2011: Daniel Levin Becker
I nearly didn’t notice this year going by, which can only be good. Looking back on a year in order to prepare these remarks, as it were, means looking back at what-all happened in the world outside of music, which is inevitably pretty depressing — deaths, disasters, seven billion people and 4.74 degrees of separation, the alarming speed with which something like the Davis pepper spray incident loses its bite, its outrage, and becomes a meme. (OK, but the “R.I.P. Carlos Santana” photo of Gaddafi was funny.) Not saying that music is an escapist haven from all that is depressing, although surely it can be that; just that tabulating it at the end of a year is a much less existentially fraught exercise than most other ways to review the year. Besides, rediscovering an album from eight months back is a lot better than, like, remembering that bin Laden is still dead. Just saying.
This guy, who is a physical therapy student from New Jersey (and I’m not sure why that’s relevant but I’m going to perpetuate its place in the buzz cycle anyway), gets it so thoroughly and consistently that I’d call him the year’s MVP. His beats are invariably better than the rappers who use them, which I suppose could be a cynical marketing strategy — we’ll see what his rolodex looks like after his work on A$AP Rocky’s insta-huge LIVELOVEA$AP – but they’re so perfectly wrought, so sublimely blunted and ethereal without sacrificing the requisite intricacy and grit, that it doesn’t matter who made them. Could be Siri, for all I care.
The way in which I have adored this album since I first heard it is so predictable and chronologically logical that explanation seems beside the point. Same phenomenon as this, essentially.
This slender little narcosis of an album has stolen the last two months, telegraphing its epic melancholy the way California telegraphs “winter.” Trevor Powers writes these massive seasonal-affective soul anthems that are imprisoned behind three or four too many layers of machinery and hiss, which is of course the most heartbreaking thing about them.
It feels almost pointless to point out that Mogwai has made another good album. But on the other hand, it’s noteworthy in itself that Mogwai is fucking still making good albums. This one takes longer than usual to unfold, perhaps because the songs are shorter than usual, but everything important is here.
My feelings on Lil B have become way more complex since I reviewed Rain In England (which still blows, don’t get me wrong). Seeing him perform in April brought me to this state of rapt ambivalence, and that’s roughly still where I am. Announcing that he was going to make an album called I’m Gay (I’m Happy) was a stunt that may not turn out to have been all that needless (what will we be saying in six months about “I Got AIDS,” from his sixth mixtape this year or so?), but the point we missed is that he followed through and made it. Also, it’s great: not fascinating the way his early dada-rap conversation-starters were fascinating, and it’s not particularly lyrically inspired, because even when he’s trying his hardest Lil B is only an OK rapper, but it’s extraordinarily easy to listen to; he’s got the right voice, the right flow, a supremely on-point ear for beats, and a relationship to language that may yet turn out to be catastrophic. He’s still a rapper to watch, just from less and less of a distance.
I was cagey with this album when I wrote about it in August, but mostly because I thought it was being cagey with me. We stuck with each other, though, and both opened up; the fact that I’m talking about having this kind of reciprocity with it is noteworthy by itself. But it’s at once delicate and solid, with almost nothing I’d throw out given the opportunity. (Just the last two minutes of “Payne’s Bay.”)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
See Yuck. Although that “tell me again what the body’s for” song creeps me out.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Another one I was sort of ambivalent about at the time, but that has since proven its worth. Manifold rewards for the listener willing to patiently hack through all the noodly prog viscera.
Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure (Island)
Starfucker – “Death as a Fetish” (Reptilians, Polyvinyl)
One Notable Book:
Kate Beaton – Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn & Quarterly)
By Daniel Levin Becker