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.

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).

Kathy Acker: King of the Pirates

“What’s this gay shit?” my friend asked, spotting my copy of  I’m Very Into You (Semiotext(e), 2015) on the bar. Funny, I doubt either of its authors would be offended by his words, perhaps not even by their context. Whatever one calls it, the brief relationship between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker lingers on 20 years later.

Kathy Acker

Wark met Acker in July of 1995 when she was visiting Sydney, Australia. The next year, he visited her in San Francisco. Their brief relationship, which largely existed between those two meetings, is chronicled via their collected emails in I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. I'm Very Into YouLike everyone who came in contact with her, Wark was irrevocably inspired. “She would just read a book and re-write it,” he tells V. Vale (2014). “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would just read Treasure Island and re-write it. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just get going” (p. 21). Acker left no stone unthrown, no line uncrossed. Wark continues, “When I met her, she had three books… And she was writing Pussy, King of the Pirates (Grove, 1996). It’s one-third Treasure Island and two-thirds something else, and she would just read these three books and, almost at random, re-write them” (p. 22). It was her version of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up method, filtered through an abject letting-go of the bullshit. Call it feminism, call it punk, call it postmodernism, call it piracy or plagiarism; it’s Acker’s own brand of creative destruction.

Reading her critics, one gets the sense that they haven’t actually read much of her work. I am intentionally hedging on much of what is discussed directly in I’m Very Into You here because it feels just that raw. Reading it is by turns heady and heartbreaking, revelatory and naughty. Watching two minds of such depth and creativity unfold to each other is a lot to take in. As authorized as it might be, I’m Very Into You is the most intimate email leak ever. However, there is much to be learned in its disclosures.

When all that’s known is sick, the unknown has to look better.
— from Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker: Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early WritingsLost & Found: The City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative just released Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works (Lost & Found, 2015), edited by Gabrielle Kappes. This chapbook collects the works of a 25-year-old Kathy Acker who lives in Manhattan with a cat named Lizard and strips in a Times Square sex shop. Written in the waning months of 1972, these writing exercises, journal entries, and clipped poems are the prototypes of the deconstructed style Acker came to be known for, queering everything in its path. Wark once wrote of her that “…she wrote as a woman, inventing what that might be as she went along” (quoted in Acker & Wark, 2015, p. 139). These writings are the beginnings of that process.

“If there’s going to be interesting fiction written in America, it’s probably going to be by women,” Ken Wark tells V. Vale (p. 33). Here’s hoping the unearthing of more Kathy Acker writings unleashes another wave of women writers.

References:

Acker, Kathy. (1988). Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press, p. 33.

Acker, Kathy. (2015). Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early Works. New York: Lost & Found.

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e).

Vale, V. (2014). A Visit from McKenzie Wark. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications.

Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

kSUncPXtE9k

I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.

Top 14, 2014

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

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

Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend

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

Nothing: Guilty of Everything

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

YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

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

White Suns: Totem

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

GODFLESH: A World Lit Only by Fire

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

Trans Am: Volume X

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

Code Orange: I Am King

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

Hail Mary Mallon: Bestiary

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

Wreck and Reference: Want

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

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

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

Panopticon: Roads to the North

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

Torch Runner: Endless Nothing

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

Earth: Primitive and Deadly

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

Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden

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

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

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

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

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

Shakedown, 1979: Gang of Four and the Germs

To create a spike of novelty high enough to land in the history books depends on a lot of things aligning: an open-armed zeitgeist, an interested public, a little bit of chaos, and a lot of charisma.* Sometimes they become folklore, affecting only those who were there, like Woodstock, Altamont, or the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols show in Manchester: Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it. Other times these events are recorded, as great performances, art works, books, or records. Two of the latter that emerged from 1979 and have since been documented elsewhere are Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and the Germs’ (GI).

Kevin Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago's Seminary Co-OP bookstore.
Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen at Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op.

Emerging at the end of the 1970s, Gang of Four‘s debut album tapped in to a tectonic shift in the times. 1979 was just close enough to Year Zero. As Mark Fisher writes in The Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books, 2014), “It has become increasingly clear that 1979-80… was a threshold moment – the time when a whole world (social democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a new world (neoliberal, consumerist, informatic) began to show themselves” (p. 50). It was also the dawn of post-punk. In tangents like tentacles, Joy Division, Wire, Gang of Four, The Fall, PiL, Talking Heads, and Television, among others, were stretching punk in new directions.

Gang of Four: Entertainment!One of the more significant of these, Gang of Four combined the lean muscle of punk with the bare bones of funk. Lyrically social and political, their lanky limbs swung hard and wide against the “middle-class malaise” of the 1970s (Dettmar, 2014, p. 36). Satire of such subtlety and impact wouldn’t be seen again until the rearing of Radiohead.

Like Kevin J. H. Dettmar (invoking Simon Reynolds and quoting Gina Arnold), I never knew “punk in the present tense” (quoted in Dettmar, 2014, p. 3). The closest I came was in the aforementioned tangents: post-punk, hardcore, and new wave. The first time I heard Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, suddenly much of what I was already listening to made much more sense. Fugazi had a lineage. Naked Raygun had context. Wire had contemporaries. During the post-Lollapalooza package tour phase, I finally saw them live in 1991. It was a woefully crippled line-up that only included Andy Gill from the original Four, sharing Atlanta’s Fox Theatre stage with a motley mess of bands: Young Black Teenagers, Warrior Soul, Public Enemy, and The Sisters of Mercy. Years later, I met and worked with bassist Dave Allen and am since proud to call him one of my best friends.

The original Gang of Four reconvened in 2004 for a brief run, but ideological differences would drive Dave and drummer Hugo Burnham out of the fold again by 2008. When it came to recording new material, half the band wanted to go the traditional route. Dave, having consulted many bands on negotiating the music industry’s new digital landscape, wanted to do something new, something different. He told me at the time, “If we don’t own the idea, there’s no point in doing it.”

Darby Crash

And we don’t know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
Double cross the vacant and the bored
— Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

While the Germs one and only studio album is often as high on the influential list as Gang of Four’s debut, its foundation—personal, personnel, and otherwise—wasn’t near as stable. The Germs’ enigmatic leader struggled with fame, substance abuse, and his sexuality while the other band members struggled with him. Their lone record, (GI) (Slash Records, 1979), produced by Joan Jett, represents one of the very few times Darby Crash found himself in a studio. The record pre-dates Entertainment! by several months. Often touted as one of the first documents of the hardcore movement, (GI) is a thin slice of the West Coast chaos the Germs helped stir up in the wake of punk. Darby’s five-year plan to take over the L.A. scene culminated in his suicide on December 7, 1980, only to be over-shadowed by the death of John Lennon the very next day.

Lexicon DevilSome say he was a lyrical genius, others accused him of just plagiarizing Nietzsche. Either way, it is notable that before they recorded (GI), Darby distributed photocopies of his lyric sheets instead of a demo tape. Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey’s oral history, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs (Feral House, 2002), is a very even handed account of Darby’s brief and tumultuous time in this world. Lexicon Devil‘s compiled quotations from the people who were there provide a slightly less aggrandizing but no less entertaining picture of Darby and the Germs than Roger Grossman’s biographical film What We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2007).

Both of these bands illustrate the undeniable chemistry that great teams have. Think Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and Rush. Darby Crash proved that he, Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Don Bolles were something special together when he reunited the Germs after an abortive attempt at forming The Darby Crash Band (many tout the 1980 reunion show as their best ever). And everybody knows that Gang of Four is only really Gang of Four when it’s Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen, and Hugo Burnham. It’s never just the one thing or the one person. It takes a team, a network, personality, and persistence.

References:

Corgan, Billy. (1995). 1979 [Recorded by Smashing Pumpkins]. On Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [CD].  New York: Virgin.

Dettmar, Kevin J. H. (2014). 33 1/3: Entertainment!. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fisher, Mark. (2014). The Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books.

Mullen, Brendan, Bolles, Don, & Parfrey, Adam. (2002). Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs. Port Townsend WA: Feral House.

* I’m borrowing the concept of novelty from Terence McKenna‘s Timewave and the idea of nodal points from William Gibson‘s Idoru (1996). The former is a computer-generated time-line based on chaos theory and the I-Ching, in which the peaks represent increased human novelty (e.g., artistic innovation, scientific discovery, etc.). The latter is a sort of subconscious pattern recognition where certain seemingly mundane data converge into sharp points of interest. Influential and classic cultural artifacts like records are excellent examples of both.

Grow Up? The Answer is Never

Growing old gracefully sounds and seems so dignified and appealing. I have no idea what that would look like for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly gotten better at handling responsibility, being a student, meeting deadlines, dealing with adversity and change, and knowing what all of that means in a larger context. At the same time, I became a better skateboarder in my thirties than I ever was in my teens, I’m more into music than ever, I’m still riding little-boy bicycles, and I still don’t own a suit or a pair of dress shoes. As Fight Club‘s narrator famously puts it, “I’m a 30-year-old boy.” The phenomenon is what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality” (1969) or the “betwixt and between” (1967): an interstitial state without status.

How can children grow up in a world in which adults idolize youthfulness? – Marshall McLuhan

Turner’s forebear, Arnold van Gennep (1960), defined what we think of as rites of passage, celebrations of transition from one stage of life to another. As these are mostly studied and most prevalent in other cultures, I have often wondered what makes an adult in the Western world. It seems that we can now pass the tentative tests—getting a driver’s license, graduating school, getting married, having sex, having babies—and still emerge as unscathed youth.

All his peoples moved on in life, he’s on the corners at night
with young dudes. It’s them he wanna be like
It’s sad, but it’s fun to him, right? He never grew up.
Thirty-one and can’t give his youth up.
He’s in his second childhood. – Nas, “2nd Childhood”

Ageing and Youth CulturesAgeing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), edited by Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson, explores the second childhood between adolescence and adulthood predominantly as it pertains to pop culture. From straight-edgers, punks, and ravers to B-boys, B-girls, and feminists, so many of popular interests and causes are tied to youth. Using methods familiar to anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists (e.g., ethnography, interviews, etc.) the scholars in this book examine the conflicts between growing up, growing old, and staying true to ourselves that are more and more evident in 21st-century, Western culture. Our memories are fallible and ever-more mediated, yet they are important to study. “They tell us about the ways in which people construct the past,” writes Mary Fogerty in her study of ageing breakdancers, “and within this practice they reveal the value systems highlighted by different generations…” (p. 55). We construct and cling to pasts that our presents can never live up to.

Part of the problem is cognitive. Our brains’ ability to create and store new memories simply slows down, to a near-stop, therefore making our most cherished memories those of our youth. And when we remember those times, we reify them, making them stronger (Freud called the process “Nachtraglichkeit” meaning “retroactivity”). So, being stuck in the past is basically a somewhat natural state for our brains—and our technology lets it linger more than ever.

About the “betwixt and between,” Turner (1969) also writes of “the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both” (p. 99). If I can be both grown up and not grown up, then I refuse to choose: I’ll take the good and bad of both. As James D. Watson puts it, “…there is no good reason ever to be on the downward slope of experience. Avoid it and you’ll still be enjoying life when you die” (p. 93). Never mind growing old gracefully or being age-appropriate. Let’s concentrate more on having fun now—and from now on.

References: 

Bennett, Andy & Hodkinson, Paul (Eds.). (2012). Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity. New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Jones, Nasir. (2001). 2nd Childhood. On Stillmatic [LP]. New York: Columbia Records.

Marshall McLuhan & David Carson. (2003). The Book of Probes. Berkeley, CA: Ginkgo Press, p.138.

Milchan, A., Uhls, J., Linson, A., Chaffin, C., Bell, R. G. (Producers), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club.  Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, James D. (2007) Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. New York: Knopf.

Weyland, Jocko. (2002). The Answer is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World. New York: Grove Press.

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

GnOgjRaFd5U

We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)