Album Review: The xx, ‘I See You’

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Following a five-year absence, the xx have returned with some of their strongest, loveliest and most sophisticated work yet in I See You. The record packs a remarkable level of emotional drama into its 38 minutes, with fearless producer Jamie xx (whose terrific 2015 coming-out party In Colour hinted at a uniquely eclectic shift in sound), guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wearing their stadium aspirations proudly on their sleeves.

The Londonite four-piece-turned-trio cut a major swath in the alternative universe with their 2009 debut xx, a stark, skeletal, mesmerizing record that stripped indie dance-pop down to its most basic elements. The follow-up, 2012’s Coexist, saw the band take an even more minimalistic approach to songcraft, with some tracks reserved to only ringing, shoegazy guitar and quavering vocals. With I See You, they expand their creative palates to create a fascinating, dreamy meld of house, post-punk and shoegaze.

It’s clear the band is doing things differently this time around, and they make a point of telling you as much from the start of the opening track. “Dangerous” begins with grandiose horn noises before breaking into a dancefloor-ready drum-bass beat. The beat thumps on infectiously as Croft and Sim croon about entering and navigating a love affair with reckless abandon: “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/Then I won’t say goodbye.”

Working with regular collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie makes ample use of his newly-refined prowess as an electronic producer on this record. He plays a pivotal role in the band’s new musical direction, his lush, intoxicating sonic textures form an ideal foundation for the aching sentiments of his bandmates. The arrangements are warmer and more complex, yet they retain the chilly shimmer of the group’s previous work. The ringing, U2-esque guitar is still very much present, but this time it’s buttressed by the sounds of organ, horns, strings (including avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson on viola), and – in a notable first for the group – the prominent use of vocal samples. The samples aren’t exactly obscure (soft-rockers Alessi Brothers on the vaguely dubstep “Say Something Loving,” Trio Mediæval on the divinely hypnotic two-become-one anthem “Lips”), but they’re expertly woven into the record’s motif and elevate the meanings of the songs themselves instead of functioning as mere ornaments.

As songwriters and as vocalists, Sim and Croft have never sounded stronger or more self-assured than on I See You; Croft, in particular, seems to drift out of her comfort zone, displaying a more dynamic side of her reserved, breathy voice. The duo have mastered the art of exuding passion in their vocals and words while still maintaining a sort of detached coolness. They often have admitted in interviews to singing “over” each other instead of “to” one another – a dynamic that serves the group and their music well as their lyrics keep a delicate balance between desire for human connection and observing connection from a distance with a cold exactness. “It’s so overwhelming/The thrill of affection feels so unfamiliar,” they sigh on “Say Something Loving”; “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”

This lyrical focus – love, intimacy and youth as a disjointed, alien experience  – continues throughout the album. “A Violent Noise” uses a distinctly club beat, albeit far darker and more subdued, to evoke the experience of young clubgoers and the abstract numbness and confusion youth and clubgoing constantly entail – the feeling of being alone on a crowded dancefloor. “With every kiss from a friend/with everything I pretend not to feel,” Sim sings. “Am I too high? Am I too proud?/Is the music too loud for me to hear?” On “Replica,” somber, airy guitar and church organ-like chords flutter over thumping bass as the two contemplate the struggle to avoid imitating the mistakes of the preceding generation: “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat…Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”

Emphatic lead single “On Hold” presents an interesting contradiction. It’s one of the brightest, most upbeat songs the xx have ever crafted, packed with soaring synth notes and crackling breakbeats, yet its lyrics overflow with isolation and a fruitless quest for understanding, complete with astronomical imagery (“The stars and the charts and the cards make sense/Only when we want them to/When I lie awake staring in to space/I see a different view…Now you’ve found a new star to orbit…When and where did we go cold?”) A chopped-up, garbled sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” transforms into a Tower of Babel, enhancing the supreme bewilderment and disorientation. Altogether, the track is a gorgeously subdued statement that ranks among the group’s best.

The devastating “Performance,” which bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the band’s previous work of anything found on I See You, is another standout moment. Here, Croft’s voice levitates over a barebones guitar/bass backdrop and swelling, brutish orchestration courtesy of Paul Frith and the Iskra String Quartet as she all-too-appropriately connects the concealing of emotion to a stage act (“If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say…I do it all so you won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”). The song touches upon a crucial point; after all, what is love in our modern world – indeed, what is the very art of music – if not the adoption of personae, the projection of feeling – an elaborately staged performance? Croft’s words take on an even greater poignancy when, ultimately, the illusion becomes reality as she and her lover drift further apart (“The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me”).

It’s the closing track, “Test Me,” however, that drives the whole thing home. The song begins as a slow, unadorned dirge with minimal percussion but gathers energy in its final minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of wailing synths, vocals and drums to form a hauntingly vivid soundscape. Add Croft’s and Sim’s entreats for their respective lovers to “take it out on me,” and it’s an incredibly heartbreaking note on which to end this record. But heartbreak is what the xx do best, and here they manage to find new and intriguing ways to express it.

I See You is a beautiful and magnificently realized work that highlights the xx’s individual and collective strengths while successfully challenging them to explore uncharted territory. If you’re still in need of proof of their relevance and vitality in an age when lackluster, play-it-safe “alternative” music chokes the airwaves, this is the record to do it. This group is a force of extraordinary gravitas and potency, and it’s sure to be thrilling to watch what they do next. (8.4/10)

The xx

I See You

Released January 13, 2017 by Young Turks

Produced by Jamie xx, Rodaidh McDonald and Romy Madley Croft

Classic Album Review: Deerhunter, ‘Monomania’

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[Originally published May 10, 2013]

As I write this, I have not yet finished listening to Deerhunter’s sixth studio effort; my Spotify is not reacting well to the poor Internet connection in my bedroom, and it’s turning into this whole big deal. But judging simply from the 8 of its 12 tracks I’ve heard at this point, I can confidently state that I am in love with this record. It’s just that incredible.

The recently reunited Bradford Cox and co. are in top form on Monomania. The classic elements are all here: Cox’s imitation-Lennon-via-George Harrison vocals, substantial but never overstated; Lockett Pundt’s jangly, endlessly echo-y guitar riffs; and the truly hip percussion work of Moses Archuleta, all wrapped in a swirling cocoon of feedback and garage-fuzz. And yet, the group’s playing has rarely ever sounded tighter than on this record—thanks in large part to the addition of able-handed newcomers Frankie Broyles and Josh McKay on guitar and bass, respectively. The band also happens to have expanded their musical palate, with the various players jamming on Indonesian gamelan, Wurlitzer, Baldwin organ, and steel guitar, among other nifty gadgets. (Okay, not quite as striking as the random sax solo on their 2010 record Halcyon Digest’s “Coronado,” but still pretty damn striking.)

The songwriting rocks, too, with Cox’s and a bit of Pundt’s (“The Missing”) beautiful, cryptic lyrics exploring previously virgin territories of paranoia, alienation, and confused love. Each track begins with a lovely and devastatingly infectious hook that lets you know instantly that it’s going to be fantastic. From the tinny fog-machine opening of “Neon Junkyard” to the drum-saturated whir that closes out “Leather Jacket II” to the laid-back sighs of “Dream Captain” and “The Missing,” each of these songs will ease its way into your brain and heart. (Expect to hear “Back to the Middle” played sporadically at a Hollister near you—and expect to love it to pieces.)

With all these powerful, radio-ready hooks—along with tasteful production from the band and veteran co-worker Nicolas Vernhes (Microcastle)—this could easily be considered Deerhunter’s “poppiest” record. Indeed, they’ve been easing away from the experimental tendencies of their early records in favor of a more pop-oriented sound (a listen to the stellar cut “Memory Boy” from Halcyon should give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

But Monomania, like most of the group’s work, is “poppy” in the sense that it mirrors one certain Kurt Cobain’s efforts to create the “perfect pop song” with just a smidgen of grungy grit. And when these guys lay on the grit, boy, do they ever lay it on thick. Listen to the quirky, rowdy noise-jam/freak-outs at the end of the title track and “Leather Jacket” (themselves a testament to the clear blast the reunited ensemble had in the studio this time around) and you’d swear this record was made in 1992, hand-produced by Albini himself. But this is by no means a grunge throwback, nor is it a sloppy throwaway effort; the band once again does a stellar job of combining their varied influences with their own unflinching avant-garde vision.

In the end, the best thing about Monomania is that it provides us with a peek at something truly magical: a band doing what they do best, to the best of their ability–and obviously loving every feedback-soaked minute of it. (8.7/10)

Deerhunter

Monomania

Released May 7, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Nicolas Vernhes

Classic Film Review: ‘Nebraska’

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[Originally published March 18, 2014]

In this era of modern cinema—namely, with the arrival and ubiquity of color film—black and white film has enjoyed a considerable boost in popularity. It has come to signify an awareness of and appreciation for the glorified days of early cinema—there was, obviously, a time when every film was shot this way. However, such films can come off as contrived and pretentious, even unoriginal—something that any poor sap with a Monochrome setting on his video camera can create. Alexander Payne’s latest opus Nebraska, however, was clearly filmed this way for a reason.

The film opens on a series of wide shots showing a grizzled geezer in a black jacket hobbling determinedly alongside a treacherous Montana freeway. As it turns out, this old fellow is Korean War veteran Woody Grant (played by prolific Western star Bruce Dern). A fraudulent piece of publisher’s junk mail has led the boozy, emotionally distant Woody to believe he has won a million dollars, and he intends to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (hence, the title) to claim his earnings—all much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and their grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David eventually decides to drive his father to Lincoln. En route to their destination, they organize a family reunion in Woody’s tiny, eccentric hometown of Hawthorne. There, they encounter plenty of would-be well-wishers eager to cash in on Woody’s newfound wealth—including his shady former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

With Nebraska, Mr. Payne (About Schmidt, The Descendants, et al) has once again brought a compelling, heartbreaking, and gorgeous story to the screen, thanks in large part to a well-chosen and able-bodied cast.

Throughout a career spanning half a century, the 77-year-old Dern has either been tragically underutilized or typecast as a psychopathic villain. Now, at long last, he seems to have arrived at a role deserving of the masterful craftsmanship and acting range. In this touching, emotionally raw performance—by far the best of his career—Dern is the film’s tragic hero. With his unkempt hair and thick stubble; his gravelly, wobbly whisper of a voice; and the eternal look of bewilderment in his gaunt face, Woody Grant is a man contending with his own mortality and the mistakes of his past, but with a fading grip on the present. We see him come to terms with a long history of alcohol abuse and a less-than-idyllic family dynamic, all while he struggles to ultimately regain his will to live—he intends, for instance, to buy a brand new truck with his prize money “just to have it.”

Heavy drama touched with light wit has become a Payne trademark, and Dern’s performance brings this to the forefront. We find ourselves, as viewers, affected in opposing ways by the saga of this confused old man and his worried family. We despair alongside Woody when his ex-bar buddies belittle him for believing in the sweepstakes hoax, though all the while we knew he had it coming. We get plenty of snickers out of his forlorn antics, but are still heartbroken by his slow descent into senility.

Not to be overlooked is former About Schmidt scene-stealer Squibb, whose Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska showcases tenacity and guts that rival those of actresses a third her age (she’s 85, thank you very much). While we delight in Kate’s colorful, merciless commentary on hers and Woody’s younger days in Hawthorne (in one memorable scene, she flashes an ex-lover’s grave to show what he “missed out on”), we also sympathize with her plight as a devoted wife who wants her husband to get on the right track. “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire,” she exclaims upon learning of Woody’s alleged winnings. “He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

SNL alums Forte and Odenkirk, meanwhile, set their boisterous comedic chops aside for a while and counter the frenzied personalities of Squibb and Dern with a firm grounding in reality. In so doing, both men successfully demonstrate their impressive range as performers.

Now back to the elephant in the room—Payne’s decision to shoot the entire film in black and white, with help from perennial collaborator Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants, Sideways). Granted, it’s commendable that the notion was fully realized, and when it works—which it does, for the most part—it’s brilliant. Yes, monochromatic images of David unsuccessfully attempting to sell a stereo system to a young couple and Nebraskan locals fumbling their way through karaoke tunes are odd and a bit, dare I say, contrived. However, we see the method to Payne’s madness when we encounter stark, sweeping wide shots of the rambling Midwestern landscape through which father and son travel—all augmented by a lovely, sparse, and folk-tinged score from multi-instrumentalist Mark Orton. It’s a stark contrast from the lush Hawaiian backdrop of 2011’s Descendants—a film which, interestingly enough, lost to a silent film throwback, The Artist, for Best Picture that year.

What’s more, this black-and-white world further highlights the nature of its haggard, embattled protagonist. At one point, we close in on Woody, gazing out into a barren field surrounding what remains of his childhood home. “I was gonna be a farmer,” he sighs. “I don’t know what happened.” And in that poignant moment, we feel just as uncertain as he does.

Nebraska has its flaws, but they are minimal in contrast to the end result. It’s a beautiful, brilliantly executed story that explores not only a journey through the Midwest, but the far more rugged journey through human life—a journey which, like it or not, all of us travel together. (8.8/10)

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Nebraska

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk

DoP: Phedon Papamichael

Black-and-white, 114 mins.

Released by Paramount Vantage (November 15, 2013)

Classic Album Review: The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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[Originally published May 24, 2013]

When you think about it, the National bears striking similarity to Arcade Fire. Both are independently-born merchants of arty post-punk/folk anthems with impassioned lyrics. Each has spawned countless imitators who, despite their earnest efforts, have never been able to truly duplicate its sound. They have both created a genre all their own and revolutionized music forever within the first decade of this fledgling century.

That being said, who’s stopping the National from making an Arcade Fire album?

Does that frighten you? It shouldn’t. True, Trouble Will Find Me – the sixth studio effort from the Cincinnatian-turned-Brooklynite sextet, and their first since 2010’s High Violet  sounds a hell of a lot like the brilliant work of those darn Canadians. The soaring choruses and ooh-aahing choirs are there, as is the cryptic, passionate songwriting. Need I mention that Richard Reed Parry (yes, that Richard Reed Parry) plays bass, piano, and God-knows-what-else?!

But that’s not all. The album’s collaborators are a laundry list of art-indie’s cream of the crop, including (but not limited to): Sufjan Stevens and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on keyboards; backing vocals from St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten; and bits and pieces provided by members of Beirut, Dark Dark Dark, Antony and the Johnsons, Bedroom Community, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Clogs (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s instrumental side project).

Okay. Take a breath. Just soak all that collaboration in. Okay. On we go.

This potpourri of co-conspirators may seem overwhelming – a post-punk New Year’s Eve of sorts, where it seems impossible for each component to have an ample say. And yet the band manages to incorporate all these varied influences into one coherent whole and wrap them in its trademark blanket of chilly New Wave-influenced post-punk. Thus, on Trouble Will Find Me, the band creates something truly unique, yet strangely familiar.

The album opens with soft Dessner guitar over a shimmering post-punk landscape as frontman Matt Berninger’s weary baritone shivers, “You should know me better than that/I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”

Next comes the imposing, dark single “Demons.” It’s a repetitive, dreamy, ageless-sounding drone with eerie guitar humming and a thin wall of strings in the distance. Think Nick Cave fronting Disintegration-era Cure. Here Berninger even squeezes in a rare obscenity (it starts with an ‘F’) that can easily go unnoticed by casual listeners.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is one of the many standout tracks on the album. Synthetic drums and siren guitars envelop a somber yet somehow hopeful tale of death and loss. “When they ask what do I see,” croons Berninger, “I see a bright white beautiful heaven hangin’ over me.”

The mesmerizing instrumentation continues throughout the record. From the gorgeous muted guitar-piano conversation and fluttering strings of “Fireproof” to the slow, spaced-out 3/4 keyboard dirge of “Heavenfaced” to the jazzy piano and urgent fretwork of “Pink Rabbits,” there’s rarely a dull moment on any of the thirteen tracks–or rather, rarely a moment that feels commonplace. The whole thing gives the listener the feel of waking up at 4:30 AM – in New York City, perhaps – barely awake, just beginning to make sense of things.

In case you haven’t noticed, this album has a certain overriding theme as far as songwriting is concerned. It’s a darkly meditative opus, lyrics awash with regret over mistakes made on both sides of some nameless relationship. And as we’ve come to expect from these guys, the writing is top-notch. “I’m having trouble inside my skin/I try to keep my skeletons in,” coos Berninger over cool synthscapes and guitar rings on the serene “Slipped.” “I’ll be your friend and a fuckup and everything/But I’ll never be anything you want me to be.”

Berninger, of course, to continue the Arcade Fire compare-contrast, bears little resemblance to Win Butler with his Ian Curtis-meets-Steve Kilbey vocals. But though he sounds apathetic and distant to the layman, his voice has a certain peculiar passion to them; when he growls “I need my girl,” you’re thoroughly convinced that he does need his girl.  When that voice is put in context with its surroundings, it works spine-tingling miracles.

Trouble Will Find Me is full of lovelorn romanticism and aching regret – with just a hint of hope for redemption. This is an art of which the National can pride themselves on being masters. Coating their canvas with a shroud of darkness, they simultaneously touch it up with spots of light and beauty. What results is a grandly emotive and frightfully powerful record – one of the best of the year thus far – and further proof that these six young men figure big among the musicians that matter most today. (8.4/10)

The National

Trouble Will Find Me

Released May 21, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner

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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25

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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23

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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21

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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18

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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17

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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16

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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15

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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14

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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10

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.


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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.


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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.
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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