1. EL-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
Def Jux – 2007
Somehow, I believe anyway, it’s no coincidence I am writing this on an overcast day, where I don’t remember what the sun looks like, my stomach is in knots, as it has been for weeks, I am on all kinds of drugs (both over the counter, and old pain killer prescriptions) just to try and feel better. The anxiety of the end of the year has fully set in. This seems to be an annual occurrence now for me, where everything just feels like it’s gonna fucking fall out. Maybe it’s my life purging another year, like a dying phoenix, getting ready for rebirth. Or maybe I’m just fucked up. But at least El-P made I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. At least someone out there is just as fucked up as I am.
The difference of course between me an El-P is he has the talent and vision to coherence his demons into something tangible. It may have taken five years between albums to expunge this masterpiece, but the results are comforting in their own terrifying ways.
What I like most about I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is his amazing use of guests to stand in for the voices that seem to be bashing around his head. On the first track he utilizes squealer Cedric Bixler-Zaval from The Mars Volta to caterwaul over a nice guitar bit by his buddy Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Or when Aesop Rock steps in on “Run the Numbers” to drop shit about razor wires and detonators in his sarcastic dead pan, egging you on, rather then offering any encouragement. Or when how Trent Reznor dusts off his own childish hell on “Flyentology,” perhaps one of the most ridiculously sick songs of all time, and actually delivers something truly desperate and isolating. Hip Hop’s strength always comes in it’s belief that collaboration is the best way, and with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, as isolating as the lyrics are, this is completely true.
This of course says nothing short of El-P as a producer. He’s twisted knobs on some of hip-hops most highly regarded underground albums, created Def Jux which brought life to Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Cage, Camu-Tao (RIP) and so many other sick fucking MC’s. But his music is a wall of noise, more Sonic Youth then Slick Rick. He may not be as extreme as his closest musical kin Dalek, but the songs are filled with bombastic beats, low octave piano hits, airy white noise and mind melding sounds, clicks, binks, chimes and all kinds of retarded shit. It’s easy to feel like psychosis has set in, listening to the layers of sound that are overpowering and subtle at the same time.
Mental Health is such a taboo subject in America, and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a testament to the horror of an otherwise functional on the surface human existence. We consider our general wealth and health in America to be above all else. And while we often, at large anyway, do not suffer the hell of war and poverty and repression of thought and belief, we are none the less a very sick country, filled with toxic narcotics, mood stabilizers, pain killers, illegal drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, cigarettes, anxiety, stress and all kinds of fucked up shit. Something is obviously wrong and El-P offers no solutions, only a self-referential exploration of the chaos that many of us, fuck it, all of us tend to deal with. No one is safe in El-P’s hands. He understands the power of hip-hop and uses it to reflect the isolation we twist ourselves into, staring at the day-glo of computer screens day in and day out. We have become more like the machines we manipulate and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead shows us just how fucked up that is.
2. The Lawrence Arms – Oh! Calcutta!
Fat Wreck Chords – 2006
I find as I get older, that punk rock is the music that seems to be created by people my age, but marketed and sold to the emerging generation. Many of my peers, dudes in their 30’s, have seemed to gone one to more “refined” tastes, or just not kept up with new and emerging bands that seem to pop up all over the place. And that’s part of the problem with “white youth oriented pop/rock” these days, there are a million fucking shitty bands playing power chords and singing harmonies. And there all about how pathetic and lonely and love lorn and angry these guys are. It’s totally fucking boring. And so when there is a band like The Lawrence Arms, made of three dudes now in their 30’s, writing poetic lyrics about drinking beer, common man politics and the utter isolation the western world seems to impose on us, and they don’t get their due in the cannon of punk rock, well it pisses me the fuck off.
I saw The Lawrence Arms open for Against Me! a few years ago, back when The Greatest Story Ever Told came out and I was fucking floored. They made pop punk sound arty and cool. They weren’t academic snobbish like Bad Religion, but they were smart as fuck. And unlike NOFX, they weren’t buffoons, but they still knew how to have fun. The were the perfect combination of smart guys and drunken nights. I could instantly relate to this, emerging into adulthood, facing new challenges, while still retaining as much of my youthful zest as I could. The Lawrence Arms were kindred spirits and provided the type of support music should, full understanding.
So in 2006, when Oh! Calcutta! emerged from out of know where seemingly, I kinda lost my shit. The magic of The Lawrence Arms was that they had two really good, really different song writers, who could somehow sequence an album perfectly, while sounding so different from song to song. Oh! Calcutta! put that idea on it’s head and instead Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan came together, mashing up what they both do best as individuals and creating an album that was unstoppable. From the burning opening track “The Devil’s Taking Names” to the melodic and beautiful “Great Lakes/Great Escapes” to the ferocious rager “Key to the City” Brendan and Chris cross swords, bang on their instruments and pummel the hell out you.
Oh! Calcutta! is conscience and to the point. There is not a wasted breath or wasted moment. And while it’s a lot of rapid fire delivery, it isn’t over saturated. Nothing is forced in any of the fast flying riffage, spitfire vocals or intense pounding drumming. Frankly, this record is fucking sick.
3. The Good, The Bad and The Queen – S/T
Parlophone – 2007
While it’s very easy to say that Damon Albran was the prince of the 90’s, what with the mega-hits he had with Blur, and the fact that you can not go to a sporting event without hearing the opening bahrs of “Song#2”, I feel that the turn of the century is where this master songwriter came into his own, fully and completely. At the turn of the century Think Tank emerged as Blur’s swan song. Without Grahm Coxon, Albran took full reins of the song writing and introduced us to what his uncompromised genius could achieve. Then a few years later he dropped Gorillaz on the world, a trippy, cartoon engaged, hip hop influenced record that was so out of left field it seemed destined to fail and yet it blew up all over the place, making Albran the international name that Blur only hinted at before. Having taken the America’s with Gorillaz and a second album Demon Days, Albran retreated back to the mother country, hooked up with the Clash’s Paul Siminon, and made dense album saturated in English pride in the self loathing that only the Brits are capable of. Yes, oh yes, It is The Good, The Bad and the Queen.
I am an Albran enthusiast. In my eyes, since the early nineties, he could do no wrong. His snarky delivery, pop sensibilities, and the ability to offend American’s and yet be so charming was very intriguing. But something about The Good The Band and the Queen just knocks all that shit off the wall. In a large part, it’s due to the fact that Albran steps away from the comfortable places he’s created. Every project he does has his aesthetic attached to it, something he can’t escape of course, but with The Good The Band and the Queen it’s apart from anything. There is a very empty feeling, lonely and melancholy space, haunting the dub style echos that penetrate through out. Most striking of all though, is how analog the record sounds. The bass and the guitar are electric, but the centerpiece for this record is the piano, and not the digital keyboards that Albran normally spills out on. This record makes me wonder if this is where everything starts out, after all, so much of Albran is straight forward chord progressions in straight 4/4.
I want so much for another album with this lineup (augmented by Simon Tong from the Verve and Tony Allen who came up with Nigerian Afrobeat mastermind Fela Kuti) in this new decade. The prospect of another Gorillaz album doesn’t seem to excite me as much as what this band did together and where Albran went. But if this ends up as a one off, then so be it, because it’s a one off that out does so much of what others strive over entire careers to achieve.
4. Q and Not U – No Kill, No Beep Beep
Dischord Records – 2000
For all intents and purposes this is probably the last great album to emerge from Washington DC. The 1990’s were very good to the District city music scene. It seemed the country and even the world had embraced the DIY work ethic promoted by so many of DC’s best bands. Q and Not U exploded locally and appeared set to be the torch bearers of a new generation for the city. No Kill, No Beep Beep was and is an exceptional record capturing the excitement and buzz of Washington as a new decade and new century was ushered in. Sadly, things seemed to sour fast. With Fugazi going on “extended hiatus” for most of the decade and The Dismemberment Plan calling it quits midway through the oughts DC’s two anchor bands left a giant hole. Q and Not U was able to step in and step up and continued to wow audiences locally and nationally, but without a lot of support The DC music scene seemed less illuminated.
No Kill, No Beep Beep however remains an amazing testament to the limitless qualities that guitar rock can have. Q and Not U captured so succinctly the amazing power that ingenuity can have. Plagued with the shadow of Fugazi looming over them, they rose to the occasion and out did their predecessors for the short amount of time that we had them around. When I think of my time in Washington DC, as I left the confines of college and home and struck out into the world, this album remains a very important time piece. Q and Not U were unlike any band and they earned the rights to be mentioned in the same breath as so many great bands from the Down City.
5. Aesop Rock – Labor Days
Def Jux – 2001
That Def Jux has not one, but two entries on this very odd list does not really surprise me. The fact of the matter is In the new century, Def Jux ruled Hip Hop. I didn’t get in on the action until Bazooka Tooth was released, after reading an interview with Aesop Rock about it, in I believe, Punk Planet. But when I picked up that record at Tower Records I entered a world I had been searching for many years. As with any artist that takes you, Aesop Rock creates his own world, and Bazooka Tooth was that incredible post-9/11 world of fear and anxiety that everyone was carrying around with them. But what is even more terrifying was the album he put out just prior to the American psyche being turned on it’s head.
Labor Days is two hip hop, what What Makes a Man Start Fires (by the Minutemen) is to punk rock. It’s a rallying cry for the average man. And it’s potency, much like it’s punk rock sibling, is that it is aimed at young people just entering the work force. It’s a picture of dead end jobs, life draining tasks, and the understanding that employment is nothing but paid servitude, elicited only for the benefit of someone else, always for the benefit of someone else. And I can’t help but laugh at the unfortunate similarities to my own life, a decade into working for the man, in comparison to this record. Frankly, it’s helped me from going fucking crazy. When I want to punch my boss or tell the person on the other end of the phone to go fuck themselves, I put on Labor Days and let the camaraderie calm my nerves.
It also helps tremendously, that at least for me, this shit turned Hip Hop on it’s fucking head. Not since Del the Funky Homosapien had I much considered Hip Hop in my life. The thug life and glamor and glitz, sexist bullshit that is mainstream hip hop was both trite in lyrical delivery and so repetitive in production and style, that I still feel it hardly merits mention in the cannon of art and expression. Aesop Rock, along with his collaborators Blockhead and Omega One truly made a record that defines what Hip Hop is. The beats for each song were unique, the style and sounds pulled from jazz and other sources outside of funk and R&B. The layers were dark and brooding or even at times playful and uplifting.
Since it’s release, Aesop Rock has actually been distancing himself from this release. Labor Days has kind of defined his career to the public, but not for Aesop Rock himself. And over time he has developed his own style, stepped away from the jazz sampling that set him aside and delved deeply into live recorded instrumentation. But Labor Days is a testament to what would have been, a decade of wondering what all this work bullshit was about. When that was twisted on it’s head, Aesop Rock responded with the paranoid super hero chronicled in Bazooka Tooth. And that’s what he’s done, adapt, not to the climate, but to his own skin, which he’s clearly not comfortable with from time to time. Labor Days is a classic album. This can not be disputed.
It’s hard to really consider art in terms of quality over another piece of art. Above are five records that really resonate with me. On a personal level, each one of these albums was a part of my life, usually during a turning point or difficult time in my life. To actually say which albums are the best in any given time period is kind of stupid. Because after all, music, art, literature, all of that stuff means something to each person, how the respond to it. Some of these albums listed above and below I didn’t even hear upon release and only found later. Some of them I anticipated with great anxiousness. But above were five albums I really felt I could write about. Below are a few more of my favorites. There’s a lot of shit left off of here, but that’s life. Enjoy.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
The Dismemberment Plan – Change
The Most Secret Method – Our Success
Trash Talk – S/T
Propaghandi – Supporting Caste
Frodus – And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea
Planes Mistaken For Stars – Up In Them Guts
Dillinger Four – C I V I L W a R
Blur – Think Tank
At the Drive In – Relationship in Command
Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City
John Doe – Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Heathers – Here Not There
Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Outkast – Stankonia
Pretty Girls Make Graves – Elan Vitale
Pygmy Lush – Mount Hope
Sleater Kinney – The Woods
Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse
Ted Leo – The Tyranny of Distance
Zegota – Reclaim!