I’ve never really engaged with end of year lists. This is partly because I find it overwhelming and stressful to try and consume a large amount of information in such a short space of time. Music, I think needs much longer to rattle around my brain. I can’t comprehend more than a sentence at a time about which artists have made huge leaps this year, or which ones to watch for the next. I’ve also never much liked New Year's resolutions, because they feel fake and forced and generally, unpleasant. So this year I decided to combine my dislike of two things, end of year lists, and New Year's resolutions, into something I do like.
I decided I would take a month a year to discover a new artist. However, all these sorts of things need rules in order to be challenging, to feel rewarding and enjoyable. If there are no limits then where’s the fun?
So on 31st December 2015 I was sat in a friend's house drinking and listening to Laurie Anderson, who I’d never, consciously, come across before. I was bowled over by her artistic sensibilities, her bold talent. It changed the way the New Year began for me. The genesis of the 12 months of music came from here. I thought to myself, how can I sit here and make music, and claim to be an artist when I’d never heard this amazing person before? I got that sort of guilt you might get when a true fan of an artist finds out you only own a best of compilation.
I have always known how little of my record collection is in fact made up of women. Not deliberately, but just because I’ve never monitored it. The sorts of music I like have been in the past, dominated by men - well there’s no surprise there. I’m not resentful about this fact, but more disappointed that I haven’t taken it upon myself sooner to seek out new music, that may also happen to involve women. So there began the thinking that led to my quest, to find 12 months of music. Laurie Andersons’ track "Superman" changed something inside me that was pivotal, creatively. I went on to buy Big Science the album, and listened to it back to front and inside out for the whole of January.
January: Laurie Anderson - Big Science (1982)
Part of what I find difficult about the two click culture we have adopted is the time we are given to absorb information. Music is information. In order for me to really enjoy it I have to live in it to understand the information it is communicating to me. I like to listen to things properly, before assimilating it into my physical or digital collection. Getting to know an album is an important and slow process for me. And in the spirit of wanting to enjoy this resolution I gave myself one month to listen to an album. That doesn’t mean I exclusively listen to this album for the whole month. It just means my creative focus is on this one album a month. I’ll still listen to other bits and pieces in between (but importantly this would largely consist of music I’ve already owned for some time and have already become acquainted with) but I know I cannot digest more than that a month. So each month I bought a new piece of music (EP, Album, anything longer 30 minutes). I wanted to consciously introduce more women into my record collection, not because I hate men or think they unfairly dominate the industry (even if there is sufficient evidence to support this statement in certain areas of the industry), but more to rectify my own failings as an artist, and wanting to help level out what is otherwise a balanced and varied musical background (thanks to my parents).
February: Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)
February came and I found myself buying Joni Mitchell. I didn’t want these 12 months of music to see boundaries of genre or focus on particular decades. I thoroughly enjoyed Mitchell, I found it hard work though. I found it hard to get around her melodies, her writing, it was difficult and strange in places. Of course it’s absolutely brilliant and I can appreciate it, and she was a great discovery for me in February. What I found so difficult to begin with became what I enjoyed the most by the end of February: her peculiar use of key signatures and accidentals.
The way I decided to discover this music month by month was also an important part of this challenge. Something felt wrong about me just getting recommendations first hand from anyone, we all have friends and partners that are constantly spouting information about new music. They are amazing and we must cherish them, for they consolidate blogs and end of year lists for us, so we don’t have to read them! But what I was craving was an organic discovery of music. I didn’t want to buy Beyonce’s latest album in April because she has a team of advisers creating viral content carefully placed to promote a surprise release. I wanted to feel that I was choosing something right for me, based on choices that were not based on too many outside influencing factors. This is impossible in the world we live in to some extent. Still I did it in my own special way. I made silent rules to myself, not to buy anything I’d seen online as a new release for that month, Beyonce, Anohi etc. Not to buy anything that someone had directly told me to. Because I’m like that. I think we all like to at least feel like we’ve discovered something ourselves, even if we haven’t.
March: Patti Smith - Horses (1975)
In March I came across Patti Smith. I can hold my hands up and say I didn’t own anything by Patti Smith until March 2016. I bought Horses, and it blew my mind. I could hear the roots of so many others. I’d been hearing about her since my early teens and perhaps before, she’d been a household name for most of my life and I wondered why I had not bothered to check her out before. Listening to Horses was like seeing a completed jigsaw puzzle, I can hear her influence in so many other artists like the individual puzzle pieces, and I feel ashamed that i’d never put it all together and seen the bigger picture.
April: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - Euclid (2015)
Euclid came next in April. This one I had to make a slight exception for; I’d never heard of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith before. But she did come up in a conversation I had. So I went away, did some research and ended up with her vinyl. Her Bandcamp is full of music, most of it available digitally, and some of her older stuff has album notes too which I always find interesting to read. She used a Buchla Music Easel (synthesizer) for this record. I have to admit I find Buchla’s and Moogs sort of off putting in how much they sound like themselves and nothing else, but I found this album refreshing. Her use of synth is playful and in places thought provoking and beautiful.
May: Julianna Barwick - Will (2016)
Julianna Barwick felt like an easy purchase, I came across her on Amazon, so that immediately felt like a less organic experience than I’d hoped for, but the fact I was scrolling and listening to a lot of ‘you may also like’ before I eventually hit on Barwick made it feel slightly less like cheating. This album is full of emotion, darkness and beauty, it's slow moving non percussive and airy. It’s the sort of thing you could call ambient, but I would not at all put this in Eno’s definition of ambient music (‘as ignorable as it is interesting’) this is a heavy album and you should listen to it actively and absorb some of the amazing textures it has to offer.
June: JLIN - Dark Energy (2015)
JLIN was next. Now this has had some press attention, but a little while ago, so again it came to me later, when I felt like there was space to like and enjoy it, without being bombarded with everybody else's opinion about it. This album was probably the most difficult to listen to so far, it's challenging and mind boggling, which, if you are in the mood for it, it's great. I sits within the genre of footwork, and probably is the only thing like this I own and I’m glad I went through the challenge of spending a month with it! (And it’s fantastic that Holly Herndon is on the record too.)
July: Annie Lennox - Diva (1996)
She repeatedly, publicly stands up for what she believes in, she opens an album by stretching a one syllable word into a 12 syllable word, she recently exposed women in pop music and condemned them for acting like prostitutes and encouraging pornographic sexual imagery in their music videos, an admirable woman all around really. Describing her as bold and brave covers some of the things she’s done, but musically this album is delicate in places, it dabbles with funk and soul and never alienates the listener. It’s wonderfully poetic and relatable.
August: Carole King - Tapestry (1971)
A really tight album, it’s to the point, it's punchy, the instrumentation is somewhat standardised, but it’s utilised perfectly. It’s described as pop, and it has that about it, but it's pop from a jazz and country perspective, the lyrics, the guitar solos, the engineering of the album. Her vocal melodies and lyrics (as we all know from songs like "It’s Too Late", "You’ve Got A Friend" etc.) are up there with the giants of music. They are singable, understandable tracks, they’re not difficult but they bring another pleasure for the listener altogether.
September: Sinead O’Connor - I do not want what I have not got (1990)
Another powerful role model, who tried to publicly explain to Miley Cyrus the problem with exposing herself in such a vulgar sexual manner in her videos. It's admirable and valiant to stand up to one of the most expensive pop icons currently. And by that I mean the team behind Cyrus, not the Disney child actor who has been (probably) left a shell of a human being after living in the public eye for so long, from such a young age.
November: Madonna - Like a Virgin (1984)
This was one of those albums I didn’t have to try hard to get into, it just sort of happens passively. It's classic pop, it’s good pop, but it is manageable, digestible and fun. No discredit to it, in fact more credit to it because writing good pop is hard. The bass lines and synths kept me going through the howling wind and dropping temperatures whilst walking to work. Definitely a good pick me up album, she sings carelessly, it’s refreshing and feels unconstrained compared to the production and style of some pop music in the charts in 2016.
December: Missy Elliott - Under Construction (2002)
I got to November and looked over the albums I’d consumed and thought what genres are obviously missing? Hip hop, so I chose Missy Elliott.
Admittedly I’ve not delved into many different cultures of music in this challenge, I’ve very much hung around the mainstream Western music. But even within western recorded music there are several genres that are well represented, and it seemed hip hop had been overlooked. With six studio albums choosing one was a little tricky. I took into account when it was made and looked at all the other albums I’d bought over the year, and realised I had nothing in the early 2000s at all. For someone that doesn’t listen to an awful lot of hip hop, I enjoyed it, the vocal style and choice of language didn’t grate on me at all. But then there’s that track with the explicit lyrics that just doesn’t sit with me quite as well. In places it’s raw, rough and ready, which feels honest and true to the music which is so important in especially hip hop, but I’m not sure I am comfortable enough with it, yet.