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One of the big reasons why is ambient music's return to fashion, which it makes every 20 years or so. The recent fad for immense, cathedral-like reverb and dreamlike tempos was sparked during last year's chillwave and witch house booms, but in 2011 they exploded to all corners of the pop music landscape. On the hip-hop side the trend's most skillful ambassador is a young beat maker from New Jersey who calls himself Clams Casino. Clams first attracted notice for contributing to former Pack rapper Lil B's mid-career transition from novelty-song flash in the pan to genuinely powerful youth cult leader, and then from his work with Soulja Boy, who's been riding Lil B's jock into some seriously strange and genuinely, brilliantly puzzling turf lately. Back in March the producer released the self-explanatory Clams Casino Instrumental Mixtape, which presented his works free from the interferences of rappers, revealing his staticky, echo-laden constructions to be roughly gorgeous little gems on their own, not to mention the tuneful auditory equivalent of half a Xanax.
On the far opposite end of the stylistic spectrum eco-metallers Wolves in the Throne Room were also working with space and time in strange new ways. Their fourth album, Celestial Lineage, evokes abstract texturalists Popul Vuh as frequently as it does black metal bands like Mayhem. With the frequent incorporation of practical sound effects—creaking metal, what sounds like a sword tip being drawn across stone—it tends to come off like the audio track to a dialogue-free 48 minute long film about dudes doing bad things to each other with edged weapons.
If you like things tighter, poppier, and maybe a little less head-trippy, try James Pants's self-titled effort for Stones Throw from this past spring. Unlike most of his label mates Pants doesn't make rap beats or recreations of the soul and funk producers like to make rap beats out of. Instead he's a manic sonic magpie who tackles a dizzying range of influences from 60s garage rock to 70s coke funk to 80s synth pop and beyond with the effortless stoner-dude grace that recalls Beck before he got all Scientology-y.
Justice's Audio, Video, Disco was a late year surprise. I always like the pair for their love for Goblin, their look, and the amount of advocacy work they've done for DJ Funk, but I couldn't make it the whole way through Cross in one sitting. It turns out that all that needed to happen for me to fall in love with them was for them to decide to sound like a German prog band that wants to sound like an Italodisco project.
Kanye West has the best mind in hip-hop. Mike Dean—the engineer I imagine 'Ye keeps on retainer with daily deliveries of solid gold Lamborghinis—has the best ears in the recording industry. Send those dudes and Jay-Z—who from the sound of things feels like he's 19 again—off into bizarro luxury hotel isolation with some recording gear and if what emerges isn't at least in the top three sonic experiences of the year something has gone terribly, horribly wrong.
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