cartwheels into your heart

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Right around the end of November each year, I start to fret at the prospect of composing a year-end top-ten list. For one, I never feel like I hear enough new albums for such a list to even be meaningful. (This year, it was 30.) But mostly, I can never quite figure out the right criteria to use. I’m usually torn as to which should get preference: the imperfect record that really spoke to me, or the (more) perfect record that didn’t as much. (Let’s ignore the can of worms that the word "perfect" suggests there.)

But a few weeks ago, I happened upon Sasha Frere-Jones’s justification for rating Liz Phair as his #1: "My list is based as closely as possible on the semi-empirical: how many times I listened to the thing. iTunes helped me track this, and my family and feeble memory filled in the blanks." This seemed like a perfectly reasonable approach, and one that neatly avoided all those internal objective/subjective debates, not to mention the inevitable last-minute changes of heart.

Now, I haven’t followed SFJ’s method to the T (doesn’t it unfairly punish end-of-year releases?), but I’ve attempted to ground my list in a similar rationale. What follows are the ten records that positively impacted me the most in 2003, records I listened to repeatedly, but also just records I cared about. As the new year settles in, I’ll probably have a better idea of what constitutes my "favorites," and I’m sure the rankings will shift. This is all I can do for now.

(Note: This entry is for #10-#6. I’ll be posting #5-#1 later this week. Enjoy!)

10. Schneider TM, 6 Peace EP (Mute)

Okay, so it’s kind of a cop-out -- half of these songs have appeared elsewhere, and the ones that haven’t are merely remixes of tracks from last year’s Zoomer. But there were probably a half dozen records hovering just below this top ten, and when I remembered how smitten I was the first time I heard this EP, I figured it deserved the final place. Like his German compatriots the Notwist*, Schneider TM transgresses the boundaries between electronic and organic music, mixing gently strummed guitars with glitchy beats and a bittersweet pop sheen. Now that I’ve heard the full-length, I admire "Frogstears" (a remix of "Frogtoise") even more: stripped down to harmonica, acoustic guitar, and digital vocals, the song’s absurd dream narrative becomes unexpectedly soulful.

*The Notwist’s Neon Golden received a U.S. release in 2003, but since I had the fortune of hearing it in 2002, it’s not on this list.

9. The North Atlantic, Wires in the Walls (Stay In Get Down)

Full disclosure: I’m friends with this band. Good enough that they’ve stayed at my house when they’ve played Chicago. But when I first heard material from this album live, two years ago, I was disappointed -- their previous release, an endearingly amateurish emo record indebted to Braid and American Football, had sported these super-catchy clean guitar lines that seemed to disappear once their second guitarist quit the band. Only after really spending time with Wires in the Walls did it become apparent that this record not only far outshines its precedessor, it’s one of my favorite rock albums of 2003. Songs built around throaty vocals and big, confident riffs routinely descend into dance-punk explosions, complete with loping bass and whammy bar. And the bitterness and desperation evident in songs like "Scientist Girl" and "The Bottom of This Town" are complemented by unexpected pop flavors (keyboards! singalongs!). Somebody sign these boys already.

8. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot it in People (Arts & Crafts/Paper Bag)

At the Empty Bottle in July, Broken Social Scene put on probably my favorite show of the year. With at least half a dozen musicians on stage, including three guitarists in a parallel line up front, the Canadian collective performed with so much unchecked exuberance, it was hard not to swagger along with them. Hard to imagine for a band whose first record was a mostly unnoticed ambient affair, but You Forgot it in People neatly marries the loosely repetitive structures of post-rock bands like Do Make Say Think (with whom BSS shares a member) with joyful Strokes-ian noise pop. Although the record loses steam toward the end, the fuzzy bass line that snakes through "Stars and Sons" and the mesmerizing helium-and-banjo duet of "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" kept me hitting repeat.

7. The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)

I liked going to parties in the last few months of 2003, because as soon as "Hey Ya!" came on (as it inevitably did), everyone -- emo kids, pop fans, bearded alt-country listeners -- sang along and dutifully shook it like a Polaroid picture. There was something heartwarming about such near-universal appeal, a sense of being part of a common culture at a time when the traditional gestures no longer suffice. The Postal Service didn’t quite make it to No. 1 on Billboard, but among indie-friendly crowds, it seemed to have a similarly unifying effect. Fans of Ben Gibbard’s smart, sincere lyrics danced with folks who dug Jimmy Tamborello’s swirling electronic textures; lovers of new wave everywhere climbed on board. Even as some of the songs do sound like early 80s pop (cf. the Human League), there’s a pleasing novelty in the up-to-date IDM beats; it’s entirely possible, as my friend Matt suggested, that this will shape up to be among the year’s most influential records. And yeah, I guess I liked it, too.

6. M83, Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts (Gooom/Labels)

I’ve never gotten into My Bloody Valentine. I have Loveless on cassette somewhere, but whenever I play it, the supposedly transcendent squall sounds like someone singing underneath a vacuum cleaner, and I shut it off. But I want to like it, because I’m sympathetic to the premise: noise so constant and otherworldly it becomes something gorgeous and pure. M83 makes music like this, with the same ethereal drone and muffled drums as shoegazer bands like MBV, but composed entirely on synthesizers, with lots of ridiculous sawtooth waves. (In Jess Harvell’s words, "Loveless remade by Vangelis.") And maybe that’s the key distinction for me, because as soon as I heard this album, no more than a month ago, I fell in love with it. There’s an inescapable beauty in the way "Unrecorded" shifts suddenly from dizzying Eurotechno to a pastoral landscape of ambient gurgles and then the relentless thrum of "Run Into Flowers," or the way the warm, drifting organs of "Church" are overlaid with synths at once screeching and serene. This album could even be higher on the list, but in light of its newness, I wanted to stay conservative.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

I just enabled comments, courtesy of HaloScan. I'm not sure why I didn't think of doing this before; it's incredibly easy. I'd love to hear from any regular readers (who are you?), as well as anyone who just happens to stumble across this blog.

Stay tuned for a 2003 wrap-up before the end of the year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Wishes and lists, for the last month of the year:

Phil Collins, "Another Day in Paradise" (1989)

We rode down to Peoria with car windows frozen, boys in the backseat reading baseball paperbacks, playing Tiger electronic handheld soccer, restless. The radio interspersed alerts of the U.S. invasion of Panama as I drew on the windows, trying to see out. Were we at war? Cool. On the nameless lonely highways of central Illinois, we scanned the FM dial, and there was Billy Joel, hepped up about rock n' roller cola wars and trouble in the Suez, a song I liked because it was just a list! Which, not only did I love lists period, but it was such a crazy way to structure a pop song, revolutionary even; I walked out of the barber shop hearing it for the first time stunned. But later, when the car glided into the valley at last, it was on a sheet of sleepy keyboards, sharp drum-machine kicks, and an echoing melancholy voice. I had a vague notion that underneath the exuberance of "We Didn't Start the Fire" was some broad statement about history and politics, but there was no mistaking the serious tenor of "Another Day in Paradise." Phil Collins painted a stark portrait of the homeless crisis, a woman in trouble ignored by her fellow man, and struck a suitably concerned note: "Is there nothing more anybody can do?" Since I never actually understood the subtext of Suzanne Vega's "Luka," this was probably one of the first social-issue songs I consciously liked. And despite the fact that it was precisely the kind of simple faux-gravitas that would later lead me to write bad poems about inner-city violence and AIDS, on that late December day, the chill in its chiming melody, its moody bass, felt right.

The Cardigans, "Lovefool" (1996)

A week before I left for college, I fell in love with this amazingly cute girl from home. In the months before I returned for winter break, we wrote each other daily e-mails, we talked softly on the phone when my suitemates were rowdy on vodka and football, she invited me to Homecoming, she completely ignored me at Homecoming, we broke off whatever we actually had, and a few weeks later she started dating one of my best friends. On Christmas Eve, I sat in a cubicle and drew a cartoon of the two of them, captioned "my favorite couple," even though when I accompanied them to Jerry Maguire a few days before, and she sat between us, I wanted nothing more than to hold her hand. It started snowing. People were leaving. There was this empty stretch of road between this hospital I worked at over the holidays and the place I was now learning to call "my parents' house," and I would drive through its darkness that month, listening to Q101's Top 5 at 5: #4, Soul Coughing, "Super Bon Bon"; #3, Counting Crows, "A Long December"; #2, Bloodhound Gang, "Fire Water Burn"; and #1, the Cardigans, "Lovefool." I had a big soft spot for lounge music, so I was happy to hear the Cardigans on rock radio, as I turned up those lightly insistent synths, the straight beat, the cheery chorus sounding more like ABBA than anything they'd ever done. Against that sunny backdrop, Nina Persson's kittenish complaints felt immaterial. "I wonder what I could have done in another way to make you stay," she cooed. I gripped the steering wheel and sang along. Only years later did I realize I'd actually been singing along to my life.