Music appreciation, like any anything artistic, be it film or literature, television, painting, photography, cooking, essentially all endeavours not based on maths, is subjective. Obviously. And however pointless giving a subjective opinion may ultimately be, I thought I would go into what I think constitutes music that could be considered mandatory, versus that which is either dull, disastrous, dreadful, or all three.
I don’t consider all opinions to be equal, that’s ridiculous. While one man’s Eminem may be another’s Vanilla Ice, some things are just so and cannot be argued. The enduring appeal of people and bands such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and even music I don’t particularly like, such as ABBA and Queen, is no fluke. These are often used as the yardsticks and touchstones for comparison, not simply because of their ubiquity, but because they have defined modern popular music, adding to it rather than simply existing within it.
One of the important things I look for in a song when I hear it for the first time is innovation and unexpected elements that make perfect sense in retrospect.
A record that illustrates this is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. Its predecessor, Summerteeth, was crammed to the edges with bells and whistles, walls of sound and a heavy handed production, which worked at the time and created a record nothing like any Wilco or Uncle Tupelo record before. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot however, it is the space within the arrangements that give it its weight.
As Nigel Tuffnel said, if your amp is at 10 and your guitar is at 10, where can you go? Nowhere. Instead of going to 11 though, the record backs off and achieves songs that are much more affecting for their delicateness and intimacy. This isn’t a record to play loudly at a party, this is one to listen to through headphones, by yourself. For most of your 20s.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart sounds like a song with the skeleton missing. The drum fills and ambient backing remain, but there is no driving force holding the song together aside from the very simple acoustic guitar. It gently builds, then fades away, builds again, and once again fades away, never quite taking the opportunity to reach a crescendo in an obvious way. This song sets the tone for the whole record, creating moods and emotions without relying on the standard ornamentation the song structures would have had on one of their early records, or by a band without the considerable musicianship of Jay Bennett and Glenn Kotche.
The real key to the song working as it does however, is the mixing work of Jim O’Rourke. He never allows the song to settle into a groove, which it could have so easily, and become simply a folk song with strange noises behind it. He guides it to a far more satisfying place, where even as the first track, it covers the full range of emotions you wouldn’t see in a whole record by lesser artists. He allows the noise to be noise, the quiet to be really quiet, and the drums to drive not only the rhythm, but the melody of the song, with patterns echoing the piano and other instruments. The remainder of the record features many similar examples, with beauty and abrasion sitting side-by-side, but I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is essentially Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in seven minutes and a remarkable achievement.
While naming a favourite record of all time is a pointless exercise and impossible for anyone who enjoys a wide variety of music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is certainly one I consider seminal in my life. It has all the unexpected quirks and twists that have shaped the way I think about music.
Records I would consider as similar in spirit include:
Blur – Blur
Television – Marquee Moon
Neil Young – Americana
Lou Reed – Berlin
Gomez – Bring it On