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Top 10 Albums of 2017

10. Iron & Wine - Beast Epic

A voice and an acoustic guitar. If you ever question whether such a thing will tire, just listen to Iron & Wine. Sam Beam writes songs you know you’ve heard a thousand times the first time you hear them. And even though there’s more here than just a voice and an acoustic, it never loses touch of that core, that beautiful core. This album sounds like a return to roots: it’s been ten years since The Shepard’s Dog and the hero’s journey begun those years ago seems to have found its homecoming. There’s hardly a thing more pure than the sounds of home.

 

 

 

9. Four Tet - New Energy

Kieran Hebden is the only musician that can use sitars and dulcimers and flutes and nature sounds without making something that sounds like the nauseating background of a new-age self-help tape. That in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. As is usual for him, this is electronic music that exists in a world no one else has ever been. And the fact that New Energy is perhaps his most listenable album doesn’t signal a concession, but instead a new maturity. It takes discipline to refine towards simplicity.

 

 

 

8. Moses Sumney - Aromanticism

The voice is really close. Especially with headphones. It sounds like an omnidirectional angel is standing right here, singing in a falsetto so delicate I can hear the cave of its sinuses, which must be lined with silk. The strings and pads and guitar sounds never encroach upon that delicateness; they give it something to nuzzle up against. But more than for its sound, the brilliance of this album is in its contradiction: it’s a romance album about aromanticism. It’s a bunch of perfect love songs about not needing someone to love you. A statement of autonomy.

 

 

 

7. Brian Eno - Reflection

I’ll remember 2017 as the year I finally got ambient music. Like really learned to love it. And not only while lying down. Reflection is what sold me. It’s one song, if you can even call it a song, running fifty-four minutes. It’s sparse and alien and cold. But it’s human. And it’s creative—not only in the sense that it was created—but because whenever I listen to it, I’m creative. I can dream if this album is playing. And when the fifty-four minutes come to an end, it usually seems the only choice is to start over, and over, until I’m ready to stop dreaming.

 

 

 

6. Daigo Hanada - Ichiru

This album sounds like sunrise feels. Not the sunrise you stayed up for but the one you woke up for. There’s nothing but piano here. A dampened piano. A felt-dampened piano. Swelling in pastel light. And it’s so calm and quiet you can hear the hammers moving in the instrument, you can hear each of the hidden ticks of the marvelous wooden body that is a piano. The intimacy of that somehow makes this album sound more like a conversation than a concert. It’s compelling and hooky and it just like, you know, feeeeels good.

 

 

 

5. Julian Baker - Turn Out The Lights

I didn’t really want to like this album. It’s devastating. But it wiggled its way inside my periphery and I found myself listening to nothing else for weeks. Those weeks started out pretty melancholic. Life was happening in a way I didn’t want it to. But then things changed and I was still listening when everything turned celebratory. I came to realize this album had more influence in that progression than I gave it credit for. There’s so much power, so much life, so much freedom in learning to celebrate the melancholic. At twenty-two years old, Julien Baker is already mastering this. And musically, she’s doing something new. I’ve never heard songs without percussion move so well.

 

 

 

4. Kelela - Take Me Apart

The best music is the best because it pushes the whole musical conversation forward. This album sealed the death of R&B. Not by avoiding its maxims, but by pushing them so far forward it might be impossible to look back. Take Me Apart is too unpredictable, too layered and too complex to be called R&B. It’s messy and disorganized, but it’s messy and disorganized in a tight, bulletproof container. Kelela holds your hand, just not while standing right next to you. She’ll be a step or two ahead the whole time, pulling you through an hour-long journey that leads from the familiar to the revolutionary. 

 

 

 

3. Hundred Waters - Communicating

Synthesizers have knobs and filters and effects. The human voice does not. Right? Nicole Miglis makes me wonder. There’s nothing technological about her singing, but sometimes it sounds like she has knobs and filters and effects built into her throat. Her timbre goes up and down and around in miraculous ways. And so does the music that encircles her. Downbeats can be hard to find, but not in the way that feels manufactured or contrived. Machines are made to sound human. Listening to Hundred Waters is like looking at a clock so well-designed that you forget it was designed. And that’s still saying nothing about the heaving heart of this band. It’s overflowing.

 

 

 

2. Sampha - Process

Twinkling but subterranean. I’m getting tired of using stupid nature metaphors to describe sounds. But I can’t help it. This album is as high and light as the stars and subdued and insulated as the underground. To this album’s great credit, it doesn’t repeat any ideas, nor does it water anything down. And Sampha’s lustrous voice is the perfect vehicle to deliver songs about, well… whatever they’re about, which seems to unfold in every atmospheric corner of this music.

 

 

 

1. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness

Revealing. This album is revealing. Less for its music, which is nothing short of transcendent, than for its words. They reveal a person. You can feel a real human being carved out in the space between lines that are so simple and so true, they must be alive. And the voice is laid perfectly against the fog of its reverb, the instrumentation behind the guitar is subtle enough to let the wood ring and strong enough to give it breath. But what made this album by far the most affecting of the year for me is its poetry. It is a symphony of its own.

 

 

 

It Was Hard Not To Include:

Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory, War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding, LCD Soundsystem - American Dream, Tyler The Creator - Flower Boy, Nathan Shubert - Folds, Sophia Kennedy - Sophia Kennedy, SZA - CTRL, Forrest Swords - Compassion, Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins, Kendrick Lamar - DAMN, Japanese Breakfast - Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Spoon - Hot Thoughts, Fleet Foxes - Crack-up, This Is The Kit - Moonshine Freeze

Also good:

Kelly Lee Owens, Arca, The xx, Lana Del Rey, Laura Marling, Aldous Harding, Phoebe Bridgers, Shigeto, Shannon Lay, Kamasi Washington, King Krule, Zola Jesus, Fever Ray, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Kevin Morby, Juana Molina, Khotin, SYD, Kiasmos, Big Thief, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lorde, Taylor Swift

Here's Your Present For Making It This Far... Wanna Listen?

Perfect Composure

From Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shrunyu Suzuki

I went to Yosemite National Park, and I saw some huge waterfalls.  The highest one there is 1,340 feet high, and from it the water comes down like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain. It does not seem to come down swiftly, as you might expect; it seems to come down very slowly because of the distance. And the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams. From a distance it looks like a curtain. And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this.  We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling. It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling. When we see one whole river we do not feel the living activity of the water, but when we dip a part of the water into a dipper, we experience some feeling of the water, and we also feel the value of the person who uses the water.  Feeling ourselves and the water in this way, we cannot use it in just a material way. It is a living thing. 

Before we were born we had no feeling; we were one with the universe. This is called “mind-only,” or “essence of mind” or “big mind.” After we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You have difficulty because you have feeling. You attach to the feeling you have without knowing just how this kind of feeling is created. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life. 

When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature, and finds composure. How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river! If this is so, what feeling will we have when we die? I think we are like the water in the dipper. We will have composure then, perfect composure. It may be too perfect for us, just now, because we are so much attached to our own feeling, to our individual existence. For us, just now, we have some fear of death, but after we resume our true original nature, there is Nirvana. That is why we say, “To attain Nirvana is to pass away.” “To pass away” is not a very adequate expression. Perhaps “to pass on,” or “to go on,” or “to join” would be better. Will you try to find some better expression for death? When you find it, you will have quite a new interpretation of your life. It will be like my experience when I saw the water in the big waterfall. Imagine! It was 1,340 feet high!

Thank You

Sometimes when I finish a novel I feel like I have to place my hand against the cover just like I would place it on the soft head of a dog whom I love in a ridiculous but entirely authentic way. It’s the closest feeling I’ve ever had to what it looks like in those pictures you see of monks or priests raising their hand in blessing, the ones where you can tell it’s a real moment, that it’s spontaneous, that something measurable is actually coming out of their skin. I’m really grateful I get that feeling with books every once in a while. Like, with my hand pressed softly against a fictitious world that somehow just opened the real world in which I’m sitting, I’m giving a blessing. Like I’m saying thank you. With all the nerve-endings in my palm. Thank you. 

<3

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz, 
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire: 
I love you as one loves certain obscure things, 
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself, 
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where, 
I love you directly without problems or pride: 
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love, 
except in this form in which I am not nor are you, 
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine, 
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

-Pablo Neruda

The Size of Things

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There are things we remember and things we forget. I remember wishing I could see in three hundred and sixty degrees. There weren’t eyes on enough sides of my head to tell what was actually happening, and even if there were, I still don’t think I would’ve understood what was actually happening. I was on top of a mountain, ten thousand feet above the elevation of the home I left behind. When it started, a freezing mineral air came from the west, and with it, a blackness—a blackness that overtook the horizon faster than I could gasp. It moved across the green and silver valley below at two thousand miles per hour, which I didn’t really consider until I read about it a few hours later. How fast does the moon’s shadow travel during an eclipse, I asked the internet, drunk on the mescal that seemed to provide the only sensation buoyant enough to keep the previous hours afloat in my body. When the internet told me the answer, it gave retroactive meaning to something I’d experienced without words; it’s almost impossible to think in words when tears are pouring from eyes. I didn’t know why I was crying. But the tears came, and they came at something around two thousand miles per hour, because by the time the darkness had engulfed me, by the time I swiveled on my feet to cover the three hundred and sixty degree horizon, teeming on all sides with a technicolor sunset, by the time I gathered the wherewithal to actually look up at the main attraction, my face was wet with the saline that accumulates behind all eyes in some dark pool that no anatomy textbook can point to, waiting for the opportunity to be drawn out by the reminder of how small we really are, and how big we can become when we remember our smallness. 

There are things we remember and things we forget. Memory is built on reminders. Maybe the things we remember best are the things that give the strongest reminders. For thousands of years a total solar eclipse was known to be the most ominous phenomenon on earth. It was something to hide from—when an entire civilization is built upon the regularity of the appearance of the light, how else are you supposed to respond to the sudden disappearance of the light, other than to hide? So that’s what people did. For many thousands of years. Hide. But not us. We know more. Maybe. We know the moon’s orbital plane periodically lines up with the that of the earth, we know the sun is four hundred times bigger than the moon, but also four hundred times farther away, which is why the two appear to be the same size from earth. We know it’s perfectly normal for those spheres to align in such a way, that it’s not the end of times, nor the end of light. It’s just a few minutes—the only minutes the sun’s searing corona can be seen with the naked eye, the only minutes a person can get a truly visceral experience of the fact that we are, indeed, in space. And we know exactly where and when those minutes will transpire for the next six hundred million years, until the moon's slow drift has taken it far enough away from Earth that it can no longer totally block the sun from view. But what don’t we know? What have we forgotten that the people who were scared of eclipses didn’t forget? Maybe the manner in which we careen through life today erases the memory of many of the truest things. So we have to go seek them out. To get context. Of our size, of our place, of our time.

There are things we remember and things we forget. I traveled across the country just so I could spend two minutes and nineteen seconds in a shadow. I was hoping it would provide a reminder of something more vast than emails and news cycles and hopes and fears. I needed to remember that magic is real. Not because I read about it in a book, nor heard about it in the stories of friends who’d seen every eclipse since 2005. And now I have my own story. I could tell you about how I couldn’t stop shaking, heaving; I could tell you about how, before seeing it, I wished it would last longer than two minutes and nineteen seconds but how, when the sky was vandalized with an alien halo and the mountain top was vibrating with gasps and shivers and jumping and hollering, I couldn’t have handled it for a second longer; I could tell you about how I had walked away from everyone I knew so I didn’t have to use language or make eye contact or be anything other than what I was. But what I’d rather tell you is this: the connective tissue of the throat is connected the pericardium—the tissue that wraps around the heart. So you can physically massage the heart just by stretching the throat. This happens every time you look up. Every time you tilt your head back and make your eyes as wide as the sky, the skin around the heart becomes a little less calcified. I felt it happen on top of a mountain. As I looked up, my heart spread out inside its liquid barrier. I could feel it beating like a basketball in a gymnasium, its sound echoing off the walls of me. And then, minutes later, when the sun reappeared and the shadows turned slowly from metallic back to silken, I knew it was time to go find my friends again. But I wasn’t sure what I’d say. I walked back up the hill to where I’d left them, slower than I would have if I was walking anywhere else. And then I stood there. Chris laid his head on my shoulder. I put my arm around him. I didn’t say anything. Then a little boy next to us turned to his dad and said, I’m really glad you brought me here, Dad. They were beautiful words. They reminded me that the tongue stretches up from the center of the chest, that it’s far more connected to the heart than it is to the brain. I looked down into a river valley to the east, filling with a now-normal day, and I hoped I would remember what it felt like to be dwarfed by something so immense. But even though I hope to carry the sensations of those few minutes with me forever, what I really hope doesn’t get erased from my memory is the knowledge that I have a heart. It’s really small, but it’s really big.

No Pocket Of Air Is Useless to Harmony

I used to put music on the stereo and then go sit down at the piano next to a big window that was shaded by a pine tree outside. But I wouldn’t play the piano while the music filled the room. Instead, I opened the top lid of the instrument to expose the steel strings of its guts, strings stretched taut inside a dark, private air. Then I leaned my head over so my ear hovered just above the opening. I closed my eyes. The wooden ribcage inside the piano rang in quiet resonance with the music outside of it. It sounded as if the piano was being played by the speakers; individual strings sang out, vibrating with the movements of the melody. It was faint. And faraway. It was beautiful. Now when I get lost in the obviousness of the visible I try to remember what the inside of an unplayed piano sounds like. Sometimes I try to imagine my body as a steel string, ringing in quiet resonance with everything around it. Sometimes it works. I feel air surrounding me. I am made of sound.

Ancient

i lived my life alone before you
and with those that i’d never succeeded to love
and i grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude
i fought you, i did not know how to give it up

before you, had i ever known love
or had i only known misuse of the power another had over me
the power another had over me

i crossed the country and i carried no key
couldn’t i look up at the stars from anywhere?
and sometimes i did, i felt ancient
but still i saw peace, and it never came to me

they often spoke as though i had been set free
but i traveled only service of my dreams
i stood before them all, i was a sleepwalker

couldn’t hold my misery down, not even for you
it bore me on all the places i’ve ever gone
and i grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude
but i long for you now even when you just leave the room

of all the roads and the cities that i passed through
and of all the eyes i have searched inside
the one sense of permanence that i came to feel
was mine only beneath your gaze

 

A (Brutal and Beautiful) Love Story

"A coyote ate a three-year-old not far from here.”

“Yeah?”

“My uncle told me.”

“Huh.”

“He said, ‘Don’t leave those babies outside again,’ as if I already had.”

“Had you?”

“Come on.” An answer less precise than no.

“Why’s he monitoring coyote activity up here?”

“Because.”

“Because?”

“It’s irresistible.”

“Really?”

A wild dog with a tender baby in its jaws disappearing into the redwoods forever. My uncle’s so good at imagining things, he makes them real. “Yeah. It’s just what he does, a habit.” Or a compulsion.

“I don’t get it.”

But I do. Every real thing started life as an idea. I’ve imagined objects and moments into existence.

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