I think Low stood unflinchingly in the wake of the year. Braced against a torrent of insanity and instability, Double Negative inhaled from a toxic bong this warm Trumpian exhaust and sounded exactly like 2018 felt: corrosive, febrile, weightless, unclear, a mix of signal and noise. Its production is the very sidechaining of modern life—a succession of deep thuds that briefly suck the air out of everything around it, one push alert at a time, doomed to repeat until finally, blessedly, sadly, it ends.
What a marvel that for a band’s 12th album—an album far beyond any narrative or career arc—they come alive by frying their sound until signal and noise are almost inseparable. It is music for a world abrading into fragments of hope and fear made from three Midwesterners who’ve been doing the indie rock thing for over two decades. It was Low. (Low. Low! Fucking sleepy snowy slowcore Duluth, Minnesota's own Low. Who covered this bet?) It was Low who led us to the heart of the year, covered in foamy alkali so that it didn’t beat so much as it tolled and tolled and tolled.
Here’s a theory: We are increasingly compelled to create using the purest signal possible so as to be heard among the noise. We want to express ourselves with fidelity and clarity as a means of self-preservation, aggrandizement, validation, and empathy. The purer the signal, the more listeners we get, the greater our reach. This is pop music. This is safe writing. This is treacly network dramas. This is what is popular and known. This is what most of the country receives, a yawning signal of understanding uncorrupted by the noise of life behind it. The further we are pulled toward the loud, hyperbolic poles of thought and feeling as signal, the more this purity becomes synthetic, like a sine wave, all of popular culture vibrating at the same familiar tone of 440 hz, the tone we tune our entire lives to.
What is so often left omitted is the noise we live in every day, a prismatic world of middles, in-betweens, and incompletes. Stops and starts, accidents, the smudge of a wasted day, a daydream interrupted on the subway by a stoned guy dropping bag after empty bag of Gushers at your feet. The emotional states we enter and leave throughout our day are so layered that to leave behind the noise of those transitions—so strange and unfixed to any one ideology or politics—would be to miss out on a catalog of feelings, a year defined by a thick ledger of fleeting moments.
Think of our emotional states like the signal to noise ratio, opposing outputs bound together in portions that change daily depending on the news, who died, what you accomplished at work. Joy tempered by misery, hope obscured by fear, action muted by apathy, truth drowned out by lies. DJ Koze is a master at these middle moments, archly funny and goofy, squeezing every drop of life out of antiques and thrift store finds, spun into a psychedelic groove. I would have loved for the brilliant Knock Knock to have been the emblem of this year. But no album reflected these middle feelings for me this year as dutifully and honestly as Double Negative.
It is not a particularly fun listen to go through this gelid, tannic album that pulses toward nowhere in particular. But following this record—its words of blood and ash, its production from the great BJ Burton who also designed the bulk of Bon Iver’s 22 A Million, its magnificently understated songwriting underneath it all—leads you to the deepest most barren acre in the frozen tundra of music. It’s beautiful and dreadful, the last branch on the family tree of rock, covered in hoarfrost. Alan Sparhawk often sings the word “always” as if he’s reckoning with all of history. Someone drowns at the bottom of a lake, and things fall into total disarray. It is a signal drowned by noise, the full comprehensive picture of an incomprehensible year.
I’m fascinated by this grey middle in a year where it felt as if the mantle was left untaken. It felt like a year of instability, cracks in the infrastructure, and a choking fog that signifies we are near the end of...something. What that something is no one can really seem to say: climate, jobs, democracy, online publishing, the word “chief.” An ugly gravity pulls us toward a corner around which something horrifying waits—the diner scene in Mulholland Dr. but stretched out for a year, inching toward an unspeakable monster, real or imagined. From this collective feeling, Low made truly new music and it was extraordinary.
Low: Double Negative
DJ Koze: Knock Knock
Beach House: 7
Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth
Snail Mail: Lush
Noname: Room 25
The Armed: Only Love
Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears
Flasher: Constant Image
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs
Drakeo the Ruler: Cold Devil
Mitski: Be The Cowboy
The 1975: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
Makaya McCraven: Universal Beings
Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Sparkle Hard
Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is A Reptile
U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited
Sidney Gish: No Dogs Allowed