The Morality of Spectacle in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible

*trigger warning: rape, strong violence. Spoilers also ahead*

The first time I tried to watch Gaspar Noé’s ultraviolent thriller Irréversible (2002), I couldn’t bear to watch any more after the film’s second scene. When I bought the DVD I was warned by the man on the till: “You do know there’s a nine minute rape scene in this, don’t you?” I did not make it to the rape scene, for two reasons: the first is that the film takes place in reverse chronological order, and the orgiastic violence and homophobic abuse of the second scene, devoid of context, lead me to describe the film as “depraved”. Secondly, having heard that this film by a male director featured an infamously controversial rape scene I expected the worst. It wasn’t until later that I discovered I had not decided what “the worst” was: I was expecting it to be misogynistic and incredibly violent. It turns out it was the latter, but certainly not the former.

Here’s what I saw on my first viewing. Two men storm into a gay S&M club called La Rectum, searching for a man known as “Le Tenia” (Jo Prestia). Marcus (Vincent Cassel) accosts the patrons with increasing violence and verbal homophobic abuse in his attempts to find Le Tenia, while Pierre (Albert Dupontel) pleads with him to stop before things get worse. Marcus appears to find Le Tenia, and another brawl breaks out; Le Tenia overpowers him, forces him to the floor, snaps his arm, and attempts to rape him. Pierre grabs a fire extinguisher and repeatedly smashes it into the Le Tenia’s head, continuing long after his skull has caved in, the camera perversely leering in. But the tipping point was when the shot pans to a bystander’s face (below); to me, the look of awe on this man’s face suggested a shallow kind of wantonness on the filmmakers’ part, senseless nihilism, a desire to shock for the sake of shocking. It isn’t until later in the film that you realise: this bystander is Le Tenia, and the man who was beaten to death was merely his unidentified acquaintance.

1Noé films this entire scene, and every other scene in the film, in one unbroken shot (with some digital assistance), the camera erratically tracking the men, and veering voyeuristically around the lurid scenarios within the club. It is supposed to seem needlessly extreme, and the head-bashing only happens twenty minutes into the film. The film’s reverse chronology (comparable to Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)) makes it seem even more lurid, and yet this narrative device is absolutely crucial; it never feels like a gimmick. Therefore, this is our introduction to the characters Marcus and Pierre; in this scene the reasons for their actions are unknown, but we know from the point that Pierre picks up the fire extinguisher that he is capable of extreme violence in the name of vengeance. This is not presented as the culmination of their actions, or as the story’s climactic visual payoff, but as a glimpse of their unavoidable futures.

We follow Marcus and Pierre (in reverse) as two gangsters help in a frenzied search for a man named Le Tenia, who they learn is in La Rectum, ending with them leaving a party and finding a crowd and police vans and an ambulance. Someone tells them that “a whore got raped”; Marcus just wants to get past to catch a cab. When he sees the stretcher, he breaks down, realising that it is his girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci), who is now utterly disfigured and in a coma, after having left the party alone. The next scene will show us exactly what happened to Alex in extreme detail: but first, more context.

The frequent accusations of Irréversible being a homophobic film make little sense to me because what we see is not a sex scene. By making the rapist an ostensibly gay man, Noé is cleverly underlining something crucial about why rape happens, rather than depicting it as the result of sexual urges. This is an important point about the politics of sexual violence; rape has little to do with attraction, and everything to do with sexual power. It is a totally random act of aggression and Noé admirably explicates that Le Tenia’s desires are driven entirely by hatred rather than by sexual attraction.

5Furthermore, Noé explains that the setting of the revenge scene in “a space that was entirely male”, with the aim that: “having the male lead almost raped at the beginning, feminises the male audience to a degree that they find challenging”. That Alex is raped anally further suggests that this could have happened to a cis male. Indeed, Noé could have replaced Alex’s part with a male, but that he implicitly links the fantasy of revenge to heterosexual male stereotypes and narratives. There are strong overtones of homosociality in the relationship between Marcus and Pierre: when Marcus sees Alex’s comatose body, he repeatedly exclaims “She’s my girl!”, although Alex has chastised him later in the film for using this type of possessive language; at the party, Marcus’ promiscuity and his attempts to get Pierre to hook up with one of the women at the party has a homoerotic undercurrent (see above image). It is worth noting that although Le Tenia goes unpunished in the revenge scene, Pierre successfully saves Marcus from being raped. Noé’s aim is a radical one: to make the (heterosexual) cis male part of his audience empathise with rape by torturously presenting a chaotic masculine sexuality.

From my perspective as a cis male, the reading I offer cannot claim to be impartial; readings that women might offer of this film in particular would, I am sure, often be exceptionally different to mine. It is not only that Noé scrutinises the gender dynamics of his characters, but that the entire film is structured such that it transitions from the masculine to the feminine, from all-male environments and brutal physical violence to Alex alone, contemplating her possible pregnancy, then surrounded by children in the daytime (below); it is saturated with images suggestive of gender roles and is remarkably critical of masculinity. This is why La Rectum is depicted so hellishly; it is as a masculine space that it is threatening rather than as an exemplar of homosexual culture, Le Tenia’s lair rather than representative of gay men broadly (although these images are problematic): Robin Wood’s reading (in my opinion, misreading) states that the film’s homophobic message is “Sex is for procreation! Those who disagree will go to Hell!” – but the film incorporates criticisms of the desires of every male character, and the desires of Le Tenia are apparently unrelated to his sexuality. Wood’s notion that the film “promulgat[es] a whole new myth of gayness” is misleading; it is because Noé tends to avoid perpetuating stereotypes that the film is not dangerous in that respect – notwithstanding the emphasis of gay sexual deviance and the straight-male paranoia of gay men as sexually threatening. The film includes homosexual characters partly as a device for presenting a physical sexual threat to the straight male characters – not great in terms of homosexual representation, but for interesting ends nonetheless.

6The rape scene lasts for nine minutes, about as long as it possibly could. The audience isn’t spared a single detail other than that Noé does not explicitly depict penetration. The audience already knows there is no escape for Alex, having seen her brutalised body. Noé demands Bellucci to push herself to the absolute limits of what an actor can convey, but insists that Bellucci “directed herself” in the scene, setting every physical limit. Again, there are no cuts: the camera remains conspicuously motionless (for the only time in the film), on the floor in front of Bellucci’s face. At one point, a figure enters the other end of the tunnel, realise what is happening, and turns back, unnoticed. We can only ask why we are being shown all of this, what purpose could it serve, what kind of cultural conditions do we live in for a director to deem such cruel film-making necessary?

2In Ancient Greek theatre, the most violent parts of the plays’ stories took place offstage; for instance, in Euripedes’ Medea, the news of Medea’s purely spiteful murders is recounted by a messenger rather than being directly represented; when she murders her and Jason’s children, the action takes place offstage, witnessed and confirmed by the Chorus. The Greeks’ tendency to avoid representing violence should not be misconstrued as some kind of cultural norm of censorship; in an age of public corporal punishments, staged violence would not have been seen as shocking. Rather, I think that by refusing to display fictionalised murder as a kind of spectacle, Ancient Greek theatre focused on the emotional repercussions of violence, reinforcing the themes of the plays and their broader significance as a means of structuring intersubjective experiences by means of grand narratives.

The story which we generally uncritically accept is something like this: that at some point in the early 19th century Western art was under a state of repression, and nothing sexual could be depicted in art. After the bawdiness and violence of Shakespeare, there were certain cultural conditions which lead to a repression of sex from art, under the threat of censorship. There are certain landmarks which certainly do represent shifts in what could be represented: the illicit publication of Ulysses, the Lady Chatterley trial, etc. I would argue, however, that it is not this incremental widening of the boundaries of what is allowed to be staged and filmed in the West; it is more interesting to think about how these shifts are a product of what is, culturally, deemed ethical as a means of representation. The fact that Noé chooses to show us a complete, uninterrupted rape scene in a film that would be completely coherent were the scene omitted, then, suggests that Noé believes that it is more ethical to represent the full horror of the rape in as much detail as he can get away with, than to leave it to his audience’s imaginations. This is in direct opposition to the codes of Ancient Greek theatre, where the stories preceded representation of evil. It is the central argument of Jean-François Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition (1979) that postmodernism is defined by “incredulity towards metanarratives”: perhaps, then, this is one reason why filmmakers deem it more moral to represent the violence that was once omitted from these Ancient Greek plays. But what we have to ask, indeed, what Noé bullies the audience into asking, is – why do I need to see this? What could I possibly be learning from witnessing a hyperrealistic depiction of a woman being senselessly raped?

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What I took away was this: we live in a culture where forcing oneself to view a depiction of extreme trauma is deemed more ethical than to think about extreme trauma. In Guy Debord’s infamous critical development of Marxist theory, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord picks up on Marx’s claim that “the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident downgrading of being into having” (§17) and finds that commodity fetishism has developed to the point that there has been a second shift, “from having to appearing” (§17), to the point that “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (§1). Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism was a type of social relation which entailed a mythic attachment to commodities (what Marx describes as being borne of a “religious reflex” in Das Kapital, i.e., a mythic simplification). Fetishism of commodities compensates for the abstraction of labour: “the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom”. Essentially, then, commodity fetishism is a collective strategy for understanding the world under the alienated social conditions of capitalism, which is in turn suspect to manipulation by advertisement.

Debord extrapolates that our relationship to commodities has mutated such that this abstraction has become unavoidably spectacular: “It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production” (§6). Debord refers to more than the influx of advertisements, television, film, etc. during the mid-20th century: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (§4). These technologies, like the technologies of computers and cameraphones which would follow, are symptom rather than cause (albeit, a symptom which perpetuates the cause).

I get the impression that Debord’s work often isn’t taken seriously; he shamelessly lacks scholarly rigour, but argues that he was merely articulating premises that have become so socially ingrained that to talk about them critically seems almost too obvious. I’m sure that you, like me, have heard countless people complain about how crowds do not naturally experience big events any more (gigs, firework displays, ceremonies, school plays), but record them on their camera phones. And it’s true: the fact that people do this is absurd. What is going on is more than a fetishisation of consumer products which enable this kind of capturing of images (it’s partly that too), but a very profound shift in the way we collectively experience events. Think about the way these technologies are advertised: this advert for a Nokia Lumia camera phone (below) seems to parody spectacular society to make the Debordian point that this abstraction of experience makes us enjoy things less – and then it uses the parody to sell you exactly what’s being parodied. We accept the dominance of the spectacle, ironically reference it, do nothing to break out from it. That is the extent of the pervasion of our dependence upon images: the development from Debord is that digital technology allows us to assert ownership over our own images (“experiences”) more than ever, and democratises them, dissipating the authority of images.

The Society of the Spectacle is almost fifty years old, yet grows ever more pertinent, the logic of “spectacle” constantly bolstered with its rapid technological modifications. This might seem like a long digression, but I think it is necessary for the context of a film like Irréversible and the reasons for it to depict trauma so graphically, especially to support my contentious claim that the logic of the morality of this kind of extreme film-making is connected to the logic of capitalism. I am using Debord’s work to explore this continual pushing of boundaries, making the point that it is to do with specifically visual taboos: it’s deeper than simply the limits of censorship being pushed and pushed; film gets more visually extreme because we live in a society that is getting increasingly dependent upon the power of the image to shape experience. Noé is necessarily complicit in these conditions; in fact he is using the conditions of a human experience mediated by images to make his moral point.

I have very ambivalent feelings about whether it is justified to depict rape so graphically, or if it might be more moral to fight against this type of reification, to say no, we should not have to be presented with extreme images to comprehend this. I don’t have an answer, instead here are the two sides of the argument.

Firstly: Noé was wrong to show us these things. After I finished the film, I browsed the Tumblr tag for the film, and found several posts with eroticised .gif files of the rape scene, which had gained thousands of notes; one post links to a clip of the scene posted on pornography website xvideos.com, where at the time of writing it has been given a rating of 94.20% positive by 3645 users. To extrapolate rather bluntly: tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people are masturbating over a scene intended by its creators to be the most repugnant thing it could be possible to film, about which Robin Wood writes: “anyone who is ‘turned on’ by the rape scene in Irreversible could only be an advanced psychopath”.

While sadists sexually fetishise images of rape, the viewer who experiences no desire to view such images still experiences viewing these images with a form of fetishisation. The way I have been writing about this scene, emphasising its intense repulsiveness, attests to the way I have attached unto it a type of myth to help construct its meaning. According to the principles of the spectacle and its mythic function, Noé presents us with aestheticised images of a brutal rape which viewers are perversely intended to fetishise as a means of reifying the horror of rape. But perhaps that process of consuming these images is problematic, even “desensitising” (a concept I’m not sure I believe in), at the point where the images become fetishised, even if it is a horrific and perhaps moral experience for the viewer.

It is not just a psychological fetishism of these images, but a commodity fetishism too. It is the logic of capitalism that commodities must continuously claim to offer a more gratifying experience than their antecedents, even though the quality of your camera phone doesn’t improve the quality of your life: this is the logic of fetishism; similarly, certain types of cinema must continually offer something more extreme and more spectacular, even though the quality of cinema does not improve. Irréversible totally plays up to these commodified expectations of extremity, with its violence as well as its cinematic techniques designed to induce nausea (including a low-pitched 28-Hz frequency played throughout the first half an hour of the film, which caused audience members to faint). The film was commodified by the suggestion that it offered something more extreme than films which had come before, i.e., fetishising itself, even for viewers like me who claim to experience no desiring pleasure from the images in this film.

Arguments about the morality of Irréversible tend to focus on its reverse-chronological structure, for instance: “By frontloading the film with protracted violence, Noé structurally extinguishes the spectator’s desire. He does not seem to want to punish the viewer so much as reorient their relationship to screen violence, replacing pleasure with revulsion”. This is true, but this ignores its capacity to be decontextualised in the manner of these gifs and pornographic websites, despite Noé’s best efforts to make the scene as un-pornographic as possible, to unequivocally focus empathy with the victim rather than offer any kind of sexualisation.

BlastedThis is not necessarily an issue of Noé’s film in particular, but any film which depicts sexual violence – is this a problem of form? I will consider a play which shares themes and ideas with IrréversibleBlasted (1995) by Sarah Kane. Its first act is pure realism; the power Ian uses against Cate is a horrific thing to endure, culminating in him raping her. But this scenario is literally blasted apart in a surreal infraction; a distant war (non-specified but usually interpreted as the Bosnian war) explodes into the Leeds hotel room; a soldier begins terrorising Ian, ultimately raping him and gauging out his eyes, leaving him helpless. But whereas Irréversible is a means of making brutality starkly visible, Blasted is a staged version of events Kane viewed on television:

At some point during the first couple of weeks of writing I switched on the television. Srebrenica was under siege. An old woman was looking into the camera, crying. She said, “please, please, somebody help us. Somebody do something.” I knew nobody was going to do a thing. Suddenly, I was completely uninterested in the play I was writing. What I wanted to write about was what I’d just seen on television. So, my dilemma was: Do I abandon my play (even though I’d written one scene I thought was really good) in order to move onto a subject I thought was more pressing? Slowly, it occurred to me that the play I was writing was about this. It was about violence, about rape, and it was about these things happening between people who know each other and ostensibly love each other.*

So Blasted could never be a film; its plot is a means of making extreme televised images more palpable. The experience of it as fiction employs a kind of transient reality that doesn’t obey the fetishisation which is part of the moral fabric of Irréversible, or any other film containing strong sexual violence. It is experience above images (I have never seen a production, so I’m missing that dimension). This impossible formal device of forcing the audience to confront real-world violence entails a different type of encounter with that violence, a different type of shock as a political force. Thinking about Blasted in comparison to Irréversible, whose images become fetishised and decontextualised, it is possible to argue that making plays to depict violence is more moral than making films, might present a more effective political force.

A final criticism of the tactics and structure of Irréversible: It is discomforting to watch the subsequent (chronologically antecedent) scenes knowing how preventable it was for Alex to go through the underpass. The effect of Noé’s reversal of chronological events is that we know what will happen to the characters before we are introduced to them, overhauling the audience’s expectations of where to place blame, whereas a linear narrative might have emphasised the senselessness of the narrative. Alex is a conventionally gorgeous woman dressed very revealingly, taking a shady underpass rather than crossing the street. In the subsequent (i.e. chronologically preceding) scene, she is repeatedly told that it would be dangerous to leave the party alone (below). As Roger Ebert notes: “The party scenes, and the revealing dress, are seen in hindsight as a risk that should not have been taken. Instead of making Alex look sexy and attractive, they make her look vulnerable and in danger. While it is true that a woman should be able to dress as she pleases, it is not always wise”. Perhaps the film’s morals would have been easier to stomach if Alex’s appearance were not connoted with her vulnerability in this way, even if, as Ebert also points out, the reverse chronology means that the film does not present sexual violence as an “exploitative payoff”. This should not be the message you get from the film, but then, there is little to divert the viewer who opines that women who dress revealingly and walk alone through dangerous underpasses are tempting fate, although her rapist clearly targets her reasons other than sexual attraction.

4Secondly: Noé was right to show us these images. Debord would argue that such atrocities are impossible to comprehend otherwise without experience of these images, such is the extent of spectacular logic: if social relations are mediated by images, it takes extreme images to convey extreme violence, rather than simply discussion. Think of rape joke controversies: people who leap to the defence of Family Guy or Daniel Tosh or Cards Against Humanity; the people who argue that anything can be funny or that the people who object to rape jokes are pro-censorship are, obviously, mostly men who do not recognise their privilege, who do not comprehend this violence or the rape culture which enables and sometimes excuses it. Noé claims that the majority of people who objected to or walked out of Irréversible were men, which he attributes to them being unwilling to empathise with a woman who is being raped. To this portion of the audience, a violent visual exposure to the reality of the things they are joking about might be a moral experience, a fight against the normalisation of the word “rape” in conversation and humour.

In Lacanian terms, the scene is as close as possible to a staging of the Real. It does not merely represent trauma; it goes on much longer than would be necessary to merely do that: it simulates trauma (the Real). Noé ensures that the scene goes on for so long that the act of representation is entirely used up; it transgresses into the unsignifyable abyss of the Real. Timothy Nicomendo finds that the film’s haptic techniques, (to simplify wildly: techniques which emphasise the materiality and the physical experience of what is being filmed), work so that: “Noé erases the representational power of the image and privileges its material presence instead”. The rape scene does not, however, use these haptic techniques, as the camera is still and the soundtrack is silent: in fact, the camera’s stillness, its refusal to assert its presence, emphasises its trauma. It refuses the kinds of techniques which might distract us, might remind us of the scopophilic quality of cinema, eliminating the audience’s awareness of its construction as much as possible.

To revisit my point about how these images are fetishised, and to rephrase this in Lacanian terms: Seeing a scene like this which presents such a rupture in our capabilities to process extreme imagery also produces a kind of jouissance, Lacan’s ambivalent concept of a type of unfulfillable pleasure/pain. Noé also suggests that men have a “closeted” fear of rape, and that “maybe the movie brings back those kinds of fears to the male audience” – i.e., that the film forces men to confront the repressed trauma of the Real, something that has been effectively banished from this portion of the audience’s symbolic order, to produce jouissance and trouble that repressed fear. The unsolved question: is that in itself a moral goal? Or is it better to leave trauma as a domain untouched by fictions?

3Irréversible was a unique viewing experience insofar as it is brutally realist at the same time as being deftly experimental. It is perhaps problematic that we are being shown violence with the additional manipulations of his experimental qualities, including the low-pitched noise, the dizzying camera angles, the disorientating flashing imagery. I mention this because sometimes Noé uses formal tricks to elicit a physical response, and this borderline charlatanry might be confused with affective narrative; he uses such devices with more respect to form in his psychedelic DMT trip Enter the Void (2009). On the other hand, the film has been praised for its experimentation in “haptic cinema”, the way it goes to experimental lengths to create a sense of “in-the-body-ness”: that “It is not enough to simply convey the feelings of disorientation and violence as experienced by the characters: there must also be a direct link established between character and spectator for the fullest extent of verisimilitude”. But Noé is wise to present the rape scene with zero distractions; a more physical approach to this scene could only have made the scene’s aims more ambiguous. There is nothing at all pornographic about the violence. In mainstream Hollywood there are highly irresponsible and morally bankrupt rape scenes; for instance, in The Evil Dead (1981) a woman is raped by trees, in a scene where the camera keeps cutting rapidly, voyeuristically zooming in on her body as the branches remove her clothes and slide up her legs. Here, sexual assault is trivialised by being presented as blackly humorous and even titillating, as the woman begins to moan with what sounds like sexual pleasure.

The Irréversible DVD’s ‘film notes’ by Hannah McGill criticises the controversial and ambiguous rape scene in Straw Dogs (1971), in which the victim appears to experience pleasure, on the grounds that “you feel you’re watching light, consensual S&M rather than a violent attack”. The violence and terror of Irréversible is more explicit and relentless, but ultimately much more moral – if rape is to be represented in film at all, it should look something like this. To quote McGill again: “This is a rape scene that makes a mockery of anyone who’s ever opined that women say no when they mean yes, or that skimpy clothes constitute ‘asking for it’. Yes, it’s brutal and punishing beyond belief: but what should it be?”

*  Sarah Kane qtd. in Stephenson, Heidi, and Natasha Langridge (1997). Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting. London: Methuen Drama, p. 130.
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Song of the Day 2013

Those of you who have found my tumblr will know that during 2013, I wrote about a song every day. This is something I did in order to practice writing about music and to get myself into the habit of productivity: having crawled through all 365 entries starting last January, and noticing all the bad habits I’ve slowly grown out of, I feel that I’ve been successful in that endeavour. Among all the chaff, there are some pieces of writing I’m quite proud of in there. I’ve made a catalogue of every entry and I’ve highlighted all the posts of which I’m particularly proud.

Bold font indicates the best writing rather than the best songs – sometimes, when approaching some of my very favourite songs, I found myself lost for words. Sometimes, I found myself able to articulate points about why I’d become disillusioned with a song or band I formerly loved. The bolded entries are usually the ones wherein the song I discuss serves more as a means of exploring an interesting idea about the listening experience; I would like to say that in places, I’ve articulated ideas about the politics and ethics of listening, and have discussed what it is possible to learn from listening to music. The whole thing was a process of working out, largely a self-serving, autodidactic process; still, perhaps you’ll find some interesting thoughts among these entries.

  1. Van Morrison – Madame George
  2. Scott Walker – A Lover Loves
  3. Swans – Volcano
  4. Nelson Riddle / Sue Lyon – Lolita Ya Ya
  5. Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidananda
  6. Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland – The Narcissist
  7. Torres – Honey
  8. Laura Veirs – Spelunking
  9. The Mountain Goats – Going to Georgia
  10. Cat Power - Colors and the Kids
  11. Team Dresch – Fagetarian and Dyke
  12. Death – Crystal Mountain
  13. Luomo – Tessio
  14. The Necks – Rum Jungle
  15. Standard Fare – Philadelphia
  16. Philip Jeck – Pax
  17. Madvillain – Accordion
  18. Björk – An Echo, A Stain
  19. Faraquet – Cut Self Not
  20. !!! – Take Ecstasy with Me (The Magnetic Fields cover)
  21. Sugababes – Overload
  22. Art Ensemble of Chicago – Thème de Yoyo
  23. Egyptrixx – Naples
  24. The Verlaines – Death & The Maiden
  25. The Roots – Lazy Afternoon
  26. Claudio Monteverdi – Zefiro Torna
  27. Evangelista – Hello, Voyager!
  28. James Ferraro – Leather High School
  29. Missy Elliott – Work It
  30. Anamanaguchi – Meow
  31. Charles Manson – Look at Your Game, Girl
  32. Wipers – Youth of America
  33. Colin Stetson – High Above a Grey Green Sea
  34. Linda Perhacs – Moons and Cattails
  35. My Bloody Valentine – wonder 2
  36. Ekkehard Ehlers – Plays John Cassavetes [part 2]
  37. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
  38. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Close Chorus
  39. Paul McCartney – Secret Friend
  40. Grouper – Living Room
  41. Hop Along – Get Disowned
  42. Serafina Steer – Skinny Dipping
  43. Busdriver – Imaginary Places
  44. Meanwhile, Back in Communist Russia… – Morning After Pill
  45. Viktor Vaughn feat. Apani B – Let Me Watch
  46. The Hold Steady – Chips Ahoy
  47. Lisa Germano – …A Psychopath
  48. Avey Tare & Panda Bear – Alvin Row
  49. Siouxsie & The Banshees – Monitor
  50. The Weeknd – House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls
  51. Psychic Reality – OMNI / Omni
  52. Michael Nyman – Orchestrating the City
  53. The Monks – Monk Time
  54. Cannibal Ox – Pigeon
  55. Cass McCombs – County Line
  56. R. Kelly (feat. Kelly Price, Kim Burrell & Maurice Mahon) – 3-Way Phone Call
  57. Kimya Dawson – I Like Giants
  58. Autechre – 1 1 is
  59. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – Patio Song
  60. Das Racist – Ek Shaneesh
  61. Au Pairs – We’re So Cool
  62. Ace of Base – The Sign
  63. Jean Sibelius – III (Symphony No. 5)
  64. Autre Ne Veut feat. Mykki Blanco – Counting
  65. Rhye remixed by Jeff Samuel – Open (Faded Mix)
  66. Deltron 3030 – 3030
  67. Regina Spektor – Chemo Limo
  68. Laura Marling – Where Can I Go?
  69. The Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love
  70. Karen Gwyer – Pikku-Kokki
  71. Girl Band – Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage? (Blawan cover)
  72. “Blue” Gene Tyranny – Next Time Might Be Your Time
  73. J Dilla – Time: The Donut of the Heart
  74. Kilo Kish – Creepwave
  75. Exuma – Exuma, The Obeah Man
  76. Karate – Sever
  77. Isaac Hayes – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic
  78. Fridge – Five Four Child Voice
  79. John Grant – Glacier
  80. Boris – 哀歌
  81. Patti Smith – Birdland
  82. Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Sleep
  83. Ana Tijoux – 1977
  84. Jacques Brel – Le Tango Funèbre
  85. Joseph Hammer & Jason Crumer – Guitar
  86. Jenny Hval – I Called
  87. Mount Kimbie – Made to Stray
  88. Aphex Twin – Ventolin
  89. Squarepusher – Iambic 9 Poetry
  90. Danny Brown – Kush Coma
  91. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – You Are The Apple
  92. Marnie Stern – Prime
  93. Silver Jews – I Remember Me
  94. Eric Dolphy – Hat and Beard
  95. Aretha Franklin – I Say a Little Prayer
  96. Frisk Frugt – Dansktoppenmøder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor pts. 1 & 2
  97. Death – Politicians in My Eyes
  98. clipping. – guns.up
  99. Julia Kent – Tourbillon
  100. Johann Sebastian Bach – Prelude (Cello Suite #1 in G)
  101. The King Khan & BBQ Show – I’ll Be Loving You (live version)
  102. Lil B – I Love You
  103. Human Skab – Drunk and Staggerin’ Around
  104. Harry Pussy – Drop the Bomb
  105. Fugazi – Suggestion
  106. Os Mutantes – Panis et Circenses
  107. Buke & Gase – Houdini Crush
  108. Zs – Hard EP
  109. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams – Get Lucky
  110. The Olivia Tremor Control – Hideaway
  111. Savages – She Will
  112. Blood Sport – Ø
  113. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – So Good at Being in Trouble
  114. X-Ray Spex – Identity
  115. Phosphorescent – Song for Zula
  116. Miguel – Use Me
  117. Emilie Simon – Opium
  118. Hymie’s Basement – 21st Century Pop Song
  119. Oneohtrix Point Never – Sleep Dealer
  120. Chance the Rapper – Good Ass Intro
  121. Pharaohs feat. Maria Minerva – Miraculous Feet
  122. Kurt Schwitters – Ursonate
  123. Francis Bebey – New Track
  124. Heavenly feat. Calvin Johnson – C is the Heavenly Option
  125. Gwyneth Herbert – Sweeter
  126. Dismemberment Plan – The City
  127. Electric Wizard – Funeralopolis
  128. Deafheaven – Dreamhouse
  129. Parquet Courts – Donuts Only
  130. Loscil (feat. Dan Bejar) – The Making of Grief Point
  131. Out Hud – The L Train is a Swell Train and I Don’t Want to Hear You Indies Complain
  132. The Chap – Hands Free
  133. Antonin Dvořák – I (Symphony No. 9)
  134. Fatima Al Qadiri – Oil Well
  135. 椎名林檎 [Ringo Sheena] – 宗教
  136. The Organ – There Is Nothing I Can Do
  137. Plastikman – Plastique
  138. Help She Can’t Swim – Are You Feeling Fashionable
  139. San Fermin – Sonsick
  140. Kanye West – Black Skinhead
  141. Tune-Yards – Fiya
  142. Staff Benda Bilili – Sala Mosala
  143. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Death to Everyone
  144. Pharmakon – Milkweed / It Hangs Heavy
  145. Pixies – Hey
  146. Kiran Leonard – Dear Lincoln
  147. Mara Carlyle – Pearl
  148. Charles Mingus – Better Git It In Your Soul
  149. Tori Amos – Precious Things
  150. Baths – Seaside Town
  151. MC Frontalot (feat. Brad Sucks) – Livin’ at the Corner of Dude & Catastrophe
  152. Mancingelani – Vana Vasesi
  153. Joan of Arc – If All These People Can Understand Money
  154. Bad Brains – Sailin’ On
  155. Micachu – Turn Me Well
  156. Mikal Cronin – Change
  157. Tennis – Marathon
  158. Nero’s Day at Disneyland – Happy Screaming Night Businessman
  159. RP Boo – Invisibu Boogie!
  160. The New Pornographers – Letter from an Occupant
  161. Nas (feat. AZ) – Life’s a Bitch
  162. Wilco – Ashes of American Flags
  163. Allo Darlin’ – The Polaroid Song
  164. Tom Waits – Step Right Up
  165. Bibio – Lovers’ Carvings
  166. Laura Stevenson – Runner
  167. Ty Segall Band – Diddy Wah Diddy
  168. Nina Simone – Strange Fruit
  169. Nat Baldwin – A Little Lost (Arthur Russell cover)
  170. Daniel Johnston – Desperate Man Blues
  171. The The – Perfect
  172. Nana Grizol – Cynicism
  173. Einstürzende Neubauten – Anrufe in Abwesnheit
  174. Kitty Pryde – UNfollowed.
  175. Bright Eyes – A Song to Pass the Time
  176. Castevet – Narrow Hallways
  177. Sigur Rós – Bláþráður
  178. Deerhoof – Fête d’Adieu
  179. Fiona Apple – Paper Bag
  180. Joey Bada$$ (feat. Chance the Rapper) – Wendy N Becky
  181. Omodaka – Otemoyan
  182. James Blake – Give a Man a Rod (2nd version)
  183. Matthew E. White – One of These Days
  184. Wale – The Chicago Falcon – Remix
  185. Emika – Primary Colours
  186. Anna Meredith – Nautilus
  187. Neutral Milk Hotel – King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
  188. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
  189. Mos Def – Mathematics
  190. Speedy Ortiz – Plough
  191. Julia Holter – In the Green Wild
  192. The Fall – Paint Work
  193. Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus – The Rustle of a Long Black Skirt
  194. Pavement – Fillmore Jive
  195. Killer Mike – Reagan
  196. Life Without Buildings – The Leanover
  197. Melt Yourself Down – Fix My Life
  198. James Holden – The Caterpillar’s Intervention
  199. Akufen – Deck the House
  200. Usher – Climax – see also this response from Sinthematica and my reply
  201. Placebo – Slave to the Wage
  202. The Long Blondes – Once and Never Again
  203. Venetian Snares – Dad
  204. Rolo Tomassi – Fofteen
  205. Thelonious Monk – Bemsha Swing
  206. Arthur Russell – Get Around to It
  207. Punch – Feminists, Don’t Have a Cow
  208. Plaids – Seventeen
  209. The Pipettes – It Hurts to See You Dance So Well
  210. Sleater-Kinney – One More Hour
  211. Spiro – Yellow Noise
  212. Pharoah Sanders – The Creator Has a Master Plan
  213. Dead Girlfriends – On Fraternity
  214. Braid – A Dozen Roses
  215. Future Brown (feat. Tink) – Wanna Party
  216. Football Etc. – Safety
  217. Milo (feat. Busdriver) – Red Oleanders
  218. Brian Eno – An Ending (Ascent)
  219. Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
  220. AlunaGeorge – Your Drums, Your Love
  221. Maskull – 2000 AD
  222. Parenthetical Girls – The Weight She Fell Under
  223. Luniz – I Got 5 on It
  224. The Lappetites – Tzungentwist
  225. Fog – Check Fraud
  226. Ka – Our Father
  227. Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance
  228. Aye Nako – Start Talking
  229. The Blow – Pile of Gold
  230. Julianna Barwick – One Half
  231. Clipse – Trill
  232. Amerie – 1 Thing
  233. Cutty Ranks – Limb by Limb
  234. Public Enemy – Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
  235. Richard Hell & the Voidoids – Blank Generation
  236. Earl Sweatshirt – Burgundy
  237. OOIOO – O O I A H
  238. Smog – River Guard
  239. Chelsea Wolfe – The Waves Have Come
  240. Courtney Barnett – Avant Gardener
  241. Violent Femmes – Add It Up
  242. Los Campesinos! – What Death Leaves Behind
  243. Arnold Schoenberg – Piano Piece (Op. 33a)
  244. きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ [Kyary Pamyu Pamyu] – にんじゃりばんばん
  245. Fuck Buttons – Flight of the Feathered Serpent
  246. Merchandise – Totale Nite
  247. Candelilla – 22
  248. BiS階段 [BiSKaidan] – 好き好き大好き
  249. The Knife – A Tooth for an Eye
  250. United Sacred Harp Convention – The Last Words of Copernicus
  251. Gilberto Gil with The Beat Boys – Questão De Ordem
  252. Body/Head – Last Mistress
  253. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  254. Fat Joe (feat. Ja-Rule & Ashanti) – What’s Luv?
  255. Cardiacs – R.E.S.
  256. Jennifer Lopez (feat. Ja-Rule & Caddillac Tah) – Always on Time (Murder Remix)
  257. Arctic Monkeys – Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?
  258. Derek Bailey – Explanation & Thanks
  259. György Ligeti – Sonata for Cello
  260. France Gall – Laisse Tomber les Filles
  261. The Van Pelt – Yamato (Where People Really Die)
  262. Okkyung Lee – Meolly Ganeun
  263. Donna Summer – Could It Be Magic?
  264. Bill Callahan – The Sing
  265. Windhand – Orchard
  266. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Mustt Mustt
  267. Antony & The Johnsons – Hope There’s Someone
  268. Red House Painters – Medicine Bottle
  269. Green Day – Longview
  270. Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gesand der Jünglinge
  271. Perfect Pussy – I
  272. Terry Riley – You’re No Good
  273. Fifth Column – All Women Are Bitches
  274. Nails – Conform
  275. White Lung – Blow It South
  276. The Field – No. No…
  277. Tim Hecker – Amps, Drugs, Harmonium
  278. Cocorosie – Werewolf
  279. Jelly Roll Morton – Black Bottom Stomp
  280. Spiller (feat. Sophie Ellis-Bextor) – Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)
  281. Saul Williams – List of Demands (Reparations)
  282. Scrufizzer – Rap Rave
  283. DJ Sprinkles – The Occasional Feel-Good
  284. Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
  285. Grimes – Oblivion
  286. The Other People Place – Eye Contact
  287. Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music, Part I
  288. Le1f – Psy Lock
  289. Slint – Good Morning Captain
  290. Matana Roberts – Was the Sacred Day
  291. Minutemen – History Lesson Part 2
  292. Big Joan – (They Call Him) Johnny
  293. Blink-182 – I Miss You
  294. Huggy Bear – Herjazz
  295. The Four Tops – Reach Out (I’ll Be There)
  296. Dudley Moore – [untitled Beethoven sonata parody]
  297. Angel Haze – Same Love
  298. Altar of Plagues – Burnt Year
  299. Françoise Hardy – Voilà
  300. EMA – California
  301. A Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It?
  302. DJ Rashad (feat. Spinn) – Show U How
  303. Rustie – Ultra Thizz
  304. The Breeders – Invisible Man
  305. St. Vincent – What Me Worry
  306. Jay-Z (feat. Eminem) – Renegade
  307. Yoko Ono – Mind Train
  308. Liars – It Fit When I Was a Kid
  309. Red Sparowes – Alone and Unaware, the Landscape Was Transformed in Front of Our Eyes
  310. Mclusky – Lightsaber Cocksucking Blues
  311. Swearin’ – Just
  312. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Silverado
  313. New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle
  314. Sufjan Stevens – The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us
  315. The Microphones – The Moon
  316. M.I.A. – Like This
  317. Mapei – Don’t Wait
  318. Death Grips – You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat
  319. Passenger Pigeons – Wafternoon
  320. Sam Amidon – As I Roved Out
  321. Miles Davis – In a Silent Way / It’s About That Time
  322. Kate Bush – Cloudbusting
  323. Prince and the Revolution – Raspberry Beret
  324. Weather Report – Birdland
  325. Melt-Banana – The Hive
  326. Justin Timberlake – Mirrors
  327. Eluvium – Amreik
  328. Blood Orange (feat. Skepta) – High Street
  329. CHVRCHES – Lies
  330. These New Puritans – Attack Music
  331. The Go! Team – Ladyflash
  332. Sleaford Mods – Wage Don’t Fit
  333. Oval (feat. Agustín Albrieu) – Sediment
  334. Veronica Falls – Teenage
  335. Not Right – Balls
  336. They Might Be Giants – Ana Ng
  337. The Frogs – I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)
  338. Black Eyes – A Pack of Wolves
  339. Guided By Voices – Game of Pricks
  340. Le Tigre – Whats Yr Take on Cassavetes
  341. Sonic Youth – The Diamond Sea
  342. Denseland – Scrape It (Up)
  343. Katy Perry – Roar
  344. Funkadelic – Can You Get to That
  345. Kanda Bongo Man – Sai
  346. cLOUDDEAD – Apt. A, Pt. 2
  347. Onsind – Pokémon City Limits
  348. Lizzo (feat. Sophia Eris) – Batches & Cookies
  349. Fool’s Gold – Surprise Hotel
  350. Sky Ferreira – Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)
  351. Beyoncé (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche) – ***Flawless
  352. Joni Mitchell – The Last Time I Saw Richard
  353. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme Part I: Acknowledgement
  354. Vic Chesnutt – Flirted with You All My Life
  355. Lauryn Hill – Doo Wop (That Thing)
  356. The Field Mice – Emma’s House
  357. Philip Glass – Opening
  358. Brandt Brauer Frick – Ocean Drive (Schamane)
  359. The Pogues (feat. Kirsty MacColl) – Fairytale of New York
  360. Radiohead – How to Disappear Completely
  361. The Wave Pictures – Now You Are Pregnant
  362. The Fiery Furnaces – Chris Michaels
  363. Joanna Newsom – Sawdust and Diamonds
  364. Belle & Sebastian – Seeing Other People
  365. Auld Lang Syne
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Surfer Blood & domestic abuse

Pitchfork have reported about the new Surfer Blood album without mentioning their frontman’s recent arrest for domestic abuse. I’ve already expressed that I was worried this would happen.

Lots has already been written about how many commentators/white feminists are much more ready to vilify Chris Brown for his crimes than white celebrities who have also been convicted of domestic abuse, but here’s a) a concrete example of how one publication’s bias works and b) Pitchfork seemingly making a clear decision to erase what they’ve previously written about Surfer Blood – Jenn Pelly at Pitchfork found out about and reported on John Paul Pitts’ arrest (TW) in the first place.

To illustrate how wrongheaded this is, look at the way Pitchfork writes about Chris Brown compared to Surfer Blood: Surfer Blood’s new song is described in the article (by Pitts) as “about someone who is about to go through a manic episode”, which passes without further comment. Compare this piece on a Chris Brown remix from a couple years ago; Pitchfork tells us: “After the whole abusing-Rihanna thing, it’s still hard to hear a Chris Brown song”. And I agree, it is hard – it should be hard. But why isn’t this same problem applied to Surfer Blood? Frequently, there’s an argument here that “art shouldn’t be judged by the actions of its creators”, which gets applied to domestic abusers and reflects social factors more than artistic factors, pardoning the art of the likes of John Lennon, William S Burroughs, and Roman Polanski (and this isn’t a completely polarised race issue; Miles Davis and James Brown both repeatedly committed domestic abuse, but this is now usually overlooked). So it’s not that hating Chris Brown for domestic abuse is racist, but that hegemonic, socially-conditioned racism makes it “easier” to hate Chris Brown than white men accused of the same crimes, and we need to recognise and un-learn that implicit racism.

It should be equally “difficult” to listen to a Surfer Blood song given what Pitts has done, and there’s a clear semantic asymmetry here compared with discussion on Chris Brown – and right now not enough people are talking about why listening to Surfer Blood should be difficult. It’s not that Pitchfork should immediately stop giving a platform for Surfer Blood or that they should start describing Pitts as “actual piece of shit” like they have Chris Brown – it’s that these crimes cannot simply be erased; we need to think about the implications of supporting these musicians and the factors (especially race) which determine our reactions to different cases of domestic abuse.

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Top 50 Albums of 2012

It’s been a great year for music. Every time list season comes round, even some of the most music-culture-immersed music journos seem to want to tell us that it’s been another disappointing year. I’ve been looking back on it and I simply can’t figure out how I spared the time to fall in love with so many records, and there are dozens I feel awful for having left off a top 50… one way I’m dealing with the overspill is by siphoning off my top 10 EPs, all of which are as deserving as a placement as the albums. As ever, there’s heaps of stuff I missed, so drop me a comment and let me know my most howling errors. :)

See also: 50 tracks of 2012.

Top 10 EPs of 2012

1. Burial – Kindred (dubstep, progressive house) [stream]

2. Fatima Al Qadiri – Desert Strike (postmodern video-game influenced bass)
[check out my review of this on Wears The Trousers / stream]

3. TNGHT – TNGHT (trap, wonky) [stream]

4. Angel Haze – Reservation EP (hip-hop – full-length mixtape released as an “EP”) [stream/download free]

5. Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (pop punk, emo, lo-fi) [stream]

6. Solange – True (pop, R&B, chillwave) [key track: Losing You]

7. Kitty Pryde – haha I’m sorry (teenage white girl cloud rap) [stream/download free]

8. Rape Revenge – Paper Cage (powerviolence, feminist hardcore) [stream/download free]

9. Azealia Banks – 1991 (hip-hop) [stream]

10. Kilo Kish – Homeschool (jazzy, laid-back hip-hop) [stream/download free]

Top 50 Albums of 2012

50. Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
(psychedelic jazz) Key track: Stateville
Psych-jazz compositions, usually in weird time signatures, for a brass ensemble and percussionist.

49. Hanne Hukkelberg – Featherbrain
(experimental, found sounds, art pop) Key track: My Devils

48. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
(abstract hip-hop) Key track: Racing Stripes
I’ll admit I’ve no idea what Aesop Rock is going on about on Skelethon half the time, and anyone who tells you they do is lying – but it’s rewarding when I do get to grips with the songs, especially because the stuff he’s rapping about is so unusual. The simpler songs are the most enjoyable, including one about him being an obnoxious kid and not eating his vegetables (‘Grace’), and one about stupid haircuts, featuring a Kimya Dawson cameo (‘Racing Stripes’). But his outlandishly cryptic moments are fascinating too.

47. DJ Rashad – Teklife Volume 1: Welcome to the Chi
(footwork/juke) Key track: CCP

46. Nedry – In A Dim Light
(dubstep, post-rock) Key track: Post Six
[review at No Ripcord]

45. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips
(East coast hip-hop) 
Key track: Steve Wynn
Download this for free here. This is outlandish, sloppy, and offensive, but I couldn’t stop listening to it. I really dig Party Supplies’ sample-heavy production and Action Bronson, chef-turned-rapper, is compulsively replayable.

44. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
(R&B, soul) Key track: Use Me

43. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
(indie-rock, indie-folk) Key track: Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1

42. Rolo Tomassi – Astraea
(post-hardcore, shoegaze, mathcore) Key track: Empiresk
[review in The Mic]

41. THEESatisfaction – awE naturalE
(jazzy hip-hop, soul) Key track: QueenS

40. Loma Prieta – IV
(screamo, post-hardcore) Key track: Fly By Night
The best record this year to listen to on headphones while walking across campus all misanthropic (other than maybe aforementioned Rape Revenge EP)

39. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
(dub techno) Key track: Numb

38. Pelt – Effigy
(acoustic drone) Key track: Wings of Dirt
Thanks to The Liminal’s excellent end-of-year list, where this was #1.

37. Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man In America
(folk) Key track: He Did

36. Tanlines – Mixed Emotions
(indie pop, Afro-pop) Key track: Real Life

35. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
(indie pop) Key track: Capricornia
It was a joy to play a couple of shows with Allo Darlin’ this year, what a fantastic band. Earlier in the year I wrote this article about Elizabeth Morris’ use of intertextuality.

34. Grouper – Violet Replacement Part 2
(ambient, hypnagogic music) Key track: (sample)
This contains one track, and its title is an instruction: ‘Sleep’.

33. White Lung – Sorry
(post-hardcore, punk) Key track: Glue

32. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
(garage rock, punk, noise rock) Key track: Wave Goodbye

31. Farrah Abraham – My Teenage Dream Ended
(outsider pop, brostep) Key track: On My Own
I wrote an article about this album for No Ripcord, reconsidering it as outsider art; in short, I argue that it got such a negative reaction because it was so expressive, and people were expressing it to be more faceless pop.

30. Talk Less, Say More – England Without Rain
(art pop, indie pop) Key track: Sky Over Everything
I reviewed this album for No Ripcord back in March, and felt absolutely honoured to be one of the first people to write about such a brilliant obscure gem, one which I had a feeling would swiftly gain much more recognition. Sadly, that didn’t really happen, but perhaps you derive a similar pleasure from being one of the few people in on excellent undiscovered music, in which case you can still download the record for free.

29. Nude on Sand – Nude on Sand
(freeform folk, improvisation) Key track: Bring It Back
Nude on Sand is a side-project of Jenny Hval’s, who made my favourite record of 2011, Viscera. She takes the improvisational qualities of that record even further here, again pushing the limits of vocal performance, this time accompanied by Håvard Volden on second acoustic guitar. I’d have liked more original material here (she recycles the lyrics of the title track of Viscera not once but twice!), but it’s done with such improvisational gusto that it’s well worth checking out this record too.

28. Grimes – Visions
(synthpop) Key track: Oblivion

27. Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing
(free jazz, soul) Key track: Dream Baby Dream
[review at No Ripcord]

26. Ava Luna – Ice Level
(progressive R&B, soul, post-punk) Key track: Ice Level
A really fun record, reminiscent of the soul-reappropriation of bands like The Make-Up and Dirty Projectors. Ava Luna’s approach is scrappier than either party, which arguably makes them even more endearing. I’m expecting them to break out and create something even more satisfying soonish, their time is ripe.

25. Hildur Guðnadóttir – Leyfðu Ljósinu
(experimental, drone, minimalism) Key track: (n/a, here’s a live video)
A long drone composition for cello, vocals, and electronics, performed live, entirely by Guðnadóttir. It occupies a liminal, wordless space, shifting imperceptibly. The way it develops is understated but highly dramatic – I didn’t get it at first, but stick with it, it’s much more than the hazy ambience it initially appears to be.

24. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon/Ocean Roar
(atmospheric post-rock, drone, indie-folk) Key track: Through the Trees Pt. 2 / Pale Lights

23. Holly Herndon – Movement
(experimental electronic, tech house) Key track: Movement
Along with a couple of records further along this list, (Julia Holter and Laurel Halo), Movement is evidence of experimental electronic artists playing with themes of alienation and increasing technological integration, by emphasising tensions between digital electronic music and the human voice. Similar ideas date back to Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson, but in my opinion there’s a growing level of sophistication in “cyborg” music, dealt with most experimentally by Holly Herndon.

22. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
(progressive R&B, soul, ambient pop) Key track: & It Was U
I listened to this recently on a sunny winter day, watching lots of birds skating over the frozen lake as the sun glared off it. OK, maybe whatever I’d been listening to would have sounded amazing, but I really felt like Total Loss began to click into place at that moment. I didn’t expect to like this for some reason but it really is wonderful.

21. Soap&Skin – Narrow
(experimental, electronic, art pop) Key track: Wonder
A very brief album nonetheless full of wide-ranging ideas and experiments, from quiet piano ballads to industrial freakouts.

20. Waxahatchee – American Weekend
(sadcore, lo-fi, indie-folk) Key track: Bathtub
Imagine early Mountain Goats but with intense melancholy rather than intricate storytelling or rousing motivationals. Katie Crutchfield delivers as many potent one-liners as The Mountain Goats, and her record is purposefully difficult to listen to in one go without sobbing fitfully.

19. Cat Power – Sun
(art pop, electronic) Key track: Cherokee

18. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
(electronic, art pop, ambient pop) Key track: Moni, Mon Amie

17. Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt
(folk) Key track: Night Faces
I’m completely entranced by this. Perhaps because I only just discovered it, in amidst lots of internet-age boundary pushing music – this album could have come out over 40 years ago, easily. Pratt’s sense of melody is what makes this; it just sounds so lovely, so comforting, that it took me over 5 listens to begin to pay attention to the lyrics (very understated, but not without their idiosyncratic charms).

16. Death Grips – The Money Store
(punk, hip-hop, industrial) Key track: Hacker

15. Frank Ocean – ChannelORANGE
(progressive RnB, soul) Key track: Bad Religion

14. Panopticon – Kentucky
(anarchist black metal, bluegrass) Key track: Bodies Under the Falls
Yep, black metal and bluegrass. It completely transcends any gimmickry the concept might suggests. It’s a fascinating work of American pastoral music, in the tradition of pro-union protest music. Some of the money Austin Lunn made from the record was donated to the organisation Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a working-class, anti-capitalist, anti-discrimination community organisation, which it helps to see as the political centre of Lunn’s album.

13. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
(indie rock, post-punk, emo) Key track: Younger Us

12. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory 
(emo, post-hardcore, indie rock) Key track: Stay Useless

11. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
(emotional art pop) Key track: Every Single Night

10. Sharon van Etten – Tramp
(indie rock) Key track: Leonard

9. Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus – Didymoi Dreams
(avant-garde, vocal improvisation) Key track: The Rustle of a Long Black Skirt
I love how alien this record sounds, an effect created mostly by Sidsel Endresen’s otherworldly vocal improvisation. She does things with her voice I didn’t think possible, singing in a semi-improvised language – I’d compare it to Sigur Rós’ “Hopelandic”, but it’s characterised by wild leaps in tones, often sounding more like sputtering and gurgling, sometimes even inhuman, rather than language. She plays off Stian Westerhus’ guitar parts brilliantly. Both performers really stretch the boundaries of what they can do, Endresen’s vocals and Westerhus’ guitar and array of pedals, but it’s never gratuitous experimentation; rather, both musicians want to carve emotional niches you’ve never really experienced in music before. There’s an intentional awkwardness, a sense of anxiety pervading the record that might well make it maddening to listen to at times, but often thrilling and beautiful. The most unique thing I heard this year.

8. Swearin’ – Swearin’
(pop punk, indie rock, emo) Key track: Just
This is quite simply a solid pop punk release, that only came out on a tiny label otherwise it would have been all over the place. The songs are so catchy, so full of excellent lyrics, and they will make you feel teenage again in the best possible way. I think this is the record I’ll listen to again in ten years and remember vividly the house I’m living in and the stuff I went through in 2012. The songs are simple, but not that simple, and they mean a lot to me. Download it (donations encouraged) here.

7. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
(Southern hip-hop, conscious hip-hop) Key track: Reagan
[from No Ripcord's top 50 albums of 2012]: “The merging of El-P’s futuristic production with Killer Mike’s hardcore Southern-rap delivery is an original and potentially important moment in underground hip-hop. El-P released his (also great) solo record Cancer 4 Cure simultaneously, and whereas El-P’s lyrics are oblique and disorientating, Mike boasts the virtue of directness. His pummelling delivery is incisive at every turn – especially when he gets fiercely political, such as his scathing attack on 80s conservatism on ‘Reagan’, and the inequality of inner-city America on ‘Anywhere But Here’. Cerebral hip-hop records generally tend to obfuscate and require a lot of work from the listener, but Killer Mike manages to be intellectual with a visceral bluntness – and he closes his record with a convincing affirmation of the spiritual and social potential of rap.”

6. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
(indie-pop, chamber pop) Key track: Unto Caesar
[review at No Ripcord]

5. Hop Along – Get Disowned
(emo, indie-rock, experimental) Key track: Tibetan Pop Stars
The first thing that sticks out about Hop Along is Frances Quinlan’s voice – I could listen to her all day; the way she leaps around, delivers choice phrases with fascinating unconventionality, and is so purely emotive at every turn. But her songwriting totally justifies her vocal acrobatics: at first, her lyrics seem random, disorientating, they still look daft typed out – and yeah, they’re largely stream-of-consciousness, but there’s a strong emotional undercurrent to the imagery and vocabulary of every song. Most charming is ‘Kids on the Boardwalk’, as Quinlan reminisces about preteen crushes and cartoonish sexual awakenings – before making a left turn, ending up with “I want truth and beauty / I want to love something simply”, the most direct her lyrics get. And that’s exactly how your brain comes up with these profound aphorisms, the links aren’t all that clear. It’s refreshing to hear a songwriter internalising the actual thought processes of emotional revelations and reconciling them with songwriting constructedness, especially in such a personal way.
And even though she emulates stream-of-consciousness, it’s very relistenable, mostly because there’s so much variety on the record. Like Joan of Arc, Hop Along reject conventional song structures, and are interested in rock songs that mirror nonlinear mental logic; while for Hop Along this is mostly reflected in Quinlan’s vocal melodies (their greatest strength), there’s a lot of instrumental innovation too – I particularly love the stop-start string arrangements of ‘No Good Al Joad’, and the hoe-down ‘Sally II’; and they perhaps make the more conventional rock songs even more satisfying: ‘Tibetan Pop Stars’, ‘Young and Happy’, and the stunning closer ‘Get Disowned’ are simply brilliant emo songs.
Hop Along make me nostalgic and sad and then elated and confused. They’re wonderful.

4. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
(postmodern, avant-garde, standup comedy?, experimental opera?!) Key track: Epizootics!
I’m currently writing something rather lengthy about this album. My attraction to it stems from the ways in which Walker subverts listener response, merges high and low art, goes out on a limb with various instrumental effects. It’s an excellent example of postmodern art in that it disruptively juxtaposes things like ancient myths and fart jokes, an unnecessarily wide vocabulary and puerile insults, clinical scientific study and artistic audacity. I think most reviewers found it difficult to express what they enjoyed about it beyond its pure weirdness (but effective weirdness!), but I think there are some more interesting questions going on in the record, for sure.

3. Swans – The Seer
(drone, art-rock, almost everything else) Key track: Mother of the World
[from Impact's top 10 albums of 2012]: “Since the early 80s, Swans have been a fiercely autonomous entity in rock music, their brutal minimalism exemplifying form mirroring content, music as violence. Although their approach has grown steadily more sophisticated and surprising, their prerogative has always been the physical, rather than intellectual, power of music – and their latest album, The Seer, pushes further, as a sense of utopianism emerges from their grooves and drones.

The Seer is touted as the culmination of Swans’ career, their gestalt. Delving through their back catalogue and tracing their aesthetic development is fascinating in itself, but The Seer looms above this long series of formative experiments, a focal point in a dense web of musical genres. But all form and structure is carved back, leaving only the sonic forces that blast you right in the solar plexus. There is an intentional overspill, pushing the boundaries of the recording studio. And this time round, implicit in that disorientating heaviness, is the theme of transcendence. Face up to the two-hour challenge it presents and you’ll see that every second pulls you towards Swans’ ultimate goal: “ecstasy”.”

2. Laurel Halo – Quarantine
(artsy experimental electronic) Key track: Thaw
[review in The Mic]: “Nobody has ever made an album like Quarantine before. Laurel Halo approaches sound like a sculptor, labouring over every angle, as if the entire song is one nonlinear moment, until it hangs, one suspended entity, a fusion of human and digital. There are almost no beats or percussion on the record because it is so ambivalent, so cerebral; it’s a far cry from dance music, in spite of her previous work’s hazy reimaginings of IDM and techno. The purpose is to create and sustain a very specific and abstract mental (cyber)space, to carve it out, to invite the listener to align themself with the tangent Halo is exploring.

Similarly to James Blake’s self-titled debut, she organises sounds around her prominent vocal lines, but unlike Blake, she leaves her voice raw and exposed, fully baring every flaw and nuance. On ‘Years’ it is painfully direct: “You’re mad cause I will not leave you alone” – but what a bizarre, deliberately uncatchy melody. The piercing effects on ‘Carcass’ twist the knife deeper. Yet closer ‘Light & Space’ is immaculately produced, spine-tinglingly gorgeous.

The record is full of contradictions: it’s spacious and impressionistic at the same time as being tense and claustrophobic. It’s lush and dreamlike but haunting, wilfully discomforting. It calls to mind at once sci-fi and sentimentality. It’s straight from the bottom of uncanny valley. But it’s so unprecedented that I’m no closer to adequately describing it. Suffice to say Quarantine is fascinatingly daring, and it will do things that music has never done for you before.”

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
(West coast hip-hop loose concept album) Key track: The Art of Peer Pressure
[from No Ripcord's top 50 albums of 2012]: “The sheer scope of good kid, m.A.A.d city indicates that Kendrick Lamar has set out, on his debut album, to create a classic hip-hop record – and has instantly succeeded. His self-critical analysis of everything about growing up on the streets of Compton covers so many themes it’s impossible to summarise; there’s such a vast range of production styles, registers, and social commentaries that the fact that Lamar’s overall narrative holds it together is nothing short of masterful. He deals with alcoholism (‘Swimming Pools’), racial profiling (‘good kid’), gang violence (‘m.A.A.d city’), and ultimately salvation (‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’) – with time to spare to simply show off his flow (‘Backseat Freestyle’). This is music at its most immersive, confessional, and emotionally complex.”

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50 Tracks of 2012

I made this list because it’s an accessible way to listen to some (hopefully) outstanding music from this year, it’s a good outlet for my compulsion to share the music I listen to. I was part of a short-lived radio show in September/October which got unfairly cancelled, and I really enjoyed my friends’ interaction and responses to the stuff I played. So if you’re a friend or internet follower of mine whom I indirectly pointed towards this list, let me know your favourites/what’s missing; that’s partly why I made it.

The idea of listing favourite songs still seems silly and it’s hard to say how I approached it, but it started as my contribution to No Ripcord’s top 40 tracks of 2012. I mostly picked tracks that I have been listening to on repeat, or at least the first tracks I go to on my mp3 player – so usually the catchiest tracks, but sometimes the most emotionally rewarding singular moments.

But songs that I listen to on repeat might not represent the “best”, so for that reason I want to point towards what I think is the best track I’ve heard this year, one I don’t listen to on repeat for obvious reasons, ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ by Angel Haze. It speaks for itself. (trigger warning: rape)

Here are 50 of my favourites, vaguely ordered favourites first, plus my favourite thing about each one. I had to talk myself out of just writing “EVERYTHING” for many of these songs, especially at the top.

YOUTUBE PLAYLIST / SPOTIFY PLAYLIST (incomplete)

Usher – Climax: the way it just veers off the tracks for that chorus, and it just hangs

Death Grips – Hacker: the fact that it is just a list of absurd non-sequiturs from a band that gets very over-intellectualised

Solange – Losing You: the pure nostalgia created by those crowd noise samples

Soap&Skin – Vater: just the range of what she does in only five minutes

R. Kelly – Share My Love: “populate! yeah!”

Neneh Cherry & The Thing – Dream Baby Dream: Cherry’s yearning delivery

Allo Darlin – Tallulah: “i’m wondering if i’ve already heard all the songs that’ll mean something / and i’m wondering if i’ve already met all the people that’ll mean something”

Panopticon – Bodies Under the Falls: the out-of-tune recorders (?)

AlunaGeorge – Your Drums, Your Love: that astonishingly addictive chorus

Mount Eerie – Through the Trees pt. 2: “mountains and websites”

Kendrick Lamar – Backseat Freestyle: the fact that in the context of the record, this song is wryly ironic, but it’s his most impressive flow on the album

Mystikal – Hit Me: his impression of white people makes me laugh every time

BBU – Outlaw Culture: “young queer kids that never fit in your scene”

Dirty Projectors – Gun Has No Trigger: the chord structure

Swearin’ – Just: that chorus

Hop Along – Young and Happy: Frances Quinlan’s voice

Pinback – Proceed to Memory: those “whoa-oa-oah”s

Autre ne Veut ft Mykki Blanco – Counting: the arpeggios in the verse melody

Fiona Apple – Every Single Night: the expressiveness of her voice

Frank Ocean – Bad Religion: the desperation when he sings “taxi driver / you’re my shrink for the hour”

Killer Mike – Reagan: the beat just after “i’m glad Reagan’s dead”

Lil B – California Boy: Lil B is the human being who makes me most happy

James Blackshaw – And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways: the wandering piano melody

Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together: her hilarious sarcasm

Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built: “and if they try to slow you down / tell them all to go to hell”

Laurel Halo – Light & Space: “words are just words that you’ll soon forget”

Perfume Genius – All Waters: his intensely emotional angle on gay rights

Angel Haze – New York: the Gil Scott-Heron sample

Sharon van Etten – Leonard: the ways she delivers “he loves you”, “he loved you”, “i loved you”, before going into each chorus

The Mountain Goats – Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1: “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive”

Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days: the escalation of the line “i thought i would be more than this” towards the end

Earl Sweatshirt – Chum: everything about Earl’s newfound maturity

Screaming Maldini – Summer, Somewhere: now that is how you write a song in 7

Mirrorring – Silent from Above: the production is simply perfect

Major Lazer ft Amber Coffman – Get Free: Coffman’s vocals

Leda – Halfway: the string arrangements

Cat Power – Cherokee: that one moment when the beat drops and there’s that screeching noise

Kitty Pryde – Okay Cupid: in many ways she’s so un-hip-hop and she doesn’t even care

El-P – The Full Retard: that hook

TNGHT – Bugg’n: the sheer audacity of their samples

The Tallest Man on Earth – 1904: this is so much fun to play on guitar

Blawan – Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?: just how dark he’s made that Fugees sample

Future of the Left – Robocop 4: Fuck Off Robocop: “art?! hahaha! where you from? where you been?”

Passion Pit – I’ll Be Alright: the hyperactivity of those quickfire edits

M.I.A. – Bad Girls: that hook

Grimes – Oblivion: the chromatic vocodery line that enters halfway through

DJ Rashad – CCP: the delirium of that sample

Julia Holter – Moni, Mon Amie: “i feel so ordinary / when you go out with your friends / and your passion’s transparent”

Ty Segall – You’re the Doctor: Segall’s boundless energy, especially on that Letterman performance

Deerhoof – Fete D’Adieu: that guitar tone

thanks for reading!

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“I hope you will drop the diamond in a groove and let it ride awhile” – Lee Ranaldo’s From Here To Infinity as an exemplary physical album

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An interesting phenomenon amid the debate about declining music sales in the internet age is that as sales of CDs are nosediving, vinyl sales are steadily rising. I myself have had a record player since Christmas, and I’ve been trying to work out just what it is about a format which is generally more expensive and volatile that has somehow developed an allure.

Maybe at some point I got so accustomed to CDs that I started romanticising vinyl. There are all sorts of silly reasons which sound sillier written down – the artwork is so big, it has lovely crackles and pops, borrowed nostalgia, etc. – but one of the most fascinating elements of it is the physical processes involved. The actual mechanics of needles and grooves is more of a mystery to me than CDs. Bizarrely, it makes more sense that lasers and zeros and ones can produce music; perhaps it is a generational thing but digital processes seem to me paradoxically more intuitive. I can’t get over the way vinyl is basically a tiny needle getting very precisely jiggled around such that it produces sounds theoretically more dense and nuanced than the mp3 format currently allows – it’s mind-boggling, and there’s always a little of that sense of wonder that will never fade.

I find that the more primitive technology is more magical than its successor. I guess back when CDs started taking over, those who held this opinion must have seemed like luddites, so it’s interesting that I have this restored bond with it, as I barely have any memory of my parents playing records when I was little, other than maybe my mum’s Chaka Khan and Eurythmics. But there’s a further element to this physicality: I find the pure ritual itself deeply satisfying; the midway flip is not an inconvenience but a mechanism encouraging a re-engagement with the album, physically and mentally. I identify with the small minority who prefer using fountain pens, rolling their own cigarettes, using tea leaves, still own a typewriter, and abstain from buying Kindles, simply because it forces a deeper personal connection with the process itself and the outcome thereof. The thoroughly pragmatic technological progress encouraged by capitalism marginalises this romanticism – and that makes it all the more romantic. What society has come to see as inconvenience is for some a tiny refuge against a larger structure – it sounds pretentious to suggest that playing vinyl rather than mp3s is a political gesture, but I think there’s at least a grain of truth in the idea that deliberate technological regression is a means of distancing oneself from capitalism.

A more common debate that follows similar lines applies to the process of creating music, as there is a lot of backlash against musicians relying too heavily on studio tricks. Auto-tune in particular is subject of a great deal of criticism, because it is perceived as eliminating the need for musical talent. I can think of a few examples of the device being used tastefully (Bon Iver, and one moment on Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon), and I’d welcome any music which explored the possibilities of Auto-tune rather than using it as a crutch. Within this backlash I think there’s also an extent to which people are expressing a romanticised preference for imperfection, for rough surfaces rather than gloss, and I think that’s one reason many people are reverting to vinyl.

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Even though Lee Ranaldo created From Here To Infinity long before vinyl was being phased out, the record’s concept seems to me to be a challenge to the developing pragmatics of the listening experience. The album was made before I was born, recorded between 1983-6 and released in 1987, (the same year as Sonic Youth’s Sister), and it was one of the first vinyl records I bought, secondhand on eBay. I bought it because my attraction to vinyl is partly enhanced by how many mastering and pressing tricks the format enables which are unachievable on CDs, and From Here To Infinity crams in as many of these tricks as possible.

The most notable feature is that every single track ends in a locked groove. The tracks spiral for the runtime stated on the back, before hitting one circular groove, so after each composition finishes, the needle replays another 1.33 seconds of sound over and over until the listener chooses to lift the needle and move it to the next track. Other notable locked grooves include the end of ‘A Day in the Life’ on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (often cited as the first locked groove containing music), and the second side of Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s F#A#∞ (hence the infinity symbol in the album’s title); however, From Here To Infinity is certainly the first LP to give each track a locked groove, perhaps the first to introduce one midway through an album.

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It’s also unusual because it’s on clear vinyl, which makes the grooves themselves visually stand out even more. It contains an etching on the second side, of an ouroboros (a snake eating its own tail), similar to the one on the cover. The etching is even given its own track title, ‘Sav X’, with a runtime of infinity, but attempting to run the needle through it would damage both your record player and the vinyl. (George Ingram recently pioneered the first ever playable etching, on the Record Store Day release of Jack White’s song ‘Sixteen Saltines’).

There’s another easter egg too: the etched inscriptions in the runout grooves. While nearly every record has a few digits in the runout grooves that indicate a serial number for the mastering process, this record has extra inscriptions added by Ranaldo: Side A reads “FUCK THE FUTURE; Side B reads “ELECTRICITY COMES FROM OTHER PLANETS”. The text is very small and only visible in a certain light. Both sides carry a second inscription, reading “A PORKY PRIME CUT”, but this isn’t unique to From Here To Infinity. George “Porky” Peckham, one of the most prolific and skilful record cutters in in the business, engineered the vinyl, and left his insignia the grooves of thousands of records.

It seems to me that Ranaldo was anticipating the technological advances that would revolutionise the listening experience, and realising that vinyl was on its way out, strove to create something that would be recognised as a celebration of the format, and perhaps he was rather hoping the record would gain retrospective intrigue as vinyl began to disappear from shelves. There is no satisfactory equivalent on either CDs or digital formats for any of the features which make this album so intriguing, which is why it surprises me that the album was rereleased on CD format, in a heavily modified form.

I actually find it hard to imagine enjoying the album on any other format. It’s comprised of “some, er, ‘found’ noises, sundry electronic sounds, Lee and his guitar”, according to the press release included in my copy. It’s a noise record, with no real melodies or structures at all; a briefer and less brutal offspring of Metal Machine Music. But whereas Metal Machine Music was initially perceived as completely anarchist and formless, just pure sheets off feedback, it isn’t – it was produced very meticulously, albeit intentionally disorientatingly. And I have to admit that Ranaldo’s take on noise isn’t as sophisticated as most of its pioneers or contemporary innovators. I love Sonic Youth and think that Ranaldo wrote some of their best, most underrated songs (‘Skip Tracer’, ‘Hey Joni’, ‘Karen Revisited’…) but he doesn’t excel at this type of music. Compared to noise deconstructionists like Kazumoto Endo and John Wiese, or soundscapers like Yellow Swans and Zs, in my opinion, Ranaldo’s textures are comparatively thinner and thus never quite achieve either technical fascination or moody immersion. I find myself waiting for each track’s most intriguing and unique part, the locked groove.

I listen to lots of secondhand vinyl, and I borrow records from a largely-neglected collection at my university’s CD Library, which have been sitting on dusty shelves for over twenty years. I often encounter unintentional locked grooves formed by dust and grime. It can be annoying, and you have to get up and nudge the needle to fix it, but I often find myself enjoying the new soundscape which these skips open up; each groove has a new, stilted rhythm to it, and lyrics become decontextualised syllables that no longer sound like words – there’s often a beauty in the unintentional snippets of language.

Ranaldo really gets to grips with these moments where you try and wrap your head around these looping fragments. Whereas usually the rhythm and tempo of a piece of music has no relation to the shape and size of the vinyl, when the locked grooves click into place, there’s a palpable synthesis between the physical movement of the record and the undulations of the music on the groove. Sometimes the locked grooves depart totally from the noises which precede them; sometimes they’re quieter than the track preceding it (‘Fuzz/Locusts’) and sometimes they burst in louder (‘To Mary’). Sometimes the final grooves are continuations of the track, for instance on ‘Destruction Site’ each channel plays a separate, desynchronised whirr of fricative guitar noise over a billowing cloud of bass tones, culminating in a locked groove which takes a snapshot of that chaos and begins to give it rhythm – in a stumbling, decentred fashion, the right plays a triplet while the left has two uneven peaks – and beneath that, gravelly spikes of white noise. Whereas the rest of the track seems devoid of tonality, looping the final groove results in melodic chimeras, appearing only when you focus in on them, almost like the melodic patterns of speech which we only subconsciously register; and indeed, two other locked grooves on the album consist of spoken samples which work in this way.

There is no speech on the record other than on these locked grooves: both tracks finish by snapping from guitar noise straight into contrastingly candid, stark voices. ‘Ourobouros’ is full of grating swells of feedback, threatening to burst into something painfully harsh, but it lasts only 48 seconds and ends with a mid-sentence fragment of a man (who sounds nothing like Lee Ranaldo) saying something indistinct, with just a faint swell of feedback in the right channel. The listener is invited to piece together what the speaker might be saying – I get as far as “they were more interested in”, but there are further half-syllables I can’t decipher, and he could be referring to just about anything. It’s a very ordinary, plainly-spoken fragment, but the more one dwells in this suspended moment, the more remarkable it sounds – the more you notice its lilting melody, the more you begin to guess what the speaker might be talking about. Closing track ‘The Open End’ features an even vaguer sample: one male voice seems to say “I’d quite like to” while another quieter voice in the background says something even less clear, and the swell of abrasive noise in the middle of the loop creates further obscurity.

The effect of these spoken grooves reminds me of Steve Reich’s piece Different Trains, in which he used fragments of interviews about train lines during World War 2. The piece is scored for a string quartet and tapes, as the strings imitate a moving train which is sometimes sampled, and interview fragments are introduced one by one, while one instrument mimics the mellifluous patterns in the speakers’ voices. It’s an incredible, absorbing piece of music, and I know people who have told me it opened their ears to the surprising musicality of our speech. Reich’s piece is much more developed and intriguing, of course, but Ranaldo exhibits a similar fascination with speech, and allows the listener to do all the work. It’s a very impressionistic technique, as Ranaldo emphasises in his brief quote on the back of the sleeve: “I hope you will drop the diamond in a groove and let it ride awhile”. It’s up to the listener how long s/he lets the locked groove run, and it’s up to them how deeply they engage with the sonic possibilities it opens up. To some the noise grooves will just evoke chatter or repetitive machinery, but some may latch on to a weird beauty in the minutiae of what would otherwise sound formless.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of how this record works physically is that over time, the sonic properties of the grooves shift. Because each of the locked grooves is under particular strain, being trodden over so many times by the needle, the plastic must gradually wear down, the peaks slowly get ironed out. Sometimes when I hear the locked grooves of my secondhand copy, I wonder if they’re quieter or fuzzier as a result of how far the previous owner wore each groove down. ‘Hard Left’ is the most percussive track on the album (I assume it uses a stompbox), but it lasts a mere 18 seconds, and its locked groove sounds as if the noise has worn away. It reminds me of the final stages of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, where the melodies have eroded completely, leaving decaying outlines of where the sounds once were. I thought perhaps the previous owner had left the final track of side A playing so long, that this was all that was left. Listening to the CD copy proved that this effect was in fact intentional – I was almost disappointed.

On ‘Florida Flower’ the locked groove sounds like an engine revving up, but it’s marred somewhat by a scratchy noise which could either be an intentional part of the recording or simply muck in the groove. In fact, sometimes I lifted the needle as I began to worry I could hear my record slowly getting increasingly damaged (the CD clarifies that this too was intentional). Either way, it forms part of the track, and it’s still possible that I’m beginning to hear rhythms in something that wasn’t even consciously crafted, which is as close a connection with a physical format as you can get!

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Listening to the re-released (and completely altered) CD version of the record was a strange experience. Because a lot of the sounds on the record were created only when the vinyl was cut, there exists no recording, and Ranaldo had to record some of the sounds on his record again, direct from the vinyl. In doing so, he reworked much of the material and altered the locked grooves, which are mostly represented by minute-long loops at the end, ending with a fade-out. These prescriptive versions of the locked grooves remove some of my enjoyment of them. Although the focal moment is still preserved, it doesn’t have any of the sense of decay, or the idea of the listener’s input into the musical process. The new loop at the end of ‘Time Stands Still’ is much longer than a spin of a vinyl record; it lasts about 3 seconds. There is no physical root to the looping, and I find it much less interesting because of that. A crescendo is added to the ‘Hard Left’ loop, which detracts from the sense that it is zooming in on one piece of sound, instead making it part of an arc. But also, he completely altered some of my favourite locked grooves, for instance ‘Ouroboron’ uses a different vocal sample and obscures your brain’s attempts to latch onto the syllables with feedback. However, since the CD is out of print, I streamed this version online, potentially missing out on any physical elements of the CD’s packaging.

There are lots of other possible vinyl tricks which aren’t explored on From Here To Infinity that are worth mentioning too. It’s possible to have vinyl in any shape that fits in a 12” circle and has a circular space for the grooves, and you can also make them in various colours, patterns, even picture discs. One of the best examples I’ve seen is the Flight of the Wounded Locust single series by The Locust, which consists of four multicoloured puzzle pieces which fit together to make a square. There are even more possibilities in the grooves themselves: The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (also mastered by “Porky” Peckham) was regarded as the first “three-sided” record in the world, because one side has two parallel grooves containing completely different tracks. When you drop the stylus it’s impossible to tell which track you hit, which is said to have caused confusion. And on the most recent Record Store Day, Jack White (whose Third Man Records seems as much a record label as a workshop for vinyl gimmickry) released the first marketed “liquid vinyl”, a transparent record containing a bright blue liquid which flows around inside. (White’s efforts were preceded by the soundtrack to Disney film The Black Hole, which was filled with multicoloured oils, but was ultimately recalled due to leakage!) A more extensive list of unusual vinyl features can be found on Wikipedia.

There are one or two gimmicks exclusive to CDs, but they tend to be irritating rather than engaging. The most annoying thing about listening to CDs is when there’s a secret hidden track twenty minutes after the album ends – usually it’s either an aimlessly experimental/instrumental effort or a tossed-off one-take song with studio banter, and either way they do nothing but display the artist’s vanity. It’s also possible to insert a “track zero” which requires you to rewind as soon as you play the CD, which might be a nice way to hide easter eggs, but it doesn’t work on all players. Other than that, you used to get a lot of “enhanced CD ROM” albums, which were always hit and miss (my David Bowie CDs used to crash my computer); I guess these are redundant now we have broadband. However, although I’m not a fan of these gimmicks, it’s true that there are more possibilities in CD packaging: whereas vinyl only really has sleeve and gatefold, CD digipacks are very versatile, and booklet inserts can be really nice, even if they always seem too small. The most creative CD I own is Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero; it has a gorgeous gatefold digipack and the actual CD label is made of heat-sensitive material. It gets lighter the hotter it is, so before you play it, it’s dark, and when you play it, it gets warm and turns white, revealing a secret code in binary. The code translates to a website involved in the album’s accompanying ARG (Alternate Reality Game), an amazingly expansive series of clues and codes so complex that the game is still in progress, five years later. While it doesn’t have a physical link to the music on the record, and has sometimes been dismissed as a marketing ploy, I think that developing the album beyond the music it contains can be a tasteful way of encouraging a further immersion in the artwork. It particularly works with the dystopian concept of Year Zero, but I suppose it’s rare that such an extension of an album seems justified – and something similar can be said of the physical properties used on From Here To Infinity; its physical qualities would not be charming if they were frequently replicated elsewhere.

Generally, the potential bonuses of CDs highlight how awkward the format is, how their physicality can be a hindrance rather than an attraction. When they get scratched and begin to skip, they produce really irritating noises rather than the odd skipped or locked groove. And on the other hand, they can last for eighty minutes without any physical engagement, which is longer than one’s attention span and long enough to remove any physical engagement with the album at all. I still buy a lot of CDs because they’re often cheaper than downloading and almost always cheaper than vinyl, and I personally prefer having something with physical artwork to a download, but it makes sense that so many people are rejecting the format.

We are socially conditioned to welcome any technological advance that is more pragmatic, and requires less of an input from the user. But I believe that this attitude gives us less room to be surprised; if pragmatic technology facilitates any form of sensual, and especially artistic experience, it becomes less introspective, it can physically pass us by. In allowing the listener physical control over the format, and therefore the artistic experience, Ranaldo is encouraging an affinity not just with his record, but because of his emphasis on the properties of vinyl as a medium, the general physical processes of listening to music.

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Allo Darlin’ and intertextual music

Allo Darlin'

One of my favourite moments on Allo Darlin’s self-titled debut album is where they depart from being Allo Darlin’ mid-song:

“Underneath the stars on the ferris wheel
You swung your feet and sang your favourite Weezer song
So I sang along…

At which point a chorus of people literally break into the melody of Weezer’s classic ‘El Scorcho’, with all the rousing energy the song inspires:

“I’m a lot like you so please
Hello, I’m here, I’m waiting
I think I’d be good for you
And you could be good for me!”

And when Elizabeth Morris launches back into her own chorus, she has invoked Rivers Cuomo’s capacity for anthemic emo empowerment; it brings the song to another level. Perhaps they chose ‘El Scorcho’ just because it fitted nicely with the chords, aside from it being easily one of the best rock songs ever made – or perhaps there’s something more. Weezer are associated with a more masculine, teenage form of emotional anguish – Pinkerton is a classic, if sometimes accused of ignorant misogyny. It shouldn’t fit into Allo Darlin’s lighthearted, ukelele-filled song about fairgrounds and blissfully unhindered love – but somehow it totally does, and there’s humour in the way the lyrics of the song don’t matter. It’s as if songs about unrequited love, even at the height of an idealised relationship, are more enjoyable and expressive than the simplicity of Allo Darlin’s song, and as such Morris self-consciously ironises the silliness of her chorus, which is literally about kissing someone who has been eating candyfloss and salty popcorn. I saw Allo Darlin’ at End of the Road and before playing this song, Morris paused to introduce a man who proposed to his girlfriend right in front of me.

It’s a brilliant example of maybe my favourite thing about Allo Darlin': how unafraid they are of making pop music about pop music. It’s by no means something that other bands don’t do; it’s even a major point of the song they break into during ‘Kiss Your Lips’. ‘El Scorcho’ features lines about Green Day and a Public Enemy quote, but the references are peripheral, as the narrator’s love of Green Day is immediately dismissed when his crush “said [she'd] never heard of them – how cool is that?!” If references to music are present in other musicians’ work, the only examples I can think of are general, allusive; for instance The Mountain Goats’ album The Sunset Tree contains multiple songs about music as a form of refuge, but the lyrics need not do more than leave the actual connection to the imagination: “I lean in close to the little record player on the floor / So this is what the volume knob’s for / I listen to dance music”. (See also: ‘Headphones’ by Björk, ‘Radio’ by Beyonce, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ by Wilco). Although putting these emotions into music always creates a sort of mirror for these feelings, and thus allows the song to replicate feelings evoked by the music which it discusses, rarely do artists embrace the fact that they are making music because of music made by others.

Although the references on their early singles were frivolous – picture, as Morris does in a dream in the splendid ‘Henry Rollins Don’t Dance’, Henry Rollins taking umbrage with a DJ because he’s not playing ABBA – on their albums Allo Darlin’ (2010) and Europe (2012) the references are more developed. Allo Darlin’ tacitly acknowledge that some of the strongest ambiguous emotions have already been captured by other songs, and acknowledge them as such. This is a very complex matter: how does one justify invoking the subjectively-gathered emotional resonance of one song within the separate world of another? What can you bring to the song which isn’t already present in the original? And does all of this suggest a lack of inspiration?

I know that many people have expressed scorn at the band’s habit of relying so much on music itself as its core emotional drive. It’s tautologous; engagement with music should be taken for granted. Their desire to place themselves within a larger body of comparable indie-inclined musicians might seem forced. So many emotions are better represented not with words or with Allo Darlin’s music but with other songs. It works because Morris is so bloody passionate about it – watch her singing ‘My Heart Is A Drummer’ at End of the Road fest and positively screaming her lungs out; the lyric is “You see it’s like loving [Paul Simon album] Graceland / It’s not allowed to be, but we know it’s everybody’s favourite / Deep down in a place where / MUSIC MAKES YOU HAPPIEST!” Ignoring the controversies about Simon’s violation of the cultural boycott of South Africa during apartheid and his pretty-much-admitted plagiarism of collaborators Los Lobos, Morris goes solely on the feeling the record inspired, and that’s what’s so special about her intertextuality; it avoids seeming trendy or deliberate and cuts right to the purest, inexpressible truth of what the music means to her.

And this habit of intertextuality has become one of the band’s defining characteristics. Compare the way they reference classic alt-country band the Silver Jews on ‘The Letter’ with the way the same band is referenced in WHY?’s song ‘Good Friday’: Morris’ “And I pictured you singing the Silver Jews” versus Yoni Wolf’s “And with you in the front of the Silver Jews show / When you act like you didn’t notice”. Wolf’s reference is a detail, a means of establishing idiosyncracy but ultimately peripheral to the mood – it’s a reference to the tour they spent together, but also knowingly points towards his songwriting inspiration. It lends specifics to the song, but in actuality, said specifics are rather interchangeable. However, had Morris picked another band, the meaning would be completely changed; her reference is feelings over facts. She relies upon her listener’s familiarity with the band, which is perhaps something of a leap, given that they’re so bafflingly overlooked. She uses the musical image of Dave Berman’s melancholy baritone, partly as a counterpoint to her own tuneful vocals – Berman’s voice evokes moods beyond her own vocal range, and by alluding towards this, she summons up not just his vocal tone but Silver Jews’ culturally-distanced American atmospherics. It’s a rich image but this is because Silver Jews’ music is so rich, rather than because of Morris’ songwriting (beyond picking an awesome band to invoke), and Morris is comfortable with that.

Her band has even made songs entirely about other musicians: their recent single ‘Darren’ is a tribute to cult songwriter and former leader of Hefner, Darren Hayman: “I just can’t stop listening to Darren…” The B-Side is a cover of Hayman’s electronica side-project The French’s song ‘The Wu Tang Clan’, itself about the therapeutic power of the not-generally-seen-as-therapeutic hip-hop collective:

“And RZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, and Golden Arms
Will hold her tight and out of harm in a council flat tonight
And the thought hits her at 105 BPM
That sometimes, for a second, she believes that everything will be all right…”

It’s hard to think of a more perfect bridge section ever written. ‘The Wu Tang Clan’ works in part because there’s a knowing irony in the stylistic gulf between The French’s daft synth-work and the Wu’s driving beats, all the while being entirely honest in the depiction of the beauty of music’s use as a resolve. It’s not a song for fans of the Wu Tang Clan (although I for one adore it) but it doesn’t matter, musical preferences are (for the sake of argument) entirely subjective. ‘Darren’ follows similar lines, in being a song about a comforting bond with a particular artist, but isn’t as successful as ‘The Wu Tang Clan’ because Hayman’s music is obviously such a huge influence on Allo Darlin'; there isn’t as much of an imaginative gap or a unifying power as in Hayman’s song because their fanbase are already (mostly, I’d imagine) familiar with the emotions Hefner evoke. Using the trope in the first person exposes its pitfalls: Morris is essentially alluding to the musical feelings of a band who have probably been placed next to hers in mixtapes and DJ nights a fair few times in the past. It reminded me of the knowing self-sabotage of This Many Boyfriends telling a partner ‘I Don’t Like You (Cause You Don’t Like The Pastels)’ – such an obscure homage digs them deeper into a self-perpetuating twee-pop scene (but of course, that’s the humour of the song).

But the thing is, this flaw is the flipside of some of Allo Darlin’s strongest lyrics. Morris articulates her frustration for relying on music to provide emotional connections; for instance, ‘The Polaroid Song’:

“I feel like dancing on my own
To a record that I do not own
In a place I’ve never seen before”.

It’s about how nostalgia is generated artificially, how a Polaroid makes things look “like it’s 1973″, already faded, immediately a romanticised imperfection as soon as it’s created. You never can quite tell whether Morris is similarly guilty of such nostalgic impositions or whether she’s expressing scepticism, and the song’s departing chorus further muddles matters. She is drawn to nostalgia, but she wants new reference points. On ‘My Sweet Friend’ she voices an even deeper concern:

“You said a record is not just a record
Records can hold memories
All these records sound the same to me
And I’m full up with memory…”

And elsewhere, on ‘Tallulah’, despite recalling the pleasures of finding “a bar with The Maytals on” and “the tape with [Go-Betweens album] Tallulah on”, Morris finds herself with the worry that music is losing its power:

“I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something
And I’m wondering if I’ve already met all the people who will mean something”

And after all that she’s sung before, the line is devastating: it’s a very real worry that a reliance on music for emotional stability and reference is just keeping her held back in the past. On this level, it makes sense that Morris’ songs are often just descriptions of other songs or artists; she finds the idea of forging new musical vessels for feelings and memories problematic, she is losing faith in it. And if new music no longer has power for her songs’ narrators, what does that mean for her audience? Allo Darlin’s following is relatively small, but borderline cult – in part because they relate to the musical references she proposes, and in part because her idiosyncratic lyrical approach has seen her music added to the memory triggers of a whole scene of indie-pop fans.

Of course there are many other musicians who have used music as emotional sources, most notable I think is LCD Soundsystem’s half-song, half-essay on the idea of “cool”, ‘Losing My Edge’, which devolves in its second half to haphazard namechecks. Another instance is David Bowie’s fascinated tribute ‘Song for Bob Dylan’, in which he expresses wonder at how many people were affected by Dylan’s poetry. I also really enjoyed Big K.R.I.T.’s descriptions of nostalgic times listening to old-skool rappers like Scarface in his dad’s car on his song ‘Time Machine’ (and Chamillionaire’s verse on that song is a typical example of the common hip-hop trope of comparisons and shout-outs to other emcees). There must be thousands more examples and it would be a nice mixtape idea! But what’s particularly engaging, more emotionally involved about Allo Darlin’s use of intertext is that it’s always the feeling of the song rather than knowledge of the artist which makes their references really sink deep.

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Liminal Reinventions: Hypnagogia in the music of James Ferraro and Grouper

At one point in my life I became fascinated with the idea of lucid dreaming, of training myself to explore my own subconscious within my dreams. It still disappoints me that I can’t lucid dream at will, but I’m beginning to forget just what it was about dreams that compelled me so much in the first place – my dreams seemed to get more and more meaningless. Although my lucid dreaming proved largely unsuccessful, I discovered ways of breaking down the dichotomy of dreams & reality, becoming especially attuned to the liminal gap between the two, in the mental state known as hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is typically experienced just as you are about to go to sleep, to varying degrees and in multiple senses.

I am sure that I experience hypnagogia more intensely than most people, and it was particularly vivid after I read about it, as this helped me to tune into the visions and noises I was only partially aware of before. When I’m particularly calm and tired but not exhausted, I can easily allow myself to experience it for minutes on end. However, the sheer randomness of the things I see all but convinced me that my dreams were meaningless. Despite the Dalí painting to the left, which is rich in symbolism despite appearing to represent a similar state of consciousness, I have never felt moved by my hypnagogia. There is literally no semantic significance embedded in the visual sequences; if anything they are wilfully improbable comic images. I see rapidly-shifting iapparitions, usually with two or three components in one image, in full colour and either 2-D or 3-D, some moving and some stationary. I often hear familiar voices or sounds, perhaps even a tune or phrase that’s been “stuck in my head”; most often I hear a person call my name, however, I’m always aware that all of this is not real. It’s also common to physically feel things; the most common and noticeable indicator of the hypnagogic state is a jerking sensation, (known as the ‘hypnic jerk’), which causes a brief spasm. I think most people have experienced hypnic jerks, so it’s a useful point of entry to becoming aware of hypnagogia.

I usually see objects and animals, sometimes figures of humans. I remember seeing an eye once, but for some reason never a full face – although most accounts seem to report that it is actually common to see faces. I mention this because it proves that hypnagogia is a subjective experience which is impossible to describe, which makes it at once fascinating and difficult to properly discuss, especially because I will forget every image I’ve seen almost immediately.

From Ryan Hurd's article on hypnagogia. This is actually a close up photograph, believe it or not, of an extremely psychedelic cactus.

The main difference between hypnagogia and dreams is that the images are not held together by any narrative thread, and unlike dreams, there is no sort of background or dreamscape for the visions. They are never part of anything larger, and mine do not last for more than three seconds. Because the images are intertwined with other senses, it would be impossible to represent them visually in film or paintings, despite numerous attempts – for instance, prominent dream researcher Ryan Hurd’s depictions of his hypnagogia are really nothing like my own experiences; they are kaleidoscopic, whereas mine are not psychedelic, but I suppose surrealistic.

While the hypnagogic state is linked to sleep, it actually has elements of both conscious and unconscious mental activity. I feel more conscious than unconscious during it, and I’m even capable of maintaining conversations during it, describing the visions I see (however, this tends to make them change much more slowly). So while we can compare hypnagogia to dreams, we can also link it to real, waking life. It is at once a minimum of stimuli (as in, the silence and darkness you need to go to sleep peacefuly), and a carousel of mental activity manifested as superimposed stimuli. Therefore, it has a lot in common with stimulating experiences like train journeys or walks in the city. In both of these situations, the body and mind are passive and unoccupied, not having to interact or consciously engage with the world; so, similarly to hypnagogia, the mind watches an excess of stimuli changing uncontrollably. The basic situation is stable, but what we see is unstable. Similarly to dreams, these everyday journeys are loaded with symbolic potential; there is a capacity for an unforgettable event or mental image to be just around every corner.

Because of its wildly subjective nature, I believe that the processes and atmospheres of the hypnagogic state can be best represented by music. This makes sense because music can be so impressionistic. Similarly to hypnagogia, it is so expansive and so difficult to talk about. More than with any other medium, the most tangible elements can be discussed on entirely different terms from person to person; this is particularly the case with music that might be said to value timbre, or feeling, over structure.

Furthermore, we often play music in the background, allowing it to occupy a liminal space, especially now we have iPods and media libraries, so we can stick a huge amount of music on shuffle very easily. We can either be rewarded by engaging with music intellectually, or simply allow mood regulation by half-listening, on a purely superficial level. Similarly, many people find that engaging with their dreams is intellectually rewarding, whereas most of us ignore or forget them.

Music which, in my opinion, evokes a similar mind-state to hypnagogia, is (paradoxically) characterised not by the excess of stimuli which hypnagogia presents, but by the lack of obvious stimuli, which leads to the relaxation required to experience hypnagogia. It is, ideally, repetitive music with no dynamics or developments, and the production should be so fuzzy that a minimum of harsh or percussive sounds should be heard. The sonic obscurity of lo-fi is important because it simulates the slow loss of conscious thought that leads to hypnagogia. I admit that it sounds odd that a mindset characterised by continuous shift should be best represented by a canvas so blank, but the only way to appropriate a mental state so peaceful and free of boundaries is through ambience. If ideas were cycling, (although each listener’s appreciation of the music would be subjective), the changes would be structured, and therefore prescriptive. Once you were familiar with this hypothetical composition, it would lose meaning as a hypnagogic, subjective experience – although I do love the idea of art like this; it puts me in mind of Panda Bear’s ‘Bros’. The musical changes in ‘Bros’ are too slow to mimic the mutations of hypnagogia, but if it were any faster, the music would demand too much conscious mental activity to be at all dreamlike or meditative.

However, while at first impressions, hypnagogic music is ambient and disengaged, it is performed with a sense of imperfection and affect that swells almost imperceptibly within the repeated patterns of the music. Obviously there must be engaging elements for the music to mean anything, and the effects are not a completely accurate analogue for hypnagogia, but I will argue that you can experience the music I will discuss in the same way.

At this point I should note that the term “hypnagogic pop” has already been coined, in an article by David Keenan which appeared in The Wire in 2009. The article caused a minor furore, but mostly this was because the naming of this rather amorphous genre was seen as pretentious and unnecessary. I find the backlash generally rather anti-intellectual, as Keenan makes some really fascinating observations about this wave of lo-fi musicians; however, his use of the word “hypnagogia” seems ill-fitting. My fundamental problem with the terminology is that hypnagogia is not an experience particularly based in memory, but he uses it to describe the idea of a warped recollection of 80s pop music, with the famous phrase “pop music refracted through the memory of a memory”. He links the themes of subconsciousness and memory to the dated musical and cultural pop touchstones warped by artists like Pocahaunted, Ariel Pink, and The Skaters. Hypnagogia exists independently of nostalgia, especially this specific form of nostalgia, and needless to say the mental state is independent of culture and generation (these 80s references are way before my time). I’m not discussing music that provokes anamnesis, but images and ideas of all forms, subjectively. Furthermore, the idea of hypnagogia demands a more minimalist sensibility than much of the music namechecked as “hypnagogic pop”.

Even though I’m sceptical as to Keenan’s definition, (and Keenan himself regretted and was criticised over the irony of labelling and deconstructing that which he was describing as “unpoliced by critics and cultural watchdogs”),1 his discussion of James Ferraro actually provides a really useful focal point for my own explorations of hypnagogia.

Ferraro’s body of work is so vast (incorporating dozens of aliases with multiple albums) and stuffed with ideas that his music could never be lumped under one genre, and in interviews Ferraro seems to gleefully, post-ironically disrupt any attempts to intellectually approach his work. He has an amazing sense of humour that a lot of people overlook; for instance, in Keenan’s article, he hilariously discusses his membership of “the first church of Lenny Kravitz in West Hollywood”, which Keenan allows to pass without comment. His most recent curveball was 2011’s postmodern joke of an album, Far Side Virtual, which was one of my favourite albums of last year (…for some reason!) This record completely dispensed with the lo-fi aesthetic that characterised Ferraro’s previous work, as it was recorded entirely on computers, using MIDI effects, and was as excessively cheesy as that sounds. It is Ferraro’s later work (just before Far Side Virtual) to which Keenan mostly refers, in which Ferraro became more concerned with assimilating “low culture and pop culture totems” into his music, creating something distinctly new. I would argue that, while all of Ferraro’s work is fixated on the subconscious, this preoccupation with cultural nostalgia indicates a departure from the hypnagogic evocation of his previous work.

Mind you, while I’ve heard a fair few of James Ferraro’s releases, that still means I’ve barely scratched the surface. Records like Clear and Discovery, and what I’ve heard of his “Lamborghini Crystal” moniker, are largely divorced from the pop culture that much of his work relies upon, and thereby tap into the subconscious without suggesting nostalgia. I want to particularly focus on Marble Surf, which is for me the apex of Ferraro’s hypnagogic powers. I can only guess how this music was recorded. It appears to be performed live, with a loop pedal, with analogue synths, kids’ toys, a bell – but then, I can also hear ghostly voice choirs and string sections which I highly doubt are actually on the record. It’s too lo-fi to tell. Keenan states that Ferraro mixed a lot of his albums on boomboxes, which explains the quality.

The entire thing is centred around two 2-bar patterns, repeated ad infinitum, across two near-identical nineteen-minute tracks: ‘Memory Theater’ and ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’. The appeal of it is immediate and the effects are so subjective that it would be silly to dissect it too far. But, it’s satisfying because it endlessly repeats a C-major perfect cadence (structure #1) – the sustained tonic C, followed by the most simplistic possible resolution through F, G, back to C. Structure #2 is played every 2-5ish repetitions of #1, breaking up these perfect cadences, creating an interrupted cadence moving from the G to a D minor chord (the supertonic) creating a moment of vague tension before resolving through the dominant G major chord back to C again, serving to reinforce the optimistic power of the perfect cadence. It’s still the sort of music that makes my housemates incredulous that I’m listening to the same thing over and over again.

OK, even though I think this GCSE-level approach does actually go some way to explaining why the song sounds so irrepressibly joyous, the orchestral vocabulary doesn’t exactly do justice to a piece of music so hazy and imprecise. There’s no real bass to emphasise the structure, the lower frequencies are mostly filled in by tape reel crackles and pops; it’s designed to inhabit the subconscious rather than the analytical mind.

To use a musical term coined by Brian Eno, referring to his wonderful composition Thursday Afternoon, Ferraro’s piece is “holographic”; that is to say, this is music that creates a singular impression which hangs in the air throughout the album, and any snippet of the 38-minute runtime is apparently representative of the mood of the whole piece. But after about my third listen, I discovered that there is a whole lot more going on than these two non-melodic chord patterns. New timbres and drones keep entering the music and building it up and up, yet the build is difficult to distinguish, because the layers occupy the same frequencies and instrumentation as what has come before. So when I skip through, ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’ sounds much busier than ‘Memory Theater’, although it’s really difficult to pin down what the changes are. Slowly but surely, melodic fragments are added, the most prominent are the descending C-B-A-G sometimes appearing in the Fmaj to Gmaj of structure #1, and towards the very end the D-C-B-D-C which rises triumphantly to the top of the mix.

The reason I would describe Marble Surf as hypnagogic ambient and Thursday Afternoon as merely ambient is because Marble Surf is full of imperfections, as with most of Ferraro’s work, and therefore comes across as uncontrollable, unconscious, surreal, in the same way hypnagogia does, especially with this piece because I can’t work out how on earth it was created. One prominent oddity occurs at about 7:12 on ‘Surf Washing on Spring Marble’, where the entire track is swallowed by fuzzy silence, only for the whole thing to be spat back out again with even more force than before. Perhaps it’s the sound of a tape-recorder reaching the end of its reel prematurely, and Ferraro stepping away from his loop pedal to flip it over and keep on recording. Thursday Afternoon is much more shimmery and perfect, gorgeous in the same way as Marble Surf, but safe, wallpapery. Marble Surf is successful because it produces constant reinventions within its repetitions, transcending the idea of holographic music. At first I thought that perhaps Ferraro was performing the same chords or melodies over and over and looping each flawed layer around again, emphasising the imperfections, but the more I listen, the less I can detect a pattern to these blemishes. It’s a quiet cacophony of unstable ideas contained within something that at first appears completely unfaltering, if rather ramshackle.

What makes it truly resonate as a parallel to hypnagogia is that it all sounds accidental. Marble Surf is so densely layered that it is impossible to trace any thread through it beyond the chord structure (and structure #2 enters at aleatoric intervals). Bombarded with this at once undemanding and colossal wall of noise, without any conventional hook or point of entry into the music, the listener begins to hear strands of musical ideas which appear as imagined as they are tangible; that is to say, the texture becomes so overwhelming that glimpses of musical ideas seem chimaerical, immediately disappearing from consciousness under an overlapping wash of ambience. It is this fleeting half-sensation of musical ideas which is remarkably similar to the ever-slippery experience of hypnagogia. As with hypnagogia, it is profound that such a blank canvas is so rich with possibilities.

Grouper is another artist who uses minimalist compositions to tap into this liminal headspace, but her approach contrasts significantly from Ferraro’s. Grouper’s music is more serious and moody, without any pop cultural touchstones, and generally avoiding major keys. Her music is performed acoustically, with vocals, acoustic guitars, and organ drones, all fed through swathes of reverb and tape delay, to the point that the “songs” are so entrenched in swirls of smoky ambience that her lyrics are unintelligible.

Her two most popular recordings are those on which the song structures and lyrics are clearer, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and A|A: Alien Observer (the title track of which pretty much omits the drone entirely).  However, I think I preferred the counterpart to the latter, A|A: Dream Loss, as this album delves deeper into ambient noise, and as such is more hypnagogic. The album art is reminiscent of the shapes you seen when you close your eyes; visually, her aesthetics are much more closely linked to a hypnagogic experience than Ferraro’s.

I first realised how truly astonishing the record was while listening to it on a train, expecting to be able to play some ambient drone music and read up for a lecture, but soon found that although the music is unobtrusive, it is highly embedded with mental triggers and fragments of ideas, and I was gazing out of the window, taking in my journey in the same way as the music. As with Marble Surf, what at first appears uncomplex is soon revealed to be imbued with a torrent of potential mental connections. But whereas the chimaerical shifts produced in Marble Surf are due to imperfections and reinventions, Grouper’s music is less aleatoric – although the imprecise low fidelity of her recordings is crucial to the dream-like enigma of her work. It is her use of vocals which is the main source of chimaeras, a background presence that sounds more like another layer of noise than a melody or vocal line.

Beneath the droney, relaxing bed of noise, there are smudgy syllables and a song structure, but it is almost as if the song is being played in another room, and you are trying to work out what it sounds like. Or perhaps it’s like listening to foreign-language songs: your brain still subconsciously tries to make sense of the lyrics, trying to find cognates and Anglicisations of fragments of syllables. Another example is the made-up “Hopelandic” language of Sigur Rós’ ( ), in which I believe most listeners will hear phrases that actually help shape the songs’ subjective meanings (‘You sigh / You suffer…’) With Dream Loss, the vocals are expertly mixed such that the music at once invites and denies interpretation, while the listener hears or superimposes syllables and words in a subconscious attempt to decipher the lyrics, as the music lures you into a conscious engagement with these half-imagined fragments. The brain reacts as if this artistic choice is unintentional, that the lyrics are supposed to be clear, resulting in curious mental embellishments and guesswork, at a liminal level in which there is an interplay between these conscious and unconscious connections. Because of the album’s undynamic, unpercussive hum, this mental activity is very similar to the sensation of hypnagogia.

I am proposing that hypnagogic ambience can be a meditative experience for the open-minded listener. Psychologists often explain dreams as a sequence of images produced by the brain as a form of puzzling over and straightening out the contexts of your day’s events. I think that perhaps, although the images seem like bizarre non-sequiturs, hypnagogia occurs for the same reasons. Because the processes are comparable, hypnagogic music has a pacifying and mentally-stimulating effect, caused by the rhythmic stirring of musical and (even more subjectively) non-musical ideas.

I have compiled a Youtube playlist of 20 tracks which I find have hypnagogic effects, which you can listen to here. I’d particularly point to the works of William Basinski, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Philip Jeck, and Tim Hecker as major proponents of this aesthetic – but I’m probably overlooking an awful lot of music which fits my descriptions perfectly. (Please let me know!)

1The Wire issue 324, February 2011, pp.6-7.
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Favourite 60 Albums of 2011

Sorry, but I love lists. It is, of course, completely impossible to rank, say, the Death Grips and the Mara Carlyle albums when I’d have to be in completely different moods to want to listen to either of them. But I really love reading and comparing all the album lists of this year, and it’s a good excuse for me to highlight a lot of overlooked records that came out in 2011! I’ve written blurbs for some that deserve more attention (I’m sure you’ve heard enough about PJ Harvey and Destroyer, etc) and linked to a few reviews I’ve written on No Ripcord. My top 50 tracks are at the end.

60. Feist – Metals

Listen: ‘How Come You Never Go There’

 

 

 

59. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Listen: ‘Ffunny Ffriends’

 

 

 

58. Byetone – Symeta

Minimal/glitch techno reminiscent of Autechre. Clinical but arresting.
Listen: ‘Topas’

57. Daniel Thomas Freeman – The Beauty of Doubting Yourself

Although The Beauty of Doubting Yourself is all instrumental, its structure only alluded to in the song titles, it’s never possible to separate listening to these seven ambient/drone compositions from the album’s intensely personal overtones. The six years it took for Freeman to create this are all mapped out simply by his talent for shaping music as lingering moods.
Listen: ‘Dark House Walk’

56. Prurient – Bermuda Drain

Most of Prurient’s previous work is unlistenably nihilistic and brutal, but here he begrudgingly uses synth riffs and cleaner production, venting his bottomless rage with screams and death-metal vocals and lyrics about doing obscene things with a tree branch. So, Bermuda Drain is listenably nihilistic and brutal.
Listen: ‘Many Jewels Surround The Crown’

55. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient

Listen: ‘Baby Missiles’

 

 

 

54. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow

Listen: ‘Misty’

 

 

 

53. David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time

I had low expectations for this, given Lynch’s questionable tastes and those early singles, despite how masterfully he uses music in his films. It sounds odd to say this, but Crazy Clown Time is more experimental and bizarre than I expected! The alienating and subversive qualities of his films are present on Crazy Clown Time – it’s not nearly as striking as any of his films, but still quintessentially Lynchian, which is good enough for me.
Listen: ‘Crazy Clown Time’

52. Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years

Listen: ‘The Great Pan Is Dead’

 

 

 

51. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Listen: ‘Senator’

 

 

 

50. Christina Vantzou – No. 1

Really rather gorgeous ambient record. Vantzou was in The Dead Texan with Adam from Stars of the Lid; I’d certainly recommend this as much as anything I’ve heard by SotL.
Listen: ‘Homemade Mountains’

 

49. Kanye West & Jay-Z – Watch The Throne

So much fun, even though I have some unavoidable issues with anyone who thinks it’s cool to talk about their “other other Benz”…
Listen: ‘Niggas In Paris’

 

48. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

Listen: ‘Colomb’

 

 

 

47. The Men – Leave Home

About as raw and dirty and heavy as a record can get.
Listen: ‘Bataille’

 

 


46. Emmy the Great – Virtue

Emmy is a really strong and underrated songwriter, perhaps overlooked because her performance is quite understated. There’s lots to listen for on Virtue.
Listen: ‘Iris’

 

45. Emika – Emika

I vehemently disagree with the notion that 2011 was “the year of boring music” (if you’re narrow-minded and pessimistic enough to overlook all the brilliant and original new music this year you’re probably just a boring person) – but I did not get into much dubstep or synthpop this year, even though in theory there are a lot of exciting possibilities for the genres, I found it hard to engage with many of the artists being hyped (sorry James).

Emika’s mission statement is to avoid the pitfalls that caused my indifference to many of her peers; she makes every effort to ensure that her music is never boring. I find opener ‘3 Hours’ repellent and disturbing, but still captivating, and with her variations of styles throughout this album, Emika ensures she never loses my attention.
Listen: ‘Drop The Other’

44. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

This would be higher, but my speakers aren’t good enough to convey the gorgeousness of all these layers of vocals! Never has a record felt so ruined by my substandard audio equipment. I can tell it is great, though.
Listen: ‘Cloak’

 

43. Hauschka – Salon Des Amateurs

House music arranged for prepared piano and mostly acoustic instruments. A really fresh and enjoyable record.
Listen: ‘Radar’

 

 

42. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Listen: ‘Let England Shake’

 

 

 

41. Battles – Gloss Drop

Listen: ‘Futura’

 

 

 

40. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Listen: ‘Birth of Serpents’

 

 

 

39. Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

Listen: ‘Honeymoon’s Great, Wish You Were Her’

 

 

 

38. Mamiffer – Mare Decendrii

Aaron Turner from Isis teams up with virtuoso pianist Faith Coloccia, creating ambient soundscapes that veer into dissonant and grandiose climaxes. Post-rock does not have to just keep sounding like post-rock; Mare Decendrii contains some enlightening experimentation.
Listen: ‘We Speak In The Dark’

37. The Antlers – Burst Apart

Listen: ‘Corsicana’

 

 

 

36. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Listen: ‘Sophia’

 

 

 

35. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

I met Kurt Vile at End Of The Road festival. Can you tell which is me?

Me, Sai, Kurt Vile
Listen: ‘Jesus Fever’

34. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

Listen: ‘Sleep Dealer’

 

 

 

33. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Listen: ‘Romance’

 

 

 

32. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. II: Judges/Those Who Didn’t Run

Much has been made of this bass-saxophone virtuoso, who recorded this whole album without loops or overdubs or even any instrument other than his saxophone (almost). A small army of contact mics pick up the percussive thuds of sax-keys and Stetson’s guttural bursting lungs, the ghostly hums of the metal itself, flesh and brass fusing into one hulking mass of minimal note runs and tortured squawks.
I also feel that his subsequent EP, Those Who Didn’t Run, is overlooked – Stetson extends his circular breathing patterns to two ten-minute tracks; it’s transfixing.
Listen: ‘Judges’. Yes, this is literally an unembellished solo recording.

31. James Ferraro – Far Side Virtual

This album is gaining James Ferraro a fair bit of recognition (it topped The Wire‘s album of the year list), but I reckon he’s one of the weirdest people making music. Earlier this year I fell completely in love with his hypnagogic, holographic tapestry Marble Surf, which consists of one minimalist keyboard riff loop buried deep in fuzz, repeated (with almost-imperceptible, accidental imperfections), for 40 minutes. (I’ve been intending to post a full article reviewing this record). His work with The Skaters followed similar lines, no-fi riffs which feel completely buried in time and space.

Far Side Virtual couldn’t sound more different. It’s Ferraro’s first experience composing with anything close to digital technology, and it’s made up of 16 hyperactive vignettes of MIDI sounds and pure cheese. It’s like getting high and looking at Angelfire websites. It’s like using Google Streetview on your iPad listening to ringtones in a cellphone shop. It’s like playing Sim City while watching infomercials. Ferraro samples the Skype startup sound in not one but two tracks, informs you that ‘your dish is being prepared by master chef Gordon Ramsay’ on ‘Palm Trees, Wifi, and Dream Sushi’, and closes with a deconstruction of the four-piano-note Windows logoff sound. It sounds hopelessly 90s, even though it’s a record supposedly “about” 2011.

The reason this makes the list, in spite of its wilfully plasticy aesthetic, is because Ferraro made me think a lot about what it is that makes good music. In using ghastly-sugary MIDI instruments, and samples from the least artistic of sources – and doing so without ever once seeming pretentious – he’s completely subverting my expectations of underground art, particularly because his former work was so different. It’s a parody record that is, I have to admit weirdly enjoyable.
Listen: ‘Global Lunch’ 

30. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact

Listen: ‘Glass Jar’

 

 

 

29. The Book Of Knots – Garden of Fainting Stars

This is what I’d always hoped The Residents would sound like: bizarre alternative rock with fearless experimental streaks, but remaining undeniably fun to listen to. Hugely underrated.
Listen: ‘Microgravity’

 

28. Andy Stott – Passed Me By

This feels like one of the most important electronic releases of the year to me. Production that sounds like the music is coming from deep within, you don’t so much listen to it as you just get the idea of it pulsating through your body.
Listen: ‘Execution’

 

27. Crash of Rhinos – Distal

Crash of Rhinos earn their name – their drummer is unbelievable; their two bassists pummel you down through the loud bits and they drop out when all five of them sing along, creating anthemic moments as huge as possible. They are phenomenal live, and although Distal loses a bit of that energy in translation, it’s still a near-masterpiece of math-emo.
Download it for free
Listen: ‘Big Sea’

26. Touché Amoré – Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me

A tightly-wound barrage of emocore, 13 tracks clocking in at under 21 minutes. Not a moment is spared; it’s all anthemic and wonderful. They’re coming to Nottingham in March and I can only imagine this will be one of the best live experiences ever.
Listen: ‘~’

25. Rustie – Glass Swords

If Daft Punk weren’t so busy disappointing you, they’d be making awesome music like this.
Listen: ‘Ultra Thizz’

 

 

24. The Field – Looping State of Mind

“What makes it so perfectly-suited to its function as background music is revealed in the second way of listening, which is just to immerse yourself in it, to explore these textures; this approach, so rarely for a minimal techno full-length, is rewarding and fascinating. There’s a fractal quality to Willner’s production, by which I mean you can focus in on one sonic thread and lose yourself in the dozens of others it reveals – there’s always more than meets the ear. It sounds very repetitive on a cursory listen, but delve further and you realise that what your mind loves about this music is how it’s actually shifting, constantly refreshing itself, layers of sound drifting in and out almost imperceptibly.

To pin down what it is that makes The Field special, it’s his masterful subtlety. He’ll introduce a new percussive syncopation or vocal manipulation so steadily and softly that you might not even notice what it is that’s making the track change, whereas a lesser producer might want to stick this new sonic layer at the forefront of the mix so as nobody misses it.”
[link]
Listen: ‘Arpeggiated Love’

23. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972 

Listen: ‘The Piano Drop’

 

 

 

22. Wugazi – 13 Chambers

Wu-Tang Clan verses set to beats constructed from Fugazi songs. If this sounds like the best thing ever that’s because it is!!
Download it for free
Listen: ‘Nowhere to Wait’

 

21. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

An absolutely gorgeous record – my favourite thing about it seems to have been overlooked in a lot of criticism, and that’s just how perfectly the thing fits together; it is shaped with sublime elegance. The imagery of clarity and immersion and solitude (perhaps most obviously on ‘Codex’) is represented with some remarkable production techniques; the guitar melody towards the end of closer ‘Separator’ is like emerging from water (just listen to how that song emotionally progresses – I reckon it’s as powerful as anything they’ve done before). What Radiohead are doing here is extremely subtle, which is perhaps why reactions were somewhat muted. But as their most experimental and ethereal record, it will surely be cherished.
Listen: ‘Bloom’

20. Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva

I don’t tend to associate the word “charming” with rappers, but that’s just what K.R.I.T. is. He raps about memories of when he was younger, in the car with his dad on ‘Time Machine’,  ruminates on death and faith on ‘The Vent’, and finds the perfect music=life metaphor on ‘Highs And Lows’. It’s a really fun record with some well-paced introspective moments.
Download it for free
Listen: ‘Dreamin” 

19. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Listen: ‘Helplessness Blues’

 

 

 

18. La Dispute – Wildlife

It’s been a brilliant year for emo. La Dispute deserve special attention because they break the mould of emo bands that I actually talked about in this article: La Dispute do create music that appears solipsistic and allows the listener to superimpose his/her experiences onto their lyrics (and they do it very well – especially on opener ‘A Departure’). BUT what makes this album particularly mind-blowing is that Jordan Dreyer manages to take the vivid emotions of his lyrics and use his style to explore completely different perspectives, perhaps even to superimpose his experiences onto those of others – and he leaps into some intensely dramatic situations. (I just had to edit five more uses of the word “intense” out of this paragraph). He uses multiple fictional narrators without any sense of distance in his assumption of these roles. I’m hesitant to call it “empathic” because he imbues each and every word with as much agony as if this were all purely confessional; it all feels so heart-stoppingly real. The most remarkable moment is ‘King Park’, in which the narrator explores the viewpoint of the family of an innocent victim of a drive-by shooting, describing how he becomes a third-person omniscient narrator who wants to explore every detail of this horrific event: ‘I float there, transcend time. I want to capture it accurately.’ After the interlude, he returns to track down the 20-year-old kid who was responsible – I don’t want to spoil the song’s climax but it is hair-raising, and it takes something really special to stand out from an album so unremittingly extreme.
Listen: ‘King Park’

17. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

This is actually the first Tom Waits record I’ve properly gotten into, I feel as though I should be ashamed to say so… ‘New Years’ Eve’ is one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard, I well up every time.
Listen: ‘Bad As Me’

 

16. Death Grips – Exmilitary

“Hip-hop, as a genre, is never really associated with obscurity. We associate rappers with fame and self-elevation, but Death Grips are (mostly) anonymous, releasing Exmilitary for free online – and its chaos and experimentalism make it intentionally difficult to enjoy.

Before I go on, I should clarify just how confrontational this record is. This is a dude screaming at the top of his lungs over beats ranging from gritty guitar riffs (‘I Want it I Need it’) to menacing synth-bass hums (‘Guillotine’). It is pure violence, pushing the limits of the listening experience; if that doesn’t sound intriguing, Death Grips is not for you.

[...]It’s going to polarise listeners, but it’s useless to criticise it for being so angry and unlistenable because that’s Death Grips’ prerogative. It’s kind of like reading a good book entirely in caps lock. It’s a spot-on realisation of their themes, but relentlessly, perhaps brilliantly, inaccessible.”
[link], and for the record, yes, this deserved more than a 7! It was my first NR review :\
Download it for free
Listen: ‘Takyon’

15. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

Leyland Kirby’s exploration of memory and Alzheimers’ disease in relation to music feels like a very important record, prompting a lot of introspection towards the listening experience. I can’t quite pinpoint exactly what this record makes me feel, because it hints towards so many subconscious effects that music can create that it remains, to me, a complete enigma. It sounds at once ancient and contemporary, completely unique. In spite of Kirby’s postmodern, intellectual prerogatives, or rather, because of them, this is first and foremost a terrifying yet fascinating album. He gets his name from Jack Nicholson’s role in The Shining and has since imbued that film with valleys of emotional resonance.
Listen: ‘All you are going to want to do is get back there’

14. Grouper – A|A (Dream Loss/Alien Observer)

This is perfect train music… Grouper cleverly mimics the effects of hypnagogia, as little pictures and syllables almost form words and thoughts, all under a blanket of sleepy haze. Dream Loss is more soundscapey and fuzzy, whereas Alien Observer allows the songs to shine through a bit more – both are essential to this gorgeous experience.
Listen: ‘Alien Observer’

13. Destroyer – Kaputt

Listen: ‘Bay of Pigs (edit)’

 

 

 

12. Braids – Native Speaker

Proving that the process of making music can be really arduous and unspontaneous and still sound excellent. This might be higher in the list but Braids also win my awards for Band I Most Want To Be In and Most Fanciable Band.
Listen: ‘Glass Deers’

 

11. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Listen: ‘California’

 

 

 

10. Mara Carlyle - Floreat

One of the great mysteries of 2011, for me, is how this record is so overlooked. This sort of arty chamber alt-pop is the sort of thing critics foam at the mouth over, but I can only assume that Mara Carlyle has been bewilderingly unlucky. Indeed I only just discovered this, and I already love it to death; I’m already composing mental mixtapes around the songs on Floreat. For instance: I want to one day console a female friend in unrequited love with someone by playing her ‘Pearl’ (a song with which I am utterly obsessed) – “this boy must be blind / If he can’t see you and your gorgeous behind!” I want to allude to an unspoken yet obvious affection for someone by playing her ‘Nuzzle’ – “Can I keep you like a secret, like I already do?” And if ever I compile my favourite vocal lines ever, I might well have to include opened ‘But Now I Do…’ But honestly this is just such a perfectly self-contained record in itself – it reaches its conclusion  with a confidence and sense of comfort that makes the album so rewarding, imbuing the phrase “I love you” with duvets of reassurance.
Listen: ‘Pearl’

9. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence

Yes I’m cheating a bit here, but these records are really so consistent and unified that all three deserve a mention. Nobody put out so much consistently great music in 2011 as The Weeknd, and I’m more surprised at how much I enjoyed it than any other music. The internet age allows genres to mutate at alarming rates, and The Weeknd (along with Frank Ocean and perhaps a few others) pushed the boundaries of R’n’B (rap and BULLSHIT, as De La Soul once said) into some fascinating places. This is such gorgeously produced music, music that can also be absolutely harrowing.
Download them for free
if you haven’t already.
Listen: ‘Initiation’

8. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

Some of Aidan Moffat’s finest lyrics ever, with a fresh and compelling new accompaniment by jazz/minimalist multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells. ‘The Copper Top’ in particular is absolutely jaw-dropping.
“Moffat is rightly regarded as an indie legend, but that he’s still making artistic steps on this record might surprise some fans. This is perhaps his most beautiful work to date; its vulgarity is restrained but a sense of humour remains, and Wells and Moffat reach new emotional heights.”
[link]
Listen: ‘The Copper Top’

7. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

“It’s unabashed summer music at a time when, regrettably, a lot of recent “summery” indie music has been wantonly simplistic [...] Friedberger manages to be laid-back and sunny without subscribing to this sort of reductive paradigm. The songs still fit comfortable pop structures, but with more ambitious intentions, building from something modest to some glorious culminations, like the sweeping strings of ‘Roosevelt Island’, the jazz-fusiony sax solo of ‘My Mistakes’, and the horn fanfare of ‘Heaven’.

But it’s not just a summer record, it’s also a nostalgia record – if such a thing can be said to exist, Last Summer is a great example. The songs are full of references to New York, stories of memories of the city. ‘Owl’s Head Park’ recalls a day spent building a bicycle out of old parts, and the one remaining photograph of the day. Perhaps one could use the idea as a metaphor for Friedberger’s creative process, as she recycles elements of older pop songs, making something characteristically new, forward-thinking. She throws back to decades-old pop hits and soul singles; it’s full of doo-wop vocal harmonies and funky bass.

[...] This is a charming record with so many standout tracks, that in spite of the divisiveness of the Fiery Furnaces, it would be difficult to really dislike this solo effort. It sounds at once old-fashioned and contemporary, undemanding but clever – a joy.”
This album never gets old! [link]
Listen: ‘My Mistakes’

6. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

“It’s an intentionally daunting work of art, but a fascinating enigma. At first, the album might breeze past you leaving only a few repeated phrases stuck in your mind – “It’s a feeling”, “You know I’m free”, “Who do you think who you are?”, “Clear some space out, so we can space out”. These mantras are as close as Shabazz Palaces get to a chorus, and at first they’re clues with which to approach the record. Black Up’s closing line couldn’t be more fitting: “And still it morphs – this shit is way too advanced”. As it ebbs away, you’re left in awe of their captivating invention.”
[link]
Listen: ‘Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)’

5. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

This is a masterpiece – but a reappraisal of the first two St. Vincent records is in order. She’s been doing what she does on Strange Mercy – pretty on the outside but ugly and subversive underneath – for ages now, although nowhere as expertly as on this record.

Listen: ‘Surgeon’

4. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

I still absolutely adore this. Pop music that bursts with ideas and is first and foremost a whole lot of fun, but there’s an intentional sense of discomfort running through the whole thing. Merrill Garbus is challenging herself with this songwriting, exploring violence and social issues from deliberately disconcerting perspectives. Oddly enough, the resultant flaws are what make it such an excellent record.
Listen: ‘Bizness’

3. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleurs Libre

Simply one of the most intense, important jazz records I’ve ever heard. It’s an exploration of African American history as well as extreme sonic terrain.

“There are intricacies to Gens de Couleur Libres I couldn’t touch upon, which is remarkable for a live recording. Not only does Roberts refuse to stick to one style of jazz, with her continually rotating structures, but she also denies any singular interpretation of her narrative, allowing a subjective appreciation that actually, in spite of the album’s wilfully hard-to-stomach intensity, will appeal to fans of art music of many different backgrounds. It really is rare that I get so wrapped up in a record; needless to say, I’m full of excitement for the future chapters.”
[link]

Listen: ‘Pov Piti’

2. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

“Los Campesinos! have developed an awful lot since the hyperactive, twee pop of their 2008 debut, Hold On Now, Youngster…, especially considering they’re perhaps the biggest “cult” band in Britain. Now on their fourth album, they’ve refined since last year’s brilliant (but inconsistent) Romance Is Boring, dispensing with their glockenspiels and yelps. Instead, this is the most immaculately-produced LC! record yet, thanks to Jon Goodmanson’s ability to harness their characteristic maximalism, and accordingly, Gareth’s lyrics tend towards more rewarding extended metaphors rather than snide one-liners, while retaining his knack for ugly detail. LC!’s fanbase is so devoted because their tastes mature along with the band’s songcraft, and although it’s a grower, Hello Sadness is their most perfectly-formed work to date.”
(copied from my No Ripcord blurb)
Listen: ‘The Black Bird, The Dark Slope’

1. Jenny Hval – Viscera

After I gushed with praise for her in this recent post, there’s little left I have to say about Jenny Hval’s Viscera. But I realised that perhaps the terms that best describe this music, “ambient-folk” and “meditative”, might be a bit off-putting – needless to say, I feel that in spite of her use of space, every moment feels vital, and it’s all the more mind-bending when she comes out with lines more graphic than the reaches of a lot of noisy shock-tactics punks, so delicately, over such vulnerable, floating soundscapes. In short, it’s just one of the most perfect albums I’ve ever heard, lyrically and musically the thing sounds so flawlessly self-contained. But of course what really gets me is her lyrics – she talks about bodies with a sense of invention so profoundly unique and inescapably moving. She will turn your view of sexuality on its head (until your organs fall out through your throat).

I was talking to someone about a mixtape exchange recently, and she said she disliked making mixtapes because she’d feel like she might be judged in some way for compiling something that could be interpreted so personally. So I guess I should be a bit more careful about my unabashed love for Viscera. Perhaps it’s gone unrecognised because people are embarrassed to say how much they relate to it? Hval’s artistic presentation of humanity is one of the most daring, and accurate, portrayals I’ve ever experienced.
Listen: ‘Blood Flight’

I’ve also listed my favourite 50 tracks of the year – it feels a lot less complete than my album list, but I still think it’s worthwhile – there are a few things that deserve some discussion.

  1. Lana Del Rey – Video Games
    Under the circumstances I guess I need to justify this: in terms of chord structures, melody, production, sampling, this approaches perfection. It was great to hear this song before all the hype made it impossible to hear this without any sort of bias, and the impact it made on me back then remains. I actually started writing an article about Del Rey and the sexist reactions to her as an artist – my message got a bit confused and I may not end up posting it, but one of my main points was that the backlash bewildered me, because the idea of her being “manufactured” is exactly what the song is about, why her appearance and “video games” are paralleled in the song. It’s a disturbing message, and the song’s narrator’s acceptance of the patriarchal structures she submits to is portrayed with so much grace and beauty, I really do I think it’s the best song of 2011.
  2. Destroyer – Bay of Pigs (Detail)
    This came out in 2009 but I didn’t get it until this year, when it closed Kaputt. Destroyer’s use of stream-of-consciousness reminds me of his collaboration with Loscil last year, ‘The Making of Grief Point’, but here it’s all sung, and all the better for it. There are so many connections to be made, I hear new things every time I listen to it.
  3. Azealia Banks – 212
    She’s going to be huge next year, I hope. She swears with more gusto than anyone I’ve ever heard.
  4. Tyler, The Creator – Yonkers
  5. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – The Copper Top
    I adore this, it is utterly heartbreaking. Probably my favourite song Moffat has ever written.
  6. Tune-yards – Bizness
  7. Frank Ocean – Novacane
    Cocaine for breakfast – yikes…
  8. Mara Carlyle – Pearl
    As I said above – I really wish I could play this song for someone; the lyrics are quite specific but it’s just the most uplifting thing in the world.
  9. Rustie – Ultra Thizz
  10. Four Tet – Locked
  11. Frank Ocean – Songs For Women
  12. EMA – California
  13. Cold Cave – The Great Pan Is Dead
  14. La Dispute – King Park
    The conclusion of this song is unbelievable…
  15. Gang Gang Dance – Glass Jar
  16. Björk – Crystalline
    Björk has obviously been listening to Venetian Snares – and it’s good!
  17. Baths – The Nothing
    Cerulean was my favourite record of last year, and this single was as good as anything on that album!
  18. Big K.R.I.T – Dreamin’
    This beat is just perfect for K.R.I.T.’s nostalgia.
  19. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
    The two halves of The Weeknd’s music summed up perfectly – a sense of unease and excess and need to escape, which (literally) descends into a chilling portrait of his debasement in the second half.
  20. Nat Baldwin – A Little Lost
    Baldwin’s Arthur Russell cover doesn’t deviate much from the original, but there’s something fantastic in his delivery that I could listen to over and over again.
  21. Eleanor Friedberger – Scenes From Bensonhurst
    A song about Facebook stalking, which manages to sound romanticised through Friedberger’s gauzes of memory.
  22. Low – Try To Sleep
  23. Los Campesinos! – The Black Bird, The Dark Slope
  24. The Weeknd – Initiation
    When I first heard this, the nearest comparison I could think of was to Xiu Xiu.
  25. Devon Sproule – If I Can Do This
    Sproule’s album I Love You, Go Easy narrowly missed out on my list – but here’s the clear highlight.
  26. Cass McCombs – County Line
  27. The Necks – Rum Jungle
    Phenomenal composition, comprising side A of their new record Mindset. The second side was a bit of a letdown for me…
  28. Zoo Kid – Out Getting Ribs
    His EP, King Krule, is great too.
  29. Swede Mason – Masterchef Synesthesia
    This is a really amazingly entertaining song/video. I don’t see why it doesn’t deserve a place on here, although I admit it’s kind of worrying that I’m ranking memes alongside art.
  30. Radiohead – Supercollider
  31. WU LYF – Dirt
  32. Fucked Up – Queen of Hearts
    I have very mixed feelings about David Comes To Life, indeed I feel like so much work must have gone into it that I feel bad to leave it off my albums list. I generally do not like concept albums; it’s too much of an arduous experience to sit down with the lyrics booklet and give the album the appreciation it deserves. And it makes me feel like a philistine to say that.
    There are a few reasons why David Comes To Life failed to really grab me: firstly, it needed more variety. Fucked Up are great at sounding huge yet still really punk (which is why ‘Queen of Hearts’ in particular had to make this list) and Pink Eyes is the most amazing band frontman I’ve ever seen (one of the best gigs I saw last year). But listening to him scream throughout this whole thing gets tedious; I love hardcore punk’s energy, but to hold my interest for a whole 78 minutes takes nuance and melody. Secondly, the postmodern elements of the story – which should by all means have been my favourite thing about David – felt clumsy, overemphasised, and simply confusing. I still don’t exactly understand the role of Octavio; I don’t “get” it. However, I thought that the record’s conclusion, Vivian’s role, and the whole positive message of the record were life-affirming.
  33. Boris – Flare
  34. Battles – Ice Cream
  35. M83 – Midnight City
  36. St. Vincent – Surgeon
  37. Yuck – Get Away
    I really do resent Yuck, mostly because I know there are lots of people in Britain listening to them who have never heard a Pavement, Sebadoh, or Sleater-Kinney record. To be honest, it bugs me that this is such a good song.
  38. Times New Viking – Fuck Her Tears
  39. Crash Of Rhinos – Big Sea
  40. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
  41. Death Grips – Full Moon (Death Classic)
    Before Exmilitary dropped, Zach Hill (Death Grips’ drummer and math-rock legend) posted this on Twitter – a bizarrely stripped-down and terrifying drums-and-shouting deconstruction of rap, that exposed Hill’s presence more than anything else, whereas the album bore much less of his obvious influence. Waiting for the full-length to drop, my excitement was palpable.
  42. Girls – Vomit
  43. Joan of Arc – Love Life
  44. David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time
  45. Jenny Hval – Viscera
    Hval closes her masterpiece with a narrator who literally vomits out her own viscera while attempting yoga.
  46. Josh T Pearson – Honeymoon’s Great, Wish You Were Her
  47. Nicki Minaj – Super Bass
  48. Chelsea Wolfe – Mer
  49. Baths – Nordic Laurel
    crawling in the frost, i found it / like i’m still a little boy, i found it / gave it to my son and i crowned him / king of the nordic laurel around him – Baths does so, so much with so few words.
  50. Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever
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“I’ve learnt how to make that humming sound” – Jenny Hval and music of the body

Before I begin, if you haven’t already listened to Viscera by Jenny Hval, I might spoil some of the impact of it by dissecting it in this post! Listen on Spotify here, and then read the lyrics here.

Jenny Hval may be lacking a significant critical appreciation, but her work presents such a unique perspective that I think she should be considered an important voice in contemporary pop. She’s been ignored I suppose because of her feminism, her nationality (Norwegian is her native language, but her songs are all in English), and the uncompromising and discomforting nature of her music – it’s so challenging to listen to some parts that audiences dismiss her, shrug her off with a nervous laugh, rather than treating her music intellectually. Her unmistakably feminist agenda and graphic lyrical approach underscore a musical aesthetic that is not extreme in the sense of noise or speed, but in space and dynamics.

Hval is a Norwegian singer-songwriter, who has been creating music under the name Rockettothesky since the late 90s, releasing two albums under that moniker. She only recently caught my attention with her latest record, Viscera (2011), released under her real name. Rockettothesky’s To Sing You Apple Trees (2006) was, in Hval’s words, a pop album; it received radio airplay and a grammy nomination in Norway. But thematically, it’s more subversive than this suggests – many of the tracks seem inoffensively pleasant on a cursory listen, until you digest the lyrics, and the “singles” are interspersed with awkward experimental pieces. Hval was dissatisfied by the fame Apple Trees brought her, and followed it up with a more brooding, inaccessible record, Medea (2008). I still haven’t quite fallen in love with this album, but it bridges the pop sensibility of Apple Trees with the ambient soundscapes of Viscera and certainly contains some eerily beautiful moments. On Viscera, Hval’s meditative acoustic guitar patterns, embellished lightly by sparse percussion and electronics, provide a backdrop for her virtuoso, chameleonic vocals.

Taking inspiration from “intellectual” pornographic works such as Story of O  and Story of the Eye, Hval uses sexually explicit, psuedo-pornographically ugly language to explore the body. She presents a powerful force working against the invisibility of female sexuality in patriarchal culture, although arguably her lack of renown goes to prove how deeply-ingrained the problem is.

Femininity is a powerful force on this record, and rarely do artists depict the female body with such potency. Hval plays with the myth of vagina dentata on ‘Blood Flight’ and commands women to masturbate on ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’, and parallels her voice and speech to breast milk on ‘Milk of Marrow’. Most striking is Viscera‘s opening line, which I first heard not knowing at all what to expect from Jenny Hval. It blew me away, and I immediately knew I’d end up loving this album; it twists and folds like a story in itself, taking a while to reveal the final word, which you would never have second-guessed, never having heard of her: ‘I arrived in town… with an electric toothbrush… pressed… against my… clitoris…’

This is the most daring, provocative opening line to an album I’ve ever heard; it makes the first line of Arab Strap’s Philiophobia look a bit tame. Throughout the record, Hval has expressed that she wished to avoid the trappings of pornography, and so her depiction of sexuality with no societal or political overtones is purely bodily – crucially, gender is often discarded in the world of Viscera; Hval imagines the possibilities of sex in its purest form. While many feminist authors discuss sex in a similarly explicit and subversive way, (Hval emphasises her influence from the “literary feminist tradition”), an equally powerful feminist voice is surprisingly rare in music; feminism has mostly been represented in a political sense by the punk-inspired bands associated with the riot grrl movement. It’s difficult to remember any other musician tackling sexuality so frankly, particularly any women – the only other musician I can think of who has made music so explicitly about the female body is Björk, who I can imagine being frequently compared to Hval not just because they’re both female Scandinavians, but because the way Hval sings and experiments with instrumental timbres has an adventurousness only really precedented by Björk.

Viscera‘s title applies not just to the focus upon the body and internal organs in the lyrics, but her singing approach, often guttural and powerful but just as often whispered and atonal. It’s a form of singing that avoids intellectual expectations of what music is, aiming for a more primal representation of humanity; at the same time, her singing style doesn’t detract from the ambiguities of her lyrics. Its amorphous form reflects “feminine” writing, as described by feminists such as Hélène Cixous, by whom Hval was heavily influenced; Cixous implored women to write about their experiences, to reclaim language without masculine preconceptions, describing feminine writing as non-linear and vibrant, whereas phallogocentric writing is too linear to capture the imagination. Hval applies these theories of écriture féminine not just to her writing but to her delivery and musical approach – Viscera twists and turns unpredictably, and in terms of instrumentation, Hval’s experimental arrangements are more unstable and exciting than the worn-out, monotonous rock song form. She was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, not just in terms of the themes of flux, travel, and metamorphosis, but also, it reminds me of Woolf’s kaleidoscopic writing style.

Hval claims that the lyrics and music of the album were composed by improvisation. I tend to think this is an exaggeration, (‘Blood Flight’ was previously published as a poem, and it’s simply too tautly-constructed to be improvised!), but the idea of this unstable method of composition is a useful parallel to Viscera‘s themes of transition. It extends to the metaphors in the songs, as Hval also focuses strongly on the vocal cords; because of its improvisational quality, the composition of music is reflected in the music itself – the songs are not just about the body but part of the body too. This is reminiscent of the metaphor of the title of To Sing You Apple Trees, explored in ‘On Cherry Tree Song’, where the narrator eats fruit seeds which grow into physical trees/songs, both bodily and artistic: ‘An eyeball [and Hval makes the word sound like "apple"] dangles from a branch, watching, rolling in the breeze’.

You can actually track what happens to the vocal cords in the progression of Viscera. In track 2 (‘Blood Flight’), they are dormant, tentatively preparing: ‘Meanwhile the vocal chords [sic] were listening / for the wind howling, // whispering a familiar language of breath – / secret tales for them to learn’. Later the voice becomes more physical, in track 8 (‘Milk of Marrow’): ‘My voice turned to milk in your mouth / I gave you words: / the milk was from my breast’. The song itself becomes the object of sensuality, art becomes tangible and nourishing. In the final (title) track, the narrator purges herself (after yoga doesn’t work) of her actual internal organs, ending as her vocal cords ‘flowed like sea!weed / out / of / my / mouth’. Here this barrage of viscera is like a wave, which includes the vocal cords (more than just flaps of muscle!); the songs coming naturally like washed-up seaweed. In spite of the gore, it’s a calm end to the record. The final two tracks are in major keys, and feel more relaxed than most of the album, (‘Viscera’ is the most melodic, traditionally folksy song on here), and they at least resolve peacefully, as the acts of self-expression in these final two tracks provide peace. The action of singing is the same as the actual catharsis of spilling out everything inside her – by now, the body and identity have become intertwined. So the record is in itself the viscera of the title, and vice versa. It’s a very dense final image, a powerful and unforgettable way to end a record.

Jenny Hval – Live At The Office from MICnorway on Vimeo – via Drowned in Sound.

Hval has confronted the issues of being a female artist (and therefore subject to objectification devaluing her work) not just in interviews but also in the stark left-turn in To Sing You Apple Trees, the hilariously-titled ‘A Cute Lovesong, Please!’, in which she asks, in a tribal chant: ‘When you think of me do you masturbate? / I want to know that I can make a man ejaculate’. In an interview with The Quietus, she said: ‘A lot of female artists pose like they are saying, “When you think of me, do you masturbate?”, but of course, when I actually sing it, I break the illusion, and people react in a very different way. They become visible. I look back at them. I have to look back.’ It’s unusually brave for a female artist to second-guess her male critics so crudely, but her intentions are more complex than to simply admonish men for objectification – and we must remember the song is sung by a narrator rather than Hval herself. The narrator hopes that people do masturbate over her, as a sort of validation of her sexual identity. But the song is so un-feminine and primal, and vaguely disturbing to listen to, that it’s also a statement against patriarchal ideals of women, a refusal to suppress her individuality just to validate her sexual status – all the while acknowledging that sexual anxieties will exist nonetheless…

This is music created as a reaction against patriarchal pigeonholing of female artists: ‘The media never tires of writing about female artists in the most stereotypical fashion – and we always have to talk about what it’s like to be a female artist. [...] a “female” artist is something exclusive and at the same time limiting, which makes female artists seem like they have less personality than male artists. The result is that everybody hates talking about sex and gender, which really is a shame because it is a big part of what we do – the voice, words. But it’s a personal thing, and has to do with personal expression.’

Hval is important because she discusses sexuality while making it difficult to say anything condescending about how “her mind’s in the gutter” – which would lessen the impact of her sentiments. It’s also difficult for critics to respond, as is the fate of most female artists, by objectifying her – which sadly has happened to everyone from Liz Phair to Joanna Newsom, and even the likes of Bikini Kill.

But her view of sexuality is unique and at odds with gender constructions. In her songs, the body itself mutates and is subverted; it’s reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg. In ‘Cigars’ (from To Sing You Apple Trees) she groans ‘Lately I find your limbs growing out of my body; you call it love Picasso-style / and-I say, “Have you heard about those mice with ears growing out of their backs?”‘, before a keyboard solo springs in to cut out her strained voice, like an interruption. I find the image difficult to interpret, (perhaps something to do with his characteristics physically becoming part of the narrator?), but it fascinates me every time I hear it. She portrays sexuality as simultaneously sensual and grotesque.

Take, for instance, the lyric from ‘Barrie for Billy Mackenzie’ (from To Sing You Apple Trees): ‘I imagine all your hairs are fingers / and it makes me cum it makes images’. The narrator insists ‘I am no dirty hoe’ – sexuality is represented as this mind-openingly amazing, artistic experience, but the narrator is accused of being a ‘dirty hoe’. (These anxieties, in the form of a mutated version of the melody and lyrics, recur in a much darker form later in the album, on ‘Deep’). And contrarily, the narrator of ‘Golden Locks’ is told she isn’t sexually active enough: ‘”You just need to get laid” he says / “Your eyes look dull, and the hair lifeless and torn”‘. The narrator is frustrated at the futility of maintaining an appearance of sexuality by beautifying ‘The waste products of the body: / Hair and fingernails’, and envisions her dissociation with the body, as her hair ‘slowly melts to piss’, finally finding resolve (as the song modulates to the major key and becomes more tranquil) by fastening herself into her bathroom floor, which becomes a vessel. Hval conveys how impossible it is for women to maintain a stable sexuality when patriarchy will either deem you ugly/frigid or a whore.

But her music challenges these patriarchal preconceptions, denying the prescriptive patriarchal suppression of “deviant” sexuality. It’s most condensed in anti-phallogocentrism anthem (I love that Hval makes this a Thing) ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’ in which she preaches the multiplicity of possibilities for young girls (‘sometimes even you have to decide / which is up and which is down’). Suddenly launching into shoegazey rock band mode for the end lends a weight to her sentiments, as she implores the listener to find an individual form of expression and transition, outside of patriarchy: ‘Not all limbs have erections’. Or perhaps it’s a reminder that sexuality doesn’t have to inform everything – it’s up to interpretation.

Hopefully I’ve explored enough of what makes Hval important while leaving many stones still unturned. There are one or two great critical appreciations out there, the best thing I’ve read is this amazing cokemachineglow review. And it’s important to stress that my view on all this is very subjective. The metaphors are abstract and jarring enough to be treated entirely differently – you won’t know exactly how to respond to all of her imagery, but its power is undeniable. She treats her sexual subject matter with at once distance and personality, provoking both an unmissable reaction and plenty of food for thought.

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