“Welcome to reality,” sings Grimes on her electro-soar of a single about coming back from touring or falling in or out of love or whatever, although she spells it ‘REALiTi,’ because Grimes. It is the best song of the year as far as I’m concerned.
Yeah sorry everybody, this is another one of those “best of the year so far”-type articles every music critic does, but it’s also an unabashedly personal one. All “best of” lists are subjective, but there will be no illusions that this is weighing in on anything other than my local and non-local music listening habits. Though I think this list ends up saying something about this moment, in music, and because I can still think of nothing other than the Baltimore Uprising, the world at large. I’m still processing the uprising and feel constantly unsettled—this is a good thing—and I see the uprising in everything, and it’s been tough to listen to music or really enjoy much of anything that doesn’t pertain to those events or related issues such as street violence, policing, racism, and white privilege just to name a few. I’ve gravitated toward music that addresses the concerns of the uprising, and when music doesn’t do it explicitly, I end up contorting songs’ meanings to fit what I care about. That’s what I did with Grimes’ ‘REALiTi.’ Whatever it’s about specifically, ‘REALiTi’ remains a song about wrestling with the real, however wispy (“Every morning there are mountains to climb, taking all my time,/ When I get up this is what I see, welcome to reality”), so it’s ideal for 2015, in the midst of a second civil rights movement, a momentous year inundated with realness.
It helps that two of the year’s best albums are explorations of American racism and recent police murders of black men that don’t offer easy answers: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” a brilliant, sprawling if ultimately hedged protest record, and “Covered (The Robert Glasper Trio recorded live at Capitol Studios),” a live album from pianist Robert Glasper whose playing is like Bud Powell being remixed by some Chicago footwork producer. “Covered” is a collection of covers of jazz standards, alt-rock hits, and R&B, though it slows down to feature children repeating the names of victims of police murder over a world-weary version of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,’ and on ‘Got Over,’ guest vocalist Harry Belafonte declares, “I’m one of the ones of color, who got over, I’m one of the ones that your bullet missed.” It is a deceptively straightforward jazz record.
Here in Baltimore, the protest song that matters most is Young Moose and Martina Lynch’s ‘No SunShine’ because it isn’t particularly cogent, but rather just captures a moment of frustration. Similarly urgent is Meek Mill’s freestyle over Raekwon’s classic, ‘Ice Cream.’ Cranked out toward the beginning of the year, the verdicts in the Brown and Eric Garner cases fresh in his head, the Philly rapper (and Baltimore favorite) declares, “The revolution shall be televised/ This year it’s all about us so fuck the other side/ Gotta get killed on camera for us to come alive.” Meanwhile, the stellar “56 Nights” mixtape from Atlanta’s Future features the street hit ‘March Madness,’ in which he calls cops “bogus” and bemoans “cops shooting niggas—tragic.” It is the song you’re most likely to hear howling out of cars in Baltimore this summer. And Abdu Ali’s song ‘Keep Movin (Negro Kai),’ a club-indebted Coltrane-Fela howler, puts the avant that often occupies the corners of Bmore club into the forefront and ends with Ali desperately intoning “freedom.” Providence, Rhode Island’s Malportado Kids mix punk urgency with cumbia’s rhythms on “Total Cultura,” rewriting songs from old white men like Springsteen and Tchaikovsky and pairing X-Ray Spex-like rallying cries with house-derived chants. And heard everywhere—on the radio, at parties, in gay bars—is Rihanna’s massive ‘Bitch Better Have My Money,’ arguably a song about reparations, but if not, it’s at least a song that highlights the scowl capitalism puts on everybody’s faces (this is what the “controversial” music video is about).
‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ sounds like the underground. Its instrumental could’ve been produced by Krautrock-meets-John Carpenter-soundtrack duo Wume. One of the best songs on Wume’s “Maintain” is titled ‘Control’ and the whole thing seems like it’s all about keeping one’s head above water, so once again, not all that different from Rihanna’s dead-inside dance single. For a few years there, the goal seemed to be to make electronic sound warm and fuzzy. This seems to have mostly gone away and instead there is once again a sense that electronic music expresses alienation because well, we’re all so obviously fucked. The pleasant exception worth considering right now is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “Euclid” which looks back to vintage synthesizer technology to create pocket-sized Terry Riley-like compositions. Smith’s process involves old-school technology, so lots of plugging things into things. It’s complicated and that seems appropriate. It shouldn’t be easy to feel at ease. You have to work hard at it. Ditto to Dan Deacon’s “Gliss Riffer,” which uses his usual spazzy intensity to construct the aural equivalent of nervous anxiety while also encouraging the listener to understand that those feelings will soon pass by ending these songs on rewarding moments of pause. Synth fuckery as self-help. Beat-maker Tree uses sample manipulating in a similarly restorative way. Through old jazz, soul, and rock samples chopped beyond recognition, Tree’s “Treestrumentals” articulates oft-ignored pain of his Chicago hometown. It’s a series of ghostly cries for those lost to street violence and police torture.
Weird voices are radio rap’s current obsession and plenty of rappers try and sound like one of Tree’s tweaked samples: There’s castrato-rap yelpers Rae Sremmurd on their short and sweet debut “Sremmlife” and, of course, Fetty Wap on ‘Trap Queen,’ a scrappy, catchy love song. Just off to the side of these pop-rap eccentrics are not-ready-for-prime-time vocalists like Kemet Dank, whose ‘Xanblunts (Remix)’ is a catchy mumble over cheap-o Super NES bleeps, and Los Angeles’ Snow Wite, whose single ‘711,’ put out by Schwarz’s Nina Pop Records, is like Cyndi Lauper, New Found Glory, and Jersey club all at once. And really, ‘711’ isn’t all that different from ‘Trap Queen’ in its regular-ass-ness—it’s about being at a convenience store and thinking about a breakup—and like all these weird-voices songs, transcends the stupid fucking everyday with exploratory vocal enthusiasm.
Others power through the quotidian with confidence instead of eccentricity, like Baltimore’s Only. His “Lapis Necklace” is a bluesy boom-bap record put together by a socially conscious MC with a rather specific story to tell—Only’s a Crip from Baltimore and a member of the Universal Zulu Nation and he recently received a kidney transplant, and those things give him a sturdy sense of loyalty and a profound understanding of the fragility of life. And similarly minded Washington, D.C. underground rap visionary Oddisee released “The Good Fight,” a mature breakup record turned rumination on blackness, individuality, and ego that cribs from soul-jazz, go-go, and ’60s pop. Both of these traditionalist albums chew around real hip-hop cliches and push the limits of sample-based rap, and in 2015 that’s hard to do. They’re mining a style that started to codify back in 1995.
You could say the same thing about Noisem’s “Blossoming Decay,” a thorough thrash record that raises the stakes thanks to its down-to-earth content—a certain kind of early 20s, on-the-verge-of-mature angst that bends into proper empathy for everybody suffering out there. These are heady metal songs about simple things. And then there’s City Paper favorites Trunkweed, who put out a lazy hazy dazy little record last year, but return as loud-quiet-loud monsters of suburban sadness on “Trunkweed Live, Man,” a burst of indie rock about memory and depression (the anthemic ‘Acid At Sixteen’ will give you a good cry). Both of these albums are, in effect, sad-bro records, but neither feels indulgent. They’re white whines worth your time.
Then again, there’s nothing wrong with indulgence. It has fueled one of mainstream country’s most fascinating and maddening trends, so-called “bro-country.” Weary bro-country babe-and-a-half Luke Bryan’s song, ‘Spring Breakdown,’ off his compilation “Spring Break . . . Checkin’ Out,” is a kind of aging dude lament that also doubles as a coy nervous-breakdown banger. “I’m about to spring breakdown,” Bryan croons, conflating craziness and leisure like only a straight white male could do, as the song’s Smashing Pumpkins guitar and EDM histrionics build up around his brawny pop country. Though if you can’t get behind Luke Bryan’s shit-eating grin delivery I understand and I’ll direct you toward Zane Campbell’s country-not-country-exactly self-titled record, a revelation of painful self-aware outsider honesty, and the Copycat Building country-hop of Snakes’ self-titled record. Beating out all three of these guys, though, is Kacey Musgraves’ western-swing-gone-Disney-pop masterpiece “Pageant Material.” Musgraves is an Elvis Costello-like lyricist, funny as hell, but she replaces cosmopolitan contempt with small-town sympathy. Like most great country, she walks a line between basic common decency and conservatism, but I’ll take it.
Musgraves also once more shows how dude-dominated guitar music is losing to people with vaginas who play guitar. See also: the lonely witty howls of slugqueen’s “uncle no one” with raw lyrics that’ll ring true and make you uncomfortable like all things that ring true should, and although Screaming Females’ “Rose Mountain” is a disappointment, devolving too far into ’90s worship, the track ‘Hopeless,’ a co-dependent confession, is stunning. And then there’s Lower Dens’ “Escape From Evil” which is a kind of buggy ’80s-sounding electro-rock record that remains slippery and elusive,and does things like mix Led Zeppelin ‘Rock and Roll’-quoting drums with a melody that recalls Rod Stewart’s ‘Young Turks’ on ‘To Die In L.A.’ Not sure what to do with the chugging ‘Company’ in which Lower Dens leader Jana Hunter sings, ‘I wish I could feel anything at all/ But I’m just a pile of want and doubt.” Damn, me too. All these albums render guys with guitars a little more useless and unabashedly explore self doubt.
My favorite record of the year so far is Jamie xx’s “In Colour.” It is like a dance album heard from outside the club. Its beats are muted, its synths drift into each other, and the samples are indistinct—as if you’re hearing beats through warehouse walls as you wait to get in, because you’re not old enough or not cool enough or just plain scared to party. ‘Loud Places,’ a sentimental highlight, begins with crowd noise chatter and a beat from far away, as if you’re approaching the club hesitantly, and then vocalist Romy Madley Croft sings, “I go to loud places, to search for someone to be quiet with,” reminding listeners of one of main the reasons we go out—to avoid loneliness, to make human connection. This is a twisty way for a record that doesn’t do what dance music’s supposed to do to still work and not come off like soft-batch dance. It is an album about the club, not an album for the club. And it isn’t afraid to sound like it isn’t “down,” which is refreshing in a year in which white people really need to fall back and cop to their cluelessness.
M.C. Schmidt’s “Batu Malablab,” a two-track 38-minute gamelan riff that I’m still figuring out is also fueled by admitted outsider-ness. It is deeply concerned with the ways in which it engages “ethnic music.” Gongs, chimes, bird sounds, fractured little bursts of electronic sound—it’s all working toward, well, something. The title of the record, as City Paper contributor Raymond Cummings pointed out in his review of Schmidt’s album for Pitchfork, is a “Balinese pejorative” which translates to “typically hurled at unprepared musicians.” In other words, Schmidt’s record admits it doesn’t entirely know what the hell it’s doing. Fitting for a such a complex and momentous year so far.
Welcome to reality.
- Grimes, 'Realiti'
- Fetty Wap, 'Trap Queen'
- Luke Bryan, 'Spring Breakdown'
- Kemet Dank, 'Xan Blunts (Remix)'
- Snow White, '711'
- Rihanna, 'Bitch Better Have My Money'
- Screaming Females, 'Hopeless'
- Abdu Ali, Keep 'Movin (Negro Kai)'
- Young Moose feat. Martina Lynch, 'No SunShine'
- Meek Mill, 'Ice Cream Freestyle'
- Trunkweed, "Trunkweed Live, Man"
- Lower Dens, "Escape From Evil"
- Zane Campbell, "Zane Campbell"
- MC Schmidt, "Batu Malablab"
- Noisem, "Blossoming Decay"
- Wume, "Maintain"
- Dan Dracon, Gliss Riffer
- Snakes, "Snakes"
- slugqueen, "uncle no one"
- Only, Lapis "Necklace"
- Jamie xx, "In Colour"
- Robert Glasper, "Covered"
- Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp A Butterfly"
- Future, "56 Nights"
- Kacey Musgraves, "Pageant Material"
- Malportado Kids, "Total Cultura"
- Oddisee, "The Good Fight"
- Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, "Euclid"
- Rae Sremmurd, "Sremmlife"
- Tree, "Treestrumentals"