Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Favorite Songs of 2012

Here are my favorite songs of 2012, in no particular order

El-P, "The Full Retard"

Killer Mike, "Big Beast"

Rick Ross, "Hold Me Back"

La Sera "Break My Heart"

Burial, "Kindred"

Kendrick Lamar, "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe"

Babies, "Alligator"

Quakers featuring Guilty Simpson and MED, "Fitta Happier"

Evian Christ, "Fuck It None of Y'all Don't Rap"

Death Grips, "Get Got"

Brother Ali, "Work Everyday"

Ceremony, "Citizen"

Favorite Albums of 2012

2012 was a big year. It started with the birth of my nephew, my apartment almost being burned down, and the death of my grandmother. In May, my wife and I found out we were expecting and bought a house within a 24-hour period. I moved out of San Francisco, my home for 19 years, to the East Bay. I finished a Master's degree. I grew professionally. And through it all I managed to write a review or two a week. Every year I wonder if I am too old to listen to hip-hop anymore. The answer I came up with this year is yes and no. There is a lot of rap music that I am too old to listen to. Street rap like Chief Keef or King Louis is too nihilistic for my old man ears. Club rap like Pitbull is too far removed from my life. I am far past the age of popping bottles in clubs. In fact, I never was at that age.

There was a lot of music that spoke to me, though. For one thing, a lot of thirtysomethings put out solid albums in 2012. Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, El-P, Killer Mike, Guilty Simpson, and Oddisee all released excellent albums that showed a depth and maturity that you don't see in younger rappers. Unless that younger rapper is Kendrick Lamar, who released one of the best albums of the year. "Good kid M.A.A.D. city managed to walk the perfect line between mainstream rap and backpack rap, conscious rap and gangsta rap. It's a bummer that so many of his songs are so foul-mouthed. The album has been 86'ed by my wife because it is so full of profanity.

I'm going to have a daughter in early 2013, and I'm not sure how that will impact the music I listen to. I can't imagine a baby being into noisy music, and I can't see myself listening to profanity-laced rap music around my kid. I'm already wondering if I should start buying the edited versions of albums so that I can play them around the house.

I spent a lot of the year stressed out and studying, so listened to a fair amount of mellow music. Much of that took the form of old jazz albums, but I also explored ambient music and instrumental music. I'm especially enamored with the so-called instrumental hip-hop coming out of Los Angeles's Low End Theory scene - Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Nosaj Thing, etc. I'm not really seeing the connection to hip-hop, but it is some of the more interesting electronic music being made today.

I didn't listen to a lot of new punk or indie rock this year. I'm not sure why. I liked the albums by Metz and Ceremony well enough, but they didn't make my heavy rotation. I've downloaded the Tame Impala record everyone loves but haven't listened to it enough to make up my mind about. My favorite albums were side projects by two members of the Vivian Girls. I'm not a huge fan of the Vivian Girls, but I loved the new albums by La Sera and the Babies. I also loved Grizzly Bear's Shields, despite my efforts to hate it for its utter pretentiousness and preciousness.

Here's a list of some of my favorite new albums of 2012, in alphabetical order.

Aesop Rock, Skelethon
Babies, Our House On the Hill
Brother Ali, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color
Burial, Kindred EP. 
Death Grips, The Money Store/No Love Deep Web
El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes
Gaslamp Killer, Breakthrough
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, M.A.A.D city
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
La Sera, Sees the Light
Quakers s/t

Iron Lyon Review

I reviewed Iron Lyon's "From the Ground Up" last week on RapReviews. I should have a best-of up there soon.

The review is here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Too Much Music

I've been reviewing records for RapReviews for five years now. If I average four reviews a month, that means I've reviewed around 250 albums for the site. That's a lot. I've begun deleted a lot of those files from my hard drive and throwing away many of the promos. My original thinking was that I wanted to archive everything - who knows when I'll want to listen to that Crew54 album I reviewed four years ago. But I've come to realize I don't have time to listen to all this shit. I have almost 10,000 songs on my iPod. It would take me over a month to listen to all of them, assuming I listened for twelve hours a day. And honestly, a lot of the stuff I review I don't really need to revisit, even if I like it.

One of my current musical goals is to have every Beatles and John Coltrane studio album. I'm close on the Beatles: I'm just missing their first two and Sgt. Peppers. For Coltrane I have some work to do. The Beatles released eleven albums, Coltrane somewhere in the twenties or thirties, so he has more territory to cover. I also want to actually LISTEN to all of his albums. I'm familiar with all the Beatles. Coltrane's work takes concentration. I've owned "Ole" for over a year and just recently started really getting it. 

Every year I say that I'm going to buy less music, and every year I fail at that goal. I am trying to be more honest about what I can listen to and what I am going to want to listen to in my free time. It's hard to fight my natural inclination to want to hear everything, even if I know I'll never be able to truly absorb it.

I'm convinced that many of the most loved albums from the past fifty years are loved in part because people spent so much time with them. If you only listened to Abbey Road a few times on your iPod, I'm not sure it would have the same impact as it did to the people who listened to it over and over again, in its entirety. I wonder if that means that the music we admire the most twenty or forty years from now will be songs rather than albums. Who listens to entire albums, and how many times do they listen to them? 

Reggae Golden Jubilee Review

I reviewed the new box set Reggae Golden Jubilee on RapReviews this week. It's a four-disc set that goes from the earliest days of ska and rocksteady, through the roots reggae 70s, the dancehall 80s, and beyond. The first three discs (through the 80s) were fantastic, even if there is some overlap with other compilations, including VP's own Out of Many compilation released earlier this year. I wasn't as in love with the final disc, which concentrated on contemporary reggae. I didn't really need to hear Sean Paul again, you know?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What I'm Listening to

I'm in the middle of writing my final school paper, a hectic end of year period at work, going on vacations and conferences, and preparing for some massive (positive) life changes. As always dub and punk rock are helping me mitigate and manage the stress. I'm really happy with Metz's new self-titled disc on Sub Pop. It's lean, muscular punk that is catchy as hell, not unlike Hot Snakes.

The other artists helping me make it through is Big Youth. I can't ever understand a word he says, but for some reason his chatting always manages to calm me down and put me in a good mood.

And if that doesn't work, a little Duke Ellington or John Coltrane is sure to do the trick. Especially if they are together.

RoyceBIRTH and Guilty Simpson Reviews

I reviewed Apollo Brown and Guilty Simpson's Dice Game this week on RapReviews. I've been a fan of Guilty since hearing him on some tracks back in 2007, and I'm happy to see him progressing (just a little) as an artist. Apollo Brown is a consistently good producer, and this disc is definitely worth check out.

I also reviewed royceBIRTH's "TheREBIRTH."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tricky and Flying Lotus Review

I reviewed Tricky's 1996 album  Pre-Millennium Tension for RapReviews last week. It remains one of my favorite albums ever, even if the second half drags.

I also reviewed Flying Lotus's Until the Quiet Comes. I always enjoy what Flying Lotus puts down.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Death Grips and Zion I Review

I reviewed Death Grips' latest album No Love Deep Web on RapReviews a few weeks ago. This album was released as a free download after their label said they didn't want to release two albums by them in one year. You can download it for free at their website,, but be warned: the cover of the album is  a photo of an erect penis with the album title written on it in sharpie. I replaced the picture with one of John Travolta on my iTunes. I don't need to be having pornographic images on my iPod.

I may like the new album better than The Money Store. It's the same thing - jagged electronic beats with Ride rap/yelling about getting wasted. The formula could go so wrong so easily - it's not that far removed from Limp Bizkit. But there is a realness and a sense of actual danger in their music that makes it work. It's not something I can listen to all the time, but there are definitely days when what I need is something noisy and angry.

I also reviewed Oakland hip-hop act Zion I's new album Shadowboxing While it's the same formula of a lot of hip-hop I've been enjoying recently - rapping over electronic production - I was not feeling it. I wanted to like it because they are local boys, but I did not enjoy it.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Wretch 32 Review

I reviewed British rapper Wretch 32's Wretchersize last week on RapReviews.  My favorite track was opener "Hold Me Back," which features Wretch rhyming over an Evian Christ song. Evian Christ has a free mixtape which I've been enjoying. I love the combination of Southern rap and electronic music. There's always been an avant-garde element to Southern hip-hop production, and it's nice to hear artists from outside that world mess with the template.

I've also been working on reviews for the new Death Grips and Roots Manuva's debut. I'm trying to get through the new Grizzly Bear, but so far haven't had the time or gumption. I've also been listening to Flying Lotus's new one, which is amazing as always.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Brother Ali Review

I reviewed the new Brother Ali on RapReviews this week.  I love Brother Ali and I love Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Aesop Rock Review

Here's my review of Aesop Rock's latest, Skelethon.It was originally posted on RapReviews.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this is the first Aesop Rock album I've ever listened to. I know he's from my hometown, I know he's been making records since the late nineties, and I know critics love him. I'm a fan of his old production partner Blockhead, and I'm a fan of his old label Definitive Jux and his current label Rhymesavers. I've even heard him featured on countless rap albums, lending his distinct voice to tracks by everyone from Percee P to Blueprint to El-P to Atmosphere to Illogic to Tame One. I've heard of Aesop Rock and I've heard Aesop Rock. So why have I never bothered to actually listen to his music?

The fact is Aesop Rock makes intimidating music. His raps are quick and dense, full of convoluted wordplay and references. He favors beats that are loud and disquieting. This isn't music to rock the party, get a club jumping, or provide a soundtrack for Friday night. Aesop's music is paranoid, insular, and unnerving. If your stereotypical rap party is a bunch of dudes in designer clothes smoking weed and drinking cognac with half-naked models in the VIP section of a swank club, "Skelethon" is two grad students on Ritalin chattering competing conspiracy theories in the kitchen of a dilapidated flat. Listening to his music is like reading a William Faulkner novel - you need CliffsNotes to understand what is going on. Those hesitations aside, I picked up his latest hoping to finally understand what the man is all about.
Let's cut to the chase: Aesop Rock really is as good as all of the critics make him out to be. Few MCs can spit rhymes as intricate dense as Aesop. Even El-P, who probably comes closest to Aesop's style, seems as simple as Flo Rida when compared to Aesop.
Take for example "ZZZ Top." The lyrics read more like prose than rap, yet he manages to make all the words fit together like verbal Tetris:

"Somebody in a cultivated moment of distress
Composed themselves enough to artfully carve 'Zoso' in this desk
They was probably thinking "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you" in they head
With a hell bound arm in a acidy wash
Homemade curfew a thousand o'clock and the pot leaf tattoo his friend did drunk
Like a badge of mystique though it technically sucked
Taking the name of the father in vein on the way to the blade in his locker
Estranged, a switch he'd lifted from a sibling's skivvy drawer
Who'd branched off into ninja stars, and never his shit was sharked to
Here with a higher purpose
In the primal urge of juvenile berserkers
Like Crocea Mors in a arcade drop claw gouging a valentine for Miss Othmar
Watch, capital "zed", slowly maneuver the "o"
"S" is the most difficult to control
Finally "o", into the eye of the goliath you go
That levy crushin' percussion'll pull the monkey upright
12 or ghetto blaster, black or technicolor telecaster
Lecture at a faster rate than class was making him develop"

There's a downside to Aesop's cleverness, though. I lifted those lyrics directly from his website because there is no way I was going to try to transcribe the torrent of words that comes out of his mouth. Especially when he's using words like "Crocea Mors," which according to Wikipedia is the name given to Julius Caesar's sword. I realize I complain a lot on RapReviews about how dumbed down so many hip-hop lyrics are, but Aesop Rock has the opposite problem. He's a little like the Dennis Miller of hip-hop. spitting so many obscure references that the audience can't help but miss most of them.

There is also the matter of Aesop Rock's voice. It's an acquired taste. He raps in a constipated flow as if he is eternally holding in a big hit of weed. His voice has turned me off in the past, but much like E-40 or B-Real's flow, you get used to it. I may never learn to love his voice, but I can live with it.

There is a big upside to Aesop Rock's challenging verbosity that makes up for the funcrushed vibe and obscure references. "Skelethon" is one of the smartest and most rewarding albums I've heard in a while, rivaled only by El-P and Killer Mike's recent work. Listening to Aesop Rock rhyme is like taking a master class in how to be an emcee: Danny Brown has said that he learned to rap by studying Aesop Rock's rhymes. The songs are riddles that you untangle a little bit more with each listen.

If you need proof of the man's brilliance, listen to "Ruby '81." It's a filler track of sorts, a brief, cinematic description of a young girl who gets out of her crib on Fourth of July while her parents are busy partying and ends up face down in the pool. Aesop builds cinematic tension describing how Ruby gets away, and just when you are sure that the story ends tragically, the family dog saves the day. Aesop paints these pictures with a poet's skill, describing the scene and the drama.

The sometimes somber and deep mood of the album is lightened by Aesop Rock's twisted sense of humor. "Homemade Mummy" describes mummifying the family cat; "Racing Stripes" is about bad homemade haircuts; "Grace" starts off with a boy wishing "Dear God Thanks/And if you loved me vegetables would be extinct." There is a wave of nostalgia throughout the album, with Aesop capturing vignettes from his own childhood and high school days.

On top of the rhymes, the record sounds great. It is the first record that Aesop has produced totally on his own, and he constructs a mix of live instruments and samples to match his rhymes. All of the beats are backed in solid, heavy drums. "ZZZ Top" is built around a drum solo, and many of the other songs feature live drums. There is a sameness to some of the songs, as he tends to lean heavily on ominous synthesizers, but he does mix it up."Fryerstarter" combines xylophone with electro shocks, and "Cycles of Gehenna" samples what sounds like a Chinese song. "Grace" sounds like the White Stripes given the boom-bap treatment.

I've mentioned El-P already in this review. It's hard to write about Aesop Rock and not think about his former label mate. Both MCs came up in the late nineties and helped blaze a trail for both indie rap and white MCs. El-P and Aesop Rock showed how white rappers could make authentic, good hip-hop without trying to sound like they were from Marcy Projects. Both released new albums this year after a five-year hiatus, both self-produced their albums, both are mourning the loss of Camu Tao, and both have some relationship issues they are dealing with. Their production style is fairly similar, although El-P is the more accomplished producer. However, there is none of El-P's b-boy posturing or battle rap roots in Aesop Rock's rhymes. He has a collaboration with folk artist Kimya Dawson coming out soon (she appears on "Skelethon,"), and those folk musical influences show up on the album. Aesop Rock seems less grounded in hip-hop than El-P, and the result is an album that is more eclectic than "Cancer 4 Cure."

Given my ignorance of Aesop's body of work, I can't comment on how this album fits into his discography or how it compares against his earlier albums. I can say that "Skelethon" won me over to Team Aesop Rock. However challenging or confusing his rhymes can be, the songs still work with their combination of banging beats, rich lyricism, and twisted humor. Aesop Rock is pushing the boundaries of hip-hop and making other MCs step their game up.

DJ Vadim Review

I reviewed DJ Vadim's Don't Be Scared last week for RapReviews. It's a pretty good dubstep/hip-hop album.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kaye Review

I reviewed Australian rapper Kaye's debut double album for RapReviews this week. I wasn't a huge fan, but then I don't like double albums, with very few exceptions.

Been listening to the new Aesop Rock, which I hope to review this week if I get my shit together.

Went to a wedding this week and was reminded that there are no Pitbull song appropriate for dancing with your sister in law or mother in law.

But damn if this isn't a fun song:

RIP Matthew Africa

I wrote this for RapReviews. 

Matthew Africa, a Bay Area DJ, died last week in a car crash. He was 40. He had been a staple of the Bay Area since the 90s, throwing parities, making mixes, and hosting a radio show on UC Berkeley's KALX. I won't try to write an obituary of the man. Nothing I could write would come close to Oliver Wang's tribute on Sole Sides. Instead, I want to share a few thoughts about how Matthew Africa impacted my life, despite the fact that we never met.
I mostly knew Matthew from his Melting Pot blog, which I found my way through Soul Sides. He would post links to his radio show, which I sometimes listened to. Mostly, though, I waited eagerly to read his "Dig Deep" posts. In them, he'd post a few MP3s from some long-forgotten vinyl gem along with a brief description of the artist and the track. The posts not only exposed me to some amazing music, but also some insight into the mind of one of the world's premier crate-diggers and students of music. The man knew almost everything there was to know about funk, jazz, soul, latin music, African music, and anything in between. As a DJ, he understood how the music made people move, and he appreciated the magic of unearthing a gem that had been buried by time. Most important, he loved the records because he loved music, not because it was what was cool or hip at the moment.

His wide-reaching taste in music helped me to expand my own palette. I would take cues from the songs he posted, and his blog and radio show encouraged me to dig deeper into old soul, jazz, and reggae. He helped me to understand how hip-hop related to a larger body of music that went back decades and reached around the world. He helped me see that you could find the funk in unlikely places, and the only thing that mattered was if the music moved you. It's partially because of Matthew's influence that my record collection has diversified considerably in the past few years. I will forever be grateful to Matthew for keeping me connected to hip-hop's roots and for constantly showing me just how much amazing music there was in the world.

When I found out he had passed, it hit me as hard as if he had been one of my good friends. Part of it is the fact that we are similar in some ways: we are both around the same age, both came up in the Bay Area, and both had professional lives outside of music. I even discovered after his passing that we share some mutual friends. Maybe it was the way he died, in the kind of tragic car crash that could happen to anyone. But mostly I think my grief at his passing has to do with pure selfishness: I had so much more to learn from him. About Brazilian psychedelic artists to check out, about amazing soul songs that have been out of print since before I was born, about obscure Bay Area rap groups who only put out one limited-run twelve inch. And about how to always find the funk in even the most unlikely places.

Find his mixes here:

And his blog here:

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Plural Clarity and One Sixth Reviews

I reviewed two albums this week for RapReviews that were both ambitious if flawed. The first was the debut from Aussie MC One Sixth called Electronic Mail.  He raps about romance and love without sounding cheesy or sexist, which is rare in hip-hop.

The second album was Plural Clarity's Clearly There's A Problem Here... He's an incredibly sincere MC, and you can tell he put a lot of heart and soul into this project. I was put off by the production values and his flow. I feel bad for giving the album such a negative review, despite the fact that I was just being honest. I hear so much half-assed rapping by MCs who think that tossing off lazy rhymes about their cars is good enough. Plural Clarity raps have an honesty and passion that you don't hear enough of in hip-hop. I just didn't  happen to love the presentation.

I've also been trying to digest Aesop Rock's new album and the new Antibalas. And trying to get "Call Me Maybe" out of my head. Fuckin' Carly Rae Jepsen.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mr Boss Review

I wrote about Mr. Boss's The Landing this week at RapReviews.  He's a UK producer who makes pretty solid music.

I'm listening to a few Australian CDs to review for next week. And I downloaded Rick Ross's new album and last album. "I'm Not A Star" has become my new jam. Ross's music is like candy - terrible for you, devoid of any nutrition, but still highly enjoyable.

I'm also digging the new Antibalas.

Killer Mike has a new video for "Untitled."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Solo for Dolo and 50 Years

Between moving from the city the the suburbs, I managed to write to reviews. This week I wrote about Solo for Dolo's latest album, Self-Titled. He's a New Jersey rapper who does the indie rap thing pretty well.

The week of the move I reviewed Out of Many: 50 Years of Jamaican Music, a three-disc box set celebrating Jamaica's 50-year anniversary.  It has some good songs, going chronologically from 1962 to today.

And now I no longer live a ten-minute walk from Amoeba Records, and my record-buying budget is being infringed upon by my new house payment and all the associated costs that come with moving. Which gives me more time to listen to all the stuff I amassed over the past year, I guess.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Meyhem Lauren and Soul 7

I reviewed Meyhem Lauren's "Respect the Fly Shit" this week at RapReviews. He's got a dirty mouth, but the man can rap, and has solid production behind him.

I reviwed the Soul 7 Comp two weeks ago. I'm a fan.

Listening to a lot of Rolling Stones and Beatles.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Random Thoughts

I'm supposed to be either packing or writing a midterm or writing the first two chapters of my capstone project right now, but instead I will share these random thoughts.

1. Bikini Kill's Reject All American is one of the best punk albums ever, right up there with the first Ramones album, Minor Threat's discography, Black Flag's Damaged, the Subhumans From The Cradle To the Grave, Operation Ivy's discography, Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and X's Los Angeles.

Need proof? Listen to "Capri Pants."

2. Mayhem Lauren is one of the better young rappers I've heard in a while, only he's almost too dirty for me.I've never been into X-rated rhymes, and he has several songs in which his sexual adventures are described in pornographic detail.

3.As part of my new initiative to listen to entire pieces of music rather than just snippets,  I've been listening to Steven Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians." It has a wonderful hypnotic quality.

4. I've also been listening to William Basinksi's "Disintegration Loop." It's loops of music he had recorded on audio tape that started to fall apart as he tried to record it to a CD. I believe this video is from the rooftop of his friend's apartment where they listened to it as the sun set on 9/11, with the song become this eulogy to the surreal and horrible experience of that day. It's haunting and mesmerizing, although not so much that I've ever managed to listen to all 60 minutes of it.

5. I watched part of "Basquiat" last night, Julian Schnabel's biopic. It was fugging terrible. I'd recommend you watch "Downtown 80" instead to get a real look at him.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The White Album

I just bought a used copy of the new reissue of the Beatles' 1968 White Album. I've never owned or listened to the entire album before. For a while I had a cassette in which I cherry picked the songs I liked on to one side. It's an amazing album, if totally incohesive. It contains some of their most beautiful songs, like "Dear Prudence," "Blackbird," and "Julia." It contains some of their heaviest songs, like "Yer Blues" and "Helter Skelter." It contains some really weird shit, like "Revolution 9" and "Wild Honey Pie." And it contains some of my favorite songs, like "I'm So Tired."

The Beatles were one of the first bands I ever listened to and loved. I remember listening to my mother's copy of Meet the Beatles when I was in first grade. It's amazing how much they changed in their brief lifespan. In seven years they went from the teeny-bop of "Love Me Do" to the psychedelic weirdness of "I Am the Walrus" to the heavy rock of "Get Back." A lot of it was the times: their trajectory followed the trajectory of popular culture, but I'm not sure how much of that was them following the trends or setting them. My only real problem with the Beatles is that I've heard their songs so much I frankly get sick of them. Which is why it's nice to rediscover their later material, which I have not had as much exposure to. Listening to them is like listening to home: comforting, familiar, sweet, and also dysfunctional and a little discordant.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Maundz Review

I reviewed Aussie rapper Maundz's Zero on RapReviews this week. Aggressive rap in the vein of Jedi Mind Tricks. Good for what it is, but not my thing.

In other news, Stones Throw's reissue label Now Again records started a subscription service. I just joined and got the Witch box set and two funk/soul collections. "Introduction" has become my new theme song.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Best of 2012 So Far

2012 has been a hell of a year so far. It started with my nephew being born on New Year's Eve, then a massive fire near my apartment New Year's Day, then my grandmother passing away a few days later, pets dying, friends getting pregnant, kids getting older, people losing homes, selling homes, buying homes. As I write this I am on the brink of possibly moving to the East Bay after living in San Francisco since 1993. I keep reminding myself that the only constant is change, and that attachment to things is the source of all misery. Much easier to say than actually feel. Although when there was a massive fire blazing four doors down from us, I realized that as long as I had my wife, I had everything I needed, which was a nice lesson to learn. Of course, when I heard our neighbor's apartment had been broken into last week and was unsure about ours, all I could think of was "Not the PS3! I've put like 30 hours into Borderlands!!!!"

Which all goes to say that there has been an undercurrent of stress running in the background for me and mine this year. It's like background noise that you get used to and don't notice until it goes away. Or water slowly boiling, to use another analogy. It's nothing we can't handle, and much less than many people deal with. The key is learning how to adapt to it, and to try to not let it all bog you down.

One constant outlet for me is music. I've been voraciously consuming music this year. I've probably bought or downloaded almost a hundred since the year started. I've gotten into jazz in a big way and discovered these new sets from Real Gone Jazz that collect 6-8 albums on 3-4 discs, all for around $14. The packaging and liner notes suck, they put two albums on each disc and the sound quality isn't amazing, but it is a nice way to get an overview of an artist's work. I've gotten sets by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Yusef Lateef, and Curtis Fuller.

There's also been some great rap albums released this year. YU started things off with The Earn, followed by the excellent Quakers album. Death Grips, Killer Mike, and El-P followed up in the Spring by releasing three excellent albums. And that's just the stuff I listened to. Oddisee, Schoolboy Q and Blockhead have all released new albums that have gotten praise.

Maybe the only constants are change, and music.

In related news, Death Grips has a video for "Double Helix" that was filmed using a car's rear camera:

And the video for Killer Mike's "Big Beast" features zombie strippers and more gore than a horror movie.

House Shoes Review

I reviewed Detroit producer House Shoes' debut album this week on RapReviews, Let It Go. It's good. He works with a lot of underground rappers from Detroit, L.A., New York, and beyond.

Here's a video for one of my favorite songs from the album, "Time."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Harn Solo and Illogic

I reviewed Harn Solo's album Shooting Star.  Wasn't feeling it, but you can check out his bandcamp page to see if it's your thing.

I also review Illogic and Blockhead's album Preparing For Capture. I was a fan of it. You can also get it on bandcamp. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

El-P, Clams Casino,

I have some new reviews up at RapReviews.

Last week I did a review of the new Clams Casino instrumental mixtape. Hard to believe that these are hip-hop beats. They sound more like ambient electronica.

I also reviewed Romain Virgo's latest album, The System. He's one of the more promising contemporary reggae singers out there.

I also reviewed Bigg Jus's Machines That Make Civilization Fun. It is a challenging, daring record that unfortunately doesn't work in execution.

Finally, I reviewed El-P's Cancer 4 Cure.

Here's that review, originally posted on RapReviews:

An El-P album is an event. He's only released three vocal albums in the past ten years, and each one has been a must-own, at least for fans of underground hip-hop. His albums are carefully constructed, full of complicated rhymes, themes, and beats. He does all his own production (only fitting for a man originally known as El-Producto), collaborating with a team of musicians to create music that falls somewhere between hip-hop, rock, and noise. Each of his two previous albums set such a high standard that when he announced his latest release, fans had to wonder if he could keep up his winning streak. From the first listen of "Cancer 4 Cure," the answer is clear: of course he can.

2002's "Fantastic Damage" tried to process post 9/11 New York, and 2007's "I'll Sleep When You're Dead" captured the paranoia and dysfunction of the Bush years. El-P has called "Cancer 4 Cure" his fighting record, and the man's got a lot to be angry about. The economy is STILL in the toilet, being voted out of office somehow made the right wing come back angrier and stronger than ever, we're still fighting two endless wars that we refuse to talk about or pay for, and, oh yeah, El-P lost his label AND his best friend. While the death of Camu Tao hangs over the album, the demise of Definitive Jux seems to have given El-P the gift of freedom. He no longer has to worry about negotiating with artists, vendors, distributors, and retailers. He's not bogged down in the day-to-day business of running a label, and is no longer on the front lines of the disintegrating record industry. Instead he's free to do what he does best: make amazing beats and spit intricate rhymes. He's already done some of his best production work in years on Killer Mike's "R.A.P. Music," so evidently losing his label hasn't kept him down.

Let me put this out there: El-P isn't the most technically proficient rapper. His stentorian flow is reminiscent of Chuck D, but his delivery lacks finesse or swagger. It's not that he's bad, but he's not the greatest rapper ever. When Danny Brown and Killer Mike show up they outshine El-P, despite the fact that both of their verses are tossed-off. However, what El-P lacks in style he more than makes up for by being one of the best lyricists and storytellers in hip-hop. The man should be writing novels and poetry. His gifts almost seem wasted in rap format, especially since he only dribbles out 13 tracks every five years. The operative word here is almost, because the combination of El-P's lyrics and beats is almost always gold.

Case in point: "The Full Retard." The track samples Camu Tao's "When You're Going Down," with the late rapper urging the listener to "pump this shit like they do in the future." And future is exactly the word to describe El-P's production. Ominous synths, clattering noise, and sci-fi samples are his bread and butter. His beats are like art made out of garbage. He takes a bunch of cast-off, disparate elements and molds them into some other level shit. Any idiot with a computer can make noisy beats, though. What makes an El-P beat an El-P beat is his deep knowledge of and respect for hip-hop. His beats are BEATS, grounded in banging drums and often referencing the golden age of 80s New York rap, when being noisy was a good thing. There is a little more bang in this album than on "I'll Sleep When You're Dead." That album had its share of slow and experimental tracks. For the most part, "Cancer 4 Cure" moves relentlessly forward, barely stopping to take a breath.

El-P is a master at one-liners and clever wordplay. "Don't you know this is a rotten time to not not be me?" he asks on "Works Every Time." "I've got memories to lose, man, I am in a rush." On the sort-of love song "The Jig Is Up," he tells a potential suitor "Men like me don't ever get no second chance/Not for the kind of man who showed up at death's door and ding dong dashed so much he wore out a hole in the welcome mat." His lyrics are full of references and double meanings, so much so that you'll still be unpacking them even after hundreds of listens. He's sort of like hip-hop's version of William Faulkner, whose novels are so dense you need the Cliff's Notes just to understand what the hell is going on. Five years after "I'll Sleep When You're Dead" came out I'm still discovering new things in those songs, and "Cancer 4 Cure" will demand an equal amount of attention.

A lot of this album deals with dark subject matter. The single "Drones Over Brooklyn" imagines New York under siege. "For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)" seems at first to be about the insensitivity of New York life, as a man is questioned by the police about an incident at his neighbor's apartment:

"You all know what I know and that's heaping pile of donut holes
I didn't even know them
I am not your perfect witness
Your team of fat blue buddies waddling around and trying to crack the case
Are better off locating someone else
I spent the day on my New York shit
Didn't even meet them once
And no I'm not upset, I'm just another guy minding his business
Come on, you know the drill
These walls are thick
I got my own shit that I'm dealing with
I haven't seen or heard a thing
I never met 'em
That's the city
Good luck working it, Columbo
I'ma bounce
You got my info but you'll never get my pity and I'm out"

It's only later in the song that you realize that what is really happening is that the neighbor has been beating his wife, and the narrator is giving the wife permission to kill her abuser, telling her "If you kill him, I won't tell." This is a return to subject matter he first delved into on Company Flow's "Last Good Sleep," in which he described pretending to sleep while his stepfather beat his mother.

"Tougher Colder Killer" describes a soldier interrogating an enemy, delving into the horrors of the wars we are fighting, and the psychological and physical damage they are inflicting on everyone involved.

"To the mother of my enemy I just killed
Your son, he died with his face to the sky and
It can not be undone
He didn't die hard
In the end he just grinned and bowed
Made him dig his own grave at the point of a gun while he laughed to the gods out loud
And it made me wanna jump out a window
And it made me wanna scream
Tear my face off
Run through the streets
I wanted you to know that since then I don't sleep
And the uniform tags sidearm ID that I wore when I did it got sent C.O.D to the HQ
Note reading 'This is not me and I hate you
For making me make a man bleed.'"

I grew up with several Vietnam vets who bore the scars from that war decades after it ended, and I can only imagine that our current wars are causing just as many scars on the young people who are fighting them. "Tougher Colder Killer" addresses the deeper, longer term effects of war on its combatants.

This being an El-P album, there are the inevitable songs about dysfunctional relationships, or more accurately, how he doesn't understand why women like him when he thinks he is such a mess. "The Jig Is Up" overcomes its emo self-loathing with a banging beat. "Sign Here" is either an interrogation or a sado-masochistic relationship. Either way it is creepy as hell. The album ends with the eight-minute long "$4 Vic/Nothing But You + Me (FTL)." The production is muddy and dirge-like, until the outro kicks in at the 6 minute mark sampling what sounds like the intro to "Kid Icarus." El-P sheds his hard exterior, rapping:

"I know there's
Something good that I'd die here for
Something great that I'd live here for
Something fly that I'd write for you
Something wrong that I'd bite you for
Something sacred you'd cure me of
Something sad to make sure your loved
Some of us cannot trust no one
Some of us don't deserve no trust
Nothing wrong with not being strong
Nothing says we need to beat what's wrong
Nothing manmade remains made long
That's a debt we can't back out of
Nothing that they can take from you
They can torture and interrogate
And shackle to my boot
I will gnaw off my own leg
And hop the fuck right back to you"

"Cancer 4 Cure" can get headache-inducing at times. Some of the noisy beats are noisier than others, and it can be an awful lot of vitriol to take in one sitting. Still, it is prime El-P, deep, heavy, funny, and banging all at the same time. The picture El-P paints with "Cancer 4 Cure" isn't always a pretty one, but it is always well-executed and uniquely his own.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

What I've Been Listening To

I've been on a compulsive jazz-buying binge lately. One of my goals in life is to own every John Coltrane album, and to that effect I bought used copies of Ballads and The John Coltrane Plays. Then I downloaded My Favorite Things. Last week I bought a four-CD compilation of Charlie Parker's work. Europe has different copyright laws, so it is easier for European labels to release budget collection of jazz works. I got a collection of Miles Davis' and John Coltrane's early albums last year, and yesterday I traded in a bunch of CDs and bought a collection of eight Duke Ellington albums, eight Thelonious Monk albums, three Art Blakley albums, and two Dizzy Gillespie albums. Which is sort of ridiculous, I realize, but it was all stuff I wanted to hear and the collections were cheaper than individual albums. The sound quality isn't amazing, and the liner notes suck, but in terms of hearing a lot of their material they are really valuable.

In between listening to all that jazz, I've been working on a review of El-P's new album. He just released a video for "The Full Retard," in which he parties hard with a squirrel puppet. Have you ever seen Meet the Feebles? It's a little like that.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Killer Mike, Pep Love, and Zomby Reviews

I have a few new reviews up at

First up is the Killer Mike/El-P collaboration , R.A.P. Music. It's awesome, just like everyone says.

Second is Pep Love's Rigmarole. I wasn't a fan, and gave it a somewhat harsh review. OK Player and HipHopDx beg to differ with my opinion, so maybe it's amazing and I just don't get it.

Finally, I reviewed Zomby's Dedication this week. It's downtempo dubstep that had a hip-hop feel, to me at least. I love it.

I've been listening to the latest El-P and Big Juss, and will hopefully have a review up soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gentleman Review, Killer Mike, Subhumans

I reviewed German reggae artist Gentleman's Divsersity on RapReviews this week.  I've had it for a while, but only got around to listening to it recently. It grew on me.

I also downloaded the Subhumans 1984 album From the Cradle to the Grave. Legally. I have it on cassette. It was one of my favorite albums when I was 15, and it still holds up, especially the 16-minute title track. I should really write a longer piece about it. It's a somewhat rambling diatribe against the British educational system, war, the government, and the SYSTEM, man. But there are some good lines.

They'll say you ought to learn a trade to help you in your life
Success is written in three parts: A job, a house, a wife
They'll say that school prepares you for the awesome world outside
Well it certainly gives you bigotry and patriotic pride

Racism, sexism teacher to class
From school to work remains the sameare you white and middle class?

You'll learn that bad men dress in black and good men dress in white
And the pamphlets in the playground say that's right
And that girls were made for housework and boys were made to fight
And the naughty pictures on page 3 make everything alright

I also got the new El-P produced Killer Mike album, R.A.P. Music It's so, so good. Like, Death Certificate levels of good. I'm hoping to be able to write a review of it next week.

And on a totally unrelated note, here is my favorite video of all time right now. I watch it several times a week. Because it's JackTastic! And Sue. We all hate you. We hate you so much.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

BeOND Review

I reviewed SoCal rapper BeOND's new album Everythingz Backwardz this week on RapReviews. I wasn't a massive fan of it, and I'm not sure if that is BeOND's fault or if I'm just a jaded old man.

Here's a video for the first single. Decide for yourself.

Friday, May 04, 2012


I'm home from work to work on a school project on nonprofit marketing, which has gotten me thinking about my own personal branding. I recently joined the board of a nonprofit association I belong to, and I realized that I am not totally comfortable with my various online worlds and personas interacting. I wouldn't necessarily want a fellow board member or a potential employer to read my Death Grips review, for example, or read this blog. I love hip-hop and I love punk rock, but that isn't necessarily the public persona that I want to put forth with people who I want to take me seriously as a nonprofit professional.

To that end I started a blog a few months ago to write about nonprofit issues called Festival of Acronyms.
I'm not in love with the blog name or URL, but it's what I got for now. I'm trying to update it every other week, with some success.

I'm also contemplating the future of my music journalism. While I enjoy writing music reviews, I'm not totally convinced that it is always the best use of my time and energy. I'd also like to use this site to write more in-depth pieces about artists I like who are either unknown or forgotten. I dunno. All I know is the next seven months will be intense with work and school, and my focus in life is changing.

RIP Adam Yauch

Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, died of cancer today. He was 48.

While I will admit that I hated the Beastie Boys when Licensed to Ill came out, they eventually became one of my favorite bands, and one of the definitive groups of my generation. They went from being snotty sexist assholes to being Buddhists and feminists. They showed Gen-Xers how to age gracefully, how to give up our childish ways without selling out, and how to retain a sense of humor while actually giving a shit. They were the Ur hipsters of my generation, influencing fashion, music, language, and what people listened to. They are the reason why I listen to Lee Perry. They are the reason I watched Dolomite. They showed how white people could respectfully participate in hip-hop. They made good music. They were decent rappers.

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn't like Licensed to Ill when it came out, and to this day I think it is a pretty terrible album. I wrote them off as irritating frat boys until my brother played "Eggman" off of 1989's Paul's Boutique. That album saw them going in their own, stoned-out direction. The first album of theirs I bought was 1992's Check Your Head. I was a junior in high school when it came out, and I thought the video for "So Watcha Want" was the coolest thing in the world. I spent the next few years trying to imitate their look in that video with baggy pants and knit caps. The thing is, everyone (white) listened to that album: people into alternative music, hip-hop fans, people who hated hip-hop. They transcended the genre. They were just cool. And Yauch was the coolest one. With his gravelly voice and his more serious persona, he was simply a cool dude. He got millions of middle class white kids to explore Buddhism when he came out as a Buddhist. He, along with the rest of the Beastie Boys, channeled that white middle class angst into something more creative and positive than bands like Limp Bizkit or Korn did. The Beastie Boys loss their cultural cache as the 90s progressed, but they never sold out or got pathetic. They stayed true to themselves, releasing two solid albums in the 21st century.

Yauch had been battling cancer for a while, but it still came as a shock to me that he passed. It's like hearing that someone you went to high school died, although he is eleven years my senior. It's made me feel old and mortal.

Death Grips, St. Vincent, Fugazi Live

My review of the new Death Grips is the featured review on RapReviews now. I love that album. Here's a link to the review.

I dug out St. Vincent's second album, Actor, recently. I originally got it for my wife, but it is too noisy and guitary for her. It's an interesting combination of St. Vincent's pretty voice and her slightly gnarly guitar playing. In that sense it is similar to Wye Oak, which I've also been listening to a lot. Anyways, I never gave St. Vincent a real shot when I bought it two or three years ago.

And finally, I downloaded a live Fugazi show that had a lot of tracks off of their 1992 album In On the Kill Taker. My copy of the album was stolen out of my friend's car. There are many great tracks on it that sound even better live. "23 Beats Off' is about someone with HIV (fans have speculated Magic Johnson). My favorite song is "Great Cop," the ultimate punk rock dis.

"You got a lot of questions for me
You got your finger pointing at me
I look for wires when I'm talking to you
You'd make a great cop."

I never saw them live and I really wish I had. Fugazi where one of those bands that I liked but never love. I think that they were always a little too noisy and cerebral for me. Listening to them now I realize that in some ways they were like abstract painters, people who knew their craft so well that they could mess with the structure of it. They could be a little too serious, and their lyrics are sometimes too cryptical, but they are still and amazing band.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ragga Ragga Ragga Review

I did a review for the Ragga Ragga Ragga 2012 comp this week for RapReviews. I pounded it out Monday night after work, and I just read it and realized I left big chunks out. This is what happens when you don't leave time to edit. I didn't tie together what 420 had to do with the Haight Ashbury had to do with the compilation, other than the amazing pot song "Da Herb Deh."

I'm working on a review of the new Death Grips album, which is great.

"I've Seen Footage" sounds a little like "Push It."

"Get Got" is a much more subdued than any of their other stuff, and the video was shot in SF.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Busy Signal and Giano

I reviewed two albums for RapReviews last week. First up was Busy Signal's Reggae Music Again. This was a return to classic reggae which I enjoyed.

The second was Giano's B Sides and Remixes Volume 2, a new collection of songs from a rapper who straddles the conscious/Christian genres.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I went to two shows last weekend. On Friday I went to see Andrew Bird at the Fox Theater. Unbeknownst to me, our seats were at the last possible row in the entire theater. The sound was great, but we were so far away it was as if we were watching it on TV rather than actually being at the show. Andrew Bird is always excellent live. He came out by himself and did an instrumental number looping his violin so that it sounded like a full(er) band. Then his actual band came on stage: a bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer who also played keyboards. The drummer would also loop himself so that he could play the keyboard parts. I'm not a massive Andrew Bird fan (that would be the wife) and I was dog tired, but it was a good show in a packed theater. Good on him.

Sunday I went to see La Sera and Yuck. I don't know much about Yuck other than they sound like Dinosaur Jr., but I was excited to see a retro alterna rock show. La Sera is the solo project of Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman. The band was her on bass, a drummer, and two guitarists. One of them was wearing a flannel and baseball hat and the other looked like Johnny Ramone. Goodman has a great voice, but it was a little too weak to carry through the songs live. The crowd kept yelling "More vocals!!" I really like their latest album Sees The Light, and they were fun live. The best songs were the punchier ones like "Break My Heart," a perfect two-minute pop punk jaunt. They played for thirty minutes to a mostly receptive audience.

Yuck came on around 9:45, which I appreciated given that it was a Sunday. They are also a five-piece, also with a woman on bass. They are young, all between 21-22, but play melodic 90s indie rock much like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The crowd were all about 15-20 years older than the band, people who came of age in the late 80s and 90s and were nostalgic for that sound. They were great, playing for a little less than an hour. There is something about that roar of guitar squall that sounds so good live.

Sunday, April 08, 2012


I've been listening to Ceremony's new album Zoo. They are a Bay Area hardcore band who have gone in a more rock direction on their new LP. It sounds like an American hardcore band trying to be Wire.
One of my favorite songs is "Citizen," a two-minute blast of melodic punk that has elements of early 80s hardcore.

They did a video for "Adult," which I'm not crazy about. I feel the whole "the happy suburban 50s family was a sham, man," thing has been done to death.

They've put out a few albums, and their early stuff was much more power violence-ey. It's kind of fun, but a little of this goes a long way.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Quakers and E-Train Reviews

I reviewed two producer compilation albums this week on RapReviews. The first is E-Train's On Solid Ground. It's 18 tracks of solid indie hip-hop by a beatmaker with one foot in the present and one foot in old school boom-bap.

I also reviewed the new album by Quakers, which is a production team made up of Geoff Barrow from Portishead and some of his Portishead colleagues. It is really, really good.

Here's E-Train and D Mottola:

And the Quakers:

Monday, April 02, 2012

Shtar and Burial

I had two reviews up last week on RapReviews.

I did a review of the new Burial EP, Kindred. Mostly because I really love that song. The other two songs on the EP are also good, but "Kindred" gets me every time.

I also reviewed an Israeli hip-hop band called Shtar.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jonwayne Review

I reviewed Jonwayne's Oodles of Doodles this week on RapReviews.

Started school again and realized I'm gonna be mad busy for the next two months, which will no doubt impact my writing about music. Although I have a million things in my queue to write about. Well, like five.

I listened to the Red Hot Chili Pepper's Uplift Mofo Party Plan today at work. on Spotify. I bought it on cassette when I was 12, then on CD when I was 15, and have since sold it. It's kind of terrible, since RHCP are kind of terrible, but there are bright spots. I really love "Walking Down The Road," "Behind the Sun" and "Skinny Sweaty Man." Everything else is forgettable rap rock.

This, my friends, is what 80s L.A. was:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Christian Rap, Black Up, and Sad Beats

I have three new reviews up this week.

First out the gate is the latest album by Christian club rapper Applejaxx, Organic. While I'm not his target audience of evangelical Christians, and I thought he labored the "organic" metaphor to death, he's a decent rapper and has some good production.

Then I reviewed B. Durazzo's melancholy beat tape. Worth downloading at his bandcamp page

Finally, I did a review of Shabazz Palaces' Black Up, which came out last year. Pretty brilliant.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Bad Show Is Like Bad Sex

The wife and I went to see Sea of Bees and Wye Oak at the Independent a coupla weeks ago. The sold out show was part of the Noise Pop festival. We got to the show in time to see Sea of Bees set. The wife loved their twee folk, but it wasn't really rocking my world. The most exciting thing for me was that their bassist was Jake Mann , who I went to high school with. Apparently he has a band called Jake Mann and the Upper Hand.  He was a year ahead of me in school and played bass in the jazz band. It was nice to see he was still involved with music.

Wye Oak are a duo with Jennifer Wasner on guitar and vocals and Andy Stack on drums and keyboards. Yes, drums AND keyboards. Here's the thing: drums are pretty much a two-hand, two-feet kinda instrument. You can't really play the drums and another instrument at the same time. At least not well. Stack proved this with the rudimentary rhythms he was pounding out while playing rudimentary bass notes on a keyboard. It was like talking to someone who is texting at the same time. Not very satisfying.

Still, they were impressive live. Wasner has an amazing voice, and is able to produce a lot of noise out of her guitars. It was so loud the walls were shaking.

Which was the main issue with the evening. The wife doesn't share my appreciation for loud music, and she was not amused by the whole walls shaking thing. I was dog tired from a long stressful week at work and school, the downside of a Friday night show. We sat through four songs, and then a combination of not wanting to make my wife any more miserable, and my own desire to be in bed won over and we left. It was such a disappointing experience, not because the band let us down but because WE let us down. I felt old and tired and lame. Then again, maybe I'm just at the point in my life where going to shows is no longer a focus. I had a chance to see WATERS free last week and didn't go.

As Dr. Evil said, there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hippy Music

I broke down and bought Pink Floyd's Relics the other day. It hurt to pay sixteen bucks for it, but I have been wanting a clear recording of that album for twenty years. I first had a shitty recording from vinyl on cassette. Later I upgraded to a cassette recording of the CD version, but I never actually had it digitally. The album collects their early Syd Barrett-penned singles, including "Arnold Layne," "See Emily Play," and "Interstellar Overdrive." 

I appreciate later Pink Floyd, but not enough to really listen to it. I sold my copies of The Wall and Dark Side of The Moon years ago, and only rarely do I want to listen to either of them. Their early stuff was much more exciting and immediate.

I wrote about the latest Phenomenal Handclap album on Blogcritics recently. I wasn't as in love with it as I wanted to be, but it's worth listening to.

I've been listening to a lot of old eighties punk on Spotify recently, while doing administrative work, the most unpunk activity there is.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sleigh Bells Make Lana Del Rey Look Like Robert Fucking Johnson

So Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells have a new album out,Reign of Terror, which I just downloaded. They are schticky and work the same formula over and over, but dammit, it's a good forumla. Loud guitars, booming beats, and singer Alexis Krauss's cheerleader barks and girlish whispers.

The new album tones down the guitars a little bit, so that not every song is blowing out your speakers. In place of that, guitarist Derrick Miller channels Def Leppard, and Alexis gets to flex her R&B influence. It's slight but enjoyable, as a good pop album is.

What's funny about Sleigh Bells is how they've become indie rock darlings, despite the fact that they are basically a pop act. Lana Del Rey created a shit storm earlier this year by coming off as inauthentic, and yet Sleigh Bells, who have an equally fabricated persona, are welcomed with open arms. Granted, Sleigh Bells music is more interesting than Lana Del Rey, but that's not saying much.

Like Lana Del Rey, Sleigh Bells have been in the industry for years before reinventing themselves. Miller was in suburban angst hardcore band Poison the Well (their version of Smashing Pumkin's "Today" is almost as hilariously self-serious as Confide's version of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights,"), while Krauss was in wretched teen pop act RubyBlue. They recorded but never released a disc of generic and forgettable pop in 2001 before disbanding.

Their new album has come with its own aesthetic, which bleeds from the album cover to the clothes they wear onstage and in their videos. Its sort of an ultra-American high school bad ass vibe. All of which is fine, but its interesting that they get a pass while everyone dumps on poor old Lana. Maybe her marketing scheme was less subtle than Sleigh Bells. She can have the last laugh, though; she's selling more records.

Anyways, I like the new Sleigh Bells ok, and sort of hate myself for liking it. Speaking of rocking bands with tuff female singers, I was listening to the Distillers today. Coral Fang is a strong album. Too bad they broke up.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wildebeast and I-Octane Reviews

I did two brief reviews on RapReviews this week. First up is Robby Wildebeast's instrumental album, My Salad Days Vol. 1 Sounds an awful lot like Dilla, but that's not exactly a bad thing.

I also reviewed I-Octane's debut. I wanted to like it more than I did.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Clams Casino Review

I reviewed the Clams Casino instrumental mixtape that came out some time last year. I'm a fan. Equal parts ambient and hip-hop.  My favorite track is his instrumental for Lil B's "Real Shit for Real Niggas."
Here's the instrumental:

And here's Lil B rapping over it:

I prefer the instrumental.

Lindstrom Review

I reviewed Lindstrom's Two Cups of Rebel recently on Blogcritics. His last album got a lot of good press, so I was excited to hear his new one. I really didn't like it, and I was afraid that I just wasn't cool enough to like it. I wrote a negative review, and a few days later Pitchfork's review was up, and they agreed with me. In the end, it has a pretty low Metacritic score. I was happy to see that I wasn't alone in my negative perception of it. It's not terrible, but it is basically a noisy, sprawling mess. Totally skippable.

See what I mean?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Beat Street Review

Below is my review of the Beat Street soundtrack, which I bought 29 years ago. Yowza. Originally posted on

 It's fall of 1984. I'm riding the school bus home from another day in the fourth grade. Two older boys pull out a smallish ghetto baster and start playing some music that is like nothing I have heard before. It starts with an ominous bell, and then a beat kicks in, joined by a synthesized funk track, all punctuated with cuts and scratches. The scratching acts like another instrument, chopping up the music and adding percussive elements. Then a man's voice comes on, sing-talking in a style that I would learn was called "rapping."
"Beat Street, the king of the beat
You see him rocking that beat from across the street
And Beat Street is a lesson too
because you can't let the streets beat you"

That was my introduction to hip-hop and breakdancing, and I was hooked. I came to learn that it had originated in New York, and was supposedly a way for gangs to battle each other without violence. I had never been to any city, much less one as big as New York, but I immediately fell in love with this music.
My siblings and I embraced hip-hop culture. I got fat laces for my converse, and a hoodie emblazoned with "Breakin'" in graffiti writing. We set up cardboard in our living room to breakdance, which was facilitated by my family's total lack of furniture. I wrote in bubble script all over my 4th grade binder. I learned how to windmill from the Hispanic kids at my school, who were were much more hip to what was going on. I was hooked.

I was too young to see "Beat Street," and had to settle for the lesser (but more kid-friendly) "Breakin'." Still, I made my mom take me to the local drug store and popped down my seven or eight dollars apiece for each volume of the cassette version of the soundtrack. I remember bringing the tapes home, unpeeling the cellophane, and popping it into my Radio Shack tape recorder. I was so ready to enter the world of "Beat Street" and breakdancing. Instead, I got a crumby soundtrack with only two or three decent songs.
"Beat Street Breakdown" was and still is a powerful song. Sure, the music and rapping are dated and the unrestrained sincerity is corny by today's standards. That doesn't stop the song to be an epic poem about what hip-hop means to young people, how graffiti opened up a young kid's world, all leading up to the tragic death of a graffiti writer. It reminds you of what hip-hop could have been had we gone the path of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation, truly embracing the four elements.

Africa Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force are represented here with "Frantic Situation," a kinetic blast of electro that went way over my 9-year-old head, although I can appreciate it today. The Phony Four MC's had a novelty song with "Wappin (Bubblehead)." But as far as rapping, that's about it. Most of "Beat Street" is made up of weak electro-tinged R&B like The System's "Baptize the Beat," Juicy's "Beat Street Strut" and "Give Me All," and ballads like Jenny Burton's "It's Alright" and Tina B.'s "Nothin's Gonna Come Easy."
Imagine how disappointed I was listening to this hoping to hear some fierce rapping, and hearing "Us Girls" instead.

 I felt like I had been brought right to the brink of this amazing culture, and then denied entrance. I didn't now what other groups to listen to or how else to find out about the music. The local radio station would only play a few rap songs, and those were mostly rap interludes in R&B songs like Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You." I was hungry to hear hip-hop, and "Beat Street" didn't come close to satisfying my hunger.
The one saving grace to "Beat Street" was the Treacherous Three's "Santa's Rap." In the song, Kool Moe Dee plays Santa visiting the ghetto, while Special K and L.A. Sunshine heap abuse at him about how janky their toys were:
L.A. Sunshine: "You big fat whale you might as well quit
Cause I can name a hundred presents that I didn't get
And if I did get a present it would be a hand-me-down
Yo I got this for Christmas now how that sound"

Special K: "It sounds good to me cause I'm about to freeze
you wanna see something look at the bottom of these
me and brothers can't go out at the same time
cause a coat that's theirs is a coat that's mine"

Kool Moe Dee: "Man I know one thing y'all better get off my neck
And wait till you get ya welfare check
Go on down to the office and stand in the line
Better hurry up see I got mine
Jingle, Jangle, Jingle for the po
And once you get your welfare check
Yo kiss my mistletoe"

As I kid I loved the sing-songy rhymes about lyrics about Christmas in the ghetto. As an adult I realize how cutting that song was, especially considering it was essentially a novelty song. It remains one of my favorite hip-hop songs from that period.

By the time hip-hop and breakdancing hit my little beach town, it was pretty much over. Overexposure killed it. I moved on to new wave, convinced that hip-hop had been a fad. It was only several years later when my older brother got into West Coast gangster rap that I realized that there might be more to hip-hop than parachute pants and corny movies.

I've never gotten around to seeing "Beat Street." I've read about it. How it was supposed to be true to the spirit of hip-hop. How it all got watered down in production. How they used real graffiti writers and then polished their pieces. Until this week, I hadn't heard the soundtrack since the mid-80s. Listening to it now, it sounds as compromised and watered down as the film it is based on. Both volumes are out of print, volume two was never released on CD, and volume 3 was never released at all. I'd recommend seeking out "Santa's Rap" and buying a compilation of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash's greatest hits to hear the other good songs on this collection. The "Beat Street" soundtrack is obscure for a reason.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Lana Del Rey or Why I Hate the Media

In December, many of blogs I follow started getting all a-flutter about singer Lana Del Rey. They posted the video for her single "Video Game," they wrote breathlessly about her upcoming album, "Born to Die," and basically made it seem like she was the greatest thing since the iPhone. Then in January, the backlash began. She did a stilted gig on SNL. It was revealed that she had released an album before under her government name of Lizzy Grant, and that her hype machine was fueled by major label money. People accused her of not being indie. They made fun of her plastic surgery. They accused her of astroturfing.

Her album dropped last week, and response has been tepid. People have been quick to bash her. Most reviewers point out what is probably the truth, that the album is ho-hum and not worthy of all the attention it has gotten, either positive or negative. Even Rolling Stone gave it 2 stars, and they NEVER give ANYTHING 2 stars. Rolling Stone loves every album. They had a motto up in their offices in the 90s that 3 stars meant never having to say you're sorry.

Most reviewers are spineless fucks, myself included. We don't want to go out on a limb and say something sucks if everyone else seems to like it. We don't want to be mean to an artist. We don't want to admit to not understanding something everyone else loves. The only exception is when something is so loved we want to be contradictory, or when the signal has been given that it is ok to hate on an album.

Case in point. Nicolas Jaar's "Space Is Only Noise" made a bunch of top 10 lists. Why would a weird, meandering electronica album make so many top 10 lists? Because the signal was given that this was a cool record, and people lined up to love it, myself included. The fact that it is indeed a remarkable album helps its case, of course, but that is secondary. There are tons of brilliant records that don't get championed. It's far easier to back a winner than to go out on your own.

But I'm getting off topic. The whole Lana Del Rey thing is an example of the worst element of the media, especially in this hyper connected age. Some little thing will be talked and hyped to death by a bunch of pundits who don't know what the fuck they are talking about, creating this vicious feedback loop that makes a small matter into a giant tumor. Then, just as quickly, the tide will turn and the person or issue will vanish completely. The Republican primary is one example of this. Or Mass Effect as a sex simulator. Or Obama's birth certificate. Or any celebrity couple.


Whatever. "Video Games" is a decent song. Also, fake lips are terrible. I've never, ever looked at a woman and thought, I wish her lips were bigger.There is not one case where fake lips look better than real lips.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tenement and Homeboy Sandman Reviews

I have two reviews up this week. One is a review of Wisconsin band Tenement's Blind Wink album, up at Blogcritics now.  And only a month late.  You can hear tracks of it at their bandcap page.

I also reviewed Homeboy Sandman's new EP, Subject: Matter at RapReviews. I was really impressed by his last album, the Good Sun, but my enthusiasm has waned a bit. Still a good EP and worth checking out.

I haven't been updating this blog as frequently as in the past. There are many reasons. That Tenement record is one of three other reviews I have outstanding to Blogcritics, and then I'll probably hang up my hat for good with that site. I just don't have the time to devote to it. I'm still writing for RapReviews, but I think my output will go down. This week I have two presentations to prepare, a paper to write for work, a paper to write for school, and then I have more presentations and papers in my future, both for work and school. When I get home I don't want to be thinking or typing - I want to be playing video games or watching trashy movies or reading. I had all day Sunday free and didn't write a single word. I still love music, and buy it obsessively, but my need to be in on the newest and latest and greatest is waning. Maybe it's getting older and feeling further removed from the youth culture that is the main audience for a lot of the music I write about. I don't go to clubs, rarely go to shows, and am not part of the zeitgeist. 

I've been listening to a lot of mellow electronica and contemporary classical music lately. I've been digging the newish album by American Nicolas Jaar, Space Is Only Noise, and an old album by Brits Boards of Canada. I bought an album by ex-Rapsutina Julia Kent, which is mostly just cello, and also picked up a ton of used Kronos Quartet albums. I am still figuring out if I like them, if they are too new agey, or if they are too dissonant. Am happy that critics have told me to ignore Lana Del Rey. Almost shelled out a million pounds to download all of the Caretakers albums, but reminded myself that it is music that is more interesting conceptually vs. actually listenable. Got tickets to see Andrew Bird and Wye Oak. Am loving the Wye Oak album.  Good music for a bad time. Like My Bloody Valentine gone folk. The perfect soundtrack for being sad.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ritmo Machine Review

I reviewed the Ritmo Machine album this week. Latin music meets hip-hop. Pretty good.

I haven't posted a lot recently. I've been busy, my hands have been bothering me, and I'm trying to spend less time on the computer when I'm not at work. In a cruel twist of fate, I just got a PS3 and am discovering that playing it causes me no end of hand pain. Sweet.

I am working on reviews for the new Lindstrom album, the new Phenomenal Handclap Band, a Tenement album I was supposed to review in December, and maybe the new Homeboy Sandman ep. Half-written somewhere are reviews of last year's Shabazz Palaces album and the Beat Street Soundtrack. I also just bought a bunch of Kronos Quartet albums at Ameoba, and am currently trying to figure out if I like them. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

yU Review

Man, I love yU. I loved him in the Diamond District, I loved his 2010 album Before Taxes, and I especially love his new album, The Earn. I reviewed it this week on RapReviews.  Soulful, deep, grown-up hip-hop.

I finally, finally downloaded Leonard Cohen's first album, after twenty years of people saying how amazing he is. Yeah, they were right. He breaks my heart.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Death Grips Review

I reviewed Death Grips album Exmilitary on RapReviews this week. It's heavy, it's harsh, but I really like it. One of the best mixes of punk and hip-hop ever. You can hear it or buy it over here.

It's been on heavy rotation in my iPod, as well as the new yU album, the Shabazz Palaces album, and the Random Axe album from last year.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Eclipse Review

I reviewed Eclipse's 7777 for RapReviews last week. He's a Canadian rapper.

Been listening to the Shabazz Palace album nonstop, along with the new yU and De La Soul's 1993 album Buhloone Mind State, which is amazing. I've been meaning to buy that album for 18 years and finally got around to it.

I went to the Oakland Art Murmur yesterday. It was a madhouse. Much like an outdoor festival, there were too many people and it was better for the scene than to actually enjoy art. There was a lot of Occupy art, including some amazing pictures of the protest at the port (which I disagreed with). Also, Boots Riley from the Coup walked by me.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year's Day

I spent New Year's having a crab dinner at a friend's house. We watched the fireworks from the Embarcadero from their roof. I got news that my nephew was born. Kept my alcohol intake to moderate levels, and was home and in bed by two am. Now I am groggily starting the day and getting ready to start the year. I have big plans for 2012: there is a lot going on with work, with school, in my personal life. Last year I made a resolution to see more live music. I'm not making that same resolution in 2012. I want to see more shows, but I feel like I am at an age where I don't have the luxury to stay out until one am on a weekday. I have too many responsibilities, too many projects, too much going on to be able to indulge in hanging out and going to shows. Not that I won't still go, but it's not as important to me as it was last year.

This past year I dug deep into jazz, electronic, contemporary classical, and of course hip-hop. I'm wondering what is on the horizon for me in 2012 music-wise. Right now I'm too busy listening to Shabazz Palace's Black Up to worry about it. I put off buying this album for months, but finally gave in. It's not a traditional hip-hop album. The beats are languid and strange, as is the rapping. It's amazing though, a fitting sequel to the Digable Planet's Blow Out Comb album. I've been listening to it while playing Infamous on my new PS3. One of my favorite passtimes in life is to listen to music and play video games, jumping around a model New York City electrifying things while bumping Shabazz Palaces. I'm sure the people that do the sound and voice acting for games would be horrified to learn that I always mute their creations so that I can provide my own soundtrack.

Happy 2012!

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