Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Record Binge, Favorites 2014

Back on my obligatory/masturbatory/serious-face shit. You don't pump out an AOTY/JOTY list on some platform then you're an amateur. A poseur. A fuckboy. Twenty-fourteen was some stinky trash just about any way you cut it. I ain't about to throw some lipstick on that piece, neither. We on some kinda fucked up trajectory, for sure. Or maybe it's the one we've always been on, accelerating toward asymptotic decline. Wish I could spit some optimistic bars about the calendar turning over, but if we're being real it ain't like the world's about to go through some conscious awakening just because all its inhabitants are about to write down the date wrong for the next month or two. That's why half you fools gonna be internally justifying skipped pilates classes by January 15th. So, you won't find me making out with sloshed TSR interns in ill-advised fashion under the mistletoe as the ball drops this year. Au revoir to this motherfucker, nahmsayin.


I Never Learn / Lykke Li

Highlights: "Gunshot", "No Rest For The Wicked"
Straight up, Lykke Li kinda the bae. Every time she drops a new joint I go through a week-long phase where I scour YouTube for any and every interview, late-night performance or intelligible piece of concert footage available and just swoon the fuck away. I mean what's not to like: quality (if safe) taste in music, refreshing candor, Sweedish origin. It's like God(?) got ahold of my mail-order bride application and just stamped one out of thin air. Superficial chauvinist shit aside, though, it's ol' girl's music that makes her a treasure of an import. Wounded Rhymes is a record I always forget I'm down for anywhere, anytime until a few seconds into "Youth Knows No Pain" when the Hammond enters and the whole thing launches into this underpinning, primal groove that never relents save for a couple stark, haunting reprieves. When the follow-up I Never Learn was getting billed as a more subdued, solemn set of singer-songwriter fare, I figured there'd be a return (or retreat) to the kinds of songs that made Youth Novels good, but not the kind of album I'd go out of my way to return to. "Possibility" is a decent song, but we'll all be ok if we never hear it again (though judging by the calls of the Orange County tarts that packed her show at The Observatory, that may be the minority opinion).

I Never Learn is, I guess, somewhere in the considerable soundspace between her first two efforts, just not so much sonically. The band retain their ornate grandiosity on "No Rest For The Wicked" and "Gunshot" (seriously, check that video again), sounding like they set up in some old-world cathedral and set out to fill every damn square inch of it with their booming chamber echo. Even the tracks featuring sparse instrumentation sound big. "Love Me Like I'm Not Made Of Stone", an anti-ballad in the vein of Rhymes' "Unrequited Love", is but Li's strained vocal and an acoustic guitar. It's captivating. The power ballad quotient is really the biggest difference between I Never Learn and its predecessor, but that nothing on this record is anywhere as vaguely, surprisingly danceable as selected tracks on the last isn't so much a bad thing. This is a collection of songs that can stand on its own, presented in its fullest as its meant to be heard.

Are We There? / Sharon Van Etten

Highlight: "Every Time The Sun Comes Up"
TV On The Radio's Kyp Malone put it best when he said that Sharon Van Etten has been "silencing rooms in drunken bars for a long time." Her voice is arresting both alone and in harmony, and it's once it has got your attention that it manages to do it's heaviest hitting. In kind, there's a line on Van Etten's latest record that pretty effectively encapsulates everything awesome about her songwriting. It's square in the middle of album closer and standout "Every Time The Sun Comes Up" when she confides, "I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom." It's unadorned and bare, but it's also at the top of the mix and sung without a hint of irony in a key that's unabashedly major. I mean, hell, what doesn't that line say? Just like that, many of her songs skirt subject matter that's uncomfortable or even wince-inducing at first listen, and the rest of them delve into said subject matter elbows deep. Domestic violence - both emotional and physical - is her most recurring muse, but with her third full-length, she's singing about it triumphantly, or at least confidently as fuck in a way that encourages the listener to howl along in bastardized harmony.

This is a dichotomy that's mirrored in her live performance, where she affectionately banters with the audience and pokes fun at herself for slanging SVE-embroidered tissues at her merch table before launching into a song like "Your Love Is Killing Me", basically the be-all, end-all of caustic, abuse-evoking bloodletting. That same sentiment takes on a softer, ironic bent over a Fleetwoodian smoke-screen on the gorgeous "Our Love". Though I find Van Etten is at her most powerful when singing over distorted guitar, little is lost in the record's unrelenting mid-tempo flow. "Taking Chances" is as close as you get to anything resembling Tramp cut "Serpents", though that might not be a bad thing as the plaintive numbers really make it impossible to dissociate the conscious from Van Etten's vividly rendered world.

Piñata / Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Highlights: "Lakers", "Knicks", "High"
I don't know what it is about the imbuing of haughty, streetwise hustler flow with a bit of livelier bounce that works so damn well. But damn if it don't. The practice has become popular to the point that we could probably forgo the head-tilted double-taking of the collabs as they're unveiled. I mean, shit, Greg Gillis owes his entire career to the good sense that catalyzed 30 seconds of pure, near-sacrilegious synergy between Biggie and Sir Elton. Same goes for the best Hood Internet cuts. And we all know how I feel about Action Bronson tag-teaming with Party Supplies. With Pinata, "MadGibbs" can be counted among these in terms of both style and substance.

Here, neither artist adjusts his style much to mesh with his counterpart. Freddie certainly does as Freddie does and spits the shit straight off the streets of Gary, Indiana (by way of LA). The homie's out there packin' steel, slangin' rock and getting mad amounts of fellatio. The misogyny alone threatens to really bog this project in the mire (as is typically the case on his past works), but the instrumentals stay jazzy and soulful, light and loose enough to keep Gibbs and his staccato spit skipping across the surface, at times sounding a bit like he's just talking shit indifferent to the beat. And believe he's talking shit: to his old girl and her new (college educated, bitchmade) man on "Deeper", to former label boss Jeezy on "Real", to the pre- and post-Y2K New York Knicks on "Knicks". The remix of the lattermost track offers a peak into just how much better Pinata could have been with post-Ferguson context when Freddie quips, "Another Darren Wilson get a badge every week. R-I-P to Michael Brown, and motherfuck the police." However, guest verses from Ab-Soul on "Lakers" and Danny Brown (shout out to the sleaziest fans in the game!) on "High" are a worthy consolation.

Loose Ends / Francisco The Man

Highlights: "I Used To Feel Fine", "Progress", "Loaded"
(Check it, I ain't even about to sit here and pretend I'm not biased on this one. Francisco The Man is my shit, for sure. I've seen these dudes more times than I can count, and if you're an important person in my life I've probably brought you along at some point. So, that's that. Requisite disclaimer for subsequent dickriding satisfied.)

Loose Ends is an appropriate title for such a collection of soaring soundscapers, as it's largely concerned throughout with tugging the strands of messy webs twentysomethings weave for themselves. Ruminations on the ins and outs and beginnings and ends of relationships - or whatever arrangements technically qualify as relationships for twentysomethings. Meditations Burned out freak outs about success and ambition. Takes on the toxic qualities of longing packaged as both sprawling ambiance and compact, concentrated pop. All of it here and delivered in hook after effortless hook.

"Loaded" perhaps best exemplifies Francisco's strongest qualities with the slowly-built bounce that blooms into a wider, aired out chorus. It closes with a minute-plus of the best, most succinct guitar interplay I heard all year. It's not to say it's a perfect record, but where it falters is mostly attributable to track sequencing. The fifth track, "In My Dreams", excels at replicating that exploratory air of Deerhunter's Microcastle in a way that's independently enjoyable; however, it's placement attenuates the strength of the run built by the preceding tracks. I dig it, and I have no idea where else it could go, but after a spacey, down-tempo eight minutes, the sunshining jolt of "It's Not Your Fault" - the record's catchiest, most straight-forward, and (therefore) weakest track - is needed to resuscitate the vibe. It takes but a track for Loose Ends to regain its form, finishing strong from "Progress" on. Really, though, this record is worth your time and money if only for the penultimate track, "I Used To Feel Fine". The longest of the ten-set, it's ushered from suite to suite like a series of swells in the open ocean, none overstaying their welcome.

Run The Jewels 2 / Run The Jewels

Highlight: "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)"
Fuego, fuego, fuego. That's really about all you need to know, fam. Run The Jewels 2 is easily the hardest, realest shit to drop this year. It's the rap record 2014 really needed - not because it offers closure or solace, but because it does the opposite. It stresses repeatedly and earnestly that the system is fucked and unfair, and that that is fucking bullshit. Yo, on the real, how can you not fuck with these dudes? Killer Mike, in particular, is the man. He can keep it light, like when battle-rapped Bronson on a treadmill (and maybe won). However, the big homie is at his best when he's tackling weightier agendas, regularly flexing on that culture war in a fashion far more substantive than "George Bush doesn't care about black people". Sheeeeeit, personally, I ride for anyone that puts out the Ronald Reagan diss track.

Part of what makes this second installment so poignant is Run The Jewels' willingness to have it considered within the context of the year it was released. The themes addressed - police brutality, racial prejudice and disenfranchisement, etc - are proving ever timeless in America. That's always been true, but 2014 brought the realities to the surface where even White America had to confront them. And whereas Vince Staples dropped that banger "Hands Up" in the throes of the Ferguson grand jury drama and then did his best to muddy the link between the two on account of the track not being written in response to Michael Brown, et al., Mike & El positioned RTJ2 as the vocalization of the resultant communal anger, frustration and outright pain as though the songs were fucking premonitions of all this bullshit. They released the anti-justice system jam "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" as the second single (btw let's pretend to talk for a moment about how that Zach de la Rocha verse kinda fire). For their television debut on Letterman they performed "Early". And immediately following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, Mike opened a show in the heart of St. Louis with a goddamn great speech that really laid it bare. The beats are hot and grimey, because this ain't fuckin' (or) dancin' music. And that's why it's superb. Run The Jewels 2 is important because it's a reminder that these wounds never heal, they just scab over. Instead of acting so surprised when they're subsequently ripped back open, perhaps we should stick our fingers in the lesion and probe for something meaningful.

Stay tuned for the feline features, tambien.

Lost In The Dream / War On Drugs

Highlights: "Red Eyes",
Lost In The Dream is probably the best album of the year. That's what I thought after affording it a single spin when it dropped in March, and I still think that now. I know I shouldn't say "best" album, because "best" is about as vague a descriptor imaginable when considering intra-genre releases and outright meaningless when weighing in across multiple forms. But you'd be taxed to find a more cohesive, fully-realized, and (really) better album than this one. There's almost certainly nothing as comfortable as this record. There are no missed notes. Everything is in its right place. This is the bigger-tent, wider-screen nu-classic rock record The War On Drugs have been trying to make since the days when Kurt Vile was counted among its members. Just as Vile did last year, Adam Granduciel and company succeeded in making a record that feels grand and new and thoroughly familiar at the same time.

My contention with it, then, is that it's just... too perfect. Really. That's a thing that makes sense, right? I mean, would the Mona Lisa be so special for so long if homegirl looked like Kate Beckinsale? Doubtful. Though, that's the vibe I get when traversing The Dream. For a band clearly at the top of their game, fully in control of their sound, they sound safe. Like if 1973 Nolan Ryan eliminated the curveball from his repertoire all together, throwing a whole seasons worth of 105-MPH straightballs. It's for this reason, I think, that Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek called The War On Drugs "beer commercial rock" when was serving beef this summer. Punks punch up and out of their weight class, and Kozelek is a troll. But goddamnit if, at least on some level, I didn't understand where that old fuck was coming from. (Note that this understanding would be a lot stronger if I didn't feel during most of Sun Kil Moon's Pitchfork Festival set like I'd rather it have been drowned out by The War On Drugs from three miles out, but still.) It's hard not to think the result would have been better had the stranger tangents on Slave Ambient been embellished and examined rather than tightened up and rounded out. Nevertheless, Lost In The Dream is really good. But just good. Buy it for your dad for Father's Day.

Here And Nowhere Else / Cloud Nothings

Highlights: "I'm Not Part Of Me", "Pattern Walks", the rest
Son of a bitch, this album is great. It's just so damn great, and it's great for the exact opposite reason the War On Drugs joint is great. Here And Nowhere Else is a flawed record from the muddied, possibly in-tune strums that give birth to its first track right on through the the final shouted refrains of its last. It's a record that's perfect in its imperfections and completely comfortable in its bridled sloppiness. Chords are misstruck, rhythms feel frantic, Baldi only sounds fully committed to vocal responsibilities once he shifts to throat-searing scream. The abrupt tempo shift on "Psychic Trauma" still feels unnatural as all hell and probably always will. They're blemishes, sure, but it never feels appropriate to call them mistakes.

The hooks, while abundant, are similarly unadorned by frills. Most of the time they feel at least somewhat accidental, as though the band find them as unexpectedly as one might find a twenty-spot crumpled in the back pocket of their freshly washed jeans. The old Cloud Nothings are long dead, but their ghost lingers as the gravitational center around which their current incarnation must orbit, whatever their impulse might be to break off in a tangential vector toward harsher Nirvana. This intrinsic, deeply rooted catchiness is the thread by which the record's eight tracks hang, each pushed as close as possible to the point at which they might devolve from enthralling punk cuts to complete shit. While the imbalanced amalgamation of past Cloud Nothings efforts always feels nine parts Attack on Memory for every one part of their self-titled debut, the final two tracks - "Pattern Walks" and "I'm Not Part of Me" - see something of a shift toward greater control in the chaos, almost as though the soul-searching of the album's first three-quarters succeeded in talking down the manic psyche so openly, enthrallingly on display.

St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Highlights: "Prince Johnny"
Of the many, many things that could be said of Annie Clark (nee St. Vincent), what's been most clearly evident with the aftermath of her eponymous release is the extent to which she is fully capable of carrying herself as a brand. From the unveiling of the artwork for St. Vincent - the perfect juxtaposition of femininity and supremacy with Clark's dispassionate stare from the Actor age recalibrated from atop her throne, pointed at (or more likely through) the cores of her subjects - it was clear that St. Vincent was now more than the knotty art-rock project helmed by a bona fide, modern day guitar goddess. Clark was now a character, St. Vincent now an experience.

In both facets, Annie Clark demonstrated seamless mastery. She committed to the otherworldly wardrobes and the eerie, semi-alien persona. She remained affable but also semi-scripted in interviews (though if I hear her say once more that St. Vincent was meant as a party record for a funeral, I may well schedule my own). Most importantly, though, Clark and her longtime band were unrivaled onstage as headliners of larger theatres and main stages planet Earth over. In both settings they looked every bit like an act that spent months running through tireless twelve-hour rehearsals, nailing the cheeky dance movements, the light show accompaniment and (of course) the shreds. Lord, almighty, the shreds. I'll probably always associate this record with the awestruck looks on the faces of old dude festival-goers during that riff on "Huey Newton". Though, on the whole St. Vincent's BIG riffs sit cozily alongside subtler arrangements (the jammy, impenetrable groove of "Prince Johnny", perhaps the best song St. Vincent have ever released). Just the same, the record's more tender moments ("I Prefer Your Love") contain enough blasphemy to remain cohesive with the more tongue-in-cheek (Clark's wry definition of a "ordinary day" on "Birth In Reverse").  The collection, much like its cover, is cohesive, composed and impossibly confident. Check out her ACL set to see an artist, nay empress, in complete control of her minions.

Black Messiah - D'Angelo

Highlights: "Ain't That Easy", "The Charade", "1000 Deaths"
There's a line a couple tracks deep on neo-soul neo-God D'Angelo's long-awaited Black Messiah that really puts the whole saga of his absentia in perspective:

"I been wondering if I ever can again,
So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in
I hope it's not my abdomen you're referring to."

That's all of it, right there. That's the Voodoo highs, the post-Voodoo hype, the post-hype drug use and near-death calamity, and it's the affirmation that fourteen years later, D is back and, miraculously, better than ever.

I was thirteen when Voodoo dropped. I was listening to, like, The Offspring or something. I had neither the interest in immersing myself in an R&B epic nor the ability to fully digest, comprehend or appreciate its greatness the couple times it permeated its way into my atmosphere. Until I was twenty-three, about the only thing I knew of D'Angelo's breakthrough was "that video". And what I remember most is being severely creeped out by the emotional honesty of the track and the direct, vulnerable stare of the yoked crooner standing shirtless in front of a solid black backdrop (sentiments that have not waned much in the interim but have since proven to be a wider reaction toward emotional honesty, in general). But, man, when I started dabbling in that Voodoo, I started dabbling heavy. The four years between then and now seemed enough like an eternity. I'm in some ways thankful for the lost decade during which I didn't give a fuck.

Though, in some ways I feel the opposite, because for those who waited patiently, frustratingly, for the entire bid.. the payoff has to feel surreal. It's hard to believe the new D is even decent, given that one and a half decades away made the prospects of a new D'Angelo record about as likely as those of that mythological Dre joint. But fuck decent, yo, because Black Messiah is the goddamn truth. The simmered, coalesced elements of funk, soul, R&B and every damn thing in-between are effortlessly present from the jump on the loose, marching groove of "Ain't That Easy". That recipe of congealed influences carries over to the following track when, after a brief denunciation of White Jesus (amen!), D & the Vangaurd launch into the funk-punk pressure-cooker "1000 Deaths", one of the more forcefully unique songs I've ever laid ears upon. "The Charade" is the most culturally palpable track on the record and gives some credence to the rumored, politically-minded haste with which D'Angelo and the label rushed Black Messiah to the shelves in the name of relevance, though ultimately that angle does feel a bit overblown. And so on and so on and so it goes.

I wrote the intro to this list the day before news of this record's existence broke, and two weeks after its release I feel comfortable saying it's my favorite record of the year. I can't exactly tell whether that's because it makes me feel less shitty about 2014 or more optimistic for 2015 or both. Probably both. Make no mistake, though, it'd be on other lists where it is on mine were other, reputable institutions less concerned with (or entirely dismissive of) deadlines. Here's to hoping the dude D'Angelo hangs out for awhile. Though should he not, there's plenty here to keep us busy for at least another fourteen.


"Today More Than Any Other Day" / Ought

Ought put out a superb debut this year, and "Today More Than Any Other Day" became probably my favorite art-rock jam since Art Brut's "Formed A Band". Distinctly bratty and Canadian and exuberant and optimistic, "Today More Than Any Other Day" assumed a logical role as the track that got me up and out of bed all the way to work on time Monday thru Friday. It was the go-to for burning off the light hangover haze of the off-days. It wills itself up and out of the slow, plodding dirge of its first half in much the same way, the way that cries defiantly in the face of the world's shit that the glass is half full because I am the center of everything and thus decree it so! If you're going to be a self-entitled fuck, may you at least do so in the name of good will. Or whatever.

"Sanctified" / Rick Ross

My feelings regarding the first of Rozay's two releases in 2014 are more tempered than the big homie's. I thought it was pretty solid, but nowhere near what's becoming the obvious crest of his career, 2010's Teflon Don. That said, there are two tracks on Mastermind that I fucks with heavy af. "Nobody" is real nice, but the gravity of Ricky's bars were marred by the overacted recounting of the 911 call (for a shooting I'm still not confident wasn't staged), the fact that Biggie already murked the beat, and whatever the fuck Puffy was doing in the background. Still a fine track, but one that's outclassed on about every level by "Sanctified".

"Sanctified" delivers on all fronts. It's got that old soul intro that screams classic Kanye, but isn't. It's got Ye, himself, going hard on the criticism of his career arc and brushing it off with characteristic perversion of the slant rhyme (He don't sweat it, wipe his forehead with a HANKERCHAAAAF). Ross is wylin' per usual, trading blowjobs for grilled cheese sandwiches (probably the most realistic depiction of his life he's ever rapped). Perhaps most generously, it's got Big Sean staying in his fucking lane and making his impact minimal on the hook.

"Unfucktheworld" / Angel Olsen

If the year was good for anyone (excluding rich, white males, obvi), the argument could be made it was female artists. I highlighted some of my favorites above, but there were really so many more that garnered critical acclaim in spite of KJ's cold shoulder (FKA Twigs coming to mind most immediately). Angel Olsen's Burn Your Fire For No Witness likely would have received my first honorable mention were I a man of softer resolve. Much like TSR mainstay SVE, Olsen possesses an innate ability to transfix an audience at its core with very little (almost nothing) at her disposal. The interest that album opener "Unfucktheworld" inspires because of its ultra-rad title is almost immediately redirected once her midwestern warble enters above the simple, downstroked acoustic strum. The album's ultimate track, "Windows", does nearly as captivating a job of demonstrating the high-wire waiver of Olsen's best work, but I really prefer "Unfucktheworld" for it's utter simplicity. When she opened with this track at the Echoplex not long after Burn Your Fire's release, her guitar strap snapped halfway through, and she sang the remainder a cappella. It was just as mesmerizing.

"Instant Disassembly" / Parquet Courts , "Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth" / Parkay Quarts

I don't put as much investment in the discussions on the significance (or lack thereof) of there being a Parquet Courts and a Parkay Quarts and there being however much member overlap etc etc etc et al et al et al. Because I don't care. As far as I'm concerned they're the same band releasing aesthetically similar music. I tried really hard for a really long time not to like them. They play Squiers and seem mostly like they don't give a shit how they sound in a way that's more hipster than punk, and so it is easy to hate them.

When Parquet Quarts drop their guard and the BPMs, though, fuck if they can't write a damned good tune. "Instant Disassembly" and "Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth" are something of sister-songs to me. Released on separate albums billed under different artists, they're by far the catchiest songs on each, they carry the kind of melodies you feel you could sing anything to. They tumble along as though they could forever, as though the only proper way to end them is to let them fade away amid the shouts and screams that ultimately attempt to bookend their back ends. More than that, though, these tracks are similar in that they exist as effective entry points to their respective collections and the bands'catalogs band's catalog as a whole. Parkay Courts are capable of carrying not just quality melodies, but weighty ideas much the same. Simply put, dudes can write a bit. Or at least enough for me to feel comfortable not hating them solely for being so impossibly Brooklynite.

"April's Song" / Real Estate

With "April's Song", Real Estate stake quite the claim for catchiest song of the year. Is it possible to sing along to a song with exactly zero words? I mean, that seems to be the what they were aiming for. Shit, that's what they succeeded in doing. I legitimately made a few passes through Atlas without realizing "April's Song" was all Matt Mondanile and no Martin Courtney. The absence of Courtney's yacht-rock-ready vocals are hardly missed, as "April's Song" moves from verse to chorus to verse and back again with distinct, painfully memorable melodic lines dividing the regions. The track highlights an element of Real Estate that I've always felt they underplayed, though along with the their guitar-tutorial video for "Crime", it seems it's one the band seem to have finally felt comfortable giving its day in the sun.

"Unites" / LUH

The sudden, unexpected death of WU LYF is one I've still not gotten over, two years after the fact. I may try to pretend otherwise all I want, but the reality of the matter is brought to the fore any and every time former frontman Ellery James Roberts comes out of nowhere with new music and I cope with the dreams of what may have been by replaying 2011's masterpiece Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. Such sightings are few and far between, seemingly on a yearly pace in the summer or early fall. 2013 saw the release a single under his own name, and 2014 brings us the GTFTTM-styled plaything "Unites", a collaboration with Ebony Hoon unveiled under the moniker LUH (or Lost Under Heaven). As could be expected, it's Roberts' presence that makes "Unites" what it is. The guy has an inimitable delivery that would saturate about any track with a prevailing sense of otherworldly wonder, even the comparatively flaccid ones presently pumped out by former WU LYF mates' yacht-rawk project Los Porcos. Fortunately, "Unites" is heavy on delay-driven clean guitars and echoed floor toms, made to fill arena space much in the same way fellow-UKers, U2, did in their heyday. I don't really ride for The Edge, et al., but there's a good chance I would were they were Roberts' guttural shouts of maybe-words wailing over the top. Enjoy this shit, may be awhile yet before we get more.

"Inside Out" / Spoon

Britt Daniel is fucking 43. That sounded crazy to me when I read it this year. Then I remembered how old I am, and I guess it made more sense. Everybody's aging up in this bitch. Crows feet abound. Damn, though, dude was just the other side of 30 the last time Spoon put out an album as thoroughly solid as this year's They Want My Soul (for clarity, I'm speaking of 2002's Kill The Moonlight). For a band that's been at it as long as they have, grinding it out for far too little recognition, snagging some accolades for their post-hill output has got to be a good feeling. It's one that's only heightened by the fact Spoon have very likely never written a song as good on its own as "Inside Out". It coasts along on the back of scratchy, synthesized drum patches, the snare and kick achieving an almost blown out quality punctuated by a syrupy bass bump that picks and chooses its punches. The rest is made up of harp-mimicking, delayed keyboard flourishes and Daniels trademark rasp that's only become more understandable after two decades on the road. He sounds like he could well be singing this fireside, as a world's worth of rain dumps outdoors. Ages into their career, Spoon might only be getting better as they grow more self-aware. Time's gone inside out, indeed.

"Never Catch Me" / Flying Lotus (feat Kendrick Lamar)

Here y'all were thinking I'd pump out an entire list without a contribution from K-dot. FOH. Folks be crying about how we didn't get the new full-length from King Kendrick as though we walked away with nothing. I ain't even trying to here about that, straight up. The guest verse on the Jeezy remix was fire. His first post-gkmc single "i" was seriously dope and challenged anyone to box him in with expectation. Then he doubled down on that strategy with whatever that piece de resistance was on Colbert. Man, even the bars he spit for Reebok put shame to most the rap game.

Outshining the rest, though, was his frenetic take atop the nu-jazz fusions of LA's Flying Lotus. Lotus' shit is the kind of thing I generally like to listen to when I resign to taking the bus, as it does a fair job of soundtracking the uncertainty (and, on some level, the anxiety) of every stop. It never flows between ideas so much as it darts, and that same urgent shiftiness is present from the opening strides of the glitchy gallop that begins "Never Catch Me". Kendrick could just as well have ignored the complexity of the brushfire beneath him - and it may have been the wiser route to do so - but instead he manages to find all the pockets and does his best to upstage the twistable, turnable, Thundercat-like bass line as the most intriguing instrument in the ensemble. K-dot's technical prowess has never been on fuller display, and it's fascinating to hear.

"Can't Do Without You" / Caribou

Our Love is a great album. I don't think it's as good as The Milk of Human Kindness or In Flames (the latter originally released as Manitoba before lawsuits forced the name change), but it is damn good. Admittedly, it wasn't really my jam at first, but in the final run-up to the year's end I found myself returning to the album with greater frequently. It's a grower, for sure, and if the calendar came as a baker's dozen, there's a definite possibility it would have scaled the list of favorites in short order if and only due to how much I love its first song. Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith is a mathematician by trade, and the methodical unveiling of elements on "Can't Do Without You" makes that a believable backstory. As the slow-burning build pushes the various components toward ignition temperature, that simple, solitary admission increases in volume and frequency until it's nearly sung out in reverie at the track's apex. I'm reluctant to apply the world "simple" to anything in the electronic vein, but "Can't Do Without You" is at its core a simple love song. And it's perfect.

"Seasons (Waiting On You)" / Future Islands

I mean there really ain't much to debate here. I could write some shit to mansplain to you why this is a phenomenal song, or you could go to any number of esteemed publications and let some other white, millenial male mansplain to you why this is a phenomenal song. Or you could just watch the video below and know all you need to know about the best song of the year. Just watch the video. Then go buy the record. Then go buy their first two records (but especially their first). Then go see them live. If you can see them at a smaller venue (lol doubtful), spend whatever you have to to make it happen. Mortgage your home if you must. Seriously.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Nom City, No. 2: The Hot Dog Shoppe

Straight up, I get down with some poor-people food. Not even some of it. All of it. Cupboards at Carlton Place will confirm that I've an apparently endless appetite for the staples of destitute diet. When I was a youngblud, my fam was subsisting of some single-parent income, so you know I'm well-acquainted with all that noise. Your Hungry Man, your Kraft Mac, your Tuna Helper (classic Creamy Pasta only!) and basically every variation of its Hamburger-themed other-half. Fish sticks (no homo) and tater tots was on the plate like three times a week, minimum. It ain't possible that I was the only one raised like this, right? I mean places like Baja Taco been flourishing for two decades strong presumably due to the fact that there a lot of parents like mine that're try'na feed a family of four for a Hamilton. 

I ain't e'en mad about it, though. I gotta believe I'm a better person for my boxed-dinner upbringing. I (obviously) ain't any more humble or nothing like that. What I mean is that, unlike a lot of my college compadres, I was largely unfazed by the adjustments of independent bachelor living, namely its shell-shocking of the pampered adolescent-male digestive system. I was prepared, yo. I got a cast iron stomach. Shit's lined with impermeable layers of sadnessfaction. You know when was the last time I got a belly ache because I consumed comida from a highly-questionable establishment? Fuckin' not never, and it never gon' happen, neither. A lot of people online be trying their best to usher in a new age of food consciousness. They trying to start a movement, trying to cover the faces of Toucan Sam and The Cap'n with bigger, bolder nutritional labels like the shit ain't already available on the small side of the box. They're going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about how it's too expensive to eat healthy and how it's some grave injustice that kids in the ghetto can't eat organic. 


I really need y'all to know that. America needs a Trader Joe's on every corner like The World needs America in each of its own. You know what I'm saying? Like there's already an overabundance of soft motherfuckers being sent forth into the big, wide ocean of the Real World with their almond milk and warm kale sandwiches. They parading around with they noses all upturnt at the very thought of having leftovers for lunch or dinner. (Ay yo, for serious, I might snap if I hear one more dude speak sour on using one of man's greatest inventions to reheat and reuse some shit that's barely a day old and has been kept consumable by another of man's greatest inventions. No joke, backhand pimp slaps for everyone adhering to that mindset.) You cannot convince me that is a trend we should be fostering.

All this being said, two classics were always noticeably absent from the rotation at the Delaney family dinner table. One was Rice-O-Roni, that San Francisco treat, and that was only because my dad ate enough of it when he was a kid to hate it for the rest of his life. The other is a little harder to understand and tougher to believe. I'm talmbout our most nationally beloved foodstuff, y'all: hot dogs. Franks. Wieners. Tube steak. So, so seldom was I served hot dogs in my youth that I made it all the way to early adulthood without developing a taste for them. Most I can tell it pertains to the persistent, cross-generational efforts of poor people to differentiate themselves from the poorest people. And, yo, if you're eating hot dogs on the reg, you're not only straight scroungin', you're alright with letting other people know about it. Honest to God(?), my parents probably would have served me cooked wet cat food before they allowed me to eat a hot dog back in the day. Just to maintain appearances and all. At the very least we weren't fuckin' around wit' an Oscar Meyer, nahmsayin'? When, on occasion, we'd have hot dogs socially forced upon us at a back yard barbecue for America's birthday or whatever, my old man would be damned if we'd be consuming anything less than a Hebrew National (or "Heebs" as he'd call them). Still, them days was few and far between. 

Times changed real quick-like once I'd moved out and assumed responsibility for feeding myself on a nightly basis, once I was tasked with making my own shopping lists and navigating an empty vessel through the overawing expanse of a supermarket unsupervised. T'was but a matter of weeks 'til I found myself subjected to the easy, end-aisle pull of sausages and such. T'was 'til my first autonomous bite that I'd maintained there was some abstract barrier separating franks from other kinds of cash-strapped cuisine and making them unfit for the self-respecting crowd (to which I once belonged, believe it or not). Oh, how wrong I was. I immediately accepted I was no more able to distinguish between hot dogs and their ilk than a great white can between the disparate contents of its chum, no more so than my dog between his food and cat shit. I'd had that taste, and despite the best efforts of all those who'd purported to love me in my youth, I was hooked on them slumdogs right away. 

Turns out I fucking love the shit out of hot dogs. Not just the top-shelf joints, neither. All hot dogs, all the time. If I'm feeling desperate, I'll roll up a couple pieces of bologna and pretend it's a hot dog, even. Pan-fried, grilled, boiled or nuked, ya boy cares not. Ya know what I'm saying? I'm a fuckin' fiend, fam.

JETS. Cap on the brew because I'm fit'na get rowdy.
City workers ain't good for much besides their almost universal ineptitude in terms of form and function. One thing's for sure, though: they always know 'bout the best places to throw down around lunch hour. Lax job requirements, cush bennies, a sixty-minute break and union representation? Yeah, you bet. You walk through any city office anytime in the AM and you can just tell the only thing stuck on the mental is where them faces are getting stuffed come high noon. I'd be pretty pissed about it if I was ever relying on these kinds of people for much of anything. Instead, I'm just trying to put forth passable work for another thirty years before I retire and place additional strain on the financial resources of the Golden State, so their piggishness is an invaluable resource in my book.

Taking this into consideration, I'm sure you can imagine my intrigue when I stumbled upon the following menu stuck to the refrigerator at the CoC headquarters as I was in the middle of illicitly swooping on a case of bottled water for me and mine.

Yo. G'dayum. For serious??

Now, honestly, I don't normally fucks with extravagant toppings on my dogs. I kind of think the very nature of a hot dog speaks against it. Hot dogs are about the most unpretentious, working-class meal on the planet. I mean, no one really even knows what they're made of. The people that eat them know this and don't really give a damn, often joking about it as they're halfway through eating like six in a sitting. To dress up a dog with some gourmet shit, to use pastrami or muffuletta as condiments, smacks of bougie overindulgence no matter how well-intentioned it may be in theory. That's why I keep it simple. Even after having had like half that menu in my body, were I to make a hot dog right now, I'd add mustard and call it good. When available, I might add onion or sauerkraut. That's it. You do not disrespect the dog. You do not add ketchup. 

However, nowadays we're living in a gastronomic universe. Every culinary school dropout is opening his or her own place with his or her daddy's money and trying to reinvent the hamburger or hot dog or whatever. Many of these establishments be catering to the kale sandwich crowd, too. But I accept that ya gotta adapt at least to some extent, and at the end of the day I always let the product speak for itself, anyway. So, I chose to give the Hot Dog Shoppe a fair shake. I chose rightly.

The Hot Dog Shoppe sits right on the border between Corona and Norco. What's noteworthy or worthwhile in Corona-Norco, you ask? I'll let you know when I figure that out, I tell you. There's a Bob's Big Boy with a cowboy hat, and that's about it. Very wisely, this benevolent peddler of storefront street meat steers clear of local allegiance and the vapid culture vacuum it involves. Aside from the stacks of plaques furnished by hot dog funded youth sports teams, you'll find nothing denoting this place's presence in the Inland Empire or California in general. Instead, The Hot Dog Shoppe stays Windy City-centric. That Chicago pride is in full effect once you cross the front door threshold. There's an old Cubbies logo proudly painted above the company's own, some White Sox stuff hanging on the adjoining wall. All the table tops are adorned with Chicago sports teams' insignia. I was aiight with it at first visit, but I became downright appreciative after I'd pillaged my own path through the North Side earlier this year. There're also sports on flat-screens, because how the hell could there not be.

Check it, though. Y'all has scrolled down this far for a reason. Let's get to it. 

Daunting shit.

If you thought that paper-fold menu was extensive, you probs just ain't ready. Because that shit is more-or-less replicated on a newly-updated menu board next to the register, and there's all-but-guaranteed to be some new creations hand-written and taped to the wall beside the thing. Yes, sons and daughters. There are more options. I've probably taken down but a tenth of the menu, conservatively guesstimating, which I feel is admirable enough to offer some favorites. Proceed.

As shown, The most popular dawg on the menu is The Corporal. It's not tough to see why. Quarter-pound dog, bacon-wrapped, with pastrami, chopped onion rings and swiss cheese. That, right there, is good enough to get them salivary glands goin' HAM. The kicker, though, is the Thousand Island (or "secret sauce" for you man-children out there that can't accept they're the same thing). I don't know why it's even called Thousand Island or how it's original function is to make lettuce taste better by making it awful for you. That's all lost on me. I use Thousand Island for one reason, for its only true purpose: to dress up and augment the awful deliciousness of the greasiest, fattiest, friedest foods. Pastrami, bacon, onion rings?? Check, check and check. My heart quivers, but my stomach yearns. This one is popular for a reason, y'all.

If you're sweatin' because you really want to take down The Corporal but know you got a family at home that can't have the head of house hold cashin' out at forty, the Norco is probably for you. The second most popular offering keeps the bacon jacket and onion rings, but subs the rest for barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. What you're left with is a dog very reminiscent of your typical western-style burger, which is reasonable considering it's named after self-proclaimed Horse Town, USA. However, instead of getting some flabby, microwave-meat filler, you're getting a frank with actual flavor. It's a bit straightforward for my taste, but guaranteed there are plenty of you unimaginative fucks out there that would enjoy the hell out of this.

MMM. Look at this dog. To be honest I don't even know what this one is called. Maybe I just ordered a weiner with a gang of grilled onions and some swiss. That sounds like some shit I'd do. By any name, I'm positive it was damn delicious. (You don't like onions?? The fuck out of here with that child's play.)

Alright. Yo. I gotta postpone this rundown for just a second. I don't mean to blue-ball them bellies, but there's something important I've thus far neglected to mention. Upon entering The Hot Dog Shoppe - right at heaven's gate - you'll be confronted with a simple, stand-up chalk board denoting the Dog of the Week. Do not overlook this sign or presume it unimportant in your hurried pursuit of satiation. Always off-the-menu, often off-the-wall and almost never repeated, dogs featured on this board tend to be especially inspired. I recommend going this route any time you're in for a two- to three-dog night and aren't immediately repulsed by or allergic to any of the featured toppings. Many of these ingredients are absent on any other part of the menu. Sometimes they're composed of those you would never combine or mess with in general. But, then again, you don't do this for a living... and you're on this site (probs) taking my advice... so just stfu and get that dotw. Fret not if you reeeally like one of 'em. So long as they have the proper adornments in house, prepped and ready to go, you may order one of the current or former dogs of the week. Sound it out if you can't remember it by name. They'll know what you're talking about. 

Anyway, several of these transitory creations have earned their way into my heart and onto my list of all-time faves. So I'ma hit you with 'em right quick.

Reckon we might as well start with the one on the board above, the Aussie. Now, I don't know about you, but I get down with garlic and herb anything. Just as is the case with bacon and onions, there isn't much that ain't drastically improved through the addition of garlic. The aroma, the taste. G'damn it's the bomb. If garlic soap were a thing, I'd bubblebathe in that mess all day. I'd pop garlic breath mints persistently if doing so didn't have a deleterious effect on my ability to mack on honeys henceforth. Anyway, that's what you're getting here: garlic "smashed" potato atop sauteed onions and savory herb gravy. All of it defiant in its monochromatic accompaniment of a juicy brat. I mean, there's not even a slight variance in color here. A nutritionist's nightmare. A real man's wet dream. This dog is probably my newest favorite. I've caught myself fantasizing about it on a couple of occasions, for sure. That's partly because The Aussie's  greatest strength doubles as its unfortunate flaw. That gravy is so, so bomb, y'all, but it's so inconsistently at the ready. I can't honestly say you can walk in to the Shoppe right now and get one, but I can say you'd be foolish not to try. Always ask about it just in case.

This joint right here? This joint right here is called the Amish Mafia, named after but otherwise nothing like Amish Mafia the miserable, pile-of-shit TV show (seriously, if you watch and enjoy that garbage, you're long overdue for a reevaluation of your purpose on this planet). My lawd, y'all. You're looking at this, and you probably already know. You know that's a fried egg crowning this ark of edible awe. You know what's 'bout to happen when you bite into it, too. Yolk's goin' errywhere. All on your face, all down your hands and forearms. On the table. Maybe into the basket if you're a grown man accustomed to eating neatly. Shit's gon' glaze the beef and soak into the bun. My, oh my. Yo, adding eggs to burgers is all the rage nowadays, so this is just the logical extension of that trend. Throw in the grilled onions and 5-pepper mix (spiciness ranges from day to day) and you've got yourself an absolute must-have. (Sidenote: They used to serve the Amish Mafia with TWO eggs on top. Shit was all but unmanageable. They've mercifully scaled it back since.) Fucks with this dog, guys.Wash up afterward.

Alright... I'ma be real wit' you. There are obviously A LOT more options in that general, artery-blocking vein. I could continue in that direction, but I'd rather issue overtures on some more offbeat offerings. So, shit's about to get a bit cray. Some of y'all 'bout to be unsettled. Keep an open mind, though. Know that ya boy would never steer you wrong.

BAH-DOW!! I present to you a dog of clusterfucked proportions, smothered in a(n) (un?)holy trinity of peanut butter, Nutella, and that marshmallow spread nonsense you always see on discount at Staters but never buy because why the fuck would you? What's it even made of? Probably plastic. Regardless, it's here, loud and proud. Aiight tho, I won't delay the discussion any longer, because let's be honest you're just staring at that picture all flummoxed-like. Look, we're all adults here. We know what this looks like. I'm not even saying we shouldn't snicker or outright laugh about it. This ain't eighth grade lit and we're not reading about Anne Frank admiring her V or nothing. For Christ's sake, it's called the Fluffer Nutter! Naivety es nada. By all means, if you know someone who orders this thing, let 'em have it. Just know you're kind of missing out... because it's pretty good. Somehow, it works. Though, when I ate the one shown above, I did find it lacking something. It was a little dense. You know what I mean? Like in the same way you wouldn't want to take down a peanut-butter sammich without a glass of milk or somethin' somethin'. This piece is normally served with bacon and I was simply skimped somehow. Whatever, though. Small grievance. Give this one a shot if only so your palate and preconceived notions may grapple for supremacy. Taste buds FTW.

Bow down. People of the void, this shit right here is my all-time favorite, bar none. It's called the Nutty Professor. You'll find it on the big board listed as the menu's tenth most popular option. You know why it's tenth all-time? Because me. I order this mess damn near every time I hit up the Hot Dog Shoppe. I sing its graces just about any time I get the chance. It's so bizarre. It's so fucking delicious. Check it. Though it may not seem so upon first glance, this dog is a more thoughtful and systematically composed version of that above. It's what the Fluffer Nutter wishes it were when it wakes up in the morning and brushes its English mouth. When it sings Hall & Oates in the shower and shows up to its shitty job five minutes late. When it comes home to its dilapidated wife and misbehaving brood. Sorry, I got off track. Anyway.. Beneath the bed of BBQ potato chips and shredded ched is a bacon-wrapped, beef frank and, get this, fucking PB & J! Peanut butter and marmalade, guys. Yo, I'm with you. What business do those ingredients have dressing a dog? What business they got commingling with barbecue chips and cheese on anything?? Yo... every business, that's which. The only reason I ever tried this in the first place is because it was given to me for free after I saw it advertised as the Dog of the Week and proceeded to talk mad shit on it to its constructor. Now, though, post-enlightenment... yo, now the prof is my JAM (ha).

The salty, fatty greatness of the bacon consorting so naturally with the nuttiness of the peanut butter (Skippy, as it should be). All of it contrasted by the mellow, citrusy sweetness of the jelly. There's a slight, mesquite tang from the chips that's quickly cut by the queso. This dog's got a lot going on. It'll probably take you a couple bites to grasp it all, but by that point you'll most likely already have ordered another. Creativity points aside, piece is worth handling at least once, but you'll probably do so regularly thereafter.

I'm telling you right now you're going to be overwhelmed on first visit. You just are. So many dogs, such a short time to the front of the line. You're going to stare up at the menu desperately hoping the hand of God(?) will reach down and select your lunch or dinner for you. Fortunately for me, that's how it went down when I popped my HDS cherry with the Lasorda (ranch, wing sauce, cheddar, pickle -- solid). I mean it was called the Lasorda. That's just divine happenstance. To this day, though, I still get caught at the cash register stammering all over myself trying to search out the best dog I've never tried. Should this happen to you, the owner or till attendant (often one in the same) will offer to pick for you.  They do it partially out of expediency -- this place gets straight popping in intervals throughout the day -- but also because they genuinely enjoy what they do. If you're game, they'll try to direct you off the beaten path toward something different. That's how you end up eating a Frankfurterstein like the Crazy Corn (shown above), a bacon-wrapped corn-dog (!!!) cut open, stuffed with chili, put on a bun and topped with mac & cheese & cheddar. Wild shit, I know. 

You've caught the drift, I'm sure. That the dogs are bomb has been documented sufficiently by my measure. But y'all know me. That ain't enough. Ya boy ain't so simply swayed, and you can't just win a dude over by waving some phallic franks in his face. At least not this dude. I sweats the small stuff; I make note of minutiae. And, in this instance, the particulars are what keep me coming back to The Hot Dog Shoppe probably every other time I eat in Norco. (It'd be closer to every time if I gave exactly zero fucks about my general outward appearance. But, alas.. women and whatnot.) Let's discuss some of that.

As is with about all else, The Hot Dog Shoppe doesn't venture too far beyond them Windy City limits for the cerveza selection, neither. You've got your choice between three Goose Island brews (a Belgian pale known as Matilda, an ESB called Honker's Ale and the filtered hef, 312 Urban Wheat). You've also got ye' old faithful, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Those are standards of the Central United States, especially up 'round them Great Lakes. Though few in comparison to the number of beers available at an otherwise substandard joint like Ddog's in Riverside, the four kegged offerings at The Hot Dog Shoppe more or less run the gamut in about every possible component of style. You'll find something you like, so long as you ain't no snob. Furthermore, what is lacked in depth of selection is more than made up in the execution of quality control. Every mug o' suds is served at optimum temp in a glass that's chilled but not frigid to the touch. Nothing is over- or under-carbonated. Shits are cold and crisp. No joke, the the most refreshing, best-tasting PBR in Southern California is served right here. Yo, and the best part? YOU DON'T HAVE TO DRINK IT IN THE PRESENCE OF HIPSTERS! That's a win.
How about another oft-overlooked component of a quality hot dog: that bun. Believe me when I tell you them buns is served soft and supple. (And I of all people would know some soft and supple buns when I sees 'em, amirite?). Highlighting the bread vessel on a hot dog might initially sound as ludicrous as commending a salad bar at a steakhouse, but 'tis not so, yo. In realness, ain't nothing kill that vienna sausage vibe like a lackluster or (Lord, have mercy!) stale hot dog bun. They provide obstructive, overly bready resistence. They break apart under simple stress. Bad buns are fit for chickens or mangy, homeless dogs, only. And, even then, I feel sorry for them motherfuckers. Thankfully, every bun on every dog at the Hot Dog Shoppe is properly steamed. Lord knows you'd know if they weren't, because there's just no way they'd successfully support the teeming heft they're tasked with accommodating. Get a tactful grip on the bottom backside of the bun and -- with practice -- you'll prove largely successful in keeping the various constituents contained within.

Lastly, it'd be almost criminal if a place like this didn't offer some sort of stuff-your-face challenge. They do. It's called the Homewrecker Challenge. You knock it out, you get your own dog gracing that monolithic menu near the register. That's tempting 'til you learn it involves eating about seven pounds of food (three MASSIVE dogs slathered in chili, cheese and habanero salsa). Oh, and you have to do it in fucking half-an-hour. If you feel like wasting thirty dollars, probably failing early on and surely combating brutal gastrointestinal upset, I say go for it. Otherwise I'd recommend you go the conventional route and add an additional Pabst to the tab. You ain't Joey Chestnut, bro.

Justin, owner. (Also pictured: your downfall)

Springtime is here (or maybe never left). Baseball is back. Get down to The Hot Dog Shoppe and get down to business, y'all.

510 Hidden Valley Pkwy
Corona, CA 92879

(Final notes: A simple Google search will confirm there are indeed multiple Hot Dog Shoppe locations, though you should take note that most of the others are more of a bar-type atmosphere. The Corona-Norco location is more open and bright. The dogs also taste better, like they're made with love and passion and all that noise.) 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Record Binge, Favorites 2013

Ya boy done fucked up. Dropped the ball. Misspoke in egregious fashion. It happens on occasion, but never often enough that I can't feel comfortable admitting it when it does. So I'll cut the frivolities and drop it at the jump: contrary to what I wrote in last year's retrospective installment, there wasn't anything that even held a candle to Kendrick's good kid, m.A.A.d. city. That record is a masterpiece, eleven strokes of genius and an obligatory homage to Dr. Dre.. but whatever whatever I'll have a chance to expound upon it later since the dude K-Dot extended his reign of peerless domination right on through twenty-thirteen. But for now, at least, consider that slip up rectified to a lesser degree.

Now, none of that is to suggest I won't make the same error this time around. That's how music works. The best of it elicits an evolving relationship over time and with continued reflection. In light of the understanding that twelve months is not enough time to aggregate, digest and rank the year in aural art and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Blah. Look, I know constructing these end-of-the-year album-or-song-of-the-year enumerations is about as masturbatory as it gets, but I have to do it. I spend unmentionable amounts of money on physical music media, and I need validation. This shit is impossibly important to my being. I mean I'd feed my dog before I fed myself, sure, but I'd also cop some quality vinyl before I fed my dog. We'd go down like that.

So with that, here's all the stuff I fucked with the hardest this past year. Sorry that Arcade Fire snoozefest didn't make the cut. I waited 'til the New Year proper because muhfuckas be dropping surprise albums and 101-track mixtapes at the last minute and all that. Also, I don't get paid for this blog shit. So there ya go.


Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to Shel Silverstein / Various Artists

Highlights: "The Winner", "Twistable, Turnable Man"
Shel Silverstein was my jam when I was a wee lad. I was low key obsessed with Where the Sidewalk Ends probably longer than I should have been. I paged through A Light in the Attic and Falling Up a bunch, too. I remember going through them all again as an 11- or 12-year-old when ol' Uncle Shelby kicked the bucket (dude was only like 60) and still appreciating them on a level above simple nostalgia. When I was in college I crossed paths with the dude again (possibly in the midst of a fevered Wikipedia binge) and ultimately stumbled upon some of the of his contributions to Playboy, which predated his kids lit shit. Somehow, though, I made it all the way to this past Black Friday without ever being exposed to his music catalog, which is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, really) extensive. As part of Record Store Day pt 2 (apparently a thing now?), Merge Records released Twistable, Turnable Man, a collection of 15 songs penned by Silverstein performed by some real class acts. I bought it for novelty's sake, and it turned out to be one of my proudest pick ups of the year. My Morning Jacket gets their yim yames on for the reverent opener "Lullabies, Legends and Lies". Andrew Bird follows up with a masterful, transfixing take on the title track. Dr. Dog gives "Unicorn" their trademark barbershop quartet of brotherly love treatment. The standout for me, though, has to Kris Kristopherson on the witty, bemusing number, "The Winner". Most of these songs have at least one foot entrenched in country tradition (in a good way! -- Lucinda Williams is here on "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan"). If you're as uninitiated as I was, you'll likely be surprised by how many tracks on this compilation you've previously heard popularized by others, most notably "A Boy Named Sue", "Queen of the Silver Dollar", and "Cover of the Rolling Stone". The second to last song is basically The Giving Tree put to music in a way that won't make you cry, which is -- as I put it after my first listen -- "pretty fucking plesant." Long story short: go pick this up, and don't search out videos of Shel singing these songs, himself.

The Chronicles of Marnia / Marnie Stern

Highlights: "Noonan", "East Side Glory", "Immortals"
Marnie Stern will periodically utilize this one structural motif that I've really grown rather fond of where she more or less approximates the form and function of a defibrillator. It resurfaces this time around on the eponymous track of her adorably titled new record The Chronicles of Marnia. The frenetic, jittery rhythm that suffuses so many of her songs breaks to a stark, escalating swell as if the instrument is charging for another jolt, and then BAM! the tachycardia returns for another verse. Stern is a bona fide guitar goddess, a true woodshredder. Even other finger-tapping revivalists pay homage. Her prowess, though, has in the past come at the expense of her song construction, and her tendency to gravitate toward layered excess can become aggravating. Her melodies often get muddied and difficult to isolate. These breaks in her characteristic breakneck pace have always served to juxtapose the (somewhat) controlled chaos and remind the listener that she really can write beautiful music (which, of course, merely fuels additional frustration). On Chronicles, though, the tunes are given longer breathers more often, and they're so much better for it. The hyper-technical tapping is still present throughout, but this time you can actually follow and appreciate it to its fullest. The cutting away of suffocating layers allows those that are left to breathe and reach their way into the sunlight. The bass guitar emerges forth and adds considerable depth, as on album closer "Hell Yes". Stern's vocals are actually functioning as a vehicle for conveying lyrics rather than merely providing additional percussive clutter. This latter development is especially rewarding, because as it turns out Stern's got a lot to say on the subject of late-thirties existential self-doubt. On "Noonan" she repeatedly questions, "Don't you want to be somebody?" as if apathetically recitng a lecture she's undoubtedly heard a million times and long ago tired of. She gets, dare I say... old.. ish(?).. when recognizing on "Nothing Is Easy" a pair of realisms I'm sure a lot of us will come to know at some point on our trek up The Hill: "Nothing is easy [and] no one has ever been cool." There's still tons to latch on to here, but this time the hooks-a-plenty are especially hearty. Turns out all she ever had to do was get out of her own way.

Baba Yaga / Futurebirds

Highlights: "Tan Lines", "Serial Bowls", "Death Awaits"
My grandfather has an oft-repeated theory when it comes to music in which there are but two kinds: country and western. I let him slide because he's spent over a third of his life in South Dakota and almost never listens to anything produced post-Hank Williams II. That's what I'm getting at. Country music isn't intrinsically terrible; the overwhelming majority of that played on modern country radio just makes it seem that way. But the genre -- and namely its older contributions -- has its redeeming qualities, and indie rock has been making use of them for some time now. Its appropriation of pedal steel, especially, has been increasingly prevalent and particularly fruitful. I'm not sure anyone has better integrated western inflection and the old soul elements of country heritage than have Futurebirds on their fantastic debut, Baba Yaga. Credit KUCR's strange-sounding hipster/goober/nerd and his long-running Thursday afternoon program for the find. I was hooked the first time I heard the sun-saturated, intercontinental longing of "Tan Lines". Futurebirds' brand of urban cosmic-country sounds about how the genre would had it originated somewhere off Silverlake Blvd. Except these guys are from Athens, GA and thus manage to avoid seeming dishonest in their pastiche. The band has three songwriters and at least as many vocalists, but Baba Yaga somehow manages to stay surprisingly cohesive throughout, alternating between boozy, bar-top bawlers ("Dig", "American Cowboy")  and rollicking barn burners ("Serial Bowls") with easy swagger. Especially good for twilight drives into the desert, if you're into that sort of thing.

Repave / Volcano Choir

Highlights: "Acetate", "Comrade", "Bygone"
It's pretty impossible not to like Justin Vernon. It's even harder not to support the guy. He's just such a genuinely good dude. As the poster boy of indie darlings, my man could be a total dick and would probably still have mad peoples going to bat for him. Instead, though, he utilizes the sizable amount of notoriety he's been afforded earned to lend credence to other bands and projects whose work would likely fly under the radar otherwise. After emerging emotionally resurrected and unapologetically balding from the the frozen tundra with classic in hand, Vernon used the ensuing two years to release collaborative records as Gayngs and Volcano Choir. After solemnly circumventing the sophomore slump with his wonderful Bon Iver, Bon Iver in 2011, the Eau Claire native again took time away from his meal-ticket to record and tour behind a blues-rock record as The Shouting Matches with a couple of longtime friends. He also put out a second piece as Volcano Choir, his experimental unit with fellow Wisconsinites Collections of Colonies of Bees. (Oh, he also worked with Kanye twice and gave the Grammy acceptance speech to end all Grammy acceptance speeches somewhere along the way.)

The first Volcano Choir record, 2009's Unmap, sounded a lot more in line with previous efforts made by the five-sixths of the band not named Justin Vernon. It sounded like what would happen if dude sat in with Martin Dosh or something. I keep it on rotation exclusively in situations where I need to study, write or pass the fuck out. In contrast, Repave is far more conventional, structurally speaking. It's bigger. It's grandiose. It sounds an awful lot like a new Bon Iver album aimed at the nosebleed seats, and it'd be easy to mistake it as such were you none the wiser. Vernon's vocals are more frequent, more prominent and more intelligible. He shifts from his trademark falsetto (with and without the vocoder) to his natural, husky baritone and back from verse to chorus and track to track. There's still a lot of delayed guitar bouncing between the left and right sides of your stereo, but whereas it somehow still seemed sparse on Unmap, it's rich and full on Repave. There are at least a handful of soaring, inspirational mega-moments on this record (see: basically every second of tracks 2 thru 4), but none more so than the chorus of centerpiece "Bygone". What's most clear in Justin Vernon's releases with The Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir in 2013 is that the guy is having a lot of fun. It's refreshing to hear, because I don't know if anyone else in the business deserves it more.

Monomania / Deerhunter

Highlights: "Monomania", "Pensacola", "Dream Captain"
During the run-up to the release of Monomania, just about every advance review of the record would at some point cite the punk aspirations of Deerhunter's sixth studio album. Usually within the first paragraph. And while those designs and attitudes are immediately evident, in reality the band done been punk for some time now. I mean, merely a year prior, Deerhunter braintrust Bradford Cox had received a fair amount of publicity for responding to a heckler's holler for "My Sharona" with an impromptu, 60-minute rendition of The Knack's classic. He also called the heckler up to the stage and made him undress as punishment unto himself and entertainment for everyone else. Does it get more punk than that?

Deerhunter's performance of Monomania's titular track on Fallon clearly signaled that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it does.

Album openers "Neon Junkyard" and "Leather Jacket II" deliver on the promise of punk. The most immediately apparent transformation are the guitars. Normally dreamy in their construction of ruminative, reverb-soaked sonicscape, here they're acidic and gritty, their rhythm rather off kilter. Cox's vocal is distorted along similar lines. Everything sounds intentionally strained while stopping short of harshness. The following track, "The Missing", is classic Deerhunter and would have been entirely at home on their last release, Halcyon Digest. For the remainder of the record, the band bounce between and (more often) blend these two ends of the spectrum (I wouldn't call either an "extreme" as they're never too shoegazey or riotous). Bradford Cox is the keystone keeping the two strains of style in harmony, because he sounds entirely volatile across the album's twelve offerings. On the otherwise subdued "T.H.M.", there exists the real possibility (threat?) he could pop off at any point. In an era of the standard, sterile four-piece, the guy might be the last true frontman. Or at least the last frontman with a gravitational pull on the spotlight. The last one worth caring about. For whether you're spinning this record or seeing Deerhunter live, you're paying fucking attention. Bradford Cox commands interest, and to the dude's credit he never fails to deliver once he's got it.

Sunbather / Deafheaven

Highlight: "Dream House"
Ya boy don't typically dabble in anything labeled "metal". When the descriptors "black" or "heavy" are further applied, you know I'm staying pretty far the fuck away. Deafheaven is a black metal band, and I know this because it is invariably mentioned in the first or second sentence of every review of the record immediately to the left. Yet, this is a fact my brain has difficulty reconciling with seemingly contrary evidence as aesthetically up-front as that cover art.. I mean it's fucking pink and has the word "Sunbather" written on it. That certainly sounds like some shit that'd be right up my alley.

The mixing of messages doesn't stop at the surface, either. The first twenty-five seconds of the nine-minute, album-opening epic "Dream House" sound as you'd expect from a record with a cover that's just shy of being outright flamboyant even outside the metal community. A single soaring, brightly distorted guitar. Then another that almost renders the chord progression into chiming static. And then... a fucking blast beat. It's a gripping, clensing chaos that exudes cathartic release. Sunbather is emotionally jarring. The swelling relentlessness and ephemeral excursions into carefully constructed serenity and meditation tug on your gut and your core, not your heartstrings. I'd comment on the lyrics if I could understand any of them past the throat-scorching scream (or if I could see much of a point in reading through them online in spite of their delivery). In a way I find rather masterful, I don't see a need to read the lyrics to know what the guy is saying. I certainly feel what the fuck he's saying, which is the most difficult part of making music (or the very point of music, arguably). I honestly can't tell you the last time I listened to more than five minutes of something that sounds like this record. I don't know if I ever will again. But if more alleged black metal was as dynamic and panoramic as Sunbather, I'd say there's a good fucking chance of it happening.

Highlight: "Nosetalgia", "Numbers On The Board"
"It's the black out, 'rari got the back out, showin' my black ass, engine in the glass house. Started in a crack house. Obama went the back route. Kill bin Laden, 'nother four up in The Black House."

Yo, when I heard that "Trouble On My Mind" shit, I knew Pusha was back in business. Like a lot of white dudes, I go pretty hard for Clipse. Hell Hath No Fury is nearly flawless, a lesson in expertly merging streetwise swagger and clubwise hook consciousness with quote-unquote "real shit". Their debut, Lord Willin', is quintessential in its own right, helping define That Neptunes Sound. Actually, fuck it.. if y'all don't own both them joints, go 'head and Ctrl+Tab that ass over to iTunes and cop 'em right quick. Stop by Dat Piff and pick up their dopest mixtape while you're at it. Anyway, anyway.. all I mean is that the returns on Pusha-T's solo material since the Clipse went on hiatus had been a bit closer to the shallow end of the spectrum. So, needless to say it was refreshing as fuck to hear the guy straight body the track that would end up becoming his reintroduction to the rap game (as I see it, anyway).

Yet, as reinvigorated as was Terrance Thorton's sneer on the aforementioned collab with Tyler, The Creator, it's nothing to that featured throughout My Name Is My Name. If you were curious about what kind of affair his first release for Kanye's GOOD Music imprint would be, "King Push" draws that line very clearly ("Carry on like a carry on, and my side bitch I let tag along. Call me 'daddy' from a complex, because her mother's fucker wouldn't marry mom."). GAWD. The ensuing "Numbers On The Board" doubles down on the grit and growl. The only break from Kanye's subterranean, blown-out bass rumble is a three-second snippet of Jay-Z's "Rhyme No More". Ain't no refuge from that coke flow, though ("Whether rapping or I'm rapping to a whore, might reach back and relapse to wrapping up this raw."). It lightens up a little bit after that, because g'damn... it's just gotta. Muhfuckas be shittin' them shorts otherwise. "Hold On" has some of that annoying auto-tune croon 'Ye's been getting too fond of, but it's also got the best and most penitent verse Rick Ross has put out probably ever. The third-fourth of the record is a little light, but the final three jams are absolutely killer. And "Nosetalgia"? Holy fuck... we'll get to "Nosetalgia". While it ain't perfect, My Name Is My Name houses some of rawest, most tenacious cuts of the last couple years. Straight up, Pusha's still got them keys that can unlock ya.

Highlights: "The Wire", "Forever", "Don't Save Me"
I really wanted to hate this band from the get-go. From their billing as The Next Big Thing 2013 to the critical obsession over their back story and sound that supposedly evoked pop music spanning the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, I was pretty set in my preconceived notions. I also wasn't immediately feeling the lead single, "Forever" (though, I was all about the bangin' Giorgio Moroder remix that spawned almost a full year later). I talked considerable amounts of shit from that point on. When I caught wind of "The Wire", though, that all started to change. Call it the right song for the right time in my life or whatever it was. Call it indie rock or indie pop or just straight fucking pop, but just call it great. I copped the album soon after and, try as I might, was unable to fend off the melodic suavette of the LP for long.

The sisters Haim are a tough act to pin down. Realistically, Days Are Gone sounds like almost nothing else in my record collection or digital library while also sounding somewhat like everything contained within both. Lead guitarist Danielle Haim sounds a bit like Leslie Fiest. Younger guitarist/keyboardist Alana Haim a tad like Christie McVie. The oft-cited Fleetwood tags really are too easy, but on songs like "The Wire" and "Honey & I", the comparison is just... you know... there. On the whole, though, Haim keep both their proverbial feet planted pretty firmly on the pop side of the pop-rock divide, engaging in Lindsey Buckingham-like guitar episodes only in bite-sized, subtle fills. Though evident in more modest stylings, what's not up for debate are the ladies' chops and show(wo)manship. Look no further than their slaying of their SNL showcase for proof. (That ain't no small feat, y'all. That stage ruins careers.) Girls got game, girls got groove for days. So you ain't even got to be ashamed when you get caught on the corner belting out the stutter-stepping verses of "Don't Save Me". Just own it. I even 'bout to hate.

Highlights: "Good Ass Intro", "Chain Smoker"
Acid Rap had to be the come-up of the year. It's an infectious mixtape that integrates elements of funk, Chicago soul, and Motown groove behind Chance the Rapper, one of the most spastic, hyper-caffeinated rap artists to emerge in a good while. It's immediately enjoyable and unabashedly endearing so long as you're not put off by the Chance's higher-pitched, sorta nasally delivery and weed-scratched warble (I don't think it's all that big a deal, but that's just me or whatever). Oh, and it's free (follow dat DatPiff link). Free is always a plus.

The 20 year old Windy City MC can't yet cop a forty, a fact that's both ever-present and almost impossible to believe. The youngblood's skill, confidence and uniqueness behind the mic insist he's twice his actual age. That he's pulling features by recognizable names like Twista, Childish Gambino and the main dude Action Bronson speaks volumes as to the cred he's established on the back of so little actual material. Yet, the album is littered with fond allusions to those comforts of home largely taken for granted 'til they're absent. There are open-mics, cocoa-butter kisses and diagonal grilled cheeses. There are plenty of references to a high school tenure spent slacking off and getting suspended. Even the oldies-inspired, throwback instrumentals appear in tribute to the classics young Chandler probably grew up on. It shouldn't be of any great surprise to anyone that's traversed the treacherous three-year window between the last lunch period and first last-call. That turbulent adjustment period when "knowing everything" feels a wholly inadequate introduction to the real world. A lot of what's contained on Acid Rap is a recoil to that realization ("I still miss being a seeeeenior," dude croons on "Acid Rain"). What makes it a next-level mixtape, though, are the moments where the Rapper, Chance, looks forward, instead. He takes some surprisingly sober stabs at mature themes of inner-city violence and intrapersonal conflict, offering adult-like commentary instead of glorification. Perhaps no more potent than when, after kicking off with the unabashed spazzfest of "Good Ass Intro", Chance continues in kind with "Pusha Man" before shifting starkly to the warped wobble of "Paranoia" and exploring a number of epidemics (theft, murder, abandonment) from first-person perspective. Growing up is tough, but watching the kid kill it on Arsenio's show, you get the feeling he's starting to figure it out.

Highlights: "Song For Zula", "The Quotidian Beast"
If there's one thing that can be said for sure of Phosphorescent, it's that they can lay down a mean cover. My first exposure to the band was through their head-bobbing, bar rocking revitalization of Neil Young's rather listless "Are You Ready For The Country". Delving further into the catalog, I came across their collection of Willie Nelson covers, more contemplative and layered in their construction, though obviously with similar western affectations. It's a dichotomy that was present on the first two tracks of the band's last original full-length, Here's To Taking It Easy, as well: "It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)" was snappy, ramshackle roller that typified their alt-country tag (complete with a title referencing a Mac Davis classic) while "Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)" featured gorgeous euphony, sun-washed SoCal pedal steel and enough lyrical sentiment to make ol' Willie smile.

It's the latter of those two varieties that the band really key in on over the course of Muchacho. If those plush arrangements the band tangled with in past efforts were fleshed out and not tied to Telecaster chime, this would be the result. Or if Fleet Foxes (ca. "Blue Ridge Mountains") were from The South by way of Brooklyn. On the whole, though, Muchacho is less rural-sounding than might be expected. The harrowing, harmonic builds of its intro/outro piece "Sun, Arise!"/"Sun's Arising", overlay arpeggiated keyboard flirtations that yield to the heartbeat-like fluttering of 80s-era reverbed bass guitar on the spacious, bucolic standout "Song For Zula". Even the songs with considerable suburban bounce ("A Charm / A Blade", "Ride On / Right On") always maintain Muchacho's patient pace. Horn sections and string arrangements persist throughout the record, lending to grandiosity without feeling forced or overbearing as so often befalls indie bands that go for big, high-minded statements. Though, to be sure, Muchacho is one of those kinds of statements. Lots of lyrics about slaves and masters and chains and cages, etcetc, are apparent allegory for what sounds like a significant trough in bandleader Matt Houck's life, especially when delivered through his torn, trademark yelp. Get this now if you haven't already.

Highlights: "Walkin On A Pretty Day", "Goldtone"
There's an unassuming nonchalance that permeates Kurt Vile's music and insists, quite inacurrately, that what he's doing ain't all that difficult. Or at least that he's not trying all that hard. Hell, on Walkin' On A Pretty Daze, he even says as much, himself: "Making music is easy. Watch me!" he wisecracks on "Was All Talk". That line manages to catch everyone's attention. It sounds pompous, but not really because you know he's dicking around, but not really because a beauty like "Walkin On A Pretty Day" is fairly supportive of such an assertion. It's gorgeous. It's packed with spacey, compressed guitar phrasings that sound entirely effortless in their meditative meander. I've so often found myself wandering inward into some warm daydream (or, dare I say, some pretty daze) around its midpoint, only to rehappen upon reality X-minutes later encapsulated by the same jammy explorations. Shit's seriously beautiful, sons. It's the kind of shit that will make ya pause when you realize it came by the hand of a hessian-looking motherfucker that used to drive a fork-lift in Philly.

Save for the track "Too Hard" -- which would have fit perfectly on 2011's Smoke Ring For My Halo -- the hyper-precise finger-picking that's kind of become Vile's trademark is much less prominent this time out. For the most part it gets buried beneath layers of production in the space that had previously been reserved for his vocals. Now, though, Vile's voice is at or near the head of the mix on songs with more intentional pop gravity (or at least songs that sound like more sprightly versions of "Jesus Fever"). Here, atop an accompaniment that skips from one weed cloud to the next (though he insists he "never, as they say, touch[es] the stuff" -- right.), his offhand asides come across as seasoned witticisms from a dude that's been there / done that. The true gem is "Goldtone", a metered dose of everything that makes Kurt Vile and Wakin On A Pretty Daze enjoyable. (But, ay yo. Real talk: if you have a dog, keep the motherfucker away from the stereo when that final, panning guitar lick dances its way to the fore. They hate that shit something real.)


"Control" / Big Sean feat. Kendrick Lamar & Jay Electronica

This joint right here. "Control" was the happening in the hip-hop universe this year. In an annus that saw full-length releases from Jigga, Em' and 'Ye, nothing had anywhere near the immediate or lasting impact of the jam credited to Big Sean for all of about its first three minutes on this planet. Like, this beast split the year (and the current rap landscape, really) in two. There was a time before "Control", and there is the present day that exists in its wake. On one side of the divide are a bunch of glad-handing muhfuckas, and on the other there's King Kendrick Lamar. Really, ain't nobody e'en talmbout "Control" the song. Ain't nobody got time for that. All discussion is moot that is not centered directly on the track's main course: the three-and-a-half minute "guest verse" / "feature" / "outright massacre" laid down by K-Dot wherein, after ranking himself the best MC alive (followed by living legends and classic-makers HOV, Nas, Andre 3000, and Eminem), he carpetbombs every last notable motherfucker who failed to make that list, including the same two dudes sandwiching him on this very track. Remorseless shit.

The hip(ster)-hop tastemakers over at Pitchfork remain intent on stoking whatever semblance of rivalry exists between Kendrick Lamar and Aubrey Graham. That's all well and good or whatever. However, for reasons that defy logical explanation, when given the opportunity to take a side in the matter, they continue to advocate the furtherance of the spa-rap agenda with what appears to be zero regard for taste or art in general. Because let's be clear about this: no one is on Kendrick Lamar's level right now. He's where Wayne was when he let loose Tha Carter III but with more conscious interest in integrating depth and substance. No one is putting in the kind of intellectual labor lacing every cut on good kid, m.A.A.d city (edit: especially not Macklemore's lame ass). The brilliance of his verse on "Control" -- what ultimately twisted up so many banana hammocks -- wasn't that Lamar dissed half the game or did so by name. It wasn't that the West Coast's second coming all but annexed the Big Apple. It was that he made clear the merits of his assertion that he existed and operated on another plane entirely.  Every response verse that poured in during "Control"'s immediate aftermath only served to drive this point home further and further and further. It's telling that even in the age of the that's-cool-but-now-what's-next internet, the Kendrick diss track within a track stayed hot and relevant as lackluster, feeble retorts continued to trickle in four months after the fact.

gkmc is on the fast track to classic status. And with good reason. One thing that Kendrick Lamar made clear in his flawless debut was that he doesn't do throwaway shit. Every time the dude steps to the mic, it's with one intention: to quash competition. He's out to be the G.O.A.T., not just the best rapper alive. On "Control", he put the world on notice that the era of high-fives amongst rap homies had ended. If you let him on the track, you should know he will erase you if given the oportunity. Kendrick's taking kill-shots. If you standing on his corner, best make sure your colors correct.

Here's the hit list, served protein-style.

"Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around" / Sharon Van Etten &Shearwater

The A.V. Club's "A.V. Undercover" series is one of my favorite things on the web. It's high time you get familiar if you aren't already. The basic premise is that bands and solo acts choose songs from a predetermined list to cover for the site. Covers may not be repeated, and so the list narrows as each season nears its end. Tourmates Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater knocked out Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's surpise b/w hit "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" in mid-2012, but it was formally released as a single this year on Record Store Day, so I'm including it on this list. I'm also including it because it rules and improves upon the original by increasing the tempo about ten beats-per-minute and substituting that early-80s soap opera guitar lick for something decidedly pastoral. The star, unsurprisingly, is Van Etten, whose vocal turn simply sounds more battered, weary and worn to shreds than Nicks' ever did.

"Get Lucky" / Daft Punk, "Blurred Lines" / Robin Thicke

I'ma be honest. I ain't even trying to hear for the umpteen-millionth time about how sexist the "Blurred Lines" video is. I'm just not.. I'll grant you that it's in bad taste, but that's about as far as I'll go. And how long's it been since we reasonably expected our pop stars to be purveyors of decency? A long fucking time, that's how long. The "Blurred Lines" clip is tame compared to the backyard rap video onslaught of the early aughts, and how hard did we cry about it back then. Furthermore, I know all the grouchiest feminazis be the first ones out on the floor when big Rob come in like, "E'rbody get up!" Talking shit the whole time. Don't deny it. I done seent it happen.

Anyway, you already know these were the two biggest goddamn songs of the year. I'm grouping them as one because they're all but inextricably linked to one another and will probably continue to be so for the better part of our lives due to their contemporaneous ubiquitousness and unimpeachable, retro-leaning pop cool. One's the best disco song ever laid down by French robots (or maybe anyone, ever), and the other is the best party jam Marvin Gaye's family wish he wrote. Oh, and Pharrell Williams somehow managed to carve out a niche on both, as well. I'm not remotely tired of either of these songs, and considering the extent to which they saturated the Summer of 2013, that kind of says it all.

Ladies, quit trippin' if you ain't the hottest bitch in this place.

[Ayo, I got all kinds of kids linking over here from Nickolodeon and shit, sons. (I gotchu, tho. NSFW shit right hurr.)]

"Pretty Boy (Peking Lights Remix)" / Young Galaxy

Young Galaxy's original "Pretty Boy" cut is pretty solid. Like I'd probably bump it on the semi-regular as it were. It's an earnest and driving confessional that I dig quite a bit. At the very least it's not something that immediately strikes as being in dire need of a reworking. What makes the Peking Lights remix of the track so neat is that the alterations are mostly minimal, but the effects on mood and vibe are substantial. The most beneficial addition is that of an almost inaudible, major-key bass rumble into the cavernous underbelly of the original mix. The subtle, pulsating rhythm succeeds in giving the song additional forward push while simultaneously instilling some much-needed levity. The underlying sentiment shifts from quasi longing to an almost pensive appreciation. It plays like a beach-side drive up the One, where natural beauty is amplified by the splendor of a significant other in the side-seat. Very wisely, the remix takes that feeling and stretches it out an additional two-point-five minutes replete with accentuated, augmentative percussion, both creating and making the absolute most of open space.

"Bound 2" / Kanye West

We all deserve Yeezus. All of us. Well, really the brunt of the blame has to go to National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I mean, had they just given the dude the W for any of his three Album of the Year nods (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation), we probably wouldn't be where we're at. Really, their biggest fuckup was not even nominating his best and most-deserving offering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I mean that thing was captial-A Art, through and through. And to get no respect? Of course that's going to cause some irreparable damage to a psyche (especially to that of a megalomaniac like Kanye West). Of course that's going to have repercussions, b. Regardless, though, we're all culpable to some extent if only for not hitting it with the hype it deserved. Any which way you cut it, Yeezus is essentially our comeuppance, Ye's capital-F Fuckyou. (Yo, look at the album cover. And he let Skrillex produce a goddamn track.) Of the many adjectives I could use to describe the record -- difficult, harsh, aggressive, etc -- "fun" sure as hell ain't one of them. If someone plays this in the car, they ain't trying to hear none from the backseat. If someone plays this at their house, they're trying to clear the place out. If you make it through the nine initial sonic assaults, though, you get the Classic Kanye gem "Bound 2". He's a fucking asshole, but the guy can pretty much kill it at-will.

"The Wire" / Haim

It took probably twenty-some-odd listens on SiriusXMU, but now ya boy rides for "The Wire". It just breaks down your defenses, and I -- just like so many others, I'm sure -- eventually submitted to its infectiousness. Honestly, I ain't even sorry about it. I fucks with the album version. I fucks with the variant they threw down for Daytrotter. Any which way way you cut it, "The Wire" is a perfect pop song. There is certainly an unconventional element to it, and it's got little to do with the Fleetwood-meets-Brandy tag critics keep trying to lob on it. It's interesting in that it's a break up song where the only crime committed is an uneventful end of a spark. It's an admission of what is often the harshest truth: that sometimes he or she is just not that into you. It's a resolution to pull the plug before the emotional obligation reaches critical mass and the ensuing fallout becomes less manageable. The song structure is in kind, forgoing the kind of chorus that would rile up a Staples Center worth of middle-aged moms for one approximating a cool (though not quite callous) shrug. The guitar riffs, though? Thems is ready for the Staples Center, no doubt.

"Nosetalgia" / Pusha-T

Yo, what's colder than cold? This motherfucker, right here, that's what. This joint is ice-motherfucking-cold. Like the mountains on this motherfucker ain't even dark blue, they blue-black. Everything about this "Nosetalgia" shit is perfect, a impeccable execution of minimalism. The beat is about as bare bones as it gets: some scant bongo action and singular, menacing plucks of an electric guitar. The imagery is so rich. Crack fumes in the kitchen, crack slinging in the school zone, crack fiends selling they nephew's Sega games for crack. Realness, y'all. There just ain't any room for flashy shit. There's mad amounts sonic real estate up for grabs here, and it gets filled to its borders with glacial sneer. Neighborhood P pulls another gem from his bag of top-tier coke tales, taking us back to Virginia where ain't shit to do but cook. Some of the sharpest lines (and THE harshest couplet) of the year are here, and T's full resurgence is all but encapsulated when he spits, "We don't drink away the pain when a ni**a die / We add a link to the chain, inscribe a ni**a's name in ya flesh." WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Rick Flair shit. It's only fitting that he hands the baton halfway to the only up-and-comer worthy, the dude Kendrick Lamar.

Now, remember just upstairs when I warned about the perils of giving Kendrick a feature, about how dude will stage a coup soon as you turn your back? If you're going to do it, this is how it's done, yo. King Push keeps it onehunned right off the bat so youngblood can't run away with the track. Dude keeps a watchful eye on son (metaphorically depicted in the fittingly frigid video below). I mean, Kendrick still does the damn thing. It's unquestionably his best verse of the year, artistically speaking. It's just nice to see the whole affair elevated when he's paired with someone else at the top of their game. "Nosetalgia" is Kendrick's "Control" challenge/call-to-arms in action. The effects are palpable and endlessly enjoyable.


Happy New Year, ya bish.