23 January, 2012

The Top 30 (or so) Records/EP's etc. of 2011, Part 4: 15-11

After taking a little break, here we are again with yet another installment of The Top 30 Records/EP's/Whatever of 2011. I'm sure Charlie kept you entertained with tales of lobster dinners, sketchbooks filled with zombies and female guitarists, lovingly butchered musicians' ads on Craigslist and anal sex.

15. Prurient - Bermuda Drain (Hydra Head)

Everyone made a big stink about this when it first came out because Dom Fernow decided to take the big step of writing actual songs for a Prurient record this time around. Previously, Fernow used Prurient as a vehicle for many, many above-average noise records. I'm not familiar with many of the albums he made before this, but The History of Aids is a very good power electronics album with an interesting concept and Cocaine Death is a fascinating record that reaches a uniquely strange, atmospheric compromise between snatches of melody and straight noise. But Fernow's time as Wes Eisold's main collaborator in the overrated, boring synthpop project Cold Cave seemed like the factor that caused him to make such a radical change as Prurient. This didn't seem too promising for the record. But I realized two things: Prurient will never be as straightforward, accessible or diluted as Cold Cave, and Cocaine Death was a hint that Fernow had aimed at making an album like this for a while anyway. Bermuda Drain is an extremely theatrical record, but it isn't pop at all: it's basically icy goth synthpunk, and I can certainly get behind that. Fernow's shredded, hateful scream is still very much in evidence, and he varies that howl with an entertaining, cold, knowingly deadpan monotone that he uses for all the quieter songs. While it is sort of frustrating hearing him not even try to sing, I certainly enjoy Fernow's threatening sprechgesang and think it works. There are more than a few moments here which are just ridiculously campy (the much-discussed "Palm Tree Corpse" is the preferred example), but I have a really hard time believing that this wasn't absolutely 100% intentional, and I love many of the songs here. The melodies, especially on the quieter songs like "Bermuda Drain," "Let's Make a Slave," "Myth of Sex," "Sugar Cane Chapel" and yes, even "Palm Tree Corpse," are all very memorable and stick in my head, and the frozen, elegant synthesizer tones fit the melodies and atmosphere perfectly. Fernow might have made a break with his past work with this album, but repeated listens reveal something odd: it's simultaneously not quite as much of a break as it might seem at first ("Watch Silently" is certainly as nasty a noisefest as you could hope for, though Fernow's vocals are actually pretty funny), and it's also a decisive move forward into more conventionally structured material. That's actually pretty impressive, if you ask me.

14. ASAP Rocky - LiveLoveA$AP (RCA)

ASAP Rocky has been riding a tsunami of hype recently, and the odd thing is that it's actually halfway deserved. Most of the commentary about Rocky has focused on the fact that he's a New York rapper who doesn't sound like he's from New York, but that's really sort of limiting and doesn't focus on what Rocky does well. And what Rocky does well can be hard to see at first. Rocky's not the greatest MC to ever step up to the microphone by a long shot, but on the other hand, he certainly knows how to rap and has different techniques at his disposal: he can call upon an unhurried, relaxed, yet quick and competent style, a well-executed double-time Midwest Bone-Thugs-esque flow and a slow, easy Southern-influenced delivery at will. His subject matter basically comes down to proclaiming how many ways he's the shit (smoking blunts, fucking hoes, calling himself a "pretty motherfucker," etc), and it could easily get really boring if he didn't find fun ways to say it differently each time. And he certainly doesn't seem all that original at first. But LiveLoveA$AP is a very successful album for about four reasons, which are: 1) Rocky is a charismatic, charming talent on the mic - he manages to convince me that he'd actually be fun to hang out with, which is pretty essential to the overall effect; 2) Rocky has one hell of an ear for beats that are both good on their own and that he'd sound good over; 3) Rocky really knows how to maintain consistency for 50+ minutes, which is not easy to do; and perhaps most importantly, 4) Rocky is a stylistic magpie who takes bits and pieces from tons of different, unrelated hip-hop styles and puts them all together into one original, signature style of his own. He bites from different trends and regions in hip-hop all over the album (Wiz Khalifa would have done something like "Peso" if he had any talent at all in his emaciated body; there's more than a nod to Lil B's based music in the trademark ethereal beats from superproducer Clams Casino and boasts about his own prettiness; Rocky's association with Miami producer/rapper Spaceghostpurrp provides him with access to weird but polished Three 6 Mafia-influenced beats; and of course, he's upfront about stealing Houston hip-hop blind - how many of these songs have chopped-and-screwed vocals?), and puts all those different things together in ways that really don't sound like anyone else - and of course, this is worlds removed from any kind of stereotypical New York hip-hop sound. Plus, Rocky keeps up with every guest rapper on the album, and none of the guest rappers ever fall flat - Schoolboy Q particularly shines on "Brand New Guy." Put it all together, and you really do start to understand why Rocky got his $3 million deal. Let's hope he manages to remain this consistent over his next few albums.

13. Cop Warmth - Die Slow 7" (In The Red)

This was the WTF Prizewinner of the Year: five lunatic splortches of stomach-turning slapdick squall so truly demented that you wonder how these fools even managed to learn their instruments, much less put out a record. Cop Warmth sound like the unloved, deformed bastard children of Pussy Galore and Lamps getting high on cough syrup and jamming with Circle X's first drummer. The whole thing is amazingly sloppy - the drumming's a complete mess most of the time, the bass obliviously grinds away, the guitars spew unchecked, bent-out-of-all-discernible-tune groans and streams of horrible noise, and the vocals all sound like a couple of immensely agitated, drugged-up freaks retching up bile into an echo unit - and I can't help but love the shit out of this morass of hammering slop each time, because, you know, there are songs hidden down there. You just have to listen a few times for it to become clear. I also give them bonus points for the outburst of destructive white noise on "Positive Vibe" - makes me sit up every time.

12. Danny Brown - XXX (Fool's Gold)

There wasn't a hip-hop song this year that sounded as completely wired, as totally overbright and dangerous as "Die Like a Rockstar" did. It sounds like a party already gone horribly and unstoppably wrong that everyone knows is going to keep going until it peters out into vomit and unconsciousness at 10:30 am the next morning. It's a brilliant song, and still probably the song on this album that I've listened to most. Danny Brown had been around for a while before this, but XXX was his ticket to a relative big time, and deservedly so. This is a record that takes a whole bunch of different-sounding beats - "Die Like a Rockstar" is totally fucked-up electro, "Radio Song" is almost ridiculously stripped down and minimal, "Pac Blood" and "I Will" are lush and smooth (though the former is tense and the latter is almost caring), "Scrap or Die" is fascinating, dark and rhythmically complex, and "Adderall Admiral" actually samples This Heat's "Horizontal Hold" for God's sake (I'm sorry, I know it's hipster bait but still!) - and unifies them all with Brown's distinctive, unnervingly jacked-up persona. His rhymes are often creepy and gritty - prescription drug abuse is a recurring theme, and the second half of the record details the kind of poverty that you really only see in Detroit (Brown's from Linwood, for all my fellow Michigan readers' information) - but what's truly odd about him is how starkly different his voices are. For Brown has two, almost diametrically opposed deliveries: one is a calmer, lower-pitched, darker, observational tone of voice that he almost always uses to deliver brutally detailed songs about life in Detroit (e.g. "Scrap or Die") and a very weird, almost cartoonishly trebly strangled sneer that somehow often manages to just drip with stimulant-enhanced menace (e.g. "Die Like a Rockstar"). It's almost like hearing two different sides of the same person take turns narrating the record, and that divided effect heightens the record as an overall experience. If XXX is any indication, Brown's next record may be even more bizarrely great; let's hope that turns out to be the case.

11. Liquor Store - Yeah Buddy
(Almost Ready)

Hey, you there, you slouching in the corner. Come here. Okay, don't look at me like that - I'll come to you. I'll pull up a chair. Jesus christ, stop looking at me like that, I'll buy us a few Old Milwaukees. I know why you're down in the dumps. You felt like music let you down, and really, who could blame you? It really did feel like the world of music was against us - Bon Iver, a man with a neckbeard, an overwrought falsetto and fatal tastes for insipid poetry and reheated yacht rock, was the face of independent music this year. It's enough to make the ghost of Joey Ramone puke in his Chuck Taylors. Well, I know what you've been looking for. And that thing you've been looking for is a goddamn straight-up rock and roll record. You've been looking for a record soaked in Yuengling, sweat, grievously abused prescription medications and cigarette smoke, filled with old-as-the-hills rock riffs that somehow become vital all over again through sheer force of performance - in short, a record brimming with actual rock and roll songs that just don't quit, all topped off with high-pitched, sneering, squeaking, unbelievably obnoxious vocals (think Doc Corbin Dart imitating that nerd with the coke-bottle glasses and the hard Philadelphia accent in Frederick Wiseman's High School and you might be there, but not much) and three ringing, distorted guitars united in glorious harmony, churning out witless pentatonic lead lines and chopped-out barre chords. Well, this record is for you. This is a record that's for all of us, really. Featuring the cheapest and funniest cover art of the year, Yeah Buddy is basically what Liquor Store always promised to turn into. But they never actually seemed like they would follow through - their early shows, often featuring as many as five to seven guitarists onstage, were astonishingly untogether and completely wrecked, basically the stuff of Tri-State scenester joke legend; and the Free Pizza 7" single that came out before this certainly didn't do much to dispel the unfortunate impression that Liquor Store was sort of a joke band with a fondness for riffs that sounded stale in 1956. You got the idea that, if they ever got it together, they could really turn into a great rock and roll band - but that seemed like a remote possibility. Well, it happened, and we should all be happy, because this album is just fantastic. I mean, there are even some real moments of beauty in these songs - "Banned From The Block" features a jangly intro that's almost heart-in-mouth-territory, which really doesn't make sense coming from an album this gloriously stupid, and the intro to "Showdown at Wookie Lake" is a masterpiece of tension-building. You'll pick out some filched riffs here and there (that's definitely the Ramones' "Loudmouth" midway through "Proud To Be An American Man," which doesn't matter because the song is killer), and "Bud Lite Killers" doesn't really work too well, but isn't it enough that five dickheads from New Jersey put out one of the best rock records this year? Isn't it enough that there's an indisputable anthem here dedicated to Commando (aka the classic Schwarzenegger cinematic cheesefest)? Or yet more indisputable anthems about pumping iron in a basement and taking Vicodin after dental surgery? Sarim al-Rawi and his crew have the right idea. Drink. Act like a moron. Get the yawp out. Rock. Yeah buddy.

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