Friday, December 31, 2010

Arena - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Let's finish off the year with a bang with a documentary from 2008 that I saw this past week for the first time.


In this outstanding documentary by Vikram Jayanti for the BBC, Phil Spector does little to dispel the notion that he's nuts.

He never comes across as violent or threatening. He's not a physically intimidating person. He doesn't have an evil glint in his eyes that suggests he might be capable of doing some truly nasty things (like murder). The film didn't leave me with a shred of a clue on whether he really did kill Lana Clarkson. His left eye does look rounder and puffier than the right, it's a bit of a lazy eye, it's more sunken, the lines underneath it are sharper and more pronounced. It might not be fair to judge a person by a physical deformity, however small, but this slight asymmetry in his face is just enough to be offputting. It's a small detail, but it's noticeable, even subconsciously in my opinion.

He never comes across as "nuts" in the sense of being "dangerous". He's simply not in touch with the real world.

It's right there in the very first scene, in his living room in his LA home, the scene of the extended on-screen interview (the first such interview he's ever done, and probably his last) that is the centrepiece of the documentary. The piano that John Lennon used to write "Imagine" can be seen in the background, just over Spector's left shoulder. The interview was conducted about one month before the start of his first murder trial. He rattles on about the upcoming trial, insisting that it's not the trial that worries him, it's the verdict. He repeats himself, rewording the same sentiments with little variation in the choice of words (he does that a lot in this film). It's not the trial, it's the verdict. He's not making even the slightest attempt to proclaim his innocence. He doesn't talk about what might happen in the trial, or how the negative attention has impacted his daily life. Instead, he reassures us over and over that he's strong enough to stand trial and hasn't a care in the world about what might be said about him in the courtroom. He's actually bragging about it. As if anyone in the world, with the exception of Phil Spector, would be worried over that.


Fast forward a month to the trial and you're getting hit by sensory overload. The video cuts between trial footage and clips of the Crystals and Ronettes performing on TV in the 60's (those clips are fantastic, BTW, and can be easily found on Youtube ... that Ronettes clip has long since been a favourite of mine ... after "Be My Baby" they cover the Isley Bros. "Shout", you really need to see it), along with audio from the trial and subtitles (written by Mick Brown) that fawn over Spector's abilities as a producer. It's one incredible song after another, and the documentary makes a point of playing nearly all of them in full, which comes in handy for soundtracking those courtroom scenes so our ears can remind us about Spector the musical genius while our eyes get to see Spector the accused murderer being torn apart in the courtroom.


His distinctively thin, high pitched, nearly effeminate voice is now raspy and hoarse. The camera framing is just great, usually managing to capture both his face and hands in the shot. This is notable because Spector is constantly fidgeting with his hands. It's hard to tell if it's an involuntary shaking or a nervous habit, but he does it ALL the time, even while sitting quietly during his murder trial, listening to the testimonies.


Phil Spector is a liar. Or does he really believe the things that he says? Is he just forgetful? Is he trying to cast himself in a more sympathetic light, or to forget that certain things ever happened?

His father didn't die when he was "five or six", in fact he was nine years old at the time. How could anyone forget his own age at the time of his father's suicide -- an event that every biographer agrees was the most transformative event of his youth?

He tells a long story about how he chose not to sue Martin Scorsese over the use of "Be My Baby" in "Mean Streets". He claims that Lennon called him into the studio in London to show him the film. How would someone obtain a copy of a film by a then-unknown director in 1973? Also Lennon wasn't in London in '73, I may be wrong, but I thought he didn't even step foot in the UK after leaving for the US in 1971. Even so, the fact that this supposedly took place in the studio would mean they were recording "Mind Games" (recording started in Oct. 1973, the same month that "Mean Streets" was released) ... in New York.

Spector didn't write "Da Doo Ron Ron", Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry did. Spector routinely took partial songwriting credit for bringing the song to life in the studio (and deservedly so), but in the documentary he gives the clear impression that he wrote the song all by himself (while building himself up as a hero for being "brave" enough to change the title from "Then He Walked Me Home").

I have trouble believing that a guy so addicted to fine tuning the smallest details in his music doesn't know the running time of arguably his biggest song, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". It's not "four and a half minutes long" (at first mention) and it's not 4:05 (at second mention). It's 3:46. The anecdote about how he wrote "3:05" on the record label so that radio stations would play it is a really, really famous story. How can Spector himself not know how to tell it properly?


At times I feel that the documentary is trying to manipulate me, which is by far the biggest strike against it. It excerpts a interview from 70's where he's talking about his father's death, and then jumps a closeup of Spector from his trial, stoic and unemotional aside from his quivering hands, while Lennon's "Crippled Inside" plays in the background. There's also a section where "Then He Kissed Me" (arguably the purest and most innocent love song in Spector's catalog) is playing over trial footage of Spector's ex-girlfriends testifying about how he used to threaten them with guns. Director Jayanti wants to maintain "official" neutrality about his subject, so he tries to use Spector's own music to do the editorializing for him. Or at least that's what it feels like.


The best new insight into Spector's character comes when he compares himself to Galileo. He feels that he needed to prove himself and all the bad things that happened to him later on are simply the price he had to pay for being so damned creative, groundbreaking, and rebellious. Just like Galileo.

He also compares himself to Miles Davis in the sense that they both pushed themselves to do better because of the discrimination and criticism that they faced, and because so many people kept waiting for them to fail. I partly agree with Spector here.


Like I mentioned earlier, Spector repeats himself a lot when he talks. He'll say something, and then say it again in a slightly different way. He says it, but later on repeats it. He never says anything just once, he usually can't help himself from rambling on and eventually repeating whatever it is that he wanted to say. He says something, and it seems like he's searching for a more appropriate phrasing the second time around, but he's not particularly eloquent and more or less just repeats the same things over and over. So he says whatever it is he wants to say, and then finds a way to say it again. He says it, but then tells it to you again one more time.

And when you combine that manner of speaking with the occasional times when he goes off on tangents, you have a baffling little monologue on your hands. One time, he starts talking about "Be My Baby" and how hard it was to record, and compares it to the relative ease of Motown's recordings, and then jumps to Brian Wilson's obsession with the song, and then somehow goes off on how "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" -- not a great tune by itself, but a recording that was made by all the quick edits and studio trickery, because it's an edit record, like the way "Psycho" is an edit movie, not a great plot story by itself, but an edit movie, and just like "Good Vibrations" isn't a great song, but it's an "edit record", and hopefully Brian Wilson is smart enough to understand that "Good Vibrations" is an "edit record" ...

And you know what? He's right about "Good Vibrations". It *sounds* great, but I've never liked the melodies (particularly the verses). It's a great recording because there are a thousand screwy things all happening at once.


No interview with Spector worth its salt would be complete without some bizarre revelations. He's upset that he never received an honorary doctorate from a university, even though plenty of other people in the music industry did and guys like McCartney even got knighted. Oh, and the infamous shot of Spector with that ridiculously huge afro in the courtroom was a tribute to Ben Wallace (those are his exact words. As if I could have made that up).


Somehow, Spector gets more likeable as the film progresses. He comes off as so puny and harmless, and after a while his ego just becomes part of his charm. And all the great music in the documentary is enough to soften even the hardest heart.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pazz and Jop 2010

My ballot this year:


Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark" (Ici D'Ailleurs), 23 points
No Age, "Everything In Between" (Sub Pop Records), 20 points
Eluvium, "Similes" (Temporary Residence Limited), 12 points
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs" (Merge), 11 points
New Pornographers, "Together" (Matador), 8 points
Wavves, "King of the Beach" (Fat Possum), 6 points
Jonsi, "Go" (XL Recordings), 5 points
Bardo Pond, "Bardo Pond" (Fire Records), 5 points
Caribou, "Swim" (City Slang/Merge), 5 points
Yellow Swans, "Going Places" (Type), 5 points


Crystal Castles, "Celestica" (Fiction)
Donnacha Costello, "Roll It Out" (Poker Flat Recordings)
Eminem feat. Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie" (Aftermath, Interscope, Shady)
Glee Cast/Darren Criss, Teenage Dream" (Columbia)
Kanye West feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver, "Monster" (Roc-A-Fella)
Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg, "California Gurls" (Capitol)
Lady Gaga, "Alejandro" (Interscope)
Lady Gaga ft. Beyonce, "Telephone" (Interscope)
Petar Dundov, "Distant Shores" (Music Man Records)
Taio Cruz, "Dynamite" (Island)

I heavily weighted my album votes again this year, which replaces my earlier strategy of "it's a ranked list and therefore all points ties are copouts". The top four really are miles better than the rest (and the top two are significantly better than #3 and #4), and I wanted the points rankings to reflect that. The albums I feel most strongly about get the bulk of the points (66/100 for the top four), and the rest of them get the scraps.

I made a couple of changes with my the tracks list this year: I made a point of not including any music that made my albums list, and I submitted the list unranked (alphabetical). There are no points assigned to tracks, so ranking them has always been a strictly symbolic exercise anyhow. I wanted my tracks list to represent my favourite pop music and/or my favourite music released in a singles format, and to clearly distinguish those artists from my favourite albums artists. So these aren't the ten best tracks of the year, but you can think of them as "the best/most interesting pop music songs of the year IMO".

I voted for two Lady Gaga tracks both this year AND last year. I'm not sure if I have anything else to add to that, other than to say that it's a remarkable run of excellence that's unmatched in pop music in recent memory. If 2009 was the year of Lady Gaga vs Madonna, 2010 was the year that Lady Gaga settled the issue so decisively that she managed to blatantly steal from Madonna and virtually nobody even bothered to call her out on it. The video for "Telephone" is Gaga's "What It Feels Like For a Girl" and "Alejandro" is her "Express Yourself", but did anyone care? Hardly. It doesn't even matter who Lady Gaga's influences are anymore, she's an island unto herself.

My P&J comments:

1. For a couple of weeks this past November, the supposed death of the monoculture seemed greatly exaggerated when it felt as though every man, woman, and child had an opinion on the new Kanye West album. And we get to do it all over again when Lady Gaga's album is released next year!

2. I usually need a few listens to warm up to an album, even the very good ones. Having said that, Third Eye Foundation's "The Dark" completely slayed me the first time I heard it. It had been years since I was so bowled over by an album on the first listen. I even went through Third Eye Foundation withdrawal the moment the album was over, and couldn't stop thinking "when do I get to hear this album again?" right up until I could get my fix on the train ride home that evening.

3. I'll admit that the "Glee" version of "Teenage Dream" isn't such a brilliant single, but I voted for it because I like "Glee" and it's the only song from the series that seems to have serious legs beyond the show itself. And frankly, I'm curious about how well it might fare in this poll, so I don't mind stumping for it and stuffing the ballot box a little bit.

4. In large part, "success" in the music industry is still defined as the ability to sell as many albums as possible. The formula used to be simple: get your song into regular radio airplay, promote the hell out of the upcoming album, and sit back and wait for sales to roll in by the millions. Well, the 1990's are over. You can't kick back and wait for your album to build momentum any more, and no, allowing legal viewings of a video on Youtube doesn't count as a forward-thinking style of marketing. More than ever, major artists need to keep stoking the market with treats for their listeners.

Crystal Castles aren't exactly "major artists", but they did have a great year and their new single "Not In Love" is a good example of what I'm talking about. Instead of simply releasing the unedited album version as a single, they released a new version featuring The Cure's Robert Smith on vocals. Musically speaking, it's not anything to get excited about in my opinion (I still prefer the vocoder version from the album), but its main achievement was that it gave everyone an excuse to take notice of Crystal Castles again. It gave writers an excuse to review their music again, and websites an excuse to put the band on their news feeds again. And anyone who hadn't bothered to check them out earlier in the year now had now been reminded that they existed.
I briefly considered filling up my singles ballot with nothing but viral music videos and lipdubs. Maybe mainstream pop music has run out of ways to surprise me, as opposed to the seemingly limitless supply of freely distributed online video oddities.

5. Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" is a fantastic song, and not just because I wholeheartedly support pop music with synth riffs that take their cues from early 90's rave music. After the song became a huge hit, Mike Tompkins' acapella version of the song went viral (, then The Maccabeats covered Tompkins' version (albeit with Chanukah-themed lyrics ( and it went viral as well. And then, unexpectedly, something strange happened. I found myself liking the song even more, except that "the song" no longer meant just Taio Cruz, but rather his version plus all the other versions, assembled into some multi-headed beast that can't be broken down into its constituent parts anymore.

Maybe this is how the post-Glee, post-American Idol world is going to work -- everyone wants to be a karaoke star, and no song is untouchable any more. The song recorded in a professional studio and promoted internationally at a cost of millions of dollars ends up on the same pedestal as the cover version recorded in some unknown singers' bedroom or the 90-second truncated version sung by a just-discovered teenager on a TV talent show.

Pet Shop Boys, "Performance", "Pandemonium"

Pet Shop Boys' "Performance" tour is fondly remembered and with good reason. The duo were still at the peak of their critical and commercial powers and could basically do no wrong. The mere thought of staging such an audaciously theatrical exhibition of pop music (it would be a bit of an insult to refer to this show as a mere "concert") would have been risible in the hands of virtually any other group.

I've been a PSB fan for more than twenty years, "Always On My Mind" is in my inner pantheon of top 80's songs, and yet I've never seen them live and until now I'd never seen "Performance". How can I even think about trying to get caught up with all the new music being released when I can't even catch up with all the big moments in the careers of bands I've been a fan of since I was a teenager? BTW, I love the fact that there's still so much to hear and see and buy and discover about bands that I've been listening to for twenty years.

I don't completely understand the technical aspects of this, but I believe the DVD is a transfer from the original VHS master, so the video quality isn't as sharp as what you'd normally get with DVD's these days. But I think the fuzziness of the video actually enhances the viewing experience because of the soft lighting and odd camera angles.

In the first half of the show, Tennant and Lowe are fringe characters, it's as if they're making cameo appearances in their own performance. There's a whirlwind of activity going on around them and it's clear that the show is meant to divert attention away from them, which they succeed in doing for the most part. In the liner notes, they spoke about wanting to distance themselves from the idea of putting on a concert. Once you get rid of the hassles of playing instruments, then you're free to present a more creative product on stage. They explain that when you go to the opera, the orchestra is hidden from view and whatever it is they're doing during the performance is scarcely important. They conceived of a tour that would more closely resemble a modern dance performance (albeit one soundtracked by their music) than a concert, and they hired choregraphers, art directors, and dancers from the "serious" art and dance worlds in order to make it happen. It's no accident that they called it "Performance". Sure, you don't see crowd shots and encores (you know what I mean) when you go to the opera, but other than small details such as these, it feels like an authentic show you'd see in a "real" "concert hall". I felt underdressed while watching it in my living room.

Some people might have felt ripped off by going to a PSB show only to discover that the pop stars they paid money to see were reduced to being bit players (if they were living in a cave before the night of the concert and had no idea what they were in for). But you could say the same thing about plenty of pop concerts in the 90's and 00's -- a Britney Spears concert basically showed her as the featured player amidst a storm of dancers and wild sets, with hardly a band (or a microphone!) to be found.

The second half of the show is a bit looser, more "fun". It feels less like a challenge, artistically speaking, with all the pig masks and bizarre costumes, and more like a concert with the PSB's biggest hits.

They also took a bunch of risks with the setlist, skipping a number of big hits (e.g. "Heart", "Being Boring") in favour of two songs they wrote for Liza Minelli (in particular, "Losing My Mind" is incredible and is arguably the highlight of the DVD) and b-sides like "My Funny Uncle". Almost all of their risks paid off. They claimed that there was a semi-autobiographical story arc to the performance, which was sometimes obscured by, uh, certain artistic decisions (i.e. I'd rather watch the show than be distracted by wondering about how such and such a mask could possibly be related to the song). But what can you say about the likes of "Jealousy", when the story and music mesh together perfectly? When it works, it works.

Fast forward to 2009, and "Pandemonium" finds PSB's fitting nicely into their role as elder statesmen of dance pop (in this case, I've heard the live CD but only clips of the DVD). Neil Tennant isn't afraid to be the point man for the concert, crooning and egging on the crowd like most lead singers at most concerts. The video screens and costumes are a dazzling display of bright colours, and while some of the artistic pretentiousness is still there (e.g. dancers wearing large monocoloured cubes on their heads), it pretty much feels like the norm in a world where Lady Gaga is as mainstream as you can get. Wow, how much DID Gaga steal from the Pet Shop Boys?

My memories of the "Bilingual"/"Nightlife" period of the late '90's are very negative ... I remember them being excoriated by the press at the time for making mindless disco music for gay clubs instead of the witty, funny/sad sexually ambiguous pop that they had been known for. Except that the generally positive review grades that are collected on PSB's Wikipedia pages clearly contradict my recollection of how well their music was received (I never even heard the albums, just the singles). Still, I've never been able to warm up to a single like "New York City Boy". It was one thing to cover Village People ("Go West"), quite another thing to try to one-up them by writing original songs that are meant to sound like them. The song is OK, but it's hardly the best use of PSB's talents.

Otherwise, this is about as good a mix of old and new PSB as you could hope for. "Always On My Mind" still gives me a rush, "Why Don't We Live Together" is bubbly and charming, and their cover of "Viva La Vida" is a nice treat for a live audience. "Being Boring" feels like the most emotionally charged song on the disc. It's completely a period piece -- more than any other PSB song, it takes you back to a specific year and captures the spirit of a particular time that feels like it happened a million years ago. I've always thought it to be one of their most overrated songs -- I've *never* liked the chorus -- but the verses leave me with a lump in my throat, more so in 2010 than ever before.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010 Mix

Compared to the year-end mix I made last year, this one is a bit short on the "hits", with no Lady Gagas and David Guettas to be found. I'm fairly sure I listened to *more* pop music this year than last, but those songs didn't find their way onto this mix. I suppose I was going for a particular mood here -- a bit of variety at the start, noisy middle, soul-crushing finish -- rather than trying to present my favourite songs of 2010. I doubt any of these songs will find their way onto my P&J ballot, for instance (well, maybe one of the techno tracks will).

So why would you want to hear the mix and why did I pick these songs to "represent" 2010?

-- tracks from a number of my top ten albums of the year

-- really good tracks from good but inconsistent albums by notable artists (e.g. Autechre, Matthew Dear, Nitzer Ebb)

-- my attempt to mix together techno and Arcade Fire ... doncha know that AF use synths and you can dance to them now?

-- the fey and delicate Jonsi crushing your brain under the force of his titanic live set closer "Grow Till Tall"

-- I looped and FXed the bejeezus out of No Age's "Katerpillar", transforming it from a (far too) short 90 second interlude into a five minute noise mini-epic. I always loop it over and over when it comes up on my iPod, so why shouldn't you hear it the same way?


1. Nicki Minaj, "Girls Fall Like Dominoes"
2. Caribou, "Odessa"
3. Mark van Hoen, "Soyuz A"
4. Donnacha Costello, "Roll It Out (Original Mix)"
5. Jichael Mackson, "Locus Pocus (Original)"
6. Arcade Fire, "Half Light II (No Celebration)"
7. Autechre, "Ilanders"
8. No Age, "Katerpillar"
9. Infinite Body, "Dive"
10. Yellow Swans, "Going Places"
11. Nitzer Ebb, "Going Away"
12. Matthew Dear, "Innh Dahh"
13. Eluvium, "Cease To Know"
14. Jonsi, "Grow Till Tall (live)"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I've written about nearly every one of these albums this year (at length in many cases!), so I guess I can afford to keep this short. But my brevity shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm for these albums! For example ...

Quality! This was a good year for albums after a fairly weak 2009. My own top ten was the weakest it had been in years (well, since 2006, but before that you need to go back to 1998 to find such a weak collection of "top" albums). Although in most years there are two or three classics that stand apart from the pack, the overall quality of that year's music is more accurately represented by the quality of albums #4-10. Sure, my top three of 2009 were great and I'll still stan for them, and if you take them as a trio then they're better than my top three of 2006. But the rest of the list got a bit dicey, and 2006 was better a year overall for music.

Canadians! There are three Canadian acts in my top ten, the most since 2004 (which contained four).

Ugly! In all the years I've been compiling year-end lists, I don't think there's ever been a top ten with such an ugly collection of cover art. Seriously, there are like two, maybe three good covers here, and the rest of them range from barely passable to horrendous (#9 and #1 are great ... #4 gets a "maybe"). I have no idea what this could mean, but I'm 99% sure that it's nothing, just a fluke year where my favourite albums all had crap covers, so don't expect a post about the decline of the album cover.

So let's do this thing.


10. Yellow Swans, "Going Places"

Yellow Swans - going-places

The final Yellow Swans album didn't bring anything new to the table, in fact, you could say it was formulaic and therefore disappointing and I'd have a tough time arguing with that. But sticking to a formula doesn't have to be a bad thing, just insert the word "reliability" in its place instead (plenty of prolific noise acts made "reliability" their calling card ... Merzbow is an obvious example) and you'll see and hear that Yellow Swans on autopilot can still be pretty darn good.

9. Caribou, "Swim"


The first album from Caribou that felt like a proper "dance" album, and hopefully not the last. Swapping out the psychedelic element in his music for an extra dose of funkiness was a smart trade in my book.

8. Bardo Pond, "Bardo Pond"


This album was released only a week ago, so not enough time has passed to really put it in perspective. That fact, when coupled with my emotional biases when it comes to judging Bardo Pond (not to mention that this is the follow-up album to my #7 album of the 00's, "Ticket Crystals") then it seems almost certain that this #8 ranking can't possibly be right. In a month I'll be kicking myself for not putting in a few spots higher (or lower).

There's clearly a lot of great material here, but whereas "Ticket Crystals" was the most challenging album in Bardo Pond's catalog (they'd never attempted anything like "Montana Sacra II" or "Moonshine" before, and I think that sense of the unexpected is a big reason why it's such a rewarding record), "Bardo Pond" feels more superficial, like it's more a case of "what you hear [on your first listen] is what you get". It strikes a delicate balance between jamming off into the realm of forgetability and blissfully crushing you under the HEAVINESS of it all.

7. Jonsi, "Go"


I think this album surprised a lot people who thought that Sigur Ros were all about misty glaciers and bowed guitars, but it's actually not a huge departure from the "pop" songs on their last album.

6. Wavves, "King of the Beach"

Wavves - King of the Beach

Truth in advertising: go to Amazon (or any site that lets you hear samples of songs on albums before you buy them) and listen to the first ten seconds of the first track from this album. You'll know if you'll like "King of the Beach" based on that alone. Actually, it doesn't even have to be the first track, it can be virtually any track. I used to read reviews that complimented an album by saying "virtually any track could be released as a single" (what happened to those kinds of reviews ... are they extinct?), but that's "King of the Beach" for you.

5. New Pornographers, "Together"


I'm not sure if this is the best New Pornographers album ("Mass Romantic" and "Twin Cinema" offer stiff competition) but right now it certainly feels like their most consistent album. These guys make more or less the same record every time, so I'm not sure why this is their first appearance in my year-end top ten. But "Together" seemed to catch me in precisely the right mood this year. In a year (well, in most years) when I didn't listen to much indie rock, it was my go-to indie guitar pop album.

4. Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs"


I still don't think of myself as a big fan, and yet their albums always end up among my favourites from that year. I tend to forget they exist between albums -- I don't pine for new Arcade Fire albums, I don't scour the usual websites in search of news tidbits about them -- and yet every time they release a new album, I come to the inescapable conclusion that there are none better at doing what they do. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because I wrote pretty much the same thing three years ago, after the release of "Neon Bible".

I still maintain that "The Suburbs" is too long by about four or five songs, but there's it's been a while since the last really memorable Verve release (the term seems horribly dated now, especially after Verve's most recent reformation/implosion, but whatever). In any case, this is one of the best Verve releases you'll ever hear.

3. Eluvium, "Similes"


Like with his last album, "Copia", I needed a lot of time to grow into this one. The vocals, which seemed like an unnecessary gimmick after the first few listens, now feel like an inseparable part of this album's wonderful misery (no, that's not an oxymoron).

2. No Age, "Everything In Between"


This album represents a sensational leap in No Age's status from "punks who love their FX pedals" to "best reincarnation of late 80's MBV you're ever likely to hear".

1. Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark"


Best comeback album ever? FWIW, the last album that won me over so thoroughly after the first listen was Plastikman's "Closer".

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2010

Everything I wrote in this post from last year is still true, but I only realized just how true that post was (and is) when I started going through all of my music from 2010 in order to prepare for these lists. I was somewhat surprised to discover that I've collected stacks of techno mixes, but very few individual releases. It seems that I was so busy listening to podcasts all year that I didn't get around to listening to, uh, actual techno.

Nevertheless, here are my favourite mixes and podcasts of the year, listed chronologically. I didn't restrict myself only to "unofficial" releases, it just happened to turn out that way. In most instances, I've linked to the sites where the mixes were originally posted and although some of them aren't available for download from those sites anymore, it isn't too difficult to track them down elsewhere on the internet.

Shed, FACT Mix 116, January 18 (link).

This mix for FACT is a better introduction to Shed than either of his albums because neither of them manages to encompass the full palate of sounds he incorporates into his own tracks quite like this. It comes off like a preview of the smorgasbord approach he took with "The Traveller", except more energetic and unpredictable. And if we're voting for "transition of the year", I'm probably voting for "Shiner" --> "Digeridoo" (Live in Cornwall). (start listening around the 25-minute mark)

Autechre, 12 hour radio broadcast, March 2 (link)

Autechre painstakingly curated their love for techno and hip-hop and managed to join them at the hip with one jaw-dropping transition after another. If you don't have time to hear the whole thing then just listen to an hour -- virtually any one hour section from anywhere in the mix -- to understand why this broadcast was legendary upon arrival for good reason. This mix arguably could have been made ten years ago because most of these tracks aren't new. I'd like to think that it drew rave reviews not just because people enjoyed the trip down memory lane (although old tracks can still sound fresh if you haven't heard them in a while), but because the track selection and mixing were more adventurous than anything else out there right now.

Donnacha Costello, Little White Earbuds Podcast 46, March 15 (link)

In addition to the release of his new album "Before We Say Goodbye", Costello had an outstanding year behind the decks. His contribution to LWE was more or less an "Influences" mix that showcases Detroit techno and minimal while staying clear of the more obvious classics. Stylistically, the mix as a whole feels comfortable and familiar, even though the individual tracks are relatively obscure. If anything, it's a testament to the depth and overall excellence of these record labels.

JPLS, Plastikman mix for URB, April 6 (link)

To celebrate the return of Plastikman to the live arena, Jeremy Jacobs aka JPLS put together a mix of Plastikman classics for URB. In the first half of the mix, he breaks the tracks into micro-excerpts and re-assembles them into an entirely new whole, not unlike Richie Hawtin's "Decks EFX & 909" and "DE9: Transitions" mixes (more so the first ... the second was an altogether different level of complexity). In the second half, which is dominated by material from "Consumed", he lets the tracks play out like one long, extended coda. Once again, the source material isn't new, but the track selection and creative mixing make everything sound fresh, and of course it doesn't hurt that 90's Plastikman tracks never seem to age.

George Issakidis, Electric Deluxe Episode 021, July 12 (link)

The Electric Deluxe podcast was the most essential podcast of the year, hands down. I think most websites and podcasts would claim that they're not trying to follow the trends and don't want to be burdened by genre labels, rather, they just want to find the best music and feature groundbreaking artists who aren't afraid to leave their comfort zones and take a few risks. Many sites aspire to realize that vision for themselves, but Electric Deluxe succeeded at it better than anyone else. And among the best of the lot was George Issakidis' blissful, mesmerizing mix of ambient experimental weirdness (with occasional breaks for the likes of the Cocteau Twins).

MSF aka Donnacha Costello, Electric Deluxe Episode 025, August 23 (link)

Another mix from the incendiary Costello, this one a grandiose trip through minimal and dub techno, taking in a mixture of old (Dot Wiggin? Dot Wiggin!! First time I've ever heard Sandro Perri's pre-Polmo Polpo material in a DJ mix) and new tracks to create arguably the year's most infectiously danceable mix.

Gabriele Mancino, Modyfier Process 230, August 28 (link)

An uplifting mix that straddles the boundaries of house and techno, it starts out cheery, detours through dark periods of dub techno, and gets happy again by the end. Normally I retch at the sound of anything this summer-y, but for some reason this mix really got to me.

Silent Servant Radio MIX 2, Sept 23 (link)

And suddenly, I can hear the connection between modern day dub techno and late 70's/early 80's industrial and electronic pop. It all makes sense!

Terence Fixmer, Whatpeopleplay Podcast 35, October 3 (link)

Easily the best contemporary club techno mix I've heard this year, one hour of peak time, speaker-rattling, devastatingly heavy techno goodness.

Petar Dundov, Resident Advisor Podcast 236, December 6 ( link)

The quality and consistency of the Resident Advisor podcasts dipped in 2010 (after a fantastic 2009) but they saved their best for last (week), with Petar Dundov's sensational mix of "emotive" techno. Not only is Dundov's "Distant Shores" the year's most perfect techno track, but, as shown with this mix, it makes for a brilliant set closer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Glitterbug, "Privilege" and LIVE at the Sniff Club

Glitterbug's newest album appears to be a bit intimidating due to its over two hour running time. But it turns out to be very easy on the ear, ebbing and flowing like a well-executed DJ set. Glitterbug's debt to the Cologne sound is obvious, but I also hear strong currents of Donnacha Costello's atmospheric melodicism, Ullrich Schnauss' death-by-synth-overdose neo-shoegaze/dance, New Order's "The Perfect Kiss" gone the way of M83's "Couleurs", and Pentatonik's long-form melodic techno from the mid-90's (surely I'm the only person who hears it though ... anybody else?). There isn't any one section of the album where it horribly drags and you start wishing the guy had hired an editor, but at the same time, the album is merely consistently good but rarely great (those exceptions include "Calcutta" and "Waves", both of them dipping their toes into the kind of gaze-y dance music that I usually can't resist, and the 1993 Basic Channel vs 1993 Juan Atkins soundalike "Over Water (dub edit)").

Based on last night's set, Glitterbug's DJ sets are virtually mirror images of his own music -- the man plays the kind of music he likes to record himself, or vice versa. Either way, no complaints from me other than my own tardiness -- his set started earlier than I expected so I missed about the first half-hour. On the other hand, I arrived during the peak of his set and thus was immediately won over. On the third hand, when you arrive during peak time then everything goes downhill from that point. What can you do?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 10 -- A Very Glee Christmas

As far as Christmas-themed specials go, this one might have been the corniest I've ever seen. Maybe there's an episode of "Family Ties" that can top it, but otherwise, "A Very Glee Christmas" just about takes the cake, with a number of scenes bordering on unwatchable (although there were a few great one-liners scattered throughout). Considering the throwaway nature of the episode (in terms of plot and music) and the fact that I had absolutely no interest in hearing a preview of the soon to be best-selling Glee Christmas album, I figured I wouldn't even bother writing a review this week. But I changed my mind thanks to one performance that was too good to not write about.

"The Most Wonderful Day of the Year". D. Sure, when the characters aren't performing or rehearsing, we suspend our disbelief all the time when we watch "Glee". I'm talking about the scenes where people burst into song for the cameras and the viewing audience, like they're actors in a play or musical.

Asking me to believe that the "Glee" misfits arrange a Christmas carol singalong (complete with musicians wearing scarves and reindeer sweaters indoors and a fully decorated choir room) while hanging ornaments on a tree was something straight out of Munchkin Land. Sorry, I draw the line here.

"Merry Christmas Darling". C-. Your basic Lea Michele "impassioned" singing performance with the usual overblown staging and orchestration.

"Baby It's Cold Outside". A. The poses, the twirls, the hand gestures, Blaine's impromptu piano solo. Kurt making googly eyes throughout. The fireplace. Perfect interplay between their votes, flawless timing and delivery from start to finish. THE SEXUAL TENSION. The episode as a whole is junk, but this performance is one for the "Glee" highlight reel.

"Last Christmas". B. I'm probably overrating this because it's one of my favourite Xmas songs. Hearing it always takes me back to a certain time and place ... no, not the winter of 1984, but the winter of 2003 when I spent part of the holidays in Germany and heard it (along with the same Avril Lavigne, Xtina Aguilera, and BEP songs) on the radio several times per day. And the video is even cheesier than this episode of "Glee".

Finn tried too hard to look "conflicted" here, and the minor lyric changes and awkward looks between him and Rachel got in the way of what could have been a much stronger performance if they'd relaxed and simply sung the song instead of trying to make it "mean something" in the context of their relationship.

"Welcome Christmas". C+. This is the final song from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", and was supposed to be the big weepy conclusion to the Sue/Grinch storyline. Well, I didn't feel won over by the spirit of Christmas, probably because it was a very ordinary scene with some students performing a song for their smiling teachers. I have no clue why this was supposed to melt Sue's icy heart, so like she said on the show, "let's call it a Xmas miracle and leave it at that."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

2011 Grammy Nominations

No jokes about the always baffling eligibility rules this time, let's just look at some of the nominees:

“Beg Steal Or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs
“Forget You” (aka “Fuck You”) – Cee Lo Green
“The House That Built Me”- Miranda Lambert
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem feat. Rihanna
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum

This is quite the interesting selection of songs, artists, and styles, and you could make a compelling argument for any of them winning. Or stated differently, it's hard to think up good reasons why any of these CAN'T win. Normally we could eliminate the black hip hop-cum-soul crooner in a competition against a bunch of white folk and country artists, but in this case said crooner's song is a 60's Motown throwback that many voters might find difficult to resist. Normally we might reflexively eliminate the token country/folk/Americana song in the group, but we can't do that here because there are THREE of them, one of which ("Need You Now") was arguably the biggest pop hit of 2010. Normally we might eliminate the bratty, controversial hip hop artist and his hate-filled song about domestic abuse, except that Eminem is already an ELEVEN (!!) time Grammy winner.

At the end of the day, I can't see a song called "Fuck You" winning a Grammy for Song of the Year (even in its censored version), Enimem is the veteran who already has plenty of trophies so they probably won't feel the need to honour him again, and Ray LaMontagne is small potatoes compared to Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum who appeal to similar fanbases. But I can't shake the feeling that Lady Antebellum are going to own the 2011 Grammys.

Justin Bieber
Florence + The Machine
Mumford & Sons
Esperanza Spalding

It already feels like Justin Bieber has been around forever, so I was shocked to see him nominated in this category which can probably be chalked up to the stupid Grammy eligibility rules that I'm not supposed to be making fun of that discludes artists like Nicki Minaj because she "missed" some ill thought-out album release cutoff date. Is there any chance that Drake upsets the Beeb? Probably not.

“Nothin’ On You” – B.o.B feat. Bruno Mars
“Love The Way You Lie” – Eminem feat. Rihanna
“Forget You” (aka “Fuck You”) – Cee Lo Green
“Empire State Of Mind” – Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys
“Need You Now” – Lady Antebellum

This category is stacked, and if anything gets in the way of Lady Antebellum sweeping their way through the major awards, it'll happen here. I'd look for veterans Eminem or Jay-Z (who has won TEN Grammys?!?) to steal this one from the kids.

The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
Recovery – Eminem
Need You Now – Lady Antebellum
The Fame Monster – Lady Gaga
Teenage Dream – Katy Perry

This category is really really stacked. As happy as I am to see the Arcade Fire rubbing shoulders with the heavy hitters, they have no chance up against this kind of competition. Lady Gaga won't win because "The Fame Monster" was a stopgap mini-album (albeit probably the most successful stopgap mini-album ever) and the voters will hold off on it because her new album will be released early next year. This is probably Lady Antebellum's to lose, although I wouldn't be shocked to see Katy Perry sneak in for the win.

“Haven’t Met You Yet” – Michael BublĂ©
“This Is It” – Michael Jackson
“Whataya Want From Me” – Adam Lambert
“Just The Way You Are” – Bruno Mars
“Half Of My Heart” – John Mayer

So we've got two guys with legitimate hits, two guys who the critics hate but Grammy audiences and voters love, and a guy who will have been dead for nearly two years by the time the awards are given out. I will laugh so hard if Michael Jackson wins this. Heck, he probably will. At least Ray Charles had been dead for only eight months when he won for Album of the Year in 2005.

“Empire State Of Mind” – Shawn Carter, Angela Hunte, Burt Keyes, Alicia Keys, Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic & Alexander Shuckburgh, songwriters (Sylvia Robinson, songwriter) (Jay-Z & Alicia Keys)
“Love The Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers, songwriters (Eminem & Rihanna)
“Not Afraid” – M. Burnett, J. Evans, Marshall Mathers, L. Resto & M. Samuels, songwriters (Eminem)
“Nothin’ On You” – Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Bobby Simmons Jr., songwriters (B.o.B Featuring Bruno Mars)
“On To The Next One” – Shawn Carter, J. Chaton & K. Dean, songwriters (G. Auge & X. De Rosnay, songwriters) (Jay-Z & Swizz Beatz)

I guess that Eminem and Jay-Z were just about the only people to release a rap song this year!

These Hopeful Machines – BT
Further – The Chemical Brothers
Head First – Goldfrapp
Black Light – Groove Armada
La Roux – La Roux

This category is as meaningless as they come. You know how people always ridicule the Grammys for nominating old guys like Robert Plant and Eric Clapton every time they put out a record? This is the "electronic/dance" equivalent of that -- a bunch of safe, veteran acts to go along with Goldfrapp and La Roux's 80's flashbacks (although they both made some really good music, their albums are a friendly and palatable form of "electronic" music that the voters are sure to enjoy). I hope La Roux wins, which probably means it'll be party time for Groove Armada.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Grading "Glee" -- Season 02, Episode 09

This storyline of this episode was about breaking out of safe, predictable patterns, and yet paradoxically it was the most formulaic "Glee" episode in some time. When the underdogs become the favourites, it gets more difficult to root for them. Sectionals felt like an afterthought this year, it was never treated as a do-or-die competition like it was in last year's episode. Almost everything that happened in this episode was lacking in drama and intrigue, from New Directions' victory to Kurt having a tough time fitting in at his new school to the couples bickering and making up by the end of the episode like it was an 80's family sitcom. The only thing that felt real was Rachel's caustic, desperate cry to Finn, "you said you'd NEVER break up with me", but that had nothing to do with the music.

"Don't Cry For Me Argentina". C. It's nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for Kurt's character at this point. In review:

1) He cynically introduced his father and Finn's mother as a ploy to get cuddly with Finn. Finn became so uncomfortable around him that they had a big falling out, which Kurt's father blamed entirely on Finn. Although Kurt's father eventually learned the truth about what had been going on (one season later!), Kurt never apologized for anything.

2) Finn took nearly all the heat for not protecting Kurt in a number of episodes, although in most of those instances Finn wasn't entirely at fault. Sometimes these misunderstandings happened because Kurt refused to be completely honest, but Finn was always the one who came off looking bad to those around him. Kurt always allowed Finn to take the fall for him and never apologized for it.

3) Instead of sticking to a simple "thank you", Kurt chewed out his friends for praying for his father following his heart attack. Say all you want about the maturity level of rebellious, troubled teenagers, but if people want to show their condolences and want to help you, then LET THEM and be thankful for having such good friends. Kurt never properly apologized for any of this.

4) Once Karofsky started getting on Kurt's case, he yet again allowed Finn to take the blame for not protecting him. All of Kurt's friends went the extra mile to look after him around the school campus and to make his father's wedding a huge success. At the wedding, Finn said that Kurt is like a brother to him and was the person who taught him how to be a man. To repay Finn for his humility and to show him how much he values Finn's opinion and his friendship, Kurt transferred to another school without any warning. Of course he never bothered to tell anyone that the real reason he's transferring is to be closer to his boy toy.

Now tell me, in light of all that, why should we care about inconsequential details of Kurt's life like whether gets a solo part with his new glee club? And why would Rachel want to do even the tiniest thing to help her competition? This performance's calling card seems to be the fact that they sing the song in the same key. That amusing tidbit raised the grade to something halfway respectable.

"The Living Years". C+. Am I supposed to find something poignant about old people singing a song about death? Should I admire their bravery in standing defiant in the face of the jaws of death that could spit out their bones at any moment? At least the seniors themselves were game, and put forth a big effort to make the performance watchable.

"Hey, Soul Sister". B-. The Warblers' M.O. is becoming clear -- they take modern pop hits and make them so white bread that you can scrape the penicillin off the crusts when they're done. And their choreography is horrendous.

"(I've Had) The Time of My Life"/"Valerie". B/B. Mr. Schue was right -- "Glee" isn't the Finn and Rachel show anymore, and giving other characters their time in the spotlight is a Good Thing. But there wasn't anything special in this performance, nothing we hadn't seen a million times before, and that's largely because they didn't pull out all the stops using their best talent. Was I supposed to be touched by the Sam/Quinn relationship blossoming right there on stage like Finn and Rachel's did one year ago? Was I supposed to be moved by Mike Chang making the most of his leading dance role and Artie's "inspirational" speech to Brittany? New Directions' Season One Sectionals and Regionals performances were worthy climaxes to their respective half seasons (both were worthy of at least A's), but this was the very definition of ordinary.

"Dog Days Are Over". C+. I'd never heard or heard of this song, but it fell into the tired old "Glee" trick of using a throwaway tune with a title that approximates the sentiment that they'd like to end the show with.

Shed, "The Traveller"

This album earned rave reviews, but I started writing this post to talk about how disappointing it is.

Shed's last album, "Shedding the Past", was a blueprint for the modern techno album, with track after epic track of bumping techno rhythms inflected by dub, broken beat, and dubstep. It too was a bit overrated (RA ranked it in their top 20 albums of the 00's), but there's no denying that its success, coupled with some high profile appearance such as his festival-stealing set at MUTEK, made "The Traveller" one of the year's most anticipated techno releases.

Shed's prior work, which includes high profile podcasts from earlier this year for the likes of RA and FACT, shows that he refuses to confine himself to a techno cubbyhole. On the "Traveller", he tries to expand that kitchen sink approach, foregoing almost any attempt at producing a dancefloor friendly album in favour of a diverse array of styles whose running times rarely extend much past four minutes. The problem is that nothing really happens on the album's first half, and it's only when the purer techno of "HDRTM" and "My R-Class" show up that the record kicks itself into gear. Up until that point, it feels like an album of beat explorations, and nothing gets enough time to develop into anything interesting, with the exception of the Scorn-like dub of "The Bot", whose six minutes of sparse beats feels more like 20.

At least that's what I thought after my first listen. But there's a reason why some albums demand repeat listens. Now I think "The Traveller" is pretty great, more or less for all the same reasons that I listed in the previous paragraph although I still think that it's a bit slow in the first half and could use one or two more techno-oriented tracks. And why haven't more contemporary artists mined the 1990-1 sound of Sheffield bleep, like Shed does on the fantastically bass-heavy LFO pastiche "Hello Bleep!"?