Tuesday, September 29, 2009

2004 was a strange year, plus Pitchfork's Best 200 Albums of the 2000's AKA T-3 days to "Kid A"'s inevitable win

Or maybe you haven't heard about how parts of "Kid A" were made with computers, thereby making it a prophetic statement on the futuristic info-age that we now live in. Causality vs correlation, people! Anyway, let's just prepare to take our medicine and move on to the 010's.

I'm getting some bad vibes so far from that list (through 200-101). There are some placings that seem inconsistent with previous charts, for example, Mountains Goats' "Sunset Tree" which was #24 in 2005 and #102 of the entire decade, and ahead of a few other albums that ranked much higher on the '05 chart. Not to pick on Mountain Goats, but I wasn't aware of any slow-burning critical consensus behind that record, so I found that placing a bit odd, but I won't lose sleep over it. After all, we're looking at, on average, twenty albums per year for this list (actually more from 2000-8, since 2009 will surely be underrepresented) and these lists aren't compiled by crunching statistics from past charts, they represent the opinions of actual people (and not even the same people who were writing for the site in 2005) whose feelings can change over the years.

No, what's weird is the inconsistencies between the placings of albums on their 2008 chart, and their placings on the Top 200, for example, TVOTR's "Dear Science" (#6 in 2008, #140 of the decade) was outplaced by Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah Part One" (#13 in 2008, #133 of the decade) and M83's "Saturdays = Youth" (#8 in 2008, #111 of the decade). This represents the opinions of virtually the same people that were compiling the 2008 list, and how much could their opinions have changed in the past nine months? Is a TVOTR backlash setting in as part of a reaction to that album's more mainstream critical acceptance (e.g. winning P&J 2008)? If so, shouldn't a serious critics' list be above those sorts of about-face evaluations? Aren't these lists supposed to stand the test of time, to serve as critical benchmarks? People do rely on P&J as a benchmark of the "critical mindset" from that given year, and you can quibble about details (who did/didn't vote, genres not represented, points schemes) but given the size of the poll, it's hard to think of a better representation. But where's the value in lists drawn up by critics who change their minds every year?

Maybe I'm overanalyzing (probably). Maybe I shouldn't read too much into half of a list. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks that #200-101 contains a lot of second and third-best albums by a lot of acts, suggesting that more albums by those acts will be appearing in the top 100, making for a someone predictable list, not to mention one that will be lacking in variety due to all of the repeat acts. But the bad vibes aren't going away ...

As for my own ongoing introspection, I'm not sure how to evaluate 2004. It's looking like a freakishly abnormal year with a great many good albums, but very few great ones. A puzzling combination, to be sure. Or consider this: for me, that year was a turning point, in which the majority of my new music consumption/listening shifted from CDs/music stores to computers/internet. Suddenly, I needed to find a way to process more music in a shorter time span than I ever had before, and it's possible that I couldn't adjust that quickly. I heard a lot of good music, but was overwhelmed and couldn't connect strongly with most of it. By 2005, and in the following years, my musical body clock found a way to handle the volume, leaving 2004 as my personal transitional anomaly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Musical triple-bill

Last night I found myself watching back-to-back-to-back movie musicals (none of which I had seen before), although I use the word "watching" very loosely because there was quite a bit of muting/listening to other music/putschking around the house/five minute naps while in the vicinity of the TV during those five-plus hours. Especially during the first film, "Mamma Mia".

I love ABBA's music, and didn't like the musical when I saw it live several years ago. But the movie is just horrifically bad, and everyone involved just be embarrassed that their sloppy, amateurish karaoke was caught on film (except for Meryl Streep, who is incapable of having a truly bad performance in any genre, even if she has absolutely nothing and nobody to work with, as she did here). Did you know that this movie is the biggest grossing movie ever in Britain, surpassing "Titanic"?

I can't believe that "Chicago" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, well, strictly speaking I can believe it because it's not such a stretch to imagine Academy members falling for the simple gimmick of a few big movie stars trying their hands at singing and dancing. Along the way, we learn an important lesson -- the media is vicious, uncaring, and in the blink of an eye you can be yesterday's news. Wow, I'd never thought about it that way before, that's so deep. And look everybody, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who was good but hardly worth the hype given to her performance) and Renee Zellweger (who was tasked with the burden of looking button-cute but hardly did anything else notable) are doing a closing dance number, who ever thought we'd see that? Give them an Oscar! However, the whole thing *looks* great, I'll give it that, it was a "Moulin Rouge"-esque splash of constant light, colour, and flashy costumes. The real star of the film was Richard Gere. I can't recall ever liking him in a movie before, but he pulled off the part (and the singing and dancing!) better than I would have ever thought possible.

After those two films, I really didn't have the energy to stay awake for "Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights", but somehow I couldn't turn away from this trainwreck. I had to keep watching to find out how much horrifically bad dialogue could force its way into a single movie, and to see how they'd oversimplify the issues in the Cuban Revolution for easy consumption by an under-12 Disney Channel audience. The homages to the original movie were obvious, but not overbearing (e.g. the water scene, the hair-combing scene, the scene where PATRICK MF'IN SWAYZE reprises his "Johnny's Mambo" dance routine OMG!!!!!). Sela Ward is meant to play the Jerry Orbach role as the overprotective parent, but she wasn't on screen enough to have much of an influence on the direction of the movie, and a sweet ex-ballroom dancing mom isn't much of a rudder compared to a steely, rich and influential dad who will do anything to keep his little girls out of harm's way. Oh, and Sela Ward is no Jerry Orbach.

There was no conflict in the movie because the villains were villain-y enough, which is what happens when you have to sanitize everything for a pre-teen audience. Ooooh, that rich boy tried to make out with her and she didn't want to. Scoundrel! The sister character can't establish her unsavoury-ness by sleeping around like in the original, so she shows her true colours by ... using racial epithets? What kind of lazy cheap heel heat is this? And remember kids, it's OK to follow your dreams and support the revolution, just remember that America is still #1.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cloaks, "Versus Grain"

I'm finally getting a move on with all my End of the Decade musing, which has involved revisiting a bunch of music from that 2000-2002 bygone era that feels like it happened twenty years ago instead of ten. I heard Fluxion's "Vibrant Forms II" for the first time in probably five or six years and was happy to discover that it still sounds incredibly fresh. This actually isn't so surprising, considering that dub techno still worships at the altar of stuff like the original Basic Channel records and seminal compilations such as Tresor 3. As it was for acid house and acid techno 15-20 years ago (another musical form in which the diversity of the music was limited almost by definition), the slow evolution of the genre is its greatest strength or its intolerable weakness, depending on where you stand on appreciating the relatively few tricks that the genre has to offer.

Like many people, I couldn't get enough of dub techno from 2000-2002 but suffered serious burnout afterward. Then we skip a few more years, and we all rediscover dub techno to the cries of either "are we really about to listen to exactly the same stuff all over again?" or "oh how I've missed you". If I have to pick sides, I'll side with the latter group, but I prefer to lurk between the two camps. Dub techno is a comfortable blanket to wrap oneself in, but as it is with the synth pop revivals that pop up from time to time, I can't find myself obsessing over music that so outwardly relies on nostalgia to hook its listeners.*

On the other hand, industrial techno is one genre that I never thought would make a comeback, partly because it was never big enough or cool enough to be realistically considered for a comeback. And yet, magazines like FACT are proudly trumpeting its return and anointing a recent Ancient Methods podcast as the finest and most essential mix of the year. I was really surprised to read that, for although I was really feeling that podcast, there was nothing about it that screamed "bloody essential" at me, unless you were big into dark/horror techno and could hold out through the somewhat boring middle third and stay awake for the strong finish (but then again, I get bored about a half hour into most podcasts these days). It felt more like a harder, bass-ier set of minimal than an authentic noise/industrial coming out party, but never mind that, hurrah, my ant-zen CD's are cool again, at least if the sound of this Cloaks album is anything to go by. And Speedy J was ahead of the curve yet again (listen to "A Shocking Hobby", from 2000, if you're still skeptical). Always trust the Paap!

* "Wait, aren't you the guy who puts M83 at the top of his lists every year??"

"I'd argue that M83's music incorporates a lot more originality than a lot of the other 80's copycats, and relies on elements from a bunch of other more modern genres (shoegaze, techno, ambient) to make the music work."

"I'd argue that you're dodging the question."

"I know."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

She's Like the Wind

Jake Houseman: Don't you tell me what to see! I see someone in front of me who got his partner in trouble and sent her off to some butcher, while he moved on to an innocent young girl like my daughter!


Johnny: [angry] Yeah, I guess that's what you *would* see.

He had so many great lines in that movie, and this exchange is surely one of the most underrated. I always found THAT line and scene at the end to be a bit too hokey, but the movie is supposed to be a fairy tale with a happy and tidy ending, so I wouldn't begrudge anyone who disagrees.

Based on some of the reactions I've been seeing around the 'net, are there really some Swayze and "Dirty Dancing" fans out there who didn't realize that he sang and wrote "She's Like the Wind"? How can this be? The soundtrack, of course, is unimpeachable. Much like the "Big Chill", it collected a bunch of classic old songs and it OWNED them to such a degree that today, many of these songs are so well-known for being featured in "Dirty Dancing" that their reputations as sizable hits in their own right has been outstripped. "Dirty Dancing" is still the first thing I think about when I hear "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" or "Big Girls Don't Cry" (out of all the old songs, I think only "Be My Baby" escapes this association completely)*. It also revived the careers of Bill Medley and Eric Carmen. What more could you want in a soundtrack?

* OK, OK, I know that those songs were featured on the "More Songs From ..." companion soundtrack and were not on the "official" soundtrack ... does that distinction really matter so much?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

It's starting to feel a lot like the 90's (and the 80's ...)

Every once in a while, I remember that it's 2009 and I'm supposed to be working on some kind of splashy best-of-the-decade thingy, complete with charts compiled using a ranking/calculation scheme that makes sense only to me. That chart would take shape over several months, as I stare at more or less the same shortlist of albums every day, glacially evolving the rankings by performing the most mundane changes, such as switching M83 and Bardo Pond at #15 and #16 after thirty minutes of pondering, coming away with a feeling of complete satisfaction that I did indeed accomplish something meaningful today.

So, yeah, I've been basically forgetting to do all of that stuff. I've got the shortlist, but every time I look at it, it looks incomplete, as if I'm forgetting about a bunch of classics. It doesn't help that 2000-2002 feels like a million years ago, and how is it possible that the second half of the decade passed twice as quickly as the first half (I mean, doesn't it seem that way to you too)?

Actually, 2000-2002 might as well have happened a million years ago. Those were the days when I still purchased all my music in stores, and generally heard things for the first time in a store or at home by physically picking up a black or silver disc-like object and pressing "play" on some sort of standalone playback device. The bands I was listening to during those years were mainly holdovers from the 90's, although calling them "holdovers" would be selling them far short, because many of them produced the best music of their careers during the first couple of years of the decade. But afterward, those bands just seemed to disappear, and didn't fit into the rest of the decade's narrative.

Strangely enough, everything I wrote in the previous paragraph seems to apply to 90's music as well (or at least, the 90's music I was listening to).

Then came 2003-2005, which are the years that featured all the best music of the decade. The most memorable pop hits were released during these years. And in general, the "sound" of the decade seems much better defined by the music released from 2000-2004 than that released during the second half, 2005-2009.

I'd say the same was true for the 90's as well.

Then came 2006, which was a bit shit (not sure why), but 2007-8 were quite a bit better, but 2009 is confusing because I haven't heard a slam-dunk classic album that no Top 30 or 50 of the decade could be without, and I basically don't have a clue how much of this year's music will still be bragged about in ten years.

In the 90's, 1996 was crap, 1997 was quite a bit better, but 1998 was horrific (this is the one serious divergence from the expected pattern), and 1999 is mainly an interesting exercise for seeing who ended up being major players over the next decade, and who faded away despite slam-dunk expectations. Britney and Justin are two of the biggest mega-stars that the business has ever seen -- who saw that coming? Orbital, Suede, GYBE! -- gone, all of them. Mogwai did a bit of burning brightly, and bit of burning out. Which album will drop later this fall and be the "69 Love Songs" of the 00's, i.e. the album that was released too late to factor in anybody's lists but will retroactively get slotted in in a few years time (and due to it's unusual release date, will never really feel like it's identified with any one decade)?

Oddly enough, I think most of this template could apply to the 80's as well -- 1980-1984 "defined the decade", the second half was a slow decay in comparison (albeit with some awesome peaks and valleys); 1980-1982 contained some extremely creative work, which was somewhat washed away by the megapeak of pop (accompanied by the rise of a game-changing technology, in this case MTV) that occurred from 1983-1985, and so on.

Like I was saying, I have a list to compile, and I think I'll be compiling it mostly on instinct this time. Which means that the final ordering will likely be decided upon in a quick, and mostly visceral way.