Mid-Air Thief is the alias of a psychedelic pop / folktronica / indie pastiche artist hailing from Seoul, South Korea. Crumbling is their 2018 offering. Highly introverted, Bibio-like fragments of sugary folk pop, soaring string and synthwork that feels at times like it is about to burst into a full-on electro funk jam but MAT exercises sublime restraint in this regard. This is unbelievably fun. Sonically, it lies somewhere between the aforementioned Bibio’s seminal indietronica record Fi, the mellower work of Fishmans, and pure blasts of sunshine. One to stow away for the summer (or in my particular case, a bleary, dry, arthritic Saturday in December).
SO, I’m having a bit of a hard time trying to bust this whole thing out at once – getting back into the habit of writing efficiently about music takes more time than I originally anticipated! In any case, here’s the first ten albums out of fifty that helped define and make 2018 a better year for me. Personally, it’s been a year of both turmoil and immense inner growth in my own life – the political climate is melting down to a breaking point, I moved into a new apartment with my partner and got a new, challenging job. I find myself feeling both scared and hopeful for our future, and I feel that a lot of music this year reflected similar feelings.
I’ll add links to streaming sites or YouTube when the whole list is finished.
50. Playboi Carti – ‘Die Lit’
‘The New York Times said Carti’s rapping made it appear as if he was “more at ease with the performance of the role than with the actual act of rapping.”‘ Unsurprisingly, the NYT is completely off the mark here, but I do feel their statement helps to articulate Carti’s appeal to me and I’d imagine many others. His songs are looping, delirious, inebriated paeans to hedonism and euphoria. He doesn’t rap so much as he toasts, chants mantras and offers just enough syrupy-sweet bits of melodic scat over clapping trap drums, booming kicks and a sampling style that seems to condense the last decade of “cloud rap” into something both mainstream and entirely fun as hell.
49. Blawan – ‘Wet Will Always Dry’
Blawan (human name Jamie Roberts) offers here some of the best work I’ve ever heard under this name, but you’d be forgiven for not remembering much else of it – I didn’t either until I saw this pop up in my Spotify recommendations – beyond a vague association with R&S and post-dubstep artists from which he began his career as we know it. What we have here, though is nothing of the Joy Orbison or Pariah sort, more along the lines of a Vatican Shadow or Sandwell District-informed industrial techno. Sputtering, alchemical modular synthesizers, dark and supple production, and even some oddly twee vocals pop up on here from time to time. Definitely techno for the Trump era, down to the obvious and sarcastic title.
48. Lena Raine – ‘Celeste (Original Game Score)’
I won’t get too deep into a review of it as this is meant to be an AOTY list and not a GOTY list, but I will say that Celeste is not only one of the sweetest and most charming games I’ve ever played, but also a very touching and surprisingly deep reflection on the human spirit’s ability to adapt and overcome to the worst internal circumstances, and how we tend to externalize those circumstances in our daily lives. Lena Raine’s gorgeous, sentimental and lovingly-crafted score is both reminiscent of the soft and rubbery MIDI sounds from the Super Nintendo games of my youth and more recent work on games like FEZ and Hyper Light Drifter. These aren’t just looping segments to colour in another boring indie platformer, this is a warm and sensuous electronic record with a narrative as emotional and touching as the game itself.
47. Pinkshinyultrablast – ‘Miserable Miracles’
Ignore the fact that the cover looks like any Bandcamp release tagged under “vaporwave” or “hauntology” you picked out at random over the last 7 years or so, because with this album Pinkshinyultrablast have found their way back into a sound that’s both loyal to their existing body of work and perhaps the most evolved form of their music yet. From the fantastic Lush-meets-Steve-Reich dream prog of their first record they went through a series of evolutions with more misses than hits (IMO), here presenting a more electronic and outright sensuous version of themselves that evokes nothing more specifically than late 70s and early 80s Japanese city pop, Yellow Magic Orchestra, et al. while still retaining a sense of the shoegaze aesthetics they were originally pigeonholed for. Fans of Kate NV definitely need apply here.
46. Let’s Eat Grandma – ‘I’m All Ears’
“I’m only seventeen, I don’t know what you mean.” Let’s Eat Grandma are a British psych-prog-electro-pop duo consisting of two childhood friends who began writing and recording at the tender age of 13, based on a shared love of various types of popular and experimental music. I’m All Ears is the full realization of the project, an occasionally nightmarish, extremely charming, genre-schizoid chimera of pop forms that stretches from gently lulling psychedelia to SOPHIE-produced (!) industrial trap-pop evoking no more than a bad adolescent acid trip. Pranksterish as it is creative and eclectic, this is one of the most unique pop records I’ve heard all year.
45. Helena Hauff – ‘Qualm’
Sharp-edged, gritty, DIY acid techno recorded in single takes directly to tape from a shockingly limited set of electronic tools. Helena Hauff’s previous record’s poignant and mysterious melodic sense is still there, blurred by analog fuzz and instruments running well into the red. It’s a pretty thrilling effect at high volumes and despite its seemingly limited scope, Hauff wrings some surprisingly thoughtful moments out of her intriguingly tiny setup. This is good music for delirium and late night highway rides.
44. Thou – ‘Magus’
Unforgivingly heavy, bulldozer-like sludge metal transmissions from the Baton Rouge avant-doom auteurs/workaholics. They are in full furious force here, with a fresh sense of musicality (that drumming is definitely a marked improvement from Heathen), working more around a sense of controlled experimentation and knowing when and how to rely on the strengths that make their best work so memorable. A great record to think about guilloutines and joint-stock CEOs becoming acquainted in 2018, in a series of other solid politically enraged records this year, Magus might be the most overwhelmingly bold.
43. тпсб – ‘Sekundenschlaf’
“Sleep-deprived, breakbeat-driven vignettes of unclear authorship, from somewhere west of Lake Lagoda, near the Russia-Finland border.” One could fairly assume from this description that Sekundenschlaf, the first release from this artist that’s calling themselves тпсб is a short-sighted attempt at creating a Burial-like mystique – and I’d agree, if these enigmatic and chillingly hauntological tunes weren’t so damned convincing in their execution. The jungle influence looms heavily over the course of the record, and most tracks are at least interspersed with disarmingly good break programming, suggesting an asymmetrical frame for the eerie and melancholic soundscapes below. I’m reminded of Lee Gamble’s seminal EP Diversions where he attempted a similar work with his own previously discarded 1990s work. The cover art pretty much sums it up: something in this portrait is not what it initially appears to be.
42. cupcaKke – ‘Ephorize’
Good lord does this one slap! Ephorize is an album I listened to on a whim, either from a Spotify or a friend’s recommendation not really sure what to expect and it took me completely off-guard. cupcaKke’s flow is bold, hungry and sharpened to a knife point – I can’t think of any other rapper this year that just radiates confidence and braggadocio in such a satisfying and impressive manner. The production is on point, beats that range from crystal clear melodic r&b/trap-pop to trunk-rattling, futuristic, sexually-charged trunk rattler anthems rivaling the most visceral and intense of her male peers from any era of hip-hop.
41. Parquet Courts – ‘Wide Awaaaaake!’
An indie rock quartet of four lower-middle aged guys produced by Dangermouse.. in 2018? Yes, hear me out. The poppier, clear, extroverted production turns the otherwise solid and somewhat singular art-rock revival of their former records into a decisive musical and political statement, giving them a resonance and self-aware sensibility they had always lacked before. Wide awake, indeed. Tackling difficult themes ranging from gentrification to police brutality to social dysfunction via digital communication, Parquet Courts provides a musical dialectic of sincere (and perhaps a bit too on the nose at times) political discourse and a range of influences that stretches from the glam-rock and post-punk relics of the late 1970s to the slacker rock of Pavement. Keep it up, boys.
40. Young Paint – ‘Young Paint’
Darren Cunningham is one of my favorite electronic producers of all time, and one of my closest favorites from the last decade – the run from Splazsh to Ghettoville was one of my favorite series of records of any genre, both fitting nicely into and challenging my pre-existing ideas of what the styles of music he was deconstructing should be while also worming their way into the deepest regions of my musical mind, leaving loop-based detritus in my emotional DNA. And how fitting, that with this new self-titled record under the name Young Paint, Cunningham has claimed to reveal that the entire Actress project from Hazyville onward was partially to help create and train an AI program that could replicate his musical style and approach – when it was time to record this, the algorithm had become indiscernable to him from works he would create. Ranging from its series of dives into the uncanny is beautiful, wandering synth-string ambience punctuated by arrhythmic, patient piano plinks, a track that sounds like an attempt to play a radio’s different stations as a sonata on a MIDI keyboard, scraps of acid techno and house rhythms popping up here and there. Fascinating and oneiric, like everything else he’s created.
The cover art for To Record Water For Ten Days is oblique and mysterious, quite utilitarian in its simplicity; it brings to mind the design of This Heat‘s album cover, stark primary colors and little expression or implication of the music contained within. In this sense, this works both for and against the record – I’d been a casual Frusciante appreciator ever since I heard Shadows Collide With People back in my teens (ironically, because I liked the cover art), and gave his earlier avant/psych-folk meanderings a shot (It’s worth noting I seriously considered reviewing Smile from the Streets You Hold over this, but again couldn’t find the right words I feel describe my connection to that record. Another day.) and it never really stuck then, but those records are to be discussed another day.
To Record Only Water bursts out of the gates with “Going Inside,” shining with a newfound soberity and confidence, all chiming jangle pop riffs and an incendiary guitar solo(?) that somehow manages to sound like a wailing human voice and a guitar at once, and follows as a sort of mission statement and introduction to the record’s head space.
The lyrics on the record vary in subject matter, but are consistently oblique, touching, and full of ghostly soul, and speak of redemption, personal psychedelia, melancholy, love and loss.
As you progress through the record, Frusciante’s impressive variety in songwriting becomes evident with the touching ballad “The First Season” and the plaintive, spacious (no pun intended) “Wind Up Space,” the gorgeous guitar-fireworks-lite of “Ramparts” (the only instrumental on the record along with “Murderers”) and the catchy, single-worthy “Away & Anywhere,” which has one of my favorite refrains on the album. The tracklist is substantial yet short and sweet, with the same dusty, gorgeous atmosphere flowing from beginning to end but never losing the listener’s interest.
I guess it’s worth mentioning I’ve also never really been a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan; I can always get behind the indie rock and psychedelia informed narcotic jams on By the Way or the more melodic cuts on Californication if I’m in the right mood, but pretty much nothing else has ever stuck with me for a number of reasons – mainly that I dislike both lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis’ delivery and lyrics 90% of the time. It’s not really a matter of malice, it’s just never something that appealed to me in my youth so I have not the connection to them many I know do. That changed with my recent revisits to Frusciante’s often incredible but sometimes confounding solo music.
Interestingly it was said at the time that John’s biggest influence writing this material was 1980s synthpop and post-punk bands who did their own synth programming such as Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, New Order, etc. While it does show in the charmingly off-beat use of clanking drum machines and light synthesizer textures (even a few song structures), I definitely wouldn’t use those bands as a buoy by which to explain how this record sounds. The sound is pretty singular and unlike pretty much anything the man has done before or since – an eclectic enough oevure spanning grunge to IDM that I’d definitely like to do a retrospective writeup on it sometime.
Frusciante has stated during the creation of this record and By the Way he felt very connected to the spirit world and had numerous, frequent visions of spirits while writing; the title of the record comes from a picture of his body as a tape recorder that records water for ten days to ‘purify’ himself and allow for the deepest form of expression through sound and poetry. When I first heard this record, it was at the beginning of an early morning binge starting with Niandra LaDesand Usually Just a T-Shirt all while I was coming down off a strong LSD experience, and I honestly cannot think of a more perfect scenario in which I could’ve heard his music – not to imply drugs are necessary to enjoy anything, but with what I was going through in my personal life and the intense empathy I still felt it put me in the perfect space to learn to love his music.
This is a beautiful, haunting, redemptive pop record worthy of not only Frusciante’s musical legacy, but also a permanent spot in my heart and musical rotation.
After a couple weeks of feeling uninspired to write, I’ve decided impulsively to do a little writeup on a really good sophomore effort from undermentioned Portsmouth gothic pop/rock dream-weavers Cranes.
Cranes’ career began with a series of EPs and singles, admittedly most of which I have never listened to (a problem I will rectify at some point in the near future) and from what I understand, took a sharp turn in sound somewhere around 1991 for the Wings of Joy debut full-length, which was where I began my journey with their music personally.
They re-imagined themselves as a sort of mostly beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes alien sounding split between the sounds of the Cocteau Twins, neoclassical minimalism, and Dead Can Dance with wildly expressive, Kate Bush-esque vocals – courtesy of lead vocalist Alison Shaw, whose incredible voice ranges from sounding utterly ethereal and touching to starkly alien and frightening. This highly dynamic, melancholic, baroque sound began with the debut and was expanded upon in many ways by Forever, the record I currently hold in contention with this writeup.
Forever does not take the formula from Wings of Joy and improve upon it as much as it blossoms and refines it into something equally lovely. I can imagine this time was probably the height of Cranes’ popularity as a band, what with opening for the Cure on their hugely popular 1992 Wish tour which is one reason I imagine how this band ever had much exposure at all. It is a fairly eclectic album by my ears, coming out of the gates withthe swooning minor chord dreamfolk of the opener Everywhere, a solid mood-setter, followed immediately by Cloudless, an austere and creepy piece of minimalist ethereal pop punctuated by (pleasantly) dated sounding neoclassical instrumentation and a strong vibe of what I can only describe as evocative of dark fantasy worlds – I think of JRPGs, vampire movies, the Earthsea novels, Castlevania etc. when I hear this stuff. I would be hard pressed to say I wouldn’t enjoy a Cranes soundtrack for a video game!
As we progress through the record there are several other highlights, including what might be my personal favorite Far Away, a lush piano-driven dirge held together by the tear-jerkingly sweet melody and Shaw’s lowkey, childlike vocals. Swells of strings and acoustic guitar bring the song to life as it progresses, making for a gorgeous, timeless piece of out of this world neofolk. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Clear, a chugging industrial-esque piece with police siren guitars(?) wailing in the back of the mix, pounding percussion, guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on an angrier Joy Division track, and as always, Shaw’s distinctively twee and eerie vocals. Sun and Sky is also very worth mentioning – a power ballad of sorts that stands out for its grungy vibe and interesting use of Shaw’s vocals – perhaps the most conventionally “shoegaze” of any of these songs.
The formula is stretched, repeated, and expanded upon in different ways, but they seem to have a specific handful of formulas they use for songs on this record and it works quite well. There is no lack of diversity in mood here, something which I could see as both a strength and weakness when compared to some of their other work – this certainly isn’t my favorite Cranes record, that’d have to go to the aforementioned Wings of Joy (also Rachel Goswell’s favorite, for all my Slowdive friends!) but as its sibling makes for an excellent companion piece and an album that any lover of gothic rock, shoegaze, dream pop, neofolk or would appreciate in their collection.
2015 turned out to be a really solid year for me musically (if not in other aspects of my life) – Vince Staples’ fiery studio debut Summertime ’06, Jam City’s ethereal, addictive sophomore effort Dream a Garden, one of avant-noise-jazz unit Zs’ best efforts in Xe, and a bold new pair of records from dream pop darlings Beach House (Depression Cherry & Thank Your Lucky Stars, respectively) among many others. Wow, I sure ought to make a 2015 best of list, huh? 😉
In any case, today I’d like to discuss an album from a band who I previously enjoyed but had never been particularly impressed by – until this. Currents wasn’t necessarily a love-at-first-listen; this album is actually a considerably more subdued, textural, soulful affair than Lonerism or Innerspeaker before it. It took a couple weeks of listens (a fantastic album to cycle to, if that’s yr thing) before it sunk it way into my heart.
There was hardly a hint to where they were going next with the former record – this record bursts out of the gates with a newfound originality, confidence, and homogenization of different influences. Tame Impala’s sound is fully self-actualized here and it feels great. Perhaps the most notable difference is that no longer is Tame Impala a guitar driven entity – the 60s flower-power guitar psychedelica of their previous records is all but discarded, replaced by an analog synth-heavy layered sound that is equal parts classic UK psychedelica, glossy 70s yacht rock and modern synth pop, and their music has never felt more at home.
The album is also something of a concept record, chronicling the serious breakup and subsequent emotional journey of frontman Kevin Parker. His reverberated, echoing falsetto stretches itself all over these songs, warping and undermining the lush synthesizer gloss, Beatlesque basslines and funky percussion with a genuine sense of humanity and pain. The self-pity isn’t at all saccharine or overbearing, as a certain sense of self-deprecating awareness, sarcasm and dark humor pervades the storytelling. Take this excerpt from the aptly-titled “The Less I Know the Better”;
Someone said they left together I ran out the door to get her She was holding hands with Trevor Not the greatest feeling ever Said, “Pull yourself together You should try your luck with Heather” Then I heard they slept together Oh, the less I know the better The less I know the better
However for all of the humor and self-depricating irony present here, there is a genuine undercurrent of mourning and the various stages of grief passing by as the record progresses from start to finish. At the time in my life when I first heard this record, I was (and to some extent still am) in a deep depression over the loss of my ex girlfriend in 2013, and it felt as though Parker and I were in it together – many days this record gave me a reason to keep hope alive, to remember that you can always smile through the hurt, and live to see a newer day with a fresh perspective.
I feel I’ve shared just about as much as I need to without giving away too much – after all, this album deserves to be discovered by eager ears just as I did, so I’ll leave you with the centerpiece ballad “Yes I’m Changing,” which evokes lost love and Twin Peaks in equal measure:
For as much as I love jazz (and all of its various permutations in other types of music, a few of which I have previously written about), I am not that great at writing about it. I am not a jazz musician, I am only vaguely familiar with musical theory and jazz history, so it’s fair to say some degree of detail and historical nuance is perhaps lost upon me.So, disclaimer aside – I’d like to share a few thoughts about this otherworldly, incinerating live document of Miles Davis’ band in his mid 70s electric/fusion period.
At the time of Agharta‘s release, Miles Davis had already well established his trail-blazing work in fusing high-energy psychedelic rock & funk with his own, singular vision of what “jazz fusion” was. Bitches Brew and On the Corner had just began to fade into the rear view mirror. Classic jazz fans, alienated by the atonal, confrontational, alien nature of those aforementioned records and accompanying live performances had been partially replaced by younger, more adventurous fans of rock and experimental music of the time.
Many different lineups had already been burned through, Miles’ health, mentally and physically had begun to decline due to his constant touring schedule and heavy substance use. Not long after the release of Agharta, Davis left music behind for half a decade. The recording of Agharta was part of a short two-off series of shows he played in Osaka, Japan: the sibling recording is known as Pangaea, which we will possibly discuss another day.
The reason all of this is important is because these two recordings, Agharta specifically (for me anyway) have a feeling throughout them of a crazed search through the abyss for vindication, catharsis, and meaning. This truly feels like the work of an artist who had set out what he accomplished to do, but was never truly satisfied – this is the culmination of that need for adventure, pent-up artistry, and emotional frustration coming out all at once.
Davis led a septet for these performances – Pete Cosey on guitar/synth/various percussion, himself on trumpet (and a little organ), Sonny Fortune on alto/soprano sax & flute, Al Foster on drums, Michael Henderson on electric bass, Reggie Lucas on backup guitar, and James Mtume on various ethnic percussion and even a digital drum machine (!). The diversity and variety of sounds here is astonishing, as one would expect and ranges from sublime flute-driven bossa nova fusion to thundering world percussion sections with eardrum-searing guitar improv that’d make Robert Fripp or Michael Karoli proud, often within the span of a couple minutes. It’s worth noting that the versions of “Rated X” and “Black Satin” here are absolutely definitive to me, every time I listen to Get Up With It or On the Corner it’s hard not to throw those on instead.
All in all, this is a lengthy, uncompromising, dense, massive recording of an artist at his artistic and technical peak, creating an uninviting yet endlessly explorable world of sound that you can get lost in for days.. if you’re not scared off immediately. 😉 I wouldn’t listen to this before Bitches Brew or his classic acoustic work if you’re not familiar with Davis, but once you’re initiated and ready for the plunge – Agharta is a ride through Miles’ mind like no other.
Ah, Blue Bell Knoll. Not quite the black sheep of the Cocteau catalog (that honor would likely go to their somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated swan song, Four-Calendar Café) but one that seems to be sadly overlooked in favor of Heaven or Las Vegasor Treasure more often than not, and I am no saint in this regard. Thanks to the suggestion of a close friend, I’ve decided to give this record another chance to win my heart the way their other work has. Of course, I am not factoring the sibling-record Victorialand into the equation because in my opinion it stands alone in their catalog as a bit of an anomaly; nothing else they did sounds quite like it. But back to the subject at hand, eh?
The eponymous opening track starts with a gothic, repetitious harpsichord motif, followed by fuzzy synthesizer pads, and Robin Guthrie’s slowly building guitar textures into a gorgeous, lilted chorus of Liz Frazer’s astral vocalizations. It feels like equal parts minimalist hypnotics and maximal 4AD atmosphere, leading into a visceral and darkly psychedelic finish, all revolving around that simple arpeggiated harpsichord. In all honesty I think it’s one of the best openers on any of their records and absolutely gives ‘Cherry Coloured-Funk’ and ‘Ivo’ a run for their money.
The rest of the album varies in sound, and seems to be not only a reimagining of the gauzed-out, 80s-as-fuck 4AD sound of Treasure with crisper production values and more modern sound design all around, but also a sort of prequel to the picture-perfect-dream pop sound they’d go on to perfect with the God-like Heaven or Las Vegas that followed this. However, unlike most transitory records in many artist’s catalogs, this album’s identity seems pretty certain of itself. The focus on Liz’s vocals here is a fairly important distinction as I feel it is one of the album’s most defining characteristics – the presence and clarity of her vocals on this record allow her uniquely addictive and beautiful hooks to shine and worm their way into your brain quickly. Lots of goosebump inducing moments to be found here.
‘Carolyn’s Finger’ is one of the finest pop songs in their catalog – if I’m not mistaken this track was also one of their first to ever receive any kind of US-based pop success, and deservedly. It’s an absolute treat. It stands in solid contrast to darker, plaintive ballads like ‘The Itchy Glowbo Glow’ (probably my favorite song here honestly) which is like a crisp distillation of everything that makes Treasure such a lovely, haunting listen, presented with a newfound confidence and extroversion as they began to embrace the pop sound that’d go on to define their last few records.
Overall, I’d say this still isn’t my favorite Cocteau record; that place in my heart is reserved for Treasure and Heaven or Las Vegas and likely always will be – but it’s certainly a shining jewel of their discography and a superb mid-career effort that helped propel them into the global pop consciousness and cement their place forever in the hearts of lovers of dream pop, shoegaze, and gothic music alike.