10) Viet Cong
“Bunker Buster” – Viet Cong
When Calgary post-punk quartet Viet Cong dropped the rough mix of “Bunker Buster” in March, 2014, it nearly consumed me. It was impossible to procure an mp3, so I resorted to camping out on the band’s SoundCloud page for hours at time, pressing replay and obsessing over the track’s fiendish, Gang of Four-meets-math-rock exactitude through shitty Labtec computer speakers. The barn-converted studio in the song’s avatar looked as if it were lit from within by hell-fire, a diametric opposition to the frozen austerity of the Ontario landscape where it was recorded. It made sense; a clash of elemental forces would have been necessary to spawn such a beast.
Having spent most of 2015 listening to Viet Cong’s proper eponymous release, I now understand why the need to hear “Bunker Buster” in all environs of my life — driving, walking, dancing, nodding off — was paramount. This is music that invades every experience to which you expose it, as much a visceral delivery mechanism of bodily pleasure as it is a dysphoric assault on the psyche (adjectives like “debilitated” “deranged” “poisonous” and “suffocating” feature prominently in Vietcong’s lyrical word cloud). Frantic goth-bomb “Silhouettes” was inspired by bassist Matt Flagel’s experience of being electrocuted on a concert stage, and the NSFW video for lead single “Continental Shelf” feels like a home video reel you might uncover in the basement of a disturbed film maker.
This is post-millennium tension music — the kind that creates disquietude not for its own sake, but because it’s an authentic reflection of the outside world. Flegel’s visions of gas masks, infected wounds, and skyline’s folding in on themselves seem hyperbolic until a quick scan of an RSS feed reveals news about terrorist strikes, pandemic outbreaks, and the looming threat of climate change. “Check your anxiety/ No need to suffer silently” Flegel instructs, and so I immerse my nervous system in Viet Cong’s 6/8 time signatures, bifurcated guitar spasms, and pulverizing drums. It does not solve our ills, but it gives voice to them. And that helps, a little.
9) Tame Impala
“Let It Happen” – Currents
The words “No Synthesizers” were stamped on the liner notes of every Queen album prior to 1980’s The Game — an impressive statement if you revisit A Night At the Opera and a heroic testament to the notion that Brian May’s sound-bending Red Special riffs meant legitimacy in an era bookended by prog-rock and disco. Fellow axe auteur and studio perfectionist Kevin Parker knows that kick-ass feeling well; after Tame Impala’s two monster guitar albums 2010’s Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism reignited the flame of psychedelia for a modern generation, he’s had street cred leaking out of his pores. (There are entire reddit threads dedicated to the art of replicating the phase, delay, fuzz, and reverb of Parker’s sound porn on a shoe string budget.) But for Parker, camouflaging six-strings is an act of perverse pleasure rather than pride. He actually wants you to think there are keyboards. “I’ve always been obsessed with tricking people into thinking that a guitar is actually a synth” Parker admits, and on Currents, he’s mastered the illusion. Tame Impala’s third album is the sound of a Rock God hitting the night clubs, tearing the roof off the sucker, and not missing a single beat.
Tracks like “Eventually” and “Reality In Motion” still pack the bloody, saw-toothed whallop of old warhorses like “Time’s Bold Arrow” and “Feels Like I Only Go Backwards,” but Tame Impala’s vintage distortion mostly gives way to cleaner, more danceable melodies. According to Parker, the R&B, funk-infused sound of Currents solidified when he “listened to the Bee Gees after taking mushrooms.” You can hear it in the slow burn rapture of “Cause I’m A Man,” the falsetto and hip-swinging groove in “Disciples,” the disco-meets-electronica tape-loop tunnel of “Let It Happen” — a collision of musical universes made possible the tech aptitude and sheer virtuosity of Parker, who wrote, performed, recorded, and produced every sound on Currents. “Let It Happen” is a curiously liberated maxim for an autocrat like Parker, as much an entreaty to relinquish control as it is to push boundaries. It, and the rest of Currents, feels like a challenge from one of rock music’s premier sound architects to himself. “So much I wanna do” he cries as the irrepressible “Disciples” fades out, way too soon for these ears. There’s nothing he can’t do.
8) Vince Staples
“Lift Me Up” – Summertime ’06
“At the end of the day we’re all dead anyway. At least where I come from” read Vince Staples’ Instagram announcement of his formidable debut album Summertime ’06. Of all the Long Beach, CA crew of twelve and thirteen year-old boys who were around that summer, Staples is the only one left to tell the tale — of Jansport bags full of dope, of loaded 9 millimeters, of corpses in alleyways, of a “youth that was stolen.” Summertime ’06 is gangsta rap stripped of glamour, an exploration of Staples’ guilt-ridden conscience as much as it is of bullet-riddled bodies and pimped-out BMW’s. The 22-year old rapper’s monotone flow underscores Summertime 06’s pitiless, claustrophobic production, the joint efforts of Clams Casino, D.J. Dahi, and vaunted Chicago beatsmaker No I.D.. “Norf Norf” and “Birds and Bees” swagger, sneer, and pound like the super villain’s theme music from a sci-fi slasher film, crammed with menace and urban bleakness. Staples doesn’t so much as inhabit this horror story as escape from it.
Just before the first chorus of “Lift Me Up,” the song’s mechanized beat seizes up and spasms into a buzzing drill of sonic detritus. It’s anxiety personified, the sound of fried circuitry, the blue screen of death for a system on overload. It’s a mainline into the heart of fear inside Staples, the kid who watched his friend’s father go to jail, who took his gun and learned how to use it on YouTube, who became a gang banger and, in his words, “part of the problem.” Summertime ’06 is a glimpse into Staples’ lost childhood, a cultural emergency that’s still repeating today in a society that’s still on overload. “More tan the man, the more alone and hopeless” he testifies on “C.N.B.” If Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the impressionistic rendering of black America’ chaos from a 30,000 foot view, Staples’ album is the dread felt in the trenches. This could have been titled Summertime ’06 or ’92 or even ’15. This could be anytime at all.
“Brought To The Water” – New Bermuda
In a gut-spilling interview with Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, Deafheaven singer George Clarke admitted that the band’s third album New Bermuda explores the dichotomy of power and futility found in escapism. His lyrics, both deeply personal yet impossible to decipher because of Clarke’s guttural screaming, reflect his sense of dissatisfaction and a search for “something that really isn’t there.” And yet, during the band’s incendiary live performances (an experience that regularly leaves audiences agape and Clarke exhausted and bruised), both parties enter a symbiotic, living crucible. For that cathartic hour, Deafheaven conjures the very thing Clarke so desperately desires — transformation, release, fulfillment.
Buckets of ink have been spilled in attempts to define Deafheaven’s mutated, genre-busting music — black metal augmented by virulent strains of post-rock, shoegaze, and alternative rock — but what might be more meaningful is how it makes you feel. The most oppressive passages (often dominated by guitarist Kerry McCoy’s maniacal speed riffs and Clarke’s shredded larynx) have a debasing effect on the senses; you’re punished, overwhelmed, prone to revulsion and agitation. Daniel Tracy’s apocalyptic drumming sounds practically inhuman, the sound of wrath incarnate.
But then the song composition changes; an Almighty power chord drops, a stentorian melody arises from the din, a slight tempo variation feels like a tectonic shift. You’re suddenly emboldened, dizzily elated, and aware for perhaps the first time that music this brutally malevolent can somehow make your soul feel lifted. The tension found between these emotional poles is where Deafheaven defy characterization and deliver moments of transcendence.
New Bermuda, while crueler and more unyielding than the quintet’s pioneering 2013 album Sunbather, has a stronger sense of groove and melodic propulsion. For every instance Deafheaven replicates the ferocity of Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica or black metal titans Immortal, they also channel Built To Spill’s cosmic guitar textures or Oasis’ melodic grandiosity. As McCoy admits: “If you start at 10, you have nowhere to go from there,” and on New Bermuda, Deafheaven expertly negotiate the extremes. The highs become higher, the lows lower, and the blacks unmistakably blacker. In a genre defined by grievous bitterness and single-minded aggression, Deafheaven achieve something spectacular. They feel everything.
6) Father John Misty
“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” – I Love You, Honeybear
By rights, I Love You, Honeybear shouldn’t work at all. Hell, we’re lucky it even exists. If Josh Tillman doesn’t walk into that parking lot at the Laurel Canyon Country Store in 2012 and meet his soon-to-be wife Emma, there’s no muse for Father John Misty’s sophomore album, nothing to rescue Tillman from oblivion. We never get to hear a proclamation of love from a self-professed philanderer, an admittance of contentment from a cynic who thinks the world is fucked, and an eccentric, uncomfortable confessional that makes for one of the most literate, listenable folk records in years.
I Love You, Honeybear is uproarious, beautiful, and devastatingly smart — a glimpse into the glorious clusterfuck that is Josh Tillman and his opposing urges, sentiment and conceit. Just as Emma saves him, his prowess as a singer and storyteller save this chaotic, ambling record; it’s a stylistic grab bag of rollicking folk (“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”), VU-indebted 60’s pop (“The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.”), jittery electronics (“True Affection”), and late-70’s SoCal balladry ala Frye/Henley just after the thrill was gone. Indeed, a vacancy pervades I Love You, Honeybear — stock market crashes, drug overdoses, and societal apathy abound. Odes to Tillman’s wife are juxtaposed with tales of former sexual conquests, the female protagonists swapping so fast it’s hard to tell one from the other. “I’ve said awful things, such awful things” he admits.
You could argue the warm folk chords and Tillman’s honey-coated tenor make the bitter medicine go down easy, but there’s a more profound reason for Honeybear’s resonance. Tillman’s tapped into a deeper, universal affinity harbored in many of us, a belief that the malaise of modern living has become so pervasive and so entrenched that the only solace worth seeking lies in personal relationships. Ultimately, I Love You, Honeybear is exactly as advertised — an honest, deliriously rambling, poignant love letter. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” is the soundtrack of the giddy moment when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with the person right beside you. Leave it to a poetic misanthrope like Tillman to express that emotion with such endearing pessimism: “I haven’t hated all the same things/ As somebody else/ Since I remember.” True love is despising the world together.