I love lists. At the end of every year, I dutifully check in with my AV Clubs and my Pitchforks and my NPRs and my Dusteds and whatever other publications appeal to politically liberal youngish people trying to keep up.
There’s a special place in my heart for music lists. Back in my college radio days, we used to devote hours (some of them on air) to dissecting the year-end best-of lists. Having served posts at office jobs that require a considerable amount of editing and fact-checking, and thus allow for some quality headphones time, these sorts of lists now serve as a discursive mix tape that I can alternately love, hate, or dismiss.
Yet, I tend not to make lists. It isn’t a matter of feeling like my opinions aren’t valuable. It’s a resistance to canon formation. I question whether the list itself is a useful tool with which to measure history. There’s something so arbitrary about ranking, so temporal about certain offerings, and so glass-cased final about the results. It seems to render the chosen cultural moments accidental, temperamental, and airless. And often the items deemed worthy on these lists have nothing to do with me or anyone else who isn’t a straight white adult male.
To me, the only use a list has is to argue about it with a group of friends over beer, make another list to counter someone else’s (whether it be drafted by a friend or a respectable publication), or scrawl all over the margins of the pre-existing document. Otherwise, the proceedings seem deceptive and unsatisfying to me. And even though I like to wrestle with lists, I don’t really need proof that good things came out each year. Good movies, TV shows, books, and especially music get made every year.
That said, I do believe in favorites. While favorites can shift with time and gathered experience, I’m a big believer in selecting a defining text that encompasses the year. I don’t remember if I originally thought Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver was my favorite movie of 2006, though I know I loved it. When I think about it now though, I remember calling my mother immediately after the screening I attended because the thought of living in the same house as a grown woman with your mother who might be a ghost was too profound an idea not to relate to her.
I remember how TV on the Radio’s Dear Science captured the hope of change promised by the potential election of Barack Obama, especially in the wake of a demoralizing Bush administration that the band gestured toward in previous, more emotionally turbulent albums.
So what of this year? Well, my choice for album of the year picked me.
Before getting into why I picked the album I did, which I established as my #1 way back in March despite keeping fantastic company with offerings from Bill Callahan, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, P.O.S., Fashawn, Micachu & The Shapes, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, St. Vincent, Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle, Grizzly Bear, Themselves, Memory Tapes, Janelle Monáe, Phoenix, Taken By Trees, Nite Jewel, Destroyer, Julianna Barwick, Fever Ray, The Noisettes, Atlas Sound, Vivian Girls, Gossip, Best Coast, Dan Deacon, Brother Ali, and so many others, I’d like to be candid for a moment. When I think about this year, I think about how I tried to make it a good one. I believe I was successful and I know I have many people to thank for that. But it was definitely a growing year, and usually not in the certain, considerable, triumphant ways that “growth” often suggests itself as a word.
I started this blog at the end of April. While I made a New Year’s resolution to do it, I created it out of a need to control my feelings about a professional setback that rendered itself more heart-breaking than I thought it would when the decisions were finally handed down. Throughout this year, I’ve often (re: daily) reflected upon my future and who I want to be, worried not so much that I lack the ability to progress toward a career I really want and think I’d be great at, but that I’ll never get the chance to develop and move forward. That’s some heavy shit. It doesn’t translate well into party-time chit-chat either, especially when some of your friends are already on the path you’d like to be on someday.
As a result, I tried to broaden my focus and interests. I tried to get some related things accomplished and made some progress. But I also got comfy and more involved with my current job, read more books, saw more movies, heard more music, hung out with my friends, had quiet nights at home with my partner and our cat, got involved with Girls Rock Camp Austin, co-taught some rad music history workshops, paid off my loan, and threw myself into this blog with abandon. Admittedly, it’d be nice to get paid to put this site together, as I could easily be happy making a career out of it. But it’s been so fun and rewarding to write up these posts and have smart, sensitive people follow along and participate. I’ll gladly pay the money to keep the domain name.
But none of this fucking matters when a tornado is ripping up your house or a killer whale is eating your lungs. And with that, let’s get into Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone.
So, the second time I heard this album, I knew it was the one to beat. And before people cry “safe choice!” or “bias!” I’ll point out that Animal Collective secured many publications’ top spot with a crossover hit back in January. And then I’ll add that Middle Cyclone, much like Merriweather Post Pavilion (and Dear Science before it and Kala before it) distilled the musician’s artistic growth. In this particular case (no pun intended), she honed her considerable writing ability, developed her Gothic noir musical tendencies, piled on catchy melodies and haunting harmonies, and showcased a maturing, perfect alto. The issue of vocal range is one of great importance to me, as it means I can sing along with her. We had some good sessions in my car.
It was also the long-awaited follow-up to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which continued but further shaded the cinematic work the singer had done with Blacklisted. Fox Confessor was a cycle of post-apocolyptic fairy tales about car accident victims, army widows, and fingerless cannery workers.
As is evident in much of her earlier and subsequent work, animals show up. Sparrows, lions, and foxes make often allegorical appearances, though her gendered connection to nature would take a more literal, weirder turn when she decided to record crickets chirping for Middle Cyclone‘s final 30 minutes. Sometimes cover songs get re-interpreted, as on the spiritual “John Saw That Number” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” on her follow-up.
Sometimes Case would show up too, most noticeably on “Hold On, Hold On.”
But Case is all over Middle Cyclone. Whether she’s singing about a love-lorn tornado or a biker’s wife or a convict or an owl, she’s singing from their perspective rather than narrating their lives. She’s also often singing as herself, revealing who that might be with lines about being the dangling ceiling of a caved-in roof or threatening to punch a lover in the face if the word “forever” is uttered in “The Next Time You Say Forever.” I also love her assertion that “heaven will smell like the airport” but that we shouldn’t worry about whether we get proof of it is fair in “I’m An Animal.” However, her candor on the title track moves me the most.
Through the liner notes, we even got more of a sense of who she is. Her deprecating sense of humor is evident, as is her confident sense of artistic ownership and her craftiness with collage art and découpage glue. As this was the year Austin City Limits released their cookbook, I can’t wait to try out her recipe for houndstooth chocolate chip cookies. And let’s not forget how many pianos she needed to make this album. She may be a goddess, but she’s also a kooky lady.
This goddess and kooky lady are evident as one on the album’s bad-ass cover. While it’s Neko on the hood of a car, the image is far from Vargas girl cheesecake. This one is barefoot and holding a sword, but she’s also 38 (now 39) and pretending to be an eight-year-old boy.
In sum, Middle Cyclone was a defining and distinctly female work that came about from age, experience, a clear sense of self, some hard knocks, and even more defiance to overcome them. It was exactly the album I needed to hear this year, often and at full volume.