KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Lars Gotrich

Reality is weird — a series of events that connect from birth to death. Shame's singer, Charlie Steen, doesn't claim wisdom of the process, he's just pulling hot embers from this unruly fire, singing in a hoarse scrawl: "My nails ain't manicured / My voice ain't the best you've heard / And you can choose to hate my words / But do I give a f***."

Jay Som's Everybody Works was one of NPR Music's 50 best albums of 2017, a guitar-driven rock record with complex arrangements and even more complex emotions all wrung out from singer, songwriter and producer Melina Duterte.

There must be some meaning to life if we still have music — it gives form to our existential dread, and sometimes you can dance to it. In just four short years, Nap Eyes have made much ado about meaninglessness with rock 'n' roll songs that shake just offbeat and smart lyrics wrapped in bemused ennui.

Shirley Collins just doesn't sing old songs — she inhabits the experience within and transmutes them. She hears songs holistically, and out rings a voice that never overtakes, but rather lives with the melody. Collins innovated the folk music tradition, heard most strikingly in the 1964 album, Folk Roots, New Routes, and gave shape to bands like Pentangle and Fairport Convention.

While independent bands don't quite have the ability to make the earth stand still like Queen Bey — we all fall short of the glory, etc. — one lesson learned from the surprise-album release is how an artist and a fan trust each other. Album announcements, artwork announcements, teasers for single premieres, the actual premiere, a video for the same single, a teaser for the second single — you can understand why some artists who have been at this a while would rather skip the industry cycle and go direct.

Around the turn of the millennium, hardcore had to reckon with its weirdnessand the weirdness of — becoming a viable and commercial force. At The Drive-In played the Late Show with David Letterman, Thursday's "Understanding In A Car Crash" was in regular rotation on MTV2 and The Blood Brothers' absolutely manic ... Burn, Piano Island, Burn was produced, by nü-metal diviner Ross Robinson, for a major label.

It's not Christmas until I hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Originally released in 1994, it's a gingerbread house of a pop song, built on a gospel music foundation and a throwback to Phil Spector's wall of sound, as a sleigh-bell rhythm and countermelodies rush across the frosted rooftop and Carey lands a thrilling G5 above middle C.

Sonic Boomerang: Is that, like, Sonic the Hedgehog's new weapon? A new shake from that burger drive-in? Psychedelic punk-rock whipped into the abyss and returned with aerodynamic force?

If you stare into darkness long enough, your eyes adjust to the hidden corners, and begin to understand that whatever lurks was always there... waiting. Azar Swan's first two albums roamed in these corners of industrial-pop, inspired by Coil and Front Line Assembly, hypnotic in bleak and cutting electronics co-produced by Joshua Strawn and Zohra Atash, whose breathy-but-forceful vocals center the duo's music.

Pinegrove's Cardinal was a messy and charming debut that felt with exacting detail. There's a sense of restlessness in it, run through the twinkly pangs of emo-twang. Go to any live show, or just watch the band's Tiny Desk Concert, and the crowd's sing-alongs are more than just mouthing to their favorite songs — it's living them.

Marisa Anderson doesn't just play guitar — she sinks into bends and lingers over melodies, knowing when to light a fire under her fingers and when to wind like a creek. In 2013, she caught my ear for the first time with a pair of records — the raw and dusty Mercury, and the functionally-titled Traditional And Public Domain Songs.

When we last left Godflesh, the mecha-mutants of industrial metal had returned after more than a decade with 2014's devastatingly nasty A World Lit Only By Fire. It was one of those reunion albums that wasn't only better than it should've been, but a reclamation and reinvention for Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green.

Loving pop music means loving all pop music, or at least our ambiguous modern definition of it. For every "Teenage Dream" there's a "Call Your Girlfriend," for every "Safety Dance," there's a "Cloudbusting" – it's all in the same breath, both exploding and refining sugar in a space that is made for everyone, even if we don't always agree on its refinement.

Ex-squeeze me? A-baking powder? Brian Eno and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields have collaborated on a new track together (for Adult Swim's Singles Program)? It's nine minutes rising seismic euphoria, blasted through the center of a black sun, its horizon bent beyond all logic? Am I alive? Am I dreaming? Don't wake me up.

Anna St. Louis' fingerpicked patterns wander through John Fahey and Elizabeth Cotten fields, her voice soft and warm; tall grass in a long day's sun. Her debut solo release, First Songs, looks to '60s folk, but the L.A.-based singer-songwriter comes from Kansas City punk and the Philly art scene. Both her background and shifting locales are reminder that what we often call familiar — especially in regards to musical style — is almost always a collection of experiences. There's rarely a singular moment informing it all.

Advisory: The above video and below language almost certainly contains content that some may find offensive.

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