If I end up writing about the things I’ve read I’ll make it a habit to update this and link it to the related post. 🙂 Also, please please send me recommendations!
I used to never track the stuff I read. Trying to change that this year! I still mostly read articles or whatever digital longform I can get (not enough space for books at the moment, and are hard to get a hold of). I try to track these types of reads on Are.na:
A little recap of music I enjoyed in a year where there was nothing else for me to fall into, an annual tradition.
Trying to write about music, especially on its personal importance and meaning, always seems like a futile attempt. Here’s a try at that anyway. I’d love to hear about what you enjoyed, and the thousands of incredible albums out there that I missed.
Chia’s 2020 Favorites
Future Teenage Cave Artists – Deerhoof
One of my only good memories at Yale is how I ditched my first year Spring Fling (looks like it’s going to be my only one) to tweet at Greg Saunier to let me get into a 18+ Deerhoof Concert, run across the New Haven Green, and have one of the most beautiful moments of my life without the people I felt so sunk down by. This year, Deerhoof is as eclectic as ever, chaotic, demanding, but so fucking fun, jarring, yet surreally warm to listen to on an album about isolation and the end of worlds. Rightfully recorded remotely and out of intense spite at the system breaking of man (Greg Saunier and I are Twitter mutuals, and Deerhoof is decades in the game and decidedly unapologetic) and dropped at the perfect time.
Experiments on tracks like “Farewell” Symphony make the album, where an anticlimax occurs when the titular piece asks of orchestra members to get up and stop, Damaged Eyes Squinting into the Beautiful Overhot Sun is ironic, decadent, and even malicious––stopping. Fitting of the title. The end is surreal, like an end to all things beyond the album itself, as a Bach piece is played on piano…before we autoloop back into a chaotic beginning. I feel at one suddenly with all my high school classmates rediscovering chess and their old middle school talents for TikToks and quarantine afternoons, filming themselves on untuned pianos and dancing on balconies looming over the brightest skies. Everything I have known will come once more, and everything I do know will be destroyed.
The record is classical and daring, and more experimental than ever. I have little technical musical knowledge which is why I’m using the same descriptors over and over, but composition-wise, I wonder how the electricity of the album was fueled by distance. How does something that speak to the coming together of a post-broken world feel so tight when exchanged in files and emails? Maybe it’s in the level of care imbued in the album, where even the Bach playthroughs are done fresh, each tap of the pedal and breath captured as vividly as synths and Satomi’s voice in other tracks––where mortality is exemplified even as we try to adhere to even classical pieces once thought eternal. As a whole listen, there’s something narratively daring going on here. The titular and opening track is a nice independent song (with a gorgeous lyric video, as seen above), but altogether, something occultish and daring happens. There’s an invitation to dwell, contemplate, and partake in the destruction of all things we know. Even in the celebration of the apocalyptic, an impending end still comes and comes and comes. Perhaps the most juvenile of all acts is to live in full awareness of this. To embrace it or not? Who knows, truly.
Favorite track Future Teenage Cave Artists –– “Gonna be a couple of vandals and be set free, gonna carve both our initials into a tree, gonna leave a future treasure for all to see“
Semaphore in Fog – Public Gardens
From Ireland, a tiny and lovely discovery is this folky, electronic experimental album reminiscent of somewhere betwen Animal Collective’s Prospect Hummer and tomppabeats’ Harbor (which is kinda close, right + even the album cover reminds me of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch in scheme and theme). Seventeen songs long but only about seventeen minutes, each track lies just around a minute or two, focusing on acute moments and coincidences. At moments bubbly and lifelike, other times matter-of-frank and logical. Rationalisation is a tender mix where the hints of vocals crying out on effort, humanity, and relationships melt; Undergrowth (my favorite on the album) lets words shine more over a fragile, homely instrumental singing of parking lots and wishing before dissolving into plucking and hints of a western vocal sample (cliche, but works ridiculously perfectly with the vocal work); Deathbed closes off this collection with specificities in space. Each line so casually digs into ordinariness, redeeming even the most forgotten second. Semaphore in Fog is littered with fleeting thoughts, penned to sequences that dissipate just as fast as they’ve come, others lingering and melding into your own reflection.
I listen to this album on walks, fall in love with domesticity a bit, want to run away and trace a withering world. It’s a soft, repeatable, tragically underrated listen that carries so much influences to feel familiar but new.
Mike Hadreas opens with something more reminiscent of a prayer than song. His voice cuts off, piano keys tapping, chords ringing, as he proclaims “half of my whole life is done.“
I listened to Put Your Back N 2 It and No Shape (released 2012 and 2017 respectively) front to back so many times almost confident that Mike’s rich catalogue had already taken me through the spectrum of feelings: of the enormity of love that we feel we don’t deserve (Alan), childhood abuse & the ache of recovery (Put Your Back N 2 It), or worse––the piecing together and unbreaking after pain someone you love suffers, hoping to bear it for them (Dark Parts). Yet somehow, I found something so simultaneously sublime and humanly tangible; where music could feel my body, take it, and mend it all over in each track. I feel no Perfume Genius record before this has spoken to me this deeply, and this has to be my favorite album of the year.
Less a collection of memories in song like his past records and more of its own divine movement, SMHOFI is filled with a mix of moments that I feel are Mike’s, then uniquely my own. It’s more triumphant than before. On passive listen, Jason is likely one of the most memorable songs where a “me” is rung. Even in the simpler tracks, the lines of fiction, delusion, and grandeur are so beautifully intertwined. Other songs veer on ominous, tracing encounters as if they can leave scars, on Your Body Changes Everything: “You are anchoring until you fit beneath me and you’re breaking like a way,” he sings arduously and tenderly all the same. It feels like after years, we’ve learned that hardened embraces still grip all the same. On pieces like Nothing At All, fantasy touches freedom on themes of unyielding, passionate love. Each sequence feels vast and ethereal, no room left to forget the complexity of love and lived experience in a juxtaposition of precise lyricism driven from straight thought to the grandiose compositions the back each word.
I took a film class this semester, so I’m kind of obligated to say that there’s something deeply cinematic about the production and tracklisting here. Each piece is ordered perfectly, never amiss, while wildly distinct. Perfume Genius explores the core of what Perfume Genius should be, when it feels like every formula has been touched and done. It feels like rebirth by way of reconciliation, maybe even a conquerization. My desires feel unbound, alive, and at the very core beneath all the grandeur that fades on my worst days––valid. My worst moments and thoughts are cries to infinity. This is my favorite record of the year. This is a record I could wish for something to.
Favorite tracks Whole Life– “Shadows soften toward some tender light, in slow motion, I leave them behind“ Some Dream – “All this for a song?“ Your Body Changes Everything – “Can you feel my love? Do you feel the same? Can you feel the sun, like honey? The camera cut away…”
Visions of Bodies Being Burned – Clipping
I first discovered clipping. through their fantastic 2017 KEXP performance. Back then, they were working through experimental narratives of afrofuturism, mixing gospel song with breathless futures of hypersleep and suspension in songs that told of a story of enslavement in space. Frontman Daveed Diggs’ flow is hyperclear, backed by experimental narratives that In their October release, they veer into abration and horror: my favorite moment is when they pay ode to the post-slasher woman as guest rappers Cam & China take deep breaths after screeching electronica-to-knock, underlaid with the cling of sharpening knives in an intense single so keenly aware of itself. On close listen, I can feel my blood curdling and noticing new details––it’s fucking stressful to listen to at times, in the best way; on passive shuffle, it remains no less overpowering with a mesmerizing, hypnotizing beat unafraid of owning its feminist commentary in full.
Borrowing from slasher film Candyman who was son of a slave burned in pyre and stung to death by bees from falling in love with a white woman, alive and murderous with hook-for-hand and other classics like Scream is a horror-rap masterpiece. Aside from recordings and commentary on classic tropes, Clipping directly delves into moments of racial lynchings and murders of the past to commentary on contemporary, head-on realities (Chapter 319, released on Bandcamp only before the album release, as conscious and direct addresses to undeniable atrocities). It’s sonically gritty, lyrically profound, and reflective of grim realities far beyond American horror flicks as Daveed digs into the unfolding brutality in front of our every own eyes. Packaged subtexts in little short horror stories, I had to watch influence Candyman’s trailer to fully get it: Tony Todd speaks demonically grimy and harrowing, yet strangely enchanting; Candyman filled with missed messages on white saviorism, painted brutality, and privileged perceptions of justice the only wreak inequity on the masses. Here, we hear whispers of ghosts, calls to haunt and kill descendants upon descendants, humorous metaphors to murder, the sickness of death desensitized to the point of stoicism, to ending of Yoko Ono-produced recordings directed to be played eerily: we see the worst end as a bleak nothingness, more than any eldritch horror.
“Decide on one note that you want to play. Play it with the following accompaniment — the woods from 5AM – 8AM in the summer.”
Like many other college kids swept by loneliness and frustration, I devour Phil Elverum’s work. Somewhere in my teen years, I made it a point that if I would die, I would die to I. the Sun, aptly themed after being devoured by an omniscient beast, treading a wicked Mount Eerie until all who hike it meet their inevitable ends. Just like Phil’s 2001 trek, he leaves the summit of Mount Eerie (his most recent performing name, with past albums commemorating and grieving the life of Geneviève Castrée) to return as the Microphones. More introspective, more aware that heights are no longer just caricatures of our fears but are mortal barriers meant to be passed on generation-to-generation. Inward we go again, existential as ever, 19 years later.
After over seven and a half minutes of an instrumental intro as Phil places photograph after photograph of himself, landscapes, and life in a “lyric demonstration”, he begins––admitting himself to be as reckless as he was at twenty. A single-track album meant as memoir and walkthrough to Phil Elverum’s entire life, he crashes back. Faults, wishes, hopes, epiphanies, packaged into the same serene, stoically heavy voice that carries not only mountains, but perhaps worlds, within.
Musically, there are few major changes or movements in the piece. (His journey is literal: talking about checking his email––still on hotmail––as some soft drums [?] arrive, thirteen minutes into the song.) Two simple and standard chords loop over and over, this time free of the distortion and crackling that Phil’s other works play with beyond his familiar acoustics and voice (see the eleven-minute literal Distortion track on Now Only). It reads more like a poem. This time, closer and more hypnotic than ever.
This is not only autobiography; its a plea at self-preservation. The enormity of his pretentiousness, of the emptiness done over and over, exaltation to the elements, purity lost and received, the potentiality in everything, the nothingness in everything afterwards, his shirt still off after the Glow Pt 2-–vulnerability never fading––nineteen years after the fact, the unrelentless sun once more, and finally––the stupidity of his song’s name in itself before proclaiming that there is no end. I could paraphrase Phil’s experiences forever, take his words as scripture and pass them on, but they need to be taken full, orderly, with the mass of texture and meaning they have, his experiences in your hand, what his expression of creativity could mean to you and I as viewer. Throughout his career and life, there exist no shortage of questions that we’ve been posed by Phil. He offers few answers, a warning sign, and his hand broken and bound ad infinitum. The photographs continue to pile up over crumbled and aging paper––before pushing them aside at another attempt to assemble his life. Are these same reasons not why we try to know others at all?
Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
Is it possible for any decent list this year to go without Fiona Apple’s masterpiece?
Fetch the Bolt Cutters came out a few weeks after the worst time of my life: at the verge of being kicked out of America, spending days sleeping at friends’ and professors” homes, wondering what circumstances have led to the difficult of the life I lead. Is this all self-imposed and poor decision, or are there systems working against me? Fiona Apple recklessly, unabashedly, head-on tackles this all: moodswing, pans banging, the weight of her previous albums and experiences all against her clinging into any moment with a hint of kindness. Shameika and the ensuing reunions discovered around this in the past months exemplify this best, where a resounding comment that may have just been a forgotten, passing time for her namesake middle school friend cling to her, phrase turned into a battlecry. I feel every moment I’ve had as a femme is worth grandness and a reckoning; my kindness weaponized when necessary and my triumphs elevated in a time when everything else threatens to dismantle my being. It is radical, timely and timeless, filled with rich percussion that sticks and stays for months. It is political, alive, casual, and most of all––raw.
Like anyone else, all I am is small and childish in the face of Fiona’s words. I listen to her as she uncomfortably dictates the harsh realities of womanhood, feeling with her as every inch of power is stretched, bent, made infinite, made momentary. On my first listen, I played this on my laptop, climbed up my bunked-up dorm room bed, tried to dance and hit my head on the ceiling (even American dorm room ceiling heights were not kind to my 4’11” self). Part of this energy was just with how casual Fiona Apple makes the act of reclamation. The lyrics are heavy yet delivered matter-of-frank, each song anthemic until you really boil it down and realize how lo-fi it is (especially with those that just descend into what sounds like living room/kitchen fuckery). It is grating and rough, blues-like and popping, and ultimately beautiful. Fiona Apple has never derailed into pleasantries, but this time, she’s not only tending the power, she’s shifting it forwards. Her voice layers on, each line an incantation and near-ritualistic, but it’s really just her––effortless and genuine in a time when trying seems impossible. Collapse is beautiful, she admits, vulnerability not only meant to be embraced but turned into an assault against a world against her. Homemade, deconstructing victimhood and the carceral, making these experiences and learning accessible. There are few times where I feel that we owe all the world an experience, and this album is one of those.
In this march towards liberation, Fiona offers little rest yet the experience is never exhaustive or grueling. Moments like Ladies after enormities like Newspaper also take on the album’s tendency towards abstracted specificities, direct addressal to the women listening in a smoother break from Fiona’s grittiness. Then, right after, she rockets you once more to compositions so entrancing in their simplicity and forwardness: “I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans––I’ve been sucking it in so long that I’m busting at the seams.” These arrangements and orderings suck you in even deeper, making the near-hour listen a demanding yet easy embrace to this world of renewal.
Each little story, captured moment, piano key, bite, scramble, and pang that Fiona shares is worth its own army. In arms we become in one of the most intimate, genuine and intelligent albums in the age of distrust. It is ridiculous how undeserving we are of a record so full, wise, and true. If nothing else, give this your listen.
Quiet, Or You’ll Wake Them And They Will Disappear Forever – Holland Patent Public Library
Ryan Dann is a musician, composer, sound designer, and is Holland Patent Public Library from Brooklyn. Soft, delicate, and timeless, Ryan is mostly known for scoring comedian Joe Pera’s show on Adult Swim. Independently, his compositions are just as comforting and profound. Each song is largely instrumental, the longest track is A Pile of Leaves, just a second short of ten minutes where strings and winds resound softly against occasional crunches. In the background, childlike, joyous screaming is heard, the barking of dogs, life lived all-in-all––before dizzying itself around eight minutes in, returning to humming and familiar patterns. It becomes remarkable how transcendent little babbling, runoff moments become under Ryan’s compositions. I’m not entirely sure if this is the best comparison, but it sounds like a homely videogame soundtrack to reality.
When I need a break from the world, I turn this album on and my mind decompresses as Ryan hums. Seven tracks in thirty-five minutes, Quiet or You’ll Wake Them sounds like a literal lullaby, Philip Seymour Hoffman Died Today almost sounds like it could back the quietest moments of Synecdoche.
Building on comparisons of fantasy (after all, what constitutes something lived this year at all?), escapism seems to be a constant in many other artists’ work, yet Holland rejects it (?) for the sake of being. Terrors directly commented on, better denounced, logistical workings and drops shifted in the name of being virtuous (such as Phoebe Bridgers words when dropping Punisher), but this album exists for itself, easily clinging to anyone willing to give it a listen. It’s elegaic; the last track All Our Enemies Are Finally Dead, Thank God presses on organs and sounds like it could come from post-rock contemporaries––ending in silence, enforcing a pause before you loop back to From Pawling‘s soft piano ballad. To me, there’s something magical here. Intention and care felt and alive. What a beautiful work I stumbled upon.
Following Holland Patent Public Library’s early 2020 release that made serenity possible again, Ichiko Aoba’s latest album is the thing of folklores, myths, and richness. Where the last entry portrayed the realities of life in new lushness, Ichiko Aoba takes us on to another world. Singer-songwriter, folklorish, poppy, avant-garde. All insufficient. Following in her distinct
vocal minimalism, the album is cohesively hush and transient like in her traditional style, but lets tracks blooms further more.
It’s an easy, gorgeous must-listen with layers of intricacies that defy its surface simplicity. On first listen, I felt like the music was drowning; literally suffocating in its oceanic motifs due to the density of the world we were being pulled in. Drowning in the sense of picturing peace after struggle. There are these undertones of helplessness under her act of exploration, and depths that you can allow yourself to submerge further and further into if you only allow yourself to with your heartbeat and ear.
Her compositions are unparalleled. A easy way to describe this is it sounds like a Ghibli film, wartime and memoirs hidden underneath poppish ambience, piano, and grand chords. I wish I knew more about music so I could try to encapsulate how this album simultaneously is so complex yet simple––which like knowledge, must be one of the best markers of adeptness at the trade. With unskippable interludes that touch on the experimentation explored throughout her career to her once-more, resounding voice, I can’t help but to want to sink deeper into the depths that she so tries to quell. It seems like there is no other way.
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve fallen asleep to Big Thief’s Capacity and UFOF in Bass Library, cubed up in single-study rooms that I would leave at 2am nearly every night. In the cold New Haven air, I tread back to my dorm room head blurred and carrying pounds of printouts and chargers, feeling solemnly alone in struggle. I remember everything and why I do this: the distance comes crisper along with this personal rationale and resolve. And then the music plays and for a moment, it feels like burdens are lifted.
In a leading solo effort, Adrianne is as pensive and prosaic as ever through songs as sympathetic as ever. Her voice is lush, smooth, and distinctive, guitar and vocals taking the stage and building their own tiny worlds. Every word she sings reaffirming. Like in Big Thief, Lenker excels at capturing little objects and mundane moments to more renowned tribulations like motherhood. In nothing special contemporary lowercase style, the soft songs capture rivers, memory, and time.
Melee – Dogleg
Electrifying, nerdy, and cathartic in every sense. It’s blatantly obvious that I spent the last years of high school listening to midwest emo in the middle of Philippine suburbia, Catholic school and all, clamoring at the likes of Glocca Morra, Snowing, and Marietta to feel invincibile in the face of nothing. This comes alive all over in the first few seconds of opener Kawasaki Backflip––playing fast, reckless, and all-in-all thrilling emo masterpiece. Drawing a bit from post-hardcore elements, backing vocals tucked in to vocalist Alex Stoitsiadis’ familiar and raw delivery, and filled with ridiculously fueling riffs––I’m returned to basements, music played too loud of tangled earbuds on flights in between past and future homes, my childhood bedroom, the musk of Makati’s bars––everything I’ve wanted from my youth all at once. In this realm, everything is personal, everything is true, and everything is potent: there is no drop of energy wasted. It’s music you feel in you bones.
When I first discovered Dogleg through a missearch of Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree-era rarity Star 67, I was blown away. On their Remember Alderaan EP, they deliver a perfect four-minute ode to life and longing. With the same infectious vocals and instrumentation dropping the melancholic in favor of a more choleric and true approach, Dogleg finds where they truly shine––all messy, angsty, and resilient, without the stigma behind any of those words. It’s an adrenaline rush, a return to the titular times of rhythm games, GTA (which now has ridiculously good songs on the radio, mind you), and Nintendo party classics, and the unadultered youth many of us have thought to abandon. Adolescence becomes explosive now. Titles like Prom Hell that appropriately open up a bit of existentialism, and Melee-following Fox sings almost like an intense anime opener. All of them could be English-language OPs to a shonen, really. The feel of perfect arcs, impossible barriers moved over and then forgotten so easily, and the fitting of yourself in the protagonist’s shoes come so easily. Disintegration and all be damned.
The explosiveness of Dogleg in an age where emo is thought to be dying is saving us all. It’s the early 2000s in music revived, in the best way. Everything old is new again. Yet Dogleg is never tired in this pursuit, they fill in something long lost––awakening something I feel like I should have deserved better in my youth (that I still am currently living, really). When Alex sings “any moment now, I will disintegrate / you’ll make your move and I will fade out” in an intensifying drawl that is nothing short of hypnotic in Fox, I believe it. Cannonball has more movements, a lyrical favorite, where the band steadily continues a stream of emotions no less heavy than the last. It’s punk, modern, angsty, righteous, and bursting with fun. Their music videos for Kawasaki Backflip and Fox show this all simply: smashing pots in garages with baseball bats, stagediving off 60-person venues. To an outsider these moments are silly and childlike, but in the moment, they are everything. Isn’t that all we really need?
I am waiting for the day to drown into these songs in a pit of people who have lost, over and over, questioning the persistence of aging––decaying into allowed destruction.
Kid Dakota, artist of my music discovery on YouTube phase with Darren’s 2002 release So Pretty, changed my life for the better. Just released a few weeks ago on the 11th (lots of 2000s artists seem to be coming back for a second calling), his ageless voice returns again, also mythologizing the world’s end and eventual forgetting. Homeward, familiar, and necessary, this folkish narrative had been circling since as early as 2011, then formally released on Bamdcamp over a year ago on April 1st, 2019. The stories about nuclear warfare and the fears that follow are perhaps realer than ever in our time as Darren now holds to whatever remaining ounces of innocence he bears. Unlike Deerhoof’s rapidly encroaching end taken to the prehistoric era, Kid Dakota’s survival instinct is meditated and refined. Each preserved line shows that this has been a continued effort. Age and experience are offering no answers to these fruitless questions as existence and worth is questioned, over and over.
Like where they shone in So Pretty, the act of self-preservation is dark and ominous; the timbre of Darren’s vocals show the proficiency of his passion from his decades of experience as a teacher as they unravel into murky earths (Cold War), impulsive breakdowns, and even poppier, upbeat rhythms (Futurecide). Both innocence and apathy are destroyed in these monotonous, ghastly arrangements. Has the world ended already?
The best of modern math rock / post-hardcore. I have been waiting for Tricot’s return for ages, and was properly blown away by how they make pop rock work and turn aggressive for the better. Behind the seeming minimalism accentuated by the pitch black album cover and catchy hooky lyricism are layers of technical complexity. While the genre has long seemed repetitive and afraid of progression, Tricot denounces that immediately here in a flashy groovy, unique, and fun approach to the genre. There are few bands I know today actively touching on these sensibilities and pushing it forward, and am so glad to have fallen into Tricot’s works over the past years (previous favorite being 2013 release T H E). An incredible welcome to a new decade alongside their anniversary release 10.
My confusing Zoom background for the semester. I miss u so fucking much black dresses
Noisy pop, chaotic and too smart of their own good, self-aware and the soundtrack of dissociation, acknowledging identity before demolishing it again––all while being rather acessible (read: can send this to my friends without them wanting to slaughter me, for the most part) and intense. I will follow Devi and and Ada’s stuff forever and I am so, so bummed that I was not their for their entire musical journey as black dresses, but am excited for all to come.
The age of computation and desire deserves no less than this incredible masterpiece of rough hyperpop and industrial rock. Every track is oozing with creativity, especially seen in the memorable low-poly and glitchy worlds that their music videos draw you in. Black Dresses also has alarmingly incredible vocals, hypnotizing and overwhelming in some tracks and then laidback and freeing in the next. Listening closely beyond what sounds like datamoshing in audio form are incredible pieces on expression, dystopia, stardom, and delirium. How inventive, carefree, and cathartic can such a polarizing (if you do not like 100 gecs, it’s still really not that hard to get into this) project be?
All I can think of is the era of y2k panic, the lone Heaven’s Gate representative and acting webmaster still maintaining the website, Top 8 friends, the death of cyberspace, and everything in between. It feels like a logical progression to the time of Death Grips-Kero Kero Bonito-etc. era that is obviously divisive
…but also, The Ascension’s B-Side My Rajneesh as a musical throwback to his older works while perfectly blending Seven Swans and Adz-era instrumentation (see: Vesuvius) with a ridiculously delicious long outro that I love and love and love
Happy fifteen years to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah‘s self-titled, and the lovely bonus tracks collection they shared with us that I cried to a good amount
Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now, process and all exemplifying “building in public” better than many technologists.
I Disagree‘s hypnotizing “Watashi wa anata ni doi shimasen” whispers!!
What did you enjoy this year? Please, please send me recommendations; discovery is hard and the intangible is better when shared.
Thank you. I have a Tinyletter if you want to get an email about what I am doing like once a year. I love you.
There are some live performances that you need to sit through and listen to. From shaky lens to television performances, here’s some stuff I’ve been living through until we can get out and listen to music in all its life once again.
(When I listen to music it’s the only time I ever feel like I am alone and am fully allowed to be. I haven’t gone to sleep without migraines or my head nightmarishly pulsating, but then I wake up and know that I have something here again…)
Perfume Genius Live in the KEXP Studio, July 24 2017
I listened to this three years after its recording, off the masterpiece that was Set My Heart On Fire Immediately and discovering a new love for Perfume Genius, I needed to return to Mike’s earlier work.
While touring the effervescent No Shape, performed in the aptly-lit and glittering studio with my favorite host, Perfume Genius opens off with Valley. It’s more gentle and nostalgic than the version on the record or on his Tiny Desk. You hear the tapping and ditzing of keys by Alan (Mike’s partner) in a keyboard not so far away; listening to No Shape with its light filters and echoing… it suddenly feels distant, incomparable to the warmth and earnest of the slower-paced KEXP version. His voice trembles, lifting up his headphone, but it’s smoother than ever.
When Valley closes off, I knew this short twenty-minute performance wouldn’t not be enough. The tone and liveliness of Mike’s voice to how much more vivid this arrangement is than in any other live recording is stunning. It’s Perfume Genius in its clearest, most authentic, most humanly rising: which is better than a distant transcendence.
No Shape is praised and rightfully so, there’s no agreeing that reaching transcendence is its objective. Where in Wreath, Mike’s vocals are accompanied by a chorus (making that comparison to Running Up That Hill again, because it’s almost a necessary companion), with a constant beating and drumming behind his voice of protest. Suddenly: the layers are stripped. His vocals are uplifted, his words are sput out more distinctly, his inflections become human, and he pounds on his chest. The music is more ethereal than ever, only if the transcendence rooted in non-conformity and bravery is best exemplified in seeing his defiance with all its imperfections and contumacy.
Slip Away, the album’s most striking track is stripped even more. The drums roll more, Mike follows himself, catching and catching––until it ends and we know that the grandiosity he sings is rooted in the spaces right around us. If the album celebrates Mike in his confidence and heavenly portraiture of love, this KEXP session is necessary listening. Where the record is decadence and imagination (just look at the official music videos), this live puts in a new form of power to the layers of fantasy that he professes.
The Hotelier playing “Home, Like Noplace Is There” in full at The Fest, November 2 2014
“If white people have no culture explain midwest emo.” One of The Hotelier’s very-sad-very-smart tricks is naming one of their most celebrated songs Your Deep Rest which is “your deep rest” about death but also “you’re depressed” because of how you feel aha get it; and it’s a little cringe in the way that passionate, amateur authenticity always is––but it’s pounded in this weathered experience and freedom that few music can do.
2014. The drums and audience clash so loud less than four minutes in, such that vocalist Christian is almost inaudible despite his screams and pleads––before crashing: I just slept for years on end––FUCK!
The song cuts, Christian thanks the audience, who have already clearly showed that they know every word and all to come. The crowd is filled with tattoos, beer cans, glasses, washing every word up for all its truth. For all the midwest emo sadness, Home Like Noplace Is There is one of the most magical, raw experiences I’ve heard. The show is catharsis. All hands rise up, pointing, sometimes at nothing in particular to sing of helplessness and familial pain to lyrics universal in the room: working-class, suburban boredom and a longing for bigger things. When you’re all packed and recognize your entrapment, it’s easy to let everything go.
Watching this in the early morning feels like a special kind of care. It’s easy to dismiss these records as whiny and narcissistic, but seeing it roared from body to body in a heated room where no other words could ever be truer in the moment connects you (at least I believe it must). I listened to this album over and over when in my first year of college, feeling so out of place and desperate for some form of escape. It said many of the words I needed to get out for me. I wonder what it could have been like if I had the spirit to let them out myself.
Sufjan Stevens on Austin City Limits, September 17 2006
I memorize the smile and strings pulled right after Sufjan sings the first line of The Lord God Bird, his song on the ivory-billed woodpecker––one of his more hidden tracks commissioned by NPR back in 2005, or the way he deems Jacksonville “cool enough” after the heartbreaking Casimir Pulaski Day, putting on yellow-tinted shades and smirking before singing on preachers and slaves… and moreso the spiel that Sufjan goes into as he recounts––as good as any unreliable narrator––the much-speculated story circling between love and god in Predatory Wasp. He rambles, chuckling about dragons and eagles and rowing with a friend and a Good Year Blimp, scratching his head and letting leave an “oh no,” before he and his orchestra chronicle his journey in song. It is so gentle and holy that it is nothing short of prayer, as vivid as childlike awe can recall.
His “first performance on national television”, there’s no high quality recording of the now fourteen-year-old show, but each song could be lifted straight from the album; or perhaps greater. It’s humanized, each introduction and awkward pause the breath and pull before delving once more into the meticulous melodies and orchestras you are once again whirled into. Here: the chaos is live. The patient, slow fades from Sufjan in full wing, the outfitted orchestra and percussionist trembling with him, and the soul he brings. After the Episcopal Wasp then crescendos into a vow against the age of industrialization and poverty––no moment is left without attention and care. The
Once 2021 comes, I hope to see him tour The Ascension live. I don’t think any record can capture emotion as much as he does in this performance. It’s so remarkably expected of Sufjan to be able to turn music into something so whole; and in this, it becomes inexplicably infinite.
1. The Lord God Bird (The Great God Bird) 2. Casimir Pulaski Day 3. Jacksonville 4. The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us 5. Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) 6. A Good Man Is Hard To Find 7. The Dress Looks Nice On You 8. Chicago
Car Seat Headrest plays “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” at the Black Cat, May 23 2016
This is one of the only recordings left of Ballad, named as one of Stereogum’s Top 200 Songs of the 2010s. It’s an unusual choice at the surface and not an immediate Car Seat Headrest song you’d named. “Bombast”, as Stereogum describes, though it seems to be a lot more forthright and earnest in its millennial angst, self-delusion, and narcissism. Will breaks down, in more panic and anguish that can ever be contained in the record version as he screams about mistakes in anecdotes and vignettes that we can only do our best to fit ourselves in. He’s sinking: thinking of blood, himself in his youth, the fear in his body, and everything in between.
One of the most special Car Seat Headrest performances to me (which is saying a lot), you can only picture Ethan’s vocals and the loudening band behind him. He switches up the lyrics: “Some things are unforgivable! God won’t forgive me! You won’t forgive me!“, his voice cracking with instruments that can barely keep up. He perhaps is never truly inadequate. The three-parter song closes with an act of defiance. He gives up but is never brought down.
The near-twelve minutes to sit through when listening to Ballad alone are a world of their own, but it takes on new form with the changes in the song’s pivotal breakdown. The crowd whoos with him, distinct enough from his monotone, attempt at lifeless “I give ups” that trace the end of the movement––unaware of the levels of anguish let out at the very end. The song’s live recording has been taken down a number of times for explicitly unknown reasons, and it shouldn’t be long songs that make the band afraid of performing it (they close off almost every performance with Beach Life-in-Death nowadays). Perhaps it’s another cost to spit out the words and relive them: your childhood traumas that in hindsight, are nothing yet never go away––even if in the moment, are everything.
Every song off Teens of Denial can be an anthem on its own. This one is more special. It lives in bedrooms and secrets, triggered only when one lets the world seize all of you… so hearing this live gives it an entirely new narrative that I’m graced to be able to hear in clasped recordings tossed in Google Drive rares collections. (Wonder when this one will go down?)
Of Montreal plays a stripped-down version of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” on AOL
Opening with a pixelated “dl.aol.com” tag is a boxy, low-resolution video. The camera shakes when panning around Kevin Barnes. For ten minutes, every one-liner on Grotesque… is given new light.
You’ve red-rovered the gestapo circling my heart…
When I first listened to of Montreal, I was stunned at how nothing else was quite like it; amazed by sounds before I knew the importance of influences and their influences. Now, Grotesque‘s bassline, synths, and distortions are gone: the experimental, cynical, twisting song takes new life. Every line Kevin coos now stands alone and wholly so.
Dogleg on The Michigan Daily’s Standing Room Only, 2017
Think NPR Tiny Desk, but actually mixed a little terribly and in the full awkwardness of seeing one of the best active midwest emo bands perform in a cramped circle around a mostly-dead newsroom. Alex Stoitsiadis owns: with scattered applause and weird cuts and some light jokes as they pass around water. You wouldn’t expect that Kawasaki Backflip came from this era, or that the live of that single would have the strength it did here tenfold. The only thing that could have made this better was if they played Star 67.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard Live in the KEXP Studio, June 6 2018
It’s no surprise that Polygondwanaland is my favorite KGATLW. From the open source ethos, rolling 10-minute starter Crumbling Castle. I listened to this live over and over in my first semester of college. Performances like these mixed so masterfully rightfully place the prog rock crown on them.
I am born again I see the light it’s in my face I am analyzing information now I am a god
Of their many KEXP appearances, they hop from Polygond’s opener to the end –– clean and smooth. Just as the they have two drummers (to sound louder!) matching one another, the performance is almost hypnotic in its consistency. Stu’s vocals are ridiculously good in the studio — from the wah-wahs to a whoo-ing “1 2 3 4!” as every minor sound (from the tapping, intentional breathes, to split-second pauses) sticks and lands. The tightness is mesmerizing, never claustrophobic as the seven-man has perfected the art of being thunderous: rolling, trembling, forever steady.