Hey wow! A top albums list, two years in a row! Really on your way to professional music critic status now, eh?
Once again the secret for success was choosing a pretty low number of albums, and making sure they were all ones I was genuinely excited to write about.
We'll start with the obligatory Honorable Mentions, which, as always, is basically... "hey, I listened to these albums, don't think that I didn't, and I did like them, so don't act like I didn't get them, I just didn't love them"... Ariel Pink's pom pom was really close to being the album where I finally broke through and fell in love with his whole career (like I did with another artist's release this year), but not quite. Caribou's new album was pretty sweet but really just made me want to listen to Andorra again, as did Dean Blunt's Black Metal wrt The Redeemer. And even more extreme, D'Angelo's Black Messiah made me realize that I had never actually heard Voodoo, so I listened to it a bunch of times and loved it but then didn't want to listen to Black Messiah?? Death from Above 1979's The Physical World was I think a true return to form, but now my form has changed so much that I couldn't get caught up in it the way I did their earlier work. Perfume Genius and Avey Tare both had albums that I felt were great creative works that brought them in new directions, but those didn't happen to be the directions that I originally liked them going in. I'm also not including niggas on the moon 'cause I have faith in Jenny Death and want to view The Powers That B as one
And then there's the hip hop stuff. As always, there's dozens and dozens of mixtapes and albums that I loved off the strength of a couple huge bangers, and desperately wanted to include, but also had too many tracks I would skip 9/10 times for them to be actual contenders. Sometimes they just didn't offer complete enough experiences... it would be all bangers or failed attempts at them, working exclusively in one emotional mode that didn't have the creativity to sustain it. Other times there would be too complete an experience, with some tracks getting soft on me when all I wanted was ignince. I'm not gonna bother trying to remember all of them. If I'm truly on the ball in the next few weeks, I'll try to put together a "Top Songs" list where I can hopefully celebrate them like I want to. But for now we'll just get on with the list proper:
10. 18+ - Trust
Okay here's what this album feels like to me: you're out with a group, you only know a couple people in the group, and those people are like, the type of friend where you aren't too close to them yet, and you want to get to know them better, because they seem really cool, and all their friends, who you've never met, they seem cool too, but that could just be association with your cool friend. And you're out at some place, some club, that they all know well but you've never been to, and lots of things are happening and being said that you don't know the significance of, and because of that it feels like anything could happen and it could mean anything, and the night is just buzzing with potential, and you're excited to be there, but you're also a bit detached, a bit distant, because you don't really know yet, it isn't yet your place, and also you just generally try to adopt a stance of reserved but warm stoicism because all the people you find coolest seem like that.
Does that make sense? No? Okay listen to the album and then think about it again. Still no? Well, uhh... Let's just talk directly about it. Trust is a sort of "greatest hits" of 18+'s three mixtapes. All my favorites are here, and the group's great diversity is highlighted, from bangers like "Crow" to sound-spaces like "Almost Leaving". The sound is smooth and professionally sculpted, but still has a sort of... amateurish hesitancy? A little bit of self-doubt? Awareness of the performance? Didn't I say I was gonna talk directly about the music? This is supposed to be a compliment, by the way. There's something charming about an artist still in the process of birthing ideas, rather than secure in their achievements. Plus, there's such potential! It really feels like they could make any move, go in any direction, on any song... even bad moves aren't off limits (although they make none). And then you get stuff like the sample on "Crow", the surreal effects on "Dry", the noise on "Iowa"... it feels like only someone still learning the "rules" could be so aware that there really are none. Samia and Justin's voices both strike directly on my heart, each of them nailing a certain performative essence that other artists dance around... Justin's the very water vapor of every thug who cries, Samia's the perfect balance of disinterest and sweetness, somewhere between Kilo Kish and Joanna Newsom. Listening to this album is being on the verge of some coolness that you've come to believe exists.
9. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
Original Live Review
The great RTJ moves up a spot from my 2013 list! Congrats! At this rate, they'll be my 2021 AOTY. Man, I honestly hope so. Jamie and Mike proved this year that an artistic career in the internet age can be a pretty cushy thing - a hugely successful kickstarter, popular merch, packed shows, basically living the dream. Why wouldn't you do it all again next year? It's the sort of thing that seems unfair, but no one deserves it more than these two - they earned every cent and review point.
The whole record drips with the blood and sweat they sank into it (ewww!). It's impossible to imagine them phoning in even a single line - their voices boom with enough energy to explode every phone. The lyrical themes don't diverge much from their regular routines, but do they need to? Does anyone ever get tired of their escalating insults, articulate (albeit sometimes crazy) anti-establishment rants, and hypnotic but knowing glorification of every type of depravity? And even if you do, they stop you from being too dismissive by seamlessly switching into brutal storytelling flow that cuts deep into your heart and infects you with the realness (again, eww?).
Always threatening but never quite completely overwhelming the meaning is the sound of the album itself. Even though he's been producing so long that his oldest beats are legally adults, El-P still manages to shock me. There's so many little touches... I especially like the sound of the glass clinking after he says "A little toast for the no ones" in "Angel Duster", I grin wildly whenever I hear it, but there's tons and tons, the whole album is packed with these little touches. As their subject matter, beat aesthetic, and flow style expand and diversify, there isn't a single syllable or sample that loses a sense of feverish passion, expertise, and dedication. I have a hard time thinking of an artist this forwardly ambitious that I have this much faith in.
8. PISS SPEARS - PISS SPHERES
Original Live Review
If you don't know what's going on here, you might want to check out the introduction to pisscore I wrote before reviewing this album... it's hardly comprehensive and is already out of date, but I think the general conclusion is on point. That is: writing to explain pisscore is inherently doomed to failure, because it has no sophistication. Writing to praise pisscore is doubly doomed, the deprecation is right in the name. Or, more simply: I put a bunch of silly Soundcloud memes on my list instead of, like, Black Messiah, put it ahead of the p4kaoty, and I can't say anything to defend it, because the music itself accuses me.
Okay but I don't care. I love this album to death and I have to say why. It actually has a lot in common with Trust... the seemingly paradoxical mixture of flawless production and amateurish approach, and the insane feeling of possibility that the latter brings. While most musicians find inspiration from a melody or lyric that blooms into a full song, the tracks of PISS SPHERES come from stranger places... ironic juxtaposition, or memetic necessity, or from sheer self-challenge - taking an idea that sounds terrible on paper and on every level of the imagination, and still making it sound good.
It's the only thing that's consistent on all the tracks of the album - they sound good. I have no idea what Piss Spear's personal opinion on any of the artists sampled is, but there's a clear understanding of at least what makes them good to anyone. The best essences of brostep and memerap (by this I mean Childish Gambino) are extracted and spliced together with I think is good music, but like... I think pisscore makes me realize just how stupid this attitude is. Anyways, the end result that every track has stuff that's hilarious, exciting, often just... completely sublimely hype. That probably sounds like a bit much for a project like this. It's probably a lot much, I dunno. But whatever, it's a great album, I'm probably gonna listen to it like once a week for years to come.
7. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Piñata
Okay there's this experience that I get sometimes with hip hop. I hope you can relate to it, cause it's great. You're listening to some album, and something happens, like, the beat comes on, or the verse starts, or the hook starts, or the beat changes, I dunno, there's just some shift. And it hits you, it feels like physically, like, it almost hurts how good this is. You make some sort of stupid face and you wanna move your body in some way that doesn't really make sense. You feel like you can anticipate the next section, how the flow will be and maybe even what sort of lines will be said, you feel like you're consuming it all in that first section, it rushes up to you. It's like, unnngh! Do you know what I mean? Do you ever say "unngh!" when you listen to hip hop and something really good happens?
I know Freddie Gibbs and Madlib do, because they've made an album that seems primarily dedicated to giving you this feeling. Some songs are multi-hit, like, you get a nice one when the beat comes on, and then another when he starts rapping, and then one on the guest verse or maybe the hook. Seriously, everything is so varied - the beats, the flows, the guests, the subject matters... only this feeling is consistent. And it's like that feeling is fuel for the both of them - knowing they've gotten you hooked, they can each indulge themselves in each of their favorite activites: Madlib goes digging for some deep loops, Gibbs smoothly raps the lifestyle of a gangster with unapologetic but brutal honesty.
The whole album lands in this place between braggadocio and confessional, Gibbs not really glorifying his life but also happy to remember the good aspects. I think the closest thing to it is probably the attitude of The Wire - honest, complex, human. This also feels like an apt description for Madlib's production, but I'm not sure if I can easily explain how. My point is that this is just two guys with a lot of history and a lot of memories, good and bad, and this is the final result of their exploring that space together. There's this awesome "session" energy the whole album radiates, where the experience of their recording it isn't masked but highlighted. It's prolly my favorite Madlib project since Madvillain!
6. Sun Kil Moon - Benji
I feel a little apprehensive approaching this, probably one of the most discussed albums of the year. It's far, far outside my wheelhouse - like, there's no rapping or synthesizers, and it isn't even Joanna Newsom or Sufjan Stevens. But oh my god is this a beautiful album, how could I not include it? How could I not do my best to say why? I could try to articulate how beautiful the guitar playing on this is, but I'd probably end up using more overblown poetic language than Mark ever does on this album. The lyrics on this are so absurdly straightforward - he writes like a gradeschooler might, seemingly working backwards for each line from the rhyming word he has chosen, ignoring all meter. Occasionally he might throw out a pretty straightforward metaphor, almost always about death. It's so sincere... probably the most genuine, least pretentious album I have ever heard. Mark seems to lack the language power to articulate a lie.
Okay so how is this a compliment? Well, first off, it's just... really refreshing! The stories are so straightforward, so clearly described, that you can't help but vividly picture them. It's such an easy album on the imagination. Although I joke about the simplicity of the lyrics, it's clear that a lot of work had gone into coming up effective ways to convey exactly the situation and how he felt. And then you feel that way too! There's no sense of identifying with his lamentations and memories being a privileged position, he sings with the expectation that you'll feel him. Like, there's an effortlessness to it, an attempt to touch a universal string of experience without elaborate conditions and contexts.
It's exactly what these stories deserve... Everyone keeps saying this album is about death, but I dunno, I think it's about everything, it's just about his life, his memories, and he just happens to be at a time in his life where there's a lot of death around him, and the type of person to hold death in his memories. But there's so much more, too... happy memories, silly memories, perspectives on all walks of life... his lyrics about his own career are like, a whole new frontier of honesty - how many artists do you know who represent the element of their achievements in such a frank and honest way? Lots of rappers do, but I think most people in this genre just wanna be "regular honest guys", but there's an inherent dishonesty to that, right? But here he sings about thanking the label exec who signed him "for helping me along in this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in"... I dunno, this is something really fascinating for me.
Really, almost every line fascinates me. It's an album so rich in experience, listening to it is kinda like watching classic episodes of the Simpsons... you can remember the main plot of all the episodes, but there's just so many amazing sections that you've always forgotten some. His melancholy perspective has this underlying, resonant morality to it... every observation he makes, every feeling, it's somewhere between completely understandable and hauntingly alien, hanging just out of reach. There's no poetry in the words, but in the experiences... every event and feeling, woven together through sometimes painfully beautiful music, to create some sort of poetry of experience, some emotional/lyrical testament to a life lived. It isn't for me to say what it is, that's for each and every listener to experience.
5. Rich Gang - Tha Tour Part 1
Original Live Review
This feels like, a bit wrong, right? Like, look back at our heroes of the right generation, Eminem and Tupac, would they have tolerated such disgustingly incomprehensible music? I mean like Young Thug? Rich Homie Quan? Is this a joke? How did this place so low? I mean for serious now... Young Thug is hands down my artist of the year, and Quan is prolly top 5. It feels weird to have to put this as low as fifth, but like... it probably doesn't even have more than one of my top 5 2014 Young Thug songs. It's just... between this, 1017 Thug 2 & 3, Black Portland and Young Thugga Mane La Flare, this is the longest, most complete project, with the most RHQ to boot. The biggest compliment I can give it, and really the only thing it needed for it to make the list, is that it's Thugger and Quan doing their thing for 20 tracks.
So I guess I should try to explain what their thing is. I've tried to do this a few (dozen) times, but I don't think I've succeeded. I think maybe what I was missing was the fact (and it really is an indisputable fact) that, beneath everything, all of this is intentional, deliberate, perfected. It's something I think we've always known deep down, but the effortlessness and silliness sometimes makes you forget that you aren't hearing something like a hurricane but two human beings. I was thinking about this when I was rewatching a Rich Homie Quan interview where he said that he and Young Thug were gonna be the best duo since Outkast. First off: true? Yeah probably. Second: do you know how many stupid arguments are probably still happening in comment sections all over the world about that remark? Like, his fans are going to war over this. It's a brilliant move, and it reflects their total embracing of a particular image and reception, which they can then fully occupy and excel in.
And finally, beyond their modern-ATLien status and deepening Dungeon Family connections, it's beautiful just to hear Quan's reverence for Outkast. But you don't really need for him to say it - it's there, it's in every track. I've talked a lot about how hip hop for me now is all just about the sound - the lyrics don't matter, the beat doesn't matter, not even the flow (or at least any specific identifiable element of the flow) matters... it's just this quality of how it sounds. And maybe what I should have said this whole time is that it's what made Outkast infinitely better than the sum of their parts.
And but also I think I've been a little too dismissive of each of those parts. I've joked so many times about the meaninglessness of the lyrics, but really: they're meaningful. They use English words in logical grammatical patterns. You can always figure out the real world signified by their signifiers. Furthermore, they're often pretty hilarious... there's dozens and dozens of jokes, lots of playing with expectations of rap conventions, lots of silly unconventional boasting. And beyond that, c'mon man, sometimes it can really make you feel something, right? It's easy to joke about how emotional they get, and how easily they can switch from some standard rich gang-type talk to something intensely personal, it's pretty absurd... but that doesn't mean it isn't real... When Quan sighs and say "I hope I fall in love", don't you believe it? Don't you believe it just as much as if Mark had said it on Benji? Um, I dunno.
It is absurd, though, and that's what I really meant by the meaninglessness of the lyrics - it's like... inherently absurd that they're saying basically anything. It's like, they use words because that's the only thing they can use. But the words are just in service to facilitate a sound, a flow. And that doesn't mean they're just pulling things out of a hat - every line is fine-tuned for assonance, consonance, rhyme, meter in the context of the beat, the preceding and following lines, facilitation of ad-lib and doubling, and role in the overall flow of the song. Despite the illusion of effortlessness that's so key to enjoyment of the song, I really believe a whole lot of work has been put into the creation of these songs. If you disagree, even to the point of individual lines, please feel free to bring them to my attention. I would genuinely enjoy trying to show you what I think the appeal of these choices are.
And I think that'd be the only way we'd be able to talk about the specific content of this album... if I tried to produce examples proactively, we'd be here for tens of thousands of words, and I would still feel unsatisfied. There's just too much! Too many good things - too many types of flows previously unseen, too many times where their voices bend just the right amount of emotional-melodic, too many times the beat switches up a little and it's perfect, too many types of humour untried in hip hop before... and too many examples of all of these. Let's hope 2015 is another banner year for Young Thug, and for my goal of one day being the single person who has written the most about Young Thug.
4. Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
Original Live Review
Oh and here's the obligatory "whatever Thom Yorke did this year" release, which, as always, would have won by default if truly extraordinary things didn't push it down... He's 46 years old, probably has more critical acclaim than anyone else of his generation, dozens of gorillions of dollars, and still this year he sat down and dashed out eight tracks to demo his new way of getting even more money for less overhead.
Okay but really: the locked bittorrent thingy is pretty cool and definitely could be a huge step forward for bands who can't even afford hosting space. And as for the music... well, here's how I see it. Thom Yorke has a supernatural gift for coming up with synth sounds, for making piano tones that seem like they're just gushing, or vocal effects that sound like falling in love with an alien. He also seems to just instinctively put things to fascinating rhythms, and also not, creating that gorgeous feeling of sounds stretching across beats that I just love in absolutely everything I hear, like, from this to the previous album's "Tell Em (Lies)". And he seems haunted by his own ghost of melancholy, one particularly unique and compelling, full of paranoia and fractured perspectives, endlessly forward-thinking with just the right presence of a hidden hope. I think this album is basically: they got some new synth equipment and he had some ideas and had been watching a bunch of old sci-fi movies and the rest he basically couldn't not do if he tried.
This album is entirely composed of sounds that all sound perfect to me and hit deep-running musical fetishes. I don't think there's any way I could describe them without sounding dumb. The piano on each song is simply godly - Yorke is in my trifecta of piano-producers, with Matryoshka and Burial. Yorke's voice has basically been "the" voice for me for now well over a decade. There's so many moments on the album that seem just... juicy? Like, almost painfully sensuous, like the feeling of biting into an apple (described perfectly in DFW's "All That")... Okay I'm getting dumb already but man... the transition between "Pink Section" and "Nose Grows Some", the part on "Interference" where he's like "In the future leaves will turn brown, when we want them", or the end of "Truth Ray": "And all of this is in my head"... UNGH, it's like, the thing I was talking about on Pinata, except here it's more like... this sort of full sigh of disbelief, or something, like when you see some really really beautiful scenery. Obviously writing about Radiohead-related stuff is pushing my limits of articulation.
3. Aphex Twin - Syro
Original Live Review
I could say a lot of the same things about Richard D. James that I did Thom Yorke - 43 years old, a career that's about as acclaimed as you can get, virtuoso of every machine he sets his hands on, apparently rich enough to own a tank. Where they most significantly vary is in their release schedule... Thommy Thom has a pretty steady output between remixes, Radiohead, Atoms for Peace, and his solo work, but Richy Rich's last proper Aphex Twin LP was over a decade ago! And where I talked about Tomorrow's Modern Boxes being a sort of opportunity album, where, like a lot of his releases, he just had enough good ideas and energy to put something else, I have a theory about Syro that's almost completely opposite.
See, there's always been these rumours that James was working on music, and, being the perfectionist that he is, sitting on it and endlessly revising it instead of putting anything else out there. This was reinforced by remarks that he made in rare interviews where, when asked about upcoming music, would say that he'd have something out on Warp soon, or maybe eight new albums. It seemed believable! And I think Syro is just the feeling of like... he wanted to put out an album, so he took twelve tracks he had sitting around that he was pretty happy with and worked well together and called it Syro. I got into this a bit in the conclusion of my original review, and I've only felt it stronger with his subsequent behavior - like dumping a bunch of bonus tracks and variations on his soundcloud, or, in what I hope will be a long-lived pattern, definitely announcing a new EP.
But I've felt it mostly on listening to the album again. For awhile I was pretty obsessed with the emotional quality of the vocal part in minipops, and sometimes that feeling extends to everything on the album. There's moments of beauty, for sure... moments of peace, and transcendence, and sublimity... moments of turbulence and hype... but it felt like something else powered this album, something unifying and underlying. I think it's like... the feeling of incompleteness of these tracks. The feeling that he wanted just a little more out of them. Like... there's a part near the start of CIRCLONT14, a little synth run, around the 2:10 mark... it's super catchy for me, I love it, I even made it my ringtone, and I feel like... something more should have happened with it! It should have developed or expanded in some way! But what I realized it is that it was that want that was the real feeling, beyond whatever feeling the actual line itself had on me... beyond the actual emotion behind the mystery of minipops, if it exists, was the feeling of the mystery itself... and the yearning, that I think both Richard D. James and the listener feels, of such a fantastic project, each track bursting with potential, inching closer to something with every hour or hundred hours of work, but never quite getting there.
Does this make any sense? There's these twelve tracks, each of them haunted with their incompleteness, with the desperation of the work put into them. It isn't what makes the album good, but it might be what makes it great. Feeling stunned by the richness and intricacy of the sound, but never unaware of all the work went into it. And then there's "aisatsana", which feels exactly like when you've been up all night, working on something so hard you feel a bit deranged, and you see the sun coming up.
2. KOOL A.D. - WORD O.K.
Original Live Review
KOOL A.D. says "rap James Joyce" and "best rapper in the world" and the thing that makes both true is that he knows they mean the same thing. Are you gonna let me go ahead and say that? If so maybe I can cut this one short. Ha ha but you know I won't. Since Das Racist split up, Victor's been plenty busy, putting out excellent mixtapes, fathering a child, and writing a novel that seems like it'll never come out (;__;). This, his first "proper album" feels both accumulation and escalation, both the sum of all his experimentation and refinement in hip hop and bold, experimental leaps into genres henceforth unknown. I think it's the best hip hop album of the year. You okay with all that too?
I think there's three levels to my love of this album. Most primarily, and most necessary of any rap album, it bangs from wall to window to etc. His love for the genre is overwhelming, and it feels like a big celebration of your own involvement with the scene, rewarding you with clever allusions and throwbacks and homages, none of which diminish the qualities that made the originals notable in the first place. The middle of the album has a huge section where each new song, beat change, and verse start has that same "sounds so good you look like you smelled something bad" quality I talked about on Pinata. You can tell that, no matter how experimental he gets on form and content, he never forgot that he wanted to make a solid album of hip hop that could stand among his own favorites.
But it's that experimentation that brings the album to another level. His flow is like... paradoxical - again and again I'm asking "how did he manage to make that line sound good? or did he say it because it sounds good, and it just happened to be so meaningful?" He raps about things that you'd have a hard time picturing other rappers of even thinking of. And he does it in ways no other rapper would think of, too! His flows range from every classic to a parody of every classic to things that stretch the definition of rapping. He pushes structural boundaries, too... building off the legendary "nonstop verse for 10 minutes" in "Dum Diary", we get "Special Forces" and the godly final verse of "Life and Times". My absolute favorite moment of the whole album is buried in the latter, the only place it could be... Victor feels almost overwhelmed by himself, in the manner of Thom Yorke and "Street Spirit", as he adds that his A&R is also "the weather plus the salmon and crackers I was eating, and hibiscus ice tea that I was sipping, plus the laughter of children, echoing around the corner of the last evening", an image so beautiful and poetic and real that he has to ask "what the fuck?" too.
That line might exemplify it best, but generally my favorite aspect of this whole album, or any of his work, is this attitude. This list is pretty solidly the territory of the melancholic... Thom Yorke and Mark Kozelek aren't happy campers by any stretch, Richard D. James seems alright but maybe a bit deranged, Mel is on the internet far more than any content person can be... even Gibbs, the young stars of Rich Gang, and 18+ all seem to harbor some sense of abandonment. And, spoiler alert: the final album is probably the unhappiest of all. But Victor, man... what can you say to fault him? He's informed and aware on every level of issues from global to communal to personal, offering a perspective that isn't compromised but reasonable. There's a feeling of balanced passion and enjoyment without losing a sense of purpose or justice... I mean, there's no word that works better than morality, he has a wonderful morality. And on this album, with it's beautiful production and hype tracks and exploratory, revelatory, reveling nature, you're with him 100% of the way.
1. Swans - To Be Kind
I first heard about Swans in a "what's the most depressing music you've ever heard" thread. The poster was someone I really respected at the time, so I loaded up the video with pretty high expectations. I was maybe 13 or 14, I had just gotten high speed internet, and I was voraciously filling the gap between the dadrock of my parents' radio and the modern hip hop of Smash Bros combo videos. There were so many bands that I "knew" "must" exist, like... I had heard music kind of like this before, so I knew there must be some ultimate form, some final boss. And I think I knew it was Swans from the very second Michael Gira let loose his abyssal baritone.
It sounded like there was a secret being revealed to me in the music of Swans, some truth that I was not old enough to know, or perhaps that even adults kept from themselves. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but it seemed fundamental and undeniable and terrible. Hey! Was this the start of my association of depression with insight? An addiction to melancholy clarity that, now a decade-strong, is probably limiting my personal development and stifling interpersonal relationships? Uh, well, whatever.
I didn't become a huge fan of them immediately, though. They weren't the only band that seemed to be offering these horrible realities, but they were the most brutal and thorough, so I placed them at the top of some "depressing hierarchy" and avoided listening to them out of what could be called reverence. When I did, I skewed towards the softer, more melodious stuff - The Burning World, Children of God, Angels of Light stuff, and when I wanted to really overload my brain, Soundtracks for the Blind. I wasn't a true Swans fan, one that could blast Public Castration is a Good Idea... I thought that stuff was interesting, but thought of it as a musical brick, and associated it with the idea of throwing up from the loudness of one of their shows.
By the time of "modern" Swans, I had sort of lost interest in the band, and in this sort of music... and I think, most generally, I no longer felt the need to expand my taste in all directions, to find extremes of every musical metric. So I didn't really pay much attention to My Father... or The Seer, despite their critical acclaim. I remember listening to The Seer and being really impressed, but not so much hooked... it didn't seem so true anymore.
Ah, but this one is a different beast entirely. A big part of it was that it was a major release that everyone was getting hyped up for in a season where I didn't have many other albums to look forward to... or much else to do, in general. I love being able to sink my teeth into an album cycle, to listen to the singles obsessively, to f5 for leaks and reviews... I remember when it finally came out in a quality I deemed acceptable, I loaded up onto my iPod and went for a long walk.
And wow okay now we're actually getting to the music itself! Did it live up to the hype? Did I hate it, and my putting it at first is just some bizarre joke?? Did it make me so bleak that I jumped off a cliff and now I'm a spooky ghost typing this??? No no okay obviously I was pretty impressed. It's uncompromising - nothing is truncated or downplayed or halfassed. There's a feeling of manic perfectionism behind it, of a band hellbent on some sound they can all envision that must be put out there. They set themselves up with the impossible again and again, like, there's so many sections where they wail away and it feels "full out", but you know the only move they could make is to escalate, and they do. How could anyone hear the first section and think "this needs to be more intense"?
Or all these little touches... there's so many strange and mysterious samples and sounds... everyone's favorite seems to be the laughter on "Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)", which is up there for me, too... it's something that, if anything less than perfect, if it failed even a little bit on the effect it aims for (some sort of intense and immediate fear and shame and paranoia?), it would fall directly on its face. My favorite is the very start of "She Loves Us" - it's the start of disc two, you're already an hour in, and then there's this new sound, something that sounds like nothing they've done so far, or anything you've ever really heard before.
But I mean, have you really heard any of this before? Like yeah, you've heard guitars and drums and stuff before, but like this? With this feverish intensity? With this relentlessness? Once again it feels like deep and terrible secrets about the universe are manifesting themselves into the music. It's like in 2666, when they say that all the secrets of the universe were contained in the killings of women in Santa Teresa. I dunno. Like, look at the lyrics of "Screen Shot" - everything stripped down, everything discarded, all we have is to "Love, now! Breathe, now! Here, now!" And that's just where we're starting.
To Be Kind seems to come from a place of assumed brutality, from an a priori knowledge of the relentless of life. The question is already "what makes this all worth it"... there must be something found to justify the struggle. I remember one comment on /mu/ that seemed particularly revealing: someone was saying that they liked the album, but not the repetitiveness or the length. They said something like "He'll play some riff, and it'll be a sweet riff, but you just know you're gonna be hearing it for like 10+ minutes and that turns you off". I think this is extremely close to the heart of the album. The feeling of some aspect of life slowly becoming unbearable, in stages. The feeling of starting some new routine and some part of it cutting into you, and the dawning awareness that it will never change, the feeling of dread as every repetition rushes from the future into the present.
And what can be done about it? That's the real question of the album. What makes it all worth it? It's something that takes much longer than two hours to understand, to really believe. But it seems like there's something. From the early, subhuman demands (on "Just a Little Boy") to the power that comes from clutching the infinite like a forever-burning coal ("A Little God in My Hands")... And then, slowly, somehow, the claustrophobia of the album starts to feel vast, the explosions start to feel more like release than destruction, Gira's repeating "We love" starts to feel... not just a cruel joke, but perhaps actually the truth.
It's a brutal album in a brutal world, but at its heart, there's a core of desire and hope and love. It's hypnotic and relentless but also somehow gentle and encouraging, with a stoic attitude of comradery and potential. And the final conclusion, amid impossible escalations of escalations, we get the final conclusion: despite infinity, despite meaninglessness, despite unhappiness, "there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes". It's something to think about, at least.
Okay that's it
I feel like I have a lot more to say about all these albums. Feels sort of frustrating. At the same time, I hope I've made it clear why I like them. One day I'll have the time and focus to do more in-depth, non-live album reviews for all my favorites. There's like hundreds that I want to do, and every time I hear these albums I think about them. Someday, someday.
Anyways, 2015 is already shaping up to be a crazy year in music. I was looking at this Complex article and like wow, even if only half of these come out, it would be crazy, and these are only like, half of the albums that I'm anticipating. Already we've got PBMTGR, which I started off loving and still like a bit more every singe time I hear it... I'd be totally satisfied if that ended up being my AOTY. And the new Aphex Twin EP leaked, I'll have to listen to that soon... Heems' Eat Pray Thug has had a godly run of singles so far... always tons of Young Thug content every time I think to look, maybe even Metro Thuggin will come out soon... Ahh! So exciting! So much great music!!