We’re a little freaked out that it’s almost 2015. The decade is half over! To try and make sense of time passing the Recorder staff is going to write about their favorite stuff from the past 5 years in a few installments between now and the end of the year. We’re starting things off with music!
This category is a bit of a biscuit for me to start off with, since I’m much less tuned into music than most other bits of pop culture. That being said, when I sat down to write this, only one work really stood out. Helplessness Blues is the 3rd album from Fleet Foxes, a folksy indie rock band from the Pacific Northwest. Released in early 2011, just a few months after I started working at Groupon, it became the soundtrack for my life as I started to negotiate the post-college world. That year was the first time I’d really had to fend for myself, and the lyrics from Helplessness Blues helped me to make some sense of the sudden onset of responsibilities and choices that being a self-sufficient adult represents. It’s a album about work, and longing, and hope, and disappointment. It’s pretty pure-grain Bean Fodder, honestly. And that’s just the lyrics! The music is an act of aural daring and scope that I rarely find in rock music anymore. Lead by the soaring vocals of Robin Pecknold, the album is swooningly gorgeous, full of riffs and rests and pleasures that I don’t have the training to properly describe. It sounds like what being young and hopeful and not at all convinced that those qualities are enough anymore feels like. It was my music for this half-decade.
I remember my introduction to TV on the Radio vividly. I was living in Pittsburgh, working at a Sam Goody in a South Hills mall. My co-worker who was in charge of the music convinced me to pre-order their initial full-length album, because it would help sell out our stock before the release date. In doing so, it meant that our store would be more likely to keep the album in our standard catalog. My roommate at the time was interested in the band, so I figured at least one of us would enjoy it.
That was one of the bigger underestimations of my life.
Their music wormed its way through my ears and lodged deep into my brain. What’s more, each follow-up album displayed a musical act that evolved & grew stronger with each album. The most recent, released in 2011, is the incandescent Nine Types of Light. Not satisfied with a tight & mind-blowing album of layered sonic wonders, TV on the Radio also released a full suite of music videos tied together with interviewees talking about dreams, love, obsession, and other ephemera:
The first single, “Will Do,” is a beautiful, melancholic song that contains the perfect descriptor for the album as a whole: “I’d love to collapse with you / And ease you against this song.” Nine Types of Light keeps with the band’s style of eclecticism, lush vocals, & sonic layering. The songs are accessible, welcoming, waiting for you to plumb their lyrical & aural depths. The recurring themes are heavy, but the music inviting: choices leading to personal & social apocalypse; cracks in facades figurative that may threaten stability or let in needed light; broken emotional connections that can lead to inspiration or obsession. TV on the Radio has teased us with a couple new songs recently, but until the next album joins them, this is hands-down my soundtrack for the half-decade.
I’m perpetually behind on music, whether understanding it, coming around to it, or even knowing what the hell is going on. Case in point, I’ve had the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack for years, but just now got around to exploring some of the artists playing music (specifically Gillian Welch). Thus, when we’re talking music of the last five years, I tend to go “well, I got a new copy of What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, so that was pretty cool.
Bon Iver was a different story. Granted, I didn’t get around to listening to For Emma, Forever Ago when it was released in 2008, but I was at least around for when the album Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released in 2011. Going through a bit of a painful breakup, as well as a myriad of other issues, I ate up the melancholy feelings of the entire album. Justin Vernon doesn’t so much write lyrical narratives as he does create soundscapes of emotion grounded in verbal feelings. Consequently, the experience of listening to a Bon Iver song is to be enraptured by nature, to tumble gently down a river, to sit on a shore and watch people pass by for hours at a time. There is nothing about the song “Holocene” that never fails to make me cry. “Minnesota, WI” echoes mournfully at first before resolving into something like a stroll through the woods somewhere in the north, frozen and bleak, surrounded by snow falling from trees. “Calgary” is perched atop a cliff, a wide, tumbling valley sprawling away below. “Beth/Rest” is a perfect closing number, aptly named as you are folded into a blanket. It’s not the best album ever made, but it’s an immensely personal experience.
I’m rather fond of it.
I first heard the Cincinnati-formed band The National after their 2008 album, Boxer, when “Fake Empire” dominated CD101 in my current city of Columbus, Ohio (and everywhere else). They are definitely one of my favorite bands from the last five years. Their 2010 release, High Violet and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me are stunning. The former’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” single took fans by storm, and I especially love the gorgeous “Runaway” from that album.
Last year’s Trouble Will Find Me is a near-perfect entity, from start to finish. What was probably my favorite album from 2013 contained amazing tracks including “I Need My Girl,” “Fireproof,” and “Graceless,” among others. Matt Berninger’s low growl, singing his and Aaron Dessner’s melancholy lyrics, gets me every time. I can’t wait to hear what they do in the next five years.
Right before I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago, Taylor Swift—whom hitherto I had brushed off as a not particularly interesting county singer, a LeAnn Rimes Mark II—released a song called “You Belong With Me.” The lyrics were teenage fantasy fluff, but the music snatched my senses and wouldn’t let go: it had the masterful command of hook-laden, strongly melodic pop composition one finds in ABBA, the Beatles, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter. Over the past five years, “You Belong With Me” has been the cornerstone for an exciting musical evolution. Swift’s skills as a composer have stayed at the same irresistible level as her sound has turned into a unique voice—neither pop nor rock nor country but a compound of all three. She matches this with lyrics which have increasingly shed melodrama and winsome “You really, really like me?” posturing for far more adult takes on love, heartbreak, and the everyday struggles of growing older and growing up. The culmination of this mature was her last album, Red, which approaches, and at times may equal, the accessible but intensely personal early 70s work of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. If a decade later we speak Taylor Swift’s name in the same breath as King and Mitchell, I will not be surprised, for as a devotee of American pop music, her continually raising the bar is a listener’s joy.