The goal at I.M.P. is to pull the quality musicians crawling through the muck of self-promotion up to the surface. With the Internet behemoth at full roar, sharing music, singles, experiments, full albums, is as easy as the click clack of a keyboard.
An artist can record something into the head of a microphone, compress the sound into the unseen MP3, drag, drop and magically, anyone with the mildest of interest can open their ears to it. No PR team necessary. No label approval waiting around the corner. But, also, no money and a pool of competition that grows perpetually.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Some artists have thrived off the New World Order of music distribution, grinning at the chance to shake off the authoritarian grasp of labels and work within their own parameters. Others have watched their self-released, digital album launch their careers and, in an ironic role-reversal, actually garner major label interest. Some simply created their own label as a platform for their work and the music of their peers.
Don’t give up, restless musicians, your time may still come. Here are the greatest albums to slip through the Internet and deconstruct the major label business plan.
Lyric: “Everything is purple / Everything is purple.”
In the years before A$AP Rocky broke through the mainstream, he was barnstorming Harlem with his A$AP Mob crew. When first single, “Peso,” layered around sparkling beats of hypnosis, leaked early, in 2011, he was already rising to the top. Live.Love.A$AP, his first full-length mixtape, added a heavy dose of droopy psychedelia to rap that had not yet been fully realized. Songs like “Acid Drip,” “Get Lit,” “Purple Swag: Chapter 2,” and “Wassup” are syrupy and loose as a ball of unraveling yarn. The drums, looped around cars braking and shots firing, grind your face into the pavement. Rocky’s flow can lull you to sleep, then slash at your dreams. Beyond all the street tales is a deep and emphatic appreciation for life and one another. At the beginning of the year Rocky put out Long.Live.A$AP on his own imprint and is now considered among the best young rappers out there.
House Of Balloons
Lyric: “Bring the drugs, baby / I can bring my pain.”
House Of Balloons is the first of three mixtapes Abel Tesfaye, instigator behind The Weeknd, put out in 2011. Thursday and Echoes Of Silence would immediately follow, each one offered on his website for free download. Each release crested on the wave of new singers like Frank Ocean, Trey Songz, Miguel and Drake, who were totally unafraid to put dents in their genre’s mold. The mixtape trilogy cemented Tesfaye’s placement as the shaky crooner of endless, debauched nights (and the multiple collaborations with Toronto pal, Drake, certainly helped, too). The songs are cocktails of distorted samples, spooky atmospherics, shadowy effects–an intoxicating mix of dark R&B, trip-hop, soul, and post-punk sustain. Tesfaye slays the mood with his vocal cadences. There is a great urge to every song, a consistent seeking. House Of Balloons and the resulting mixtapes are a fine execution of when drugs and music work together, each enhancing the other. There’s almost nothing better to put on at 3 a.m. when the party has ended and the house moves in shadows. Tesfaye’s debut studio album, Kiss Land, is due September 10.
Nine Inch Nails
Lyric: “I jump from every rooftop / So high, so far to fall / I feel a million miles away.”
“This one’s on me,” Trent Reznor wrote online with the free download for The Slip in 2008. In the days prior he let singles and cryptic information slip out creating a sudden buzz for new music. Similarly, with Year Zero and Ghosts I-IV, the preceding albums, Reznor encouraged fans to remix the songs and share with strangers. The Slip finds Nine Inch Nails at their toughest and leanest. It is a cornerstone in the evolution of Reznor’s musical capacity. The remote agility of the Ghosts project merges mightily with the industrial power that kept Nine Inch Nails apart from the rest of the metal acts of the 90’s. Lush atmospherics leak between pulverizing blast beats and torched vocals. He explores, but always remains anchored in the soul-sludge of NIN. “Discipline,” “Echoplex,” “Letting You,” and “1,000,000” are all killers live, sparing the fat and cutting right to the meat. With recent detours for the ghoulish side project, How to destroy angels, and for his award-winning soundtrack scoring, it’s enticing to think in what way the sound of NIN has been altered for the upcoming Hesitation Marks, out September 3.
The Grey Album
Lyric: “I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves / Who made love under a Sycamore tree / Which makes me a more sicker MC.”
The first major controversy to surround MP3 leakage was the case of Danger Mouse’s non-profit, The Grey Album, released for free in defiance of cease and desist orders. The DJ up to that point was unknown, barely making a dent in music. Everything changed in 2004 when he took the acapella stems from Jay Z’s The Black Album and meticulously blended them with the harmonic pleasantries and stitched-together instrumentals of The Beatles’ The White Album. Any third grader knows when you mix black with white you’ll get grey. EMI, the Beatles’ record label, feeling betrayed by the project and not interested in painting, ignited a campaign to have the song files depleted from the Internet and, in turn, made Danger Mouse into one of the most sought-after producers and collaborators of this early century. The result is a stunning mash of two pointedly distinct eras of music. There is nothing quite like hearing Jay Z rap about getting dirt off his shoulder over a cut-up of “Julia.” The sinister “Moment Of Clarity,” constructs the perfect mood from a few scraps of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” The Grey Album was the lone sprouting seed of various mash-ups that would follow (i.e. The Hood Internet, Girl Talk’s entire career) and an important relic of when copyright laws began to scramble online. It just may be required listening for some future Internet Law course.
Lyric: “We separate like ripples on a blank shore.”
Radiohead’s In Rainbows is the album to finally muster the courage to pull the blade across the neck of the music industry. After an uncomfortably long drought following Hail To The Thief, guitarist Johnny Greenwood, posted online in 2007, that a new album would be available in the following days. At the time it was well-known that their contract with EMI had ended and that they hadn’t signed with a new label. Conspiracies sizzled. Then the album arrived, without any label whatsoever, and with the absurd offer that fans could pay what they want for a digital version, including the amorphous amount of zero dollars. All at once fans the world over received new music in their inbox and enjoyed it in that exact moment. It was like the good ol’ days when we’d wait, with patience, for the record stores to open. Due to the nature of the release, the exact numbers are a bit hazy, but the average price paid was a little over $6, with every penny going directly to the band. They made their dollars and cents. Obviously, with such a huge following Radiohead can get away with stunts like these, knowing their product is wanted, but still, the idea stands for anyone. Arcade Fire, Jay Z, Smashing Pumpkins, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and others have experimented with ways to get their music to those who want to hear it the most.
It’s outlandish to use the phraseology, “at their best,” for Radiohead since, with every new album, they’ve proven they can outdo themselves. In Rainbows, then, without a doubt, is the ultimate Radiohead album; the one when each of their many elements converge in perfect union with, and in perfect proportion of, each other. The first three songs alone each showcase a definitive era in the group’s career executed at the highest altitude. Opening track, “15 Step,” clacks right into place exemplifying the beat-heavy side of Kid A up to King Of Limbs and beyond. “Bodysnatchers” is everything rock & roll about The Bends played to maximum effect and “Nude” holds the haunting balladry of OK Computer. It’s a classic among classics and the one that should be sent out into space for future beings to discover. They broke down the final gate so now artists everywhere can flood the system and have their noises heard free of intrusion.