Frying saxophone solos! Synthesizers recreating lost sunny days! Nihilistically lewd mixtapes inspiring dozens of new entries on Urban Dictionary! Tricked-out dubstep for American mall rats! The musical trends that defined much of 2011′s critically-lauded output were roundly ignored by my favorite records of the year. The best albums of the year invented their own one-band microgenres. EMA gave us California confessional poetry, while WU LYF reinvented protest punk for a generation without a cause. Wolves in the Throne Room continued to hone their environmental black metal. Das Racist refined their postmodern identity joke rap. Peaking Lights invented Midwestern dub, and Matthew Herbert imagined such a thing as porcine house. Colin Stetson’s Blood Meridian jazz was as refreshing as The Field’s glacial soul trance. The Weeknd was a visionaire who fashioned a shockingly sleazy form of rohypnol R&B. And then there was Björk doing her best Björk in years. As always, the bands that conveniently forgot that a dominant aesthetic existed in both the mainstream and the underground produced the most rewarding albums. Maybe this is more a reflection of personal taste, but 2011 seemed like a thrillingly strange year because it took me months to listen to anything that sat on top of the iTunes charts because I was so deeply enmeshed in an album of skronky avant-garde jazz. As a relatively low-key year (compared to the beast that was 2010), 2011 favored a lot of these dark horses and long shots if you were willing to listen past the noise of the lomography revivalists and the bedroom mix-masters.
Photo Credit: TheHutch
Caveat Emptor: There are records that you love that are not on this list. That’s because you didn’t make this list. But I would be really interested in seeing your lists, so please consider throwing it up in the comment section. Also, I know there are some really fine records that didn’t quite make the final list for whatever reason. Here are some of them in no particular order: Locrian, Handsome Furs, King Krule, Raekwon, Beyoncé, Kode 9 and Spaceape, Wild Flag, Spank Rock, Mastadon, ASAP Rocky, Big KRIT, Danny Brown.
Electric Wizard’s Black Masses felt as unsustainably large as a chest-searing bong rip, as untenably evil as a bad game of Dungeons & Dragons. But if you are looking for the meanest, coldest slab of heavy fucking metal, then Black Masses is the kind of record that makes you feel like a stoned demon basically whenever you throw on sludgy barn-burners like “Satyr IX” or “Black Mass.” Listening to this album even made mundane tasks like walking down to your local coffe shop for the paper and a cup of fair trade feel like an epic quest through a forbidden swamp for a mystic who possesses drugs that even the gods have yet named.
As a beat theorist, Clams Casino (Mike Volpe) is a hip hop Foucault slinging more rhetorical beats than can ever be answered by any single emcee. Of course, many—Soulja Boy, Squadda B, Lil B—tried to contend with Volpe’s unabashedly pretty critical theory. They didn’t fail, necessarily. But they just couldn’t compete with Volpe’s luxuriously slink grooves and elegantly sad beats. Which just sort of underscored how we haven’t even started to reach the full implication of Clams’ theories.
It’s tempting to think that Desolate’s bleak The Invisible Insurrection was a nice consolation price for not getting a new full length album from Burial. But this diminishes the quiet achievement of this haunted record. The Invisible Insurrection is impressionistic and atmospheric, favoring mood over rhythm. Just check out the ghosted “Cathartic.” And in this way, Desolate has created a viable counterpoint to the appropriation of dubstep that continued unabated this year.
The ponderously titled Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 is yet another slow-burning western of dusty portent. While this is not a radical departure from any Earth album from the past decade, it’s another solid addition to a catalog that includes incredible albums like The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull and Hibernaculum. As a heavy metal Morricone, Dylan Carson is a patient fabulist, favoring atmosphere over melody and evoking sun-scorched tumbleweed towns with the slightest shiver from his guitar.
Even though the New Jersey suburbanites are contemporaries of bedroom luminaries like Alan Palomo and Ernest Greene and Chaz Bundick, Real Estate have always been better at recapturing an aching sense of nostalgia. They don’t commit the common imitative fallacy whereby artists embrace the ancient technology (or some wondrous approximations of it) that allows them to communicate their nostalgia for the time period in which those technologies were actually contemporary. No, they write breezy albums filled with Stratocaster noodling that oddly recalls the way that the setting sun would color the roof of a strip mall in your boring suburb. And while the album doesn’t signal any significant departure or even expansion of the band’s recognizable sound, Days is a languid and sleep record that befits a group of normal guys arguing about Mark Sanchez in between takes.
ETSY rock will never be cool. Which means, more or less, that Feist will never be cool. And let’s be honest: Metals is not a cool record. But what it lacks in cultural capital, it more than makes up for in melodic songcraft. So what if “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” also breaks your mom’s heart? So what if “Cicadas and Gulls” catches in your throat as you hum it to yourself? So what if you ache to raise your lighter to the stirring conclusion to “Graveyard”? So what if “The Circle Married the Line” makes you tear up for reasons that you cannot quite explain? So what if it’s supremely uncool for Feist not to at least try to write something more like “1234” or “I Feel It All”? There are far worse things than being uncool.
Conceptual dance music sounds absolutely dreadful. Dance music should tap into your kinesthetic intelligence, not your regular intelligence. However, there’s something about Matthew Herbert’s deeply conceptual dance album One Pig that makes it both fascinating and danceable. Perhaps because its so throbbingly biological: samples taken from the life of a single pig—the snorts and oinks and grunts—become the percussive backbone of this patiently constructed album (check out the stunning “August 2010“). Or maybe because Herbert refuses to simply moralize about food politics, recognizing that our pieties get in the way of meaningful discourse. Either way, One Pig successfully avoids every possible reason for this project to fail.
According to Carey Mercer himself, Blackout Beach’s murky new album, bravely titled Fuck Death, was partially inspired by Archilochus’ fragments. Even if you have no idea who Archilochus was, you’re probably at least familiar with his most famous maxim: The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The idea here, developed best by Isaiah Berlin, is that some artists—the foxes—see the world as a place that can be understood in an infinite number of ways, while other artists—the hedgehogs—offer a single explanation or ideology to explain the world. Carey Mercer is a fox through and through. His perversely dark world of exotic characters barely holding onto their sanity is reexamined anew in each Frog Eyes or Blackout Beach record. Here, on Fuck Death, Mercer rewrites Kraftwerk to tell the surrealistic story of a war deserter. It’s a harrowing record that stands as one of Mercer’s foxiest albums.
In a musical moment that is obsessed with deconstructing trends and genre, many avant-garde theorists are finding widespread recognition for their obscure efforts. And no one is more fairly hailed than Oneohtrix Point Never, especially the electrically strange follow-up to last year’s Returnal. Replica deconstructs more lines of cultural logic than your average critical theory grad student: techno, hip hop, ambient are swept up in this fragmentary dissertation on the incredibly fine line between melody and noise.
As a lavish spectacle of hip hop pieties and conspicuous flossing, Watch the Throne was as ridiculous as it was extraordinary. At times, it felt impossible to take this album seriously because it freely quotes from Blades of Glory and blandly samples from “Try a Little Tenderness” and offers sincere commentary on black excellence and slings out an impressive amount of gaudy/catchy pop rap. There’s something fundamentally untenable about Watch the Throne, and yet we continued listening to “Who Gon Stop Me” and “Why I Love You” and “Gotta Have It” anyway. Because even at their most ridiculous, Jay and ‘Ye are still among the most entertaining performers in mainstream hip hop.
There are probably more records out there like Coasting’s infinitely charming You’re Never Going Back, but I certainly haven’t heard them. By splitting the difference between Sleater-Kinney and Vivian Girls, the duo behind Coasting—Madison Farmer and Fiona Campbell—are able to create shambling urban surf-rock that remains accessible while being intensely personal. From the sheer number of songs that employ the second person, You’re Never Going Back should seem bracingly accusative. But between the whirling chorus of “Friends” and the bummed out “Pirate’s Cove” and the catchy raveup “Kids,” this is a strangely affable record that hugs as hard as it bites.
Das Racist’s debut album is called Relax. Is that a command? A mission statement? Because it certainly can’t be a reflection of the state of mind of the average listener approaching this album. The album’s kaleidoscopic deconstruction of every hip hop piety is dizzying, especially when you consider that the punchline-per-second (PPS) is off the charts. But this goofy album succeeds because it begs a couple of important questions: 1) how funny can serious racial commentary be before it stops being instructive or thoughtful and 2) how serious can a joke be before its punchline hits a little too close to home? Answers: very very funny and very very serious.
Even at the end of 2010, after having released some of the most forwarding-looking bass music of the year, it remained unclear how James Blake would fare in the upcoming year with his debut album. But Blake cast aside anyone’s doubts by simply being all things to all listeners, a weirdly logical solution to predictable early-career crossroads. If you liked Blake’s post-postmodern deconstruction of the bass scene, then you were treated to that side of Blake the Producer. But if you liked Blake’s wounded cover of “Limit to Your Love,” then you could be swooned by Blake the Crooner. But beyond the brilliant career politics of his debut, James Blake was an outstanding album because it seemed to effortlessly reinvent an entire decade of R&B in one bassy song sequence.
Though I don’t believe that anyone can love an album for the wrong reasons, I have this awful feeling that I love John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves for the wrong reasons. I love this album because Maus is impossibly erudite about the intellectual underpinnings of the album. His interviews tend to read more like a collection of dissertation abstracts out of a Comparative Literature department. I love that for Maus using a dated synthline is a culturally rebellious statement about the reification of nostalgia. At a time when every bedroom producer is re-creating bad analog tones and timbres in a half-witted bid for authenticity, we need a man who is serious about understanding our relationship to abandoned and reclaimed aesthetics. Plus, we can always use someone who can write killer songs like “Believer” and “Quantum Leap.”
Each of Beirut’s previous records has centered on distinct aesthetic: Baltic waltzes, Gaullist torch songs, Oaxacan brass beauties. But The Rip Tide combines enough of these sounds that Beirut, for once, sounds like it’s occupying the realm of recognizable pop music. More melodically focused than Gulag Orkestar, more realistically ambitious than The Flying Club Cup, The Rip Tide is Beirut’s most singular statement to date, an accessible pop record that nonetheless smells of vodka and egg creams and stale Gauloises smoke.
Pinch and Shackleton’s eponymous joint effort is a superbly crafted and expertly produced clinic in the limits of futuro-space-dub. All the pleasure of this record was located in its detailing: the faint chorus that shows up in the closing minutes of “Levitation,” the tense bassline of “Torn and Submerged,” the backwards vocals of “Boracay Drift,” the horror movie anxiety of “Cracks in the Pleasuredome.” As an album Pinch and Shackleton is certainly anxious and fidgety, but it doesn’t feel harrowing so much as terrifically unnerving.
The thing that strikes you most immediately about Fucked Up’s lavish punk rock magnum opus David Comes to Life is its basic necessity. We need records like this because no one bothers to record such densely ambitious rock records like this anymore. We need more bands trading in the kind of aggressive sentimentality that defines the album’s best songs, “Queen of Hearts” and “The Other Shoe.” Because, you know and I know, there aren’t even that many people trying anymore. Bullshit, really.
Was there ever any real worry that Fleet Foxes would be unable to continue channeling Laurel Canyon FM gold with their gloriously uncool folk rock? With those harmonies? Please. Of course Helplessness Blues is a terrific record. Nearly every song is a romantic idyll that sells itself on the unlikely but abundant merits of this dewy-eyed band of bearded troubadours. Just check out the gorgeous title track that casts aside twenty-something ennui in favor of breathtaking swells of celestial harmonies. Hopefully, the next time Fleet Foxes book some studio time they will remind themselves that they can write beauties like “Montezuma” and “Lorelai.” Hopefully, this will be enough to keep the doubt at bay.
Folk dub should totally become a thing, right? Can you imagine earnest white kids from a Midwestern state university armed an bass guitar/drum machine combo and an encyclopedic knowledge of Wackies’ back catalog banging out the illest dubs that Des Moines or Minneapolis Sheboygan had ever heard? I mean, they could totally take a cue from the psychedelic dub wonder that is Peaking Lights’ 936. Because this record is a wholly unique specimen in the taxonomy of underground records: a sun-dappled dub record whose low end is frighteningly bottomless. If this folk dub thing ever catches fire, then 936 will become its Dub Roots, its Dub Me Crazy, its Super Ape.
In an inspiring fit of fuck-all, The-Dream decided to retaliate against Def Jam, his major label home, by self-releasing an entire album with some of slickest, most heartbroken music of his career. While I don’t know the full story, I can say with confidence that if Def Jam was holding out on this guy for a larger piece of the pie then the only logical rejoinder is to remind them that Terius Nash is one of the greatest songwriters of the last decade. In other words, 1977 could have gotten them paid. Though it’s unlikely the syrupy downers like “Long Gone” and “Wedding Crasher” were ever going to become FM staples, the album is just as solid as his previous three albums, trading in The-Dream’s increasingly histrionic pop melancholia.
The therapeutic hip hop epic is now officially an rap album subgenre, a sustainable trend that will get particularly interesting when Rick Ross and Danny Brown get around to recording to their own. In the meantime, we have Kanye West and Drake’s latest masterpieces to dissect for their gossip, their breathless desperation, their psychological acuity. Like Kanye’s best work, Drake’s Take Care is the record of a massive ego in genuine pain. The album reaches its emotional nadir with “Marvins Room,” a grand drunk-dial that reveals his dismal co-dependency. But elsewhere, Drake swings from empty boasts to candid laments, which made the album feel like a long bitch session with a friend who has had one-too-many. And in this way, Drake’s frankness is weirdly refreshing, inviting sympathy while accepting dismissal.
How to Dress Well’s devastating Just Once wasn’t a simple make-over job on a handful of standouts from Love Remains. This short record greatly expanded the boundaries of HTDW’s aesthetic. Simply compare the shy feedback of “Suicide Dream 1” on Love Remains with the gorgeous orchestral version on Just Once. This is an entirely different side of avant-garde crooner Tom Krell. But more importantly, however, is just how breathtaking these revisions have become. When Krell hits the climax, he poignantly wonders, “How can the world we know be lost?” It’s a devastating question with a devastating answer, an answer the the record tries to carefully explain: loss is inevitable, unavoidable, an unfair consequence of breathing anything—a friendship, a relationship, a hope—into existence.
The best closing track of the year has to be “Sweet Slow Baby” from The Field’s gorgeous Looping State of Mind. The slow revelation of the song’s most crucial details—the yawning synth, the flat piano chords, the faint mist of echoes—forces the song’s ultimate unification. What begins as uncharacteristic discord, strident musical elements clashing with one another, ends with a union, a merging that signals a sustained euphoric crescendo. This kind of slow fusion is Axel Willner’s primary aesthetic tool; it allows him to create a near symbiotic relationship between a song’s various elements. While much the icy repetition of From Here We Go Sublime has been replaced by earthier, more organic textures, The Field is still building crescendos on the backs of crescendos, fusing a blinding exaltation of musical unity.
The fact is that we’re likely going to have to wrestle with The King of Limbs for some time to come. Without being particularly demanding, the album might just be the most challenging Radiohead album to date. There’s a deliberate mismatch between the precision of the instrumentation and the smearing quality of Yorke’s vocals that creates a beguiling tension at the heart of the record. While Kid A felt channeled post-millennial paranoia into an epic hissy-fit of anxiety, The King of Limbs sounded more like a sleepy suicide letter. The album’s quiet and unassuming pessimism was unnerving, demoralizing even. But instead of simply sighing its way through downers like “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost,” Radiohead supplied lithely flexible numbers like “Separator” and “Lotus Flower.” While the album’s color palette was narrower than in albums past, Radiohead never succumbed to the career suicide of mere dour sulking.
Sympathize with any artist who has to record a follow up to a beloved record, but pity the artist who has to record a follow up to a record as ecstatically transcendent as Person Pitch. Noah Lennox had spent much of previous year slowly releasing songs from Person Pitch’s follow up in what I can only assume was an attempt to calibrate our expectations. For those who dully adjusted their hopes, they found a tidy and modest album that gave us eleven more instances of Lennox’s songwriting prowess (“Surfer’s Hymn,” “Alsatian Darn,” “Last Night at the Jetty”). For those who insisted that he match Person Pitch’s brilliance, they were disappointed, but they only had themselves to blame.
If Will Sheff can continue to write a dozen song-novels every other year, unite them thematically under an enticing title, and slap a cover on the collection, then I can continue to find room for him on my best-of lists. As indie rock’s reigning poet laureate, Sheff can both ruin and make your day over the course of a single affecting character study. And while I Am Very Far isn’t as thematically tight as basically every other Okkervil album, the record nonetheless features the requisite tight songwriting and playing from the entire band. But insofar as the album does have a unifying theme, it seems to highlight the feeling of lostness that haunts us from the cradle to the grave, the nagging feeling that we’re not where we should be.
In her own dark way, Zola Jesus (née Nika Roza Danilova) is a kind of bizarro Katy Perry. While Perry is a glittering surface onto which listeners project their blandest sentiments, Danilova is all depth, a boundless chasm of hypertrophied adult emotions. Where Perry finds support for her husky sex kitten act in slick production, Danilova assaults her throaty voice with industrial grind and churn. The only real point of comparison is that these two songbirds represent similar things to their audiences: supremely talented singers whose deadly serious voices communicate something much larger than their small bodies suggest. Listening to stunners like “In Your Nature” or “Hikikomori” or “Ixode,” you’re struck by the unnerving maturity of Danilova’s songwriting. Almost as if this voice has had to say more mean or tender or wise or foolish or affectionate or cutting things than such a young life could scarcely require.
Though I’ve always liked a song or two from each of St. Vincent’s previous albums, I never counted myself a faithful follower. In fact, it wasn’t until I watched the waifish Annie Clark turn Big Black’s ugly-as-fuck “Kerosene” into a towering monument to furious misanthropy that I actually got St. Vincent: Annie Clark is a battleground between the heart and the spleen. Strange Mercy, then, opened itself up to me, revealing its complicated emotional machinery, its precision gear system, its bilious circuitry. From the strangely jaunty “Cruel” to the deadpan sadness of “Champagne Year,” Strange Mercy was the remarkable album that finally helped me understand the treasure we have in Annie Clark.
The feral beauty of Celestial Lineage was all in its panoramic vistas. Beyond the brutal instrumentation and unearthly howls, Wolves in the Throne Room is a band who is serious about making music that feels as incomprehensibly large and as magnificently alive as the biological hothouse a couple of doors down from the sun. Staring into the savage heart of Celestial Lineage could be intimidating—the album opens with the impressively dense “Thuja Magus Imperium”—because it meant staring into very horror of environmental degradation. For all its ferocious grandeur, Celestial Lineage is primarily interested in the sublime, the throat-clenching primordial terror of nature’s transcendent power.
Björk’s full-flowered return to form as a celestial sprite—hopping between solar systems, hiding in virus structures, shifting among tectonic plates—was so welcome surprise. After the experimental exercise of Medulla and the post-millennial breakdown of Volta, Björk seems to have the overwhelming urge to wrap her arms around a tree and a fiber-optic cable and the mysterious void of the universe for the first time in a while. From the liturgical “Cosmogony” to the sweet “Virus” to the amorphous “Mutual Core,” Biophilia is proof—again and again and again—that all is full of love, a thesis Björk has revised and restated a thousand times over, only to say it again in the plainest, most exhilarating language she knows.
Most black metal bands lack the imagination to devise a new set of tasks for their sound. They simply find ways of reaffirming a sound that Mayhem or Burzum invented nearly 20 years ago. On their magnificent Aesthethica, Liturgy sound different than most black metal bands because they are different than most black metal bands. This is a genuinely progressive USBM band that refuses to subscribe to a lot of Norweigan nonsense about pagan metaphysics or rigid rules of aesthetic integrity. Aesthethica is the kind of forward-thinking record that forces a question that a comfortably underground genre like black metal would rather not ask: does anyone really want to listen to joylessly expert iteration of the same kvltish blast beats over and over again?
Carl von Clausewitz called war diplomacy by other means, a continuation of the political process of negotiation and compromise. From any reasonable moral standpoint, this is absolute horseshit. War is simply the most effective engine of death that human has ever designed, one that even bests the cruel facts of biology. And PJ Harvey’s harrowing Let England Shake essentially made this argument, reminding of the human consequences of such negotiations. The battered psyches and frayed nerves, the battlefields carpeted with bodies, the casual disregard for human dignity, the searing irony of victory, the irreversible losses that occur on such an incalculable scale that it produces paralysis. War, Harvey suggests, is diplomacy only to those without imagination or sympathy or common humanity.
Call it the Joyce Carol Oates principle, but prolificacy does not guarantee consistency. Bradford Cox instinctively understands this law of culture enough that he’s almost always reserved his experiments for his Atlas Sound moniker. This is why he has given away whole albums and dozens of virtual 7-inches under this name: giving something away for free usually keeps critics at bay. But a funny thing has happened to Cox over the past two years: he has started to defy the JCO principle by maintaining his grueling production schedule and ensuring that almost everything that comes out the other end meets the exacting expectations his fans have developed. This much is clear listening to Parallax, yet another excellent album from Bradford Cox. Between the tender “Te Amo” and the rousing “Lightworks,” this album is another stunning collection of outstanding songs from the hardest working man in indie rock.
For better or worse, this year was marked by thrilling revolutions across the globe. Watching the people of Egypt peacefully amass in Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of their patriarchal dictator was inspiring. Just as it was inspiring to watch Wisconsinites gather at the state capital to defend their public union rights. Just as it was inspiring to watch protesters of every walk occupy Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to insist on income equality. Inadvertently, WU LYF’s larger-than-life Go Tell Fire on the Mountain became the soundtrack to every movement where people choose economic fairness over economic inequality, personal liberty over financial bondage, life over death. For all its sputtering anger and righteousness, Go Tell Fire is the sound of a generation of young people choosing a hard-won course for their own lives.
There’s plenty of music out there that sounds lonely; any semi-talented undergrad with an acoustic guitar can replicate the sound of heartbreak in the dorm. But it’s rare that an artist can actually capture what it feels like to be lonely. Bon Iver’s magnificent doubly eponymous sophomore album manages to communicate the tender insularity of being lonely in the middle of the day. This record is as much about being haunted by your past as it is about being haunted by your present, an inescapable feeling that you are supposed to be anywhere else than where you are. Though Bon Iver, Bon Iver is certainly a bit of a downer, it’s so painfully alive that it is weirdly thrilling to find the full spectrum of your own emotional life—from quiet joy to hushed sadness—transcribed in this modestly plaintive music.
The last great testament to Gil Scott-Heron’s genius is also the first great testament to Jamie XX’s talents. Featuring two men at opposite ends of their careers, We’re New Here should have been a throwaway project, a commission that should have earned a paycheck and not a career. Even after The XX’s well-earned accolades, Jamie XX is hustling harder than almost anyone else, crafting a remix album that vastly surpasses its original material. Totally re-imagining tracks like “NY is Killing Me” and “Running,” Jamie XX has grafted killer beats with bottomless bass and neck-snapping snare drums onto Scott-Heron’s wizened old poetry. The total effect is a disquieting record that gracefully closes out one career while ushering a new one.
Halfway through the stunning “California,” the beatific EMA sighs: “Love in the time of scandal/Love in the form of tragedy/Love so much, so real, so fucked, it’s 51-50.” Those plain numbers refer to the California code for involuntary psychiatric hold in which someone is deemed a danger to him/herself. For EMA, love really is a blood sport: “Butterfly Knife” finds psychic relief in the titular blade and “Marked” wishes for a lover to leave his mark every time he touches our narrator. The album is about running away from painful realities before summoning the courage to face them down. The album completes an agonizing cycle in its closing minutes, finding solace in a measure of self-awareness: “I know that nothing lasts forever/If you won’t love me, someone will.”
As hip hop enters its fifth or sixth identity crisis, there are a lot false prophets claiming to be the game’s savior. And discerning the viability of each of these candidates has become exclusive focus of too much hip hop criticism. What gets lost in the weary cycle of hype and backlash are the masterpieces that look forward without making imperialist claims. Shabazz Palaces’ superb Black Up was the best hip hop record of the year because it was infinitely more interesting and vital than anything the juvenile hucksters from Odd Future could pull from their unwiped asses. This album is so dense and initially inscrutable that it’s particularly difficult to explain what’s happening at any given moment on the record. Mostly, though, it’s some of the most addictively weird hip hop that anyone has released since Stankonia revised rap’s standard model. Listening to amorphous, enigmatically-titled jams like “Are you . . . Can you . . . Were you . . . (Felt)” or “Swerve . . . the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” or “Youlogy,” it occurs to you that hip hop’s perpetual identity crisis is manufactured by personalities without the bold talent and audacious vision to make it remarkable again.
In a year when the golden screech of a saxophone became the instrument du jour, Colin Stetson’s epic New History Warfare Volume 2 (and its companion extended play, Those Who Didn’t Run) reclaimed the instrument for unironic ends. Stetson’s fat and prickly compositions sound ghosted, paranoid of the universe’s cataclysmic potential. Whether truly apocalyptic or merely eschatological, New History Warfare sounds as if its broadcast from a time and place in the future where entropy reaches its most totalizing form. But instead of being a bleak exercise in nihilistic teleology, Stetson rescues every piece just as it starts to become overwhelming by finding a humane center amid the chaos, a figure, a line, a subtle tonal shift that reveals something distinctly tender and raw.
Back in June, I wrote that The Weeknd’s House of Balloons was “the sound of [Abel Tesfaye] impressed with the repulsiveness of his own image.” And why shouldn’t he brag about his the levels of depravity that he’s reached? He has found a coping mechanism for the psychic toll of romantic disappointment and empty materialism and death consciousness. He’s numbed himself beyond almost all recognition, finding temporary relief in meaningless sex and hard-edged drugs. As bleak as these albums sound—a bombed-out city of R&B signifiers—they are not utterly hopeless. Instead, they a slick revolt against meaninglessness that heroically recalls Sisyphean absurdity. For Camus, Sisyphus’ eternally fruitless struggle to roll the boulder over the hill was a symbol of our fight against the essential meaninglessness of life: by acknowledging the certainty of our empty fates, we are free to accept our condition and happily pursue meaningless tasks, which, paradoxically, forge existential meaning. The empty sex and hard drugs in lavish hotels may only appear to be a grimly pointless pursuit, but The Weeknd has elevated them to status of existential recreation that says everything we need to know about how to comport ourselves in the face of an indifferent universe. We must imagine The Weeknd happy.