Moving forward

Pub date December 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Gathering my thoughts about how I listened to music in 2008, I think not only of Luc Sante’s piece on Manny Farber in this month’s Artforum, but also Ariana Reines’ Action, Yes piece explaining why she hates the "cleanness and elegance of tight and perfect writing." In different ways, both pieces deal with the importance of smallness, incompleteness, and, to steal the title of Reines’ piece, "sucking."

Because it’s easy not to suck, and this may or may not be the Internet’s fault. Music itself did not suck in 2008, despite the crumbling of an always-already imaginary consensus, and that’s maybe what’s so unsatisfying about trying to hang 12 months on something as well-executed yet under-inspiring as, say, Dear Science (Interscope). I’m not sure that people won’t start rallying around a single release or clutch of releases to narrate what made this year worth listening to deeply, but the albums that spring to mind now as forecasting what will sound good in the future are ones that pursued a small, near-inarticulate muse and ended up with something almost monomaniacal. It’s not a coincidence then that so many of these records were made during time apart from the artists’ main gig. The economy, man. We all gotta grind.


1. Inca Ore, Birthday of Bless You (Not Not Fun)

Former PDXer and current Oaklander Eva Saelens is Inca Ore. Her most recent solo LP is an incantatory, patient ritual, a literally awesome tapestry of magnetic tape smears, disembodied wails, and dark, roiling resonance.

2. Arms, Kids Aflame (Melodic)

Harlem Shakes guitarist Todd Goldstein strikes out on his own here, and the results can be insanely satisfying: the indie triumvirate made up of "Whirring," the title track, and "Tiger Tamer" is a welcome reminder that pop music is supposed to make your heart race. The album’s second half is less distinctive, but it’s not like it hasn’t earned the right to be.

3. Bohren and der Club of Gore, Dolores (Ipecac)

There’s nothing organic about this full-length’s inert pace: slow enough to make Swans sound like a thrash band, its floating vibraphone riffs eerily familiar/defamiliarizing like only the Twin Peaks soundtrack before it, Dolores at times seems like a morbid joke. If the characters in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy listened to music, I have a hunch it would sound much like this.

4. Zomes, Zomes (Holy Mountain)

In addition to playing guitar in Lungfish, Asa Osborne constructs sturdy little habitations out of drum machine, guitar, and organ under the Zomes moniker. While it may sound too controlled at first, the recording’s insistence on small, unvarying patterns reveals itself as an autonomous language over time, its photocopy mystery emerging from the stuff of repetition and reproduction itself.

5. Ssion, Fool’s Gold (Sleazetone)

This disc’s two release dates might as well stand in for its own ability to navigate, rather than drown in, Internet-era self-reflexivity — it seems less like a one-off collection of jams than a collection of techniques for fucking with identity. Tracks like "Street Jizz" and "Clown" don’t have to decide between earnestly camp and campily earnest because they realize a third way.

6. School of Language, Sea from Shore (Thrill Jockey)

The punched-out vowel sounds that open this album recall, like Sébastien Tellier’s "Divine," old Art of Noise productions. Field Music’s David Brewis uses them as a bed not for uptight Euro-funk, but for generously rendered bedroom prog. At moments surprisingly muscular ("Disappointment ’99") but always rhythmically ambitious, Sea may seem like Manny Farber’s "white elephant art" from the outside, but is unmistakably "termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art" within.

7. Indian Jewelry, "Free Gold!" (We Are Free)

Thematically, the idea of establishing your own currency as a subversion of government and the totalizing power of capitalism both has a precedent, at least, in the B-52’s Whammy (Warner Bros., 1983). The record’s appeal has little to do with good timing, however: there are too many honest-to-goodness songs here for it to be "out" rock, too much Rev/Vega worship for it to be simply psychedelic. Gold’s appeal, instead, is its beefy epileptic punch. Listen close and feel the retina burn.

8. Portishead, Third (Mercury/Island)

It would be a lie if I said I didn’t care about this band before this album, but what’s remarkable here is that for all the group’s touted perfectionism, the two preceding LPs consistently opted for the warmth of loneliness, something the listener could, y’know, identify with. In contrast, Third is a hard, long, steely drag on modernism’s cold monumentality: "Machine Gun" is dubstep packed tight into a tarry espresso shot. Even the escape imagined in "The Rip" is hounded by a spidery Casio riff — the stuff of uneasy sleep.

9. RA.085, Tobias Freund Podcast (

Stepping away from dance-oriented mixes for a minute, Resident Advisor commissions the best mix they’ve ever hosted. Freund’s work is hard to find, but this mix makes clear that he’s got a privileged understanding of both minimal techno and ambient’s DNA — and some killer crate-digging luck. I mean, come on, that Savant track? (Discogs it!)

10. Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna (Social Registry)

The cliché about bands like GGD — nominally "noise," but whose music actually deals in another kind of abstraction, like Animal Collective or Excepter — is that they get more pop and more weird as they grow into their career. Saint Dymphna can be swallowed whole — parts of God’s Money (Social Registry, 2005) tended to stick in the throat — and the group makes no bones that this comes at the expense of extraneous oddness. But a certain strange eclecticism takes its stead. Occasionally Lizzie Bougastos’ voice sounds like a Wiccan falsetto incarnation of M.I.A. The band openly goes for dubstep in "Princes," and "House Jam" is the song folks will go apeshit over at their reunion concerts 20 years in the future.