In contrast to the past two years, I'm reverting back to a top ten, rather than a top twenty. It was a bit of a strange year, perhaps best encapsulated by the Great Hard Drive Purge of June. But first, some Useless Stats. For the first time since 1997, there are no Canadian acts in on this list. Last year there was only one (two in the top twenty) and at the time I balked at the prospect that this was anything other than a fluke in a ultra-competitive year for music. This year, no Canadian act came remotely close to figuring into my best-of, which is hardly shocking considering how little Canadian-made music I heard this year. One year is a fluke, two might be a trend, and I should probably get around to addressing the problem -- either with Canadian music, or with me (I won't even hazard a guess as to who is more at fault).
These ten albums total only 93 tracks. This looks to be the lowest number of any of my previous Top Tens, excepting 2002. It felt like a good year for albums comprising four to eight tracks. Another six-track album, Darsombra's "Ecdysis", barely missed making this list. I have no idea what any of this means but I found this cool for some reason. You might be able to chalk it up to the reasons I discussed in my last post, IOW, the more esoteric the album, the more likely it's an experimental record with fewer (and longer) tracks, but I'm not sold on that.
Now then. It was only over the past month (when year-end chinstroking kicked in) that I was reminded of the mere existence of albums that I'd heard many months ago. For artists such as Herbert and Barbara Morgenstern -- I honestly didn't remember that they'd released albums this year. For months, I couldn't remember anything about them, or even that I'd heard them in the first place (yes, I know that I wrote something about "Scale" on this very blog. I guess I skipped over that part of my own archives too). I heard a lot of stuff -- in total it was comparable to last year. But much of it was Teflon to me. Here are the ten albums that stuck with me the most:
Sensational and Kouhei, "Kouhei Meets Sensational"
For pure, smack-in-the-face WTFness, nothing came close to the first time I sat on the train with my discman, calmly pressed play, and was flattened by the first five minutes of this one-off (?) collaboration. The long forgotten 2nd Gen once tread on similar ground, but even his twisted beats couldn't touch Kouhei's spastic, slime-funk effort. And 2nd Gen's record didn't have Sensational screaming his enraged mantras over top of it. Sure, it's all downhill after that blockbuster start, but who gives a crap.
Ellen Allien and Apparat, "Orchestra of Bubbles"
There's something very fleeting about Ellen Allien's work, and I don't mean that in a good way. She has an uneasy knack for making populist albums that are welcome additions to one's collection at the time, but feel dated less than one year later. The smooth, Kompakt-esque "Berlinette" was pleasantly mediocre, and "Thrills" sounds a lot less dirty under the fingernails than it did just one year ago. Once the times change ever so slightly, you realize that Ellen's a fantastic follower but a terrible leader.
I have more hope for Ellen and Apparat's "Orchestra of Bubbles" because this is the album Orbital should have done instead of "The Altogether", which was a million times too goofy for its own good. We needed a collection of bleepy electronic pop from the Hartnolls in 2001, and if the concept hasn't dated over the past six years, then perhaps it never will.
Xiu Xiu, "The Air Force"
After overdosing on this album in the two months following my initially ecstatic review, I cooled off on all but the very best tracks (i.e. "Wig Master", "Buzz Saw"), which naturally led to the train of thought: is this a Verve release or not? In light of the Verve-ness of "Fabulous Muscles" (this is becoming more apparent over time, even though I still think it was the best album of its year), 2004 really looks like shit, doesn't it? The time is right for me to revisit the last 14 years of Top Tens, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and identify the albums that have held up from the ones I don't bother listening to anymore. I'll try to get to that in the coming weeks. Anyhow, "Wig Master", which is this album's "Fabulous Muscles", remains untouchable (both songs do). They are poignant, unsettling, sublimely gorgeous love songs unlike any others I've heard, dripping with desire, seared by violence, where butterflies mix liberally with bile in the pit of one's stomach.
Mogwai, "Zidane - A 21st Century Portrait"
I think I've spilled more words on this band than on any other, and yet sometimes I feel that I still can't even buy a clue. For all my bluster against those who try to pigeonhole their career into a tidy soundbite (particularly the "Mogwai haven't mattered/done anything original since Young Team" bunch), I became guilty of the same over here, where I assumed that their sophomore album "Come On Die Young" had dated and that Mogwai were better off forgetting it and bringing back the rawk. "CODY" remains great, but I slotted it away as an interesting concept that was best left in the past.
While I was busy writing that, Mogwai were in the studio recording "Zidane", which for all intents and purposes is "CODY II". It even contains leftover CODY-era tracks that were left unreleased because they didn't fit in with their subsequent records and were eventually rerecorded for this soundtrack. "Zidane" is looser and more improvisational than anything they've ever done with the possible exception of the "4 Satin EP". It's more spaciousness than CODY, whose relaxed folkwoods emptiness is recreated here with extra room to breathe. The climax undoubtedly occurs after the final notes of "Black Spider 2" have vanished, and the long "hidden" coda begins. This largely improvised ambient/drone piece, which bears almost no resemblance to any other Mogwai track, could have easily jumped off a mid-90's FSA album. Its 20-minute droning build, leading to a satisfyingly noisy conclusion, is the longest cocktease in the career of a band that is constantly stereotyped into a repetitive soft/loud dynamic. I heard this track once while motoring through km after km of empty desert near the Dead Sea, and it was absolutely terrifying.
Jan Jelinek, "Tierbeobachtungen"
I didn't get into "Kosmischer Pitch", at least not properly, until early this year. Before I could finish absorbing that album, I was hit by the follow-up, whose obvious similarities make it very much a companion piece. "Tierbeobachtungen" is more repetitive, more obsessed with the art of piling on sound, layer by layer, letting his tracks flitter away, buzzing from the speakers like swarms of insects. Jelinek has a knack for making it all seem so easy. His work as Farben stood at the front of the clicktronica pack and made you wonder why (and wish for the day when) all like-minded artists couldn't sound like him. Then he gets bored and tries something completely different. History would suggest that his explorations on "Tierbeobachtungen" will meet a similar fate, but like Neil Young said, it's best to quit while you're ahead (or something to that effect).
Ricardo Villalobos, "Achso"
Technically, it's a four song EP, but at nearly 50 minutes in length, and with Villalobos showing few signs of releasing any tracks clocking in at less than ten minutes in the near future, I'll take a great album when I can get it. "Achso" was released very early in the year (much earlier than anything else on this list), making it (among other things), the album that you risk overrating because it was always ... there. I'm hoping that's not the case, because "Achso" seemed to crystallize everything Villalobos was aiming for over the past five years, but particularly with regards to the disappointing "The Au Harem ..." -- funky, psychedelic, and expansive. He appears to be emphasizing the last of these qualities at the expense of the other two, which worries me, as does his shockingly daft 14-minute remix of Depeche Mode (which contains four, maybe five minutes of worth). The future will be interesting, naturally.
Sunn 0))) & Boris, "Altar"
I reiterate that the essence of this album isn't the shrapnel-laced bombast of a track like "Etna", but the twilight sleepwalk of "The Sinking Belle". With that song goes the album, because after all, you can always head elsewhere for plenty of noise and screaming.
Charalambides, "A Vintage Burden"
This album requires a great deal of patience, calm, and time on the part of the listener. I must have had all three in abundance this year, because before I knew it, "A Vintage Burden" had become my go-to album for late-night repeat listening. A couple of years ago, Oren Ambarchi's "Grapes From the Estate" filled a similar niche, that is, the album that consists of epic songs ideally used for soothing one's blood flow. The need to maintain those moods is somewhat temporal, coming and going with the weather and the seasons, exemplified by the fact that I rarely listen to "Grapes From the Estate" these days. But for now, "A Vintage Burden" is the warmest blanket in existence.
Yo La Tengo, "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass"
Bands Who Made Their Best Album 20 Years Into Their Career -- that has to be an extremely short list. Perhaps we can add Yo La Tengo to the queue?
Bardo Pond, "Ticket Crystals"
The blackened crunch of Destroying Angel, the sleepy-eyed sway of "Isle", the way "Montana Sacra" drunkenly lurches its way through piercing squalls of noise for over ten minutes, the delicacy (and sprawl) and delicacy (and chaos) and delicacy (and fragility) of "Moonshine". The proudest stoners on the block have always been curiously adept at making arrogant-sounding music, but "Ticket Crystals" goes even further. Fuelled by ... anger? sheer willpower? ... "Ticket Crystals" became choked with fury, determined to sound completely invincible. And it does.