Jason, your contrast between Skrillex’s skronk and Donna Summer’s deep grooves is really thought-provoking. (Also makes me want to hear more of your thoughts on Grimes; I hear the steely specter of “I Feel Love” all over one of my favorite records of the year, Visions.) And Jody, thanks for pointing me in the direction of Micachu & The Shapes’ Never—this record completely passed me by, but not making room for it on my year-end list already feels like one of my big regrets of 2012. It sounds like nothing else I heard this year; the erratic textures (and song lengths) make it sound like the soundtrack to some long-lost 8-bit video game starring the members of Guided by Voices: “Pollard … from the 3-point line … he’s on fire!” (Which reminds me: From Grimes’ anime-influenced aesthetic to the electro-sunbursts of Scottish producer Rustie, I’m noticing the sonic influence of video games all over music these days, but I’ll stop there and leave it to someone who actually owns a PlayStation to elaborate.) Anyway, having Never blaring from my headphones this afternoon made my holiday exodus out of Penn Station feel that much more like a lightning round of Human Tetris. Can’t wait to spend more time with it and give the lyrics a closer listen, too.
I did happen to catch one of the prolific Mica Levi’s 2012 releases though—it was the freewheeling, kaleidoscopic, genre-agnostic mixtape she recorded (along with London producer and singer Kwes) as one-half of a side-project duo they called Kwesachu and released for free online earlier this year. Which leads me to something I wanted to bring up with you all: the State of the Mixtape in 2012. Pre-Internet, mixtapes used to generally be the province of hip-hop artists and often referred to what’s called blend tapes, where someone’s freestyling over a familiar beat. In recent years though, I’ve been noticing more and more underground pop and indie-rock artists embracing the mixtape—a format that’s always represented a kind of freedom, offering creative independence and anti-corporate spirit. A landmark for the post-Internet mixtape was definitely M.I.A.’s groundbreaking 2004 Piracy Funds Terrorism, which she and producer Diplo released for free online as a sly, dubiously legal way to get Maya’s music out there while her long-delayed major-label debut, Arular, was caught in a web of record company red tape. Since then, plenty of other artists across genres have used the free, digital mixtape as a way to either subvert or make a joke out of the major-label system’s slow learning curve in the digital age.
This brings me to one component of the Frank Ocean story that we haven’t yet discussed. Before he was Ocean, he was Chris Breaux, a solo artist signed to Def Jam and stuck for ages in development purgatory. In the meantime, he recorded the weird, imaginative R&B mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and posted it for free online. Somebody from Def Jam downloaded it, loved it, and tried to sign him, not realizing “Frank Ocean” was just an alias for a guy already on their payroll. As the kids say, epic fail.
The mixtape renaissance, I think, is happening in part because so many barriers between genres are breaking down right now. The cheeky genre tag Kwesachu’s Mixtape Vol. 2 bears in my iTunes library is “freepop,” which I take to have a double meaning: It didn’t cost me a penny, of course, but it also is the kind of record (if you could even call it that) that revels in the explosive freedom of its own unclassifiability. And it certainly wasn’t alone in 2012. As I was putting my albums and singles lists together this year, I had more categorization problems than usual. Like, is Solange’s seven-song True an EP or an LP? What about lightning-quick New York rapper Angel Haze’s 15-song Reservation makes it an EP instead of a mixtape? Could I pick apart a snippet of Charli XCX’s terrific Heartbreaks and Earthquakes mixtape and count it as one of my favorite singles of the year? If the music’s this good, do the divisions in my year-end list filing cabinet even matter?
Whatever you want to call it, London electro-upstart Charli XCX’s one-track, 21-minute mix Heartbreaks and Earthquakes was some of the most blissful, sensual pop music I heard all year. “Come into my bedroom,” she chants on the opening number, a sumptuously goth cover of Blood Orange’s “Champagne Coast.” It works not just a come-on, but also a description of the tape’s aesthetic. An intimate, flowing mélange of covers, samples, guest spots, and snippets of dialogue from famous flicks, Heartbreaks feels like the sonic equivalent of a bedroom wall collaged with posters and doodles. Or, you know, the modern equivalent: a Tumblr. To me, 21-year-old Charli’s one of the most promising and intriguing young artists playing around with the aesthetics of the Internet in her music. (She’s also well-versed in how easy this sort of aesthetic is to get wrong; her Super Ultra mixtape, also released this year, is the garish, screaming MySpace profile page to Heartbreaks’ artfully moody Tumblr.)
Much like the fiercely talented Azealia Banks—who, Jason, you rightly called “the most provocative artist of 2012”—Charli XCX is recording a debut record to be released sometime next year. These are probably my two most anticipated records of 2013 (Banks’ is expected to be called Broke With Expensive Taste), mostly out of curiosity: I want to see if these artists will be able to hold on to some of the weird, scrappy imperfections that made me fall in love with their mixtapes. (Banks, in addition to this year’s 1991 EP, also put out the nautical catwalk mixtape Fantasea.) But even if their major-label offerings are tepid, I’m also curious to see if these pop artists will continue to embrace the mixtape release cycle throughout their careers and find a way to experience that balance of street cred and commercial viability that a lot of mainstream rappers have enjoyed over the last decade or so. Time will tell.
Speaking of which, what time is telling me right now is SLEEP, but I’m looking forward to Round 3. I want to make sure I put in a plug for a few of my favorite unsung folk records this year, Angel Olsen’s macabre spiritual Half Way Home and Anais Mitchell’s stirring Young Man in America, the latter of which felt vastly, woefully underrated to me. Anybody else check it out?