Sunday, January 4, 2009

Other views on 2008

One of the pleasures that occurs this time of year is the best-of-year lists from so many different sources. Music junkies need reliable sources for new music and new artists, and these lists provide a valuable service to reflect on the high points of the previous year. A worthwhile annual review will have enough overlap with material I've heard and enjoyed for me to trust the source, and the best ones provide additional commentary and context (something my own simple list did not). So for my last post looking backwards to 2008, I've gathered some notes on annual reviews that will keep my curiosity piqued.

For many years, my standard source for new music has been The Wire, an eclectic new music magazine from England. I subscribed to Rolling Stone through the election for their entertaining political coverage, but their musical taste is too commercial and too narrowly focused on mainstream pop to have much lasting interest, and I let my subscription lapse. So The Wire the only print source that I still use. Their annual "Rewind" issue lists their top 50 albums overall, and the top 15 within individual genres. I have seven albums from their top 50 (including two in the top 10), two in the Electronica charts, and three from Modern Composition, although we only had one overlap in our annual reviews (Earth). Usually I have a fair representation of their Outer Limits, but perhaps my taste is getting more conservative, or, more likely, their Outer Limits are getting more obscure.

I like The Wire's classical charts because of its contemporary focus, whereas most classical music lists are, again, too narrowly focused on the standard repertoire. Ionarts, for example, includes on his list only one new release of music written since World War II, an album of Peteris Vasks's choral music. He also includes DGG's massive 32-CD set of Messaien's complete works among the best reissues, kind of a slam dunk in this year of Messaien centennial (The Wire included a volume of organ works, its only foray into standard repertoire), but otherwise we have Stravinsky, Mahler, Prokofiev, Haydn, Mozart, etc.

The online zine Textura also had an interesting mixture in their best-of-2008 list, a fine blend of contemporary electronica, pop, ambient, and dub. We shared two items in the top 20 (Jacaszek and Ruhlmann/Celer), and they include some commentary that will prompt me to seek out some of the others.

My fellow bloggers provide some of the most unusual lists. Brian Olewnick gives his top 85 (out of 200), divided hierarchically into the top 10, middle 12, and the rest. There are lots of artists here I don't know, which I find attractive, but I suspect that it's mostly contemporary improvisation, with a healthy smattering of modern composition and drone ambient. Two items from my top 20 made Brian's middle 12 (Feldman and Murray). Robert Kirkpatrick at Spiral Cage had a fascinating approach, a daily series of posts covering twelve interesting recordings from 2008, all with extensive commentary and footnotes. He introduces the project as his personal response to the stream of best-of-the-year lists, and his final post contains an index to each of the twelve pieces, as well as other highlights that he did not cover. Again, heavy on contemporary improvisation, although he includes a Cage number piece and one of Radu Malfatti's very sparse compositions.

Two last examples from the blogosphere. The first is from Richard Pinnell, a radio producer who also runs Cathnor Recordings. His year-in-review article is touchstone of this particular genre. His context extends far beyond a simple paragraph about a particular work into a reflection on whole genres of music and modes of listening. And finally, Disquiet's report on the best of 2008 is divided into commercial albums, freely available downloads, and "cultural processes that came into their own in 2008." Marc is the only annual compendium to honor netlabels (my other source, Free Albums Galore, didn't publish a review list). But Marc's comments about drones struck close to my heart:

What elevates one drone above another? Much of the music heard here, from the entirety of Kevin Drumm’s aptly named Imperial Distortion, to several key moments on the equally appropriately titled Ghosts from Nine Inch Nails, to the audio cumulus of Ryonkt, qualifies as a drone. A drone is precisely the sort of sound that is easily dismissible as background noise in our ever more electronically enhanced and mediated society. It is also the artistic territory of a wide range of musicians. The seemingly fungible nature of drones may give the lie to the whole act of distinguishing between (or within) any types music.

This is a question to which I keep returning, as well as the larger one of how to define quality in music. What makes one piece of music "good" and another, less so? Sometimes when I read reviews where the author passes judgment on the artwork, I wonder where the author gets the arrogance to proclaim that a work is "such a dog," when what is really on display is simply the author's taste. Granted, reviewers may have exposed themselves to more examples of the genre, and may have studied various technical aspects of the craft, but one person's endless tangents is another's enriching context. I haven't found an answer, of course; I'm not sure there is one. Blogs provide a democratization of history, so that good listeners can provide their own chains of context, personal highpoints and testimonials, so that other listeners may seek intersections and find their way to new music and new artists.

And finally, this blog is two years old today. Happy blogospheric birthday to me!


Richard Pinnell said...

Hi Caleb

Thanks for the mention of my blog, I'll return the favour with a link to yours later.

One amusing thing, Robert Kirkpatrick's site is named A Spiral Cage, not Spiral Frog! Though I must say that I possibly like your title better. ;)

Caleb Deupree said...

A big fat ribbity oops on my part! Not sure what kind of Freudian slip that was...