Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

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Great Fucking Albums #27: Le Tigre (Self-Titled)

Open this link in a new tab and keep reading. We’re going to listen to a song.

Maybe you were cognizant during the 90s. Do you remember Riot Grrrl? If so, you get one point, go to the next question. Do you remember it fondly? You get five points, next question. Are you a dude? Hooray, 20 points and I’m buying you a beer, because I really want to meet you. I’m serious. Where are you guys? A number of conversations I’ve had with other penis-owners about Le Tigre and other Riot Grrrl bands follow a distressingly common structure:

  1. Girlfriend is into this new band.
  2. Dude forced to listen to record / dragged to show.
  3. “Man-hating” experienced!
  4. Girlfriend morphs into lesbian and takes flight on majestic labia wings, never to be seen again.

These guys don’t just “not care for” this music, they blame it for ruining their lives. I’m not even— wait, are you listening to the song in the link? Isn’t that just catchy as hell?— Can you be angry or annoyed, but also having a good time? I’ll bet Kathleen Hanna thinks so, and I kinda think that’s what she set out to display with Le Tigre. Bikini Kill was the band that shitty ex-boyfriends needed to hate; shouldn’t they have self-selected out by the time Le Tigre rolled around? It’s like nobody got the memo when the music started being really fun.

The song you’re listening to, “Deceptacon,” neatly encapsulates pretty much everything you need to know about Le Tigre. If you don’t like this song, you probably won’t like the rest of the songs on the album. As a bonus, it pokes fun at NOFX, who, I just decided, are good stand-ins for the kind of nonsense, misapplied-masculinity douchebaggery that permeates… well, practically every music scene ever.

Check out NOFX’s “Kill Rock Stars” (I’d link to audio but I can’t seem to find any other than the Weird Al version— strange!), read the lyrics to Deceptacon, and know that NOFX also has a song called “Linoleum.” Too much work? I’ll break it down for you:

  1. Fat Mike sounds like Weird Al if Weird Al were boring and untalented.
  2. A lot of guys get really, really defensive when someone points out that they just might, in even a tiny way they didn’t realize, be contributing to a culture that gives gang rape a shrug and a hand-wave and insultsdegradesobjectifies and creepily pedolizes women.
  3. A lot of music sounds the same and that’s fucking boooooooooooooooooooring.
  4. It should be OK for women to do the same things as men, feel safe, and not have people lose their shit over it.

So why does Le Tigre qualify as a Great Fucking Album? Well, it rocks ass, for one thing; it’s also what pop-punk should actually sound like— but probably most impressively, this album is a badass teaching tool for feminism that doesn’t alienate male listeners. If you know a teenage boy, get him this album. With luck, it will open wonderful doors to X-Ray Spex, Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Screaming Females, and all kinds of other awesome stuff. He will learn that such questions as “what’s it like to be a girl in a band?” are stupid and unnecessary. Most importantly, it will help populate my world with more guys I want to buy a beer instead of slap in the coin purse.

-Zac