20JFG ends its winter break this week, not with a journey into the light but by remaining in the shadows.
Katy and Nick bring the Cold Wave via Karin Dreijer. Which I guess is a pretty lazy way of saying that we have a propulsive, synth driven pop song with vocals manipulated in such a way as to disquiet. The bass is an urgent heartbeat, pounding in your head, as you race from some unseen danger. The reverb heavy melody quickly follows, the siren song of whatever you’re running from.
Everything’s channelling of an early 80s paranoid style seems very 2018 2019. The Boomers — who voted enthusiastically for the Free Market demagogues that ushered in our current era — now sit in power (badly) managing its decline. That the music from that era: desperate; urgent; nihilistic — now seems the most appropriate, isn’t really that surprising at all.
Katy and Nick have an (excellent) album that’s in need of a friendly label home. If you’d like to talk to them about that hit them up here. And if you’re not a label, you can hear more of their stuff at their Bandcamp here.
Omens in the sky, drones above Gatwick, Black Mirror Christmas special. Yes, we’re just seeing another year out in the dystopia. But here’s some more stuff that distracted us from the doom in 2018.
American Crime Story 2: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
2018 may have been the first year in which Ryan Murphy’s near-peerless American Horror Story finally dropped the ball, with an entertaining but uninspired self-referencing slop of fan service. American Horror Story: Apocalypse tripped over itself in attempting to build narrative bridges between the preceding seven (mostly self-contained series’) when it should have maybe stuck closer to its basic premise of the antichrist played as a stroppy, tantrum-throwing Kylo Ren-esque millennial.
But this slight dip did not at all mean that Murphy’s powers are in any way diminished, as AHS’ sister programme – American Crime Story – swung back with a powerful, part-imagined account of the mostly unknowable motivations surrounding gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s 1997 murder spree, including a zoom into the final days of his most famous victim – the fashion designer Gianni Versace.
Apocalypse’s lead, Kody Fern, arguably had more substantial material to work with here, switching from hamming it up as the son of Satan to sensitively playing Cunanan’s one-time lover and full-time object of his obsessions, David Madson.
Sharing its ensemble cast with that of AHS, several Murphy regulars reappear, but Glee star Darren Criss steals the show as the pathological liar and Versace assassin Cunanan.
American Crime Story’s debut season on the OJ Simpson trial couldn’t help feel a little like disposable, guilty-pleasure trash TV, airing as it did next to the fucking magnificent, heavyweight O.J.: Made in America documentary, which dove deep into America’s racial politics over the course of the 20th century.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace upped the game slightly, with its diversions in exploring the tensions both within the gay scene in 1990s America and between gay men and the wider community. But I mean, it also had Penelope Cruz chewing scenery as Donatella Versace, and an attempt to critically rehabilitate Ricky Martin by casting him as Versace’s live-in lover, so it still retained some (enjoyable) trash TV credentials.
Check!!! – a short-lived, improvisational Tokyo-based trio founded by producer Teruyuki Kurihara (aka Cherry – a favourite of this blog) – finally released a posthumous collection of their 2015-era recordings in 2018.
The tracks on the resulting album veered from blissed-out, new age-y washes of guitar and synth, to taut, guitar-augmented techno.
This wasn’t the hardest-hitting album of the year – this is a subtle, unassuming collection of intuitive experiments hybridising rhythmic electronic music with live band dynamics that reward the listener with repeated plays.
Constantina – Codorna
Constantina are that most unfashionable thing of 2018 – a band – but their verging-on-undefinable music has a genuinely timeless quality. Gentle, healing instrumental rock that is neither really kosmische or post-rock, but could easily scratch either itch and more.
Da Soul Boyz – Welcome To Durban EP
TSVI’s Nervous Horizon label packaged up a handful of previously unreleased, early-gqom bangers produced at the start of this decade by a trio of high school kids, as the debut release from Da Soul Boyz – whose influence on the South African minimal dance genre is understood to extend far beyond their limited discography. TOTAL. BANGERS.
John Atkinson/Sabriel’s Orb split
Totally sublime elemental drone from this pairing on the Whited Sepulchre label.
Kate NV – для FOR
Yet another modern classic from the RVNG Intl. stable, Kate NV’s 2018 album is about as pure as music gets.
Katie Dey – Darkness
This was a peculiar and rare pop gem that flashed briefly onto Bandcamp as a one-track release, and was then taken down, and then re-emerged as part of a digital-only Out of Flux with the Universe compilation of trans musicians on the Black Squares label, which was… then taken down?!
Anyway, don’t sleep on Katie Dey, this is magical.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Gumboot Soup
Cartoony, hyperactive, pop – King Gizzard are triple the fun of any of your boyfriend’s cool psych-metal bands right now. Gumboot Soup was the fifth unique, standalone full-length LP they released in 2017, but as it came out right at the end of the year we’re claiming it for 2018.
Kira’s art-pop is as forward-thinking and consuming as Holly Herndon’s, and she rocks a style as effortlessly cool as Charli XCX (no small praise in our world). Stay tuned for more releases from Kira in 2019, but until then catch up with Muscle Memory – the stunning lead single from her self-released debut album Sense.
Michael Levy – The Lyre of Megiddo: Echoes of Ancient Canaan
Michael Levy plays recreated versions of ancient lyres, resurrecting near-lost musical modes and creating a new part-improvised sonic language for our post-everything times.
Park Jiha – Communion
Also finding complex new uses for traditional or ancient instruments – in this instance, belonging to Korean traditions – was Park Jiha, whose Communion album was every kind of special.
Netflix, for sure, was one of the worst contenders for this – guys, the Marvel gritverse is over, even the the new Jessica Jones was boring – but flop sequels to perfectly decent one-season shows from HBO, Fox and Sky Atlantic like Westworld, Legion, and Fortitude suggested that maybe, regardless of platform, ‘the new TV’ works best as an extended space for contained filmic narratives and not for meandering Lost-style anthologies or undying, zombie-like reiterations of big ‘properties’ like Star Wars.
Sharp Objects was a perfectly executed example of the former. Adapted from a novel by Gillian Flynn by the team behind the critically-adored 2017 adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, we can only hope that HBO don’t attempt to wring out a second series based on a non-existent sequel to the novel… as they are currently doing with Big Little Lies.
Sharp Objects was as beautifully filmed, paced and edited as TV gets in 2018. The acting was superb, the ‘flawed and morally complex’ characters actually complex for once, and as a whodunnit it managed to drag out actual suspense and mystery without resorting to cliches or being obvious, giving the game away too early or trying too hard to obscure the villain by bending the logic of the show’s internal universe until it breaks.
This full-length debut by director Sandi Tan has to be the best documentary of the year, and was rightly rewarded with a plethora of film festival gongs.
Shirkers shares its name with its subject matter – a surreal road movie shot guerilla-style in 1992 by the teenage Tan and her cool, creative and alienated two best friends in their native Singapore. The product of soaking up and reconstituting the best of imported early 90s counterculture via zines, penpals, independent cinema and obscure books and records, Shirkers acquired a legendary status in the Singaporean underground by being the first film of its kind to be made there, a community that was then defined by its monoculture.
The problem was: Shirkers didn’t exist. After a gruelling summer of shooting which tore a rent in the friendship of the central trio, Tan handed over Shirkers’ 75 cans of film to their collaborator and film tutor to develop and edit while they dispersed to universities in the US and UK.
What followed was a bizarre mind-game involving cryptic cassette-recorded proto-voicemails from said collaborator, “a man of indeterminate age and origin.” Time passed, the girls graduated and took the first steps in their careers, but Shirkers never emerged. Both the film and the man disappeared from their lives, and eventually from Singapore altogether.
The reputation of the film snowballed to the extent that Tan was offered book deals to describe the lost film but felt psychologically incapable of reconciling herself with the work. It wasn’t until 20 years later, thanks to a letter from out of the blue, that Tan found out what had happened to her film.
Shirkers the documentary is a tense, heartbreaking, funny, clever and sad tribute to the restless energy of teenage girls and the magic that be conjured between them in the sacred spaces of their bedrooms – more libraries of culture and cauldrons of creativity than places for sleeping. And Shirkers the film has all the hallmarks of a lost classic – they said they wanted to be “The Coen Sisters” but the surviving scraps of what Sandi and her friends made was arguably closer to a more naive, more exuberant Jodorowsky.
Shuta Hasunuma & U-zhaan – 2 Tone and Shuta Hasunuma Philharmonic Orchestra – Anthropocene
A new name on me, but with two albums of this outstanding quality to his name, it is not one I will be forgetting. Shuta Hasunuma is a preternaturally talented, multidisciplinary composer whose albums with tabla player U-zhaan and his own ‘Shuta Hasunuma Philharmonic Orchestra’ this year were two different but equally potent flavours of beauty.
Stuart Chalmers – Acid Wave Head Rush
Brighton’s Third Kind tape label is killing it right now – this piece of coiled-electric tape-drone was my favourite of their (many!) releases this year.
Sunareht – Sagas
Not a tape, compact disc or a ‘vinyl’, but a t-shirt! One that comes with an EP as colourful, mad, joyous and strange as its bold design.
Tangents – Immersion (Katie Gately remix)
We wrote what I’m pretty sure was the first ever article on the then-unknown superpowers of Ms. Gately, prompting one of us to stick its hand in its pocket and stump up for a pressing of Katie’s reality-dissolving Pipes debut.
Aside from some production work on Serpentwithfeet’s debut album, 2018 has seemed like a relatively quiet year for Katie. Presumably this means a lot of exciting behind-the-scenes action and hopefully a new album next year (please?!), but she did find time to unleash this beautiful beast unto the world – a remix of the Australian post-rock group Tangents, that has Katie’s alien DNA smeared all over it. An instant classic in the vein of other Gately standalone singles such as Pivot and Far.
TSVI – Inner Worlds
The mysterious founder of Nervous Horizon has to be the dopest dance producer going at the moment with a sound that seems genuinely global – acquainted with techno, UK funky, juke, gqom, batida, kudoro, mahraganet, shangaan and seemingly every other foot-moving music on the planet, but not of their or any other milieu.
Wild Wild Country
Controversial guru! Utopian city in the desert! Biological warfare! Attempted murder! Illegal wiretapping! Automatic weaponry arms race! Electoral manipulation! 80s hair! Sex cult! Sex cult! Sex cult! All true.
The best sounds of 2018, for the worst vibes of 2018 – Part 2
2018 was another year of great unheimlich. The gigantic cadavers of societies and nations took shape in in our media feeds, crumbling to pieces and flipping their bodies inside out, intestines stretched across multiple realities like vitruvian cenobites in a Van der Meer hallucination.
Facing this, we wove cocoons of emotion, thought and sound where we sheltered to reflect, gather our strength and prepare for the fight ahead.
Here are three.
1. Injustice & Justice
Can an unjust society survive? Can it survive if different groups have opposing views of what justice is? What if different groups have different views of the state of justice? What if some groups don’t care about justice but pretend to?
These questions and many others twist and turn and link up in a network of hypotheses that right now feels precariously poised like a house of cards about to collapse, every component embossed with a cyberpunk logo or dystopian trope.
In 2018 we kept using ambient, experimental electronica and modern compositions to dull the dissonant edge of the discord around us. But this isn’t our soma, a pathway to escape reality into solipsism. No, this music represents for us a democratic space where no sound is superior to the rest, and all work together voluntarily, different and without compulsion, to complete the architecture of a platform where we launch our thoughts.
Many songs represent this spirit. Some of them appeared in the blog this year and some of them didn’t, some await for you around the corner, in January when you will need them most. But if we had to choose someone to carry their banner, it would be Brian Eno, who this year released Music for Installations, a 9xLP boxset where with the sweetest of drones, he convinces space and time to take leave.
This creates a void devoid of friction where our collective intellects expand until they all exist inside each other, in a utopia of eternal becoming, learning and changing.
2. Almost humans
Sigmund Freud once said that one of the most effective devices for introducing the uncanny into a situation was to create uncertainty in the reader about whether a presence was human or artificial. By that token, 2018 is the year when we all realised the extent to which we live in a society of the uncanny, an economy of the uncanny, a reality of the uncanny, that is, of the almost human but not quite. A virtual House of Usher populated by all the dreams and nightmares of the coterie of multi-billionaires who used to live here before they flew off, to New Zealand and Rapture and Mars.
Look around you, at the carnival of the undead. Bots in social media shrieking bout what they think (hah they are mindless) we should do hate-hate-hate and what they feel we should do (hah they are heartless and narrow) hate-hate-hate, yellow electronic eyes scrolling through content and skeleton fingers of information pressing links, videos which could be people or fake people, masks of digital ectoplasm glued over the faces of porn actors caught in the recursive loop of an algorithm of muscle and hate. You speak in our phone and into a server farm by a Nordic glacier where a million GPUs shriek in response, out comes the mellow voice of your ghost assistant with advice about the fastest route to your destination, but was that your destination? How do you know?
Just follow the golden rule of the contemporary Bladerunner: those who don’t hide the seams are the ones with the least to hide.
2018 was another hot year, even for Mediterranean-expats in Britain. We ran by the sea and chilled by the beach, drank expensive beers in gentrified gardens and were mesmerised by the Eastern murmurs. All of this was soundtracked by a bumper crop of neo-balearica revivals and reissues, all hail the convergence of all times in a timeless now.
All our enjoyment was somewhat soured by the realisation that life in the planet will be pretty much exterminated in an apocalypse of water & fire if humanity keeps on like this.
Picture the endgame: a skeleton dressed up in a Hawaiian shirt, washed up by a shore while a solar-powered stereo plays the mysterious Pool Boy in repeat.
Hey, it’s the end of 2018! Another year done in the Bad Place.
Not that we ever tried to be definitive, but this year we’re just going to (mostly) concentrate on the things we didn’t write about. We didn’t cover a huge amount on the blog this year, so it’s safe to consider everything we didcover is also part of this Best Of.
So on to the things we didn’t…
Everything Old is Off-kilter Again
Yves Tumor turned up with a bunch of early release tracks that seemed to be mining a Trip-Hop-y late 90s sample culture vibe…and then unleashed the full fury of Safe in the Hands of Love. While Lifetime’s cascades of emotion (even managing to get away with a buried string section) were eye-catching, it was the layered noise of Let the Lioness in You Flow Freely that battered its way onto this list. Waves of crashing horns and desecrated drum kits assault the vocals throughout. It feels like trying to hear the ending of something when you’re standing at its centre.
Smerz manage to merge a woozy blank vocal to a vast array of experimental sounds. Work It is a pitch black version of Jessie Lanza’s unsettling drum programming. A track that begins with punishing percussion and a synth that sounds like bees before dissolving into the type of ambient music that plays before your ritualistic death at the hands of a UFO cult.
Half way through the year Serpentwithfeet finally blessed us with his collage of R&B, Noise, funeral marches and maximalist Industrial. From that, Cherubim was the standout. A pastoral, pagan incantation. A nursery rhyme for the damned.
Big surprise entrants into vocal-led Noise this year were Low. A band I’d not really thought about for about a decade, but here we are. With Lynch and his Industrial Symphonies having a resurgence during the last few years, there’s a certain inevitability to Low putting out a massive Industrial record. The extent to which it worked with their haunted vocals should also perhaps have been expected.
Dancing in Blood is almost minimalist. Huge drums that sound like sheet metal, something filtered beyond recognition and Mimi’s vocal, floating through ambient synths. There are more abrasive tracks on the record but the looming terror inherent in this, is very 2018.
Avant Wind Instruments of the Year
Ben Vince did make it onto the blog this year but he’s symptomatic of a good time to be playing a wind instrument in experimental music. His excellent collaborative EP on Where to Now? ended with the title track Assimilation. A disorientating solo work, underpinned by a building rhythm track every bit as menacing in its martial indifference as Low’s above.
Colin Stetson has obviously been pushing the haunting, rhythmical wind instrument cart uphill for quite a few years by now. So this year we went along to see his metal super-group Ex Eye at the Barbican, supported by the wonderful Caterina Barbieri. We couldn’t find any video of the event but their sort of music video / sort of trailer gives you a fairly good idea.
Stetson’s unique sound also made its way into one of the obvious games of the year. In Red Dead Redemption 2 we find ludicrously budgeted videogame development focussed on making you care, really care, about your relationship with your horse. Sure there’s a fairly decent 60 hour story about loyalty and redemption but the care lavished on the systems that the world rests on are the stars. A blockbuster of a game which seems at times as invested in composing breath taking vistas and small moments among the scrub as it does in large set pieces. A game that actually manages to reject the black pill nihilism (that GTA is overly guilty of) and craft something moral ambiguous but hopeful. Which are our 2019 goals.
At the other end of the videogame spectrum is the Ghibli-esque crowdfunded Hollow Knight. A kind of 2D Dark Souls featuring anthropomorphised insects clutching tiny needles as swords. Minimally plotted, utterly beguiling, brutally hard in places and with an excellent soundtrack.
Pop / Weird Pop
Charlie XCX remains the most efficient pop star if your metric is an intoxicating blend of outsider electronics and a hypersexualised avatar. It’s a pop-sex that’s so relentlessly over the top that it becomes another aesthetic deployed in the engine room of perfecting the next mutation of Pop. The PC Music collaborations have given way in the Trap-baiting, nihilistic 5 in the Morning. Then there’s a the Minimal House of Focus that frequently bursts with the sheer cooing joy of Charlie’s vocal (not to mention an excellent Yeaji remix that takes it more 90’s Detroit Techno). And finally there’s the nostalgia-straight-to-my-veins of 1999. Replete with what must be the most enjoyable music video of the year.
There will, at some point, have been a record industry meeting to discuss ROSALÍA. With Spanish language music now absolutely massive in places that don’t speak Spanish it really is probably now or never for Sony to back a flamenco album that borrows heavily from outsider electronic music and covers Justin Timberlake. This feels like the moment in the 60s when major film companies were giving money to European Art House directors and not knowing what to do with them. Luckily ROSALÍA knows exactly what she’s doing and brings along old friend of the blog El Guincho.
DE AQUÍ NO SALES (Cap.4: Disputa) is the ‘Holly Herndon one’. Filtered vocals become percussion, along with the noise of motors and screeching tires to create some transcendent urban flamenco.
Serendipitously, another artists in that El Cuincho post was U.S. Girls; who’s been putting out consistently great music in the ten years since then. This year was no different but far more disco. Rosebud is from In a Poem Unlimited. It’s a shuffling sort of disco. A low key club backing for Meg Remy’s incredible diva vocal.
Empress Of returned in 2018 with a far more Pop than Weird Pop album. When I’m With Him is very much the late 80s gated drum track of your first love’s dreams. Sunsets forever, sitting by the landline waiting for your heart to break.
Donald Glover of the Year
Atlanta is a fucking masterpiece and Season 2 managed to better the first in almost every way (slightly less Lolz, vastly more character). Intricately plotted episodes like Crabs in a Barrel rub up against the devastating portrait of depression in Woods and the fame-horror of Teddy Perkins. Giving each character an episode limited the screen time of the core group but when the episodes are this good you can comfortably make that trade off.
Solo didn’t actually happen so Glover’s other contribution to pop culture was his instantly dissected video as Childish Gambino. This is America was the 2018 fever dream we all wanted / didn’t want. Filled to bursting with allusions to the darkest parts of black American culture as well as our complete complicity in it as consumers of black American culture. And in another very 2018 moment, once the 20 Things You Missed in This is America listicles were bashed out over the course of a week and the millions of views were logged…we just stopped talking about it.
Because it’s 2018, the Best Melancholy Tracks of the Year
Music in 2018 got very good at being sad. Or at least downbeat in that looking blankly at the dying of the light way. This was music for standing on the blasted shore looking back at the land you’re running from. A kind of ecstatic acceptance of decline.
Colin Self’s album drew on the work of Donna Haraway and her writing on ecological devastation. As such it was always going to be coloured by an overwhelming, barely comprehensible sadness. That he managed to make something so beautiful is at least testament to the capacity of some of our species, while damning others by comparison.
Johnny Jewell’s ode to weather, in particular the rain he misses now he’s based in LA, was released deep in winter at the start of the year. What If is the Eno via Badalamenti heart of the album. A wordless elegy. A drone to fill the dullness of cloudless skies. And in the end, a shimmering moment of peace.
RP Boo managed to make the saddest piece of Footwork I’ve ever heard. A minor key piano loop sits under the skittish drums. A chopped sample sings ‘you don’t know’ under a while RP Boo asked If he should give away his soul.
Beach House are nailed on for this section. Permanent 5am awaiting the dawn music. Dive enacts a call and response between Victoria Legrand and herself while guitars presage the ascendant shoegaze via krautrock denouement. A swirl of metronomic percussion and layers of guitars. A sweet, sweet oblivion.
Sharon Van Etten ends out year of melancholy with Jupiter 4. Slow like a low camera track through a midnight swamp. You can almost feel the black and white dripping from the screen. Which is a kind of delight when you realise the video is almost exactly that. A shimmering dreamscape of a record for these dark, dark times.
We contend that the drone at the onset of All Tomorrow’s Parties is a live recording of the beginning of the universe if its Cause has a bias towards Life, and if Life has a bias towards Love. Sarah Davachi’s Dominions stretches that drone into the asymptote, and kills time so that we can be witnesses of the birth of space, and time.
We sit back in our sofa beyond the edge of reality and let the cosmic piper do its thing.
In our minds today, sounds become words that convey images and tell stories. We turn those words into sounds and initiate an infinite regression from our literate present to a past of voices and grunts and twitches and rolls and hurling through the void until we reach stasis, spread geological over the rumbling and flowing surface of a young planet, letting sounds that we have not ears to ear wash over us in their astronomical purity.
Turn the black hole inside out like a glove and rinse its information off, gather it carefully in a bowl and mix it with the thick ale until it dissolves completely, then gaze at this melange safe in the knowledge that when you drink it, it will make you a God.
Volcanic eruptions rupture the skin of this planet that is also your skin, and clouds of smoke swirl in the nascent atmosphere, taking the shape of pre-raphaelite angels that dance and embrace and joust in a miracle with no witness, the only kind there is.