A couple of weeks ago we took the time to share our 50 favorite songs of the first half of 2014, but we continue to document our favorite tunes with Tracking. This week's set features music from FKA twigs, Grimes, Spoon, Zola Jesus, Jamie xx, Lil Silva, Shabazz Palaces, Rustie, and Busdriver, Aesop Rock & Danny Brown.
FKA twigs, "Two Weeks"
The way each of FKA twigs’s songs capitalizes on her breathy coo, spreading it throughout the compositions as a source of sonic texture rather than a mere vehicle for meaning, is a move torn straight out of an R&B playbook written by the late Aaliyah and her producers at the turn of the millennium. Consequently, the apparently unanimous declaration that twigs is the second coming of Aaliyah makes a great deal of sense; certainly, twigs’s music sounds a lot like the kind of forward-thinking pop music Aaliyah might be making today, under the resurgent influence of ‘90s trip-hop and contemporary U.K. bass music. But listening to the sumptuous new single “Two Weeks,” from twigs’s forthcoming debut, I think those widespread comparisons to the late R&B great feel inaccurate. Aaliyah’s evasive, subtle musical grammar broke new ground, but her content was never as actively, emphatically weird as the stuff twigs is covering these days. “Two Weeks” luxuriates in its oddness. In more than one figurative sense, it’s a song you can get lost in, and twigs (who seems most comfortable when she’s being evil) plays the siren beckoning us on; she frightens where Aaliyah soothes, because she presents the possibility that once you sink deeply enough into “Two Weeks,” you might never get out.
If the endless comparisons tell us anything, it’s that as much as twigs seems like an original, she has distinct musical heritage, and I’m of the opinion that it lies at least as much with Kate Bush – another singer whose style, like twigs’s and Aaliyah’s, could be described as simultaneously ethereal and vividly physical. “Two Weeks” captures the main quality that makes Bush’s early work some of pop’s most enduring and essential: the sensitive, sensuous exploration of sexual experience. None of Bush’s more obvious acolytes (Patrick Wolf, Bat For Lashes, et. al.) has approached the nuance, complexity, mysticism, and ambiguity that’s always made Bush’s perspective on sex compelling, and not for want of trying. I’ve never heard any pop music that’s quite managed to mimic Bush’s way of interrogating the power dynamics of sex while expressing ecstatic, spiritual, even worshipful delight in the carnal act itself. FKA twigs does all of those things on “Two Weeks.” “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open,” she whispers, and it’s many things at once: threat, boast, promise, offer, request, discovery. Its multivalent quality makes it a very Kate Bush-esque lyric, and if Bush were to sing it, she’d make sure each of those possibilities came through in the execution; twigs can do that, too. Aaliyah, whose thematic sensitivities weren’t as developed as her technique, probably could not have handled it so adroitly. It is astonishing vocal work.
Bush has a distinct aesthetic sensibility, one that was both of its era and unlike that of any of her peers. The same could be said of twigs, who self-produced “Two Weeks.” The song contains all of her very 2010s sonic trademarks: a minimal patter of a drum track, eerie echoes and vocal fragments, muscular synth tones, an undertow of out-of-frequency bass. Note that all of those elements were present in last year’s standout “Water Me,” produced not by twigs but by Kanye West collaborator Arca. Note that all of twigs’s videos are visually arresting and stylistically cohesive, whether directed by herself (the desert-bound “FKA twigs x inc.”) or another (Nabil is responsible for the mindfuck that is the “Two Weeks” video). Note the cohesion between her album artwork. Note that “FKA twigs x inc.” sounded a lot more like “FKA twigs (feat. inc.).” It’s become increasingly clear that this is an artist who’s very willing to collaborate, but always on her own terms, bending others’ voices to suit her objectives rather than the other way around. Given how strong her work is – and make no mistake, “Two Weeks” is the best thing she’s done to date – I wouldn’t be surprised if, come LP1, her singularity of vision and effective execution conspire to make her a star. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Grimes, "Go (featuring Blood Diamonds)"
Claire Boucher may have just snaked the Sandbagger of the Year Award.
Don’t get me wrong: Visions was one of the few uncontested success stories of 2012. Without breaking a sweat, it posited Grimes as the sole proprietor of an altogether different (and possibly unclaimed) version of dance music. She blended esoteric lyrical ambiance with unconstrained, light-as-air vocals, and she did so as if to prove how much of a no-brainer this combination was in the first place. Like she was surprised it hadn’t been done already.
Which, don’t get me wrong, is remarkable on about a dozen levels. But as of two weeks ago, we now know that it was only the second-most impressive variable to the Grimes equation, and we have the straight-up-ridiculous trap accelerator “Go,” to thank for the admission.
Because above being one of the more wholly enjoyable releases of the summer, “Go,” exposes a lot about Grimes that we didn’t already know. For starters, “Go,” was originally written for Rihanna. Now, why that collaboration never went down will probably be a mystery forever. But it’s a moot point, because no one on the planet could perform it like Boucher does. Her timbre is inimitable, and her conviction borders ferocious. “Go,” might have had Rihanna’s name on it, but it never belonged to anyone but Grimes.
By that same token, “Go,” worries me a little. One could contend that we always sort-of knew Boucher had the stylistic chops needed to write decent R&B tracks, but a) “Go,” is a thousand miles from decent, and b) she performs it even more movingly than she wrote it. The most impressive variable to the Grimes equation is the imminent threat of how deep Grimes’ talent actually goes, and I hope we never know. [Austin Reed]
Spoon, "Do You"
Spoon’s modest exterior has been their calling card ever since the days of Girls Can Tell, but the in-studio tweaking that they’ve gotten progressively better at is often differentiates good Spoon songs from great Spoon songs. “Do You” falls into the latter category for that exact reason. The most economic band in rock and roll return make their return with their eighth LP They Want My Soul in August, and “Do You” stands emphatically beside every lead single the band have spun out in their twenty year history. Here, the Texas quintet take stock of their massive inventory of sounds and knead them into dazzling new shapes.
From Jim Eno’s watertight rhythm to newcomer Alex Fischel’s buoyant keys, everything on “Do You” is loose but locked in. There isn’t a single wasted note. It also doesn’t hurt that you’ll find more hooks and more emotion range in the first minute than some bands could be troubled to spread across an entire album. “Do You” is something of a paradox in that regard; it has long moments of tension, but it’s also filled with a joy that was too often absent on Transference. On every iteration of the song’s refrain is Britt Daniel sings, hums and hoos with fire mostly reserved for kids half his age: “Do you wanna get understood/Do you run when it’s just getting good” The Texan quintet have gotten uncannily proficient at making matters of the heart sound off the cuff. [Brendan Frank]
Zola Jesus, "Dangerous Days"
This week, Grimes released the awesome “Go,” a song she originally co-wrote with Blood Diamonds for Rihanna. It’s interesting to think about how bad “Go” would have been if Rihanna had sung it, versus how great it sounds with Claire Boucher at the mic (and behind the boards). At the same time, Wisconsin-born gloom merchant Nike Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, released “Dangerous Days,” the first single from upcoming LP Taiga, and I couldn’t help noting a small but telling coincidence. For Zola Jesus, too, has tackled music originally meant for Rihanna: last year, she covered the Sia Furler-penned hit “Diamonds.” Grimes singing a Rihanna castaway is a delightful novelty that hints at future potential; Zola Jesus singing a Rihanna hit is present potential fully realized. Danilova’s last two LPs, Conatus and Versions, were all about arrangement and texture, but her greatest asset – her unstoppable, primal, opera-trained voice – was downplayed, even though her best songs have long been those in which she sets that voice loose within the confines of pop structure. There’s a reason “Poor Animal” remains Zola Jesus’s finest work, and there’s a reason her biggest hit to date is her guest spot on M83’s “Intro.” Her “Diamonds” wasn’t quite amazing, but it felt right – one of the best voices in music today finally being given material worthy of it.
The sublime, addictively catchy “Dangerous Days” hints that Danilova might be warming up to that fact. It’s still dark electronic pop with an industrial edge, but hell, this thing’s basically radio-ready. The first Zola Jesus song that’s anthemic on purpose, it’s staggering in both scope and execution. It might be a quirk of timing, but “Dangerous Days” coincides not only with “Go” but also the nascent supremacy of “Chandelier,” the result of Sia deciding to take on one of her own massive pop songs instead of selling it to a superstar (like, say, Rihanna). Heard alongside “Go” and “Chandelier,” “Dangerous Days” sounds like a gauntlet being thrown. There’s no tentativeness here, only conviction. Danilova’s not merely trying on the pop anthem for size, she’s out to win the game. If Taiga is an album full of songs like these, it seems likely she’ll succeed. With a voice like that, who could possibly stand in her way? [Samuel Tolzmann]
Jamie xx, "All Under One Roof Raving"
Sample-heavy, sleek, and menacing. All are apt descriptions for Jamie xx’s latest offering, “All Under One Roof Raving,” which caps off a (so far) banner year for the British producer. Like previously released cuts “Girl” and “Sleep Sound,” “All Under One Roof Raving” is a deeply immersive affair, sucking the listener in for six minutes, never releasing its grip until the final note dissipates. xx creates intrigue with the initial clip, an excerpt of the 1999 short film "Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore," and once the steel drums kick in as a sort of counterweight to the heavy, dirge-like bass, the chances of escape are slim to none. “All Under One Roof Raving” is hypnotic all around, a swirling, calculated tempest of deep house, nineties nostalgia, and deft dealings with the present. It does not help that the music video, xx’s typical rectangle motif, takes a radical turn, adding a visual dimension to the trance.
At its core, “All Under One Roof Raving” is a tribute to the fertile underground scene of the UK that birthed much of the modern perspective on electronic music. xx nods towards this era by incorporating several samples throughout the six-minute span. It is a hefty endeavor, enough to bog down any track, but xx handles the outside influences and noise with aplomb, weaving them in dexterously, and somehow congealing the amorphous mix of Caribbean percussion, growling bass and riotous shouts. The final product is omnipotent without being overbearing, an exercise in restraint and a show of musical muscle. With material this good, nostalgia seems misplaced. The year is 2014, and Jamie xx is on top of the world. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Lil Silva, "Mabel"
Lil Silva is not quite a household name in the UK music scene yet, but his latest is a promising step towards that end. The London producer has been around for over half a decade, starting in the underground grime scene, and moving inexorably towards the marriage of R&B and house that seems so inescapable nowadays, doing his best work with little fanfare. In fact, the most well-known work of TJ Carter, Lil Silva’s secret identity, is the production done for L.A.-chanteuse BANKS. Yet Lil Silva is taking steps towards the limelight with his latest solo EP. Though two out of the five tracks feature BANKS, it is on “Mabel” where Lil Silva steps the farthest out of his comfort zone, adding his own voice to the mix.
It is a gamble that pays off. “Mabel” already flows with a confident liquidity, its bass line snaking through light-footed percussion and layers of reverb. Woozy plucks of guitar give way to echoed vocalizations and transient notes that quiver and fade after a few seconds. However, the thread that ties the entirety of “Mabel” together is Carter’s most natural contribution: his voice. His lyrics are minimalist, a looped refrain whose most prominent portion is something resembling a hushed attempt to hold on to an ephemeral affection. “Your love don’t fade away,” croons Carter, simultaneously hollow and haunting. The identity of this mysterious individual is easy to glean. Just listen past the flourishes, deep into the cavernous space, where the name “Mabel” resounds quietly with the force of a thunderclap. Sometimes the softest words speak volumes. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Shabazz Palaces, "#CAKE"
Shabazz Palaces live in their own world. Experimental art-rappers signed to Sub Pop who shout out to Neptune and their home city of Seattle in the same breath aren’t exactly the most common type of artist in the game right now. Despite their otherworldly uniqueness, or more realistically, because of it, the duo’s 2011 release, Black Up, received nearly universal acclaim. There’s a fine line between staying true to an artistic mission and giving people what they want. Shabazz Palaces focused all on the former, but were still able to reap the benefits of the latter.
“#CAKE,” released as the second single off their upcoming release Lese Majesty is a left-field celebration of their triumph. The oft-repeated line “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake” boasts about both stylistic independence and broad success. The song title further plays with this concept. The hashtag, possibly the most mainstream symbol to put in a song title, and cake, an incredibly common rap slang are repurposed. Shabazz Palaces can use a seemingly banal song name yet present a fresh idea.
And then they flip the concept on its head. Rapper Palaceer Lazaro wonders if they can have both hedonistic pleasures and live a holy life. Lyrics question if there will be pain “for all these pleasures sought,” and God answers that if they “do us with this art” they’ll get a clear conscience, a pass on the mindless joyrides of their life.
Instrumentals pivot just as deftly as lyrical content, from glitchy, stripped down beats over staticky waves to sparse key tones over syrupy bass. Shabazz Palaces once again reminds you they don’t do hip-hop like anyone else, and proves exactly why that’s an amazing thing. [Charlie Dulik]
Glaswegian producer Rustie has never been the biggest fan of linear movement. He has successfully dabbled in so many subgenres of dance music over his seven-year career that it’s impossible to attribute him to one. Or two. Or three, even. But here’s what we know for sure: No matter his trajectory, his direction is forward.
Case in point: By October 2011, American bro-step had reached critical mass. Skrillex’s reign of terror would rev to fifth gear in two months with the release of his Bangarang EP. Bassnectar was womp-womping across the US festival circuit. “Levels,” had infiltrated the Top 40 and Avicii had infiltrated Tiger Beat Magazine. Flux Pavilion was no longer something you said when accidentally misquoting Back To the Future, and the only thing more tastelessly mind-numbing than a band named PANTyRAID was the music performed by PANTyRAID.
Thankfully, Rustie’s debut LP Glass Swords took to the scene at the same time. And Glass Swords, in a word, was prophetic. Comprising elements of UK garage, early-aughts dubstep, hip-hop and existing trap music, Glass Swords changed the identity of the drop by drastically modifying the build. Treble was in fuller force, which pretty much signified how little he cared about everyone else’s commitment to bass. Key changes were commonplace, and higher-frequency examinations ran rampant throughout. It was happier. It was more melodic. And at the very least, you danced to Glass Swords with better posture.
And then there’s “Slasherr,” and “Triadzz,” two of 2013’s more deliberately nasty dance offerings. Operating more as a barometer to his growth, “Slasherr,” and “Triadzz,” became Rustie’s corporeal contribution to trap music, allowing for bigger drops atop wavier builds. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t really provide much context regarding his plans for a new release. Which was fine, because damn it: “Slasherr,” and “Triadzz,” were fire as fuck.
And then, in walked “Raptor,” a delicious exposition of the high-register trap Rustie has come to own. “Raptor,” shimmers with certain guile; its one-minute-and-change melodic build gives way to a drop so delightfully menacing, it could soundtrack a Care Bear cage match. And who on earth wouldn’t want to experience something like that?
“Raptor,” is as fun and flamboyant a dance track as ever I’ve heard, and what’s better? It’s the confirmed lead single to Rustie’s LP Green Language, due out this August. If “Raptor,” is any indication, Green Language might be one of the most anticipated releases of the year. [Austin Reed]
Busdriver, "Ego Death (featuring Aesop Rock and Danny Brown)"
An artsy L.A. speed-rapper, a grizzled New York wordsmith and an eccentric Detroit wildman walk into a bar… Okay I don’t have a punchline for this, but we do have this gritty, grimy, industrial-influenced new track from Busdriver, featuring Aesop Rock and Danny Brown. And boy is it a good time to be a gritty, grimy, industrial rapper. Between Death Grips’ (R.I.P.) Bjork-assisted niggas on the moon and clipping.’s dissonant, deconstructionist CLPPNG, the genre is putting forth some of its best music ever, and reaching a continually broader audience while doing so.
Enter Busdriver. The alternative rapper has grown to excel at providing his own unique spin on contemporary trends, as exhibited by 2013’s heavily dance-influenced Beaus$Eros. On “Ego Death,” the lead single for the upcoming Perfect Hair, he debuts the next stylistic evolution, his take on the harsher side of hip-hop.
There’s no denying that “Ego Death” doesn’t harness the same jarring, aggressive noise that groups like Death Grips and clipping. juxtapose with their raps, but the aim here is different. The jarring aggressiveness is in the raps; the instrumental is a dark ambiance, a platform. The heavy, foreboding beat sounds like a storm approaching. You can’t escape it, all you can do is try to weather the incessant verbal onslaught to come.
Through six minutes of run time, Busdriver (sounding like a slightly deeper-voiced Aesop Rock) plays pattycake with Ira Glass, Aesop chronicles all the people he’s going to shoot and Danny Brown (finally) declares himself the rap Marilyn Manson. Each bar covers an inordinate amount of ground—each verse is as dense with straight fire as each line is with vocabulary words. These three oddball MC’s end up bringing out the best in each other’s rapping, and the very worst in their most evil ideas.
“Ego Death” is the anti-thesis of the summer jam. It’s the mental soundtrack to a bad shrooms trip. It’s the harbinger of impending doom. It’s an apocalypse jam. [Charlie Dulik]