Half-decade nostalgiafest continues!
(Part one is here)
I hope you're having fun reading this. I'm having a lot of fun writing it. Five years feels like the perfect distance - the intensity with which I revisit these albums has slowly diminished, but not so much that my memories have faded, charging them with a Proust-esque vividness of recollection while still leaving gaps for new discoveries. It's a process so satisfying and emotional that I'd be glad to have done it even if no one cared to read it. BUT, if you are reading it, and you find out about a few albums that you find interesting, or are reminded of a few you used to enjoy, that would make me very happy.
7. The Roots - How I Got Over
When you were reading the Denpa Trance writeup in the last post, you probably thought things like "this is insane" or "disgusting" or "entirely unpleasant" but did you see even a little appeal in the immersion I was describing? For the duration of the album, do you want to get sucked into the world of the music, into the endless, flowing, emotionalaesthetic of the album's creation? Sure? Do you want it to be some sort of electrololipsychedelic 180bpm akibafantasy? Nah? How about the exact opposite?
This is a real life album made by real life people singing and rapping and playing real life instruments mostly made of chopped up real life trees. Even when they work in a classic beat or sample, there's a direct lineage to reality. It talks about real people things in a real way that you might connect to and even find inspirational. Like you might actually think about some of the lyrics during your day and find they actually help you go a bit forward. Black Thought et al work through crises of faith, motivation, empathy, loneliness... things that are universal, but uniquely personal each time they occur.
Despite being so sincere and grounded, the method used to convey these themes is pure tranced-out energy. There's a self-loss going on here that rivals denpa... on the suite of the first five tracks, ending on the title track, each beat feels like an impossible evolution of the one previous: just when you think they've hit the maximum level of that smooth, jazzy, feeling, they manage to go one step further, again and again. It's so enthralling that the lyrical lessons become instantly gospel. This sequence of music alone would be a contender for this list, but it's only half the album!
The title track forms the centerpiece and turning point: suddenly shifting into a higher gear and showing another facet of the undefeatable ?uestlove, you're immediately attuned to the significance. Black Thought's singing voice proves so good you feel a little bad it had been heard so seldom before. The struggles of the previous tracks are accumulated into one unified message, one with universal meaning to anyone struggling with "how to get over", a sort of counterpoint to "this too will pass": "someone has to care".
The second half's answer comes in the only form it can: measured and grounded day-to-day optimism, productivity, and hope, built on realistic expectation and appreciation. Well, I mean... obviously? But the proof is right there on the album itself: we see the fruits of this attitude in the later tracks, which, abandoning the tightly linked suite structure of the first half, are more varied, more celebratory, playing to the Roots' many skills not yet showcased. They back up John Legend on the redhot banger "The Fire", get a bit trappy on "Web 20-20", and even pull off a Joanna Newsom sample - an act I'd instinctively call blasphemous. This second half is what makes the album such a complete experience; by being both a focused, message-based interconnected suite and a collection of catchy fun tunes, it ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.
You might know The Roots as Jimmy Fallon's house band, or as the radical masterminds behind Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, and if so, I hope this album hasn't escaped your notice. If you've never heard of them before, you might be able to place this album in a context that is sensible, as an entity you've probably imagined: you know how there's always those insufferable "defeners" that decry "modern hip hop" that's all about "cash and hoes" and doesn't even have any "real instruments"? You know how, despite the ridiculousness of the whole situation, you almost want to still prove them wrong on their "own terms", and want some album you can shove in their face, one that is just so obviously, objectively, beautiful and meaningful, talking about real things in a real way? This is that album.
Recommended tracks: How I Got Over, Right On, Radio Daze
6. world's end girlfriend - Seven Idiots
world's end girlfriend is a Japanese multi-instrumentalist postrock/neoclassical/IDM guy, who, somewhere between 2007 and 2010, apparently lost his goddamn mind. Sure, the genres I just listed already hint at something a bit abnormal, with their inherent demands of precision and dedication, growing exponentially when fused together, but none of this fell too far outside of an established archetype in Japan. On Seven Idiots, though, his sound seemed to collapse in on itself, reaching levels of tongue-in-cheek excess, a sort of explosive inverse that you can picture by seeing a ball get crushed smaller and smaller, denser and denser, until the insides all gush outwards. Or, more accurately, you can picture it as a guy working feverishly on complex, subtle, sorrowful music until one day something gets a bit scrambled and then this.
At first, I was a little hesitant towards this album. So much of what I like about these genres is in the nuances, in the feeling of really plumbing their depths to understand them. And so much of this album was blatant, loud, direct and upfront - there's electric guitar solos backed by handclaps! It felt almost undignified. At other times, however, especially in the more experimental back end, the music was his most abrasive yet, ditching with hostility any familiar concepts of melody or instrumentation. I thought he was trying to have his cake and eat it too, which... really isn't gonna work, if your experimental-type fans are bored by your "normal" music and your music-type fans are repulsed by your "experimental" noise. So is this album a failure?
Ahahaha no way. Just because you can't imagine an appreciative listener doesn't mean that one can't exist. Or that you can't become one. And at the very least, he himself is the creator and intended recipient of this project, so it can never be wholly invalid. Once you realize that this is an album that makes no concessions on its sound, that is only interested in realizing completely his artistic vision, things make a lot more sense, because they stop making sense at all.
My basic understanding of this album is that it's a sort of reverse Divine Comedy. The opening tracks, taking place in Paradise, are fairly recognizable in structure and intent. There's lovely piano melodies and thrilling guitar solos and basically nothing to offend your sensibilities. But there's also a sense of... artificiality? Many tracks venture into a place of self-pastiche, becoming so much themselves that they feel inauthentic. Things are given to you so freely, so blatantly, in so much the ultimate or ideal form of themselves, that you start to feel a little... I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's a very unique and memorable feeling.
So you decide to investigate it, and you follow further and further through the steadily growing noisy and bizarre elements, guided by familiar and comforting reoccurring motifs. The turning point is the amazing 3-part "Bohemian Purgatory", which suggests both the sincere grandeur and inherent comedy of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the sort of languid degeneracy of an actual Bohemian Purgatory. Every track's title contains such a mashup of modern artistic and religious canons, suggesting that this is an exploration of some sort of alternative, contemporary, internal understanding of The Divine Comedy.
And when you get to the Inferno, it really does sorta feel like torture... the themes and motifs of the beginning are now spaced out, atonal and rhythmless, feeling like you're now seeing the authentic guts of the previous tracks... the Beatrice-esque piano-motif now a single pulsating tone it's really real now, but can you handle it? It's a haunting experience that stays with you all throughout "unfinished finale shed", which returns to beautiful, harmonious, melodic elements, but now, in its restraint and minimalism, feels authentic and sincere, a reward of perspective for your harrowing journey. Wow, what a masterpiece!
Or maybe you think that entire writeup was a bunch of BS. Well, that's OK too. This is just my own narrativizing and speculation. More than the appeal of this particular interpretation, the value of the album lies in its ability to generate, almost demand, such explanations, in its evocative sounds, allusive titles, and compelling arcs. Like Dante, this level of imaginative energy seems best explained by visions or some other madness, but it's actually just good old hard work and creative energy. In the end, it is in that sheer awe, the disbelief that a human being actually made this, that your appreciation for the album can truly shine freely.
Recommended tracks: Les Enfants du Paradis, ULYSSES GAZER, Bohemian Purgatory
5. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
I first got into Sufjan Stevens when he was in the full swing of his "fifty states" project, which I, as a naive kid, actually believed would come to fruition. And so when this album was announced, the first actual LP since he abandoned the project, I felt it was the final confirmation of the retrospectively obvious fact that it was nothing more than a joke, a bid for attention, and was a little disappointed. Oh, but I was also excited - especially when All Delighted People, his warmup EP (although who's ever heard of an hour long EP?) came out and blew me away (it easily would have made a top 20 of the year list). It seemed unreal that a full-length LP could possibly come just a few months later.
I was excited, but not prepared. Who could possibly be prepared for this? While Michigan and Illinois had a scale and grandeur to them that seemed to befit the attempted encapsulation of a state's history and culture, The Age of Adz is so gigantic and over the top that no single time or space could contain it. Like Seven Idiots, it seems to exist entirely in an entirely internal world of the artist's creation, one that interacts with reality but wholly colours it in its emotionalaesthetic. The album's opener, the tender "Futile Devices", is traditional Sufjan - piano and banjo scoring a song about the struggles of innocent love. Right after, though, "Too Much" swells and bursts with bombastic electronic energy - it's doubly shocking, you think "I've never heard Sufjan like this" and then "I've never really heard anyone like this".
Every track feels like it's bursting at the seams with energy and ideas. He isn't content to just to introduce a new sound, it has to be placed in a new generic context, with a new song structure, and a new emotional mission. That sort of restlessness is classic Sufjan, who is more than ready to bust out a 8 minute supersong in the middle of an album if he feels like its warranted, but before there was at least a consistency in instrumentation, and a sort of... upper limit on just how crazy things might get, y'know? Like you never thought he might start shouting "I'm not fucking around!", did you? If you ever thought that might happen based on his previous albums one of us has completely misunderstood those albums.
It ends up being these rousing anthemic vocal parts that form the backbone of the album: no matter how strange these electro-gospel bangers might get, how complex and relentless, Sufjan's voice always powers through. This is a great album to sing along with; after five years of doing so, I find it's a lot harder to stop myself than give in. And in doing so, you start to realize that although these songs may originate in Sufjan's bizarre apocalyptic aesthetic world and the esoteric artists he draws from, their message is simple, universal, and powerfully human.
It all adds up to a pretty enthralling 50 minutes... wait, though... what's that song on the end? "Impossible Soul"? 25:35? Oh, it must be one of those lame "hidden track" things, right? A four minute song, then 15 minutes of silence, then another track, right? Hahahaha nope. In a completely insane demonstration of confidence and dissatisfaction that I can only describe as Kanyesque, Sufjan closes his album out with the world's first 25 minute indiefolkelectronica banger, over a full episode of Seinfeld's worth of haunting tortured soul singing (into autotuned delirious bliss that I again can only describe as Kanyesque) leading into the genuinely life-affirming party breakdown finale: "It's not so impossible!", "Do you wanna dance?", "Boy, we can do much more together!".
It wasn't enough for him to outline all the hardships of being a loving person in an imperfect world, he actually fights through this stuff, before your very ears, in this stirring finale. The acoustic section at the end, almost a coda back to "Futile Devices", shows the progress we've made - from the futility of saying "I love you" to wholly embracing "I want nothing less than pleasure" and embracing that "we made such a mess together". Connecting these parts forms a hidden tender heart to the album, and it becomes clear that for all the grandeur, all the bravado, this was always still just Sufjan, still his meek and innocent ambition to bring us the almost painfully sincere feelings in his wonderful heart.
Recommended tracks: Futile Devices, Get Real Get Right, Impossible Soul
4. Das Racist - Shut Up, Dude
Alright here's a story from like 6 years ago. I was procrastinating on some assignment or something - back then I was in an engineering program for some strange reason - and killing time by reading webcomics, which is basically the absolute lowest form of internet procrastination, I think. You've basically resigned yourself to looking at a bunch of images that will have no emotional or mental impact. But of course, in the internet, there is possibility that transcends any sensibility, and I read this comic, and was confused, and Googled some stuff, and I think my life actually changed drastically because of it.
I remember listening to "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" on repeat and thinking "I better enjoy this while I can, because I'm gonna get sick of it pretty soon". I thought I was appreciating it "ironically" and that it was indicative of a new low point in "mainstream hip hop"... and probably thought a lot of other cringey backpacker things, too. I listened to other early singles like "Chicken and Meat" and "Rainbow in the Dark" with a sort of confused skepticism... it seemed like they were actually good, like really good, and were themselves indulging in the same sort of ironic appreciation that I was? I couldn't understand.
When the mixtape finally came out, it was right around the same time as when This is Happening leaked, and I can remember feeling guilty that, when given the choice, I kept choosing it over what I knew was "objectively" a "masterpiece". I kept having to convince myself on the basis of the humour, the cleverness of the lines, and the hinting feeling that something really smart was going on here. It was sometimes difficult to believe, given how silly tracks like "Fake Patois" and "Shorty Said" were in their premise and devotion to it, or how "One Dollar Can" and "Deep Ass Shit" functioned so blatantly through insincere juxtaposition. I laughed, yeah, regularly and loudly, but it was hard to convince myself that it was for intellectual reasons.
Not that this tape isn't smart, though - its packed deep and dense... esoteric and witty without ever being pretentious, insightful and even profound without being preachy. They manage to capture a lifestyle in a way that is intimate and specific while still making it relatable to my white rural Canadian ass. Their humour anticipates so much of our understated ironic memetic internet culture now... just that one shot of Heems looking at a gun on Google image search in the "Rainbow in the Dark" video is prophetic of entire genres of online jokes. And in many ways, no one has touched their trifecta blend of reference/lifestyle/irreverence: this one mixtape obsoletes all of Donald Glover's music career. Yes, these seventeen tracks do everything Childish Gambino has done right, and better: this is an argument I will stick to.
But it really isn't about the accuracy of cultural commentary or the obscurity of the references or anything like that. That stuff gets old after a few listens... you don't come back to something five years later because that joke is still funny, even though it is. Nah dude, it's cause these are a bunch of certified bangers with awesome flows and gigantic beats and catchy hooks and you never quite got them out of your head, even after half a decade. What eventually dawned on me is that these guys weren't my allies in deriding "lamestream" hip hop, because that is a terrible dweeby opinion. No, they loved hip hop, all of hip hop, they understood what made the genre fun and powerful much better than I did.
Recommended tracks: Rainbow in the Dark, Hugo Chavez, Shut Up, Dude
3. Das Racist - Sit Down, Man
The absolute craziest thing about Das Racist in 2010 is that, a mere six months after dropping Shut Up, Dude, they did it all again with an even better sequel mixtape. During those six months, I went from the guarded skepticism described above to an unbearable superfan, quoting lines endlessly and writing long rambling articles about their brilliance. In January of 2011, a friend and I would brave Canadian winters and sleeping on floors and multiple bus rides and Hamilton just so we could see them on both Canadian stops of their first tour. Rarely have I ever experienced that sort of fervent fandom, but listening to this, it was all justified a dozen times over.
Like I really can't overstate my expectations of this mixtape... I wanted more of everything I liked about Sit Down, Man, but also a similar escalation in the number of appealing aspects that I experienced going from the first mixtape from my previous notions of the band. Some demands were paradoxical: I wanted it to get more esoterically intimate to their New York lifestyles, but also to let me in more. It had to be funnier and wackier but also more serious and profound. The beats had to get smoother and more professional but also a "leveled up" version of the unique sounds and aesthetics they first aimed for.
Okay okay you know where I'm going with this: they did it all! They did it all like five times over! Although the image of Das Racist as slackerrap, hashed out in Gchats and recorded on the fly, remained endearing and authentic, the creation of this tape in a mere six months is proof of substantial effort running underneath. That's 3 tracks a month! Tracks that, minute for minute, exceed those on Sit Down, Man in density, brilliance, direction... Faced with an audience that was slowly learning that they were much, much, more than viral-hit joke rappers, DR proves exhaustively that they're much more than even that.
Their entrance into the mainstream allowed them to collaborate with established pros like Sabzi, Boi-1da and major supporter Diplo, giving their sound a tightness and sheen that enabled them to explore new flows and sounds with the same confidence as those genres' established artists. That is, when they do something like "Luv It Mayne", their tongue-in-cheek homage to the exact sort of music that title suggests, they can do it as if they really were rolling deep in Bricksquad. The expertise of these vets meshes seamlessly with Das Racist's original production bench, further emphasizing the unique qualities they had discovered.
Likewise, their guest list expands from, well, no one, to something that includes cult legend El-P, Roc Marciano, and. uhh, jazz pianist Vijay Iver? What's truly amazing is how natural these collaborations sound, and how they elevate the expectations of their more unknown collaborators... like, who the hell is "Lakutis"? Well, he's someone that's given basically equally billing with El-P, so he's probably worth investigating, right? This investigation will prove extremely fruitful. Despot, Kassa Overall, Fat Tony... names beloved and familiar to fans of Greedhead got some of their first big breaks by bringing their A-game to this tape.
All of this achievement and expectation might seem like pressure, like stress, but Das Racist seems to embrace it as a wholly positive proof of an audience that could appreciate and understand them. As such, they feel even more comfortable in this mode, more willing to open up and speak sincerely on issues close to them. "Sincerely" is the key word here - it isn't that they feel compelled to push an agenda or get wrapped up in the greater potential power of their work, they just naturally share with us the contents of their interior world.
The result is that they feel more human, more understandable and relatable, reasonably degenerate and reasonably admirable. And yet the density of their lyrical content and expansiveness of their passions suggests something something really inhuman, something that couldn't have time for any human life outside of scribbling and rescribbling lyrics. I think it was this very paradox that lead to DOOM putting on the mask. DR, however, manage to find a sweet spot, naturally balancing their cleverness with silliness, coming across as just amazing people, people you'd love to befriend and hang out with.
It is an image that has persisted despite internal conflicts that broke them apart, well into their consistently noteworthy solo careers, and even through their sometimes rocky personal lives. I can remember thinking, even when they were together, that it was simply too good to last, and someday we'd be looking back at 2010 as the golden age, wondering how it could have even happened. Their solo careers and personal lives have diverged so far from each other that it really is a surprise sometimes to remember that they once rapped so readily and smoothly together. And although separately they have reached some heights of brilliance I couldn't have imagined of them together, there's a consistency and energy to them together that makes this tape something truly untouchable.
Recommended tracks: Hahahaha jk?, Rapping 2 U, Sit Down, Man
2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In the almost five years since the release of this album, it has, more than any other album in the decade, maybe in all of the 21st century, defined itself in a cultural canon as being a masterpiece. There are no comparisons off limit to it, no company it can't keep, no tier of greatness inaccessible. Rarely has pop music seen a project with this scale of ambitions, let alone one that succeeds and exceeds all of them. As public discourse on Kanye more readily blends his musical achievements with his public persona (often in a negative way), this album has endured as the great converter, the one suggest to explain why people still give attention to someone so frequently lambasted as a "douchebag" or a "jackass". It's powerful enough that all but the most contrarian will admit to liking, or at least respecting, Kanye as a musician in spite of his persona, but if that's where you end I'd argue that much of the album has been lost on you.
With MBDTF, we see not just a demonstration of the compelling grandeur of Kanye's ego, but proof of its very necessity in envisioning and creating music like this. In a word: confidence. In eight words: "I know damn well y'all feeling this shit". What sets this apart from other albums is the very fact that he was setting it apart from other albums, the restless, unquenchable desire to create a masterpiece and his unwavering confidence that he was succeeding. The attitude marks every track, elevating it beyond any of its peers. Consider the intro "Dark Fantasy" - the track first winds down at 3:50, a perfectly sensible time to end the track, but Kanye's faith in the addictiveness of his chorus pushes him to double down on it, bringing it back for another 50 second burst, shoring it up around the lines he knew you'd already being singing too. Or the next track, "Gorgeous": after three of his greatest verses to date, wrapped with a catchy but emotionally resonant hook, he switches the beat and brings in Raekwon, merging the track with a hypothetical remix that he's confident it deserves. It's a sick verse, but it could never function to restore dying interest in a mediocre track: the escalation functions through the listener really loving absolutely everything they've heard before.
This attitude transforms straightforward bangers like "Gorgeous" or "Devil in a New Dress" into ultimate classics that feel like the centerpiece track of lesser albums. It allows him to scoop talent by the handful into ensemble cast masterpieces like "Monster", "All of the Lights", and "So Appalled". It lets him sample King Crimson, Aphex Twin, and Gil Scott-Heron as if these artists didn't have legions of fans ready to scream sacrilege. My absolute favorite has to be when, deep into "Blame Game", during the godly section where his paranoia and guilt swirls around in a host of voices, he says "all of the lights" and he says it like he does during the song "All of the Lights"... he's like... canonized the reference from earlier in his own album... he's so assured that in the 35 or so minutes since that track, it would have been internalized in the listener's mind as a referenceable source. Does that seem absolutely amazing to anyone else? The album anticipates the world it creates!
And does so successfully! The number of memetic moments generated by this album is staggering. "Yeezy taught me", "No one man should have all this power", "Put the pussy in the sarcophagus", the chorus of "Runaway", Nicki's verse on "Monster", hell, Jay-Z's verse and Rick Ross's intro too. Would anyone argue that that still isn't Nicki's best verse ever? Rick Ross's verse on "Devil in a New Dress" is my favorite of his too. And I've heard he made Pusha T redo his verse on "Runaway" like six times before he thought it was good enough. The star-studded cast of this album bring their *****-game, to be sure, but in such a way that it feels like the ultimate versions of them, a justification and encapsulation and celebration of all their successes thus far. Even elements that some people find strange or abrasive - like the RZA's bizarre final verse on "So Appalled", or the autotuned breakdown at the end of "Runaway" - remain memorable to even their biggest detractors. Everything is so much the definitive version of itself, the most triumphant, polished, successful version.
If this all seems a bit... much, maybe... you'd be absolutely right. The opposite side of this confidence is the challenge that demands it: the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the obsession... It becomes obvious that Kanye felt himself capable of creating such an album, but it wouldn't be easy. Just think about the challenges that become obvious when simply breaking down any given second of this album and really looking at everything that's going on: the number of insights that had to be made, the number of creative decisions, the amount of mastering and engineering... And what becomes disturbingly apparent is that Kanye didn't just want to pull it off, he needed to. It is not exactly a mentally healthy album. It takes every trope and narrative of "the masterpiece which emerges from the madness of the reclusive, obsessive artist" and embraces them.
The narrative of this creation forms the backbone and dark core of the album, as relationships and music and the American Dream are all conflated into one great vortextual tragicomedy (or beautiful dark twisted fantasy). Everything is both sincere and self-parodius: the touching "Runaway" has "I sent this bitch a picture of my dick"; Chris Rock's hilarious bit at the end of "Blame Game" is actually some pretty brutal NTR when you think about it. We see Kanye at the absolute tops and bottoms of the quintessential story of American success. We see the illusions and the disillusionment. We ask ourselves, how is anyone meant to survive this? We see a man who is compelled to bring about his artistic vision, one that makes demands of quality and scope beyond our imagination. And we hear an unqualified triumph.
Recommended tracks: c'mon just listen to the whole thing.
1. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
Okay yes sure MBDTF is one of the greatest albums we're likely to see in our entire lifetimes but this list isn't about "the objective greatest masterpieces of 2010", it's about my favorite music and this is Joanna Newsom who makes music that makes me feel like I'm melting and this is over two hours of it and if there was some sort of "idea storage" and I could save this existence of only certain albums in a burning 2010 warehouse I think I would grab Have One On Me and immediately leave before I risked it getting damaged because the other 14 albums on this list combined aren't as precious to me as just this one. Whew.
Not that this isn't an "objective" god-tier masterpiece itself, that deserves all the academic analysis and critical praise and places among pantheons as we can give it. Newsom retains the ambitious density of her previous album, 2006's Ys, but moves into a more traditional songwriting form. Where the tracks on Ys sprawled beautifully to their 9+ minute lengths in grand narratives and suite-like syntheses, Have One On Me's tracks feel much more like songs, with clear ideas of beginning and end. It's just that... to accommodate her vast narrative and rich instrumentation and her seemingly endless font of musical ideas, a lot of these songs end up being quite long themselves.
What I guess I see the big difference between this and Ys is that, generally, Ys felt very organic, with every song spreading outwards from singular images and aesthetics for as far as their poeticism would carry them, Have One On Me feels more constructed, as poetic images were worked into a balanced and structured musical project. The result is an album that brings to bear the entirety its 2 hour 3 disc weight but still feels like a collection of sequenced moments. I'm not sure if anyone besides other hardcore Newsom fans will appreciate this distinction, and they probably won't need it.
It's the balance of these moments that I think is the most masterful element of the album. Songs are spread across a spectrum of tension and relaxation, giving the larger structure a respiration-like flow. In tone, they range subtly from joyful abandon to dark reservation, feeling like the album is always leading you deeper in investment, closer to some secret happy or unhappy truth. Tracks like "Easy" and "Go Long" are knife-edge continuous slow rolls of tension, one happy and one sad: but in the sadness there is clarity, in the happiness doubt; in the tension the promise of relief, and in relief, emptiness. Other tracks form inter-song positional shifts - "No Provenance" and "Ribbon Bows" are hardcore slowburners, allowing you to ruminate on the drama that precedes them and anticipate the drama sure to follow while sinking into the richness that is Joanna's voice unperturbed.
The masterpiece tracks, however, are those that have this function of malleable tension within them: the dramatic arc of the title track, the shift in "Good Intentions Paving Company", the escalation of "Soft as Chalk", the tragedy buried deep within "Baby Birch", the indescribable "Kingfisher"... There's a richness of story within them that rivals those of entire other albums, or HBO dramatic series, for that matter. It's brought out through orchestral arrangement that is almost too perfect, almost so good that you cease to be able to appreciate how good it is, and lyrics that have, maybe a bit less obviously, the same tier of perfection.
I think if I was handed the lyrics of this album as a book of poetry I wouldn't have any doubt that it was a masterpiece of modernist thought and would eagerly do all sorts of degenerate academic analysis type things. Joanna's ability to seamlessly merge personal memories, historic allusions, universal themes, and poetic imagery remains untouched from her last demonstration in 2006. Again, the album-song balanced structure proves fruitful, as each song has an internal resolution, but contributes to the greater story of the album.
To me, it is a story of a woman who is first madly in love with another, but begins to realize his flaws and ultimately leaves him. It's tragic and compelling, as you're completely sold on every step: you believe the depth of her love on "Easy", you see the depths of his horror on "Go Long", you feel the great quaking distance of closer "Does Not Suffice". It has a Joycean feeling of ur-narrative to it, a feeling of both detailed and necessary context but simultaneously also abstract universalness, a story that just depicts the relation of two entities.
So we've got this archetype-defining, seizingly enthralling story expressed musically and lyrically across eighteen tracks, varying in tension, length, tone, and arc to provide an elegantly balanced listening experience, sustained for the two hour duration. That's amazing. That's the very reason for the term "magnum opus". That's another unqualified success. But that isn't the reason it's in the top spot in my list.
No, no, the real reason is that this album is extremely precious and special to me personally. For five years I have been accumulating reverence and memories for this album, and its ability to transform any two hour stretch into something heavenly calming and satisfying. For me, it is less an album, less an actual collection of sounds, as it is some sort of celestial memory-constellation, or memory-galaxy maybe, of glittering perfect associated ideas.
Some of the brightest burning ones: when she first sings "Easy", so immediately on the opener; when she sings the title on the title track with that wonderful horn response; when she sings about "the hook upon which everyone hangs" in "Good Intentions Paving Company and it feels like the whole universe swings into view; the beginning of "Go Long", and the shocking "twist" behind the door; when she's crying out "who's there" on "Soft as Chalk", all of "Kingfisher", but especially everything after "We came by the boatload" and especially especially the verse starting with "I had a dream you came to me", which is probably in my top 10 for moments in music period. Any given aspect of this would suffice for me to hold this album in the highest esteem for decades, but all of them together is simply unreal.
This is the most precious sort of music to me. Other albums can soundtrack active moments or provide some emotional sustenance, but this is what I turn to when I want to just completely lose myself in an album. The sort of music you put on when lying in bed or on long bus rides, times where you want to feel like an entire universe exists made entirely of the sounds. This is about as beautiful as it gets.
Okay that's it
That was pretty fun, I'm happy with how it turned out, prolly will do some other years in the future. The size of these writeups is a good middle ground where I feel like I can say something substantial without the pressure to say absolutely everything I can think of about each album.
Joanna Newsom's new album Divers could leak any second now! Street dates have been broken in a few stores - the LP is in the hands of some lucky hands! Such is my justification for checking every second. Could we see Kanye get in gear and deliver Swish by the year's end, allowing for a round two of this great AotY battle? Hmm, probably not.