The Needle Drop

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Austen’s Fav Albums of 2018

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Well, 2018 is almost done happening, so it’s about time for me to drop a year-end roundup or something… emphasis on the “or something.” Unlike in the past few years, I’m not really feeling the album-by-album write-ups this time. Music writing is generally not a passion of mine, but I do still want to provide what semblance of a platform I can for the music I enjoy. Granted, this year I didn’t so much find myself returning to contemporary albums as I did listening to older ambient music, minimalism, and stuff of that nature. Too much Morton Feldman, for instance. And fuck, I’ve even been nostalgically returning to some early vaporwave like Vanishing Vision—how ironic is that?

Anyway, my taste has for a long while gravitated to music that gives me plenty of space in which to get lost, so around halfway through this year, I pretty much drifted away from most in-your-face music. Might explain why an undoubtedly great album like Haru to Shura didn’t carry over from my mid-year list. The top 10 I came up with this year is still somewhat dynamic; just figured I’d explain my prevailing listening habits. Hopefully you dig the albums that ended up making the cut. If anyone wants to discuss them down in the comments, I’ll of course be as responsive as possible. That’s more fun than me just solipsistically writing a mini-essay for each one.

If you’re just dipping in and out, thanks for checking out this list and for following TND this year! It has now been five whole years since I started here, and I’m happy and grateful to still be aboard this ship. Wishing you all happy holidays.

FOREVER!

Notes: The titles don't display on mobile for whatever reason, even when I take them off hover-only. Sorry, mobile users. The list is in ascending order and the last slide is just for you. / Honorable mentions were added on 18 December.

LISTEN:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

SONG OF THE YEAR:
KANYE WEST - “GHOST TOWN”


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Oh wait, to pad out this article I can tell you about my best live music experience this year, which was seeing a free improv set by the legendary Keiji Haino and Mitsuru Nasuno in Tokyo about a month ago. They were billed as “No Not Jazz” (frankly I’m not sure if that refers to the duo or the event) and performed at a tucked away space in Shibuya called LUSH. It was a perfectly intimate venue. Its capacity is apparently 200, though I’m having a hard time imagining even half that fitting into the room. The drinks were relatively cheap, but I’m cheaper, so I met the one-drink minimum with a tumbler of Jack and was good. The pre-show music consisted mostly of the blues, which was appropriate considering the genre’s influence on Haino. I’m mostly bringing this up because several tracks from Gil Scott-Heron’s final album I’m New Here were played and it served as a reminder of what an unsung masterpiece that album is. It’s a swansong on par with Blackstar (or Lulu if you’re a sick fuck such as myself), so please check it out if it has gone under your radar, or if it’s been a while.

Now, I knew going into this set that Haino would be on percussion, so I wasn’t disappointed when I saw no guitar on stage. He has become a guitar hero of mine through Fushitsusha and solo efforts like Watashi Dake? and This Is the Son of Nihilism, but my introduction to his work was the Tzadik release Tenshi no Gijinka, on which he primarily played exotic percussion instruments. I also quite like Origin’s Hesitation, a later Fushitsusha release that has a similar drum kit / bass set-up. All that being said, I was a little taken aback when all I saw on stage was a bass guitar and a snare drum. That’s right: Haino, the absolute madman that he is, was about to play nothing but a snare drum for about two hours. Not even with a variety of mallets—just a pair of brushes!

The set was divided into 40-50 minute halves with an about 10-minute-long intermission. The first half in particular played out like a conversation between Nasuno’s bass and Haino’s drum. As with any relationship, sometimes the instruments got along smoothly and sometimes shit got downright argumentative. The two performers had unbelievable chemistry and sold the musical exchanges in an actorly way. It was such a joy just watching them play and reading their facial expressions. To his credit, Haino managed to explore a wide range of sounds considering the intense limitations he imposed upon himself. He could of course vary the attack and interval of his strikes, throw off the snare, and run the metal bristles of the brushes across the drumskin, but it speaks volumes about Haino’s ability as an improviser and showman that he was able to keep those things riveting the entire time. So yeah, he expressed himself just fine with nothing but the snare and a few shouted words, one of which was “allegro.” During a particularly allegro part, he knocked over his drum in the heat of the moment. There are few musicians I’d call badass for doing that, but he’s one of them.

Though if I’m being completely honest, Nasuno stole the show. I was transfixed by him most of the time and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know he was on the bill—can’t blame it on not being able to read kanji, either, ‘cause his name was written clear as day in kana. For those unaware of Mitsuru Nasuno, he was in a recent iteration of Fushitsusha and is also an Otomo Yoshihide collaborator, going as far back as the Ground-Zero days. As far as I’m concerned, effectively improvising on bass is a lot harder than on guitar, but Nasuno is a veteran in the scene and made every note count. He also had what appeared to be a contact microphone attached to one of his tuning keys, which amplified the creaking of the instrument. I shit you not, there was at one point a bass creaking solo performed solely by leaning.

The first half was a breeze. I was surprised to hear it went on for almost 50 minutes, as it felt like half that. During the intermission, I went to drain the vat while my less frugal friend got another bourbon. Then we retook our seats for the second half, which started with a serious change of pace. Nasuno controlled a bass feedback drone that reverberated through Haino’s snare. I suppose Nasuno was the bassist and percussionist for this phase, easily the loudest of the set. Imagine the “It’s Not Jackie Chan” sketch’s low frequency counterpart—suffice it to say we’d all answered “Jackie Chan.” My head and my cojones were neck and neck in a race to see which would explode first. After about 10 minutes, just before any anatomical detonations could occur, it was back to business as usual for the remainder of the performance.

I’m not sure if the drum and bass came to any sort of resolution by the end of it all, but c’est la vie. If such a thing did happen, it was probably during the encore, which sounded like a deconstructed version of “Nattanjanai” from Fushitsusha’s Live 1. Then Haino bowed and uttered a “dōmo arigatō.” After all the musical turbulence that had just transpired, those gestures were almost ironic in their modesty. And that was that. Moral of the story: you haven’t lived til you’ve seen Keiji Haino in his element. No matter what instrument is at his disposal, you’re guaranteed an intense experience.

OK, for real now…

Forever!

Austen's Mid-Year Faves 2018

theneedledrop12 Comments
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Hey NeedleDrops, it's ya boy Literally Who back with another (albeit paltry) list. At this time last year, I went all-out with a mid-year top 10, prematurely blowing my load on some of the albums that would end up making and even topping my 2017 list. This time I'm basically keeping it to shout-outs... and I didn't even muster a top 10, so I'm especially half-assing it. Though, in my defense, I'm still in the refractory period following my Koz review. Without further ado, here's my current 'loved list' for 2018:

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I will say that although I only came up with a top 8, I REALLY love the above releases. So, it's certainly been a half-year of quality if not quantity. For now I'm splitting a spot between DAYTONA and ye for obvious contextual reasons, but I'm also enjoying both about equally so far. I'm more fascinated by the latter, though, which may give it the edge. I feel as if all the other names on the list should be familiar as well, particularly if you've been following my yearly articles. That is with the exception of Haru Nemuri, whose music I discovered just recently. Really, if there's one takeaway from this sorry excuse for a list it's to check out her shit 'cause it's sick! Her sound on Haru to Shura is a marriage of J-pop, rap, noise rock, and just a bit of electronic experimentation that goes off without a hitch. I'll link to one of the songs I'm addicted to below.

Happy listening, and thanks as always for reading.

Forever, Austen

Austen's Fav Albums of 2017

theneedledrop3 Comments
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Hey, it's Austen again, coming at you with another HOT year-end list! For those unaware, I'm the managing editor of The Needle Drop, or in other words, Anthony's right-hand man. It's my third year making these lists for the site, and let me just say up front that this is the best one yet. 2017 has been my favorite year in music this decade, so you're in for a whole lot of gushing and superlatives. Moreover, I'm listing more albums than usual so as to not leave anyone out; you'll see when we get to the honorable mentions section. Many of the albums also happen to be very long, with a few in the Top 10 exceeding three hours. I'm not sure what to make of that – probably just a coincidence. Or perhaps Anthony's conspiracy theory about albums getting longer and longer is proving true.

With that digression aside, here's the list...


The Top 10

1. Oxbow - Thin Black Duke [Hydra Head]

1. Oxbow - Thin Black Duke [Hydra Head]

Thin Black Duke topped my mid-year list and, as you can see, not much has changed since then. Unfortunately that includes my inadequacy as a writer to do this album justice. I'm forced to recycle the line about this being the greatest orchestral rock album since Lou Reed's Berlin (which, for the record, is an all-time fave of mine). It's also a shame that I didn't keep the anecdote about Joseph Losey / The Servant in my pocket. The one thing the album had yet to prove at the time of my previous list was its staying power, and it has certainly done that. Every track on this album hits me as hard as it did on first listen, if not harder. It was just last month that I had the album on one night and got choked up by its centerpiece, "Letter of Note." Not only because it's a pretty tragic song, but because it's just formally perfect. It occurred to me in that moment that I'll probably never create something even half as beautiful—that's a paradoxically inspirational feeling. If you can listen to the track, or the rest of the album for that matter, and not have that response, then you and I are very different people. So, to reiterate: if you're in the market for a rock album that's artful, impeccably arranged, and emotionally overwhelming, you're not going to find much else on the level of Thin Black Duke. Except The Narcotic Story. Listen to that one, too.


2. Mark Kozelek 2017 [Caldo Verde]

2. Mark Kozelek 2017 [Caldo Verde]

In 2017, Mark Kozelek released four albums that total nearly six hours of music. This volume of output comes as a surprise even by his prolific standards. 50 years into his life, half of those spent releasing music, Mark doesn't even seem to think this is a big deal and is really taking the principle of not resting on one's laurels to the next level. I've already written a lot about Common as Light and the Jesu collab on my mid-year list, so I'm just going to use the rest of this space to touch on the Yeaton and Boye/White projects. Yellow Kitchen, the disc with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton, ended up being the most pleasant surprise of the "tetralogy" and pretty much validated my previous Scott Walker comparison—this is essentially Mark's The Drift. I was expecting some typical garage rock, but it turns out that Sean is quite the composer and producer. He mostly contributes dark ambient soundscapes that perfectly suit Mark's anxious, sometimes downright paranoid musings about his health, daily life, and memories.

Yellow Kitchen has a schizophrenic charm in its brevity and disjointedness, whereas the self-titled collab with keyboardist Ben Boye and drummer Jim White goes for a consistently nocturnal fusion of jazz and slowcore. This sound is a bit more in the Koz's wheelhouse, but the project stands out in his catalog for the trio's exceptional chemistry as improvisers, culminating in the epic "Topo Gigio." I'm also taken by Mark's terse writing in the CD insert detailing the events that inspired the album; it closes with "I sang about my days, my nights and my dreams." The man keeps blurring the line between prose and poetry, and for as TMI as it sometimes gets, I think it's beautiful. As long as he remains ambitious with his instrumental and compositional palettes, I look forward to hearing where this uncharted songwriting direction takes him.


3. Brockhampton - Saturation III [Question Everything]

3. Brockhampton - Saturation III [Question Everything]

I’ve been down on Brockhampton since the release of their first two albums this past summer. Part of that’s to do with me being partial to Odd Future, who paved the way for a similarly boisterous collective (or boy band) like Brockhampton to let their freak flag fly. Saturation had some incredible bangers—hard to top those first three tracks—and some of the low-key spots like closer “WASTE” were nice, too. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been excited about this all before, and that was even more the case for Saturation II. I’ll give kudos for the ridiculously catchy “QUEER,” and "GAMBA," though, because after all I’m here to be nice to Brockhampton. That brings us to Saturation III, which is fantastic from start to finish. There’s not exactly a night and day difference between it and the previous two discs, but just enough has been tweaked for it to feel that way to me. Namely the presence of more beat switch-ups, as the group seems to be getting more ambitious with their song structures. Sure, the Odd Future worship is still here (especially in “STAINS,” which is nevertheless a highlight for me), but I can appreciate that Brockhampton’s subversion of rap music is more nuanced than OF’s and that the groups reach very different conclusions. Kevin Abstract and company aren’t nearly as interested in taking the piss out of the genre, and yeah, the difference in technical ability is undeniable. Listening to "BOOGIE" and "HOTTIE," I'm convinced BH has found a way to convert candy and crack into song form. Your move, 1D.


4. Jute Gyte - Oviri [Jeshimoth]

4. Jute Gyte - Oviri [Jeshimoth]

Earlier this year, Jute Gyte (Adam Kalmbach) completed an epic triptych with Oviri, which like its predecessors Ship of Theseus and Perdurance (one of my 2016 faves), proffers a microtonal, polytempic, and electronically-tinged breed of black metal that is guaranteed to give those uninitiated in the worlds of extreme music and atonal composition a severe migraine. One could also be forgiven for looking at the track titles, the lyrics, and the Bandcamp write-ups and thinking they'd need dual degrees in ancient Greek philosophy and existentialism to vibe to this music. But I think it's precisely Adam's deviation from musical convention, his unrelenting limits-pushing, that makes his work so metal. The chord progressions on Oviri are as twisted as ever, though there are more spots here that might be considered melodic than there were on Perdurance. The dense compositions still evoke the totalism of Glenn Branca, and come to think of it, there's even common ground with some of Captain Beefheart's most abrasive work. The liner notes suggest that the dissonance and simultaneous tempi aren't guided by (intentional) ineptitude in Adam's case, but nevertheless, the music in this trilogy of albums subverted my musical expectations in the same way I imagine Trout Mask Replica did for its contemporary audience. However, it's just as important to consider Adam's work as an extension of the black metal tradition—a much needed step toward (post-)modernity. Sure, the pagan mumbo jumbo has been eschewed in favor of enlightened mumbo jumbo, but I find Oviri to be every bit as emotionally potent and frightening as an album like Filosofem. It's exciting to hear the genre pushing the envelope to this extent; I only hope Adam is able to continue doing so now that it seems this phase is finished.


5. Jürg Frey - l’âme est sans retenue I [Erstwhile]

5. Jürg Frey - l’âme est sans retenue I [Erstwhile]

Almost two decades after its completion, Jürg Frey's magnum opus, l’âme est sans retenue I, has finally seen the light of day thanks to Erstwhile Records. The label has been on a roll with these massive, multi-disc sets. Last year's the earth and the sky is one of my favorite collections of piano pieces, and if I had heard Keith Rowe's The Room Extended sooner, it likely would've topped my 2016 list. Clearly I think the streak continues here with retenue I, though I don't have a whole lot to say beyond what cover designer Yuko Zama wrote in her comprehensive breakdown of the composition. Due to its daunting six-hour runtime, much of that devoted to silence, one might see this as, like, the final boss of lowercase music. In a sense, it is, but listening to retenue I is better described as an experience than a challenge. I don't get the sense I'm experiencing "more than an album" very often, but that's certainly the case here. Granted, for some listeners it's bound to sound like quite a bit less than the average album; again, we're talking about a long-form piece that's virtually silent half the time. But as far as I'm concerned, Jürg's use of silence here is the most effective I've ever heard (perhaps "felt" is a better word), and I can see myself making retenue I a regular sonic pilgrimage.

It's worth mentioning that Erstwhile is now making its catalog available on Bandcamp. This Jürg release isn't there yet, but I recommend looking around anyway. The Lambkin/Lescalleet trilogy is a good starting point. Update: It's there now.


6. Impossible Nothing - Taxemenomicon [Self-Released]

6. Impossible Nothing - Taxemenomicon [Self-Released]

You may remember that in one of the first episodes of "It Came from Bandcamp," Anthony and I featured an insane and monolithic plunderphonics album from an Italian producer called Impossible Nothing. Since then, he received the Scaruffi bump (that's apparently a thing) and has gone on to release four more 260-minute-long albums this year—for all I know, the absolute madman may drop another before the year is out. My favorite is the third one, Taxemenomicon, though sometimes I find myself in the mood for Tonemenomicon, which is easy-going by comparison. Honestly, I thought his album last year was cool and all, but saw it as a bit of a novelty that didn't really live up to the cosmic proportions that the artist intended. Taxeme, on the other hand, does. It might be the most incredible plunderphonics / instrumental hip hop album I've heard since J Dilla's Donuts. Except Dilla would've had to infuse Donuts with a shitload of stardust and all the excess of the Internet for these two works to even be comparable. He was also short a Seinfeld reference, but I'll let that slide. Essentially, I think what Impossible Nothing's doing here is the perfect representation of what makes our Bandcamp series worthwhile.

(Heads-up: the track below comes on pretty loud and sudden.)


7. Tyler, the Creator - Scum Fuck Flower Boy [Odd Future]

7. Tyler, the Creator - Scum Fuck Flower Boy [Odd Future]

I've been a fan of Tyler's since Goblin. For as excessive and E D G Y as that album is, I consider it some kind of exorcismic hip hop masterpiece and think Tyler proved himself to be a visionary producer with its consistently uncanny, synth-centric aesthetic. Rarely does a debut studio album following a hyped mixtape make such a statement. I've enjoyed Tyler's work since then, even Cherry Bomb if only because the title track was ingeniously a ready-made YouTube bass boost meme. Actually, if I have one gripe with Flower Boy here, it's that I miss some of the darkness and abrasiveness of those salad days. Other than that, I can appreciate that this is a surprisingly mature album from Tyler. His production here is lovely and he has blossomed into both a versatile rapper and a thoughtful lyricist. Of all the indie blog darlings who had blown up near the end of the Aughts, I'm glad it's been Tyler who has managed to maintain relevance and progress to such a degree as an artist.


8. Father John Misty - Pure Comedy [Sub Pop]

8. Father John Misty - Pure Comedy [Sub Pop]

Pure Comedy is among the most polarizing singer-songwriter albums to have come out this decade, and it's not exactly hard to understand why. It's a collection of post-ironic piano ballads written by a man who's totally unwilling to tone down his cynical and absurdist sense of humor. However, I'm not sure what it is about Josh Tillman that makes him harder to bear for some than similarly abrasive figures like Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. Hell, I could describe a lot of the album's social commentary as "Zappa-esque," though Josh seems more willing than Frank to wear his heart on his sleeve. The music has also been superficially compared to Randy Newman, Elton John, and [insert '70s piano man]; but the fact of the matter is this album couldn't have been made any time but now or by anyone but Josh. Ideological bullshit aside, I simply dig his passionate vocal performances and balladry, as well as the modern production that renders some of these pieces atmospheric and helps the whole thing sound like a product of 2017. Suffice it to say I'm looking forward to next year's Father John Misty album. But it's supposedly about heartache—sounds pretentious.


9. Bill Orcutt - Bill Orcutt [Palilalia]

9. Bill Orcutt - Bill Orcutt [Palilalia]

Bill Orcutt has spent much of the decade channeling the no wave energy left over from his band Harry Pussy into his (poor, poor) acoustic guitar, violently deconstructing a myriad of American standards along the way. Albums like How the Thing Sings and A History of Every One punked the fuck out of American Primitivism and capitalized on the instrument’s free improvisational potential to perhaps the greatest extent since Derek Bailey. However, Bill's gone electric on his latest release, and the results are more modest than one might expect. This is after all a self-titled album by the man who spent the last several years producing some of the most brutal acoustic guitar recordings of all time, and now that he has a decidedly more powerful weapon in his hands we're getting something low-key? Well, it was a wise move, as this is among the best solo guitar albums I've heard all decade. The only things I miss that were lost in the jump to amplification are the involuntary vocalizations Bill would make while going off on his detuned and destrung six-string. Those really added to the rawness. Bill takes things a bit easier on this album, though there is no shortage of explosive, high-attack moments, especially the closing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." For the most part, his covers are easier to recognize this time around, the highlight being his take on "Ol' Man River." There's still a ton of bite and soul to Bill's playing; he just seems more willing than in the past to preserve some of these songs' inherent beauty. Gotta respect that restraint.


10. Prurient - Rainbow Mirror [Profound Lore]

10. Prurient - Rainbow Mirror [Profound Lore]

For my money, Profound Lore is the best extreme music label out there, and I had trouble choosing between the two multi-disc albums it released this year. The first was Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper, a powerful piece of funeral doom that should be experienced in one sitting at least once. But the album I'll have in heavier rotation is Rainbow Mirror, which commemorates 20 years of Prurient by way of three hours' worth of noisy drones. I've had the first two discs for a couple of weeks and once I got past the initial disappointment of Dominick's growls and screams being entirely absent here, I got absorbed by the cold, staticky soundscapes. I'm really in awe (and envy) of the album's textures, as well as the trio's ability to keep the tension escalating across all of these lengthy tracks. While it's an entirely different animal from Frozen Niagara Falls and is far from Prurient's harshest project, Rainbow Mirror is at once the most mesmerizing and thrilling ambient work I heard this year. Props to Profound Lore for being a metal label that's willing to put out a 4-CD set of dark ambience.


Shout-outs

I'm doing something a little different with this year's honorable mentions section, devoting it to miscellaneous releases. Basically I'm listing albums that're live, limited, compiled, archival, or reissued—reasons why I feel they wouldn't really fit with the ones above. Also A Crow Looked at Me because I wouldn't consider it a personal favorite in Phil's catalog, but still think its concept and aesthetic deserve recognition. Anyway, the sorting is alphabetical and the lineup is arguably just as good as the actual Top 10.


The Caretaker - Everywhere at the end of time Stages 1-3 [History Always Favours the Winners]

The Caretaker - Everywhere at the end of time Stages 1-3 [History Always Favours the Winners]


Ian William Craig - Durbē [Recital]

Ian William Craig - Durbē [Recital]


Julia Holter - In the Same Room [Domino]

Julia Holter - In the Same Room [Domino]


Ocrilim - Srilimia [Self-Released]

Ocrilim - Srilimia [Self-Released]


Nicolas Jaar - Sirens Deluxe [Other People]

Nicolas Jaar - Sirens Deluxe [Other People]


Joe McPhee - Seattle Symphony [Kye]

Joe McPhee - Seattle Symphony [Kye]


 
Lieven Martens Moana - Idylls [Pacificity Soundvisions]

Lieven Martens Moana - Idylls [Pacificity Soundvisions]


Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me [P.W. Elverum & Sun]


Charlemagne Palestine - Arpeggiated Bösendorfer + Falsetto Voice [Alga Marghen]

Charlemagne Palestine - Arpeggiated Bösendorfer + Falsetto Voice [Alga Marghen]


Swans - Deliquescence [Young God]

Swans - Deliquescence [Young God]


Alan Vega - IT [don't buy this album until it's released by a different label]

Alan Vega - IT [don't buy this album until it's released by a different label]


Tanning Salon - Dream Castle [Olde English Spelling Bee]

Tanning Salon - Dream Castle [Olde English Spelling Bee]


Thanks so much for reading. If you enjoyed this, below you can find the list I wrote last year. Other than that, happy holidays and New Year.

FOREVER!