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I’m such a lucky guy. Just after 2005’s The Woods, when my teenage self was starting to pay real attention to rock criticism, Sleater-Kinney came to a stop. I saw the record on some year-end lists, but foolishly overlooked it. When Portlandia and Wild Flag happened, I knew there was something I was supposed to know about these artists, but it still felt like an era that I had missed. By the time the band reunited in late 2014, I felt like a shipwreck rescue. I dug fast into their discography and bought a reissue of The Woods. Luckily and at the last minute, I secured a ticket for their show on the following Valentine’s Day; and haven’t stopped listening since.

Not having experienced the depth of Sleater-Kinney’s cultural significance in its prime, I clung to the pure talent of the band: Janet Weiss’ drum fills on [Live in Paris’ opener] ‘Price Tag’, the forcefulness of Carrie Brownstein’s screams on One Beat staple ‘Oh’, or the canvas of percussion laid around the back of ‘A New Wave.’ That said, I’m continually most floored by Corin Tucker, who always sings as if the world is ending, most notably on the live version of ‘What’s Mine Is Yours’. The composition is amazing here, revealing a third verse after a messy bridge that has no preoccupations with melody, volume control, or anything not resembling ecstasy.

None of this information is new. Anyone who’s seen and heard the band knows the power of Sleater-Kinney’s moving parts and melodies. Although the performances on Live in Paris are spot on, they don’t fulfil the promise of the concert. It can’t convey the feeling of the floor moving during the chorus of ‘Bury Our Friends’. It lacks the visual component of Tucker and Brownstein kicking and howling while playing the serpentine licks of ‘One Beat’. When I saw them play I felt the power of the show from the back of the club, not once wanting to push through to the front. When listening to Live in Paris, I have the opposite experience. I turn it up louder and louder, reaching toward something that’s not translatable.

Still, this record puts the hunger in the listener like the studio albums. The more you pull it apart, the more you want to see the songs live. It’s lovely to hear the crowd response to older songs like ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ and ‘Dig Me Out’, though this pales in comparison to exchanging glances with fellow fans at the concert. ‘Modern Girl’ is the final track on Live in Paris. My spine tingles as I think of how it felt to wait for the drums to come in. I get the feeling on record, too, but it remains impossible to compare any album, live or otherwise, to a live experience that’s as perfect as a Sleater-Kinney one.

I don’t think Live in Paris will be the main way for me to connect with the memory of that concert on Valentine’s Day. I’ll continue to talk to friends who were there with me, with colleagues who get a glow in their eyes when Sleater-Kinney is mentioned, and I’ll turn the records up as high as my ears can stand. But, Live in Paris will be pretty far down the ladder in these instances. There is no finer rock and roll show in the last twenty years, and I’m just happy to have been along for the ride. Take Live in Paris as a hint, not an excuse to miss another Sleater-Kinney tour.

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[Note – I’m happy to announce that I’ll be writing for the American Composer’s Forum. I’ll be making contributions to their monthly newsletter, which can be found here. This is my inaugural piece for the ACF.]

“I’m still learning to write music, actually,” says National Composition Contest awardee Steven Snowden. I’m speaking to him over the phone: I’m in Minneapolis, he’s at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and both of us are surrounded by snow. His area code suggests Missouri, but his current address is in Boston. During our talk, he speaks of teaching in Hong Kong, growing up in Texas, and hardly a moment goes by where he’s not namedropping a different university where he has studied or been commissioned. Knowing all this, it’s uncanny that he would consider himself, 35, as still learning his craft.

He may feel this humility because of MacDowell itself. The walls of his studio are lined with signed plaques of all the artists who have stayed there before him. Amy Beach’s name is up there. Other studios have housed Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon, and countless others. Snowden is here working on a litany of commissions from faculty pieces for the universities of Arizona and Missouri to a collaboration with a hip-hop choreographer at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The stakes are high, but Snowden takes his good fortune in stride. He puts his own heart into the compositions, but still knows that he has to rely on others to make them happen. Even if it’s just him in the studio at first, his works are a collaborative process: “I don’t want it to sound exactly the way I expect. It should be a mix of my work and the work of the performers. I intentionally leave a little room for interpretation in my notation.” Leaving words like “menacing” and “sinister” in his compositional maps, there’s much room for interpretive creativity. Perhaps it’s his knowledge of this element that keeps his own ego in check. In their performance of “Bird Catching From Above”, the Lydian Quartet share this shedding of ego. You can see the animation in their faces as their bodies move towards the climax of the piece, as if their very beings are shaken by the movement of the arpeggios.

This is a joyful moment, but the sounds created aren’t particularly bright or even in a major key. It’s an element I was excited to discuss with Snowden: what makes a piece that he considers menacing turn into something overwhelmingly positive in effect? “I think it has to do with constructing a wide range of music. If I want to write something that expresses joy, a lot of that is juxtaposing it with something that sounds dark. It’s all context.” Indeed, the essence of pieces like “The Taos Hum” are only concerned with melody as an afterthought. I ask Snowden if his is a mathematical mind that composes without sound. “I wouldn’t use the word mathematics… I make sketches, then add descriptive words. I’ll put little markers in for section lengths. I can see the form all at once.”

We talk on about how minimalist and repetitive sounds can represent both joy and sadness. It’s felt in Snowden’s 2013 piece “Devil’s Nine Questions,” the second movement of which reveals a single piano note repeated until no longer bound by measure count. The quartet follows in a slow building pattern that fuses itself with the busy sound of the other two movements, shedding a peaceful light on what’s largely a foreboding piece akin to a Jonny Greenwood film score.

It isn’t just dark and light that Snowden seeks to juxtapose. His is a keen eye that can connect images to sounds, or even a lack thereof. The only thing he’s hearing apart from my questions is the light noises the snow makes as it piles up on branches before falling to the earth. He recalls Morton Feldman’s use of silence in between sounds. He puts this combination of image and sound together in “Appalachian Polaroids:” “It’s pretty straightforward. It’s one that I feel best represents who I am, as a person or where I come from musically.” Beginning with a field recording of a traditional Appalachian folk song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the Aeolus Quartet begins playing along with the crackling vocal melody, and subsequently rises and falls with a beautiful silence that’s likely similar to the one Snowden can see in the falling snow.

Though it’s clear from his pieces that his composition chops are well intact, it’s hardly the most noticeable element of Snowden’s philosophy. “I realize how little it matters that I impress anyone… Ultimately it’s getting to the audience and making that connection with them.” His project “Voices of the Dust Bowl” combines dated images, his own music, and field recordings of migrant workers talking about how there was no work to be found in 1941. Eerie auxiliary percussion and sustained notes join men and women discussing their families’ unfortunate move into labor camps. The piece is one of the most concretely human of Snowden’s, and the music itself is merely the vehicle through which a genuine reaction can be had.

And Snowden is happy to be this vehicle himself. The trials of the Dust Bowl were certainly not his to bear, but he’s happy to help educate and interact with his listeners about it. He’s currently working on a piece to accompany images of the Silent Sentinels, a 1910s women’s suffrage group that went as far as hunger strikes to further their cause. “If I can help someone promote a voice that has something to say, that’s important to me.” Few classical artists achieve such a worthy status as a mouthpiece for social issues.

Snowden and I agree that the word “classical” doesn’t really get to the core of his particular genre. I ask him how he explains it. He laughs as he thinks of talking about his work to his relatives. “I usually use the word ‘experimental.’ I say ‘I make experimental musical for classically trained musicians.’” Indeed, words don’t seem to capture it either, much like how I don’t think our conversation can quite capture what it’s like to make art at MacDowell. “I don’t want to use the word humbling, but it’s pretty astounding to be surrounded by so many artists.” It’s through his surroundings that he still considers his music as a work in progress. It’s weird to hear someone so skilled say such things, but it could prove that he’s got a lot more in his bag of tricks. We’ll have to let his new commissions speak for themselves.

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Many of the songs on Priests’ full-length debut deal with the individual experiences that are so bad, you end up losing faith in humanity as a whole: “If I walk a hundred days/doesn’t mean I get to say/you can’t talk to me that way,” Katie Alice Greer bemoans of the world. Even her own sense of accomplishment is on the chopping block. But, there’s more to this record than a jaded worldview. Failed relationships have also given Greer confidence, freedom, and a perspective on people that proves a fine narrative accompaniment to the punk rock on Nothing Feels Natural.

Priests balance doom metal and multiple tempos on opener “Appropriate” where Greer speaks of tasting maggots and buying things you can’t afford – coolly subverting the idea of building credit and reminding herself how most of us are actually using credit cards. Although the track has a primal core, it’s ornately produced with squelching saxophones, overdubs, and backburning fuzz from guitarist GL Jaguar.

Sadly, the drumming doesn’t share the chameleonic values of the rest of the arrangement. They’re transparently placed at the center of these songs, and “Nicki” suffers for it with screeching hi-hat opens and dual crash sounds that fight the melody. They’re redeemed on the following “Lelia 20” with a consistency that fits perfectly over the top of other guitar crunches and vocal acrobatics. The track then transitions into a prayer at Greer’s bedside, pleading for more tangible human interaction.

Where Nothing Feels Natural suffers is in the R&D department. Many of the ideas only make a couple of appearances. From surf to shoegaze to punk and back, the album ends with a fadeout on “Suck,” which isn’t just overlong, but showcases Greer’s ugliest songwriting. She can scream, hold long notes, play vulnerable, and play aggressive, so talking about how someone “just sucks” doesn’t hold a candle to the rest of the narrative.

Still, there’s quite a lot to like here, and it’s mostly due to Greer – the speak-sing existentialism of “No Big Bang,” the Everything Goes Wrong-era Vivian Girls homage on “Nothing Feels Natural,” the ragged heartbeat of “Appropriate”… If Priests expand on some of the genres they’re playing with, the tunes could take on a more consistent quality. This is a D.C. band, and that must certainly come with a deeper perspective than the ones at play. Asking Priests to tackle more subjects might be shooting the argument in the foot. But chewing out the fat is always important in constructing a record, leaving a blanker canvass with which to paint a real bounty of emotional responses.

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1. Deakin : Sleep Cycle
Nothing is too complex. Everything can be worked through by breathing slowly. Spit out that rage. Breathe out all that shame. Even peaceful moments can contain anger. Even moments of chaos can contain catharsis.

Here are six songs that are only interested in solutions to problems. You’ll hear the voices of Animal Collective’s most lucid work and Bjork’s most life-affirming akin to “All Is Full of Love.” “Just Am” is the sound of growing up that Deakin was absent from during the Merriweather Post Pavilion hubbub. It’s wonderful to see the oft-neglected member of a band churn out their best song of the current decade (“Wide Eyed”) and release an album that coolly places itself among other AnCo greats like Down There and Sung Tongs.

2. Radiohead : A Moon Shaped Pool
King of Limbs left a lot of Radiohead fans in a jaded way (myself not included). Thom Yorke had retreated into himself, and we had to follow him for a long time before reaching listener/artist dialogue. He’s opposite of that on AMSP; slowly approaching his listeners with eyes and heart wide open.

The members of this band are around 50 years old, so there are few rock and roll tricks save the gnarled guitars on “Identikit” (a frighteningly sharp culmination of everything post-Wallace) and the reverse-beat antics on “Ful Stop.” What we have instead is periods of fussy emotionalism like the pianos before the flood on “Decks Dark.” The pristine production is advanced by the question of Yorke’s subjects: Is he speaking to himself or speaking to all of us?

3. Kendrick Lamar : untitled unmastered.
An album simultaneously about nothing and everything. From the head-scratching pigeonhole-logic of #3 to the prescience of #1 (as prefaced by 80 seconds of soft core porn audio), it’s incredible that these beats and ideas didn’t make it onto To Pimp a Butterfly. What could it have been like to produce a track with Cee-Lo and subsequently be like “yeah, okay we’ll use this later.”

uu is only unmastered in its lack of a consistent thread, but even TPAB required an album length poem for guidance. This has none, but is almost its equal in terms of scope and variety. Kendrick shares bars with nobody, and refuses to make 8 “unrelated” tracks anything less than the best rap of the year.

4. David Bowie : Blackstar
Bowie and Visconti gave us everything Bowie’s best albums have always possessed: fantastic employment of dozens of instruments, forward-thinking poetry and imagery, and placement of Bowie’s voice at the center; never once becoming grating or tired despite knocking at death’s door. We have a new, more powerful synonym for swan song.

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds : Skeleton Tree
Cave needs to cope, and he does so here by projecting his music across the rings of Saturn, into the mist rolling off the sea, and into a bathroom mirror; vomit, blood and someone else’s diseases on display. Grieving doesn’t limit itself to places in a house or on a map. You recognize the person in the mirror although the person on the inside has been overhauled, and mundane tasks like standing in the supermarket queue become new and confusing. “Maybe I’m just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain,” Cave sings on ‘Rings of Saturn’, where we catch him attempting normalcy with his loss painted across his face; which looks older and less familiar than it did before July of last year. In this way, death also transcends people and places, ultimately fucking with time itself.

6. Jenny Hval : Blood Bitch
Where does Jenny Hval find her strength? In some ways, she revels in her “bad art and failure” as Patrick Stickles might. In others, she celebrates it with details finer than Vespertine-era Bjork – from blunt concessions turned heartfelt comforts like taking birth control with rosé and finding connectedness at the gynecologist.

7. PJ Harvey : The Hope Six Demolition Project
Apart from “A Line In The Sand,” there aren’t many solutions offered to the world problems presented on Hope Six. Polly Jean Harvey is more of a witness: There’s a Department of Homeland Security base being built over an old hospital. There’s a wall in Kosovo with thousands of pictures of missing persons. There’s a woman in a slum saving her neighbors keys although they most certainly won’t be returning.
Listeners are left to fill in the gaps of past conflicts that brought these locations to such destruction. Her only guide is “The Orange Monkey” who insists that traveling and studying history is the path to understanding. She’s made such journeys for us, and brought a scrappy, saxophone-adoring, controversial piece of art back to England. It’s a shame some of these tracks aren’t longer.

8. Kevin Morby : Singing Saw
This is the easiest and most inviting record of the year. Singing Saw’s themes are ones anybody can relate to: leaving home on “Destroyer,” contemplating death on “Singing Saw,” and celebrating the good times in conjunction with the bad on “Dorothy.”

9. Nonkeen : The Gamble/Oddments of the Gamble
Three German children find a common interest in found sounds and improvisation in 1989. They perform some of them, but disband after an accident in 1997. Well into their twenties, they reconvene, reconfigure their rudimentary 4-track samples, and compile dozens of tracks that capture ambient, krautrock, and electronic music. Listen to these records when you’re feeling contemplative, when you’re feeling smart, and when you’re feeling like producing something worthwhile of your own. Another knockout by Nils Frahm, modern classical music’s finest product.

10. Frank Ocean : Blonde
All Frank Ocean has retained since channel ORANGE is his voice, thereby subverting his classification as an R&B artist. Blonde is a record that shaped Ocean’s queerness into a relatable palette of American excess; as told through the lens of often beat-less ambient structures. Blonde contains everything Justin Vernon has sought in his folding over of rap and folk, but pierces the heart more directly. No chipmunk voice is underutilized, no guitar lick is overwhelming, and no bassline is less than tasteful.

11. Jessy Lanza : Oh No
Pop music of the eighties and nineties compressed into an album that glitters like a diamond in pure emotional beauty.

12. Kanye West : The Life of Pablo
A garrulous, overproduced, and often despicable piece of modern art. Look a little closer at the cracks between the sentiment and you’ll find that West is still our generation’s finest curator of his genre.

13. Fog : For Good
The total picture of anxiety on a daily basis. Through rush hour traffic, concerns about taking lunch, buildings on fire, and unexpected sex in Minneapolis suburbs, Andrew Broder has the grit and gumption to remind us how love keeps on trying to win our lives over.

14. Ty Segall : Emotional Mugger
A no holds barred rock and roll affair. Segall brings his studio know-how and punk scrappiness together in ways his previous albums have only attempted.

15. The Body : No One Deserves Happiness
Where 2014’s I Shall Die Here had us staring darkly into the void, No One Deserves Happiness has us reveling in it. Typically The Body have taken a longview of metal, industrial, and noise. Here, they dive headlong into it over the most visceral instrumentals of 2016; complete with Chip King’s trademark howls and a stellar list of guest vocalists.

16. A Tribe Called Quest : We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Impossible to put to words. Tribe covered it all.

17. Tim Hecker : Love Streams
An icy wormhole of all music from Mozart to Eno. All of it.

18. The Drones : Feelin Kinda Free
“To Think That I Once Loved You” is the most brooding track of the year, whereas “Taman Shud” casts a “fuck off” huge enough to impress even Sleaford Mods.

19. Islands : Should I Remain Here At Sea?
The unnatural successor to 2006’s Return to the Sea, which is perhaps the finest album of its year.

20. Fat White Family : Songs For Our Mothers
Drug-addled, college-educated, formerly homeless history and fine art buffs making pristine pop culture satire.

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The saxophone is the most recognizable of band instruments. In 2011, Bon Iver’s and Destroyer’s records showcased its uses to millennials. In 2016, it’s grown darker and more jaded in the independent music spectrum. The saxophone takes a song like “The Governor” and turns what could be a dancefloor cut into something decaying and glaring. Stack Nicholas Jaar’s disorienting piano loops on top, and we have something that dodges electronic music precedent in a handful of ways.

The saxophone isn’t the only acoustic instrument revered on Jaar’s Sirens, his first proper rollout since 2011’s mind-bending Space Is Only Noise. There’s reggaeton pop with full auxiliary percussion on “No.” Sung in Spanish, the track references the 1988 election to keep late dictator Augusto Pinochet in office for another 8 years. Leftists and artists subverted a negative word into a positive message that underlies much of Sirens and Jaar’s family history. It’s all kept in peaceful balance with a child’s voice and satisfying lute strums that complement a 21st century hope for Chile.

Seldom does an electronic album open up its doors so quickly. These songs go from divisive to palatable, opener “Killing Time” waiting a full minute before birthing a musical sound: a glass vase falls off a table and reconstructs itself before introducing the gloomiest pianos this side of A Moon Shaped Pool. Funnily, the only sad part is that it ends after eleven minutes.

“Three Sides of Nazareth” has propulsion like a revving engine, but breaks itself up elegantly across its ten minutes with a bridge of white noise and paranoid vocal blips. Following is “History Lesson”, which has romantic and soft words akin to Avey Tare. It’s the doo-wop pillow talk track that Kevin Parker has dreamed of in his penchant for attempting to do psychedelic love as well as The Beatles. Even when Jaar says “we fucked up” about a certain part of his relationship, he does so with a long view that ensures his subject that he’s thankful for shared moments despite relational hiccups. Seven chapters of this tale go by in whimsical summation even though it all ends before the four minute mark. Nailing down Jaar’s thoughts is easiest here, and it’s a lesson to the listener on accepting the impressionistic glow of many of the albums words.

“The Governor” opens with two utterances of the word “deicide” before Jaar begins singing about what could be commentary on the club, politics, or the end of civilization as Jaar imagines it. This is a choose-your-own-adventure lyric sheet, as guided by the mantra of an “automatic dial” that sets off unnamed alarms before a saxophone solo cuts through and reinforces the tension of Sirens’ undertones.

But don’t let the fact that Jaar sings throughout the whole album, a first for him, tell you that this is pop music. Sirens remains something immeasurable in terms of style, genre, songwriting, and overall production. Where Space Is Only Noise and side project Darkside were mostly musical thinkpieces, Sirens asks questions of society that develop in cohesion through repeat listens. Is a point trying to be made here, or is it all just building up to a romantic (or political) climax on “History Lesson?”

Though Jaar’s music bears significant resemblance to the prolific natures of Trent Reznor, Brian Eno, or Kieran Hebden, these are merely devices with which we can begin to piece together his pallet. Sirens runs swimmingly from track to track, and it’s ideal to consume it without a tracklist; listening as its samples, beats, and voices travel without a map or a compass. It’s clear Jaar wanted to do something similar to what the average listener considers to be an “album”, but making a strong case for his intentions takes patience. Contrary to pop music and accessibility at large, it works well in his favor.

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