2015 in music

OPNCover

This was originally gonna lead off with a longish post  with a bunch of thoughts about listening to music in 2015, but it’s New Year’s Eve and I didn’t finish it in time. (According to the rules of online, “best of the year” stuff expires on January 1st.) I did, however, have time to make some lists of music. Here’s some of it I liked from this year.

Top 10 records (alphabetical):

Alex G – Beach Music
Beach House – Depression Cherry
CFCF – The Colours of Life
DJ Paypal – Sold Out
Future – 56 Nights
Gaussian Curve – Clouds
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

 

I also blogged about some concerts I went to over at Seattle Times dot com.

 

Others:

 

Arca – Mutant
Battles – La Di Da
Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
Briana Marela – All Around Us
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style
CFCF – Radiance & Submission
Colin Stetson and Julia Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was
Container – LP
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Denzel Curry – 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms EP
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Floating Points – Elaenia
Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015
Four Tet – Morning/Evening
Gilligan Moss – Ceremonial EP
Helen – The Original Faces
Holly Herndon – Platform
Jlin – Dark Energy
Joanna Newsom – Divers
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
Kode9 – Nothing
Lotic – Agitations EP
Lower Dens  – Escape from Evil
Moire – Gel EP
Mount Bank – Island Life EP
Ought – Sun Coming Down
Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Rae Sremmurd – Sremmlife
Sam Gellaitry – Short Stories EP
Sam Prekop – The Republic
Strategy – Noise Tape Self
Tame Impala – Currents
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Vietcong – s/t
The Weeknd – The Beauty in the Madness
Young Thug – Barter 6
Zora Jones – 100 Ladies EP

 

Playlist (Spotify sucks but it has the most songs; shuffle is recommended):

 

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Music I liked in 2013

Yeezus2

Here’s some music I enjoyed listening to in 2013. I even wrote a little bit about some of it, partially because it’s an aesthetically pleasing way to break up all the videos, partially because not doing so would seem super lazy.

(I realized when I finished that I didn’t put any Seattle music on my list, so send me to music-writer jail, I guess. I’ve never been one for making a separate list for local music; if something’s good enough to stick with me, it shouldn’t need any special qualifiers.)

1) Kanye West, Yeezus

Kanye is on another level. Yeezus definitely isn’t the most enjoyable album on this list, or even the one I’ve come back to the most, but it’s an artistic statement that didn’t have an equal this year. It’s true that some of the lyrics on this album are embarrassing, but from a production standpoint, it’s pretty incredible and unprecedented—except for, say, The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Bowie—for a mainstream pop artist to make an album this forward-thinking.

2) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

Pure pop. Easily the best thing VW has ever done.

3) DJ Koze, Amygdala

I wish more dance producers realized that when they make a album, not every song has to be a single or a club banger.

4) Earl Sweatshirt, Doris

Earl Sweatshirt is good at rapping. (#analysis)

5) Kurt Vile, Walking on a Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile is good at making chill dude-bro guitar tunes.

6) Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety

I spent a good chunk of this year writing Seattle Weekly‘s music calendar, which meant writing short descriptions of 20-ish shows in Seattle each week and fending off a sense of existential dread. Consequently, I listened to a lot of music I hadn’t heard before. It seemed like every other week there’d be some touring act coming through town that featured “kewl beats” with a person singing over them in an R&B style. Most of it wasn’t very memorable, but this album is quite good.

7) Forest Swords, Engravings

My favorite “beats + atmosphere” electronic release of the year.

8) Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (Part 1)

This album’s detractors say it’s excessive and overblown, and they’re absolutely right. But that’s what makes this album notable: it’s an grandiloquent pop record that no one else could have made. Except for maybe Daft Punk, but the songs on this album are way better than most of Random Access Memories, and none of them feature Pharrell singing about his dick.

9) The National, Trouble Will Find Me

I tend to get defensive about The National, but they take an inordinate amount of shit from people (even right here in Seattle!) who want to make them poster children for middlebrow NPR music. And yeah, sometimes this stuff is banal and Decemberists-y, and sure, The National are a band that get something of a free critical pass from me because I was really into them when I was 16 and “music was important to me.” But that’s enough self-conscious backpedalling:  Trouble Will Find Me is either the second- or third-best album they’ve ever made, and they’ve made a lot of good albums.

10) Burial, Rival Dealer

Before this year, I had only ever listened to Burial because people who write about music occasionally need to educate themselves about music that other people think is important. Rival Dealer was the first Burial album I actually enjoyed. It’s immersive, deep, and definitely a lot weirder than Untrue or most the other stuff he’s done.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical):

Here’s some other stuff I thought was cool this year:

Arca, &&&&&
Atu, Pictures on Silence
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
Danny Brown, Old
Disclosure, Settle
Drake, Nothing Was The Same
The Haxan Cloak, Excavation
James Blake, Overgrown
Jon Hopkins, Immunity
Lapalux, Nostealchic
Migos, YRN 
Mikal Cronin, MCII
My Bloody Valentine, m b v
Sophie, “Bipp” b/w “Elle”
Thundercat, Apocalypse
The Range, Nonfiction
Rhye, Woman

Smarm

The idea of success, or of successfulness, hangs over the whole subject of smarm. It is not true, after all, that the crisis of postmodernity has left us without any functioning system of shared values. What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market.

Market reasoning is deeply, essentially smarmy. We live, it insists, in a world that is optimized by the invisible hand. The conditions under which we live have been created by rational needs and preferences, producing an economicist Panglossianism: What thrives deserves to thrive, be it Nike or sprawl or the finance industry or Upworthy; what fails deserves to have failed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this general idea: that the collapse of traditional institutions (as Tom Scocca puts it in the essay this quote is from, “the literary inner circles, the top-ranking daily newspapers, the party leadership”) has led to a meritocratic values system, where what’s popular is always self-evidently “good.” The essay is probably about 20 percent too long, but it’s an important take-down of the modern Internet monoculture that can be so frustrating for writers, musicians, and creative types in general.

[“On Smarm”]

A quick thought on Lou Reed

You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

I’ve never given Lou Reed’s catalog more than a cursory listen. (This is a requirement for “people who care about music,” or so it would seem.) I also don’t have anything particularly novel to say about his death. But this quote from his New York Times obituary struck me as poignant, an eloquent summation of why creative people do what they do. It’s originally from a review Reed wrote of Kanye West’s Yeezus, where at age 71 he demonstrates a better understanding of West’s music than 99 percent of people my age on the Internet.

Chastity Belt: No Joke

Chastity Belt: No Joke

Photo by Sarah Creighton

Photo by Sarah Creighton

I wrote my first long(ish) story in quite a while. It’s a profile of Seattle band Chastity Belt; there have been several of these, but I think it’s the first that doesn’t talk about Buzzfeed shenanigans. Instead it looks at the tension between being funny and being serious for bands, like Chastity Belt, who are on to bigger things.

On another note…

On another note entirely, Seattle once again failed to come off as a particularly “cool” place. We commented last year how the city occasionally appears to be stuck in the ’90s, and that mentality didn’t appear to have changed much over the past 12 months. Make no mistake—by US standards, Decibel is an incredibly forward event; however, being at the festival rarely felt like taking a stroll on the cutting edge. A lot of that had to do with the crowd, which, in proper West Coast fashion, included a heavy contingent of aging former ravers. We don’t mean to appear shallow, but the general motif was an odd cross of tech-industry business casual (lots of fleece, windbreakers, and boot-cut jeans), grunge leftovers, and fashion cues seemingly inspired by the movie Waterworld. Although the music was undoubtedly the most important thing at Decibel, it was striking how the Seattle crowds came across as almost aggressively unfashionable. When traveling from out of town for a festival, particularly one focused on underground electronic music, most attendees want to feel like they’re mingling with a hip, in-the-know group of people. Instead of that, we often found ourselves in a sea of geeky diehards and goofy Burning Man castoffs.

I had the privilege of covering a couple Decibel Festival shows this year. It was the first time I’ve attended dbFest, a world-renowned electronic music festival now in its 10th year, and it struck me as a pretty cool event. Shawn Reynaldo, the editor of tastemaking online electronic music magazine XLR8R apparently thought differently. This paragraph follows another of about the same length where he complains about the rain.

The full review is on XLR8R.

Storm Thorgerson, Designer of Iconic Album Art, Dies at 69

Dark Side of the Moon

The album cover for Pink Floyd’s 1973 classic The Dark Side of the Moon, easily Thorgerson’s most famous work.

(EDIT: This is a thing I wrote as a writing sample for a job editing the blog of a major Seattle radio station. I didn’t get the job, but I’m leaving the post up anyway. It doesn’t exactly jibe with the “brand” I’m trying to project as a writer [whatever that means], but I did take the time to write it, and in retrospect, it doesn’t read like embarrassing PR copy as much as I thought it might.)

Aside from its concern with technical wizardry and stadium-filling excess, progressive rock can also be associated with a particular aesthetic on its album covers: vaguely dystopian scenes that merge the otherworldly with the everyday. No one was more responsible for the surreal look of prog rock than British graphic designer Storm Thorgerson, who died this past Thursday at 69.

Best known for his work with Pink Floyd, Thorgerson’s career spanned four decades, where he designed art for rock bands spanning Led Zeppelin to, in his later years, modern-day prog luminaries like Muse, The Mars Volta, and Biffy Clyro. He’s known for his jarring visuals—the man on fire that graces Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the all-seeing eye on The Cranberries’ Bury The Hatchet—but his most famous work is his simplest. That would be Pink Floyd’s instantly recognizable The Dark Side of the Moon. Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright requested that Thorgerson’s design be simple and bold, leading to the album’s stark light-through-a-prism motif. It’s a design that’s nearly as iconic as the music itself—guitarist David Gilmour called Thorgerson’s art “an inseparable part” of Pink Floyd’s work in a tribute on his website.

Thorgerson worked so frequently with progressive rock groups perhaps because their albums’ outsized themes jibed with his theory that album art should be more than a pretty picture of the band, as noted in this New York Times obituary:

“It always seemed funny in a way to represent music by choosing to taking a picture of four chaps,” Mr. Torgerson said. “You’ve got music which might be about all sorts of things, from love lost and love won to politics to school days, from sport to perverse obsessions, etc., etc. Why would you have four chaps on the front? What does that say about the music?”

Check out a chronological selection of Thorgerson’s album covers below. You can also view a full gallery of his work on his website.

Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1978)

Peter Gabriel, s/t

Catherine Wheel, Chrome

Catherine Wheel, Chrome

Phish, Slip Stitch and Pass

Phish, Slip Stitch and Catch

Muse, Black Holes & Revelations

Muse, Black Holes & Revelations