Last year I introduced the Only List You Need because I hate listicles. Well, I still hate listicles, but I still like doing the Release Date Buffets for the month. They are useful–ordering all the records I listen to each week or, well, month, which is never not a list replete with suggestions, releases and random fancies. I strive for one to three new records a day which means I also have many a subject I don’t get around to talking about. In the same way, the Only List You Need is useful for the year end roundup. Thus, this listicle will live on, unloved bastard child that it is, to discuss what went without discussion in 2018. Further, you may be asking why the hell it took all the way until February to sort this one out. Well, the same reason the Oscars, the Grammies or the Super Bowl need take place in February: “just ‘cuz.”
11. UMO is my type of crazy
He’s dependably erratic, Ruban Nielson, upping the productivity notch for 2018 by releasing Sex & Food, IC-01 Hanoi, and “SB-06.”
Going from lo-fi funk to acid jazz to a neo-psychedelia supercut is no easy thing–that’s a lot of acid, man–but Nielson made it sound easy and better with each product; going from so-so to solid to super, like a frog hopping lilypads or Klay Thompson jumping questions (wait, no, that’s not right), the Unknown Mortal Orchestra toured the world and came back to tell us the tales. He doesn’t always paint the clearest picture, but when he finds that groove, it is smooth.
“Everybody’s Crazy Nowadays,” “Hunnybee,” “Hanoi 4,” and “SB-06” are now among the best jams in the Orchestra canon, AU, MU or what-have-u. Even when the records intégrales don’t quite click together, Nielson has proven himself a modern day jukebox for the anxiety-ridden psychonaut-slash-funkman, the king of lo-fi. From the outside eye, he just seems like a total Fonzi; the epitome of cool.
And just a friendly reminder for all of us (especially my own diseased mind), he’s totally allowed not to be.
Because he’s less Fonzi and more Lou Reed–willing to sabotage his own style in order to always keep us outsiders guessing. Watching him perform, it’s not hard to imagine him drunk off his ass on both public adoration and endless cocktails. Hell, it’s not hard for me to imagine considering he admitted to it, May of last year, at his Roseland show in Portland. But ask anyone there and they would have all said the only thing that blew chunks was the sound quality. Try as I might, no amount of warm colitas were gonna get me to forget it.
It took a second show in Paris, France, of all places, to erase the sound quality with something better. And La Grande Halle de la Villette did just that. He was on fire for somebody who seems like he would just stick to local scenes. But the crowd reciprocated his every move, even when he jumped into the thick of the masses just to see what was going on. Nobody expected it but him.
And if that sounds crazy, well, have you listened to his music lately?
10. Arctic Monkey Super Villains, stalling Machines and Beach 7’s
Tranquility Base Hotel Casino is not the Arctic Monkey’s their best or even their worst, it’s just the one in which Alex Turner moonlights as a Bond villain. 7 isn’t Beach House’s best record, either, it’s just par for the course, nary a repeating track, but still a rehashing of a same old sound. Nor too does Florence and the Machine move the needle much on High as Hope, if anything it’s low on gas in the ideas tank.
This trend continued with whatever Damon Albarn touched, whatever Anderson .Paak smoked and whatever self-delusion was colludin’ with Kanye (his collab records notwithstanding, Ye was the product of a madman). Even my dude, Ruban Nielson, was not spared in the year of the wishy-washy records.
Because among the mainstagers, nobody really had a knock-out title of the year, excepting 1975, and even their record was a switchbacking, criss-crossing affair. Rather, what really bumped in rock and roll circles came from those tiny stages at the festivals, the folky corners and the DIY back-alleys. Artists like Lucy Dacus and her supergroup, boygenius, Melody Echo Chamber, Snail Mail, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett were working hard to bring us the flea-market treasures, perusing through both the psyche and the swap meets and then slapping it down on the record button.
In rap, soul and R&B, we had to rely on artists like Origami Harvest, Tyler the Creator, Kadhja Bonnet, serpentwithfeet and Noname to fill out a roster that included Pusha-T and Deathgrips as the heavy hitters. Even Lupe Fiasco also finally got around to making a great record when no one really expected.
It wasn’t a terrible year in music by any means, but it did feel like the one that challenged us to find something new instead of relying something tried-but-not-always-true.
09. Kanye, please, you’re boring me
We know he’s crazy, and not like an endearing crazy either, if you’re wondering why I let Ruban Nielson off the hook, only to hang Kanye back on it. He’s entitled to be as much of a whacko Dr. Frankenstein of musical experimentation as he wants. Hell, he’s entitled to make rap great again if he really wants to. I don’t agree with him, but I also don’t really care about him, either.
Perhaps my one worry is that Kim Kardashian doesn’t drive him off his current plateau, but eh, that’s probably water at the bottom of cliff, and he’s crazy enough to jump, if not to see where the gravity will take him. So this is all if I really had to think about him, which I usually don’t. But when he, the most famous rapper-producer on the planet, meets the “Real” Donald Trump, well, the twitterbirds in the cage are always gonna shriek.
I didn’t shriek, I barely even watched–I was not even surprised that Kanye and Trump share this mythical “dragon energy,” whatever Super Saiyan shit that might be. It was like a crazy-ass bear met a crazy-ass lion in the colosseum of American politics. And at least they had something in common. But consider me a bored Roman, a pleb plagued by ennui–we’ve gone so far up in raising the ante that it’s not even suspenseful anymore. It became nonsensical and then it became dismal. Now? It’s just typical.
Once again, Kanye can do what he wants, I even prefer some of his music sometimes (Kids See Ghosts being one those times). But I do us all a disservice when his ego-meeting with Number 45 is the biggest storyline surrounding Kanye. That he produced a run of five records in a space of six weeks should have been the bigger storyline: that crazy dragon energy doesn’t drop off like Tiger Blood or cocaine or any some such mixture. It just goes like a rocket.
08. Fela Kuti’s revival ain’t no zombi, baby
Last week, I introduced my English students to Fela Kuti; briefly, I’ll admit, but it should stand to reason that, over the length of 2018, Fela Kuti has shot up my preferred performer rankings. I first started listening to the Black President in 2016; so I’m a newby. And when I heard that Fela’s been receiving some love in the form of box sets, well, the timing couldn’t be more serendipitous.
Value for money, $120 for a vinyl boxset that contains written essays, art and the all important records–curated by Ginger Baker, Brian Eno, ?uestlove or Erykah Badu, no less–is quite the deal. The first boxset from 2010 alone was a brilliant sell–featuring all the major epics a new follower of Mr. Africa should know: “Water Get No Enemy,” “Expensive Shit,” “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” and “Beasts of No Nation” among others. That the king of Afrobeat, the Duke Ellington of Nigera, the symbol of massive disobedience deserved such a massive boxset is out of the question; he deserves four and a couple more.
Unfortunately, Box Sets 2 & 3 may not feature any zombified tracks, but they do cannibalize each other. Ginger Baker wanting to feature his cross-genre and cultural collaborations and Brian Eno wanting to feature them means its up to listeners to decide which is a more enjoyable buy. One or the other will work, but probably not both unless bleeding money is the bloodsport choice. The fourth boxset, however, is a deep dive into the “Yellow Fever’s,” the “Coffin for Head of State’s,” the “Dog Eat Dogs’s,” the “Na Poi’s” and the “No Agreements.” Erykah Badu does an excellent job to find the b-side jams while not delving into the fifty-fifty outtakes and archives.
What’s most amazing is how long-running this revival has been; whether it’s filtered into mainstream culture is up to debate, but there’s no denying that among the music industry, Fela Kuti’s commercial presence is on the up-and-up.
Not bad for the Black President, not bad at all.
07. The amount of tracks you need for fad of the year
Bon Voyage. IC-01 Hanoi. KTSE. Kids See Ghosts. Daytona. Nasir. Ye.
Some of these records were produced at the hands of Kanye. Two were not. All were seven track gems. More were probably made by lesser known artists. Who knows? Who’s counting? I was; and seven seven-track records makes a trend, yes, even a fad. It was just that kind of year, but as a fan for poetic rhyming through history, why couldn’t they all be released in 2017? It would have made the last list a lot more fun to write.
Alas, here we are, mid-January, my mind all a-fritz with what to listen to next–I’m skittering from Toro y Moi to Mogwai to Nicolas Jaar to James Blake to infinite bisous to Boogarins and then Deerhunter and yet still, nothing quite hit me like that summer run of six seven-track records, topped off by an Unknown Mortal cherry in late October. Why was this a thing? Why were artists flirting with EP-esque records in a sudden whiplash fashion, a suddenly violent, gnashing grasp for Fifties LP length that dare not run past 30 minutes? Surely, Melody’s Echo Chamber and Unknown Mortal Orchestra were not inspired by Teyana Taylor, Kids See Ghosts, Pusha-T, Nas or Kanye, delirious mastermind that he might be.
No need arguing with tinfoil on the merits of artistic telepathy, either.
This was just the weirdest coincidence that two different schools of music, psychedelic rock and alternative Rap and R&B came bound together by a single conceptual idea surrounding record runtimes. Like evolutionary convergence, it’s one of those things in music that perhaps is little head-scratching to others, but damn interesting that the industry can mimic itself without trying.
06. Nicolas Jaar, a Moby by any other name?
Nicolas Jaar is not like Moby. His music is quiet, a Four Tet contemporary, a sleepy tranceman, a downtempo dreamboat. It’s not quite James Blake-ish (who has a pulse and a Sam Smith-esque voice), nor does it really strike as house bumping affair like Jeremy Underground, Peggy Gou or Avalon Emerson or Aphex Twins. In fact, much like SUBTRKT, his early records play like the musical equivalent of an ambien pill.
Anyone can say it’s like jazz in that way, but nay–that would be like comparing cool jazz to hard bop and saying both will put you to sleep. Likewise, all electronic music is not the same and outside of one perky lady I’ve met, nary has a person ever told me they could sleep to dubstep. Much respect to the fact that she could, but holy hell, how?
I suggest to her, an ocean, an internet, a lifetime away that she enjoy Space Is Only Noise in order to calm that spirito allo vibrato, use Pomegranates to soundtrack a spooky skeleton Halloween and then listen to Sirens to… well, if that record doesn’t encapsulate w, t and f in rhythmical confusion, then nothing else will. Perhaps if she needs a hypothetical taste of Sun Ra on experimental electronic.
Either way, if she’s looking for a follow-up to Moby’s Play, Nicolas Jaar won’t have it.
But over the course of his alter-ego alt-house project, 2012-2017, Against All Logic will. Logic’s still not going to give it to her straight; it subscribes to more UndergroundxMoby logic than just plain Moby. And he’s not afraid to go the full Ivy League and break out that -comparative literature degree to great effect, quoting industrial-German poetry. But goddamn does he use the electric piano and the synth to break the stone-cold visage, and fucking hell does he employ that soul music to bring out the gospel in EDM.
So yes, much like the master, Moby, much like the forerunner, Mr. Fingers, Against All Logic is a damn good house DJ by another name.
05. The Thin White Duchess
She can’t keep doing this right? She can’t keep being this good?
MassEducation, by many metrics, qualifies as a just plainly better record than its souped-up alternative disco rock predecessor but perhaps the single greatest qualifier lies in the fact that while MASSEDUCTION sounds like a master among its contemporaries, MassEducation sounds like nothing that anyone else is making. It’s not because artists have forgotten anything, it’s just simply not in vogue—even David Bowie remarked that Seu Jorge’s acoustic renditions of his most famous Seventies work brought out a beauty that might never be captured with the electric glam warrior wave he was swept up in—so too Annie Clark reveals listeners to an exquisitry erstwhile unknown by washing off damn near every cosmetic do-up and stripping down to two elements; a piano and her naked voice.
Suddenly human, Clark is serendipitous, if not somewhat melancholic, she’s methodical, not rushed for time or bursting at the seams with art-rockerisms, not weighed down by the ten-ton expectations like Jethro in ‘76, Genesis in ‘77 or Floyd in ‘80. Instead, it’s just Thomas Barlett (Doveman) and her recording for what feels like the hell of it. What’s most important is that the redux reveals the moving messages hidden in some of the distortion-heavy tracks on MASSEDUCTION.
Critics can over-intellectualize why an album sounds the way it does. Debased from the instrumentation or the materials-at-hand, they of any field can philosophize the unconscious ‘”cuz.” Not an Alabama “’cuz,” but the “just ‘cuz.” Why just Clark’s voice? “Cuz it sounds nice.” Why a piano? “Cuz it sounds nice.” This is MassEducation’s raison d’être—a record made because it would be simple. Whether it reveals a new message within the music is unintentional; the elegance it showcases however, is totally intentional.
04. The 1975 are this certain band of the year
It should be no secret that The 1975 are my artists of the year. Really, for all the reasons listed here, I found The 1975 to be the most compelling, contradictory artists of an equally contradictory year. Further, I was ready to dismiss them as one-hit wonders; the upgrade from your One Directional pastiche.
But the album was, despite all its warts, a beautiful container for a fantastic run of cuts, all recapping the sheer insanity of 2018.
The last band that really captured this lightning-in-a-bottle effect, this ability to overpower the nausea that surrounds them (especially for the fans who loved the few undeniably good records), this self-important sense of creative invincibility. Just wait for Matthew Healy to sport sunglasses at night, Adam Hann to hide himself behind a mountain of pedals and everyone else to collectively forget Ross MacDonald and George Daniel exist as bassist and drummer respectively.
It’s a category more pretentious than album or artist of the year and something that should be be named every year for artists and bands that might take themselves too seriously. Hell, I might be taking myself too seriously just thinking about this, debating it and and falling in love with it. Bouncing off the walls in my skull like an energizer bunny and ultimately leading into some half-baked final product.
Where this bit is going, I don’t know, but that’s how I feel everytime I listen to a U2 record since 1992 and every 1975 record since their inception. That’s right: The 1975 is the U2 of the year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such a group is shoe-in for band of the year, but as far as fun categories go, U2 of the Year certainly has a fun, puffed-up and pretentious ring it to it, as if taking the piss of the actual pretentious band of the year lists.
03. Noname out here takin’ ‘em
Noname got into a real dogfight for album of the year with Peaky Quieters and IDLES
Room 25 is my rap record of the year and I qualify this having not listened to Pusha-T’s Daytona, but then, I’m not an overtly rap guy.
So from what I did listen to (from Lupe to Origami Harvest to all of Kanye), Noname ranked amongst my favourite—I have my styles that I delve into and Noname falls squarely into that style: jazzy, lo-fi, poetic rap. I’m a through and through Soulquarian man, if it has a hint of ?uestlove in it, then I must listen to it. And Noname’s Room 25 shares the critical element that make the best records from the Roots, Mos Def, Black Star, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill and so many more just the best:
It’s like a walk through the neighbourhood.
This isn’t some pretentious intercultural communication either; it’s just an urban language that translates international–cityslickers all know it; how it mimics the catchphrases and taglines and street slangs and stickers lining the road, bumper-to-bumper. On Telephone, she sounded just like that: painting a picture on the concrete scene, an avenue artiste dealing details on life as she knew it on the Great Lakes Gotham also known as Chicago. Those were her neighbourhoods on the South Side, the same neighbourhoods where walked Chance, Lupe and Common.
Mind you, she’s moved on Room 25. Instead of struggling in Chicago it’s a fight to stay alive in the City of Angels. It’s an intranational culture shock triggered by nip and tuck transactions and filtered through the stream of words licking consciousness. Worried? Don’t be: Noname’s wicked wit needs no injection—she’s just fine without the silicone and just primed to take out the Cosmopolitan back-catalogs topping the trash. Over 11 tracks, her stripped-down Soulquarian sound takes hands and guides them lovingly through all the trip-ups and eye-downs in a city too comfortable for its own good.
Still, I fear the day she gets the collab nod from .Paak or a producer request from Dre. Sorry boys, but I don’t think a Noname album can be built that way.
02. Resistance is joy, idling is not
I’ve said plenty about IDLES’ Joy As An Act of Resistance as my album of the year. But in true critic fashion but it must be said again: listen to the damn thing. Joe Talbot is a man on a mission to the put the fire and the fury of repressed everything and everyone right in the belly. He’d scream in your ear that you could breath flames and you’d believe him. So listen to this record, 100-proof and ready to spit with a boom and not just a poof.
Go to a march, go to ten, support the downtrodden, make it a festival, go and be someone. All work makes us dull, boys, too much fun and we lose our mind like Party Janes. Activism is social criticism, but why get bogged down in the tediousness of it? It should be alive with every emotion, disruptive with the purity of just reaction.
But is this really all in the IDLES record? Read here:
“For the last time, we should heed Talbot’s words: The IDLES of Joy as an Act of Resistance is “not a fucking punk band”—they’re a working-class flashpoint of joyful colère, of mirthful protest and of the struggle populaire—they are a goddamn gallon of brisk, morning air plunging gung-ho into the moshpit of your lungs, screaming “OH TO BE ALIVE!” all the way down.”
Yes they really are. Hence why it’s my record of the year. It really is: the record gave me the guts to go out and fucking win at life and start writing in a semi-professional fashion at Atwood Magazine instead of just closing myself in on this blog. I love this place like I love my home–but nobody every won anything in life by just idling a home. So go out there and win, motherfucker–just don’t be a dick about it or Joe Talbot and I will stop rooting for ya. We always liked scrappy underdogs better, anyways.
01. Women rock more than ever, but should we really care?
Who hasn’t written or talked or produced or thought up a piece about women as the future of rock and roll?
What a vapid and stupid subject to fellate a demographic without realizing that we’re coddling to the same people who hashtagged the words me too. And never mind that this number one item on my list was going to regurgitate the same the shit–I changed my mind, not because I’m woke but because I listen to music like a religion and popular culture is nigh unavoidable to cache oneself away from when we’ve become dominated by echo chambers dialed up to 11.org
(One voice shouts and the whole damn silo starts to shake a-start and hark: “did you see it, did you hear it, do you feel it, do you know it?” Well alright).
And everybody who’s not in the group page gets the short stick. So women don’t need to know that the future of modern rock ‘n’ roll lies in the hands of femininity. Maybe because the modern woman doesn’t lean hard on traditional gender roles, but mainly because they can hear the music too: rock isn’t changing; it’s already changed. And every article is just a catch-up to something that happened in 1976 and only accelerated every year hence. Names like St. Vincent, Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, Theresa Wayman and Warpaint, Janelle Monáe, Kadjha Bonnet, Noname–that’s right it’s not just limited to rock–are just testament to it.
I’m not going to congratulate Stevie Nicks, Jodi Mitchell, Kate Bush or even Madonna as the harbingers of this old-new-world. They were the firsts, sure, but the women of rock today are inspired by the music they heard literally yesterday–not 20 years ago. Male or female, they didn’t see the guitar or the bassist or the keyboardist or the what-have-they, they saw the guitar, the bass or the keyboard or the what-have-it and then they listened to the fingers that played it. Our criticism should be deeper in other ways: the melodic theories they construct, the ungendered progressions they interpolate, the styles that they grind their axes to, the production that they undertake. No need to be more vapid than that. So to sum up every article that espouses the supposed “feminine future of rock:” so much ado about nothing.
So if I could have only one thing for 2019, let it be the erasure of any more pretentious precognition, there’s more immediate and interesting matters to be had with music anyways.