Checkin’ it twice: KXSC Programmers’ favorite 2018 releases
With the release of the album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, avant-pop artist SOPHIE places herself at the top of the musical pantheon, ready to change auditory pop perfection as we know it.
The L.A. based producer, songwriter, and creator is an enigma. Prior to releasing her 2018 album (which, when said out loud, is meant to sound like “I LOVE EVERY PERSON’S INSIDES”), her identity was completely under wraps - her age, appearance, and, at the time, gender were all undisclosed, masked behind an output of textured singles with strange titles like “BIPP” and “MSMSMSM”. Her first project PRODUCT was released in 2015, and since then, SOPHIE has been kept in the darkness, her persona being carried behind pitched vocals and artificial instrumentation.
However, her debut album, released on June 15th, subverts expectations: OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is an eclectic, meditative album on identity, society, and genre as it stands in the modern pop landscape.
When promoting OIL, SOPHIE decided to come out of her shell, and it pays off tremendously. The single “It’s Okay To Cry” was the first introduction to the record, and features the producer herself softly whisper-singing over a jingly keyboard riff and atmospheric synthesizers - a huge contrast to the abrasive IDM on her previous work. Every word, note, and breath here is incredibly delicate, and lyrics like “All of the big occasions you might have missed / No, I accept you” gain deeper meaning when considering that the song was SOPHIE’s self-introduction into the spotlight as a trans woman. By shedding the mystique, she allows herself to shine and become vulnerable, in a way previously uncharted.
The sound throughout the record consistently toes the line between bubblegum pop and industrial chaos with ease. She intends to be abrasive, purposefully developing sound clashes that upon the first listen make the listener jump, but reveal intricate and sophisticated progression beyond the inaccessibility. A first listen of “Ponyboy” or “Whole New World/Pretend World” can leave the regular listener confused, but through the disorientation, it’s easy to see that the whole record is shrouded in unparalleled creativity.
OIL reflects SOPHIE’s other work in that it carries a metallic shimmer, as though you’re immersed in a reflection of sort; on the surface it could appear bland and emotionless (as does most PC Music influenced bubblegum bass), yet there is something incredibly enticing just beyond grasp. Every note seems to come out of nowhere and leaves you at the edge of your seat in an incredibly surrealist form of auditory entertainment. Songs like “Faceshopping” feel as if machines haphazardly clanging together were banging in time - however, it all seems effortlessly calculated. There is an intention in every single note programmed, with every sound enhancing and adding to an emotional cacophony.
Where the record truly shines, however, is where it taps into that emotion. The centerpiece, and arguably an early contender for song of the year, is the immersive “Is It Cold In The Water?”, a song that frames itself as a melodic piece of performance art. Over sweeping bass and a consistently pulsating synthesizer that never lets up for the three and a half minute runtime, Mozart’s Sister sings lyrics like “I’m freezing / I’m burning / I’ve left my home”. Her voice, hauntingly gorgeous and, again, delicate, cascades over the production effortlessly, jumping octaves and flowing as if the song was the water itself. It is full of genuine uncertainty; when she begs the question “Is it cold in the water?” over and over again, it is desperation seeping through, conveying the true and very real fear of not knowing. When considering SOPHIE’s struggles with self and gender, even though she isn’t singing herself on this track, “Is It Cold In The Water?” is a meditation on what the unknown brings in a change of identity. The track seems to be an auditory form of rebirth, cleansing the palate and capturing the essence of transformation. The song is an experience, rather than a piece of music; it’s one of the most incredible forms of experimental emotion ever committed to a pop record.
OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, in a phrase, is merely something that a listener has never heard before. The form-breaking tracks of “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping” incorporate breakdowns fusing industrial music with IDM. “Infatuation”, much like “Is It Cold In The Water?” is a slow-burn track full of whispers and pseudo-harmonies over punching synthesizers. Even a cookie cutter pop song like “Immaterial” is an incredible earworm using sparse production to convey a critique on a materialistic society. The unconventionality oozes from every note, drop, and beat OIL brings; it is as though we are seeing into the future through an auditory crystal ball.
Every listener to this album will have a different experience. The impact this record has is felt where SOPHIE fills a sonic space or leaves it empty, it is felt with every single instrumental clash, it is felt in the feeling one automatically gets in their chest upon hearing the near six minute long ambient instrumental “Pretending” or the aforementioned “Is It Cold In The Water?”. The album looks to the future, and poises itself to challenge it with every lyric. With her first full-length record, SOPHIE makes her presence known, in both the pop scene and musical landscape, as a force to be reckoned with, and as the sole proprietor of an uncharted sound no one else dares to explore.
-- Reanna Cruz
Flipping through a 1985 issue of the Advocate I impulse-bought from eBay, I noticed a short blurb reviewing Hüsker Dü’s album New Day Rising, which came out that same year. The reviewer wrote that “as far as I know, there’s nothing gay about [Hüsker Dü], unless you count their ferocious, unforgiving optimism.” Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould is in fact gay--though he would not come out publicly until the 1990s, years after the band had broken up--so the reviewer was perceptive in noting something queer in Mould’s emotionally raw blue-collar punk. The chasm between queerness and gritty, heartland rock music is not as wide as one might be led to believe, and it is bridged by precisely the desperate hopefulness and unabashed emotionality described by the Advocate reviewer. But as much as myself and other butch lesbians admire Bruce Springsteen’s tender masculinity, and as often as queer and trans punks emphatically sing along to the Replacements’ “Androgynous,” few LGBT-fronted bands have emerged since Hüsker Dü that embody the humble, persevering spirit of rust-belt and midwestern rock music.
Enter Dyke Drama. Dyke Drama is the solo project of Sadie Switchblade, the prodigally talented musician best known as the frontwoman of the short-lived but much-loved hardcore punk band GLOSS. In GLOSS (“Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”), Switchblade embraced cathartic political anger, scream-singing about trans women taking over the world and the necessity of violent resistance. Dyke Drama is no less revolutionary, so long as one understands that for marginalized people, the personal is inherently political. With this project, Switchblade delves into the traumas and daily frustrations that impact life for many trans women and other LGBT people. Some of Dyke Drama’s songs reference experiences unique to trans womanhood, but most of Switchblade’s lyrics--about heartbreak, loneliness, and ennui--would not be out of place on a Springsteen or Lucinda Williams album. Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” which Dyke Drama covers towards the end of their 2016 album, Up Against the Bricks, could pass for Switchblade’s own writing.
Up Against the Bricks oozes with emotion and poignant lyricism, but it’s also a tightly produced and incredibly infectious rock album. Opener “Rolling Tears” begins with a twangy fifteen-second guitar riff followed by a breakneck drum fill and a primal yell reminiscent of the one that kicks off the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.” This introduction sets the album’s stylistic and emotional tone: unflinching and achy, but equally energizing. The album’s second track, “Crying in a Bathroom Stall” employs pop-punk-esque chugging guitar to imbue the titular scene of despair with defiant strength. Most of the song’s lyrics describe the almost universal experience of romantic heartbreak, but the final line gives “Crying” specificity; “Do all tall girls die alone?” Switchblade asks twice over the final guitar riffs. The line, which refers euphemistically to trans girls as “tall girls,” succinctly connects Switchblade’s personal emotional pain to the culturally embedded undesirability assigned to trans women. This feeling of lesser-ness is expanded upon in the words to “Cis Girls,” the album’s penultimate track: “You say I'm second to none / but I'm still second to one, / One of those girls.”
The heartache expressed in “Crying” is wedded with a desperate hopefulness in Up Against the Bricks’ title track. The song’s verse meanders over a wounded guitar melody, and its catchy chorus comes in triumphantly with heavy guitar chugs. “Is it too much to ask for a moment that lasts for / long enough to get it right? For you to keep me up all night?” Switchblade pleads in the chorus, “Is it too late for dreaming? To go back to believing? / To push me up against the bricks, grab my skull and kiss my lips.” The poignancy in her voice makes us hope that it isn’t too late, even as we sense that it probably is. Alongside the desperate desire for love in these lyrics is a dark shadow of aggression, even violence--having one’s “skull” grabbed and pushed against a brick wall does not necessarily conjure up images of tenderness. This forceful imagery lays bare the abuse, or threat thereof, that has defined the lives of too many trans women.
Other topics covered in the anthems that populate Up Against the Bricks include the sleaziness of the music industry (“You Can’t Count on Me”) and the alienation of growing up in a neglectful and dysfunctional family (“Day-For-Night”). These subjects, along with the rest of the album’s lyrical content, compose a clear vision; one that connects the personal with the political to generate an all-encompassing pissed-off-ness that remains bold and self-assured enough to not stray into bitterness.
Up Against the Bricks ends with the devastating “Some Days I Load My Gun,” a stripped-down ballad of suicidal ideation. It’s raw and heartbreaking, but there’s a note of hope in it too. “Some days I load my .22,” Switchblade sings, “but I don't want to give up on you / sweet people in my life / I don't wanna make anyone cry.” The lyrics acknowledge and pay tribute to the presence of a loving support system, even as they show that loved ones aren’t always enough to keep out the dark thoughts. The song--and album--ends with the fading in of a droning organ and the repeated line, “Is there anyone?” The line is sung through tinny, distant vocal effects, evoking the sensation of isolation it describes. It’s a bummer of a way to end an album, but Switchblade isn’t trying to craft a narrative of straightforward perseverance that inevitably ends with happiness or success. She’s depicting pain and grief and joy and desire in the arbitrary pattern in which life throws them at us, particularly those of us who are marginalized along multiple axes. Dyke Drama embraces its similarity to older bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements--the album is labeled on bandcamp with the tag “Westerberg” in reference to the Replacements’ frontman--but rather than being derivative, Up Against the Bricks carries these bands’ tough and tender spirit into uncharted territory.
2017 was a great year for music, check out these picks for albums of the year from the music department at KXSC!
Sean (Music Director):
- Shamana – Outdamud
If you were anything like me growing up, a disturbingly large portion of your early teenage years was spent listening to YouTube videos with titles like “WARNING! POWERFUL TRIP REPLICATION SIMULATION - Binaural Beats + Isochronic Tones [REALLY WORKS] [100% LEGIT] <92% WILL HALLUCINATE LISTENING TO THIS>”. This album is basically that but in Soundcloud beat tape format. Included in this album are slurred rants about MapleStory, post-ASMR subliminal programming, speaker bass test beats, and incredible flips of Key!, A$AP Mob and 50 Cent. This album’ll strap a spoiler and purple underglow to your 1999 Subaru Impreza, buy a $200 12 Oz. Mouse box set on eBay, speed run Animal Crossing %All Debts%, leave your TV blasting old episodes of Scared Straight at full volume and message all your Tinder dates grainy cell phone pics of Bigfoot in GTA San Andreas.
- Varg – Nordic Flora Series Pt. 3: Gore-Tex City.
If moody techno is your thing you’ll really love this. It’s a lot of Blade Runner-esque techno, reminiscent of futuristic metro lines and the high pitched drone of fluorescent lights. Representative of his broader label, Northern Electronics, his style of techno is isolative and the sort of pensive that induces nail-biting. It’s coupled with droning ambience and a few features, one of which is Yung Lean (surprise to me, as well). Listen for a flavor of the current state of cold Swedish techno.
- Ryuichi Sakamoto – async
I mentioned many of the reasons I loved this album in my review published earlier this year, but suffice it to say Ryuichi Sakamoto’s contribution to music this year has been par excellence. He envisioned it as a turbulent swansong, and an outsider’s perception of the world. The music is removed from the studio and re-constructed asynchronously, as life often is. It's a breathtaking and incredibly gut-wrenching. Please listen.
- Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2
Uzi’s major debut has lauded him much critical acclaim, and he has an honest shot at being the biggest rap sensation of 2017. Some may view this album as a vehicle for “XO TOUR Llif3”’s sale, but it’s a breakup album, through and through. I find myself re-listening to it a lot more than I normally anticipated, and it marks an interesting point in pop culture – that the non-stop partying and dissociation of the early 10’s had to end in as dramatic a fashion as it began. I don't really care if you cry...
- John Maus – Screen Memories
We haven’t heard from Maus since 2011, and he embraces us with similar forms of stark synth jams as before. His songs have always put focus on accessibility through lyricism, and Screen Memories is no exception. Though singularly-focused, songs like “The Combine” and “Edge of Forever” spark an apocalyptic feeling that emanates throughout the album. A good soundtrack for 2017, let’s hope 2018 is better.
Cameron (Assistant Music Director):
- Kelela - Take Me Apart
Honestly, this was the only album I needed this year, and it's pretty much the only I've been listening to since it came out. It was new Kelela in all the ways that we needed but didn't expect. Most of the rest of my top 5 were also producers on Take Me Apart, so all around stunning year for this lot.
- Arca - Arca
I think everyone was a bit surprise when Arca decided to make his eponymous album a Björkification of himself, but it turned out very well in the end. While he's definitely not a vocal prodigy, his raw voice found its home amid his heavy granular sounds.
- Leonce - Heatwave 2
- araabMUZIK - One of One EP
- Asmara - Let Ting Go
Seeing Asmara go off and do more solo production away from nguzunguzu was one of the more exciting parts of 2017. Apart from producing several tracks on Take Me Apart, she also had time to release a whole four track of her own club tracks. Give it a listen if you missed it.
Lani (R & B Music Director):
- Dua Lipa - Dua Lipa
Dua was that bitch this year and none of us can deny that she served pop real ness.
- Mac Ayers - Drive Slow
- SZA - Ctrl
I shouldn’t have to write why this album is on my and everyone else’s top 5. Hands down an amazing album from production, lyrics to visual.
- Charlie XCX - Pop 2
- Harry Styles - Harry Styles
Natasha (Hip Hop Director):
- Tyler the Creator - Flower Boy
Listen up everybody, because Tyler the Creator runs the whole world now. Our little boy from Ladera Heights is all grown up and has created the most delicate, soulful, self-reflective, and downright incredible soundtrack to young adulthood and personal development. I don’t know how he did it, but Tyler has encapsulated the raw feelings of love and anxiety and fear that many of us experience all at once and sometimes not at all in just 46 minutes. Flower Boy is comforting; now more than ever, there is tremendous pressure to feel in control of your emotions and know exactly who you are and what you are doing, but this album says otherwise. The past year was pretty horrendous, on a personal and global scale, so it’s only natural to feel worried about the year to come. Take a minute and relax my babes, listen to this album and all will be ok.
- Kendrick Lamar - DAMN
I don’t think I need to spell this one out for you guys—this album is flat out remarkable. Holistically my favorite Kendrick Lamar album, from the mixing and production quality to his poetic lyrics. Let’s not forget that this album contains one of the only songs that can make me forget where the hell I am, “Pride,” a melody that brutally stabs me in the heart and guts me to my core. The visuals for this album are equally beautiful, with some of the best music videos I’ve seen in the last decade with “DNA”, “Loyalty”,”Element”, and the newly released video for “Love.”
- A$AP Ferg - Still Striving
Hands down the best thing that happened to me this year. Still Striving is the HARDEST album of 2017, and reminds the hip hop world that trap will never die. Trust me, this album will make you want to be angry at someone for no clear reason and then go out with your day one’s to blow off more than just steam. Shoutout to the most iconic song of the semester, “Mattress Remix.”
- Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti
Playboi Carti has a unique talent for translating happiness into musical sound. His debut, self-titled album is just short of genius, the perfect soundtrack for any turn up, joy ride, study sesh, doodling sesh, chill sesh, pre-coital jitters, post-coital euphoria, you name it. Young Carti is a master ad-libber, and can milly rock his way through any situation. I hope to hear more from this young man soon!
- Lil B, Black Ken
Oh man I would be remiss not to name this album as one of the best of 2017. Black Ken slid into my life without warning during the excruciating heat wave we experienced this summer. It was the funky revival, the audio electrolytes I needed while I took advantage of the few days I had before the academic year began, filled with blazing beats and scorching riffs that Mr. Brandon McCarthy created entirely by himself. This tape is a true homage to the stylings of Mac Dre, Keek da Sneak, G-Eazy and other Bay Area rappers who propelled the hyphy movement. As we round out the year, I surely hope that one of everyone’s New Years resolutions is to be more like Lil B. We love you Based God.
Jatin (Jazz Director):
- Photay - Onism
It's rare to find an album that so accurately captures an emotion that you're feeling while you listen to it. This album hit me in a mad personal way, and while I could talk for days about the technical aspects that make this album great, I don't think that would do it justice. Discovering this album has been a beautiful emotional journey for me, and I hope it has been/will be for you as well.
- Remo Drive - Greatest Hits
You have to be some special sort of assholes to name your debut LP "Greatest Hits," but I honestly can't hate them for it, since I really dig this album. I can't quite say why I like this album so much, but I've been listening to it a lot in the month or so since I discovered it, to the point that I thought it warranted this spot on my list. "Yer Killing Me," especially the last two-thirds of the track, is freaking brilliant.
- DJ Harrison - Hazymoods
Richmond, VA tape wizard, multi-instrumentalist and beatsmith Devonne Harris aka DJ Harrison comes through with one of the best instrumental hip-hop albums of the decade, comparable only to Knxwledge's "Hud Dreems."
- Gabriel Garzon-Montano - Jardin
Of all the albums that I had sky high expectations for in 2017, from Fever Ray to Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar to Kelela, Gabriel Garzon-Montano's debut full-length project was the only one that matched and exceeded my expectations. That said, it's hard to describe his music to the unfamiliar. It's definitely R&B-ish, it funks and it grooves, but there's some unique quality to his music sonically, rhythmically, and melodically that I just can't put my finger on. I guess you'll just have to listen to it. P.S: "Crawl" is a fucking JAM.
- Floating Points - Reflections: Mojave Desert
As someone who's spent many hours listening to the music of Floating Points, and many hours hiking through the peaks, canyons, and dunes of the Mojave Desert, it never really crossed my mind that I might not like this record. Even still, props to Dr. Sam Sheperd and the band for truly showcasing the sonic beauty of the desert landscape as an instrument very much its own.
Virginia (Soft Rock Director):
- Kendrick Lamar - DAMN
wanna know something embarrassing? This was the album that introduced me to Kendrick in a real way. Yeah I know gross, but I had never given him a true, strong listen before DAMN. came out, so this changed my life on a very basic level. I then worked backwards through his discography after freaking out over FEAR and LOVE. I’m a better woman because of it! Obvi!
- SZA- Cntrl
I was a SZA stan since Z so when Cntrl came out it was like the second coming of Jesus for me. I can listen to this album infinitely. Never forget the time Doves in the Wind came on shuffle over the aux with my dad in the car heh. Anyway! At last SZA gets the love and attention she so totally deserves.
- Childish Gambino - Awaken My Love!
haha who knew! I feel like I’m offending everyone’s intelligence at this point/parroting the Grammys but whatever! Obviously this album blew everyone’s mind and demonstrated an insane evolution of Gambino as an artist... I still can’t believe he can sing like that it’s absolutely unreal. Ha.
- Cosmo Pyke - Just Cosmo
so Cosmo dropped the single Social Sites earlier this year and I was like “huh” and “who is this hot British guy with dreads” but then quickly moved on. But then Just Cosmo came out and it altered me. There’s so much to say about him and these 5 tracks but I’ll leave it at this... he is so much more than a guy that sounds like a slightly peppier King Krule! I promise.
- Mac Demarco - This Old Dog
I had a hard time choosing this last one, I was torn between Tyler and this but... I just had to go with my gut and my gut always gets a gooier, more visceral reaction when I hear Mac crooning at me. When I first heard this album I had a hard time distinguishing it from anything else he’s done. Actually, I still do, but I kind of like it that way.