Childhood memories of the Edwin Hawkins Singers blasting on Sundays as we cleaned the house… Crying 25 years later just from the sound of the harmonies on “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord“… That rising ecstasy of the music, that first experience of the idea that art must embody what it describes. Deeply sorry Hawkins is gone.
Category Archives: music
This is my rain-soaked death-haunted year, in forty A-to-Z (that is, X) songs or albums I loved.
As usual, my year-in-music post includes stuff released last year. In the cultural-critical rhythms of music writing/list-making, I learn about what I missed the year before (in 2016: Elza Soares, French Montana, lots of other things on this list) only at the end of that year, so I give myself the following year to wade.
So here, first, is a playlist…
…and here’s my year.
When they mirror back their (and my) sexual subjectivity, not many male singer-songwriters show me something I want to see. But in the last few years, I’ve grown to love the AFGHAN WHIGS, for Greg Dulli’s soul-derived ardor and his very indie-guy fury and self-loathing. I love too the bigness and swing of the music that goes with it: there’s no bullshit in the Whigs’ rhythm and blues and no ego in their monster-size tunes. This year’s In Spades has gotten more attention than the 2014 reunion record, Do to the Beast, that I’ll always like better. I come back to Spades mostly for “I Got Lost,” its broken-down quality, a man feeling at his own torn edges. Honorable mention to “Toy Automatic.”
AMY O, Elastic. Oh oh oh does this record make me happy. I was skeptical for the first few songs but the marvel is in the swift accumulation— less than 2 1/2 minutes per, with just about a breath between each; hook after hook, lyrical wit matched by musical, feminist space-staking and tension building to little bursts of relief or fury— and then (bang!!) the whole thing’s done in less than a half hour. In frying eggs and riding buses and drinking coffee with sad friends, I listened to lots of great homemade indie pop this year that I’m sure will stick with me into future years— Soccer Mommy, Karima Walker, Caroline Says— but Elastic was my over-the-moon, tap-my-toes fave. You have to be more skeptical than I’ll ever be to resist it. Song sibling: SOCCER MOMMY’s “Allison”: a song by someone wounded but undeterred, someone keeping a door open.
It seems to me that if you believe in magic— in a real and communicative spiritual world and in a spiritual dimension to the natural world, a dimension we can approach subject-to-subject— you must feel a lot of fucking pain at what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” the wounding monster ideology that, in objectifying both nature and person, plunders the material and human resources of this planet. I thought a lot about magic as I listened to ANOHNI’s Hopelessness this year and last. Hopelessness is a ritual that seeks to instantiate this very pain: the pain we inflict and the pain we (especially women, queers, the people of the Global South) endure. Some people feel this pain so acutely– the pain of the wronged earth; the violations of the state against the dignity, bodies, and freedom of oppressed persons– that you wonder: why do they make art? Do they create these hour-long ceremonial spaces for the redemption of all our damned doomed selves? For the crying ghosts of everything we’ve left murdered or degraded in the world? For their own spiritual survival? Is there even a distinction?
Since the seismic cultural shift of the Weeknd’s first album, with its late-night transactional sex and icy coked-out ego, there’s been much less room for tenderness in male R&B. Most of BELL BIV DEVOE‘s comeback album felt silly to me, but “Finally” (with SWV) is an uncomplicatedly tender song of discovery and (in the same breath) devotion. You’ll press this one to your heart too. Song sibling: KENDRICK LAMAR’s “LOVE.” (ft. Zacari), a beautifully gentle song, the clearest throwback on DAMN. and my favorite on there.
JULIE BYRNE, “Natural Blue.” One of my favorite pieces of poetry writing advice I ever got from my first mentor Rick is: conceal your strengths. Be sly about what comes easiest to you and your work as a whole will have more structural integrity, less top-heaviness. So I find I often like my music with a little more tension between elements, a little more self-imposed challenge, than there is on Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness. Byrne has a wonderful instrument in her voice, but it’s just the kind of voice you’d expect to sing, say, “I’ve been finding God within” amid a hushed, spacious production, so when it does it affects you less. But a few of the songs (just to demonstrate that I’m a huge ingrate) are still overwhelmingly beautiful: the calling-forth and homecoming of “Natural Blue,” especially, and the twingey regretful “Sleepwalker.”
Sometimes you can eat the whole bag without feeling sick. Scattering bright sugar-hard crumbs all over like Weezer and a zillion other “alternative” 90s bands, CHARLY BLISS’s Guppy was cooked up by a singer-songwriter/lead-superfan, Eva Grace Hendricks, whose vocal style is deliberate throwback (to Anna Waronker especially) but whose off-handedly fantastic lyrics— “I smoked the last of the bad pot,” “I bite my hair,” “all I eat is bread and cheese”– are better than 95% of the lost-entitlement raging and sentimental generalities of the music that inspires her and that soundtracked by 7th-grade life. Have spent a lot of drives punching the upholstered ceiling of car along to this one. Song sibling: PARAMORE’s “Hard Times.” I guess I don’t quite trust the professionalism of their After Laughter, but its nostalgia for spacious bright funky 80s pop I’m very sweet on, too. Maybe I’ve just aged to the point of being touched by pretty much any nostalgia.
As a wounded, secretive, wide-eyed child myself, I’ve come to love Martin Phillips’s music with THE CHILLS, compiled here on this expanded reissue of their 80s singles and EPs, Kaleidoscope World. Phillips, like Skip Spence or Brian Wilson, wrote in the grip of strong contradictory emotions. The geographical and creative isolation of Phillips’s native New Zealand, and the tension and idealism of early punk, both informed his music, too, in ways these earlier boy-men didn’t have access to. But he’s shared in some of their struggles: the depression and addiction that would consume decades of Phillips’s later life stalks the dreams of “Great Escape” and “This Is the Way,” and lurks in the nightmare/meditation of “Pink Frost.” Last month, feeling hope like a first ray after weeks of sinking dark grief, I made myself a cup of coffee and listened through all twenty-four songs on this reissue, held tight between my own contradictory emotions. The low winter sun shone right on me; I felt myself loving how Phillips’s child-like seriousness elevates the slight ones (“Smile from a Dead Dead Face”) and keeps the ambitious ones (“Dream by Dream”) approachable.
When LEONARD COHEN died, it was heartbreaking— the second-worst news of November 9, 2016— but now it seems hard to believe he was alive so recently at all. This was the prematurely ancient poet of eroticism, heartbreak, and death, born before Elvis, born before Buddy Holly, and, until November 2016, he was still here. The first of his albums I ever heard was, at nineteen, the new one, Ten New Songs, and I loved it. I hated its followup, Dear Heather, and checked out on the subsequent albums, but I really fell for You Want It Darker. (Finn did too, which helped.) Amid strings-piano-drums settings whose warmth send me all the way back to Recent Songs, Cohen whispers to us: whispers from the doorway to a God and love he’s contended with, disappointed, and adores: and now he’s gone, into the arms of that God and love.
SHENANDOAH DAVIS, Souvenirs. Elaborately produced, and much more beautifully recorded than her first record, Souvenirs is a record of passion, ironic flair, and attention to detail that deserves to be bought by every woeful art student, musicals fan, and vest-wearing queerdo in blue-state America. When I listen to it, I hold tight to my own heartache keepsakes. Davis is classically trained as a pianist and vocalist and it shows, in her impeccable playing and the expert’s glee she brings to her singing of endless disappointments, bad choices, and foolish lovers. Got to be there in the warm whiskey-smelling little studio space for this record’s release party, so I know which four consecutive songs are about “terrible things that happened to me in New York” and which is about a “fatal bike crash… fatal to a relationship.”
In the decade since Oliver gifted it to us, DEAR NORA’s Mountain Rock has remained maybe the wife’s favorite record, favorite indie record at least, in constant rotation: from her high-desert living room, Katy Davidson spins little lonesome moments of crossing and distance and warmth with some guitar scribbled in between into twenty-five minutes of music. My Spotify playlist aside, Mountain Rock is impossible to excerpt, because the spell of it is the whole thing. It’s back in print this year and on vinyl now thank God, with a few added living-room-jam bonus goofs, by a label that’s put out some other really beautiful shit.
FEVER RAY, “To the Moon and Back.” Sometimes one’s desire is incendiary and sacramental at once! Sometimes the non-constructive, uncaptureable energy of sex feels like one’s only hope!
G PERICO, the twelve best songs spread across Shit Don’t Stop, All Blue and 2 Tha Left. I feel a little helpless in my love of G Perico (emphasis second syllable): his moral and geographic world is damn narrow, his confidence is always being gnawed at by paranoia, how did I ever find my way in? But I still found a whole universe on these three records (all from the last eighteen months), from his consciously old-school beats to that amazing yap of a voice. You can get Shit Don’t Stop here.
GUCCI MANE, “Make Love” (ft. Nicki Minaj). My brother and sister-in-law put me on to this one. Gucci’s sobriety seems now just another aspect of the good life– “I just left out the gym, I’m bout to take a swim and meditate”– and his relaxed flow is as far as could be here from Nicki Minaj’s score-settling, cartoonish rip at (as far as I can tell?) Remy Ma and Azealia Banks. The backing track is unresolved– barely even in tune– and is great. Song sibling: FRENCH MONTANA, “Lockjaw” (ft. Kodak Black), a couple of tight-lipped drawls over another spooky slow beat.
HUERCO S., from the “Quiet Time” series. A warm, intimate, slowly voice-shifting 30-minute chord, sometimes like the foot pedals on an organ, other times like wind, other times like voices way off. None of the insistently theoretical exercises of his albums here, just a movement that’s soothing and inhumanly big and slow. No music so formally static has ever moved me as much as this, and no new ambient music has filled up the crevices and softened the tensions of so many moments as this has. It’s not on Spotify, not in physical print anywhere. iTunes play count: 35 times since last November.
HÜSKER DÜ, Savage Young Dü. My first-ever post on this blog was about how much I loved this band: they were my Beach Boys: the group that gave me language to understand my adolescent self. They brought intensely personal, pained, and sweet stuff into indie, songs you’d sing yourself on an acoustic guitar. And, by playing psychedelic rock and ringing Byrds-y pop with the intensity of punk, Hüsker Dü invented the sound that, along with REM’s echoing chime, refigured the sound of guitar-based rock ‘n roll in the 1980s. This Numero Group reissue captures just their early recordings, teenagers on speed just going for it— the trio eager to blow away the bands they shared the stage with, singer-songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart eager to one-up each other— trying out garage rock and more classic punk before taking the challenge of Black Flag’s first two EPs to play harder faster and louder than any other band in the world. Their hardcore was hard, a rockslide, an electrocution: when I go back to it, I feel the explosive adolescent need, the desperation for a sense that art and life matters. The reissue stops at Metal Circus, the 1983 EP that began their time in creative Valhalla, but (as a bonus download) it includes five outtakes from those sessions that, along with the excerpts from the slow (“slow”) set that followed Land Speed Record‘s fast set, are my favorite discoveries on here. Favorite re-discovery: the incredibly brightened remaster of Everything Falls Apart.
ISHAWNA, “Equal Rights.” Feeling dancehall finally wind its way into my loves. I heard this one with Emily at Night Crush when Stas the Boss was DJing: a joyful and (even for someone who listens to a lot of rap) startlingly frank demand for equal treatment in pleasure. Not on Spotify.
KEITH JARRETT, Handel: Harpsichord Suites. This is the first music since my dad’s death that my heart has ached to share with him. These suites, played here thank God on piano, feel a little more emotive and musically simpler than Bach’s, but they still feel of a piece with the sort of cerebral joy he so loved in Bach: the music (the viola da gamba sonatas, the Brandenburg concertos, the two- and three-part inventions) that he’d play as he quietly worked at his desk and I sat up next to him in a big stupid Ikea lounger, under his shelves of books of Marxism ecology and astronomy, with a science fiction paperback or history homework. I’ve loved every classical piano album I’ve ever heard from Keith Jarrett— his recording of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues is one of my favorite pieces of music ever— and this beautiful twenty-year-old album is finally reissued in print and available digitally thanks to ECM surrendering to Spotify. This will remain one of my offerings to my dad’s ghost.
JLIN, Black Origami. It takes listening close to find what’s organic here and what’s synthesized, because of the physicality of the mix— the bass drums hit me right on the chest and the snapping tambourines and cymbals make rings around my skull— and because of the variety of sounds. I love the conviction (that I vaguely recall from the drum’n’bass I had a phase with) that percussion can do the work of melody, and I love the belief in dance music as a ritual space, one inextricably bound up with the legacy of African sounds and culture.
CARLY RAE JEPSEN, “Cut to the Feeling.” Listening to this song on the train home from seeing Cait’s folks, it occurred to me that I love Carly Rae Jepsen for the same reason I love the Go-Betweens: like those brainy, gifted Australians, Carly Rae Jepsen feels like an architect, an investigator of pop songs. Maybe her professionalism keeps potential fans at a distance and will keep her from being the world’s biggest pop star, but that very quality is why I love her: her craft is her joy.
On SweetSexySavage, KEHLANI does ballads and put-downs, conscious throwbacks to 90s girl groups (“Piece of Mind”) and straightforwardly modern pop (“Get Like”); she’s indifferent, pragmatic, caustic, apologetic, greedy; she sounds inexhaustibly full of ideas. Like most major-label albums in the paid-per-track-streamed era, SweetSexySavage is three or four songs too long– the string of sweet ones near the end feels formally and emotionally obligatory– but this is still my favorite R&B record I’ve heard all year.
KELELA, “LMK.” Kelela’s got poise and a great consistent vision for the producers she chooses, but this one was the only tune that stuck with me from Take Me Apart. A night-drive song, blurring neon city rain. Song sibling: JESSIE WARE’s “Midnight,” a stomping soaring sweeping song I run out of limbs to move along with, the only song on Glasshouse that draws me in to a drama like those of “Champagne Kisses” or “Tough Love.”
ALICIA KEYS, “In Common.” I love the feel of this one, driven by an exciting, odd, Caribbean-indebted rhythm that refuses a climactic “Girl on Fire”-type build, and I love too her frank, rueful, self-aware lyric. Song sibling: J BALVIN’s “Mi Gente” (ft. Beyonce), because of course she can also rap in Spanish and this song sounds like it could be 500 million people’s favorite of the year.
Like with Drake, I don’t really understand how MIGOS has tapped into whatever they’ve tapped into— I’m not really a fan though I acknowledge the effects of what must be genius— but I see that they’re generating a massive amount of culture without seeming to do more than carry stacks of money and prescription bottles into their new cars. Without any love from radio, they’re everywhere, and everyone is soaking up that high-hat-led production and strong-double/strong-triple accent style of theirs. Of all their songs I’ve heard this year– blasting from car stereos and cookouts, requested by students for music-writealongs– I’ve loved “Motorsport” best. I met it when Stas the Boss played it on KEXP on the last warm evening this year, driving down to the lake to jump in after my family and it made our borrowed Corolla feel like a Bugatti. Internet burrowing question: has there been another male-led rap song than “Motorsport” to feature two female MC’s as guests? Besides Outkast’s “I’ll Call before I Come” I mean? Zkrt-zkrt!
MAREN MORRIS, Hero. This big blocky crossover hit is, like Charly Bliss, pretty much perfect freeway music. Morris spins out a whole album of songs that have the instant hookiness and conceptual durability of very good pop, with the cultural signifiers of Americana worked in throughout: on “Rich” she phrases like Lorde, on “My Church” she fries the edges of each line like a country girl. The compressed, heavy production doesn’t suit the intimacy of “How It’s Done” but works everywhere else. After the sense-of-self adjustment required for me to do so, I’ve found that I like every single damn song on this record.
MOUNT EERIE, A Crow Looked at Me. A grief document, unguarded as a journal entry, haunted by particulars and torn up by loss and frightened of the spiritual vacancy that had been sublime, on snowy mountaintops, to conceptualize, but agonizing, in your emptied home, to face.
NAO’s “In the Morning” and SZA’s “Prom” have felt like twins since I first heard them, charged with an unguarded anguish that feels more relatable to me than the miracle-for-a-night dreams of most pop (or, for that matter, the tougher talk of their “Inhale Exhale” or “The Weekend”). NAO’s vocal is set against an anonymously loud and tense production that heightens the self-doubt of the performance: there’s no comfort in the music. SZA’s has chiming guitars and a shuffling synthesized percussion that calls up a nostalgia the singer reaches back for.
NONAME, Telefone. Finn’s favorite rapper. Clipped keen nifty poetry, love notes, sunny day memory vibrations, a pervasive sense of egalitarianism and friendship, the beats sometimes Native Tongues-y and other times closer to just jazz. Name your price for it here.
FRANK OCEAN, “Chanel.” Never seeming to break a sweat, always seeming to get better. This piano floats along and he seems, impossibly, to feel even more serene than it does.
PARQUET COURTS, Human Performance. Going back to the Velvet Underground this year, I’ve found I love their flair-less-ness: the matter-of-fact repetitive chug of the fast ones, the austerity of the slow ones. No bursts of passion or rhythm-and-blues delight or look-at-me dazzle, just a steady and very big-city cyclical energy: a musical quality that looks ahead to New York punk, to which the wonderful nervous Parquet Courts look back. Their music is bare, lean, offhanded. The short songs feel like epigrams, the long ones like walking home late stoned.
As a rapper, RICK ROSS gets over less on verbal acuity, bravado, storytelling, or technical intricacy than on simple presence. On the songs of his I like best, he holds court, as confident and gratified (listen to his “uh–yeah”s) as a king on his throne draped in two layers of ermine. Never has a rapper been readier to be an “elder stateman.” My favorites on the retro-ish Rather You than Me evoke the good life in sumptuous production and relaxed tone better than in their (often interchangeable and received-feeling) lyrical particulars; “Powers That Be” sounds as beautiful as Tango in the Night and, speaking of lyrical particulars, benefits immensely from a verse by “eighty-fiver enlightener” Nas.
ELZA SOARES, The Woman at the End of the World. A singer who seems to have spent her career restless on the edges of samba and bossa nova here collaborates with some young avant-garde dudes, on a set of songs that’s some of the most busted, ghoulish, energizing music I’ve ever heard. At 79, Soares has a rough voice that, here, she’s deliberately uglified. She gargles and snarls as if beauty were always an illusion– a trap– and only in ugliness is there a vitality worth trusting. Her pipes find their equivalent in the black-and-white racket of the bass synths and overdriven guitars, but, too, there are these horns, strings, flutes, and that effortlessly complex percussion I associate with Brazilian pop. The only album I know enough to compare it to is Caetano Veloso’s plugged-in Abraçaço; Woman shares with Veloso’s record a sense of defiant libidinous vitality, but it finds a uniquely liberatory female freedom in its harshness and vigorous ugliness. Soares’s young dudes wrote Woman’s material; but she arranges them, when they sing, in a strictly decorative, smoothing role. As Leonard Cohen used his girly soul choirs alongside his rough male one, here Soares uses the sweet male voice alongside her blasted female one: the evocation of an opposite principle in pursuit of spiritual balance. But of course, the only spirituality I get from Woman is ferocious life: the lyrics I can make out go, roughly, “my body, oh my body,” “it kills, it kills,” and “to fuck, to fuck, tofucktofuckfuck.”
This fall and winter, JAY SOM’s Everybody Works has been a consistent kitchen and living-room companion. Melina Duterte is a craftsperson at the beginning of her huge gift: she plays everything on Everybody Works, which gives the album an endearing and characteristically indie-pop-ish stiffness. It also means that the performances aren’t always quite up to a musical imagination that spins through R&B, punk, and 60s-style guitar pop. But “Bus Song” is my song of the year: 12-string guitar, chiming piano, harmonies all mixed right on top of each other and all lifting off at once when the harmonies arrive in the wordless chorus. I can’t wait for her next record!!
SYD’s “Know” reminds me that it’s hard to beat a bragging secrecy (see James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street”) if you want to put over a song.
THE XX, “Lips.” The bigger and more rainbowy Jamie XX’s production gets, the harder time I have clearing it away to feel the musical chemistry between Romy and Oliver— regal flamey feminine and lonely laconic masculine. Like “LMK,” “Lips” exists in a nocturnal blur, the guitar spreading out to a wide-open, dimly-lit space of desire.
Oh and, as a catalogue against the darkness, here too is the pre-2016 music that I first heard (or first came attentively to) this year that stretched my soul and lightened my heart: 18 King Sized Rhythm & Blues Hits, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues, Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw, Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, Van Morrison’s Beautiful Vision and Into the Music, Roxy Music’s Avalon, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Dylan’s World Gone Wrong and Live 1964, Bunny Wailer, Frank Sinatra’s recordings with that bully Tommy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz Plays, my great-uncle’s Duke Ellington records, Bill Laswell’s remixes of Miles Davis, the Red House Painters’ rollercoaster album, the Velvet Underground’s V.U. as well as the Complete Matrix Tapes and the bonus stuff on Rhino’s now-deleted Loaded reissue, the Raincoats, Robert Wyatt’s Shleep, Tiger Trap and Lois and the Softies and Helium and Barbara Manning, the Go-Betweens, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Bach’s partitas for solo violin, Street Music of Central Java, Erik Marchand and Thierry Robin’s Chants Centre-Bretagne, and Youssou N’Dour’s Rokku Mi Rokka.
This one goes out to Marc M.
Magenta sun here, air humid, copper-purple sky at sunrise, dark coming early, the city and its many arteries feeling frail until the subtle steady pressure of the fires global warming has set. After a day-long freeway trip back home to Seattle, I had to then catch a bus in the 7 p.m. twilight to pick up a friend’s car. Walking in the dark. Everything in Madison Valley felt drugged, cruelly neat, Stepford Wives-y: I felt around in my pockets for my headphones: this song was the only living thing in 20 blocks.
One of the untold stories of indie rock is its intersection with class. Punk’s chief myth about itself is that it is an organic, realist, proletarian artform, the musical equivalent of a spontaneous revolutionary uprising. But many of the early New York punks were actually suburban kids (Ramones from Queens, New York Dolls from Staten Island) hungry for the dilapidated mystique of an downtown culture they then helped advance: middle-class dreamers chasing a glamorous myth of urban poverty. (Twelve years later, Sonic Youth would then shift post-punk culture into something solidly middle-class-bohemian: a myth of the art-school genius replacing a myth of the junkie poet.)
But, outside of New York, in the netherworlds of tape-loop noise, hardcore, and basement roar, many more of the early indie rockers were actually poor and small-town, part of what SST Records guru Joe Carducci proudly called “new redneck.” Pere Ubu, Cleveland artistes from public housing (the buildings echoing in identical blocks like dub reggae), made music whose scorched buzzy busted rattle reflected an urban decay they’d experienced firsthand, in a city no one mythologized. It could be clownish and violent; it could be pretentious and odd; it could be desperate. It’s a thread not many later bands have picked up. Could class have something to do with it?
Following my posts from this morning, here are my favorite albums from this year. Here’s a playlist.
ALBUMS: “Afraid of the cops when I was outside, afraid of my friends when I was inside”
Camp Cope, Camp Cope. Georgia Maq’s shame and desire and excruciating self-consciousness are painfully bright— you have to squint— and our witnessing of it would all be for nothing if the space of liberation her songs long for weren’t blasted out by the big jarring drums and melodic counterpoint of the bass and that jangly basic guitar. Makes me think of Defiance OH or Your Heart Breaks: the way good music creates in moments the better world it desires.
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial. Not shame and desire on this one, but depression and falling-inward; a self-consciousness not excruciating but ironic, curious, and ultimately sort of redemptive. Will Toledo’s music is sad shit, but it’s never sluggish or stark. Teens of Denial attests to a rich imagination for arrangement: it’s rowdy and dynamic, decorated by horns and answering voices and a complex sense of construction (yes, you’ll listen to all eleven minutes of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” without your mind wandering). You make music like this because you survive, and maybe part of the reason you survive is your musical imagination is your friend, or it represents the sustaining power of some buried self-belief and resistance under the sinking weight of your own biochemical hopelessness, or it’s a taunt that stirs some despondency in you into raging loud life.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book. Exuberance and hope. Faith and a little licking flame of anger. A gymnastic verbal gift. Open-heartedness and a sense of collective grief rather than a personal chip on the shoulder. “Giving Satan a swirlie.”
Dr. Yen Lo, Days with Dr. Yen Lo. Modern life is war: Ka is part of a long hip-hop tradition (Genius, Rakim, the Poor Righteous Teachers) of solitary mystics cultivating secret learning and esoteric insight to actively resist, not elude, systemic oppression: “slave body, master mind.” Ka the drumless rapper: an FDNY fire captain by day deprogramming his listeners into mind-freedom out in Brownsville by night: murmuring on this record (a collaboration with producer Preservation) over cutups from The Manchurian Candidate like the last unbrainwashed POW. If you want his album, he’ll mail it to you himself, but be cool because he doesn’t make it to the post office every day.
Grimes, Artangels. Claire Boucher’s songs are political but they aren’t built to rally around: her personae are solitary in their feminist rage, anti-capitalist dread, and declarations of freaky independence. But, as on Lemonade, you speak your truth right and other people hear themselves in your words and live bigger lives because of you. I could never get the hang of Grimes before, but here Boucher’s elastic sugar-high voice and the production– calling back with its breakbeats and bright guitars to Ray of Light and other late-90s “progressive” pop– makes me feel fifteen again.
Kevin Gates, Islah. In rap as in rock, plenty of smart people become stars by figuring out how to make enlarged retweetable cartoons of themselves, but Kevin Gates is Kevin Gates: an unapologetically complete and contradictory character, dangerous and tender, rough and sensuous, pitiless and lonely, supremely confident in the broadness of his talent. On Islah (named for his daughter), every, I mean every, song has hooked my ears; some unsettle me, others move me, and many stick in me as aphorisms I’ll be repeating until I hear another rap album this good.
Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni, Les Filles de Illighadad. Some of the Portland label Sahel Sounds’ collections of northwest African field recordings succumb to folkloricism: music whose interest is mostly that it’s “an enriching example of the diversity of” your topic, the best players you’d find in any dusty small-town courtyard presented in a geographic sweep. But these two Tuaregs, a guitar player and singer joined by drummers on the long single B-side track, make intricate and hypnotic music that keeps compelling my ears, played casually and recorded intimately.
Carly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION and EMOTION Side B. Seems like she’s turning her energy toward having fun with her (huge) cult instead of trying to compete with Taylor, Katy, etc., which I think is just fantastic. Hip critics called Emotion overly professional, but at a certain level you’ve got to trust that Jepsen’s hyper-developed sense of craft is one expression of artistic personality, not a concealment she needs to grow out of. Likewise her very particular taste in collaborators (turning down multiple songs from Max Martin to work with Devonte Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid). Her B-sides album is more idiosyncratic and giddily expert bangers: just what she wanted, and I bet a few million fans, too.
Kelela, Hallucinogen EP. The blue-robot cover of this EP is the least human thing about it: my pleasure of replaying Hallucinogen is in the contrasts, the heat of Kelela’s hunger, regret, power, and dread over cool and spacious electronics, the wingbeat of her voice over the digital pulse and skitter. I bet the next record will be better– Kelela was first celebrated for her sound when she was still a maturing artist– but this EP is already a sign of sharpening artistic vision: the songs all sound like her, whether she’s got five collaborators or fifteen.
KING, We are KING. Natalie and I got to see Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bass on their second pass this year through Seattle, and seeing KING live helped me untangle the production on their debut. Through my laptop speakers, I thought it was pretty but a little gauzy and samey; with it booming in my face, I could separate out the doubled voices, feel the edges of the big washes of old-fashioned synthesizer, and let the fuller-bodied bass rumble my body. Afterward I came back to the record with more open ears, loving the drama of KING’s sense of melody, letting the lyrics’ assurance and tenderness contribute to atmosphere rather than needing them to tell me a story.
Chris Knox, Seizure reissue. This is what it takes to be the godfather of a scene: a spiritual generosity that springs out of your own generative fluency— if I can do this, why don’t you give it a try?—; a real committed child-like eccentricity and an affinity for Beatles-y melodies; a cassette machine. Knox had been pouring his heart into New Zealand indie music for a decade when he released this solo album in ’89, playing everywhere, engineering everyone who needed it, and distributing his friends. I first met most of these songs thirteen years ago, when Cait played me Knox’s anthology Meat (comprising a weirdly partial selection of this record, its followup Croaker, and a few other tunes). I met them again on Stroke, the tribute assembled by his countless admirers, friends, and mentees in and out of New Zealand to pay his medical bills after he lost his speech and much of his mobility in a grand mal seizure five years ago. In that time, my love for them hasn’t faded in the slightest. I’ve never heard a song about sexism like “The Woman inside of Me”; “The Face of Fashion” and “Not Given Lightly” are love songs, real heart-widening miracles; when you tune your ears to their timbres, you’ll whistle along with “Wanna!!”
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS. The sense of a huge damp respirating landscape, mossy stone and fir trees and water bluer than the sky, synthesizers creating an effect that feels pre-human: music whose rhythms reflect not an arc of bodily ecstasy but the minute motions of creeping roots and dripping rain. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the pride of Orcas Island.
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer. It’s not always good news when poets are lyricists, but Sadie Dupuis’s arch, bitter, self-delighted, and swiftly-moving lyrics are a real joy, and her band’s music is awkward in a way I love, all jabbing elbows and tangled feet. I’ve always said I’m just not a child of 90s indie rock– Archers of Loaf are never gonna move me like the Replacements– but Speedy Ortiz makes me love that era’s mixture of spasmodic whiz-bang energy and delighted irony enough to make me wonder. Maybe I’m wrong!
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thanks 4 the Service. I was a teenager when my body was swept up by the sound of Low End Theory and an aspiring cool kid when I found Beats, Rhymes & Life and I loved them both and never expected I’d hear another, let alone one even more musically various, politically exact, lyrically virtuosic, whatever other overjoyed adverb-adjective pairs you wanna throw at this astounding thing.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo. I tried to hate this one and I just completely failed. Coming back to it on a car trip with my brother on a sad fucking day, I finally heard how each unpredictable production choice and every obnoxious or grace-starved lyric and off-the-wall musical element lean on each other and I put my head down on the glove compartment and surrendered to loving it. The Life of Pablo is full of loose ends and unfinished threads, but what unites it is a sense of shame and redemption: it’s religious as nothing he’s done since “Jesus Walks.” And throughout Pablo, there’s that unique genius of West’s, those reckless ingenious acts of musical balancing: cramming samples into “No More Parties in LA” until the song bursts like a torn quilt; tucking Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” into the last third of “Famous.”
Rough Guide to African Rare Groove, Vol. 1. A serious damn party record: in less than an hour it hunts everywhere for pleasure, from buzzy solid-state Ethiopian funk to Tanzanian open-air dance music and a Malawian one that sounds like calypso with a drum machine, wrapping it all up with a Celestine Ukwu song that dissolves in soothing guitar and saxophone prettiness (the comedown tune?) and a really busted kooky Francis Bebey song (that’s him pictured) for your 4 a.m. seizures of inspiration.
Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8: the Private Press. This label, which specializes in rare guitar music, here does itself one better and shares an hour-plus of rarer-than-rare guitar music: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 consists of selections from three decades of privately printed LPs and 45s, by artists I’ve never remotely heard of: a world of one-offs, flashes of brilliance, prayers and musical tangents. My favorites are the stuff in the British-Isles line, but there are Delta- and Latin-inspired tunes, dabs of psychedelia and jazz, multi-tracked cascades; anything you could want, annotated with fondness and curiosity (“according to YouTube…”). A treasure.
Urgent Jumping: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics. From Stern’s, an East African dance music anthology that’s a little too overstuffed and (as above) folkloric/collector-y to really knock me out start to finish (as say African Pearls: Pont Sur le Congo or Golden Afrique Vol. 1 have): “twice as good if it were half as long,” as they say. But it’d be churlish of me to complain against the variety— benga, rumba, lilting Arabic-mode Zanzibarian tunes, and fuzzy soul alongside the sublime liftoff of the soukous tunes I’ll always like best. Favorites include L’Orchestre Grand Pisa’s “Oboti Kolisa,” L’Orch. Moja One’s “Dania ni Duara Pts. 1 & 2,” and Victoria Jazz Band’s “Anyanga.”
Life is basically sad and hard as well as a sublime gift, a cliffdrop as well as a stargaze, and this year I tried to be less consumerist in my relationship to finding new music since why let capitalism pollute more in me than it already has. This was the year, of course, of groundshifting political cataclysm as well as death after death; it was also the year, for me, of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Anonymous 4’s medieval Marian hymn anthology The Lily and the Lamb, Captain Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station, Billie Holiday’s Solitude, Ornette Coleman, Atrium Musicae’s Al Andalus, Unwound, Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam, Augustus Pablo, Paul McCartney’s Run Devil Run, and finally getting the hang of Elvis through his Valentine Gift for You collection. So through it all I chose not to rush or cram; I listened, then, to less new stuff. Here’s what I loved best of what I did hear.
First, songs I loved this year (including songs from last year I got around to in the last twelves months) that I loved even if I didn’t love, or never heard, the rest of the albums they were from. Playlist here. Starred songs aren’t on Spotify.
Edit: In talking about a few of these songs I shared stories of folks’ experiences that weren’t mine to share. These have been cut.
Songs: “Doing my face with magic marker”
Adele, “Send My Love (to Your New Lover).” Seattle’s Top 40-ish, silly “hip hop and hits” station, KUBE, got amoeba’d into the even more Top 40 “Power 93,” where you can hear a lot of Justin Bieber and Juicy J and Taylor Swift and Drake and, it turns out, Adele, who I’ve never intentionally listened to, until this song made something more joyful out of a rainy drive home in a borrowed car with a cranky kid and groceries.
Afous D’Afous, “Tarhanine Tegla.” I knew this Sahara-wide hit only because of Sahel Sounds. C cried watching the music video for how it made her miss what she knows is her heart’s home.
Beyonce, “Sorry” and “Formation.” My two from Lemonade.
Blood Orange, “Best to You.” Dev Hynes, like few other male singer-songwriters besides Tricky, can write R&B for women singers that (in this one male listener’s opinion) centers their own emotions and their own consciousness– treats them, in other words, like subjects— instead of as props for male ego or furnishing for male fantasy. This was my favorite from Freetown Sound. Honorable mentions: “E.V.P.,” “But You.”
Jherek Bischoff, “Ca(s)siopeia.” The least filmic and for me most affecting from this record of ambient chamber music. Really this whole record stirs my heart when I put other things down and attend to its big visual gestures and eerie textures, but this is the song whose emotional effect was biggest for me.
Christine & the Queens, “Tilted.”
Chromatics, “In Films.” The second pre-release single from a record by now more than a year delayed, one of those hooks where the doubled-keyboard-and-guitar has been compressed into one big heavy blur of sound and Ruth Radelet floats over the whole thing.
DIIV, “Dopamine.” Still trying to understand what to make of this self-mythologizing martyr wreck of an artist, but I get this one now. This song, trebly and echoey and delicate and nervous and sexless and circling back on itself, sounds like drugs to me.
Missy Elliott, “WTF (Where They From)” (ft. Pharrell). Finally got this one at Dance Church.
Ariana Grande, “Into You.” Whenever I listen to it, I wind up listening to it three times in a row. Max Martin’s clockwork sense of song construction complements Grande’s impeccable vocal control (which I find annoying on her plentiful dippier material) and I nod along until there I am lipsyncing. Honorable mention: “Greedy.”
*I.F.O., “Nibiru” (ft. Afrika Bambaataa). Afro-futurist old school party music building to a single hot-blooded climax/blastoff.
Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep” (ft. J Cole). Honorable mention: “Dammn Baby.”
Julia Brown, “All Alone in Bed.” My favorite from the last album by Caroline White and the busy Sam Ray (also of Ricky Eat Acid) under this name. An Abundance of Strawberries feels a little historical— a “notes on the canon of bedroomy indie pop”-type record, with less ecstasy and sparkle than (say) Unrest or the Spinanes or Saturday Looks Good to Me— but this song’s unprepossessing lift and joy still moves me.
Junior Boys, “Over It.” I like how these guys, album by album, refine and tend to their sound in that studious, grownup way of studious, grownup bands; I like the move on Big Black Coat toward chilly, Detroit-ish techno, though the sound means that Jeremy Greenspan is more reserved about his desperation and mopeyness than on their earlier records.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts, “Back to Manhattan.” Sometimes a single emotional moment can contain a whole world; sometimes very gentle and gradual change is best at conveying a shock or unexpected loss (I won’t spoil this song’s).
Main Attrakionz, “My Story.” My favorite from a whole album of rapping over New Age!
Massive Attack, “The Spoils” (ft. Hope Sandoval). Now that Daddy G Marshall has rejoined Robert Del Naja, “bringing the black back to Massive Attack,” my hopes and longings for their next full-length are currently astronomical. This one, with Hope from Mazzy Star over a slow-moving hibernal melody, is my favorite from their stuff this year.
*Joanna Newsom, “Time, as a Symptom.” I wish I were different, but a decent chunk of Ys, half of Have One on Me, and most of Divers missed me completely. I connect with Newsom’s presence live, and her empathy means the preciousness of the music doesn’t feel self-absorbed, but only when the tune is perfect (“’81,” “Cosmia”) or she’s seized and shaken by her own poetry (“Sawdust and Diamonds”) do I love it on record. This one’s the latter. Dig the Finnegans Wake quote!
DeJ Loaf, “Hey There” (ft. Future). Liz! Remember driving across the California desert in our rented gas-monster listening to rap on satellite radio?
Frank Ocean, “White Ferrari.” I love the weird paradoxes of Frank Ocean’s music— luxury blues alongside sensory pleasure; gnawing loneliness alongside grownup reflection; musical asymmetry and refined, detailed production— but I wind up finding the albums too subtle and slippery when I take them as a whole. This tune, movement by movement (Cait pointed out the Beatles quote to me, and now we sing the title to each other during any odd pauses in conversation), is my fave from Blond. Honorable mention: “Self Control.”
Rihanna, “Needed Me.” Honorable mention: “Kiss It Better.”
Tinashe, “Ghetto Boy.” The difference, I guess between an album and a mixtape-you-pay-for, like Tinashe’s Nightride, is expectation, I guess: “this till the next thing.” Tinashe is a great, weird, mystically-inclined R&B singer stuck treading water with poppy material (so-so features with Juicy J and Chris Brown) while her label looks around for a way to make her big; Nightride‘s neither as broad as Aquarius or as idiosyncratic as Amethyst, but I’ll take it till the next thing, especially this sublimely beautiful tune. Honorable mention: “Company.”
Wimps, “Old Guy.” I’m 33; my already huge forehead is growing into a widow’s peak; I fall asleep after three drinks; my sister-in-law had to explain to me what “turnt” meant; I’m the old guy at the party. Honorable mention: “Take It as It Comes.”
Young Thug, “RiRi.” JEFFERY was the first of these syrup-thick Auto Tune’d contemporary Atlanta rap records I could fathom. The loopy childish brutality of Thug’s lust and neediness are sometimes too much for me, but the guy has a sound out of which he can sculpt endless musical shapes and he sounds so happy doing it– like E-40. This one (maybe named, with fannish enthusiasm, because of that hook?) was my fave. Honorable mention: “Webbie.”
Our normal is another’s crisis: our tank of gas puts Tuvalu under water; our cheap tropical fruit grows in a rain of Guatemalan bullets. We— the we of the educated and decently-secure Global North– don’t experience this directly, not without a certain counter-socialized moral effort. But then, there will always be people who don’t notice that the world has ended. Marin: unthinkably expensive fixer-uppers, chilly moss-blanketed redwoods, virtuous grocery stores, sheer red rock, hideous traffic (since 50 years ago upscale neighbors turned down the chance to have the BART come) dotted with nonpolluting cars. It takes seeing another’s comfort sometimes for me to remember that my, like anyone’s, comfort is breathtakingly fragile, and is also a force that gives me meaning, a frame for life, a sense of what’s normal. “Moon over Marin” is a serious, stark tune, an outlier amid the laughing hysteria and vivid contempt of the Dead Kennedys’ Plastic Surgery Disasters. A solemn and comfortable last survivor– park ranger of the ruined shore? a last resident whom this life suits just fine?– walks their section of the oil-choked, poison-leaching beach in uniform and gasmask, then returns home for a sacramental cleanse in a “scalding wooden tub.” Above it, the clean bright unspoiled Moon is as permanent as our life, its tidiness and predictability and comfort, is transitory. We have more power than we realize.
I started this during a music-writing activity I did during the July swelter with my students at King County Jail.
These last couple weeks have been so steady-hot that I’ve had to cultivate the art of slow: slow moving, slow eating, slow love and slow days so I can (hopefully) not break that first sweat; club soda with lime, strawberries, rose wine, frozen coconut bars, and, finally, dub reggae.
I’m probably one of the only non-stoned people in Seattle to love dub–the languorous, liquid species of instrumental reggae that cuts the vocals into echoing shreds, turns the horns into punctuation, and soaks the drum accents until they sound like they were played in a cathedral, adding a third dimension to the music and making its tricky editing sound sensual, and above all easy. In a dub track, only the bass remains untouched, the song’s heartbeat and soul, and I have a subwoofer that turns the bass into a kind of heavy massage.
Dub was the only music my dad forbade; he forgave Suicide Machines screaming “I don’t give a shit about you stupid motherfuckers!” and Sublime’s porn samples and Snoop Dogg and Dre spelling out their revenge on Luke, but when I put on Lee Perry’s Arkology box, he said, “God, please turn off that mind-rotting stuff!” Up to my room with it I’d slink. But now, I think even he’d agree that it’s just too damn hot for verses and choruses.
One day I’ll convince Cait that we need to put a $1,000 stereo into the $2,000 Camry we share with our housemate, but until then, I can get rattled and stretched and beaten by my dub LPs only at home on my couch, letting our ceiling fan stir my hair, letting the music accent the dreaminess and dusty heat of these summer days.