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Nine Inch Nails

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Map Ref 04: (For Dad)

The Downward Spiral was the first record I had ever heard that incorporated an instrumental piece on a record primarily comprised of songs with vocals. That LP's title track was also my introduction to ambient music—even though I didn't have a term for it as a 13 year old, I found myself fascinated with its subtle, melodic textures, its strangeness, and the contrast it offered to the much harsher tracks surrounding it; it was, and still is, my favorite selection from NIN's second full length.

In the following years, NIN profiles and interviews with Reznor pointed me to Godflesh and, as a result, Justin Broadrick's side project Final, not to mention COIL, Autechre, and Aphex Twin (whose Selected Ambient Works II is, as I recall, the first fully instrumental album I ever purchased). The Downward Spiral and subsequent albums I discovered in its wake turned me on to the idea that music could push against the existing context of pop music and not necessarily require lyrics. It's about as important of a turn as I can think of in the evolution of my musical taste, and I owe Trent Reznor a sincere debt of gratitude, all over a penultimate album track which I suspect many NIN fans mistakenly skip right over.

Since then, I've found that most of my favorite records contain beatless interludes—Kid A, Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, and Another Green World are three that come to mind—and I'm fairly convinced that every City States album I make from here on out will contain a song of this type. "(For Dad)" is a first for me, a vocal-less track that flows in both structure and theme from the song that precedes it. Its droning organs muted glitches are very much inspired by the softer moments on Oval's Systemisch (an all-time favorite of mine).  And though I hesitate to define it specifically as a dirge, it is most certainly designed to serve as a coda for "To Remember", whose lyrics were inspired by the eulogy I gave at my father's memorial service.

Finishing this and releasing this song has actually given me a confidence in making instrumental music that I hadn't quite anticipated—so much so, that next year I plan on releasing two non-City States LPs. The first is from a project called Contretemps, which is a bit more abstract and noise-oriented, in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, Merzbow, and Sam Prekop's Old Punch Card. The second project, Modal Voices, is more structured, sounding a bit like Tim Hecker with hints of Terry Riley and Steve Reich mixed in for good measure. More on those projects in the coming months. Stay tuned.

 

 

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Top 30 Albums of 2013

Can we agree that this was a great year for music? There were a few surprises in 2013—was anyone expecting the return of Nine Inch Nails?—and I was also delighted to discover that two of my favorite LPs came from major artists who I had all but written off (Arcade Fire and Kanye).

Personally: 2013 will forever be know to me as the year I made my first record. I worked. A lot. When I wasn’t at my actual job (I’m an interactive designer for an agency in downtown Chicago, which I enjoy very much) I spent countless hours writing, then recording, then mixing the album. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made an LP before that it’s not easy, but this was the year that I learned exactly what that means. And I hope that the effort pays off in 2014.

I also moved in with my girlfriend—a first for me—and so far it’s been great. She’s pretty amazing, and her 3-year old Shiba Inu, named David Bowie, may be the greatest dog I’ve ever met.

Later this year you can expect the first City States LP (more on that in the coming weeks); I also hope to release full-length albums from two different electronic projects I’ve been chipping away at—Modal Voices is a Steve Reich-influenced project that I announced back in June; the second, which doesn’t have a name yet, is going to be noisier and more free-form, in the vein of Merzbow and the last Sam Prekop record.

Anyway, here’s my top 10, an extended version of the tweets I posted yesterday. My full top 30 is below.

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10. Devendra Banhart - Mala: This is an album that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. That’s a shame: the low-fi Tascam 8-track recordings provide the subtlest hint of early Ween, while Banhart’s lyrics provide a degree of wit that I never would have expected from him (however: I just read that his backup band was for many years known as “Spiritual Bonerz,” a good indicator that my surprise over his sense of humor means that I really just haven’t been paying attention.).

09. Kanye West - Yeezus: All boorish misogyny aside, this is as gutsy of a record I’ve heard all year from an artist of West’s visibility. And even though a few mid-record tracks fall flat for me, the squelchy, industrial-influenced distortion of “On Sight” is an absolute stunner.

08. James Blake - Overgrown: To be honest, I had hoped for a bit more adventurousness from of Blake’s second LP. In spite of my expectations, however, Overgrown is a start-to-finish great record.

07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came: On a personal level, Justin K Broadrick is about as important of a musical influence as I can think of—I made my way through early high school with Godflesh, and it was through reading interviews with him that I discovered the likes of Swans, Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and Whitehouse; I also realized today that the debut album from his Final side project was likely the first ambient album I ever owned, another landmark.

So it’s actually kind of awesome that his musical evolution seems to have dovetailed with my taste—which is to say that he’s somewhat sidestepped the aggression of his early Godflesh albums in favor of Jesu’s sincerity. With specific respect to the Jesu catalog, Every Day ranks right up there with the early Heartache and Silver EPs (which, if I’m not mistaken, the former was the first album I wrote about as a track reviewer for Pitchfork back in 2004). Beautiful.

06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: I went in to my first listen through Reflektor with some serious reservations—The Suburbs, to my ears, was a slog, and after reading that the LP was going to be 86 minutes long, I went in with low expectations.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that virtually all of my expected criticisms of the album are, in fact, very much woven into the fabric of Reflektor—AND YET—I still think that is pretty fantastic. Is that the sign of a great record—an album that manages to not only survive, but transcend some serious flaws?

05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur: Jonsi and company have generally not lacked critical praise or commercial success in the last decade, and yet I still feel like the transformation Sigur Ros made for Kveikur has gone under-appreciated. These guys brought in some heavy Einsturzende Neubauten and King Crimson influence on this LP, and it works like magic. Moreover: much to my surprise, it may be my favorite album that they’ve ever made.

04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden: I’ve probably listened to this record more than any other released this year. In some ways it’s exactly what you’d expect from half of the electronic duo Cluster, paired with one of the members of To Rococo Rot—simple piano figures, subtle electronic textures, vamped melodies. Its charms may be par for the course, that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent.

03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator: The creepy midnight-black inverse of James Blake’s boyish breeziness, Impersonator is simultaneously unsettling and breathtaking. “Childhoods End,” in particular, with its heart-stopping refrain, is my top song of 2013 (I wrote about the track at length earlier this year).

02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP: Equal parts hilarious, inventive, bizarre, and touching, Serengeti’s latest may feature his most effortless rhymes to date. For those unfamiliar, Kenny Dennis is the rapper’s jokey alter-ego, a Southside Chicago-born emcee who talks endlessly of burgers, brats, American Gladiators, and his ’90s glory days as a member of a rap group called Tha Grimm Teachaz.

Musically, The Kenny Dennis LP has Anticon written all over it (they released the album), with strange, off-kilter rhythms clashing with odd synth tones. And the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny, especially for Chicagoans.

01. Deerhunter - Monomania: An obsessively-crafted LP about obsession, I never would’ve expected to enjoy this effort as much as I do. For as much as I’ve loved the last three Deerhunter albums, the idea of a garage-y, lo-fi left turn initially sounded like a mistake to me. But instead of betraying Bradford Cox’s incredible songwriting abilities, the lo-fi-ness of the album succeeds in incorporating the harsher elements of Deerhunter’s early work. And let’s not forget Lockett Pundt: “The Missing” is a song so good that upon my first listen I wish I had written it—it’s my #3 track of the year.

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30. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow’s Harvest
29. David Bowie - The Next Day
28. The Flaming Lips - The Terror
27. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
26. Low - The Invisible Way
25. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
24. The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
23. The Necks - Open
22. Deafheaven - Sunbather
21. Tim Hecker - Virgins

20. Mountains - Centralia
19. Innode - Gridshifter
18. Disappears - Era
17. Yvette - Process
16. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
15. Matmos - Marriage of True Minds
14. Atoms for Peace - Amok
13. PVT - Homosapien
12. Braids - Flourish / Perish
11. John Vanderslice - Dagger Beach

10. Devendra Banhart - Mala
09. Kanye West - Yeezus
08. James Blake - Overgrown
07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came
06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden
03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator
02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP
01. Deerhunter - Monomania

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Influence III: Outkast — Bombs Over Baghdad

Yesterday—which coincidentally was the 10-year anniversary of Speakerboxxx / The Love Below—I finally checked out Bullseye with Jesse Thorn via his interview with Big Boi. It’s a great discussion of Outkast’s work and backstory, and it legitimately sounded like Big Boi enjoyed himself on the show.

About halfway through the segment, Jesse Thorn said two words about his first time hearing “Bombs Over Baghdad” that perfectly encapsulated my initial experiences with the group:

"Holy shit."

One of my college roomates used to play Outkast constantly, and this particular track was completely enthralling to me. “Bombs Over Baghdad,” with those hard drum & bass breaks and squelchy synths, reminded me more of Squarepusher than of any hip-hop records I owned. More than anything, I was taken by the notion that Outkast made a thoroughly strange album that was also hooky and unembarrassed of its commercial aspirations. In hindsight, I now recognize that many of my favorite records—The Downward Spiral and The Soft Bulletin are two others that come to mind—walk that tightrope skillfully.

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