Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Extraordinary Year: Nathan's 10 Best Albums of 2013

1. A$AP Rocky, Long. Live. A$AP.
Though the album came out in January and had leaked before the year began, Harlem's newest favorite son Rocky nevertheless provided the masterpiece to beat in 2013. His impeccable ear and experimentation with extreme bass ranges and extraordinary beats led to an album of incalculable riches--spacey, immediately memorable club jams ("Goldie," "Fuckin' Problems"), great collaborations ("PMW"), dalliances with genres outside of hip-hop (the improbably wonderful Skrillex production "Wild for the Night") and the greatest posse record in many many moons ("1 Train"), all providing one amazing rush after another, 12 times in a row.

2. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Speaking of many moons, Ms. Monáe had been mostly off the grid since the release of The ArchAndroid in 2010. Turns out she was fine-tuning a record that was maybe even better, more cohesive and sonically varied, in addition to demonstrating an unprecedented level of craftmanship and sheer exultant pleasure that reached rapturous levels at times. Monáe's prodigious voice, joyous production, and empowering, socially relevant lyrics were among a few of the album's virtues, which were otherwise brimming.

3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
The opening thesis is "give life back to music": two robots survey the current EDM landscape and find it lacking in the type of warmth and humanity out of which great dance music originally came. Hence the collaborators--Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams--who help the robots provide the album with the depth, feeling, and occasional melancholy of a great lost 70s disco LP.

4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away
The album title is a perfect four-word metaphor for an elder man's futile fight against mortality. After rocking hard with Grinderman and executing a brilliant string of late-career gems, Cave scales back the aggression and punkish energy a bit here. This is his On the Beach, an album that does not rock so much, but slowly builds through a molasses of top-shelf songwriting, wonderful orchestration, and literary, confessional lyrics.

5. My Bloody Valentine, mbv
Their last album may have come out when I was 6, but MBV's latest sounded the furthest thing from a reunion record. It was as if the last 22 years had suddenly vanished in an ether of aggressive flange, tremolo, and pitch-bending along with the familiar distortion, metronomic backbeat, and barely audible vocals we know so well. Ambitious and mind-bending, only the album's song titles were generic.

6. In Solitude, Sister
Yeah, it's one of those token metal albums that non-metal heads take to. So what? I will take my bluesy, riff-oriented hard rock however I can, and Sweden's In Solitude provided the year's most refreshing slab of British 70s metal-indebted jams. Each song has rhythm and panache, as well as hooks that buzzsaw their way into the listener's memory banks.

7. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
The greatest guitarist in America really pushed against her limitations on this, her fourth LP and first without longtime drummer Zach Hill. Her offbeat approach to fret tapping is still there, but is more effectively integrated into the songs than ever. And Stern's voice has a really lovely and longing quality now, something I never expected. Kid Millions admirably takes over for Hill on drums and together the two musicians provide moments of appealing still and calm in between sets of Stern's normally frenetic guitar/drum alchemy.

8. Richard Thompson, Electric
The elder folkie and guitar hero goes the stripped-down power trio route, which emphasizes Thompson's great axe skills. The result is a late-career success that is muscular and hard-rocking, while still immersed in Thompson's Celtic and folk-based songwriting. Thompson has always been a great player, but his guitar solos throughout this album are, I cannot emphasize this enough, particularly kick-ass.

9. Thundercat, Apocalypse
An unfairly gifted bassist who collaborates with everyone from New Zealand pop star Kimbra to Suicidal Tendencies, Thundercat produced a next-level jazz funk LP that sounded like nothing else in 2013. His complex and layered bass skills were a perfect match with Flying Lotus' shimmering and psychedelic production. The result was a brilliant concoction of sweet jazzy smooth jams plus the occasional roaring funk classic ("Oh Sheit! It's X").

10. Flatbush Zombies, Better Off Dead
2013 was an extraordinary year for hip-hop, no question. This list could have consisted entirely of Danny Brown, Juicy J, Pusha T, Run the Jewels, the Underachievers, Action Bronson, Spaceghostpurrp, just to begin with. But one mixtape that I kept coming back to was this one, by a young group out of Brooklyn's "Beast Coast" scene. The Zombies are a loopy three-piece that inventively plays with golden age boom-bap with a bit of horror movie edge (think Gravediggaz crossed with ODB to start). With the work of two hyper-quick emcees (Meech and Juice) as well as one of NYC's great new producing talents (Erick Arc Elliott), the result is a product that would have stood tall with the best of early 90s rap.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Look at Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Suite, Part 4: Electric Lady (Part 1)


We picked off last in 2010, in a series of posts reviewing Janelle Monáe's ambitious sci-fi concept cycle Metropolis, from her debut 2007 EP The Chase to 2010's The ArchAndroid (which contained the second and third suites in the cycle). Then Monáe released no new work for three years, barring the occasional guest voice on a Big Boi, fun., or Estelle number. She was supposedly at Wondaland Studios working on two albums, which she claimed last year would be released according to her "soul clock."

And now one of those albums, The Electric Lady, is finally here. Can she possibly live up to increased expectations as a sophomore artist? Does Lady build or expand upon the Metropolis mythos in addition to providing a solid listening experience? Did the artist capture this reviewer's heart once more? Spoiler alert: heck yes. I've listened to the album a half-dozen times now, and, while it's too early to compare this to The ArchAndroid, I already feel this album improves on the first's relistenable qualities (even if there are more skits this time around). It is a pleasure to be transported back to this world, and I will keep coming back to this record for a long, long time. My endorsement should be sufficient, but if you want more detail from a preeminent amateur Monáeologist, read on...*

1. Suite IV (Electric Overture)
The latest suite opens with now-customary orchestral pomp, except this time there's a more interesting rhythmic core. A "Peter Gunn"/Link Wray-type guitar line deeply rattles its way around increasingly sumptuous and bouncy string arrangements. The vocals, which arrive later, are filmic and set a scene, laying the melodic groundwork for what is to come. It's better (and shorter) than Ms. Monáe's previous suite openers, perhaps enough so that even my esteemed colleague will give it a shot.

2. Givin' Em What They Love (Feat. Prince)
That's definitely Prince on guitar at the beginning, his strums as unmistakable as his increasingly wizened reed of a voice. The Purple One, who pioneered so many potent genre-crosses in his own time, is a natural denizen of Metropolis. The percussion here is tribal and builds slowly, sort of like "The Cross." Prince's work is so good in part because he matches Monáe's vocal line at the exact same pitch--not often we hear him sing that high these days. The song builds to an ecstatic organ and guitar build, with Monáe's voice soaring as Prince's provides spiritual backing vox and trademark ripping (of the axe sort). The strings come back at the end. As in the previous suites, these recurring string arrangements will provide much of the connective tissue between songs.

3. Q.U.E.E.N. (Feat. Erykah Badu)
The album's first single, released on the Internet a few months back, did not light my fire at first. The video was certainly interesting, and introduced the less (literally) buttoned-up, more sexually liberated Monáe of 2013. I grew to like it more after several more listens. The keyboards are very Minneapolis, as indebted to the Time as they are to Prince, but sounded frenetic and unfocused until I paid careful attention a few dozen more times. There's a lot else going on here, not least is Erykah Badu's smoky vocal interlude toward the end of the piece. Then Monáe spits conscious rhymes, in a manner that went out of fashion years ago ("While you're sellin' dope/we'll be sellin' hope"), for what will be the first of several verses on record.

4. Electric Lady (Feat. Solange)
Holy smokes, is this one incredible song. Compared to either "Q.U.E.E.N." or "Dance Apocalyptic," this should be the single. Solange Knowles, the third R&B standard-bearer in a row, is yet another colorful addition to the album's psychedelic palette. If Ms. Knowles made music as energetic and bouncy as this all the time, I would buy copies of her records by the dozens. There's a hint of '90s R&B girl group to the song--think the best and most anthemic TLC or En Vogue. It has that sort of bounce and flavor, as well as requisite drum drops (nothing cooler than when drums drop out and bass keeps going) and chorus of melismatic backing vocals toward the end. Monáe raps again, describing general feminist good times. Solange's role, for the most part, is unobtrusive--Monáe is still the star. So hard not to get caught up in the spirit here. This is ultimate "blast your speakers and dance around your bedroom" music.

5. Good Morning Midnight 

One thing that differentiates The Electric Lady from The ArchAndroid is the presence of track-long skits. And like many concept albums past, the framing device of this album is a radio station DJ who fields calls from eccentric listeners (most likely played by various Wondaland collaborators). DJ Crash Crash, "robotic hypnotic psychotic DJ," is broadcasting shout-outs from his listeners. One of them betrays serious prejudice against the robot race, which the DJ dismisses out of hand. Monáe's playful handling of racial prejudice (as displaced through the prism of futuristic robots) is what sticks out most here. There was a lot of that on the last album, but here it is even more overt.

6. PrimeTime (Feat. Miguel)

Borrowing the backing vocals from the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind"...why not? It makes a great deal of sense in the presence of Miguel, who borrows from rock, punk, and classic psychedelia for his sumptuous R&B in a manner not unlike Monáe (or, obviously, Prince). "PrimeTime" is the album's first proper ballad, but it does not cause the album to lag at fact, this may be the most staggering song yet. It goes beyond mere babymaking music. Over a slow dance groove, Monáe sings a melody so pure and simple it seems ripped out of the Great American Songbook. This album shows how good she is at singing at high registers without being showy or obtrusive. Miguel matches her in the second verse, his syllables more playful, and yet aching. The song is lush, it's romantic, and there is not a single songwriting error to be found here. Props also to returning guitarist Kellindo Parker, nephew of Maceo, who contributes some great, Prince-like guitar work at the end.

7. We Were Rock & Roll

Seven songs in and the album is yet to slow down. A loose and limber groove propels this track into classic anguished soul territory (I was reminded a bit of one of my musical heroes, Gil Scott-Heron). The song isn't exactly a tribute to rock music, but it has fiery guitar at points, and the subject matter is certainly stereotypical (we are young, on the run, no one understands us, etc.). The song is girded by a descending guitar figure and a syncopated hi-hat rhythm not too far from James Brown at his simplest, along with some hand claps and organ stabs, but otherwise keeps it pretty simple. Monáe's voice is once again the focal point of our attentions, which really pays off when a choir of backing vocals joins up with her to sing "it's alright." Kellindo Parker throws out some more excellent guitar parts here.

8. The Chrome Shoppe

DJ Crash Crash returns and announces something called the "Cyberfreak Festival." Some robotic sorority girls promise a "bouncing electro-booty contest" which is a good description for this album's sound. Then they announce the next song and single, "Dance Apocalyptic." I have a historically low threshold when it comes to rap skits but these brief snippets do have Monáe's authorial eccentricity stamped all over them, which to me overcomes their non-musical, marking-time aspects.

9. Dance Apocalyptic

Like "Q.U.E.E.N.," I was not taken by second single "Dance Apocalyptic" at first. The parallels to "Tightrope" were obvious, and this version sounded like the earlier song's brief uke part extended to a punk-ska BPM that never really took off anywhere different or unexpected. The groove here still isn't my favorite, but I've warmed to the message, Monáe's vocals, and most importantly, the song's amazingly upbeat vibe. Elsewhere, though, the song is a bit too sugary and retro, and again, it doesn't go to those magical unexpected places where genre is smashed into millions of irrelevant bits. On one level it is still a great listen, and far from a slog, but at another level it is Janelle-by-numbers. As far as nonsense refrains go, "Smash, smash/bang, bang/don't stop/galang-alang-alang" is merely okay.

10. Look Into My Eyes
Side 4 of Metropolis comes to a close, and after a nine-song sprint, this is the cooling session. Bits of the melody from the opening suite appear again, wedded to stately flamenco guitar and a lush tango atmosphere. The effect is again very, very romantic, to an almost narcotic degree. Monáe's collaborators, Deep Cotton, have gotten even better at arranging strings this time around. If there is any song this resembles, it is Archandroid's "BaBopByeYa" (splashed with a bit of "Sir Greendown") but while that song was lengthy and almost punishing at times, the airy "Look Into My Eyes" leaves as quickly as it appears. This song and many others on the first side really illustrate how much more of an individual sound Monáe has developed in the last three years--there are moments here when you can tell, even if she was not singing, that this is a Monáe-type jazz progression or modulation. Her songwriting tricks, rather than sounding borrowed or transmuted from the best of Prince, Stevie, and Michael, are starting to sound simply like Janelle. Although not entirely, as we will see in the next suite.

It occurs to me that I have yet to discuss much of the album's storyline (narrative in concept albums has always been a big blind spot for me). Tune in next time as I delve more deeply into the plight of Cyndi Mayweather with the ruminative, equally staggering fifth suite.


Suite I (The Chase)

Suite II

Suite III

*no star rating needed**
**no explanation needed for lack of star rating

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Miracle of the Isleys

“That Lady” blows your face off. Its rhythm guitar struts its way out of the gate, soon to be joined by Ernie Isley’s searing lead. Ronald Isley’s vocal, buffeted by a chorus of his brothers, is the equivalent Ron's arched eyebrow--leering, but needy below that. Stuttering Latin percussion sets the thing on fire, and the three minute guitar solo that closes the song is a jaw-dropper--a shimmering vortex of energy that gives Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel a run for their money. It’s a funk monster, a band rebapitzed in electricity and groove.

1973, when The Isley Brother released “That Lady” as a single from 3 + 3, was a time of seismic change for the band. Look at that album jacket--the one with them in slick, cowboy-pimp costumes--and the evidence is there. The title itself alludes to a handful of new band members. And on the back, there’s the record label: T-Neck Records.

They couldn’t have chosen a better song to kick off their new era. “That Lady” is a rewrite of 1964 single by none other than The Isley Brothers. Their first stab at the song, titled “Who’s That Lady,” failed to chart. Responding to the rise of The Impressions, the song has a gentle, samba-like lilt. It’s elevator music, absolutely eviscerated by the 1973 version.

Fuck, it was even eviscerated by their next single. Also from 1964, “Testify” is a bluesy rave-up. In addition to being a startlingly funky song for 1964 (“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” wouldn’t arrive for another year), it also features the first recorded appearance of a young Jimi Hendrix. His guitar threatens to engulf “Testify,” and it wasn’t long before Hendrix and the Isleys parted ways.

“Testify” was the first single released on T-Neck Records, the label the Isleys set up to release their own music. At the time, the three Isley Brothers, O’Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald, were living in Teaneck, New Jersey, a few miles outside the Bronx. They named their new label after their new hometown. But T-Neck didn’t last for long, with the brothers quickly bolting for Atlantic, Veep, and, finally, Berry Gordy’s Tamla.

Which should have been great, but the journeymen brothers never really clicked in Motown. Aside from one hit, the classic “This Old Heart of Mine,”* there was a string of middling successes. The Isleys felt like they weren’t getting the best songs that Motown had to offer. So they left, went back to T-Neck.**

In 1973, T-Neck inked a deal with Epic Records to distribute their music, a bit like the one Philadelphia International had with CBS. The Isleys now had the independence of being their own bosses, along with the public platform and national distribution a major could provide.

At the same time, the Isley Brothers officially added three new members: Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper (a brother-in-law of the Isleys). It was a pretty momentous change for a group that had been a trio since 1957. The three new members, and in particular Ernie and Chris, became the group's primary songwriters.

I made a Spotify playlist of these dudes' brilliant work. Check it out.

And the new kids are all over “That Lady,” which they rewrote (funkified might be a better word). The older Isleys harnessed their energy, switching up their vocals into an intoxicating melange. The end result was magic--the best song on the very strong 3 + 3. That title, by the way, referred to the three original Isleys adding three new members.

The Isleys' new freedom and new members sparked a revolution in their sound. It’s a remarkable change for a group whose roots date back to gospel and doo wop. The Isleys had been around for so long by 1973 that it had been a decade since their “Twist and Shout” inspired the Beatles. The Fab Four were toast by '73, but the six Isleys were hanging tough.

R&B had its fair share of vets who rolled with the times, from geniuses like James Brown and Marvin Gaye to the Wilson Picketts and Joe Texes of the scene (who are also amazing, don’t get me wrong). But even in that world, the Isleys' career is remarkable. They were a band, first of all, who kept up with the times by calling on their own family members. It didn't hurt that the new bandmembers were younger.

And, like Brown and Gaye, they found a way to pursue their vision without pesky label oversight. Owning their label allowed the brothers an artistic freedom most journeymen R&B acts never saw. Their vision wasn’t as radical as, say, Sly Stone's, which is perhaps why it’s overlooked today.*** That's no reason to ignore it.

My esteemed colleague first pointed me to their incredible run from 1973 to 1978, writing to me that:
the era between 3 + 3 [1973] and Showdown [1978] constitutes one of the greatest six album runs in history. Seriously listen to all of these: Live It Up, The Heat is On, Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns, Showdown
He’s right. If you told me that a band wielded the sick funk of P-Funk, deep grooves of Stevie Wonder, and smoothness of the finest Yacht Rock****, I’d say that surely that band released blockbuster after blockbuster, and has earned its place among the soul celestials.

Not quite, but the Isley Brothers deserve it. I can't do justice to the range of their 70’s material, which runs the gamut from funk beasts to quaking quiet storm. There’s a sharpness to the way the older brothers’ vocals play off one another. Ronald Isley, quite shy in real life, is a commandingly soulful lead. Chris Jasper’s keyboards stomp, simmer and slice across these albums. And Ernie Isley is one of the great R&B guitarists, hands down. Listen to the way he tears up the back halves of "That Lady," "Who Loves You Better" and "Midnight Sky."

During their six-album run, the Isleys surrounded themselves with talented people. On the first four of these albums, they worked with engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff in LA. That team were early explorers of the synthesizer, and helped Stevie Wonder harness its power on his early 70's classics (Cecil would later work with Gil Scott-Heron). One of the wonderful things about the Isley's run is that they toyed with R&B's new sandbox in always ecstatic, often conventional songs. Chris Jasper wasn't the first dude to deploy swamps of clavinet on his jams, but damn if they don't sound good.

So do yourself a favor a get 3 +3Live It Up, The Heat is On, Harvest for the World, Go For Your Guns, and Showdown. A lot of these are easily found (and inexpensive) at used record stores. And if whoever owns the rights to these songs is reading this--you could certainly bring some attention to what NS rightfully calls "one of the greatest six album runs in history" with a box set. Give it the Harry Nilson treatment.

Of course, one group has been light years ahead in keeping the legacy alive: hip-hop producers. Isley Brothers samples could sustain an entire series of blog posts, but suffice to say Public Enemy, Biggie, Salt-N-Pepa, De La Soul, Nas, Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys and OutKast have all rapped over Isleys samples. Personally, I love the way UGK flips "Ain't I Been Good To You" into the paranoid slow drip of "One Day." And DJ Pooh's repurposing of the paranoid "Footsteps In The Dark" into the ultimate cruising anthem, Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day," is immortal.

R. Kelly deserves the gold star in terms of reppping the Isleys, having starred alongside Ron Isley several times in their Mr. Biggs song cycle. Isley plays Biggs in the songs and videos, who challenges the younger Kells for the affections of a lady. It's not "Who Loves You Better," but the songs are always fun.

It's a late career curio for the Isley Brothers. But these 70's albums are no curio, they're the vital work of R&B giants. Seek them out.

*I’m compelled to mention that Rod Stewart does an incredible cover of “This Old Heart of Mine” on Atlantic Crossing (with Booker T and the MGs behind him). Stewart and Ronald Isley would later hook up for a remarkably dated remake in 1990.

**The pre-Epic T-Neck years (1969-1973) aren’t the focus here, but suffice to say that in this time period they did record some classic shit before going back to T-Neck.

***But don't underestimate the way Ron Isley spits out bullshit in "Fight The Power." It caused problems for radio programmers, and was pretty rare for 1975. Asked why he swore--which surprised the rest of the band--Ron just said "because it needed to be said." "Power" was written by Ernie Isley the same day as the similarly political "Harvest For The World." And, for what it's worth, 1977's "Tell Me When You Need It Again" sounds like something from Fresh, and the bass on 1978's "Ain't Givin' Up No Love" is like a less drugged-out "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa."

****The Isleys cover of "Summer Breeze" goes down so smooth, after its gently psyched-out intro, that British DJs find themselves powerless before it whenever the weather gets nice.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Christian Rockaliser

This blog is not, no matter what anyone tells you, dead: I'm working on a post at the moment, and the monster project that has been cryptically alluded to on Twitter progresses slowly and steadily.

I'm not writing to defend the vitality of Rockaliser today--that should be an eternal given--but to point to something I wrote elsewhere:

Deep in central Pennsylvania, the roads are usually quiet, but today Route 747 is gridlocked. Cars crawl towards the Agape Farm on Rapture Street, which is tucked away in a small woodsy valley outside of Mt. Union. Handwritten signs along the road read "Welcome Creation," beckoning each caravan toward a weekend of worship. Just past the intersection of Hallelujah Highway and Glory Lane, the sound of "The Star Spangled Banner"—performed by the band Audio Adrenaline—echoes across hundreds of tents. Like the firing of a gun, it announces the advent of Creation, America's largest Christian music festival.

My friend and colleague Alana L. and I went to a Christian Rock festival--the Pennsylvania-based Creation, which is America's largest--and wrote about it for Mother Jones. It was a pretty unique experience--a world away from the music that I usually write about--that I hope we captured adequately.

I can't say that I converted into a Christian Rock fan at the festival. And that's the last thing I'll be saying about the bands, as John Jeremiah Sullivan himself said when he went to Creation (Sullivan, in fact, goes on to share several insightful thoughts about the bands). At the end of the day Creation is kind of just another summer music fest, albeit one with its own quirks and some very different aims from, say, Coachella. But you can just read the article, OK?

Monday, April 8, 2013

From the Rockaliser Publicity Department

We at Rockaliser like to occasionally share our accomplishments like most human beings, and last year we contributed a couple YA-level music history books to Lerner Publishing's American Music Milestones series. I wrote a history of hip-hop, while my esteemed colleague tackled soul and R&B. A couple days ago, we learned that the book series was selected by Booklist's Daniel Krauss as one of the top 10 nonfiction series of the past 12 months. This is already after Booklist gave a glowing starred review to American R&B a few months earlier. Very cool! We would love it if you considered buying these books online or requesting them at your local libraries.

The other authors involved in the series, by the way, were Lloyd Sachs, Arie Kaplan, Matt Doeden and Erik Farseth. Big ups to Greg Hunter, a great editor and buddy who shared our passion for the music and for conveying its importance in an accessible manner. On a completely unrelated note, check out this crazy album cover.

The next item is that my esteemed colleague's post on Eric Clapton's racism is again seeing a lot of traffic, after being linked to by Gawker last year for a reason I no longer remember. The blog Dangerous Minds also wrote an article on a similar topic not long ago. If you're new to the blog and would like to see more, here are a few of our favorite pieces (plus a few more).

Finally, service on the blog has been somewhat quiet (at least on my end), but that will change, as we are again working on a lengthy summer series of posts that may dwarf last year's Rockaliser 30 in terms of ambition and moxie (if not in word count). Your Rockaliser writers are going to continue to branch out, so watch this space for more good writing in the future.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

The great film critic Roger Ebert died today, at age 70. Suffice to say, it's a sad day here at Rockaliser. Nathan and Aaron both wrote remembrances of the man:
I credit him for showing me the potential of film as a medium, and my gratitude for the love of film he instilled in me will always be immense.
From Nathan's Tumblr
i’ve hated a lot of films ebert liked, and love a bunch of films he hated. but his criticism was so earnest and deeply considered that it was worth grappling with, always.
From Aaron's Tumblr

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Slumberland Stories: More From Mike Schulman

A little while back, I made a radio piece about Slumberland Records, the legendary indie-pop label that’s located in Oakland, CA. Sort of located in Oakland, I should say—label honcho Mike Schulman currently operates out of a couple rooms in West Berkeley. He’s got an office set up in one, and a “warehousey space” in the other, where he keeps inventory and runs Slumberland’s mail order.

The original story was on Oakland North, may eventually appear elsewhere. Schulman was very generous with his time, and spoke about a lot of interesting things that didn’t find a place in the radio story. I wanted to share a few of those here.

On how his band, Black Tambourine, got its start
It’s kind of a non-history. When we started the label, it was originally 7 or 8 people. We all pitched in work-wise and a little bit money-wise to put out he first handful of records. A few of us had picked up instruments before, but for the most part we were really beginners. We were really into punk rock and we were really into Lower East Side noise stuff like the Unsane and Sonic Youth and the Swans. But we were into pop and we were into Dada and we were into John Cage.

We just thought, let’s try this, let’s start some bands. Most of the bands were noise bands or kind of improv, and some of us wanted to make pop music. So Black Tambourine was a side project of really of a couple of the bands, for the songs that didn’t really fit in with the other bands because they were just a little too melodic.

Our singer [Pam Berry] actually lived in England, and she was just somebody we knew. We didn’t know she could sing, but she liked the right records and she was a friend of ours. So we just thought “we’ll have her sing.” We sent her some demo tapes and she said, “OK, I’ll figure some songs out.”
We did a handful of shows, four or five shows, put out a couple of singles, and then it sort of… It didn’t really fizzle out, but two of the guys were in Velocity Girl and they had just signed to Sub Pop, and they were busy. Then I moved away. So it kind of ended in late 91, early 92.

The single we put out was reasonably successful, it’s not like nobody ever heard it. But there was just some weird afterlife with the band, people always seemed to respond to those recordings.

On big moments in Slumberland's history
We’ve had some really great milestones. We put out the first Stereolab album in the U.S. And, you know, they went on to some amount of fame and repute, that was pretty exciting to be able to help them with that in some small way.

A couple bands—Velocity Girl and the Lilys—who went on to be better known, started out with us. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who are fairly well-known now, they’re still on Slumberland. That was a big milestone for us when we put that album out. To have a record that sold, to the point that people who don’t follow that kind of music will have heard it. That’s pretty exciting.

We had our 20th anniversary in 2009, and we did some shows on the East Coast and West Coast, and got some of the old bands to reform. It was just amazing to see some of that history laid out. And especially the San Francisco show, because I’ve been out here the most amount of time, people came out here who I haven’t seen at a show in ten years! It was really thrilling to have the old and the new bands together, they’re all fans of each other, and everyone was hi-fiving and hugging.

On what explains the label’s recent successes
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart! [Laughs] I mean, not totally, but there was kind of an interregnum between 2003 and 2006 where I didn’t really put out any new records. And I think there was something about going away and coming back, even though it was just for a few years. I was still filling mail orders, it’s not like we shut down, we just didn’t put out any new releases.

There were a lot of bands who were kind of bubbling under who were influenced by the stuff we did in the 90s, the bands that we had put out.  They were either bands who were directly inspired by them or at least conversant with it. When I started putting new stuff out again, I kind of found the Pains and Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion! This group of Brooklyn bands—they didn’t sound like what we had done before, but they knew about it.

As it happened, the Brooklyn thing was kind of blowing up, and some of those bands got to be reasonably well-known. It was just good timing, I think.

I had a different outlook on promotion and radio and that kind of thing [before]. Back in the 90s when I would put a record out I would think “Fuck it. These are really good records and I shouldn’t need to pay some press guy a couple thousand dollars to go around and tell people how good they are. And I should have to mail out 800 free CDs, that most of them are just going to get sold used.” I was just very suspicious of the machinery of it.

When I started putting out new releases again, especially full-lengths, I felt it is a crowded market, maybe I should do the best I can to get people to hear the music. If that means spending out promos then I’ll send out promos.

On the economics of independent music
I hate to make it sound like it’s all about money, but at some point something has to earn back. You can’t lose money on every release and keep going. It’s hard now, it’s difficult.

The bottom line, I think, is that the finances of running a label are not going to get any easier. There’s going to be a day when you can go back to that physical artifact that you could make a 200% markup on. It’s just not there. There’s a lot of different pieces that you can put together, with sync licensing for TV or merch. But it’s hard for me to picture where it’s all heading.

On agression, masculinity and femininity in music
It seems like a lot of the indie labels that were around then [in the late 80's] were more aggressive, more male-dominated. It doesn’t seem like there were a lot of women managing the labels.
Not at that exact time, not a lot that I can think of. Over the next five years--with Bettina Gregory and Thrill Jockey and Mac and Laura doing Merge, Simple Machines started when we were starting, and that was obviously very female friendly, and K always had female involvement, for sure, and they were hugely inspirational to us.

Musically, our early records were pretty noisy and they were pretty agro, but we got poppy pretty quickly. The character of the releases changed. And most, a lot of the prevailing indie-rock of the 90’s was possibly more aggressive or noisier in a different way, like just less melodic. I don’t really know how to describe it.

I feel like our stuff is different, for sure. I don’t know if it’s like a masculine/feminine thing. If we were talking about indie-pop then there’s definitely an aspect of that. Indie-pop as a genre—which we’re associated with but I don’t think of us as an indie-pop label—that’s an aggressively anti-masculine or non-masculine or [laughs]. A not-afraid-to-be-feminine kind of genre.

On getting demos
It’s a source of great guilt for me. I’d like to say that I listen to every single one the minute I get it but it’s just not possible.

The success of the Pains kind of influenced some of the demos I get, I think. And it’s not so much bands that sound like them, but the idea that we have a fairly successful record beyond what we normally have, kind of attracted a certain class of band that wants to make music their career in a way that I find really distasteful. I don’t know how to describe it!

It’s kind of post-emo dudes, who kind of like making noisy pop. You see it and you know it, it’s like pornography or something. There’s something a little gross about it.

We get a lot of that stuff. Like, super aggressive managers that will somehow get my cell phone number and be like “Dude! You gotta listen to blah blah blahs demo and this is gonna blow your label up!” I just, I can’t deal with that kind of stuff. Usually if a band says they’re going to make your label famous, that's pretty much a red flag.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released their fifteenth album on Tuesday, Push The Sky Away. The Bad Seeds' last two albums, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008) and Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004), are two of my all-time favorites, a pair of furious, sprawling terrains on which Cave constructs twisted fables. The two quick-and-dirty Grinderman albums that Cave recorded with a team of Seeds in 2007 and 2010 are damn good too. The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds did some great work in the 70's, 80's and 90's, but, for me, Cave reached his peak in the past ten years.

I was dying to see what Cave did with the first Bad Seeds album of our youngish decade, and the first without longtime Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey, who had played with Cave since the mid-70's. Not rating the songs individually this time, draw your own conclusions.

1. "We No Who U R"
I called this one a ghostly piano joint when I first heard it, which that still sounds about right. A simple, forlorn piano part echoes out, buttressed by Martyn Casey's bass. Casey's low-end is a crucial, understated part of much of what's to come, but easy to miss. The same is true of the fine percussion of Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler. "We No Who U R" is more restrained than nearly anything on the last four albums--the Bad Seeds have responded to the departure of longtime guitarist Mick Harvey by pushing in a sparser, slower direction. It's easy to compare this to other slower, piano-y Cave records. But Push The Sky Away has its own vibe, deserves to be heard on its own terms, not The Boatman's Call's.

2. "Wide Lovely Eyes"
Begins with tense textures that scream Warren Ellis--and indeed Ellis is now the head Seed, with a writing credit on every song here. Cave's vocal strains in a more sentimental direction, especially during the chorus, but Ellis' loop keeps things grimly atmospheric. Like "No Who U R," the song is open, unadorned--perhaps of necessity, given Harvey's departure. There's room at the center of "Wide Lovely Eyes" for howling guitar, but the song is just fine without it.

3. Water's Edge
Gnarled bass frowns as Cave demands, "all the young girls where do you hide," sounding like the Big Bad Wolf. "You grow old and you grow cold," as he says. Violin, drifting in and out, colors the song an ashy brown. It sounds quite a bit like an old-fashioned Dirty Three western, set under a wide Australian sky. Cave preens and sneers no less angrily than he did on the past few albums, where he relentlessly lashed out at everything in his line of sight. But here the Bad Seeds are reined in, building tension that finds no release.

4. "Jubilee Street"
Cave in his element, among the whores and johns on red-lit Jubilee. The guitar is more prominent here, threading itself through the track, later joined by strings and some shimmering dissonance. Gathering its momentum slowly, surely, the narrative and music work towards an explosion at 4:45 ("I'm flying!/Look at me now!"). For an explosion, it's understated--everything on Push is--but potent. It's as if Cave and Ellis looked back at Grinderman 2's hell-raising "When My Baby Comes" and eerie, pretty "What I Know," and decided that they deserved to be the same song.

5. "Mermaids"
"Mermaids" is shaded by a sense of loss, crystallized in the eddying guitar. Loss is familiar territory for Cave, one he plies well. You know how old people sometimes talk about how they have trouble remembering things that happened earlier that day, but can recall events from years ago with total precision?--this is that: "they wave at me, they wave and slip/back into the sea." Some lovely backing vocals on the chorus here, recalling Lyre of Orpheus' "O Children".

6. "We Real Cool"
Agitated bass, not far from the rumblings of "Night Of The Lotus Eaters," undergirds "We Real Cool," with occasional accompaniment. As with so much Bad Seeds material, you find yourself trapped inside some dark, elemental fable. This one's a volley of recriminations towards some sort of protege or ex-lover or daughter, hopefully not all three, but the key comes with the line "I hope you're listening/are you?" This is the first Cave song to mention Wikipedia--a line omitted from the lyric sheet. Looking up the distance between the earth and distant stars: not real cool?

7. "Finishing Jubilee Street"
An odd drum pattern powers this fever dream, which opens with Cave putting the finishing touches on "Jubilee Street." I'm reminded of Goya's famous sketch of himself asleep at his desk, tormented by horrible creatures. Always restrained, the song gets weird as Cave wakes up from his sleep and begins his frantic search for an imaginary bride. The respite comes as a chorus and lovely Rhodes send the singer back to his dream.

8. "Higgs Boson Blues"
The Epic here, with immediate echoes of Neil's darkest On The Beach dirges. If "More News From Nowhere" was Cave's nakedest Dylan rip, then this is his crassest attempt to crib Young. He's driving to Geneva, wrestling with the devil, tired as hell, still dealing with shit that happened at the Lorraine Motel nearly 50 years ago. And Hannah Montana, as well, is something that he mentions. His drawls here are a thing of wonder, sounding a bit like a renegade, middle-aged Jagger we've never really got to hear. The Bad Seeds are in the back seat, quietly intense the whole time, but ratcheting up the volume and backing vocals as Cave gets deeper and deeper into his spiritual groove, finally letting the song pass in a whisper. Some simple, beautiful guitar work here.

9. "Push The Sky Away"
The title made me think of Sky Saxon, but the moody, shapeless synths are a million miles away from The Seeds. The lyrics suggest a man resolved to fight another day, month, year, but the oppressive sigh of the keyboards and fact that he's trying to push away the sky, they don't bode so well. I'd suggest "Live Inside The Gloom" as an alternate title here. This is a song, and album, about men with clouded heads trying to find their bearings. Lost, maybe for the last time. It is well worth hearing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Get Off Their Cloud: Why I'm Canceling My Spotify Subscription

On an otherwise unremarkable May day—I remember that the weather was quite nice that afternoon, and that I decided against going home for lunch—someone broke into the home through the front door, and stole my computer. Gone also was my “passport” external hard drive, and the 60 GB music library it held. I had been accumulating the music in that library since I was fifteen.

Thankfully, I had about 80% of my music backed-up on another hard drive. And my turntable, speakers and records were untouched by the thief or thieves, who discarded a large kitchen knife a few feet from my bedroom.

That was a Monday. The next day, I bought vinyl copies of Beach House’s just-released Bloom and the Velvets’ VU. Those albums were a big part of my life in the next few weeks. But I was still left wondering: how do I get and listen to music without my computer?

I turned to my phone, buying a Spotify premium subscription for ten bucks a month. No ads, you can download stuff to your phone, stream nearly anything—it’s pretty cool. That’s how I’ve done 90% of my music listening for the past eight months. Most of my 2012 top ten list—and much besides it—passed through the “new music” playlist on my Spotify.

I think I first realized Spotify was a thing from Facebook, where I saw that Nathan was listening to Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With Youa lot. I guess I’d read about how popular Spotify is in Europe, and how it might be a “game changer” here. I was already using it at my job, where my “Box Sets To Barely Hear At Work” playlist got a lot of action.

And, yeah, the app and the whole service is pretty great. If you use it, you already know that. It’s getting pretty popular: at the school I go to, our IT guy sent out an irate message telling students to stop downloading Spotify on every computer.

But I’m quitting Spotify, paying for it at least. That’s my 2013 music-listening resolution, if you want to look at it like that. There’s a couple things about the service that aren’t worth $120 a year.

First, it’s a raw deal for musicians. Damon Krukowski, drummer for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi (and legend in my musical universe), wrote about the kind of money he makes from the streaming services like Spotify and Pandora
My BMI royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened to via these services. Galaxie 500's "Tugboat", for example, was played 7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays better: For the 5,960 times "Tugboat" was played there, Galaxie 500's songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
As someone who literally used Spotify to stream “Tugboat”, I was pretty taken aback. 35 cents per quarter is such a paltry sum. It’s barely enough for a cup of coffee, even if you save up a year's worth of payments and go to a cheap café.

We all know that the internet has made it really difficult for people to make a living playing music. When I spoke with the guy who runs 23 year-old indie Slumberland Records, he told me that only one of the 37 bands on his roster makes enough money to do music full time. And most of that income comes from touring.

What’s really obnoxious—beyond the people who insist everything should be free—is how Spotify pretends to be good for musicians. I haven’t heard their ads in a while—that a perk of paying $10 a month—but they frequently mention that Spotify supports musicians (I think the ad also mentions rights holders). That’s true, I guess, in a literal sense. But a hollow claim when you think about it in terms of Krukowski’s paycheck. I doubt that rappers are able to finance their Ciroc budgets with the level of royalties Spotify pays out.

The other reason I’m cancelling my subscription is that I don’t really trust Spotify. Nathan tweeted recently about how Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde suddenly disappeared from Spotify. Things like that are minor annoyances, but minor annoyances add up. It was not easy to listen to Led Zeppelin, who are not on Spotify, these last eight months. That was a major annoyance.

At a more macro level, I like actually having my music. Streaming is a bit like renting—you’re paying for something you get to use, but will never own. If Warner Music Group can’t agree with Spotify about royalty rates, then it can pull its catalog, whether you pay for the service or not. Anyone with a cable subscription knows that shit like that happens all the time. And then everyone who needs to listen to Neil Young is just shit out of luck until the lawyers can hammer it out.

There’s no reason to trust Spotify. It’s a well-designed service with a really impressive catalog, but if, down the line, they realize they can make more money by making the service worse on your end, they’ll do it. They’re a private company; they owe you nothing.

You cannot build a music library through Spotify because you do not own the music you stream through Spotify. If and when Spotify goes public, they will continue to owe you nothing, unless you are a shareholder.

So I’m discontinuing my Spotify subscription. I’m intrigued by the Amazon and Apple services that allow scan your music library and allow you to access it anywhere from your phone. It’s cheaper than Spotify (though costs are on top of actually buying music), but it seems a little invasive. We’ll see.

And I’m not going Cold Turkey on Spotify. Like Kurkowski, I’ll probably keep using it because “the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.” He also points out that Spotify listeners would have to play “Tugboat” more than 680,000 times to give him the $9.99 needed to pay for a month of the premium service.

So, again, the service Spotify provides is good. But it’s not good enough, for musicians or listeners.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aaron's Pazz & Jop Ballot

I'll stop doing end-of-year posts after this, promise, but I wanted to post a link to my ballot in the 2012 Pazz & Jop, which went live yesterday. My ballot is here.

I've been asking to participate in the Pazz & Jop, off and on, for several years now. It was a thrill to finally hear "yes," though my excitement was tempered a little by the bloodletting at the Village Voice's music department earlier this year. I decided to vote anyway, and I'm relieved to see the names of several critics I admire among the 500 voters.

What did I vote for? You already know what my favorite albums of 2012 were. Horrifyingly, I was the only person to vote for Café Tacuba's El Objeto Antes Llamdo Disco, which landed down at 710. Looks like I was the only voter who picked R. Kelly's Write Me Back as 2012's best. (Like I have in previous years, I'll probably post on my Tumblr about where my personal Top 10 landed in the Pazz & Jop.)

Anyway, I also put together a list of my 10 favorite singles of the year. I only got word from the Village Voice about 48 hours before voting closed, so I had to come up with that pretty quick. I spent an entire day of my vacation freaking out about what 2012's best singles were, avoiding all familial obligations so that I could figure out if Meek Mill's "Amen" is a better song than Beck's "I Only Have Eyes For You" cover. Here's what I came up with:

...with apologies to Beck, Julia Holter, Killer Mike, Tame Impala, Melody's Echo Chamber and a bunch of others, who were on the cusp. Glad I had "Power Circle" on there, since nobody else voted for it (?!?). Rob Harvilla's essay on Future even has me thinking I should have found space for "Turn On The Lights."

If you want to dig insanely deep into the statistics of the results, including individual ballots, then knock yourself out.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rockaliser Radio III

After last year's legendary convergence, the third edition of Rockaliser Radio finds your hosts at odds over which albums, precisely, were the ten best in a music-rich 2012. Richness, in fact, was the only theme: Aaron and Nathan may differ over the relative merit of Odd Future's "Oldie," but they could agree that Rick Ross' Rich Forever is a punishingly great mixtape.

Were there any dark, sarcastic lyrics in 2012? Did any bands make songs that sounded like Beach House songs? Is R. Kelly just some washed-up New Jack Swing star?

Click the above widget to find out all that, and more!* The nearly three-hour podcast is also available to download here.

*How many great psychedelic records emerged from Australia and Northern Sweden, combined? Might one fairly call Odd Future notorious? Did Dr. Dre spend enough time guesting on his protoge's albums? How many dead presidents were excoriated in rap songs? Do any musicians hail from the city of New Orleans? Does Aaron still speak Spanish? What the fuck was that El-P album called, anyway? How many times will your hosts imitate the Rick Ross grunt? Which 2013 single has a chorus that sounds like you just inhaled a mountain of uncut cocaine?

Since you asked, here are our 2012 Top Ten lists, sans commentary, verbal stumbling and digressions:

Aaron M's 2012 Favorites:
1. R. Kelly, Write Me Back
2. Goat, World Music
3. Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city
4. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
5. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
6. Café Tacuba, El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco
7. Dinosaur Jr, I Bet On Sky
8. Tame Impala, Lonerism
9. Tennis, Young & Old
10. Rick Ross, Rich Forever

1. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
2. Large Professor, Professor @ Large
3. Big Boi, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
4. Rick Ross, Rich Forever
5. Future of the Left, The Plot Against Common Sense
6. Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
7. Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos
8. Galactic, Carnivale Electricos
9. (Tie) Quakers, Quakers and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One
10. Odd Future, The OF Tape Vol. 2

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lost in the Bossness: Nathan's Favorites, 2012

[With apologies to close contenders Rye Rye, Elle Varner, Dr. John, Rapsody, Screaming Females, Dinosaur Jr., Kendrick Lamar, Mark Lanegan, Miguel and Waka Flocka Flame]

1. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
"The closest I've come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music." In 2012, I knew how Killer Mike felt. The Dungeon Family stalwart and radical activist distinguished himself even in an extraordinary year for the genre, providing a compelling, ambiguous tribute to the shared cultural histories of Rebellious African Peoples that was equal parts moving, exciting, and righteously angry. El-P's crushing, mutating production complemented the record's sound and fury.

2. Large Professor, Professor @ Large
When not smithing the best beats for Nas' Life Is Good, Large Professor produced a remarkable "LP Surprise" of his own. From generation-spanning posse cuts to ultrasmooth, ultrasteady hip-hop instrumentals ("Barber Shop Chop" and "Back In Time," even without words, showcased Pro at his best), Professor @ Large was 2012's most unheralded later-career rap album by a Golden Age veteran.

3. Big Boi, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
I've taken to calling this album "Viscous Lies," as the songs contained take more time and effort to navigate than Big's accessible debut. However, this may ultimately be the more rewarding, challenging album. It may zig where you expect a Big Boi album to zag, but the beats are just as fresh and surprising, and the autobiographical precision of Big Boi's subject matter marks newer, deeper lyrical territory for the historically quick-witted emcee.

4. Rick Ross, Rich Forever
Ross had an extremely busy 2012, but the mixtape Rich Forever--originally intended as a stopgap before the release of his fifth album God Forgives, I Don't--has a singular and exhausting life force that exceeded even his greatest efforts elsewhere. With the exception of the skits, RF is an unrelenting cavalcade of apocalyptic end credit beats and stereo-shattering sirens. At the center of it is Rozay's cartoonishly overconfident persona, which gains a certain amount of depth here.

5. Future of the Left, The Plot Against Common Sense
Andy Falkous is the rarest of songwriters, a lyricist who can make me laugh out loud (see also #7). On his post-Mclusky outfit's punishingly aggressive third album, Falkous gleefully trashes punk articles of faith, from Sheena the former punk rocker to sequels of classic Detroit science-fiction cinema ("Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop"). Thank the dwindling gods of hard rock that Future of the Left seems to be in no danger of becoming complacent anytime soon.

6. Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
It was not an easy path to this point, but the New Orleans rapper's first Warner Bros. release does everything I hoped the famously weed-minded rapper could do with a major label upgrade. His rapping style--laconic, monotone, slurry yet intelligible--is augmented by some of the best productions of the year, from the marching beat stomp of "Armoire" to the understated bass tones of "Chandeliers." Curren$y's approach to hooks and drawled-out versescapes has always been distinctive, but with this Doors-quoting album, he crafted a sequence of songs worthy of his style.

7. Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos
For someone who releases about a solo album a decade, the 64-year old Steely Dan singer and songwriter has maintained the same remarkable control over groove that made his classic 70s work so attractive. As anachronistic as Sunken Condos' smooth, complex jazz arrangements may sound in 2012, the rhythms are anything but soft, as evidenced by Fagen's funky cover of Isaac Hayes' "Out of the Ghetto," which might be even better (and more subversive) than the original.

8. Galactic, Carnivale Electricos
The venerable New Orleans funk band--hot off their great 2010 album Ya Ka May--delivers an even more cohesive tribute to the diversity of NO funk with Carnivale Electricos, intended as both an aural accompaniment for the city's Mardi Gras festivities and as a tribute to city carnivals the world over. Carnivale Electricos is so animated with spirit and fresh, live instrumentation that by the time the festivities end and "Ash Wednesday Sunrise" begins, it's hard not to feel a bit sad that the good times can't go on forever.

9. (Tie) Quakers, Quakers and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One
Portishead was off the reservation again in 2012, but programmer/DJ Geoff Barrow was more busy than ever. Quakers was a hip-hop project spearheaded by Barrow, a mammoth, Double Nickels on the Dime-ish collection of 41 rap tracks, most under two minutes. Though the Stones Throw release boasted appearances by well-known rappers like Guilty Simpson and the Pharcyde's Booty Brown, the majority of artists on the record were unsigned upstarts culled from MySpace. Drokk, meanwhile, was Barrow and Ben Salisbury's tribute to the British comic book character Judge Dredd. Though an actual Dredd film was released this year, Drokk's fake film soundscapes more cannily recalled classic 80's film music from the likes of the Goblins or John Carpenter. In essence, Drokk was the perfect soundtrack to the 80s Carpenter Dredd film that never was.

10. Odd Future, The OF Tape Vol. 2
The worst thing that could happen to the OFWGKTA clan is if they became respectable. Fortunately, despite the mainstream accolades bestowed upon Frank Ocean and others this year, Odd Future's music remains as compelling, challenging, and occasionally disgusting as ever. From sloppy R&B to rolling weed anthems to goofs on ratchet music ("We Got Bitches"), this OF tape sounded more like a great rap compilation than a cohesive album experience, but Tyler, the Creator and co. manage to wrap their warped sensibilities together with "Oldie," a massive group cut that should be considered the "T.R.I.U.M.P.H." of modern times.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Freeze That Verse: Aaron's Favorites, 2012

1. R. Kelly, "Write Me Back"
Bravura soul form a bravura soulman. The singer's a student, rebuilding from lush, gently shifting blueprints drawn decades ago, alive to their possibilities today. Says it himself: love has the greatest vision of all time.

2. Goat, "World Music"
A furious, mindbending stew of nearly every sound blurted out to fuck with your head in the Twentieth Century--from psych and drone to metal, Afrobeat and pastoral folk. Recklessly borrowed, played with abandon.

3. Kendrick Lamar "good kid, m.A.A.d city"
A tour of King Kendrick's life, years before that title became appropriate. Woozy, jazzy and menacing, narrated by a shapeshiting MC, at turns thoughtful and impulsive, but always true to himself.

4. Miguel, "Kaleidoscope Dream"
His five 2012 EPs are also a must, collectively the flowering of an R&B auteur. Miguel's a suave oddball--his compositions run from grown and sexy to achingly needy--unafraid to throw out an idea, look the listener in the face, and dare you to join him.

5. Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light"
A sound born from Spaceman's latest, darkest chemical experiences. An album dreamed from a sick bed, shuffling towards a transcendence it realizes through celestial rock and roll.

6. Café Tacuba, "El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco"
An ebullient blur of fluttering, ringing, propulsive noises, artful in the most subtle and spectacular ways.

7. Dinosaur Jr, "I Bet On Sky"
Choppy waves of riffage clash up against the pointilistic clarity of J Mascis' solos. Alongside J's voice, as high and whiny as his Jazzmaster, the sound is as massive and breathtaking as ever, maybe a little warmer.

8. Tame Impala, Lonerism
Drenched in flange, swimming synth and clattering drums, Kevin Parker's dense, enormous visions radiate outwards--just beyond comprehension, easy to get lost in.

9. Tennis, "Young & Old"
Songs fashioned from Beach House guitar lines, untangled and exposed to the sun. Featuring not only 2012's acest deployment of organ, but the sweet churn of Patrick Riley's guitar and Alaina Moore's heavenly sighs.

10. Rick Ross, "Rich Forever"
The finest product the Bawse has distributed thus far, not simply consolidating his success, but justifying it. An appropriately monstrous and expansive set of beats forms the bed for Ross and his business partners' cartoon villain games.