Something I’ve spent the majority of my “adult” life grappling with is the intersection between art and nostalgia. It’s a concept that I’ve only recently come to recognize but has essentially acted as the thesis for this entire blog without me even knowing it. As a result, this post feels like what the past year’s worth of writing on here has been building towards.
Reflecting on my most recent metalcore-infested post I began to think “why do I love these albums so much?” Even within that blog where I’m gushing over these albums, I repeatedly felt the need to clarify that I don’t think they’re great feats of art. Is that because I’m embarrassed of liking them? Probably… But there’s more to it than that.
In that same post, I also talked about my positive (or not-so-positive) memories associated with each album, and I even gave a wine-like pairing of what I was doing while listening to each album. Earlier this week Of Mice & Men surprise released a new song called “Back To Me” with their new line-up sans-Carlile. It’s always a bummer to see someone leave a band (especially due to health-related issues) but it’s also a bummer to hear a band without the member that you held most dear. Listening to the new song led me down a Tidal-binge on the rest of the band’s greatest hits. Over their eight years as a band OM&M have undergone a significant shift in sound, transitioning from breakdown-heavy metalcore, then nu-metal, and more recently full-on buttrock. It’s not a transition I love, but God knows I respect their freedom to chase that artistic dragon. When I pressed play on the band’s 2011 standout O.G. Loko I realized something: when all’s said and done, this track (from an album I’ve barely listened to) didn’t sound all that different from the band’s 2010 album that I hold so dear. Someone coming to the band from an outside perspective would probably find the two indistinguishable.
I’ll be the first to admit metalcore is a genre that breeds repetition and cookie-cutter behavior. Fans know what they want, and most bands are happy to give it to them. That’s another one of the reasons I respect OM&M’s shift toward nu-metal and away from their origins: it’s a risk. At the end of the day, there’s not that much of a different between the band’s first album and the second. The difference for me was that I listened to the first ravenously during an awesome time in my life, and only listened to the second a few times at most. There’s probably someone a year my junior who feels the exact same way about the band’s second album compared to their third. And so on and so forth.
To get away from metalcore (and back to myself) I’ve spent the last several months ranking and re-ranking my favorite albums of all time. Some of the categories like classic rock were easy. Not only because it’s a genre I’ve been listening to my entire life, but those albums and songs have saturated our culture for decades. There’s some sort of rough consensus in the collective unconscious that The Beatles are great… and you know what? I agree. Because of this weird conflux of pop culture, history, and personal experiences, I can easily say that Abbey Road is not only my favorite Beatles album, it’s also an incredible piece of art that I feel no shame (or risk) in elevating on a high pedestal.
Then I look at hip-hop. The genre’s been around since long before I was born, but it was a genre I only started to personally engage with a few years ago. As a result, most of my favorite hip-hop albums are from that exact time frame. I know they’re not all “incredible” (at least not as incredible as Abbey Road) but part of that is recognizing my own inexperience with the genre. I know, I know, I know there’s older hip-hop I need to listen to that are essentially as “classic” as Abbey Road, but it takes time and effort to become fluent in a genre. I have barely listened to Jay-Z, UGK, Madvillain, Biggie, 2 Pac, and a whole host of other artists that I know are great. It’s like that guy who hasn’t watched Star Wars. He knows it’s a good movie, but you incredulously asking “Seriously? You haven’t watched STAR WARS?” just discourages him.
I recently watched Casablanca for the first time a week ago (shout out to Mother’s Day). That’s a movie that’s frequently held up with Citizen Kane and Godfather as “literally the best movie of all time.” For years I’ve known that it’s great. It’s been on my “to watch” list… and you know what? It was pretty good. What can I add to the conversation about Casablanca that hasn’t been said before besides ‘yep, everyone was right, it is really good.’ There are other movies like Fight Club and From Dusk Till Dawn that I recognize aren’t peaks of cinematic triumph or artistic feats like Casablanca is, but you know what? I like them more. I like them more because I’ve seen them more, I’ve had more time to digest them, and I have more positive memories tied to them. That doesn’t mean they’re better than Casablanca, but I like them far more.
Back to music.
In creating that list of my favorite albums I’ve fudged a lot of genres, added categories, and made incredibly arbitrary distinctions, all because I wanted to fit more albums on there. I don’t put all those genres or albums on the same level. My favorite metalcore album does not stack up to my favorite classic rock album, that’s comparing apples to oranges. Or apples to pool cues.
A separate conversation within this is exactly how long an album should take to be placed among your “favorites.” And even more: what about an album that’s new to you, but “classic” within its own field?
Up until this year… Hell, up until a couple months ago, I’d never listened to The Strokes debut album Is This It. Until 2017 the only three Strokes songs I’d heard were “Reptilia” (shoutout Rock Band 1), “New York City Cops” (shoutout iTunes DJ, you will be missed), and “When It Started” (shoutout Spider-Man 1 soundtrack). Ironic since “New York City Cops” and “When It Started” were swapped on the US version of Is This It due to 9/11… but I’m getting wildly off-topic here.
The point is that it took me seventeen fucking years to listen to one of the greatest “indie” records of my lifetime… But is it fair for me to claim that? Sure I like Is This It a lot, but I’ve only listened to it about 10 times according to last.fm. So is consensus swaying my perception? Is two-decade-old critical acclaim forcing me to enjoy an album more than I really do? Is personal shame making me think higher of the record than I should be? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Is This It is great, no matter how you cut it. Removed of nostalgia, I enjoyed it and continue to play it every couple days.
Meanwhile, another album that didn’t quite make the cut into my favorites list was 2016’s Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast. It’s an album that I adore, but (again) I’ve only had a handful of months to really sit with the album and let it marinate. As much as I wanted to say ‘this is one of my favorite indie albums’ I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. This is an album I’ve listened to more than the Strokes, yet it didn’t carry the acclaim of “definitive album of the 2000’s” and thus I didn’t feel comfortable ranking it up against the classics. Same with Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial. I love the album, but I don’t feel comfortable enough with my personal feelings toward it, nor its place in history to confidently place it amongst my favorites of all time.
I’ll admit I’m overthinking all this. All these albums and movies are great, and at the end of the day, nobody really gives a shit about my “list” or ranking of these albums. Yet this is a concept I’ve been struggling with lately on an artistic level. How can you stack an album that you’ve been listening to for a decade up against anything else? How can a movie that been heralded as the greatest of all time (for 75 fucking years) really compare to anything that I’ve seen a dozen times? How do you even begin to compare the two?
To bring this full-circle (and give a total cop-out answer) I think the answer is a case of “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” Those two OM&M albums are great. I think they’re an acquired taste for sure, but an outsider to the genre would probably hear two songs next to each other and probably think ‘these are different songs?’
I think all these qualifiers are sliders. Personal history. Critical acclaim. History. Context. Time. are inextricable from art. I guess I’d argue the art can still be judged on its own in a vacuum, but that’s not how anyone judges it… ever. We hear, see, and experience things on our own terms.
I guess if anything I’m arguing that personal history (nostalgia) is one of the most powerful influencers when it comes to my interpretation and experience of art. I use music like a time-traveling drug. You know that feeling when the holidays hit and you hear “Silent Night” for the first time? I have a calendar year’s worth of songs like that. I have albums that bring me back to distinct times, years, and moments in my life. I love that art can do that. I love that this coming August I can put on Frank Ocean’s Blonde and it will transport me directly back to Summer 2016. That kind of personal connection to music is something that can (sadly) never be duplicated. The beautiful part is that we all have our own narratives like that. We all have a list of albums… or movies…. or food… or podcasts… or whatever that evoke something within us. I’m just far more obsessive about documenting my own.
My own history. My own context. Some far-off part of my own mind is the reason that I don’t like one Of Mice & Men album as much as it’s nearly-identical predecessor. Unfortunately, that conflux is something that can never be fully translated or explained no matter how hard we try. That unique perspective is the one thing we share, even if nothing’s shared. And that’s what we bring to art. That little piece of us that adds onto to something that’s already an inherently human and beautiful and pure creation. It’s what makes art beautiful. It’s what makes the world beautiful.