Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusses classic composition was originally recorded by Cy Grant in 1964, and, a year later, was covered by Nina Simone, whose version became one of the iconic tracks of that decade. Since then, its been covered, sampled and remixed dozens of times, including recently by Lauryn Hill.
This post is part of our program, The Story of Kendrick, an in-depth, 10-part look at the life and music of Kendrick Lamar. Sound cool and want to receive the other installments in your inbox? Go here. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out and share on Facebook, Twitter, or with this link. Your friends will thank you.Kendrick Lamar’s albums are holistic, meticulously crafted meditations on the idea of blackness in America; they’re novels disguised as albums, and one gets the sense that every couplet and every bass lick has been labored over. All this is great, but sometimes you just want to hear Kendrick rap. This is what made his untitled.unmastered outtakes album from 2016 so enjoyable, and also why his guest verses are always so charming. The span of artists on this playlist reflects the central tension in Kendrick’s own music; the transcendent, post-electronic jazz of Flying Lotus nestles beside the rickety soul street reportage of Schoolboy Q. Navigating the space between those two poles is Kendrick, who moves forward and raps his ass off.
Nas may be known primarily for classics albums such as Illmatic and It Was Written, but his work on other people’s tracks reveals new dimensions of his work. On earlier classics such “Verbal Intercourse” or the vastly underrated AZ collaboration “Mo Money, Mo Murder (Homoside),” Nas seems primarily concerned with sensory detail and pure sound -- the clanging consonants and sly insertions of internal rhymes that melt the rusted metal of his harrowing imagery into pure liquid poetry. As his career would progress, he became more interested in carving out meaning, and tracks such as “Road to Zion” -- his collaboration with Damian Marley -- and “Music for Live” are thoughtful post-colonialists critiques set to boom bap. His recent verse of DJ Khaled’s “Nas Album Done” verifies that, 20+ years into an already legendary career, the rapper is still near the top of the game. The power of his voice is matched by the subtlety of his language as he pushes for equality through economic re-investment in black communities. Yeah, it’s admittedly strange this is taking place on a DJ Khaled track, but the track has to be encouraging for all Nas fans.
We all have our passion projects. For some of us, it’s tending a garden or collecting vinyl, while others write novels or cut vanity records. JAY Z, being JAY Z, thinks on a much larger scale. For the past two years, he has been singly focused on building his fledgling streaming service, Tidal. He’s squeezed favors from friends, spent ridiculous amounts of time and money on promoting the service, and even gotten his wife involved in the proceedings (though, it must be noted, her contribution came wrapped in a bow of marital discontent). At first, this very much seemed like a business decision. Most of us never really believed the line about him trying to empower artists with a (somewhat) more fair streaming business model. The best guesses by industry insiders was that he would build it out, and then flip it for a couple hundred million in profit. After all, he is a business, man.But, increasingly, JAY Z seems to be motivated less and less by altruism, or even business acumen, and more by hubris. This is a man who’s not used to losing, and turning his back on Tidal—either by shutting it down, or selling it for scraps—definitely feels like an L. So, here we are. JAY Z has a new album, 4:44, his first since 2013’s critically panned but commercially successful Magna Carta Holy Grail. And that album will be available exclusively on Tidal. There’s been a lotofinkspilledabout why exclusives are bad for the industry and bad for fans, and those articles seem to focus on two basic principles: 1) Forcing fans to shell out for an additional music service is fundamentally unfair, and 2) it frustrates the fans, encourages privacy, and shrinks the marketplace. We generally agree with this line of thinking, albeit with a few caveats—the streaming marketplace isn’t as frail as it once was, and there are consumers with the resources and the motivation to buy what is effectively a bigger bag of popcorn. But, ultimately, the true casualty of the exclusivity wars is the artform.Music is a living medium. It’s supposed to be heard, discussed, and reappropriated into new forms. In short, it’s a conversation between millions of fans and artists, and if you have that conversation in a closet, or behind a velvet rope, then it’s a pretty shitty conversation. The fact that The Beatles took 10-plus years to get into the subscription music marketplace, and were so protective of their online presence, meant an entire generation had limited exposure to what is undoubtedly the most influential rock group of the past half century. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the retro-minded bands of past decade have gravitated towards the bluesy, garage rock that was championed by The Rolling Stones. It’s simply what they had exposure to, and what they heard. And while the reservoirs of Boomer Beatles nostalgia is nearly endless, the band felt largely invisible to millennials for the better part of a decade.This is not to suggest that JAY Z’s legacy is in any immediate danger—he more or less owned hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s—but it’s also pretty clear that the release strategy for 4:44 will hurt its overall cultural impact, even if, by some miracle, it boosts Tidal’s bottom line. It certainly hurt Beyoncé’s Lemonade. That was one of the strongest albums of the decade and arguably the best of Beyoncé’s career, but its impact and cultural cachet already seem to be waning just because many people can’t listen to it.To be very selfish, The Dowsers is a magazine exclusively devoted to playlist criticism and analysis. When an important record comes out—say, SZA’s CTRL or Solange’s A Seat at the Table—we pore over its influences, samples, collaborations, and impact in an attempt to put it in a larger context and make sense of it for our readers. It’s our part of the conversation around popular music. But we can’t do that with JAY Z’s 4:44. We can’t even create a playlist around his previous albums; they’ve also disappeared from Spotify. So, instead, we’ve opted to create a playlist that focuses on his guest verses. It’s an awesome playlist, of course, but it also feels like a missed opportunity—and that’s on JAY Z.
When describing his own “furniture music” -- an early 20th century, Dadist-inspired prototype of what is now called ambient music -- the avant garde classical composer Erik Satie offered what is still a pretty good working definition for ambient music, calling it, "a music...which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself.”This isn’t what Tim Hecker is doing, though the Vancouver producer is considered a leading light of the genre. Since the 2001 release of his debut collection, Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again, Hecker has created music that is unbelievably heavy and visceral. The grinding feedback and high-pitched tones of “Whitecaps of White Noise 1” -- from his landmark 2006 album, Harmony in Ultraviolet -- bludgeon the senses, while the shimmering noise and twisted choral choir of “Castrati Stack,” from 2016’s Love Streams, effectively places the listener inside of a nightmare. True, like other ambient music, it doesn’t move the way music normally moves - phrases are chopped off and movements swerve, swell and then abruptly freeze, frequently disintegrating into planes of noise -- but just because something walks like a dog, it doesn’t always mean that it’s a dog.This much was obvious the last time I saw Hecker perform live. About 500 of us stood in the mildewy remains of an abandoned movie theater deep in San Francisco’s Mission District. Just prior to Hecker taking stage, the lights cut out, and we were suddenly placed in what was a near-total darkness. An opaque rumbling sound began to emanate from the large speakers to the side of the stage, and, soon, shards of enveloping industrial sounds snaked through the crowd. Occasionally, the thick black curtain that had been erected at the back of the theater, providing a cocoon of sorts, would ripple and crease, and the lights from the street would invade the space, revealing inert bodies strewn across the floor, lost in a noisey maze. It felt like a purge -- dominating and imposing, a type of “ambient” music that was anything other than ambient.You can see Tim Hecker perform live at the San Francisco MUTEK Festival, which takes place May 3 - May 6 at various venues. Advance tickets available here.
While contemplating whether or not to boycott Kanye, listen to the soulful, spiritual jazz of Kamasi Washington. Itll take the edge off, we promise.In this time of great shitiness, when the ruler of the world is a reality star who rose to power by stoking the basest racial sentiments of a populace knee-deep in Russian propaganda, I think back to other shitty times, namely the late-summer of 2005. Less than a year before, we’d re-elected a president who led us to war based on a lie that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and forever shattered the Middle East. Louisiana, my home state, was underwater after Hurricane Katrina, and people were dying. The president was, at best, cavalier about the loss of life, and, at worst, complicit in it. Kanye, during a marathon to benefit the victims of that hurricane, famously declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and that felt like one of the most courageous and comforting things I’d ever heard. His words were bold and empowering, and though the odyssey Kanye would undergo over the next decade was slightly more ambiguous, it all felt of a piece with that moment. To put it plainly, I loved Kanye.I supported Kanye after his marriage -- not despite of who he was marrying, but because of it. Kim Kardashian was a beautiful, wealthy, and savvy woman. Who wouldn’t want that? I thought what he did at the VMAs with Taylor Swift was funny and warranted, and that the more extreme reactions against it were tinged with racism. I didn’t agree with everything he said in his “rants,” but I also thought that it was an inspired piece of stagecraft. All those things were awesome, in my opinion, and are among the reasons I love him. What Kanye is doing now has nothing to do with that narrative. When he poses in a MAGA hat, as Lyor Cohen appears to be throwing up an alt-right hand sign, he’s giving comfort to those who want to hurt the ones I love. When he professes his love for Trump and bashes Obama, it feels as if he’s helping push the boot down on our collective necks. He is not smashing the liberal groupthink or spiking our bi-coastal kool-aid via with a truthbomb. There’s no aspect of this that qualifies as speaking truth to power at all. The conservatives in this country control every branch of government. They dominate at the federal and state level. They have instilled what is effectively state-run media that is the highest rated news source in our nation. And they’re being led by the guy who took out a full-page ad begging for the execution of five innocent African American kids. This is the guy Kanye loves.There’s no post-ironic reading of this. It’s enabling oppression. Listen, I don’t normally boycott people. People have their opinions, and I respect that, and I can generally separate the performer from the person. I still obsessed over The Good, The Bad and The Ugly even after that weird-ass Clint Eastwood speech at the RNC. I still love Michael Haneke movies even after said some pretty disagreeable shit about the #metoo movement. Im embarrassed to admit it, but I listened to R. Kelly a lot longer than I should’ve. This feels different. Kanye’s narrative is intrinsically tied to his artwork. It’s a postmodernist cliche at this point, but his life is his art -- he very consciously turned it into a cross-platform meta-narrative -- and, if in the course of crafting that story, you transform yourself into an alt-right villain, you shouldn’t be surprised when people treat you like one, and that means you get boycotted.Still, it’s difficult to turn my back on Kanye’s music. He’s given us so much, and I’ve loved each and every one of his albums. I can’t think of another artist from the past 20 years whose name is on as many classics. He’s changed the way music sounded at least three times over the course of that period, and I was genuinely looking forward to hear where he was taking it next. Still, it’s hard to separate KANYE, THE ART PROJECT from Kanye, the rapper and producer. Perhaps somewhere along the way the former overtook the latter, and now we’re left with this thick web of misdirection and irony that will never be untangled. But part of me says that even that reading is too generous.So, I get that this is normally the part of the essay where I, the writer, tries to negotiate the contradictions, clarify the argument, and come to full-throated resolution. I’m sorry, but that isnt’ happening here. I’ll wait and see, process my feelings about this, and see if I’m able to separate Kanye from KANYE. Its going to be tough, either way.
I first met Janelle Monàe when she was 22 years-old and opening up for the Oakland neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq at the San Francisco venue Bimbos, a mid-size club on the outskirts of that city’s North Beach neighborhood. A few months before, she’d released her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). It was an exciting, groundbreaking collection. It combined the wild, post-rap funk of Outkast and afrofuturism of George Clinton with the tech dystopianism of William Gibson and a more formalalistic, Brechtian remove. For a kid weaned on semiotics and Gang Starr, this collision was enthralling, if a bit messy. Janelle’s voice was captivating, but the songs sometimes couldn’t keep up with her energy -- the backing vocals blurred together, and the choruses weren’t always memorable. In short, I liked the idea more than her music.Regardless, she was a dynamic personality, and I was excited for the interview. About a half hour before she took the stage, her manager took me backstage, where Janelle was cloistered inside of small changing room -- more of a closet than a suite. She was already outfitted in her signature white tuxedo shirt, with her hair was bunched up into its beehive coif. She was nervous, but friendly. She offered me a water, which was nice of her. I spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to place her in the lineage of afrofuturism, discussing Octavia Paz and Parliament. In retrospect, it was a dumb move -- I assumed that her reading of herself was the same as mine, and didn’t allow her to speak for herself -- and the strategy bit me in the ass when, with five minutes left in my appointed interview window, she, annoyed and maybe embarrassed, declared that she didn’t know much about afrofuturism, she’d barely even heard of it. I felt shitty and a little bit disappointed. I hated that I had put her in a foul mood, and, more selfishly, I had no idea if anything in the interview was usable.But her live show that night was rapturious, a prolonged ecstatic release of energy that found her bouncing, jerking, and bounding across the stage in barely controlled dance patterns. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. And though she doesn’t make dance music, you couldn’t help but move. It didn’t matter that here hooks weren’t quite there, or that she hadn’t yet been able to name her own style, the performance was special, even singular. Since then, she’s made some jaw-dropping tracks that’ve shown immense growth and refinement, but the music, though oftentimes very very good, has never quite escaped her heavy conceptual framework. Luckily, she’s entirely catches up with herself on Dirty Computer. The album largely, though not entirely, loses the funkified Android conceit of her earlier work. It’s both more personal and more self-assured. It glides where her other music tends to churn, and the hooks are immediately catchy, and stick in your head. It’s still occasionally directive of other people’s work -- “Make Me Feel” sounds remarkably like Dirty Mind-era Prince, for example -- but she entirely makes it her own here; the sums of her influence coalesce into something much more personal and singular. It’s the best work of her career, and may end up being both the most fun and important album of 2018.The album’s two opening tracks are among the most memorable one-two punch in recent memory. Brian Wilson’s vocal remain pop’s greatest invocation, and amidst his lilting, layered , the lead-off title resurrects Janelle’s dreamy, sensual landscape. She invites us to “look closer” at the “text message caught up in the sky.” Once again, she’s identifying with hardware (a dirty computer, in this case), but the vocals are warm and human, and, soon, we hear MLK reciting the Declaration of Independence. We’re onto “Crazy, Classic, Life” now -- one of the neat tricks the front half of the album pulls off is blurring the space between songs, so that it all sounds like one, long jam -- and Janelle quickly asserts a theme that will run through the album. It’s 2018 now, and her and people like her are no longer on the margins; they’re now the “rulers” and “kings.” “Im not Americas nightmare,” she coos on the song’s pre-chorus, “Im the American dream.”In that way, it resembles Frank Ocean’s Blonde, another coronation of a queer America that was curtailed by Trump’s election a few months later. Monàe’s work contains little of Ocean’s melancholy or ambience; Dirty Computer is pure pop music, euphoric and uncluttered. “PYNK,” which features Montreal steam pop producer Grimes, is a technicolor march down the broadest boulevards of American culture. The song hems together and subverts lyrical archetypes. Witness the pre-chorus:“So, here we are in the carLeavin traces of us down the boulevardI wanna fall through the starsGetting lost in the dark is my favorite partLets count the ways we could make this last forever"Taken out of context, this could be sung by Tom Petty, Britney Spears, or any number of chroniclers of main street adolescence. That Janelle is using this in the service of an anthem to pansexuality should be subversive, but, in 2018, it seems perfectly normal. This is a victory for all of us.Monàe’s previous music has always seemed to exist in a different time. The revved-up guitar riffs and funky drummer breakdowns place her in the ‘60s, while the lyrics’ runaway-Android lover motif put her firmly in the (20)40s. But Dirty Computer feels necessarily of this time. The world caught up with her. The techno-dystopian daydream of her earlier work has become a crippling reality, and, yes, that’s unfortunate. But the sheer, self-conscious otherness of Janelle, which ten years ago was a commercial liability, is not only permissible, but is celebrated, and this album is funky testament to this new freedom.
Subscribe to Cloud Daze here, an regularly updating playlist that features a heady mix of ambient house, cloud disco, recombinant techno and other genres that we’re making up on the spot. This week’s offering revolves around the latest Koze release, Knock Knock.Over the past five years, DJ Koze has become one of electronic music’s greatest narrative producers. All songs tell a story, to one degree or another, but instrumental electronic music tends to evoke a vibe or push its listener towards the ecstatic highs or darker recesses. It’s rare that this emotional coloring gains nuance and texture or shifts from track to track or second to second. But Koze knows this track. This world-building, narrative-driven approach was there in the woozing shifting textures of the German producer’s epochal 2013 album Amyglada, and it’s evident on his two remix compilations -- 2009’s Reincarnations and 2014’s Reincarnations, Pt. 2. His 2018 Knock Knock finds the DJ as technically capable as ever, but it also marks his evolution as a storyteller. This maturation is clear in the album’s first two minutes. On lead-off track “Club der Ewigkeiten” (roughly translated, “Club of Eternity”), tangled strings, bubbling synth taps and a squealing vocals conjure a taught, anxious space before a warm, round melody appears and the track takes on different, brighter characteristics. Throughout Knock Knock, there is a constant ebbing and flowing. Like the best psychedelic music, the music creates its own internal logic, and it uses that logic to guide the listener through a journey. This isn’t to say that Knock Knock is a difficult listen. The songs congeal and groove, and the tension is generally soft-lit -- a warbling dissonance creates a creeping, unnamed anxiety that cuts through the smeared slice of Bon Iver vocals in “Bonfire,” while “Pick Up” positions a lovely and sad sample of Aretha Franklin next to the euphoric disco beat from Melba Moore. For long stretches, things are light and breezy, and the album frequently achieves lift-off, especially towards the end. The opening stuttering, boom bap-era rhythms of “Lord Knows” sounds like a lost, mid-’90s Pete Rock joint, while the space-age modular synth lines of “Seeing Aliens” is sublime and ecstatic. It’d be easy for Koze to end the album on that high note, but then he cuts to “Drone Me Up, Flashy” -- 6 minutes of floating disjointed Kraut ambience that feels heavenly and lost. It may not be exactly the place we wanted to land after this 78-minute journey, but it feels honest.
Most people take the apocalypse as an article of faith, but what exactly the apocalypse entails is in the eye of the beholder. Will the universe dissolve and all matter cease to exist, or will the pillaging be more localized? Perhaps the sun will explode. Or, more specifically (and likely), the oceans might rise and drown large swaths of humanity Or maybe the opposite is true, and we’ll simply run out of water like in Mad Max? There are also health issues to consider. What if we develop a mutation that makes a certain portion of society both resistant to death and hungry for human flesh? This seems like a very popular (if scientifically) scenario. Or perhaps it’s a more mundane: maybe we’ll just stop producing babies. Or maybe we’ll slip into a computer-generated virtual reality simulation, with our robot overlords overseeing out inert sleeping bodies. Honestly, I don’t really know how it all will end, and I haven’t given it that much thought, to be honest. But I know someone who has: Bob Dylan. Over the course of his nearly 60 years career, Dylan has written very extensively about extinction events, though his take is always evolving. Initially, Dylan seem to look at the upside of the end of the world. “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” is at-times terrifying in its depiction of the dire aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, but it also left room for the emergence of a visionary poet who would serve as a sortof bohemian Moses to lead his people out of the wilderness (spoiler: the poet is Dylan). The track “When the Ship Comes In” sounds downright celebratory as it imagines a post-racial society, until you realize that this society exists in the ashes of traditional Western civilization. During the mid-‘60s, as Dylan forsook folk for fock n’ roll, the bard imagined the apocalypse as a weird mash-up of Cold War terror, religious zealotry, and pop culture schizophrenia. Tracks such as “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and “Highway 61 Revisited” are gleeful, language-melting odes our impending dome. They imagined a society standing on the precipice of mass confusion. In the context of the chaos of the ‘60s social upheaval, these songs were considered prophetic.As the ‘60s wore on, his vision of the apocalypse grew at turns mournful (“All Along the Watchtower) and menacing (“Wheels on Fire”), but it was never far from his mind. In the time sense, he bends the apocalyptic to help further his own pet projects and theories. Doomsday provided great grist for the mill when Dylan was a fire-and-brimstone preached in the late-70s and early 80s. And, when Dylan released a string of brilliant mid-life-sad-sack records in the late 90s and early aughts, apocalyptic imagery helped illuminate the full range of his personal malaise.
Original photography by Tuyara Mordosova. Subscribe to the playlist here.The deceased LA artist Mike Kelly did something amazing in his art. Throughout much of his work, and most notably in his Memory Work Flats, a series two-dimensional sculptures that he created from 2001 up until his suicide in 2012, he grafted modern American bric-a-brac -- buttons, bottle caps, keys, coins, and pendants -- onto larger, wall-hung surfaces. As with the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, the overall effect of these is initially overwhelming and cacophonic -- the viewer struggles to find a focus -- but a rhythm inserts itself eventually, and the collection of junk (there’s no other way to describe it) gains a more ethereal, transcendent form. Kelly has taken objects that ostensibly have little relationship to one another -- that were built to decay in trash dumps and street corner cracks -- and transformed them into a cohesive modern American, high-art sacrament.
In their patchwork, low-hi-art approach, Deerhunter provide a sonic counterpart to Kelly’s artwork. Over the past two decades, the Atlanta band has stitched together elements of ambient, Krautrock, shoegaze, lo-fi electro, post-punk, warped rockabilly, and classic pop for a sound that is, at turns, explosive, defuse, ugly, and ethereal. The songs are full of sex, noise, drugs, screeching feedback, Russian porn stars, wheezing vocals, detuned guitars, and tiny deaths. It’s ugly until it isn’t -- when the dissonance coalesces into melody, and the characters emerge from their chemical cocoons to search for forgiveness, redemption, or, at the very least, empathy. Like Kelly, they tend to build their own iconography from the minutiae of suburbia’s spiritual dissolution, and it’s both revolting and beautiful.
Deerhunter was formed in 2001 in Atlanta, Georgia. It included Bradford Cox, Moses Archuleta, and others who are no longer in the band. The band’s first album, 2005’s Turn it Up Faggot, is more or less unlistenable for those not attuned to the more noisey end of the punk rock spectrum, but the band quickly pivoted, bringing on guitarist and longtime Cox friend Lockett Pundt, who would serve as the band’s other primary songwriter and provide a more trad-rock ballast to Cox’s experimental, kitchen-sink approach. The sophomore album, Cryptograms, was recorded over two days in late 2005, but it took nearly 14 months for their new label, the venerable indie Kranky, to release it. When fans finally heard Cryptograms, many were taken aback. The album was a fairly drastic departure; the jagged, lacerated guitar work of the original was replaced with atonal ambient textures, dadistic pop tunes, and nods towards a Southern Gothic strain of shoegaze. Traces of their earlier, noisy sound remained though, and the overall effect was that of a e listener fine-tuning the dial of a old radio knob, slowly bringing clarity and a bit of pop refinement (if not exactly polish) to the band’s lurking, free-range noise sensibilities. 2008’s Microcastle/ Weird Era saw the group continue to focus their aesthetic. There were actual songs, for one thing. The jangly “Agoraphobia” remains one of their most catchy and tender tracks. There’s a wisp of Sonic Youth’s no wave guitar fuzz, but largely the album is dedicated to taut, post-punk jams like “Nothing Ever Happened” or the great “Never Stops.” As you’ve probably been able to pick up, Deerhunter’s career has a certain arc, beginning with noise bedroom and blog jams of their early years to the learner, more traditionally structured indie rock of Microcastle. It’s not that their more recent work is without value -- 2013’s Monomania traffics in Krautrock and psych to bleary and occasionally beautiful results; while 2015’s jangling, Southern-fried Fading Frontier is the hangover from Monomania’s ridiculous affectations -- but 2010’s Halcyon Digest remains the group’s high-water mark. It’s an album were the band finally boiled down their disparate, oftentimes contradictory influences into a sound and emotional palette that felt uniquely theirs.The album title is a bit of a put on; in Cox’s telling -- it’s meant as a dig at the temptations of nostalgia -- but, otherwise, the album is emotionally and sonically accessible. The gorgeous “Helicopters,” with it’s chiming, elegiac melodies and plees for prayer, is probably the closest the group ever got to pure pop, while “Revival” is a swamy, garage blues burner.But the album’s centerpiece is “He Would Have Laughed.” That song manages to shift movements and melodies without seeming overly cluttered or fussy, and while the lyrics and Cox’s vocal performance is dark and tinged with death -- the track is a tribute to the recently deceased garage punk icon Jay Reatard -- the track is vulnerable and mournful; at one point, Cox muses that with “sweetness comes suffering.” There’s still a whiff of the anger, neurosis, repression, and self-destruction that swirling beneath the surface, but Cox is able to synthesize this into a voice that is tender, honest and revealing. The pain is still present, but it has transformed and taken the shape of art.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.