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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.