Aint No Best Bih: Music That Compelled Me in 2015
I really don’t understand why people are still making lists called “best of”. We know that nobody has time to listen to all the music that comes out, and no matter how much you try, the best you can do is to keep up with the stuff you’re dedicated to. So why do we keep on framing year end summaries as “best of” lists? Why are there thousands of websites creating new and redundant pseudo-relevant canons of culture every year? We know that you haven’t listened to everything, so how can you speak on what’s “The BEST” if you don’t even know what’s out there? Because people don’t understand what they’re talking about, and people don’t understand what’s going on. For the most part.
There is no best. The best is a bastion of an old world where music was scarce, and in our world we are inundated by music. When curation is more important than a canon — as is the case in our times — ”best” is an irrelevant concept. “Best” has become a deceptive way to say basic, banal, and generally devoid of critical insight. The “best” things are the things that everybody is talking about. The conversations that surround the “best” things are most likely to be littered with the unfounded opinions of people who talk about music with no deeper sense of understanding, reverence, or accountability. It’s a cop out, and culture really has so much more to offer us in these times.
We’re way the fuck out in the future using all the words and symbols from the past, so we’re missing out on the present, which is actually the future. You can’t be in the future if you talk about it like it’s the past. So, I don’t have a “best of 2015” list. There was so much music that came out. We all know that. I saw folks like Bones, Xavier Wulf, Pouya, and Suicide Boys do monumental numbers this year, and tap into a vibrant nationwide scene that demonstrates the internet era is not defined by the opinions of popular tastemakers. In these times the audience and the artist are circumventing the blogs and the websites. It’s the result of the development of direct channels like twitter, instagram, and soundcloud. These new kinds of relationships don’t rely on a curator to direct the audience to the canon. And streaming sites are not far behind as they also circumvent the need for music blogs because the editorial content is built right into the streaming platform.
The curator’s role in this inundation of content is to reveal the invisible and mystic threads of culture in the music that moves us. Those threads create the vibrations that resonate, and when explicated they reveal observations on society that are relevant to all of us. But, for whatever reason music blogs are focused on trends and the rapid turnover of trends. So, I can’t say I have any best picks of 2015. I became aware of tons of stuff. People who I really respect released stuff that I still haven’t heard. However, I did listen to a lot of stuff, and what I listened to is a direct reflection of music’s place in my life.
I’ve been rapping for 16 years, making beats and recording for 15 years, writing about music for 5 years, and running a label for 2 years. I listen to instrumental music while I work, I listen to new releases, I listen to old albums that I discovered when I collected vinyl, I listen to albums that get sent to me by artists and PR companies, I listen to albums because I’m writing about them, I listen to songs because I’m looking for inspiration for creating new music, and on and on. But through it all I listen with deep intention. I take music apart and identify the different pieces, I try and figure out how music was made, I get taken away by the music and my spirit is moved, I am driven to emotional states, and on and on. Music takes on many roles in my life, so the music I listen to cultivates my identity, focuses my mind, acts as as conduit to my emotions, fulfills my cerebral desires, and on and on.
I used Rdio for the first half of the year, and switched to Apple Music when it came out. I boycott soundcloud for the most part because I think they’re exploitative, and I think their app is frustrating. But I still listen to stuff on there, and very rarely post music on there. I spent a lot of time listening to my own music because I was trying to get my album as good as I could manage to get it. I didn’t check many websites, but I did look at Nah Right, Passion of the Weiss, Cracked Atoms, Noisey, and Complex fairly regularly. I wrote articles about music for The 405, Complex, Noisey, and Wax Poetics. I was heavy on twitter, but for the most part my taste did not align with popular consensus of popular music critics. That being said, here are the albums that I listened to, enjoyed, and thought about the most. They’re not the best records that came out, just the ones that really compelled me.
Gunplay — Living Legend
I love Florida. I was born and raised there, and it has defined who I am. I think I’m pretty good at understanding the wonder and beauty of Florida, and especially good at being able to connect that wonder and beauty to art that comes from South Florida. Gunplay represents a big part of the Florida that I know. Gunplay is a product of South Florida’s role as an international cocaine conduit. My dad is a criminal defense attorney, and our family got to know the cocaine industry from a unique perspective. What I appreciate about Gunplay is that he makes his life experiences consumable as distilled in pop-styled rap songs, but also tangible in his depiction in the highs and lows, the glory and the regret of making a living as an outlaw. He doesn’t glorify his actions in hopes of being revered, he spills his guts in hopes that you’ll lend an honest ear and get hyped off his wild tales.
He brags and boasts, but not without remorse. And he does so under the influence of an incredibly deft pen with lyrics crafted and recited in near-perfect Jaki Liebezeit-like rhythm. In true South Florida fashion he is vibrant and exact, a monument to the perfectly rendered chaos that thrives in the madness of this tropical and criminal locale. The music sounds entirely contemporary, but his craft is markedly more refined than most of his contemporaries. Gunplay is a little bit older, and he sounds like it, but that’s a good thing. In a time when cutting edge is usually synonymous with disposable, Gunplay remains grounded in rap’s longest standing proven methods: be really good at writing raps, rapping, and have a vibrant personality that translates well to radio and TV. A lot of people will tell you how this album misses the mark, but that’s just because the mark collapsed, and if you stick to making great art you’ll never miss no matter where you aim.
Vince Staples — Summertime 06
I hadn’t listened to much of Vince Staples before this album. An EP here or there, but I honestly never thought much of him besides: another dude in his early twenties in LA making rap music that is loosely affiliated with Odd Future. He made some good songs, and I was interested to hear the record but I wasn’t anticipating it. I probably listened to this album about 20 times in the week after it came out, and I kept listening to it all year. The fact that it’s produced in large part by NO I.D. has a tremendous effect on the overall cohesiveness of the album. This is basically the Vince Staples and NO I.D. band and the result is some amazing music. This is pop music, but it’s a kind of hapless pop music. Staples definitely understands how to juxtapose hooks, refrains, and verses, but the content isn’t exactly sing-along friendly. These are songs you can sing along to, but for the most part you’re not supposed to sing along. You’re supposed to chill and observe as a G does his thing, and the production really drives this home.
The grooves are strong throughout the album, and on the whole they vacillate fluidly, the project keeps a steady keel but never becomes repetitive. The music is thoroughly perforated by sonic details that, although rich, don’t distract from Staples raps as the subject. Instead they create a background that would shimmer if it weren’t composed of such muted tones. The details breathe and fluctuate in relief while a steady groove keeps the listener rooted along with Staples continuously rolling tales of life as a young black man resolving environmental pressures with socially unacceptable solutions. The music is a perfect analog for Staples’ character and his story: you can’t get caught up in the details, you can’t worry about the specifics. The most important thing is to maintain the flow, keep moving without making a fuss, and keep cool in spite of the fact that reality is bleak.
Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The surprise mixtape that was probably mostly discards from a forthcoming album, and likely intended to hasten the completion of Drake’s contractual obligations to Cash Money. This record popped up unexpectedly, and did a lot of work. This record is the most tangible link between Drake’s underground-informed sensibilities, and the mainstream spectacle that is his career. As I was mixing my album I came back to this album again again for the way kicks, snares, hi-hats, and vocals are balanced against melody and bass. The lyrics are a nuanced balance between private details exposed in the process of understanding one’s self, and public generalizations expertly crafted for public consumption. Drake is selling us two things. In his verses Drake is selling personal narratives that fluctuate realistically between masculine and sensitive, in his choruses Drake is selling a generalized mythology of contemporary life that people are eager to consume, internalize, and recite.
The album lead, in part, to the revelation of Quentin Miller, and the question of authenticity as it pertains to songwriting in rap music. The truth is that Drake is an international pop star who raps, and so his songwriting exceeds the expectations of a rapper. When bands or even other solo artists face the kinds of job demands that Drake faces they achieve based on the work of a group of artists. Drake followed up the accusations with a combination of raps and memes that proved that no matter how big and public-friendly his persona is, he’s capable of the kind of personal and endearing resilience that defines rap. All in all this proved to be an album that will serve as a touchpoint for a time when the mainstream and the underground became more and more intertwined.
Sortahuman — Sortahuman4Life
These guys are the underground underdogs. 2 white skinned individuals from Huntsville, Alabama who have fun making rap, and take their time to do it right. I’ve made music with these guys for a while and watched them go from a 3 man group with a few releases to a 2 man group with a ton of releases. Although they have 35 releases on their bandcamp, I’d say that this is the most accurate depiction of their greatness. The beats and features are a survey of the nation’s internet rap scene. This is the definition of country cosmopolitanism as summarized by two young men who love hanging out having a good time without posturing for the internet. In rap music they’re able to channel a fatty slice of the high times in Huntsville, and prepare it with expert craft. The result is a collection of songs that could soundtrack your Saturday evening running around with your homies, or a wild party movie scene with people smoking DMT out of raccoons.
In a time when it’s really easy to position yourself to blow up Sortahuman has always stuck to a code that eschews easy attention. And in spite of the fact that they haven’t received attention from major music websites they’re respected and widely known in the internet rap scene. These anti-hero rappers are everything that the “best of” lists cannot accommodate. This is blue collar americana at a unique time in our country’s history. There may not be a Walden Pond in Huntsville, but these are two rappers who have turned their internet connection into a pond of infinite capacity, and reflected on being a young adult in the age of digital information.
Freddie Gibbs — Shadow Of A Doubt
Freddie Gibbs is still making music like only he can. A part of his creative capacity can be attributed to the fact that he is on his own label. He’s not an artist lost in a fantasy acting as a pawn for a record label’s short term investment. He’s a creative person running his own business and finding success. Gibbs doesn’t make beats, and as far as I know he doesn’t record or mix himself either. But he’s ultimately responsible for setting up the sessions, hiring and paying the engineers who run them, getting those recordings to an audience, and then booking a tour. Granted he has a manager, and other people involved in his business with him, but they’re all people that he hires. At the end of the day Gibbs works for himself, and his music captures that perfectly.
There’s no ridiculous features, just the ones that Gibbs wants. No ridiculous marketing campaign. No promoted tweets. Just Gibbs tweeting. The music reflects Gibbs’ overall vision, his thoroughness, and his stellar artistic sensibilities. This isn’t hit songs that everyone can sing along to. This is a brilliantly creative and markedly American man who has thrived in an oppressive environment gathering all of his capacity and investing it in himself. Freedom and liberation are empowering to creativity, but creativity thrives under duress, and the challenges of running a music business serve as a perfect compliment to the art of making music. In the contemporary era we continue to see this more clearly as the means of running a music business become more and more accessible to individuals. And Gibbs continues to prove why he is the consummate artist, and businessman, and marriage of the two. Shadow Of A Doubt continues Gibbs’ run as one of the most consistent American artists working today.
Milo — So The Flies Don’t Come
Milo is part of a unique rap genealogy that descends from Project Blowed and Freestyle Fellowship. Although he’s from Wisconsin he spent time living in LA and fraternizing with Busdriverr and Open Mike Eagle. His approach to rapping often feels more akin to Gil Scott-Heron than Migos, which is not surprising as the content of his lyrics is usually more akin to beat poem stream of consciousness than trap lord boasts. Now, that’s not to say that Milo is somehow in opposition to Migos — even though lines like “bumpkin savages rap over vocal tracks” absolutely position as a critic of his contemporaries — and that’s one of the wonders of his art. In his predecessors’ era artists were either part of the typical rap character movement, or against it. It was an absolute game, whereas Milo manages to eschew that which doesn’t fit him, and adopt that which suits his needs.
On So The Flies Don’t Come Milo continues to mine the fruitful veins of his previous efforts. However, here he manages to get himself into some tighter cadences that don’t so much depart from his previous material as they do expand it. Milo isn’t the kind of guy who would flip his whole style and become a different artist. Milo is the kind of guy whose art can’t stop growing and evolving, and on this album that gets really obvious. He doesn’t push himself too hard, he doesn’t over-commit to something he’ll have to back pedal on. If you took control of your life this year, and made some changes on your own account then this music will probably make sense to you. Milo reads a lot of books, and speaks about a lot of ideas, comments on a lot of things, and generally manages to use rap to build an immersive piece of art that will respond to how you listen to it.
Hemlock Ernst & MAdlib — Trouble Knows Me
Everybody knows who Madlib is. He’s legendary. And everybody knows who Hemlock Ernst is, but most people don’t realize it. Hemlock Ernst is Sam Herring, the lead singer of Future Islands. And while this music is a pretty big departure for the stuff he’s most known for, it’s no departure for Ernst. He’s a big time hip hop fan, and he’s been rapping longer than he’s been in Future Islands. Somehow the divine machinations of the universe aligned and delivered these two very talented artists to each other. The result is a collection of rap songs that harken back to Golden Era New York more accurately than any of the recent 90s revivalist-themed rap that’s being championed. These are beats defined by outdated technology. Madlib didn’t learn how ot make beats on Fruity Loops and adapt his style to get an MPC sound. For all we know some of these beats were made in 1998, because they’re just like the beats that Madlib was making in 1998. Ernst didn’t try to emulate a style born of bygone world, he just used the style that he birthed in a bygone day and put out some new songs.
While his lyrics for Future Islands often deal with potent social, cultural, and human observations devoid of place, time, and context, Ernst’s lyrics for his rap material are quite different. Here his personal confessions are depicted as scenes from his life wherein Ernst speaks on himself, uses lyrics to meditate another self into existence, and stitches everything together with strings of hip-hop styled games of signifying. With a lyrical proclivity that rests somewhere between Doom, and Ghostface Ernst is constantly evading explicit meaning in exchange for stylized implicities. The EP is a brief collection of songs that fit perfectly into the “best of” category in Madlib’s extensive discography of rap collaborations. Whether Ernst is delivering seething (apt) accusations, painful confessionals, stream-of-consciousness rap banter about women and drugs, or otherwise it all blends perfectly.
Eric Biddiness and Paul White — Golden Ticket
Out of all these records this is the one I listened to the least. Definitely not enough times to fully digest and write about. Steve ESPO Powers did the album art. Paul White is most known for his work with Danny Brown. Biddiness is most known for his song “Railroads Down”. Biddiness is from Broward County, which is where I’m from. HIstorically, we haven’t been known for our rappers, which is less about the rappers in Broward, and more about the rest of the world having no idea what’s going on in Florida — especially South Florida. Biddiness is a talented songwriter, and a refined rapper, and White delivers a range of well-tuned and expertly-crafted beats. This album feels like the work of a group creating a body of work, not just one producer giving beats to one rapper to make a bunch of songs that will be packaged together.
I’d argue that music journalists have become overly-concerned with the sensationalization of rap music. That’s because they don’t talk to the people who make rap music. They write about it from a point of view that is so far removed from the life experiences of the artists they analyze that the only thing that stands out is the spectacle, the absurd. The value of this art is measured in terms of traffic it can generate to a website, so it really skews what shows up on these websites. Golden Ticket is a sensible album of great songs made by two artists who are heavily invested in their crafts. The work here is not focused on riding the wave of viral attention, but instead on the timeless pursuit of deeper clarity and an enhanced sense of self through the mysticism of music.
Nils Frahm — Solo
This is the only album on here that doesn’t have any words. I listen to it when I write because I can’t write and hear words at the same time — unless I’m listening to an album that I’m writing about. I love the sound of a piano. It resonates in a profoundly unembellished way. A piano is a combination of complex and exact mechanics with organic materials. Felt, metal, and wood come together to create a sound that invokes the mystic power of music, and touches the souls of humans without the use of electricity. A piano represents the pinnacle of primitive humans’ achievement through music, and it is thoroughly connected to the origins of humanity. It would seem that Nils Frahm is intimately aware of all of this at every moment of his Solo album. His delicate tactic expands as it transfers from his mind to his arm to his fingers to the keys to the hammers to the strings to the air, and finally arriving at your ears it has grown exponentially to something timeless and infinite, a lulling haze of driving calm.
I can’t imagine what my year would have been like without this album. I would have listened to more Max Richter, more Steve Reich, more Phillip Glass, Lamont Young and Terry Riley, but none would have achieved the same result as Frahm’s album. For an instrument with one of the longest standing runs in recorded music it is truly incredible for someone to achieve something unique with the instrument. The closest analogs for this music are perhaps Keith Jarret and Lamont Young, but there is a great deal of distance between these two artists. Frahm creates a middle point that is tactile, but not evasive. He doesn’t just hit the keys, Frahm truly plays the piano — he makes it sing as if he spoke through it without the use of a mechanical interface. And his voice is rooted in the beautiful structures of Western music’s scales, but the way he speaks has more to do with the disruptive nature of players like Young than it does the studied reservation of players like Jarrett. This is music that is familiar in its theory, and its scales, but it is entirely unique to Frahm in its execution. It’s one of few cultural artifacts that succeeds in channeling the past without creating distance from the present. In a time when our tastes are increasingly defined by computers Frahm delivers a work that speaks directly to the timeless beauty of humans on Earth.
Below are some albums that I enjoyed, and I valued, but I couldn’t write about. I mean I could write about them, but unfortunately I have to balance my time with a bunch of other work that’s on my plate. So, here’s more great music that I didn’t write about, but you shold still spend some time with it.
Scarface — Deeply Rooted
The Outfit TX — Deep Ellum
Kamasi Washington — The Epic