Monday, December 30, 2013

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 16

"The irony-emphasizing quotation marks underline the mix's futility" - 107 minutes.

For my last post of the year, here is my latest mix. I was originally looking to put together something stylistically similar to Podcast Ep. 6, i.e. a mix of short, semi-radio friendly songs for a lazy afternoon with a dash of weirdness thrown in.  I started gathering tracks from rarely listened to CD's in my collection and ... realized that the mix was shaping up to be something completely different from that.  I ended up with a long list of songs that I wanted to revisit in some fashion, and invested quite a bit of time trying to come up with a track order and ideas for forcing them all together into the same mix.

The mix was recorded in one take and besides some simple mastering, it's completely unaltered from the original take.  Despite a few mistakes and imperfections, I decided to leave it alone and enjoy it as is.  I hope you do too, and bye until 2014.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2013

I think I crossed a threshold this year where I now enjoy listening to podcasts more than going out to dance in the actual clubs.  Maybe it's a passing phase, or a part of the aging process, or simply an indication of how many great podcasts are downloadable on a regular basis.  Perhaps the biggest factor is the time restrictions on the average podcast.  Technically there are no time restrictions (e.g. Autechre laugh in the face of fatigue and short attention spans once in a while) but practically, podcasts are often confined to 60-90 minute run time.  Of course this is not all that new -- mix CD's have been around for twenty years and counting.  But the mix CD is usually a condensed version of what that DJ would tend to play in the clubs, whereas a podcast can take a number of different forms.  Want to show a different side of yourself and record a mix of classic soul instead of the techno that your fans are accustomed too?   Psychedelic rock might not play in the club but nobody's stopping you from tacking on a few of those tracks to the end of a podcast.  In the battle between a four hour marathon set in the wee hours of the morning and a bite sized 80 minute mix tape I can hear in the afternoon at work, I've been siding with the latter.  It's like the clock has been turned back twenty years and I'm taping songs off the radio again, wondering what it'll be like if I could get into the big, famous dance clubs.

I was surprised to see so many FACT mixes on this list.  It's not that I followed their weekly mixes all that closely, but it seems like every mix I heard from them this year was stellar (honourable mention to Floorplan's FACT 400 mix).

Selvagem, Beats in Space # 672 (Discoteca Hallucinante mix) (April 10)

Definitely the year's most unique, infectious, and baffling mix.  Eighty minutes of Brazilian funk, disco, house, and lounge rock from who knows which year, and who knows which artists.  Apparently they organize these kinds of parties once a month in Sao Paulo, but the mix could have conceivably been recorded at any time between 1985 and today.

Green Velvet Electric Playground 008 (April 12)

Green Velvet's weekly 30-minute podcast is always good, but I'm going with the first one I heard this year.  Could anyone else in the world have pulled off "Bigger Than Prince"?

Silent Servant, HNY 181 (May 29)

I'm sure that Silent Servant can pull off these 80's techno pop sets in his sleep, but they're always killer.  Is there anyone better in electronic music at combining nostalgia and contemporary sounds?

Prins Thomas, 66 min shoehorning (June 14)

Space-y lounge disco, or IOW, what you'd expect from Prins Thomas after he rolls out of bed, sips a coffee, and starts up a mixtape to wake himself up.  It's more laid back and restrained than his usual stuff, and that's what I love about it.

DJ Koze, FACT mix 387 (June 17)
Jon Hopkins, FACT 388 (June 24)

I listened to both of these mixes a lot more than the highly acclaimed albums from these two artists.   They're the "influences" mixes that provide the background for the albums, and featuring some of their new tracks to really drive home the comparison.

Material Object, CLR 234 (August 19)

A devastatingly heavy mix of cavernous techno, this is the one podcast on this list that demands a club listening experience (this is true for all CLR mixes in general).

Vatican Shadow, Fabric promo mix (September 5)

A 45-minute advertisement for his then-upcoming live set at Fabric, i.e. "this is who I am and what kind of music I like, come and see me play".  The mix takes you through noise, minimal techno, industrial, synth pop, and tribal ambient ... all in the first 20 minutes!

Mark Pritchard, FACT mix 406 Parts 1 and 2 (October 28 + 29)

Each year brings at least one great throwback mix to the early days of rave, but whereas most of those mixes highlight the sirens and breakbeats side of the genre, Mark Pritchard chose to focus more on the hip-hop and R&B elements that are almost always overlooked.  So massive (56 tracks, 90 minutes) that they had to split it into two.

Tiga, FACT mix 411 (November 18)

Fun, smooth, and eclectic, Tiga always makes mixing sound so much easier than it actually is.  Props for the timely Lou Reed tribute at the end.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top Ten Albums of 2013

For me, there weren't many great albums released in 2013.  There were a lot of good albums that I've enjoyed in the here and now, but I have serious doubts about whether I'll still be listening to many of the albums in this top ten in five years time.  Which is not to say we shouldn't enjoy them now while we still can ...

10.  Issakidis, "Karezza" (Kill the DJ Records)

The criminally underrated George Issakidis made the year's best leftfield experimental techno album and hardly anybody noticed.  Jumping from smooth, Luciano/Villalobos style minimal  to James Murphy's disco rock to oddball kitchen sink unclassifiable weirdness with ease, there's something for everyone here.

9.  Depeche Mode, "Delta Machine" (Columbia/Mute)

It's not the best Depeche Mode album, but it might be their best sounding album.  Deep, resonant, cavernous, electronic blues for packing stadiums and festivals.  

8.  Sannhet, Known Flood (Sacrament)

When people talk about the death of the album format, they're ignoring metal.  I relearn this lesson every time I discover metal albums I really like and remind myself that they demand that you immerse yourself in them for a full, uninterrupted 45 minutes.  In bite size chunks, "Known Flood" is nothing, as a cohesive unit, it's a blizzard of guitar noise that doesn't let up, like Branca gone metal.    

7.   My Bloody Valentine, "m b v" (MBV Records)

Bold prediction: in three years time, nobody who puts this album on their year-end list will stand behind their ranking.  Sure, we know it's not another "Loveless" and that's OK (although "She Found Now" could easily slot in there and even raise the average song quality).  Fans are just glad they've rejoined the land of living, breathing bands who record new music.  But how good is "m b v" really?  A million other bands could have made this album in the past twenty years.  Does that matter?  Would we tolerate weirdness like "Nothing Is" if MBV weren't the band behind it?  This album is something of a time capsule, the realization of the 1991-1996 rumours come to life (e.g. "they're recording a DnB album!?!" c-1995-6), maybe it'll be easier to process the legacy of MBV vers. 2 when we start hearing the stuff that represent where their heads are at in the 21st century.

6.  Traversable Wormhole, "Traversable Wormhole Volume 6-10" (CLR)

As the title indicates, this is not precisely a new album, but a mixed compilation of tracks from the latest five EP's from TW.  What you get is roughly the techno equivalent of the cover art -- an immeasurably dark, mind-warping descent into a black hole of industrial techno hell (you know, in a good way).  

5.  Sigur Rรณs, "Kveikur" (XL Recordings)

I say it all the time, but it bears repeating: Sigur Ros are one of the most inventive bands of this generation.  People think they've got them figured out, but they really don't have any idea of what they're going to do next.  I mean, who had "Sigur Ros goes metal" in the office pool??

4.  Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)

I really can't figure out why Daft Punk superfans don't think this is their best ever album.  A disco album recorded and produced in the classic 70's/80's style (complete with real life classic disco musicians and producers), an instantly iconic cover, and a world conquering single to boot.  Why, because it should have happened already with "Digital Love"?

3.  Moderat, "II" (Monkeytown Records)

A more than worthy follow-up to their classic first album, this one feels more suited for clubs and lounges than its genre-hopping, all things to all people predecessor.  Get well soon, Sascha, and get back to blowing minds again when you tour this thing.

2.  The National, "Trouble Will Find Me" (4AD)

Well, it happened again, I fell for an indie rock album (as in, exactly one album) by a band I hadn't previously paid much attention to.  While not obvious on the surface, the National are the closest thing I've found to 90's Tindersticks in contemporary music.  They can be sour or mopey or aggressive or funny, they know exactly when to dial up or down each of those components, and they can even pull them all off within the same song.  Whenever I hear "Graceless" or "I Should Live in Salt" or "Pink Rabbits", the world around me simply stops moving.  

1.  Eluvium, "Nightmare Ending" (Temporary Residence Limited)  

Recently I was starting to feel that ranking "Copia" as one of the top ten albums of the 00's was a mistake. Eluvium was following a clear formula -- warm, lush ambient mood pieces alternating with serene piano ballads -- that was wearing down after so many listens.  Even the previously unstoppable "Repose In Blue" was starting to lose its mesmerizing power.  Then he released "Nightmare Ending", which follows mostly the same formula ... and guess what, it still works.  The ambient songs have gotten longer and noisier, the piano ballads have become more intricate, and he could have split this 80-minute plus album into two and ended up with two best albums of the year.  

Perhaps the strangest year-end list from a notable publication I have ever seen

Popmatters Best Electronic Music of 2013:

20.  Akkord, Akkord
19.  Congo Natty, Jungle Revolution
18.  Mum, Smilewound
17.  The Black Dog, Tranklements
16.  House of Black Lanterns, Kill the Lights
15.  Front Line Assembly, Echogenetic
14.  Matmos, The Marriage of True Minds
13.  Morris Cowan, Six Degrees
12.  Skinny Puppy, Weapon
11.  mu-ziq, Chewed Corners
10.  Manix, Living in the Past
9.  Letherette, Letherette
8.  Autechre, Exai
7.  Ben Lukas Boysen, Gravity
6.  Comaduster, Hollow Worlds
5.  Machinedrum, Vapour City
4.  The Field, Cupid's Head
3.  Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest
2.  Jon Hopkins, Immunity
1.  Tim Hecker, Virgins

In decreasing order of strangeness:

-- Seemingly every 80's and 90's electronic music legend that released an album this year got a spot on this list.  Many of these acts hadn't been heard from in ages (e.g. raise your hand if you knew Front Line Assembly were still making new music) and hadn't seen many "best of the year" lists even in their primes.

-- Following up on the first point, was the BoC album really all that good?  All the reviews I saw can be summarized as "yep, this sounds like Boards of Canada".  Ditto for Autechre, which I have heard and sometimes enjoyed, but have we really reached the point where these acts get a free pass into the Best of the Year lists based on name value alone?  They make an album that sounds exactly like themselves and this is enough to clear some sort of critical bar.  I don't see how this is any different from Robert Plant and Eric Clapton getting Grammy nominations (and getting ridiculed) every time they release a new album.

-- Mum are still around?  Is Ninja Tune really still a thing?  Their roster is all over this list.

-- What's with Machinedrum getting mentioned in every blurb?  And then a Machinedrum album showing up at #5?

-- Albums that I was encouraged to check out based on their reviews (and the sample tracks included): Ben Lukas Boysen, Morris Cowan.

-- Jon Hopkins is showing up on every list imaginable. I still can't believe that "Immunity" was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.  I don't quite understand how Hopkins and Tim Hecker became the go-to icons for leftfield electronica, but it's a definite improvement over the days when Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers would reflexively fill those spots.

Friday, December 13, 2013

End of the Loudness War

I've read this article a few times and there's a lot to process, after each reading I come away with a slightly different appreciation for the details. 

It is generally agreed that overuse of compression is a problem in music.  Compression, even if used a bit excessively, can occasionally lead to stellar results.  The music packs an aggressive punch (i.e. sounds good when played very loud) at the expense of almost all dynamics and the unpleasant, hard to define feeling of ear fatigue.  For years (before I I knew there was something unique but also exhausting about listening to albums like Oasis' "What's the Story Morning Glory?" and Verve's "A Northern Soul".  They convey feelings of excitement and invincibility that comes across completely differently than music that is mastered with lesser amounts of compression.  The evolution of music production has taken it to places it never intended to go, and now it's like an arms race, where the problem keeps compounding and a wannabe hit song must be mastered loudly if it has any hope of competing with everything else on the radio.

Apple might be the only company big enough and ubiquitous enough to force this kind of change.  At this point, it has to be an industry driven (and enforced) change.  Most consumers aren't even aware of the issue.  The average listener won't be turned off of buying music because the amount of compression isn't to their liking.  I doubt they'd even notice the changes if iTunes Radio standards become widespread.

They mention "Wrecking Ball" as an example of a horrifically overcompressed song -- if you haven't listened to it closely, pay attention to the change in the volume of her voice during the verses and then during the intro to the chorus (before the full force of the backing music comes crashing in).  She's screaming the chorus but on the recording, her voice sounds much quieter than in the verses!  It's an unavoidable consequence of having to squash everything in the chorus to make it sound as loud as possible.

I wouldn't have guessed that the loudness range of hit songs hasn't changed in the past fifty years, according to the study cited in the article.  This means, if I understand it correctly, that even the more "properly" compressed songs that are dynamic in *parts*, are on average getting louder and more squashed.  So rather than Nirvana going quiet/loud/quiet/loud, there would have been a few seconds of quiet, followed by a uniformly loud/semiloud verse/chorus/verse sequence with Kurt Cobain's voice getting lost in the muddle somewhere.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Disappointing albums of 2013

Mediocre albums are the worst, especially when it comes to writing about them.  A great album makes you want to tell other people how great it is, and a bad album leaves you reaching for a thesaurus to explain its awfulness.  Either way, these albums inspire you, and emotions run high when writing about them.  People remember those 9/10 and 10/10 reviews, and they remember the 2/10's, which usually makes people more curious to hear them because they have to check for themselves if it really is as bad as claimed.  It's that endless supply of 6/10's that are read and instantly forgotten.  If you really want to damn an album to the wastebin of history upon arrival, the 5/10 is probably the kiss of death.

For me, 2013 has been a year of disappointments.  There were a bunch of albums that I was looking forward to hearing, by artists that I really like, who have made some of my favourite albums of the past few years.  Their new records turned out to be OK, but disappointing.  I'm not talking about disappointing yet bad albums, like the Arcade Fire's head scratcher that I could forget about and move on from almost right away.  There's nothing actively bad about any of these albums, they're not experiments gone wrong or preposterously bad ideas poorly executed.  Fans of these acts would immediately recognize it as their work.  They're just OK, nothing more, and despite their pedigree, I rarely find myself wanting to listen to them.

Donato Dozzy, "Plays Bee Mask".

The Voices of the Lake album was beautifully stretched out, with each track getting seven or eight minutes to breath before merging seamlessly into the next one.  The pacing was closer to something from Wolfgang Voigt's Gas than any contemporary techno album I'd heard.  But "Plays Bee Mask" feels like a bunch of skits and elements from unfinished songs that never really kick in.

No Age, "An Object".

This album suffers from many of the same problems.  It relies less on conventional rock themes than their last two albums, which on paper would have been an understandable progression from their earlier releases, something I would have looked forward to hearing. But much like their first album "Weirdo Rippers", it's more like a collection of ideas than a cohesive album.  "Weirdo Rippers" was actually a collection of EP's rather than a proper album, so its "odds 'n' sods" style is understandable, but "An Object" is more like a compilation of cool guitar sounds that they wanted to finally release after a frustrating couple of years of writers block.

Yo La Tengo, "Fade".

If YLT wanted to tour and needed a record a new album to justify it, then "Fade" has served its purpose and then some.  It's just too bad that they seem to only take risks on the opening track on their albums now (i.e. "Here To Fall" from "Popular Songs" and "Ohm" from "Fade") but otherwise hardly stray outside of their familiar comfort zones.  Is this really the same band that released "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One", where every track played with a completely different style of music but still managed to sound like classic YLT throughout?

Tim Hecker, "Virgins".

Tim Hecker has made a career out of treading water, but when the formula is this successful, even treading water can lead to repeatedly great results.  It takes a lot of careful listening to peel back the layers of sound on a Tim Hecker album, so the relistening value has always been high as there are constantly new details to discover.  The recent profile in SPIN made me appreciate the level of care he puts into his records even more.  And so "Virgins" is his usual good effort.  The bells and chimes and other bits of live instrumentation don't add anything notable to the well established template he's used for the past decade.  In the past there'd be a fuzzy sampled guitar and now it's replaced by a chime, and that slight transformation is more than a bit gimmicky.  Maybe it's a rite of passage to help his growth as a composer, and if so, it could be a positive thing in the long term.  The quieter, ambient second half of the album is a confusing experiment in subtlety that doesn't suit Hecker's strengths.  "Virgins" quiets down and then just ... ends. "Ravedeath 1972" and "Haunt Me Do It Again" were outstanding because of their complete lack of subtlety and maximalist approach to nearly every track, and the quieter parts on his other albums were often about navigating between the peaks.