Mark Van Hoen – Nightvision

Every once in a while, a great album by a favorite artist slips right by me. Nightvision is a perfect example. Mark Van Hoen released the album in November of 2015, and I stumbled upon it only this week. Van Hoen’s work has appeared on my best of lists and his former band, Seefeel, created some of my favorite music of all time. This was a huge oversight, as it turns out.

After just a few listens, I really wish I’d heard the album a few months ago. I have no doubt that it would have appeared somewhere on my best of 2015 list. Nightvision is frankly incredible.

This sounds like a massive refinement of Van Hoen’s prior solo work. The album feels as approachable and eager to please as his debut, Where Is The Truth, yet painted in colors even more abstract than his dark followup, The Revenant Diary.

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Sufjan Stevens “Fourth of July”

Some of my favorite songs hurt too much to listen to very often. They send me plunging into those forlorn corners of memory that I spend most days avoiding. I try to remember these songs, play them, and appreciate what happens when I open the flood gates to total despair.

All year long, I keep an ongoing list of the music that really touches me. Even if I’ve only heard something once, it won’t be forgotten. So long as an album really strikes me, it remains on the list. It’s a gentle reminder of some of my best moments, light and dark.

I’ve realized this is a  perfect way to keep track of the more sharply emotional music I encounter. When something makes me cry, striking a deep feeling that I can’t shake for hours, I don’t often want to dive right back in. It’s too much. The music I listen to while driving, for instance, doesn’t often involve a lot of harsh emotional places. Some albums don’t beg repeat plays, yet stil wear a groove into my mind. The list helps me conjure those overwhelming artists for a reappraisal. It’s a practice that I find profoundly rewarding at the end of each year.

This year’s list included Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell. It’s a harrowing, autobiographical experience that’s eerily stripped down and direct, compared to his grand, overstuffed earlier albums. Lyrics trade heavy in both spiritual and personal tones, and despite the light atmosphere, the narrative settles uncomfortably on the heart. The deceptively simple collection of guitar and piano driven tunes are connected by a gauzy atmosphere, with blurred beginnings and endings. Tracks emerge from the hissing fog of memory, embracing and then leaving before they can be fully grasped.

This one, though. Fourth of July just cuts me right down. Before I’d even read the backstory of the album, named after Stevens’ estranged, recently late mother and stepfather, the lyrics rang painful. Structured as a conversation between Stevens and his mother on her deathbed, it’s full of aching verses that express the regret of a mostly missed relationship. Since she’d left when he was a child, Stevens was saying goodbye to a stranger that he nonetheless loved and forgave completely.

While my relationship with my own late mother couldn’t be more different, one verse felt immediately like a message from her. It struck like a knife through the ribs, sucking the air from my lungs. It felt like what my mom would have said if she’d known she wouldn’t see me again, that day I waved goodbye in the snow.

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

I have to admit: I shake just typing these words out. Some thoughts act like a portal, ripping me directly back to the moment I knew my mom was gone. There’s no fighting it; I just let it wash over and move on. Sufjan Stevens has captured this feeling more accurately than any contemporary musician I’ve heard, painting that exquisite combination of sadness, regret, acceptance, and dawning relief that forever trails after the black hole at the center of memory.

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Just as Fourth of July is an emotionally cathartic listen, it’s equally as disruptive to write about. I’m staring down my blog while my sinuses disintegrate, tears falling. Just as profound depths of sadness allow for a unique bounce into tear-streaked laughter and relief, music like this warms a smile on my face as I reflect on it. Writing about why something nails my gut, poking at the connective tissue of emotion itself, is why I started writing about music itself.

When I find myself avoiding art that makes me truly feel on a visceral level, I try to puncture that safe bubble. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the nearly four years my mom has been gone, it’s that I need to let those darkest feelings out, at least occasionally. I might fall into an ugly, sobbing mess, but I need the perspective. I never appreciate the mundane bliss of everyday life without consistent reminders of what it’s like back at rock bottom.

Perhaps this is why Stevens ends the song with a refrain that feels more affirming than despairing. In a warmly gentle tone, he ushers us back toward the rest of our lives, repeating:

We’re all gonna die.

2 8 1 4 – 新しい日の誕生

Sometimes there’s no better way to discover music than aimlessly sliding through the dark dream of the internet.

One day at the office I was looking for something that I could drift to. I wanted a sound that stretched like taffy until it reached the horizon. I needed my surroundings blurred beyond recognition, smeared into the very fabric of reality. With 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day) by 2814, I found exactly what I was looking for.

As a writer, I rarely listen to vocal music while doing my job. The lyrics work their way into my hands, spilling into whatever piece I’m trying to finish. It’s too much of a distraction; I lose all focus. Some people do fine with hip-hop or pop music blasting while they write, and I almost envy them. Instead, I’ve settled into a groove with certain genres that help me stay on task, creating an aural environment to work in. This means that I end up playing a whole lot of jazz, techno, and ambient music for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It also means that I’m forever seeking new music with a similar hypnotic effect.

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Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete

Oneohtrix Point Never has returned with a massive new album you can call G.O.D. It peels up the corner tiles of a thousand realities over 45 minutes, blooming micro-worlds of sound and immediately dissolving in head-on collisions.

For the first time in years, OPN – real name Daniel Lopatin – hasn’t completely restructured his sound, yet I’m feeling the same sense of dizzying vertigo that he’s made a career out of conjuring. In a real sense, the strongest component of his appeal has always been that daring sense of surprise, the act of an artist venturing over the edge of the known music world and bringing back sounds that I’ve never even anticipated, much less heard. More than a style, it’s an idea, a philosophy. In the wrong hands, it can become a cheap trick. This is something far more substantial.

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Alice Coltrane – Divine Songs

This is a glowing gem known only to those who have burrowed deep enough into the inimitable catalog of jazz legend Alice Coltrane.

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“Divine music is the sound of true life, wisdom, and bliss.  This music transcends geographical boundaries, language barriers, age factors; and whether educated or uneducated, it reaches deep into the heart and soul, sacred and holy…” – Alice Coltrane

Released in 1987 on cassette only, Divine Songs is the purest expression of the spiritual drone jazz sound that Alice had been perfecting ever since establishing the Shanti Anantam Ashram in the decade prior.

Soaring into ethereal space, leaving only the faintest jazz roots visible, the sound here is birthed in minimalist Indian organ modes. The atmosphere cracks open with harp and strings, shining brightly around her transcendent voice. It might not be for the casual fan, but if you’re tuned in to the celestial vibe Alice developed in the years after her husband, John Coltrane, died, you’ll settle in perfectly here.

A bonus for fans of Flying Lotus, and his album Cosmogramma in particular: keep your ears open for fleeting moments where he sampled his great aunt directly. With such a heavy influence she’s had on his music, the cameos feel especially poignant.

Destroyer – The Laziest River

When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album.  It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge.  It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.

If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now.  It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album.  The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story.  So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.

Best Songs of 2012, part 2: “N.E.W.”

This will loop indefinitely over the Elysian fields of an afterlife of my design.

Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) redefined ambient beauty with this piece, lighting the spiritual wires from the organ works of Camille Saint-Saëns through Brian Eno’s Discreet Music while sparking fresh air to flame.  Blooming the color of Arvo Pärt’s devotional tilt in an exploratory space odyssey from the dreams of Oneohtrix Point Never or Stanley Kubrick, N.E.W. is uplifting and warm, alien and awestruck.  We’re inside a nebulous pipe organ riding the cusp of a singularity, dancing on the membrane between ascension and obliteration.  Let it repeat.

I should mention the video:  I have no clue where the footage is from, but it strangely works.  This copy was chosen mainly, however, because it can be set to 720p, so the sound quality is superb.