Literary Fun With Text Mining

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My wife is doing her PhD in political science on the topic of political interest groups and how they use social media to disseminate information and reach new audiences, and how they utilize this new(ish wow we’re old) medium to effect voting behaviour. Part of this has meant learning how to mine Twitter data and analyze it through the R programming language; in order to provide technical support and to have someone to troubleshoot coding issues, I’ve also been learning to use R to mine and analyze texts. What I’ve been concentrating on, in order to learn the language and the processes, is using it to mine and visualize data gathered from fictional texts, specifically the bibliography of Stephen King. What I want to do is to analyze plot trajectories drawn from sentiment data – quantitative measures of emotional sentiment words based on established dictionaries used for that sort of thing. Research questions on this would include things like: is there a pattern that King has for his plots, based on emotional language cues? Is this pattern, if any, different from other well-known horror writers? Furthermore, are there established “archetypal” emotional plot patterns for horror books, and do these patterns differ when you switch genres – say, to fantasy, military science fiction, paranormal romance, etc. etc. down the fracture lines of human experience.

So to start I’ll be going book by book through the King bibliography and presenting what are basically preliminary findings based on the sentiment dictionaries included in the quanteda package for R: Afinn, Bing et al, and the NRC emotional sentiment dictionary. Ultimately none of these will be ideal; a custom dictionary for emotional sentiment specifically in literature would be necessary to really capture a more accurate picture, but this is where linguistics comes in and I don’t have much formal training in that area. My on-paper expertise is in English literature and political science, and while Stuart Soroka’s Lexicoder program is what I’ll likely use to build and code the custom dictionary, the Lexicoder topic dictionaries that exist to date are meant to examine political speech rather than literary texts. Building my own will take a lot of time and research.

This should be fairly quick work up until about 1989 or so – The Dark Half, at any rate. I happen to think it’s the absolute nadir of his oeuvre, a self-indulgent author-insert story used to deal with the professional regret of outing his pseudonym and failing his dream of being Donald Westlake/Richard Stark. From Carrie to Tommyknockers, though, I’m familiar enough with the books that I can look at specific chapters pointed out on the graphs and quickly grasp what they mean in the story as a whole. After that…I’m going to end up having to read a number of King books I haven’t actually read yet, like Dolores Claiborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and any of the newer crime trilogy books he’s written. I mean, I guess it’s as good an excuse as any, right? I plan on running the data through the process and then reading, to see what kind of predictive power is embedded into the visualized data.

There is minimal pre-processing being done to the texts. They are epubs that are being converted to .txt files through calibre. They are then trimmed to get rid of all the extraneous matter – the list of other books, the reviews of other books, the acknowledgements, the endless introductions, and in some cases the other stories tacked on after the main story is finished. An example of this is the inclusion of “One For The Road” and “Jerusalem’s Lot” at the end of “Salem’s Lot”. Both stories are included in short fiction collections so that isn’t much of a concern. The texts are also gone through to ensure a certain similarity in terms of chapter breaks; these are necessary since chapter breaks are how I am tracking plot progress as the x variable. Carrie, for example, has no chapter breaks; breaks were inserted at the beginning of each epistolary passage, since those marked natural breaks in the story. Salem’s Lot meanwhile has sixteen chapters, but each of those chapters has multiple sub-chapters within them; these were all used as breaks, after converting each one to a “Chapter (n)” format. Rage and The Stand, the two other books I have to date processed, have luckily been blessed with a more normal chapter break format. One other I know off the top of my head that will require greater pre-processing is The Running Man, since it has that weird (n) And Counting chapter heading.

Some explanation of the text mining process and a number of glowing recommendations of the work of Julia Silge will follow, and the data visualization of Carrie.

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My 100 Favourite Albums of 2017

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In one glorious package.

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#100

HUNDRED WATERS – COMMUNICATING

Released September 14th on OWLSA

An intoxicating concoction of modern electronic production, classic pop acoustics, and top-notch songwriting.  Moody without being maudlin, slow-burning and gorgeous.

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#99

KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – SKETCHES OF BRUNSWICK EAST

Released August 18th on Flightless Records

In which the ultra-prolific neo-psych/prog band spends their third album of 2017 going off in the direction of structured and wildly unstructured jazz.

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#98

SEAN LEON – I THINK YOU’VE GONE MAD (OR THE SINS OF THE FATHER)

Released February 5th on The Initiative

I’ve been in attendance in Jameson Ave apartments for ad-hoc freestyle sessions anchored to pirated beats on YouTube. While Sean Leon wasn’t part of that particular social scene, the Parkdale rapper would probably find them familiar. I Think You’ve Gone Mad is a bit of Frank Ocean, a bit of emotive Future-esque braggadocio filtered through Drake’s persistent insecurity, and a lot of references to that fabled stretch of Queen Street between Dufferin and Roncesvalles.

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#97

DESTROYER – KEN

Released October 20th on Merge Records

Halfway between the wearily European post-disco of Kaputt and the wild, innocent E-Street-on-faded-AM musings of Poison SeasonKen pares down his more elaborate flourishes in favour of something more intimate. The cocaine-yacht beats of Kaputt are replaced with something decidedly more mid-1980s New Order.

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#96

THE COURTNEYS – THE COURTNEYS II

Released February 17th on Flying Nun Records

Candy-coated, fuzzed-up, blissed-out rock ‘n’ roll out of Vancouver that floats along like an early summer breeze. A textbook definition of indie garage-pop, a perennially popular sound.

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#95

BIG THIEF – CAPACITY

Released June 9th on Saddle Creek Records

It’s a joke straight out of Futurama – Monsters of Vaguely Folkish Alterna Rock – but the truth is that much of what is labelled as the “indie scene” is a teeming mass of kids who got their start in coffee houses and high school talent shows with acoustic guitars. Once in a while a greater talent will emerge from that vast anonymous sea; Big Thief is one such instance. The sound is familiar, but Adrienne Lenkar’s hypnotic voice and deft hand with vivid, disturbing imagery set her band apart.

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#94

METZ – STRANGE PEACE

Released September 22nd on Sub Pop Records

The Toronto band’s pummeling third album was done with the legendary Steve Albini and is the most utterly primal album they’ve done yet. It’s as though Mudhoney and Husker Du were melded in some apocalyptic furnace; that is to say, it’s Sub Pop as fuck.

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#93

SINGLE MOTHERS – OUR PLEASURE

Released June 16th on Dine Alone Records

The heart of London, Ontario strikes a wary, negative peace with growth and maturity, moving beyond pure punk rock fury to embrace bolder melodies and arrangements. They may be paranoid in advance of the kids who “used to like Single Mothers” making fun of them, but growth is necessary. Sometimes awkward, but necessary.

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#92

RICHARD DAWSON – PEASANT

Released June 2nd on Weird World Records

The freaky English folk guitarist centers himself after the departure of the Roman Imperial government but before the conquest of William in 1066. Once there, he ponders the lives of common English people with eerie singalongs, rustic melodies that are easily at home in rippling forest shadows, and chaotic, glorious bursts of noise.

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#91

FEIST – PLEASURE

Released April 28th on Universal

Metals, Leslie Feist’s 2011 followup to her crossover into the pop world, was a bit of a slog, long on moody atmosphere and short on moments of frisson. Pleasure re-injects those moments back into the proceedings, creating something that borders on the elegant mystery of PJ Harvey while still retaining her core identity.

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#90

FUTURE ISLANDS – THE FAR FIELD

Released April 7th on 4AD

Like Passion Pit before them, Future Islands corner the market on warm, wide-reaching synth pop that merges decades seamlessly and with surgical skill.

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#89

WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM – THRICE WOVEN

Released September 22nd on Artemisia Records

Coming back from odd excursions into ambiance and synthesizers, the pagan black metal band returns to what made them great in the first place: nature worship, howling-wolf vocals, and blastbeats for days.

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#88

DRAKE – MORE LIFE

Released March 18th on OVO Sound / Young Money Records

Views was a major disappointment but this “playlist” manages to resemble what the bulk of that album should have been: equal parts patois and grime, more party than pining, and some real respek on his name.

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#87

LAURA MARLING – SEMPER FEMINA

Released March 10th on More Alarming Records

A dark, slinky album of complex relationships that is equal parts Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen; Marling doesn’t reinvent the wheel but she does make it roll exceedingly well.

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#86:

SHERWOOD & PINCH – MAN VS. SOFA

Released February 24th on On-U Sound

British bass music has always been the best soundtrack for navigating urban areas by night; Man Vs. Sofa, with it’s post-dubstep construction and it’s uneasy, nearly psychedelic use of sample choices, ups the ante significantly.

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#85:

ENTRANCE – BOOK OF CHANGES

Released February 24th on Thrill Jockey Records

A romantic pop album from an unabashed folkie that centers itself squarely in the mythical LA-hippie past and makes no apologies for that. Haunted by the ghosts of Arthur Lee, Roky Erickson, and the Zombies, it aims for the majestic and hits it dead on.

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#84:

THE NECKS – UNFOLD

Released February 10th on Ideologic Organ Records

Freewheeling experimental jazz that bridges the clatter and noise of urban modernity with the more primal howl of the trackless wilderness to come up with something that approximates the heartbeat of existence.

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#83:

WILEY – GODFATHER

Released January 13th on CTA Records

Grime’s, err, Godfather capitalizes on the recent resurgence of the genre to remind everyone of what made him so special in the first place.

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#82:

THE RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE – THE WILD

Released October 13th on Paper Bag Records

The Toronto folk-rock band returns to the sound of their peak, 2011’s Departing, to once again channel the hopeful-but-doomed sound of the Arctic wind whistling across the snow-buried Prairies.

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#81:

ELECTRIC WIZARD – WIZARD BLOODY WIZARD

Released November 17th on Spinefarm Records

The veteran English doom-metal band conjured up a record so crushingly glacial that merely playing it aloud will form new moraines. Wizard Bloody Wizard exists in a perfect world where every album is modeled after Master Of Reality and every riff is heavier than the last.

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#80:

ALVVAYS – ANTISOCIALITES

Released September 8th on Polyvinyl Record Co.

Toronto’s premiere indie-pop dreamers prove their bona fides with a sophomore album that doubles down on the songwriting chops of their debut and establishes a growing body of work that a thousand lesser bands could only dream of.

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#79:

THE DREAM SYNDICATE – HOW DID I FIND MYSELF HERE?

Released September 8th on Anti- Records

2017 was a year that featured any number of classic bands re-emerging from long silences to rediscover their sound. The Dream Syndicate are the most criminally overlooked of the lot; they sound just as mystical and psychedelic as they did in their Doors-soaked early Eighties heyday, blending post-punk and the Velvet Underground together into a thick, moody stew.

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#78:

QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – VILLAINS

Released August 25th on Matador Records

The last great mainstream rock band standing seems constitutionally incapable of putting out a record that’s less than stellar. By now they’ve got the details down pat: molten lava riffs, slinky post-grunge desert rhythms, and the keening wail of Josh Homme, and may the Lord strike me down if it isn’t as good as it ever has been.

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#77:

NICOLE ATKINS – GOODNIGHT RHONDA LEE

Released July 21st on Single Lock Records

A little bit Roy Orbison, a little bit early Sixties girl popper, and a lot of the ghost of Dusty Springfield; Nicole Atkins is each of these and all of these, and her sound seems as contemporary as it does classic.

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#76:

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – WHITEOUT CONDITIONS

Released April 7th on Concord Records

Like Brill Bruisers before it, Whiteout Conditions proves that, sixteen years after their debut, no one in indie pop holds a candle to the continuous strength of The New Pornographers, with or without Dan Bejar.

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#75:

TORO Y MOI – BOO BOO

Released July 7th on Carpark Records

The standard-bearer for chillwave takes an inward turn as he deals with growing fame and notoriety. He jettisons the locked-in grooves of his previous work in favour of something more ambient and, ultimately, something freer.

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#74:

SYD – FIN

Released February 3rd on Columbia Records

The L.A. R&B singer – and former producer with the Odd Future collective – has, for her first solo album, ditched both the “Tha Kid” part of her moniker and her long-time band The Internet. The result is a smoky collection of modern beatcraft and pure sex.

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#73:

STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES – SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW

Released June 16th on Warner Bros. Records

The first truly country album Earle has made in 20 years, So You Wannbe An Outlaw represents his tense relationship with the form. The time of the outsider has come again, and so his starkly unpop take on his roots sounds breathtakingly contemporary.

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#72:

SZA – CTRL

Released June 9th on Top Dawg Records

SZA doesn’t just do R&B. SZA does everything; she just places it in the framework of R&B and makes it all fit like she’s been doing it forever.

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#71:

TOPS – SUGAR AT THE GATE

Released June 2nd on Arbutus Records

Imagine Grimes, but instead of ADD-riddled gonzo pop, it’s smooth, late-night soft rock. While it never quite makes it out of middle gear, that middle gear allows them to reveal some truly gorgeous vistas.

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#70:

JANE WEAVER – MODERN KOSMOLOGY

Released May 19th on Fire Records

Jane Weaver’s sixth album layers brilliant and ethereal psychedelic melodies over pounding motorik rhythms, as though Silver Apples came of age in Berlin in the late 1970s.

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#69:

DO MAKE SAY THINK – STUBBORN PERSISTENT ILLUSIONS

Released May 19th on Constellation Records

Post-rock’s resident jazz heads return from an eight year silence to speak with restless force. Warmer and more freewheeling than most of their Constellation brethren, it will lift your skinny fists heavenward before you even realize it.

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#68:

MOON DUO – OCCULT ARCHITECTURE VOL. 2

Released May 5th on Sacred Bones Records

Sacred Bones’ psych-rock mind-chasers released two albums of their signature drone-rock in 2017. Of the two, the second volume brings them out from behind the dark side of the moon into a lighter, sunnier, and overtly more joyful place.

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#67:

LITTLE CUB – STILL LIFE

Released April 28th on Domino Recording Company

An indie-pop framework filled out with chilled nightclub grooves and analog synthwork that emerges smoking and whole from the grave of the 1980s.

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#66:

DIET CIG – SWEAR I’M GOOD AT THIS

Released April 7th on Frenchkiss Records

Alex Luciano kicks off the album with a story about how when she was sixteen she dated a boy with the same name as her and how it was weird to moan out her own name in the back of his truck. What follows is a slacker-punk tour de force that reclaims her sexuality, rallies for equality, and forges a path in a field still overly dominated by masculine voices.

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#65:

MASTODON – EMPEROR OF SAND

Released March 31st on Reprise Records

On Emperor Of Sand, Mastodon completes their transition from early 00s harbinger of the thrash revival to plenipotentarie of the state of heavy music. Metal for people who don’t like metal.

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#64:

THE SHINS – HEARTWORMS

Released March 10th on Columbia Records

In 2004 they were the band that would change your life, but it took thirteen years for James Mercer to sound like he was finally letting loose. Heartworms is like old Shins records with the fun turned up and a bunch of burbling analog synths showing up to party.

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#63:

BLANCK MASS – WORLD EATER

Released March 3rd on Sacred Bones Records

Imagine if you put together a gigantic cross-Atlantic rave that partied so hard it ripped a hole between dimensions and the dimension it merged with was arid and hellish and partied to pure industrial levels of aggression. That’s World Eater.

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#62:

LANA DEL REY – LUST FOR LIFE

Released July 21st on Interscope Records

The languid chanteuse’s fifth album doubles down on her particular style of Hollywood sadcore, a combination of the downer vibe of Slowdive or Codeine with the pop sensibilities of a Katy Perry or a Demi Lovato. It’s a winning combination and is only enhanced by the presence of all her guests. On that note, if only two singers were born to be on the same track, it’s Lana Del Rey and the Weeknd.

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#61:

JULIE BYRNE – NOT EVEN HAPPINESS

Released January 13th on Ba Da Bing! Records

This year’s winner in the Hushed Ambient Folk Sweepstakes, Julie Byrne’s second record is like the first glimmering rays of dawn creeping up over a blackened landscape.

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#60:

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – SOUL OF A WOMAN

Released November 17th on Daptone Records

Consider the sheer power on display on this blistering soul album, and consider that Ms. Jones brought this kind of passion and fire while she was dying of cancer, and weep at how little you’ve really accomplished in life.

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#59:

CHELSEA WOLFE – HISS SPUN

Released September 22nd on Sargent House Records

Imagine, if you will, Amy Lee; instead of riding on the coattails of Linkin Park and and appealing to the same demographic that went to Hinder or Staind concerts, she’s drawing on rich, blasphemous traditions of black and doom metal. It’s as though she were fronting Sleep but members of Harvey Milk and Emperor made cameos. Or, if you’re already a fan, imagine if Chelsea Wolfe put out her best album.

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#58:

OPEN MIKE EAGLE – BRICK BODY KIDS STILL DAYDREAM

Released September 15th on Mello Music Group

Hellfyre Club alumni Open Mike Eagle eschews the loud, in-your-face nature of modern hip hop in favour of a style and production that feels like it comes from a collective place, as though he’s channeling everyone who ever lived in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project that forms the central concept of the album.

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#57:

COURTNEY BARNETT & KURT VILE – LOTTA SEA LICE

Released October 13th on Matador Records

The intercontinental Indie Rock Super Friends prove on Lotta Sea Lice that their somewhat disparate styles are held together by a common stoner-slacker ethos that welds them together almost seamlessly. The highlight of course is Courtney dead-on nailing Kurt’s signature delivery on “Peepin’ Tom”.

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#56:

OH SEES – ORC

Released August 25th on Castle Face Records

John Dwyer loosens up on the ever-denser quality of the last few Thee Oh Sees records and turns back toward the surreal, psychedelic sprawl of his early efforts. While it’s still scorching garage rock beyond reproach, it also knows when you need to stop and take a breath.

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#55:

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – LUCIFERIAN TOWERS

Released September 22nd on Constellation Records

Ever since Efrim’s kid needed money to go to college, Godspeed You! Black Emperor has discovered a new world that is both prolific and in love with brevity. Luciferian Towers represents the peak thus far of this new Godspeed, full of string-driven visions of an anarchic apocalypse.

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#54:

FOREST SWORDS – COMPASSION

Released May 5th on Ninja Tune Records

Matt Barnes’ second album is a forceful examination of the spaces between samples, of throbbing electronic beats juxtaposed against moments in time drawn out like taffy. He displays a rare touch that feels more like the exploration of the possibilities of electronic music that took place in the 1990s.

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#53:

GRIZZLY BEAR – PAINTED RUINS

Released August 18th on RCA Records

Sweeping, open-ended, and unafraid to go off on a musical tangent, Painted Ruins shows what can happen when you let a band do whatever they want. If someone tries to tell you that bands just don’t make bold rock music anymore, put this record on and raise your middle finger.

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#52: 

KEVIN MORBY – CITY MUSIC

Released June 16th on Dead Oceans Records

The former Woods bassist is equal parts Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and the wave of back-to-basics Seventies-worshipping singer-songwriters that have emerged over the last few years. For a brief, shining moment, he’s even the Ramones. He’s everything to everyone, but in a better way than that phrase usually denotes.

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#51:

GAS – NARKOPOP

Released April 21st on Kompakt Records

Narkopop is the sound of melting directly into the universe.

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#50:

WOODS – LOVE IS LOVE

Released April 21st on Woodsist Records

A folk-rock exploration of the enduring power of hope in a hopeless world that becomes sublime as soon as the horns come bursting out of the gate.

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#49:

PHARMAKON – CONTACT

Released March 31st on Sacred Bones Records

Pure lust translated into screaming pure power-violent noise. Freed of the prison of standard instrumentation, Contact creates trances through the building blocks of sonic experience and fuels an out-of-body transcendence.

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#48:

HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – THE NAVIGATOR

Released March 10th on ATO Records

As American an album as you’re likely to find this year, The Navigator combines big politics with little lives and threads together examinations of race, gender, and class into a snapshot of Alynda Segarra’s firebrand mind circa 2017.

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#47:

SLEAFORD MODS – ENGLISH TAPAS

Released March 3rd on Rough Trade Records

Like Mark E Smith before them, Sleaford Mods spew rapid-fire missives about trashy English culture over minimalist structures of bass and drums. Like an old man bitching about the world today, but actually entertaining, with real humour and bite.

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#46:

NADIA REID – PRESERVATION

Released March 3rd on Basin Rock Records

An honest, confessional mixture of ambient indie folk and jazz-inflected vocals that marks the New Zealand singer-songwriter out as a talent to be watched.

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#45:

IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE – UYAI

Released March 3rd on Merge Records

The Nigerian electro-funk band finds a serious groove and builds a chrome-plated, synth-stabbing party around it. If your speakers start getting wet, that’s just from the sheer sweat coming off of this record.

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#44:

KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – FLYING MICROTONAL BANANA

Released February 24th on Heavenly Records

A psych-prog tour de force that I’m convinced is a lengthy love letter to that instrumental section in the middle of “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”

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#43:

PISSED JEANS – WHY LOVE NOW

Released February 24th on Sub Pop Records

Crushing, pummeling punk rock that pulls no punches in questioning the absurdity of toxic masculinity.

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#42:

XIU XIU – FORGET

Released February 24th on Polyvinyl Records

Over the last few albums Xiu Xiu have lapsed into self-parody, but Forget scorches all of that away and for the first time in a dozen years they feel vital, fresh, and alive.

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#41:

POWER TRIP – NIGHTMARE LOGIC

Released February 24th on Southern Lord Records

Thirty-four years after Kill ‘Em AllNightmare Logic shows the staying power of thrash metal. Brutal, brief, and meticulously structured, Power Trip’s second album is a modern metal classic.

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#40:

VAGABON – INFINITE WORLDS

Released February 24th on Father/Daughter Records

Nearly half an hour of ambitious, ethereal, utterly gorgeous indie rock that doesn’t waste a single note. It’s simultaneously intimate and maximalist, which sounds like a paradox until you listen to it.

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#39:

MEAT WAVE – THE INCESSANT

Released February 17th on SideOneDummy Records

Smashing punk rock with world-shaking hooks, blackened atmosphere, and Steve Albini. These three things will always be a winning combination.

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#38:

WILLIAM BASINSKI – A SHADOW IN TIME

Released January 20th on 2062 Records

The avant-garde composer best known for his Disintegration Loops series released a blurred, ambient tribute to the late David Bowie that serves to soundtrack pretty much anything.

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#37:

THROWING SNOW – EMBERS

Released January 20th on Houndstooth Records

Ross Tones takes a little bit of everything – garage, dubstep, downtempo, ragged synth work, field recordings – and tosses a potato in to get a stew going, baby.

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#36:

THE XX – I SEE YOU

Released January 13th on Young Turks Records

Miles beyond the dour, muted neon of CoexistI See You adds in the breezy rave vibe that characterized Jamie xx’s last solo effort and tones the bleak vibes into something more wistful than melancholy. As refreshing as diving into a pool, and easily the best album of the group’s career.

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#35:

PIANO MAGIC – CLOSURE

Released January 27th on Second Language Records

The band celebrated their 21st anniversary by putting out a great album and then breaking up. “Celebrating” seems like an odd word choice until you remember that they’ve been utter garbage for the last decade. Finally, though: an honest, somber collection of pure songcraft to go out on.

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#34:

RE-TROS – BEFORE THE APPLAUSE

Released September 15th on Modern Sky Entertainment

liars, Factory Floor, PiL – these are some guideposts for you to explain the glory that is this Chinese post-punk band’s latest release. Endlessly varied, constantly moving, and able to pull off just about any move they choose; when the familiar piano stabs of “Red Right Hand” show up in “Pigs In The River” you’ll cling to it like a branch in a hurricane.

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#33:

DEERHOOF – MOUNTAIN MOVES

Released September 8th on Joyful Noise Records

Once a year or so, the most consistently great band in rock ‘n’ roll releases another stellar entry into their catalog. 2017 is no exception.

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#32:

TONY ALLEN – THE SOURCE

Released August 8th on Decca Records

The legendary Fela Kuti drummer’s signature deft rhythmic styles are all over his full-on jazz explosion, but the real secret weapon here is Nicolas Giraud’s late-night party trumpets. The interplay here (and, ok, with Daniel Zimmerman’s funky-ass tuba) makes a whole new movement out of post-bop.

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#31:

THE WAR ON DRUGS – A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING

Released August 25th on Atlantic Records

Remember when AOR was a dirty word in serious respectable music and now dadrock-core is a thing and we’re mining AM radio circa 1986 for inspiration? A Deeper Understanding is like lengthy, gloomy ruminations on the meaning of Bruce Springsteen in audio format.

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#30:

ARCADE FIRE – EVERYTHING NOW

Released July 28th on Sonovox Records

2017 was the year of Arcade Fire’s Inevitable Critical Backlash: as though the album’s concept wasn’t a snarky swipe at the commodified “indie culture” those same critics were complicit in promoting; as though post-disco weren’t the perfect vehicle for the satire of that commodification; as though the sudden inability of indie critics to get a joke wasn’t obvious; as though Kieran Devlin’s charge of misogyny wasn’t a painfully awkward jump-the-shark moment for the discourse around the album; as though “Good God Damn” and “Put Your Money On Me” weren’t the best songs left off of Some Girls. Look for a Lodger-esque retcon by 2037.

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#29:

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – HUG OF THUNDER

Released July 7th on Arts & Crafts Records

The first album from the Toronto collective in seven years sounds exactly like what you’d want and expect from a Broken Social Scene album, and in 2017 that kind of stability is priceless.

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#28:

WAXAHATCHEE – OUT IN THE STORM

Released July 14th on Merge Records

Katie Crutchfield is the reigning queen of crunchy Nineties indie rock with energy, lyrical skill, and emotional longing informing every note she uses. Some artists dwarf themselves on their first major studio efforts, but Out In The Storm shows that sometimes that enhanced budget just makes things more anthemic.

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#27:

KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – MURDER OF THE UNIVERSE

Released June 23rd on ATO Records

Gizzard’s second album of 2017 was also their most hardcore, a prog-indebted metallic screed about altered beasts and vomit coffins. Like John Dwyer if the Thee Oh Sees frontman scarfed down a bunch of amphetamines first.

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#26:

THUNDERCAT – DRUNK

Released February 24th on Brainfeeder Records

Drunk is what really quality pho soup would sound like if it were funky bass-driven jazz. It’s hot, a little flavourful without being overwhelming, full of beef and free-flowing like broth. It slops over everywhere but goddamn if that’s not part of the experience.

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#25:

GIRLPOOL – POWERPLANT

Released May 12th on Anti/Epitaph Records

A sprawling lullabye of an album, Powerplant is sleepy eyed indie rock with soothing melodies that give way into a more disturbed, unsettling REM state.

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#24:

SLOWDIVE – SLOWDIVE

Released May 5th on Dead Oceans Records

Reunion albums are a dime a dozen. Reunion albums that truly match the artist’s previous work are very rare. Reunion albums that exceed that artist’s previous work are virtually unheard of. Slowdive falls into the latter category.

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#23:

PERFUME GENIUS – NO SHAPE

Released May 5th on Matador Records

Bigger, bolder, and blazing with life, No Shape finds Mike Hadreas escaping the grim lo-fi gravity well of his past and shooting off into the soaring adventure of the Great Beyond.

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#22:

FREDDIE GIBBS – YOU ONLY LIVE 2WICE

Released March 31st on ESGN Records

You Only Live 2wice is the beginning of the Gary, Indiana rapper’s second life after being acquitted on rape charges in Austria. The album feels like a rebirth, of sorts, but it also feels like a glowering taking-stock of all of the paranoid impulses in Gibbs’ soul, all of the other wrongs he may have perpetrated and poor choices that he’s allowed to linger, and fester. As usual with Gibbs, it’s the details that fill in the spaces, like Gibbs being in an Austrian jail and being perturbed that all of the reading material in the library was in German.

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#21:

SPOON – HOT THOUGHTS

Released March 17th on Matador Records

Spoon has hit a legendary stride – where they’ve perfected a specific sound and they do it better than any competition could hope to – and Hot Thoughts is the culmination of that stride. Funky without being derivative, jagged without being overly edgy, Spoon has this night-life thing figured out.

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#20:

PRIESTS – NOTHING FEELS NATURAL

Released January 27th on Sister Polygon Records

Stridently righteous DC hardcore the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a long while. Whoever said that riot grrl was dead was a goddamn liar.

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#19:

KAMASI WASHINGTON – HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE

Released September 22nd on Young Turks Records

15 years ago jazz was basically a legacy genre, an art form dutifully practiced by old-guard musicians and kids whose parents forced a particular education on them, championed by dusty NPR/CBC radio shows and soundtracking the banal gatherings of people whose money necessitated a certain sense of edgy class. Now it’s once again just about the coolest thing going. Funny old world, innit?

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#18:

ARIEL PINK – DEDICATED TO BOBBY JAMESON

Released September 15th on Mexican Summer Records

There’s something in Ariel Pink’s personality that’s like biting on tinfoil but there’s also something in his music that sets this aside entirely. It’s a blend of 1960s freewheeling psychedelia, 1970s golden AM radio sounds, endearingly awkward white-boy 1980s New Wave funk, and Cobain-esque 1990s punk rock. It is, in short, a summation of the best parts of the last 50 years in one gloriously bizarre album.

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#17:

LORDE – MELODRAMA

Released June 16th on Lava Records

Melodrama is a Seventies pop-rock epic disguised as a modern pop album and it hits every single melodic wishlist item with a nervy fervor fitting for her age and the revolutionary times.

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#16:

GRANDADDY – LAST PLACE

Released March 3rd on Columbia Records

The Sophtware Slump was a key album of the 2000s but subsequent efforts failed to move the band beyond second-tier touring status and they broke up in 2006, citing lack of money. Like so many other classic bands, however, Grandaddy reunited a few years ago and their inevitable new record at least matches their best output. It’s an album about divorce and survival, crafted in indie space rock and Jason Lytle’s signature butter-punk vocals. It may also be the band’s last; bassist Kevin Garcia died in May of a massive stroke and the comeback tour behind Last Place was cancelled.

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#15:

TYLER, THE CREATOR – FLOWER BOY

Released July 21st on Columbia Records

Compare Cherry Bomb, Tyler’s last album, to the more recent output of other OFWGKTA members like Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, or Syd/The Internet. He seemed then like the kid who refused to grow up, even when his friends were moving on with their lives; he’d end up as that guy who could only hold down a pizza delivery job, knocking up some girl from town and probably developing an opiate problem like so many Americans these days. Flower Boy is, tellingly, a much more mature album, comfortable in a toned-down juxtaposition of the edgy and the sublime; it proves that even Tyler, the Creator can finally make it through a protracted, suspended adolescence and come through the other side.

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#14:

(SANDY) ALEX G – ROCKET

Released May 19th on Domino Recording Company

Rocket is all over the place, and that is it’s greatest strength. Is is mournful country-folk? Yep. Crunchy lo-fi indie rock? You betcha. Unpleasant punk screed? To be sure. Ambient instrumental head trip? Absolutely. It represents the pinnacle (thus far) of Alex G’s ambitions, and it keeps revealing new nuances with every listen.

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#13:

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO – ASYNC

Released April 28th on Milan Records

Expansive, ambient compositions that hold the consideration of modern existence and mortality in between their sounds. Sakamoto has been putting together these avant-garde moments of brilliance for 42 years now, but 2017 might just be the year that he’s finally hit his peak.

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#12:

TIMBER TIMBRE – SINCERELY, FUTURE POLLUTION

Released April 7th on City Slang Records

Imagine, if you will, a world in which late-Seventies Pink Floyd and Eighties Dire Straits conspired with Bruce Springsteen circa 1987 to put out a better followup to Born In The USA. That album is Sincerely, Future Pollution.

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#11:

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – 50 SONG MEMOIR

Released March 10th on Nonesuch Records

Stephin Merritt seemingly functions at his best when tackling enormously outsized projects – 69 Love Songs was literal, after all – and so the idea of making an audio autobiography with one song for every year of existence sounds exactly like what you would both want and expect from a Magnetic Fields album. Like that long-ago explosion of love, the hit-to-miss ratio is shockingly high and many of them – especially “A Cat Called Dionysys”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life” and “You Can Never Go Back To New York” – rank among his very best.

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#10:

THE NATIONAL – SLEEP WELL BEAST

Released September 8th on 4AD

The National have this “The National” thing down cold. Many bands in rock ‘n’ roll history find their niche and are capable of mining it for all it’s worth. Very few – The National among them – continue to evolve after hitting that plateau. 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me felt like it was going to be as National as it was going to get, but Sleep Well Beast tinkers with their sound in subtle, welcome ways that manage to look to old, pre-fame work as well as to the increasingly more glitched-out future. Plus “Turtleneck” goes all in in a way that they haven’t since their second album, and that’s always nice to see.

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#09:

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – AMERICAN DREAM

Released September 1st on DFA Records

Everybody’s singing the same song.

It goes “tonite, tonite, tonite, tonite, tonite”. I never realize these artists thought so much about dying. But, truth be told, we all have the same end. Could make you cry, but I’m telling you: this is the best news you’re getting all week.

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#08:

SHABAZZ PALACES – QUAZARZ: BORN ON A GANGSTER STAR / QUAZARZ VS THE JEALOUS MACHINES

Released July 14th on Sub Pop Records

Ishmael Butler and Baba Maraire go in for two things:  total head-nodder psychedelic trips and odd, discordant accompaniments to their beats.  These two albums, released the same day Use Your Illusion style, are the most low-key that records can be and still be a mind-bending psychedelic blowout. This is future-ready jazz-hop exploration of sound and concept, a more melodic and played-straight take on Flying Lotus’ style, hip hop that slouches toward Atlanta to be born again.

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#07:

JOEY BADA$$ – ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$

Released April 7th on Pro Era Records

The NYC rapper’s debut album was a love letter to the gritty old days of the Wu; his second album looks more toward the future, tackling the politics of being black in America in an age when the white supremacy movement has catapulted one of their own to the highest office in the land. It’s a focused and concise record, built on solid beatcraft that predates the Kanye era, and it delves into its central message in as thrilling a way as has been attempted in straightforward hip hop this year.

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#06:

VINCE STAPLES – BIG FISH THEORY

Released June 23rd on Def Jam Records

Vince Staples’ career thus far has been a rocket upward trajectory; Big Fish Theory is the moment the rocket changes direction and slams into the stratosphere. In a milieu where too many of his compatriots seem content to hijack R&B sounds, trap drums, and standard bell-and-string samples, Vince Staples takes the lead from Danny Brown and wholeheartedly embraces electronic music styles. There’s so much to lover here: elements of British dubstep, grime, garage, and bass music combine with Staples’ own assured sense of flow, bombast, and melody to create the catchiest goddamn off-kilter hip hop album in years. Every track is instantly recognizable and a classic in it’s own right; if this is “pop crossover”, it’s the man crossing over on his own strict terms.

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#05:

FLEET FOXES – CRACK-UP

Released June 16th on Nonesuch Records

Robin Pecknold spent the years between Helplessness Blues and now being miserable at Columbia University; to his credit, the sense of palpable frustration that shows up in his interviews doesn’t clutter up the proceedings of his band’s third album. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with their need to re-establish their legend; in the years since their second album, their former drummer has become an indie music icon and hilarious Facebook personality, and their chosen niche has become flooded with all manner of pop-folk contenders/pretenders. Thus, Crack-Up takes off in a prog direction, eschewing straight-forward structure for shifting winds and jazz influences. It’s more challenging than either previous Fleet Foxes album, and guaranteed to be passed over by legions of well-scrubbed middle-class kids spoiled by the spoonfed pablum of Mumford & Sons and Co. All the more reason to get lost in it’s oceanic movements.

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#04:

KENDRICK LAMAR – DAMN.

Released April 14th on Top Dawg Entertainment

There was a moment, in the weeks following the release of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album, that the most-streamed charts were pretty much just the album’s tracklist. The burning star that is his legend had produced two Most Important albums – 2012’s cinematic concept album good kid m.A.A.d. city and 2015’s funked-out, stridently political To Pimp A Butterfly. The latter’s single “Alright” became an anthem for Black Lives Matter and the resultant sound of exploding heads on Fox News is captured on the first song.  Musically this record bridges the previous two: the knotted, personal introspection of 2012 is mixed in with the confrontational politics of 2015 to make an album that feels more like a series of episodes than the widescreen vision he previously used. This makes for an album that breathes a whole lot more, and an album that allows for a more mainstream-friendly attempt at making Statements. By “mainstream-friendly”, of course, I mean that it’s guest features include choruses by Rihanna and an appearance by everyone’s least favourite purveyors of free music, U2 (who still manage somehow to pull off seeming vital like it’s 1992 or something). There are no backseat freestyle moments, no ten minute interviews with the ghost of Tupac Shakur, but there is wall to wall Kendrick Lamar, and that’s what matters.

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#03:

FATHER JOHN MISTY – PURE COMEDY

Released April 7th on Sub Pop Records

What is art?

Is it the ability to speak truth to power? Is it that strange outgrowth of rage and righteousness that demands you say something, even if it’s couched in metaphors, against those you feel are doing wrong. Pure Comedy is former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman speaking that truth to power, except that the reality of “power” is a little more complicated than the typical civilizational us-and-them the frogposters would like to pass the great conflicts of the age off as. Power, in this case, is everyone: dispersed and networked over the whole of the population, leveraged and channeled and following strange electrical patterns across the whole of the globe.

That’s the thing; that’s the heavy little message that Tillman’s laying on you here. Alan Moore said it better than anyone else: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” Or maybe Godspeed: The car is on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel. All of humanity’s biggest problems – climate change, resource scarcity, massive inequality, religious mania, good old fashionied irrational hatred – can be laid directly at the feet of human beings themselves. The Earth’s most soulful predators. Uniquely situated to take maximum advantage of the world in which they find themselves, they squander their advantages in the name of being the apex predator among apex predators. The penthouse on JG Ballard’s High Rise. Il capo di tuti tuti. There’s no HYDRA, no Illuminati, no Rothschild Central Banking Conspiracy, no Deep State, no Crab People. Yes Virginia, there is no God.

So what do you do?

Can’t cry about it, may as well laugh.

That’s the essence of Pure Comedy. It’s right in the title. It’s all just so *absurd* in the grand context of the universe that hosts the human race that it’s funny. Really, really funny. Black humour to be sure; gallows humour, even, but still capable of delivering chucks by the barrelful. The absurdity of human response to meaninglessness is to laugh at it, which is why you remember Carlin so fondly, and Bill Hicks. The climate is going to go feral within the century and we’re anethetizing ourselves on cheap and plentiful entertainment and The Revolution won’t really fix anything and god damn if it isn’t just the biggest cosmic joke ever played upon any species ever.

Some people can’t handle that, and so you get mixed reactions to the record. To be sure, it’s played in a much more ‘mature’ style than previous Misty albums, if a hungry mid-Seventies Elton John can be called ‘more mature’. It’s less hooky, more big piano-man numbers replete with strings and ballooned to anti-commercial lengths. It’s a big fuck you to what he’s ‘supposed to be doing’, as a bourgeoning indie rock star. Plus, as I said above, it makes people who would rather not be thinking about the impending elimination of the majority of the species within even several lifetimes somewhat uncomfortable. People who get ill when they consider our precarious perch on a ball of rock hurtling suicidally fast through space. Those people like to call such pointed humour “pretentious”, as though any of us are not pretending to be something we’re really not.

That’s all part of the comedy as well. It’s somewhere in the seventh or eighth minute of “Leaving L.A.”, a ten-verse chorusless diatribe. The real maturity – the realization that growing old in a fantasy-land like Los Angeles is both disturbing and depressing – is embedded in a nine-minute slow-burn called “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. That’s also pretty funny. Seen from a certain light, the entire existential crisis facing humanity is downright gut-busting. So here we are, hurtling along, killing our environment to create some enhanced shareholder value and get a good start on the fourth quarter bonuses, and now some white guy with a beard is playing a piano and telling us all this is probably going to end violently in about twenty years or so.

We have achieved peak meta. Thus far.

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#02:

ST. VINCENT – MASSEDUCTION

Released October 13th on Loma Vista Records

What is art?

Is it the relentless pursuit of a particular aesthetic? The need to combine sound and visual, text and texture, bits of culture until they feel just right? Until they fit some ideal that is at it’s core inexplicable – an ideal that *feels* right internally?

Is art a feeling?

If so, Annie Clark has it covered. Her entire career has been a study in art-as-aesthetic. She started off as a pastel-robed member of the Polyphonic Spree, ferchrissakes. She toured with Sufjan Stevens, another artist who is no stranger to chasing after a particular sound in pursuit of an inexplicable feeling. You can trace her own pursuit through her career as St. Vincent in a series of pictures that accompany the marketing of each album. She starts off on Marry Me looking like your typical indie guitar-girl ingenue – shoulder length hair, breezy, nothing fancy. Regina Spektor with a knowing expression on her face. A mid-afternoon festival slot look; probably on day 2, when the core of the festival’s crowd is either sleeping off their drugs or looking to score new ones. By Strange Mercy the hair is shorter, the aesthetic more streamlined. She doesn’t want to be a cheerleader no more, she she she she. An album later and her hair is white, her clothing stylized and specific, her stage show ironically mechanical, doll-like. Here is a woman who has embraced art, it said. Here is a woman who takes out the garbage and masturbates. Here is a woman who snorts a line of the Berlin Wall and keeps going. A woman who has done an album with David Byrne and has embraced the peculiar art asesthetic of post-punk New York City – a little awkward, alien, silvery, aloof, engaged in a tense stand-off with it’s own sexual desires but willing to indulge, live, explore – even if only ironically, at times. It’s a particuarly Warholian notion and Ms. Clark’s embrace of it leads to MASSEDUCTION.

There are a lot of tired Madonna cliches that could be made about MASSEDUCTION. Certainly it’s the most directly pop-oriented St. Vincent album to date. “Pills” is urgently upbeat; “Sugarboy” rides a synth line that would be at home in festival EDM; “Los Ageless” is built on a trashy glam groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on Mechanical Animals. The flip side of any good pop album are the ballads, and that’s covered here as well. “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” are crisp and ready to sing along to, even once you realize what crushing downers they are. Both sides – dance and ballad – are expertly crafted, as though the pop album of the 2010s were the perfect vehicle to convey that inexplicable *something* that Annie Clark was feeling. This is her Campbell’s Soup Can moment – an appropriation of the mainstream culture’s non-aesthetic to convey something electric.

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#01:

MOUNT EERIE – A CROW LOOKED AT ME

Released March 24th on P.W. Elverum & Sun

What is art?

At the root of all things, is it simply an attempt at communicating things that are simply too difficult to convey completely in words?

Phil Elverum is a folk artist who has achieved underground fame on the basis of his work as The Microphones and for his somewhat more experimental work as Mount Eerie. In 2003 he married Genevieve Castree, a songwriter and cartoonist; twelve years later they had a daughter. Then Ms. Castree was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and died in early 2016, leaving Elverum bereaved with an 18 month old child.

From Elverum:
“Why share this much? Why open up like this? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? Our little family bubble was so sacred for so long. We carefully held it behind a curtain of privacy when we’d go out and do our art and music selves, too special to share, especially in our hyper-shared imbalanced times. Then we had a baby and this barrier felt even more important. (I still don’t want to tell you our daughter’s name.) Then in May 2015 they told us Geneviève had a surprise bad cancer, advanced pancreatic, and the ground opened up. What matters now? we thought. Then on July 9th 2016 she died at home and I belonged to nobody anymore. My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd old idea leftover from a more self-indulgent time before I was a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever. I am open now, and these songs poured out quickly in the fall, watching the days grey over and watching the neighbors across the alley tear down and rebuild their house. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.

Death Is Real could be the name of this album. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why.”

So that’s A Crow Looked At Me: recorded “August 31st to Dec. 6th, 2016 in the same room where Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window.”

It is harrowing. It is real. It’s more like a documentation, like a field recording, than a proper album like most releases. It’s full of details that floor you with how much unutterable grief can be packed into very mundane details, like a gift that arrives at the door after the person who ordered it has passed on. There are ominous passages that expand into disturbingly cinematic vignettes like “Ravens”, which is based on the time just after Castree died when Elverum, self-admittedly insane with grief, drove and then took the ferry to Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, 3 days from anywhere, and then fell ill with norovirus, screaming and weeping in time with his daughter. At times (most times) it’s incredibly uncomfortable, like peeking into the diary of someone who isn’t writing for publication but simply to distill the poison from themselves. It’s like reading Kurt Cobain’s journals, in a way, but Elverum invites us in and that makes all the difference. It speaks to a profoundly universal human experience – the mortality of those we love is infinitely more horrifying to consider than our own mortality, and A Crow Looked At Me taps into that primal fear and gives it voice, and power.

It’s the best album released this year but I don’t recommend you listen to it. I’ll probably never listen to it ever again. It’s an experience that will seem viscerally real to anyone who’s ever lost someone, and the way that it frames the exact thought process is honestly frightening. You don’t need to have that experience a second time, on purpose, unless you’re a masochist. Is it art? Is it just relaying reality, raw and unfiltered. No script, the ulitimate reality album? Elverum himself casts doubt on this concept of art-as-communication in the album’s very first lines: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb / When I walk into the room where you were / And look into the emptiness instead / All fails.”

So who knows? There’s this, though: art is honesty, fundamentally. Dishonest art is just propaganda, and so to be art, per se, the work under consideration must be honest in itself. A Crow Looked At Me is the most honest album of the year, and it’s honesty is shocking – shell-shocking with it’s relentless emotional cruelty.

 

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Stuart watched the kid shake and mutter to himself in the seat across the aisle. His skin looked waxy in the dingy interior bus lights, and Stuart was sure that if he reached across and caressed the kid’s forehead with the back of his hand that skin would be near to scalding. He ran his tongue along the back of his teeth and watched the kid carefully. No one else in the general vicinity seemed to be concerned. Stuart noticed an old man dozing in the seat behind the kid, and a young couple murmuring to each other beneath a blanket in the seat ahead of him.

“Scourge of the panhandle,” the kid muttered, and Stuart looked away. He stared out of the window into the emptiness of the night. There was absolutely nothing to see; there was no moon in the sky and nothing to illuminate beyond the arid brush and gravel that lay on either side of the road to Flagstaff. Blackness rushed by like a hurricane wind and only the occasional light shining wanly from far off allowed for the recognition of motion.

When the bus passed the exit to Twin Arrows the kid moved violently in his seat, thrashing like a person trying to get comfortable when assailed by pains in every joint. By the time the exit sign for Winona passed the bus window, wreathed in shadows, the kid began moaning in a low animal tone. Stuart watched the others to see if they would notice and take action but the old man continued to snore softly and the couple in front of him continued to murmur and giggle lightly. The man in that seat had begun to breathe in quick, short bursts, and Stuart didn’t have to think very hard to figure out what was going on. Grimacing, he leaned slowly across the aisle and gingerly put the back of his hand against the kid’s forehead.

As he suspected, his flesh was burning to the touch and uncomfortably dry. The kid’s moaning grew louder, and Stuart drew his hand back with a hiss. He retreated back into his seat and ran his shaking fingers through his thinning hair.

“Faster,” the boy in the seat in front of him whispered loudly, and Stuart leapt out of his seat and strode up the narrow aisle. He approached the driver, a heavyset man with a fuzzed-out crewcut and a hypertensive tinge to his complexion.

“Do you have any aspirin?” Stuart asked. The driver kept his eyes on the road.

“Sorry, I drive the bus. You want a pharmacy, we should be stopping and getting off for a minute in Flagstaff.”

“There’s a kid back there who’s burning up,” Stuart confessed. “I think he might need a doctor.”

“We’ll be stopping in Flagstaff before long. You can take him to a doctor there.”

“You’ll wait?”

“Lord, no. The stopover in Flagstaff is only for an hour. After that we’re heading out again. I have a schedule to meet.”

“Is there another bus behind this one?”

The bus driver said nothing for a moment. The cracked and weathered visage of the old Route 66 slid by under the hard glare of the headlights.

“Word on the radio is that no, there won’t be, at least for a while. The governor is extending martial law out to the Okie border. He wants to stem the tide of ’em coming over and making trouble on their way to California.”

The driver stole a glance at Stuart, and Stuart shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“I’m from New York,” he said, the words falling flat as they left his tongue.

“Don’t really care,” the driver replied. “Just letting you know that it’ll be a while before the next bus comes along. Long enough that you’ll have to either settle or move on some other way.”

Stuart returned to his seat without saying anything further to the driver. The kid was breathing and seemed to finally be deep asleep, but it was hard to tell. Stuart quickly checked the kid’s temperature and found that, while it hadn’t abated, it hadn’t gotten any worse in the meantime. He shrank back into his seat and pulled out his phone. There was still some room in his data allowance, so he searched for pharmacies in Flagstaff and found one that was near to the bus station, nestled in a Wal-Mart. He slid the phone back into his pocket and waited, watching the kid out of the corner of his eye.

When old Route 66 separated from the I-40, the bus followed Route 66 into Flagstaff. Like the highway before, there was little to see out of Stuart’s window once in town. What buildings there were crouched close to the ground, well back from the road, creeping like rats in the distance. Eventually a shopping mall ran past the window, but in the dead of night it looked patched and forlorn. When the bus eventually slowed and came to a stop, Stuart was confused as to where they were.

After the driver called out their stopover in Flagstaff, Stuart rushed out the door and into the cold Arizona night. He was shocked to see his breath in the glare of the bus lights and rubbed at his shirtsleeves. His phone reported that the Wal-Mart was on the other side of the road, set on the far side of a sprawling black parking lot. There was no traffic although the parking lot was populated with cars. Inside the store, a few midnight shoppers ambled down the aisles, their ruddy, wrinkled faces kept firmly towards the floor.

There was no pharmacist on duty, so Stuart picked up aspirin so he could at least bring the kid’s fever down. It was more expensive than he’d initially thought, and he mentioned it to the cashier, who shrugged and said that the cost had gone up around the time the army had been called to the border. Stuart weighed his options and put the charge on his sole remaining credit card.

Across the street, the bus had been driven beyond the gate that allowed entrance to the station. A pair of guards loitered on either side of the gate and came to attention as Stuart approached. They demanded his ticket and, when presented with it, continued to eye Stuart suspiciously even as the gate opened behind them. The space between his shoulder blades crawled as he walked up the laneway toward the bus. The driver was scrolling through something on his phone and the other passengers were either sleeping or engaged in the same activity.

The kid was breathing evenly through his mouth. His face was turned up toward the overhead light, and his eyes were closed. Stuart retrieved a plastic bottle of water from his carry-on bag and moved across the aisle. After a bit of shaking, he managed to wake the kid up enough to acknowledge his presence.

“Sal?” the kid asked. “Sal, you’ve lost weight.”

The kid’s eyes were unfocused, like he’d taken too many hits to the head. Stuart popped a couple of aspirin into his palm and unscrewed the lid from the bottle of water. He motioned to the kid to take them.

“It’s poison, Sal,” the kid raved. He looked away and shook his head. “I’m the last one; I won’t take it. I’ve seen them all take it already.”

“No,” Stuart said firmly, “it’s medicine. You’re burning up, you need to take it.”

The kid looked at him, his expression uncomprehending. “I’m on the bus,” he said, blinking rapidly. “Who are you?”

“Introductions later,” Stuart said. “Just take this and relax. Don’t worry, it’s just aspirin.”

The kid stared at Stuart and then took the tablets from his hand.

 

[Interstitial Burn-Boy Blues is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback, as well as from the Across The Margin site directly]

August Hiatus

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I’m on hiatus for the month.  There are two reasons for that:

1:  My computer fried and it had the list for all of my anniversaries on it.  I’m in the middle of putting a new one together but I’m probably going to miss most of August’s milestones.  Which sucks because Monday was the anniversary of F#A#Infinite.  Oh well.

2:  I have of late been consumed with a great and furious anger and it’s not conducive to blogging.

See ya in September, unless the book comes out before then, in which case YOU’RE GONNA SEE LOTS OF ME.

Peace and waffles, y’all.

-Trevor

GOLD: 50 Years of Lumpy Gravy

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Frank Zappa – Lumpy Gravy

Released August 7th, 1967 on Capitol Records

The front cover of Lumpy Gravy states that it’s a “curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.”  The back cover asks “is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, a bizarre question given that said album didn’t come out until 1968.  It was, in fact, an orchestral piece commissioned by Capitol Records’ Nick Venet; to get around his contract with MGM and Verve, Zappa positioned himself as merely the conductor of the orchestra he cobbled together for the recording.  This cutesy bit of manouvering didn’t stop MGM from threatening to sue, but as subsequent history would show, label heads going after Zappa would prove to be an exercise in futility.  In fact, while waiting for MGM to come to that conclusion, Zappa plowed ahead on a project he called No Commercial Potential (which would make a great name for a retrospective of his career) that would eventually give birth to four albums: We’re Only In It For The Money, a reedited second edition of Lumpy GravyCruising With Ruben And The Jets, and the gloriously bizarre “soundtrack” album Uncle Meat.  The second edition of Lumpy Gravy would be released in 1968 by Verve Records; it would contain pieces of the original orchestral recordings as well as dialogue that was recorded near the studio’s grand piano, which would vibrate with resonance whenever someone spoke near it.  The result is willfully bizarre musique concrete, the sort of thing you can only fully enjoy if you’ve completely disconnected yourself from society and human contact, as shown in the following chart:

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As you can see, Lumpy Gravy falls somewhere close to the bottom level, where light no longer actually shines and the sounds of pan-dimensional click-beats can be heard from the wall.  Patrician approved.

It’s worth noting that many of the performers Zappa gathered together for the original recordings thought at first that he was a total chump, just a guitarist from a joke rock band with no real experience composing.  By the end, he won all of them over to his peculiarly cracked genius.

Aluminium: 10 Years of The Stage Names

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Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Released August 7th, 2007 on Jagjaguwar Records

Okkervil River may be indie rock’s perennial “mid-level band” (as they refer to themselves on “Unless It’s Kicks”) but The Stage Names, their fourth album, they burst up above the clouds to briefly take their places among the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.  This is not a reference to any hits – there are no hits, a criminal shame in itself – but instead to pure songcraft, the perfection of a crafted album and the wry, self-reflective poetry of frontman Will Sheff.  Their previous album, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, came close to the indie-rock mastery present here, but they would never again achieve such heights (although 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium comes kind of close).  Unlike Black Sheep Boy there is no explicit concept (that album was an exploration of the life and death of junkie-poet-folkie Tim Hardin); however, there’s some pretty clear themes running through The Stage Names that make it a sort of meta-rumination on Sheff, the band, and the nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.  If the album could be said to be about anything, it’s about the cheap theatricality of populist art, and the complicated narratives that we spin around simple people.

We think of our lives as films, with narrative arcs and neat endings; “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” posits that there is no such thing.  Sheff sings that “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax” and teases here and there that are moments that make one think that their life could be a movie, if you looked at them sideways in the magic hour that begins twilight.  “Unless It’s Kicks” is an admission that the narrative created by the consumer of art bears no resemblance to the author’s intent (and here we go rehashing that argument again); “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s fiction,” he asks, “Unless it’s licks, man, unless it’s lies or it’s love?” and then implores a fan “with their heart opened up” to take warning about believing your own lies.  Those lies – the narrative we impose tyrannically on the anonymous textures of everyday life – are important, because they impart some meaning onto the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, but if we believe in these lies too fully we risk trapping ourselves in an unrealistic narrative that can crush us if it’s revealed to be too much of a lie.  “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” is about the slick and vicious nature of some of those lies; Sheff buildings the lyrics out of scenes from television shows that Okkervil River’s music has been featured in, including a Cold Case scene where a serial killer picks up a male prostitute, kills them, and buries them in a remote, rocky area.  “Savannah Smiles” shows the flip side, being about Shannon Michelle “Savannah” Wilsey, a pornographic actress who swallowed her own narrative so completely that when she was disfigured in a car accident she killed herself rather than face a life without being her illusory, created self.  “Plus Ones” takes aim at our mad frenzy to keep the story going, to churn out sequels and franchises in order to never end the imposed narratives we’ve become obsessed with.  “A Girl In Port” likens the travelling rock ‘n’ roll band to being sailors with girls in every port, only the girls in port for rock ‘n’ roll bands are acting out the dictates of the (usually false) mythology that builds up around bands.  “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” bridges the gap between the narrative of youth and wealth and the reality of age and starvation for artists; “Title Track” tackles the illusion of stardom head-on with an eye to it’s utter absurdity.  The final song, “John Allyn Smith” sets sail, tracks the life and suicide of poet John Berryman, a doomed artist who was something of a muse in 2006-2007 as he was referenced by a number of others, including The Hold Steady on Boys And Girls In America.  It examines the mythology of the poet versus the sad, sordid reality (alcoholism and suicide attempts) and caps it off with a rendition of the traditional “Sloop John B” that feels more like suicide note than the raucous ode to debauchery and hangovers it usually is.

The album that came directly after, 2008’s The Stand-Ins, would be a sort of second half of The Stage Names, but would not be as successful in mining it’s themes for frisson; The Stage Names still remains Okkervil River’s crowning achievement.  I first fell in love with it on a bus trip; I was going north to help close down the family cottage and on the bus ride I had enough time to listen to two albums.  I ended up listening to The Stage Names twice, entranced by it’s lyrics, it’s melodies, and the way that the two combined to run goosebumps up and down my arm.  Ten years later I still sing along to every word and, if pressed, I’d probably place it in my twenty favourite albums.

 

 

GOLD: 50 Years of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

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Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

Released August 5th, 1967 on EMI Columbia Records

RYM: #84

BestEverAlbums: #143

Earlier this year, in January, this blog celebrated the 40th anniversary of Animals, a tough, gnarled, and asocial sort of album that was as much an indication of Roger Waters’ eternal crankiness as anything else.  The band was celebrating it’s tenth anniversary that year, and it’s worth noting that the difference between Animals and the very first Pink Floyd album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, is staggering.  Piper is the most psychedelic of the psychedelic rock albums that defined the genre in 1966-1968, and it screams “a lot of LSD went into the making of this” at the top of it’s lungs.  The fact that it did is both a fascinating and terrifying story – perhaps the cautionary tale of acid rock and the 1960s.

Pink Floyd, the band – Roger Waters on bass, Nick Mason on drums, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Syd Barrett playing guitar and singing – had been going under various names since the Beatles were still playing German clubs hopped up on amphetamines.  Sometime around 1965 they settled on the name Pink Floyd Sound, which was a combination of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, two blues musicians whose records were in Barrett’s regular rotation.  The name stuck, and seemed to spur the group to take things seriously; within a year they had paid gigs in the London club circuit, playing rhythm and blues for the hip audiences that made up the Swinging portion of Swinging London in the mid-Sixties.  One such gig, at the Marquee Club, caught the ear of Peter Jenner, who taught at the London School of Economics; Jenner took up their cause, invested in them, became their manager, and convinced them to shorten their name to the now-familiar Pink Floyd.  With increased gigs, and press coverage, the group began to experiment.  Their R&B repertoire was fleshed out with lengthy instrumental jams, noisy art-sound, and mixed-media presentations that complemented the psychedelic flavour they were hashing out.  Much of this stemmed from Barrett’s newfound love of LSD, and the visions that came out of his brain through the drug.

The band’s increased notoriety lead them inevitably to being signed with a record label, in this case EMI.  EMI was exceedingly wary about what kind of band they were signing to a contract, and so the terms that were offered were awful, compared to their contemporaries.  They received a very low advance, a terrible deal on royalties, and they had to pay for studio time.  The only really good part of the contract was that EMI allowed them to do whatever they wanted while they were in the studio – and “whatever they wanted” ended up being The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

The album is a perfect summation of where the band was at in 1966-1967.  The songs are built along thrumming, hard-edged rhythms that flick and whirl with sharp, off-kilter guitar lines, spacey noise pads, and Barrett’s whimsical, at times disturbing vocals.  “Lucifer Sam”, “Flaming”, and “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” (the latter the album’s lone Roger Waters song) are the most straightforward songs, taking the structure of most English psychedelic rock songs of the time and building off of the R&B stuff the band was playing in their earlier gigs.  “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”, meanwhile, represented the extended jams that they’d gotten into when they decided that what they really wanted to do was soundtrack Barrett’s LSD visions.  “Matilda Mother” is creeping folk-rock; “The Gnome” rides a similar vibe but amps up the lysergic absurdity.  “Bike” finishes off the album in a comfortable fashion, like a nice pleasant come down from a somewhat terrifying acid trip.  It was, in terms of ideas and execution, far beyond what many bands at the time were attempting; it put other psychedelic acts to shame with it’s explosive exploration of the limits of rock ‘n’ roll.

Unfortunately, if acid was it’s main driving force, acid was also it’s ultimate destruction.  By the time The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn came out, Barrett’s heavy, daily LSD use was taking a grim toll.  Before 1967 Barrett was remembered as a friendly and exuberant person; as he continued to dose himself heavily with LSD, he became distanced, unfriendly, and detached from reality.  He would go through manic stages and then bottom out with periods that were basically catatonic states.  Rumours have abounded throughout the years that Barrett’s LSD use triggered a latent schizophrenic state in his brain, which would explain some of his subsequent behaviour.  That behaviour, in the wake of the release of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, would become increasingly erratic and bizarre.  He developed an infamous dead stare, and at times would be completely unaware of where he was.  Before a gig at the UFO Club, Waters found him in the dressing room, completely unresponsive.  With the help of Jenner, Barrett was lugged out on stage, where he stood motionless with his guitar hung around his neck.  Nor was this the only instance of that dead stare during performances.  While gigging in support of the album in America, Barrett spent a performance on The Pat Boone Show (where acts lip-synced to their singles) staring into the camera.  An interview with Dick Clark was spent staring at Clark and refusing to answer any questions the host would ask.  During one performance he refused to play “Interstellar Overdrive”, instead detuning each string on his guitar until it fell off; the audience thought it was all part of the act, but it was clear to the band and their management that Barrett’s mental state was completely unraveling and the American tour was cut short.

By 1968 Barrett’s tenure in the band was by-and-large over.  After some abortive attempts to write new material and rehearse (including the infamous “Have You Got It Yet?” incident, which you should look up because it’s honestly fucking hilarious and indicative of Barrett’s weird sense of humour), the band decided to move on and replace him at live shows with a friend of the band, David Gilmour.  There was an idea at first to keep going with Barrett writing the songs a la Brian Wilson, but Barrett’s catastrophic mental breakdown made it so even that was a dubious prospect.  He would release an interesting solo album (1970’s The Madcap Laughs) and Pink Floyd would of course go on to become jet-setting international superstars, but The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the sole artifact of the melding of the two forces, and it remains the best document of the entire psychedelic scene in 1960’s England.  As the band grew, they jettisoned most of these tracks from their live shows, except for the long space fillers “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”; regardless, these are all integral pieces of the Pink Floyd Experience, the sound of hip rock ‘n’ roll artists on the verge of something profound and new.

 

Pearl: 30 Years of Hysteria

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Def Leppard – Hysteria

Released August 3rd, 1987 on Mercury Records

Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria?  I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier.  It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it.  Not at all.  They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”.  And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”.  And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track.  And “Rocket”.  And “Women”.  It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air.  And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.

In 1983 the band released Pyromania.  Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves.  Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up.  That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years.  The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf.  Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album.  As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him.  Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.

The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging.  Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue.  Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for.  Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form.  By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions.  1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.

The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties.  Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is.  Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”.  They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time.  Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.

 

GOLD: 50 Years of The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion

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The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion

Released July, 1967 on Elektra Records

Incredible String Band were a couple of Scottish folkies who got their start wanting to be Donovan and Bob Dylan and ended up being mainstays of the lysergic road of the Hippie Trail.  Their 1966 self-titled debut showed the former as being big influences; this follow-up included a number of then-exotic instruments (sitar, gimbri, mandolin, etc.) that were incorporated in such a blissful way that “psychedelic folk” leads it’s long, bizarre trail directly back to it.  If 1967 was indeed the fabled Summer Of Love, then The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion is the most Love-y album of that summer.  This is meant in two senses.  In the first sense, 5000 Spirits is pretty much the epitome of psych-folk, which was the driving soundtrack of the naked, wild, flower-dancing hippie children of 1967.  In the second sense, it is also the epitome of the more teeth-grinding aspects of that era; it’s overly fey in spots, cutesy beyond credibility (“The Hedgehog’s Song”), incorporates blues music without really understanding the grinding poverty that underpinned the blues (“No Sleep Blues”, “Blues For The Muse”), and plays fast and loose with the era’s regrettable love for freewheeling, womanizing men (“The First Girl I Loved”). There’s little wonder, then, that Paul McCartney called it his favourite album of 1967.  Still, as far as documents of a decade’s music go, there’s few records that sum up the 1960s quite as well as 5000 Spirits.