We’re soaked in media, most of it centered on one stupid man in the White House and the swarming grotesque that surrounds him and the heinous things they want to do, or it is media about media, how it is to be about Online, which is mostly rolling terror of the same. Everything that dares to think of anything else—to remember a world before this, or have the temerity to imagine the world after it, or just to think about anything having meaning or existence that more than two jumps from *spits* Donald Trump or your phone—is a frivolous luxury for the privileged.
It’s hell for criticism, but I get the impulse. They’re literally ripping children away from their families and sticking them in cages, actions so heinous that everyone should decry it with every platform they have, and, I guess, sometimes that platform is a Philadelphia indie-pop band’s record review. However, beyond “this is horrible and needs to stop” I’m not sure there’s a ton more to say about it (although the right artist is welcome to prove me wrong). I’m not sure I know how to balance being a responsible member of the republic with being a sane human being living his own life. I used to know but now it all seems pretty facile–turning away from the spectacle and gazing into it both feel like exactly what they (I don’t know who) want.
And likewise we ARE living through the cyborg revolution where our minds are now at least partially in our pockets (often, in our palms), and music writers are the vanguard of the Unprecedentedly Online, but it’s hard not to cringe when an esteemed band like Wire mentions Youtube in a song.
As much as this administration’s only real accomplishment is a horrible tax cut for the people who need it least, they also came to power on the wings of treating marginalized–people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, women–even worse, which opens another vein in criticism. Every artist’s identity—specifically how that identity carries trauma—is the key the understanding their work.
The music doesn’t really back this up and I think it’s another dead end. The 1975 wrote a whole album about How It Is Now but that didn’t make it a good record. Mitski wrote a good record that either has little and less to say about being Asian-American or is very subtle about it, and has so little to do with How It Is Now that her characters want things like physical photographs and monogamy. Jia Tolentino (the best in the business) pointed out how rarely Mitski’s music seems to live up to what’s said about her music.
Two years after “Makeout Creek,” she released “Puberty 2,” which recomposed the D.I.Y. melodrama of its predecessor into something larger, subtler, and sharper: the album sounded both tough and tender, like a bruise blooming across the knee. Wikipedia will tell you that the album is about “longing, love, depression, alienation, and racial identity,” but, to me, it still sounds like it’s mostly about Mitski. Its breakout song was “Your Best American Girl,” an instant-classic pop-rock anthem whose chorus alluded to a relationship obstructed by cultural mores: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I think I do / And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” The song was interpreted as a political statement. Mitski was catapulting a boulder into the moldy walls of our national bigotry! She was challenging a music industry in which Asian women were so rarely visible—and sometimes fetishized, by bands like Weezer, which the song’s chord palette cuttingly nods to—as well as a genre, rock, that ignores the women in its midst! Eventually, Mitski posted a note on Facebook explaining that, as far as she was concerned, “Your Best American Girl” was a love song. A lot of reviews had decided that she had written the song to “stick it to ‘the white boy indie rock world’,” as Mitski wrote. But “I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it,” she countered. “I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love.”
Makes you wonder if people who write about How We Live Now ever listen to these people they claim to revere. I suspect there’s a strain of essentialism going on—you’re X group, so you have to sing about X group’s trauma (this isn’t just a music thing; much smarter people have said as much about, say, the non-comedy comedy special Nannette). It forces artists into a narrow story and subject matter that only exists in relation to the oppressor, taking one more thing away from the oppressed. It takes the multitude of diverse voices and makes them sing a single song. It reduces both the art and the criticism to the personal biographical essay, but one that has to also bear the burden of being a clear representative of a political reality, which is to say, not too personal and not too nuanced. Welcome back to being a symbol! White men? Sing about what you want.
I don’t have a real prescriptive conclusion here, although this is where one should go. It’s not that I want to “keep politics out of my music.” It’s that once we’ve recognized that everything already IS political and everything is a product of its time, we should allow ourselves politics and an understanding of our time that isn’t so streamlined and pat. And the better music writers do this. And as (or rather IF) listening habits open up, we’ll get better at listening to artists on their own terms.
I Don’t Like Music I Only Like Cumbia: La Mecanica Popular, Sonido Gallo Negro, Doctor Nativo (saw him at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens Chili Fest–he’s a beautiful nutter and I love him).
Wry Women Of The Year: Haley Heynderickx, Noname, Sidney Gish (SIDNEY GISH!), Mitski, Melissa Laveaux.
Wax Attack: Mdou Moctar Meets Elite Beat in a Budget Dancehall I splurged on this very limited run record and I’m not sorry; I’ll never be sorry. I sometimes picture a child of mine discovering it on the shelf, but he or she will never have the opportunity because this record will always be playing.
Fillers of the Public Strain Void: Corridor is a strong nominee—they have sweet six-string workouts and are Canadian. But save some shine for the chimey Puerto Ricans in Dogos.
Books I Read That I Loved: Swing Time, All the Games of Throne books (I was on jury duty), The Kingdom, Gone Girl. (Gone Girl rules).
Best Live Show: Haley Heynderickx was a really fun show. I forget WHY my alarm was set so early, but my radio popped on at a quarter till 6 and Haley was on there, hitting the climax of “Oom Sha La La,” which goes from pitch-and-catch melody over a subdued “Be My Baby” beat (“If you don’t go outside, nothing’s going to happen/She’ll never write her number on a crumpled up napkin”) to a full out shout (“I need to start a garden!”), and in the bleary pre-dawn she made two fans for life. That Friday night, we went to some basement of a bar in Manhattan and got comfy as the place FILLED. In front of a solid line of photographers, she played a song about stealing mac and cheese from a Whole Foods that she wrote for an open mic night that she hosts. She was coming out of the chrysalis, music going from someone’s passion to vocation. Pretty special.
Gotta give some props to Mdou Moctar. The Tuareg guitarist seems nine feet tall on stage and is an absolute shredder. His songs seem to just churn until questions of what’s rhythm and what’s melody don’t make sense, there is only the gears of the machine, and there’s always another one to shift into. He’s playing again on Jan. 4. I’ll be there.
At our wedding we had a band called The Mandingo Ambassadors play. They’re literally one of my favorite bands–playing a sort of retro, heavily Cuban-influenced West African guitar pop, with lots of djembe and horns. And they’re a good wedding band because, apart from people we’ve dragged to Barbes to see them, no one–young nor old–knew their music, but the first time you hear it, you get it. Watching all my friends and loved ones screaming and dancing to them will be one image of my wedding that I will never forget and in my unbiased opinion made our wedding the best wedding anyone has ever had. Let me tell you the release was real.
When Ben asked me if I wanted to write up my favorite albums of 2018, my initial thought was “Was there even music this year?”. My 2018 found me endlessly refreshing my Twitter feed for more political news and hot takes as the nation rounds out year 2 of the end of civilization. Sure, I listened to music. I must have bought records as evidenced by the stack of LPs not yet organized. But I’m left with the sense that music didn’t happen this year. The idea of albums as cultural events seems sadly quaint. I’m also 32, right at the age people are supposed to stop caring about new music. So instead of my top 10 albums or whatever, here’s a disorganized diary of noteworthy personal media consumption from 2018:
Red Dead Redemption II
I’d never purchased a game console until this year. Though our family had a sega genesis and consoles have always been around, I never considered myself a gamer, and looked down on the whole medium with suspicion and disdain. Then I moved back to the Chicago, where harsh winters and my lack of a car left me craving anything to make the time go by. I bought a PS4 and Red Dead II and promptly lost 100+ hours of my life.
Red Dead II is about an outlaw in a gang of outlaws led by a charismatic Robin Hood father figure outlaw, during the closing of the frontier and the beginning of the 20th century. The main story is often silly, but solidly well written and compelling. The world is immaculately realized and engrossing. The main story missions are repetitive and stressful, sometimes even feel like a chore. Gunplay is basically finding a cover spot, auto aiming and moving the sight up a smidge for a headshot. The game can’t make up its mind as to how much agency to give you, such that my character’s scripted actions feel at odds with all the decision points I’d made up to that point. I’ve killed plantation owners, oil barrens, white supremacists and cops, freed horses after killing their outlaw masters, pet every dog I saw, only to be forced into being a debt collector and pummel a poor subsistence farmer. I went on an ill advised murdering spree after I got tortured by a rival gang, only to watch my character later say “I’m realizing revenge is a fool’s errand”. And yet I remained so engrossed and compelled that I chucked my controller at the screen when my favorite horse died.
In the end, I’m not sure if the game transcends its inherent contradictions. It gives you an open world and the choice to behave honorably or despicably, but ties you into the same core linear narrative, albeit a strong one. The game openly and unambiguously despises capitalism, but took hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime to realize, and is one of the highest grossing entertainment properties this year. I can’t say that the experience is more memorable than watching No Country for Old Men, which is cheaper, more compelling and only takes 2 hours to watch. But I’m glad that I got to throw myself into what is probably the greatest achievement of a medium.
Making a guitar
One of the reasons I haven’t been following music closely this year has been a renewed interest in making my own. Being my father’s son, this first triggered a quest for more and better gear, spending hours on ebay instead of, you know, actually writing songs. In this fit of manic consumption, I thought it more noble to build my own guitar than simply buy a new one. I got a DIY guitar kit and spent 4 weeks building, rebuilding, and tweaking my new main instrument, a object that I simultaneously love and hate, am both proud and ashamed of, a quixotic token that reminds me about the inescapability of the self. It fucking shreds.
Sadly, instead of listening to tunes when I have my earbuds in, I’m usually listening to one of several lefty podcasts. My two personal favorites are Your Kickstarter Sucks and Citations Needed. Citations Needed is basically what I wish the John Oliver show was: smart analysis on bogus media narratives, equally dunking on conservatives and libs alike from an unabashedly left orientation. Your Kickstarter Sucks is two moderately funny guys making fun of stupid shit on crowdfunding sites. It’s as funny for the hosts’ contempt for stupid scams and get rich quick schemes as it is for the hosts’ contempt for the show itself. RIYL that friend who commits to a bit even after it bombs.
Yes, a two hour animated power point presentation about a sport I know nothing about was one of my favorite things this year, because it’s 2018 and nothing is how it should be. Next year will feature reviews of vape pens and 14 year old Tik Tok stars.
Chris Cohen – Overgrown Path and Torrey Pine
Though not released this year, I discovered Chris Cohen in 2018 after Spotify kept recommending him. I was pretty thrilled that the algorithm worked for once, turning me onto someone I’d never heard of. I was pleasantly surprised to find out I’d already heard and seen this guy a couple times, in Deerhoof during their Runners Four peak and touring in Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. Cohen’s solo LPs showcase his breezy brand of psychedelia, one that, like the Zombies or Brian Wilson, hides a pretty impressive harmonic inventiveness underneath. His songs feel instantly classic, but are never poor copies of old hits. I’m hard pressed to pick a favorite tune, but “Yesterday’s on My Mind” may be the best argument for this guy’s rare talent.
Erica Eso – 192 Dreamless CMG
A cracked and brilliant album of ‘Microtonal Pop’ that sounds like Babbling Corpse of vaporwave became sentient and ecstatic, or if Oneohtrix Point Never tried making pop music.
Freddie Gibbs – Freddie
Freddie Gibbs may be too talented for his own good. His flow is unmatched except for the very best in the game (Kendrick), but he’s so prolific and unflashy that he’s easy to overlook until you hear him. One of Gibb’s favorite lyrical ticks is “chipping straight off the brick”, which is pretty much his whole brand. Gibbs has no gimmick, just pure verbal dexterity and airtight delivery, a gold standard MC who’s only sin is to have a career in an era where style has eviscerated substance and the most hyped rappers are tatted cartoon babies who look like sentient Tide pods who’s “flows” are beyond parody (except for Kendrick). What makes Freddie a standout in his career is how relaxed and goofy it is, cover art and all. It’s like he finally realized no one is going against him one on one, so he’s just gonna practice trick shots all day while the whole park watches. He tries on a Migos triplet flow and runs circles around them, there are moments that he almosts sounds like a grime MC. And it fucking bangs. Automatic, Set Set and Toe Tag had to be cut from my bike playlist because even on a shitty bluetooth speaker they could inspire such a no fucks given sense of invulnerability that I wanted to start Street Fighter style fist fights with Police SUVs.
Attempts to fill the Public Strain follow up sized hole in my heart
Ask anyone that knows me, I never really recovered from Women’s untimely breakup. Public Strain was a perfect note to end on, and will likely remain my favorite album of this decade, but I think the best band of my generation had at least one more great album in them. Gen X Slint probably know what I’m talking about.
Preoccupations cut another sonically adventurous LP, New Material, which cements their role as New Order to Women’s Joy Division, a more successful but ultimately inferior successor to a great band. Women’s former lead singer released some achingly beautiful and terrifying tunes as Cindy Lee, whose gorgeous Act of Tenderness got a vinyl release this year, followed by the completely unfocused Model Express. Surprisingly, the only band to scratch that special Women itch has been Montreal’s Corridor, who’s Supermercado takes Women’s signature guitar acrobatics and saturated cassette production aesthetic and crafts ac effervescent classic all their own.
Some solid favs stay with their core strengths
Protomartyr, Parquet Courts, Father John Misty, Julia Holter all had some really good releases, if you’re already into them. FJM sounds like he may be out of ideas, but has the good nature to only include the remaining good cuts on God’s Favourite Customer; Parquet Courts seemingly can’t fail to deliver a solid batch of tunes every year, I’m worried that Protomartyr finished 3 album hot streak with last year’s Relative’s in Descent, but Consolation is a strong EP, and I’m still absorbing Julia Holter’s incredibly Aviary, but miss the exuberance of Have You in My Wilderness.
Actually, last year’s music is still really good
Some of my favorite music this year came out in 2017, including releases by Fleet Foxes, Big Thief, Priests, Ariel Pink, Grizzly Bear, and Makaya McKraven, which ended up remaining in heavy rotation well into 2018. But this section is an excuse to talk about Protomartyr, who’s 2017 Relative’s In Descent remains the Trump-era musical document to beat. A thoughtful, desperate, pummeling, oddly graceful album by the best rock band of the 2010’s, a sneering midwestern rebuttal to everything else in the cultural discourse. Most of my favorite tunes since 2016 have offered respite and escape from the Hell World we all inhabit, Protomartyr is the only band that’s helped me face it.