Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In the aftermath of 2011, many of the music websites I read on a regular basis are covering the last of the 2011 releases that got lost in the rush of the usual year-end lists, etc. There are a few 2011 releases I've picked up in the new year that I'm listening to and enjoying (Pitchfork's review of Jacaszek's Glimmer led me to that album, and after a few listens I'm very impressed), but nothing has really altered my conception of the best releases of 2011--even chopped & screwed versions of The Weeknd couldn't make me love those albums any less.

There were a few 2010 releases that I picked up in 2011 that changed my view of music released in 2010, though. While I encountered most of them right at the start of 2011, some of them (most notably Darkstar's North) didn't get a listen until a large part of the way through the year. The Darkstar album is one I make note of because it is, outside of Four Tet's There is Love in You and Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma and Pattern+Grid World EP, the release from 2010 that I played the most in 2011. Had I heard it before the summer of 2011, North would easily have been my number three on my list of top ten albums of 2010 (behind Flying Lotus and Four Tet). I have to admit that I don't really find "Aidy's Girl is a Computer" as amazing as everyone else, but "Gold" is pretty much perfect: a truly revelatory cover that transforms the original and adds heretofore unknown dimensions to it. However, my two favourite moments on North are the introduction of James Buttery's vocals on "In the Wings" and the first forty five seconds of "Under One Roof" (the rest of the song is also great, but those forty five seconds get to me in a way I'm not really able to explain--the emotion is entirely different, but the strength of response is not dissimilar to the entry of those chords right before the vocals in "Hyph Mngo"): 

Darkstar - "In the Wings"

Darkstar - "Under One Roof"

The critical consensus on North seems mixed, with a lot of middling reviews, and Zone Styx Travelcard offers an interesting critique (set off against an interview with one of the members of Darkstar) of North in relation to Darkstar's earlier work (which I've got to be honest and say I haven't checked out, mostly because it is supposed to be so different from North). I understand Mike Powell's point that the album seems suffused with nostalgia for the feelings that synth-pop can evoke, rather thanwith  those feelings themselves, and that this makes it a conservative album--points that Zone Styx Travelcard also makes ("There's a patina on every sound: they keys and Buttery's vocals are all fractionally distorted, as if they were working on the assumption that that would [add] character, backstory, fallible humanity to the sound. But what about the poignancy of cold machined perfection? They seemed to know what that was before")--but while the album might not push the boundaries of synth-pop, I find that I respond to the emotions expressed, loneliness, longing, alienation, distance, coldness, much more directly and with greater empathy than with someone like Depeche Mode. If it's derivative of the 1980s, it has at least purged from those sounds some of the aspects that make me self-conscious and unable to respond to synth-pop with anything other than embarrassment. For me, the fact that the music on North, in addition to whatever else it might be, is "familiar . . . [and] beautiful, too," according to Powell, is enough. As cold as the album might be, as much as it might suck the light out of the room, I find in it something (and whether it's sonic or emotional I couldn't say) relatable. In its own way, North is much more three-dimensional and redemptive than people seem to give it credit for being.

This is really apropos of nothing other than a grey and rainy day reading Virginia Woolf (whose writing makes me feel grey and rainy) and North coming on in the middle of it and entrancing me just as it did the first time I heard it. I hope there will be great music that comes out in 2012--and I have faith that there will be, despite all doomsayers' predictions--but even if nothing is "important" or "great" in the grand scheme of things, I'm fine with there being some albums and songs that can be great and important for me on rainy days while I'm reading. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm over the holiday slump, so bring on the tunes, everyone!

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