Saturday, December 31, 2011


I know of four songs with "Endless Summer" in the title, and all of them are great. I wonder what makes this such an enduring image/idea? Anyway, on a wintry New Year's Eve night, here's a soundtrack for warmer times to come in 2012. Yep, this is what a New Year's Eve party soundtrack sounds like in the bourgeoiseaux household.

The Sandals - "Theme from The Endless Summer"

Fennesz - "Endless Summer"

Microstoria - "Endless Summer NAMM"

Microstoria/Stereolab - "Microlab: Endless Summer"

Am I missing any more great songs with "Endless Summer" in the title? Please let me know.


I love the World Junior Hockey Championship. I think many Canadians do. It's my favourite event of the holiday season; I look forward to the first game of the tournament on Boxing Day more than Christmas Day, and have done so for years. A few years ago, Canada and the US played on New Year's Eve in an instant classic. Almost all New Year's Eve games at the World Juniors are required viewing. So what am I planning on doing tonight? Oh, you'd better believe it:

If this game lives up to the last few times Canada and the US have met, it will be phenomenal (although, it might be topped by Russia vs. Sweden afterwards, which should be a doozy of a game). The tournament is even more pleasurable to watch this year because TSN has ditched Pierre McGuire (who might be the most annoying man in hockey) for Ray Ferraro--you can hear how much Gord Miller is enjoying working with Ferraro, which makes the commentary much better.

A few reasons why I love this tournament (read: some overt displays of bias and partisanship):

I was in Corvallis when this game happened and had to listen to it as I couldn't get TSN's video stream. I remember telling my girlfriend at the time that if Canada lost the game, then I was going to be in a very bad mood. Heart-stopping brilliance right here (Ryan Ellis deserves as much credit as Jordan Eberle for keeping the puck in the zone on Russia's clearing attempt).

Eberle's game-tying goal is even better, but I can't embed it for some reason (Eberle very much earned his "Mr. Clutch" nickname--doing this in multiple games two years in a row? Unbelievable).

Next to this (which also has one of my favourite calls), this shootout is probably my favourite sports moment. I still get chills watching every second of it.

Friday, December 30, 2011


If there's a canon of American hauntological fiction, Maus is definitely part of it (other texts to be included in that list: Beloved, The Shining, a whole mess of Philip K. Dick [e.g. Man in the High Castle, Ubik, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said], the New York Trilogy). I'm working my way through MetaMaus right now and this quote from Art Spiegelman is just so perfect, both in explaining why Maus is a hauntological work and why comics are an inherently hauntological medium:
What is most interesting about comics for me has to do with the abstraction and structurings that come with the comics page, the fact that moments in time are juxtaposed. In a story that is trying to make chronological and coherent the incomprehensible, the juxtaposing of past and present insists that past and present are always present--one doesn't displace the other the way it happens in film. (165)
This seems like a formal and material manifestation of Derrida's  "deconstructing, dislocating, displacing, disarticulating, disjoining, putting 'out of joint' the authority of the 'is.' . . . measuring . . . against the historical experience--and this is history itself--against the experience of that which in the 'is,' in time or in the present time of 'is,' remains precisely 'out of joint'" ("The Time is Out of Joint" 25). In Spiegelman's description, Maus would fail if it gave authority to any "is;" the narrative works precisely because there remains no time or tense that gains priority. Spiegelman points to a passage early in the second volume in which the formal representation of the past and of the present are "butting . . . up against each other." The very rigid and regular grids of the present "have fallen away to reveal what's underneath. . . . By peeling away what would have been six of the panels on that fifteen-grid page, the map of Auschwitz that underlies our present is revealed" (181-82; my emphasis).
Similarly, the introduction to Auschwitz in the second volume--which up to now has been seen only as its iconic front gates--is accomplished via a similar displacement of the primacy of the present moment. In a way to get around the dread he felt at telling this part of his father's story, Spiegelman sought to enter Auschwitz in a way that "doesn't allow for the momentousness of the moment" (188). Thus, the introduction comes through a break in the present--one that reveals that the past was there all along, that any entry into Auschwitz by the narrative is a reentry--when, "after wandering around the bungalow colony with my father . . . a very small panel, a close-up of a snarling Nazi . . . interrupts the fairly fluid stroll through the country. It's very abrupt and perfunctory" (188). The Nazi's shout--ostensibly to the Jews who had been transported to Auschwitz in the truck carrying Vladek and Anja--is multivalent: a call to leave the present moment and a call to the past to expose itself as there in that present moment.
In these reveals, these explorations of the past and present as both always present, Maus is a tremendously uncanny text. It offers up what is to remain hidden in order for the present to assert its authority: the competing narrative of the past, whose presence, formerly skirting by at the edges of awareness, frame, and panel, now becomes fully visible. In this sense, Maus fits with Adam Harper's definition of hauntological art, in which the object possesses:
two stages, or layers. The first layer seems to present something that's in some way idealised - this is often but not always an image involving the past . . . The second "hauntological" layer problematises, compromises and obfuscates the first layer, undermining or damaging it in some way and introducing irony into the work, and represents the opinionated viewpoint of the present. While the first layer might express hope and confidence, the hauntological layer contradicts and undoes this by expressing a satirical doubt and disillusionment.
Here, Maus functions as a hauntological work because the ostensibly idealized life in America that Vladek enjoys in Rego Park is continually undercut by the reintroduction of the past (or the way it functions as an uncanny text). In a mirror of the map of Auschwitz underneath Vladek and Art's present conversation, the back cover of the second volume (reproduced within the body of the text) geographically and temporally displaces contemporary New York and New Jersey into Poland and Auschwitz.
Even Spiegelman's counterpart in the text, Art, cannot escape the past in his present moment of success after the publishing of the first volume. His writing desk rests on the bodies of dead mice, he's bordered by a swastika, and a guard tower looms outside his window. For Spiegelman, this "Time Flies" section serves "as a MetaMaus like commentary on the whole project."
Perhaps even more powerful, though slightly less visceral than the above sequence, is one of the motivating questions Spiegelman describes:
"So, how did you get born when you weren't supposed to?" In a way, taking on my parents' Holocaust story was a way of getting to the primal moment of my birth, because there was no way that they were both supposed to be alive and coupling after World War II. It is a specific journey that has nothing to do with history and everything to do with history; one or both of these people is supposed to be dead, which means that I'm not supposed to be here. (199)
Spiegelman's own presence, his body, destabilizes time and history here, complicating narratives that resist closure and refuse to add up. In this way, the hauntological elements of Maus are, I think, exactly what continue to make it relevant. As Spiegelman points out, casual racism is:
what festered into becoming the Final Solution; and it is what allows our current immigration debates to take certain kinds of appalling coloration now. It is what allows us to call Arabs "ragheads," it's what allows Arabs to think of Jews and Americans as wearing targets around their necks so one can kill them, it's that whole process of dehumanization. I'm not exempting myself, my father, or the Nazis or Poles from it; it seems to be a basic aspect of how tribes organize themselves. (36-37)
The call to remember in Maus, to account, introduces "Guilt . . . an explosive thing to live with, but it may be the price we humans must pay for civilization while trying to learn true Empathy" (158).* It might be possible to pair this statement with the ethical and political aspect of hauntology, its insistence that the present is not the only possibility: "The reason all these ghosts matter, the point of saying It wasn't always like this, is not that it was better then, let's go back, but to remind ourselves that it doesn't have to be this way. . . The ghosts that should most haunt us are the spectres of events that have not yet happened." The spectres raised by Maus, the history that the text bleeds, are not confined to the past, but extend into the returning future in which the preconditions for what takes place in Maus have never been eliminated.

Anyway, if you're a fan of Maus, do yourself a favour and pick up MetaMaus. The three long interview sections--"Why the Holocaust?," "Why Mice?," and "Why Comics?"--are illuminating, with Spiegelman's candid and articulate answers a real joy to read. Added treats: the unedited transcript of his initial interview with his father, Vladek, in 1972 and the DVD, containing audio clips of Spiegelman explaining his work and excerpts from the tape recordings of Vladek telling his story.

*Echoes of PKD's claim that empathy is the necessary characteristic of the human?

Thursday, December 29, 2011


I've said this a number of times, but I really wish I could love the Cocteau Twins. They are one of my favourite bands to read about because, when a decent writer discusses their music, it usually turns into a description of everything I love about music. Unfortunately, when I listen to the Cocteau Twins, I don't have the same experience. Part of it is the production--everything sounds impossibly dated and awkward (this is probably aided by reading guitar magazines as a teenager, which tended to demonize any and all uses of the chorus effect after its abuse in the 1980s)--but part of it is something I just can't nail down. I love Elizabeth Fraser's voice in other settings (Massive Attack's "Teardrop" or This Mortal Coil's version of "Song to the Siren," for example), but I often feel vaguely embarrassed when listening to her within the context of the Cocteau Twins. Similarly, I recognize how gorgeously detailed and layered Robin Guthrie's guitar sound is, but in action it often leaves me cold (or worse, bored). Thus, despite the fact that the Cocteau Twins helped invent/refine the kind of music that I love, I've pretty much shied away from listening to them. This is all the more surprising to me in light of the fact that I do really love a lot of things that sound like/bear an obvious debt to the Cocteau Twins, like Seefeel's Quique.

This is not to say that I hate the Cocteau Twins or actively dislike them. If anything, I'm ambivalent toward their music. I'll enjoy the odd song when I come across it, but the only album I own is Heaven or Las Vegas. Inspired to give that album another spin after writing about The Weeknd, who sample "Cherry-Coloured Funk" for "The Knowing" and have their own song titled "Heaven or Las Vegas," I was reminded how much I love the title track. Fraser's voice in the chorus is just perfect, lightly tripping through the syllables, and Guthrie's guitar is as neon and sparkly as the titular locales would suggest. Really, it's just a wonderful piece of pop that's sweet as the sugariest treat. I've always felt that the colour My Bloody Valentine used for the cover of Loveless is the perfect colour for that music (my own weak experience of synaesthesia). Similarly, the combination of Fraser's voice and Guthrie's guitar in "Heaven or Las Vegas" suggests the exact shape depicted on the cover of the album.

Browsing for the video for "Heaven or Las Vegas," I came across a band that, like the Cocteau Twins, I tend not to enjoy, despite their similarity to many other bands I do enjoy: Lush (whose album Spooky was produced by none other than Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins and who were also on 4AD). My brother is a Lush fan, and I remember him playing their albums while I was on the computer and he played video games, or vice versa.* One song I don't remember him ever playing, but that I've come to really like, is "Undertow" from their album Split (I think my brother stuck to things like "Desire Lines" and "Never-Never," though he didn't like The Cure, surprisingly). It's not hard to figure out what I love about "Undertow:" the opening drumbeat, so metallic and mysterious, the industrial-strength bass, and the swirling, sensual music (which owes not a little to Guthrie) that threatens to overwhelm the vocals until the lovely a cappella end. This is as heavily sexual as My Bloody Valentine, but unlike the fairly ambiguous/androgynous Loveless--and here is as good a place as any to acknowledge one of my favourite lines in any album review is Heather Phares' description of Loveless as "suggesting druggy sex or sexy drugs;" that's just so apt--the sexuality here is fiercely feminine, something like "Loomer" or "Blown a Wish," but deeper and darker somehow.

*There were three bands I can remember him playing in this situation: Lush, Buffalo Daughter, and Portishead. Clearly, only one of those three took. Actually, I think that Beth Gibbons and Elizabeth Fraser are not a million miles removed from each other in terms of technique, approach, subject matter, etc. This just makes my ambivalence toward the Cocteau Twins more confusing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I spent the past eleven days cataloguing my favourite albums of 2011 (it was supposed to be ten days, but I was in no mood to sit in front of my computer and write on Christmas Day). All told, it worked out to a little over 7750 words on fifteen albums. If you add in the two pieces I wrote on eleven songs I really liked in 2011, the count is up to almost 9500 words. That is a lot of words (if you've read your Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that clause should prove I am human. I will also say to you if you are very tall, "Oh, you're very tall!"). Anyway, the point here is not to toot my own horn about writing a certain number of words about music (akin, I suppose, to telling someone just how long you danced about architecture). Rather, I just wanted to think out loud a bit about my experience writing this list.

I. Format
I am surprised at how easy it was to decide on a format for the write-ups themselves. Basically, I knew that I wanted to avoid a general discussion of a particular album's strengths (cf. Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2011, not that there is anything wrong with that approach, necessarily). This was to be my list and it had to explain my understanding of the album (I made a conscious effort fairly early on to avoid the second person. I don't think it appears in anything after the Neon Indian write-up). Of course, entirely subjective and personal criteria do not necessarily make for great evaluations--a point I try desperately to make clear to my students--so I wanted something slightly more objective/universal and review like to accompany my own relationship to the album. Thus, the two paragraph structure seemed ideal. It was flexible enough to shift with albums whose place on the list owed more to the explanation accompanying the more objective components and with those whose place on the list owed more to my own encounter with them than anything else. Hopefully, if one paragraph wasn't engaging for the reader, the other paragraph would be. If neither paragraph was engaging, well, maybe the links to YouTube videos proved satisfying.

In terms of the actual number of albums, I picked ten (with five honourable mentions) partly to force myself to evaluate albums rather than picking a number large enough to allow me to just list every album I listened to this year and partly for practical reasons: ten seemed like a good number that would keep this doable and lend some weight to the selections. I kept the albums separated into the top ten and the honourable mentions rather than top fifteen for much the same reason. It seemed important to have a demarcation between "good albums that I enjoyed" and "the best albums of the year" (I guess this is my own personal good record/important album distinction). Before I actually sat down to do the list, I assumed that several albums from the honourable mentions list would make the main list and I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was to separate the two lists once I started working.

II. Schedule
I anticipated that writing something every day for a set number of days would be difficult. I don't tend to work that way on anything. Doing the list this way proved to be both challenging and rewarding. There were a few entries on the list for which I had some notes written in advance (Neon Indian, Kode9 & the Spaceape, and Tim Hecker), but I tended to avoid using them. As much as possible, I wanted this to be a process of sitting down to the computer each day as the desire came over to me and writing the piece while listening to the album in question. In two or three cases I found my way into the write-up the night before, and wrote a few sentences or a draft paragraph, but largely these were drafted as I listened and then edited/expanded. Sometimes this task seemed daunting and unpleasant, with the desire clearly not about to come any time soon (My thought process: Another one? Really? Whose stupid idea was this? Oh, wait...), and at other times, all the desire in the world couldn't produce a useful sentence. During the second half of the list, my own schedule for this became increasingly rigid--generally, it was wake up, start working, finish and post by mid-morning. I'm not sure I really achieved this with any of the entries, but it gave me a structure within which I could work.

What made this worthwhile was not that it built in a sense of obligation or anything like that (though it did just that), but rather that these write-ups fed off each other, illuminating connections I'd never noticed or, at the least, never articulated to myself. If I'd just written these in a concentrated burst over a couple days or haphazardly as I felt like it, I doubt those themes would've emerged. In a similar way, I found that shared aesthetic properties (and the aesthetic properties that ultimately led me to pick these albums over others) became clear for me in a way that I think I was only subconsciously aware of prior to writing. Though I didn't take advantage of this at all, I also appreciated that doing the write-ups one album at a time allowed me to reconsider the list as I wrote it. There were a few minutes of dithering at times about the place of an album (especially 6/7 and 3/4), but I decided to stick with the order as I initially determined it.

III. Overall Reflections
Despite some complaining at times on my part, this albums of the year list was by far the most fun I've had with this blog. It felt like a simple and straightforward way to get back to why I started this blog, to have a place to write and think about music. In an age of such widespread access to music (via YouTube, Spotify, torrents and P2P, etc., etc.) there's bound to be at least a whiff of genre tourism to any list outside of one with a specialized focus. I don't really know a lot about the genres (hello, bass music!) out of which many of my favourite albums emerged, so I'm probably more of a tourist than most who are writing these lists (this was also part of my reasoning in focusing so heavily on my response to albums as the contextual framework, even when discussing an artist's past work and the new work in relation to that corpus). I hope, though, that the aesthetic and thematic connections that emerged in the write-ups offered something like a picture (if not clear, at least muddy) of my own aesthetic preferences. That is, I'd like to believe that taking into account the things I very clearly like (via what I said in the write-ups), nothing on this list should be too surprising or out of keeping with the other entries. This is the second year I've done an albums of the year list* and I plan to keep it up for as long as it remains a fun activity. It will be interesting for me (if for no one else) to see if the aesthetic concerns that are already apparent after two years of this continue to crystallize or if there is a radical shift.

Anyway, if you read any of the list, I hope you enjoyed it. If it introduced you to any new music, or reintroduced you to an artist you'd lost touch with, or just made you reevaluate--for even a second--something you dislike, then I think the list proved its worth. Onward to 2012 and more great music!

*Last year's best album (in my opinion, of course) was Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus (paired with the Pattern+Grid World EP). The runner-up was Four Tet's There Is Love In You.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #1

 The Weeknd - House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence

I'm apparently in good company with this choice. This was a pretty simple decision: nothing else released in 2011 made me want to listen to it more than this trio of albums, and when I wasn't listening to them, I was thinking about them. Like another group whose stock exploded in 2011, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, The Weeknd's graphic depiction of sex that inhabits a disturbingly shady space between clearly consensual and aided by drug (ab)use generated a number of compelling think pieces by the likes of Nitsuh Abebe and Sean Fennessey--the Fennessey piece is actually paired with a take on Odd Future member Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra.--and for good reason: part of what makes The Weeknd so compelling and repellent at the same time is Abel Tesfaye who, like Tyler, the Creator, manages to genuinely turn stomachs while exerting a fierce charisma. Thankfully, The Weeknd avoids the rape and over the top violence of Odd Future (a factor that, unlike some other listeners, I am unable to "bracket" out of my listening experience--this is not some amazing moral high road I'm taking and by no means is it a criticism of Abebe, whose work I love: I am clearly capable of bracketing out my unease at tales of women being plied with drugs in order to be coerced into group sex when I listen to The Weeknd), but the elements of Tesfaye's persona here are incredibly rich. When, on "The Zone," he asks his partner "I'll be making love to her through you / so let me keep my eyes closed. / And I won't see a damn thing / I can't feel a damn thing / but I'm'a touch you right," the acknowledgement of how manipulative and exploitative his behaviour is, coupled with his admission of a kind of absolute anhedonia, transforms otherwise run of the mill seduction diary entries into a strikingly contemporary psychodrama (Abebe, in his piece on The Weeknd and David Lynch, draws a comparison to Tricky, but I'm not sure that the comparison really works on the level of content--Tricky's psychodramas seem of a different sort).

To be clear, I'm not saying these admissions make the persona in the song "good"--and here, I do want to bracket something: the question of autobiography vs. persona,* which is both incredibly complex and probably the question to discuss w/r/t The Weeknd--or that they excuse his behaviour. Rather, I think they add depth to his character in a way that illuminates certain (largely unpleasant) aspects of being a 21 year old male who is heterosexual in contemporary Canada (and the US) and the repercussions of those aspects for both heterosexual 21 year old males and the females with whom they interact.** This is really tangled; basically, the fact that anhedonia, both as a voluntary state and an inevitable byproduct of modern life, has been kind of the key theme for me from "High For This" all the way through "Echoes of Silence" seems incredibly important, not as an excuse for what the persona in this narrative does--ingest a lot of drugs and have sex with a lot of women--but as an explanation for what makes the persona such a seductive figure. What seems to make people invested in this character/able to relate to him is not his hedonism, but the nihilism and anhedonia that overtakes any attempt at hedonism while fueling continued (and inevitably doomed) attempts at hedonism (i.e., the "XO 'til we overdose" slogan adopted by Tesfaye's fans). Or, as the persona would have it in "Wicked Games," "Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain." Tesfaye's narratives here seem to be, essentially, ones of jouissance. Now, the important critical question, I think, in discussing these narratives is to follow Jameson (following Lévi-Strauss) and ask what is the real social contradiction that Tesfaye's narratives attempt to resolve (in my view, the Balloons trilogy is an exploration [and attempted resolution] of the psychosexual demands of late consumer capitalism after the rise of Web 2.0). As Abebe points out, this is similar to the area mined by Kanye West (and Drake, a close friend of and collaborator with Tesfaye) in his recent output, perhaps one of the clearest narrative attempts to solve the increasingly apparent gap between capital's demands and human capacity for fulfillment within those demands.

Now, while all of this analysis definitely enriches my experience of the music, this would all be for naught (or, more likely, would be for a lower spot on this list) if the music didn't sound as good as it does. Tesfaye knows how to get the most out of his voice--his impression of Michael Jackson is scary good--and the backing tracks are evidence of extremely good taste and a strong compositional ability. Contrary to the apparent internet consense, I think Thursday is the best album of the trilogy, and the most fully-realized work here. House of Balloons is a brilliant introduction, the sound of talented young man with a vision getting it almost perfect, and Echoes of Silence is a fitting and fairly gripping end with a pretty amazing Michael Jackson cover, but Thursday, from those opening shudders by Abel Tesfaye on "Lonely Star," is the sound of a star at his (hopefully just first) peak.*** Each album in the trilogy reveals new flourishes, from House of Balloons' sample-delic nightscapes to Thursday's flirtations with guitars to Echoes of Silence's brilliant vocal-warping on "Initiation" (James Blake, eat your heart out!). More importantly, though, nothing about the music pulls you out of the sustained immersion in this narrative that Tesfaye clearly wants. In this sense, the comparison to Tricky (along with other people who have haunted this list, like Boards of Canada and Burial) is dead on--this is as fitting a match of form and content as Maxinquaye. In his take on music in 2011 for the AV Club, Steven Hyden claims that there were many good records but no important albums released this year. While there are several records on this list I would be willing to nominate for important album status, I feel strongly about The Weeknd's trilogy of releases. This is vital, beautiful, confusing, damaged, and disturbing music that captures something of life in 2011. I can't ask for more.

*In a nutshell, the poles between which this question operates: Tesfaye is either doing one of the best acting jobs since Bowie or he's an incredibly creepy (but also typical--and shocking in being so typical) young man. I'm inclined to believe it's probably six of one, half a dozen of the other.
**Cf. The incredibly disturbing monologue in "Lonely Star," with its proclamation from an unnamed female (who might actually be Tesfaye's voice pitched up?) that "My body is yours. Give them any other day but Thursday. . . . Every Thursday, I wait for you. I'll be beautiful for you every Thursday. I exist only on Thursday."
***Re-reading Mark Fisher's piece on Michael Jackson not long after listening to "Lonely Star" for the first time, I was struck by how well his description of the first vocals on "Billie Jean" fits Tesfaye's song, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #2

Blue Daisy - The Sunday Gift

Few albums I heard this year were heavier than The Sunday Gift (maybe only Earth's Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1, really). The obvious points of comparison--Massive Attack c.Mezzanine, Tricky c.Maxinquaye and Pre-Millennium Tension--are there, but combined with the softer, rain-soaked greyscale of Burial's Untrue.* The bright colours on the cover feel like something of a red herring; the music on this album is almost relentlessly cast in shadow or harshly illuminated by uncovered 100W bulbs. There's a very real sense of anger on this album that, devoid of someone like Tricky's playing with sexuality and gender, makes for a brutal listen, but one that resonates in the wake of the London riots this summer. If the post-political is the most political, this album soundtracks what that politics entails: fear, doubt, paranoia, and anger, the dystopic world of Children of Men brought one step closer to reality. In this sense, the album pairs well with Black Sun and Pinch & Shackleton, but whereas those albums felt extraterrestrial somehow (or at least temporally distant), The Sunday Gift is shockingly of the present moment. The defiant undercurrent of "it doesn't have to be this way" that is so prevalent in hauntological music from the UK is supplanted here by anger and mourning that it is this way. Menace is the starting point here, with "Distance (Once Upon a Time)" pacing nervously, stalked by its echoing strings, setting up the long march to "The End." Anneka's vocals on "Firewall" are definitely not "Safe From Harm"--she sounds as if she's keening in the wake of a massive armed force's march through a city, the spectre of total policing that is increasingly becoming a reality in the UK and its aftermath.  Heidi Vogel's wailing vocals on "Fallin'" sound so often as if they're saying "no," the denial echoing round and round, lost, empty, and almost defeated. There are no real track breaks here, so everything tumbles together and feeds off what came before. After a few songs, it starts to add up to a bleak picture.

For an album that threatens to slip into broken and defeated territory, though, there remain slivers of hope and uplift. Hey!Zeus's massive turn on "Psyche Inquiry" suggests the anger that fueled the summer's riots finding a voice to struggle and fight on with, a way to demand changes and to hold people to account. The final two songs proper, discounting "The End," cover some of the same ground as Burial's "Raver"--particularly the second half of "Only For You," with its arpeggios and piano/vocals emerging from the hiss and crackle, and the club-ready, almost ecstatic beat of "Spinning Channels"--softly glowing in the darkness and offering a possible way in out of the horror of the rest of the album. Of course, aside from all this context, the music sounds phenomenal. When the beat drops in "Shadow Assassins" it is an upsurge in intensity that is breathtaking at high volumes. "Raindance," with its squalls of noise and arresting chants, might be the closest the album comes to the psychedelic colours of its cover.** And for an album whose world is so resolutely overcast, this is a surprisingly varied listen that is never a chore. Much of the credit for this is due to the vocals: in place of the chopped, looped, and pitch-shifted syllables favoured in so much electronic music right now, The Sunday Gift, like SBTRKT's self-titled album, demonstrates the power of full vocal tracks. Beyond Hey!Zeus's appearance on "Psyche Inquiry," Anneka's two turns on the mic, "Firewall" and "Spinning Channels" are both wonders. The latter is possibly my favourite on the album: the wordless elegies of the album's first half re-cast as a spectral rave diva. Back in 2009, SBTRKT called Blue Daisy as an artist to watch based on the strength of "Raindance." Clearly, this was a man who knew of what he spoke. Few albums released this year feel as timely as The Sunday Gift and almost none do a better job of presenting a massive talent coming into his own. It's a harrowing journey through the darkness of this album back to the light, but well worth your time and energy.

*Another, perhaps surprising, point of reference for me is Radiohead's Amnesiac (cf. this and this), an album whose themes and lyrics (much more so than the techno-dread of Kid A) seem to become more relevant with each passing year.
**Another surprising connection? I can't help but be reminded of The Fifth Element's soundtrack during "Psyche Inquiry" and "Raindance" (criminally underrated movie, by the way).

Friday, December 23, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #3

BNJMN - Black Square

I have to admit that, ignoring the cliches about books and covers (because this is an album, not a book, damn it!), I first picked up BNJMN's second album of 2011, Black Square, because of its cover. It reminded me of Lorn's very good album Nothing Else,* which is not a bad comparison. Both albums offer a kind of stripped down take on their respective electronic music genres (roughly, house for BNJMN and techno for Lorn) that does nothing to disguise the constituent elements of the tracks or the process of their composition. Indeed, few of BNJMN's tracks can be said to have a narrative or much in the way of development, at least in terms of progression from one point to another. What Black Square excels at is to introduce a theme or groove and then simply add and subtract elements from the song. This sounds simple and a recipe for boredom, but it's not: Black Square succeeds because of the excellent pacing of those additions and subtractions and the way that they subvert what at first seems like the linear trajectory of the track. This is not music that has an intro just to build up anticipation for the beat to drop; quite often, when the beat does drop, the other elements of the track refuse to give way for it, continually disrupting its attempts to impose a kind of strict tempo or pulse on the track. His approach is perhaps most obvious on "Open the Floodgates," the album's most direct nod to house, in which the chopped and shuddering music continues to push to the foreground, overwhelming the most club-ready beat on the album. Halfway though, the whole track enters a hall of mirrors with lasers zipping everywhere and the beat rushes in to save the day, only to be overwhelmed once more. Basic kick drum patterns often run underneath the tracks as anchors, but this is far from the asceticism of mnml: the percussion often swings and syncopates merrily along. 

None of this is done in a self-indulgent or show-off-y way, though. What's most impressive about Black Square is the ease and confidence that permeates the music. Aside from the two pretty-sounding but forgettable short tracks ("Enterlude" and "River Way," whose pitched down twinkles are a wonder), these are songs that impress with their purpose. Not a single element feels out of place or enters or exits at the wrong time (a matter of vital importance on an album like Black Square). BNJMN tips his hand early on, as "Primal Pathways" and "Wisdom of Uncertainty" lay out the basic template of everything that's to follow: the former's gorgeous synth strings demonstrate the melodic territory the album is going to cover, and the latter provides an easy to follow primer on BNJMN's compositional methods, adding and subtracting elements before a minimal bleeps-and-percussion outro cools things down. The title track covers some of the same ground as SBTRKT, all sleek, stylish, and sexy night moves with some nice hand percussion layered in the mix that really enhances the groove. The album's final two full songs, discounting "River Way," are the best here, though. "Lava" takes the foundation of "Wisdom of Uncertainty" and explodes its aesthetic possibilities, connecting a long build up of elements added to the track one-by-one to a fantastic melody (the flanged strings that creep around the edges are heavenly, and the Morse code keys to open the track wouldn't sound out of place on a Stereolab album). Slowly, everything is pulled away, leaving just a first pieces of the song; the final thirty seconds of the track might be my favourite part of the album. As good as "Lava" is, though, "Hallowed Road" does it one better. Aided by a truly excellent bassline, "Hallowed Road's" mournful tune feels like the final transmission of a dying space station. There's something vaguely worrying or threatening about the melody and atmosphere, but BNJMN wisely keeps this from developing into full-blown menace. In a list full of albums with great closing tracks, "Hallowed Road" might be my favourite closing track of the year, which is saying something. I wasn't enamoured by BNJMN's first album of 2011, Plastic World, but Black Square really made an impact with me. Its confidence and compositional nous suggest that BNJMN has a bright future, and I eagerly await his next offering.

*Speaking of Nothing Else, I have to say that I think it does the same things that people are lauding Kuedo's Severant for, only it does them more effectively and with a better set of tunes to boot.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #4


The first time I listened to SBTRKT's self-titled debut, I was confused. I couldn't figure out what to do with the album; it was so obviously likable--isn't current electronic music from the UK supposed to be difficult and challenging?* The rising and falling vocals on "Heatwave" are like the vocals in "Windowlicker" re-purposed for a (great) pop song. The female vocals and massive synths of "Wildfire" deliver a sugar rush as potent any song on the radio. "Ready Set Loop" sounds like the most frenetic level of Sonic the Hedgehog spliced with bucolic downtempo. The twinkling vibes and wounded vocals of "Never Never" make for one of my favourite songs of the year. Eventually I stopped trying to figure the album out and decided just to enjoy it--without a doubt, this was one of the best music-related decisions I've made all year. Like a lot of the music on this list, SBTRKT sounds fantastic at night and would (I imagine) make for a great night in the club. Unlike a lot of the music on this list, though, SBTRKT is not about a nocturnal world of dread and ghosts. This is music that is, to borrow a phrase from Björk, all neon like: flashy, fun, stylish, with just a hint of the melancholy of the early morning hours after a night out seeping in at the edges of tracks like "Hold On," "Right Thing to Do," and "Never Never." The album itself might not be revolutionary--it doesn't really do anything to push bass music forward--but it's an appealing synthesis of styles by an able synthesist who's picked all the best bits from the various areas he draws upon, which makes for a great listen. Indeed, it's in that light that the name of the project (short for "subtract") makes most sense, as everything on the album is streamlined for maximum impact.

One of the immediately noticeable characteristics of SBTRKT is the album's craft: the production is immaculate, the vocals mixed out in front without obscuring the music, and the beats veering from hyperspeed skitters to straight four-on-the-floor bangers.The use of multiple vocalists is the inspired touch that really sets the album apart, though, especially given that these vocals are delivered relatively straight with no chopping or processing.** Sampha, whose voice is featured on seven of the album's eleven tracks, is a wonder, shifting from an almost conversational middle range into a slinky falsetto at the drop of a hat, all the while providing a surprisingly vulnerable edge in his lyrics and delivery. Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon's turn on "Wildfire" is anything but vulnerable; she has sass and attitude to spare, commanding attention. Of course, she also knows enough to get out of the way of the squelchy synths that periodically rise up to swallow the track. "Pharaohs," featuring Roses Gabor, is the closest SBTRKT comes to the kind of straight-up trance-pop that has been so ubiquitous on commercial radio the past two years, and if it's a little underwhelming, it's still catchy and anything but a chore to listen to. The vocals tracks are so good, in fact, that it took me awhile to get my head around the instrumental tracks, which are hidden away at the end of the album (SBTRKT is surprisingly backloaded, as the final three tracks are the best on the album). The break about 2/3 of the way through "Ready Set Loop" is a moment of pure magic, and "Go Bang"--which really benefits from what sounds like live drums mixed in with its programming and wouldn't be out of place on I Care Because You Do--sums up the appeal of the album in its waves of flourescent synth arpeggios. I'd love to hear a whole album of SBTRKT instrumentals, but I'd also love another album of songs fronted by Sampha. Based on this debut, there doesn't seem to be a way for SBTRKT to miss with the next one.

*Please note: tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, here.
**Thankfully. Not every track gains power from chopped, looped syllables and androgynous moans. SBTRKT is wise enough to recognize the talent of his vocalists and to leave them alone to do their thing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #5

 Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 and Dropped Pianos

Ah, it's nice to kick off the top five with a Canadian (not that I'm biased or anything). Back in October, I said that "I find Ravedeath, 1972 less interesting than Harmony in Ultraviolet and An Imaginary Country." I would like to revise and correct that statement: Ravedeath, 1972 is every bit as interesting as either of those albums. It might even be better than them. Hearing his set at Moogfest 2011 (when "Chimeras" appears about 2/3 of the way through the set it feels as lighters-in-the-air as the appearance of any artist's hit song in concert) definitely helped change my mind*--as did the release of his excellent set of sketches for the album, Dropped Pianos--but what really won me over was just sustained, concentrated listening. More than that of any other artist on this list, I think, Tim Hecker's music demands deliberate and conscious engagement in order to achieve a kind of immersion. The meaning of his work seems to hang forever just beyond the limits of perception, by design: "I've always been interested in that threshold of being between, of hiding, obfuscating. It's so suggestive." This is not to say that his music is cold and cerebral: one of the best things about Hecker's work is how thrillingly physical it is--this is sound that moves you and that gains significant emotional impact from its very physicality. The album's opener, "The Piano Drop," has real weight and depth in its shimmering waves, but it's the rest of the album's foregrounding of the tension between the organic, material process of Hecker's piano and organ playing and the digital process of editing and treating those recordings that presents this physicality par excellence.

At the same time, though, and perhaps even more importantly, Ravedeath, 1972 is an example of how far Hecker has come as a composer. As reliant on multi-part suites as anything since his debut, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, this album's "In the Fog," "Hatred of Music I"/"Hatred of Music II," and "In the Air" all take advantage of their extended length to work through several movements. In interviews, Hecker has consistently mentioned church music when describing his own work--he's described himself as "a guy who does things on the borderline between church music and new age" and his music "as something like fake church music"--and, in their immensity, these suites represent Hucker's most fully realized version yet of a kind of secular church music, what Hecker calls "intense saturated musical expression." Though he's been criticized in the past for being slightly too academic, his concern with "digital garbage" and "imploding and rebuilding from the fragments of things that have been kind of pummeled" takes on a new, visceral edge here, as the organ and piano are attacked by digital noise and treatments throughout "In the Fog" and "In the Air" (and attacked is the appropriate verb, as one listen to "In the Fog III" will make clear), exposing the violence of his composition process. Indeed, "Hatred of Music I" is probably the harshest thing he's released since "Whitecaps of White Noise I"--the power of the organ, even without his treatments is a thing to behold. Of course, as in the first few seconds of "In the Fog III" and "In the Air I" or the last few minutes of "In the Air III," his approach also makes for moments of breathtaking beauty. The standalone tracks are not to be outdone in that sense, and their patient, mournful melodies are heartbreakingly pretty, pushing the sounds and techniques of his last few albums to new levels. A decade on from his debut under his own name, Ravedeath, 1972 confirms that Tim Hecker's music is sui generis and, just like Burial's, keeps getting better by becoming ever more his own. 

*Go that link and listen to/download that performance. It's an amazing document of Hecker live and better than any of his officially released live stuff.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #6

Surgeon - Breaking the Frame

Another album, another fantastic album cover (I swear I'm not picking these just because I like looking at their covers). If you'd told me at the start of the year that an album like Breaking the Frame would place this high on my year-end list, I'd have assumed you were joking. What draws me into this album? There's some truly great drum programming (I love that panning, skittering beat on "Remover of Darkness"), but there's also a very impressive sense of movement and development over the course of the tracks ("Presence" feels like Four Tet's "Ribbons" pulled inside out). So much of the album seem tied to some kind of birth of the universe narrative and, to a certain extent, it is quite easy to hear this music as bursts of radiation from stars or the remnants of the big bang. The melody in "Transparent Radiation," for example, seems like it's flickering before my eyes on a spectroscope, a tightly controlled blast of colours from up and down the scale. Indeed, tracks like "Dark Matter" and "Radiance" manage to give form and shape to intangible images in much the same way that the title of Tim Hecker's Harmony in Ultraviolet seems perfectly descriptive of the music found therein. Indeed, the opening of "Radiance"--and the middle section with its long climb through detuned swells of synths--is like a musical illustration of a star blowing out and throwing off its layers.

Unlike Black Sun, though, scarred and pitted with its images of decay and apocalypse, Breaking the Frame is (coldly) elegant, like a thirtieth-century court ball. Given the extremely tight control on display in this music (Surgeon's moniker is apt--everything here is razor sharp and incredibly precise), it's initially quite hard to reconcile the music with the title of the album. Listening to Breaking the Frame, I often get a sense of holographic grids and graphs flying around before my eyes, describing a universe of equations, of pure information (this is the same feeling I get when listening to something like A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology). What could possibly break this frame? The answer that gradually emerges, and what really makes this album something special, is twofold: the human presence that creeps in from time to time and the sheer scope of the cosmic grandeur described above.* The chopped and stuttering melody on "Presence" feels like it has a single balalaika player hidden in it somewhere.  When the steady kick drum of "Those Who Do Not" drops after the chilling tones of "We Are All Already Here" (a track that also brings to mind radiation), it's a reminder that, for all of its abstraction, this is an album made by a DJ, and the dancefloor beckons even in the midst of cosmic meditations. Similarly, the waves of crowd chatter that punctuate the start of "Not-Two" are a brilliant disruption in what had threatened to be a cold, sterile universe, and, if it's not miles away from the opening "Dark Matter," it's a fittingly celestial send off. Picture it as humanity's contribution to the background noise of the universe; it's lovely that way. 

*The same applies to Black Secret Technology, actually, although on that album it's the presence of those diva vocals and, uh, Finley Quaye

Monday, December 19, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #7

Kode9 & the Spaceape - Black Sun

First of all, look at that cover--it's just absolutely gorgeous. In my list of Honourable Mentions, I said that Pinch & Shackleton's self-titled album sounds like the kind of thing that would play on the sound system in Hadley's Hope. Well, Kode9 & the Spaceape's first album, Memories of the Future, sounds like what would play after the nuclear blast wipes it out. Saying that you can see the smoke rising from tracks like "Victims" and "Sine" is almost an understatement. The relentless doom and dread can be a little much at times, though, and I find it hard to listen to Memories of the Future front to back. Dip in, get your daily dose of anxiety, and move on is my general approach. With that being said, Kode9 & the Spaceape's ability to set and sustain a mood is an impressive feat, one that's certainly helped by the Spaceape's singular voice: it seems somehow weighty, ancient, elemental, a voice that a mortal shouldn't possess. Hearing that Black Sun was to be a little more varied, even if it still contained the requisite doom and gloom, had me quite excited to hear this album.

Black Sun, as you can probably guess from its appearance on this list, delivers the goods. Aside from a brief dip in momentum during the title track and "Hole in the Sky" (which is no Black Sabbath), this album is driving without being as relentless as Memories of the Future. This is still tense music, but it's danceable, albeit at a dance club somewhere/time after the apocalypse. It's also surprisingly hooky (the police sirens in "Am I" are brilliant), and the Spaceape's voice does more to lead the songs rather than just build atmosphere (which, to be fair, he is really, really good at). Cha Cha adds a nice vocal counterpoint on the tracks she's featured on, especially on "Black Smoke" and "The Cure." Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects is the chipmunk vocals on "The Cure:" they sound so metallic and bitcrushed, so primitive in a way. This, to my ears, is the sound of the adjective "cyber," and I find it fascinating that my idea of what "technology" sounds like is so dated (does this depend on the time at which you first become aware of signifiers of technology like sound?). Black Sun doesn't entirely abandon Memories of the Future's blueprint, and the second half of "Bullet Against the Bone" is as unnerving as anything on that album, particularly with the Spaceape's deadpan repetition of the "defend us we said" line. "Kryon," the album-closing collaboration with Flying Lotus, returns me to the questions of technology raised by "The Cure." It's as astral as anything on Cosmogramma, but set in a universe that's falling apart--this is a universe that's not transcendental, but rather desperately struggling with the forces of entropy. So, the heat death of the universe, or maybe just a melting hard drive; a fitting pair of images to close Black Sun. I can't wait to hear what these two do next. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #8

Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai have been (and probably always will be) a favourite of mine: five normal guys with terrific senses of humour playing intense (in terms of both sonics and emotions) music. They also hold the distinction of being the band whose album I have paid the most for ($40+tax for an import copy of Young Team), but I won't hold that against them here. Based on what I know about Scotland, it must just ooze melancholy--and I have to admit, as thrilling as "Like Herod," "My Father My King," "Glasgow Mega Snake," and "Batcat" are, it's Mogwai's melancholy that I've found to be their most appealing quality (cf. "Tracy," Come on Die Young, "Stanley Kubrick," "I Chose Horses," and "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead"*). If you're like me, Hardcore delivers in spades, with the excellent "Letters to the Metro" and "Too Raging to Cheers" (in a discography littered with great song titles, this is truly one of the best). It also offers "Death Rays," which is melancholic and the most Mogwai-sounding song here, and, in its very adherence to Mogwai's traditional strengths, points out why the rest of the album (barring "White Noise," a passable but largely anonymous number) is so superior to it: Hardcore is Mogwai poking around in largely forgotten or un(der)explored areas of their sound.

I've written a great deal about Mogwai, my relationship to their music, and my reaction to this album, but it bears repeating: this is the album I needed Mogwai to make without even realizing I wanted it. The Hawk Is Howling has its moments, but I was kind of bored of Mogwai instrumental epics. Hardcore is, starting with "Mexican Grand Prix," a genuine surprise, and a largely pleasant one at that. Even the seeming throwaway "George Square Thatcher Death Party" is more enjoyable than the last album's stab at a radical departure, "The Sun Smells too Loud." Part of the joy is that through the first half of the album, the band offers something like their version of Mogwai-Pop (what is "San Pedro" but "Glasgow Mega Snake" or "Batcat" with the distortion dialed back and the hooks dialed way up?) and it works brilliantly (this is also what makes "Death Rays" such a misstep, in my opinion). Not to be outdone, the back half reminds listeners that very few bands do "sad" quite as prettily as Mogwai do, and then, to continue the embarrassment of riches, outdoes all of those epics on The Hawk Is Howling with their best straight guitar songs since Come on Die Young. "How to be a Werewolf" is everything I fell in love with the first time I heard Mogwai with a truly ecstatic guitar solo as its climax, and "You're Lionel Richie" makes a split EP with Earth (who released a pretty decent album this year, too) seem like the best idea on the planet.** It's unlikely that Hardcore will change anyone's mind about Mogwai, and I can understand why some people would offer rather tepid reviews and write the album off as more of the same, but for me, Hardcore was a minor revelation.

*That comma splice kills me. I love the title and hate it all at the same time (and I am really not a grammar pedant--as a quick read through of this blog will probably make clear).
**"You're Lionel Richie" also offers a pretty great use of movie (?) dialogue, which is a cliche with this kind of music, but that feels earned and that works here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #9

Real Estate - Days

I have no grand, theoretical justifications for why I like Real Estate (well, that's not entirely true, but none that I'm going to waste space on here, anyway). Listening to them makes me happy, and if you can come up with a better reason to listen to music, then I'm all ears. Whenever I listened to Real Estate's self-titled debut (an act that was the subject of the very first post on this blog in its pre-blogspot days), it was for me a very real question whether or not they could top "Beach Comber." The first song on that album, it was so perfect, so fully realized, so clear in its aesthetic and components that it didn't seem possible the band could ever improve on it. There were other great songs on the album ("Suburban Dogs," "Suburban Beverage," and "Snow Days" being the best of the rest), but nothing quite succeeded in capturing both the breezy and melancholy sides of the band so well. Amazingly, they better it once on Days, and at least two other songs give "Beach Comber" a run for its money.

My point of reference for Real Estate is always early R.E.M., right around Reckoning, and Days does nothing to change that: "It's Real," a stunning two minutes of guitar pop that actually makes "whoa-oh" vocals feel light and fresh rather than tired and cliched, would slot nicely in between "Harborcoat" and "Little America." What's so wonderful about Days, though, is its intimacy and easy charm (especially on the ostensibly "epic" album closer "All the Same"). This isn't music that goes out of its way to impress you; the band has a light touch, confident enough to let the songs do what they will without fuss (it's no coincidence that the album leads off with a song called "Easy"). For music that so clearly fits in with the past half decade or so's revival of the 1980s, though, the songs on Days are surprisingly bittersweet in their nostalgia. Memories are what's left of the past here, and not necessarily good ones, filled with longing for innocence, for hope, for love--the tenderness of the music and singing has a tendency to mask just how brutal songs like "Green Aisles" and "Wonder Years" really are. The triumph of the album--of the band's career, really--and a serious contender for song of the year in my book is "Municipality," which takes everything that "Beach Comber" did so well and amplifies it to create the kind of gorgeous melancholy that will keep misunderstood teenagers in their bedrooms for days. Few songs have captured the pain of being far away from someone so simply and so effectively: "How can I feel free / when all I want to be / is by your side / in that municipality?" The small dramas of suburban life, then, but with a killer set of tunes.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Albums of the Year 2011: #10

Neon Indian - Era Extraña

In a perfect world, this album would've been the followup to Neon Indian's globe conquering single "Sleep Paralysist," a song so good it should've turned Alan Palomo into one of the biggest stars of his generation and bought him a spaceship made of diamonds. That it isn't is just one more piece of evidence (in case anyone needed it) that we do not, in fact, live in the best of all possible worlds. Alas, Era Extraña is only the followup to a well-received indie album, Psychic Chasms, that made Neon Indian something like the Prince of Chillwave. There is very little of Psychic Chasms on this album, though--the song that sounds most like that album is the title track, oddly enough--and it's hard not to blame Palomo from moving on. The album bears the marks of its creation during a wintry few weeks in Helsinki  (a pretty intense experience from the sound of it: "After being in Helsinki for four weeks, there was this Werner Herzog monologue happening in my head, driving me crazy, like, [in Herzog accent] 'What is music?'"), which makes it less summery than Psychic Chasms and decidedly less "chill."

If you're not getting chillwave from a Neon Indian album, though, what are you getting? In some ways, this is much more of a straight electro-pop record, but an electro-pop record that makes Palomo's debt to My Bloody Valentine (really only clear in the guitars towards the end of "Deadbeat Summer" on his debut) more apparent and that gives a nod to LCD Soundsystem style disco (on the album's highlight, "Suns Irrupt," which would fit nicely alongside "Get Innocuous"). Era Extraña starts off with a scene-stealing instrumental, "Heart: Attack"--the first part of a three part suite scattered throughout the album--which borrows the amazing liftoff from "Sleep Paralysist" in service of an opening every bit as revelatory as "Wildlife Analysis." The first half of the album foregrounds the shoegaze ("Blindside Kiss" wouldn't sound out of place on MBV's You Made Me Realise EP, one of his favourites, apparently), but also introduces a new, more vinegary sound to Palomo's synth palette (used to good effect on the swirling "Polish Girl"). There are times that the album gets a little too easy--it's impossible to say "Hex Girlfriend" and "Fallout" are anonymous given how much they sound like Neon Indian (and who else right now uses gasps quite as well as he does in his vocals?)--but over a flat out amazing second half the album really commands the listener's attention. "Future Sick" is the big pop moment that "Fallout" thinks it is, and "Heart: Release" is the funkiest thing he's released since "Ephemeral Artery." This is to say nothing of "Suns Irrupt" a droning epic that (hopefully) points the way forward to something like his Sound of (Neon) Silver and "Arcade Blues," a return to the shoegaze of "Blindside Kiss," but fitted out in chrome and neon.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


And so it begins! Today I offer five albums that just missed my actual album of the year list. More charitably, you could say these are #15-11 on my album of the year list. These are in no way, shape, or form bad albums; they simply didn't quite strike my fancy the way some other albums did this year. Listening to these alongside the ten, uh, eleven songs I listed in my last two posts would make for a great morning/afternoon/evening. Common threads that emerge from this list? It was a good year for hazy, dreamy music that inspired a vague sense of anxiety and dread. Also, all of these albums fit into existing conversations and conventions (some of them starting to seem well-worn at this point), but managed to transcend or expand the boundaries of those conventions and introduce new topics (or at least pleasing variations on old topics) into the conversation.

Albums of the Year 2011: Honourable Mentions

Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton

This album shares a lot of characteristics with other albums you'll see throughout this list. Ominous, creeping dread? Check. Hazy clouds of reverb? Double check. Vocal samples that have been treated and played with? Triple check. I'm not familiar enough with either Pinch or Shackleton to comment on where this lies in the spectrum of their respective bodies of work, but this is fantastic mood music. This album reminds me of the albums that I used to try and make sense of when I first started reading/hearing about "dubstep" via online music publications (c.2006/2007). It's certainly one of the most alien sounding albums on the list; the soundworld it describes is monochromatic, but it's a dense landscape, scored with furrows, deeply textured--an LV-426 if you will; the album that would play over the soundsystem in Hadley's Hope. An album that rewards close, repeated listens, I can see this retaining its potency for some time to come.

Com Truise - Galactic Melt

With the name and the cover art, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was going to be an exercise in the worst of chillwave c.2009. Com Truise skips the whole half-remembered, hazy recreation of the 1980s, though, by going straight to the source: his sound is pristine and straight out of 1985, with immaculate synths spinning out endless glistening arpeggios. When he relies on vocal samples, like in "VHS Sex," the album does get a little too comfortably chill and kind of sub-Neon Indian, but for the most part Galactic Melt delivers wonderful electro that's perfect for hot summer days and cold winter nights. The album is at its most effective when Com Truise is content to let the synths and melodies drift out into space, like on "Hyperlips" and "Ether Drift."

Shlohmo - Bad Vibes

With its woozy rhythms and decaying machinery sound, you could almost call Shlohmo's Bad Vibes Brainfeeder-by-the-numbers. There is something powerful in Shlohmo's melodies and production that transcends its surface similarities to that label's house sound, though. When the kind of cyborg dance music that Bjork's "Pluto" suggests takes over the charts and all the machines that make it are slowly starting to malfunction, this is the sound they'll make. It's as sensuous as the best R'n'B, but at the same time there's something strangely unreal and dreamlike about it all. There are two competing idioms on this album: the crackle and hiss of vinyl and the slightly overdriven sound of a decaying signal that has come to signify the past, ghosts, and melancholy (via artists like Boards of Canada and Burial) and a kind of futuristic, mechanistic sound (one that is rapidly becoming as much a part of the past as the vinyl crackle it ostensibly faces off against here). It's in his exploration of this tension that Shlohmo really captures a lot of what is fascinating in music in 2011.

The Caretaker has been mining the combination of reverb, repetition, and edits for some time in his exploration of the aesthetic that would accompany the figure who gives him his name as he danced to the house band at the Overlook. An Empty Bliss Beyond This World takes these elements to a new level, though, purposefully repeating songs, focusing on only tiny snippets of old jazz recordings to evoke the feel of memory and its frailties (memory disorders like amnesia and Alzheimer's disease have been a constant reference point for the Caretaker's music). The narrative told by his song titles--"All You Are Going to Want to Do Is Get Back There," "Moments of Sufficient Lucidity," "I Feel as if I Might Be Vanishing," "Mental Caverns Without Sunshine," "The Sublime Is Disappointingly Elusive," to name a few--is heartbreakingly human: a longing to return to our happiest moments even as they vanish when we attempt to recall them. By no means "easy listening," An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is as profound a meditation on life as you'll find in music.

Pure X - Pleasure

This album sounds something like a cross between Real Estate's Days and Deerhunter's Cryptograms. The music is as viscous as cough syrup and just as slow as that image implies. Like dreams during a nap on a humid summer afternoon, these songs seems oppressed by the close, heavy atmosphere, with vague hints of menace colouring the innocence of their structure. This is the most an album has reminded of Loveless in a long time, and if it's not quite up to its level, Pleasure is still an enchanting listen. It's a haunted take on 1950s and early 1960s rock and roll that's refreshingly free of Lynchian grotesqueness--feverish, hallucinatory, neon, psychedelic, yes, but not macabre or uncanny. The guitar work is fantastic, too: dig that feedback that twists back in on itself at the end of "Surface!" In a weird way, the lo-fi production can make some of Pleasure's tracks seem like cousins to songs like "Parties" and "Seriously" on Shlohmo's Bad Vibes.

This should give you some hints as to what'll be coming up in the top 10. I'll be posting my albums of the year list over the next ten days, starting with #10 tomorrow and finishing with #1 on Christmas Day. Feel free to join in the conversation with your own takes on these albums, lists of your favourite albums, and/or suggestions for things to check out.