Another piece of artistic nudity, for your New Year’s pleasure…
In previous years, I’ve done a top ten list. And I had intended to do so again this year. But last year’s list got a little out of control in regards to the length of what I was writing, and I don’t think anyone has the patience to wade through that much verbiage again. So I’d rather focus on the top five (and for me, it was an obvious break-point in terms of how much I had gotten into the albums in question). And, as always, this is simply about the albums that I liked this year. No thought was given to how they might age, or how important they might be, no including hip albums just to seem a little cooler than I actually am, no apologies. This is just what I responded to in 2012.
5. Sir Jarlsberg – “Hark Thou”
If there’s one album this year that is guaranteed to pick me up, it’s Sir Jarlsberg’s “Hark Thou.” Never heard of him? Allow me to try to explain. Sir Jarlsberg is what happens when Ren Faire meets rap. He calls it “hark hop.” And he never, EVER breaks character. I know, I follow him on Twitter. His best friend is a gnome (like the Travelocity gnome), he travels via horse, uses an antiquated vocabulary, and pulls it off for an entire album. When he raps, the album bangs, too. Just because there’s flutes and finger cymbals on the album doesn’t mean that it’s not also a full-on rap album. Listen to the second track, “Twilight Dreams of Being a Knight,” and both enjoy his flow and figure out how a medieval (not-quite a) knight got hold of Eminem’s albums (in the sense that he uses a second vocal track to respond to his own rhymes, one of Eminem’s signature tricks).
I’m not joking about this, I love this album. There’s usually a gulf between truly insane ideas (Sir Jarlsberg and I must travel in vastly different circles, I still can’t wrap my head around how he came up with this idea) and the execution of them; this is a very solid album, better than it has any right to be. I’m glad that this album, and Sir Jarlsberg himself, exist. If they didn’t, I can’t imagine anyone else would be able to invent them, and certainly not with Sir Jarlsberg’s commitment and panache. I am also convinced that someday there will be a movie about Sir Jarlsberg (something in between “Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny” and “Your Highness,” but successful), and I would like to volunteer whatever relevant skills I can offer to make this a reality.
4. Killer Mike – “R.A.P. Music” / El-P – “Cancer 4 Cure”
So I guess this is secretly a top six list. El-P produced two albums this year, his own and Killer Mike’s latest. If I’m being honest, I think that Killer Mike’s is the better of the two, partly because El-P managed to raise Killer Mike’s game. But they’re both very, very strong albums.
Let’s start with Killer Mike’s album. On first impression, this is one of the most aggressive albums I’ve ever heard. Like ever. The instant comparison albums that everyone threw out there was “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” if it was produced by N.W.A-era Bomb Squad. In other words, the last rap albums that legitimately scared people. And in an era where rap music has become synonymous with fake gangsters and cocaine dreams, you know what’s scary? NOT indulging in fantasy and self-aggrandization. Killer Mike is pissed off, grounded, and he’s almost unbelievably hot on the mic. In an era where Ronald Reagan has been elevated into a demi-god by one political party, Mike combats the revisionist history surrounding Reagan and states in the bluntest terms possible that he doesn’t not agree with that sentiment whatsoever, and backs up his assessment. Or listen to “Don’t Die,” where he furiously takes down crooked cops, because his dad was a cop, and he expects better.
I think that the key to Killer Mike’s album is that, in general, he expects better out of people. His approach is to blow up all of the bullshit that people use to justify their behavior. That’s truly revolutionary, and in a year of very good revolutionary albums, Killer Mike’s is the best (and released on a record label run by a cartoon network. Welcome to the 21st century…)
It’s not at all unusual to see the El-P’s solo joint shares a lot of sonic similarities with Killer Mike’s album. And I don’t want to imply that “Cancer4Cure” isn’t a very good album all the way through, but I couldn’t leave it off the list because of one song: “The Full Retard.” It’s a complete beast of a song. As the chorus says, you should pump this shit, like they do in the future. I’m not sure what I can say about that song that you can’t figure out by pressing play on the video embedded above. But do it when you can truly crank it, whether that be on headphones, or when no one’s within a mile radius of your sound system.
“The Full Retard” also illustrates the chief difference between the two albums: Killer Mike’s got shit on his mind, El-P probably does too, but his own skills are the reward here. He’s not really addressing anything in particular (at least not in the same way), he’s applying his unique skills to create a distinct sound. El-P is just generally pissed off about everything, the details aren’t as important.
3. Bob Mould – “Silver Age”
If it feels like my list is full of people who aren’t “current,” there’s a good reason for that. What passes for alternative (or college rock) at this point is about as played out as (insert grunge band) was in 1999. It’s not at all hard to find an album in that genre that’s kind of strummy, or is fragile and hushed, or has crappy production, or has no low-end to it. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Japandroids album and the King Tuff album and the soul-throwback albums, but there seems to be a general fear of noise right now, of making an album that roars, and yet isn’t a metal album.
Bob Mould has made another album that roars. If you were a fan of Sugar (which I definitely was), “Silver Age” is in that vein. It’s hooky, it’s loud, it’s propulsive, and it doesn’t sound like anything else on the alternative landscape right now. It also doesn’t sound like re-hashing the same sonic territory. Maybe that’s because Mould has spent the fifteen-plus years after Sugar’s dissolution exploring other sounds to mixed results, but he sounds energized and as if it’s time to blow off some steam. Plus, this is a good collection of songs. No one wants a return to any kind of alternative sound if the songs aren’t there. It would be easy to peg this as what could have been the third Sugar full-length if it weren’t for the lyrical content, which probably couldn’t have come at any earlier point in Mould’s life. There’s a definite sense of looking back, and of letting go of some attitudes and resentments that were weighing on him. But instead of doing a predictable hushed “old man” album, Mould plugs in and lets ‘er rip. It’s not quite time for him to retire the Marshall stack quite yet.
Eleven years is a long time between releases. That should not be the entire story about this album, but it’s important to note that prior to the release of “The Float,” Rebecca Gates’ last release was 2001’s “Ruby Series,” which was something between an EP and an album. If you’re not familiar with her, you might be more familiar with her 90’s band, the Spinanes (who were on Sub Pop back in the day). It’s not that she stopped playing music over the eleven years between releases (I saw her play a handful of times over that decade-plus, each time hoping for news about a new album), but as she’s stated in the interviews surrounding this release, she wasn’t sure whether or not the world really needed anything more from her.
During those live shows over the aughts, she was playing new material alongside her more well-known songs, so as long as that was the case, I was confident that she’d eventually want to do something with that material. It took until 2012 before that was the case (it turns out that she’d been recording the songs on “The Float” since 2004). I did something that I usually don’t do in the digital age: I ordered “The Float” on vinyl, directly from the record label.
When it arrived, I did not immediately throw it on my turntable and listen to in the background while I did something else (which is how a lot of albums get their first listen). If she could wait that long to put out an album, I could wait until I could give it my undivided attention for a first spin. And, I’m not going to lie, even though I had heard some of the songs live (and knew they wouldn’t be terrible), I was nervous about dropping the needle. Maybe there was a reason she wasn’t still putting out albums every two or three years? Maybe the well had run dry? My thoughts ran wild.
So a couple of nights later, when I had some time to myself and had time to get in the right frame of mind to listen to “The Float,” I dropped the needle and felt something unusual: relief. This was a good album. No, this was a damned good album. “The Float” is a continuation of and evolution from what Gates had been doing a decade earlier. This is not a step backwards, it is not a step sideways, it’s not a long-awaited repeat of an earlier chapter.
If you went back and listened to the Spinanes “Manos,” a classic album from alternative’s 90’s heyday, and then threw on “The Float,” the progression is clear and impressive. “The Float” is the sort of album that usually can only happen when someone isn’t on the treadmill all the time – the only comparison that I can come up with right now is Nico’s chamber pop, and that’s not even close to a decent comparison (especially in regards to singing voices – it’s more a matter of some non-standard instrumentation and a willingness to have a starker sound than one might expect out of a pop/rock/alternative album). But it is evidence that this album is an outlier, and beautiful, and thank goodness it’s as good as it is. I was worried there for a minute.
At the risk of oversharing, this album (and his concert visit to Portland in the summer) was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I had some health problems that left me at times unable to walk without extreme pain, and never able to walk without a cane for about three months straight. But I had this album, and the concert to look forward to once I got healthy. But I didn’t get healthy. I bought the album the day it came out, but didn’t want to listen to it until I went to the show. But when the show came around, I was at a point where I couldn’t even stand up, so I missed it. And then I wouldn’t even listen to this album that I had been so anxiously awaiting for something like two weeks.
When I finally did listen to it, I was squarely in the middle of my three months of solid, unyielding physical pain. As is the treatment for such things, I took my pain medication (so that I could eventually sleep), put on my good headphones, and sat in my backyard in the silent warm summer night. Here’s what I know about “Skelethon”: this is an album born out of pain. In the interviews surrounding the release of “Skelethon,” Aes explained what he was up to in the five years since his last solo album: divorce, death, acrimonious dissolution of professional relationships (and that Felt album he produced, and the Hail Mary Mallon album). And it’s all there in the music.
If you’re not accustomed to Aesop Rock’s style (or are just more accustomed to the kind of rap music you might hear on the radio or in a club), it can be disorienting. What I’ve found to work is that you just have to be bludgeoned by the songs (they’re so dense, both musically and lyrically) until you can find a loose thread somewhere that grabs you. From there, you can unravel the sweater into something that starts to make sense. I’m not saying that none of this will catch your ear immediately, but Aesop Rock’s music both holds up to and works better with repeated listenings.
The song that really took hold of my ear first is called “Racing Stripes.” At first listen, it’s one of the more light-hearted songs on the album (there are a couple like that, including “Grace,” which is about someone (a kid, maybe Aes himself?) not wanting to eat his peas), a song about bad haircuts. There’s weird circus horns, Kimya Dawson popping up as a huckster selling cheap haircuts, and people shouting, “It’s okay, it grows back!” The first verse includes a line that includes “the good ship Snotnose” in reference to a kid, which is awesome.
The second verse is about his friend’s method of motivation, and it’s a stunning piece of work from all angles. Other than his rapping itself, the lyrics are clever and original. Without you just listening to it (possibly half a dozen times, just to tease out exactly what he’s saying), writing about this is a pathetic replacement for the experience. The story here is that his friend would deliberately give himself an incredibly bad haircut (“He disappears with shears/yelling, I’m going George Jeff!”), forcing himself to stay indoors and get work done until he’s got his life headed in the right direction (“Until his Monopoly prop passed go/till then walk this town like an asshole”).
It’s at the end of the second verse that the song goes from a funny/odd look at hair into something that I’m blown away by as a writer. In essentially two lines, it goes from funny to a gut-punch (“a method I encourage you to share and apply and adapt/because one day his didn’t grow back/so if your’s does…”) Remember that death I mentioned earlier? This song is about his friend and rapper, Camu Tao. Now, you don’t have to know who that is to get this song; everything you need to know is there in the lyrics. He mentions Camu by name, that he had a friend (although it’s not immediately apparent that “had” is firmly in the past-tense), and the loss of hair is… Well, what medical treatment causes you to lose your hair? “Racing Stripes” is an infinitely more interesting memorial for a lost friend; who wants to hear a weepy “I miss you so much” song when you can get a small taste of what exactly it is that’s gone instead?
In 3:23, this song covers a lot of emotional ground. I’m not even saying this is the best song on “Skelethon,” but it’s one of them. By the time “Skelethon” reaches it’s last song, “Gopher Guts,” Aesop Rock gets down to what he’s been alluding to the entire album’s length. He talks about picking up small animals, giving them compliments (“Today I pulled three baby snakes out of moss and dirt/where the wild strawberry vines toss and turn/I told them “You will grow to be something inventive and electric/You are healthy, you are special, you are present.”/Then I let them go.”), and setting them free. In the middle of the song, Aesop basically offers a confession of his emotional sins (it starts with “I have been unable to maintain any semblance of relationship on any level” and wraps with “I have been my own worst enemy since the very genesis of rebels”). It’s cathartic, incredibly heavy, and feels necessary to the piece of work (even if it doesn’t exactly offer hope for the future).
It is at this point that I’m thankful for having purchased the deluxe version of the album. The two bonus tracks are looser than the rest of the album (while there are guest vocals on “Skelethon,” they’re usually in the background and not worthy of a “featuring…” credit), and both worthy of purchase. The first one, “Dokken Rules,” does feature Rob Sonic, and the “I’d like to speak to a supervisor!” refrain still kills me every time. The second, “BMX,” features both Blueprint and Rob Sonic. I like it, too. But more importantly, these two songs are a breath of fresh air after the catharsis and claustrophobic feel of rest of the album. There’s a story about how Trent Reznor wanted the final words of “The Downward Spiral” to simply be, “do it,” an explicit unanswered urge for listeners to kill themselves. I don’t feel that “Skelethon” is urging people in the same way, but to end the album on “Gopher Guts” is an invitation to join Aesop Rock on an emotional downward spiral. It feels like there’s no way out of whatever Aesop Rock has found himself in. With the bonus tracks included at the end, at least he’s got a couple of friends who can help him lighten up a bit; a foothold to start his climb out of his abyss. And for an album that I’ve spent so much time with, and really took to heart, that’s a world of difference.
It was really, really easy for me to say this is my album of the year. I’ve been playing it on a nearly daily basis for about six months now. I hope that there’s not another five years between albums, but I’m prepared to wait; quality takes time.