Intertextual Orientation: The Pop Palimpsest

During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.

As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.

Christian Marclay: Cyanotype

Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.

Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.

It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.

References:

Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.

Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (2006, June). Are you talkin’ to ME? The reasons for and use of media allusions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany.

Irwin, William. (2004, October). Against Intertextuality. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 28, Number 2, pp. 227-242. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Linde, Charlotte. (2009). Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Orr, Mary. (2003). Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts. Cambridge: Polity.

Roudiez, L. S. (1980). Introduction. In J. Kristeva, Desire in language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 1-20.

Stock, B. (1983). The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Alterity of Cool

William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”

Say word.

I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.

As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.

References:

Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.

Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.

Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rollefson, J. Griffith. (2017). Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Katheryn. (2018, January 29). The Lost Giant of American Literature. The New Yorker.

Wallace, Christopher. (1994). Juicy. On Ready to Die [LP]. New York: Bad Boy/Arista.

Top Records, 2017

This has been another year of change for me. I’m finding more and more difficult to see how others stagnate as they age. Maybe others see me some kind of way, but one place that tendency is evident is in the music we listen to: I am constantly finding new and exciting sounds. Whether it’s seeing Street Sects open for my dudes dälek at Beat Kitchen in Chicago, or EMA, Sleaford Mods, Moor Mother, and Sturgill Simpson making me rethink the very concept of genre, there’s always someone pushing things one way or another.

One thing about this list you might notice: There’s a lot less metal this year. Though I did see Nails at the Bottom Lounge in April, my several-years-long metal kick somehow finally lost momentum early in the year. My in-between phases are kind of all over the place, but maybe you’ll find something in here you like. At the very least, this year’s list is more diverse than it has been in a while.

The clear label winner for 2017 is The Flenser. We were definitely riding the same waves this year.

As always, I’ve included links to Bandcamp where available. I’m not in cahoots with them, I’m just a fan of their platform. Without further fuckery, here are my top however-many records from 2017 and some leftovers from last year.

Shabazz Palaces Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines (Sub Pop): With little-to-no warning, Shabazz Palaces dropped a double smartbomb on the summer of 2017. I mean, I interviewed Ish Butler in January, and he didn’t even mention the imminent releases. To attempt to describe this double release is to participate in folly. It will be a long time before anyone is able to place this greatness.

EMA Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang): Erika M. Anderson claims not to be making science fiction records, but each time she says it, her voice grows fainter due to her distance from Earth. Exile in the Outer Ring‘s sounds are more spacey, its textures more other-worldly. This is EMA from the farthest out yet.

Planning for Burial Below the House (The Flenser): Over the past few years, Planning for Burial has slowly become one of my absolute favorite bands, and stunning records like Below the House are the reason. I’ve listened to its opener, “Whiskey and Wine,” more times than any other song this year.

dälek Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac): On their second record after a lengthy hiatus, dälek has already outpaced the momentum that made them the pioneers of this sound. Every song is a weapon against complacency, a bomb in your brain. The result is fucking devastating.

Kendrick Lamar DAMN. (TDE): He’s not hailed as the best doing it for nothing. If untitled unmastered proved how good he is when left to himself, DAMN. only adds to that power. The polish is in the right places, and the rest is left jagged, rugged, and raw.

Joey Bada$$ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ (Pro Era/Cinematic): The ongoing debates regarding who’s the best right now seem to always be between Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake. Why Joey Bada$$ is excluded is baffling. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is easily one of the best records of 2017 — in any genre, much less hip-hop. And if I hear one more person say that the “industry changed him,” whatever the fuck that means, I will duct-tape headphones to their head and make them listen to Enta Da Stage until further notice. Bada$$ is a badass.

Wand Plum (Drag City): Despite the cloud on the cover, Plum is not quite as thick and hazy as Wand’s previous outings. From the contagious psych-groove of “White Cat” to the dreamy jam-out of “Blue Cloud,” Wand has the soundtrack to your synesthesia right here.

Playboi Carti s/t (AWGE/Interscope): Before Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut came out, I read an interview with him in which he talked about not being in a hurry to get it finished. He was taking his time. His diligence and patience paid off. A couple of weeks after I’d last listened to this record, I heard “wokeuplikethis*” blaring out of a boutique on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago. I still have it stuck in my head. Infectious A.F.

Street Sects Rat Jacket (The Flenser): Street Sects is back with all their previous industrial rage plus guitars! These four songs pack more power than most bands’ full-length records. See them live for the full effect.

Godflesh Post Self (Avalanche Recordings): Also regaining their momentum after a lengthy hiatus, Godflesh is back with a monster slab of riffs and beats. Post Self sounds more like a confident continuation than a comeback, and more than 2014’s A World Lit Only by Fire, it picks up where 2001’s Hymns left off. Brutal grooves.

Open City Open City (self-released): Boasting ex-members of Lifetime, Ceremony, Kid Dynamite, Armalite, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, among several others, it’s difficult to imagine Open City being anything other than awesome. They deliver on the promises of their collective past with a core that’s rock hard and a sophistication that only comes with years of honing it.

White Suns Psychic Drift (The Flenser): Since abandoning their guitars, White Suns have only gotten louder, harsher, and more interesting. Psychic Drift is as abrasive as it is subversive, as textured as it is layered, and as hot as it is bright.

Vince Staples Big Fish Theory (ARTium/Blacksmith/Def Jam): It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Vince Staples is doing on Big Fish Theory, but it’s good, and dude is definitely growing. From the laid-back bass-fuzz of “Yeah Right” (with Kendrick) to the rumbling flow of “BagBak,” Staples is up there with the best of his contemporaries.

Aesop Rock Bushwick Soundtrack (Lakeshore): It’s not just tracks without the raps, though there are a few on here that are begging for the man’s multisyllables. Aes’s Bushwick score has been some of my favorite work music this year. Put it on, bob the head, and tear into the task. Energetic, eerie, and emotive.

Metz Strange Peace (Sub Pop): In the mid-1990s, there emerged a genre-less sound somewhere between punk and metal, but totally different from what their merging conjures. Think Barkmarket, Jesus Lizard, or Jawbox. Metz brings that sound bludgeoning back with a brutal update. It’s never been clearer than on their third, Strange Peace. Play loud or not at all.

Heinali and Matt Finney How We Lived  (The Flenser): A pairing made somewhere south of heaven, Heinali and Matt Finney are back with another dark, droney collection of beautiful bedtime stories. There’s absolutely nothing like it anywhere else.

Ride Weather Diaries (Wichita): I once went on a year-long kick during which all I listened to was Ride. There’s something about their harmonies beset by droning feedback rhythms that just hooks me. Weather Diaries is a welcome return to that lovely, lulling sound.

Wolves in the Throne Room Thrice Woven (Artemisia): As much as I was off metal for most of the year, I had to check the new Wolves in the Throne Room. Thrice Woven is a return to their Cascadian transcendental black metal roots, real roots you can feel like fingers deep in the dirt.

Sean Price Imperius Rex (Duck Down): He’s still my favorite, so of course I love this posthumous release. Imperius Rex would be better if he were still around. Sean is a monster emcee, growling from the grave. r.i.P!

Exit Order Seed of Hysteria (Deathwish, Inc.): With all the indecisive genre bending going on these days, it’s refreshing to hear a band hit one right down the middle. Exit Order is good ol’ punk rock: fast, ferocious, and ready for anything. Frontwoman Anna Cataldo surfs their bundle of angry energy like a pro.

Words Hurt Soul Music for the Soulless (self-released): With Hangar 18 alumnus Alaska on the mic and his dude Lang Vo on the beats, Words Hurt is on the rampage on their second full-length. Alaska’s been busy all year dropping a track a month with his Atoms Fam homie Cryptic One (as IT), so the lyrical skills are as sharp as ever.

Kicking Giant This Being the Ballad of Kicking Giant, Halo: NYC​/​Olympia 1989 – 1993 (Drawing Room): Kicking Giant has always been about juxtaposition, the angles at which the worlds of Rachel Carns and Tae Won Yu meet. As Tae writes, “On one hand, there was the derangement of living in urban squalor and on the other, a predilection for simple harmonies and unpretentious purity.” This collection is a welcome return to that place in between. It’s also quite a beautiful package.

Drab Majesty The Demonstration (Dais): Where some just rehash and revive, Drab Majesty is one of the few bands to transcend their sound’s lineage. What could’ve been just throwback Gothic pop is instead a dark celebration of now as much as then. The Demonstration is as original as it is honorary, as catchy as it is cathartic.

Arca s/t (XL): Don’t let the cover scare you, Arca’s third record is the stuff of dreams. It’s his first with vocals, and you’ll wonder why as his voice carries most of these songs. It’s all great, but hang in there: The slower, later tracks “Desafío” and “Miel” are the best.

Jlin Black Origami (Planet Mu): Perhaps more frenetic than her last outing, Black Origami shows Jlin sharpening her set and sound. If 2015’s Dark Energy (also on Mike Paradinas’ Planet Mu label) is a knife, this is its very edge. Footwork from the future.

Eluvium Shuffle Drones (Temporary Residence): As the song list reads, “Simply put, the suggested manner of listening to this work is to isolate the collection and to randomize the play pattern on infinite repeat — thus creating a shuffling drone orchestration — the intent is to create a body of work specifically designed for and in disruption of modern listening habits and to suggest something peaceful, complex, unique, and ever-changing. Thank you.” It’s all of that and more.

Cloakroom Time Well (Relapse): There’s something so cozy about the landlocked, fly-over doom-pop of Cloakroom. They’re like an earthbound Hum, a rock-stanced Jesu, or Swervedriver on the wrong speed.

Uniform Wake in Fright (Sacred Bones): The nastiest of the now, Uniform noise it up not-so-nicely. There’s something really satisfying about the precision of parts of this and the sloppiness of others. It’s like being sliced up with a scalpel and bludgeoned over the head at the same time.

Steven Wilson To the Bone (Caroline): I’ve been a fan of Steven Wilson’s work since Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, but I had lost interest in his solo work since his work with Mikael Åkerfeldt and his own Grace for Drowning (2011). I checked in again with this one, and everything I liked is here: the grand arrangements, the soaring choruses, the catchy quirkiness. Like early Eno, Wilson works with and around the conventions of progressive pop to great effect.

Björk Utopia (One Little Indian): No matter the era, Björk has always been one of the most compelling artists in the world. The last time she sounded this overtly in-love was perhaps on “Hit,” from her last record with The Sugarcubes nearly 30 years ago.

Sleaford Mods English Tapas (Rough Trade): Staggering between the stilted pop of The Fall to the electronic claustrophobia of Suicide to the whitey alt-hip-hop of Soul Coughing, these blokes have stumbled upon something awesome. With Andrew Fearn helming the laptop and Jason Williamson ranting along, English Tapas is so weirdly catchy, you’ll want to listen to it all the time.

Dizzee Rascal Raskit (Island): Staying out ahead of everyone else for over a decade, Dizzee Rascal has been building a body of work average emcees can only aspire to. Raskit is no exception. This is dude’s sixth record! Please stop sleeping on the Brexit brethren.

Last Year’s Leftovers:

Sometimes it takes a minute. Here are the one’s that either missed last year’s list or just deserve continued attention regardless.

Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool (XL): While it missed my list last year, it’s one of the best of 2016. It took a long time for this record to unfold for me, but now I can’t stop listening to it. “Decks Dark” alone is one of my all-time favorite Radiohead tracks.

Choke Chains s/t (Slovenly): Choke Chains deliver heaps of nasty fun on their 2016 self-titled LP. It’s energetic and dirty like buried cables. Don’t call first. Just dig right in.

Moor Mother Fetish Bones (Black Quantum Futurism/Afrofuturist Affair): The best thing I heard all year came out last year. Though I’d read quite a bit by Moor Mother, I had yet to hear her music — a mistake I hope you won’t repeat. If you like your hip-hop noisy, your noise groovy, and both angry as fuck, then you’ll love the righteous rage of Moor Mother Goddess.

M. Sayyid Error Tape 1 (self-released): There’s simply no one like M. Sayyid. Antipop Consortium’s resident storyteller is back on his solo game. The best thing out of that camp for a minute, Error Tape 1 is M. Sayyid at his best yet.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic): Written as letters from a seaward father to his young son, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is easily Simpson’s most personal record, an area he hasn’t necessarily avoided in the past. A Sailor’s Guide… places him somewhere between the cowpunk country of Dwight Yoakam and the haunting twang of Chris Isaak. It leans toward the latter.

Youth Code Commitment to Complications (Dais): As soon as someone declares a style dead, it comes raging back with a fury unforeseen. Youth Code is one of several recent outfits resurrecting danceable but deadly industrial music.

Danny Brown Atrocity Exhibition (Warp): Damn… Worthy of both its nominal forebears, Atrocity Exhibition is rap at its artistic peak. Really doe.

Minor Victories s/t (Fat Possum): What happens when Stuart from Mogwai and Rachel from Slowdive are in the same band? A victory more than minor.

Tim Hecker Love Streams (4AD): Love Streams is an odd mix of old and new, organic and synthetic. According to the 4AD site, “Hecker admits to thinking about ideas like ‘liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus‘ and the ‘transcendental voice in the age of auto-tune’ during its creation.” Hear it in there.

Jenny Hval Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones): Comparing Jenny Hval to Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson are easy, but if Julie Cruise were slightly pissed, a little more aggro, she might sound like Jenny Hval. Blood Bitch is beautifully unsettling, simmering with a rage barely contained.

Clipping. Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop): According to clipping., “Splendor & Misery is an Afrofuturist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him. Thinking he is alone and lost in space, the character discovers music in the ship’s shuddering hull and chirping instrument panels.” I mean, it was nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form — and deservedly so. It’s dope.

Roly Porter Third Law (Tri-Angle): From the booming bounce of “Mass” to the scraping majesty of “High Places,” Third Law shows Roly Porter in full command of his craft.

Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers): It must be added that The Kid’s last record soundtracked a lot of my 2017, as it did my 2016.

Five Fives: Top 25 Records, 2016

2016 was a year of monster releases from veterans and relative newcomers alike. Weirdly, three of the top five were neatly stacked side by side. N-bands Nails, Neurosis, and Nothing put out three of my most-listened-to and most revered records. My friends and heroes, emcess/producers Aesop Rock and dälek round out The Five Best. It’s not a huge drop off from there, but these were definitely my five favorites. Let’s run them down along with the other worthy candidates in five sets of five: The Five Best, Five More, The Five Less Likely, The Five Heaviest, and Five Leftover From Last Year. Disclaimer: hyperboles abound. It was a good year for music!

The Five Best:

Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid

Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers): On easily his most personal record yet, Aesop Rock dug deep but didn’t forget to come up for air. I’ve listened to this record hundreds of times — more than any other this year. There’s not a skippable song in the bunch, and too many favorites to name. The Kid just keeps getting better.

Neurosis: Fires Within Fires

Neurosis Fires Within Fires (Neurot Recordings): Thirty years strong and still pushing every boundary in every direction, Neurosis proved once again why they’re considered one of the best bands doing it. Fires Within Fires pulls from all of their flame-forged, hard-earned strengths. “Broken Ground,” for one, seethes with the slow burn of a raging star. Their output from this century alone puts them high above most other bands, and this is just one more untouchable document of their power.

Nothing: Tired of Tomorrow

Nothing Tired of Tomorrow (Relapse): Where they’ve previously flown their influences like a flag in the fog, Nothing really cleared a definitive path for themselves on Tired of Tomorrow. They’ll probably never shake the 90s-revivalist, shoegazer tag, but they’re bigger and broader than that. This—only their second full-length record—more than proves it.

dalek: Asphalt for Eden

dälek Asphalt for Eden (Profound Lore): Back at it with their OG DJ (rEK), longtime fellow traveler (Mike Manteca), and of course MC dälek (Will Brooks; Peace to Brother Oktopus), they’ve never sounded better. “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left),” with its mix of dreamy feedback drones and nightmare non-notes, is a perfect example of how unique and how powerful this music is. Shame on you for not playing this all year as loud as possible.

Nails: You Will Never Be One of Us

Nails You Will Never Be One of Us (Nuclear Blast): I watched with excruciating anticipation as Nails released in-studio video teasers in the months leading up to the release of You Will Never Be One of Us. One of the most used words in those videos was “Slayer,” which only made my pain more acute. The record owes as much to Nails’ past as it does Slayer though: all of their bluntness sharpened to a lethal point. At a breakneck 21 minutes and 43 seconds, it’s a beast of a release in every way.

Five More:

ERR: Marked for Death

Emma Ruth Rundle Marked for Death (Sargent House): Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death rolls in emotional waves, crests in catharsis, and is downright devastating all round. “Heaven” alone is enough to level the strongest of any of us. If you’re still standing after that, try “Real Big Sky.” If that doesn’t do it, you’re more of a “man” than I.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language

Daniel Lanois Goodbye to Language (ANTI-): In his 2010 book, Soul Mining (faber & faber), Daniel Lanois mentions an idea called “future hymns.” Goodbye to Language is somewhere between “future hymns” and an update to the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record that Lanois did with Roger and Brian Eno in 1983. There’s an outer-space quality to these compositions but also a frontier feeling. According to Eno, the twang on Apollo was to “give the impression of weightless space.” According to Lanois, it was because the astronauts were from Texas. The steel guitar is the reason here, and it works here as it did there. Such a beautifully subtle record.

True Widow: Avvolgere

True Widow Avvolgere (Relapse): Great music is often completely confounding. True Widow has been slowly building a body of work that confuses me in the very best way. It’s doomy and heavy but also light and shoegazy. It’s hypnotic above all else. Given enough time, True Widow might be one of the only bands future-people still talk about from our era.

Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness

Explosions in the Sky The Wilderness (Temporary Residence): Call it a comeback, if you must. The Wilderness is everything you love about Explosions in the Sky refined and redefined all over again.

Savages: Adore Life

Savages Adore Life (Matador): Savages’ infectious, angular energy is showcased properly on Adore Life. The original Gang of Four finally have a worthy heir.

The Five Less Likely:

It Only Gets Worse: Angels

It Only Gets Worse Angels (self-released): Over the past few years, the words of Matt Finney and the music of Maurice de Jong have been melding into some of the most heartbreaking sounds around. Angels, their first proper full-length record, is no exception. If I had this on any analog format, it would be worn out.

Wreck and Reference: Indifferent Rivers Romance End

Wreck & Reference Indifferent Rivers Romance End (The Flenser): Indifferent Rivers Romance End is a hard star to place in a constellation, but there’s no denying its gravity. It’s so heavy it hurts. I don’t know what to call what Wreck & Reference does, but it doesn’t really matter. They do it because they have to, and that’s enough. Pain is intoxicating.

the body: No One Deserves Happiness

The Body No One Deserves Happiness (Thrill Jockey): Most of The Body’s output the last several years has been collaborations with everyone from Thou and Full of Hell to Japan’s Vampillia. On this, their first full-length by themselves in two years, they continue illustrating why they’re one of the most adventurous bands in the Metal underground. Brutally weird.

White Lung: Paradise

White Lung Paradise (Domino): I often wake up with Mish Barber-Way’s words—written and sung—in my head. She is the absolute embodiment of 21st Century Punk Rock, and White Lung is but one arm of her full-frontal haranguing of hegemony. Join the fight or else.

Father: I'm a Piece of Shit

Father I’m a Piece of Shit (Awful Records): So laid-back as to be dreamlike, Father’s latest is a pill-fueled fantasy of excess. It’s like using the last of your three wishes to wish for more wishes, getting them, and then realizing how bad you fucked up. This is the slow-grinding sound of greed, indulgence, and ultimate nihilism. His new song is dope too. Father is the future.

The Five Heaviest:

Mouth of the Architect: Path of Eight

Mouth of the Architect Path of Eight (Translation Loss): Delivering on the promises of 2013’s Dawning, Path of Eight is Mouth of the Architect at the peak of their massive powers.

Vukari: Divination

Vukari Divination (Bindrune Recordings): Chicago’s own Black Metal powerhouse, Vukari came back even more polished on 2016’s Divination. This has been my go-to Black-Metal release of the year, and one that I’m guessing hasn’t revealed all of its delights.

Oathbreaker: Rheia

Oathbreaker Rheia (Deathwish, Inc.): Burning down the barriers between all the subgenres of heavy music, Oathbreaker is one of the only bands worthy of the “post-” part of the post-metal mantle. That, and Rheia might be the best metal record of the decade. It’s huge.

Heiress: Made Wrong

Heiress Made Wrong (The Mylene Sheath): Seattle’s most underrated band did it again. Another great mix of pedigree (Undertow, Botch, et al.) and prophesy, Made Wrong is the product of pieces of the past and planning for the future. The metal is strong with this one.

Russian Circles: Guidance

Russian Circles Guidance (Sargent House): As an instrumental three-piece, Russian Circles have few peers. Their live shows are always stellar and their records always push limits. Guidance is no exception. Heavy music gets no better than this.

One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache

The Body & Full of Hell One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache (Neurot Recordings): As one of The Body’s aforementioned many recent collaborations, this is easily the heaviest. It’s difficult to imagine tempering the fiery fury of Full of Hell with anything, much less the mechanical, maniacal howling of The Body. This melding of metal is as much noise as it is music, and that is to its credit not its detriment.

Five Leftovers from Last Year:

Kamasi Washington: The Epic

Kamasi Washington The Epic (Brainfeeder): I totally missed this one last year. The Epic, Kamasi Washington’s immense, three-disc debut (after self-releasing a few gems and collaborating with everyone from Ryan Adams to Kendrick Lamar), is the future of Jazz. Don’t sleep like I did. Do yourself a flavor.

Panopticon: Autumn Eternal

Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings): One of the most underrated one-person, American Black Metal bands (even I only gave it runner-up status on last year’s list), Panopticon’s latest, 2015’s Autumn Eternal is his—Austin Lunn’s—best yet. It’s the third of a trilogy including Kentucky (2012) and Roads to the North (2014). Dig in!

Tunde Olaniran: Transgressor

Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): If ever there were an album that deserved to linger at the top of a list such as this, Transgressor is that record. If this year’s “Namesake” video doesn’t do it for you, then just never mind me over here dancing. Guaranteed to keep you reaching up for them high notes.

Red Apollo: Altruist

Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista): One thing lots of bands and fans miss about the many strains of Black Metal is the subtleties. Another runner-up from last year, Altruist has so many, it took me an extra year to hear them all. And don’t miss their cover of Deftones’ “Knife Party” from White Pony.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda

Deafheaven New Burmuda (ANTI-): What else can I say? They’re my favorite, and this is their best record yet. Sunbather may have solidified their status, but New Bermuda shows shades of the many other things they can do. This lives in rotation.

Top 20 Records, 2015

With all the beautiful debuts, great returns, and stellar collaborations this year, I’m still baffled by people who complain about the current state of music. I couldn’t even cover all of 2015’s great releases, but here are the ones I listened to and loved the most.

Unless otherwise noted, each album is linked to its Bandcamp page so you can have a listen and support the artists, if you are so inclined.

Deafheaven: New Bermuda

Deafheaven New Bermuda (ANTI-): Let’s not kid ourselves, when a band does a record as good as Sunbather (Deathwish, 2013), it’s difficult to imagine what they’re going to do next. No matter what you had in mind, I’m sure New Bermuda is not it. Not that it’s a left turn from what they’ve done before, but I’m baffled as to how they got better. Until compiling this list, New Bermuda was the only record I wrote about this year. I’m still quite okay with that. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.

Publicist UK: Forgive Yourself

Publicist UK Forgive Yourself (Relapse): Forgive Yourself is perhaps not what one would expect from a band consisting of Brett Bamberger (Revocation), Zach Lipez (Freshkills), David Obuchowski (Goes Cube, Distant Correspondent), and Dave Witte (Melt-Banana, Burnt by the Sun, Municipal Waste), but it’s heavy in all the other ways. Two weeks of listening to little else besides this record sent me on a two-month long Bauhuas and Killing Joke kick, if that clarifies the sound at all.

Tunde Olaniran: Transgressor

Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): Flint, Michigan may as well be another planet where Tunde Olaniran is concerned. His spaced-out soul is from some future Flint where pop music is fun and funky above all else. Just have a quick listen to “Namesake,” “Diamonds,” or the title track. Olaniran succeeds where The Weeknd fails.

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Chelsea Wolfe Abyss (Sargent House): Chelsea Wolfe shines a bright light into so much darkness. This is a record of such binaries: light/dark, loud/quiet, ugly/beautiful, terror/calm… Wolfe holds them all in a deft, delicate balance. The abyss never sounded so inviting. [Also one of the best live shows I saw this year.]

Zombi: Shape Shift

Zombi Shape Shift (Relapse): You know the era of Rush that every old-man fan hates? It runs from Signals to Grace Under Pressure on through Power Windows and Hold Your Fire — the 1980s, basically? Well, Zombi has taken that thinking-person’s prog-pop and pushed it straight into outer space (The beginning of “Total Breakthrough” even sounds vaguely like “Subdivisions”). “Triumphant return” is a phrase we’ve all heard before. This record is what it means.

Tau Cross

Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse): Finally, a band that’s just the sum of its parts! With bassist and vocalist Rob Miller (Amebix), Michel “Away” Langevin (Voivod) on drums and Jon Misery (Misery) and Andy Lefton (War//Plague) on guitars, Tau Cross can afford to trust the math. Reminds me of when Al Cisneros and Chris Hakiusof (Om, Sleep) got together with Scott “Wino” Weinrich (St. Vitus, The Hidden Hand, etc.) and Scott Kelly (Neurosis) to form Shrinebuilder: It sounds fresh and weathered at the same time. Unexpect the expected. [Thanks to Grant at Bucket O’ Blood for the tip on this one.]

Heiress: Of Great Sorrow

Heiress Of Great Sorrow (The Mylene Sheath): Of Great Sorrow by Seattle’s Heiress, which includes vocalist John Pettibone (Himsa, Undertow, nineironspitfire) and was recorded by Tad Doyle (Tad, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth), reminds me of all the interesting ways hardcore and metal can mix (think Kiss It Goodbye or Botch). Heiress consistently does just that.

Failure: The Heart is a Monster

Failure The Heart is a Monster (INgrooves): The 1990s are coming all the way back! The thing is, all the bands returning from that decade (e.g., My Bloody Valentine, Godflesh, Failure, et al.) are not the ones bringing it back. The shadow of Failure’s 1996 space-rock classic Fantastic Planet (Slash/Warner Bros.) looms long not only over them but countless other bands and various genres. Fortunately The Heart is a Monster just sounds like Failure. That’s a good thing in any decade.

Liturgy: The Ark Work

Liturgy The Ark Work (Thrill Jockey): The Ark Work all but abandons the American Transcendental Black Metal that Liturgy helped establish. The result is a strange mix of layered samples, repetitive drones, blast beats, and chanted vocals. The result could just as easily end up in your recycle bin as it could on repeat for days. The result is annoying, compelling, and utterly intoxicating. It’s an album as polarizing as its creator.

Gnaw Their Tongues: Abyss of Longing Throats

Gnaw Their Tongues Abyss of Longing Throats (Crucial Blast): Out of all the horrendously beautiful noise that Gnaw Their Tongues have released, dare I say that Abyss of Longing Throats is the most musical? Don’t get that twisted, this fits the sound of the Crucial Blast family, which includes Theologian, Light, Gulaggh, Year of No Light, Across Tundras, and Hal Hutchinson, among others. Gnaw Their Tongues has been churning out nastiness for a while now, but this record plumbs ever new depths to reach a definitive new high.

Low: Ones and Sixes

Low Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop): Over the past 20+ years, Low has ever-so-quietly become one of the most important bands of our time. They’re yet to do a sub-par record or repeat what they’ve done before, and Ones and Sixes is no exception. No one blends vulnerability and power into such perfectly crafted songs like Low.

Cult Leader: Lightless Walk

Cult Leader Lightless Walk (Deathwish, Inc.): They call it “progressive crust,” which is apt. Cult Leader is like every heavy genre wrapped up in a shiny, bloody, metal point. Lightless Walk is not out-and-out noise though. Groove, melody, dynamics, and great production are not lacking here. Whatever you call it, it’s brutally moving.

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer: Crater

Daniel Menche & Mamiffer Crater (SIGE): I’ve been a fan of Daniel Menche‘s sound sculptures for damn near 20 years. On Crater his dense layers of sonic texture are tempered by Aaron Ross and Faith Coloccia’s muted sense of melody. It’s less of a balance you can hear and more of a tension you can feel.

Thou & The Body

The Body & Thou Released From Love / You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey): Two great tastes that taste great together. The Body spent 2015 building a small collection of excellent collaborations (the others with Vampillia and Krieg are also well worth checking out), and this is one of the best. Oh, and as great as it is, don’t let the cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Terrible Lie” be the only thing you hear off of this.

Metz: II

Metz II (Sub Pop): What exactly is this? Metz hearkens back to the early 1990s when everything from Fugazi and Jawbox to Barkmarket and The Jesus Lizard were redefining what it meant to play punkish, heavy rock. Metz doesn’t concern themselves with such genre trouble. On this, their second outing, they blast relentlessly through ten more songs of whatever it is, screaming forward with their collective foot fully on the gas pedal. It’s a fun and frenetic ride.

Dragged Into Sunlight / Gnaw Their Tongues

Dragged Into Sunlight & Gnaw Their Tongues N.V. (Prosthetic): “N.V.” stands for “negative volume.” One of the nameless members of Dragged Into Sunlight explains it this way: “The thing about modern volume is that it just isn’t as good as that negative volume, that real fucked-up, 90s, wall-smashing, soul-crushing volume, a level of unrivaled misery and a time when extreme music posed a genuine threat with bands such as early Obituary, Mayhem, and Godflesh. It is on that basis that the title N.V. best summarizes the intent of the music.” That’s exactly what this collaboration sounds like: unrivaled misery and genuine threat.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

Grave Pleasures Dream Crash (Metal Blade): Grave Pleasures emerged from the remains of Beastmilk this year with some sweet, gothic post-punk. Goth is stronger than ever thanks especially to Chelsea Wolfe, Publicist UK, Anasazi, and this. [Thanks to Radio Fenriz for this one.]

Sunn O))): Kannon

Sunn O))) Kannon (Southern Lord): Finally, Sunn O))) returns with another drone-metal masterpiece, their first non-collaborative album since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions (In the meantime they’ve worked with Scott Walker, Ulver, Nurse With Wound, and Pan Sonic, each on respective projects). Kannon is all the reasons you love or hate Sunn O))): the drones, the monk-like chants, the darkness. It’s perfect.

John Carpenter's Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s Lost Themes (Sacred Bones): For all the influence his creepy minimalist melodies have had, you rarely hear director John Carpenter’s scores mentioned much (Have a listen to Disasterpiece’s score for It Follows, for one excellent example). On Lost Themes he ventures into strictly sonic territory without moving images to accompany. Make no mistake, even without blades and blood, these are still scary little jaunts into the mind of horror.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (TDE): Don’t even front: No 2015 list is complete without it.

If This List Were Longer: Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista), Xibalba Tierra Y Libertad (Southern Lord), Flying Saucer Attack Instrumentals 2015 (Drag City), Marriages Salome (Sargent House), Trial Vessel (High Roller), Brothers of the Sonic Cloth s/t (Neurot), Marduk Frontschwein (Century Media), Dystopia Nå! Dweller on the Threshold (Avantgarde), Haust Bodies (Fysisk Format), Anasazi Nasty Witch Rock (La Vida Es Un Mus), Myrkur M (Relapse), Steve Von Till A Life Unto Itself (Neurot), Killing Joke Pylon (Spinefarm), Ghost Meliora (Loma Vista), Archivist Archivist (Alerta Antifascista), Wimps Suitcase (Kill Rock Stars), Anopheli The Ache of Want (Halo of Flies/Alerta Antifascista), Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings), Wives So Removed (Wives), Disasterpiece It Follows (Milan), Slayer Repentless (Nuclear Blast).

Black Milk: Never Dated

Black Milk is both one of Detroit’s dopest producers and one of its best emcees. I’ve been saying for years now that, as dudes who do double duty in the studio, Black Milk and Cadence Weapon succeed where Kanye West fell off. That’s not to make it a zero-sum game. It’s just to say that when it comes to beat-makers on the mic, Black Milk is “here to save the game like a memory card.”

Black Milk was born when new wave music was at its very peak. To wit, The Police played New York’s Shea Stadium right around the time Milk was joining the populous of Detroit, Michigan. He started out in music loading in gear and then banging out beats for Slum Villiage. Influenced by the sounds of The Native Tongues, DJ Premier, J. Dilla, Pete Rock, and I dare say New Wave, his first solo joints, 2005’s Sound of the City (Music House) and 2006’s Broken Wax (Fat Beats) made promises that 2007’s Popular Demand (Fat Beats) and 2008’s Tronic (Fat Beats) delivered on. He’s since worked with Danny Brown, Canibus, Proof, Pharoahe Monch, GZA, KRS-One, Buckshot, Big Pooh, Bun B, Pete Rock, Guilty Simpson, Ruste Juxx, Black Thought, and Jack White, among many others. In addition, along with Guilty Simpson and The Mighty Sean Price, Black Milk is a member of the hip-hop power trio, Random Axe.

Album of the Year, so named because it dropped almost exactly a year after Tronic‘s release, is a mixed bag in the best possible way. Black Milk’s production thrives on a blend of jarring elements that ease the edges of each other. Case-in-point and one of my favorite Milk tracks, “Deadly Medley,” featuring Royce da 5’9″ and Elzhi, is a hectic blend of twangy, barely tuned guitars, insistent airhorns, big, booming drums, and some of the best lines of late (e.g., track underdog, Elzhi’s saying, “Pockets go green like it was Earth Day/ That’s why I blow cake like it’s my birthday”).

Black Milk builds the best of both by boldly releasing instrumentals and touring with his live band, Nat Turner. His 2013 record, No Poison, No Paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), showed a deeper shade of soulful darkness. It’s more introspective but no less inventive. “I feel like that album was me reinventing myself,” he tells Darcy McDonald of Cult Montreal, “whether for the fans that already knew about my catalogue beforehand, or if you weren’t that familiar with my music, you were kind of introduced to a version of Black Milk that’s totally different from what I started out with. It’s a more personal album, a more conceptual album. So I think it was, more so, me reinventing myself as an artist, and definitely as a writer.”

Late last year, Milk released If There’s a Hell Below (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), possibly his last solo effort for a while. “I’m about to jump into a Random Axe album with Guilty and Sean Price,” he says. “For the next year or couple of years, I’m gonna try to focus more on production and beats versus solo rap albums. So over the next year or so, you’re gonna hear some different artists over the top of my production.”

Black Milk and I were supposed to talk a few years ago, but I got the times mixed up and missed him. Phone lag. Maybe it’s for the best. In the studio or live on the mic, Black Milk makes music that exists outside of timezones.

Placing the Playback: Hip-hop in Context

The perpetual now of digital media makes it difficult to contextualize events in time: watching old SNL sketches and trying to explain what it was like to watch them live on television, playing old records and trying to capture what it was like the first time the world heard that sound, talking about where you were when the Shuttle exploded or the Towers fell. As Shinya Yamazaki so bluntly puts it in William Gibson‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties (Putnam, 1999),

I know you all think you live in all the times at once, everything recorded for you, it’s all there to play back. Digital. That’s all that is, though: playback. You still don’t remember what it felt like (p. 259).

Check the Technique, Volume 2Built as it is out of previously recorded material, hip-hop is especially vulnerable to this contextually lossy age. Thankfully, there are remedies. Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-hop Junkies by Brian Coleman (Wax Facts, 2014) continues his investigating skills and impeccable taste with liner notes for 25 more classic hip-hop records. Some lesser known than the last the albums in the last volume but no less essential: debuts by 3rd Bass, Black Sheep, The Beatnuts, Ice Cube, Dr. Octagon, Jeru the Damaja, Mantronix, Black Star, Stetsasonic, Kwamé, Raekwon, Gravediggaz, Naughty by Nature, Diamond D, Smif-N-Wessun, and Company Flow. About the latter’s Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus, 1997), rapper, producer, and current Run the Jewels member, El-P says,

I didn’t have any specific expectations for the record, I just wanted it to be huge. Shit, they were playing it on Hot 97, we were in the Source, we were selling out shows. It was crazy. So yeah, it was great, it was a dream come true, and it was the thing that made the rest of my career possible (p. 75).

The promotional steps needed to break an act like Company Flow in the late 1990s were all but gone just a few years later. This kind of context—the historical milieu, the technical aspects, the events of the day, the personalities in the studio—these are the cues and clues needed to make sense of recordings heard out of their times. As Coleman told me in 2005,

When I sit down and chop it up with my friends about what hip-hop albums I love, I’m not like: “Wow, isn’t it weird how many white people like hip-hop? Why do you think that is?” I’m more like: “Holy shit, how did Schoolly D get ‘PSK’ to sound like that? Did he do that drum program himself? And that story about his mom tearing apart his room in ‘Saturday Night’ is fucking hilarious.” If writers are really fans of the music and the art form, personally I just wish they would put the energy into describing why it’s such a dynamic music and stop trying to describe and translate it to their unhip academic peers.

Check the Technique, Volume 2 and its predecessor, much like Albert Mudrian‘s Precious Metal (Da Capo, 2009), go a long way to not only contextualizing these great records but also to bringing the energy of fans to the music.

The Concise Guide to Hip-hop MusicFurther to that end, Paul Edwards, the man who brought us How to Rap (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and How to Rap 2 (2013), is back with The Concise Guide to Hip-hop Music (St. Martin’s, 2015). Subtitled “A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip-hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap,” this book is truly that. It’s that rare book that’s both perfect for the beginner and essential for the veteran. As I said in my back-cover blurb,

Part oral history, part investigative nitty-gritty, Paul Edwards’ The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music fills the cracks left by the large and growing literature on the genre. From the very origins of the word to its worldwide word-up, this is the essential guide for both the hip-hop buff and the hopelessly baffled.

That’s real. No matter what you think you know about the history of hip-hop, this book will school you on some, if not all, aspects of the genre.

Chicago Hustle and FlowFrom the wide world of hip-hop history to its many regional influences, Chicago Hustle and Flow by Geoff Harkness (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) connects Chicago hip-hop to its subcultural context. His perspective is further from the theories and closer to the streets. When you think of Chicago hip-hop, perhaps you think of Common, Kanye West, or Lupe Fiasco, but, as Adeem states in the Introduction to Chicago Hustle and Flow, “that’s all fine and dandy, but that’s a Hollywood type of Chicago picture right there. You need to get to the underground, to the actual ‘hood, the heart of it. Then you’ll come to understand it” (p. 1). Harkness does just that. From the Xcons vs Bully Boyz to Chief Keef vs Lil Jojo, and from traditional appropriation to the inverting of gang signs, this is the first in-depth exploration of Chicago’s hip-hop underground. It’s a worthy read about a worthy region.

Just when you thought you knew everything about hip-hop, more great books come out. Getting this stuff situated in its proper context both historically and geographically is the work of book-length interrogations by knowledgeable, reverent writers like these.

Top 14, 2014

Depending on the fandom, our attention to music can span from the insignificance of wallpaper to the altar upon we sacrifice our days. It can be everything from decoration to downright worship. I probably tend more toward the latter than the former, but you probably already know that.

Of all the things that December brings, year-end lists might be the most polarizing, to some by their contents and to others by their mere existence. Regardless, these are the records that soundtracked my 2014, in no particular order. The links on this post, unless otherwise specified, link to the bands’ Bandcamp page so you can listen to them if you like.

Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend

Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot): If there’s any band that has yet to get their due, it’s Yob. They’ve been slowly building a stellar body of work for years, and Clearing the Path to Ascend illustrates just how refined their sound has become. It’s heavy and doomy, yet oh so subtle, their most personal and personable release: a near-perfect record.

Nothing: Guilty of Everything

Nothing Guilty of Everything (Relapse): Nothing came out of nowhere last year promising to update a sound that was all but lost to the past. On their debut full-length, Guilty of Everything, you can hear the presence of various bands from the 1990s: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Eric’s Trip, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, etc. But Nothing manages to take those sounds and do something all their own with them. For every influence you might trainspot, there’s always something ultimately unique about the way Nothing brings it all together. It’s a mesmerizing mix.

YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

Young and in the Way When Life Comes to Death (Deathwish): The mix of black metal with other genres in not new. Many bands have done it to great effect (e.g., Wolves in the Throne Room, Deafheaven, Panopticon, Myrkur, etc.), and the blackened crust of YAITW is a perfect alloy. The riffs that are usually missing from black metal are here en force. I can never seem to play it loud enough.

White Suns: Totem

White Suns Totem (The Flenser): White Suns, whose last record spent a lot of time in my ears, completely reinvented themselves for Totem. As they said of a show just prior to the record’s release, “You may notice that it is a bit different from our previous work.” The core of what they’ve done in the past is still here, but it’s much sharper, much more piercing. Here’s hoping that abrasive electronics like this and Wreck & Reference, whose Want (Deathwish; See below) was also in heavy rotation around here this year, continue to crush expectations.

GODFLESH: A World Lit Only by Fire

Godflesh A World Lit Only by Fire (Avalanche): I’m always wary when a long-defunct, all-time favorite band reunites years later. Not that I doubted Justin Broadrick and Benny Green’s getting back together, but I did have to wonder. The record that resulted, A World Lit Only by Fire, is a welcome return of a monster outfit. It fits well in their catalog and continues what they were doing when they split 12 years ago. The title evokes a flaming planet, cities and nations scorched in ruin, but it’s actually a reference to a book about the darkness of the Middle Ages by the same name. Both visions work well for Godflesh’s sound on this record. It’s dark, brutal, and could come from a tumultuous past or a post-apocalyptic future. Glad to have them back.

Trans Am: Volume X

Trans Am Volume X (Thrill Jockey): The tenth album from Trans Am, the 21st-century’s own Kraftwerk Plus (Lily calls them “Krautwerk”), is no less confounding than anything in their nine previous lives. From their usual arty Krautrock to the surprisingly frenetic thrash of “Backlash,” Trans Am is well worth exploring if you haven’t already, and Volume X is as good a place to start as any.

Code Orange: I Am King

Code Orange Kids I Am King (Deathwish): This is another record that just makes you proud to love the band that made it. Code Orange Kids studied up, did their homework, and schooled everyone else trying to make any kind of heavy music. I Am King stays true to its hardcore roots while bringing all kinds of new noise to the network. This is the anthem.

Hail Mary Mallon: Bestiary

Hail Mary Mallon Bestiary (Rhymesayers): Even if I’ve strayed from Hip-hop with my several year metal kick, there are still a few folks I have to check in on. My dudes Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz are among the few, and Bestiary illustrates why. This is just classic beats and rhymes with tight wordplay, the turntable on display, and an atemporal sense that it could’ve been made during any era. Timely, timeless, and right on time.

Wreck and Reference: Want

Wreck & Reference Want (Deathwish): This is the sound of despair. There’s no other way to describe it. Wreck & Reference defy genre conventions with machine-driven noise, anguished vocals, and abject nihilism. Want is as heavy as anything out, but it’s nothing you expect from heavy music: monstrous, wondrous, and somehow beautiful.

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks): Debates about punk being dead are over. Perfect Pussy keep it alive and kicking so much ass. From The Shoppers to Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves is a force of nurture.

Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon Roads to the North (Bindrune): Panopticon, Austin Lunn’s one-person band, continues to show why he’s such a force in American black metal. Where his work with Seidr is heavy on the heavens, Panopticon tends toward the trees. It’s as rural as it is dark and might be the only black metal in which you’re likely to hear a banjo.

Torch Runner: Endless Nothing

Torch Runner Endless Nothing (Southern Lord): After nearly wearing out Committed to the Ground this year, I found out that Endless Nothing had dropped. It’s a welcome 13 more songs of violent, ugly, hardcore grind. Just what I needed right when I needed it.

Earth: Primitive and Deadly

Earth Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord): Earth are the undisputed kings of drone, and they expand their sound in subtle ways with every record. Primitive and Deadly includes more vocals than normal, courtesy of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi on two respective tracks, but all of the reasons that Earth is so revered are here in glorious form.

Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden

Pallbearer Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore): What else is there to say about Pallbearer’s break-out opus? This is the kind of record you always wish a band you love would release. Foundations of Burden is a beautiful blend of loss, rage, and hope. It’s heavy in every possible way and rewards the repeated listen. It’s a beast of a release.

If This List Were Longer: Boris Noise (Sargent House), Coffinworm IV.I.VII (Profound Lore), Thou Heathen (Gilead), Cult Leader Nothing for Us Here (Deathwish), Falls of Rauros Believe in No Coming Shore (Bindrune), Sguaguarahchristis Der Nacht (This Winter Will Last Forever), Mogwai Rave Tapes (Rock Action), Scott Walker & Sunn O))) Soused (4AD), Full of Hell & Merzbow (Profound Lore), Rob Sonic Alice in Thunderdome (OK-47), Trap Them Blissfucker (Prosthetic), Trash Talk No Peace (Trash Talk/Odd Future), Today is the Day Animal Mother (Southern Lord), Morphinist The Pessimist Session (Throats Productions), Theologian Some Things Have to Be Endured (Crucial Blast), Planning for Burial Desideratum (The Flenser), Panopticon/Falls of Rauros split (Bindrune), Wolves in the Throne Room Celestite (Artemisia), Floor Oblation (Season of Mist), The Atlas Moth The Old Believer (Profound Lore), Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal), Murmur Murmur (Season of Mist), and Myrkur Myrkur (Relapse).

The One I was Mentioned On: My dudes Johnny Ciggs and Skweeky Watahfawls gave me a shout out on their collab record, See Us on the Dancefloor (Gritty City), on the song “Celebrate” (at around the 4:35 mark). The record is dope, and I’m stoked to have been a very small part of it. Can’t wait to see what the fam does next. Rock, rock on!

If I’m Being Honest: It should probably be noted that I listened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather (Deathwish) as much or more than any record from this year. I should also mention that this list was compiled in the shadow of intense anticipation of the new Xibalba record, Tierra Y Libertad, to be released next month on Southern Lord.

Special Thanks: I can’t imagine what it must take to run a record label these days. Many thanks to the people who do, especially the fine folks at Deathwish, Inc., Southern Lord, Profound Lore, The Flenser, Bindrune, Neurot, Sargent House, Thrill Jockey, Crucial Blast, Season of Mist, Rhymesayers, and Relapse: Power to you all.

Mayhem to the AM: Eminem Goes Berzerk

I turned my head for a minute and Eminem dropped this single “Berzerk” from his forthcoming record. The song illustrates everything I love about Hip-hop. It’s not that I miss the era he’s referencing here (I don’t), it’s that he’s referencing things: All kinds of things. Mathers’ use of allusion is masterful, and it’s one of the reasons I study rap in the first place.

Eminem’s sense of humor and of himself is firmly intact. “Berserk” boasts guest shots from and references to “So Whatcha Want?”, Royce da 5’9″, Rick Rubin, Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” Public Enemy, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Ad Rock, and Kid Rock. It’s a celebration of roots: from rap and rock to the city block [runtime: 4:20].

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More than anything else, Em gets his Beastie Boys on here. Because they, more than anyone else, encompass all of the things going on in this song. Rubin employs his standard formula, which he once described as “reduction” rather than “production.” It’s heard on early LL Cool J records like “Rock the Bells” (1985), Run-DMC tracks like “Rock Box” (1983), “King of Rock” (1984), and the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” (1986), and reprised on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2003). But the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill (1986) is the best exemplar. Rubin stripped everything down to just the boom bap: 808s, John Bonham drums, big guitar riffs, and the noises and voices of the boys. The result was resonant and irresistible — and it still works.

The new record, The Marshall Mathers LP2 comes out next week.

Hustle and Flow: Hip-hop Theory and Praxis

The once quotable KRS-One once said, “The essence of Hip-hop truly is the transformation of existing objects and forms.” In Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin A. Williams takes KRS at his word and starts from the fundamental assumption that Hip-hop comes from putting together pieces of the past. Whether or not sampling and remix are legitimate cultural practices shouldn’t even be a debate anymore, and, Rhymin' and Stealin'thankfully, Williams’ concerns go much further than that.

Citing Serge Lacasse, he draws an important distinction between sampled and nonsampled quotation (the former being the straight appropriation of previously recorded material, and the latter being like the variations on a theme found in jazz: performed not cut-and-pasted), and in Chapter 4 “The Martyr Industry,” he tackles the haunting of Hip-hop by its fallen emcees, writing,

Rappers who sample martyrs such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. add to the creation of new identities, tributes that often become part of new narratives within the imagined community of hip-hop culture (p. 109).

In that chapter, Williams cites songs by Nas and Jay-Z who were both contemporaries of Tupac and Biggie. In Chapter 5, “Borrowing and Lineage,” Williams goes on to cover Eminem and 50 Cent, neither of whom were famous recording artists until after Tupac and Biggie passed the mic. Their collaborations with the dead emcees align them with the fallen rappers. Williams also does an adept job of illustrating how the concepts of lineage, continuity, and community come not only from the songs but from the fans and the press.

Williams’ approach is interdisciplinary, drawing not only from the usual cultural studies and aesthetics but also from musicology and history, as well as the evolution of technology. All of this makes Rhymin’ and Stealin’ a unique and informative read on a shelf otherwise crowded with similarities.

How to Rap 2Another recent standout is How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques by Paul Edwards (Chicago Review Press, 2013), the follow-up to his essential How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009). Edwards’ books analyze rapping techniques from the practitioner’s point of view. This gives them a much different feel from the many studies concerned with aspects of poetics, literature, and figurative language use. That is, when you’re thinking of how words go together best and sound good together, you don’t care whether it’s assonance or antanaclasis, asterismos or anthimeria. You only care if it sounds dope or not.

Not that Edwards’ language isn’t precise — it is — the focus is on technique though, not analysis. Shit like Shock G’s Humpty Hump voice being an impression of the Warner Brothers Frog, which is itself an impression of Bing Crosby; using the impermanence of a verse to experiment with it; and trying out bars that don’t or barely rhyme: That’s what this book is about.

Continuing the care he took in part one, Edwards asks advanced wordsmiths for advice on rhythm, melody, pitch, timing, enunciation, percussion, playing characters, rhyme schemes, and rhyme patterns. Among the experts included are Cage Kennylz, Royce Da 5’9″, Brother Ali, Buckshot, The Pharcyde, Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Freestyle Fellowship, Q-Tip, One Be Lo, Planet Asia, Sean Price, and my dude Aesop Rock, among many others. It’s a who’s who of lyrical prowess opened with a foreword by Gift of Gab.

Just when you thought there were already too many books on Hip-hop, these two essential texts come out, showing two more directions in which Hip-hop truly is about transforming and transcending.