Bloc Party, "Hymns" by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Bloc Party 


I pronounced Hymns dead on arrival soon after the release of "The Good News." If that track was considered a single, what hope did the record have? And don't get me wrong—while I may have called the time of death a little early, Hymns is not a good album, not by any stretch of the imagination.

If, like me, you haven't been able to shake Bloc Party's hold on your life (Silent Alarm forever, yo!), and you want to do as little damage to yourself as possible while listening to Hymns, skip over "The Love Within" (that weird 'nu-disco' quirkiness wears off fast, trust me), "The Good News," and "Into the Earth." This will spare you the brunt of the pain. Sadly, this still does not a good record make.

There are fleeting moments on Hymns when Bloc Party still feel as poignant and important as they did back when dance floors were awash with "Helicopter" and Phones' remix of "Banquet." One of those moments is "Only He Can Heal Me." Built around chanting voices and lockstep drums, the song provides Kele with an ample aural landscape to show off his strengths as a vocalist and lyricist. A tragic (perhaps transcendent) love story built on a religious scaffolding ("And let me wait until my savior comes home, for only he can save me"), the track's only serious flaw is its restraint. Russell's guitar waits patiently in the wings for much of the song, and definitely adds to the composition when it finally arrives, but as with the entirety of Hymns, there is a remote, distant quality to even the strongest tracks, especially noticeable in a band who built their reputation on the releases that often derived much of their energy from being that one step too close to the edge.

While there is something narcotic about the better segments of Hymns, the lingering grey of January ensures these songs aren't ineffective. "Fortress" offers a failing echo of the love we felt as adolescents: "Pull me under, under the ocean / Cover my mouth, with yours." "Different Drugs" takes that same love and warps it, forcing it through a glass darkly: "I'm trying to broach the distance that's growing in our lives / From the night until the morning, like we're on different drugs / Did I say too much? Did I take too much?" If there's something to champion on this album, it's Kele's confidently unconfident lyrics, the strength with which he delivers, "Do you still think of me fondly? Do you still think of me?" or the desperate, whispered wit of a line like, "Reach down and feel how strong my love grows, just for you."

There is a solid EP to be made from parts of Hymns. Granted, one that is better suited to watching the fog descend upon a city than to celebrate it's existence, the life it contains within. When the album succeeds, it thrives in twilight and obscurity, in those drunken, shambling moments where we find beauty in the gauzy streetlights lining the way home to empty beds. We've all been there, and there is comfort to be found in those moments. If only Bloc Party had found a way to better explore those muted, liminal moments within Hymns, perhaps then they'd have crafted an escapist document suited for our times. Instead we're presented with two or three songs worth revisiting, and yet another wasted opportunity for a band that once shaped an entire musical landscape.

Future, "Purple Reign" by Patrick Thomson

Purple Reign


Rap isn't always comfortable with melancholy: most emcees, given the line "they treat you like God / when you beat the odds", would deliver it in a spirit of celebration. But from Future—Nayvadius Wilburn, age 32, scion of Atlanta's Dungeon Family collective—it's a hollow cry, infused through-and-through with thorough melancholy. Though 2015 saw him score his first #1 album with DS2, and his current mixtape run—2013's Monster, 2014's Beast Mode and 56 Nights, and 2015's What a Time to Be Alive—already ranks among the most fruitful in the history of the medium, he evinces no joy in his creative zenith. No rapper is more buzzed-about right now, and none is less impressed by his own spectacle.

With Purple Reign, Future and DJ Esco draw more on the dark sonic excesses of Monster than the playfulness of Beast Mode or the futurism of 56 Nights. But whereas Monster was propelled by its own drunken anger, Reign paints a portrait of Future after that anger has faded: Future as paranoid king, anhedonic at best and improding at worst, exhausted by his street ubiquity, critical cachet, and consistent commercial success. He obsesses over the past—over selling his aunt drugs, visiting his uncle in prison, his descent into his averred addiction, and, most dramatically, over women. His voice is an instrument all of its own: low, rumbling, like Auto-Tuned gravel knocking around inside a car's muffler. He uses it wonderfully: bellowing, shrieking, mumbling, pulling up to falsetto for emphasis.

Unlike the previous entries in the post-Monster run, no one producer helms the majority of Reign's production. The usual suspects—Metro Boomin', Southside, Zaytoven, Nard & B—are present, along with new collaborators K Major and Jon Boii; some careful track selection on the part of Future's team provides a sense of sonic unity and keeps it short (just a hair over 40 minutes). Metro's "All Night" sounds like a trap take on a Jodorowsky score. "Inside the Mattress" will no doubt be a hit; its glossy synths piled atop chirping chiptune squawks allow Future to do what he does best—float from one melody to another. The only clunker is Zaytoven's overly-repetitive "Bye Bye".

Underneath Future's always-freestyled lyrics and mumbled delivery, there is an observant, sensitive poet. He'll hone in on a series of off-the-wall rhymes ("Spanish", "panoramic", "asparagus", and "embarrassing") and then swerve wildly into the maudlin ("I know you still check your DMs from time to time", he mumbles to some unnamed paramour—how more modern can crooning get?). Future's dissects the subject of his own drug addiction—though by his own admission, it is not as profound as he portrays it on record, his work hinges on drugs as muse. He chronicles a life spent torn between competing excesses, the chronicle of a war conducted with oneself: as always, rap is about believability, not authenticity. And anyone who has spent any time at the wrong end of a drug habit will instantly understand Future's dispatches from the trenches.

If Reign has any particular faults, it is slightly too sedate. There is nothing here quite as astonishing as "March Madness", as menacing as "Shit", as catchy as "Itchin". His greatest heights, in the spirit of Monster's glorious "Codeine Crazy", come in the album closers, two morose yet blissed-out ballads—"Perkys Calling" and "Future Purple Reign". The first—"Perkys Calling"—finds Future grappling with his chief demon, opiates: "I can hear them Perkys calling," he sings hoarsely over three ghostly piano chords, "and when I push up in that Rolls, I'm still drankin'." And on "Future Purple Reign", he grapples with the other primary demon: love. The beat slurs backwards and forwards, writhing beneath a skittering hi-hat and intermittent bass, as he warbles, in a moving yet sure-to-be-memed hook, "I just need my giiiirlfriend". (The fact that Purple Reign comes with its own emoji was not lost on said ex-girlfriend, as her Instagram comments got flooded with purple ☔️ raining ☔️ umbrellas ☔️).

Purple Reign will no doubt sate the hunger of the #FutureHive, at least for a while. Very little music this good is still given away for free, especially in this age of blurry distinctions between mixtape and album. It's not earth-shattering, but it is a worthy entry in the Great Future Mixtape Streak. What's indisputable is that melancholy, or at least Future's brand thereof, now has a place in rap.

Vince Staples, "Summertime '06'" by Patrick Thomson

Vince Staples
Summertime '06
Def Jam


Trauma has left its mark on Vince Staples. "You can ask anybody that knows me—I hate when it's loud around me," he intones in an interview with Noisey. "I grew up in a very loud place. I heard a lot of ambulances, a lot of helicopters, a lot of gunshots that never made it to the news [...] Niggas who know me like 'Vince, you don't have fun!' I'm like 'Nah, I don't have time for that.'" Summertime '06, Staples's major-label debut, is a record of trauma—Staples plays the role of war correspondent, grimly chronicling the violence endemic to his hometown of Long Beach. It is an extraordinary record, among the best rap debuts in recent memory, a Homeric tale of war and a paean to lost innocence.

Staples's rise to fame has been slow: his early-2010s features with Odd Future brought him critical acclaim and showed his status as one of the few whose verbal and poetic talents match (and sometimes exceed) OF's lyrical-genius-in-residence Earl Sweatshirt. It took some time for Vince to truly find his voice and to differentiate his work from OF's distinctive sound and gross-out subject matter, but by the time of his 2014 mixtape Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 2 it became clear that he was an artist in decisive control of his message and aesthetic. This aesthetic manifests itself most notably in the very layout of the record: though it clocks in at an hour overall, it is split into two thematically-separate discs.

Vince's voice is high, raspy, cutting; he wields it brutally and swiftly, never wasting a syllable. "He has gills," Mac Miller avers about Vince's intense, near-breathless flow, and the normally laconic Earl Sweatshirt speaks in awe: "He's the best rapper, dude—he takes the shortest amount of time to do the tightest shit. I just like to keep Vince around me when I'm writing shit. 'Cause I think he's better than me. It makes me try real hard." Vince's raps are less ostentatious in their poetry than most of his peers, but his analogies are painfully vivid ("Bandana brown like the dope daddy shootin' in the kitchen"), his laments moving ("They never taught me how to be a man / only how to be a shooter"), and his humor as grim as his subject matter: there is a sort of hollow-eyed amusement in threats like "Waiter still ain't brought the chopsticks, should've brought the chopper."

Summertime switches rapidly, at times dizzyingly, between perspectives: the only constant is Long Beach itself, its influence so profound that it might as well be the main character. Its landmarks—Ramona Park, Artesia Boulevard, Staples's childhood home of 3230 Poppy Street—serve as anchors for and witnesses to the suffering the record so starkly portrays. Race, and the suffering present in America's inner-cities, is inextricably linked with the album's message. Vince despises the notoriously violent Long Beach police department, doubts Obama's promises of hope and change, and reviles white America's urge to snuff out black lives while ravenously consuming black culture:

Don't shake my hand unless you're passing payment
Keep your saluations, I need my forty acres
Why they hate us? Why they want to rape us for our culture?
They greet, defeat us, bleed us, then they leave us for the vultures
They break the brilliant off with millions, tryna break our focus
More tan the man, the more alone and hopeless

The video to lead single 'Señorita' portrays a dead-end street in shambles, its occupants (all of color) felled one-by-one by invisible gunshots, before revealing the scene as a museum exhibit, watched by an immaculately groomed and coiffed white family. It is stark, Lynchian, its strength of symbolism powerful.

Staples's best work ('Trunk Rattle', 'Blue Suede') combined minimalist, bleak beats with an unrelenting, near-breathless flow, and Summertime perfects this formula. Def Jam producer emeritus No I.D. handles the majority of the production: his beats are ominous and dense, backed by unnerving synth chords and spare yet hard-hitting percussion. "Street Punks" could've been a cut off the Clipse's Hell Hath no Fury, with a looping minor-key melody and some boom-bap bass drums, while the smeared and jangly guitar of "3230" sounds like Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead. Clams Casino contributes three outstanding beats (including the truly spectacular 'Summertime'), and rising talents DJ Dahi and Christian Rich round out the rest of the production team. An odd yet effective team of featured artists provides backup—swooping vocals from fellow No I.D. protege Snoh Aalegrah, a whispered guest verse from experimentalist Kilo Kish, and brief cameos from longtime collaborators Joey Fatts and Earl Sweatshirt.

Single 'Norf Norf' stands out: Vince's tales of the drug trade oscillate between pathos and hostility, from "Hit the corner, make a dollar flip / split the dollars with my mama children" directly into "folks need Porsches, hoes need abortions / I just need y'all out of my business / never no problem, spraying, no witnesses." The chorus, at first a repeated affirmation "I ain't never ran from nothing but the police" to a strangled yelp "northside Long Beach, northside Long Beach" is irresistably catchy despite its dead-eyed fatalism.

Summertime '06 is brilliant through-and-through, its successes triumphant and its few missteps slight. The days of Ruthless Records and Death Row are long over, but Staples is carrying on the legacy of LA gangster rap: this is a brutal, cold, and at times heartbreakingly sad record. Staples has used his trauma to forge one of the best records of the year, both love letter and jeremiad to a sick neighborhood in a sicker country.

Early contender for Song of the Year 2015 by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

For anyone living in the mid-Atlantic region or New England, I'd avoid this post. It won't make sense. March hasn't ushered in those hopeful sunny days promising the end of winter, and as such I'm not sure West Kust's "Swirl" is going to do much but whisper of a warmth and quality of light that is little more than a distant hopeful echo to you right now. You're probably listening to the sad songs off Radiohead's The Bends, perhaps even Sigur Rós' "Untitled 3" on repeat.

That said, West Kust are from Sweden, so it's not like the weather's a whole hell of a lot better out there right now. Maybe it's intentional, the dissonance. Or maybe Tuesday's release was meant primarily for West Kust's Australian fans. Or maybe they knew that Seattle has had more days of sun than rain in the last few weeks—hell, it's over 60° F and ridiculously sunny right now—and knew we needed a jam to help celebrate this feeling of early spring. I'll let history be the judge.

Anyways, if you love shoegaze, especially the distortion-tinted variety, "Swirl" is right up your alley. If you're a fan of Swedish indie pop/rock or fellow Swedish shoegazers School '94, that's not going to hurt your appreciation of this song.

If this song isn't on my "Best Songs of 2015" playlist, I'll be seriously surprised. Right now, I expect to be find it quite high up on that list.

And if you haven't heard of West Kust before, let's fix that.

A Conversation with Finland's Freeweights by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Many of us audiophiles (read: music snobs) are rather guarded, cynical people, careful to hide ourselves and our feelings behind carefully woven veils of irony, cautiously maintaining a distance. As such, we are distrusting of music that doesn't try to make us connect disparate dots into constellations of meaning, that doesn't force us to search the fog for something concrete. And when we do like something that doesn't hide itself away in layers of ambiguity, we do so ironically, calling it a "guilty pleasure," a term that shields us from truly identifying with something so upfront, so uncomplicated.

Cutting through these anxiously constructed layers of bullshit are the fantastic compositions of Helsinki's Freeweights. Instead of dealing in uncertainty, Freeweights work with neon lights. Their '80s-inspired tracks are a breath of fresh air—a defiant, youthful expression of honesty, paired with a level of talent and musical craftsmanship not often associated with contemporary pop music. There's no guilt in this pleasure.

If you haven't given Freeweights a listen before now, you need to seriously get on that. Like, right now. Here, I'll make it easy on you.

And if you're not on Spotify, Freeweights have put all of their songs up on their website to listen to for free. "Losing Sleep" is a personal favorite, but you literally can't go wrong with their music. Just hit play.

And now on to the main event! 

A huge thanks to Markus Pirilä—Freeweights' guitarist and primary songwriter—who was kind enough to talk with me about everything from Tom Cruise films to wanting to play the Super Bowl halftime show one day. Certainly would have been nice to have Freeweights' music stuck in my head when Russell Wilson handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch for the game winning touchdown a few days ago, but, alas, it was not to be...

This City of Islands: What brought you all together as a band two years ago? Had any of you worked on music projects before Freeweights?

Markus: We started Freeweights with Toni (vocals) and myself (guitar) as a duo back in 2012, but we weren’t really a band back then. After our friends Anssi (bass), Antti (drums), and Kane (synths) joined us in 2013 things really got started. All of us had bands and musical projects before, but Freeweights started as a band with no pressure. We just have a passion to make very sincere pop music with a lot of emotion.

While it's not hard to hear the '80s influences in your music, what are the bands you guys take inspiration from that may not be readily apparent in your music?

Yeah, we do like '80s music, but not just because of the sounds or the crazy looks those bands had. I just think the music and the delivery from that era is so sincere and loaded with honest emotions without any irony. About the other influences, I think movies—especially Tom Cruise movies—have affected us pretty heavily. If these movies have nice looking cars in them, all the better. And, of course, relationships provide the best ideas for songs—you can’t deny that.

There's been a pretty strong '80s revival in music for a while now, but most contemporary acts seem influenced by bands like the Cure, Joy Division, and the Chameleons. What attracted you all to a more new wave pop sound pioneered by bands like Johnny Hates Jazz, Breathe, Culture Club, and other similar groups who were able to marry pop accessibility and musical depth?

That’s a good question. When we first started, we were exploring those muddy analog synth sounds for sure, but something dragged us towards cleaner, crisper sounds and moods introduced by the bands you mentioned. And by implementing some of these sounds in our songs we were able to bring more positive vibes, depth, and air to the music. I think our passion for that new wave-ish pop sound also has a lot to do with the music our parents were listening to when we were growing up. Bands like Go West, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny G, etc., were rotating heavily on their record decks.

While your sound is quite unique compared to the American scene, are there bands doing similar things to Freeweights in Scandinavia or elsewhere in Europe? What are the local/regional bands you guys are into right now?

I’m sure there are a lot of bands doing music with similar influences and even with similar sounds. Some bands just do it with a lot of irony attached to their music, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that's not the thing with Freeweights—we don’t have a lot of irony in our songs. I think this will stand out in the long run. I also like the fact that we’re basically a classic pop band using a rock setup, we’re not just another electro pop group.

Regarding local bands, there are a lot of great bands in Finland. It’s hard to name any without leaving someone out. Sorry! 

What is your songwriting process like?

I write the music usually at home using my crappy Logic programming skills. After that the real work begins, I bring a demo to the rehearsals and we start playing it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Everyone does their part, for sure.

The production on your music is incredible. Where do you guys record? What recording software do you guys use? Is Kane available to teach me via Skype how to produce music the way he does? Can he rope Matias in on the call, too?!

Thank you. We’re a DIY band and extremely proud of it. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but we record practically all the instruments and vocals at our rehearsal space using a laptop. All the credit for this goes to our synth player/producer Kane. He’s a skilled professional studio engineer and he really does the magic when we want to sound good. Big thanks also to Matias from Audiamond for the mastering help. As said, I use Logic for putting together a demo and when we’re finalizing the songs. Kane uses ProTools. Ping, Kane, and Matias, share the knowledge.

Do you guys have plans to release a full album in the near future?

Sure, there are plans for an album—and we've got the material also—but we feel that we need a proper label to work with because our resources are just too limited. So until a publisher comes along that believes in our cause, we'll continue releasing singles and keeping our fans satisfied in small doses.

Are there any plans for larger European tours? Even—fingers crossed—an eventual American tour?

Of course an American tour would be the ultimate thing to happen one day. A half time show for Superbowl would be nice, too. We’ve already done a Baltic tour, and hopefully this year we can do some gigs elswhere in Europe!

What can people expect from Freeweights over the coming year?

Awesome gigs and new releases. We’re gonna record new songs, release a new music video, and hopefully we get on the road for an European tour soon.

Lil Wayne, "Sorry 4 the Wait 2" by Patrick Thomson

Lil Wayne
Sorry 4 the Wait 2
Young Money Entertainment


The degree to which Lil Wayne apologizes on Sorry 4 the Wait 2, his latest free-to-download (link) mixtape effort, is mildly alarming. He does so on nearly every song, going past penitence and halfway into self-debasement. On one level, Wayne's apologia is baffling: begging forgiveness for one delayed album, when he has more than 30 releases under his belt, seems insecure at best and insincere at worst. But work ethic has been the defining factor in Wayne's success—he paved the way for a new generation of hip-hop experimentalists by bombarding his audience with music, the vast majority of it free to download. We forgave his missteps (and there were many) because he was capable of giving away work like Dedication 2 or Da Drought 3: career-definingly good records, so overwhelmingly lyrical so and gleefully innovative that they could have only existed outside of the constraints of the major-label scene.

The good news is that, with S4tW2, Wayne has little to apologize for. It is, of course, not Dedication 2 or Drought 3, but it is strong, certainly the best thing Wayne has done since 2012's underrated Dedication 4. The beats are well-selected (the majestic bombast of O.T. Genasis's CoCo, the ubiquitous-but-still-great Hot Nigga, Rae Sremmurd's No Type) and the tracklist is blessedly free of C-grade hangers-on (Drake, 2 Chainz, and old chum Mack Maine are the only guests). Its highlights include a frenetic, manic take on Future's "Shit", and the ominous "Selsun Blue". The album suffers greatly two-thirds of the way in, with a truly awful and self-indulgent version of "Drunk in Love" (featuring current love-interest Christina Millian) and a deeply unappealing go at the instrumental to OG Maco's "U Guessed It". Album closer "Dreams and Nightmares" thankfully provides some serious redemption: Wayne spits a truly excellent, four-minute, uninterrupted verse, with shots aimed very squarely at those calling him washed-up: "Hold up, wait a minute / you thought I was finished? / Shoot you in your head and then just walk off like I didn't."

Lyrically, S4tW2 never gets as thoroughly menacing nor as free-wheelingly experimental as we've heard him in the past, but his classic lyrical choices are still there: pop culture references (Nick Lachey from 98 Degrees, Katniss from The Hunger Games, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), gross-out sex lines ("let her drink too much, now her pussy taste like Smirnoff"), and absurd threats ("Riding down with the volume down, with the windows up and the choppers down / soon as we get to your block, it's the motherfucking other way around"). Yet even by the standards of his prior work, S4tw2 is at points egregiously misogynist—boasts like "she say she can be my housewife and keep my house clean / I said shut the fuck up and put this dick back in your mouth please" are cringe-inducingly cruel and mar an otherwise-consistent effort.

Wayne's primary strength as a rapper is his voice—"[he] hollers, sings, sighs, bellows, whines, croons, wheezes, coughs, stutters, shouts", as David Ramsay put it—and vocally he is in fine form. His flow has grown faster and more frantic with age, and his pecularly strangled drawl is higher-pitched than it once was. Auto-Tune, enjoying a new wave of popularity, is all over the tape, though used more as a melodic decoration on top of Wayne's raps than an aid to singing.

Besides the near-constant apologies, a dominant theme of S4tw2 is Wayne's consistent shots at Cash Money Records and Birdman, his father-figure and benefactor throughout his career. Wayne has consistently blamed Cash Money for the delay of Carter V, and he disses them on nearly every track. It's sad to see one of rap's great partnerships (though an admittedly lopsided one) come to an acrimonious end.

Wayne is the rap game's aging maestro, its Kobe Bryant, over the hill yet too defiant to simply sit back and accept being a part of the rap canon. His fingerprints are all over rap music—Young Thug's Martian noodling, Chief Keef's perpetually-stoned jeremiads, Migos's excess and surreal boasts. On "Fingers Hurting", Wayne avers that he's "gotta let them know that Lil Tunechi still Tunechi, bitch". Warts and all, he has: Sorry 4 the Wait 2 is the sound of a great rapper, though no longer an effortlessly brilliant one, putting serious effort into his craft.

A Rather Subjective Look Back At The Music of 2014 by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

I've been meaning to get to this piece for weeks (months?) now. A cross-country move (D.C. to Seattle) involving a ten-day roadtrip across the country with my best friend Alan, the NFL playoffs, and generally getting settled into my new home in the Emerald City has, somewhat understandably, delayed much by way of progress.

This has also been a hard year-end review to find my way into. 2013 was a big, loud year—Kanye's Yeezus dominated much of the conversation, even here on This City of Islands; Boards of Canada put out of their first album in forever, and it was brilliant; Sigur Rós found a haunting dark edge to incorporate into their work; Haim stole our hearts; it was an incredible year for hip hop, with Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper, and Danny Brown releasing phenomenal records, and let's not forget the first Run the Jewels collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike; the Arcade Fire made headlines (good and bad) with Reflektor and their CMJ show; and Foals put out perhaps their best album to date with Holy Fire. By comparison, 2014 has been 2013's quiet, shy cousin—more a year of quiet surprises than of blaring klaxons, which isn't at all a bad thing, it just took some getting used to, and hasn't helped me while I've been trying to sum up the year in music and its accomplishments.

Best Albums of the Year

Wild Beasts, Present Tense

What better album to top a year I just described as someone's quiet, shy cousin? Present Tense finds Wild Beasts at the top of their game, deftly exploring the shadows, and furthering their sound in the process. "A Dog's Life" can almost be seen as a microcosm of the album as a whole—haunting, deliberate, with near-perfect production, and more than a few dark glances towards the abyss hinted at just beyond the horizon. This isn't an album that reveals itself all at once; it needs to grow on you, to linger, echo, and unravel. Once it does, it never quite leaves you.

Mourn, Mourn

In a year of surprises, these teenage Catalonians steal my top billing for debut of the year. At once an energetic, youthful examination of indie rock and post-punk, and an album well beyond the years of its creators, Mourn is a remarkable document, made all the more so ever since I discovered the album was recorded live in the studio. Like some strange marriage between early Sleater-Kinney and Naomi Punk—which, now that I think about it, wouldn't be that strange, as both bands hail from Olympia—Mourn's music seems to exist both in that nostalgic idea of the '90s that is currently being harvested and on the frontiers of contemporary post-punk. And Mourn wrote a song about a squirrel that's one for the ages, so there's that going for them, too.

Mac DeMarco, Salad Days

Like Parquet Courts, it took me some time to finally fall in with Mac DeMarco's music. I can only figure these artists started their rises in popular esteem at a time when I just wasn't ready for them. Luckily for me, I was cured of this curious ailment a while back, in plenty of time to be ready for DeMarco's best album to date. This summer I found myself on a strange, semi-psychedelic music trip, and was pleasantly surprised how easily Mac's compositions fit alongside the work of bands as diverse as the Kinks, Scott Walker, John Cale, even the Delfonics. (If you're ever working on a mixtape for a friend or loved one and need to transition out of "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time," DeMarco's "Chamber of Reflection" will get you where you need to go.) All in all, this is an incredible record from one of the more unique voices working in music today.

MerchandiseAfter the End

It will surprise few that Merchandise are on my Top 10 list yet again. Totale Nite made it onto last year's list, and I crushed hard on After the End earlier this year. If you haven't found your way into Merchandise's loving embrace, you should pencil that into your daybook.

White Lung, Deep Fantasy

I'm not sure how much more praise I can heap on this band. They have been a mainstay in my life since 2012's Sorry, and Deep Fantasy is everything you'd want from a punk rock band. Without sacrificing anything by way of brashness, swagger, or aesthetic violence, White Lung are the best songsmiths in punk right now—on my first few listens through this album, there were times I realized I'd been so keenly listening to the guitar, bass, and drum work that I needed to listen to the song again to hear Mish Way's vocals. Deep Fantasy stands up very well to repeat listenings, which is absolutely essential to an album that clocks in at under twenty-five minutes. If you need any more convincing, just put on "Lucky One" or the album's closer, "In Your Home."

Flying Lotus, You're Dead!

Trying to write about Flying Lotus and not being named Patrick Thomson is a scary thing indeed. If you've ever been lucky enough to catch Patrick on one of this conversational FlyLo journeys, you understand how deeply the man appreciates what Flying Lotus does—not just the craftsmanship and production, but FlyLo's inspirations, the echoes of jazz, the appreciation of the experimental nature of both electronic music and certain veins of hip hop, the genius and the playfulness circling and complementing each other. I'll try to record the next conversation Patrick and I have about You're Dead! and post it here, but until then just take my word for it—You're Dead! is an incredible album.

Parquet CourtsSunbathing Animal

Another benefit of 2014 being a bit quieter of a year than 2013 was that I finally took the time to truly appreciate Parquet Courts. Honestly, I'm not sure why it took me so long, but I'm thankful I snapped out of it, and in time to fall for Sunbathing Animal. Last year I wrote that I would probably need to spend a weekend in New York City, sweating in the summer sun, walking aimlessly around Brooklyn and the East Village listening to Sunbathing Animal on repeat to truly become one with it. Well, this didn't happen, and I still fell in love anyways. I will, however, take the album on walks around Seattle soon, as I did promise it some sort of urban promenade.


In a rampant act of journalistic self-destruction and laziness, I'm going to plagiarize myself: "Where Awake's predecessor Dive hovered in the liminal period between first light and sunrise (or perhaps between sunset and evening, depending on your mood and how you interpret the cover art), Awake is the soundtrack to a perfect afternoon." Awake was an early favorite of mine in 2014, and it still packs a punch. Also, if you've never seen them, Tycho are incredible live.

Bam Spacey1998

You knew a curveball was coming, and here it is. I've been a big fan of Bam Spacey ever since 2012's Land, and the songwriting has only grown stronger. It really doesn't matter if you can't understand Swedish, the lyrics aren't what's going to pull you into 1998. Bam Spacey carves out a stretch of territory somewhere between Sand Circles, Tycho, and Cliff Martinez's Drive soundtrack, and yet 1998 is uniquely its own thing. If you have a thing for atmospheric, cinematic music, Bam Spacey's got what you need.

Ex Hex, Rips

Sometimes you just need to rock out, and no one seems to know and appreciate this as much this year as Mary Timony's newest project, Ex Hex. If the first track, "Don't Wanna Lose," doesn't get your blood pumping, well, I'm not sure what will. Maybe a tiger getting loose at the zoo? A meteor set to descend on the Earth, wiping away human civilization as we know it?

Runners Up

Perfume Genius, Too Bright
The Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
Girl Tears, Tension
Blonde Redhead, Barragán
Ice Age, Ploughing Into the Field of Love
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Warpaint, Warpaint
Craft Spells, Nausea
Hospitality, Troubles
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Fear of Men, Loom
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent
Total Control, Typical System

Best Tracks and EPs of the Year

For the playlist, I avoided songs from albums that made my Top 10 and runners up list (well, mostly). I also tried to put it together in a way where it could be listened to front start to finish without too many huge jumps in tempos and sounds and moods. Still, even doing this, "Head Over Here" found its way to the top of the list, which is fitting.

While this was a quietly strong year albums-wise, it was a very solid year for EPs and singles.

A few of my favorites, all of which make appearances on the playlist above:

School '94, Like You EP

While the band appears to have added a '94 to their name late last year, that didn't do anything to dampen the quality of the music that appeared on last month's Like You EP. If you typically like Swedish music, dream pop, and shoegaze-influenced indie rock, School '94 is the band for you. If you need more convincing, just listen to "Head Over Here" from the playlist above. Might very well be the song of the year for me.

Wolf Alice, Creature Songs EP

Wolf Alice have been a welcome addition to my life ever since my dear friend Alan got me into "Bros" a year ago. The band has continued to impress ever since, and never more than on Creature Songs. "Heavenly Creatures" is the standout track for me, but the other three tracks aren't far behind. "Moaning Lisa Smile" packs enough mid-'90s punch to knock an Elastica fan right on their ass, and "Storms" doesn't exactly skimp on the crushing waves of distortion either, continuing the band's flirtation with the heavy and the delicately melodic. The final two jams, "Heavenly Creatures" and "We're Not the Same" tread quieter avenues—well, until the final moments of the latter song—with beautiful results. If Wolf Alice haven't already popped up on your radar, you should get on that.

Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

Yes, technically this is two EPs jammed together—making it long enough to almost be an album—and this double EP was originally released in Australia in 2013 (Mom + Pop Records released the record Stateside in 2014), but anyways... the real point I'm trying to make here is that if you haven't given Courtney Barnett a listen yet, you absolutely need to. And honestly, you're going to have to dive in to get an idea of the music she makes—my best attempts at describing her music would only be floundering, desperate gestures towards artists as diverse as PJ Harvey, the Kinks, Foxygen, and Parquet Courts. Anyways, take my word for it, she's a talent to keep an eye on.

Jack's Top 10 of 2014 by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

This holiday season, I learned a valuable lesson—the best gift of them all is friendship! (Just kidding, the best gift is obviously cash money or, like, the Naughty By Nature discography on vinyl or something.) But just in case someone from the Hallmark Channel is reading this and needs extra incentive to green light my romantic comedy loosely based on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, friendship it is. And my good friend and the fantastic poetic wordsmith Jack Snyder has given us the second best gift of all, his fine insights into the year's best music. Enjoy.

Also, check out the poetry journal Jack is an editor on—Apartment Poetry.

Here goes nothing:

1. IceagePlowing Into the Field of Love

Post-punk, art-punk, & any other nomenclature you choose to throw at this album will only highlight the inadequacy of genre as a useful construct; however, as much as Plowing Into the Field of Love resists, it also works to revivify the genre that tries to house what Iceage has become. Transcending the blistering dissonance & aggression of 2013's You're Nothing, this iteration of Iceage is more melodic & dynamic, & it makes sense. Rather than being used as half-assed texturing or token quirkiness, the keys, strings, & horns found throughout the album are fully realized instrumentation, & are critical to each song's mode of expression. Both track by track & taken as a whole, this is the most expertly put together effort of 2014. Plowing Into the Field of Love is the work of a furious & lush punk orchestra.

2. Wild BeastsPresent Tense

I'm a Wild Beasts fanboy, but I'll do my damnedest to be objective here. Present Tense is a watershed moment for these guys, representing the culmination of a progression that has seen them gradually break onto a darker sound over the last three albums. Carried by their most mature songwriting yet, & an ever-increasing polish to Hayden Thorpe's high-end sparkle & Tom Fleming's low-end rumble, this album has plenty of instant appeal for first-timers—to wit, "Wanderlust"—& the challenging, big-payoff moments—see, "A Dog's Life"—to impress their devotees.

3. Run the JewelsRun the Jewels 2

If not for the unfortunate misstep of "Love Again," this likely would have been my album of the year, too. Don't act like you're allergic to the hype—RTJ2 deserves every milligram of praise that it's received this month. Killer Mike & El-P are two luminaries at the tops of their games.

4. D'Angelo + The VanguardBlack Messiah

Wow. It's tough to not love everything about this story. D'Angelo dusts himself off after—how many years has it been?—& puts together this funky, beautifully off-kilter masterwork w/ The Vanguard. Then, in light of the tragedies, miscarriages of justice, & subsequent protests in Missouri, Ohio, New York, & elsewhere, he opts for a surprise early release of Black Messiah (which had been slated for release in 2015). Lyrically, musically, texturally, socially—it's simply stunning, to the extent that it reveals, by contrast, the serious lack of quality & craft in so much of today's pop music. He deserves a crisp high-five from Prince.

5. Future IslandsSingles

It's been quite a year for Sam Herring & co. They danced & growled & infected late-night TV w/ their bouncy bass lines. They gave us some of their very best tracks, too. Can you honestly imagine confronting the quotidian, the horrific, the joyous aspects of life w/o "Seasons (Waiting On You)," "Fall From Grace," or "A Dream of You & Me" to wrap you in a rhythmic blanket? Let's try something: set your wake-up alarm as "Sun in the Morning." If you're not dancing in the shower, dancing into your slacks, dancing w/ granola, go directly to an urgent care center.

6. PallbearerFoundations of Burden

A cursory listen will reveal, rather quickly, the prevailing sounds here: sludgy doom metal. Maybe you'll note the Black Sabbath influence, especially in those Ozzy-esque vocals. But dig deeper into its thick riffs, & you'll find just as much Pink Floyd & shoegaze nuancing the crunchy distortion of Foundations of Burden. It's a metal album, sure, & a great one, but these tracks are every bit as rhythmically pleasing as Future Island's "Singles."

7. The Twilight SadNobody Wants to be Here & Nobody Wants to Leave

Not many can pull off dark melancholy, loud enough to peel paint from the walls of your sadness, quite like The Twilight Sad, & this is their finest album to date. The opening three tracks are among the best they've ever released. Seriously.

8. HospitalityTrouble

Some reviewers gave this album a hard time for being a big, rock-&-pop-subgenre potluck. I'm not denying that there's quite a bit going on here. Just pair some tracks randomly; listen to "Nightingale" followed immediately by "Last Words," for example. Hey, no one is ever going to confuse the deviled eggs w/ the hot artichoke dip w/ the potato salad at face value, but—surprise—they all contain mayonnaise, & they're all delicious.

9. AlvvaysAlvvays

Have you heard Molly Rankin's voice? Have you heard her cry out "Hey, hey" like a siren's song drenched in reverb? Have you listened—I mean, really listened—to "Party Police"? I'm not writing any more until you have, & if you already have, you don't need me anyway.



In early 2015 they'll release a collaborative album w/ Ghostface Killah, & their two previous releases rely heavily on jazzed-up covers of tracks ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Feist, but III is BBNG's first album of all original material. From the most frenetic moments of "Triangle" & "Kaleidoscope" to the lounge-y, smoky smoothness of "Differently, Still," these young bucks from Toronto flex enviable range. Add in their hip-hop sensibilities—most of "Hedron" is good reference—& you've got a dynamic album that fulfills promise while promising a whole lot more.

Johan's Music Highlights from 2014 by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Here are the music highlights of the year from my dear friend Johan Nordin.

OK, so here are my takeaways from 2014 (more kid watching than music discovering).

Best full album of the year, silky smooth: SOS, SOS

Best sitting-on-a-bus-during-summer-going-anywhere-song: Eternal Summers, "100"

Best The Antlers-song-because-its-the-goddamn-Antlers-the-best-band-in-the-world: The Antlers, "Palace"

Best falsetto: JMR, "Shivers"

Best music-I-don't-normally-listen-to-but-this-shit-rocked-my-boat: PHOX, "1936"

Best overall song that makes me want to freaking jump around but because of the beautiful restraint in the magical drop at the 1 minute mark I can't (and it can possibly heal the sick with it's sick beats): Ryn Weaver, "OctaHate (Cashmere Cat Remix)"

Those are my highlights!

Added bonus: Best band name of the year, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I'm No Longer Afraid To Die

Lauren's Top 10 of 2014 by Lauren Lauzon

I'm too timid/nice to put them in a rated/chronological order. No backbone!

Taylor Swift, 1989

Pop music, for the most part, is uncharted waters for me (so much so, that I was a year behind on Lorde's album). It's not because I don't think it has merit, but the decision to take it seriously is like deciding whether or not to use that last piece of deodorant that just fell on the ground. And I seemed to find something in this album. I don't know what that is yet, to be honest. But it's something.

Warpaint, Warpaint

"Disco//very" was the track that really drew me to this album and to the artist(s). Warpaint have the same emotional (perhaps aggressive-ish) undertones as the Dum Dum Girls, but their execution is more ethereally haunting. Each track is a chant in its own right and has enough variables to reach a spectrum of emotion.

Ought, More Than Any Other Day

Most reviews I've read of this album link it closely to Merchandise. And while I wouldn't completely dispel that comparison, I was initially reminded of Against Me!, oddly (or maybe normally) enough. No shouting, really, but there's something about the cadence of Tim Beeler's voice that hovers ever so closely to Against Me!'s 2002 album Reinventing Axl Rose

Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron

I typically use my mom as a musical compass, as far as the transcendence/versatility of an album goes. For example, she thinks Beach House is "too morbid," Blonde Redhead "sounds good for people in their 40's," and that this Schoolboy Q album has "good beats." And I have to agree with her. We're used to having the oscillation of Drake or Kanye releasing a big album every year (at least for the past 4 years). And without either this year, I have to say that it allowed me to see more artists that would probably have been hidden behind the king and prince of hip hop. 

Mac DeMarco, Salad Days

I can't have a memory without a song. And this album, for me, was released in the thick of my master's degree finals. I seem to remember those albums the most. This is goofy, earnest, and dark all at the right times. Just like my Virginia Woolf final. 

Blonde Redhead, Barragán

I grew up on this band, for better or worse. And seeing them live just a couple weeks ago was phenomenal, "Dripping" especially. While I'm a little unclear as to why people started to mosh and throw up hardcore hand signs, I suppose it just reinforced how energetically brilliant the album is. 

Wild Beasts, Present Tense

I wasn't hugely into Wild Beasts before this album, largely in part because I was creeped out by Hayden Thorpe's vocal range. However, this album really made me appreciate Thorpe in a way I hadn't. He has an interesting way of delivering the narratives of his songs—in "Nature Boy," especially. The songs are almost conversational, inviting the listener to adopt his pain while also feeling like he or she is the cause.

Perfume Genius, Too Bright

It's hard to categorize this album/artist, but I think that's the point, really. I hadn't heard anything like this before its release—comparisons to other artists seem to reduce Mike Hadreas' creativity. I am particularly fond of his ability to serve glam rock on a synth pop platter.

Hospitality, Trouble

When your album is featured on the British Laguna Beach equivalent, you know you've really hit a cool and somewhat tangible obscurity. Obviously I think Hospitality is more than that, but hearing tracks on Made in Chelsea made feel better about watching rich kids in central London.

Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

This is the second album on this list to remind me of Against Me!. While Ought touched on the vocal cadence, Parquet Courts is there with the energy. "Black and White" was really there for me when I had to spend 8 hours on a bus to NYC each week. Parquet Courts has so much energy that they have a Jefferson Airplane/Starship spinoff called Parkay Quarts, which is just as good. 

Patrick's Top 10 of 2014 by Patrick Thomson

10. FKA Twigs—LP1

Visually and aurally stunning, a worthy continuation of the dark-ambient-R&B idea that the Weeknd conceived of but never quite followed through on. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

9. Migos—No Label 2

Besides having an incredible aesthetic, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff make fun (and occasionally surprisingly cerebral) music. If you can’t get down to “Fight Night,” you are not invited to my Christmas party.

8. Thom Yorke—Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Nobody seemed to take much notice of this latest Yorke effort, but I thought it was lovely. “Guess Again” is like a slice of Amnesiac-era Radiohead—sad, lovely, warm.

7. St. Vincent—St. Vincent

Exactly the album I wanted to hear from her. Crisp, crunchy, unabashedly funky, and deliciously weird. 

6. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib—Piñata

Consistently vicious—“Motherfuck euthanasia, I’ll lace your food up with razors / Make you gargle with saltwater, excuse yourself from my table”—and sonically fascinating. 

5. Rich Gang—The Tour, Vol. 1

Young Thug is the heir that Lil Wayne has been searching for—a fascinatingly weird workaholic that truly doesn’t give a shit what anyone else says, thinks, or does. Paired with the consistent talent of Rich Homie Quan and a cadre of hot producers, there was no way this record wouldn’t succeed. 

4. Flying Lotus—You’re Dead!

Whereas Until the Quiet Comes explored minimalism and ambient, You’re Dead! swings dizzily back around to a world of psychedelic excess. Bonus: the best, and maybe the most evocative, music video of 2014.

3. Vince Staples—Shyne Coldchain, Vol. 2

Vince dropped not one but two terrific projects this year—it pained me greatly to have to leave his Def Jam EP Hell Can Wait off this list. But his mixtape Shyne Coldchain is the stronger release of the two. His work on the mic is ferocious and astonishing—even a lyrical monster like Earl Sweatshirt avers that Vince is the best rapper out right now. It’s a dark, PTSD-laced chronicle of growing up in a society that places no worth on black life.

2. D’Angelo—Black Messiah

I thought that the year wouldn’t give me a more unexpected gift than a new Aphex Twin album, when, suddenly, D’Angelo drops his first joint in 14 years. (I was in fifth fucking grade when Voodoo came out.) And it is so, so good—sexual, political, and personal all at once.  

1. Run the Jewels—Run the Jewels 2

Once in a very great while, a political zeitgeist aligns perfectly with the trajectory of an artist’s development, and we, as listeners, get to hear an album that is a perfect encapsulation of its times. RTJ2 is such an album, and El-P and Killer Mike are its prophets. Of course they were playing St. Louis on the night of the Ferguson decision. How could it be otherwise? 

Rap-wise, this record is unimpeachable. You can hear Mike’s influence on El, and vice-versa: El’s raps are funnier, faster, more profane, more audacious; Mike’s are grimmer, more allusive, more free-wheeling. Rap hasn’t seen a duo this electrifying or as perfectly suited for each other since the days of Blackout!-era Method Man and Redman. But the sonic construction of RTJ2 is what elevates it above its predecessor—each beat, from the hyperminimalist to the most lush and expansive, is a perfect gem of sweat, aggression, and rage. It oscillates from the hyperminimalist (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”) to the rich and lush (“Early,” “Angel Duster”) without losing a step. And it doesn’t waste a second—this is an exhaustingly rich album that somehow manages to clock in at only 40 minutes.

We, as Americans, watched our country tear itself to pieces this year. El and Mike made the soundtrack—both a haunting jeremiad and a vicious, inspiring call to action. It’s an instant classic, one that deserves to sit alongside Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton in the pantheon of protest hip-hop, and it was far and away the best record of 2014.

Rich Gang, "The Tour: Part 1" by Patrick Thomson



Up until the summer of 2014, the musical entity known as Rich Gang consisted of a pretty lackluster collaboration album between noted unbelievably-rich-mogul Brian ’Birdman‘ Williams‘s Cash Money Records and noted mad genius Lil Wayne‘s Young Money Records. But when Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan nabbed the title of song-of-the-summer with their unlikely hit’Lifestyle’, Birdman seized the opportunity, rechristening the Thug/Quan/Birdman trio as the new incarnation of Rich Gang. Their first mixtape, The Tour: Part 1 (free download) mixes solo tracks from Thug and Quan with a number of collaborations between the two. Birdman’s contribution is limited to a couple of verses and a few inspirational pep talks to remind you just how rich he is.)

 Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan.

Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan.

The tape is strong, one of the better mixtapes this year (though it is more properly referred to as a free album, as all the beats are original rather than swiped from other artists). From the opening track ‘Givenchy’, featuring some epic braggadocio from Birdman (“that Rich Gang lifestyle, marble floors, gold terlets (sic) and chandeliers, y’dig?“) and an astounding verse from Young Thug, The Tour demands attention. The beats, produced by up-and-comer London On Da Track and the collaborative Remedy Production Group, are lush and organic, a far cry from the hyper-minimalism that defined Lil Wayne’s 2007-era untouchable streak. At twenty songs and 84 minutes, this is a lengthy release, perhaps best consumed in small chunks.

It might be too soon to call Thug the rap equivalent of David Bowie, but considering his talent, his unashamed genderbending, his proclivity for enraging homophobes and his distinct fashion sense, he might be on his way to such a role. Thug’s unintelligible lyrical delivery is already somewhat of a meme—actress Tracee Ellis Ross’s attempt to decipher Thug’s verse on ‘Lifestyle’ summarizes most people’s reaction—but his vocal antics are a large part of what gives The Tour its staying power. Like his stated hero Lil Wayne, he uses his voice as an instrument, transitioning dizzily from strangled yell to throat-ripping wail to guttural moan, and like onetime-mentor Gucci Mane he understands the power of effective and memorable ad-libs; every yip and brrap and ayyye and WHAT serves as plosive punctuation to his verses. Yet beneath these stylistic trappings, Thugger is a considerably talented lyricist: like many of his YMCMB cohorts, he has a gift for left-field punchlines (“my weed stay loud / you smoking libraries“), surreal analogies (”split that money eight ways like I’m an octopus“), and weirdly sweet raunch (”she call me, let me ride it like Uber / her love probably right by the Buddha”).

Rich Homie Quan is, thanks to Thug’s overwhelming presence, thrust into a second-fiddle role, but his slower, sing-song delivery serves as an effective (and considerably more intelligible) foil to Thug’s wailing. He is at his best on ‘Milk Marie’, a surprisingly moving ode to ride-or-die love. “Girl, I want everything that come with ya / even if you got stretch marks and two children”, he sings over an expansive, ambient Clams-Casino-esque beat, adding “I love you for who you are, I want you for who you are / Baby girl, you a star in my book”. It’s not Sonnet #116, or even Common’s ‘The Light’, but it comes from a genuine and authentic place.

Thug, Quan and Birdman are at their best on ‘Flava’. Over a pounding synth beat from London on da Track, Thugger spits a frenetically weird hook (extract: “where your heart at? / I’ma pour it out like Moet / and she know that she the bomb, ayyyyy”), Birdman makes one of his few appearances and drops, oddly enough, a remarkable verse1, and Quan drops entertaining threats (“her baby daddy wanna fight me? / That pump, man, make him jump, man / you would think his ass was sponsored by Nike”). It’s a perfectly crafted piece of pop music, down to the Good-Vibrations-esque wailing theremin2 in the background.

It’s unclear whether a studio album from Young Thug is on the way—Buzzfeed has an excellent piece on the nightmarish label-related mess that has thus far prevented him from releasing anything but mixtapes and features. Until then, though, releases as strong as The Tour will no doubt cement him, and possibly RHQ, a place in the current stable of reliably successful rappers. Here’s hoping that Thug can do more, that he can drag rap farther away from the homophobia and creative doldrums it so often inhabits.

  1. Birdman’s verse is so uncharacteristically interesting that I suspect there may have been some wink-nudge ghostwriting from Thug or Quan.

  2. Yes, I know that Brian Wilson used an Electro-Theremin rather than a traditional theremin on Good Vibrations. Do not email me about this.