For our year-end features, we often position our pleasure on grander scales: trends reflecting wider social movement, tastes expanding rather than fragmenting, songs thrusting us into the infinite as we tell clumsy stories about affect and movement. But this year, deep within our echo chambers and technological wombs, nestled within the safe confines of our chat windows and soft-focus browsing, we found it worthwhile to look closer at the nuanced gestures that happened in the music world. For example: How did Dean Blunt’s apparent sleight of hand complicate race, genre, and taste? What did 18+’s quiet step out of anonymity say about the avatar/user continuum? What did it mean when even the most “inauthentic,” hyper-commodified music stars felt like next-door neighbors compared to PC Music’s subtly constructed, impossibly pristine avastars?
While the nuances of our favorites this year exploded with meaning, “figuring it all out” wasn’t the only “point.” Not knowing what to do with our bodies didn’t mean we were being cerebral (White Suns, Scott O))), Sun Araw), and not knowing what to think didn’t mean we couldn’t feel our way through it (Actress, Arca, Beyoncé). Or laugh with it (Kane West), or cry about it (Grouper), or get all horny and pounce somebody because of it (Lotic). Because on this level, the macro is inferred in the micro. I mean, isn’t music just sublimations of violence and cultural recombinations, the playing out of sonic molecules? Isn’t it all technologically, even cosmologically determined? Shit, some of it actually sounded like that (T C F, Objekt, D/P/I). Because zoom far enough in or out, and we start to see how only nuance really discerned the gaze from the glance, the dark web from the abyss, the meshes of voice from the DJ drops, even Flatland from Fazoland and Ghettoville from Babylon, black metal from black metal from black metal. But it was in fact our inability to casually look past nuance and our desire to fetishize difference that seduced us into hearing these stories over and over again, a repetition of ecstasy and movement and rapture that told us everything we already knew but with different frequencies and vibrations.
Besides, the medium has always been the massage, right? And this year, in addition to some Awesome Tapes from America (C L E A N E R S, Magic Eye, Gem Jones), we were particularly “massaged” by the mix format, with artists (E+E, Total Freedom, T C F, Pinch/Mumdance, Jónó Mí Ló, Rabit, Palmistry, etc.) and collectives (Janus, PC Music, DAZED, Bootleg Tapes, DIS Magazine, Manicure) uploading some of this year’s strongest, most memorable music as continuous one-track streams, several of which made this list. Much like the mixtape world (props here to iLoveMakonnen, Lil Herb, Lil B, James Ferraro), the mix format simultaneously laid waste to tired constructions of “new,” “old,” and “original” — some featured only originals, others combined, and still others we couldn’t even tell — while forcing us to (re)listen in more temporally and spatially contingent ways, even prompting us to change the list title this year (OMG!). It was, again, a subtle distinction, but the implications were there nonetheless.
Of course, by reading into nuance, the worry is that we start seeing Jesus in our waffles — pareidolia, or whatever. But our focus on music has always really been a focus on ourselves anyway, which is of course just as nuanced. Sure, our screen obsession is theoretically in part to shake off the baggage imposed on our bodies and to extend our nervous systems into virtual rabbit holes, but we instead often find ourselves immersed in an incomprehensible, hypertextual sea of signs and references, all unstable, ever-changing, and ripe for contextual reassigning. Maybe this is why we tend to isolate ourselves within enclosed systems and feedback loops: it’s just too comforting. But it’s also kinda suffocating, isn’t it? In fact, a metaphorical lack of oxygen is key, because here — where intimacy has become ambient, where we don’t tell time as much as time tells us, where we fondle our smartphones as much as we fondle each other — listening to the nuances in music leads to a different strain of transcendence, not into infinity or even necessarily into music’s materiality, but into our own materiality. And this year, our shared, molecular composition took on increased weight, when one person’s turn of breath was also sadly another person’s last — even for someone who plead for more.
History has generally favored activities that turn uncertainty into knowledge, so what happens when we become uncertain of knowledge itself? This has been our sensorial dance for decades. And as we head further into an era where everything we’ve electrified is now in the process of becoming cognitized, an era that values not our “actual” opinions, but the fact that we desire mediums through which to express them, we still somehow keep going, whether or not we realize that a competition for our senses is already underway.
Welcome to Fazoland
Is drill dead? The genre often associated with the violent sides of Chicago was a praised movement a year ago. Before January 2014 was over, WorldStarHipHop made The Field and Vice began its eight-part series on what made Chiraq Chiraq. But the kitschy execution of either is sorta besides the point, because it’s difficult, maybe artificial, to tell a story of a place without being sewn in. But it was a stitch that Lil Herb held, and Welcome to Fazoland, as Nick Henderson alluded to in his review, was a hyper-localized walkthrough of a young emcee’s neighborhood, Fazoland. With stories and boasts of trauma and success, Lil Herb showed us the bent monster that crawled around every corner, and we were unsure if we’d have it any other way. Is drill dead? Did crunk ever die? Genres become self-aware and evolve. The question is whether or not the rest keep up with Herb.
I Shall Die Here
“Alone All the Way,” the second track off The Body’s monstrous collaboration with Bobby Krlic (a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak), opened with a pitch-shifted sample of a man reasoning out his suicide. He weighed his options: end his suffering by hastening to his inevitable death or go on suffering, in turn inflicting that suffering on those around him. As Lee Buford’s punishing drums shattered the quiet unease set by Krlic’s ominous atmospherics, it became clear which option The Body had chosen. On I Shall Die Here, the artists channeled all their pain and disgust with this world into what may be their most brutal statement yet. It was an incredibly imposing listen — from the grim track titles to the chopped-up samples of YouTube torture videos — but there was something undeniably enthralling about it all, with the artists keeping things thoroughly compelling by refusing to relent under their own heavy-handedness. But while the sheer power contained within these songs mostly overwhelmed the listener with dread, it also occasionally gleaned something life-affirming. Because The Body chose not to die by their own hand, the album played more like a brief reprieve from life rather than a complete rejection of it. Sometimes it’s riveting to stare death in the face, if only for a moment.
T C F
T C F’s mix might be an example of what will become our generation’s folk music. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was a Christmas tree on its last gulp of donated water, with its lights glowing helplessly, guided by a human hand in an unwatched room. Maybe it was a long helping of connected solitude, with the old and new of WHATEVER mixed together. Maybe it was the solidarity of solemn estrangement between sent signals, created by a brazen and alone individual, meant for others to be heard and felt. Maybe it was programmed patience, in all of its inhumane humanity. Maybe it was having a conversation with a keypad while another person on the other end was having the conversation with a keypad, and while the two of them both felt something, the distance was too great to allow the experience, let alone any experience, to be completely shared. Maybe it was all of these, and maybe it was none of these. To be sure, though, 486669f0e9b8990384108f3d54c6a8f036adeb8bc7108f3d54c6a8f036adeb is T C F’s. And it is ours, for now. For as long as it lasts. But answers are for tests, and this mix was not a test. It was a broadcast. And it was one of 2014’s finest.
Perhaps a defining characteristic of any given genre is the particular way in which a group of works go about articulating silence, refining its edges; refusing and negotiating silence, a territory one must weave while crossing; a spider’s web. In this regard, folk songs have always sought the quality of being able to transpose space into texture, to fold within a clasp of sound the emptiness of that sky, the distance between these walls. Our case in point is Lone, that gorgeous-sounding live set recorded at the UNIT club in Tokyo. The show was Ai Aso, alone on stage with a microphone, a guitar, and a keyboard. The sound was spectral, hypnotic, minimalist. Subdued chords rippled quietly through silence. Songs whispered, then stuttered, then stopped, losing themselves in the labyrinth of silence, threading new zones of solitude to colonize in the name of tenderness.
Ninos Du Brasil
Rhythm reminds us that there’s no time to waste. The clock is running out, and movement is the only sensible thing. As such, blurbing about Novos Mistérios feels like trying to staple a typhoon to a tree trunk. Its insistent, bombastic percussive roil makes the calendar year in which it was released seem like a dusty discarded cocoon rather than anything to help contextually galvanize it. It’s a record brimming over with beats that seem to tear through crowds, swamplands, brush, tree branches, and tall grass while beckoning for all in earshot to follow. It’s pure rushing forward, stripped of signifiers beyond the traditional carnival instrumentation/arrangement. Sans melody, these tracks relentlessly engage the human body, rendering the listener into one of those automaton flowers from the 80s. As with swimming in the ocean on a choppy day, you can move with the churning waves or allow them to annihilate you. The innate, undeniable thrust of this 35-minute sprawl is brimming over with goosebump-raising death & life, making Ninos Du Brasil an act well worth keeping an ear out for in our dwindling days to come.
What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? How did the countless number of galaxies and planets within come to exist? All of these questions and more were deliberately ignored by Lee Gamble, whose 2014 album KOCH maintained a perspective of awesome ignorance, as though enlightenment was just an overrated concept reserved for the mindlessly intellectual. Theories prevailed as to whether the title was a homophonic reference to the word in English slang or just a coincidental inclusion in the unnamed “text that [he’s] writing,” but if you were looking for real mystery, you only had to open your ears to the enclosed, sprawling sonic enigma. The vaguely danceable but admittedly “fucked” rhythms, for instance, were equaled by tracks like “You Concrete,” where deepening synths and deathly sub-bass gave way to a rare vocal sample, which stated in twisted form: “What you’ve got is a whole, miserable… subculture.” It’s possible Gamble meant this sincerely, given the barriers to which his music seems totally oblivious, but the sample otherwise worked as a factor in the album’s astounding heterogeneity. We tried, but such puzzles really do avoid explanation.
niggas on the moon
niggas on the moon, eight shades of stunning camo-print brutalism, fed any doubts we might’ve had about Death Grips’ four-year-old project right back into the wind tunnel. As before, this was not a mercenary sketch of “‘newness,” but a reflection upon its very substance, assembled through sheer velocity from the most unlikely of sources. Yes, Björk, that true great blimp of popular modernism, of “the future” floating high but tethered hard to “Q Magazine’s best albums of the 1990s,” was here less a “found object” than an infinitely flingable thing for the poltergeists known as Death Grips. Uncannily, they seized the stuff around them in a whirling exhibition of repressed chaos; car-jacked grime, warp-drive footwork, voices melting and alloyed, restless glitches from a breathless world. Like any good horror, this came with humor. With Sad Cums and Fed-Ex’d fetishes, Ride rapping and Zach singing, we saw the Death Grips screw-face right on the cusp of pain and laughter. It drew us, in its disembodied glory, to the machines — compressed, stretched, whirring and grinding — in the ghost. And after all that noise, Death Grips sneered at Cage’s 4′33” and gave us … 85,248 minutes and 8 seconds of silence, at last count. For a band (conceptual art exhibition?) so endlessly caught in the spiralling demise alluded to by their name, Death Grips reminded us with niggas on the moon — disc one of the powers that b — that the question has always been “What next?” Or precisely, JENNY DEATH WHEN?
The Soft Pink Truth
Why Do The Heathen Rage?
One of the biggest challenges we have in life is embodying the things that would work against each other. Our inherent juxtapositions cause personal and outer chaos, small facets of the signs and signifiers that make up our person are in constant disagreement. Besides resorting to a method of total abandon, choosing to work these pieces out through artistic appropriation, hyperbole, and whatever methods we’ve learned and hold dear become our best process of sorting out these conflicts. Why Do The Heathen Rage? became greater than its parts by drawing out black metal’s tropes through spaces it never wanted to be dragged through. By taking parts of black metal’s confrontational nature, queer club music, and even humor (the pitch-shifting sad trombones on “Beholding the Throne of Might,” for example), Drew Daniel (Matmos) managed to force together these seemingly disparate elements into a unified statement on the sides both admirable and detestable about black metal. Greater than just trolling the black metal community (which, let’s be honest, isn’t that hard to do), Why Do The Heathen Rage? became a better synthesis of Daniel’s conflicting tastes by way of its frankness and fearlessness.
Behold this rare and beautiful bird: a goofball pop-rock cassette of subtle emotional depth and endless replay value. Countless jokey bands spend easy-to-count hours patching together potential earworms, so you would think making a few good songs was as simple as telling a joke. But song and jest, these ancient forms (dating back, according to American historians, to the early 20th century), are still weighed on sacred scales: expectation versus delivered goods. In the best-case scenario, the crafter presses down the “old” and “new” buttons at the same time. It’s a mysterious yet formulaic task, and Gem Jones’s breakout tape Admiral Frenchkiss was summit-level “surprise delivered goods.” Like God Ween Satan: The Oneness or Derry Legend, you can draw the line straight back to The Beatles, meaning bouncy mid-tempos, quavering harmonies, and big choruses. The flourishes and left-turns actually built melodic momentum; the vocals had a remarkable amount of pathos; and the keyboard player knew when to play the tune and when to make the cartoon sound effects. That last part was crucial. A wacky, well-composed, out-of-nowhere tape like this is my poptimism, and when confronted with songs like “Black Lanterns” or “God in U,” I’m reminded just how hard that is to find.
The Hierophant was inexplicable, paradoxical, and unreal. It was nothing less than an act of transubstantiation; in fact, it may very well have been several acts. The Hierophant existed beyond the limits of my comprehension and yet pierced through that veil, a lone wanderer gazing down upon a sea of fog. The Hierophant was a treeless forest, a human-shaped pillar of salt, ancient history told in present tense, a potent brew of metaphors expertly mixed. The borders of this record were fearlessly and deliciously undefined, extending far beyond collage or pastiche, to a country I cannot hope to adequately describe. After all, what is sensation, other than a series of imperfect translations? The Hierophant brooked no limpid categorization, and therefore neither will I. It held several meanings, all of them contradictory, all of them correct. It didn’t need to make sense. It didn’t need to mean anything. More than a record, The Hierophant was Major Arcana, so heed its warning or else.