Text by Adam Lehrer
More amazing music across all categories in May 2015: Hip-Hop, Electronic, Noise Rock, Metal, Experimental Folk, and on and so forth. Like Beyoncé’s Lemonade last month, my personal pick for the month’s best new album isn’t available on Spotify. If you haven’t been able to hear Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape, download the Apple Music app onto your phone now (even if you don’t care for Chance the app itself is incredible, any album you want downloaded into your iTunes for $10 a month, bye Tidal). While not as joyously adventurous as that other high profile album that Chance worked on this year, The Life of Pablo, Chance’s Coloring Book is in that wheelhouse. Chance, a recent father and generally sweet seeming guy, approaches Hip-Hop as conceptual art drawing upon his spirituality, life experiences, and dexterous flow. He is the logical successor to Kanye’s throne: a south side rapper who shuns gangster posturing for unbridled joy in making art. As the leader of SAVEMONEY crew with friends Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, and others, Chance shows that Hip-Hop doesn’t have to necessarily be a grim portrayal of life in South Side, but that it can be a gateway to an emotional connection to the attachment. With Coloring Book, Chance has put himself alongside Kanye, Kendrick, and Drake as the most important artists working in Hip-Hop.
Mark Pritchard, Under the Sun, Track: Beautiful People
Considering Mark Pritchard records for Warp Records, and that new record Under the Sun counts American Psych-Folk legend Linda Perhacs and motherfucking Thom Yorke amongst its vocal features, this new Pritchard record went slightly under the radar. I would like to establish here that this is a gorgeous record. Pritchard’s music is a muted, subdued, and highly stylized mish-mashed history of UK electronic music; Under the Sun takes on Techno, Hip-Hop, Ambient, Jungle, Grime, and god knows what else into a massive double album of hypnotic sounds. This is less a dance album than past Pritchard releases, almost like his version of Aphex Twin’s ambient albums. Take Xanax, put on headphones, and let Richard’s sounds lull you to sleep.
Marissa Nadler, Strangers, Track: Janie in Love
Marissa Nadler’s mezzo-soprano voice is her greatest tool. She welds it like a paint brush: on her new LP Strangers, she allows her voice enough clarity so you can examine the voice for meaning and messages, much like you would a painting (not surprising that Nadler studied fine art at RISD). Though Nadler is sober for the first time on record, she is not all peace and love: “The record is dealing with friendships dissolving and inner strife,” she said in an interview with The Quietus this week. The album’s sound, produced by genius Randall Dunn, feels more filled in than previous Nadler records allowing her more support to balance her voice, possibly due to Nadler wanting to record more with a band after feeling the loneliness of being a solo act for many years.
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit, Track: Eh
Welcome back, Death Grips, how we missed you. When drummer Zach Kill and MC Ride announced that Death Grips was over in 2014, I almost signed relief. Death Grips was easily the most exciting band of the early 2010s, but after a series of digital pranks and overly experimental and under-produced releases they started to become a bit of a caricature. The fact of the matter is that not giving a fuck is only interesting for so long. Fans want artists that care. On Bottomless Pit, Death Grips sound like they care. The album is both the band’s most accessible release since 2012’s The Money Store and also the best record of their career. Death Grips are at their best when they flirt with more accessible production and songwriting. Structure is what allows their sounds to really blare and gives Ride room to violently sermonize on drug addiction, poverty, the military industrial complex, and corrupted political landscapes. Bottomless Pit is the sound of two undeniable musical talents realizing they have a good thing; you can almost see Ride and Hill sharing an American Spirit and looking at each other to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t fuck this up.”
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool, Track: Burn the Witch
A Moon Shaped Pool is a much different Radiohead record than OK Computer or Kid A. Unlike those records, it is not immediately transfixing. You can listen to it, rather quickly, all the way through and not take much notice of its sparse and lush arrangements. But it sneaks up on you, eventually revealing a Radiohead record, with all the pretentious beauty and unbridled grandeur that that entails.
Yak, Alas Salvation, Track: Harbour the Feeling
Yak is one of the last few exciting regular ol’ Rock n’ Roll bands around. And that is most likely because they don’t just give us garage rock rehashes of The Stones or Led Zeppelin. While those influences are there, the band’s feedback-fueled cacophonies are just as much in debt to some of the UK and US’s noisiest and most psychedelic rock bands: the hypnotic swirl of Spacemen 3, the drugged out swagger of Pussy Galore, and the acid house indebtedness of early Primal Scream. Finally: a Rock band trying to rock without the car commercial-readiness of The Black Keys.
Skepta, Konnichiwa, Track: Ladies Hit Squad (featuring D Double E)
As written about in a previous column, Skepta’s Konnichiwa is good enough to finally establish a strong Grime fan base in the United States.
Pantha du Prince, The Triad, Track: Frau im Mond, Sterne laufen
German conceptual electronic producer Pantha du Prince has been much missed since his last long player Black Noise was released six years ago. Arguably, Pantha du Prince was one of the first producers (along with Dubstep producer Burial) to shine a light back on the experimental possibilities inherent within digital music. While Black Noise could be described as chilly and subdued, new album The Triad is maximalist. Pantha du Prince pairs his minimalist production along with powerful live instrumentation on the record. The duality in sonics makes The Triad his most emotionally resonant body of music of his career.
ANOHNI, HOPELESSNESS, Track: Drone Bomb Me
You know, when ANOHNI was still Antony, I could never really get into her music. The voice was of course always incredible, but there was something kitsch about the approach to me. But ANOHNI has won me over with HOPELESSNESS. Never has her music felt this ALIVE. Aided by the bombastic beats of Hudson Mohawke and the bizarre production of Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), ANOHNI protests, agonizes, and ultimately promises joyful reconciliation. This is the sound of one of the most compelling musicians alive finally free of the last shackle.
Julianna Barwick, Will, Track: Heading Home
It seems like there are a lot of artists recording music similar to that of Barwick. Everything from the more obvious peers like Grouper and Julia Holter to Daniel Lopatin and the first couple How to Dress Well records. These are artists who seemed to have grown up with fine art and have learnt from it how to create stories and concepts without the aid of concrete lyrics. Barwick’s new album, Will, is actually a rougher listen than her previous record Nepenthe. And that isn’t a bad thing, as Barwick doesn’t use her voice to be the centerfold of her music. On Will, she weaves her voice through cackling atmospherics and ambience as if to connect her body into something unknown. The record is truer to her approach and also highlights her contrasts with her contemporaries, in which the voice is just another layer in the production and not the star of the show.
Drake, Views, Track: Controlla
Views has taken some criticism and it’s not all unwarranted. The record is indulgently long and sometimes feels like Drake and producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib couldn’t find an exact direction to go into. But in the end, the record still highlights one of the most fascinating voices of popular music and his desire to make music that feels true to who he is. There are some beautiful songs on this record, and even some of the sloppy rapping doesn’t distract from those. Drake’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing, the confident lothario versus the sensitive crooner, feels very modern to me. It really sums up what it is to be a man in the modern world, where you can feel on top of it with one success one moment and utterly beaten down the next. I feel like Views might be better appreciated a couple years from now.
Ghold, Pyr, Track: Collusion with Traitors
There are few sub-genres more played out than Doom and Sludge Metal. The genre has already been perfected for some 20 years now by the likes of Eyehategod (Sludge), Electric Wizard (Doom), Earth (Drone Doom), Burning Witch (Blackened Sludge) and so on. But Ghold approaches slow beats and down-tuned feedback blistered riffs in a refreshingly new way. Traditionally a duo (Alex Wilson and Paul Antony), the band writes music for a four piece. On new record Pyr, the record has added a third member, multi-instrumentalist Oliver Martin. But by limiting their members, the band sounds rather bizarre. Though the influence of The Melvins’ Gluey Porch Treatments looms as large as it does on any other Sludge album, the record makes use of experimental instrumentation: a Free Jazz saxophone skree, a guitar noise breakdown. They are not an “Experimental Metal band,” they are a Metal band that experiments to make up for limited personnel. Thrilling stuff, really.
Arbor Labor Union, I Hear You, Track: Mr. Birdsong
Georgia-based Arbor Labor Union seem to draw upon both post-punk and Southern-twanged Psych Rock resulting in something akin to, I don’t know, let’s call it Southern Gothic Rock. The lyrics can be silly at times, with their hymns of joyous paganism. Another Randall Dunn production, this album packs an unusually strong and bombastic punch.
James Blake, The Colour in Anything, Track: Points
I’ve never been much a fan of James Blake. In a review for Bandwagon, Sean Francis Han wrote of Blake being “experimental electronic music’s answer to the late-00s indie folk sad boy phenomena,” and maybe that explains my distaste. I hated all of that shit. But, The Colour in Anything has won me over. Perhaps because it’s more of a pop record, with Blake’s voice front and center and his lyrics more direct. He also opened up his process, collaborating with Justin Vernon (I hate Bon Iver, but his voice is nice usually), Frank Ocean (new album coming soon y’all!), and Rick Rubin. Blake is becoming one of those artists who can flirt with the mainstream while still retaining his core ideas, no surprise that Kanye has shown interest in him and Beyoncé worked with him on her most adventurous album.
Ocean Wisdom, Chaos ‘93, Track: High Street
Brighton-based rapper Ocean Wisdom is like Grime’s answer to Earl Sweatshirt: a lyrical wunderkind who knows the history of his game enough to not be afraid to push and subvert it. He does not let up ever. His manically precise flow documents nonsensical near dream imagery along with social commentary and personal insight. I hope that Wisdom can ride the Skepta wave of renewed interest in Grime bringing a more experimental sensibility to the form. Every genre needs its weirdo iconoclasts.
Kaytrandaa, 99.9%, Track: GOT IT GOOD (featuring Craig David)
Montreal-raised producer Kaytrandaa veers between J Dilla worship and delirious house. His new record, 99.9%, is stacked with guest vocalists: Craig David, Vic Mensa, Phonte, Anderson Paak, and more. The album is a formidable display of the producer’s ability to find a beat that a rapper can jump onto and dancer can bust moves to. But it feels rather natural. It’s not like Trap where a slow hip-hop head banger devolves into a House breakdown. Instead, Kaytrandaa effortlessly finds a beat that can serve two very different purposes. It’s one of the most seamless combinations of dance and rap music I’ve ever heard.
Otoboke Beaver, Okoshiyasu!! Otoboke Beaver, track: Okoshiyasu!! Otobok
For those that like the kitsch-y manic Prog-Noise Rock blast of Japanese band Melt Banana in theory but can’t get behind the heaviness of it, Otoboke Beaver might prove a worthy alternative. The all-female quarter fashions itself in the lineage of bizarre Japanese Garage Rock (Guitar Wolf, Shonen Knife, DMBQ, etc..) and often recalls the jazzy riotous punk of God is my Co-pilot, but there is a hyper-active day-glo quality to them that reminds you of the arcade culture of Tokyo warped into two-minute guitar anthems. The band also embraces performance and fashion, which is always refreshing in a world full of bands looking at the floor while wearing Chuck Taylor’s.
Heimat, Heimat, Track: Wieder Ja !
This French experimental act, Heimat, made up of members of warped Punk band Cheveu and experimentalists The Dreams, draws up a mixed bag of oddball sounds to create something succinct and slightly off-putting, but in a good way: horror movie soundtracks (particularly John Carpenter), crackling Hip-Hop beats (particularly those used by The Rza on the first few Gravediggaz albums), minimalist post-punk (Young Marble Giants, The Slits), and Afro-beat all seem to make up small fractions of Heimat’s overall sound. There is a menacing feeling luring beneath the tape his of this debut.
Machine Woman, Genau House, Track: I Can Mend Your Broken Heart
Russian sound artist Anastasia Vtorova records under the name Machine Woman. She produces tracks that take on minimal electronics while referencing European cinema. On new EP Genau House, she offers two tracks and a remix that offer a fine entry point into her sound.
Mirrors For Psychic Warfare, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Track: Oracles Hex
Though it’s been a long time since Neurosis have punished anyone’s ear drums as a band, its members are constantly making music outside the band. Leaders Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till have their own respective solo acts, there is the side band Tribes of Neurot, and Kelly’s band with producer Sanford Parker, Yakuza’s Bruce Lamont, and Eyehategod Mike IX, Corrections House. But Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, Kelly’s new project with Parker, might be the most difficult music ever to come out of this camp. The self-titled debut lurches at crawl speeds, taking aspects from blackened doom bands like Burning Witch as well as the smoky folk of Kelly’s solo material. It’s very hard to get into, especially if you are used to the orchestral onslaught of Neurosis. But the sound grows on you, and it’s refreshing to hear musicians of this stature move this far outside of their comfort zones.
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial, Track: Fill in the Blank
Just when you thought the world didn’t need any Power Pop-leaning Indie Rock bands a songwriter comes along that has you totally reconsidering the form and its place in contemporary music. In this case, the songwriter is Virginia-born Will Toledo, AKA Car Seat Headrest. On paper, Toledo’s music shouldn’t be as good as it is. His influences read like a Pitchfork best of list: Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, Radiohead. But listening to this kid grapple with his own depression in sharp and acerbic lyrics reveals a depth unbeknownst to most or all Indie Rock acts of his age. His music also off-sets the lyrics. It’s surprising in places, and you don’t always know when the chorus is about to take effect. But when it does, it’s rather joyous. As DIY as this kid seems to be, he is not above the sing-along verse or the fist pumping breakdown.