Collective Headache 2017

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These year-end pieces are getting boring. I’ll skip the elaborate metaphor that describes the 2017 political climate (toilet bowl, kick in the crotch, etc. etc.).

Musically, pop became increasingly homogenous and boring thanks to algorithms and streaming’s popularity. Rap and R&B’s superstars took the year off after a busy 2016, save for Mr. Kendrick. Sadly, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift took advantage of the open playing field. Youths with unlimited data plans proved their power, making celebrities out of a crop of rappers who like to ad-lib more than rap.

Personally, it was my first full year out of college, a Jordan year that didn’t involve much balling. I physically moved less I ever have. I began the year in the best shape of my life, but I end it with long term goals, as I recover from a hip surgery and struggle to bend over to tie my shoes.

I listened to more music than ever, 580+ new (to me) albums according to my spreadsheet. It was too much and I’ll write more about that experience soon. There’s something to be said for having limited options. I went to an average of one concert every 11 days. I snatched up as many Neil Young and Harry Nilsson records as I could find. Late to the party, I discovered the poetry and genius of Joni Mitchell. I thankfully didn’t listen to Spiderland by Slint. I think Sheer Mag damaged my hearing.

The most important albums to me in 2017 were Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and the first three Fiona Apple albums, none of which came out this year. I did like new stuff too, which you can read about below.

Favorite Albums

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1. Greet Death – Dixieland

I spent much of the year searching for “hard” music, a vague term that I mainly just say to myself (side note: screaming vocals are a dealbreaker, bye-bye metal). There were a few reasons. As I listened to more and more new music, I became less patient and needed something that grabbed me immediately. I also sat behind a desk all year, looking at a computer screen and getting headaches. Forceful music kept me focused. A rogue Ian Cohen tweet turned me onto this Flint, Michigan trio with an ominous name that moves slow, but with power. I hardly know anything about them, but their melodies are smart and their guitar tones will floor you. Dixieland is a 40-minute trip, a block of reliable warmth. It’s a fairly obscure pick and I wouldn’t expect it to click with most people. For me, it’s what felt most right this year.

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2. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

I couldn’t run much this year, but when I did, Big Fish Theory kept me moving. Successfully embracing electronic sounds in an organic and non-gimmicky style—the best example of such since Danny Brown’s OldBig Fish Theory is equal parts hype and bars, chaotic and subdued. Staples is a calculated rapper, with tight rhymes that don’t try to overpower the production from the likes of Zack Sekoff and Sophie. I’m still in shock that these sounds exist on a rap album, especially a short rap album. Let’s hope Vince is a trendsetter.

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3. King Krule – The Ooz

Most of my first listens happen at my work desk and The Ooz was no exception. I liked it, but it was ambitiously long and blended together by the end. I wasn’t sold, but I knew it deserved some time and I bought the double LP when I saw the young King live. As the weather got colder and the days shorter, the murky music felt more and more appropriate and I became addicted to putting it on the turntable, starting on random sides, soaking in the mood.

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4. The Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

The Spirit of the Beehive made a demented record with many beautiful moments. I have trouble describing it. They have a vision and are forging their own path. It’s ugly at points, but a transcendent chord change is just around the corner. It’s some of my favorite music releases this year because I can’t make sense of it, but I keep coming back. It’s one of the many excellent records released by Tiny Engines this year. Support indie labels.

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5. See Through Dresses – Horse of the Other World

Looking at my favorite albums of the year, I can tell that ambition is important to me. Being on a small label shouldn’t mean limiting your sound, and I sought out the bands that pushed the boundaries. See Through Dresses not only make music for big rooms, they do it in a variety of styles. There’s an emo song that spazzes out like something off Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete. Most of it emulates those late-80s British and Irish bands whose otherworldly sound made Europe feel lightyears away. Or so I imagine, I wasn’t born yet.

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6. Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

Hometown heroes made a punk record that already feels timeless. Unlike much of indie rock, Priests seem to function as a full band, with ideas coming from all members. Even de facto leader Katie Alice Greer makes way for drummer Daniele Daniele to deliver a blistering sermon on “No Big Bang.” Between Nothing Feels Natural and “Crew,” D.C. music fans can start to forget about Wale’s career.

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7. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls

KEEP MY FAVORITE RAPPERS AWAY FROM BORING TRAP BEATS. Young Thug thankfully got back to bucking trends and being weird after a somewhat disappointing 2016 that didn’t live up to the ambient genius of Barter 6. He dials into the singer-rapper role better than that Canadian guy.

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8. SZA – CTRL

This has got to be the coolest album of the year, right? No one will second guess you if you tell them you’re into the SZA record. She’s had an inspiring glow-up, and deservedly so. CTRL smoothly pivots from sex raps to insecurity confessions to the only good Travis Scott feature to date.

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9. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

I’m probably wrong, but I thought that To Pimp a Butterfly tried too much and ultimately wasn’t enjoyable. Am I square for enjoying structure? Nevertheless, DAMN. was more my speed and showed why Kendrick is the defining artist of the decade. The full-on pop turns of “Love” and “God” were particular favorites.

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10. Charli XCX – Pop 2

Pop 2 delivered the in-your-face music I craved all year. Sometimes even too in-your-face; some of A.G. Cook’s production here is disorienting and claustrophobic. Charli is the rare artist who has visited the top of the charts and continued to make challenging music on her own agenda.

11. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
12. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)
13. Strange Ranger – Daymoon
14. Alex G – Rocket
15. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
16. Alvvays – Antisocialites
17. The National – Sleep Well Beast
18. Lorde – Melodrama
19. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
20. GoldLink – At What Cost

Favorite Songs

  1. “Crew” – GoldLink featuring Shy Glizzy & Brent Faiyaz
  2. “Boys” – Charli XCX
  3. “Supercut” – Lorde
  4. “Bobby” – Alex G
  5. “Lucy’s Arm” – See Through Dresses
  6. “Yeah Right” – Vince Staples featuring Kendrick Lamar & Kučka
  7. “With My Team” – Creek Boyz
  8. “To The Moon And Back” – Fever Ray
  9. “Raingurl” – yaeji
  10. “Need to Feel Your Love” – Sheer Mag
  11. “Dum Surfer” – King Krule
  12. “Don’t Call Me” – Young Thug & Carnage featuring Shakka
  13. “Road Head” – Japanese Breakfast
  14. “Going Home” – Chief Keef
  15. “Love” – Lana Del Ray
  16. “Love” – Kendrick Lamar featuring Zacari
  17. “No Halo” – Sorority Noise
  18. “The World’s Best American Band” – White Reaper
  19. “Slide” – Calvin Harris featuring Frank Ocean, Quavo & Offset
  20. “Rally” – Club Night
  21. “Chanel” – Frank Ocean
  22. “Pineapple Skies” – Miguel
  23. “Slip Away” – Perfume Genius
  24. “Mythological Beauty” – Big Thief
  25. “Bodak Yellow” – Cardi B
  26. “Midwestern States” – The Menzingers
  27. “Static God” – Thee Oh Sees
  28. “Cut To The Feeling” – Carly Rae Jepsen
  29. “Dark Side of the Gym” – The National
  30. “Rolls Royce Bitch” – 2 Chainz

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Best Concerts I Attended

  1. Frank Ocean & Solange at Randall’s Island
  2. Wilco at Wolftrap
  3. LCD Soundsystem at The Anthem
  4. Japandroids at 9:30 Club
  5. Jay Som at DC9
  6. Rozwell Kid at Songbyrd

Beat of the Year That I Hope Inspires Many Other Producers

“Location” by Playboi Carti, produced by Harry Fraud

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Positive Musical Memories

  • Every time I heard “Crew” on D.C. rap radio
  • Watching the Cloud Nothings drummer sweat through his shirt
  • Hearing the Twin Peaks theme song during *that* moment
  • Seeing Frank Ocean and Solange within a few hours of each other
  • Attending the first ever Japanese Breakfast headlining show at Black Cat
  • Hannibal Burress making a cameo for his “Doug Stamper” verse during Open Mike Eagle’s set
  • Every time Kendrick’s verse started on “Yeah Right”
  • Experiencing the “Dance Yrself Clean” drop live
  • Listening to Rubber Soul with the windows down on the first real day of fall
  • Hearing the crowd scream along to Pinegrove and “The Introduction to the Album”
  • Listening to “Raingurl” for the first time and involuntarily dancing
  • Getting my first-ever urge to mosh during “The House That Heaven Built” (I still didn’t)
  • Making it through the year without learning who Jake Paul is
  • “Hey we’re Rozwell Kid, thanks for coming out tonight, this next one’s called ‘Wish Man’”

Negative Musical Memories

  • Kendrick promoting XXXTentacion on Twitter
  • The Migos comments in Rolling Stone
  • Learning that Prince lifted part of “Purple Rain” from a JOURNEY song
  • Losing Grant Hart
  • Lil Peep’s “I’ma die young” line coming true
  • Chance the Rapper vs. MTV News
  • Young Thug saying “Hit it from the back, loosen up her spleen”
  • Beyoncé doing songs with both Eminem and Ed Sheeran
  • My teen sister roasting me for liking Charli XCX

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Favorite Music Journalism

The Current’s Five-Part Hüsker Dü Podcast

Craig Jenkins on Homophobia in Rap

Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman

Jeff Weiss on Supreme Clientele

Lindsay Zoladz on Cardi B

Jayson Greene on Mount Eerie

Michael Tedder on Ted Leo

Katie Alice Greer on Haim

Emily Flake’s Jawbreaker Comic

Meaghan Garvey on Lil B and Charli XCX

 

The Year in Lyrics

“COUNTRY BILLY MADE A COUPLE MILLY” – Young Thug

“For my birthday, I threw me a surprise party” – 2 Chainz

“I’m a bad mamba jamba” – Chief Keef

“I moved on for the better
You moved on to whoever”
-SZA

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“Everybody wants to be a cat
It’s cool to be a cat”
“Meow, meow, meow, meow”
-Thundercat

“I was up late night ballin’” – Juicy J

“City girl, but she grew up in the tri-state” – A$AP Rocky

“Clean lean jump like trampoline” – Gucci

2 Chainz

“Used to have a killer crossover
Now I think I done crossed over”
– 2 Chainz

“I was busy thinking ’bout boys” – Charli XCX

“I can see that your chicken needs seasoning” – J Hus

“We were soup together, but now it’s cold
We were glue together, but it weren’t to hold”
– King Krule

“HEY NICE TO MEET, I’M YOUNG JEFE, WHO YOU BE?” – Shy Glizzy

Later

The Good Place - Season 1

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Collective Headache 2017

You Wear That Black Dress Well

My knowledge of Omaha is limited to that one Rilo Kiley lyric where Jenny Lewis says she’s going to move there and exploit the booming music scene. Well, if See Through Dresses is any indication, there’s something special in that Missouri River water. Another excellent entry in the Tiny Engines catalog, the band’s second full-length, Horse of the Other World, is a dreamy epic where all of the dreams are nightmares. Not in the sense of demonic monsters or running from criminals, but nightmares of reliving past trauma, helplessly replaying familiar scenes without agency. Every song cries out to a vague “you,” a “you” who won’t listen, who has lost their way, who is fading from the narrator’s life. None of the love is uncomplicated. Random names add to the notion that we’re reading private letters.

In some cases, the loss is romantic, with the fights dragged out and splattered with the still-familiar feelings of faded love. On “Pretty Police,” Sara Bertuldo sings “Even though you always let me down / I still cry” and on “Herbivore,” “I love you, too, but that’s no way to react.”

The stakes are higher on the stellar Side B, as Matt Carroll grapples with sickness and death. A catchy synth riff on “Violet” is undercut by the story of someone he lost, a relationship with muddled specifics. Whatever his connection to the victim and whatever the cause of the trauma, Carroll’s self-doubt and grief is palpable within his inner dialogue: “I couldn’t stop you / I had my chance / I didn’t know what you had lost / I couldn’t ask.” He wonders if he could have prevented it, recalling their “great depression” with “Blue eyes painted violet / Dead oceans shimmering.”

The album comes to a head during the urgent “Lucy’s Arm,” as Carroll once again addresses someone who isn’t there. The uncertainty in his voice is gone, as he knowingly asks, “Did you think I wouldn’t notice the slow death?” He has more control, but the situation remains dire. Drug (and/or disease) imagery aggressively colors the chorus: “I used to see that dark horse run through the veins of Lucy’s arm,” memories that won’t be soon forgotten by our narrator. As with much of the record, the emotion isn’t black and white; the first chorus ends with “It’s not enough / I’m not in love,” while the second finishes with “Tear my sleeve / Never leave.” An electrifying guitar solo carries the song to the finish line, though the story remains unresolved.

Bertuldo and Carroll share vocal duties, adding dynamics to an already diverse pallet of goth, dream pop, and shoegaze-indebted sounds. The echoing abyss of “Diamonds” recalls the sparkly expanse of The Cure’s Disintegration, the longing guitar notes throughout cry out in Loveless-fashion, dreamy vocals bring to mind the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser.

Even with an abundance of 30-year-old reference points, Horse of the Other World is a refreshingly invigorating record, especially in today’s indie rock landscape. While many bands are turning inwards, embracing scrappiness and minimalism, See Through Dresses shoot for the moon, creating ambitious atmospheres ready to rock arenas. They combine whispered confession with otherworldly mystery, pulling you in and retaining the allure.

You Wear That Black Dress Well

Running with Japandroids

I’m walking out the door for a run I’m unprepared for. It’s one of my first workouts since a substantial injury this spring and I’m nervous. I try to tell myself it’s low key and any music will be fine, but I hesitate in the doorway and stare at my laptop. I feel uneasy leaving without my most powerful weapon, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock. An easy run is one thing, but workouts…workouts are scary. I decide to take the extra five minutes to load the eight MP3s onto my newly resurrected iPod Shuffle, even if it costs me precious daylight. I feel relaxed now.


Post-collegiate running can be excruciatingly lonely, with the lack of structured practice, teammates, coaches, and collective goals. Every day is a test of your dedication. Getting into racing shape or recovering from an injury feels less urgent when no one is holding you accountable. It’s no secret that running sucks, so when you find a trick that works, you can’t ignore it. When I need to get after it, I need Celebration Rock.

As with a successful run, a successful rock record paces itself and finishes strong. Celebration Rock’s superior back half recalls similarly-structured albums like Funeral and Purple Rain, both of which also start hot and soar to inconceivable heights by raising the emotional stakes on Side B. But just because it finishes strong doesn’t mean the early songs on Celebration Rock aren’t total barn burners too. Most bands would record the bombastic “Fire’s Highway” and reserve it as the encore song for the rest of their careers; for Japandroids, it’s just a warm-up. The consistent intensity throughout the album is key for locking into the tenacious mindset needed for a workout; if the music doesn’t ease up, you’re less likely to ease up.

It should be noted here that Celebration Rock is NOT warm-up music. Its pedal-to-the-metal spirit will likely just induce stress if deployed too early. For maximum effect, press play right before starting the “on” portion of the workout. Assuming I skip the glaring misstep of the “For The Love of Ivy” cover, my typical 25-minute workout will end just before the slow burn of closer “Continuous Thunder,” the album’s sole ballad.

The album begins ceremoniously with fireworks. The gradual build of opener “The Night of Wine and Roses” allows a little time to shake out the junk as the distant drums come into focus, but the charging guitar is close behind. Much like the mentality required for an endurance workout, Celebration Rock gets out of the gate quickly and doesn’t relent, building upon its own intensity, pushing harder even when it doesn’t feel possible.

You’ll never convince me that there’s a harder sport than distance running. The mental battles don’t disappear even with years of experience. Workouts aren’t complete without a self-loathing inner dialogue, as you question life choices and fantasize about twisting an ankle in order to quit for the day. It’s a sport of constant push and pull; the humbling failures make the positive—a PR, an exploratory run in a new city, a fast last rep—all the more gratifying.

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For me, Celebration Rock rises above my other music options because of its uplifting nature. It’s wide-eyed excitement blown up to colossal proportions; there’s not an ounce of anger to be found. When I’m alone on the trail, it’s comforting to have music that so adamantly believes in itself; it’s infectious. When negativity knocks, it’s beaten down with extreme earnestness and killer riffs. The melodic and catchy writing is easy on the body when it’s not in a place to handle anything abrasive. Even when I’m going at full speed with my face contorted in pain, my reflexes take over to smash imaginary cymbals and silently yell along during the record’s biggest “WHOA”s.

Yes, I probably look very weird.

During a recent outing, I finished my planned workout during “Younger Us,” but I couldn’t call it a day because I knew what was coming next. I was totally ready to start my cool-down; my body was spent and it would welcome the pathetic crawl home. But “The House That Heaven Built” was calling and it felt blasphemous to even consider going less than 150%. I mustered up the drive to get through a handful of 30-second sprints behind the pounding epic unfolding in my earbuds; Brian King sounded like he was exerting as much as I was. Even during my final rep, when everything in my body was begging me to stop, I was animatedly mouthing “AND THEY WILL” during the chorus. To me, it was as if King was singing “When he finishes, AND HE WILL” and I was screaming back that yes, I will.

I understand why the hyperbolic approach of Celebration Rock might prompt eyerolls. These are guys whose grand romantic statement is “If I had all of the answers/And you had the body you wanted/Would we love like a legendary fire?” You could practically write your own Japandroids song using a word bank of drink, hell, yeah, love, and fire. But if you go in ready to believe, you will be carried along for an exhilarating ride.

The emotional heaviness of Celebration Rock arises from the effort put forth by the band. Statements like “Give me younger us” and “You’re not mine to die for anymore/So I must live” carry weight beyond their words when Brian King is singing as if he’ll never speak again. A similar relationship can be applied to running; the highs and lows of the sport are amplified by the deovtion, both mental and physical, that goes into the Miles of Trials.

Sadly, I’m writing this as I await surgery next month to repair an injured hip that has sidelined me for most of 2017. The multi-month recovery period with no running means that it will be a long time without Celebration Rock. Ever since realizing its divine calling as a workout companion, throwing the record on casually isn’t an option. If I can’t commit myself to the music appropriately, it feels wrong to listen at all. Celebration Rock has cemented its importance in my life because of the extremes I’ve experienced with it by my side.

I’m trying to stay positive and focus on the long-term, all of the pain-free running waiting for me in 2018. Being able to chase PRs and challenge my limits.

I can’t wait to hear those fireworks again.

 

 

Running with Japandroids

Predicting Pitchfork Vol. 1/x

 

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Hello, faithful readers. Nothing like an impending Pitchfork list to get me back to blogging. In case you missed it, at 1:00 AM EST (one hour from now), Pitchfork will publish its list of the 200 “greatest” albums of the 1960s. Famous for its coveted “Best New Music” distinction, the site has actually proven most valuable for its retrospective coverage. Album cycles have become annoyingly exhaustive; follow your favorite artists (or Father John Misty) with minimal effort and you’ll see three podcast spots, six interviews, ten reviews, and 8,000 tweets in the month surrounding the record release. Basically, there is plenty of information out there for the motivated music fan to make a decision about a new album before the Pitchfork review even drops. Sorry, I’m off-topic. But still.

The Sunday Review of a random, older album is the best piece published on the site each week, equal parts history lesson and qualitative assessment. Among the white noise of repetitive coverage elsewhere, a bit of randomness is more than welcome. The best-of-the-decade lists fall in the same category. I printed out the previously-released 70s, 80s, and 90s lists and have been slowly working my way through them this year, checking off albums and avoiding Slint as long as possible. I got my first CD in 1999, so these entry-level guides from writers I trust are an invaluable resource. The 60s list will be especially nice for buying used records that would otherwise fail to catch my eye. Gonna need a bigger shelf soon. Time for some observations and predictions with a very small target audience!

  • There’s a common suspicion that bounces around that Pitchfork aims to be controversial and make statements with certain rankings on these lists. But in their R*ddit AMA last year, editor Matthew Schnipper described their best-of-2016 list process as follows: “All of our staff members and regular contributors vote. There are two rounds of votes for tracks, one for albums, and there’s a points system. Ratings are not considered.” So throw out your conspiracy theories. The upcoming list was compiled by a group of humans, not a nefarious Thom Yorke-worshipping spaceship. The records that rise to the top will be the most popular ones, albeit it popular amongst a group of professional music nerds.
  • The 70s and 80s albums lists are old. Released in 2004 and 2002, respectively, those lists represent a ghost of Pitchfork past, in all its rockist, snobby, testosterone-fueled infamy. Today, anti-indie pop giants like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry warrant the site’s attention. More importantly, the staff is larger and more diverse, with a substantial increase in people of color and female writers contributing. It’s gonna be more populist and less niche, as seen in the recent 70s and 80s songs lists.
  • Even with the increase in staff diversity, I still think it’s going to be a male-heavy list towards the top. I can’t see the massiveness of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones failing to crowd the top 20. Chances are more people grew up with these artists than, say,  Nina Simone. The mythos of the *album* as the pinnacle of musical artistry also benefits these big hitters, especially the Beatles, who are often credited with revolutionizing the medium.
  • Pitchfork‘s 70s albums list doesn’t feature a female-fronted act until #41 with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Going further down on that list, we have Blondie’s Parallel Lines at #76, Joni Mitchell’s Blue at #86, and, uh, that’s it. Throbbing Gristle and Talking Heads had female members too, and maybe a few others. But you get the point.
  • Past lists (except for the 2000s) have had 100 albums and limited each artist to three entries. The 60s list is going to feature 200 albums, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they relax the limit a bit. I mean how do you exclude Rubber Soul AND Magical Mystery Tour AND the White Album??
  • The Beatles biggest downfall is that their votes are gonna be spread around their discography more than any other artist. Six of their records got perfect 10s. Everyone has a different favorite.
  • I think the Velvet Underground is the perfect band to be the Pitchfork pick. Not mainstream but extremely critically revered. Everyone knows the Velvets. Everyone feels good about picking them. The four-album run is immaculate, but my money’s on the debut.
  • I’ll just say it. Pet Sounds is overrated. But people seem to really like it!
  • Shoutout to NPR for its recent feature on albums made by women. I’m not very familiar with many of the older albums on the list, so I’m definitely underestimating them in my predictions.
  • From a rock history perspective, the back half of the decade is so much more important than the first half. The list will probably skew this way, which is a result of making the list so far after the fact, unlike the 2000s list, which was made in 2009 and barely features anything from 2008 or 2009. 1969, however, is big. Good year!
  • Bands used to be so prolific. Led Zeppelin released its debut AND follow-up in 1969. Black Sabbath did the same in 1970, just missing the cut.
  • I grew up with the Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums list, which was incredibly stuck in the past and essentially functioned as a 1960s list. Their top ten: Beatles, Beach Boys, Beatles, Dylan, Beatles, Gaye, Stones, Clash, Dylan, Beatles.
  • Pitchfork has a young staff, I’m not sure any of the writers were even ALIVE in the 60s. So does that mean the picks will be more conventional or more weird? They’re not bound by the “I was there, I know what mattered” mentality, but also, like, they weren’t there.
  • My biggest question: is Pitchfork down with classic rock? It’s the history I grew up with, so I’m subconsciously expecting the list to reflect that, but I could be way off-base. I hope I am. I hope it’s unpredictable. I hope there’s lots of experimental, psych, jazz, and soul. Like with all listicles, expect the fun stuff to be buried towards the end.
  • Before you say it, I know ranking art is probably silly and reductive. *Extreme Kanye Voice* I love it though.

 

NICK’S PICKS, 11:44 PM, AUGUST 21, 2017

  1. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
  2. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
  3. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  4. The Beatles – Revolver (1966)
  5. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  6. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1965)
  7. The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968)
  8. Otis Redding – Otis Blue (1965)
  9. Nina Simone – Sings the Blues (1967)
  10. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968)
  11. The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed (1969)
  12. The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
  13. The Stooges – The Stooges (1969)
  14. Love – Forever Changes (1967)
  15. Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
  16. Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain (1960)
  17. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  18. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969)
  19. Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz (1961)
  20. Sly and the Family Stone – Stand! (1969)
  21. Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
  22. Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
  23. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go (1964)
  24. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground (1969)
  25. King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

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Predicting Pitchfork Vol. 1/x

Altered Axiom – Insulation Kit

Today’s post is about a hometown act—Altered Axiom. Jacob Taswell, the human behind the music, is from Bethesda, MD and just graduated from Yale. You can find his Bandcamp here and stream his music on various platforms.

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Jacob Taswell wanted to make a statement with Insulation Kit. Self-released last month under the moniker Altered Axiom, the album is a bold first venture into electronic music for Taswell, who recently graduated from Yale with a music degree. With a 45 minute runtime and tracks that stretch up to ten minutes, Insulation Kit is a fully-formed product on arrival, audacious in its scope and intricate in its details. Created with the 2016 election in mind, the textures are anxious, unsure, and, occasionally, hopeful.

Of course, Jacob could have told you most of this himself. The exhaustive write-up on the Altered Axiom website details the backstory and motivations—both musically and emotionally—behind the recording of Insulation Kit. His approach is thoughtful and carefully calculated, qualities that extend into his music. The record is balanced—sequenced with the more accessible songs in the first half and the more experimental toward the end, while maintaining a cohesive arc.

Before going any further, I feel a need to say that I’m no electronic music expert. I try out the marquee electronic albums every year, but it’s rare if more than a couple are repeated listening for me. I like guitars and lyrics, I guess. This is all to say that my analysis and reaction to this music are mostly intuitive and not based in expertise. Not that Insulation Kit is purely electronic, though. Taswell’s background is in jazz and classical and he describes Altered Axiom as “frozen jazz.” Typical jazz solos are common throughout the album, playfully interwoven with the electronic backdrops.

Insulation Kit starts with “On a Far-Off Shore,” a collection of anxious noises that cut in and out as the song’s foundation patiently builds, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Many of the songs emit an uneasiness—the droning at the beginning of “From Seeds” is eerie, the voices on “Insulation Kit” don’t sound totally human as they vibrate in and out of focus, and there’s something off about the laughs in “Channel Comfort.” But there is also a peaceful quality to these songs by virtue of the melodic instrumentation. Taswell is an excellent pianist and composer throughout the record. His arrangements are fleshed-out and loose, providing a bright contrast to the synthetic repetition of the foundation.

There are political motives outlined on Altered Axiom’s website, but there is only one explicit reference to the mess in Washington on record—an answering machine message from supreme villain Paul Ryan on “Aftermath.” The recording represents taking action despite the feelings of dejection and fear projected elsewhere on Insulation Kit. Feeling lost was common after the election, with promises of exclusionary policies on the horizon. In the album backstory, Taswell writes that he wanted to “shout into the competitive chaos of America that [he] could say it better.” This is subtle protest music, focusing more on the collective American mood than catchphrases or direct anger.

Insulation Kit feels like a movie soundtrack to me. I found myself visualizing imaginary scenes that didn’t exist—walking around a creepy house, riding a train through the country, working in the lab on an endless project. There are everyday noises (various scraping, jingling, rattling) sprinkled throughout that encourage these visuals. The atmosphere is often dramatic—this is definitely a serious album—but there are also moments of playfulness and excitement (I’m thinking of the extended solo on “Aftermath” and the drums on “From Seeds”). It’s not ambient music, but the composition on Insulation Kit leaves room for the listener’s personal thoughts to occupy some of its space. It will be a different movie for everyone, and that’s Insulation Kit’s biggest success.

 

Altered Axiom – Insulation Kit

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It’s hard to find real life people to talk music. Especially if you’re someone like me who doesn’t talk to many people, period. Even the music writing world seems to existing mostly within the confines of Twitter (bringing me EXTREMELY niche and good jokes like this). How many people in the universe would you guess know what the word “shoegaze” means?

This is all to say that I have thoughts (sorry bout it). Hopefully more posts forthcoming.

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It’s officially Alex G release week, which is cause for much (internal) celebration over here. Though it’s been a low-key press cycle, my personal fandom has me feeling protective as his profile gradually rises. Okay, I know that Alex isn’t at danger of selling out or anything; that is exceedingly clear from the eccentric grab bag of singles released for Rocket. It’s that snooty feeling of “I was here first” that I try to push away in favor of not being a total d-bag.

It’s getting annoyed when publications insist on calling him a “Frank Ocean collaborator” or relentlessly push the Elliott Smith comparison, as if his past work hasn’t distinguished him as a unique artist. Or when a typo-filled Noisey piece says that “Harvey” is on Trick instead of DSU (no, I’m not a hero, but yes, I did tweet at them to correct this error). It’s knowing that new fans in 2017 probably haven’t heard the Bandcamp-only “Gnaw,” which is maybe a top 5 song of his.

I wasn’t an Alex G pioneer by any means. I wasn’t hip on DSU‘s drop in 2014. But he’s heavily soundtracked the last two years of my life and it’s weird to see extra media attention that misses the mark. Talking about the details of Alex G’s music is futile to me. It’s successful because of the gut feeling it gives you, the instant comfort. That’s my cop-out answer. I can’t explain it but I know it’s painful to read paragraphs and paragraphs analyzing the lyrics. Especially when Alex said, “The reason you enjoy [music] is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it.”

Of course I want my favorite artists to gain fans and have financial success. But there’s always an uneasy feeling when something important to you is evolving. There’s something to be said for *being there* that will always feel special, you know?

Oh, but DEFINITELY don’t trust anyone who puts the “(Sandy)” in front of his name.

(Sorry if this was pretentious. These are my confessions.)

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2017: 25% Highlights

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@ blog world, sorry for the neglect. I’m still here. I’m still listening to lots of new music and, more importantly, tweeting about it to ensure I have receipts when I later claim “knew them before they were big.” I wrote a few things over at local music blog Capitol Sound (here and here). And I was working on a lengthy self-indulgent Japandroids piece for a while that will eventually be released into the wild. I’m here now to shout out some of my favorite music from January, February, and March. Q1 2017 didn’t produce a blockbuster album event like last February’s The Life of Pablo slop-fest or the collective freak-out about To Pimp a Butterfly in March 2015, but there’s still good stuff out there! I promise!

Some albums:

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Melina Duterte of Jay Som is like the college ball player you draft after a promising freshman year but before they really dominate the NCAA. There was a lot of upside with last year’s Turn Into, it was a warm and immersive listen that still sounds fresh. It functioned more as a sampler for Duterte’s sound – I could rarely remember the song names or hum the choruses from memory. On Everybody Works, she levels up big time. I have anthemic chants of “EVERYBODY WORKS! EVERYBODY WORKS! EVERYBODY WORKS…” stuck in my head all day. There’s a chorus that could be on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. There’s noise rock and trumpets. These songs have clarity and this record is the real deal. She’s starting in the All Star Game in her rookie season. Trust the process.

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

There’s a lot of confidence on this record. The first song sounds like a claustrophobic apocalypse and then there’s another track about naming a band “Burger King.” My favorite parts are when the traditional guitar-bass-drums combo is joined by outsider friends – a saxophone, a cello, bongos (I think?), piano. Priests are multi-dimensional punks (or maybe post-punks, the lines are blurry) and Nothing Feels Natural is so masterful and nuanced that it’s shocking that it’s a debut album. After years of increasing reluctance claiming Wale as the DMV’s hometown hero, we finally have a more deserving artist to carry the torch.

Smino – blkswn

Smino is a stylist. The STL rapper throws his voice up and down, constantly hitting high notes like vocal acrobatics. He’s talented enough to sing the choruses and rap the verses, all with a signature spastic energy. Monte Booker’s production provides the sunny and danceable backdrop we’ve come to love from the post-Acid Rap Chicago scene where Smino honed his art. 18 tracks is probably overkill for any album, but Smino is a reliably exciting performer with a bright future.

*NOTE: Since the tracklist is a little overwhelming, check out: “Spitshine,” “Netflix & Dusse,” “Anita,” and “Innamission” to get a feel for the project.

Some songs:

Alex G – “Bobby”

This is the best song of the year so far, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear me say. I’ll always ride for Alex G. There’s no one I’ve listened to more over the last two years. Now, what he did here is essentially create a weirdo-indie rock version of “Wagon Wheel.” And don’t act like you don’t love that. I listened to it on repeat walking through a quiet neighborhood DC after a Tim Darcy concert, the dueling vocals bringing me in a little “Bobby” world, and it was perfect.

Five Good Rap Songs

Charli XCX featuring Starrah and Raye- “Dreamer”

More PC Music production for rappers please. I keep hearing Chance’s “Mixtape” flow in other artists (Starrah, in this case). You heard it here first (but you probably don’t care).

Mike WiLL Made-It featuring Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, and Kendrick Lamar – “Perfect Pint”

This Kendrick verse has me more pumped for his upcoming record than either of the singles he released. He’s best when he’s not trying so hard to fit the whole dictionary in every song. Also, “You know the clean lean jump like trampoline” is a perfect rap lyric. If the Sremmlets stay by Mike WiLL’s side forever, they’ll be set.

Jefe featuring Kash Doll – “Over The Hills”

Jefe aka “The Artist Formerly Known As Shy Glizzy” has one of my favorite rap voices out now. I don’t know who Kash Doll is, but her verse is what makes the song – simple yet deftly delivered.

Lil Uzi Vert – “XO TOUR Llif3”

I’m so intrigued by Uzi wailing “She say I’m insane, yeah / I might blow my brains out.” The emo revival is truly in full swing. I’ve never been a huge fan of his before but he really goes for it. BUT, there’s this annoying clicking sound in the beat that is going on throughout the song, right? I’m not crazy!

Starlito & Don Trip – “Bookshakalaka”

I haven’t paid much attention to the NBA for seven or eight years, so I have a soft spot for this album, which name drops both Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu.

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2017: 25% Highlights