Alarming Frequency: The Year In Noise

Death Grips, Kanye, and BadBadNotGood pointed the way forward in a punishingly loud world

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

Disruptive, unwanted noise was a central part of 2016. From the violent racism of Trump and his supporters to the sonic weapons used against Black Lives Matter advocates and the water protectors at Standing Rock, it felt impossible to hear ourselves think over the unceasing barrage of distracting and upsetting information piped directly into our eyes and ears.

As we approach the end of this hellish year, though, the world seems frighteningly quiet. Not that we’re scared to be overheard — in fact, quite the opposite. After a year or two of nonstop screaming, panicking, crying, educating, and protesting, many of us are sitting with the knowledge that nobody can hear us over all this fucking noise.

Our daily lives are full of noise, from the perpetual alerts of social media to the spun news and propaganda they carry. Technology has only made it easier to mainline content and controversy around the clock, which was required if you tried to follow simultaneously the election, the 221 black civilians killed by police so far this year, a spate of natural disasters, and the United States’s continued murder spree in the Middle East — not to mention the growing pile of legendary musical obituaries. The violent grind of 2016 has left us here, wrecked, in what resembles a national mental-health crisis.

But in this year of deep resignation, fear, horror, and the removal of the veil for those still holding on to a belief in America’s fundamental goodness, there was also truly excellent musical noise: the hoarse decay of Kanye’s internal tape loop as he screams about what might happen were we to fuck at the Vogue party; the mountain-bike-brake-screech melody that advances Skepta’s blistering “Man”; and, of course, Death Grips, whose early-2016 album Bottomless Pit could not have been more aptly named. We should have heard it coming and heeded the warning.

Like the Sacramento trio’s previous four records, Bottomless Pit exists in the sweaty fold between signal and noise. Discernible melody is obscured by musket drums, cigarette smoke, and screaming; pure noise and blasts of feedback are measured out in prefab single-serve packets. It’s an attempt to achieve transcendence through barrage: When all things are noise, including music and silence, then turn everything up all the way, all the time, and homogenize it into an unrecognizable paste.

It is not noise but rather its impact that makes Bottomless Pit so frightening. MC Ride’s suspiciously calm assertion that everything should be met with a shrug of “eh” doesn’t seem as much a laid-back B-boy stance as it did when the album was first released. Listening retroactively, it reads almost as a plea: Excitement and fear are exhausting in equal measure. After the brutality of this election cycle, references to hooded regimes and Ebola no longer read like pandering to the percentage of the group’s fan base fattened on Creepypasta — now it’s about determining which horrors are real and which should be deemed “fake news.”

The fried daydreaming on BadBadNotGood’s IV further eroded the idea that for instrumental music to be “avant-garde,” it must also be hopelessly difficult to listen to. Though their breakout work was both tinged with, and vetted by, hip-hop, IV proves they’ve mastered more classic jazz charts — “Confessions Pt. II,” a solo-rich workout spotlighting saxophone polymath Colin Stetson, wouldn’t seem at all out of place in a set by The Mingus Big Band. The result is a shifting, unsettling, synthetic throwback to mid-’70s jazz fusion. They also got in one really excellent troll, because god knows noise annoys: the standout track “Time Moves Slow,” featuring Sam Herring of Future Islands. Though Herring can and does rap brilliantly as Hemlock Ernst, here he meanders through his upper register like a hotel-lobby James Taylor, indicating a self-awareness that sounds clear above the din.

The impact of these albums and others like them was dramatically lessened by our inability to connect over the omnipresent cultural static. We heard and saw these things alone, through headphones or in bedrooms, crowded trains, and long rides taken in a desperate search for quiet. Like a night out at a crowded bar where the music’s just too loud, there’s no point in trying to have a conversation. Can you hear me now? It’s undeniable 2016 has left us all worse for wear, emotionally tone-deaf, smiling flatly against an unceasing, menacing drone, and unwilling to admit when we can’t hear what the other person is saying: not one word, not at all.

Next in MTV News’s Year in Music 2016: Molly Lambert on Britney Spears, now and forever.