Monday, December 28, 2015

Top ten mixes/podcasts of 2015

A typically great year for mixes ... mixes never go into a slump!  As in past years, the list is unranked and presented in chronological order of release.

Shapednoise, FACT Mix 482 (February 9)

One hour of caustic, savage noise and garburated beats, it's the perfect introduction to the world of Shapednoise.

Logos, Resident Advisor Podcast RA.456 (February 23)

A captivating twenty minute beatless intro, followed by a noisy load of abstract electro and bass music.  There are countless surprising turns and unexpected transitions here.  On some days, this was my favourite mix of the year, but it was eventually topped by an even more adventurous mix.

JD Twitch, Bigfoot Series 001 (It's a Nuclear War; It's a Motherfucker) (March)

Twitch's "tribute" to the threat of nuclear war, immortalized in song from Sun Ra to Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Lowlight Mixes, The Ambient Dishwasher (April)

Arguably the finest selector of ambient music on Mixcloud, Lowlight Mixes produced consistently great work this year, but this mix stood out for its unforgettable theme.  For most of us, a malfunctioning dishwasher is just that, but for some, it's the perfect source material for blissfully chopped and stretched new ambient music.

The Cyclist, FACT Mix 498 (June 1)

The year's finest mix clocks in at an economical fifty minutes, but is packed with more preposterously ambitious transitions than most podcast series manage over the course of a year. Anyone who can finding the common thread to seamlessly connect such a wide flung range of tracks is hearing music on a impossibly high level of intuitive understanding.  Flawless, and best of all, it's an easy and fun listen.

Exium, Blocaus Podcast 13 (June 13)

Cavernously heavy and dark, it's the best way to experience the feeling of being in a club at 4 AM without having to leave the house.

Carlos Suffront, Bunker Podcast 98 (June 16)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the epic Aphex Twin filedump is that more DJ's didn't megamix the whole lot like Carlos Suffront did.  The mix isn't as mindblowing as you'd expect given the source material, but consider the degree of difficulty here.

Fotomachine, Juno Plus Podcast 115 (June 24)

This mix is so bleak it should come with its own Prozac prescription.  Barely functioning on the very fringes of what might get an open minded dancefloor to grudgingly move their feet and dance, many of these tracks are bordering on unclassifiable.  A good number of the transitions are unmixed, but the track selection is so good that it only becomes apparent after multiple listens.

Max_M, Podcast 77 (July 30)

Another predictably great mix from the minimal techno master, sadly, this may have been his final recorded mix before his sudden death from cancer in May.

Oake, Secret Thirteen Mix 170 (December 15)

After posting one of the finest mixes I've ever heard in February of '14, Secret Thirteen quickly became one of my favourite podcasts and became the favourite of mine in '15.  This collection of gloomy noisescapes and industrial-tinged techno is the kind of sound I've been trying to nail down on some of my own mixes since forever.  

Three albums I didn't "get" in 2015

This year my tastes fell way out of step with the hype surrounding the most talked about electronic music , and I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason why.  Predictably, everything became much clearer after reading Philip Sherburne's excellent essay on The Year in Electronic Music for Pitchfork.  Wild hybridizations were in, and genre purism was out.   Sherburne notes that many of these hybrid styles are made by LGBT artists who are accustomed to being outsiders and never saw themselves bound by the so-called rules of making music in a particular genre. 

A backlash against genre purism comes along every few years in electronic music, so the mashing of otherwise disparate styles hardly represents a revolution.  The problem is that so much of this stuff, to me, sounds like a modern take on Tigerbeat6's adolescent nihilism,  which I didn't enjoy 10-15 years ago either.  One of the few exceptions is Arca, who combines Actress'  unconventional cut-up approach to rhythms with the twisted melodicism of 90's Autechre at their peak.  

Oneohtrix Point Never, "Garden of Delete"

Speaking of Autechre, this one takes the schizophrenia of their 21st century output and adds more humour and pathos.  On paper it sounds great.  On paper "Draft 7:30" was a great idea too.  Praise for that album usually starts with "wow, how did they generate that sound?  This is so much more advanced than 'Tri Repetae'!".  It also ends there, because debates over sound creation are as boring as sin, Autechre's best work never had to be compared to alien creatures coaxing unheard of sounds out of their equipment, no matter what you've heard to the contrary.  "Garden of Delete" is one of those albums where I can't remember a thing about it as soon as it's over, which is a shame because there are a million different things happening here and you'd think that one or two of them would be more memorable.  There's a wacky sense of ADD-style humour at play that feels like a cross between Kid606 and Duck Sauce -- two notorious novelty acts. 

Dawn Richard, "Blackheart"

It's a story that poptimist critics can't help but love.  "Making the Band" alumnus and former P. Diddy lackey breaks the mold with a most un-girl band-like album of dark electronica.  But there's nothing eye opening here, just R&B made by producers who never met a breakbeat or a filter tweak they didn't like and have a hankering for Burial. 

Suzanne Sundfor, "Ten Love Songs" 

I invested a lot of time with this album and wanted to like it so badly.  The pedigree is there -- she's got a great voice, worked with solid producers, and the world definitely needs an OTT orchestral pop album.  Maybe Sundfor is a victim of high expectations, in that nothing here comes close to the grandiosity of "Oblivion" (with M83).  The album is missing that majestic spark that made "Oblivion" so memorable, and not so carefully straddles the "McCarthur Park" line between parody and high drama.   

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 27

"On the second day of the convention the mix announced it was taking a $68 million quarterly loss" - 66 minutes

Inspired by a few mixes heard here and there (particularly from the often excellent Secret Thirteen podcast), I wanted to assemble a blissed out, downtempo mix where the tracks meshed together without necessarily beatmatching every transition. I strove for a consistent sound by repeatedly using two tracks from the same album (call it cheating if you must).  Including proggy tracks was also a must for some reason.  And yet again there is a track from the remix compilation of No Movement No Sound No Memories.  That disc is a goldmine for mixes -- you can find a track that fits perfectly with nearly every mix you want to make.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Top ten albums of 2015

I won't remember 2015 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.

I wrote the previous paragraph as an intro to last year's top ten list.  Technically, only the first part of it is still true.  I remain conflicted about several of these albums -- will I still be listening to them regularly in one year's time?  From last year's list, only Fennesz and Alcest have remained in heavy rotation throughout 2015.  Are they great albums, or only fleetingly great when you binge listen to them when they're new?  Are they only great when you compare them to lesser albums from the same year?  What happens once the year passes and those albums have to hold their own against other great albums, rather than against the detritus released that same year?

As for the second half of that opening paragraph, I did appreciate the steady stream of quality music throughout the year, and was consistently surprised this year by albums that exceeded my expectations.  That includes most of the albums on this year's top ten.  However, looking back at 2015 as a whole, the sum seems less than the sum of its parts.  Almost nothing disappointed me, and there was a lot of like, but perhaps not enough music to truly love.

I don't want to reprint that opening paragraph every year, but is this the start of a trend?  Hopefully not.  The music on my 2011-2013 lists was strong enough to cast a shadow over the music from the past two years.  Every decade has its uncharacteristically strong years, and its recovery years.


10.  Shapednoise, "Different Selves" (Type)

You don't need descriptors for the music on a Shapednoise album.  Everything you need to know is in the name.  A throwback to the heyday of Ant-zen and the rhythmic noise of more than a decade ago, except in place of danceable rhythms, there's nothing but scraping, earsplitting ... er, shaped noise in place of anything that would be reasonably expected to make you move your body.

9.  Auscultation, "L’etreinte Imaginaire" (100% Silk)

In a year when Aphex Twin confirmed the legends about dozens of albums that had been recorded and hoarded away since the mid 90's by giving away hundreds of tracks for free, the most faithful reproduction of his career best work as Polygon Window was released by a much more obscure talent from the very non alien-like Madison, Wisconsin.

8.  Chelsea Wolfe, "Abyss" (Sargent House)

This fantastic album cover builds a powerful narrative even before you hear a note of the music: infernal, ghostly, reeking of death.  And the music?  Like the more expressive PJ Harvey of the 2010's returning to her more raw, visceral sound of the 1990's.  In a blues metal style.

7.  Nils Frahm, "Solo" (Erased Tapes)

Nils Frahm appeared on a few albums this year, but the best was the free one.  There's nothing particularly fancy going on here, just stark, wordless, stargazing piano ballads that work a special kind of magic.

6.  New Order, "Music Complete" (Mute)

Every generation can't have its own New Order, because the original keeps coming back.  How is it that nobody has bettered their particular style of dance rock in the thirty years that have passed since they first introduced it?  And how does their sound never seem to age?  The only thing that changes over the years is the guest vocalists.

5.  Prurient, "Frozen Niagara Falls" (Profound Lore)

Easily the most well-rounded Prurient album I've heard, this 90-minute double album takes in an epic sweep of noise subgenres.  

4.  Anthony Child, " Electronic Recordings from Maui Jungle Vol. 1" (Editions Mego)

The title is very misleading and nearly turned me away from hearing the album in the first place.  Is it yet another album of pysch-tinged field recordings and ghostly ambience? Actually, far from it -- you can sense the serenity of the jungle in these recordings, but this music isn't meant for quiet meditation.  The key influence of the natural surroundings is one of isolation, where nobody will complain about the droning noises and nobody will randomly come along to interrupt the recording.  So Child lets his compositions slowly envelop the listener, shoving all outside distractions into the deep background, and forcing time to stand still.

3.  Howling, "Sacred Ground" (Monkeytown)

The last two Moderat albums may have failed to set the world on fire like they should have, but Monkeytown Records haven't given up trying to recapture that same aesthetic.  This collaboration between earthy Australian Ry X and Ame's Frank Wiedemann is the latest genre-bending experiment to emerge from the Monkeytown camp, and very likely the best.  Dance remixes of indie acoustic songs have been huge hits in Europe over the past few years, but Howling decided to skip the remix step and make the records themselves.  

2.  Brandon Flowers, "The Desired Effect" (Island)

Last year, Future Islands' "Seasons" was a phenomenon, an 80's throwback that was so uncool it couldn't help but be cool.  It was the top track on Pitchfork's list.  It won single of the year on Pazz and Jop.  This year, Brandon Flowers released his own version of uncool 80's music, and ... what, was the uncool barrier somehow crossed?  Getting people to hear the album after they'd trained themselves to tune out the Killers years ago was an uphill battle.

1.  Beach House, "Depression Cherry" (Sub Pop)

For the second straight year, my top pick is an album that originally disappointed me greatly.  Both were among my favourite acts in music and carried high expectations.  It doesn't take a genius to believe that these things are related.  Look, I'm not even sure whether "Depression Cherry" is a great album.  But I spent more time dissecting it this year than the rest of the albums on this list combined.  I tried to unwrap its many layers and pinpoint what made these simple, lullaby-like songs sound so rich and textured.  I tried to analyze it track by track versus "Bloom" and understand what it meant for Beach House in the long term (which became even more difficult when they surprised fans with a second and very different album, "Thank Your Lucky Stars", only a couple of months later).  Was it really a search for a more insular existence, a reaction to their growing fame and the pressure to play louder and louder to fill up larger concert halls?  "Days of Candy" says yes, "Sparks" says emphatically no.  Did anything make me feel more at peace this year than "Levitation" and "Space Song" (no).  And so on, until the end of the year, and probably well into future years.  

Monday, December 14, 2015

Fennesz/King Midas Sound, "Edition 1"

I pretty much lost my head when I came across this album in the Berkeley Amoeba, for I had no idea it was in the works and didn't know that it had been released a few weeks earlier.  Kevin Martin and Fennesz ... joining forces??  What could be better?

Unfortunately the album turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, but that's usually the case with Fennesz collaborations.  His interests span genres far beyond his bread and butter formula of 60's melodic charm meets noise and static.  He's never been afraid to experiment in the most literal sense -- he doesn't force his signature stuff onto the record, the way a famous rock guitarist might play a guest solo in a style so familiar sounding, you won't ever mistake it as anybody else.  Fennesz genuinely loves to share ideas with a revolving door of musicians spanning genres and continents, and it certainly helps pay the bills between his own proper albums.  But sometimes it's too bad that he always saves his best stuff for the albums solely under his own name.

The dream Fennesz/KMS would be constructed out of infinitely dense slabs of guitar noise laid over cavernous metallic dub.  Instead of that, both artists decided to show their quieter sides -- atmospheric, dreamscapes dedicated to unknown lost loves, rendered spookier via strange, processed sounds squeezed from a sentient computer.  It's an album that fans of both acts will be proud to own, but won't otherwise grab many people's attention.  The second disc adds nothing to the overall product.  It's identical to the first disc but with the vocals removed -- no extended dubbier edits, alternative version, or unusual sounds you can't hear on the first disc.

UPDATE:  Why couldn't the entire album have sounded more like this transcendent three song live set??