Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some of 2014's best music writing that I feel bad for not having read until now

Flavourwire's Jillian Mapes compiled a list of the year's best music writing and there are plenty of gems there.  It's filled with sites I check at least semi-regularly and writers whose work I normally enjoy, and yet somehow I missed nearly all of these.

Lauren Nostro's profile of Nicki Minaj is a long-awaited peak behind the curtain that finally makes some headway in separating her public and private personas.  The career retrospective of KISS by Chuck Klosterman seems like a must read that I'll save for a rainy day.  Chris Molanphy's history of Billboard's R&B charts is by far the best analysis in the wake of the (mostly negative) publicity surrounding Billboard's controversial changes in the criteria that are used to compile the chart (along with other specialty charts).  He also explained this widely circulated but almost universally misconstrued taste map, which not only makes sense to me no, but might also show the way forward to reclaiming the audience-specific data that the old charts used to represent (it'll make more sense if you read the article).

In the separate best of Flavourwire list, there's a Run The Jewels profile by Matthew Ismael Ruiz that I really need to read, and a Tom Hawking piece about the politics in A Silver Mt. Zion's music that would have been unthinkable when they started out fifteen years ago, or even five years ago.  The slow transformation in critical opinion over ASMZ and GYBE from polemical weirdos to broadcasters of simple but effective messages of hope has been fascinating to behold.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Iggy Azalea vs Azealia Banks

This feud has been covered in detail by Jeff Chang.  The jist is that Banks is accusing Azalea of cultural appropriation (or "cultural smudging") and getting extremely emotional about, and Azalea is telling her to get lost in response.  My reading is that most people don't have much sympathy for Azalea because of the way she seems to take a perverse delight in adding fuel to the fire, but at the same time, Banks has received a lot of criticism for claiming black "ownership" over hip-hop.  Once art is out there, anyone can borrow it and be influenced by it, they say, although I can't help but wonder if these people were saying the same things when Katy Perry dressed up as a geisha.

Q-Tip chimed in with (naturally) a calm and reasoned approach to the whole controversy, saying that hip-hop can be fun but to never lose sight of the socio-political roots of the genre.  The reactions of Banks and Q-Tip may be as genuine as they come, but they would sound ludicrous if they were talking about any other genre.  Jazz and opera fans get ridiculed for assuming a self-righteous attitude about their music and setting up knowledge barriers for entry.

This stance is connected to hip-hop more than it is to race.  Electro and EDM have crossed over into pop music, and they have their roots in black music as well.  Nobody talks about cultural appropriation of those genres.  Techno also started as a black socio-political movement -- disillusioned black kids re-imagining a decaying Detroit as a futuristic metropolis -- and despite its long history and rapid spread around the globe, anyone who tried to claim that you couldn't really understand it unless you came from Detroit would get laughed at.  Techno always did a stellar job at incorporating its influences across racial divides though -- Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator and all that -- which helps to explain its global popularity.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top 10 albums of 2014

I won't remember 2014 as a great year for new music, and in a few years time I doubt I'll rank any albums from this year among my all-time favourites.  However, there was a steady stream of quality music trickling out all year long, and I don't think I fully appreciated that until I started putting together this list and realized how many notable albums there were to choose from.

You might find it surprising, in looking over lists of my favourite albums from the past several years, that the following albums did not make this year's top 10:

Raveonettes, "Pe'ahi".  Their last album, "Observator", was my #3 album of 2012 and I still play many of their earlier albums on a regular basis.  Their career is a series of brilliant albums alternating with mediocre ones.  Raveonettes are about as formulaic as they come, so they always walk a fine line between greatness and recycling the same ideas they've been beating into the ground for the past decade.

New Pornographers, "Brill Bruisers".  Speaking of formulaic, New Pornographers have been making the same album over and over for the past fifteen years, but there's nothing wrong with being the AC/DC of indie rock.  Their last album "Together" was my #5 of 2010, and even though "Brill Bruisers" checks all the right boxes, somehow I never really got into it.  It's a fun listen, but nothing too memorable.

Plastikman, "EX".  And how's this for "somehow never really getting into it" ... Plastikman's 2003 album "Closer" was my #2 album of the 00's, I've been in awe of Richie Hawtin's music for nearly a quarter century, buying album after album, single after single, alias after alias for most of my adult life, so what happened here with "EX"?  I wasn't alone in believing Hawtin was too preoccupied with capturing past glories.  In trying to be too precise in re-capturing the classic 90's Plastikman sound, Hawtin led his inspiration fall by the wayside.  There's nothing technically wrong with this album, the basic elements familiar to great Plastikman songs are there, but somehow each track fails to capture the imagination or stir up any feelings other than the desire to pull out his older albums and relive a time when he did this stuff so much better.  The early Plastikman albums needed to exist, they form a continuous narrative where you can hear how they get more and more sparse, paranoid, and claustrophobic.  Hawtin spent a decade meticulously refining the Plastikman sound, settling progressively further into a somewhat disturbed version of deep techno that's been almost impossible to duplicate.  "EX" doesn't really have a reason to exist, there's no overriding concept, no sounds that Hawtin was desperate to get out of his head.  It's just an excuse to get the proverbial band back together.

Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestite".  "Celestial Lineage" was my #3 album of 2011 and just might be my favourite ever metal album.  The missteps with this album are easier to trace -- they changed their sound completely and became a dark ambient outfit.  Grayson Currin wrote a brilliant review and it's hard to disagree that the band blindly jumped into this shift in styles long before they figured out what kind of band they want to be going forward.

Mogwai, "Rave Tapes"; Xiu Xiu, "Angel Guts:Red Classroom".  Mogwai are one of my favourite bands ever, who made my favourite album of 1999, my #11 album of the 00's, and loads of other great studio and live recordings, but they've been steadily declining and coasting on the value of their name for a decade, if not longer.  Xiu Xiu's "Fabulous Muscles" was my #1 album of 2004, and although I've enjoyed a lot of the music they've made since then, I think I'm simply over Xiu Xiu now.  I still enjoy "AG:RC" quite a bit, and I love the Suicide does gay fetish fanfic direction of the album, but it never grew in stature for me beyond the first few listens.

Now for the actual TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014.

10.  Donato Dozzy and Nuel, "The Aquaplano Sessions"  (Editions Mego)

Every track gracefully unfolds and picks up swampy minimalist steam, churning along in a semi-dreamlike state until it recedes into the shadows several minutes later. In other words, it's a typically great Donato Dozzy record.

9.  Petrychor, "Makrokosmos" (self-released)

Countless metal albums have borrowed from goth, new age and ambient, but I'd never heard one that borrowed from them so liberally while still remaining unmistakably metal.

8.  Kangding Ray, "Solens Arc" (Raster-Noton)

Much like his incredible mix for Secret Thirteen, "Solens Arc" shows Kangking Ray's knack for melding vastly different styles into an uncannily coherent whole.  The calming bleeps on "History of Obscurity" would have fit in beautifully on an ambient techno mix in 1994, the rave-y 6 AM comedown on "Amber Decay" could have been on a lost KK Records from a few years later, whereas "Blank Empire"'s menacing attitude and attention to detail could have only come from the 2010's.

7.  Swans, "To Be Kind" (Mute/Young God)

Swans studio albums and live recordings are converging into one, and "To Be Kind" comes closest to replicating their feel of suffocating live gigs on record.  This album might have finished higher on this list if it wasn't so overwhelming, to the point that it's hard to get in the mood to subject yourself to this kind of speaker assault.  And you can forget about listening to it all the way through -- that's strictly for the diehards.  The peaks (the title track, "She Loves Us", and "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'ouverture) are incredible though, bringing a completely unique type of sensory overload onto a studio record.

6.  Damon Albarn, "Everyday Robots" (Warner Brothers)

This is an album that I never expected to like, seeing how I haven't cared for much that Albarn has done in the 21st century, from "Think Tank" onwards. But "Everyday Robots" finds him settling well into an elder statesman role after two decades of being a brat.  It's the album that "Think Tank" should have been, intimate and personal, blending its many influences rather than trying to show off the depth of its music collection.  Albarn's voice is still in pristine form too, in fact, he's never sounded better.

5.  Run the Jewels, "Run the Jewels 2" (Mass Appeal Records)

I'm not even sure how it happened, but I finally "get" El-P.  Industrial scale beats with gritty, aggressive rap shouldn't have been so hard to process, but good thing that El-P and Killer Mike are two rather persistent guys.

4.  Alcest, "Shelter" (Prophecy Productions)

If you'd asked me in the 90's, or at any time up until a couple of years ago, whether Slowdive or MBV would have the bigger influence on metal, I would have laughed at the need to even ask the question.  And yet somehow Slowdive have come out ahead.  When metalheads want to turn the page they don't want to bleed their guitars dry (something they are already quite good at), they scale things back a bit and look to Slowdive (both in sound and career path).  

Alcest went all-in with their transformation from atmospheric metal to Slowdive tribute band.  They recorded their album in Sigur Ros' studio and even brought in Neil Halstead on guest vocals.  The results were inspired and fresh sounding even as they looked backwards in time.  

3.  SunnO))) and Scott Walker, "Soused" (4AD)

Like many people, when I got word of this unlikely pairing, I was sure it was an internet joke.  As much as I try to give Scott Walker's albums a fair shake, I have never understood the hype.  I file him away with legends like Arthur Russell -- arty music for people who like to talk about arty music.  

It turns out that SunnO))) and Scott Walker complement each other perfectly.  Walker gives a dash of colour to SunnO)))'s pitch black tones, and SunnO))) are bring the heavy dose of reality to Walker's otherworldly ramblings.

2.  The War on Drugs, "Lost in the Dream" (Secretly Canadian) 

This year I saw the best two word summation of any band ever and it was used to describe The War on Drugs: "Balearic Petty".  

"Lost in the Dream" is perfectly of its time. Springsteen and Petty are touring stadiums again and indie fans are allowed to like them again after spending a couple of decades in the not cool wilderness.  The confessional style of Bob Dylan's 70's albums have arguably surpassed, in the canon, his classic 60's work as the surrealist poet for the downtrodden.  But combined with motorik drumming and enough weird synth noises to alienate your favourite Springsteen fan, it's not simply classic rock updated for the modern indie rock fan. Times will change, most of these things will be uncool again, and The War on Drugs fans will come to prefer more swagger than introspection in rock music.  Until then, "Lost in the Dream" will be playing continuously in the background.

1.  Fennesz, "Bécs" (Editions Mego)

I'm looking over my #1 albums from 2008-2013, and they all have one thing in common - I was crazy about them all from the very first listen.  So "Bécs" was obviously a grower, and although I once criticized it for being a "noisier carbon copy of 'Endless Summer'", now I love it for exactly the same reasons. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Spiritualized live at Worthington Pier, July 9, 1994 (20 years later)

The year in music criticism has been packed full of 20th and 25th anniversary retrospectives and the pace should continue to be high for the next couple of years at least (it's never too early to prepare yourself for the 25th anniversary "Nevermind" articles in '16).  Admittedly, 1994 was a massive year and is deserving of just about all the praise it gets for being a transformative year, regardless of how you feel about many of the usual touchstones (e.g. Britpop).

Up until now I've stayed clear of writing those kinds of articles myself.  Obviously I'm all in favour of digging up old memories, but I don't get sentimental about round numbered anniversaries as opposed to the same round number give or take a year or two.  If you want to reminisce about an event after eighteen years, then do it, don't wait another two years because you think it'll be more "meaningful".  It won't.

Still, it's fun to trot out these retrospectives from time to time so I thought I'd try a different take on the round numbered anniversary game.  Instead of reflecting back on a particular album or music scene, I thought I'd take the occasional look back at some of my favorite live recordings.  Let's see how far I can go with this, starting with this eye-opening and very unique Spiritualized concert from '94.

The date on the recording is July 11, but the actual date was July 9 according to posters on the official SPZ boards.  The band didn't play many shows in 1994, which partly explains the confusion with their gigography according to various websites.

I discovered this recording around 2001. It was the missing link recording of live SPZ that I'd been searching for for years without any success.  It captures them at a transitional point in their career between "Lazer Guided Melodies" and "Pure Phase".  They were still frequently described as "space rock" or "ambient rock" even though this recording clearly indicates that they didn't sound much like either.  Instead, they were well on their way to perfecting the noisy jazz freakouts they'd be more famous for after "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space" dropped a few years later.

At the time of this concert, Jason was about half way through the post-recording/mixing period of "Pure Phase".  By the time the album was eventually released, it sounded nothing like their concerts from the summer of '94.  By spring of '95 they were somehow an ambient rock outfit again, at least on record.  Jason's voice is missing or distorted almost completely out of earshot on half of "Pure Phase".  The concert is a vision of "Pure Phase" that was never realized.  Every song is in the same key and the set comes off as one hour long blare of constant-toned noise.  Where "Pure Phase" purrs and relaxes your, this show sears them off.

This concert offers a glimpse into how "Pure Phase" might have sounded if Jason had went full steam ahead with the guitar-heavy sound he preserved in one of the channels in the final mix.  It features "Take Good Care of It" and its glorious coda before he transformed it into something else completely on the album and then ignored it for the rest of his career.  It includes incendiary live versions of "I Want You" and "Sway" that were also soon to be banished to hardly ever played again oblivion.  It has a jaw-dropping version of "The Slide Song" that incinerates the blissed out version that made it onto "Pure Phase".  As far as I can tell, this song was never played by SPZ at all outside of a few live shows in the summer of '94,

Finally, after spending more than a year mixing the album, they went out on tour and hardly played any songs from it.  And they still hardly ever play any songs from it, although songs like "Lay Back In the Sun" and "Medication" did finally creep back into live sets during the "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" tours.  Not coincidentally, post-2011 SPZ is more unpredictable than any version of the band since 1994 or so.  From 1995-2002 they were a powerful live outfit, but you could bet the farm on the "Cop Shoot Cop/Shine A Light/Electric Mainline/Electricity" section filling up half the concert, more often than not exactly in that order.  They'd improvise in parts and things would never sound the same way twice, but the set list was just about set in stone.  None of their live shows before or since resemble what they did in the summer of '94.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2014

I listened to fewer mixes this year than in the past couple of years, but the ones I did listen to were in heavy rotation from first listen/download up until the present day.  I listened to them as much or more than proper albums.  As in past years, this list is unranked and presented in chronological order of release, with one exception -- the one mix that was far and away the best of the year (it wasn't even close) that I'll save until the end.

Voices from the Lake, Beats in Space 720 (March 11)

This 80-minute ambient mix drifts by in what feels like five minutes, beginning with icy desolation, shifting into gentler fare that could almost accompany their anodyne beat-filled work, and winding down with more gloomy, sinister sounds.  Hypnotizing.

Haunting techno, alien electro, and bass-heavy broken beats populate this sweaty, ambitious mix. 

Abdulla Rashim, Resident Advisor 422 (June 30)

A very understated mix that keeps bubbling under and continuously threatens to really kick in at any moment, but never does.  Instead, it keeps subtlely churning along  and does so beautifully.  It reminds of another similarly structured mix by Bruno Ponsato, coincidentally enough, it was RA 222, exactly 200 RA podcasts before this one.  But it's not a simple mix by any means.  There are about 40 tracks packed into a little less than 70 minutes.  Much like Richie Hawtin's famed (but very overrated) DE9 mix CD, it's smooth and deep and there are a lot of little things going on in there that you'll miss unless you're paying close attention.

Throwing Snow, FACT 448 (June 30)

FACT said it best in the post that accompanied this mix: if Throwing Snow "stuck to one tempo he'd probably be a lot bigger by now".  To paraphrase Bill James, if you do one thing really well you'll be overrated, but if you do several things well you'll be underrated.  Nearly every track brings a different style or genre to the table, and it's as if he's throwing selected tracks against the wall to see what sticks.  Nearly everything does.

Efdemin, Electric Deluxe 123 (July 1)

Efdemin's tracklist-free effort for EDLX comes off like carefully constructed mix tape of epic leftfield tech-house tunes, oddball vocal samples and other oddities.   I saw him spin a main floor DJ set of rough and ready industrial scale techno earlier this month, but this mix couldn't have been more different while still maintaining a connection to the outer reaches of club-ready techno.  Keep this mix away from the main floor, but it's perfect for the denizens of the nearby smoking lounge.

Sawlin, Electric Deluxe 124 (July 14)

This type of mix is like catnip for me, it's practically my default mix when I get around to making them.  It starts out quiet and dreamy, and transitions to progressively harder and more aggressive techno.  The transition is something to behold too ("Stairway to Heaven"?  It works).

MaxM, K1971 radio show episode XT3 radio (July 24)

Deep, moody, cavernous techno not unlike some of my favourites from previous years (see the Dino Sabatini I wrote about here).  I can practically smell the cold fumes from the smoke machine in the club while listening to this mix.

LWE presents Rrose (September 9)

It was advertised as a no-nonsense mix that is typical of her live sets, and it delivered exactly as promised.  And along the same lines ...

Pan-Pot, Watergate 17 (October 13)

The only official mix CD on this list, if you're looking for a mix that replicates the experience of actually being in a sweaty Berlin club, look no further.  I've read far too many interviews where the artist wants to "show a different side" of themselves, but Pan-Pot's mix is peak time at Watergate from start to breathless finish.  

Best mix of the year that you should all listen to (or re-listen to) immediately:

This absurdly ambitious mix skips between genres without hardly any effort, staples rap over hard techno, marries R&B to squelchy electro techno, finds common ground between old school EBM, assembles music from over four decades, and takes in 28 tracks in 54 minutes without seeming the least bit rushed.  A truly inspiring mix that never ceases to amaze with every listen.