Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Year-end Round-ups: The Polls

In case you haven't seen the results yet, here are the final tallies in the Idolator and Pazz and Jop polls. For anyone who had perused even a fraction of the other 947389 lists and polls from the usual websites, bloggers, and message boards, these results were hardly surprising. That's not a knock against these two larger, more comprehensive polls, it's just an expected consequence of publishing close-to-last. As expected (based on the voter makeup of the two polls), Idolator gave more weight to indie, blog, and underground tastes (ascribe whatever meaning you like to those labels), e.g. Panda Bear (#9 albums), of Montreal (#10), and Burial (#15), all of which performed significantly better than on the P&J list. Old fart rock (ascribe whatever meaning to like to that label, but it doesn't have to be derogatory unless you force it to be so), e.g. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (#8) and Bruce Springsteen (#9), ranked significantly higher on the Pazz and Jop poll than on the Idolator one. Otherwise, just like last year, the results were remarkably similar, although that's hardly shocking considering the near-50% voter overlap between the two polls.

Year-end burnout probably contributed to the dearth of Idolator comments this year compared to last. I know it contributed to me not getting around to sending comments for P&J, although that's really no excuse considering how some voters managed to say so much with so few words. Todd Burns' essay for the Voice probably caused the biggest stir, as popist sensibilities went into reactionary overload at the suggestion that Justice might be crap. OK, OK, I know that Burns went a lot further than that and pissed people off by looking down his elitist nose at people who might dare to enjoy Justice without also taking the time to flip through crates of obscure German techno records. All right, that summary is also a bit too harsh, after all, it's hardly extreme to suggest that critics gain a bit more perspective about a genre before casting votes for that year's crit-anointed house or techno fad just because the mass consensus is collectively convinced that said album is cool. The difference between me and Burns is that no matter what my personal feelings were toward a consensus favourite, I would never tell anyone that they should be ashamed of liking any kind of music. To hell with the boundaries of taste -- let people like what they want to like. All I can really do is try my best to convince them to like the same things that I do. This is what distinguishes Burns' essay from my own rant in defense of Sean Kingston on my Top Albums of 2007 post.

Glenn McDonald compiled his fantastic annual voter ratings, which are always more fascinating to me than any year-end poll could ever be. This year I ranked 542nd (out of 782) in Voter Centricity, in the bottom 31st percentile. That's higher than each of the past two years, but lower than where I expected to be based on my votes for overall faves Arcade Fire and Panda Bear. Then again, virtually none of my eight other picks got much support, and in fact I cast the only vote for Horseback, Paul Hartnoll, and Sean Kingston in both polls. None of the "similar voters" had ballots too similar to mine -- I had no more than two albums in common with any of them -- although I did learn about an odd niche of voters who like both Panda Bear and Stars of the Lid. And finally, I may have voted for two very popular albums, but the voter pools for each were highly dissimilar. Very few people voted for both Panda Bear *and* Arcade Fire, which means that the particular *combination* of albums on my ballot helped punt me down the similarity rankings.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

More Stuff I Slept On: Burial, "Untrue"

One problem with not living in a major music hub is that it's not so easy to go out and find music, rather, I have to wait for music to come to me. Opportunities for "discovering" something myself are simply far less numerous, and in it's place, I find myself reacting to the music that other people track down, promote, and write about. I don't relish this more passive role. A couple of years ago, I might have sincerely argued that anyone with a high speed internet connection would have the resources at the their disposal to discover, acquire, evaluate, and promote all the music they would ever need. It *is* possible to do all that from the comfort of your desk at home, but it requires a lot more time and effort compared with making trips to quality music stores, reading the new release lists, flipping through CD and vinyl racks, and checking out new bands at live shows. Not to mention that the stay-at-home process is a lot less fun -- not really surprising, since most people prefer to leave the house than to stay at home.

I used to hate opening newspapers and seeing writers dismissively refer to some new band or scene as the latest dud in a long line of overhyped British fads. I haven't turned into that curmudgeonly type (at least I hope not) but more and more, I find myself shying away from hype, and not for any good reason. It's a lot easier to do that when you're writing in relative isolation, away from any place where said music would be unavoidable. The only way to actually hear that music is to spend the time to track it down yourself, and sometimes curiosity is trumped by simply not wanting to open up new musical cans of worms, and sticking with whatever is already on your plate.

I know slightly more than jack about dubstep, but I've been hesitant to get involved with it because there are too many similarities to drum and bass -- a genre that I have never been able to embrace. For similar reasons, grime never resonated with me either. I love dark, twisted, psychotic sounds, but once intimidation and roughness is added to the mix (and not even necessarily through lyrics), I start losing interest. "Urban decay" = good, "cornered in a dark alley while somebody yells at me" = not as good. I want to feel a sense of tension in the music, but not stemming from external fear imposed on me. I'm more interested in internal fear, the feeling you get from being lost in the dark as your mind plays tricks on you even if nobody else is around.

Burial's "Untrue" is virtually a sequel to one of my favourite albums, Plastikman's "Closer". It's not menacing or intimidating, but it grinds you down all the same by suffocating you in a slow, deliberate manner. The mood is enhanced by many beatless, ambient interludes, although they occur so frequently that perhaps that word is misleading. The ambient parts are central to the bleak outlook of the album as a whole. They draw out the misery, enhancing it to the point of near-saturation. When the album finishes, it's usually these ambient, deceptively gentle parts that stick in my head, as opposed to any of the beats. In grime and dubstep, I often conjure up images of people (lurking in rain-soaked alleys), but Burial's version of slime-drenched loneliness is devoid of humanity. The walls around me are crumbling, disintegrating before my eyes but it turns out that nobody was ever on the other side, except for more thick dust and musty air.

Like with "Closer" ("I Don't Know"), "Untrue" concludes with one final, 4/4 flourish ("Raver"), pumping out a beat so groovy that it almost spurs a sense of optimism, before one pauses, remembers what album you've been listening to, and understands that it's all going to fall apart by the end.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Casualties of the Format Wars

While back in Canada for a short while, I've been taking the time to reunite with the music that I left behind, most of which I haven't laid eyes on (or ears) in a year and a half. In this case, the hearing is secondary to the seeing. Obviously there isn't enough time to listen to it all, or even a tiny fraction of it. Instead, I've been gazing at CD's in giant holding cases that haven't been opened in a long time, musing over CD's covers and vinyl labels like they were photos of long lost relatives. A picture tells a story by replaying the scene in your head, just like seeing a music label replays the songs in your head. I can sit in front of a computer all day long and will happily download and rip music all day, month, and year long, none of it can snap the physical connection I feel for the music I buy. For most of my life, I bought and listened to physical objects. These soft spots will always be there.

Maybe this is why I was particularly affected by this report about the decline of the vinyl format in Jamaica (many thanks to Idolator for the post and the heads up). Vinyl has defiantly outlasted CD as a viable long-term music format, there is no longer any doubt of this. Vinyl is likely the last bastion of "physical", as opposed to "digital" music culture, and the 7" single has been entrenched in reggae for so long that I figured it would remain immune to the fallout from the format wars.

Paradoxically, sales of actual records are propped up by international buyers, who buy them to increase their physical connection to the music -- essentially compensating for not "being there". The people who "are there", who have the easiest access to buying the singles, prefer the convenience of mp3s!

In ten years, music shops will only sell used vinyl, won't they? It'll all come down to used vinyl and tour CD's from merch tables ...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I Staked My Reputation On Gabriel Ananda

That might be overstating things a tad, but a bunch of people did follow me to a club in the middle of nowhere, only to be met with a larger than expected cover charge and without knowing exactly what type of music they'd be subjecting themselves to. Fortunately, Ananda came through for me in spades.

I used some of my time in the club to think about the Perlon label, and how I had never really shown it the respect it deserves. After all, if it hadn't been for Perlon, I wouldn't have been in that club dancing to the sort of jacking minimal techno that Perlon had spearheaded (albeit more euphoric variants of the kind, favoured by Ananda). Perlon seemed to infuse the mellowness of M_nus and Auch with the aggressive pulse of a mid-90's Dave Clarke record, and at the time I didn't know what to make of it. I excitedly welcomed a future that featured techno pared down to its barest elements. Plastikman's "Closer" perfectly encapsulated everything beautiful and horrifying about minimal, pointing the way forward in a direction I wholeheartedly approved of. I was partly right -- minimal became far bigger than I ever would have imagined in 2002-3 -- but records like Pantytec's "Elastobabe" (the "Soul Capsules Cosmic Warrior" mix, in particular) left me totally bewildered. I almost didn't buy it solely because it didn't fit in amongst the other records I was buying at the time, which were either slamming, fire-breathing Mills-ian tracks or sparse, dubby ones. I had almost nothing in between, not to mention that vocals were a big no-no for me at the time. I came to my senses and convinced myself to buy the single, not because of any desire to adapt or change my attitude, but because it was obviously such a mindblowing record that I knew I'd be stupid to walk out of the store without it.

Eventually, my tastes did change, and so did those of a lot of other people. The "hard" records basically faded away, and were even shunned in some circles. Tastes converged on the Perlon-esque middle ground, with names like Villalobos and Luciano leading the charge. But Gabriel Ananda, in his DJ sets as well as his own records, is nudging back toward the harder stuff, and as you might have guessed, I couldn't be happier about it.