It must get cramped up there, The Top, that spectacular apex where the finest players fight and scuffle for space, spitting on the losers below.
In 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy secured Kanye’s spot,extremely comfortably. That record will be forever remembered as the turning point at which Y2k’s hip-hop got legit. It was a once-in-a-generation type of album, our Illmatic, and it was something that caused critics and fans alike to eat themselves with excitement.
Next, it was Kendrick’s turn. And he officially stole that shit from ’Ye in 2012 during the opening bars of that bat shit insane “Control” verse:
“One at a time I line them up
And bomb on they mom while she watching the kids”
Indeed, no one wants bombs on their moms, fuck dat!
K. Dot’s earth-shattering word missiles injected adrenaline into the entire rap game, forcing freaks and fiends from all corners of the weird and nasty world of hip hop to up their gangsta stance, loosen their lips and sharpen their scribe. (Meanwhile, poor Kanye wept from behind the commercial chastise of Yeezus, attempting to convince us all that he was, in fact, a good rapper. Nope, not so, ’Ye.)
Nestled amidst a slew of top-tier 2013 hip hop releases, Drake’sNothing Was the Same, like its prodigious predecessors, enraptured the attention of critics and fans alike, quickly propelling the emo rapper to uber-legend status. It certainly helps when your lead single is named Pitchfork’s Track of the Year and the public’s perception of you is that of a mischievously dorky, overwhelming likable, spoilt rich brat.
Personality aside, the emotionally charged beats and lyrics of Drizzy’sNothing Was the Same and the subsequent one-off singles released throughout 2014, transcended much of what pop-rap has produced before. The dude can actually sing and rap (unlike Kanye) and the hooks and beats never sound out of place on mainstream radio (unlike Kendrick).
So, apparently, 2014 was Drake’s year, despite no actual album release. A few throwaway singles and an anthemic collaborative track, a few remixes and guest spots; when compiled togetherDrake’s year looks pretty fucking spectacular. Meanwhile, Kanye and Kendrick remained relatively quiet throughout 2014, frantically finishing work on their extremely anticipated forthcoming releases.
Now that 2015 has sluggishly rolled around, all three rappers have emerged with promising new material, rotating that Top Spot somewhat weekly. Kanye West, seemingly thrust into some kind of neo-psychedelic whimsy following the birth of his daughter, has released a handful of descent-to-good pop tracks, promising critics a fresher and lighter sound. Kendrick is now three from three with post-good Kid singles and his recent “Blacker the Berry” is probably his best work since 2012. And Drake, well, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.
Indeed, if you’re reading this, it’s definitely too late, as Drake has gone and pulled a Beyoncé on us all. (Note: “pulled a Beyonce” may become 2015’s top phrase, alongside “where can I buy a selfie stick”) Yes, Drake took to Twitter last week and dumped a delicious 17-track mixtape, seemingly comprised of “leftovers” from his forthcoming proper album Views From the 6.
And it’s good. Worryingly good. And Drake knows it’s good, too. Only two minutes in and he is already telling us that he is “the One” and a “motherfucking legend”. CHARISMA IS EVERYTHING and Drake seems to have been closely observing the scriptures of Jesus and Yeezus: if you stand on stage in front of your disciples and proclaim victory, victory shall be yours.
This newfound transition from egoist to messiah surprisingly works in Drake’s favor. Now, Drake is both The Emotionally Connected Poster Boy and The Badass playing entirely by His Own Rules. Throughout the mixtape, Drake dismisses and disses those in His Zone (aka Kanye, Kendrick) and admits that life can get pretty lonely sitting atop The Throne.
Though not entirely true (The Throne is still currently split three ways, in my opinion), Drizzy really delivers some of his punchiest and fiercest material on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The beats, provided by a slew of producers both known and unknown, are some of his best to date, particularly on the album’s far-superior first half. Minimalist space and glitch ruminate in an esoteric mix of bounce, trap, aggression and ambience. Imagine a quiet Yeezus, or an angrierNothing Was the Same.
Here, his flow closely resembles that of his mentor and label mate Lil Wayne, in that it closely resembles nothing at all, besides spectacularly unique chaos. This sporadic flow, paired with aggressive lyricism propels the albums best tracks into stratospheric territory (“No Tellin’”, “10 Bands”, “6PM in New York”).
However, this audaciousness is at times poorly miscalculated, resulting in some of the flat-out worst tracks he has released in years (“Preach”, “Company”). Similarly, the back half of the record could do with some serious trimming. But, I guess, it is a mixtape after all and those aren’t known for their swiftness.
So the jury is still out and The Throne still remains up for grabs. WithIf You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake certainly seems to nudge the other two slightly, and if anything, it will challenge and propel the competitive trio to release some seriously serious shit throughout the remainder of this year.
As the curtains slowly close on 2014, I spend copious amounts of time doing what all music nerds love: looking back, crafting lists (upon lists, upon lists) and attempting to form some kind of cohesive overview of the year that was. Specifically, I have trawled through my (unnaturally enormous) list of loved records of the year and attempted to decipher trends in my listening and in the state of modern music. Obviously, stacks of new genres, styles, artists and trends emerge every year and so, even for a guy like me, keeping up with everything is virtually impossible (although I’ll be damned if I didn’t try). Therefore this overview pertains to some of my personal favourite trends of the year and is likely lacking in other defining elements of 2014 music.
PC Music and Bubblegum Bass
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first, shall we? Straddling high-octane pop, experimental collage and four-to-the-floor dance with effortless zeal, bubblegum bass was certainly the most fascinating new trend (genre? scene?) to emerge from music in 2014.
The notoriously divisive label managed to quickly spark a legitimate fan base using a highly innovative marketing campaign which basically saw unknown artists like GFOTY, Lipgloss Twins and Hannah Diamond staged and treated like pop stars in the same league as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Combining this glossy visual aesthetic with the delightfully infectious and addictive sounds of sparkling keys, silly string MIDI, pitch-shifted vocals, kawaii, 160 bpm dance and sound-collage, PC Music and bubblegum bass attempted to provide joy, laughter and good times to virtually everybody.
But of course, there were just as many haters as there were lovers. Many couldn’t fathom the prickly production of “Hard” (“it sounds like needles spiking my ears”), the demented vocal delivery of Hannah Diamond or the inconsistent and shameless bouncing from genre to genre, somewhat resembling an 8-year-old on too much red cordial. Others dismissed the genre as divisive and insincere, with most questioning the intentions and purpose of the genre (“nobody canenjoy this kind of music”) with some even accusing the genre of harmfully attacking pop music and some of its ideals (capitalism, misogyny, fakeness, etc.)
However, in my mind at least, A.G. Cook and Sophie are about as sincere as it gets and it seems that members of this collective share equal respect for sugary pop and music that exists on the strange and seedy edges of popular culture. And I’m certainly not alone, considering a large portion of the genre’s music features prominently in many publications end-of-year lists (specifically this, this andthis). My own “best songs of 2014” list is currently topped by Sophie’s incredibly addictive “Hard” (I swear, I’ve listened to this song a thousand times) and would also contain lots of GFOTY, Lipgloss Twins’ fucked up consumerist-collage “Wannabe”, some Hannah Diamond, “Hey QT” (yeah?) and the other three Sophie songs.
So while we excitedly wait to see what kind of demented charades the genre will produce in 2015 (I await a full length release from one of the artists, however, I fear anything more than 30 minutes of bubblegum bass would likely cause serious mental harm), we can safely look back on 2014 as the year bubblegum bass broke-through (the internet, brains, pop music etc.).
I’ve juggled and attempted to find a better term to describe this kind of music but will have to settle for what’s written above. Over the last two years, a steady stream of instrumental hip hop has emerged on Bandcamp and Soundcloud to great acclaim from publications andwebsiteschampioningoutsider music.
Following the early 2010s success of trap and cloud rap in the hip hop circuit (which seemingly continued taking stride this year, more on this later), a plethora of artists took influence from the heavy bass, speedy cymbals and dreamy soundscapes of Lil B, Clams Casino, Mike Will Made It and others to craft a delightful collection of instrumental jams combining equal respect for hip hop and dream pop.
But for me personally, the best 2014 release from this micro-micro-genre is undoubtedly James Ferraro’s wonderful Suki Girlz mixtape.Suki Girlz delicately fuses elements of trap and cloud rap and filters it through Ferraro’s own personality and interest in post-Internet music. The minimalism of Suki Girlz is its biggest draw card, with Ferraro looping his ambient and atmospheric micro-beats into the abyss. Influenced by 3am night walks through New York, Suki Girlz is a lengthy and introspective beast, further affirming Ferraro as one of the most fascinating chameleons of modern music.
I fucking love this term. “Sampledelica” is an umbrella term I use (though few others, it seems) to net a wide range of music that fuses disparate samples to craft something new, psychedelic and wonderful. Collage (as we know it today) artists fusing found sounds have been around for ages and the genre was (somewhat) popularised in 1968 by The Beatles’ classic “Revolution 9”. Next, the genre detoured via krautrock, Negativland, and eventually hip hop, finally evolving into the fascinating beast we know sample-based music to be today.
Over the last couple of years, the genre has really taken on a variety of forms, most notably those that have stemmed from the creations of Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro at the start of this decade. Vaporwave, a genre that supposedly came and went, has had one hell of a 2014, with the “dead” scene producing one of its (and the year’s) finest releases in the form of Nmesh’s Dream Sequins®. I spoke with fervour earlier this year about this release and the abundant stamina seemingly still powering the genre and its followers. Though some publications, writers and critics are still staying well away from vaporwave, Nmesh has certainly encouraged further interaction and discussion within the genre, reinforcing its merit with this high quality release (“it transcends the genre”). Transcendence is basically what vaporwave needed to kick it in the pants and maintain interest from those outside of the community, with artists like Infinity Frequencies, Gobby,Magic Fades, Delroy Edwards, E+E and Eco Virtual each releasing multiple (!!) albums in 2014 that took establishing vaporwave tropes and combined them something different and intriguing gathered from outside sources.
Sampledelia was heard elsewhere in 2014, on other releases undoubtedly stemming from the Lopatin tree. Brooklyn label Bootleg Tapes produced an astonishing amount of fantastic albums, each operating under the sound collage/instrumental hip hop/vaporwave/glitch bent. C L E A N E R S’ Real Raga Shit Vol. 1 was undoubtedly the highlight from the top-quality label; an album comprised of two 20-minute tracks fusing samples spanning the globe and seemingly the entire history of recorded sound. Real Raga Shit Vol. 1 takes the listener to Asia, India, electro 80s, Casablanca, space, 50s soul, 60s girl groups, bluegrass and to countless other locales and times, resulting in an mixing pot of sounds amassed into 40-minutes of unrequited joy.
Elsewhere, the sampledelic sub-genre glitch had another brilliant year, with a steady flow of releases from the ever-prolific D/P/I (two full-length albums, two mixtapes, a side-project and probably others) and everything produced by the oddball label psalmus diuersaetopping a long-list of fascinating releases within the genre. Like the collagists of Bootleg Tapes (D/P/I actually released one of his mixtapes on the label at the start of the year), these artists fuse sounds from everywhere and anywhere, filtering them through a blender and releasing them as a full-assault of randomised chaos on the ears. It’s too much for some, but there is something fascinating in the genres fixation with shortened attention spans, globalisation and the question of what-is-music.
All Hip Hop From the South
Again I am going to attempt to blanket an array of genres into one place to enable easy reading and to try and avoid this article getting any further out of hand.
In my opinion, and I highly doubt I am alone on this, Southern hip hop has slowly been developing some of the most exciting and influential music the genre has heard during the new millennium. If I look at my Top 5 hip hop releases from 2014, the top three are from southern rappers (Future’s Honest, Run the Jewels’ Run the Jewels 2 and Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo). There’s also a smattering of others spilling through the rest of my list, including plenty I still need to dedicate more time to.
Trap is obviously the biggest, most influential and most talked-about subgenre of hip hop in 2014 and is an inherently southern creation. Though the genre has been floating around since the 1990s, trap has had something of a modern reboot and restyle, with modern acts like Gucci Mane, Future and Migos each redefining the genre for modern audiences. The triplet rap style established by these artists over the last year or so has slowly spilled out into every echelon of rap music and has become one of the most influential movements in the genre of the last couple of years. In poetry, it is called a dactyl, referring to a long syllable followed by two short syllables. If all of that is too confusing, try saying “contraband, contraband, contraband” to get an idea of what this recently developed flow sounds like.
Commonly spat by trap rappers, the “dactyl flow” has found its way into non-trap acts from all across the country. But if we are being serious, one of the best recent examples of these triplets can be found throughout the Run the Jewels track “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”. Zach de la Rocha’s vocal loop that the song is built on (“run them, run, run, them”) is loosely based on that triplet, but it is Killer Mike’s ridiculous fourth verse that showcases the possibilities created by this new flow when placed in the hands of a really fucking good rapper (no offence to Quavo). (Also, Kiler Mike delivers another ridiculous set of triplets here).
But its not just trap that dominated the sounds of southern rap in 2014. Isaiah Rashad’s deliriously wonderful Cilvia Demo mixtape/EP channels cloud rap of the druggiest and wooziest kind; the Top Dawg Entertainment protégé promising to be one to watch in 2015 as he prepares his first proper album. Of course, it is also hard to deny the influence or importance of newcomer iLoveMakonnen, who’s infectious track “Tuesday” garnered the attention of Drake and went on to become one of the biggest singles of the year. Likewise, Atlanta rap clique Awful Records have had one hell of a 2014, producing an unnaturally large amount of high quality records and not looking to stop dominating the indie scene any time soon. Travelling even further underground, Houston-born Amber London has been combining southern styles with G-Funk to craft a handful of mixtapes (including 2014’s spectacular Hard II Find (Not Found)) showcasing the talent lurking throughout the unsigned corners of southern rap.
P.S. There are countless others, far too many to mention. But 2014 has produced an abundance of spectacular releases, guest verses and mixtapes from other southern rappers not mentioned above, including: CunningLynguists, 2Chainz, CyHi the Prince, Kitty, Travi$ Scott, T.I., SpaceGhostPurrrp, etc.
Outsider house music, literally meaning little more than “house music made by/for outsiders”, undoubtedly would have lurked in the corners of dance culture since at least the late 80s/early 90s. If we look at the genre according to Rate Your Music (my go-to guide for emerging genres), “Outsider House” has really only been around for the last year or two. But if we were to get real for a second, this kind of music could relate to any range of a plethora of defining dance artists; anyone even remotely akin to Aphex Twin, Jon Hopkins, The Orb, etc.
Semantics aside, Outsider House does, at least partially in my mind, refer to a relatively recent group of musicians and DJs taking influence from acid house and dance music, filtering it through cassette to give their beats and tracks a kind of woozy, hypnagogic bent.
All fingers point to Canadian label 1080p as the leading figures behind the popularity of this type of music; their collection of tapes from 2014 being among the smoothest dance music heard all year, steeped in nostalgia and deliciously home grown. The cassette gives the recordings a bedroom feel, resulting in the songs being acceptable not just for the dance floor, but the after party, the come down and the morning after. The soft, dreamy and psychedelic imagery accompanying these releases resonates with the music perfectly.
D. Tiffany and Riohv released two of the strongest house records of the year for 1080p. Both artists fuse the fuzzy cassette aesthetic with hypnotic four-to-the-floor rhythm, resulting in what 1080p label founder Richard MacFarlane perfectly described to Fader as some sort of “club and anti-club dichotomy.”
Bubbling closer to the surface of popular music, Actress’ spectacularGhettoville incorporates the grungy, DIY outsider house aesthetic and thrusts it into the mainstream via his major label affiliation. Combining an interest in microsound, ambience, vaporwave and above all, house music, Actress currently stands – in my mind at least – as a figurehead of the genre, a kind of beacon of immense success many of these artists are seemingly striding toward.
Elsewhere, other house artists have incorporate different styles and genres into the lo-fi outsider house aesthetic: trance (RSS B0YS), pop and disco (Bobo Eyes), New Age (A.r.t. Wilson), devotional (nima), neo-classical (Francis Harris) and lots and lots of drugs (Gobby).
“There’s a man with hands for every finger / Claimin’ he’s a folk singer”
Whenever I hear this unforgettable line from Kurt Vile’s (best) track “Freak Train”, I often wonder if he is singing about himself. The concept of a folk singer, freewhlin’ and playin’ his guitar using a hand for every finger, implies one damn talented guitarist. Listening to Vile play, he could very well have a hand for every finger; the fingerpicking on “Blackberry Song” and “Dead Alive” should nearly be evidence enough. But if that ain’t yo’ jam, if you prefer the harder stuff, check out the obscene rock’n’roll Springsteen-esque guitar on “Hunchback” and “Monkey” or the psychedelic noise on “Freak Train” and “Inside Looking Out.”
14. Relationship of Command – At the Drive-In
Fusing frantic punk energy with virtuosic intricacies, At the Drive-In’s classic Relationship of Command showcases guitar playing of the most frenzied and violent variety. I mean, their disrespect for their instruments is clearly apparent. These guys took what Sonic Youth perfected in the 1980s (punk + noise + intellect = success) and turned it up to 11. Filthy dimished chords crush the listener, extreme and haphazard feedback pierces the eardrum, intricate riffage dizzies the brain.
13. Mirrored – Battles
Nerds unite! Following the rise of post-rock in the 1990s, math rock introduced listeners to intelligent, fast and intricate musicianship. Topping the math rock pyramid, Battles’ Mirrored takes the flowery neo-psychedelia of weirdos like The Flaming Lips and Animal Collective, and filters it through some of the smartest playing of the millennium. Indistinguishable time signatures and freakish flurries of notes – sometimes seemingly looped into infinity – collide throughout, likely to leave the listener confused, amazed and overwhelmed. Do not try this at home.
12. Songs For the Deaf – Queens of the Stone Age
Guitar-nerd guitarists love Josh Homme, and with good reason. Tune in to Songs For the Deaf and your ears will likely orgasm. Homme punches out some of the fattest riffs of the decade on this record – “No One Knows”, “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar…” and “Go With the Flow” are among the obvious choices, but every single track on this thing features gnarly guitar playing likely to cause your balls to shrivel up into your stomach.
11. Innerspeaker – Tame Impala
The surfy and sunny Western Australian coast seems the perfect locale to birth the kind of music perfected by Tame Impala. The slippery flanger and chorus effects circle like waves crashing to the shore, feeling like sun soaking the skin and melting away all troubles. Over the last half-century, Kevin Parker – though heavily indebted to guitarists like Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jimi Hendix – has crafted his own guitar tone sounding something like a rusty relic of the psychedelic late 60s.
10. Murray Street – Sonic Youth
Murray Street sits high among the best Sonic Youth albums outside of the 1980s. The 2004 album found the veteran rockers reconnecting to the extended experimental jams that punctuated the best moments of their career. Epic, ten-minute masterpieces like “Karen Revisited” and “Symphony for the Strawberry” sound like rediscovered Daydream Nation tracks, while “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” is about as filthy as its name, all squeal and frenzy.
9. Flood – Boris
Drone doom legends Boris’ breakthrough record Flood is an oscillation of minimalist and maximalist guitars, all filtered through an intensely druggy and sluggish bent. Opener “I” contorts on a string of delicate notes, gently pulsing and looping into the abyss, moving upon the subtlest of changes. “II” is the most visceral guitar track on the album, comprised of 13 minutes of shameless slowcore soloing undoubtedly accompanied by LSD. “III” is pure doom, waves of sludge, like a flood of caramel syrup, snail through your peripheries, destroying everything in its path. Lastly, “IV” ends the album with pure subtle beauty; a gorgeous 20-minute abyss of atmospheric ambience crafted by infinitely reverberating notes.
8. In Rainbows – Radiohead
Let’s be real, Johnny Greenwood should sit in every musicians list of top guitarists of all time. From their earliest days, Radiohead have filled their records with Greenwood’s wonderful, weirdo bendy riffs, technical fuckery and wholly nuanced flourishes. Behind Greenwood, Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brian fill their sound with atmospheric beauty and percussive playing, resulting in some of the most well realised guitar work in music history. On In Rainbows, Radiohead return their guitars to the foreground, punching out some of the most stellar riffs of their careers on tracks like “Bodysnatchers” and “House of Cards”.
7. The Seer – Swans
Thunderous? Disasterous? All-consuming? Offensive? I juggled adjectives and synonyms, attempting to discern the sound of those Swans guitars. No words suffice, it seems words just aren’t quite big or abrasive enough. And if those guitars could be louder, they would – Michael Gira would see to that. I lost my soul to the guitars on this album.
6. m b v – My Bloody Valentine
Kevin Shields is an alien. His ears hear things regular humans do not hear. On last year’s wonderful, critics poll-topping m b v, Shields showed shoegazers and nu-gazers the world over that even after laying dormant for 20 years, he is still the absolute king of the genre. Loud and effect-laden guitars abound on m b v, particularly on technically baffling tracks like “Who Sees You” and “Wonder 2”. Those lucky enough to witness My Bloody Valentine live would also understand just how serious Shields takes his guitar playing, standing motionless and backed by a wall – yes, literally, a wall – of Marshall amplifiers, Sheilds softly strums his Fender Jaguar (or Jazzmeister), somehow resulting in the beautiful noise the band is best known for.
5. Microcastle – Deerhunter
The opening two seconds of Microcastle, explained: feedbacked tremolo guitars, akin to the sound of smashed glass burst through the speakers, painfully awakening the listener and screaming DEERHUNTER ARE FUCKING HERE. Now that you are awake, you can settle in and enjoy the psychedelic magic guitar show headlined by Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt. Deerhunter take their guitars everywhere on Microcastle, heralding funky acoustic riffs (“Saved By the Old Times”), ambient experimentalism (“Calvary Scars”), massive walls of sound (“Little Kids”) and balls-out punk rock (“Nothing Ever Happened”, “Never Stops”).
4. The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place – Explosions in the Sky
Guitars flow like a waterfall of pearls. Meticulously crafted with finesse, the kind perfectionists would envy, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith’s majestically aligned guitars envelope the listener, shrouding them in a sea of beauty. These micro-symphonies effortlessly flow and contort, building and building upon layers of notes and loops, forever bouncing into infinity.
3. Elephant – The White Stripes
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Jack White’s abilities as an incredible virtuoso guitarist. Influenced by blues greats like Son House and Blind Willie McTell, White’s tone and skill surpasses any other guitar player of the last ten years. Elephant certainly showcases White’s talent best, containing simplistic yet wholly effective riffs (“Seven Nation Army”, “Hardest Button to Button”) and some of his most batshit-insane, face-melting solos (“Ball and Biscuit”, “Black Math”).
2. Turn On the Bright Lights – Interpol
These guys crafted an exquisite and unique guitar album virtually without guitar solos. Daniel Kessler and Paul Banks composed their tracks with complex, down-stroked rhythms and interesting, intertwining harmonies. The guitars on Turn On the Bright Lightscombine the post-rock intellect apparent on records by bands like Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai, with the simplistic and anarchic approach comparable to 70s punk icons Joy Division and Gang of Four.
1. Is This It? – The Strokes
Of course, it was the guitar album that kick-started a garage revolution. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. dueled their murky guitars (few studio effects were used; the band wanted the album to sound like it was produced in the past) against simplistic rhythm and Julian Casablancas’ poetry. Though neither guitarist was virtuosic like their contemporary Jack White, the tone of the guitars and their jerky, punky delivery enabled killer riffs on tracks like “Last Nite”, “Take it Or Leave It” and “Soma” to quickly become guitar student staples. Though the band never again achieved the stratospheric heights reached by this album (few guitar albums will), the influence and importance of this classic record remains unmatched.
The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.
During the opening seconds of Joni Mitchell’s “River”, the listener is tricked into hearing the “Jingle Bells” melody. She plays the notes softly on the middle range of the keyboard, slowing down the tempo and shifting the melody to the minor key. This appropriated melody is repeatedly refrained during “River” and perfectly captures the thematic purpose of the song.
Throughout popular music history, Christmas has seldom been portrayed as a melancholic time of year. The typical Christmas tune is all spritely bells, major chords, sing-a-long choruses, exuberance, over-indulgence and pure euphoria. Of course, there have been a few classics that have managed to capture the flipside of the Christmas spirit – The Everly Brothers’ “Christmas Eve Can Kill You”, Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas”, Wham’s “Last Christmas”(lol) – but few have managed to express a melancholic Christmas with such raw emotion as Joni Mitchell.
Recorded during a treacherous period of Mitchell’s life where she had broken from her very serious relationship with Graham Nash and was undergoing something of an existential crisis, Blue is one of the pinnacles of 20th century poetry and an immensely influential cornerstone of emotional singer-songwriting. Reflecting on the album in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Mitchell revealed thatBlue was inspired by a lot of self-hatred and disdain for her surroundings. “I came to turning point – the terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives”, she explained, “the day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes.”
Listening to Blue, it is impossible to avoid Mitchell’s self-loathing; it seeps out of the record like blood from an open wound. Throughout, the listener is invited deep into the psyche of this complex, intelligent and emotionally overwrought individual.
By the time we reach “River” – the eighth track on the album – Mitchell’s emotional exhaustion has likely overrun and we become wholly hostage to her melancholic state. For me at least, “River” is the most cathartic track on the album and the only one that usually encourages a physical emotional response.
Thematically, “River” juxtaposes the celebration typically associated with Christmas, the “songs of joy and peace”, with a need to simply escape it all, to be left alone and “skate” or “fly” away. Mitchell reminds us that for those who are missing somebody, or have hurt a loved one, Christmas is the most difficult time of the year. The memories associated with togetherness and being surrounded by those you love can be excruciating for anybody recently to have lost a loved one to tragedy or separation. In “River”, Mitchell is likely singing about her split with Nash, although she could be referring to her daughter whom she gave up for adoption in 1965.
Personally, Christmas has never been the same since I lost my grandparents just over five years ago. A dysfunctional family at the best of times, losing all three of our most influential grandparents in succession (they all died within two years), shrouded future Christmases in a perpetual black cloud. Of course, the celebratory joy of seeing my other family members – cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts – remains a wonderful and immersive experience, but the nagging nostalgia of those lost has turned Christmas into one of the more difficult times of year not only for us, but for a majority of the population.
With “River”, Mitchell perfectly portrays this dichotomy and the immense emotional struggle that comes with balancing overwhelming joy and overwhelming sorrow during the holiday season. She brings a sense of realness and humanity to the Christmas experience, reminding us that, even despite its many illusions, December 25th can be one of the hardest days of the year.
For Liz Harris, despair and distance are crippling. She whispers to no one, likely alone in the cold darkness, ruminating on lost love, painful memories and the sheer emptiness of everything. Softly stroking the keys on her upright piano, the notes bounce off the walls and reverberate, barely filling the silence and crippling void of loneliness.
Ruins suffocates me. I cannot separate myself from the extreme emotion Harris exerts and the sheer power of her solemn, delicate delivery. Intently listening, I attempt to decipher the jigsaw of her words, each lost under a blanket of warm piano notes. Grouper is at her most naked on Ruins – there are no infinitely spiraling delay and reverb effects to drown her voice, no tape hiss and dense instrumentation to hide behind. She is intent on capturing moments, mistakes and all, exposing her scars, fears and desires.
Listening carefully, every nuance of each recording on Ruins can be heard and deciphered. The upright piano and Liz’s voice – that voice!! – softly ruminate in the foreground. But it is the background sounds of her surrounds that add depth, rawness and emotion to the recording – a creaking floorboard, rain, thunder, a microwave, frogs and birds – each similarly sounding their songs to perpetual nothingness.
Predominantly recorded back in 2011, Ruins is filled with typically circular Grouper ballads akin to those heard on her career highlightsDragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and A I A: Alien Observer. Following the field recording instrumental opener “Made of Metal”, the sparkling piano of “Clearing” engulfs with its gorgeously simple melody spiraling out into the darkness. She sings of water, shadows, fading, fucking up, death and “maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love.” It is the closest Harris has come to simple pop songwriting since “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping”, but here, she exposes herself completely, shyly shedding her skin to reveal her most intimate and darkest secrets.
Even the heavily dubbed tracks carry a naked rawness rarely delivered so perfectly throughout her mammoth career. On “Holding”, an angelic choir of a million harmonised Lizes whisper over an ambient-era Eno piano, ruminating in suffocating emptiness. Elsewhere, dueling piano notes pirouette into the abyss on “Labyrinth” – the most gorgeously simple and effective instrumental on the album and a perfect centerpiece.
“Made of Air” closes Ruins with the familiar minimalist, ambient shoegaze for which Harris is perhaps best known. Cacophonous cassette loops, engulfed in echo, stumble over one another, resulting in messy waves of distanced drones and ambience. “Made of Air” is the only song that doesn’t exactly belong on Ruins – it was recorded 5 years prior to the rest of the album – but it rounds the release off nicely, like an echo within an echo.
Ruins is Grouper’s most accessible album to date and an appropriate starting point for those unfamiliar with her enormous discography. Effortlessly nuanced, delicate and difficult, Ruins painstakingly captures moments of fraying love and insufferable sorrow, resulting in an emotional artwork drenched in perfection and raw beauty.
Breathe in/breathe out. Deeper, deeper. Bite until your lip bleeds. Fingernails tearing at your skin. Wipe the sweat. This is 18+ music.
From the opening seconds of Trust, the listener is exiled to a seedy room. It is a wholly personal place reserved for sexual anarchy and freedom. A boy and a girl exchange dirty secrets and fantasies, working themselves into catharsis. Stare, listen, close your eyes, feel.
F e e l.
18+ explore erotic surrealism in the digital age. It is a world of avatars fucking, flirting, fighting, forever lost and entangled in cyberspace. Personalities are rendered in code and you can be #w h o e v e r y o u w a n t. 18+ are Justin and Simia, Bro and Sis, but could be anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Their music is as fractured and incomplete as their virtual world. Seedy synthesizers and slowcore beats house whispered vocals and filthy samples. It is a dark and dirty sonic landscape. Disparate sounds collide in a net of minimalism and R&B, resulting in progressiveness steeped in nostalgia. Imagine FKA Twigs, Lana Del Ray and The XX, distorted into a weird wet-dream nightmare.
“I gathered poets around me and we all wrote beautiful erotica. As we were condemned to focus only on sensuality, we had violent explosions of poetry. Writing erotica became a road to sainthood rather than to debauchery.” ― Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus.
Trust coalesces the established 18+ aesthetic into a mixtape-type long player which sounds like the virtual sexual fantasies of fourteen different couples. Each track is only thematically linked by sex, allowing the minimalist R&B sounds to fascinatingly oscillate from track to track. Justin and Simia even toy with role-play; adjusting their accents and vocal delivery to satisfy the aesthetic and atmospheric needs of each individual song.
Some call it style over substance navel-gazing, the kind of hipster-y art-school fluff reserved for claustrophobic galleries, Prada parties and academia. But 18+ carry enough concepts to drag the listener through their sensual micro universe, despite certain tracks’ tendencies to meander. Like the art of sex, 18+ move rhythmically yet awkwardly; the humanness of connection and dissociation can be heard in the incomplete grittiness of some of Trust’s lesser songs.
But lesser songs don’t matter when you fuck. Nothing matters.
New music genres don’t just appear. The trajectories leading to the headline-grabbing notoriety of bubblegum bass and other recent musical phenomena are always logical and seamless. The much-discussed, love/hate new genres exist purely as a result of the fads that came before. Listen closely and you will notice that bubblegum bass sounds like everything and nothing you’ve heard. This circulatory self-reflexivity is present throughout pop music’s recent history and bubblegum bass falls in line with the recent cultural obsession with nostalgia and that which came before.
The past five years of dubstep is replicated in the liquid wobble of much of bubblegum bass’ currently miniscule output – the verses of the SOPHIE track “Hard” squeal and squirm like a lost Skrillex cut. Similarly, the so-called “ironic” pursuits of hypnagogic pop can be heard in QT’s overt references to pop culture’s trashiest tropes (K-Pop, J-Pop, jingle music, top 40, etc.). Bubblegum bass brilliantly juxtaposes hypnagogic pop’s forced messiness in favour of forced shininess (I can’t imagine PC Music releasing anything on cassette; however, it wouldn’t surprise me if their first release came with a free hologram). It’s also impossible to deny the influence of the entire “online underground” movement (vaporwave, seapunk, witch house, etc.). Bubblegum bass’ sparkly imagery combined with its commentary on capitalism is clearly representative of similar tropes spotted all throughout the filthy depths of online platforms such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Tumblr.
“Don’t listen to this.”
Currently, however, bubblegum bass has achieved something neither vaporwave nor witch house could ever have envisioned, something that separates it from other recent fads: legitimate intrigue from those outside the digital and music community. SOPHIE and QT’s Boiler Room sets furthered the genre’s shock popularity that already threatens to bubble over into the mainstream. It is likely that the painfully catchy “Hey QT” has even celebrated mainstream radio airplay; whereas, even the tidiest vaporwave tunes seldom get played on underground radio, let alone anything universally culturally accepted.
Much mystique also already surrounds the genre; further enabling critics and musicologists to grapple with the movement and its ethos. Take, for example, QT’s claims that she is not a pop star but in fact, an entrepreneur utilising pop music to freely advertise her energy drink. Or, try and decipher GFOTY’s (anagram for “Girl Friend of the Year”) bedazzling Instagram account filled with selfies and quotes perfectly complimentary to the imagery of her music.
“It’s been especially stimulating thinking about what makes something real or unreal, synthetic or natural.”
– QT, FACT MAG interview.
Equal parts rebellion, irony, aesthetic and joy, the genre balances its ideologies so delicately, most struggle to grapple with what bubblegum bass may (or may not) be trying to say or do. In-depth analyses of PC Music and bubblegum bass have already surfaced onPitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, FACT MAG and dozens of blogs — each writer competing to accurately contextualise the strange and divisive nature of the genre. Consensus on the legitimacy of bubblegum bass is yet to be reached and these virtual thinkpieces often manage to further confound and confuse the genre and its ideas.
When sourcing this music, SOPHIE is the most approachable and certainly the best place to start. Her (or his?) most recent singleLemonade/Hard is undoubtedly one of the most defined statements of 2014. “Hard” bounces with dizzying beats that run cacophonous rings around the listener before bursting into a sensationalist chorus dripping with K-pop and insincerity. Similarly, “Lemonade” is a slippery micro-monolith of repetition, high-energy and stimuli. The pairing of “Lemonade” and “Hard” marks the genre’s current peak, though there is certainly fascinating stuff going on elsewhere within the genre and its (one? two? fifty?) affiliates.
Bubblegum bass kind of exists in a vacuous space where performance art and mass media threateningly coexist as unlikely bedfellows. To some, the intelligence of the genre – what the genre is actuallysaying – far outweighs any actual aesthetic appreciation of the music. Contrariwise, there would be those who admire the music of QT, SOPHIE and A.G. Cook purely for its high-octane, all-night party-vibes. As stated earlier, some of these songs wouldn’t raise suspicion if played in nightclubs or mainstream radio, though it could be argued these artists are mocking the very scene they are contributing to. The aesthetic and cognitive values of bubblegum bass are perhaps reminiscent of Andy Warhol and the pop art movement of the 1960s: re-appropriation, celebration/indignation of mass media and the dichotomy of consumerist/capitalist values share equal footing and it remains the burgeoning task of the audience and critic to decipher the art as they see fit.
On one account, the genre is begging to be taken seriously. The intricate musicality of SOPHIE’s output alone is enough to warrant listeners to pay legitimate attention. Occasional, violent bursts of noise distort much of the genre’s apparent shimmery cleanliness, temporarily removing the listener from the calculated pop-ness and reminding us of these artists’ dubstep pasts. Even QT’s somewhat failed Boiler Room appearance resembles performance art — purposefully painful to watch like a Marina Abramović piece. This supposed edginess – or punkness — of bubblegum bass and other online musical trends is the basis of Adam Harper’s brilliant piece forResident Advisor wonderfully titled “The online underground: A new kind of punk?”:
“The online underground is not much like rock in London or New York in the ’70s. But it can look rather like punk in three ways: the self-releasing revolution, the provocative aesthetics and the rise of a new generation.”
– Adam Harper
The comparisons between PC Music and punk have, unsurprisingly, been met with much chastisement. Harper’s bold accusations of technologically-limited “older fans” misunderstanding the music have garnered the least welcome response. Though I’m certainly not saying he is wrong, the so-called “online underground” is very much a young persons game – or at the very least, one for technologically and musically advanced and adventurous listeners – not unlike punk was back in the 1970s.
To be fair, however, art so deeply enriched in trickery, meanness and phoniness certainly has the ability to get loathsome quite quickly. Often exceeding 180bpm and aesthetically akin to too much silly string, bubblegum bass is not the kind of music you can just casually put on at any time of the day. Instead, it forcefully yanks the listener’s attention with its digitalised psychedelic palate, leaving you squirming and perplexed in its wake. It’s almost impossible to argue in favour of bubblegum bass without mentioning its cognitive possibilities – the idea of this music is arguably more important than the music itself.
“Aesthetic aims should be secondary to conceptual aims, otherwise you end up with music that is driven by stylistic references rather than its conceptual or musical ideas, or actual content – I’m speaking from experience here. The music or image – the same applies to both – should be built outwardly from the conceptual core to aesthetic appearance in order for the conceptual roots to be present and visible in the final product.”
– SOPHIE, Pitchfork interview.
Regardless, an interesting future is slowly unraveling for the genre and its (one, two, fifty?) players. Considering the genre is currently little more than a slew of singles and DJ Mixes (not a single full-length has been released, despite QT’s signing to XL and the prolific PC Music singles), it seems bubblegum bass is barely getting started. Can you even imagine the film clips? The live concerts? The full-length albums?
So, this new musical phenomena – if we dare call it that — is currently the intriguing art movement of 2014 and one we can excitedly watch shape and change over the coming years. Given its spiraling paradoxes, contradictions, insecurities and garish hipness, bubblegum bass is about as wonderful as it is annoying — and that in itself is enough to satisfy this inquisitive listener.