State of the Union I: January-February ’18

Every two months, I will give a comprehensive wrap-up of the happenings of the music world. For more comprehensive analyses, look towards specific album reviews (plenty of links in the article). I hope you will find my opinions insightful and honest. My only credentials are that I listen to a LOT of music.


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Your latest indie darling, Will Toledo

Rock and Roll

For all the talk of “rock is dead,” the genre sure knows how to remain prolific.

My favorite “discovery” of the early year has been Chicago-based dream pop band Twin Peaks, and not just because they are named after David Lynch’s TV series (though they claim to be named after the Hooters-esque restaurant chain). They are highly melodic—and highly-skilled musicians—with a keen ear for adolescent romance. Even though Sweet ’17 Singles is a compilation of songs the band recorded in the previous year, it is still one of the best releases of early 2018.

Where Twin Peaks is at now, Car Seat Headrest was in 2014. Four years later, and Will Toledo’s band is, er, the Great White Hope for saving guitar music. Their re-recorded version of a much earlier record, Twin Fantasy, is another excellent release on par with 2016’s breakout Teens of Denial. It’s possible that Twin Peaks could evolve into indie darlings like Car Seat Headrest, but it’ll be hard to accomplish—Will Toledo has positioned himself as one of the most charismatic leaders in indie rock today.

Toledo is almost as prolific as Californian garage-rocker Ty Segall, though no one can be quite as prolific as Ty Segall. His latest double-album, the unfortunately titled Freedom’s Goblin, is more of the same: heroic psychedelic rock that recalls a bygone era. If you’re a devotee of Segall, you will love it; if you’re a devotee of classic rock, you will merely respect it.

The same is true of Snares Like a Haircut, the latest release from L.A. noise-rockers No Age, former indie darlings themselves. If you’ve been a fan of the cult group since their humble beginnings, you’ll undoubtedly love Snares more than I did. I thought it was a little redundant—noise for noise’s sake is, as they say, just noise.

No Age is past their prime now, or about to be. The same is true for (obviously) Franz Ferdinand and (regretfully) They Might Be Giants. Always Ascending is Franz’s attempt to reinvent themselves as an ‘80s nostalgia band, only they are late to the revival once again. Likewise, They Might Be Giants haven’t taken a creative risk since they started making kiddie albums over ten years ago. Their latest, I Like Fun, is mediocre as expected; luckily, they are one of my favorite bands and will always hold a special place in my heart. However, I Like Fun would have been a more apt title for Superchunk’s latest LP, What a Time To Be Alive, since it was arguably the most enjoyable release of the Chapel Hill quartet’s uneven career.


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James Pligge, lead singer of muscle-bound Chicago metalcore band Harm’s Way

Metal

I’m no metalhead, and I am largely unaware of the current trends in metal. Here’s a list of the few I heard in order from best to worst:

Posthuman (Harm’s Way)

What Happens Next (Joe Satriani)

 

—large gap—

 

Defy (Of Mice & Men)

 

 

 

—chasm—

 

 

Mark of the Necrogram (Necrophobic)


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Hip-Hop

For all the talk of “rock is dead,” hip-hop hasn’t yet stepped up to irrevocably claim the throne. Eminem kicked off 2018 with what may be his worst record—a Revival in name only. Migos released the blockbuster sequel to Culture by allowing Culture II to meander on for nearly two hours, while at the same time Nipsey Hussle maintained name recognition with the so-so Victory Lap. And Kendrick Lamar tried his hand—and succeeded—at a soundtrack.

As expected, Lamar’s album is the best hip-hop of the year so far—his Black Panther found him rapping, singing, writing and producing, with A-list assists from TDE and friends. It’s technically his “worst” album, and while it’s technically not even his, it still bears all of the usual trademarks.

Migos had more great songs than anyone— “Stir Fry,” “Gang Gang,” “Made Men,” “Top Down on da NAWF” and “Narcos,” among others—but their maximalist tendencies were head-scratching. Culture II absolutely did not need to be 24 songs. It’s a damn shame, because it could have been the best album of 2018 had it been substantially edited down.

When all is said and done, the best record of 2018 will most likely be some form of hip-hop, as has been the case for the last three years. However, demon-faced rappers like 6ix9ine are bringing the entire genre down. This angry young man is—DNA tests have been conclusive—literally the spawn of Satan. I don’t know what’s worse: the crimes he commits, or the way he raps about them. Either way, don’t listen.

Two rappers who haven’t even released albums in 2018 (yet) but are owning the game nonetheless are Drake and 2 Chainz. “God’s Plan” delivered the most quotable Drake line since the last most quotable Drake line (“She ask me do you love me/I tell her only partly/I only love my bed and my mama/I’m sorry”), while 2 Chainz was featured on both Culture II and Black Panther, stealing the show every time. His own EP, the excellently titled The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It, built on the authenticity he established with last year’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (another excellent title).


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Meg Remy a.k.a. U.S. Girls has released a breakthrough

Electronic

A recurring indie trend throughout the 2010s has been to blur the line between rock, electronic and pop. Pure electronic is hard to come by these days. Nevertheless, this merging of barriers has made the entire genre more accessible than ever.

MGMT made a full-on switch to synthpop, resulting in their best album since their debut. The lyrics suck, but the music is catchy. I’ll be honest—I never liked MGMT all that much even when they were “rock.”

U.S. Girls, a project by Canadian sound-artist Meg Remy, blurs several genres—electronic, pop, rock, neo-psychedelia and disco—and her latest LP, In a Poem Unlimited, is probably the most inventive record I’ve heard all year. It’s also her best—she’s come a long way since the dark-ambient droning of her debut. “M.A.H.” is a song that I simply can’t stop listening to; Remy’s voice in it is superb.

Another song that I’ve had on repeat since January is Porches’ “By My Side.” Porches, a project by NYC’s Aaron Maine, also straddles the line between indie rock and synthpop, and his latest album The House is the first to give off the feeling of a fully-formed band. Porches—Auto-Tune and all—provides the easiest listening of any music this year.


Jazz

Two decent records: Ryan Porter’s The Optimist and Al Di Meola’s Opus. Porter, a trombonist, gives us a double-album that is as long as Culture II. Clearly, he is of the same breed as Kamasi Washington, whose three-hour The Epic was spiritually fulfilling. Porter meshes post-bop, nu jazz and avant-Coltrane into something that is emotionally anti-Trump. “Obamanomics” represents everything The Optimist wants to say in these bleak political times. But did the rest of the album have to be so goddamn long?

Al Di Meola, a veteran of jazz fusion, has been thoroughly consistent throughout his long career. However, he hasn’t brought anything new to the table since 1977’s Elegant Gypsy. The only prog-influenced fusion guitarists I regularly enjoy are Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth, with apologies to John Scofield.


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One of these guys is a dressmaker, the other is an avant-garde classical composer

Classical

Classical is alive and well. Er, actually, no, that’s not true. But if there’s one man who can carry the torch for a while, it is Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. His score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful film, Phantom Thread, is the best music of 2018.

Those familiar with Greenwood’s work as a classical composer will recognize his distinct, atonal style. Unlike his previous work on There Will Be Blood and The Master, the Phantom Thread soundtrack is the first to sound like a complete orchestral cycle. Taking cues from Krzysztof Penderecki and Johann Sebastian Bach, Greenwood officially enters the rank of elite modern-day composers.

Since my own personal rules don’t allow me to rank classical “works” next to pop albums, you won’t find this on my eventual Best of 2018 list (don’t ask me, talk to my boss). While it may not receive much attention now, I foresee that Phantom Thread—both album and film—will remain a timeless experience for years to come.

One thought on “State of the Union I: January-February ’18

  1. Digging the new Car Seat Headrest album, and I really think the Black Panther movie/soundtrack will be something of a cultural landmark for years to come. A few of my own favorites so far this year are Dessa, Calexico, Kyle Craft, Dizzy Fae, Brandi Carlile, Smokey Brights, Spanglish Fly, Walking Papers, and HOLY.

    Liked by 1 person

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