Sonic Youth – Sister
Released June, 1987 on SST Records
Sister is the Great Leap Forward for Sonic Youth, the moment that their ambitions went from being grimey NYC no wave scenesters to being skewed soundscape-pop troubadours, the kind of band that would within four years be touring with Nirvana and introducing another world to audiences across North America. There’s nothing on Sister (or much afterward) that really even passes for “pop” in a loose sense. The song structures are chaotic, the shifts are hazy, the guitar work is seemingly influenced more by frenetic free jazz than it is by traditional rock ‘n’ roll mores. Sonic Youth was to rock music what William Burroughs was to literature, which is to say that they cast their chosen medium in a light that was at once gravid with meaning, slick with excitement, and fractured into a rather sinister psychedelic spray. Thurston Moore’s squalling guitar was a post-modern version of Hendrix, breaking down the sound of the guitar into it’s most basic essence and rebuilding it into forms that were only barely recognizable, especially in the anti-septic, wretchedly clean sounds of mainstream rock in the Eighties. Kim Gordon’s drone work outdoes the Velvet Underground, and in 1987 they were really the first group that could lay claim to such an immense effort; “Beauty Lies In The Eye” is on par with something like “Sister Ray”.
Sister is an album obsessed with the ghost of Phillip K Dick, going so far as to title the album as a reference to Dick’s twin sister, who died shortly after being born and whose memory haunted the writer for the entirety of his life. It’s a fitting subject for the music found within; Dick’s writing was often filtered through a psychedelic lens. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said reads like it’s written in the rainbow corners of an LSD trip, and the war between reality and perception is a staple of almost all of his short fiction, much of which was post-humously filmed and turned into recognizable mainstream cinema: Minority Report, Screamers, Bladerunner, The Man In The High Castle, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Next, and others. In terms of writers with Hollywood adaptations, Dick has always been more Burroughs than Grisham, of course; much of his work can be a bit impenetrable, in the same sense that Sonic Youth was impenetrable to a world where “Girls Girls Girls” was a hit single. As a guiding light for a Sonic Youth album, there’s few brighter than Dick.
In retrospect Sister can be seen as a bridge of sorts, between the old scattershot noise-grubbing Sonic Youth and the lusher, dreamier soundscapes they forged on their breakthrough album, Daydream Nation. A track like closer “White Kross” is as noisy and chaotic as anything they played on EVOL or Confusion = Sex, but “Schizophrenia” is deceptively gentle and uplifting. The driving force that made Sister more coherent and “pop” than previous Sonic Youth releases was Steve Shelley’s drum work, which keeps everything grounded with deft, solid drumming. Thus a track like “Tuff Gnarl”, which could have been soft in the middle and dripping from both ends, becomes a rock-solid (if impressively postmodern) song. “Pacific Coast Highway”, an essential Kim Gordon song, looms menacingly while somehow remaining languid and self-aware. The only off-putting moment is the cover of Crime’s “Hotwire My Heart”, which makes for a great standalone cut but jars somewhat as the sole straight-forward pop tune on an album that seems at times to be cut directly from the magnetic field of the Earth.
The album was also the first Sonic Youth record to win the approval of Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, which was a big deal considering that relations between critic and band were so strained at one point that Thurston Moore would introduce the song “Kill Yr Idols” as “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick”. It marks the point where the band ceased being another of Christgau’s “pigfucker” bands (a meant-to-be-derogatory label that also included luminaries such as Big Black and the Butthole Surfers) and became an up-and-coming (soon to be legendary) member of the white-hot alternative rock scene.
Radiohead – OK Computer
Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records
First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section. Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded. That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you? That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami? That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case. In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else. Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out. Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended. The Stones! Black Sabbath! Led Zeppelin! Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.
Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper. The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades. That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications. The same has happened in other art forms. Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption). Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be. People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to. The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.
Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”? An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious. When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.” While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule. The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form. Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented. We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway. Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music. If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.
In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well. “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North. The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds. Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye. The crowdsourced efforts do even worse: BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM. Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians. This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements: the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz. Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog. As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse. This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself. To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.
So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made? It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison: what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them. If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums. The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts. The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago. Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan. These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made. The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely. Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality. The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through. Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume. Where does Radiohead fit in with this? Pretty much everywhere.
Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different. It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album. The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again. Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s. And that’s just the first song. “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly. Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that. Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism. Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves. There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements. “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress. “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit. “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album. “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.
Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album. The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”. On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths. Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”. Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”. There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements. Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.
Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming. The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew. Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab. Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in. Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court. The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour. Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.
The greatest album ever recorded, though? I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above. It out-Floyds Floyd. It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin. It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967. It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head. Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs. The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for. They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly. In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually. Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist. OK Computer actually does it.
Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!
Released May 20th, 1997 on Matador Records
Guided By Voices was never supposed to be a full-time thing. Formed in the late 1980s as a real band, it slowly morphed into a revolving door of Dayton, Ohio musicians – basically anyone who would come over and drink with 4th-grade teacher Robert Pollard. 1992’s Propeller caught Pollard by surprise when it found a listener base in the wake of the Alternative Revolution, a base that expanded exponentially with the one-two punch of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Under The Bushes Under The Stars, a 1996 album recorded with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, solidified that base, but by 1997 Pollard was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with his new found underground rock star status, a status that had finally allowed him to ditch his day job and pursue his high-kicking rock frontman dreams full-time. To this end, he got rid of the 1992-1996 Guided By Voices lineup and hired Cleveland garage band Cobra Verde to be his backing band; the first record of this lineup was Mag Earwhig!, the last great Guided By Voices album.
Mag Earwhig! is at once much more professional sounding than previous Guided By Voices efforts (except perhaps for the “sterile-sounding” REM-aping 1986 EP Forever Since Breakfast) and as a result it can be jarring for a listener who has been going through the band’s ridiculously lengthy discography. The joke of this is encapsulated in the sketch-song “I Am Produced”, which finds Pollard musing on all the prepping and packaging that goes along with bigger recording contracts and studio time. As a “pro-level” GBV record, it’s still messy and filled with a certain willful need to colour outside of the lines; “The Old Grunt”, “Are You Faster?”, “Choking Tara”, “Hollow Cheek”, and the title track are all barely filled-in sketches in the vein of what studded the length of Bee Thousand. At the same time, there are any number of songs that point the way toward the rock-melody-genius three-minute British Invasion style tracks that would comprise the band’s output up until 2004; “Bulldog Skin”, “Not Behind The Fighter Jet”, “Portable Men’s Society”, “Jane Of The Waking Universe”, and the utterly sublime “The Colossus Crawls West” are among the best of Pollard’s compositions, overall, but it is interesting that the best track on Mag Earwhig!, the high-energy “I Am A Tree”, is actually a composition by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard.
After, GBV would release a major label debut, Do The Collapse, that was a crushing bore, with few exceptions. They would release some solid albums after that, both before the 2004 breakup and after the 2012 reunion, but none would hold a candle to the classic lineup or to Mag Earwhig!.
Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen
Released March 18th, 1997 on 550/Epic Records
In 1997, guys like Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel, and Elton John were the stuff of your parent’s dust-collecting record collection, stuff they’d mostly relegated to buying the “Greatest Hits” compilation of and torturing you with constant replays of “Piano Man” and “Candle In The Wind” (well, not my parents, I grew up under a blues purist). No one gave Ben Folds the memo, though; his second album, Whatever And Ever Amen, drew a direct line from those hoary old ivory-strokers to the contemporary world of ironic folk dudes, ska bands, and second-generation grunge retreads. It’s decidedly uncool, although Folds wisely cuts the painful sentimentality of those old Seventies dudes with some Xer-approved Alternative Era Snark, which can get tiresome in its own right but for nearly all of the album manages to get by just fine. While there are some off moments – the plod of “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and the kitchen-sink clutter of “Steven’s Last Night In Town”, mostly – there are a lot of surprisingly poignant moments, such as the “taking my girlfriend to get an abortion” confessional of “Brick”, the song that launched the rest of Ben Folds’ career.
Elliott Smith – Either/Or
Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records
Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star. Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade. Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music. His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more. Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi). Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.
Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album. Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end: acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression. Either/Or has some of those, of course: “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that. Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger: songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last. That last item is especially important: Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends. It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today. It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.
Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend. Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven: a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”. Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back. After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends. Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.
Marcy Playground – Marcy Playground
Released February 25th, 1997 on Capitol Records
One of these days I plan on doing a listicle called “Ten Albums From The 90s That Aren’t As Bad As You Remember” and #1 on that list is Marcy Playground. Also, Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Throwing Copper, but that’s beside the point. Marcy Playground is one of the most criminally overlooked album of the Nineties, but at the same time it’s completely understandable as to why that occurred. The band’s first single, “Sex And Candy” was…well, you know it. Don’t pretend like you don’t. You’ve sung along to it, and I don’t particularly care how old “you” are. You like sex, and you like candy, and you like “Sex And Candy”. Unfortunately, it was 1997, and one hit wonders were par for the course for alternative rock by then. Remember Seven Mary Three? The Nixons? Chumbawumba? Semisonic? Marcy Playground is counted in those ranks, because “Sex And Candy” was huge, the other singles from the album didn’t make much of a dent in the radio, and the follow-up, 1999’s Shapeshifter, was listened to by approximately seven people worldwide.
So why are we marking the anniversary? It’s because Marcy Playground is something of a lost gem. It is a much better album than it has a right to be, and that all comes down to John Wozniak’s winsome songs that feature very dark shadows lurking in the corners. “Poppies” almost feels educational, with lyrics about the British opium trade with China, until you realize that the fate being sealed that he’s talking about is heroin. Heroin also features, implied or explicit, in “Ancient Walls Of Flowers”, “The Vampires Of New York”, and “Opium”. “Gone Crazy”, in context of the other songs, feels somewhat sinister, and “One More Suicide” is pretty much what it says on the tin. “Saint Joe On The School Bus” is about getting bullied mercilessly, and “The Shadow Of Seattle” posits a rainy war on art. The moments of levy stick out all the more for the darkness that shrouds the indie-pop arrangements: “Sherry Fraser” is about old love, “A Cloak Of Elvenkind” is a peaceful little song about Dungeons and Dragons and parental disapproval, and the ubiquitous “Sex And Candy” is a jumble of vaguely sexy non-sentences, capped with a hook that is an inside joke about Wozniak having sex with his girlfriend in her dorm room. The arrangements are tight, the guitars have just the right shade of grunge crunch without being histrionic and overbearing, and the hooks are goddamn barbed.
As I said before, the band would go on to do pretty much nothing in terms of mainstream exposure, although they keep releasing albums for a fanbase that must exist somewhere. Right? There are people out there that listen to Marcy Playground albums? Wozniak isn’t just releasing these albums into the void for no one to listen to, like I do? Who knows. Marcy Playground stands as their legacy, though, an album that will continue to be remembered even if it’s just because “Sex And Candy” is such an iconic Nineties song. There are worse positions for a band to be in.
Special Friday Edition!
Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music. Ha. Ha ha. Well, they try, that’s the important thing.
If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist: I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is. In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right. Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above: it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.
Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.
June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”
Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton. Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before. In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.
#2: Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”
Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song. Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set. Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.
#3: Beck – “Wow”
Ah, the new Beck track. The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album. Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness. Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion. Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.
#4: The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”
The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead. My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick. Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.
#5: A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”
Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names? Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging? Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth? Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?
Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.
#6: The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”
Okay, show of hands. Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback? Anyone? Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ. Wait, this is actually sort of good. I…I kind of like this. Noel Gallagher co-wrote it? I suppose that explains some things.
#7: Portugal. The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”
Who gave the indie kids access to the internet? They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great. It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act. You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up. Good work, Reddit.
#8: Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”
The rest of the post title literally reads: “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.
Who are you trying to fool, anyway? We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.
Decent tune though.
#9: Link Wray – “Rumble”
Link Wray poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino. At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .
#10: Joywave – “Nice House”
Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden. The outro is rather nice though.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: B- (Not bad, Reddit!)
Animal Collective – Painting With
Released February 19th, 2016 on Domino Records
In the 2000s Animal Collective were the experimental pop band, combining lysergic child-like visions with a wide sonic pallete that drew as much from hip hop and electronic music as it did from their sunny 1960s pop forbears. In the beginning they were inaccessible, the sort of thing that only underground freaks would listen to. Starting with Feels in 2005 they got onto the radar of the booming internet-driven indie-blog world; 2007’s Strawberry Jam upped the ante but it was 2009’s pop-laden Merriweather Post Pavilion that introduced them to a much wider audience. Merriweather Post Pavilion ditched the bizarre noise-cycles that were present even two years previous in favour of big pop, sing-along moments made for indie radio, a concept that would only become a concrete thing in the years that followed. They followed this up with a messy, jittery, hyperkinetic album (Centipede Hz) that divided their fanbase and was nowhere near as well-received as their previous albums.
Painting With, then, becomes the indicator for the direction that the band is going in. That direction is clearly mainstream pop acceptance at the expense of everything that made the group so vital and alive just ten years ago. What’s presented on this album is a muted Animal Collective, reliant on using big burbling synth notes, as though they were making either straightforward hip hop or EDM within their existing milieu. Much of it feels as though they sat down and decided to make an even more accessible Merriweather Post Pavilion, something that would sound great in dorm rooms or stadiums and less so in the bedrooms of the freaks of the nation. It feels deliberate and mercenary, two things you could never previously accuse the band of being. Part of it is likely the wider success of Noah Lennox’s Panda Bear project; part of it is likely the sharply divided response to Centipede Hz. The group took a risk on that album and it didn’t pay off, and so it feels on Painting With that the band has decided never to take such a risk again. Painting With, then, is the sound of Animal Collective playing it safe, and as such it’s a real downer.
#20: The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ
Wrestling is a sport (sorry, “sports entertainment”) that has elicited a rather divided reaction over the past few decades. To some it’s a tiresome recreation of patriarchal gender roles, emphasizing hyper-masculinity through a series of half-cocked storylines that repeat the same simplistic hero-villain duality over and over again. To others – and John Darnielle is in this particular listing – it’s a pure distillation of justice and morality, set up for ease of viewing and digestion. In many ways Beat The Champ is the aural companion piece to Mickey Rourke’s 2009 film The Wrestler; both focus on the grit and loneliness of being a pro wrestler. These are not the pro wrestlers of the WWE; they are the lonely men that wander the roads between the cities, going from one match in a packed gymnasium to the next, getting television coverage where they can, unknown outside of their own home regions. These are men for whom turning the heel means their career is winding down, men for whom death is always snipping at their heels. When one such character is murdered near San Juan, it is exactly as much as we expect; a life of simulated violence only leads to the real thing in the end. Still, there’s a glimmer of dawn on that deserted road: love, justice, and the raw triumph of the moment are always lingering, like the carrot in the midst of the path.
#19: U.S. Girls – Half Free
Meg Remy emigrated to Canada after toiling in the small noise labels of America for quite a while. Since then, her career has taken an upward trajectory, culminating (so far) in Half Free, which Remy explicitly mentioned was a collection of character studies in the vein of Bruce Springsteen or John Cassavettes. The characters of Half Free are far more Darkness On The Edge Of Town than they are Born To Run. These are women whom life has taken more than a few swings at, women that are on the desperate bleeding edge between life and death. A husband is revealed to have slept with all of his wife’s sisters before settling with her; another dies in a valley in Iraq and the grief of his war-widow wife is palpable. There are women who stand up and say “enough is enough” and leave their philandering and/or abusive men. It’s touched off with a lengthy slab of high-contrast Italo-Disco that stands up as a screed against the dictates of the religion of beauty. It’s a deeply feminist record, and one in which pop tropes and messy noise compositions stand together hand in hand.
#18: Ought – Sun Coming Down
The poppiest band on Constellation Records is really only marginally accessible, as you might imagine. Ought take the ideas and the sounds of early 80s post-punk and run with them, mutating them until they become something vital and alive once again. This is the relentless motorik energy of The Feelies and the skewed tilt of the Talking Heads melded with cut-up riffs from the DIY emo scene of the mid 90s, delivered with a view towards the desperation of modernity. In the hands of Ought, that desperation is surrendered to and, in that surrender, is shown to be a blissful, clarifying escape.
#17: Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack
The Great Vaporwave Album of Hip Hop – the Chinese Democracy of rap, if you will – was Detox, the supposed third album by the kingpin producer of the West Coast, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. It was revealed this year that Dre has put Detox to bed permanently, unable to come up with anything that would truly live up to the hype. Instead, we got Compton, inspired by the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton and packaged with the eye of a man who has been watching his city change from idealistic suburb to gang-ridden warzone and back again since the early 80s. The vision and sound presented here are only partially Dre, however. Dre, whose discoveries have included Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game, found in Kendrick Lamar a talent that would take over; if Compton bears a resemblance to To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s because Lamar has stamped his features indelibly on both. Anderson.Paak takes the Bilal role here, wrapping the retro-facing jazz, soul, and funk slices in warm buttery vocals; the songs become an introduction for every aspiring rapper that Dre has been mentoring over the past few years. It’s a widescreen, cinematic view of Dre, Dre’s city, and the West Coast in general.
#16: Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too
The Edinburgh hip hop group declared that White Men Are Black Men Too, the follow up to their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut Dead, would “break them out of the ghetto”. While the album still revolves around a hard centre of hip hop, the songs play with that form until it is at times unrecognizable. White Men reinterprets British pop and distills key elements out of it, then adds in influences from the continent. If calling Young Fathers “hip hop” makes no sense to you, it’s because the group has increasingly less connection to the American sense of the genre. Instead, they choose to move forward, bringing in trip hop, krautrock, British electronic traditions, and avant art-pop to leaven the aggressive vocals and focus on beats that tethers them, however tenuously, to the hip hop tradition. This is Euro-rap, in a sense; bristling with ambition and aggression, but insistent that art should mean something, and that this meaning can take on a life in and of itself.
#15: Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Earl locked himself in his basement so you don’t have to. He details the gory, gritty details of his descent into being a young, cynical curmudgeon so that you can walk outside, feel the sun on your neck, and be thankful for your existence. When OFWGKTA leader Tyler, The Creator started tweeting earlier this year about “people” whose attitudes brought him down and that life was great, you don’t need to do so many drugs, stop being so depressed all the time, etc. it was clear that Earl was who he was talking about. The fact that Tyler’s album was a bomb and Earl’s was not is telling about who should be proferring advice to whom in the rap game.
#14: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Melbourne indie phenom Courtney Barnett caused a lot of heads to turn with her twin EPs, packaged together last year as A Sea of Split Peas. Her debut magnifies what made those two EPs work. Barnett’s eye for detail exceeds pretty much anyone else out there whose name isn’t Dennis Coles, and she uses it to weave quotidian stories that cross class and gender boundaries. These are universalist themes: embarassment, ennui, confusion, creeping depression. The subjects are light-hearted for the most part – a girl who nearly drowns at the public pool trying to impress someone, a guy who skips off work to watch the city from above and gets mistaken for a jumper, a person who can’t sleep picking out all the mundane parts of her room – but there’s a real existential weight that drags at them. There’s real life going on here, in all of it’s ragged glory, and Courtney Barnett is the person to bring it all to the light.
#13: Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie
Girl Band is not a post-punk band. Instead, the Irish quartet take the sounds of post-punk and deconstruct them. “Deconstruct” is sort of a misnomer; what they really do is smash them with a hammer, melt them with a blowtorch, and weld them back together in amusing and vaguely horrifying shapes. Their lyrics are bizarre, cut-and-paste, and obsessed with food, in perfect keeping with the sound of the album. Unlike most blasphemous creations, the misshapen, mutated sounds on display here don’t ever croak out a hair-raising “kill me”; instead, they swarm for your jugular and don’t let up until they’ve rinsed your bones clean of flesh. If that sounds like a fun experience, it’s because it is.
#12: Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
If You’re Reading This dropped like an atom bomb: completely by surprise and with devastating force. Coming out of nowhere (and a rumoured record label tiff with Birdman and Cash Money Records), it was originally meant to be a free mixtape. At the last minute, Drake decided to release it as an actual album that you had to pay for – and made millions in the process. The entirety of the rest of Drake’s year stemmed from this: the Meek Mill beef, the wild success of his diss track, the frenzy around “Hotline Bling”, and the even-more-hyped anticipation for the forthcoming Views From The Six. And why not? The record is a study in modern beatcraft: spare, menacing, and throbbing with that 808 bass. Drake’s delivery is on point, and his use of ear worms as hooks makes for an album you’ll be humming forever. If this was, as rumoured, the cutting-room floor of the Views sessions, then the future album will be a monolith.
#11: Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
In the summer of 2006 Vince Staples was 13 and being introduced to life in the crime-ridden streets of Long Beach, CA. Summertime ’06, his debut, is an attempt to capture the peaks and valleys of that time of his life, and it cuts deeply. Drug taking, drug selling, gun play, the mercurial interplay of love and casual sex: none of it is shied away from, and Vince Staples keeps a duality of magic and regret in balance for the duration. The production is handled expertly, the bulk of it by No ID and Clams Casino. The Clams Casino tracks are among the best tracks he’s ever had a hand in, especially on the nauseous “Norf Norf”. Summertime ’06 transformed Vince Staples from being merely another OFWGKTA associate to being one of the biggest emerging stars in the rap game.
#10: Viet Cong – Viet Cong
From the ashes of tragedy, a pheonix rises. Women were a Calgary band that garnered a great deal of good press for being hard-edged experimenters with indie rock sounds. When Chris Reimer, Women’s guitarist, died, half the band went on to form Viet Cong with members of Lab Coast. Viet Cong, their debut, fuses post-punk sensibilities with aspects of electronic, lo-fi, and noise to create an art rock that is specifically their own. The tracks on the record are a delicate balance between constructed hook-oriented melodies and messy, coloured-outside-the-lines noise worship. Jangly R.E.M.-indebted 12 string guitars line up next to forceful, droning keyboards and relentless drum patterns; it’s a fusion of man and machine that points toward the future even as it keeps one foot entrenched in the recent past.
#09: Grimes – Art Angels
The effort to follow up Visions, her 4AD breakthrough, has been painful. It’s only been three years, but in that short time the Montreal singer has already recorded and scrapped an entire album, leaving only the enigmatic single “REALiTi” as proof that it had ever even existed. The reasons were probably numerous, but the most obvious one is that the scrapped album featured production work by other people, and Claire Boucher is not the sort of artist to let other people do her speaking for her. Art Angels instead features songs and production by the artist herself, a package of visual and aural media that outlines the particular, peculiar vision that is Boucher’s very own. This is pop that isn’t afraid to be pop, filtered through the lens of someone for whom pop means something different from the way the rest of us use the word. This is an album where “high concept” and “ridiculously catchy” can exist side by side without it ever being considered strange, where the cheerleader-esque vocals on “Kill V Maim” can seem perfectly right, rather than a Gwen Stefani-style effort to seem hip. This is, in short, pop as it should be: willing to move forward, disdaining the safe path in favour of making people think and dance at the same time.
#08: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Patrick Stickles is a weird dude. The New Jersey punk frontman started off as the most literate Shakespeare nerd in the indie punk world, expanded on this with a sprawling concept album that merged the U.S. Civil War with modern post-crash New Jersey, and then retreated into the small and mundane – into “Local Business”. That last album, Local Business, held odd allusions to despair, depression, and eating disorders; The Most Lamentable Tragedy expands on these themes to the extent that the listener becomes uncomfortably aware that Stickles is dealing with his own problems. In lesser hands this would be a slog, but Stickles and his band make the crushing grind of clinical depression and its resultant branching symptoms seem like the most invigorating thing on Earth. Returning to the sprawling form that made The Monitor such a messy delight, the band burns through jagged power-pop, lengthy drone-rock, burningly intimate ballads, and, in “Dimed Out”, the sharpest blast of punk rock to grace the year. It’s a triumph, all the more so because of the obviously painful circumstances that gave birth to it.
#07: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
The pillar of the entire post-rock genre have returned, proving that the surprise strength of Polaris Prize-winning album ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend was not a fluke. Asunder finds them paring down their sound to its essentials, cutting the fat that mired them originally in the swamp of 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. Godspeed in 2015 is a band that has more to do with Black Sabbath than with the avant-garde; every movement, through guitars, strings, or pure noise, is built to evoke a cacophonous drone of doom that sums up all of the existential dread that weighs down the West as we move further into the 21st Century. Godspeed have lost the train noises and the warnings about solicitors in the parking lot, but they have kept all of the apocalyptic fury that powered their best work.
#06: Destroyer – Poison Season
Kaputt brought Vancouver’s Dan Bejar into the limelight, but it was the very last thing he wanted to happen. Tellingly, he dropped the exploration of yacht rock and lite disco that informed his world-weary work on Kaputt in favour of musical snapshots of life in New York City. Poison Season offers the haze of the crowded streets, the sultry jazz of the night, and especially the wailing heartland saxophones of vintage Bruce Springsteen. Not just any Bruce, though; Poison Season channels the Boss as he was on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. These are songs that aren’t afraid to get lengthy, to shift gears, to fall in love with themselves as much as they’ve fallen in love with their subject matter. This is Bejar at his best, poetic and mystical in as much as he is self-deprecating and uncomfortable with himself and his surroundings.
#05: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
Rock n Roll comebacks are a tricky thing. While any band that’s ever tasted success tries to come back after a decade or so of being apart to try to cash in on their old fame with new albums, none of them ever manage to make it work like they did before. Black Sabbath tried to recapture the magic with 13 but the only people listening were curmudgeonly “modern rock” stations that were trying to freeze the clock at 2001. Any band that ever lived through the Eighties never made it back. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains have tried to muddle along as though their respective hiatuses never happened, but they’ve never sounded the same since. There’s usually a story – some pheonix-like rise from the ashes of hitting rock bottom – and that story is supposed to galvanize their fanbase into buying the album and pretending that it’s as good as anything they’ve ever heard before. A lot of people are good at that pretense.
Sleater-Kinney, though, don’t have much of a story. Or, rather, perhaps they have the best story. They were sitting around with Fred Armisen watching advance screenings of Portlandia episodes when they decided that it might be fun to play live again. They’d been out of commission since 2005 and The Woods, an album that was commonly thought of as the best possible record to bow out on – go out on top, after all. The ten years between The Woods and No Cities To Love are so chock-full of media projects of various stripes that by all rights it should have been the story of any other band: they should have lost their way, forgotten what it meant to sound like Sleater-Kinney, and turned out a half-baked excuse to tour, like any other band stemming from the 1990s.
No Cities To Love is not that album. It is, simply put, the eighth Sleater-Kinney album. It sounds as though there never was an intervening period of time between the two. The guitar lines are still as knotted and imposingly complex as they ever were, the vocals still as impassioned, topical, and liberating. If Sleater-Kinney were the pillars of the riot grrl movement in the mid-1990s, it’s telling that they’re still a pillar as such. There is just as much room for them to carry the standard for righteous feminism in 2015 as their was in 1995, and they carry it as though it never left their fingers. Unlike their contemporaries, Sleater-Kinney still sounds exactly like Sleater-Kinney, and it’s a fucking rush to hear it.
#04: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is best known for his massive pop gestures. Albums like Illinoise or The Age of Adz married blissful pop melodies to orchestral symphonies of folk instrumentation and thereby made his bones. Carrie & Lowell, by contrast, sounds more like 2004’s Seven Swans, an acoustic collection released before either of those aforementioned albums. This is Sufjan Stevens stripped down to his elements – guitar, voice, maybe some piano here and there for effect. Despite this, he manages to fill the sonic room just as well as he does when he’s piling on hundreds of voices and crafting shaky little symphonies to John Wayne Gacy. The songs sound gigantic, and a lot of that has to do with the way he’s learned to use his voice over the past decade.
The origins of Carrie & Lowell stem from the 2012 death of Sufjan’s mother, the titular Carrie. Life with Carrie was difficult as she was both a paranoid schizophrenic and addicted to drugs and alcohol. After Carrie left her family, Sufjan only saw her on vacation with his new stepfather, the titular Lowell – who also manages the Asthmatic Kitty record label that Sufjan has recorded for since the beginning of his career. Carrie & Lowell is a reminiscence of sorts of those times, and as such it performs two functions. First, it allows Sufjan to grieve, by committing all of the good and bad parts of his memories to song. Secondly, it’s consistent referencing to Oregon makes it so that it can be said that Carrie & Lowell is the third in Sufjan’s half-joking ambition to make an album for each of the 50 states (Michigan and Illinois being the first two).
Carrie & Lowell is an album about grief and death, and the hope for rebirth that can spring from them. It runs the gamut from bleak to hopeful, and it encompasses Sufjan’s faith in a way that doesn’t feel overt or forced. It’s a spiritual album by a spiritual man that doesn’t shove its spirituality down your throat – a rare item indeed in these times.
#03: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman was originally a member of Seattle neo-folkies Fleet Foxes. When that project went on apparently indefinite hiatus he tried his hand at solo albums. When those solo albums went nowhere, he created the character of Father John Misty, a lothario and a “ladies man” whose mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing made him a compelling, sarcastic, hilarious character on Fear Fun, the character’s debut. There’s only so far you can go with a character like that, though, so when it came time to record a follow-up it was a matter of anything goes.
Character study or not, all things flow from the author. Given Tillman’s subsequent marriage, it is unsurprising that I Love You, Honeybear is an album at once about the fear and uncertainty stemming from one night stands and casual relationship and the surprising stability and comfort of a more lasting relationship. This is an album where a girl almost dies in his bathtub, where he can’t perform for the most annoying girl he’s ever met, where he stumbles in wasted at seven in the morning screaming that he’s going to get some girl pregnant. That this is also an album where two lovers watch the economic apocalypse occur, where Tillman yearns to actually talk to his lover and not just on a phone or tablet, and where he outlines how he met his wife and what he thinks their future holds, cannot be overlooked.
Tillman melds the best parts of the singer-songwriter tradition to create a vision that is, at its core, scruffy folk-pop, but a scruffy folk-pop that sounds fully realized and artistically sound. Strings, pianos, and guitars are everywhere, and yet never does one voice seem to overpower any other, even Tillman’s own. It is worth mentioning that the best part of “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” is not Tillman’s impassioned account of giving in and taking the plunge, but the mariachi horns that burst out near the end of the song, a brass orgasm that feels more satisfying than any other musical moment this year.
#02: Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Black metal was long ago relegated to the extremes of even an extreme musical movement like metal. Rather than clearly defined riffs and brutal, gorilla-like vocals, it preferred to blur everything together, approaching shoegaze more than Slayer. It was a movement that was staunchly anti-commercial, trying to be as edgy as possible while conjuring up sounds that eerily approximated the howl of the Norwegian winter.
The second wave of black metal involved the Americans, who adopted the sound of black metal – blurring riffs, blastbeats, howling vocals – while ditching much of the immature, pretentious Satanism that infested the Norwegian bands. Deafheaven belongs to a movement that is beyond even this second wave – a movement often decried as not being pure enough by black metal purists. This includes Liturgy – the ultimate in Brooklyn hipster appropriations of musical styles – and Deafheaven.
Sunbather, Deafheaven’s breakthrough album, was a howling merger between black metal, noise punk, and shoegaze, a metallic meeting of genres that absconded with traditional metal imagery altogether in favour of class struggle, alienation, and isolation. New Bermuda carries on in this vein, albeit in a bleaker way. New Bermuda is, at its core, an album concerned with the abanonment of joy. Nothing feels good anymore. Work is drudgery, and the life that comes after it has become drudgery as well. Hobbies barely stave off boredom. Sex doesn’t happen anymore. Life is intolerable, inescapable, and the only way out is through the bliss of death.
At the same time, New Bermuda musically invokes a chilling, majestic form of joy all its own. The black metal core is still there, but there are also more straightforward nods to traditional heavy metal structures, drone-noise, and hazy dream pop moments. It is as surreal as it is bleak, and it moves New Bermuda from being unrelentingly bleak to be relatably so. It’s the sort of depressing montage of images that can avoid being overwhelming by resonating with nearly everyone who listens to it. This is life, warts and all, dressed up in the best cross-cultural promotion of heavy metal styles heard in decades.
#01: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly