So, first off, I’ve got a request to make of you. It’s one that is important to me as a writer, a reader, as someone who cares deeply about community, as someone who cares deeply about Inwood and Washington Heights, the two northernmost neighborhoods of Manhattan, some of the places I felt most at home and most excited in all of New York City.
When I lived in Inwood, there was very little happening by way of public arts. Sure there was a free Shakespeare festival in Inwood Hill Park and jazz brunches at Indian Road Cafe, but they were the kind of events which catered to the well-to-do, white population on the west side of Broadway, not the much larger working class Dominican and Black population on the east side. There’s nothing wrong with that per-se, but arts weren’t something bringing people together in this part of New York. Then, a few months before I moved to Chicago, I heard about a bookstore that had opened up in my neighborhood, a place called Word Up. I visited the store all of once before I left the city, but the visit had a profound impact. This was a space that was not only trying to make an impact and provide a resource to the community, but to do so while being as inclusive as possible. The store had almost as many spanish language books (Wash Heights and Inwood are the biggest Dominican enclaves in NYC) as it did english books. It had as many practical books (GED prep, baby books, tax help books) as it did books of poetry and literature. And the events that the space hosted weren’t just trendy authors from Brooklyn talking about their adventures making kombucha. Instead they were a representation of the interests of the community, the whole community- storytelling events in spanish and english for kids, open mics, Washington Heights punk shows, bi-lingual meditation, lgbtq speakers, and writing workshops in the two languages of the community. The space became more than shelves where you could buy books. It became a space for expression, for learning. It became exactly what the community needed.
The store opened as a pop up and is now looking to move into a permanent space. There are lots of places you can give or spend your money. But if you’ve got any to spare and want to help a bookstore that cares about its community, Word Up needs your help. You can read more and donate here.
Ok. Now onto the music.
Janna Hunter, singer of one of the bands on this list, wrote a very compelling essay not too long ago about music streaming sites like Spotify where she said, “If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to.” I agree wholeheartedly. One of the most wonderful and also masochistic things about being a not-totally-rich music fan is not being able to buy every album you want when it comes out. Sometimes things move from the “I want this now” to the “If there’s money left after groceries” to the “well, if I don’t go out for drinks this weekend, maybe i’ll pick that up.” It doesn’t make the albums any less good or worthy. Probably the opposite. When I finally have 15 extra dollars and get a copy of an album I’ve been waiting for, I have no doubt waiting and sitting with these albums helps me appreciate them for how good they are, So here you go- the best music I listened to in 2012 that was released before 2012.
Charles “Packy” Axton- Late Late Party
I don’t know who to blame for this, or if to blame anyone. Late Late Party is an album which makes me deeply uncomfortable. But it’s not the music’s fault. The songs, all the kind of taut, near-boiling soul that made Stax records something really special, are all pretty amazing. They stand as relics and they also stand as sticks of railroad dynamite which could blow up the museum at any point. These songs simmer, is another way to put it. But what makes me uncomfortable is how these songs are presented.
Charles Axton didn’t write many of these songs. Charles Axton sings on, as far as I can tell, none of these songs. Charles Axton plays saxophone on some of these tracks. On “Last Night” the most well-known song here, he is one of two saxophone players. Zero of the tracks on this album are credited to Packy himself. On some, especially the three dim, late night specters contributed by the group LH and the Memphis Sounds, there is almost no saxophone at all and Packy doesn’t even have a writing credit on the tracks. So my question, my sadness, my confusion is that you can’t google LH and the Memphis Sounds; nothing substantial comes up save for one old blog post. LH White, the singer on those three tracks only found his way onto my iPod becuase there was an enigmatic white guy sitting somewhere in the recording studio. I don’t mean to dismiss Packy Axton (though, reading his biography, it seems like he got what he got because his mother and uncle owned Stax records). This is a great album, and the argument could be made that as long as the music is out there, does it matter how it is being packaged? For me, yeah, it does. Because a good number of the players, songwriters, singers, the people who make the music on Late Late Party really special are black, and yet there’s the name of a white saxophone player on the album’s spine. It’s not a bad album. It’s just complicated.
Lower Dens- Twin-Hand Movement
You go to see a movie because you want to see something happen. It doesn’t have to be something good, doesn’t have to be something exciting (sometimes you go to see a movie to see time tick off the seconds), but you go to see a movie to see something happen. Usually, you listen to music for the same kind of reason. And what I love about Lower Dens is that, oftentimes, nothing does. Lower Dens aren’t in it to sucker you. The band sets up the most beautiful way that nothing could happen and then make nothing happen over that. Hunter’s bent voice, the light rain of those guitars, and those steady, lightly hammered drums cradle the nothing of these songs. Nothing happens in “Blue and Silver” and nothing happens in “Hospice Gates” but the songs are so beautiful, you won’t mind. Twin Hand Movement is subterranean currents that lead nowhere, a five hour hike with no magical vista at the top, inky splotches that never coalesce. Here, that is absolutely perfect.
Cast Spells- Bright Works and Baton EP/
Maps and Atlases- Perch Patchwork
Something surprising happened when I played “Solid Ground” from Maps and Atlases second album for a friend. A friend who knows a lot about music. He asked me, point blank, is this Nina Simone? And, you know what, if you listen to the first twelve or so seconds of the song, it’s actually not the most absurd comparison. Something surprising happens when you listen closely to “Potted Plant” from the Cast Spells EP Bright Works and Baton. In the song’s last four seconds as it is fading out, a glockenspiel chimes out the song’s melody one final time, and is buttressed by a weary sounding violin. The crazy thing is, as far as I can hear, that is the only appearance of the violin in the entire song. There are probably two audible measures of violin in the whole song, and those as the producer pulls everything down on the mixing board. But it was important enough that the moment stayed in the song. Dave Davison, singer, songwriter, creator for both bands, makes music which manages to surprise you. Also, there’s this.
Owen Pallet- A Swedish Love Song EP
The thing about Heartland, Owen Pallett’s last full length, is that is was explosive, but in a phony, overwrought way. Whereas the first two full lentghs Pallet recorded under the Final Fantasy name could have been The Hollow Men and The Wasteland (the feeling, when listening to both, was what IS this?), Heartland felt like Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and, even worse, the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation. It wasn’t just the bigger instrumentation of Homeland, but how impersonal and divested the album felt. It was a concept album about sexuality, violence and mental illness in America, and it fell flat for me because it didn’t seem like Pallett actually cared at all what he was singing out. Which is different than Owen Pallet at his best where he clearly does care what he’s singing about, but shrouds it half-successfully in a disaffected guise. Old Final Fantasy songs were someone trying to play it cool, which is sometimes more appealing and endearing than someone trying to amuse you or trying to spill their guts. What all this is building to is that the four-tracks on A Swedish Love Story EP harken back to the catty, awkward, forlorn Owen Pallett I know and loved. He taunts listeners with the sneery title of “Honour the Dead, or Else” and pegs us, half-lovingly and half-dismissively, as morose Cure fans who can’t get over ourselves. “Don’t Stop”’s title might suggest a love song, a passionate declaration. It isn’t, but I don’t even want to ruin the amazing lyrical turn the title takes. With a simple shifted phrase, Owen Pallett is able to turn a song from mild and bemused to caustic, wounded and moving. Nice to have you back, Owen.
I mean, I don’t know what to say. This album is basically a hot pink 1993 Chevrolet Camaro that smells like a panoply of air fresheners, or its a summer camp contest where you have to eat ten DQ Dilly bars in twenty minutes, or its someone not pulling their lips away until you feel like you’re about to need a fainting couch. Cookies is too much. Melodies that scream catchy, a nerdy indie guy who kinda-raps on some of these songs, mom disses, bragging about taking so many drugs. There’s so much that should make this album TERRIBLE, but, you know what, it’s also a complete joy if you go with it. I used to feel like a crank when a friend of mine would put on Lady Gaga and I would hate it. She would say you have to enjoy it, in all its ridiculous cheesiness. She was right. I get it now. Either you are 100 percent in the mood for this kind of fun or it will make exactly zero percent sense to you. Here’s hoping you’re in the former.
Next up, my favorite album of 2012!