Friday, December 29, 2017

RIB's 2017 Album of the Year:
Bjork -- Utopia

No piece of art meant more to me this year — or, arguably, any recent year — than the return of “Twin Peaks.”

That includes the music — spread over three records, it’s a treasure trove of score and songs and sound effects, from Angelo Badalamenti, Dean Hurley and David Lynch to Nine Inch Nails, Sharon Van Etten and Eddie Vedder.

Taken as a whole, it’s my soundtrack of 2017.

But it isn’t my Album of the Year.

When I started my award a quarter century ago — yes, this is my 25th(!) winner — I set two basic rules for myself I reserve the right to change on a whim but have stuck with ever since anyway:

  1. The record must be released during the calendar year.
  2. It must be made up of original recordings — covers, for sure, but not old material or compilations that include the prerecorded work of others.

There was a lot of that in the music of “Twin Peaks.” But because it was curated so well, I was ready to throw those rules right out the window — until the week of Thanksgiving.

That’s when I took a brand new record with me to Mexico City, and during a fabulous family vacation that took us from Frida Kahlo’s house to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, I fell asleep each night to Bjork’s “Utopia.”

I’ve been falling asleep to my 2017 Album of the Year nearly every night since.

It’s been 16 years since I loved a Bjork record like this. “Vespertine” was my top record of 2001, when I’d listen to it sitting in the window of my apartment in Prague, or riding the tram across the Vlatava, watching the snow fall. And hearing the snow fall — in particular the sound of boots making tracks in the soft, thick powder — through my headphones.

On “Utopia,” there are growling wolverines and the bitter leftovers from an devastating divorce. But similar in some ways to “Vespertine,” which wraps you in the warmth of winter, this record is blanketed with tropical birdsongs and flutes; where “Vespertine” sings of secret loves and hidden places, “Utopia” explores sex and romance through the swapping of mp3s and the swiping of apps. Where “Vespertine” pleads for a do-over on its most powerful track, “Undo,” a choir-filled prayer for a new beginning, “Utopia” carefully plots out its do-over, point by point — exploring the messy details of it, from the excitement and fear of letting yourself be vulnerable again to keeping your children from the emotional “luggage” of a custody battle to moments of #MeToo-like empowerment in rejecting the sins of fathers, passed down through generations, to protect our daughters — culminating in a pair of songs as moving as any in Bjork’s incomparable catalogue.

“Music loves too. I am here to defend it,” Bjork states on “Saint,” her voice low in the mix as the swirling sounds overpower her words and attempt to leap from the speakers to form tangible objects in the air. The song distills much of what has come before — the sweetness of “two music nerds obsessing” as they fall in love to a song to the expression of pain and regret in “Sue Me” and “Tabula Rasa,” not to mention Bjork’s previous record, “Vulnicura,” filled with raw anger still being worked out in verse.

At the end of the opening track of one of my Album of the Year runners-up, Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked At Me,” Phil Elverum laments the loss of his wife Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer — leaving behind their 1-year-old daughter -- by asserting that, in the face of real death, all poetry and art loses its meaning. Of course, he’s making a record about death, which neatly contradicts what he says. Bjork’s “I am here to defend it” is more bold — a mission statement from an artist who’s had more time to mourn, and is a little more ready to reconnect to life and love.

Bjork didn’t play The Roadhouse on “Twin Peaks.” But the unique and at times surreal world of this record draws you in. And in the same way Lynch embraces the comic and the dramatic in the same moments, so does “Utopia.” The epic, nearly 10-minute “Body Memory” explores her deep relationship to nature, but starts off both by making fun of it and exalting it:

First snow of winter
I'm walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog!
This fucking mist!
These cliffs are just showing off!

Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I'm made of
I redeem myself

And then there’s the stuff that maybe just works on that “Twin Peaks” plane only for me, but is no less a part of the record’s story in my mind. When Björk sings, “Hold fort for love” on the closing track, “Future Forever,” it’s again the proclamation of a survivor, coming back to life after a loss — or a “Losss,” spelled with three s’s in the title of the astounding Track 8. But when I mishear the lyric, over and over, in Bjork’s Icelandic accent as “Hold fart for love,” the humor does nothing to diminish it. Nor do the bird sounds all over the record — lush and exotic, yes, but still I imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by so many flying creatures, and all the bird shit that would surely land on me.

But that’s love, isn’t it? Opening your heart, getting betrayed, getting shat on, and then, sometimes, at least in those early days of courtship, holding in your gas to make her love you more than you think you might deserve.

On the 2017 Album of the Year, that love — old and new, flourishing and foundering — extends well beyond mere romance.

”Utopia, it isn’t elsewhere,” Bjork sings, as she both laments the state of our planet and longs for better. “It’s here.” Despite another bleak year — after all the shit we’ve been through politically or professionally or personally — it’s here. It’s just that more than ever, we‘re on our own to fight for it.

Past winners:

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji
2015: The Tallest Man On Earth -- Dark Bird is Home
2016: Bon Iver -- 22, A Million

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nominees: 2017 Album of the Year

I was in Mexico City over Thanksgiving and didn't set this up to post in advance. So here goes, better late than never.

The nominees for my ***25th*** Album of the Year are ...


Angelo Badalamenti/Dean Hurley/Various — The Music of Twin Peaks (three albums, one joint nomination)

So this might seem like a copout, or an unfair advantage, but trust me, it’s neither. The music of Twin Peaks was the soundtrack of much of my summer, and some of the older pieces in this collection are part of the soundtrack of my life. Mostly what makes this three-pronged TP attack a nominee is the simple fact that there was no more important piece of art to me this year than Season 3 of the greatest television show ever, and one of its grounding elements was the sound design (done by David Lynch himself) and the Roadhouse performances at the end of nearly every part. It was the best concert of 2017 you couldn’t attend in person but felt no less real — and often far more surreal. It was the music event of the year, and it takes three records to cover the full breadth of it — from those dreamy or disturbing Bang Bang Bar acts to the perfect placement of old or reimagined tunes to the buzzing electricity of Dean Hurley’s sound effects to Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions — some familiar, some new — that continued to set the incomparable tone of Twin Peaks.


Bjork — Utopia

I’ve had various levels of interest in Bjork’s work since her masterpiece — 2001 Album of the Year winner Vespertine. This is the most excited I’ve been about a new Bjork record in years. Sure, she doesn’t really do hooks anymore, and her vocals are often too low in the mix, but the songs here explode, and the lyrics are profoundly moving — Utopia feels like a latter-day Vespertine, with the thick blanket of snow replaced by a tropical island filled with exotic birds and flutes.


Hurray For The Riff Raff — The Navigator

This is the record that turned HFTRR from a strong folk act to an “Important Band”. A drama told in music — but not a musical — it spins the story (one quite personal to lead singer Alynda Segarra) about growing up Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Although the elements for a record this strong had been there, the transformation is nothing short of astounding. As a Bronx-born white dude who grew up in suburban privilege, I have a hard time singing along without at least a tinge of embarrassment and shame. Which I think is at least part of the point.


Laura Marling — Semper Femina

One of the better live shows I saw this year (a surprise from Amelia!), Laura Marling is just one of the best songwriters there is right now. I find these songs a lot more subtle, less bitter, less defiant, than her last Album of the Year nominee, Short Movie, but they’re all memorable and if anything show off her range. “I was wild once,” she speak-sings, and it seems to make sense as some rumination and reflection on the brief but fiery film that preceded it.


Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me

This is a record so hauntingly beautiful it’s hard to listen to. Phil Elverum faces the death of his wife, musician Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer — leaving behind their 1-year-old daughter — with a low-fi and direct and personal and poetic set of vignettes about picking up the pieces and moving on, without ever forgetting. The record is both a profound work of art, and a rejection of the meaning and power of art in the face of death.


Offa Rex — The Queen of Hearts

Olivia Chaney gave me my favorite concert memory — really, memories — of the year, which I’ve written about at length in Unwinnable Monthly. And sure, that helps make this record more special to me. But it would have been right in this space regardless. It’s a collection of ancient folk ballads I wasn’t — save for one more recent tune — acquainted with, but Chaney and The Decemberists deliver them so expertly and beautifully, I’m thrilled this is how I heard them for the first time.


Tift Merritt — Stitch of the World

Like HFTRR and Offa Rex, Tift Merritt is a cherished Newport Folk Festival discovery, who gave Amelia and me our wedding song. We also saw her perform this set of new songs in a brilliant show at City Winery. There are instant Merritt standards — most of the record, in fact — and Icarus ranks among the absolute best songs of her career.


Hon. Mention

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness
Big Thief — Capacity
Broken Social Scene — Hug of Thunder
Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story (Original Soundtrack)
Feist — Pleasure
Fever Ray — Plunge
Filthy Friends — Invitation
Groundhog Day: The Musical (Original Cast Recording)
The Innocence Mission — The Snow on Pi Day
Iron & Wine — Beast Epic
John Maus — Screen Memories
Sharon Van Etten — (It Was) Because I Was In Love
Willie Watson — Folksinger, Vol. 2