Upchucking one last thought-vomit. You just want picks? You got ’em: ctrl+f to ****.
The final Aquarius Records New Arrival List was published this year, as if 2016 needed to be the end of anything else. (“Hold ma beer, gonna git a few others.” – 2016.) The aQ List, a bimonthly transmission from the decades-old, San Francisco-based brick and mortar independent record store, was a must-read for those who liked to be surprised by sounds and found the weird wonderful. It was a hell of a thing. “Was.” Jeeze.
At first glance, the List probably didn’t look like much of a feat. It aggregated music. It contained snippets of sound. It blurbed every entry, each written in a voice that could be described as if an excited golden retriever learned to type and got way into the avant-garde. The record store’s website design was somewhere between BBS and Geocities. Hype Machine definitely wouldn’t touch it. But it was always geared more towards content, anyway.
By fishing out the obscure and askew that mainstream publications wouldn’t touch until aQ signed off, a tiny storefront in the non-touristy end of SF became the Mecca for a certain kind of music collector. aQ provided a service in a sense, panning in the impossibly wide river of new releases for weird-ass nuggets of gold. Adventurous record buyers and music listeners eventually caught on. aQ influenced them. In turn, those people influenced other people who influenced other people and on and on. That cycle turned aQ’s taste into a recognizable, definable aesthetic, one that a lot of people then used to form their own. So, think of aQ as less of a retailer and more cult figure. Shopping at aQ said as much about the shopper as the music that shopper bought.
But, I mean, it WAS about the music. Unlike, say, a CBGB that got turned into something else after its demise, aQ will always be remembered for the music first. That’s what made aQ. By reading the List, you knew you were going to get stuff you wouldn’t hear elsewhere. From the List’s recurring intro:
“And as always, thanks for reading the list, passing it on to all your friends who love weird music, shopping at our store, turning -us- on to all sort of great stuff, and helping us spread the word and get all this great music to the people who love it. YOU!! And as always, please realize that we work really hard on the list, so if you find out about stuff through us, please try to buy your records from us. That way we can keep on doing what we do, and we’ll always be here with our ears to the ground, and with cds full of metalcore pitbulls, death metal parrots, gamelan playing elephants, recordings of glaciers cracking, ice melting, zamboni’s, life support systems, drag races, audience applause, and of course self flagellating Norwegian dwarves, moaning telephone wires, recorded exorcisms, acapella straight edge metalcore, high school battles of the bands, movie theater organ music, Christian psychedelic folk, Bhangra Black Sabbath as well as all the metal, indie rock, electronica, punk rock, reggae, dub, sixties psych, krautrock, classic rock, country and anything else your heart may desire. So thanks. A bunch!”
If any of those descriptors sound familiar (Opium Jukebox!), you probably have aQ to thank. A bunch.
And here’s when we get all Debbie Downer: Where the heck are we going to find those things now?
aQ was a music distribution point. I’m sure people have a cooler name for it, but distribution point is what I’ve got. These have always existed in the recorded music era to an extent. Distribution points, like the name implies, help music fans to find new things to be fanatical about. We all have tens if not hundreds of DPs and most aren’t just record stores. Newspapers, magazines, blogs, zines, YouTube channels, playlists, mixtapes, friends, liner notes: all DPs to varying degrees. Some are static like Nurse With Wound’s List. Some change focuses all the time to capture new trends. All are there to winnow down the thousands of new releases (or millions of older ones) into a manageable few. Instead of ALL, you get the good. No one has time for ALL, no matter the possible rewards. Trust me, IO readers. I tried.
But, and this is big, while you can acclimate yourself to these DPs and grow comfortable with their assumptions, the surprises still remain because you’re dealing with the taste of someone else. That unpredictability is a prime part of music discovery. That, OH! I never knew I would like this! You live for that stuff. Because, well, if we know what we’re going to find, why would we search for it in the first place?
One of my distribution points, one of the kind souls I’ve entrusted to listen to music for me and then present the worthwhile stuff to me, is Weed Temple. Weed Temple is a blog run out of Poland that traffics in noisy stuff of a thousand different shades. The blog’s runner also happens to highlight a ton of artists from his home country. I would have never found Ptaki or Alameda 5 without this guy. Like, I bet you didn’t know that Poland has a juke scene. Now you do. Boom, discovery. Thanks, Weed Temple. A bunch.
Of course, I’m not writing anything you didn’t already know. DPs exist. They’re mostly virtuous. They help more than than the scene guardians who run them intentionally or unintentionally hinder. ‘Distribution points shape your listening habits and your taste? Cool. Knew that.’ So yeah, I won’t type out ultra mansplain-y paragraphs to stick down your gullet like a gavage. You’re smart. But, instead, here’s a mental exercise: Think about what happens when a distribution point goes away.
Yeah. Music just DISAPPEARS.
As an example, if you thought the only good grindcore album that came out this year was Wormrot’s, you’re wrong. It’s just that Wormrot was only one of a handful of grinders that received the kind of PR push that got the music out to higher profile distribution points. (PR IS metal these days and the biggest contacts shape at least 75 percent of what gets heard. I remember Jordan Campbell once asked followers to name the best album they heard that wasn’t on Haulix and it was like, yeahhhhhhhh… .) Grind, when looking at the big picture, had a fine year, just like any other post-‘Scum’ year. But who is covering grind with any aplomb these days? The old Braindead Zine, which was a great hub of gore in the ’00s, hasn’t posted an update in years. So, with no spawning pond with an elevation above ask-a-grinder, most grind just sort of swims around now, hoping for someone to catch it. Cruel fate: If no one catches it, no one is influenced. And, crazily, not having an influence ends up influencing the public opinion. Visibility equals viability. “Grind had an off year” is now true to a lot of people in that a lot of people believe it.
You know, there are a lot of genres I like that I just don’t listen to anymore because my distribution point is gone. It’s not that I stopped liking the music or don’t think the music is no longer being made, it’s that I can’t overcome the logistics to hear the music. Too much stuff. I mean, I really, REALLY miss noise rock. I miss prog of the Anekdoten set. I miss boom bap rap and elegant instrumental DJ trips. I miss twinkly math rock. I miss woozy, ambient-washed IDM. I miss Joe, my jazz guy. I miss K, my visual kei lady. I miss Magnus, my Swedish hardcore friend. I miss SO MUCH. I just don’t have the time to dig through every single one of those style’s releases to find the stuff I might like, or, more importantly, might GROW to like. It’s way easier now to surf to Traxsource and see what jackin house is good this week. Or, to head to any number of underground punk channels. Path of least resistance, which, unfortunately, is one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior.
But here’s the bigger, more nihilistic exercise: If you didn’t have that one crucial distribution point in your life, the one that steered you to that all-important self-identifier, who would you be? I think about this all of the time. If I didn’t meet the right people or accidentally stumble across the right song or channel surf to the right movie, would I still be the me of today? I think we tend to believe that the stuff we like, that we let form our identity similar to the structural strands of a spiderweb, would’ve been weaved into ourselves regardless, like we were fated to find THAT album in THAT bin. It’s probably not true, though. Who we are happened because of pure chance; just six-sided die rolls smacking against the universe’s dark-matter-obscured DM board. ‘Alright, 20! Enjoy talking to your older sibling about Husker Du!’ ‘Doh, natural one! Welp, have fun waiting for EMF to make a comeback, kid.’ That kind of stuff. Maybe I was a fried modem away from being a KoRn devotee for the rest of my life. Maybe seven-year-old me turns on the wrong radio station and now I have a tattoo of the lyrics to “Beth” on my stomach. THINK ABOUT HOW TENUOUS ALL OF THIS STUFF IS!
So, it isn’t just the music that disappears. It’s, like, lives, dude. Whole lives change. All that potentiality and possibility vanishes. And then you get boring-ass people who pray to the altar of Spotify, happy to hear safe recommendations encased in the carbonite of their own feedback loops. Barf.
Think of a world without Aquarius Records? Think of all the stuff we’ll miss and all of the stuff we don’t know that we’ll never know? Don’t have to think, it’s now. “Now.” Jeeze. What a year.
20. Noname – Telefone
Previous collaborators Noname and Chance the Rapper, two Chicago MCs, both released well-received mixtapes this year. The tapes pair well, both matching moments of joy with memories of sunsets, both with a flow like a friend reciting Shakespeare in a burger joint. Make no mistake, though, Noname’s is the main course.
19. bvdub – Yours Are Stories of Sadness
More impressions than songs, these soundscapes ache with loneliness. Comparative miniatures in the Brock Van Wey cannon, but they still pack a punch. Maybe more so. Versatile, too. In the Eno sense, they can be wallpaper or acts of a play; they hold up either way. Almost makes you forget that the album’s inspiration is, like, the wet dream of all mopes.
18. 2814 – Rain Temple
Dubby, ambient “vaporwave” never sounded so wet, like El Niño amassing over the set of Blade Runner. Transforms your surroundings, making chronically sunny San Diego feel like midnight Seattle. What the future sounded like in 1982.
17. Marquis Hawkes – Social Housing
Dance music that’s not for clubs but community centers. Has that earthiness that’s scrubbed out of festival playlists. Soul, in other words. Genres run the gamut, but the warm vibe remains the same.
16. Shifted – Appropriation Stories
Hypnotic. Like dub techno, you lose yourself in the sound design. But, not inert. Something living is lurking.
15. Deerhoof – The Magic
Dependably wonderful Deerhoof makes another dependably wonderful album. Not as electronic as recent efforts, but still the band you wish was yours. Pop, psych, and the best record collection. Hops styles, lands on hooks.
14. Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – Schaum
On this follow up to their masterful 2010 release, Fujita and Jelinek again melt together the timbres of vibraphone and ambient electronics. The art of slowly drifting tones.
13. Vinyl Williams – Brunei
Dream pop with a progressive side. Under the shimmering mist there’s a vitality to the playing. It also rocks sneakily without the dream-like distance of shoegazing snoozers.
12. The Mercury Program – New Myths
No band does it better. Takes the post-rock jazz of Tortoise and refines it until derpy irritants are gone. Lovely little miniatures. Don’t take forever on the next one, please.
11. Biosphere – Departed Glories
Notable for what isn’t there. Maybe one of the quietest albums of the year; epically empty, even. Sounds like a chalkboard looks after it has been erased. What’s left is a medieval sort of sound. Gloomy. Grim. The reaper looms.
10. Naked Lights – On Nature
If the Slits were into krautrock. Spiky and dissonant and zen-like when it zones out. H.L. Nelly is Ari Up and Damo Suzuki. Probably the best vocal performance of the year. So charismatic. Engaging. A pied piper getting you to throw your body upon jagged guitars.
9. Merrin Karras – Apex
Sound maximalism. Not in the LOUD sense, but in the WIDE. Panoramic vistas. Ambient and techno I guess, but more like watching the heavens open.
8. Chihei Hatakeyama & Dirk Serries – The Storm of Silence
They picked the right title and the right label (Glacial Movements). A slow mover that doesn’t seem to do much, but does a lot with a little. Sufferers of depression will find a certain kinship here. Beautiful. Stark.
7. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
Just gorgeous songwriting. Like Throwing Muses after a Brontë binge. Suitably ’90s-style alt rock dirges that hit DEEP. In the Meaghan McLaughlin mold, certainly, but definitely her own thing.
6. Floating Points – Kuiper
A little EP with a big impact. The release after a breakout is tough, but this nails it. Two longform krautrock jams that evolve above and beyond. Very catchy, very immersive.
5. Venetian Snares – Traditional Synthesizer Music
Live recording of the modular synths that might’ve bankrupted Aaron Funk. The videos are amazing: racks and racks of archaic equipment bleeping and blooping, sometimes randomly if we’re to believe the creator. Music does a chin-up on the concept, though. Breakbeats blow out the dust. The best Snares release in years.
4. C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
Continues to amaze. A wash of psychedelic-heavy folk, but so much grander. This release is more celestial than the others and it works perfectly. Like seeing Tim Buckley’s face in the moon, or something. Haunting. Addictive.
3. Solange – A Seat at the Table
One of the few albums that meant more after Election Day. Shoulders the burden of being capital “i” Important quite well because the songs are so good. But, like K. Austin Collins said about ‘Moonlight’, you kinda wish this album could just be viewed as art, not homework, for a little longer. Let it live and breathe and be human. Just an absolute masterclass of R&B. The album we’ll remember from 2016 for decades and decades.
2. Leon Vynehall – Rojus (Designed to Dance)
Man, the depth this guy finds in house music, a style that’s meant to be mostly ephemeral. There’s so much sound here. As Dave Fonseca once said, this thing has more 1s and 0s than most. Yet, the key ingredient is feeling. Booty is engaged, but shivers run up the spine, too.
1. Nikita Bondarev – Siberian Ruins
No album approximated the tenor of this year more. Lonely. Wistful. Contemplative. Grey. Bondarev has a knack for nailing loss, 2016’s dominate theme. In turn, his music feels like it wanders, hiking through desolate scenery as unconcerned birds chirp and far-off sirens sound. Every now and then there are pockets of warmth. Comfort. Little classical enclosures. But then the wind blows through the cracks in the wall and you feel it again on your bare skin.