Sunday, January 25, 2009

Favorites in Music 2008

Usually I look forward to writing about music... movies... something. But I've gotten a bit tired of the exhibitionism of the Internet: before the Internet the lines between consumers and producers of criticism was pretty well outlined. You had your Lester Bangses, your Robert Christgaus and everybody would read that and complain about this or that and there was this assumption that if We the Common Folk were given the opportunity Things Would Be Different.

Well things have changed, but not what we expected. There are more voices now, and all of them more derivative than the last. With the Internet and given the chance, instead of expanding the dialogue with a broader sensibility, the masses only squirted out a tidal wave of the same diarrhea they were fed, chewed and digested for a second time. There is little critical or original thought. There is much recycled and cheap imitation. It isn't even simulacra, it is homoculii: sad parodies that do nothing but shake your faith in people. You watch it enough you can see the thought fragments bubble up through the media, picked up and parroted out through the Internet and carried along until the next fads of thought appear. Ohhcrapp is read by HIPSTERRUNOFF who is namechecked by Philip Sherburne who writes for Pitchforkmedia and moonlights for the Wire, which is read by the blog monkeys at the New York Times and Rolling Stone who trade interns with the Viacom media empire and by that point everyone out there in the world has heard about something.

Maybe its choice paralysis: so much data, so fast and so we are left with people who grasp at whatever goods are pushed into their hands. People don't collect music; they horde MP3s, they download at any whim. Nothing is every discovered slowly or revealed. It is delivered naked and cold on a mortuary slab. Orphaned from any socialization or personal perspective, the groping masses in their shame only just ratcheted up the volume in place of their lack of worthwhile opinion. You read the reviews on or any other site and you see the worst grade inflation this side of the public school system. The fucking average has to be 87% (BTW, when was a 100 degree of freedom ranking scale decided to be useful? Can anyone really tell the difference between a Pitchfork 6.7 and a 6.6 rating? In my line of work that is called Disguising Accuracy with Precision and a sure sign of fraud). You read the forums and some twatty internet hero with no record contract, now stage experience and two MP3s on his Myspace page gets someone to post a "MC Shitforbrains... Greatest MC of All Time??!" with excessive punctuation used to doubledown on that point. None of it's worth reading. Marketing firms and cool hunters have seen a tidal shift in focus groups. Where before various demographics would prove incapable of stringing together any useful sentiments, now people from ages as young as 7 are huge reserves of opinions and facts, bombarding the pollsters in an ongoing public therapy of self-interest.

But it is all useless. Going back over what people say the marketeers find only cheap cliche phrases and colloquialisms, many they themselves made up. People's minds are superfund sites of stupid half remembered commercials and aggressive branding. There are no personalities anymore and all that forum traffic tempests of electronic randomness. The Internet again proven twice idiotic.

On the website for the Planet Mu record label, there's a link to an article in Clash magazine (I've never heard of it; we've all read it before). The fucking thing is classic UK music media backhanded compliment. "Erase the image of computer geeks creaming themselves over fucked up studio wankery and preposterous breakcore edits and 'IDM'" it starts. It goes on to laud the label for switchin' shit up and becoming a house organ for that latest street poetry, Dubstep. Of course the article tries to have things both ways by saying the above described wankery was also "outsider visionary... innovative... insane" back in '98. Of course it's 2k9 now and there's nothing more a British hipster hates more than who he and his friends were yesterday. It's the constant Internet-speed race to keep up appearances. A puritanical Victorian world view where the only sure bet is to completely close yourself off from any authentic expression other than the pervasive fear of being exposed.

As you can guess, '98's latest-newest was IDM... now its Dubstep. Next year it'll be who the fuck knows. But whatever it is, it'll hate whatever we like now. The best part of the whole article is the picture: a group of whiteboy thugs dressed so you can't place the date as either '01 or '09. Obviously they aren't some bassackwards council estate-aping chavs but some real as the suburb streetwise Grime and Dubstep 'ardcore motherfuckers. One picture, two faces. A glossy miasma of adolescent insecurity hovering all about the edges.

This is how everything is now: politics, science, economics, food, love. An Oprah-type mania of redefinition and contempt for what nameless failures we've become. It is about appearances and the single philosophy that no real constructive change needs to occur; merely the appropriation of the symbols and styles of the times is sufficient. We are all kings! We are all heroes! We are all martyrs! The nominal triumphant over the real. The only thing good about it is it's wonderful terrain to disappear into.

Should Have Been Better, But That Didn't Stop People From Lauding Them Anyway

Two records that epitomized this desire were Portishead Third and The Bug London Zoo (the latter the Wire's Best Album of the Year). Both are two groups who I've loved for a long time and, in the case of Kevin Martin, championed out in the wilderness. But reading anything about both albums you hear more about what the author wishes than the actual music itself. Both are kind of interesting but flawed albums that have weak middle parts and where the singles are some of the best stuff (of course you would never want to say that: as these are Artists and they make Albums and aren't those mainstream pop acts who luck into a hot single and crap out a dozen other songs to charge twelve bucks for the experience). Both would have benefited from more retooling. Third begins to wander in its middle (being carried by Beth Gibbons' voice as Barrows' production almost completely disappears) before redeeming itself somewhat in the final four songs. London Zoo just proves again that the UK has never produced any great MCs of note (no matter what new genre name smokescreen you throw up) and proves that Kevin Martin produces more exciting production with Ragga deejays and toasters. Other than "Poison Dart" nothing comes close to approaching his collaboration with Rootsman a few years back, Razor X Productions. But, hey, who would let such a little thing like that get in the way when you want to write about the new darkness of our souls? Like a lot of hot fuss, history will judge this albums differently and journos will all say they were petty tools of the Music Criticism Machine.

My Favorites in 2008
  • Barry Lynn Balancing Lakes - Here's a great album that if it was instead labeled as a Burial or Flying Lotus album folks would be queuing up to suck it off. Instead it's another one of those Planet Mu producers who won't let themselves be constrained to a particular genre (here Mr Lynn being originally best known as the Dubstep producer, Boxcutter) and instead use a bredth of styles to create a rich and textured album (that only hardcore fans buy). The album has banging snares, soft Rhodes tones, a nuanced appreciation of dub and jungle, samples Rakim, etc, etc. It's interesting and was released to almost zero fan fare. (Recommended tracks "J-Set Jogwheel", "Lattice Shimmer", "London").
  • A Storm of Light A Storm of Light - This is another example of a creepy as hell dirge of a post-metal album. After Josh Graham did visual media stuff with Neurosis, he went on to form the instrumental metal outfit Red Sparowes which dropped two classic albums while helping put out that Battle of Mice disc. So A Storm of Light comes along, no Neurosis' own label no less, and no one's heard of it. It's the classic slow brutalism of Khanate and Sunn0))) with a character all of its own. The vocals are what you'd think a monastery choir would sound like if under hypnosis and 100 meters of water. The album is abstract and brilliant. ("Black Ocean", "Thunderhead")
  • The Dodos Visiter - Ahh, folks couldn't wait to step up and beat on this album. "It does the polyrhythms that Vampire Weekend does" yeah, except that this is their second full LP (plus an EP) with this sound and they actually use the drums in a lot of creative ways throughout the runtime to make some killer tracks. "Its just more white boy relationship angst" well true except *points at the Pitchforkmedia Top 50* and at least the lyrics are novel and funny without being pithy or ironic. It's an indie album of acoustic guitar, big drums and a murderer's row of songs. There are people who confuse volume with complexity and density with depth. This is not the album for them (and that's a great thing for us). ("Fools", "Ashley", "The Season", "Park Song")
  • Final Afar/Fade Away - Sadly Justin Broadrick's Jesu stuff seems to have gotten out of hand and disappeared into its own monotonous dream pop-isms. But I really don't mind since he keeps on dropping some classic noisy and weird ass shit under his multitude of other aliases. Here is Final, his first incarnation, at its noisy ambient best. It's environmental and expansive and is the classic music listening experience: the chance to become lost in another person's expression. ("6", "7", "They Just")
  • Mamiffer Hirror Enniffer - Once more: a collaboration in the post-metal field (here Isis' Aaron Turner and Chris Common from These Arms Are Snakes) that passed unseen across everyone's radar. Faith Coloccia combines found noise and piano into a post-metal classical hybrid that's weird and absolutely unique. When folks look at all the shitty records on their shelves and how they all sound the fucking same, this is the sort of album you wish you had. ("Death Shawl", "Cyhaeth")
  • Jazzanova Of All The Things - Folks seemed to talk about this one a little more but then it didn't appear on anyone's favorite lists. It's a slight departure from Jazzanova's first LP in that vocalists appear on every track, but that's just meant the connection between the songwriting and the sequencing is tighter. Jazz signatures, Philly soul styles, big fucking breaks, tales of heartbreak ("I Can See", "Little Bird")
  • Last Step 1961
  • Venetian Snares Detrimentalist - Throwing more water on that Clash article about Planet Mu above, Mr Aaron Funk flipped his two personae in new and interesting ways. As Venetian Snares he released an almost nostalgic ragga jungle album where he still performed his mayhem of odd time signatures, comical samples and genre potpourri. By the end the album takes turns into house and finally the symphonic breakcore he had set out in Rossz Csillag and My Downfall. Meanwhile his acid house Last Step alias became a darker instrument, avoiding the 80's danceflooriness of their first release and instead exploring epic and strange spaces (which seem to involve various cake frosting options and colors). Funk challenges expectations but doesn't seem to do so for its own sake. He doesn't seem to care if he's pigeonholed, moreso that he doesn't feel the need to do the same album twice simply to cash in. He follows his own surrealistic muse. ("Seafoam Green", "Shoreline Gold", "Eurocore MVP", "Poo Yourself Jason", "Koonut-Kaliffee")
  • Syclops I Got My Eye On You - Everyone loves DFA (PFM made the underwhelming Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem their top album of 2007), everyone likes Mu... so when Maurice Fulton decides to release an album of his classic disco house on DFA people don't even review it. C'mon... there's essences of Chicago and P-Funk on here! Fulton does his own drums! In all probability this album doesn't have much of an audience (it's not as if Fulton is really aligned with any particular scene) but its still a great disc of house music that isn't like anything else you'll really hear. ("The Fly", "Nelson's Back")
  • Austrian Death Machine Total Brutal - Fuck it, this novelty album is better than anything As I Lay Dying did. Tim Lambesis put together this parody of "What if Arnold Schwarzenegger headed a Metalcore band?" and came out with comic gold. Quickly written, pummelling idiotic songs that are just infectious. Everyone would have done it if they would have thought of it first. And you got fake Arnold going ape all over the place. The song even has some nice meta moments such as Arnold getting frustrated with his band fucking around with their FX pedals in "What It's Like to be a Singer at Band Practice". It's not perfect (where are the Conan songs?) but it's actually entertaining. ("Get to the Chopper", "If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It")
Other Stuff
  • Grey Machine "Vultures" - Aaron Turner and Justin Broadrick forming up to make hellacious noise! What was lost from the first two Jesu releases seems to have been stored up and released in this new collaboration. This first single dropped online and has me excited for 2009.
  • Hot Pink Delorean - Their debut EP of all original stuff wasn't the same as their remixes or earlier tracks but this production collective has a lot going for it. They cross French electrohouse with Miami style booty bass and go around making all sorts of genre bending remixes from Britney Spears to Q-Tip to Jodeci to Hollywood Holt (an unsigned Chicago MC) to the Victorian Gentlemans Club. They're able to take all these loose strands and tie them up in a sweaty ecstacy. Not to be missed (You can find a lot of their remixes loose on the internet. "Caked Up", "Freak Night", "Played Out", "Le Mer" are all worth it).
  • DVAS "Ambient Room (SymbolOne Remix)" - One of my favorite house tracks of the year. DVAS is eh to me but SymbolOne transform this into a smooth gem of a song.
  • The Duke Spirit Neptune - Another album that didn't live up to expectations mostly because producers still haven't been able to capture their live sound (maybe they should try to do what the Stooges did for Funhouse?). But another problem was that two of the tracks were released last year on the Ex-Voto EP while another ("Wooden Heart") was an old demo that came on the second disc of Cuts Across the Land. If they never would have released that EP and all the songs were on Neptune I would have loved it a lot more. But I think the apex came with their EP Covered in Love. The kids are too talented and put on too much of a good show to be let down like this on plastic.

Best Reissues
  • Ragga Twins Ragga Twins Step Out - This was a "Holy Shit!" moment for me and one of the things that keeps me digging in old crates. This milange of ragga, sub-PE boombap and early 90's rave never made it stateside. But leave it to Soul Jazz to put together this compilation for the kids. This shit is fucking explosive! The production of Shut Up and Dance is way ahead of its time (an example: the track "Rude Boy" shifts between reggae, to house, to hip-hop in the span of three minutes) but also was a victim of the Intellectual Property jihad that soon followed (too many samples == albums that never get released and groups that die before their time). But that's the best thing about music: some of its brand new second hand ("Ragga Trip", "Illegal Gunshot", "Tan So Black")
  • Bitcrush Shimmer and Fade - Bitcrush released an OK album this year but N5MD felt it good to rerelease this album (originally an mp3 release in '05) properly. And its a great mix of your normal Eluvium release if you then dropped some smart beatwork and basslines on it.
  • Edit: Loop - Heaven's End/Fade Out - Loop's always been one of those groups right outside of my radar... from Hampson appearing on Pure with Godflesh to the covers each group did to the "Yeah, a lot of what you think avant garde metal and shoegaze is came from the 80's UK psychadelic noise scene". These albums are fucking bananas. Spacey, lucid and loud like the best of what people expect from the likes of MBV and Ride. Plus the reissues have a slew of alternative versions and Peel Sessions. So don't miss out.
That's probably enough. I'm off now to buy some vinyl cleaner.

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