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A Year in Music: Matthew Schnipper

Summing up a year listening to music is kind of like trying to talk about all the times you tied your shoelaces. Still, six editors at the FADER tried. Read what editor-in-chief Matthew Schnipper had to say about 2011 here and 2012 below.

The 2012 record I listened to most this year is Lotus Plaza’s Spooky Action at a Distance. It’s incredibly well structured, regular indie rock—the leading man project from Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt. Don’t get me wrong, when I say regular I don’t mean it as a jab, or maybe I do just a little, but mostly not. There’s something to be celebrated in being by the books. I remember a TV show called Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place I liked a lot in high school. It nailed all the tropes of sitcom. The bar may not have been high, but they hit it every time.

Let’s back up: this isn’t quite the right analogy, but we’re getting there. Indie rock, or even rock & roll in general, is not something I’ve always had a great relationship with. I grew up loving bands driven by guitars, but was mostly drawn to musicians who wanted to deconstruct the instrument. In my early teens, I remember reading a review of no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in the back of Flipside magazine that described their music as some debased cacophony of noise. With no easy access to their records, I spent a lot of time thinking about how exciting that seemed. Years later, when I finally heard them, they sounded tame. The wildness I had hoped for came true through the far reaches of punk and hardcore, and later free jazz, classical, house music and rap. Or maybe I’ve loved the weird end of every genre. I’ve explored most of them, either through a serious phase or, at bare minimum, a cursory flirtation. For much of middle school I was sick and either in the hospital or at home, and spent all of that time not in class reading about music. That curious spirit has stayed with me and eventually I shifted from reading about music to writing about it. It’s worth noting that I am very lucky that I was just out of college by the time YouTube materialized, or I fear I would never have done any actual reading or playing of records and instead would have done what I do now: dredging the internet in search of jams.

A few times this year I thought about a performance I saw by composer Phill Niblock called “Movement of People Working.” The music was long, electronic drones (imagine the sound of a few people humming but digitized) and projected onto a number of screens were documentary videos of various people doing manual labor. Watching clips of this now, listening to it again, I don’t like it very much. Or rather it’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t want to listen to it and cannot imagine a time when I did. I still find it interesting, but I don’t find it compelling. Even though it was no more than seven or eight years since I saw the piece, I’m having a difficult time reconnecting with my former self. Did I like “Movement of People Working” then or did I just want to like it or think I should like it? Is there a difference once lights are out and your butt is in the chair for two hours? Either way, I was committed. And, to some degree, I still am. But I’ve found my taste changing, or at least tilting steadily towards the accessible side of music.

There’s a necessary but blurry line between my personal and professional taste. Take two records I truly loved this year: Jahilyya Fields’ Unicursal Hexagram and Container’s LP. Both are instrumental and gruff, though Jahilyya Fields’ ambient techno landscapes take much longer to unfurl than Container’s pretty immediate drum machine pummeling. But while those have taken up time and some space editorially (Container interview coming to thefader.com shortly after the new year) I’ve listened to them only in fits and starts after an initial romance. If I’m not obsessed with something specific and playing it repeatedly, my daily listening is spastic and brief, as I try to figure out quickly if a piece of music may be worthy of coverage. That “worth” is a nebulous thing, and in Phill Niblock’s case, for example, the intent of the music is greater than the quality of the composition. But mostly I am trying to identify jams because I don’t have time for much more than that. I rely on people I trust with good taste to help me when wading into deeper waters because some days I am just trying to figure out if French Montana should be on the cover. I can tell you I love the Jahilyya Fields album so much that I bought it on vinyl, and that I’m listening to it right now even—that it’s important. I know in total I haven’t listened to it more than 10 times, but I have listened to Kindness covering The Replacements’ “Swinging Party” 43. Kindness, a warm rock-ish group, like Lotus Plaza, plays meticulously, with not a hair out of place. That precision and pleasantness is fun to listen to. While neither band breaks new ground, they write and perform inviting music at unparalleled level and, to my tired ears, that is very satisfying. Simply put, I love difficult music but get tired of listening.

I watch a lot of movies, and as someone who by nature is obsessed with things that are part of “the conversation,” lately I’ve been trying to branch out both internationally and in time, catching up on a lot of left field classics. A month or so ago I finally watched Paris, Texas, something I’d been meaning to do for some time. I liked it a lot, and after watching, as I usually do, went online to read the New York Times review. It was written by Vincent Canby, who was a critic there for 35 years. I’ve become familiar with his slightly cranky taste, and while he was generally praiseworthy of Paris, Texas, he took it to task—not unfairly—for wrapping up way too neatly a film whose powers lie in its imprecision. Having read a lot of his reviews, I’ve both admired and been totally annoyed by how difficult it was to impress him and, knowing he died, wondered if maybe that reputation got a note in his obituary. It did, with Janet Maslin poking light fun at his blasé attitude towards E.T. She also made good case for his high standards, quoting from a piece he wrote about criticism in 1979. Covering the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and wrestling with a memory of watching Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, a film he calls “brutal, cruel, grotesque and occasionally incomprehensible … also exhilarating, reactions that, I’m quite sure, will not be shared by 90 percent of the people who will pay to see the film.” He later says, “I’m not at all sure that I understand the film.” So then why praise it, he asks. What is a critic’s worth if not to serve as an emissary to his readership? Well, he says, critics aren’t like the general public and their needs from and desires of art by definition differ from that of their readership (and here, I think it’s important to note that while my job at FADER involves a similar style of listening, and a good deal of deciding, working as an editor is not the same as working as a critic). “After a certain length of time spent watching films, the critic can no longer be entertained by simply sitting back and allowing the movie to roll over him like a tank made out of feathers,” Canby writes. “He wants to assume an active role. That’s his entertainment.” He goes on to discuss the nature of mediocre films and sizes up a few from the festival. The piece concludes with Canby pleading for more difficult film, lest his mind turn to jelly. I think it goes without saying that I’d prefer my mind not turn to jelly. I thrive on the mental exercise that comes with the complex films Canby writes of, but I’m not experiencing something similar with music. I think much of the reason for that is the delivery system. In the two hours it takes to watch a movie from beginning to end, I may have been able to work my way through a dozen tracks by the same number of artists. And this isn’t often because it’s a required task, but just because it is possible. There is a staggering amount of music readily available and a portion of it has at least some redeeming value. Personally and professionally, it’s important for me to find it, though in that search I naturally take much less time with each piece of music. It doesn’t take me long to get antsy with say, Lee Gamble’s subtle take on jungle, skip through a track or two and want to move along. If I was at a screening of a terrible superhero prequel, I’d have to sit through the whole thing.

This is not to say in off hours I didn’t desire excellent music—far from it. Looking at the records from 2012 I listened to the most on my own time this year—Lotus Plaza, Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel…, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Angel Olsen’s Halfway Home, Slava’s Soft Control EP—all share a similar immediacy. Lotus Plaza may not investigate particularly new alleys, take any wild chances, but the songs are strong and direct. What’s wrong she said/ I shrugged and shook my head, Lockett Pundt sings on “Strangers.” It’s dull poetry but effective lyricism, the kind of undeniable sap that goes straight for the gut. Even Slava’s record, which may be the dark horse of that list, utilizes repetition and vocal samples, both reliable devices for a record to worm its way in. Though I love the skittering of DJ Nate, Slava’s record is more subtle and warm. I mean, he samples Britney Spears singing, I’ve got feelings, too. Maybe the records I loved this year are just the musical versions of well-written romantic comedies.

My consistent source of the outer limits of music, as it has been for the last ten years, is my friend Daniel, who now makes music as Ital. His music fluctuates between ebullient and difficult, as does his taste. He makes music constantly, the process of which he will happily detail, and which, over the years, has given me a much greater understanding of what it means to be a musician. We spend a lot of time talking about music and he plays me techno from countries I’ll never go to and then I play him Chief Keef. The other night I was at his apartment with his friend Nick, who also makes music, as Bookworms. Both of them were playing new music they’re working on. Daniel explained all the compression he’d put on one song’s set of drums and we talked about one tinny sound I thought could potentially be pulled back. He said it was a Ne-Yo sample. Nick talked about a song he’d been making with a new collaborator who ignored his instructions about how to use a keyboard and simply began banging away. Then we listened to Drexciya and Regis slowed down. I thought it sounded great, but I have no idea what it sounds like the way it’s supposed to, and I will probably never find out. I’m just not that interested.

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Read more:
  • Amber Bravo on female musicians, emphasis on the musicians.

  • Emilie Friedlander on falling in love, again.

  • Naomi Zeicher In defense of falling apart in public.

  • Duncan Cooper on Taylor Swift, Lil B and loving Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

  • Alex Frank calls Rihanna his woman of the year, for better or worse
  • A Year in Music: Matthew Schnipper