Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Best of 2011

The official selection process for my year’s best list began a week before Christmas when my wife Allie took off for a weekend trip with a friend and I had the whole house to myself. I took all my 2011 records off the shelf, leaned them against my stereo cabinet in two neat piles, and proceeded to pair them off in sudden-death match-ups, the volume cranked high. The competition began with a fury as I sipped my coffee on Saturday morning: White Fence’s Is Growing Faith vs. Peaking Lights’ 936. White Fence won easily and advanced past Spectre Folk’s The Blackest Medicine, Vol. II before falling in the third round to Ducktails’ III: Arcade Dynamics, whose victory was so decisive it left no doubt that this stony collection of ultra-echofied tunes by Real Estate’s lead guitarist would wind up in the top ten. By noon I had a bracket going and was tweeting all the action to my 23 loyal followers.
The tournament was more or less rigged. I knew going in what my final four would be, so I went through an entire legal pad trying to figure out a defensible way for these favorite records to make it to the semifinals. By sundown I was blissing out to a mismatch between Herbcraft’s Ashram to the Stars and Phish’s The White Tape when I began to see how absurd the whole venture was. I remembered what a famous guitarist once said as he was accepting a “best of the year” award, that music isn’t completion, and I felt a wave of guilt for imposing such capitalistic cutthroat-ness on egalitarian beauty. Plus so much of the music that came into my life this year is utterly incommensurable. Like that first match up. How can anyone honestly compare the highly distorted 60s pop revival of White Fence to the syncopated spaciness of Peaking Lights? It’s like turnips and pomegranates. It was fun to spend a day shuffling and sorting and celebrating all these wonderful new objects, trying to figure out how they defined this year in my life, but by bedtime I was fully repentant. I tweeted, “The brackets aren't a good idea. Tomorrow I'll swap ‘versus’ for ‘and’.”
The next day was one of creative coupling: Wet Hair’s über weird super synth freak out with Mississippi Records’ reissue of Fanfody, a collection of field recordings from Madagascar; the Record Store Day re-release of Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-rock masterpiece Electric Music for the Mind and Body with The Polyps’ Ants on the Golden Cone and its ambient clouds of feedback that billow and contort and dissipate to reveal the most lovely and quiet folk melodies; the savory international fusion flavor Julian Lynch’s Terra next to the widely acclaimed second LP by his good friends in Real Estate next to the no-nonsense pop rock of the Feelies, to whom Real Estate is often compared; Kurt Vile’s 7” next tohis 12” EP next to his LP.
By the time Allie returned I still had dozens of new releases to listen to, including two big contenders for Numero Uno that I wouldn’t for play for nearly two weeks because it was too painful to do so. A few days before my year’s best selection process began, our dog Maddie died after a long battle with cancer. Maddie had been the most consistent source of joy in our lives, and during the final stages of her illness we’d developed a daily ritual of “pack nights” where we’d dim the lights in our living room, cozy up and listen the best new psychedelic rock. Allie requested a moratorium on any sounds that called those evenings to mind, so we nursed our wounds with a binge of Delta blues and kept Woods’ Sun and Shade and Matt Valentine’s What I Became at bay because they were just too vivid of reminders of what we had just lost. Especially the Woods record. We’d listened to it over and over throughout the summer as tumors spread across Maddie’s body.
Then, on the last Friday of the year, my wife asked if we could hear the Grateful Dead’s Europe 72 Vol. 2, which she hadn’t been able to listen to since the night Maddie died, when we sat together and cried to its stunning version of “Sing Me Back Home.” It doesn’t get much more psychedelic than that, with its rare pairing of “Dark Star” and “The Other One” that sprawls across three sides of virgin 180 gram vinyl. And you don’t think music can ever get any better, but then Jerry Garcia slows it down and conjures all the beautiful sadness of life and death with an old Merle Haggard song, “Sing Me Back Home.” I looked over at Allie and she appeared to be contented, so I decided to push the envelope and put on Sun and Shade. At some point during side one, probably when Jeremy Earl sings, “Oh what falls apart and what won’t come back, lay it loose, let it love like that,” I realized that I had been listening to this album at the precise moment when I came to terms with the fact that Maddie would not only die but would die very soon. Allie had gone out with some friends so it was just me and the dogs. I petted Maddie during the first track, “Pushing Onlys,” and I found a half dozen new tumors and I just started bawling and I kept bawling and petting Maddie all the way through. With it playing again now, and with our pack down to three, I turned to Allie and I told her about this moment and the tears came again. I cried hard, so hard that my whole body tensed up and I had to gasp for breath, but when it was over I told Allie it felt good. And that was when I knew what was the best album of 2011.

My top ten:
10. Jovontaes Things Are Different Here
9. The Polyps Ants on the Golden Cone
8. Ryan Garbes Sweet Hassle
7. MV + EE Country Stash
6. TIE Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics | Real Estate Days
5. TIE Grateful Dead Europe 72 vol 2 | Conrad Schnitzler Live 1972
4. Wet Hair In Vogue Spirit
3. Kurt Vile Smoke Ring for My Halo
2. Matt Valentine What I Became
1. Woods Sun and Shade

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