Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I spent the past eleven days cataloguing my favourite albums of 2011 (it was supposed to be ten days, but I was in no mood to sit in front of my computer and write on Christmas Day). All told, it worked out to a little over 7750 words on fifteen albums. If you add in the two pieces I wrote on eleven songs I really liked in 2011, the count is up to almost 9500 words. That is a lot of words (if you've read your Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that clause should prove I am human. I will also say to you if you are very tall, "Oh, you're very tall!"). Anyway, the point here is not to toot my own horn about writing a certain number of words about music (akin, I suppose, to telling someone just how long you danced about architecture). Rather, I just wanted to think out loud a bit about my experience writing this list.

I. Format
I am surprised at how easy it was to decide on a format for the write-ups themselves. Basically, I knew that I wanted to avoid a general discussion of a particular album's strengths (cf. Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2011, not that there is anything wrong with that approach, necessarily). This was to be my list and it had to explain my understanding of the album (I made a conscious effort fairly early on to avoid the second person. I don't think it appears in anything after the Neon Indian write-up). Of course, entirely subjective and personal criteria do not necessarily make for great evaluations--a point I try desperately to make clear to my students--so I wanted something slightly more objective/universal and review like to accompany my own relationship to the album. Thus, the two paragraph structure seemed ideal. It was flexible enough to shift with albums whose place on the list owed more to the explanation accompanying the more objective components and with those whose place on the list owed more to my own encounter with them than anything else. Hopefully, if one paragraph wasn't engaging for the reader, the other paragraph would be. If neither paragraph was engaging, well, maybe the links to YouTube videos proved satisfying.

In terms of the actual number of albums, I picked ten (with five honourable mentions) partly to force myself to evaluate albums rather than picking a number large enough to allow me to just list every album I listened to this year and partly for practical reasons: ten seemed like a good number that would keep this doable and lend some weight to the selections. I kept the albums separated into the top ten and the honourable mentions rather than top fifteen for much the same reason. It seemed important to have a demarcation between "good albums that I enjoyed" and "the best albums of the year" (I guess this is my own personal good record/important album distinction). Before I actually sat down to do the list, I assumed that several albums from the honourable mentions list would make the main list and I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was to separate the two lists once I started working.

II. Schedule
I anticipated that writing something every day for a set number of days would be difficult. I don't tend to work that way on anything. Doing the list this way proved to be both challenging and rewarding. There were a few entries on the list for which I had some notes written in advance (Neon Indian, Kode9 & the Spaceape, and Tim Hecker), but I tended to avoid using them. As much as possible, I wanted this to be a process of sitting down to the computer each day as the desire came over to me and writing the piece while listening to the album in question. In two or three cases I found my way into the write-up the night before, and wrote a few sentences or a draft paragraph, but largely these were drafted as I listened and then edited/expanded. Sometimes this task seemed daunting and unpleasant, with the desire clearly not about to come any time soon (My thought process: Another one? Really? Whose stupid idea was this? Oh, wait...), and at other times, all the desire in the world couldn't produce a useful sentence. During the second half of the list, my own schedule for this became increasingly rigid--generally, it was wake up, start working, finish and post by mid-morning. I'm not sure I really achieved this with any of the entries, but it gave me a structure within which I could work.

What made this worthwhile was not that it built in a sense of obligation or anything like that (though it did just that), but rather that these write-ups fed off each other, illuminating connections I'd never noticed or, at the least, never articulated to myself. If I'd just written these in a concentrated burst over a couple days or haphazardly as I felt like it, I doubt those themes would've emerged. In a similar way, I found that shared aesthetic properties (and the aesthetic properties that ultimately led me to pick these albums over others) became clear for me in a way that I think I was only subconsciously aware of prior to writing. Though I didn't take advantage of this at all, I also appreciated that doing the write-ups one album at a time allowed me to reconsider the list as I wrote it. There were a few minutes of dithering at times about the place of an album (especially 6/7 and 3/4), but I decided to stick with the order as I initially determined it.

III. Overall Reflections
Despite some complaining at times on my part, this albums of the year list was by far the most fun I've had with this blog. It felt like a simple and straightforward way to get back to why I started this blog, to have a place to write and think about music. In an age of such widespread access to music (via YouTube, Spotify, torrents and P2P, etc., etc.) there's bound to be at least a whiff of genre tourism to any list outside of one with a specialized focus. I don't really know a lot about the genres (hello, bass music!) out of which many of my favourite albums emerged, so I'm probably more of a tourist than most who are writing these lists (this was also part of my reasoning in focusing so heavily on my response to albums as the contextual framework, even when discussing an artist's past work and the new work in relation to that corpus). I hope, though, that the aesthetic and thematic connections that emerged in the write-ups offered something like a picture (if not clear, at least muddy) of my own aesthetic preferences. That is, I'd like to believe that taking into account the things I very clearly like (via what I said in the write-ups), nothing on this list should be too surprising or out of keeping with the other entries. This is the second year I've done an albums of the year list* and I plan to keep it up for as long as it remains a fun activity. It will be interesting for me (if for no one else) to see if the aesthetic concerns that are already apparent after two years of this continue to crystallize or if there is a radical shift.

Anyway, if you read any of the list, I hope you enjoyed it. If it introduced you to any new music, or reintroduced you to an artist you'd lost touch with, or just made you reevaluate--for even a second--something you dislike, then I think the list proved its worth. Onward to 2012 and more great music!

*Last year's best album (in my opinion, of course) was Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus (paired with the Pattern+Grid World EP). The runner-up was Four Tet's There Is Love In You.

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