Category Archives: Music
Yes, the #MWE chain doesn’t stop. It keeps going, from experimental to alt hip-hop. Let’s dive into my navel-gazing:
Daniel Avery, Alessandro Cortini – Illusion Of Time: If you’ve heard Avery’s Songs For Alpha or any of Cortini’s SONOIO work, you’ll hear how different this sounds. It’s a dense panorama – at times harsh, and on others melancholy. Sometimes it’s a combo of both (the epic “Water” is a perfect example of that). “CC Pad” has an 80s ambient sound to it that seems tailor to be listened to while walking along the beach, whereas there is a foreboding drone echoing through dark caverns in the aptly titled “Inside The Ruins”.
Smoke City – Flying Away: Bossa nova/samba permeates the album. Most people only know them from “Underwater Love”, but there are tracks like “Mr. Gorgeous (And Miss Curvaceous)” and “Dark Walk” that make it swell past its sensuous aura. The album wants to stand alongside those of notable trip-hop contemporaries, but something is missing and it slips through the cracks, purring in the deep while Dummy and Mezzanine elevate into legendary positions.
Dorian Electra – My Agenda:Is pop elastic or meant to be shattered into pieces? Electra’s answer is a polished firebomb of influences and interesting collab choices, meticulously crafted into neon protest howls. Strangely alluring as a whole, but it would be difficult to point out just one song in this 25-min barrage. The ones that come to mind is “Ram It Down” and “Edelord” but it would take a bit more of a deep dive into hyperpop in general to see if there was something here.
Lady Gaga: Chromatica: Put down the acoustic guitar from Joanne/A Star Is Born and came back w/ fun Gaga. Has the right cheery flow to gloomy lyrics ratio, which is key in pushing Chromatica‘s purpose as a concept album. Old-school house beats steadily pumped into its veins, so the remixes will be bomb AF. Truthfully this would be up your alley if you were the type that recklessly went into clubs in the 90s and 2000s. It’s a shame there aren’t any clubs where we came blast the hell out of these songs.
Perfume Genius: Set My Heart On Fire Immediately: Hadreas built something great from No Shape and Too Bright. This album still has the defiance you would find through the personal nature of his lyrics. There is a deep longing spilling out f the spaces between the notes and Hadreas’ voice in “Moonbend” and “Leave.” Even a stripped-down song like “Without You” has a certain grandiosity to them. It’s all over the place but vulnerable and joyful.
Geto Boys: We Can’t Be Stopped: An obvious zero fucks to curb stomp chivalry, piss on the war on drugs, all the while stealing your girl. From a general listenability factor it still fucking bangs, 30 years later. The production is still on point, and the themes they were playing with aren’t the type that generally go out of style (the lyrics for “Fuck a War” and “Aint With Being Broke” still work today). It’s the way they handled it – Bushwick’s wildcard rap, Scarface’s storytelling, and Willie D’s abrasive bars made them a three-headed hydra of early 90s grimy hardcore rap.
Open Mike Eagle: Anime, Trauma and Divorce: The laidback beats and clever references belie OME’s confessions on body image issues, feelings of failure, and the pain of starting over. It’s grown man emo rap, with one man spitting out his post-divorce neuroses in the most earnest way he can. OME’s sardonic wit in “The Black Mirror Episode” and “WTF is Self-Care” helps us ride this depression wave as he takes us through it.
Last year I started tweeted a Music Writer Exercise created by Gary Suarez. It happens every February all month long, here are the details:
I figured that I shouldn’t keep to just the 280 characters If I wanted to, so here goes for week one:
Television – Marquee Moon : The title track is a dizzying piece that mesmerizes you, while the remaining songs are improvisational post-punk to their core. Decades onward, and there’s still a lot on the album that’s fresh. “Venus”, “Friction”, and “Elevation” are standout of Verlaine’s poetic lyrics over unrestrained riffs. You can hear the influences its made on LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, The Strokes, and countless classic attacks like R.E.M. among others. Even Joy Division fans can’t deny that Television’s album, which came out years before Unknown Pleasures, is a bedrock to the genre and many that came after.
Doves – The Universal Want: Long time since Kingdom of Rust, and the sound is like they shook off a lot of it. Not overly ornate, but the expansive melody and Goodwin’s anguish (“Prisoners” and “Broken Eyes” come to mind) makes a luster that washes out the dull. It’s difficult to pull off a decent album after an eleven-year hiatus, many stumble on the comeback swing. yet Doves pulls the uplifting from the melodrama as the adept veterans they have become.
PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea: A love letter to urban life that reaches out to you. Nightlife, seediness, longing – Polly Jean makes the alt-rock strumming intimate, even with that widespread appeal. The Thom Yorke tracks are amazing, but you can’t overlook “Good Fortune”, “Kamikaze”, and “This Is Love”. On a more personal note, I feel a slight pang of guilt because I should have listened to this album DECADES ago when I heard her live when she opened for U2 back in 2001.
White Zombie – La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One: Slick, primal sleaze-metal w/ trashy intensity oozing out of every song. The monotony is saved by the punctuations of exploitation movie samples like the devil’s ad-libs. There’s nothing to be lost from an Iggy Pop spoken word bit in the middle of “Black Sunshine”, either. The crunch in”Cosmic Monster Inc.” and unrelenting “Grindhouse (A Go-Go) ” are of note, along with “Thunder Kiss 65”, of course. Faster, slimebag, kill!
Death – …For The Whole World to See: Some archeologists fight about the origins of musical instruments. It’s not the same for this album and Death’s mark on punk rock when you listen. From start (“Keep On Knocking”) to finish (“Politicians In My Eyes”) it is a burst of vibrant, nonconformist rock that should have been respected at release, but alas.
Animal Collective – Sung Tongs: What an offbeat little symbol of emergent 2000s weirdness. Veering on the twee at times, it’s a psych-folk album that takes you on a jaunt through an indie idyll. Whether it’s back to normal or down to hipsterdom, that would depend if you went on to listen to Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Actress – Karma & Desire: Certain hypnagogic melodies permeate this album. It has a Selected Ambient Works Vol II vibe, evolved into something organic, energetic, and cybernetic. Whispers slip into pulsating beats on “Angels Pharmacy”. There are haunting piano pieces throughout, but “Many Seas, Many River” with Sampha’s soulful vocals is a standout. Actress’ house roots still emerge on the bottom half of the album, and the T-909 special guesting.
Around ten years ago at a bar in the Village a few hours before we rang in 2010, I had a spirited debate about what were the best albums of the decade that had passed. I still maintain on some (Discovery, Demon Days, Stankonia) while have forgotten others. As I’m reaching that point once again, I’m taking stock of the albums that have captured me in the last ten years.
I typically put them out in no particular order, but it felt right to put them in the order where they meant the most.
2018 – Mitski – Be the Cowboy
There’s more to Mitski’s latest album than fitting it into critics’ tired description of the sad girl breaking down over an electric guitar. On this one, the songs come from a blend of anecdotes and allegory. She pulls away from the curtain of these lives, constructed from songs like “Washing Machine Heart” and “Me and My Husband,” and allows you to look into for a fleeting moment. Is there still that tinge of melancholy that is part of her style? Of course, her lyrics very much keep that part in check. But the range of sound makes it deeper.
Favorite Song: The best way to describe the juxtaposition of despair and musicality in Be the Cowboy is in “Nobody”. Mitski cleverly mixes her desperation from solitude with a catchy indie-pop hook and it works.
2017 – Arca – Arca
This is what happens when you make an abstract Venezuelan beatmaker become BFFs with Bjork- you end up with something defenseless and cacophonous, brave yet jarring. Ghersi’s voice is arguably the most important part of this album, as it reveals her Latinx identity, using the folk song “Caballo Viejo” on “Reverie”, releasing a blossoming hurt in her voice mixed within the sweeping distortion. The distinctive marks of Ghersi’s industrial brooding remain locked in a melody of her own design, and somehow this strange monstrosity works.
Favorite Song: “Desafio” is the odd mutant out in the album. While the rest of the album is this sinewy beast, this starts with an air raid horn and Europop sensibilities. It’s her most accessible song to date, despite having lyrics that literally translate to throat slitting and euphemisms of orgasms.
2013 – Disclosure – Settle
Electronic music is in a weird place now that it’s in a more recognized place. That’s why it’s refreshing to find two brothers from Surrey take a modern spin on house music. Settle’s influences, ranging from deep house, synthpop, and UK garage, create a high-energy trip that harkens back to the 90s house beats I grew up on with flourishes and features that make the songs sound like they are a uniquely 2010s creation.
Favorite Song: “When A Fire Starts To Burn” chops up a preacher testifying and blends it with the thumps of deep house into a highly danceable banger. As the intro song for an album, it definitely let’s you know what you’re getting into really fast.
2012 – Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Years before Killer Mike became a Bernie Sanders stan or released a Netflix show, he was an underground virtuoso on his mixtapes. It was this album that served as a prequel of sorts, a prototype of what would become of his career in the 2010s. El-P’s synth-heavy beats served as the bedrock of Mike’s fiercely political lyrics. He
Favorite Song: “Untitled” comes in like Southern freestyle and becomes this dark meditation into Mike’s worry on his legacy, but it ends with a defiant punch at authority. That, with El-P’s production and tribal drumming in the back, bring out this almost-sinister track.
2015 – Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I have a serious issue with “woke” rap, which is really difficult to come to terms with living in a Black Lives Matter era. What saves Kendrick from the incredibly tired cliches of many 2010 conscious rappers is that TPAB weaves a clever mosaic of what it means to be a black American. Each song serves as a piece of the musical and racial history they have struggled, and Lamar (with the help of an amazing cast of features) pulls it all together into this pseudo-concept album that is not overbearing. Even when it veers towards protest rap, you still remember that it has the DNA of West Coast hip-hop. The tinges of jazz give TPAB a sound that seals its “instant classic” label.
Favorite Song: The parable in “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a powerful Kendrick narrative. It’s haunting, and you know that the person, refusing to be charitable to the divine, will end in heavenly ruin, but it’s still strong words nonetheless. The Ronald Isley outro is killer, too.
2016 – David Bowie – Blackstar
Can anyone listen to this album without the feeling that Bowie is telling you goodbye? It’s almost impossible on this one, and once again he reimagined himself for this album. This time it was of the artist in reflection, staring at what he’s created before it ends. Songs like “Tis A Pity She’s A Whore” and “Dollar Days” both recall his history while cryptically signal his end. The album isn’t dark, but one that rekindles your admiration for Bowie.
Favorite Song: The final song of his career, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a swan song, but the reason it’s good is that he’s cleverly telling us that he’s walking away, taking some of his secrets with him. Like any good rock star, they have to take the mystique with them.
2011 -Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
There are countless instances of indie-pop that came after this album but Florence Welch served as a standard-bearer with this one. Her distinctive vulnerability in lyrics is amplified in the baroque and bombastic (“Shake It Out”, “What The Water Gave Me”). On Ceremonials, Welch is a hopeless romantic with a booming voice that never stops howling for that lost feeling of love. And there’s no shame in diving deep into that spiral along with her.
Favorite Song: Florence Welch has made her share of hangover songs, with “Shake It Out” being one of them. But this one is somewhere between a celebration and a call for help on those 3 AM nights after way too many drinks. She’s reminding you about those dives into drunken abandon, but just maybe there’s a way out.
2014 – Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Fast-forward two years after Mike and El dropped not one, but two gritty, grimy collaborations that attracted a sizable amount of buzz, and they released a follow-up to RTJ1 that was unrelenting, grimy, and witty as hell. The bars Killer Mike and El-P trade-off on songs like “Close Your Eyes(And Count To Fuck)” and “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” take no prisoners and slap the everliving crap out of you over tried-and-true El Producto dystopia-scratch beats. The duo produced a brick to your face that has you asking for more, and miles from Def Jux and Pledge Allegiance To The Grind.
Favorite Song: “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is an introduction, to the normies as well as the hip-hop heads, to the assault they cleverly hide behind wordplay and fuzzed-out aggression of El-P’s beats and synths. It punches you in the gut, and you smile before you want more.
2010 – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
To take a bit of a phrase from comics writer Kieron Gillen and fuss with it, we all live in the shadow of MBDTF. Regardless of whether you are a Kanye stan or if you vilify him for the myriad faults he’s accumulated over the years, this album is epic, as badly as the word’s been overused. West takes the grandiosity of production and stretches it to what could be the closest thing to a hip-hop prog album readily available for the mainstream. His beats and words spill out the excess of his life to the maximum, and artists have been pouring it into their musical DNA throughout the decade (and perhaps more).
Favorite Song: It’s hard to choose a favorite from this album. His enormity and vulnerability seemed to have hit me at all points, and it eventually became a three-way tie between “POWER”, “Runaway”, and ‘All Of The Lights”. For personal reasons “Runaway” edged out, but from an objective POV, the song bangs due to how that simple piano intro can become an anthem for break-ups, arrogance, and insecurity all balled-up into genius.
The Tenth Spot
Now the last one should be reserved for the best album of 2019, which I’ve kind of decided at this point but you’ll see in another post. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had more of a soft spot for Gorillaz, so Plastic Beach takes the spot.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
There was no way beat the alt-pop perfection of Demon Days from last decade. This time around, they stayed on the wave with some added guests that really popped. We got De La Soul once again, but also Snoop Dogg and the pre-Yasiin Bey Mos Def. Newcomer Little Dragon was an outstanding standout while legends Bobby Womack and Lou Reed provided the foundation for an ambitious concept album only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett could devise.
Favorite Song: The intro to “Empire Ants” lulls you into a summer beach, Albarn singing you out of your comfort zone right as Yukmi Nagano pulls you into a vulnerable melody of broken machines.
While everyone is wrapping up presents and scrambling around stores for the rest of them, I went through my own December pastime, which is examine my favorites/what I’ve missed from this year’s music and see which ones really grabbed my attention. I also have a Spotify playlist of songs from 2015 that I’ll put up later as well. But first, here are my albums.
Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
This year’s last fifth spot was a bit tough, as I had to choose between this album and Blur’s The Magic Whip. The Britpop gods put out a solid album, I cannot deny that. But this is a punk opera with a veneer the band has not shown since The Monitor. Between their anthem-ready songs like “Dimed Out” and “No Future Part IV” are many others that create a tapestry of mania, drugs, and separation from oneself that is are ambitious as they are kick ass. You can lose yourself in the sound as much as you can the pit.
Favorite Song: “Dimed Out” is pretty much your tried-and-true punk rock Titus Andronicus. That driving drum intro and Patrick Stickles’ screams bring the fun, but the underlying violin give it more of a body.
Björk- VulnicuraI had the pleasure of seeing Björk live at Governors Ball this year. The juxtaposition of the Icelandic singer in a bizarre dark butterfly costume with a string orchestra all dressed in white garb seemed odd, but that combination was a fitting representation of the album – a dark, pained voice using violins, cellos, and sundry instruments in expressing the dissolution of a relationship reaching for change. The production work from Arca and The Haxan Cloak, whose challenging atmospheric work made them perfect as Björk’s co-producers, accentuated her singing.
Favorite Song: “Lionsong” The combination of asynchronous beats with forlorn strings matched the turmoil inherent in her voice on this song.
The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness
If Trilogy was Abel’s nascent triptych of dark R&B longing, and Kiss Land a spirited attempt at a cohesive effort, then Beauty Behind the Madness is the true nocturnal-yet-universal product of the two. It is The Weeknd’s detached drug-infused sex vibes laid bare for everyone, not just the indie crowd. You want an example of this – his mega-hit blatantly plays with cocaine use, and it still works. The Weeknd brings us all into the darkness of his R&B and you want more.
Favorite Song: “The Hills” is emblematic of Tesafaye’s evolution from House of Balloons to Madness. It’s just enough of the sex-fueled tryst you would find in a song like “Wicked Games” but with a flair heard in any club banger.
Grimes – Art Angels
I am of the minority opinion that think Visions is not Boucher’s strongest work. It’s understandable how there’s an accessibility inherent in that album compared to the previous two that made it very popular, but it was too twee for my tastes. However, Grimes put out songs on Art Angels that expands her pop repertoire, each with a cleverness to them that help the album surpass all her previous work. And so many of the songs are as catchy as they are different. upbeat vibes hiding pained lyrics in “California” are not like the ecstatic ode to her city of Montreal in the title track. Grimes truly pushed herself on this one, and it was for the better.
Favorite Song: “Artangels” is a Grimes taking K-pop/90s pop styles and using it as the bedrock for a happy jam about her musical hometown. It is a tight upbeat machine so far removed in sound from Visions that you can almost dance to it.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I am really leery of conscious rap nowadays. Back in college it was my go-to, but many eventually trade their rhymes for ham-fisted messages that lose their potency if the song, you know, sucks. Kendrick infused some of that spirit within the prevalent soul/funk mood of the album while retaining his rapper virtuoso skills on those bars. This album is a body, made the story-rap of good kid, m.A.A.d city into a sprawl where Lamar shows us the weight of his fame and blackness coming down on him for all to see (see “Blacker The Berry”). But he shows the beauty in it as well in songs like “i” and “Alright”, the latter so much so that it’s now become a chant of sorts for the Black Lives Matter movement. King Kendrick, indeed.
Favorite Song: “How Much a Dollar Costs” is Kendrick’s storytelling par excellence. In that narration between him and a beggar we find Lamar creating a modern-day version of a parable, and it rides out with Ronald Isley singing in penitence.
Blur – The Magic Whip
Lupe Fiasco – Testuo and Youth
ASAP Rocky – At.Long.Last.ASAP
Florence + The Machine – How Big How Blue How Beautiful
Leftfield – Alternative Light Source
Freddie Gibbs – Shadow of a Doubt
Chvrches – Every Open Eye
BOOTS – AQUARIA
Sexwitch – Sexwitch
Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Arca – Mutant
While I put up my regular top five album list earlier, this year was more of a song year overall. It made sense for the compiling of a playlist, of course, so here it is for your ear’s pleasure. It has songs from the top albums along with the honorable mentions, as well as others that came from different areas. Here’s the list, and small description of my favorites from the playlist.
Sia – “Chandelier” – I am really enjoying this new transformation of Ms. Furler. This also includes her semi-inconspicuous aesthetic, but what makes this song great is in how she made it hers. A lot of her songwriting has gone to a lot of other artists (Rihanna, Beyonce, etc.) and it you can tell in this song it’s from that same vein. Delicious to finally hear it come from her amazing voice.
Action Bronson – “Easy Rider” – This has all the keys of a Bronsolini song on high levels, ripping out on a chopper from the church doors filled to the gills on acid. He’s spitting bars on riding with horses, landing planes on Roosevelt Ave, and eating eels. Yeah, it’s that ill.
D’Angelo – “1000 Deaths” – So I just found out as I write this that Questlove provided the glorious drumbeat on this. Yes, the first single heralded the greatness of Black Messiah, but good lordy, this is a Prince cut set to 13. Actually, forget Prince, this is D’Angelo, and only D’Angelo, getting heavy as fuck on the funk.
Shabazz Palaces – “They Come In Gold”– With a beat switching from something that is somewhere between weird slasher flick and acid trippiness, Ishmael Butler pushed his abstract rap into a mellow beat that was emblematic of the sound of the album.
Rustie – “Attak (Ft. Danny Brown)”– This I have to thank Jeph Jacques for, as I had never heard of Rustie, but after listening to his list, the entire album really opened up his entire work to me. There is an almost-axiom that EDM and rap don’t mix, like that one thing Biggie said in that one song. Rustie, in the pauses of the staccato electro-house, let every verse of the Detroit lunatic go and proved that rule very much wrong.
Hudson Mohawke – “Chimes” – I heard this live the summer of 2013, so it was great finally hearing the single on my speakers as opposed to a massive sound-system discombobulating my stomach from the bass and trumpets. Still, if I upped the bass on my system, There was still a rumble in my esophagus.
2. Top Five Supplemental
EMA – “Satellites”– A clap and static, with an industrial beat leading to strings and dissonance, EMA’s voice breaking the connection, linking to the whatever-is-left. This is not about past lives of martyred saints, but demons trapped in orbit.
Run The Jewels – “Love Again (Akinyele Back) (Ft. Gangsta Boo)”– Did any of you listen to “Put It My Mouth” or “My Neck My Back?” back in the day? Well yeah, this is that circa 2010s. El-P and Killer Mike go in on fucking with the raunchiest of hooks, but Gangsta Boo saves the song from your average rap misogyny and makes the man in question on her bars into a goddamn slave, flipping the song to her will like a hood dominatrix.
St. Vincent – “Prince Johnny”- The change of pace on this song brings out the rest of the album, because the difference is so deep it holds onto you. and the “oh-oh-ohs” in her choruses really stick.
Azealia Banks – “Ice Princess”– This is Azealia at her realest, delivering a nice flow that goes into a house beat-backed chorus. Ladies and gents, what’s cooler than cool? This chill rap royal.
Caribou – “Silver” – Super-relax song meant for an ambient room in a house party, or a drive leaving the city heading out into the upstate forest. I don’t pay attention to the lyrics when I listen to it, I just hold onto the longing in the words.
3. From the Honorables
Sharon Van Etten- “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” – Van Etten’s entire album is my number 6 – so many great songs from Are We There that deserve mentioning but here is the best.There is a country sentiment reminiscent of Neko Case. Her voice lingers, weathered on the twangs of chords.
Banks – “Drowning” – I’m going “Shot Fired” on this – I really don’t get the appeal of FKA Twigs and her abstract R&B/trip-hop, it comes off as it misses on both marks. Banks’ Weeknd-esque modernity with tinge of 90s R&B fits with the sultriness of her voice really well, and is a lot superior to Twigs because of it.
Sturgill Simpson – “It Ain’t All Flowers” – The Metamodern Sounds in Country Music album was the only country album that grabbed me this year. The psychedelic undertones inherent in some of the songs elevate it past the southern plane into something metaphysical. This song is emblemic of that in the breakdown halfway.
Christian Löffler – “Mt. Grace”– A techno-shamanic hymn prepping your journey up misty lands in yelps and a relentless cadence of synths and drums. True emblem to the title of the album, in my opinion.
RATKING – “Puerto Rican Judo (ft. Wavy Spice)” – Someone I met at Governors Ball suggested I check out the hip-hop group’s set and I got there right as thee song came on. Even on the grass of Randalls Island it felt like running through grimy Harlem streets in the summer.
Phantogram – “Fall In Love”– I saw Phantogram with my friend Rob a few months before Voices was released, so we were lucky and heard the song earlier. Granted, a lot of their songs show up on TV commercials and shows now, but this one is honestly on arena-level, compared to the ones from previous albums.
So there was the memory of the 1999 Chemical Brothers show burned into my memory that I described in the first part of my love letter to electronic music. That night is ingrained in my musical DNA like an aggressive gene therapy created by the beats and sights of glowsticks and dancing. That’s about as deep as the scar on my left knee from the two surgeries needed to reconstruct it. That’ll never go away.
My sister took me other shows afterwards of course and I was very lucky for some of those experiences. One in particular was seeing the sweat come off Tiësto’s brow in an incredibly small rave tent in 2002 as he waved his hand at these two blonde girls that had the even smaller waists. This was years before the dudebros and guidos in the Tri-State Area found him and Tiësto started filling up US arenas like he did the ones back home in the Netherlands.
High school shifted the taste dramatically. It was a change made from the angst-ridden years where my mind and body wanted songs from men like Andre 3000, Christopher Wallace, Maynard James Keenan, Chino Moreno, and Jimmy Page. That big rock and hip-hop kick for most of high school, filled with all the introspection and manufactured anguish an introverted nerdy guy is generally known to have, washed out a lot of drum and bass and trance music from my MP3 players and CD mixtapes.
It wasn’t that something switched in me overnight and I just hated EDM. What occurred was just that there was a mental disconnect, at least to me at the time, of being a fan of high tempo dance music while being a moody little shit, you know? And it was a bit hard to keep your headphones on playing Orbital while your friends blasted screamo and the pop-punk du jour. I stopped going to electronic shows, started going to rock concerts. I loved them as well, but looking back they’ve yet to burn into me like the raves tents and dance clubs.
What kept my body sing electronic, even though I sat in my room alone with my headphones on, came in the gust of one particular song – it keeps happening that way with me, as you’ll see in the next part of this series. That song kept coming to me in small parts placed in scenes of episodes on TV or movies. The bass line crept up slowly until the snare drum came in, then the languid sample loops and fuzzy guitar riff in the background. Then the lyrics came on.
“You…are my angel…”
The song is menacing as all hell while maintaining a seductive cool from the juxtaposition of Horace Andy’s voice. And from there I delved into Massive Attack and by that path I found trip-hop, downtempo, ambient, and all the slower undercurrents of electronic music. Here’s sampler of what I was listening to.
There’s a reason why I bring all this up. It comes because of my writing. As far as I can think of, most of my earliest writing came from the sounds of songs like the ones from the playlist above that came from Bristol or many other parts of the aural umbra. There are times when I hear the rhythmic drums in “Inertia Creeps” that take me to places to stories that are far and away from the song’s lyrics about sex. DJ Shadow’s “Midnight In A Perfect World” served as the theme for a lot of my old poems, if that makes any sense.
Even if all of the stuff I made from that time was garbage – and it was, of course – the music helped start it all, and it was this particular type of music that was the hymn. That was my soundtrack when I was sixteen and an insomniac with too many things that needed to be poured out of my head and onto the screen.
I did eventually get to hear “Angel” live, in 2010 at the Warfield in San Francisco – luckily someone put up a YouTube vid of it. The entire show helped me feel young since I remembered the album came out in 1998 and the crowd must have at least been 35-plus in age. I’m soon to be 27 and I’m listening to “(Exchange)” the final song from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. Seems like a pretty good way to cap off the post.
It’s safe to assume that if you know me you know that my beloved genre of music is of the electronic variety in all its tastes, perversions, and styles. What brought me back to thinking about it to the point of writing about it was finding this small booklet – a guide to electronic music I grabbed from a Tower Records down in the Village back when I was thirteen. The booklet’s introduction started with the description of an imaginary slide reel that starts with Morse and continues onto Marconi, and then to Theremin before ending with the sound of the Windows operating system. There’s a fun fact about that last part: ambient music virtuoso Brian Eno composed the Windows 95 opening chime – you can hear it slowed down 23 times here.
That booklet intro failed to sink into me back then, seeing as I had no idea who Theremin was. I just flipped through the pages until I reached the section on big beat. That style was the one I first listened to when my sister would play New York radio station K-Rock’s Solid State electronic show on Saturday nights. It was crazy for hear the station switch from Nirvana and grunge ad nauseam as well as a metric crap-ton of U2 to repetitive but mesmerizing sounds with vocals and rock chords that tethered me to the songs.
The first song I heard that had that combination was “Block Rockin’ Beats” by The Chemical Brothers. Big sister had a CD single of the song that she played on repeat some nights. The introductory bass line pounded into my head again and again. She eventually purchased the entire album it was from– Dig Your Own Hole – and I could not stop listening to it. She started switching it up to other big band acts like The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but I loved that album to death. Anytime I would hear snippets of their songs in promos and commercials I freaked out – quietly, if I was around my hood schoolmates. The eventual over-saturation of big beat songs did not bother either me or my sister, but we did start going through other paths of electronic music. Still, I cannot help but feel some child-like happiness every time I hear Dig Your Own Hole, and “Block Rockin’ Beats” is a staple on any playlist, mp3 player, and now smartphone that I have ever owned. That song sealed my fate as a disciple to electronic music.
Well, I was not completely sealed. I had not danced to it yet.
My sister started going to concerts a few years later. Somehow, through the grace of God or from my parent’s obliviousness to her taste in music, she took me and my brother to one in September of 1999. It was a school night and she got us tickets to a Chemical Brothers show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. I was twelve at the time, wearing my “best” street clothes and sneakers. The first thing I saw was this tall Brazilian woman waiting on line that had half her hair dyed white. My sister sparked up a conversation with an even-taller Irishman by the name of Damien that was cut short by the doors opening.
We found our way to a close spot to the left of the general admissions floor. Until that point I had not danced in any other way than to slow jams with girls I had crushes on at birthday parties, so when the opening act’s rapid BPM commenced I had no idea what to do. I learned many years later that the opener was trance DJ Paul Oakenfold. You may have heard of his work from that crappy song “Starry Eyed Surprise”, but I assure you his other work is superior. I tapped my feet to the beat while my sister danced with Damien the Irishman. Here I was, this short little Peruvian kid surrounded by a bunch of weird-looking white people dancing in ridiculous ways I had never seen before. So I did as the most likely drugged out New Yorkers in the crowd did and danced equally as silly. Of course I was very ashamed at first, especially since my brother was not dancing and he could use this as blackmail bait back at school. But when The Chemical Brothers showed up on stage, I stopped caring.
Their set began with this hypnotic male Indian voice repeating the word “surrender”, the name of the album they were on tour for. The opening song was “Hey Boy Hey Girl”, and I upped my crazy-dancing the very second it started. This was back when Tom Rowland, one of the Brothers, had long hair so I concentrated on him as he whipped it around while he fiddled with who-knows-what part of the equipment on stage. My head felt fuzzy from the contact high of the crowd’s weed. I do remember dancing in the middle of a circle with some other girls who pushed my dancing to weirder levels. It was a very real and amazing madness.
We got home around three in the morning, my ears ringing and dizzy, and woke up the next day at noon. Thanks to Hurricane Floyd closing school my brother and I had a safe recovery. The malaise stuck with me most of the next two days, but that show was an important revelation to me – I could sort-of dance and that the music I had listened to on the radio and my sister’s boom-box was infinitely cooler than I thought.
Many fans have seen a particular type of Trent Reznor live show in the past when Nine Inch Nails, specifically when you consider ones such as the Lights In The Sky tour. That show had an impressive visual aesthetic, with Reznor and the band in a LED cage producing a variety of visual insanity. The lights and media experience of the How To Destroy Angels show from last night at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ was a different beast altogether.
The silhouettes of the four members of the collective (with longtime NIN collaborator Alessandro Cortini on backup sound duties) appeared behind a fiber-optic installation that served as the foreground to the visuals controlled in real-time by Rob Sheridan, shifting from art director duties behind the scenes for NIN to performing onstage as part of the group. In a sense, Sheridan was the primal source of power of the whole show. Through his computer equipment he produced spinning isometric shapes and streams of color that came down the fiber-optic wires in ways that were very reminiscent at time of The Matrix. The band’s very attire served as an easel to the electronic spectacle – they all wore a very uncharacteristic white that made all the fans in the crowd wearing black band t-shirts look out-of-place.
Reznor played a more subdued role in comparison to singer/wife Mariqueen Maandig Reznor. She commanded the stage, swaying in her white gown in a way that gave her the appearance of a specter hidden behind the strings. At times the fiber veil retracted and she came out, re-materializing into the scene. One moment in particular was during her performance of “Ice Age” that was so emotion-wrenching she made a few pauses to hold back her tears. On the other side, when the veil moved back in its original position she pushed through its fibers violently as she screamed during “Welcome Oblivion”. Her range of soft melody to industrial shouts showed the difference in the band’s sound in comparison to that of Nine Inch Nails – the unrelenting sound of the latter replaced by an ethereal harshness of the former.
Atari Teenage Riot – Is this Hyperreal?
Most reviewers criticized this album for having a dated political screed and a lack of change in their sound but honestly it doesn’t matter. A great comparison of this album is The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die. The band always kept true to their sound, with a couple of stumbles with Always Outnumber Never Outgunned aside. They came back out guns blazing, which wont to do for groups like The Prodigy and ATR. “Activate” opens the album with an upgrade to their electropunk sound, but only slightly. Adding CX Kidtronik to the band brought anew kick into the system, and as far as his opening statement on racism and Barack Obama on “Re-Arrange Your Synapes”. Other songs of note are “Black Flags” and “Digital Decay”.
Das Racist – Relax
I don’t even…just get on this. Heems and Kool A.D. are insane on the wordplay ( and that’s not to say anything of El-P’s bars on Shut Up, Man) and their references make Childish Gambino sound like a punk (sorry Donald, stick to funny). Oh, and “Punjabji Song’ is reminiscent of Punjabi MC on Jay-Z’s “Beware the Boys” but this song puts a flag on that then drops 16 weed-filled deuces on it.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know
OK, I have to finally admit one of my greatest sins: Up until recently, I’ve never had a good pair of headphones. I’ve always rocked the cheap Sony wrap-around blue sports one – it was the only one that’d survive my clumsiness – and now that I have these massive Skullcandy ones with the ultra bass, I’ve heard songs in completely new ways. I’m still not a snooty audiophile (I’m too lazy to convert to lossless formats) but…oh, the drums..the drums on a Shadow song on them.
Truth be told, The Outsider sucked. Only Phonte on “Backstage Girl” and “Artifact” saved that album for me. But from track one on The Less You Know… Shadow established that his scratching is back. The follow-up song”Border Crossing” sound like a poorly made 90s action movie version of “Artifact” (actually, check out “HYPERPOWER” from NIN’s Year Zero if you want a better version of this song). The “Stay the Course” team-up of Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is pretty solid; Kweli especially got to me seeing as he’s been off my audio radar for a minute. It’s amusing that Shadow dropped an emphasis on the lull in the next three songs by putting up a song titled “Tedium”. The slowed down vocals and acoustic guitar on “Enemy Lines” gives the album an Entroducing pick-me-up before the break beats of “Going Nowhere” rolls in. that, along with “Run for Your Life” should get any Shadow fan at attention. Sadly, on “Scale It Back” Yukimi Nagano does her first lackluster performance on a song she’s featured on.
Now, let’s get to the singles. “Def Surrounds Us” renewed my faith in Shadow with his effective use of vocal samples, pounding drum beats, a sprinkle of hyphy and dubstep, and pianos and apocalyptic choir singing. “I’ve Been Trying” was in the first lull I mentioned, so I didn’t realize it was a single. Oh, back the topic of new headphones: listen to the other single “I Gotta Rokk” on them. Trust me on this.
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
It’ s a little late to review this album without looking like a punk against ones like the fake Ghostface’s review. Instead, I’m just concentrating on the singers. First off, Frank Ocean dominates on his two songs; even if “Made in America” was one of the lesser cuts on WtH, he still delivers on it (and don’t get me started on his hook on my new banger “No Church in the Wild”). Truth be told, the only other ones of note is Elly Jackson of La Roux on “That’s My Bitch” and The-Dream on “No Church…”; I didn’t know that the unintelligible bridge on the “That’s My Bitch” was Bon Iver, nor did I really care. As for Beyonce on “Lift Off’, the song was pretty bad on its own, and she didn’t really help to bring it back. Mr. Hudson’s voice on “Why I Love You” reminds me of how the last time he brought something good to an album is still 808s & Heartbreaks. Oh, and Swizz Beatz needs to stop putting his “talking while straining through a bowel movement” voice all over a track.
Kasabian – Velociraptor!
Halfway through, I stopped listening it and went back to West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer
It’s interesting to see the career trajectory of these electro-Liverpudlians, not just in their sound but in their whole look. The aesthetic in their music videos and photos from each album mirrors the songs of the album attached to them. In this album’s case, there is this a baroque, upper-class sound far different from the utilitarian beats in 604 or the cold grinding pulses from Witching Hour. There are some glimpses of Velocifero in “Melting Ice”. Songs like “Altitude Blues” and “White Gold” reinforce an 80s sci-fi soundtrack vibe (even the album art is reminiscent of the opening scene from Blade Runner). One of the biggest issues with the album is that there are too many songs that sound alike; “Ace of Hz”, “Mirage”, and “Aces High (which is just a boring instrumental of “Ace of Hz”) are the culprits of this. Overall, this is not as good as album as the previous one.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
It took one song from her Actor album to really make me into a stan for Ms. Annie Clark (go listen to “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood. The title is deceiving.). “Cruel” lets her gets it starting with her great vocals (it kind of reminded me of Feist) on the end of her verses. Then she reminds you “Oh yeah, I still got the grind” on “Cheerleader”. The eponymous track has an 80s synth thing going on until it hits you with her guitar/vocal one-two punch. The album fades out a bit until “Hysterical Strength” which reclaimed my attention with its driving drums and piano.
Watch the Throne is already in my library – hearing Kanye beat out Jay-Z on this (I think that’s intentional, but on the other hand, Jay’s skills are waning) is good enough to make it a keeper. DJ Shadow and St. Vincent stay as well. I can’t say no to Shadow’s masterful sampling/mixing and Annie Clark’s singing/rocking.
Ladytron might grow on me like Velocifero did. We’ll see.
ATR and Kasabian