January: Kimya Dawson, Remember That I Love You (2006)
One route on the Metro-North railroad begins in New Haven and ends at Grand Central Station in New York City. From January to April I took that trip twice a week to an unpaid internship at a Manhattan publishing house. During the two-and-a-half hour ride I read and listened to music, at least I did on the morning trip into the city; bleak fantasies of my future, combined with the 24-ounce cans of beer that they sell at Grand Central, often made reading difficult on the return trip. Instead I would focus on Deerhoof (Offend Maggie, 2008), Of Montreal (mostly Skeletal Lamping, 2008), or Brian Eno (Here Come the Warm Jets, 1974). These trips could get emotional as I wondered where my life was headed, but only one album so consistently caused me to tear up in front of strangers that I had to quit listening to it on the train: Kimya Dawson’s Remember that I Love You, filled with songs that are the aural equivalent of firm and supportive embraces.
February: Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (1995)
I arrived at Guided by Voices late to begin with—it was only after I graduated college in 2003 that I bought my first Guided by Voices album, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996). Only by working backwards from the Strokes, who pointed to Guided by Voices as role models, did I find the band in the first place. I was not an early adopter of the Strokes, either. By the time I was preparing to leave graduate school six years later I had long since figured I was done with Guided by Voices and their prodigious output of two-minute nuggets of lo-fi pop.
Alien Lanes was a used-CD purchase, brought about as much by the uncompetitive offerings in the store as any resurgent taste in garage rock. Talking music with a friend, I mentioned that I had finally gotten around to buying the nearly fifteen-year-old album, and he immediately asked me, “Isn’t ‘My Valuable Hunting Knife’ the best song you’ve ever heard?” It was. It was so good that when I first heard it I went back to the beginning of Alien Lanes to listen to the album in the reflection of that song’s brilliance. That night we drank beer and drove to different bars, listening to “My Valuable Hunting Knife” over and over again on the factory stereo in his Honda Accord that was nearly as old as Alien Lanes.
March: Jeffrey Lewis, Various Clips on YouTube
The music video for “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” (as seen on YouTube) was my introduction to Jeffrey Lewis (check out the Rumpus interview with Lewis). A friend showed it to me, and I showed my girlfriend, and she eventually bought all of his albums in the order in which they were released. I made do with the burned copies my girlfriend gave me. Most of this was in the summer and fall of 2008, when Lewis’s music formed the basic structure of my existence.
By the time 2009 began I had begun to move on to other music, although I repeatedly returned to Jeffrey Lewis. But then I formed a bad habit of watching YouTube clips of Lewis before I went to bed. I started with the ones I had first seen—“Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” “A Complete History of Punk Rock”—but moved on to others: live clips of “Big A, Little A,” the Black Cab Sessions recording of “If Life Exists,” and interviews of Lewis. Then it would be late and I would have pointlessly eaten junk food or drank more beer. The only consolation was that Jeffrey Lewis was amazing, even on amateur video recordings, even with bad sound quality, and even if the clip stopped abruptly before the song had even ended.
April: Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (2008)
Lawrence Lessig, an eminent intellectual property lawyer, is a fan of Girl Talk for intellectual and legal reasons. As a critic of the restrictiveness of current copyright laws, Lessig celebrates Girl Talk (and others) for their innovative recontextualization of preexisting pieces of music (or art) to create a wholly new creative object. I was reading Lessig’s Free Culture around the same time I started listening to Girl Talk, thinking about entering law school and specializing in intellectual property and copyright law. I wanted to do my part to advance creativity in literature and the arts, to defend Girl Talk and other participants in “remix” culture. Feed the Animals was built almost exclusively from music I didn’t like, but was somehow cut, spliced, and manipulated into an endlessly listenable form. I’m still not sure about law school. On legal issues I’m always on the side with no money.
May: The Thermals, The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006)
I went to a show of theirs with two old friends. Before the concert we went to a bar and played pool. We talked about dental insurance and the sorry state of our teeth. The show featured the Thermals’ newest music, and I liked it so much that the next time I was in a used record store I bought an album of theirs that I didn’t have, though it was The Body, the Blood, the Machine and not their most recent effort (Now We Can See came out in April). It was the only album available by the Thermals in the store. The Body, the Blood, the Machine is an allegorical attack on the Bush administration and the politicized religious culture that supported it. They were out of power at this point, but I was still angry at them, so the album seemed timely.
June: John Vanderslice, Romanian Names (2009)
This album prompted me to write an extended blog post on the career of Vanderslice and what is, to me, the unparalleled achievement of his musical output (check out the Rumpus interview with Vanderslice). And while I predicted—and was partially confirmed—that this would be seen as a high point in his career, it was not. The density of sound and the gravity of meaning that had been so evident on Cellar Door (2004) and Pixel Revolt (2005)—even, though to a lesser extent, on Emerald City (2007)—were lacking, though his songs were as controlled and pretty as they’d ever been. But the blog post helped me get some work as a freelance writer, which in turn helped me get a day job. So this album turned out to be a real boon to me. But it’s no Pixel Revolt.
I began, somewhat improbably, to write as a freelancer for a music website. It coincided with moving to New York and moving in with my girlfriend. After years of escaping roommates through headphones, I now shared close quarters with someone I wanted to listen to, and I ended up listening to less music than ever before. Also, my stereo shorted so the only way to listen to music outside of headphones was to plug an iPod or computer into the TV and listen through the TV’s speakers. Which we did. These two albums were the ones in heaviest rotation, though by the time I started writing about music the reviews and coverage of these albums had already ended.
August: Wavves, Wavvves (2009)
When I was in college I discovered the joys of punk rock, hooded sweatshirts, and poor hygiene. It was the sort of thing that grown-ups call “a phase,” but some of it stayed with me, like the knowledge that anger and austerity can be fashioned into an aesthetic. Wavves unabashedly took up the teenage resentment that has guided pop music for over fifty years—lyrics include “I’m so bored” and “got no car, got no money”—and ground it into caustic surf-punk. Gritty and melodic, Wavvves made being broke in a small apartment seem like the sign of a life well-lived, provided I didn’t acknowledge that I was 28 and not 18, that I’d already gone to graduate school, already given up on dressing in black, and started to fantasize about the pleasures of knowing where next month’s rent would come from, even if it meant wearing a tie and shaving every day.
September: Mount Eerie, Wind’s Poem (2009)
Am I just getting old, and are my tastes getting stale? You could make a pretty persuasive case for it. Exhibit A would be Mount Eerie. For me, the Microphones (the antecedent band of Mount Eerie) were first a recommendation, then a concept I read about in articles and interviews, and then a band with groundbreaking music in the form of The Glow, Pt. 2 (2001). I even liked how the album title spelled “part” as “Pt.” By turns aching, haunting, jarring, and crushing, I loved it. And though I’d be forced to describe Mount Eerie’s debut in much the same terms, and repeat myself again in describing Wind’s Poem, I can’t work up the same energy for those albums. Maybe it’s just too hard. Maybe I want something more cloying, something that tries harder to make me like it. I hope not. But I’m worried.
October: The xx, xx (2009)
When I began to evaluate the best music released in 2009, I realized I hadn’t listened to many of the albums that others insisted were among the best. Many of those albums did nothing for me; I’ve yet to decipher the charms of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) by Phoenix, for example. But xx turned out to be touching and wonderful, an album that sneaks up on you slowly. If no one else was around you might be tempted to play it five and six times in a row, though you would have a hard time explaining exactly why.
November: Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
This year would have been a good year for Songs of Love and Hate to be released, and for Leonard Cohen in general. A musician built on pathos and charisma, the simple music serves as an excuse for Cohen to turn personal stories into epic tales. It seemed a good year for sincerity, earnestness, and unearthing the high drama that lay underneath personal and petty hardships, or maybe it’s just me. A friend visited and gave me two albums (Songs of Love and Hate and Songs from a Room, 1969) of Cohen’s, transferred from computer to computer via a USB flash drive. It reminded me of another friend of ours, in whose freshman dorm room I first listened to Leonard Cohen. That friend had better taste in music than I did, and I’d already adopted some of his favorites. He said he thought I would like Leonard Cohen, and he was right. He got married this summer, and I didn’t go to his wedding.
December: Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (1995)
In truth, I hadn’t really stopped listening to Alien Lanes. Even after I (illegally) downloaded Bee Thousand (1994), another essential album from the classic-lineup-era Guided by Voices, it was Alien Lanes that filled headphones and speakers. The Alien Lanes’ song “Watch Me Jumpstart” provided the title for a documentary of the band that I saw online for free. The documentary probed the incongruous path to musical success taken by this collection of men in their mid-to-late thirties who worked day jobs in Dayton, Ohio while they recorded groundbreaking music. Images from Watch Me Jumpstart (1998, directed by Banks Tarver) continue to resurface as I go to my office job. Jobs in offices, where whole days are spent with shirts tucked in, don’t lend themselves to contemplation. Too many tasks abound and soon you, too, are involved in the pitched drama of who refills the water cooler and who took the last pen without telling anyone.
But then there is the commute on the subway, where I read memoirs by writers only a few years older than me who worry about scraping together a living as writers. And I listen to Guided by Voices, who did things all wrong—Robert Pollard started with band names and album art, then developed song titles, and only last did he actually write the songs of tossed-off perfection that populate the album of the year for 2009, and possibly for every year forevermore, Alien Lanes. I don’t have Pollard’s talent or capacity for risk, but still he gives me hope.