My Year in Lists
Week Fifty
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.

"The Book of love is long and boring, and written very long ago, it's full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes, and thing's we're all too young to know."-The Magnetic Fields, "The Book of Love"

In some important ways, the only thing that matters in the world is ambition. This sounds completely hyperbolic, and perhaps like the sort of thing pop culture commentators say at the beginning of an article to pique reader's interests (and it is at least the latter of those two), but also, its at least arguably true. Without ambition, almost nothing of any importance would get done. If George Washington lacked ambition, he probably would have frozen to death at Valley Forge. If Sigmund Freud had lacked ambition, we would probably know less about our own subliminal desire to kill our fathers and bang our mother's (girls should, in most cases, invert the two). If the guy who invented bagel bites had lacked the ambition to desire smaller, more bite sized bagels, you wouldn't be able to think, "I really want bagel bites after reading this sentence."

This is no less true in music than it is anywhere less in life. Putting yourself out there enough to make it in the music business requires a lot of ego, but it also requires an enormous sense of ambition. People in the public eye have to want to strive to succeed, otherwise we as a culture are likely to forget about them pretty quickly as soon as Katy Perry releases another single (We like shiny things, after all). This week, we're going to look at the role of ambition in three different albums.

Electronic duo Autechre released their third album, and Tab's pick this week, Tri Repetae in 1995. Over the course of their first two albums, the group had struggled to define themselves (and in hindsight, they have recognized their sound on both the albums was "cheesy."). Over their early work it was easy to see that the group was heavily inspired by Aphex Twin, yet by the time Tri Repetae came around, the group had decided to reach further, to be more, dare I say, ambitious (if it seems like I'm struggling to tie the theme of ambition into these first two artists this week, it's because I want to really discuss it with the third, and also because it is hard to write 50 installments of a feature without stretching a little at times. Bear with me and all will make sense, or at least make less nonsense).

The album's opening track, "Dael" is slow rhythm funk with enough bite to set it apart from many of its brethren in electronica. The synthesized organ on "Leterel" adds a sort of retro futurism to the track, creating a paradox that elevates it above its otherwise fairly rote beats.

Tri Repetae feels as if it is not fully formed, yet what sets it apart from the group's earlier work (which I listened to almost purely to verify this point to myself, because I am a crazy person) is a sense that the group is striving to go further, that it wants to do more. Little sets this album apart from a lot of other ambient electronica out there, but what does is the sense of ambition, the feeling that Autechre wanted to do more this time out; and that's enough to keep me interested over the course of a few tracks.

If Autechre is blessed by a sense of ambition, Oneohtrix Point Never is hurt by a sense of ambivalence. I guess that is to be expected when one's genre is classified as "meditative," and yet I can't help but feel that nothing sets Daniel Lopatin's (the experimental musician who goes by Oneohtrix Point Never) fourth release, and Collin's pick this week, Rifts apart from many other, better works of synthesized ambience.

"Betrayed in the Octagon," for example, sounds like just about any other heavily synthesized group we have discussed this year, giving off that unappealing "'80's arcade game" sound that I have previously opined about all too often. It may be strange to say that songs as long as "Woe is the Transgression I" (8:46), "Woe is the Transgression II" (10:56) and "Physical Memory" (10:54) lack ambition, but I will maintain that just because a song tends to drag on does not necessarily mean that it shows any drive at all; in fact, it would not be too inaccurate to say that these songs tend to just lie there (if that's what you're thinking).

This is not to say that Rifts is a bad album, it's just not a particularly inspired one. It drifts along pleasantly enough at times, it just never seems to have anything to offer other than "here are some sounds that might sound nice near each other." I don't maintain that music needs to be anything other than this (and in fact, many entries off Tab's list have indicated perhaps the sounds being placed near each other to create pleasant melodies should be seen less as a requirement and more as a gift), but I do maintain that great music needs to be something more. Greatness tends to be squelched by a lack of ambition.

Say what you will about Stephen Merritt (my guess is many, if not more of you will say, "who?" and little more), but it is impossible not to call him ambitious. Over the course of the "˜90s, Merritt was the principle singer-songwriter in such ambitious alternative bands as The Gothic Archies, The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and his most well known (and best) group The Magnetic Fields. In that scope alone, Merritt can be called among the most ambitious artists working. Over the last decade, Merritt has fronted The Magnetic Fields as they released I (a concept album in which every song starts with the letter "˜I' and the album is arranged in alphabetical order), Distortion (which focused on distorting sound without at all eschewing the band's alt-pop sound even slightly) and Realism (which, in opposition to Distortion focused on simple, acoustic melodies), three great albums ambitious on their own and even moreso when considered as intended: as Merrit's "no-synth" trilogy, recorded entirely before synthesizers.

Before any of this, though, Merritt undertook likely his most ambitious project yet, The Magnetic Fields' third album, and Ashley's pick this week, 69 Love Songs. Initially conceived of as a revue, in which Merritt hoped to have four drag queens perform all of the songs and have the audience vote on which one they like the best to determine who got paid at the end of the night, the album is conspicuously not about love as much as it is about love songs.

From any other band, that distinction would sound like just so much pretension. Yet a quick scan of 69 Love Songs lets you know how serious Merritt is about exploring the genre in all its forms. Tracks like "Punk Love," "Love is Like Jazz," "World Love," and "Experimental Music Love" wear their genre influences on their sleeves (and an album full of these tracks might have been too cloying or pretentious, or at least too clever by half), yet the whole album, in all three of its volumes is clearly an ode to love songs in all their forms.

Volume One opens with "Absolutely Cuckoo," a love letter to songs about people going crazy in love. In case you were worried the album would be an endless sap-fest, it is followed immediately by the cynical, "I Don't Believe in the Sun," a dour song about how heartbreak makes us lose faith in love. If neither of these sounds entirely original in premise, well, that's the whole point of the endeavor, and if that sounds like a cop out, take a listen. Where you might here clichés and trite messages of affection, Merritt has instead created fully realized sonic environments that exude exactly the emotion songs of the type tend to go for. For every light, fluffy track like "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" or "Reno Dakota," there's darker material, or deeper, more introspective and thoughtful songs like "The Book of Love," (which has been covered excellently by Robin Pecknold and Peter Gabriel, neither of who were able to truly top Merritt's naked emotion).

Volume 2 presents the same perfect mixture, with fluff like "Washington D.C." and "(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy" intermingling perfectly with deeper songs. "Kiss Me Like You Mean It," a take on the spare, acoustic religious hymns, manages to pay homage to the genre while completely subverting it. One of the album's crowning achievements, to my mind, is "Papa Was a Rodeo," which single handedly convinces me to reconsider my position on country music every single time I hear it. The song is the album's longest (at only five minutes), taking on the country music concept of the story song and imbuing it with such quiet, subtle resonance it's impossible not to fall in love. "Papa Was a Rodeo" is a near perfect love song, managing to be simultaneously a high-concept take on a subgenre of love songs, a story about finding the perfect person in a place you might not expect it, and a love song that warms the heart in the way the emotion its after tends to.

Volume 3 opens with "Underwear," a take on the "too cool for school" love song, but continues to zig zag across subgenres so effectively it's a little mind boggling. That Stephen Merritt can write songs as effective as "Busby Berkeley Dreams," "Acoustic Guitar," "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget" and "Love is Like A Bottle of Gin," while keeping up that level of diversity is kind of sickening, like finding out your blind date graduated from Harvard, went to Yale Law school, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and dabbled at Juilliard before dedicating their life to saving orphans and raising puppies. Some things are just impossible to compete with.

The epic ambition of 69 Love Songs also allows me to overlook some of its flaws (like the fact that Merritt was clearly running low on ideas toward the end. The last two tracks are called "Xylophone" and "Zebra," as if he was already moving on to the idea of alphabetizing an album), yet there are very few to even overlook. 69 Love Songs is an album that singlehandedly demonstrates the power of ambition (combined of course, with a terrifying level of skill, wit, and diverse taste), running the gamut from heartwarming to heart-wrenching, from silly to somber, and from high concept to nakedly emotional. It is an album of stark power that manages to also be a near-constant blast to listen to, even at nearly three hours long. In short, it's, to use the technical critical term, a goddamn mother-fucking masterpiece.

These three albums are a study in ambitions, even if that seems like a bit of a stretch. I imagine I could have written about ambition in any week of this feature and found that the most ambitious projects, even when they fail to reach what they strive for, are the most interesting. Oneohtrix Point Never left me feeling fairly flat with the aimless Rifts. Autechre showed they were striving towards more, moving themselves from just the inspired to a group that was actually inspiring on Tri Repetae. And The Magnetic Fields aimed for the fences and succeeded far more often than they failed on the magnum opus 69 Love Songs. If there's a point to this exercise (and I'd hope there is, seeing as how long this feature always is), it's a very simple one. Whether we succeed or fail, our lives, and our art are always more interesting if we're at least aiming high.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The penultimate installment of My Year in Lists gives us a chance to examine O Yuki Conjugate's Sunchemical, meet Radiohead's Kid A, and travel with Kanye West into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
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