The Music That Defined My Decade (Part Two)

This is a continuation of records that meant the world to me in the 2010s; if you haven’t read part one, it will definitely help this make a lot more sense. But if you don’t want to right now, this is my version of a “best albums of the decade list” through a personal lens of learning to reconnect to music. The list reflects the ways in which music can help us process our experiences, hopes, and anxieties; it’s also a list of pretty freaking great albums.

It’s ordered in the sequence I discovered them, and we last left our heroes after Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the 2016 election.

Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (RCA / Vanner, 2016)

It turns out there were two platinum-selling sixth albums in 2016 that were created by women going through marital struggles. The one you are probably less likely to know is by Lambert, who put together 3 LPs worth of songs into a concept album written after her marriage ended. I can’t think of a better songwriter active today, and the long format of this album allows her to put that on full display – ranging from the glibly spirited vintage-tinged rocker “Ugly Lights,” the classic honky tonk of “To Learn Her,” the wistfully hopeful “Runnin’ Just in Case,” and many points in between and beyond.

Simply put, she’s an expert storyteller – with an ear for detail and the ability to conjure a state of mind by setting a scene. It’s these stories the songs tell – of knowing you’re a barfly (“the girl bartenders hate / the one that doesn’t need another one”), the pain of loving someone without really knowing who she is, of being weary of a life of constant motion that feels like an endless stream of endings – that make this album so rewarding to get lost in.

My jam: Tough to pull one out of a triple album that luxuriates in the wide scope its length provides. But I can’t think of a better introduction than “Runnin’ Just in Case” – the song she chose to start the album with.

Miranda Lambert, a still from this album’s reveal on Twitter

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon, 2017)

Released a week after Trump’s inauguration, I’ll always connect this album (and band) to the voices some of us either discovered or reclaimed in that time. It’s tough to really characterize what it sounds like – they’re fluent in a myriad of post-punk styles, and I’m reminded of the anarchic joy of the Dutch experimentalist co-conspirators The Ex and Dog-Faced Hermans, but also the gleefully dance-oriented music of the Rapture, and the list could go on. My guess is that they’re music nerds, too.

But that doesn’t really capture what makes Priests who they are, which in my mind is what they have to say and how they say it – prescient observations about injustice in the world and the men who can make it insufferable. Whereas the Eighties version of this kind of protest could veer towards a clunky, dour didacticism, Priests are way more artful, and sometimes it feels like they’re reading my mind – a mind that expanded in 2017 and found in Priests music a relatable, vivid representation of what many were trying to get our heads around.

To this day, I still think about their anti-mansplaining manifesto “Suck” all the time at work (“Why do I always have to be the police to get you to shut up when I speak?”), and seeing them perform it live in front of joyous, heaving mass of humanity and hope at Brooklyn Bazaar in New York City remains one of my favorite live moments of the decade.

My jam: “Suck” – check it out here, as performed that night – this is Priests as I’ll always remember them.

Priests live at Brooklyn Bazaar 7/29/17, photo by Ester Segretto for Brooklyn Vegan

Sully – Escape (Keysounds, 2017)

I discovered this album at 2 Bridges in New York City; if you have a particular kind of ear – open to all the sounds that we can call music, no matter what instrumentation or style – you might just be able to find all of the records you’d ever want there. One of their strengths is a carefully edited electronic music section, which NYC has been sorely missing since the demise of Kim’s Video on St Marks Place (one of the only places you could pull grime 12”es back in the day – thanks to the buyer, Craig “I Sound” Willingham).

And if your appreciation for electronic music encompasses jungle, drum ’n bass, and grime (or new sounds, rhythms, or textures in general) – this album is for you. UK electronic music (that you’d find in a club) evolves at a frightening pace with loads of mini-genres (b-line, anyone?) so it’s not that common to find someone who digs into the past to create something new, but that’s exactly what Sully’s done here – mixing the ruff spirit of jungle, the urban swing of garage, the atmospherics of certain mid 90s drum ’n bass producers like T.Power. If you’ve never heard of any of those things, this would be a great place to dive in further.

My jam: The bare, menacingly grimey “Assembly 1,” and its lurching counterpuntal beats.

Sully, photo by Lerz Moore for DJ Magazine

Lorde – Melodrama (Universal, 2017)

I listened to this album (a Christmas gift!) a ton in 2018 – so much that I did that whole teenage thing where you have phases of different songs being your favorite, all in the course of six months. Which I suppose is appropriate to its origin, the result of a short span in its creator’s life during which she grew up fast. It seems she was up to a young person’s life of falling in love, heartbreak, partying – those extremes that seem so magnified when you’re going through them for the first times. But if you heard this album without that context (or even just read the song titles), you’d probably think it was a sad one – even the falling in love parts have a down element.

Which I suppose is fair, but to me the album is about loneliness in its many different forms – becoming alone; being alone even when you’re with others (because they’re having fun and you’re not); feeling alone because you’re crushed out on someone but being benignly stalker-y about it. And it’s true that many of us resist being alone – but I don’t think it makes it sad, not all the time. I’d have to guess that many people would rather be alone than with a boor, and some are just drawn to it. And I think this is a perfect album for those people.

But even if that’s not your 24×7 thing, it has some really potent songs – like “Liability,” a song about the need to find self-love that’s as heartbreaking as it is empowering. Or “Louvre,” about the heady, disorienting experience of falling in love, a love that feels so big it stands as tall as a monument.

Her songs often contain these kinds of unexpected mixes – of realness and grandeur, of sorrow and pride – which aren’t something I had ever expected from pop and never fail to knock me over. And that revelation changed the way I listened to music for the rest of the decade.

My jam: I sort of live and die by “Liability,” but for variety’s sake let’s go with “Louvre.” Remember what I said about having a different favorite song?

Lorde at Mohegan Sun Arena, April 7, 2018

Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope / Polydor, 2017)

+ Norman Fucking Rockwell (Interscope, Polydor, 2019)

At this point, the question about Lana Del Rey being a serious artist isn’t even a question. And honestly, I’m not even a particular fan of more than a third of Lust for Life. But the third that’s on, forget about it. I struggled to find a way to explain the immense gravitational pull of those songs, and as always, Ms. Crossfire nailed it. Some singer / songwriters are astute observers of their subjects, some are great writers, and some have a voice that draws you close. But Lana Del Rey embodies what her songs are about. There’s no difference between her voice, what she’s singing about, and the song itself. It’s like she is the purest form of whatever she’s singing. And when that gets paired with a song like “Heroin,” it can make you feel like the earth is falling away from underneath your feet.

So it’s unsurprising that I cannot at all separate the lyrics of Norman Fucking Rockwell from its music (co-written with Jack Antonoff, the guy that’s everywhere). The mood, the words, the sound – they all mix together in a haze. She once (in)famously stated, “to write about me is nothing like what it is to be with me,” eliding the difference between self and music. When your music is nothing short of living within a version of consciousness you committed to record, what more is there to say?

My jams: Every time “Heroin” comes on, I stop what I’m doing and everything else just drops out. “Happiness is a butterfly” is a deep cut off of NFR, but a great one – and an interesting counterpoint to The National’s “Pink Rabbits” (as featured in part one).

Lana Del Rey, via et musique pour tous

Faten Kanaan – Pleiade Hex 6 (Polytechnic Youth, 2017)

I don’t know too much about Faten Kanaan – she lives in Brooklyn but seldom performs there (it seems), and has quietly produced a number of records that can be distressingly difficult to find in the US. But it’s well worth the effort because they’re uncommonly beautiful. She’s apparently a vintage (analogue) synth nut, and conjures a deeply textured dreaminess that I place in direct lineage (and peership) with artists like Popol Vuh and Klauz Schulze as they existed in the 1970s, lost in a cosmic reverie.

According to the album’s Bandcamp page, this album is “loosely inspired by medieval canons / rounds  and Baroque structures” – and to my ears there is a definite (small “r”) romantic minimalism in there as well. Basically, it combines two of my first experimental / out there music loves (the aforementioned Seventies stuff and musical Minimalists) and you should all try getting lost in its soothing grace.

My jam: “Aventurine” is steeped in the same haze of gorgeous ambience-as-melody as the rest of the album, and the surprise actual melody isn’t so much gilding the lily as the most beautiful one in a field of them.

live at supersonic festival, Birmingham, England. Photo by Mark Rhones, via fatenkanaan.com

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom / Interscope, 2019)

There is a definite take that 2019 was Billie Eilish’s year and we were just along for the ride (such is her ubiquity that a bunch of strangers heard an announcement she recorded for the Los Angeles International Airport in January and all just kind of looked around to make sure everyone was hearing the same thing, chuckling among themselves). I listened obsessively to the album’s teaser (“Bury a Friend”) since it was released in January, and the album did not disappoint. It’s like the Soundcloud nerds took over the pop charts and damned if they’re giving it back. Each song is weird, perfect, and true – and taken as a whole, it feels like both a culmination and encapsulation of the ten year ride we’ve just finished and the anxiety many of us feel as we ponder the weeks, months, years, and decade ahead.

My jam: “Bury a Friend,” obvs.

photo by Amanda Edwards, via Teen Vogue

Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Capitol, 2013)

At the very end of the year, I discovered this odd gem of a record – it apparently inspired a cult-like devotion but I was late to the party. I’m sure someone had the idea it could be a chart-topping pop record, but maybe it was just a shade or ten too rough around the edges. Beyond that, it most likely doesn’t fit in with many male conceptions of what a pop record by a woman should sound (or look) like, which just goes to show how long we’ve come since it came out in 2013 – just ask Billie Eilish.

But it’s the inside that counts (as we like to say), which in this case is joyous and free – reminding me of the high octane, razor-edged, exhilarating music that Primal Scream was making circa their stone-cold classic XTRMNTR – the impression of a nightclub through the lens of pharmaceuticals that simultaneously sharpen and blur your view. I think it’s become evident that Ferreira has a pretty non-linear creative process and that she and Capitol Records make awkward dancing partners – we’re all still waiting for its follow-up among many false starts.

Listening to this album now, I picture a fertile imagination processing a kaleidoscope of experiences – scary and thrilling alike.  I sometimes wonder what kind of life this record might have had if it had come out last year, instead of a year when the Billboard top three albums were by Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and One Direction – and you couldn’t escape “Blurred Lines” if you wanted to (hey, it wasn’t for lack of trying). Now we have Eilish, Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande, and Halsey. And whatever Ferreira stood for, I can’t but help feel we sort of got there, in the end.

My jam: The delirious “Omanko,” as if shoegaze’s lexicon started with the nihilistic punk group Suicide.

Sky Ferreira at Field Day Festival in 2014. Photo by Andy Sheppard, via Fuse TV

— coda

This decade in music reminded me of something important, that one of music’s superpowers is to reflect back a reality that you’re experiencing, in a way that can make more sense of it than when you’re actually living through it. It’s like being a wiser, disembodied spirit watching yourself in one of those movies – seeing yourself with perspective, and living it at the same time.

When I sat down to write this, I started with a list of records that resonate with me, but I really didn’t know what this would become. I had the idea to reflect on the past, but realized it’s not quite over – there still seems something unresolved. Sometimes something isn’t over until you see the new thing replacing it.

So here we stand in 2020, with so many important things ahead of us – hands stretched forward, disappearing into a dense fog of uncertainty.

To define the past we must define the future.

And every ending creates a new beginning.

The Music That Defined My Decade (Part One)

Music has been my lifeblood, and it’s basically given me everything I value in life. Growing up in the middle of the country where I was the diversity, it allowed me to imagine future of endless possibilities. It gave me almost every meaningful friendship I have, brought Ms. Crossfire and me together, and trying to describe its magic gave me a way to develop my writing. Without it, I would have never ended up writing about style, or working with the people I work with now.

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Ten years ago: Kazuki Tomokawa in Tokyo

Yet I arrived in this decade burned out on music. I had spent the previous twenty years expanding my understanding of music at an insane pace, and really believed that I’d eventually learn about all music worth knowing about. I tried to apply this concept to my weekly radio show at WFMU – focusing on sharing new discoveries, trying to avoid playing the same thing twice. The limitations of that approach became clear – but I couldn’t figure out a way of rewiring myself to make it manageable.  Coming to the understanding that I’d never know everything, let alone possess it physically, was liberating. It gave me an opportunity to rethink what I owned, and what I wanted to listen to.

So to me, one of my journeys this decade was finding a way to love music again, and on terms I could cope with – to rediscover the joy and meaning it brought into my life without giving everything to it in return. And to top it all off, what a crazy decade it was. It feels like two decades in one – the one before November 2016 and everything since. These last three years have been a horrible echo of everything that made me feel alone in the Reagan eighties, and music again has helped save me, eased my pain, and given me hope.

I wouldn’t presume to say this is a best of the 2010s – you’ll see my inherent listening biases on full display. But every one of these records is not only great, but often meaningful to me. Maybe you’ll find meaning in them, too. 

They are split into two posts and roughly ordered in the sequence that I learned about them. I also throw in a link to hear more if you want to really luxuriate in this journey.

Kanye West – Yeezus (Def Jam, 2013)

If you want to think about how long and weird this decade was, just think of Kanye. He started out dropping My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – a dense, ambitious statement of his artistry that just about everyone loved; and then he ended with whatever you had just heard about that may have pissed you off.

As gorgeous and accomplished as Fantasy was, it’s Yeezus that caught my attention – initially because a lot of guys I knew that were deep fans of hip-hop seemed to hate it. Like not, “uh, I don’t know about that,” but like viscerally hate it. And anytime that happens, it really piques my curiousity.

It was a smash and grab run in the spirit of punk, guided by rebel-whisperer Rick Rubin. From the opening sawtooth synth buzz, it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for 40 minutes.  At the time, I compared it with a Lou Reed album, which I still stand by. In retrospect, it was also Kanye’s break with the notion of being beholden to genre, the expectations of his fans, what critics thought of “good” – basically the guiding principles of the music industry. The specific criticism I heard about this record – that the rhymes were sophomoric and terrible – made me think of what people said about punk music – they couldn’t play their instruments. Which, in either case, is sort of missing the point, isn’t it?

And whatever you think about Kanye – his music, his politics, his marriage, or whatever – he helped pave the way for an uncompromising freedom of expression in popular music that is incredible. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Frank Ocean’s not-at-all-linear (and defining album of the decade) Blonde goes platinum, for instance. Maybe Kanye was grabbing onto something that was in the air, but isn’t that what great artists do?

My jam: I really find little wrong on this tightly edited album, but “New Slaves” is a bracing view on race and power that still lands hard today. 

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Tour poster concept, via @opt_archive

Young Echo – Nexus (RAMP, 2013)

An exceedingly fine product from Bristol (England), a city that seems to specialize in sui generis electronic music collectives that are served better in album form than singles. Young Echo continues that tradition, refracting a distinctly Bristol urban sensibility (informed by dub and hip-hop, understated to the nth degree – as made famous by their most famous sons and daughters, Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead) through their own polymorphic viewpoint. Their seemingly laid back sound is given shape and immediacy through a brooding tension that draws you in like a magnet. I can’t recommend it highly enough for fans of new sounds used in old ways, or old sounds used in new ones.

My jam: Hard to pick just one track to represent this album – it’s one of its joys of the album format and that there are so many creative voices represented here. But “Blood Sugar” is a standout any way you put it.

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Young Echo in The Wire Magazine, via A Future Without

The National – High Violet (4AD, 2010)

The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD, 2013)

I discovered the National through happenstance (as I posted here in 2015), and they had a huge influence on my inward journey of listening over the decade. I hear in their work a meditation on interiority and the lines – visible, invisible, and wholly imagined (but still there) – that can define our lives and our relationships with one other. But while Matt Berninger’s presence and the words he sings (co-collaborated with his partner, Carin Besser) often take center stage, the lush, thoughtful orchestration is what gives those words both lift and dimension. One of my first musical obsessions was with REM in the late 80s, and I see in these two albums a mirror reflection of Green and Out of Time – albums that are saturated with transition, uncertainty, and experimentation. And like REM, The National are almost unparalleled at mixing the personal and universal, self-doubt and resolve.

My jams: I kind of need two tracks to represent what I’m talking about here. I write at length about “Runaway” in the above linked issue #2, and “Pink Rabbits” just nails the dynamics of a relationship based on deep love – the overwhelming sense of loneliness and loss when it breaks, and the miracle that something that’s so fragile can be so strong.    

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The National at Bowery Ballroom, photo by Graham MacIndoe

Circuit des Yeux, Brian Piñeyro – “Glacial Fault / Title Unknown” 7” (Even More Important, 2014)

This gem of a record conjures a sparse beauty out of the rawest of home recordings, an alchemy I’ll never tire of hearing. It also reflects the story of Ben Goldberg, who found in his honeymoon trip to New Zealand an opportunity to bring back a handful of lathe cut records made for him by various musicians in his orbit. If you’ve ever met Ben, you’ll know that such orbit is a large one with many brightly shining satellites, and that the reason for that just might be because he’s the kind of guy who makes your day better if you happen to encounter him.

Because each lathe is cut one at a time, and baggage restrictions being what they are, these were necessarily limited. I lucked into a few because I was on Twitter pretty actively at the time – but if you missed out, they are all available for streaming / digital download on Bandcamp. In a world increasingly influenced by intentionally manufactured rarity, this is an honest, pragmatic approach I can get behind.

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Circuit des Yeux aka Haley Fohr, via Inkonst

Myriam Gendron – Not So Deep As a Well (Feeding Tube / Mama Bird, 2014)

Along with the National, this record helped me understand the value of slowing down and listening. It’s a solo setting of Dorothy Parker poems made by Gendron, a Francophone singer-songwriter who (as best I know) is based in western Massachusetts. The arrangements are spare, just solo guitar and voice – and there’s something in the way she sings, the quality of her voice, and the way it’s recorded that’s immediately arresting. Listening in headphones, it sounds like she’s right there, singing into your very conscious. It creates something incredibly intimate, a gorgeous, affectless jewel box of an album, perfect to get lost in.

My jam: I just love “Recurrence“, a reverie with a bite. Gendron’s arrangements are so well matched to the verse you have to remind yourself that it began its life on a page decades ago.

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The singer and poet, image via Patch(!)

Robert Curgenven – They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them (Recorded Fields Editions, 2014)

This record embodies the contradictions of our time. It’s timely yet timeless, monumental yet intimate, fixed in time yet fluid. It’s rooted in field recordings taken over more than a decade from dozens of sites in Australia, which were edited into a previous version of this piece for a sound installation, from which this album was distilled.

The recording is the result of layering instruments on top to create something altogether different in scale and ambition. Some of those instruments are traditional ones put through untraditional processing – recording them to dubplates, then playing them back – their deterioration contributing to an otherworldly, haunting effect. Other instruments are unconventional – industrial fans repurposed into long-wave bass generators.

My initial take was that the net effect recalls the best of the Hafler Trio – dense, disorienting, foreboding, and unforgettable. Yet it evokes more – much more, best experienced through an accompanying trailer video that contextualizes these sounds into a story of colonialism and the questionable relationship man has with the world that he sees as existing for his purposes. Through handheld camera work, the scale of man versus the inhospitable landscape of the Australian Northern Territories becomes vivid, and this album as soundtrack erupts into a fully voiced realisation. When listening recently on headphones, I tried to swat a fly that buzzed too close to my ear and then realized it flew no closer than halfway around the world, years ago.

With the recent news of absolute ecological devastation in Australia, Curgenven’s piece is so timely that it takes on the feeling of prophecy. Just because you can conquer a territory – or a planet – doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. For you or it.

My jam: The trailer video (link above)! Take a moment to watch it now, you won’t forget it. Subwoofer optional but really sets the scale of the experience.

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Robert Curgenven: They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them (2016). 3 channel HD video and sound. Installation shot from CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery (2017). Photo by Jed Niezgoda, via Enclave Review

Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit (Harbinger Sound, 2014)

Just before I heard this record, I was complaining about the lack of protest in music for my second published broadsheet (same as the one linked above, but here it is again), which was a way for me to write a bit and also re-engage with music again. I could feel within myself a discontent, yet had a tough time finding a contemporary expression of it.

I still stand behind my general observation, but not having caught wind of Sleaford Mods was definitely a miss. Their music channels the energy and attitude of punk through a laptop, two men with something to say and a clever, immediate way of saying it. After a brief, introductory song, the album I think of begins with a punch in the mouth – “The smell of piss is so strong / it smells like decent bacon,” immediately orienting you to the gritty and grifting album that follow, the song launching you into their hustle of being a music group based out of Nottingham, England.

It doesn’t let up from there at all, and in retrospect, my oversight is a pretty good representation of just how blindsided a lot of us were about the rise of populism in Britain and elsewhere – if you’re not up on your English geography, Nottingham is in the East Midlands, a region where economic prosperity was slow to reach, and later was a powerful engine of Brexit. I’m not saying that’s where the band’s political inclinations are (I genuinely have no idea), but the fury and frustration is plain to see. I can’t help but think, if only we heard it – really listened – sooner.

My jam: “Tiswas” is a little inside baseball for anyone who didn’t grow up in England, but it’s pretty catchy innit? Built fast and built to last.  

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Sleaford Mods at Warsaw (in Brooklyn, NY), via Pancakes and Whiskey

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador, 2016)

There’s something about the combination of Will Toledo’s gift and messianic vibe that reminds me of Stephen Malkmus and his band, Pavement – and like Malkmus, he can craft an anthemic indie earworm like very few others. This album, basically their only proper studio album of new material to date, is chock full of them and I find its high points irresistible. Not only well-known hits like “Fill in the Blank” and “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” but also “Cosmic Hero,” an eight and a half minute meditation on failure and loneliness, whose astonishing vulnerability gives the entire album a much-needed human dimension, a fragility untempered by bravado.

They also go down as the band I saw most often in the decade, and an absolute high point was a show at the Market Hotel, a revitalized former firetrap in Brooklyn, in a part of the borough that’s gotten quite buzzy. Toledo had put together a touring band assimilating the Naked Giants, and rearranged many of the songs from Denial for the seven person (!) combo. It became something magical – a band touring a creative peak, crammed into a room of huge fans, their energy becoming one – that by the time a special guest (pictured below) came on stage with a cowbell at the climax of “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” – the roof almost blew into orbit.

My jam: Sometimes the opening track just explains it all.

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Car Seat Headrest (plus cowbell player) at the Market Hotel. Photo by Will Oliver, via We All Want Someone

Beyoncé – Lemonade (Parkwood / Columbia, 2016)

I doubt I’m going to contribute to anyone’s deeper understanding of this record, but it’s the album that made me a fan of Beyonce’s artistry after years of appreciating it. And that’s a pretty rare thing to encounter, but I’m not exactly sure why. I’m guessing it’s partly because to do something like Lemonade, it makes a lot more sense to fund it yourself.

The other thing that comes to mind is that in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critic’s poll of 2016, this album came in second to David Bowie’s Blackstar. It does make me wonder how each artist will be perceived once she’s had a career the length of his (age-wise, she released Lemonade she was the same age as Bowie was when he was working on Let’s Dance).

My jam: “Freedom.” I’m conditioned to be a 100% a fan of the samples but the triumph is all Bey.

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“Baseball – it’s a team sport…” Parkwood Entertainment, via Billboard

This basically brings us to the end of 2016, which feels like a good place to pause for now. What happens when your world turns upside down, and all the human shittiness you had hoped was settled rains down upon you like so much plastic fake snow in a cheap snowglobe? Find out in part two!

Broadsheet #5

April’s WFMU Record Fair was a blast – thanks to all who provided feedback about this year’s broadsheet. For those of you who couldn’t make it, you can download it here. I print them on natural-colored cardstock if you have a thing for simulacra / exact reproduction.

It features thoughts on the music of today (vs the music of yesterday), why people like Guyville but Liz Phair not so much (and are wrong to do so), what to make of monstrous men, and (who else?) Lorde.

Caught in the Crossfire 5 (EPS)

Don’t forget to check out the playlist if you haven’t already!

The Playlist for Broadsheet #5

As you may know, I like to publish a physical broadsheet every year (on the occasion of the WFMU Record Fair).

This year’s will be posted here soon, but in the meantime here’s the playlist that goes along with it, on two different platforms:

  • Tidal
  • YouTube (note – some songs are alternate versions because Internet / money reasons)

If you can’t play that link for some reason, here are the songs!

  1. Lana Del Rey – “Groupie Love”
  2. Miranda Lambert – “Ugly Lights”
  3. Marika Hackman – “Boyfriend”
  4. Priests – “No Big Bang”
  5. Lorde – “Homemade Dynamite”
  6. Chelsea Wolfe – “The Culling”
  7. Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
  8. Lorde – “Writer In the Dark”
  9. Ness Nite – “Xtra”
  10. Rostam – “Bike Dream”
  11. Lana Del Rey – “Heroin”

The NikeCraft Mars Yard Shoe from Tom Sachs – An OG vs 2.0 Comparison and Critique

Fig. 1 – OG (top) vs 2.0 (bottom)

Interest in Tom Sachs’ NikeCraft Mars Yard shoe has gone into high orbit these days (see what I did there?). As you probably know, a 2.0 version was launched at a Sachs’ conceived “Space Camp” on Governor’s Island in New York. A lot has to do with how the original version (released in 2012 to coincide with a Space Program exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory) has achieved near-mythical status.

I’m fortunate enough to own both – the differences are striking in many ways, so I thought I’d take time to talk about them. My interest is to understand and articulate how something so similar might yield such divergent impressions. And I’m a fan of thoughtful design, Tom Sachs and shoes, so I thought it’d be fun to share.

Before I get started, I want to emphasize – these shoes are not for sale. This is also lightly edited, so apologies for any oversights. Oh, and if you like this, I wrote more regularly for Heddels – here’s a piece I wrote on sneaker culture, for instance

The Packaging

You can’t judge a book by its cover – but sometimes, the cover is part of the book. And in this case, the packaging sets the tone.

Fig. 2 – The boxes

Backing up a bit – in a large way, this project purportedly came from a conversation between artist Tom Sachs and Nike CEO Mark Parker about the relative merits of handcrafted items vs those that are mass-produced. Sachs definitely has a horse in this race – the hand that produces his pieces is often visible in the final production, and shows a bias towards transparency for the way they were produced. For the OG shoe, this is carried through in its box, which is built to look like a stock Nike box (using a design from the early-to-mid 2000s – see below), turned inside out and patched together with duct tape. It has a fastening system fashioned from duct tape and velcro, with an X box stitch in contrast thread. It looks like something that was improvised by somebody (perhaps disinterested in standard corporate branding).

The interesting thing is, the box was specifically manufactured to look that way – the box doesn’t show the signs of stress that it would if it was actually folded inside out, and the printing on the bottom is on the outside, as expected. This imagined process is a Sachs move, through and through. As a final note, the cardboard is thicker, more similar to the weight of a Jordan Brand box.

By contrast, the 2.0 box is a standard box with custom printing. The duct tape pull-tab remains, but without fastening. There’s a nice bonus graphic on the bottom, as well as directional arrows on the inside.

Fig. 3 – Boxes (Bottom Look)

Looking inside, the tissue inside of the original features custom printed artwork…

Fig. 4 – Inside the OG Box

…whereas the 2.0 is standard.

Finally, I thought one of the nicest touches of the original is the line of swatches of each material utilized in the construction of the shoe (including the tongue tag). It also featured a hang tag (not pictured).

Fig. 6 – Swatches

Extras aside, I’d say these are two different approaches to repurposing a Nike box. And the tactile sensation of opening (and closing)the velcro fastening system of the original is pretty pleasing.

Accessories

Both pairs come with a standard mesh sockliner (footbed) and an extra pair. The original featured leather footbeds. The 2.0 replaced these with cork footbeds. NikeCraft explained it thusly:

We provide an optional cork sock liner because many users rock the shoe sockless and research shows that cork has natural antimicrobial properties. Try it and see if you like it.

Fig. 7 – Footbeds

The Shoes

The unavoidable question is, how do the shoes themselves compare? I sort these differences into the major, the minor and the incidental. In rising order of significance:

The Incidental:

The eagle-eyed might spot differences in the way the leather looks. There’s both nubuck trim and leather lining. Part of Sachs’ aesthetic is to include untreated material, so each appear in their natural state. Unless a designer is being exacting about material, it’s normal practice to specify the general attributes / grades required and see what the procurement chain delivers. As an example from the world of groceries, Grade A large brown eggs aren’t all the exactly the same, but are similar enough to know generally what you’re going to get. I believe that the variances in leather are the result of that sourcing process.

The nubuck on my OG pair is texturally different and its leather lining has a slightly pink tinge. Ms. Crossfire says the OG nubuck is “better” (someone has to, right?). And it’s possible that other shoes from these runs differ from pair to pair in this department; it’s all a part of life’s rich pageant.

Fig. 8 – Leather Variations (OG on the left)

The Minor:

I’ve noticed three minor differences, two are functional and one not functional.

The two functional differences are both covered in the NikeCraft statement (see Fig. 13 – “Failure Is Always an Option,” below). The tongue donning straps weren’t reinforced properly by the factory that produced the original, so this was strengthened in the 2.0 (it’s not easy to see, but I verified this). Also, the protruding nipples on the outsole tread were inverted for better wet weather traction.

The non-functional difference is from a bit of an Easter egg that was incorporated into the original design – in the middle of the outsole, there are some glyphs debossed into the tread. I didn’t even notice this until I looked at the original SFB Chukka boot that this unit was borrowed from. I’m not hardcore enough to understand the significance of these marks (they don’t make any sense in Morse Code), other than the Swoosh that ended up in 2.0.

Fig. 9 – Outsole (OG on left)

The Major:

By far, the defining difference between the shoes is the material of their uppers. The original was fabricated from Vectran, which is a ripstop fabric used in the airbags (in the inflatable parachute sense) for the Mars Excursion Rover. Its attributes include excellence in tension (so it can’t be stretched apart), abrasion resistance and heat resistance. Like all products of the space-age (Tang, anyone?), it has a charmingly dated look to it. It also has a nice unstructured slouch to it, that accentuates the vintage aspects of its design.

Fig. 10 – OG upper in Vectran

According to NikeCraft, the testing of the material didn’t include creasing – which anyone who’s worn out a pair of sneakers knows is one of the first things to give on a pair of sneakers (a pair of Nike Maharam Oregon Waffles failed within a week of wear). To solve this problem, 2.0 utilizes a more thoroughly tested polyester warp-knit tricot mesh. It looks tremendously breathable, like something you’d see in, well, a sneaker.

Fig. 11 – The 2.0 Upper

This is the crux of the difference between the original and the 2.0. Vectran is the last material you’d normally make a shoe with, so it perfectly expresses the illusion of being hand-crafted from materials scavenged in a well-equipped space lab (consistent with the paracord used as shoelaces). Whereas the mesh material in the 2.0 is what you’d use if you actually produced the shoe in, well, a Nike factory. In fact, all the changes in the 2.0 are improvements to its utility.

That is terrific for me, because I’m going to wear my 2.0 pair once it stops raining (I don’t like to get my feet wet). It’s also important to note that it serves very different purpose – to illustrate how failure makes you stronger (which is also the theme of the Governors Island Space Camp). For me, though, the original shoe is immediately powerful in a way that its successor isn’t – much in the same way that the Apollo 11 mission holds a space in our collective memory much larger than, say, the Apollo 14. There is an aura to being first, a true OG.

Hopefully all of the above helps you understand why.

Appendix: Original Specs

Fig. 12 – OG specs, 2012

 

Fig. 13 – Failure Is Always an Option (via NikeCraft)

Caught in the Crossfire – Printed Issue #4

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we present ourselves as a reflection of our identity, and how the means of doing so have changed in my lifetime.  I wrote a piece for Heddels on how we do so through clothing.

Music has always been a huge part of my life and identity since my teenage years; I’ve spent an abundance of my adult life learning about and searching for underground music.  I’ve delved into how the ways in which we’ve disseminated knowledge of, and expressed appreciation for, underground music over the past thirty years in Crossfire #4.  In particular, relating to a social media group called “Now Playing.”

I also talk about a few records from Japan that seem to be flying under the radar at the moment, featuring The Itaru Oki Trio, Murahachibu, Stomu Yamash’ta (with Takehisa Kosugi), Rosa Luxemburg and a fellow who recorded under the name L.

I hope you enjoy!

Caught in the Crossfire – Printed Issue #3

Spring brings warm weather, dreams of summer and a new issue of the Caught in the Crossfire broadside.  Topics this year include Robert Curgenven’s epic 2014 LP, Kim Gordon’s memoir and mall record stores circa 2015.  As always, it was published for the WFMU Record Fair with the generous support of Forced Exposure Basketball.

Thanks as always for reading.

Caught in the Crossfire #3