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.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train

I often make a distinction between my favorite bands and the bands I think are the best. Unwound is one of the few bands for which that distinction means nothing: They are both one of my all-time favorite bands and one of the best to ever do it. Unwound have now been apart longer than they were together, but every time I listen to one of their records, I am reminded just how great they were. Numero Group’s extensive new boxset leaves no doubt that they still deserve more attention.

— Unwound down the coast at Off The Record in San Diego, 1997.
[Photo by Dave Young]
Having moved to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1993, I was trying to ease myself into the then-exploding local music scene. Their recent national attention had me already familiar with many bands and labels, but there were many more that only had fame and notoriety in their home region. I was digging deeper. That’s when I found Unwound.

On a trip to Alaska that winter, I bought Fake Train (Kill Rock Stars, 1993). I still have vivid memories of falling asleep to it on headphones every night during that trip, immersed in basement darkness and new sounds. Some of my favorite songs are from that initial exposure. I was hooked. I bought New Plastic Ideas (Kill Rock Stars, 1994) on vinyl at Mother Records in Tacoma the day it came out.

In the What Was Wound book, David Wilcox writes that The Future of What (Kill Rock Stars, 1995) “would prove to be not so much a radical departure as the sound of a band growing restless, clinging to their past even as they lashed out against it…” (p. 131). Oddly, this is what all of their records sounded like to me, each at the time that it came out. As Justin told me in 1998, “Well, sometimes you go into the studio with an idea, and you come out with something totally different. At least that’s what usually happens to me. Every one of our records has its own purpose. I don’t think we’ve aimed too high, and I don’t think any of our records are perfect.”

Unwound started out with a different drummer. Brandt Sandeno had been their drummer when he, Justin Trosper (guitar/vocals), and Vern Rumsey (bass) were called Giant Henry. Brandt moved on about the same time the band was moving on to something larger, more definitive. They recorded one record as Unwound, but it wouldn’t be released until they’d become a sonic force beyond their 3-piece aspirations. Something special was emerging. The missing piece was Sara Lund.

Everyone involved — even Brandt — will admit that Unwound wasn’t truly Unwound until Sara started playing drums. Like most great bands, the Justin/Vern/Sara line-up didn’t waver until the three were no longer a band.

The new, commemorative box, What Was Wound (Numero Group, 2016), includes 10 CDs, a DVD, and the aforementioned 256-page, hardback book. The DVD includes various live and candid clips of Unwound from throughout their 11-year lifespan, including footage from the one time I saw them play (pictured above): April 10, 1994 at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington. Unwound was opening for Jawbreaker while the latter was touring their last good record, 24-Hour Revenge Therapy (Tupelo/Communion, 1994).

These home movies from all phases of Unwound’s existence illustrate not only their unsung greatness but also just how hard they worked at it. What Was Wound is the definitive history of one of the best bands to push sounds through speakers and commit those sounds to tape.

ZuL2yVCdVHw

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.

Genre Trouble: Post-Rock and Other Lost Sounds

Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.

Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]
Pedal power: Mogwai live. [photo by Leif Valin]
Storm Static Sleep by Jack-ChuterPost-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.

If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,

As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).

As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,

Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).

Sounds of the UndergroundChuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.

Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.

Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.

References:

Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

——–

Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.

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).

From the Bottom: Deafheaven’s New Bermuda

I noticed a long time ago that my favorite bands never seem to fit neatly into an existing genre. They all sit on the lines between the categories. From my junior-high days listening to Oingo Boingo all the way up to the most recent string including Milemarker, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and The Mars Volta. Each one of these bands came from the spaces in between and provided me with exactly what I needed at the time. The band doing that right now is Deafheaven.

Deafheaven by Kristen Coffer

Deafheaven’s breakout record, 2013’s Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.), was awash in guitar warped into waves and bent into textures courtesy of Kerry McCoy. In oversimplified terms, it was a deft blend of shoegaze and black metal. The record was also noted for the screeching vocals of George Clarke. These elements remain firmly intact on New Bermuda (ANTI-, 2015), but it departs from the formula of Sunbather in several ways. Though each of these five songs runs longer than eight minutes, they rely less on the lava-like meandering of traditional shoegaze and more on the calculated precision of metal.

deafheaven-new-bermudaBeing the metal nerd that he is, McCoy finally bows to the all-mighty riff. His skills are various and far-reaching and he stretches them out on every song. The post-rock dynamics are still here, but there’s a new variety available. My personal favorite is the closer, “Gifts for the Earth.” The shortest track here at 8 minutes, 23 seconds, it really showcases the breadth of the guitar work of McCoy and relative newcomer Shiv Mehra. Amid the guitar and and piano runs (!), Clarke’s vocals sound farther away, as if he’s finally disappearing into the darkness.

Daniel Tracy’s blast beats and fills are as dynamic and exciting as they were on Sunbather. “Baby Blue” finds him doing his best Dave Lombardo, riding the riffs like some wild beast. Stephen Clark’s bass is all but hidden in this five-man body, but like any good spine, it holds the whole thing all upright.

Vocalist George Clarke is as caustic as ever on the mic. I seem to spend a lot of time defending his vocals when I attempt to introduce people to my favorite band. Many say they like the music, but don’t like the vocals. This runs counter to the metal community’s cries of “crossover” and claims that Deafheaven is “metal for people who don’t like metal.” This is metal, and I dare say one has to like metal to like it. It’s not your dad’s metal, but it’s metal nonetheless. Many sub-genres of metal and most of what is called shoegaze use vocals as another instrument in the mix. Clarke’s vocals are best seen in this light, as another color in the palette.

Now more than ever, Deafheaven’s bleakness is veiled in beauty. If Sunbather was a dream where wishes don’t come true, New Bermuda is a real place with no dreams at all. The only way to go from here is up.

Summer Reading List, 2015

The slim slice of the Zeitgeist we capture on the Summer Reading List every year sometimes reveals certain notable nodal points. There are the big releases this year, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1, but Rita Raley’s review of the latter got as many mentions as the book did. This year’s book-to-read is McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red from Verso, followed closely by Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke University Press. The oddest recurrence was Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” from Bloomburg Bussinessweek. Those odd ones are what make this thing interesting.

This year’s list boasts recommendations from newcomers Linda Stone, Benjamin Noys, Nick Ferreira, and Kristin Ross, and regular contributors Richard Kadrey, Lance Strate, Rick Moody, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Howard Rheingold, Lily Brewer, Christopher Schaberg, Brad Vivian, Peter Lunenfeld, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Paul Levinson, Alex Burns, Ashley Crawford, and myself.
Lily at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Benjamin Noys

I like to read a big non-fiction work over the summer. This summer it’s Anders Enberg-Pederse’s Empire of Chance (Harvard University Press, 2015), which is a study of Napoleon’s military campaigns and how military thinking tries to control the problem of contingency. This was recommended by Derek Gregory, at his excellent blog Geographical Imaginations, and it gives me an excuse to indulge my embarrassing military fetishism with a relatively clean conscience.

TorporMy dose of theory will be Sylvère Lotringer’s long-gestated book Mad Like Artaud (Univocal, 2015), which I hope will be a suitably mad work on the ‘mental dramas’ of Antonin Artaud. This should be read alongside the Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (Semiotext(e), 2015). Kraus is Lotringer’s ex-wife, and this semi-autobiographical novel, originally published in 2006, tells of the painful gestation of Lotringer’s work on Artaud.

For a summer of poetry and revolution, or revolution and poetry: The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015) is their first major work since the Glenn Beck baiting Coming Insurrection in 2007 and reflects on the tensions and problems of the wave of struggles since 2007. Verso have reissued The Dialectics of Liberation (Verso, 2015), the collection of papers from the 1967 conference held at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, which gathered all the figures of the counter-culture, from R. D. Laing to Stokely Carmichael to consider the question of violence. It’s worth looking at the footage to get a sense of the passionate and violent debates. After Joshua Clover’s excellent Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), I’m looking forward to reading the next two poetry books by the Commune Editions triumvirate: Jasper Bernes, We are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) and Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015). Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp, 2006), underground utopian anarchist poetry of the 1970s, has become a touchstone today.

To end the summer on a truly bleak note, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin, 2015), which reissues two of his rare and expensive collections of harrowing horror fiction, is promised in October.

Kristin Ross

I’m generally reading 3-5 books at the same time, some for research and some for pleasure. My summer reading list is pretty demonstrative of that: It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, books and comics.

Warren Ellis just released Cunning Plans (Summon Books, 2015), a collection of his various talks that stretch over a wide range of themes from fiction and science fiction to magic and technology. (Spoiler: they’re really all the same thing.) Ellis is perhaps best known for his comic work, but reading these is a particular delight because his personal voice is even better. It’s a quick read—I burnt through it in two days—but packed with things that will make you think a long time after you finish it.

How to Write About MusicSometimes things sit on my Kindle, lurking, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). Once I started it, though, I couldn’t stop. The screen soon told me I had “35 minutes left in this book,” and I had to set it down. I had gotten so emotionally attached to the characters and the world, I knew I would be crying as I finished it, and I had plans that night. Couldn’t be crying.

Comics are really exciting right now. The second volume of The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics) written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie comes out on July 14th, so it’s a good time to read Vol. 1: The Faust Act (Image, 2014). Rockstars as actual gods. I’m not going to say more. Need I, even? This is also the team that did Phonogram (Image, 2007) and if you haven’t read that, ignore all my other recommendations and read that first. The long-awaited third volume of that series comes out in August. I’m a fangirl, and this reads like a breathless recitation of my ardor, but I don’t apologize for it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015) is only on Issue Four, so you should get on that now. The individual issues have essays in the back, a different prominent feminist each time, and those likely won’t be in the first collection. Those essays enhance the whole experience of the story; really, they’re giving a overview of the whole experience of women in these times. Also, the back cover is worth the entire price every time. Did I mention this is about “non-compliant” women being sent to a separate prison planet and they’re about to fight in a televised full-contact sport called Megaton and it’s drawn in 70s sexploitation style?

Then, there are my research books, which have honestly been just as enjoyable lately as my fiction. The 33 1/3 Books team recently released How to Write About Music, a textbook on exactly what it says it’s about. It’s great—educational while being wholly enjoyable and reading it is like taking a course by a great professor. I’m sure it will be used in classrooms, but for solo reading it functions beautifully. Bonus, awesome intro by Rick Moody, a veteran of this reading list.

This last one is very specialized, but if you have any interest in Britpop, it’s essential fun. Part oral history, part timeline of a genre, John Harris’ Britpop!: Cool Britannia and The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is entertaining and as complete a history of the rise and fall of Britpop you can find. Plus, it’s just too great to listen to the musicians talk shit on each other.

Lance Strate

I have great admiration for poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, and this summer I plan to dive into her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (Norton, 2014). I also want to catch up on one of her earlier volumes, Deep Play (Vintage, 1999). And this may seem like something out of left field, but my list includes Revolution for the Hell of It (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1968) by Abbie Hoffman, partly out of sixties nostalgia, but mostly because I understand that Hoffman was under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, among other things, and I’m curious to see how much media ecology he incorporated into his own ideas about subversive activity.

The Human AgeI imagine it would be appropriate to include a book on reading in a reading list, and I’ve included Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (Penguin, 2009), which comes highly recommended. To balance out a book on literacy, I have also added a book on orality, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by the great anthropologist and media ecology scholar, Jack Goody. Of course, reading also includes rereading, and I plan to return to J. T. Fraser’s seminal volume on the study of time, Time: The Familiar Stranger (Tempus Books, 1987), in preparation for a research project I’ll be tackling in the fall.

It seems that the term affordances comes up quite a bit in discussions of technology and media these days, and I think it will be worthwhile to go back to the source, James J. Gibson’s An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1986), as it also constitutes an important contribution to the media ecology literature. Additionally, I think I’m going to learn a great deal from Zhenbin Sun’s recently published Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China (Springer, 2015), and I think the time is right for me to tackle Bruce Kodish’s massive Korzybski: A Biography (Extensional Publishing, 2011).

One of the books I am most looking forward to reading is Where Seas and Fables Meet: Parables, Fragments, Lines, Thought (Guernica, 2015), by B. W. Powe, a leading Canadian poet, literary theorist, and media ecologist. Another is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And for a science fiction fix, Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2008) should do nicely.

Rick Moody

I’ve just finished reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions), edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, which is in fact exactly what it seems to be, the transcripts of Borges’s classes in English literature delivered in Argentina in 1966. I was so excited to read this book and had to wait through the 14 weeks of my own class in American Experimental Writing to get to it! I was not disappointed! One thing that is wonderful about Borges’s class is how eccentric the topics are: Chaucer barely gets any mention at all, Shakespeare is mainly confined to “Coleridge’s feelings on,” Milton is mentioned a couple of times. On the other hand, the earliest English poems (Beowulf, etc.) come in for several lectures, and Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning get the extended treatment. The course ends with Stevenson, after a cursory nod at Dickens. And so it is apparent that Borges, despite voluminous knowledge about our literary history (which he never learned about at university, because he never attended university), had very idiosyncratic taste in English literature. The second great thing about the book is that Borges can’t really seem to confine himself to the literary subject entirely. So there’s a lot of attention given to what a miserable and foul-looking guy Johnson was, and even more to Coleridge’s abandonment of his wife and the effect of opium on his poetry, and there are ahistorical digressions now and then (In Cold Blood, of all things, makes a brief appearance). This is a gossipy, funny, enthusiastic treatment of the subject, produced by a guy, it’s worth saying, who was entirely blind and unable to read at the time he delivered the lectures, so that they are the record of his memory of these texts. Professor Borges, accordingly, is not really a book about English lit in the dull, good-for-you way, it’s a book about the love of reading, something Borges always stands for, to his credit, and as such it’s 100% delightful. Perfect for any book nerd’s beach reading.

Christopher Schaberg

I’ve just finished reading the philosopher Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which is a fascinating blend of travel writing and what the late David Foster Wallace might have identified as an experiment in “new sincerity.” It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, one the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.

I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf Press, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to is satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it — and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.

HotelIf you’ll forgive a bit of aslant self-promotion, Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this November, but, moving on…

Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Read these!

Zizi Papacharissi

The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 2015): Because only one person can talk about whales, dolphins, and Heidegger in the same paragraph, and in so doing, help one reimagine the future (and the past or present) of media studies.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand (Penguin, 1995): Because I am trying to figure out whether technologies learn, and if so, how.

Watch Me: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Scribner, 2015): Because she’s a cool cat. And because reading memoirs is the highbrow equivalent of reading gossip mags.

Nick Ferreira

I love the idea of summer reading but for me, summer reading is the same as my reading during the other three seasons: usually a mix of some non-fiction that I flip around, some fiction I hope captures my short attention span, and a bunch of magazines I’m constantly trying to catch up on.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Penguin, 1993): I’ve picked this book up multiple times but was never able to finish it. With California’s drought currently (finally?) making national headlines, I decided to pick it up again and am still slowly but surely making my way through. There’s a lot of information here and it’s hard for me to keep track of names, places, dams, rivers, etc. but so far it’s reminded me that places like Southern California wouldn’t exist as we know it without the rerouting/intervention of Western rivers. Side note: I also enjoy reading about these government projects that created some of the most awesome skateboarding and BMX spots in the country.

The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski (Duke University Press, 2015): This came into the library I work at recently, and I immediately checked it out. I’m looking forward to spending time learning more about the physical aspects of that seemingly abstract, but very physical thing we rely on everyday.

DaybookDaybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m not sure I really understand Truitt’s sculptures beyond how simple and poetic they are: The slight structures seem like quick flashes of color from a landscape, but only extremely brief slivers of time. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Daybook was one of the best artist’s journals. It’s nice to pickup and read a random entry, especially in the morning.

The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard (Berkeley Medallion, 1962): Even though J.G. Ballard’s books are quite depressing, I keep coming back to read them. Last sumer I read, High-Rise, a novel about an architect’s failed utopian vision. This summer I plan on reading The Wind From Nowhere. Like most of the Ballard stories I’ve read, this one is deceptively simple: a westward wind, from nowhere, is gaining power throughout the novel forcing people to live underground and completely change their lives. The whole story seems implausible but I’m sure it will be just as frightening as High-Rise and Concrete Island.

Magazines I’m trying to catch up on: The New Yorker, Apartamento, Thrasher, and, N+1.

Linda Stone

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge (Viking, 2015).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Viking, 2014).
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

Paul Levinson

OutlanderMy prime reading plan for this summer is Outlander (Dell), the 1991 time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon. Why? Well, I’ve been watching, reviewing on my blog, and mostly enjoying the Starz series based on the novel for the past year. I was drawn to the series as a sucker for most things time travel, and by the fact that Ron Moore, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica creator, is the Outlander show-runner on TV. Now, just about every time I criticized something in the TV show, someone would respond with, “You need to read the novel, it’s much better.” I make it a point not the read novels that TV series and movies are drawn from, if I haven’t read them already when the screen presentation begins, because I like to judge the screen story on its own terms. I also have a theory I call “the first love syndrome in media,” which holds that what we love most when a narrative is presented in different media is the one we first experienced — think about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Gabaldon’s novel this summer, and will be sure to report back to the world when I do.

Ashley Crawford

Brevity. Two astonishing books. Both published in 2015. Both, by eerie coincidence weighing in at 880 pages: Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (Pantheon) and Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow). Both Epic in Scale and in Concept. And, apart from that, they have next-to-nothing in common.

Apart from my ongoing admiration (even adoration) for Ballard, Dick, and Gibson (with the exception of his latest, The Peripheral) my tastes have tended to drift away from Science Fiction, and Seveneves is nothing if not pure Sc-Fi. But, it’s Stephenson, one of the most audacious and ambitious writers around. I have read all of his works and have never failed to be astonished by his knowledge and ability to articulate complex and nerdish concepts while developing remarkable characters and sub-plots, and Seveneves is no exception. An epic space opera in extremis, it begins with an almost Biblical Armageddon when the moon inexplicably explodes, leading to a Science-based form of Rapture for the Chosen.

Stephenson may have destroyed the moon, but according to some, Mark Z. Danielewski is out to destroy the Book, at least according to the NPR review of The Familiar which carries the headline: “Will ‘The Familiar’ Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close.” However if anything, judging by all too many whining Amazon reviews, he has succeeded in destroying the Kindle. The Familiar is a much-needed reminder of how beautiful the printed tome can be. It may be more accurate to suggest that Danielewski may well have helped save the printed book. The first volume of a much-ballyhooed 27 “episodes,” it features startling revelations both visually and in terms of ambitious narrative. Bristling with interconnecting voices, it encompasses domestic drama, cyberpunk, crime noir, and pop culture (to his credit Danielewski doesn’t even try to conceal his touchstones, indeed he revels in them). There is a tremendous and thorough analysis of The Familiar at the LA Review of Books worth checking out.

There’s 1,760 pages of Summer contentment.

Dominic Pettman

I hope to inhale as much Vilem Flusser as I can, during the break, since I can’t get enough of these new translations, curated by Siegfried Zielinski. Two titles I haven’t got to yet are through the always The Blondeswonderful Univocal: On Doubt (2014) and The History of the Devil (2014). Roberto Esposito’s Persons and Things (Polity, 2015) is flaring on my radar. Like many other people reading this list, I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and the two sequels in Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy series. Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) is sitting on my desk, and I’m a fan of all her work. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (Stanford University Press, 2015) in which the author imagines a scenario where Walter Benjamin survived his attempt to escape Europe and spent a couple of decades laying low and writing in New York/- /seems like an intriguing experiment in theory-fiction: something I very much enjoy, when done well. In terms of fiction, I still haven’t read Peter Watt’s Blindsight (Tor Books, 2008), which is apparently required reading for SF people. I’ve heard great things about Mat Johnson’s Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). If I manage to find a beach I’ll probably get to volume two of Elana Ferrante’s Napoli series. And, finally, how could I resist a book with the following premise: “The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is a hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, all of whom must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Howard Rheingold

A a student at Reed in the 1960s, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in the halcyon days of the hippie incursion and saw the collapse of innocence during the summer of love, moved there permanently in 1970, so I lived through the events — many of them traumatic — chronicled in David Talbot’s book The Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2013) — the horrible response of San Francisco’s City Hall, police and health departments to the hippie immigration, the flowering of the gay community in the days before AIDS and the horror of the epidemic (I’ve never  been fond of Dianne Feinstein as a senator, but Talbot shows how her response as mayor to the AIDS crisis — in light of the Reagan administrations criminal neglect (San Francisco contributed three times the money for social services for AIDS that the US government did for several years), the trauma of the Zebra serial murders, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White, White’s acquittal (“the Twinkie defense”), the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. Talbot was a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner when it was a real newspaper, before he founded Salon (I was on the original founding team), and he did a great job digging up the stories behind the stories and weaving them into a compelling narrative history. If you want to know what San Francisco was like before the tech culture, read this.

The advent of inexpensive digital devices, including sophisticated environmental monitoring devices, and networked communications has heralded a new kind of science that melds crowdsourced amateurs with professionals. Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a well-written, well-documented, must-read if you want to see one surprising new direction science and the discovery and validation of knowledge is going.

One of Stephen King’s best and one of the best time travel stories ever — including a meta-story about the potential effects of time-travel on time itself — is 11/22/63 (Gallery Books, 2012). It is a testament to King’s talent that although we know Lee Harvey Oswald succeeded, readers are suspended in scary, thrilling disbelief as the protagonist repeatedly goes back in time to prevent it. Wrapping it all up is a love story. Great great escape reading.

Steve Jones

As has become usual my summer reading is very much about music. First on the list is Alyn Shipton’s biography of Harry Nilson, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Oxford University Press, 2013), because he was unique, and the one documentary I’ve seen was pretty unsatisfying (interesting, but Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boysunsatisfying). I’m not so much interested in connecting the dots from his life to his music as I am in learning about the milieu in which he found himself. Perhaps somewhat in that same vein I’m planning to read Harvey Kubernik’s Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, 2012), because that was a unique place, interestingly from about the same era. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I am continually fascinated by the conjuncture of people, place and time, and so the next book also fits the pattern, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir (faber & faber, 2015). Rounding out the list I’ll be indulging my interest in technologies and techniques of sound engineering and synthesis with a work of non-fiction, Glyn Johns’ Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles , Eric Clapton, The Faces (Blue Rider Press, 2014), and a work of historical (or so I presume) fiction, Seam Michaels’ Us Conductors: A Novel (Tin House Books, 2014).

Lily Brewer

In between paragraphs of thesis, traveling, and moving during my last summer as a pre-Phd student, I’m punctuating my writing and incessant unsettled-ness with the following reading. I’m going to start my list with the books I jump-started my summer with, the first of which was Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotext(e), 2000). It’s idiomatically appropriate for my mid-twenties summer, and her prose once again concusses me and leaves me in a mute heap, incapable of writing ever again. I’m halfway through Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays that cries sanctuary for my imperfect feminism and problematic faves. And continuously re-re-re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2006) will never, ever not be appropriate.

Magazine MovementsFor homework, Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Picador, 2001) again, Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data (Duke University Press, 2015), and Laurel Forster’s Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Forms (Bloomsbury, 2015) are jostling for priority. (Along with these, I have a massive article and book reading list for the Fall, but I’ll spare you as if I were sparing myself.)

For fun, I’ve compiled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: A Novel (Knopf, 2013), Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta Publications, 2013), Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (Penguin, 2008), and for re-reading, Zadie Smith’s anything-she-ever-wrote. Late-August bonus will be Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa, 2011), a Chicago author with whom I was a short-time office mate, (well, while getting my Art History M.A., I was the receptionist to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s writing department office where she was contemporaneously chair, sooo.).

I’m rushing the rest of this list in order to get back to Megan Abbott‘s The Fever (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2015) and afterwords Dare Me (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2013) and after that every novel/story/blog post/tweet Abbott’s written since 2012. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2011) completely ruined me. Hers are what teenage, girl-nightmares are made of, that make me simultaneously self-conscious and estranged from myself, in the terrifying way that can only accompany growing up.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Much of my summer reading pile is accumulating in a corner created by media theory or media archaeology, critical discussion of the Anthropocene, and ongoing contributions to the conversation around speculative realism in its several guises. In other words, media, things, and the systems (or stuff) of the planet. These are not, of course, isolate categories but deeply and reciprocally constituted and blended. The Undersea NetworkThus Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke (2015), which untangles the vast array of telecommunications cables we’ve strapped across the oceans’ floors (arguably the real world-wide web), not just from a technical but also an ethno-geological sensibility. It’s compellingly written and photographed, and my odds-on pick for media studies book of the year. Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) opens the field explicitly, walking the reader through a variety of critical and aesthetic discourses that cluster around the deep mining of data mining or what he terms the “Anthrobscene,” a term which is meant to encompass the obscene spectacle of technological obsolescence and media waste. McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene from Verso (which appeared at almost exactly the same moment) very much demands to be in dialogue with Parikka (and vice versa), dismantling as it does the Romantic notion of a return to nature by way of Russian philosophy and Russian cybernetics and California science fiction (Wark gives us the Carbon Liberation Front as his nonhuman protagonist). For those looking for an introduction to the debates around speculative realism and nonhuman ontologies, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things and Richard Grusin’s edited volume on The Nonhuman Turn (both, again, from the University of Minnesota Press) are essential; similarly, Shaviro (to whom we all seemingly owe a debt for resurrecting the primer as an animated writing genre) has a brief book containing Three Essays on Accelerationism from Minnesota’s Forerunners series. Shaviro’s is in fact one of two breezy Forerunners titles in the stack, the other being Shannon Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City, which treats urban environments as no less geo-tech than Starosielski’s oceans and beaches and Wark on the Aral Sea. Further demonstrative in this regard (and just-arrived) is Starosielski and Lisa Parks’s co-edited collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, 2015), containing essays from Mattern, Jonathan Sterne, and Paul Dourish, among others.

Media theory’s romance with drones also continues this season, notably in Adam Rothstein’s succinctly-named Drone (from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series; 2015) and Grégoire Chamayou’s ambitious but reportedly overwritten A Theory of the Drone (New Press, 2015); of these, I suspect I will prefer the Rothstein. Jeff Scheible’s The Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is another small, neat-looking book (as befits its subject matter) which zeros-in on dots, parentheses, and hashmarks (but oddly, not the @-symbol). Jeremey Douglass, Mark C. Marino, and Jessica Pressman’s tripartite study of a single piece of electronic literature, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, is now available from the Univeristy of Iowa Press (2015). For the Kittler Kidz, meanwhile, worthy of mention is a special journal issue of Theory, Culture & Society on Kittler co-edited by Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld containing an astonishing variety of work (and it’s all currently open accessed—what are you waiting for?), and a new compilation of translated Kittler (with afterword by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) entitled The Truth of the Technological World (Stanford University Press, 2014). Finally, Richard Barbrook’s Class Wargames (Minor Compositions, 2014), which draws on the seemingly improbable genre of tabletop wargames for education in the street-level tactics of class struggle; the connection is perhaps less improbable when, as Barbrook details extensively, no less a personage than Guy Debord was an aficionado of the genre, designing his own juex d’guerre.

Deep Mapping the Media CityNot so much summer reading as something I’m reading right now (along with seemingly half my Twitter feed) is Paul Ford’s remarkable “What is Code?” published online in, yes, Businessweek. 38,000 words on not just code but coding culture. Ford is rapidly becoming my favorite technology writer, capable of tossing off lines like “A computer is a clock with benefits” or “You probably have a powerful SQL-driven database in your pocket right now” like it’s nothing.

I’ll leave fiction aside, except to mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015), volume 1 of 27 as anyone who has been following the project knows. If you want a foretaste of what MZD is up to, Rita Raley and colleagues (Raley is perhaps his best current reader) give us a look over in the LA Review of Books.

Finally, military history, my other typical summer reading genre: the Waterloo bicentennial is upon us, and predictably there have been a slew of books on what is habitually termed history’s most iconic battle (a rather ghastly moniker). Timothy Clayton gives us a weighty new history in his Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (Abacus, 2015), drawing on previously unpublished or undocumented sources; Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath (Overlook Press, 2015) begins where the volleys and bayonets end, and treats both the burial of the dead and the residue of the campaign as well as the transformation of the Belgian countryside and subsequent memorialization of the battle. My favorite entry, however is a small little book by Brendan Simms entitled The Longest Afternoon (Basic Books, 2015), which details the King’s German Legion’s defense of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the center of the battlefield, a small-unit action embedded amidst the densest concentration of men and guns the Napoleonic Wars had ever seen. Simms gives us something not unlike the grit and detail of Blackhawk Down for the black powder era, while also exploring the significance of what exactly these Germanic troops were doing in the service of Great Britain (and the implications for subsequent German nationalism). If you read one Waterloo book, read this one.

Richard Kadrey

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Charles Stross’s new Laundry novel, The Annihilation Score (Ace, 2015). If you don’t know the Laundry books, they follow the adventures of a secret British government organization that protects humanity from all sorts of sinister supernatural forces. The books are funny,action-packed, and smart. The Annihilation Score is hard to talk about without a lot of spoilers, but I can say this: If you like your secret agent stories peppered with dark humor, twisted science, and eldritch horror, you’ll probably enjoy Stross’s newest (and the rest of the Laundry series too).

With Zer0es (Harper Voyager, 2015), Chuck Wendig, most famous for his Miriam Black books, tries his hand at the techno-thriller and does pulls it off nicely. After they’ve all been busted, a group of misfit hackers are brought together in the wilderness to work for the government. However, even though they’re supposed to be working for the good guys, something seems…wrong. And it gets darker and more frightened as the novel goes on. Mixing elements of high-tech thriller and horror, Zer0es is Wendig at his best.

The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the best fantasy author you’ve probably never heard of. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics, 2015), she rewrites old fairy tales, bringing out hidden depths of feminist power, violence, and sexuality. These days, there are dozens of books that rewrite classic folk tales, but Carter was one of the first to do it, and no one out there has matched her combination of intelligence, great writing, and dark sensuality. Some books I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had a chance to read yet include the first collection of Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2015) by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. The series is a science-fiction take on the women in prison scenario. Frankly, I would probably skip a book with that premise if it had been written by anyone less savvy than DeConnick, whose Pretty Deadly series (Image, 2014) is also worth reading. I’ve been waiting for Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, 2015) for months now. Written by Chuck Palahniuk and set ten years after the original novel, it tells the story of a suburban dream home as it comes crumbling down with the reemergence of everyone’s favorite psychotic alter-ego, Tyler Durden.

There are two music books are also on my list. The first is Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Tarcher, 2014) and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music (Melville House, 2015). I’m sucker for stories of how modern pop culture has been influenced by and influenced supernatural beliefs, so Season of the Witch is a no-brainer. Future Days covers the emergence of influential post-war bands such as Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Kraftwerk.

I’ve been holding off reading Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song (thesickbagsong.com) until I finished writing my new book. Sick Bag is a collection of Cave’s poetic scrawls on airline vomit bags while on tour. Not only do you get the neatly printed finished version of each story/poem, but you get an image of the bags themselves, covered in Cave’s quick and surprisingly controlled handwriting, complete with cross-outs and doodles. LAPD ’53 (Harry N. Abrams, 2015) is a collaboration between James Ellroy and the LA Police Museum. The book is a collection of 50s-era crime scene photos accompanied by Ellroy’s text telling the stories of both the crimes and the cops who worked on them.

Brad Vivian

I plan to read on the theme of indifference throughout the summer in preparation for a collaborative symposium in the fall. The theme also relates to my ongoing research on the topic of witnessing (bearing witness to historical injustice, atrocity, or tragedy). One aspect of my research concerns the degree to which witnesses seek to address and counteract indifference (and larger ethical questions that follow from doing so).

Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2007) is first on my list. Scott (a Continental philosopher who specializes in phenomenological and post-structuralist traditions) provides a deep meditation on the catalysts for and uses of indifference in human experience as it manifests across a number of phenomena. The book emphasizes two features typical of this writer’s work: a careful attention to the etymological origins, as well as semantic elusiveness, of the very term “indifference”; and a balanced but rigorous questioning of conventional moral paradigms as they apply to the notion of indifference—socially, politically, ethically, and existentially. Scott pursues these tendencies across diverse forms of textuality and embodied experience.

I also plan to study Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 2007). This volume is regarded as some of Derrida’s most thoroughgoing thinking about religion. In comparison with Scott, Derrida focuses on arguably one of the ultimate topics related to indifference in the Western lineage—that of death, in various forms. Derrida concentrates on normative perceptions of responsibility and rationality for the occurrence, response to, and acceptance of death, largely derived from dominant religious traditions. The book has become an essential resource in discussions of indifference—a reflection on the very moral commitments to which something like indifference forms an ostensible antipode—as well as on relevant ethical questions more generally. Derrida characteristically traces the aforementioned issues as they develop across a number of classical and modern philosophical and literary corpuses.

Agamben and Indifference by William Watkin (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) might also occupy my time during the summer. Watkin’s work approaches the concept of indifference by interpreting it as a consistent thematic that animates much of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. His treatise would thereby provide another distinct vantage on the topic, examining indifference as both a methodological principle of Agamben’s philosophy (allowing ontological, political, judicial, or institutional systems to exist as they are) and a defining characteristic of its analytic objects (a feature of those very systems, in other words). Consistent with Agamben’s work in general, this approach suggests insights regarding the relationship of indifference to human rights, state power, and violence.

Finally, I plan to return (after a previous reading) to philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (City Lights, 2001). The early modern philosopher Spinoza is a crucial reference for much of late twentieth-century Continental thought, especially its post-structuralist iterations. Spinoza’s linkage of ethics and ontology provides a critical precursor for modern strains of Continental thought that question conventional moral paradigms (especially in their most didactic modern forms) and examine questions of self, action, responsibility, and ethics beyond good and evil, as it were. I’m also intrigued, in this case and in general, to the idea of re-reading works that one has previously read—especially challenging philosophical books, which merit periodic or repeated study. Deleuze’s dense prose applied to Spinoza’s highly demanding philosophy combines, in this case, to reward careful re-reading.

Peter Lunenfeld

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This gets my nomination for the best opening line of the summer. It’s from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015), and it and The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), the new one from William Gibson, are both on my list. Bruce Sterling, also of that generation of SF novelists, once told me that among the odder attributes of his genre was that to be successful, you had to be very good at imaging a world in which not only you but everyone you know and love was either obliterated or had never existed in the first place. Both Stephenson’s apocalypse and the alternate realities scenario that Gibson paints reinforce Sterling’s point.

suburban-warriorsI’m enmeshed in writing a post-WWII narrative history of Los Angeles, so the existence of others is very much with me. On the shelf are Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis Books, 2014), the brilliant and brilliantly designed new history by Cal Art’s Louise Sandhouse; Davide Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2000); LA native Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991); Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2013); Lisa McGirr’s classic analysis of Orange County and the John Birch Society, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2002); and Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, by William Deverell (University of California Press, 2005), probably the premiere historian of the Southland working today, and also Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The 20th Century still has the gravitational attraction of a neutron star on our imaginations, so to break away, I’m planning to read The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) by the German polymath Jürgen Osterhammel. Advance word is that the book is sprawling and panoptic, less a universal history than a multivalent perspective.

To return to the 21st century I’ve been rethinking the relationships between art and technology and have gone back to two foundational texts, both available on-line as pdfs. The first is Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology; A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), which was the first catalogue that Michael Govan had uploaded after he became LACMA’s director. Bookending LACMA’s project is Jack Burnham’s catalogue, Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, from his seminal show at the Jewish Museum in 1970.

Finally, even though it’s not a book yet, it soon will be, so I’ll recommend programmer Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” At 31,375 words, there’s a whole lot to argue with here, but as a whole it’s impressive and I’m willing to bet that it’ll be your best (and probably only) download from Bloomberg Businessweek this summer.

Alex Burns

David Graeber The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015): David Graeber is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who coined the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99%.” I read Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as a revelation on how bureaucracies rely on asymmetric knowledge to function. The essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” is both a critique of Western futures studies, and is also an explanation for why research and development ventures often do not lead to actionable social change. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) has further insights on how to cultivate counter-power and why anthropological ritual works.

David Harvey The Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006): Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The 2007-09 global financial crisis and the Great Stagnation (economist Tyler Cowen) has led to a revival of proto-Marxist critiques of the political economy. Harvey’s analysis of demand problems, labour processes, and capitalist organization is amongst the most detailed of these proto-Marxist critiques. The Limits to Capital is a guide to how elite oligarchical collectivism relies on capital accumulation and extractive profit-taking. Increasingly, these processes now underlie the private equity model of asset management now used in Western universities. For a discussion of profit-taking in the context of neoliberal capitalism see David M. Kotz’s The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015). For a comparison with the European Union see Pablo Beramendi, Silja Hausermann, Herbert Kitschelt and Hanspeter Kriesi’s collection The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla Introduction to Computational Social Science: Principles and Applications (Springer, 2014): Claudio Cioffi-Revilla is the Director of the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University. Computational Social Science (CSS) is an emerging paradigm at the edge of computational intelligence, social science methodology, environmental science, and engineering. Cioffi-Revilla acknowledges Herbert A. Simon’s influence to envision how computation would change the study of social complexity. This guide combines relevant computer science knowledge (such as on the Unified Modeling Language and object-oriented programming) with examples of CSS methods: automated information extraction, social network analysis, social complexity, and social simulations. CSS promises to be an exciting meta-methodology that will advance new approaches to
cumulative knowledge.

Knowledge Representation...Uri Wilensky and William Rand An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling: Modeling Natural, Social, and Engineered Complex Systems with NetLogo (MIT Press, 2015): Uri Wilensky is Director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. William Rand is Director of the Center for Complexity in Business at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Agent-based models simulate the actions of individual and collective actors to create observable social phenomena and possible systems change. This is the best guide to the NetLogo programming language for agent based models created by Wilensky and which is popular in academic courses. For an alternative introduction to agent-based models see Steven F. Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2012). For agent-based models in the computer programming language Prolog see Michael Gelfond and Yulia Kahl’s Knowledge Representation, Reasoning, and the Design of Intelligent Agents: The Answer-Set Programming Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

David Aronson and Timothy Masters Statistically Sound Machine Learning for Algorithmic Trading of Financial Instruments (CreateSpace, 2013). Algorithmic and high-frequency trading have changed the microstructure of financial markets. This has led to a fierce public debate between proponents (Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box) and critics (notably Michael Lewis in Flash Boys). Aronson and Masters provide an instruction manual to a black box available from TSSBSoftware.com to trade financial markets using a proprietary machine learning platform. For relevant background on machine learning see Peter Flach’s Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (MIT Press, 2012); and David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey Ma The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Jeffrey Ma was part of the MIT Blackjack Team who inspired Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House (The Free Press, 2003) and the film adaptation 21 (2008). The House Advantage gives Ma the opportunity to address the historical inaccuracies in Mezrich’s book and to explain how the MIT Blackjack Team used probability theory and other mathematical tools to do card counting. This overlooked book indirectly provides an insight into why some Wall Street hedge fund managers had important developmental learning experiences whilst learning blackjack, poker, and backgammon at a young age. It joins a collection of memoirs by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), Aaron C. Brown (Red-Blooded Risk and The Poker Face of Wall Street), David Einhorn (Fooling Some People All of the Time), and William Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula) on the strategies that some Wall Street hedge fund managers and risk managers use to cultivate an edge which leads to positive expectancy. Ma’s success can be contrasted with Nathaniel Tilton’s later experiences in The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012); with Haseeb Qureshi’s approach to expertise cultivation in How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker (Haseeb Qureshi, 2013); with Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells (Via Regia Publishing, 2012); and with Ole Bjerg’s two books Poker: The Parody of Capitalism (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso, 2014). For an insider memoir on backgammon and trading using early computer networks on Wall Street see Michael Goodkin’s The Wrong Answer Faster: The Inside Story of Making the Machine That Trades Trillions (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

Roy Christopher

As Dominic Pettman mentioned above, I am one of the many looking forward to finishing Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy trilogy from Zer0 Books. The series includes In the Dust of This Planet from 2011, and the recently released Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). I finished the former a few weeks ago and can’t wait to dig into the two follow-ups. In addition to my interest in Ken Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I’ve also been picking up titles based on his recommendations posted in various places online. Two such titles are the collections Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (Nebula/Autonomedia, 2015). The former is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, introduced by the inimitable Mark Fisher. The latter is the collected texts of the Situationists in Scandanavia “and elsewhere,” edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobson. They’re both full of applied poetry: the kinds of fragments, aphorisms, and images that ring in your head long after the book is closed. One of my favorites from Cosmonauts…: “The culture industry makes people believe that they participate in culture” (p. 129).

Savage MessiahI just cracked open Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (NYU Press, 2015), and so far it looks like it lands somewhere between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… (Harper Perennial, 2005) and Cass R. Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). I came across Young’s massive historical text via an excerpt about the weird 1990s, connecting Ted Kaczynski with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which makes all kinds of sense, but I’d never seen it done.

Aside from the latest from the usual suspects, I’ve been collecting dusty, old paperbacks by several dusty, old authors. Most notably Robert Sheckley, who  is an underrated master of the short story. His stories remind me of my first glimpses into these weird worlds via Harlan Ellison, back before I was much of a reader. Semiotext(e)’s SF anthology (AK Press, Edinburgh 1989), co-edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, includes selections from Sheckley’s Amsterdam journal. Here’s one for the writers we like to read and the ones we aspire to write like:

Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous — no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose — my own. The directions of its interest may change, even by morning. But what does that matter if I simply follow them, along for the trip rather than the payoff (always disappointing), enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion. Wise-sounding words which I hope describe where I’m really at.

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Many, many thanks to all of the contributors above new and old, and to the invited who didn’t have time to contribute but responded to say so: Tricia Wang, danah boyd, Jeffrey Sconce, Mark Amerika, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mark Fisher, Dave Tompkins, Jeff Noon, and Chris Kraus. Next year!

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.