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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.