“No Cities To Love” – No Cities To Love
Sleater-Kinney’s return from a ten-year hiatus is remarkable not just for the victory that is No Cities To Love, but for the reputation it upholds. Propelled by the union of Carrie Brownstein’s scorching, detuned axe riffs, Corin Tucker’s ferocious vocals, and Janet Weiss’ pummeled snares, their six-album run from 1996’s Call the Doctor to 2005’s The Woods not only epitomized artistic growth and sustained excellence, but it signified a golden era for indie rock. Sleater-Kinney personified a genre’s DIY hunger turned voracious, made good on a pledge to eclipse their idols (“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”) and obliterated the lines between the personal and political (2002’s One Beat embraced Tucker’s new found motherhood and questioned post-9/11 jingoism with equal punk fervor). To label them the best female band of their generation undermines that they might have been the best band of their generation, period. No Cities to Love is a triumphant reminder — Sleater-Kinney has never let us down.
“Price Tag” and “Fangless” are stinging indictments of soulless consumerism and idolatry while “Surface Envy” and “Bury Our Friends” dispense fierce self-affirmations. They also happen to be among the most mature, tuneful songs in the trio’s catalog. The Sleater-Kinney of 2015 has the been-there, done-that seasoning of a grizzled war mercenary — No Cities To Love is more about belief in self than liberalism, feminism, or any other -ism. If there’s a manifesto to be found here, it’s that Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss endure, having traded in rebellion for good old-fashioned catharsis: “It’s not a new wave/ It’s just you and me.” There are no anthems, no exhumed idols, just hard-fought solidarity and surety in themselves. No Cities To Love is proof from a band with nothing left to prove.
4) Courtney Barnett
“Depreston” – Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
“I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success” Courtney Barnett proclaims on excellent lead single “Pedestrian At Best,” and in one sublime stroke, downplays her ascendancy to indie stardom while practically ensuring it. Barnett’s knack for sprinkling seemingly offhand, but too-clever-to-be-accidental observations over burnt-sugar guitar riffs (the kind of Big, Dumb, Four-Chord hooks her childhood idol Kurt Cobain made his bones on) has transformed the 28 year-old Australian singer-songwriter into an unlikely international household name. Barnett’s debut LP Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit combines ramshackle folk, brash pop, and indie rock with an effortlessness that belies hours spent perfecting craft — slacker rock for overachievers.
The first time you hear one of her songs, you sit on the edge of your seat. Barnett’s deadpan delivery lends each couplet a conversational tone with the added reward that nearly everything she says is witty, honest, and uncommonly insightful. Barnett notices the little things, things that most of us see but forget, and shares them in ways that are unforgettable. By the tenth time you hear a song, that excitement of discovery ripens into wisdom and you’re pulled in by the melody and arrangement, which suggests Barnett isn’t just an old soul, but a savvy one whose songwriting skills are just beginning to bloom.
Album centerpiece “Depreston” is a master class in lyrical economy and emotional punch. While house hunting with her girlfriend, Barnett discovers an affordable home in a downtrodden suburb of Melbourne, only to realize the deal is so good because the previous owner has just died. Over a bittersweet slide guitar and hushed snares, Barnett ponders how a person’s entire existence — everything they stood for, dreamed of, and lived by — can be reduced to pressed metal ceilings and floorboards. The real estate agent’s wry, climactic solution “If you’ve got a spare half a million/ You could knock it down and start rebuilding” is simple but not easy to stomach, as is Barnett’s unsettling realization; if we are no more than the accumulation of our possessions, then in the blink of an eye anyone can be forgotten. Wistful, melancholic, and exquisitely unresolved, “Depreston” is the best kind storytelling, leaving an indelible impression but asking that you fill in the spaces.
3) Sufjan Stevens
“Should Have Known Better” – Carrie & Lowell
“Should Have Known Better” begs, no needs, to be the final track on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’ heartrending goodbye to his mother who died of stomach cancer in 2012. But it’s not. That would intimate a sense of closure — the uplifting chord change, the unlikely pitter-patter of wispy electronics paddling in a sea of sorrow, and Stevens’ closing testimonial: “My brother had a daughter/ The beauty that she brings, illumination.” There is little doubt about whose visage Sufjan sees in the face of his infant niece.
Instead, Carrie & Lowell’s gaping sense of irresolution remains just as profound as the relationship between Stevens and his mother was complicated (she left him at age three and wandered in and out of his life for years afterwards). Crafted from snatches of acoustic guitar, banjo, and piano, the album’s skeletal beauty is both intimate and terrible; you can actually hear the low hum of the air conditioner in Stevens’ office where some of it was recorded. It reads like a confessional, eulogy and diatribe; a portrait of a flawed woman sculpted from childhood memories (“The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name…he called me “Subaru”) and Stevens’ gorgeous, quavering tenor. You get the sense that these are the lullabies Stevens always sought from his mother, but never received.
Songs like “Death With Dignity” and “The Only Thing” expose bereavement so nakedly and plain that the verisimilitude of Stevens’ experience is nearly unbearable. Listening without having suffered the loss of one’s own parent makes you feel like an unwanted visitor, unfit to access the album’s emotional authenticity. Yet Stevens’ soul-baring yields universal insight — “Fourth of July” ends with one of the record’s (and life’s) most harrowing, immutable truths: “We’re all gonna die.”
Has there ever been an album whose sadness was more engulfing than Carrie & Lowell? I cannot think of one, but therein lies its deliverance. Having borne death’s excrutiating burden, Stevens trades agony for altruism by admitting: “I only want to be a relief.” He’s constructed an awful, sacred chamber of mourning; a space none of us wishes to inhabit but most of us eventually do. To join him within is a faithful act of commiseration — an agreement to both pay a price and receive its gift.
2) Jamie xx
“Gosh” – In Colour
Jamie xx’s In Colour is just that — a dazzling, chromatic rendering of a sound that was born in the dark. In 2009, the 26-year old DJ/producer wove slinky, lubricous guitar lines, lips-to-ear murmured vocals, and somnambulent beats into the fabric of the xx’s self-titled debut; it’s since become the very definition of a nighttime album. When subsequent band and solo releases infused that minimalist equation with new sonic elements (heavier club rhythms, squelchier synthesizers, more steel pan drums), the record covers followed suit, their stark symbols gradually morphing from black & white into color. The pink on green of the 2010 We’re New Here remixes, the lemon and bubblegum of 2011’s “Far Nearer” single, and the oil slick iridescence of 2012’s coexist can all be viewed as visual and aural bridges to the fully conceived ROYGBIV brilliance of In Colour.
Five years in the making, In Colour harnesses euphoric recall as a renewable energy source, fondly paying tribute to the 90’s rave scene by re-connecting the dots of the musical variants it gave birth to. Jamie xx deftly scales the stylistic canyon; from the gospel-house ecstasy of “Loud Places” to bruising, drum n’ bass juggernaut “Gosh,” from reggaeton banger “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” to the comedown chillwave of “Girl.” The idea of breaking electronic music into its disparate selves isn’t particularly new or special, but Jamie xx’s ability to reassemble the pieces into something incredibly contemporary is. Listen to “Gosh” fifty times and try not to be dumbfounded by that banshee siren that drops from the heavens at 2:42. In Colour isn’t just the best electronic album of the year, it’s a best of breed record that transcends its genre (or genres, in this case) and enables the joy of discovery and re-discovery in one fell swoop.
1) Kendrick Lamar
“King Kunta” – To Pimp a Butterfly
Before I had even heard To Pimp a Butterfly, I was rendered speechless. My first exposure to Kendrick Lamar’s third album wasn’t iTunes, an online leak, or even word-of-mouth, but an op-ed piece by African American author Carvell Wallace than ran three days after the album was released. Wallace praised Lamar’s record as “deeply powerful” and “visited by genius” but dropped a bomb on music critics that took me weeks from which to recover. It made me angry and confused and scared. It made me feel like I had nothing to say, nor, if I did, any right to say it. Among other things, Wallace wrote:
“If I was a white guy, I would probably like…the idea that I can become an honorary member of blackness just by listening. Hip-hop makes that easy. The songs are readily available. The hood is explained to the uninitiated. No longer would I have to feel that the Blackness of Black People represents mystery or the unexplained.
And if I was the kind of white guy who thought about the fact that Black people have experienced a sustained and relentless brutality in the name of protecting people like me, then I would seek reassurance from every black face I saw, every black voice that I heard, that we were cool. I would look to hip-hop to absolve me. To help me breathe.
Kendrick’s hip-hop is not the hip-hop that allows white guys to breathe… It is not about you. It is about him and his complete humanity. It is about the humanity of every other black person whose face is painted on the mural of this wall of sound…
Rather than reviewing this album, let’s review what we do with it. Kendrick’s music cannot free us. But how we respond to Kendrick’s music just might.”
Now what the fuck is a self-professed “music critic” who also happens to be a white guy supposed to do with that?
In spite of Carvell’s appeal, the reviews poured in, including yours truly’s. Public and critical accolades were swift and universal — To Pimp A Butterfly was “stunning,” “classic” and “awe-inspiring” — as was the general consensus that the album’s opaque narrative, dense production, and stiff-arm lyricism made it nothing short of impenetrable compared to the Lamar’s previous masterpiece, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Nothing seemed capable of topping To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 (and nothing has), but no album has made listeners work so hard to gain entry.
It’s ironic considering the album’s musical anatomy is so ravishing — a thick, loamy mix of jazz, funk, and R&B injected with swampy, viscous beats that rev “like a Chevy in quicksand.” The collaborative efforts of numerous heavyweight producers and guest musicians enable Kendrick to explore styles from Prince-style bedroom jams (“If These Walls Could Talk”) and 70’s space-disco (“i”) to seething rap diatribes (“The Blacker The Berry”) and spoken word freestyle (“For Free (Interlude)”). Damned if “How Much a Dollar Cost” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” don’t ape melodies and jazzy bass loops from Amnesiac-era Radiohead, and there’s even a Sufjan Stevens sample thrown in to boot. TPAB isn’t about being tied to any one genre — it’s not world music but world-affecting music.
Kendrick’s rapping prowess is far less a focal point on To Pimp a Butterfly than it was on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but there are moments on “For Free (Interlude)” and “Momma” where his game is simply mind-boggling. If Kendrick’s flow were like playing hoops, he’s the 2015 incarnation of the NBA’s James Harden, an introverted assassin whose expert technical skills — ankle-breaking crossover dribble, step back jumper and shifting speeds — makes him virtually unstoppable. Yet Kendrick’s focused more on the big picture than individual performance — it’s To Pimp a Butterfly’s appropriation and reinterpretation of traditional black music forms, the uncanny social relevance of Kendrick’s lyrics, and his personal soul-searching that makes the album resonate so deeply, if sometimes only at an unconscious level.
In 2015, the powder keg of American race, violence, and socio-economics reached a flash point, and no work of art was closer to the heat of the blast than To Pimp A Butterfly. As the number of African Americans who died at the hands of (mostly white) authorities mounted, Kendrick was already ahead of the news curve, surveying the damage, giving voice to those stricken speechless with rage, and asking the most uncomfortable of questions, especially of himself. The surprise ending to “The Blacker The Berry” in which Lamar brutally excoriates racial injustices only to turn the gaze inward for his most damning self-recrimination remains as breathtaking today as it was at first blush: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/ When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?/ Hypocrite!” These deft plot twists, along with Kendrick’s lyrical prescience and refusal to reduce complicated issues to simple generalizations has become one of To Pimp a Butterfly’s lasting strengths.
The album’s narrative riddles remain defiantly difficult — Kendrick referring to himself as “u” and the we of the entire black community as “i”, using Uncle Sam and Lucy as the personification of the American government and the devil, mistaking God for a hobo, explaining a butterfly-turning-into-a-caterpillar metaphor to the ghost of Tupac — and to peel back all the layers, you have to do your research. A site like Genius is both a blessing and a curse in that regard, making the consumption, transcription, and analysis of lyrics and inscrutable street slang all accessible through crowd-sourced commentary. But just because you intellectually understand something, doesn’t mean you know what it feels like. Just because you listen to a Rosetta Stone CD on speaking French doesn’t mean you get to sip espresso with the Parisian locals at Les Deux Magots. Foutre le camp d’ici, s’il vous plaît.
Case in point: I wondered if Lamar’s catch phrase “boo boo” from “Hood Politics” was going to be equivalent to “Ya bish” from 2012’s “Money Trees” — that invented cultural vernacular that ends up being misused as social currency by white, affluent high school kids who illegally downloaded Kendrick’s album and got blasted to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” at graduation parties. So like a good doobie, I Googled the question “Is boo boo the new Ya bish?” to make sure nobody else thought of the idea first, but sure as shit, somebody had. I got a hit on a culture haven/news site/message board called Boxden (mostly written and read by African Americans) where I felt like a complete interloper. Some guy had already asked the question, but the most telling thing was the swift, scathing response from a user called Hippiethegang: “Some of you n*ggas need to put the laptops down and go be around n*ggas for awhile it will do you some good.” Translation (yet again): Get the fuck out of here, please. I promptly did.
This all begs the same question raised earlier by the op-ed piece, the one of audience demographics and critical legitimacy that is or isn’t granted based on your race. Hippieisthegang’s suggestion isn’t an option afforded to me. I’m a white suburbanite married with two kids who just turned 40 that drives a beat-up old Prius. I know a lot about music but not a rat’s ass about rap or hip-hop when compared to the users over at BoxDen, the readers of The Source, or Carvell Washington himself. My genre touchstones remain A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, and Dr. Dre — all three obvious, non-threatening crossovers that “allow white guys to breathe”. What business, if any, do I have in listening to or contemplating the meaning of To Pimp a Butterfly.
Maybe Kendrick’s music shouldn’t speak to me. But damned if it doesn’t. His hyper-literate storytelling, his emotive capacity, his penchant for self-examination compel me in ways that no other artist (black, white or any color) has done in ages. Regarding the question, do I “get” To Pimp a Butterfly; let’s just say that this album lands like a cruelly barbed arrow and lodges bone-deep in skin of any color. You don’t want to get it, but once you do, good luck getting it out. Maybe I can’t relate specifically to the injustices Lamar’s experienced, but I can empathize. I can respect his pain and suffering. I can use the educated perspective that an album like this bestows and constantly check my own motives regarding issues of race in my everyday personal interactions. Music like this keeps you unflinchingly honest, if you let it. If that is how I respond to Kendrick’s music, then it’s certainly worth thinking, writing, and talking about.
On “King Kunta,” a menacing funk stomp that traverses a mountain range of black references (from Roots and Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man to Obama’s campaign slogan and “The Payback”), Kendrick warns “I gotta bone to pick.” Any institution that seeks to subjugate Lamar is likened to amputation; every foe is an impostor on rap’s throne. It’s the type of jam James Brown might have banged out if he’d been seeking retribution for two and a half centuries of slavery and oppression. To Pimp a Butterfly is a magnificent and challenging work of art that confronts America’s ever-complicated perception of blackness, our propensity toward self-destruction, and the very moral tenets upon which we as individuals govern our daily lives. So yeah, I’m interested. I want to hear about all of Lamar’s gripes — about race, about society, about the human condition, all of it. Drop the fire, Kendrick; I’m listening.