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Second half of the list began in the previous entry, perhaps more interesting for what’s not here than what is. Finishing this feels like a total exercise in self-mythologizing narcissism, a blatant attempt to paint myself in the best possible light by picking out a bunch of awesome records and subtly trying to imbue myself with the same inspirations and sensibilities of all the smart and talented people who made them. Don’t fall for my tricks!
The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
The first “cool” album I ever owned (and if I recall, purchased in the same transaction as this). I had no context for this, didn’t know anything about the band or anything about Kim Deal that wasn’t in the liner notes. It was just the songs, alternative radio classics — bullied out of the canon by Pixies revisionist history — that drew me in, and for once in the monument to irredeemable awkwardness that was my childhood, I somehow tapped into something beautiful that didn’t turn out to be preposterously dorky in hindsight. Hard to channel any specific insights into what made this great, especially without romanticizing the 1990s, but this really is my “life was good” album that takes me back to riding bikes with friends, shooting water balloons at neighbors’ houses and just living life like I should have been at the time. Last Splash is still a bridge back to those feelings and I have no regrets crossing it again and again.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
The Internet is full of people who could talk your ear off about Loveless, its importance, how it was made, how much it cost and all the things it will do to your brain when you finally hear it. Most of them won’t steer you wrong. In a weird way, I’ve grown to feel a little ambivalent about the recognition this album enjoys now. I got a little too cozy with the feeling that it was something that no one else really knew about, and for the longest time in my circle of friends or my school or my town, that might have been true. But the cat’s out of the bag and, you know what? That definitely takes nothing away from this album and its ability to surprise and confound, pierce through the coating of embarrassing hyperbole surrounding it, and to sound impossibly bigger than whatever set of speakers it’s playing out of. Is this my favorite album? It might be.
DJ Sprinkles – Midtown 120 Blues (2008)
It would be easy to describe Midtown 120 Blues as “deep house” if that wasn’t a term that had been whitewashed and culturally redefined over the past few years by EDM DJs, pop artists, and Beatport users. Funny how the co-opting of niche sounds and movements just happens to be one of themes of this album, which I would immediately recommend to any fan of this kind of music if only it wasn’t, for all practical purposes, impossible to listen to and casually consume in the way we’ve all come to take for granted these days. Considering the defensive and often violent reaction of the typical Internet user when confronted with the well-meaning imperative to “check your privilege,” or in this case, to at least (re)consider one’s actual relationship to the roots of house music (and why it might actually not be a world that everyone can identify with), keeping this at arm’s length from a general audience might be for the best. My vague descriptions of this album are rather pointless given how Terre Thaemlitz lays the thesis statement out in very stark terms from the very beginning (in deliciously mordant and self-deprecating fashion), eviscerating the rosy, secondhand nostalgia for the early days of house music that we’ve bought into as cultural tourists, consuming the past in safe, neatly-packaged summaries. The dissonant, often dark edge of these tracks evokes a sense of loneliness, loss, solitude and alienation, subtly conveyed by lushly arranged layers of piano, flute and richly-satisfying bass that swirl together into truly hypnotic shapes. I’m definitely aware of the hypocrisy between implying that this is an album that I completely “get” while hinting at an inherent, un-spannable chasm that practically no one else in my sociological cohort should be capable of honestly crossing. Yeah, it’s a problem I’m still thinking about.
Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
While I’ve possibly spent more time obsessing over this album than any other, my urge to dig into it for deeper and deeper meanings is completely over, and I’m definitely done with the joyless exercise of explaining it to anyone who will listen. Describing the Music of Boards of Canada, especially on their breakthrough album for Warp that made them every bit the label figureheads that Aphex Twin or Autechre were, is to reduce their approach to music to a formula or a gimmick (nostalgia!). Perhaps no other musical artists besides Radiohead (or Death Grips, so it seems) has been so wholly absorbed into the Internet indie-bro hype culture and had all the magic and wonder drained out of what they do and rendered into memes like the brothers Sandison have. The disgust I’m expressing here has little to do with them as artists and everything to do with music fandom in the age of social media, and is taking the place of any actual discussion about this album mostly because I’ve already talked about it here and don’t have anything left to say.
Broadcast – The Noise Made by People (2000)
Broadcast was a favorite band of many Stereolab fans I used to chat with online, and in years surrounding the release of this album, they were shortsightedly pegged as Stereolab clones. Besides sounding nothing alike, it’s definitely possible (and probably widely agreed) that the songs on The Noise Made by People are simply better than any other collection of Stereolab’s, or any of the other retro future-obsessed groups of the late 90s/early 2000s (Mellow, Komeda, even Air). 1960s electronic music may have been the inspiration for their use of analog synthesizers, but in the years since the album was released, The Noise Made by People has only come to sound more and more contemporary, a vision of the future rather than an imitation of a plastic past. There’s a heart to this music that goes unrecognized, a sense of honesty and vulnerability that took a long time for me to notice and embrace. Or maybe spending a long time with this CD just sowed the seeds of a special relationship that makes me extra-willing to romanticize about? I love that my copy was released on Tommy Boy, home of Naughty by Nature, House of Pain, and Coolio.
The Orb – Orbus Terrarum (1995)
I’d had either of The Orb’s first two albums penciled in here at one point and couldn’t bring myself to pick one over the other. So choosing Orbus Terrarum, the first album from The Orb that I ever heard/owned, is definitely a compromise but also a valid pick in its own right. It’s a brighter, clearer-sounding album than both Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and U.F.Orb, with a wider dynamic range that I’ve always preferred to those albums, brilliant as they are. Also, Orbus Terrarum was definitely my gateway album into electronic music, and considering how weird and twisted it still sounds after all the years, that was probably like learning to swim by being tossed straight into the deep end of the pool. The first half hour of the album (“Valley,” “Plateau,” “Oxbow Lakes”) is deceptively warm and inviting, setting up my expectations for what I thought ambient music should sound like: tracks that evoked a “spacey” feeling, slowly drifting past with whimsical samples bubbling in and out of the mix, the sense of slowly floating through a palpable space on top of a deep, dubby bassline. But as the wide open spaces alluded to by the geographically-themed track titles start to feel more claustrophobic, the psychedelic twists and turns will still shake you even when you know they’re coming. Thankfully, the whole album still retains The Orb’s sense of humor, which shines through even without the aid of psychedelics, good thing considering how I probably still had my D.A.R.E. t-shirt at the time and wasn’t wearing it ironically.
Gas – Pop (2000)
Pop can lull listeners into a trance like waves crashing on an ocean shore or a breeze rustling thousands of leaves in a dense forest. It’s undeniably relaxing, but sounds less like a human composition than a huge force of nature. It’s reassuringly repetitious, but unpredictably so, unfolding at its own pace, seemingly unbound from the latticework that holds together even the most creative and effective ambient music. It’s a sound that seems to wash over you, surround and suspend you in its own world, even before the beat gradually emerges into the mix and adds an urgent but reassuring pulse. Provided you’re listening on any halfway-decent stereo or pair of headphones, giving into the music can be an immersive experience. Wolfgang Voigt’s recordings as Gas go back a few albums before Pop, his final solo release under the name, and following the slow evolution of his sound from its low-fi, hazy beginnings to the crystal-clear conclusion of his vision is a fascinating and satisfying trip to take. But really, I’d recommend closing your Wikipedia and Discogs tabs and just soaking it up without too much thought.
Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
Nothing else even comes close to the nostalgia rush I get whenever I hear this album, but despite the comfort and familiarity I experience whenever I listen to it, Thriller still manages to amaze and surprise me, as it does in every chapter of my life. The comfort of this nostalgia is secondary to the awe inspired by actually running your hands over it, appreciating its craftsmanship, wondering how something could be appreciated in its own time for being so soulful, joyful, and electric and still continue to feel so vital and essential for so long. Plenty of music talks about bringing people together, but as the appeal of Thriller spans generations, race, borders, I wonder if any of the art in our lives has actually done that quite as much as the nine songs here. This is music that makes me happy to be alive and genuinely thankful for the genius that brought it into the world.
Tortoise – TNT (1998)
Another album that changed everything I thought about music, how it “should” work and what it could do. Tortoise’s use of familiar instruments (guitar, bass, drums) with lesser-used sounds (mallet instruments, synthesizers, sampling), on the surface, doesn’t look like a particularly daring proposition today, nor would their blending together of sounds associated with different genres (dub reggae, jazz, film soundtracks) seem very risky in a world where musicians and listeners routinely dabble in all different kinds of music. But compared to any of the tepid post-rock that dribbled out into the ether over the next decade, it overflows with vibrant and deep grooves, playing with sound on a lush, cinematic scale. The product of equal parts improvisation and studio trickery, the atmosphere on TNT — a title I always assumed was an ironic nod to AC/DC, quite possibly Tortoise’s polar opposite as a band — is some of my favorite on any record, digging out unexplored spaces that I never imagined existed and have found few parallels to since.
Primal Scream – XTRMNTR (2000)
The second half of this list was half-done when I published the first part more than three weeks ago. But sitting down to wrap it up was a challenge. I’ve been…busy, and distracted by concerns that maybe, just maybe, putting the time and energy that I do into things like this is a distraction from both personal responsibilities and more important things in this world that can’t be ignored. WordPress tells me that this blog turned seven years old back in December, so for the entire time that I’ve posting on here, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of living as a U.S. citizen with a leader who valued knowledge, pursued wisdom, believed in the worth of public service and implored us to do the same, encouraged us in the struggle to respect and understand one another and to come together for a greater good that would affect universal change for the better. That this man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit would be succeeded by a petulant con artist who transparently appealed to the darkest forces in our hearts and manipulated society’s worst fears is the greatest humiliation any of our generations have endured. That modern life has grown abstract enough for millions to willingly pull the level for an insidious opportunist, an unapologetic adulterer, rapist, and pathological liar who peddles debunked myths and conspiracy theories as facts, is still too much to fully comprehend. The startling futility of questioning his qualifications, calling out his lies, trying to expose his rhetorical tactics or explain what’s really at stake to his supporters feels like trying to run through a brick wall. The experience has shown me how brittle my optimism and mental resourcefulness becomes in a moment of crisis, and how that moment of crisis can arrive in a form that no one in my life has any idea how to deal with. I guess this is the moment where I look in the mirror, realize I’m an adult, and accept the fact that there’s no more secret wisdom waiting to be passed down to me and no further cues to follow. Basically, I have reached the end of my life, insofar as nothing in this world will change me from this point forward besides my own choices. Those choices, including how I choose to cope with troubles big and small, will define who I am (a childish realization if there ever was one, but better late than never, I guess). For the past two and a half months, I’ve chosen to steep myself in frustration and pent-up disdain, which brings me to XTRMNTR.
I turn to music as a conduit for a lot of different emotions that I feel or want to vicariously experience. This surely includes a lot of “negative” emotions, but for better or worse, anger has never really been one of them. XTRMNTR is an obvious exception to this, which is probably why I’m compelled to play it at ridiculously loud volumes (these days, confining it almost solely to listening in the car). While its release predated the Iraq War by a couple of years, even coming out a whole year before George W. Bush even took office — not to stuff this quintessentially British band into a squarely American context — the restless, pissed-off fury of the album felt like a direct response to the right-wing hypocrisy, overt propaganda and rabid militarism that was thick in the air. Unfortunately, it feels just as relevant today as it did back then. It probably doesn’t speak well for my maturity or composure, but a song like “Pills” (usually regarded by fans as the low point on the album, which may be true but not for the reasons they’d believe) sums up the complete scope of my feelings towards Trump, his petty, stupid Tweeting, his petty vendettas against any institution or individual who calls him out on his perpetual bullshit, his extreme solutions to imaginary problems and the phony explanations he’s allowed to give for any of it. And whether it’s an indictment against actual neo-nazis, globalization and neoliberalism, or just bullshit punk rock, “Swastika Eyes” feels like the soundtrack to the laser-focused response that’s in order against the normalization of racism and bigotry in our country and all across the western world. “Accelerator” is probably the loudest rock song I’ve ever heard, and whether or not it’s healthy for me, it’s invigorating to turn it up and let myself just simmer in. Describing the entire album as a one-dimensional expression of rage would be a mistake. “MBV Arkestra (If They Move Kill ‘Em)” continued Kevin Shields’ run of scarce but beautiful masterpieces in between Loveless and My Bloody Valentine’s return in 2013, and is one of the biggest-sounding slabs of kaleidoscopic psychedelia I’ve ever heard. “Keep Your Dreams” is a beautiful piece of future blues that feels cleansing, even redemptive, on its own or as the melancholy centerpiece of the album. XTRMNTR is, like a lot of albums that I’ve already mentioned, a work where the supposed weak links never struck me as such. Being a political album (despite what Bobby Gillespie may say), there’s fair share of sloganeering and not a lot of nuance in the messaging. And I guess something about that has always connected with me, maybe because I’ve never had the conviction to say what I truly believe or because I struggle to reduce the world to simplified, black and white terms, so letting this album voice my frustration is a tremendous release. If I’ve written more about it than any other album on my list, that’s because it’s just resonating with me very hard at the moment, a moment that I’m still hoping will pass sooner than later, one we’ll eventually be able to look back on from from a wiser, kinder place than we are right now.
I don’t write about music here very often anymore. I always meant to make that a focus here, and in the early years of this blog I often did. But I was never very satisfied with the results. It wasn’t enjoyable or fulfilling, felt like a chore, and while I tried to make it all very personal, it felt deeply informed by influences outside of myself. Since then, I haven’t stumbled upon any new ideas to shake this up, but just taking a break has helped me reset my mind and I hope it makes a difference. Maybe there will be more posts about music in the near future, maybe there won’t. Anything could happen and I don’t know what to expect from the new year at all.
It’s been years since I’ve first wanted to do an entry here about my favorite albums, which is as simple of an idea but probably the biggest potential undertaking of a single post (or split post, as I think I’ll do to keep this manageable) that I’ve ever had. As I suspect it probably is for most people, coming up with the list itself was easy, but trying to identify and actually verbalize the feelings I have for each of these is a huge challenge, one that I know I’m not fully up to the task for but still feel compelled to attempt regardless. My “relationship” with all of these albums is extremely personal but often built on nostalgic feelings that I can’t communicate without illuminating contradictions in my thought process and a real lack of experiences and encounters in the world that would make any of this feel urgent or real to anyone else. Sometimes it’s felt like my lack of musical ability (despite fits and starts of practice and dabbling on guitar and various DAWs, which are seemingly picked up, inherently understood and mastered by children on a daily basis) is rivaled only by my inability to speak the language of music, to describe the qualities of sounds and the sensations of experiencing them. These limitations will manifest themselves throughout this list, and for that, I apologize but encourage you to listen to each album anyway and form your own coherent opinion.
I own somewhere around 500 or 600 CDs and a tiny vinyl collection that’s gathering dust while I continue to shop around for a turntable that won’t destroy records or play them at inconsistent speeds. I have at least a thousand albums on my computer; it’s difficult to tell without hand-counting and sorting between albums, EPs, and singles. Anyway, I have a lot of music, but despite the fact that this has been one of my life’s biggest obsessions, it’s hard to look at what I’ve gathered and see it as anything other than a catalog of well-known releases, very little of it truly obscure or rare or not hotly-tipped by one source or another at some point over the last twenty years. It’s a predictable sampling of the indie zeitgeist with a random scattering of old classics. Collectively, it represents my point of view and is different from anyone else’s, but for all the deep digging I’ve felt that I’ve put in over the years, it’s weird to survey what I actually have to show for it, which is a very mainstream and safe collection that covers a lot of ground but not in any particularly interesting way.
Whether these are truly my 20 favorite albums, or just the 20 albums that I most wish to publicly associate myself with, I cannot say. There’s nothing from Underworld or Radiohead or Susumu Yokota here (or Dig Me Out, which I should include but would rather not write about, I guess) but it’s not like the 90s or 2000s need to be any more represented here than they already are. The vast majority of this list is made up of music released during my teens and twenties, and there’s nothing on here that’s older than I am. Why that is, should, or shouldn’t be an issue, I can’t say. I guess I’m just trying to beat hypothetical readers to the punch when it comes to calling me out on a bias for music from my doe-eyed adolescence and too-cool twenties.
So here are my 20 favorite albums of all time, in no order of preference (started from a list I scribbled in a notepad at work two years ago):
Bark Psychosis – ///Codename: Dustsucker (2004)
This album was not a hit when it came out and didn’t get the kind of recognition it definitely would get if it was released today, yet somehow it kind of fell into my lap right after it was released. Unfortunately, I was young and dumb and downloading more albums than I had time to listen to and it got lost in the habit of simply trying to hear as much music as I could on a daily basis. Years would pass before I’d give it the time and attention that it deserved, which really sucks because I now think it’s as good as Kid A or maybe even Loveless. Heck, I appreciate that it’s been able to reasonably duck the kind of reputation that those albums have, which has made it all the more easier for me to experience it a more personal way in the years since. Not that I’ve listened to it in a vacuum or that it’s even an obscure album, but it still hasn’t been tainted by the all-seeing eye of the Internet hype machine. Like Hex, it’s the perfect 2 AM album, the perfect companion for watching the night sky on your porch while cicadas chirp and leaves rustle in the breeze. That’s probably not essential for wrapping your hands around this thing, but some albums deserve a listening experience that breaks from the routine, and ///Codename:Dustsucker is surely one of them. Graham Sutton is always praised for his mastery of mood, but this is not a generic exercise in painting post-rock textures or whatever you want to call it. These tracks exist as bonafide, poetic songs and really weird sound sculptures, and to tune out everything else and give yourself over to them with no reservations feels like stepping into another world.
The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole (1997)
This album is definitely of a certain time and place and mentioning it probably dates me in a way that I’d rather avoid, but unlike nearly everything else from the short-lived “electronica” movement, this album has persevered and still sounds fresh and urgent and vital to my ears. It’s far more diverse and interesting and deep than any other “big beat” music –which, don’t get me wrong, doesn’t have to be intelligent to be still be daring and unbelievably fun — and still evokes a sense of place when I hear it, not a geographical reality but a fantasy world inspired by classic rock and rave and my adolescent projections of what I imagined taking drugs would be like. That’s still a weird place I go to every time I hear this album, and whether that says more about DYOH or me, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t want any of that to change.
Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992)
I guess this is the album that got me into music and is kind of responsible for shaping me into the person I am now. I still remember the day I found it in the store (used!) and the whole experience of deciding to buy it, bringing it home and listening to it on repeat in my room while reading the liner notes and lying on the floor next to my bed and my fish tank and my crappy little 13″ TV where I still had my NES hooked up (our SNES was still in the basement, if we hadn’t bought an N64 by this point, I can’t remember, but yes, this is an important detail). I played it for friends with evangelistic enthusiasm, an occasion that blew up in my face and set the standard for how my interests would become completely isolating pursuits instead of the bonding experiences I’d always hoped they be. I was a few years late to this music but since it had never really “happened” in my little corner of the world in the first place (Sonic Youth appeared on The Simpsons, which was about as far as anyone I knew would have ever come across them), it always felt immediate and new and bursting with possibilities. Just walking down the hall at school with something like “Theresa’s Sound-World” or “Sugar Kane” playing in my head always made me feel like I was in on a big secret that I was torn between keeping to myself and wanting to tell everyone about.
Oval – Dok (1998)
Dok is never really mentioned in discussions of glitch/clicks ‘n cuts music of the mid to late 1990s. Even in talking about the music of Oval, it’s a mostly ignored album that doesn’t do much to draw attention to itself. It’s not groundbreaking in the way that Systemisch or 94 Diskont were, and it doesn’t feature Markus Popp pushing his sound to extremes like he did with Ovalcommers. It’s hard to comprehend exactly what it is and what it’s doing, outside of my own extremely subjective opinions and experiences. For years I used this album to cope with migraine headaches; the flickers of melody laid over Dok’s blend of skips, pops and deep rumbles of blown-out static (played at a quiet volume in a dark room) would set off curiously vivid hallucinations behind my eyelids and cue up ripples of mild brain sparks that seemed to carve voids in the pain amassed between my ears. Maybe it didn’t always work, but having music to turn to was a reassuring relief and may just have played a big role in helping me eventually grow out of what had been a weekly ordeal since I was in grade school. I wonder if Markus Popp understood just how perfect of a title “Polygon Medpack” was for this.
Stereolab – Dots and Loops (1997)
Dots and Loops found Stereolab making a hard departure from the guitar rock and droning synthesizers of previous albums toward a sound that dabbled in more sophisticated pop and nuanced production. I guess it’s both a perfect introduction to the band (since it straddles both ends of their career and catches them at the height of their creativity) and also a terrible representation of who they were (they’d never make another album like it). It was sophisticated and cool and really weird and still sounds like more than the sum of its parts. It was the first of any music that I’d ever heard from the band. Over time, I’d eventually collect most of their releases and go on to see them live three times (each time worse than the last, unfortunately). This is the Stereolab album I keep coming back to and never lets me down, unlike the last several they’d eventually release in the years that would follow, a terrible but completely understandable decline that’s a reminder of how irreplaceable people are, even when they’re part of a group playing seemingly interchangeable roles.
The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)
The newest album on this list sounds, by far, like it ought to be the oldest. It’s easy to assume (but hard to truly say) exactly what James Leyland Kirby is doing with the material he’s sampling for this, where he takes old records from the 1930s/1920s — which most listeners will have few associations with outside of the “haunted ballroom” music of The Shining, a point of reference the artist makes no strides to hide — and edits them with a deceptive hand. Much of the album sounds like untouched phonographs, crackling with age or perhaps playing in a cavernous, empty space. Other tracks find whisps of melodies cut into loops that trail off into silence before starting over, only to end in most abrupt ways and lead into the next track, always sounding like it’s in the middle of already playing when it’s introduced. Layers of static and reverb, feeling less like digital effects and more like a physical presence, have a subtle influence on some moments while completely overwhelming others. The overall feeling may parallel to drone music or the world of dark ambient, but the album is an ode to music that exists outside of the lineage of classical or rock music and is hard to relate to the well-established “rules” of any of those genres. There may be a temptation to write off the source material as romantic schmaltz, but revisiting the excess and optimism being channeled in these tracks feels uniquely bittersweet in hindsight (after all, this may be the first pop music that’s outlived its audience). An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is a dark, dark album that’s defined by playful moments and a sense of memory that’s nostalgic, wistful, reminiscent of a time and place that we can revisit any time we want but is just out of the reach of any first-hand memories we have left of it. It’s music that’s somehow tremendously festive and sad, relaxing but still unnerving in a way that’s rarely explored in music or art. It didn’t oblige me as a listener because it didn’t satisfy any preexisting cravings. It has, however, turned into an obsession that’s one of the last singular statements in music that I’ve ever heard.
Shuttle358 – Frame (2000)
I can’t say if Frame is clearly the best album from Shuttle358 or if it’s even my favorite of his. And after 10 or 12 years of somewhat frequent listening, all I can really say is that it’s the album that I’d point to as the definitive Shuttle358 recording, but even then I can’t really say why. This is music that I’ve listened to a lot, almost exclusively alone, so it holds a great deal of private meaning to me that I’ve never tried to articulate in verbal terms and is predictably defying me now that I’m finally attempting to. It’s obvious enough to say that there were quite a few people making minimal, glitch-inspired electronic music back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I still enjoy a lot of that stuff but none of it has really stuck with me quite like this artist or this album. I know very little about how this was made, what sounds were sampled and which were synthesized, but it retains a warm, reflective, peaceful, timeless quality that I just don’t get out of any other music, and certainly not in any other laptop-propelled ambient music from this time, even when they come close and live up to all the telltale descriptors. This is great and I love it.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
In an age of curating playlists, Internet contrarianism and the long, slow dismantling of the classic rock-dominated Great Albums lists carved into stone by the baby boomers, it’s hard to find any album that everyone can agree to hold up as a truly undisputed classic. Illmatic may come as close as any album to staking such a claim. And yet, in the context of listing it here, I know someone will stumble across this entry and roll their eyes at what’s obviously just another token rap album. And that sucks, but too bad, it can’t be helped. Every single track on this is, well, pretty much perfect. Is it worth mentioning that “One Love” is my favorite track? That the third verse sends chills down my spine every time I hear it? But unlike most albums on this list, there isn’t a bad song here, no good-but-not-great weak links that shape the album into preferable sides. I may have fallen out of the loop with hip-hop in the past few years (not something to boast about, I know) but time and time again, Illmatic has been the anchor and compass that brings me back, which I’m sure it will again.
Coldcut – Journeys by DJ: 70 Minutes of Madness (1995)
The most adventurous DJ mixes are often described as “journeys” but none live up to that metaphor quite like Coldcut’s entry in the Journeys by DJ mix series. I’m not too interested in trying to describe what Matt Black and Jonathan More (and others, maybe) are doing here — it’s better experienced firsthand than being reduced to a blurb that will describe it in the same terms as every other DJ mix ever made — but even over 20 years later, it’s still a masterclass in everyday concepts that we take for now granted and regularly draw upon with comparatively lazy inspiration: the use of sampling and digital editing with fundamentally solid, simple mixing and the blending together of different genres and styles. I’ve enjoyed plenty of mixes that are defined by their tracklisting and traditional transitions, and praise of the extensive detail that went into the design of this mix does not double as criticism of simple methods used by most other DJs. 70 Minutes of Madness, however, is inventive beyond compare and exposes the complacency and dilettante-level eclecticism that we’ve come to accept from most DJs today. Blending downtempo cuts, techno, jungle, electro, funk with film dialogue and other leftfield samples, the mix draws from a variety of genres but never sounds random or too scattered. Everything here makes sense, just not in the usual ways you’d expect.
Burger/Ink – Las Vegas (1996)
If this album had come out in 1998 like I’d always assumed, it would still be ahead of its time by a longshot. Even today, it resists easy categorization, despite being one of the earliest cornerstones of German techno in the new century. Like another Wolfgang Voigt album on this list, there are no tracks on this that I’d even think about skipping, and the entire album feels of a whole piece that I can only ever think about listening to from beginning to end. To point out highlights in this piece might imply that there are moments on it that don’t deliver the goods, and nothing could be further from the truth. There are a couple tracks nestled around the middle, though, that bend time and logic in ways that you’ll never quite get used to and give the album the sensation of movement that its cover hints at and palpable heights that aren’t just a suggestive title.
When I wrote about Daft Punk, I envisioned that entry as the first of a series of similar posts about all my favorite bands and musical artists. I was hoping to write other pieces like it about other artists I’ve been into for some time. Hopefully, my experiences with them would give me some things to write about and my enthusiasm would make it interesting. If I was going to do this, I knew that I’d be writing about Boards of Canada, and probably sooner than later. I’ve tried writing this post a few times over the past few weeks but it’s been very difficult for me to organize my ideas. Starting at the beginning has been frustrating so I’ll go backwards instead.
Tomorrow’s Harvest, the latest release from Boards of Canada, is a boring album. That’s a contentious statement if there ever was one, but it’s the simplest description of my feelings that I can come up with and a point that I wanted to make very clearly and get out of the way. The first three tracks are very good. The rest of it sounds very nice but feels meaningless. Boards of Canada’s fans have recorded several compliations of BoC-inspired music over the years as a tribute to their favorite “Gods” of electronic music. Tomorrow’s Harvest fits in nicely with those collections, feeling very inspired by Boards of Canada and all the sounds and effects and moods that their music has come to characterize over the years. It does not, however, break new ground or provide any kind of experience remotely akin to listening to their music made in the late 90s or in the early 00s. Many moments feel like imitations of earlier tracks. Had this album been made by another artist or group, it would either have been criticized as insultingly derivative or praised as a clever parody of the “Boards of Canada sound.” I realize that this is a very subjective take on the album, nothing but my opinion, which is all coming straight from the gut and which I still don’t completely understand. But I also believe that the time that I’ve spend with their music and the way that I’ve listened to it has given me a license to make such statements and that they’re worth more of your time than any of the seemingly-universal acclaim that this album has received from the press or from the duo’s most devoted fans.
And, recognizing how deeply so many people tend to feel about this music, I also recognize that I’m hardly the only listener out there who has what they know to be an “expert” opinion about it. Spend a few minutes on Twoism, We Are the Music Makers, or even the devoted Boards of Canada Subreddit, and you’ll encounter a level of emotional investment that’s almost unheard of in music outside of the realms of teen-pop. Surely there are always metal or prog-rock bands out there, making albums full of references to history and mythology and art and poetry, arranging it all together into puzzles for fans to unpack and discover and have deep conversations over. And there’s Radiohead, who wield a staggering amount of control over their fans’ listening habits and musical priorities. They selectively exposed their fans to one divergent realm of music after another, gently guiding at least hundred thousand listeners or so through the entire history of modern music, slowly culturing their fans into a new kind of listener more suitable for the post-Internet band they so deeply wanted to become.
Boards of Canada, on the other hand, have inspired nothing short of a cult following, one bursting at the seams these days, with very little direct communication or activity whatsoever. Having established a very recognizable sound that’s all their own, particularly on two “classic” albums and EPs, bros Sandison accidentally spawned a virtual world that was no longer limited to the confines of the music itself. “Boards of Canada” became synonymous not just with a very particular feeling of melancholy, but with he idea of “nostalgia” (childhood nostalgia, in particular), which electronic music had rarely concerned itself with before. Listeners who discovered them before the mid 00s encountered a very strange music. Reactions were mixed but always truly personal. But over time, discussion of “nostalgia” slowly spread like a meme, and is now held up as the “truth” behind their music. It now overwhelms the experience of listening to Boards of Canada, defines it, confines it, and reduces the very creative duo to a brand: blurry Polaroids, animated production logos from early 80s television, warbled-sounds pulled from aged tape… first the audience bought into this simplified idea of what Boards of Canada meant. Did the duo themselves begin to see themselves in the same way? Considering how Tomorrow’s Harvest feels like a shorthand transcript of their previous works, I have to wonder.
This is not to say that the new album doesn’t have a character of its own. It does feel creepy. And grim. And as desolate as the ghost town imagery that informs our expectations about the whole shebang. Much like a certain spector of death now hangs over the music of Coil, this is one of those albums that invites you to stare into the void and take stock of your mortality. This won’t stop people from adding it to their “chill out” playlists alongside Thievery Corporation and Zero 7. There are interesting themes here, but it plays out as if created by committee. The trademark syth pads, samples of voices counting, station ID jingles… the album feels like a Tumblr site devoted to collecting snatches of media that resemble the Boards of Canada™ aesthetic. What would have been short interludes on previous albums now constitute lengthy tracks, with no coherent structure holding them together. It’s a joyless album that makes me physically sick and is a chore to sit through. I hate it and I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s a product something in the artist-listener relationship here that somehow got warped and twisted ass-backwards.
I don’t like the new album. “Reach for the Dead” is the best moment on it and the only truly affecting piece of music on it, much like “Dayvan Cowboy” was the saving grace of The Campfire Headphase in 2005. These aren’t simply two good-enough tracks that fans like because they were released as singles, but two of the most affecting pieces that Boards of Canada have ever recorded. I feel this is significant because it proves that the inspiration that made their earlier records so vital never left them, but rather, was buried by some other concern that else that rendered both The Campfire Headphase and Tomorrow’s Harvest as significantly weaker albums than their predecessors. These most recent efforts, in particular, were received by a sizable fanbase and critiqued by an Internet press industry that simply weren’t there to bother them during their time on Skam and their early releases on Warp. Am I trying to blame the fact that their music isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be squarely on the Internet? I don’t know. And what good would that do even if I was?
Geogaddi came out in February of 2002. I remember this very clearly, where I was living and what I was doing and how obsessed I was with their music at the time, actually looking up information about them online to see if they were releasing any new music any time soon, and then seeing that their new album had come out only days before. That sort of thing almost never happens anymore, so try to appreciate it if you ever get the chance. I remember going with my friend to the store to buy it. Unfortunately, that store was probably Best Buy but at least I can say that it was there for me when I needed it at least once. I don’t remember my first impressions of it or anything like that. I just remember it being with me for the rest of that spring and summer, gradually becoming a part of my life at the time along with the rest of everything else I’d collected from Boards of Canada up to that point. The album definitely felt more insistent than the rest of their music, or at least more assertive in delivering its musical and thematic motifs.
One review of Geogaddi, in a rather sheepish/apologetic recommendation of the album, made an interesting point about the reputation that was surrounding the duo and the nature of their work. “This is BoC in hi-fi, and not just in sound-quality either. All of their traditional cliches have been turned up to 10. It’s as if the earlier records were petri dishes to divine the most effective ways to cause mass-swooning among the faithful.” It’s never “expensive” sounding but is certainly the work of musicians with a desire to make a better-sounding long-player experience, and with more attention and probably resources this time around to make it happen. This doesn’t compromise or distract their vision, if anything it brings certainly elements of their sound to the forefront of the listener’s attention, perhaps stripping the music of some of its ambiguity but creating a clearer picture of their vision than ever before. They had already built of a musical language that was very much all their own, but the way it was all brought into crisp focus here, coupled with great track sequencing and the feeling of connected-ness between the tracks (which was missing from later albums) makes Geogaddi a very interesting listening experience.
I heard the In a Beautiful Place in the Country EP during the summer of 2001. I bought it and had the CD in my car during most of that summer, so my memories of it are usually associated with driving in my car on the way to my summer job (in the dead of night, stocking shelves at a big-box retail store starting at 4:00 am) or sitting in the car after work in the afternoon. My air conditioner was broken and I had black leather seats. I’d open the driver’s side door and take a breath before getting inside. It felt like an oven, and in less than a minute I’d always begin sweating profusely. I’d put this CD on and to this day, every time I hear the beginning of
“Kid For Today,” the skin on my arms and legs begins to tingle, as if all the pores are slowly opening up in the beginning stages of whatever signal cascade begins the perspiration cycle. And I feel very alone. And tired. But also very comfortable. The songs here are very comforting (quite the opposite feeling of Geogaddi, as a whole), which probably has a lot to do with the lasting appeal of this EP, which seem to be some of Boards of Canada’s most-recognized songs, if Internet message boards are anything to go by. I imagine that this release, which actually came out in late 2000, is their most immediately-accessible work, and probably came out at a time when more people than ever were getting into their music. This was also the height of Napster’s popularity. I don’t remember what lead me to download their music in the first place, but I first heard Boards of Canada after downloading some mp3s, more or less at random, off of the network. I don’t see how anyone at the time could have been interested in this kind of music, downloaded this EP, and not fallen in love. That’s the sort of bullshit generalization that I usually hate to read but it’s one that I believe enough to go ahead and make myself.
Sometime in late 2000, I downloaded some tracks off Napster from Music Has the Right to Children, and a few mp3s taken from the earlier EPs. Those EPs are all great. I could talk about them a lot, although I feel like I should spend most of the rest of this most talking about the album, instead. My memories of Hi Scores and Twoism, which I often confused with each other until I was able to get them on CD, whenever it was that they were each re-issued. “Hi Scores,” “Nlogax,” “Seeya Later,” “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” “Sixtyniner,” “Oirectine“… well, now I’ve just linked to most of the music on them, but listening to all of those (and quite often, on a loop for a few hours, late at night), I remember feeling aware of myself in a way that I’d never quite experienced before. I honestly do feel like I never quite grew into my self in the way that you’re supposed to during puberty or early adolescence. I do feel like the autopilot setting that everyone’s on during childhood was never switched off for me until I was out of high school, and that I was never truly living in the moment with a real understanding of who I was, what I wanted in life, or the understanding that I was truly responsible for making my own decisions, until some time during that year. I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like I’m trying to get sympathy, make excuses for the person I was at that time or before then, or looking at my life as if it were a story I’m writing, and trying to assign interesting psychological qualities to the main character. Anyway, I’m not saying that these tracks made me experience a kind of awakening. But they were there when it was happening to me, so I’ve always had very special feelings about them. And that personal attachment is probably why I get so irritated by the legions of Boards of Canada fanboys that slowly came into existence over time, whose public displays of affection for the group often sound like Evangelical testimonials, at least in terms of the “personal relationship” that they seem to have with the music. I liked the idea that this music was “mine,” which is laughable to admit in any case today, but my point is that I felt this attachment in a personal way, and the emergence of a large community of
people dudes excited about it in ways that looked very silly from the outside, made me wonder if I was nothing but just another dork gushing — privately, publicly, what’s the difference? — about how much it all meant to me.
Along with those tracks, I’d downloaded “Roygbiv,” “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” and “Happy Cycling” (maybe my favorite Boards of Canada track, and one that closes the album so perfectly that it’s hard to believe it was included on the Matador release as a US-only bonus track) from Music Has the Right to Children. I bought that album in late 2000, about 2 weeks before Christmas, and listened to it every day for the rest of that Christmas break. I remember driving to a Christmas party in another state — I shouldn’t have RSVP’ed but then again, they shouldn’t have invited me to go in the first place — and playing through the album twice. I don’t know if I’d ever played music in my car as loud as I was blasting “Sixtyten” that night. More than anything, I remember listening to this album on headphones while laying in bed, usually while thinking about a lot of things that were bothering me at the time. Maybe that should make me feel sad today, every time I listen to it, but it doesn’t. It didn’t inspire me or make me feel like I could “escape to another world” while listening to it or anything quite so precious as that. But it did make me feel like I was entering a new phase in my life, one that would hopefully give me some space to relax (not in a strict physical sense) and some opportunities to have some fun and rewarding experiences. There’s no way to talk about any of that stuff without going off on some boring tangents. I’ll just say that the album sounded like the perfect synthesis of so much of the music that I was enjoying at the time, but also something new and completely different. I didn’t come into it with great expectations or having experienced any of the myth or hype around it that would slowly grow over time, so I got to know it very slowly and by the time it was famous, getting reissued, getting a perfect score from Pitchfork, etc., I already felt like it was mine in a way that no other music had ever been before. That’s a feeling that’s worth savoring for a short time, but like I’d slowly learn over time, don’t attach any feelings of identity or accomplishment to stuff that you like, because its “importance” or “meaning” is beyond your control. I still love Music Has the Right to Children, even as it’s become a go-to “classic” electronic album that people recommend to curious listeners, even as its reputation has dwindled over time thanks to chin-stoking Internet geek hyperbole, even as I’ve even seen a backlash against it from people who are just tired of it. I don’t know what I’ll think of it a year from now or ten years from now, but I like to imagine myself listening to it for a long time and seeing what kind of new associations I can make with it.
I picked up a used copy of Music Has the Right to Children at a store in 1999. I’d seen an advertisement for it in a magazine and the art was really interesting, plus it was on Matador, so I thought I should try it out. I started to take it to the counter but put it back in the racks and bought LP5 by Autechre instead. I often wonder how my feelings about this music would have changed if I’d started listening to it back then.
Maybe that’s all I have to say about Boards of Canada. I could say more, but it’s a dilemma between wanting to talk about one of my favorite groups, and understanding that the attachment I have towards this music is based on feelings that I’d probably be better off not trying to articulate. There’s a lot of conflicting feelings in this music, and it’s interesting to talk about, but the experience of just getting lost in it is so much more rewarding and worth preserving. This is music that deserves a cold listen, free from promises about exactly what it’s going to deliver. Maybe that’s true of most music? Once you’re fed the press release, it can be hard to have an honest response that’s not tainted by other people’s ideas. Maybe that’s why I’ll be perfectly happy if no one ever reads this. I wanted to get this all out, maybe so I could stop thinking about doing it in one shape or form in the future, but I don’t want anyone to go into this music with expectations or come away from it with anything other than an interpretation that’s come straight out of their own imagination and nowhere else.
Sigur Rós – Valtari
I’m not sure why I bought this album on CD. I can listen to it at home on Spotify if I want to (yes, I subscribe) while in the car, it literally lulls me into a sleepy trance. Say what you will about Sigur Rós, but that’s not really what I want out of listening to them. A college roommate of mine used to listen to Ágætis byrjun while falling asleep. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately, whatever), it was so compelling that it would keep me awake. For me, it was engaging in a way that their music just isn’t anymore. There’s some really good moments on this album. In fact, the whole first side is full of surprises and those great emotional swells that the band is capable in ways that all their “post-rock” followers are only capable of imitating. But the rest of the record is beautiful background music, at best. I don’t feel much of an urge to put this on right now and I’m having trouble imagining when I’ll feel otherwise.
Windy and Carl – We Will Always Be
At this point W&C aren’t doing much to vary their sound, so if you were on board before this or even enjoy their earliest stuff, chances are you’ll like this. There’s an acoustic jam up front that invites the listener in, but after that it’s a series of spaced-out but warm dronings that recall some of their best work. This was a good soundtrack for summer stargazing and it’s spacious soundscapes are also just right as the cold air creeps in and the seasons change. The flower on the cover is appropriate; this is not another “trip into the void” album of tuneless psychedelic droning, but an organic album that lives and breathes.
Liturgy – Aesthetica
I don’t listen to much metal so I don’t know if I should be judging this album or not. But it’s something I’m working on. Hey, I listened to all of Reign in Blood yesterday! And I actually enjoyed it. So then there’s this record and wow, even I can tell why these guys are probably hated by all the “true” metalheads out there. Presumably, this is death metal, but it’s actually a pretty cheerful record. Maybe it has something to do with the key that all the songs are played in? I have no idea. I hate to overstate how “joyful” this all sounds but it’s pretty upbeat and positive, and I can see why that would rub some listeners of the metal scene the wrong way. Also, they sound a lot like Lightning Bolt, only with a more tonally pure focus. I really like this album. Also, I’m sure that the band would hate to read all this.
Flying Lotus – Pattern + Grid World
I’ve loved everything this guy has done until now. I was even onboard when 1983 was released! But I hate this EP. The songs have gotten too messy, with less structure than ever, with all his trademark sounds piling up in service of nothing. It’s not until the very end that something resembling the heights of Cosmogramma starts to emerge, but like that it’s over. This has to be a collection of outtakes from that album, otherwise I don’t see any reason for it to have been released. Needless to say I’m a lot less excited about the new Flying Lotus album than I was before I heard this.
Mouse on Mars – Parastrophics
A long awaited album, for sure, one that feels like a split between the harsh noise of Radical Connector and the silliness of Niun Niggung. It has its moments but something feels off. No real standout track and a few clunkers (“They Know Your Name,” especially). I was hoping for a return to… any of the many things they used to do so well. They’re trying to supercharge their sound here but the structure feels stuck in mid 00’s limbo. I don’t want them to repeat themselves, only to make a more focused statement, or something like that.
Traxman – Da Mind of Traxman
I’m not saying I’ve heard a lot of them, but this is the best footwork album by a single artist that I’ve ever come across. Is this a genre that’s supposed to work in an album context? Are people supposed to sit at home and listen to this? As opposed to hearing it in its original context? I don’t know. The more that it does, the more that it’ll be absorbed by the white blogosphere (people like me, I guess). I just want it to stay underground and off the radar of Pitchfork and people like Girl Talk. Too late, I know. Get on this before hipsters ruin it!
The Orb feat. Lee “Scratch” Perry – The Observer in the Star House
I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Orb’s album with David Gilmore, so I was a little skeptical of yet another collaborative effort, even if it was with another musical legend. But this is a pairing that really works, and is a lot more fun. Perry’s vocals work well with the Orb’s production, and together it’s the best Orb album in at least ten years. Listen to the “Little Fluffy Clouds”-sampling “Golden Clouds” to get a taste.
Chromatics – Kill For Love
I loved the first Chromatics album, and Kill For Love begins on such a high note that I was sure it was going to surpass their older work. After a really good opening salvo of songs (a tremendous cover of “Into the Black,” the title track, “Back From the Grave”) it lapses into a stretch of tracks that don’t really go anywhere. There’s nothing as cool and chill as “In the City” or as textured and tense as their song from the Drive soundtrack. A lot of effort went into this monster of an album (91 minutes long!) but in the end it feels like a missed opportunity, or at least something that could have been paired down by a half hour or so.
(This post is taken from an extra credit assignment I turned in for a sociology class this spring. Figure I might as well milk it for a little more use here. I expect it to be ignored or dismissed as “crazed feminism” or moral handwringing. But hey, I felt like posting something today and this is the best I could do. Come back some other time for more anime ‘n stuff.)
The cover for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way is a typical example of how women in advertising — or in many other forms of media — are not simply objectified, but are commonly portrayed as actual objects, as explained by media critic Jean Kilbourne in her documentary series Killing Us Softly. Here the artist, who’s well known for appearing in outlandish and provocative costumes both in concerts and in photoshoots, is transformed into an actual motorcycle. The image is bizarre, attention-grabbing, and unmistakably Gaga. The meaning or intention behind it is rather vague, and for listeners encountering the artist’s image for the first time, it will certainly leave a lasting impression. What troubles me is the disconnect regarding Lady Gaga’s empowering lyrics (to say nothing of her work for GLBT kids), which often concern ideas of identity and self-respect, and the disempowering nature of the album cover image, which is totally absurd on the surface but has enough potential to affect some of her younger listeners. I’m somewhat ambivalent about this conclusion; why is it allowable for David Bowie (surely an inspiration for Gaga and her ever-shifting public image) to portray himself as a dog and not okay for Gaga to show herself as a motorcycle? Is this a (sexist?) double standard? By the end of 2011, Born This Way had sold over 8 million copies worldwide.
The debut album from Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday, introduced the world to the Trinidad-born star, whose verbal prowess quickly established her as one of — if not the — premier female MCs in the world. Judging by her songs, music videos, and willingness to take risks that few rappers would dare — her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” was likely the most memorable of 2010 — she is more concerned with breaking conventions than establishing herself as anything resembling what we know as a traditional pop star. The cover of her debut album depicts her as an impossibly leggy doll, legs splayed open and arms missing. It’s at once an extremely sexually provocative image and one that’s reminiscent of childhood, the realism of the image blending the two themes into a rather disconcerting portrait of disempowered and submissive femininity, the polar opposite of the persona she embodies on her aggressive verbal delivery in her music. Gaga’s bizarre cover is simply surreal compared to the rather explicit impression that this image stands to make on young girls who might encounter it, delivering an impossible message about body image to an audience more receptive to it than any other. Again, I’m willing to admit that I’m possibly missing the point concerning this cover. For years pop stars have used album covers to portray themselves as flawless beings existing in an airbrushed hyperreality. For years, female artists were forced to present themselves and define their public personas according to a very limited set of choices. Only in recent years have artists like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and others (Pink, Robyn, M.I.A., etc.) taken steps to subvert and skewer these traditional notions of “sexiness” or “perfection” in the media, often with a healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation,* and by doing so it could be argued that images such as these may be less damaging to the impressionable minds of children and tweens (primarily girls, although boys are not immune from the effects of such images) than traditional “beauty” that falsely appears within the realm of the obtainable. Pink Friday has sold over 2 million copies in the US, and over 300,000 in the UK.
Sorry For Party Rocking, the second album from electropop stars LMFAO, has sold nearly a million copies in the US since it was released over one year ago. The album’s most popular song, “Party Rock Anthem,” was first immortalized in the “dancing hamsters” Kia commercial, and went on to be one of the biggest hits of 2011, spending six weeks at number one. Sorry For Party Rocking features both band members pressing their faces against the stomach of a (presumably topless) young woman, who’s cropped (decapitated?) above the shoulders. Her body is objectified, treated as an easel for the album’s title. Much like the songs within, the album cover could be construed as completely ironic or silly fun not meant to be taken seriously, but I do have to wonder how old most of the listeners who bought or received it were, and what effect the cover image might have on their attitudes toward women or (for girls) themselves.
*I’m assuming that Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj had a hand in producing said covers, and that their image is not controlled from men on high (as I suspect it likely is in the case of, say, Britney Spears) but by their own visions.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
Every time Radiohead releases a new album, everyone gets caught up in the rush to “review” it or at least form some kind of opinion about where it “ranks” in the band’s catalog. It’s always best to resist the temptation to join in this madness, since it’s pretty much the worst way possible to listen to any kind of music. So it’s been more than a year since this album came out, and I’m glad to report to you now that it’s a great record, one that didn’t need any singles or a sequel (remember this?). Just sit back and enjoy it for what it is and you’ll find that it’s a beautiful record of compelling simplicity. One of the biggest bands in the world, Radiohead seem to be one of the last bands for listeners of “challenging” music to rally around and have a shared social experience. The King of Limbs, on the other hand, might be best enjoyed in private times and on a personal level that’s out of step with our ever-public, shared lives.
Addison Groove – Transistor Rhythm
Ostensibly this should be everything that I’d love: filthy footwork rhythms and high-class production. But this bores me to death and leaves me feeling… nothing at all. Was hoping for more great tracks like “Footcrab” but there’s just nothing here that delivers quite like it at all. Guess I should have gotten into him two years ago, then.
Actress – R.I.P
Countless electronic albums over the past few years have dabbled in dark psychedelia and nostalgia for the age of rave. Here’s one that really delivers on those themes, somehow sounding totally of our time but also unlike much of anything else I’ve heard these days either. Definitely the weirdest Actress album, although it might not be his best. That says more about how good Hazyville and Splazsh are than anything else. Highlights: “Marble Plexus” and “Jardin.”
Bruno Pronsanto – Lovers Do
If you want to hear a long album that doesn’t really go anywhere, check this one out. Doesn’t do much to build on Why Can’t We Be Like Us and just feels unnecessary and frustrating.
Placebo – Battle for the Sun
Most Placebo albums are pretty frontloaded and run out of gas towards the end. This one starts off with about five really bad tracks and saves the good stuff for the very end (er, the bitter end, lol). Problem is, none of it’s quite good enough to redeem the whole album, which is probably their worst disc overall. What a mess this album is. Lyrics get really cheesy here; no wonder they have so many fans in non-English speaking countries. Don’t worry, I still like them, for better or worse.
James Blake – James Blake
I really don’t like this album. And I used to be a big James Blake fan! One of the best dubstep (mk. I) artists of the 00’s, it’s like he doesn’t seem interested in carrying the crown anymore and instead wants to be the male Feist or something. Take every dismissive utterance of “dinner party music” from any review you’ve ever read and lob them at this album, because it’s never been more appropriate (not that I don’t enjoy a good dinner party). Look, I don’t want to begrudge him the freedom to do what he wants, because it’s not like he’s literally “selling out” and it could actually be argued that sticking to what he was familiar with would have been a way of playing it safe. Why not take a risk and trust in your audience to give you a chance? So that’s what he did and a lot of people seem to like it. I certainly don’t. That’s all it comes down to and we’ll see where he goes from here.
Sinitus Tempo – Soul Eater
I don’t watch anime dubs so the samples on this are kind of lost on me. I recognize them for what they are but being a big fan of this series, I still I don’t have much of an emotional connection to them so the concept of this doesn’t hit home for me as well as it probably should. Still, this is a fun and chilled out album from a talented and ridiculously prolific producer who’s working in the spirit of both Nujabes and maybe even Dilla. He’s made a lot more records since this and worth checking out if you like instrumental hip-hop or want to hear how your favorite series might have inspired a record/mixtape (assuming your favorite series is Soul Eater, Honey and Clover, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo or Spice & Wolf).
Tiger & Woods – Through the Green
Are “disco edits” still in? I love this album. So fun. Always puts me in a good mood. This would make most “EDM” fans’ heads explode. Where’s the drop? Seriously fun stuff.
Seefeel – Seefeel
Seefeel are one of my favorite bands. Ever. So I was thrilled to see that they were returning, and the Faults EP was good enough to give me high hopes for this album (“Crowded” is as good as anything they’ve ever made, IMHO). And yet… oh my God this album bores me so. I’ve nothing original to say about it, just the same complaints as everyone else. The songs don’t really go anywhere. There’s none of the beautiful ambient sounds of “Meol,” nothing pounding like “Succor,” no proto-Field jams like “Industrious” or anything measuring up to the ethereal beauty of Quique at all. Everything here feels like it’s living on some middle ground and there’s no tension or groove. What’s going on here? Nice drumming I guess but that’s not what I signed up for. BTW please come back to America, thx.
Molice – Neugravity
Wonderfully angular J-rock that cuts deep. So rare that I find any Japanese music I like that isn’t psychedelic metal or featured in some anime’s credits so I’m trying to spread the word about this band, who’ve definitely got the goods.
Digitalism – I Love You Dude
Throw another disc on the pile of massive disappointments that I seem to be including here. I loved Idealistic, which wasn’t a masterpiece but at least all the songs were pretty good (sometimes it sounds like the best 3-star album in the world). This album is 15 minutes shorter and only has about 3 good songs on it (“Stratosphere,” “2 Hearts” and “Blitz” ), after which you’re in for the entire second half of the album, which sucks. I never want to hear “Forrest Gump” or “Reeperbahn” ever again. Another casualty of the electro wars? I wasn’t expecting anything amazing out of this album but I definitely never envisioned that they’d deliver something as half-finished and tepid as this.
Surgeon – Breaking the Frame
This might be one of the best pure techno albums I’ve ever heard. Is that a sign that I haven’t heard enough, or is this record just that good? So many great moments, this really helped me get through the winter and last semester. Listen to this track to see what I mean. Amazing album.
I suffer from a really crippling case of, well… feeling old. I know I’m not, but when I constantly compare myself to who I was or who my friends were ten or fifteen years ago, it’s really easy for this debilitating feeling to take hold of me and keep me from enjoying the here and now. Not that there’s anything wrong with nostalgia, which we all indulge in, either alone or communally. But I find myself reminiscing about the past to a seriously damaging degree. I know that the world wasn’t necessarily a better place when I was fifteen years old, but my selective memory of it sure makes it seem that way. I think every one of us is susceptible to falling in to these thought patterns as we get older; the wiser and more mature you are, the more you’re likely to recognize this habit for what it is and avoid the pitfalls of dwelling in it for long. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before we start bitching about how much better everything used to be and how today’s kids just ruin everything.
I catch myself ruminating over this kind of stuff every day and I’m trying as best as I can to break myself of the habit. Culture (pop, youth, Internet, etc.) has always been changing at an exponentially fast rate, and it’s unrealistic (and narcissistic) to expect the world to freeze itself in time for you so you can be seventeen forever. None of this is a great concern for people who’re comfortable in their own skin and at ease with the simple matter of living life and pursing whatever interest sparks their passion. For the rest of us, though, the inevitable march of time and the changes it brings to the world around us can feel like a great injustice that must be resisted or rejected at all costs. It’s a cruel but fitting irony that, for such people so concerned with clinging to the world of their youth and decrying the teens that grew up and eventually took their place (Get Off My Lawn syndrome?), these habits effectively brand them as “old” long before their peers who don’t give a shit grow a single grey hair.
Why am I meditating about this now? Two institutions that I’ll forever associate with my youth have gone belly-up in the past two weeks, which has made this a very nostalgic July. It’s been more than a month since the announcement that Chicago’s WKQX, the home of “Chicago’s Alternative” Q101, would be switching formats from modern rock to news (following a buyout from a group headed up by this pathetic scumbag). Q101’s ratings have been slipping over the years as rock continues to lose ground to pop and R&B as the youth music of choice, so the station’s fortunes hadn’t been positive for quite some time. And anyone who remembers listening to the station back in the early to mid-90s would be hard pressed to find much to enjoy about it in 2011 as it abandoned most of what made it interesting and cool back then, embracing instead some of the most painfully generic, macho, angry and bitter music of the last decade. I remember being young and discovering bands like Elastica, Lush, and The Chemical Brothers, all thanks to Q101. By the early 00’s, this brand of “alternative” was all but completely jettisoned in favor of a new crop of bands like Staind, Breaking Benjamin, Godsmack, Cold, Trapt, Hoobastank, and Disturbed. Kurt Cobain once said that the future of rock belonged to women. It might be for the best that he’d never find out how much of an angry sausage fest it would eventually turn out to be.
Even in its heyday, Q101 was far from perfect, and for every song they’d play from Bjork, Beck or The Breeders (or strange one-off hits that somehow slipped into the playlist a few times a year) there would be three or four tracks of generic modern rock shit. And this was before Limp Bizkit, Creed, or Kid Rock arrived in ’98/’99 and turned the station into a Woodstock ’99 celebration of aggro butt-rock and depressive self-loathing. But over the years, we learned to take the good with the bad, and felt a tiny sense of victory as bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, Modest Mouse, and Franz Ferdinand reclaimed the spirit of “alternative” and scored a few hits that are still rock radio staples today. All this was meaningless, of course, but in the age of Napster, iTunes, and Pandora, I think we all still wanted radio to matter. We grew up listening to it because it was all that we had, and if it stayed relevant, then we still had something in common with the kids of today.
And over the years, Q101 took a few risky stabs at staying relevant. Sunday evenings introduced the “Electronic Trip” back in 1997, where the station would air 2 hours of electronica. This was not to last, as the program was cancelled sometime in 1998 or 1999, but along the way it helped me to discover artists like DJ Shadow, Orbital, Photek, and countless other electronic acts I’d have had no access to in the pre-Napster world of the late 90s. A similar program focused on indie rock would appear in 2002 (2003?), only to fizzle out a year or so later. The most drastic change would come in 2005 when the station went “on shuffle,” breaking up their predictable playlist with more classic alternative hits. It was an immediately noticeable change that felt like a godsend in its first few months. Over time, “shuffle” grew less and less surprising, as nu metal and grunge slowly regained their chokehold on the station, and hits from Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Smiths were phased out in favor of bro-classics from Bob Marley and Sublime. Eventually, Q101 succumbed once again to a predictable, corporate-approved playlist that catered to the dumbest core of every possible demographic, which left the station in a pretty miserable state from at least 2008 until this summer. Plenty of listeners mourned the passing of the station. Just as many seemed to cheer its demise. Both groups could make a good case for their stance.
As much as I complained about the station over the past ten years, it was still a big part of the soundtrack to my youth. My friends and I would listen in the car, in the basement, in the backyard while jumping on their giant trampoline on hot summer days… a lot of these times were boring as hell, but I still idealize these memories to a ridiculous degree. On my own, though, I was busy getting in to lots of music that my friends didn’t know and didn’t care about. Sonic Youth, Pixies, drum and bass, musique concrete, jazz… there was no Internet to discover and sample music from. Instead, I would borrow books from the library — I checked out this one a few times — and interlibrary loan whatever I could. There were two good music stores in town that I spent most of my allowance and early paychecks at. There was also Borders, which I’ve posted about before and spent far too much time at for my own good.
The closing of one-third of the chain’s stores earlier this year attracted a great deal of attention from the media, bloggers, and readers everywhere. Based on everyone’s reactions, you’d have thought that the entire company was going out of business, when in fact most of their stores would remain open. I don’t remember anyone talking about these remaining stores or what the future might hold for them, so I just assumed that they would remain open for years to come. Surely the bleeding had stopped and the company could essentially start from scratch, right? Obviously, I was ignoring the dreadful debts that the company had rung up over the years, which could hardly be remedied by closing a few underperforming stores. Alas, all Borders stores will be closing within the next few weeks, putting another 11,000 Americans out of work.
Most shoppers who first visited Borders during the 90s remember it as a “real” bookstore, one that carried an astounding variety of books and hard-to-find titles. Their music selection was second-to-none, and I’m sure I’ve spent hundreds of dollars or more picking from it over the years. Hard-to-find magazines, manga, great DVDs… you could always find something new and interesting by just browsing. Some time over the past decade (especially the last 5-6 years), this was all RPL’ed to make room for toys, games, t-shirts, gift wrapping, knick knacks and all kinds of floor-filling ticky-tack garbage that management was intent on stocking instead of real books and media. Though the company was extremely late to the eReader game (introducing the Kobo over a year after Barnes & Noble began selling the Nook), the chain had dabbled in selling electronics and video games throughout the 00’s. Perhaps they thought they had to — and actually could — compete with Best Buy. Corporate’s stubborn reliance on pushing the “make” titles, instead of simply providing a wide selection and good customer service, certainly showed that they really thought they could beat Cosco at their own game. Obviously, these were foolish battles they never should have picked.
I bought a lot of books and CDs at Borders that are still very special to me, and I have a lot of good memories of just hanging out and browsing there. Back when the stores were actually open until 11:00 at night, I once drove through a snowstorm on my way home from work just to buy this CD! How crazy is that? Compare that to today, where I can step into a Borders and literally walk out empty-handed a half hour later, unable to find a single thing tempting enough to actually buy. So I’ve been unhappy with the chain for a long time now, but I never wanted them to go out of business. There was always hope that the recession would end, that the company would get its shit together, and that somehow everything would work itself out in a few years’ time to the point where shopping at Borders could once again be an enjoyable and unpredictable experience. But here we are, with stores packed in the early weeks of liquidation sales, foolish and greedy customers scooping up armloads of merchandise that they could have bought weeks earlier for cheaper with a coupon. By the end of the summer, dorky kids will have one less place to hang out, thousands of knowledgeable and helpful staff members will be out of work, and the CEO will surely be enjoying severance pay the likes of which an entire store of booksellers could never earn in a year.
So then, we’re living in a world where radio is a dead medium and brick and mortar bookstores no longer need to exist. I can’t help but feel troubled by this. Maybe a new rock station will appear on the Chicago dial, but will listeners bother to tune in? I think that once you’ve lost them, and lost them young, you’ve lost them for good. The same goes for bookstores. I know that no one under 20 buys CDs or DVDs anymore. Will they stop buying books, too? But… what if that’s okay? Is any of this inherently a bad thing? I can’t help but feel like it is. It’s just got to be! But is that just because I’m over 30 and scared of change? Do I only understand the world I grew up in, and fear the inevitable shift that’s been happening all along?
Sometimes I feel like everything that I do, everything that I am, is sort of fading away. Maybe this is just fine.
Even though it’s been going strong under one name or another for more than a decade now, this was my first time at Movement, a festival that’s pretty much tailor-made for my love of electronic music. I’d wanted to go last year, but hemmed and hawed until the last minute and ultimately didn’t make it happen. Detroit is a day’s trip away, tantalizingly close enough to make a trip feasible but still somewhat complicated to prepare for. This year, I just decided that I was done making excuses not to go, so I booked my weekend pass, train ticket and hotel room a few months in advance. A few last minute challenges aside, I somehow managed to get myself there and back in one piece, and had a pretty fantastic time.
I liken the experience to the first time I went to an anime convention. It’s quite a shock to step into a place where everyone shares the same passion as you, particularly when it’s one as culturally marginalized in America as anime or techno. Sure, lots of people think they know what “techno” is. But ask the average person here and they’ll likely imagine club remixes of modern pop hits or trance-pop like Groove Coverage. (As for anime fans, the idea of “techno” appears to run the gamut from this to this… so much for two misunderstood subcultures finding common ground anytime soon.) Even in the world of indie music, which the standard indie rock model has slowly been supplanted by more dance-friendly fare — I’d say that Daft Punk now occupy the same legendary/influential niche that Pavement did a decade ago — authentic techno remains one of the last branches of dance music that the Pitchfork nation has yet to absorb or understand. Disco, electro, house, even dubstep are now part of the fabric of indie music in America and have been well-plumbed by both indie rock bands and indie rock media, but techno (particularly Detroit techno) remains largely untouched (not that I’m looking forward to the day that Animal Collective or Spoon fans start namedropping Underground Resistance). Anyway, this is all just a longwinded way of saying that techno — think music on M-nus, Planet E, Basic Channel, etc. — is pretty much invisible in America. How strange it was find a giant a giant carnival devoted to it right in the heart of a major US city.
Maybe that’s a little misleading, as Movement’s roster of artists represented a variety of electronic styles. But techno remains the central idea that the festival is based on, or at least where it finds its “heart.” Despite the necessary corporate sponsorships that makes the festival possible or at least reasonably priced — Red Bull and Vitamin Water get their own stages — there’s a sense that the festival represents the uncorruptable spirit of electronic music, which has enjoyed occasional periods of great success but largely thrived on the margins of culture for decades. It feels like no small miracle that such a fragmented world could actually come together for such a big event, and one that people would actually come out for.
The visitors at Movement came from all sorts of backgrounds and subcultures. There were lots of young people there, the sort of kids that might have been called “candy ravers” at one point, but who defy such easy categorization today. There were plenty of older folks on hand too, veterans of both festivals past and the golden days of house and techno, and for whom the classic tracks represented not just “know your history” landmarks but real, tacit memories. There plenty of hippies, people in spectacular/ridiculous costumes, and glowstick wavers, but most everyone there was simply dressed for a hot summer afternoon. Saturday’s rain didn’t put a damper on things; everyone seemed eager to take the dreary afternoon as a challenge to have fun.
A few of my personal highlights:
Space Time Continuum — I only caught the end of this set, but wow. I thought this was supposed to be some dated-sounding electronica for hippies. Instead it was a totally banging set just wouldn’t quit. This guy (Jonah Sharp) apparently hasn’t recorded anything for a while, but he clearly knows how to work a room or at least end a set on a high note. RYM reviews of his albums suggest that his work is more psychedelic and conceptual than the ten minutes of music I heard on Saturday, but I’m still curious to check it out.
Cio D’Or — Whenever I play my “recommended” radio on Last.fm, a Cio D’or track or two usually pops up. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard of her so far, and her set (abbreviated by technical problems?) didn’t disappoint. Smart techno with a real punch that was slow to lift off, but once the beat dropped, she had the crowd moving for more than an hour. The (literally) underground Movement stage boasted a few acts that I enjoy but who didn’t do much for me live, but this set was extremely compelling.
Tortured Soul — I don’t listen to much funk or “live dance” music, but these guys were really good. I expected something like Galactic but they sounded closer to Tortoise, The Roots, or even The Rapture. They definitely earned their main stage spot.
Kerri Chandler — Simply a great set dripping with soul. I know he’s a legend, but how much does the crowd really care? All I know is that the bowl at the park was half filled when he began playing, and was positively packed less than an hour later (in the rain, no less). So many people are skeptical or misinformed about what electronic dance music is and what it’s like to experience on a large scale. I wish those kind of people could’ve been there for this set.
Margaret Dygas – Just a great DJ set, good mix of classics and new tunes. Had the fortune to be up front for this and was really, really feeling it. I’m usually too much of an introvert to dance, but I couldn’t help myself here. I don’t think she’s got superstar status or anything yet, so it was nice to see so many people coming out to see her, even before the latecomers began pouring in for…
Ricardo Villalobos — I thought this was his first US show, but apparently he’s played here before (in Detroit, no less). Nevertheless, his appearance at this year’s festival was still a big deal! And the hilarious thing about it was that it seemed obvious that he couldn’t have given less of a fuck about it. Bringing out at least 20 people on stage with him, who proceeded to have a drunken picnic, he eased into his brand of mind-warping minimal, Latin techno that seemed to have sound engineers going bananas. I think they were pleading with him to turn it down, while he either didn’t understand them or simply pretended not to (for about five minutes, this was great comedy). I’ll admit this wasn’t as amazing of a set as I’d been anticipating, but my expectations for him were simply too much for him to ever deliver upon. I mean, I’ve actually dreamed about seeing him play before (in a setting too bizarre for me to possibly describe), so it’s little wonder that reality can’t quite live up to the fantasy that I’d concocted for it well in advance. I actually left his set after an hour, for fear that my facial cartilages were slowly being liquified by the bass.
69 — A real feast for the eyes and ears. I really like Carl Craig but had no expectations for this going in. Was there a reason he was performing under this name? I still don’t know. All I know is that this was the most potent techno I heard all weekend long. Just electrifying stuff. The crowd was going crazy for this, and rightfully so. My camera had run out of memory by this point, but I’m not sure a little video would do the whole experience justice. I hate to say it, but you really had to be there for this. To think that one man could put on a show like this, and that such a massive audience could come together to appreciate it, sort of gives me hope that the world really isn’t as hopeless of a place as it sometimes seems. I know that’s a tremendously corny sentiment, but that’s why the optimism and excitement that’s so inherent in techno is also so ineffable to try to put into words. You either know it or you don’t (yet).
Here’s hoping I can come back again in the future. The next few years look pretty bleak, financially, but I’d hate to think that I’d never have a chance to have an experience like this again.