Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and make a playlist once in a while, you could miss it.
Watch the dials.
First a shudder, just a twitch, but soon a convulsion. And now we’re really falling down the rabbit-hole. Starting to build momentum like a train careering helplessly towards the out-of-service bridge.
The dials start to swing wildly from left to right.
I see condensation on the windows. Sweat? Tears? Blood? I hear glass smashing. We await being sucked into a black hole of our own making.
What a year.
Fascinatingly, disturbingly, brilliantly, typically, 2016 has been a banner year for music. It makes me think of walls. Satan’s toxic ballsack threatens to build them. The urgency with which the rest of us need to tear the wallsbetween us down builds too. But often, to make their most compelling, vibrant, experimental work, artists need walls to push against, to reimagine, to tear down.
Walls like hatred, anxiety, frustration, heartbreak, depression, and injustice. Walls like capitalism. Walls like death.
Which is how we get music as a sign o’ the times. As escape. As much-needed reflection. As vital, primal, riotous reaction.
What a year.
The list continues, accelerating in perceived significance until its final and much-desired conclusion.
50. Strand of Oaks // Goshen ‘97
Nostalgia drips from every inch of ‘Goshen ’97’. The keys are chiselled from 80s power ballads, the drums and guitars somehow sound like a distillation of every great grunge, pop punk and Springsteen song ever written and the lyrics look back on the past whilst staring at the ground in the present with equal parts joy and despair. As an encapsulation of millennial angst: “I was lonely, but I was having fun. I don’t want to start all over again”, fulfils purpose and then some.
49. Eagulls // Possessed
A dissonant, visceral, angry, anxious, simultaneously introspective and triumphant slab of post-punk from Yorkshire’s finest.
48. Glass Animals // Gooey
A twinkling, gloopy, sensuous refined mess that simultaneous feels like making sweet, sweaty love and sticking your hands into cake mixture.
47. Kwabs // Wrong or Right
It’s hard to contain my excitement at what Kwabs could potentially become in 2015 and beyond. If I describe him simply as an electrically charismatic stage presence and possessor of a mellifluous, melancholy, soulful voice, I am honestly trying to do my best to restrain my praise. The challenge facing him is perhaps inadvertently outlined best in the opening line of this track: “I don’t wanna be a leader, I don’t wanna let you down. Watch this space.
46. Shellac // Dude Incredible
To an extent, everything you need to know about Shellac’s ‘Dude Incredible’ is in those glorious first 25 seconds – that rattling, unfurling, circuitous opening riff which guides your thought process throughout the full 6 minutes. It’s an aural encapsulation of the lyrical breakdown/metaphor hooked around Steve Albini’s one-word explanation of the track: “monkeys”. The wild tension it contains is as much a manifestation of the patterns of animal group dynamics, violence, leadership, survival of the fittest and sexual dominance – which of course echo into fucked-up human behaviour patterns – as that which the lyrics pointedly discuss. And it whales.
45. Warpaint // Love Is To Die
‘Love is to Die’ is a beauteous, mesmerising, tranquil and tense nugget of all that is so potentially wonderful about Warpaint. It feels like a tribal bathing in warm water as Kokal and Wayman’s euphoric vocal delivery meet bang-on halfway with Lindberg and Mozgawa’s enthralling rhythm-section. ‘Love Is To Die’ is both the strongest cut from their sadly half-baked second record and easily their most instantaneous, urgent and progressive release since 2009’s exquisite ‘Elephants’.
44. Iggy Azalea // Fancy
So we come to the hardest track to justify inclusion for on the entire list. Guided by a year’s worth of criticism of Azalea and fears that The New Classic will follow in Macklemore’s footsteps to winning a commercially-focused Grammy and thus aptly piss off the entire critically and arguably racially-conscious music listening population, let’s do just that eh?
The core to the debate, at least for me, is how seriously Azalea takes herself, or more accurately how seriously we should take her. For every indicator that she does, like say: “I take everything I do serious”, these are counter-balanced to a quite extraordinary extent by this veritable lightning-rod-cum-calling-card of a song.
Sonically, it’s an absolute banger complete lacking in subtlety, despite – and because of – having one of the cheesiest, laziest and cheapest sounding synths of the year as its bedrock. It’s almost tailor-made for the shitty speakers of your first car. No one should take this song seriously.
Lyrically, it’s ludicrous to the extent of being genius. “First things first I’m the realest” opens proceedings, a line imbued with such a sense of braggadocio no-shit Sherlock by now that, no matter the confidence with which it’s delivered, it can’t help but contain the kind of desperation to be taken seriously of a teenager storming up to their bedroom. More to the point, it doesn’t take an MA in Hip-Hop Puritanism, to determine that Iggy is not the “realest” despite having once been 16 in the middle of Miami. No one should take this song seriously.
Nevertheless, in an attempt to overcome that Madames Azalea and XCX between them manage to tick off every cliché and obsession expected of “youth culture” both in the contemporary moment and since time immemorial. As each reference to flagrant commercialism, self-centredness, promotion of violence, twerking, violence, mental health insensitivity, drinking, dissing the haters – in short, the bloody lot – piles up, so does the level of irony required by all involved. No one should take this song seriously.
Finally: fancy. Specifically, “I’m so fancy”. Fancy? That’s the word we’re going with? Fancy? To paraphrase: stop trying to make fancy happen, it’s not going to happen. No one should take this song seriously.
43. Perfect Pussy // Driver
Perfect Pussy is the sound of a protestor endlessly picking themselves up and driving forward against the torrent of a water cannon. Nowhere is that a more pertinent description than on ‘Driver’ the exhilarating opening track to their debut. Against a whirl of relentless noise, pausing only for momentary intake of oxygen twice, Meredith Graves purges a dark, exhilarating, intelligent personal as political tirade that you fight to hear as much as she is fighting to be heard amidst the mix. When those two align, the effect is to achieve a searing honest, shared realisation amidst the noise: “I have a history of surrender / Part of a certain set of choices / Found among the many paths / Forged by lies I told myself / Lies like ‘I will be protected’”.
42. Spoon // Do You
On ‘Do You’ melody and motifs as catchy as drug-resistant tuberculosis attempt to sail through untouched by the worldly, battered vocals and lyrics of Britt Daniel. Instead, even these moments of apparently casual contentment get caught up in the detritus of a life’s internal narrative that are encapsulated by the track’s song-as-subject surrounding atmospherics: mistakes, moments of fleeting happiness, self-absorption, commitment-fears, mediocrity-awareness, missed opportunities and nostalgia borrowed or otherwise. Fittingly, by the end, those enrapturing doo-doos have been turned to the poignant mmms of bitter pills swallowed and an acceptance of time gone by.
41. Mac DeMarco // Salad Days
If Strand of Oaks ‘Goshen 97’ serves purpose as a distillation of millennial frustration, millennial ennui doesn’t come much more blithely, charmingly, truthfully delivered than DeMarco’s title-track. As youth slips through his fingers, the loss of old friends weighs increasingly heavy and life’s meaning or lack-of weighs even heavier, even his mother’s answers are shot through with an ironic assessment of time that betrays the lack of answers available – “oh dear, act your age and try another year”.
40. Damien Rice// Long, Long Way
Whilst not quite as keenly felt an absence as Richard D. James’ 13 years away from Aphex Twin, as a similar master of his genre Damien Rice’s return after 8 years of comparative radio silence is no less welcome. Indeed, in the wake of a legion of contenders ranging from the abysmal to the astonishing aspiring to his throne, devastating and delicate, tantalising and traumatic, intricate and incisive cuts such as this allow Rice’s return to feel positively redemptive.
39. Kelis// Jerk Ribs
Timeless, buoyant waves of energy and heart tide over ‘Jerk Ribs’, the soundtrack to Kelis falling back in love with music all over again. Here, she looks back to her past – to “Harlem, where I started to breathe” – forging her own origin narrative and manifesto (“Look for melody in everything”). Amidst all that nostalgic rapture mirrored by romantic strings though, where the track’s real vitality pours from though is channelled through those rasping vocals and horns that deliver: “Don’t miss this, this is what it looks like”. After a career full of superstardom near-misses, such a diva-ish declaration of authentic attention-seeking in the now is fully-deserved.
38. Metronomy// I’m Aquarius
A lo-fi moment of heartbroken, claustrophobic transcendence from Joseph Mount & co’s underrated fourth album wherein horoscopes and nonsense scat backing-vocals act as both a metaphor for – and manifestation of – all the incomprehensible terribleness of the reasons people break up and fall apart.
Dull synth rattles and throbs undulate under a nigh-on spoken word Mount flatly picking over the collapse of an engagement. His protagonist descends into the depths as he proceeds to blame everyone but himself, the lyrics fixating on she said, they said fragments of conversation and in particular with his fixation on his ex’s attribution of the quirks of human nature and hearts to the cosmos – “because you’re a Taurus and I’m Aquarius” – rather than say his pointed self-absorption: “never knew how much you thought I meant to me”.
By the end he’s ceaselessly repeating “I’m Aquarius”, vainly attempting to convince himself of her viewpoint in order to move on, channelling this sense of cosmic entrapment into justification for both of them to be free to ignore their flaws laid-bare and instead focus on their wounds and hold onto their shoulder-chips, the apparent pre-destination of their unsuitability for one another leaving them free to hurtle like comets into other planets, free to hurt themselves and others all over again.
37. Cymbals Eat Guitars// 2 Hip Soul
The closing track of Lose takes fragments of small-town late-teen memories and minute details such as the brand of a burn victim’s hat or the titular BMX bike and transposes them into something epic, with the track’s poetic rise-and-fall of quiet to loud, light to dark eventually culminating in an instrumental raging against the dying light.
36. Jamie T// Don’t You Find
‘Don’t You Find’ is a darkly sexy shard of a broken mirror, a nexus of love, death and unconscious desire that manages to feel distinctly “new” whilst stilling feeling so distinctively Jamie T after far too many moons away.
35. EMA //Satellites – HD
A wider cultural trend this year found roost in music via artists like Holly Herndon and St. Vincent, creators of music that explored humankind’s increasingly bound position within our world wide web. In a similar vein, EMA turned her focus to The Future’s Void, no one better than on this agitated, enerverated and bristling opening track. She draws a thread from the Cold War space race through to our present day situation: milling about staring into screens and unknowingly in debt and subservience to our new gods, these floating unwatched watchers built from future scrap metal orbiting around us. And it’s terrifying
34. The Twilight Sad // It Never Was the Same
This is the spooked, desolate, toweringly beautiful high-point amongst a bounty of sky-piercing peaks on The Twilight Sad’s latest: a record coursing with renewed vigour, even if that vigour is built of the same stuff as the relentless force of icy tides against grey skies. Amongst all the gloom though, ‘It Never Was The Same’ has a singular gravitas, a heavy grace that allows its lyrics of a failed relationship to stand for everything from quiet romance, to provincial deterioration, to Scottish devolution and a species ongoing falling out of love with God:
We fall apart.”
33. Chance The Rapper// Wonderful Everyday: Arthur
What the world needed in 2014, not quite more than anything but perhaps close enough especially amidst the intensely shitty shitstorm of shit that was last year, was three minutes or so of Chance the Rapper and friends signing a cover of the Arthur theme tune. The fact that it came this beautiful, inventive, ascendant and powerful is the best kind of bonus.
32. Katie Gately// Pivot
‘Pivot’ manages to feel both sprawlingly cinematic and bracingly intimate over the course of its 14 minutes, an alien experience full of unpindownable familiarity that creates a listening sensation akin to conscious hypnosis, undeniably happening to you but incapable of being altered or grasped in any kind of totality. I dig it.
31.Angel Olsen// Enemy
‘Enemy’ is that feeling of shattered numbness at the moment where you’ve finally cried yourself to sleep, your body tacitly accepting your heart’s pain and finally allowing you to move on:
“I wish it were the same
As it is in my mind
I am lighter on my feet
When I’ve left some things behind”
To hear Angel Olsen perform this sparsely is to listen to the human soul express itself in all its rawness and fragility.
30. Aphex Twin // minipops 67 [120.2]
As any self-respecting music enthusiast ought to, I’d attempted to delve into Aphex Twin, reputation alone propelling me to dip my toes into a variety of sonic pools. Strangely though, that experience never grew into anything more than an inches deep appreciation, with the overwhelming feeling that I was having a removed experience, positioned on the outside looking in without my own contemporary appreciation of the Richard D. James express. A green blimp was the symbol that became a salve to all those qualms. This was Syro, far from earth-shattering but undeniably my very own Aphex Twin experience, full of tangible energy and independent discovery rather than the received wisdom of a gazillion best-of lists.
29. Jessie Ware // Tough Love
Jessie Ware is not the popstar we deserve – nor the kind we seem to want if the charts are to be believed – but she’s certainly the kind we need. ‘Tough Love’, the title-track of the follow-up to 2012’s Devotion is lyrically sparse, but sonorous with meaning: an intelligent, delicate ode to the unrecognisable, undefinable and uncontrollable feeling of love; to daydreams of heavenly “clouds of glory” structured in direct contrast to the human – here cast as patriarchal – desire to do the exact opposite: to ground and define. This consciousness in her craft is matched by her keen ear for collaboration, these sentiments matched in spades by BenZel’s alternately meditative and ecstatic, constantly expanding and collapsing production, a stream of bubbles that captures and melds these thoughts and candid breaths together.
28. Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars // Uptown Funk
An absolute barnstormer, channeling everything Mark Ronson knows about Parliament/Funkadelic/Chic/Trammps-era funk – which one would barter is a veritable shitload – and channelling it into a retro-futuristic burst of shamelessly repeatable, endlessly itchy feet satisfying pop brilliance.
27. Against Me! // Black Me Out
A furious, euphoric, enraged and enraptured close to an album and a chapter of Laura Jane Grace’s life that challenged all others to equal it as a vital, purging expression of music as a means for expression and empowerment.
26. Kindness // This Is Not About Us
There’s a sparse dissonance at the heart of ‘This Is Not About Us’. It’s there in that weird compelling mixture of tropical, old school hip-hop sounding percussion with the melancholy of the core piano loop and Adam Bainbridge’s vocals. It’s there in the resulting awkward danceability which is captured in the video: a half-choreographed, half-freestyle mess of a routine. It’s the sound of a man getting oil and vinegar to meld, as he channels the simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming feeling of release you get as you admit to the truth of a relationship gone sour, of repentant positivity in a moment of outright negativity.
25. Caribou // Can’t Do Without You
Slice ‘Can’t Do Without You’ in half at its close and you’ll see laid bare what feels so complex as it runs its course. Steadily pooling oxymoronic layers construct this quiet belter, each ridden with warmth, resplendent with bleakness. It’s a slow-burning chemical reaction which cuts out at the moment it reaches its peak, a perfect sonic encapsulation of its titular sentiment: that feeling of helplessness which matches the longing.
24. Arthur Beatrice // Ornament and Safeguard
A sensuous, lushly performed and produced distillation of everything that this band do so wonderfully. The first draw is that satisfying tension between the pop and the operatic, but what holds you in place are the vocals and the thoughts they’re expressing. Where the two are either supportive of one another or pointedly kept apart elsewhere on Working Out, here Orlando Leopard’s phlegmatic, reserved vocals and Ella Girardot’s delicate but lithe vocals are fully allowed to soar together in duet, an egalitarian, elegant picking through of human discontent and the desire to be heard and found.
23. tUnE-yArDs // Water Fountain
tUnE-yArDs, making social consciousness fun since 2010. Merril Garbus’ polemic about climate change – whether it be to your local neighbourhood or the planet itself – is witty, earnest, acerbic, bizarre and unwavering in its purpose, using all her available and sustainable resources in order for it to worm its way into your head. Irritatingly catchy are the hopscotch handclaps and schoolyard sing-song, the superficial innocence of which rendering like “nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and lungs” – all the more cutting, these childlike voices a reminder of who the real victims of the coming apocalypse will be.
22. Sun Kil Moon // Ben’s My Friend
In our desire to vehemently praise Mark Kozelek – or indeed anyone – for his/their capacity for raw, emotional, public earnesty and honesty of the display of the thoughts in his/their head in the names of artistry, perhaps the whole undignified War On Drugs saga is merely a par-for-course sub-pop-cultural serving of just deserts we get in exchange for the other side of the coin.
The main shared wealth in that transaction of course is ‘Ben’s My Friend’, the track seemingly responsible for everything Kozelek composed in 2014 and which translates the source of the frustrated, all-too-human lashing out seen elsewhere. Its beauty in every musical layer both frames and provides release from the acerbically self-analytical, sarcastic wit at the heart of its narrative: a meltdown brought on by writer’s block and middle-aged mediocrity, naturally resolved by the quiet eruption of professional jealousy that results from seeing Ben Gibbard busting moves at a Postal Service concert.
21. FKA Twigs // Two Weeks
Almost every aspect of FKA Twigs is unsettling. Which is entirely the point. ‘Two Weeks’ is the nexus of the tension that plays out over the course of LP1, tying together the overcompensating assertiveness of “motherfucker, get your mouth open you know you’re mine” with the sense of submission that lies elsewhere (“you know I’d put you first”; “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in”). Here the darkly sexy is dark for a reason, not for mere provocation, instead highlighting the uncomfortable gender politics at play. This is where the intimidation lies, in her very un-intimidated positioning: the intrepid, incorrigible, intimacy of her sound and vision, and the power that gives her. Tahliah Barnett is awkward and authentic, an outlier who forced her way to the centre in 2014 in order to be heard loud and clear.
A well-worn path of criticism in the twenty-first century has been to decry popular culture as a – at best lazy, at worse non-existent – reflector of the politics of modern life: let’s take economic, race, gender and privacy as a broad four examples. In turn, this is seen to be the symptomatic just deserts of a generation that values displays of conspicuous consumption in the ever-aspirational “club” to pounding pavements.
Of course, if you’re trekking through the Official Chart Company’s day-glo jungle – the floor of which is littered with Beats headphones and strange-deformed fauna which survive off the dregs of jägerbombs and Sam Smith’s tears (the nutrients for the constant collaborations and features with one another in one industry-wide circle-jerk culminating in fucking Bandaid fucking 30) – you’re largely not going to find anything to change your mind.
As always though, it’s in largely uncharted waters that it feels as though tides have turned in 2014. In a year simmering with righteous anger from Syrian refugee camps and Ukranian crop-fields to Ferguson sidewalks and UK foodbanks, the notes being struck by artists in the last 12 months have finally felt, at least to me, to recognise a modicum of that present trauma and capture some sense of the necessary urgency needed as a response within popular culture.
This trend is epitomised by the rush-release after 14 years of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, but you can register it in music ranging as drastically in sound and tone as Perfect Pussy, Young Fathers, Father John Misty and Wild Beasts. When balanced out with the rest you’ll encounter in this list that champions a message of hope and mobility via self-respect, action and awareness, it can’t help but stitch into a tapestry of a promise that – against cynical expectations – problems are being recognised and people are being mobilised.
So whether your bag is mournful post-internet isolation or a riotous, tension-release of rage or somewhere in between there’ll undoubtedly be something for you in this list. Open your minds. Open your doors. See you in 2015.
100 Mo Kolours // Mike Black
99 Perc // Galloper
98 Big K.R.I.T. // Mt. Olympus
97 Seinabo Sey // Younger
96 Vince Staples // Blue Suede
95 Sylvan Esso // Coffee
94 Neneh Cherry // Naked
93 Hamilton Leithauser // Alexandra
92 Dean Blunt // PUNK
91 Phoria // Emanate
90 Ibeyi // Oya
89 Death From Above 1979 // Trainwreck 1979
88 Isaiah Rashad // R.I.P. Kevin Miller
87 Bombay Bicycle Club // Luna
86 Ben Frost // Venter
85 iceage // The Lord’s Favorite
84 Real Estate – Talking Backwards
83 Action Bronson – Easy Rider
82 Tinashe – 2 On
81 Girl Talk, Freeway, Waka Flocka Flame – Tolerated
80 Container // Complex
79 Interpol // All the Rage Back Home
78 Banks // Goddess
77 Grumbling Fur // All the Rays
76 Years & Years // Real (LeMarquis Remix)
75 Eno Hyde // Daddy’s Car
74 Fear of Men // Alta/Waterfall
73 Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea // Problem
72 alt-J // Hunger of the Pine
71 Rustie // Raptor
70 Gidge // I Fell In Love
69 Ages and Ages // Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)
68 Wye Oak // Glory
67 Alvvays // Archie, Marry Me
66 Damon Albarn // Heavy Seas of Love
65 Schoolboy Q // Collard Greens
64 Objekt // Ganzfeld
63 Jungle // Son of a Gun
62 Jenny Hval/Susanna // I Have Walked This Body
61 SBTRKT/Raury // Higher
60 Baths // Ocean Death
59 Nothing // Dig
58 Jacques Greene // No Excuse
57 Father John Misty // Bored in the USA
56 Röyksopp & Robyn // Monument
55 Freddie Gibbs & Madlib // Deeper
54 Parquet Courts // Sunbathing Animal
53 Pusha T // Lunch Money
52 Ásgeir // King and Cross
51 Liars // Mess on a Mission
LONG OVERDUE. FOREVER RELEVANT. THE BEST OF 2013.
5 // DANIEL AVERY – DRONE LOGICSincerity fucking sucks. Or, maybe fairer to say is that the kind of sincerity you meet in most contemporary music fucking sucks. There are too many examples of artists who seem to work with the idea that the primacy of their voice and the ‘authentic’/’wholesome’ aesthetic and/or instrumentation that comes alongside this is sufficient material for the assertion that their emotional clout is at once distinctive and unique, yet still entirely necessary to communicate to the slumbering masses devoid of banjo and waistcoat. This aesthetic conceals a myriad of sins – from unendurably shit music to ideological complicity with some of the more po-faced violences of 2013/14’s politics to, again, some horrendously poor music.
In spite of my definitely valid and not at all irrational disdain for this current brand of sincerity, there is a beauty to Drone Logic that I only seem to be able to describe as sincerity. And this seems to me to stem from the album’s thoroughgoing humanity and warmth. That doesn’t make it a sentimental album. At times Avery flirts so closely with club music vibes that sentimentality seems genuinely to be one 4/4 beat around the corner but one of his main skills on Drone Logic is embracing the joyous qualities of that driving club aesthetic before throwing a guitar pedal feedback loop or squelching synth line that carries on a euphoric melody but at a pitch or tone antithetical to any of nostalgic 90s fist bumping that might punctuate a night at Fabric. The kind of experimentation on display is an affirmative playfulness and openness. The surprises come more in the way of loops or sounds that throw away expectations but that make the results all the more rewarding. There is gratification aplenty, as there should well be with such beat-driven music, but the gratification never feels cheap or forced. Water Jump offers 3 or 4 such rewards throughout its 8 and half minutes without ever employing a predictable drop or malignant trope of Guetta euphoria. Knowing We’ll Be Here is about as close to a utopian impulse in 2013’s eclectic (and sometimes magnificent) vomit of club music – the voice seems rootless and able to appear at once and disappear just as easily but it is always willing you in, and when the beat reaches a boat-party, sun-drenched, melody-line climax Avery draws back to the bareness of the melody line and an increasing feedback-formed background to drift with us to the end of the record.
This all seems very cuddly and soppy. It is. That is because my fear of sincerity is not a fear of a display of emotion or a dislike of an art that actively attempts to engage the listener as an affective agent in their own right. It is because this album seems to manage to manoeuvre a display of these genuinely affecting gestures that seem to be so lacking in contemporary music whilst so much of this contemporary music breathily-and-oh-so-truly-fucking-honestly tells us it is making said gestures. Drone Logic invigorates some of the aesthetics of inclusivity so flaunted by those who experienced early rave culture without becoming nostalgic for that time in itself, seeking to re-engage club music’s ability to genuinely move and gratify its listeners whilst being very willing to throw in some surprises and to engage with materials and techniques not of the traditional club music ilk. For me this means it sits perfectly alongside some of my other favourite records of 2013. Whilst some of those records discomfort and unsettle, Drone Logic comes alongside them to offer the moments of respite that give you the energy to engage with the uncomfortable and the alienating.
4 // KANYE WEST – YEEZUS
How best to talk about Yeezus has been troubling me for quite a while. At its best, it is an album of the sublimely brash. At its worst, it is an album of the sublimely brash. So how to proceed with talking about an album that seems to be driven by its inherent contradictions has been causing me some (admittedly infrequent and incredibly context-specific) unease.
There could well be a book about the contradictions of Yeezus (hopefully as an accompaniment to David Harvey’s on the contradictions of Capital) but that book would probably be shit. The contradictions are numerous and visible but they really are what makes this such an enthralling album; I tried to summarise them all but stopped at sex/wealth brags vs. racial politics because you really don’t need me to tell you that it might sit uncomfortably for most to listen to album that openly and aggressively (and sometimes articulately) attacks the persistence of racism in a supposedly post-race society whilst at the same time being told that Kanye would like to combine oral sex with Asian women and a certain orangey-red sauce.
The important thing for me then, is to understand that the contradictions are perhaps the most obvious and immediate element of an album that denies the listener much of the cathartic and/or vicarious value that is expected of much mainstream hip-hop. It’s claustrophobic, relentless and West is sure as fuck willing to let us know that there is no listener-wish-fulfillment here – this is very much his outrageous life, and, unless you’re explicitly invited along, you’re expected to wait outside with his Benz (which you also may not look at for more than 5 seconds, and most definitely must not touch).
The production is impeccable, as would be expected of the gang West assembled for the album, and the album’s allure owes a lot to their work. It is not so much the much-referenced and not really actually-appearing minimalism that makes the production noteworthy. Rather, I would say that it is the boldness of structure. Of course there are plenty of interesting sounds flying around but they are hardly ground-breaking; the ambitious denial of comfort or catharsis comes from the beats’ circularity and repetition, alongside the structures in which the variety of samples appear. Send It Up is a perfect example. Sonically it seems like one of the less interesting tracks on the album, but the contorted, pitch shifting siren that runs throughout on the same melody makes it a thoroughly circular piece. King Louie’s perfectly malevolent monotone helps too, as we are caught with a repetitious robotism – forever on loop, always threatening to lead to some sort of Skrillex romp, always returning to the same melody, always maintaining the threat of what might come next, before a 25 second burst of a sample that has no aural trace or precedent in the previous 2 and a half minutes pulls the track to its end, of course with the looping melody still in tow. The same kinds of affects are induced in the insistent low-end throbs of I Am a God, for example, as well as that track’s skipping, stuck-in-purgatory beat that re-emerges throughout. Then of course there are the screams and gasps that punctuate the album, acting as the signifiers of a profound discomfort which articulate only that: a feeling, an unease, without feeling the need to explain themselves. Herein we find what is for me perhaps the greatest facet of the album’s denial of catharsis: it is an album of feeling and exclamations that is almost entirely devoid of explanation. And every hint of space or rest-bite is immediately undercut, Justin Vernon’s or Frank Ocean’s delightfully auto-tuned r’n’b emotivities are themselves too de-humanised to offer full emotional engagement, and when Ocean is allowed loose for those few seconds in the final minute of New Slaves it quickly fades away into the distanced, low-end rumble of Hold My Liquor.
Of course there are an abundance of contradictions that do actually need to be considered and discussed. The brazen assertion of masculinity is defiant and pretty idiotic, for example, and cannot be excused by me simply saying ‘oh, but it’s the contradictions and the (relative) discomfort that make it such a good album’. The point is best understood that the abundance of exclamations without explanations is what make the album uncomfortable to its core, and therein lies its power.
3 // VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY
“…the gamut is once again being well and truly run sonically and thematically. Irish-folk inflections, reggaeton grooves and even a post-internet psychobilly freakout are all on the cards, alongside the high-necked riffery, Brooklynite balladry, vocal pitch-shifts, and harpsichord jams previously stocked in their locker.
Each new angle is approached with the same measured control which ensures that even if a certain aspect isn’t quite the right fit, it never upsets the whole. This is epitomised by the arabesque Worship You which incessantly shifts gears from break-neck to stratospheric between verse and chorus, gloriously straddling its middle-Eastern backing cries, frenetic synthesised guitar solo, and even moments of Joshua Tree-esque grandiosity, via the incessantly rumbling bedrock of marching drums throughout. There’s a freedom in their experimentations, which suggests that they’ve finally warded off the bug-bear of faux-outraged critiques of cultural colonialism (though they might have replaced this with furious SAAB enthusiasts). In fact, the sheer confidence with which they’ve continued extending this melange of genre, without losing the singularly important strength of writing the song as a song, has been one of the strongest and most rewarding elements of the band’s continued output.
However, the most significant aspect of this confidence is translated in Koenig’s lyrical work. He maintains his almost FLARF-poetry aspect at points, notably on tracks like Finger Back and Step: the canny lyrical switch-ups which are occasionally conceived of as smart-aleck witticisms, the alternately ubiquitous and obscure reference-points critiqued as solely designed to throw off people like Chris Baio’s “long-lost cousin” Steve Buscemi. But this time round, more strikingly and powerfully than on their previous LPs, these idiosyncrasies are equally matched and even usurped by moments of pure directness, typified by the emotionally-shattering chorus of Hannah Hunt: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”
3. In The Absence Of A
Where admiration firmly falls into the great ball-pit of the besotted though are Vampire Weekend’s ventures into spirituality. Themes of faith, death and after-life recur throughout, but they’re fully consecrated on the album’s (and perhaps thus far the band’s) crowning achievement Ya Hey. […] The band set about capturing a deep-set existential grief, a contradiction that works away at the heart of both the personal and international, with a celestial magnificence and an utter lack of pretence that Time magazine is trying to deny Generation Y.
The Ivy League bozos who once rapped about “wack calzone” weren’t supposed to be able to sing with such nuanced supremacy about a world that fell out of love with God.
But they did.”
EXCERPT FROM CTS’ RVW
2 // THESE NEW PURITANS – FIELD OF REEDS
Pitting These New Puritans against the rescinded promise of a pop album wasn’t the smartest idea Jack Barnett’s ever come up with. Though he did manage to go back on it well prior to the creation of the Southenders’ third studio album, the inconsistency of suggesting uber-accessibility and then delivering fifty four minutes of orchestral sprawl dogged Field of Reeds for most of last year – even as it swept up general critical reverence, and waltzed to Drowned in Sound’s Neptune Award with hands firmly in pockets. Alienated Hidden fans griping in YouTube comment sections far and wide can attest to how difficult a piece of art it is, but ask anyone on the other side and they’ll tell you (flirting quite happily with music crit cliché) that Field of Reeds was one of the most immensely, intensely rewarding listens of 2013. Yes, you do have to revisit this album persistently – you have to play it at home before you go to bed, or use it as the antidote your commute – but only because it’s been made for precisely that kind of consumption. The convoluted song structures, the mechanically low drone of Barnett’s vocals, the palpable ambition of every brushstroke – rather than being problematic, these traits are precisely what lend Field of Reeds its power, building mighty structures of sound from that initial tread of piano in The Way I Do.
This is an album that you open up and explore, and the landscape within is wholly and utterly enriched by the size and complexity of everything about Field of Reeds. It’s this ultimate selfishness which make it such a stunning listen from start to finish, because the album only cares, really, about sound and composition. Barnett is a cryptic, laborious writer of music, and you can feel it in the shape of the LP – that each song was made to collaborate with the tracks around it, with little to no regard for actual listeners. Even the most tightly choreographed, overtly accessible, track on the LP, Organ Eternal, is a slave to its position in Barnett’s grand scheme, providing the first graspable entry point to a record that’s otherwise gorgeously devoted to itself.
Field of Reeds will lead you astray. An archaic heft colours These New Puritans‘ neo-classical behemoth, old light coming through to the present, hanging heavy like the air of rooms that have been long left unopened. Though surrounded by the ostensibly warmer elements of the orchestral or choral, there’s still a sense of sparse, circumlocutory cold, embedded in the keys of the resonator piano and crooked fragility of Jack Barnett’s voice, evidenced to the utmost on the album’s core V (Island Song) in particular. Consequently, even within the most accessible moment Fragment Two, the remit remains a kind of graceful oppressiveness, borne from the intimidating and yet enrapturing heart of darkness that lies within the album’s bounds. It’s a record possessed of simultaneously transporting but paralysing beauty, reaching deep into your heart and psyche whilst remaining somehow always outside of reach, alien to full comprehension.
1 // JON HOPKINS – IMMUNITY
Immunity sounds like the Hadron Collider in the hands of the Old Testament god. It deals in awesome hammer-strikes of physicality amidst enveloping swathes of ethereality. Songs revolve around phrases like frozen moments in time, each revolution revealing something, casting new light and unearthing new perspective in the strange buoyancy of the space between punch and floor.
A key turns and we’re off. We Disappear serves as the album’s Rosetta stone – running the gamut from hard to soft, from stratospheric to granular – an ultra-condensed 4:50 microcosm by which we can glimpse if not yet fully understand all that will follow. Then Open Eye Signal (which as you know, we love an inconceivable amount) comes into being like a machine-made sunrise coursing through the veins of the morning, and all the more biblically awful for it.
Breathe This Air teases with all-out enormity before dissipating into breathless, peaceful chimes, before Collider takes on the mantle of that abandoned enormity and enters the boxing ring. Jangling with nervous electricity it drowns the stifled sexuality of its vocal samples in ever-building, ever-pounding polyrhythms and encompassing, enrapturing production. It’s scrambling, it’s titanic and it’s all too much: the record topples under the weight of this central moment of collision and collapses into a rare moment of silence.
Amidst this seismic fracture emerges Abandon Window in all its finely-tuned warmth, opening the door to the space of practically perceptible peace which dominates the latter half of the record. Throughout these tracks especially – though it serves to retroactively heighten its presence in the preceding tracks also – the classical roots that have allowed Hopkins to grow to such heights are foregrounded. The atmosphere of Form By Firelight, Sun Harmonics and Immunity is simultaneously sparse and yet holistically possessed of all his song-craft, using the gorgeous, resonant poetry of those titles as both guide and canvas for the elements in that atmosphere to weave their magic. Titanic keys, undulating throbs, spine-chilling chimes, percussive stutters and heart murmurs, hymnal vocals, soaring tides of static – all expertly packed in and on one another, extending and elevating the overarching kaleidoscopic mood-scape.
Immunity is a reconciliation, the fruit of a 34 year old explorer’s 9 months of recording, a record of a somehow meagre sounding 8 tracks running for a transcendent 60 minutes. It’s a reflection and a fulfilment of all that Hopkins has been – from the early disillusionment and eventual abandonment of his early work through to the roles he wears so lightly today: sublime soundtracker, Eno contemporary, Coldplay and Creosote collaborator, possessor of a monolith of truly modern electronic music. It contains multitudes of endless subtleties; your impulsive, uncontrollable movement constantly rearticulating between aggression and beauty; moments of peace that hint at storms in the distance. It’s android music, ushering forth compelling, utterly human emotion through supposedly cold machines. It’s Jon Hopkins’ finest work so far and a promise of so much more to come.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
Being preposterously overdue on the AOTY lists has now become a weird tradition at Arbiter of Taste. It ends now. Thank you for your patience x