Sunday, December 24, 2017

All Unexpected, All Surprising: The Ten Best Albums of 2017

I don't know about you, dear reader, but for me, it hasn't been a very good year. Things are dark and confused and chaotic, and it's sometimes tough to see where exactly we go from here. But in bad times, one thing that never fails to step up is the quality of music being released, and it's no different in 2017 than it was in 1982. There's an embarrassment of riches to be had, and my own personal top 10 won't even scratch the surface of what's available. But it brings me happiness, dear reader, and with any luck it will do the same for you.

10. Chelsea Wolfe - Hiss Spun

Another year gone by, another year without a release from crushing husband-and-wife metal titans Jucifer. And yet we have still been heard, and Chelsea Wolfe arises from the blackened depths to pummel our minds into a fine mist. Hiss Spun is simultaneously lovely and punishing, feminine and bestial, sensuous and jagged. Its more rhythmic than you expect, with Ms Wolfe able to accomplish the vocal gymnastics you expect out of someone like Jarboe, going from sweet to terrifying all in the course of a single song. 2017 is a year that inspired a lot of anger, and artists like Chelsea Wolfe harness that rage to stunning effect.

9. Oddisee - The Iceberg

One of the most positive developments in music in the past five or so years is a closer marrying of hip hop and jazz. Albums like Flying Lotus' You're Dead! and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly become musical kaleidoscopes with Bitches Brew era fusion, while Brooklyn MC and producer Oddisee mines from earlier Miles to give his raps depth and nostalgia. Like Lamar's record, Oddisee's music is explicitly political; it's hard not to be these days, and The Iceberg tackles the crises facing young black America with a tragedy and poignancy. If you're interested in what a complex production, married with complex lyrics, can do to make hip hop accessible and urgent, The Iceberg is a perfect experience.

8. Nadine Shah - Holiday Destination

Half-Pakistani Brit Nadine Shah knows a thing or two about stigma, a topic revisited countless times on Holiday Destination. Shah and producer Ben Hillier give the record over to the beat, and throughout its course the rhythm is addictive. All the while, Shah sings of the trials faced throughout our time in these bodies, but it's a joyous record, a celebration of life rather than a condemnation of close-mindedness. Holiday Destination is erudite while also being monstrously catchy at the same time; this is an easy record to dance to. Politically necessary while simultaneously sexy and swingin', Holiday Destination is an easy record to like, and an important record to listen to.

7. Re-TROS - Before the Applause

No album came completely out of nowhere for me like the sophomore album by Beijing post-punk trio Re-TROS, which apparently stands for 'Rebuilding the Rights of Statues'. I had never heard of the group before reading a positive review, and decided to give them a try; about 2 minutes in to the astonishing 'HAILING DRUMS' and I was hooked. It's post-punk, it's krautrock/kosmiche, it has a healthy dose of four-on-the-floor techno, and it shows me that I've been totally missing what sounds like am incredibly fertile music scene out of China. I've never heard Re-TROS' first album, but Before the Applause is fully-formed, totally unique, not at all derivative even with its myriad influences. If you're ready for a style of music at once comfortingly familiar and radically new, Re-TROS are far more than the sum of their wonderful parts.

6. Ty Segall - Ty Segall

Musical omnivore Ty Segall has dialed back his releases to a mere one a year these days, down from two or three a year in the past. In 2017 he's given us a second self-titled album, which both treads familiar ground and shoots off into the stratosphere.Ty's usual fuzzed-out guitar explosions are well-represented and still manage to sound fresh after nearly 10 years of amplifier worship, and his acoustic numbers like the arresting 'Orange Color Queen' have a Beatlesesque majesty to them that just show how effortlessly he's mastered the song form. The big surprise, though, is the suite of 'Freedom' and 'Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)' in which a punchy punk rock song mutates into a jazz-fusion behemoth, like nothing Ty's ever done before. Does this represent a new direction, crowned by this starting over with a self-titled album? Only Ty knows for sure, but Ty Segall shows that no matter which way he jumps next, it's going to be fantastic.

5. The Granite Shore - Suspended Second

Unlike many of the schizophrenic genre-hoppers I have represented on this list, The Granite Shore are of singular purpose: working in the '70s British mold of John Cale, Brian Eno, and Kevin Ayers, Mr. Nick Halliwell and his brothers-in-arms give us nine slices of beautiful, sad, stiff pop music. The production is deep and inviting, like a bar band at the end of time, the lyrics are tragic hymns to growling old and bitter. The perfect album for feeling sorry for yourself on a rainy day, Suspended Second revels in its intelligence.

4. Gnod - Just Say No to the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine

No joke, Gnod may be my favorite band. Every album they release is so different, and so, so good, the next generation's Nurse With Wound in more ways than one. Last Year's The Mirror was a Swans/PiL influenced slice of ugliness, a rage and reaction at the Brexit and the continuing British descent into fascism, and since 2016 things have only gotten worse, for Britain, America, and just about everywhere else in the world. So this year, Gnod ups the ante and manages to press pure righteous fury to record like nobody has ever managed before; Just Say No is a beautiful, pop-art monster, motorik punk rock as a whirlwind of anger. From the absolutely stunning 'Bodies for Money' which blows your hair back and never lets up, to the dubby rage of 'Stick in the Wheel', Just Say No is violent and necessary.

3. Nadah El Shazly - Ahwar

Like Re-TROS, Nadah El Shazly seems to come from nowhere in a musical scene I wasn't even really aware of, in this case Cairo, Egypt. And like Before the Applause, El Shazly's Ahwar sounds like absolutely nothing I've ever heard before, while still being made of recognizable parts. El Shazly's voice is gorgeous; dark, rich, viscous honey sliding over the haunting, psychedelic landscapes of her music. Some songs are mind-bendingly strange ('Afqid Al-Dhakira') while others are sublimely beautiful (Ana' Ishiqt') but it all feels as a piece with the album, everything is sequenced perfectly and is so arrestingly new that it all makes perfect sense.

2. Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology

Jane Weaver and her army of synths collide in the masterpiece that is Modern Kosmology, a fantastically-produced motorik odyssey that you can get lost in. The album sounds so thick you could drown in it, reverb washing over you all while the insistent rhythms keep the beat of your heart. This is an album to get lost in, with the beat and Weaver's beautiful vocals the only thing keeping it anchored in this reality. Modern Kosmology is your window into another world, and is an excellent escape perhaps rivaled only by Coil's Time Machines when the world has beaten you down enough; let it cocoon you and enjoy your time away for as long as you can.

1. The Moonlandingz - Interplanetary Class Classics
(Sadly, The Moonlandingz don't seem to be on Bandcamp. So, enjoy this wonderful video and then go get it on iTunes!)

And here we are, at number one. And really, for this listener at least, there's no choice for album of the year but The Moonlandingz and their astonishing debut Interplanetary Class Classics. Produced by Sean Lennon, of all people, The Moonlandingz are Saul and Lias from the always-wonderful Fat White Family and Adrian and Dean from the Eccentronic Research Council, making the dirtiest, sleaziest, most wonderful glam rock you've ever heard. It's Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Sparks at their absolute, uncomfortable nastiest, a trait Fat White Family are of course intimately accustomed to. And it's good. Oh, how it's good. From beginning to end, Interplanetary Class Classics staples a smile on your face with its scuzzy irreverence, all sacred cows rapidly turned into hamburger for the teeming millions. There's not a wasted second on the album, everything is immediate and wonderful, and Lennon is a surprisingly steady hand on the till, giving the record just enough of a '70s sheen while letting its members be as unpleasant as possible. Interplanetary Class Classics is pure rock'n'roll, the type I didn't think they made anymore and with good reason; when you see the gross, misogynist scandals guys like Gene Simmons keep getting into, you think that kind of group is dead and buried. But The Moonlandingz know what they're doing, hell, The Fat Whites have been doing it for years now and now they're finally getting the recognition they deserve. In dark times, we need albums like Interplanetary Class Classics, and there's no question that it's the best album of the year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Good in Everyone: Daniel Byran and the Human Condition

            On April 6, 2014, Bryan Danielson, better known by his stage name Daniel Bryan, won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship by forcing Dave Batista to submit to his signature YES! Lock at Wrestlemania XXX. To some readers this might seem like a petty accomplishment; after all, professional wrestling is now well-known to be a scripted event, more like a performance than a legitimate athletic contest. And yet, as Bryan sat crying in the ring, showered with adoration from the assembled packed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it wasn’t because of a performance well-acted (though it was certainly that, too); it was a victory for all of us, the fans. Our guy, the guy who should have slipped through the cracks, made it to the top of the mountain. His victory, which we helped facilitate, belonged to all of us.
            Daniel Bryan never should have been champion. He is maybe five-foot-eight and slightly pudgy, and in the world of pro wrestling, packed as it is with six-foot-ten Adonises, this is the kiss of death. Though we’re no longer in the steroid grip of the ‘80s, the WWE is in the business of selling a spectacle, and said spectacle revolves around larger-than-life walking gods. And yet, this very physical dissonance played a role in Bryan’s ascension in the hearts of fans. This was no musclebound ape in the style of John Cena or Brock Lesnar. Instead, Bryan channeled the common man out of his element, and the common man triumphing over adversity is a salient storyline that sells tickets.
            Another tool in Bryan’s arsenal is his implacable, overpowering charisma. The curious reader would do well to find a video online of Bryan’s entrance down the ramp to the ring for nearly any of his matches, and it would be a legitimate surprise if you don’t come away from it without some appreciation of the man. Daniel Bryan, a short, bearded, average-looking man, somehow packs within himself the ability to win an audience to his side without saying a word. It happened to me the very first time I saw him standing on the entrance ramp, as Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blasted through the PA system and the crowd chanted his simple, catchy, and exciting catchphrase, “YES…YES…YES!” On one hand, it’s all so hokey and stupid, it shouldn’t work at all, and yet, it all fits together perfectly that the air becomes electric and you can’t help but get swept up in the ritual and chant along with everyone else. Bryan isn’t a particularly good talker, really, but his nonverbal skills are astounding, not just in the world of wrestling, but in entertainment at large. Daniel Bryan is bottled excitement.
            Bryan’s relatability and his charisma alone would have made him a moneymaker regardless of what else happened, and we were all watching for him to get his time in the sun, to conquer his naysayers and allow the viewer to live vicariously through his victory. And yet he didn’t, not at first anyway. Daniel Bryan lost, and lost, and lost again. It’s never a sure thing to take anything at face value is pro wrestling; the difference between a ‘work’ (that is to say, a storyline) and a ‘shoot’ (that is to say, real life divorced from storytelling) can sometimes be surprisingly subtle. When The Undertaker is trapped in a coffin and ascends to heaven, the viewer can probably be sure that a man hasn’t really died live on TV. But when the storytellers conspire to keep down a beloved performer for two agonizing years, are we looking at a masterclass of storytelling and audience manipulation, or are we looking at writers so set in their ways that they can’t recognize the sure-fire hit they have on their hands because he doesn’t fit into their typical model? In the end, there’s no real way for us to know for sure, only the boys in the back know, and it’s doubtful they’d admit they misread the situation even if they had. The only thing we can know is that, starting at Wrestlemania XXVIII in 2012, Daniel Bryan was made to be humiliated or marginalized time and time again, while audience support built up to the boiling point.
At ‘Mania XXVIII, Bryan lost his match in 18 seconds. The people still cheered for him. He was then turned heel (that is to say, made a villain) so people would stop cheering and instead boo. The people still cheered for him. He was teamed up with another wrestler in an odd couple tag team, to take him out of singles matches. The people still cheered for him. He was given a concession and briefly won a championship belt, only to lose it literally minutes later against another opponent. The people still cheered for him. He was turned heel again, and placed into a group where he was told to do little but stand in the back and not do anything remotely charismatic. The people still cheered for him. The crowd lusted for Daniel Bryan to come out on top, to beat these clearly insurmountable odds, and it seemed like everyone knew it but the ones writing the storylines. All of this lead up to the Royal Rumble in January 2014, a multi-man match where the last wrestler standing got a shot for the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. There was no question that this was Bryan’s moment; he would outlast everyone and go on to finally claim the prize that he had worked so hard for.
Daniel Bryan wasn’t even in the Royal Rumble.
Instead, the powers that be had Bryan lose handily in a preliminary match about two hours before the Rumble itself. The audience, both watching on TV and in person at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, had finally had enough. Boos and chants of ‘Daniel Bryan’ rained down from the stands throughout the Rumble match, especially when it became clear that the fans last hope, that maybe Bryan would be a surprise entrant at the last minute, wasn’t going to happen. The audience hatred intensified when it became clear that the winner was almost certainly going to be Dave Batista, a wrestler-turned-actor who was brought in on a big money contract just six days before the Rumble as some celebrity star power (and who has subsequently become a big-name actor thanks to his performance in Guardians of the Galaxy). Fans proceeded to hijack WWE events, chanting unceasingly for Bryan and showering Batista with hatred whenever he dared show his face. WWE had its back against the wall; there had never been a rejection of a storyline so complete and total. With Wrestlemania XXX just a few months away, there was nothing the writers could do to placate the fans.
Almost nothing.
On March 10, less than a month before Wrestlemania XXX, Daniel Bryan and several actors dressed as fans hijacked WWE’s flagship TV show Raw. The group channeled actual fan dissatisfaction over how their guy was being used, and the real fans in the seats chanted along with Bryan and the actors in the ring. After every other possibility failed, and unwilling to risk a total fan rejection of the product, the writers backstage cast themselves as the villains in the story. Those in the ring modeled themselves after the Occupy Wall Street protesters (perhaps a year or two behind the time), and refused to leave the ring until Bryan was inserted into the championship match. Both in storyline and in real life, the writers had been beaten by fan outcry, so after a month and a half of very real near-revolt, Daniel Bryan was added to the main event of Wrestlemania XXX. There, on the biggest stage of the sport, he was able to make the hated Batista tap out and finally give a happy ending to this twisting, turning, heart-stopping story. Bryan’s celebration, on his knees with his new championship while confetti fell through the Superdome and fans were beside themselves with cheers and adulation, went on uninterrupted for 5 minutes and 36 seconds, and this writer was at home right there with them.
Among the cheering fans was 8 year old Connor Michalek, a boy who considered Bryan his personal hero. At the time, Michalek was 22 days away from his death, caused by brain and spine cancer. After winning the championship, Michalek was the first person Bryan hugged. Michalek’s story brings so many conflicting emotions into my body all at once, but mainly I think of how cruel life can be, and how it is up to us to prop each other up when we are able, and to really work as hard as we can to make not only our own lives, but the lives of others as pleasant as can be. The world isn’t fair, no story that ends in the death of a young boy could ever be fair. But through Bryan, Connor and his story was able to touch me, and touch anyone else watching, and hopefully anyone reading this essay. Connor’s life was cut too short, pointlessly so, a pointlessness I still can’t understand and never will. But at that moment, his hero had achieved everything he had set out to. It was perfection, and if nothing else, at least Connor was there front row to experience it. Daniel Bryan’s victory was more than just the hero in a scripted story finally overcoming adversity. It was all of us: me, you, Connor, Daniel, and everyone else, achieving against odds that are rarely fair or make sense. It didn’t matter where Daniel and his championship went after this. Even if it was just for now, we had made it.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the title change and the happiness it afforded fans were two snapshots of pure, salient beauty. First was the moment itself, where Batista tapped to the YES! Lock. There’s an impossibly brief, infinitesimal moment between Batista tapping and the victory bell ringing, where the audience realizes what’s just happened and what it means: for Bryan, for the storyline, and for their own hopes and dreams. The swell of cheers that arises in that fraction of a second before the bell, the music, and the pageantry is probably the most singular, unique, utterly real moment in the long, storied history of pro wrestling. And second, the opening to the episode of Raw the day after Wrestlemania. In an industry that prides itself on bombast, on spectacle, on being larger than life, like Bryan himself, the moment is amazingly understated and direct. No announcers, no music, no anything except the cameras moving over the sold-out crowd chanting in unison, as one mind, a purely positive emotion made flesh: