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Five Hip-Hop Trends We Hope End in 2014

With hip-hop being such a vibrant youth culture, trends seem to come and go in the blink of an eye. Why, even today’s biggest singles could be shamelessly copied into a dozen knock-offs and become instantly passe in the time it takes for iTunes search results to load. As a result, these trends can come to define a fleeting moment in time, and with a new year upon us, here’s a few in particular that we hope go the way of the “Party Like a Rock Star” as soon as possible. Here’s Five Hip-Hop Trends We Hope End in 2014.

“You Know What Never Disappoints Audiences? Sequels!”

OK, I know, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II was one of the best rap albums of the past five years. But for every Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, there’s every other rap album sequel that’s ever been made. With very, very few exceptions, the rap album sequel are more often promotional stunts than inspired successors, hoping to goad former fans into returning to the fold or a desperate attempt at inspiration. Busta Rhymes’s Extinction Level Event album was predicated upon the concept that the world was going to end at midnight on New Year’s Day 2000, so why is there a planned sequel 14 years after the world was supposed to end? Take note rappers: instead of trying to live-up to your artistic peaks, why not make sequels to your most critically derided albums? That way you might get the increasingly rare compliment “it’s better than the original!”

“I’m So Proud of This Song, Let’s Tack a Skit to the End of It!”

You would think being over a decade into the MP3 era would dead this relic of music’s past, but it’s sadly not the case. While I admittedly enjoy rap album skits more than most, in the CD era there was nothing worse than having to wait through 90 seconds of non-actors acting in order to get to the song we wanted to hear. Today, that irritant has morphed into the skit creeping up at the end of the track, awkwardly ruining playlists and shuffled listening sessions alike. N.O.R.E. landmark 2013 collaboration with Large Professor “Built Pyramids” was one of the most surprisingly stellar tracks of the year, but imagine our shock when the track’s conclusion on the album version included a full minute of Peter Rosenberg gushing over how great they are, putting a weird chunk in our year end playlist. Keep making skits, gents, but please keep the party in mind and give them their own track.

“Oh, and Here’s A Conspiracy Too! Anyway, Next Subject”

Remember in the mid-2000s during the Bush era when every rapper worth his weight in Rawkus slipmats would throw in a stray commentary line about how awful politics were? Well now that shoddily made YouTube conspiracy videos are easier to watch than ever, rappers have taken to not only dropping Info Wars-inspired punchlines, but keeping them vague and immediately moving on without even the courtesy of a Jesse Ventura-style explanation. LL Cool J had a new album last year, but waited until the closing track “We’re the Greatest” to utter “I got a lot of crazy crazy on my mind /
Like what’s the real reason that the pope resigned?” and then never return to it. It’s even hit the battle rap world where lines like Shotgun Suge’s “you both fake like the Boston bombings” are sadly not met with the response “you’re incapable of Googling Snopes.com !”


“…and did I mention I’m CRAZY?!”

Remember that day in your high school English class where your teacher stressed the important of “showing, NOT telling” in your writing? Evidentially, a lot of today’s rappers missed that one. There’s nothing wrong with being an unhinged eccentric in hip-hop, in fact, the most out-there artists like Kool Keith, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Lil B have made some of the most memorable contributions in the genre’s history. The thing is, they never actually had to tell you that they were “insane,” it was something you just knew from what they talked about and how they talked about it. There’s few things as painfully uninteresting as a rapper constantly reminding you how crazy/insane/nuts/psychotic they are, and yet the most out-there thing they’ll do on a record is kill someone else or themselves, which are both fixtures of thousands of rap records since the late-80s. That also goes for songs like “I’m Not Crazy” where the implied twist (SPOILER ALERT!) is that the artist is crazy. And no, sampling a horror movie and shooting a music video at night doesn’t change that either.

“Rap Game Grandpa Simpson!”

In 2013, it seemed yesterday’s rap veterans (who a few sites have taken quite the liberal use of “legend”-status with) realized a way they could feel their insatiable desire to be looked at was, not by trying to reconnect with an audience by making the quality music they were once known for, but ranting about social issues with the perspective of a bitter out-of-touch shut-in whose spent less time in the past decade rapping and more time telling young whipper-snappers to get off their lawn. Just because a member or Brand Nubian is making headlines again doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. Along with tarnishing their legacies by, whether you agree with them or not, whoring their perspectives, it’s potentially alienating the new hip-hop generation from understanding what made their original contributions to the culture so valuable.

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Teengirl Fantasy+Kelela+Laurel Halo+Fatherhood

Meandering through the unisex level of Spa Castle, terry-cloth-robed Teengirl Fantasy performs 2012’s Tracer in the glow of projected iTunes visualizations. Making art of noise, they play “EFX” backed by vocalist Kelela channeling “Un-Thinkable”. I’m ready to descend to the Women’s-only level, disrobe, and gingerly step into a stinging hot tub. Laurel Halo’s divisively natural harmonizing on “Sunlight on the Faded” ushers in cosmic relaxation. She then shifts between Quarantine and alter ego King Felix’s more uptempo tracks. A personal delusion, but this lineup inspires flights of fancy. With Fatherhood, the duo (comprised of Physical Therapy’s Daniel Fisher and House of Ladosha’s Michael Magnan) whose “hard club” tracks would definitely elevating the rooftop pool.

Thu., Feb. 14, 10 p.m., 2013

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Do I Need to Rent the Chaperon When I Woo a Mexican Girl?

Dear Mexican: In anticipation of the upcoming Reconquista, I’ve decided that I need a Mexican girlfriend. I feel this will help me fit in better with our new Mexican overlords. However, Mexican ladies must be approached with particular regard to culture and customs, and that raises many questions.

A well-known example of Mexican womanhood is Consuelo Velázquez, who wrote “Besame Mucho” when she was 16, but never actually got kissed until she was 25. Clearly the Mexican girl is a shy, delicate, retiring flower who must be approached with restraint and tenderness. Also, there is the tradition of the dueña or chaperon, the female relative or friend who accompanies the girl during her encounters with her boyfriend. As I understand it, the dueña joins the girl in her room at her father’s hacienda as the girl talks to her mounted caballero amoroso through the bars that cover her window. Surely, this is an accurate description of modern Mexican courtship.

On the other hand, Mexican girls are spicy señoritas who dance for coins on the tables of cantinas and tempt men into sin with low-cut peasant blouses worn off the shoulder. Furthermore, when I was growing up I heard rumors of something called a Mexican Donkey Show, which somehow combined Mexicans and donkeys in ways that were never clearly explained, but which seemed ripe with possibility to my eagerly inquiring adolescent mind.

In addition, it is well known that all Mexican girls carry razor blades for the purpose of defending their honor. Whether they are defending their honor against males of the hot-blooded Mexican type or of the coldly calculating Anglo type depends on who’s telling the story and isn’t important. What matters are la mexicana’s warrior traditions and her choice of weapon.

So, my intended is a young woman of virginal sluttiness, a murderously helpless naïf of worldly experience who must be treated with respect and discretion to avoid bruising her tender sensibilities, and also to prevent her from cutting off my balls.

My plan is to lull her into lowering her guard by inviting her to the local symphony when they’ve scheduled an all-Manuel Ponce night, take her out afterwards and get her drunk on tequila, steal her razor blade, and declare my undying love. This will work because it is every girl’s dream of romance to be drunk, defenseless, and at the mercy of an amorous foreigner who doesn’t speak her language.

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans may be undone by insufficient attention to detail, and in inter-cultural relationships such as this one, it is especially important not to violate the norms of Mexican courtship. My question therefore is this: Will the girl’s family supply the chaperon, or do I need to rent one for the occasion.–Frito Bandito (Cockney Rhyming Slang for “Amorcito Solito”)

Dear Limey: Your summation of the stereotypes surrounding Mexican mujeres? To quote your people, effen’ bloody brilliant, luv! Wish that the dueña system was still around, though—nowadays, all you need is Juanes on your iTunes, and a Mexican woman’s chonis melt off faster than ice cream on asphalt.

SHOUT-OUT TO: Metropolitan State University of Denver, which lowered tuition rates for undocumented students who have lived in Denver most of their lives after the Colorado State Legislature refused to pass a bill that would’ve done the same. I had the honor of speaking at Metro State in 2010 as part of their Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professorship, and it’s awesome to see the university continue in the path of the best Chicano activist the rest of the country has never heard of. Metro State—denle gas!

Ask the Mexican at themexican@askamexican.net, be his fan on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano or ask him a video question at youtube.com/askamexicano!

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MUSIC MANIA

Forget about gifting an iTunes card because who wants to get an MP3? There’s really nothing more personal than giving your loved ones classic vinyl. At the Collect-I-Bowl Winter Record Show, you’ll find a range of new and out-of-print vinyl, including jazz, blues, soul, R&B, reggae, punk, new wave, and metal. As you scour through crates and crates of imports, 12-inch, and seven-inch records while jamming to DJ Uncle Mike mixing in the background, be sure to get yourself something nice, too. Oh, and if your friend doesn’t have a record player, remind them that the cover art is half the gift.

Sun., Dec. 4, noon, 2011

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Coke Bust

Cramped venue + jittery crowd + Coke Bust = instant, almost viral mosh pit melee. Whether you’re throwing elbows in the audience or trolling YouTube for footage captured in some anarchist vegan café, it’s easy to be seduced by the brute force that this Washington, D.C. quartet brings to bear in black-hole dense shit-fits so abbreviated that standard iTunes truncations are laughable. And best of all, these hardcore-punk bang shots have as much melody as they do musculature, and as a result snarlers like “Forced to Live” and “Long Gone” will stay with you longer than the bruises you collect at this particular show.

Sat., Nov. 19, 9 p.m., 2011

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Facebook + Music: Most People Are DJs

At the end of September, Facebook announced its grand plans to hook itself into as many aspects of its users’ lives as possible. Information provided by members—struck-up friendships, employment histories, hungover status updates—would be organized into timeline form, thus allowing people to retrace their virtual steps. Integrated into this slightly terrifying prospect was a component that allowed people using certain digital-music services (iTunes is one notable exception) to back-announce their listening habits in real time. Or, rather, forced them to do so; quite a few people were surprised when their friends commented on errant listens to pop tarts or dad-rockers that didn’t quite fit their taste profile.

Broadcasting listening habits online is nothing new; last.fm, a British listening-history tracker that started as a computer science student’s school project, has been humming along since online music’s dark ages (also known as 2002). But bringing song-by-song updates into the flow of news offered up by Facebook’s new ticker, which essentially turns the news of what friends are doing on the site into a CNN-worthy scroll of constant information, turns the passive act of listening in front of a laptop into a performance of sorts.

The performative aspect is weird, to be sure. I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder whether people noticed when I called up, say, Roachford’s 1989 Britsoul gem “Cuddly Toy,” a track that was lost to the sands of time and cracked VHS tapes of MTV’s late-night programming before I unearthed it while tooling around Spotify’s “related artists” function last week.

The Swedish digital-music service landed in the States with much fanfare earlier this summer, and I went from being a skeptic who’d seen far too many similarly hyped digital-music services crash and burn to being someone who uses it both to play catch-up with recent releases that might have been inadvertently shuffled to the bottom of the promo pile and to revisit once-forgotten tracks from years gone by. It’s not perfect by any means, particularly for people on the side of those crafting and releasing songs; just ask any musician who has received a paltry royalty check for not-insignificant numbers of streams or any labels that have yanked their music from the service because they see it as a money-losing proposition—but it has an elegant enough interface and its iPhone version is the closest thing to the once-elusive idea of the portable celestial jukebox.

And watching people from various eras of my life tick off the songs they’re listening to—Van Halen, Cody ChesnuTT, Megafaun, Public Enemy—has been pretty fun. The digital age has ushered in an atomized-listening atmosphere where the storied 12-album-a-year buyer of yore has been replaced by people who can call up nearly any song their memory might conjure up; charting those habits is increasingly impossible, but the small glimpses into others’ laptops offered by Facebook’s tracking have inspired me to dig into catalogs that I might not have given a thought to otherwise. (Not to mention that contrasting the discourse that pops up around listening habits on Facebook—”I love this record,” “Where did you first hear this”—to the topics discussed by people farther down the music-discourse rabbit hole, where much virtual ink is spilled on topics like the plumped lips of one chanteuse or the self-consciously “edgy” actions of a young rapper because topics like those are easier to coalesce page views around, is a nice reminder of why music’s such a rich topic to cover.)

Where this data—and its attendant commentary—will eventually go is another story. The comprehensive way that the once-piecemeal status updates have been organized into an overarching timeline of one’s digital life raises quite a few red flags about where personal memory and online oversharing intersect, and at this point, trusting any free online service to not sell the data its users offer up to marketers is about as naïve as believing in the claims put forth by infomercials. But for now, there’s still a thrill at peeking at these running diaries of musical habits; it’s the 2011 equivalent of running your eyes over a record collection or a bookshelf, only with a real-time aspect added.

Performative listening, of course, is essential to the live-music setting; even those people who are standing there stock-still while a band whacks away at its instruments are making a statement on what’s happening in front of them. This weekend’s All Tomorrow’s Parties I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Asbury Park had an array of reactions: there was the bobbing of heads during Oneida’s eight-hour marathon in the middle of a bowling alley (there was bowling, too); there were the sing-alongs requested by the long-reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum before he launched into some of his more beloved pieces of damaged folk-punk; there was Voice contributor Chris Weingarten getting pulled on stage by Public Enemy to contribute a line to “Don’t Believe the Hype”; and there were, of course, quite a few as-it-happened updates broadcast to social networks by people who were splitting their concentration between what was occurring on stage and letting their not-as-lucky friends know that they were experiencing something particularly mind-blowing. (I say this as someone who got particularly broadcast-happy while watching a man named Lord Sinclair call a bingo match while dressed up as Nick Cave, screeching lyrics from “Release The Bats” and other songs from the Australian dark lord’s catalog in between numbers and letters while sporting an askew moustache and a bald-spot wig.)

Is it the lack of passivity that makes broadcasting those sorts of updates seem more obnoxious, or is it the idea that something’s actually happening while the typing’s going on, and the real-time updates might be causing the overexcited broadcaster to miss out on something entirely?

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Gabriel Kahane’s Open Arms

“I’m feeling like a true workaholic right now; my life is unmanageable,” the Brooklyn-based composer and singer Gabriel Kahane says while nestled in a window seat at DUMBO’s ReBar. “But it’s exciting.”

Kahane, who lives in Ditmas Park, is keeping busy; during our conversation he mentions a slew of projects he’s at work on, including a song cycle he’s premiering in the spring, a piece about Alcoholics Anonymous that’s in its earliest stages of development, and a forthcoming collaboration with his father. The list of works he’s already premiered in 2011 is lengthy.

There’s also February House, a musical he co-wrote with college friend and collaborator Seth Bockley. Set to go up at the Public Theater in the spring of 2012, it’s about a house in Brooklyn Heights where, back in the early 20th century, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and a host of other artists lived. “It’s the story of all these sexually othered people making this oddly nuclear family and trying to live simultaneously this very bohemian and yet, on a familial level, very bourgeois way of being,” says Kahane.

How many projects a day do you work on? I ask him. “Hopefully not more than one a day,” he says. “Though the last two weeks . . . “

Ah, yes, the last two weeks. Those have, in part, been spent prepping for the release of Where Are The Arms (Second Story Sound), his second album, which he’s been recording (in between working on his other projects) since January 2010. “I finished it for the first time in September of last year,” he recalls, “and shopped it and had interest from a big label who wanted me to make really significant changes—significant to the point of incorporating material from my first album [2008’s Gabriel Kahane].”

“It’s funny because if that had happened 10 years ago, I would have been like, ‘Sign me the fuck up!'” he recalls. “But now, where you have majors putting out records that sell 2,000 copies, 3,000 copies, 5,000 copies, there’s just no guarantee that it’s going to be any better, and it’s a much worse royalty rate. So I balked.”

The new economy of releasing music gave him the opportunity to go back into the studio and hammer out some more material for Arms; the opening track, the driving, string-accented, falsetto’d “Charming Disease,” was actually the last song he completed. The album hangs in a space between pop, classical, and new music, with different elements—strings, horns, subtly employed background singers—revealing themselves on each listen. “Parts Of Speech” is a tense update of the moody rock that bands like Aveo and Modest Mouse released in the early ’00s; “Last Dance” manages to elegantly unfurl in under four minutes, shifting from a floating spiral of winds and electronics into a taut, pleading track. The final track, “Great Lakes,” is more bar-burner than barnburner, a bit of tragic grandeur that sounds like the nightcap for a regret-soaked evening.

Kahane handles piano, guitar, and banjo duties on the album, and his band is rounded out by Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), Rob Moose (also of Bon Iver), and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley). “The big difference with this record is that I was trying to get away from being the piano man, I guess,” he says. “So I had been playing more guitar and banjo and was writing songs away from the piano. Then also for the first time on this record, I think there were one or two songs where I did the normal rock thing, which was writing by recording.”

The “normal rock thing” is the full-time job for many musicians, of course, but Kahane’s smooth shifting between genres provides Arms with much of its richness. He can shift from discussing the nuts-and-bolts of classical commissions to fondly discussing the songcraft of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” (The first time I saw him live, at Rockwood Music Hall, his set included a spirited cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You”; the song had been floating around the Internet for only a few days, putting him ahead of, well, everybody.) Even in the iTunes era, where collections can be shuffled on demand and liking a single genre of music seems like easy line-item fodder for a personal ad, Kahane’s simultaneous embrace of pop and more highbrow-seeming music makes Arms seem both intimate and grand.

“Something that’s very formative to me is my dad is one of the most respected pianists and conductors in the country, but he grew up playing in rock bands,” says Kahane, whose father, Jeffrey, is the music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “He’s an unusual figure in the world of classical music at that level, in that he takes the Duke Ellington attitude, which is, ‘There’s good music, and the other kind.’ When I was growing up, the record that was on the most was Graceland. Then it would turn that off and he would go play Brahms’ second piano concerto. It’s, ‘Is there substance there?’ Is there emotional substance, is there spiritual substance? Is it thoughtful? Except for the brief interlude where I was listening to House of Pain and Cypress Hill, there was never a schism vis-a-vis of genre in my house.”

Arms‘ sonic depth demands close listening, which is something that’s increasingly difficult in the iTunes era; music is relegated to background noise for firing off e-mails, catching up on Twitter, or being interviewed in a bar. (Two songs on the ReBar sound system manage to break into our conversation: Robyn’s plaintive ode to unavailable men “Call Your Girlfriend” and Animal Collective’s pop-song-in-disguise “My Girls.”) Kahane’s demanding schedule, he admits, makes it difficult for him to keep up on new music in an active way.

“I feel like the time that I listen to new records is when I cook, because I really love to cook, and it’s the only time where I can actually multitask,” he says. “Because I can’t listen to music and write and e-mail. It’s too distracting for me.”

Which might be why he has a public service announcement for overworked listeners—even those people who might be too enmeshed in writing music to take a break and open their ears.

“I just want people to go home and get a glass of scotch and sit down and listen to a record.”

Gabriel Kahane plays Littlefield on September 14

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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The Olivia Tremor Control

Beatles-indebted pop outfits—English and otherwise—are an iTunes dollar a dozen. This is one of many reasons why so much excitement surrounds Olivia Tremor Control’s return to the studio. (Deluxe 90s catalogue reissues later this fall don’t hurt.) Led by singer/songwriters Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, this Louisiana-based Elephant 6 flagship band offers a screwed and chopped take on jangly ‘60s pop, its fluttering brass bursts, instrumental pile-ups, and SuperGlue-tacky hooks planning into drugged realms where trammeling found-sounds and tape machine shenanigans dominate. Deeply warped, deeply weird in a vague, dream-logic way. It’s good to have them back.

Wed., Sept. 21, 8 p.m., 2011

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Pitbull, Top of the Dogpile

Seeing Pitbull on the cover of Latina suited up and turned into husband material shouldn’t be a surprise. The billboard near the indie-riddled Sunset Junction promoting his upcoming gig in Los Angeles? Well, it’s sponsored by Bud Light; they’ve got deep pockets. What about his verse on Jennifer Lopez’s big dancefloor comeback? Fuck, like Sean Paul is bankable anymore. The aforementioned “On The Floor” and his own “Give Me Everything” holding down 20% of iTunes’ top ten singles list? LMFAO has been there—how hard can it be?

It’s easy to discount the popularity of certain artists at a time when the fences have drawn in tremendously, but at this moment, is any other male artist achieving the ubiquity of Pitbull on a multimedia scale? He’s a part owner of a vodka line. He’s got a legit label. “Give Me Everything,” his Eurohousey single with assists by Ne-Yo and Afrojack, has stubbornly stuck at No. 2 on Billboard‘s Digital Songs chart for weeks now, only being outsold by Adele’s unkillable “Rolling In The Deep,” The WWE celebrated Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s birthday by having Pitbull perform on Raw, which means repping Miami (where the Rock went to college) trumps actually being Latino (Johnson’s of Polynesian descent) in terms of kinship. Or maybe the Rock really likes “Give Me Everything.”

This burst of stardom has probably saved Pitbull from being lumped in with reggaeton’s quick and intense usurpation of hip-hop radio during the mid-’00s. (Granted, I couldn’t quite remember whether he played a role in some of my favorite moments of that movement at first—most of them turned out to be the work of Daddy Yankee.) Yet Planet Pit could very well be the #1 album in the country next week without any sort of larger craze buoying it. How in can an act achieve a respectable degree of success, seemingly go away despite making new music and come back even more popular than ever, especially in the iTunes era?

It’s usually attributable to an uncanny ability to be of the moment, and in that sense, Planet Pit absolutely should be next week’s #1 album. The R&B and pop-rap I tend to encounter on the radio in Los Angeles sounds less like music and more like industry, and Planet Pit embodies that 100%—not in a good or bad way, just specifically “industry” in the L.A. sense of the word, where nobody in the bottle service area seems to have a job but they all have some sort of hustle that’s “blowing up, man.” You see Pitbull getting interviewed about “his artists” and how all of them are “outta here”; he’s mastered the patter of music agents trying to convince you that their baby bands are worth your time because they’ve had a killer run opening for Ben Folds. It’s gregarious as hell, but it’s looking to get over on you.

Although that feeling is pretty much to be expected considering Planet Pit‘s big hit is called “Give Me Everything” and features three other singers of tiered popularity. the album on the whole sounds like it does want everything—the beats are insistent, the synth blurts are loud and free of nuance—even though Pitbull often comes off like the sort of guy who has everything. He sounds like someone for whom getting asses on the dancefloor is the end to justify any means, and he absolutely loves the process—the mere title of “Shake Senora” is indicative enough of an insatiable eagerness to please. combined with a keen knowledge of demographic.

Which is not to say he’s a cipher. In fact, he’s still a great MC—outside the context of strict pop-rap, his flow is nimble and he comes up with underhanded, smart lines (“I’m involved with the music business/ but the funny thing is/ half of these fools don’t know music, don’t know business/ have no business in music, what is this?”). But as Pitbull boasts that he “went from Mr. 305 to Mr. Worldwide,” I also can’t help but think of Planet Pit in relation to that other Miami throne-seeker who people feel conditioned to hate—it’s cocky, it’s manufactured, it’s too reliant on industry pal-downs, ugh, it’s inorganic. Then again, it’s perfectly of a moment where “All I Do Is Win” is the must-have self-fulfilling prophecy, and Planet Pit sounds like it’s winning. And even if it isn’t, well, it all but tells you to go ahead and groan—like that other Miami resident noted recently, you’ll still have your same personal problems tomorrow.

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Pinback

This San Diego prog-pop duo just released their first new music since 2007’s Autumn of the Seraphs in the form of a two-song Record Store Day seven-inch. (At press time, it can be yours for $25 on eBay.) Pinback’s label reports that a new full-length is due out next year, but even if they don’t play anything fresh, these guys are usually worth checking in on: Their winsome 1999 debut never fails to improve an iTunes shuffle. With Judgement Day.

Fri., April 29, 9 p.m., 2011