Saturday, December 29, 2012

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2012

Like in 2011, there was more of the usual podcast greatness in 2012.  Next year I'm resolving to hear a wider range of mixes that crisscross genres I wouldn't normally listen to.  More stuff like Ryan Hemsworth's FACT mix, for example, and less techno.  Inventive mixes with inspired track selections spanning different genres are what keeps the Electric Deluxe Podcast comfortably at the top of the podcast heap, with no end in sight to their run of excellence.

Nochexxx, LWE Podcast 111, February 6 (link)

A soothing and often perplexing mix of ambient and experimental music, he crams 32 tracks into 70 minutes but it doesn't come off as hurried in the least.  No matter how many times I hear this mix, I'm still shocked when I check the tracklist about twenty minutes and realize that it's already up to track fifteen or so.  It's an especially amazing effort considering he was sick with the flu when he made this.

DJ Harvey, Resident Advisor Podcast 300, February 27 (link)

Harvey described this mix as "an Afro, Gothic disco-fusion with dark undertones", and you won't catch me coming up with a better description than that.  A truly unique mix by a truly unique DJ.

JD Twitch (Optimo), White Light 54, March 6 (link)

Similar in style, and possibly even better than the famous Schwarz/Dixon/Ame "Grandfather Paradox" mix.

Matthew Dear, Resident Advisor 306, April 9 (link)

If I had to pick one mix from 2012 to play at a party for non-clubgoers that would hopefully keep them all dancing the whole night, it would be this one.

Fred P aka Black Jazz Consortium, TAL080, April 12 (link)

This was the best "DJ takes you on a journey" mix of the year, beginning with house and gradually getting deeper and darker into dub techno.  The transitions are so seamless and subtle that I often find myself zoning out while listening and having to skip back ten or fifteen minutes to remind myself how Fred P got from A to B.

Tommy Four Seven, BALANS020, July 2 (link)

The best mix of deep, dark, cavernous techno I heard this year.  It hits its peak and quickly reaches a point where it feels like he's dialing it down and the mix feels like its very nearly over ... only to keep going for another thirty minutes, getting progressively darker as it goes.  

Tim Sweeney, Groove Podcast 009, June 29 (link)

Tim Sweeney mixes house and techno in combination as well as anyone in the world right now.

Submerge, Electric Deluxe Episode 074, July 16 (link).

I could probably do a separate list of the top ten EDLX podcasts, that's how consistently great they've been.  It's impossible to pick just one favourite, but if I must, I'll go with this huge (2 h 40 m) mix of classic (mostly 80's) techno, house and industrial that perfectly represents the Electric Deluxe M.O.

Karizma, Strategik Rework Mix, July 26 (link).  An entrancing set of house music from Baltimore's Karizma that floats effortlessly from peak to peak.  

Slow To Speak, FACT 351, October 15 (link).  This is one of those times where you read "tracklist not provided" and can't accuse the DJ of being lazy, because this completely bonkers mix defies reduction to a simple tracklist.  Seeing how they've chopped and layered a ton of things all at once everywhere in the mix, you'd need to be an expert trainspotter to identify anything even with the trackist sitting in front of you.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

I've long since given up trying to regularly follow scenes, trends, or even labels.  It seems that every year I write about how my listening habits -- and therefore my end-of-year lists as well -- are increasingly subject to luck and randomness, and about how I've more or less come to accept (or even embrace) that notion as the years go by.  In that sense, I can feel secure that I've "done my job" if I can say that parts of my top ten list would have looked totally alien and unbelievable to me one year earlier.  In other words, if you could travel back in time and show me this list one year ago, my reaction should be "huh?? In a year's time I'm going to go nuts over [Indie/Techno Act I've Never Heard Of]?"

This list has a few surprises of that sort, but there are even more albums that hit the other extreme where you might need to check your calendar to confirm for yourself that it's 2012 and not 2001.  Yes, it was a good year for big names making great comeback albums.

So ...


10.  Voices from the Lake feat. Donato Dozzy & Neel, "Voices From the Lake" (Prologue)

Seeing how it's a techno album best not heard outside of your bedroom anytime before 2 AM, this effort by Voices From the Lake isn't for everyone.  It reminds me of the albums released by Starfish Pool in the latter part of the 90's (more specifically, everything after 1996's "Interference") -- woozy, minimal techno tracks that go on forever and dial down the temperature in the room while still being eminently danceable. 

9.  Matt Elliot, "The Broken Man" (Ici D'Ailleurs)

Matt Elliot's journey into folk rock enters its second decade and finds him stretching his sparse balladry to even more epic lengths, with three tracks at or exceeding the ten minute mark.  The Drinking/Failing/Howling Songs trilogy saw him gradually move toward beer-soaked Tom Waits territory, but with "The Broken Man", he ditched the alcohol for solemn tales of loneliness and lost love.  Plus, the expressiveness of his guitar and piano playing continues to grow with every album. 

8.  Silent Servant, "Negative Fascination" (Hospital Productions)

I listen to a lot of mixes and podcasts but that music almost never crosses over into my album listening habits, and I've never been sure why.  I knew Silent Servant very well from his mixes, where he was equally at home playing deep, heavy techno as he was with 80's techno pop and industrial.  His debut full length album was a perfect melding of those two sides of his personality.  "Negative Fascination" felt familiar from the very first listen, I felt like I'd heard it a million times before, and in some sense I had because Silent Servant's podcasts had already prepared me perfectly for his vision of what a techno album should be. 

It's also really refreshing to hear a techno album that's shorter than forty minutes in length. 

7.  Swans, "The Seer" (Young God Records)

Swans deserve all the praise they're getting for their monumental comeback.  I'm a bit surprised that "The Seer" has had this kind of impact, because is certainly not an easy listen. It's long, it's devastatingly heavy, and it's not something you put on unless you're in exactly the right mood for hearing it.  In many ways, it's an album that you admire rather than enjoy, like a classic book that sits on your shelf for years and is rarely read.  Like all two-hour albums, "The Seer" has its flaws, but every one of those ups and downs is essential to the fabric of the album.  You can't just skip to the best parts, you need to be patient and wait them out to properly absorb the album's power.

6.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah!  Don't Bend!  Descend!" (Constellation)

I have to admit that the twenty minute compositions with the predictably monster endings might not age well over years of listening.  I think I learned my lesson there with "Yanqui U.X.O.".  Instead, it's the long droning interludes that hold the album together.  "Levez vos Skinny Fists ..." is their best album because of the combination of long dramatic pieces with the field recordings and other assorted oddites.

5.  Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (Double Six Recordings)

Despite its inconsistency, this was the best album from Spiritualized in over ten years, and a surprisingly uplifting, hope-filled effort considering a) most Spiritualized songs are about broken hearts and drug spirals, and b) the (literally) painful circumstances surrounding the recording.

4.  Actress, "R.I.P." (Honest Jon's Records)

Electronic music fans sometimes pine for those days in 1998 when Boards of Canada and Autechre were in their bleepy, moody phases and were releasing music that sounded much like this.  But "R.I.P." is much more than a nostalgia trip.  It not only meets, but easily exceeds the quality of those 90's benchmark albums, twisting those antiquated tones into fascinating new shapes, leaving nearly all the IDM copyists in the dust while still managing to sound almost nothing like them.  "R.I.P." feels like a partial redefinition of the boundaries of techno, and for me, this is the album where Actress finally started living up to all of the hype and then some.

3.  Raveonettes, "Observator" (Vice Records)

One could argue that a band whose music is as derivative as that of the Raveonettes isn't capable of making a great album, virtually by definition.  For instance, you could say it's ridiculous to claim that their 2008 album "Lust Lust Lust" is better than Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" because if it's such a transparent attempt to duplicate the original, then it can't have anything new to say.  In trying to be too much like "Psychocandy", it can't make us think about that album in a way we haven't thought about it before.  

First of all, "Lust Lust Lust" is much better than "Psychocandy" because it's executed better -- with better tunes, better vocals, and better harmonies.  You can call the feedback and murky production a tie.

And "Observator" is much better than "Lust Lust Lust" because whereas the latter does one or two things well (because that's all it needs), the former does a bunch of things well, or more specifically, each song excels at something different from all the others.  

2.  Sigur Ros, "Valtari" (Parlophone) 

I still can't figure these guys out, just when I thought they might be going pop (on their last album), they went the opposite way and became the Icelandic Stars of the Lid.

1.  Beach House, "Bloom" (Bella Union)

I'm a bit tired of reading about other people's favourite albums of the year, not least because I feel bad about not having time to listen to them all.  Sometimes its better just to avoid tasks that seem too overwhelming.  And I can't stand critics lists where they try to justify their pick with some kind of higher cultural significance, i.e. "in a year where [signficant political event] dominated the landscape, [album] encapsulated the times perfectly."

As great as 2012 was for music, Beach House's "Bloom" was my album of the year by miles, and this was never in doubt almost from the first listen.  Even so, if you haven't heard it already then you probably don't have the time or energy to listen to it because just like everybody else (including me), you've got a backlog of other albums that you hope you catch up with one of these years.  I get that.  

So rather than sit in front of the computer for hours, hopelessly trying to write the perfect blurb about how incredibly great "Bloom" is, for people who will likely never get around to listening to it no matter what I say, I've picked out the best bits of the album -- the very best part each of its ten songs -- and edited them together for your listening convenience.  Now you only have to spend a breezy 1:45 to hear the very best that "Bloom" has to offer.  Well, perhaps not the absolute very best, because I could have picked out a few dozen fantastic moments just from the opening song, "Myth".  But I wanted to have the entire album represented.  

I have no idea if this will excite anyone enough to go out and hear the entire album for themselves.  The truth is that I was more worried about ruining the album for myself.  If you keep rewinding and rewatching a scene from a movie or TV show, you run the risk of ruining that scene by oversaturation, and losing your enthusiasm for the rest of the movie because you only want to fast forward to get to the best scenes.  Fortunately, I've heard the 1:45 version of "Bloom" a number of times already and it only makes me want to put the album on repeat and never take it off.  

Now that's a great album.  

"Myth", 1:12 - 1:20.  Probably the best Cocteau Twins impression ever ("Heaven or Las Vegas" era), which includes about 70% of the music recorded by the Cocteaus.  

"Wild" :59 - 1:08.   Out of all the "Saint Etienne goes shoegaze" moments on the album, this might be the best.  

"Lazuli", 1:59 - 2:13.   This short bridge might be the finest moment on the album.   

"Other People", 2:19 - 2:27.  Another brief bridge/interlude.

"The Hours", 1:16 -1:31.  Of course the best part of this song had to be the chorus, because it's the best chorus on the album.  It actually pained me to cut this clip down to less than fifteen seconds.  

"Troublemaker", 1:49 - 1:56.  It's the weakest song on the album, but the chorus still delivers.

"New Year", 1:54 - 2:05.  This is during the mid-song break where there's a "Loveless"-lite passage with wailing guitars and other noises that sound like seal cries.  

"Wishes", 2:20 - 2:27.  Yet another great instrumental passage.

"On the Sea", 4:40-4:51.  I had no choice but to go with the big finish.

"Irene", 4:02 - 4:09.  The repeated refrain in the song's last three minutes can't be topped, but it also can't be easily excerpted.  So I chose the moment when the guitar revs up again and starts re-entering the song in full force, because that's the exact moment when the "Hey Jude" repeat until forever ending becomes an inevitability.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two techno links

In XLR8R's "The Art of the Mix CD" feature, Derek Opperman wonders if the mix CD still means anything in the age of free mixes available in every corner of the internet.  His panel of interviewees (all of whom recently released a commercial mix CD) say yes, although would you expect them to say no?  It would be like saying "don't buy my CD, there's no point to it".  The consensus seems to be that the CD is a more carefully curated mix of songs compared to the typical free online mix.  Plus the CD can offer other perks, like exclusive unreleased tracks and special packaging, that you won't get in an online mix.   

But you have to read all the way to the end to hear the punchline, courtesy of Jack Dunning aka Untold -- "I'm kind of glad that we got [this mix CD] out this year, because in one, two years' time, I don't know if it'll be viable from a distribution point of view".  One thousand words reporting on the supposed magic and relevance of the mix CD, but by the end, they basically admit that the mix CD won't exist in a few years time!  I also think that the music world will lose something forever when the mix CD goes the way of the homemade mixtape, and I'm also fairly sure that Dunning is right.  

Mario Kolonić Pytzek interviews journalist Philip Sherburne for Burek, and Sherburne is on point as usual.  I was surprised to read that he's grown out of clubbing somewhat and finds the time to spend 10-12 hours a day listening to and reviewing music.  I would have liked to hear more about how records generate "buzz" these days.  People have been discussing consensus building and the hivemind mentality (online or otherwise) since forever, but music discovery, purchase/download, and consumption habits are constantly in flux and I would have liked to hear more from Sherburne on the topic.  Plus, his comment that "writers and editors gravitate toward what is already getting 'buzz'" is a bit of a dodge -- after all, where does that buzz originate?  Don't those same writers and editors look to generate it from their own writings, at least some of the time?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Woob, "Have Landed"

The first Woob album, "Woob 1194" remains a masterpiece of ambient music and one of my ten favourite albums of the 1990's.  After countless listens, I can still be shocked and surprised by its endless twists and mood changes.  Woob's "comeback" album, "Repurpose", contained a mixture of new and reworked older material, and although the new recordings didn't reach the high standards set by his best 90's output, they were plenty good enough to satisfy curiosity seekers that Woob still had "it" after all this time.  After seventeen dormant years, coming back and sounding like a perfectly acceptable version of yourself is a victory for fans and the artist.

That's why Woob's newest album is so disappointing.  I've listened to this album a bunch of times, trying to figure out who or what this version of Woob is supposed to be, or for whom this music was written for, and I'm no closer to figuring it out than I was after my first listen.  Most of "Have Landed" comes across as an audition reel for future soundtrack work.   Parts of "Space Therapy" and "Thieves" could be a the beginnings of a new ballet production, or perhaps his attempt at rewriting a "Lion King" musical.  "Finale" is a slice of ambient jazz for those who wished the Em:t label releases would have sounded more like Ninja Tune.  As to whether any such people existed in the 90's (or today), I have my doubts.

Woob isn't afraid to experiment on "Have Landed", and there are plenty of odd sounds and dramatic shifts in mood that one would expect from a Woob album.  It's a breezy listen and seventy minutes tend to just fly by, but soundtracks usually aren't the main event, they're the background music that enhance the real action on the screen.  But there's no movie, and no action, which means that on its own, "Have Landed" is mostly forgettable once its over.  

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Grammy nominees 2013

Here's a list of the nominees in the major categories on Grantland, and Grady Smith wrote some good commentary about the nominees for EW.

Quick thoughts:

My first, cynical reaction to the spate of Frank Ocean nominees is that the Grammy voters won't take to the narrative like most critics are.

Fun will win Record of the Year.  Is this as obvious as it seems?  Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" was a huge hit too, but might be too unconventional for Grammy voters.  Although I'm still shocked that it was such a megahit precisely because of its oddball nature, even nine months after the fact. So I guess it wouldn't be a shock if it were to win.  I suppose Taylor Swift could eke out a surprise win too.  But I'll still put my money on Fun.

Grantland's Amos Barshad thinks that Mumford and Sons have Album of the Year wrapped up, but never underestimate the potential for a surprise win by an old fart act (see: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Steely Dan, U2 in '06, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles winning posthumously, etc.).  However, young acts have won  in each of the past three years, so is this a trend or does it mean an old fart win is overdue?  This year, the well established granddaddy rock act would be Jack White, and that's my pick.

No Canadian has ever won for Song of the Year, so I'm happy to root for Carly Rae Jespen and her songwriting partners here.  Other than that, I still don't understand how Song of the Year and Record of the Year are supposed to work, i.e. how they can only have two nominated songs in common between them.  It's not 1960, all eleven nominees (nine songs in total) are original songs!

Best Dance Recording ... yeah, let's just move on ... Best Dance Album ... moving on once again ...

Best Rock Performance.  Just engrave Sprinsteen's name on the trophy now.  He's won eleven Grammys with "rock" in the title in the last decade (Best Rock Songs, Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance, and some others with even more ridiculous titles), in other words, he wins this Grammy every time he releases a new album.  Jack White might grab a win in one of the other Rock categories, but otherwise this is Springsteen all the way.  

Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance nominees include Anthrax, Marilyn Manson, Iron Maiden, and Megadeth.  What year is it again?  Somehow this is the oldest of old fogey categories in the Grammys this year.

Best Alternative Music Album.  Grady Smith notes that these nominees have nothing in common, which goes to show that the Grammys have no idea what alternative music is or how to define it.  But that's what makes this group of nominees so interesting!  It's an interesting grouping of well regarded albums, and there's no  obvious cliched narrative that gives you a clue as to who might win.