My Year in Lists
Week Fifty Two
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.

"Every once in a while, in an effort to appear cutting-edge and daring, major record labels fall all over themselves trying to sign volatile, prolific, inconsistent, willfully uncommercial bands to long-term record deals."-Steven Thompson, The A.V. Club, on Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica

Well folks, this is it. After 52 weeks and over 170 albums, My Year in Lists has finally come to an end. So as to not give these last three albums short shrift, we won't spend much time dealing with that ending today (those of you who want a rambling piece wrapping up the feature as a whole can come back tomorrow and check out the feature's Conclusion). The scope of each of these lists will be addressed at least partially today, as we look at where these albums leave us. Yet the effects they each had on me, my life, and how I listen to music will all be parsed out tomorrow, with plenty of nostalgia and sap thrown in for good measure. If you're wondering just what we learned about music this last year, and if we even got close to fulfilling the ambitious goals I laid out when this feature began, check in there. For now though, let's talk, for one last time, about the albums each contributor chose as their final contributions to this column.

When Modest Mouse released their third album, major label debut, and Ashley's pick this week, The Moon & Antarctica in 2000, a lot of pressure was riding on it. Any alternative band making the jump to a major label has to deal with the concern of fans who worry the band might sell out (a phenomenon we discussed when we looked at Green Day's Dookie). As if that wasn't enough, lead singer and songwriter Isaac Brock was attacked during the recording of the album while walking through a park across from the group's hotel in Chicago, an incident that left his jaw wired shut for a few months. Unsure if he would be able to sing, Brock worked on making the musical arrangements more daring and experimental. With those instrumentations as backing and with a Blade Runner reference as the album's title, it was fairly clear that Modest Mouse weren't cleaning up their act for the major label.

"Gravity Rides Everything" has a strong pop melody backing up a whimsical, yet profound examination of the forces that influence us and are completely beyond our control. "Dark Center of the Universe" examines the frustration and alienation of a man trying to figure out who exactly he is and slowly realizing the futility of that effort.

"The Stars are Projectors" is the album's center-piece, at nearly nine minutes long. The song strays further and further from conventional rock arrangement, incorporating stirring strings, acoustic guitars, and swirling effects that sweep the melody into increasing complexity without ever straying far from its strong center. "The Stars are Projectors" is a song about searching and yearning for the answers to the big questions about creation, the beginning of the universe, and the meaning of it all, and coming to the conclusion that the answers may forever remain elusive, and may not even serve a purpose (like, as Brock points out in the song's final line, asking "Where do circles begin?"). The album's final track, "What People Are Made Of" seems to come finally to some answers to the questions the album has posed, concluding that "the one thing you taught me "˜bout human beings was this, they ain't made of nothing but water and shit."

The Moon & Antarctica is a shockingly, refreshingly singular album, endlessly ambitious without ever lapsing fully into pretension (a charge I have occasionally levied against later Modest Mouse albums, perhaps unfairly). The band spends 55 minutes pondering the universe and our place in it, and the questions they ask are as ponderous and fascinating as the answers they attempt to craft. The album isn't always revelatory, and its conclusions are likely to be ones you have either come to on your own or vehemently disagree with on their face, yet there's a rarified, elegiac aspiration to the proceedings that will keep bringing you back to the album again and again, either because you enjoy the ride or you're all too familiar with the destination.

If alternative rock made a journey over the course of the 21 years that Ashley's list encompassed, it was a journey from the fringes into the mainstream, an attempt to convert the majority's taste to allow for a place that the minority too might feel comfortable, accepted, and understood. Punk rock was all about ostracizing a world that had ostracized the artists in that movement, but alternative rock softened over the two decades we have examined. Maybe it was the slow development of a way to be successful and, yes, artistically free through independent labels and the growing advances in alternative ways to produce and disseminate music. Maybe it was the Age of Grunge, where for a few short years alternative bands ruled the world. Or maybe it was the way the culture at large changed over that period, to the point where the music industry had started to splinter into an increasing number of niche markets, each of which could be filled by a band with a strong vision and a commitment to their artistic ideals (a splintering which has continued in the decade since The Moon & Antarctica was released). Whatever it was, alternative music was no longer fighting tooth and nail for a spot at the table, nor was it as categorically opposed to the idea of mainstream acceptance and success. Instead, it thrived as a place where artists who were willing to try something a bit different could expect to be embraced, and even lauded for doing what they loved in the way they loved to do it.

There will always be those that cling to the fringes for dear life, that dread the idea of being pulled into the mainstream even as much as alternative music has been. This comes, I think from the same ideals that drove experimental music in the late "˜60s and early "˜70s (things like Captain Beefheart and Amon Duul) and punk rock in the late "˜70s. Some punk rockers made the music they did as a reaction to a rock and roll that they felt had lost its teeth (think Boston and Fleetwood Mac), but others, I suspect, were there because they liked being on the fringe. The outsiders will always endeavor to remain on the outside, and if Tab's list has done one thing, it has shown us that this is where the cutting edge of music lies. Sometimes it may make you bleed, but other times, it will provide you with an experience more singular and more powerful than almost anything else music can offer.

Maeror Tri was an ambient noise and drone music outfit from Germany in the "˜80s and "˜90s. They released Tab's pick this week, The Beauty of Sadness in 1996, and its an album that shows the group at the height of their powers, creating ambient with ambience, an album that manages to get its message across not by hammering its points home, but by letting them fill the air around you and allowing them to slowly seep through your pores.

The opening track, "Avaldamon" is 6:27 of slow burn, gently hypnotizing you into exactly the right mental state to accept the rest of the album. The Beauty of Sadness is an ode to the delicate fragility and simple attractiveness of melancholy itself, a treatise on the idea that we all find depression a little alluring, even if only in the darkest of ways. It is, in essence, an argument made not with words, but with feelings, and it is pulled off masterfully.

"These Tears Will Crystalize" has the feel of delicate nostalgia to it, seemingly examining the fact that even the deepest wounds eventually heal, and that they may leave a scar, but the pain they cause will grow more distant, leaving us potentially even more alone as a result. It's little wonder the song has the feel of Jon Brion's score to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or rather, the other way around, since the album was released nearly a decade before the film); they are exploring similar ideas about the way pain resonates over time and how we often desire to keep it with us, even if we might think we want to be rid of it.

"Emotional Imprinting" gets at the way we all effect each other, even in ways we cannot understand, leaving vague marks of our psychic baggage on those we are closest to. The album's final track, "Immersion in Emotion" is like wading into a sonic pool of feeling (as the title suggests), slowly building as it creates an emotional world all its own. It acts as the perfect conclusion to the album, as if Maeror Tri had finally given in to the attraction of melancholy and drifted away on a sea of sadness.

The Beauty of Sadness is a startlingly expressive ambient work, creating a rich sonic tapestry that manages to get across its themes without a single lyric to explain them. This is an album that doesn't need to tell you how to feel or what those feelings mean; it is content to sit back and slowly seep into your skin, effecting you emotionally while appealing to you intellectually in a way that can be difficult, if not nearly impossible to cogently pull off. Yet here it is, and in a little over an hour, Maeror Tri manages to convince me, if not some of you, of the true beauty of sadness.

While Ashley focused her list temporally on the development of alternative music over a 21 year period, and Tab focused his spatially on the fringes of musical development, Collin aimed his list right down the middle, tracking the development of popular music while taking enough careful side-steps to encompass a wide multitude of genres, and bringing us (with few exceptions) one album from each of the last 52 years. His choice for this year (which was admittedly limited, seeing as he made this list in late 2010, before it was clear what exactly would be coming out this year) makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of the development of popular music: James Blake has been hailed as the next evolution in dubstep almost as often this year as he has been decried as a bastardization of the genre. It's unsurprising, given his willingness to be out of step with the genre's traditional limitations that many are unsure exactly where he will fit into the continuing evolution of music over this decade; he may be a prophet leading us forward into a new, sample-free world where the vocalist once again reigns supreme, or he may be relegated to the fringes of the genre he tries to recreate. On his self-titled debut, he seems liable to be a little bit of both.

"The Wilhelm Scream" is a cover of Blake's father James Litherland's "Where to Turn," in which Blake is coldly detached, yearning for connection. It's a moving song, even if it does get a tad repetitive over the course of its near 5 minute run time. "I Never Learnt to Share" suffers from the same problem; it's got a resonant central line ("My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them") but it never really bothers to realize this potential. I understand there's a resonance in repetition, and I have written many times in this space about songs with one lyric repeated over and over again that accumulated power over their length, but "I Never Learnt to Share" just feels as if Blake was rushed to record it and just decided to loop the lyrics endlessly over the backbeat. The music is solid here, and the lyrics show potential, but it remains, on this track at least, unfulfilled.

"Lindesfarne II" manages to get the mixture right, varying the delivery (and even including more than one line of lyrics, though honestly it probably would have succeeded with just it's central repetition of "beacon don't fly too high") mixing in folk and soul elements and attaining at its peak the sort of poignant resonance that Bon Iver managed consistently throughout For Emma, Forever Ago. The album's final track, "Measurements" is a transcendent take on a Southern gospel choir that indicates just how far Blake can go if he can reign in his repetitive tendency and play to his strengths rather than fall prey to his weaknesses.

James Blake may be the man who focuses dubstep on delicate vocalizations and moves it away from its sample-heavy status of late, or he may be forever looked down on by purists and those who see his demons shouting down his better angels. There is potential on James Blake, the possibility that a great talent is emerging, but there is also a fair share of waste. If Blake can play up the former and tone down the latter, he may deserve a place alongside the rest of the groups we looked at on Collin's list this year.

Over the last 52 weeks we have listened to albums that spanned genres, decades, and the globe. We have watched the development of popular music with Collin, watched alternative music grow into its own with Ashley, and examined the artists too bold, too stubborn, or too unique to ever fit into our mainstream mold with Tab. I haven't liked everything I've heard (with the sheer amount of music we have examined, it might say something negative about my critical faculties if I was unabashedly in love with all of the albums), but each album functioned as the piece of a larger puzzle, a fragment of a picture that has slowly developed into a clearer view of music as a medium than I have ever had before. We'll talk more about that tomorrow, but for now, I want to revel in the shared experience of My Year in Lists for a moment. I want to thank each of the contributors (who I'll gush about more in the Conclusion) for making their lists, I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to read this column each week, and even those of you who have been playing along at home. And most of all, I want to thank each of the artists whose albums we parsed over this year. Sure, none of them will ever see this praise, yet more than anyone else, I couldn't have done this without them, and they have made my life, and infinite other lives better through the work they have done. Thank you all, and remember, this is not the end"¦

Read more My Year in Lists here

Tomorrow on My Year in Lists:

What did this all mean? Did we learn anything about music? Did we learn anything about ourselves? I'll ramble on and try to parse through the issues in the Conclusion to My Year in Lists.
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