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    From Our Partners: Rip It to Shreds: A History of Punk and Style

    Loud, fast, and simple, punk rescued rock‘n’roll from suffocating on its own excesses, giving the genre a razor-blade edge it hadn’t had since its earliest days. The rebellious spirit and willingness to question traditional conventions—like the idea that you had to know how to play an instrument before you could start a band—would find their way into nearly every meaningful musical revolution that followed, from hip-hop to indie rock to techno.

    Music’s only ever been just one facet of punk’s identity, though. It’s more than just a sound, it’s a whole way of being—a philosophy, an attitude, and, crucially, a look.

    Punk’s sonic foundations were laid down in New York City by the same people who established the beginnings of punk style: artists like Lou Reed, the Ramones, Suicide, and the New York Dolls who wanted to strip away the bloat rock had accumulated in the psychedelic era and return it to something purer. While Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones matched their arena-filling ambitions with equally elaborate costumes of velvet and sequins, rock’s new rebels preferred lived-in T-shirts and Levi’s.

    “We came out of the glam scene,” says photographer Paul Zone, author of Playground: Growing Up in the New York Underground. “So by the time ’74 came around and glam was winding down, probably 50 percent of the people in that scene were involved in what would come to be known as the punk scene. It was just that our flamboyance got a little more played down.”

    “There was still fashion going on,” Zone adds. “They’d go to the thrift shops, where you could find vintage clothes. Black Levi’s jeans became a staple for everyone who was there. When it comes to Levi’s and jeans, they were being used in a lot of different ways. In the glam days, the Dolls were wearing little boys’ Levi’s jackets that were so small that they could hardly get their arms in them.”

    In the mid-1970s, the new New York sound and style came into focus through the Ramones (who created a uniform of shredded Levi’s 505 jeans and black leather jackets), Television (whose guitarist Richard Hell was one of the first performers to rock spiked hair and torn T-shirts held together by safety pins), and Blondie (fronted by Debbie Harry, who pioneered high-low mixes of Levi’s and designer pieces), and other groups that orbited divey clubs like CBGB. “They had no money,” photographer Jenny Lens recalls. “The holes in Joey’s knees were from wear and tear. They were not fashion. I have photos of Dee Dee Ramone wearing a leather jacket, and around the wrists it’s really frayed. It was shameful back then to run around with holes in your jeans, and the Ramones said f—k that, that’s who we are!”

    Blondie, 1977; Photo by Suzan Carson/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    By the time people started calling it punk, the revolution had already started to spread around the globe. Malcolm McLaren managed the New York Dolls before returning to London where he and partner Vivienne Westwood operated a boutique called Sex. Inspired by what he saw in New York, he combined the Dolls’ over-the-top outrageousness with Richard Hell’s deconstructed style to create a quintessentially British spin on punk fashion and tapped his new clients, the Sex Pistols, to promote it.

    “McLaren went back to England and emulated the look and gave it a little more pizzazz with hair color and putting more fashion into it,” Zone explains. At the same time, other London punks like X-Ray Spex—fronted by Poly Styrene—seized upon the movement’s DIY philosophy and started using staple items like jeans and leather jackets as blank canvases to decorate with pins, paint, and spikes.

    Ramones, 1977; Photo by Jenny Lens/© 2016 Johnny Ramone Army, LLC

    At nearly the same time as it crossed the ocean to the UK, punk spread to L.A., where fans of the Ramones and Blondie adapted their distinctive looks to fit the city’s unique identity. “What we were doing in L.A. had to do with a lot of factors,” Lens says. “One was the weather. We could have a lot of thrift stores and a lot of yard sales, church bazaars. We don't have the rain and snow and cold that you have in London or New York. We were very into that DIY thing. You could repurpose [clothes], you could cut them up and do things with them. We’d rarely wear the same thing twice.”

    L.A.’s bands were diverse, from pop-friendly acts like the Go-Go’s to the defiantly anti-commercial approach of the Germs, to bands like the legendary X who sat somewhere in between, but they were united by the bonds of their tight-knit community. “The fashion was very organic,” Lens says. “There were no paid stylists. We were stylists for each other. Everybody was going to thrift stores together, going to bazaars together, sharing each other’s clothes. It really came out of dressing up every day and expressing yourself and being an artist. You could be an artist who expressed themselves visually from head to toe and also on stage. Or not—you could be a photographer or a graphic artist or a fan or whatever.”

    X-Ray Spex, 1978; Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

    The L.A. style comes through in one of Lens’s favorite photos of the time, where X singer Exene Cervenka and scenester Pleasant Gehman pose in a shower at a loft where the pioneering fanzine Slash was throwing a party for Devo. “Pleasant had bleached her jeans and written ‘Slash’ for Slash magazine,” she explains. “Nobody had bleached jeans then. We did a lot of things that other people weren’t doing.”

    Exene Cervenka and Pleasant Gehman, 1977; Photo by Jenny Lens

    Forty years after punk started, the music continues to reverberate, not only in the punk scenes that have popped up in cities and small towns around the world, but in the indie and alternative movements that punk inspired. In fashion, its influence has spread even further. You can see some of X’s rootsy simplicity in the indie rock uniform of jeans and T-shirts, and the continuing influence of McLaren and Westwood’s vision in the complexly customized jackets that have become de rigueur for rap stars. Punk style’s most enduring legacy can’t be boiled down to a particular item of clothing, or even the popularity of distressed jeans and dyed hair. It’s more about the idea of being authentic, that if you do your own thing and dress your own way, you can make the world change around you. “We would take what we would see in fashion and make it our own, where other people would take what’s in fashion and just run with it,” Lens says. “We influenced fashion more than the other way around.”


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    Rising: Moor Mother: Hardcore Poet

    Moor Mother: “Georgia+Mass” (via SoundCloud)

    “Basic” may be the most chilling pejorative of our time. And it is never more severe than when Philadelphia’s Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, churns it out on one austere, Nicki Minaj-sampling single from last year: “Look ma, we made it/Only lost a hundred thousand coming over on them slave ships/That’s just one ship,” she booms. “Muhfuckas, I’m jaded/I’m in one big room, and everybody basic.” Ayewa articulates so lucidly and irreducibly that it’s like she is writing with a ballpoint pen; if you have chosen to remain silent in the face of injustice, which is to say in the face of our world, this artist is staring you in the eye.

    On a weekday night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ayewa caps off a performance at a stranger’s apartment—10 foldings chairs, Christmas lights, a bevy of plants—with “Basic.” Her set, which is part of a series highlighting politically-oriented artists, is a mix of soundscapes and poetry. Phrases I jot down during the show include: “no more androids for president, no more zombie artists”; “cops are grim reapers, violence costs nothing”; “the public housing of minds”; and “at what age do we teach our daughters to play dead?” Reality is rendered as hard as it ought to be. “Everything I do is a true story,” she says to the crowded living room. “I just tell the truth.”

    After a decade spent in the Philly underground—as show-booker, community organizer, punk musician, rapper, poet, and multidisciplinary visual artist—Ayewa’s work has coalesced into a total vision. It is concrete-heavy, abrasive, and generative. Ayewa reimagines protest songs as radical electronic noise montages, but her lyrics about systemic racism and historical trauma are searing Afrofuturist statements. Take, for example, this incendiary line from Fetish Bones, her recent solo debut: “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper,” Ayewa snarls, transmuting the intersectional feminist theorist into a warrior. She then declares herself “Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet,” referencing the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in jail after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation last year. Befitting the tremendous fire of Ayewa’s words, a 122-page book of poetry was released alongside Fetish Bones.

    “I let these stories pass through me—I’m the narrator,” Ayewa tells me over Skype a couple of weeks after her house-show set. In conversation, she is a calming and genial presence; she measures her thoughts, and when she mentions Alice Coltrane, it’s not hard to imagine her in graceful meditation like the cosmic jazz swamini herself. This is in utter contrast to the unwavering anger of Ayewa’s staggering performances. “I start out so smiley, but as soon as the lyric comes, I’m pissed,” she says of her live shows. “When you’re telling the truth, and trying to be respectful to the things that are happening around you, it comes out like that.”

    For Fetish Bones, Ayewa was awarded a grant from the Leeway Foundation, which supports women and trans artists whose work promotes social justice. This allowed her to create a studio from scratch in a closet of her North Philadelphia home. The process of making Fetish Bones coincided with Ayewa’s process of learning to produce electronic noise, practicing on her hardware and drum machine. “There’s so many mistakes,” Ayewa says. “Limitations helped it.” But she’s learning everyday. She mentions a recent trip to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where she had access to a studio full of synths; she used the tools to blend the Dutch version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with her own “noisy techno craziness.”

    In March, Ayewa began a performance art series called “HOUR/SHIFT.” The first piece was a 14-hour endurance test, a “sonic act of protest” in solidarity with survivors of domestic and sexual assault; the second was Ayewa’s attempt at resurrecting the unmarked graves of Potter’s Field, a burial place for poor black people before the Civil War. In addition to her art, Ayewa’s projects include Black Quantum Futurism—the name under which she and partner Rasheedah Phillips lead community workshops. In June, they opened a physical space called Community Futures Lab in North Philly, which also offers discussions, exhibitions, readings, performances, and housing resources. Beyond that, by day, Aweya coaches soccer and basketball at a Quaker school; even there, her lessons naturally transcend athletics. “These kids are never meeting anyone like me,” she says with a laugh. “One of them came up to me right before a game once and she was like, ‘You know, I really didn’t like Lemonade that much,’ and then just ran onto the field.” The awkward moment eventually led to a discussion about alienation in music.

    These projects all speak to Ayewa’s desire to make noise that is practical, that processes history, that can actually teach. She raises her voice and the voices of her community so that they may beget more like their own. She solidifies stories that would otherwise evaporate. She performs magic.

    Born in the small town of Aberdeen, Maryland, Ayewa came up around gospel music; she sang in choir and had a rap group with friends called Sister Soldier. But when rap started sounding too “poppy” to her, she sought out harder, political artists. She ultimately got into reggae, ska, and punk via Operation Ivy, 7 Seconds, X, Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill. Riot grrrl particularly inspired her song “Of Blood,” an eerie psalm for menstrual cycles. “I love how everything women were supposed to hide, riot grrrl was just like, ‘No, shove it in their fucking face,’” Ayewa says.

    She eventually relocated to Philly to study photography at the Art Institute. “I grew up with not a lot of photographs of myself,” she says. “So I wanted to be a part of helping to document people who don’t have records of their families, stuff that’s not seen—but that’s really expensive, so I got kicked out of school.” She still does photography, though, and her work as a preservationist continues with Fetish Bones.

    For six years, Ayewa toured as bassist and vocalist in the DIY punk bands Girls Dressed as Girls and the Mighty Paradocs. In 2012, Moor Mother grew from her desire to say much more; she’s posted some 100 recordings to Bandcamp, with samples ranging from children’s hand games to Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” bassline to the poets Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange. The poetry energizes her most. “That’s the stuff that gives me life,” she says. “Poetry is my hardcore. I will rage to that stuff.” But she brings the unsparing spirit of punk to her spoken-word: “People are so confused every time I play a show. They’ll be like ‘What? You just started screaming!’ I scream! I do poetry and I scream.”

    “I’m pissed because people who are supposed to be doing what I’m doing—their lyrics are mad soft. I feel like it’s getting there, it just takes time to get back to a more political place. But with this election, it seems like people are honestly worked up about it—and not just worked up as a trending topic.”

    Pitchfork: What was your introduction to protest music?

    Moor Mother: My family used to listen to scary gospel—Mahalia Jackson, people who were not just waiting for Jesus to come, but being like, “This is what we’re living with, we’re going to push through. I’m climbing up the rough side of the mountain, and we’re going to get into this chariot and go to a better place.”

    I grew up in Maryland right by the Chesapeake Bay, and my family was involved with the church in the 1700s. Everyone participated in these prayer choirs—where a group of women, or healers, or priests come together at your deathbed and say this soft prayer, but it’s almost like a song. That’s a tradition of the area. By the time I was coming up in the church, it was no more, but I was in the choir. I love that stuff. Not so much that I was a Christian, even as a kid—I had too many questions that just seemed weird—but I loved the music.

    How else did growing up in Maryland shape you as an artist?

    My neighborhood offered endless inspiration. My area didn’t have stores close by, so people would open up stores within their apartments: the candy-apple lady, the guy selling cigarettes, the guy that fixes your bike, the guy that is like the cab service, but not the cab service. That’s just so inspiring to me, how we can create our own marketplace and be there for each other without outside help. All that stuff is so vivid and beautiful.

    And most of my family were not born in a hospital, like my mom, because [my grandmother] wasn’t allowed to go there. So the doctors had to come to the house. We’re still in that house that my grandmother had owned. Everyone has been born there.

    What kind of music were you into playing in Maryland outside choir?

    The number one goal was to try and be in a punk band. That was everything. But nobody was into punk or even knew anything about it where I grew up. So I just searched and searched. With ska being the influence of early Jamaican music and punk, I was able to find groups like the Specials. I liked Operation Ivy so much, they weren’t under any rules. Where I grew up, it seemed that you almost couldn’t do anything. You had to stay within rules just because it was, like, hood. I would get on the bus, and they would be like, “You’re gonna get out of this [punk] phase soon.”

    When you were younger, was there anyone in particular who warped your brain or changed the way you thought about music?

    I saw Patti LaBelle live, and she had these huge high heels and she kicked them off, and she was holding this note and slammed down on the stage and was rolling around. And I was just like: Yo, you can do anything you want. She wasn’t trying to be classy. All these people dressed in drag were giving her flowers. And I was like, I want to be like that. But I can’t sing like Patti LaBelle.

    You have said that you’re interested in honoring music made by people who came from nothing, and music that is made from nothing. Can you elaborate on that?

    Let’s start with tap dancing—that’s just your feet. You can put soda pop tops on and just go. I’ll sample that all day. And chain gangs—I love that all day because it’s in response to so many things: “I’m working, keeping busy at this hard task, with the chain on my ankle to the hit on the metal, like some beautiful music.” It’s every person’s history with the prison system.

    One of my favorite instruments is the water drum. There’s tribes in Africa where women just play on the water. [makes sounds] There’s so many different sounds than a splash. I love that. I didn’t have instruments growing up. I didn’t know that I could ask for them. It was like this thing behind a glass case, like some Tom Hanks movie where you have to go to some fancy big store in New York to find some. So I would just fool around—pencils, desk, the wall, anything.

    What was your first instrument?

    A desk and a broom? I did get a broken guitar. I was using tapes to make things off the radio, but it didn’t make sense. I just didn’t know a lot. I still don’t, but it’s cool to work through trial and error. I never had a computer, but I saved up for an iPad. I used that thing up.

    Do you have a personal definition of protest music?

    It’s like the heartache and the troubles of the people trying to find their way. The true testimony of the people. Stuff that is heavy, that affects so many people, like breast cancer—but there’s not many breast cancer songs. Women need to be the ones doing protest music, really. I’m not trying to alienate anyone, but I feel like that would be the perfect definition: A woman singing trials and tribulations.

    I read that you did a 14-hour performance to honor women who face domestic abuse and sexual assault. How did it go?

    It was my protest for them. I was using sound to almost shut that man’s mouth, or make that home peaceful for that night. Because [women suffer abuse around the world] every nine seconds. That’s so much. It was an electronic set, all improv. I had a record player, this one Sun Ra record, a drum machine, every synth I had. I had this film playing the whole time, about a woman who killed her husband and was in prison for a long time; the husband was sexually assaulting the kids.

    The day after the performance, I went to thank the gallery and I just cried and cried. It just all hit me what I was trying to do. The blessing was the messages of people saying: “Today, no one commented on my body going around the neighborhood.” Or hearing about the case of a woman facing 60 years for killing her abusive husband, and she got off, which never happens. That really touched me, but it was draining.

    There’s a great place in Philly called Women Against Abuse, but you need a million of those. Say you finally decided to leave a [domestic abuse] situation—there’s a waiting list to find another place to live. It’s crazy. We’ve done events for people to move, to buy the U-Haul. And it’s like—why are we doing this? It happens so often, you would think [the city] had some sort of plan for this. It’s very archaic. I’ve gone to do workshops at places that are off the grid because women are in hiding from their abusers. You’re speaking to someone that had to go into hiding. It’s things that so many of us have experienced as kids of abuse. These cycles just keep coming up. It’s every woman’s story in a sense.

    Have you always been interested in processing history through music and art?

    Always. When hip-hop went dance, there was no story there, and that’s why I got into punk and Bob Marley, because I needed to hear the history—otherwise, where was I going to hear it from? Music is the way that I’m informed. It helps me know what is happening.

    What do you want your own music to inform people about?

    I’m trying to get to the level of being as simple as possible, telling a unified story. Everything is a reflection, or a ripple, a wave, the quantum mirror. It’s circular. We’re all more interconnected than we think. I’m trying to get to that every-person story. But we’re slow to honestly reveal what we’re going through. That’s one of the hardest things. We think we’re so isolated or alone in our issues. I try to tell the truth, the stories that haunt me.

    It’s interesting to hear you say the story’s not linear. In your music, too, the way it’s structured is also very nonlinear.

    It’s just because of my means and how I’m not that smart at this stuff. I’m just teaching myself. I listen to music that I can’t make. I can’t do Alice Coltrane. I have a heart, but I still can’t do it.

    Alice Coltrane’s whole situation is inspiring to me. I just think about the time that she was making music, and artists who were making music a little before, like Billie Holiday. They stifled and continue to stifle women’s voices. Today we have Kesha, a pop star in a rough situation with a contract, and that’s very difficult—but do you know they killed Billie Holiday? Imagine the government being against you for singing a song. Imagine people trying to drug you and all these shady situations. In that time, you were used and left behind. It was such a struggle to be a woman making music. The fact that she was able to persevere touches me so much. Because so many did not. And there’s so many that are still unknown.

    I saw you post on Facebook: “If we don’t forgive our mothers, we cannot forgive ourselves.” What did you mean by that?

    There’s a war against women right now. There’s a war against mothers, and single mothers. I see it every day. We’re just throwing each other away. We’re breaking down roles of gender, but one simple disagreement and we will cast off our own mother. We are connected to our pasts, but we are taught to hate yesterday and hustle for the next. It’s like we’re writing off our mothers. The conversation needs to expand. What are we disconnecting ourselves from when we say these things?

    So many people are hurt, hating their mothers, no respect for the elders in their community, for the elders in their art scene. Like when I was talking about Patti LaBelle—she is a rock star. She paved the way. But then she’s gonna be invited on “The View” to cook potato salad. That’s ridiculous. And I would like to eat her potato salad, too.

    Is your name Moor Mother linked to this—honoring people who came before?

    Definitely. I’m influenced by space and time and growing up, but that’s what it’s really all about: honoring the mother. If you just look at some of these statistics happening with women, it’s outrageous. Everything’s taboo. Menstrual cycle’s taboo, breast cancer’s taboo. Losing your hair and having to deal with that. It’s affecting so many of us. Why are we hiding?

    One line that completely gripped me from the album is, “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper/Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet.”

    I wrote that, and then all of a sudden I get an email about opening up for bell hooks. So I’m like, “Oh shit. I hope she doesn’t hear this song—or maybe I should tell her about it.”

    After that line, I say that “lyrically only I can match it.” It’s a very hip-hoppy thing to say, but I’m not playing when it comes to the lyrics. I’m so interested in spreading positivity, but that’s how I felt. I’m angered by feeling like I’m the only one saying this shit. I’m pissed because people who are supposed to be doing what I’m doing—their lyrics are mad soft. It’s mad basic to me. I feel like it’s getting there, it just takes time to get back to a more political place. But with this election, it seems like people are honestly worked up about it—and not just worked up as a trending topic.

    I think music is going to get more literal, and then I hope that it can start getting practical, where we could actually take these songs into a workshop or into the community and be like, “This is a song that we can use to teach about history or what’s happening, not just a hook.” It’s so easy to say a bunch of bullshit and then just have the hook be “Black Lives Matter” and that’s it. That’s cheap. I want to encourage people to dig deeper lyrically. I want to encourage myself to write better. I love finding anyone better than me.

    You have a new space in North Philadelphia called Community Futures Lab—what has that taught you as a musician? Has it informed what you want to do with your music?

    Yeah. The whole idea is making it practical. I want to make things or create spaces where you don’t have to be on the internet and you don’t need some sort of degree. The space is there, you can just come in. We live in this community and this is where we work—the part of town I live in is one of the highest crime, lowest-income areas, and they just moved 1,300 people out of their homes. It’s this barren area at the moment.

    Community Futures Lab is showing me that there’s not a lot of spaces for discussion between people of color. We do a lot of stuff—zine making, dream workshops, we have a library. We’re also recording stories of the community. We’re asking questions that deal with temporality, the memory, creating future memories for the neighborhood that we’re living in. It’s going through such rapid development. There was a house that Malcolm X spent some time in that just got knocked down. Across the street was a boxing gym where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would work out, but there’s no plaque. It’s really slow in North Philly as far as marking these historic moments.

    That’s really what we’ve always been about: collecting memories, doing workshops to show kids and adults, “Why do you think this way about the future? Why are you not included? What can you do about it? What’s the importance of writing yourself in the future, under your own definition, not what people have prescribed for you?” So many people, when we ask the first question—“how do you see the future?”—it totally mimics popular movies. The Hunger Games is a main one. In that movie, certain people are in these districts, certain people are farmers, and all the black people die first. These movies prescribe what so many of us think about the future, especially people of color. Being so disconnected from so many of our histories, as far as what’s beyond our great grandmother. It’s very dire times for us keeping track and documenting what we’re going through and what we’ve been through. That’s what the lab is there for.

    What does the title Fetish Bones mean to you?

    Fetish Bones is how I think about the way we sell ourselves. Like, using each other. Being a musician, I see a lot of this. I see the way we fetishize over our skin color, over how we dress, over class. All of these ways that we toss people aside if they’re what we deem not useful. I just feel like we look at each other like meat. All across the board. We look at our own selves, our own culture, just like meat that is there to devour and not there to be preserved. Everyone wants to burn everything, and eat everything. Eat each other, the whole thing.

    That goes back to the woman—just because you are the creator, you’re not everyone’s savior. At the end of the day, you’ve been used and ran through. No. I’m not even a mother of children. After I did my recent festival, I was like, “I want to go home and feel inspired. I don’t want to go home used, crying about not being appreciated.” Traditionally, mom is supposed to be in the kitchen with little whoever on their titty and daddy on their lap. It’s time for women, for everyone, to start walking in that space—we’re not going to be used. Redefining all of this. Having more compassion. Redefining what that means, when everything can be a meme of everything. That’s what Fetish Bones is. Feeling like a hunk of bones.


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    Profile: Signal to Noise: One Wild Week With Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in Berlin

    Five years ago, Justin Vernon interviewed one of his heroes, an artist he’s been listening to since sixth grade: DIY patron saint Ian MacKaye. At the time, the Bon Iver leader was gaining global notoriety thanks to the surprise success of his debut album and collaborations with Kanye West, and he was figuring out how far he wanted to go with this newfound fame. So he asked MacKaye, perhaps punk’s most infallible moral bellwether, why he stopped his band Fugazi in the early 2000s, when the group was still thriving culturally and commercially. Vernon remembers MacKaye’s devastatingly simple answer: “I’m not an expansionist.” Talking to me earlier this fall, Vernon says he still mulls over that response, how it can be applied to so many crossroads. “People who are into finance don’t stop to ask that Ian MacKaye question,” he says, “but I think about it in regards to almost everything: What am I doing this for?

    Vernon isn’t necessarily considering such anti-expansionism in terms of ending Bon Iver, or even when it comes to record sales—he sounds genuinely excited that his third album, 22, A Million, bowed at number two on the charts, if only for numerological reasons (his last record debuted in the same spot in 2011, the two twos neatly mirroring the new record’s title). But on the day of 22’s worldwide release, when beardo Bon fans across the planet, from Australia to Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, are taking in the album’s disruptive sounds for the first time, the man himself isn’t in the middle of a media blitz. Instead, he’s in Berlin, at a hulking, German Democratic Republic-era studio complex called the Funkhaus (the name is nowhere near as corny as it sounds—funk is just German for “radio”).

    Vernon is here with 85 of his closest friends—musicians connected to him through every era of his life—who have been invited to come play with each other for a week, concluding with an intentionally nameless two-day music festival. The idea is to reexamine the enterprise of making songs, to show that musicians are compelled to make music whether there’s anybody to sell it to or not, and to offer a more human antidote to the preponderance of regimented and anodyne mega-fests. Vernon, along with his longtime friend Ryan Olson of Marijuana Deathsquads, the National’s Dessner brothers, André de Ridder of the Berlin chamber pop orchestra s t a r g a z e, and the French experimental filmmaker Vincent Moon, decided on the performers and are serving as head counselors for this sleepover adult music camp. They were given the complete run of the Funkhaus and its six gorgeous studios, simply named—by German engineers, naturally—Saal 1 through Saal 6, with the goal of presenting a grand finale talent show that around 4,500 fans will pay 88 euros apiece to see.

    Bon Iver performs at the Funkhaus in Berlin. All photos courtesy of Michelberger Music.

    It feels like Vernon is searching to say something big with his new album and with this festival, and that perhaps he’s realized that the language we all share is inadequate to the task. Musing on the overarching ideas behind the event, he tells me, “If we run with this, I think it will help to break down…” He stops himself. “It’s not even about breaking down capitalism—it’s just about showing people a different way.” Because if we stick with the status quo, he surmises, we’re doomed to a cookie-cutter existence of corporate homogeny. 

    Meanwhile, 22, A Million is covered with symbols that are strange but familiar and filled with music that can be hard to latch onto; the second a sonic idea seems to come into focus, it vanishes into noise. The 35-year-old is groping for something new—and noise is free of cultural baggage, which makes it very attractive to him right now. The clearest reason so many people identify with Bon Iver’s music is straightforward—it’s the tone of Vernon’s famous falsetto. He’s a big guy from the Midwest, but he sounds so alone, so vulnerable, so desperate to connect with somebody out there. The emotion is sincere, but it’s operating on a pre-articulate level; language has failed him enough times that he’s searching for an idiom that doesn’t quite exist yet.

    Most of the time, Vernon seems uncomfortable with sweeping philosophical declarations. He’s not afraid to take a position, such as introducing Bernie Sanders at a rally in Eau Claire earlier this year or criticizing Beyoncé for selling carbonated corporate sugar water, but he can be wary of formulating any kind of manifesto. “Not to say that we’re going to be some ringleaders in some romantic revolución,” he says, “but if something is going to stick it’s gotta be sustainable economically—to show that there’s value in things that aren’t just multi-billion dollar corporate enterprises. We have to show that there’s real value in what we want to do musically.”

    Justin Vernon takes the stage with Bon Iver in Saal 1.

    In the city of Brecht and Bauhaus, a place famous for a relentless reconsideration of fundamentals and a taste that leans towards a minimal aesthetic purity where form equals function, radical ideas can bubble up with ease. Vernon and his comrades came into this week with specific ideas about performance in their temporary autonomous zone: short sets, rampant collaboration, playing music an audience has never heard before, and removing money from the equation as completely as possible.

    None of the artists were paid; they worked for room and board (aka round-the-clock open bar) at the nearby Michelberger Hotel. Run by artist-friendly proprietors Tom Michelberger and Nadine May, the hotel was shut down for the week, but their hospitality did not slack: Along with their staff, the two owners basically pulled double or triple shifts—attending to the artists’ every need at both the Michelberger and the Funkhaus, keeping everybody buzzed with the Michelberger’s own brand of schnapps and hydrated with the Michelberger’s own brand of coconut water. There was a little blue Funkhaus bus out front of the hotel every half hour that shuttled everybody back and forth. The artists even paid for their own schnitzel at the Funkhaus’ Milchbar canteen with marbles from a little hobbit satchel that Michelberger gave them at the beginning of the week. The only thing you needed real cash for was drugs.

    Turns out, Berlin is the perfect city in which to contemplate an alternate Western reality. This is the logical result of losing back-to-back world wars before enduring another 45 years of the most repressive police state ever created. Berlin’s vibe, with its graffiti and its enthusiasm for the drug and sex culture du jour and its drab industrial spaces just begging to be (even further) gentrified, could only exist in a place where the authorities have completely surrendered. It’s still cheap enough here that you don’t have to work that much or make that much money to get by.

    The DJ and producer Boys Noize is one of the townies at Camp Funkhaus, and he tells me that Berlin has always been freaky, from the bohemian anarchy of its Weimar days through its status as a refuge for anybody who didn’t want to join the army during the Cold War, to the apotheosis of minimal techno in the mid 2000s. “When you live here for a little bit you realize that you can have a good life without being distracted by capitalism or what society wants from you,” he says. “You feel less pressure in committing to that life here.”

    Onstage at the Funkhaus, Bon Iver's equipment cases are covered with symbols and slogans.

    “You should sit right here,” Vernon tells me as he motions towards an acoustically privileged corner of the cherrywood paneled Saal 1. “That way you’ll get the stereo effect of the choir.” The room, which can only fit about 500 people, is largely empty except for four Bon Iver gear cases and a drum kit. It’s early on Saturday night, the first day of the festival’s public performances.

    I’m with two Eau Claire dudes Vernon has been tight with going back to middle school: Drew Christopherson, head of the Minneapolis indie label Totally Gross National Product and a drummer for the rock band Poliça, and Trever Hagen, a musicologist now living in Lisbon who played trumpet in Mount Vernon, one of Justin’s first bands. In fact, almost a quarter of the musicians at this thing come from the Minnesota/Wisconsin axis, players with a direct connection to either Vernon or Olson, the other Eau Claire guy on the organizing committee.

    We’re close enough to see the strange runes stenciled onto the four equipment cases—there’s a Grateful Dead symbol, the anarchy sign, and the words “Six Six Six” and “Camel Wides.” The four different colored boxes are covered in this witchy shit, like they’re protecting Bon Iver from bad voodoo. The markings were stenciled by Eric Timothy Carlson, basically Bon Iver’s in-house visual artist, the guy who designed all of the art that went on and into the new album. He’s also responsible for the huge 500-foot-long painting that hangs in the Funkhaus’ Shed Hall—a parking garage that’s been converted into a temporary 5,000-capacity concert space. The painting features massive black Helvetica letters that spell out “PEOPLE.” (Carlson considers the font to be “humanist” because there’s still a whisper of the pressure points of a human hand in its typography.) Below the giant visual, there’s a kiosk selling white “PEOPLE” T-shirts. It’s the only merch available at the fest.

    Artist Eric Timothy Carlson's huge "PEOPLE" sign is hung up in Shed Hall.

    At 6 p.m., members of the incognito choir flow in and take their positions around the room. Then the audience starts to enter, and an excited pre-concert murmur warms the space. Most of the crowd doesn’t really know what’s about to go down. They were never given any information beyond a list of confirmed musicians, which was presented alphabetically in order to subvert expectations. 

    When Vernon and the latest configuration of Bon Iver—Mike Lewis, Sean Carey, Matt McCaughan, and Andrew Fitzpatrick—emerge from backstage, they all face each other in the round, with their backs to us. They play a few songs from the new record: The lonely existentialist lullaby “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the distortion-filled “10 d E A T h b R E a s T,” which culminates in a short wrestling match between Vernon and his Gibson SG. The set peaks when the secretly embedded choir rises to their feet after the drop in “33 ‘GOD’,” an anthemic sort of hymn. Vernon was right: I am in the perfect spot.

    Even though I knew the choir was coming, the patterns of their voices as they ping around Saal 1 is almost overwhelming. At the end of their 25 minute set, Vernon and the entire band sit down right on the floor and look up. Everyone follows their gaze to a balcony 15 feet above the ground, where one of Vernon’s favorite bands, an experimental punk duo from the island of Java called Senyawa, begin to do their thing. Backed by Wukir Suryardi on hand-engineered bamboo instruments, Senyawa singer Rully Shabara unleashes one of the most expressive human voices you will ever hear—he screeches with the power of black metal and wails with the tenderness of opera. Shabara surfs the acoustics of the big studio, throwing Indonesian words and guttural noises around the space like a ventriloquist poet. It’s like we’re in church, and the laity are as reverent as they were for Bon Iver. After the show, Suryardi tells me most of their lyrics are about a beautiful mountain and a forest on their home island. When I point out their music sounds more radical than songs about a mountain, he asks, “What’s more radical than a mountain?”

    All weekend, amidst all the warm and fuzzy intimacy between audience and artist, there are reminders of our sad Pavlovian response to fame. The lack of information available to the crowd is intended as a way to challenge the consumer-centric modus operandi of most music festivals, and while there are definitely sets that are enjoyed in this spirit, there’s also friction: Some people are frustrated with long lines, complaining that they didn’t get to see Bon Iver. And there’s an awkward moment in the middle of Senyawa’s mini-set, when a woman dashes down from the back row to where Vernon is sitting yogi style in front of his case. She comes up from behind and throws her arms around him and whispers something in his ear. He looks extremely uncomfortable but keeps nodding vigorously and giving her the thumbs up without taking his eyes off the band until she releases him. It’s weird seeing Vernon’s vulnerability punctured in the middle of this intimate setting he dreamed up for all of us.

    Indonesian duo Senyawa, one of Vernon's favorite bands, takes the stage immediately following Bon Iver's set.

    In the week leading up to the festival, the musicians working at the Funkhaus were in perpetual motion, putting in 12 hour days. Underneath that cacophony, the place radiated a dark profundity. It was built by Franz Ehrlich, a communist architect who graduated from the Bauhaus school and was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1935. He worked at the Buchenwald concentration camp and was forced to design its gate along with a horrid sign that read “jedem das seine,” or, “to each what he deserves.” 

    After the war, Ehrlich worked for the GDR on the reconstruction of Dresden before designing the Funkhaus in 1951. After reunification, the Funkhaus sat in disrepair for a few months, but has since been in perpetual use as a music studio at various levels of professionalism (both Sting and the Black Eyed Peas have recorded here). Recently, it was purchased for 13 million euros by a Stuttgart developer, and it seems fated to be the latest symbol of the gentrification of East Berlin’s glorious industrial wasteland.

    The Funkhaus’ origin story is heavy, and musicians are sensitive—so all week everybody was game to smoke a joint and talk about the effect of the Stasi on socialist art, or to discuss Hitler’s uncanny voice and his phonetic powers of persuasion, or to compare the spectre of post-truth right wing politics in Europe with its Trumpy American equivalent.

    From the outset, it was apparent that there were two separate cliques in attendance, both of them strongly representative of the two strands of musical DNA coiled in Vernon’s life. On one side were the folky virtuosos, including the Dessner brothers, the cool first-chair orchestra kids in s t a r g a z e, the English sisters in the Staves, and the Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson. And there were the noisy punks, like Boys Noize, the grime MC Trim, Baltimore rapper Spank Rock, and Minneapolis weirdos Marijuana Deathsquads.

    Squads conductor Ryan Olson has been something of a role model for Vernon for years and played an integral part in getting 22, A Million to the finish line. Back home, Olson is the one known for hiding his face from the press, and his band is known for performing in the round with their backs to the audience; now, Vernon is telling the world “faces are for friends,” and Bon Iver are setting up in a circle, dishing out noise. Vernon tells me that when he was in eighth grade and Olson was a senior, Olson’s punk band Sled Napkin was the most radical thing to ever hit Eau Claire—Vernon was so moved by a Sled Napkin set in 1995 that he actually wrote Olson a fan letter.

    At one point during the week at the Funkhaus, Vernon could be found jamming with Olson and the Dessner brothers over a new National track in Saal 4. Vernon was wearing an ancient Sled Napkin T-shirt that he earned for his work on Relayted, the 2010 album released by Olson’s regional soft rock supergroup, Gayngs. “This was the payment for 10 months of work,” Vernon told me. Olson shot back: “Do you think it would’ve taken 10 months if I were paying you?”

    Ryan Olson, who has been a close friend and collaborator of Vernon's for years, practices at the Michelberger Hotel in the week leading up to the festival.

    While these collaborations went down during the day at Funkhaus, perhaps even more crucial was what went down at night on the sixth floor of the Michelberger, where Olson set up shop with his Squads a week before everybody else arrived. It was where you could find a card table set up with Vernon on his small OP-1 synth, the French musician Woodkid and the Minneapolis ambient artist Albert Elmore each manning a laptop filled with samples, Boys Noize on a drum machine, and the turntablist Fog scratching records.

    This was Olson’s filthy Northeast Minneapolis bedroom transplanted to Berlin, where a rotating cast of musicians created a nightly racket which teased the dawn, with everyone else hanging out the windows blowing dro towards the train station down below as the beer bottles and cigarette butts piled up. This was where the folky virtuosos broke the ice—really fucked the ice up good—with the noisy punks. Surveying the room, it reminded me of what Brian Eno, another great thinker who spent a critical period in Berlin, was talking about when he coined the term “scenius”: musical ideas often get attributed to a master genius, but they are almost always the result of collaboration that can be traced back to a scene, a locale, a group.

    Vernon is quick to volunteer how he’s been inspired by Olson’s ideas and sense of community, but he pinpoints one of his friend’s attributes above all: “He does not lie.” And Vernon believes that this truthfulness is distinctly powerful right now. “We fib to ourselves to get out of an uncomfortable situation, and I genuinely want people to feel happy and comfortable—it’s this Midwestern thing,” Vernon says. “But you’ll get it straight from Ryan—he’s all about rolling a joint, putting it in your mouth, and telling you to sing something. That’s this weekend: get drunk, get some energy going, be a person and get involved.”

    A nearly empty Sled Hall.

    When I meet up with Vernon back in Minneapolis after the festival, he had already cancelled his flight home twice and was coming down with a nasty cold. He had only been off the plane for a couple of hours, and I could tell he still hadn’t really landed. We gravitate toward the most private booth at Constantine, a fancy basement bar downtown, where he nurses a brandy hot toddy. 

    He says the idea of leaving Berlin and the artistic utopia he helped create felt bad—“like sooooo bad, like almost scary bad.” He tells me he rolled on the last night of the fest—little pills with the Chupa Chups logo were being passed around back at the Michelberger, because Berlin—but “it might have been the most unnecessary drug experience of my entire life.” It helped him stay up until 10 in the morning, but he doesn’t remember anything after 3:30 a.m. Plus, his serotonin and dopamine levels were spiking that whole week anyway. “I felt like I was on rolls from Tuesday until Saturday,” he says. “The only other time I felt like that before is when I was a hormonal 13-year-old kid at Camp Manitou.” He feels like he found a new, stripped down mode in which to perform. “That’s how I want music to feel,” he says.

    While the principals involved have concluded that the happening was an unqualified success, Tom Michelberger tells me he did lose between 100,000 and 200,000 euros on the endeavor, adding that it’s probably impossible to do this again without some straight-up revolutionary changes in arts patronage. But is it too ambitious to ask artists to lead the charge? Especially at the Funkhaus, where musicians were once spied on by the Stasi literally around the clock—every Bauhaus-style clock in the entire complex used to be bugged—it doesn’t seem preposterous.

    “I can accept more about myself and my position when I start to really feel the tribal thing happening,” Vernon says. “This weekend I felt so comfortable—and if I was ever uncomfortable, it was because of some drunk guy asking, ‘How is it like being you, man? Isn’t that crazy?’ I’m not even close to being in that zone. I’m not worried about who I am and all these problems that I had because I’m so far away from it.”

    But Vernon is trying not to shy away. Even though 22, A Million invites so much scrutiny over its internal numerology, a very considerable amount of ingenuity went into finding words and numbers and symbols that complement Vernon’s tone and expand his message. His jersey number in high school was 22. And along with the naked biblical allusions that come with the number 33, that was the age when Vernon went through the most shit, when he was really grappling with fame, when people were hungriest for what he had to say, stopping him in the street and telling him how great he was, when he never felt so alone.

    Vernon is feeling better about dealing with the pressure now. He’s more concerned about the responsibility of the artist—what is the most powerful way to connect? What message should he be conveying? Are there more viable platforms than fame? 

    Ultimately, he wants to explore without completely abandoning what he’s already done. “I always feel like it’s my job to give people a little something that will be weird but also give them an avenue of understanding,” he tells me. He adds that, in Berlin, he was equally excited to play with Bon Iver as he was to play with Hrrrbek, the noise project he shares with Trever Hagen, named after the folk hero first baseman for the Minnesota Twins. Because Hagen has been living in Europe for 13 years, Hrrrbek has been a catch-as-catch-can situation: random gigs in parks at night or for a handful of people in a hotel bathroom. But at the Funkhaus, in Saal 6, more than 100 people watched them perform. And, at least at the outset, the audience was rapt.

    Vernon started out on the OP-1, making a loop of Hagen’s breathy trumpet sounds. Then they were joined by Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, formerly of the Icelandic band Múm, who mumbled and played the softest grand piano I’ve ever heard, and Bon Iver’s Fitzpatrick, who plinked on another piano. The four of them moved around like deranged children who had been overdosed with ritalin—at one point Vernon lost his ballcap and his wispy top hairs jumped through the discord of his acoustic guitar as noise eventually turned into a riff. Vernon then picked up his hat and set upon a piano. As Valtýsdóttir scrambled to a drum kit, Hagen began to make chicken sounds.

    Eventually, the audience started to leave—in dribs and drabs at first, then in a steady stream. They obviously knew they were watching Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, but it probably appeared that he had lost his mind, or was at least indulging madness. As the discord wound down, Valtýsdóttir somehow conjured an apple and flung it into a bass drum with a satisfying thunk. End of show.


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    Photo Gallery: Portraits and Live Shots From Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2016


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    Cover Story: Natural Selection: How a New Age Hustler Sold the Sound of the World

    One night in 1969, an anxious New Yorker named Irv Teibel discovered the perfect ocean. He couldn’t see it, couldn’t smell it, couldn’t dip his toes in it. But he could hear it, and the sound was all he needed.

    Like a lot of searches, Teibel’s had started accidentally, when, earlier that year, a friend asked him to help record waves for a film project out on Coney Island. It was winter, freezing. The men rushed toward the shore and back with the tide, Teibel with a microphone in his hand and a tape player on his back. Even in the off-season, he found the beach loud, sleazy, nothing like the postcards promised.

    Later, looping the tape in the editing room to sync with the film’s images, he noticed something: Normally while working with loops, he’d have to turn the volume down to stop the sound from driving him crazy, but this one didn’t bother him at all. In fact, the longer the loop played, the more relaxed Teibel felt. It was like finding a funny little rock on the side of the road, he said, only to take it out of your pocket later and realize it’s a diamond.

    Teibel took his microphone back to the ocean in March, but the ocean didn’t comply. He walked 100 feet in either direction of where he first stood. He drove to Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, eventually making his way down the Atlantic coast to Virginia, recording dozens of tapes along the way but never matching the sound rattling around his head.

    Still, he persevered—perseverance was his way. He once said he drove Cadillacs because the NYPD didn’t have trucks big enough to tow them. When they did, he bought a bus.

    Eventually, a friend named Louis Gerstman suggested Teibel pay him a visit. Gerstman was a professor and neuropsychologist working at the frontiers of speech synthesis, or, how computers might be used to analyze and render speech. A few years earlier he and a group of colleagues had taught an IBM to sing the nursery rhyme “Daisy Bell,” which later inspired the HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the time Teibel met him, Gerstman was helping rehabilitate people after strokes.

    The men fed one of Teibel’s Coney Island loops into an IBM 360, a huge, imposing machine that had the aspect of an airplane cockpit grafted to a refrigerator. Gerstman began processing the sound the way he might a sentence, breaking it into increments small enough to replicate and recombine, adjusting equalization settings and compressing dynamic range to make smoother shapes, adding new, synthetic waves with a random noise generator that masked the splices in the original tape, creating something that sounded uniform and continuous but non-repeating—something, in other words, natural.

    After two sleepless nights and several hamburgers in and around a Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Teibel and Gerstman had not only matched the sound in Teibel’s head, but improved it: the perfect ocean.


    By the end of 1969, Teibel had pressed an album called Environments 1: Psychologically Ultimate Seashore, credited to a company he called Syntonic Research, Inc. The name conjured lab coats, clipboards, a world beyond the vagaries of human error—not art, but science.

    The album’s cover, a dreamy image of the shifting intersection between ocean and shore, looks like a brochure for an antidepressant; the back is marked by a hash of vague technical language and listener responses, each one in a different font and color—a polyphony of satisfied customers who can’t wait to share their discovery with you. “Better than a tranquilizer!” says one. “Cured my insomnia!” says another. “The hippest record ever!”

    The album sold briskly and was written about in all the papers. The San FranciscoChronicle noted that a local freeform radio station played Teibel’s ocean for two weeks straight during a strike. Listenership improved.

    In the part of the loop where the waves crested, Teibel had added a brief clip of his own voice making a vowel sound, played backwards. Among the hundreds of listeners who wrote letters to Syntonic over the next few decades, several singled the sound out, some concerned that they’d lost their minds, some accusing Teibel of planting subliminal messages. Teibel, a dry, confident man who liked disturbingly hot food, called it “my little joke.”


    Now, Teibel’s concept—the soothing sounds of nature, or at least a synthesized facsimile of it—is quaint, the wallpaper of therapy waiting rooms and spa foyers. At the time, it was entirely new. Here was something you could hear but weren’t necessarily supposed to listen to. It wasn’t a sound effect, but it wasn’t music, either. And while it professed to contain the ocean, it had none of the purity or taxonomic specificity you’d expect from a field recording (never mind Teibel’s contention that the ocean could use a little work). Here was nature not as it is, but as we hope it’ll be, the lullaby of waves without the sand in our trunks.

    The album’s novelty proved to be both an opportunity and a burden. Steve Gerstman, one of Syntonic’s first and shortest-lived employees, remembers traveling across the country by train, making his lonely pitch to stores. “The first obstacle is that it’s not music,” he said. “So if it’s not music, why would they carry it, and why would people buy it?”

    Teibel’s answer? Stress. Troubled sleep. The existential plaque of modern life. You might shelve Environments with your records, but in conception it was more like a can opener or vacuum: Tools designed to streamline and optimize a task. Someone, somewhere, had tested it, and supposedly, it had worked.


    Teibel was born in 1938 and raised in a narrow brick house in Buffalo, New York. (The house, which at the time of writing is in foreclosure, is listed as a “diamond in the rough.”) As a teenager he became fascinated with Gregorian chants, less for their spiritual valence than their efficacy as a homework aid. He studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Art Center of Design in Pasadena, then moved to Stuttgart, Germany, for a job with the Army’s office of public information. “I am well and having a lot of fun doing battle with the Army,” reads a 1963 letter home, tone unclear.

    A ravenous photographer with a natural curiosity about the intersection of art and technology, Teibel started experimenting with musique concrète, a term coined in the late 1940s by the composer Pierre Schaeffer for music made from pre-recorded—or physically “concrete”—sounds, as opposed to the abstractions of classical notation. Instead of playing instruments, Teibel learned to edit magnetic tape with razor blades; instead of performance, he learned the sensitivities of microphones and portable recorders—not music but sound.

    Teibel enjoyed the process but tired of the product. “You come through with a technological masterpiece, but after listening to it for a half an hour there was a certain sigh of relief when the recording was over,” he remembered. “You didn’t have any inclination to go and repeat it.”

    By 1964 he had moved to London, working as an art director for the ad agency Young & Rubicam and renting a flat from a lawyer in the Jewish neighborhood of Golders Green. “Reminds me (unfavorably) of the lawyer who used to live near the Pine Street Shul,” he wrote home. “Rather nosey and somewhat standoffish.” Then, wedged above the typewriting in pencil: “But his family is interesting.”

    “Excuse me if I sound a little confused about my ultimate aims,” he continued. “My ultimate objective is to make a lot of money doing something I will be happy doing.”


    Teibel made his way to New York, photographing for glossy magazines like Popular Photography and Car and Driver, falling in love with Sichuan and Korean food: pickled things, organ meats, the hotter the better. One friend remembers unknowingly eating a mouthful of chilies while Teibel tented his hands in Mephistophelean delight; another remembers Teibel declaring his love for udders, presumably because he knew it was an opinion in which he could be alone.

    Teibel eventually landed an apartment on the 11th floor of an old research facility converted to artists’ housing at the edge of the city’s meatpacking district. The apartment overlooked the Hudson River, with a barber’s chair by the window and a telescope trained on the Statue of Liberty. Also in view was the West Side Highway, whose elevated second level was soon abandoned and repurposed as a de facto shade structure for junkies and cruisers passing through the shadows below. Almost everyone I talk to recalls a party Teibel threw during the 1976 Bicentennial, watching the tall ships sail downriver against time.

    “A grand and glorious mess,” said one friend, a retired engineer named Arnold Goldberger, describing the place. “Filled with all kinds of things in vast quantities.” Books on gastronomy. Parking tickets. The occasional marijuana plant. Ray Erickson, a harpsichord player and professor with whom Teibel made a curious, one-off record in 1974, remembers coming to visit one afternoon and encountering a live bat in the hallway, swooping toward him out of the darkness.

    The registry for the building listed Teibel as a filmmaker, a title that had more to do with his salesmanship than his artistic practice. As for friends: All of Teibel’s said he didn’t have many.


    Syntonic took an office at the top of the Flatiron Building, a wedge-shaped skyscraper in lower Manhattan. Built in 1902, it remains one of the city’s most easily identifiable landmarks, the spatial remainder of a clash between the square intersection of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street and the aberrant Broadway, which cuts diagonally across the grid at a 45-degree angle, making for a lot shaped like a slice of pie. This is the fever of urban life, architecturally expressed: Whatever isn’t used is wasted.

    Miriam Berman, a graphic designer who worked with Teibel for years, remembers the surrounding neighborhood as quiet, almost pastoral. “We had a great view, with a balcony around the penthouse,” she said. “At that point, it was like living in the country.” Teibel, who seems to have been pathologically incapable of relaxing, felt otherwise. “Excuse me,” he said in the middle of a monologue recorded at his desk. “Every once in awhile it sounds like there’s a plane dive-bombing the Flatiron Building.”

    In an effort to project an image of rigor and professionalism, Teibel staffed Syntonic with a handful of researchers, consultants, and customer-relations specialists over the years. Most of them turned out to be Teibel’s in-laws; just as many turned out to be Teibel himself. One call to a T-shirt manufacturer starts with Teibel introducing himself as Mike Kron from a non-existent company called SR Traders; on the next call, to another manufacturer, Teibel realizes he’s talking to the same guy he just got off the phone with—two lone hustlers hiding behind layers of corporate pseudonyms. Teibel laughs. The man laughs back.


    Teibel ended up making 10 more records in the Environments series, each one a little more baroque in construction than the last. By “Wood-Masted Sailboat”(Environments 8), he was working with 24 separate tracks of sound, including seagulls from the Virginia shore, bell buoys from the Long Island Sound, a boom vang for the creaking mast, and an old chronometer from a clock shop on Lexington Avenue. In a gesture of decadence more in step with classic rock than sound therapy, he claimed to have once filled a soundstage with thousands of crickets because he could get a clearer recording indoors.

    Teibel was working at a time when the country’s counterculture was merging tentatively with the mainstream. Vegetarian bibles like The Moosewood Cookbook entered the bestseller list; the last edition of the Whole Earth Catalog—a farmer’s almanac for the computer age that prefigured punk’s DIY ethic by about a decade—won a National Book Award. Yoga, previously an exotic dalliance for people with enough money to care, could now be found on morning television shows like “Lilias, Yoga and You.” Cooking, homebuilding, the general detoxification of self: Peace had become a personal concern.

    The first three albums in the Environments series were picked up for distribution by Atlantic Records, a label then busy taking over the world with Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Nesuhi Ertegun,an Atlantic executive and one of the most artistically progressive and commercially intelligent figures in 20th century music, wrote Teibel a couple months after Christmas, 1972, to thank him for the umbrella. Business continued apace. The same time next year, Ertegun wrote to thank Teibel for the barometer.


    Teibel was no environmentalist. If anything, nature was his obstacle, the raw material out of which he had to sculpt something more appealing. Reflecting on recordings made in Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp, one of the most unspoiled places in the country, Teibel said the bugs bothered him, the frequencies were hard to work with, and his terrier, Farfel, was harassed by alligators. As for the great symphony of night, Teibel slept with earplugs in.

    Behind Environments’ hippyish premise—that we are biologically wired to thrive on the heartbeat of the earth—were coarser, more modern notions. By Teibel’s own admission, the series had been conceived not as a way to reconnect with the world but to shut it out. Everything about its packaging and presentation was haunted by the task of coping: of stabilizing in unstable situations, of squeaking through until the next day. The nature we hear in Environments isn’t only altered, but idealized, scrubbed free of machines, people and other hassles of civilization.

    And yet Teibel sold these albums in part with the promise that they would help us sleep better and focus more. The moral is a capitalist one at heart: Our best selves and our best working selves are the same thing. That we have to twist mother nature’s arm in order to stay on top is collateral damage.

    In 1970, about a year after Environments 1 came out, the biologist Roger Payne released an album called Songs of the Humpback Whale, which ended up going multi-platinum and fueled preservation efforts worldwide. (Payne’s work also ended up on Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s so-called “Golden Record,” which was shot into space with the Voyager craft in 1977—a distinction Teibel claimed for his ocean but which nobody at NASA would corroborate.) Teibel, a fast-talking cosmopolitan who probably could’ve sold water to a river in a rainstorm, didn’t seem half as concerned about what we could do for the whales as what the whales could do for us.


    In some ways, Teibel’s project was an extension of exotica, a 1950s fad that blended Asian tonalities and Latin rhythms with ambient natural sounds, designed to transform the wood-paneled living rooms of postwar suburbia into the jungles to which its listeners would probably never go. One promotional snippet for Environments tells of a Miami resident who kept the windows of his beachfront apartment shut and Teibel’s ocean on the stereo because the humidity from the real ocean made his wall-to-wall carpet damp.

    Like exotica, Environments was closely tied to the development of recording and home stereo technology, particularly the idea that a stereo’s quality is measurable by its ability to fool you into thinking the music is actually in the room with you—to conjure something “real.” Teibel himself was borderline obsessed with the issue, writing about speaker setup and listening conditions with the specificity and concern of a doctor outlining prescription dosages for a patient. If misused, the logic ran, the album’s intended effect was lost.

    On learning that Environments albums were being broadcast at certain self-help seminars by holding a microphone to a speaker and feeding its signal through the building’s PA system, Teibel sent a sternly worded letter in all caps, assessing the practice as “QUITE FRANKLY… THE ABSOLUTE WORST WAY TO UTILIZE OUR RECORDINGS.”

    The lecture continues for the remainder of the page, concluding by adding that of course Syntonic restricts all commercial use of their recordings, lovingly, Mike Kron.


    Environments also marked an early expression of what we now call ambient music. Though synonymous with the 1970s, the roots of the concept could be traced back to 1950s composers like John Cage, who eschewed the scripting of specific sounds in favor of creating conditions in which sound—chancy, spontaneous sound—could occur.

    In taking stock not just of the spotlight but the periphery, Cage argued, the audience could step into a state of meditative inattention, porous and dreamlike, wherein art was defined less by what it is than by the attention we pay to it. Suddenly even the clang of the elevator shaft sparkled with aura, the specific identity of something that happened without intention or event but would never happen again.

    Still, even this was the echo of an older idea, advanced by the French composer Erik Satie. A pianist working in Parisian cafes during the 1910s and ’20s, Satie noticed that people almost never listened to music in the sanctity its composers had intended. They were drinking, they were talking, they were occupied by the stream of externalities we call life. Music, like good lighting or a decent chair, was less the object of experience than an accompaniment to it. Twenty years before the advent of elevator music and 60 years before the Walkman turned people into their own private theaters, Satie envisioned a world of continuous sound, inescapable and yet ignorable—as transient as the breeze.

    One of his earliest experiments involved a group of musicians scattered around a gallery, playing incidental sound between theater pieces. Every time the musicians started, the audience would return to their seats. Satie scrambled around the gallery like a party host frantically micromanaging his guests. “Talk!” he yelled. “Move around.” In other words, don’t listen to the sound—be with it. “Furniture music,” he called it. If Cage argued that our surroundings could be music, Satie argued for music that disappeared seamlessly into our surroundings.


    The question of science dogged Teibel for years. Despite broad and varied claims about the psychological benefits of Environments, Teibel never produced the kind of independent research that would’ve allowed him to be taken seriously in an academic forum. A firmly written letter from an editor at PsychologyToday, dated October 1976, bristles at Teibel’s insistence that Environments is of any concrete or measurable value, concluding that stories are nice but evidence is preferable.

    In the absence of peer review, there’s always the theater of public opinion. As the series took off, Environments came packaged with customer feedback surveys, inquiring into everything from demographics and occupation to the make of one’s stereo system and speaker placement in their house. People responded at length, often appending typewritten commentary to the forms, digressing into their lives, their worries, their ailments and their solace—a patchwork of anxious, disconnected souls strung together with form stationery.

    A blind man in Chicago wrote to say he played Teibel’s “Alpine Blizzard” at Christmastime. A lonely housewife in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, would retreat into Environments when her son and husband abandoned her for TV. A migraine sufferer says his doctor introduced him to Environments to miraculous effect, though he, like Teibel’s terrier Farfel, found the alligators of the Okefenokee Swamp unnerving. A Dairy Queen employee in Laurel, Delaware liked getting stoned and listening to “Night in the Forest” but wished the crickets weren’t so loud, while ABC News anchorHugh Downs worried the recordings were making him too sane, “rendering me unfit for my profession.” One fan professedly into “alternate life styles” suggests that Teibel receive a Nobel Prize.

    My favorite piece of correspondence, from a Phoenix resident named Sherry January, approaches the naïve rhapsody of Gertrude Stein: “last nite I was reading the album cover & fell asleep I dream of the water the tree, the sunsat, the wind, and sky, that was on the cover in all its colors it all came to life, I was so chill from the wind and water, I woke up, I say what a dream.” Like a lot of new age tonics, Environments seemed to work in part because its consumers so deeply needed it to.


    Environments kept Teibel relatively busy, but he still made time for extracurriculars. In 1973, he released a recording of President Nixon’s speech about Watergate, edited and rearranged to make it sound like an admission of guilt. The gesture wasn’t meant as protest so much as a demonstration of how illusory recordings can be. Or, in Teibel’s huckster aria, “a tour-de-force of sophisticated editing techniques which will undoubtedly send a chill up your spine.” Customers included Ted Kennedy and the National Intelligence Agency, a forerunner to the modern CIA.

    In the wake of the Nixon recording, Teibel’s services were retained by Alan Berry, who, in the course of roaming the Sierra Nevada, claimed to have captured the sound of Bigfoot. The men exchanged no small volume of mail, but Teibel couldn’t offer much in the way of encouragement.

    At one point, Syntonic even tried to break into book publishing with an offshoot called Simulacrum Press. Their sole publication was a reprint of a 19th-century book of arcana called The Complete Compendium of Universal Knowledge, which lingers over such subjects as how to occupy one’s self on a farm during every month of the year and how long it takes to digest an apple in microscopic font for about 500 pages.

    I ordered a used copy from Amazon for a few dollars. Written in Sharpie on the inside cover was an inscription: “To Carol and Charlie, with gratitude, Irv Teibel.”

    The spine remained unbroken.


    Teibel hadn’t meant for Environments to preserve nature and yet, in its strange way, it did. Coney Island, where Teibel made his first ocean recording, was ripped up by Hurricane Sandy. The Bronx Zoo aviary, where he recorded “Optimum Aviary” for Environments 1, collapsed during a snowstorm in 1995. The Manhattan apartment where he recorded “Ultimate Thunderstorm” is still there, but the view is different, the dead zone between the West Side Highway and the river’s desiccated piers converted into a long, pastoral green belt where people jog and walk dogs.

    Teibel’s old apartment building, Westbeth, is still there too, complemented by a pair of multimillion-dollar glass towers around the corner on Perry Street, designed a few decades later by Westbeth’s renovation architect, Richard Meier, in a neighborhood Teibel would not recognize.

    I spent a large part of my childhood in a building across the street from Westbeth, watching the high heels of drag queens stride fabulously past the egress window on their way to the river during Pride Week, hitting tennis balls against the courtyard walls, growing up in a New York that, like all New Yorks, faded inevitably into the future.

    Now when I hear Teibel’s thunderstorm, I picture him overlooking the upper level of the West Side Highway, taking in a view that no longer exists. Several years after making a serene, bucolic recording he called “Dusk & Dawn at New Hope, PA” Teibel went back to the site only to find an apartment building. “There weren’t any sounds around there,” he said. “Literally, those sounds had disappeared forever.”

    Teibel died in 2010, after a long struggle with diabetes punctuated by cancer that killed him within weeks. I’m listening to his disembodied voice on a series of old tapes exhumed from storage by one of his daughters, Jennifer, who remembers him as a kind man, a funny man, restlessly creative, never without a camera dangling from his neck—an adult who still had it in him to sit down in the middle of a toy store and play.

    Like Teibel, I’m faced with the job of creating the illusion of continuity from scattered tape. Unlike him, I give up: As much as I admire his perfect ocean, I prefer the vision of Teibel standing on the shore and waiting for planes from JFK to pass, cursing the ice cream truck as it stalks the boardwalk, its incessant jingle weaving through the beachgoers and the sunbathers and all the people capable of enjoying Coney Island for the noisy, saturated place it is, not for what it might be without us.


    Within his archives is a simple, three-paneled comic of Teibel trying to record a single snowflake on its journey to the ground. In the first panel you can see him holding his microphone to the sky, uncertain if the signal is coming through. In the second, he’s smiling, following the flake at eye level, a child lost to the world outside his headphones. In the last panel we see a flurry of snow gathering over Teibel’s head, but he doesn’t seem to notice: He’s too focused on his single flake—a portrait of obsession and naiveté, of wonder we can’t cultivate but instead are born to lose.

    The image was made by Miriam Berman, Syntonic’s graphic designer. The two had been a couple, which nearly everyone I talked to besides Miriam Berman chose to bring up. Her tone is weathered, bittersweet, edged by the laughter of someone practiced in keeping the past where it belongs. She accompanied Teibel on a lot of his little field trips, she said. He was fussy, obsessive, maybe a little brilliant, never quite satisfied. I asked in particular about one recording of a heartbeat, the only instance in the Environments catalog where Teibel acknowledges the presence of human life. “That was my heartbeat,” she said.

    Teibel ended up marrying a woman named Rosanne in 1980. The ceremony was at Windows on the World, at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A small group of musicians played medieval repertoire in period dress. It was Sunday. The couple soon packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, where Teibel became a father twice over, got involved with the local Jewish community, and never made another recording for commercial use again.

    Not that he gave up on Environments. The series was pressed onto cassette, and later onto CD, but Teibel’s primacy in the marketplace had been diluted. There was Songs of the Humpback Whale. There was a series called Solitudes. There were any number of budget-priced new age tapes of flutes or balalaikas or Celtic harps accompanied by the sound of rain and thunder that my mother bought at Pymander Book Shop in Westport, Connecticut, as part of her guided meditation to help try and assuage my childhood fear of death, and there’s the HoMedics SoundSpa sleep machine that my son drifts off to every night, programmable to replicate the ocean, the campfire, rain, and the Everglades—all ways we shut the world out in name of bringing it a little closer.

    Teibel’s last employee was a hapless young musician named Bill Averbach. They met in synagogue sometime in the mid ’80s. By his own admission, Averbach couldn’t sell anything, let alone something nobody seemed to want, but he gave it a shot. He said Teibel didn’t reflect much on his legacy. Then again, it was such a short appointment, and so long ago, and Teibel wasn’t doing so well health-wise. Averbach’s clearest memories are of riding through the hills of west Austin in his boss’ Cadillac, Teibel smiling, leaning into every curve.


    “You take a tenth of a second of an idea and suddenly it’s 10 years later,” Teibel said on one of his tapes. He pauses, then laughs. Then suddenly it’s 30 years later, and you have diabetes, then cancer, and you’re so mistrustful of doctors that your friends say you tried to treat yourself with diets, plums, fruits, healthy things, and none of it works, but at least you spent the time with your family, your camera, your daughters, taking pictures, documenting your secret, favorite subject: people.

    More recently, the Chicago label Numero Group has been working on retrofitting Environments for a contemporary context. When Teibel first started out, he was limited by the half-hour side of a vinyl record. In several cases, he calibrated the sounds to make sense at various speeds, meaning that a listener for whom 30 minutes of the ocean was not enough could slow the album down and cruise for an hour. Then there was mobility. In dreams, Teibel envisioned a continuous, portable experience, something that could be adjusted to fit the rhythm and space of our lives rather than the other way around. He was a beat or two too soon. His daughter Jennifer tells me he had a smartphone toward the end of his life, and that he liked it.


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    Interview: Synths! Ballads! Acoustic Guitars! Welcome to Japandroids 2.0

    The amps are still buzzing from Japandroids’ paint-peeling performance at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern when the band’s roadie steps out to make an announcement: An audience member has lost their wedding ring in the mosh pit. A mad scramble ensues, as smartphone flashlights swoop and swirl across the club’s checkerboard floor like mini-police choppers. Suddenly, a hand thrusts victoriously into the air, a ring pinched between its thumb and index finger. A chorus of cheers and hugs between strangers ensue. And so ends this five-minute tale of chaos, drama, camaraderie, and true love prevailing—there was no encore on this October night, but at least we got to see another Japandroids song play out in real life.

    Ever since they appeared in a warm embrace on the cover of their 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, singer/guitarist Brian King and drummer Dave Prowse have engendered a palpable bonhomie among their fans. From day one, they’ve wanted to be the house band for the most pivotal moments of your life, bashing out the sort of garage-spawned, arena-sized pop-punk anthems that instinctively make you want to wrap your arms around your best mate and yell like hell to the heavens.

    But where Japandroids’ 2012 follow-up Celebration Rock boasted possibly the most self-explanatory album title in rock history, it was the sort of party where they always had one eye on the clock, bracing themselves for the inevitable moment when the lights were flipped on, the room cleared out, and real-world responsibilities beckoned once again. And now that time has come. With their upcoming third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids have quit the adrenaline nightshift—they want to make music they’ll still respect in the morning.

    Celebration Rock might be great for driving or partying, but there are certain circumstances where it’s just not the right album!” says King. “Great rock‘n’roll albums—like The Velvet Underground & Nico—work anytime because there’s a little something for everyone.”

    Listen to the title track from Japandroids' third album; the image shown is also the record's cover.

    Japandroids’ set at the Horseshoe is part of a small, six-city club tour marking the Vancouver duo’s return to the stage after a three-year layoff. But technically, they never stopped traveling in the interim. Though Prowse is still based in Vancouver, King has relocated to Toronto, but actually spends most of his downtime in Mexico City, where his girlfriend lives. When it came time to write material for the new album in the fall of 2014, they reconvened for five weeks in New Orleans, before bouncing back and forth among all the aforementioned cities. And while the album was mostly recorded back in Vancouver with long-time producer Jesse Gander, the road to completion also included pit stops in Montreal, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

    But on this warm-up tour, Japandroids aren’t just introducing audiences to some of the songs that make up Near to the Wild Heart of Life. They’re also introducing the songs to themselves. Because, for the first time, Japandroids the live band and Japandroids the studio entity have become two very different things—and, at this point, the former isn’t quite sure how it’s going to recreate the sounds produced by the latter.

    At their core, Japandroids are still very much a band that writes valorous songs about living for the moment and loving for a lifetime. But the anxious, slash-and-burn abandon of old has matured into a steadier hand and confident poise; the gritty surface buffed away for a radio-ready polish; the duo’s minimalism blown open to absorb the infinite possibilities of the recording studio. For the first time on a Japandroids record, there are prominent acoustic guitars. And synthesizers. And a shoegaze ballad. And, in centerpiece track “Arc of Bar,” a seven-minute, Haçienda-bound psych-disco epic—complete with guest vocals from their girlfriends—that will require Prowse to use a sampler pad to trigger drum loops live.

    “In some ways, we’re approaching this like it’s our very first record,” King says. “We’re removing all the self-imposed rules that led to the songs and the sound of our whole career up until now. When you do that, you can try anything.” 

    The evolution goes beyond those sonic embellishments. The title Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a line from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (sourced via Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart). And though King is reluctant to dwell on any direct literary influence, he was inspired to think more about crafting narratives this time, to bring more color, nuance, and dramatic purpose to a record where the booze-fuelled mania that produced his previous writing has been replaced by a clear-eyed contentment.

    Really, the difference between the new Japandroids and the old Japandroids can be read through their albums’ covers. Like its predecessors, the new record is adorned by a black-and-white photo of the pair—but it’s a posed studio portrait instead of a candid backstage snap, and the guys are sporting nicer clothes and more serious facial expressions. These are subtle differences that underscore a big change: On Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids give you older us.

    The setting of our interview only reinforces this growth. The day before the Horseshoe show, a band that once cut its teeth in DIY spaces andindustry-resistant festivals is holding court in a boardroom at the Spoke, a private member’s club in downtown Toronto that charges an annual fee of $800. Granted, King and Prowse aren’t actually members themselves, but the posh environs are indicative of the kind of resources that Japandroids’ new big-league labels—ANTI- in the U.S. and Arts & Crafts in Canada—are investing to push the band to an even wider audience.

    True to their humble roots, King and Prowse just order a couple of waters.

    “With this album, the idea of what intensity means is evolving—it doesn’t necessarily mean screaming or flailing about or being really loud or playing really fast.”


    —Brian King

    Pitchfork: Given all the extra instrumentation on this new album, do you think it is going to be a lot harder to recreate live?

    Brian King: That’s one of the fundamental differences between not just this record and the previous one, but from the whole first era of the band. When we started, we were trying to achieve a very specific thing: To essentially make a really great live record in the studio—to preserve the sound and the energy and the experience of actually seeing the band play. And we finally achieved that with Celebration Rock. So you’ve got two places you can go from there: Either you can continue doing that indefinitely—because you’ve figured out how to do it, and also because people like it—or you can say, “It’s time to start on a new path.” So this record is less an extension of our last one, and more the first document of whatever happens from here forward.

    After you finished touring Celebration Rock, did you think, “I need a break from this kind of music”? Because people look to the band for a certain kind of cathartic song, and I imagine it’s physically and emotionally draining to deliver that every night.

    BK: You get older and different kinds of music start to seep in. When we first started, we were listening to music that was closer to the music we were actually making. But in our 10 years together, our listening habits have changed, even though we’ve continued to play in a loud, energetic rock band. The artists I listened to the most while writing and recording this were Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. I wouldn’t say we have a lot in common with them musically, but those influences are very obvious to me. Their songs are stories. There’s a journey—it’s not just blah blah blah and then the chorus.

    Thematically speaking, the first two records were very much about lamenting a past that can’t be recaptured. This record feels more comfortable with embracing the present.

    Dave Prowse: That’s a reflection of where we’re at as people.

    BK: Because we’ve been playing our first shows in so long, we’ve been relearning all these songs that we haven’t played in a few years and were written even longer ago—it’s like you’re almost coming face-to-face with your younger self. But I actually find that person very difficult to identify with now. At one time, perhaps I was nostalgic for being younger than I was, and it’s obviously reflected in the songs, but I really enjoy our life now, the age we are, and I’m not in any way nostalgic for being younger and anything that happened then.

    How does the fact you’re both in steady relationships factor into the way you write now? There’s a sense of feeling settled on this record, of looking forward to coming home after you’ve been on the road.

    BK: Domestic bliss equals great rock‘n’roll! Especially so since Post-Nothing, which was a record about being in Vancouver and dreaming of leaving it and seeing the rest of the world. But now the idea of home is more conceptual—it no longer refers to a specific city or place.

    Celebration Rock was a record about trying to condense the whole world into an album, because we’d just seen all these places and met all these people for the first time. For a while, I thought those were the only two options: You either write about home, or you write about away. And we actually, by chance, found a third option that I didn’t think existed: to somehow find a halfway point between those—to write about home, but also incorporate different cities and countries, and somehow put it all together in a cohesive way. I think we’re fucked for the fourth album…

    DP: We’re going to space!

    A trailer for the new album

    So far, you’ve enjoyed this incremental ascent on your own terms. But now you’ve traded up to bigger labels and are about to release your most produced, accessible record to date. Is this a concerted attempt to make a more noticeable leap?

    DP: We’ve never been opposed to popularity or success, and with this band, there’s the constant sense of things getting just a little bigger: You come to the same city and play a little bit bigger a room the next time, and all of a sudden people in countries you’d never been to before would ask you to come there. And this feels like the same part of that evolution. We’re hoping to play all over the world again and have as many people hear us as possible. At the same time, we still want to do it on our own terms. We were very careful about who we chose to work with.

    Even as the band has broadened its appeal, your choice of cover songs—Mclusky, Nick Cave, the Gun Club—suggested you still wanted to keep one foot in a transgressive rock tradition. But that doesn’t seem to fit in with the headspace you’re in now.

    BK: We never consciously did that because of the image it might associate us with. It’s just what we like.

    But it does feel like you’re exploring a completely different sonic language here.

    BK: Well, wait until you hear the covers we’re doing this time! The B-side to the first single is going to be a cover of Talking Heads’ “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire.” One of the cool things about doing these cover songs is you approach it in a way you never would’ve thought about for your own song. So, to some extent, you accidentally expand your own sound and abilities.

    Was there a moment making the new record when you listened back and said, “Whoa, I didn’t think we could ever sound like this?”

    DP: Yes. “Arc of Bar” was that song. I have a very distinct memory of being in the mixing room and hearing one of the final mixes on these giant studio speakers and just being like, “Holy shit, this is awesome! I have no idea what people are going to think of this, but it sounds crazy!”

    BK: With this album, the idea of what intensity means is evolving. It doesn’t necessarily mean screaming or jumping around or flailing about or being really loud or playing really fast. As a Nick Cave fan, you know you can be just as intense doing something slower or softer, and really get something that blows you away. If you go see Slayer, you will be blown away. But you can also see Leonard Cohen and be blown away. So we’re just trying to figure out how to be intense in different ways. With the songs on Celebration Rock—there really aren’t 10 ways to play them well. There’s, like, one. But that’s one of the great things about these new songs—you could approach them at different shows in different ways.

    And ultimately, the kids will mosh to anything.

    BK: At one of the shows we just did in Vancouver, the crowd was having great fun and moving around, but the first time I actually saw two people crowd surf at the same time was when we hit our most mid-tempo song in the set. I thought we were taking a breather!


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    5-10-15-20: Danny Brown on the Music That Made Him

    Danny Brown is a sound archivist, compiling offbeat samples from across time and preserving them as the bedrock of his mad scientist take on hip-hop. Since 2011, he has been at the forefront of rap experimentation while remaining uniquely in tune with the genre’s roots, unifying classicists and progressives alike. His 2011 breakthrough, XXX, carried in it his tumultuous past, one riddled with drug use and distribution in his hometown of Detroit. He subsequently became a poster boy for zonked-out party rap, a role often at odds with his reality and his anxieties.

    The 35-year-old Brown, a late-bloomer, has had a career paved with misfortunes, arrests, and industry machinations. He spent the first half of his 30s making up for time lost to prisons and label executives in his 20s, rewriting the rules of what it means to have a successful rap career. His new album, Atrocity Exhibition, is meant as a sequel to XXX, a living document of an eventful chapter in his life, with influences ranging from Joy Division, Raekwon, Björk, Talking Heads, and more. He is constantly using different artists, albums, and songs as reference points in his life, as he explains below, recalling the sounds that molded him as a musician and a man, five years at a time.


    Run-D.M.C.: Raising Hell

    Around 1986, this was the album everybody was listening to everywhere you went. You couldn’t escape it. And it didn’t sound like nothing else. I’d heard rap music before that, but this was real minimal, raw, and in-your-face. I remember my family barbecuing and playing Raising Hell on the Fourth of July—when it came on, I stopped playing with the other kids and just sat there and listened to that album, back and forth, back and forth, flipping the tape over. I almost knew the entire thing by the time that day was over.

    Subconsciously, it [had an impact on the way I make music] because it taught me how to have an open mind, with them working with Aerosmith and everything. They was already crossing genres before I even thought about it. And they weren’t even being experimental like that because they didn’t even know what they was doing—they was just going with they heart and they ears. In some sense, Raising Hell was like my introduction to rock music.

    Scarface: Mr. Scarface Is Back

    I was just starting to write and rap then, in the fifth grade. And that’s when I heard Mr. Scarface Is Back for the first time. It scared the shit out of me. I’d never heard music that struck that emotion in me. He rapped with such conviction. I didn’t have no choice but to believe him. It was almost like a preacher type of thing; like he had a sermon going. My cousin had the Geto Boys album, too, but that didn’t strike me that same way as when I first heard the song “Mr. Scarface.” It had the Scarface sample on there and the beat was so crazy. It was shock value to me. It was like, What is this guy talking about?!

    Nas: It Was Written

    ’96 was one of the biggest years for me, especially becoming a rapper. I actually had a job at the time, which was rare; I didn’t really work jobs. But I lied on this application at this buffet—I was 14, but you’re supposed to be 16 to work in Michigan. I’d been working there for about a year when Nas’ It Was Written came out. I was already a super Nas fan: trying to dress like Nas, had my hair cut like him. I had to go to work the day it came out, but I remember buying the album at the mall and going back home and listening to it and just instantly saying: fuck work. I called in and they was like, “If you don’t come to work you getting fired,” and I was just like, “Well, fuck it then, I’m getting fired.” I lost that job to stay home and listen to Nas. It was the best decision I made in my life. That day, just sitting at the house listening to that album, made me say, Fuck everything—I’m going full-fledged with this rap thing.

    The White Stripes: “Hotel Yorba”

    I went to this spot in Detroit called The Old Miami and saw the White Stripes play there, and you could tell home people was dick-riding them! They was treating them like celebrities. I was wondering why people was acting like that, because I went there to see bands play all the time and I didn’t know about them. I lived in the neighborhood and I would just go hang out there and try to pick up girls and shit. Listening to the music, I couldn’t get into it at first, but then I heard “Hotel Yorba,” and I was like, “Fuck, this is so good.” On that one you could more get into the lyrics and the song because the drums wasn’t so loud and going crazy. I fell in love with them right there. And next thing I know they was on MTV. It changed my life in that sense of knowing that I seen these guys play in a dive bar in Detroit and now they on MTV and they was winning Grammys after that. They really gave me that inspiration that I could do it on my own terms.

    Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere

    I was in New York making mixtapes and trying to get my stuff going in 2006. It was a hard time in my life. I was going through a lot of shit. I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was fucking poor. And because I was so depressed and going through shit, the album that really sticks out to me was Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. That’s a classic to me. It helped me out. I went to jail like not too long after that, and that Gnarls Barkley shit was in my head all the time. I sang [The Odd Couple’s] “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” to myself and was really feeling like that. Imagine singing that to yourself in jail. I was really going through it, man. That’s not an easy time to relive.

    Around then I was really getting into Dilla, too, starting to respect how much of a genius he was, going back and doing my homework. Before that, I knew of his work from a distance, but I was probably being a hater; I wasn’t into Detroit rappers because I was trying to get my own shit going. But I came back to it because I didn’t have a sound and I didn’t know myself musically. So the best and easiest thing to do was to adapt to my environment. And what’s the sound of Detroit: J Dilla.

    At the time, [label reps] was trying to get me to do whatever was trendy. I wasn’t being able to spread my wings and be artistic. So I was like, “Fuck that, I’m gonna start rapping off these Dilla instrumentals.” That’s how [mixtape series] Detroit State of Mind came about—because I didn’t want to rap over fucking 50 Cent instrumentals.

    St. Vincent: Strange Mercy

    I listen to Strange Mercy a-fucking-lot. It’s so beautiful, man. She made something so fucking crazy. It’s a story to me. It’s a movie. It’s like the album’s a dominatrix. It wasn’t nasty and dirty like XXX was, but it was pretty much hitting on some of the same topics. There was some freaky, sexy-ass shit going on in that album, but you wouldn’t know that in layman’s terms—you had to dive inside of it. I liked her for that. I’m a huge fan of St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s a bad muthafucka, man.

    During that time I was experimenting, too. I don’t even remember [making XXX], but I do know that I wasn’t done with it. They forced me to put it out, they took it from me. But I’m glad they took it from me because I probably would’ve fucked it up. I’ve learned that you can overdo stuff just thinking about it too hard. XXX taught me just to rap, make songs, and don’t overthink shit. I recorded that album in two days. I didn’t have a budget. I just got with my friend who was working at a studio, and he would let me come in late at night once his shift was over and we would just record until six in the morning. The first night I tried to go as far as I could, but my voice went hoarse, so the next day I came back and I finished the rest.

    David Bowie: Blackstar

    Blackstar is definitely the biggest album to me this year. That album is fucking creepy. It scares the shit out of me. And those videos. Fuck. I kind of relate to it, to him. When you put that much of your life into music, can’t nobody ever take that—you can’t rate that. You can’t review this. He died for this. This is his life right here. When people talk about the best albums of the year, I be like, “Y’all don’t realized Bowie’s album came out this year and he fucking died? What is y’all talking about?” We should hands-down know what the best album of this year is. Shouldn’t be talk of nothing else.


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    Longform: I Voted: Artists Remember Casting Their First Ballot

    More than 130 million people are expected to vote in this year’s U.S. election. Polls suggest the race for the White House will be close. It has certainly been divisive. And yet if supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on anything, it’s the power of voting. Democrat or Republican, casting a ballot instills a sense of pride, of civic involvement, of being a part of something historic and humbling. With Election Day finally upon us tomorrow, we asked a range of musicians—of differing ages and backgrounds—to reflect on their first voting experiences, how it felt, and what it meant to them.


    Eleanor Friedberger

    My first memory of voting was in nursery school in 1980; I was 4 years old.  Our class was seated on the floor, and our teacher sat in a chair, holding up two magazines, each with a different old man on the cover. She asked us to raise our hands to vote for either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. I remember thinking “Ronald Reagan” sounded like “Ronald McDonald,” so I voted for him.

    I voted for the first time (legally) in 1996 when I was 20 years old and a junior at the University of Texas in Austin. Bill Clinton’s candidacy in ’92 was the first time I remember feeling genuinely excited about an election—probably, and mostly because, my parents truly loved him; it felt like a friend of my parents was running for office. When it came time to re-elect Clinton in ’96, I was grateful to be a part of the experience and join the club. It felt good to be a registered Democrat in such an overwhelmingly conservative state. Although I still wasn’t old enough to drink, I could vote, and that made me feel like a grown-up.


    Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart

    When I turned 18 I registered as a socialist. My parents thought I was being a grandstanding ass and that I would be arrested by latent McCarthyites. They were hippies when being a hippie meant something and they had seen the worst of what a dissenting opinion could bring upon a person.

    It was Bob Dole vs. Bill Clinton, and I waited by the mailbox to receive voting information from the socialist party. Nothing came, of course. I thought I was entering some sort of progressive club that would be happy to have me. It was the beginning of realizing that politics was a much thinner game that I had been led to believe.

    I was living in a weird stucco apartment complex that had enough people in it that there was a polling station right in the laundry room. My next-door neighbor was in line in front of me. As it was my first time, I was very excited, despite the recent understanding that “my” political party seemed to not care if I voted or not. My neighbor seemed annoyed by my vibratory anticipation.

    However, once in the booth, the gravity of what was taking place was clear, and I slowly and carefully went over the ballot. It was a tiny thing for a tiny person to say, but it felt important, and I felt fortunate in a way that up to then I had not. My mother had a friend who had been murdered in Guatemala for registering people to vote. The laundry room, at least on that day, was orderly and quiet. I wore my “I VOTED” sticker all week.


    “I remember thinking ‘Ronald Reagan’ sounded like ‘Ronald McDonald,’ so I voted for him. I was 4 years old.”
    Eleanor Friedberger

    John Prine

    I didn’t get to vote until ’68—I was 22 and already out of the army. This was before they passed the amendment to let 18 year olds vote. They finally figured out that if a kid could be drafted and sent to fight overseas, they should probably be able to vote too.


    Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace

    I’ve never actually voted in a voting booth. In my whole adult voting career, or whatever you want to call it, I have voted via absentee ballots. It’s strange: I have no memory of that experience of going into a polling place and filling something out. I’ve always been on tour.

    But the first time I voted, I voted for Ralph Nader. In 2000, more than any subsequent election, it seemed like there was more of a possibility of there being a third party, instead of there just being the same two parties every time. Voting in U.S. presidential elections in particular, you go into it with this feeling of real optimism, like it’s finally gonna make a difference. And then slowly, every four years, that feeling of optimism is kind of beaten out of you. The past eight years were restorative in a way, but having George W. Bush be the winner the first two times I voted was a disillusioning way to start things out.


    Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood

    My first time voting was quite unfortunate as it was 1982 in Alabama, and both options were unspeakably bad. George Wallace was running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor as a Democrat against hardcore right-winger Emory Folmar, who was running as a Republican. I had spent my entire life despising Wallace and all that he stood (in the schoolhouse doors) for; so it seemed like an easy choice. I enthusiastically campaigned for Folmar. Life, however, is complicated. And Alabama politics was and is a treacherous thing.

    Wallace won that election with over 90 percent of the black vote and served his final term as possibly one of the closest things to a progressive that Alabama ever elected. This was a few years before all of the so-called Southern Democrats defected to the Republican Party. Alabama is now a deep-red state, and although strides have certainly been made in terms of my home state’s reputation for racism, much of the institutionalized barriers to racial and social progress still exist, albeit cloistered in softer tones and words.

    I voted for one more Republican two years later when I voted for Reagan’s second term—a choice I have always regretted but learned much from. Much of my liberal and progressive positions are informed by my having been a reluctant and misguided conservative in my formative years.


    “I had registered as an independent, and I’ll never forget this angry old man at the voting booth telling me that I was just throwing away a vote; odd how I have recently become that angry old man.”
    Mark Eitzel

    Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic

    It was 1984 in Aberdeen, Washington. I was 19 years old and did not realize I had to register to vote. I simply walked down the hill to the polling place. It was a union hall. The people there were friendly and gave me a provisional ballot. On the wall, there was a giant, somber portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson. I took my ballot and voted for Walter Mondale because I was really into American hardcore music, and there was a lot of anti-Reagan rhetoric. Mondale lost bad. I have voted in almost every election ever since.


    Superchunk’s Laura Ballance

    It was in 1990. George Bush was president, and North Carolina was represented in the U.S. Senate by Jesse Helms, a most repugnant racist, homophobe, and general turd. It was a tough time for those of us with any political awareness in North Carolina. Superchunk had played a concert for an organization called Vanish (Voters Against North Carolina Incumbent Senator Helms) to try to help raise awareness among the rockers that they needed to get out and vote, and also raise money for [challenger] Harvey Gantt’s campaign. So I was really hopeful and excited to go vote against Helms myself.

    Once I got to the polls, though, I realized I was woefully unprepared. There were all these other races on the ballot that I did not know anything about, and I wound up voting for a lot of candidates based on their party. And if I had to choose between two Democrats, or if it was a nonpartisan race, I would vote for the woman. Not the best method. I felt pretty stupid. I had not realized that there were voter guides I could use as resources to prepare myself. My advice to all voters: Either do a lot of research before you go, or find an organization that you trust to help you figure out who to vote for in the down ballot races. All of them are really important!


    Heems

    I voted for the first time in 2008. The idea of a POC president who could potentially become a liberal equivalent of Reagan enthralled me. At the time I was working at a Wall Street research firm to pay off what financial aid didn’t cover at Wesleyan University. On Election Day I took the train home with a former boss of mine, a stockbroker who had always voted Republican, in many ways to appease his clients. He told me he had voted and that I was the one who convinced him to lean left this time, stressing a better future for his kids and a world where they could grow up having experienced a president who looked like them.

    But I actually hadn’t voted yet that day—after a round of taking Goldman bankers out to drinks, I was rather exhausted and figured: It’s New York, we’ll vote Democrat. But it was my mother, who worked so hard to become a citizen and gain the right to vote, who urged me to vote. She said I would regret it if I didn’t. So I went to the voting booths in Long Island to vote for Obama and every Working Families Party nominee there was.


    “When I think about how divided our country is right now, it can feel difficult to not want to demonize millions of people as selfish and unthinking. But most aren’t.”
    Local Natives’ Taylor Rice

    Mark Eitzel

    I first voted in Columbus, Ohio. I had just moved there from living in the UK for years and thought I was doing something very adult. I had registered as an independent because I thought that was the right thing to do. I’ll never forget this angry old man at the voting booth telling me that I was just throwing away a vote; odd how I have recently become that angry old man. I really don’t want to be him, but everything I have learned in my life tells me that Trump will be a complete disaster—both to the economy and to democracy. The best people are the ones who can tell a great story. The worst are those who think they are the great story.


    Local Natives’ Taylor Rice

    The first time I voted was in 2008. I was a senior at UCLA, and the Obama excitement was palpable. But it was a different vote that held the most weight for me: Proposition 8 of California, which aimed to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.

    I grew up in South Orange County, the ruby red capital of a blue liberal state. California may be known for its diversity, but the OC is not. With rare exception, people there are white, upper middle class (or rich), and they go to church. In my high school, “gay” was still an epithet, and not even really a harsh one. A mild slur, something like “you suck.” Except of course, there was something darker underneath it, a wink that you were being associated with a sexual deviancy utterly rejected by our conservative culture. Like so many of us, I had been taught that being gay was wrong. God didn’t want that, Jesus didn’t want that. So when Prop 8 came out, the “YES” signs went up on lawns all over my neighborhood.

    But by that point I had spent nearly four years in a liberal university, where I had met and befriended several gay students (there was only one openly gay kid at my high school). Simply by getting to know some gay human beings and questioning the cultural assumptions I grew up in, the issue had become so clear to me: Everyone deserves to be able to love who they love. When I cast my “NO” vote to protect the rights of gay people on November 4, 2008, it officially marked my emerging personal political identity, and a rejection of ideas I had been taught throughout childhood.

    When I think about how divided our country is right now, how incredible the extremes, it can be difficult not to feel bewildered and cynical about the future. It can feel difficult to not want to demonize millions of people as selfish and unthinking. But most aren’t. They just don’t know any Mexicans, or Muslims, or women (just kidding—harder to understand that one, but let’s not go there right now). How do you begin to see a refugee in need of help instead of seeing a potential terrorist? One way is that you meet one, or 10, or a hundred. Thousands of people band together, create a movement, and fight for every foot of ground. Gay rights were not achieved overnight, they were the culmination of decades of incredibly hard fought activism. The struggle continues today and there’s still a lot to do, but we can feel that we are at a tipping point. We lost the Prop 8 vote in 2008 and gay marriage became illegal, but that loss has since reversed and now love is the law of the land nationwide.


    Amanda Palmer

    I remember walking into my first polling station, a school, in 1994 and feeling a mixture of awe and disbelief. First thought: This is REALLY how it works? I fill in this little piece of paper and my opinion actually matters? Second thought: But that’s impossible. This all must be some giant voting joke that’s being played on us. Surely this one vote on this one piece of paper won’t actually count towards anything. Third thought: But obviously, if everybody thinks that, that’s why we’re fucked. A journey begins with a single step, a revolution begins with a single vote. And if you’d told me when I first voted that the country would see both a black and a female president by the time I was 40, my jaw would have hit the floor of that school. I hope we’re not so caught up in the bullshit of this election cycle that we don’t pan wide and realize how much progress we’re making incrementally. No, it’s not ideal. Like the people it’s supposed to represent, this democracy is bizarre, messy, imperfect. I’ll take it.


    “I understand the feeling of being so angry that you want to just burn the whole damn thing to the ground. But that’s not how life works. You do what you can.”
    Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner

    Moor Mother

    The first time I voted was in 2000, the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore election. The Republican convention was in Philly that year, and my friends and I felt disgusted that Bush was there. My friend Civil and I went to a rally that turned very violent, with so-called cops on horses running through the city with aggressive force and no respect for free speech or human beings. I learned a lot during that protest and left with the sense that no matter what happens or how we voted, Bush would be elected president, continuing the injustices his father and every so-called forefather started before him. I learned that we have a better chance at shaping local politics than presidential elections. I learned that there are a few good services and nonprofit lawyers that advocate for change at the local level, but even local governments can be corrupted. Examples of this corruption has shown itself in Philadelphia, from mass school closings, to the lack of housing rights for domestic violence survivors and single mothers, to the high lead amount in our water. But solutions to problems at the local level tend to sometimes inspire the federal level.


    Xiu Xiu’s Angela Seo

    I became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. when I was in college. My naturalization ceremony was at the Staples Center in L.A., and there were literally thousands of new citizens and their family members there, each waving a tiny plastic red, white, and blue U.S. flag. The flapping was incredibly loud.

    I voted for the first time a few months after that. As I did so, I could hear the sound of the thousands of tiny plastic flags flapping in the air, and the national anthem playing over a crackling PA as we took our Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. I felt pretty darn American casting my ballot that day.


    Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner

    I recently shared a ride to London’s Heathrow Airport with a British/Pakistani dual citizen who, like most foreigners I have encountered recently, was eager to talk about the U.S. election. He kept asking me, incredulously, why so many Americans don’t vote. I told him the story of the first election I participated in, which was 2004—the first presidential race since the ill-fated, drawn-out legal clusterfuck of 2000. I explained to him how the electoral college worked, and how George W. Bush took the 2000 election on a technicality that did not represent the popular vote (or my own preference). He was surprised that, even in America, the execution of democracy is not as pure as we are led to believe. But I also assured him that, despite my first opportunity to vote being overshadowed by the (extremely discouraging) previous election, and my choice not winning in 2004 either, I had voted in every election I could and would continue to do so. I understand the feeling of being so angry that you want to just burn the whole damn thing to the ground. But that’s not how life works. You do what you can.


    DJ Shadow

    The presidency had been in Republican control for the vast majority of my life in 1992, so casting a vote for Bill Clinton felt meaningful and empowering—like a generational mandate.

     


    “I am voting, strangely, because I do not believe in the system that brought us here. I am voting because I want more choices for our future.”
    Priests’ Katie Alice Greer

    Lucy Dacus

    I was too young to vote in the last presidential election, so I tried to compensate for it by campaigning for Obama and getting people registered to vote at festivals in Richmond, Virginia. Personally, I don’t think a U.S. citizen should have to register to vote—it should be a right that is granted once you turn 18, but you have to work with the rights you’ve got.

    This year I voted in the primary and left frustrated on all fronts. They sent me from polling station to polling station, unsure whether I should vote in the district of my old or new address. It seemed disorganized and pointless. And, in a way, voting is pointless as an isolated act. Its meaning relies so heavily on others that it’s easy to view your vote as negligible.

    Our system could use a makeover. The idea that our election process is democratic is essentially a farce, upheld by the general public’s ability to vote. But there’s an undeniable element of regret in the case of not voting and watching someone you don’t trust take office. That’s enough to encourage me to continue showing up at the polls.


    Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner

    The first time I voted was in 2008, for Barack Obama. I was attending Bryn Mawr College and the backdrop of one of my first East Coast autumns, and the beautiful, old stone buildings of my Seven Sisters’ campus made it feel all the more empowering and important. At Bryn Mawr, you’re especially aware of the rights you fought for as women. They took all the students in buses to go vote in machines at some stone church. For most of us, it was our first time voting, and it was an incredible experience to share.


    Priests’ Katie Alice Greer

    I have never voted for a president of the United States before. This was a matter of choice and not negligence. I canvassed for Barack Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2008 but eventually felt too uneasy and frustrated to cast my ballot on Election Day. I am still disenchanted with the idea of achieving useful change for people living in the U.S. through voting for one of two choices for president, but I am voting on November 8 because I do not want to see Donald Trump become president.

    The choice to vote and who to vote for is a very personal matter. Shaming people into voting is disgusting to me—it is in complete opposition to the struggle of voting rights activism that has extended this right for women, people of color, and anyone still disenfranchised by our country’s history of voter suppression. Voting is not a mandate. Voting is a choice that should be afforded to all adults living in the U.S.

    I’m typically uncomfortable with rhetoric that casts non-voters as ignorant and spoiled, or ingrates who should shut up after the election is over because they didn’t participate. It does not benefit you or anyone else in this country to believe the myth that the only single way to participate is to vote for a president once every four years. When taking into account daily actions, relationship to community, the ways we make and spend money, the ways we consume media and more, it seems clear to me that all of us are participating all the time. There are so many more matters that need attention from eligible voters long after the election is over. I am voting, strangely, because I do not believe in the system that brought us here. I am voting because I want more choices for our future.


    Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman

    My father was involved in Democratic party politics in Washington D.C. before I was born; he worked for some giants—Mo Udall, Jimmy Carter—and then the DNC. So I always wanted to vote and couldn’t wait until my first chance to do so. In 1990, I was 19 and voted for Congressman Peter DeFazio while I was a student at the University of Oregon, where Bratmobile first formed. I vote in every primary, local referendum, and national election. I can’t recall missing one. I can’t wait to cast my ballot on November 8. I’ll be lining up with my daughter at 6 a.m.


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    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: A Historical Shudder: Special Election Edition!


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    Longform: The Doctor Is In (Your Pocket): How Apps Are Harnessing Music’s Healing Powers

    Before it happened, it seemed like just another day. As usual, Sean headed to the gym. Partway through his workout, though, the 22-year-old came up from a squat and felt what he thought was a burst of water in his head. As blood began seeping into his brain, Sean wobbled over to the bench and struggled to keep himself upright. He was rushed into emergency surgery and spent 36 hours lying in a coma before waking up to discover that, following his stroke, he couldn’t move the left side of his body.

    After a few harrowing weeks last spring, Sean slowly began to regain mobility and started sessions with Brian Harris, an innovative music therapist at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Their biggest focus was getting Sean to walk again. The pair slowly padded up and down the hospital hallways, Sean tentatively moving forward as he retaught his body what had once been second nature. Harris walked backwards in front of him, playing the guitar to help Sean’s legs find their rhythm.

    Sean progressed quickly, and at the urging of Harris, he eventually took off his leg brace, discarded his hulking quad cane, and took proper, unassisted steps again for the first time. “It’s been so incredible for me,” Sean says about incorporating music into his rehabilitation therapy. Six months after that fateful day at the gym, he’s able to move relatively freely, as he did before. “It was huge in getting me to walk again.”

    While new findings coming out of labs continue to help us learn more about the health-related effects of music, the notion in itself is not new. Rhythm and melody have been part of ritualistic healing practices as far back as ancient times—in his book De Anima, Aristotle suggested that flute music could purify the soul. Music therapy as an organized clinical profession was conceived more fully after World War II, in response to the demand to treat returning veterans. And subsequent research has shown that most of us intuitively regulate our moods with music, from listening to a playlist that motivates us to run faster, to playing songs to help us relax before sleep.

    As the field moves forward, a number of tech companies are starting to make their way into the space where music and medicine meet. Their approaches are as diverse as the many ways that music can be applied to health and wellness, but their higher purpose is largely unified: to combine science and technology to empower people to self-medicate with music on an unprecedented scale.

    Sean’s therapist, Brian Harris, is part of this vanguard. Last August, he co-founded MedRhythms, a Boston startup that specializes in neurologic music therapy (NMT), a new field that officially emerged in 1999. The practice is centered around developing treatments based on research into the effect music has on nonmusical parts of the brain, like language, cognition, memory, or movement.

    Harris’ dedication to the field was acquired firsthand as an undergrad at the University of Maine, assisting the only private practicing music therapist in the state at the time. His first session was with a developmentally delayed boy in his late-teens who was functioning at the level of a toddler. Harris says that only 10 minutes into the music therapy, everyone witnessed higher levels of behavior than the patient’s everyday carers had ever seen.

    “At that moment I realized my calling in life was to do this work,” Harris remembers. “It wasn’t a magical response—we could figure out why this boy was having this response and we could really harness that power and replicate it for a lot of people.”

    NMT as practiced today is based on two main principles. The first is music’s ability to stimulate a whole range of different parts of the brain. “There’s no other stimulus on earth that provides such a global activation of our brains as music,” Harris says. The second is that music helps with neuroplasticity, that is, the way our brains constantly create new connections and strengthen old connections throughout our lives. Harris says research has even proven that music helps the brain heal itself by creating these new connections.

    Right now MedRhythms provides in-home NMT services, as well as in- and out-patient treatment out of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where Sean was treated. The company’s team of therapists works with people recovering from brain injuries, diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, and stroke. A series of videos on MedRhythms’ website show stories with what appear to be profound results—a man who couldn’t speak rediscovers his voice; after one session, another who could only muster up stilted steps with a cane takes strides without it.

    With a system in place to treat patients one-on-one, Harris is now focusing on using technology to take this treatment further than is currently humanly possible. The aim is to give people access to highly specialized therapy almost everywhere using a platform that’s as easy to play with as an everyday app. “We’re actually building software and hardware products that can do what our therapists are doing and think like our therapists think, but without the need of a therapist,” he says.

    The goal is to create an entire digital medicine platform, but to start, MedRhythms’ first prototype involves gait training similar to the therapy Harris conducted with Sean, helping people relearn how to walk. Paired with a small, customized tablet that MedRhythms will send out, patients will wear off-the-shelf sensors that feed data about the way they’re walking into the platform, which will then be able to interpret that data. For example, it will look at the speed at which they’re moving and change the music in real time based on exactly what they need to help them improve. According to Harris, the product will be up for FDA approval and clinical trials in the coming months.

    The ability to scale treatment like this while keeping it relatively cheap presents promise in a system where expenses consistently barrel much deeper than the pockets of the average American. “What we’re finding is that 30 percent of people who have had strokes still have deficits after their insurance benefits have run out,” Harris says. “We’re really empowering people in a low cost way to be able to continue their rehab.”

    An example of MedRhythms’ in-home music therapy; the company is developing technology that will allow people to take advantage of such techniques on their own.

    The Sync Project is another music and health startup based in Boston that CEO and co-founder Marko Ahtisaari describes most simply as “a biometric music recommendation engine.” They believe that music can be listened to for purpose as well as pleasure. For the past year Sync has been gathering data from multiple sources, like Spotify and voice-activated virtual assistants including Amazon’s Alexa, to make music recommendations based on a range of everyday health needs. This could mean generating playlists to help you focus and be productive, destress and relax, or gear you up for exercise and activity. Going deeper than a regular Spotify “sleep” playlist, these songs will be personalized while also having the right acoustic properties to do the job properly, as proved by biometric data.

    Sync’s team is propelled by considerable heavy-hitting power, led by Ahtisaari, the former head of product design at Nokia. And they’ve partnered with a smattering of category-defining researchers from top universities to ensure their work is steeped in hard science. On the music side, artists who use technology creatively, including St. Vincent, Peter Gabriel, and Jon Hopkins, sit on the board as advisors on product strategy, or how to package the music recommendations to people.

    “The Sync Project taps into two longstanding fascinations of mine,” Hopkins explains, “the ability of music to positively influence mood and consciousness, and using the mind-body connection to improve health and wellbeing. We as a species have long had an intuitive understanding that music has physical benefits, but now the science exists to back this up. The Sync Project is at the forefront of putting these findings into some kind of practical, usable form.”

    The platform can only make recommendations as good as the data they’re based on, so Sync has taken a very serious approach to collecting it. On the biggest end of the spectrum, this means analyzing tens of millions of public playlists that have names offering up health cues—such as “sleep” and “relaxation”—as well as inviting people to make music recommendations through their website. At the smallest end, Sync is looking at very specific and targeted studies in partnership with various researchers about how music can make a high intensity interval workout more effective, or how it can help to reduce physical pain. “There’s strong directional evidence that having music intervention after an operation leads to people self-administering less opioids,” Ahtisaari explains.

    Meaningful relationships with the scientific community are important to Sync, because when the chemistry is just right, it can be beneficial for everybody. Last summer they gathered 30 key players together for a convention around tech, music, health, and neuroscience. “We said to them, ‘What can we do to accelerate your research, and what are you missing in order to make breakthroughs?’” Ahtisaari recounts. The answer was a way to collect data at scale, in a natural setting that stands in contrast to a stark lab environment. Sync’s platform does just that.

    A data-collecting widget for The Sync Project, which uses biometric data to create playlists aimed at wellness.

    Dr. Jessica Grahn is an associate professor and cognitive neuroscientist studying music at Western University in London, Ontario, who’s developed a working relationship with Sync punctuated by mutual admiration. “They’re PhDs and they don’t want to sell crap,” she laughs. Grahn has devoted long hours to researching how the brain perceives rhythm, and how it helps people with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s to initiate movement. Together, Grahn and Sync are developing algorithms to accurately monitor the way people walk using information from their phones.

    Instead of trying to get participants to come to the lab, Grahn and her team can come to them—virtually. This essentially opens up a huge new way to collect information from people at home on a scale Grahn has never been able to achieve. “This will help us help individuals, because we’ll just have so much more information about different varieties of patterns that people have in their responses to music,” she explains.

    Sync’s platform is meant to be something you use every day; it’s designed to seamlessly fit into your life as you know it, and make it a little better. But as much as the platform is a product, it’s an ongoing experiment too. As more people begin using the recommendation service, the Sync team and their partnering scientists will receive more and more data to learn from—both from people giving feedback about how effective they found particular sets of music to be for a certain purpose, as well as over time with biometric sensors offering listener data during more targeted experiments. Equipped with this information, they’ll be able to strengthen their research and the effectiveness of the very platform itself while it’s being used.

    “The whole distinction between what’s an experiment versus a product kind of fades,” Ahtisaari says. “We’ll be continuing to gather data, but people will be able to use this and benefit from it at the same time.”

    BioBeats, a company that uses artificial intelligence to support wellbeing, essentially started when CEO and co-founder David Plans’ life nearly ended. A few years ago, the one time AI researcher arrived at an airport in Brussels running on very little except high stress—he hadn’t slept for 36 hours. He went into cardiac arrest then and there. As he was rushed to the hospital, paperwork pertaining to his death began to be prepared; after he was revived, a nurse gave him those same documents as a mortal reminder and told him it was time to make some changes.

    Plans started thinking about how he could have prevented the entire episode from happening. With his background in AI, he began exploring how algorithms could be written to monitor people’s bodies and minds to become an alarm system that would tell them when they were getting close to a breaking point before it happened.

    BioBeats’ focus is “adaptive media,” a term they’ve coined to describe technology that adapts and responds to a person’s physiologic data in real time. This new vernacular excited big-name interest early on, with Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun and Will Smith both signing on as investors. New York City-based Cantora, which started as a record label, putting out MGMT’s first EP, and has since grown its interests to include a smart tech portfolio, is also an investor and advisor.

    Pulse, BioBeats’ first release in 2013, was an experimental app that let you literally listen to your heart by creating music unique to your heartbeat. Their second, more established product is Hear and Now, a mindfulness and stress-reducing app released as a public beta earlier this year. By putting your finger on the camera flash of your phone, the app reads your heart rate. It then uses this data to guide you through breathing exercises, with generative music to help you relax, and graphics that sharpen the more accurately you’re able to follow along.

    Clinical trials that BioBeats recently completed with 600 bank employees in the UK emerged with promising findings. “Now we have data that shows that doing breathing exercises with that sort of biofeedback, both at the music and graphics level, definitely curbs stress by around 23 percent,” Plans says.

    Based on this recent study, the BioBeats team is working on developments for the next version of Hear and Now, such as several more music systems to expand the library of the existing app. A future iteration will also start targeting people who display particular emotional profiles with specific types of music, which will change depending on how they’re feeling.

    Another way to think about adaptive media is simply as preventative healthcare. With applications across almost everything that we interact with, from smart wearables and cars to products we use at home, the area feels big and promising. And as one of the most effective tools to help people understand what their own data is saying about them—and to tell them what to do next—music plays a key role. “Music actually helps at a biofeedback level where almost nothing else can,” Plans says, “including medical attention.”

    BioBeats is developing technology that adapts and responds to a person’s physiologic data in real time.

    While there is a lot of research pointing to music’s effectiveness as a mood and emotion regulator, it’s also being adapted to target very specific illnesses. Tinnitracks is a prescription app currently available in Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria to treat tinnitus with a patient’s own music from their smartphone. Led by Joerg Land, the co-founder and CEO of app development company Sonormed, the Hamburg-based team has maneuvered through the stringent rules and regulations of the country’s government-controlled health insurance system to become the first app reimbursed by a health insurer.

    Similarly to the other companies, Tinnitracks is built on research. The clinically proven therapy was originally created by the University of Muenster in Hamburg, but the task for Land and his team was to build technology to bring this treatment to people beyond the lab.

    The university’s studies, which have emerged over the past 10 years, posit that ringing in the ears is actually “ringing” inside the brain. The findings suggest that symptoms of tinnitus are due to hyperactivity of nerves within the structures of the brain that process sound. Thanks to neuroplasticity, this means the damage can be partially (or, in some cases reported by users, completely) reversed by using certain frequencies to precisely stimulate affected areas.

    So for around $20 a month, you can upload your own music to be analyzed by Tinnitracks to see if it’s suitable for treatment. And if it is, it will be filtered so that you can play the tracks on your phone as a form of treatment.

    Land says that the main challenge lay not in developing the technology, which took a year, but in getting German healthcare players onside, which took double that time. “In many cases, our product was the first digital product within the health system, so we needed to answer many questions,” he explains. Both the privilege and obstacle of being first meant interpreting regulations for physical medical devices and applying them to software and apps. There was also a large element of education for doctors, the gatekeepers recommending Tinnitracks to patients, who typically hadn’t seen apps being used in this way before.

    Land wouldn’t reveal Tinnitracks’ user numbers in full, instead saying that it’s currently “in the thousands.” Germans are used to getting their money back on most medical devices, and now with country-wide reimbursement from the largest health insurer, Tinnitracks anticipates interest and users to increase quite rapidly. “We have this big discussion in Germany around the quality of medical apps,” Land says. “Americans always talk about chance; Germans always talk about risk.”

    Tinnitracks has been eyeing the U.S. market for some time, and with the blessing of the German government in the form of funding, is preparing to bring the app Stateside.“The U.S. market is very interesting to us, but it’s also a very challenging market, because we basically need to start from the beginning,” Land says. It’s hard for him to pinpoint exactly when Tinnitracks will be available as the timelines shift and change, but he hopes to treat American tinnitus patients some time next year.

    Tinnitracks is a German app that uses music to help treat tinnitus.

    As varied as these startups are, all of them take a very careful approach to dispensing music as medicine, creating products steeped in science. Together they’re working to make music part of our health and wellbeing at a cost that everyone can afford, for everyone to enjoy.

    But as interest in this area expands, and more companies join in, not all of them will have the same noble intentions. A scientific voice of reason, Dr. Grahn also points out that as much as it presents possibility, we always have to be smarter than the technology we’re using—especially when it comes to our health. “It also opens up a lot of garbage unfortunately,” she says with a laugh. “So much of what is out there is not based on any sort of evidence whatsoever. The trick will be for people to be able to tell the difference.”


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    From the Pitchfork Review: God Is on the Loose! How the Tropicália Movement Provided Hope During Brazil’s Darkest Years

    The following story is featured in the new Music and Politics issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review.


    Draped in lime green and black plastic, choked by necklaces made of electrical cords and alligator teeth, Caetano Veloso was ready for the Festival International de Canção, a year-old original-song competition meant to foster cultural exchange. It was September 15, 1968, and the singer and his backing band Os Mutantes—looking and sounding like they had just crashed to planet Earth—were set to perform before a boisterous crowd of students. But “É Proibido Proibir” (“Prohibiting is Prohibited”) was no ordinary song. The pop provocation, which was inspired by leftist riots in Paris earlier that year, opened with atonal noise, and Veloso had his sights on the conservative student audience as he began to sway his hips provocatively. As he wrote in his 1997 memoir Tropical Truth, “The hatred... on the faces of the spectators was fiercer than I could have imagined.” As the strange new song started, the crowd turned their backs on the band.

    Veloso’s friend and close ally Gilberto Gil had already been booed and instantly disqualified from the contest for his Jimi Hendrix-inspired new single “Questão de Ordem” (“Points of Order”), yet Veloso brought him onstage to protest the festival, its audience, and the future of Brazil itself. As you can hear on “Ambiente De Festival,” a live recording of this moment, the performance was as raw as any punk single, the audience’s roar a terrifying din. In turn, Veloso launched an invective at the crowd: “So, you’re the young people who say they want to take power! If you’re the same in politics as you are in music, we’re done for! Disqualify me with Gil. The jury is very nice, but incompetent. God is on the loose!” The musicians were then pelted with cups, fruit, eggs, and chunks of wood. As they left the theater to screams, they worried about what other forces had shaken loose that night.

    Tropicália was a movement that lasted just short of a year, spanning from Hélio Oiticica’s 1967 art installation of the same name, wherein viewers walked along a tropical sand path only to come face-to-face with a television set, to the debut of a TV show, wherein its constituents buried the movement on-air. But Tropicália’s influence was vast. A loose collective that included Veloso, Gil, Os Mutantes, vocalist Gal Costa, songwriter-composer Tom Zé, bossa nova singer Nara Leão, Brazilian-pop performer Jorge Ben, arranger Rogério Duprat—along with visual artists, experimental poets, playwrights, and filmmakers—these creatives modernized Brazilian culture just as the country’s ruling military junta began to strangle democracy and expression. Tropicália produced only a handful of albums and a compilation, but it went on to transform Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), along with future generations from Brazil and around the world. As author Christopher Dunn put it in Brutality Garden, his 2001 book on the movement, this was “simultaneously an exciting period of counter cultural experimentation and severe political repression.”

    The ’60s were a fraught time for Brazil, and the Tropicalistas struck a precarious balance between political extremes. In 1962, Brazilian president João Goulart took office and attempted to move his country to the left with a series of reforms. By April Fool’s Day, 1964, a CIA-assisted military coup d’état toppled his administration and moved the country to the far right. In this climate, artists had to walk a thin line between the communist left and the increasingly prohibitive military regime on the right.

    On one side, students and intellectuals protested that their art and music was insufficiently political, crassly embracing American pop culture instead of Brazilian music, while the other side was concerned they weren’t nationalist enough. Imbibing the heady works of Bob Dylan, Jean-Luc Godard, Pink Floyd, Luis Buñuel—as well as taking in the revolts in France and the rise of the Black Power movement in the U.S.—the Tropicalistas amalgamated the countercultural trends of the decade and brought them to bear on their own heritage. Os Mutantes’ 1968 ritualistic rocker “Bat Macumba” succinctly contains the collective’s concerns: Written by Veloso and Gil, it evokes Bahian religious cults macumba and candomblé as well as Batman. On paper, the lyrics reveal their concrete poetry roots; the words even look like bat wings.

    “The idea of cultural cannibalism fit Tropicalistas like a glove; we were ‘eating’ the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” Veloso said later. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” In the lineage of 20th century Brazilian music, Tropicália intermingled with outside sounds in much the same ways as its predecessors had: Samba took in Argentinean tangos and American foxtrot; bossa nova dug West Coast jazz; and Jovem Guarda was the sound of American rock’n’roll. Tropicalistas chewed the blotter of ’60s psychedelia and brought these kaleidoscopic visions to bear on their love for colorful film star Carmen Miranda, the drunken drums of Carnival, and underpinning it all, João Gilberto’s bossa nova.

    The movement took root in the oppressive shadow of the junta. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes disposed president Goulart as “an economic nationalist committed to land redistribution, higher salaries, and a daring plan to force foreign multinationals to reinvest a percentage of their profits back into the Brazilian economy”—three notions that sought to bridge the gap between rich and poor. It was a plan decidedly at odds with the American government and economist Milton Friedman’s influential theories, which instead touted deregulation, hyper-inflation, and the privatization and outsourcing of a country’s natural resources to multinational corporations, plus cutbacks on all social programs.

    From the mid-’60s into the ’90s, throughout the Southern Cone, the brutal, CIA-approved, corporation-funded, U.S.-friendly regimes of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Videla in Argentina, and President Artur da Costa e Silva in Brazil were in firm control, and Friedman’s caustic theories were mercilessly put into practice. Hundreds of thousands of deaths and “disappearances” followed those who opposed such measures throughout South America—be they union leaders, academics, or students.

    But according to Klein, President Costa e Silva almost made a tactical error, imposing these punitive measures in half-steps: “There were no obvious shows of brutality, no mass arrests… the junta also made a point of keeping some remnants of democracy in place, including limited press freedoms and freedom of assembly. By 1968 the streets were overrun with anti-junta marches… and the regime was in serious jeopardy.”

    The scene on the streets of Rio de Janeiro circa 1969. Photo by J. Messerschmidt/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

    At first, the military’s measures didn’t overtly affect Tropicália—the movement’s inherent playfulness allowed artists to elude censors with urbane pop cultural references and to comment slyly on the state of affairs. Tropicália’s incisiveness might be best summed up in the title of Tom Zé’s “Catechism, Toothpaste and Me,” where the newly instilled consumer capitalism replaced Catholicism in the minds of middle-class Brazil. Similarly, an early Veloso love song subbed in the glow of an Esso gas station sign for the moon, seemingly embracing the American multinational petroleum giant, yet also winking at how increased consumerism had altered the landscape in the wake of the coup.

    And then there was Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circencis” (“Bread and Circuses”). It was both the band’s dizzying debut and the subtitle of the epochal Tropicália compilation album, which featured Veloso, Gil, Costa, and Zé—and served as a loose group manifesto, the Sgt. Pepper’s of Brazil. “Panis” took the title from Roman poet Juvenal’s line about the means of appeasement for mass culture (perfect for a three-minute pop song). Even if you don’t speak Portuguese, it’s a stunning sonic confection: triumphant horn fanfare, dreamy vocal pop that turns into a psychedelic fuzz bomb. Midway through, the song suddenly melts like film stuck in a projector, ending in a chaotic din of silverware, musique concrete noise, and Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz.” But under that racket lies Rita Lee’s pointed critique of the bourgeoisie class, complacent during the coup: “I tried to sing/My illuminated song… but the people in the dining room are busy being born and dying.”

    Even amid the whimsy of the Tropicalistas, the local air of violence began to creep into their lyrics. Gil’s “Miserere Nóbis” tucked in references to stains of wine and blood and ends with gunshots and booming cannons. Dulcet bossa nova singer Gal Costa, later an adult contemporary MPB superstar, grew wilder and more psychedelic, roaring out a warning on “Divino Maravilhoso” about paying attention to the blood on the ground. (Her 1969 album Gal is the equivalent of Barbra Streisand recording with Boredoms and remains one of the heaviest documents of Tropicália.)

     

    The cover of the 1968 compilation album that defined the Tropicália movement, featuring Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and others.

    As 1968 dragged on, the situation in Brazil worsened. Industrial strikes and student marches became frequent and armed guerrilla groups formed in the jungles. Veloso, Gil, and other well-known Brazilian singers, actors, and authors participated in Passeata dos cem mil (March of One Hundred Thousand) in Rio, which the police violently crushed. The climate turned increasingly fraught as the military struggled to keep control. Death squads began to prowl the streets and, as noted in Brasil: Nunca Mais—a report published in 1985 that reckoned with the dictatorship’s torture record—extralegal police forces renowned for their sadism also appeared, funded “by contributions from various multinational corporations, including Ford and General Motors.” By December, President Silva instituted AI-5, a bill that shuttered the National Congress, imposed strict censorship on media, and suspended habeas corpus.

    “Military authorities either ignored Brazilian popular musicians or exalted them as international representatives of Brazilian culture,” wrote Dunn. But as the year went on, the Tropicalistas began to garner unwanted attention from the authorities. As Veloso told Dunn: “The military didn’t know what to make of it—they didn’t know whether it was a political movement or not—but they saw it as anarchic and they feared it.” The Tropicalistas and their irreverence were more dangerous to the regime than any protest song.

    Two weeks after AI-5 went into effect, the police arrived at Veloso’s home to arrest him and Gil. The two singers were imprisoned for two months, put into solitary confinement, unable to contact their friends and family. In Veloso’s recollection, he verged on madness during that time—neither interrogated nor charged with any crime, instead left in a purgatorial state that he compared to a bad ayahuasca trip, uncertain if normalcy would ever return to his life.

    Only near the end of their imprisonment did Veloso finally learn how they had run afoul of the dictatorship. Soon after the riot at Festival International de Canção, the disqualified Veloso, Gil, and Os Mutantes played a concert in Rio under a banner also designed by Oiticica. It featured the body of slain favela gangster Cara de Cavalo, one of the first victims of the death squads, with the caption “Seja marginal, seja heroi” (“Be a criminal, be a hero”). In the weeks after, that performance became distorted by radio and television personality, Randal Juliano, “a demagogue in the fascist style who courted the dictatorship,” as Veloso put it. Juliano embellished the details of the night to stoke the flames of outrage, saying the Tropicalistas slandered the flag and national anthem. Juliano directly asked the military to make an example of them, and it complied.

    Ultimately, Veloso and Gil were released without incident, but forbidden to perform in public (a far worse fate befell singer Victor Jara in Chile, who was tortured and executed, his body left in the street). Unable to play concerts—outside of one performance to raise money for their plane fare out of the country—they were exiled from Brazil and, for the next four years, resided in London. Both recorded English albums while living there, but that bright, vivacious sound of their earlier work was noticeably muted, even as they drew on English rock and a sound picked up from Caribbean immigrants, reggae.

    In January 1972, no longer perceived as a threat by the military, the two were allowed to return to their homeland for good, now hailed as heroes by their fans. But much like their fellow Tropicalistas, they too had moved on from that era-defining sound. Gal Costa became the most famous of the collective, while Os Mutantes frontwoman Rita Lee struck out on a successful solo career, and the remaining members of the group delved more into complicated progressive rock moves. The irascible Tom Zé continued to make itchy, prickly, idiosyncratic music, at times rendering samba rhythms out of blenders and belt sanders.

    Even as the country’s nationalism was at a peak (thanks to the Pelé-led national team winning their third World Cup title in 1970), it was a depressed time for artists. As torture, exile, censorship, and murder suppressed anything approaching outspokenness, the post-Tropicália years became “vazio cultural” (cultural void) or “the suffocation.” And while the Tropicalistas became beloved stars in Brazil and even enjoyed acclaim in the U.S., as the recent impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the near-calamitous 2016 summer olympic games make clear, the rampant corruption and great disparity between rich and poor maligns the country to this day.

    But even in its immediate wake, the sonic example of Tropicália continued to resonate. A new generation of Brazilians sprang up and made adventurous MPB, from rocker Raul Seixas to commune hippies Os Novos Baianos and the feather-boa-clad Secos & Molhados. And when David Byrne reissued a compilation of Tom Zé’s music in 1990 (and Os Mutantes’ in 1999), he opened up a new generation of alternative and indie musicians to Brazil’s sonic delights, with artists ranging from Beck to Nelly Furtado to Panda Bear all smitten by its charms. More recently, São Paulo’s “samba sujo” scene has garnered notice, contributing to Elza Soares’ acclaimed 2016 LP A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo (The Woman at the End of the World)—and acts like Passo Torto, Thiago França, and Metá Metá prove that Tropicália’s mutant spirit is still vital.

    The art experiment enacted by these young musicians didn’t conquer the dictatorship, though it provided hope and light in the country’s darkest years. As Veloso noted, he and his friends strived to get out from under the shadow of the American Empire and to elevate Brazil to world prominence: “Tropicalismo wanted to project itself as the triumph over two notions: one, that the version of the Western enterprise offered by American pop and mass culture was potentially liberating… and two, the horrifying humiliation represented by capitulation to the narrow interests of dominant groups, whether at home or internationally.” Almost 50 years later, the vibrant sound and indomitable spirit the Tropicalistas conjured is still out there, ready to be activated.


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    Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Holiday Songs of All Time

    Holiday music gets a bad rap, understandably. The way it saturates radio and commercial spaces, seemingly starting earlier each fall, it can feel inescapable—and a lot of it can be trite. So it’s easy to feel disenchanted. But when it came time to put together a list of our holiday favorites, we were surprised that even some of our most dedicated freaks of outré sound still had a warm place in their hearts for this music. So we polled our contributors for the best and most interesting holiday tracks, and here are the results.

    But first, here to share her earliest holiday memories is a legend of Christmas music...


    SANTA ON MY MIND
    By Ronnie Spector

    There are two passions that have remained with me since I was a little girl growing up in Spanish Harlem: performing, specifically singing rock’n’roll onstage, and Christmas. I don’t recall which came first.

    I guess entertaining my family did. My uncle would put a lightbulb in an old Maxwell House coffee tin; that would be my spotlight and I would jump up on the table and sing. I was 5 years old.

    Around that time, I remember reading a book about Christmas in our apartment. On the page was Santa with his snow-white beard, in his red suit with fluffy white trim, sitting on his sleigh with a giant sack of toys. Wow! I flipped a few more pages, and I saw Santa’s black boots coming down the fireplace. Oh no—I didn’t understand this. How would I get my toys if we didn’t have a chimney, let alone a fireplace? I jumped up, ran out of the room, calling, “Daddy, Daddy!” My dad answered: “Yes, Butchie?” I asked frantically, “How is Santa going to get here with my toys, Daddy? We don’t have a fireplace.” Daddy looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, Butchie, when Santa is in New York City, he uses the fire escape.” Oh boy, what a relief! I ran into the kitchen, got out the milk and cookies, put them out on the fire escape, and went to bed dreaming of Santa. And I have been dreaming ever since.

    Ronnie, left, with her sister (and future fellow Ronette) Estelle on tricycle

    Every September, I started getting the Christmas itch. I couldn’t wait to go with my Dad over to Broadway to pick out our tree, and then I made my mom take me down to Macy’s so I could sit on Santa’s lap. There was a long line of people—I couldn’t even see Santa. My mom was a waitress, and on her feet all day, but she didn’t want to disappoint me. When I finally got my chance, wearing my red dress, I’d jump onto Santa’s lap and start telling him about the doll I wanted for Christmas. Then he told me I would get it if I was a good girl—but instead, once, I got a Kewpie doll. Oy!

    Back in the late ’40s, the Christmas music on the radio was all standards, such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. My parents liked that, but not me. I think the first Christmas record I liked was “White Christmas” by the Drifters. It tells you both things you need to make a great Christmas record: a good singer and a great arrangement. You hear that deep voice of Bill Pinkney of the Drifters in the beginning, and then, all of a sudden, that joyful and amazing voice of Clyde McPhatter coming in: “I-yay-yay I’m dreaming…”

    The Ronettes' cover of Elegant Teen magazine, 1966

    I was lucky enough to record about nine or ten Christmas records, and six of them get played on the radio still. But it’s the ones I recorded with my group the Ronettes in 1963 that will probably outlive me, and it’s because of the incredible arrangements of Jack Nitzsche. Just listen to “Sleigh Ride”—that says it all.

    Just like when I was a kid, I still wait for Christmas each year—for the brightly colored lights, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa. And the best Christmas gift for me is when I am driving at home in Connecticut to get milk and cookies for Santa, I turn on the radio and hear my version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”…and I think to myself, Santa has been pretty good to me all these years.

    Ronnie Spector is a singer-songwriter, author, and the lead vocalist of the Ronettes.


    The Flaming Lips / Imagene Peise

    “Silver Bells”

    Warner Bros., 2007

    50

    The Flaming Lips may employroadies dressed like Santa Claus and have a high-concept, low-budget sci-fi film called Christmas on Mars, but they only have one holiday album—sort of. Released initially under the name Imagene Peise, Atlas Eets Christmas treats Silver Bellsand other familiar tracks like the mid-century pop standards they are. Centered around the piano of Steven Drozd and blurred together by a fake vinyl crackle, other accoutrements like mellotron, sitar, and bells leak in subtly, as if barely there at all.

    According tothe liner notes, “Peise” released his collection of Iraqi piano jazz before committing suicide in 1978; the Lips’ weirdness, however, remains eternal. Like a prankster trying to keep a straight face, or strange hallucinations flickering at the periphery of one’s vision, Atlas Eets Christmas sounds beamed in from the universe next door, where the holiday traditions are all the same but the color scheme is different. –Jesse Jarnow

    Listen:The Flaming Lips/Imagene Peise: “Silver Bells”

    Kanye West [Ft. Cyhi Da Prynce and Teyana Taylor]

    “Christmas in Harlem”

    Roc-A-Fella, 2010

    49

    This is arguably the best “holidays come to the ‘hood” song of all time (sorry, “Christmas in Hollis”). The soulful swag of Teyana Taylor’s vocals glazing Kanye West’s Marvin Gaye-sampling production might lead you to believe this 2010 posse carol exists outside of time, that it’s been preserved inside a snowglobe where Cam’ron braves the swirling flakes in a white fur cape and ushanka as he strolls regally past a miniature Apollo Theatre. Jim Jones peers from a shop window in his Hennessy-stained Santa suit, which hangs open to reveal his Dipset chain. Despite Jones’ red-rimmed eyes, he is a reassuring presence, making sure all the kids have toys, growling, “Let’s make a toast ‘cause Christ is born/We gon’ party til the lights come on.” Whatever your spiritual outlook or geographic location, just shake this little ball of silvery bling any time you need to be reminded: It’s a wonderful night to be alive, baby. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton

    Listen:Kanye West [Ft. Cyhi Da Prynce and Teyana Taylor]: “Christmas in Harlem”

    Clarence Carter

    “Back Door Santa”

    Atlantic, 1968

    48

    Clarence Carter worked his way up the ranks at the legendary Muscle Shoals soul studio into Atlantic Records’ roster; there, his pleading love songs (“Slip Away,” “Too Weak to Fight”) cracked through the R&B charts and into pop crossover fame. His entry for Atlantic’s Soul Christmas collection is more Penthouse letter than romance novel, though. It’s a hectic, slyly salacious effort: Alongside a blaring horn intro (that would later be sampled on Run-DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis”), Carter packs military drum rolls, casual down-home asides (“Lookit here!”), classic blues progressions, and enough raunchy imagery to stuff a stocking. (He flits between embracing the “back door,” giving ladies his “presents,” and needling St. Nick for only coming once a year.) If you’re sick of Christmas commercialism, Carter—who still tours today at 80 years old—can be doubly appreciated for his randy embrace of the season. –Jason Gross

    Listen:Clarence Carter: “Back Door Santa”

    Sufjan Stevens

    “Christmas in the Room”

    Asthmatic Kitty, 2012

    47

    Since 2001, Sufjan Stevens has recorded and released more than 100 Christmas songs. But the Christian artist isn’t just reeling off reams of standards to satiate the faithful, or cashing in with big band renditions like some kind of PerryComoin a tight thrift-store tee. Instead, he often spikes his holiday tunes—both originals and covers—with the season’s signature blend of conflicted feelings. These odes bring out the comforting smell of pine needles along with the dampness of slushy socks, the merry warmth of generosity as well as the nagging nostalgia of those childhood revelries of yore.

    “Christmas in the Room,” Stevens’ best Yuletide original, is about a couple trying to conjure the holiday spirit without all of the typical trappings: “No parties planned, no place to go/It’s just the two of us alone.” The bare instrumentation matches the mood, with Stevens’ acoustic guitar soundtracking a Christmas without mistletoe, malls, silver bells, Santa, or even family. The idea seems so simple and yet so stark: The holiday is what you make of it, and the spirit can be found in another person, within four walls. –Ryan Dombal

    Listen:Sufjan Stevens: “Christmas in the Room”

    Toots & the Maytals

    “Happy Christmas”

    Jaguar, 1972

    46

    Christmas isbashment time in Jamaica, and every holiday season sees a wave of new tunes and choreography unveiled at the massive dances held in celebration. The result is a deep catalog of island holiday classics spanning decades and styles, ranging from reggae-fied versions of the standards to original badman carols.

    Toots & the Maytals’ “Happy Christmas” stands head, shoulders, and lung-power above the rest. (It’s on the Dynamic Sounds compilation Christmas in the Tropics—worth tracking down forthe cover alone.) The country chapel brand of gospel that powers Toots lends itself perfectly to the Christmas theme; his booming Pentecostalist fervor, underpinned by church bells and skanking guitar, is guaranteed to transform the stiffest office holiday party into a hand-clapping revival meeting. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton

    Listen:Toots & the Maytals: “Happy Christmas”

    Louis Armstrong

    “Christmas in New Orleans”

    Decca, 1955

    45

    Louis Armstrong recorded several holiday numbers—this one, written by Richard Sherman and Joseph Van Winkle, has the distinction of containing some of Satchmo’s ecstatic, bluesy swagger. (Not always a guarantee, in the field of theme and novelty recordings.) Officially a collaboration between the jazz virtuoso and Benny Carter’s orchestra, this performance ismostly led by Armstrong’s “All Stars” ensemble; that working band hadjust producedtwo buoyant LPs for Columbia, and the support they offer Armstrong here keeps the track from becoming too cutesy. Pianist Billy Kyle plays the blues behind Armstrong’s gravelly verses, and drummer Barrett Deems provides subtle but authoritative swing during the bandleader’s trumpet solo. Thirty years after Armstrong changed jazz forever with hisfirst singles, his technique here proves that he was still a gift not only to the sound of New Orleans but to the rest of the world—and to the holidays, to boot. –Seth Colter Walls

    Listen:Louis Armstrong: “Christmas in New Orleans”

    Destiny’s Child

    “Carol of the Bells a.k.a. Opera of the Bells”

    Columbia, 2001

    44

    In 2001, Destiny’s Child were the biggest girl-group in pop, presiding with three-part harmonies, deconstructed R&B, and sharp celebrations of autonomy and self-love. That spring, the trio released their third studio album, Survivor—their first with the classic lineup of Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams, and an adventurous blend of hip-hop, soul, blues, and gospel.

    During a year that took the trio around the world, they also found time to record 8 Days of Christmas, a 12-track album that mixes holiday standards with originals. It’s similarly wide-ranging, full of joy and tension, rich harmonies, and percussive vocal lines. The singers share lead duties, and it’s also one of the first times the world heard from Beyonce’s 15-year-old sister, Solange, in a smooth take on “Little Drummer Boy.” Its highlight is the group’s epic a cappella rendering of the ominous Christmas classic “Carol of the Bells,” here retitled “Carol of the Bells a.k.a. Opera of the Bells.” In its grand sweep, Destiny’s Child belt out lush chords and bustling staccato melodies, weaving in and out of each other with weight and light. It’s 8 Days of Christmas’ closing track, but an apt entry point into an essential collection. –Liz Pelly

    Listen:Destiny’s Child: “Carol of the Bells a.k.a. Opera of the Bells”

    Dolly Parton

    “Hard Candy Christmas”

    RCA, 1982

    43

    Dolly Parton has recorded enough holiday material to keep an enthusiast occupied until Valentine’s Day, but her cover of “Hard Candy Christmas,” written by Carol Hall for the 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, feels particularly potent. It’s not an overt holiday song, but ever since Parton recorded the track for its film adaptation, it has become a country staple in December, and its meditation on keeping a stiff upper lip is worth internalizing as 2016 comes to a long-awaited end.

    What starts as an acoustic dirge about uncertainty becomes a twangy anthem for accepting and adapting to changed circumstances: “I'll be fine and dandy/Lord it's like a hard candy Christmas/I'm barely getting through tomorrow/But still I won't let/Sorrow bring me way down,” she muses. While some of the best holiday tracks focus on the sneaky sadness of forced holiday cheer, Parton’s tremulous declaration adds some much-needed optimism to what can be a wholly depressive season. Plus, frankly, there just aren’t enough Christmas songs about prostitutes. –Cady Drell

    Listen:Dolly Parton: “Hard Candy Christmas”

    Loretta Lynn

    “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus”

    Decca, 1966

    42

    The always prolific Loretta Lynn released three albums in 1966—including her chart-topping, You Ain’t Woman Enough that September. The following month, she released Country Christmas, which was filled mostly with staples like “Away in a Manger” and “White Christmas.” But the enduring song from the release is one of a handful of original compositions written by Lynn, “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus.”

    Twangy and brimming with country sass, “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus” is explicitly about wishing ill will on the chimney-hopper who holds out on bringing her presents. More subtly, it’s a song about seasonal disappointments, holiday childishness, and not getting the thing you hoped for most on Christmas Day. As Lynn sings, “When he goes dashin’ through the snow, I hope he falls,” it’s almost pouty. She is snotty and petulant, with snappy quips that seek bodily harm as cosmic justice for being duped, but she’s redeemed by her bittersweet cheekiness. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen:Loretta Lynn: “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus”

    Stevie Wonder

    “What Christmas Means to Me”

    Tamla, 1967

    41

    “What Christmas Means to Me” is Wonder’s signature Christmas statement; in it, he seeks to define nothing less than Christmas spirit itself. It was co-written by Anna Gordy Gaye—elder sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, and inspiration for her ex-husband Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear—as well as George Gordy and Allen Story. The song was released on Wonder’s only Christmas album, Someday at Christmas, alongside such other Yuletide staples as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silver Bells.”    

    Wonder sets a placid scene in “What Christmas Means to Me”: carolers trudging door-to-door through the snow, the fluorescent glow of ornaments strung together, filling the tree with “angel hair.” These things remind most of us of Christmas—the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding any nativity scene, the warmth emanating from hearth and home. But those are set dressings for more intangible things Wonder craves, in which his vocals truly soar: “Even though I love ya madly/ It seems I love you more/ And little cards you give me/ Will touch my heart for sure.” In his joy, he lands on the feelings we all revel in from the holidays: being eager, being giddy, being loved. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen: Stevie Wonder: “What Christmas Means to Me”

    Bob Marley & the Wailers

    “White Christmas”

    Supreme, 1965

    40

    You could be forgiven for reading this cover title as an ironic selection from the band, given the amount of spiritual energy both reggae and Rastafarianism have invested in uncoupling the equation of “white” with purity and “black” with sin. But the earnest, vulnerable rasp of a young Bob Marley sandpapers away any possibility of ironic distance when the needle drops on this rocksteady gem. The slow, doo-wop and jazz-inflected skank of the Wailers in their The Birth of a Legend phase transports listeners of any nationality to the simpler optimism of post-independence Jamaica, tinged with the wistfulness of a teenager in love—or in this case, one’s who’s never seen snow, dreaming of postcard-perfect prosperity. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton

    Listen: Bob Marley & the Wailers: “White Christmas”

    Aaliyah performs in 1998; Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

    Aaliyah

    “The Christmas Song”

    N/A, 1997

    39

    No other singer could deliver this definitive version of “The Christmas Song,” could combine the understated warmth of Nat King Cole’s 1961 recording with the heartbreaking power of a little girl singing in church. The 18-year-old Aaliyah’s flawless, subtly ornamented performance for First Couple Bill and Hillary Clinton is laced with revelations. First: The core of her pop success, underneath all the tomboy clothes and edginess, rested on Whitney Houston-levels of vocal talent and control. Another: While previous versions of the tune may still be grandfathered in, she effectively retired its jersey with this performance. By the time Aaliyah dances around the notes of the last “to you” in perfect pitch, even Santa Claus believes in her. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton

    Listen:Aaliyah: “The Christmas Song” [Live]

    The Pretenders

    “2000 Miles”

    Real, 1983

    38

    “2000 Miles” isn’t a Christmas song in the traditional sense. It isn’t even as much about Christmas as it is the many things the holiday can represent symbolically for someone in mourning: a period of rebirth, a catalyst for reminiscence, a minefield of triggers, or all three. More than anything, though, it’s about the insurmountable distance of loss, and the intense emotional state of managing grief while surrounded by revelers.

    Chrissie Hynde wrote “2000 Miles” after Pretenders’ founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure induced by cocaine use. The song seems to eulogize the late musician, likening a nostalgic, dreamlike state to that Christmas feeling. “In these frozen and silent nights/Sometimes in a dream you appear/Outside under the purple sky… It felt like Christmas time,” Hynde sings. It’s a touching tribute to holidays spent missing someone just out of reach. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen: The Pretenders: “2000 Miles”

    John Fahey

    “What Child Is This?”

    Takoma, 1968

    37

    Who could accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of making Christmas music sound strange and alien? Who could scour off the mustiness of Hallmark cards and plastic wreaths and bring back the scent of barn hay, the urgency of a huddled family, the auspiciousness of a fragile birth? John Fahey’s inimitable guitar arrangements of Christmas standards sound like a church we’ve never entered, the one united in profound, inexpressible feeling.

    “What Child Is This?” in particular brings this mythical feeling to the fore: It is slowed down to a near-hallucinatory tempo, as if it is being distantly remembered instead of merely played, and given a near-funereal pallor. It conjures the frightening seriousness that some of this music can impart to little children, with its transcendent and apocalyptic overtones. What was once a jingle is once again a draft of cold air from the beyond. –Jayson Greene

    Listen:John Fahey: “What Child Is This?”

    Cocteau Twins

    “Frosty the Snowman”

    Volume, 1992

    36

    Few musical styles conjure the shimmering feeling of snowfall like dream-pop, and few artists have painted dream-pop in more mesmerizing abstractions than Cocteau Twins. In the early 1990s, after releasing their landmark album Heaven or Las Vegas, the group moved to London to work on the album Four-Calendar Café. In that three-year span, they released only two songs, including this holiday staple, a take on “Frosty the Snowman” that beams with the Scottish group’s typically lush, droning guitars and translucent harmonies.

    According tobassist Simon Raymonde, after he wrote down the lyrics and showed them to Elizabeth Fraser, they had a good laugh: “As we were going through it, I was listening to Liz’s reactions and thinking, this is never gonna get done. She was going, ‘He’s a very happy soul’—me sing that?! No way, I could not in a million years.” But, in a true holiday miracle, the band made it their own. Their reinvention naturally feels a bit heavier than the usual chirpy children’s tune: It’s a surreal, slow story-song about a happy, jolly soul running to escape the sun before it melts him away. It’s a sad goodbye, really, under the sheen of smiles and snowflakes. –Liz Pelly

    Listen:Cocteau Twins: “Frosty the Snowman”

    Frank Sinatra

    “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

    Rhino, 1963

    35

    Frank Sinatra recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” three times in 15 years. For the first, which appears on 1948’s Christmas Songs by Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes covers Judy Garland’s amended version from the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis; the actress had found several of the original lyrics too morbid (“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last”) and so composer Hugh Martin sweetened up the verses.

    For Sinatra’s second take, in 1957, it was he who requested that the writers change a few lines; Sinatra asked Martin to tweak the “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” bit. According to Martin, Sinatra said, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” So it changed to “hang a shining star upon the highest bow.”Sinatra’s third and final spin, polished and perfected from these two prior efforts, appeared in the 1963 anti-war film The Victors, and it’s the iconic one. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” remains a holiday classic thanks to Sinatra’s gentlest croon yet, and the song’s sentimental, ever-renewable gratitude for family and home. –Quinn Moreland

    Listen: Frank Sinatra: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

    Marvin Gaye

    “Purple Snowflakes”

    Motown, 2001

    34

    About 30 years after releasing the label compilation A Motown Christmas, which featured nearly the entire star-studded roster of Motown Records in the early ’70s, the imprint issued a second volume featuring more holiday cuts of the era from the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, and others. Absent on the first volume, Marvin Gaye appears twice on the sequel with his cover of “The Christmas Song” and an original called “Purple Snowflakes.” The latter, his standout, is as much about holiday remembrances as it is about ice crystals.

    “Purple Snowflakes” is as unique and striking as its subjects; in its subtle soul energy and delicate arrangements, it mimics a quiet winter evening, a scene where flurries descend softly into a frozen world. Gaye charts their paths slowly from the heavens into a blanket of white; he’s impressed by their intricate designs, as well as his company. “I’m sure that snowflakes fall from the gloom,” he sings. “I will always remember this night/ Here with you.” There’s something truly enchanting about his voice in that moment, this snow globe of his memory unfolding. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen:Marvin Gaye: “Purple Snowflakes”

    Cat Power

    “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

    Matador, 2013

    33

    Chan Marshall didn’t need images of hugging families and snowy suburban festivities to make this track a tearjerker; however, when this cover soundtracked them in a 2013 Apple ad, it worked quite well. Marshall’s husky vocals are unhurried and unadorned, her thoughtful drawl detailing intimacies while conveying empathy for those shuddering outside them; the spare piano and lone violin beneath highlight each striking cadence. In a standard usually stuffed with wide orchestrations and grand choruses, Marshall takes the contrarian path, paring so deeply to the base melody that it becomes fresh again, and a hair-trigger to tears. Almost six years after Marshall released Jukebox—her polished collection of soul, country, and blues covers—her effortless spin through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” suggested what a holiday album from her might entail: beauty, reflection, and true, thawed-out soul. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen: Cat Power: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

    James Brown

    “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”

    King, 1968

    32

    James Brown crossed over from the Godfather of Soul to Godfather Christmas several times, releasing three complete seasonal albums. He wasn’t always a master of staying on-message; the funkiest of those tracks, “Go Power at Christmas Time,” ends up being less about general cheer and more a hilariously random combination of shout-outs to Bobby Byrd and advertisements for his appearance in the Ski Party movie. But Brown sticks with the holiday plot, gloriously, on this 1968 plea for Santa to make his first stop at the projects. There are still call-outs—“Tell him Hank Ballard told you so!”—but sympathy runs deep: “You know that I know what you will see/’Cause that was once me,” the black-and-proud icon tells the red-and-proud benefactor, before co-writer/sax man Pee Wee Ellis wraps it up in a bow and a “Jingle Bells” riff. Brown played Santa’s helper in real life that year, giving out 3,000 gift certificates for Christmas meals to the needy in New York, according to a Jet magazine report. Sometimes you’ve got to step in yourself to “hit it!” when you’re not sure Saint Nick will. –Chris Willman

    Listen:James Brown: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”

    The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl

    “Fairytale of New York”

    Stiff/Pogue Mahone, 1987

    31

    This isn’t just a duet; it’s a full off-Broadway musical, really, in four-and-a-half minutes. Baby, it’s cold inside the drunk tank from which Shane MacGowan shares his Christmas memories of slightly better times, when he still had a woman around to call him a “cheap lousy f****t” (among the other lines that vex would-be cover artists). Recording it proved tricky: the intended female lead, the Pogues’ own Cait O’Riordan, had just left the band, and her proposed replacement Chrissie Hynde had not yet been drafted. Producer Steve Lillywhite found the perfect sparring partner right under his nose: his wife, the late Kirsty MacColl, a UK star in her own right. She adds the proper notes of combative wistfulness in the flashback scenes, helping play them for laughs, but also gets chillingly sober when she retorts to MacGowan’s Brando-esque “I could have been someone” with a cold splash of water: “Well, so could anyone.”

    What does all this have to do with Christmas? The universality of alcohol and memories, mainly—and a bunch of NYPD officers who form a choir to serenade their captive. No wonder this UK hit has charted there every December since its release, and found a pretty good following in the land of its inspiration, too. –Chris Willman

    Listen: The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl: “Fairytale of New York”

    Low

    “Little Drummer Boy”

    Tugboat, 1999

    30

    In 1999, Low were at the peak of their powers as a slowcore unit, having mastered the art of minimal music that hits with maximal force. They’d already released a few stray Christmas singles, but as the millennium came to a close, they honored the season with a proper record, an eight-song EP that has since become a holiday classic. There are no weak moments on the release, and some of the best songs are Low’s originals—including “Just Like Christmas,” possibly their catchiest and most upbeat tune.

    For all the record’s spare beauty, though, their aching version of “Little Drummer Boy” is the one for the ages; it’s built around a drone and overlaid with a fine mist of reverb and processing that evokes both snowfall and shoegaze,soft as snow but warm inside. Its arresting beauty didn’t go unnoticed by advertisers (an appearance in aGap spot popularized it beyond the indie set), but commercial association has not dimmed itsheart-expanding force. –Mark Richardson

    Listen:Low: “Little Drummer Boy”

    Darlene Love

    “Marshmallow World”

    Philles, 1963

    29

    Somewhere between the sun shining “red like a pumpkin head” and the “marshmallow clouds being friendly,” winter scenery takes a Dadaist turn on “Marshmallow World,” Carl Sigman and Peter de Rose’s placid 1949 standard that has seen many singers. (Dean Martin recorded a particularly bleary take in 1966, sounding far more invested in the ice inside his highball.) Darlene Love’s version is the snow that sticks; her cover is a gleeful, snappily paced tour through a holiday fantasia, a pastoral scene of gleaming snowmen, rosy cheeks, and mitten-clad hands clasped together during aimless strolls.

    Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production is at its most formidable here, dexterously stacking saxophones and girl-group harmonies under Love’s divine, full-bodied vocals. She delivers even the more syrupy lines (“It's a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts/Take a walk with your favorite girl”) with unapologetic brass. It's a treat. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen:Darlene Love: “Marshmallow World”

    Kurtis Blow

    “Christmas Rappin‘’

    Mercury, 1979

    28

    Major label executives were slow to recognize rap’s sales potential. So in 1979, with test pressings of Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” in hand, the promoter and producer Russell Simmons came up with a fresh strategy: Once early copies had won over area DJs, Simmons encouraged the community to place “fake orders” for the single. “PolyGram didn’t own it yet, but we created an appetite for ‘Christmas Rappin’’ that led them to buy it,” herecalled. The result: a gold record.

    Over a disco-infused beat, Blow interrupts a standard presentation of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to present an image of Santa Claus as a b-boy: “‘But can you stop for a drop before you go?’/He said, ‘Why not if the music's hot?/And I'll chance a dance beneath the mistletoe.’” The surprised partygoers in Santa’s vicinity all get presents, but the Harlem MC also makes a communitarian pitch: “Cause money could never ever buy the feeling/The one that comes from not concealing/The way you you feel about your friends.” The track’s importance in hip-hop’s earliest commercial days is reflected by Public Enemy’ssampling of the track, but “Christmas Rappin’” also stands up on its own as a genuine work in tune with the holiday spirit. –Seth Colter Walls

    Listen:Kurtis Blow: “Christmas Rappin’”

    David Bowie / Bing Crosby

    “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”

    RCA, 1982

    27

    In the late 1960s, while David Bowie was an unsuccessful jobbing actor, many of his familiars made the leap to primetime television—including his onetime fling, Lulu, and his idol, Scott Walker. So when Bowie emerged from the cocaine hell of his Thin White Duke period and sought to normalize his career around 1977, it wasn’t too surprising to see the avowed light entertainment enthusiast appear on a Christmas TV special—the pop star’s equivalent of volunteering at an old folks’ home to atone for past sins. But only Bowie had the star power to align himself with America’s premier holiday statesman, Bing Crosby.

    Although Bowie was not dreaming of a white Christmas that year, he still balkedat the Crosby show producers’ tepid initial pitch that he sing “Little Drummer Boy.” Within an hour, they came up with the “Peace on Earth” interpolation, in which Bowie swoons traditional Christian messages (“Every child must be made to care/Care enough for his fellow man”) over Crosby’s reedy “pa-rum-pa-pump-pum”s. The result is a gigantic Christmas ham preserved in a brine of surreality, the brief flare of the 20th century’s first great multimedia star aligning with its last. (It’s no baton-exchange, though: Hark at Bowie’s other turn on the show, when he performs ““Heroes”” solo, caressing his skinny jumpsuited body while squeezing his very defined buns.) Five weeks later, Crosby died, and Bowie continued his march towards the mainstream. –Laura Snapes

    Listen:David Bowie/Bing Crosby: “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”

    Charles Brown

    “Please Come Home for Christmas”

    King, 1960

    26

    Having Bon Jovi, the Eagles, and Kelly Clarkson cover your tune is good for the wallet. Also having Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Fats Domino, and James Brown tackle it means that you’re onto something universal—namely, that the holidays really suck sometimes. The Texas piano man Charles Brown exploded onto the national blues scene in the mid-’40s with his easygoing style; after a string of somber hits, Brown’s luck dried up until “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a final stab at the spotlight that paid dividends.

    Here, Brown gives us a blue Christmas as smooth and strong as spiked eggnog; starting with a trio of bell peals, Brown delivers beautifully aching verses (“Choirs will be singing ‘Silent Night’/Christmas carols by candlelight”) over bouncy, sock-hop piano. And his pleas are reasonable, really: Maybe his baby won’t make it home for the tree, but could she please try for the New Year? With its gorgeous, rolling guitar at the close, and the bells popping up intermittently to boost spirits, “Please Come Home for Christmas” makes an irrefutable case. –Jason Gross

    Listen:Charles Brown: “Please Come Home for Christmas”

    The Kinks

    “Father Christmas”

    Arista, 1977

    25

    The Kinks unleashed Father Christmas” in 1977, right in the middle of the punk revolution. Ray Davies wasn’t really a punk sympathizer—the single’s flip, “Prince of the Punks,” is a broadside against Tom Robinson, the punk rocker who reportedly offended the Kinks leader once in a club—but this holiday track is as insurrectionist as seasonal songs get, a rallying call for all the poor kids who get nothing at Christmas. Davies’ narrator isn’t part of the pack that mugs a department store Santa Claus, demanding money instead of silly toys; he is Santa Claus, a guy who opens the song by admitting, “When I was small I believed in Santa Claus/Though I knew it was my dad.” Such glad tidings are erased once he’s swarmed by a gang that doesn’t want presents, just the means to survive.

    Davies’ sympathies clearly lie with these louts as he pleads, in the bridge, “Remember the kids who got nothin’/While you’re drinking down your wine.” His stance also pulses through the music itself: “Father Christmas” may open with bells that twinkle as brightly as newly fallen snow, but it soon descends into nasty, furious, frustrated rock’n’roll. Together, it becomes the rarest of things: a Christmas song that’s also a protest anthem. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen:The Kinks: “Father Christmas”

    Jackson 5

    “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

    Motown, 1970

    24

    Since it debuted on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” has been covered by everybody from Perry Como to Kylie Minogue. It’s a testament to the Jackson 5’s funkiness and the precocious charisma of Michael Jackson that their Motown version is still a gold standard for anybody born after 1960. (If you need another testament, consider that the family band scored a hit with their version in 1970, a year in which they had already released two wildly popular albums.) Both elements of their musicality are equally important: The Jackson brothers freshen the song with a sophisticated funk arrangement that stands up to giants of the era like Sly & the Family Stone, giving it life without ever crossing in dated or gimmicky showmanship. Still, it’s the sheer youthful joy of 12-year-old MJ’s irrepressible vocals that’s made this a true classic and a guaranteed cure for seasonal blues. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton

    Listen:Jackson 5: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

    Otis Redding

    “Merry Christmas Baby”

    ATCO, 1968

    23

    “Merry Christmas Baby” was first written and performed by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1947, lined with twinkling piano and bluesy guitar chords. A slow-burning R&B ballad, the song places its subject at the center of a cozy, loving Christmas morning, surrounded by gifts and standing beneath the mistletoe. It has been covered countless times since, by Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Etta James, and even Hanson.

    But no artist has re-imagined its melodies or its spirit quite like Otis Redding, who changed the key and kicked up the tempo, turning “Merry Christmas Baby” into a jaunty, sleigh bell-accented ditty while maintaining the blues at its core. Redding’s rendition of the song has an entirely different tone than its predecessors, one that is much more lively and gleeful. It’s more in keeping with the lyrics, which are filled with reverence: “Everything here is beautiful,” he sings. As trumpets blow triumphantly at his back, his husky timbre strikes a precise balance between inspired and gloriously overwhelmed; it just feels merry, and then some. –Sheldon Pearce

    Listen:Otis Redding: “Merry Christmas Baby”

    Big Star

    “Jesus Christ”

    PVC, 1978

    22

    It’s easy to miss the subdued yuletide cheer of Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ”—it’s nestled between vulnerable and hook-filled proto-indie tracks on Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. Written in part as a reply to former Big Star member Chris Bell’s born-again Christianity, the song doesn’t take its name in vain; it treats its subject with the same laid-back Memphis reverence and somber devotion as the cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” that followed it on the original 1978 release, a few years after the band disintegrated. With sleigh bells entering ambiently during the first chorus, echoing kettle drums, and a sax solo taking it home, the song is one experiment in an album full of them, providing a genetic connection to Phil Spector’s big beat holiday productions and Chilton’s own fast-receding pop past. –Jesse Jarnow

    Listen:Big Star: “Jesus Christ”

    Kate Bush

    “December Will Be Magic Again”

    EMI, 1980

    21

    At first gasp, “December Will Be Magic Again” feels like a puff of pure sentimentality, as Kate Bush ticks off a list of festive tropes that pretty much only ever existed on greetings cards. “Take a husky to the ice/While Bing Crosby sings ‘White Christmas’/He makes you feel niiiiiiice,” she trills, as kindly as a grandparent sending a kid off with a pound in their pocket. Bush first performed “December” while perched atop a red-and-gold throne on a 1979 BBC TV Christmas special, and then at the piano on her own broadcast, “Kate,” soon after. Back then, it probably felt like traditional pageantry nestled among the wilder parts of her burgeoning catalog—which it was, when you compare its lilting piano to the synth experimentalism of the next year’s Never forEver.

    But there’s more going on here than standard Hallmark cheer. It’s a reassurance: “December will be magic again.” Bush recorded “December” when she was 21 years old, roughly the age when it starts becoming impossible to summon the childlike wonder that Christmas once commanded. It was released in November 1980; since breaking out two years earlier with “Wuthering Heights,” Bush’s life had changed beyond recognition. There’s a measure of anxiety and anticipation in the skittish piano arrangement, which flits between major and minor chords, and in her luxuriant, clipped phrasing. She turns into a snowflake, beholding the white city from the sky, and marvels, “Oh see how I fall” with certainty, as if testing the weight of her footing. Still, despite Bush’s usual bravura vocals, “December” feels low-key compared to her previous singles, so it’s not a surprise that it only peaked at No. 29 in the UK. One of the explanations for its commercial failure: John Lennon was murdered three weeks after its release, though this song of sweetly cautious optimism could’ve lent itself well to those times. –Laura Snapes

    Listen:Kate Bush: “December Will Be Magic Again”

    Ramones

    “Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)”

    Sire, 1987

    20

    Those who reject the idea of Christmas don’t ask for much, which explains why this weird, late Ramones anthem resonates, even years later. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”—originally released as a B-side to the “I Wanna Live” single, a decade after Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy began recording—is one of the best and brightest punk holiday classics, a scrappy, two-minute rock blast marked by Joey Ramone’s defeated, warbling tenor. “Where is Santa? At his sleigh?/Tell me why is it always this way?” Joey laments. “Christmas ain't the time for breaking each other's heart.” A slower, slicker version later appeared on Joey’s 2002solo EPChristmas Spirit… In My House alongside a cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” as well as on his 2012 album Ya Know? Both were released posthumously, and prove his holiday angst can still hit hard. –Liz Pelly

    Listen:Ramones: “Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)”

    Brenda Lee

    “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

    Decca, 1958

    19

    After witnessing the huge success of “Jingle Bell Rock” in 1957, Johnny Marks—the composer behind “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”—became determined to create his own teenybopper Yuletide hit. He found its singer in Brenda Lee, then just 13 years old; her pipes on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” are confident beyond her years, sliding smoothly from a slinky shimmy to an all-out belt as she celebrates the holidays “in a new old-fashioned way.”

    The 1958 sessions for “Rockin’” occurred in Nashville in July, with the air conditioning blasting and a Christmas tree set up for atmosphere. Backing Lee were Boots Randolph on sax, studio wizard Hank Garland on guitar, and the Anita Kerr Singers crooning harmonies. But even with its all-star creative crew, “Rockin’” was, by all accounts, a flop: It sold fewer than 5,000 copies worldwide the year of its release and sat largely forgotten until 1960, when it hit No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts (thanks to Lee’s growing teen idol popularity). “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was a fun and necessary bridge between traditional Christmas music and its rock future, less concerned with roasting chestnuts than drinking eggnog and boogying all night. –Quinn Moreland

    Listen:Brenda Lee: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

    Eartha Kitt

    “Santa Baby”

    RCA Victor, 1953

    18

    It’s not exactly progressive to solicit Santa in a coy, babyish purr, bartering ostensibly good behavior for furs, rings, and a full-on “platinum mine.” (Plus, what is the long game on the latter—are you going to extract it yourself, girl? In the furs?) Still, Eartha Kitt is owed her due for one of the most entertaining Christmas standards of the 1950s, a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the holidays’ glittery consumptions that frolics between camp and sultriness. Kitt’s high lilt is awfully close to infantilized, but her smirking is audible in the bawdy euphemisms (“Come and trim my Christmas tree/With some decorations bought at Tiffany’s”). The low, opining ba-bumps of the male choir conjure images of rows of deferential suitors in dinner jackets, prostrating themselves at the divine Miss Kitt’s feet as she floats by haughtily. If she didn’t get her gift of glorious manipulation from Santa, she certainly sourced it from some other supernatural power. –Stacey Anderson

    Listen:Eartha Kitt: “Santa Baby”

    The Ronettes

    “Sleigh Ride”

    Philles, 1963

    17

    Phil Spector gave Darlene Love plenty of quality songs to wail when he created the greatest holiday pop album of all time, 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You. But he didn’t forget to leave a few presents for Veronica Bennett, soon to be known as Ronnie Spector. “Sleigh Ride” is three minutes of the greatest glee to be found the annals of holiday music—or winter music, technically, since Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish’s chestnut never actually makes explicit mention of Christmas. The song gets its own halting, symphonic overture, essentially, complete with sleighing and neighing sound effects, before the Wall of Saxes kicks in and history’s most celebrated girl-group repeatedly sings the line that Parish forgot to include: “Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding.” Bundled up or not, this innocent romp through the woods becomes rapturous before returning to an equally halting come-down of an ending—one in which the Wrecking Crew, seemingly a hundred violinists, a sleigh driver, Ronnie Spector, and you all crash, exhausted, into the snowbank of dreams. –Chris Willman

    Listen:The Ronettes: “Sleigh Ride”

    Run-D.M.C.

    “Christmas in Hollis”

    A&M, 1987

    16

    Run-D.M.C. didn’t want to make a Christmas song. They thought it would be corny, fake—a way for corporate America to sanitize hip-hop, to dismiss the genre as mere novelty just as the trio was helping turn it into a widespread commercial and cultural force. Plus, there already was a holiday rap staple—Kurtis Blow’s 1979 trifle “Christmas Rappin’,” also the first-ever hip-hop song released on a major label—and they didn’t want to be seen as piggybackers.

    But then Jam Master Jay got ahold of the horny fanfare from a 1968 song called “Back Door Santa,” and a modern Christmas classic was born. The sampled track by Clarence Carter is about an especially randy Saint Nick (“I make all the little girls happy/While the boys are out to play,” the soul man crows, somewhat creepily), and its rawness makes “Christmas in Hollis” feel like a worthy addition to Run-D.M.C.’s harder-than-steel minimalism instead of a crass capitulation. With rhymes about returning Santa’s lost wallet and digging into Mom’s collard greens at the dinner table, the song is humble, unpretentious. It invites you in from the Queens cold. Theequally legendary video reinforces this new kind of wintertime fable, giving life to a world where pit bulls wear antlers and dookie chains can be found under every tree. —Ryan Dombal

    Listen:Run-D.M.C.: “Christmas in Hollis”

    Wizzard

    “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”

    Harvest, 1973

    15

    The look was pure glam-rock; the sonics, pure Phil Spector. Many have tried to recreate the Wall of Sound heard on his compilation A Christmas Gift for You, and nearly all have fallen flat. Yet Roy Wood, who in 1973 had just ditched the cellos of the Electric Light Orchestra, turned out to have a sure touch with multi-tracked saxes in this one-off homage to Spector.

    In the history of Anglo/American inequities, there are few imbalances as unjust as the fact that “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” is ubiquitous in the UK and an eternal non-starter in the U.S. Even in England, it never surpassed No. 4, yet it returned to the charts in the ’80s and again in the 2000s and 2010s. It also gets covered often by British divas like Kylie Minogue, and almost always awfully, since the tune turns deeply cloying when you lose Wood’s Phil-harmonic homages yet keep the climactic children’s choir. Still, the sights in the original video—featuring a bunch of scarily face-painted, prog-rock glamsters pulling off such a bubblegum track—is as eternal a Christmas gift as Spector’s own mother lode. –Chris Willman

    Listen:Wizzard: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”

    Wham!

    “Last Christmas”

    Epic, 1984

    14

    In the 1980s, Wham! ascended to British pop’s highest echelons on a cloud made of hot air, hairspray, and naked ambition. As the miner’s strike raged and unemployment figures broke national records, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley represented the smooth shamelessness of Thatcherite capitalism, which caused NME critic Ian Penman to declare them “more offensive than Jerry Lee Lewis, a suspected mass murderer.” Lambasting their lack of tone and gravity, he also accused them of “collaborating on 1984 as our Year of the Fake Tan.”

    It’s both a fair comment and the perfect conditions to create a festive single that crystallizes the season’s guzzling sentimentality. Written in the time it took Ridgeley to watch an episode of “Match of the Day,” “Last Christmas” is as aggressively synthetic as a gust of polystyrene snow on an air-conditioned breeze. It’s a relentless, four-and-a-half minute burst of kitschy synths that ascend and then twinkle back down again like Escher escalators, looping nightmarishly between department store floors on Christmas Eve.

    Michael’s lament for a careless gifter is feeble, but it’s also perfect: hurt and hopeful, matching his Lady Di bouffant with her doe-eyed coyness. “Once bitten and twice shy/ I keep my distance but you still catch my eye” is one of pop’s all-time great lines, a proto-Swiftian slice of wounded concision (obviously,she covered it in 2007). A 32-year mainstay of the season, “Last Christmas” has more than earned its nostalgia, though it has a renewed resonance these days. As British advertisers unleash earnest, big-budget Christmas commercials in an attempt to reframe shopping as an act of love, Wham!’s shameless pitch for gold feels like Old Testament honesty. –Laura Snapes

    Listen: Wham!: “Last Christmas”

    Prince

    “Another Lonely Christmas”

    Warner Bros., 1984

    13

    Christmas is the loneliest time of year for many, but nobody wallowed in seasonal despair as beautifully as Prince. “Another Lonely Christmas” first appeared as the B-side of the single of “I Would Die 4 U” in November 1984, just after Purple Rain turned Prince into a supernova, but the compelling thing about the song is that it doesn't sound like the work of a superstar. It's the sound of a man wallowing in his own grief, living in a room so cavernous that every instrument echoes off the walls.

    Sadness may lurk at the heart of “Another Lonely Christmas”—it finds a man mourning the death of his beloved, where the memories intertwine with the present so he can never move forward—but it's mitigated by Prince's eccentricity. Nothing in “Another Lonely Christmas” follows a familiar path: He remembers how his lover screamed because she hated the number nine, and now that she's gone, he drinks banana daiquiris until he's blind. Such details aren't precisely personal—this isn't confession, it's theater—but they're odd enough to give “Another Lonely Christmas” resonance. Maybe the story Prince is telling never happened, but as he pounds his piano and testifies, it certainly feels like it did. And as he wails, he creates an anthem for everybody who has ever spent Christmas alone, haunted by how things used to be. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen:Prince: “Another Lonely Christmas”

    The Waitresses

    “Christmas Wrapping”

    ZE, 1981

    12

    Back in 1981, the Waitresses’ Chris Butler wrote the real fairytale of New York. Overwhelmed by a hectic year and excessive festive social pressures, the female protagonist of “Christmas Wrapping” (embodied brilliantly by Patty Donahue) decides not to bother with the holiday, and in doing so gives herself the season’s must-have gift: “I just need to catch my breath/Christmas by myself this year.” For a song written by avowed humbug Butler under duress from ZE Records, “Christmas Wrapping” should be maudlin and obtuse. But thanks to his rare gift for crafting nuanced, modern female voices, Donahue’s role isn’t pitiful but self-possessed: She’s wry, honest, ambivalent but not cynical, and unwilling to supplant a taxing work schedule with an equally taxing party schedule. (Here, “the world’s smallest turkey” isn’t a stand-in for the world’s smallest violin.)

    With its Kurtis Blow-meets-new wave vibe, “Christmas Wrapping” is New York to the core. Butler turns the street-corner brass band into squalling funk fanfare, and mirrors the city’s incessant sparkle with the Waitresses’ waterfall of percussion, which skews grimier than your average sleigh bell. Ultimately, Butler lets a little festive magic seep in by giving Donahue a happy ending. Her ship-in-the-night crush finally comes into port when she nips out for condiments on Christmas Day, leading to the kind of meet-cute that would define Nora Ephron’s big-city love letters a few years later: “You mean, you forgot cranberries, too?!” –Laura Snapes

    Listen:The Waitresses: “Christmas Wrapping”

    Bruce Springsteen

    “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

    CBS, 1985

    11

    Bruce Springsteen’s best-known Christmas tune was captured live at the end of a pivotal year. It was recorded during the tail-end of a set in front of 3,000 people at C.W. Post College in Long Island on December 12, 1975, four months after the release of Born to Run and one month after the show that became Hammersmith Odeon London ’75. Even then, his status as a legendary live performer was secure, and spontaneity is key to what makes his version of “Santa Claus...” so memorable. 

    Springsteen went to school on Phil Spector records while cutting Born to Run, hoping to capture some of the master’s symphonic drama, and somewhere along the way, he absorbed Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. His arrangement of the song is loosely based on the Crystals’ take from LP and, complete with sleigh bells and glockenspiel, it suitably evokes the season. But the power of this take is in how it captures the feeling of friends goofing around onstage, from Springsteen’s opening ad-libs about the band being good and practicing to the vocal flubs to Clarence Clemons’ closing “ho-ho-ho”s. The Big Man’s enthusiasm with his Santa impression renders Springsteen breathless—he literally can’t sing because he’s laughing so hard, and the general good cheer of it all is utterly infectious. –Mark Richardson

    Listen:Bruce Springsteen: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

    Donny Hathaway

    “This Christmas”

    ATCO, 1970

    10

    One of the best Christmas song traditions is being single-mindedly devoted to sex. The mistletoe, the eggnog, the holiday parties—from “All I Want for Christmas Is You” winsome all the way to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” creepy, there is a long and glorious tradition of singers using the holidays as nothing more than a bald-faced excuse to strip off their Christmas sweaters. Donny Hathaway’s sly, swinging soul burner “This Christmas” is one such song, as under those sleigh bells there is more going on than innocent tree decorating: “We’re caroling through the night,” he sings. “This Christmas will be a very special Christmas for me.” It’s a hope, a wish, and a pick-up line all at once. –Jayson Greene

    Listen:Donny Hathaway: “This Christmas”

    Elvis Presley

    “Blue Christmas”

    RCA Victor, 1957

    9

    “Blue Christmas” was first recorded by Doye O'Dell in 1948, when Elvis Presley was 13. O’Dell played it as a straight country song, providing a blueprint for Ernest Tubb, who took the song to number one a year later. Only historians remember these versions, though, because Elvis Presley claimed it for good on his 1957 LP, Elvis’ Christmas Album.

    Presley was the first singer to treat “Blue Christmas” as a blues jam, leaning into its simple changes and letting his backing singers, the Jordanaires, function as a choir, wailing away on the chorus. Whether on his first rendition or the live version from his 1968 comeback album, there's a swing to his rhythm, complemented by how Presley plays with the melody. Where O'Dell and Tubb treated the song as a sacred text, Presley pours himself into its pathos while also delivering something sexy and new. He may be on his own this Christmas, but his performance suggests that it’s his absent lover who’s really missing out. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine

    Listen:Elvis Presley: “Blue Christmas”

    The Beach Boys

    “Little Saint Nick”

    Capitol, 1963

    8

    In the summer of 1963, Brian Wilson played piano in sessions for A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector; his parts didn’t make the final cut, but the experience encouraged him to write a holiday tune for the Beach Boys. It became “Little Saint Nick,” a peppy jingle reminiscent in both structure and content to “Little Deuce Coupe,” the B-side released a few months prior. As co-written by Wilson and Mike Love, “Little Saint Nick” stands in for one of the Beach Boys’ preferred topics, a hot rod; it’s a candy-apple red sled that Santa whips through the snow.

    “Little Saint Nick” offers a humorous, hip take on Kris Kringle, and it peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Christmas Chart, and its success encouraged the Beach Boys to record an entire holiday record the next year, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. “Little Saint Nick” received an update for the occasion, and its glockenspiel, celesta, and sleigh bells were removed. But in both versions, Love’s cheery vocals and Wilson’s bright falsetto of “Merry Christmas, Saint Nick” make Santa seem like one of the guys, even if the North Pole is a bit far from their shores. –Quinn Moreland

    Listen:The Beach Boys: “Little Saint Nick”

    John Lennon / The Plastic Ono Band / The Harlem Community Choir

    “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

    Apple, 1971

    7

    Part Phil Spector-produced holiday spectacular, part conceptual political slogan, part classic John Lennon melody, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was the ex-Beatle’s last non-album single and a classic in his and Yoko Ono’s discography of pioneering message-pop. A cap on a series of collaborations that combined Ono’s instructional art pieces with Lennon’s rock résumé (“Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance”), “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” built on the tagline they’d used on a series of “War Is Over (If You Want)” billboards in 1969, and created something more enduring than any of the Beatles’ holiday efforts.

    With the Harlem Community Choir delivering the ineffable counter-refrain, and Ono’s voice settled inside a Wall of Sound-approved lushness, the song’s radical bona fides might not be audible at first pass. “Put your political message across with a little honey” was how Lennon described the strategy; in doing so, he and Ono elevated a surrealist pop novelty to the realm of Christmas standard. –Jesse Jarnow

    Listen: John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band/The Harlem Community Choir: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

    Joni Mitchell

    “River”

    Reprise, 1971

    6

    Who said holiday songs have to be happy? This composition from Joni Mitchell’s Blue is one of the most exquisite weepers ever to reference the Christmas season. In the piano introduction, Mitchell’s right hand rings out a melancholic adaptation of “Jingle Bells.” During the first verse, the narrator looks on sadly as reindeer displays are mounted. Where she comes from, winter brings rivers for skating—though in her present location, “it stays pretty green.” Her yearning for home, and more, is plain to hear; the pain only intensifies as she sings, in her highest register: “I wish I had a river so long/I would teach my feet to fly/I wish I had a river/I could skate away on.”

    What a first-time listener doesn’t know just yet is that Mitchell’s narrator blames herself for this emotional devastation. After stepping down from that vocal high ledge, the same interval that Mitchell used for her “Jingle Bells” reharmonization appears once more in the piano part, a miserable full-circle that precedes her admission, “I made my baby cry.” And so the urge to get with society’s scheduled mirth crashes directly into her private agony. Anyone desiring an escape from their own inconveniently timed alienation can find solace in this wise and gorgeous song. –Seth Colter Walls

    Listen:Joni Mitchell: “River”

    John Coltrane

    “My Favorite Things”

    Atlantic, 1961

    5

    “My Favorite Things” first appeared in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical The Sound of Music, and its status as a holiday song was solidified when Julie Andrews sang it in a 1961 TV Christmas special. In the year prior, John Coltrane recorded a version on soprano saxophone, his first time using the instrument in the studio; it would become his signature tune for the last six years of his life, the standard feature of his concert repertoire.

    Live, Coltrane twisted “My Favorite Things” into all kinds of different shapes, eventually dispensing with tonality entirely in hour-long versions (check Live in Japan). But the studio version of the song has an understated, welcome tunefulness, and was accessible enough to be released in an edited version as a7” single. McCoy Tyner’s delicate piano zeroes in on the see-sawing chords of the composition, creating a space for exploration but also a comforting tone that echoes the piece’s original setting as a song sung to children. And Coltrane’s careful but adventurous treatment of the melody, especially when the key jumps after the initial statement of the tune, is unfailingly gorgeous, the entire concept of peace on Earth rendered into sound. –Mark Richardson

    Listen: John Coltrane: “My Favorite Things”

    Chuck Berry

    “Run Rudolph Run”

    Chess, 1958

    4

    Melodically near-identical to “Little Queenie,” Berry’s hit the following year, “Run Rudolph Run” is a zippy, kindly singalong that captures the enthusiasm of the holidays without any saccharinity. Its fond nod to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not coincidental—Berry’s hit was cowritten by Johnny Marks, who also penned the original standard—and it was the first successful rhythm-and-blues spin on staid holiday fare.

    “Run Rudolph Run”’s lean cheer has proven adaptable; it’s been covered by a stable of machismo-heavy rockers—Lynyrd Skynyrd, Keith Richards, Lemmy Kilmister with Billy Gibbons and Dave Grohl—as well as soundtracked such kid-friendly fare as Home Alone and Jingle All the Way. Berry’s yelps of “Run, run Rudolph, Santa's got to make it to town/Santa make him hurry, tell him he can take the freeway down/Run, run Rudolph 'cause I'm reelin' like a merry-go-roundare still delirious, decades on.Stacey Anderson

    Listen:Chuck Berry: “Run Rudolph Run”

    Mariah Carey

    “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

    Columbia, 1994

    3

    Few artists who've come to prominence since the 1990s have the range to come up with a new Christmas standard. Meaningful covers of holiday classics? That’s easier. But to make something that lasts more than a few seasons takes confidence, a genuine embrace of the Christmas spirit, lyrical universality, and the kind of self-regard that can stare cheesiness in the face and say, “I don’t know her.” Which is how Mariah Carey, Patron Saint of Having the Range, pulled it off two decades ago.

    Carey co-wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is You” with longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff for her first holiday album, Merry Christmas. The track is deliriously uptempo, putting Carey’s powerhouse vocals front-and-center. The vibrato is pure ’90s pop-R&B, but it’s the song’s wink toward Motown—the Ronettes-style backup singers, in particular—that makes it timeless, and helped it become one of the best-selling singles of all time, in any genre. Even its grating inclusion in Love Actually couldn’t topple its holiday supremacy. And though that track has been played ad nauseum from Halloween to New Year for so many years, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” still enjoys the distinction of being one of the few modern holiday songs that won’t actually make you nauseous. –Cady Drell

    Listen:Mariah Carey: “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

    Vince Guaraldi Trio

    “Christmastime Is Here”

    Fantasy, 1965

    2

    Most classic Christmas music dates back to WWII, when the human race seemed doomed for extinction. This is why the most enduring holiday songs come with a cold tendril of dread curling around them—that “I’ll be home for Christmas, but only in my dreams” foreboding, meant to make soldiers stationed abroad weep onto their stationery.

    Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” sounds like crippling depression set amongst cheer, which is why it stands tall in this haunted canon. Whatever your religion or creed, everyone in America walks among the Christmas industrial complex—the gleaming phalanx of stars, tinsel, and boughs of holly dangling from every retail surface and beaming out of every shop window. There is no holiday sentiment more universal than suspecting you should feel more cheerful than you do, fearing that others are huddled in warmth while you stand in the cold. That’s what this children’s choir sighing “snowflakes in the air” tells us, deep in our bones.

    “Christmastime Is Here” began its life as a soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, another piece of art that snuck existential dread into our holiday pablum. But that leisurely, blue note-inflected line has transcended its association with the Peanuts gang and become a stand-in for the holiday season’s familiar, reassuring melancholy. We smile while ignoring the tug of loneliness, the pain that reminds us tomorrow won’t be Christmas anymore. Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year. –Jayson Greene

    Listen:Vince Guaraldi Trio: “Christmastime Is Here”

    Darlene Love

    “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

    Philles, 1963

    1

    Holidays are often best experienced in hindsight. Looking back, the snow is pristine (instead of just cold), the family is endearing (instead of just combative), and the turkey is juicy and flavorful (instead of just overcooked and bland). These gilded memories are comforting, but they usually can’t help but give way to the sobering reality we feel each December.

    This dynamic is a driving force behind 1963’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” in which all the happy tokens of the season only serve to remind Darlene Love of what she’s missing. Originally featured as the sole original on the compilation album A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, the song started off as a rock’n’roll anomaly amid hymn-like standards such as “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” More than a half-century later, the song is iconic; everyone fromU2 toMariah Carey toDeath Cab for Cutie has taken it on, though none have bested Spector and Love’s overwhelming first take.

    “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was not an instant success, though. It was originally released on November 22, 1963—the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated—and didn’t make much of a splash. But over the years, its stature has grown, spurred on by a re-release of A Christmas Gift for You on the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1972—as well as a nearly 30-year run, from 1986 through 2014, when Love belted out the song annually on David Letterman’s late-night shows. According to lore, Letterman is something of a Scrooge, but he always had a soft spot for “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and it’s easy to see why. The song recognizes the sadness of the season, but Love finds a way to rise above through her longing—in her roaring delivery, joy brings sorrow, which brings more joy. Her plea is simple. And, as long as there are Christmases to remember, it will not be forgotten. –Ryan Dombal

    Listen:Darlene Love: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”


    Contributors: Stacey Anderson, Ryan Dombal, Cady Drell, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Jayson Greene, Jason Gross, Edwin “STATS” Houghton, Jesse Jarnow, Quinn Moreland, Sheldon Pearce, Liz Pelly, Mark Richardson, Ryan Schreiber, Laura Snapes, Seth Colter Walls, Chris Willman


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    Lists & Guides: The Best Music Videos of 2016

    This year, music videos proved once again to be one of the malleable mediums we’ve got. They could last for a few minutes, or an hour. They could explore issues of identity and race, or show off some tight dance moves (or both). They could take the form of DIY goofs, or Hollywood extravaganzas. They could offer budding talents an outlet to splash their aesthetic, or give legends a way to say goodbye on their own terms. Here are the 25 videos that had us clicking the “replay” button over and over in 2016.


    25. Rihanna: “Work” [ft. Drake]
    Directors: Director X/Tim Erem

    And here I was thinking Rihanna and Drake clinking wine glasses in the video for 2010’s “What’s My Name” was their best are-they-or-aren’t-they moment. But then “Work” came along, and new peaks of Riri and Drizzy steaminess were reached. In not one but two videos, Drake lustfully watches Rihanna dance, first in a smoky club and later alone in a pink-lit room. Bottom line: Whatever their status actually is, Drake continues to follow Rihanna around like a puppy, and she continues to relish being his boss. —Quinn Moreland


    24. PUP: “Sleep in the Heat”
    Director: Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux

    PUP frontman Stefan Babcock wrote “Sleep in the Heat” about his pet chameleon Norman; for the video, “Stranger Things” hero Finn Wolfhard fills in for Babcock, and Norman is recast as a big hunk of lovable pooch. It’s the sympathetic take that this song about helplessness in the face of loss deserves. The clip wrings out every last tear as the relationship between boy and his pet builds before quickly disappearing. The punk melodrama ends with a montage of PUP and their late pets, but it’s not easy mush. The takeaway rings strong and true: Grief is OK, grief is necessary. —Matthew Strauss


    23. Mitski: “Your Best American Girl”
    Director: Zia Anger

    In which Mitski Miyawaki embraces her outsider status and takes part in an empowering make-out session with her own hand. The song is about how Mitski, who hopped from country to country growing up, had a relationship unravel because she couldn’t fully connect with her boyfriend’s rooted Americanness. That idealized identity is brought to life here in the form of a lilywhite couple straight out of Coachella’s VIP tent, who kiss with dumb abandon, looking like a parody of young love in the U.S.A. Mitski, meanwhile, slings her guitar, crashes her chords, and stares down the camera. She looks like a star. —Ryan Dombal


    22. D.R.A.M.: “Broccoli” [ft. Lil Yachty]
    Directors: Nathan R. Smith and Hidji Films

    So you made a great song. And it’s called “Broccoli”—and it’s obviously not about the vegetable. So what’s the video for “Broccoli” supposed to be about? Well, there are a few broccoli stalks inD.R.A.M. andLil Yachty’s clip, but it mostly goes for a psychedelic funhouse vibe. There is a white piano in  swampy water. There is a gleeful homage to Vanessa Carlton’s iconic “A Thousand Miles” video. There is Yachty doing his best pied piper, blowing into a bright red recorder. It’s a deep exhale that nods to the song’s nonsense, with D.R.A.M. flashing his infectious smile throughout. —Matthew Strauss


    21. Aphex Twin: “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]”
    Director: Ryan Wyer

    Aphex Twin shouldn’t mean much to a 12-year-old. The producer’s ambient triumphs and nihilistic beat massacres predate a child’s existence, and even a major contemporary nod like Kanye’s “Blame Game” sample is couched in a track far too risqué for such innocent ears. So what’s left is a pure love of music. Pre-teen YouTuber Ryan Wyer had made a few homemade Aphex videos when Richard D. James and his label asked him to make this official one. The kid’s formless exercise in youthful enthusiasm gets to the heart of what Aphex Twin means to him: dancing with friends and family, that silly mask, and lots of colors. It’s an honest expression. Analyzing it is futile. Just enjoy it.  —Matthew Strauss


    20. Cass McCombs: “Opposite House”
    Director: Jonny Look

    Cass McCombs’ “Opposite House” is all about setting up clichés and then pulling the rug out from beneath them. Soft rock underpins wry, knotty turns of phrase, and slyly self-aware moon-June-spoon-style rhyme schemes give way to extra-dry sarcasm: “Which is why/I’m all sunshine.” The video only extends the song’s counterintuitive logic. The black-and-white scheme doesn’t scan as “moody” so much as it recalls instructional films of the ’50s and ’60s, and every detail seems intended to confound. Is competitive tea-spurting an actual thing? Is there something wrong with me if it all makes me think of golden showers? And who’s going to clean up all that spilled liquid? File under “houseboat rock”: cozy yet oh so damp. —Philip Sherburne


    19. Jenny Hval: “Conceptual Romance”
    Director: Zia Anger

    A women dressed in beautiful autumnal clothing bounces on top of a yoga ball. A lady in red runs through a graveyard with a sense of mysterious urgency. People cavort in the nude outside a grand Victorian home. It’s ridiculous to write out, but those are the significant scenes from the “Conceptual Romance” video. You’d be hard pressed to find a unifying thread in director Zia Angler’s work here, but if you’re one for symbolism and theory, there is a lot to ponder. The video responds to all kinds of subversive artistic strategies, from dadaist to situationist, and it’s absurdity is particularly affecting in the way only an exquisite corpse can be. But no matter how many interpretations this clip may invite, there’s no escaping the feeling of pure blissful oddness that comes with every frame. —Kevin Lozano


    18. Francis and the Lights: “Friends” [ft. Bon Iver and Kanye West]
    Director: Jake Schreier

    The precision of the camera movement and Kanye West’s prominence in the opening shot suggest a major production, but Francis Farewell Starlite spends as much time as he can trying to prove otherwise in this one-take clip. The Francis and the Lights mastermind breaks the set’s boundaries as the camera follows, ultimately doing an amateur boy band-type dance with an unlikely partner: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The choreography is dead simple, almost juvenile, and the end result is an endearing frame that echoes the sentiment of the song’s chummy hook. —Noah Yoo

    17. Lil Yachty: “1 Night”
    Directors: Glassface and Rahil Ashruff

    There’s a YouTube comment on this clip that pretty much sums it up: “this music video was made off of Snapchat filteres.” That’s not literally true, but it seems possible in the near future that Snapchat will indeed find a way to put you in fisherman’s overalls, and that you and your friends would then dance like you are holding in your pee. (Maybe toss an inflatable shark and a lifesaver in there too, just to mix it up.) What’s the point in trying to be slick when you can be weird? —Matthew Schnipper


    16. Japanese Breakfast: “Everybody Wants to Love You”
    Directors: Adam Kolodny and Michelle Zauner

    The colorful dress that Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner dons in this video is an unmistakable symbol of Korean cultural heritage called a 한복 (“hanbok”). To see Zauner wearing it atop the hood of an 18-wheeler while soloing away at her Stratocaster is marvelous, but also heart-wrenching; the hanbok was originally the wedding dress of her mother, who lost her battle against cancer as Zauner worked on the songs that would form her 2016 album Psychopomp. In a sense, the video is a final celebration of her mother’s life, a piece of her now memorialized forever in two-and-a-half joyous minutes. —Noah Yoo


    15. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”
    Director: Chris Hopewell

    Radiohead have always been pretty good at reading the room when it comes to surmounting dread. Amidst a year marked by Brexit and Trump, the band used this video to comment on the frightening ramifications of the growing nationalist panic across the globe. The parallels are made clear by the twisted setting the band and director Chris Hopewell portray in this stop-motion clip, which welcomes viewers into an “idyllic” English village similar to the ones that served as backdrops for the beloved “Trumptonshire” British TV cartoons—except with more nooses and fire and human sacrifice. Spoiler alert: Things do not end well. —Jillian Mapes


    14. Kanye West: “Famous (Unofficial Official Video)”
    Directors: Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim

    For his official “Famous” visual, Kanye made an art piece about celebrity. It was pure provocation, bookended by naked mannequins of Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, and it got the world talking. Which is, you know, fine. But Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim made a superior video for the song, and it’s all about how much they love pasta. When Swizz Beatz exclaims “goddamn!” Aziz lip syncs along, overcome with passion as noodles spill out of his face. The two comedians dance in the streets of Italy, humping either side of a tiny car. They’re sloppy boys with all that pasta lining their mouths, but they perfectly illustrate the bacchanalian elation that comes along with blessed infamy. —Evan Minsker

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    12. Kendrick Lamar: “God Is Gangsta”
    Directors: Jack Begert and the little homies

    K-Dot cuts a demonic figure in this seven-minute clip, which combines two To Pimp a Butterfly tracks into one blunt, lacerating look at sin and temptation. Opening with “U,” Lamar writhes like a man possessed, screaming his self-loathing into an ever-draining decanter; at the end of his rope, he’s submerged in a baptismal pool, but his angst isn’t washed away. “For Sale” has him hazily meeting Lucy, Butterfly’s satanic incarnation, and drifting dazedly above a club fracas. Call it Kendrick’s Inferno, and pray he finds his way back out. –Stacey Anderson


    11. Kaytranada: “Lite Spots”
    Director: Martin C. Pariseau

    This video contains the best use of a robot since Wall-E. Kaytranada’s little automaton buddy is a big time dancer, copying the styles of everyone it meets throughout the day. There’s a dance at the bus stop with an adorable little girl with a big bow in her hair, a dance at the beach in front of a perfect sunset, even a dance in the driveway with an impressively limber Kaytranada himself. That’s basically it. Don’t come for the plot. But do come for a refreshingly optimistic take on the incoming robot revolution. —Matthew Schnipper


    10. Angel Olsen: “Shut Up Kiss Me”
    Director: Angel Olsen

    Guess what: Angel Olsen is funny. Her self-directed video for “Shut Up Kiss Me” does many things, but bringing out Olsen’s sly sense of humor is the most important. A singer-songwriter bored of being miscast as a “country-folk sad-sack lost in a forest,” she uses the soft power of persuasion here: How can you not love a record that’s obviously so much giddy fun? The visuals ensure no one misses the wink, as we see Olsen in a silver wig goofing around with her starring role: She’s at the bar, she’s skating at the roller-rink, she’s in a parked car clutching a rotary phone. She ends, unforgettably, by asking someone off-camera if she needs to “give more attitude”—as if that is even possible. She is whoever she wants to be now. —Marc Hogan


    9. Grimes: “Kill V. Maim”
    Directors: Claire Boucher and Mac Boucher

    A Grimes video is always inspiring in its muchness. Here, Claire Boucher gives her Art Angels mobster anthem “Kill V. Maim” a fittingly grand visual—a maximalist, fantastical thriller featuring a motley crew of freaks from her Montreal underground. These are mad geniuses in their element, which is to say, the underbelly of a seedy subway station: a caged dark angel, a mystical modern dancer, blood rituals. They hang out of a fucked up pink car; elsewhere, Boucher dons pink boxing gloves and fangs. It is a surreal appeal to the margins, a strangescape in which logic does not apply. —Jenn Pelly

    8. Jamie xx: “Gosh”
    Director: Romain Gavras

    Romain Gavras, the director behind jaw-dropping clips like M.I.A.’s “Born Free” and Justice’s “Stress,” specializes in the kind of music video that makes you go: How the fuck did he do that? With “Gosh,” he uses Jamie xx’s slow-building breakbeat anthem to soundtrack a disorienting epic that resembles an Olympics opening ceremony from an alternate universe. Hundreds of Asian boys march and dance in sync with each other through the streets of Tianducheng, China—a city built as a replica of Paris, complete with its own Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées. The video’s magnetic star, Hassan Kone, is a 17-year-old albino kid Gavras cast off the street of the real Paris—a stranger in a very strange land. The entire thing was made using no CGI or special effects. Just a whole lot of people and a whole lot of crazy ideas. —Amy Phillips


    7. ANOHNI: “Drone Bomb Me”
    Director: Nabil Elderkin

    Bleakness meets beauty—aggressively, subtly, devastatingly—in ANOHNI’s clip for “Drone Bomb Me.” In it, the supermodel Naomi Campbell tearfully steps in for the song’s distraught narrator—a young girl pleading for death after a drone attack kills her family—translating the harrowing imagery with languid, elegant movements. It is a gorgeous, excruciating act of empathy, one that brings intense personal scrutiny to the anonymous masses slain by drone warfare. —Stacey Anderson


    6. Frank Ocean: “Nikes”
    Director: Tyrone Lebon

    After false teasers and months—years!—of silence, “Nikes” marked Frank Ocean’s proper, full-color re-entry into the world at large. He was back, older, bolder, leaning against a car in heavy eyeliner, lip syncing while drinking from a styrofoam cup. Here was his overflowing introduction to Blonde, presenting a world of fast cars, rapping chihuahuas, white horses, devils, glitter erupting from between thighs, and lots of flesh. It’s a place of passion and imagination, and it’s exactly the kind of Frank we were hoping would return. —Evan Minsker


    5. Solange: “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair
    Directors: Alan Ferguson and Solange Knowles

    These sister A Seat at the Table pieces elevate something largely uncommon in the realm of music videos: stillness. Solange and her husband Alan Ferguson create regal yet delicate tableaus of black women and men here, from an indelible shot of seven bodies connected by one purple dress, swaying against a mountain, or the guys bouncing around a temple in burnt orange Akademiks velour tracksuits and finger waves. As the lyrics to “Cranes in the Sky” suggest, keeping busy isn’t necessarily the best cure for loneliness—slowing down and discovering one’s own power, on the other hand, can be a subtle declaration of control.  —Quinn Moreland


    4. Radiohead: “Daydreaming”
    Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

    Is this video, as some online wonks have suggested, a nerdily referential trip through Radiohead’s own visual history? Is it Thom Yorke’s attempt at unsettling autobiography, with each new doorway opening up to a scene from his past? Is it director Paul Thomas Anderson’s most strangely moving piece of work in about a decade? Is the clip a comment on our inevitable environmental destruction? A symbol of the endless internet, with each new path representing a proliferation of links and tabs and rabbit holes? Does it show a content middle-aged man who’s never met a knob he couldn’t turn, or someone terrified of the choices he’s made? Is it willfully perplexing or deservedly complex?

    The answer to all that and more, of course, is yes. — Ryan Dombal


    3. Kanye West: “Fade”
    Director: Eli Linnetz

    Teyana Taylor’s sculpted form is the kind that stands a testament to hard work—which is why people lost their shit when the G.O.O.D. Music signee recently admitted that she doesn’t even work out. “All I do is dance,” she told Vogue, and her breathless, vaguely Flashdance-inspired performance in a sweat-soaked thong and sports bra is apparently what came out when West asked her to freestyle to “Fade.” But just when you think this is simply a mesmerizing dance video, there’s that bizarre family portrait: Taylor naked in cat prosthetics alongside her baby and husband, all of them surrounded by actual sheep. As a wise man once said: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative—gets the people going!” —Jillian Mapes


    2. David Bowie: “Lazarus”
    Director: Johan Renck

    The symbols came so fast and furious, you barely knew what to do with them all: the hospital bed, the fountain pen, the buttons on bandaged eyes. Then, three days after this video was released, all those fraught objects suddenly became as clear as a syringe full of morphine. David Bowie was gone after secretly battling cancer for 18 months; death’s hand, clawing up from beneath the bed, was no metaphor. Anyone who has seen someone die of a disease like cancer will be intimately familiar with the world of this video—Bowie, his skin like parchment, turning hospice care into high art. Biting his nails as he faces a blank page, he makes no bones about the fact that he’s a man who’s run out of time.

    The song’s title is clearly meant to remind us of the biblical Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead after four days. And Bowie, a master showman until the very end, pulled off his own perverse sort of miracle in reverse here, retreating backwards, trembling, vanishing into that shadowy armoire: On the fourth day, when we flung open the door, there were only mysteries left. —Philip Sherburne


    1. Beyoncé: Lemonade
    Directors: Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles Carter, Melina Matsoukas, Todd Tourso, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jonas Åkerlund, Mark Romanek, and Warsan Shire

    Teeming with visions of black feminist fortitude, remixed American history, and ancient sources of strength, Beyoncé’s latest world-halting opus is dense enough to warrant an entire college course devoted to unpacking its multitudes. In fact, that’s already happened: This fall, The University of Texas at San Antonio offered a multimedia class called Black Women, Beyoncé & Popular Culture that used Lemonade as an intellectual springboard. This is Beyoncé’s power. She is the world’s most awe-inspiring pop star and she’s using her mind, money, and reach to challenge, to teach. Michael Jackson, the forefather of statement music videos, revolutionized the form with ambition and imagination, but his rise as a visual powerhouse coincided with the gradual erasure of his own physical blackness; as her ideas become more intricate and grand, Beyoncé is placing her blackness—and the overarching struggle of black womanhood—to the fore.

    Part of this film’s genius is how it packs all of its heady allusions and personal politicking into something that, on its surface, would make TMZ drool. But the tabloid theatrics—will the real Becky please stand up?!—essentially serve as a Trojan Horse, with Beyoncé leveraging her fame and (supposed) family drama into something much more far-reaching. She cuts a Nefertiti silhouette and transforms a historical place of slavery and suffering into a bastion of liberation (and twerking) in “Sorry”; she flaunts her Southern heritage while standing atop a drowning police car in “Formation”; she unleashes torrents of fire wherever she sets her feet. Lemonade conjures a world where women of color are omnipotent and where men are swept to the side, barely-there—it’s graduate level pop art that mulls the past while setting its sight on what’s to come. —Ryan Dombal

    [Watch Lemonade in full on TIDAL.]


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    Lists & Guides: The Year in Disappointment 2016

    There was a lot to be disappointed with in 2016—more than we could have ever imagined. Here’s a bunch of shit that may not have mattered in the grand scheme of things but still kinda sucked. On to the next one!

     


    Watching DJ Khaled get massages no longer fun

    Beyoncé still married to Jay Z

    Guess none of Drake’s friends comfortable telling him patois is not a thing you can just do

    Ever having had to read the phrase “YACHT sex tape”

    Swish really was the perfect album title

    Feel like Desiigner may be in over his head

    New Joyce Manor sounds like Everclear

    Not sure what’s worse: Kendrick Lamar needs money so bad he did a Maroon 5 verse or he doesn’t need the money and did it anyway

    Bon Iver’s apparent influences for new album were Dan Brown and a graphing calculator

    Brian Eno’s Velvet Underground cover

    The Chainsmokers

    Taylor Swift apparently had better things to do than endorse Hillary

    Le Tigre reuniting for Hillary couldn’t quite push her over the edge

    Turns out Solange didn’t actually say, “I sext it away, I Reddit away”

    Was hoping Chance more a Reese’s guy

    Always wanna read it A Moon Shaped Poop

    Rihanna’s Tame Impala cover

    Frank Ocean only released two albums

    Only thing better about Preoccupations as a band name than Viet Cong is that it’s not racist

    Grateful Dead toured—again—with John Mayer

    Rostam and Ezra broke up

    Possible everyone good now dead


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    Lists & Guides: The Year in Streaming 2016

    Experts have been anticipating the dominance of streaming audio since the days of Y2K and nu metal. In 1999, the first customizable online radio service, Launchcast, was introduced. In 2001, seven years before Spotify, Rhapsody was unveiled as the first proper on-demand streaming music service. But those early streaming dreams were squashed when the iTunes Store opened its virtual doors in 2003,  giving way to a downloads-based digital music economy, which has held fast ever since. Until now: If current patterns hold, 2016 will mark the first time subscription streaming revenues will meaningfully overtake download sales.

    So it’s worth noting both the significance of streaming music’s accomplishments this past year as well as how historically fragile those accomplishments remain. Going into 2017, streaming will no longer be a niche for music but the new normal. The big question is no longer whether streaming is the future, but what form that future will take, who will benefit, and what that might mean for listeners.

    Through June, the U.S. music industry as a whole was on pace to grow for the second straight year—its first consecutive years of growth since the late ’90s, at the height of the CD era—and subscription streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music deserve the credit. The rest of the industry has increasingly legitimized streaming as well, led by longtime holdouts the Beatles finally embracing the format late last year. The Grammys opened up their eligibility rules to include streaming-only releases, the RIAA started counting streaming toward platinum and gold certifications, and even Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke previously compared Spotify to “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse,” released new music on, yes, Spotify. Looking to make the most of this new landscape, artists like Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper, and Drake toyed with the artistic and commercial potential of releasing new music exclusively through a particular streaming service. Underlying all that, though, is another, even bigger question dating back to the turn of the millennium: Can the economics of streaming become sustainable?

    Given streaming’s triumph, some of the debate has moved to divvying up the spoils of that victory. This year, labels, artists, songwriters, and managers called for an overhaul of copyright law to close what they saw as a “value gap” that allows the “user upload” sites like YouTube to unfairly earn revenue from their work (YouTube, of course, viewed the matter differently). Another industry target was “stream ripping,” the process of turning a stream into a downloadable file, which became the subject of a massive lawsuit. And songwriters, left wondering about their share of streaming payouts, used their recently formed advocacy group, Songwriters of North America, to sue the Department of Justice.

    The streaming services themselves had feuds, too. After Senator Elizabeth Warren called out Apple Music as an example of concentrated corporate power that can harm competition, news broke that Spotify had been challenging Apple’s app-store practices, which include taking a cut from Spotify’s monthly subscriptions. Apple Music and Jay Z’s Tidal vied over exclusive album releases, prompting multiple Kanye West tweets complaining about that “Tidal/Apple bullshit” and leading Universal to swear off global streaming exclusives after Frank Ocean managed to break out of his contract with the label through a savvy exclusive deal with Apple Music. Spotify, in turn, reportedly gave less promotion to Apple and Tidal exclusives.

    Overlooked in this by pretty much everyone (but Kanye) were music listeners, facing a reality where they may need to subscribe to multiple services if they want to hear every high-profile new album. Reassuringly for consumers, music-biz analysts don’t foresee exclusives being as crucial to music streaming services as they are to TV services like Netflix or Amazon. “There will continue to be exclusives, but there’s only so many you can put out and still have impact,” says Mark Mulligan, founder of London-based MIDiA Research, a digital-music market research firm.

    What’s next for streaming is, in a word, more. More streaming services continue to hit the market, with Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Vevo all prepping their own on-demand platforms, Amazon recently introducing Amazon Music Unlimited, and SoundCloud rolling out SoundCloud Go. The crowded marketplace should also keep spurring more talk about deals, whether that’s Spotify potentially buying SoundCloud or Apple being rumored as a suitor for Tidal. More streaming services may find themselves having to simply shut down, too; Rdio filed for bankruptcy at the close of last year, and this year Samsung shuttered its Milk Music streaming service.

    All the while, the existing players are butting heads over how to give listeners the best personalized, automated listening experience. They’re launching lower-priced services with less functionality and looking beyond smartphones toward smart speakers and, in the longer term, smart cars.

    For all the intriguing evolution taking place for streaming music, precedent in this space suggests keeping an eye on the bottom line. In an earlier streaming era, Launchcast went to Yahoo in a $12 million deal and survived an important legal challenge, only to end up getting absorbed into CBS’s (non-customizable) radio network. Rhapsody, which arose as the music industry was grappling with file-sharing services like Napster, this year rebranded its U.S. operations as Napster, and only holds fraction of the subscribers boasted by Spotify and Apple. Profitability is still a challenge for the streaming business, to put it politely: Pandora has not yet managed to be consistently profitable; Spotify has never turned an annual profit; Tidal lost twice as much money in 2015 as they did the previous year; and it’s nocoincidence that players like Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet, the corporate parent of Google and YouTube, have other, more lucrative businesses. And there aren’t many other companies left to write a check for a music streaming service. The labels, too, have to hope that streaming can grow fast enough to offset an ongoing decline in downloads and physical sales. Ted Cohen, managing partner at digital entertainment consultancy TAG Strategic and a former EMI digital executive, sees hope in a growing number of label executives with experience in the streaming world. “We have a playing field that’s littered with casualties,” Cohen says. “If this is going to go long-term, the deals [between streaming services and labels] have to get a little bit more sustainable. We’re close.” In other words: Labels need to cut deals with streaming services that won't put the streaming services out of business.

    Here’s a look at 10 streaming services, what went well and what went poorly for them this year, and where they might be headed in 2017.


    Pros: The biggest subscription service for on-demand music streaming is only getting bigger. In September, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek tweeted that his company had passed 40 million paid subscribers—double the amount it had in June 2015. The fact that Spotify is chiefly a music streaming company—and not a tech giant with other products to sell—may give record labels added reason to support it. It won’t hurt Spotify’s relationships with the labels, either, that it has remained steadfastly opposed to exclusives. In June 2016, the company hired Troy Carter, the founder/CEO of artist management firm Atom Factory and former manager of Lady Gaga, looking to bolster its relationships within the music biz. And the service continues to expand its offering of personalized playlists, widely seen as the most intuitive out there. The company has also branched out into video, entered the Japanese market, and swiped right for a partnership with Tinder.

    Cons: Spotify’s growth hasn’t translated into profits. The company posted a net loss of nearly $200 million in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available. Plus, Spotify is in the midst of negotiating new licensing contracts with the majors, so its bottom line going forward is less than certain. And debate still rages over the platform’s payouts to songwriters and publishers for the use of songwriters’ compositions, which are legally separate from the royalties they pay labels for the songs’ recordings. A year ago, artist rights advocate and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery sued Spotify for copyright infringement; the case is still ongoing.

    What’s Next: Spotify’s most crucial challenge will be going public. The company is under a time crunch because of the deal terms for the $1 billion in convertible debt it raised in March, which encourage it to make an IPO sooner rather than later. “If [the IPO] hasn’t happened by this time next year, then something hasn’t been going right,” says MIDiA Research’s Mulligan. Separately, Spotify has reportedly been considering buying SoundCloud, an acquisition that would potentially further entrench the company in the streaming marketplace, but the price would have to be right. Spotify clearly remains the streaming service to beat, but it will soon have to convince Wall Street that its model can eventually turn a profit.


    Pros: Apple Music solidified its role as the No. 2 subscription on-demand streaming service this year, making up for its lack of market dominance with an emphasis on artist exclusives—and Apple’s massive cash hoard should make profitability less of an immediate concern. In September, the company announced that Apple Music had acquired 17 million subscribers since launching in June 2015. A redesign with the new iOS 10 operating system went after Spotify’s home turf—algorithm-based, personalized playlists—with additional features. Most significantly, Apple had the initial exclusive on several of the year’s most commercially—and, in some cases, artistically—successful albums, from Drake’s VIEWS to Frank Ocean’s Blonde/Endless twofer.

    Cons: There’s a dark side to exclusives, too. After Ocean followed his contract-fulfilling Endless visual album with the self-released Blonde, both at first available only on Apple Music, Universal Music CEO Lucian Grainge put a kibosh on his company doing any more single-platform, global streaming exclusives. And Apple can often appear either unwilling or unable to avoid angering music fans (and artists), from its elimination of the iPhone headphone jack, to Apple Music’s clunky interface, which led to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon tweeting in July that it was a “literally horrid platform.” There were other artist-related snafus: Apple featured Shamir in an ad, then used a Shamir soundalike in another commercial; ANOHNI has complained that taking Apple’s money for the “Drone Bomb Me” video made her feel “like a house cat that had been declawed.” Though having the Beats team of Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor on board was supposed to position Apple Music as artist-friendly, the company still has a ways to go in keeping artists happy.

    What’s Next: Apple will keep doing exclusives, Iovine has said. And despite the service’s initial trumpeting of its human curators, more algorithm-based playlists are on the way. Apple was too late to streaming to hold anything like the stranglehold iTunes had over downloads (at least, not yet). Instead, Apple Music’s battle with Spotify may be more like the Mac vs. PC debate: a corporate presentation of chic tastefulness versus an ostensibly techier rival.


    Pros: SoundCloud is at a crossroads. The mostly free streaming site claims to attract 175 million monthly listeners. In March, the company launched a paid subscription service, Soundcloud Go, and it’s reportedly under consideration as a takeover target for Spotify.

    Cons: In recent years, as SoundCloud has cleaned up its offerings amid the label deals that led to SoundCloud Go, the site has lost some of the Wild West allure that originally made it a preferred destination for DJs and artists. Apple and Spotify have both struck deals this year with a company called Dubset, which should enable these services to offer some of the unofficial remixes and multi-song DJ mixes that had been SoundCloud’s distinguishing feature. And it’s surely possible that talk of a Spotify deal could be just that—talk.

    What’s Next: If SoundCloud doesn’t sell to Spotify, it could still end up in the hands of another bidder—the company was reportedly considering a $1 billion sale as recently as July. And investors like Twitter, which poured $70 million into SoundCloud earlier this year, will eventually be looking to cash in on an exit strategy.


    Pros: Pandora may be a newcomer to on-demand streaming, but the company is a pioneer of streaming music more generally. It counted 77.9 million active listeners in its most recent earnings period, mostly for its free service. This year, Pandora announced that its personalized Thumbprint Radio had reached more than 5 billion spins since launching in December 2015. The company is also out in front of the industry’s efforts to hook subscribers who aren’t willing to pay $10 a month for music, recently relaunching its $4.99-per-month radio subscription service. The company’s basic conceit—a hands-free, personalized listening experience—is one that Spotify and Apple have been moving toward.

    Cons: Pandora’s total user count has fallen 2 percent since last year. And so far it has only been able to acquire about 4 million paid subscribers.

    What’s Next: In September, Pandora executives said the company could release its on-demand service as early as this month, though January may be more likely.


    Pros: Though less known in the United States, Deezer has been one of the more successful streaming companies in Europe. It’s similar to Spotify and other on-demand platforms, right down to a feature that promises users a “personal soundtrack” based on algorithms, music experts, and listening context. The French company has been quiet about its numbers lately, but it has said that as of mid-2015 it had 3.8 million revenue-generating subscribers, whether through standalone subscriptions or bundling deals from wireless service providers. In January, Deezer raised about $100 million in funding from Warner Music parent company Access Industries, giving at least one of the three majors a vested interest in its survival. In July, Deezer officially launched to all U.S. listeners.

    Cons: Deezer’s U.S. invasion has been a long time coming (Spotify arrived stateside in 2011). And its sales pitch may confuse: The company previously soft-launched here in recent years as a high-resolution audio service for Sonos users, a “mass-market” service for Bose users, and as a bundled tie-in for Cricket Wireless prepaid phone plan customers. In 2015, Deezer became the first of the on-demand streaming services to file for an IPO, but it abandoned the plan due to “market conditions.” In August, only a month after Deezer went wide in the U.S., its North American CEO left to run a weed vaporizer company. Even antitrust authorities have expressed doubt that Deezer’s ties with Warner Music will give it much of a leg up in the crowded streaming marketplace. And like most streaming services, Deezer isn’t exactly profitable: It disclosed losing about $13 million in the first six months of 2015, the most recent period available.

    What’s Next: Deezer has some breathing room, as the company recently renewed a lucrative partnership with French telecom company Orange for another two years. Ultimately, though, the service will need more listeners to sign up for standalone subscriptions, which tend to generate more revenue than phone bundles. Where those subscribers will come from, however, remains to be seen.

    Pros: Bandcamp isn’t a streaming service in the sense of Spotify or SoundCloud, but streaming through its website is a great way to discover—and, Bandcamp hopes, eventually buy—music that’s too far afield for playlist algorithms and even human playlist curators. Bandcamp, which takes a 15 percent cut on digital sales and 10 percent on physical merch, says it has been profitable since 2012 and has helped fans pay artists $186 million to date. Acts nurtured on the platform, including Mitski, Car Seat Headrest, and Alex G, saw new levels of success this year, and the service has added legacy content like the Dischord Records catalog. The site also received a favorable profile in The New York Times as a possible “Holy Grail of online record stores,” and hired an editorial staff to bolt on at least some of that expert-curation component. (Full disclosure: Some of Bandcamp’s editorial staff members are Pitchfork contributors.)

    Cons: Digital download sales keep dropping overall. As the Times noted, Bandcamp also faces the risk that, as it helps direct listeners to new music more purposefully, its once-defining pleasure of randomly stumbling across, say, Sebadoh co-founder Eric Gaffney’s unreleased material, or a no-fuss EP by a beloved indie-pop bandleader, could be lost.

    What’s Next: The company appears to be hunkering down in its enviable position as, in its apt words, an “alternative” to the subscription-based streaming giants. “As long as there are fans who care about the welfare of their favorite artists and want to help them keep making music, we will continue to provide that direct connection,” Bandcamp wrote in a blog post this year. “And as long as there are fans who want to own, not rent, their music, that is a service we will continue to provide, and that is a model whose benefits we will continue to champion.”


    Pros: Google’s parent company Alphabet has two plays on music streaming. One is Google Play Music, which is a full-on music streaming subscription service similar to Spotify. The other is YouTube, the giant video site, which in addition to its free, ad-supported level also offers an ad-free YouTube Red subscription service. Though Alphabet hasn’t broken out subscriber numbers, YouTube’s biggest strength is the sheer reach of the free service. A U.S. survey earlier this year showed more music consumption via YouTube than with any of the music-only services, a finding that was especially pronounced among younger listeners. In September, YouTube named record mogul Lyor Cohen as its global head of music, a move that could help mend the company’s relationship with the industry.

    Cons: YouTube, like other streaming services, generates few if any profits. Its battle with the music industry could also weigh further on its bottom line, especially if fed-up artists and listeners move toward less controversial listening platforms. Of course, for as long as the price is free, that’s a big “if.”

    What’s Next:YouTube’s chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, told me earlier this year that “what’s next is more ad revenue.” Alphabet has the resources to play a long game here.


    Pros: Tidal, like Apple, has largely sold itself on exclusives, including Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Rihanna’s ANTI; West’s periodic updates to Pablo challenged the definition of the “album” itself. In May, Tidal said it signed up 1.2 million new users during its first week exclusively streaming Beyoncé's Lemonade, adding to the 3 million paid subscribers the service claimed in March. Plus, Prince’s invaluable catalog is, with minor exceptions, Tidal-only. There’s also the matter of artist ownership, not only in the form of Jay Z, whose business group acquired Tidal’s parent company last year, but also its announced co-owners, including Beyoncé, Kanye, Arcade Fire, Daft Punk, and Jack White. Tidal has also claimed to pay the highest royalty rates of any subscription streaming service and, unlike its main rivals, offers a high-resolution audio subscription alongside its standard streaming service. Further distinguishing Tidal, the company has announced donations to Black Lives Matter and other nonprofit social justice groups. And former SoundCloud exec Jeff Toig, who became Tidal’s third CEO in eight months when he was hired last December, has stayed at the helm throughout the year.

    Cons: Tidal’s parent company recently disclosed a $28 million loss for 2015, more than double the $10.4 million it lost in 2014. It’s the subject of multiplelegalactions. Rihanna’s ANTI notoriously appeared on Tidal early by mistake. And Apple’s Iovine has dismissed reports that his company might be negotiating to acquire Jay Z’s service.

    What’s Next: Even if Beyoncé is able to release a headline-grabbing visual album every year, Tidal clearly has some catching up to do if it’s to remain an artist-owned company.


    Pros: Amazon has already quietly become a leader in paid music streaming, at least technically. Although the company doesn’t disclose subscriber numbers, customers who sign up for its Amazon Prime service have access to Amazon Prime Music, which arrived in 2014 with a limited catalog. According to market researcher Parks Associates, 15 percent of U.S. broadband households subscribe to Prime Music, versus 7 percent for Spotify Premium, 5.9 percent for Pandora’s paid tier, and 2.7 percent for Apple Music. The new Amazon Music Unlimited service offers an expanded catalog similar to those of its rivals and, for Prime members or owners of Amazon’s voice-activated Echo speaker, comes at a discount to the other subscription streaming services. As for exclusives: Amazon is the only place you can legitimately stream Garth Brooks. “The streaming services so far are doing a really good job of [appealing to] the really engaged music consumer who gets why paying 10 bucks a month for a subscription is worthwhile for them,” says Russ Crupnick, founder of research firm MusicWatch. “Amazon looks like they’re trying to get to the more casual music consumers.”

    Cons: Tools like Amazon’s Alexa may not have the greatest taste in music. For example, saying “Alexa, play that song that goes ‘put up a parking lot’” has been reported to result in the speaker playing Counting Crows’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi.” And Amazon’s lower prices for streaming subscriptions may lead consumers to expect to pay even less than they already do for music, further shrinking the pot that’s left for songwriters and musicians.

    What’s Next: If Amazon has its way, Alexa will be taking many more questions. Amazon’s vice president of digital music, Steve Boom, has said that music streaming’s next phase of growth will come via connected smart devices in the home. Alexa, where did we leave our smartphones? Never mind, we won’t need them anymore.


    Pros: Napster used to be Rhapsody, which has more experience than anyone else at subscription on-demand streaming music. The company, which had marketed itself abroad as Napster for several years, fully rebranded its U.S. operations as Napster in July as well. The company last claimed almost 3.5 million paid subscriptions. And sharing a name with a famous file-sharing service has its advantages: Metallica’s “return” to Napster made headlines in November, 17 years after the band sued the company’s less legally scrupulous predecessor. Plus, Napster has been on the deal-making prowl, recently announcing partnerships with Sprint, Lufthansa, and grocery chain Aldi. Most importantly of all, the business swung to a surprising $1.6 million profit for its most recent quarter, according to a regulatory filing.

    Cons: Napster’s latest subscription figures, which date to December 2015, would still put it far behind Spotify and Apple Music. And in the longer term, it has continued to lose money, posting an $11.4 million loss for the first nine months of 2016.

    What’s Next:The grandaddy of subscription streaming services will need to prove it can still compete today. The company named a new CEO in April, and confirmed a round of job cuts in June. As with the old Napster, streaming is a tough business.


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    Lists & Guides: Holiday Gift Ideas 2016

    In the time of streaming media, when everyone has access to nearly everything, music people can be especially hard to buy gifts for nowadays. With that in mind, we’ve avoided the typical cash-in box sets and basic concert T-shirts this year, instead trying to track down items that are as unexpected as they are welcomed.

    Big Boi Dog Shampoo ($15)

    If you want your dog to feel as loved as Big Boi’s dogs—I mean, just look at these littleguys—you’ll want to check out the rapper’s signature line of dog shampoos. There are many different styles—from “Scrumptious” to “Invigorate”—and all of them are made with natural ingredients like rosemary, lavender oil, and cucumber extract. It might not be the next OutKast album, but we’ll take it.

    David Bowie Shorts ($185)

    Zara Mirkin’s Merch Junkies clothing label takes simple vintage pieces like cotton tees or varsity jackets and embellishes them with logos of bands like Hole, KISS, and AC/DC. Shorts like these green ’70s Bowie ones are a mainstay on the site—and what better place to express your fandom than on your booty?

    Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture by Jace Clayton ($11)

    How did Auto-Tune find its way into the music of Morocco’s rural Berber communities? How did a cracked copy of FruityLoops come to soundtrack the fallout from Egypt’s Arab Spring? And why did Fugazi always tour with an electric clothes dryer in the back of the van? Pitchfork contributor Jace Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, answers all these questions and more in one of the year’s best books about culture: a fiercely intelligent, surprisingly moving look at the interrelation between music, technology, and ethics in a networked world.

    Rihanna Punk N Patch Socks ($18)

    Spooky Rihanna socks! Perfect to wear with those elusive Rihanna Puma creepers! And speaking of creepers, check out the dismembered hand near the toe—very “Bitch Better Have My Money” murderous.

    Innocence Perfume by Father John Misty ($75)

    Take a whiff of “Innocence,” with its notes of sweet orange blossom and vanilla bourbon, and your mind just might call back to that time you tried your dad’s cocktail as a kid and suddenly felt very warm and happy (and kinda sick). Crafted bySanae Intoxicants, the same company that boasts aHotbox fragrance, this Eau de Parfum concocted by Father John Misty is the perfect gift for the romantic cynic in your life, or just someone who needs a reminder of their fleeting youth.

    21 Savage “Issa Knife” T-Shirt ($7)

    Earlier this year, when asked what his forehead tattoo—misidentified as a cross—signified, Atlanta upstart 21 Savage famously responded: “Issa knife.” The moment of literalism made for a great Vine, but the full interview reveals that the permanent sharp object between his eyes is also a tribute to his late brother. So now fans can wear this shirt with pride, and in solidarity with Savage.

    The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan ($14)

    This dazzling graphic novel casts a wide and empathetic net in its look at the life of troubled folk iconoclast Daniel Johnson, as well as the burdens of mental illness and the tetchy romanticism society affixes it. In its vivid, folkloric style, it even seems to appraise you, the reader, via a hundred-strong repetitions of scattered eyes, peppering every page amid beautiful depictions of Johnston’s rise to pop infamy. It’s a complex, worldly journey worthy of his own.

    The Dilla Turntable ($120)

    J Dilla’s record collection was massive—the subject of rabid fan fascination and eBay bidding wars. While you might not be able to pick up any of his records at this point, the late producer’s estate has designed a new turntable to kick off your own crate digging explorations. The portable player features a sumptuous graphic of a black-and-white cloudscape, a pair of built-in speakers, software to record music directly onto your computer, and an exclusive 7" single of “The Sickness,” Dilla’s collaboration with Nas.

    Donut 45 Adaptor ($16)

    Speaking of Dilla… these vinyl adaptors aren’t officially associated with the Detroit legend, but it’s easy to see how his classic album Donuts—which was largely based off of songs sampled from 45s—inspired their design. Your dusty old singles have never sounded this delicious.

    Illimat: The Decemberists Board Game

    After raising $418,628 on Kickstarter—nearly 10 times its original goal—a new board game co-created by the Decemberists is now officially in the works. The beautifully designed hybrid card/board game, which looks like something you might find in an ancient fortune teller’s lair, is due for release next year, but you can sign up for pre-order info right now.

    Samsung Gear S3 frontier

    Brought to you by:Advertisement

    It’s time to leave everything behind, starting with your phone. Call, text, navigate, and pay right from your wrist with the Samsung Gear S3. The Gear S3 is water resistant with military-grade durability and a battery that can last for days—so you can venture on. [Requires separate qualifying wireless plan. Check out all the requirements and carrier for details.]

    Todd Terje Underwear ($30)

    The don of Norwegian space-disco joyfulness has long made music that evokes the beach, the tiki lounge, and other locales with notably permissive dress codes. Do skivvies telegraph fandom as publicly as a T-shirt? Obviously not. But there’s something to be said for letting nothing come between you and your Todds.

    Saint Lemmy Votive Candles ($10)

    Following Lemmy’s passing earlier this year, listening to Motörhead records can now feel like some kind of divine sinner’s ceremony—so down some Jack and Cokes, light up a cigarette, and set one of these Saint Lemmy candles aflame.

    Noel Gallagher Potato Phone iPhone Case ($30)

    In May, Liam Gallaghertweeted a photo of his brother Noel and memorably captioned it: “Potato.” It was a scathing insult that required imagination—much like this glimmering phone case. The item is an unofficial ode, but even so, you can imagine Liam slaving away on Photoshop, trying to find a balance of realism and caricature, potato and human. Diehard Oasis fans, this spud’s for you.

    ModularGrid Modular Synthesizer Poster ($41)

    Record collectors, book hoarders, cat fanciers—all obsessives pale in comparison to the modular-synth nerd, who measures happiness in well-soldered circuits, and for whom nirvana is always just one banana plug away. In a salute to fellow geeks, the people from Modular Grid—a kind of social network for modular hobbyists—have assembled more than 870 popular Eurorack modules, or some $200,000 worth of gear, into a gargantuan, drool-inducing poster. #rackgoals

    Pitchfork Music Festival 2017 Tickets ($65-$165)

    As the winter freeze approaches, take your mind off of all that snow and ice by picking up advance tickets to this coming summer’s 12th annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which will take place July 14-16 at Chicago’s Union Park. Three-day passes are now available for $165, along with single-day tickets for $65.

    A Poster of Comic That Wilco’s Schmilco Album Cover Is Based on by Joan Cornellá ($16)

    The brilliantly perverse illustrator Joan Cornella is an artist whose gentle misanthropy is matched only by his fondness for bodily fluids. Now you can get a print of the original six-panel gag that he turned into the cover of Wilco’s Schmilco straight from the artist himself. Ironically, it’s among the least shocking pieces in his archive.

    Handwoven Guitar Straps Named After Indie Rock Stars ($60-$85)

    You might not be able to pick and wail like Kurt Vile, Ty Segall, Kevin Shields, Dimebag Darrell, and Tina Weymouth, but thanks to Nashville gear gurus Original Fuzz you can at least wear a comfortable, handwoven strap named after such mighty guitar gods.

    Remidi T8 Wearable Musical Instrument ($350)

    Combining the look of Nintendo’s Power Glove, the musical acumen of tapping your fingers on a desk, Michael Jackson’s fashion sense, and some good old-fashioned Harry Potter-style wizardry, the Remidi T8 allows you to turn any surface into a tricked-out keyboard. Hardware and software add-ons let you remix and DJ with this versatile glove as well. Plus: Keeps your hand warm in frigid winter months!

    Music Is… by Brandon Stosuy and Amy Martin ($9)

    Music is the sort of thing that tiny humans love—all screaming feelings and banging stuff. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but for that insight translated into kid-friendly terms, we suggest the charming picture book Music Is… Former Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy and illustrator Amy Martin capture everything that music canbe, with an eye towards diversity and whimsy.

    Mitski Mug and Coaster Set ($20)

    On her song “Happy,” Mitski sings about a dude who comes over for sex and slips out while she’s peeing. All she sees after emerging from the bathroom is their empty cups and cookie wrappers, sighing, “Again I have to clean.” It’s a sadly relatable tale—but you’d probably just have to laugh if the mugs staring back at you in this clear moment of defeat were emblazoned with Mitski and her cat, right?

    Moog Schematic Notebook and Synthesis Pencil Set ($17)

    In electronic music, the Moog brand is synonymous with old-school, analog cred. And it doesn’t get much more analog than paper and pencil. Ten pencils come emblazoned with terms like “attack,” “decay,” “sustain,” and “release,” while the 64-page notebook features schematics on the front and back covers. Perfect for electrical engineers, cursive aficionados, and coldwave fans.

    Beyoncé Lemonade Patch Set ($25)

    When Beyoncé’s Lemonade arrived earlier this year, it brought with it a fantastical array ofinstant merchandising opportunities, enough for many a lemonade stand (or Etsy cart). With that in mind, credit these iron-on patches for their restraint—a reference to Bey’s “Formation” hot-sauce swag here, a “Sorry” (not sorry) “boy bye” there, and, naturally, a literal lemon.

    Guitar Pick Punch ($25)

    Picture this: Your credit card expires. You throw it out. Some asshole swipes it from your trash and steals your identity. Then you sit down with a guitar to lament your terrible fortunes—and you realize you lost your last pick! Luckily, this unlikely nightmare scenario can be easily avoided thanks to this handy tool, which turns almost anything—including your old Amex—into a guitar pick.

    The Pitchfork Review Holiday Bundles ($60-$120)

    Revisit issues of our print quarterly with a bundled collection that includes four, six, or all 11 issues. The Pitchfork Review features high-caliber, long-form music writing, photography, design, and comics. These special holiday offers are only available through December 12, with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Day.


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    Lists & Guides: The Top 20 Rap Albums of 2016

    From the bleak and pitiless nihilism of 21 Savage, Skepta, and Danny Brown to the exuberance of Kamaiyah and Chance; from the gnomic, inward musings of Ka and Kendrick to the rough, open-book humanity of Joey Purp: In 2016, rap albums splintered into a million different and thrilling forms, overflowing the edges of mundane details like normal release dates (hello, Kanye) and heteronormativity (hi, Thug!). If you haven't been glued to Hot 97 or Livemixtapes.com, here, in alphabetical order, are 20 of the most urgent, most partying, most excellent albums to come out of hip-hop this year. No shade to Macklemore.

    Metro Boomin / 21 Savage

    Savage Mode

    Slaughter Gang

    If Young Metro doesn’t trust you, the saying goes, Future will shoot you. Using only that logic,21 Savage isMetro Boomin’s perfect companion, because he trusts absolutely no one. Savage Mode is the rapper’s show; even Metro’s beats don’t get in the way, slowly trickling beneath the young Atlanta rapper’s menacingly quiet voice. Everything is grim and intense on Savage Mode—like when he threatens to “Pull up on you, tie your kids up” on “No Heart”—showing that 21 may be the heir to Chief Keef’s hip-hop-nihilist throne. Matthew Strauss

    21 Savage: “Ocean Drive” (via SoundCloud)

    Kodak Black

    Lil B.I.G. Pac

    Dollaz N Dealz

    As if on cue, just as Gucci Mane was released from prison, his new Florida progeny, Kodak Black, was arrested on a handful of charges, including robbery. Black often evokes Gucci in tone, doling out street wisdom through a sticky Southern drawl, but the trait they seem to share most is an inability to avoid trouble. Black released Lil B.I.G. Pac on his birthday while behind bars, and it’s his best work yet, a thoughtful consideration of his life as a teenage gangster. He’s one of rap’s most impressive young writers—unusually observant, reflective, and prognostic in the same breath—and his punches come in quick succession. His approach on the mixtape is best articulated by Gucci Mane on their collaboration, “Vibin in This Bih”: “Lock me in a box, but I’m coming out swinging.”

    Lil B.I.G. Pac is a more concise, well-rounded outing than previous efforts, and it’s also Black’s most complete mixtape to date. It mixes stunt anthems with moving tributes to loved ones on the outside, finding balance somewhere in the middle. The tape is a showcase for the rangy set of tools at his disposal: introspective writing, tough experience, dense word jumbles, heavy emotional impact. As he himself puts it more plainly: “Verbally, mentally, and physically, I keep the heat.” –Sheldon Pearce

    Kodak Black: “Vibin in This Bih” [ft. Gucci Mane] (via SoundCloud)

    Danny Brown

    Atrocity Exhibition

    Warp

    Danny Brown is both the greatest old-school rapper and the most avant-garde artist in hip-hop.Atrocity Exhibition’s four-track stretch from “Lost” through “White Lines” is about as traditional as rap gets—stuffed with constant similes and marvelously wordy drug descriptions—but it’s backed by unmatched production that other rappers would not dare touch, full of obscure samples and near-impossible tempos. Brown executes this perfectly; Atrocity Exhibition is, in some ways, a continuation ofXXX’s “downward spiral,” just twisted up even more. –Matthew Strauss

    Danny Brown: "Really Doe" (via SoundCloud)

    Chance the Rapper

    Coloring Book

    Chance the Rapper’s joyful yelp of a mixtape, Coloring Book, was the panacea we needed all year, a balm to seething societal unrest; it shimmered with the delicacy of a music box and roared with the mightiness of a full gospel choir. No one in 2016 threw a more joyous or life-affirming party of an album, with so many disparate guests sounding like the best versions of themselves: Justin Bieber was here, sounding relaxed and effortless and natural and human, four entirely foreign sensations to Bieber’s music, on the luxuriously sexy “Juke Jam.” Future, deep in his dead-souled zombie phase, sounded cuddly on “Smoke Break.” Regina  Spektor turned into a Broadway belter on an axed version of “Same Drugs,” and Jeremih turned into Bon Iver on “Summer Friends.” Chance was the ringleader at the center of it all, inspiring himself and others to reach higher. “Are you ready for your miracle?” went the chorus to “Blessings,” while Chance, cresting, promised ridiculous, impossible things: “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood/Make you remember how to smile good.” Somehow, he delivered all of it. –Jayson Greene

    Kevin Gates

    Islah

    Atlantic / Bread Winners' Association

    Kevin Gates has never shied away from being genuine, even when that means revealing the ugliest things about himself—like when he explained battery charges for kicking a female fan at a show. Among his many strengths as a rapper are his abilities to cut through with blunt talk and to be many things at once, not all of them good: hard and soft, thoughtful and careless, sympathetic and despicable, fatherly and abusive. He’s always been, in spells, an intricate writer, a dynamic performer, and a skilled hookman, with a gravelly voice that somehow lends itself well to all three. But he finds a near-perfect balance on Islah, a somewhat surprising major-label rap hit that is as consistently fragile as it is thorny. He comes off as both emotional and heartless, moving relentlessly through war stories and love stories at the same pace, and often blurring their margins. He’s a gangsta rapper, sure, but he’s also got the chops to cover Blink-182. It’s a technical marvel, an emotional spectacle, and an infectious jammer all in one. –Sheldon Pearce

    Kevin Gates: "2 Phones" (via SoundCloud)

    Ka

    Honor Killed the Samurai

    Iron Works

    “Watch me blueprint rec centers,” Brownsville’s Ka mutters on a song just called “$,” from Honor Killed the Samurai. This is the soul of the prematurely wise rapper’s work. Let Rick Ross build “a dream with elevators in it,” let Kanye fly a jet over personal debt; Ka’s dreams are community-sized and grassroots. His hushed, pained devotional music—made of tiny loops and his mutter—has evolved over the years by shrinking at the corners and drawing in on itself. On Honor Killed the Samurai, his Wu-Tang-inspired midnight music came to a fine point, like the graphite tip of a pencil touching pad. For any rap fans who still believe the pen is the sword, Ka is one of the last samurai alive. –Jayson Greene

    Kamaiyah

    A Good Night in the Ghetto

    self-released

    Kamaiyah’s A Good Night in the Ghetto crescendos on her buoyant, singsongy phrasings, which are imbued with all the animation of drunken, carefree nights riding across town, dreaming of Beamers with friends. It’s a feel-good mixtape about being young and having fun, about West Coast nightlife as escapism—from violence, pettiness, poverty, and the natural chaos of existence. It finds a median between idealism and realism.

    Kamaiyah fantasized about wealth and its feel on her breakout single, “How Does It Feel,” before relishing her come-up on mixtape cuts like “I’m On.” Many of the tracks on A Good Night in the Ghetto, as its title implies, settle somewhere between the two, longing for more but savoring the present. It’s nearly impossible to not root for her, to not celebrate her success with her, as she performs with such gusto, enjoying her newfound fame and her longheld friendships. But she’s clear-eyed, understanding that eventually, the buzz wears off and no amount of money or Hennessy can bring back lost loved ones. “I can’t give a fuck about these millions/And I will give it up to see him live on,” she raps, remembering her late partners-in-crime Cocaine James, who died of cancer in April, and Fred. She balances the breezy with the heartfelt, navigating the complexities of life in Oakland; drinking out the bottle, and pouring some out, too. –Sheldon Pearce

    Kamaiyah: "How Does It Feel" (via SoundCloud)

    Kendrick Lamar

    untitled unmastered.

    Top Dawg Entertainment

    In two TV performances that bookended the release of his opus, To Pimp a Butterfly—the first as the final performer on “The Colbert Report,” the second on “The Tonight Show”—Kendrick Lamar expanded the scope of his vision. The two untitled compositions—both hookless jazz-rap epics with lush instrumental flourishes and improvised-for-TV breakdowns—were clear companion pieces to his masterwork, but they were even more raw somehow, stripped bare of pretext and completely nerve-striking. On Colbert, as he shouted, “Tell ‘em we don’t die, we multiply,” Michael Brown and the magic of black resilience came to mind. Months later, when he roared, “You ain’t gotta tell me that I’m the one,” his supremacy was a forgone conclusion.

    These performances weren’t supposed to be properly released, but their energies seemed to required it. They felt like necessary texts. By popular demand, Top Dawg Entertainment put out untitled unmastered, a compilation of outtakes from the TPAB sessions. The assortment of tracks are rough drafts, but the ideas are all clearly articulated, in whiplash-inducing raps and soulful odysseys. You can hear the tinkering, the outtakes informing and enriching TPAB’s final product, but they exist on their own, too, with individual bold arcs and proclamations. Apparently, even Lamar’s B-sides are essential. –Sheldon Pearce

    Noname

    Telefone

    self-released

    Noname is a poet first and a rapper second, a distinction you can feel everywhere on her profoundly intimate Telefone. Her voice is low and conversational, and her lyrics are full of rich, tactile images: “I used to have a name that look like butterflies and Hennessy/I’ll trade it up for happiness but joyful don’t remember me,” she says on “Sunny Duet.” The way her phrases skip across the surface of the light, breezy music shows someone who honed their skills at open mics and spoken-word nights, then saw a way to refract that luminous vision into music. Telefone is a healing and heartbreaking album, but above all it is gentle, full of soft chimes and cooing vocals. Noname is careful with the feelings of others but also unafraid to let a loving hand linger on the darkest and worst that life has to offer:  “All my n*ggas is casket pretty/Ain’t no one safe in this happy city,” she sighs, content with her place in the balance between joy and murder, between life and death. –Jayson Greene

    Noname : “Diddy Bop” [ft. Raury & Cam O'bi] (via SoundCloud)

    Joey Purp

    iiiDrops

    self-released

    Joey Purp is not a flashy rapper, but a consistent one. iiiDrops opens with a survey of his surroundings on “Morning Sex.” Even with horn blasts reminiscent of Just Blaze, Purp remains level, delivering a steady flow throughout. His mixtape is the work of someone who’s taken in the world around him, and is relaying only the most crucial parts. –Matthew Strauss

    Joey Purp: "Girls @" [ft. Chance the Rapper] (via SoundCloud)

    Pusha T

    Darkest Before Dawn

    Def Jam / G.O.O.D. Music

    Pusha’s latest solo record dropped in the waning hours of December 2015, but it hung uneasily throughout the darkness of 2016, from the classic Clipse hauteur (“I drops every blue moon/To separate myself from you kings of the YouTube,” he snapped at the album’s opening) to its dire warnings of storm fronts approaching (“Keep Dealing”). Most affectingly, he offered a diagnosis of the police killings that have trampled our news feeds, one shaky iPhone video at a time. “These ain’t new problems, they just old ways,” he reminded us on “Sunshine.” “The badge is the new noose.”

    Pusha found new ways to bring his battle-hardened realism to the front lines. It was a dispiriting year, difficult for optimists, and he was there, eyeing the changing winds and reporting on what he saw. Even with all the dark currents swirling, he put a careful toe on the national stage, campaigning (warily, but hard) for Hillary Clinton. As the husk of “gangsta rap” continues to crumble around him, he finds new ways of engaging with the world without losing his precious skepticism. –Jayson Greene

    Rae Sremmurd

    SremmLife 2

    Interscope / Ear Drummer

    Swae Lee andSlim Jxmmi broke down hip-hop’s barriers onSremmLife, so what were they supposed to do once they got in? Basically, rap about the same things, just over hazier production. SremmLife 2 rarely attempts to reach the same party highs as its predecessor: Swae and Jxmmi tend to luxuriate more than stunt, letting beats simmer—as on “By Chance”—instead of jumping frantically all over them. Although “Black Beatlesbroke out largely due to an internet anomaly, it did so deservingly. It’s the record’s best song and the greatest distillation of its mood: calm, awesome, and still just a little bit different. –Matthew Strauss

    Rae Sremmurd: "By Chance" (via SoundCloud)

    A Tribe Called Quest

    We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service

    Epic

    On A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Q-Tip posed a series of questions in the track “What?” “What’s a black nation without black unity?” he asked. “What are the youth if they ain’t rebellin’?” These questions became interconnected plot points in We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service,Tribe’s first album in 18 years. It’s a superb swan song that subtly expounds upon these ideas—championing young people as agents of rebellion, examining the pervasiveness of American corruption—with masterful and tireless wordplay, and it champions black unity both explicitly in its lyrics and implicitly by its mere existence.

    Reunited and as sharp as ever, the Tribe collective—which now includes honorary members Busta Rhymes and Consequence—forge a statement of crystal clarity, a feel-good record that acts as a timely counter-punch to the fear and hate consuming this country. It’s a fulfilling cap on the legacy of a group that didn’t have anything left to prove; a rap communion that eloquently examines the issues of the day; a fun open workshop among longtime friends; and a friendly reminder of how powerful rap can be in the darkest times. –Sheldon Pearce

    A Tribe Called Quest: We the People (via SoundCloud)

    Isaiah Rashad

    The Sun’s Tirade

    Top Dawg

    Isaiah Rashad is the quietest and least productive member of TDE, a truth he acknowledges with the opening skit on his long-awaited second album The Sun’s Tirade: a voicemail from TDE co-president Dave Free simply demanding to know where his “goddamn album” is. But The Sun’s Tirade is a gut-level confession, a heartfelt and blazingly personal statement it could not have been simple to dislodge; Rashad swims in drug dependency and nearly drowns in depression, fighting his way towards lucidity with every croaked bar. But while his lyrics might moan, his music never does. –Jayson Greene

    Isaiah Rashad: Wat's Wrong (via SoundCloud)

    Schoolboy Q

    Blank Face LP

    Interscope / Top Dawg

    Schoolboy Q is the unapologetic, “by any means necessary” brand of gangbanger—“Thank God for the game,” he raps on “Neva CHange,” only minutes after reveling in his troublemaker past as a grade school truant, teenage dope dealer, child gunman and armed burglar in South Central L.A. “I was 13 with my mothafuckin’ heat, y’all/N*gga caught cases tryna take your fuckin’ screen off.” He’s always been remarkably efficient at tough talk and a subscriber to gangsta ideology, but on Blank Face, the masked shooter removes all pretenses, becoming more visible and seeking something like understanding. He takes us through the labyrinth he’s had to navigate to survive: absentee parents, crooked cops, rival gangs, and all of the harrowing and sobering nooks and crannies of the inner city. It’s a stunning study on how destitution breeds ganglands, how being left “where hope just don’t exist” hardens and makes someone desperate, and how desperation can quickly turn someone cold. –Sheldon Pearce

    Skepta

    Konnichiwa

    Boy Better Know

    If you’re feeling apocalyptic right now, well—Skepta’s here for you, and he’s demanding to know what took you so long. The grime pioneer’s long-awaited album, Konnichiwa, wants to burn it down: London, rap, the police state, the hype cycle, everything. He produced eight of Konnichiwa’s breathless, jagged tracks, and listening to the blasted-out, charred album is like stepping under caution tape to join the revolutionaries, the people who have already correctly deduced they have nothing left to lose. —Jayson Greene

    Vince Staples

    Prima Donna

    Def Jam / Blacksmith / Artium

    Vince Staples has been painted into a box since his rise to fame. He’s the rose whom Tupac presaged, only with very potent thorns. While Summertime ’06 provided depth for his complicated persona, Prima Donna is his literal breakout performance, both indulging in and tearing up preconceived notions. He deals with the anxieties of fame and balances it with the public’s perception of his “gangsta” ideals, as well as what he really believes in.

    On closing track “Big Time,” he gives in. Producer James Blake pitches up his vocals just enough so they sound prepubescent. Staples goes on to rap about snatching women “straight up out the Richardson Mag,” and having no respect for anyone who hasn’t killed, switching up his flow constantly like an eager up-and-comer. It’s his way of saying: “Here you go, this is what you think I am.” It’s been easy to try to define Staples, so he appropriately muddies the waters with Prima Donna. –Matthew Strauss

    Vince Staples: “Prima Donna” [ft. A$AP Rocky] (via SoundCloud)

    Kanye West

    The Life of Pablo

    Def Jam / G.O.O.D. Music

    Kanye West lived The Life of Pablo in 2016. Of the album, a haphazard and brilliant collection of music with occasional bars, West said that the “Pablo” referred to Paul the Apostle; still, the record is more broadly a Christian experience (not really “a gospel album”) that fluctuates between the desire for salvation and the need to satisfy carnality. Throughout the year, West saidheinous things anddid stupid things; those are best reflected with “Famous” and “Freestyle 4,” reckless and headstrong songs. But he also delivered joy to countless fans via aflying stage: Those moments are “Highlights” and “Waves,” when everything seems to go right. Ultimately, West has left the public eye tocare for himself. It’s his final act in living The Life of Pablo, something for which he strives on the album’s sublimeopener: We are unfathomably far from perfect. Things go poorly and we make them worse. But there’s a kernel of goodness that lives at our darkest. To overcome, we have to remember that and search for the Ultralight Beam. –Matthew Strauss

    YG

    Still Brazy

    Def Jam

    YG’s sophomore album will live forever for one reason: “Fuck Donald Trump.” Like his 2014 major label debut,Still Brazy is an achievement in sequencing and hard-nosed, plainspoken bars–but, most importantly, it’s where YG, a person of influence, got political in the only way he could: straightforwardly and effectively. Upon itsoriginal March release, “FDT” reacted strongly to a hateful candidate with impossible chances whose election felt a lifetime away, not seven months. Now, it stands next to “Fuck tha Police” in rap’s annals of rebellion.

    Elsewhere on Still Brazy, YG deals with personal matters, although not with the same devotion of My Krazy Life. He considers who may have shot him, doles out advice for those looking for their own handouts, and ultimately falls back on his own self-assurance–“Bool, Balm & Bollective.” But it’s on “FDT” (followed by the similarly astute “Blacks & Browns” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” which closes the record) where he cements a commitment to something greater than himself. –Matthew Strauss

    YG: "I Wanna Benz" [ft. Nipsey Hussle and 50 Cent] (via SoundCloud)

    Young Thug

    JEFFREY

    Atlantic / 300 Entertainment

    In which the intoxicating blur that is Young Thug (“No, my name is Jeffery,” he would have patiently responded this year, just the latest changing of his spots) dons a resplendent dress and bellows a number of love songs to his fiancée. Those songs have obvious-seeming, catchy titles (“Harambe”! “Kanye West”!) but the songs they adorn have the same arm’s-length relationship to their subjects that the moniker “Young Thug” has to the brilliant futurist pop star squirming and molting beneath it. It’s been at least five years, and we still haven’t pinned this guy down. –Jayson Greene

    Young Thug: “Kanye West” (via SoundCloud)


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    Lists & Guides: The 20 Best Pop and R&B Albums of 2016

    This week, we’re doing year-end genre lists that correlate with how genres appear on Pitchfork. The following list of 20 records includes both pop and R&B, but it’s fair to say that in 2016, the lines between these spheres (and others) were blurrier than ever. R&B continued to embrace electronic textures, while pop pushed the limits of commerciality further. Many notable albums, from Blonde to A Seat at the Table, reinvigorated the use of interludes, oftentimes in its spoken-word form. Perhaps this was because these genres—from Beyoncé all the way down—were exceptionally political this year, so the necessity to be understood was high. In addition to reiterating that Black Lives Matter, pop and R&B still had room for meditations on love and joy and sadness and going out and everything else music has been soundtracking since the dawn of time. Here, in alphabetical order, are 20 of the most electrifying pop and R&B records of the year.

    Anderson .Paak

    Malibu

    EMPIRE / OBE / Steel Wool / Art Club

    Anderson .Paak had an insane year, by any measure. In the span of 12 months, the Los Angeles-raised funk polymath rose from a standout feature on Dr. Dre’s comeback album to a formidable performer in his own right. On Malibu, .Paak addresses his difficult family history and romantic exploits while showing off his versatility behind the microphone. It’s an album that pays tribute to both his own past and artists of yore like Curtis Mayfield, all while opening doors to a bright future. –Noah Yoo

    Anderson .Paak: "Come Down" (via SoundCloud)

    Olga Bell

    Tempo

    One Little Indian

    There is a certain purity to creators who swear no allegiance to any genre signifiers and instead choose to remain perpetual students. Olga Bell is one such artist, and it was her curiosity about club music that led her to create Tempo, the unexpected follow-up to her Russian folk-influenced album Krai. She treats her voice like a malleable abstraction, to be looped and distorted like a synth stab or snare drum. Refocusing her classical piano training, Bell composes weirdo pop that boldly flirts with inharmony. –Noah Yoo

    Olga Bell: "Randomness" (via SoundCloud)

    Beyoncé

    Lemonade

    Columbia / Parkwood

    Name one major pop trend this year that Lemonade didn’t influence or meaningfully intersect with in some way, whether it’s the ongoing proliferation of the visual album, the necessity of Black Lives Matter, or anew way to quote and sample from across genre aisles. Lyrically, this is Bey’s second album in a row to spawn memorable entries in the pop-phrase lexicon; though she’sdone itsince herDestiny’s days, what’s most remarkable is that the meme-worthiest of Bey’s lines here—“Better call Becky with the good hair”—serves to rake her very famous husband over the coals for his apparent infidelity. It’s hard to think of another pop star who could pull that off with so much realness, but then again, competition seems futile when it comes to topping Beyoncé at her own game. Don’t hurt yourself trying. –Jillian Mapes

    James Blake

    The Colour in Anything

    Universal

    James Blake’s latest album lengthens his arc of emotionally charged songwriting over forcefully forward-thinking production elements—pianos placed in surreal echo chambers, pointillist drums that catch you off guard and demand attention. It’s a “wonderfully messy dive into maximalism,” and one that’s rewarding if you, too, are feeling at the end of your rope. –Noah Yoo

    James Blake: “Radio Silence” (via SoundCloud)

    Blood Orange

    Freetown Sound

    Domino

    Freetown Sound is a funk-laden affair that doesn’t simply address the quandaries of “otherness” in America so much as it repurposes those struggles for fuel. The fight against oppression is inherent to Dev Hynes’ third Blood Orange album, with songs bookended by samples of protesters marching against police brutality and words by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While Blood Orange is Hynes’ project, he utilizes the platform to elevate the voices of women he admires. “The woman’s voice is powerful and needs to be heard,” Hynes said earlier this year. “It’s the most important voice in general, and that can’t be denied.”Freetown Sound can’t be ignored, either. –Noah Yoo

    Blood Orange: “Augustine” (via SoundCloud)

    Chairlift

    Moth

    Columbia

    In the past few years, a number of artists have successfully transitioned from indie rock to pop experimentation, but this was arguably Chairlifts turf first. On their third album, Moth, Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly offer up their most self-assured and fully realized version of their ’80s electropop inclinations. Here we find the kitchen sink stylishly tossed in, from saxes that dont quit to errant noises and dialogue to elegant disco strings that accompany the familiar jangle of Nile Rodgers-style guitars. Its pop thats impeccably produced but not too perfect—the right match for Polacheks more vulnerable fits of romance, like when shes overpowered by the feeling of falling in love on the standout single Crying in Public.–Jillian Mapes

    Chairlift: “Romeo” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    dvsn

    Sept. 5th

    Warner Bros. / OVO Sound

    The illusive OVO Sound duo dvsn represent the more sensual side of this list, picking up where ’90s R&B slow jams left off. But Torontonians Daniel Daley and Paul “Nineteen85” Jefferieshave a few tricks up their sleeves, taking the kind of alien-sounding production Timbaland made his name with and giving it the modern spaciousness favored by the Drake generation. Maybe it’s this vaguely futuristic backdrop that makes the more classic elements here—soaring falsettos dropping double entendres, gospel choir-sized declarations of Real-Ass Adult Love—stand out. –Jillian Mapes

    dvsn: "Too Deep" (via SoundCloud)

    Ariana Grande

    Dangerous Woman

    Republic

    On Ariana Grande’s third studio record, we’re introduced to the diva we always suspected her to be; she’s no longer the newly sexed-up pop sensation of 2014, and the children’s TV star is long dead and gone. Dangerous Woman is roughly an hour of Grande at her vocal finest—few other powerhouse singers can create such crisp harmony stacks—and throughout the album, she proves fluid with several subgenres, from the reggae-infused Nicki Minaj collaboration “Side to Side” to electro-pop singles like “Be Alright and “Into You.” It’s all in her. –Noah Yoo

    Carly Rae Jepsen

    E•MO•TION Side B

    Interscope / School Boy

    Going into her third album, E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen was tasked with following up the saccharine magic of “Call Me Maybe.” Instead of attempting to top her success, Jepsen decided to go all-in on making the hookiest ’80s-inspired pop imaginable, writing more than 250 tracks in the process.E•MO•TION Side B collects a handful of the love songs that didn’t make the original album, but you’d be remiss to consider it less worthy of your time. –Noah Yoo

    Kaytranada

    99.9%

    XL

    At just 24, the Montreal producer already has a masterful understanding of the indelible ties that bind house, hip-hop, funk, soul, and jazz, putting them together with an eye towards buoyant, relaxed-fit dance music—perfect summertime house-party jams, really. On most tracks, he brings in guests who share his genre-defying outlook—from SYD to River Tiber to BADBADNOTGOOD to Phonte to Anderson .Paak—and arranges them within a web of fresh samples and bright polyrhythms. On the album’sstandout single, .Paak declares with such swagger, “Lately I’ve been glowed up/Feelin’ like the only one out here.” With a style that feels familiar yet singular, both statements ring true for Kaytranada himself too. –Jillian Mapes

    Kaytranada: "Bus Ride [Ft. Karriem Riggins and River Tiber]" (via SoundCloud)

    KING

    We Are KING

    KING Creative

    By the time they released their debut LP in January, buzz had been building around KING—the vocal trio comprised of Anita Bias and twins Paris and Amber Strother—for almost five years. (Thanks, Kendrick.) It didn’t disappoint: Electro-R&B with a taste for Sade and Jodeci floods out of We Are KING in radiant beams, broken up slightly by sophisticated synths, bright and varied percussion, whimsical hand-claps, and more. The trio’s voices are what naturally stand out, but it’s nice that the whole record has a light touch—no single element threatens to overpower these self-assured daydreams of the heart. –Jillian Mapes

    KING: "Hey" (Extended Mix) (via SoundCloud)

    Jessy Lanza

    Oh No

    Hyperdub

    On her second album, Jessy Lanza makes pop music out of non-pop sounds, from ’90s R&B to Chicago footwork to acid house. But arranged with an eye towards ’80s synthpop and led by Lanza’s alternatingly cheeky and angelic vocals, the music takes on a different sum than its parts might suggest. The Canadian producer puts nervous energy to work with borderline-bizarre standouts like It Means I Love You and VV Violence,” two singles it’s hard to imagine anyone else releasing. –Jillian Mapes

    Jessy Lanza: "VV Violence" (via SoundCloud)

    Maxwell

    blackSUMMERS’night

    Columbia

    On Maxwell ’s first album in seven years, the crooner leads full-band soul with a few twists, from the psych flourishes of 1990x and “Of All Kind” to the Tetris synths of “Gods” and “III.” The latter is about as close to a banger as this veteran Romeo gets; it’s also where he admits his ever-romantic but admittedly grown-up needs: “I just want a Michelle Obama lady.”–Jillian Mapes

    Nao

    For All We Know

    RCA / Little Tokyo

    At 18 tracks long, Nao’s first album is an exercise in R&B completism—a shiny, modern melange of soulfulness that ranges atmospheric updates to new jack swing (“Adore You,” “Happy”), epic should-be-hits (“Bad Blood,” “We Don’t Give A,” “Girlfriend), tangy funk guitar riffs (“Get to Know Ya,” “DYWM”), and more. Through it all, Nao’s vocals are both the music’s guiding light and the personality behind lyrics that aren’t always so personal. The 28-year-old Brit’s voice is lithe enough to flit around without effort, yet rooted enough to bring credence to her pleas. –Jillian Mapes

    Nao: "Girlfriend" (via SoundCloud)

    NxWorries

    Yes Lawd!

    Stones Throw

    During the course of NxWorries’ debut full-length, Yes Lawd!, Anderson .Paak sings about leaving his girl for his musical passions, wanting to be faithful to her while on the road, and stealing another man’s woman when he starts acting up. These conflicting bouts of lust and reverence are all matched with a healthy heaping of bedroom talk and love songs that swap “baby” for “bitch” on the regular. All the while, producer Knxwledge establishes gorgeous, hazy vignettes that swell passionately before fading to static, just like .Paak’s romances. –Noah Yoo

    NxWorries: “Lyk Dis” (via SoundCloud)

    Frank Ocean

    Blonde

    self-released

    When Frank Ocean declares on Blonde opener “Nikes,”“We gon’ see the future first,” it sounds slightly overconfident. By the fifth listen, it just rings true. Though Blondeis less immediate and more abstract than Channel Orange, Ocean’s seemingly tossed-off specificity makes you want to think more about songs in which he’s often trying to think less. In true Frank fashion, we’re given mysterious vignettes instead of narrative throughlines—flashes of his individuality coexisting and clashing with the existence of others. It’s all set against warped guitar jangles, gospel organs, spoken-word weirdness, helium vocal modulations, and half a dozen other things that might make more sense in the future. –Jillian Mapes

    Dawn Richard

    Redemption

    Local Action / Our Dawn

    With Redemption, former Danity Kane member Dawn Richard completes the trilogy that she began four years ago with her album Goldenheart. She continues to flip the script of what is expected of our pop stars; self-producing much of the album while recruiting inventive consultants like Machinedrum, Richard refuses to compromise the complexity of her work for the sake of radio play. These aren’t dancefloor-inspired tracks with attached toplines so much as they are club-ready, fully-formed songs, intended to be viewed in their entirety rather than as simple vehicles for Richard’s sultry voice. That organic solidarity can’t be faked, and it’s a powerful thing to hear. –Noah Yoo

    Dawn Richard: “Stars” (via SoundCloud)

    Rihanna

    ANTI

    Roc Nation / Westbury Road

    Rihanna’s album was something of a mixed bag—Tame Impala cover? A ’50s style soul ballad? Travis Scott?—but it aged terrifically. On first listen, this was a headscratcher; on 500th listen, it was a wily collection of Rihanna’s modes, with clubby highs like Work and “Needed Me” surrounded by rawer, presumably higher, moments. An excellently modern jumble. –Matthew Schnipper

    Rihanna: “Needed Me” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    Solange

    A Seat at the Table

    Columbia / Saint

    In message, A Seat at the Table is a stunning patchwork of blackness. In execution, the album is something more elegant than a quilt—more like the sculpted pink coat Solange wears in the “Cranes in the Skyvideo. Across 21 tracks of full-band soul-funk and spoken-word interludes from loved ones, the younger Knowles sister keeps the record a little psychedelic but ultimately sophisticated in its graceful piano lines, proud brass, and dreamy harmonies. But make no mistake, Solange’s message—For Us, By Us—is unwavering throughout. –Jillian Mapes

    Jamila Woods

    HEAVN

    Closed Sessions

    When 2016 started, Jamila Woods was best known as Chance the Rapper’s sweet-voiced counterpoint on “Sunday Candy.” It’s a different reality following the release of her debut album. HEAVN meets ugly truths about race with more love and grace than is deserved. Though her calm voice floats, Woods’ words often reverberate with specific injustices (“They want us in kitchen/Kill our sons with lynchings/We get loud about it/Oh, now we’re the bitches,” she sings on “Blk Girl Soldier”). On her own, Woodsis a compelling writer, but with a slew of Chicago’s most promising players behind her (Peter Cottontale, oddCouple, Saba), she delivers a playful album with a political message we desperately need. –Jillian Mapes

    Jamila Woods: “VRY BLK” [ft. Noname] (via SoundCloud)


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    Lists & Guides: Pitchfork's Best Quotes of 2016

    Certain topics seemed to bubble to the surface in many of the on-the-record chats we recorded over the course of 2016, things that were floating around in everyone’s mind: the U.S. election, the death of icons like David Bowie and Prince, the way technology continues to warp our brains and change our lives, the legitimacy of political art, the potential paths forward for a rebuilding music industry, and the possible effects of this often-ominous year going into 2017.

    Here are some words of wisdom that helped us navigate such big ideas courtesy of Danny Brown, David Lynch, M.I.A., RZA, Sonny Rollins, DeRay Mckesson, Dev Hynes, Lykke Li, and more.

    “David Bowie’s music is a moving target. Just when you think you got the bullseye, it shifts. And to his credit, on to death, it’s still shifting—David Bowie is a moving target even after he’s gone.”

    “David Bowie was a gateway drug for me, because once I realized that you could value androgyny and bisexuality and celebrate things that were unusual or extraordinary, it opened me up to a new way of loving myself. Once you learn to accept yourself, you find that you have a huge capacity for it.”
    Alice Bag

    “I’ve always called him the Picasso of rock’n’roll, because I know that if I showed him anything—like a grapefruit—he would see the grapefruit that I see and then he’d see the grapefruit that he sees, and they would be two different things. He would have to explain to me his vision of the grapefruit.”
    Bowie producer Nile Rodgers

    “He just kicked it out of the park: This is my take on death—fucking have it. As soon as I put [Blackstar] on for the first time, the sky blackened and it rained in my face. I felt like he was whipping the wind, this elemental force of nature.”
    Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan

    “We should hands-down know what the best album of this year is. Shouldn’t be talk of nothing else.”
    Danny Brown on Blackstar

    “It takes time to get [music] back to a more political place. But with this election, it seems like people are honestly worked up about it—and not just worked up as a trending topic.”

    “Trump married the seriousness of politics with social media and reality show bullshit. And people are OK with it, because that’s the culture now—until it gets really real when you’re fighting a war again. You would have thought we would have learned our lesson by now.”
    Maxwell

    “When I think about how divided our country is right now, it can feel difficult to not want to demonize millions of people as selfish and unthinking. But most aren’t.”
    Local Natives’ Taylor Rice

    “Voting in U.S. presidential elections, you go into it with this feeling of real optimism, like it’s finally gonna make a difference. And then slowly, every four years, that feeling of optimism is kind of beaten out of you.”
    Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace

    “Everything I have learned in my life tells me that Trump will be a complete disaster—both to the economy and to democracy. The best people are the ones who can tell a great story. The worst are those who think they are the great story.”
    Mark Eitzel

    “Being tolerant is the future. It’s not being segregated.”
    M.I.A.

    “As a human being, I would probably be more intelligent, more fulfilled, and less anxious if I didn’t have constant access to social media and the internet.”

    “If Michael Jackson did the moonwalk for the first time now, and it debuted on Twitter, the third comment would probably be: ‘He’s just walking backwards.’ That’s why there’s no real rock stars anymore. Everything’s immediately diminished.”
    The 1975’s Matt Healy

    “I went with some elders who were hunting seal, and they were eating the raw seal meat and offered me some. I put it in my mouth and my whole spine, one by one, got taller. A gushing warmth came into my whole body. Something woke up in me that [reminded me] we are animals, and that hundreds of years ago, that’s what we did. Technology isn’t who we are.”
    Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq

    “We aren’t born woke. Something wakes us up.”

    “What pop culture could teach you, as a political activist, is how to be understood by people outside of your community. It’s about empathy.”
    Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokno

    “A lot of ‘political pieces’ are, to put it kindly, a waste of time. If it’s a really good piece of music, then the political purpose to which it’s put is betrayed by the sense in which music will just vaporize, and the theme will vaporize along with it.”
    Steve Reich

    “The kind of sanctions that we need to put on certain things so that the world doesn’t combust is a matter of saying no: to profit, to comforts, to killing innocent people. I know it’s very simple, but sometimes in the end you can see it on a very simple level. We know these things are bad and yet they keep on happening.”
    Nicolas Jaar

    “It’s terrible now with all these [refugee] kids drowning, and all of this racism. Every time I walk in the street, I feel bad about all these things. Sometimes I don’t feel optimistic anymore. It seems like sometimes music can’t do anything. But I have to believe in something. It’s hard to be a musician, but at least I found a way to give a sense to my life. To remain sane.”
    Tunisian protest singer Emel Mathlouthi

    “Music is a strange thing. It goes into us, and a whole bunch of things start happening. It’s like a gift.”

    “The more that I write songs, the more I feel that telling a story is the most important thing—just being able to close your eyes when you hear some lyrics and go somewhere. It’s worth taking the time to do that, because people respond to it.”
    Rostam

    “There’s always going to be a fight between mainstream and underground because the mainstream is a very small bubble, and the underground scene is a very small bubble, and they both see themselves as secret societies. When either side doesn’t know how to classify you, that’s when you start to have some fun.”
    Dawn Richard

    “It’s important to treat everybody the same, even when you're having a bad time. Don’t talk to anyone like they’re lower than you, because you never know when you need help. You don't have to be an asshole.”
    Anderson .Paak

    “When you’re hurting you don’t jump off a bridge—you read and you sing and you talk and you cry and you play with your pussy or whatever it is. You figure it out.”
    serpentwithfeet

    “You don’t have to be fearless to do anything, you can be scared out of your mind. Anything you do, somebody is going to say something. Fuck that. You have to do it, because it’s who you fucking are.”
    Esperanza Spalding

    “I don’t have the same respect for time as most people. I take that extra day to think about it. Even though you may need the answer today, I’d rather meditate and get the answer [tomorrow] because I know this much: The decision is permanent.”
    RZA

    “What are we here for? Is it just about having fun? To me, that’s not enough. I’ve lived that life. I’m looking for the deeper things. The world is over in a minute and we’re here just for a second. We need to use this time to find out something.”
    Sonny Rollins

    “You can either be a musician or you can wear a hat. You can’t do both.”

    “I care a lot that people don’t hear me peeing or pooping in a public bathroom.”
    Mitski

    “I’ve Googled Serena Williams’ booty.”
    A$AP Ferg

    “Some sort of animal rug, roaring fire, a lot of eskimo and butterfly kisses, Klondike bars, Jodeci, edible undies, a French tickler, some of E-40’s Slurricane cocktail, and I like to wear the underwear that makes it look like a little elephant trunk.”
    The Lonely Island’s Akiva Schaffer on his idea of a romantic evening

    “Look, I’m the only guitarist you know who’s played for everyone from Sun Ra to Kathie Lee Gifford.”
    William “Spaceman” Patterson, who played on Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Endless

    “Yes, I have had ghost dick dreams.”
    Kelsey Lu

    “You can’t write music when you’re high. You can’t do much of anything productive.”

    “I see what kids are watching nowadays, and it makes me sick. It’s always about learning and being happy, but life is not about that. Life is way harder.”
    M83’s Anthony Gonzalez

    “Great music is not born out of a person who’s had a very nuclear family growing up. If your shit is crazy, everyone else gets to have a normal life. You get to bleed for them, and that blood is their wine. It’s unfortunate that that’s how it is.”
    Maxwell

    “A perpetual free option doesn’t make for a viable music industry—what are you telling people about the value of music? You need to give them an alternative that’s attractive, reasonably priced, and fits the way they want to consume music. That is the holy grail.”

    “We’re basically heading down a path where people are getting sued over imitating styles, or sensibilities. If we continue down this path, the music industry is going to litigate itself to death.”
    University of Iowa communications professor Kembrew McLeod

    “Young people started reacting instinctively, realizing they liked the tactile experience of music—I don’t even think it was conscious. They enjoy face-to-face interactions, not downloads from some piece of machinery. It’s better socially, better for the community, and people can feel it.”
    Independent record store owner Greg Hall

    “Vinyl has become a luxury product. It caters to a very specific niche audience of elite people. It’s a status object—a symbol of rebellion that has zero rebellion involved. It feels like rich guys who own Harleys.”
    Electronic artist and onetime vinyl-only label owner Kevin McHugh

    “Prince was the main person who showed me to be myself at the fullest, and he still teaches me that to this day. I’m still learning things from Prince.”

    “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the fact that they’re going to die some day, so they just put it off or don’t deal with it all.”
    Entertainment lawyer Monica McCabe, who previously represented Prince

    “I’m terrified of dying because of everything being too unfinished. I would be happy being a ghost.”
    Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier

    “I’m glad I’m 67 years old, because I see the next 20 years… and the personality of mankind, it’s getting very corrupted.”
    Charles Bradley

    “Love is the only thing that will remain after we’re gone. Even when you die, the only thing you can ask yourself is, ‘Did I love enough?’”
    Lykke Li

    “I believe we’re gonna [destroy] ourselves very soon. We’ll all have the same fate.”
    M83’s Anthony Gonzalez

    “‘HE DID THAT SHIT.’”
    Mac Miller on what he wants engraved into his tombstone

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    Lists & Guides: The 20 Best Rock Albums of 2016

    Here’s a brief list of what could plausibly be considered “rock” in 2016: digitally manipulated sound fragments, free-jazz freakouts, emo spoken-word, octogenarian baritone, a song that sounds like a vintage Disney soundtrack, and warped variants on all manner of light ’70s sounds—plus, of course, plenty of punk, post-punk, and Thin Lizzy-style guitar licks. Practitioners of the genre might not even have defined themselves as rock. But the best knew how to mine music history’s overlooked veins, wherever those could be found, and hammer them into fresh and singular shapes all their own. Here are Pitchfork's favorite rock albums of 2016—whatever that means.

    Bon Iver

    22, A Million

    Jagjaguwar

    Yes, Justin Vernon’s third album as Bon Iver came with its own line of flannel shirts. And a newspaper. And cryptic artwork. But there was also the musicwhich, as Pitchfork wrote, had precedents across rock’n’roll, R&B, and electronic genres, as well as on more recent records by avowed Bon Iver fan Kanye West. Still, 22, A Millionsounded “only like itself.”

    Bon Iver: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    David Bowie

    Blackstar

    Columbia / RCA / ISO

    On January 8, David Bowie’s 69th birthday, the art-rock legend released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. On January 10, Bowie died after an 18-month battle with cancer. Blackstar has never sounded the same, but both before and after Bowie’s graceful exit, the record was stunning, masterfully embracing astral jazz in a way that redefined the limits of a Bowie album while tapping into the same zeitgeist as Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-inflected 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. Upon learning of Bowie’s death, Blackstar songs like the harrowing finale “I Can’t Give Everything Away” took on a deeper resonance. In his mortality lay a new form of immortality, for Bowie and his legions of grieving fans.

    David Bowie: “Blackstar” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    Car Seat Headrest

    Teens of Denial

    Matador

    Every generation deserves a band capable of inspiring shout-along catharsis. For many, Car Seat Headrest are that band. Teens of Denial, the act’s first proper album, ran into some unfortunate copyright problems courtesy of the CarsRic Ocasek, but this vividly imaginative expression of present-day angst via vintage indie rock still drove along unstoppably.

    Car Seat Headrest: "Vincent" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

    Skeleton Tree

    Bad Seed Ltd.

    With his bands the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, and the Birthday Party, Nick Cave has assembled a powerful repertoire of songs riddled by death. As Cave and the Bad Seeds prepped for their 16th album together,Skeleton Tree, they had to grapple with a more personal loss: The frontman’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died in July 2015 after accidentally falling from a cliff near the family’s home in Brighton, England. As Pitchfork noted, “This is a record that exists in the headspace and guts of someone who’s endured an unspeakable, inconsolable trauma.”

    Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “I Need You” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    Leonard Cohen

    You Want It Darker

    Columbia / Sony

    This fall, Leonard Cohen preceded the release of You Want It Darker by proclaiming, in an expansive New Yorker profile, “I am ready to die.” A month later, the legendary Montreal-born singer-songwriter was dead at 82, having passed away in his sleep. If “Hallelujah” and so many other soul-illuminating songs hadn’t already cemented Cohen’s legacy, this elegantly enigmatic album’s wry, gravelly-voiced farewell might’ve guaranteed what Cohen said in another recent interview: “I intend to live forever.”

    Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    G.L.O.S.S.

    Trans Day of Revenge

    Nervous Nelly / Total Negativity

    “We’re fucking future girls, living outside society’s shit,” Sadie Switchblade declared on behalf of her fellow trans womenat the outset of G.L.O.S.S.’s de-facto mission statement, 2015’s “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re From the Future).” This September, G.L.O.S.S. broke up, citing the band’s toll on its members’ “mental and physical health.” In between, the Olympia hardcore band released Trans Day of Revenge, a searingly visceral EP that looked at the horror and brutality of the contemporary world and responded, “When peace is just another word for death, it’s our turn to give violence a chance!”

    G.L.O.S.S.: "We Live" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    The Hotelier

    Goodness

    Tiny Engines

    The Hotelier’s expansive third full-length, Goodness, made noise over its NSFW cover art. But louder still were the Massachusetts trio’s post-emo-revival ambitions, from singer Christian Holden’s spoken-word album intro to the lonesome drum cracks at the close of finale “End of Reel.” Pitchfork wrote, “For as riotous as it can sound, Goodness is remarkably precise in how it plays with dynamics and layers.”

    The Hotelier: "Soft Animal" (via SoundCloud)

    Rostam / Hamilton Leithauser

    I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

    Glassnote

    After the Walkmen went on hiatus in 2013, frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s 2014 solo debut, Black Hours, featured Vampire Weekend producer/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij on its standout tracks. (Batmanglij, now an in-demand pop producer in his own right, parted ways with his own band early this year.) Each of these two East Coast indie-rock veterans brought his particular strengths on their first full-length together. Leithauser’s old-timey urban ennui found fresh expression within Batmanglij’s richly inventive sonic frameworks, which hint smartly at doo-wop, folk, country, and, maybe best of all, Disney soundtracks.

    Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: “A 1000 Times” (via SoundCloud)

    Cass McCombs

    Mangy Love

    Anti-

    Since debuting early last decade, Cass McCombs has quietly cultivated a reputation for both mysteriousness and top-notch songcraft. Mangy Love, his eighth studio album, came as something of a reintroduction, concentrating McCombs’ customary fog until it glistened. He waxed poetically and politically on songs like “Bum Bum Bum.” He drew his languidly eclectic, ’70s-ish style into its smoothest yet courtesy of producer Rob Schnapf, and played well with a range of well-chosen others, from Angel Olsen to Blake Mills. And he was funnier than ever, too.

    Cass McCombs: "Opposite House" (via SoundCloud)

    Mitski

    Puberty 2

    Dead Oceans

    Singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki is based in Brooklyn, but she was born in Japan and grew up in various countries around the world, eventually studying music at SUNY Purchase. She went on to turn heads with her carefully crafted, gleefully self-pitying (and cleverly “Simpsons”-referencing) third album, 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek. OnPuberty 2, the multi-instrumentalist commanded her biggest audience yet, and she didn’t disappoint, making the ’90s alt canon defiantly her own on songs like the surging “Your Best American Girl.”

    Mitski: "Your Best American Girl" (via SoundCloud)

    Kevin Morby

    Singing Saw

    Dead Oceans

    Kevin Morby used to be the bass player for Woods and the singer of the Babies (with Vivian GirlsCassie Ramone). After a move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the Kansas City native began releasing solo albums of his own. This year’s Singing Saw is his finest yet, evoking Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan and early Leonard Cohen, among others. As Pitchfork observed, “His music comes from another place, one where you try and piece together meaning by tapping into a kind of collective unconscious, using whatever tools you have at your disposal.”

    Kevin Morby: "Destroyer" (via SoundCloud)

    Angel Olsen

    My Woman

    Jagjaguwar

    Asheville-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen’s transition from austere folk to fearsomely confident folk-rock—from her earliest songs through 2012 debut album Half Way Home and 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire for No Witness—was striking in itself. On My Woman, her third album, she established herself as a force of nature in rock’n’roll full stop: all-encompassing, cinematic, and very much in control of her own staggering talent.

    Angel Olsen: “Shut Up Kiss Me” (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Parquet Courts

    Human Performance

    Rough Trade

    Andrew Savage played in a few notable bands around Denton, Texas, including Teenage Cool Kids, before teaming up with co-songwriter Austin Brown in Parquet Courts, a noise-streaked group utterly redolent of their adopted New York City hometown. Human Performance is the quartet’s third proper album in a fascinatingly messy discography, and it offers the best distillation of their sardonic powers to date, particularly when breaking out of their mold on songs like the Orange Juice-shambling “Berlin Got Blurry.” But you can’t take the Texas out of the band: Human Performance’s “Captive of the Sun” spawned a late-night TV performance (and eventual remix) with Houston rap legend Bun B.

    Pinegrove

    Cardinal

    Run for Cover

    This New Jersey band has been self-releasing music since 2010, and Cardinal marks their first proper album. The Saddle Creek-tinged Americana rock on display here is skilled as it conveys a sense of effortlessness. “Cardinal feels like one big determined push outward,” Pitchfork wrote, “an album-length fight against solipsism without losing your sense of self in the process.”

    Pinegrove: "Old Friends" (via SoundCloud)

    Radiohead

    A Moon Shaped Pool

    XL

    Radiohead have long been known to transform old musical ideas into new ones, but their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, took such reinventions to another level. Yes, previously teased tunes such as the ominously stabbing “Burn the Witch” appeared, but most bewitching was how Radiohead inhabited elements of their past styles—orchestral grandeur, Brit-folk eeriness, electronic gloom—in unfamiliar ways. The biggest reinvention of all, of course, was a keys-and-vocals transformation of the fan favorite “True Love Waits,” a triumphant affirmation that beneath Radiohead’s techno-dystopian brooding beats an all-too-human heart.

    Radiohead: “Burn the Witch” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    Savages

    Adore Life

    Matador

    Savages’ debut album, 2013’sSilence Yourself, made good on a trail of feverish live shows with an imposing treatise in how post-punk aesthetics could still be used to confront darkness, sexuality, and political complacency. Like many great sophomore albums, Adore Life explored similar pummeling sonic terrain while plumbing richer depths, with dynamic leader Jehnny Beth turning her lyrical attention to love in all of its manifold varieties—including, as the heart-stopping title track suggests, love of life itself.

    Savages: “T.I.W.Y.G.” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)

    Sheer Mag

    III EP

    Static Shock / Wilsuns RC

    III is, appropriately enough, the third EP in as many years from Sheer Mag, a Thin Lizzy-riffing, capitalism-averse band out of Philadelphia. It’s only four songs, but as Pitchfork wrote: “Their music stuffs hip-shaking hooks and burly riffs within impeccably structured pop songs, wrapped in lyrics both open-hearted and openly political. They’re the Jackson 5 raised to play punk rock, with an F-5 tornado for a singer.”

    Sheer Mag: "Can't Stop Fighting" (via SoundCloud)

    Weyes Blood

    Front Row Seat to Earth

    Mexican Summer

    Natalie Mering has been creating music under some variation of her Weyes Blood alias since 2006, and on her fourth album, Front Row Seat to Earth, her development from spectral experiments to lushly fantastical balladry was its most stunning yet. Despite nods to ’60s psych-folk and ’70s AM-radio, Mering fully inhabited the calamitous present.

    Weyes Blood: “Do You Need My Love” (Buy on Bandcamp)

    White Lung

    Paradise

    Domino

    White Lung’s 2014 album,Deep Fantasy, brought the Vancouver band’s post-hardcore frenzy to a wider audience with breakneck guitars, powerfully delivered vocals, and unstinting, often topical lyrics. Now based in Los Angeles, leader Mish Barber-Way settled in for the long haul on follow-up Paradise, which tested out bigger-sounding production, a wider range of lyrical perspectives, and brighter melodies. Rounded out by drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou and guitarist Kenneth William, White Lung’s sonic attack was subtler here but still thrilling, a statement of purpose from a bold songwriter intent on growing bolder.

    White Lung: "Kiss Me When I Bleed" (Buy on Bandcamp)

    Whitney

    Light Upon the Lake

    Secretly Canadian

    One of guitar music’s low-key delights of 2016 came in the form of Whitney, a band featuring Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, both formerly of Smith Westerns (Ehrlich also played with Unknown Mortal Orchestra). Their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, filled a particular niche this year: warm, earnest, and easygoing folk-rock, with winsome vocals and subtle instrumental prowess. Comparisons to another duo of retro stylists, Girls, were earned, but the haunting falsetto on a song like “No Woman” could reach even someone who wasn’t a fan of that now-defunct group.

    Whitney: "No Woman" (via SoundCloud)


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