.80. The general conclusion of their conversation was that Section.80 is astounding sonically while also being confounding. This was not when Section.80 came out. Enough time had passed that Kendrick Lamar was known as a commodity that was the next big thing. People probably could not have predicted good kid, m.A.A.d city from Section.80.
The quality and potential of Section.80 amplified the lead-up to GKMC. I have no facts to back this up, but it almost feels like the anticipation for Lamar’s album forced RCA to bump back Long Live A$AP (AGAIN, WILD SPECULATION. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE AS FACT). It just felt like everyone was ao excited for this album that we could not deal with two big rap releases the same week. Of course, everyone was correct in their excitement.
good kid, m.A.A.d city and Section.80 deal with a lot of the same issues, but framing everything in a bildungsroman (WHAT UP ENGLISH DEGREE? FINALLY MADE PERFECT USE OF YOU FOR JUSTIFICATION!) paints a more complete than the preaching devices on Kendrick’s previous release. Kendrick is on another level when it comes to his rapping so to see him rise to prominence on a story about growing up makes some roundabout sense. The story is simple, but the emotion, technique, and composition boost the album to crazy levels. It is Kendrick’s personal story, but it is incredibly relatable. So we fill in the blanks of Kendrick’s story with our own stories and our own emotions. This pushes the album deeper into the listener, and soon enough, you have Kendrick as the brightest spot in hip-hop.
2. Taylor Swift – Red
“A Conversation Between Me and Steve About the song ’22′” [ed. note – everything below sic’d]
STEVE: Listening to 22 is so depressing.
JOHN: Hey now.
STEVE: You don’t agree? We’re 26!
JOHN: It’s a great song tho
STEVE: But doesn’t the fact that you’re not 22 overcome that it’s a phenomenal song?
JOHN: Not at all.
STEVE: I guess your quarter life crisis isn’t as bad as mine.
JOHN: How much soy protein can I ingest before it messes with my hormones?
“A Sample of Questionable Lyrics Contained on Taylor Swift’s Album Red In No Particular Order”
“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.”
(A valid criticism of Swift is that her songwriting can be construed as cloying and precious. Your reaction to Swift depends on how earnest you think she is. If you believe Swift lives her life as a perpetual member of the drama club/ forensics set, all energy and heart with a specific sense of humor, then yeah, you can probably believe her writing something about a Maserati and not batting too many eyelashes at it. It also becomes much more believable that her apartment has a human-sized birdcage. If you do not believe her, you probably also get annoyed when she pulls a standing ovation at the Golden Globes and says dumb, young things about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Taylor Swift, the human, probably resides in a place between the two. Some lines might get a groan of the “ehh” variety, but this passes quickly enough. We can get through it.)
“On Taylor Swift, Red, and the Sounding of Heartbreak”
People pick on Taylor Swift for turning her romantic relationships into pop fodder. Her relationships are in the public eye of course (with each album, Vulture puts together a fun piece about who each song is about, using the liner note clues as a guide), but if more people were in her position, they might do the same. This might be too anecdotal, but there is nothing more I want to do when a relationship ends or a crush flames out than just talk about it for-fucking-ever. Just light a bat-signal alerting friends and family, “THINGS DIDN’T WORK OUT AND I AM TAKING IT NOT GREAT AND I WILL TAKE IT THAT WAY FOR LONGER THAN YOU DEEM APPROPRIATE.”
On the one hand, you want to get your version of events out there as soon as possible, before the information can disseminate. You want to tell mutual acquaintances how it went for you. It is passive in suppressing the voice and events from the other side., but it’s about getting the information out there first. Your ex-lover might fill in blanks and update what really happened in their estimation, but as long as your story sets the tone, you’re golden.
There’s a fear of grieving too much, a fear of taking your friend’s time with questions like “Will I ever feel love again?” that lose emphasis over time. Are you putting your feelings out there because you feel these things or are you putting them out there so people know you need attention? Definitely both! Being rejected or cutting ties with someone you care about, deeply and intimately, leads to redefining yourself as an individual. Strange and scared, we lean on our friends to help us along the way.
As a pop star, Swift does these things in a way normal people don’t. She can dictate the terms of her story and continue voicing it to an audience with whom it resonates. Amplifying your sadness and doubts through 100,000 screaming fans might not be healthy, but I bet it feels fantastic.
Of course, some of these actions could also be coping mechanisms and nostalgia. All the cathartic elements of turning your pain into pop-stardom are not as satisfying as actually getting over everything. Sold-out concerts aren’t as satisfying as moving on. There’s a solace in it, but most would trade this solace for a night spent with someone for whom you deeply care, doing anything, watching movies, joking, dancing, loving, adoring. The slight bitterness in Swift’s music means trading this solace if moving on comes before ex’s moving on. To appropriate George Herbert for the purpose of a probably too personal and too in-depth discussion of a pop album from 2012, “Living well is the best revenge.”
Fans of Swift can only attempt a different but connected act. Instead of sounding the heartbreak through them, the fans will apply their own experiences to Swift’s words. The vague lines become points in time for her listeners. Concrete images become metaphors. Taylor Swift is singing a song exactly about your life, because the spaces of her songs let you. You are proclaiming Taylor’s pain back to her, because Taylor knew exactly where to put the spaces.
“Taylor Swift and the Tangible Body”
When Red came out, Molly Lambert of Grantland had a good piece about Swift’s evolving persona on this album. Red does not tell of a sexually awakened Swift joyfully singing of the carnal experience. The album does have a lot more touching than previous Swift efforts. Lambert points to a lyric in “Treacherous” (“I’ll do anything you say/ if you say it with your hands”) evoking “a relief that Taylor has opted not to get trapped in her presexual princess phase forever.” Growing up for Swift does not mean revamping her image for shock, but rather admitting to the simple fact that touching someone you care about is very nice. It comes across a bit radical given Swift’s country background and vestigial forays into musical bubblegum (“Stay Stay Stay”) but it is natural and understandable.
One of the most inviting aspects of “22” for example, is its willingness to delve into desire and fancy. Taylor closes the song over several tracks friendly chorus with the lyrics, “I gotta have you. I gotta have you.” sung declaratively and ferociously, with a joy a younger Swift might not be able to pull off.
Taylor Swift sings of touching all over Red. These descriptions make the songs more real and the love deeper in a sense because the build up set in the songs leads to natural reactions. Less post-rock, says Taylor Swift. Where instances of sexual feelings on previous Swift albums might result in heartbreak for an acquaintance of Swift (“Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, we both cried”), touch on Red has a much more positive connotation (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”) even if the relationship sours.
Of course Swift’s treatment of these issues is vague. It’s still more of a Dr. Luke album than an Uncle Luke album. However, Swift’s music is now fully capable of pointing you in the right direction. Taylor Swift knows exactly what she wants and how she can get it now.
“Country Versus Pop”
My friend Kelly tweeted a bit ago, “The ‘I wish she still sounded like this :(‘ comments on old Taylor Swift music videos are actually kind of heartbreaking.” The bass drops and keyboards have alienated some country fans, but it has not resulted in any sort of popularity loss for Swift. The crossover from country to pop happens most consistently (Faith Hill, Shania Twain), but that’s probably because country has been able to hold itself separately from pop music while sharing most of its elements. There is a viable country music industry separate from the coasts that succeeds incredibly. There might be more opportunity in pop, but I think country has been exploiting the minimal differences for expanding to pop-dominated markets over the past few years. The gaps and tension will always be there, but Brad Paisley is on guitar magazine covers (NOTE: I wrote this before “Accidental Racist” but I wanted to keep it in because I am not sure who has crossed over more from country guitar, and holy cow, “Accidental Racist” is ridiculous), Blake Shelton is on The Voice, Tim McGraw was in The Blindside, Lady Antebellum is selling me iced green tea, and one of the best shows on TV uses the country industry as a backdrop.
Swift probably fits country tropes into her songs as a way to maintain her roots because those were the first songs she presented to the world. She will not escape her beginnings, but she has begun to separate them from the pop elements. “I Knew You Were Trouble” makes no qualms about that, trading bangers for banjos. Throughout the rest of the album, Taylor’s twang is less pronounced (in the main vocals and background vocals [however, the country harmonies remain intact]). “Red” opens with a banjo riff, but it fades under the sampled chorus. The song’s most intricate banjo playing happens under the big banging drums during the last pre-chorus, so you have to pay close attention to notice them.
The balance between country and pop results in a very long album. Red runs over an hour jumping from country-ish melancholy to pop singles to whimsy tracks and country ballads. It’s not an identity crisis, it’s just Taylor Swift has developed an exhausting identity that requires her to play in both the country and pop worlds. She probably gets three hours of sleep on a good night.
“Zac Pennington on Taylor Swift is Very Good”
And you should read it. However, I disagree about “22.”
“Someone Else’s Muse”
I do not know Jake Gyllenhaal. I have seen his movies and watched him on late-night shows. I have seen pictures where he and Taylor Swift are walking through New York, with coffee and happiness. I know that the world at large mispronounces his name. I know he likes basketball. This comes from one of my bosses. When my company was located in Manhattan, my boss sometimes played basketball at a court in the city. Jake Gyllenhaal was playing one day. He introduces himself as Jacob, for your information. One of my boss’s friends once said, “I hope he takes me out so I can sue him!” before a game, which is kind of a horrible thing. I very much hope that Jake Gyllenhaal has a tremendous vertical jump, so he is able to dunk basketballs, hang on the rim, and jump off shouting, “DONNIE DUNKO IN THE HOUSE.” But that is just a dream.
Red gives me no great insight into the type of person Gyllenhaal is. It is my impression that aside from “I Knew You Were Trouble” Swift’s songs are less spiteful than on Speak Now. Jake Gyllenhaal is no John Mayer. Taylor names no names.
All we have to work with is a timeline of approximate dates, references to a sister (Hi, Maggie Gyllenhaal), and tons of New York mentions. Whenever there’s an article about people in Swift’s life and how they influenced her music or were the object of ire in a song, I will devour that shit. Mostly though, it is not that important. Jake Gyllenhaal’s involvement does not change my enjoyment of “Holy Ground” (“TONIGHT I’M GOING TO DANCE, JACK TWIST.”) or any of the other tracks. Usually we do not have evidence of the genesis of pop songs (unless Eric Clapton wrote them. In that case, it’s always George Harrison’s wife), but Swift’s reputation for writing about her own experiences combined with the documentation of the experiences in magazines and on television invites more speculation. It lacks the mystery of “You’re So Vain” but most things these days lack mystery.
I don’t think my enjoyment of these songs would change if Swift only wrote about the non-famous or all the songs were invented scenarios. However, you can’t escape these types of questions and considerations in the Taylor Swift experience.
“The Tyranny of Distance”
Red and Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism share the theme of distance wreaking heart ache. I love Red but every time I listen to it, I still wish Swift would just start banging on a piano and yelping, “I need you so much closer.” over and over again. Taylor Swift does not make niche albums for my whimsy though.
There’s a sense of helplessness on both albums. On “Transatlanticism,” Ben Gibbard sings “I need you so much closer/ So come on.” over and over again, after lamenting how the distance is “much too far for me to row.” Swift echoes a sentiment in “Come Back. . . Be Here” leading the chorus with “This is when the feeling sinks in/ I don’t want to miss you like this/ Come back, be here/ Come back, be here.” There’s no cure for distance and they make all our sentiments seem small. All Gibbard and Swift can say boils down to, “This hurts. I miss you. I hate this.” There are no actions. There is only the great divide.
I have thought about Red more than other albums from 2012, due to a confluence of events as much as my being a fan of Swift. More than other albums from that year, the songs on Red hit me unexpectedly. This is dumb and trite, but I still find it remarkable that sounds can evoke a physical sensation through my body. The warmth emanating, my feet wanting to move, my head bobbing without fail. Maybe one day I will look back on Red and not think as highly of it, but that’s kind of missing the point. Right now, it hits me in such a nice way, and that is wonderful.
1. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
“You would never call me ‘baby’/ If you knew me truly”
Almost all the reviews and interviews with Mike Hadreas describe his music as personal. It is deeply so, but this descriptor belies his art’s evocative power. Hadreas crafts songs based on his life (“Awol Marine” about erotica Hadreas saw that had a soldier admitting to participating in order to get drugs for his wife, “All Waters” about the dream of not having to hide his love for another man in the world, “Dark Parts” about his mother’s abuse at the hands of his grandfather) where details never alienate. It is a brave honesty that invites listeners closer.
There’s a a line in the movie version of High Fidelity that sensitive, sexless male teenagers attached themselves to too much during my adolescence: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” The quote fits for people who do not have many grave problems and cannot pinpoint what is exactly wrong with their lives (sexless teenage boys who like music). I disagree with the quote for the way it makes music an agent and the way it subverts an actual problem of inaction.
Music affects me emotionally, no doubt, but its effects are different from visual media affects me, different from how human interaction affects me, and different from what my own mind does to itself. Happy songs can make my spine tingle, but this is not the tingle I get from hugging someone. They are both great tingles but they are different tingles, obviously.
More often than not, music is a blanket of whatever emotion I want to heighten. If I am sad, I will listen to sad songs and warp their meanings to my life. If I am happy I will become less selective and listen to whatever songs sonically please me at the moment. I will focus on the enjoyable parts and let them ramp up my joy. Songs have made me happy my reminding me of the goo. Songs have also made me sad by reminding me that everything is not perfect.
There’s a comfort in musical sadness coming from honesty. Choosing sad songs can admit any number of small to deep dissatisfactions – lovers leaving, friends drifting, bad days at work, bad weeks at work, the troubles of family, the dull pang of emptiness. The cause of the sadness many times starts outside of ourselves and our choices (of course much of it can be tracked back to us as well). In choosing music, we imagine ourselves affecting the narrative of our pain while unburdening some of our feelings with the artist.
When you are sad for a long time, you spend a long time with different sadnesses. There is the big, sharp sadness that comes from death or unexpected incidents. There is the slow, ruminative sadness of dwelling on those incidents. There’s a guilty sadness that comes from the recognition that there are good part in life, and what have you done glossing over them and wasting them? There is the slight sadness when you wake and realize you have nothing to look forward to, but not in a dramatic and despairing way, just in a realization that this day, like other days, will be a pattern of routine. There is the sadness of disappointment. There is the sadness of disappointing. There is a sadness that comes from loneliness and a sadness that comes from not knowing how to escape the sadness. There is a sadness from fear and a sadness of fear. There are so many sadnesses that we endure to varying degrees. It is probably not constructive or healthy to be happy all the time, but couldn’t we just be happier a little more often?
Discussing music as art becomes more difficult with people who succeed at conveying difficult emotions. If something comes through as not being genuine, we might react more negatively to that failure in its perceived attempts to be manipulative. But when Mike Hadreas earnestly and wholeheartedly converts his pain into songs, he evokes a great deal of emotion. So listeners attach themselves do that and let his words take root in their hearts. I saw a criticism of a music writer who peppered personal anecdotes into their work too often for the reader’s taste. However, if the music hits your heart like that, if the singer opens up to you like that, how can you not reflect a bit of that back? You must be stone.