A couple years ago, crammed in the back of a car, my roommate asked me what my top albums of the year were. I went on a too long rant that could basically be boiled down to: “I like a lot of music and putting it in a numerical order seems weird and impossible.”
The following year, I spent the winter dealing with a family tragedy, wandering New York shellshocked, listening to Nils Frahm’s Felt and a Biosphere album that I think somehow corrupted my iPod (sorry Biosphere, totally not your fault). I would come home, cheeks flushed and listen to whatever I felt I could comfortably call background music. Sometimes that meant sifting through Boomkat samples for moments of ambient bliss, other times, I would walk to Academy Records and raid their experimental section, pulling out small run releases of chiming tones and slackened guitar drift.
In the wake of that tragedy, which carried over through much of this year, I decided everything would be about movement. Where last year I spent time on my back, absorbing musical textures, this year I just went places. Windy and Carl‘s We Will Always Be soundtracked a post-breakup plane ride, with those mountain-sized guitars acting as a cocoon. I drove through Maine and Vermont with a close friend listening primarily to the Sam Moss curated edition of Imaginational Anthem, a collection of intricate, visceral fingerpicked guitar songs by young artists. Flying to and from Australia in under a week, I listened to Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas albums chronologically. When I was home and couldn’t sleep, I still returned to Fennesz’ Venice. When I wanted to get out of the house and just walk, Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet was still my go-to. Looking back at my year in weird jams, I think it’s mostly music as emotional impression—timestamped, encoded with its own personal meaning. The best I can hope for with a lot of these records is that they mean something to not just me, but to other people out there. Niche, experimental music is important because of how much it means to so few people.
I think that sometimes we listen to music without thinking about all the angles. I’m so deep into this stuff that it doesn’t even occur to me that something I might think is beautiful doesn’t hit the right buttons for someone else. Not long ago, Hecker and Dan Lopatin, bka Oneohtrix Point Never, released Instrumental Tourist, an album of busy tones and glitchy instrumental washes of noise. I thought it was gorgeous and dense. I played it for a friend, and she said it gave her anxiety. We’re both wrong. We’re both right.
Last year, writing about my year in music, I wrote that what I loved “put me where I needed to be mentally,” which I think is a quality that everyone hopes to find in the music they love. This year, I hated where the music I loved put me mentally, and that’s important. I felt uncomfortable, I felt sad. I got angry when a song hit too close to home, and then found comfort in that idea. Often, I’ll put on a drone record—as I write this, I’m listening to Mind Over Mirrors’ Check Your Swing, which is wobbly and thick, and if you heard it from a distance, you’d probably think it was a recording of a swarm of bees playing around with a fog horn—and think, how do I like this? Not because it’s bad, but because it’s just so without any obvious connection to the music I grew up with. We find comfort in what we know, or at least the faint wisps of familiarity give us something to grasp onto. When did a record that pulses and oozes become something that I found familiar? How did Mind Over Mirrors arrive at that same conclusion, and for that matter, how did Growing figure out how to make rhythmic glory with just guitars? They figured it out because it’s what they had to do for themselves, just like you and I and probably some fifteen-year-old who just discovered Brian Eno listen because it’s what we know to do.
None of this music is going to give concrete answers to anything in life. It’s not going to tell you if you should get married, quit your job or try to move to Hawaii like you’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s going to create questions and suck you in further. It’s a process, and hopefully we all come out the other side understanding whatever the hell it is we’re trying to understand. We listen because we don’t know what else to do. It keeps us moving.