Thursday, October 29, 2009

Various, "Five Years of Hyperdub"

There is plenty of like on this massive, 32-track compilation. Start with Samiyam, "Return", and its irregular lurching rhythms that would have fit perfectly on virtually any release from Wolfgang Voigt's dearly departed Profan label. Or Darkstar, "Need You". It features playful, almost carnival-like melodies, and vocoders that Daft Punk would certainly be proud of. It also unites those elements with windy synth passages and sparse ambient noises, making for quite the chilling combination of sounds. Or Zomby, "Tarantula", which takes Juan Atkins mid-80's robo-funk style and strips it down to its barest melody and percussion. Or Martyn, "Mega Drive Generation", an unreleased track that kills virtually anything from his so-so "Great Lengths" LP, with its simple uncluttered percussion and gliding bassline that produces something bizarrely akin to the gentle ebb and flow of minimal techno.

I've never taken much to the music of label boss Steve Goodman AKA Kode9. He's the most "classical" dub artist on his label, but he tends to go overboard in trying to add a spooked-out, creepy feel to his music, and often it's just a bit too much. It was entirely predictable that Kode9 would pen a track called "Ghost Town", as the phrase sums up just about everything his music strives for.

It might be boring and cliche to say it, but what this compilation accomplishes most of all is to show just how far ahead of the pack Burial truly is. It's the sort of obvious revelation you get when you lump one artist's work along with 2+ hours of the best stuff his contemporaries have to offer. I can be nodding along pleasantly to virtually any track on these CD's, but the start of a Burial track suddenly and decisively shifts the mood to an entirely new level of fear and tension.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yo La Tengo, "Popular Songs"

Depending on who you want to believe, this album either continues YLT's career resurgence, or is simply a fine albeit forgettable record. I don't understand the "resurgence" narrative because it's not like ten years passed by without a good albums, in fact the only widely acknowledged stinker in their recent catalogue is 2002's "Summer Sun" (although they also released the very good "Nuclear War" EP in the same year, so that year was hardly a total write-off).

The "fine but forgettable" angle has some merit, and I could even feel it developing only two tracks into the album. I listened to "Here to Fall" and "Avalon or Someone Very Similar" and found them to be perfectly enjoyable tracks that I'd be happy to throw onto a random playlist, but couldn't remember much about them even twenty minutes later. Most of the album carries the "nice but bland" air of "Summer Sun", and then someone might as well have shown up carrying a big "ACT II" sign because the epic tracks signal the start of a completely different record. "Fireside" resembles an acoustic jam from the likes of Bardo Pond or Charalambides, within its beatless, zonked-out, dreamlike air we find the only track on the album that truly sounds different from anything YLT have recorded previously. "And the Glitter Is Gone" rocks on interminably, which is both good and bad because I appreciate a good Velvet-y jam as much as anyone, but I couldn't stop thinking about how bored I'd be if I was watching them perform it live (dirty little secret: ALL of YLT's epic tracks are fairly boring to watch live, but on occasion I take some pleasure in hearing them stretch out the intro to "Blue Line Swinger" as much as possible).

The half pop/half jam sequencing is fairly bizarre, and makes me appreciate what they did with "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" a little bit more. Bookending the album with 11-minute jams was a brilliant bit of sequencing, where the album gets a fiery start, a fiery finish, and leaves them plenty of room in the middle with which to to pack in all the twee/goofy/garage rock experiments.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My really belated two cents

Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" and Lady GaGa's "Paparazzi" are two of the biggest singles of 2009, and both are fantastic, as good as any megahits to hit the charts in any year this decade. BEP have always straddled a line between addictively catchy pop pleasure and wretchedly unlistenable annoyance, but then the fantastic David Guetta produced them, and all was good. In fact, I thought that "I Gotta Feeling" *was* the new David Guetta single the first couple of times I heard it. It was some time before I realized that the BEP's were on the record. How exactly did David Guetta manage to bring actual 4/4 dance music back to the charts for the first time since the Aqua/"Missing"/"Believe" era? Would it have been possible without Timbaland, i.e. without "Sexyback" and "The Way I Are" paving the way? (answer: obviously not) And through it all, despite the 14-week run at #1 for a song that is also featured on the producer's new album, Guetta's "One Love" topped out at something like #70 on the American album charts, as opposed to runaway success in virtually every other western country in the northern hemisphere. He needs to re-release "Love Is Gone" for the American market, like yesterday.

"Paparazzi" won a million MTV VMA's and deserved probably a million more, one for every different costume she wears in the video. If Peaches hadn't been on a mission to out-raunch everyone else in clubland, and given in to being a bit more of a girly girl (and why not, Gwen Stefani learned how to do it), then this could have been her career. And "Paparazzi" is the best hit song to crash the charts since "Umbrella".

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Which is more ridiculous?

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, or Michael Jackson's five AMA nominations, including Artist of the Year and Album of the Year?

Both artists promised big things this year, but failed to deliver.

Obama may yet deliver on his foreign policy initiatives (which may or not actually bring peace if he does manage to deliver on them).

Michael Jackson has already been given these honours at countless award shows over the past 30 years, and these new nominations have a whiff of double jeopardy about them.

The recognition given to both men is horribly misplaced, in the sense that the methods chosen are poor ways to "honour" them.

The decision is left as an exercise to the reader.

Friday, October 09, 2009

New Pornographers in the 2000's

In sports, they say that flags fly forever, which is another way of saying that you're more likely to be remembered for one outstanding year than a number of merely good years. The quickest and safest route to history is to burn excessively bright for a short time, just ask the Sex Pistols (or even the blasted Libertines).

New Pornographers didn't release a world-conquering album that stands apart from the rest of their music. But they did release four very good albums of punchy guitar pop that are deservedly beloved by indie rock fans. They haven't strayed far from the blueprint of their first album, 2000's "Mass Romantic", or the formula that turned that album's centrepiece track, "Letter From an Occupant" into a minor anthem (I think the next track, "To Wild Homes", with all its outlandish Spectorian piano-pounding drama, is the true heart and soul of that album, but let's stick to the other storyline for a moment).

So at decade's end, bands like the New Pornographers arguably find themselves in an unusual spot: warmly remembered and respected in the present, but without a secure legacy to ensure that it'll stay that way in the future. Now, if best-of lists were the be all and end all of guaranteeing that a band will remain popular, then not having one album that is widely acknowledged as classic would be problematic. But in the big picture, lists don't mean shit. Radio is what matters -- what's key is to have at least one or two hits that remain fixtures on radio playlists. I'm not sure that New Pornographers could make that claim either, even among indie circles. There's something about the replayability of their albums that I've never quite understood, basically, I hear one of their album and will happily sing along throughout the record, but never feel the need to play it a second time straight through, or even just to replay one or two songs. They write fantastic pop songs, but don't write "hits". It's an illogical feeling, I know, particularly when every sensible bone in my body tells me that, say, "Sing Me Spanish Techno" is hit-worthy and should be a radio staple.

There is so much more indie rock music now than there was in 2000, and now they must compete with more bands to carve out that legacy. The indie scene is become ever more interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating itself with other genres, but New Pornographers remain proudly "plain".

In that make-believe world where lists actually influence a band's reputation, then New Pornographers are left out in the cold, without a clear favourite album (in the opinion of both fans or critics) that will rank along the decade's uber-classics. They are a "down-ballot" band, furthermore hurt by their own consistency, because that will lead to vote-splitting among their albums. This is definitely a weakness of listmaking: there is room for the band that released one classic and a load of crap otherwise, but the consistently good bands get squeezed out ... unless the voter essentially invokes a "lifetime achievement" clause, and gives inflated marks to whatever one deems to be their best album. I personally try to resist the urge to do this, and I keep reminding myself of that when I think about albums by bands like Mogwai and Xiu Xiu. What should definitely be avoided is what we can call the "Maps effect" -- that is, the overrating of a fairly ordinary album like the YYY's "Fever To Tell", not because they think it's a classic album, but because they feel the need to rep for classic songs on that album. So people vote for it even though they're really just repping for "Maps".

Friday, October 02, 2009

End of Decade Lists: P4K and Uncut

Various comments about the top ten albums on these lists ...


10. The Avalanches, "Since I Left You"

I don't think I've knowingly listened to any of this (except the title track) since it came out ... it always struck as the sort of album Norman Cook would make if he was more into hip-hop. I like bonkers albums. I do find it remarkable that this album had so much staying power, particularly because the follow-up has yet to appear.

9. Panda Bear, "Person Pitch"

Still great.

8. Sigur Ros, "Agaetis Byrjun"

Good album, but it's the worst of Sigur Ros' four 2000's albums, by far. It's also surprising that this album has had so much staying power, considering the hate that's been thrown at Sigur Ros in the years since then (although we can now clearly see that it was a relatively brief phase, 2001-4). Many people have come around on "{}" since then, and it's placing lower in this chart is one indication of that.

7. The Strokes, "Is This It"

At the time, I refused to buy into a lot of the hype and called them wholly unoriginal (check the blog post from eight years ago), even while finding plenty to like about the actual album.

People spend far too much time and energy ascribing "importance" to albums, or claiming that such-and-such "defined the era" or whatever. I've tried my best to avoid making such characterizations about the music that I like. But if it must be done, I can't for the life of me understand why people are spilling that ink on Radiohead and not on the Strokes. "Kid A" didn't define the decade yet to come, as much as it summarized a lot of the electronic music trends from the 90's. These days, when I hear a track like "Someday", it makes me nostalgic for 2001 in the fondest sense of the word. It is the sound of 2001, just as "G-d Save the Queen" can be said to be the sound of 1977, or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the sound of 1991.

In fact, if any band were the Nirvana of the 00's, it was the Strokes. They didn't break new ground, but they carefully assembled their influences into something brash, arrogant, and unapologetically pop. They took a sound that had been bubbling under the radar for some time and let the charge to bring it into the mainstream. I was as cool on grunge in the 90's as I was on garage rock in the 00's, but as the years passed, the greatness of the Strokes (and Nirvana) became more and more clear as their imitators all tried and failed to make music that was any better. When the scene hype faded away, leaving nothing behind but the music with which to judge it, the brilliance of the scene's original superstars stood out even more than it did in their prime.

"Is This It" is a great album.

6. Modest Mouse, "The Moon and Antarctica"

I haven't heard this. When the follow-up was released, I couldn't see the BFD about "Float On" and haven't given them a second thought since.

5. Jay-Z, "The Blueprint"

Good stuff, can't argue much here, although the crushing inevitability of its crowning as the decade's best hip-hop album was second only to the inevitability of "Kid A" topping this list.

4. Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"

I think I heard this once back in 2002.

3. Daft Punk, "Discovery"

A great EP and a bunch of filler. But unlike "Kid A", nobody is pretending that G-d had a greater purpose for this album. No sociology theses, no "the world we live in" grandstanding. Nobody is saying that "Discovery" reinvented house or techno, or that it pushed the boundaries of what great dance music could be. They're saying that Daft Punk made huge, stomping, sometimes tearjerking dance floor anthems, and that they were the best at it. It's all about the music, and a shared communal experience spent enjoying that music. As it should be.

2. Arcade Fire, "Funeral"

Great album. I'm not sure which is better, this or "Neon Bible", but the latter certainly got the shaft in this poll, didn't it? That seemed to be a trend -- if this list is to be believed, virtually every major band got worse with each new release. I call b.s. on that ... every band in this top three arguably made a better album after the three listed here.

1. Radiohead, "Kid A"

Maybe three decent songs here.


10. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Nice harmonies, I guess. Haven't heard the whole record.

9. Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Haven't heard it.

8. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

I don't know how, but I'd avoided hearing the albums since Dylan's return to critical greatness in 1997. Until "Modern Times". This is embarrassing, and is nothing to be proud of.

This album didn't resonate with me.

7. Arcade Fire - Funeral

6. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand

Hmmm. Haven't heard it.

5. The Strokes - Is This It

4. Brian Wilson - Smile

I'd thought we'd all forgotten about this. I haven't heard it since 2004, and haven't felt the least bit inclined to do so. The "completion" and eventual release of "Smile" was a critics' rite of passage, like losing one's virginity ... you look forward to it seemingly forever, then it happens, and afterward, you never feel the need to think about it ever again.

I'm sure I will give this album a spin sometime in the next couple of months, for old time's sake in the end-of-decade spirit.

3. Wilco - A Ghost Is Born

They went with the unexpected choice -- Uncut, more zany and unpredictable than Pitchfork: official!

2. Bob Dylan - Love And Theft

Shame on me for not having heard this yet.

1. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells

"Fell in Love With a Girl" is nice, I guess. Good video, too.

All right, so Uncut's top ten isn't really my bag, but Uncut's 11-20 > Pitchfork's 11-20!