I haven’t done one of these in a long time. Consider this an odds and sods wrap up for what I listened to in 2010. Maybe.
The Chemical Brothers – Further
I’ve stayed loyal to these guys pretty much from the start, despite the relative unevenness of their past few albums. That said, I recently went back to We Are The Night, and… yikes. What a mess. Further isn’t a landmark release like Dig Your Own Hole (um, have any albums been this year?) but it’s pretty much exactly the album that the group needed to make at this point in their career. I’ve spent a few months with this, and while I’m less enthused by it now than I was initially, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll still enjoy listening to it a few years from now, which really hasn’t been the case for any of their albums since Come With Us. Further reaffirms their psychedelic indulgences, but cuts their longheld ties with the Britrock community (no NME-approved guest vocalists here, in other words). What results is a more focused work with better ideas, the album-length trip that they’ve always hinted at making and a sign that they’ve got a lot more more (good) music left in them than we would’ve thought.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Another winner from Kanye West. A hilarious, poignant, hugely entertaining work. Pretty much everything that it was built up to be and more. Where to begin? Awe-inspiring opening track, fantastic guest appearances (even from rappers I thought I didn’t like), no toss-off songs or any tracks that I’d want to skip, masterful production throughout, really on an entirely different level from anyone else in hip-hop today that I’ve heard. You love him, you hate him, etc. But if you’re one of those people who’s just got to have an opinion about him, make sure you hear this first.
Underworld – Barking
I’ve been back and forth on this one from the start. After hearing “Scribble” and “Always Loved a Film,” (easily my favorite track of the year), I was looking forward to this album with a sense of anticipation that I hadn’t experienced in years. The good: Barking is a great rebound from the rather dull Oblivion With Bells. The two singles are, quite possibly, the two best songs the band has written since anything on Dubnobasswithmyheadman. “Between Stars” is their most realized stab at pop, but channels it through their slick, dark sound in a way that’s undeniably satisfying. The bad: the album sort of runs out of gas toward the end, with a strange spoken word piece and a quiet, sad ballad drenched in vocal effects, both of which I’ve tried to warm up to but still haven’t come around to yet. Maybe this album needed a multitrack suite or an extended piece like “Pizza For Eggs” in its middle for the shorter tracks to bookend? Just an idea. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy this album. I just get a sense that, for all its ambition and positive energy, that it’s still settling for less in the end.
Oval – O
After almost a decade of silence, Markus Popp reboots Oval with a double-length album containing 70 tracks. The signature “skipping” CD sounds of his earliest recordings are nowhere to be found, nor are the dense waves of digital noise that comprised much of Ovalcommers back in 2001. What does O sound like? The album artwork of the lead single is a good place to start. Was Popp inspired by this piece (to say nothing of the possibility of him actually using it)? The more time I spend watching it, the more of a plausible possibility that seems. So yeah, the new Oval relies heavily, if not exclusively, on actual instruments as a sound source. But how these tracks were composed and recorded is anyone’s guess. I enjoy studying while listening to this. I’m sure many artists would cringe at the suggestion that their work is “study music,” but to be honest, I don’t think most normal people would agree with me.
various artists – Donkey Kong Country 2: Serious Monkey Business
Remixes, covers and reimaginings of pieces from Rare’s 1995 masterpiece (which just turned 15 two days ago!), all by members of the Overclocked.org website. If you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why anyone cares about music from a 16-bit video game… then go take a long walk off a short plank! Not every song here improves on the original but most every one is imbued by a real aura of reverence and loving nostalgia. Donkey Kong Country 2, which I was able to play though once again this year, is one of my favorite video games of the era, and this tribute is more than fitting to both its music and its spirit of adventure and imagination.
Darkstar – North
Pigeonholed as dubstep for their appearance on Hyperdub, their debut album is about as far as you can get from what the genre has come to represent in 2010. “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” is here, but the rest sounds a lot like Telefon Tel Aviv, but a little less eager to please. If you thought that Junior Boys’ Last Exit was a great “winter album,” just wait until you hear this! A slow burner of an album that really creeps up on you. That might sound like a pair of meaningless cliches, but I really mean it. Highlights: “Gold,” “Deadness,” “Two Chords.”
Shackleton – Fabric 55
Last year’s Three EPs was a noble attempt to turn a series of short releases into a longer listening experience. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t work, but it sure didn’t suck me in like this mix does. Does any artist in music “do” ominous paranoia like Shackleton does? Maybe no one since Photek in the late 90s, and this is a long way from his “music that makes you feel like you’re being followed.” Gut-twisting basslines, African drums, ominous chants and truly strange spoken word samples, all Shackleton trademarks, come together to pull the listener into some truly dark territory. I probably made this sound like a hardcore album, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Creepy in a Cronenberg sort of way, I think.
The Flashbulb – Arboreal
One of breakcore’s most talented artists, Benn Jordan’s latest is his most musical effort yet. If you love your beats fast and heavy, you might be disappointed by this pleasant-sounding album, composed of real songs and recorded with chamber ensembles and an orchestra. Still, the beat-rushes are as intricately programmed as ever, and even the most mellow pieces on Arboreal are textured and interesting enough to be both relaxing and engaging. This will probably still clear the room if your friends aren’t into electronic music, but not as fast as you’d expect.
Actress – Splazsh
There was a glut of debut albums released in 2010 by artists I’d been into for much of the last year or two — Guido, Ikonika, Scuba, Shed — that ultimately left me cold or disappointed. Splazsh, on the other hand, has actually gotten better with repeated listens, and is one of my favorite albums of the year. So it’s frustrating that I find it so difficult to describe. Yeah, it’s “techno,” but what does that really tell you? Anyway, it’s really good. Essential late-night listening.