Music/Features

An unofficial guide to listening to wonderfully ugly albums

From Bjork and MF Doom, here are a few strategies to get you through some of music's most beloved (and contentious) works.

August 31, 2018

Earlier this year, during the press cycle for the 50th Anniversary Reissue of the Shaggs’ seminal, yet excruciating, album Philosophy of The World, I found myself in something like a crisis. I was listening to a podcast that reflected on the crowning achievement of the band Frank Zappa dubbed “better than the Beatles” (which, like, he would), and I had a pair of conflicting realizations. One was that I had long ago stuffed the record away in my brain’s “I don’t get it” folder. The other was that I’d never listened to it all the way through.

When I finally put on my headphones soon after and dug deep into Philosophy of The World, I did it because I worried what kind of music listener I would be if I couldn’t figure out a way to carve out the space for this kind of ugly masterpiece; the kind of record that is treated to deluxe reissues, constantly cited as influential, but is undeniably stubborn to listen to front to back. I wondered, in that moment, how many other important records I had given this sort of dismissal, based chiefly on the fact that they were hard to listen to.

It seemed Philosophy of The World belonged to a special category of record; those whose names are traded in the coolest circles, those I may have even bluffed my way through an opinion on, but are nonetheless scarcely played in polite company.

Then I went further, revisiting all the ugly masterworks I’d quit on, visiting the ghosts of records past on some Ebenezer Scrooge shit. As I did so, my capacity to grapple with this ugliness multiplied, and I learned some strategies that continue to help me cultivate relationships with these types of records. I hope some of them might be useful to you.

Pop

Pop stars are often at odds with the expectations that come with the territory. The artistic constraints that accompany the kind of universal adoration afforded to these artists are at best daunting, and a handful wince at being considered pop in the first place. That’s why we see icons of popular music create music that seems antithetical to the purpose of their genre, and why it often takes listeners a while to catch up when these records are actually great.

Perhaps no modern pop star wears this dichotomy better than FKA Twigs. Her 2014 debut, LP1, is an aesthetically jagged embrace of the tension of having had an early career in pop as a backup dancer for music videos, but a very different idea of how she’d like to be seen, and more importantly heard. On her ascent from video girl to pop experimentalist, FKA Twigs is never more at home than when she’s prodding at our expectations for what pop should sound like, and what pop can be.

Van Dyke Parks, like FKA Twigs, spent the first stage of his career behind the scenes of the pop-industrial complex. As a hired gun session musician, songwriter, and arranger in the early ‘60’s, Parks famously collaborated with Brian Wilson on Smile and declined offers to join the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. His 1967 solo debut Song Cycle is an over-crowded carousel of musical ideas that was dismissed by critics and ignored by fans, but has since grown to cult status.

LP1 throws out the suggested sonic palate of contemporary pop, while Song Cycle binges itself on it. Yet, both records are challenging in the same way, epileptic and subverting, every rough edge calling to question the artist’s hands on the controls. The strategy I found effective in listening to these records was also the same; to use this strangeness as a lens, and keep the artist’s biography in mind as I questioned the motivation and desired effect behind the sounds that are being presented. There are enough moments of pure pop majesty in both to reward your patience, but it’s their strangeness that makes them worth a double take.

Extra Credit: The Marble Index by Nico (1968), Homogenic by Bjork (1997), Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed (1975)

Hip-Hop

For a genre that has proven so capable of reinvention, the masterpieces of hip-hop seem constantly accessible.  Scaffolded by samples that highlight some of music’s most triumphant moments and verses packed with triple entendres, many of the classics remain as inherently listenable as they are unimpeachable.

If approachability is a legacy of the hip-hop canon, Death Grips is its problem child. The Money Store, the Sacramento-based collective’s first record, is an assault in every direction, matching hyper-violent verses with an aggressive electronic backdrop to maximize and stress test every classification we have for hip-hop. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what they’re doing from a genre perspective, but the closest reference point within hip-hop may be horrorcore.

Three 6 Mafia’s classic 1995 debut Mystic Stylez may sound tame after The Money Store, but it’s often cited as the record that perfected horrorcore. It’s easy to see how menacing it would have sounded when it came out, with samples lifted from horror scores and verses that detail the most grotesque acts of violence, its lo-fi production only adding to the feeling of basement torture that lurks throughout.

I found one record boosted my ability to appreciate the other. The Money Store is a pummeling document that grinds at the listener’s endurance, while the groundbreaking ugliness of Mystic Stylez is already so woven into the fabric of hip-hop that its razor edges are somewhat dulled. It made me wonder, by extension, whether artists like JPEGMAFIA are already crafting an image of hip-hop where Death Grips sound more like forefathers than the genre’s hijackers.

Extra Credit: 400 Degreez by Juvenile (1998), MM.. FOOD by MF Doom (2004), Too Hard To Swallow by UGK (1992)

Electronic

The birth of the synthesizer was as much of a gift to introverted experimenters as it was to people on the dance floor. Maybe that’s why electronic music has stayed at the forefront of both pop and experimentation; it breeds innovation in all directions, with the bedroom synth technicians and the pop producers more connected than ever.

I struggle to think of any electronic experimenter who has infected contemporary pop more than Arca. On the Venezuelan musician and producer’s self-titled 2017 record, he takes a step towards pop melody and song structure, while the other foot is firmly planted in the serrated soundscapes he’s built his reputation on. The result is an oscillating, disquieting mix; a forward-thinking sonic approach that has secured Arca with production work with Kanye West, FKA Twigs, Bjork, and Frank Ocean.

For me, listening to Arca from front to back went smoothly when I took the experience as a tour of the genesis points for many of current pop’s weirder moments. The album’s subtle textures drew me in, but also encouraged me to zoom out; Arca’s fellow experimenters Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker may seem an impossible distance from the dance floor, but an album like Arca makes them all closer than they seem.

Extra Credit: The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski (2002), ½ Mensch by Einstürzende Neubauten (1986), Agitations by Lotic (2015)

Metal/Punk

It may appear to be an oversight to group two distinct genres that don’t always get along, but while punk and metal classics are unique in their mastery, the ugly ones are ugly in many of the same ways. Mayhem’s Deathcrush and Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky are two formative works from the two of the more influential bands of the Norwegian Black Metal Scene of the early ‘90’s. Deathcrush is the egregiously sloppy 1987 demo of the band that would go on to define the genre, while A Blaze in the Northern Sky is Darkthrone’s foundational sophomore effort, which made towering contributions to black metal’s second wave with its cold, haunting atmospherics. Both records were recorded hastily, with the cheapest equipment available, for the purpose of documenting these guttural sounds created by a community of church-burning teenage Satanists. Both are viewed as essential metal records to this day.

Before Black Flag added outspoken frontman Henry Rollins to their line-up in 1981, they toured and recorded with a rotating cast of vocalists, including eventual Circle Jerks founder Keith Morris. It was under Rollins that Black Flag became known as the Beatles of hardcore punk, but a striking number of fans consider the pre-Rollins era to be the band’s heyday. The First Four Years is a compilation album released in 1983 that consists of all of Black Flag’s releases before Rollins joined. Featuring 16 tracks, four different lead vocalists, and clocking in at under 25 minutes, this is a blistering frenzy of live takes that captures the early history of a band that was hanging on for dear life.

Deathcrush is as grueling of a listen as I’d want to subject myself to; A Blaze in the Northern Sky is equally pummeling, though plenty more precise; and The First Four Years is life affirming but teeming with toxic masculinity, self-loathing and rage. The key to making it through these records was allowing myself to romanticize the DIY approach that made them possible. There’s something poetic about having the guts to make a record despite the barriers of access, even if the results aren’t poetic themselves.

Extra Credit: Document #8 by Pg. 99 (2001), (GI) by The Germs (1979), Under the Sign of The Black Mark by Bathory (1987)

Outsider Music

Kurt Cobain, himself a Shaggs super fan, once said of infamous outsider musician Jandek, “He’s not pretentious, but only pretentious people like his music.” This quote, which I stumbled across in the early stages of this project, raises a question that has been lodged in my head through each of these listening experiences: How much of this record’s perceived brilliance is just pretension?

Outsider music like Jandek’s is not an inherently pretentious form, but I find myself especially on guard while I’m listening to it. Jandek’s Ready For The House, Wesley Willis’ Greatest Hits Volume 1, even Philosophy of The World. These artists are usually ignored by popular media until they’re co-signed by more popular musicians, as Zappa did with the Shaggs, or as Thurston Moore and Ben Gibbard have done with Jandek. The right endorsement can make the consensus on these records flip over night.

The strategies I used to get through records like Jandek’s, the boss battle of ugly listening, are the ones that apply to all the records I’ve talked about. The first one is to carve out the time, because if a record is 55 minutes long, it takes 55 minutes to listen to, and if you have to meet a friend in half an hour and you weren’t enjoying the record in the first place, you’ll probably never finish it. The next one is to try to be as open as possible, because even making a bad record is difficult and time-consuming, and at least one person probably put their whole heart into it. Most importantly, though, is that life is too short to listen to a record you hate just because it’s cool, or vice versa, so don’t be afraid to like what you like. I’ll leave the rest to you.

Extra Credit: You Think You Really Know Me by Gary Wilson (1977), Baby Blues by Jan Terri (1993), Just Before Music by Lonnie Holley (2012)

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