2014: First Quarter Favorites
Our 20 favorite releases from the first quarter of the year
[Students of Decay]
On Codiaeum Variegatum — an album-length tribute to the poisonous garden croton plant — Anne Guthrie blankets “music” over “non-music.” She lets “instruments” drift into “non-instruments” until they’re almost indistinguishable. In his review of the album, Simon Chandler described this as a push/pull between “naturalized instrumentation and instrumentalized nature.” Cello, bass, and French horn, processed and un-processed, drift in and out, spiralling through connections with Guthrie’s field recordings. On “Strongly Leaning with Irregular Crown,” throaty bass counterpoints a fly’s buzz before totally disintegrating into a wobble of tape. Later, the field recording itself disintegrates in parallel, subsumed in crackle. As the album progresses, so too do these parallels, and by the end, we lose track of which sounds are which: was that a bird or a French horn? It grows increasingly harder to say that one side reinforces or sustains or underscores the other. These sounds simply exist within — and develop with respect to — the same spaces in gorgeous, absorbing unity.
Anarchic, glitched, broken, irregular, skewed, severed, disfigured, wrecked, sliced, glued together, sliced again, mangled, uncertain, entropic, chaotic, defaced, and unrecognizable voice samples. An unapologetic assault on the senses. The main strength in D/P/I’s 08.DD.15 comes from the moments when it seemingly threatens to walk into the mundane footsteps of pop and soul music, providing a familiarity in which I could picture myself buying cigarettes at 11 PM at the local gas station while some random FM station plays in the background. These samples, while not exactly few and far in between, are promptly smashed, pulverized, and mutilated, and my experience immediately transforms into GAS STATION FROM HELL. D/P/I is yet another moniker for the prolific Alex Gray and home to his more spontaneous, ADD-fueled output. Hurry up, before it’s gone.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom
Aesthetic piquancy spinning, dire evisceration drifting — a fresh cutthroat drama unfolding. Even before or since you pulled your knives out to sing, ordinary life was just happening. Ordinary wretchedness, ordinary degradation, borderline personality-testing. Morbid curiosity’s got the better and the worse of you, like a punched-in air vent with its smiling equal sign. Controlling impulses. Wrangling fear-borne paralysis. Splurging on purging. Holding up mirrors till your arms ache, and sweating out all of your good looks. Pop culture like a zit and splash in that iridescent pus, overbearing confexicutioner. We can only love you for it. Maybe buy a t-shirt. Maybe live and die alone with secreted indignities. Maybe sniff derisively at your artful distress. But love, certain as decay, is ever there for you. Eat it on up.
Lil B “The BasedGod”
05 Fuck ‘Em
Let’s be realistic here: Lil B. What goes beyond extreme entertainment? Lil B. At 101 tracks long, 05 Fuck ‘Em gets right into the core of based freedom. There are so many random words and phrases on this mixtape (Lil B’s NEVER made an “album” EVER) that lil whoodies will be quotin’ it well into the next century, all based around the idea of each listener’s faith in Lil B’s lifestyle rapped through the lyrics. Does Lil B actually live what he spits? Is he actually in the strip club stealing money off the floor? It’s all about what audience members are willing to forfeit in order to extend their perception of reality. Yes, I’m listening to Martha Stewart. “Reality” entertainment has never put a host or contestant on such a pedestal like 05 Fuck ‘Em has with “The BasedGod.” They have never been this lost before within a single mixtape. So grip the entirety of 05 Fuck ‘Em from DatPiff, throw it on random, and let the post-radio swag ensue. Chances are you’ll find an inspiration through Brandon McCartney while wondering “When does he have the time to do all this shit?”
Like chillwave, vaporwave is funny. Unlike chillwave, vaporwave is not a joke. Balearic piña coladas are a punchline waiting to happen, but the best vaporwave is dangerously close to being the musical prize of the complete understanding of modern times. Moreover (and I know it’s a drag, and it probably doesn’t even get near the parking lot of the ballpark of insight), this record is maybe the only thing I’m ever going to hear that renders the whole horrifying weird digital present anything like home, like something readily comprehensible and knowable. The carpet is puce, the walls are transparent, and the desk is probably a fucking hologram, but Computer Decay makes blinding, dizzying sense. Melanging together everything from what could possibly be an Italian breakfast TV show to the Pearl Drop sound on that Casio I had when I was 12, it resolves into a patient, enveloping hypertext Esperanto that’s actually worth learning and endlessly revisiting. This is the moment where the computer gazes back.
Exploding forth fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, Beyoncé seemed like both the culmination of the previous year’s pop music and a force driving it into the future. Released on December 13, 2013 (a date that will go down in history as The Day Nobody Did Anything at Work), its 14 tracks and 17 video installments covered musical territory from neon disco-funk to classic soul, with an anthem for everything from loving yourself to loving your child to pawing at your partner in the back of a limo. Perhaps most importantly, it heralded the arrival of Yoncé, a sexually uninhibited, emotionally complex feminist and matriarch, who also happened to be a supreme goddess of sound (“I’m proud of all this bass/ When you put it in your face.”) Despite its long list of collaborators and massive cultural reach, Beyoncé drew power from its spirit of aggressive individualism — vulnerable but Superpowered, not flawless, but ***Flawless.
This Is Always Where You’ve Lived
[Blackest Ever Black]
Suturing together unlikely charnel-house offcasts of experimental noise, lo-fi indie, and minimal wave, Secret Boyfriend is a Frankenstein’s monster, with the monster’s dank melancholy rather than the violent or comedic qualities of which it’s later come to be a symbol. One might think of mad-scientist-of-lounge Gary Wilson’s “Secret Girl”: “Sometimes in the night time I feel so lonely… I can’t believe this thing that we’ve set in motion — I’ve got a secret girlfriend.” But if it was a lightning strike that gave unnatural life to the (concept of the) Creature, it’s the slow industrial grind of a hydro-electric dam, with echoes of the pre-industrial millstone, that birth Secret Boyfriend. For Frankenstein, “The world was to me a secret which I desired to devine” — but, for Frankenstein himself, his loved ones, and his creation, “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (hence the keeping of secrets). The cup of sorrow runs over for Secret Boyfriend, to the listener’s delight. Lightning should not galvanize life, nor magnets mesmerize; once in these disparate fragments, the potter’s vessel cannot be made whole again. Yet Secret Boyfriend’s burnt offerings still rise to Heaven.
Inspired by an old Walt Disney short, the music on pianist Lubomyr Melnyk’s newest recording tells the story of a stone windmill bearing the elements for centuries, until it is finally destroyed by a violent storm. My associations with this music are a bit different: in recent days, as 5 PM rolls by and the office where I work begins to empty out, I have been popping on my headphones and putting on Windmills. Melnyk’s continuous procession of notes and waves of shifting melody imbue the smallest movements — drag, click, typetypetype — with a quiet gravitas, a sense of drama. On the one hand, imagine Melnyk’s old windmill churning away against nature; on the other, a tired guy staring at a screen, putting steady stress on eyes and hands. And yet, they are not so far apart: as Birkut made clear in his review, the taxing nature of the performance of this music is as essential to its DNA as the notes Melnyk plays. Windmills is the sound of mental concentration and bodily endurance made sublime.
Death After Life
Further proof that you don’t have to be from a specific location to contribute a relevant work to a geographic-specific style. Ryan McRyhew may not be “from Chicago,” and he may not be part of a footwork crew, but the man behind Thug Entrancer’s Death After Life certainly brought a kind of wreckage into it. Look no further than “Death After Life III.” Beginning with the kind of complex rhythms, blocky melodies, and bass thuds that’ve been hallmarks of both footwork and juke, the track then proceeds to tear it the fuck down somewhere in the middle when it comes skidding to a halt, a car at max speed slamming into a wall of juddering glitch that dovetails into something Masonna would be proud to call his own. This kind of atypical narrative is a mainstay of the album, and it’s an exhilarating moment on one of the most exciting things we’ve heard this year.
[Note: the above image is an unofficial fan-made cover.]
With looming synth lines, stubborn drum stabs, and drifter guitar riffs, all of which could just as easily belong to a lost John Carpenter score, Skin Fade siphons Dean’s Bluntness into what may or may not be the artist’s definitive (tiny) mixtape. On the one hand, it is as Mr P described, “of the typically woozy, disorienting nature” and “at turns ethereal, noisy, narcotic.” On the other, there’s also a militant immediacy here, as the work drives from one hard edge to the next, relieved only by our honing in on Joanne Robertson’s near-omnipresent, yet disembodied, folksiness or the abrupt moments of silence between tracks. If The Narcissist II and The Redeemer were about obsession and betrayal, then Skin Fade is a tale of emotional survivalism. Appropriately, its title simultaneously calls to mind race relations and cultural appropriation of military-industrial anti-style; the meeting place of the aesthetic and the tactical. Or, as I texted C Monster, “I like the beats, they’re John Carpentry.”