Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018’s Best Songs

My sources for new music included:

Matt Wilkinson on Beats 1 radio, recommendations from friends, Pitchfork, Buzzfeed, randomly monitoring new releases and grabbing songs that looked like they might be cool, checking out interviews with my favorite artists to see what they’re listening to, Reddit, and Twitter.

Here’s a couple of songs that I thought were great in 2018.

Venice Bitch - Lana Del Ray

This is some perfect Laurel Canyon nostalgia (can you count the lyrical references?) segueing into a pretty and noisy middle, back out into pretty folk, and then back into the noise. It’s over nine minutes long, but it doesn’t feel drawn out or padded. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and one of my fave songs of the year.

French Riviera - Cautious Clay

One of my happiest discoveries this year was Cautious Clay. He’s Brooklyn, and I guess you could say he’s part of this new wave of indie R&B. He’s got a real feel for how to bring the big chorus (check out Joshua Tree for another example of his production prowess). His lyrics are cynical and heartfelt at the same time, guarded and vulnerable. I missed his debut show at Baby’s All Right, and I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself. Watch this kid - he’s gonna be huge. 

Doesn’t Matter - Christine & The Queens

This one reminds me a lot of an old fave of mine, La Roux: open wound angst over chilling synth beats. The second part of the song (“Run if you stole a shard of sunlight/Don’t ever tell them I’ve got your back/Choking to tears on shards of sunlight/Run if you stole a shard of sunlight”) makes me cry every time. Sometimes it’s tough to be happy and optimistic in this life, and though I’m a cheerful, sunny person by nature, I’m not sure people always realize how much work it can be to remain that way, despite everything. This song gets it.

Break Thru - Dirty Projectors

I would listen to this song over and over while taking showers this summer. It reminds me of my wife, whom I love more than anything in the world. I’ve been a DP fan since Bitte Orca, even though it would be cooler to say “since Rise Above” but that would be lying. The circular riff, the squishy beats and bass, his weirdo vocals - I love it all.

bless ur heart - serpentwithfeet

For about a month, I was making everyone I knew listen to “four ethers” by this guy (which is not on this list because it was released in 2016). Then this album came out, and this song is the final track. It breaks me every time I hear it. It’s the end of a relationship, an attempt to come to terms with what happened. The only growth worth having has a least a little pain in it. Arianna Grande’s “Thank U, Next” isn’t even smart enough to wish it were this song. Even after all the times I’ve listened to it, it still made me cry when I listened to it while writing this.

(also, his outfits are ridiculous, and I have a soft spot for true weirdos)

Don’t Miss It - James Blake

I spent a number of years, most of my life maybe, being a depressed, self-centered asshole. A few years ago, I stopped doing drugs so much, I started taking care of my health, I married the love of my life, and I started being grateful for having such a great life. 

Then I got cancer, and all those things were thrown into sharp relief. I was confronted by my mortality, and whereas before I had been trying to be happy, I now realized that there was no other real choice. Happiness was the only option. I am so lucky. You are too, really, if you want. Don’t miss it.

High Five - Sigrid

This fucking song. Pure pop and absolutely glorious. When the chorus kicks in, it’s like a shot of pleasure straight to the spine. The production is stellar, too (the drums! the vocals! the breakdown in the middle 8!). Just listen and enjoy. 

Honorable mentions:

Golden Wings - Gabriel Garzon-Montano (IMHO this one’s an invocation of the God Mercury, may his name be Thrice Blessed, and the best invocation of a god through music since Holst)

LOGOUT (ft. Chance the Rapper) - Saba 
The beat in this one kept me coming back over and over.

Tomorrow: 2018’s best albums

Sunday, May 20, 2018

You Didn't Miss It If Everything Is Happening At Once

One of the things I hated most about coming up in the music scene in early-90's Tucson (and there were a lot of things to hate about the scene, even if the music was quite good), was the near-past nostalgia. This is, of course, a symptom of the hipsterism that, even then, permeated the town. Nothing defines a small-potatoes backwater with big-city ambitions better than vicious backbiting about matters of taste. Of course, Tucson didn't invent sneering hipsterism, but when I moved to New York in 1996 and went around the music venues, the cynical affect of a lot of the folks I met was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even if I still had no idea how to respond to their lack of enthusiasm for anything.

But near-past nostalgia was particularly prevalent. If a band put out a new album, it was nowhere as good as their early effort, and even I got caught up in it, going so far as to come up with a rule with my then-songwriting partner: first album was best, and everything after that could only be in the running for second place, at the highest. Part of this was in response to a lot of metal and punk bands already being in their "difficult middle" years in the early 90's.

The more I write about this, the more I realize I might not really have a thesis. The truth is, I just hated the idea that, whenever I first discovered a band or an album, there was always somebody there to tell me, "Well, that's kind of their sell-out album. You should have heard them when they first started out." This always led me to believe that, whatever was going on, whatever scene was happening, I had arrived too late. I had always just missed it, whatever "it" was. When I got to New York, by the time I was hearing about Williamsburg in 1999, it was, per all the truly "in-the-know" kids, already over. Bushwick is the same now, as anyone who has been paying attention would be happy to tell you that it's been over since 2010 (or earlier).

I discovered Sonic Youth because of "Goo." I was told that was the "sell-out" album. Maybe they were right, all those hipster kids with their indie-cred gatekeeping. It was pretty pop. Even had a video on MTV.

But because of that album, I went out and found "Daydream Nation". And that's the money, right there. "Daydream Nation" made everything else possible: noise, melody, snark and sincerity rubbing shoulders and butting heads. It was more than a dialectic of rock, punk and art. It kicked ass, and it allowed all the bits and pieces of those things to co-exist and create something more than the sum of the parts.

Everybody told me that "Daydream Nation" was also a sell-out, and that the real shit was "Evol" or "Sister". Then some other people were like, no, even those were too poppy, and what you really wanted was "Bad Moon Rising" and the truly evil stuff they recorded with Lydia Lunch. Nope, said others, it's "Confusion is Sex" and "Kill Yr Idols" or nothing.

Fuck it. The noisy early stuff is fine. Not my thing, though. For my money, "Daydream Nation" is the perfect prescription. They had some good stuff later, too, but this is where it all came together. Art and pop. My favorite.

There's a larger point here, though. "Daydream Nation" put together a lot of disparate elements and allowed them to co-exist. Similarly, on the internet, everything is simultaneous. When the sum total (or damn close enough) of human expression is available at any given moment, suddenly which came first becomes less relevant. The new Anderson .Paak album isn't competing with just the last AP album, it's also possible to compare it with Sudanese dance music from five years ago, Australian pop from the late-80's, and whatever the hell is happening in some small town like Tucson. And not only that, but you can compare it (and cross-fertilize it) with the latest movie by Spike Lee, an essay on metamodernism, or a GIF of Steven Universe with superimposed text written by a kid in Oslo.

There will always be asshole gatekeepers, and there will always be those who hang on to their scenes with a death grip to prop up an insecure sense of self-worth and identity. Regardless, thank you, internet, for making the argument over "artistic progression" vs. "selling out" completely irrelevant, in fact if not in discourse.

Monday, May 14, 2018

This is America, So Lose My Number

Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino) put out a song and a video that blew up the internet, called "This is America". You've probably heard of it.

It details visually, musically, and lyrically, the way that America destroys black lives and then covers up the damage with entertainment.

A few days later, a mash-up video put the first few minutes of the video together with an earworm from the early oughts called "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen. And then THAT blew up the internet.

I'm not linking to that video, because it's radioactive as fuck. If you haven't seen it, you're probably an adult, you can find it.

That being said, I do have some thoughts on it. 

It seems like there are several different reactions one could have to this video, only some of which are legit.
  1. "This is hilarious." Full stop. These people are likely missing the point of the original video.
  2. "This is awful. The people who think this is funny are missing the point of the original video." As we can already see, reaction 2 has a basis in truth, see reaction 1.
  3. “This is hilarious BECAUSE it is awful.” Another way of phrasing this is: "This is hilarious, because it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.” This reaction is responding to the way this video simultaneously seems to undercut the message of the original video and then reinforces it by the juxtaposition of the banal and the serious. Note that this reaction is very difficult for others to distinguish from reaction 1, because it’s both difficult to explain (and remember that any joke you have to explain is explicitly NOT going to be funny to the person you explain it to), and difficult for others to accept in good faith if they are already are in pain from feeling trivialized by reaction 1. It’s also difficult to express because people having reaction 3 are VERY leery of being lumped in with people having reaction 1, and so they’re already starting out from a position of defense. Understandably so.

Reaction 1, while understandable, because this is cleverly and skillfully done, doesn’t fly. I doubt anybody here just thinks the mash-up is straight up funny in its own right. 

Reaction 2 is completely valid: there’s a lot of pain being expressed in the original video, and anything seen as trivializing that is like a slap in the face.

Reaction 3 is also valid, but difficult (and somewhat dangerous) to express, and harder to justify. Laughter that comes, not at the expense of others, but at the existential horror of suffering, is a tough sell to those who are in the midst of suffering.

The laughter that comes from watching somebody fall down an open manhole and die is qualitatively different from the laughter of reaction 3, but that’s not going to make somebody having reaction 2 feel any better.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Rage Against the Past

In 1992 or so, the guitarist and co-songwriter for my band came back from a trip to California with a bootleg cassette of a band. "I've been making everybody listen to this," he said, shoving the tape into my hands. "This was everywhere," he added, shaking his head. "In six months, everyone in Tucson is gonna be playing this."

He was right, of course. He was right about almost everything.