Ryan Power - “Sample Lives” (Identity Picks)
Start time: 0:00 • Label: NNA Tapes
Ryan Power’s Identity Picks is one of those records that hit me at a guttural level. Power’s mix of lyrical cynicism and sincerity with smooth production and really, really good chord progressions combines so many of my favorite things about pop music into one incredibly satisfying whole. The album’s opening track, “Sample Lives,” pretty strongly establishes Power’s weirdo sophisticated pop off the bat and remains one of the strongest openers I’ve heard all year, so I figured that it’d be a pretty great way to kick off Side B. “Sample Lives” is a party anthem for the recluses of the world. Power desperately examines a number of options for human interaction, but it’s never clear if he actually acts on any of his fantasies. It’s definitely slacker pop, but some of the funniest, funkiest, and most innovative slacker pop I’ve heard in a long time.
18+ - “Flap” (MIXTAP3)
Start time: 5:42 • Label: Self-Released
While Ryan Power’s “Sample Lives” is in part about how indecision paralyzes lived experiences, 18+’s “Flap” elucidates the actual details of a highly sexual lived experience. Both songs use crying to underscore their points, but while Ryan uses it to mock his indecisive character (“Wah wah wah wah/ Why cry? Ready or not, I’m living my life”), 18+’s use of crying is much more provocative. Here, after an initial penetration, a male sex partner (performed by the female singer in 18+) asks for more — “Say ‘ahh’/ Yeah, baby, open wide/ Say ‘ahh’/ Let me have a second try” — directing the words not at the female participant, per se, but at her “flaps,” a.k.a. the labia majora and minora of her vagina. And if I’m not mistaken, the woman (performed by 18+’s male singer) is talking to her pussy too: “I was violently crying too/ To beg it for stopping me from stopping you/ You was helping me again/ Yeah, saying, ‘oh my god, it was my friend.’” But in a twist, the penetration becomes an act of power, as the male partner says, eerily, “They saying I got control/ And your power is blown on saying ‘ahh.’” It all adds up to one of my favorite creep-out tracks of the year, one whose exploration of sex, violence, and power is more complex and layered than its seductively minimalist instrumentation lets on (listen for that brilliant hi-hat transition into triplets!). Now open wide and say “ah”: here comes the next one…
James Blake - “Life Round Here” (Overgrown)
Start time: 7:58 • Label: Republic
After 18+ rub out their dubby lotion of say-ahh power dynamics (ending with a cackle), James Blake, through Choco-magic, takes “Flap’s” looping phrase and molds it into something cloudy and urgent: The emotional aftermath of that expensive pleasure. Like in the video for “Retrograde,” he casts himself as a spaceman landing in a world of clotted feeling. He sketches neurosis and claustrophobia with a repeating lyric and blows colored glass all around it; there are arabesques of fuzz and a vestigial dubstep exoskeleton. Blue tones swell and decay in the distance, and things briefly build to a rave freak-out. The Mercury Prize will fuel accusations of Blake going soft, but his movement into avant-croon and something that from a distance sounds like pop is a step forward into increasingly raw and intimate expression, formally as five-dimensional as ever. He’s a quantum-physics Al Green.
FaltyDL - “Kenny Rolls One” (Hardcourage)
Start time: 11:30 • Label: Ninja Tune
If “Life Round Here” is the melancholic response to dealing with a long-distance relationship, this is the track you slap on your iPod or turntable to help get you on your feet, out the door, and miles away from another lonely night in. The burr of real life may sting you in the back of your head every now and again, but once the beat kicks in — alongside the hearty buzz of your drink or drug of choice — you’ll set aside your worries and get lost in the swell of those wowing synth melodies. You can call your significant other tomorrow. Tonight is all yours.
E+E - “The Wish (ft. Angelica Olsen)” (☆ Original Works ☆♫☆)
Start time: 18:10 • Label: Self-Released
Elijah Paul Crampton was one of the most intriguing producers in 2013 not to put out an album. Although these tracks come from a selection spanning the last few years, the bundle he recently dropped as E+E on SoundCloud are just sublime, an illustration of how rewarding the online platform has become for musicians seeking an outlet and for listeners who like to dig a little deeper. #nextlevelshit The sparkling percussion fade at the end of FaltyDL came as a generous end to an otherwise tricky pick. And with a fatal gunshot blast of pitch-fucked Japanese commentary, pulsating laser beams, and ambient slabs of bass, it’s up to the next writer to pick up the pieces. It’s all yours. Take us somewhere delicious.
Chief Keef - “I Don’t Like (feat. Lil Reese)” (Finally Rich)
Start time: 20:22 • Label: Glory Boyz Entertainment
At the end of E+E’s track, we done took flight. We’re in a stratospheric zone of sublimation. You want to feel the cold barrel against your head? You want to feel the death blast? Chief Keef fulfills the wish. “Sometimes I wish that they had killed us there.” Here’s all the violence you asked for and then some. Streets, designed to break hearts and minds, are icons of an indifferent universe, of a system that don’t like us. “Pistol toting and I’m shooting on sight/ […] it’s time to start taking lifes.” Negate to survive; kill to live. A schematic litany of shit is a talisman that wards that shit off. “And I surrender to this,” dead to rights.
Traxman - “Killing Fields” (TEKLIFE Vol. 3: The Architek)
Start time: 25:15 • Label: Lit City Trax
The obvious: Chief Keef’s music is intrinsic to the epidemic of gun violence that continues to loom large over Chicago, and the vocal sample on “Killing Fields” by fellow Chicagoan Cornelius Ferguson — a.k.a. footwork producer Traxman — can easily be read as a reference to this mise en abyme of crime that continues to cripple parts of the city. The problematic: it seems reductive to interpret this music solely through that lens, for who knows why Ferguson chose to sample that specific moment from Michael Jacksons’s “Earth Song”? Certainly, the way that Traxman removes the sound source from its original context opens up Michael’s simple question — “What about killing fields?” — to a plethora of resonances outside of any specific history or geography. The unquestionable: these are two songs that represent viscerally gripping strains of musical experimentation. Chief Keef’s manic, nearly Yeezian expression of pure, unbridled id, and Traxman’s abrasive, minimalist exploration of footwork are both born from the same place, yet both powerful enough that they are wholly capable of reaching far beyond the Chi.
Honey Radar - “Roughing Up the Painter” (Mary Plum Musket)
Start time: 29:05 • Label: Treetop Sorbet
The epileptic melody of “Killing Fields” had me scrambling for a reason to explain it. I found refuge in an elaborately woven fairy tale wherein Traxman is a drab, desolate artist from another era, and Honey Radar were the drunken bards explaining the happenstances and whereabouts of this tragic, broken character. Or maybe I was just too weirded out by the LSD pauses of Traxman and needed to be grounded in reality, as abstract and gritty as it may be. Honey Radar remind me of other truthtellers of the last 20 years, echoing the halted sentiments of Traxman. What about killing fields? What happens when we die? Who is your father? Only two entities can answer these questions: Nostradamus and Honey Radar.
Cam’ron - “Think About It” (Ghetto Heaven Vol. 1)
Start time: 30:08 • Label: Self-Released
“I don’t sell wolf tickets/ I don’t tell you no lies/ I don’t sell dreams, man,” Cam’ron says in between verses. It’s only right then when I take the same blunt approach. Cadaver be damned, I was going to choose Cam’ron’s “Think About It” for the Exquisite Corpse mix, no matter which song was selected before mine. “In the alley, self-aborting with the coat hanger.” It just so happens that “Roughing Up the Painter” transitions perfectly into this joint, on which, let’s face it, Cam spits the best verse of the year. If you really want to dig into it, one could argue that by harking back his Children of the Corn-era style, Killa Cam is indeed roughing it up. I don’t sell dreams, though.
DJ Rashad - “She a Go” (Double Cup)
Start time: 32:37 • Label: Hyperdub
There’s “I don’t give a fuck;” and then there’s “I don’t give a fuck.” But footwork is a continuation of hip-hop culture in ways more obvious than this: musically, neither “Think About It” or “She a Go” is about creating an illusion of the innate or natural. All post-multitrack music, as Andrew Goodwin posits, inherently “work[s] to ‘reveal the machinery’ of acoustic [or accurate] representation,” and the dawn of hip-hop was really when the seams began to show. As hip-hop as “She a Go” may be (the obviously West Coast leads, etc), Rashad is still pushing this concept one step further by compromising the naturalized integrity of the human voice: there isn’t really a “verse,” or “vocals,” or a “statement” in the song, but a self-actualized sample, a found cultural artifact that just so happens to be manufactured by those who contextualize it. Goodwin also proposes that, in post-multitrack music, “the entire ensemble, whether human or mechanical, is now a rhythm section.” But “She a Go” is “post-Ableton Live” music; it’s neither human nor mechanical: it’s a collection of arranged digital articles. The “authentic” is then no longer aligned with traditional “realness” but is attached to one’s ability to create cohesion through intentional artifice and explicit prefabrication. There’s something about humanity’s distance in this process that makes it harder than yesteryear’s “hard as fuck.”
Jessy Lanza - “Pull My Hair Back” (Pull My Hair Back)
Start time: 36:15 • Label: Hyperdub
DJ Rashad doesn’t give a fuck, and neither, according to “Pull My Hair Back,” does Jessy Lanza. A subtly ecstatic “Don’t Explain” for the digital age (appropriate for a jazz-trained performer), “Pull My Hair Back” is the only track (along with a handful of John Grant’s offerings) that has consistently made your humble scribe almost-cry in 2013. A finger of icy R&B traces a shiver-inducing path along the spine of UK bass traditions. Lanza’s album was produced with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, but heavens, how our little girl and boy have grown… sitting before a blue-flamed and holographic fireplace, intently round-shouldered over this paradaisical late-night collage.
Kanye West - “Bound 2” (Yeezus)
Start time: 40:00 • Label: Def Jam
Let me flip the script from Jessy Lanza’s cooing fragility to Ye’s blatant honesty. The link here is intimacy, though the brand on “Bound 2” is the kind that follows many repeated relationship “mistakes,” whereas “Pull My Hair Back” precedes them, trying to head them off at the pass. I have my own backhanded apology to deliver: Kanye, my expectations for Yeezus were way too high, and despite this killer hook, I hated on it, and then I talked shit about its lyrics for like three weeks. But hey, admitting is the first step. And while his egoism and chauvinism haven’t exactly disappeared on “Bound 2,” Yeezy delivers one clever line after another over pitch-perfect production. You can even sense a shred of humility. Plus the video has CGI crows, mustangs, and motorcycles. It won’t spark a revolution, but then, ain’t nobody perfect.
LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$ - “**BABY$$ITTERGET$$CaUGHT??” (**$$EXT8PE)
Start time: 43:34 • Label: Self-Released
Just for the record, I think “Bound 2” is the weakest track on Yeezus, but it’s interesting insofar as its incorporation of samples from “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins Plus One and of Charlie Wilson’s not-so subtle vocal talents appear to be an attempt by West to beautify, romanticize, or glorify what is essentially his narcissistic lust (“I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/ After that, give you something to drink!?!?!). So conversely, I thought I’d opt for a piece of music that tries to achieve the opposite of that, that exploits sexual imagery to debase and sully the rose-tinted name of a soul singer and the supposed innocence surrounding his music. The singer in question here is Bobby Womack, and his “You’re Welcome, Stop On By” is more or less desecrated by LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$’s usage of it in their “**BABY$$ITTERGET$$CaUGHT??,” which despite its relatively faithful reproduction of the 1974 single infests it with a litter of seamy entendres and connotations. And what makes it so compelling is its implication that these unsavory murmurs had been there lurking under the surface all along, ready to pounce on the naïve and gullible.
SAINT PEPSI - “LOOK AT THE DOG” (WORLD TOUR)
Start time: 44:30 • Label: Self-Released
Go to the thrift store and buy a handful of old National Geographic magazines. Tear out a page from one — maybe an aerial photo of marshlands or an underwater shot of manatees. Now find a piece of trash with a cool pattern on it, and cut it into little strips or circles or triangles and glue them all over the page. Maybe add some eyes and noses from a couple shampoo ads, and you’ve just made yourself a neat little collage. Turn these pieces of paper into samples of sound, and you’re the master of musical collage, SAINT PEPSI. “LOOK AT THE DOG” is a rather simplistic composition compared to Mr. PEPSI’s typically energetic, soulful, vapor-infused output, but it exhibits the non-intrusive method of sampling that keeps his recycled music so inherently familiar, while pushing limits that are refreshingly new. Because of this collage-like approach to sample-based music-making, “LOOK AT THE DOG” seemed like a perfect song to follow “**BABY$$ITTERGET$$CaUGHT??” by LAMPGOD and **Ł_RD//$M$. Instead of chopping and screwing everything in sight, these producers allow their source material to tell the story, while they just sit back and dictate the plotline.
Tim Hecker - “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium” (Virgins)
Start time: 46:24 • Label: Kranky
I have to follow SAINT PEPSI into the end of this thing? “LOOK AT THE DOG” could have brought it in alone. So calm but also leaving it a bit eerie, like a question mark at the end. Only one thing to do. Throw the entire mix at the sun as it rises here at the tail-end and watch it glow, burning its way back through the atmosphere. You can still hear last night’s crickets. I wonder if Tim Hecker made it into the mix somewhere else, and what kind of dead end did it make there? I kind of thought “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium” should have capped Virgins, so I’m taking matters into my own hands here, leaving 2013 kind of sun-shiny, kind of sad.