The Best Producers of 2011

Corey Beasley

Noah "40" Shebib, Doc McKinney, and Illangelo provide a welcome reminder that a talented rapper or a gifted singer isn’t all it takes to create memorable, moving hip-hop or R&B.

Drake is a fine rapper. On this year’s Take Care, a record that will at once confirm Drake’s status as the Biggest Name in Hip-Hop (2011) and prove he just might deserve the title, he shows off some serious gains made in his style since So Far Gone (2009) and Thank Me Later (2010). Check his warp drive flow on "HYFR" or his careful, deliberate sketches on "Marvin’s Room" for evidence. But as a wordsmith, the chameleonic Torontonian isn’t in the same fighting class as his heavyweight competition -- Kanye West, cohort Lil Wayne, their friend and godfather, Jay-Z. Not even close. So, why is Take Care deserving of serious, from-the-rafters acclaim as a potential game changer?

For the answer, give Take Care’s gold-encrusted liner notes a read. Noah "40" Shebib holds production credits for 14 out of the 18 tracks on the proper album. He shares many of these credits with some major talent: minimalist wunderkind Jamie xx, the Weeknd and Illangelo (we’ll get to them shortly), and -- what do you know? -- Drake. Shebib has collaborators, but the sound of Take Care -- the sound of Drake, the sound of depressive, heart-on-sleeve R&B/hip-hop hybridity, the zeitgeist sound -- belongs largely to him. Shebib is Drake’s writing partner, his confidante, and in many ways, his muse.

The success of the Drake/Shebib sound in permeating mainstream hip-hop falls somewhere between completely shocking and a-million-to-one, no way, totally scandalizing. Shebib focuses on atmosphere, on ambience and feeling, more than layering hook over hook over hook. Comparing his work to that of, say, 2011’s other breakout producer, Lex Luger, is like comparing apples to chicken-fried steak. Luger’s style, all tinny snare hits and insidiously huge synths, bludgeons its listener into submission with Rain Man-level repetition, all in the service of ensuring its earworms become less embedded in one’s brain than permanently fused to one’s cranial tissue. Shebib, conversely, lets his beats breathe. The bass on his tracks can still wreak havoc on a car stereo system, but the way Shebib surrounds the lower register with touches of clean piano, synths that sigh and heave, and empty space -- when "Marvin’s Room" pops up on Clear Channel radio between the usual hyper-compressed, Eurotrash dreck, you’ll think you stepped into a parallel universe.

Equally strange, the nexus of this universe isn’t in New York or New Orleans or Atlanta -- it’s in Toronto, not a city with a popular history of hip-hop breakthroughs. Shebib, in interviews, is quick to point to his Toronto-based influences and mentors, proof the city had its own thriving scene long before the rest of the world began paying attention. His career began by working with Toronto production don Noah "Gadget" Campbell, known outside of the city for his work with Divine Brown, K-OS, and, sure, Nelly Furtado. Boi-1da and T-Minus, who also worked on Take Care, helped Shebib into the fold. But it’s Shebib and Drake who have become the face of the new Toronto sound, all earnest smiles and friendly embraces.

If Shebib and Drake, the OVO crew (or October’s Very Own, named for Drake’s birth month), are the sad sack but ultimately fun-loving yin to this Toronto scene, there must be a yang. Enter the XO crew. The Weeknd, alias of the angelically-voiced and demonically-minded Abel Tesfaye, rose this year from complete obscurity to massive acclaim at the pace of a vinegar-and-baking-soda chain reaction with the release of his first mixtape, House of Balloons, and its follow-up, Thursday. His production team, Doc McKinney and Illangelo (with early help from Zodiac), share some creative DNA with Shebib. They, too, favor negative space, glacially frigid atmospherics, and sinister, smudged bass kicks. Drake gave an early shout out to the Weeknd on his Twitter feed, and he turns in an exceptional verse on Thursday’s "The Zone", linking the superstar with the rising upstarts in the popular imagination. (The Weeknd repaid the favor by stealing the show on Take Care’s "Crew Love", co-produced by Illangelo.)

Where Drake’s post-coital moping usually manages to end up somehow endearing (or at least sympathetic), the Weeknd investigates the other side of the party, the brutal next-morning hangovers and the piecemeal memories of bad decisions and serious mistakes. You won’t find much sentiment in the songs on House of Balloons or Thursday, and the experience of entering their worlds can leave you feeling like you need a long, cold shower. But the pull toward the Weeknd’s sonic environments is hard to resist, just like the indulgence in pills and drink that color Tesfaye’s songs.

The Weeknd found an early audience with the hipster crowd, due to positive coverage on Pitchfork and other indie blogs. The ensuing debate over so-called PBR&B -- whether an R&B act loses some modicum of credibility if its audience might be predominantly white -- has mercifully subsided; The Weeknd has the songs to back up the hype, and the Internet has moved on to troll for other nitpicking, uninteresting discussions. The appeal to the indie-minded crowd, however, makes more sense when you look at the XO crew’s production choices. Samples from dream-pop heroes Beach House and post-punk progenitors Siouxsie & the Banshees provide places of reference for such a crowd to enter into the Weeknd’s world.

But this isn’t mere posturing for a crossover appeal: Doc McKinney, Illangelo, and Zodiac brilliantly reinterpret this material, co-opting it to the point that the samples sound completely natural in their element, barely calling attention to themselves. "Loft Music", for example, lifts the vocals of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and pitch-shifts them into a familiar hip-hop "oh-oh" hook, while using her band’s guitar to provide an ironically graceful backdrop for Tesfaye’s disturbing images of drugged-up sex. The track’s peak comes when the music slows and seems to bend, as if the sample itself were drunk, and Tesfaye coos and moans in his falsetto to entrancing effect. That his production team would reserve over three minutes for this kind of ambient coda proves their belief in breaking the rules of the genre -- as well as in their own ability to keep your attention.

Yes, Drake and Tesfaye create immersive, indelible worlds in their lyrics. Their focus on the uglier returns of the sex-crazed, liquor-soaked lifestyle promoted in so much mainstream hip-hop has allowed them to sound fresh and engaging in an increasingly dry, idea-starved genre. And this is how the game works: the frontman gets the attention, perhaps rightfully so. Still, Shebib, McKinney, and Illangelo provide a welcome reminder that a talented rapper or a gifted singer isn’t all it takes to create memorable, moving hip-hop or R&B. Take Care, House of Balloons, and Thursday are rare beasts, headphones albums in a genre full of disposable Billboard hits and interchangeable, flat hooks. OVOXO make songs you don’t need to feel guilty about hyping. Their songs are sonic landscapes, chilly and distant, and all the more beguiling for their remoteness.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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