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January 11-17, 2006

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What Is Hip?

Examining obsession as a New Year's music resolution

By Karl Byrn

I've settled on my New Year's resolution. It's a commitment to better health, but it's not a routine promise to exercise more, nor is it a thin pledge to consume less bacon and beer. My resolution for 2006 is about mental health. I've decided to stop chasing new pop music.

This liberating insight came to me as I was recently treading water in the annual music-junkie ritual of the Top 10 list. For pop-music obsessives, the best-of-the-year ceremony is a cherished part of the holiday season. It's the moment of truth when we vote on our favorite current discs and compare notes with other fanatics, confirming or confounding our impressions of the past year's music scene.

I wrestled with a slippery Top 10 this year. I compiled various satisfying multigenre combinations from a vast and colorful sea of 2005 listening, but no single set seemed complete. My lists seemed burdened by required curiosity; the entries were less about inspiration than about energy spent following hot trends like Canadian indie-rock, Houston hip-hop and fashionable dance-rock.

Was I forcing the year's music to matter, imposing my own search for meaning on random selections of diffuse discs by unconnected acts? Was I feeling distanced from the year's best music? Was I seeing that current music makes the most sense in ways that are not album-oriented?

Christmas only made my doubts worsen. All I ever want for Christmas are classic rock discs, so that's what my family gives me. But we gave our teenage daughter an iPod. The gift made me feel like I had capitulated to a form of music consumption that violates my own album-oriented aesthetic. But I also felt vindicated by the great art pieces I received: Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky, the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons.

As I played with my new toys, I knew that I dug the oldies more than my best-of-the-year finalists like Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, M.I.A.'s Arular, My Morning Jacket's Z or Lightning Bolt's Hypermagic Mountain. This was a shock to me. I have always been proud that I seek a cutting-edge of music that is younger and hipper than what my daughter likes. (That's not difficult, since she only listens to hit country and hit hip-hop.) Pissing her off with hip, avant-music is a bit of a litmus test for new music's credibility; she actually threatened to microwave my Lightning Bolt disc.

But I sensed that my years of defending the cutting edge were at a turning point. My year-end listening was telling me to relax, to be an average listener, to not worry about the new Wolf Parade or Mike Jones or Bloc Party discs. I was finally resisting my own compulsion to champion new music. Maybe I was just enjoying my oldies. Maybe I just hadn't found much 2005 music I wanted to champion.

My decline in passion for the hip is a function of obsession for the hip. I can't relax; I must hear the new Wolf Parade, Mike Jones and Bloc Party discs. I foolishly crave to take it all in. Will I find something commanding, comforting or profound? That search is an endless project. I can't expect all the new music I'm compelled to digest to consistently knock my socks off, and I shouldn't even expect the better stuff to be brilliant.

The chase continues. I already know I need to hear the new Strokes album, which I don't really care to hear. But this year, instead of meticulously examining chamber-pop collectives or trying to understand Baltimore club funk, I should listen to more bebop and bluegrass. I might even feel free to buy fun things I really want, like KISS' Dressed to Kill or Sweet's Desolation Boulevard. Those are the kind of discs that will help me sleep at night knowing I'm sticking to my 2006 resolution.

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