Features | Lists

Top 50 Albums 2012

By The Staff

10 :: Friendzone

Collection 1

(Self-released)

This time last year I attended a Christmas gathering wherein the host asked me and a few others to make some playlists that somehow had something to do with Christmas. Have you ever asked yourself what that even means? What unifies the many “Christmas” songs that are now canonized to death in our collective consciousness? It isn’t Christian imagery, or snow, or the clarion sound of sleigh bells, or even namedropping St. Nick and Rudolph, because for every supposed trope there are twice as many exceptions, and three times as many other contexts in which we experience the same songs in the exact same way. (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy no matter what time of year.) Working under the assumption that Beyonce’s “Countdown” could pass as holiday music (“triumphant horns?”), I then made half the playlist Friendzone’s My Wishlist.

Fast-forward a few months: Friendzone records a reinterpretation of sorts of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” for the Cokemachineglow ‘80s Covers Fantasycast (it is amazing); Clay Purdom emerges from self-imposed asceticism to announce that Friendzone are making the world’s best music IN REAL TIME (he is glowing, beatific, has grown third eye, which is lazy; he looks like Hugh Jackman at the end of The Fountain); I buy a purple tee-shirt with Friendzone’s Japanese cowboy across my belly (I am comfortable in purple); and Collection 1 emerges as the Bay Area duo’s sole full-length comprised of only their stuff. Fast-forward even further: Friendzone drops “Women We Chase” with Main Attrakionz—and it is, just, so awesome—affirming the belief we should all hold in our hearts that MA should’ve stuck with their in-house producers for their first commercial LP (confirmed by the announcement that 808s & Dark Grapes III will be produced only by them); Friendzone remasters Collection 1 and re-releases it, because that is what should happen with magnificent albums; and in a month or two the much-awaited LONG.LIVE.A$AP will showcase the cuddly beast “Fashion Killa,” which Friendzone helped produce. Simultaneously, they’ll release another Friendzone-only long-player called DX, which will find a home on Donky Pitch in the company of likeminded producer (and MA go-to) Keyboard Kid. Somewhere along the line Friendzone aided on a cut for .L.W.H.’s CIA TV, which is also on this list, bringing up Friendzone’s rear. Daniel Lopatin jams them in the studio; Kitty Pryde LOLs about them; How to Dress Well is of intimate, like-minded ken; “Perfect Skies” is Danny Brown’s ringtone; and Magikal Cloudz once said he wakes up to “I Miss Y’all” every day. If the world explodes as of this publishing, the world would agree: Friendzone should score our ultimate demise. (May I suggest “!!-MAJOR”?)

Unfortunately, frank facts and esoteric anecdotes are the best venues for exploring Friendzone in any capacity throughout the course of 2012—especially considering their capacity for ubiquity. Collection 1 summarizes the last two years of the fledgling career of James Laurence and Dylan Reznick; it is many things made of very little things, or of very little interactions presented in historic peace agreements, and like that of Friendzone’s Green Ova kin, every track is practically silly with the potential for both rich little moments and epic narrative. Theirs is music of MIDIs, synths, keyboards, energy drinks, spliffs, and cement floors; but, on an even greater scale, of hip-hop, disco, big band marches, R&B, dubstep, and, like…Mahler. Sometimes it seems made only of wordless, feminine “oohs” and masculine power struggles; or only of bedroom bliss, whatever that’s made of, pixie dust and the tears of an adult; or solely of the concept that one shouldn’t feel pressured into dancing to dance music. Theirs is a paradox of transcendental wash and canned beats, of context and tenacity pitched almost microbially in sync. Of beginnings with no end, of loops that could do so forever, of biorhythms plotted out according to pleasure principles—of em dashes and semi-colons and grammatical caterpillars. Have you heard “Fashion Killa” yet? Their bridge is so mellifluous A$AP Rocky breaks into song. Meanwhile a Greek chorus coos, “bang bang,” and all bullets all over the world turn into heart-shaped lockets. Inside is a picture of your sweetie on one half, and on the other is Bruce Springsteen. This is your gun control debate, America.

And like America’s gun control debate, Collection 1 is best discussed in terms describing what it isn’t as opposed to what it is. Because what it is could be: anything. And what it isn’t? Just a cloud rap beat tape, or just a compilation of instrumental ideas, or a defensible reason to bring up gun control in a music review. Still, I’m alright with it: Collection 1 is wonderful. Friendzone understand wonder, is what I mean; or at the very least they’ve put together something that reeks of hard work and limitless possibility. I would give it to you for Christmas, after all. And in it I hope you’d understand how sincerely I wished you well.


► “!!-Major”
► “I Have Nothing”

Dom Sinacola

9 :: Killer Mike

R.A.P. Music

(Williams Street)

Unless the airport counts, I’ve never had an occasion to visit Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up in New England, until I started listening to Outkast records I never gave the city much thought, associating it with the 1996 Olympics, Emory University, and the Braves, an NL East baseball franchise with a fanbase apathetic to the point that empty seats were clearly visible at their several playoff games throughout the ’90s and early ’00s. (Yes, I root for the Mets.)

Clearly my imagination does not resemble Michael Render’s Atlanta. His is a dystopian wasteland in which every heat-carrying citizen is lying in wait for your jewelry, the strip club is as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, and El-P’s drums rearrange your skull to resemble Christina Hendricks’s in Drive. And that’s only the first thirty seconds of first song “Big Beast,” unquestionably the greatest opening track on a rap album in 2012, and home to a Bun B guest verse so incredibly trill that you momentarily wonder what caused you to sleep on his 2010 solo album, until you revisit it on Spotify and remember it was awful. El-P applies his trademark blend of sea-sick unease and air-raid synths over the paranoid tick of the 808, and the result sets a standard out the gate that’s difficult to match. A half-second, sexy moan sample surfaces throughout—just because El-P knows he’s the only one who can credibly get away with that sort of thing.

If Killer Mike’s flow was as relentless on the rest of R.A.P. Music as it is on “Big Beast,” you’d eventually suffer hearing loss. But the ensuing “Untitled” is considerably subtler, if no less intense, with Mike deeming himself “elegance in the form of a black elephant” as El-P layers a constant stream of jittery Latin percussion over synth-heavy malaise. Much has been made of the album length collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P (a.k.a. Jaime Meline), the juxtaposition of Dirty South tropes with claustrophobic Brooklyn production. It makes perfect sense, ultimately: El-P doesn’t do cuddly, and Mike sounds re-energized spitting amongst these murky soundscapes, which enable a variety of flows splitting the difference between Big Boi and Bomb Squad-era Ice Cube.

The first half of R.A.P. veers towards the relatively lighthearted tracks emphasizing Mike’s dexterity: “Go” is all furious freestyle; “Southern Fried” finds him swiping the hook from Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” prior to requesting the listener “Respect my words like a rabbi / I’m a porterhouse / You a motherfuckin’ ribeye”; and “JoJo’s Chillin” is a hysterical bit of storytelling about pulling a fast one on the TSA that Slick Rick would likely appreciate. “Reagan” and “Don’t Die” lag, both a touch too didactic, though it’s amusing to hear Mike on beats created by the one guy as consistently angry as he is.

Then comes “Anywhere But Here,” which singlehandedly represents El-P at his most effective: it’s a downright sinister boom bap which employs horror show organs and what sounds like the bowing of an electric cello to buoy Mike’s slow rolling lament about class disparities in New York and Atlanta. He gets to rhyme “the mayor is a billionaire” with “Times Square” and “sour diesel in the air,” effectively drawing out the vowel sounds; the only head scratcher is El-P’s inexplicable decision to let the bass player from the Phenomenal Handclap Band sing the hook (it’s not like Rihanna was gonna do it; still). But as good as “Anywhere But Here” may be, it’s merely a setup to R.A.P. Music’s thrilling end run of “Willie Burke Sherwood” and the title track. The former is a glowing tribute to Mike’s grandfather, and he uses the latter to declare rap music as his only religion (“This is church: front, pew, amen, pulpit”), while detailing a thorough history of twentieth century African-American musicians over a stuttering break beat. It’s a brutally intelligent rhyme scheme backed by equally inventive beats, a fitting conclusion to the peak album of Killer Mike’s career, a confirmation of how thoroughly El-P wrecked shit this year, and a handy summation of what Atlanta’s capable of. It also stands as the last word on one of the best hip-hop records of 2012.


► “Big Beast”
► “Don’t Die”

David M. Goldstein

8 :: Tame Impala

Lonerism

(Modular)

I just got a new guitar amplifier for Chanukah. It’s designed to be an apartment-friendly tube amp, and comes stacked with the glorious noisy effects that such an item entails: delay, chorus, phaser, and, of course, tremolo, so’s I can rock like Monster (1994)-era Peter Buck. Plus it has flanger. Glorious, glorious flanger. I plugged in and used that effect to play highly questionable versions of Tame Impala riffs for two hours. The neighbors were less than thrilled, but they should have been; the alternative was Tool songs from Aenema (1996) with one finger power chords in drop D.

Tame Impala guru Kevin Parker is fond of every one of the aforementioned guitar effects, and he likely plays them through vacuum tube amps far larger and more vintage than my own. But like me, homeboy is madly in love with his flanger. (Heh.) And what the flanger does is create an effect that turns feedback into an overhead jet engine panning from channel to channel; examples include the title track to Neil Young’s recent Psychedelic Pill (2012), as well as the Monster Magnet classic “Negasonic Teenage Warhead.” Parker affirms his space rock bonafides by using flanger on nearly every song.

“Flanging” is a nonsensical term used to describe the recording method attributed to Ken Townsend, an engineer at Abbey Road studios in the mid-‘60s. As such, it’s unsurprising that nearly every song on Revolver (1966) was subjected to flange, and no one will argue that Kevin Parker’s reedy tenor is a dead ringer for that of John Lennon’s. Thus, Parker wisely embraces the comparisons, crafting Tame Impala as the ultimate in an LSD-era Beatles tribute band, with hearty doses of Meddle-ish (1971) Floyd and motorik drive for good measure. He’s funny too; check out the firmly tongue-in cheek “Day Tripper” riff dropped into the middle of “Keep On Lying.”

Lonerism’s is an exhilarating sound Parker recorded entirely by himself (GET IT?). Though he has an actual band for touring purposes and fellow space traveler Dave Fridmann on board for mixing duties, every guitar, bass thump, and vintage organ noise is Parker’s handiwork. Though sonically similar to 2010 debut Innerspeaker, Parker’s songwriting has vastly improved, subsisting on candy sweet pop hooks with lyrics detailing themes of isolation and that time worn feeling of simply not fitting in; equally applicable to bedroom troubadours or hipster children’s choirs.

Every song is instantly memorable, casually epic, and in the case of “Mind Mischief,” brutally funky. Kevin Parker has fully emerged as a major talent and master arranger, and though I dread the numerous sitar lines that will no doubt surface on album number three, Lonerism is a modern day pysch-rock classic, and no single rock album in 2012 rendered the skip button quite as useless.


► “Apocalypse Dreams”
► “Why Won’t They Talk To Me”

David M. Goldstein

7 :: Fiona Apple

The Idler Wheel...

(Clean Slate/Epic)

With all the excitement surrounding Fiona Apple’s return after nearly seven long years, it would have been easy for her to disappoint us. Apple’s fans are fairly obsessive anyway, but throw in the fact that many who wore out her first two records in high school are now turning thirty, and well: the nostalgia’s reached a fever pitch. But Fiona Apple never took this for granted. On the contrary, I’ve even heard The Idler Wheel… described as too difficult. And though I’ll allow that some may have found the record less than inviting, I’d stop short of calling it intentionally so. It is, in fact, at one with Apple’s essential style.

Seven years is a long time, and perhaps the most interesting thing about The Idler Wheel… is the way it so clearly conveys Apple’s growth as both a songwriter and a technical musician over that period. The Idler Wheel… is still unmistakably a Fiona Apple record, trading as it does on that breaking voice, those emotional obsessions, that dusky piano. Yet here is Apple now: similar to, but not quite the same as, the Fiona Apple of “Criminal,” “Fast as You Can,” or even “Extraordinary Machine.” Nothing about this album suggests a desire to discard the past; just to twist it, lay it bare, skin it raw. Perhaps what makes The Idler Wheel… “difficult,” in a sense, is that despite reaching a comfortable level of success, Apple is morbidly resistant to repeating any formula that put her there. And still The Idler Wheel… feels like the fulfillment of a long-held creative urge. One she needed to grow up a bit to understand? It is decidedly her best and most adventurous record; that she mostly discards the piano balladry of yore is an anecdote overshadowed by how, in its place, is something less recognizable, something more dangerous.

“I’m hard, too hard to know,” she explains in the centerpiece “Left Alone,” but she struggles to know herself anyway, and to allow us to know her, or at least a version of her. The Idler Wheel… is a collection of moody, sparse, crooked songs about love and hate and dislike and self-flagellation, about wrestling with erratic thoughts, about closing oneself off in a dark and lonely room, but also about enjoying the light that occasionally sneaks in and plays off the walls: it’s a collection of Fiona Apple songs; here she plunges deeper than ever before.


► “Every Single Night”
► “Anything We Want”

Maura McAndrew

6 :: Beach House

Bloom

(Sub Pop)

There are basically two diametrically opposing metrics upon which we base our evaluation of music. The first is innovation, which we privilege above almost all else: does Artist X make technical or aesthetic decisions for which it is difficult to find comparators, contemporary or otherwise? Did people follow and imitate those decisions? We call these bands pioneers, forerunners, culturally important, whatever. The second metric is the degree to which we consider an artist’s contributions as a more perfect distillation of an existing formula. Different from innovation, these bands have numerous comparators—it’s just that we consider them to have improved or understood what came before.

What a year end list like this one does is expose our schizophrenic methodology for what it is. Are the best albums of the year the best because they took a risk in doing something where there wasn’t already built-in support, uncovered a feeling that the audience didn’t know they had buried inside? Or are the year’s best albums simply virtuoso displays of genre awareness, production, and/or performativity? These things are necessarily opposed. I don’t think it’s even possible for an album to do both things at once.

Which is why I’m a bit conflicted about Bloom, which I voted as my own personal best album of the year. Bloom is very much of the latter school; there’s nothing innovative about it. It is hugely derivative. And I’ve listened to it with greater regularity than perhaps any other album this year, and derived far greater pleasure. It is a pleasing album to listen to. Alex Scally’s guitar arrangements are intuitive, building and crescendoing exactly where they should and soaked throughout in beautiful delay. Victoria Legrand’s husky vocals have charisma, painting the world in tragic colors and plaintive sadness. Touring drummer Daniel Franz adds a much-needed propulsive element, elevating a song liken “Wild” from merely nice to one of the most complete pop songs of the year. Everything here is produced incredibly well, and underpinned by the kind of melodies that imply a planetary alignment during the band’s songwriting period. It’s just surreal how effortlessly good the album sounds. It’s immensely satisfying.

But ultimately what transcends the record from accidental goodness to a true standout is the degree to which it perfects formulas thought already-perfected by the likes of Cocteau Twins, Ride, and Mazzy Star: the dreamy, cathartic melancholy that implies an echo of something traumatic or epochal. This is a knowing record from extremely talented songwriters. And though I don’t think its importance will last the way genre-defining statements of shuddering innovation tend to, there’s little denying something that brings so much pleasure to so many ears of various dispositions.


► “Myth”
► “Other People”

Conrad Amenta

5 :: Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city

(Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg)

In its density, cohesion, weirdness, sequencing, and pop appeal, Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut has a few immediate precedents—Aquemini (1998) comes to mind, as does Thank Me Later (2010)—but its best referent might be hip-hop’s last earth-shattering statement: Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). The album remains a masterpiece—though it hasn’t aged particularly well. That maximalism that identified it as an instant classic also ushered it immediately into the marble-floored Hall of Fame, and so boredom and irrelevance; the whole record, sorta by design, feels like a cartoon of itself, listened to today. But I fear no such fate for good kid, m.A.A.d city, and this is thanks in large part to the emceeing and very character of Kendrick Lamar. His genius is obvious but subdued; when he spits in dazzling double-time our eyes bug out of our heads but his stay heavy-lidded, emotionless. The kid is calm, implacable, endlessly confident. His style is almost Derrick Rosian. Fantasy is hard to listen to today because everything is so aggressive, so douchebag; good kid, m.A.A.d city’s character is warm, lived-in, convivial. If it fades over time, it will do so as an old photograph does.

But the album also feels timeless thanks to the historical sweep of its production. Like Kanye, Kendrick wants it all: West Coast thump, New York knucklehead shit, Southern sprawl, neo-soul voodoo, blog-rap inside-baseball cred, and unabashed pop appeal. And like Kanye, he gets it, subsuming these influences and yearnings into his own vision. There has been a lot of good classically minded rap in the past few years, by people like the Cool Kids, Freddie Gibbs, Big K.R.I.T., and about a dozen acts scattered through the Midwest, but none has managed like good kid, m.A.A.d city to seem at once comprehensive and urgent in the way it places itself within hip-hop history. One almost thinks (good God) of T.S. Eliot. It cribs with no self-consciousness. There is not a whiff of dusty reverence here; Dr. Dre shows up with no fanfare, just another element put in play among so many others.

Still, the manner of Dre’s presentation—tossing the mic so effortlessly in the album’s final, valedictory moments—is so flattering that the album itself seems to have been built around it. It feels strange at first that an album so deeply indebted to him and to the art of emceeing never mentions Tupac, but then, Kendrick doesn’t need to mention Tupac to evoke him. Pac’s stolid trinity of tracks for or about women—that is, “Dear Mama,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” and “Hail Mary”—get transmuted through Kendrick and come out as weird braggadocio, sensitive-dude paeans, voicemails from his mom. Pac’s recorded legacy is mixed, but his influence doesn’t have to be: we hear it in this album’s prayerfulness, which extends far beyond the skits, and in its astonishing use of strings, which lend pathos to the sorts of densely musical productions Pac never touched. It’s his ghost, among many others, that gives this album so much life, and it’s this surplus of life that cements the album’s permanence. Hip-hop doesn’t need a marble-floored hall of fame, just a place where all the classics and all the failures and all the forgotten can live and breathe and play the dozens. And there’s no point in ushering this album to that place. It was born there.


► “Backseat Freestyle”
► “Swimming Pools (Drank)”

Clayton Purdom

4 :: Julia Holter

Ekstasis

(Rvng Intl)

When the tonal conventions that had structured western music since Bach collapsed around the turn of the twentieth century, composers were faced with a unique question: If we don’t bind ourselves to one diatonic key for the length of a piece or a movement, then how are we supposed to even relate notes to one another anymore? “It sounds good” was no longer enough. Two radically different answers arose which, not accidentally, came out of two very different cultures. Vienna gave us serialism, a method which treats each of the twelve tones with almost indifferent impartiality, determining each note’s placement in a piece through a kind of formal algorithm chosen in advance. That such a method could be totally unsettling wasn’t lost on composers like Alban Berg (creator of the original Lulu [1937]), whose macabre operas fully exploited the distance between serial structures and classical tonality. Berg and post-serialists like György Ligeti would later go on to influence some of the darker sub-branches of guitar-based music—including the band whose masterwork now sits atop this very list.

As for the other answer? The music of Julia Holter descends from the brighter tradition of American pioneers like John Cage, who submitted tonality (along with harmony, rhythm, and even timbre) to an authority seemingly outside the music itself: not the gravity of method, but the levity of chance. The nature and organization of a piece of music, in Cage’s work, can be decided by anything at all: the I Ching, a roll of the dice, even the ambient noise of a performance space. Appropriately, Holter’s first full-length release, Cookbook (2008), was an interpretation of Cage’s “Circus On,” which neatly captured the contingency of this aleatory method. Using a 1920 church club cookbook as her source text, Holter generated a mesostic from the book and used a variety of field recordings from all around Los Angeles to accompany the recitation. She would later take a similar (if less formally restricted) approach to Euripedes’ Hippolytus for studio debut Tragedy (2011). These compositions, in the best spirit of Cage’s work, represent a kind of negotiation between symbol and world, or between the fixity of notes and words on a page and the infinite contexts in which they can be expressed and interpreted. Music becomes a channel between the determinate and the unknown; it can’t survive on its own.

Ekstasis asks: what if the words and notes themselves were already open? What if openness is their essence? Whether it’s the lyrics, Holter’s phrasing, the mixing, the chords, or harmonies—every last element here, in her words, “shares something in common with the idea of ekstasis: moving beyond oneself, trying to build these songs.” Consider “Goddess Eyes,” which already appeared on Tragedy and is reiterated twice on Ekstasis. Holter is effectively interpreting herself, “moving beyond” her own creation by recreating it anew. Euripedes may have provided the original source text, but Holter’s framing and arrangement of symbolic fragments gives her full authority and makes each iteration feel as natural as the last. As if the signs anticipate too much for one voice to express, Holter treats both versions as a kind of conversation wherein the meaning of repeated lines modulates in relation to other refrains. Difference is drawn from repetition at every level: of the song itself, of lines and melodies within the song, of the Euripedian tragedy. If she began her music career by explicitly interpreting Cage’s work, with “Goddess Eyes” Holter internalizes his technique and offers it up on her own terms.

The true accomplishment of Ekstasis, however, is deeper. “It’s important to me,” Holter explained in an interview earlier this year, “that my music is—I don’t know if intuitive is the word—but there’s a really important element of something kind of mysterious. It’s not academic or esoteric.” Aleatory indeterminacy runs the risk of abstracting its subject beyond reach; Holter recasts this indeterminacy in terms intimate and human. To be beyond oneself is to give oneself to the mystery which Ekstasis so masterfully invokes—and to let the mystery be, embracing idle longing, or empty nostalgia, or the infinite distance separating you from the ones you love. It’s why she opens the album with a song named after Last Year in Marienbad (1961), that masterpiece of repetition and amnesia. “In the Same Room” echoes that film’s refrain: “Do I know you? / I can’t recall this face, but I want to.” As “Our Sorrows” phrases it: “needing is the best start.” We’re incomplete animals; our most distinctive feature is the gnawing absence inside us. The rapture of ekstasis isn’t escape, but simply the acknowledgment that we should break outside ourselves. Or at least try to.

Is that idea too academic? Too esoteric? Maybe if I could write a hush into being, I’d be closer to describing this album than with anything I’ve written so far. For silence is the final surrender of the text: the absolute point at which, as in Cage’s famous “4’33,’‘ the audience, performer, and composition become indistinguishable from one another. It seems to me that this is the last and most important meaning of Ekstasis: losing yourself in a song you love. That Holter can write such songs within the context of a tradition that remains highly abstract and counter-intuitive; that she can, at the same time, advance that tradition by re-imagining aleatory indeterminacy as internal longing; that she has arrived at a way of holding open a space for mystery and wonder in a world all but devoid of either—these are all reasons why Ekstasis is my favorite collection of songs ever released by a solo female recording artist. But they do little at all to tell of the music therein. Which is inevitable. I hardly know the record myself.


► “Marienbad”
► “In the Same Room”

Brent Ables

3 :: El-P

Cancer 4 Cure

(Fat Possum)

Wherein El-P shows us how to grow old: gracelessly, gross as fuck, angry. Have you seen him in the “Last Huzzah” video? He looks awful, and I don’t even mean physically; he looks sickly from within, like he’s living hard. He looks spiritually battered. El Producto is the patron saint of the angry drunk: of Kamchatka vodka and bitter cold, of long-winded political arguments where no one budges an inch and no one makes up. He sounds on Cancer 4 Cure like the verses are rupturing unbidden from his skull, like he got struck with lightning and just yelped this shit out. Everything is invective. Everything is meant to insult you.

The beats are as mechanical and labored-over as ever, but on something like “Drones Over Bklyn” the feeling is less like a futuristic monorail and more an el train clattering off the tracks. You can hear the bolts falling off as you tear-ass through, you can see the rails behind you crumbling to the ground. El-P seems to not even notice, for his part. He’s just up there, screaming: picking fights with NYC, the Illuminati, wife-beaters—the usual. But his anger also seems to have dilated; the sneer is a black hole. So he surrounds himself with acolytes that can also rap their brains out and that are, from what I can tell, terrible people as well. He’s been doing this for decades, but it now feels like all of it—the blacked out sermons, the snideness, the ugly bleating hooks—is no longer an aesthetic choice. It’s the sound of El-P transcending the anti-mainstream surliness of his indie rap brethren and becoming something else entirely: an old testament god.


► “Oh Hail No”
► “The Full Retard”

Clayton Purdom

2 :: Grimes

Visions

(4AD)

There’s a lot to be said for inspiration. Which may seem like a “well, yeah, duh” statement, but think about how we view indie music and what makes that music “good” or sets it apart in our minds: often, one of the highest premiums is placed on some false standard of originality. Superficially, the ideas of originality and inspiration might not seem all that different, but inspiration acknowledges and springboards off its sources whereas originality, well, doesn’t exactly exist. Forgive me as I wax ecclesiastical, but “there is nothing new under the sun,” especially when it comes to art; the fact that Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, once described her music as “post-Internet” seems but a cheeky affirmation of that truth.

The title Visions may imply the waking dreams of one’s own subconscious, but what feeds into the sub other than the stimuli that we receive up top? On its own surface the freewheeling murk-pop of Grimes is a wild blend of influences that may tempt the descriptor “original”; it certainly is bracing, refreshing, striking, etc. And yet it’s also pretty much just a Canadian producer/singer doing her best bedroom impersonation of Mariah Carey’s Daydream (1995). Obviously, Boucher can’t quite sing like Carey but she knows her own limits, so what was originally astounding vocal chops now becomes endearing vocal character. Boucher’s turned on by boundary-pushing urban pop and rap production—in interviews rattling off names like Timbaland, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Dungeon Family—but since Boucher, unlike Mariah, ain’t hooking up with Jermaine Dupri any time soon, she turns to DIY electronics. And then there’s the fact that Boucher is just a tad kooky; her background in esoteric visual arts, her diverse personal tastes…somehow it all spills out and quickly seeps into the groundwork laid by the aspirations of her music artist identity as Grimes, aspirations to create a slipstream within the mainstream.

I think the closest Boucher comes to being a true original on the independent music scene is, really, in her attitude. Often you have a divide where half the hip crowd claims that melody is underrated in indie music while the opposing party raise their banner for aesthetics. Boucher’s like, “You’re both right!” and delivers music with indelible melodies bursting out of every orifice and yet always subsumed to the overarch of her Dada aesthetic (a fitting oxymoron). But then she’s like, “You know what’s overrated, though? Fucking songcraft.” And, at least as far as Grimes is concerned, Boucher’s not off-base. Visions may be the most sonically honed and refined work released under the moniker, yet that only serves to clarify the raw, unfiltered quality of Boucher’s expression. These sublime visions are directly relayed and if they resonate with us it’s due to an inherent quality, the same essence that compelled Boucher to convey them, and not because they were pasteurized and packaged for mass consumption.

On the single “Oblivion” there’s a moment that drops in with great spontaneity, like Boucher had been listening to her favorite Timbaland production and quickly did her best to mimic his signature by finding the proper preset on her (much cheaper) keyboard. Out of context the resulting vox MIDI would probably elicit a guffaw. On this track it’s all tied in with that inspiration of Boucher’s, and it hits like a sucker punch while also bringing forth awed smiles. Kitsch in music is too often the equivalent of an ugly dude leering at you from underneath a bad haircut; Boucher may be a pretty girl but what’s “pretty” and endlessly appealing about Grimes is not some supposed femininity but something far more universal—Grimes’s grace and understanding. Here is music that on first encounter moves us by virtue of its beauty and the charm of its coy movements—but then catches us staring and looks into our souls. At the same time one eye’s winking and Grimes is holding up a bunch of different “guilty pleasure” records that, we have to admit, we love. Here is music that truly gets us.

Too often our best and brightest—in pursuit of the mirage that is originality—set off to forge their own paths, solitary roads that, ultimately, lead nowhere but farther away from those of us left behind. Grimes represents the best, the brightest, but she’s right here with us, widening the trails already blazed, holding our hands, giving us wonder and joy in what could otherwise be a very jaded place. I’m not crushing on her because she’s a prodigious girl or one-of-a-kind; I’m crushing on her because she’s utterly inspired and, thus, inspiring.


► “Oblivion”
► “Genesis”

Chet Betz

1 :: Swans

The Seer

(Young God)

October 1, 2011. I’m sitting in the back of the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, watching Swans tear the place apart. It’s not much to see. Excepting Thor Harris, the long haired auxiliary drummer stripped to his waist and striking poses appropriate to his Nordic deific namesake, they look almost genteel on stage. There are clues in the band’s movements: leader Michael Gira’s spastic gyrations; the hypnotic head lolling of bassist Christopher Pravdicha; the way Phil Puleo draws back his arms to hit his massive standing bass drum like he’s pulling a sinking man out of quicksand, or about to bring the stake down into some demon’s heart. But there’s little visual complement to the guttural roar shaking the theatre. They just look like some older dudes in a rock band—some of them still too skinny, a couple aging well. They don’t look like they could possibly be making the sound they are, which is like the amplifiers had been filled with their own blood, like they had taken that blood and slathered their strings with it. I’ve been in earthquakes with fewer undulations than this theater. I can barely comprehend it. But I do.

It seems to some like Swans are just mucking about on stage, but they’re actually doing something that’s crazy hard. Once you’ve been acquainted with rudiments of a few instruments, letting a single chord or note ring–and then, as Gira is wont to do at various moments, vibrating on stage like someone possessed, snake charmer and snake simultaneously–is not very difficult. Swans, however, have to pay strict attention to their surroundings and control these completely unstable chords. It’s not merely that they’re blessed with a calibrated sense of cosmic vibrations or whatever. The band often does not follow any meter, preferring visual cues rather than musical ones. It’s as if Gira assembles a band meeting and concocts two hours worth of gestures and their associated fears. “When I wink my eye, we’ll play D flat 6 add nine. The bell player will hit a gong. The pedal steel will channel the supernatural shrieks of children centuries dead from influenza.” It’s a master class in tensile showmanship, the mark of the highest professionalism, and it explains how after some decades the band can call this sound up at will. There’s even a harmonica in the hollowed out crater of its one long, droning middle chord. That they then resolve this tension, such as they do, with a sinuous, resolutely anti-climactic tribal beat shows how finely tuned their counter-intuition is.

*****

Today I know the song to be “The Seer,” the title track to 2012’s best album. It’s thirty-two minutes long and has, as its only lyric, the words “I see it all,” repeated past the point of mantra, past the point of sense, where it ceases to be distinguishable at all from the “indecipherable obscenities” at the piece’s conclusion. It’s so massive it has a prologue in the home taped “The Wolf,” a stalking harbinger that asks to be “splayed upon your silver gate” as a matter of pride. There’s also “The Seer Returns,” which, despite its relative funkiness, features the extremely unsettling wordless vocals of Jarboe while an interstellar answering machine describes, “a jagged, deep crack in the crust of the earth. Put your light in my mouth. Ahh the mountains are crumbling.”

This is a forty minute stretch that is easily the boldest move on 2CDs (or 3LPs) full of them. It begins with ghosts moaning on the helpfully titled “Lunacy,” which features Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker in a chorus that Brecht would certainly approve. They deliver the line “Your childhood…is over” in such a shudder that one reaches past any musical contemporaries and starts flipping through The Tempest to find analogs. The album ends with ramblings about “a ladder to God! Ge ge ge ge ge a ladder to God!” that, in live renditions of this lyric’s song, “The Apostate,” are delivered as if Gira were so severely mentally impaired that he strikes himself for each curse.

Suffice to say The Seer possesses a singular vision. It also represents a cumulative one: the metaphorical soul in the marble Gira has been hacking at for decades. Birthed in Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the time of Sonic Youth and other no wave bands, Swans earned a reputation for making particularly nasty, brutal music even among their peers and competitors (“next to our friends the Swans, who had a percussionist who pounded metal, we were total wimps,” Kim Gordon remembered of a 1982 tour). Over the ensuing decade plus of lineup changes, Gira gradually sanded the barbs off his music without making it the least accessible. When keyboardist and vocalist Jarboe joined in 1985, the band’s sound moved in a more overtly gothic, folk direction, which resulted in records, like 1996’s supreme Soundtracks for the Blind, that may have been more hinged but no less violent. The record was elemental, as artsy as anything from New York but, to borrow a phrase from reviewer Greil Marcus, “as contrived as the weather.”

The record would have a big influence on the post-rock bands of the coming decade, but Gira broke up the band, focusing on his creepy folk project Angels of Light. They reunited in 2010, abjuring almost all of their previously recorded music and roaring out of the gate with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. A sample song title from this album: “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” (I imagine Gira birthing this particularly bilious piece into the world, smiling, and saying to himself “the old uniform still fits.”) In any iteration, Gira’s interests lie in the thin tripwires between lunacy and divine inspiration–or perhaps smashing the differences, if there are to be had, between divine and demonic “touching.” As Swans, he borrows the fortitude necessary to pick at the scabbing of these ideas–uses the blood and the pus of them, in fact, as his primary colors. My Father, the band’s first in sixteen years, is among their finest, and they followed it with a tour where they used the stage to dig even deeper. But not even this year’s stunning live-album-slash-fundraiser We Rose From Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head could fully let on how deep The Seer would go.

*****

May 29, 2012. Three blocks from the ocean sits Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, NJ, and the view from my father’s hospital window is astonishing. At 7 PM you can see the buildings’ shadows grow long over Bath Ave. The daylight turns yellowish, the brick façade dulls. My father has a bandage on his chest where a tumor the size of a quarter used to be. He’s sleeping under the influence of morphine, something he’s never had use for but his son has experience abusing. 1% of North American breast cancer patients are men, and, as the joke goes in my family, my father has “won the booby prize.” I chuckle along with my mother, wondering, silently, that jokes are great and all but why can’t my old man just pull that tumor out with his teeth?

It will be months before I hear Karen Orzolek’s gentle voice over the shapely acoustic waltz of “Song for a Warrior.” To say it’s the most beautiful song on the album and then walk away is irresponsible, and yet I don’t know how to even mention it while doing it justice. There is something simultaneously comforting and terrifying, strange and yet understated, in the song that I’ve been unable to shake since August. I like Orzolek’s other band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, just fine, but there’s something about this performance, something about how audible her breath is. She sounds like a child at the beginning of a Kung Fu movie, narrating a Shogun’s bloodlusty revenge in terms that are more elegiac and comforting than vengeful. This is no fight song, this is no reckoning, but it is instead a statement of support for the weight that the world’s destroyer must bear. This is a matter-of-fact reading at the metaphysical weigh station. She seems to say that this is what must be done, and it may be impossible; and we love you.

The song always transports me to my father’s hospital room. I’d like to think it owes more to the music–impossibly lugubrious even when utterly haunted, like the limpid late afternoon light on the day of his surgery. My father is no one’s warrior–not even mine, as hard as he tried teaching me the finer points of stereo equalization and engine maintenance. If thereifixedit.com had been around when I was in grammar school, we would’ve run riot all over it. But the lyrics suggest some things about masculinity, something about fatherhood, and duty—all things that will forever, naturally, remind me of him—that I’ve been unable to parse, if not process. And I always lose it at the line where Orzolek says, “Some people say that God is long dead…but I heard something inside you with my head to your chest.”

*****

My father believes in God, and I used to as well, but lately, I’m not too sure. I’m scared to death of admitting this to myself or others. So many of the twelve step meetings I attend talk about the Higher Power Which I Choose to Call God it’s become something of a secret shame. Mostly, they forget to even give the idea of “one’s own conception of a higher power” any lip service whatsoever. “Solution based meetings,” they’re called. “God is either is nothing or he is everything. What was our choice to be?” they intone.

And when God is everything, he is EVERY thing: the hand that hides your keys when you’re about to innocently drive to the neighborhood bar; the eyeglass case that obscures the phone when you’re about to call your dealer; the five dollar bill in your pocket on laundry day; the rambling drunk in the back of the clubhouse that manages to say something of substance the one day they attend these meetings. God has these people in the palm of His hand, and he accordingly acts as everything from an ambulance to a headhunter to a dayplanner to a post-it note. As for the tumor in your father’s chest, the structures of your childhood washed away into the Atlantic ocean by Hurricane Sandy, the widows and orphans you see roaming the funeral parlors of your friends, well…God has a plan that’s better than yours.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never felt this way. This autumn, however, I’m mentally turning these church basements into the cover of a Cannibal Corpse album. My brain flashes images of scenes so violent, so sudden and sword-unsheathing sharp, that I even now hesitate to slow them down to write them down here, in the comfort of my own bedroom. There are absolutely black, raging thoughts against other human beings that I don’t remember ever having, not when there were all kinds of consciousness blotting things coursing through my brain not even after a previous break up where I literally set that woman’s gifts and t-shirts on fire. This is God’s plan? A life of crushing anxiety and ineptitude? A father with no chest? The Jersey Shore house still stood but the roller coaster was in the Atlantic. To the extent that I could see God’s plan in any of this, it felt cruel. I felt like Michael Dawson being brought back to the island on LOST, only to keep a bomb from blowing up long enough to let Jin escape from the island. And now Christian Shepherd was standing before me, telling me “You can go now, Christopher.”

But if my embittered ranting is true, and God is nothing, and spirituality without religion is a sham, and life is some meaningless cipher, what is this thing, then? What is that heartbeat I remember feeling in my father’s chest at the age of four, and why does that come back to me the nanosecond Karen O sings about it? If all of this is muscle and blood and sinews and gray brain matter and marking time til astral collisions, if all that my Father really is to me is a provider whose affections are borne from gross sentimentality, then what is that? Why does memory have the pull that it does? Why does this music speak to me in the way that it does? Why is the past year of my life and all of its petty, middle class, white problems–stuck in the wrong job, pining for the wrong woman, eating the wrong food, trying to subside that pain in the wrong bedrooms–more bearable, even ecstatic, in the strains of music like this?

*****

There’s a scene at the end of Take Shelter where we learn that Michael Shannon’s apocalyptic dreams are real. Yellow, unctuous rain falls on his wife’s hands, shaking in disbelief as dozens of funnel clouds burst from a previously serene day over the ocean. Her mind can’t process it, but her senses are not lying to her. She knows what she’s seeing is true, but she also knows that it can’t be. But while her defense mechanisms are shaken, maybe irrevocably, she can handle her improbable but certain doom.

Swans make music that is aimed precisely for that moment, and the last moments of “Song for a Warrior” may be the band’s finest execution. The music shifts to a dark, unstable chord at the end of the last verse, a choir joining behind Orzolek as she begs her warrior to “Send them home! Send them home! Use your sword, and your voice, and destroy…” Swans stay on this chord for far longer than they do on any other in the song– armonically, in sequence, but atmospherically jarring as all hell, which is precisely what it sounds like, even as there are no usual mountains of dissonance or bells and percussion. It feels like the ground is going to rupture, you can practically see the red light shooting out of the cracks in the ground: “And destrooooooooooooooooooooooy…”

But there the music hangs aloft. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon takes his wife’s oily hand in his. Throughout the film he has been an unbearable nervous wreck, almost certainly insane, never sure if every cloud or winged creature is the signal moment of the End. The worst of his fears are confirmed, yet now he is a source of strength for his wife and young daughter. I can see this scene in my mind’s eye while “Song for a Warrior” ends at its pulchritudinous tonic chord, all whispers and tenderness: “Then, begin again.” The couple walk into the house. The screen goes to black. The credits roll. The world ends. They die. So do we.

*****

October 28th 2012: Sandy makes landfall around 6 PM today, a Monday. There were a lot of sights and sounds from that storm and its aftermath, that I will never understand, whose visual or auditory evidence was literally unfathomable, but whose reality I must nevertheless accept. The size of the storm as it moved up the coast. The Seaside Heights roller coaster in the Atlantic Ocean. The picture of the yellow house in Union Beach that was half destroyed. Sea Bright and Sandy Hook underwater. Ocean Avenue on the ocean. How my neighbors lights looked through my own powerless window for three nights as my mother and I sat staring at them through our window, dark and cold. The sound of elation when we got our power back after seven days. The sound of her voice when she told me she’d been sleeping at my friend’s house all week.

But nothing was crazier than that Monday night into Tuesday morning, when the worst of the storm had passed but the wind gusts were still terrifying. There could have not have been a working lightbulb within miles of Monmouth County. I was frightened and mind-boggled in a way I had never known (in fact I had joked to someone that I would never listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans so blithely again—certainly not the Zorn-esque freak out of “93 Ave B Blues,” which literally sounds like metal structures ripped apart). I was awake at 1 AM, reading by candlelight, when I noticed the house had gotten…brighter. I looked outside my window, and the clouds had parted just enough for the full moon to shine through. In the middle of the worst thing nature had ever thrown at me, among eviscerated trees, mass flooding, and suburban sprawl plunged into darkness: there was the motherfucking moon.

It vanished again moments later. The next light I’d see was my neighboring town’s lights four days later.

*****

In 2012 I finally buckled down and finished The Idiot. Dostoevsky was, famously, an Orthodox Christian, but his ideas of the divine nature of Christ and God are so far removed from even the judgmental, quarterly confessional Catholicism of my youth that I found it boggling. Dostoevsky suggested–or his characters did, anyway—that Christ had indeed died for our sins, but it had nothing to do with our salvation. Rather, Christ’s death was to hold up this awful mirror to mankind and its socializing, cliquish, and duplicitous instincts. Prince Myshkin, the novel’s stand-in for Christ (if not Dostoevsky, or both) is the victim of intense manipulations by a wealthy maniac, who, though he succeeds, only murders the prize he spends the entire novel coveting. Not only does the world think nothing of this turn of events, but Myshkin is the fool, openly mocked for cleaving so desperately to something—to ideals—that is killing him, because they cannot be traded for people or material or prestige.

The Idiot, like The Seer, like the antiseptic smell of hospitals and church basements, like power outages, like the ruins of the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, like sleeping in an empty bed, will forever remind me of 2012. Finished 150 years apart, these two artworks posed the only questions worth asking in the year of our supposed apocalypse, questions beyond merely “why do bad things happen to good people?” “Why are bad things happening to me?” “Does anyone notice or care if I am kind to my neighbor?” Questions that are impossible to pose in any known language—it would sound something like, “why is it that when God is nothing I cannot stand the way I feel, and when God is everything I cannot the stand the way I act?”

Gira isn’t so much bothered with the question of God’s existence as he is fascinated by his seeming prophets. That would explain “The Apostate,” the album’s ultimate song and, at 23:01, only the second longest. It’s another jam born out of the band’s trademark primordial ooze of drone that evolves into the rantings of the divinely touched, deadly in both its earnestness and its irony. “It’s not in my mind,” shrieks Gira, convincing himself as much as the crowd of agape onlookers. “We’re on an infinite line! Get out of my mind! Ge ge ge ge,” he says, repeating the plosive like a Tommy Gun, like the repetitive nonsense was an incantation against the sick world, against unpleasant reality. “God, I can fly! WE’RE ON A LADDER TO GOD!” Perhaps it’s coming out of the ground, from that jagged, deep crack spreading south to north. At least, until the ladder starts to fall apart: “Ge ge ge space cunt! Brain wash! Star dust! Space fuck! Cunt! Cunt!” he shouts, spastically. “We are blessed!” he screams, although the music is suggesting a different way to look at the same unwanted, supernatural presence. “We are blessed! Fuck! Bliss! Fuck! Bliss!”

If I had to summarize The Seer, I could say only that it’s music that needs to be heard to be believed, and even then defying disbelief. It lives for disbelief, maps out the territory of the mind-boggle and then digs deeper, unraveling all of mankind if that’s what it takes to for another addictive moment of transcendence, of unreality made manifest, of comfort irrevocably shattered and something new birthed, bloodily, into the psychic world. The seer sees what cannot be unseen, after all, and its maelstrom accepts no glad tidings. It forces upon us the one lesson the band learned in its earliest stages, the sound Gira has been chasing for thirty years, the one we can hear him shrieking in “The Apostate,” as if he himself didn’t want to learn it, much less admit it, much less be the voice for it. That the crazed are right: transcendence may, indeed, be real, but it is also fleeting, common, and, perhaps in the final analysis, unrewarding. We are blessed, indeed. Fuck bliss. Your childhood is over. I see it all. I see it all. I see it all. I see it all. I see it all.


► “Song for a Warrior”
► “The Seer Returns”
► “The Apostate”

Christopher Alexander