The Music of 2017: Reflections on Memory and Miracles

These albums and artists made this year remarkable.

December 26, 2017 5:00 am
Kraftwerk performs in Oslo. (Photo by Rob Ball/Redferns via Getty Images)
Kraftwerk performs in Oslo. (Photo by Rob Ball/Redferns via Getty Images)

Music was a miracle in 2017.

It is a miracle every year.

Music is the miracle of your memory, framed. It is then triggered in the future by someone else’s art.

Music is the miracle of a gift you can offer to someone else: Here, I felt this.

Music is the miracle of a gift you have given yourself, over and over: This is how I felt. This is where I felt it. This melody, this rhyme, that’s me. That’s you and me.

All art is personal. All art is balanced on a connection we make not only to our feelings about what we are seeing, reading, touching, or hearing, but also to the memories we link with that object. It would also be accurate to say that all art is sensory: It enters us and exists utterly within a frame of our reference and experience.

All art exists within a space in time.

We recollect a painting we saw at the Met – say, Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with a Straw-Hat” – and we don’t just see a flat surface sitting in empty space, do we? We envisage the artwork in its space, in its room; and if we met him on the page of a book, we probably don’t just see the painting, we also likely recall the street light coming through the coffee shop window reflecting on the bottom right of the page. Perhaps when we summon “Self Portrait with a Straw-Hat” we see the sealskin-gray edge of the computer screen we last saw the painting on. The painting is not a flat object in our thought, not ever; it exists in an environment, based on our own experience viewing it, interacting with it. Moreover: We hear our thoughts when we first saw it, and we remember what we said to our friends about the encounter. The only art that exists outside of a space and time of our very own reference is art that is completely unseen.

Now, architecture exists as the literal space to hold and observe the events of life that shape sense, sensation, emotion, action, reaction, and memory. And literature (by which I mean the act of reading words in any form, in a medium) is entirely dependent on a frame of reference, because it is loaded with the dust of every association we have had with every word we see; every sentence we assemble out of these words tells us something about our experience. No shape of any letter, nor the words formed out of them, is an island.

But I think that no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music.

Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking when we heard a song. Music marks our very place in space and time.

Music is memory, memory is music.

Try this sometime: Walk through a city –an exotic one, or one as familiar to you as the gibbous moons of your fingernails. Make an audio recording – just an audio recording — of two or three minutes of the adventure. Resist referencing it for a week or two, and then listen to it. You will find yourself back in that place, in a more vivid, real, and tactile sense than any photograph or video could take you there.

Music never exists on its own. Like those city sounds (the click of the crosswalk signs, the Doppler’d car horns, the grind of construction an avenue and a half away, the windy sail of the Habibi funk on the radio sluicing from the Halal cart), music always accompanies a voyage, a story, a spot in space and time.

Do you ever, ever, just “hear” a song? No. You hear where you heard the song, why you heard the song, who you were when you heard the song. And when you hear a new song and make contact with something unfamiliar, you set the experience in a new frame in the sensational world, to be accessed tomorrow or a thousand tomorrows from now.

We cannot separate music from its utility as a placeholder in our life, a mnemonic for emotion and feeling. You may be saying to yourself now, “Oh…I think I know what he means: There is that one chorus that always brings me back to an autumn afternoon in 11th grade, right after I walked through the front door, right after I grabbed a handful of Trix, right after I thought of tomorrow.”

Music framed your tumbling thoughts, defined feelings where there had been just a nagging desire for Pringles; music made you see the words of a song in the eyes’ nearest yours; music made you place a crown of song on the aura of someone far away.

Virtually every moment on my heels (from age thirteen to four times that) has a song attached to it, even when there was none playing; this is because song, alone of the arts, is a wanderer, and it plants it’s seed wherever it may, wherever it is needed, and it is needed everywhere, it is the homeless art, because it lives wherever we remember.

Friends Old and New

There was much wonderful new music this year, from old friends and new, and here’s just a few of the highlights:

The old/new surprising/familiar Modern Kosmology, from the beckoning, warm post-krautrock singer/songwriter Jane Weaver; Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who may be the new Brian Eno, or may be the new Brian Wilson, or may be Terry Riley disguised as both, on The Kid; Glintshake/RW, who shot out Leedsian shards of pure ’79, the sound of three-pronged sockets being pissed on (who knew that new Russian bands were making some of the greatest classic Post Punk of all time!); the edgy, Rumours-meets-Chronic Town arpeggios and pleas of Sunflower Bean, who may be America’s brightest young band, and could, should, lead a new college rock revolution; from always startling Iceland, the whispering, humming and nearly naked post punk of Skulker í Bringuand and the hourglass-perfect childlike/godlike there/not there DJ shimmer of Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir…I mean, if there’s so much new out there, imagine all I missed! Imagine how alive the music world is; imagine the utter idiocy of those elders who insist that only they can recite the Kaddish around pop rock’s grave. Listen, the grave of rock’n’roll is filled only with those who believe it is dead and completely absent of those who think it is alive.

And in 2017, we also had stunning, soul and mind vibrating new work from some very old friends:

The hushed, Cocteau Twins-ian charms and 4AD-meets-40 Watt puff-of-heart post punk of Cindy Wilson (of the B-52s) is one of the most surprising albums in recent memory (and a must-own record of 2017/18); Wire, one of the greatest bands of all time, released one of their greatest albums ever (forty years into their career!), the adamant, buzzing, nearly perfect mercury-drop tic-whirr of Silver/Lead; and perhaps most surprising, one of the most important and original artists of all-time, Kraftwerk, put out what is very likely the definitive, most musically resonant and flawless collection of their career, 3-D The Catalogue, an eight-disc set which sees them re-recording, annotating, and actually improving on their entire recorded oeuvre. 3-D The Catalogue is not only the album of the year; it is a serious contender for album of the decade.

I have grown old under this planetarium dome of music, full of starlight and spikes and shivers, to be hoarded and shared.

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