Best Albums of 2017

In the 70s music critics had an edge on the fans – if Richard Meltzer is to be believed, they got free records, invites to parties studded with stars, drugs and other party favours. In 2017 it is becoming increasingly common to not get sent the biggest new releases at all, never mind before they come out. (I note the dry irony in Taylor Swift’s album cover art appropriating newspaper logo fonts – several critics I know still haven’t received the promo.) In the mid 2000s I used to keep stacks of CDs in my desk, ordered by release date. When you opened the drawer, they stared back at you – imploringly, for less known artists, and reproachfully for the big names. Now digital promos from the majorspo arrive in dribs and drabs, sometimes expiring before you have a chance to hit ‘Play’ on track one. You can hear practically everything on demand via streaming, which is not new, but for me the landscape has finally flattened into a featureless horizon – your access is limited only by your time management. Everything is available, and everything is passing you by.

The effect on my listening is two-fold: I focus on genres I know I like, because there’s no force pushing me to engage with pop – it isn’t playing in the bars I go to, it doesn’t cross my twitter feed, I never hear commercial radio. (Pour one out for the major label marketers.) But I also feel perpetually behind, listening to records only once or twice because there’s an endless supply of new records being pushed by my genre outlets of choice (media content farms and ever-scrolling social feeds) and the FOMO is real, y’all.

So aside from the emergence of two new sounds, ‘weightless’ beat-deprived grime and dusty electro-ish drum machine industrial funk I’m dubbing CabVoltCore – neither of which I’ve seen trend pieces about so I’ve just guessed they exist – my listening this year roamed in a vast but fenced-in auditory landscape. And really, aside from the FOMO, it’s all good. I don’t miss what I don’t know exists (or don’t put at the top of a playlist). For what I didn’t miss, read on.

1. Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu)

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I really liked Jlin's debut, but I was a little suspicious of it being named The Wire's disc of the year - arriving amid the explosion of footwork at the time it seemed more like they wanted to celebrate the idea of experimenting with its rhythms than the actual result. Now I think they were just more perceptive than me - Black Origami is not conceptually that different from 2015's Dark Energy but it hit me like a bolt of lightning, maybe not coincidentally because the micro-bubble in radically strange footwork albums seems to have burst. With the field now largely to herself, Jlin's vision comes across as truly her own - a haunted landscape of reptilian hihats and shakers snapping menacingly over sand-blasted vocal snippets. If David Lynch remade Dune this would be the perfect soundtrack, all alien tones and martial snares conjuring a frightening yet fascinatingly unique planet ruled by huge worms. I don't know what worms sound like but they're in here somewhere, I'm sure of it.


The List

*** Not on Spotify

1. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
2. Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
3. *Sinjin Hawke – First Opus (Fractal Fantasy)
4. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert (Luaka Bop)
5. Richard H Kirk – Dasein (Intone)
6. Eric Copeland – Goofballs (DFA)
7. Peverelist – Tessellations (Livity Sound)
8. Gnod – Just Say No To The Psycho Right Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine (Rocket)
9. Fjaak – Fjaak (Monkeytown)
10. Errorsmith – Superlative Fatigue (Pan)

11. Pissed Jeans – Why Love Now (Sub Pop)
12. Ekoplekz – Bioprodukt (Planet Mu)
13. Blondes – Warmth (R&S)
14. Wolf Eyes – Strange Days II (Lower Floor)
15. Kingdom – Tears In The Club (Fade To Mind)
16. Claude Speeed – Infinity Ultra (Planet Mu)
17. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Artium/Blacksmith/Def Jam)
18. Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)
19. Delia Gonzalez – Horse Follows Darkness (DFA)
20. Bjorn Torske and Prins Thomas – Square One (Smalltown Supersound)

21. Yo Gotti and Mike Will Made It – Gotti Made-It (Gotti Made-It/EMPIRE)
22. Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains (Matador)
23. Mura Masa – Mura Masa (Polydor/Interscope/Downtown/Anchor Point)
24. *Drake – More Life (OVO Sound/Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money/Republic)
25. The Mole – De La Planet (Maybe Tomorrow)
26. Future – HNDRXX (Epic/A1 Recordings/Freebandz Entertainment)
27. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (DFA/Columbia)
28. ***Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Kulthan (Latency)
29. Farbror Resande Mac – Farbror Resande Mac (Horisontal Mambo)
30. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)

31. Sherwood and Pinch – Man Vs. Sofa (On-U Sound)
32. Dizzee Rascal – Raskit (Dirtee Stank/Island)
33. Joakim – Samurai (Tigersushi/Because)
34. Gas – Narkopop (Kompakt)
35. Clap! Clap! – A Thousand Skies (Black Acre)
36. *Egyptrixx – Pure, Beyond Reproach (Halocine Trance)
37. *Daphni – FabricLive 93 (Fabric)
38. Sote – Sacred Horror In Design (Opal Tapes)
39. Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
40. *Jacques Greene – Feel Infinite (Arts & Crafts)

41. Special Request – FabricLive 91 (Fabric)
42. *Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
43. ***Craig Taborn and Ikue Mori – Highsmith (Tzadik)
44. Circle – Terminal (Southern Lord)
45. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time sndtrk (Warp)
46. Ikonika – Distractions (Hyperdub)
47. ***Weightless Vol 1 (Different Circles)
48. ***Weightless Vol 2 (Different Circles)
49. The Horrors – V (Wolf Tone)
50. ***Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

Macklemore and the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence


I have been, and still am sometimes, a wedding DJ, which is how I found out about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.” It was an instant crowd-mover among the predominantly white and Asian audiences attending the weddings I’m hired for, and at first I was a bit baffled as to why. Granted, it has ‘crossover hit’ written all over it. The intro features a cute kid’s voice and an 80s-style swinging drum machine beat that a lot of people probably associate with Will Smith’s early hits (eg. the Fresh Prince theme and large chunks of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper). There’s a fun wheezing horn sample for a melody and a memorable hook. But I found it odd that, in a pop marketplace where someone like Robin Thicke can have a hard time getting people to warm to the feel-good retro vibes of his non-“Blurred Lines” singles, “Thrift Shop” blew the fuck up right off the bat.

Once I paid closer attention to the lyrics I chuckled, because I get it. I am also a white person who enjoys thrift shopping, and has never to my knowledge spent $50 for a t-shirt. (Out of curiosity, I wonder how much Macklemore & Ryan Lewis tour t-shirts cost. $50 would be high but hardly unheard of by merch booth standards.) From a strictly economic point of view, the only way luxury goods that aren’t obviously of superior quality or durability to less expensive ones is if the buyer values the status it may confer, and since I don’t particularly value the status that comes with looking like I spent a lot of money on my outfit, it simply doesn’t appeal to me. I suspect that my audiences come from similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, hence the instant appreciation of the song’s message.

If we were all free to make these choices, unencumbered by background and culture, then there would be nothing wrong or disturbing about this. Of course we’re not, as Reason’s Thaddeus Russell patiently reminds us, introducing us to the theory of conspicuous consumption and reminding us that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ song is part of a long tradition of the rich knocking the poor for making bad lifestyle choices. My instant reaction was, are we sure “Thrift Shop” is making fun of poor people for lusting after the flyest gear? There’s precious little commentary about expensive clothes in the song, and other than the dismissive tone in his voice about the $50 t-shirt, Macklemore doesn’t appear to be taking shots at other people. Initially, I figured critics who heard that in the song were hearing what they want to hear. But the more I thought about it and talked it over with people, the more I realized that the context doesn’t exactly jive with what I’ll call the “Oh, I didn’t see you there” defence.

We’ve all heard edgy artists respond to angry parents that it’s the parents’ fault they allowed their children access to material that, if they were doing their job properly, they would have known was offensive. It’s pretty convincing, in that the desire to keep kids away from arguably harmful material shouldn’t infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech. This is the textbook application of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence, in that the artist argues that they aren’t responsible for how, or by whom, their art is consumed. I was trying to use a version of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence for Macklemore, pointing out that people who read a critique of others’ materialism into “Thrift Shop” are bringing it to the work, it’s largely absent from the song.

But if Macklemore didn’t intend for people to read his love of thrift shopping as a critique of hip-hop materialism, why did he make a hip-hop song about it? The context takes the credibility out of the denial. It’s a bit like a comedian making a joke about a guy murdering his ex-wife when OJ Simpson is in the audience – the comic can say “oh, that was in my routine before this show” but the decision to say it when you know OJ is present makes it hard to deny the evident intention. The same logic applies to “Same Love,” even if it’s a more socially accepted message – Macklemore could argue it’s not intended to critique hip-hop homophobia (which is arguably driven by similar social conditions as hip-hop materialism), it’s just his opinion. I doubt anyone would find that particularly convincing, because again, why choose a hip-hop song as a vehicle for this message? Why not post a letter in support of gay marriage on your website instead? (Or just make out with a dude on camera? I’m sure WorldStar would be more than happy to host the video.)

I don’t think Macklemore or his defenders can credibly argue that the “Thrift Shop” reaction I see on dance floors among middle class white people — for whom criticizing less wealthy people for not being sufficiently thrifty is a bit like a bank CEO criticizing the poor for their lacklustre investing knowledge — is an accident. And if he was really upset at the way the song was being received as a paternalistic rebuke to other rappers and their fans, he could stop performing it, or stop accepting Grammys for it. But he hasn’t done any of those things, and that makes his apology text message to Kendrick Lamar seem even less sincere. “I robbed you,” he wrote, and then posted it on Instagram. It was a gesture that he apparently wanted everyone to see. We don’t know exactly why, but we can guess.

Mix: We Goin’ There


I was going to drop this yesterday, but the internet didn’t seem to have room for anything unrelated to crack. (Admittedly Kendrick Lamar does shout “I don’t smoke crack, motherfucker I sell it” in a funny voice, but we really ought not to encourage him to do more funny voices. Just rap, man, you’re pretty good at it.) Anyways this one took a smidge of editing to be presentable to the public but I’m quite happy with the results, so enjoy.

Continue reading “Mix: We Goin’ There”