Kenny Chesney's "Don't Blink" on a drive upstate
I got engaged and bought a house this year. Our house is small, isolated, and rural—this is our town. We go there on weekends and paint the walls; we're halfway done constructing a huge garden to start planting in the spring. It's not exactly relaxing, yet. In the rare moments I'm just sitting around up there, I weigh alternative futures. I think about investing time, then, like following branches that split into more branches, imagine other, better futures that only those investments can produce.
And then I worry about dying. My marriage and my mortgage are scheduled to last longer than I've been alive. I imagine what I would finish and what I wouldn't if something happened and I was left alone, and how those things would change if it was me that was gone. One weekend early this fall, my fiancée had to work in the city, so I drove up by myself. This song came on the radio. It was released in 2007, but I'd never heard it till I turned on this one road by our house to face an overwhelming, white sun. It's dumb for being so literal, but it was the most grounding musical experience I had all year, like everything I felt already existed outside my body, distributed in everything, the ideal effect for a song.
Teen Suicide's live cover of Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself"
This February, in a homely basement called Suburbia in Bushwick, a bunch of teens from the city and Long Island and New Jersey huddled together, hanging on Sam Ray's every word. Ray was on a short reunion tour with his band, Teen Suicide, the one of his many musical projects with the most obsessive fanbase. It had been over a year since the lo-fi rock group's publicly mourned breakup, and for one reason or another Ray decided to get them back together for a couple of East Coast shows. Near the end of the set, the four-piece played a ramshackle cover of Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself," an explosive single from the singer's 2013 debut that sounds like Kelly Clarkson in a good way. As Teen Suicide very well knows, the song has become an immediate anthem for anybody that's ever felt like a fuck-up, a demographic that likely includes every single human crammed into Suburbia—including Sam Ray, including me. While seemingly everyone in the room was losing their shit and shouting the words—How could you know what it feels like?—my eyes landed on a skinny kid of 16, or maybe 17, standing alone by the wall. He was wearing an XXL tee that said "I Hate Homework" on the front, and at first I thought he looked real sad, but then the cover ended, and people stopped jumping around so I could see his face better. There was a big goofy grin on it.
Oasis at Göteborg Landvetter Airport
Three months ago, I was in Sweden, and lonely. I was in Gothenburg for the Way Out West festival, and although I ended up running into some industry colleagues near the trip's end, I spent the majority of my time as a stranger in a foreign country: no one to talk to, watching cashiers flash a sly, knowing grin of condescension when they heard my very American voice. Still, I tried to find some escape, and I found it when I saw Swedish EDM-pop duo Icona Pop do their big, bold thing on a dusky, slightly chilly Friday night. Watching a group of happy people jump around and hug their friends to "All Night" gave me a terminal case of the warm fuzzies—but it also increased my loneliness. Ironically, I found solace in the strangest location of all: the airport, waiting for my flight back to the U.S., listening to Oasis' Definitely Maybe on repeat. Maybe it was the jet lag, or the fact that the Gallaghers' inflated, hilarious sense of self-importance produces the illusion of having one's headphones plugged into an arena of screaming fans. No matter, I found peace in loudness.
An improv session on Damian Marley's Jamrock Reggae Cruise
I attended Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise this fall, a five-day trip to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I'm a diehard soca lover, and while I enjoy reggae, I hadn't fully grasped that I'd be listening to it exclusively for five days straight: Buju Banton over breakfast, Sizzla on tap for tanning on the top deck and a full-on concert each night with three performers. By day three, I started to feel like I was being held hostage on a non-stop party.
It wasn't until the last night when all my interviews were done—coordinating with publicists and tracking down artists on a massive ocean liner with no wifi or cell phone reception is no easy feat—that I decided to cut loose. As luck would have it the night's outdoor concert was forced to relocate indoors because of rain, and its headliner, Stephen "Ragga" Marley, had to trade in his full six-piece band, including a sultry saxophonist, for a DJ setup. Thankfully, he rolled with the punches and invited the rest of the cruise's artists—Cham, Sean Paul, Morgan Heritage, Shinehead, and Damian Marley—on stage to freestyle and sing their favorite jams.
The improv session, which went on well past four o'clock in the morning, was easily the highlight of the entire cruise, besting choreographed and rehearsed performances with the easy, unrefined energy that flowed with every passing of the mic. The night culminated with the DJ pulling up a series of Bob Marley songs, from "Redemption Song" to "Forever Loving Jah," that the entire audience sang along with as Damian, Stephen, and Rohan Marley held hands and honored their father's legacy in middle of the sea, coasting purely off vibes.
A skate video with the perfect soundtrack
This August, the T-shirt brand Quartersnacks teamed up with Nike for the first pair of SB Dunks I'd been hype about in some time. To promote the drop, the crew released a two-minute clip of after-hours sessions with skaters Andre Page, Josh Velez, and Black Dave tearing through Tompkins and Union Square in New York City. Titled "Afters," it also featured every song I loved this summer: Bobby Shmurda's "Hot Nigga" pouring out of nearby Jeeps, Meek Mill's "Off The Corner" soundtracking Citi Bike hippy-jumps and skid-marked bails, and iLoveMakonnen's icy "Down 4 So Long" for the come down. It was some of the strongest music supervision I'd seen this year, right up there with "Jesus Walks" and "Bad Boy for Life" popping up on ABC's Black-ish. I still haven't copped a pair, but looking back makes me wish I did.
Matthew Barney's film, River of Fundament
Near the middle of Matthew Barney's River of Fundament, a mammoth art film inspired by Norman Mailer's Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, there is a scene that gave me raw, unfiltered cinematic joy. It takes place in Mailer's reconstructed office, during a wake for the author himself attended by celebrities, friends, and Egyptian gods. At one point, R&B singer Terrell Howard appears on screen, his voice soaring above a diegetic sound collage of circuit-bent toys, beatboxing, singing, chanting, and Jonathan Bepler's original score. The scene acts as one of the film's many release valves during its five-hour-plus run time. While Howard is singing, bodily fluids flow during activities mined from the same decadent galaxy from which Fellini and Pasolini drew inspiration: masturbation, sexual intercourse, bowel movements. It was an overwhelming experience that proved the still-limitless possibilities of sound and image. Or at least I think that's what happened.
Björk at a Brooklyn metal bar
I ushered in the summer with Björk at a Brooklyn metal bar. It was the end of May, just as the nights were nearing their longest and the days their warmest, and the manic Icelandic pixie was DJing at St. Vitus on a Saturday night, alongside Oneohtrix Point Never and Pitchfork's Brandon Stosuy. I was nearing my drunkest—and happiest—when she dropped Nicki Minaj, Migos, Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, among others, dancing with half-strangers and new friends. The blacked-out venue felt full of light when she dropped "Drunk in Love," and I realized that maybe we all were. That's when the summer was ripe with promise. Or maybe just my gut with gin.
Speaking of Beyoncé, the best two seconds in music this year come two minutes and 16 seconds into her "***Flawless (Remix)" with Nicki Minaj, right when Queen B coos "Onika," and just before Nicki steps in. It's a sexy and knowing set-up for a Minaj barrage of sucker punches and lines on lines on lines, interrupted only by a growl from Mrs. Carter-Knowles that's fierce enough to exorcise demons. Beyoncé released the remix on a Saturday night, proving again that she doesn't give a fuck about anyone's sleep schedule. Go Bey or go home.
Footwork crew The Era's tribute to DJ Rashad
If I go back about half a year on my friend Ric's Instagram, there's a video of the night that Lit City Trax and a bunch of Teklifers took over West Way, a beguilingly seedy, sometimes-strip club right off the West Side Highway in Manhattan. It was one of a month-long series of shows that Red Bull Music Academy put on in New York this spring, and as far as I could tell, the first footwork-related related show in this city to prominently feature the frenetic style of dancing from which the Chicago-born genre takes its name. Teklife isn't just a crew of musicians—it's also closely affiliated with a team of battle dancers called The Era—and that night, dancers Litebulb, Steelo and DJ Manny (who's also a Teklife producer) had flown in for a special headlining presentation commemorating DJ Rashad.
Rashad had passed away only a month and a few days before, and while I'd never had the honor of meeting him, I'd spent much of that time listening to "Let It Go" on repeat, trying to wrap my mind around the untimely, senseless loss of a man I truly believed to be one of music's greatest innovators. That night, though, the mood in the room didn't feel so much mournful as celebratory, and I think I'll always remember climbing up onto a bench next to a friend to try to get a good look at Litebulb and Steelo and Manny as they darted and ducked around the stage, their legs seeming to blur as their feet tapped out an inscrutable geometry. At one point, they turned to show off the backs of some custom t-shirts they'd made—"RIP Rashad"—and I don't think I ever knew what "dancing the pain away" really meant until that moment. I tried to capture a video of them all but my phone died, just another reminder that sometimes the most inspiring things in the world are also the most fleeting ones.