For me, 2015 is a year dedicated to completing the projects that I start. As such, here’s 7000 or so words about some of my favorite music from 2014— accompanied by a whole bunch of streams, links, and shouts out to a number of honorable mentions. All in all, a pretty excellent year. But, then again, it’s hard to look back on any year where D’Angelo comes out of hiding to put out his first full-length in over a decade and be upset.
In reading this list, I hope you discover something you hadn’t heard or maybe even hear something you had in a new way. Look for some new content on Chickens Don’t Clap! very soon… including the unveiling of a new feature! Until then, enjoy part two of my favorite things from 2014 (you can check out part one right here).
If I were to choose each individual offering from the PC Music movement that I loved in 2014, this year-end list would be completely inundated. As such, I’ve decided to keep it simple and give a big-up to the entire crew. As it is, PC Music operates almost as a single organism, producing countless artists whose works each reflect a different take on their inimitable and improbable balance of self-aware, saccharine-sweet and at-times trashy pop aesthetics, and a bold, forward-thinking approach to production and songwriting. Skewed expectations abound, the collective continues to sharpen their focus and relevance somewhere between the increasingly intertwined electronic and pop music landscapes. Building on what can only be called a huge breakout year in 2014, label founder/mastermind A. G. Cook has already kicked off 2015 with a high profile remix of Charli XCX’s “Doing It”, cheeky future-pop princess GFOTY dropped the astounding “Cake Mix” last week, and PC Music queen Hannah Diamond is back in the studio as we speak.
Check the best PC Music jams from last year and the rest of the 2014 list after the jump.
Stream: Hannah Diamond – “Attachment”
Stream: GFOTY – “Don’t Wanna / Let’s Do It”
Stream: A. G. Cook – “HAD 1” (Club Mix)
Stream: QT – “Hey QT”
Stream: Hannah Diamond – “Every Night”
Stream: Maxo – “Not That Bad” (feat. GFOTY)
Stream: How to Dress Well – “Repeat Pleasure” (A. G. Cook Remix)
Stream: Thy Slaughter – “Bronze”
Stream: Zinc – “Show Me” (A. G. Cook Remix)
Stream: GFOTY – “My Song”
Stream: A. G. Cook – “Keri Baby” (feat. Hannah Diamond)
Stream: Tiga – “Bugatti” (Life Sim Remix)
Stream: A. G. Cook – “Beautiful”
Sophie – “Lemonade” / “Hard”
While not an official member of the PC Music crew— aside from his collaborative work with A. G. Cook on “Hey QT”— enigmatic producer Sophie is no doubt a part of the same revolution in warped, futuristic club sounds. Last year saw the release of “Lemonade” / “Hard”, his latest single for Numbers and follow-up to 2013’s “Bipp” / “Elle”. The music really speaks for itself— there’s absolutely nothing quite like this being produced by anyone in the game right now. For all of the apt comparisons to PC Music and A. G. Cook, Sophie occupies his own unique galaxy as a producer. At once abrasive, bubbly, tense, tongue-in-cheek, and impossibly catchy, “Lemonade” and “Hard” are like two separate stars swirling so close to each other that you might mistake them as a single entity, a conjoined creation that simultaneously confounds and beguiles. Just when we needed it most, Sophie arrived to cut away the bloat and fat from the pop and electronic music of our current era, leaving only a harsh, distorted fragment in its place. Perfection.
Stream both sides of this single below and then snag a copy over at Bleep.
Stream: Sophie – “Lemonade” / “Hard”
Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers
Andy Stott returns, following his brilliant 2012 record Luxury Problems, with another dark and mysterious LP that balances brutal dubby-techno against a wilting, ethereal hopefulness. On Faith In Strangers, Stott is once again joined by his former piano teacher Alison Skidmore, whose haunting vocal work is equally central to the sound of this album. Less cohesive than Luxury Problems, the songs on Faith In Strangers are more varied and fragmented, those diametrically opposed forces of the ominous and the optimistic left more pulled apart, held together by loose tendrils of connectivity. “Violence” fully embodies the crushing weight that this record can deliver at its most heavy moments. Building from an interplay between sparse synth tones and Skidmore’s breathy intonations, the calm is ultimately torn asunder by a growing wall of layered drum tracks and rumbling low-end, Skidmore’s vocals rising and fading into the cacophony. Meanwhile, on the penultimate title track of Faith In Strangers, Stott constructs a melancholic backdrop that could nearly be called “synth-pop”, propelled by skittering percussion and a lulling bass riff that recalls The Cure (c. 1980). Alison Skidmore is allowed to operate in a more traditional frontwoman sense and her vocals become the central focus, complete with easily discernible lyrics. The results are truly captivating.
Stream the full LP below and then head over to Bleep to purchase a copy.
Stream: Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers
D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah
D’Angelo has become a near mythical creature in the world of music. Once a powerful composer and vocalist on the cutting edge of R&B and soul, he disappeared from the scene for years without warning, only surfacing for a rare glimpse as a guest on another album or to be the subject of endless rumor mill speculation about his grand return. Following a brief 2012 tour and a continuing promise of new D’Angelo tunes from collaborator Questlove, we finally got what we wanted this year: a brand new full-length from this veritable unicorn of neo-soul.
Somehow Black Messiah manages to live up to the mountain of hype and anticipation that preceded it and maintain the consistency of past works. D’Angelo crafts this record in his incomparable style and effortlessly sticks the landing. Black Messiah is immaculately composed and produced without being overwrought, and yet incredibly loose and free without being unrefined. Rich layers of funk and multitracked vocals weave in and out with ease, navigating through brilliant changes and moments of extended groove that defy all logic, holding the listener at complete attention and in suspense of what might come next. In addition to its compositional strengths, Black Messiah is also inextricably tied to the political and social upheavals of our era, from the protests against police violence and racial inequality in Ferguson and New York to the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring. Following those most recent protests in response to the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black men, D’Angelo felt he had to get this album out as soon as possible. We’re so glad he did— his message of love and the triumph of justice for those who stand up for what is right is exactly what our world needed in this moment. With such a poignant foundation and masterful execution, Black Messiah‘s resonance will surely continue to be felt in the world of music, and beyond, for years to come.
Stream: D’Angelo – “Ain’t That Easy”
Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
At this point in his career, Steven Ellison— better known to the world as Flying Lotus— has become a virtual institution of contemporary electronic music, as both a composer and Warp Records recording artist, as well as the head of Brainfeeder Records out of Los Angeles. Ellison began as a J Dilla-inspired beatmaker of noteworthy proficiency, making instrumental hip-hop that was a nodding head-and-shoulders above his peers, and went on to forge a path into a less-traversed territory that combined synthesizer funk freakouts, rattling organic percussive clatters, spaced out atmospheric vibes, and a deeply affecting emotional undercurrent. After a series of strides forward with the unequivocally jazz-influenced cosmic odyssey Cosmogramma and his breathtaking push into a sound that is increasingly defined by analog instrumentation, Until the Quiet Comes, FlyLo has settled into his furthest foray away from his comparatively humble origins. Ellison may still be touring as a solitary performer on his laptop, but his latest offering— the remarkable You’re Dead!— is distinguished by its rich instrumentation and distinctively “live” feel, a legitimate jazz opus that more directly bridges Flying Lotus’ own incredibly diverse sound with the influence of his aunt Alice Coltrane, George Duke, Miles Davis, The Soft Machine, and You’re Dead! collaborator Herbie Hancock.
The record opens with “Theme”, a reverberating wall of sound that crescendos and collapses in a crash before You’re Dead! lets you know exactly where you are with the furious call and response of a jazz quartet. Their start-stop dynamics and the preceding calm usher in the listener to Flying Lotus’ meditation on death and dying, a reflection on his own personal loss and an imagined journey through the transitions and dimensions of the afterlife. Propelled by Deantoni Parks’ (ex-Mars Volta) manic percussive work, Thundercat’s peerless, propulsive bass, and Kamasi Washington’s frenetic sax, this track ultimate gives way to “Tesla”, one of two tracks to feature the great Herbie Hancock, and kicks off a blistering set of mind-bending, breakneck jazz that careens between hard bop, fusion, and elsewhere. “Never Catch Me”, FlyLo’s truly inspired collaboration with Kendrick Lamar caps off this suite, a perfectly molded collision of two of Los Angeles’ most celebrated artists. Lamar is one of the few MCs who could even attempt to rap over an arrangement this intricate and succeed so effortlessly. His flow burrows into the folds within the track’s controlled complexity, building and collapsing at all the right moments, ultimately leaving us with the soaring refrain “Say you will never ever catch me, no… no… no” before Flying Lotus drops in a familiar synth squelch and carries our spirits on to the next plane.
From here, You’re Dead! opens up into a more diverse sonic landscape. From the unearthly bounce of the Los Angeles-recalling “Dead Man’s Tetris”, which features vocals from Ellison’s Captain Murphy alter ego and the one-and-only Snoop Dogg, to the mournful hymn of “Coronus, the Terminator”, to the dizzying, breathy vocals of Angel Deradoorian (ex-Dirty Projectors) on “Siren Song”, to the towering Herbie Hancock collab “Moment of Hesitation”, to the unsettling, atonal meander of the Thundercat-led “Descent Into Madness” and FlyLo’s “The Boys Who Died In Their Sleep”, a tribute to late Brainfeeder artist Austin Peralta, You’re Dead! is a fever dream that undulates between the dimensions of life and death, draining and invigorating the listener like the afterlife’s pull on the soul.
The brilliance of this album is that Flying Lotus did not merely recreate the works of jazz greats by making a straightforward hard-bop or fusion record, but instead took those sounds and built something current that bears the unmistakable signatures of his own artistic fingerprints. The result is a truly meaningful contribution to and extension of the jazz tradition, not to mention perhaps the most fascinating piece of Flying Lotus’ own legacy.
You can get your copy of You’re Dead! in just about any format, including as a boxed set, over at Bleep. Also, I have to share Hiro Murai’s gorgeous video for “Never Catch Me”— peep that and stream “Moment of Hesitation” below.
Watch: Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Stream: Flying Lotus – “Moment of Hesitation” (feat. Herbie Hancock)
FKA Twigs – LP1
After being boxed in to the nebulous genre tag of “alternative R&B” by a number of critics, Tahliah Barnett (aka FKA Twigs) took to interviews to decry the use of the term. While there may be tenuous threads that connect the sound of FKA Twigs to contemporaries like Kelela, SZA, or The Weeknd, such a reductionist labeling belies journalistic laziness at best, casual racism at worst, and criminally understates all aspects of Barnett’s artistry— whether sonic, vocal, or visual. In actuality, her debut record LP1 conjures up comparisons to a disparate swath of artists and styles, from the strange and wonderful avant-pop of Kate Bush, to the despondent trip-hop of Portishead, the dreamy haze of Cocteau Twins, the electronic-futurism of labelmates Jamie xx or SBTRKT, choral music, and yes, contemporary and classic R&B.
The album opens with the intoned hymnal “Preface”, a track centered on FKA Twigs’ cascading multitracked vocals that repeat variations of a simple mantra: “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” Spliced with a sample from Lucki Eck$’ “Ouch Ouch”, a track that FKA Twigs produced for the young Chicago rapper (“Shit I got from around the corner just to keep you keep callin’ back”), this intro sets forth one of the album’s central themes: the inherent vulnerability and insatiability of desire and love. LP1 explores how the deep-seeded need planted by wanting someone can send one down a path of insecurity, anxiety, obsession, and longing. “Lights On”, the following track, plays with the apprehension and hiding-of-faults that can characterize early lust:
When I trust you we can do it with the lights on
When I trust you we can do it with the lights on
When I trust you we’ll make love until the morning
Let me tell you all my secrets in a whisper ‘til the day’s done
At the very next turn, “Two Weeks” fully unleashes the raw sexuality of LP1 and promises no apprehension at all, as FKA Twigs claims that she needs just two weeks time to ensure that her lover completely forgets any past paramours.
Sonically, the album stretches the unsettling, spectral sounds of FKA Twigs’ past works to their logical conclusion, a majestic and expansive evolution of an already accomplished sound. LP1 is chock-full of collaborations with a host of notable producers that span an impressive range of genres and scenes, including Clams Casino, Dev Hynes, Emile Haynie, Paul Epworth, as well as it-boy and previous collaborator Arca, who recently finished up his contributions to Björk’s new album Vulnicura. Yet, each track here is expertly intertwined as one piece of precise patchwork that is assembled as a consistent and coherent artist statement, yet allows each composition to live and breathe within its own space. By all accounts, LP1 is a near flawless debut record of remarkable conception and execution. Bravo.
Stream: FKA Twigs – “Lights On”
Stream: FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks”
Stream: FKA Twigs – “Video Girl”
Ricky Eat Acid – Three Love Songs
Twenty-two year old Baltimore composer Sam Ray, better known as Ricky Eat Acid, has had his hand in quite a bit of music despite his young age. Mostly known for his patient, melodic, ambient-centric electronic tunes, he’s been releasing music since 2009, honing his craft and building a noteworthy rep. And it’s paid off— 2014 was a year full of highlights for Ray, not least of which was the release of his best LP to date, Three Love Songs. A beautiful pastiche of ambient drone, field recordings, vocal samples, found sounds, waves of static, mournful flickers of piano keys, synth tones, blips, bleeps, glitches and electronic percussion, Ricky Eat Acid’s latest is borne from a well-worn tradition of pop-ambient music. Yet, Three Love Songs manages to refresh rather than regurgitate, covering a lot of ground over the record’s 45 minutes.
Three Love Songs begins as a vaporous dream life that crescendos and collapses and crescendos again, ultimately fracturing its calm halfway through standout track “It will draw me over to it like it always does” around the midpoint of the LP. Suddenly, Ray shifts into a boom-bap propelled emotional dance tune; the slow-building tension of the album’s previous 20 or so minutes make its arrival pretty earth shattering. The following track, the stunning “In my dreams we’re almost touching”, reaches even higher, carrying us to the moving and hypnotic peak of Three Love Songs. Centered around alternating vocal samples taken from this random YouTube cover of Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care”, Ricky Eat Acid loops them into infinity and slowly layers melodies and percussion, deftly capturing the sense of longing that the song’s title hints at. His brilliant use of repetition— looping the sample until it becomes like an instrument itself and the syllables seem to detach and interlock in subtly different ways— sends the composition into truly mind-melting territory. Following these two outbursts, Three Love Songs slips back into a gradual deceleration, restoring a more meditative mood for the remaining duration of the record, ultimately fading out into the profound silence that follows.
Stream: Ricky Eat Acid – “In my dreams we’re almost touching”
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Shabazz Palaces, the duo of Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael Butler, fka Butterfly of Digable Planets) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, operate within a bold and obscure space within the confines of what is ostensibly hip-hop. The framework of rap music is here, but these sounds may ultimately feel unfamiliar to even the most seasoned of listeners. Genre convention was made to be broken, but Shabazz Palaces have lifted off and are now orbiting somewhere in the distant atmosphere of the Digable Planets, molding their forward-thinking works with shifting time signatures, abstruse lyrics, mystical themes, and progressive production.
The importance of instinct and spontaneity is something Ishmael Butler has touched on in interviews which, considering the jazz influence in all of his projects and the unfettered, loose feel of Shabazz Palaces’ music, shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Butler insists that he and Maraire forgo concerning themselves with fan expectation, markets, or planning, and instead simply focus on their craft and artistry, listening to and following the sonic whims and concepts that arise from doing. Such an approach, especially when coupled with their Afrofuturist bent and a deep and often dadaist approach to lyrical and visual content, should earn them apt comparisons to the late, great Sun Ra. Certainly this methodology has helped them produced similarly free, open, and improvisational albums of exceptional quality. Shabazz Palace’s most recent effort, the transcendent Lese Majesty, expands further upon the compelling foundations set forth by their debut LP Black Up and early EPs into new esoteric soundscapes.
At its core, Lese Majesty is a consciousness-expanding collision and juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, the cosmic and the terrestrial, the sacred and the profane, the material and the metaphysical, the creative and the stagnant, the oligarchs and their subjects. Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai Maraire take these conceptual tensions and pull them apart only to reconstruct their interplay at the pace and tone of their liking, using them to contrast and deconstruct the problems and conflicts of our own epoch. The album’s title itself is derived from the french term “lèse majesté”, which literally translates to “injured majesty”, or treason committed against a monarch or ruler. However, it’s clear that the subversive acts of Lese Majesty look well past political power structures, seeking to dismantle not only the socio-political order, but also prevailing conceptions of history, economics, time, the self, and beyond, challenging humanity’s current place in the world through a cosmic, afrocentric divination. Stellar opener “Dawn in Luxor” slowly ascends out of the silence with a crescendoing wall of synth, layered waves of muted, bending guitar chords and feedback, and a rising percussive din as Palaceer proclaims, “Consistent: now that’s the comfort of the uninventive”. Likening their studio Protect and Exalt Labs to Luxor of ancient Egypt, they encourage their fellow agitators to meet them there and prepare for this enlightening and iconoclastic journey: “We’re throwing cocktails at the Führer / Blackness is abstracted and protracted by the purest”. Throughout the shimmering haze of Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces succeed in transporting the listener along for this journey as well— no easy feat, indeed.
You can get your copy of Lese Majesty in a variety of formats at the Sub Pop online store.
Stream: Shabazz Palaces – “Forerunner Foray”
Stream: Shabazz Palaces – “They Come In Gold”
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), one of the hardest working artists in music over the last decade, has had a well-deserved big couple of years. After breaching the Billboard Top 20 with Strange Mercy in 2011, Annie Clark released Love This Giant, a full-length collaboration with living legend David Byrne, the following year. For most contemporary artists, such a collab would likely be a singularly career-defining moment. For Annie, while a noteworthy milestone, this logical pairing of cross-generational art-rock innovators has proven to be just one piece in the ongoing blossoming of her career.
2014 saw the release of her latest solo effort and fourth full-length as St. Vincent. A Grammy Award-winning work and undeniably her most accomplished as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, St. Vincent is brimming with densely layered arrangements, buzzsaw riffage and barbed guitar solo punctation, and sardonic and esoteric lyrics. As a very guitar-centered record, let me simply point out that Annie Clark is solidifying herself as one of the foremost guitar gods of our time. From her impenetrable solos, to her imposing riffs, memorable chord progressions, distinct guitar tones and delightfully jarring technique, she feels to be in complete control of the instrument, her hand and fingers bending the guitar to her will. The subtlety of that hand is impressive, pushing the perfect amount of pressure, kinetic energy, and grit into her licks, deftly using measured pacing and negative space as she cuts through the growing tension. From this foundation, St. Vincent builds a very interesting and complex record that bridges orchestral-pop with swirling waves of synth, driving drum work from McKenzie Smith of Midlake and Homer Steinweiss of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, striking and varied vocals, a bold, pulsating brass section and, of course, that aforementioned guitar virtuosity. Pure, otherworldly wizardry.
Stream: St. Vincent – “Regret”
Kid Smpl – Silo Tear EP
Kid Smpl, the alias of one Joey Butler from Seattle, is an artist that always had a special, indefinable quality that made him impossible to ignore. Before he was a Red Bull Music Academy alumnus, before he was signed, before he was making XLR8R podcasts, before he was opening for Andy Stott or Jacques Greene and Evian Christ or seemingly every moody electronic producer of note who comes through the Pacific Northwest, Kid Smpl had it. Homie and Hush Hush Records boss Alex Ruder saw that early on and initially launched his now-prolific label as a vehicle to release Butler’s excellent debut LP, Skylight.
This year, Kid Smpl released the harsh and atmospheric Silo Tear EP, perhaps his most impressive work to date. Butler’s typically lush, spaced-out tunes are twisted and warped by sharp, mechanical percussive elements, crackling static, bursts of clipping jungle breaks, and a permeating sense of dread. The ‘night bus’ you were taking home in the rain has now crashed in a wreckage of cold, blue flame and interlocking gears. In a good way. Every track here is stellar: from the brutal sway of the opening title-track, to the soaring, chaotic bliss of “Ja”, to the emotive and contemplative closing track “Protect”. Silo Tear is a monumental step forward for an artist who you already thought was in his prime— I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Stream Silo Tear in its entirety below and head to the Hush Hush Bandcamp page to download a “name-your-price” copy of the EP.
Stream: Kid Smpl – Silo Tear EP
Lil B – “No Black Person Is Ugly”
Lil B works in mysterious ways. Having released literally thousands of songs in a little over five years, this one-of-a-kind MC has typically been held as a follower of the “quantity over quality” ethos by observers and critics. He’s been cast by some as a fount of absurdity that relies on shock-value stream-of-consciousness, playing to the trending twitter topics of the day in order to exploit social media and wide-reaching cultural conversations in order to win more fans through controversy. Some might say he’s the greatest and most elaborate troll of our time.
For me, Lil B is a curious and completely unique living embodiment of art. He moves at such a pace and to such unexpected places that it seems his very existence is confounding to the very critics that attempt to place him in any sort of context. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of the hypermasculine rigidity in the hip-hop mainstream of 2014— he made an entire album rapping over ambient music, he openly cries and discusses emotion, he named his most polished full-length I’m Gay, he refers to himself as a “princess” and a “bitch”, he pushes uncompromising love and positivity. Because Lil B revels in these taboos, he’s been the subject of ridicule and numerous death threats. Whether you see Lil B as a cultural warrior or a self-serving provocateur, it’s certainly indisputable that when Lil B strikes a chord in his flood of output, he strikes it right on.
“No Black Person Is Ugly” is the BasedGod’s latest stroke of genius, a positive and heartfelt ballad that at once derails racism and celebrates humanity, a message that felt crucial in 2014. For the music video, Lil B took to his man-on-the-street mode, capturing disparate images and ideas in his typically disjointed manner. And yet, much like the song itself, it’s this directness that truly provides the backbone and strength to Lil B’s message. He’s hip-hop’s everyman philosopher-king, but he’s no different from you or I. Lil B is every one of us, we are all Lil B. In his own post-postmodern way, Lil B wants you to have faith and move beyond fear. He wants you to love everyone as much as he professes to love everyone. We’re listening Lil B— TYBG.
You can download Lil B’s Ultimate Bitch mixtape for free over at DatPiff.
Caribou – Our Love
Our Love, the sixth LP from the ever-evolving Caribou (aka Dan Snaith), is decidedly an album of electronic music, but has also been widely lauded for its markedly organic feel and the humanity of its essence— a warm beacon in a sea of cold sine waves. Of course, Snaith has long had the ability to imbue his music with deep emotion and a notable compositional richness. Even as he moved from the warmth of the psychedelic-pop of Andorra into the more techno and house informed efforts of Swim and Jialong, the latter released under his Daphni moniker, his songs maintained their characteristically resonant qualities.
Our Love is perhaps Caribou’s most open and accessible record to date, a swirling electronic offering that falls somewhere between the humid dancefloor of a club and the startling intimate moments shared only with Snaith and his closest relations. In his distinct falsetto, Snaith ruminates on failed relationships and second chances, dependency and obsession, and the birth and early life of his young daughter over a dynamic synthesizer soundscape that oscillates between propulsive dance music and meditative crescendos. Snaith effortlessly balances repetition, movement, density, and effervescence, perfectly pacing Our Love‘s full bodied walls of synth and varied percussive elements. Bolstered further by Hyperdub vocalist Jessy Lanza and Owen Pallett’s beautiful violin contributions, this album truly sounds more incredible the longer you delve into it, its subtlety and splendor slowly unfolding with each subsequent listen. It’s difficult to listen to Our Love and not feel like Snaith is at the absolute top of his game as a songwriter and producer.
Stream: Caribou – “Can’t Do Without You”
Stream: Caribou – “Our Love”
Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo
In my humble opinion, the best release from TDE last year wasn’t from Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, or SZA, but from the young Isaiah Rashad, whose debut record Cilvia Demo was one of the finest hip-hop offerings from all of 2014. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rashad is without question a natural fit for the Los Angeles crew, but also provides a distinctly Southern perspective for these west coast natives. Full of sway, swag and the rest, he speaks thoughtfully on a myriad topics, reflecting on his youth and the forces that have brought him here and have made him who he is today. Referencing OutKast, Master P, Scarface, Webbie, Souls of Mischief, and other greats throughout Cilvia Demo, Rashad celebrates his influences without ever feeling too indebted to any of them, crafting a decidedly contemporary hip-hop LP without much help from guest MCs.
Isaiah touches on drug dealing and doin’ dirt, but as a cautious outsider and narrator rather than a participant. The issue of an absent father permeates, as do the often-associated problems with commitment and alcohol. Rashad attempts to mask his feelings through self-medication and a masculine rap persona, but never truly hides the pain from his voice. He fully recognizes his situation and relates his conflicted truths from a cloud of weed smoke, ultimately staying uninterested in fully taking part in what he sees precisely because he’s aware of the typical outcomes. On the pensive album standout “Tranquility”, Rashad succinctly explains: “And some of us fall and some of us hover / And some of us shooters and some of us lovers / I see the sum of it all, I’m running for cover”.
Stream: Isaiah Rashad – “Cilvia Demo”
Stream: Isaiah Rashad – “I Shot U Down” (Remix) (feat. Jay Rock & Schoolboy Q)
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
It’s Album Time, the cheekily titled debut LP from Norwegian electronic producer and disco enthusiast Todd Terje, has been hotly anticipated for sometime. The results are a cohesive and dynamic prog-disco epic that combines driving, Giorgio Moroder-indebted extended jams, dramatic synth-pop ballads, house anthems, and a few surprises in between. There’s no question that Todd plays to his strengths here. As the uncrowned king of the contemporary extended disco edit, his compositions tend to extend well beyond the six-minute mark and are all the better for it. But, on It’s Album Time, Terje thankfully delivers an impressive amount of variation, avoiding the all-too-common, dreaded terror of an electronic music full-length that makes you realize one of your favorite producers can really only do one thing well.
Following the cool, tongue-in-cheek, and delightfully melodramatic intro track, the record builds from the lush and breezy opener “Leisure Suit Preben” and cuts straight into the hard bass chops and synth arpeggios of “Preben Goes to Acapulco”, which really sets the tone for how high some of these songs can soar. And yet, right as we’re getting comfortable, Terje throws a curveball in the form of his squeaky cover of Monica Törnell’s “Svensk Sås” (translation: “Swedish Sauce”), one of the albums campiest moments. Here Terje up-kicks the tempo on some jazzy, Latin vibes until it sounds like he’s poised to reboot Miami Sound Machine at 140 BPM. After a brief couple of minutes— or an excruciatingly long couple of minutes, depending on how you might tolerate this decidedly silly detour— Terje settles right back into his groove with the joyous piano-house of “Strandbar” and pulsating anthemics of “Delorean Dynamite”, ultimately punctuating the first half the LP with an emotive cover of Robert Palmer’s 1980 single “Johnny and Mary”. Carried by the captivating lead vocal work from Roxy Music‘s Bryan Ferry, a nod to and extension of Todd Terje’s numerous remixes and edits of his music, this track provides a crucial mood change at just the right moment. Another spazzy-jazz detour awaits us on “Alfonso Muskedunder” before Todd closes out the record with another sweeping blitz of magical synthscapes and the much-celebrated “Inspector Norse”. True, the 2012 single isn’t getting any younger, but its inclusion on It’s Album Time feels obvious and welcome, a fitting closing chapter for the album and for this era of Terje’s career.
Stream: Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse”
Tinashe – “2 On” (feat. Schoolboy Q)
Hands down my favorite in-the-club jam of last year, “2 On” is a pitch-perfect track from Tinashe‘s noteworthy debut LP Aquarius. Propelled by DJ Mustard’s stylish production and Tinashe’s infectious and sexy vocal performance, this single is simply a gem that flawlessly fuses pop, R&B, and hip-hop, punctuated by a trashy, DGAF verse from TDE scholar Schoolboy Q. It feels like I had this song’s hook in my head all year— and I’m not complaining. No sense in over-intellectualizing this one: just go dumb, right now, forever.
Stream: Tinashe – “2 On” (feat. Schoolboy Q)
Lone – Reality Testing
Lone (aka Matt Cutler) is an artist who is defined by his unique authenticity and inventiveness, having achieved remarkable things in a growing career without pandering to any specific market or scene. Instead, Lone has quietly built a discography that defies genre and convention in conjunction with a number of labels, including Actress’ Werkdiscs and, currently, the now thankfully rebooted R&S Records. Cutler has long wandered the outer reaches of a number of styles, intersecting varying combinations of Dilla-esque beat music, UK rave, Detroit techno, and acid house. While his most recent LPs— the fantastic Emerald Fantasy Tracks and Galaxy Garden— have dipped decidedly into the more uptempo and maximal elements of his sound, all of his works are counterbalanced with a distinct ethereal atmosphere that permeates even the most blistering tracks.
On this year’s Reality Testing, Lone pushes back into more beat oriented tunes, trading in heightened BPM for much more boom bap and languid haze. However, that isn’t to say that this record is a step backward or can be carelessly relegated to any genre in particular. While Cutler is not without his influences, Reality Testing exists only within the beautiful, amorphous space that Lone has created between the folds. From the outset— as soon as the first skittering loops of “Restless City” arise out of the fumes of cloudy intro track “First Born Seconds”— Lone frames the record with his inimitable synth tones and textures, brilliant percussive timbres and rhythms, deft sample work, and characteristically hypnotic chord progressions and melodies. Oscillating between these head nod inducing hip-hop influenced electronics and tilts toward his more club-oriented sensibilities, Lone utilizes those elements to somehow unite his disparate tunes under one definitive sound. Reality Testing is truly another breath of fresh air from this magnetic and peerless UK producer.
You can get your copy of Reality Testing from Bleep as an LP, CD, or digital download.
Stream: Lone – “Restless City”
Stream: Lone – “Airglow Fires”
Grouper – Ruins
Moving away from her typically guitar-driven ambient sounds, the latest record from Grouper finds Portland, OR artist Liz Harris continuing to plunge the depths of spectral drone music. Ruins strips down her compositions to little more than piano and vocals, peppered with the occasional field recording, patient ambient crescendo, or faint percussive elements. The outcome is quite powerful— Harris’ sparse and fragile works, clearly composed with a deliberate and refined hand, unfold with a wistful tranquility and a muted intensity.
Driven by its minimal arrangements, extreme subtlety, and attention to detail, Ruins is as much about the negative space that surrounds the steady, suffocated drum hits that open the record, or the faint field recordings of rain and distant animal noises, or the decaying resonance of Harris’ piano notes and wilting voice, as much as it is about the actual compositions themselves. Within this stark and austere atmosphere, each musical note and vocal inflection reverberates with significance into the album’s cavernous production, instilled with a haunting importance and heavy melancholy. The intimate, dejected lyrical content and woozy dreamlike quality of Ruins leaves the listener lost in a malaise of fading memories and some distant emotional wreckage. The title of the record, in some sense, self-describes its ruined sound— bare, worn, isolated— which is itself a reflection of a ruined person, a weary shadow of a former self. But, in the mournful fragments of Ruins lies a soothing catharsis, the kind of necessary exodus of personal demons before one can attempt to rebuild. This album may appear less grandiose compared to some of Grouper’s previous works, but it is nonetheless one of her most stunning and affecting.
Stream: Grouper – “Call Across Rooms”
Stream: Grouper – “Holding”
Taylor McFerrin – Early Riser
The songs on Early Riser, last year’s excellent LP from producer and composer Taylor McFerrin, had been drifting in the cosmos for a good while. McFerrin has said he is infamous for “never finishing anything”, so made it a goal to finally put together his debut from Brainfeeder from the numerous tracks he had been working on since his 2008 EP Broken Vibes. The result is a dreamy, reflective record that inhabits a space somewhere in between soulful beat music and future jazz. Buoyed by McFerrin’s accomplished rhythmic work— which is further bolstered by guest appearances from Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Marcus Gilmore, and his pops Bobby McFerrin (yes, THAT Bobby McFerrin)— the melodies here flitter and lilt with emotional depth, conveying a sense of floating peacefully, but with a subtle accompanying feeling of disconnectedness and discontent. The moods and themes of Early Riser feel like an exploration of “almosts”, of loves that could have been, of those slight shifts in the grand scheme of fate that eschew paths, leaving the listener with the feeling that there’s something just out of reach. The yearning vocal work from McFerrin and guests Nai Palm, Emily King, and fellow Brainfeeder label mate Ryat help solidify the record’s patient beauty and feelings of longing.
Early Riser is a wonderful listen from start to finish, but my favorite track is without a doubt “Already There”, the magnificent post-rock tinged jazz-fusion centerpiece of the LP. A collaboration between McFerrin, Robert Glasper on the Rhodes, Marcus Gilmore on the drums, and the indelible Thundercat on bass, this jam is marked by its rich tones and textures, the skillful interplay between these virtuosos, and the stone cold groove that carries through the whole track. And just as they are completely locked in, these players hit you with an ungodly key change halfway through the track that induces the kind of out-of-body feeling that can’t quite be summarized in words. Ooooof. Beautiful work.
You can pick up a copy of Early Riser over at the Bleep online store.
Stream: Taylor McFerrin – “Already There” (feat. Robert Glasper & Thundercat)
Millie & Andrea – Drop the Vowels
In addition to Faith In Strangers, Andy Stott also dropped an LP with his Modern Love labelmate (and one-half of Demdike Stare) Miles Whittaker under their Millie & Andrea alias earlier in 2014. These paragons of dark, dubby techno and bass music have collaborated on a handful of 12-inches over the past five or so years— including the wonky, unanticipated trap banger “Stage 2”. Their debut record Drop the Vowels, which includes the A-sides of both their 2009 singles along with six brand new tracks, manages to pack in a wide swath of styles while maintaining its cohesive feel. From the ominous cyborg tribalism of opener “GIF RIFF”, to the deep synth waves and crunched percusion of “Stay Ugly”, to the dark stuttering rave of “Temper Tantrum”, to the hypnotic vibes of “Spectral Sound”, to the subtle trap nod and brutal jungle breaks of “Corrosive”, to the title track’s lurching breakbeat and bass assault, to the murky and methodical “Back Down”, on through the peaceful, meditative gloom of closing track “Quay”, Drop the Vowels is a record that never quite settles into its own space as much as it operates as an open playground for two stellar producers. Without the incumburance of the expectations associated with their solo efforts, Stott and Whittaker take the liberty of expanding upon the sounds they typically play with, occasionally suffering from a kind of “electronic music by the numbers feel” as they run the gamut. However, what Drop the Vowels may lack in thematic strength, it more than makes up for in its immaculate compositional execution.
Stream: Millie & Andrea – Drop the Vowels
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
On paper, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib seem an unlikely pair— one a callous, thugged-out MC from the notoriously bleak Gary, Indiana, the other a veteran, savant producer most closely associated with enigmatic rapper MF DOOM and the left-of-center Stones Throw Records crew out of Los Angeles. And yet, the more I listen to Piñata, the more I’m convinced that Madlib’s masterful funk flips and soulful samples are impeccable tempering counterpoints to Gibbs’ typically ice cold, street-rap storytelling and philosophizing. The resulting LP demonstrates that Freddie Gibbs has taken his precise, syllable-crushing, take-no-prisoners flow and cemented it with the seasoned authenticity and maturity of a veteran of the game. We needed no confirmation that Madlib is still very much in his prime, but Piñata provides us that assurance anyway, his stellar production work delivering on every bar of every track, tied together with his characteristic skits and sampled vignettes.
The man they call Gangsta Gibbs is still pretty fresh off the dissolution of his deal with CTE World after being signed to the imprint by label boss Young Jeezy. At the time of his signing, it was hard not to be a bit concerned about Freddie Gibbs being relegated to more run-of-the-mill 32nd note hi-hat trap beats and some generic coke-rap persona compared to the more complex and interesting works of his early career. In the long run, it’s probably for the best that Gibbs ended up the victim of the dreaded forever-delayed record, an all-too-common occurrence in hip-hop. After languishing on CTE, he finally freed himself from the label and released his debut LP ESGN on his own label of the same name.
Instead of stagnating as an artist, Gibbs has rebirthed himself from the ashes of his career missteps, culminating in the release of Piñata, his most compelling effort to date. That isn’t to say that he’s moved on completely or is done taking shots at Jeezy and CTE, a fact that is punctuated by album centerpiece “Real”, a scathing diss track that breaks down every bit of the beef and calls out The Snowman by alias, if not by name. At first glance, Gibbs’ steely disposition comes off like Pac on “Hit ‘Em Up” here, but a closer listen provides a more nuanced picture. On this track it’s still decidedly “fuck you” from Freddie Gibbs, but it also clearly comes from a very personal place of disappointment and exudes an intimate regret over misplaced respect. Elsewhere, you can find the cracks in Gibb’s harsh exterior in some of his more self-reflective moments. On “Deeper”, he bitterly criticizes his girlfriend who’s been sleeping with someone else while he was doing a prison bid, but admits that maybe his misogynistic rebukes were really more about himself: “Maybe you stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean / Maybe you grew up and I’m still livin’ like I’m sixteen”. Those who have written him off as a straightforward gangsta rapper and thus a mismatched counterpart for Madlib have underestimated his attention to detail and complexity, which permeate this LP. Perhaps Piñata isn’t quite a heart-on-sleeve type of record, but it remains surprisingly open and direct, Gibbs’ laying out his life experiences with grit, gravity, and a gangsta’s introspection.
Stream: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Thuggin”
Stream: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Robes” (feat. Earl Sweatshirt & Domo Genesis)
Dat Oven – “Icy Lake” (Night Slugs Reissue)
“Icy Lake”, once the battle anthem for voguers and runway shows at a party called Arena that was held at the long-shuttered Paladium Nightclub in NYC, is a raw, hypnotic house track by production duo Dat Oven. A somewhat forgotten track to folks in the current electronic scene, Total Freedom from the Night Slugs / Fade to Mind crew “rediscovered” the song when he was watching old vogue battle videos on YouTube. His labelmates were equally impressed with the track, so much so that they decided to jointly re-release the single with a slew of their own remixes. After all, “Icy Lake” is in many ways the progenitor of the Night Slugs sound… without any of them knowing it existed in the first place. Imbuing otherworldly house with cold grooves, ominous sound effects, and the infamous “eski click” sample that was later popularized by Wiley and the grime movement, “Icy Lake” is an unquestionably essential and prophetic track.
Stream: Dat Oven – “Icy Lake”
- 123Mrk – “Versatile / Secret Secret”
- Aphex Twin – Syro
- AWE – “Crystals”
- Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste
- BADBADNOTGOOD – III
- Big Spider’s Back – Ssoft EP
- Blacknecks – “Hotline”
- Bok Bok – Your Charizmatic Self EP
- Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – High Life
- Dej Loaf – “Try Me”
- DJAO – “Depressing Jog Ends Well”
- Doss – Doss EP
- Gang Fatale – Megadrive EP
- Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons
- How to Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
- ILOVEMAKONENN – “Club Goin Up On a Tuesday” + Drake on the remix + this.
- James Blake – “200 Press”
- Jamie XX – “Girl / Sleep Sound”
- Jeremih x Shlohmo – No More EP
- Jim-E Stack – Tell Me Where I Belong
- Kero Kero Bonito – Intro Bonito
- Klaves – “People” / “Oh No”
- Lil B – “Fuck KD”
- Lil Mystic – “Hiryo”
- Lindsay Lowend – “GT40” (ABSRDST Remix)
- Mica Levi – Under the Skin (OST)
- Moodymann – Moodymann
- Nadus – Broke City EP
- Nadastrom – “Fallen Down” (Justin Martin Remix)
- Pa’s Lam System – “I’m Coming”
- Pa’s Lam System – “Like a Lady”
- Perfume Genius – Too Bright
- Photay – Photay
- Pusha T – “Lunch Money”
- Rome Fortune – Small VVorld
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
- Ryan Hemsworth & Tomggg – “Cream Soda”
- Sango – “Me dê Amor”
- Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
- SPF666 – Scorpion Cache EP
- Tennyson – “You’re Cute”
- Tory Lanez – “Henny in Hand”
- V/A – shh#ffb6c1
- Valentin Stip – Sigh
- VesperTown – Kaleidoscope
- Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
- Yung Lean – “Gatorade” (Lido Remix)