Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 11-20 albums of 2008

I had only planned to compile a top ten this year, but Matt from Cave 17 wrote and requested a top twenty for the website's end-of-year list* (he was nice enough to include me even though I'm a lazy bastard and hadn't written for Cave 17 in ages). Since the second half of the list only exists because of Matt, I wrote my commentaries in haiku form (if you don't understand the reasoning, don't worry about it, just enjoy the haikus).

11-20 montage

11. Sigur Ros, "Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust"

Bouncy pop music
Rollicking pianos too
Who would have thunk it?

12. Ladytron, "Velocifero"

Ned Raggett was right
They all go goth in the end
Big layered goth tunes

13. Pyramids, "Pyramids"

Shoegaze and metal
Always made for each other
Pyramids know this

14. The Mole, "As High As the Sky"

Disco disco yes
Disco disco disco yay
Baby you're the one

15. James, "Hey Ma"

Who invited these
Guys to the party this year?
Y'all forgot 'bout James

16. Various, "Depth Perceptions Vol 1" (Pronounce)

Watery dubbed out
Techno goodness won't grow old
As long as I'm here

17. Jamie Lidell, "Jim"

Stereolab went
Halfway Motown this year but
"Jim"'s not hedging bets

18. Torche, "Meanderthal"

If Grohl could rock out
Primordial sludge like this
I'd be more a fan

19. Spiritualized, "Songs In A&E"

Jason's gone folkie
I miss the real J. Spaceman
Drug druggy mainline

20. Growing, "All the Way"

Noisy squiggles latch
Into your skull without end
Really quite pleasant

* dare I say, with more than a hint of bias, that the resulting list is one of the most unique critics lists of the year? Although I'm ashamed to say that the only albums I heard from it were the ones I voted for and that blech-y TVOTR record -- there was plenty of music that I didn't get around to this year, but not yet hearing the Solange and Erykah Badu records despite the recommendations from the Cave 17 guys and their like-minded peeps was fairly inexcusable.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

OK, on with it:

10. Wold, "Stratification".


This is as caustic and evil as music gets. I listen to it and always picture the landscape of a thick, dense forest, and the picture in my mind is always a smudgy, grey and white photo. That's what I thought that before I saw the cover -- honestly.

9. Kardinal Offishall, "Not 4 Sale".


I've been hedging my bets with Kardi up until now, because some of his past work didn't sound, well, big time. The production felt flimsy and not ready for major worldwide radio play, although the track-by-track song quality was usually excellent. Not only was that problem solved and then some on the explosive "Not 4 Sale", but Kardi comes out raging on top form with nearly every track, displaying the urgency of a performer trying to impress on his debut album, not his fourth.

8. Fennesz, "The Black Sea".


My token ambient album on this year's top ten.

7. Luciano, "Fabric 41".


This is a near-perfectly paced mix with not one but several great builds, anthemic tracks punctuating its flow, big house vocals, melodic Orbital-esque payoffs (e.g. "Arabesque"), and plenty else under the sun. One of the only mix albums I can think of with absolutely no dead spots.

6. The Raveonettes, "Lust Lust Lust".


It's been a treat to hear this band improve with every album, morphing from a girl group rip-off (albeit a really good one) into a band making transcendent pop in their own right. They're reaching a level that's close to that of Stereolab in the mid 90's (also Blondie in late 70's), where they've taken a bunch of easily recognizable influences and cultivated them into something that now feels effortless. No longer defined by their many ultracool influences, their ability to process those influences and churn out something bold and refreshing is pretty much unimpeachable these days. And also like Stereolab at their best (although sonically they sound nothing alike), their sighing harmonies and singsong melodies are a recipe for instantly falling in love with a band, and many times when listening to both I found myself asking "why can't/doesn't all music sound just like this?"

5. Petar Dundov, "Escapements".


Although it would be accurate to describe this as a throwback to bleepy, melodic 90's techno, that's not the first thing that came to mind when I heard it. My first thought was how similar it was to Death In Vegas' "Satan's Circus" -- I figured I was in for a techno homage to classic krautrock. Others might adore or dismiss its debt to trance, in the way that tracks like "Oasis" gracefully build up to huge climaxes and then rapidly come down from that high. Naturally, all these viewpoints are correct, and shouldn't the best albums always contain a healthy variety of different somethings for different everybodys? It's just rare to be able to say that about a techno album ...

4. Portishead, "Third".


Certain great albums contain a key moment where the whole album seems to kick it into another gear. Perhaps my favourite example of this is Arab Strap's "The Red Thread", or rather the precise moment when Aidan Moffat mumbles "23 years of foreplay lead up to this" about halfway through track five, "The Long Sea". The magic moment on "Third" happens around the middle of the first verse of "We Carry On", my realization of which helped to downgrade my opinion of the entire album in some twisted way because it dawned on me that I longed less to hear the entire album back to front than to hear "We Carry On" on a 50-minute continuous loop.

3. Scarlett Johansson, "Anywhere I Lay My Head".


I'm not going to claim that this album was "misunderstood" because even the dimmest of bulbs can grasp the simple concept of a movie star hooking up with a hot producer to forge wall of sound interpretations of a legendary recording artist. But it was the year's most easily dismissed album, and possibly the one most underappreciated as well. I'll hedge my bets because it's also the one that feels most likely to make me reneg on a lot of the nice things I said about it in five years time. This music might wear out its welcome once the giddyness of it dies away, leaving only empty gimmickry with some overpowering production and somewhat dull vocals. Sure, it sounds right and all the right names worked on it, and you can say the same about the Paris Hilton album. I'm not reneging on my earlier praise of this album, I'm just saying that we have no idea if the future holds "haha remember when ..." memories, or if Scarlett Johansson will wind up with a Grace Jones-like cult following on the basis of her slick reworkings of some classic songs. But I'll stick my neck out on this point: this is the best thing that anyone in TVOTR will ever be involved with unless the band splits up and its members become full-time producers.

2. No Age, "Nouns".


I never aim to self-consciously "include" certain genres on year-end lists (at least, I hope not). Nevertheless, my favourite music over the past (insert any number your like) years contains virtually nothing that is the least bit punk-ish (or LA-ish). But I only just realized this, almost literally just when writing this comment, because at no time during the past several months did it occur to me that it was a personal oddity to be rocking out to this stuff. And no, at no point did I aim to convince myself that No Age were really shoegazers in a punk-y disguise.

1. M83, "Saturdays = Youth".


It's like listening to the greatest hits of the O'Jays, in that I don't just become nostalgic for the 70's. That might suggest that I miss the 70's and would like to relive them.. Rather, hearing the O'Jays vision of the 70's is infinitely more pleasant that actually living through the 70's. It presents a rosier picture than the reality ever could have been. It's like browsing though the brightest and most beautiful travel brochure, that shows nothing but sculptures lawns while avoiding glimpses at the cracked pavement and the garbage in the streets. And of course they didn't always sing about happy topics, but even their takes on heavier issues felt inspirational -- they made you want to be part of their world, not part of the world they were singing about. M83 have done the same for the 80s. You can relive the gated drums, poofy hair, and flashy synths without having to deal with, say, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Notes to get off my chest

Well, cancel the stuff I wrote in my last post -- there's nothing like end-of-year list shenanigans to get one's energies flowing into his writing. I started writing these two notes as a prelude to the top ten, partly to get a few things off my chest, partly to give some honourable mentions to some music that didn't make it.

Sigur Ros became a much more interesting band over the past couple of years, thanks to career twists such as the Heima DVD/postcard and their newest album "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust", of which the latter put them within spitting distance of being an actual pop band. Although their music was better overall when they were, uh, "less interesting", for the first time in their career, Sigur Ros seem completely unpredictable. Say what you want about their previous albums, but each one always had a clear singularity of purpose, most obviously on "{}", where they bludgeoned you with more or less the same ten minute mood piece / super climax until you either bought into what they were doing or turned off the stereo in disgust. But their latest album really had no idea what type of record it was trying to be, and this schizophrenia hurt the overall message this time even if many of the individual tracks are excellent. Mark P really nailed it with his PFM review (just be sure to ignore the last two sentences), where he argued that the album's biggest weakness is the band's inability or reluctance to completely break with past habits of knocking out epic string-drenched weepies almost by default. After the opening section of cheering pop singalongs, the pace comes screeching to a halt with the "Festival"/"Ara Batur" section (particularly the latter, whose overreaching sense of drama is actually kind of ludicrous and provides easy fodder for the people who think that they'll never be anything more than that type of band). At this point, logic and experience would suggest that the album's pace and volume would pick up again, but a funny thing happens on the way to the big finish, namely the exact opposite effect, with a series of closing tracks that are so sparsely constructed and molasses-like in their tempos that the album seems to completely vanish into thin air. Moving past the fairly superfluous "Illgresi" (a completely forgettable acoustic ballad that works if you consider it as a bridge between the album's chest-beating epics and its eventual slide into the vapours), the closing trio is arguably the best section of the album. Here, Sigur Ros try their hand at genuinely affecting, gentle piano ballads with virtually none of the OTT frills and schmaltzy gaga as per what used to be business as usual. "Fljotavik" is a ballad that would make Joni Mitchell proud, just verse, chorus, some simple strings, over and out in less than four minutes. It's ambient epilogue "Straumnes" fills a gorgeous gap of pure serenity, and I regret that they didn't go all Stars of the Lid with this one and stretch it out for ten minutes instead of simply using it as an interlude before "All Alright", which is so sparse that I can practically here Low's Alan Sparhawk whispering "whoa, this is sparse" as I listen to it. Its drawn out melody lines and vocals are like an alternate universe Low, with completely different instrumentation and singers that are too depressed and zoned out to even bother harmonizing. Although the music isn't as consistent as on their earlier albums, "Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust" sees Sigur Ros finding ways to set moods you never thought they could set, and on that basis alone it is still a minor triumph for them.

The Bug, "London Zoo". It's been given high praise from mags like the Wire (their #1 album of 2008) and as of this writing, it's the #2 most positively reviewed album of 2008 according to Metacritic. Even so, this album still slipped under most people's radar this year. I don't hear the greatness in it, but it's certainly a strong effort in a career-long series of them for Kevin Martin. Maybe that's his biggest problem, because the always reliable but never mercurial artists like Martin seem to become underrated on account of that consistency (consistency is always underrated, a band's first good album is usually newsworthy, but after their 10th good album its a bunch of hohum oh look they've done it again). He's also had the blueprint for the post-apocalyptic sound of crumbling industrial wastelands down pat for well over a decade. It just so happens that this sound has become more contemporary than ever thanks to the large crop of dubstep producers who have started to sound like him. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, listeners who are new to Martin's style will likely get more mileage out of "London Zoo" than his own longtime fans.

"London Zoo" actually isn't too dissimilar from MIA's albums -- they're both uniquely British multicultural stews filled with urban paranoia, political agitation, and chunky electronic hip hop beats. Except with "London Zoo", the production is fuller, nastier and more cavernous (and therefore more convincing at conveying the moods that it's aiming for), and the rapping doesn't suck. So whose albums and singles are topping critics lists and earning Grammy nominations, and whose aren't? Life isn't fair.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trust Me, This is not a Year In Review

This is the first year, ever since I started faithfully following music when I was a little kid, that I didn't buy anything new.

A predictable trend developed over the last few years, as my rate of spending sharply decreased (initially due to a fairly precipitous slide in disposable income) and the availability of free music (via filesharing) sharply increased. But still, there's a world of difference between a trend and hitting the absolute bottom.

Maybe I didn't make myself perfectly clear -- this year, I bought LITERALLY ZERO music released in 2008.

This is nothing to be proud of -- I'm not bragging, just simply stating a fact. But how could this happen? It was a confluence of factors, to be sure: increased apathy for modern chart pop, no trips to a Toronto/Berlin/NYC -type music hub where I would be bound to stock up on music over the course of some inspired shopping sprees, quality mp3 blogs posting excellent music, slsk, and not having cable (and access to music video channels) for half of the year.

But my music spending habits couldn't be healthier. I buy plenty of CDs, just not the ones released in 2008. My bookshelves are stocked with incoming jewel cases and I'm running out of room for the books. This trend is in itself nothing new for me. The most recent year in which I bought mostly new or recent releases by contemporary artists or labels was probably 2002. By some point in 2004, I was not only buying mostly "older" CDs and records, but was putting a majority of my shopping energies toward browsing through older music, to the detriment of keeping up with the new releases hitting the shops. Splitting time between New and Old isn't a zero-sum process, but there definitely is an inverse relationship at play, particularly when it comes to purchases.

Now, flipping through the bargain bins is more or less all I do. This might be considered a more noble habit if I lived in San Francisco or Berlin, but rest assured that I do have a fair number of options -- more than I expected when I moved. Relocating to a real city does wonders for enabling these types of shopping habits. So it means that I'm well settled into my new role as a musical archeologist. I trawl around cities and dig up hidden gems at undervalued prices. It's more than just a labour of love, it's a honed skill that requires a combination of patience and being able to draw on years of experience to recognize and remember stuff that most people have long since forgotten or stopped caring about (perhaps with good reason). I've spent half a lifetime learning this trade, picking up the experience necessary for sifting through thousands of uninteresting rocks in order to find two or three that are of value. I have regular locations where I conduct my "digs". I display my wares in my home, my precious talismans brought back from the field, where I can excitedly tell people things like "here's that legendary Rockets Red Glare album, and it has to be at least ... 2500 years old!"

I have the impression that critical consensus is at an all-time low, and it's not something specific to this year's crop of new releases. Critics are more geographically separated and are exposed to a greater volume of music than ever before. Years of discourse is archived (blogs, old reviews, discussion boards) and easily accessible. There has been an explosion of such internet content over the past five or six years, and perhaps we've reached the tipping point where associations with archived criticism are retained more strongly than those that are forged with newer criticism. Maybe the signal to noise ratio for quality criticism has become too low, ergo less meaningful interaction, ergo less consensus, or maybe we're all just bored of each other for different reasons. Of course a reduction of consensus simply means there are fewer "must have" new albums to galvanize people, and while the overall demand for hearing music isn't reduced, that demand becomes spread into thinner and more distinct strands. Curiosities get stirred up, people are more inclined to revisit the seemingly infinite wealth of older music (and to reflect on it with the perspective of x # of years of easily accessible criticism) instead of the more limited supply of music that's been produced this year.

For writing, I have to admit that this year was a bit of a disaster. There have been some long stretches during which I can't seem to write anything I deem interesting or usable, punctuated by spurts where I actually managed to get something done. I am sitting on a disappointing amount of unfinished writing, stuff that was started and then left behind either because I lost the will to complete it, or, increasingly often, spent so much time tweaking it that was never satisfied with it and couldn't find it in me to converge toward a finished product. I hope that some of this unfinished writing can see the light of day in 2009. These frustrating bouts of over-editing and perfectionism have been plaguing all of my writing (also in my actual work) since 2005 or so, and I think I know the reason but am not sure how best to handle it. One solution might be to get back to writing shorter, spur-of-the-moment pieces, as opposed to longer pieces where one feels more of a need to make a "statement".

The holiday listmaking season is upon, and of course I'm all over that like a moth to a flame. The top tens are nearly ready. Please wait.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Today's random pairing of new albums: Fennesz, "Black Sea" and Kanye West, "808s and Heartbreak"

Fennesz's music is simply so much better when he unleashes a full-out drone attack, as opposed to being cute and poppy with wistful melodies and introspective acoustic guitar plucking. Tracks like "Glide" and "Black Sea" unfurl slowly over several minutes, piling up noise and always making sure to maintain texture's grip on melody. Perhaps all the collaborations he's been involved with since the release of "Venice" have revived Fennesz's yen for drone and abstraction because there's a real "returning to his roots" feel to this album, almost back to the rougher edges of the "Field Recordings 1995-2002" material.

Kanye West, as everybody surely knows, has not only completely departed from his sonic norm but is challenging charts worldwide with some of the most personal and introspective hit songs in pop music history. I love the fact that this is not a hip hop album -- rather, it is a Kanye West album and nobody is trying to pretend differently. Rhythms (4/4 beats, electro-pop beats) and melodic leads (rave-y synths, Autotune-a-go-go) that were completely foreign to R&B music just a few years ago are now used with such regularity that it truly feels like the genre(s) can credibly incorporate nearly any sound or style and mold it into a hit song. The boundaries are disappearing, and "808s and Heartbreak" is a big nail in the coffin of R&B uniformity. We've come a long way since the days of dueling divas trying to out-scream each other over Boyz II Men's simplistic, cookie cutter, and endlessly recycled beats.

"808s and Heartbreak" is Kanye's "This is Hardcore", his post-everything "life is bullshit" record. I thought that the second single, "Heartless", was caustic enough, but then I heard "Robocop", which ends with his mind evaporating into the world of painful flashbacks, coolly spewing random insults and snippets of dialogue ("haha that was your first good one in a while") over the cheery tones of a string quartet playing a near-variation of "Eleanor Rigby". It's unsettling stuff, but makes for utterly fascinating listening. With lead (anti)-single "Love Lockdown", West has made his very own "Tusk", by following up a string of huge hits with a song that's difficult to love thanks to a sparse vocal melody and nary a backbeat with the exception of occasional stretches of frantic, thumping percussion.

It's a Kanye West production, so of course, all this sounds fantastic even if its unfamiliar territory for him. I wouldn't wish his personal troubles on anybody, but his reactions to it all -- caustic robotic ranting over chunky electo-pop -- along with the musical quality of the results, makes for one of the most compelling narratives in pop this decade.