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Carl Craig – At Les

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.

Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.

With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.

carlcraig-moresongsabout

The album itself, pictured above, is a true blue masterwork, and one of the best albums of the 1990’s  as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, are in the same realm as this song, if not quite as iconic. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

This album is GOD.

I haven’t been back to Optimistic Underground in a while.  There has been a lot going on in life but as always I’m continuously immersed in music.  Lately, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve been listening to a lot of my personal favorite albums in an effort to tap into the exhilaration of something I know I love.  I think I’m also looking for inspiration, and answers.  What elevated these particular pieces of music to a realm of formative life experiences?  These are the albums I used to burrow into for months, knowing every nook and cranny, knowing the texture and contours like my own skin.. and yet they’re a revelation once again with the right mixture of time, decay, perspective, distance, environment and attitude.  It’s probably more than that.  My ears have changed, not to mention my tastes.  Yet the true greats will always have a place; it takes at least time to sort them from the intense but short love affairs with slightly lesser albums.

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One of the most striking moments in my listening life happened the night I heard The Flaming Lips‘ 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, driving though rural back roads with a friend who had just purchased the CD blindly.  He’d picked up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and asked if the band was any good; I replied with some half thought that I’d heard “their older stuff was better” without any clue if I was even thinking of the right band.  In response, my friend bought the only other CD available and inadvertently changed my (musical) life forever.  The warbling tape orchestra, the out-of-nowhere bass thunder on the second track, and that melody on The Spark That Bled had me instantly.  I was distracted to the point that I remember images of my stereo, the booklet in my hands, the music and exclaiming about it, and not the drive itself.  The friend wanted a blank CD and I gave him one on the condition that I borrow this new Flaming Lips thing for the night.  I listened half a dozen times before bed.  I scoured the band’s website, where the entirety of Yoshimi and a handful of earlier album songs streamed free (this was extremely novel and rare at the time, about 2002).  I became a total diehard fan in a matter of weeks.

This is all to preface the fact that when I dug through my collection after moving – when the cds and vinyl are all out in the open like that, it’s easier to become excited about certain albums – I had a lurch in my heart toward this album.  I needed to hear it.  My soul was calling to it, or being called.  The next thing that happened was.. despite never having had much of an extended break from hearing it, I was getting the fresh, brightening outlook, rising sun, open chakra, wide eyed feeling all over again, a decade later.  The thing that meant most to me at the time, I believe, was this feeling of new possibilities and opportunities everywhere.  This adventurous, brave, open and attentive nature was overtaking me and my outlook on life literally widened in scope.  It was a confluence of events and life changes, but The Soft Bulletin crystallized that feeling in a single disc I could grasp forever.  It was exciting; all the rough, unnerving bits that hit me by surprise like sudden deer in the headlights became the very signposts for the change I was seeking.  This album is not only different from what the band was doing, what was accepted and loved in pop music, and what I’d been into until that moment, it actually embodies that jarring, eye-popping thunderclap of sudden and real change in life.  The songs each take off like a homemade rocket, reaching space against all odds in some miracle of ingenuity and love.  This is not something I take lightly.

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I came here today merely to share the following documentary but was overcome by my continent of feeling for this album.  I could drift for days on how this makes me feel.  I know it was released last year but I only came upon it during my recent binge and was blown away by the reverence and passion the band still have for this masterpiece.  It not only delves into the nuts-and-bolts creation of the music itself but also dissects a bit of what makes it such a personal touchstone for a certain set of folks.  If you’re already a fan, be prepared to have your nostalgia drive working overtime and keep the album handy for an inevitable post-viewing listen.  If you are unfamiliar, I kind of envy your position.  This is beautiful new territory, and in my view the documentary will make a perfect introduction.

I must note for the diehard fans that the audio used in most of this appears to be from the 5.1 and/or recent vinyl issue of the album.  If you’re as irredeemably familiar with this music as I am, it’ll be a nice experience to get hands on either of those releases and hear this music rendered in a slightly different (clearer?) light.

Colin Stetson

Colin Stetson has created most physically thrilling music in years.  The sheer power and intricacy of his saxophone work sets my mind racing with awe and excitement, and leaves me to rue the day I laid my own instrument to rest in its case for years.  It’s taken me nearly a year to come to terms with what he’s unleashed and finally share my thoughts in written form.

Not only is this man setting the vanguard for new music and expanding perception of what an instrument can sound like, he’s unspooling aggressive hair-raising songcraft in an unprecedented, instantly recognizable timbre and taking everyone along for the ride.  As intimidating as the notion of groundbreaking forms of woodwind communication seems, the music itself is open and inviting, something which can and will stop your mother in her tracks as she asks, just what is that?  And then: how does he do it?

I’ll begin by going back to what I started writing about Stetson when his second full length released last spring:

As an incorrigible music junky, I’m always trying to peek over the horizon, searching for those incandescent bursts heralding a surprise.  The elated rush of discovering and absorbing the truly new has no sensory equal.  Looking over my musical history, it seems most of my favorite albums were of this stripe: works not only deserving my love, but challenging or entirely sidestepping my perception of interesting music – making an impact in the very nature of what I find pleasurable about listening.  This blog was born of my desire to share that feeling as much as I could, and this post is as true to that aim as any I’ve ever written.

This is all to set the stage for my statement that Colin Stetson, with his release New History Warfare Vol. 2 – Judges, has created something truly new.

Stetson records in a tactile environment throbbing with tidal bass with details crackling like dry leaves against skin – I can feel its physical impact on my body. Two major factors drive this sensation: the performance itself and the unique recording process.  Constellation MVP and newly christened engineer Efrim Menuck (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) documented his sound in a fairly unorthodox manner.  One listen through and anyone would feel suspicious about the claim that the entire album was captured via single takes with no overdubs; it’s an intricate, dense layer cake of ideas and epiphanies, and it’s always moving.  The truth is this: using over 20 microphones positioned throughout the room, including contact mics on his throat and the instrument itself, every song was recorded in such a way that the multitude of angles could be folded and mixed together by engineer Ben Frost into the crystalline vision it is.

Stream the full thing.  Now.

* Download The Stars In His Head here (right click and save) *

So that answers the question of how he does it and finally casts light on my few organized thoughts on the groundbreaking album.  In the meantime he released the Those Who Didn’t Run EP and laid bare the sheer tidal force of his recording process with two 10 minute cuts demanding attention and awe in visceral fashion.  Side A presents a rhythmic onslaught courtesy of his bass saxophone and Side B weaves an astounding counterpoint with an Alto, twin of the very horn resting less than a dozen feet from where I sit.

Each of these pieces sets me loose in an undulating labrynth of sound, bouncing off the walls riding a burst floodgate of energy straight toward the exit; the first full of low frequency mirth and massage, the second a stone hummingbird skipping across rapids and over waterfalls.  They’re each an imaginary car chase down a pair of rabbit holes nobody knew existed a year ago and they set the stage for understanding the monumental accomplishment of the album they follow.

Stream this now, ok?

No amount of description or anecdote can prepare you for hearing this magic yourself.  I could remark at the way it can bellow and sway like giant redwood trees in a hurricane, or blast images through my subconscious: ancient armadas cast into space, airborn mountains crashing to the surface, or pews and pipe organs and church spires crumbling in earthquakes.  I could mention the explorations of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Marion Brown and, hell, Pharoah Sanders and how – only cumulatively – they could prepare you for this adventure.  I could mention that no prior knowlege is required in the least to enjoy this untethered journey into the heights of creativity and musicianship.  To hear this is to witness the vision of a man exerting himself with superhuman effort and poise to craft intensely visionary music with tectonic force.

[please purchase either release from Constellation - the EP is on 10"/digital while Judges comes on vinyl with the CD and digital code included]

Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.

Black Up is one of the best hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer.  I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much.  I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats.  I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money.  I did not picture something this fucking good.

When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling.  The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance.  Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself.  Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix.  The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time.  Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song.  Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful.  Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material.  I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture.  Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic.  I sink deeper, hearing more each time.  Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.

The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.

My first favorite track.

Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.

The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube.  Nice.

I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy.  I don’t state this lightly.  I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.

[pick this up via Sub Pop or Amazon or Insound or Undergrounghiphop and thank me later for helping you find one of the least recognized masterpieces of the past year or so]

BEST OF 2010

These two defined the year.

The most explosive, mind expanding and game changing pieces of music I heard all year.  These two have gravity, reeling me back over and over, no matter my infatuation with other frontiers.  They are albums that I was excited to get up and listen to first thing in the morning.  Again and again.  Each took my impression of the artist to another level – and my appreciation for new realms of sound with it.  No matter what I may pick up down the road, these two albums are going to be powerful beacons of what music was to me in 2010.

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

Having written extensively on this one the day it released, I’ll refer you there for the long story.  Short story:  this one is a true thriller, a total banger, and a far flung odyssey.  Nothing invigorated me, buzzing up and down my spine with every percussive shuffle and harp glissando, more than Cosmogramma.  This left the entire “beat” genre collective below as it blasted off towards uncharted jazz nirvana.  If you haven’t been immersed yet, you’re missing out on one of the most significant albums of an era.

[buy it at Bleep]

Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal

Returnal not only blows minds and melts cogent thought, blurring time and physical sensation; it’s an otherworldly gorgeous journey lasting far beyond its 42 minute span.  I spent the summer bug-eye intrigued, cycling with this; an autumn listening on the floor in sheer awe; and a burgeoning winter nestled warm inside the beating heart of its graceful heft.  It takes experience to truly grasp the center of what makes Returnal so boldly transcendent.  Not simply a perfect example of a ‘grower,’ the album refracts perspective so fully that repeat listening is necessary to get a grip on how exactly this behemoth is so devastating.  The beatific grin creeping across your lips when centerpiece combo Pelham Island Road and Where Does Time Go? takes over is a clear sign of arrival.

[buy it at Boomkat, preferably on vinyl]

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NEXT: The Absolute Stunners

These inhabited my mind for a significant amount of the year and with it, my memory of the time.  Each album here would be at the top spot notwithstanding each other and my twin favories.  Each one is an incredible, substantial release deserving of a place on everyone’s playlist, and will undoubtedly stand strong as we look back at 2010.

Dimlite – Prismic Tops

With enough hype covering the beat world from Los Angeles to London to go around twice, it’s a sad omission that Dimlite rarely earns much discussion, much less the wild acclaim he deserves.  Being far left of field  and even less beholden to strict beats than the vast sum of his peers, the Swiss producer stands somewhat understandably apart.  Another is the pure depth and range of his recordings.  The spectrum of color and detail isn’t merely for show.  Dmitri Grimm exudes a fundamental understanding of the interplay of sound, snapping unlikely pieces together in an elastic environment where every microbial aspect has been warped and fine tuned.  Beamed from outer space on the epic scale of a prime Sun Ra transmission, it’s understandable that heads don’t flock to him.  It’s a crime that the wider world hasn’t picked up on Dimlite yet.

[buy this from Stones Throw Records]

Actress – SPLAZSH

This was and still is one of the most surprising albums of the year.  More than 6 months after hearing it, I’m still left with questions and curiosities.  I’m still scratching around certain edges of Splazsh, trying to divine its purpose.  Some things I know for certain:  it is resolutely not dubstep.  More interested in exploring nearly every other tangent of current and legacy electronic music than the prevailing winds, there aren’t many other single releases covering so much ground this year or any. Built with hypnotic dub pulsing through electro and house and funk like they were Lego pieces, every single track brings something new to the game.  Preternaturally adept at every style he flaunts, the tracks (certainly not “songs”) take full advantage of their separate nature, firing in myriad directions at once.  At first, trying to get a handle on the work as an album, this is a challenge.  And then it sinks in:  Actress is actually creating a work of singular power through sheer force of will.  What seems an arbitrary track listing and progression at first, slowly turns into an environment to live in.  There’s enough sustenance here to thrive on indefinitely.

[buy it straight from Honest Jon's Records]

Mount Kimbie – Crooks & Lovers

This one tried so hard to sneak by my radar.  From its understated complexity and tidy elegance to the short running time and  (almost) workaday visual artwork, Crooks & Lovers goes out of its way to not promise a revelatory experience.  Then it delivers hard on any and all potential earlier releases hinted at.  I shared about this in August and stand by those words, so heed them before any overbaked praise I may lay out here.  I’ll quote myself to sum this up:  Imagine the deaf hearing for the first time, the immense clarity of glass breaking or water droplets; how even a handshake cracks like thunder. Mount Kimbie renders each moment in a high definition embrace.  Close listening is naturally rewarded with exponential returns. This thing comes in with a delicate demeanor, sliding into tactile bliss while going straight for the emotional jugular.

[buy it at Boomkat]

Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky

Swans were dead.  This year Swans rose anew.  They kept rising.  Is this really an instance of a re-formed band making a progressive and artistically satisfying work in their second iteration?  Yes, it is.  In fact, this is one  of the best albums Michael Gira and Co. have released.  Opening with tubular bells chiming to announce a slow motion lightning bolt’s unfurling over the next 9 minutes, the album is relentless in making every second count.  This monster knows how close to apocalyptic our modern day feels.  It breathes in the ashes of our present’s future and blasts out paeans for humanity.  This stuff is as warm and lived in as a Cormac McCarthy novel, matched and reflected in an edge sharp as anything Swans have brandished in their harshest moments.  The opening cacophony slides into a martial stomp before giving way to something more starkly direct, akin to White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity’s heavy folk.  The album basically vacillates between every end of the band’s stylistic oeuvre with a hot-shit vigor nobody would have expected.  It’s aggressive, urgent, earnest, fierce, and deeply affecting.  There’s also a bonus CD if you get the special edition from Young God – a largely instrumental collage of album elements mutated into a giant single piece which heaves and pulls with a tidal force – like the album proper, but thoroughly unhinged.  Some fans have even cited its preference.  I’m certainly thankful to own it.  If you’re adventurous enough (or want to be even more blown away), check that edition out.  Plus, Mr. Gira himself signs every copy!

[buy this or the incredible 2cd edition from Young God]

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TOTAL STANDOUTS:

These hold a specific, bright and loud place in the year, each a significant landmark in its own way.

Daedelus – Righteous Fists of Harmony

The Los Angeles based beatmaker’s best album.  At only 26 minutes, it covers more ground than nearly anyone in the game, in their whole career, including the mutton chop festooned Daedelus himself.  Structured as a meta narrative ostensibly about the boxer rebellion, it’s got this rollercoaster feeling that few albums this year (much less EP length ones) even approach.  Its centerpiece is wife Laura Darlington’s best vocal turn ever, on spiritual lament Order of the Golden Dawn.  Like some ornate puzzle, this brief release is flush with delicately unfolding pleasures.

[vinyl or mp3 only. you know which to get at Boomkat]

Rhys Chatham – The Bern Project

Holy hot pot of coffee.  This is a tidal wave of an album.  Swimming into a wall of kraut momentum, a school of blaring brass, abused drum sets and stretched guitar strings spill over the top of anyone hitting ‘play’ on one of the most explosive albums this year.  Despite Chatham’s decades of experience this release feels – if anything – more fresh than most of the artists young enough to be his offspring.  It’s a frantic blast of energy, of feeling.  Conjuring righteous anger and exuberance side by side, it’s an anthem and a celebration in one.  Hitting a high drone stride with percussive Boredoms underpinning, this one blows back everyone exposed to its massive minimal structure.

[buy this at Cargo Records or even at Boomkat]

The Durutti Column – A Paeon To Wilson

This is the best and most ambitious thing Vini Reilly and co. have released in years.  Moving about the usual fields of post-punk, shoegaze, dub and more which this virtuoso guitarist finds himself in, he manages to string everything together in an inviting, intriguing post-modern blend reminiscent of an accomplished DJ set or classic Underworld album, flowing spotlessly between set pieces.  The CD version comes with a bonus Heaven Sent disc of stunning acoustic performances.

[buy this from Norman Records or even Amazon]

Gonjasufi – A Sufi and a Killer

For someone holding equal affection for ragged 60’s psych rock a la The United States Of America or Amon Düül II and the modern beat-centric world of post-hiphop electronic music, the idea of this album is more than immediately apparent.  Coiled tight with swaggering beats and scratchy atmosphere, all the instruments available at Woodstock pounding out a laconic rhythm for Gonjasufi to unspool his loose flow over, it’s a strangely appealing galactic intersection.

[get it from Bleep now]

Caribou – Swim

Caribou defied my expectations to release his most vital work since (as Manitoba) 2002’s Up In Flames, which was a psychedelic electro-acoustic pop masterpiece.   Since weaving through kraut-inflected electro and Stereolab-esque 60’s pop experiments, the man didn’t appear poised to make me gasp.  But this one did.  Primitive, cyclical, relentless and rejoicing, this one felt like a lighter-than-air dance pop vision of the effect Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun has on listeners.

[found at Merge Records or Amazon]

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?

What can be said about the most directly appealing member of the synth-drone community?   This stuff will hit home immediately for anyone born in the 80’s and/or in possession of an affinity for the tones and tropes of the time.  It starts off like the best Zelda adventure ever, gets lost in a Korg hurricane, wades through a Michael Mann thriller’s ‘downer’ scene and exalts through breathless fantasy stirrings by its finale.  That cover art is truly evocative of its sound for once.

[like I did, get this on superb 2LP from Forced Exposure]

Eleven Tigers – Clouds Are Mountains

Eleven Tigers has to be the biggest out-of-nowhere triumph in a long time.  A kid from Lithuania hears Burial and gets excited about music, moving to London to study and make beats.  Then he drops this gorgeous bombshell several steps beyond his influences.  Since I was gushing about this months ago,  I’ll quote myself again: From taffy-stretched drone tunnels bridging propulsive house and dub techno beats to the clipped channels of unknown conversation forming a preamble to fractured fairy tale dream pop vocals, every lush moment drips with a heart of wanderlust and a propulsive kick in its step. This album is almost a doppelgänger for Actress’ fractured post-everything take on electronic music.  Instead of laying out every separate piece in his arsenal, Eleven Tigers fuses the wide range of sounds and styles into a fluid unrelenting slide.  If Actress is for thinking, this is for daydreaming.  Hear it streaming free here.

[purchase at his Bandcamp page or at Boomkat]

Bvdub – The Art Of Dying Alone

Speaking of evocative cover art…  Bvdub came to my attention after his ‘solo’ release last year as Brock Van Wey – shared on optimistic underground and returned to his ambient dub persona with not just a few new tricks.  Mountains of wordless vocals rise from the depths of pulsing dub seas, entire flocks of harp and violin soar aloft, barely tied down by minor piano chords echoing through the canyons of empty space he leaves this music to grow in.  It’s all done so imperceptibly huge that a full 80 minute listen can wash clean the conscious mind.  It’s hard to remember details when not playing the album, and it’s hard to pick them out at low volume.  So play often, and play loud.  Or on some decent headphones, alone.  The art may evoke some depressing concepts – catch the title yet? – but the gorgeous power of its creation is more than life affirming.  This is comedown enlightenment.

[order from Glacial Movements or at Norman Records]

Teebs – Ardour

In September I called this album utopian.  I stand by that proclamation, even more so after living with it for some time.  This is a set of pure bliss from beginning to end.  Nestled in a twinkling, gently strummed world of airy strings, primitive island bells & percussion, it set the tone for a celestial set of heaven-bound melodies intertwining, realizing an album in an entirely new realm of understanding.  Before Ardour, I was unaware debut albums had any right to be this arresting.

[buy this via Brainfeeder]

A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Autumn, Again

Since dropping one of the best dream pop albums in… ever, last year, A Sunny Day In Glasgow weren’t expected to gift us with another gorgeous set of thoughtful tunes.  But they did. And gift is the operative word:  this thing was released completely free of charge.  Normally that would scream “outtakes!” but nearly the opposite is true.  Autumn Again is filled to bursting with earworm melodies and the same syrupy atmosphere conjured on their last masterpiece (see Best of 2009), in less sprawling, more digestible fashion.

[FREE at Autumn Again or get the vinyl for only $14]

Darkstar – North

So everyone went ape shit over Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer a while back, and the hype for Darkstar’s debut went through the roof.  Apparently the weight was too much for this duo as they purportedly scrapped a whole album and started over.  For those of us with open minds and ears, nothing could have been better.  Mostly eschewing the Hyperdub template they helped create, North wanders back in time, returning like a dark mystic cousin of The Human League in their prime.  Vocals fight through, work in harmony with, and rarely rise above a glitched out synthscape – everything is chopped and reprocessed almost to the point of abstraction, but the band holds back just enough to keep this an open-arms invitation for anyone interested.  Check out that single and then leave expectations behind.  This is not dubstep.

[check it at Boomkat]

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

I wasn’t prepared to like this album so much.  Having been a fair weather fan of Ms. Newsom before her defining epic Ys, I was put off by the effort required to truly enjoy that dense journey.  Imagine my surprise when her follow up, a 3-album extravaganza, wound up as something I’d have stuck in my head all day, humming and waiting until I could play it again.  Having stripped back some of the instrumental-pileup of Ys, the generous length here allows Newsom to plant every idea and watch them grow into fully realized songs and suites, with thematic unity and literary sprawl unlikely yet beautifully bound.  From simple voice-and-harp odes to her home state to the kind of compact Canturbury Tales narrative stunts birthed on Ys (here given more room to breathe), this one is truly an adventure well worth taking, again and again, until it feels like an old friend.

[pick it up right from Drag City on cd or vinyl]

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Yeah, this album is here.  Know why?  Because it really is good.  It’s great.  Because nothing in either the Top 40 realm or the indie/blog/whatever universe jumped straight out of my speakers and demanded repeat plays – right now! – with friends, co-workers, family, anybody with a set of working ears.  The production is immaculate, the pace unrelenting, and the cast of collaborators elevates every moment.  Kanye has never been known to be a solid vocalist and several cringeworthy moments pop up on his verses, but he’s smart enough to know this and positions his voice as only one of many populating each densely packed track.  Some of the best moments are a confluence of artistry, like the pass-the-mic attack of Monster and the Wu-echoing (and RZA co-produced) So Appalled, while others are simply this bat shit crazy man at the top of his game, putting everything he is on the line with manic abandon.  It’s a rush and an experience, and an album you’ve surely already judged whether you’ve heard it or not.  Take it from me, as someone who was never a fan of West’s work:  this is the real deal.  It’s not perfect (ahem, every magazine/website) but that’s what makes it work.  This is a wonderful, liberating mess.

[buy it, like, anywhere.  Best Buy or something]

Demdike Stare – Liberation Through Hearing

Demdike Stare managed to pass almost all of 2010 without my notice so I must thank friends at Everything’s Exploding for turning me onto one of the most intriguingly dark and darkly psychedelic artists I’ve heard in months.  Standing at a weird crossroads between the hypnotic bleak dub of Shackleton (I love him) and the creaking, hypnagogic drone of Black To Comm (love him too), this music tends to blur the lines between something to chill out and nod one’s head to, and a full out dread-infused Lynchian dreamscape of smoky nighttime treks through the woods.  The best part is that it’s only one of three full length releases this year.  After getting a handle on this, the best and most accessible LP, seek out Forest of Evil and Voices of Dust, and witness an emerging artist in full bloom.

[grab at Boomkat or wait for a comp of all 3 albums, coming soon]

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To sum it up, here is the list in simpler form:
Defining Albums:
  • Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
  • Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
Absolute Stunners:
  • Dimlite – Prismic Tops
  • Actress – Splazsh
  • Mount Kimbie – Crooks & Lovers
  • Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
Rest of the Best:
  • Daedelus – Righteous Fists of Harmony
  • Rhys Chatham – The Bern Project
  • The Durutti Column – A Paean To Wilson
  • Gonjasufi – A Sufi and a Killer
  • Caribou – Swim
  • Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
  • Eleven Tigers – Clouds Are Mountains
  • Bvdub – The Art of Dying Alone
  • Teebs – Ardour
  • A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Autumn, Again
  • Darstar – North
  • Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
  • Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  • Demdike Stare – Liberation Through Hearing

That’s all, folks.

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus has crafted a masterpiece.  Cosmogramma is a state-of-emergency tidal wave of an album.  This self-evident space opera is a rollicking behemoth, sweeping all imitators aside and redefining any and all notions of what this genre can be.  This album is a clear step above everything else I’ve heard in 2010, and what I can only hope is a harbinger for the next decade of music evolution.  Oh.. and it’s out today.

First things first: what genre are we even talking about here?  Aside from the fact that the man (Mr. Steven Ellison, for your information) obliterated the confines of the instrumental hiphop tag two years ago with Los Angeles, a whole generation of artists have been exploding the scene and crossing borders between any and every breed of electronic music for a while now.  They’ve erased notions of what it means to be techno, dubstep, funk, wonky or electro, yet the cream of the crop still seemed to rise to one level.  This plateau has finally been passed.  The rocket has launched.  After experiencing this album, the only option is to survey from this new perch in the stars, witnessing the limitless potential this can of wormholes has unleashed.  By the final crescendo, my heart is filled with boundless optimism, a bright hot light urging me to think more, do more, be a better person.  To paraphrase Dr. SeussOh, the places we’ll go!


What places, indeed.  Ping ponging through the galaxy in true astral traveller fashion, the piece (and it is a singular piece) rarely rides an idea longer than it takes to realize its brilliance.  Every segment builds towards a transcendent rhythm which manages to curveball into something unexpected, subversive; it’s a cool breeze on the face at regular intervals, injecting narcotic bliss without the blunted slide into glazed-over hypnosis.   Ellison’s palette has expanded in every sense of the word, laying out a breathtaking array of sounds which cast his previous work in a positively monochromatic light.  There’s never an instance where a phrase feels reused or a nerve struck twice.  Grabbing the faint narrative thread dangling in the opener and following it all the way through is the only way to avoid being completely lost and taken by surprise when finale Galaxy In Janaki goes supernova.  Of course, as with anything this epic in scope, the journey is not traveled alone.  Cosmogramma is bursting at the edges of perception with an orchestra pit’s worth of string and brass.  The soul melting (and appropriately Alice-esque) harp of Rebekah Raff and coiled chaos of Ravi Coltrane‘s tenor sax conjure several standout moments throughout the album, while the true MVP may just be Thundercat and his hyperactive, acrobatic bass work.  The man (real name Steve Bruner) splices a beating heart of funk and a set of nimble hips into every bit he touches, imbuing each head nod with a tactile earthiness.  We’ve also got Dorian Concept riding a subtle electro wave through the moody Satelllliiiiiiiteee and a now-requisite Laura Darlington (aka Mrs. Daedelus) floating over a particularly breathtaking vista.  Of course, the biggest news of all (at least to the majority of folks outside of the devoted circle around this scene) is Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s hotly anticipated cameo on the Oldboy referencing title …And The World Laughs With You.  Thankfully it’s not only as unobtrusive, but just as thoughtfully woven into the fabric of the material as any Dolly or Gonjasufi vocal before it.  So rest assured, weary souls: the big bad rock star guy isn’t ruining your favorite producer’s new album, he’s helping make it the wildly joyous experience it is.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

A comparison of the cover art of Los Angeles with this could make easy shorthand for the growth and change on display:  the contrast between the former’s stark surreal-industrial black forms spilled into a harsh white expanse and Cosmogramma‘s hand drawn ink starburst on graying papyrus points towards a move away from futuristic aural cityscapes into something akin to an ancient tree with deep roots in the avant jazz composition and instrumentation of Ellison’s forebears, its heights reaching deep into space.  It’s no coincidence that the visual accompaniment blends Egyptian mythology and science fiction.  The album’s flesh and blood is inseparable from its ultra modern trajectory. It’s soul becomes the timeless concept of growth, evolution, leaping into the next epoch.  An adventure, a paradigm shift, a mindfuck.  In other words, I’m fully confident in considering this album one of the most new things I’ve ever heard.  Despite owing a spiritual debt to many, this music sounds like nothing and no one else out there.

My hope is that everyone takes to this new ride as enthusiastically as I have.  It’s only fitting that the guy who led us out of the confusion in J Dilla‘s wake would light a path to his secret launch pad, inviting everyone to take a little journey.  It’s beyond satisfying to know that the game change at hand feels like that moment a decade ago when The Avalanches dropped a little bomb named Since I Left You, shattering the dimensions of sample-based music – this time an album is blurring any distinction between stoned beat-centric movements and deeply mind altering jazz typified by Alice and John Coltrane.  It lives and breathes in that space between the classic and the cutting edge, between technology and faith, between the tangible evidence and pure belief.  After the hair-raising emotional anchor Table Tennis – the perfect album closer in any other case – Ellison taps into some hidden reserve and burns the ending minutes off in a white hot blast aiming toward further dimensions to be explored.  It’s a spaceship hitting warp drive into infinity, that gorgeous singularity amidst the starscape, just before the credits of some favorite sci-fi classic.

To Be Continued…

[buy it from bleep, where I did!]

Method Man – Tical

Method Man.  The most charismatic and possibly most well known member of the Wu Tang Clan, dropped the first solo album of the group after their monumental debut as rap’s first supergroup.  It remains one of the most essential recordings in Wu – and the genre in general – history.

Fuck yes.  Firmly lodged in the holy triptych of Wu legend, between Enter the 36 Chambers and Liquid Swords, Tical is a timeless slice of hip hop tastiness, as fresh now as the day it dropped 16 years ago.  16 years ago, to think of it, is a long way back for any album, much less one in the constantly evolving (or revolving, depending on your take) hip hop universe, to hold relevancy.  But it’s true, through and through.  Put this on right next to whatever your friends have been digging lately and watch as nothing happens:  no jarring shift to ‘old school’ sound, no ratcheting back of production intricacy, and certainly no stale whiff surrounding Meth’s iconic vocal delivery.  Blunted is blunted, and this album defined it in 1994.  No update required, just inhale and enjoy.

If Liquid Swords was a jagged rusty blade flashing in the dead of winter, Tical is the bare-bulb-lit basement beneath a sticky summer night, full of smoke and apprehension.  Isolated, paranoid, incubating ideas for the outside world, it’s an environment unto itself, an album to truly be immersed in.  Coming up for air when the last track ends is understandable, but the stoned reverberations beckon again soon.  Spinning from the opening PBS library fanfare through dusty organ laments like All I Need and the exhuberant 70’s-action-flick horn laden highlight Release Yo’ Delf, there’s not a more consistent Wu release in existence.  Tical lays down a mood and explores every nook and cranny therein.  And hell, if you share my allergy to skits, there’s no more undiluted source of Wu mastery than this release – even my beloved Liquid Swords has the one “Tony Starks” intro (not that I mind it) and no matter how funny the ‘torture mothafuckas’ segment on 36 Chambers is, it breaks all sense of flow.  This piece is straight genius shot from a glock, the proverbial all killer, no filler work.  If you somehow haven’t become intimate in the intervening years, you owe it to yourself to dive in.  Lacking any better words of encouragement than the man himself, I leave you with his words:

Throw your hands in the sky

and wave ‘em from side to side

and if you’re ready to spark up the Meth- Tical

let me hear you say STIM-U-LI!

…so yeah.

[pick this up virtually anywhere. amazon for instance.  or cduniverse]

Oneohtrix Point Never

‘It will astound you.’

The Korgis may not have been prophesizing the likes of Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, but that doesn’t stop me from employing the lyric in prelude to this fantastic adventure.  So come on.  Open up.  Change your heart.

When a tonic this refreshing comes along under strange and rare circumstances, the first impulse is to bottle it up and zealously guard what we can, keeping the secret inside – lest the surprise and wonder be spoiled once the wider world is clued in.  The exuberant thrill of something so foreign and new, mainlining into that place where awestruck dreams and hazy childhood memories  intersect, is a thing to behold.  After burrowing deep into the material and subsisting on the sound alone, though, we emerge with the burning desire to shout about this revelation from the nearest hill top.  We want to place it in the hands of our friends and loved ones, imploring them to give it a try.  We get on the internet and write a blog post about it.

But first, we live in the belly of this beast for a while.  The world inside is warm, coated in a futuristic glaze and resting on a plate of brittle nostalgia.  The illusion of inhabiting my greatest preadolescent sci-fi fantasies threatens to crack at any moment, but the dream sustains over any running time.  The most inviting synthesizer tones on the planet mix with an untethered, noisy veneer to coat the entire sonic range from genteel new age to corrosive heavy drone, spiked with the best and brightest futuristic love letters the past has had to offer.  From Vangelis‘ darkly soaring Blade Runner score to the paranoid stabs of The Terminator, Terry Riley‘s groundbreaking dreamscape A Rainbow In Curved Air to the stark electronic shores of Manuel Göttsching (Ash Ra Tempel), this territory is clearly the province of an indelibly spacey imagination.

Zones Without People, my personal introduction to the artist, is the most obvious place to look now.  In a league populated by a select few contemporary dreamers and astral drifters like Emeralds and White Rainbow (see New Clouds and Best of 2009), Lopatin grasps the sonic galaxy whole cloth and spirits it away to his lab where every star, planet, and asteroid belt is shot through and wrung out with the latest in mind-bending laser technology.  Like the lush oxygen garden aboard the Icarus on its journey to reignite the sun, the entire work is suffused with the gritty footprint of organic life – bird calls, frogs, bubbling rivers, wind and all manner of insects echo from the depths – and organized into a most efficient delivery system for aural dopamine.  Channeling the aforementioned musical gods and hinting at further realms yet unexplored, the half hour recording transcends and transports far beyond its modest borders.  This is a monumental trip, in every sense of the word.

Next we have A Pact Between Strangers, a beguiling triptych of the most effervescent, liquid shapes Lopatin has worked with.  Sandwiched between two 12 minute throbbing drone epics, the title track strikes a soft nerve between the yawning pulse of Gas, the hard lines of straight Detroit techno, and the subtly sampledelic nature of Zones Without People‘s most tactile passages.  Beginning as a relaxed sequel to the opener, When I Get Back From New York floats from the most gently narcotic river bed upwards to find a maelstrom on the surface, a dervish of synth rapids and hissing meteor showers.  As the piece winds to a close and the solar winds exhale, total surrender has been achieved.  This is music to offer oneself up to completely.  Embrace it, climb inside.  Once acclimated, the journey outward is harsh.  The dials here are always pegged at elation, so it’s best not to make a move in that direction.

[with the originals impossibly hard to come by on their limited vinyl and CD-R releases, the majority of OPN's output has been remastered and packaged into the 2cd Rifts compilation, available at boomkat, amazon, or directly through the man himself at pointnever.com]

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Charles Mingus is an absolute deity of 20th century jazz…

blacksaintsinnerlady

…and this album proves it beyond any doubt.  One of the towering achievements in modern music, this is perhaps my favorite jazz album, and certainly one of the most wildly ambitious, mold-breaking pieces of music recorded in the 20th century.  Not only is the music here spasmodically orgasmic, scaling heretofore unheard-of heights with reckless abandon; it’s mind-warpingly catchy, telepathically moving hips and nodding heads.  The crescendo swells practically cry out for hands raised in ecstasy.

I could, and have, listened to Black Saint and the Sinner Lady several times in a row and could not possibly tire of it.  I love all of Mingus’ work, but this suite in particular seems to have struck some vein of godlike power, conjured through the four movements presented here as “dance” pieces.  Building organically from the first short Solo Dancer movement through the final blasted frenzy of Trio and Group Dancers, each additional layer is a natural evolution on the basic theme – expanding, soaring, dipping, roaring, and simply freaking out, Mingus never relaxes his kung fu grip on the proceedings.  Covering so much ground in such a tightly wound coil would be impossible for most musicians, but the group assembled here sets off the aural fireworks like they’re genetically engineered to do so.  The virtuosity on display here simply must be heard, over and over again, to fully grasp.

[obtain your soon to be treasured copy of this landmark at cduniverse (only $4 digital!) or amazon]

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