Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Spice Girls Puff Piece

As a breezy, easy to read summary of a group and a time and a place, this short Spice Girls history isn't bad.  The context isn't really there, nor would I expect it to be in a fluff piece like this (the photos and video clips provide most of the context the piece requires).  It's true that boy bands ruled the charts in the UK for most of the 90's, but girl groups like En Vogue and TLC were big in US at the time, and worldwide it was a near golden age for female solo artists (Celine, Alanis, the Lilith Fair artists, and countless others).  So the Spice Girls' world takeover was hardly unprecedented, but they were still revolutionary in that no other contemporary group had been marketed in that way (five divergent looks, five unique personalities) and they were marketed specifically to girls, i.e. they competed with the boy bands for the same fan demographics and won.  

In reading histories like these, I'm always struck by how short-lived their fame was, compared to how all-encompassingly long it felt at the time.  Spice Girls were at the highest strata of pop dominance.  They were everywhere -- on the radio, in movies, in the tabloids -- with market penetration and omnipresence that only the likes of Michael Jackson, Adele, the Beatles, and a handful of other pop stars can lay claim to.  And it all lasted little more than two and a half years -- from "Wannabe" in the summer of '96 to Geri leaving the band and their final Xmas number one, "Goodbye", in the winter of '98.  It was still enough to make them the biggest selling girl group ever. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

RIP John Lever

Tributes have been slowly pouring for the Chameleons' drummer who passed away a few days ago. When you're a "cult" band (a unfortunate term, as Ned Raggett refers to it in his piece for The Quietus, but it is what it is) the proper recognition can take time to gather steam in death just as it did in life.

Chameleons belong in a select group of influential 80's bands that nobody has ever quite been able to duplicate (I'd put both The Smiths and Cocteau Twins in this category).  The combination of Mark Burgess' throaty vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fieldings' interlocking guitar lines, and John Levers intricate yet propulsive drumming somehow added up to more than the sum of their parts, as many have noted.  When I was first absorbing alternative music in the late 80's, "Swamp Thing" was the Chameleons staple heard most often on the radio.  But as the years went by, "Soul In Isolation" became their signature song for me, in no small part due to Lever's blowaway drum performance.

While recording the album "Strange Times", the band was pushed to record live as much as possible with no overdubs.  So rest assured that Lever played the complex opening riff for "Soul In Isolation" with two hands and only two hands.  In an alternate universe, its opening drum riff is as iconic as "Be My Baby".  It would be copied more often if more drummers were capable of playing it.

Few rock drummers could switch so effortlessly between the busy opening riff and the expansive, energetic drumming in the bridge and chorus.  Of course you can always stick together two ideas in a song to form an odd, schizophrenic pairing.  But the two drum riffs in "Soul In Isolation" don't come off sounding like that.  They're a logical progression in a cohesive whole.  And then the pattern repeats itself in the second half of the song!, i.e. yet another switch to the busy would-be iconic riff, and back again to the propulsive final stretch.

Jammed into the middle as the fourth song on a sixteen song CD (ten for the album proper plus six bonus tracks), "Soul In Isolation" arguably loses part of its impact in the post vinyl era,  On vinyl, it was the epic Side 1 closer, fading away in volume while the band surged on without the least bit of let up, with Lever's outstanding drumming leading the way. It reminds me of something once said about Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".  It's a song without a clear beginning or end, it's practically all middle.  It passes by like a slow moving float in a parade, and while it's in earshot you get you hear a few (well, technically eight) scant minutes but you can't be sure how long they were playing before, or how much longer they'll keep playing after the float passes by. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Pitchfork's 50 best IDM albums of all time

This list follows a similar pattern to their best shoegaze albums list from October -- classics mixed with curious (and more recent) picks that Pitchfork is inexplicably trying to cram into the genre, only for the early and mid-90's big guns to predictably take all the top spots like they always do in any other discussion of the best IDM.  If they wanted to make a point of updating the canon, wouldn't a "20 best IDM albums you've never heard of" list have accomplished the same thing?  Nobody reading this list needs to be clued into the greatness of Autechre and Aphex Twin, but they need to be included for reasons of clickbait, and Pitchfork and their megamedia overlords want to make money, so it's fine I guess.

Another similarity to the shoegaze list -- the opening essay is the best thing about it.  In about one thousand words, Simon Reynolds covers the history, aesthetic, name controversy, influence, and contemporary significance of IDM as eloquently as you're ever going to see it.  He leads off with the elephant in the room for every serious IDM discussion -- the name.  Yes, it's a stupid name.  But so is "prog", "shoegaze", and many others.  Once the name sticks, it sticks.  However, the debate about the "intelligence" behind the music was always beyond ridiculous.  When the biggest star of the genre is a cryptic loner who drives a tank for fun, the scene has to invent its own controversies to survive.  Early on everyone knew you weren't going to get scandalous quotes out of the boys in Autechre or Boards of Canada, so they came up with a purely theoretical but meaningless debate about whether this music was inherently "smart" compared with the reputedly "dumber" club oriented music.

The real story starts to come out in Reynolds' essay and some of the album reviews.  In the late 80's, chill out rooms became a popular come down spot in certain clubs in the UK.  You'd hear downtempo, but still danceable music that was given the tag of "ambient house".  That was yet another stupid name.  It certainly wasn't ambient in the Brian Eno "god knows how much time has passed while we've been listening to 'Thursday Afternoon'" definition of the genre.  It was an alternative to the off your face partying happening in the main room at the club.  It was ambient purely relative to the more hedonistic mayhem of regular club music.

The "ambient" tag soon spread to many other bands with vague connections to electronic music but weren't likely to be played in clubs.  The Orb, Seefeel, and even Stereolab (circa "The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music") were awkwardly lumped together as ambient.  It was a terrible, non-sensical catch-all applied to completely different types of bands, but journalists liked (and still do) to create scenes and labels out of thin air, and so the name stuck and was commonly used for a few years in the early 90's.  This is why Aphex Twin called his album "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" --  the title made sense according to the then-contemporary usage of the word.

The IDM tag wasn't a reaction to "ambient", but it happened to come along at around the same time that the latter had lost nearly all its meaning and was becoming a joke even those who liked the music.  Regardless of whatever people were calling it, the idea of chilling out to electronic music had never gone away.  It was inevitable that there would be an audience for techno fans who wanted music for home, rather than club listening.  But just because it was inevitable doesn't mean it was any less revolutionary.  To this day, people still sometimes say to me that they don't understand how anyone can listen to techno at home or at work.  Or they claim that they don't mind it if they go out, but otherwise they can't stand it.

You can piece together the rest from the Pitchfork list.  Warp's "Artificial Intelligence" compilation came along, and the series of albums that followed (plus the AI 2 collection) solidified the careers of many of the top names in the genre.  And the IDM name was inspired by the name of the compilation.  But it's just as easy to see that there was no claim of greater "intelligence" on the part of the creators or listeners of the music at the time.  A video featuring cutting edge (for the time) computer animation was released in parallel to the music (I still have my VHS copy somewhere).  It made a connection between the music and the digitization of our culture.  It was focused on the symbiosis between the music and emerging technology, rather than between the DJ and his or her audience with the music as a conduit.  Naturally, the introspective, futuristic style of Detroit techno was a central theme as well.

All that aside, I still love at least half of these albums unreservedly.  And how many times do I have to say it -- "Surfing on Sine Waves" >>>>> "Selected Ambient Works 85-92".  


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Techno in the face of fascism

Gunnar Haslam and Johannes Auvinen wrote essays for XLR8R that hopefully will stir up some lively debate.  I am all for giving musicians the occasional platform to express these kinds of opinions.  The "fascism" claim is clearly exaggerated and intended as click bait, if not viewed this way, it's hard to take anything they write seriously.  

It is undoubtedly true that for decades, politicians have scapegoated clubs for various societal problems.  For instance, getting drugs off the streets is a hard order of business, so local politicians tend to go after the clubs instead.  It's easier than dealing with a multifaceted societal problem at its roots, and it's a straightforward way to produce results when they need to show the public that they're doing something about it.  A spate of violence or a single OD death usually provides a convenient catalyst for getting the ball rolling.  None of this has anything to do with fascism though.

They are right about the spirit of neoliberalism dissolving itself into club culture.  Neoliberalism first and foremost seeks to keep the capitalist machine running, trying to avoid serious damage but not seeking to make things better for all.  Similarly, much time and money has been invested into super clubs and megastar touring DJ's with the intention of sustaining the bubble as long as humanly possible (this applied to the entire live music industry really).  The music is taking a back seat to the "experience" of going out.  Boomer era acts have sustained themselves for decades by enabling their fans to revisit the songs of their youth.  Current "stars" may be in for a rude awakening in ten or twenty years when they discover that fans didn't connect to the music as they thought and have moved on to whatever the new technologically flashy concertgoing experience will be.  

The solution, however, isn't the techno protectionism that Haslam seems to be advocating for.  His call for a more direct relationship between artists and fans suggests that local scenes need to more self sustaining, but this will make them become more insular and stifle collaboration.  For DJ's living in the bubble of New York or Berlin maybe this is a reasonable option.  But people outside the meccas of clubland want to make a living too.  His criticism of a DJ's carbon footprint seems downright silly to me.  DJ's don't travel with huge entourages and diesel guzzling trucks full of equipment to their gigs.  The life of a touring DJ is just about the most environmentally friendly form of live music work there is.  

At the end of the day, clubgoing is for the most part a luxury.  Techno doesn't have to be something of substance, it doesn't need to change the world.  Going to a club isn't supposed to be hard work, it's an escape from real life and real responsibilities. For the first wave of Detroit techno pioneers it was both, i.e. the music represented a good time and an escape from the urban decay of the (then) present with an eye toward a gleaming, futuristic future.  That was a vision unique to Detroit in the 80's, it can't be copied and pasted elsewhere as a rallying cry against political leaders you happen not to like. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

(Ex-) Pazz and Jop 2016

They changed the name ... and now they're changing it back?  I think?

I would have bet on "Lemonade" winning the poll this year in a walk, but somehow Bowie squeaked out one of the narrowest wins ever.  Somehow Beyonce dominated the songs poll like no artist ever has, but that support didn't transfer over to the albums poll.  It was the year of high profile celebrity deaths like no other, so perhaps Bowie's win was symbolic of the year that was.  Bowie has never drawn much support from P&J, having never placed an album in the top ten prior to "Blackstar". However, today's electorate is more than a generation removed from most of the writers who voted in the 70's and 80's.  Perhaps this generation unfairly judged his more recent work (although there wasn't anything to judge for most of the 21st century) in comparison with his now legendary 70's output, but the outpouring of condolences and memories on social media this past January was like anything I'd ever experienced following a celebrity death (sadly, until Prince passed away a few months later).  The pre and-post release praise for "Blackstar", followed by the gamut of emotions brought on by Bowie's sudden death only days later, raised his profile higher than it had ever been and clearly sealed this win for him.  Even with Michael Jackson's death in 2009, there weren't the same outlets for commiserating, linking, revisiting, and reminiscing the way we could for Bowie and Prince this year.  The win for "Blackstar" feels like a Grammy-esque Album of the Year award that's really a lifetime achievement award in disguise for a veteran artist.

Maura Johnston summed up a disappointing year for female artists on the pop charts with a powerful and insightful essay.  She may be overstating the case a bit, considering that Adele, Rihanna, and Sia totaled sixteen weeks at number one on the Hot 100 between them.  But she's dead on in considering the differences between how The Weeknd and Drake's paranoia and insecurities are perceived, versus how Beyonce's have been perceived, at least as far as the pop singles charts are concerned.  Yes, the critics loved "Lemonade", but the critics aren't the masses.  

As for Glenn McDonald's always indispensable P&J statistics, his tabulations revealed an unprecedented consensus in the albums voting -- giving some statistical mettle behind some of my recent complaints about the bland predictability of year end lists and critical tastes.  As expected, I nearly fell off the critical grid this year, ranking at number 493 (out of 542 albums voters), with a much lower centricity score than last year even though the percentile was nearly the same (bottom nine versus bottom ten for P&J '15).  But despite the strong consensus at the top of the poll, there was an equally strong lack of it at the bottom, with a long statistical tail of nonconformists.  In 2015, the bottom 20th percentile centricity score was 0.138, this year it was 0.103.  Seventy one voters (thirteen percent of the total) had a centricity less than 0.05, last year only forty three did (nine percent of the total). 

There were just 29 total other votes for the albums in my top ten (versus 47 in '15, which I figured was rock bottom at the time), and I was the only voter for six of them.  At least Moderat got some modest support this time, getting four times the support for "III" than for their last two albums combined (not counting my votes for all three).  My top kvltosis picks this year (i.e. reweighting of the albums lists according to centricity, with lower centricity voters' picks getting the highest weight) were Autechre (#6) and Moderat (#22) (how appropriate!), although they ranked slightly lower than last year's top two (Brandon Flowers at #5, Prurient at #16).    

Sunday, January 15, 2017

40 for 40 - the reveal

I promised to publish this list over two years ago, and then ... nothing.

Everything on the list was finalized on schedule, but I struggled coming up with ideas for how to present it.  I blanched at the idea of churning out another eight thousand word tribute.  Eventually I hit on the idea of splitting the list into categories.  As I wrote about previously, it wouldn't be a list of my forty all time favourite songs and so not every song could be summed up in a paragraph explaining why it was and is the best thing from this or that year.  Of course many of them are all-time favourites, but just as many were great songs that were linked to memories -- early childhood memories, sad memories, joyous memories -- that are important symbols or checkpoints within the overall narrative (i.e my life).  I decided on the categories two years ago, and then ... nothing.

This is my one thousandth published post on this blog.  This big round number was looming and I needed something big.  The post will never live up to the hype, but that that's OK.

THE PLAYLIST 




THE LIST 

The songs in the playlist are listed in the approximate order that they "earned" their spot on the 40 for 40 -- not the order they were released and not always the order in which I first heard them.

Hues Corporation, Rock the Boat
Donna Summer, Hot Stuff
Blondie, Heart of Glass
Toto, Africa
Duran Duran, The Reflex
Don McLean, American Pie
Def Leppard, Pour Some Sugar on Me
Neneh Cherry, Buffalo Stance
Nine Inch Nails, Down In It
Depeche Mode, Enjoy the Silence

Stone Roses, Fools Gold
Spiritualized, Anyway That You Want Me
The Orb, A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules From the Center of the Ultraworld (Peel Sessions Version)
Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart
Beethoven's 9th Symphony
James, Laid
Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes
ABBA, Dancing Queen
Pulp, Pink Glove
Orbital, Belfast

Drugstore, Accelerate
Adorable, Sunshine Smile
Saint Etienne, He's on the Phone
My Bloody Valentine, When You Sleep
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express
Spice Girls, 2 Become 1
Godspeed You Black Emperor, BBF3
Mogwai, Mogwai Fear Satan
Primal Scream, Swastika Eyes
Fennesz, A Year In a Minute

Vainqueur, Elevations I (Version 3)
Philippe Cam, Karine
Nelly, Hot in Herre
Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind
Sigur Ros, Glosoli (from HEIMA)
Plastikman, Mind In Rewind
Animal Collective, The Purple Bottle
M83, Don't Save Us From the Flames
Jesu, Silver
Beach House, Irene


THE CATEGORIES

These categories are fluid.  Many of the songs could have been placed in two or more different categories.  They are not meant as rigid labels, so think of them mainly as a convenient way of breaking up the list into manageable parts.

The 70's

I have very few memories of the 70's.  In the 70's there was disco dancing in the basement and a lot of songs in heavy vinyl rotation.  When I think of the 70's -- actually living in the 70's as a five year old -- I think of these songs:

Hues Corporation, Rock the Boat
Donna Summer, Hot Stuff
Blondie, Heart of Glass


All time faves (80's)

The 80's for me were about singles, not albums.  "Africa" was my favourite song for literally about two years.   Def Leppard were largely responsible for pulling me back into music after a couple of lost years in the late 80's.

Toto, Africa
Def Leppard, Pour Some Sugar on Me
Neneh Cherry, Buffalo Stance
Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes


Inescapable 80's (rated much lower by me now)

Duran Duran were inescapably huge and "American Pie" was a summer camp essential, the definitive homerian epic that transcended the age gap for anyone under 25 at the time.

Duran Duran, The Reflex
Don McLean, American Pie


I heard them and nothing would ever be the same

Some songs create something where there was once nothing.  There was nothing in my life that could have prepared me for hearing a twenty minute track by The Orb after midnight on the weekend, no prototypes of this music in my house when I was growing up, no cool older brother into Eno or modern classical.

Nine Inch Nails, Down In It
Spiritualized, Anyway That You Want Me
The Orb, A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules From the Center of the Ultraworld (Peel Sessions Version)


90's staples

These four bands stood out in four completely different mini-eras in the 90's.  There was nearly no overlap in my superfandom for each..

Stone Roses, Fools Gold
Spice Girls, 2 Become 1
Godspeed You Black Emperor, BBF3
Pulp, Pink Glove


90's faves that still stop me in my tracks every time

"Accelerate" has been my go-to, no time to think about it pick for the best song of the 90's for a while.  #2 would probably be Depeche, and #3 on any given day could be "Laid".

Depeche Mode, Enjoy the Silence
Drugstore, Accelerate
James, Laid


Faves that seem to transcend eras, with lyrics that cut to the bone

I find it hard to idolize Ian Curtis the way I used to, partly due to his wife Deborah's thoughtful portrait of the talented, yet horribly flawed and selfish genius.  "If You Could Read My Mind" may be the finest song lyric ever written.

Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart
Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind


Will always be its own category

Beethoven's 9th Symphony



Perfect songs of the 70's

ABBA were perfect pop long before the term was invented, and "Dancing Queen" is too precious, too pristine, too immaculately structured to be duplicated ever again.  "Trans Europe Express" is the oracle of modern music, it foretold the coming of several new genres, and we'll never understand exactly what they saw that regular mortals couldn't.

ABBA, Dancing Queen
Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express


Beautiful Dance music

Dancing and getting choked up at the same time

Orbital, Belfast
Saint Etienne, He's on the Phone


Shoegaze goes pop

Noise and sugar.

Adorable, Sunshine Smile
My Bloody Valentine, When You Sleep


Noise and chaos

Noise without the sugar.

Mogwai, Mogwai Fear Satan
Primal Scream, Swastika Eyes


The vinyl era

In the early 00's I dropped more cash on music than ever before.  A lot of that went towards new and used vinyl, and I became enamoured with how vinyl sounded compared to the often muddy and compressed sound of CD's.  "Elevations" and "Karine" demand to be heard on vinyl.  In the meantime, I became completely obsessed with finding music with the density, warmth, and sly nods to pop that Fennesz brought to his recordings.

Fennesz, A Year In a Minute
Vainqueur, Elevations I (Version 3)
Philippe Cam, Karine


Mood music

"Hot In Herre" seemed to soundtrack almost every night out for a couple of years.  Afterwards, things got darker and I spent a lot of time in the suburbs of Berlin, watching the city from the train with Plastikman in my ears.

Nelly, Hot in Herre
Plastikman, Mind In Rewind


Legends of our time

These two bands survived the transition to the "post-music store" era intact.  They were two of the very few.  In fact, I ended up liking both of them a lot more.

M83, Don't Save Us From the Flames
Sigur Ros, Glosoli (from HEIMA)


Listened to death

The songs I spun the most over the final 7-8 years of the 40.

Animal Collective, The Purple Bottle
Jesu, Silver
Beach House, Irene

Friday, December 30, 2016

George Michael, "Father Figure"

George Michael left us far too soon last week, the latest in an annus horribilis for musician deaths that can't end soon enough.  The emotional response seemed stronger in the UK and Europe, maybe in part because of the horrible irony of the composer of "Last Christmas" passing away on Christmas day.  It is one of the most played holiday songs in the UK in the past thirty years, but never meant a thing in North America.

And yet, many North Americans have largely forgotten how much of a phenomenon the "Faith" album was.  Oddly enough, George Michael's was a far bigger star in the UK and Europe both in the Wham years (pre-1986) and the post-"Faith" years ("Listen Without Prejudice, his late-90's comeback "Older").  But during those inbetween years 1987-1989, "Faith" was massive in the US, with an almost unprecedented six top five singles from the album, including four number one hits (versus none in the UK).  It was the best selling album in the US in 1988, for comparison, Michael Jackson's "Bad" was released two months earlier and was a phenomenon unto itself.  Singles from both albums dominated the charts for two years, and "Bad" set a record that still stands (challenged but not beaten recently by Katy Perry) with five consecutive number one singles from the same album.  "Bad" was also one of the best selling albums (worldwide) ever, but at its peak in 1988, it was outsold by "Faith", at least in the US.  This is the kind of rarefied company George Michael kept at the tail end of the 80's.  

I was haunted by "Father Figure" at the time.  In one sense it was almost intolerably sexy, backed by a perfect video accompaniment featuring Michael looking unspeakably cool in leather underneath impeccable lighting and shadow.  The model that appeared in the video had a pristine body that was shot from the most titillating angles.  The whole presentation was intimidating, and it may have thrown off my perception of realistic love and seduction was for years afterward.  In another sense, the song and video were creepy and even frightening.  Michael falls in love with a woman and stalks her relentlessly, lurking in dark corners, walking a fine line between voyeurism and possible criminal behaviour.  The music is uncharacteristically spooky and atmospheric for a number one pop smash, and that was no accident.  In his own "When Doves Cry" moment of inspiration, "Father Figure" was meant to be a mid-tempo rock number but Michael found that he loved the strange empty spaces left behind when he dropped many of the recorded tracks from the final mix.  He was right -- less was more and erasing half of the song made it ten times as good.   

For whatever reasons, Billboard number ones of 1988 were dominated by soft rock ballads with long running times (between five and six minutes).  I can't recall any edited versions made for the radio.  You might as well point to George Michael (and Michael Jackson, who was of course famous for his epic videos and for producing extended video versions of his songs) as the driving force behind this -- both "Father Figure" and "One More Try" run nearly six minutes.   

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Top ten albums of 2016 (with extended prelude)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the time I went to Soundscapes on College St in October 2003.  I would soon be travelling to Berlin for an experiment for a few weeks (which turned into two months) and wanted to pick up some new releases on CD for the trip.  I bought "Closer" by Plastikman, "Waiting for the Moon" by Tindersticks, "Echoes" by The Rapture, and at least one other album that I can't recall but very likely was Polmo Polpo's "Like Hearts Swelling".  Dropping money on four new releases in a day was unusual for me, and I even surprised myself with my willingness to shell out so much money for four new albums that I mostly hadn't yet heard.  I was buying them based on the reliability and consistency of artists I'd been following for a decade (Plastikman, Tindersticks) and the relentless hype machine that had made certain acts very difficult to ignore in 2003 (The Rapture).

It was quite the haul of new music -- an historically great haul for me, actually.  I walked away with my #2 and #6 albums of the 00's, my #2 album of 2003, and an album by the Rapture (well, nobody's perfect, although some leading music publications would have disagreed at the time).  I'd been going to music stores and buying expensive CD's, many of them imports by my favourite UK bands, for nearly a decade.  I lived and worked within walking distance of eight or so music stores that I visited regularly, and hardly two or three days would pass without going to at least one of them.  This was how I kept abreast of new releases, bought music magazines, and generally absorbed nearly everything I was learning about music.  This was the way it was done, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.  And based on that amazing bunch of new CD's I'd just bought, which would soon be packed in my CD wallet and taken with me to Germany along with my indispensable CD walkman, this beautiful ritual of frequenting music shops would undoubtedly be with me for the foreseeable future.

But less than one year later, everything had changed in ways I never would have predicted.  Seemingly in the blink of an eye, my main source of music and music news shifted online.  Printed music magazines were replaced by online publications and message boards.  I'd been a Napster and then a Kazaa user for a few years, but still previewed and purchased nearly all my music from physical shops.  Soulseek tipped the scales in the other direction.  Suddenly I found myself keeping up with a LOT more new music -- several times as much give or take.  And I know I'm not alone in believing that 2003-4 was the tipping point for a grand shift towards the true explosion of music on the internet, that would in a short time lead toward streaming (Youtube, Pandora, Spotify, etc.), mp3 blogs, yousendit, a rapidly expanding array of other filesharing and downloading options, and the rapid decline of music stores.  That large purchase at Soundscapes was not only my best single haul of new releases, it was also my last, at least in Toronto.  2004 wasn't a great year for music, but it was transformative.  My top ten for the year was filled with artists that I hadn't even heard of one year earlier.

2016 is feeling like another transformative year for me.  I've more or less stopped following any music publication, physical or online, with any sort of consistency.  The same goes for message boards, twitter feeds, or other types of social media.  I still heard tons of new music this year -- a lot more than in most years -- but it's becoming increasingly random.  Most often, I feel like music finds me, rather than the other way around.  If I happen to be reading about something, I know enough about what I like and don't like to be able to decide whether I'm interested in hearing it or not.  But it also means that the days of obsessing over specific artists, and following every move in their careers, may be finally over.  As a consequence, I feel less attached to the music than I once did.  With each passing year, the should-be great albums (top 2-3 of the year) don't seem as great as they once did.

I still love MUSIC as much as ever, don't get me wrong.  I love hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years and surprising myself by still being able to sing along with the chorus.  It's one of the best feelings in the world.  I love reconnecting with old gems in my collections, especially through mixes.  I love commuting to work with music keeping me company the entire way -- I've been doing this for over 25 years (!) nearly without interruption, the routes and the music playing technologies have changed, but the experience is undiminished.  I love waking up to the radio every morning.  I loved driving through the US and Canada for hours this summer and sampling pop radio across different provinces and states -- sure, they all play the same Drake songs three times per hour, but that's a different issue, the point is that I still like plenty of chart pop. I still love reading a good interview or album review and appreciate good music writing more than ever.  It's in increasingly short supply these days.  And that's precisely my point, I love MUSIC, but largely don't enjoy FOLLOWING music anymore.

We live in difficult times, politically, or at least that's what music journalists have been telling me.  The music they value is expected to reflect the goings on in the world around them.  Except that it's not my world anymore.  I don't live in the US and their struggle isn't my struggle.  The Canada I used to know looks increasingly foreign from afar.  I can relate to the sentiments but there's no personal connection.  If music reflects politics, and I no longer have any direct stake in the politics, then I no longer have any stake in the music either.  But more importantly, I never wanted or expected political commentary from the music I like.  It's never been key to my listening experience.

In 2004, there was talk about how increased listening options via internet would create divisions between groups of fans and dilute consensus.  They said there would never be another monoculture, artists as transcendent as Michael Jackson would never come along ever again.  That turned out to not be true.  But the increased politicization of music has resulted in more consensus than I've ever seen in my adult life.  Every end-year list takes the same angle toward the exact same albums.  Even the token "electronic" albums, like Nicolas Jaar's snoozer "Sirens", are seemingly chosen because they're albums with an important message that we shouldn't ignore. 

I'm sure I'll catch hell for it, but the lionization of Beyonce is rockism on a scale just as bad as anything the former poptimists used to complain about.  People used to whine that the hippies grew up, moved to the suburbs, and became boring conservatives just like their parents.  Music journalism is now eating its tail too, as pop music criticism has gone the way of the stodgy boomer era rock music writing that they sought to replace.  Rockism was never about favouring rock music over other genres.  It was, and is about favouring authenticity over all other traits.  Playing your own instruments and writing your own music was considered authentic.  Not playing and writing music was less authentic and made you less of an artist.  Icons from the 60's and 70's released meaningful songs and lyrics that were more profound than any silly pop song you'd hear on the radio.  Fast forward to today, where Beyonce made her most socially conscious album and it was hailed as the consensus Album of the Year.  The same people who would decry "Rumours", "Tunnel of Love", and "Blood on the Tracks" as the self-centred ramblings of smug millionaires are falling over themselves to praise Beyonce's emotional honesty in songs like "Hold Up".

After that long intro, I don't think anyone wants to sit through another ten paragraphs about the year's best albums.  However, we still have a bunch of great albums to salute, so let's do this in haiku form.

Honourable mentions

Gunnar Haslam, Lebesgue Measure, L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems)


Another clone of
Polygon Window, I can't 
get enough of them



The Caretaker, Everywhere at the End of Time (History Always Favours the Winners)


Like Lord of the Rings
Waiting to give out Oscar
For the last chapter



Matt Elliott, The Calm Before (Ici D'Ailleurs)


Not a great album
But words fail for opener
Crushing and Lonely



TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2016

10.  Enitokwa, "2069" (non entertainment research)


Comeback album of
calming strangeness could only
Come from a recluse



9.  Hieroglyphic Being, "The Disco's of Imhotep" (Technicolour)


Compare with Actress
Less funky but more rooted
In roughened techno



8.  Marsen Jules, "Shadows in Time" (Oktaf)


Hundreds of versions
Exist, evaporated
To nameless disk drives



7.  Xiu Xiu, "Plays the Music of Twin Peaks" (Polyvinyl Record Company)


Never watched Twin Peaks
But was sucked into Xiu Xiu's
Strange unsettling world



6.  PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" (Island Records)



Bluesy squawks, crooning
Choruses with PJ's best 
Ever ensemble



5. D. Glare, "68 Samples At 68 BPM For Phased Heads" (Opal Tapes)


Like assembling a
Great DJ mix from nothing
But screams, clanks, and whirs



4.  Autechre, "Elseq 1-5" (Warp Records)




Whirring with details
Gulping loops but who bet on 
Five hours worth of it?  



3.  Tape Loop Orchestra, "The Invisibles" (Other Ideas)


Dense and engulfing
Building to satisfying
Side long conclusions



2.  Eluvium, "False Readings On" (Temporary Residence Limited)


Dead souls crying out
Beyond the ambient fuzz
Head swimming again



1.  Moderat, "III" (Monkeytown Records)


Electronic pop
Rarely so smooth, soulful, or
This professional

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 35

"I often stand on the boardwalk and stare at the mix and sometimes I marvel I made it" -- 99 minutes

This one started out as a more chilled out sequel to the 90's compilations mix, but turned into something quite different.  This does feature tracks from compilations I hadn't heard in ages, but it became a not quite ambient mix (i.e. ambient music punctuated by gut punch rhythms to keep the mood from getting too chilled) with a 140+ BPM coda that somehow worked (at least, I hope it did),


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2016

This list is always my favourite part of the year-end round up.  No pressure, no rankings, no trying to break down what it all means.  There's nothing to it but great music!  As always, these are listed in approximate chronological order of release.
 
DJ Nobu, Bunker Podcast 117 (January 26)

The first mix on the list also happens to be the best by miles and miles.  It's seventy minutes of dancefloor slaying deep as fuck no nonsense techno, mixed as seamlessly as any set you'll hear this year or in any other.


Samuel Kerridge, XLR8R Podcast 425 (February 9)

Bridging the gap between industrial-edged noise and warped techno, believe him when Kerridge says that it's not something that'll fly in most clubs at 4 AM.  The same could be said for his own music, so if you dig the mix, you'll want to hear the album and vice versa.


Regis, The Boys are Here (The Blackest Ever Black) (March 30)

There's a relaxed, home movie quality to this set that you simply never hear from techno mixes. Regis dialed down his typical white-knuckle intensity and knocked out a set that comes off like a personal influences mix that was meant to be circulated only among close friends and intended for bedroom listening.


Internazionale, Secret Thirteen Mix 188 (May 15)

Secret Thirteen had a great year yet again, but this mix of spooky ambiance, synth pop oddities, and mechanized techno by Internazionale was my favourite (narrowly edging out excellent mixes by JK Flesh, Nite Fields, and a few others that are well worth the listen).


Conforce, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 173 (June 5)

This epic mix takes it's time getting off the ground, but that's the point -- the beatless first hour lulls you into submission and strangely enough does a wonderful job of setting up the blissful headnodding beats of the second hour.


Volte-Face, Electric Deluxe Podcast Episode 174 (June 20)

Yet another epic from Electric Deluxe, spanning forty years of techno, Krautrock, and experimental music.  Plus my favourite Billy Idol song.


Objekt, Kern vol. 3 (July 8)

Once in a while, something comes along that aims to deconstruct the typical boundaries of mixes altogether.  The famous "Grandfather Paradox" mix is often my go-to example of that, and Objekt's bold and innovative mix for Tresor's Kern series has certainly forced its way into the discussion. You might expect that a mix with nearly forty tracks in only 76 minutes would be a madcap schizophrenic dash, but the mood somehow stays relaxed throughout, selecting from the deepest of deep cuts and ignoring a number of rhythmic conventions along the way.


Bill Brewster, Record Replay 001 (September 8)

Are you starting a new mix series where you send a DJ to a used vinyl shop and ask him to make a mix out of whatever he can buy with only ten pounds in total?  Yeah, that's a task that couldn't be more well suited to Bill Brewster's talents.


Dan Selzer, Lodown magazine Monday mixtape, New York Endless Another Mix Pt. 1 (September 11)

When you listen to this mix very closely, it becomes apparent that Selzer isn't doing anything remotely complicated with his mixing or transitions.  What he's doing is even more impressive -- making a perfect selection of tracks and leading one perfectly into the next, i.e. the only true task required of a DJ.  And of course, this mix isn't meant to be heard "closely", it's meant to be danced to, and for that it's nearly impossible to resist.


John Twells, FACT Focus Mix 7, Halloween rap special  (October 26)

This mindbending mix of tracks based upon an unusual theme (hip hop tracks that sample from horror movies) is why the FACT Focus series needs to exist and double or triple their output next year.


RVDS, Resident Advisor 547 (November 21)

This is mix #11, but I couldn't find a way to leave out this newly uploaded one from the always notable Resident Advisor podcast series.  The theme is "slow music", which in this case falls between electronic music you can't exactly dance to, and late night after party music that's a bit too energetic when all you really want to do it crash on the couch.