10 Films That Moved Me In 2017

For the last four or five years, I haven’t been going to the movies nearly as often as I used to. Unfortunately, Hollywood just isn’t producing a lot of films that I’m excited about right now. I was starting to feel like I had lost an important part of myself – I used to anticipate new films from my favorite directors the way I now anticipate new albums from my favorite musicians.

Because of this, I made an effort to see all the films that received lots of hype in 2017. Fortunately, I only saw a few films that were truly awful (my pick for worst of the year is unquestionably The Dark Tower, a pitiful adaptation of a brilliant series of novels). However, truly exciting films were also few and far between. The majority of films I saw were okay to pretty good, meaning a decent way to waste your time but nothing special. I actually struggled to come up with ten films worth writing about out of the twenty-seven I ended up seeing – that’s not a great ratio. Despite this, every film listed here does offer something unique and moved me enough in some way to leave an impression, which is the most important thing a film can do for me.

10. Kuso (Steve Ellison)

I’ll admit to a bias here – if I wasn’t a huge fan of the music Ellison makes as Flying Lotus and Captain Murphy, I wouldn’t have paid the same amount of attention to this film. And I will also admit that it’s far from great; however, it’s not really meant to be. This is a midnight movie in the truest sense, the type of experience meant for audiences who prefer their films drugged-out and jarringly disturbing. It’s borderline nonsensical, cutting between surreal vignettes and using Adult Swim-esque music videos as transitions. Some of the writing is pretty bad, the comic moments aren’t as strong as they could have been, and the film relies way too heavily on gross-out tactics, primarily involving bodily fluids. Despite this, it still manages to be oddly riveting – I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and have even re-watched it. I really like the visual style and am amazed by what Ellison could do with just half a million dollars. If nothing else, I admire the sheer audacity on display here, the bravery to make a film that no one else could make and very few people will want to see. It’s a truly personal statement, which is my favorite kind of cinema.

9. It (Andres Muschietti)

The people who made The Dark Tower could learn a thing or two from this film about adapting beloved Stephen King novels. I read this book for the first time when I was eleven and it was extremely impactful for me. At that time, it was definitely the most adult book I had ever read and it stuck with me. I’ve been waiting a long time for a proper theatrical adaptation and I’m thrilled to say that it actually delivers. After the perfectly-executed opening sequence and chilling title card, I knew I was in for a treat. The kids are perfectly cast, Pennywise the Dancing Clown is delightfully creepy, and the sound design is awesome. It’s not perfect – parts of the plot are a bit over-simplified and some characters get short-changed, but I suppose that’s inevitable when you’re adapting a book that’s over a thousand pages long. I’ll reserve my final judgment until part two is released, but this adaptation is off to a great start.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

Martin McDonagh is an interesting filmmaker and this is probably his most interesting work to date, telling the story of a mother who rents three billboards challenging the police as to why they haven’t arrested anyone for her daughter’s rape. The concept has huge dramatic potential and a powerhouse cast to deliver it – Frances Mcdormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson are all in peak form here. Even the smaller roles are perfectly cast, with the standout being a criminally under-used Peter Dinklage. The film is definitely entertaining, filled with great character moments and a surprising amount of humor – my only major complaint is that it fails to leave the emotional impact that it could have. This is mostly due to the script, which delivers great monologues for the actors but is clumsy in the way it addresses huge societal issues without ever really commenting on them. However, one could argue that the point McDonagh is trying to make is that real life is extremely messy and people’s motivations are often more complicated than they seem to be; although maybe not the most powerful stance the film could have taken, it’s nonetheless a valid one.

7. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Vileneuve)

I’m actually not a fan of Ridley Scott’s original film, so I was not anticipating this at all. I was marginally interested at best and missed it in theaters, but all the glowing reviews I saw led me to rent it on demand. In hindsight, I really wish I could’ve seen this on the big screen – even at home, it’s a jaw-dropping visual experience. The combination of Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s pulsing score create moments of visual poetry. Ryan Gosling gives a solid performance in the lead role and Harrison Ford is way more interesting here than he was in the original. Beyond that, the script raises questions that the original only hinted at and creates a far deeper and more rewarding narrative. It does get a bit confusing at times, but everything is successfully unraveled by the time the credits roll. As long as it is, I almost wish it was a little longer – a few elements, especially Jared Leto’s character, deserve to be explored further. Overall though, I found this to be a visually stunning and rarely thought-provoking sci-fi film that I will definitely re-watch in the future.

6. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

A low-budget thriller dealing with racial issues from a first-time filmmaker is a huge box office success and now finds itself in the Oscar Best Picture race – this has to be the most inspiring success story of 2017. While I do think the film has grown a bit overhyped, it is still extremely entertaining and Jordan Peele’s script is the most original of the year (I won’t spoil the mystery behind the horrors, but the answers are truly brilliant when they arrive in the conclusion). Similar to Three Billboards, my only problem is that the film sacrifices emotional impact for entertainment value. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer movies that take big risks and leave the audience reeling. I felt the ending to this film was a compromise that weakened the overall message; however, I also understand that compromises like this are often necessary in order for films to get released. Despite the sugar-coated ending, this is still an edge-of-your-seat thriller with a very unique twist.

5. The Disaster Artist (James Franco)

I have never seen The Room and went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about Tommy Wiseau. After the film was over, I found myself extremely fascinated by this character and wanting to know more, so it’s fair to say that James Franco has successfully accomplished what he set out to do here. His performance as Wiseau is transformative, probably my favorite performance this year – he so completely disappears into Tommy’s strange accent and mannerisms that I found myself forgetting I was watching an actor. Beyond his performance, the film is riotously funny and well-paced, not wasting a second of screen time. Though it’s not a particularly deep or thought-provoking experience, the ending of the film is oddly touching and packs more of an emotional punch than I expected.

4. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

I did not care for Tangerine, Sean Baker’s first film, so I had very low expectations for this one. It ended up being the biggest surprise of the year for me and quickly rocketed up towards the top of my list. This film expertly balances the dark reality of poverty with the fantastical, dream-like state of being a child. Brooklyn Prince is revelatory as Moonee and Bria Venaite is almost disturbingly authentic as her train-wreck of a mother, Hailey. Willem Dafoe adds a wonderful supporting performance as the manager of the motel Moonee and Hailee live in. I would’ve liked to know a little more about his character’s backstory, but that’s a small complaint – this movie isn’t about him. This movie is about Moonee and the scenes of her and her friends running wild through Orlando filled me with a sense of unbridled joy, perfectly capturing the feeling of a child’s innocence. The film is also gorgeously shot, making the seedy underbelly outside of Disney World look like a fairy-tale in decay – everything is brightly colorful and gloriously alive. Finally, without spoiling anything, I want to say that the ending of this film really moved me. I could write a whole essay about just those final few moments, but it’s a surprising conclusion that is alternately heartbreaking and beautiful, much like the film itself.

3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson is a brilliant filmmaker, but his last few films haven’t really connected with me. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new one, but I’m pleased to say that it’s my favorite work of his in a long time. As usual with Anderson, the technical craftsmanship couldn’t be better; it’s beautifully shot, the costumes are lush and Jonny Greenwood’s score is hauntingly powerful. There are only three major characters, but each of them are fascinatingly complex and perfectly portrayed. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic in what is supposedly his final role and Lesley Manville is extremely effective as his overbearing sister. However, the true surprise of the film is newcomer Vicky Krieps, who manages to stand toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis throughout the film. It’s best to know as little as possible about the story going in. All I will say is that it’s a fascinating examination of artistic obsession mixed with a disturbingly original portrayal of love. I’ve never seen a relationship quite like this on screen and will undoubtedly be returning to this film in the future to sort through its many layers.

2. Logan (James Mangold)

I’m beyond burned out on superhero movies – Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of my lifetime, but since then, the genre has been reduced to a joke. There’s seemingly a new one every weekend and it’s become harder and harder to tell them apart. That’s why Logan is such a refreshing change of pace. Finally, here’s the dark, violent, adult Wolverine movie I’ve wanted to see my entire life. Hugh Jackman has always been great in this role, but I had completely lost interest in the franchise, assuming that nothing fresh could be done at this point. I couldn’t have been more wrong – not only is this the best Wolverine or X-men related film by a mile, it’s the best superhero movie directed by someone not named Christopher Nolan. This film is action-packed and suspenseful from beginning to end, more than earning its R rating (it’s so awesome to see Wolverine hacking people to bits – no more of that sanitized PG-13 nonsense). However, what truly makes the film great is how unexpectedly layered and emotional it is. This is mostly due to the fantastic performances by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, who couldn’t ask for a better send-off for these characters. I was stunned to find myself actually in tears at the end of this film. For those who hate the genre, try not to be prejudiced. This isn’t just a good action movie, but a great film, regardless of genre

1. Mother! (Darren Aronofsky)

This was by far the easiest choice on my list. I know lots of people really, really hated this film and I can understand why. This a brutal, unrelenting battering ram of a movie that is almost physically painful to sit through at times. Many people would ask, why would you want to feel this way? To me, no films are better than the ones which provoke powerful emotional responses. While this may not be an uplifting or pleasant experience in the slightest, it truly moved me in a way that no film has in years. I found myself literally gasping in some parts and crying in others. When the film finally reached its mind-blower of an ending, I could only sit there in silence for several minutes, unable to move or speak. Darren Aronofsky is unrivaled in his ability to create nightmares – as someone who has been trapped for long periods in really dark mental places before, this film gets it thrillingly right. Jennifer Lawrence gives her best performance to date and is ably supported by Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. The script does a brilliant job of shrouding the entire film in mystery and delivering shocking twists in the climax. I really don’t want to say anything about what happens in this film – it’s essential that you go in blind. I really do recommend that everyone watch this, even though many will hate it. This is the type of experience that is far too rare these days; a film that takes huge risks and is guaranteed to polarize audiences, a film that will elicit major emotional reactions from just about anybody, a film that can be debated and analyzed endlessly. To me, this is the whole point of the cinema. We don’t all have to like the same things, but we should have a discussion about it. While many people may have mocked this film, not one of them could resist talking about it because it made them feel something powerful – I can’t imagine a greater achievement than that.

Thanks For Reading!

The 20 Best Albums and EPs of 2016: Part 2

10. BADBADNOTGOOD – IV

The fourth album from Canadian jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD, known for their covers of hip-hop songs before they broke out with original material, is their most mature work so far. Saxophonist Leland Whitty has been upgraded to a full-time member of the band and his spastic solos give this record a huge boost. This is also their first project to feature vocals on some tracks and it works much better than expected. Future Islands vocalist Sam Herring gives a stirring performance on the gorgeous and moving “Time Moves Slow,” Charlotte Day Wilson lends grace and beauty to “In Your Eyes,” and Mick Jenkins’ smooth flows on “Hyssop of Love” make for a very interesting jazz meets space-rap collaboration. In addition, the band themselves are on-point throughout the album, crafting complex and engaging instrumental pieces such as “Speaking Gently” and the title track. I have been impressed with every BADBADNOTGOOD project so far, but this one in particular leaves me eager to see what they come up with next.

9. Tycho – Epoch

Epoch is the fourth Tycho album, and the second since keyboardist/producer Scott Hansen upgraded his ambient electronic project to a four-piece band. The first two records were firmly in the electronic realm, whereas 2014’s Awake pushed the style more towards alternative rock. I preferred the first two albums but did enjoy the addition of live instrumentation on the last one, so I had mixed feelings going into this. Thankfully, Epoch manages to take the best of both styles and merge them for the most consistent Tycho release to date. The instrumentation enhances the synth melodies without overpowering them and the production is better than ever. “Horizon,” in particular, instantly became one of my favorite Tycho tracks. This is a terrific collection of lush soundscapes, the perfect soundtrack for a hiking adventure or a day of relaxation on the beach.

8. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered

When your B-sides collection makes the top ten, you know you’re on a roll. There are few people in any music community that aren’t loving what Kendrick Lamar is doing right now. It’s rare to see a mainstream figure using the spotlight to bring together diverse styles of music and pay tribute to his influences. Most big rappers just coast through their careers, releasing the same record over and over. I respected Lamar before last year, but never felt a reason to pay much attention to his music. It was mainstream rap, something I’ve never cared for much even at its best. But last year’s To Pimp A Butterfly was a groundbreaking work of art, an album so damn good that it united people of all different ages and musical tastes together in praise. It sure as hell got my attention, and this collection of leftovers from the recording sessions for that album is a classic in its own right, albeit a much shorter one. The tracks here are all, as the title indicates, untitled and unmastered. They showcase more of the forward-thinking raps and tripped-out soul and funk vibes that To Pimp A Butterfly started, with a looser vibe and a rawer sound. I really hope that Lamar continues to experiment and break boundaries moving forward.

7. NxWorries (Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge) – Yes Lawd!

The highly anticipated collaboration between vocalist Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge lived up to the hype and then some. Finishing what turned out to be an outstanding year for Stones Throw Records, Yes Lawd! is an instant classic. .Paak’s vocals are terrific throughout; he brings a full dose of soul and swagger, switching voices and personalities with ease. Meanwhile, Knxwledge supplies a steady stream of stoned instrumentals, mixing classic hip-hop grooves with old-school R&B melodies and psychedelic voice samples. It may be his best production to date, and he’s easily my favorite beat-maker out there right now. The collaboration definitely brings out the best in .Paak and I think this album is his finest work by a long shot. It’s unknown if the duo will ever make music together again, but I really hope this doesn’t end up being another classic one-off collaboration like Madvillainy.

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

The last time Radiohead gave us an album was in 2011, and it was the short and somewhat underwhelming The King of Limbs. It certainly wasn’t a bad album but, after a four year wait from 2007’s In Rainbows, it just failed to live up to the hype. In all fairness, it’s not always easy to meet fan expectations, especially when your discography includes beloved classics such as OK Computer and Kid A. I hadn’t truly been wowed by a Radiohead project in a long time and, as excited as I was to hear news of the band’s return, I worried that the magic might have finally run out for them. After all, their first album came out more than 20 years ago; nobody can do it forever. I am pleasantly surprised and delighted to say that the band proved me wrong and removed any skepticism I might have had. For the first time in years, a new Radiohead album is completely worthy of all the hype and acclaim. For me, this is easily their best work in 15 years and one of their 3 or 4 best albums overall. Listening to this on headphones took me back to 6th grade, when I was first discovering Radiohead and thought that Thom Yorke possessed a window into my soul. They are the only artist I listened to that young who I still love, all these years later. Yorke split with his partner of 23 years before this album was made, and the results of that heartbreak are heard all over it. This is a slow, sad, introspective record, imbued with a desperate longing to connect and a burning nostalgia for when things were better. Yorke’s vocals and lyrics are as gorgeous and haunting as ever, while Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements make everything sound huge. The combination of the live orchestra with some of the band’s most layered and experimental production to date make for breathtaking results. Radiohead are back in full force and they have proved beyond a doubt that they still have plenty of magic left in them.

5. DEAKIN – SLEEP CYCLE

The long-awaited first solo release from Animal Collective member DEAKIN is a revelation. In its mere 34 minutes, it seems to contain a whole lifetime’s worth of self-examination, doubt, and acquired knowledge. The album is so personal and intimate, it feels as if DEAKIN is taking you by the hand and leading you on a vision quest; he’s been through some tough times and learned a lot about himself, and now he wants to share what he learned with you. I truly cannot overstate the personal bond this record forged with me; as I work on writing my first novel, the themes presented here about doubting and psyching yourself out and how to overcome those feelings and just be yourself couldn’t be more relevant to me. This is also interesting as it’s the first time we’ve heard DEAKIN sing a lot (he generally only contributes background vocals in Animal Collective.) While his voice doesn’t have the raw power of bandmates Avey Tare and Panda Bear, I found myself very impressed with his vocals overall. I also love his guitar playing and the production on this thing is tremendous, the whole project flowing together as one inseparable whole. It creates a world in your head, a dark and swampy jungle where you’re all alone and don’t know what to do, until DEAKIN comes along and shows you the way.

4. Tim Hecker – Love Streams

Tim Hecker, known for his experimental ambient drone music, has developed a reliable fan base who love his signature style. His last album, 2013’s Virgins, started to push a bit away from the sound he’s known for and Love Streams continues that trend. This and Virgins are much more dynamic releases, keeping you on guard with constantly changing noise levels and instrumental soundscapes which seem to be ripping apart at the seams. Love Streams is also his first album to feature vocals, courtesy of the Icelandic Choir Ensemble. While some fans miss Hecker’s more ambient work, I personally am thrilled with this new direction. I wasn’t sure how vocals would be incorporated, but they add a whole new dimension of emotion and humanity to what could be initially written off as very not-human music. The voices here bend and twist around each other in awe-inspiring harmony, sounding like the voice of the universe itself calling to you. Just try to play “Music of the Air” without getting goosebumps. This album gives me the feel of a classical symphony, performed electronically. I also find deeper emotional themes and more personal connection than I do in any of Hecker’s previous releases. It’s virtually impossible for me to listen to the 1-2 punch of “Castrati Stack” and “Voice Crack” without tearing up. It’s just so damn beautiful, reminding me of something I’ve always known but can’t put into words. That is the power of Tim Hecker’s music.

3. TOBACCO – Sweatbox Dynasty

TOBACCO is back, and he’s grimier than ever. This album is so ugly and distorted in its production and visual imagery that it can only be described as filthy. Yes, this album is truly filthy in the way it revels in all things demented, demonic and disturbing – and I absolutely love it. TOBACCO makes music beyond description, a singular style and aesthetic that is very difficult to put into words. I can say that he uses analogue synths, cassette tape decks, and a vocoder to create his own musical universe. Sweatbox Dynasty is his most intense and accomplished work to date, like a roller-coaster ride into hell. The beats are more face-melting than ever, constantly breaking and snapping and interrupting themselves. The vocoder sounds more evil than it ever has; some of the vocals on this thing literally sound like Satan is whispering in your ear and it couldn’t be more awesome. Every track on this thing made me lose my damn mind the first time I heard it. By the time you get to “Let’s Get Worn Away,” the magnum opus of a closer, you won’t believe how lost you’ve been. This album is so close to being perfect, if only it was a little longer. At barely 30 minutes, it leaves you itching for more.

2. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

How in the hell do these guys keep making such good albums? After 5 masterpieces in the last 5 years, one of which was a double album, I expected nothing from Death Grips in 2016. Instead, they gave us this beast of an album, easily as good as anything else they’ve released so far. Whereas each previous release had a certain sound or theme to it, Bottomless Pit feels like a summary of all the styles they’ve experimented with to date. It’s the first time one of their albums didn’t really do anything new, which some fans complained about, but it feels like a victory lap for the group. They had already firmly established themselves as among the most boldly experimental and boundary-breaking artists in music; they didn’t need to remind us of that again. Instead, they took all the techniques they’ve messed with, improved them, and compiled them into what plays like a Death Grips greatest hits album, even though all the songs are new. The energy starts at 11 with the whiplash-inducing “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” and it rarely lets up from there. Tracks like “Hot Head, “Bubbles Buried In This Jungle,” “BB Poison,” and “Three Bedrooms In A Good Neighborhood” are among the most intense and infectious the band has ever recorded. They also show they have range though, with breather tracks “Eh,” “Trash,” and “8080808.” Every song on here is an instant classic and all three members are at their best throughout. MC Ride continues to be the most fascinating artistic personality in modern music; his delivery is phenomenal, his lyrics are mind-blowing schizophrenic poetry, and the sheer power and range of his voice is staggering. Meanwhile, Zach Hill provides always-perfect rhythm/percussion and Andy Morin’s production is the crispest and trippiest it’s ever been. To the rest of you out there who understand the pure force of energy that this group has become, stay noided.

1. Animal Collective – Painting With

Here it is, the best album of 2016. I’m sure this surprises absolutely no one, as my love for Animal Collective is well-known. I have written at length about why they are my favorite artists to have ever lived. Their music and visual art has served as an invaluable inspiration to me ever since I discovered them in high school, and I can’t even begin to describe what these guys mean to me. People have called me insane or pathetic, saying it’s not normal to obsess over a band to the degree that I do. I could care less what others think; I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who is incapable of feeling the pure passion that I feel. With Animal Collective’s music, I finally found the art I had been searching for my whole life and every single song in their massive discography fills me with nostalgia and reverence. Painting With is their 10th studio album and the first new Animal Collective release that I’ve experienced as a fan (their last release, Centipede Hz, was in 2012 when I was still just getting into their music). DEAKIN is absent here, using the time to craft his outstanding solo debut Sleep Cycle. This means it’s back to the team of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist that made Danse Manatee and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Unsurprisingly, the group has another classic masterpiece on their hands with this album. Painting With is a collection of short, tripped-out pop songs bursting at the seams with pure manic energy. Opening track “Floridada” sets the tone for the whole record with its irresistible hook and primal rhythms. The pace never lets up from there, each song bouncier and catchier and more colorful than the previous one. Every song is phenomenal, but my personal favorites are “Vertical” and “On Delay.” Painting With could not be a more appropriate title for the album as this thing is literally bursting with colors. Each song creates a painting in your imagination, opening the door for you to step through into another universe. Avey and Panda sound like they’re still 20 years old here, their voices buoyantly bouncing off one another at a speed likely to cause dizziness at first. Geologist brings the sonic delights as always; one of the key aspects that makes Animal Collective’s music so great is the level of detail in the mixing. Their music seems to breathe in a way that makes it feel alive, even at its most electronic, and that commitment continues here. I could honestly write about this album all day but, to spare you guys, I’ll wrap it up.

To conclude, I’ll just say that Animal Collective are still the best and always will be. Painting With is just another in a long line of masterpieces that extends all the way back to 2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. I don’t know how much longer these guys can keep blessing us with transcendent music, but I selfishly hope that they never stop. After all, a life without new Animal Collective to look forward to sounds so cold and empty. Thankfully, this album shows that they aren’t going to run out of energy anytime soon.

Thanks for Reading! Let’s Hope That 2017 Is Another Great Year For Music

The 20 Best Albums and EPs of 2016: Part 1

2017 is officially here, which means it’s time to review this past year in music. 2016 was another great year with lots of exciting new releases in all genres. It seems to me that no matter your taste in music, there was something to enjoy this year. My passion is for experimental and psychedelic music. I’m not focused on any particular genre, I just look for music with complex layers and raw emotions, music that can take me to another place. I found plenty of music like that this year, and I really enjoyed re-listening to all of these releases in preparation for making this list. Thankfully, 2017 already looks likely to be yet another strong year and I can’t wait to experience whatever albums it has in store for us.

One final note: The choices on this list only represent my opinion. I don’t list the albums that are the most popular or critically acclaimed of the year, I list the 20 projects that I listened to and enjoyed the most this year. Also, in terms of the order, there’s no exact science to it. Comparing albums which are totally different can be very hard; I only rank them because I think unranked lists are boring. I don’t try to rank them in terms of quality, I just rank them based on what I listened to the most and how personally rewarding the listening experience was for me. Finally, I don’t differentiate between albums and EPs; any project released last year that is 15 minutes or longer was eligible for this list.

20. Jameszoo – Fool 

Jameszoo is the latest experimental electronic artist to make his debut on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder Records. He fits right in with the Brainfeeder aesthetic, as he uses his production skills to deconstruct jazz music into something much more alien. Live instrumentation comes in and out, altered with glitchy effects. The album feels like the result of a DJ who decided he wanted to make jazz instead of dance music, creating a bizarre effect. Fool is a bit uneven overall, dragging in spots and sometimes failing to bring together its many interesting pieces into memorable songs. However, there’s enough potential shown in this project to earn it the final spot on my list and keep me interested in Jameszoo’s future.

19. Eric Copeland – Black Bubblegum

Eric Copeland, lead vocalist of Black Dice, returns with arguably his most accessible LP to date. Copeland’s music can be very difficult to listen to, punishing the listener with harsh frequencies and abrasive walls of sound. This album still has some of those familiar noise elements, but it’s much more focused on melody than any of his previous material. These songs actually have discernible hooks and some of them are pretty damn catchy. The title makes perfect sense, as this really does feel like a collection of demented pop music. The album can get a bit repetitive after a while, but it’s a solid effort overall.

18. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

The final album from legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest has been one of the most popular and acclaimed musical events of the year. I’m more of an admirer than a true fan of the Tribe, so this album wasn’t as big of a deal for me as it was for many others. I know a lot of people would rank it higher, but the fact it made my list at all is very surprising. I wasn’t even particularly interested in this project but, when I heard all the raves, I had to check it out. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself really enjoying it. Most rap artists can’t put out an album this strong in their prime, let alone at the end of their careers. This thing is filled with great verses, clever wordplay and smooth old-school beats. The record is also a fitting send-off for Phife Dawg, who passed away earlier in the year before the album was released. He, like the other members of the Tribe, shows that he never lost his flow. Unfortunately, the album well overstays its welcome for me and is dragged down by a second half that is considerably weaker than the first, in my opinion. It’s a good double album that could have been condensed into a great single album. Having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of hardcore Tribe fans out there who wish it was even longer.

17. Mild High Club – Skiptracing

 This is a short but sweet effort from the solo project of Alex Brettin, bandmate of Mac Demarco. Showcasing a smooth and subdued vibe, Skiptracing is the perfect record to throw on late at night. Drawing from R&B, jazz, and rock influences, the style of the album is hard to pin down. It definitely sounds like a lost release from an earlier era, other than the crisp production. There are some lovely melodies on here and the album tells a loose narrative of a private detective tracing the roots of American music, an apt metaphor for Brettin and the project itself.

16. Sweet Valley – Hermano

This was a nice late-in-the-year surprise. The first release from Sweet Valley in more than 2 years is very short and not one of their best, but still awesome. Hermano is just one track consisting of a few sections. I really wish the project was longer, as it just left me wanting more. Also, it feels a bit repetitive and simplistic compared to past releases. However, there are some badass beats in this thing and enough strong moments to make me very excited about the return of Sweet Valley. Hopefully, this was just a warm-up and we’ll get a longer one soon.

15. Com Truise – Silicon Tare

Com Truise doesn’t change up his style much between releases, but I have to hand it to the guy – he’s consistent. Not to mention, there’s no reason to necessarily change your style when the one you already have works, and Com Truise’s aesthetic of making music that seems meant to soundtrack space travel is a pretty awesome one. This EP is his best release since 2011’s Galactic Melt, in my opinion, and probably his most upbeat material to date. Just try to keep still listening to the shimmering beat of “Diffraction” or the futuristic arcade rhythms of “du Zirconia.” All of Com Truise’s projects have told an abstract story about a futuristic space explorer. The project he’s currently working on will supposedly complete the story. I can’t wait to see what he has in store.

14. SPORTING LIFE – Slam Dunk

Originally released as a series of 3 EPs, the complete Slam Dunk project showcases the best that this experimental hip-hop producer has to offer. Known for his work with RATKING, SPORTING LIFE expands outside the boundaries of that group to show he’s capable of much more. “Kill That Shout” could be a RATKING beat, with its abrasive bass and trippy vocal loops. “Skip to my Lou”, on the other hand, doesn’t sound like a rap beat at all, but something much more psychedelic. Best of all is “Nothing to Hide,” featuring vocals from Devonte Hynes and raps from fellow RATKING member Wiki. It’s an explosive collaboration in which everyone shines equally. Everything SPORTING LIFE tries on this project works, and it’s disappointing to me that it’s been so overlooked this year.

13. Mndsgn – Body Wash

I have to be honest; I had no idea that Mndsgn was capable of making an album this good. I’ve liked some of his previous stuff, but nothing’s ever blown me away. On this record, he not only ups his production skills but shows a previously hidden knack for singing and songwriting. Telling a loose love story about a man who is given body wash by a woman that transports him to another world, Mndsgn conjures old school R&B/soul and funk vibes with this project. The grooves are smooth, the vocals are nice, the melodies are strong, the production is sharp and the overall mood of this album is just great. I have no major complaints here and will have much higher expectations for future Mndsgn releases.

12. Aphex Twin – Cheetah

Well, of course a new release from Aphex Twin is going to show up on the list somewhere. This is an EP, not a full album, but it’s a meaty EP at 34 minutes in length. This is pretty minimalist, ambient stuff, especially compared to Syro, but it’s far from boring. Give these songs your full attention on headphones, and new layers of sound will continually reveal themselves to you. “CIRKLON 3”, in particular, is a classic track that reminds me of his masterpiece Selected Ambient Works 85-92. This is electronic music that only the great Richard D. James could make and, while it may not be among the very best Aphex Twin releases, it’s still definitely an essential listen.

11. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

The third album from singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Devonte Hynes, better known as Blood Orange, is his most ambitious and layered to date. Drawing on a wide range of musical styles and featuring emotionally charged lyrics fueled by racial and sexual prejudice, Freetown Sound is a bold artistic statement. More than any other album in 2016, this one has grown on me a lot, ending up much higher on my list than I would have originally thought and just missing a spot in the top 10. This is closer to pop music than what I normally listen to, which is a testament to just how strong of a songwriter and producer Dev Hynes is. He’s able to keep me fully engaged in a 58 minute album that dabbles in some styles I’m normally not fond of. It could have been a little shorter, but at least it doesn’t drag. Hynes’ vocals are fantastic throughout, quivering with pure emotion and longing. All of the guest vocals are great as well and Hynes has a real knack for letting his guests shine. There are truly some fantastic hooks on this thing, hooks that’ll be in your head for days. What I love most about this project though is the way each song flows into the next, connected by a dizzying array of samples and spoken-word bits. The transitions from track to track are seamless and it creates a sense of cohesion unmatched by his previous works.

Thanks For Reading! Look For Part 2 on Monday

 

Animal Collective at the Fonda Theatre: March 8 & 9

Well, it finally happened. I experienced Animal Collective live. Two nights in a row. I’m still trying to process it, convince myself it wasn’t all just the best dream I’ve ever had. I could never come close to capturing what this experience meant to me in mere words, but I’ll do my best.

First of all, the Fonda Theatre may be the nicest venue I’ve ever been to. Real old-school Hollywood charm, very small and intimate, and the staff/security were all friendly. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to finally see my favorite artists of all time, and am still blown away that I was lucky enough to have had such a personal experience for my first Animal Collective show.

The crowd was all very friendly and blissful. The shared vibe was that everyone was here to see someone very special to them and the excitement level was through the roof both nights. Lots of people were undoubtedly preparing themselves in various states of consciousness expansion to see Anco. All I’ll say about my own condition is that the stage setup looked reeeeeeeeealy cool.

Before I get ahead of myself though, I want to mention Ratking. They did a very solid job of opening up for a very tough crowd. Yes, Anco fans are all very happy and polite but they’re also all dying with anticipation to see their heroes and no act you put in front of them could take their minds off the fact that they’re waiting for Animal Collective. Ratking seemed to understand this very well and catered their live performance to the sensibilities of the crowd. I was very impressed by Wiki as a live rapper and producer Sporting Life contributed fantastic beats. I wish third member Hak could’ve been there, but it was a more than satisfactory opening act and they had some really cool visuals as a bonus.

Once Ratking finished and the curtain went down, reality set in. I’m actually here…They’re actually coming out on that stage….this is happening. I could tell by looking around that my thoughts weren’t far off from most of the crowd. Finally, at about 10 15, the curtain rose and us faithful fans were greeted with possibly the most beautifully colorful and eye popping stage setup I’ve ever seen (it was designed by Abby Portner, Avey’s extremely artistic sister). The band members hadn’t even taken the stage yet, and the crowd was already screaming and applauding wildly in disbelief. Then Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist took their respective places, backed by the new addition of drummer Jeremy Hyman (fourth member Deakin sat out this album and tour to work on his long-awaited solo debut), and launched into a 90 minute set of pure euphoric sound. One song bled into the next, each transition more stunning than the one before it, breathing extra life into and restructuring all of the new songs for the live environment. The stage seemed to morph and breathe with every sound, corresponding perfectly to each note.

The energy of the crowd started at 10 and kept revving up with each song, not peaking until the band closed out the night with their maniacally catchy new anthem “Floridada.” It was truly something else being on that floor. Everyone jumping up and down, clapping, snapping, screaming, laughing, smiling, crying; and every one of us chanting in unison: “FLORIDADA, FLORIDADA.” People would bump into each other, elbow each other and step on each other’s feet from time to time, but none of us cared. We were all swept away in the music, the pure manic joy that only Animal Collective can bring. I have never been part of a crowd that all seemed to be genuinely living in the moment and enjoying every second the way that the crowds at these shows did. Despite the incredible visuals, almost nobody took out a phone or a camera. Everyone was so blown away, they simply let the show wash over them and didn’t worry about preserving the memory for later. This was an extremely refreshing change of pace from most shows I go to.

Talking with other members of the crowd and observing them reinforced what’s so special about this band. To us fans, they represent so much more than just the music. They represent our most impactful memories in life, both happy and sad. They represent our emotions, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our goals. I had a conversation with one guy where we were trying to talk about which songs/albums were the most meaningful to us. We soon found this impossible as we realized every single song, right down to the obscure B-sides, brought with it a stream of memories that instantly put goofy grins on our faces.

They mostly played material from their new album, Painting With, which didn’t disappoint me in the slightest. The new songs all sounded incredible live and gave me a new appreciation for the album. However, of course the few old songs they played got the biggest reaction and deservedly so. When the string melody of their classic track “Bees” started, I thought the walls were going to melt from the overwhelming feelings of love and euphoria in the room. I’m not embarrassed in the least to say that I started crying right then and there. It wasn’t just that song either. As they moved into “Loch Raven” and “Alvin Row”, the tears just wouldn’t stop. I’d never felt such overwhelming emotion and appreciation in my life before. I began to smile through my tears as I realized, looking around the room, that almost everyone was crying. This was truly that powerful of an experience. My greatest memory of all is during the epic climax of “Daily Routine”, when the whole crowd as one just leaned back and we all threw our arms in the air and reached towards the stage. I’ve never been a part of anything like that, where so many people collectively shared an out-of-body experience as one. It was obvious the band was both flattered and slightly overwhelmed by the adoration being poured on to them, but that’s truly how much their work means to us fans.

I wished both nights that the show would never end, but of course it had to eventually. After being swept away by something to that degree, returning to reality is never easy. Many people begin to get grumpy and depressed when they realize it’s all over and they have to go back to their daily routines (nerdy Anco joke). However, for me, Animal Collective actually makes the grind of the day to day easier. They make me appreciate boring things, because they remind me that having a moment to be bored is a wonderful thing and not something to complain about. They remind me that life is positive and beautiful if you make it that way, and to never let people convince you otherwise. They give me artistic strength and inspiration, reinforcing to me that I know I can accomplish what I want to if I set my mind to it and stay strong. They act as a friend or therapist for me, providing a vessel to let all the inexpressible feelings and emotions that eat away at me every day flow through. Most of all, they keep me excited for life and all of its many surprises. Through the art of Animal Collective, I am able to always keep in touch with my inner child and, therefore, never lose my capacity for sheer joy and wonder that normally only children are capable of. When people treat me with dismissal or skepticism, saying I’ll grow out of it or I’m just a hippie or a weirdo or whatever, I can only smile and shake my head sadly in reply. I truly feel sorry for all of those who have forgotten what it means to be a kid. At the same time though, I refuse to apologize for finding a way to stay happy and I refuse to change my ways because my behavior is “unusual.” I have found a secret that works for me, a way to stay joyful and appreciative, a way to stay young forever in the spiritual sense. And mark my words, no matter how “uncool” or “immature” it may be, I will keep on loving Animal Collective and their music, smiling like a loon and dancing the nights away.

A Huge Thanks To Animal Collective For This Truly Incomparable Experience, And For Improving And Inspiring Me On A Daily Basis.

 

 

The 15 Best Albums/Mini-Albums of 2015

2015 was a tremendous year for music. It seems that no matter what style or genre, there was something for everyone to love this past year. It was a year that saw record album sales thanks to pop smashes from the likes of Adele, Drake, and Taylor Swift. But this was truly an amazing year for music because, as someone who liked virtually none of the music that broke sales records or earned Grammy nominations, I still found plenty of albums to love in 2015. In fact, there were so many worthwhile projects that I decided to do a top fifteen instead of the usual ten. A lot of my favorite projects this year were not full-length albums, but shorter projects. Normally called EP’s, I’ve noticed a new marketing trend this year in that they’re often billed as “mini-albums.” I actually prefer this term, so I will be using it instead of EP. I don’t consider length to necessarily be an important factor in greatness and there were three mini-albums this year that were so good, I simply couldn’t leave them off the list. Also, please keep in mind that I do not rank albums based on any sort of system or objective factors. This is a completely subjective list, with the selections and ordering based solely on how much I personally listened to and enjoyed each project this year. Now, without further delay, here are my top fifteen albums and mini-albums of 2015.

15. Earl Sweatshirt- I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

The third album from young rapper Earl Sweatshirt is his best and most mature work to date, in my opinion. At ten tracks and thirty minutes in length, it doesn’t waste a second in immersing you in the dark and wallowing psyche of Earl. A series of minimal and hazy instrumentals, mostly produced by Earl himself under an alias, set a perfect backdrop for Earl to spill out all the darkness running through his conscience in his signature smooth flow. It’s a fascinating trip into a volatile psyche, one that can be appreciated by all of us reclusive, loner types. It also happens to be an excellent rap album.

14. Walter TV- Blessed

I wasn’t sure we’d ever get a second album from the wild side project of Mac DeMarco’s backing band. The first Walter TV album was a short and joyous collection of trippy, fuzzed-out garage rock that utilized some strange distorted vocals. This second album is more of the same and nothing more. But their lack of progression isn’t a bad thing at all because, once again, it’s so much damn fun to listen to. If I have any complaint, it’s that the album could’ve used a few more tracks. At 24 minutes in length, it’s questionable to even call it a full-length album.

13. Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp a Butterfly

The album that’s topped every best of 2015 list is much lower on mine, but the fact that it made my list at all is a testament to how unbelievably successful this album was in accomplishing its goals. Not only is this the first Kendrick Lamar project that I’ve ever liked, this is the first truly mainstream record that I’ve actually found worthy of the hype in a long time. It’s a fiercely ambitious rap album that shows a willingness to experiment and brilliantly incorporates influences of black music’s old roots (jazz, funk, soul) into a modern style. All-star contributors including Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Ronald Isley, George Clinton, Knxwledge, and more leave their indelible mark on the album. Although I think Lamar takes himself a little too seriously at times and the album runs 15 minutes too long, this is the great album that rap sorely needed this year. More than anything, I love the fact that it’s helping bring old jazz and R&B influences back into the modern music scene.

12. Hiatus Kaiyote- Choose Your Weapon

I enjoyed Tawk Tomahawkthe short-but-sweet debut of this three-piece neo-soul band from Australia, but this second and much longer album is what confirmed to me beyond a doubt that Hiatus Kaiyote are a group with a bright future ahead of them. Lead vocalist Nai Palm is a revelation, her soulful voice jumping octaves and navigating sudden tempo changes and untraditional rhythms with ease. Throughout, she’s backed by a lush wall of atmospheric keyboards and insistent percussion. Some of these songs have complex and very unpredictable structures and the transitions are smooth. This is another album that overstays its welcome a bit, but songs like Shaolin Monk Motherfunk, Laputa, Borderline with My Atoms, Breathing Underwater, and Molasses are more than enough to make up for the few slow spots.

11. Iglooghost- Chinese Nu Yr (Mini-Album)

This 16-minute debut is a teaser for what to expect from the newest and youngest signee to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, 18 year-old Iglooghost. And based on this crazy head-trip, I can’t even imagine what he’s going to do with a full length album. This is easily one of the densest, giddiest, most flat-out-insane and disorienting projects to come out in a while. Layers upon layers of sound crash into one another, constantly rising in speed and intensity. The project was meant to evoke the feeling of being endlessly blasted through wormholes, and that’s a pretty apt description for what listening to this feels like. The first time I heard opening track Xiangjiao, I thought my head was going to explode. I worry that Iglooghost’s aesthetic could get old quickly, but this will always remain an eye-popping and exciting debut.

10. Knxwledge- Hud Dreems

Knxwledge has been the best beat-maker out there for years now, but 2015 was the year he finally blew up. Getting a beat onto To Pimp a Butterfly obviously helped, as did getting signed to Madlib’s notorious Stones Throw record label. Hud Dreems, his debut for Stones Throw, is exactly what you’d expect: a 40-ish minute collage of instrumental hip hop beats built on twisted samples of obscure old soul and jazz records that morph and flow together into a beautiful, disorienting whole. Knxwledge elevates beat-making to an art, making his albums feel like hip-hop symphonies.

9. Kamasi Washington- The Epic

If I ranked albums based solely on the musicianship or skill involved, this would be an easy number 1. It also tops the list easily in ambition and boldness, considering it’s a three disc, three hour near-instrumental jazz record in the year 2015. I tend to dabble in jazz-influenced music without ever really listening to much music that could be accurately or fairly called jazz in the traditional sense (example: Flying Lotus). It’s rare that a traditional jazz album really grabs my attention, especially in recent years. But Kamasi Washington, with a breathtakingly massive and talented band supporting him, accomplishes the daunting task of revitalizing jazz music for the modern era. Over three hours, Washington takes you through nearly every style of jazz playing imaginable and shows that he has mastered all of them. When I saw the final show of The Epic Tour in Los Angeles (full band and strings included), I got the feeling that I’d be insisting to non-believers decades later that I indeed was one of the lucky few who got to witness the birth of a true jazz legend. Songs like Re Run Home and The Magnificent 7 will make you a firm believer that jazz isn’t dead.

8. Neon Indian- Vega Intl. Night School

This is probably the most danceable album on the list or the best bet to throw on at a party. Alan Palomo’s third album as Neon Indian is a huge leap from his enjoyable but not particularly unique or layered first two records. Palomo’s songwriting is much improved, showcasing a knack for direct and accessibly soulful hooks that was previously absent in his work. The production has also taken on a new dimension, incorporating layers of futuristic synthesizers, psychedelic vocal effects, and thunderous percussion that make his old work seem bare in comparison. Palomo is also on point vocally throughout the album, and keeps the energy at full throttle from beginning to end. Of all the records to drop this year, this one exceeded my original expectations the most.

7. Battles- La Di Da Di

The third full-length from experimental rock trio Battles is their first without vocals, and arguably their most challenging work to date. While it can’t match the excitement and originality of their debut, Mirrored, it’s yet another excellent album that reasonably lives up to their last album, Gloss Drop. The lack of vocals definitely keeps this album from having the same kind of hooks or cathartic peaks as their previous work, but it still always feels like Battles. Songs like The Yabba, Summer Simmer, Dot Com, and Megatouch rival the group’s best in terms of complexity and sheer sonic inventiveness. This is a really good album in all aspects that suffered from being overshadowed by some even better ones.

6. Thundercat- The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam (Mini-Album)

This project is exactly why I like the term “mini-album.” At six tracks totaling 16 minutes in length, it’s hard to argue this is a full-length album. However, it accomplishes more and leaves more of an impact than most albums four times its length. The only thing I could possibly hold against this project is that it left me wanting so much more. Everything that’s here is great though, as Thundercat takes you on a spiritual journey through your own death and into the Beyond. This is revisiting conceptual territory from my favorite album of last year, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, but doing it in a much softer and more contemplative way. The 6 tracks breathe seamlessly into one another, peaking with the transcendent Lone Wolf and Cub. Few musical projects have this kind of emotional impact and lasting power with me.

5. Black Moth Super Rainbow- Seefu Lilac (Mini-Album)

 This was a fantastic late-in-the-year surprise that instantly rose near the top of my list. Although 20 minutes flies by frustratingly fast, any new music from the fascinatingly twisted mind of Tobacco is a welcome treat. All nine tracks here are brilliant, even the short unfinished sketches. Since You’ve Seen Her is one of the catchiest songs Tobacco’s ever written, The Chew is gleefully fun and distorted mayhem, and Warm Water Leviathan is a strong contender for my favorite track of the year. This mini-album as a whole evokes an incredible feeling of warmth and nostalgia for me that’s hard to match.

4. Panda Bear- Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

If someone had told me six months ago that the latest gem of an album from Panda Bear would only end up at number four on my list, I would have laughed in their face. The fact that an album this good sits below three others is simply a testament to how strong of a year 2015 was. Admittedly, this album has lost some of the heat I first felt when it came out all the way back in January. I was so hyped to finally be getting a new record from the Animal Collective universe that I didn’t stop to consider that anything new from Panda Bear was going to sound unbelievable to me. While it still sounds incredible and I’d still give it an easy 10/10, I no longer think this has the same staying power as classics like Merriweather Post Pavilion, Strawberry Jam, and Person Pitch. Having said that, it’s still a wonder of an album that makes most other music out there look trite in comparison. The production is deceptively layered, revealing more and more on repeat listens. Panda’s vocals are heavenly as always (it’s so good to hear his voice again!) and these are some of the catchiest and most straightforward songs he’s ever written. Although the simpler structures have led to it losing some excitement over time for me, some of these tracks are instant classics and among his best. I still love the face-melting alien synth-pop of Mr. Noah, as well as the hauntingly emotional melodies of Lonely Wanderer. Best of all though are the insanely infectious Boys Latin (just try to get that looping vocal hook out of your head), and the tear-jerkingly honest and beautifully-sung piano ballad Tropic of Cancer.

3. Grimes- Art Angels

I had very high expectations for the fourth album from singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/artist Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. But I had no idea what kind of jaw-dropping masterpiece she had in store for us. This album is what pop music should sound like, taking all the sing-and-dance-ability and universal appeal of pop melodies and packaging them within experimental and innovative production. Grimes is the anti-pop pop star, a series of seemingly endless contradictions. She’s an artist who does everything herself, from handling all the production to filming the music videos to drawing the album artwork (which is stunning, in addition to the beautiful art she made for each individual track, which comes packaged with the vinyl). From the operatic intro of Laughing and Not Being Normal to the cathartic finale of Butterfly, this album doesn’t have one second of filler within its 14 tracks. The fierce and irresistible Kill V. Maim is an obvious standout, but there isn’t one lesser track on this whole record. Continuing to improve her production and songwriting skills when everyone thought there was nowhere to go but down, Grimes has risen above the haters and launched her music into the stratosphere.

2. Death Grips- The Powers That B

The long-awaited and feverishly anticipated “final” (probably not really) album from Death Grips finally arrived on March 31. The explosive double album, uniting Niggas on the Moon and Jenny Death, is an 80 minute onslaught of some of the most abrasive and bizarrely inventive music ever composed.

Niggas on the Moon is a seamlessly flowing collection of tracks utilizing clipped and looped Bjork vocals as their rhythmic backdrop. The disc escalates in intensity and slowly builds throughout, finally exploding in a dizzyingly disorienting sea of oohs and aahs from Bjork that fade out final track Big Dipper. 

Jenny Death, on the other hand, starts at ten and never decelerates. This second disc is practically a battering ram in your ears melding the unmatchable intensity of MC Ride’s punk-meets-rap vocal delivery with Zach Hill’s manic percussion and Flatlander’s otherworldly digital flourishes. Even discussing any individual tracks on this thing is a moot point. This is 80 minutes worth of raw and fearlessly experimental music divided into two distinct halves that would be worthy of this spot on their own. After this, it’s hard to imagine how Death Grips could possibly manage to top themselves again. Yet, I have no doubt that they will.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never- Garden of Delete

Here we are, the best album of 2015. As you can see, it faced some incredibly difficult competition, yet this was one of the easiest choices to make on the whole list. From the very first time I listened to this album on headphones and practically lost my mind from the sounds I was hearing, I had absolutely no doubt that this was the album of the year and one of the best things I’ve ever heard. OPN was already one of my favorite artists, but this is beyond next level. Every single second of every single track on this album is perfect. It’s infinitely layered, endlessly unpredictable, explosively visual, able to navigate from calm ambient passages that lull you to bursts of furious energy that will completely take over your body. By the time this album is over, you’ll feel like your brain has slowly melted into a puddle of ooze (in a good way). Said by Daniel Lopatin (OPN’s human form) to be an artistic expression of the feelings of puberty and adolescence, I literally cannot imagine an album that appeals more directly to my musical sensibilities and love of visual concepts. Songs like Ezra, Sticky Drama, Mutant Standard, and Child of Rage prove that it’s possible to make something no one’s heard before, even in this age when seemingly everything has been covered. Lopatin takes the grotesque excess of modern pop culture and the horrors that can be found in the darkest corners of the internet and throws it all into a blender. What emerges is pure art, formless in structure and peerless in production. OPN has crafted not only the best album of 2015, but a record for the ages.

Death Grips: The Powers That B

10 out of 10

After nearly a year of waiting and frustration, the album that many of us fans had given up on has finally arrived: Death Grips’ 80-minute magnum opus The Powers That B, originally assumed to be their final album until recent social media posts from the group indicated it might not be. I personally doubt that we’ve heard the last from these three brilliant maniacs who seem to feed off of each others’ insanity so well.

The Death Grips we know is undoubtedly over, but I believe a new chapter will begin. it may sound a little different, but I’m sure it will be an interesting evolution in their sound. I would hope the group will stop relying on all their secrecy and toying with fans to generate hype, but at least I can say after all this waiting that the album is actually worth it.

A double album comprised of two seemingly separate and very different-sounding works, Niggas on the Moon and Jenny Death, the complete work represents the achievement of every sound Death Grips have been experimenting with since their formation. The lyrics are more visual and mystifying than ever, MC Ride is in the best and most versatile form he’s ever been in, Zach Hill’s drums are integrated into the music more naturally than any previous album, and Flatlander’s production has reached new heights. The full listening experience is a long one, but there’s nothing close to filler on either disc.

While the discs can easily be enjoyed separately, it’s worth it to get the full experience at least once because the albums complement and complete each other in a very interesting way. By sounding wholly different, the two halves combined revolutionize the concept of a double album and together cover just about every aspect of Death Grips’ sound that any fan could possibly desire.

The first disc is the shorter of the two, at a quick 31 minutes. It also represents the more electronic aspects of Death Grips’ sound, using sampled vocal loops of Bjork as driving percussion and hooks for the songs. The 8 tracks flow continuously form start to end, much like 2013’s Government Plates, and continues the trend of that album’s glitchy and tripped-out production. The Bjork samples work fantastically, as songs like “Billy Not Really” and “Black Quarterback” are among their catchiest work. Songs like “Voila” and the unforgettably-named “Have a Sad Cum” rank among the most psychedelic they’ve ever released. The disc ends explosively with “Big Dipper”, fading out into a dizzying symphony of clipped Bjork vocals and thumping electronic percussion to set the stage for Jenny Death.

At a meatier 10 tracks and 49 minutes, the double album’s ever-elsuive second half is long enough to soothe the hysterical fans who have been waiting for news of its release since summer of last year. Beyond that, the album sounds more fully-realized and diverse than anything they’ve put out, representing a massive leap forward for the group. First of all, they’ve finally managed to incorporate Zach Hill’s incredible live drumming into the music. Previous albums relied more on electronic percussion but Jenny Death is filled with pounding, thrashing live drums. They also use heavily distorted guitars often, making the album sound almost like the work of a rock band at times.

That being said, this is still Death Grips and the songs on this disc are way too experimental and out-there to be described as rock. MC Ride’s vocals are the most intense they’ve been here since their debut, Exmilitary. And despite the more live sound of this album, Flatlander’s production is the trippiest it’s ever been. There are electronic flourishes and vocal effects throughout the album that make it a pretty otherworldly experience.

Overall, is Jenny Death their best work as promised? After several listens, I think it is. When combined with Niggas on the Moon to form the full The Powers That B, it becomes the ultimate Death Grips experience by a mile. This is 80 minutes of raw adrenaline, manic energy, and pure sonic experimentation rolled into one visually striking package. If you haven’t liked the group so far, this album won’t convince you otherwise but if you’re a fan, go buy the album and rejoice; Jenny Death is finally here.

Shpongle: 3/17 at San Diego House of Blues

Have you ever been to a concert that was more than just a fun night, but a truly impactful experience? Have you ever been to a show that was so transportive that you feel as if there’s nothing except for you and the incredible music and lights coming from the stage? It’s a rare thing, but Simon Posford’s Shpongle DJ set at the San Diego House of Blues Tuesday night will forever be one of the best memories of my life.

Shpongle is a musical project that combines modern electronic styles with influences from music all over the globe. The result is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Whether you can get into Shpongle or not, it is impossible to deny the singularity of their sound and the pure psychedelia that radiates from their music and visuals.

Shpongle consists of Simon Posford, who handles all of the mixing and production, and Raja Ram, who plays flute and other instruments in addition to contributing broader melodic concepts. Their music also mixes in tons of live instrumentation and vocalists, making each album so dense in sound that it could take a handful of listens to even figure out what exactly is going on.

While they tour as a full band with live musicians sometimes, Posford is currently touring by himself and playing the duo’s music through solo DJ sets with a stunning visual creation called the Shpongletron to make up for the lack of other members. The Shpongletron uses reflective mirrors and light patterns that sync up perfectly to the music to cause visual hallucinations.

Having already considered Shpongle to be my 2nd favorite artist after Animal Collective, I knew that the show would be great. However, even I wasn’t prepared for how life-changing of an experience it really is to be in the crowd at a Shpongle show. I can say without question that dancing like a maniac in the middle of that group of blissed-out psychedelia lovers is the freest that I’ve ever felt. The group has said that Shpongle is a term for “positive and euphoric emotions” and the vibe comes through strongly. In that crowd, no one minded if someone stepped on their foot or stumbled into each other by mistake. Everyone was on the same level, completely immersed in the music, and the feeling of pure jubilation and electricity that flowed from the stage made it impossible to not get caught up in the moment and lose yourself.

I was highly impressed with the setlist, which covered fan-favorites from all five of their studio albums. The visuals complemented and reacted to the music flawlessly throughout the show, and Posford played for a generously long time. Overall, the show ranked alongside the Panda Bear show that I saw in LA last year as one of the two defining musical experiences of my life. If I ever get the chance to see Posford again or to see the full band for the first time, I will gladly pay however much and drive however far is necessary to have that kind of experience once more.

A Big Thanks To Simon Posford and Visual Artist Zebbler for a Literally Life-Changing Night.

 

 

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

10 out of 10

It has now been nearly a month since the official release of Panda Bear’s 5th studio album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. As a huge fan, I was obviously ecstatic about the album upon its release. However, I didn’t want to rush and review it. Albums as dense as this take time to fully sink in. Not to mention, having now experienced the album countless times, I feel that I am less biased as a fan and able to view the album more objectively. And I’m astonished to say that the album has only grown on me more and more since the initial release.

From the opening watery synths of “Sequential Circuits” to the explosively triumphant closer of “Acid Wash”, this is an album that was conceived to be nothing less than a fully immersive and emotional experience. Fans will obviously be blown away, but I think what Panda Bear has crafted here is universal enough in its sound to win over the uninitiated, much like 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion did for Animal Collective.

Working with producer Sonic Boom for the second time in a row, the duo has easily topped their previous work (2011’s Tomboy), and possibly even 2007’s Person Pitch (the gold standard in Panda’s solo discography). Fans shouldn’t expect a 12 minute epic to match that album’s “Bros” (not that anything can really match that life-changing song), but the album remains consistently transcendent throughout. There are no weak tracks but the peak of the album, in my opinion, is the 1-2-3 punch of “Boys Latin”, “Come to Your Senses”, and “Tropic of Cancer” in the middle of the album. “Boys Latin” may be the most infectious and irresistible melody that Panda has ever written. Just try to stop humming it after hearing it. “Come to Your Senses” could be the grooviest and most danceable thing he’s done, though it’s not the only track on the album that will make you want to move. And “Tropic of Cancer” is, unquestionably, the most straightforwardly emotional and gorgeous song he’s ever released.

I haven’t even mentioned the abrasive alien-synth pop of “Mr Noah”, or the alternately gorgeous and ominous “Lonely Wanderer”, or the rhythmic perfection of “Crosswords.” Like I said, there’s nothing even close to a weak track here. The songs are sequenced with an abstract narrative in mind of Panda Bear confronting death and change in his life, so it’s essential to listen to the work as a whole.

If you find yourself underwhelmed by the album at first, try it again. The full experience of the Reaper is one that takes many listens to unlock. The production on this record is so dense and multi-layered that I literally notice new sounds every time I listen. Every time I think that there’s nothing left to discover, I notice a new synth pattern or echo effect buried deep in the mix. I understand that many listeners don’t have the devotion or patience for this sort of thing, but even for the casual listener, I’d be stunned if they couldn’t find something to like here. If you’ve never listened to Panda Bear and are intrigued by my description, carve out 55 minutes in your day to fully appreciate this beauty on headphones. And if you’re already a fan, continue to bask in the glory of one of the most memorable albums yet from a truly visionary artist.

Interstellar

10 out of 10

There’s a reason this is the first film I’ve posted a review of in the better part of a year. This is the first film I’ve seen in a theater since last December’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I feel is genuinely worth talking about. 2014 has been a very sad year for movies in my opinion, and I’ve found myself more and more disillusioned about the current state of cinema. However, just when it seemed like all hope was lost, Christopher Nolan has reminded me that original and thought-provoking filmmaking is still possible.

Nolan is one of two current directors, along with Quentin Tarantino, who will attract me to see a film based solely on his involvement. When a new film from Christopher Nolan comes out, I don’t need to know anything about it before seeing it. The ad campaigns have thankfully given away very little of this film anyway, which I realized is part of why the film felt like such a surprising experience. For the first time in a long time, I saw a film knowing very few plot details and having no idea what to expect once the protagonists leave Earth. In this age when trailers often give away the arc of the entire film, it was truly refreshing to see a film and have no idea what surprises the script had in store.

The last thing I would want to do is ruin any of those surprises, so people worried about spoilers are reading the right review. I’m not going to discuss the plot in this review at all. Everyone already knows that it’s set on a dying Earth in the future and revolves around a test mission into space to try to find a new home for humanity. That’s about all I knew going in, and that’s all that anyone needs to know.

Instead, I’ll talk about what makes the film great without getting into story specifics. First of all, Interstellar is visually breathtaking. Nolan has always had a knack for iconic images, but he’s never had a canvas this large to play with. In this film, Nolan has the scope and ability to portray galaxies of incomprehensible size. Have you ever wondered what traveling through space would look like? This film is about as close as most people will ever get and the result is jaw-dropping.

While I won’t give any details, I will say that the story is very well-thought out and raises countless intriguing questions and debates. Some of this stuff has been done before, but a lot of it truly hasn’t. I haven’t seen a film that ponders universal questions this large in a very long time. And just as with Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar comes to a stunning and thought-provoking conclusion that audiences will be discussing for years.

The appeal of this film lies more in the filmmaking and ideas behind it than the human characters, but Matthew McConaughey continues his hot streak with an excellent performance as the protagonist. He comes off as authentically relatable and human, which is very key to keeping the audience just as engaged emotionally as they are intellectually. The relationship between Cooper (McConuaghey) and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult) is by far the most emotional and human component Nolan has ever featured in one of his films. A common criticism of Nolan is that his films are complex intellectual exercises lacking in real human emotion. I challenge anyone who says this to watch a scene between Cooper and Murph without tearing up.

Just as with Nolan’s other films, it’s easy to accuse him of biting off more than he can chew. But, I will take over-ambition anytime over the recycled plot lines I see every day. I’ve already seen countless reviews and articles nitpicking every little detail in the script that doesn’t add up or requires more explanation. I have often been that person, overanalyzing films and tearing them apart to the point where I can’t just sit back and be entertained. The true magic of Christopher Nolan’s films is that they immerse me so completely in whatever new unique universe he’s created that I forget any minor complaints I might have. I don’t doubt that there are little things that don’t add up in this film. It’s such a massively ambitious story that it would be impossible to not have at least a few mistakes. But whatever these complaints may be, I didn’t notice them. Once again, Nolan has engrossed me in a film so completely that I forgot all about dissecting its individual components. In the modern age, that’s a truly incredible accomplishment.

Concert Review: Tycho at the North Park Theatre (10/28/14)

This was my first trip to San Diego’s North Park Theatre, an excellent indoor standing venue that’s small and intimate yet large enough for visual artists like Tycho to provide a multimedia experience. Overall, I was very impressed with the venue and can’t wait to return in two weeks to see Flying Lotus.

As overwhelming as my excitement is for that show, last night was a fantastic experience in its own right. Com Truise, far more special than a typical opening act and an intriguing act on his own, got the night of instrumental entertainment started with a set of his signature spaced-out synth beats. I was  glad to hear him play a couple tracks off 2011’s Galactic Melt and appreciated the flow of his setlist.

This set the stage for Tycho, the electronic composer and keyboardist who now performs as a four-piece band. Tycho is also a graphic designer, which shows in the lovely and intricate visuals projected on a huge screen behind the band throughout the performance. The visuals do not distract from or overtake the music in any way, instead meshing with the melodies perfectly to create a truly immersive live experience.

For those who aren’t familiar, Tycho makes very relaxing and dreamy instrumental soundscapes. This isn’t the type of electronic music that you dance energetically to, as a few disappointed audience members who obviously had no clue what they were seeing found out. No, this is music to relax and zone out to, feeling every texture and melody reverberate through your body. More than that, it’s deeply emotional music that fills you with feelings of longing and nostalgia.

I haven’t even mentioned yet how strong Tycho’s new bandmates are and just how much they add to the performance. While Tycho’s compositions were already breathtaking on their own (see 2011’s Dive), the addition of live instrumentation on this year’s Awake made for an even fuller experience. Live, the difference is even more profound as the band displays a level of chemistry and technical prowess far beyond what I would have imagined.

Despite the impressive visuals, I found myself closing my eyes throughout the show and truly getting lost in the music. It’s very visual music even without the images onscreen and the images that played in my head were sometimes even more beautiful than what was in front of me. Overall, this performance far exceeded my expectations and made me appreciate Tycho (both as an individual composer and as a full band) a whole lot more.