A Farewell from El Jefe: Top Tracks of the Semester

“Yonkers” – Tyler The Creator

Toward the end of 2010, after years of getting dragged around on a leash by the synthesized excesses of T-Pain and Rihanna’s plastic pop, hip-hop’s future seemed frightfully uncertain. Thankfully, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy boldly flipped the genre on its head and gave it the necessary potential for lunacy. No one took that mantle as literally and as indulgently as Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Lacking in neither restraint nor any conservative notion of sanity, these skateboarding rascals appear more intent on churning stomachs than attracting fans. Ironically, it’s precisely that depravity and insolence that has drawn so many new audiences to their brand of shock rap. Somewhere between supersoaking security guards at Coachella and perpetually giving the middle finger to every photographer within a twenty-yard radius lies a sense of restlessness; that adolescent feeling of needing to be heard so badly you’ll say and do pretty much anything.

Tyler the Creator, Odd Future’s ringleader and—at 19 years old—their oldest member, raps with a kind of manic theatricality. On “Yonkers,” the upcoming single from his sophomore record, Goblin, that energy turns the song into something both hilarious and horrifying. Over a grinding beat that sounds like a dead engine gasping for life, Tyler spits lines like, “Jesus called, he said he’s sick of the disses / I told him to quit bitchin’ and this isn’t a f***in’ hotline,” while disembodied voices moan in the background. Between mocking the Columbine massacre and Stevie Wonder, Tyler even finds time to throw death threats at B.o.B. and Bruno Mars, making his message abundantly clear: The new face of hip-hop is not pretty, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

“The Wilhelm Scream” – James Blake

James Blake’s self-titled debut, released earlier this year, lost the singer a slew of fans already smitten by the Londoner’s soulful but sedated take on minimalist dubstep. Blake demonstrated, through three EPs released over the course of last year, a sharp ear for laptop composition. Tracks like “CMYK” mixed samples of early 90s R&B amidst beats that stuttered and jerked with boggling complexity. So when the James Blake found on his debut LP sounded less like a DJ and more like a tech-wiz pub singer, fans scratched their heads.

“The Wilhelm Scream,” named for the comically overused Hollywood sound effect, starts off with the type of keyboard you might hear at a cheap funeral. Sporadic handclaps and haunting pings pierce through the haze while Blake’s tender voice—a more timid Antony Hegarty-style tenor—croons about his own uncertainty. The atmosphere here sounds cold and bleak, and just as Blake’s fragile melody starts to feel approachable, the song crumbles out of reach.

“Bizness” – tUnE-yArDs

Merill Garbus stands out as one of indie music’s most resourceful songwriters, evidenced by the handheld voice recorder she used to record her debut, Bird-Brains. In concert—usually just a solo show—she improvises drum loops and twiddles around on the ukelele, but nothing in her bag of tricks stands out quite like her voice. She weaves bits and pieces of it into her compositions as imaginatively as any other instrument at her disposal, and this is best showcased on “Bizness,” from her latest record, w h o k i l l.

The song opens with just Garbus’s voice, cut, pasted, and sprinkled lovingly into a rhythmic patchwork that lays the song’s Afro-pop groundwork. Light percussion pitters and patters through the vocal textures as Garbus’ voice, a feral blend of two parts Nina Simone and one part Patti Smith, roars as boldly and as authoritatively as either of the two. “Bizness” attacks with such uninhibited creativity and such free-formed expression, it sounds honestly unique.

“Under The Cover Of Darkness” – The Strokes

After Radiohead abandoned the electric guitar, the Strokes basically wrote the book for how to make it sound cool again. A decade’s worth of rock bands tried their best at following those instructions, but even after the New York five-piece fizzled out in 2006, no one who followed in their footsteps seemed quite ready to challenge the primacy of 2001’s Is This It. After a five-year hiatus, the Strokes returned this year with their fourth release, Angles. Though the band’s internal tensions resulted in a less-than-cohesive album that occasionally lacks focus, when it hits the right notes, it blazes hotter than anything the fluffy Kings of Leon try to pass off as rock n’ roll.

The first single on Angles, “Under The Cover Of Darkness,” demonstrates this quality better than anything on the new record. It invokes all the qualities that made the Strokes so irresistible in the first place: Julian’s boyish tenor, the roughhousing guitars, and a sprightly rhythm section that grabs at the listener. The song finds the Strokes firing on all cylinders, and when they sound that inspired, no one can touch them.

“New Beat” – Toro Y Moi

The sounds of Chazzwick Bundick’s vintage-flavored home studio sound like some analog recording of '70s and '80s funk, but even that description makes it sound too lively. Toro Y Moi defines itself through a drugged-out quality, and yet remains playful enough not to bore the listener. While his sophomore record, Underneath the Pine, feels stuck on the much-blogged-about “chillwave” formula, the album’s single, “New Beat,” speaks to Bundick’s potential to redefine that formula. Its squirming synths and mischievous bassline strikes an odd but compelling contrast with the numbed vocals, but everything seems to come together on the chorus. It bobs uptempo and pushes into the beat with a hazy excitement, like some sepia-toned rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine.” Coupled with its melancholy lyrics, the sounds of Toro Y Moi’s “New Beat,” at times both groovy and ethereal, leave room to discover something new with every listening.

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