Sunday, November 29, 2009

Top Eleven Remixes of the 00's

I considered making a list of my favourite songs of the 00's, but it was a non-starter. The root of the problem was this: a "best tracks" list that is full of album tracks is boring. It's just a "best albums" list that is bent into a slightly different form. And one's favourite tracks *should* be mostly composed of album tracks, because for the most part, the best albums feature all the best songs. Naturally, there are exceptions such as TATU, who released some of the most brilliant singles of the decade but made extremely patchy albums. But without multiple TATU's and a slate of one hit wonders (which are also rarer these days), the "best tracks" list would be mostly made up of songs from the same bands on the "best albums" list, which is a bit ridiculous because there's certainly no need to essentially compile the same list twice. What could be more boring than reading through a "best tracks" list that consists of someone's favourite album tracks?

Of course, a "best tracks" list should be first and foremost a "best singles" list, thereby clearly differentiating between great albums, great singles, the artists responsible for creating both types of music. I've always tried to approach my "Top X Tracks of the Year" lists in that way, but the distinction is starting to wane I become ever more slowly estranged from the pop charts and find fewer and fewer actual singles to get excited about. I honestly haven't given much thought as to what was the best single of the decade, although if you pointed a gun at me and gave me five seconds to either choose or die, I'm picking "Silver" by Jesu. If we're talking about proper mega-hits, i.e. one inescapably massive chart single to represent the decade, I'd probably choose "Umbrella".

Remixes, on the other hand, are a different breed, a different category of "hits". They can be sort-of singles (in that the originals get played on the radio but the remixes almost always do not), they can be random tracks that were remixed and tossed onto blogs/webpages, they can be tracks that were notable enough to be pressed onto the b-side of a vinyl release. And they are definitely not album tracks. They occupy a niche of musical parameter space that is distinct from that of albums, and largely speaking, distinct from what is happening on the pop charts. (obviously I'm not referring to hip-hop remixes here, or fluke-y exceptions like "Ignition (Remix)")

Unlike ten years ago, remixes now occupy a prominent niche among my favourite songs of the past decade. Chalk it up to a glut of vinyl purchases (mainly in first half of the decade) and an overall increase in dance music listening (thx internet). A "Best Remixes of the 00's" list, even a fairly informal one, felt necessary and appropriate. So, I started listing my clear and obvious favourite remixes from the past ten years, narrowed that small shortlist down to eleven, and assembled a SPECIAL MIX that features all eleven of these amazing tracks. Since this is supposed to be a fairly stress-free exercise, the list is unranked, what follows is the tracklisting on the mix along with comments for each track. Planning the mix itself was quite the challenge though -- I put a lot of thought into the song order since many of these songs would never ordinarily find themselves lumped together in the same DJ set.

What makes for a great remix? For me, the quality of the original track is a non-factor. I'm not looking for a remixer to "save" a track by taking a crap song and converting it to greatness, although with all of these tracks, the originals (at least those that I've heard!) pale in comparison to the remixes. In short, I'm not operating by any kind of convoluted selection process, I'm just compiling a list of my favourite songs of the 00's, except that the pool of choices is narrowed down to remixes only. If, by some vague stretch of the imagination, I was making the effort to compile a top 30 or 50 or 100 "Best Tracks of the 00's" list*, all of these remixes would surely be included (although none of the originals would be)**.

* All would be in the Top 100 for sure. Most would make the Top 50. A few would be in the Top 30
** maybe "Mr Brightside"

Download the mix here!

1. Pyramids, "The Echo of Something Lovely (Jesu Remix)", Hydra Head (2008).

I've said it before, but in latter half of the decade, Jesu became the band that I always wanted Mogwai to be. In the years following "Rock Action", Mogwai deviated from the industrial sludge rock route that they appeared to be treading upon, but Jesu picked up the ball and ran with it, peaking with the massive "Silver" and this remix. Pyramids, who are capable of making astonishing shoegaze/metal hybrids of their own, decided to soften up with this dreampop-like track, as if they were moonlighting as a goth AR Kane. Jesu reshaped the lullabies on the original track and amplified them into psychedelic gothic sludge, proving that Justin Broadrick is only too happy to invent new genres of music that you didn't know you could crave.

2. Ciara, "Goodies (Richard X Remix featuring MIA)", LaFace (2004).

I caned the hell out of this track in '05, and it's still the best thing MIA was or ever will be involved with -- on this remix, she even outshines Ciara. Richard X retained the stripped-down funkiness of the original and turned out an equally sparse remix that still comes off sounding like a club banger.

3. Freiland, "Frei/Hot Love (Justus Köhncke Feat. Meloboy Mix)", Kompakt (2004).

The Kompakt 100 project was rabidly anticipated and with good reason -- two discs of Kompakt artists remixing their label brethren's most well-known tracks, a spectacular array of talent engaging in a cross-pollination exercise to celebrate the mercurial label's one hundredth release. On paper, the concept was mouth-watering, but unfortunately the results were far less than the sum of their parts and arguably signified something of a "jump the shark" moment for the label. Rather than diversifying the styles that Kompakt had become known for, or accelerating the label's creative edge further ahead of the pack, most of the remixers churned out fairly ordinary efforts, with tracks that had seemingly appeared in superior form on many earlier Kompakt releases. Rather than advancing the label forward, Kompakt 100 found them treading water, as if the label's ideas had now been summarized, anthologized, and effectively capped.

There were only two tracks from Kompakt 100 that I would always return to, and Justus Köhncke was featured in both: The Modernist's remix of the deliciously silly "Weiche Zäune", and Köhncke's equally daft and ridiculous remix/cover version of "Frei/Hot Love". It was practically outdated from the moment it was released (schaffel lol), but it's just so damned fun. Somehow, Köhncke took the Profan formula beats, which make you feel as though you're dancing on the deck of a boat that is lurching in the high seas, added a dose of "Hot Love", and ended up with something unashamedly and irresistibly pop.

4. Datach'i, "Memorandum (Mogwai Remix)", Caipirinha (2000).

My opinion of this track hasn't changed from what I wrote on ILMixOR a few years ago, so take a moment to reread that blurb. This remix preceded "Rock Action" and hinted at the inventiveness they'd display on that album. The 2000-1 period stands out as the peak of Mogwai's career, a time when they were so recklessly creative that they could effortlessly make new noise-electronica-rock hybrid genres by night and forget about them before the morning. Although they remained brilliant at times, they unfortunately spent the latter half of the decade trying to be the shoegaze Black Sabbath instead of the shoegaze NIN.

5. Rhythm and Sound with Willi Williams, "See Mi Yah (Hallucinator Remix)", Burial Mix (2006).

This remix seemed to come out of nowhere -- Hallucinator hadn't been heard from in ages but returned to remix "See Mi Yah" into a monstrous palate of echo and bass. This is what I always hoped that the long awaited/rumoured Scion and Tikiman album would sound like.

6. Shackleton, "Blood On My Hands (Ricardo Villalobos Apocolypso Now Mix)", Skull Disco (2007).

I often have pangs of doubt about the quality of this remix, which is related to the notion that Villalobos was completely half-assing here. The beat is so simple, it might as well be a Minimal Preset on a groovebox. I can picture him stapling that beat to the spooky vocal lines from the original track and proceeding to tweak filters for twenty minutes while sipping his coffee. On the other hand, the track is relentless, hypnotic, and scary as fuck. The line "when I see the towers fall ... fall ... fall", with its zombie-like delivery and spooked-out menace laid over zonked-out acid squelches, adds up to possibly the most unexpectedly great refrain of the decade (in any genre). On both sides of the coin, a collection of simple tricks done well can certainly result in something greater than the sum of their parts, which is basically minimal techno in a nutshell.

7. Ellen Allien, "Go (Marcel Dettman Remix)", BPitch Control (2007).

By mid-decade, a lot of minimal had fallen into a comfortable rut, but tracks like these symbolized a shift away from all that, as the genre stopped being all plink plonk and started to quake again. This might be the definitive Berghain track too, a record that sounds like the environment it was meant to be played in, eight minutes of horror dub, bleeding the reverberations of cold, monolithic stone slabs.

8. Pantytec, "Elastobabe (Soul Capsule's Cosmic Warrior Mix)", Perlon (2002).

On a personal level, this record was one of the most significant vinyl purchases I ever made. It completely exploded all of my preconceptions about what styles of techno I could conceivably like and profoundly influenced my future listening habits. My preferred styles were nicely pigeonholed, on one hand you had the Mills/Lekebusch-type bangers when you wanted the hard stuff, ultra-stripped down minimal or atmospheric dub techno when you wanted the softer stuff, and in between there was virtually nothing except for the odd Thomas Brinkmann record. Anything with vocals was dismissed without a second listen, nearly without exception.

On the surface, "Elastobabe" fit into that hazily defined "in between" area but there was a lot more to it than that. "Elastobabe" was ... strange. The vocals seemed to be swirling into a hidden vortex, garbling the lyrics and rendering them incomprehensible. The pulsing rhythms were infectiously danceable, but the record still had an alien, otherworldly feel to it. I had no idea what to make of the record, but knew I had to own it because it felt like one of the hardest techno tracks I'd ever heard, with enough bass to kill a small animal. In a way, I never forgave minimal techno for quieting down so much after this.

9. Motor, "Sweatbox (Chris Liebing Remix)", Novamute (2005).

Liebing stayed fiercely loyal to hard, banging techno (occasionally getting carried away into pop trance territory) even when those styles had seemingly lost their cred among all but a few music critics and fans living in Berlin. This is the one of the ultimate "more is more" tracks, with one of the most audaciously huge breakdowns ever committed to vinyl in the name of techno.

10. The Killers, "Mr Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke Dub)", Island (2005).

Jacques Lu Cont/Thin White Duke remixes will turn up in plenty of "best remixes of the decade" discussions, which is a testament to Stuart Price's remarkable ability to transcend genre boundaries over the past several years. Like Ric Flair in the 80's, Price has a formula (loop secondary melody line during intro, stomping chorus, bridge, stomping chorus, stir for approx. eight minutes and serve) and could plug virtually any artist (Colplay? yes, even Coldplay) into that formula and turn out a great remix. At the time, this searing tune from the Killers seemed like an unlikely candidate for a club banger, but fast forward a few years and you have Price producing the band's third album and hardly anybody blinks, so what did I know? I specifically chose the TWD Dub Mix, which to me is head and shoulders above the more commonly praised TWD ("Club Vocal") Mix thanks to stronger, beefier beats and more selective use of the vocals. When Brandon Flowers' voice crops up to sing the anthemic chorus after about five minutes of buildup, the effect is uncannily similar (at least for me) to Dave Gahan's voice hovering over the triumphant finish of the legendary Split Mix of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again".

11. The MFA, "The Difference It Makes (Superpitcher Remix)", Kompakt Pop (2004).

If you ignore the fact that the Beloved's "The Sun Rising" (whose legend was grown thanks to a million drug-fueled dancing-til-dawn parties) was not one of their better singles, you could say that this remix was "The Sun Rising" for the 00's without insulting Superpitcher's finest achievement. Its hazy, ambient synth washes (which are what MAKE the record, hands down) and slick, propulsive beats are as positive and uplifting as any balearic anthem ever conceived. Sometimes, it almost feels like it's a shame to dance to this song and not to simply bask in it, gazing at it as if it were a painting.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Party weekend

Most of the happenings during the Tabac Weekender were not really my style, but seeing Rhythm and Sound ft. Tikiman was a must. I still have strong memories of the Scion ft. Tikiman show that I saw in 2002 (which was one of the very best shows I have ever seen) and I couldn't miss the opportunity to see (some of) these guys again, to hope that they can reproduce the magic of their recordings together.

Warming up the crowd beforehand is "A1 - Live Dub PA", and from the title I was expecting a guy playing records while his friends joined in with percussion. In fact they were a full-fledged drums/bass/keys/brass live band, making this the most live "Live PA" I've ever seen. The guy working the mixing desk was punching buttons like an ADD-riddled child on a sugar rush, but otherwise, this was a strong, tight performance.

A few years ago, I saw Rhythm and Sound perform a DJ set in Toronto, IIRC, Tikiman was supposed to join them but had to cancel at the last minute. This performance was more or less what that one was slated to be -- Ernestus plays the records and works the FX, while Tikiman sings on top. He's such a great vocalist that it's great to watch him work no matter the material, but needless to say I miss the techno elements of this collaboration. They've sounded great together when they've stuck to more traditional dub reggae (on "See Mi Yah", for example), but I start losing interest when they venture into dancehall.

For their 6th Anniversary party, Pacotek went the extra mile and booked a fantastic double bill. Falco Brocksieper, performing live, worked an energetic set of streamlined, Detroit-ish techno that was fairly reminiscent of Dave Angel's mid-90's work. I was a bit surprised to discover that Mike Huckaby is a bit of a sloppy mixer behind the decks, but what he might have lacked in precision was more than compensated by his ability to keep the set flowing with one massive techno soul anthem after another.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lisa Germano, "Magic Neighbor"

It's shame that casual listeners and reviewers will hear this album and wave it away as just another Lisa Germano album. Every review will feature at least one Michael Gira reference and take note at Germano's signature talent for being simultaneously twee and glum. They'll tell you that it's a nice listen, and present a 7/10 rating to ensure that nobody other than her fans will get too excited about it. It's really a shame, because "Magic Neighbor" might be her best album.

Sure, it's partly Germano's fault. She's long since settled into a comfort zone where she's comfortable playing for her small and devoted fan base and has no interest in taking new risks to get noticed, which is why you don't see her trying to expand into piano-led dubstep or anything.

During the album's perfectly brief 34-minute run time, she repeatedly hits upon the magic formula that made "The Darkest Night of All" one of her very best tracks -- the combination of angst and heart-swelling delicacy, where the whole track floats gently by and you find yourself asking whether you dreamed the whole thing once it's over. It's her most "4AD" album, even more so than the albums she made for 4AD. It feels like dreampop even though it doesn't resort to a lot of studio trickery, which is a tribute to the strength of the songwriting, Germano's use of her voice as a simple yet powerful lead instrument, and light embellishments (echo or double-tracking on the vocals, using the piano pedals as subtle percussion as in "Snow") that give the album its other-worldly qualities. In fact, it's her simplest album in terms of instrumentation. With little more than piano or guitar carrying nearly every track, these are almost fully formed stage-ready arrangements for Germano's solo gigs.

The few mis-steps happen when Germano tries to be too lighthearted and cute, but it's a pill you have to swallow when you listen to her albums. On the title track we get the obligatory cat reference, "he must be G-d, he can turn cats into pieces of furniture, or a couple pieces of furniture" ... OK, she loves cats, we get it, but oh wow is that a horrible line. Even so, she buries this song midway through the album, so it's hardly a focal point on the record. Yeah, the sequencing here is also great, starting with the pretty instrumental piece "Marypan" (which acts like a mini-overture), bouncing between sombre tunes and lighter interludes like "Kitty Train", and finally dropping the hammer with the closing triumvirate of "Snow", "Painting the Doors" and "Cocoon". "Snow" is the album's standout piece, with its sparse opening swelling into almost unbearable tension by the end, reminiscent of (and comparable to) Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" (oh yes, I just went there, believe it, and if you play the songs back-to-back you'll notice the similarities too). After a two minute, piano-only intro, "Cocoon"'s refrain of "make the butterflies go away" feels devastating, regardless of whether you take the line literally or as a plea for the banishment of nervous feelings in the pit of one's stomach.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Priceless bit from Ralf Hutter interview

Pitchfork: What about the place of humor in Kraftwerk's music?

RH: It's really good humor, I think it's also very serious. It's simultaneous. So I don't know; I can't express in words, but it's in the music, and it's in the words, and I think people understand. It's also what I call "black humor", because we wear black shoes.

He blindsides you with that line and plays it completely straight, but that just *has* to be a joke, it just has to be. He might be a bit of an eccentric, but this is proof that Ralf Hutter is funnier than you. Read the whole interview here.

And this wasn't even the most awesomely bizarre music-relating thing I read today ... that honour goes to the news about Ladytron working with Christina Aguilera on her next album. She's done poppy, skanky, jazzy, and now ... goth-y? I'm there.

Orbital, Live at Manchester Academy, 18/09/2009

Orbital returned to gigging this year and amidst all of the bug-eyed excitement over the setlist, I quietly noted that it wasn't all that different than what they were playing over the last few years of their career (including the often wretched "Doctor" as an encore), plus, no tracks from "Snivilisation" and the worst track from "Middle of Nowhere" does not add up to my dream anything.

And of course, then I heard a live recording.

Reading the track list doesn't do the gig justice ... it doesn't capture the four minutes of "The Mobius" that gets dropped into the middle of "Out There Somewhere", or how "Lush" is repeatedly peppered with snippets from the still-arresting "Lush (Euro-Tunnel Disaster '94), or the way "Chime" also cycles through a bunch of different versions, or how "The Box" gets yanked out of mothballs and segues its way into "Doctor", which sounds like a disastrous transition on paper but works brilliantly because of how they tame most of the latter track's innate silliness. Orbital are BACK, and they've tweaked the old formulas just enough so that it actually feels like a near-complete reinvention ...

What's more, the timing of their comeback is fitting -- now that the minimal fad has receded and big, melodic anthems have picked up in popularity, Orbital's music feels more contemporary and relevant than at any time in the past ten years. After their "Orbital II"/"Snivilisation"/"In Sides" run, almost any follow-up album would have to be viewed as a disappointment, but ten years removed from that context, it's a lot easier to hear "Middle of Nowhere" as a stand-alone work and to recognize how brilliant and forward-thinking it is. At the time, I felt that the album peaked during the first minute of "Way Out", from that moment on, they said goodbye to the sweeping cinematic scenery that made "In Sides" so magical, and settled into being just another techno act. Well, I was wrong -- "Middle Of Nowhere" is a complex work, packed with more bleepy hooks than should be legally allowed, and "Nothing Left" is by far their most underrated single.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Old Fart Musician complains that things aren't what they used to be, film at 11

The musician in question is John Taylor of Duran Duran, and he actually makes a good (albeit not particularly original) point.

The internet has not stunted our collective musical growth, so ignore that slightly batshit comment for the moment.

However, there is unquestionably "immense power in restriction and holding back". Celebrities are celebrities because we, who are not famous, revel in watching people do things that we cannot do. You, me, and Kanye West can all post updates on Twitter. However, me and you will not appear on MTV.

Duran Duran became megacelebs because there is nothing cooler and sexier than being on TV and having your music played over video montages of the band lounging speeding yachts, throwing champagne parties, and frolicking with girls in skimpy bikinis. Of course, it was all possible because a few major labels controlled all the music, and one channel (MTV) controlled which videos were played -- when your video was in heavy rotation on MTV in 1983, EVERYONE saw it. Those times are long since gone, the industry is too fractured now. This fact seems to be lost on John Taylor.

But the question remains: given that attention spans are shrinking all the time, partly thanks to our gazes being averted to a zillion nodes in a multimedia sea, how can a musical artist seek the kind of "magnetic attraction" over that can only come with being *less* interactive with their audience? The formula has worked in dance music circles for decades (Burial, "who is Rex the Dog?", the list goes on and on). REM became exponentially more famous when they stopped touring in the early 90's and captivated music fans with two somber, emotionally draining albums accompanied by a series of unforgettable videos (this model for success is of course dead in the water now, I am simply pointing out what they did). Could the next wave of pop stars find their breakthrough by following Taylor's advice -- by finding a way to become more famous by receding from the spotlight? It would be a refreshing change ...