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album accolade score publish_date release_year artist url reviewer text label
Definitely Maybe: Chasing the Sun Edition
Best New Reissue
Ryan Dombal
"I don’t want [to] get too big," said Noel Gallagher back in 1994, squinting into the crystal ball a couple of months before the release of Oasis' debut album, Definitely Maybe. "I'd love to do Wembley Stadium, but where do you go after that?" At the time, the guitarist and songwriter was talking to a fanzine and getting ready to play the lame, 400-capacity East Wing venue in Brighton, England. So not only was Noel looking forward to playing the UK's most storied venue—which was more than 200 times bigger than the East Wing—he was basically already over the fantasy. "I didn’t think we’d get to this stage here for another two years, and in a way it’s fuckin' pissed me off," he continued, talking about the tumbling hype that had followed their first single, "Supersonic", which debuted on the UK charts at #31 earlier that year. "We were going to be this maverick outcast band from Manchester…we were going to shove it up them for two years and then we’d split up."  Oasis did eventually sell-out Wembley three times over at the end of 1997, but by then they were already mired in bloated obsolescence—and they did split up, but only after about 15 years of spinning their wheels. Noel knew his grandest rock'n'roll dreams could lead to trouble, even when they were still merely outsized ambitions in '94. All of those dreams—the platinum plaques, the American crossover, the record-breaking festivals—came true in spectacular fashion over the course of the next three years, and then Oasis really did have no idea where to go. They were terrible at being The Biggest Band in the World, but as this 20th anniversary reissue of their first album makes sparklingly clear, they were amazing at wanting to be The Biggest Band in the World.  Definitely Maybe was made by five losers from the dreary Manchester suburb of Burnage, a locale Noel has described as "a little shitty town where fuck-all happens—it’s one pub and a chippie and a bookie and that’s it." They were second-generation Irish working-class roustabouts who used their government assistance money to buy smokes, drugs, and pints on the weekend before heading back to their dead-end jobs. As Alex Niven writes in his well-rounded new 33 ⅓ book on Definitely Maybe, the boys in Oasis were emblematic of the socio-economic demoralization brought on by the England's every-man-for-himself Conservative policies of the 1980s and early '90s. As Noel once said, "Where I come from, people didn't become rock stars. That happened to other people." But Oasis were also a signpost of hope for an emerging new version of England that was finally mobilizing after being beaten down by the Thatcher years. Against this backdrop, the Gallagher brothers and company emerged: All the anger and nihilism of a go-nowhere existence channeled through Noel's blaring guitar tones and brash, drugged-up lyrics, along with Liam's attack-dog snarl. Definitely Maybe is the sound of people who feel like they need to scream to be heard—and even then, the chances of anyone actually listening seems depressingly unlikely.  And yet, not wholly impossible. The album's first lines are: "Live my life in the city, there's no easy way out." Pretty bleak. But that song is called "Rock 'N' Roll Star", and it's about the possibility of escape via substances, or standing on a stage in front of a dozen people (as Oasis did many times in the early years), or your own head. "In my mind my dreams are real," sings Liam, and who can argue with that? Dreams play a big role on Definitely Maybe and its accompanying B-sides—all of which are collected in this three-disc re-release, along with many live performances and demos from the period—though they often read as both wistful and demanding, owing to the one-in-a-billion ying/yang chemistry between Noel's words and Liam's delivery. On paper, Noel's lyrics often read as bittersweet; then 27, he was beginning to look at his youth as a lost era. But placed in 22-year-old Liam's mouth, "Rock 'N' Roll Star" transforms from a flight of fancy into something like an inevitability. Yes: This man sounds like Lennon and Lydon's sneering son. Yes: He will stop at nothing until these wanting words become physical fact. Yes: Here is your rock 'n' roll star, because there isn't anything else for him to be.  The contentiousness between the brothers fueled Oasis' best moments, and, early on at least, both seemed to understand the situation—even if they couldn't stand each other. Referring to Noel in an interview from '94, Liam said, in no uncertain terms: "That's why we'll be the best band in the world—because I fuckin' hate that twat there." Like vintage Oasis itself, Liam embodied just enough classic rock, just enough punk, and just enough "I'll spit in your fucking eye" to make his unfiltered id stick. Usually, this type of rock persona is associated with more combustible or aggressive music, but Noel tempered the abrasiveness with a trace of melancholy or a fuzzed-up bubblegum melody, as on career highs like "Live Forever" and "Slide Away". Then, now, and forever, Liam is the Definitely and Noel is the Maybe. I couldn't express any of this when I first saw Liam's strobed face on MTV in the "Life Forever" video as a 13-year-old middle-class kid from Long Island, but I got my mom to drive me to Nobody Beats the Wiz to buy the CD all the same. At that time, I thought Axl Rose was an insane genius and Kurt Cobain—who died six days after the release of "Supersonic"—was an inscrutable weirdo. And in America, Oasis were practically an underground band; they were amazingly cool, and I felt cooler for liking them. They were blatantly inspired by all of the canonical rock bands I knew, but they possessed the feeling of now. Their version of infinity guitars and attitude made me feel invincible, the same sensation I got a few years later while getting into hip-hop—another working-class-bred artform known to utilize the past, via sampling and respun rhymes, to accentuate the present. ("Never be afraid of the obvious," Noel once said, "because it's all been done before.") Oasis started from the very bottom and, from that very first note, it was obvious where they were going next. But just as Oasis' undesirable upbringing incited them to lash out through feedback and distortion, you could argue that it stunted their continued artistic existence. Middle-class art-schooler Damon Albarn may have lost the popular vote during Blur's notorious mid-90s battle with Oasis, but with partial thanks to a relatively comfortable adolescence and education, he's clearly won the war, remaining relevant and inquisitive to this day. Oasis' woeful decline, meanwhile, makes a specific line from "Shakermaker" sound a bit heartbreaking in hindsight: "I'd like to be somebody else and not know where I've been." Eventually, the Gallaghers turned into the same rich dicks they were trying to usurp on Definitely Maybe—a sad vengeance. But on the way up, they marked millions. Maybe that should be enough.
Big Brother
Da Mind of Traxman Vol. 2
Meaghan Garvey
As footwork’s gained a certain cachet of “cool” over the past handful of years—swelling gradually from regional curiosity to global movement—there’s been a refreshing lack of “cool” surrounding Traxman. It’s not the fact that he’s been in the game longer than just about anybody: he practically wrote the rulebook, DJing and producing over three sprawling decades of mutations that Chicago house’s DNA underwent, gradually percolating into juke and abstracting into footwork and blurring the lines between all of the above. There’s a cheeky-yet-deadly earnest wink to much of his work, the kind that sits parallel to irony but couldn’t be further from it; in a sphere that rewards overt humor—see DJ Rashad and Freshmoon’s doofily hysterical “Everybody”, built around a meme from the TV show "Intervention", or snarky DJ Slugo numbers like “Wouldn’t You Like To Be A Hoe Too”—Traxman’s sense of humor has persistently tended towards kitsch. He’s not into the long sell, since people are supposed to stay dancing while listening to this stuff, remember? The first volume of Da Mind Of Traxman, his 2012 Planet Mu debut and arguably the first great solo footwork full-length, reveled in these kinds of tenderly shlocky moves, forgoing esotericism for pointedly ham-fisted and ultimately democratic gestures—ideologically, the precocious lovechild of Dilla’s samplemania and 2 Chainz’ knee-slappy dad punchlines. For the owner of one of Chicago’s most renowned record collections, encyclopedic and meticulously organized, Traxman’s never been one for going over his audience’s heads, even when shit gets weird. That would be inefficient, and besides, he can do weird all by himself; that album’s most surreal moment, “Let There Be Rockkkkk”, was built from a cock-in-hand AC/DC sample. Da Mind Of Traxman Vol. 2 is trimmer and more muscular, even as it maintains his signature playfulness. Where its predecessor threw the whole fridge in the blender and delighted in making his friends drink it, here Traxman seems interested in doing more with less, probing the limits of each individual component, experimenting with song structure. Samples misbehave and are duly punished, though there’s an obvious tenderness with which they’re handled even as he brutalizes them. Sticky, honey-coated bursts of Rhodes and horns and xylophones over-eagerly trip on each other, threaten to fall out of sync, then jump back in line on opening track “Time Slip”. “Let It Roll Geto” is an ungodly mash of chopped “Sunglasses At Night”-y synth arpeggios and ghostly, gargled mermaid-soul, all of which gets shoved around by stuttering ghetto-house vocal tics, exponentially accelerating into barked orders like a long-lost Tae-Bo video where Billy Blanks tries PCP. Footwork cuts typically end up either "garish" or "great", with very little room in between those two poles—and there’s certainly a bit of the former here too. “Bubbles” aims for restraint but grows mind-numbingly repetitive, and not in the transcendent, mantra-like sense of footwork and juke at its most effective (like, say, “15416”, hypnotizing in its deceptive simplicity). “Tha Edge Of Panic” starts off intriguingly enough, a gracefully gut-wrenching sequel of sorts to “Let There Be Rockkkkk”, but unravels into brutal hysteria, a nightmare of roid-rage grindcore. That’s the tax for taking these kinds of try-anything-once risks, one that’s fairly inevitable in an 18-track album of any sort, but especially with footwork. By their nature, footwork tracks tend to exist in and of themselves, specific tools in a set moreso than cogs in a unified machine; in heavy doses, they can overwhelm a casual listening session (namely, while multi-tasking and sober). All the same, continuing to classify footwork as a primarily functional art form in 2014 presents something of a paradox. At its core, the claim rings true, and always will—above all else, this is music for dancers who want to be challenged and DJs eager to oblige—but it can also be limiting, particularly taking into account the past four or so years of full-length releases that have aimed not to alter the genre, but to let it transcend its intended context for a bit. It begs the question: what exactly does a great footwork album—a whole greater than the sum of its parts—entail, if it’s even possible? Double Cup, the late DJ Rashad’s 2013 magnum opus, is proof enough that it is; at the very least, it’s the closest a footwork full-length has gotten to perfection. Da Mind Of Traxman Vol. 2, for the most part, is a stellar collection of songs—playful, ballsy, informed by the past but living very much in the present—but they’re songs that relate more as cousins than as siblings.
Planet Mu
Mac Miller
Craig Jenkins
On last year’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Mac Miller earned an elusive measure of cachet among rap diehards by burrowing into his record collection and trying on the irreverent frenzy of Odd Future, the offbeat whimsy of MF Doom, and the gonzo electronics of the Brainfeeder squad. He ended up with the best work of his young career, a satisfying leap from the bushy-tailed, eager-to-please kid brother raps of his early work towards tighter rhymes fixated in a knottier headspace. Mac has since worked tirelessly to prove Watching Movies’ gains were no fluke, showcasing his range on a series of off-the-cuff side projects: Delusional Thomas featured an impishly pitched-up Mac cutting loose on a half-hour mixtape of gutbucket murder raps, while Live from Space documented the plush sonics of Miller’s summer 2013 Space Migration Tour, which fleshed out Watching Movies’ spacier cuts with the help of Syd tha Kid and Matt Martians’ project the Internet. Odd Future associate Vince Staples’ Stolen Youth featured Mac in the producer’s chair unfurling hypnotic soundscapes under his Larry Fisherman pseudonym. Mac Miller’s most ambitious post-Watching Movies project arrived in the form of a Mother’s Day mixtape called Faces, which advances on his last LP's heady sprawl with a palette stretching from rainy day introspection to playful wordplay exercises. Where Watching Movies was equally concerned with refining his writing skills and presenting a personality you wouldn’t mind sparking up a j with, this mixtape prizes frankness over curation. On cuts like opener “Inside Outside” and “Here We Go”, the latter in which Mac pridefully scans his growing empire and notes that he “did it all without a Drake feature”, the joy is infectious. Mac gets downcast for the midsection body shot combo of “Happy Birthday”, “Wedding”, and “Funeral”, a passage that moves seamlessly from excitement to fear and uncertainty (“Do you ever reach to touch her, but there’s nothing there?/ Do you tell her that you love her, but she doesn’t care?”) into despair (“Doing drugs is just a war with boredom, but they’re sure to get me”). Faces goes where Watching Movies wouldn’t, picking over the fallout from a teen rap sensation suddenly becoming nouveau riche. Much of the time, that means picking apart Mac’s infatuation with drugs. Hard partying bleeds into unexpected corners of the proceedings, from the debit card covered in “snowflakes” on “Friends” to the cautionary PCP comedown tale of “Angel Dust”. Miller catalogues reckless substance use like a news anchor would a traffic jam: he matter-of-factly calls himself a “drug absorbent endorphin addict” with a “drug habit like Philip Hoffman” on “What Do You Do?”, and even “Therapy”’s lightweight account of a night out with a girl contains a bout of self-medication. “Malibu” warns that “The good times can be a trap” and toys with the idea of checking into rehab before resolving to just save the remainder of the coke for another day. There's a troubling sense that Mac is tiptoeing down a well-lit path toward self-destruction and that he either feels too helpless or else too enrapt to change course , but if Faces’ good-times-are-killing-me terrors seem overbearing, they’re often offset by a sense that music is his salvation. On the technical end, Faces is Mac Miller’s high watermark. The wordplay is limber and odd, as flows shift mid-verse and imbue otherwise nonsensical turns of phrase with jerky life. It’s enough to make unrepentantly dark lines lively. When “Polo Jeans” opens with “I give no fucks when I go nuts cause I smoke dust, overdosed on the sofa, dead/ Woke up from the coma, pulled up in a Škoda, smoked, went back to bed” you’re more likely to run it back for the deft internal rhymes than the plot point about a potential overdose. Miller’s finally able to play ball with his esteemed rap friends, too; where he once played outfield for guys like Earl Sweatshirt and Staples, here he’s matching them bar for bar. By the time Rick Ross shows up for verse three of “Insomniak”, Mac’s already run the beat ragged. Miller’s advances as a self-taught auteur also extend to production: he crafted the majority of the beats here, and he’s arrived at an unfussed, sample-based melodicism that both harkens back to the jazzy boom bap of the 75 Ark and Fondle ‘Em Records era and stays the hell out of the way of the raps. Faces finds Mac Miller embracing a typical 2010s rapper trope: the exploratory between-album mixtape. Its 24 tracks run nearly an hour and a half, each restlessly tinkering with his songwriting and production talents. The sprawl gives Faces a directionless feel, so it’s doubtful you’ll ever play it all in one sitting—regardless, the kid’s turning out the best work of his career, transforming adversity and discouragement into intriguing art. It might seem daunting, drug-crazed and unwieldy at the outset, but given the proper time and patience, the mixtape proves to be Mac’s most consistently honest and personal work to date. Early on “Here We Go” advises that he “ain’t little Malcolm with the baby face” anymore, and whatever memory of that goofy, affable kid remains, Faces is its slow and methodical death and dismemberment.
The Sleeping Beauties: A Collection of Early and Unreleased Works
Vangelis Katsoulis
Andy Beta
Not to be conflated with fellow Greek countryman Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, whose “Chariots of Fire” theme has become ubiquitous Muzak the world over, this particular Vangelis is also a composer of dulcet tones, yet one whose body of work has hovered just under the radar outside of his native country since the 1980s. Discogs lists nine studio albums credited to Katsoulis, which span from 1986’s Minimal Suite to his most recent, 2011’s Pictures from Inside. But the first time most 21st century listeners might have heard Katsoulis was on the fascinating compilation Into The Light: A Journey Into Greek Electronic Music, Classics & Rarities, which was released less than two years ago and now fetches ludicrous sums online. That comp introduced Greece’s fertile, if unheralded music, scene and heretofore-unknown artists like George Theodorakis and Costas Charitodiplomenos, all of whom blur the lines between ambient, avant garde electronic composition, and New Age drifts in a heady manner. While Vangelis’ contribution didn’t quite break the two-minute mark, it showed an intriguing voice at work. All three aforementioned genres appear in Katsoulis' oeuvre, and this handy introduction to his work shows this composer’s wide range. The track included on that comp, "Improvisation" opens side two of this album; it's a dizzying mix of crisp percussion, pillowy synth chords, and finely minced “choir” presets that could easily be mistaken for something off of R Plus Seven. The track suggests that what might have scanned as New Age softness back in the '80s now offers up a glimpse into the 21st-century avant-garde. The eleven tracks compiled here are ephemeral and lovely, if not always memorable. Four of them first appeared on his 1987 album The Slipping Beauty (the title a play on Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty”) and the title track reveals the kind of shimmering poly-rhythmic tones that bring to mind the likes of Philip Glass. Yet, on “Earth Beat”, heavy drums mix with featherweight keys and a foreboding synth note that sounds like the ominous opening bit of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There’s flute trills on “The Eternal Return”, mixed into a bass glissade, screwed-down vocal growls and hand drums that give the track a strange feel of being both airy and dark. The electric bass on “Longing” sounds like Katsoulis is doing his best overly-busy-solo-Sting impression, but the violin melody remains evocative. In the composer’s notes, Katsoulis writes that his work is closely related to the processes of time, and one particular aspect fascinates him most of all: “Beauty, which being subject to decay, has such a fleeting nature.” The most intriguing moments on The Sleeping Beauties are those that both comment on time and also take their time revealing their quirks and charms. The nearly ten-minute “Enigma” is an odd mix of what might otherwise scan as interstitial music on an afternoon talk show, now dilated into long form modern composition. The two pieces that close the set also hover in that expanded space. The previously unreleased “Imago”, from 2012, builds from a rippling keyboard line that is a sonic speedball, at once mimicking the brightness of steel drums and the pensive moments of an '80s cop show. Soprano saxophone, violin, guitars, keyboard and percussion comprise “Epilogue”, each element cycling as new timbres are introduced. It’s an evocative piece, one that showcases the type of minimalism that informs not just Steve Reich pieces but also waiting room music, each in its own manner soundtracking the passage of time.
Into the Light
Keine Oase in Sicht
Marc Masters
Many bands call themselves “collectives,” but few make music that actually sounds communal and leaderless. In those rare cases, individual voices converge into shared vision, but strands in the resulting web stay distinct rather than blurring into anonymity: think of the natural waves of Japan’s Taj Mahal Travellers, the fuzzy trips of Germany’s Amon Düül, the free-flowing rock of Sweden’s Träd, Gräs Och Stenar, or the rattling jams of New York’s No-Neck Blues Band. It might be premature to rank German collective Datashock among those legends; even their own label has called them “young punks pretending to be old hippies.” But their work over the past decade suggests they could join that echelon. They frequently catch magic moments of emergence, as a patient assemblage of exploratory sounds grows into something transcendent. They’ll wander around with their heads pointed skyward until at some point – often one you don’t notice until they’ve already passed it – they shift into a higher gear. Moments like that abound on Keine Oase in Sicht (German for “No Oasis in Sight”), Datashock's best effort to date. There are times when it feels like they’re toying with their own powers, meditating so long you start to think they’ll never uncover an epiphany—and, inevitably, a climax arrives to justify the group’s long mountain climb. The album opens with the longest climb, the 14-minute “Mudschahidin der Liebe”, whose oscillating organ tones and rave-up crescendo resemble a stretched-out Spiritualized. “Rubinregen aus der spirituellen Sphäre” waltzes stondely to a peak in the vein of Bardo Pond or Eternal Tapestry, and “Her mit dem Kelch, (das) hier muss es sein” is practically funk—James Chance reimagined as a hippie. Even something as gaseous as “Desert Lustgerte, Goldnougat Gobi” ends in a miniature flash of rolling beat that retroactively reveals direction in the sounds that led to it. Compared to other groups who deal in this kind of slow-burning ascension, Datashock are rarely noisy or cacophonous. Instrumental music that’s largely improvised has the tendency to become clutttered, but Datashock express profundity within a clean, spacious sound. Every element is easily legible, but there’s still a dense atmosphere throughout, borne of keen communication and palpable dedication to a common cause. Much of Keine Oase in Sicht is mellow and soothing, but it’s never boring. Such accessibility could make Datashock the underground avant collective for people that like overground psychedelic rock—stranger things have happened—but external validation is, most likely, low on Datashock’s list of priorities. When you’re banded together toward a greater vision, the periphery isn't a big deal.
Hyperdub 10.1
Best New Music
Various Artists
Larry Fitzmaurice
In 2003, writer Steve Goodman, now known to keyed-in music nerds as the producer Kode9, was interviewing Kevin Martin, the mastermind behind the bombed-out dub project the Bug, for dance publication XLR8R. The conversation turned to dubstep, the roots of which were just starting to take hold in London; Martin heard a track of Goodman’s, who was just then cutting his teeth as a producer, and he encouraged him to start a label to release it, promising to help find a distributor. Less than a year later came HYP001, “Sign of the Dub” b/w “Stalker”, a collaborative release between Kode9 and UK rapper Spaceape (then credited as Daddy Gee). For Hyperdub’s first four years, the label moved carefully when it came to releases. Most of their output from 2004–2006 was credited to Goodman and Spaceape, including the duo’s debut LP Memories of the Future, but they also worked with some guy named William Bevan, whose self-titled debut LP as Burial came in 2006, a year after Goodman put out the project’s wobbly first 12“, South London Boroughs. Burial was a modest record that initially attracted curiosity more than it did accolades, but in 2007 Bevan returned with the excellent Ghost Hardware 12” and the instant classic Untrue, a record that came to define dubstep for legions of new listeners seven years before Merriam Webster decided to define it themselves. One of the most influential electronic records  in recent memory, Untrue cemented Bevan as one of the decade’s most vital producers and introduced dubstep (more as a concept, less as a sound) to a much wider audience. So you can imagine what its success did for Hyperdub. A brief glance at the label’s chronological catalog resembles a dam about to burst, and Untrue was the low frequency that shook the firmament to the point of collapse. In 2008 came releases from up-and-coming names that, six years later, are familiar to anyone in the know: bass music basket case Zomby, abstracted pop outfit Darkstar (who at that point were working with a more explicitly dance-focused sound), dubstep-gone-freestyle queen Ikonika. Martin’s lover’s rock-focused King Midas Sound project even put out their first release for the label that year. Hyperdub marked their fifth anniversary in 2009, but despite a half-decade of existence, the label’s creative surge had kicked into high gear only two years previous. So the excellent 5 Years of Hyperdub was as much an overview of where Hyperdub had been as it was a chance to draw on the increased exposure electronic music was receiving and define something approaching a “scene.” Ace cuts from Los Angeles hip-hop auteur Flying Lotus, Dutch dance producer Martyn, and dub-as-fuck mad scientist Mala appeared alongside catalog highlights from label regulars Kode9, LV, and yes, Burial. 5 Years of Hyperdub was the culmination of a series of five 12" releases collecting label highlights—5.1, 5.2, you get the idea—and the expanded approach Hyperdub’s taken to that concept for their 10-year anniversary is indicative of how quickly Goodman’s label has grown, both in size and influence. 10.1 is a two-CD set—the first in the series, no less—with one disc collecting tracks from the label’s last five years and one with entirely new material. Each compilation will have a theme, and 10.1 turns its focus towards dancefloor-centered cuts, so those waiting for a collection of Hyperdub’s stranger entries might have to wait a little longer. That said, 10.1 is more proof that Hyperdub can’t help but embrace left-of-center even as it focuses on club fare. This is far from a bad thing: Hyperdub’s released some of the most appealingly odd and oddly prescient electronic music of the last 15 years, and the glaring omissions from this volume’s disc of catalog cuts—Terror Danjah’s fiery grime tune “Acid” from 2010, Ossie’s bubbly UK Funky cut “Set the Tone” from 2011, the jagged piano-house of Laurel Halo’s “Throw”, from last year's Behind the Green Door EP—only serve to highlight the wealth of material the label has released. Dance music label comps serve a dual purpose: 1) provide an accessible way for non-collectors to obtain material that might’ve received limited release; 2) offer labels a way to define their legacy or current position in the music landscape. 10.1 fulfills the first function simply by existing, and effectively flips two middle fingers towards the second. One of the most intriguing elements of Hyperdub’s output is its sheer unpredictability and refusal of easy categorization. The closest thing to dubstep proper on the first disc is Burial and Spaceape’s Burial cut “Spaceape”, an obvious nod to Hyperdub’s humble beginnings; from there, we’re hit with variations on the breezy skip of Funky (Funkystepz’s “Hurricane Riddim”, Ill Blu’s “Clapper”), 8-bit fantasias (Ikonika’s “Idiot”, Walton’s “Aggy”), low-slung hip-hop (Mark Pritchard and Om’mas Keith’s “Wind It Up”), and effervescent grime (Kode9’s “Xingfu Lu”). In addition to shining a light on the difficulty of categorizing Hyperdub, the old-stuff collection is further proof that the label’s vision is always trained forward. Appearances from regulars Ikonika and Cooly G are a reminder that, along with Laurel Halo and Canadian techno-pop architect Jessy Lanza, Hyperdub’s been one of the few of-the-moment dance labels to consistently showcase female artists. Stylistically, they’ve also found themselves ahead of the curve: Morgan Zarate’s as-of-yet-underappreciated “Hookid”, from 2011, is a tangled sigh of staircase tones, phased-out bass hits, and cascading synths ripped from Southern U.S. hip-hop. At the time, it was a curiosity; in 2014, it sounds like a trap precedent, if that sound’s basic elements were scrambled in a blender and poured all over some poor sap’s kitchen counter. The new-stuff disc offers few hints as to where the label is headed next, which is unsurprising, but the variety on display is only matched by the quality of the tunes themselves. Detroit techno fiend Kyle Hall’s “Girl U So Strong” builds and breaks with wheezing tones and backbeats, a throaty diva shout occasionally popping up to offer an anchor; Zarate returns with the hard-hitting “Kaytsu”, a track even more explicitly trap than the genre-predicting “Hookid”, while the relatively quiet producer Kuedo (whose 2011 LP Severant still stands as an overlooked gem) returns with a track dubbed after his namesake and sporting his signature Vangelis-meets-Big Tymers style of aural hypnotism. Following the explicit reggae of his Essential Mix from last year, Mala delivers one of his meanest anthems to date with the stomping “Expected”, while Japanese producer and Hyperdub mainstay Quarta330 closes out the disc with the hyper-colorful “Hanabi”. The “what’s to come” section takes up the back half of 10.1’s fresh-jams collection, in the form of a stretch of footwork primarily from the Teklife crew. Footwork continues to gain a greater presence in the electronic world, aided by fellow UK label Planet Mu’s scene-surveying Bangs & Works compilations and cemented by last year’s classic LP from the late DJ Rashad, Double Cup. Earlier this year, Goodman told The Japan Times that he was drawn to getting involved with the genre by way of Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas: “Mike said to me, ‘Go on, release this stuff, because everyone thinks I’m crazy.’” Paradinas had a point—footwork in its rawest form can be grating, and the stretch of brown-sound bass hits and repetitive vocal samples that mark the back half of the first disc of 10.1 may lead to a few headaches. But Hyperdub’s embrace of the genre was perfectly timed, and the cuts presented here showcase a scene that is further mutating and innovating as it gains more widespread attention. Taso & Djunya’s “Only the Strong Survive” pairs footwork’s intense focus with a starry-eyed sense of wonder, DJ Spinn“’s ”All My Teklife“ features synths that glisten so bright they threaten to overpower everything else around them, and DJ Earl’s ”I’m Gonna Get You" hammers its titular phrase home to the point of aggravation until the sample drops out with a sense of relief before revving up all over again. Rashad appears posthumously on both discs of 10.1: along with DJ Taye, he had a hand in DJ Earl’s other cut on the new disc, the typically intense “Bombaklot”, and Rashad and Gant-Man further explore Double Cup’s acid techno flirtations on the enjoyable “Acid Life”. He also closes out the disc of catalog highlights—the comp was announced well before Rashad’s sudden and tragic death last month, so this is an unusual occurrence of timing above all else—with the epochal “Let It Go”. A titanic track that could be considered footwork’s own “Strings of Life”, “Let It Go” has a classic, immovable sound, as a lone drum machine kicks things off before meeting up with the endlessly, blissfully repeated vocal sample. Some warped strings enter, and for a second it seems like things are off—“Something doesn’t sound right” is, granted, an understandable reaction to most footwork—but then the vocal sample completes itself with a diva’s cry, “Baaa-by/ Bayyyyyy-beeeeee”, that hits like a gut-punch. “Let It Go” was released on March 18, 2013, as part of Rashad’s excellent Rollin’ EP for Hyperdub; a year, one month, and eight days later, he was found dead at his home in Chicago’s West Side. Before his death, I must have personally listened to “Let It Go” at least eight or nine times a week, and every time I put it on, it took me places that only the most impressionistically beautiful pieces of music can go. I’ve listened to it while feeling sad, happy, unsure, frustrated, in love, out of place—basically, it’s music I put on when I want to feel something. After Rashad’s death, the urge to latch onto the track’s more melancholy aspects is there, but every time I reach for “Let It Go”, the flood of emotions remains rich and complex. Rashad touched a lot of people with his visionary, melodic approach to footwork, and the dance community has only begun feeling the effects of his legacy; amidst the incredible collection of tunes on 10.1, “Let It Go” is proof that, even in the ever-changing world of electronic music, it’s possible to create something that sounds absolutely timeless.
American Football
Best New Reissue
American Football
Ian Cohen
“Honestly I can’t remember all my teenage feelings and their meanings.” Any list of Great Moments in Emo Lyricism would be incomplete without this curious Mike Kinsella-sung line during “Honestly?”, the third track from American Football’s only album, released in 1999. But really...honestly? We are, after all, talking about a genre assumed to be in constant contact with the feelings of teendom—but the next line gives more context: “They seem too/ See-through/ To be true.” Rather than someone cutting themselves off from or invalidating their own teenage feelings, Kinsella’s just outside that time frame trying to figure out how the emotions and music that moved him during his formative years figure into his current life. That’s why, as self-identifying emo bands are making music that’s more mature, refined, and exploratory than anything that came before it, American Football is currently the most influential album in the genre. This deluxe reissue of American Football benefits from unusually good timing—and unlike most solemnly revered anniversary sets, this isn’t a mobilization of fan dollars after countless inclusions in Best Of Decade lists, and it's not a case of “You had to be there” nostalgia, either. The raw 4-track demos, generous liner notes (written by guitarist Steve Holmes), and candid photographs are meant to welcome the people who weren’t “there” back in 1999, a grouping that includes pretty much everybody at this point. Still, the album's reach in 2014 is estimable: American Football recently sold out an entire weekend at Webster Hall in New York in the matter of minutes—each night they'll play to a crowd ten times bigger than any they saw during their entire existence. Personally, it took me damn near a decade to find and appreciate American Football, and looking back, it's easy to understand why it didn’t have made an instantaneous or seismic impact upon its release. After the implosion of Cap’n Jazz, Mike’s brother Tim was the more public, combative and divisive party; meanwhile, the Promise Ring had just released Very Emergency  months prior, one of emo's preliminary pushes towards the center. Consequently, American Football came together quickly, stirred up a decent amount of anticipation from a formative EP (its exclusion is the only disappointment the reissue provides), and disbanded almost immediately after the release of the LP. Of course, hardcore fans claim plenty of one-off collectors’ items as landmarks, and in retrospect, American Football’s existence as something of a cul de sac rather than a connection to Kinsella’s later work as Owen or Owls further serves to show what a unique record it is. American Football’s greatest innovation was successfully removing any trace of punk rock while still functioning within the genre. This was a bold maneuver, since the genre's hardcore roots were about the only thing that gave its practicioners even the slightest bit of credibility. American Football weren’t the only ones headed in new directions (see: the Appleseed Cast), but whatever you think “punk rock” means, they got rid of it on American Football—there’s no confrontation, almost no distortion, no power chords, and none of the verse/chorus structure that was maintained even when emo became virtually synonymous with alt-rock. In actuality, American Football is one of the more subtle post-rock records of its time—a variation on what the Sea and Cake and Gastr Del Sol were doing a few hours north in Chicago, but crucially operating from the heart rather than the brain. Only “Honestly?” bears some remnant of proper “rock” music, its main riff a twang-free rendering of “Rebel Rebel”. The cascading coda of “Stay Home” alludes to Slowdive's Pygmalion, while “The Summer Ends” recasts the pastoral free-form, flowing hymnals of late Talk Talk as a swooning mash note. In the reissue's liner notes, Holmes makes numerous mentions of the band emulating Steve Reich and Miles Davis—typical namedrops for people in their early 20s who want to make it clear how seriously they’re taking music these days. There is trumpet on the record, courtesy of drummer Steve Lamos, and no one will mistake its sounds for anything the Prince of Darkness ever conjured. But Lamos’ amateur ingenuity perfectly suits the album's informality. The jarring blue note that introduces “The Summer Ends” sounds like a mistake at first, but by playing it twice the wrong note becomes the right note; it's a Choose Your Own Adventure Breakup Song that leaves its conclusion open-ended, even if you just know something’s forever lost. Likewise, over the glimmering motifs of “For Sure”, Lamos' sighing, brassy wail lets you know that when Kinsella whispers “Imagine us together”, the whole thing will end in tears. Minimalism, repetition, and subtle virtuosity were rare elements amidst Cap’n Jazz’s spazzed-out arpeggios, the Vagrant label's lockstep pop, and the severe start-and-stop musicianship of Jade Tree and Deep Elm bands. So what, exactly, makes American Football emo? Upon announcing their reunion, the band explained their return by joking, “Obviously, we knew the time was ripe for three middle aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings, and stand around tuning guitars for a long time." It’s actually the latter part of that statement that points to American Football's constantly shifting, implacable emotional pull. There isn’t much insight as to what inspired Kinsella’s lyrics and he didn’t emote harder or rawer than anyone else. But Holmes and Kinsella’s guitar playing is the most emotive the genre has been privy to, inverting the typical power trio dynamic and rendering Kinsella’s minimal lyrics as a platform for elaboration rather than the final word. Very little of American Football is in a minor key and almost none of it can be performed on a single guitar, so it’s not explicitly heartbroken music, nor is it ever entirely joyous. Rather than pinpoint an emotion, the record exists on a continuum. There’s no right answer as to whether “The Summer Ends” is a devotional, a last goodbye, or some combination of the two—the ache and beauty are intertwined. Instrumental "You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon” is the album's most playful cut, and it’s similarly open to interpretation: is it about leaving soon because everyone has to eventually get on with their day after spending the night together, or is it about leaving—like, for good? Nothing suggests a typical narrative arc, but it's worth noting that the song that follows "You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon" is called “But the Regrets are Killing Me”, and after that, “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional” (let it be said, these guys had a sense of humor). American Football operates from a mindset where everything is about to happen, and that inability to stay present is a feeling that’s neither teenage nor see-through nor false. American Football was released in September of 1999, which lends the album a real-time immediacy: the lyrics begin in June and end in August, surely a powerful period of time for teenagers and college-bound kids (American Football were University of Illinois students at the time). Unless you’re a teacher or NFL player, though, the typical adult's day-to-day doesn’t change all that much during the summer—it’s hotter, there are dumber movies in the theater, and that's about it. And yet, those same see-through teenage feelings can still manifest during the change of the seasons, regardless of age; there are many reasons “Indian Summer” is one of the most frequently covered indie rock songs, and similarly we're only now beginning to recognize how American Football struck an emotional chord, one that’s proven to be every bit as resonant.
Ultima II Massage
Jonah Bromwich
Ultima II Massage, the latest full-length from Tom Fec's Tobacco project, finds the Black Moth Super Rainbow frontman moving from the gently corroded Technicolor psych-prog of 2010’s Maniac Meat to a full-on barrage of wobbling, low-end-heavy bizarro pop. Fec’s work as Tobacco is frequently approached as a dichotomy of beauty and ugliness; on Ultima's front half, the "ugly" quotient has been ramped up to match the project's warped, grotty imagery. The album's standouts signify an evolved sound. Obscene, rowdy, and fun, “Eruption (Gonna Get My Hair Cut At The End of the Summer)” is aggro-R&B cut with a dose of Minneapolis funk, while album opener “Streaker”, which features Beck collaborator Brian LeBarton, is grindhouse glam rock with heavy artillery.  Fec claims in a press release that Ultima II Massage is the “definitive end” to his conceptual aims, and he ends up with a zombified mix of Marc Bolan and Prince doused in the industrial scuzz and slime of Tobacco’s customary sonics and executed with puerile glee. Lyrically, Ultima II Massage is in line with previous Tobacco efforts. Fec is, in his own way, a sensual songwriter, his lyrics are calculated for visceral impact—so there’s plenty of material about popsicles, ejaculation, and fruit, naturally, along with various skin-crawling ephemera. Obscenity is applied liberally, moreso than on past releases; Fec has said that Tobacco's associated imagery draws inspiration from a pre-pubescent mindset, and here he possesses all the excitement of a kid who’s just discovered the full power of the word “motherfucker” for the first time. Ultima’s less gentle tracks are a welcome evolution in Tobacco's music, but the old, swooning BMSR sound--scarred, melodic music that sounds as if it’s just starting to rot--pops up now and again. Occasionally, Fec finds a sweet spot between the two poles, an approach that's crystallized on the violently saccharine “Lipstick Destroyer”. “Creaming for Beginners”, meanwhile, is a heavily distorted ballad with a blistering, slow-burning melody. Overall, though, Fec doesn't always achieve that balance, so there's several mid-album cuts here that jog in place despite their inherent prettiness, speaking to the album's uneven momentum as a whole. While Ultima II Massage starts off with material that's heavier and meaner than anything he’s done previously, the lighter sound of the album's back half can't help but come across as a drop in ambition, turning down the volume on what could've been the most dynamic Tobacco record to date.
Fabriclive 75
Elijah & Skilliam
Andrew Gaerig
Last summer Simon Reynolds published an update to his seminal book on rave music, Energy Flash, that included his thoughts on, among other recent trends, dubstep. "Instrumental music goes international so much easier," he mused, explaining how one knobby, London-centric bass sound—dubstep—had elbowed another—grime—out of the spotlight. Reynolds looks prescient now: grime, minus its thickly accented MCs, saw a major resurgence in 2013. The sound went global, too, as producers from Texas to Tokyo aided a gaggle of UK artists in re-introducing grime's cagey melodic contortions to club culture. As heads of the Butterz label (and the eponymous recurring party), Elijah & Skilliam have been central to London grime's re-emergence. Their imprint outstrips newfound interest in the style: since 2010, their label has housed grime veterans (Terror Danjah) and fostered new talent (Royal-T). Their weekly radio show on Rinse FM has served as a hub for the sound's widening pallette. Alongside Keysound Recordings, Hyperdub, and Night Slugs Butterz has erected a platform for grime more durable and prominent than that of its heyday, clearing space for veterans such as Wiley and Footsie to co-habitate with the upstarts. The genre now encompasses everything from Visionist's nimble dub mutations to Preditah's reptilian lumber, but it's generally characterized by stabbing mid-range synthesizers, spare, idiosyncratic percussion, a deep-space sub. The mark of a good grime track seems to be just how unstable it can sound, taking a childlike glee in contrasting pretty, ethereal melodies with amoeba-like sub-bass. Fabriclive 75 is the pair's second official mix CD, following their 2011 effort for Rinse's series. They're unique in that they're not producers, instead functioning as true scene stewards. As such, Fabriclive 75 serves as an overview of the producers and tracks in their orbit rather than as a representation of their DJ sets. They peddle a distinctly UK sound, largely focusing on grime's chunky mid-range gymnastics but also incorporating the clubbier house sounds of UK Funky while ignoring recent trap and footwork influences. There are lots of dark, outre sounds on Fabriclive 75 but the overall effect is cheeky and effusive. It's difficult to imagine dancing to much of Fabriclive 75, but it is party music, better suited for having some beers and bouncing around than getting stoned in your living room. When you listen to old grime tapes (the Wire has a potent collection here), their roughness is inescapable: awkward cuts, run-backs, dropped sound, lots of airhorn. Even more recent efforts, such as DJ Slimzee and the always golden Flow Dan's Radio 1 mix, have a homespun, improvisational quality to them. Grime MCs, like the jungle and UK Garage MCs before them, emerged from the storied tradition of reggae soundclashes: a constant dialogue with the selector interspersed with boasts and taunts. In retrospect, it's obvious why grime MCs never made good hip-hop records: these guys are inveterate shit-talkers, not storytellers. (Grime as a pop phenomenon, though, has also experienced a resurgence in the UK.) The 70-minute mix DJ mix, in comparison, is a relatively ascetic, formal environment, one where rough cuts can't simply be attributed to the DJs playing to the crowd's energy. Fabriclive 75 suffers at times, due in part to Elijah & Skilliam's choice to showcase such a wide variety of sounds. Mixing in and out of tracks such as Joker and Swindle's blockbuster anthem as 040 "Let It Be Known" and Murlo's slinky lullaby "Into Mist" is difficult even under more forgiving circumstances. Some of the best cuts the duo selects—DJ Q's "Two Faced" into Sir Spyro's grind-worthy "Pull It Up"—have more to do with house and R&B than grime. Fabriclive 75 survives some rough patches, though, because it's a bounty of vibrant, creative music. A couple of proper dubs—with grime MCs hyping Elijah & Skilliam over familar tracks—are a nice touch and a nod to the increasing frequency with which MCs are being invited back into the booth.  It's a bit difficult to recommend in light of Elijah & Skilliam's Rinse mix—less comprehensive but fiercer—and, more importantly, their weekly (and downloadable) show for Rinse, which is both free and a more natural way to follow the ebbs and flows of the scene. As a jumping off point for further exploration, though, you won't find a more concise or considered collection of grime's talents.
Lullabies Help the Brain Grow
Big Boys
Jason Heller
Post-hardcore’s point of conception is as vague and debatable as that of post-punk, but a strong case can be made for placing the former's genesis at “Sound on Sound,” a remarkable track from Big Boys’ 1983 album Lullabies Help the Brain Grow. The title is a tipoff: “Sound on Sound” is built on a stratum of radio-degraded voice samples and static, and over all of that, a lopsided rhythm of minimal drums and wiry bass limps along, stretching empty space over its own rickety skeleton. Guitar harmonics ping like sonar, and no riffs are brought to bear. Guitarist Tim Kerr takes the mic from the band’s buoyant, bellicose frontman Randy “Biscuit” Turner, and instead of bellowing, he speaks simply yet cryptically, his voice both intimate and distant. It’s spacious, but that space screams. Contemporaries like Mission of Burma sound metal by comparison. The subtle stasis of tension and release is enough to pluck nerves. Lullabies, along with Big Boys’ swansong, 1985’s No Matter How Long the Line at the Cafeteria, There’s Always a Seat, are being reissued as discrete entities after spending two decades shoehorned together on the Touch and Go anthology The Fat Elvis. Post-hardcore is not what either album is best known as; while the band’s fellow pioneers of the Austin punk scene—most notably MDC, the Dicks, and Offenders—each nailed down its own consistent vision of punk rock, Big Boys loved funk. Granted, they weren’t the first to do so, as Gang of Four and Minutemen will attest. Lullabies is particularly beholden to the latter, as gleefully evident on jerky, syncopated songs like “Jump the Fence” and, well, “Funk Off”. But Big Boys had much more going on in their sound than simply providing a bridge between Minutemen and Red Hot Chili Peppers. “We Got Your Money” sports a shout-along, garage-rock populism that openly mocks the frat boys who loved them. More convolutedly satirical is the funk-fired, horn-injected “White Nigger”, especially in light of the Big Boys’ legendary feud with Bad Brains over homophobic taunts (the late Turner was openly gay). Musically and lyrically, the song is only a hair away from being a parody of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”, one that acknowledges its creators’ whiteness in a far more confrontational and problematic way. It’s so far from “Sound on Sound”, it’s hard to believe it’s the same band. At a time when hardcore brooked little ambition or experimentation, that’s ultimately a good thing.   The horns—but thankfully not the racial commentary—reappear on No Matter. The two years between the two albums sheared off some of Big Boys’ loose ends, as No Matter is more cohesive, settling into a punk-funk groove that closes the gap between circle pit and campus kegger. Turner's ragged howl had taken on a soulful melancholy as he grew less sure of hardcore—and less sure of his place in it—and that battle-scarred maturity is best heard on “Which Way to Go”. Sung in tandem by Turner and Kerr, it’s a cousin to the ringing, melodic, introspective mutation of hardcore that Rites of Spring was playing at the same time in Washington, D.C.—one that Hüsker Dü had helped instigate, too. Big Boys didn’t invent emo, but with a singular, heart-piercing song, they helped shape it. In the same way that punk was nowhere near finished when post-punk rose in the late ’70s, hardcore still raged in 1983 as Big Boys set the pace for what was to come—and still, hardcore rages on during both Lullabies and No Matter, records that boast far more restlessness and recklessness than almost any of its contemporary influences. The former's “Brickwall” is a 40-second dry-heave of asphyxiated punk that doesn’t even provide enough processing time for panic to set in, and No Matter’s opening song, “No”, is a sneer-and-squeal spasm of angst that imagines Jello Biafra seizing control of Black Flag. Still, Big Boys were never a self-styled street-gang perpetrating Reagan-era nihilism. A bleak sense of humor and a desperate underbelly lurked beneath their alternately derivative and innovative stream of anthems—but they lit and lifted that darkness with a surplus of savage joy. Post-hardcore would ultimately take a more dour route; heard as a whole, though, Lullabies and No Matter comprise a pastel-smeared, bursting-with-life reminder that things could have gone another way.
Light in the Attic


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