“Take it all off,” I said, making a lazy motion to the top of my head. This was my third time with Cait. We were starting to get to know each other. She knew what I liked, but this time I wanted something different.
“So, the clippers?” she asked, brandishing them like a samurai sword.
Cait has curly hair and considers herself to be an anarchist. She lives in the Tenderloin, the bleeding heart of San Francisco, and one day she wants to open her own therapy practice.
Cait started with the buzzer at four, just in case I changed my mind. We started chatting about her recent breakup – an engineer who made a lot of money and never talked about his feelings. They’d done couples therapy for a year and then one day he just proclaimed it was over. Shit is fucked, I said.
“Amy is going through the same thing,” she said, pointing the buzzer in the direction of a woman standing above the other chair. Amy is tatted and wears Red Wings. Her hair is long and braided, and hangs beneath a fisherman’s beanie perched on top of her head.
“She came in this morning and wanted to shave her head.” Amy nodded. I pictured two braids being swept off the floor.
Cait told me that hair had energy. She told me she was glad she got the apartment. She might have to find a roommate. Her mom was threatening to visit for Thanksgiving. And then she told me she was going to use scissors for the top, and if I woke up in the morning and really wanted it all gone, she’d do it for free.
Something I love about music is the beautiful pairings that exist between landscape and music. Creedence matches with an open highway, Bon Iver is meant for a cozy cabin, Real Estate is best suited for a sunny, coastal cruise. These things just feel natural.
For some time now, I’ve found that the desert and electronic music are a natural fit, and as I was driving around New Mexico recently, I pondered why.
It could be that most highways in the desert have speed limits of 75 or more; electronic beats serve as a good backdrop to high speeds.
It could be that Joshua Tree trip last year, of which the unofficial sponsor was cigarettes and EDM. Petey with the sticks, it felt like the only option.
It could be the influence of Burning Man. Shit, whether you’ve been or not, perhaps the magnetic allure of the event has subconsciously instilled in us this alignment of electronic music and the desert.
But ultimately, I think this happy marriage is explained quite simply: the desert is a fucking weird place. When you move through strange, barren and endless landscapes, there’s something that naturally broadens your thoughts, opens up the mind. And while the vast desert stimulates your senses, electronic music just feels right.
Here are a few cruisers – some new, some old – that opened things up in New Mex.
“I wrote a poem today,” said my good friend, who I’m pretty sure had never written a poem. We were smoking a joint – leaving the real world behind. I asked if he would read it out loud. He said yes, so we sat down on a park bench, smoked the rest of the joint, and once we were both feeling jittery and nervous, he launched into it.
A few months later and I was starting to feel good again. I was forty-something days into burying myself in Sam Harris and Joe Rogan podcasts and was beginning to get into the groove of a loose and not-so serious meditation routine.
Sam was getting me to be in the present. Random shit moved me, like a woman on MUNI with a shaky hand or long walks with just the right amount of downhill. I started to understand why people love taking psychedelics. Awareness of the present moment is fucking sweet.
But there was one thing Sam Harris couldn’t convince me of. You have no head. There is no writer of thoughts. No person sitting back there shuffling cards. The very concept of “I” is just an appearance in consciousness, like a smell or a thought.
Abandon your ego! Basically what everyone says when they come back from Burning Man. It seemed weird but I gave it a go, trying to convince myself on a crowded bus that subjective and objective could be the same, but bumping up against people just reinforced a sense of clear and distinct boundaries.
I kept at it. And by some stroke of luck ended up at a party outside of Pescadero – a Hipcamp designed for ayuascha retreats, fully operational with drums, meditation pillows, and a stripper pole.
Also a swing set
Beers were had. Weed was smoked. Dinner was neglected. And at some point a guy handed me a piece of torn up paper and said, “please write down who you think you are.” He went around the fire telling everyone to write down their occupation or their name or whatever they wanted really. I was too far gone to be able to see where any of it was going and so feeling very clever I wrote down in terrible, drunk chicken scratch, “I am me,” and then slunk off to my tent.
Things starting to get blurry
When I woke up the next morning my head didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I looked outside and saw Charley rolling up his rain fly.
“What time did you Irish exit last night?” he asked. I told him it was right around the time some guy asked me to write down who I was on a piece of paper.
Charley laughed and told me they’d thrown the pieces of paper into the fire and watched them turn into smoke, and suddenly all I could think about was what must have gone up in flames – I am me.
There were mesh sandals and tracksuits. Accents. Large, boisterous families. Roller bags designed in foreign countries. A frighteningly boring safety video as we took off from Dublin. An empty Paris airport, escalators pointing in every direction. Glamorous men and women bubbling – sucking cigarettes. And us — me and Kelsey watching and sucking cigarettes as well, doing our best to blend in, maybe even add something to the mix.
In Biarritz there was pumping surf and sun-bathing women. The very first night we stood by the ocean, clutching beer, listening to a DJ play disco with ink running down his arms. He swayed and flicked the mixer – someone in the crowd cooed.
It felt good to be away from the entrance of a restaurant or the sliding doors of a bus. Ordering beer was easy, but other things – really basic shit – like asking for water or the bill, was still awkward.
But somehow we’d woken up in a central vein of French coolness, masked by cigarette smoke and a speedy, hip-spinning beat. The music swelled – getting faster – two women approached the mixing board with carefree intention.
I lit another cigarette, surely the last of the night, and passed it to Kelsey. The smoke curled around us, rising to join other trails of smoke winding up towards the hill. With each puff I felt more at ease, just another glowing ember in the night.
All it took was some traffic outside of Monterey for me to start second-guessing the trip. One by one, radio stations were cutting out. I clung onto a hippie based out of San Luis Obispo playing The Grateful Dead for awhile, but then I swung around a cliffside and he cut out too.
I wasn’t lonely. Just a bit bored. I’d made this same mistake before, forgetting to bring CD’s or make an offline playlist – misremembering what hours of silence feel like. They kind of eat at you.
I’d just left Santa Cruz – which was insane. Perfect waves – thick ropes, round and symmetrical, sucked kelp right off the ocean floor, but with so many people in the water complaining about all the people in the water, I gunned it for Big Sur.
A park ranger eyed my Hurley t-shirt wearily and said she did have an open site. A guy standing nearby looked shocked – told me I was lucky as hell. He had a potbelly framed by a sweaty baseball tee and a beer in-hand. He seemed friendly with the rangers and mentioned several times he was having a party later if any of us wanted to stop by.
I set up camp and drove down the road to surf before dark. There’s a current at the south end of Sand Dollar that whips you out into the lineup. It saves a lot of paddling but it’s disorienting. Within seconds I was a hundred yards out at sea – umbrellas shrinking into tiny, colorful dots.
The water was shallow and clear as vodka, but the more I looked, the more I disliked seeing the grains of sand beneath me, the peaks and valleys, divots, and caves. I felt my heart pounding in my wetsuit.
When I got back to camp, I met up with George, the guy with the baseball tee who looked shocked about my campsite. He said he had some, “tweaky bud.”
I followed him to a clearing where a fire was roaring. I expected to see others gathered around but there only a few dusty tree stumps. He handed me a beer and we started talking about Big Sur. George was from a town inland and used to come here as a grom for birthday parties, surf trips, or just to get wild.
“Now we got fuckin’ trailers rolling around and kids spilling out,” he said.
The fire spit and George smiled slyly, the gaps in his teeth shining in the moonlight. He swung a bottle of vodka clutched in his right hand towards the night sky.
“We’re in fucking Disney World, man! We’re in the fucking blue tea cup goin’ round and round.”
He paused, as if lamenting a lost brother.
“But as least we’re in the blue tea cup and not the fucking pink one.”
George’s musings got increasingly more scattered. He asked if the moon ever reminded me of a frog holding onto a tailgate, told a story about a time he’d caught a fish to impress a Hawaiian, stumbled through a shitty joke, spoke dearly about his love of kayaking, and made me promise I’d look up a waitress in Lake Tahoe – his girl.
After a few beers, he was reluctant to see me go. I told him I needed to go write, and thanked him for the good fire. Truthfully, I was starting to wonder. He told me that the guy who was supposed to meet him that night was also named Duncan.
I brought my buck-knife into my sleeping bag just in case George turned out to be a nut, realizing that the weed was probably making me anxious – tweaky. And of course, I woke up the next morning to gorgeous sunlight and the sounds of kids squealing and RV’s beeping, and realized that we were in a fucking theme park – at least there were still a few of us weird enough to visit alone.
We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.
The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.
“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.
The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”
“Three is my guess. Three or three-thirty,” said the man in a bright yellow polo tucked into khaki shorts. He drifted by our window, circled his car and stopped to lean against the guard rail. Two older women sat inside — one with a Tom Clancy novel spread across her lap, the other eating a bag of tortilla chips as she searched for a cooler of beer.
“Think they’ll be cold?” said the woman.
The man laughed. “Not a chance.”
Two miles up 1-80, a car was on fire. Behind us, were two more accidents. “That’s what happens when people slam the brakes on a two-lane highway,” said the man to no one in particular.
Beyond the guard rail was a drop off, a steep ravine lined with pine trees bending up to the clear, blue sky. I kicked off my shoes. The hot cement felt good pressed against the arches of my feet.
A car door slammed. A family of three jogged by — sweating. The woman in front of us let out a shrill yelp, tipping a beer can back, frothy liquid dribbling down her cheeks.
2017 was, and my media and musical preferences may be betraying themselves here, the year of the SoundCloud Rapper. If this seems like an obvious take that’s only because of how pervasive the persona has become. Recall that for many, manyothers, the idea of SoundCloud Rappers begat an education. A moniker for the internet- and homegrown hip-hop talents who released their hybrid projects on the orange-hued music streaming platform, which itself almost went bankrupt this year even after rolling out a rather innocuous ad-revenue subscription service akin to its green-logoed nemesis.
On SoundCloud, however, scores of aspiring musicians met, shared tracks, advice, and inspiration; meanwhile, for listeners, it serves as a resource for that one cover or remix which is not available on Spotify, Apple Music, or, god forbid, Tidal. The platform felt more personable, less corrupted, and a tinge more democratic. Listeners, it appeared, would gladly suffer ads for the comfort of the, ironically, less-corporate seeming media player. Here was where the majority and best of the late Lil Peep’s output resides. It is where Chance and Uzi broke out before propelling to bona fide stardom. Of course, like any other consumer-facing product, SoundCloud relies on metrics and data, but mainly because of what it is not—because of its imperfections—did it seem to cultivate trust and appreciation from audiophiles and the artists who spoke to and of them. This was a validity that didn’t solely appear to be about monthly listeners, followers, or algorithmic prioritization.
The Soundcloud Rapper, then, became shorthand for an artist who by the content of their flow, production, voice, or some other miscellany, could not quite fit the established paradigm and posture of rap. (Skeptics would say we’ve hit the amoral bottom of so much bad being good because all we have is bad and that resets our standards.) The notion expanded, became known, and, like all good and weird things born of the internet, in a sort of backlash, ended up manifesting as the inspiration for an ill-considered Halloween costume.
Still, this is a long-winded apology for not including any SoundCloud rap on my favorite songs of the year (worse, the provided playlist is hosted by Spotify). The songs I enjoyed most are, I think, interconnected in their own way—songs with features was a way of including multiple favs, two-birds-one-stone, etc. Still, I need to reel off a few more honorable mentions here: A track like “Once Upon a Time” marked the return of The Diplomats whose braggadocio and cleverness was sorely missed. Whether it was Ferg, Twelvyy, or the extended familia, A$AP made strides on their LP releases. 2 Chainz made the gift that keeps on giving on “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music”—I keep finding new tracks to bounce to. SZA was superlative on many of these sorts of lists, and should hers have been the only music released in 2017, we could all die in the Trump-apocalypse tomorrow and not in vain. Diet Cig, Palehound, King Krule, Weaves, and Mac DeMarco released albums which, however distinct, make me feel young enough still to emote heavy with a lady or lad rock band. Mount Kimbie (a perennial top-5 musical act and the best concert I attended this year), Aminé, and Kendrick Lamar (the artist Spotify tells me I listened to the most over the previous 12 months), all came out with albums that I’ll regret not including on my best-of. Like Cassidy, by way of Jay Z said over a dozen years ago, ask about me and I’ll explain why.
On the horizon, there’s Quiet Luke, a Prince-like singer and guitarist who is the fifth or sixth (who knows at this point) coming of Frank Ocean. Along with KWAYE, who has yet to make a track—even if its message is melancholy—that makes you get up and move in the way James Brown intended. Santangelo, makes music that is the singular stuff of SoundCloud’s heyday—cerebral and not-ready-for radio. His “Cave In” runs on the rhythm and beat of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” which had me so wrapped up in wonder that I nearly missed my bus stop in the pouring rain. Clairo is a singer whose short lovelorn tracks belie talent and maturity, yet bridle with youth and something purposefully restrained—she’s not ready to share the magnitude of her vision and feelings quite yet. Imagine a bittersweet Maggie Rogers who eschewed NYU and with no hipster tattoos in sight.
So, the top 10?
Well, the playlist gets its name from the few months I speculated a devious connection between Harry Styles’ impressive solo album and Christopher Nolan’s nationalistic and war-porn movie which stars Mr. Styles as the only person sane enough to say something nasty. (In truth, he makes a silly racist remark in front of a group of soldiers who look like they passed through a Blind Barber before making it to the beachhead battlefront, providing one of the few realistic depictions of how starved and imperiled soldiers would actually act in the movie). ANYWAY, my two favorite albums this year were the annoying-to-pronounce Alvvay’s “Antisocialites” and Tyler, The Creator’s “Flower Boy.” Among the other albums which made me cry were Rex Orange County’s debut, “Apricot Princess,” Princess Nokia’s “1992 Deluxe,” Young Thug’s “Beautiful Thugger Girls,” and Moses Sumney’s “Aromanticism.” Speaking of whom, Moses’ “Lonely World” is the feeling after you spill the mug of tea and don’t give a fuck, you run out of there and out of the world.
But this is a mix of individual tracks, so, it should be noted that Yaeji’s hit her stride and come a long way from that one time I played “New York 93” on the office Sonos that went over really, really poorly. The new mysterious electronic artist that’s got me by a strange, sonic gravitational pull, however, is The Blaze, whosevideos relate a homoerotic and athletic mise-en-scène that involves Arabic persons in what is possibly the Levant that is as indelible as it is mesmerizing. Oh, and he/they put out a M83 remix that has the most ridiculous album art of the 21st Century. Lastly, and this was decided for me from the first time I listened to it, is one of the loosies Frank Ocean dropped this year: “Provider.” It’s a murmuring more than it is sung or rapped, and with a flowing production that rolls along the mentions of Super Saiyans, Patagonia jackets, and Stanley Kubrick, it is my ideal type of song—what I searched for and cherished whenever I found echoes of in 2017. The above, I hope, is an honest testament to that matter.
I don’t know what to tell you but of the ambiguous pain and assuring wonder. Of being lulled into a vulnerable and purposeful state by music. This isn’t a sad blog, necessarily, but just one that concerns itself with what happened over the course of a few weeks at the tail end of 2017. The transmission of a few songs and circumstances that, over this fortnight, could, perhaps, coalesce into a block of thought worth relating to the internet. (A sad blog would be one that dealt with the minutia of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger,” I imagine.)
I know, I know. There’s a lot of music out there. No amount of round-ups and Spotify missives will reckon with the fact that particular songs resonate with us more than others. They seem to stay on repeat long enough as to be an affect—like a particular pair of shoes or the tab you won’t close on your browser even though you’ve exhausted its contents. Still, there are, should you choose, songs that haunt as well. And deliberately so—you don’t seek exorcism necessarily, rather you invite these tracks to remain a companion presence such as they preoccupy your thoughts and state of being. A song begins to become a strain of emotion that, yeah, maybe, feels like more than what you’ve ever admitted to yourself or your friends, or anyone at a party. This is by virtue understandable since music is performative, in transit, and confessional. It awaits an audience.
All of this is quickly slipping into sloppy emoting territory, however, should I not establish any worthwhile stakes in this matter. So, my crutch: “I Can’t Do Without You (Tales of Us & Mano Le Tough Remix).” One of the best/worst things of this century, musically speaking, has been the drop. While it rightly so is a cliche and frequent MacGuffin maneuver of very middling EDM, the beat drop—when the bass or rest of the instrumentation (re)enters the song at a louder, deeper pulse—is executed well, it can be, um, riveting. When done to a degree beyond the professional grade, the beat drop can shake you, rattle your bones, make your hair stand, etc. Or, at the minimum here, I can prescribe this sole song as example.
As the writer Nora Khan’s suggested, electronic music, perhaps because of the durable length of songs that are double the pop standard, have a capacity to “collapse our sense of time.” How much and in what way is music identity forming and how much of it is misplaced nostalgia, she asks. The chime and plod of this remix of an already standout Caribou track was especially revelatory for me after I heard it in the Polish voyeuristic film “All These Sleepless Nights.” A camera closely trails two college-age friends through Warsaw, following them on many late nite tramps through clubs, raves, and silent discos. The women and friends who fall in and out of their lives, the crushing pleasures of hedonism and sensory overstimulation, are all caught by a camera at once too intimate and sincere. It is a loving look at even the minor tragedies and falling outs between the duo and the persons in their orbit. That sincerity, however, is entrapping, held together by the music that courses throughout and over the film. It is so comforting as to upend me in almost-naseua at how much the tableau of “All These Sleepless Nights” means to me.
A song of primarily a single refrain sung over a beat that develops layers of sonic stratigraphy, the innocuous recanting of “I can’t do without you” sounds as if it were a fading away from someone, a regression to a sullen state, or, perhaps, a reaching out toward somebody. The song builds like an intelligent dance music reissue of a Bach canon or fugue (the patient zero for almost all music that has come since). When Spotify broke the obvious news to me that this particular Caribou song was among my top 5 most listened to of the year, I thought, Well, 2007 me had exhausted all the versions of a particular Bach melody via Limewire that was probably burning a hole in my first generation iPod. Inconveniently enough, I cannot seem to find this gift horse for you, and, so, if/when you ever google “Bach canon,” this unfortunately exhausted song will populate the results. When I find the canon I’m looking for, I’ll follow up. Swear.
Then there’s Khan describing what, without much stretch of the imagination, is a truth anyone with an iota of the sensitivity of Drake has felt: “The music I listen to speaks to the past that I wish I had, the present I wish I had, the future I hope to have. Taken together, it builds a world of limitless potential I can only inhabit in my head.” That is, music as an exercise of one’s woes, one’s self, and one’s shortcomings and potential. Where, just as music can move a listener it can arrest them too.
“Plastic” is a vivid song that tracks the singer’s frailty to the plight of Icarus—the wax-winged mythical figure from ancient Greece, whose story is a cautionary tale for egotism. Given the gift of flight, Icarus flew too close to the sun which melted his wings, sending him plummeting to a certain doom in the depths of the Icarian Sea—the name of which is a bit on the nose, even for the Greeks, but still.
“My wings are made of plastic, my wings are made of plastic. / My wings are made up / and so am I,” sings Sumney of a sense of fragility in his disarming falsetto. His singing in person was enough to make a guy feel barely contained. And much more so given the circumstances. The four-song set occurred in a structure expressly built for ascension or grace. Grace being a state of levity—when you feel like sugar, or a whistling kettle, or weightless, or, more traditionally, when you can walk on water. At the San Damiano Mission—a church with stained glass likenesses of biblical characters watching from on high, the pitched nave, as is custom, directed toward heaven—was Sumney, who began the show with “Incantation,” a liturgical track which has him singing in Hebrew—ultimately, a not unfamiliar tongue in a Catholic church or for a guy named Moses. Traditionally, this cant is a prayer to the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael to help protect one during the night (or Night). And his lyrics felt apposite to what a gathered and packed in crowd of beautiful people in Brooklyn Sunday sundries could expect.
Sumney performed “Incantation” a cappella. His accompaniment for the rest of the tracks otherwise consisting of an electric guitar and grand piano. The watching, and at many times, watery-eyed audience were rapt by Sumney—who was notedly bashful as if he’d rolled out of bed and onto the altar. His voice was clarifying, however. Last night was of sins and indulgences, he seemed to offer. Today was a recalibration. My years of Catholic schooling were being recalled like dust lifted into the light by a footfall: The remonstrations, the scripture, the discussions of homily and the holy—and here, in a time in popular music where openly slouching toward God will not necessarily harm record sales.
There is thankful comfort to be had in a setting where the word savior is invoked with doubtless conviction. Music, in a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, is a salve. Or, it feels like a salve. Sumney’s voice, whether in a church, or through headphones, or some other calibrated machination, is not salvation. It is, instead, a lullaby. Akin to what the critic Max Norman, in viewing a relatively unheralded Edvard Munch painting (from an exhibit curated by author Karl Ove Knausgaard, no less), described as “something else,” a feeling “approaching a kind of comprehension—one of those sentimental moments that move you in spite of yourself.” In the absence of anguish sentimentality may creep in, he suggests. Still, a negative feeling is, when held just so, a reprieve. Someone else, like Sumney, reckons with woes in a manner that feel so relatable as to cradle one away from mortal concerns and to momentarily distract into a state of what Buddhists, Hindus, and Catholics have all called unsentimental love.
But there’s, too, the performative shock of hearing something transcendent for the first time. It pipes in through the ears a sense of grace that is deliberately delightful on, say, a crowded and slothful evening subway ride uptown. Recently and specifically, this meant hearing a couple voices commingle on a track recommended to me through a trusted blogger. It wasn’t so much low expectations but an acquiescing to the rightness of the internet’s suggestion that gave me a feeling of minor incorporeality: myself in intangible forms—a song, a digital file, a lullaby conveyed.
The toy piano sound of “Close But Not Quite”, for its part, should immediately signal a lullaby; but it also is a retreat back to the days of when I listened to the Dresden Dolls following a red-headed girl’s recommendation. Memory is imprecise and shifts to fit the forms we prefer, but, still, I remember reading about this Boston band and fixating on the fact that they, as professionals, would find artistic purchase through a child’s plaything. This was in the heyday of the Strokes and Interpol. I was teaching myself drums by listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” on repeat, and here was a self-selected admirable tune from someone whose taste I trusted. Though it isn’t exactly the same tinkle. The sound on the track from my minor revelation on the subway appears synthetic, a simulacrum of the analog.
Everything Is Recorded’s “Close But Not Quite” comes a bit under the radar, sure, but it is the EP that was promised. XL Records exec Richard Russell brought, magnanimously, a group of musicians and samples together with his varying production, the title track of which can either meet the listener with the weight of an anchor and the cotton-swabbing cleanse of a lullaby. Besides the not-quite toy piano, “Close But Not Quite” is built around Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” from 1970. That isn’t clear, however, until the hook which, when directly following a Sampha verse, is a falsetto pairing that can ruin you if you’re feeling vulnerable. It’s a gift, all 3:29 minutes of flourishing Motown and lightly touching drums.
Now, sitting behind a laptop and feeling this out from a distance feels leveling, neither Sampha nor Mayfield can quite square the feelings intangible to them on the song, and, really, what all of the above writing is considering is that tracks such as these can do the opposite for the listener. We can feel a little more whole by having certain falsettos or beat drops reverberating through us. Strange how some things become an earworm and metonym for a particular moment. And others can never shake their nostalgic pull. It’s warped, retrospection. It can appear that a sad song has soothed you. But, even in a lullaby, we often only hear what we want to hear.