Album Review: Brian Eno, ‘Reflection’

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2016, man. From the election of a fascist demagogue to the most powerful office on earth to the rise of said demagogue’s antagonistic neo-Nazi supporters to the death of seemingly every beloved public figure, the year we just exited was often downright brutal, and it took a remarkably heavy toll on most of us. As always, we’re trying to optimistically hype up the new year as a fresh start, a chance to begin again – and yet, the future ahead still seems more uncertain than ever before.

Leave it to an artist as pragmatic and inventive as Brian Eno, Earth’s long-reigning ambient musician-producer laureate, to create a record that perfectly emulates that uncertainty while doubling as a meditation on both the good and the bad of the past year. Released on the very threshold of 2017, Reflection is an epic ambient journey in the form of a continuous, 54-minute track that exhibits the balance of light and dark 2016 was for much of the world.

The track begins in familiar territory, with serene, lightly buzzing notes pulsating over hazy, dark tones that whir and swirl beneath, gradually gaining prominence. As the track flows forward, the foreboding background hum repeatedly threatens to pull the listener under, only to be disrupted by a series of light vibraphone (?) hits here, an icy synth there. Eno sustains this mood for the next hour while mostly managing to capture the listener’s attention throughout. In several places, the hum itself enters the forefront, cycling back and forth between one earbud and the other. 2016 definitely felt like this at many points, with overwhelming darkness blotting out every trace of light. At other times, Eno’s signature ambient noises layer on top of one another to create a peculiar, lush tapestry of sound – the few precious moments in which we were able to gain for ourselves some semblance of peace. All in all, the track doesn’t sound drastically different from Eno’s other ambient work, but it does serve as yet another powerful testament to his genius as a producer and his ability to use repetition and a meditative atmosphere to create hypnotic, arresting worlds of sound.

Throughout his long, remarkable career, Eno has proven himself to be nothing if not a futuristic thinker, making Reflection’s apparent fixation on space hardly surprising. The track is laden with interstellar noise – metallic clangs, blurred rumbles that sound like rocket launches, UFO-like buzzes and beeps. One receives the mental image of an astronaut floating through the vast silence far above the Earth, looking down at the disarming serenity of the planet. Is Eno telling us not to worry – that none of this shit matters because we’re all literally floating through space on an enormous blue rock – that our chronic self-importance as a species means nothing in the scheme of the expansive universe aboard which we just happen to be temporary passengers? Maybe, maybe not; but the idea is certainly appealing.

And yet, for all of its astronomical underpinnings, the album itself bears a distinctly personal feel. Most of his groundbreaking ambient work in the 1970s and 80s saw him collaborating with such gifted instrumentalists as Harold Budd, Laraaji, Jon Hassell, and Daniel Lanois; however, the credits for Reflection list Eno as sole performer and producer. This is his meditation – his introspective look back at his life, particularly its most recent twelve months.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to discern from this record what Eno’s vision for our future might be. But if the supreme serenity of the ambient bloops and bleeps that seep through Reflection’s omnipresently grim synth backdrop is any indication, he appears to see faint flickers of light in the dark. The painful memory of the past is far from gone, but there is hope, however dim, for the days to come.

Like Eno’s best ambient compositions, Reflection is a minimalistic yet enticing soundscape that works as background music but also makes for a deeply rewarding close-listen. It’s one of the most inspired and darkly beautiful pieces of music he’s released in a while– and it couldn’t have come along at a better, more appropriate time. (8.5/10)

Brian Eno

Reflection

Released January 1, 2017 on Warp Records

Produced by Brian Eno

Album Review: Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 3’

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Watching Run the Jewels’ evolution has been truly exhilarating. In three years and as many albums (not counting the feline remix smorgasbord Meow the Jewels), Killer Mike and El-P have accomplished more than some rappers do in their entire careers. What began as a modest collaboration on Mike’s 2012 record R.A.P. Music has developed into something truly special—with each release, the duo has grown more passionate, more politically-charged, more royally pissed-off. Their latest effort, the aptly-titled Run the Jewels 3—unleashed upon an unsuspecting world three weeks early last Christmas Eve—is their strongest yet. Mike and El are angrier than ever (with what’s happened in the past year, my God, do they ever have reason to be), and their message of righteous rage has never sounded more timely or urgent.

When listening to RTJ3, the first thing one notices is the record’s immaculate production quality. El-P’s beats have always been incredibly raucous and eccentric, but here he pulls out all the stops—rattling percussion; screeching, warped synths; soaring orchestral backdrops. The tracks bleed into one another seamlessly, resulting in a record that plays like a short film with a brilliant script and breathtaking cinematography. The pair maintain this action movie soundtrack intensity for 51 thrilling minutes, displaying their radical energy in brief and powerful outbursts.

The album opens with a portentous organ crescendo, followed by majestic cymbal rides over distorted, muffled guitars that recall Kanye West’s ‘10s work. With an intro like that, you’d better strap in and listen to what the fuck these guys have to say. Mike then proceeds to tear into knockout opener “Down”: “I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes/That I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.” He then exchanges verses with El about their respective past struggles—Mike’s as a former dope hustler, El’s as a down-and-out indie-rap darling whose fortunes turned after partnering with Mike. RTJ3 thus begins hopefully on a note of perseverance and defeat of adversity.

Despite this, as mentioned before, there’s plenty to be mad about. The fiery, brutal “Talk to Me” is the record’s most blatant indictment of the Orange One. Mike, who spent the last year and a half fervently campaigning for Bernie Sanders, places himself on the spiritual battleground of an America that doesn’t value his life—with a sampled paraphrasing of Ephesians thrown in for good measure. “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan,” he thunders; “He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan…My job is to fight for survival/In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk.”

It doesn’t stop there—on “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” the group calls for an all-out revolution: “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses/We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses/Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes?” The ever-impressive Danny Brown closes out the track with a frenzied loop-de-loop that threatens to outshine Mike and El themselves.

As the album continues, the hope expressed in “Down” is diminished by the realities of racial violence. El plays a corrupt Chicago cop on “Don’t Get Captured” – the title itself an empty warning from the media on how to avoid death at the hands of police (“Is that blunt? Well, hell, so’s this boot/We live to hear you say, ‘Please don’t shoot'”). On the devastating, string-and-piano-laden “Thieves!,” Mike speaks eloquently and bluntly on the ethical double standard between police brutality and subsequent riots among the black community. The track samples MLK as well as Rod Serling’s spoken prelude to “The Obsolete Man.” The message is clear: no riot starts in a vacuum, and people can only have so much taken from them before they retaliate against the takers. Mike’s frustration at the demise of Sanders and the rise of Trump is extremely palpable; by the time we reach frenetic closer “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” we find him in tears as victims’ mothers are paraded onstage at the Democratic National Convention. The apocalyptic nightmare reaches its climax with the doomy, futuristic “2100,” with perennial collaborator Boots delivering a drama-saturated hook: “Save my swollen heart/Bring me home from the dark/Take me up, take me up, take me up.”

“Thursday in the Danger Room,” however, is where shit truly gets real. As saxophone god Kamasi Washington blares somewhere off in the distance, the pair grapple with the very concepts of life and death as El visits his dying friend and fellow MC Camu Tao (“Death’s a release but a much bigger beast is a living on limited time/Like how do you look in the eyes of a friend and not cry when you know that they’re dying?”) and Mike faces the impossible task of consoling a fallen comrade’s loved ones (“Trying to search for the words that will comfort her soul and her spirit and mind/I tell her that it’ll be fine/But deep down I know that I’m lying”). It’s one of the most affecting moments on an album with no shortage of high points; it provides remarkable insight into the psyches of these two brilliant musicians and forces the listener-as-human to confront mortality itself.

RTJ’s wordplay is in top form throughout the record, and as one might expect, they never mince words. When they’re not taking a stand against the world’s evils, they’re effectively and often hilariously hyping themselves up as a force to be reckoned with. They draw from a seemingly endless well of innovative insults and roast their foes to a smoldering crisp. The ferocious single “Legend Has It” buzzes with enormous electricity as Mike and El take turns firing venomous verbal barbs over a hard-thumping, menacing beat with skeletal percussion. The two set themselves up as bloodthirsty murderers, vicious foes who take delight in quite literally slaughtering their haters. Mike, in particular, sounds gleefully demented when spewing fireballs like, “We are the murderous pair/That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there/Then went to Hell and discovered the devil/Delivered some hurt and despair.” The climax, however, comes in the track’s final 45 seconds, when the two deliver threats and brags in rapid succession right up to the zero mark. Add that to the repetition of the band’s initials by a cheering crowd as a makeshift battle cry, and these guys have got intimidation down to a science. On the sophomoric “Stay Gold” (i.e., Pony Boy, Mike’s son), you can almost see the smirks streaked across their faces as they boast about their wealth and the women in their lives. With “Call Ticketron,” they add their 2015 gig opening for Jack White at Madison Square Garden to their rapidly-expanding calling card as El playfully confirms that the “last two pirates alive are still yarghin’”.

Run the Jewels 3 is rambunctious, terrifying, merciless, and heroic – a testament to the supreme talent and conviction of its creators. There’s a certain beauty to it as well – two very different men from incongruous backgrounds united in a noble quest to make the world just a little less shitty. We’re a long way from things getting better, but for now Mike and El are fighting tyranny with all they’ve got and aren’t about to quit anytime soon. “I told y’all suckers!” Mike yells early on in the record. “I told y’all on RTJ1, then I told you again on RTJ2, and you still ain’t believe me!”  Maybe this time, we’ll pay attention. (9.2/10)

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels 3

Released January 13, 2017 on Run the Jewels, Inc.

Produced by El-P, Little Shalimar, Wilder Zoby and Boots

List: The 25 Best Albums of 2016

2016 has clearly been one hell of a mixed bag as far as years go, but it certainly did not disappoint in the realm of extraordinary music. This year, the art of fusing hip-hop, jazz and soul together reached an all-time apex thanks to any number of remarkable talents—Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, and Solange, to name a few. We saw in 2016 the awakening of long-dormant beasts like the Avalanches, A Tribe Called Quest and American Football, as well as the rise of newer talents such as Pinegrove, Car Seat Headrest and Whitney. And we bade affectionate farewells to scores of musical luminaries, from David Bowie and Prince to Phife Dawg and Leonard Cohen.

So dense was the tidal wave of musical brilliance 2016 rained down upon us that compiling my annual best-of list was even more grueling a task than usual. There are plenty of incredible albums that I was forced to tearfully knock out of the ranks (sorry, Crying’s Beyond the Fleeting Gales), but the albums that follow are a summation of what I feel are the best of the best in a year with plenty of bests.

Read on, and enjoy my two cents. (Oh, and Radiohead-heads—by all means, feel free to cyber-crucify me for excluding A Moon Shaped Pool. I’m not sorry.)

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Death Grips

Bottomless Pit

Harvest

Where the fuck did Death Grips come from? In just five short years and six proper albums (no, I’m not counting you, instrumental compilations), the raucous experimental trio have garnered hipster accolades left and right and accumulated one of the most rabid fanbases in modern music. While Bottomless Pit doesn’t exactly break new ground for the group, it definitely proves that they have yet to run out of ideas that astound and disorient in the most dazzling possible way. MC Ride’s trademark bellows and cryptic lyrics surf atop some of the most gloriously brutal beats Outlander and Zach Hill have created, from the hellfire guitar-drum blasts of opener “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” to the future-sludge doom-and-gloom of “Hot Head” to the robotic stomp of “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle.” It’s a more-than-worthy addition to DG’s hallowed catalog—and they didn’t even have to put a penis on the cover this time.

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American Football

American Football (LP2)

Polyvinyl

On their first release since their landmark 1999 debut, American Football prove they haven’t lost a beat in those 17 years – in fact, quite the opposite. The band’s juxtaposition of gently floating guitar lines and bizarre time signatures is just as strong as ever – ditto Mike Kinsella’s sublimely understated vocals and emotive, existentially panicky songwriting. Next to its predecessor, it’s just about the loveliest record about someone’s life falling apart you’ll hear this year.

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Mike Muli

What [You] Desperately Need

Self-released

The Philly-based singer-songwriter takes us on a hypnotic trip through the cosmos on his bold debut, wherein he blends gorgeous, lilting acoustic folk with touches of neo-soul, his delicate guitar tones and crisp tenor wisely kept at the forefront, the eye of the quiet storm. Muli’s deeply poetic lyrics and arrangements invoke the spellbinding mysticism and spirituality of such troubadours as Van Morrison and Lauryn Hill while presenting a voice and artistry that are distinctly, unabashedly his own. Truly one of the most transcendent listening experiences of the year.

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Aphex Twin

CHEETAH EP

Warp

The incredibly prolific, endlessly creative Richard D. James surprised us this summer with his first music video in nearly two decades – for the broody, pulsating “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix],” to which a young boy in a James mask danced gleefully in distorted landscapes in the clip. The ensuing EP, CHEETAH, includes some of Aphex Twin’s most enticing latter-day compositions. It’s an arresting sequence of chilly, colorful sound experiments that betray a sense of unbridled fun and creativity in the studio – the kind James specializes in and mastered on Selected Ambient Works and Richard D. James Album. It’s a perfect balance of profound electronic beauty and haunting disorientation.

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Parquet Courts

Human Performance

Rough Trade

The garage-pop eccentrics keep all their cylinders a-churning on their brazenly confident fourth LP, seamlessly blending the band’s varied influences—alt-country, post-punk, Krautrock—into a fuzzed-out, hyper-melodic noise-fest that demands to be blasted from your speakers at max volume. A thunderous rhythm section undergirds giddy blasts of squealing guitar and the delightfully loopy, often shouted lyrics (IT COMES THROUGH THE WINDOW! IT COMES THROUGH THE FLOOR! IT COMES THROUGH THE ROOF! AND IT COMES THROUGH THE DOOR!) we’ve come to expect from the Courts. Sure, it sounds at times like four dudes just dicking around in a studio (the Wilco Loft, to be exact)—but hey, man, that’s rock ‘n roll.

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Solange

A Seat at the Table

Saint / Columbia

By far her finest work to date, Solange Knowles’ vivid, masterful A Seat at the Table was released on the heels of a series of tweets from the performer after she and her daughter were harassed by a white audience-goer at a Kraftwerk concert. Solange’s response? A beautiful celebration of blackness and all it entails, complete with intermittent recorded discourses on learning to love one’s own skin. Tracks such as “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” comprise some of the courageous musical statements of the decade, with Solange’s passionate, understated vocals driving the point home with devastating subtlety and strength. If I ever hear anyone refer to this extraordinary, forward-thinking artist as “the lady who punched Jay-Z in an elevator” again, there will be hell to pay.

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Isaiah Rashad

The Sun’s Tirade

Top Dawg

Top Dawg Entertainment’s current roster holds no shortage of dynamite talent—the inclusion of the Black Hippy collective alone is enough to make it a formidable force in the rap world. But if you need any proof that the new blood has just as much skill and charisma, look no further than The Sun’s Tirade. Rashad’s proper studio debut is a lush, intense and thoroughly impressive experience and an ideal highlight for the 25-year-old’s unique verbal stylings. Guest spots from TDE’s Kendrick Lamar, SZA and others propel the tracks forward, but make no mistake: this album establishes one of the most singular, fascinating new voices in hip-hop. Here’s hoping it lays the template for years of future greatness.

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The Higher Up

The Higher Up Album (HGHR)

Self-released

The Philly hip-hop duo are at the height of their powers on their latest release—their most brash and fully-realized yet. MC Mark Scott, managing to sound simultaneously raw and polished, drops dizzying torrents of science about anxiety and depression, relationships and the game itself onto producer Kye Brewin’s expertly-arranged bed of vibrant beats and rich sonic textures. The Higher Up houses some of the most underrated and finely-honed talent in indie rap, and their future shows no signs of dimming.

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Anohni

Hopelessness

Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade

The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty hits us with a work of stark, terrifying beauty. With her unmistakable androgynous croon – flanked this time around by icy synthscapes courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never – she launches a fierce attack against the many ills of our fucked-up modern world, from global warming (“4 Degrees”) to American exceptionalism (“Marrow”) to the U.S.’s unyielding war machine (“Crisis”). She lashes out at “Violent Men” and exposes the shortcomings of President “Obama.” To be sure, it’s a major departure from the beautiful baroque pop of records like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, but the destination is more than worth the journey.

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Frank Ocean

Blonde

Boys Don’t Cry

The most highly-anticipated record of the year mostly failed to live up to the impossible amount of hype it received. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist more meticulous and creative than Frank Ocean. Released a mere day after the pretty but ultimately superfluous visual album Endless, Blonde traffics in variations on the minimalist neo-soul that made him a surprise superstar. It’s a subtle but rich sonic tapestry, often overwhelming in scope but never short on inspiration and heart. Sure, it’s not the groundbreaking statement channel ORANGE was, but it was never supposed to be that. Instead, you appreciate it for what it is: a grand expression of a true genius’ inner workings. 

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Kanye West

The Life of Pablo

GOOD / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella

Sure, it’s not his best record (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), his most enjoyable (The College Dropout), or his most experimental (Yeezus), but America’s provocateur-laureate has proven himself incapable of creating uninteresting music – or, at the very least, music that provokes a whole hell of a lot of discussion and hubbub. Yeezy’s sonic craftsmanship remains unmatched, and the music of TLOP reflects its tumultuous, fussy creation (an act that seems to still be taking place as we speak). Gospel choirs, dark atmospherics, narcissistic lyrics, and a veritable fruit salad of collaborators and genre-hopping samples abound. It can be a bit all over the place and downright brutish at times, but in its best moments it serves as a poignant reminder of West’s fearless, uncompromising creative spirit.

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Kendrick Lamar

untitled unmastered.

Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope

The gifted young creator of last year’s best record has consistently shown a dogged refusal to rest on his laurels, though it would be tough to blame him for doing so. Here, he documents his insatiable work ethic by presenting us with eight tracks assembled from various previously unreleased demos, some of which date back to the aftermath of 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d city. Butterfly‘s riveting jazz-funk-soul-avant-garde amalgam continues to unfold and flourish, as do Lamar’s unfiltered, revolutionary lyrics. The end result is TPAB‘s less-polished but just as hungry kid brother – a deep, eccentric, laid-back affair (possibly even more so than its predecessor) that simultaneously soars far above the average B-sides and rarities disc to become a powerful statement in its own right. King Kunta reigns on.

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case/lang/veirs

case/lang/veirs

Anti-

In retrospect, it’s surprising that this didn’t happen sooner. This self-titled debut sees legendary country-pop chameleon k.d. lang joining forces with two of the leading voices in modern indie folk—Neko Case and Laura Veirs—to create a work of spectacular depth and beauty. You might be wondering how three such monumental personalities as these could ever share equal time and space on a single album. God knows how they did, but, happily, they pull it off, and then some—mesmerizing harmonies, richly-textured sonic landscapes that manage to exude ice and warmth simultaneously, and some of the finest songwriting any of the trio have ever crafted. These are songs that you know will stay with you the instant you hear them. More, please.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Skeleton Tree

Bad Seed Ltd.

What does one do after experiencing the unspeakable loss of a child? In the case of Nick Cave, whose son Arthur tragically fell to his death last summer, one strips an already-barebones sound back even further and pens some of the loveliest, most meditative songs in one’s extensive catalog. The Crown Prince of Melancholia sounds naked and devastated here, but ultimately hopeful; despite the grim, desperate atmosphere of most of its songs, Skeleton Tree is fundamentally a celebration of life, not a lamentation of death. Remember when Cave and the Seeds covered Dylan’s “Death is Not the End” at the end of 1996’s Murder Ballads? This is that idea applied to an entire record, with faint glints of light and love seeping into even the bleakest moments.

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Aesop Rock

The Impossible Kid

Rhymesayers

There’s no question that Aesop Rock ranks high among the most gifted MCs of his generation; however, throughout his long career, he’s occasionally fallen into the trap of favoring technical prowess over lyrical content. The Impossible Kid, however, is possibly the best job he’s done so far combining the two. On Kid, the impressive verbal gymnastics are still very much present, but the songs have more substance. Rock regales listeners with harrowing tales of childhood over some of the scuzziest, grimiest beats he’s ever utilized; even his signature detached flow carries a sort of introspective urgency. He’s never been more personal – or sounded like he’s having more fun – than he does here.

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Vektor

Terminal Redux

Earache

Ever wonder what might have happened if David Lynch had rewritten his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune into a heavy metal musical? Well, it probably would sound something like Terminal Redux. As far-fetched as a 73-minute prog-metal epic about an astronaut discovering a space mineral that can grant immortality—in 2016, no less—may sound, Vektor manages to pull it all together and create the most powerful and exciting metal record in recent memory. In the telling of their grandiose tale, the Philadelphians craft a debilitating wall of sound punctuated by spine-shattering guitar solos, rapid-fire drums, and the hell-spawned screech of lead vocalist/axeman David DiSanto. From the ambient opening of “Charging the Void” to the ultra-intense show-stopper of a finale “Recharging the Void,” it’s a mightily ambitious exercise in over-the-top ridiculousness. Don’t be surprised to find yourself relishing every minute of it.

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Leonard Cohen

You Want It Darker

Columbia

In what would turn out to be the last four years of his remarkable life, the Canadian poet-crooner extraordinaire made some of the most beautiful and deeply affecting music of his career. You Want it Darker continues in the minimalistic folk-blues vein of its excellent predecessors, Old Ideas and Popular Problems, only with a mesmerizing air of darkness and holy fear that, in retrospect, feels all too appropriate. These songs are the words of a man at the edge of the abyss, coming to terms with his mortality and ready to put to rest his squabbles with his enemies and his lovers. “I wish there was a treaty we could sign,” he achingly intones on “Treaty.” “I do not care who takes this bloody hill…I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” At the center of even the darkest Cohen album, however, there is a certain calm, a sense of peace and hope – in this case, the pastoral strings and keys that counter the title track’s grim choir tones and Doomsday canticle. We can safely assume Cohen passed on with peace in his soul, even as the demons surrounded him.

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The Avalanches

Wildflower

Modular / Astralwerks / XL / EMI

Since I Left You, Pt. 2 this isn’t. The much-anticipated return from the Australian plunderphonic wizards features yet another breathtakingly beautiful, continuous patchwork of unearthed sounds, yes, but it’s another beast entirely from the group’s 2000 masterwork. Mixed into the funk-soul-jazz-rock alchemy this time around are colorings of psychedelia (I mean, just look at that cover) and calypso (the so-catchy-it-should-be-illegal single “Frankie Sinatra”). Adding to the Wildflower experience (and believe me, it is an experience) are a flurry of able-bodied live session musicians, from MF DOOM and Danny Brown to Father John Misty and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. Put this shit on a sugar cube and dunk it in your coffee; you’re in for one heck of a trip.

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A Tribe Called Quest

We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Epic / SME

The venerated hip-hop institution closes out its extraordinary run not with a fizzle, but with a gigantic explosion. Released directly on the heels of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, ATCQ came back with a vengeance just when we needed them most. “Gotta get it together for brothers/Gotta get it together for sisters,” Q-Tip chants on “The Space Program” as the lead in to a bristlingly brilliant, firebrand, jazz-soaked double album that updates the Tribe’s message of uplift and support for a new generation without sacrificing any of that message’s urgency. The spirit of the late Phife Dawg presides over the proceedings with his series of posthumous contributions. The affair is further augmented by guest spots from the ever-reliable Busta Rhymes as well as Anderson .Paak, Elton John, André 3000, and many more. The world needed this record. My God, did we need this record. Can you kick it, you ask? Yes. Yes, you bloody well can.

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David Bowie

Blackstar

ISO

On January 8, one of the world’s true musical originals released his twenty-fifth record. Three days later, he was gone. Blackstar became his final statement to listeners – and what a hell of a statement it is. As one of the most wildly experimental works of a career built upon constant left-field reinvention, it’s a disconcerting, enticing, and often gorgeous listen from start to finish. The sprawling, mystical title track; the howling sax and choral oohs of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; the warped funk of “Sue”; the buzzy, Nadsat-screeching “Girl Loves Me”; the grand vulnerability of album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – it’s all there, and it’s all magical. Appropriately, it’s also a record rife with mortality; Bowie knows death is coming for him, and he intends to go out with a bang. The beauty and fearlessness of the record is remarkable and refreshing, the kind he was always capable of and which seemed to have evaporated from his latter-day work. Just as Christ raised “Lazarus” from the dead, so does Blackstar resurrect our fallen idol in our hearts, making him live on forever despite having passed from this mortal plane. “Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me.”

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Danny Brown

Atrocity Exhibition

Warp

There’s really nothing that sounds anything quite like Danny Brown. His warped, frenetic flow, like the ravings of a mad scientist gene-spliced with an anxious dog, and his funked-up, bugged-out atmospherics make him a truly inimitable voice in ’10s rap. Atrocity Exhibition displays Brown at his most unhinged; on motley barn-burners like “Pneumonia” and “Ain’t It Funny,” he sounds very much on the verge of a nervous meltdown. His electric presence carries the record so well that all his special guests seem unnecessary (though, of course, it’s well-nigh impossible to pass up Brown hot-potatoing the mic with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on the spastic “Really Doe”). Atrocity Exhibition (yes, he knows it’s a Joy Division song) is a superbly weird effort from one of the most gifted and uncompromising performers of this generation.

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Kaytranada

99.9%

XL

One of the most ambitious debuts of this year, 99.9% is a remarkable tour-de-force that sees the young Canadian (by way of Port-au-Prince) producer blending a variety of tropes from the last four decades of EDM – from 90s house and disco to new jack swing and trip-hop – into an immaculately-produced sound that feels instantly familiar yet uniquely and undeniably belongs to him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kaytra has assembled a winners’ circle of collaborators that make the affair something truly magical – we hear the dark, airy jazz-hop of Badbadnotgood on “Weight Off”; the ultra-confident rasp of Anderson .Paak on “Glowed Up”; the crisp, breathy vocals of Syd tha Kid on “You’re the One”; AlunaGeorge’s cool, club-ready aesthetic on the bright, Control-era Janet Jackson-channeling “Together.” It’s a sexy, slick, playful, lovingly-crafted record that honors its inspirations without resorting to pastiche or glib parody. If only all dance music could be this much fun.

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Bon Iver

22, A Million

Jagjaguwar

People say a lot of nasty things about Justin Vernon – that he makes nonsensical, pretentious beard-folk for jaded hipsters, that he sings that high just to annoy everybody, that his sole MO as a musician is to smoke weed. Some of the cliches are somewhat true, some aren’t; either way, he can certainly take the criticism. But if one listens with an open mind and acquires the taste for Vernon’s experimental noodlings and soul flirtations, one can find worlds of unsurpassed beauty within his music. An extra leap of faith, though, is required for 22, A Million – by a longshot, the most “out-there” thing he’s put out under the Bon Iver moniker, and not exactly meant for the uninitiated. But trust me, it’s worth it. Vernon and his large cast of supporting players unleash layer upon layer of chiming guitar, ghostly vocals, and distorted samples and, yes, AutoTune (it’s actually very beautiful, you guys, seriously). Pair that with the endlessly mystifying symbolism (good luck with those song titles and that cover) and what results is a short but life-altering sequence of truly gorgeous moments. Even when the flights of fancy fall flat, they do so with such effortless grace that you find yourself falling deeper in love with the songs with each listen. Love them or loathe them, Bon Iver is still making some of the most remarkable and fascinating music of this young century.


2

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Parkwood / Columbia

One of 2016’s biggest and most refreshing surprises, Queen Bey’s fifth solo record is an uncompromising, unfiltered celebration of both blackness and black culture. The lyrics are a vivid, stunning exploration of heartbreak and redemption, and Bey’s message of rising above adversity has never carried more weight. Ever the gifted producer/tastemaker, Bey draws from a stunning musical palate on this record – jazz, funk, indie pop, gospel, and even boot-stompin’ country on the uplifting, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek ballad “Daddy Lessons.”  Its focal point, of course, is the cocky, jubilant “Formation,” on which Ms. Knowles-Carter, over thumping avant-soul beats, definitively acknowledges herself as both hero and provocateur, sinner and angel (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”). Anthemic, sweeping and bursting with a punchy brashness throughout, Lemonade is the perfect rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and a gigantic middle finger in the face of impotent would-be oppressors. Slay on, Queen.


1

Chance the Rapper

Coloring Book

Self-released

Chancellor Bennett’s star-studded follow-up to last year’s Surf is a spectacular, jubilant affair – a soul- and jazz-informed, gospel-drenched celebration of life in all its triumphs and blunders, complete with choir outbursts, horn blasts courtesy of bandleader Nico Segal, and wailing church organ. Chance has been blessed beyond his wildest dreams, and he couldn’t be more humbled. His braggadocio is only in the interest of the exaltation of his Lord and Savior – and in defense of the belief that the ability to remain true to oneself is a greater gift than any earthly possession. As Surf proved, Chance has a blast just getting together with his friends and creating and performing his music. You can almost see him grinning ear to ear as he rips through tracks like album opener “All We Got” (produced by none other than his mentor, one Kanye O. West) and the absurdly fun “Angels.” Creators, take note: when an artist pours their entire heart and soul into their work, this is the end result. If KRS-One was right and hip-hop is meant to uplift the people, then this is just the record to do it. It’s a landmark musical achievement and the pinnacle thus far of the career of this already-shining young star. Even if you’re an atheist, Coloring Book will have you praising God – or, at the very least, embracing the joy and beauty of everyday life on this gigantic spinning rock we call home. You ready, big fella?

Honorable Mentions:

Car Seat Headrest / Teens of Denial (Matador)

Childish Gambino / ”Awaken, My Love!” (Glassnote)

Tim Hecker / Love Streams (4AD / Paper Bag)

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard / Nonagon Infinity (ATO)

Okkervil River / Away (ATO)

St. Paul and the Broken Bones / Sea of Noise (RECORDS)

Sturgill Simpson / A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)

Teen Suicide / It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot (Run for Cover)

Tegan and Sara / Love You to Death (Vapor / Warner Bros.)

Whitney / Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian)

Album Review: Injury Reserve, ‘Floss’

floss

Arizona’s Injury Reserve took the underground rap world by storm last year with their wacky, brilliant debut Live at the Dentist’s Office. Armed with lush, jazz-tinged atmospherics courtesy of producer Parker Corey and the screwball rhymes of MCs Steppa J. Groggs and Ritchie with a T., the album proved one of the boldest and most inventive hip-hop debuts of 2015, garnering the group comparisons to jazz-hop icons like A Tribe Called Quest and Native Tongues. For their sophomore effort, Floss, the trio seem to be favoring a more pop-oriented approach. It doesn’t always work, but in the record’s best moments, the group’s loopy, experimental energies still manage to shine through.

Ultimately, Floss proves to be IR’s “fame, ain’t it a bitch” album—they view it as a victory lap of sorts, a celebration of their newfound success. Their confidence is deeply infectious, and it makes up for most of the record’s weaker moments. One could easily mistake the album’s title for a cheeky throwback to Dentist’s Office (especially considering the cover, which zooms in on the cleaning of a set of grill-topped teeth), but one then considers the alternate meaning of the word “floss”—that is, to flaunt or show off. This is certainly a recurring theme on the album; on “All This Money,” Ritchie sounds completely dumbfounded by his wealth and seems all too excited to throw it around. “Oh, my God!” he yowls. “I ain’t done shit all my life/I’m ‘bout to drop four, ‘bout five/I’m about to spend all this money!”

Stylistically, Floss feels just as eclectic, if not more so, than its predecessor. Corey’s beats are a large part of what makes the album work; his deft production serves as a crucial third voice within the group. This time around, he seems rather fixated on bouncy, dancehall-influenced beats, most notably on “What’s Goodie,” “Bad Boys 3,” and “Girl with the Gold Wrist”—the latter of which throws a bit of flamenco guitar in the mix. “All Quiet on the West Side” is a slow party jam set against a rainy, ethereal backdrop.

Opener “Oh Shit!!!” marks an attempt by the group to distance itself from its jazz-rap trappings in favor of displaying a greater individuality. “This ain’t jazz rap…this that spaz rap,” proclaims Steppa over a glitchy piano loop and whirring, hissing beat. “This that ‘raised by the Internet, ain’t had no dad’ rap.” Despite this strong opening statement, the similarities between IR and ATCQ are uncanny. Steppa’s silky, understated flow owes plenty to that of Q-Tip, and on the cacophonous, polyrhythmic “What’s Goodie,” he and Ritchie even go so far as to exchange rapid-fire rhymes a la Tip and Phife. Plus, the swirling brass and jazzy drums on “S on Ya Chest” and the wacky, sax-driven “All This Money” would sound quite at home as Low End Theory outtakes. Which, of course, is not to say these tracks sound derivative—IR endow them all with their unmistakable eccentricity, charisma, and wit.

Not only is the group celebrating its success—they also see themselves as the future of hip-hop. They comment frequently here on what they perceive as the declining state of the genre, as well as of the world itself. The MCs take on the role of Supermen, intent on saving rap, on “S on Ya Chest.” With “2016 Interlude,” they unleash a laundry list of grievances against social ills ranging from bathroom bills to Native American mascots to the black incarceration epidemic. IR, of course, are hardly the first to take on these problems; still, what they say needs to be said, as these unfortunate prejudices and anxieties are, after all, happening in what’s supposed to be a modern, enlightened age. “Like, bruh—it’s 2016.”

One of the strongest moments on the album is “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe,” a devastatingly blunt takedown of the music industry and its arbitrary system of determining which rappers make it and which ones don’t. The track’s chanted hook (“Eeny, meeny, miney, moe/Catch a rapper at a show/Couple dollars let him blow/Who’s up next, I don’t know”) mirrors the racially insensitive mantra of old, perfectly reflecting the industry’s blatant manipulation of black performers.

IR doesn’t shy away from examining the darker side of the limelight. The Vic Mensa-starring “Keep On Slippin'” is a tragically profound meditation on depression, anxiety, and deteriorating mental health that rings as true as anything on Floss. “I’m losing it, it really feels like I’m losing it/Sad thing is I ain’t doing nothing to improve the shit,” Steppa mournfully intones. Vic’s agony-infused verse (“Sometimes I fucking hate myself, I swear to God I hate this shit…The same depression made me anxious is what gave me this verse/But every time I think of making it work, it gets worse”) drives the point home especially well. These rap “Supermen” are far from invincible; they’re just normal guys striving to do their best in life, reveling in the triumphs while simultaneously accepting their failings.

The album’s closing track, “Look Mama I Did It,” is a decent summation of what IR is going for on this record. It’s a celebration of their accomplishments set to a reasonable departure from past sounds—in this case, Corey jumps on the Yeezy/Chance bandwagon by prominently littering the track with a chopped-up gospel sample. We here find the MCs at their most sincere—Ritchie addresses his mother and late father, while Steppa issues a heartfelt thanks to IR’s fans. Does all this celebration feel a bit premature? Yes. Does that make the album any less entertaining? Hell no. Floss is another feather in Injury Reserve’s cap, serving as proof that these performers are indeed well worth all the hype. (8.3/10)

Injury Reserve

Floss

Released December 15, 2016 on Las Fuegas Records

Produced by Injury Reserve

List: My Top 10 Albums of 2016 (So Far)

[Originally published June 27, 2016]

We’re living in an exhilarating time for music. 2016 alone has been quite the watershed year. Everyone from Beyoncé to Radiohead to Desiigner has hit us with a surprise release. Emo has been redefined for a new generation with help from bands like The Hotelier and Modern Baseball. We’ve bid farewell to titans like Prince, David Bowie and that guy from the Eagles. We’ve seen the rise of Simpsonwave (and still are trying to figure out what the hell it is). DIY punk continues to burgeon, and jazz and hip-hop are renewing their vows and rediscovering their passionate love for one another.

What fantastical happenings await us in round 2 of the glorious musicgasm that is 2016? How many more new Kanye albums will we get? Will Kanye even survive this year? Will Desiigner’s mixtape alter all known and unknown universes forever – or is he doomed to always be the guy who did “Panda”? Stay tuned to find out.
In the meantime, here are the choicest fruits of this year’s harvest thus far – an eclectic, entertaining, ingenious collection of records that span many genres but are tied together by one gigantic unifying thread: They all fuckin’ rock.
Enjoy my two cents – and feel free to violently vent any disagreements via the absurd magic of the Internet.
10

Whitney

Light Upon the Lake

Secretly Canadian

Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich have constructed a breezy, almost effortless collection of ten expertly crafted, folk-saturated pop tunes that recall the best of 70s AM radio. Woozy, triumphant brass, warbling keyboards and the dual falsetto of Kakacek and Ehrlich lend just the right amount of quirky psychedelic charm to summery car jams like “No Matter Where We Go” and “Follow.” It’s one of the most charming and instantly lovable records of the year – an idyllic garage-pop marriage of the minds.

Whitney – “No Matter Where We Go”

9

Sturgill Simpson

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Atlantic

In three short years and as many records, Simpson has transcended and redefined the traditional definition of the country troubadour. With the lushly orchestrated A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, he takes us even deeper into his strange, lovely universe. His classic, soulful croon glides over swoony beds of horn, organ and guitar as the recent new dad advises his son on how to navigate the stormy seas of life. Modern “country” singers would do well to take note of Simpson’s ability to deal with real human emotions in a way that’s never trite and always beautiful, grand and sweeping while still maintaining its intimacy. His lovely, understated-yet-grand cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” seems to place emphasis on the phrase “…to love someone” – a fitting summation of Simpson’s world, in which, at the end of the day, having someone to care for (and to care for you) is what matters the most.

Sturgill Simpson – “In Bloom”

8

Tegan and Sara

Love You to Death

Vapor / Warner Bros.

The Quin sisters return after a three-year hiatus following the release of 2013’s excellent Heartthrob. On Love You to Death, they continue to bring their newfound pop sensibilities to the forefront. The confusion of love and sex in the still-young millennium is explored in three-minute bursts of emotion atop bright, insanely infectious hooks on songs like the shimmering, upbeat “Boyfriend” and the stripped-back “100x.” It’s passion and pain, lust and regret, all wrapped up in a sugary-sweet, immaculately produced package. All that’s left to do is enjoy – and DANCE!

Tegan and Sara – “Boyfriend”

7

Anohni

Hopelessness

Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade

The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty hits us with a work of stark, terrifying beauty. With her unmistakable androgynous croon – flanked this time around by icy synthscapes courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never – she launches a fierce attack against the many ills of our fucked-up modern world, from global warming (“4 Degrees”) to American exceptionalism (“Marrow”) to the U.S.’s unyielding war machine (“Crisis”). She lashes out at “Violent Men” and exposes the shortcomings of President “Obama.” To be sure, it’s a major departure from the beautiful baroque pop of records like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, but the destination is more than worth the journey.

Anohni – “4 Degrees”

6

Kanye West

The Life of Pablo

GOOD / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella

Sure, it’s not his best record (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), his most enjoyable (The College Dropout), or his most experimental (Yeezus), but America’s provocateur-laureate has proven himself incapable of creating uninteresting music – or, at the very least, music that provokes a whole hell of a lot of discussion and hubbub. Yeezy’s sonic craftsmanship remains unmatched, and the music of TLOP reflects its tumultuous, fussy creation (an act that seems to still be taking place as we speak). Gospel choirs, dark atmospherics, narcissistic lyrics, and a veritable fruit salad of collaborators and genre-hopping samples abound. It can be a bit all over the place and downright brutish at times (see the T.Swift-dissing “Famous”), but in its best moments it serves as a poignant reminder of West’s fearless, uncompromising creative spirit.

Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam” (ft. Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream and Kelly Price)

5

Kendrick Lamar

untitled unmastered.

Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope

The gifted young creator of last year’s best record has consistently shown a dogged refusal to rest on his laurels, though it would be tough to blame him for doing so. Here, he documents his insatiable work ethic by presenting us with eight tracks assembled from various previously unreleased demos, some of which date back to the aftermath of 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d cityButterfly‘s riveting jazz-funk-soul-avant-garde amalgam continues to unfold and flourish, as do Lamar’s unfiltered, revolutionary lyrics. The end result is TPAB‘s less-polished but just as hungry kid brother – a deep, eccentric, laid-back affair (possibly even more so than its predecessor) that simultaneously soars far above the average B-sides and rarities disc to become a powerful statement in its own right. King Kunta reigns on.

Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 07 – 2014 – 2016”

4

David Bowie

Blackstar

ISO

On January 8, one of the world’s true musical originals released his twenty-fifth record. Three days later, he was gone. Blackstar became his final statement to listeners – and what a hell of a statement it is. As one of the most wildly experimental works of a career built upon constant left-field reinvention, it’s a disconcerting, enticing, and often gorgeous listen from start to finish. The sprawling, mystical title track; the howling sax and choral oohs of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; the warped funk of “Sue”; the frenetic, Nadsat-screeching “Girl Loves Me”; the grand vulnerability of album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – it’s all there, and it’s all magical. Appropriately, it’s also a record rife with mortality; Bowie almost seems to know death is coming for him, and he intends to go out with a bang. The beauty and fearlessness of the record is remarkable and refreshing, the kind he was always capable of and which seemed to have evaporated from his latter-day work. Just as Christ raised “Lazarus” from the dead, so does Blackstar resurrect our fallen idol in our hearts, making him live on forever despite having passed from this mortal plane. “Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me.”

David Bowie – “Blackstar”

3

Kaytranada

99.9%

XL

One of the most ambitious debuts of this year, 99.9% is a remarkably bold opus that sees the young Canadian (by way of Port-au-Prince) producer blending a variety of tropes from the last four decades of EDM – from 90s house and disco to new jack swing and trip-hop – into an immaculately-produced sound that feels instantly familiar yet uniquely and undeniably belongs to him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kaytra has assembled a winners’ circle of collaborators that make the affair something truly magical – we hear the dark, airy jazz-hop of Badbadnotgood on “Weight Off”; the ultra-confident rasp of Anderson .Paak on “Glowed Up”; the crisp, breathy vocals of Syd tha Kid on “You’re the One”; AlunaGeorge’s cool, club-ready aesthetic on the bright, Control-era Janet Jackson-channeling “Together.” It’s a sexy, slick, playful, lovingly-crafted record that honors its inspirations without resorting to pastiche or glib parody. If only all dance music could be this much fun.

2

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Parkwood / Columbia

One of 2016’s biggest and most refreshing surprises, Queen Bey’s fifth solo record is an uncompromising, unfiltered celebration of both blackness and black culture. The lyrics are a vivid, stunning exploration of heartbreak and redemption, and Bey’s message of rising above adversity has never carried more weight. Ever the gifted producer/tastemaker, Bey draws from a stunning musical palate on this record – jazz, funk, indie pop, gospel, and even boot-stompin’ country on the uplifting, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek ballad “Daddy Lessons.”  Its focal point, of course, is the cocky, jubilant “Formation,” on which Ms. Knowles-Carter, over thumping avant-soul beats, definitively acknowledges herself as both hero and provocateur, sinner and angel (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”). Anthemic, sweeping and bursting with a punchy brashness throughout, Lemonade is the perfect rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and a gigantic middle finger in the face of impotent would-be oppressors. Slay on, Queen.

Beyoncé – “Sorry”

1

Chance the Rapper

Coloring Book

Self-released

Lil Chano’s star-studded followup to last year’s Surf is a spectacular, jubilant affair – a soul-and-jazz informed, gospel-drenched celebration of life in all its triumphs and blunders, complete with choir outbursts, horn blasts courtesy of bandleader Donnie Trumpet, and wailing church organ. Chance has been blessed beyond his wildest dreams, and he couldn’t be more thankful. The only enemies he has to lash out at are the devil, whom he threatens with a “swirly,” and the record labels, whom he threatens with aggressive fans in the lobby. His braggadocio is only in the interest of the exaltation of his Lord and Savior – and in defense of the belief that the ability to remain true to oneself is a greater gift than any earthly possession. As Surf proved, Chance has a blast just getting together with his friends and creating and performing his music. You can almost see him grinning ear to ear as he rips through tracks like album opener “All We Got” (produced by none other than his mentor, one Kanye O. West) and the absurdly fun “Angels.” Creators, take note: when an artist pours their entire heart and soul into their work, this is the end result. If KRS-One was right and hip-hop is meant to uplift the people, then this is just the record to do it. It’s a landmark musical achievement and the pinnacle thus far of the career of this already-shining young star. Even if you’re an atheist, Coloring Book will have you praising God – or, at the very least, embracing the joy and beauty of everyday life on this gigantic spinning rock we call home. You ready, big fella?

Chance the Rapper – “No Problem” (ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne)

Honorable Mentions:

Death Grips / Bottomless Pit (Harvest)

Frankie Cosmos / Next Thing (Bayonet)

Har Mar Superstar / Best Summer Ever (Cult)

Lake Street Dive / Side Pony (Nonesuch)

PWR BTTM / Ugly Cherries (Father/Daughter / Miscreant)

Parquet Courts / Human Performance (Rough Trade)

Radiohead / A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

Paul Simon / Stranger to Stranger (Concord)

Teen Suicide / It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot (Run for Cover)

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down / A Man Alive (Ribbon Music)

Album Review: Parquet Courts, ‘Human Performance’

Human_Performance_(Front_Cover).png

[Originally published May 23, 2016]

When Parquet Courts basically emerged out of nowhere in late 2012 with their superb proper studio debut Light Up Gold, critics and listeners were instantly taken aback: here was a group that combined the airtight melodies and smart-ass lyrical turns of Pavement with the loudSOFTloud dynamics of the Pixies, all while managing to display a completely original sound. With 2014’s dual-release of Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea, the group built on these foundations, adding just a twist of country-soaked rock to the mix.

On Human Performance, their fourth LP, vocalists/guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage, let completely loose, sounding more unified and brazenly confident in their sound than ever. It’s a legitimate rock record if there ever was one, packed with lovely, melodic chord changes, whip-smart turns of phrase, and just the right amount of fuzzy weirdness.

The album opens with a few seconds of chugging guitar before launching directly into the delightfully eccentric single-chord air pollution anthem “Dust.” Thumping drums and wacky keyboard noodling augment the song’s ridiculous, almost juvenile lyrics (“It comes through the window/It comes through the floor/It comes through the roof/And it comes through the door”). The track is fairly straightforward until something magical happens: it starts to gain momentum, with the band piling on layer after layer of sound until – suddenly stopping. It’s moments like this that define what Parquet Courts is: a gathering of brilliant folks who aren’t afraid to experiment, juggle styles and have some fun in the process.

These moments are to be found in no short supply on Human Performance. In fact, things get downright insane more often than not. “I Was Just There” clocks in at just under two minutes, but the sheer weirdness of the thing – the 7/4 time signature, the angular-as-hell harmonies, the repetitive, droning, staccato vocals, the abrupt switch to speedy punk in the track’s final seconds – leave a mark on the listener’s psyche after just one listen. “Captive of the Sun” is a silly romp with semi-rapped stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a quasi-robotic beat and a tingling vibraphone; it also happens to include some of the most deliriously entertaining lyrics the band has ever penned (“I sightread the chart, clap the rocks into sand/A 12-pass van on a pothole bandstand/Got an oil-can hangover by default/And trucks pave the roads with amphetamine salt”). The understated love ballad “Steady on My Mind,” with its soft, sweet guitar and drum-bass grumble, makes for one of the record’s most unsettling yet lovely moments.

Then, we come across the goofy epic “One Man No City,” a gripping meditation on personal isolation, manages to sound simultaneously monotone and urgent. Featuring jangly, Peter Buck-esque guitar and the tapping of conga drums, the track culminates in a turbulent, vamping outro topped with an off-kilter guitar solo. The whole thing is very reminiscent of the Fall’s best work from the 80s – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Savage’s vocals are a big part of what makes the record so enjoyable. He gives us his best Joe Strummer on lead single “Berlin Got Blurry” as a Smiths-like bed of guitar, organ, drums and bass babble behind him. On “Paraphrased,” he weaves back and forth seamlessly between paranoid barking and whispered incantation; he sings softly and ever-so-slightly off key over the automated beats and shrieking, wobbly guitar of “Keep It Even,” then returns to his nervous yelp on the straightforward hardcore punk jam “Two Dead Cops.”

Even in its relatively less “out there” moments, the album finds the band working its signature kind of DIY magic. The title track is a lovely, psychedelic number alternating between light verses and heavy choruses, telling wistfully and eruditely of a lost love (“I know I loved you/Did I even deserve it/When you returned it?…Breathing beside me, feeling its warmness/Phantom affection gives a human performance”). “Outside” sounds like a slightly less polished version of Wilco – the band whose Loft, incidentally, was chosen as the location for part of the album’s recording.

The record closes on two stellar country-inspired tracks: “Pathos Prairie,” a jittery, garage-meets-rockabilly examination of modern human behavior; and the slow-fizzling “It’s Gonna Happen,” highlighting the lethargic dueling vocals of Brown and Savage and ultimately fading away quietly into ambient noise.

Overall, Human Performance serves as the perfect showcase of the ambitious, witty, bizarre, and brilliantly produced garage rock with which Parquet Courts have made a name for themselves. These four gents have proven themselves the future of rock; here’s hoping that that future only further emboldens their creative spirits. (9.1/10)

Parquet Courts

Human Performance

Released April 8, 2016 on Rough Trade Records

Produced by Austin Brown

Album Review: Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’


img_5061

[Originally published May 1, 2016]

Beyoncé will not apologize for being a black woman. The Destiny’s Child leader-turned-pop powerhouse, whose star has risen to quasi-messianic heights—whose very name has become synonymous with black feminism and empowerment—looks down from her throne on high and laughs at your “All Lives Matter” protests, your angry reactions to the Super Bowl XL halftime show, your general attitude of belligerent racism. She has no time for any of that. She’s too busy making the world a better place with her music.

Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth studio effort and her second to be released in a visual format, is a multimedia feminist masterwork. It’s a concept album of sorts, documenting a woman’s journey to emotional and social emancipation. By this point, we’ve all seen the phenomenal HBO short film that accompanied the release and can agree it’s spectacular in every way. But what’s really important here is the music – and the powerful message which that music conveys.

Bey spends the first quarter of the album bemoaning a love gone awry. The minimalist “Pray You Catch Me” opens the record with breathy harmonies that hearken back to Bey’s Destiny’s Child days but simultaneously mirrors the bizarre, angular harmonies of groups like Dirty Projectors. It gradually swells, adding somber strings, keys and echoing background voices. The sense of longing for connection is tangible in her voice: “My lonely ear/Pressed against the walls of your world…I’m prayin’ you catch me listenin’.” “Hold Up” perfectly highlights the lower range of Bey’s voice; she sings with a slight Jamaican lilt, backed by pizzicato strings. This track marks the point when we begin to feel the singer’s growing anger at a lover who remains anonymous: “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch…What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?”

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” opens with a rumbling drum loop and angelic voices. Bey enters, raspily and full of rage, bragging of her sexual prowess and furiously scorning the unnamed betrayer: “Who the fuck do you think I am…Tonight I’m fuckin’ up all your shit, boy.” The track features guest vocals and production from Jack White and is appropriately heavy and raw. It’s truly a breakup tune for the ages. The sentiment continues on the gleefully pissed-off “Sorry” (as in “I ain’t…”), the video version of which features Bey riding a bus packed with swaying black girls in tribal makeup, proudly waving their middle fingers in the air. “Today I regret the night I put that ring on,” she mutters.

Having lost her love and her sanity, the singer soon learns to love and appreciate herself, and we feel her confidence increasing as the album progresses. “6 Inch” is a dark, ethereal track in which Bey sings about herself as a powerful female presence who “works for the money from the start to the finish” and who is “worth every dollar and…worth every minute.” “Daddy Lessons” is a jazz-tinged country boot-stomper worthy of a Tarantino soundtrack, complete with a brass section and acoustic guitar. Bey sings about her late father raising her to be a “tough girl” and offers up a lethal warning to any man fool enough to do her wrong: “When trouble comes to town/And men like me come around/Oh, my daddy said shoot.” It’s a lovely and inspiring—if not slightly bizarre—moment that shows Bey’s range as a performer.

However, it seems that reconciliation is not far around the corner. On the airy, sensual, Mike Dean-produced “Love Drought,” Bey begs the lover she previously scorned to reconnect with her: “Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying/But nine times outta ten, I know you’re trying/So I’m trying to be fair/And you’re trying to be there and to care.” Then comes what is arguably the album’s starkest, most naked moment—the piano ballad “Sandcastles.” Bey verges on tears, her voice straining and cracking as she expresses her uncontrollable regret at leaving her lover behind. The song flows directly into the understated interlude “Forward,” which features a sensual vocal from James Blake. Finally, on the soulful, horn-filled “All Night,” the narrator comes full circle and seems willing to return to her lover’s arms: “Our love was stronger than your pride…If you get deep, you touch my mind/Baptize your tears and dry your eyes.”

In the midst of these emotions, we are swept into the deafening roar of “Freedom,” an electrifying anthem of the fight for equality packed with thumping war drums, thunderous organ, and monstrous gospel-choir hooks. It stands as one of the most powerful civil rights statements of this decade as well as one of the album’s strongest moments – especially when Kendrick Lamar, at this point without question our generation’s greatest rhyme-smith, drops one of the fiercest, most confident verses of his career. The track ends with a recorded speech from Jay-Z’s mother that gives the album its title. “I had my ups and downs,” declares Hattie White, “but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” That’s the overriding sentiment of the record: no matter what life throws at Bey, she’ll bounce back with a vengeance.

And then, there’s “Formation.” Has there, in this century, been a more positive, unabashed, triumphant affirmation of blackness? “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana,” our singer proudly proclaims. “You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas ‘bama/I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” I remember how overjoyed I was the first time I heard the song and saw the video. Bey fearlessly rocks her braids and Givenchy dress, double-daring tight-lipped white folks to try and deride her. The track ends with a sly jab at the haters: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation/Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

In addition to her irrefutable talent as a musician, Bey is a masterful producer—a skill for which she doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Samples are drawn from across music history: Animal Collective, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Isaac Hayes, OutKast, Andy Williams, King Crimson, Led Zep and an Alan and John Lomax field recording. The end result is a complex, stunning musical palate that offers the ideal housing for Ms. Knowles-Carter’s unique vocal sensibilities.

Ultimately, Lemonade spans the entire spectrum of human emotion and highlights a desire for both human connection and social equality. It’s a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement – and one that won’t easily be ignored. Rest assured we’ll be talking about this record for decades to come. America’s most beloved performer has struck gold once more.

“‘Cause I slay, ’cause I slay,” Bey repeats in the chorus to “Formation.” Oh, does she ever. (9.2/10)

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Released April 23, 2016 by Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records

Produced by Beyoncé Knowles, Kevin Garrett, Diplo, Ezra Koenig, Jack White, Wynter Gordon, Kevin Cossom, MeLo-X, Danny Boy Styles, Ben Billions, Boots, Mike Dean, Vincent Berry II, James Blake, Jonathan Coffer, Just Blaze, and Mike Will Made It

Album Review: White Lung, ‘Paradise’

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[Originally published May 18, 2016]

We’re living in an amazing time for female-centric DIY rock. Raw, unyielding artists like Bully, Hop Along, Girlpool, and Courtney Barnett have taken center stage in recent years and simultaneously stolen the hearts and minds of fans and critics alike.

One of this particular movement’s brightest beacons has been Vancouver natives White Lung. Formed in 2006, the three-piece outfit, led by charismatic vocalist Mish Way, released three brilliant, rip-roaring records over the span of 4 years, ending with 2014’s excellent Deep Fantasy, a thunderous, passionate work that garnered them much-deserved attention within the punk stratosphere.

However, the group seems to have lost its way on its latest opus, Paradise. The dark, naked sounds of Deep Fantasy have given way to desperate yet tepid pop-punk – which is harmless in its own right, but is this really the message White Lung wants to convey?

There are a few bright points – and most of them are to be found in vivid lyrical turns from Way. “I will give birth in a trailer/Huffing the gas in the air,” she snarls on the truly vicious “Kiss Me When I Bleed.” “Baby is born in molasses/Like I would even care.” On “Narcoleptic,” she half-shouts out a dark tale of drugs and recovery: “I gave up the seasons/To get straight and cop a reason/Wipe off his old drug blade/Run home and die unpaid.”

But overall, we hear the same basic elements – whiny, shivery guitar solos, tolling keyboards, thumpy, galumphing drums – you might expect from a band like, say, Trapt. Or one of the less hardcore groups on the Vans Warped Tour roster. Or perhaps some twisted amalgam of Paramore, Evanescence, and Breaking Benjamin. There’s generally very little on this record to distinguish it from the rest of the vast ocean of pop-punk detritus that’s flooded us for the last decade or so.

Don’t get me wrong, Paradise isn’t a terrible record, per se – just a confused and ultimately forgettable one. Way has a compelling and powerful voice, bubbling with angst and conviction that brings a certain urgency to even her more inane statements. And from a lyrical and productional standpoint – thanks in no small part to straightforward polishing from Lars Stalfors (HEALTH, Matt and Kim, Cold War Kids, The Mars Volta) – the band has never sounded more confident and cohesive. But the record collapses under the weight of the uninspired aesthetic they seem to be espousing. Thankfully, the whole experience is over in a brisk 28 minutes, so it’s worth listening to at least once. Enter at your own risk. You have been warned. (7.0/10)

White Lung
Paradise
Released May 6, 2016 by Domino Recording Co.
Produced by Lars Stalfors

Classic Album Review: The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Adore’

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[Originally published January 3, 2016]

Nineteen ninety-seven: Catapulted to superstardom by the massive epics Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins found themselves at the forefront of mid-90s alt-rock. Billy Corgan’s signature snarling vocals, shrieking guitar, cryptic lyrics, and bald head helmed the band and helped established them as the premiere arty, angsty eccentrics of the post-grunge era. However, the years following the exhausting Mellon Collie tour were among the group’s most tempestuous. Corgan separated from his wife, lost his mother to cancer, developed an addiction to downers and ecstasy, and saw his close friend and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin part ways with the band. Still, he and co-founders D’Arcy Wretzky and James Iha soldiered on, with session drummers Joey Waronker (Beck), Matt Walker (Filter), and Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) in tow, and continued their recording sessions. Despite all this turbulence, the end result was Adore—possibly the most cohesive and lovely record the Pumpkins (now basically Corgan and whoever he chooses to surround himself with) have ever released.

As a whole, Adore is remarkably understated—a notable departure from the sonic grandiosity of its predecessors. In other words, there’s nothing here quite so gritty as, say, “X.Y.U.” or “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” Even the heavier guitar-driven tracks, such as the intense, Gothic “Daphne Descends” and the angry dirge “Tear,” sound oddly quiet. Yet, for all their subtlety, the songs still feel huge, abounding with the Pumpkins’ magical, chilling melodies and exhilarating chord changes. (I found “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” “For Martha,” and the spacy album closer “Blank Page” particularly swoon-inducing.)

Musically, the album possesses a somewhat narrower palate than the sprawling Mellon Collie—its 74 minutes are chiefly occupied by dark, shoegazy love songs—but is by no means lacking in ambition. The band’s growing fascination with electronics is apparent throughout—see “Appels + Oranjes,” “Pug,” and the breezy “Perfect,” which even feels a lot like a revamping of the runaway hit “1979.” The sad, sublime “For Martha” morphs itself into a full-fledged rock epic over the course of eight minutes, with Mellon Collie-esque piano giving way to a grand climax. Some of the record’s best moments, however, are its quietest; opener “To Sheila” is a serene ballad filled with quavering piano and whispering guitar, and the barebones piano number “Annie-Dog” is almost disorienting in its starkness.

The songwriting feels substantially different as well. Corgan—a man known for bombastic arrangements and lyrical flights-of-fancy—confines himself to Earth’s gravity to present us with some of his most straightforward, least pretentious songwriting to date. His words traverse familiar territory—lust, angst, depression, confusion and loss—with the difference being that the writing sounds less flashy and more mature, often revolving around simple, repeated refrains—We must never be apart. You make me real. You love him. You were never meant to belong to me. The voice that spoke directly to a nation of angst-ridden teens on Mellon Collie has grown up considerably.

Ultimately, Adore was a critically polarizing effort that splintered the Pumpkins’ fanbase and experienced minimal commercial success, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the lot it received. It’s a melancholy, darkly beautiful, compelling work that in many ways feels like the logical next step from Mellon Collie. After an overwhelming and emotionally taxing journey through vast sonic landscapes, the band retreats into more peaceable environs—and creates a new kind of magic in the process. (9.0/10)

The Smashing Pumpkins
Adore
Released June 2, 1998 on Virgin Records
Produced by Billy Corgan, Flood and Brad Wood

Classic Album Review: Bjork, ‘Vulnicura’

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[Originally published January 1, 2016]

The old artistic adage of “beauty from pain” has become tired and hackneyed at this point, but occasionally, a work comes along that truly fits every facet of that definition. Vulnicura, Björk’s surprise ninth studio effort and her latest since 2011’s Biophilia, is one of those works. Written in the midst of Björk’s separation from artist Matthew Barney, Vulnicura is a turbulent, gorgeous masterpiece, filmic in scope and fraught with moments of pain, catharsis and healing. Some of Ms. Guðmundsdóttir’s most poignant songwriting and most awe-inspiring instrumentation can be found on this record, which stands tall among the best of an already masterful career.

Vulnicura begins with the sweeping, seven-song saga of Björk’s dissolving relationship, marked in the record booklet with the time each song was written relative to her divorce. In typical Björkian fashion, she transforms the painful tale into high art, rife with scientific metaphor and universe-speak. Album opener “Stonemilker” (“9 months before”) documents a slowly deteriorating love, suffering from lack of communication; it starts with somber string tones that gradually build into a grandiose soundscape with synthetic drum pulsing in the background as Björk coos, “We have emotional needs, oh needs, oh needs/I only wish to synchronize our feelings.”

As the record continues, we feel the relationship decay further and Björk’s desperation deepen; on the vocoder-heavy “Lionsong” (“5 months before”), she begins to ponder whether their love is even worth saving. The delicate “History of Touches” (“3 months before”) finds her voicing a soft incantation to Barney over icy choir tones, expressing a need for sexual intimacy and connection.

The 10-minute centerpiece “Black Lake” (“2 months after”) brings the chronicle to a head. Backed by a funereal string section, Björk sings as one defeated and abandoned: “Our love was my womb, but our bond has broken/My shield is gone, my protection is taken…My heart is an enormous lake black with potions.” Her initial hurt gradually expands into mourning and turns to rage; by the time we reach the turbulent drive of “Notget” (“11 months after”), the strings themselves are lashing out like wild beasts as she howls the almost sarcastic refrain, “Love will keep all of us safe from death.”

“Notget,” however, seems to mark the point where healing begins, and it continues with “Atom Dance,” which features the soulful guest vocals of Antony Hegarty. This dance is a fierce but harmonious one—despite the violence of Björk’s and Barney’s separation, they are now at peace with one another and can coexist, “dancing towards transformation” and letting “this ugly wound breathe.”

So ends the saga—but not the drama. Björk uses the album’s remaining space to discuss two other traumatic events in her life: a throat operation that left her literally speechless for three weeks (the arty meditation “Mouth Mantra”) and her mother’s coma-inducing 2011 heart attack  (“Quicksand”).

The drama of Björk’s story is augmented by virtuosic co-production from Venezuela native Arca, who previously worked with Kanye West on Yeezus and FKA twigs on LP1. Bobby Krlic (aka the Haxan Cloak) lends a hand on “Family” as well. The basic ingredients here are simple enough—strings, synthesized drumbeats, and voice—but all three producers use them to work marvels, creating a lush universe with a whole lot going on, but which still manages to sound stark and spare.

The true star of any Björk record, of course, is her remarkable voice— effortlessly transitioning between quavering wisp and impassioned cry, capable of childlike plaintiveness one moment and angsty theatricality the next. Her voice serves as the album’s uniting force, allowing her to sustain the mood of each individual track for considerable amounts of time (only two tracks clock in below the six-minute mark).

Thus, Iceland’s most famous resident triumphs once again, organizing the past four years of her life into a sprawling, artful reflection upon life itself—a reflection that reveals itself more and more with each listen. Björk’s inner anguish has, indeed, yielded a powerful work of art. (9.3/10)

Björk

Vulnicura

Released January 20, 2015 on One Little Indian Records
Produced by Björk, Alejandro Ghersi and Bobby Krlic