My Year in Lists
Week Forty Eight
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

""¦pretty much perfect if falling hopelessly in love with all the wrong people is your idea of a good time."-Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone on Elliott Smith's XO

This feature as a whole is dedicated to looking at the effect music has on our daily life, and I have spoken previously about the raw emotional power music can exert over us. This week, we're going to be looking at three artists who create works aimed straight at the heart, though some of them also manage to engage the mind.

Tab's pick this week, White Stains' The Somewhat Lost Horizon is a brazenly emotional album, though its not always easy to discern exactly how each piece is supposed to make you feel. Sculpted from the group's soundtracks to various experimental films (and including their entire concert at the Hultsfred festival in 1989 as the final track), the album tends to stick more to the dark side of the emotional spectrum. "Soft Explosion" has the distinct feeling of exploration to it, keying into the desire for mystery in our lives. The title track is much more epically foreboding, a dark and seductive melody that draws you in to a more ambient electronic middle section.

The concert that ends the album, nearly a half hour long performance entitled "Pyramidos" has a more industrial and experimental feel than the rest of the album, including many creepy vocal samples and a variety of deeply unsettling sounds and (for lack of a better term) noises. The Somewhat Lost Horizon is perhaps a more interesting album than I have been able to convey here, but is more an exercise in creating moods than in creating songs. In that vein, it is successful, as each track bears a distinct mark and places listeners in diverse emotional place.

Few artists effect me emotionally more than Elliott Smith. His raw, emotional, often devastating work hits me right at home, and the fact that his life ended far too early simply adds to the tragedy. His fourth album, major label debut, and Ashley's pick this week, XO is a perfect example of his ability to get immediately beneath a listener's skin and connect with them on an emotional plane where feelings are laid bare and outcomes usually seem pretty bleak.

"Waltz #2 (xo)" is a song of hopeless love, a waltz to the idea of remaining attached to someone who will forever be just out of your reach. Both lush and intensely introspective, "Waltz #2" is a perfect Smith song, downbeat, thoughtful, and emotionally bleak. "Baby Britain" is a tragic drinking dirge set to an upbeat melody that almost disguises the black as nails sentiment beneath it. The song sounds like something you might sing on a spring day at first blush, but the lyrics tell quite a different story, about binge drinking and the downward spiral that tends to ensue.

"Independence Day" has the flow and delicate construction of a Simon and Garfunkel song, yet Smith's vocals are so tender and emotionally bare, it feels throughout like he is about to collapse into a sea of depression. "Oh Well, Okay" almost sounds like a Beach Boys song until the tragic ambivalence of the title kicks in. Smith is so defeated, so used to rejection and tragedy, he simply rolls over and accepts the awful things that happen to him, turning his musical homage on its emotional head. "Bottle Up and Explode!" which clever readers might notice leant me the title of my Read more Bottle Up and Explode bottle episode feature, is a great, guitar driven ode to repression with more melodic complexity than most of Smith's tracks aspire to.

Picking out the songs to highlight from this album was surprisingly difficult, yet XO is so consistently good its hard to figure out exactly what to discuss. Smith's level of darkness varied from album to album (arguably bottoming out on his posthumously released final album, and my favorite of his releases, From a Basement on a Hill), yet he consistently mined heartbreak, isolation, and depression for his own beautifully crafted, intelligently written, and emotionally devastating music. This is the kind of stuff to listen to when you're near the bottom of a good downward spiral, or when you want to marvel at just how much the world lost when Smith died so young.

LCD Soundsystem, on the other hand, captures the feelings of growing up and leaving your youth behind almost perfectly. The group's second album, and Collin's pick this week, Sound of Silver takes on these ideas directly and gets at some of the deep anxieties faced by anyone in the process of maturing.

"Someone Great" is a slow grower about the pain of losing a childhood friend, the way that memories flood back to you and you are left feeling powerless to take on the world without this person at your side. The song's upbeat vocals and melody mask the deep, lingering sadness at the song's core.

"All My Friends" has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the best songs of the last decade, and a song that likely resonates with anyone in their 20s or 30s. An epic dissection of the way people tend to lose touch as they grow older and their priorities shift, the song is packed with the perfect combination of nostalgia and wistfulness for times now gone. Built around a spare, powerful piano loop, the song slowly builds in a variety of instruments until that loop completely changes meaning, surrounding the singular sound while the protagonist at the song's center yearns to be surrounded with all of the people he's left behind as he's gotten older. "You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan and the next five years trying to be with your friends again" he tells us in a message that must hit home to anyone who has reached the point in their life that they are forced to put themselves first and focus on getting their life together. James Murphy isn't criticizing this fact of growing up; he just recognizes the sadness that lies underneath growing up. People move on, people lose touch, and people get too busy living their lives to keep up the relationships they might someday long for, and by the time they realize it, it may just be too late. LCD Soundsystem manages to fit years of experience into less than eight minutes, growing up but not losing perspective on what that means and keeping an eye on the things that make them happy even while recognizing that those things may be harder to come by as an adult than they were during the maturation process.

"New York, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down" is a large sonic departure for the group, a spare track centered mostly on Murphy's vocals. A love letter tinged with cynicism, the song rails about all of the problems with the city in its modern incarnation while never fully letting go of the real affection for the city that Murphy clearly holds. Sound of Silver is an album of recalibrations, an examination of the ways our lives, our outlooks, and our surroundings change around us as we grow up, and all of the great and less wonderful consequences of those changes. Growing up may be hard, according to LCD Soundsystem, but that's no reason it should be boring.

Emotion is one of the most powerful tools in a musician's arsenal. The ability to make someone feel, to transport them sonically to a different emotional place, is an incredibly powerful one and most of the best music we have heard this year keys into this. If art lets us understand the world around us and allows us to communicate our feelings on it to others, then White Stains, Elliott Smith, and LCD Soundsystem are artists of the first order, masters from whom we can all learn something about how to be mysterious, how to love even if it hurts, how to grow up, and yes, if you're looking for that sort of advice, how to live.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next Week on My Year in Lists:

We'll look at Aphex Twin's aptly titled Selected Ambient Works '85-'92, revisit Beck, who has some Midnite Vultures, and take a trip with Flying Lotus to Los Angeles.
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