Monday, July 10, 2017

Charlie Chaplin and Anti-Comedy

Colin Spacetwinks has been sharing some of their old comedy writing/theory on Twitter recently, and one of the pieces that came up was this post about Too Many Cooks. They relate it specifically to the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast episode "Fire Ant" to talk about the technique of "dragging the joke out," and specifically to position it in the sort of "anti-comedy" popularized by Adult Swim. It's a good post, and its resurfacing is weirdly timely for me.

The Castro Theater just had a double feature of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'd seen the latter a handful of times, though no more recently than a decade ago. The former I hadn't seen. It was, in fact, my first Chaplin movie period, I think. That's despite spending literal full weekends in college scheduling my sleep around what TCM was playing. I had a lot of fun in college.

The programming of that double feature was smart as hell in ways I did not anticipate. Even not having seen Modern Times, I knew the broad strokes made sense together. The short version is: they're both films about labor, featuring broad, iconic images of industrial machinery. The particulars were what I wasn't ready for. I didn't realize that, for instance, the opening shots are nearly identical.
Both films open on the face of the clock. They also both move from this into scenes of undifferentiated laborers moving to work. The main difference is a generic one: in Modern Times, the shift to the laborers is prefaced by a shot of sheep being driven forward. It sets up a parallel with the workers we are about to see. In Metropolis, the laborers move into the space of an elevator rather than directly into a factory. A title card then describes them as going 'deep below.' It's as concise a visual argument for the definition of genres -- comedy and science fiction -- as I've maybe ever seen. There's a whole essay there, but I want to talk a little more about Modern Times' comedy.

I bring up Spacetwinks' essay because one of the most striking aspects of Modern Times, to me, was how close it came to that kind of anti-humor. Plenty of it was the sort of humor I expected of Chaplin through cultural osmosis -- vaudevillian slapstick and mugging, underdog character work, &c. -- but the execution was surprising.

An early joke involves the boss testing out a machine that can feed laborers while they work. It's sold to him as a way to reduce the wasteful lunch break, and so he decides to have Chaplin give it a go. The scene is structured about how you would expect: everything goes well until it doesn't. Once it doesn't, it starts going worse and worse, quickly.

The thing, though, is that it isn't all that quickly. The scene itself lasts for, I'd guess, nearly ten full minutes. It's a funny scene, and it isn't structured like a Tim & Eric bit or anything; instead of languishing, it continuously escalates toward the conclusion. Even still, the scene itself struck me in a way much closer to that sort of anti-comedy than to a lot of the other jokes even within the film itself.

Another tangent that I'll note without diving into: I don't know that I've ever seen comedy theorized in a way that was anything but ahistorical. Comedians themselves are the worst about this, of course. But the rhythms of comedy change over time, and according to knowledge.

There is one other major scene that I read as anti-comedy in Modern Times. It comes near the end. Chaplin has been in and out of prison and work throughout the film. He is finally trying to make good by his ward, who has secured him an audition as a member of the waitstaff at a restaurant of Singing Waiters. Before the obvious joke, though, he has to actually wait on tables; in particular, on a gentleman who is furious that he has had to wait an hour for his roast duck.

About two thirds of the way through the bit, Chaplin is nearly at his table with the meal. The band strikes up, and he is immediately surrounded by dancers. He gets caught in their twirling and seething. The only part of him left visible his upstretched hand holding the plate of food. He does a full rotation of the floor, begins to walk forward, and gets caught up again. This is funny in its flouting of expectations. The scene seems to have played itself out, but it continues. It's when he gets caught again for the third time that it borders on the kind of comedy where "dragging out the joke" is itself the joke.

Unlike the automatic feeder, this sequence doesn't really structure itself by escalation. The thing that ultimately happens could have easily have happened the first time around with no great loss; the escalations are secondary to the act of languishing on the act of watching. At the time of the film's release, both scenes were, presumably, uproarious. They are not played like they are meant in some way as ironic commentary on comedy. But it's nearly a century on, and they feel that way now. To me at least.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fight From Inside the Fandom

Back in December, I wrote that a leftist trolling would involve "litter[ing] the user-generated-content hell with strategic propaganda." It's a phrase that's stuck with me.

In the months since I wrote it, I've been digging through the My Brother, My Brother and Me archives. It's a comedy advice podcast. It's been rapidly growing in the last couple years, in large part because of how "good" the three brothers are; how willing they are to admit to mistakes of ignorance, to talk openly about their own growth, and to do their best to build their comedy with a foundation of inclusivity and understanding. Take this response from a TV Insider interview with the brothers, in response to the question "How do you build a brand that revolves around positivity and compassion in comedy?":

Griffin: You f--k up a whole lot when you start doing a podcast, and you hear from people who really, really, really like you, who let you know very politely that you hurt their feelings and ostracized them, and then you stop doing it. And then after enough of those, you kind of stop doing it to everybody, or you try your f--king best to. Literally, that’s it. I think it’s easy to get defensive, but I just always felt so miserable when I heard, “I’m a big fan of yours and you hurt my feelings."
Travis: When someone tells you, “Hey, what you just did hurt me,” you have two options. One is to say like, “You’re wrong, and I didn’t do anything wrong.” Or your other option is to say, “Okay, well if you feel that way, let me take a step back and really look at what I did.” Do that second one every time.
Griffin: I think doing anything that has a big enough audience these days becomes a lesson in empathy. The show and me, Griffin, a person, have gotten so much better since those lessons have come pouring in. I like having that relationship with our audience, and I genuinely think it’s funnier to not say no to s--t, or not slam people instead of getting on board with them. I think that’s the funnier thing 100% of the time.
Justin: It’s harder, but it’s always funnier.

It's a good sentiment, especially in the retrograde world of comedy. Honestly, I think that a lot of what is appealing about their work is shaped by the fact that they aren't Comedians. But that's a subject for another day.

Part of what compelled me to keep listening to back episodes of their show was the promise of the origin story of this development in their work. Because there's definitely an origin story that they reference for, like, a hundred episodes after it happened. I think it's explained fairly well in this piece for Brooklyn Magazine:

Justin told me, “I think we’ve always tried to be [inclusive], it’s just early on we didn’t necessarily have the tools or the understanding of how to be that way. I think mainly that’s because we grew up around people like us. So that was our default. But that expanded. ‘People like us’ has gotten a lot broader since we’ve had a much broader audience.”
The turning point was furries. It was around episode 30, not even in response to a listener’s letter, but to a Yahoo Answers question from a thirteen-year-old furry wondering about coming out to his family. The brothers’ comedy comes from escalation, each taking the previous joke farther and to sillier lengths. In this case, the joke—the “joke”—was about how freaked out and disturbed they were by furries.
The next episode, in the middle of answering another question—from a listener afraid of being made fun of for being in their school play—Justin segued into an apology. “Like, if you look at us. Last week we talked a lot of yay about furries, but to cover up the fact that we are all right now, as we record the show, wearing furry costumes.” Griffin said, “I’m a lynx.” Travis: “I’m a sexy cow.” And Justin? “I’m an apologetic tiger, because I feel bad to our furry friends.” Griffin chimed in, “I feel wicked bad!” He continued, “Let’s put this question on pause, cause we need to address this. I think that hatred comes from fear, and fear comes from misunderstanding.” And the brothers owned up to misunderstanding furries, and thanked the listeners who’d written in to set them straight.
As Justin told me, “Afterwards, we got these tweets from people who were like, ‘Hey, I’m a furry, and I like your show, and that sucked.’ I don’t know who we thought was listening, but we certainly didn’t think furries were, ‘cause we didn’t know any growing up. Once we realized that we hurt these people, we felt like garbage about it. So we were like, let’s make the decision to learn, and talk to these people, and celebrate them and become wildly pro-furry. What we realized is, isn’t it also a lot funnier to be wildly pro-furry. I think it’s funnier to be really into everything, permissive of everything.”
It’s not that they’re pretending to be pro-furry because being pro-furry is silly. The McElroys decided—and the success of MBMBaM proves—that actually being enthusiastic about everything opens the door to better comedy.
To recap: something like half a year after they started the podcast, the brothers went in on furries in a typical "this is funny because we are having an outsized reaction to a thing we don't understand (or want to)" style bit. The difference between them and 99% of other comedy is that, when pressed on the shittiness of that bit, they apologized sincerely and did their best to stop doing that.

Or, at least, that's how it's turned out in the long run. Part of the reason I was so compelled to get back to that incident is because, frankly, there are at least another couple dozen episodes of the show where they clearly haven't actually learned from that error, despite constantly professing to. They're repeatedly shitty to people during that time, except now in a way where they preface it by saying how much they learned from being shitty about furries.

As an origin, it's a pretty fascinating one. Partially because telling the story lead to its enactment; but also, for me, because it seems very much like an example of that kind of strategic propaganda I advocated for.

Even more, it suggests a possible addendum to my essay, another tactical opportunity. I more or less completely ignored fandom in it, despite my hovering on the periphery of a million of them forever. What that origin suggests, to me at least, is the possibility of a sort of dedicated left entryism; a program for people who are fans of things to guide them into pressing advantages on new or developing creators.

This could take a number of possible forms. One option would be something like a generally-accessible resource sheet, pointing out certain methods of approaching sympathetic creators. It could be completely straightforward, like "if you want to see responsive, growing creators do better, try this," or even in the style of those viral Tumblr/Twitter posts that treat everyone who doesn't act exactly how you just learned to as an incomprehensible asshole.

Another would be a centralized group who actively searched out burgeoning successes and deployed members to their fandom. An IRC would work for this, but something like a facebook meme page might actually be even more ideal and difficult to detect/subvert. Admins could point to creators who seemed sympathetic through an understood language within the memes themselves, allowing followers to integrate within the fandom and deploy targeted criticism/propaganda.

The goal, to be clear, would be to create a sustainable method by which we could repeat something like what happened with the McElroys. One thing that gets left out in their origin is any question of what happened to those furries; this is the sort of thing that requires some investment (to understand the norms of the space) but not an indefinite amount. Listening to a pre-Pitchfork-level band's album and patiently explaining its exclusivity in normal channels might take a couple hours over a week, and they're certainly going to remember it.

The possibilities here are, admittedly, a little harder to imagine with an economic leftist argument (rather than a cultural one), so I'm not breaching them now. Maybe if I have some ideas later, or if you do. I'd certainly be interested.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

5 Thoughts on "The Xena Scrolls"

I don't know that I'll be doing every recap episode, but man, season 2's clip show picks up and develops the thoughts from before in a neat way. It's nowhere near as good as "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," but most things aren't.

  1. Up to this point in the series, it almost feels like the writers are more interested in characterizing by inversion. From Hudson Leick's two-episode stunt as Xena to Lucy Lawless' role as Xena, Dianna & Meg in "Warrior...Princess...Tramp" to Gabrielle's bloodlust in "Ten Little Warlords," there's a lot of it. Including "The Xena Scrolls," it's almost at the point where it feels as common as any of the characters acting like they're "supposed to" act, even though that obviously isn't strictly true. Even Joxer gets it here, to an extent.

  2. Where "Athens City" was a recap episode that largely focused on structure but allowed for some very clear, good moments of character development, "The Xena Scrolls" is very structurally focused on character while allowing for a couple moments of what we'll call worldbuilding. Nearly all the clips in "The Xena Scrolls" give a moment of character rather than re-tell a story, which makes sense given that it would be pretty weird if the centuries-later descendants of Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer did a lot of character work for any of the ancestors. The thing about this, though, is that up until now it's clear that Xena: Warrior Princess is set in a sort of mythological time; Xena herself invents CPR in Ancient Greece -- which would have been anachronistic even in "The Xena Scrolls" -- and hops happily through histories of Grecian, Roman, and Biblical origin as though they were separated by a few miles and weeks. "The Xena Scrolls" not only positions itself during World War II with explicit references to Nazis and Hitler, it ends with a sting saying "Fifty Years Later" with a fantastical version of the show being pitched to Rob Tapert (executive producer on Xena: Warrior Princess) by a thoroughly 90s 'descendant' of Joxer. It's the first episode, in other words, that puts Xena: Warrior Princess definitively in, if not our own timeline, then one that is self-contained.

  3. I'm glad they reused the trope of not just using clips from Xena: Warrior Princess, although the way they did it this time (Joxer tries to take credit for what look like some old Universal Horror pictures & gets called on it) is significantly reduced from "Athens City."

  4. The anti-Nazi stuff, which when I watched a few years back I probably kind of balked at, feels embarrassingly more relevant. I wonder how it felt a year and a half ahead of Saving Private Ryan; probably trendy?

    Even more than that, though, it feels strange coming just two episodes after "Ten Little Warlords," which is Ares, God of War's big coming-out-as-a-character episode. In that he loses his godhood and has to go through the tribulations of being human, until Xena ultimately helps him win his sword, and so powers, back. A (really very bad) Christmas episode later and we're here, where Ares gets out of his tomb and immediately talks about how dope he thinks Hitler is and how much he wants to help him. And, as previously mentioned, one of the big points of "Ten Little Warlords" is that Ares' absence causes folks who aren't used to harnessing anger to completely lose control, which goes completely unaddressed here. I wonder what that looks like in the Xena universe.

  5. For all the shitting on Hitler this episode does, there is a bit of a feel of equivocation on whether biology is destiny. There's an obvious alternative version where Lucy Lawless is a descendant of, say, Gabrielle, Renee O'Connor of Joxer and Ted Raimi of Xena. They didn't go that route, though, even as they largely change the characters of the descendants (Lawless' Mel is meek; O'Connor's Janice is swashbuckling; Raimi's 'Jacques' is ... pretty much Joxer). Around half of the way through the rest of this season is where I stop rewatching and start seeing a show for the first time, so part of me hopes that they went along with the idea here and dug through it: this episode takes place in the 1940s and 1990s; why not have The Xena Scrolls II in the 2040s? Make Lawless Joxer's great-great-great-etc. granddaughter.

    I'm sort of just doing fandom work here (decades late), but the point is that the show opens itself up to the possibility of not conforming in this way. Which isn't to say it's a radical show -- it closes itself off in a million others -- but the constant inversion of characters, the contextualizing work of non-Xena: Warrior Princess properties in the clip show, the myth-time of it, and much more makes Xena: Warrior Princess a peculiar thing that I hope gets explored as much as it could.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

5 Thoughts on "Athens City Academy of Performing Bards"

Calling "Athens City of Performing Bards" (Xena: Warrior Princess Season 1, Episode 13) one of the best clip shows of all time would be talking out of my ass -- the only other clip show episode I can think of is "The Prince Who Runs Through the Night" from Revolutionary Girl Utena -- but it's still an impulse I have. And I think it's worth saying, at least, that it's a wildly successful recap episode that manages to successfully develop characters and themes and to produce great moments. The rest of this post will be a quick rundown of some of the cool shit in this episode.

  1. The storytelling advice is kind of garbage, but makes sense for Gabrielle. The points are basically: Your story needs a moral, and it needs to be visual. These are things that I think are self-evidently the kind of craft garbage that can be useful for the inexperienced but is ultimately harmful; and I like that it's coming from Gabrielle here, who is the most autodidact of the bunch. She's a very empathetic character but she's also super gifted in a way that leads to cockiness (see "Hooves & Harlots") in the fiction, and this kind of misguided helpfulness genuinely feels like it develops the character.

  2. The show to this point is surprisingly interested in systemic problems; two of the dozen prior episodes feature scenarios in which war is on the horizon, and the culprit is quickly rooted out as the financially interested party (an arms dealer and a ('neutral') warlord. So when this episode stages its central conflict -- Gabrielle's not being properly registered -- as a story of organized power of students/workers against an administrative/owner class, it works pretty well. It's also tied into the Spartacus usage, which brings us to the next point.

  3. It's a recap episode that's actually pretty necessary, and done in a way that provides not just wrap-up but context. The others who are trying to get into the Academy tell stories that pull from old Hercules movies and the Kubrick film Spartacus, situating Xena in the context of a history of period pieces. It also pulls from the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journey in which Xena the character was created, providing backstory that the show itself has largely only gestured toward to this point. On top of that, it has Gabrielle tell these stories from the position of being someone insistent on a moral and visual focus, so it reinforces that the conflicts to this point are not just the development of Xena's character but an attempt at an education of a sort.

  4. The last time I watched this episode was around three years ago, and I think we had decided that we were going to make an EP about this first season (you can find that here). When we were making that, I was writing a short essay (as a sort of liner notes) putting Xena: Warrior Princess into the frame Malcolm Harris developed for his essay "Upping the Antihero" -- what he called a "consultant procedural." The argument wasn't that it fit perfectly, but that it was surprisingly apt for a show that significantly predated the shows he was discussing, especially given that he was arguing for a specific reading of it as a collusion of genre and material developments. The stories that Gabrielle tells in "Athens Academy of Performing Bards" reinforce just how much Xena's deeds (to this point in the series) rely on governmental stability -- whether that's a town council, a druidic cult, or a king -- that gives episodic stability to her adventures while simultaneously allowing her to act outside of the law. Each set of clips more or less boils down to: a thing happened; we consulted a pseudo-governmental body which reacted in X or Y fashion; Xena won the day through cunning and prowess. I still think there's something to that connection, anyway.

  5. Two little pieces of character development also make this a pretty great episode. The first, at the very beginning, is for Xena: when Gabrielle wants to go to the Academy, she first makes sure that Gabrielle at least thinks she's doing it for the right reasons, and then unconditionally supports her. The second is in Gabrielle's relationship with Orion/Homer: he's maybe the half-dozenth love interest she's had, and the first that signals that she's aware of this happening. Rather than go full bore on the romantic elements, she takes a role more typical of Xena to this point, except with her skills. She reads the situation and supports him through his troubles with his dad, and ends with him as something between a potential lover and a friend. It's a nice way to acknowledge that the show has relied on certain structural pillars and that it feels confident enough to shake them a bit, while at the same time giving Gabrielle precedent for not having to rely on them to make sense as a character.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Valentine's Day Compilation on Fuck the Polis! (round 2)

Here's the proposition: a compilation for Valentine's Day. Send me a song -- theme of Solidarity -- by February 14th to be included (day of is probably fine too). Email's uninterpretative at gmail, or sendspace or mega it or whatever to @Benladen on twitter or on my facebook.

The compilation is going on my terrible little netlabel Fuck the Polis!, and will be the second of these. You can find the first here. You can also see more about the original idea in the call for the first comp here.

Like last year, the theme of Solidarity is as loose as you want it to be. A song about worker's power would fit, but so would an expression of living in the world with others, in a way as oblique as a sample or an unmarked quotation. And I'm happy with a rejection of the theme entirely as well. Do feel free to hit me up personally if you'd like. All styles/genre and levels of professionalism (including none) welcome.

Hi thank you for reading this I appreciate you and I hope if this sounds fun/interesting you will consider it and yeah.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Friends of 2016

"Six Science Fiction Novels (And Then Some) To Read in the Age of Trump" by Adrian M. Ryan

Adrian recommends some science fiction in order to reflect on it, and on the possibilities the new president opens up. Hint: they aren't positive.

CMRN KNZLMN Presents Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea by Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron's little game of peace and frustration is pretty cute.

My Mother Grows Plants With Her Eyes by The Bedroom Witch

The hook of the thing is definitely The Bedroom Witch's cover of "Genie in a Bottle," but the title track and "Last Myth Standing" are the reasons you stay. The Bedroom Witch's music is 70s or 80s pop and horror flicks, and it's good. From the just-too-high BPM of "Wheel of Misfortune" that gives it a tense edge to the title track's Suspiria sample, it's an EP of really well-made structures with interesting objects inside.

"I'm Dreaming" by Last Nights of Paris

David's reconfiguration of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is exquisite.

Some Shit I Drew by Water Beetle

Beats by Water Beetle, co-production by meddlr. Two old (noise) friends collaborate on swimmy straight beats and make some neat shit.

Nihilismo by Sole & DJ Pain 1

I'm sure I've said this before somewhere or other, but Sole's work with DJ Pain 1 has been super cool to watch. They keep killing it with Nihilismo.

Allkore Film Festival by Allkore

The Allkore folks have been putting together themed compilations at the edge of (Japanese) nerdcore (not nerd rap!) and noise and other genres of electronic music for a few years now, and I've been pretty into all of them. This comp is themed around (favorite) films, and is killer for it.

Organ Grinder by Kuniklo

A short film featuring the queer land project's puppetry in a loose narrative. The costumes reminded me, for some reason, of Himitsu Sentai Gorenger, which I mean as the highest praise.

Scream Queens Magazine Issue #1 (+ Compilation) by Scream Queens Radio

Friends in Oakland have been running a radio show for years now, and while I rarely listen, it's an inspiring thing. They just put together the first issue of their magazine, and released an accompanying compilation.

Wrote about children's books and was sad on beaches by Aishwarya Subramanian


Valentine's Day Compilation by Fuck the Polis!

This might be a slightly awkward inclusion, since I put it together (as well as playing guitar on track 3 & producing track 12), but this isn't exactly a formal thing. The group includes people who have never recorded music before and people who do so extensively; people I have or currently live with and folks I've never met in person; old friends and relatively recent ones. With a theme of pop, we got together and made songs in the orbit of punk and folk and metal to glitch-noise and rap and, of course, pop. It's a thing I'm extraordinarily proud to have been part of.

Orphy Goes to Hell by Daniel Waldman

A short film by Daniel Waldman that I think is very neat.

The Repulsion is Mutual by Inverts

Inverts have such a good sense of the suspension of metal, and of the kind of writing that foregrounds political and personal commitments so heavily they shine through tracklists without needing to be spoken. The title track in particular kills.

Piss Cameron by IlllllllllllllI

A book about former PM David Cameron holding in his piss.

Live at KALX! by Sorry, Not Sorry

In April, Erica Botz passed in an accident. As a member of Tender Buttons, she made some incredible music; her most recent band was Sorry, Not Sorry, who released their first album Teenage Tea Cake last year. After her passing, the band released Live at KALX!, with a fifteen minute interview and a half hour live set. My personal favorite of their songs comes in at 6:28.

Split CD by Ceschi / Pat the Bunny

Ceschi's post-prison work has been so tight and meaningful. Pat the Bunny seems like he's alright.

Soundcloud tracks by PRIST

Cash Askew, who passed away in the fire at the Oakland venue Ghost Ship and was half of Them Are Us Too, didn't release a full album with her industrial/EBM solo(?) project PRIST, but a handful of tracks went up on her soundcloud. They're very good. Tight loops layer with thick drums threading them together, always with an ear toward structure. "Unseen" is a personal favorite.

"Fall" by SBSM

A new track from SBSM for the Open Space series at SF MOMA, in which Bay Area musicians respond to winter and night. In SBSM's own words, the track is "Against all presidents, fascists, cops, bros, white supremacists, colonizers, landlords, and those who defend them," and toward a spring of liberation. A slow, meditative, apocalyptic song that feels as appropriate as possible.

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

A murder mystery at a Lovecraft convention, narrated largely through the dead man's degrading neural pathways. A very beautiful representation of fandom and absolutely an example of my little-remembered concept of fantastical materialism. The most impressive thing about I Am Providence, I think, is the ability of Mamatas to correlate all its contents. Specifically the social and economic contents. I couldn't write a better riff, sorry, I tried.

Half Moon Bay by Joyride!

Maybe my favorite Joyride! record so far, and a lot of that's to do with how they let out the structure on songs. Everything still drives forward -- it's still (pop) punk -- but in a way that seems happy to take detours when they feel right. The writing feels like it has been pared down to what works, and the playing is perfectly capable of taking up what used to need to be said straight.

Situationist Taqiyya by Zareen Zahra zeero

Zareen's twice-monthly newsletter of poetry and fragments is great.

Photography by Pauline Veatch

Pauline started taking cool pictures with instant film.

"Boucher, Backbone and Blake -- the Legacy of Blake's 7" by Erin Horáková

Erin Horáková's huge, brilliant essay about some British science fiction I'd never heard of before is a solid argument that she's one of the best SF critics working, in my opinion.

Watch Me Screw by Aurist

I'm not very familiar with juke, so I don't know how much I'm seeing of Aurist's past in noise and poetry in Watch Me Screw and how much juke just lends itself to beautiful ambient soundscapes when extrapolated from the tight loops and percussive drive. But then, that's only even a question because Aurist gives us "Erere," "Erere (Remix)," and "Erere (Remix 2)," which develop an ambient sketch into a full blown juke track, in a way that makes it clear how it was there the whole time.

Waitin' Around EP by Alex Pieschel

A longer review is available in the second issue of QROCC. Alex Pieschel is a great critic and editor, and I like this EP quite a lot, too. Moody and atmospheric Americana with a light vocal touch.

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone by Christa Lee

Christa Lee's Welcome to the Fantasy Zone is an album made in tribute to SEGA games, from a person who I don't know personally at all but who is a wonderful twitter presence, a great musician, and an incredibly smart thinker around games, music, and film.

I'm not a person who grew up with SEGA's games, although I've come to quite a few of them later in life, so I can't speak to the ways it hits on that sense of nostalgia. And I'm also the sort of person who tends not to listen to game soundtracks as I play them, so I'm in many ways the worst to talk about that. The point being that even if those aren't things you have or do, this is a really beautiful album.

Little Bug by Buddy System Games

I spent a good amount of the summer of 2016 touring with Buddy System's twin-stick platformer; I didn't make it to Seattle for PAX, but I did get to go to Indiecade, Fantastic Arcade in Austin, EVO in Las Vegas, and elsewhere. The demo is pretty neat still, y'know?

In memory of Erica, Feral, and Cash.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 10 Country Albums of 2016

Author's note: all reviews reprinted from issues of the Quarterly Review of Contemporary Country, including the fourth as-yet-unreleased issue. I listened to so much goddamn country this year.

10. Kane Brown by Kane Brown

In the first volume of this mess of a zine, I wrote a review of Kane Brown's EP Chapter 1. The text in full, reads:
Kane Brown's surprising voice doesn't do much to change the fact that his songs are about being a shitty dude, to the exclusion of everything else. Couple that with unexceptional music and Chapter 1 isn't objectionable so much as a total bore.
Now, frankly, I remember nearly nothing about that EP. I know that I came from a real place with that, and I am also fully aware of my own shortcomings around this project. From the ones I state constantly (mostly my own (lack of) history with this genre) to the ones I allude to but don't really talk about (the hilarious toll this has taken on me) to the ones that I don't talk about at all (the racial component), those shortcomings are more or less the definition of QROCC as it is, and as it will forever be preserved. And so I can say, at least, that Kane Brown's Chapter 1 was boring to me, and that there might be a whole lot going on there that I didn't understand or couldn't quite grasp.

I say all of this because Kane Brown's debut record is a much more nuanced, complicated, and interesting thing than, at the very least, I gave credit to his second EP for being. The album opens with two songs that are some of the most anxiety-representative songs I've heard since I first listened to early kode9 dubstep, and they're songs about how Brown puts on for his town and how he might not be a shitty man. It's followed by "Learning," which for whatever reason reminds me a lot of Tupac's "Changes," and then goes off into some weird world. "Cold Spot" is a near-perfect mess of a country single except that it's pretty clearly not a single; "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" has a first half that seems impossibly generic, and a second half that seems impossibly specific.

The thing about Kane Brown's self-titled is that the singles don't quite work, and the songs that aren't quite singles are kind of fucking incredible. There's "Cold Spot," but then there's also "Rockstars," a song about early aughts pop rock hits that is wrapped vaguely in a love story and would be an awful single, but is impossibly fun to listen to as a just-not-quite single.

That Brown's self-titled navigates race -- from an explicit reference in "Learning" to the offhand mention of forty acres on "Better Place" -- in a way that is neither coy nor self deprecating is certainly a bonus. Which is tied into the specificity of the songs; "Cold Spot," in particular, is one of those "where I grew up" songs that takes place in a convenience store of sorts, that manages to thread together the "life lessons learned" genre with the "small town undercut by capitalism" genre. Which is partially why the song is a miss as a potential single, I think; there's a genuine specificity there, rather than a finely-crafted sense of it developed specifically to appeal to a cod-universal sentiment.

Kane Brown's self-titled isn't quite the exemplary pop country of a Granger Smith, full of swagger and ambivalence and hooks, but it's not in competition either. Kane Brown has all these things, but they're configured differently. And I think that he's managed to put something together that's worth celebrating.

9. A Sailor's Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson

You don't really need to know the particulars of the concept behind Sturgill Simpson's to appreciate it, and it is a bit hard to say whether knowing actually enhances the album. The concept is more important as a structuring mechanism, unless you're very inclined to get misty about a dad singing to his newborn son. I am, uh, not. That structure allows Simpson to explore country in a way sort of similar to Shooter Jennings'; by setting the focus of the ideas outside of the genre, both artists can take things to places that they wouldn't otherwise be allowed.

Some of that experimentation involves nearly quoting David Bowie to open his album, as Simpson takes the Major Tom approach to welcoming his son to the world. The histories that Simpson draws on are interesting; Bowie to open, some Elvis throughout, a Nirvana cover and plenty of alt-country. It gives the record something of a sense of timelessness—albeit very much rooted in whiteness—that works well with the subject matter. And Simpson kind of kills the cover of "In Bloom," which absolutely shouldn't work.

One of the ways that Sturgill mutates the lineage he is engaging with is to mutate a lot of the social aspects into something more personal or delicate. This is, generally, something I'd despise, except that he doesn't simply erase them. Simpson's focus as far as the social goes is refracted through the personal; he uses his time in the Navy to talk about the shittiness of war and of armies in a way that is seriously bolstered by his relative lack of other soap boxing. It is pretty nice to hear a record that's just like, goofy dad tells his son how the world works, and that includes how garbage war is, from experience, and in very non-sensational ways.

More than anything else, what Simpson constructs with is a really phenomenal album. It's the sort of thing that is mostly in execution, and so hard—for me at least—to talk about at length. Other than to say, I suppose, that it is fantastic.

8. Countach (for Giorgio) by Shooter Jennnings

The seventies were the decade of punk and disco, of Pinochet and Thatcher and the Historic Compromise, when AIDS and Reagan loomed. It's when Outlaw Country came into its own, the same way that cyberpunk would later in the decade; by positioning itself explicitly against the work of women in the genre the decades prior.

Which is all a way of saying that as left field as outlaw disco might sound on its face, Shooter Jennings' Countach (For Giorgio) actually makes plenty of sense. And it's reflected in the record itself; for all the juxtaposition it does, opening with a rendition of "Ladies Love Outlaws" that onslaughts into synths, the jarring quickly becomes a synthesis.

There's a third term as well, in this historical artefact-cum-fucked up album. "Chase," the sixth track, features Richard Garriott de Cayeux, the game developer behind Ultima, Ultima Online, and (most recently) Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, inside of which Countach was debuted in a listening party. Garriott's work in game design began in the mid-70s, positioning him as one of the field's oldest practitioners. And a contemporary of all the aforementioned.

It would be easy to say that this overlapping history has had implications on the reactionary nature of games culture (it does). So, short of that, it is perhaps enough to acknowledge that, and move on.

As for the actual music on Countach (For Giorgio); it's fucking good. Marilyn Manson is kind of embarrassing, and the NeverEnding Story theme is a weird thing to hear. Even that is in a good way, though; Jennings' album is always interesting, and often incredible.

The particular movement it performs, between an emulation of Moroder's disco embedded in his compositions and the country that gives Jennings his celebrity, is most beautifully represented in its chaotic movements. When tracks go from lightly, twangily sung to digital vortices; it's not just aesthetically pleasing, but politically. It's Reagan's delivery devoured by its consequences, the pretty veneer of games answered by its ugly underbelly. And, importantly, the real pleasure always comes from the latter half.

7. The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert is, to some greater or lesser extent, the reason for this project. Her music is what sustained my interest in country music even when I wasn't in a place to actively follow it (which is to say: when I wasn't regularly driving a car for extended periods of time by myself), and what I would show to people who had some interest but not a whole lot. "Gunpowder and Lead" has always been The Song, for me, with "Kerosene" up there, but every time I discovered a new old single of hers I was taken up again. "The House That Built Me" is a sweet song with the strangest narrative structure (at no point does Lambert do anything other than describe why she should be let in) that I love, and there's not a thing that the Pistol Annies have done that I'm not into that I know of. Lambert is the kind of singer who can be as joyous in spite as she is in love, and she reserves that spite for abusive men, mostly.

A more concrete example: I've never cringed at a Miranda Lambert song where she mentions cigarettes. This is, as you may or may not imagine, a kind of unbelievable feat. The easiest way to explain it is to ask any nineteen year old boy in a black shirt and long hair to write you a short story, and pay attention to his use of cigarettes and smoke. There are a million ways to get it wrong, as many as there are ways to think about being a smoker without knowing what it's like to be one. Which isn't to say that it's a problem of youth or inexperience; your contemporary great American novelists are as likely to fall short as that random kid. Cigarettes are one of those things where their translation to a symbol seems to almost require shucking off so much of what makes them real things in the world, leaving them only as a dramatic gesture or an empty gesture at "cool."

Lambert, by comparison, opens The Weight of These Wings with "Runnin' Just in Case," which itself opens with a stuttering loop of a bassline and light drums for three quarters of a minute, followed by the lines:
There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway.
I hate Sunday mornings cuz they always seem to start this way.
I'm looking for a lighter, I already bought the cigarettes.
Guess I picked me up a habit on my way out of Lafayette.
Turning up "East Bound and Down" on the radio, she drives "north on 59, but [she] know[s] good and well [she's] headed south / Cuz [her] and Birmingham don't have a history of working out." The story itself could hardly be simpler: Lambert sings as a person driving because she is out of place everywhere, Louisiana to Alabama, Lubbock, Texas to "all the rest;" she hasn't "unpacked [her] suitcase since the day that [she] turned 21 / it's been a long ten years since then, it's getting kind of cumbersome." The justification that the character makes to herself is equally so: "it ain't love that I'm chasing, but I'm running just in case." It's a song about movement and history, about the American South and a woman who has momentum and inertia and life. There is even a moral, locked into a coda: "I carry them around with me, I don't mind having scars / Happiness ain't prison, but there's freedom in a broken heart."

It's a story where cigarettes fit unbelievably well; the loss of place and the open road, the way that habit or addiction are culminations of history and its oblivion. And it's important that Lambert doesn't lean on them, doesn't even smoke one; they are as real in life as the desire to smoke as they are in the act itself. It's a small thing, and I'm usually averse to these sorts of arguments -- I can easily see myself rolling my eyes at this analysis had I not written it -- but it's one thing among many that makes Lambert so special to me personally.

The joy of The Weight of These Wings, Lambert's new double album, is as much that it is Lambert on form as anything else. But beyond "Runnin' Just in Case" is a full hour and a half of songs that range from incredible to really very good. "We Should Be Friends" is about finding solidarity in your messes, "Pink Sunglasses" a goofy song (that would be incredibly annoying in less capable hands) about the way that changing your literal vision changes your metaphorical outlook; "Vice" as good a single as she's ever produced, from its vinyl-crackle opening that drops into a beautifully full drums and guitars and stabby, smoky synth swell. "Smoking Jacket" is basically a Dolly Parton song that Lambert does perfectly good credit to, which itself is a high bar to reach.

If there's a thing to criticize about The Weight of These Wings, it's that it has significantly more strength on the first disc than the second; the second disc's opening track, "Tin Man," about how the Ozian tin man is lucky to not have a heart, is not nearly as strong as "Runnin' Just in Case." With songs like "Things That Break" and "For the Birds," both goofy little things with some weight, it's still incredibly solid, and incredibly welcome for someone who his inclined towards Lambert's music already, but it doesn't quite measure up, track by track, to the incredible first disc. Track by track is one thing, though; as a full album that runs from beginning to end, the second disc is as valuable as the first in adjusting and elaborating on the tone of the whole, in making it a world unto itself, alive and beautiful.

6. Another Black Hole by Malcolm Holcombe

If the best albums use their opening seconds to indicate what's in store, then Another Black Hole opens with deception. Based on "Sweet Georgia," you might be lead to believe that you're in for a pleasant little twang with a bit of a dark side. It's fitting, in its way; this is an album about dying, and spitting, and not minding how much you hate it.

The spit's literal, and it's remarkable. By "To Get By," Holcombe's already talking respiration: "Too young to buy cigarettes, so I stole them for a friend of mine. / He don't breathe too good these days, but he ain't given up trying." Once "Don't Play Around" hits, Another Black Hole's revealed its true colors; the wet rage with which he pronounces the sibilant fricative in the line "keep my mouth shut" is supplemented by his own belabored breaths throughout. It takes until "Leavin' Anna" for Holcombe to lay it out straight; "Florida sunshine baked my bones, all my life I've been cold. / Bronchitis, Winston cigarettes, I layed in bed alone." It's not some affectation, but it sure is an affect. Hearing a man barely able to breathe is upsetting. Especially when he's using that barely to sing for you.

What takes Another Black Hole to another level is just how that wet rage is used. On "Papermill Man" it's fairly straightforward: "Do you live to eat, do you eat to live for a dollar a day on the river / Damn Vanderbilts hold all the keys to the city." Holcombe's cynical, and all you need to do is listen to his voice to understand how that might be legitimate; but he's also down to take aim at the folks that deserve it over some rock 'n roll. "Leavin' Anna" is more subtle, and also has one of the single best lines I've ever heard in music. "A working man is a working man, makes a delicate flower grow" is such an expansive understanding of labor, and such a beautiful sentiment.

If there's a single criticism of Another Black Hole, it's that I really wanted Holcombe to stretch a little more in the direction of PSF Records-era Mikami Kan. But then even by being reminiscent of Kan, Holcombe's done enough; Another Black Hole is a treasure.

5. Remington by Granger Smith

If QROCC were in the business of giving out awards, Granger Smith's Remington would likely take the first quarter. That's knowing that Lucinda Williams' The Ghosts of Highway 20 is better put together, that Gene Watson's Real. Country. Music. is stronger track by track, that Carrie Rodriguez' Lola is more powerful as a combination of both of those things. But QROCC begins from a place of appreciation for pop country in all its weird bullshit, and Granger Smith sure does do a lot of weird bullshit.

Remington leads with the single, "Backroad Song," which works better here than in the video. It is, honestly, just a good country single, in the sort of way that actually hooks; that there's something off about it, some weird choices that don't quite stick. It's something like how the woo's feel like they were written for a different song and shoved in.

If we're continuing with the claim that Remington's a QROCC award winner, then it's these weirdnesses — these missteps, frankly — that make it. Some are unequivocal fuck ups, like "Echo," which is kind of just a shitty song, and "5 More Minutes," which is a fine little tune that gets overloaded with sentimentality in a way that doesn't work. Making up for that are how bizarre and discomfiting and still completely relatable and enjoyable songs like the title track and "Blue Collar Dollars" are.

This isn't the place to go into a big thing about expectations, but "Blue Collar Dollars" is So Weird. It's a country song about hating your job — which, yeah, of course? — that you had over a summer once. There's tropes to this. Summers are for beach songs or margaritas or first kisses, not blue collar labor. It's the bourgiest fucking country song, and it's on the same album where Smith takes on a dip-chewing alter ego named Earl Dibbles Jr. who claims that "Merica" are "back to back undefeated world war champs" who "sent a man to the moon, and before we're done / we'll probably send one to the sun." And he does all this without ever coming off as condescending to his audience, at least as I read it.

If country as a genre is a working-through of the terms of white working class solidarity, then Remington is either some false-consciousness PSYOP or it's a real exploration of just how internally complicated that can get without even beginning to fracture on its face. The title track itself is horrifying and incredible, in a way that approaches unparalleled. "Remington" starts out as a bizarrely self-aware love song, with a lyrical 'I' that is clearly gendered male that actively desires tenderness. And not only that, but that is expressing its own willingness to be malleable and accommodating to the desires of its partner. This is all, of course, in service of a metaphor; the man in the song is a fucking gun. Everything about "Remington" is such a textbook understanding of masculinity as controlled, explosive violence, but performed in a way that drives directly against that.

This is what the desire for interesting stories in country comes down to; these weird fractures, these moments of sublime confusion. I can't recommend Remington enough to anyone who takes country music seriously, and can appreciate its weirdness.

4. Beyond the Bloodhounds by Adia Victoria

I'm about as certain that Adia Victoria's Beyond the Bloodhounds is the album of the third quarter as I am that I can't find words to put to it. What an incredible album.

3. Pure & Simple by Dolly Parton

I suspect that there are any number of reasons to be a little trepidatious about a Dolly Parton album in 2016. For my part, my appreciation of her is not particularly long-lived, and extends little beyond popular hits and random other pieces of albums, and so I am not entirely sure what her work looks like at this point. Couple that with the cover of this album, and the fact that it's called Pure & Simple, and I really didn't know what to expect. I don't doubt that a Parton album of quiet devotional songs would still be good, but it's not exactly what I come to her for, most of the time. I come to her because she's fucking weird and delightful, and, well, let's just say that Simple & Pure is both of those things and so much more.

There are three songs on worth highlighting, one of which I kind of want to go deep into. So lets get to the other two, first: "I'm Sixteen" and "Kiss It - And Make It All Better."

The first thing about "I'm Sixteen" is that it is an immediately, overwhelmingly joyous song. From the opening doo doo doos on, "Sixteen" is the kind of song that you ought to be hard pressed not to grin through. And it's very much aware of how goofy it is, down to Parton singing "I'm sixteen, don't I look sixteen? You don't have to say, but I feel sixteen!" But what really makes it stand out is how fucking weird it is that there's some dude singing bass on it. Like, he'd just there? Singing backup in a super deep voice? And not really adding anything? It isn't even really about sonic texture or filling a gap or adding flourish, at least not in a way I can tell. There's no way the song wouldn't feel full without him. But he's there, for all the world presented as though it makes total sense for Parton to be singing a goofy song about feeling young through love while some dude just kinda repeats what she says. It's brilliant.

"Kiss It," on the other hand, is a song that's also goofy but, through word choice and through the way it is framed, hints at something much less so. That latter is something that's harder to articulate: Parton's first verse recalls being young and having parents kiss a bruise or scrape or whatever. Except it's not whatever, because she explicitly sings "Scraped scratched or broken / a kiss was a token / that mended and cured every part." The broken's what sticks out, obviously. To some extent it's just a way to rhyme with token, of course, but goddamn. She doesn't say outright that she wasn't taken to a hospital, but that's kind of the subtext? Which you could read a number of ways that I won't get into here, but feel free to imagine some. The point being, though, that Parton doesn't choose to talk about kissing her own children, or talk abstractly, or embody herself at that age, all of which are easily-considered alternate framings. Because the chorus goes like this:
Kiss it and make it all better
kiss me and heal all this hurt.
Kiss me all over and over, all over,
cuz that's where it hurts the worst.
Which is, like, terrifying? Like, jesus. The "kiss me all over and over" particularly. That's really sad and upsetting and true? I don't really know what to say other than goddamn.

And then there's "Can't Be That Wrong," which is, in my opinion, maybe the best song of this year. It's certainly in the running. And because of that, I'm going to do what I often try not to, and talk about it as a thing that exists outside of the vacuum of this album. Because I didn't know about it, really, before hearing it before, but I ended up falling into the rabbit hole of this particular song and being incredibly enamored of how it came to be, and how explicitly it contradicted the narrative I had in my head of this album before hearing it.

First things first: "Can't Be That Wrong" is about being in a bar, contemplating the godliness of cheating on a lover. It's actually a rewrite of her 1984 semi-hit "God Won't Get You," from the soundtrack to her film Rhinestone. The major lyrical difference comes in the chorus: for "That Can't Be Wrong," it goes (in part):
I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' some of those good songs.
But my cheating heart can tell on me tomorrow.
Cuz anything that feels this right can't be that wrong.
as opposed to the chorus of "God Won't Get You:"
And I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' and some of them good songs,
But my cheating heart will tell on me tomorrow.
If you think that God won't get you, well you're wrong.
Parton also puts a pretty fine point on it after the final chorus, with the line "To Hell with Heaven if it means I'll lose you." It's not quite the quiet, devotional Dolly that I figured might emerge out of that album cover, in other words.

Without getting too far into it, "Can't Be That Wrong" is great not only because "God Won't Get You" is a pretty fantastic song on its own, but because of the specific ways in which it was changed to become the new version. The specific change from the moralistic final line of the chorus to the new, permissive one is less about Parton having become less moral in her age and more about committing to the narrative, in my eyes at least. She no longer feels the need to distance herself from the character; instead she simply sings through her, and presents a much more honest, psychologically complex portrait. Which fits perfectly with the idea that this is a song about being confused and feeling betrayed by yourself and God and, at the same time, remaining determined to be true to how you feel. It's just, I can't really say enough positive things about this song.

But then we can zoom out too, and say that even songs that aren't on the level of the three just mentioned are, if not great overall, inclusive of really great moments on their own. "Head Over High Heels" is the kind of conceit for a song that's been done a million times, but Parton's particular exclamatory voice makes that not particularly matter. A lot of the same goes for "Never Not Love You," which combines a really pleasant little banjo line with Parton's patented whisper to impart intimacy and joy into it. There really isn't a single song on that I wouldn't relisten to just for a moment or two in it.

2. The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams

The Ghosts of Highway 20 declares its intentions from the beginning, with guitars panned heavy left and right, trading on washy drive and harmonics before the brushed drums come in. The album's about space and spacing, and the delicacy of the hook — "you couldn't cry if you wanted to" — that precedes the elongated chorus, just "even your thoughts are dust" over and over again. And then, somehow, "Dust" bleeds into a solo that's as delicate and high as you could imagine.

If there's a three song run on Ghosts, it has to be "Death Came," "Doors of Heaven," and "Louisiana Story," the last of which is probably the album's greatest achievement. Like the album as a whole, "Louisiana Story" is on paper overlong, but in practice absolutely gorgeously paced, exactly as lackadaisical and meandering as it needs to be. With a chorus that could be onomatopoeized as "wuhhhh, wuhhh" and lyrics like "On a good day, mama'd make us sweet coffee milk. / On a bad day she'd cuss when something got spilt," it isn't that the nine minutes fly by, but that they all feel earned. Coming after the blues-rocky demand of "Doors of Heaven" to "open up the doors of heaven and let me in / I think I'm finally tired of living, let me in" and the almost twinkly guitars of "Death Came," "Louisiana Story" somehow exists as both culmination and respite, simultaneously.

Williams' cover of Springsteen's "Factory" is likely the 'a-ha' moment of the album, in uncovering how and what it means. Springsteen's original is intentionally abstracted, especially geographically; the whole point is to tell the story of working men, regardless of place of work. Williams, without changing a lyric, makes it sound like the most situated song ever written. There's a weight to this change; what once was a song that potentially signaled for class solidarity against geography is made to become something less universal. But then, being situated is hardly a disavowal of universality in favor of particularity, as though being in space was for the local and against the global. And much of what allows her cover to feel as it does has to do with her voice.

If there's a critique of country music singing, it's that it can tend toward the impenetrable in a way that isn't apparently aesthetic. The twang never gets to be an expression of anything other than the whole, which is Country, as if it was nothing other than a note struck on the banjo. It's always more than that too, of course, a performative marker of race and class and gender and histories, and of broadly-held beliefs and material relations to all of these things.

Coupled with ideas of how music is appreciated, how good or impressive singers are the ones who stretch words or syllables to the breaking point of unintelligibility — whether in terms of length, alteration, pitch, whatever — without breaking, and the deck's rigged from the jump. Twang doesn't count toward that point; it's always already past it, and already also tangential to it. You can modulate it with smoke or technique all you want, make it mellifluous or distinctively grating, age-worn or infantilized; short of sanding it down, nothing really changes.

The easy thing would be to say that Lucinda Williams just doesn't give a damn. The reality's more complicated, of course. The relative absence of banjos and mandolins and fiddles changes the textures of class and history on Ghosts. And that's how the factory moves from rallying cry to space; in the timbre of Williams' voice, in the quality of the stories she tells, the ghosts aren't the dead. They're the spaces full of living, and absence.

1. Lola by Carrie Rodriguez

Lola opens with one of three songs sung entirely in Spanish — one of four songs that are entirely monolingual — and closes with the same. Rodriguez referred to Lola in interviews as a "TexMex" album, which is true insofar as it is sung throughout in admixed Spanish and English, but that framing is key; listening to Lola, the first and final is the former, not the latter.

Which is part of why songs like "Z" and "The West Side" (the latter the aforementioned English exclusive) hit so hard; when Rodriguez sings in English, it is always fraught with Othering. And that's used with all the ambivalence that lived experience demands; in "Z," for instance, she ventroloquizes her grandmother in the chorus, saying,
Not everybody's gonna spell your name right honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee,
But you can just sing 'em a song, hija mia,
Tell country music where to put the 'Z'
"The West Side" is even more blunt: "You are welcome here, but remember dear / that you are different in every way." It's, at least in the first quarter of 2016, not easy to find an honest appraisal of race in country music; on the one hand are the Dickinson's with their anxiety of influence, on the other the Upchurch's with their, well [racism -ed note].

There is a reading of the chorus of "Z" that sees it as vindictive, but something about how it rocks the drums mixed with the way the guitar loves its single slow strum, sustained, that makes the whole thing sound unambiguously like a good time. Which in turn makes the argument a little more nuanced; "Z" is as much a song about how visibility on its own is at best worthless against microaggressions, at best only an exacerbator.

The worst thing I can think to say of Lola is that it might be a bit heavy on ballads for some. It's a milquetoast criticism, given how important the sense of space is to the album; that "TexMex" means country and ranchero rhythms mixed together as much as it does the two languages, and the result is that it has plenty of space to stretch its legs. The slower songs might not be as immediately gratifying as something like "Z," but they contribute to and capitalize on the whole aesthetic.

On the other hand, though: Lola is an incredible, incredible album, that I can't recommend highly enough.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Top 10 Games of 2016

10. Final Fantasy XV by Square Enix

I played maybe just under a dozen hours of Final Fantasy XV at the top of this new year, under conditions of being at my old house and using my friend's PS4. So basically I tried to run through as much of it as I could as quickly as possible, which didn't feel like how I wanted to play it at all. I didn't understand the combat at all, I did almost no side missions, and I didn't even get very far. I still thought it was pretty great.

Mostly what I thought about, because it was still the Big News at the time, was the storytelling. Twitter and publications and podcasts let me know that I would understand nothing about nothing if I hadn't seen the movie and watched the anime, and I'd done neither. Around a half dozen hours in, my friend explained the plot in full to me, having beat the game. My reaction was largely that the game did a good job of conveying everything he'd said, excepting a bunch of bullshit fantasy names of people, places, and trinkets. My suspicions are that people didn't get it because they didn't want to, mostly, or maybe that they're big rude jerks.

Anyway, someone send me a PS4 and this game please.

9. Virginia by Variable State

The thing about Virginia is its use of jump cuts. You could, I suppose, enjoy it as a Twin Peaks/X-Files inspired narrative, but I don't think it uses its material particularly well. You could also dismiss it as an overwrought Thirty Flights of Loving (which, to be fair, I hadn't played until after I played Virginia), but there's a fundamental difference in scope that makes that comparison untenable.

As far as medium-to-large budget walking simulators go, I think Virginia is probably the best of this year; even though its lack of speech is mostly a crutch and the low-poly style isn't particularly well executed, the environmental design is incredibly strong and the movement -- including cuts -- works pretty perfectly. I also really appreciate that they frame the game as a DVD, which is a more intentional choice than I think they got credit for, and a very good one.

8. Pokémon Moon by Game Freaks

The first Pokémon game I played since, I don't know, Gold, maybe? is good as heck.

7. Let it Die by Grasshopper Manufacture

Let it Die would likely be much higher on this list if I'd had more time with it, but I opted to spend my limited PS4 time trying out The Last Guardian (which seemed good but it kind of confirmed that there's a reason I've never gone out of my way to play Ico, as much as I adore Shadow of the Colossus) and getting through about half of Final Fantasy XV. Let it Die is so good though.

As a defender of late pre-GungHo Grasshopper Manufacture, though (Liberation Maiden especially, but also Sine Mora and Killer is Dead to different extents), maybe that's not surprising. In some ways, I expected to kind of hate Let it Die; I've never played either No More Heroes game or Shadows of the Damned or Lollipop Chainsaw; Killer is Dead is the only game-ass game of Grasshopper's I've actually played, and I like that game a lot more for the colors than anything else. I do love messy, shitty third-person action games -- Snowblind Studios is probably my favorite developer and I only say "shitty" because I don't want to yell for a thousand words -- at the same time, but the only roguelike I didn't immediately bounce off of was Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup (and that took me over a year to get into in tiny fits and starts). In other words: I have no idea what I'm talking about, or what I really expected.

What I got with Let it Die was exactly the kind of game I actually want to play; something that has enough cool shit around the edges to dive into if I feel like it, something that has combat that feels good but also is kind of mindless, and a structure that allows for repetitive play that can be done with multiple levels of (dis)interest. This is actually the game I want you to send me a PS4 for.

6. Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe

I spent more time playing Stardew Valley this year than anything else -- well over a hundred hours -- and I really would prefer that there were better things to put on this list. It's the kind of game that I immediately disliked when I started playing it, seeing it as so obsessed with the proliferation of #content that it failed to deliver on anything. I eventually got over that when I started using it as a vehicle to listen to music with and trying to find my own fun, and that worked for a while. But then it just worked too well to listen to music to, and so I racked up those hundred plus hours doing menial bullshit with garbage balance. I still haven't finished the museum because I guess one of the artifacts that's supposed to have a 4% drop rate just doesn't spawn in some towns or something.

Which, even if we assume that's a glitch, isn't so much a problem in itself as it is a thing that (re)illuminates what kind of sucks about Stardew Valley to begin with. The repetitive busy-work aspect is great, but the focus on #content is the killer. Whatever. It's pretty good.

5. Thumper by Drool

I've never been good at rhythm games, and Thumper is no exception. I really love them though.

Mostly, Thumper is on this list because level 1-13 might be the best single level of a rhythm game I've ever played. I feel up and down about the rest of the game as a whole, and largely stopped playing it within a week or so of getting it, but god fucking damn that level.

4. Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch is a pretty good game, y'all.

3. Tap My Katamari by Bandai Namco

I only really played the original version of Tap My Katamari, the one that was soft-launched on the New Zealand app store at the beginning of the year. I spent a few minutes with the full version a few months after release, and it was in many ways a different game, but the core of it was still there.

When I wrote about Tap My Katamari in February, it was with a special emphasis on the fact that I had played the game sufficiently to fear I was developing an RSI. Alongside the ways that Katamari Damacy was initially interpreted and intended as a critique of consumerism -- and my own feeling that such critiques are fundamentally useless at best -- Tap My Katamari came to me to be a sort of practice. I said then that "[t]here is no phenomenology of film that can make you aware of just how often your wrists are required in daily life," and how "[t]his demand -- that the body mutate to the desires of the software -- is still not an analysis, but it is at least a reflection that does not demand a moralism. If the consumer society is unique, then it is unique in its demands on bodies; not to produce, but to watch the numbers keep going up."

If Katamari Damacy stems from a moral stance on consumerism, in other words, Tap My Katamari is a repudiation of that stance. In the ways that make it a hypocritical object, sure, but more importantly in ways that it forces the player to live in the world the way that they do live in the world, not the way that they should.

2. Final Fantasy Brave Exvius by gumi, inc.

Final Fantasy Brave Exvius is a free-to-play mobile JRPG, and it is both of these things in full. 'Active' turn-based battles bleed into energy hooks bleed into level grind bleeds into card-game cannibalization mechanics bleeds into melodramatic story bleeds into server reimbursement garbage bleeds into one of the most holistic critiques of capitalism as a social order available in a medium that literally can't be anything else.

To call Final Fantasy Brave Exvius strategic in its failures would ascribe it an intention I have no interest in, but that is very much how it feels. Most notably in the ways it fails to replicate the energy structure of a Candy Crush or a Puzzles & Dragons, instead opting for what feels like a straight asymptote; the early game is easily played to your hearts content, the late game impossible to progress reasonably through. As a kid who played JRPGs largely by burning through them until I got burned out (which is to say largely never finishing them, including Final Fantasy VII (which I sometimes call my favorite game of all time still) until year and years later), this feels less like a predatory action in itself and more like an externalization or systematization of the affect of playing these kinds of games. As does the cruft of free-to-play mechanics, from cannibalizing units for experience to the use of gems to the constant, incomprehensible special event being run.

1. Anatomy by Kitty Horrorshow

It wasn't long after playing Anatomy that I kind of burned out on smaller games, and became mostly interested in playing things that would simply allow me to listen to music while performing repetitive actions. Part of that was because of my starting work on QROCC; part of it was because Anatomy hit me in a way that was exactly what I wanted from these kinds of games.

Anything I try to write about Anatomy will likely just be a retread of the piece I wrote at the beginning of the year, and while it could use some edits, I'm not in a spot to do that. The gist of it is that Anatomy is a horror game that uses not only the game but the executable itself to create horror; it is a game that crystallizes and rewards familiarity with Kitty Horrorshow's work to this point, which is some of the most vital work happening in games, and; it is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant haunted house.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Top 10 Rap EPs of 2016

10. Wriggle by clipping.

I'd somehow never actually listened to clipping. prior to this EP, and as far as introductions go it's not a bad one. It makes sense that they'd get grouped with folks like Death Grips and Run the Jewels, and even with an EP that I'm not over the moon about I think they're likely better than both (excepting "Guillotine" from Death Grips, which is the only song from this new noise rap shit that I'm really about, despite noise rap being Kind Of Exactly What I Want All The Time).

9. Maiden Voyage by Signor Benedick the Moor

A long, intricate track about life and anger and saying goodbye on a maiden voyage, followed by an aggressive four minutes of sparring with Jonathan Snipes & Daveed Diggs makes a pretty solid EP.

8. Double Ecstasy by Antwon

Antwon's been good for a minute now, and he stays good. More than anything this EP is a wrapper around some really fucking nasty kicks. The goofy joke of beeping out the titular word of "Luv" like it was a swear is a pretty good encapsulation, especially given how unforgiving the song itself is.

7. Cam & China by Cam & China

That beautifully thick bass holds together this really solid effort from these two MCs. From trap drums to Wu-Tang piano loops to drill church bells, Cam & China's self-titled's in theory a mess of styles that doesn't stumble. "That B" and "Playets" especially hit.

6. Untitled by Prodigy

I haven't exactly been following Prodigy's career closely, so apologies if you have and this is not a surprise but: holy fuck this Dubstep Ass EP from Mobb Deep's own. Full on moody depths and screaming highs and Prodigy just putting down exactly what he needs to and no more.

5. Solid by Z-Ro

Z-Ro dropped two real solid records this year, but his EP is easily his best release. It's got "Legendary," which is definitely his best single from this year, and "Thru the Roof" is a fucking wild collaboration with B.G. It's seven songs of the Houston legend shining and it's delightful.

4. Mongo by Abdu Ali

There isn't a lot to say about Mongo other than that it fucking bangs. And it's the kind of shit you listen to to have your faith renewed. And that it's near perfect. And how the fuck is "Did Dat" even real, that's how good it is.

3. There's Alot Going On by Vic Mensa

There's Alot Going On isn't the tightest record on this list, but it has the hardest hitter. "16 Shots" is a wild fucking song that deserves all the superlatives. Mensa keeps fire in his voice on "Danger," and has a good time fucking around on tracks like "Liquor Locker," and that range is crucial and fun.

2. Prima Donna by Vince Staples

Prima Donna mixes Staples' more experimentally-inclined raps with low fi recordings of him singing, but the possibility of that being peaceful is shattered (with a very loud gunshot) at the end of the first track.

Screwed up Andre 3000 verses and thick sine waves and overdriven guitar samples wrap around Staples' lazy tight rhymes when he isn't singing. It's the kind of record that boils furiously just under its placid surface.

1. Us or Else by T.I.

T.I. in full on 'fuck a platinum plaque' mode is inspiring as fuck. There's so much about this EP to love. More than anything is its refusal to make peace with white listeners: from T.I.'s flow and pronunciation to the way he treats his subjects -- primarily topics around and including Black Lives Matter -- it's a tight collection of songs that gives no quarter to anyone who would quibble on semantics or refuse the movements basic premise.

"Warzone" is the obvious standout, with its chorus of "hands up can't breathe," but there isn't a single track here that doesn't go. Whether he's calling for justice or calling in folks who aren't down to ride against cops, it's everything.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

10. Like for Likes (dir. Park Hyeon-Jin)

Like for Likes is a South Korean romantic comedy about old people using Facebook and I thought it was pretty alright? Which is a strong enough recommendation for me I think.

9. The Boy (dir. William Brent Bell)

As someone who has no love for doll horror (with the exception of mannequins in giallo, maybe), The Boy looked like a real boring shitshow. And having finally watched (at least some of) James Wan's Dead Silence this year, I was especially primed to be completely uninterested in this movie; if someone as good as Wan was unable to even give me an example of this genre that really worked, who the hell is William Brent Bell to do it? The answer, as it turns out, is that he's nobody I particularly care about, and this movie didn't change my predilections at all. What it does do is have a really dope house, and a really stupid conclusion that I really liked.

The basic premise is that a couple hires a woman to nanny for them, but the boy she's nannying is a doll. But the doll seems like it's alive. But then, spoilers, it isn't. This is the only possible good twist for a movie with this plot, which is points. The real appeal, though, is the pretty darkness within the frame (literal; the color palette looks nice) and the way that the movie refuses to half-step. It's nowhere near the final shot of [rec], but it's close enough to mention that movie, if that makes sense. Not necessarily in terms of visual effects but in terms of turning a relatively dull genre film with a good eye into something genuinely memorable and exciting to have watched.

8. The Mermaid (dir. Stephen Chow)

I hope you know who Stephen Chow is, and I hope you've seen The Mermaid. It's not the best movie ever, and it hardly sticks (with me at least). But come on. This fucking movie.

7. A Violent Prosecutor (dir. Lee Il-Hyung)

Lee Il-Hyung's directorial debut is mostly a tight political thriller about the justice system, from the perspective of a wronged asshole prosecutor who gets put in prison. The broad strokes of the film, and the way in which they are played out, are pretty good, albeit not all that memorable or exciting.

The thing that puts A Violent Prosecutor on this list is the inciting event; a protest against development of, as Wikipedia puts it, "ecologically significant land." The way the whole movie hinges on the events of a few protestors squatting on some land that capital wants to develop is a pretty fucking cool hinge, and how that minor, failed action radiates through politics at the level of the criminal justice system and the electoral system is super fascinating, if in a somewhat utopian way.

6. Phantom Detective (dir. Jo Sung-Hee)

Phantom Detective is a movie whose main character is the Korean Robin Hood (Hong Gil-Dong; a different story but one with similarities) that does So Much. It does entirely too much, really; it feels like it runs five hours and contains a half dozen discrete films, and doesn't bother to glue them together in a way that feels holistic. It's a complete shitshow, in other words, and I can't possibly recommend watching it. Except it's also the best.

5. SORI: Voice from the Heart (dir. Lee Ho-Jae)

SORI: Voice from the Heart is a film about an artificially intelligent satellite that crash lands onto Earth, and a man who lost his daughter a decade ago who forms a relationship to the robot when it offers to help him find her. It's a film about American imperialism and how it manifests both in endless war and the flexing of soft power, and about grief and bonds in ways that leverage sentimentality without concluding within it.

SORI is Lee Ho-Jae's first film since 2009's The Scam, which itself was a movie about day traders at a hell of a time to make a movie about the stock market. It's maybe a stretch to call either movie out and out leftist -- both are mostly concerned with individuals and their own paths of redemption, primarily -- but not out of the realm of possibility, which is nice.

To be completely honest, SORI is a movie that I thought at the time had neat moments but was largely unremarkable; it's only in the months since I watched it that it has made a real impression on me. What I thought would be the stuff that washed out the rest ended up ebbing itself, leaving only the moments of strong visuals and the exciting turns that moved it away from its own liberalism. I don't know that it's a great movie to watch, but I think it's a great movie to have seen, which I value a lot.

4. Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (dir. Lee Joon-Ik)

Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet is a black and white biopic about Yun Dong-ju, a leftist poet from Korea who went to university in Japan and was locked up there -- and died -- before his work was published. The film largely concerns the poet and his friend, who is more directly involved in leftist resistance against the Imperial Japanese Army and capitalism, and their attempts to live within those acts of resistance. It is a beautiful film, full of contemplative moments and petty ones, and it uses the lack of color well.

Mostly, though, it is beautiful in its serious consideration of a life of resistance.

3. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

The scene where the young punks play "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" to a room full of Nazis somehow manages to be poignant and energizing, rather than as cringe-worthy as I assumed it would be going in. Add to that little miracle the tight camera work, Patrick Stewart, dead Nazis, and some pleasing kitsch about punks and you've got a pretty fucking cool movie.

2. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

The Handmaiden is, and I suppose you'll know this if you're familiar at all with the film, a movie about sex. It is about sex as intimacy and transformative power, and it is about sex as control and prurient fantasy. It is parts of Salò and parts of Teorema in one movie, brought together well.

From the perspective of a Park Chan-Wook film, it is more Stoker than Vengeance trilogy, but with hints of I'm A Cyborg, but That's OK. And that's not to say it's without a feeling of continuity from Lady Vengeance, specifically. It is, in other words, a continuation of the style he has been developing for some time now, and that he is very, very good at.

The Handmaiden is, I think, one of Park Chan-Wook's most accomplished films. I think it's also something I'm not in love with, or at least wasn't after seeing it once. It might well gain only on further viewings. And starting at one of the strongest films from one of the best contemporary directors, that should feel impossible.

1. Spirits' Homecoming (dir. Cho Jung-Rae)

Spirits' Homecoming is a film about comfort women. It is one that ranges between near-explicit depictions of the systematized abduction and rapes they experienced, and a sentimentality and melodrama about their lives that puts it in the realm of a very well-funded and well made Hallmark Channel or Lifetime film. It is also couched in a frame narrative about ghosts that works, at least in my memory, extraordinarily well. It's the kind of ghost/spirit story that is in many ways a very transparent, hokey narrative device, but that invests itself with such seriousness and materiality that it pushes through those things to become something truly remarkable.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top 10 Rap Albums of 2016

10. T.I. - Us or Else: Letter to the System

The full album version of T.I.'s near-perfect EP Us or Else doesn't quite live up to the earlier, but it also has a different goal. The format and the subtitle make that clear; instead of talking directly to his people, Us or Else: Letter to the System broadens T.I.'s audience to include people he feels like he needs to persuade, or at least confront.

9. Tachyon Ghetto Blaster - Heaven on Earth

NB: I went back and forth re: posting this in a forthcoming list because I've chatted with Kaigen a few times, and the artist bio he uses is still the one I wrote for him a few years back. I opted for this instead because 1) I like the fuck out of this album and 2) why not, I hardly know him (or Orko Eloheim at all).

Heaven on Earth is Kaigen and Orko Eloheim's debut EP, rapped in English and Japanese, and full of the kind of shitkicking bass and revolutionary lyrics that Death Grips and Run The Jewels only gesture toward unconvincingly. It rules.

8. K-Rino - The Big Seven

Houston went in this year. Two solid Z-Ro albums, two releases from Trae the Truth, two from Riff Raff and two from Slim Thug. And then there's 7 in one day from K-Rino.

The most remarkable thing about The Big Seven is just how consistent it is; Rino apparently wrote and recorded the albums over the course of about a year, and while there are definitely songs that suck, none of them are because he lets his standards drop. That's six and a half straight hours where K-Rino doesn't choose a single beat he can't quite ride, or write lazy in a way he can't deliver. And even though little of The Big Seven rises above that level of consistency to be something truly special, when it does it's pretty cool.

The most obvious example is when K-Rino is rapping about the Wizard and the Sorcerer; he goes into full storytelling mode, and his ability to consistently weave words gets complimented by a focus that takes him to a higher level. K-Rino also seems especially comfortable over Anno Domini beats (who are, as far as I can tell, a beat farm) that lean toward almost drill-style oppressive bells. In the right elements, his consistency becomes not a faint praise but a real asset.

On the other hand, K-Rino's got some shit he feels strongly about, and talks about so often, that makes it hard to go all in for him. These range from your run of the mill conspiracist tendencies like fluoride and chemtrails to complaining about how he gets labeled anti-Semitic because he likes to point out how Jews run the world or whatever. In a lot of ways its less disappointing than it should be, as in line as it is with a lot of rap that trends conscious. On the other hand, it's enough to put a damper on the whole project. Let's do a quick album by album:

  • Universal Curriculum is an album that reaches and explores styles, with a slight focus on sentimentality.
  • Conception of Concept has some hard shit on it, and some fun shit too.
  • Enter the Iron Trap is K-Rino's polemical album, from the pedantic "T.B.E." to the political "Exposing the Motive" and the historical "Elijah," and "Keepin' Your Name Alive," so much of it is an argument.
  • Wizard's Ransom is, appropriately, a speculative album, in the obvious way -- there's another story of a magical battle in the title track -- but also in the way that "If I Had" and "Game for Your Daughter" are of the genre of pretending K-Rino has children to pass advice on to.
  • American Heroes is a weird one, focused on broader America: BLM songs like "Administrative Leave," alternative histories (not in the speculative fiction sense) like "American Heroes," and paeans to straight cops like "Good Cop." God dammit "Translation" is probably the epitome of his -- and most -- conscious rap shit, full of good shit and then also lines like "question Jewish lies? that's anti-Semitism" and whatever that shit was about vaccines.
  • Welcome to Life is the advice album, and is significantly more confusing than it appears at first blush. Especially "Same Old Same," track 5 of album 6 of 7 that's about how rap tends to repeat its themes that is somehow not unironic, and "Abortion Song," which I assumed was just going to be gross but has a little more nuance to it.
  • Intervention is somehow the most consistent album of all seven, and includes the Wizard's final battle and a pretty decent thirteen minute posse cut.

7. Sasha Go Hard - Nutty World 3

Sasha Go Hard has been a staple, as far as I'm concerned, for the last three or four years. Of her two mixtapes this year, The Realest I Know has more straightforward hits, but Nutty World 3's consistent production that hits hard as fuck makes for a better whole.

6. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

The fucked up thing about Atrocity Exhibition is that it kind of falls flat as an album. If you take it as a sorta conceptual whole with a unified aesthetic, at least. For something that seems like it ought to live or die on the appreciation of an aesthetic concept, that should be a death sentence; but the actual thing about Atrocity Exhibition is that its insistence is less about crafting a whole, and more about carving out space for some incredibly dope shit. "Really Doe," "Ain't It Funny," "Pneumonia" and "When It Rain" are all such incredibly good songs that absolutely wouldn't work without the rest of the album not quite working. Atrocity Exhibition is a controlled crash that serves up some beautiful shots, and those shots end up standing head and shoulders above most things that came out this year, including albums that were better than it.

5. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book

The degree to which Coloring Book is about faith is something that I think has been talked about a lot, and it is good and true. The reason I really, really love it, though, is because it is a collection of people who really fucking love rapping. There's Chance the Rapper first and foremost, but then D.R.A.M. and Thug and Yachty, T-Pain and Noname and 2 Chainz and fucking Weezy, who is the best of all time. At rapping, of course, but especially at being happy to be rapping, because he so clearly is, no matter how he's doing it. And I don't really know that I can give something higher praise than that.

4. TT the Artist - Queen of the Beat

Baltimore came through in 2016, and TT the Artist is exemplary of that. A massive Baltimore Club showpiece, Queen of the Beat almost has a Trina meets Big Freedia vibe. More than anything, really, it's just a bunch of really dope music, with a dope rapper going in over it.

3. D.R.A.M. - Big Baby D.R.A.M.

There are big chunks of Big Baby D.R.A.M. that I'll likely skip whenever I listen to it in the future -- much of the album trends R&B more than I personally care for -- but the stuff it does well is such a celebration of rap and such a fun thing to listen to that I can't help but adore it. ""Broccoli"" with Lil Yachty is the breakout single, but ""Cash Machine"" is the best fucking single of 2016 without a close second, period.

There's also just some shit on this record that I enjoy. The bonus track ""Workaholic"" is a good example; it's pretty whatever in a lot of ways, except that it sounds like swagger at a sprint. Or the fact that "Sweet Va Breeze" feels genuinely weird with its cuts and whole vibe. It's the kind of closing song that makes how uneven the whole album leading to it was feel, if not intentional, at least acknowledged and ignored.

2. DJ Khaled - Major Key

If Coloring Book is a mixtape that works so well on its merits as a love of the act of rapping, Major Key is an album from the man who has made a career of it without really doing it himself. I've largely not seen Khaled's social media resurgence from the last year or two, but he's been instrumental in bringing together people who do the goddamn thing well and with love for a decade or more. He's a key figure in the '08 renaissance, when pop rap moved on from the circle of interchangeable, technically competent dudes to become the thing that it is today; Lil B may be the father to too many styles, but Khaled's the uncle who rounded up those kids and made sure they played and grew together.

Khaled's uncle-status is important because it gives him an in with so many people; he's never really had to inherit beef the same way peers or the head of a master-apprentice relationship has to. He's always been a bridge builder, for better and worse (I blame the entirety of Rick Ross' success on the man). So when he says "another one," you better fucking listen.

A lot of what makes Major Key so incredible is the way it pushes its participants. Take Kendrick's verse on "Holy Key," which starts out pretty sub-par until it ratchets up and becomes one of his best features in a year full of pretty strong appearances. Or take the fucking Final Fantasy arpeggiation for Travis Scott and Lil Wayne on "Tourist," which gives both opportunities to switch their shit up in ways they're both very good at. Or, the most obvious and outstanding, the way that "Nas Album Done" is a fucking Nas song with a contemporary beat that the dude goes fucking in over. Being completely frank, "Nas Album Done" is good enough that it alone is enough to push this whole album near the top of the list; the fact that he pushes people to new levels -- including a fucking track with Wiz Khalifa, Wale, and Meghan Trainor that isn't unlistenable -- adds to that, as does the album cover and the goofy, fun insistence on the theme. But fuck, man, "Nas Album Done."

1. 2 Chainz - ColleGrove

I've promised in the past that I wouldn't publish the 5,000 words I wrote about Wayne's 2015, so I'll keep the embarrassing shit to myself here, too. I'll leave it at the fact that Wayne's split from Cash Money has seen him alternately killing it and doing really important base (re)building in a way he has been doing all along, but hasn't had to do actively in like a decade. It's fucking great and inspiring and he just loves skating and hates cops and he's the best.

ColleGrove is 2 Chainz' album because of that split, but the collaboration is super important. The first song is basically just tity telling everyone how much he loves Wayne, and the rest is Weezy making sure 2 Chainz does his absolute best. It's such a fun, expressive thing, so focused on building together and enjoying and rematerializing history in the present to keep moving forward. It's a love of rapping that is situated and storied and there's a music video where Wayne and 2 Chainz are rap battling like its 8 Mile and it's the cutest thing I've ever seen.

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