14 November 2014

First Impressions of Earth

Here are a few thoughts on Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. As usual with Godard, the film is remarkably dense, and I’d have to see it at least one more time to attempt a proper review. I certainly didn’t catch much of the film’s elliptical narrative. But as a second viewing is not likely to happen any time soon, some first impressions:

1. From the very opening moments, in which Godard’s characteristic primary-colored intertitles are flashed in an alternating pattern between the front and back of the image, Godard’s film does more to explore the possibilities of the 3D form than any other I’ve seen. Rather than saving most of the effects for a few big set pieces, Godard shoots otherwise routine dialogue scenes in ways that highlight the depth of the 3D space. Other sequences use the extra dimension for texture and tactility, as when we see a dog running through a field, brushing against the grass in the front of the image.

2. There are also brief stretches when the stereoscopic image doesn’t resolve, making the picture difficult to decipher. It’s an effect seemingly designed to disorient the viewer; the first time it happened I wondered if my glasses had slipped out of position. In a Q&A after the movie, film scholar David Bordwell, who had just seen the film for a fifth time, noted that the timing of these moments varies depending on where the viewer is sitting in the theater. They had occurred each time he’d seen Goodbye to Language, but at different points during the film. We talk about movies that require a second viewing to understand, but it may be literally impossible to see all of Goodbye to Language clearly in a single viewing. The film is already unusually resistant to mechanical reproduction; it would be incoherent in 2D and is thus impossible to play on television. But in a sense each theatrical viewing of the film is itself a unique experience.

3. 3D filmmaking has been thought of as a means of making cinema a closer approximation of real life, but the effect in Goodbye to Language is actually defamiliarizing. Routine actions like a woman washing her hands or a man walking in the street become transfixing. The 2D clips of old movies scattered throughout the film feel like oases of normality.

28 October 2014

Oscar Taveras (1992-2014)

When I started this blog back in 2007, two of my ground rules were to try to talk about myself as little as possible and never to post anything written hurriedly. I’m going to attempt to violate both today (if the date at the top of this post is something later than “28 October 2014” then I failed on the second count). And going forward I may attempt to violate the first one a bit more often than I have in the past. When I first started blogging, I adamantly wanted to resist what I saw as a culture of narcissism and solipsism taking over both the online world and American society in general. I can’t say that the intervening years have shown my fears to be unfounded, but seven years is a long time, so perhaps a different approach is in order. First I found myself unable to continue writing about politics and hard news; lately I’ve found myself unable to write about much of anything at all. I’ve generally blamed this on the demands of grad school and fatherhood, but the real problem is that I’ve struggled to write anything that meets my own standards of being worth reading. It feels like every possible opinion about anything interesting is already out there on the internet somewhere, and if you don’t have an original take on something then what’s the point, right? Ugh, even the explanation sounds tedious and clichéd to me. The point is that inserting a bit more of myself into the blog might give me something to offer. Maybe it’s all I have to offer right now.

But this post isn’t all about me. It’s mostly about Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old rookie outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who was killed in a car accident Sunday in the Dominican Republic, his home country to which he’d recently returned following the Cardinals’ elimination from the baseball playoffs. The crash occurred about half an hour prior to the beginning of Game 5 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, which led to the news breaking during the early innings of the game itself. Firsthand accounts described a bizarre scene at San Francisco's AT&T Park, with the media members gathered to cover the series staring at Twitter in stunned disbelief even as the fans all around them remained caught up in the excitement of the game. This account from Fox’s redoubtable Ken Rosenthal, who broke the news on the air at the start of the fourth inning, captures the mood among the reporters and players as the news of Taveras's death spread.

I didn’t see Rosenthal’s report when it aired. After a few minutes of staring blankly at my phone and futilely attempting to make some kind of sound, I went and sat by myself in a dark room for a while, not rejoining the game until the fifth inning, by which time the Giants had scored two runs. I watched the rest of the game with fitful interest, which was a shame because this has actually turned into a really good World Series. But some things you can’t just shrug off, and this was going to be one. It must have been the sixth inning before I realized that if the Cardinals had beaten the Giants, they’d most likely have been playing a World Series game that night in St. Louis and Taveras would still be alive, yet to return to a home country that happens to lead the world in the rate of car accident fatalities.

I haven’t written much about sports on this blog, which is odd as it’s one of the few things I know a lot about, particularly when it comes to baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, my favorite team since childhood. But of course there are thousands of people writing about baseball much better than I ever could and…well, here we go again.

But this post isn’t about baseball—except that it is, of course. The easy, glib response here is that if Taveras hadn’t been a baseball player, no one outside of his family, friends, and acquaintances would care about his death, certainly no one in the United States. He’d just be a statistic to everyone else—if that, even. (I didn’t even know that tidbit about Dominican auto fatalities until today.) This is a good place to mention Edilia Arvelo, Taveras’s 18-year-old girlfriend who also died in the accident. I know literally nothing else about her, but her name should be mentioned at least once in a post like this one. It’s always sad when a young person dies. Why should I care so much about some ballplayer I never met?

But Taveras was a ballplayer and that matters too. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, sometimes short on tactical smarts but long on basic human decency, released a statement yesterday that hit all the right notes. (Both Matheny and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak have since traveled to the Dominican Republic to visit with the Taveras family and attend today’s memorial service. At least two Cardinals players, Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez, are also expected to attend the service.) Matheny rightly notes that the pain that he and his players are experiencing is nowhere close to what Taveras’s family is going through. That goes tenfold, a hundredfold, for fans who never even met the man. Yet the fans do care too, and rather than try to dismiss that lesser grief, perhaps it’s better to reflect on where it comes from.

While I was in that dark room my thoughts kept circling back to former Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile and that awful Saturday in June 2002 when he was found in a Chicago hotel room, dead at 33 from a hereditary heart condition. I didn’t have cable in my St. Paul apartment and there was no MLB TV back then. The Cardinals-Cubs game scheduled for that day was the Fox game of the week and would have been the first Cardinals game I had watched that season. But then the game didn’t start on time for no apparent reason and it began to feel like something was very, very wrong. It fell to Cubs catcher (and current Yankees manager) Joe Girardi to break the news to the crowd and to tell us there would be no baseball that afternoon. Surely nothing like that would ever happen again, not to this franchise anyway, but then there was Josh Hancock, who died in a car accident at age 29 during the 2007 season. He was a transient player, a middle reliever who hadn’t been with the team long and wouldn’t have remained for much longer, but still. And now there’s Oscar Taveras, and in some respects this one feels the worst of all.

It’s always sad when a young person dies. It’s even more disturbing when it’s a young athlete, someone who appears more physically invincible than the rest of us. We know this. But there’s something else here, something that goes beyond even the psychology of fandom to the particular relationship that hardcore baseball fans have to prospects. As baseball writing has exploded on the internet over the past 20 years, fans have become much more knowledgeable about not only current major league players but minor leaguers as well. It’s now easy to track a player’s career from high school all the way to the big leagues. Fans of bottom feeders like the Cubs or the Twins can look ahead to a near future in which their teams might feature some of the top players in the game. Of course many, if not most, of these players will fail to meet the lofty expectations placed on them, but by that time there will be a new group of future stars to dream about.

On one hand, this phenomenon can be seen as part of our teaser culture, a privileging of the future over the present that I generally find obnoxious. Think about the frenzy around movie trailers, with high-profile films now seemingly rolled out frame by frame over the course of excruciating months. By the time a movie actually arrives in theaters, half the audience is already over it. But in another sense, all this obsessing over prospects speaks, in its own trivial way, to a basic human need, some primal hope, rationally founded or not, that the future will somehow be better than the present.

And now we’ve hit on it. Taveras had played in fewer than 100 big league games, but for a certain segment of baseball fans he had already been around a long time. Signed by the Cardinals in 2008 at 16 (the youngest age allowed under MLB rules), Taveras originally projected as a mid-level prospect. But after a breakout 2011 season in the low minor leagues, many analysts began to see him as a future star. The excitement about Taveras continued to build among the fan base over the following year. Here might be the next great Cardinals superstar, the heir to Stan Musial and Albert Pujols. It looked like 2013 would see his major league debut, but after a slow start in the minors, Taveras sprained his ankle, an injury that eventually led to surgery and a lost season. But that was okay, because he was still only 21 and had all the time in the world. Taveras finally reached the Cardinals this season, and his initial struggles at the big-league level only intensified the intrigue around him. Barring a blockbuster trade, he seemed destined to enter the 2015 season as the most talked-about player on the roster. Would this be the year he became a star? Would he turn out to be a bust? Something in between? Just two days ago, I was excitedly talking to a relative over the phone about Taveras, going over details of the offseason training program the Cardinals had planned for him. Hours later he was dead. We’ll never know what kind of player he would have become. He’ll be forever frozen at that moment of potential. His story will never have an ending, and it feels stupid and unfair and awful and heartbreaking.

Three memories of Oscar, and then I’ll stop:

1. May 31: Taveras hits a home run in his first major-league game off Giants pitcher Yusmeiro Petit (who incidentally may wind up starting Game 7 of the World Series tomorrow night). The future had finally arrived.

2. August 3: Taveras claps his hands together in excitement after hitting what turned out to be a game-winning single in a key game against the division rival Milwaukee Brewers. Even this little show of emotion was noteworthy on a 2014 Cardinals team that often seemed too staid in its collective demeanor. We would have seen so much more of this once he started having consistent major league success. I'll miss his personality as much as his swing.

3. October 12: The last hit of Taveras’s career came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. Like the first, it was a home run against the Giants. It felt like the first of many big postseason moments for Oscar.

That’s all for today. Hopefully this was of interest to the coveted people-who-aren’t-me demographic, but maybe it’s okay if it wasn’t, just this once. I’ll have something on Killer Mike and Run the Jewels in the next few weeks and then the usual year-end stuff. I need to write.

02 March 2014

History Lessons (aka Gravity Always Wins)

It’s been the coldest winter in 35 years here in my undisclosed Midwestern location, but nevertheless your blogger is in a downright chipper mood heading into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ 86th annual celebration of itself. Not only is spring just around the corner (um, right…?), but the Academy has given us its strongest group of Best Picture nominees since the expansion of the field five years ago. And as if that weren’t enough, for the first time since at least 2006, there is legitimate uncertainty about which film is going to take the top prize, which should guarantee some suspense throughout the evening. I would like to have seen the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and/or Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine replace Dallas Buyers Club and possibly the unseen Philomena in the field of nine, but overall this is a fine batch of nominees, an interesting, diverse group well representative of the best in mainstream English-language cinema of the past year. So I’ll save my outrage for next year when Jonny Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice gets ruled ineligible for a nomination based on some asinine AMPAS music branch technicality.

For most of the fall, it looked like Best Picture would be a two-horse race between 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s dramatization of an 1853 memoir by escaped slave Solomon Northup, and Gravity, a technically innovative piece of pure cinema by director Alfonso Cuarón loosely tethered to a paper-thin script about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) struggling to find a way back to Earth following an accident. Then the New York Film Critics Circle met and somehow came to the conclusion that the best film of the year was American Hustle, a lightweight crime drama loosely based on a semi-forgotten late-’70s political corruption scandal. Don’t get me wrong: With energetic performances from a talented, attractive cast and a generous helping of ’70s period sleaze, there’s a lot to like about American Hustle. But there’s also something profoundly depressing about the arc of director David O. Russell’s career. I’ve enjoyed all three of his latter films to varying degrees, but I miss the crazy guy who made I [Heart] Huckabees.

American Hustle would be an averagish Best Picture winner, right in line with last year’s Argo, but the other two serious contenders are both far superior choices. Basically an experimental film with a blockbuster budget, Gravity is the sort of movie I tend to like better in principle than in practice, but it’s great to see mainstream audiences embracing something that qualifies as formally innovative, and the selection of a visual-effects-driven film featuring only two actors would be a bold choice for the Academy.

The latter could also be said for 12 Years a Slave, for entirely different reasons. The film’s advocates have fixated on its potential historical significance—it would be the first film written and directed by black filmmakers to win Best Picture—arguably to its detriment, but 12 Years a Slave is well worth defending on artistic grounds alone. McQueen’s careful compositions and muted color palette create a powerful sense of stasis, punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. The film's rhythms are complemented by its subtle handling of time. During the early scenes recounting Northup’s kidnapping and journey south, everything seems to be happening too fast; later on, time itself seems to disappear, with one year imperceptibly collapsing into the next. In short, this is slavery from the point of view of slaves. And sorry, but complaints about the allegedly excessive violence of 12 Years a Slave are a bit hard to take from an American populace that’s enthusiastically supported no fewer than seven Saw movies so far this century.

As for the also-rans: Captain Phillips finds director Paul Greengrass doing his thing—that is, making taut thrillers based on recent real-life incidents, this one featuring a Vermont-accented Tom Hanks. Set in some unspecified year in the medium-term future, Spike Jonze’s Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as a soft-spoken copywriter in the midst of a divorce who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). A triumph of production design, the film is a fascinating look at the potential of technology to reshape human relationships—at least for its first hour or so. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as an elderly alcoholic who travels to the titular state to claim a nonexistent million-dollar prize. It’s not Payne’s best work—I preferred Hawaii—but with copious shots of Great Plains landscapes filmed in crisp black-and-white, it plays as an oblique tribute to John Ford. The superficially entertaining Dallas Buyers Club is too busy pandering to its liberal audience to qualify as a serious examination of the role of the pharmaceutical companies in exacerbating the AIDS crisis, and Philomena remains unseen by me.

And then there’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s three-hour exercise in excess has attracted no small amount of flak, mostly from prissy, ineffectual moralists who are shocked—shocked!—that Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t adequately punished for his crimes. (Just wait till they find out what happened to the guys who caused the financial crisis.) The film’s critics say that it glamorizes Belfort and his cronies, and you know what? They’re right. It’s an offensive movie about offensive people who do offensive things and pretty much get away with it. There is no escape, no comeuppance worthy of the word, no conventional hero to admire. Yeah, sure, there’s the FBI guy, but why settle for riding the subway home at night when you could be living the dream (coke, strippers, dwarf tossing)? The key scene comes at the end when we see Belfort, now officially an ex-con, reinvented as a motivational speaker, with audiences hanging on his every word. These people have looked into the face of evil and said: How can I get me some of that?

So enjoy the show! After taking a bit of a risk last year with host Seth McFarlane, whose lowbrow humor sailed well over the heads of the audience in the Dolby Theatre, the producers have retreated to the safety of Ellen DeGeneres. We know exactly what to expect from Ellen, for better and for worse, but, the insipid theme of “Heroes” aside, this has the potential to be an entertaining broadcast, owing in part to an unusually strong group of Best Song nominees, all of which will be performed by the original artists. Having said that, my only prediction about the show itself is that people will complain about it regardless of what happens. People would rather validate themselves by complaining than actually enjoy anything. All right, my good mood is dissipating in a hurry. Time for the picks! Stay tuned for my own Top 10 list after the credits roll.

Best Picture

Consensus opinion seems to have settled on 12 Years a Slave taking the top prize, with Cuarón winning Best Director. Such splits between Best Picture and Director are fairly rare and generally result from something weird or unpredictable happening—either a major upset in one of the two categories (e.g., Shakespeare in Love in 1998, Roman Polanski in 2002) or the director of the Best Picture favorite failing to land a nomination (as happened with Ben Affleck last year). The only precedent I can come up with for a split happening as predicted is 1967, when Mike Nichols swept the major directorial awards for The Graduate, culminating in a Best Director win, while In the Heat of the Night (another film about race!) took Best Picture. Cuarón won at the Directors Guild of America awards, and the DGA has correctly predicted the Best Picture winner some 80% of the time during its 65 years of existence, including the past seven in a row. There are so many reasons that either film might not win (chiefly, Obama-era race panic in the case of 12 Years a Slave, and the prevalence of visual effects over script and actors in Gravity) that I would be inclined to predict American Hustle here, had it won any of the major precursor awards. 12 Years a Slave may well win—indeed, American Hustle might win—but I’m going with historical precedent here.

Will win: Gravity
Should win: The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Director

Regardless of the Best Picture outcome, this should go to Cuarón, who’s won just about every major directorial award under the sun. A win for McQueen or Russell here would drain all suspense from the Best Picture category.

W: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
S: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress

This should go to Cate Blanchett for the performance of the year in Woody Allen’s best movie in nearly a quarter-century. In terms of merit, her only possible rival would have been the unnominated Adèle Exarchopoulos in the French-language Blue Is the Warmest Color. Blanchett’s speech will be the most closely parsed of the night. If she somehow loses, the internet will be an ugly, ugly place for at least the next 48 hours. Worse than usual, even.

W: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
S: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor

Now that my Oscar/year-end catch-up viewing is done, I’m looking forward to finally digging into True Detective this week. If there was any doubt about who was going to win this award, the HBO series pretty well erased it. It’s the Norbit effect in reverse. I’d have trouble voting for a lead performance from a movie as slight as Dallas Buyers Club, but I don’t mind seeing the Oscar go to an interesting actor who never fails to entertain.

W: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
S: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Supporting Actor

If you’d told me back in 1994, when I was one of the few straight male fans of My So-Called Life, that Jared Leto would someday win an Oscar, I would have laughed in your face. If you’d told me the same thing in 2004 on the heels of Leto’s ridiculous performance in Alexander, I would have laughed in your face. Well, in the immortal words of Bruce Campbell, WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? I liked Leto well enough in Dallas Buyers Club, but for me this is a tight race between Michael Fassbender as the diseased soul of slavery in 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill as the unfiltered id at the heart of The Wolf of Wall Street.

W: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
S: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Supporting Actress

As a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, I dearly hope she doesn’t win this. A second Oscar at age 23, particularly for a character as thin as the one she plays in American Hustle, will do her no favors.

W: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
S: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Screenplay, Original
W: American Hustle
S: Blue Jasmine

Screenplay, Adapted
W: 12 Years a Slave
S: The Wolf of Wall Street

Animated Feature
W: Frozen

Documentary Feature
W: 20 Feet from Stardom

Foreign Language Film
W: The Great Beauty

W: Gravity
S: Inside Llewyn Davis

Production Design
W: The Great Gatsby
S: Her

W: Captain Phillips
S: 12 Years a Slave

Visual Effects
W: Gravity
S: Gravity

Costume Design
W: American Hustle
S: 12 Years a Slave

W: Dallas Buyers Club

Sound Mixing
W: Gravity
S: Inside Llewyn Davis

Sound Editing
W: Gravity
S: Gravity

Original Score
W: Gravity

Original Song
W: Let It Go, Frozen

Animated Short
W: Get a Horse!

Live Action Short
W: Helium

Documentary Short
W: The Lady in Number 6

And finally, as promised, my Top 10 list for 2013. As has been the case the past couple years, I've seen relatively few films from last year and haven't had a chance to revisit any of them yet (particularly troublesome this time around because some of these films badly need a second viewing). I have yet to catch up with A Touch of Sin, Beyond the Hills, and a host of other foreign-language contenders, so the current list is heavily skewed toward American films.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)
2. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, U.S.)
3. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, U.S.)
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.)
5. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, U.S.)
6. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
7. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, U.S./U.K.)
8. The World's End (Edgar Wright, U.K.)
9. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan)
10. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, U.S.)

02 January 2014

Best Music of 2013

Well, it’s finally happened. I wrote only two posts last year, the two that I write every year: my Top 10 music list and my Oscars preview/year in film recap. I write these annually not because anyone wants to read them but because it’s tradition. I wish I could say I’d been doing something more interesting or important instead, but unfortunately I’m a graduate student so that’s clearly not the case. The good news is that it’s only the second day of 2014, and I’m already halfway to my output from last year. In fact I’m feeling so confident that I hereby promise to post more times in 2014 than I did in 2013. I’m not saying how many more times, but it will be more.

But we should get on to the list. As you will see, this was not a consensus year for me, which is not to say it was a bad one. Even with a number of high-profile releases leaving me cold, 2013 was incredibly deep, so much so that none of the best-in-a-while albums from the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Boards of Canada, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Queens of the Stone Age, and Sigur Ros even managed an honorable mention. Scanning over the list below, I don’t see much in the way of overriding trends or patterns. My two favorite albums of the year were officially released on the same day back in early April and were never seriously challenged for the top two spots. So from that we can conclude…that April was a good month, I guess.

1. Kurt Vile—Wakin on a Pretty Daze
“Take your time is what they say/And that’s probably the best way to be,” sings Kurt Vile on “Too Hard,” one of the many highlights from his fourth solo album. And the man practices what he preaches, with songs that stretch out to six, eight, ten minutes while seeming to just glide by. Vile’s leisurely tempos and dry, affectless vocal stylings are not for everyone, but I loved this album immediately, and if anything my affection for it has only continued to increase. Wakin on a Pretty Daze seems to bend time itself; it wasn’t long before I had to stop listening to the album while trying to work because it becomes impossible to feel much of a sense of urgency while it plays. But still, the whole vibe is less stoner-chill (though I never, as they say, touch the stuff) than the product of a sense of peace with this whole business of life and death. On “Jesus Fever” from 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile repeated the words “I’m already gone,” as if even existence itself was not to be taken for granted. The entirety of Wakin on a Pretty Daze lives in that state of effortless, hard-earned contentment. Not necessarily stoned, but…beautiful. (“Goldtone” “Too Hard”)

2. The Knife—Shaking the Habitual
I suppose the highest compliment to be paid to the fourth album (and first in seven years) from the Swedish brother-sister duo The Knife is that it lives up to its title. Everything about Shaking the Habitual, from the packaging to singer Karin Dreijer’s vocals to the length of the album, is designed to disrupt standard ways of thinking about and listening to music. I’m not the first to note that the blotchy pink-and-green cover seems deliberately designed to look terrible as a thumbnail. The project scans as a sort of history of the present, right up to the dissolution of the Euro in, oh, let’s say the late 2010s. It’s a portrait of a world dominated by finance and technology, one where the title of “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” passes as a declaration of love. Many people seem inclined to wish “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” off the album entirely, but its 19-minute drone is no less purposeful than anything else on Shaking the Habitual, another act of confrontation. I would say the only problem is that it’s too easy to skip, but even this requires some action from the listener, some break with passivity. The CD inserts include lyrics on one side and a comic entitled “End Extreme Wealth” on the other, which earnestly discusses strategies for doing just that. The whole project feels a bit like Metal Box, the legendary second Public Image Ltd. aIbum that was originally released as three 12-inch records packaged inside a metal film canister. In 2013, the act of insisting on the primacy of a physical object was provocation enough. (“Full of Fire” “Stay Out of Here”)

3. Tim Hecker—Virgins
Continuing an impressive winning streak, the Canadian electronic musician follows up his 2011 masterpiece Ravedeath, 1972 with a very different kind of record. While Ravedeath was all about technology-induced sonic decay, Virgins is focused on live performance to a degree unprecedented in Hecker’s work. The astonishing “Live Room” features both piano and an instrument called the virginal, an early form of the harpsichord capable of playing only one note at a time. The virgins of the title might also refer to the pure sounds of the virginal, piano, and organ, inevitably corrupted less by Hecker’s post-production manipulations than by the mere act of recording. (“Live Room” “Virginal II”)

4. The Field—Cupid’s Head
Axel Willner makes it four-for-four with his latest—and yes, darkest—album. You can tell it’s his darkest because the cover is black, a marked departure from the yellowish hues that have graced its predecessors. For an artist whose work is so consistent in every sense—in style, quality, presentation, even the amount of time between albums—any such change is obviously significant. This very consistency leaves The Field in perpetual danger of being taken for granted. Each album has built subtly on its predecessor without making a radical break, introducing new rhythmic and textural ideas into Willner’s electronic dance music (the real stuff, not “EDM”). Yet somehow we’ve arrived at a very different place than where we started with The Field’s 2007 debut From Here We Go Sublime. While that album could be described as minimal techno, Cupid’s Head feels like anything but. Droning synths and rumbling bass lines snake their way around the galloping beats of pieces like the opening “They Won’t See Me” and the title track, while the closing “20 Seconds of Affection” achieves a washed-out shoegazer sound. “Black Sea” hums along like a typical Field song for seven minutes before abruptly changing to something more sinister, with Willner’s synthesizers transforming into a cage trapping some unidentifiable yelping sample inside the mix. (“No No” “They Won’t See Me”)

5. Iceage—You’re Nothing
I remember hearing about this young Danish band back around the time of their 2011 debut album. I may have listened to one song before safely filing them away as mere punk revivalists and forgetting about them. For shame. Iceage’s sophomore effort was the best punk rock album—nay, best hard rock album period—that anyone’s made in ages. With 12 songs whizzing by in just 28 minutes, there is speed aplenty, but the real frisson here comes from the band’s sense of atmospherics and singer Elias Ronnenfelt’s vocals and lyrics. The portentous instrumental “Interlude” aside, walls of guitar noise dominate every track, but the loud-fast dynamic occasionally gives way to subtler shadings, often accompanied by ominous phrases like “We’re running out of time” or “Where’s your morals?” You’re Nothing hardly neglects politics, but the elliptical lyrics reach for something deeper, searching out moments of beauty in a world where “nature is violence.” So if you can’t tell the difference between these guys and your average 21st-century punk band, then I don’t know what to tell you. As no less an authority than Iggy Pop put it, they sound “dangerous.” (“Coalition” “Everything Drifts”)

6. Danny Brown—Old
So 31 is considered “old” now, I guess. Good to know. Aging is just one of many subjects on the mind of the Detroit rapper, along with drugs, sex, fatherhood, poverty, and more. Brown’s raspy voice recalls everything from the perils of going out for a loaf of Wonder bread as a child to whatever events might have led to the morning’s hangover. The whole album is a portrait of a life at a self-consciously induced cross roads, of a man who wants to grow up but can’t figure out how. (“Clean Up” “Side B (Dope Song)”)

7. Deafheaven—Sunbather
I made another of my periodic attempts to like metal this year, and it actually kind of took. Among other merits, it’s the only white American musical genre that deals regularly with issues of power, a theme that exists in the music itself as well as in the lyrics. Deafheaven sits somewhere on the edge of the “black metal” subgenre. There are apparently doubts about this classification, but I’ll leave such questions to the experts. The hour-long Sunbather consists of four principal songs ranging from nine to 15 minutes in length, linked by three shorter tracks, one of which includes a reading from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and another of which records a real-life drug deal juxtaposed with a street preacher’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. The longer pieces are all prog-inflected epics featuring thrashing crescendos of noise and emotion as well as quieter, more lyrical passages. A little bit of context helps with this one. (“Dream House” “Sunbather”)

8. My Bloody Valentine—mbv
After first hearing this back in February, I remember being glad that I had nearly a year to form an opinion on it. That may not have been enough time. This is a strange record, for reasons only partially related to the 22-year gap between albums for the Kevin Shields-led group. Much of the material sounds like it dates from the mid ’90s (because it does); the lyrics and song titles are cryptic to the point of opacity; most of the best tracks are stacked at the end of the album. Nearly 11 months later, I still don’t quite know what to make of it. But it does prove that, regardless of now influential they’ve been, My Bloody Valentine can still produce music that doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s. (“In Another Way” “Wonder 2”)

9. Run the Jewels—Run the Jewels
Originally released as a free download, this collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P, who produced Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (no. 8 on last year’s list), is a major work disguised as a lark, harking back to hip-hop’s golden age without coming across a bit dated or nostalgic. The two rappers seem to share a psychic connection, to the extent that the few guest shots from others, even luminaries like Big Boi, can do nothing but slow down the flow. The overall mode is street-smart battle rap, but even at 10 tracks in 33 minutes, Run the Jewels finds time for some left-field excursions, including the shrooming “No Come Down” and the Prince Paul-assisted comedy of “Twin Hype Back.” Also included: the definitive song of the Obama era. (“DDFH” “No Come Down”)

10. Forest Swords—Engravings
The first full-length album from English producer Matthew Barnes is a palimpsest of chiming guitar lines, dub echoes, trip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocal samples, layered into an instantly recognizable, original sound. The overall effect of this extended mood piece is to place the listener on some mysterious journey, with the guitars acting as our guide across unknown landscapes, even as the vocal samples evoke ghosts struggling to communicate their own secrets. (“Thor’s Stone” “The Weight of Gold”)

Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Burial—Rival Dealer
Making a sudden appearance well into December, Rival Dealer is the latest in series of excellent EPs from the dubstep master. While both of Burial’s full-length albums are quite good, he seems to have found the ideal format for his music here. The previous December’s Truant/Rough Sleeper EP, which I didn’t hear in time for Top 10 consideration for 2012, is highly recommended as well. (“Come Down to Us” “Rival Dealer”)

Chance the Rapper—Acid Rap
This alternately buoyant and contemplative mixtape from the 20-year-old Chance the Rapper, out of Chicago, is a reminder of the ever-shortening cycle of influence. It’s hard to imagine this album existing without Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, less than eight months old when Acid Rap first appeared in June. But while Lamar’s album is the work of an adult looking back at his teenage years, Chance is still very much the adolescent, oscillating wildly between childlike exuberance on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and the grim sobriety of adulthood, as on the chilling second half of “Pusha Man.” (“Chain Smoker” “Pusha Man”)

Mikal Cronin—MC II
This is power pop at its best, the perfect summer soundtrack album. A sometime Ty Segall collaborator, Cronin writes catchy tunes and performs them well. Enough said. (“Weight” “Shout It Out”)

Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise was one of the better debut albums of 2011, and this slice of psychedelic techno-blues from the now 23-year-old Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington achieves a similar mood using a broader palette. (“Freak, Go Home” “Paper Trails”)

Oneohtrix Point Never—R Plus Seven
Largely eschewing the droning soundscapes of his early work or the fractured textures of 2011’s excellent Replica, the latest from Daniel Lopatin is yet another departure for the Brooklyn-based electronic musician. The focus here is on highly specific sounds, with tracks like “Americans” and “Chrome Country” seemingly designed to mimic the tone of synthesizers from the retro-futurist early ’80s. Another winner from an artist who refuses to repeat himself. (“Americans” “Zebra”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. Jason Isbell—“Relatively Easy”

2. Sigur Ros—“Isjaki”

3. Savages—“Husbands”
This all-female British quartet evokes late-’70s postpunk in the best way, bringing a sense of menace and danger in addition to jagged guitar riffs.

4. Waxahatchee—“Swan Dive”

5. Parquet Courts—“Stoned and Starving”
This is what the word epic was invented for.