What, you thought you weren’t gonna see Douglas Martin? He’s the Osiris of this shit.
I’ve been away, but I’ve been watching. This is not going to be a long preamble to acknowledge what I’ve been watching while I was out of the office, because I’ve been running this column for almost five years; I’m sure you’re pretty well-aware. This semi-inaugural edition of the Dirty Shoes Awards is, quite transparently, the best of what I’ve noticed this year. Preamble over.
MAINSTREAM SINGLE OF THE YEAR
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
For all of his desire to be all things to all people, Yeezus’ best foot forward (with partial exclusion to “Bound 2”) came with teeth the world seemed to not expect. While “New Slaves” and that cringeworthy line turning the Black Liberation Movement into a too-clever-by-half metaphor for fisting were very much in line with Kanye’s other takes on race in America, “Black Skinhead” gave his African-American militancy some teeth. Its rhythms are cribbed (but apparently not sampled) from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” the eerie vocal contortions are in the background, and a healthy dose of the King Kong complex is displayed in the lyrics. Anyone who follows Kanye’s work know he’s primarily a fun-loving, sort of goofy dude who takes his art very seriously and occasionally suffers from delusions of grandeur.
Anyone who doesn’t might listen to “Black Skinhead” and assume he’s far more fearsome than he actually is, and there’s a part of me that hopes this was intentional. I hope Kanye’s aim with “Black Skinhead” was the scare the daylights out of older, prejudiced white people who have only heard his name in conjunction with Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift. Art wouldn’t be the same without people willing to instill a little fear into these types of people.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR
Everything I read in the press about this quartet is about the fact that they’re four young women playing surf-rock indebted to the kind of music young women were performing in droves decades ago. Very little of what’s written about La Luz centers on their merit as a band. Which is a shame, because they debuted with one of the greatest releases on a label intimately familiar with putting out great garage records (Damp Face, on Burger), graced Suicide Squeeze’s singles series with one of its greatest contributions (“Brainwash”), and put out one of the year’s best LPs on Hardly Art with It’s Alive (more on that one soon enough). And they did it on the strength of a crisp, almost-vintage sound, pitch-perfect harmonies, a “good enough is good enough” approach to performing, and a killer Soul Train line. The members of La Luz came with the sort of potential people cling onto every new band and delivered on it thoroughly in their first year. So excuse me for not being amused when the tone of most their interviews and reviews are, “Not bad for a bunch of girls, huh?”
LIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Gories – The Shaw Tapes: Live in Detroit 5/27/88
There wouldn’t be a White Stripes without the Motherfucking Gories. Even Jack White knows this, which is why this essential live album was released on his Third Man imprint. It’s easy to see why he would put effort into something basically recorded in a Detroit-area storefront which prominently features a blown fuse and the tiny crowd confirming it into the mic. Mick Collins thoroughly establishes himself as a torch-bearer for the earliest version of rock ‘n roll, the kind that was performed by black people and considered too “dangerous” for the radio. The production of the three Gories full-lengths vary in consistency from “gleefully crude” to “middling,” but The Shaw Tapes forgoes audio quality entirely to showcase the threadbare, fun-loving band at their most threadbare and fun-loving. And for the record nerds, they play an incendiary version of “I Think I’ve Had It” and even manages to out-Stooge the Stooges with their cover of “Real Cool Time”. Very few bands in history can lay claim to their extraordinarily posthumous live album being arguably their best, but the Gories don’t dress well in convention.
PRO-WRESTLING “MARK” OF THE YEAR
Marty Jannetty is pretty much the reason why white dudes even perform dropkicks. “Rolling Thunder” is the name of a Rob Van Dam signature move. Over the past couple of years, Bronson has compared his frame and facial features to those of Bam Bam Bigelow and Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart. This year, Jannetty’s legendary tag team with Shawn Michaels is titled in song, Rey Mysterio’s acrobatics make for a perfect rap simile, and Action Bronson steps up as a rapper intent on helping pro-wrestling become “cool” again. Maybe he can rap over John Cena’s entrance music on Blue Chips 3.
CASSETTE-ONLY RELEASE OF THE YEAR
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
When I first heard the debut release of Calgary band Viet Cong, I had no idea the lineup consisted of half of Women, a Dirty Shoes Hall of Fame band if there ever was one. I had just fallen head-over-heels for the twinkle (and the off-center guitar phrasing) of “Static Wall,” the white-boy disco of “Unconscious Melody,” and the climactic jangle of “Select Your Drone”. This was a band with not only a deep well of musical range, but one that had the ingenuity to make each of Viet Cong’s six songs extraordinarily memorable. And then I found out two of the members were responsible for Public Strain (still my favorite record of this decade, by the way), and I wasn’t surprised.
BEST NON-MUSICAL CONTRIBUTION FROM A MUSICIAN
James Murphy – “Little Duck”
He was the ringleader of the great LCD Soundsytem and is a man with impeccable taste and the ability to turn it into great art on its own merit. Nobody honestly knew how this Canon Project Imagination thing was going to work out, but when it finally graced the internet, there seemed to have been a collective shout of, “God, why does James Murphy have to be good at EVERYTHING?”
“Little Duck” is a piece rooted in the quietude of rural Japan and an increasingly tattered fraternal bond. The brothers express a level of ambiguity that suggests they each have something to hide from each other, but Hide, their mutual friend, is the glue that holds the brothers together, with his jovial, laid-back personality and his proclivity to offer Yui beer during his brief stay in Japan. It’s remarkably paced for how short it is; the subtleties float in and out of the foreground as these three characters navigate their familiarity with each other. It’s a short good enough for me to anxiously await Murphy’s full-length screen debut, provided the coffee industry doesn’t do him in.
BEST 2012 ALBUM OF 2013
Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
I had a friend of a friend spend basically all of 2012 talking up Parquet Courts to me, but I didn’t listen. I honestly have no idea how I ended up giving Light Up Gold a chance, but it instantly became one of my favorite things I listened to all year. For a guy like me, what wasn’t there to like? It was indie-rock as I remembered it when I was first exploring the genre. It featured whip-smart, punk-leaning dudes rifling off esoteric, nearly poetic, and deeply funny lyrics — like if Open Mike Eagle were retrofitted into a guitars-and-drums quartet. They were guys who played into my fascination with New York City, a city with bagels and bodegas sprinkled all through it. Their songs fell quite short of the pop music standard length, and the one that surpassed that running time was about the existential dilemma of what to pick up from the store when you’re completely fucking toasted. Light Up Gold was the kind of lit-rock devoid of the subgenre’s pretension; it was smart, but not too smart for someone who hadn’t even heard of Infinite Jest.
THE SONIC YOUTH AWARD FOR COURAGEOUS OVERINDULGENCE
Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film”
Being as though most of his detractors pan him for being a musician who values the business of hip-hop over the art tenfold these days, he didn’t have to do something like this. If you poked my cynical side with a stick, I’d probably tell you this was just another marketing scheme, a way to “rebrand” himself with a new, more studious, artier “demographic,” a way to further prove his connection to the art world lies beyond Basquiat’s grave. But then I watch it, and I see the looks on the faces of the people he’s performing in front of (from Jim Jarmusch and Adam Driver to Fab Five Freddy and Taraji P. Henson), and when they smile, I smile. When he goes nose-to-nose with Maria Abramovic, I lose it. When he raps, “No sympathy for the king, huh?/Niggas even talk about your baby crazy,” I feel him as an artist and a human being. I can’t claim to this being the best work of performance art I’ve seen even this year, but it does one of the things great art is supposed to do, which is peek inside the mind and heart of the creator.
REISSUE OF THE YEAR
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
This is not a courtesy inclusion due to Lou Reed’s death a couple months back. It’s because of the feeling I felt when I heard the Velvet Underground’s second album for the first time; the wonder, the amazement, the laughter at the “she’s busy suckin’ on my ding-dong” lyric, the excitement of knowing I’ve listened to a lot of rock ‘n roll records since, but still have never heard anything like it. This is the made-by-white-people version of that “dangerous,” black, beta version of rock ‘n roll I was talking about earlier. White Light/White Heat has all the spirit of the style, all the transgressive glee, and then ratchets up the squeally artiness and throws a gorgeous gem in the middle of it all (“Here She Comes Now”). You don’t forget moments like when the heartbeats kick in on “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” or when “Sister Ray” goes awry about halfway in. Or John Cale’s calm delivery of the gruesome ending of “The Gift”. Or the squawking guitars at the end of the album’s title-track, or the fact that title track is another penned love letter addressed to heroin. On most days, White Light/White Heat is my favorite record ever made, and even though I’ve heard it thousands of times, it never ceases to surprise me.
RUNNER-UP: David Lynch – Eraserhead OST
Because does your soundtrack reissue include “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)”?
MOST ANTICIPATED RAP ALBUM OF 2014
As much as I want to proclaim the combination of Roc Marciano and Ka as underground rap’s version of The Mega Powers, they’re more akin to WWE’s recent tag team pairing of Daniel Bryan and CM Punk: Two top-shelf craftsmen, two true artistes in an overcrowded landscape of hacks and egotistical chest-thumpers, two men who are easily among the best in their field dramatically overshadowed by peers with more mainstream appeal. But when they get together, fans of the art giggle at the maelstrom of possibilities, of the supreme masterpieces they could create together. Maybe we could all hope for these men to become more famous, if only for the potential of their respective fields of art as a whole. But they’re also making incredible art on their own terms, and that’s exciting enough for me.
BEST IN SHOW
I saw Savages in Seattle, where the first thing most of the people in the same room with me saw was their now-infamous “Silence Your Phones” plea. You see, Savages are trying to connect with you, and they don’t see how any connection can be formed when you’re tweeting about how you’re witnessing history or fawning over Jehnny Beth screaming at you with your phone pointed in her face. And more power to them for combating against this cultural inclination to disappear into our phones, but what they played that night was enough to force me into attention.
Yeah, yeah. I know a lot of great things are being said about Savages’ live show, but it’s something that really does transcend people’s words. The kinetic energy, the protruding darkness, the sheer ferocity of their set is something I haven’t seen given its full power in a review. The way Faye Milton’s drums feel like she’s stomping the bass drum kick right into your chest. The Jonny Greenwood-esque flair and mannerisms coming from both Gemma Thompson’s guitar and her hair flips. Ayse Hassan’s bass rumbling at your feet while she’s jumping around her spot on the stage like a young Krist Novoselic. And, of course, Jehnny Beth, a frontwoman of such toughness and theatrical intuitiveness that it’s actually not disappointing when she declines to speak between songs.
I’m listening to Savages’ great debut, Silence Yourself, as I write this. As the cliche goes, if a lesser band made this album, their career would be boosted to the high heavens. But all listening to it makes me do is want to see them live again. That’s where you experience their music as intended, that’s where you let the music wash over you and say, “Okay, I get it now.” You may find yourself waking up the next morning with your cell phone still turned off.