2014: First Quarter Favorites
Our 20 favorite releases from the first quarter of the year
Tiny Mix Tapes is happy to present our inaugural First Quarter Favorites, a loose grouping of our favorite releases from the past three months of 2014 (including the oft-forgotten releases from December). From White Suns and Sun Araw to Lil B and Lil Herb, from Blunt and Beyoncé to E+E and D/P/I, these 20 artists have created albums that skirt the existential crises that come with modern-day living, the spiritual emergency one feels when our skin starts fading and our computer starts decaying, a second exit to death after life. Whether it’s Ghettoville, Babylon, or Fazoland, these artists are telling us that “this is always where we lived,” and it’s kicked off the year with some incredible, impassioned musical statements.
It’s still early in the year, and some albums take longer to stretch their legs, so please also check out these albums that just missed the cut: Journeyman’s Cheddar (The Savage Young Taterbug), B.N.M./P.D.D.G. (B.N.M./P.D.D.G.), Benji (Sun Kil Moon), Boy (Carla Bozulich), Come to Life (Cities Aviv), The Unintentional Sea (Rafael Anton Irisarri), ESTOILE NAIANT (patten), CHITOKYO MIXTAPE (EQ Why), Dream Sequins® (Nmesh), and Hamakko (Foodman). Enjoy!
In a landscape of amiably malleable music — where the same buzzing indie darling can appear in a SoundCloud-speckled internet mashnote and a Chase Banking commercial — it’s actually refreshing when artists ask something of listeners. Cameron Stallones (Sun Araw) includes a shamanistic disclosure with Belomancie, which, among various declarations, asserts the record is not intended for “existing environments,” should be given a listener’s full attention on a quality set of speakers, and is a “transportation system.” If we follow this advice, the record will reveal its true nature: an exploration of the hinterland between coexisting aberrations. Here, slowly spinning hertz cycles melt beneath shimmering sonic drones, as electronic synth squeals languidly contort into electric guitar moans before shattering into fractured Afrobeat and jungle stomp. Stallones’ flat vocals croak hesitant accompaniment to his experiments with funk, noise, electro, jazz noodling, and lo-fi whimsy. Belomancie careens through its brittle movements with an attitude of not bravery, but confident indifference. It has beautiful lessons to teach, but there are prerequisites for the listener. The journey is transcendent, but requires someone willing to absorb, accept, and learn.
It’s fitting that Totem, the latest offering from Brooklyn-based noise rock outfit White Suns, should end with a prayer: “Let flowers burst from my chest/ Let roots coil in my skull/ Let them grow old and die again/ Let me give back all I ever stole.” The words rise, like a shaft of smoke, through jagged corridors of feedback and spasmic noise, passing through silence and into a space far above the earth, where nothing can be heard but the bludgeoning movement of the wind. Perhaps this naïve plea — to replenish through death some fraction of what one has consumed in life — can find its way through the upper atmosphere, to a point beyond space and time entirely, to a still, dark place where it will find waiting someone or something that can guide it to the ears of whichever deity would listen. We among the living have prayed for an album to come along and shake us from our winter torpor. White Suns, in their beneficence, have answered us.
THE LIGHT THAT YOU GAVE ME TO SEE YOU
After years of soft Bandcamp releases and random SoundCloud uploads, E+E (Elijah Paul Crampton) finally released what he considers his first official album, THE LIGHT THAT YOU GAVE ME TO SEE YOU. It’s a messy, unpredictable exhibition of sound that at first feels like an indistinct, almost incomplete work, with no clear sense of home and therefore no moments of arrival or departure. But the album’s confusing assemblage of disparate source material – from the impossible combinations of R&B and pop with Latin American styles (huayño, Afro-Bolivian saya, cumbia) to the samples of gunfire, radio announcements, and crackling embers – somehow conjures a sense of place that’s not geographical, but spiritual. Here, E+E heightens the mawkish drama of pop, exaggerates the aesthetics of Hollywood bombast, and reorients the Americas to create a displaced yet unified whole whose tension and imbalance animates its awkward, mannerist juxtapositions, whose all-consuming moments of transcendence are offset by flushing toilets and digital ephemera. It’s a thrown punch into infinity, multiple incognito tabs left open, angels in the bathroom. It’s the eternal return, delivered not by Drake, Bonnie Raitt, and John Mayer, but through them.
Welcome to Fazoland
The sign might read Welcome to Fazoland, but this is the only hospitality you’ll be shown for the duration of Lil Herb’s blazing showcase in hostile Chicago drill. A storyteller in a world where there is no story, because there is no end to the cycle of violence, Herb spins us via uncompromising delivery and unvarnished diction through the East Side and its “Terror Town,” where the souped rattle of beats echoes the death rattle of automatics, and where brotherhoods are honored with the mellow solidarity of “Fight or Flight” before being cracked in half by the proto-apocalyptic warfare of “4 Minutes of Hell Pt. 3.” Yet if Fazoland is a cage of bellicose snares and blistered rhymes, Lil Herb somehow flows through its bars, the inescapability of his predicament coaxing out a defiant and above all human amor fati that’s already distinguishing him as one of the strongest heads in rap.
Tara Jane O’Neil
Where Shine New Lights
There’s a rumbling in our collective stomach. It begins deep inside the lower intestine, slowly making its way toward our flabby flesh. It growls and mumbles at the most inopportune times, but it tells us we’re hungry for real emotion. Not of the sappy love songs or raw sexual innuendo, but of the sad and the smitten — concrete feelings for the abstract thinkers. Tara Jane O’Neil had it too, so she created a potent mixture to deliver us from the emptiness of hunger pains. Now our bellies are full and our hearts open. But be careful not to gorge on Where Shine New Lights, or you’ll just be eating away your pain or euphoria. Ration this carefully — make it last all year — and you will be handsomely satiated.
For all the preliminary warnings about its feature-length bloat, Ghettoville ended up standing apart for the bracingly shorthand approach that it used to get its points across. Darren Cunningham gazed upon each industrial scene in medias res, casting the same Brechtian eye over texture and melody, man and machine, the pistons pounding out time but calling to mind just another wheezing creature of habit. The high drama of human language took center stage but too late for its meaning, the real story laid out in its spatial, traceable afterimage. At Actress’ distance, the body was isolated and failing but rooted, almost reachable, “our” flesh, reanimated in crisis, eyes still shut in prayer to that looping pop promise, “Don’t/ Stop/ The/ Music,” not dead but certainly not young anymore.
C L E A N E R S
Real Raga Shit Vol. 1
Somehow, Real Raga Shit Vol. 1 turned out to be a completely engrossing and compelling work, even if it’s objectively just a pile of panglobal, panhistorical samples dropped haphazardly into a timeline and only occasionally beat-matched or torqued. But it’s so fucking reverent and so fucking arbitrary, the samples clinging to all their cultural/historical/socio/whatever tags while jutting up against one another for no reason aside from creating a little frisson, tonal or otherwise. A little romance, a little noise pileup, several types of drones. The most obvious possible Casablanca quote. It asks nothing of you; it’s nothing more than a pile, but that pile contains multitudes. It sparks.
[Not Not Fun]
Like when you’re whistling in a hallway or humming in the shower, Magic Eye have captured the natural vibration of sound within their newest cassette, Babylon. Stirring from the mystical incantations of the dimensional West — way beyond any Earthly location — Magic Eye slowly breathe out swirls from every speaker, reaching deep in melons and nodes, and frying at spaces sizzling the in-betweens. No doubt, Babylon is a pinnacle within modern cassette culture, a study that encapsulates pure tape hiss, beautifully scarred melody and rhythm, care, and research — pitch-perfect parameters pouring at speaker seams. There’s a 97-year-old woman who, every day, walks outside just once to retrieve her newspaper, and it takes her no more than 15 minutes to feel part of the world, draw it in, and become a part. Magic Eye stay true to their art and behold a world of sheer wonder within the cassette tape of Babylon.
If Spiritual Emergency were composed of only its eponymous final track, that would be enough to secure its place here; the intriguing preliminaries that make up the first side of the album are taken up in a maelstrom of garbled vocals and synths, scratching and scrabbling guitars, shahi baaja and unpredictable bass, all propelled almost entirely by the spiralling waves of Greg Fox’s whirlpool drumming — the style (and intensity) of whose percussion is the locomotive soul of the record. A lot of work is done with elements that in lesser hands might risk psychedelic-freakout cliché, but this is ably resisted by peculiarity of execution. If there’s an underlying conceit, it’s musically enacting the principles of the psychologist Stanislav Grof, who is sampled advocating the “healing and transformative potential” of the altered states he reconceptualized as spiritual emergencies. But are Guardian Alien creating a crisis or helping us through one? As ever, it’s a bit of both. So, enter a holotropic mode of consciousness, and divest yourself of selfhood and all its obnoxious dependents — like ironic distance — with an early candidate for one of 2014’s most absorbing renewals of psychedelia. Who knows, it might just have some therapeutic value too.
Another year surges away and another two Fire! Orchestra departures present themselves on Second Exit. They are the same as last time, only somehow made more urgent with less than half the personnel. Thirteen brave souls work the shit out of these twin behemoths for a lucky jazz fest crowd in Nantes, and we’re only slightly less lucky to hear the second-hand results. Vocalists Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg soar to new textural heights here, reminding us that one not necessarily need be a Southern Baptist to reach an overflowingly ecstatic state of grace. Sofia’s high trills often become indistinguishable from the urgent bleating of the reed instruments. Gustafsson leads these two workman-like acid jazz progressions through all manner of sonic density, elevating the groove to miasmic exaltations of the infinite (even or perhaps especially when the insistent rhythm is yanked out completely). This escape pushes its way through, at first with a sense of cautious dread, then with flailing urgency. With both sides at roughly the same length, it’s suggested that both approaches get you to the same place. Dead ends and vast open space abound. The head swims. Want a way out? Who wouldn’t? Get outta this brain! Get outta this body! Get outta this list! (But please come back and read on.) EXIT!