“Missing” by Everything But The Girl is one of the best pop songs ever. You know it, I know it, and Caroline Polachek knows it. More »
Charli XCX has been keeping herself extremely busy lately: Excellent new album, Netflix reality show, a whole lot of writing and guest appearances on other people’s songs. And now she’s got another new thing out: A single that she made with Tommy Genesis, a rapper, singer, and model who’s long been … More »
I‘ve written about love before. I’m not going to write about love again. Maybe this is selfish, maybe it is foolish. But I hope it will lead to nuance.
I’ll write about not-love-yet, maybe, about into-love. I want to write through it, to remain porous.
Or: “I’ll write about the process of becoming other: vibration, selection, recombination, recomposition” (Franco “Bifo” Berardi). Maybe then I can return to love.
Or an older swearing-off: “No more ‘I love you’s’/ A language is leaving me” (Annie Lennox).
I want to write about pop music in the last 10 years (a seemingly fatalistic descriptor — these were the last 10 years to occur before…? And then…?). I suspect writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music. Love isn’t an inevitable end for the human experiment, but it helps a great deal. Pop music isn’t an end either, just a term that retains its gleeful and combustible arbitrariness, as it heads into these next last 10 years. (And to this sticky arbitrariness we must return. Maybe, too, to love.) Pop is, after all, an architecture of surfaces and panes, of the veneers we pass through and the ones that reflect (us) back at us. Let’s believe (we must, we can’t) that the grandest reflecting/refracting surface in pop music is love. Let’s move past and through and into it in order to feel a future, to kiss it better.
Love isn’t the inevitable language of pop music, just its alphabet. Pop music is part of the love club: everything will glow for you. Just let me lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-love you, you gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love. Fall into me and then you put my love on top, top, top, top, top (I love it like I love you like Kanye loves Kanye). I got people showing fake love to me. I’ve loved and I’ve lost and I do: I blame it on your love. You can see it with the lights out; you are in love, you are in true love. Go get punched for the love club. Must be love on the brain that’s got me feeling this way. And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so when you say you love me, know I love you more. Drunk in love. I want you. It’s a love story, baby; just say “yes.”
I’m already in love. I must move into. To choose a verb like “into” over “in” is to elect motion past over sitting still. To move through love is to note the ruptures and hug them as they pixelate and recombine in you. Let the language shift and sheer too; “l-o-v-e-l-e-s-s generation.” This is not a love song, but I’d love it if we made it.
Back to the future, back to Berardi, who thought through “the slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s” and constructs 2017’s Futurability as a way toward shifting modes of anticipation and motivation toward nextness. He chronicles, as his subtitle suggests, “The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility.” He asks: “What is a form in relation to its content? And how does it happen that a new form can emerge? How do things generate things, and concepts generate concepts? And finally, more interesting: how do concepts generate things?”
Pop music in the time between 2010 and this day revealed itself as a double-parking mechanism (Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick: “kinda-hegemonic, kinda-subversive”), both the concept-generating things and the thing as a concept. Pop forms came under scrutiny from critical, commodifying, and revolutionary forces alike, the surfaces of those forms poked and prodded before they in turn began to poke and prod. Pop came alive like never before in its trajectory as a transformative plastic apparatus. It also saw itself bought and sold with such aplomb that you could be forgiven for not believing in love left of the dial.
What is pop music in relation to its content, love? How to preserve love’s ability to mutate us without leaving it open to the afflictions of this decade — clickbait critique, vampiric capitalism, diminuating realism? We must find a new utterance for love. We must borrow shapes from Berardi: “Possibility is content, potency is energy, and power is form” (my emphasis).
In Bluets, her 2009 volume of not-love perched at the beginning of this decade, Maggie Nelson writes: “But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. ‘Love is not consolation,’ she wrote. ‘It is light.’”
I’d like to borrow those shapes, too. I hope I can earn them.
And how does it happen that a new pop music can emerge? A future of pop, a lightness of love must rip the surfaces and panes and navigate the in-between space fluidly and fluently. We have to let it vibrate. To get to next, we have to write ourselves beyond the inevitableness of inevitability.
“I call possibility a content inscribed in the present constitution of the world (that is, the immanence of possibilities).”
The present constitution of the world is impotence. Days begin too early, crusty with the crunch of paying impossibly escalating rents with depressing wages. We scroll into a news feed broadcasting a world so stuffed with vitriol and cruelty and climatic collapse that we’ve gorged ourselves on poison tea even before the commuter line pulls up. And then we go to work. Mark Fisher, a disciple of Berardi and futurability, of pop and the power of changing consciousness: “The thing about capitalism is that it provides things that nobody likes. When people talk about choice and capitalism — Microsoft, that sums up everything. Nobody wants it, everybody has to have it.”
Or, I was in a (corporate) movie theater this year juggling Skittles when the big angry purple man onscreen snapped his finger and said “I am inevitable.” I gasped (I had dropped my Skittles, you see).
“It isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, another text from this decade, the one that turned me onto that Sedgwick quote above. “The cultural products now seem designed to analyze themselves, and to make a spectacle of their essentially consumable perversity. ‘They really let me showcase my creativity!’ the writers say, while churning out more crap.”
Certainly this essay is more crap. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good.
Certainly texts like Avengers: Endgame are such “consumably perverse” objects, worthy more of groans than rigorous critique. If, at the break of the last decade, Iron Man and The Dark Knight (both released in 2008) seemed separate from the customarily pasty entries into metroplexes and maybe even perverse in their elevation of the low (comics) to the maximal (blockbuster), it wouldn’t stay that way for long. In fact, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe began as an experiment in world-building — it didn’t, it was for a buck — it soon revealed itself as a Disney Inc.-backed lesson in monopolizing markets of commerce and interest; when Thanos makes his claim for inevitability, he may as well be cooing, brand barcode redacted, “mission accomplished.”
This decade saw pop cinema narrow its field of produceable possibilities and tie each infallible (unfailable seems more apt) property film to the purse string of a Disney or an Amazon. And so we tilted further toward the disappointing totality of inevitability, easier to imagine the end of cinema than the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What about pop music? We might point to pop cinema’s content-generating-content maw leaking half-chewed hunks into the soundstream: there’s the whiff of such conquered-world totality in Frozen’s “Let it Go” (2013), pre-ordained first filmically before opening on Broadway in 2017, a source of income that begat a source of income. The chart-ballasting success of The Greatest Showman (2017) soundtrack rode the success of another musical’s similar ode to exceptional white masculinity (albeit in confused and optimistic hues) in the blockbuster Hamilton (2015). We might also point to the rash of biopics grinding queer artists (Freddie Mercury, Elton John, constant whispers of a forthcoming installment on Bowie) into cardboard patties more palatable to Oscar’s khaki nostalgia than the kind of sounds prefiguring change.
Or, “Tell me somethin’, girl/ Are you happy in this modern world?/ Or do you need more?/ Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?” And is it just an infinity of A Star is Born reboots, each one denying the past one’s existence in order to be the most profitably consumable version of itself until the next opening weekend?
A breath. While distinctly part of that catchall cloud *popular culture*, pop music feels sometimes separate, due maybe to its elusive and eliding limbs that make it it. It also remains elastically able to exist both in and out of its own context; songs from Irving Berlin musicals are pop music, as is Weezer, as are YouTube covers of Weezer songs. “Baby Shark” is pop music (around the campfire, at Nationals Park, from speakers in subways) but so is Grimes and Janelle Monae. It’s got the ring of that old smutty Justice claiming, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” And so we must narrow the immanence.
We might consult numbers, though that means embracing the notion that popularity could be bought and sold. This paradigm held true for at least a formidable stretch in this past decade and provides our first and most impotent definition: pop music was what was bought or streamed with the most vigor. Over these last 10 years, Rihanna holds the record with nine #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by Katy Perry with 8 and Bruno Mars with 7. The top 10 is rounded out by Drake (6), Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift (5), Adele (4), and Eminem, Kesha, The Weeknd, Maroon 5, Cardi B, and Post Malone (3). In the doe-eyes and dew of 2009, were these artists inevitably tied to our concept of what pop would sound like? More pressingly: are they what pop is and must be?
If interrogating Billboard Charts for data might seems treacherous, I supply two new arbitrary totems to hold to, both selfish and undependable measures each: pop music can’t accomplish transformation if it’s tied to (1) a commodity’s formula for success or (2) formal rehashings of what already was.
The latter stipulation is easier to act on: if pop’s progress is futurity endless (always a new song, a new form, a new thing in your head until you have a new head), then it must oppose nostalgia. This dispatches with Adele, Bruno, The Weeknd, and Maroon 5, largely aggressively inoffensive gestures in retromania. Whether the gesture is blue-eyed white-muscle shoals, scentless funk-lite, tremulous soul pastiche, or an impressively resilient belief that an ever FM-lighter version of Aerosmith is exemplary songwriting is inconsequential. Pop reminds us to leave the past where it belongs: where it is, or at best on a cassette tape to be consulted with small smiles in brief moments. We can also dismiss Eminem, whose appearances in this decade always quote his presence in the last. Possibility must look toward new possibilities, not old ones (Berardi: “Possibility is not one, it is always plural: the possibilities inscribed in the present composition of the world are not infinite, but many.”)
The former point, of discarding pop only interested in a buck, or the most bucks possible, is harder to parse. I’ll know it when I hear it: I hear it in the over-rendered production of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, the way the record tears through writing partners not as collaboration, but as consumption. I hear it in VIEWS’s dour rehashing of all Drake’s moods and modes into something like an easy-listening career retrospective. I hear it all over Taylor Swift’s Lover, which sports a single that barters actionless allyship for social/literal credit while also proposing that the rich and famous suffer just as much as victims of systemic, prejudiced violence, because, well, blogs and other famous people were mean to them.
The problem (???) is I like those three records. What’s like got to do with what what’s love got to do with it? I fell hard once (and literally!) at a bowling alley for a stranger two lanes over while “Teenage Dream” banged in the Cosmic Hour, thinking, “truly, this love is true” with my three fingers in a glowing ball. I bought two sweater turtlenecks the fall of “Hotline Bling” and thought there was nothing wrong with that. Then I lost one of them to a person I spent two years of my life with, who I thought I would spend my life with. Yesterday, I put a Lover song on a mix tape for a human being I have a crush on. I will give it to them as a way of saying, “I have a crush on you.” This language is still dooming. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good. I won’t know it when I hear it.
I wasn’t going to write about love. I knew I wouldn’t hold true to that, partially because I love pop music and partially because I have a crush. I am susceptible to swooning. We are susceptible to pop’s love because our cultural immunity is subject to highs that crave “I Love It” or “Tik Tok” and lows that rush for the cover of “Wrecking Ball” or “Sorry.” I set out to navigate beyond the inevitable and wound up — inevitably — entwined in it. It was stuck in my head.
And so an impasse in our immanence: any attempt at interrogating pop along maximal, capital lines (its draws and intakes, its appeal or grosses) measures pop in terms so foreign to its possibilities (a future, a thing we don’t know yet) that we must disregard this model. Or: Saying something is pop because it is popular ignores the possibility of the underground or weird to attach and change the world. You know that. I know that. It’s worth re-saying, like a melody that won’t dissipate. I don’t want to write about what the streams and Incs. tell me are inevitable. I don’t even know if I want to write about pop music anymore; maybe I just want to hear it, to move in not-pop-yet, into-pop. It occurs to me that I might be at my most impotent when I am writing about love instead of acting on it, or at least dancing about it.
And yet love is the antithesis of impotence. And so pop is the presence of the possible alongside the potential for reaching that new state, that newness. What if the problem isn’t in liking or loving, but in the writing?
To clarify all this churned crap, I crave a jester’s call to potency: “Beyond the truest, hey, teacher, teacher/ Tell me how do you respond to students?/ And refresh the page and restart the memory?/ Re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”
“I call potency the subjective energy that deploys the possibilities and actualizes them. Potency is the energy that transforms the possibilities into the actualities.”
Except this was the decade the jesters abandoned us.
Pop’s great gift is its ability to graft itself to us in moments of need and navigate us toward a next thing. Consider how you were wretching up and feeling little, almost texting them even when you knew you didn’t want them and then suddenly: “thank u, next.” And then suddenly, you felt a thousand feet tall, capable. Consider how “Juice” feels whenever you walk into your depression, how it never mocks how you need it, but rather rocks you toward neon sweetness, fullness. If pop can truly do these things (it must, it can’t), what should our reaction be when it betrays us?
Because if earlier in the text we sought to liberate pop from its corporate strings and unloose it from its needless formal conscriptions, we were unprepared when it doubled back and leaned into the same impotence we were hoping to uncouple ourselves from. The problem with selling yourself at Target is that it endorses the notion that you can buy what made 1989 and Red on those same shelves. As if aching was discountable. As if wanting was a garment. And the problem with making a gospel record after claiming you’re a god isn’t only that it’s a conflict of interests, but rather that it’s actually kind of boring. Why provide an apparatus for wonder when you’ve already worked miracles, wonderfully? Idolatry, like inevitability, is no home for transformation.
A brief fable of two energies: Kanye West and Taylor Swift, married and marred forever that September night at the VMAs in 2009. And rather than let that psychic ugliness define them, they integrated it into their pop; if they seemed a little preoccupied with narrativizing that night, they still absorbed the world and then transformed.
In 2010, it was Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not a gesture of apology, but a toast to surviving in spite of being damned, doomed — by your family, by your country, by yourself. It was Taylor’s Speak Now, the first measure of converting the written-for-her countryish odes into locomotive gummy pop; if at the beginning of the decade, Taylor Swift was a phenomenally successful country star, it still wasn’t inevitable that she would become a dominant author of pop music. That changed with Red (2012). “And I guess we fell apart in the usual way/ And the story’s got dust on every page,” she sings, prefiguring the dusty, grimy corridors that always-departure Kanye stalks in Yeezus (2013), as much a reaction to the breezy braggadocio of Watch the Throne (2011) as it was an aesthetic step toward full-bile Kanye. And then 1989 (2014), an instructive set for having a heart set to an unremembered 80s. And then The Life of Pablo (2016), not so much a release but a landscape, a million mission statements at once, a celebration of contradiction, of ultralight beam and projectile vomit. Growth has limits; continually amassing moreness isn’t the same as transformation. And Reputation (2017) and ye (2018) feel overstretched and shallow, attempts to sing of fame and mental health but really just reassertions of Taylor Swift’s Taylor Swiftness and Kanye West’s Kanye Westness. This year’s Lover and Jesus is King adopt love and faith, not as actionable philosophies capable of bettering a world, but as aesthetic, as garment, as promotion. These recent records (to paraphrase Fisher’s organizations) provide that which we do not like that we have to have.
You could write the decade almost solely in Taylor and Kanye releases, but they aren’t alone in their selling out and buying in: Grimes and Beyoncé and Miley and JAY-Z hurried into unions with anti-unionists and Disney films and renounced hip-hop as a personal dalliance and used hip-hop as a vehicle to conflate stupid wealth with love. “All that is solid melts into PR” (Mark Fisher again, still). Dominant forces of pop music sought to reassert dominant vehicles of expression (themselves) and cooed, “We appreciate power”
How do we still love that which hurts us? We decided to write an endless cipher detailing this stress. Where did our love go? We replaced its bops and bliss with a lusting after talking about talking about pop music. We thought, “Surely we must have a ghastly portmanteau to hang this from,” and we called it poptimism and lo, the crap was lobbed.
Such crap was emboldened in these last 10 years. Letters and sentences about music, like letters and sentences about everything, had both more homes, less time, and dollar signs on mind (Kanye and JAY-Z: “everything’s for saaale,” 2011) Some music writers leaned into their own venerated and barely subtextual prejudice: “Should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds? […] poptimism diminishes the glory of music by declaring, repeatedly and insistently, that this is all it can do” (Saul Austerlitz, 2014). Others found well-observed caution in the balance of intentions and results: “It [poptimism] treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs. It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder” (Chris Richards, 2015).
Remember: “it isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore.” Remember, writing a piece defending The Life of Pablo as inspirational bile (I did that once) or damning Jesus Is King for its void pabulum (I’m DOING that now) is “like planting a flag on the moon after forty countries have landed there before you, or on a moon whose sole purpose is to host flags” (Maggie Nelson, 2011).
Poptimism’s cause always suggested the noble fight: attempts to turn attention to historically underrepresented forms of expression practiced and loved largely by underprivileged communities while actively opposing preexisting notions of cultural critique is still good work. Fighting for the 12-inch version of “Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go” is still divine. But treating poptimism as inevitable is just as defeating as ignoring pop because it’s on the radio. “Ideologies congeal,” Guardian music critic Michael Hann writes of the whole mess. “They cease to be alternatives and become hegemonies […] movements that were insurgent become establishment […] codified by their own set of rules about what and what was not acceptable.”
Or, “Is it wrong to wish 1989 didn’t sound so anonymous? Is it wrong to demand our leaders not make follower music? Is it wrong to feel disoriented and disheartened by the effusion of suck-uppy articles dutifully praising these unimaginative songs? Is it wrong to squirm knowing that these same songs will likely saturate our public spheres for years— or maybe even the rest of our lives?” (Chris Richards, 2014)
It isn’t wrong, surely, to see the machine at work. Attempts to render in words the appeal of extra-effable un-utterable sensations are doomed from the start. It defeats love’s licks and swerves to justify it too clearly, when all you want is to get next to it. So too, though, are attempts to defeat joy similarly doomed. 1989 brings joys, to me at least, but I suspect many others too. It encourages joys in small moments in small bodies, just as Yeezus is the sound this decade that most often settled me down, its restlessness mirroring mine, cooing it, letting me lounge among its spikes. I applaud Chris Richards’s navigations of Taylor’s Big Machine of squeaky-clean dominance. I applaud nuance. The reality of this world, the one drifting toward impotence, is one where Taylor’s songs serve greater masters than the feelings they detail.
The joys remain, though, and maybe they can be the result of nuance, not its opposite. Poptimism, or rather the endless click-cycle of vacillating provocations/reassurances in taste, is impotence not only devoid of energy but also fixated on depriving that same energy from where it could activate forms and instigate change. It’s why we hum songs and not criticism. I think we know that, naturally, when we react to “Bad Blood” and “Waves.” We know how to love what we love without justifying why we love it. We know if we’re inclined to analyze it, it might not be love. We know we’re better served catalyzing love instead of analyzing it, better served by smushing the flutter in our bellies and hearts to craft new artifacts, new things to love. This is how we might actualize new consciousnesses. We know how to synthesize the pop we love without endorsing, consuming, or idolizing it. Sometimes we need reminding, but mostly, we know how to collaborate with our love. It all just seems a matter of caring enough.
Poptimism is half optimism; if on one hand we’ve spent such words and time defending the former section of that construction, the work toward the latter half, toward a fully activated optimism, seems tougher. Still: it all just seems a matter of caring for the brightness.
And so we turn our immanence to light: “Light wave, 飛ぶ/ Skyway, 叶えて ほら/ Future Pop”
“I call power the selections (and the exclusions) that are implied in the structure of the present as a prescription: power is the selection and enforcement of one possibility among many, and simultaneously it is the exclusion (and invisibilization) of many other possibilities.”
When I say “writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music,” I mean this: if we occasion ourselves to impotence in the face of reality, it can only be because a lifetime of days is battering. Our bodies are so chemically and mechanically unsteady that it’s easy to feel lost and drawn and brittle. To those stresses, we add the systems and governances that reject our bodies and their maladies. It is hard to believe in love as a transformative power when it is hard to get health insurance. It hurts to say I love you, when saying it might get you killed. It is impossible to preach sexual healing when black and brown and little bodies are shattered and bulleted every day. The planet is dying. We forget every day. Before we were asking how to actualize next, but this inquiry begs: how do we get through now?
This decade saw us brace for the brittling; we learned to see the light between the cracks and cling to it, add to it. We found our untapped potencies in changeable forms, a pop maudit. If the cocktail of renewable boredom and scrollable reality bred clickbait pomposity, the same sense of endlessness all the time fostered vaporwave, a movement running concurrent to poptimism’s empty manifestos. Vaporwave articulated many of pop’s nobler points: that we must remain plastic and moveable, that we thrive among the refuse because it wasn’t made to take from us, that we must invent new modes. It articulated them in more enthralling tones. “Vaporwave is one genre that problematizes the entire system of lazy critical evaluation, often just by remaining left out of publications altogether,” Grafton Tanner wrote in 2016’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. “Its avoidance can be attributed to the genres’s skeptical and mocking relationship with history.” This too, is how future pop engages with history. “No more ‘I love you’s’/ Changes are shifting outside the world.”
A future pop must include in its index the zones that Ramona Xavier, Daniel Lopatin, Ryan DeRobertis, James Ferraro, et al. explored. The et al. is crucial. The et al. is us. In their 2014 mediation, The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism, James Parker and Nicholas Croggon wrote, “Vaporwave is democratic because, in principle, anyone could do it. At is most basic — which is to say at its most radical — vaporwave consists of nothing more than an act of reframing.” This reframing is the most vital power in our desire to establish a future pop, to set it free and hope it takes us with it.
By chopping and screwing pop’s tonalities and settings (and consequently, the ways in which we critically and personally engage with pop), vaporwave’s zones prepare us for nextnesses beyond rabid capital and senseless attentions. Such zones teach us how to return to the maximal bops we love and move through them on our terms, not the ones being sold to us. We knew what to do with the songs before they tried to pitch us on how to wear them. Vaporwave doesn’t teach irony, no: there is no room in love for irony, and I hear a great deal of love in vaporwave. It teaches us the affliction of affection, of moving out of it and falling back through it, a way into-love around realism. Its greatest lesson — that embracing the weird is just as effective at dismantling systemic impotence — is already being written into our pop, in the frontier camp of Lil Nas X and the skrunchy allness of 1000 gecs.
Into this future index we must also hurl the ambiences and electronics, the ever-mutating flays of Arca and the half-haunted time-skews of The Caretaker, the virtual transfigurations of Kara Lis Coverdale and the post-earth, sci-fi re-renderings of Elysia Crampton. Far from the digestible narrative that these wild experimentations exist as pop’s opposite, we find in them all of pop’s possibilities in still-moving actuality, joyful vibrations of in-between. They teach us to invent a future, and their impact is all over our first transmissions of future pop, of vibration (Charli XCX), selection (Carly Rae Jepsen), recombination (SOPHIE), recomposition (PC Music).
From these actions, we induce combustion; we breathe it in. Redefine what stick in heads: Everywhere at the end of time (2016-2019) is pop. Arca (2017) is pop, as is Klein’s Lifetime (2019) and Grouper’s Ruins (2014) and clipping.’s Splendor and Mercy (2016) and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica (2011) and Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me (2017) and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah (2014.) And Taylor Swift and Kanye West.
And if we call everything pop music, does our calling it mean anything at all? And if we allow our consciousness of pop to change, then won’t love re-render, too? Rob Sheffield wrote: “Sometimes you lie in a strange room, in a strange person’s home, and you feel yourself bending out of shape. Melting, touching something hot, something that warps you in drastic and probably irreversible ways you won’t get to take stock of until it’s too late.”
These are the strange hot things by which we make a future pop. It is too late. We must be grateful for that. This is the love pop music generates.
Once, a Tiny Mix Tapes writer (whose identity is unremembered by me now, but whose sentiment is so loved) suggested that maybe the best review of pop music would be a document with the single word “BOPS” written over and over and over again. This strikes me as a remarkably honest representation of what goes on in the space of those sounds.
In a matter of re-framing, in pursuit of writing about into-love and through it, these do too:
“Still in love: the frozen moment captured, the held gaze (Rowan Savage, 2013) & how is it possible to walk at a normal speed while coming undone? How is it possible to even breathe while falling in love? How is it possible to just fucking play it cool? (Caroline Rayner, 2017) Pop music is built on a history of love songs and becomings, of a desire to find oneself in another (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, 2018) & many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this review may have seemed like my entire world at one point, but pop fades like all things, and we seem to consume (and dispose of) music more ravenously now than before. Time shapes us and changes us, and we can’t always take the things we used to love with us as we step forward into the unknown (Sam Goldner, 2016) & the crystallization of a memory collapsing into the open expanse of the new. And this is the sound of this memory repeating, replete with an echo, a beat. In your ears and in your bones. Resounding, reverberating. Re-sounding, re-verberating (Evan Coral, 2019) & it’s a charged bleeding heart of sponsorship and exclusivity thrown into the throat of Yosemite. It’s a white horse galloping fiend-like across the continental divide, with a hoof-print-tire-tread that could pull the land apart (Nick James Scavo, 2016.)”
“Inasmuch as pop music means Carly Rae Jepsen, I believe it’s supposed to save our souls and reunite us with unity, not the ecstasy of forgetting or the ecstasy of remembering, but the act of singing (Pat Beane, 2019) & in the case of Dedicated, ‘love’ should be amended to ‘commitment’ Much of the album presupposes being in a relationship, but the emotional currents of each track find it either slipping out of sync or crystallizing into eternity (Harry Tafoya, 2019) & pop music doesn’t play by the same rules as other genres, and there is rarely, if ever, a purely artistic motivation or auteurist merit. And as far as pop music is concerned, Beyoncé is very nearly without peer; she sells the words and work of others, like it was the only thing that ever mattered to her. And maybe it is; stakes are high for Beyoncé, and as she gets older, they only get higher. (Embling, 2011) But sometimes you just have to let go. Sometimes it’s the best you can do (Max Power, 2013.)”
“In the context of our own narcissistic pretenses and the technologies that mediate our interactions — our constructed identities, our social media performances, our avatars and their simulations — the act of being brutally honest, of being uncomfortably direct through the highly flawed, imperfect thing we call language becomes an act of boldness and, for me, a source of inspiration (Marvin Lin, 2017) & a resonant theme is embracing other forms of love: particularly affection for community and independence from anyone at all (Elizabeth Newton, 2016) & something factual, but not necessarily real. A recollection of fiction and dream, or shared-moments. Whatever we can scrape together. It’s important at all times, sometimes (C Monster, 2018) & it should be danced, sung, knitted, and talked about, if not because it collapses these categorical distinctions itself so that its blood can run, then because keeping your head still and your voice silent is lying (Jazz Scott, 2014.)”
“Funny how sometimes we share the same memories, even if we weren’t there with each other in the first place (B. Levinson, 2016) & we do not enter and meet. We give up and begin. We stop and fade.” (Cookcook, 2019)
Those are just the ones I remember. There are so many more lights in the writing of love.
Our old notion of pop — divorced from arbitrary formal markers and set free to reform — is the song of engagement, with the problems and the hate, with the other bodies crashing on dancefloors and in darknesses, with other sets of lips and clits and dicks and every other thing, with an ear toward alternative bodies and an eye at the horizon. Engagement, then, is love by another name, a necessary inoculation against the constrictions of worldly realism. Future pop won’t inevitably save the world, but actionable love might shift it, warp it, screw it. Pop music is the process of becoming other, our only hope at a future where love surpasses inevitability and reaches realness.
This decade’s reckoning and rendering of pop registered according to reasonable expectations: pop music was a space for optimism and romance to make the best of what we already have. Our work toward a future pop, toward a future, must deny optimism and romance in pursuit of transformation and love. I want to (I will) write about a future pop that renders consciousness as something different than what we currently conceive. We must hear in future pop that which destabilizes as it constructs, that debilitates the inevitable, that refigures all our wild everything into something new.
Listening to the new Francis Quinlan single in the Shrewsbury library in rain because we must keep listening to new things. Because my crush likes it. Because I like: “I know there is love that/ Doesn’t have to do with/ Taking something from somebody.” She bends her voice around that word, “looOVve,” like all those myriad voices that comprise something like the light. I know there is pop music that doesn’t have to do with taking something from me. “I have to stop myself and admit: you make me happy.”
You do. You all do.
Three years ago, I was tasked with writing the introduction to our year-end Favorite Labels feature. I lamented the fact that trustworthy (and SANE) music curation had basically ceased to exist in an era where notoriety had become a confusing amalgam of happenstance, advertising algorithms, and cheap-as-fuck digital recording and distribution technology. Needless to say, the trend in that direction has only continued. And yet, even back then, it still felt a little awkward to be championing a list of… well, COMPANIES in the space where a list of “DIY bands” and “independent artists” would usually go.
But, as I also noted back in 2016, the hype and the topspin and the mega-accessibility and the a-little-too-perfect algorithms and the complacency of streaming services and the whole, ya know, terrifying post-truth, postmodern, post-feelings fragmentation of our current moment has made it more crucial than ever to have, as my former self said, a few “honest-to-goodness curators carving us a path through the madness.”
So, basically, if you still think it’s “not cool” to show love to record labels, sorry, but you’re reading the wrong feisty, independent music webzine. OK, sure; back in the early aughts, it might have been momentarily reasonable under certain circumstances to praise the independent genius of an artist and their work while dissing the oh-so-capitalist powers-that-be behind the scenes who were putting up the dough and cranking the gears of promotion — but come on, now. That’s some Ayn Rand BULLSHIT, and you know it.
The fact is, artists oftentimes NEED labels. And fans need labels, too. Hell, even hoity-toity assholes like ME need them. Everyone involved in this business(!) of making and sharing meaning from artifacts of sonic diachronicity — from the makers to the listeners to the pseudo-anonymous internet critics — we all need them in the same way we need our families: to feel ourselves in the context of a larger community, to make sense of what we’re hearing, even to give us a useful position from which to critique the things we like or don’t like about a particular collection of those sonic artifacts.
In fact, at this point, many of the labels on this decade list straight-up feel to lots of us TMTers like family members — and hell, you’ll likely recognize most of them from “Favorite Labels” lists in years’ past, too. In some cases, they’ve opened up new veins of gold we didn’t even know we were hunting for, as we followed their trails to micro-scenes of untold power, vitality, and richness. In others, we’ve basically reported (in some form or another) on just about every release they’ve bothered to promote this decade; and as such, we’ve grown up together. And just like family, we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but we respect and stick up for one another’s freedom of expression. Frankly, sometimes, it feels like we know our favorite labels too well, and we really get on one another’s nerves. But at the end of the day (or the year… or the decade), our dumb families’ stupid faces are the ones we want to see most.
So here they are, our favorite labels of the decade. In no particular rank but alphabetical order. Please, dear readers, say hello to TMT’s extended family.
I can’t speak for everyone, but after my daily dispatch of news — divided between celebrating attacks on the defenseless, neglecting the rights of humans and the needs of our planet, and applauding the power, corruption, and lies practiced by our political and business leaders as normal behavior — I’m about ready for a new age, free of overwhelming anger and anxiety and apathy. Some, in fact, have already crossed into new orbits, working away from the sour sounds and ugly sides: specializing in small-run tapes, records, and publication releases (through its sister imprint, Monofonus Press), there was a flush and bloom on everything that Austin’s Astral Spirits did. Each new Astral Spirits release — be it an acrid avant-noise experiment, a set of electronic themes and incidental music, a fresh frisson of free-jazz and relaxed rock, or any combination thereof — brought some sort of positive spiritual therapy and “newness.” With already over 100 releases to its name in a little more than five years, Astral Spirits is a label of love that burns with the raving passion of, and for, the true fanatics of freedom and vision. If our idea of a great music label is one that shoots for the stars and hits them every time, then Astral Spirits is the label that will project us, if not into a new age, then at least into a new state of mind.
Beer On The Rug
Seems kind of pointless to try to illustrate Beer On The Rug’s cultural impact this decade. I think we all realize the influence the label has had in regards to not only music, but also the entire fucking ＩＮＴＥＲＮＥＴ (*cough* see Macintosh Plus’s seminal Floral Shoppe, as well as many other classic ＡＥＳＴＨＥＴＩＣ albums *cough*).
Writing it off as a solely vaporwave label is misguided, though. BOTR was first and foremost a facilitator of zones, no matter the weather. Its greatest appeal was sonic depth and variety. Take, for instance, the phased-out bedroom-pop of earlier releases by Casino Gardens and Free Weed. Or the meditative club drone of Endo Kame. Or the unmistakably unique yet familiar mutant music of YYU. Then there’s the gloss and sheen of acts like Euglossine and Location Services, the video game walk-through of Graham Kartna, the mind-goo chopped funk & soul of Digital Natives, the hybrid psychedelic New Age trips of Dang Olsen Dream Tape, the robotic intestines and metal veins of Hollow Gem and SUSAN BALMAR, and so on.
But nothing lasts forever: the bulk of Beer on the Rug’s discography has disappeared from the internet — at least temporarily. When asked about this, BOTR responded that the label is “more focused on what’s to come as opposed to ground already covered,” while also trying to encourage fans to seek out physical copies. So, do BOTR and yourself a favor and hit up your favorite retailer, ya nerds! <3 <3 <3
While the private press era of ambient and New Age is getting a much-deserved series of vinyl reissues and retrospectives, the current crop of Bandcamp labels churning out traditional and modern spins on ambient tropes have ushered in a new golden age. Throughout the 2010s, Oakland, CA’s Constellation Tatsu gently led the pack, unleashing some of the most soothing, meditative, and adventurous sounds committed to tape. “I like to imagine each cassette as a journey for the listener,” said founder Steven Ramsey in a 2014 interview about the label’s ethos. “One that brings the listener outside their comfort zone, brings them back to familiarity (a space to breathe) and in the end leaves one with a deep sense of exploratory-satisfaction.” Such adventures could be heard on cassettes that spanned Japanese guitar drones, hypnotic Midwest electronic experiments, and melancholy French pan pipes, just a few among the many highlights of Constellation Tatsu’s vast catalog. The label was as reliable as the seasons, putting out 2-4 tapes every quarter, each batch containing a diverse set of mellow drones, exploratory synth work, and lush electronics. Constellation Tatsu was perfect listening when you had a strong cup of tea, a comfortable seat, and the time to let your mind wander.
Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of independent record labels come and go. Most have one thing in common: They’re moderately good for a moderate period of time. It’s unfortunate, but all business is tough business, and the business of music can be tougher than most. So, expecting a label to remain consistently wonderful for eternity is pure folly. An exception is Deathbomb Arc. Release after release, we didn’t know what we’d get from Brian Miller’s L.A.-based label, but it was certain that it’d be an altogether amazing journey, diming and priming our brains until the next excess. Starting with the simple wish of publishing music by Turbine, the Deathbomb catalogue has since showcased artists who are agonizingly true and scabrous and beautiful like JPEGMAFIA, Captain Ahab, clipping., Lana Del Rabies, Ed Balloon, and Miller’s Foot Village. Expect to make repeat visits to your Deathbomb Arc releases; you’ll find a gamut of artistic approaches arrayed and most reach musical (and often theatrical) sublimity. This “Genres Unknown” label has been around for 20 years, and the past 10 were as good as the first. You can bank on the next 10 being a helluva lot of boisterous fun, too.
The word “erstwhile,” of course, has within it the connotation of a remove, a reflective posture taken in the present directed toward the past. In trying to write an account of Erstwhile Records’s life over these past 10 years, I find myself in a position of nominative aptness, especially as Erstwhile finds itself celebrating its second full decade of life as the 2010s close.
As I listen back through its catalog — beginning with my own introduction to the label, Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet’s Air Supply — I find myself confronting myself like in a hall of mirrors, with the distance promised by contemplation becoming effaced, my own history of listening reduplicating and reasserting itself. I try to define territory and distill some communicable experience from whatever stuff constitutes this listener, but any sort of critical sangfroid becomes an impossibility, as each second passes and each CD sings its last sound; as each composed silence melts into the improvised silence of the park, airport, funeral parlor, ICU, pool hall, bus, restaurant, post office, anechoic chamber; as my ability to bracket and sort phenomena becomes compromised; as my implication in this endeavor becomes increasingly entrenched in these spinal landscapes; as sound becomes space becomes impression becomes listener becomes sound becomes.
Toshiya Tsunoda, whose absolutely monumental Extract From Field Recording Archive will be the label’s last release of the decade, writes that “recorded material is like a map,” but the power of Erstwhile’s catalog was how it asked us to use this map. Like Borges’s imperial cartograph or Jarry’s sunken Paris, we traversed multiple territories along multiple trajectories simultaneously, and they held conversation, court, in our heads. Nothing corresponded without us listeners. The through line that linked the Erstwhilean vertebrae was a Cagean sensibility that emphasized the dizzying spatiotemporal particularity of any given sound — something that could never be separated from its context or its auditor. Sense, language, metaphor, metonymy, scraps of self all blended together. As soon as I hit play, there was no distinction between the world I lived in and that of an Esrtwhile release.
Some impressions over this past decade:
• Annette Krebs/Taku Unami – motubachii: wandering through construction sites in New Orleans during November
• Greg Kelley/Olivia Block – Resolution: waiting in an airport, January, and wondering if I made the right decision
• Graham Lambkin/Michael Pisaro – Schwarze Riesenfalter: December, falling asleep in my hospital bed and waking up to my neighbor crying
• Takahiro Kawaguchi/Utah Kawasaki – Amorphous Spores: sitting outside, around 2 AM in late May, in the darkness, as raccoons try to knock over my garbage can
• Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet – Busman’s Holiday: vomiting while the harsh noise of “The Hunt” shreds my tiny desktop speakers, a different November
• Lucio Capece/Marc Baron – My Trust in You: riding an empty train, headed for Charleston, South Carolina in July, toward a miserable occasion
• Matthew Revert/Vanessa Rossetto – Everyone Needs a Plan: September
• Jurg Frey – l’âme est sans retenue I: writing this, a third November
Speaking of free improvisation or eai or onkyo or Wandelweiser or even collaboration and community does little, I think, to explain what exactly has been accomplished within the Erstwhile catalog over this decade. I suppose all music writing must fail in this regard, as by representation and conceptual schema we grow more distant from what we intended to engage with an erster Stelle. The more I rely on language, the more I betray my intention — that kernel of significance I desperately hope to make legible for others. All I can really do is recommend that you gather yourself, gather your world, gather your CDs, and listen.
There is a small technical distinction between a level and a zone. In video game design, a level is always tied to the completion of a specific set of goals. A zone, however, is just a space that players and in-game characters share. It may have restrictions and change depending on the players, but there’s no need to solve or achieve anything to gain access. No wonder Hausu Mountain framed a lot of what it’s released this decade under those terms. The zones it invited us into — including, of course, the Cool Zones batches it used to put out — felt like places we could spawn in or drift into while retaining the thrilling euphoria of a video game bonus stage.
While any origin story of the Chicago label, founded by Doug Kaplan and Max Allison (ex-TMTer Mukqs), will include references to video game music, other important touchstones were Ralph Records and the jam band scene, an unlikely mixture that had inspired them since the label’s inception in 2012. Of course, even if Kaplan and Allison are old enough to have caught the right fumes seeping from underneath their Phish-loving brother’s doors, Hausu Mountain’s music sounded nothing like Trey Anastasio’s. Instead, Hausu Mountain shared with that scene a genuine spirit of communal celebration, opening portals into some fascinating weirdness without wanting to be hectoring, each release exploring the extent to which strange, eccentric art could also be fun and exciting.
Alongside Natalie Chami, Kaplan and Allison are also Good Willsmith, the mothership, for it was the musical project that started the label. Yet their kosmische explorations were just one side of what Hausu Mountain offered. There was also the warped improvisational vibes of Moth Cock, the MIDI dreamscapes of Nonlocal Forecast, the gonzo footwork by Khaki Blazer, the gleeful reimagination of library music from Euglossine, the mutating collages of Eartheater, the glitchy attack on cyberpunk tropes mounted by Fire-Toolz, the densely human reveries of TALsounds, and so much more. Each of these albums and artists were key to understanding the unique community that coalesced around Hausu Mountain, a group of creators and fans who continue to call us into the next, unexplored zone. On to the following peak. And you can bet a long, strange trip awaits.
Hippos In Tanks
It’s rare to witness a label having such a deep, long-lasting impact on the aesthetics of an entire decade, but that is what Hippos in Tanks gave us in just over four years of existence. Barron Machat and Travis Woolsey upholstered the foundation of an entire internet, propelling their lineup with Machat’s familial industry connections and a genuine drive to give experimental art a place in the limelight. Whether it was James Ferraro’s ringtone plasticity, Hype Williams’ camouflaged psychology, Laurel Halo’s technicolor dreamcoat, or Daniel Lopatin’s primordial strangeness with Joel Ford in Games, Hippos in Tanks put them all on glorious display, consecrating wildly innovative works onto one star-studded label, artists who by the way are now among the titans of weirdo music.
2019’s cultural landscape makes Machat’s passing in 2015 that much more bitter. His vision of Daniel Lopatin and Arca going platinum has become closer to reality, given the former’s work with A24 and FKA twigs, and the latter’s with Kanye West and Frank Ocean. But regardless of relative reach and fame, the collective produced radically exciting work, from Autre Ne Veut to ADR to Inga Copeland to Teams to Triad God. That Hippos in Tanks is now four years defunct but still leaves behind such a heavy footprint on avant-culture speaks to the label’s sustained vision and magnetic allure. This decade would’ve sounded very different without it.
Ever prolificacy’s flexing blister, Hospital Productions popped off scalding on both sides of this 21st-century score. Label head Dominick Fernow’s impressive work as Prurient, Vatican Shadow, and Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement aside, there’s been more than enough varied, singular releases to make one forget all about the noise luminary in charge of curating ‘em. That cold grip so indelibly extended and fused with the label’s refined aesthetic that there could then be a judicious sort of expansion to what could constitute uplift. There has always been an important wallow/confront through line, yet Fernow cumulatively succeeded in showing the emotional/temporal breadth possible within its fathomless nest of screeching abattoirs.
To put it another way, Hospital continued to thrive on being as much a host to the dodgy thematic propositions traditionally inherent to power electronics as a stalwart, scrutiny-bearing, and adaptable institution. Despite its 2011 ascension from NYC brick and mortar to internet streaming limbo, the last 10 years (most recently with a lil push from Mike/Tara Connelly and Greh Holger’s essential NOISEXTRA podcast) have seen its imposing roster’s ills tempered to a fine, clean-slicing glint.
The radiant onslaught of both newer (Silent Servant, Ninos Du Brasil, Dedekind Cut) and classic (Linekraft, Skin Crime, Orphx) innovators were taxed and taxing by design, eschewing easy ins and, when performing pop moves, doing so on shrewd, hard-won terms. But at the same time, this label spoiled us rotten. L.I.E.S. founder Ron Morelli gave us half a dozen handsome doom-laden house rippers, and we were showered with exquisite mixes, edifying reissues, and stellar showcases… We shouldn’t be so damn accommodated — it’s unbecoming! But, there we were — Pioughd. Thanks a lot, Hospital!
Hyperdub entered this decade as one of the most exciting new labels of a generation, but also one of the most scrutinized. After all, how do you even calculate the amount of pressure put on a label who introduced the world to Burial with its first release? Just like the shadowy, mysterious, and sensitive work of its most famous artist, Hyperdub never even blinked at the challenge and became even more profound, with founder Kode9 doubling down again and again on cultivating artists across genres and generations. Brave experiments like Laurel Halo’s Quarantine and Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland’s Black Is Beautiful later gave way to respective breakthroughs like Dust and The Redeemer. Along the way, it provided a platform for genre-defining releases from Cooly G and DJ Rashad, as well as a caring support when the latter’s tragic death threatened the entire footwork scene’s stability. The label even showed veteran video game composers like Yuzo Koshiro the audiences they never realized they had and merged avant-garde and pop with a rare, holistic vision through artists such as Jesse Lanza and Klein.
Hyperdub didn’t walk the line, it drew it, and its legacy will always be in looking to the future by believing in its artists now.
With records like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Kranky absolutely crushed the 90s and 00s. But it certainly didn’t slow down for this decade. As its 25th anniversary passed last year, the label continued to pump out quality releases from artists constantly pushing the envelope of ambient, drone, and the outer realms of techno.
Two artists in particular stood out: Liz Harris, whose work as Grouper this decade (2011’s A I A: Alien Loss, 2014’s Ruins) rivaled anyone’s; and Tim Hecker, whose compositions continue to explore the reaches of possibility, especially on last year’s Konoyo. But dig deeper and there was plenty more, from the powerfully patient work of A Winged Victory for the Sullen, to the ayahuasca brilliance of Dedekind Cut, to the forays into psych-rock with Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza, to Harris’s spinoffs into full-band territory, Mirrorring and Helen, all of which wonderfully demonstrated just how expansive Kranky’s sound and roster are.
Clearly intent on fostering its artists’ exploration of every kind of marginal space, Kranky’s output therefore had a sort of mutable quality that made it tough to pin down. Perhaps MJ Guider, who debuted her post-punk dream pop on the label in 2016, summed it up best: “It’s mood and temperament. There are so many different styles, but it’s all very introspective and heady, very comforting but very alien at the same time.”
La Vida Es Un Mus
La Vida Es Un Mus has been shaping and documenting happenings in global punk and hardcore for the better part of the past decade, with a global yet precisely curated approach that set them apart. By intertwining surefire instant classics from Los Crudos, Limp Wrist, Dawn of Humans, Rakta, and Blazing Eye with the developing mini-discographies and flash-in-the-pan records by new punk auteurs like Woolf, Exotica, Permission, Rixe, Runt, La Misma, Nomad, and Juanita y Los Feos, La Vida Es Un Mus exemplified a label’s truly accelerated cyber-punk potential in the world today.
As the disclaimer on the La Vida Es Un Mus site states, “LVEUM is just one person.” While that might not be entirely unusual these days, it lends some clarity to the label’s unified voice and continuity over the years. It also lends some incredulity to its output, which recently hit 200 releases. A listen through any window of its now-vast discography would give a singular but cohesive story of hardcore as it existed in networks around the globe. Qualitatively, the music tended toward the bare-bones, hard-edged, dissonant, idiosyncratic, and disorienting, all of it like a runaway train (and documented by intermittent email newsletters detailing the latest half-dozen or so of releases, sometimes accompanied by personal notes of exhaustion).
While the label has been a guide through much of the most interesting and fully-realized hardcore today, I’d be remiss to not mention other labels Erste Theke Tontraeger, Static Shock, Iron Lung, Drunken Sailor, and Toxic State, who all seemed to, at one time or another, collaborate for the occasional international co-release. Punk, at its best, is a network and so much more than a few institutions, but LVEUM’s distinctive and attractive voice was so appealing for the way it shaped our taste and provided a nexus from which one could branch out to hardcore from around the world.
I would be kidding myself if I thought I could present you a list of the label’s greatest (and thus imply that I’ve heard anything close to the entire discography), but besides those mentioned above, special nuggets include Woolf’s debut EP, Slender’s Walled Garden, Ohyda’s self-titled LP, Belgrado’s Obraz, and ASID’s Asid Tracks II. More truthfully, I recommend you browse the many offerings on Bandcamp, pick any one of the beautiful covers that might catch your eye, and hit play. Chances are, it rips.
Mexico City’s N.A.A.F.I gave us a blueprint for an era. Its tactics, both sonic and social, stretched across territories, histories, and geologies, enfolding like-minded producers, rappers, and singers from the new and old club capitals of the world. With N.A.A.F.I, we became accustomed to the previously unimagined intimacies that connected grime’s oil-slicked futurism to jersey club’s buoyancy, the ways in which shards of glass on the ballroom floor could be thrown into baile club’s exhaust fumes. As the decade unfolded, N.A.A.F.I brought these elements into ever stranger syntheses; to trace the line from Javier Estrada’s Tribal Prehispánico to Lechuga Zafiro’s Testigo is to watch the club be consumed from within, to see its walls brought down by Zutzut’s hyperarticulated drums and Lao’s frigid minimalism. We kept dancing, though; we kept singing, too, to Ciara and Drake, who we welcomed into our underground with open arms. And we had new voices to greet them with, Embaci and Defensa, Linn da Quebrada and MC Bin Laden, voices that were both cute and deadly, voices that fucked and cried and danced with the same intensity and the same determination. We knew things were bad, that the world was ending, and so we needed tactics, ways to survive, sounds to make our own. And then, perhaps, in our own minor ways, we could find ways to continue. For our delirious times: N.A.A.F.I.
An epilogue, from Riobamba, one of many continuing after N.A.A.F.I: “It’s so important to create space for complicating the narrative of the music coming from Latin America, to talk about party vibes just as much as the suffering, violence, the dark shit that happens, and for having club music as a context for this broader range of emotions.” With N.A.A.F.I, beneath the club, the world.
Politics is thought, thought is real, people think: concepts dance, concepts descend, concepts demur, concepts demand. Which is all to say that the conceptual work undertaken by the denizens of NON — from its figureheads to its affiliates — has both a thick history and a kinetic present, confined neither to the dulling mediation and algorithmic monetization of internet flows nor the acquisitive enclosure of institutionalized art spaces.
Illegible to an aspirationally empirical framework partitioning strictly delimited spheres of action — into, for instance, the cultural, the “properly” political, and the economic — the unlicensed citizens of NON refused the metaphor of accessibility that reifies a normative subject of both critique and practice. Nonperformance (or NON’s performance) radicalized the grooves and contours of conceptual possibility, its transnational drift and insolent allegiance to borderless excess a rebuff to any categorization that sought to corral NON’s conceptual legwork within a whitewashed genealogy of avant-gardist esotericism. NON rejected the figure of the dumb proletarian deaf to the soundings of nonperformance, his dumb aperture the narrow constabulary of statist representation. Because sound is politics, politics is thought, thought is real, people think.
Nonperformance, legally speaking, designates the failure to fulfill a contractual obligation. Nonperformance, as Sora Han and Fred Moten and Nkisi and Angel-Ho and Chino Amobi and Embaci and Zarai and Klein and FAKA and MORO and MHYSA and Why Be and Mya Gomez and Alex Zhang Hungtai taught us, provincialized the prescriptions and projections plotted by the teleology of the contract and pries open a radical indeterminacy in whose uncertainty radical practice just might interrupt the reproduction of the lethal extant. When the contract has always ordained a form of death, and when death limns the choreographies of the necropolitical ordinary premised on the ongoing expropriation and extermination of diasporic intimacies and improvisations alike, the stakes of sound and thought and practice for NON-citizens refigured the very terrain that conceptual labor must make its irreducible horizon.
Not Not Fun
If you started a record label in 2004, chances are that in 2019 you’re working your way up the management ladder in the private sector, paying down a mortgage, turning down going to shows to hit up hardware stores on Saturday mornings, and occasionally looking in the mirror and thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah, I had a record label one time.” Not so for Los Angeles label Not Not Fun (at least on the latter), which has been plugging away for 15 years. Bedroom psychedelia, experimental dub, late-night shamanic synths, journeyman rock, and trippy ambient tones littered its vast discography, which has been so prolific that for a few years in the early 2010s it was putting out over a dozen releases per year. While the output has recently slowed down (it released three tapes this year), the quality remained spot on. As label co-founder Britt Brown said to our very own C Monster back in 2014, “You need to constantly feel like the shit you’re putting out NOW is as awesome as anything you’ve ever done. The current crop should always be your favorite.” And he meant it. Throughout the years, Not Not Fun magnificently highlighted a varied roster of artists and scenes from all over the globe, running so deep that listeners of all tastes could find at least one release, if not nearly a dozen, that got them nodding their heads and moving their feet.
Nyege Nyege Tapes
Nyege Nyege, so the oft-touted tidbit goes, names “the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance” in the Lugandan tongue. It’s a catchy soundbite, for sure, but it still doesn’t quite capture the full and total en-/un-meshing of ourselves to and from our bodies and our machines, our feet from our brains, all in the spirit of the Dance. That might be getting some of the way there toward describing Nyege Nyege Tapes’s impact on the TMT hive mind in the latter portion of this decade.
While the tape side of operations was inaugurated in 2017, Nyege Nyege had its origins as a party, a studio, and a festival in Uganda, as is befitting a label with such a grounding in the intensely material, ritualistic experience of the Dance. As we veer into the new decade, the label’s reach now stretches beyond Uganda’s borders and into other parts of East Africa; it even has a nifty sub-label in Hakuna Kulala and a few vinyl LPs, to boot. Generic specializations played their role in Nyege Nyege’s outreach — electro acholi was repped by stalwarts Otim Alpha and Leo PaLayeng, and we’d be remiss not to mention singeli and the Sisso crew — but what made it so tantalizing to follow was a no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach to releasing and promoting truly vital music from the continent and beyond. To reductively reel off a few names, we had Riddlore’s psychedelic Afromutations, Jako Maron’s reimagining of the native maloya music of Réunion, and the unmoored live band theatrics of Nihiloxica, as well as my personal favorites from Otim Alpha, Slikback, and Duke (linked above).
Fragmentation and glocalization, fostered by the internet (of course), are by now fairly fundamental girders for understanding the state of play in music and its distribution to the four corners of this trash earth. Nyege Nyege Tapes became a pillar of the 2010s by reckoning with and harnessing the streams of hype that coalesced around the most intriguing global sounds throughout the decade, but its commitment to placing its artists front and center, and, above all else, releasing killer tunes, is far more likely to be what we remember the label by when we gaze back upon this rarefied juncture. Soundbite earned!
There are many ways to describe Orange Milk’s decade, but one great way would involve Keith Rankin’s art. The man behind Giant Claw (ex-TMTer Keith Kawaii) founded the label with Seth Graham in late 2010, and both have released amazing solo music on it (as well as together as Cream Juice). However, as Orange Milk’s ostensible art director, Rankin also captured the label’s ethos through a collection of covers in the uncanniest ways. It’s an art we couldn’t easily pin a descriptor on. Surreal? Retro-futuristic? Video game-inspired? I mean, in the cover for Foodman’s Ez Minzoku, there is a decapitated head vomiting stairs, surrounded by giant pieces of floating fruit, incongruous shapes, and a severed hand. And that’s just one example of Orange Milk’s many fascinating covers. These pieces of art stood as extraordinary palimpsests of our digital age, just as much as any of the music released by the label.
Such is the strength of Rankin’s art and the symbiosis it had achieved with the music Orange Milk came to (re)present. And we certainly wouldn’t want to sell the label short on its musical merits. A quick look at its catalogue reveals many indispensable names when writing anything approximating a history of underground / experimental / electronic music in the 2010s: DJWWWW, Fire-Toolz, Foodman, Toiret Status, Galen Tipton, death’s dynamic shroud.wmv, EQ Why, etc. But such a wide array of music is far from implying a monolithic ＡＥＳＴＨＥＴＩＣ. Though there were common traits among its cohorts, Orange Milk was also home to Machine Girl’s internet punk, luxury elite’s vaporwave orthodoxy, and Nmesh’s cultural hallucinations. Even within the confines of synth-centric experimentation, its releases stretched from Jerry Paper’s quasi-pop leanings to HCJM’s incursions into the noisier quadrants of hypnagogia. The same applied to temporality and geography: Orange Milk showcased the eccentric Midwestern prodigy of Larry Wish, the unearthed works of Russian electronic music pioneer Noah Creshevsky, and the Argentinean avant-garde dispatches in Aylu’s Walden.
But these were not mere quantitative achievements. Orange Milk’s visionary character came from a realization that the museum items of the future were the meaningless trinkets of today. In all likelihood, some centuries from now, even some of the most random aspects of our culture will survive and share space with the older garbage we already impute fictitious meaning upon. Graham and Rankin wanted to start that process right away, putting such polysemic collisions to music. In the process, they have chronicled the maelstrom of a decade, where the past, present, and future stretched, connected, and spliced, even in spite of ourselves.
Origins are no longer very fashionable, riddled as they are with their implicit valuational schemes, silenced occlusions, and constitutive forgettings. But the anachronism of origin can offer small comforts — a stoop to rest your feet on after a long night of dancing, the ease of an old friend’s laugh — that make it just a little easier to recount, to recapitulate, to relate. PAN is not the first Berlin-based experimental electronic music label, but it is an origin for me.
By which I mean: PAN is a place to start and a place to return to. PAN is a point of entry, a crevice that sunders as it swallows, an open invitation you can’t refuse. When Piteous Gate swung wide open and ushered me into the break, into label head Bill Kouligas’s meticulously assembled constellation of experimentalisms past and present, I found no possible orientation to PAN other than headlong.
Yes, I arrived late. And to the cratediggers and the old heads, I will always be late.
All sorts of antecedents elude me, but PAN remains a point of reference so extensive and generous and inexhaustible that it offers inroads backward and forward into the novelty of newfound origins, of traces and milestones. There’s mono no aware’s stratigraphy of transience, Ghédalia Tazartès’s found sound assemblages, Sewer Election’s tape sadism, Lee Gamble’s jungle ruminations and disfigurations, and Pan Daijing’s opera of ache — all inviting rapt attention while beckoning elsewhere, gently.
And then, of course, the beats: at once disarming and rousing, transportative and grounding, familiar and inaugural. When shit bangs like Damaged Merc, Motion, Raven Yr Own Worl, Another Life, or Superlative Fatigue, one is not prone to forgetting. Getting bodied so hard leaves an imprint.
All of which is to say that I am not interested in any history of this decade that neglects the impact of PAN on the ear or the gut. And I think that’s what I mean by an origin: something you wouldn’t be here without. Something that makes you question how to begin.
Pop culture is an economy of signs; commercial pop artifacts are repositories of signs, which are the economy’s currency. Baudrillard names it sign value: it’s how Starbucks sets obscene prices on cheap commodities, relative to their ordinary exchange value; it’s how Kanye sells plain Ts for the cost of my entire wardrobe. Brands are a type of sign, yet signs aren’t limited to brands, nor are brands limited to material culture. Katy Perry is a brand whose sign value fluctuates with its different expressions across time: from quasi-edgy pop rebel to bubblegum party girl to socially-conscious activist. While the currency of Katy Perry as sign may persist, the signified changes just as Katy Perry, the signifier, alters her form accordingly — just as a paper rectangle might be recycled from a $1 mark into a €50 mark.
Just as language is a hermetic system whose signifiers convey arbitrary meanings & are meaningful only in relation to each other (i.e., they’re tautological), so the economy of pop culture functions via its own arbitrary signifiers & self-referentiality. PC Music was born in this discursive environment as a platform that accelerates tautology via a genuinely irresistible pop aesthetic in order to vacate pop culture signs of their signified & thus expose the shell of the mere signifier itself, which is glorified, interrogated, celebrated, & ridiculed by turns. Where commercial pop artists often give us reactionary gestures of gravity that deemphasize the naiveté of the “idol” persona, for example, PC Music offered us saccharine synths, high-pitched vocals, & exaggerated femininities, harmonized through a clubby veneer that was decidedly non-threatening & for that very reason quite often uncanny.
Perhaps there’s a risk of “over-analyzing” what’s enjoyable about pop music in its own right; for better or for worse, the growing popularity of SOPHIE & Charli XCX isn’t owed to post-structuralism. Nonetheless, that PC Music’s aesthetic sincerity was uncanny should give pause; often the crew offered us forms that felt almost too obvious. But, as Althusser pointed out, that which is “obvious” is precisely so inasmuch as it’s rooted in ideology: Flourishing in the same decade that gave us vaporwave & deconstructed club, PC Music furthered a broader ongoing reflective process by which we came to terms with the evolution of the discourse of pop culture over the past several decades & its state, place, & role within the capitalist ecosystem today.
With Machinedrum’s epic Room(s) (2011) and DJ Nate’s mind-bending footwork in Da Trak Genious (2010), Planet Mu started the decade off fuckin’ HOT. And it just kept the hits coming, hits that bridged the divide between UK bass, future garage, and Chicago ghetto tech, fusing so many different influences together to create something truly unique, vital, and global.
For me, the Planet Mu record that stands out most this decade is the underrated 2013 gem John Wizards, where a South African production savant joined a Rwandan refugee to produce a Shangaan electro album with the dreamlike magical quality that extended it way beyond the townships. But there are so many more: Jlin’s revolutionary, kinetic insanity on Black Origami (2017); RP Boo’s hypnotic juke on I’ll Tell You What (2018); Konx-om-Pax’s foray into the club and the bliss of the carefree comedown on Ways of Seeing (2019).
And that’s not it! Planet Mu’s artists (Ital Tek and Kuedo, in particular) kept pushing the wonky subset known as purple sound forward, moving it into a kind of Tangerine Dream-meets-footwork utopia that I never wanted to leave. And then somehow the Holy Mu kept pumping out releases by IDM legends like u-ziq and Venetian Snares while exploring new directions in deconstructed club (Antwood’s three full-lengths) and ambient (Meemo Comma’s brilliant release this year, Sleepmoss).
Writing this decade piece, I kept feeling like all this shit is criminally underrated. And it is! Without Planet Mu, music would be a lot worse off. Its artists simply never stopped moving forward. I’d try to predict where the label is heading in the next 10 years, but sorry, I’m bonged out dreaming my way though John Wizards.
So basically, the future.
There’s no way to talk about dance music trends over the past decade without mentioning kuduro & its diasporic turn. From Jennifer Lopez plagiarizing trans icon Titica to the countless producers globally incorporating the Angolan dance rhythm into the architecture of their beats, kuduro shows no signs of dying out. But rearticulation — that’s another thing. Coalescing into a dance scene during the turbulent period of Angola’s struggle for independence, kuduro took on new life in the Portuguese métropole, as second-generation migrants infused the scene with tougher club sounds, oblique cultural references, humorous samples, & a healthy amount of experimentation.
Príncipe Discos deserves major credit for bolstering that once marginal scene to the mainstream, which goes back as early as 2006, when a group of DJs from the Lisbon projects got together to release a massive compilation of tracks spanning the stylistic range of kuduro, batida, tarraxo, & more. While Príncipe’s first proper releases came out a few years after, its core ensemble of DJs hasn’t changed much, save a few surprising & exciting new additions. Most DJs featured on the original mixtape (e.g., DJ Marfox, DJ Nervoso, DJ N.K.) are going strong today, & others from the early days are reaching new audiences with international shows & releases on other imprints, most notably Warp. Tracking the scene’s evolution through its key artists in real time is a true joy: it’s watching the kids on the block grow up & shine beyond everyone’s expectations.
None of this would’ve been possible without Príncipe, which is both a space to rearticulate community identity & make sense of history, & a form of resistance against the otherwise racist discourse of “ghetto” — a term & aesthetic these artists have wholly reclaimed. From Noite Príncipe, the regular dance party hosted by the Príncipe crew going on its eighth year now, to the genuinely iconic artwork of Márcio Matos that adorns & unifies these artists’ releases both on Príncipe & beyond, there’s just no talking about the Lisbon scene without talking about Príncipe Discos. Because it’s not just a record label, but a scene & — no pun intended — a movement.
Online translation tools can only reveal so much. The phrase “Psalmus Dieursae” may bear the semblance of language, but it doesn’t “mean” anything in particular. Break the syllables apart in Google, and you’ll end up with an equation that just barely checks out: “Psalmus die ursae” in Latin = “song day bears.” It’s a pretty unintelligible cluster of nouns, but not so abstract that it doesn’t start to form some nebulous cloud of meaning on the page. You can’t help but imagine quarter notes floating in the screen’s white space and dancing bear cubs setting up camp beneath an url sky. These words flirt with definition, but retreat frustratingly into their obscurity.
It’s the perfect name, then, for a record label that does as much to obfuscate the output and identities of its artists as it does to distribute their work. Now only accessible through archived copies of its currently-blank website, Perry Trollope’s netlabel (est. 2014?) was an ever-changing library of sound collages, free-jazz exploration, and .pdf files of notebook scribblings, each installment seemingly transmitted from a world just beyond our understanding. From its sparsely-furnished homepage, which housed little more than black hyperlinks on a cream-colored backdrop, visitors were left to their own navigational devices. Clicking on one at random could lead you to a zip file of electroacoustic dreamscapes, a dadaist collage, even an ASMR video. It was a step back into the pastoral internet of the mid-aughts — unpolished and intimate, if not a little scary. Files could disappear or transform overnight. Many of our own posts featuring Psalmus’ work feature now-broken links and can’t be accessed via streaming services. It’s hard to tell whether listeners were meant to be in on a complex inside joke or its subject.
Most notably, Psalmus Dieursae introduced us to many of our favorite online personae. Emamouse, a Tokyo-based folktronica producer who performs wearing a felt mask, released a handful of records (and a manga/short film!) through the imprint. Trollope’s pseudonymous project /f earned our Eureka! distinction in 2014 and has continued to crank out inscrutable noise epics ever since. We still treasure Hari Han’s feathery ambient compositions and crayon drawings.
As long as our hard drives stay intact and the Wayback machine stays up and running, so too will Perry Trollope’s atavistic vision of a simpler netscape: an age of Mediafire blogs and niche forum communities. The mediums — .wavs, .pdfs, .mp4s — were always the message. The rest is just noise.
Earlier this year, sonic vagabond and TMT favorite Lolina begged the question: “Who is experimental music?” Sneakily dissonant in its syntax — staging an ostensible confrontation between the nominative case of the interrogative pronoun and the fiercely contested conjuncture of “music” and “the experimental” — the provocation at once ridicules the hagiographic critical paradigm staking out “the experimental” as the exclusive domain of canonical white men (rest in piss, Harold Bloom!) and underhandedly poses the possibility that experimental art-making can (or is it must?) transgress boundaries demarcating classical distinctions between subject and object, artist and audience, process and product.
At PTP, the unstinting, unsettling, unfinished experimental work of care repaired these alienated categories; bodies and merchandise, rigidly disaggregated and arranged in the seething chain seized and drained by capital, conspired to relate otherwise. Accomplices swerved and ducked out of tallied position to take care, not stock.
PTP’s beautiful experiment eluded capture of any sort, insisting on a notion of “the experimental” that baffled the purse-clutching, land-grabbing, back-stabbing claims of hermeticity and autonomy; that reneged on those reified proprieties; that weaponized relation between sound, saliva, self-preservation, city, personae, paraffin.
On gang/on Geng: “the curator becomes the accomplice when she helps to produce this uncomfortable care, a care that is dangerous, made together but open to anyone and anything, a beautiful care that enlivens attention, heightens sense till sense and meaning coincide.” Drawing from and experimenting with the rich collective productions, social reimaginings, and conspiratorial caretakings tagged and thumping throughout NYC — Wu Tang, Powerule Crew, Mobb Deep — caretaker Geng less curated than colluded, clearing space within the chokeholding architectures of foreclosure and incarceration for séances of breath, ugly cries , lustrous comeups, and, above all, love stories .
Because it was all love.
Despite our best efforts, the past won’t let us go. Throughout the last decade, Sean McCann’s Recital label allayed that encumbrance, carried on its own shoulders the weight of abandoned aesthetic traditions, and became itself a catalog of musical histories in reformation. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble was a rapturous bounty; Ian William Craig’s A Turn of Breath was untouchably smoldering; Sarah Davachi’s Let Night Come On Bells End the Day eked out pleasure in mellifluous drones; Karla Borecky was genteel, Matthew Sullivan celestial, Roger Eno like white smoke. Recital carved lines in the stone of history between what came before and what happens now, and, in essential projects like the singularly ambitious and collaborative “dream LP” Simple Affections, made music of coinciding voices.
But that’s only half the legend told. Recital was not just a counselor of progress, but an antiquary of a musical underground, a collator of collapsed time and lost sagas that were invariably a blessing to receive: unearthed sound experiments and poetry from legends like Dick Higgins, François Dufrêne, and Geoffrey Hendricks; unreleased folk curios by The Ivytree; reverent reissues from Loren Connors; and unexpected one-offs like the live radioplays of Towards a Total Poetry. Every Recital release, regardless of source or inspiration, was an exquisite surprise to be discovered, a celebration of some obscure class of workmanship, and a niche of warm appreciation for anomalous art and its authors.
Reading McCann’s publicity notes for each release, one gets the impression that Recital as a marvel of curation could only exist in a digital environment that allowed for immediate contact between globally divergent artists and collaborators, yet the label’s entire project was to honor the record of a past dotted with insular, regional scenes distinguished by a particular grade of experimentation. Heading into the uncharted horizon of a new decade, Recital remains an unparalleled museum for tomorrow. Its artifacts are sanctuary.
This decade began auspiciously for the Australian field recordist Lawrence English, and it has only improved since. On January 1, 2010, English’s label Room40 released its 10th-anniversary compilation, titled simply 10. If we’re lucky enough to see 20 drop this coming January, it will highlight an impressive roster recruited in the label’s second decade. Room40 has seen luminaries including Portuguese improviser Rafael Toral, English sound theorist David Toop, and Japanese insane person Merzbow join its ranks in the past 10 years.
Room40’s remit is to blur the boundaries between noise, ambience, and field recordings. English himself led the way in the 2010s with two major statements on the relationship between noise and political expression: an exploration of informational repetition by way of feedback loops on Wilderness of Mirrors (2014) and a meditation on affective responses to global catastrophe on Cruel Optimism (2017). On the ambient side, Richard Chartier’s pinkcourtesyphone project arranged sizable blocks of reverb and distortion into beguiling shapes on Elegant and Detached (2012) and Indelicate Slices (2017); on the field recording side, this year’s haunting Waking, She Heard the Fluttering by Alexandra Spence wrests beauty and horror out of found sound.
Actually, looking back, it seems that Room40 has fulfilled its remit. The boundaries are blurred. Attempts at categorization have been defied. Spence’s field recordings are noisy as hell. English’s noise comes in waves of ambience. Pinkcourtesyphone’s ambience roars into noise and subsides into clips of found sound. Room40’s new goal for the 2020s? Continue honing what can only be called “the Room40 sound.”
I’m notorious for effing up quotes, but I will never stop collecting them. One I wrote down ages ago is by artist Rita Ackermann about Michael Jackson, how “He was able to compress a bulldozer and Bambi into one song. That’s also the main focus of my own work. I want to show such a duality in its most raw form — with a fragility that triggers aggression.” This seems to sum up the work philosophy of Brooklyn’s RVNG Intl. Co-founded and run by Matt Werth, the label has since 2003 gathered seemingly incongruent threads and woven them into complex pieces. Each release was like a trip through the looking glass, to test the limits of music and language. And with its FRKWYS series, it unleashed some of the most memorable and meaningful mishmashes of the last decade in experimental and new music. Painstaking rumination might be behind its releases — from its regular issues and the aforementioned collaborations to its Beats in Space, Freedom to Spend, and ReRVNG archival choices — but I like to think the label came to these musical inventions freely, with a willingness to try almost anything to bring something “new” into the often-tired landscape. Going against the grain of the current climate, RVNG Intl. has issued works that capture a fresh strangeness and an artistic freedom that few labels would tolerate. Music should make us feel, and if you can’t feel the music released by RVNG Intl., what can you feel?
They’re Pokémon cards; they’re comic books tucked in plastic sleeves; they’re cereal boxes lined up on a supermarket shelf. Sacred Bones’s record sleeves are as integral to the Brooklyn label’s success as its penchant for post-punk and crepuscular aesthetic. Almost all of them are stamped with an ouroboros and imprinted with a tracklist that resembles a list of active ingredients — a letterhead logo that feels almost clinical, imposing order on the discography’s array of ghoulish and psychedelic artwork. There’s an obsessive need to collect them all that stems from the intersection between uniformity and variety. The catalog numbers are even printed prominently on the front covers! Label founders Caleb Braaten and David Correll have made an effort to maintain this consistency from its founding in 2007, citing the futurist and spartan artwork of Factory Records as a key influence.
Factory’s legacy even seeps into Sacred Bones’s sound, especially in the former half of its history. Alongside gloomy garage-rockers like Gary War and Blank Dogs, synth-centric acts like TR/ST and Led Er Est carved out a nostalgic niche for the label, capturing the attention of an 80s-obsessed indie zeitgeist at the turn of the decade. The most memorable releases of the period, though, came from Sacred Bones’s more eclectic contributors. Amen Dunes’s Through Donkey Jaw appeared on many of our staff’s decade lists, transmitting spectral folk-rock through a watery atmosphere. Zola Jesus’s early work with the label was a fascinating precursor to her recent cinematic output — beautifully brittle and caked in distortion.
The decade’s latter half has seen Sacred Bones wear many hats. Though unexpected, its forays into the film world have fit neatly into the label catalog, sandwiching John Carpenter’s Halloween score and a handful of Julee Cruise demos between works by Black Marble and Jenny Hval. And let’s not forget the 1976 Plantasia record it reissued this March: a synthetic, New Age ficus blooming from its surrounding selection of vintage punk and industrial electronica. The vibes might be funereal, but, yes, there are even slivers of optimism interred with the ‘Bones.
Less a record label than an immaculate virtual boutique of musicianship (plus lovingly crafted visual/textual artifacts known as books) at its most supra-threshold tactile, Felicia Atkinson and Bartolomé Sanson’s “publishing platform” has been remarkably consistent since its 2012 inception.
There was the elaborate controlled melting and stricken atrophy of Ben Vida’s final Damaged Particulates installment in 2016, as well as Gabriel Saloman’s alternately stark and murkily idyllic Monument Building triptych, which was truly transportive, despite many of us not getting to see the choreographed dance it was made for. There was D/P/I’s spark shower playgroup of triggered automation and ostensible 2016 bow-out, Composer. Also the kit-muted Music is Rotted One-Note-esque velvet gloved throttling of percussionist Eli Keszler’s Stadium. Flautist John Also Bennett gave us two peace-imbuing yet tense minimalist sonic habitats (one in collaboration with Christina Vantzou). And Atkinson herself has presented some of her best work here (2017’s low, squirmy, and fatalistically reflective Hand in Hand), in addition to cementing a powerful collaborative magic with the great Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
For a small concern, 48 albums in less than 10 years is impressive enough. But for each to retain such essentially distinct textural character for all that time casts a special glow on the endeavor. Rather than missteps, Shelter Press offered curious genre detours, slowly ironing out the more fickle wrinkles of preference. It almost felt like a staggeringly intricate exhibit or compilation given an indefinite extension. It was not scene-specific or specific at all, beyond a desire for greater media intersectionality in experimental music. As a result, Shelter Press has been a fine example of how experimental approaches to music can dissolve their imposed margins of obscurity and properly reward the curious past their bewildered enticement.
Phil and Myste French didn’t invent the cassette tape, but by 2010, their label Stunned was the undisputed champion of the medium. At a time when physical media was under attack from digital files and the emergence of streaming services, Stunned seemed to prize musical objects as important as the melodic messaging therein. The label provided an outlet for artists to express themselves inexpensively. Let’s take a chance on an artist, a scene, and an idea — and the whole idea of Stunned followed. The artwork was especially vivid, a pastiche of graphic and color as unpredictable and experimental as the music it was encasing. The artists, young and wild, expressing themselves in a manner befitting the singular aesthetic of the label’s design choices: art pieces in 4.25 x 2.75-inch packages.
Stunned brought us early releases from M. Geddes Gengras, High Aura’d, and Sparkling Wide Pressure. It took on a variety of noise, drone, and experimental pop that had no discernible place in a world increasingly attached to indie music rather than independent artists. And all of it arrived on cassette, a medium so outdated in the mainstream at the time that its affordability in both creation (dubbing parties at home on a stereo setup) and shipping (media mail) made it accessible to not only labels pumping them out, but also DIY artists on a shoestring budget. Even as social networks were becoming the norm, Stunned seemed to bring these disparate sounds, personalities, and artistic values together to create a community that built upon the label’s ethos. So when Phil and Myste shuttered Stunned in 2011, it was a relationship ending. Although all parties involved moved on and like-minded independent music began to thrive, along with the cassette tape, a lot of it felt hollow without Stunned along for the ride, especially given the label’s lasting impact throughout the decade.
Thankfully, Stunned found “it was impossible for us to stay away for long.” Eight years is an eternity in music these days, but Stunned’s clandestine return this year through Phil and Myste’s own musical outlet, Nite Lite, still felt relevant and of this time. Whether this was a reawakening or one final kiss goodbye, its timeliness was matched only by its necessity.
When your ears have been desperate to lock in with the nexus of human eloquence and brevity (though the bounty is staggering), for (roughly) another 10 years now, Sublime Frequencies was your Huckleberry. This desperation reaches across cultures and the fool’s errands that we run through our inherited tools of expression (namely music and diplomacy), even if time has often shown we can’t have nice things in this regard. As fine as it’d be for that fine point of grace to be a home, it evaporates with our hunger for it. In this light, Sublime Frequencies continues to stay the course, capturing insistent yet unassuming moments in time and space that elevate its raw quality to something more emotionally vital than its potential curio status for Western audiences.
Be it the deep, windblown blues of Group Inerane and the Guitars from Agadez series or travelogues like Mark Gergis’s I Remember Syria (reissued in 2014), ritual music like Olivia Wyatt’s hypnotic document Staring at The Sun: Ethiopian Tribal Music, or the enchanting folk-pop universe of Omar Khorshid’s Guitar el Chark, Sublime Frequencies have faithfully presented its Middle Eastern, North/West African, and Southeast Asian sounds with an emphasis on authentic and ethical representation of the artists.
The label has unerringly balanced its potentially luddite-ish aversion to polish with a showcase of the vast sonic potentiality contained within spare, ancient, and modern instrumental elements in a natural environment. Both the intimacy and ear-expanding quality of these artifacts have not been dulled by the 2014 decision to put many of its titles (sold out and otherwise) on Bandcamp. If anything, it likely helped to nudge the label beyond its money-to-burn completist collector market. The vast trove of incredible music and footage (its mesmerizingly immersive DVDs are well worth seeking out) might get slightly lost in translation, but the sheer force of the passion behind these rituals/performances has been unmistakable and appropriately humbling to behold.
The 2000s was a period in which Warp, the de facto electronic label, was largely bemoaned for capitulating to the indie trends of the time. Bands like Maxïmo Park and Grizzly Bear didn’t fit the classicist’s view of what Warp was “supposed” to be. Turns out, the label was only just getting started. This decade, Warp had the boldness to release music from artists as disparate as Danny Brown and Drexciya, just because both of them fucking rip. This stretching of genre in its ranks found the label combining the experimental electronic fortitude it was known for — whether it was Richard D. James imbuing importance amongst the cavalry or Autechre feeding the purists that mutated techno we all so enjoy — with young guns like Kelela, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Yves Tumor, who helped define not only the label this decade, but contemporary music in general, each subverting electronic music standards in some fashion. Warp’s visionary approach was also complemented by its ears on the past, whether it was reissues of landmarks by LFO, Boards of Canada, and Stereolab, or something as simple as Broadcast’s presence on their website, a reminder of what should and could have been.
Perhaps most significantly, there’s an undeniable influence from Warp’s leadership that flows through all these musicians. Artists were offered not only enough resources to build upon their previous works, but also the freedom to pursue whatever wild ambitions came to mind, resulting in a vast range of treasures dedicated to pushing the envelope, releases that felt all-around bigger and bolder. It’s why Warp is the label supremé of our time, the standard to which all music labels should be held.
When this decade began, MP3s still reigned supreme. Now, at the end of it, a song is no longer even a file — it’s ephemera, on every streaming service and available to hear in myriad ways. For better and worse, the song (and the single) have become the norm for the general public’s music consumption. More »
Roughly six years ago, Hannah Diamond released the now-iconic single “Pink and Blue.” Fast-forward through over 10 more Hannah Diamond songs and now roughly 300 shitty thinkpieces on PC Music and we arrive in our present-day nightmare. The silver, diamond-encrusted lining? The multi-talented artist has announced November 22 as the release date for her long-awaited debut album, Reflections.
The news coincides with a video for new single “Invisible,” made in collaboration with artist Daniel Swan. “I am perpetually surrounded by screens and on display for everyone to see,” says Hannah Diamond of the song and video, “but paradoxically feel completely invisible to the one person who I wish would notice me. The ‘Invisible’ world represents a hyper-real reflection of real life, mirroring aspects of my day to day; the sleepy tube journey across London Bridge, a walk through an alternate reality where London is filled with HD billboard images and advertising photographed by me. It explores the processes of constructing my own ‘image’ in an elaborate multi-screen editing suite, as I work to completely digitise my self to be remembered virtually forever.”
All songs on Reflections are produced by PC Music mastermind A. G. Cook, with EASYFUN helping out on “Invisible” and previous singles “Fade Away” and “Make Believe.” Watch the video for “Invisible” below, grab tix here for her first headlining shows in London (12/5)/Paris (12/11)/Berlin (12/12), and get your heart & wallets ready for November 22. Pre-orders are available here, with a limited supply of signed copies. ACT NOW.
Let’s put this in terms TMT readers can appreciate.
STYLES: “Old Town Road”
OTHERS: Fire-Toolz, 99jakes, Default Genders
Does your boy have his own ringtone? When he calls, will you answer?
Famously one of the great records you may have missed from Pitchfork’s “Great Records You May Have Missed: Summer 2019,” 100 gecs are so clean like a money machine, they’re for the kids, they’re catchy, they’re “doing it.”
But if how you feel about 100 gecs is similar to how I felt about Charli XCX at the beginning of 2015 — a casual fan waiting for an A. G. Cook remix to really get you listening closely, loving it, ONBOARD — then you’re in luck! Trademark A. G.! sounds abound, hardly smoothing out the roughly-mixed metaphor edges of 100 gecs horsepower, allowing us to unlock some of the potential lurking in the stems. If that’s got you revved up, then the upcoming remix ALBUM will have you racing.
Me, I’ve been growing my hair out for three years in anticipation of this dynamite duo, and the “money machine” remix has me screaming like the all-star cast of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson & Liam Neeson in the godawesome 1999 remake The Haunting: A LOT. WHO AM I? WHAT DOES HE WANT WITH ME? (That’s right, the Sith weren’t the only “phantom menace” from the turn of the millennium!)
Alright, kids, I won’t be seeing you in the mosh. Bah humphries.
100 gecs and PC Music were made for each other. Both 100 gecs, the massively buzzy LA/Chicago duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les, and PC Music, the frantic London-based collective, are maximalist pop-culture vandals. Both of them take the critically disrespected pop music of the recent past (100 gecs are probably the first acclaimed … More »
Now that Charli’s Charli is almost out, could it be time for PC Music to “PC Music” its way back to hyper-prolificacy??
At the very least, it’s excellent timing that A. G. Cook, head chef at PC Music and Creative Director for Charli XCX, has just premiered a new song, his first solo track since 2016’s “Superstar.” It’s titled “Lifeline,” and like “Superstar,” A. G. Cook takes lead vocals, with a lil help from Caroline Polachek of Chairlift. Take it away, Cook:
The melody at the core of “Lifeline” is this repetitive, insistent and slightly selfish earworm that I’ve been living with for too long now. In the end, the easiest way to deal with it was to leave it in a warm petri dish and let it do its own thing. A few years later I found myself with this young, unstable song, and somehow nurtured it to become a power ballad. The track has a life of its own, but like most children and laboratory experiments, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“Lifeline” is apparently just the first in a slew of new PC Music material, so be prepared to have your lives changed, one earworm at a time. “Lifeline” can be downloaded here, streamed below, and felt here:
PC Music figurehead A. G. Cook has mostly receded into the background over the last couple years, burrowing deeper into his association with Charli XCX — he co-executive produced her forthcoming Charli — and working with other artists, including Caroline Polachek on her upcoming solo album. But today Cook returns with a brand-new … More »