Young Stoner Life Records
What’s changed for YSL (Young Stoner Life) Records since their last compilation album, Slime Language, was released in late 2018? Well, they’ve signed a few more minor members to their roster including Cactus Slatt — which so far is a one-off collab between YSL President Young Thug and Cactus Jack head Travis Scott — and Thugger’s blood brother Unfoonk, who like Lil Baby, sounds like he always has marbles stuck in his mouth. Plus, a few have gained some cultural prominence within this three-year period as well: Gunna’s Wunna and… OK, he’s really the only one whose profile has risen. So in the grand scheme of things, not much has changed since Slime Language. And yet, its illustrious sequel, titled Slime Language II, arrives with an aura of grand accomplishment, like a victory lap taken by someone who’s come in third place after previously placing fourth. Its expansive 75-minute runtime, its foreboding cover art with photoshopped members of the crew, the slime green dog on the front: all are signifiers of a paramount event that’s about to take place, even if there’s very little here musically to justify any of the artificial hoopla.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any small joys to be had: the first eight tracks — notably, all ones that feature Thugger in some capacity — make for an exciting opening run, especially the rather funny “Proud of You,” with a cute chorus built around the conceit that Lil Uzi Vert is deeply grateful for the support he’s received from Young Thug. The nadir is the Certified Lover Boy throw-away “Solid,” where Gunna’s somehow more committed to the material than Drake, but it’s followed by the menacing “Came and Saw,” where balance is once again restored. After that, it becomes anyone’s guess as to where the quality of each following track will lie, ranging from needless (“WokStar,” with guest Skepta rapping about semen) to exciting (“That Go!,” where Meek Mill… also raps about semen, but it fits that time), from monotone (“Pots N Pans,” where robot-voiced Nav is more on point than Lil Duke) to operatic (“Really Be Slime,” with YNW Melly’s gorgeous vocals doing the heavy lifting for BSlime — not to be confused with YNW BSlime, Melly’s 14-year-old brother — and FN Da Dealer). The beats become a bit basic and thin, and the rest of YSL’s roster isn’t bad per se — except for the ones who are actually terrible, like Strick — but too many are content with sounding like two-bit variations of their mentor, albeit either more generic (T-Shyne), high-pitched (Yung Kayo), or inaudible (Lil Keed). Even Young Thug himself doesn’t register as much of a wild card: He lacks the eccentric prowess he provided to “Audemar” or “Scoliosis,” and doesn’t have a single stand-out moment beyond saying “slatty” a lot on the first track and seeming satisfied with only providing a base-line level of competency throughout.
Still, credit is due to the ones who are holding down the fort: Thug’s blood-sisters HiDoraah and Dolly White continue to impress, each getting their own song and space to operate, the former providing a solid pop melody on “Como Te Llama” and the latter absolutely bodying her baleful verse on “Reckless”; on-again, off-again fiancé Karlae adjusts her wild vocal range appropriately for Coi Leray on “I Like,” even if it’s a moment that pales in comparison with her star-making performance on the last Language‘s “U Ain’t Slime Enough”; and Gunna, who’s been promoted to get top billing, continues to come into his own and develop his sound — not really by trying much harder than he normally does, but sticking to beats that best fit his lowkey demeanor. So if you couldn’t tell by the rampant nepotism on display, Slime Language II is a family affair, and should be appreciated and judged as such — though, that’s mainly because it’s disorganized, loud, has brief moments of grace, and goes on way longer than most anybody involved seems to have wanted.
“I knew everything when I was young,” sang Taylor Swift on folklore, her magnificently mopey Grammy winner from 2020. Twelve years prior, she was singing about what it was like to be “Fifteen,” credulous about every admission of love, confident that every acute emotion would prove lasting and true. The wisdom of youth has been a recurring thread connecting her body of work, and her re-recorded version of Fearless provides an opportunity to put her thesis to the test: here she revisits songs of innocence from a more wisened and wounded perspective. She calls this collection Taylor’s Version, which doesn’t signify a fresh interpretive spin so much as a reclamation of ownership; the new Fearless gives Swift full autonomy over her masters while giving her fans new recordings that sound, for the most part, like painstaking recreations of the past. (If you casually listened to Fearless upon its release but haven’t revisited it in a while, you will be hard-pressed to identify even a single alteration to the arrangements, though connoisseurs will surely pick up on one or two.) What’s different is Taylor, her voice no longer quite so girlish, her metanarrative not quite so uncomplicated as it was in 2008. Hearing her sing these songs now— and they remain very sharp songs, confessional in their feel but canny in their construction, largely persuasive in their conjuring of young love and heartbreak— changes their intonation ever so slightly: Where once they carried a bittersweet tang, here they have a melancholy that feels more knowing, more lived-in, and more foregrounded.
At 26 songs and 106 minutes of music, the thing Taylor’s Version lacks is any semblance to an actual album; this is more like an era-specific retrospective playlist/data dump, assembling not just her careful recreations of the original tracks but all the bonus songs, soundtrack extras, and vaulted material she wrote during the same stage of her life. The unheard material is all worth hearing but, with the possible exception of the pungent “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” validates all the curatorial choices Taylor made back in 2008. Cameos from Maren Morris and Keith Urban are more interesting for their meta implications (Taylor is country again!) than their execution, and the more imperious presence is that of Aaron Dessner, Taylor’s folklore-era sherpa through refined melancholia. His production on the “vault” material adds just a misting of gray, making explicit what the rest of the album leaves unsaid: that there are some things lost and some things gained when songs of innocence become songs of experience. It seems unlikely that Taylor would ever again make an album as earnest or as unfettered as Fearless, yet there is something oddly moving in hearing her recall what it was like back when she knew everything.
Since the release of Neō Wax Bloom in 2017 (via Brainfeeder), Seamus Malliagh has taken his Iglooghost project past its initial abrasive collage, finding ways to expand and remold his aesthetic approach without losing recognizable authorship. Iglooghost initially served as a moniker for Malliagh under which he released very contemporary, glitchy beats contoured to fit more traditional pop convention that he would move further away from with each passing release. By the time Iglooghost had become a Brainfeeder artist, his music was actively defying structure, jamming together pieces of disparate electronic pop to make sonic sculptures that overwhelmed and surprised, bearing a strong resemblance to dance music, but never quite behaving as you’d expect it to. For this reason, his music was often offered comparisons to SOPHIE and the P.C. Music crew, though this was only partially appropriate, both parties repurposing sounds and instrumentations from the same sources (i.e. unhip dance-pop) with the difference being that P.C. Music (and all the hyperpop since) reclaims while Iglooghost recycles.
Initially, Malliagh seemed fascinated by the actual recycling act, so to speak, Neō Wax Bloom flaunting the gleeful dissonance that emerged from grinding together dubstep and glitch, for instance. But Iglooghost has since pulled back from the disarray, harnessing similar frictions, but finding new shape and context for it. Lei Line Eon, the second solo studio album from Malliagh as Iglooghost (lest you want to count 2014 beat tape Treetunnels) comes almost full circle, allowing for a more classical take on sequencing and melodic motif than what’s come before. This album also marks a move away from the unifying narratives of Neō Wax Bloom and the two EPs that followed, Clear Tamei and Steel Mogu, all three albums conceived as stories from a fantastic realm accessed through the producer’s garden. This type of world-building and narrativizing has been essential to Iglooghost’s creative process going back to 2015’s Chinese Nü Yr EP, where he composed the tracks in response to the album art (which he always designs himself). Of course, there’s an element of mischievousness involved in this lore weaving, the music it inspires being largely vocalless after all, but it’s a fitting means of providing each project with a shape and definition, while informing the uncanny, mystical quality of Iglooghost’s music.
As asserted by Malliagh in interviews and on a rather involved website for the “Glyph Institute,” Lei Line Eon is a fusion of old and new, specifically a forgotten subgenre originating in the whimsical producer’s home county Dorset called “Lei Music” (practiced so as to summon beings from other realms, naturally) that Iglooghost has set out to contemporize. Even if one never sought out this background information, it wouldn’t be too challenging to conceive of this album’s intent in the broadest sense; these songs are reliant on analog instrumentation and human vocals to a degree Iglooghost’s previous projects haven’t come near, interspersing his usual digital shrieks and beeps throughout piano and violin melodies. The strings in particular, sweeping and melodramatic, provide a recognizably organic throughline that guides us across Lei Line Eon and imbues it with the emotional character of a JRPG. Iglooghost’s music has been united in its aim to tell stories wordlessly, conjuring worlds just outside the boundaries of human perception, indirectly challenging the audience to translate emotional response into fantastical narrative and setting. Lei Line Eon is more interested in directly instigating this process than Neō Wax Bloom was, bringing in distorted vocals from Iglooghost himself for the first time on lead single “Sylph Fossil,” along with those of frequent collaborator BABii (on several tracks) and even a children’s choir at the album’s conclusion. Those who celebrated the chaos of Neō Wax Bloom above all else may not love this continued streamlining of aesthetic, but while Lei Line Eon is a step away from confrontation for the artist, it’s also a smart, necessary continuation of his singular aesthetic, one that has found a satisfying compromise between the old structural demands of the pop album, and the new worlds Iglooghost has imagined beyond.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the seminal, politically-agitative Canadian post-rock collective, make urgent music for urgent times. Over their 25-year run, the band has repeatedly warned against encroaching doom via musical imaginings of the ramp-up to its arrival and the wreckage left in its wake, with the shape of their music locating both triumph and despair amid desolate expanses. The group’s initial arc crested with 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. and a decade-long hiatus followed, after which GY!BE executed an improbable, gratifying comeback with 2012’s Allelujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend!, released to acclaim and eventually awarded with the Polaris Music Prize (which the group, naturally, had complicated feelings about receiving). Though GY!BE has remained active since the release of Allelujah, the albums that followed have struggled somewhat to adapt the group’s usual sense of scale to a miniaturized compositional runway, and marked the first occasion of the group’s post-apocalyptic broadcasts featuring something resembling dead air space.
The cheekily titled G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, the group’s first album since 2017’s Luciferian Towers, arrives as something of a corrective, presenting a similar organizational structure as the group’s last comeback record: two long-form, multi-part epics buttressed with two shorter, more downtempo laments. Whether by virtue of its overall architecture or the timing of its release — i.e. during a global crisis which has called the utility of the nation state into question — G_d’s Pee is among the group’s most immediately resonant works since Allelujah or the initial trilogy of albums that preceded it. After the usual preamble of warbly field recordings, opener “Military Alphabet” kicks off in earnest with a scorched riff whose naked emotionality is transposable onto a listener’s lived and imagined realities alike. The distortion resolves in a short-lived reprieve of clean guitars and accompanying strings on the subsequent “Job’s Lament,” which itself transitions into an anxious churn and culminates in a woozy, full-band waltz on “First of the Last Glaciers.” While prior GY!BE releases preserved the monolithic runtime of their arrangements in single-track form, G_d’s Pee separates its nominal opener into four distinct movements in its streaming presentation: on the one hand, this is a seeming concession to the streaming era’s new normal; on the other, it’s of a piece with the more direct approach that characterizes (and enlivens) the music and perspective of G_d’s Pee.
Aside from the depressed dirge of “Fire at Static Valley,” the album’s other cuts are similarly cathartic. The other proper epic on the record, “GOVERNMENT CAME,” matches the pyrotechnics of “Military Alphabet,” grinding and churning until erupting into an ecstatic riff that leads the rest of the band in a gallop to the finish line. And while closer “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (For D.H.)” initially strikes an elegiac mood, its string-centric hum eventually transitions into a more self-evidently reassuring melody, tying off G_d’s Pee on something resembling a hopeful note. For anyone committed to understanding GY!BE’s ideological underpinnings and the intent behind music that doesn’t immediately reveal its motives, the group has once again released a statement of purpose that doubles as a political platform, detailing a litany of demands that will prove legible to anyone who’s lived through the last year and change. Though these lofty ambitions are certainly readable onto G_d’s Pee, it bears repeating how transposable its heft and scope are onto more prosaic struggles as well. Between the more legible emotional throughline provided by moments of genuine “rocking,” and the album’s balanced ratio between musical rise and fall, GY!BE has once again made music that can bear the weight of individual and collective concerns alike.
Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Superwolves is the convergence of two massively prolific careers, 16 years since their first collaboration, culminating in a rich soundscape. Neither Matt Sweeney nor Will Oldham (the latter known best in the music world by his stage name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy) are strangers to collaboration, and this is clear in the record’s beautiful interweaving melodies. Sweeney is as known for his popular guitar stylings, while Oldham is known for his fragile folk-adjacent voice, but regardless of one’s familiarity with the artists’ previous output, the album’s odd and sometimes surreal lyrics can draw anyone in.
The album opens with the track “Make Worry For Me”, a grungy song that references the shadowy music business (“I affiliate with beats and notes / Mysterious figures in long feather coats”). “God Is Waiting” takes a softer tone with rolling guitar licks as a man describes a woman waiting for God for what feels like an eternity (“Her teeth grow long, and breath, it slows”). This is not the only direct religious reference on the record, with “Shorty’s Ark” referencing the story of Noah’s ark. This is mainly a vehicle through which to name animals, though the song also seems to make reference to an unspecified, long-lasting relationship, its deeper context only hinted at through proximity and shared values (“When the rains come, we’ll be there to sing them in the sky / Make constellations with our song, together you and I”). The album also features rising star Mdou Moctar on multiple tracks, adding his fast African guitar stylings to the mix. These rolling guitar licks are a pleasant contrast with the rhythmic nature of Sweeney’s playing and add an entrancing texture to a previously familiar sound.
In this collaboration, there’s a clear fear of loneliness, whether it be not wanting to be left behind on the ark, or more explicitly on the morose “There Must Be a Someone,” with the narrator lacking even platonic relationships (“All my so-called friends have turned their backs on me / They were looking for something I just couldn’t be…There must be a someone I can turn to”). It’s in this we hear the Americana roots that both artists come from. It seems important to note that these songs about loneliness are produced on a collaborative record. It gives a feeling that there’s a shared commiseration between the two artists, and through that relationship there can be healing. The album closes with “Not Fooling” a song almost reveling in the loneliness as an act of triumph rather than defeat (“I show you how small your world is / And it doesn’t matter / It grows ever smaller”). It is a fitting end for this album of harsh realities and tight harmonies. One of the best albums of the year, Superwolves is a rare, but fruitful collaboration between two artists, indicating, perhaps, that there will always be more to come.