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!
[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.”