2007 The Everybodyfields – Nothing is OK
On the one hand, it’s entirely possible that the content and emotional tenor of Everything is OK is the result of the band’s songwriters themselves breaking up. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter. Its title an answer to the question posed in one of its songs (the song itself is titled “Everything is OK”), Nothing is OK is a study in sadness. Loss, disappointment, the whole gamut of “this is a pretty terrible situation”-related emotions, really. And yet, at the end of the thing what you come out with is a singularly gorgeous record.
2008 Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
After a few years making records that sounded like conversations between synthesizers and effects pedals, Liz Harris took some of the post-production effects home and wrote some honest-to-jesus songs1, which she then buried in wash and echo because, y’know, this is still a Grouper record. Songs mentioning sleep and dreams flow along without much urgency, while still managing to create a huge amount of momentum. Combining psychedelic art music’s propensity for taking over its own surroundings with ambient music’s ability to wrap itself around any situation, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, more than any other record, sounds very much like the soundtrack to whatever it is that’s happening while you play it. Of course, it also makes everything seem like the hottest day of summer and that you need a nap. In the best way possible, I mean.
2009 Mono – Hymn to the Immortal Wind
If Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is unobtrusive enough to make anything you do seem like it fits perfectly, Hymn to the Immortal Wind – which is no less cinematic in its workings – forces everything you do to feel like an epic of biblical proportions. Closest in instrumentation and approach to something more like Silver Mt. Zion than Tortoise, it’s still Mono that manages to seem the most like what I would call actual post-rock. Not “beyond” or “over” rock, but able to subsume rock music within what they were doing in a way that made it exactly the same kind of building block as the Japanese folk music and Euopean classical music2 that are clearly also providing a basis for the sounds that Mono is using to make huge, cathartic pieces. Plus, it’s always nice when a band without a lyricist or singer decides to make a concept record – you can read the short story in the liner notes, and then listen to the record, since there is apparently no way to make a concept record with lyrics that isn’t occasionally the most ridiculous thing ever put to tape.
HONORABLE MENTION: Merzbow’s amazing 13 Japanese Birds is actually 15 different albums released throughout 2009, and is immense in its scope and its accomplishment. But while I’ll make an exception for two-part companion records (SPOILER ALERT – see below), 15-part records seem a bit beyond what we’re doing here. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty staggering set of records. Go check it out.
2010 Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude/Sit Down, Man
It’s technically two mixtapes, not one, but they’re impossible to separate at this point, so they get one spot. It’s always impossible to tell how influential something may turn out to be, but it would be hard to believe that Das Racist won’t be remembered as a pretty big point. They weren’t really “about” anything – they were an excellent group who didn’t really stand for stuff, that weren’t really scene-based (well, not at first anyway. A scene would sort of form around them, like a pearl) or subgenre-based. If it was important that De La Soul came around to rap about things that weren’t the darkest parts of the world, and that Kanye West figured out how to make rap as personal as the navel-gazingest of folksingeres, then it was equally important that Das Racist figured out how to do none of those things. A year or so after their seemingly-jokey “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” Shut Up, Dude arrived to show that that was, in fact, not a joke. That was what they were doing. And they removed it from its novelty context3 and placed it within the idea of a rap group predicated on nothing in particular (carrying to its logical end the suggestion of Wale’s earliest mixtapes) except hip hop itself – they would prove themselves willing to work with El-P, with Mister Mothafucking eXquire, with Diplo, and they were, as much as anything, responsible for galvanizing the NYC alt-rap scene as it currently is. Sit Down, Man finished the story, providing the second half of what, really, is basically the meaningful part of their body of work. They made one studio record – Relax – after this, and the best songs from it were reworked versions of songs from the mixtapes, and then they broke up. But for two messy, largely-unfocused hours worth of songs, they were one of the most exciting acts in hip hop in ways that continue to be unpacked until now.
HONORABLE MENTION: LCD Soundsystem were, by contrast, a bunch of professionally-focused actual musicians who made well-crafted records that meant stuff. That’s not to say that This is Happening isn’t an amazing accomplishment – it capped off a similarly short-lived run of a great, unique band. It just wasn’t quite as good.
2011 Doomtree – No Kings
While POS is easily Doomtree’s most visible and most consistent member, (or maybe it’s Lazerbeak), Paper Tiger clearly the guy that keeps their sound grounded, and Dessa seems like their ethical rudder, Doomtree are, to use the cliche, considerably more than the sum of their parts. But while everyone’s contributions are important – “Bolt Cutter” and “Bangarang” sort of establishing the range of what’s going on, Doomtree’s secret weapon is its least-visible, the calm, slow-burning Cecil Otter. Responsible earlier in 2011 for the much-blogged-about Wugazi mash-up, in which Fugazi songs are combined with Wu-Tang Clan as a way to get back in touch with what brought Doomtree about, Cecil Otter also provides a great deal of the record’s heart, and it’s Cecil Otter who provides the record (and, to date, the band) with its masterpiece. Much as Millions Now Living Will Never Die is a record that exists to support “Djed,” so does No Kings come off like the record that was built around “Little Mercy,” the credit for which belongs almost entirely to Cecil Otter (there’s a verse by Dessa in the middle – and it’s actually her best verse in a walk). Delivering on the promise of each of its members’ solo careers, No Kings provided a handy reminder that sometimes it’s good to have music that invites you to break some legs. Then mend ‘em. And then take the casts off.
2012 Swans – The Seer
I know, I know. I don’t have a whole lot to say about it that I didn’t say ten months ago. It leaves Swans as the only band to have put out two records on this list, which I’m pretty ok with. Since No Kings was mentioned as a record organized around a song, I feel it’s worth mentioning here that, while the title track clearly provides the centerpiece of the record – and, really, any song that’s a full half hour long is going to seem like the major point of an album – it doesn’t really dominate the record like other linchpin-type songs would. Instead the whole album flows as though it was one long piece, with Michael Gira’s voice in and out of the mix, and other singers appearing to contribute elegies (Karen O. on “Song for a Warrior”), chanting (Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on “Lunacy”), or a reminder that this is a band with a great deal of history, both musical and otherwise (Jarboe on “The Seer Returns” – which references its own status as a callback – and “A Piece of the Sky” – which also features fellow Michael Gira former-collaborators Akron/Family5). As such, it’s a perfectly excellent record to end this list with.
That’s it folks, I bid you adieu. Come back soon for more regularly-scheduled yelling! Thanks for sticking with me for this one. I know it got a bit long there.
1 Continuing on from earlier, this list could have had He Knows in the 2006 spot and Xiu Xiu’s Women As Lovers in 2008, and both records would occupy basically the same spot in their respective bands’ catalogs: the end result of their “early period” and the more pop-oriented “song period,” respectively. It’s also worth pointing out that that same year saw Xiu Xiu and Grouper make an album together, so I’m clearly not the only person to notice they have a similar arc.
2 I don’t know where or how to include the information that a couple of the string players – including Helen Money – were in fucking Poi Dog Pondering, of all things. The world is truly a strange and unknowable place.
3 well, sort of. They never really stopped being goofy and silly, they just stopped coming off like a less-energetic Lonely Island and emerged as actual rappers.
4 who, again, are neither from Akron nor a family.