I had not planned to offer a year-end list for NAP at all this year, but then LHW suggested I was the most likely source for a Greg Kot-like professional summation of mainstream musical worldliness. Now I’m in a pickle. Because back-handed compliments are still compliments, I’ve got to figure out a way to deliver a piece that’s precious, yet authoritative. Diverse, yet necessarily shallow. Sympathetic to Hip-Hop and the best Top 40 fare, while intimating to you who have ears to hear that I’m well connected to the underground.
What complicates matters is that I couldn’t make a Top 10 of new craps if I wanted to. Most of my heavy listening this year was old back-catalog stuff I should have been listening to long ago (e.g., Cheap Trick, Sly and the Family Stone, Thelonious Monk, The Flamin’ Groovies). So like any middlebrow, college-educated consumer, when it comes to recent music, I wait for Pitchfork’s year end list and buy whatever is on it.
So here’s the list, and actually I already downloaded quite a few…
Wait, I wonder if you have heard about Pierre Bayard’s wonderful book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The thesis is lovely and simple: Actually reading books is a waste of time. There are too many of them. Because in fully reading one book, you ignore the knowledge inside 100 others. Or 1,000 others. Instead, a rational book lover seeks to absorb the kernels of essence within the books by skimming them. Or reading about them, or remembering the opinions of his experts. That’s how you develop your opinions about the book, how you learn to talk amongst your learned friends about the wide-ranging field of works in which you have barely grazed. Bayard calls this activity “non-reading”:
Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.
Always below the surface of Bayard’s outrageous practical advice, there is a sympathetic satire and exposure of criticism itself. How do critics know so much about so many books? Plays. Musics. Art openings. With the possible exception of some dedicated film critics, there’s no way to become intimately or even authoritatively familiar with all the works one is expected to know. You must non-read, non-listen, or non-see some of them. Maybe most them. Your expertise must eventually be based on a few short moments of appraisal, only a fraction of which might be spent with the actual work.
I don’t mean to suggest Bayard doesn’t believe whole-heartedly in his non-reading advice. He even developed a system of notation for remembering his opinion of books he has not read. I want to adapt his system to my own year-end criticism using Pitchfork’s top 25 records as a starting point. First, here’s the legend…
|UM: music unknown to me
SM: music I have skimmed*
HM: music I have heard about
FM: music I have forgotten
|++ extremely positive opinion
+ positive opinion
- negative opinion
- – extremely negative opinion
Now, here’s the list reordered according to my preferences, with Pitchfork’s original ranking, followed by my non-listening ratings.
- (02) Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca SM++
- (13) St. Vincent – Actor SM++
- (08) Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix SM++
- (14) Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms SM++
- (19) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart SM++
- (05) Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II UM+
- (04) The Flaming Lips – Embryonic SM+
- (12) Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! SM+
- (15) Japandroids – Post-Nothing HM++
- (03) The xx – The xx SM+
- (18) Atlas Sound – Logos SM+
- (07) Bat For Lashes – Two Suns SM+
- (24) Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle SM+
- (17) The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa UM-
- (21) Neko Case – Middle Cyclone FM+
- (16) Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light HM+
- (09) Fever Ray – Fever Ray UM-
- (20) Real Estate – Real Estate FM-
- (22) Wild Beasts – Two Dancers SM+
- (11) Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport SM-
- (06) Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest HM-
- (23) Memory Tapes – Seek Magic UM-
- (25) DJ Quik & Kurupt – BlaQKout UM+
- (10) Girls – Album SM-
- (01) Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion SM- -
My favorite record of the year, and one to which I listened devoutly and with fervor, is not on this list:
- I love Metacritic. Here’s their best of the year. As you probably know, they compile all the Web’s reviews, translate each review into a numbered assessment (0 – 100), and then average all the reviews into a composite score. If you read reviews on the Web, there’s not a better way to consume them. Here’s their Best of the Decade List, in which they use their powers to summarize the entire 2000s. Spoon is their artist of the decade. Given Metacritic’s statistical bent, this is less an indication of Spoon’s superiority than of their consistency. And in that respect, I have to agree their output has been remarkably consistent.
- eMusic’s 60 best records of 2009. It only includes eMusic artists, but that’s pretty helpful if you’re a subscriber. Lot of overlap with Pitchfork’s list.
- Liz B at WFMU picks her faves. This is a good place to admit I didn’t really get into Thee Oh Sees record very much. Still bummed their show in Houston was canceled.
- I’ve recommended the All Music blog before on these pages, and I will do so again. The reason is their breadth. They really do strive for covering music across the spectrum of genres. Naturally, they have quite a few year-end lists to peruse. Here’s their favorite re-issues of 2009.
- Last.fm’s year-end recap is interesting because it’s based on the actual listening habits of its millions of users. Their computer plug-in “scrobbles” everything you play on your computer or iPod and creates personalized Billboard-like charts for each user. Their list aggregates that data and computes the top 10 artists of the year. Lady Gaga (I’m pro-LG) came in first. You can view my top artists for the last 12 months here.
- Matador Records artists and staff pick their faves of the year. Their list is something I look forward to every year.
- I must say the same about the Onion’s annual compilation of the least essential albums of the year. Sadly, this year’s list isn’t out yet, but they did give us The Year in Band Names (e.g., Pabst Smear). Paste Magazine issued a much more comprehensive list: The 100 Best Band Names of All Time.
- Speaking of Paste, music writer Andy Whitman’s list has stuff I didn’t see on most others. He does gives major props to what is probably the best record David Bazan has ever made. The Official Paste list did the same.
- Houston Calling has their favorites of 2009, a few of which are locals.
- No Depression offers a 10 Best List, which includes Yo La Tengo. Go figure, although I should point out No Depression is basically a group blog now with substantially open participation.
- For pure meta awesomeness, it’s tough to beat Hipster Runoff. Lead alt blogger Carles asked his fans/readers to provide him with ideas about the best Music Related Products of the 2k0 Decade, because he really wants to “to ‘figure out’ the last decade, not just spooge over artists.”
- For a list of sounds you couldn’t possibly like, check out Spinner’s Most Overhyped Bands of the Decade. I’ve said before that “overhyped” is an impossible and useless word. Because there’s no such thing as too much hype. Hype is, by its nature, excessive and unwarranted. To say that one band has received too much of it from the masses/critics, is to express a differing opinion on the underlying quality of the work itself. “That is overhyped” = “My personal opinion points downward from the mean”.
- Finally, Stereogum offers this great list of gift ideas for music fans. Wait, it doesn’t say “great.” It says “ridiculous.” Oh well.