The stage/blog-post/whatever this is I’m doing with my time is set for Round 2 of Loving the Crew. To introduce you to the ever-growing legion of talented busybodies at AOT towers, every fortnight we’re inviting each to pick their Top 5 moments from the year thus far.
Music, as much as it can be a painstakingly composed craft, a finely-tuned expression of it’s creators talents, experiences, voices in their head, is essentially all about feeling. Sensory engagement from transmission and reception. These are our writers’ attempts to express that engagement at its finest.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
1. East India Youth – ‘Heaven, How Long’ Hostel EP + Beacons Festival
Bournemouth-based, resolutely Quietus-endorsed, immensely talented purveyor of ambient electro-pop William Doyle brought something brilliant into my world this year.
‘Heaven, How Long’ is the song in question, the core of his first EP dropped back in April. To me it’s a song about a sense of otherness, alienation, either impending or already present, both from modern society and from God. To me it’s a song of utmost cohesion: the tide of emotion in the lyrics and vocal delivery building concordantly with the tide of motion that carries the layered keys and steadily building drums. To undeniably everyone: it’s a song with one hell of a closing breakdown.
It’s one of those strange and wonderful numbers that makes both an immediate, superficial impact, and yet is also a grower, worming deeper and deeper inside your heart with each journey through its 6 minutes. For me it pretty much reached apotheosis the first time I saw it live at Beacons Festival. Voice simultaneously wavering and soaring, Doyle, stood there alone on stage, seemed to be furiously fighting to keep up with himself. Switching frantically between microphone, laptop, bass guitar and MIDI controller, meticulously building the moment, and holding each compositionally riveting aspect in hand until he finally let them all go in one final burst of energy.
The best music, the finest performance, feels utterly vital. This is that all over.
2. Vampire Weekend ‘Ya Hey’/‘Hannah Hunt’
So, I tried to pick one moment from my favourite record of the year thus far. I really did. But I can’t. They carry two particular kinds of sadness: existential and romantic respectively. At alternate points, these songs have pretty much captured my year. Rob Leedham of Drowned in Sound wrote one of my favourite pieces of the year on ‘Ya Hey’, conveying in an intensely personal and heart-breaking manner his experience on losing faith, and on the power of music to uncontrollably invoke emotion and memory. I highly recommend a read: http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4146370 I’ll leave that there.
As for ‘Hannah Hunt’, it might well be the purest, finest track the band has yet written. A woozy, strange and transportive kind of bliss immediately sets in. Ezra Koenig tells a story of road-trips, mistrust, and heart-break that’s carried by spare, delicate rhythm and harmonies, until out of nowhere and all-too-briefly the dams burst. With them Ezra’s voice nigh-on breaks as he enters the final chorus, the production making it feel as though he’s singing from somewhere far away but at the very tippest top of his voice. It still kills me every time four months later. It’s somehow the shortest and yet most utterly timeless 4 minutes I’ve ever experienced in sound. I adore it.
3. Phoenix/R Kelly – 1901/Ignition (Remix) – Coachella
Now for a simple pleasure. There’s nothing life-altering about this. It might not even be very good. But goddamn, the first time I even heard about this collaboration I erupted into a grin.
So picture utter darkness in the Coachella Valley. It’s the encore of Phoenix’s headlining set, in which they’re playing to perhaps the biggest audience they’ve ever played. Then the opening strains of ‘Bump N’ Grind’ come in out of nowhere. Before you know it ‘1901’ has fused like some 2000s-pop Power Ranger Megazord with Ignition (Remix), and R Kelly and Thomas Mars are for realsies bouncing and weaving around each other, fuelled by the sheer brilliant silliness of it all.
I’ve got to get my ass to Coachella.
4. First listen – Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience
Time is in a weird suspension for students. Normal calendars dissolve and mornings dissipate, and for those in the humanities particularly, the course of your existence is instead closer to a series of whirlpools. Deadlines steadily dragging you towards a deadline which you can never quite remember until it’s too late, winding you through gloriously self-inflicted hangovers, apathetic seminar politics, and afternoons in your boxers watching Attenborough documentaries.
Eventually though, reality has struck, been frantically dealt with up ‘til 4 in the morning, and said reality has been printed and handed in with five minutes to spare. What’s left? An overtired screen-stare, hooked up to a Tumblr drip, contemplating how your life has reached this moment. Cue, Timberlake dropping The 20/20 Experience via an iTunes stream post-Early Modern Theatre overload. 70 minutes of long-overdue, occasionally patchy, often extraordinary, always ambitious pop music.
JT’s quest might have been widescreen: reclaim his crown, reboot mainstream pop-enthusiasm, push the envelope, and expand the narrow expectations that arose in his absence. Mostly though, The 20/20 Experience sounds like a man completely comfortable in his own skin, capable of both looking back and looking forward, and having a Mini Skip-load of fun expressing himself through music again.
5. ‘Master Of My Craft’/‘Borrowed Time’ Segue – Parquet Courts
For an album whose thrills for me mainly lay in the artful ennui of the lyricism, it almost seems a little odd that the ‘2, 3, 4’ stomp that marks the join between its opening couplet, is the moment that resonates so strongly in the months since release. It’s a frankly addictive, strangely-blistering segue, whose mundanely magical propulsive properties simultaneously renders the pair inseparable and elevates them to new heights. Light Up Gold is a twitchingly taut sonic tome, and a few breathlessly delivered numbers encapsulate that better than any other single moment on the record.
1. Earl Sweatshirt – ‘Whoa’
‘Chum’ was one of my highlights of 2012, sneaking out in December and spinning its lush piano chords through my headphones well into this year. ‘Whoa’ feels of a similar claustrophobic immensity. Earl’s languid flow sits perfectly alongside the dense and hazy production, whilst the insistent kick drum/snare line stops that languidness becoming a loss of any clarity or focus (obviously Earl’s lyrical turns have a large role in this too).
Throw in some distended groans and ahhhs and that broken-fairground-piano to accompany Tyler’s verses and you have an ideal embodiment of the kind of hip-hop I want to hear in 2013: eerie, uncomfortable, simultaneously uncertain and cocky (Tyler’s on the track, so that’s unsurprising); calling you back for repeated listens and giving you something different every time.
2. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Really genuinely one of the most thoughtful and necessary groups working at the moment. With the teasing moments of pop sensibilities sitting alongside thuds, squeals (some human, some not), swirling soundscapes and aural robotics, the duo provided an absolute treat. For me, it is an album defined by its dualities, both thematically and formally: holding the human and non-human, the conceivable and the in-, the alienating and the emotive, the actual and the fantasised, in constant tension.
This all breeds an album of contestation; as Rory Gibb argued, the piece’s sound experiments have been seen before, but The Knife’s manipulation of bracing soundscape and beat-driven potential for linearity renders their moves utterly enthralling.
3. Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out
The growling vocals were the immediate draw for me, with Tree’s self-proclaimed ‘fucked-up’ voice bringing an immediately unique quality to this mixtape, and there are plenty of moments of immediate gratification to be found on the tape. The bombast of the bass line on ‘Devotion’, complete with gospel backing samples, suits the seeming aggression of Tree’s vocals.
This immediacy invites repeated listens, and that ‘fucked-up’ voice offers serious rewards for such repeated plays. The varied flows and subtle pace changes can at times be marred by some overly oppressive, trap-tastic production, but on tracks like Most Successful, the quality of the tape is apparent. The rolling trap beat is beautifully coupled with a distanced soul sample and occasional gasps from man himself, in between considered verses and a hypnotic chorus, offering the listener the space and time so often denied by trap production.
4. Fuck Buttons – ‘The Red Wing’
Slow Focus is a sublime return from the duo. ‘The Red Wing’ was my first exposure to the album, and it holds the key to Fuck Buttons’ continuing and developing allure.
The rampaging drone drives on, compulsively, not so much as a developing, pop-chorus soar, but as a fucking juggernaut: all euphoric, bludgeoning force. As the layers come and the tonal range of the piece develops this force is perhaps prettified, with the balance tipping into the more glistening than bludgeoning realms. Yet that drone holds firm, and guides us through to what should be a come down, as the drums that surge through for the final seconds are insist that this gorgeous energy is not going anywhere. The album sure as hell follows through with that threat.
5. These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
My laptop died a death a few days after Field Of Reeds dropped, not even allowing me the time to load it onto a portable device and back it up. On the back of my initial frantic repeated listens, the desire not to succumb to YouTube recordings of the album’s tracks became all the more strident.
So instead I’ve been settling for the pre-released ‘Fragment Two’, with its resounding piano, the relief of the strings, the repeated cycle, the stunning arrival of bass, drums, beats and percussion before a swirling atonality suspends you , eventually returning you to that piano (a riff I could listen to, over and over and over). The album holds itself spectrally in my brain, waiting for a fixed laptop and a vinyl copy, with those piano chords swirling around in my head: even as a partial and problematic memory it’s a potential for favourite album of the year so far, as ‘Fragment Two’ keeps wrapping itself around any speakers I can access, telling me that its weird, unpredictable mates are coming, soon.
1. Foals – Live @ Royal Albert Hall
So you’re seeing one of your favourite bands, at one of the most famous venues in the world. At 2pm. Truly unforgettable musical experience in store.
Foals’ matinée show at the Royal Albert Hall was a diverse, draining, thoroughly entertaining, with the band drawing from all 3 of their albums in a career-spanning set. Having questioned whether the grand environment and merry atmosphere would suit one of the most innovative and unusual bands on the O2 Academy circuit, I was quickly shown how wrong I was by the opening one-two of ‘Prelude’ and ‘Total Life Forever’ sending the crowd into a heavy groove that resonated for the whole show.
The heat-filled Victorian cauldron was enraptured throughout – dancing, swaying, moshing – but it was the calmer cuts from Holy Fire such as ‘Milk and Black Spiders’ which were truly appreciated, filling the room with a euphoric ebb and flow previously unseen in Foals’ canon.
‘Moon’ took this trend to its natural conclusion as the crowd stood still under hypnotising green lasers. I had to look up at the ancient roof, close my eyes and for 3 minutes I was totally under the spell of this majestic, understated song as guitars twinkled and intertwined over a lone voice, transported to a wonderful world of peace and calm in a room of thousands. Music has never felt so pure.
2. Rediscovering Radiohead
2013’s revision period was a time of great musical discovery. 6 hours a day hunched over a desk to accompany with anything and everything I could get my hands on, and late nights to fill with tunes for good measure. In that situation, Radiohead’s extensive back catalogue became a key component in my struggle for both grades and virtual football success.
Having been a fan of In Rainbows and Kid A for a long time, my main discovery was that The King of Limbs. Initially disregarded as somehow impressive but uninteresting, truly came into focus after 2 years. Taste suitably evolved and expanded, for the first time I truly appreciated the transition from the percussive beats and electronic breaks of the first half of the album to the chilled atmosphere of the second. In particular the natural, pulsing grace of ‘Codex’ and the sparse and harmonically shifting ‘Separator’ are highlights, strangely complimenting both an intense work session and a hazy evenings. In combination with In Rainbows, TKOL depicts the amazing progression this band has made since their early days. It’s only a shame it took me until 2013 to see it.
3. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange
Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ may have been released in July 2012, but in a similar vein to Radiohead, it has been on constant rotation well into 2013. This incredible suite of soul, funk and jazz music is unlike anything I had come into contact before I bought. As a whole body of work, consumed in the album-format, it carries Abbey Road and Pet Sounds levels of unified spirit and sound throughout, no song sounding quite right unless in its designated spot in the pre-arranged sequence.
On top of this, despite wearing the influences of the genres it borrows from clearly on its sleeve, it feels unprecedented. There’s the thickly layered harmonies, tight, restrained beats it utilises (borrowed from Jimi Hendrix on the unreasonably mellow highlight ‘Crack Rock’).
Then there’s the dexterous voice of the man himself, which leads, shapes and defines every moment on Channel Orange. It whirls from soaring falsettos on ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’ to a gravelly rap on the verse of ‘Super Rich Kids’, always keeping true to the song and never overpowering. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, are the stories he writes, the caricatures he draws of figures involved in excess, loss and heartbreak are another key part of the charm, transforming the incredible backdrop to a fantastic reality. It’s one of those works that, for it to have sprung from one man’s head, seems unbelievable. Believe it.
4. Kendrick Lamar – g.o.o.d. record, b.A.A.d live?
So, Kendrick Lamar’s gig at the Birmginham O2 Academy in July was not quite the highlight of 2013 I expected it to be. The platinum-selling, riveting young rapper had perhaps hit the shenanigans a bit too hard. The outcome was his turning up late being ensured, his capacity to string a single line together prevented, and much of the gig consisting of the two sides of the room shouting at each other under Lamar’s encouragement. I turned to good kid, m.A.A.d. city for solace.
It seems the polar opposite to the nature of the show. It’s a record that made me fully appreciate the lyrical content of a hip-hop album for the first time, with its narrative and social critique undercurrent infinitely more relevant and provocative than the worn and thoroughly bedraggled gangsta persona many MCs still play.
K-Dot documents his youth in the city of Compton, with familiar stories of girls, ganja and gangs, but ultimately attempts to reject and surpass that lifestyle and mind-set. Kendrick wants to keep things ‘Real’, avoid succumbing to the same old vices and try to stay out of trouble, but often ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ proves too much (perhaps even to this day as the gig attested).
Of course, none of this would matter if the artist didn’t convey the message convincingly or skilfully. Fortunately Kendrick he has both aspects in natural abundance. His impressive flow, which is often stretched to double- or triple-tongue (‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’) shows an unusual technical ability and is spoken with the perfect emotion for the moment, be that boastful and aggressively or afraid and agitated. Few rappers convey this range of sentiments, and none could do it this well. It is like being transported into his world for an hour.
This is still not the crowning jewel of the piece. These powerful lyrics and flow wouldn’t connect without the beats to back it up, but musically good kid is stunning. The classic beats are big, chilled and funky, often with a Dre-influenced bass-heavy vibe through and a perfect ebb-and-flow between quieter chilled moments and heavy grooves. Beach House are incorporated almost unnoticeably in ‘Money Trees’, and the more dance-based atmosphere of ‘Swimming Pools’ is a perfect counterpoint for an album that is more often than not quite relaxed or controlled. All of this is an intoxicating mixture of influences that creates a very distinctive album that will sit proudly in the lineage of hip-hop greats.
So in retrospect, perhaps it was inevitable that in the live arena Kendrick would not live up to the expectations I had for him. The technical brilliance and perfect production of his album were never going to be captured accurately in the O2 Academy, especially so, if K-Dot resorted to the temptations that dog at his heels throughout his album. Equally, perhaps craving more from a musician that has already exceeded so many expectations, producing a work capable of masterpiece consideration in any generation of hip-hop, and surely will be up there, fighting it out with the likes of Illmatic, 36 Chambers, The Chronic, and The Low End Theory for many more.
5. Modern Vampires of the City
Certain pieces of music, perhaps more than any other art-form, have the capacity to become inextricably linked with certain moments in your life and inescapably transport you back to that time. Vampire Weekend’s third album Modern Vampires of the City achieved just that for me. An album with a real drive to be much more than the average 21st century indie-pop and that dares to be timeless.
Dazzlingly natural and creative compositions such as ‘Step’, filled with stoned drums and lilting harpsichords weaving in and out in a haze of melodic ecstasy, an atmosphere perfectly mirrored in hot, summer days or drifting through fields in the evening light. It runs the gamut from the pounding beats of ‘Diane Young’, (arguably topping ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Cousins’ as the finest upbeat song Koenig and co. have penned,) to the dense and pensive ‘Hudson’ and the end of the set.
The highlight has to be the centre track of the album though. In fact I haven’t had many more powerful musical moments than intoxicatedly lying in a field in Leamington Spa, ‘Hannah Hunt’ cooing from my headphones. The gentle, poetic ballad becomes a full-on, chest thumping epic in a heart-wrenching instant, with Ezra’s voice full of emotional weight. The harmonic progression complements it beautifully and the whole thing creates a kaleidoscope of imagery so that, just like in the song, plants begin to move and you can see the thoughts of every passer-by.
The lyrics reveal a general sense of unease with the world, a different and more personal angle for a band that have always preferred to paint pictures and spin stories rather than examined their own psyche. This, allied with a much simplifier musical sound, in terms of arrangement if not instrumentation, creates a much more classic sound than seen before. They now sound like a real band, playing real compositions, rather than that preppy group with off-beat, off-kilter material everyone first took them for. The overall feel of the album is something on par with Forever Changes, an inventive, long-lasting work, something undeniably special, all the more fantastic for having grown out of an unexpected source.
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