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Clams Casino: Artist Of The Year

My favorite album of the year was — by far — EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints. I wrote in my year-end piece on Fuse:

Part of the album’s glorious expansiveness is due its first song, “The Grey Ship”, which sets your expectations for the album in the neighborhood of Cat Power-esque. As the bottom hits you around the 2:50 mark, though, you realize the past is preamble to a dark (and inviting) future. “California” is my favorite song of the year. Along with its memorable opening line (which was printed onto tour shirts, rightly so), the song is just snatches of sentiment that somehow evoke time and space better than most 90 minute feature films I’ve seen lately. And that’s really what EMA and Past Life Martyred Saints does best. Whether she sounds like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, or any number of high-octane 90s art rockers, she always sounds like herself. Which is to say, an economical story teller working in a thrilling and visceral medium. *Past Life Martyred Saints is beautiful, powerful, and sonically challenging. Above all, it makes me optimistic; it works from no obvious template and draws from no well other than EMA herself.*

I suppose I wanted to get mostly at the idea of EMA as auteur. People use ‘cinematic’ to describe a lot of music. It’s usually used to describe music like Sigur Ros or (this year) Julianna Barwick. I guess that’s like true. (I don’t.) ‘Cinematic music’, for me, is the sirens blaring on R.E.M.’s “Leave” during that scene in A Life Less Ordinary. It’s “Born Slippy” in Trainspotting. (It, apparently, has a lot to do with 90s Ewan McGregor films…) The notion of sweeping, wordless music being ‘cinematic’ has a lot to do, I guess, with reality and film. John Williams and Bernard Harmann. It’s a notion that certainly obtains, but not for me. My idea of cinema is (despite what my girlfriend may think) not a collection of formal tropes and structural ingenuities, but rather stories. And I’m just not intellectual enough to get stories from Sigur Ros or Explosions In The Sky or whatever. But EMA is an auteur storyteller. Hers is a sprawling-yet-economical story that insidiously takes you, even as you try to get away. She’s like a Wells Tower of songwriting.

I enjoyed St. Vincent’s lapidary virtuosity, James Blake’s heartbreaking young man sonics, and Jay/Ye’s decadence-as-politics. But no other album literally (I want to say ‘literally’; I think that’s right) no other album literally transported me the way Past Life Martyred Saints did.

And yet, EMA is not my (entirely, 100% objective, correct, and authoritative) artist of the year.

No, that person has to be Clams Casino, who’s done nothing more than quietly (figuratively and literally) revolutionize rap music this year. Again, from my year-end piece (which may not be up yet):

Common threads throughout much of 2011’s mixtape culture were a few super producers: DJ Burn One, Zaytoven, Block Beattaz, and several I’m probably forgetting all helped shape the most memorable sounds the internet freaked out over. But the dominant voice in lo-fi indie rap super production belongs to the unlikely Clams Casino, a soft-spoken student living at his mom’s New Jersey home. His beats are frequently dark and twisted, but they’re always beautiful. The spaced out sound of a Clams beat never exactly fits into a template — for every recognizable vocal sample, there’s an obvious one that’s been so shifted and screwed so as to be inscrutable. One you really dig into his catalog, past the remarkable Rainforest EP and his instrumentals tape, you can hear the diversity of his style. “Haters Opinion”, for Squadda B, is a monster of a beat. It sounds like how playing Gradius or R-Type when you were a kid felt. “Bass” is a song that could make anyone’s career, which might be necessary for such a personality-neutral rapper like ASAP Rocky. I still think Clams Casino is the only reason regular readers of Pitchfork would bother listening to someone like Lil B. All in all, more than any other artist, Clams Casino dominated 2011.

That sort of gets to the why, but not the why behind the ‘why’ of why I like Clams. I think I know that people have been making beats in their bedrooms for years. (I’m such a dilettante at writing about music, and I know literally nothing about its history.) But this year was just, like, ridiculously all about lo-fi (-ish) indie bedroom rap. And about the personal empowerment of low cost tools and software. Look at AraabMUZIK’s MPC histrionics. Or Kreayshawn + Tyler’s breakthrough to the mainstream. The J. Cole success story. All of these things would have occurred, regardless of Clams, but I think that Clams is emblematic of them all. It’s the whole 99%, etc. thing. Punk rock, but in a post-“throw your guitars out the window” way. A re-privileging of urban youth who maybe can’t go into the garage and practice with their band (because, duh), but they can use shitty headphones and a pirated copy of Logic to make the next great beat.

I also love Clams’ story. He’s in school to be a medical assistant. Like, not even a doctor. No disrespect, but he’s just a working class guy. And he’s nice. Not that it matters, but it’s nice to see nice people do well. You should read this interview he did with the Voice and Brandon Soderberg.

In total, Clams — more than anyone else I can think of — has changed my understanding of rap music. And he did it using a pretty simple technique: “Make shit sound haunting and cool” is his adage. He does not deviate.

Clams produced 20% of my favorite songs of the year. An amount that should be 30% — I’ve lived for so long and so deeply with “Motivation” that I thought it had come out, like, at my birth. I feel like I was born under the sign of “Motivation”. I went ahead and made a Clams Casino mix for people who are unfamiliar with his work, or who only have the Instrumentals tape. I greatly prefer every rapped-over version of his songs over the instrumentals, a philosophical condition I’m, I guess, still writing about in a .scriv file somewhere. But, in either case, just take it all in. It’s great.

Top 10 Songs Of The Year, Rated On A 0 To 10 Scale, Relative To Each Other

Note: It should simply be accepted that a song on this list receiving even a 0 score is still better than any song not on this list that would have, using different criteria, received a 10 out of 10 rating. (You can download these ten tracks as a non-mix mix here, or just click through the songs to stream them.)

1.7 | "Santa Fe" by Beirut

I could hardly ignore this song because this is, for me, the definitive Beirut song. I once lived in Santa Fe, down the street from Beirut’s parent’s house. I spent a New Year’s eve with him and his wife, burning the furniture in my house and watching "Why Must I Cry?" and Saddam Hussein’s hanging. I have a lot of snowed-in and/or dark memories of Santa Fe. But “Santa Fe” expresses just about every light, happy, and good memory I have of the place.

1.9 | "Otis" by Jay-Z and Kanye West

"Otis" is too goofy to be as serious as it is. It’s to happy to be so mean. I’ve heard like three other rappers this year rip off that "going through customs" line, as if air travel were the new pinnacle of class. If anything, it’s where white celebrities (hey, Kevin Smith and Alec Baldwin) are treated like people of color. "Otis" is similarly democratizing: it balls up all our class resentment and racial hatred and re-packages it into a consumer-friendly jam. It’s not exactly anesthetizing, but it doesn’t pile on the pain, either.

3.2 | "The Wilhelm Scream" by James Blake

In cinema, the “Wilhelm Scream” is some bullshit sound production that nerdy guys will tell you about. The song “The Wilhelm Scream” is some awesomely transcendent sound production that nerdy guys will tell you about. The main difference? The filmic Wilhelm Scream is about 1.3 seconds long, and the Blake song covers five different levels of emotional hell over the course of 277 seconds. What you think is just a background artifact at around the 120 second mark rises slightly through the right channel like a lone cicada gnawing on your brain. It indicates that the absolute bottom of the song is about to fall out 30 seconds later, and if you don’t get shivers every time you hear it, then call an hearse; you’re dead.

3.9 | "Haters Opinion" by Green Ova Underground

My favorite video game writer (sorry Bissell, stop repeating your talking points, ok?) is Tim Rogers. His primary innovation (beyond elegantly entertaining bloviation) is his anatomy of friction. My favorite of his frictions is “crunchy”, which is “when things collide, hold there for an instant, and then, in that instant of holding, a ‘winner’ is determined, and it is that winner who proceeds beyond the loser.” This production by Clams Casino is the crunchiest production. I would literally pay $19 for a high-definition version of this song because at this fidelity, the rough edges have about as much prominence as the chompy-hungry-crunchy parts, which is a shame. Shady Blaze is a pretty good rapper, too.

5.2 | "Illusions of Grandeur" by Lil B

My iTunes has the Illusions of Grandeur mixtape tagged as 2010, but the internet says it’s a 2011 joint. Great. The thing about Lil B is that listening to Lil B is really unpleasant. I do not in any way subscribe the theory that he’s some kind of idiot-savant, which is frankly kind of racist. But it’s also the least interesting explanation for his despite-all appeal. “Illusions of Grandeur” gets to the best parts of his work — Clams Casino production, thematic uplift, an actual narrative thrust — all of which are simply missing from 78.333333333333333% of his work. “I was a robber, turned positive” is all I need to hear, and I’m just taken away from here. It’s wonderful.

6.0 | "Strange Mercy" by St. Vincent

The song directly following “Strange Mercy”, “Neutered Fruit”, is perhaps a better song if we’re being really real here. But this is music. “Neutered Fruit“‘s sort of quasi-Egyptian, block-like melody (as in, it sounds like pieces of the Great Pyramid of Giza falling about your head) is majestic and disturbing. “Strange Mercy” is neither. It’s a close, personal song. Comforting. It’s an amniotic-sort of song, and if that’s dismissive toward St. Vincent or Annie Clark, then I do not apologize for feeling comforted by the things that comfort me. “Strange Mercy” is the feeling of being clutched.

6.1 | "Something Wrong" (feat. Codie G) by Kristmas

Honestly, I’m not sure how Kristmas, G-Side, Yelawolf, Block Beattaz, DJ Burn One, and all the rest of the New Alabama Rap Consciousness Collective (N.A.R.C.C.) relate or fit together. From taking it all in this year, their work has all blended together into a textureless meta-narrative, which is how I also came to understand Robert Lowell. What I do know is that Kristmas is really one of the only rappers I’ve ever related to on a deep, personal level, and “Something Wrong” is too smart (and interesting, which is easy to forget when you’re making ‘smart’ music) to ignore.

9.1 | "212" by Azealia Banks

I mean, I know that NME thinks Azealia Banks is cool, but the only substantive thing about her is still on The Singles Jukebox. I guess she’s been ‘around’ for years, but her “212” and imminent major label debut are somehow the mirror opposite of LDR? There’s a lot of stuff you can do to write about her? I don’t know. You know what I know? I know I listened to this song literally 50 times in one day. I went on vacation the next day, which was stressful because it was a travel day. By two days later, my life felt empty and purposeless, and I didn’t quite pin it down until I woke with a song in my heart. I’d discovered that listening to “212” has somehow become sort of integral to my everyday existence.

9.6 | "Fuck Your Ethnicity" by Kendrick Lamar

"Fuck Your Ethnicity" is a koan of a song. It has the catchiest and pseudo-objectively best hook of any rap song in the last year or more. I can’t even begin to understand how to explain why this song means so much to me without saying things like “It’s the ‘Exhibit C’ of 2011, except it’s both better and made by someone who actually seems to like rapping.” Or, “It makes anyone who’s ever said ‘#swag’ seem like they should probably get in line for the M.O.R. rap gulags.” Or, “It’s probably the only rap song you need to hear if you only hear one rap song every year.” I don’t know why I put all those in scare quotes, because they’re true. It’s just that “Fuck Your Ethnicity” is really understated in the way it’s good. Trying to say something ostentatious in an encomium feels disingenuous. You just have to listen to the song, and you’ll get it.

9.9 | "California" by EMA

I don’t know why I didn’t give this song a 10. (This is, of course, the very most objective and authoritative assertion of aesthetic criteria you’re likely to read all year.) I shaved off a tenth of a point, I think, because I know the song will just get better with age, so I wanted to leave a little room for it to grow in stature. A dirty secret: I don’t see a lot of live music, even though I live in New York and love music. I saw EMA, though, and it was great! She’s a stalking giant on stage, and she actually wears this gold necklace that says EMA. I like how this song mentions the album’s title in its lyrics, because it’s somehow not cheesy in this instance. I love how this song is just a clinic in writing a bridge-less masterpiece.

I’ll confess to you now, Past Life Martyred Saints is my favorite (ahem, I mean, the "best") album of 2011. It just reads like a Nirvana album to me. That sounds terrible to me when I write it, but I mean it recaptures a revolutionary feeling without being reactionary. It’s very modern, but it still has its soul. It’s wicked, like, young and concerned . It’s also aloof. So this whole Fuck California. You made me boring” opening, which is immediate and arresting, also sort of cracks me up, even though the song is as serious as a mortal wound. She says, “What does failure taste like? It tastes like dirt. I’m begging you to please look away”, which is insightful. Earlier she says, “I’m just twenty-two. I don’t mind dying”, which is stupid. There’s virtually no exposition, and no narrative, in “California”, yet it feels like all those great old movies I’m supposed to have seen. The song is great because it’s about four and a half minutes of entirely living inside someone else’s head. I truly believe in the phenomenological reduction as a tool for daily living, so it’s not surprising that both relation and transcendence figure highly in my musical proclivities. This song somehow has maxed out both categories, at the same time, and that’s wonderful and impressive — beyond words and numbers.