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‘The hawk flies above the earth, hormoniously flapping its broad wings: suddenly, it stops as though it were meditating on the sadness of life, then shakes its wings and is off like an arrow above the steppe, and does not know why he flies, nor what he seeks.
Then, on the summit of a hillock, a solitary poplar appears. Is it happy, this beautiful being? In the summer the torrid heat, in winter, the cold and the blizzards, in autumn the dreadful nights, when it sees nothing but darkness and hears nothing but the angry howling of the wind. And worst of all, it remains alone, completely alone throughout its life.’
-from The Steppe by Anton Chekhov
What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music. Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list. As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention. Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary. Anyway, enough introductory crap from me. Here’s the best of music of 2011. I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore. It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that. This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness. Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break. ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible. ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.
Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit. I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece. It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression. They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe. If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second. In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.
The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure. He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996. Is The Less You Know as good? Almost. It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised. It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow? He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs. Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band. But who cares when the music is as good as this. The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.
The Riptide by Beirut – again I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning. This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains. These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening. In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love. The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet. Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.
Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it. I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist. Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone? No, didn’t think so. It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless. It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single). But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity. In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.
Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further. I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty. Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted. I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.
I can’t stop. So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.
Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress. Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man. She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live). This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing. But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good. Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident. But also humble – how does that work? If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.
Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley. But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they? What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record. Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay. Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times. Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself. Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives. This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’. Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen. Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.
With that, happy festive season. Whatever that may mean to you.
I’m a dirty rotten thief and this is why.
Last month, while working words in the Blue Mountains, I returned to the place where I spent my childhood, a village, a post office and a public-phone booth making up the village heart. I hadn’t visited the village for twenty-five years, although I had thought about it. In fact I’ve thought about it often, every week, sometimes every day.
When I can’t fall asleep I recall the green-painted weatherboard cottage; it had once been used as an apple-packing shed. And the wood-chip heater in the bathroom, how it would puff-puff-puff when we’d get it really hot. And the fire-wood alcove in from the front door and the tool-room out the back. And the bedroom in which I once slept, how it had a view of the open-fire in the loungeroom. And the school friends I invited up there, one particular school friend, another boy, the event that happened one night in the bedroom, the event that suggested my life would take a different course.
So I did my trip back; I made a mix-CD for the purpose, songs from the last two decades, not songs from my childhood because that would have been too much. In the car I put on the CD and drove the twenty-five kilometres – one kilometre, I realise now, for each year that I’ve been away – to the old holiday mountain.
Everything was the same, everything: the hairpin bend, the tree-ferns like soldiers, the avenues of oaks and ash. I turned down the lane to the apple-packing shed. But the apple-packing shed: it was no more. In its place was a sleek, black, architectural creation, not ugly, but it shouldn’t have been there.
How could they do this? How will I be able to get to sleep now?
I got out of the car. I took quick photos for the family. But then I saw it: an old apple box half-covered in builder’s rubble. I exposed the box, carefully cleaning it of basaltic dirt. I felt sure it had once been inside the holiday house I used to know, either in the fire-wood alcove or in the tool-room. In a flash I had an idea. I grabbed the box and ran back to the car.
As I sped away I thought of Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’: One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 December 2011.)
For the past week I’ve been thinking about the writing of this post and I should be truthful and say that I’ve been struggling a little. I’ve been struggling a little because at first very few books that I’ve read this year jumped out as being absolutely essential. But I worked it out in the end. Compared to this year’s crop of albums, which has been nothing short of mind-blowing for their immediacy (more on this in a forthcoming post), in terms of reading, 2011 has been a year of books that slowly and almost imperceptibly wrapped their arms around me until the best wouldn’t let go.
I’ve also noticed that my reading habits have changed, probably, I think, because as co-editor of Verity La I spend many evenings and weekends reading submissions before working to publish them. This is an honour, particularly publishing the poetry, because by the time a poem appears on screen it feels as though it’s become a part of me and me a part of it. This year I’ve judged the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award, which is run out of the ACT Writers Centre – what gems come to the surface during these competitions. All this has meant that I’m reading more on-line, and by the time I get to the end of the day I’m looking for something short and punchy, which I’m finding in literary journals like Overland.
Amongst all this has been my own reading program. What follows is a list of five books I’ve read this year that have ended up on the top shelves in my library, meaning they’re books that I must risk life and limb to rescue if the house is burning down.
I’m pleased to report that two books in the list are short story collections. Finally this year I read some Raymond Carver, commencing my journey into this much-lauded oeuvre with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Vintage, 2003; first published in 1981). What a joy are these stories. Except joy isn’t the right word, no, not at all; these are melancholic stories, told with an uneasy simplicity which reaches for a depth of humanity. The prose is accessible, almost prosaic, but try writing like this and you’ll discover how much of a story-magician Carver was. Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’, and it feels to me as if this was Carver’s modus operandi, too. The next time I’m in a second-hand bookstore I’ll walk out with a bucketload of this bloke’s books.
The second short story collection is Marion Halligan’s Shooting the Fox (Allen and Unwin, 2011). Here the Canberra-based Halligan reveals her artful playfulness – she has such damn good fun with words and characters and stories! As opposed to Carver’s stories, Halligan’s are closer to poetry, although not in a pretentious sense; she simply asks the reader to work just a bit hard to nut it all out. Throughout the year I’ve found myself thinking about many of these stories or telling friends about them. If Raymond Carver’s stories have been boiled down to their essence, Marion Halligan’s are the most fluent and lively that you’ll find – they’re almost mischievous. You can read more about Marion Halligan here.
And then there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 2011). A friend asked me to recommend a good book so I recommended Annabel because I’d read a glowing review, not because I’d actually read it myself, which is always dangerous, I know, but this is how it happened. My friend ended up loving it and recommended it back to me, so I read it and…wasn’t as moved as I expected. The story concerns a child born in 1968 in a remote part of far north-east Canada with male and female genitalia and follows him – for much of the book he’s known as Wayne – until early adult-hood. Annabel is beautifully written, but perhaps too much of it goes in tangents so the end result isn’t as dramatic as it could have been. However, like Shooting the Fox, I’ve found myself thinking about this book, especially Winter’s Wayne/Annabel character, and hoping that the world ends up treating him-her with kindness. I’m convinced that I’ll come back to this book and a greater depth will be revealed.
Bite Your Tongue by Francesca Rendle-Short (Spinifex Press, 2011) is a brave book for two reasons: it explores life in Queensland in the 1960s and ’70s with an ultra-zealous, ultra-conservative, book-burning mother; and it’s a creative memoir, combining elements of the novel with elements of the straight memoir. Somehow Rendle-Short manages to create a work that is loving, tender, critical and hard-hitting all at once. It is a resolutely original book. You can read more about Rendle-Short and Bite Your Tongue here and over at Verity La.
Perhaps the real book-reading treat this year has been discovering The Paris Review Interviews Volumes 1-4 (Picador, commencing 2006). These interviews, many of which date back to the 1950s, offer illuminating insights into the writing process. In the first volume alone there are interviews with Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, and Saul Bellow. Perhaps I find these interviews so fascinating because I’m someone who writes, but also because I sometimes interview writers for The Canberra Times and Verity La. However, anyone interested in books and ideas, in the creative process in general, will enjoy these conversations. For example, who cannot marvel at this piece of wisdom from Gabriel García Márquez (from Volume 2)? If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you. Sheer genius.