Engravings is Matt Barnes a.k.a. Forest Swords’ debut album and his first release since 2010’s hugely acclaimed Dagger Paths EP to showcase more than a handful of his productions. The unhurried nature of that release schedule highlights Barnes’ working method of building multiple tracks in a piecemeal fashion, letting the results guide him toward the most appropriate format for their release. In this sense, Engravings crept up on its creator as much as it crept up on its listeners. On first encounter, it may have seemed rather bleak, but there was a real spark here, too, a genuine grasp of how to make sad sounds into twilight anthems. Hooks and riffs (there were plenty of them) were built from multiple decaying series of various distorted samples, while oblique, world-weary vocals were tweaked and smudged with dubwise studio flourishes. When a Lee Perry remix of “Thor’s Stone” dropped last month, it felt victoriously tautological: a conference of likeminds bringing the dub auteur nonpareil into the orbit of one of his more idiosyncratic disciples. (Engravings also brought out the best in critics: Rowan Savage’s review, a meditation upon the psychogeography of the Wirral, was one of the finest pieces of music writing I read all year.)
[Hippos In Tanks]
Jellyfish, Planetary Doom, and Other Trivia1: Arca permeated 2013. Within 30 seconds of &&&&&, he’d already colonized a spectrum of frequencies usually reserved for anti-rodent sonic repellents and malfunctioning bass amps. And everything in between. Maybe it’s reductive to say that the most interesting bit of the most interesting song on Yeezus was that noise — you know, the industrial clang of a printer-piston-sneezing-Guinea-Pig on “Hold My Liquor” — but it was Arca in split-second: aggressive yet intimate, emotive, disembodied from its productive context or sonic source yet inimitably him. In &&&&&, we got 26 minutes of such beguiling aural engagement, the Yeezus “black book” mentality turned on sounds, not names, with a millennial productivity. The Allee Effect, Trophic Cascades, and Shifting Baselines: While “the industry” continually sank like the hollow trawler we always knew it to be, mid-level big fish arguably got clogged like nuclear arteries, and prey turned to predator. &&&&&’s sounds alone were enough to make it feel enthrallingly contemporary, but its length, rapid disjunctions, and aesthetic accompaniments also felt removed from our expectations of a “mixtape.” The Rise of Slime: &&&&& was an ossification without bones. We adapt. And we love it.
1. Headings stolen from Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, this year’s greatest real-world submarine dystopia.
Apparently we live in an increasingly sexualized world, a world infiltrated by a sex that has become the point of reference for all human worth and activity. At first I thought MIXTAP3 was just a continuation of this much-reported trend, a modish document of the various ways the young now mediate their selves and lives through the hormonal arts, or a detached exaggeration of how far culture has been debased in a media-saturated age. But something happened toward the end of my initial listen, in all defiance of the fact that it was late and I had my hi-fi set at a very neighbor-conscious level: I heard “Almostleaving,” and before the song was over, I fell in love, the mouth of “Sis” tracing both me and the bittersweet chorus through a shape that was as perfect as it was simple. Eventually, as the days wore on, I came to view MIXTAP3 not so much as part of the commodification of sex, but as its reverse, a voicing of the significance and sentiment that can be expressed even through “meaningless” carnality. But more than that, I came to view the album as pop music at its best.
Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet
Since 2008, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet have been dedicating their collaborative sonic worlds to the sounds, occurrences, and memories that make up our every day, the sort of mundanities that linger for a lifetime. Photographs, the final installment in their compendium, brought the listener there and back, exposing the subscriber to Lambkin’s and Lescalleet’s hometowns, as opposed to their respective residences on 2008’s The Breadwinner and 2010’s Air Supply. Just like with those releases, Photographs was primarily composed of the duos’ environment, this time adrift in their memories. Whereas The Breadwinner and Air Supply focused on the creaking doors and stirring ice teas that pervade their present lives, Photographs tackled their pasts, as heard through their present selves. We heard conversations with their families, turns signaled in Folkestone, UK, and traffic kvetching in Worcester, MA. We learned how they take their tea, how their towns have changed since their youths, what church was like. But we only heard fragments of their aural lives, only the background. We were sitting on a bench next to the duo, never quite making out the narrative. We were painted a detailed sonic picture of their daily lives, but it never quite added up. We left Photographs feeling as if we knew the two better, yet still there was a large enough void that we had to fill the audio with our own creaks, our own childhoods, our own truths.
Autre Ne Veut
Few things about music this year made me anxious like the continued depreciation of “making it.” There were plenty of artists who seemed to be doing everything right — starting with the art — but reaping shallow rewards: a couple months of heavy Tumblr reblogging here, a couple months of rent there. Few albums put this fear in me better than Anxiety. Autre Ne Veut’s second album featured gorgeous R&B melodies, Beautiful Dark Twisted-dense orchestration, lavishly brilliant songwriting, grooves seldom unfit for dancing, and a handful of stadium-sized hooks — plus ace production input from Ford & Lopatin. Critical acclaim was well-earned and everywhere, and I began to wonder why Arthur Ashin wasn’t headlining festivals or appearing in big-brand ad campaigns. But I suppose, upon reflection, that it makes some sense. These songs, generous as they are, expected a bit of commitment in return. Most of the brimming arrangements were finished with touches of Sun Ra skronk, galing noise, and other alien frictions. “Play By Play” and “World War,” the album’s masterful bookends, each built and teased the promise of chorus relief for nearly three minutes, before opting for a cathartic round instead. But it was never time wasted, and no one else this year reconciled such a cacophony of influences so beautifully. To give into Anxiety was to rediscover pop as a spiritual release.
Hip-hop’s first critic-proof album? There was little you could say about Yeezus that wasn’t already being said by Yeezus — the album spun circles around most contemporary positions on race. All its offenses — its narcissism, its sexual violence, its travesty of black power politics, its desecration of a Nina Simone classic — all of it was lit up by a singular moral vision, its dark extremes balanced against an impossible ideal. In fact, much of the hoopla surrounding Kanye seemed designed to miss his first and most serious point: his work is about “justice” — leveling the field, finding a balance, real standards, just awards. But this “justice” was as much artistic as it was personal and political, as much about Corbusier lamps as it was about the color line. Simply put, Yeezus was an achievement in minimalist architecture; its case was made by its own sensual design: equal distributions of weight and mass, the balance of light and dark, shrieking and silence, industrial noise and 1960s soul. Beyond all that, Yeezus was just plain hilarious, a comedy of delayed croissants, crashed Corollas, and cunnilingual condiments. Kanye hasn’t been this funny in years, and his laughter here affirmed as it softened the prickliness of his positions. With Yeezus, Kanye has earned his “mad reputation,” his “bad reputation,” and even his “Brad reputation,” proving once again that mainstream hip-hop can be a source of genuine innovation, political dissent, and even fun.
We first approached Pharmakon’s debut album Abandon with hopes it would numb the curiosity that followed “Crawling on Bruised Knees.” The track came as a warning rather than an introduction to Margaret Chardiet’s aesthetic, a warning that most of us chose to ignore because of how fierce, confrontational, and alive it sounded. Not only did Abandon then swallow us whole, charging us with the coldest blows of torment and naked honesty amidst a blood-curdling cocktail of power electronics and noise, but it also set us on a masochistic loop, where we kept going back to the music as though it could offer us something other than wretched agony. The return trip was sickening, because once you’ve already suffered Chardiet’s grit in splicing instances of unsettled quiet with nauseating unease, you were fully aware of what the experience entailed and already knew how the album made you feel. But a proneness for repeat listens didn’t clearly demarcate the sane from the depraved; Abandon might have been one of the most traumatic albums of the year, but it was also one of the most technically accomplished, where distress and delight were welded at the hip of this infernal creature, which kept dragging us back for more. And there was no respite. And there was no reprieve.
Loud City Song
An album about a film about a musical about a book — how charmingly postmodern! Yet Julia Holter’s experimentalism was, rather, coolly modernist and of the subtlest kind. Like the stack interchanges of L.A. — the city that forms the album’s other inspiration — Holter weaved Collette’s text together with those of the alluringly alliterative Loos, Lerner and Loewe. Loud City Song’s determined yet lightly-worn erudition allowed it to inhabit a pop realm without falling into the sin spoken of by Gigi’s Gaston: “The only people who make love all the time are liars.” In an invisible city somewhere between Paris and the City of Angels, horns surrounded one: brass or vehicular, both were transmuted into ethereal, crystalline gorgeousness that retained a paradoxically demanding immediacy. And here were strings, constructing not so much concrete as catgut jungles, Fantasia-style, with a leisurely cruise of a detour via Allegro Non Troppo. If Art Nouveau made sweetly incestuous love to Art Deco, their progeny might cry (but for milk only in un café noisette, or even for a flute of champagne) a little like this. Bienvenue chez Maxim’s, invited Holter, but, modifying the maxim, added: know that you can’t step into the same Maxim’s twice…
[Hippos in Tanks/World Music]
Same champagne, different pourer, different hotel. That was how Dean Blunt described the relationship between his two superb releases this year. On balance, Stone Island may well have been the tighter of the two. But for the staff here at TMT, it was The Redeemer that ultimately proved the more disorienting, that hit harder, that seemed to matter more in the end. In part, that was simply because it came first. This was the record that introduced us to Blunt’s strange, new, and eclectic sound, with its surprising rearticulation and extension of familiar conceptual concerns. Gone suddenly were the cool lo-fi veneer and sense of distance that had characterized his previous work. In its place, a newfound directness and apparent sincerity, even to the point of being sentimental: great tunes, heartfelt lyrics, lush strings, fluttering harps, fragile guitars, buttery vocals, all shot through with rampant religious references. Except that this is Blunt, and things are never quite as they seem. So much of what provided The Redeemer with its sense of weight turned out to have been shamelessly borrowed: from 16th-century Germany to 90s R&B. What was really remarkable though was just how little this seemed to matter, precisely that it failed to undermine any of the record’s peculiar emotional force. That, in the end, was The Redeemer’s great trick: to prove that neither Blunt nor his rampant appropriation were ever in need of redemption to begin with.
Oneohtrix Point Never
R Plus Seven
Even when arpeggiating himself into the bleak, endless vistas of his early releases, cradling his dusty Juno-60 synth like a baby, Oneohtrix Point Never was never a retro-futurist. Daniel Lopatin’s concerns were on a more semiotic level, excavating the tropes of New Age music and recasting them into dark, sinister voyages from an unknown origin to an undetermined destination. It was a rescue mission, in a way, but by the time Replica was released — which was aided in large part by the conceptual/formal breakthrough that was Eccojams Vol. 1 — Lopatin had abandoned his tautological explorations for an exhibition of sampled loops and arch textual investigations. The gaze was replaced by fetishistic representation, the synth key by a vast digital archive, the musical note by TV commercials. But Lopatin’s concerns were similar: sensual verticality, the appropriation of the forgotten, the articulation of despair forged by the very tools that originally shaped our tainted, imperfect worldview.
If Replica was Lopatin’s conceptual magnum opus, then R Plus Seven was his crowning perceptual achievement, the moment he switched from theory to sensation. The album, more than any since Far Side Virtual (James Ferraro, 2011) and 札幌コンテンポラリー (情報デスクVIRTUAL, 2012), focused our attention not only on the actual sounds — the timbres, their affects — but also on our preconceptions that had once led us to dismiss MIDI presets and simulated software as “cheesy,” “generic,” and “inauthentic.” Lopatin knew that the sound of church organs (“Boring Angel”), digital horns (“Zebra”), “world music” percussion (“Americans”), double bass (“Problem Areas”), and synthetic choirs (“Still Life”) were already weighed down by historical and cultural baggage, but his approach here was materialist: these are sound objects, no more “real” or “fake” than any other. This resulted in no less than an unravelling of entrenched musical constructions, the removal of needlessly negative associations, and the reinvigoration of an entire host of sounds, whose faceless plasticity was both accentuated and recontextualized by stark contrasts and odd juxtapositions. It was indeed “still life,” in a simulated, staged kind of way, arranged sonic material whose very dimensional essence was wrought by the space between musical events, time expressing their material existence by default.
But this was time according to Daniel Lopatin, and in Lopatonian time, the affect was characterized by gaseous exhales, angelic crescendos, and narrative carrot-dangling, all of which constituted an oblique momentum hinged on sonic inertia and tonal compression rather than rhythmic trajectory and melodic desire. The march was forward, but it was stuttered and unpredictable, oftentimes abruptly and unceremoniously short-circuited by chopped vocal samples (“Still Life”), emergency tones (“Americans”), and anonymous sweeps (“Inside World”), just before decay and decompression could finish the stories. This wormhole effect, especially to the degree that it was employed, was jarring, frustrating, completely manipulative. But it also meticulously reinforced the present, with our minds tuning out and our bodies attuning themselves to the jagged edits that stood in for an aesthetics of failure. The resulting environment was rigid and claustrophobic, but also surreal and exaggerated, where sax tones extended artificially long and choir voices scaled complex melodies in impossibly quick succession, where even the sounds of nature — ambient birdcalls, splashing water — were subjected to Lopatin’s warped touch. In the face of such aggressive production, the album’s peculiar geometry raised topological questions concerning boundary and continuity, with these sound objects liquefying, morphing, mutating, conjoining, pulsating, bubbling into and out of one another in an incestuous freakshow orgy of contoured tones. Nothing felt fixed or comfortable, and everything felt amorphous, fluid, implied. Everything felt slightly off.
And in 2013, slightly off was exactly what we needed. Let’s face it: Lopatin is an archaeological exploiter, a sound fetishist, an appropriation artist who so clearly understands music production and how audiences respond to sonic stimuli that one might be suspicious of his aims. But while there is nothing wrong with splashing cold water on your audience, Lopatin wasn’t interested in an antagonistic, conceptual critique here, and he certainly wasn’t launching an attack on the complacency of his audience. There was no front, no theoretical framework, no need to understand Schwizgebel, Oulipo, Latour, or speculative realism. His primary aim with R Plus Seven was to simply create something beautiful using a language that challenged and seduced him. The result? A swarm of listeners rallying around a digital saxophone preset, which programmatically rose to the occasion and programmatically affected us wholesale.
50. Lil Ugly Mane - Three Sided Tape [Volumes One and Two] (Self-Released)
49. Foodman - Shokuhin (Orange Milk)
48. Frog Eyes - Carey’s Cold Spring (Self-Released)
47. These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds (Infectious)
46. Paisley Parks - Бｈ○§† (Pan Pacific Playa)
45. Earn - Hell On Earth (Bathetic)
44. Grouper - Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky)
43. The Dead C - Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!)
42. Huerco S - Colonial Patterns (Software)
41. Death Grips - Government Plates (Self-Released)
40. Jenny Hval - Innocence Is Kinky (Rune Grammofon)
39. Chief Keef - Almighty So (Self-Released)
38. Ahnnu - World Music (Leaving)
37. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (Constellation)
36. Wolf Eyes - No Answer: Lower Floors (De Stijl)
35. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe (Dead Oceans)
34. The Flaming Lips - The Terror (Warner Bros.)
33. Lee Noble - Ruiner (Bathetic)
32. Nmesh - Nu.wav Hallucinations (AMDISCS)
31. Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)
30. Bill Callahan - Dream River (Drag City)
29. The Body - Christs, Redeemers (Thrill Jockey)
28. Stara Rzeka - Cien chmury nad ukrytym polem (Instant Classic)
27. Danny Brown - Old (Fool’s Gold)
26. Inga Copeland - Higher Powers (Self-Released)
25. James Blake - Overgrown (Republic)
24. Dirty Beaches - Drifters/Love Is the Devil (Zoo Music)
23. My Bloody Valentine - m b v (Self-Released)
22. Bill Orcutt - History Of Every One (Editions Mego)
21. Andrew Pekler - Cover Versions (Senufo Editions)
20. DJ Rashad - Double Cup (Hyperdub)
19. Dean Blunt - Stone Island (Self-Released)
18. The Knife - Shaking Habitual (Mute)
17. James Ferraro - NYC, HELL 3:00 AM (Hippos in Tanks)
16. Lucrecia Dalt - Syzygy (Human Ear Music)
15. D/P/I - Fresh Roses (Chance Images)
14. Laurel Halo - Chance Of Rain (Hyperdub)
13. Sean Mccann - Music For Private Ensemble (Recital)
12. Mohammad - Som Sakrifis (PAN)
11. Tim Hecker - Virgins (Kranky)
10. Forest Swords - Engravings (Tri Angle)
09. Arca - &&&&& (Hippos in Tanks)
08. 18+ - MIXTAP3 (Self-Released)
07. Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet - Photographs (Erstwhile)
06. Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety (Software)
05. Kanye West - Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella)
04. Pharmakon - Abandon (Sacred Bones)
03. Julia Holter - Loud City Song (Domino)
02. Dean Blunt - The Redeemer (Hippos in Tanks)
01. Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven (Warp)