Here’s part two of an epic conversation with David Brothers. If you missed part one’s deep dive into Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, you can find it here.
Here’s part two of an epic conversation with David Brothers. If you missed part one’s deep dive into Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, you can find it here.
20. Flying Lotus – You're Dead!
“Dead Man’s Tetris” is the place in You’re Dead! that you might cotton to the fact that this is a concept album about dying if the branding hadn’t already keyed you in. And who’s the first person you meet in heaven? The disembodied voice of Snoop Dogg né Lion né Dogg né Doggy Dogg, aka a man who has spent twenty years reinventing himself. Oh but he’s so smooth though! Funny that an album that attempts to faceplant straight into mankind’s deepest abyss can’t help but hint at rebirth. And You’re Dead! feels like something of a rebirth for Flying Lotus as well. The rougher edges of his previous music have been sanded down to the point where I’ve seen him dismissed as an off-brand Herbie Hancock in more than one place. But to me, You’re Dead! sounds introverted. It sounds like the music itself is searching – frantically drifting, the way I imagine inner dialogue sounds when contemplating someone else’s death or your own.
19. Ty Segall – Manipulator
Spending the better part of the last decade fuzzing it up and hanging out in every music writer's top ten list of go-to "garage revival" listicles, it's become somewhat difficult to single out the actual albums that Ty Segall releases, the equivalent of a Buddhist convert confusedly trying to figure out what part of the river he had stepped in yesterday. Not so with Manipulator, which carved down the squalor enough to give America's most recent T. Rex convert--Segall covered him in 2013, and the licks sticked--a chance for him to deliver his longest, most sustained piece of music yet. Lyrically, Segall seems to be sticking with what sounds good versus clear meaning, with most of his songs revolving around a pronoun, a noun, and at least one verb, repeated over time, sometimes in a pattern. Triumphs of the will are for assholes, anyway. Time to get crusty again!
If busdrivers were elected officials, who would drive the night bus? With Burial careening toward house music on his most recent EP, the world is left with Andy Stott taking charge of this most hypnotic state of travel. Faith in Strangers takes nearly fifteen minutes to lull you into a waking dream before detouring onto unexplored roads – from the noxious, clattering “Damage” to the title track, a genuine pop song that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Beach House record. On Millie & Andrea’s Drop the Vowels, Stott gets a major assist from Demdike Stare’s Miles Whittaker – let’s call him the Minister of Exact Change – for an album that sounds more familiar to those following Stott’s earlier campaigns (his grassroots years) like the similarly spacious and dubby EPs Passed Me By and We Stay Together. You didn’t realize it was possible to drift and fixate simultaneously. You’re pretty sure you’ve passed that same mailbox three times already. You’re on the night bus, baby. With Stott at the wheel, your ride is in good hands.
17. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
We have gotten to the point where an old-school shitkicking country album can sound downright revolutionary. I sent a 100-song mp3 mix of all kinds of music from 2014 to my closest friends, and the most frequent reaction to the inclusion of “Turtles All the way Down” has been, “Sturgill? Simpson? What! Is! This!” It’s country, duders. Perhaps they are shocked by the laundry list of psychedelics Simpson says taught him how to love? “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT.” (Protip: when you believe there’s a gateway in your mind that leads to alien reptiles, that’s the DMT talking, bro.) Perhaps it’s the simple studio tricks that wouldn’t be out of place on one of my dad’s band’s records that make this album Metamodern. That all just reminds me of another country eccentric – Terry Allen, whose late 70s masterpiece Lubbock (On Everything) travelled down plenty of these gravel roads. But if the promise of novelty gets you to crack open Sturgill Simpson’s mp3s, it’s the directness of his music (evinced most gut-wrenchingly on his cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise”) that should resonate long enough to eradicate the album’s title altogether.
16. Gordon Voidwell – Bad Études
Bad Études often makes me feel like I’m listening to an issue of Vice Magazine, which is not typically a way I choose to feel. I worry about its shelf-life – that I’ll wake up one day and it will sound repulsive to my ears, like Counting Crows 20 years after worshiping them in high school. In the meantime, I’m embracing it as a substantial house-party mix by the dude best known for remixing a Das Racist jam. The fact that Gordon Voidwell’s music is slightly out-of-joint with the current rockcrit meta means that he often mines conceptually unsexy sounds with great success. Out of the gate, “Homemade VHS” and “Bad Wave” are relentlessly sticky. But it’s not until the Prince homage “GF Jeans,” that Voidwell’s sly musicianship comes into focus. An “etude” is, classically, a short composition that is exceedingly difficult to perform. Here, Voidwell’s the touch-points of mid-80s funk and mid-00s synthpop are a hard sell, but it’s a tribute to Voidwell that he makes them so easy to listen to.
15. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Cloud Nothings’ third album is a contradiction: an emo record about being unable to communicate one’s emotions. Lead songwriter Dylan Baldi litters Here and Nowhere Else with false starts and full stops: “You don’t really seem to care and I don’t even talk about it,” “I don’t know what you’re telling me is true,” “I’m not telling you all I’m going through.” It’s as if Baldi is trying to articulate the feelings that get lost upon resolution or resignation – the quiet seconds in the middle of a long argument; the cognitive static created between the urge to act and the inability to know what to do. In this way, Here and Nowhere Else dives into some of the most difficult artistic territory to navigate—the moment-to-moment complexity of confusion, of anxiety, of low self-esteem, of depression.
A double shot of some of the finest lyricist currently lyricising (sure!), these two albums--sisters, yes, but not twins--are the strongest examples in 2014 provided for sending our critics into fits of favorite-picking, with the end result of all those "now, THIS is the best line" reviews serving up all the raw, informational meat required for the greatest music writers Venn diagram ever constructed. We'll find out who your friends really are, Jason Gubbels.
All kidding aside--but not really, we're talking about contemporary white boy indie rock of 2014, which means we're so neck deep in sincerely constructed fake identities to sell our brand that we're incapable of abandoning any pose that might move some units, and while snark might be out of favor this quarter, who knows what's around the corner in the 1099 economy--these guys really do sound like Pavement, but only in the way that they sound like they aren't going to let any obligation to specificity get in the way of a good riff or a great zinger.
Oh, and the the best line is "these people are famous. I'd trust 'em!"
13. Caribou – Our Love
One of those music acts guaranteed to earn you a "are you sure that guy didn't quit making stuff" every single time a new album drops, Caribou's Our Love--like Swim before it--is yet another slice of a very particular kind of heaven that we most definitely will miss when it is finally unavailable, despite the fact that for whatever reason, so many people seem to think that period of time has already arrived. (Two months ago I was actually stuck in a conversation explaining that no, Dan Snaith is alive and well, he even made a new album, and stop rolling your eyes at me i'm standing right-the-fuck-here.) A digital immersion made up predominantly of tracks that are built inside a pressure cooker, with the lid removed somewhere around the minute mark (at which point his R&B laced dance concoctions fill whatever space you've permitted them to enter), Our Love clocks in at a 42 minutes that never manages to feel longer than a dead heat for 20. ("It's over too soon", is where that sentence was aimed.) Some music you sell on its previous accomplishments, some you just bark "get your shit together", nowhere else on this list will you find a candidate better qualified for both categories. Our Love: quit fucking around.
12. Bing & Ruth Tomorrow Was the Golden Age
"What if Stephen Reich had sex with Beach House, but they did it at a silent Scientology birth?", he asked.
"I don't want to see you anymore," she replied.
Actually, if you're just going to list influences, you would want to mention William Basinski as well, the bulletproof king of experimental urban soundscapes that have meaning, no matter how much "okay, I'll buy that" you'll have to hand over. More so than anything since--well, their last release, or Billy B's--Tomorrow Was the Golden Age plays across that delicate line of decay and renewal, choosing to side with the sense of possibility that the morning contains rather than the bitterness that gentrification class war tends to produce. Right or wrong, this is a dynamic, life-embracing piece of work, and if it seems inconsequential to some--well, fuck those people. You really want to roll with those clowns?
11. Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials
Calling it baby's first Sunn O))) would be both fun and, for the most part, apt, as this is one of the most infectiously pleasant things our berobed fathers from the Northwest have brought to the table. Yet doing so would be to dismissive of Ulver's contribution to this mighty three track stew, and the more time one spends with Terrestrials, the more difficult it becomes to point to where America ends and Norway begins. The give and take of improvisation is at its best here, the sensation being more akin to what you read about amongst the jazz masters and Derek Bailey's of the world, and yet the end result is so eminently listenable and so blissfully clear eyed that it stands in as a stark reminder of how truly wonderful these two artists are: it takes a whole lot of work if you want to make it sound this easy.
10. PC Music – PC Music x DISown Radio Mix
If a person were to listen to TFO’s favorite albums of 2014 straight through, PC Music would be sandwiched between Godflesh and Swans, and Sun o))) and Ulver. Yet I suspect that many would find PC Music the most jarringly abrasive of that small grouping. The burgeoning London-based label often gets tagged as divisive or controversial, which to me means it requires the same period of acclimation that the sounds produced by the Sex Pistols or the Bomb Squad or Skream once did – the difference being that the A.G. Cook-led collective traffic in music that sounds like pure pop. Don’t get me wrong, pop music is often unsettling to begin with. But on this hour-long Soundcloud mix (which I’m using as easy shorthand for the bulk of the label’s 2014 work, a move I confess I stole from FACT magazine), PC Music’s roster – Cook, Danny L. Harle, Kane West (whose name I first reacted to as if someone had bought the domain name for gopgle.com), GFOTY, Nu New Edition, and Lil Data – barrels through trope after trope, infusing each with new energy inspired by K-pop, bass music, and even stuff like Negativeland’s U2. Even if PC Music don’t have quite as big an impact in 2015 as they seem to be building toward (though officially releasing Harle’s “Aquarius” would be a nice start), in 2014 the label challenged me to imagine the face of pop to come. I doubt I was alone.
9. Swans – To Be Kind
Although all the talk about comebacks in 2014 rightly belongs to Godflesh, D'Angelo and our blimp loving techno god, let's not forget about the guy who got back on the horse in 2010: Michael Gira. Responsible for the longest album on this list--To Be Kind clocks it an a skeleton shattering two hours, longer than the last few Liam Neeson movies and as hard as that man's lantern jaw. Nobody hit as hard as Gira did this year. Incorporating the kind of plainspoken walk-the-Earth poetry that he'd honed on his years releasing music under the Angels of Light moniker to such a degree that those records now feel like rehearsal archives, To Be Kind seamlessly transitions from the dusty roadhouse croak to the altered beast howl, while the percussion (courtesy of Thor Harris and Phil Puleo) pummels out a tempo that could serve as the pace car if Norse Gods needed to shatter mountains to dust. The term we use when we struggle with something is to grapple with it, last year, there was no more muscular partner. This is John Henry, giving it his all, besting the machine.
8. Godflesh – A World Lit Only by Fire
Although there are better, more correct arguments for the containment of the contemporary sound to be found on this list, there is something to be said for the utter purity of the lines of "New Dark Ages", the opening track on this, the first new album by Godflesh in 12 years: "Pray to God/pray/to/God/that we're/not here". If there's one thing that everybody shared this year--well, except for those who just don't pay any attention at all--it's the sense that we might be better off if we could just get-the-fuck-off-this-planet for a little while. The fact that said song concludes with the observation that "we all suffer" seems a little pat, because for the remainder of A World Lit Only By Fire, we are to get neck deep into the failings of those who built this maelstrom of hate, disease and decay. There's moments to breath, but ultimately, this is an album about the suffering that's been caused, and those that cause it, and the identification seems to come from a man with his head already in the noose. You'd call them last rites, but they feel more like the bitterness of optimism cowed, of hope extinguished--they sound like something you'd yell at the people who destroyed you not because you believe it will change them, but because their crime needs to ring in their ears as they watch your eyes bulge out.
7. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent is so simple compared to Annie Clark’s other albums. Every song is economical, and gives you almost exactly what you expect from it. The album is like 70% rockers and 30% ballads – in other words, the exact right combination of tempos as devised by the Brill Building or the Eagles or whatever. It is St. Vincent’s Pretenders album after a series of Kate Bush albums. And there’s something to be said for this approach—which, it should be noted, doesn’t step on any of Clark’s fringier tendencies. She is aided by the fact that the rockers rock and the ballads ball. Each song finds its own frenetic rhythm, and each rhythm inevitably barrels through some form of obsessive love – technological self-adoration on “Digital Witness;” platonic teenage sex on “Prince Johnny;” and on “I Prefer Your Love” she prefers your love to Jesus, go figure. St. Vincent isn’t the first to compare love to mania, but she is hyper-specific in placing a kind of Tourettic spasm where most artists would settle for a heartbeat.
6. Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
It wouldn't be a year in music without some early 20's musician with a who-gives-a-fuck attitude towards pecking orders, and this year, the role was filled best by Vince Staples and his 7 track EP, Hell Can Wait. It's a nod off and you'll miss it kind of experience, but the likelihood of falling asleep during its too-brief 24 minutes is pretty close to nil--there's just too much here to experience, and it's as compelling as a chase scene. Weaving rock solid West Coast style banger rap with some intense, earthshaking low end rumbling that would fit seamlessly behind every look-at-that-giant-spaceship scene in any movie that has one, Hell Can Wait treats you its listeners like a tackling dummy--Vince knows he needs an audience, but he clearly wants to make sure that it's one who understands what he plans to dish out. There's more to come, of course--a longer album, higher production values, the requisite guest spots from established names (some of whom will certainly be trading on the hope that the nearness of youth will work like careerist Botox, others who will just want to revel in the excitement). For now, what we have is this--cast iron classicism. Nice work, kid.
5. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
One of the subversive pleasures of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is the way it acutely traces the path of teenage alcoholism from peer pressure to party lust to dependency. “Swimming Pools (Drank),” for example, can be read two ways – the chorus, begging/bullying you to turn the party up a notch, has the veneer of a party anthem until you catch Kendrick worried about “drowning in poison” and whetting his “appetite for failure.” Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad was always going to draw Kendrick comparisons, if only by virtue of being the first non-Black Hippy to release an album on Top Dawg Entertainment. But the Kendrick comparisons are at least somewhat apt – Rashad raps with a similar tenacity; less syllables-per-minute, but with a recognizable talent for finding the pocket of a beat while biting at the edges. And Rashad’s debut album, Cilvia Demo, is similarly subversive. His version of the Kendrick’s pool party is more chill (if no less skeezy), but there’s an undercurrent of fighting depression. On “Heavenly Father,” he talks about, “his issues as a child, when I was busy cutting on myself;” on “West Savannah,” as he’s seducing a lady with OutKast and weed, he chases romance as a way to keep his own tendencies at bay, singing, “at least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”
4. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
We tend to take for granted things that were composed over extended periods of time. We tend to dismiss them. They become a novelty at best. At worst, a cautionary tale. “Chinese Democracy,” right? “That’s not the way things are done.” We’re conditioned to think of prog rock and excessively intricate compositions. Classical music. Perhaps we imagine them demanding of the same effort from us that went into their own creation, scuffle at the idea of pop as work, assume it must be belabored, dead-eyed. With D’Angelo we spent years focusing on the reason for delay – the alcoholism, body-issues, reclusiveness, whatever we thought could be bad enough to fell the dude who made Voodoo. The reason for delay—as if we were owed. But craft is a virtue, and Black Messiah, despite the apocrypha of its birth—D’Angelo’s long crawl out of a deep rut, and the catalyst of the Ferguson protests that led to its release—makes a surgical case for artists taking their damn time. Gestation seems to have allow Black Messiah to relish in so many traits that are usually either/or propositions. It is loose but judicious, comfortable but urgent, classic but vital.
3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
It's hard, and it only gets harder, to take a step back from the minute to minute desire to lay judgement and ask what the value of art is, to question its purpose. It's not hard because we've changed, but because our access to the thing has changed so dramatically, in such a short period of time. There's more of it now, there's less boundaries--the job has become less the finding then the refusing, and while that has opened a thousand doors, it's also made it that much more difficult to go beyond the surface, to penetrate deeper into the thing. (One of the best music critics in the game told me earlier this year that while he had gotten much better at the quick listening the job demanded, he craved the chances to let something gestate, to write pieces where punctuality and how's-that-new-thing didn't determine the quantity of attention he could give.) The first thing that's going to go is going to be the question of value, in that ritual--and that's not without reason! After all, if the thing matters, it matters, you can't clamor for value to be proven every single time, you'd go insane, and you'd be annoying to boot. "Before I tell you if you should watch Game of Thrones, let's talk about whether or not serialized television has aesthetic purpose."
While plenty of art traffics in serious subject matter, only one album this year managed to address them all. Ranging in topic from the horrors of Sandy Hook, the bizarre repetition and savage randomness of tragedy, aging, a sexual inventory, serial killers, heartbreak, mortality, jealousy (professional and romantic), mental handicap, middle aged ennui, the resultant breakdown of the body...Benji, named after the movie, was so warmly received upon its release that it's hard to believe how incredibly difficult its subject matter is. And make no mistake: that subject matter is what counts, it is front and center from the opening lines of "Carissa" (a glorious hymn to a recently passed family member that is as full of affection as it is heartbreakingly committed to the confused sorrow that the death has brought to Kozelek's life) all the way to the final, neatly doubled vocal mixes on "Ben's My Friend", a song reportedly written exactly the way its own lyrics describe it--in a flurry to get another song finished for the album, while still reeling from the bittersweet observation that the friend it describes (Gibbard, of Postal Service and Death Cab fame) has surpassed our songwriter in terms of fame and financial success.
Addressing a topic isn't the same as engaging with it, and engaging with it--that's where Benji shines brightest. Forcing the listener to wade into the muck with him, to stand blasted in the sunlight of mortal question: what is this thing that we are doing? This life-how is it spent? The moment when he tosses off an "I ain't one to pray, but I'm one to sing and play" is the key. It's a secular world. There's no help coming, no lottery payout. Children are getting gunned down all over the world. You're going to outlive the people you care about, and when they go, it's going to hurt. What are you going to do about it? How do we bear up under this weight? In Kozelek's album, the answer is of scorching simplicity: it's empathy. It's being a caring individual who witnesses, who sees, who makes the call. It's no surprise that every song has a brief moment of natural wonder, or a trip outside--looking internally too long upon these questions will sour you down to the bone. For him, there's only two things to do with a fist. You clutch it around a guitar, or you unwrap it and use that hand to reach out.
2. Aphex Twin – Syro
While some artists disappear into the ether leaving us clamoring for their return, others leave behind a body of work so incredibly full that the desire for more is accurately labeled as greed, and not the kind of greed that's socially acceptable, but the gross kind, where you realize they probably hump that pillow more than is physically necessary. Aphex Twin is in the former category, a musician of such incredible regard that even his most ardent fans seemed content to wait patiently, possibly forever, for their hero to show up on eBay with one copy of an album he had given up on in 1994. After all, it isn't like one could exhaust the Selected Ambient Works of their possibilities--these are the seminal tracks of an entire genre, the circulatory system of a branch of art, and while it probably would intimidate most people to have refined an entire sound to perfection while still in their 20's, Richard James isn't most people: he's one of those people who are actually a legitimate genius. That doesn't mean he's gonna nail it forever--Chaplin, Ozu, Beckett all get to wear that moniker as well, and those guys turned out a stinker or four. Being a genius gives you the stinker pass--you already did the thing nobody else could do, and in James' case, he did it more than once. Get fat and lazy. You've earned it.
The nice thing about Syro is how little of any of that history gets in the way of you and the sound: the titles are essentially gibberish, letters and numbers and bits of phraseology that can be parsed by the Aphex Twin superfans, and the album art itself is a pure white field, with nothing more than a raw list of the album's expenses to get lost in. But with sounds like this, why would you? Repurposing the EDM sound whose crystalline properties could basically lay claim for the identity of the last ten years of graphic design--what does every minimalist desktop or whiteboxed product ad resemble, if not that early 90's Aphex sound--into a full suite of material designed to showcase the influences that have formed the texture of the beeping pulse, Syro is so much the ideal of what one could have hoped to hear from Aphex that the temptation upon its release was to make up a list of goals it had failed to achieve just so there would be something to talk about. "Oops", he seemed to say. "Did I forget to make it look like this was something you could've done yourself?"
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Let’s talk about the Career Year. Typically, it’s a term you see thrown around when older put up their best numbers to date. The Career Year can be a backhanded compliment – the inference being that there are long odds on the same guy sustaining that new level of performance over time. Player known for his blazing speed knocks in a ridiculous numbers of home runs in one six month span, but then goes back to ground balls and stolen bases the next season as if the power surge never happened. The Career Year can be an aberration, an illusion created by a series of unlikely events – fly balls barely making it over the fence; shortstops missing easy plays – that converge upon a single talented player in a sea of talented players. Career Years in music seem to come along less frequently, and require not only artistic success, but commercial success – at least in relative terms – with some form of omnipresence. Plus they tend to want to come from underdogs, journeymen. (Otherwise you could, for example, say Kanye had a career year in 2007, and then again in 2010, and 2013.)
When I say that Run the Jewels’ 2014 was a Career Year for both Killer Mike and El-P, I’m not trying to damn them with faint praise, but acknowledge just how unlikely their achievements were and how many small events had to line up precisely in order to get them here after the years each of them spent consistently grinding out hyper-intelligent, edgy, subversive material for their small-but-rabid followings (and, in El-P’s case, running his own label and shepherding dozens of other artists). Chris Weingarten’s Rolling Stone profile compellingly tracks how Killer Mike and El-P’s solo careers devolved into periods of deep depression before they found each other and surprisingly scored the biggest hit of their life with a battle rap album that initially looked like it had “side-project” written all over it.
And yet stunning thing about Run the Jewels’ 2014 wasn’t all of the breaks going their way to make it happen. That kind of luck is awe-inspiring but unsustainable. It doesn’t necessarily create people you can root for (more often it creates Imagine Dragons or whatever). No, what made Run the Jewels’ 2014 so special was that Killer Mike and El-P had the experience and presence of mind to capitalize on each of the opportunities afforded them – and often in the most thought-provoking, even touching ways. They used the success of the first Run the Jewels album – where the two kept it simple with a record full of hard-assed battle raps – to create a sequel that expanded the conceit with harrowing personal stories and sociopolitical screeds. (Even “Love Again,” the track on Run the Jewels 2 that initially appears to be a misstep, evolves into a hilarious and sly gender war.) Killer Mike penned op-eds on police brutality and the persecution of rap music in America’s courts. And then there was that speech. The emotional honesty with which Michael Render galvanizes that small St. Louis crowd, after being stuck outside of the city for ten hours on the day of the fucking Ferguson Grand Jury verdict jesus christ, strikes me as the type of moment that could only happen after decades of little things in Killer Mike and El-P’s careers falling into place just so – and only after that could Killer Mike’s war cry ripple out from those in attendance to social media to thousands of individuals who felt precisely like he did: “You motherfuckers got me today;” “It is us against the motherfucking machine.” To me, that’s a career’s worth of sweat culminating in a single moment, though you could be forgiven for seeing it as something else entirely – a Christmas fucking miracle.
Prior to May’s release of Owl Pharoah, G.O.O.D. Music affiliate Travi$ Scott’s pedigree mainly consisted of a couple down-the-roster production credits on last year’s label compilation, Cruel Summer. When Yeezus dropped in June, Scott’s name again appeared on a few key tracks—“New Slaves,” notably—though it probably would’ve been hard to spot among the 66 other collaborators. (Fun fact: Yeezus tracks average 5.7 producers.) Listen to Owl Pharoah and Yeezus back-to-back, though, and you should immediately notice a kinship between young Travi$ Scott and recent-vintage Kanye West. Scott’s album doesn’t get as anywhere near as polemic as West’s, but many of the production ticks showcased on Owl Pharoah—the demonic vocal manipulations, the gnarly bass spillage, the dancehall samples—have analogues on Yeezus. For most of his career, Kanye has cannibalized new production trends like an evil queen eating village girls’ lungs and livers to stay young. Considering the rumors that the original version of Yeezus was scrapped and replaced in a flurry of activity in the weeks before its release, it would be fun to believe that Kanye heard Owl Pharoah in May and quickly made new plans for his forthcoming album. The truth is probably that West and Scott just share similar affections (like puns; Scott tends to spit ‘Ye-esque lines like, “All the freaky models in the lobby, it's so obvious that they lobbyist.”) Still, the high points on Owl Pharoah (“Upper Echelon,” “Hell of a Night”) make Travi$ and Kanye’s relationship one to watch, even if it’s nothing more than a hands-off mentorship. If it turns into more than that, we could be witnessing the birth of the Baby Yeezus. -MB
Groomed as a capital-P Pop star from age 15, Sky Ferreira has instead become a paradigm-shifter, whether consciously (appearing naked on the cover of her debut album) or not (getting booked for heroin possession). When a pop-star-in-waiting reaches bad-girl notoriety in some circles—in this case the small, concentric ones of the music nerd Internet—the usual corresponding move is to make music owning your troubles and reframing them as badass choices (cf. Miley Cyrus). On Night Time, My Time, Ferreira goes the other way. The album cover sets the tone by depicting her nude, drenched and shuddering on the other side of a shower door, as if being stalked. After a second, you notice that there’s no steam on the glass, just drops of water – so the shower’s been off and she’s been standing there, cornered and vulnerable, for a while. The record itself is driven by a very Joan Jett- or Sleigh Bells-like contrast between juvenilia and steely guitars and drums (and a lot of synths-that-sound-like-guitars). This is still at all times a commercial-leaning pop album, but with songs like “I Blame Myself” and “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay),” it’s hard to shake that cover image, and the idea that Sky Ferreira is taking control of her own branding while being honest about exactly cornered and vulnerable she feels while doing it. -MB
I think one of my favorite developments in music has to be the way that there's this popular strand that can easily (and accurately) be described as both "heavy" and "metal", but none of us seem willing to just put those two words right next to one another, the way sweet Lord Baphomet intended. Sunbather-the second album from Scrabble expansion pack enthusiast Deafheaven-ended up on so many people's radar in spite of a nation's unwillingness to properly categorize it, and it's no surprise way. It's immediate, impervious music, a series of lengthy tracks (with some breathing room tracks interpersed throughout) that never feels as long as the full hour it is two seconds shy of being. You know what? It's a true headbangers ball! (No apology is forthcoming.) -TS
I can’t be the only one who felt disappointed James Blake’s turn toward soupy-piano-plus-#drops on his subsequent albums. I’m picking on the dude, but the stunning CMYK EP arrived in the middle of a period that found dubstep artists stumbling away from the dystopic abyss the genre found itself chest-deep in, and—along with other benchmark singles like Girl Unit’s “Wut,” Guido’s “Beautiful Complication,” and Jacques Greene’s “(Baby I Don’t Know) What You Want”—crystalized the soulful alternative. The exciting thing about James Blake was that he seemed best equipped to bring the budding R&B-dubstep hybrid to album length. That didn’t happen, at least not in the way I’d hoped.
To my mind, the artist that has picked up the torch left by James Blake has been Travis Stewart, who produces under the aliases Sepalcure and Machinedrum. Sepalcure is the silkier project, a refined and upbeat summation of the Burial-style floaty-voices strain of dubstep, whereas ambitious ideas on Machinedrum albums often smash up against one another in disruptive ways. The 2011 album Room(s) fucked around with R&B from the perspective of bass, much like CMYK did. Machinedrum followed it with “SXLND,” which took a harder run at incorporating dancehall into an already multifaceted sound. “SXLND” is in many ways Stewart’s peak, a vital summary of the Machinedrum sound. It only seems right, then, that whatever would come next would regress from those heights. What I didn’t expect, and what makes 2013’s Vapor City so compelling, is that Stewart takes the various threads he’d been following—dancehall, R&B, floaty voices, the whole bag of tricks—and plunges them right back into the dystopic abyss that dubstep had been trying to squirm out from; a black hole, having nothing left to consume, eating itself. -MB
One of the most remarkable aspects of experimental music like Dirty Beaches is the way its influences can be found leaking into ones experience despite the total lack of casual connection. You have to go and read to find out that Drifters and Love is the Devil (the two song suites combined on this 2013 release) are described by their creator in terms that make it seem like a theoretical travelougue, but after you do, it's as if your own feelings have been labeled--a light gets turned on. Of course that's what this is like, this sonic plod, this burbling clickbox disintegration. It's a person--some guy, some girl, but young--orbiting and penetrating, searching. At times like a white noise machine, even the vocals--full throated mutters and sneering, nasalized cries of surprise--can sneak up on you, sprawling goosebumps down your arms like a liquid has been spilled. It's moments like that where the blush comes, because that's when you remember that this isn't your life being lived, it's his. You just got busted singing along. -TS
Chess referencing, a low toned gravel, smart, efficient sampling, Night's Gambit is an album that initially feels like that Liquid Swords follow-up nobody ever really gave us, and that initial feeling is one that recurs, especially on the moments when a prominent film sample (more than a few of which arrive from another 90's stalwart, Boaz Yakin's Fresh). But that's just a feeling, one that doesn't work with the narrative of the Wu-Tang fan-tape. A GZA album never sounded this lonely. A song like "Our Father"--three minutes of near spoken word, punctuated by a Bronx drawled "our faaather" and little evidence that Ka needs oxygen, with music that sounds like a wooden xylophone--doesn't really sound like anything in commercial hip-hop. You can't dance to it, you don't really move your flesh, it's just presented, the way the Red Dragon might show a blind woman his "work" via abstract backrub and powerpoint. Here it is: my parents. Here it is: my past. Here it is: our failure. It's moody, expressive work--never anger, never cloying. Just a series of observations, delivered over a battlefield. -TS
Although the tumultuous last few years that have faced Queens of the Stone Age don't make their presence explicitly known on the band's first new album in six years, that title isn't totally out of left field. One of the most refined--a better word might be "codified"--installations of what Josh Homme and company have been releasing through various line-ups over the last 15 years, Clockwork's investment in the politics of guarantees is wall to wall. This is exactly what you'd expect a Queens of the Stone Age album to sound like--powerful, machinist guitar work and Homme's hollowed out vocals, chords that delight within themselves and their precise explosions (some of these songs sound like roller coasters--upside down, but on a track) and drums; fist-pumpers, drums that seem to emanate outside of the music, inside the listener, drumming that sandwiches one between. It's an album of extreme reliability, coming from a band that faced off against death, drugs, more death. And the collapse of the music industry, of course. Whatever vein Homme has tapped into, it's a rich one. -TS
A snarling testament to a musical life spurred by individual muse-hunting, presented in the same what-a-goddamned-voice shitkickers she's brought with her for since the glorious 90's when she was categorized as alt-country and everybody still bought CD's, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You has about as much in common with the music it's been released alongside that it's in practice more sensible to think of it as coming from an alternate dimension. Absent are the back-and-forths of authenticity discussion or the who-am-I postures of contemporary artists confused by the date on the calendar, in their place is the latest chapter of a woman whose career would probably best be described by whoever it is that figures out the trajectory of Renaissance painting when they're lining up a gallery show--these are songs, sure, but they're also structural pieces of music, written against others. Revisiting tempo and pacing of previous work, but in service of a more intense commitment to choices previously touched upon (as has been consistently noted in both the Oh Get Real "I'm A Man" coupled with the steadfast refusal to embrace motherhood as sanctification.), The Wore Things Get is an album that stands as reminder that while high art may be difficult to talk about, it can be pretty easy to recognize.-TS
The critical embrace of Haim might be the final dagger in the heart of rockism. There is nothing in Days Are Gone that is even remotely hip (that is, in the way that we associate hip with those who have a deeper sense of the world earned by struggling, the artistes, the poor) other than the fact that it is, in spite of itself, hip. On the surface, all of Haim’s musical touchstones are the exact types of musicians derided by critics for their lack of authenticity—Mark Knopfler and his Americanisms; the Eagles and their Californianisms; Wilson-Phillips and their patchouli. The last time a group with this little (for lack of a better word) musical credibility was embraced on this level was Vampire Weekend, and they at least had the fact that they were a rock band on their side. So what—other than the formal delights of Haim’s musicianship, the guitar licks and the harmonies and such, which, if we’re being honest, are the same sorts of formal delights that were always present in the Eagles’ music and Dire Straights’ music and early 90s chart-pop, as well—is it that makes the cool kids gravitate toward Haim? Here’s my bet: Everything on Days Are Gone reeks of confidence and defiance; everything is “forever” and “I will” and “don’t do that shit” (paraphrasing). Even the confessions of inadequacy—“I fumbled when it came down to the wire”—have the tenor of someone laughing at their past mistakes, not living through current ones. Maybe that’s Haim’s source of inauthenticity—that they’re so self-aware they even take ownership over their faults. Maybe that self-awareness could never exist. But confidence is alluring. Defiance is infectious. And when someone is whispering in your ear that they’ll “keep running if you come my way,” your impulse is usually going to be to chase after them. –MB
Kevin Gates songs are so streamlined and straightforward that you’d tune them out if it weren’t for the gravity—from both Gates’ slightly-AutoTuned baritone, which is as sternum-rattling as the bass in his songs, and his subject matter, a take on the where-I’m-from mythos so acute and direct that it has the same blunt effect on your solar plexus. He is the kind of rapper who would have been a regional star in a different era. In this one, he’s a craftsman who’s been a fringe presence forever—incarcerated for a couple years at the same time as his friend Lil Boosie; rumored to be a ghost writer—getting a small light shined upon him after years of grinding out mixtapes. He’s like Big K.R.I.T. with almost zero pop appeal, aside from that twinge of vocal effect that got him mistaken a few times for a Future wannabe. Gates’ strength is his unadorned storytelling (if you put 10 horses in a room with 10 typewriters it would take them about 10 minutes to come up with “Thinking With My Dick”), which is exactly what might get him overlooked, until you get broadsided by one of his lyrical mosaics, like this one from “4:30 am”: “gums hurtin’ from an old bullet/ in front of a toilet while hunched over/ puking all of my insides/ stab wound from an old friend/ well at that time we were close friends/ they say I killed him in cold blood.” -MB
San Francisco’s Sonny Smith has been operating from his own little corner of the universe for a while now. His primary outlet, Sonny & the Sunsets, could be lumped in with a handful of garage rock bands like King Tuff, Nude Beach, or Royal Headache—bands that favor scrappy songwriting over the abrasive guitar wrangling of guys like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees. But Smith sets himself apart from his aesthetic peers with structural innovation. His first album was a series of one-act plays. A couple years ago, he had 100 different artists design covers to fictional singles by 100 different fictional bands (Hazel Shep, South East Land Otter Champs, The Fuckeroos), then wrote music for each of those singles, A-side and B-side, based on the covers those artists created. While the recent Sonny & the Sunsets albums aren’t as high concept, Smith has a way of allowing the musical conceits to reflect the subject matter. For example, on 2012’s Longtime Companion, Smith dealt with the aftermath of a breakup through an album of melancholy country music. Written in the aftermath of a close friend’s murder, Antenna to the Afterworld is even more complex. Set to science fiction-influenced new wave, Smith takes on the persona of a space being visiting Earth for the first time. He encounters a number of outcast women—a sword swallower on “Mutilator,” a fellow space creature (with a cyborg husband) on “Green Blood,” a homeless girl on “Girl on the Street.” An alien falling for a human is a well-worn metaphor for the confusion and anxiety of love, but in from Sonny’s point of view, everyone is equally foreign to everyone else; each person is fascinating, but unknowable. Even his antennae to the afterworld, his magical portal into understanding death, results in him watching comet trails in the quiet night. At the end of “Green Blood” someone asks what happened to his alien girl. “I don’t know,” he says. “But I miss her. I really do.” -MB
Although history will never starve for want to one man acoustic albums, it was nice of Jason Isbell to pull one back from that dragon's mouth, apparently due to boredom on the part of himself and his producer. In its place came Southeastern, a delivery device for multiple variations on road album staples--loneliness, exhuastion, the requisites of repetition. Standing atop the tried and true formula is Isbell's voice, lucidly turning the troubles of the traveling singer into plainspoken bits of emotional accuracy. It's the sort of sincerity that seems to so often elude the attempt for same, fractional moments of time that hearken toward universality. Nobody wants to be sleep alone. Everybody wants to have someone they never get out of bed with. Nobody wants to die in a shitty motel. It's bald, but it's not obvious, and it's nostalgiac, but it's not cliched. -TS
There are two elements of Jon Hopkins’ Immunity that make it sound like a breakthrough. The first is its snarl. The album is paced by a few of the languid, vaporous tracks you’d expect from a guy known to this point for being Imogen Heap’s keyboard player, composing ambient film scores and tracks that were, literally, Coldplay-worthy. Yet those ambient tracks are simply table-settings for a collection of buzzing, rattling, relentless techno—and to sound relentless within a genre known for its relentlessness is no easy feat. “Collider”, for example, sounds like Andy Stott’s “Lost and Found” with the haunting voices sublimated, the tempo ratcheted, and the wavelengths taking frequent trips into the red, as if Hopkins plugged in everything in the studio only halfway. I’ve seen Immunity compared to James Holden’s The Idiots Are Winning from 2006 (Holden put out The Inheritors this year, an album that stacks up well against Immunity, but chooses sprawl over Hopkins’ compact precision.) The comparison is apt when it comes to their shared love of static and hiss, but where Immunity blows Idiots out of the water is that the songs groove. That’s the second thing that makes Immunity sound like a breakthrough to my ears—many of these tracks have actual swing to them, something that for a long time has seemed antithetical to techno. And it’s not like the grooves here sound like they’re just transplanted from other genres (like they do on, say, Machinedrum’s Vapor City). They sound like a natural evolution that has come from within the genre, not outside of it. The videos for Immunity’s “Collider” and “Open Eye Signal” are widescreen personal journeys by outcasts in desolate places—a perfect reflection of Immunity’s sound. In each video, we feel the protagonists have gained some deep insight from their travels. Hopkins’ career may have begun in service to others—as a composer, or keyboardist—but it’s easy to imagine his peers finding insight in his journey to becoming a sonic innovator. –MB
Wondering why you're looking at a 2013 music list in March of 2014? Look no further then here--this has been the hold up. A review, originally written in the mean streets of Philadelphia (and I do mean "mean", as many businesses and homeowners in Philadelphia refuse to salt their fucking sidewalks, also, two people froze to death), was eaten by the typepad interface. It ate a couple of other ones as well--guess which ones!--but they were easily rebuilt. This one however has proved elusive, and as I look down the barrel of a tight schedule growing tighter, I have little faith that there's more to come. And sure, there's a case to be made for some type of Long.Live.A$AP critique that incorporates the jaw-dropping arrogance that is a blogger who refuses to just hash out some run-on sentences full of hyperbole and bewildering metaphor detailing why this one rap album is better than the other rap albums--never forget, A$AP didn't exactly meet his deadlines delivering this one, and he certainly worked up a fervor in the promises department--but maybe it's better to honor another TFO legacy, which is that thing where I, your obedient pal, dicks around for way longer than he should, only to jerk off some turkey so he can put another baby to bed. See you in 9 months, motherfuckers. (This was the best rap album of 2013.)-TS
Before the 2013 season, Classixx profiled as a down-the-roster DFA player—without hearing the music their very name could be read as an ironic comment on the quality of the work. It’s like naming your kid Mookie. There’s already been a Mookie, guy. Maybe if Classixx showed up every day with a first-one-in-the-building/last-one-out mentality, they could work their way up to being a strong fourth outfielder. But, even with LCD Soundsystem’s retirement, it just didn’t seem like there were enough spots on DFA’s major league roster for Classixx to expect anything more than a September cup of coffee. Of course, nobody told that to Classixx, who came to play in 2013 with a strong, five-tool debut album. Hanging Gardens firmly places Classixx among the other “surprise” prospects that were consistently overshadowed by their peers before getting called up and breaking out in a major way—players like Panda Bear, Ghostface Killah, or Feist, who we’d have never suspected would have the individual careers they’ve had. Now, you could argue that Hanging Gardens is purely a product of the rich DFA system, or that Classixx were simply in the right place at the right time. But there’s no denying that Classixx stepped up to the plate and provided exactly what DFA listeners needed from them—wry electro-disco that gave us at least five fantastic—dare I say classic?—top plays, and even more surprises, like the tribute to 80s DJ cuts, “I’ll Get You.” There’s competition in the division from Disclosure and Daft Punk, but in this year’s crowded field I’d take the consistency of Classixx over the others’ high points every time. Can Classixx repeat their 2013 performance? Or will this be the young upstart’s career year? History tells us to expect some regression, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if we spent the next ten years talking about Classixx as a perennial All Star. -MB
One of the more affectionately received albums of the year is also one of its most progressive, a gauntlet thrown down for charm and beauty--albeit of the scuzzy, three day growth variety. A hybrid of the jangly school of long take noodling and deregulated basement beats married together by guys who might have been working to access their own high school memories (only your local Floyd fan knows for sure), Psychic can at times take on the quality that 90's era trance and Brian Eno acolytes aimed for: music as brain plastering lacquer, a sound that seals the crevice between neural pathways. At times it can be dazed to the point of 70's space rock, at other times it's sort-of-a-Beverly-Hills-Cop-sample is so on the nose that you start to blush. Songs like "The Only Shrine I've Seen"--one of the album's strongest tracks--plays like something the Sabotage-era Beastie Boys would have released as an instrumental track, whereas Darkside chooses to squeak the phrase "she can't surprise you anymore", leaving one to wonder if those words necessarily mean anything, or if they were just chosen because of the way they complimented the synthesizer. It's a microcosm of the album's range--an establishment of tone and beat, the flavor of its particular haze--only to transition through three or more complete shifts. Some of the change is deft and indistinct, moves so clean that its hard to catch, whereas others are just blunt and (dishonestly) clumsy, a switch as abrupt as someone cutting off the power. It's an album that absolutely nobody else could have made, and we were all the better for its arrival. And yes: they make you earn it. -TS
There's no way to really shock a Kanye West fan at this point--he's trained us too well, it's impossible to know from day to day, or week to week, what he's going to do next. He's a total live wire, what the guys on It's Always Sunny would describe as a "wildcat", which is part of the reason--besides racism--why he's often talked about in the media with eyebrows raised. And yet it isn't his TMZ inch-makers that make him so exciting, in fact, it's that aspect of his persona that (due to its toxicity) can be so blinding. The excitement of Kanye's unpredictiablity is in his music, in the way he's able to operate in that sphere of listenability while still appearing schizophrenically improvisitary. This is a guy who exerts such absolute control over his output even while its made under deadline adn gun, while still lacing it with meme-ready jokes that feel as off the cuff as anything. (Compare "hurry up with my damn croissants" to any rap skit--all of which are intended to be high-larious--ever made.) Coming off the four-cornered perfection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the dismal oh-wellness of Watch The Throne, Yeezus read like an unprotected sawblade, complete with pre-release parties where the volume was so loud that music critics ended up leaving the venue so that they could better hear it outside the building. And across the street. What they heard was like a cocktail of hostility, a mix of nitro and psychopathy, trundled up with 90's style Ministry. Like Twisted Fantasy, an album that showed how Kanye could as effectively promote an album through Twitter as Death Row once could with MTV, part of Yeezus' appeal was the ease with which Kanye monopolized attention--only this time, it was with an album whose only potential singles where pitch black rage and--eventually--unabashed long-take sleaze. -TS
When America reached its Vampire Weekend saturation point in 2008, the band's detractors harped on two things: their appropriation of African rhythms, and the images of these Ivy League-grads dressed in collared shirts and boat shoes. The juxtaposition of those things (along with the fact that listeners rarely consider self-awareness as a potential element in music and PR) subtly suggested that Vampire Weekend were a pro-White Privilege band. Lead-singer Ezra Koenig name-checking Louis Vuitton and Lil' Jon in his lyrics didn't help. It put upon him the stink of the hipster, the lowest of all cultural hijackers. Koenig and Vampire Weekend occupied a niche that no other "cool" band had taken seriously, which might explain why they initially got mistaken for The Bloodhound Gang or Dynamite Hack.
My biggest complaint about Vampire Weekend at the time was that their songs were delightful but flimsy. I preferred the B-side to their first single, the ska-influenced "Ladies of Cambridge," to any of the tracks on their debut album, because it hinted at a wealth of emotion beneath the preppy affectations. Culminating in the line, "When you left my room to go to the kitchen/ I imagined that you were dead/ A morbid streak runs through the whole of my family/ But for you I would put it to rest," "Ladies of Cambridge" poetically nailed the upper middle class's malaise and fear of mortality, the two subjects the band seemed destined to explore. When they announced their second album by rhyming "horchata" with "balaclava," I became convinced that Vampire Weekend had reached stasis, caught up in misidentifying its own strengths, and we were in line for years of diminishing returns, albeit moderately delightful ones.
I often wonder how Modern Vampires of the City would have been received as a debut. So much of the intellectual joy I find in it is discovering that the Vampire Weekend we heard in 2008 has matured without ditching any of the traits that made them intriguing in the first place. The African rhythms and Koenig's buzzwords have morphed from affectations into vocabulary, used to draw nuance out of life's tiniest joys and fears - co-dependence, travel, religion, and, yes, malaise and mortality. Koening's arch self-awareness still sneaks through (I can't be the only person who associates Providence and Phoenix, "Hannah Hunt"'s road trip bookends, with Whiteness despite those cities' actual diversity), but he has evolved into a deeply empathetic lyricist and narrator. And, since the aesthetic tent poles of maturity and empathy sound about as exciting as a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, the whole album is tricked out with an array of goofy studio effects and vocal manipulations, which should make it sound incredibly dated in a couple years. Brazenly time-stamping one's art might seem puzzling, but it speaks to the same fearlessness the band showed when it burst onto a lower-class-credibility-obsessed scene wearing cardigans and Oxford shirts. When you're making a delicate, death- (and taxes-) obsessed album that also happens to be the best work of your career, fearlessness isn't a bad pretense to have. -MB
Even if he’s not the guy on the Amygdala cover riding his reindeer through the hills, it’s easy to picture DJ Koze as the weirdo amongst his Kompakt affiliates. My favorite recent trick of his occurs on a 2012 remix of Herbert’s “You Saw It All.” The German producer senses a bit of drag underneath the original’s twitchiness, and turns it into a loping, falling-over-itself shuffle with a chorus built around what sounds like—and this is the kicker—a goat’s bray. The track even forecasted the “goats who sound like humans” YouTube meme that made the rounds in 2013. In swiping an esoteric bit of nature-quirk that’s probably been floating around for thousands of years, it deftly illustrates one of the keys to Amygdala and DJ Koze’s oeuvre: techno doesn’t have to be futuristic to be forward-thinking. That’s counterintuitive in a genre founded upon technological obsession, but Amygdala feels more interested in a primeval dance party in a canyon than a contemporary one in a warehouse. Of course, like the goat sounds, it could all just be Apocrypha, an illusion created by the elements Koze builds around—chimes, woodwinds, nostalgia—and the sense that he could pull anything at any time from a seemingly endless wellspring of oddball sounds. The framework is close to what you’d expect if you’ve heard even a single Kompakt release in the last 12 years, with some surprises—“Marilyn Whirlwind,” for example, sounds like someone incessantly pounding the strings on an unplugged bass guitar—and a ton more hooks. Matthew Dear shows up on two of the album’s best tracks, both ballad-ish laments, while Ada’s guest spot on “Homesick” pays tribute to staying home from work and listening to records—a common sentiment amongst us Brooklyn analogs, but anathema to the very genre Koze’s working in. Techno was a sound created in anticipation of the technological future. But in 2013 the technology had long since taken over, just like 1983 expected. Amygdala—named, by the way, after a part of the brain that processes memory and emotion—uses the tools of the “future” to create something both defiant and nostalgic, two qualities that rather accurately define the present. -MB
10. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
It's really hard to give a shit if Frank Ocean is gay or bisexual or whatever. If he's saying that shit at an opportune moment for the press, or to make a point. It actually kind of gets in the way of whether or not the album is good, if it is "brave", and while it might be brave to sort of vaguely come out when you're in hip hop at all and you're a member of Odd Future. It is also 2012 and no one really gives a shit unless there are songs about explicit gay sex on the record. And there aren't, there's just some male pronouns where female pronouns used to be on Nostalgia Ultra. Channel Orange, it's not a coming out album, and I guess that's the point, but it's super problematic how much of the writing about this album (including this) feels the need to discuss Ocean's sexuality. Of course, it's because that's the conversation Ocean wanted to have or he wouldn't have been as specifically oblique on his website. Everyone overshares on the internet at some point, Frank Ocean did it before his album dropped. Maybe intentionally? But the relationship as a listener I've had with this album has truly nothing to do with who Frank Ocean wants to sleep with.
Channel Orange is an album, a pretty stellar one. It's slow to start, it doesn't really get going until "Sweet Life". It has a lot of filler skits that plague it and bog down great songs with overlong tedious filler, like the worst 90s rap records. It has guest features from artists specifically chosen for their ambivalence with the entire concept of celebrity (Andre 3000, Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer), and who have all been burnt by it on their own volition. It has Ocean taking the first person layered storytelling approach he had on his previous album and dialing it back to something less complex (for clarity, let's hope) - except on the albums two most profound songs on the album. Those tracks - "Bad Religion", a confession sung to a taxi driver about love, language, and religion, Ocean as a heartsick Michael Clayton on top of huge strings - recalling John Brion's work on both Kanye and Fiona's records. The other a 9 minute centuries spanning pyramid song, Cleopatra on her way to her shift at Cheetahs, having more to do with Prince and Radiohead than the intentional references Ocean has made before. "Pyramids" is the best goddamn song of 2012, expansive and huge in a way nothing else was. It was also just a song, not a concept album or a confession, lived in and full of detail, riding out on a guitar solo so big I was a little shocked when I learned John Mayer was the one playing it.
But the two dominant tracks here kind of overshadow the songcraft of something as infectious as "Lost", because it's not an epic or a showstopper. Removed from their context, most of the songs here decimate whatever comes on next to them in shuffle. As a whole, if you can make the concession that it takes time to get into (not in the sense that it needs a few spins to work it's magic, you actually have to get used to it not starting strongly), it's actually a stronger album than Nostalgia Ultra. It doesn't have a song as devastating as "There Will Be Tears", but what does? Frank Ocean, he's always been someone we should be thinking of as a songwriter over everything else. Storytelling, detail, humanity, humor, utter vulnerability in unexpected moments, and all to a tune. That's all still here, that never left. The other stuff -- no matter how he meant it -- that's press. That's trivia. -SW
9. Ernest Gonzales - Natural Traits
There's a ton of goofy sounding titles on this album, the sort of bone dry nature skillet stuff you can find when you read the blurb for a Thomas Kinkaid reproduction, or on the handmade greeting cards they sell at your local pour-over coffeehouse. That's not a dealbreaker, no matter how much ones personal taste might lean towards the overly serious minimalism of naming songs after whatever their track listing happens to be. To label the obvious (and thus immediately belabor it), it's the music that makes the difference, and Ernest Gonzales lush combinations of digital composition and regular old fingers-on-instrument are strong enough to merit any level of goofball naming conventions. Natural Traits is a tricky collection, a suite of songs that don't demand a huge amount of focus and can even slip by almost unnoticed. But if you zero in on it and try to keep up with the melodies as they tumble ahead, what seems like attractive wallpaper betrays a level of depth that goes beyond what oh-so-pretty usually requires. It's tremendously good while still being embarrassingly shy, and easily one of the best albums of 2012. -TS
8. The Men - Open Your Heart
Probably the album I was hottest and coldest about this year, Open Your Heart had a jack-of-all-trades quality, and as the rest of that cliche goes, so goes the assumption: they gotta be somewhat shitty at all the stuff they're doing, right? And of course they would be, if it wasn't for the twist that what happens on Open Your Heart isn't a wide swath of music, from opera to concrete, it's in fact just guitar music. All guitar music. It's not a mixtape, or a covers album, but it does end up being a tour, a road movie with a themed soundtrack, like Spawn or Judgment Night before it. It's an album devoid of transition, a series of middle children lined up without any indication of what their parents did with the bookend offspring. It's the kind of music you could easily see being ruined by the incorporation of a turntable, from a band who might not be aware of what a bad idea that would be. Until embarrassment, we remain. -TS
7. The Swans - Seer
The Swans are one of those bands that go on tours so as to discover which of their loyal fans are masochistic enough to handle them in person, and The Seer--their second album in 16 years, the last being 2010's My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky--is a perfect collection of heavy, thunderous drone and rock music within which to bludgeon those who make the trek. There's a cautioning throughout the album, a warning that arises with the same clanging insistent fervency with which the first song "Lunacy" arrives. It's not that it feels dangerous (although it does), it's that The Seer is the sort of music that leaves no room for an audience to participate, to exist. It's the kind of music that would start playing in a yoga class, right before they murdered you with their teeth. It's not inhuman, it's just too big to comprehend--cavernous music that's unnervingly full, whereas usually this sort of work has enough empty patches where we can rest. Listen to those first minutes of "Mother of the World"--whose lead do you follow? Those drums, stepping and accelerating? The colliding noises? That humming, disonant murmer? It's circular business, and yet it seems crucial, a contained network, built from a toolbox of articles no one else would care to use. This music isn't composed. It's hewn. -TS
6. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Japandroids’ music is full of excess, songs of hyper-indulgence in the usual indulgences. Drinking, yes. Smoking, sure. Girls, you bet. On paper, Celebration Rock could easily be mistaken for a glam-rock album. The external trappings are all there. But while the songs focus on the youthful need to capture memories, keep the internal fire burning, and make the party go on forever, they’re secretly about the quiet moments between chugging and making out and putting photos up on Instagram. Those are the moments when you’re lost, and the big questions drop in, and you’re left with a ton of frayed edges from letting the internal fire burn too bright for too long. Musically, Japandroids always have an answer for reigniting the flame—usually in the form of a monster guitar riff or desperate drum roll—but the existential thoughts always creep in. “Do we have anything to live for?” vocalist Brian King asks in the opening song. Though he answers yes, Japandroids spend the rest of the album attempting to prove it. What follows is music—indulgent music—driven by two things: panic and nostalgia. And both panic and nostalgia ask the same question: Will It Ever Get Any Better than It Was Just Now? Though Japandroids’ methods (booze, drugs, nakedness, adrenaline) are those of youth, Celebration Rock suggests that, despite the constant tug of a comedown, the constant search for the next great memory isn’t a bad way to live, no matter how old you are. When you die are you going to look back on all the great resting you did? -MB
5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Than The Driver...
The percussive, minimalist, mostly acoustic approach to production here focuses even more on Fiona's words, her voice, the way she uses both as instruments. Apple's cadences are worth so much, they could be talked about on their own forever before you even got to lyrics. You can talk about Fiona Apple like you would a rapper super easily, or as a novelist, before even getting to singer/songwriters. Same as talking about her as a genius/flake of a public figure, same as her relationship history with public figures of our age (The director, the magician, the writer, though gods they were), and her mental state (which I guess she's now publicly talking about? pretty frequently?). The albums -- far apart, but not at Scott Walker/Portishead periods of delay -- are meticulously crafted, frequently sitting on shelves for long periods (at least the last 2) before the world gets to hear them, they fit the years they are produced by sounding like completely alien of their time. They are all about "you" in a way more complicated than love songs or songs of opposition. The songs, the kind of find a place between combativeness and emotional connection, but in a moment to moment kind of way. "I don't want to talk about / I don't want to talk about / anything" is a lyric that sticks out, as does the workmanlike, busy way she says "I don't cry when I'm sad anymore" that's not how anyone should say that. This is at a lot of times, a hard album to listen to comfortably, and that's kind of weird because of just how present and constant it felt once I started spending time with it. It seemed like it was always on, even though it probably wasn't. Apple's ability to take apart moments in a relationships with a surgical acuity, using only the right words in the right order... it's something unique to her. I've written too many shitty english papers to highlight lyrics as examples, how this simile, or this phrasing that changes midway through does this or this. That feels a little cheap, at least for this. Asymmetrical lyrical warfare sounds like a good description, but this isn't warfare. What we're talking about is innate talent of one human being, who is maybe not great at day to day life but profoundly great at documenting her negotiations with it. The way in which she hurdles over making the minutia into an examination of the listener's internal life is always going to be the greatest slight of hand. But slight of hand is just that, the real magic is how she keeps doing it, and on album four you don't hope she has her heart broken again. Fiona Apple's never going to make an album of lifestyle music, never going to be someone whose ferocity and humanity dies when the problems stop happening so frequently, as happens to so many people this good. If we get another album, and we may not, or we may have to wait a Scott Walker-ian length of time for, I can't imagine it being anything less than devastating and essential, just as every previous album. Idler Wheel, I need this in my life, simple as that. -SW
4. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
N.W.A.’s Compton was an elaborate mythology. To many of the suburban kids who rocked the tape in their ’85 Volvos, that Compton was as foreign and mysterious as the Black Gate of Mordor—and no less violent. Kendrick Lamar’s Compton, on the other hand, operates an awful lot like a suburb. Gang violence is still omnipresent, but Kendrick’s primary concerns are astonishingly rural: When can I meet up with this girl Sherane? How does my identity shift when I’m around my friends? What happened to my self-control? Most of good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a tussle between Kendrick’s conscience and his baser instincts. He’s impressionable, first to girls, then to peer pressure, then to addiction. Over the course of the album, he gets a series of phone calls from his grandmother (?), with his granddad yelling from the background of each one, getting more faded with each call. Here, his grandfather is a comic figure, irate about some missing dominos, singing about his wife’s fat ass. But in “Swimming Pools,” when Kendrick questions whether or not to take that next drink even though it could kill him, you realize that turning into his granddad wouldn’t be so terrible compared to his other possible futures—alcohol poisoning or getting swept up in a robbery spree with his homies or caught up in gun spray because his instinct was not to duck. So you start rooting for Kendrick’s conscience to win out, and all of a sudden Kendrick Lamar is relatable to the same extent N.W.A. was frighteningly romantic. But just when you think you have a vested interest in this dude winning against his nihilistic impulses, the unreliable narrator drops this suburban scenario on you: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?/ Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street/ With a basketball and some Now & Laters to eat?”
3. Twin Shadow - Confess
The line that sticks out most on Confess, is "I don't give a damn about your dreams". Because it is kind of exactly what you want to hear on an album like this, where 80s new wave nostalgia or the "dark romance" angle of George Lewis Jr's persona could have overpowered the songs, they never do. Both of these elements could be cliche, especially in a year where both of those poses are everywhere, and usually insufferable. Lewis -- his voice sounds a little bit like Richard Marx and whole lot like Tunde Adibempe, neither of those overshadow that he's fucking feeling this stuff, without ever losing his cool, which recalls a dude he has very litle in common with sonically - Prince. "I don't believe in / you don't believe in me / so how could you / make me cry" is some ice cold shit to say to anyone, it only works if you know the singer is deflecting some pretty deep heartache. With Twin Shadow, all of that is on the surface, and gets deeper with each listen. You can dance to this album, you can dance the hell out of this record, but maybe that only counts because you feel every word Lewis Jr. sings. The resentment and hurt is there as much as the new romantic gestures of uncaring rock star, and you need both for this to work, at so when you're singing along you can get all the way into it instead of hitting the itunes delete button in 2 months. Feelings are no fun, but this is an album that gets that they're also not optional, you can't turn them off even when you say you can. Anhedonia's great in theory but in real life it only happens when you're Kanye/Bowie-level famous / crazy / coked-out / genius / some combination of those things. Or if you're like, Snake Plissken (hey, get that all my examples are pretty famous for breaking that mask to show real tenderness/pain despite themselves, it almost works!). So if you're going to have feelings anyway, might as well feel them like this guy. -SW
2. Chromatics - Kill For Love
If 2012 has been obsessed with the 80's in some form - 80's synth scores, 80's pop, 80's world-conquering rap, 80's movie references, 80's actors, 80's property revivals that aren't really revivals, 80's directors back to show us all how a procedural should look, then Chromatics is the ultimate synthesization of all of that. "Running From the Sun" is an 80's-style synth song that evokes Kathryn Bigelow's vampire western classic Near Dark and its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and it's gorgeous in its specificity. But cultural references aren't what makes this album stick around beyond a cool novelty period. There is something else going on with Kill For Love that might take a while to sink in - the decisions made, of a long instrumental bridge yielding a declaration of love on a voicemail get deleted, of a weirdly incongruous "Into the Black" cover, the interpolations of classic rock radio motifs into songs, the persistently gorgeous female vocals singing pointedly male sentiments ("If I could only call you my lady, baby I could be your man"). If there's a narrative here, and there isn't, it's of someone pushing away from whatever messed up relationship they're entangled in, even the most romantic stuff here is wistful. Lot of vampires and rain soaked windshields on this record, but even the most stark moments of loneliness are hovering between warmth and emptiness. This band is most famous right now for a song on a soundtrack to a movie I don't like very much, and this album seems poised to appear all over film released in the next couple of years, maybe intentionally on the band's part. Results, it should be said, are important, and Kill For Love delivers. More breakup album than Eno-ian fake soundtrack, more breakup album than the actual breakup albums that came out this year. To delete this message press seven. -SW
1. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music is a battle rap record disguised as a political one. Despite the complex arguments, the copious intelligence, and the lyrical storytelling, Mike’s aim is a simple one: sonning you. Let me state, for the record, that it is an absolute pleasure to be sonned by Killer Mike. For too long, dude has been held captive by the intricacies of his own thought, oscillating on record between political screeds and strip-club joints. But “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and “Ric Flair” are monumental songs because of their simplicity; Killer Mike hasn’t been able to sustain that level of focus at album-length until now. A lot of it has to do with El-P’s boom-bap production. El-P restrains himself from his own retro-futurist impulses (ahem, breakbeats) and provides Killer Mike with straightforward, sternum-rattling beats. The production forces Killer Mike to streamline his thoughts and allow his natural strengths—his arrogance, aggression and charm—to take over. He is in complete command, firing on all cylinders, and it should surprise no one that that coincides with him sounding like he’s having the most fun of his life. -MB
-Marty Brown, Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2013