Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.
I love lists. I also hate lists. While it's fun to geek out about your favorite albums of the year, narrowing artistic works down and ranking them against each other always has an innate weirdness to it. But more than that, I feel like it hard's to tell the whole story of a year. An album might not be in my personal top 10, but that doesn't make it any less important. Especially when it comes to local music, there's just so much that comes out that by including one, it means you're leaving something out. But here we are! These things always start with an intro paragraph giving some sort of high-level summary of the year, so in the spirit of tradition let's dig in.
I don't need to break down what 2017 looked like for the world to you. It was pretty overwhelmingly not so great. But in the Pacific Northwest, there was a creative surge. There is no regional sound or genre tag that could cover it all, but I will say that this year saw PNW artists in general taking on a new level of ambition. We saw numerous concept records or massive epics emerge, from both new and old favorites. Maybe it was the tumultuous energy the world was feeling that led to it, or maybe it was a creative flow that was bound to come out one way or another. Whatever the case, it was overwhelming just how many stone-cold classics dropped this year just in our little corner of North America. Instead of trying to rank these releases, here's just a sampling of them in alphabetical order. Yes, I'm sure I missed something. Yes, this list is pretty Seattle heavy (working on expanding that outward in 2018). But that's the good side of lists. Everyone's will be different and we can all share the things we loved and help others find something they might love to. So, without further ado, here are 50 great albums that came out in the PNW this year.
It's hard to think of anyone in the Northwest who had a bigger year than Aminé. The Portland rapper ascended from local favorite to Beyonce's Instagram feed in record time with his debut LP, Good For You, propelled by the massive single "Caroline." It's not a fluke, either. Aminé rightfully claimed his spot with one of the most jubilant records of the year, regional or not. Across 14-tracks (and, of course, the undeniable bonus track "Heebiejeebies" with Kehlani), Aminé asserts himself as the next anthem maker for a generation. Songs like "Spice Girl" and "Wedding Crashers" gush with remarkable enthusiasm, but Aminé also makes room to make himself vulnerable with powerful ballads like "Turf." It's one of the most purely fun records of the year, one that warrants the praise and success Aminé will continue to receive. This is just the beginning of a long career for the young rapper and hopefully an indication of more PDX rap breaking through to the masses.
Ambient music isn't just relegated to ambiance. Seattle producer Ancient Mariner, aka Chance Crafton, demonstrates that tenfold on her debut LP Forever::Hotel. As much an exercise in mood as it is in expertly building tension, Crafton embraces acts of impulse to keep her music continually surprising, vivid and swelling with emotion. Swaths of synthesizer drones blanket minimalist hip-hop beats, fusing into a hypnotic blend that feels in a universe of its own.
It'd be easy for Care to get lost in the fray of David Bazan's remarkably prolific year. Between Lo Tom and the Pedro the Lion reunion, it's easy to forget that he kicked off the year with a new solo record. However, Care stands out as one of the Seattle songwriter's most intimate offerings yet. For a career that's been based on exposing his doubts and tribulations, particularly leaning toward existential, Care looks inward in a different way. Here he's meditating on the profundity of day-to-day life -- of being a father, a husband, a person. Much like his previous effort, Blanco, he's steeping his music in heavy synthesizer modulations rather than the feverish distortion of a guitar. It helps to paint an image of Bazan alone, crafting these ideas as he stews on the weight upon him. It's the lushest his music has ever sounded, with some of the most tender melodies he's ever invoked.
What happens when we die? It's a question that's plagued, I'd wager, most every person on this planet at some point. Seattle funeral doom act Bell Witch takes it a step further with their latest LP, Mirror Reaper. Over the course of a single 83-minute track, the duo searches for the area between life and death. With just drums and a six-string bass guitar, the band traverses metaphysical terrain in breathtaking fashion. Don't let the length deter you, this is a work you'll want to immerse yourself with. The band composition is so excellently constructed that it fades from movement to movement with ease. They find beauty while looking into the beyond. The growls and blasts of tumultuous bass crunch that appear periodically throughout the piece flesh out the tumultuous energy they're exploring.
Truthfully, I can't imagine Seattle in 2017 without this EP. Taylar Elizza Beth emerged this spring with this wondrous musical statement, Fresh Cut Flowers, and we weren't ready. Much like its name, Fresh Cut Flowers exudes elegance and excellence. Her voice enters the frame on opener "Synthesis" as a translucent visage, feeling as amorphous as the swooning beat. Then she starts rapping. Her cadence sways and bounces, all with a hushed tone that draws in the ear closer. And you really do want to hear what Elizza Beth has to say. A vase of fresh cut flowers looks beautiful, but its fragrance can fill up and overwhelm the room. That's exactly what Elizza Beth does on this record. Her audible presence is captivating, becoming furious on "The Shift" and dream-like once again on "Storm." With how powerful she can be over five tracks, I don't know if we're ready to see what she can do with a full-length LP.
There's an old-school approach to BlkSknn's music. This year you were most likely to find him selling copies of his debut, Small World, outside Westlake and all around town. That personal touch is indicative of the spirit of his music. The moniker of rapper Ajene Kaylan, BlkSknn gushes with magnetic energy across his debut. "Reggie Miller" coolly glides with a soulful beat and Kaylan's bravado with DBZ-inspired boasts about powering up with kaio-ken and the throwaway, "I wrote this song in bed." Interspersed with "Real Talk" interludes, you start to get a fuller image of who Kaylan is as a young artist -- focused on his growth, determined to make his dream future a reality. With the effortless flow of songs like "Choose" and the familial joy of "Family Tree," there's little doubt that Kaylan will see these dreams through. In terms of a debut, this one ventures into the prophetic.
Buje Mane doesn't consider himself a rapper. At least not anymore. In an interview with Seattle Weekly earlier this year, the Tacoma local emphasized that after his 2016 EP, I Quit, he was moving on from that descriptor and following his creative impulses. On TYTHBAVFE (which stands for Thank You This Has Been a Very Fun Experience), he does exactly that. Where there's a debate going on between old school and new school hip-hop heads about the validity of mumble rap and respecting the classic technique, Buje Mane just doesn't give a shit. He wants to do what sounds good to him. He's not worried about the "content" containing depth. It's more about the feeling he can create, hence no need to call him a rapper. TYTHBAVFE excels at his mission, embracing vibe and mood without hesitation. His voice crawls over tracks like "Bad Attitude" and "Buje Badass", feeling more like a part of the beat than a rapper trying to prove themselves. In 2017, this is one of the boldest decisions you can make. Forget the hot takes and detractors. Find your voice and follow the vibe. We can all take listens from Buje Mane here.
When we talked with CHARMS earlier this year about the process of writing their debut LP, Human Error, they described it as "slamming into each other until something happens." They're not a band that sits down and plots what parts they're going to play -- they just push through with swaths of noise and force it until it finally coalesces into the sound they're searching for. This forceful take on the creative process is just as thrilling as you'd expect. For a band that was mostly known for their raw and transcendent live shows, complete with deconstructing visuals by Kevin Blanques, Human Error had the unenviable task of trying to contain that manic energy into something that would translate to headphones and stereos. The album succeeds tenfold. It's a noisy, harsh, and explosive record that feels like it can rip apart at any time.
As the band traverses 21st-century anxiety with healthy doses of sci-fi paranoia, they've created a record that feels like the times we live in. From the opening shivers and crunching drums of opener "C.O.D." carrying through the waves of static on "Siren," the album quickly asserts itself as a tumultuous affair. It hardly lets up over the 10 tracks, filled with Josh McCormick's furious synthesizer jabs, Ray McCoy's pummeling drums, and guitarist/vocalist E.J. Tolentino's razor-like guitars and lyrics that come in like a desperate transmission from eons away. The album's both a warning and a reflection of the modern era, one we should heed and blast loudly.
Chastity Belt has always been great. So when reviews (present company included) refer to I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone as their "most mature album yet," it's not a slight at their older material but a moment of pride. Their debut No Regerts and follow-up Time To Go Home always touched on themes of dissociation with some great eye-rolls and can-you-believe-this-shit-we're-dealing-with humor. But on the band's third LP, that self-deprecating humor has become a candid inner monologue dissecting lead vocalist Julia Shapiro's own complicated loneliness. The image on the album's cover of a black and white palm tree bordered by blackness and hints of pink aptly captures the mood of feeling alone on an island of your own emotions. Musically, the band creates a wondrous haze that matches the immersive nature of Shapiro's music.
Listening to I Used To Spend... is the closest we've felt to the band, or at least it is for me. To let your guard down like this and let people in requires a level of trust and it's an honor that the band would let us into their world. Maybe you can even find some of yourself reflected in the scenes within the record. Lines like "I look at my phone again, I just wanna die/Aside from that, I feel all right," on "What The Hell" haunt me just going through my day-to-day patterns. As the band looks inward, it prompts us to do the same. I'll be digesting this album for years. It's truly something special.
That Cock & Swan's latest album, Dream Alone, started as a score for a film makes almost too much sense. Originally stemming from a live score for the Ryan Gosling starring Only God Forgives, the Seattle duo re-recorded parts to create Dream Alone while retaining it's most cinematic qualities. You don't need to have experienced the film to embrace the sonic wonders of Dream Alone. Utilizing analog synthesizers, the two have never sounded more massive. The record reminds me of another Gosling film, this year's Blade Runner 2049. Not just because that film features a sprawling synth-heavy score, but in that the movie thematically addresses questions of humanity and opts to broaden the scope of vision in its universe. It's one of the boldest moves the band has done yet -- only to be expanded even further with a full-score version titled Julian's Sword.
Garbed in NASA jumpsuits, COSMOS blitzed through Seattle with live shows that rattled the atmosphere. It's not just the live band element crafting their energetic beats, but it's the magnetism of all the members as well as the fierce songwriting that makes their debut mixtape Moonshine such a watershed moment. Along with features from fellow local up-and-comers ParisAlexa, MistaDC, and Luna God, the record captures the city at it's most excitable. You can feel the love and ambition bursting through the seams of tracks like "Galagirl" and "To The Moon." The space imagery feels more than a gimmick -- it's an appropriate metaphor for where the band is trying to go. Seattle can be bleak for a large portion of the year (why do we agree to daylight savings time again?), but Moonshine bursts with hopefulness and that's something we could use a lot of right now. Thank the heavens for COSMOS.
A perfectly constructed pop song is not something to dismiss. The Courtneys' second effort, appropriately titled The Courtneys II, pairs 10 of these songs back-to-back. Each song feels like a fuzzy-teeth, sugar rush. When we chatted with the band earlier this year, they said a lot of the prep for recording the album involved listening to records they considered to be "perfect." From that exercise, they also learned to embrace imperfections -- opting not to try and "fix" everything so it sounds immaculate. So much of that seeps through in II. It's a record that captures the timelessness feelings of love, crushes and feeling apart from the world.
House music, at it's best, is a meditative experience. You need a rhythm that can feel endless without being monotonous. There's a large number of artists in Vancouver's rising house scene that gets this, and D. Tiffany is chief among them. On Blue Dream, she creates an immersive world with clamors of drums, bass, and samples, bubbling up into a euphoric experience. In just four songs, she manifests a world of beats that range from daydreams to night drives. On "How RU Plush", she masterfully inserts audio clips of a voice repeating, "excuse me," "thank you," and "I'm trying to dance." It sounds jarring at first, maybe even making you wonder if you've got a pop-up ad sounding off in another browser tab. But it's this fearlessness to experiment and willingness to embrace obtuse ideas that makes Blue Dream such an essential listen.
Da Qween opens BabeSpace Mixtape with a definition. They that babespace is "the aura that you give off when you're being your true self." After a brief pause, they add, "Welcome to mine." BabeSpace Mixtape really does feel like their essence, showing Da Qween at their most exhilarating and confident ("H.O.M.O. Hang Out Make Out", "Fuck Awards") as well as their most vulnerable ("Fight or Flight", "White Nightmare"). You can feel Da Qween's aura in everything, right down to the Pokemon sampling beats and the way they use their voice to punch through the mix. It's also a poignant reflection on queerdom, giving us a candid look into Da Qween's multi-faceted life. If everyone contains multitudes, we could all learn how to embrace that as Da Qween does on this record.
In many ways, 2017 was the year of ego. Ego that put people in power who shouldn't be, ego that lead even more to abuse what power they have over others. So an album that's all about denying self has a certain appeal to it, just on face value. Darto's Human Giving may not sound a record full of hope on a surface level with its twisting and turning synthesizers and monotone spoken word pieces, but beneath the surface there's love brewing in every line. And what's more human than that? The lyrics on "I Am" personally gave me hope while trying to navigate this often bleak world we live in: "I am the means to an end/A place for change to begin again." Like many of the lyrics on Human Giving, "I Am" doubles as a mantra. The words are meant to be repeated and absorbed, making it a record that demands your time and patience.
Sonically, it's a pretty stark jump from their previous LP hex. Where before they found power in blaring guitars and bass tones, here the power quietly rests within their voices and the slow thud of drums and keyboards. There's no lead singer in Darto. There's not even any real defined roles. There's just Darto. That democratic approach to the music mirrors the ethos they're trying to exude. Together they search for hope and meaning, losing themselves in the process. "Hope will only heal my life," Nicolas Merz sings on "Character Study." That's a message we could all use right now, a true act of human giving.
It's easy to throw around the word "innovative" in the hyperbolic context of the Internet, but Seattle-based producer DJ NHK Guy's debut, At Your Door, is at least a contender. Between an extended period living in Japan acquainting himself with the electronic scene there and taking to Chicago footwork, he was able to create an entirely unique take on both genres. It's a record that hardly ever lets up, feeling like what would happen if you gave an Initial D machine the aux cable (to clarify, that's a good thing). The vibrant surges on "SUKOSHI E" are completely electric. Elsewhere on "MOOD," he channels his more subdued inclinations in a song that vibes while still keeping the album's relentless momentum going. It's hard to think of a record that sounds like this. And again, that's a great thing.
In the debut edition of Throwaway Style, I described Seattle rapper DoNormaal as omnipresent. That may have been an understatement. So many times I found myself walking around the city and I'd hear Third Daughter single "ego slave" blaring from cars and playing at parties. Sometimes I wouldn't even know she'd be playing a show and I'd hear it echoing from a nearby venue. Maybe DoNormaal says it best herself in the opening verse of that song, "I'm in awe of myself, so what? I'd take a fuckin bullet for myself someday." DoNormaal has plenty to be confident about. THIRD DAUGHTER is more than just a great record, it's a document of a moment in time. Beyond whether or not this was your favorite record of 2017, this record was Seattle in 2017.
It's not just that it found a strong local audience that makes THIRD DAUGHTER so excellent. DoNormaal is a poet and she maximizes every moment of her hour-long LP. "These girls don't like me, these boys are sexist, these whites are racist. Why I gotta call em family?" she says on "emotional." If there ever was a summary of the year, there it is. Her presence alone commands your attention, yet she still fights to divert you from any other distractions. "It's DoNormaal here, every time you hear my name its approved," she says on "magic donormaal" while also extolling that her god is her hard-earned pay. Magic is also a great word to describe this project. Celestial beats by some of Seattle's most promising producers like Brakebill, Wolftone, and Fish Narc help create a multiverse of her mind. She embraces herself and lets her confidence glow with every languid rhyme she exhales. This is an album to be cherished, beloved, and celebrated.
YÚ may be an amalgamation of the English word "you" and the Spanish word "tú," but it's a record that's more about being torn apart than put together. Dreamdecay, with their visceral and ballistic performance, are uniquely apt to tackle such an emotion. It's a record concerned with identity, reflecting on being pulled between two cultures. Those tumultuous inner feelings erupt into furious anthems like the jagged "NO ANSWER" and the spiraling title-track. Even when the album settles into quieter moments like the warble of "Witness/Allow", there's a quiet intensity still brewing. It's one of the most outwardly "aggressively sounding" records to come out of Seattle this year, but one that uses that intensity for a pinpointed purpose, making something truly moving within the noise.
I'm gonna tread lightly here, so bear with me for a minute. For years I feel like Dude York has been Seattle's kid brother. Not that they're underdeveloped or anything, but it seemed like anytime you turned around they were getting into some sort of fun looking trouble, throwing a party while your parents were away at a couples retreat. I loved that version of Dude York, and traits of that still exist. But much like Chastity Belt's record, Sincerely is a giant emotional leap forward for the band. They're still churning out insanely catchy pop-punk riffs, but they're also revealing more of themselves in the process. They use humor expertly in doing this as well. On "The Way I Feel," guitarist and vocalist Peter Richards recalls trying to friend his therapist on Facebook to say "what's up?" It's a funny scene, but also with a healthy dose of realism. There's a certain optimism, maybe in their performance, that permeates throughout even the darkest moments of the record. Things are fucked up, but maybe it'll be okay.
Also, I'd be remiss not to mention that "Love Is" is a perfect song. Full stop. Claire England taking on more vocal duties was a brilliant move and her writing on that track, in particular, is some of the most evocative and beautiful sounds I've heard in a long time. It's pure and free as she ruminates on holding hands with a hot guy in the back of a van. Yeah, that doesn't sound like much when you put it that way, but it's how she sings it and portrays it so honestly, that makes it work. "It's the chemistry we thrive in, and that's all that love is," Centuries of love songs, and finally someone distilled what love is really about.
Recorded on a cassette deck in their recording space affectionately known as the "Dank Dungeon," Feed's self-titled debut lives up the griminess of its inception. With a powerhouse lineup featuring members of Ubu Roi and Rose Windows, it's no wonder this record is one of the heaviest psych records to come out of the region this year. It's nine tracks fuel a spiraling mind-warp, one that you'll want to rewind and play and obsess over all over again.
Portland-based producer and rapper Fountaine really like Dragon Ball Z. Previously he did a whole album chronicling the Cell Saga of the anime, with samples from the show throughout. On H.F.I.L. (a reference to the version of hell in DBZ), he breaks his limits and ascends to a whole new level. I don't want to make this sound like some nerdy kitsch thing either (I just get really excited anytime I can talk about Goku and co.). His beats are forward-thinking, shaking and sizzling under Fountaine's distorted voice. He even scores a feature with fellow Portlander The Last Artful Dodgr, creating the most obtuse banger you'll hear all year. It totally works.
Listening to Great Grandpa's full-length debut, Plastic Cough, it's easy to have your attention pulled in multiple directions. There's the vivid of imagery of vocalist Alex Menne's lyrics that draw from zombie weed nightmares to pizza topping requests. There's also the mangled-yet-melodic guitar tones of Patrick Goodwin and Dylan Hanwright, intertwining and erupting off the foundation of propulsive sounds of drummer Cam LaFlam and bassist Carrie Miller. It has the hallmarks of "slacker rock" with production and care of the most meticulous of bands. But really what I think makes Plastic Cough work best is the bond between the artists. It's that indescribable connective glue that you can't pinpoint to a certain tone or riff, but exudes through the music nonetheless. It emerges in the gut-wrenching ballad "All Things Must Behave / Eternal Friend," and on the chorus of the anthemic "Fade." Even on that zombie-ganja jam "28 Js L8R" there's a communal spirit to it all. Plastic Cough isn't just a well-designed rock record, it's an extension of the five members and their love for the music and one another.
One of my favorite things I've been able to say out loud this year is, "Have you heard Dear Diarrhea? It just came out on Make Fart Records." What a time to be alive. Hardly Boys are helping keep the vibrancy of Seattle's DIY rock scene. On their Bandcamp page they describe their music as "10% music, 90% comedy," which is pretty spot on. I don't know if any record this year made me smile as hard as this one. Listening to their stoner fantasies on "House Boat" and the scorching protest anthem "(((Alt-Right))) Punks Fuck Off" was a respite from the world while also pointing out how fucked up things really are right now. The bare-bones production and rapid pace of each song captures the benevolent energy of the band, something so infectious that I feel like it could inspire listeners to pick up their own guitars and let loose as well.
After a brief time away, Haunted Horses reunited and returned this year with one of their most intense and frenzied releases yet. The "COME" EP, their first release since 2013's Watcher, is a sprint of industrial punk visions. Drummer Myke Pelly and guitarist Collin Dawson have never sounded more brutal or more in-sync than they do here, pushing their sound to their darkest recesses and embracing art-rock experimentation. Now that they're back, we can only hope for more shadowy opuses in the future.
"How do you say to someone that this is all there is, this is all there ever will be?" Vancouver's Andrew Yong Hoon Lee sings on the opening title-track to Holy Hum's latest LP, All of My Bodies. Over the course of the record, Lee ruminates and reflects on the death of his father, Joo Won Lee, who passed away in 2011. When someone leaves your life, there's a gap that needs to be filled. Unanswered questions, things you were never able to express, and a need for a resolution that may never come. Lee searches through these feelings with the droning sounds of synthesizers and reverb-drenched guitars. All self-produced, recorded, and engineered by Lee, you can feel how personal this project is without knowing its catalyst. It's as expansive and far-reaching as those gut-wrenching feelings of grief, building larger and larger arrangements while digging closer to the complex emotions that can be hard to process.
Koga Shabazz claimed 2017 as his own on the first day of the year when he released the '17 Bastards EP and kept up the momentum the rest of the year, constantly dropping new singles and collaborations. It all culminated in Overture to the Unknown, a seven-track EP that poises Koga as a tenacious MC ready to push his way to ubiquity. A recent high school grad, Koga has the drive and bottomless energy to make his ambitions come true. His voice booms over the beats on this release, going toe-to-toe with local favorites Dave B and Gifted Gab on separate tracks. He also gives us maybe the best Seattle posse cut of the year with "Ol' faith." Overture doesn't just show the promise of a young rapper, it shows an artist who is already ready to go. 2017 was bountiful for Koga, who knows what 2018 could reveal.
Portland-via-LA rapper The Last Artful, Dodgr may have one of the most distinctive voices in the region. Her voice crawls over Neill Von Tally's beats like a ghoulish fiend hunting its prey. The duo collaboration, Bone Music, sounds exactly like that – like rattling bones cracking against each other while Dodgr performs a hip-hop seance. Her interplay between rapping and singing is flawless, making it hard to say when one action starts and the next begins. When she howls, "When I die play my beats" on "LLC," it's as frightening as it is exhilarating. Their label Eyrst is helping to define Portland's sound to the rest of the world and Bone Music feels like the breakout ambassador to show what the City of Roses has to offer.
There's a watery haze blanketed across Portland indie-rock act Little Star's self-titled LP. It's a thread that connects the band's wide-ranging songs, from psych-jams like "Mood" to the subdued centering of "Calming Ritual #1." Something about that drenched sound elevates the emotional resonance of the record, giving a dreary sonic wave to each track. Listening to this record feels like being in the back of a basement show, watching your friends push the city noise ordinances while you're thinking about the profundity of the moment. Those types of moments are fleeting, but Little Star lets you relive them again and again and that's a beautiful thing.
I've written about Lushloss' Asking/Bearing record a couple times now and I'm still at a loss with how to effectively convey just how truly special of a record this is. Producer/songwriter Olive Jun isn't just opening herself up on the first side of this tape – she's finding a new kind of a transparency that breaks down the relationship between creator and listener. Between lush beats and the occasional acoustic guitar, she intertwines clips from a Skype interview with her mother. It paints a portrait of who they each are as individuals, their relationships, and infers histories of both with heart-wrenching implications. The split between "Asking" and "Bearing" feels more than just practical, with the first side featuring Jun's voice and the interviews and the second side showcasing her excellent beat-making. There's a literal interpretation to it. The first side asks the questions, searching for identity and connection but not necessarily finding the answers. The second side then says, "what now?" Jun has the bear with the world around her and the harrowing stories she extolls on the first half. That she's able to find beauty in the music is a transcendent act in itself.
To put it lightly, Lusine's Sensorimotor is masterclass production. Given his nearly two decade long career, this shouldn't be a surprise. But there's a certain magic to this record that makes it some of his most compelling work so far. The breaks and swells across the track are not just technically impressive, but emotionally evocative as well. When vocalists do show up on the record, it's beyond just a normal feature. Lusine twists their voices to his liking, turning them into digital transmissions aching from your hard drive. His collaboration with Benoit Pioulard, "Witness," alone is a high mark of reinterpreting the human voice for electronic music.
There's a lot that should and has been said about this Mount Eeerie's A Crow Looked At Me. Truthfully, I've only been able to make it through this record twice because I can't make it through without feeling devastated. But any work that can illicit so much emotion, even on a single listen, is something that speaks to our most human qualities. So, I'll just say this: tell the people you love that you love them. Death is real and it hurts and it's more complex than what we can comprehend. I wish peace to Phil Elverum and his family. Hopefully this record will help others find peace as well.
Tomo Nakayama has been such a consistent presence in Seattle for the better part of a decade that it's easy to take his work for granted. Pieces of Sky was a reminder that Nakayama's voice and songwriting are something we should cherish, not overlook. Throughout the record we see the world from his eyes – from the people he observes while playing at the airpot to the profundity of everyday life. His melodies have never been more sublime, wavering above his meticulously orchestrated arrangements with peaceful purpose. This is Nakayama at his best; finding beauty in the world around him and refracting it into even more glowing beams of light and love.
I wouldn't blame you if you didn't like Naomi Punk's third LP, Yellow, on first listen. Or second listen. Or maybe even the third. It's not an album that's meant to be easily digestible. It's sprawling and impulsive by design. The Olympia outfit followed their whims on this record, embracing the spirit of creation and letting their imaginations run rampant. It's not like they were ever an "accessible band," but Yellow pushes them to their creative brink. It's a double album with two separate introduction tracks, mangled interludes, and sporadic pitched-down narration that outlines the ugliness of the world. Yellow doesn't make it easy on the listener, which is also what makes it so exciting. There are no concessions to make it digestible, instead demanding that you put the energy into parsing through it. The secrets of the album can only be revealed with obsessive listening. Let yourself be consumed by this world the band has created. Get weird.
Saying goodbye to a band you've loved is never easy. When Posse announced that they were releasing their final album, it felt like losing a longtime friend. But then I heard Horse Blanket. This is, I'd say, their best work yet and an incredible release to bow out with. It's not that music really addresses anything about the end of the band and it doesn't use finality as a theme or crutch. More so, it feels like the fullest realization of the sounds and themes the trio has experimented and toiled with on their previous works. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the behemoth title-track, which clocks in at 12-minutes. The bass line drones on as Paul Wittman-Todd and Sacha Maxim sing back and forth. It's a slow build, crawling across the proverbial screen, easing into a monstrous, fuzzed-out guitar solo that's one of the most cathartic musical moments I've heard all year. When the notes fade out and evaporate in your headphones, you can almost feel a collective sigh of relief from the band. It's an elegant tension, one that permeates throughout the rest of the record as well, that makes Horse Blanket such a wonder.
Porter Ray has a story to tell. For decades we've heard sprawling rap albums about life in New York and L.A., but Watercolor brings the narrative closer to home as Porter outline tales from growing up in Seattle's Central District. He opens up about the death of his brother, searching for purpose, and the tribulations he's had to endure already for his young age. With features from Stas THEE Boss and Ishamel Butler, Porter raps with a cosmic glow about him. His story is still unfolding, but in telling part of his story he also tells the story of what it's really like to grow up in Seattle, not sugarcoating the trials that come with it.
How do you define RVN aka Raven Hollywood aka Raven Matthews' latest LP, GREYNEON? While he first started to get notice in Seattle as a rapper, he doesn't actually rap much on this record. However, hip-hop still permeates throughout the record in his production, alongside downtrodden electric and acoustic guitars as well as Elliott Smith samples. There's an art-rock ethos to everything RVN does. The way he channels it here opens up a new level of intimacy in his career. His low, rumbling voice bridges the gap between singer-songwriter and hip-hop. There's emotional candidness in songs like "wounded teenager" and "i don't have a gun." As an Elliott Smith interview loops at the end of the record, repeatedly being asked if he's a "sad sack," it's RVN winking at the camera but also opening himself up. When emotional struggles play out well for ironic Twitter humor, it can be hard to actually reveal those dark thoughts wrestling in your head. RVN veers that line, opening himself up while also maintaining a dark sense of humor about it all.
As the name implies, Sassyblack takes on new jack swing with New Black Swing. As a longtime genre-fusing artist, it's not surprising that she'd venture off into this new territory as she is wont to do. But what's astounding is her success rate. New Black Swing is smooth. Sassyblack's voice has hardly ever sounded so decadent, just oozing over "What We Gonna Do" and "Games." She raps just as effortlessly, embracing and feeling herself on every track.
I know we're at the end of December and thoughts of breezy days and summer skies feel like distant memories, but if you need a reminder just throw on Señor Fin's Jazzy. The Seattle-via-Denton group blends low-key indie rock with just the right splash of jazzy elements to create a record that feels like sipping mojitos while drifting along Greenlake.
"I mean, what fantasy, what imagination could be more absurd than the actual reality that we’re living through right now?" Shabazz Palace's Ishmael Butler recently told KEXP. It's a fair question. When the iconic Seattle duo announced that they would be releasing two albums simultaneously that would also serve as a concept record about an alien sent to observe a land called Amurdeca, you wouldn't be alone in being a bit perplexed. But it's almost not a surprise when Shabazz Palaces does something outside the spectrum of the peers. They exist in their own universe; quite literally on these records.
There's a lot to digest between the two albums and the songs are some of their most challenging yet. But it's a challenge that's worth putting your time into. The world they've created on these records is massive, ranging all the way from Drake World to the Migosverse. Within the celestial imagery is a poignant reflection on the times we live in now. If the Migosverse sounds obtuse to you, try going to the CNN homepage and tell me that whatever you're reading there isn't more outrageous. It'll take a few centuries for all of us to catch up to Shabazz's wavelength, but what they're doing here is so forward-thinking that you can't help but try and keep up.
There's a reason why they call her Stas THEE Boss. The multi-faceted producer, rapper, vocalist, and DJ rules Seattle—benevolently, of course. On her debut solo LP, S'Women, she crafts some of her most soulful beats, tenderly orchestrating what she describes as "an aquatic explanation of failed female companionships." She raps in hushed tones, letting the words slip out of her mouth like secrets just loud enough for you to hear. But listening to Stas, I feel like her rapping is just half of her voice with the production being the other half. Every rhythm is so expressive, fluttering with love or spiraling in angst. It always mirrors the mood of what she's speaking, taking the place of traditional inflection.
On Voices as well, a beat-tape released just before the year closes, you can feel her self expression coming through on the MPC. It's a different sonic aesthetic than S'women, being her own interpretation of gospel music. But her soul shines vibrantly on both releases. Whether it's her own voice or a sample off an old 45, she taps into some very real human emotions and filters them through her own lunar lens.
AJ Suede just showed up one day and became on the best rappers in the city. Originally from New York, he ventured west to work with Seattle producer Wolftone. It's a partnership that proved so fruitful that he opted to stay here. And thank God. These two together are unstoppable. On Gotham Fortress, Suede harnesses the bleak energy from Wolftone's beats (as well as contributions from Brakebill and the elusive Spaceghostpurp) to bolster his steady, don't-fuck-with-me flow. He's fully adopted the Seattle ethos as well, shouting out Leary and the Aurora bridge like a true local. On "Don't Look For Me" he trades bars with DoNormaal and RVN, sounding completely at home surrounded by two more of Seattle's rising talents. I could get lost in the mood of this record forever.
You don't have to know a lot about Thank You to get lost in their music. In fact, it's hard to find out much information about the band at all. But that just adds to the experience. Sardine Dream feels like it shouldn't come from this world or time period. It's a wild, free-form odyssey filled with the most bonkers guitar tones and vocal effects you'll hear anywhere. It's an album to get lost in and embrace the mayhem.
Coming in at the end of 2016, it'd be a mistake to exclude Emma Lee Toyoda's sewn me anew when talking about 2017. Much like their labelmates Hardly Boys, Toyoda's voice has become pivotal in the Seattle DIY movement. The songs on sewn me anew are fearless, featuring expansive arrangements with banjos, organs, violins, and more creating a makeshift orchestra to underscore Toyoda's righteous bellow. The songs move by quick, some clocking in at less than a minute, but that's all the time they need to capture your attention. You don't need a major label budget to make a record that feels physically and emotionally massive, and Toyoda proves that here.
The secret to a great power-pop record isn't just an undeniable melody and a snappy arrangement. It requires the songwriter to let part of themselves seep through, some intimate secret that can be felt when those rising choruses break out. Portland songwriter Mo Troper does exactly on that on Exposure & Response. It's maybe the most hooks-per-track you're going to find on, well, any record. He infuses his wit and snark in as well, lamenting the music industry on the aural eye-roll of "Your Brand" and scoffing at pretentious academics on "Big School." He's not so much a cynic as he is a realist trying to navigate the world. He opens up his own wounds on the gorgeous "Wicked" as well as heart wrenching ode to his mother, "In The Waiting Room." A good hook is fine on its own, but Exposure & Response shows the true power melody can hold when put in the hands of an apt lyricist.
Most people likely associate Vektroid with her now iconic vaporwave project Floral Shoppe under the Macintosh Plus moniker. But with her latest LP, Seed & Synthetic Earth, she moves beyond the genre she helped define by churning out a collection of funky, electronic experimentations. She infuses soul into the sterile visage of the Internet and even manages to nail one of the best saxophone solos of the year.
Do you remember the first time you were drawn to the sounds of feedback and distortion? Seattle's Versing is much more than a nostalgia trip, but every time I listen to Nirvana I feel a rekindling of the love I first held listening to old indie rock records. I think it's because, much like their forebearers, they're masters of their craft. It's equal parts focused songwriting and the willingness to say, "fuck it, let's just jam." From the opening moments of "Call Me Out" through the ending mournful tones of "Villages," it's about as impeccable as you can get for a genre that thrives on embracing messiness.
There's a starkness to Portland duo Visible Cloaks' Reassemblage. Ambient music is often characterized as being spaced out and droning, but Reassemblage forgoes being merely pleasant to actually being discomforting at times. But in those moments where it feels most detached from humanity, with spaces of silence between hammering notes, you're left with time to ruminate on the visceral sound design ringing in your ears. It forces you to be uncomfortable, to deal with the detachment and find something gorgeous lying beneath. It's a progressive ambient record that I'm sure is going to inspire a new generation of producers. That's not too hyperbolic, right?
There's love in noise. Zen Mother's sprawling epic, I Was Made To Be Like Her, may sound harsh at first, but it is full of love. Every contortion and screech is placed to share the affection of its creators. On "Mantra," Monika Khot and Wolcott Smith repeat, "I want to love eternally." Each time they say the line, it breaks down and starts to morph into indecipherable sounds. I can't think of a better description of the record, either. It's an overwhelming experience, even off-putting at first. But look again. Hear the searching in their words, the longing in their performance, and the feelings that are bubbling inside you while you listen. This is less a record and more sonic experience, even spiritual if you let it.
Portland-based power-pop songwriter channels his myriad influences on this single for 2017's Exposure & Response
Vancouver DJ Jayda G has been on a steady ascent to disco dominance and her latest 12-inch single, Disco Bitch, seals the deal.
Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in th...
Every Shabazz Palaces record feels like a transmission from a far-off planet. In 2017, the Seattle hip-hop duo took this aesthetic a step further with two records -- Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The albums collectively chronicle the story of an alien sent...
David Bazan's Pedro the Lion project returns after an eleven year absence. Playing three shows at the Tractor Tavern in December.