This year’s SXSW was such a dispiriting clusterfuck, such a death-haunted mess of branding and gladhanding and inebriation, that I left that motherfucker feeling worse than I ever have about the culture surrounding music. But when I’m back at home in my office listening to shit, which feels more and more like my natural element, I’m just bowled over by how much goddam good music there is out there right now. So here’s this list. Apologies to 100s, Lil Herb, Vince Staples, Beck, Big Ups, Mark McGuire, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Schoolboy Q, Zuse, Lakutis, Mogwai, Neneh Cherry, Dum Dum Girls, the Men, Isaiah Rashad, Eagulls, Perlas Negras, Fabo, Casino, You Blew It!, and probably some other people I’m forgetting.
1. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues. When Laura Jane Grace came out as being transgender, I fretted publicly, like an asshole, whether her voice would change. This was, in retrospect, a ferociously stupid way to approach a person who I already admired and who was brave enough to let the world in on the seismic changes she was going through. And it also turned out to be just the opposite. Somehow, by addressing those changes and by taking on the challenge of turning gender identity into anthem-fodder, Against Me! have managed to sound even more like themselves. Every song on Transgender Dysphoria Blues is some kind of triumphant, life-affirming album (even “Two Coffins,” which is an acoustic lament about realizing your kids will die one day). These are glittering and miraculous punk rock bangers, songs for driving fast and screaming lyrics out the window, songs that fill up your soul until joy and rage kind of blur into each other and become the same thing. I came dangerously close to howling “Black Me Out” through the phone at a health insurance company rep a couple of months ago. It would’ve accomplished nothing, but it would’ve made me feel good. (Wrote about the album here.)
2. YG: My Krazy Life. DJ Mustard reminds me of prime Mannie Fresh: All those sounds are so clean and precise, but they move. And even if you can trace that sound and figure out where i intersects with other stuff that’s happening right now, nobody quite sounds like him; nobody’s got that panache. And here, he gives us something like a masterpiece, exploring every crevice and eddy of his sound, pushing it in different directions in tiny ways without losing that central pulse. As a rapper, YG comes off workmanlike at first, but then you realize that you’ve got individual lines bouncing around in your head for days at a time. He’s that type: Muscular but unshowy, with individual lines that eventually start to sound like hooks unto themselves. The whole day-in-the-life structure is a bit gimmicky and forced, but it also lends a framework to everything we’re hearing, and a sense of purpose. And within the flow of the album, the hits sound even more like hits — which is something, because they already sounded like hits. YG and Mustard didn’t need to put all that work into album-construction, and nine out of ten rappers in his position wouldn’t bother. But here they’ve made something that encapsulates a single sound and then reaches out and does other stuff, too, which is so rare and so important. (Wrote about it here.)
3. Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland. I love the stage of a rising, game-changing rapper’s story where he lives at this weird locus of chaos and energy of ideas, challenging people’s ideas of what rap should do and starting fights just by existing. That’s Thug now. He’s a wild card, a destabilizing element, and even though he’s a direct stylistic descendent of Future and Gucci and Mixtape Wayne, he still seems like an absolute goddam alien, a warrior from the future here to make sure we don’t make terrible mistakes. And even if he never makes good on all that potential and stays stuck in momentum-deadening label limbo for his entire career, Thug still gave us this dizzy, flying-in-every-direction tape, him and Bloody Jay (whose parts I like better with every listen) flinging their voices off these taut, springy synth beats in all sorts of oblique, unexpected ways. Thug’s always been a weirdo, and I’ve mostly found him a frustrating weirdo since he came on the scene, but here he’s channeled all those tics into breakneck song craft, finding the beat’s pocket and then just exploding out of it whenever he has to. Also, best scream-out-the-sunroof rap moment in a minute comes 29 seconds into track 4: “I DON’T GIVE NOOOOO FUCKS.” (Wrote about it here.)
4. Sun Kil Moon: Benji. I wish I could write like this guy. This album is so full of darkness and regret, weird squalid and obviously true stories about random deaths and sad fates and friends left behind, all delivered with almost Cormac McCarthy levels of deadpan emptiness. But it’s also a deeply empathetic piece of work, full of love and warmth for just about everyone he talks about. And even when Mark Kozelek is singing about the Newtown massacre, his reaction is overwhelming sadness, not anger or frustration or oh-great-another-one-of-these. On his album Among the Leaves, Kozelek mostly sang about messy entanglements and wasn’t afraid to depict himself as an asshole, which I liked, but he was sometimes so much of an asshole that I just wasn’t on board anymore. Here, though, he’s dealing with the best parts of himself, or when he is flawed (admitting to professional jealousy on “Ben’s My Friend,” being romantically callous on “Dogs”), he does it with this sort of Bill Murray wizened shrug, and it just makes me like him more. And there are no big emotional notes on the album; all the important moments just sneak up and wallop you. The words are the point here, not the music, and I was a bit bored when I saw him play these songs live last month. But even the music is pretty, and it’s probably the main reason I haven’t gotten sick of hearing this album yet, like it was a spoken-word thing or something. (Wrote about it here.)
5. Future Islands: Singles. As a Baltimore person, I’ve been rooting for these guys for years even though I don’t know them and they only moved to town after I left. But even if I didn’t feel that weird vicarious thrill of seeing them turn into A Thing, I have to imagine that they would still feel like a great, important, heartwarming story: Warehouse art-weirdos harnessing their gifts and just fucking going for it (even if they’ve already been going for it, in one way or another, for four straight albums now). Here, they’ve made a big-tent, festival-ready indie-pop album, and album that can and should soundtrack car commercials and show up in those Urban Outfitters vinyl racks, and they’ve done it without sacrificing any of their scratchy idiosyncrasy or their deep sincerity. These are synthpop songs about front porches and swamp air and missing your grandmother and getting frustrated about a relationship that’s going nowhere, and they’re arranged in these blurry, goopy ways that should keep anyone from stamping “New Order” all over everything, even if the basslines have that Peter Hook echo working for them. And they’ve been smart enough to arrange everything around Sam Herring’s voice, which really is a natural marvel. That part on “Fall From Grace” where he dips into death-metal growl for a quick second caused straight-up endorphin-rush pound-the-steering-wheel joy the first time I heard it. (Wrote about it here.)