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.
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.
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.
Long ago I was shown The Necks. The internet was not such a hospitable place and my search for an album to sample was fruitless. Alas, after the buzz wore off they were forgotten. Now, thanks to a helpful soul on a forum, I was reintroduced to what is quickly becoming a new addiction. Here is their first album in its entirety.
The band, comprised of Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Tony Buck on drums, unspools boundless jam fireworks outside of any specific genre or time. There’s the interplay of jazz, an often motorik pulse of krautrock, and space based atmospherics of kosmiche all woven together in a pristine spartan construction. They make an hour disappear without breaking a sweat.
I don’t like doing research simply for the sake of posting on here so I must return at a later date when I’m fully immersed in The Necks. For now, enjoy the debut and seek out more if this is your kind of thing. And please, buy their music if you enjoy it. Everything they’ve released is available on their site:
In 2011, like every year since I’ve discovered how to harness the power of the internet (and a handful of discerning friends) to expand my horizons and unveil whole dimensions of music, has been an incredible year for listening: another slab in my monument to Why You Should Pay Attention. I held crushes on a number of albums and fell deeply in love with a select few. All deserve acknowledgement but only the most striking motivate me to gush at length. With a little luck, I can turn people on to something which will enrich their lives and change perceptions in small or significant ways. Or maybe even sell an album for one of these deserving artists!
About the list: I realized I’ve been doing it wrong by putting the best first. Now you’ll have to read the whole damn post to see how it all ends. I’ve broken these into three layers (with bonus levels upcoming!) but would like to emphasize that these are all whole-hearted recommendations. Also let me know in the comments which albums I’ve clearly forgotten, please?
Crush: The Best of 2011
KWJAZ – KWJAZ
So I’m starting with the last album I heard in 2011 and it couldn’t feel more right. This exemplefied the past year of music as much as anything I could imagine and I damn near missed it entirely. A fusion of so many things I could call it noisy lo-fi witch drone beach pop and strike bullseye or land wildly off mark, according to your point of view. If you’re a fan of Hype Williams I will gladly direct you here; this makes their best output feel like a first step in the path leading to KWJAZ. I feel echoes of The Avalanches, Rod Steward, Oneohtrix Point Never and hissing pink clouds of joy. Where to, beyond this? It’s beyond me. This is far out, in the best sense of whatever that means to you.
Seefeel – Seefeel
One of the first albums I heard in 2011 was shockingly forgotten by the end of the year, if other lists are anything to go by. Remaining in the philosophical tracks laid by Seefeel’s classic lineup (pulsing repetetive structures evolving organically; one ear on dance and dub pulse, the other orbiting with satellites) while straying in every tonal manner, the band managed a decade-and-a-half comeback with style and – most importantly – growth and change in spades. Between echogasm guitar textures Kevin Shields would die for and playfully insistent drumming courtesy of Boredoms’ E-Da there’s enough live wire action to set this on a collision course with any of the legendary post rock band’s pre-breakup output.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Spaced out back room late night R&B of which there is little to explain beyond the obvious appeal of mysterious smoky production with sexy-sinister vocals to match. Drug fueled downtown adventures and midnight slips down the drain are the topic of choice but despite the lyrics’ often affecting touch, the pure sound of it all is what draws me in. This is what happens when a talented artist grows up with Massive Attack and R. Kelly in equally heavy doses.
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
This one walked up in silence and stabbed me between the ribs out of nowhere. Hitting all the nostalgic sweet spots someone raised on Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac is inherently vulnerable to, she manages to do something fresh with a sound I’d thought long dead since high school. Leaping between noisy lullabies and shamanistic Kate Bush-isms, Ericka M. Anderson (formerly of Gowns) made possibly the most unlikely loveable of the year. Going against “logic” I cannot help being drawn in over again.
The Field – Looping State Of Mind
Sometimes surprise isn’t really an issue. The Field blew me away with his first album several years ago, sending a fleeting association with minimal techno into a full blown obession. The man (Axel Wilner) imbues his perfectly tailored setpieces with just the right catchy hues and twists to grab passersby with an ease any of his peers should be envious of. This third album is yet another case of him wreaking havoc with my internal resistance to the familiar by just twisting the trick so damn perfectly. He doesn’t have to blow my mind if he’s already flattened it.
Then It’s White
DJ Rashad – Just A Taste Vol. 1
In a corner almost entirely opposite the last entry we have DJ Rashad, a footwork phenom who’s collection hit me with such an alien vibe I couldn’t help the curiosity and head nodding addiction when it hit me like a truck. I’m not going to explain what the genre is about, we have google for that. Instead, just youtube his name or check him out if you’ve got an interest in Autechre, Nas, Al Green, and having your ears reamed with something truly new.
Love U Found
James Blake – James Blake
James Blake was my first post of 2011 and although my breathless appreciation has settled into something more domestic and liveable, I stand by my words. This album hits a raw nerve and breathes revelation; it’s the start of something fundamentally different yet emotionally classic. It’s a kind of blues for a world where dubstep has become ubiquitous as the night sky before falling and dying all over us. The former producer’s producer opened up his throat and set off a hype machine which swallowed him whole but those interested in the actual sounds should stick to what’s real: the fact that a great portion of this album opens up a pandora’s box which hasn’t yet come to full fruition.
Lindisfarne [because he's apparently too uptight to stream his single anywhere]
Julian Lynch – Terra
Urged by a friend, I listened to Julian Lynch for the first time at the end of last summer, and the warm healing sunlight of this album lifted me time after time in what had become a dark period in my life. When nothing sounds good and I can’t imagine looking forward to tomorrow, Terra sets me on my bicycle in a gentle breeze ushering clouds away. It’s clarity, it’s beauty, it’s melodic guitars, double tracked murmurs, muted horn play and subtly psychedelic synth jumps. I dream of Syd Barrett and Arthur Russell and realize that I’m thankful for a life in which I can enjoy all these things.
Fennesz – Seven Stars
Fennesz created one of my favorite albums of all time with Endless Summer, and in many ways this twenty minute 10″ release is the closest his orbit has circled that masterpiece in the decade since. The granular synthesis, guitar deconstruction, worm tunnel reverb and chest heaving melodic sense all echo that LP’s romantic vibe, yet new elements including (gasp!) live drumming give this set a beating heart all its own and point toward further greatness in store for an artist developing his aesthetic well into its second decade.
Telebossa – Telebossa
This one is going to appeal to a certain subset of music fans, an elliptical presence in the venn diagram between Brazilia and minimalism fans. I happen to like my pop lilting and tropical and my composers positively Reich-ian, so this Rio-by-way-of-Berlin confection is sweet perfection to my ears. Fans of João Gilberto and Philip Glass are equally encouraged to step up and hear something truly new. Telebossa renews the meaning behind the word fusion.
Samba Do Budista
Teebs – Collections
A couple years ago I called Teebs “utopian” and this latest set furthers my prescience. Chiming, floating, pulsing, singing and soaring. Ecstatic harp glissando, buoyant low end thump, organic everything – even the laser future synth space material emerges as if growing from sequoian roots. This is the way the future sounds in the best childhood dreams I never had.
Verbana Tea [w/ Rebekah Raff]
Love: The Best of 2011
The Psychic Paramount – II
“I had this whole through-line about jet engines and surgical instruments and LSD and This Heat and Les Rallizes Dénudés and Miles Davis and cathartic volume levels… ” I said last year. I can’t really say much beyond that, and the rest of my original post. This album is a perfectly calculated maelstrom.
Thundercat – The Golden Age of the Apocalypse
Thundercat was best known as the bassist who made Cosmogramma (see Best of 2010 and this craziness) jump like frogs in a dynamite pond, the beating heart behind Flying Lotus’ mind trip. His debut LP lays that heart on his sleeve and indulges in a master class of modern funk. Some artists merely go through the motions, dropping a slap bassline or bedroom vocals or recycling some of Prince or George Clinton’s well known turns, while others truly understand what makes funk an enduring and often timeless style. Where Dam-Funk lives and breathes it as a perfectly sculpted museum piece, Thundercat births his spaced out love jams in the here-and-today world of beat music and post-hip-hop production (courtesy of Flying Lotus himself). This is as thoroughly modern an album as 2011 begat.
For Love I Come
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
I tried several times throughout 2011 to eloquently share my feelings on this crystaline mind stomper but never felt satisfied with the results. Gang Gang Dance hit me so directly, half a decade ago, like a comet to my brain stem: here was a sound I never knew I’d been craving all along, realized by a band who seemed to be increasing in power with each release. Their 2008 effort remains one of my favorites of all time, and sharing it was part of my inspiration for starting Optimistic Underground in the first place. Eye Contact not only refined what made Saint Dymphna such a masterpiece; it went above and beyond, leaping into the territory of my wildest dreams. This time they synthesized the disco banshee vocals, the tribal trance rhythm, the future dream synths and dub destroying guitar heroism into a laser cut diamond monstrosity. I had the good fortune to catch them live months before this release, previewing the evolution of one of my favorite bands into an even loftier tier of tranced out bliss. As close as you could get to being there in person, Eye Contact is a handy distillation of everything that made this band the first to get me to actually dance at a show.
Glass Jar [excerpt]
Ricardo Villalobos & Max Lodenbauer – Re: ECM
Electronic titans dissect the vaunted ECM catalog and reassemble the tactile familiarity and otherworld mystery of pieces by Arvo Pärt, John Abercrombie, Christian Wallumrød, and many more, threading stars into space and obliterating time. There is a pulse and a whisper of structure to much of this two disc monolith, and it’s plenty to keep me floating for the duration. Here are a few words from the artists:
“Our understanding of music in general and the resultant collaborative mode of operation embodies precisely what we have now manifested and intensified with the project Re: ECM: the synthesis of two musical worlds. To effectively implement experiences accumulated in further musical adventures, we continually oscillate between acoustic and electronic force-fields.
“Re: ECM is building many bridges between the area of influence of the original interpreters and our own area of influence. The rules of the dynamics between these two reference systems permanently shift the relation from relaxation to agitation. In this way listeners immerse themselves in different ways in the flow of our production, which in turn – and that is what we wish for – in an ideal case sweeps them along into a sensually exhilerating journey.
“The most important thing is to harmonize these two worlds, without them aspiring to mutually deactivate each other, to keep both – the organic and the electronic – in balance. That is what it will be about in the future.”
- taken from the liner notes written by Villalobos and Loderbauer in both German and English.
Dimlite – Grimm Reality
Dimlite has been perpetually orbiting my radar since I discovered and wrote about his album This Is Embracing, and in the intervening years I’ve watched him grow stronger and stranger as an artist in the meantime. Always existing on the esoteric fringes of the realm of beat music, Dimitri Grimm completely shattered the tenuous concept of musical peers with his groundbreaking Grimm Reality. Where before his ecstatic weirdness was often bound by rhythmic straightjacket and made to stand in line with the increasingly safe Warp roster or hip-hop beholden Brainfeeder crew, Dimlite finally dove into the core of his id and emerged waving the flag of his own profoundly unique sonic nation. I could mention that my first listen popped Captain Beefheart and The Residents into mind on equal footing with Faust and Neu! and Terry Riley, and that may be helpful if you’re looking for something resembling a touchstone. This is restless, kaleidoscopic evolution on a grand scale. The album transforms and twists, subsuming a carnival of influences and sublimating inner chaos into a jewel of bizarre fascination.
True Love: The Best of 2011
Destroyer – Kaputt
This is quite simply the most lush, immaculate, concise and balanced pop album released in a long time. Produced in with a slick and glossy demeanor, all the rough edges feel tucked in yet bulging through the surface like a pair of tight jeans. This is deeply affecting and emotionally straightforward songwriting wrapped in a shining and breathing and clever and heartfelt and funy and (above all) fun package. This thing bounces and sways. It bowls me over at all the right beats and stands me to attention for all the others. I know it’s a pop masterpiece of a high degree when the first notes of the first song implant a “this is going to be a good time” feeling in my brain, every time.
Destroyer – Kaputt
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres
I feel like an asshole, trying to sell this album to you. It really is that damn brilliant, scary, personal, invigoarating, explosive; a fiery work by a shooting star, a true genius as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got no business even trying to approximate the electric feeling this shoots up my spine. My job here is convincing you that the feeling is true. I shake and writhe, shoulder-shrug dance in my chair, wince, nod, frown, sing along, and sit in total stillness while this LP rolls. I take in every layer of nuance from the intimate sax revery to the scarily catchy call and response chants to the lips-to-my-ears confessional lyrics embedded in maelstroms of noise and heat. This is the world-cracking sound jazz needed but never knew to ask for; it’s the most harrowing and heartrending music I’ve heard in a long time. This is an experience meant to shake you to your core and strip away cynical resistance to actual feeling and emotion in music. This journey through dark territory ends with a sweet release all the more liberating for being hard-won.
Matana Roberts – Kersalia
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2 – Judges
It’s been said that when the natives of South America first spotted European ships on the horizon, they mistook the gigantic sails for mountains. Their collective experience had no conceptual framework for understanding what they were viewing, no context with which to understand. Their minds interpreted this complete unknown into something tangible to their world, however far off base it was. This happens all the time; it applies to all novel ideas and sensory inputs, on a basic level, in everyday life. Colin Stetson’s album is a perfect example. Play this for someone with fresh ears and no pretext or prior knowledge and watch him grasp for edges to frame the sounds, some perch from which to observe or an angle to approach it. What Stetson does with a saxophone is remarkle and brilliant. The best part is that it’s not only groundbreaking; this is fantastic, thrilling, catchy music enticing repeat listens and sharing with friends. “Judges” is a real album’s album, with an emotional heft carrying its narrative arc through a vaguely apocalyptic story courtesy of spare words from Laurie Anderson and the evocative timbre of the starring instrument itself. How he does it all is a whole other story, so read up after you’ve been properly astonished.
Colin Stetson – The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
This is not only one of the best hip-hop albums of the year (or several years for that matter). This is one of the most addictive and rewarding listens I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Black Up is a shape shifting puzzle box, equaly confounding and inspiring. Every spin highlights a novel space, a lyrical twist, a production flourish or masked instrument. Each play is an opportunity for extracting more pleasure, like a miner striking new veins of gold in every direction. Beats worthy of Flying Lotus, lyrics soaring with Digable Planets and Dr. Octagon. Shabazz Palaces have crafted one of those Complete Experiences, the sort of album where everything locks together in clockwork precision. I’ll now quote myself: 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.
Shabazz Palaces – Are You… Can You… Were You (Felt)
Oneothrix Point Never – Replica
One of my major hangups with this blog is the fact that my favorite music tends to be that which leaves me speechless. These kind of astounding reactions, best experienced first hand, are most difficult to write about; I often resort to sharing what I felt when listening, the clipped proclimations pouring from my id while my conscious mind is circling the drain of blissed-and-gone. The most telling aspect of Replica’s true mind sorcery is that I keep bouncing off the phrase pornographic flights of radiance, unable to more neatly describe the way this thing drags me under its current only to lift at just the right moment for a glorious intake of air and sunshine and light and blood and ride it out forever in dimensions we can barely perceive. Oneohtrix Point Never shared the top spot last year. The fact that he’s exploded in a completely fresh direction means there is no reason to play favorites; this time it’s another story altogether and a new reason to be both surprised and satisfied in every sense I can be.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
So here we have it. There are no numbers because I don’t believe a piece of art can be measurably better than another, but suffice to say each step down this list leads closer to my heart. As with all things, my love will change in time – and as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I hope you found something new or were reminded of an itch to scratch, and that my words hold some value. Please, let me know of omissions and developments, or anything else worthy of our time.
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.
Oneontrix Point Never is set to unleash another album to be considered as a ‘true debut’ next month. One (very productive) year after the epochal Returnal (Best album of 2010), Daniel Lopatin is ready to declare his creative ambition and lay waste to expectations, eardrums and frontal lobes all over again. Having excised his synth pop demons with a quirky and catchy Ford & Lopatin album and collaborative impulse on the exquisite, under-heard FRKWYS Vol. 7 – starring drone psych dream team Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo & Lopatin – he was ready to dive headlong into the depths of his inner muse, dredging up something distinctly next-level with Replica.
The range and variety of sounds incorporated here will likely jolt those familiar with his major releases, Returnal and Rifts, as nearly every track strays from the expected drifting keyboard clouds and laser light workouts haunting those works. Returnal hinted that things were getting stormy inside the OPN environment, most notably on opener Nil Admirari‘s volcanic eruption of beauty and brutality, before the album subsided into an occasionally hairy yet blissed out ride for its duration. It was made to be lost in, all thought muscled out in service of a meditative nothingness from which I’d emerge thoughtful and cleansed. But the translation of Latin phrase Nil Admirari, “to be surprised by nothing,” was perhaps more mission statement than anyone guessed, because Replica aims not only for novel horizons but an entirely new mode of conveyance itself.
Instead of the aural equivalent of a hurricane, this album begins with an invitation to slide. Nearly reprising the sighing contentment of last year’s Ouroboros, opener Andro lays back and lets gravity work magic as we’re led to believe this will be a less demanding journey than last time. Perfectly mirroring the chaotic intro dissolving into sleepy rivers on Returnal, Lopatin opens a trapdoor with distortion, tribal percussion and shattered vocals; snapping from the reverie, he unveils the dizzying, fractured realm inside. Sudden, repeating sample blasts of urgent words (“Up!”) and unintelligible phrases snowball into rhythms, gurgling under warm baths of electronic bass, giving way to flights of pornographic radiance. Delicate piano and wordless oohs-and-ahhs sparkle through as aggressive syllabic papercuts urge the dynamic tranquility, keeping the listener on his toes. Every moment of repose is punctuated, every hair raising sequence actively hunting the next surprise around a blind corner
Instead of suppressing the violent energy and gorgeous destruction after one controlled burst, Replica seeks peace, balance and eager dance partners in its propensity for noise and serenity. Transcendence is the natural offspring of this marriage and feels all the more hard-won and treasured. Instead of dissolving and blurring out the unpleasant realities of the world, Oneohtrix Point Never now finds a way to reconcile the righteous and beatific experience of life with the windows flung wide. If Returnal is a night spent alone in meditation, Replica is the morning’s journey into the uncharted future, heart and mind open to the mysterious possibilies ahead.
Listen to the title track here:
and watch the weirdly entrancing official video:
My last post about Lil B (Age of Information video!) ended with promise of a mix. Well here it is. For you, your friends, even your mother: this is not only designed to get the uninitiated based in 45 minutes or less, but to properly rebuke those who think this man is all hype and no substance. Play it for them. Especially your mom.
Covering some (but not nearly all) of my favorite highlights across his releases from 6 Kiss on to Angels Exodus, my aim here is to compile the most amount of swag in the least amount of space, still showcasing some of the uncanny variety Lil B is capable of. This collection is proven to bring love and knowledge to everyone it touches, like all the best of his art.
B.O.R. (Birth of Rap)
The Age of Information
I Love Video Games
Free Your Soul
Whats 100 Dollers
Let the Eagles Go
New York Subway
Walk the World
Check it out, send it to everyone, burn it to cd and listen while you cruise… I certainly do. If you love it, and you will, relish in the fact that this is a very small proportion of the mountain of tracks he’s dropped. Go to based world or check out his extensive youtube collection or join the discussion on his last.fm page – all of which will lead you to a treasure trove of incredible music to subsist on until he drops his next tape. Which may very well be this month.
Serious about sharing this with your mom. Halfway through Age of Information mine was nodding her head, saying this is the best rap I’ve ever heard! Now she listens all the time. THANKYOUBASEDGOD.
My first album of 2011. So infectious, I’m giddy with the prospect of holding its vinyl in my hands on release day – still a month off. James Blake set the blog frontier ablaze last year with two progressive leaps beyond the dubstep fray – the CMYK and Klavierwork EPs – but never gripped my attention, making my ears perk up, my spine tingle, quite like this. This self titled debut is easily this year’s (first) benchmark.
Holy hot shit.
Sorry. I just had to get that out.
This is a crystalline monstrosity, a tsunami flash frozen in place, looming overhead like a malignant glacier as we zoom in ever closer. To listen is to move across its surface, close enough to observe the essence of each facet like a diamond under microscope. Stripping his ‘post-dubstep’ production to its core and reflecting and amplifying each empty space against its sonic counterpart, the elemental touch only serves to enhance his latest evolution of vocal manipulation.
Leaving behind the extracted shards and melodic strings of vocal samples of prior releases, Blake’s voice runs the center of every track in a hall-of-mirrors chase with its own distorted reflection. Alternately disintegrating and exploding, submissive and dominating, his new showcase instrument even rises above digital manipulation entirely in rare moments of acoustic grace. On my first listen, this was akin to the moment your plane breaks through cloud cover, uncorking the brightness of the blazing sun on a rainy day. The final track in particular reaches an ascetic ideal, almost wholly a capella in execution. This isn’t what normally sates a beat-fiend looking for the newest fix, but it’s an exquisite rush all the same.
Speaking of a rush: second track The Wilhelm Scream is probably the key to my instant affection for this album. Opening with a plaintive synth line and echoed-at-God-level darkly winsome vocals, the song gradually fills in like final details on a vast canvas, a blueprint in miniature of Blake’s signature austerity. From an embryo of muted drum stabs and compressed guitar lines, Blake inflates a billowing dirigible, ascending past the atmosphere at its peak before swinging low with his most resonant phrase: I’m falling, falling, falling.. This shredded my perception of the artist and sent me hurtling towards the explosion that is Never Learnt To Share. When it hits for the first time, you’ll know what I mean.
If I had to place this album in a given context it would look like this: The detail oriented tactile feel of Mount Kimbie‘s exquisite production, taken to the spare extreme of The xx‘s striking debut last year. Multiplied by 50 on each side. Each click and hum, synth flutter, bass surge, and twisted vocal hook is used as if it were the last Blake would ever grasp. The soaring gospel towers this man constructs with so few pieces will take your breath away, and keep it. Nothing has sounded this meticulously airtight in a long while, and for good reason. It takes a rarefied amount of control to keep the plates spinning this way, and James Blake stands coolly alone for now.
Watch this and stay on the lookout by February 7th.
My Best of 2010 was basically an attempt to carve my musical experience of the past year down to its most essential, most ingrained elements. An attempt to sum up the music I feel had the largest impact on my listening, on my life.
I left out a lot of great albums. Thankfully, they were drawn from a text file kept on my desktop throughout the year, chronicling each album I decide, at a given moment, is awesome. Yes, it’s that simple. As time passes I remove the fleeting infatuations, anything not holding up. So I’m left with a solid list I can refer to in search of everything I really, truly enjoyed this year. This is it, in order I heard them.
- Bullion – Say Goodbye To What EP
- Four Tet – There Is Love In You
- Arrington De Dionyso – Malaikat Dan Singa
- Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Kollaps Tradixionales
- Autechre – Oversteps
- Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
- Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh
- Ikonika – Contact Want Love Have
- Take – Only Mountain
- LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
- Boris – Heavy Rock Hits Vol. 3
- Connect_icut – Fourier’s Algorithm
- Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
- Rollo – 3
- Yellow Swans – Going Places
- Sightings – City of Straw
- Guido – Anidea
- Lorn – Nothing Else
- Teebs & Jackhigh – Tropics EP
- Infinite Body – Carve Out The Face Of My God
- The-Dream – Love King
- The Sight Below – It All Falls Apart
- Deepchord Presents Echospace – Liumin
- TOKiMONSTA – Midnight Menu
- Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal 7″
- Scuba – Triangulation
- Sepalcure – Love Pressure EP
- Imbogodom – The Metallic Year
- Singing Statues – Outtakes EP
- Flying Lotus – Patter + Grid World EP
- Seefeel – Faults EP
- Mark McGuire – Living With Yourself
- Efdemin – Chicago
- T++ – Wireless
- Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner
- Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
- Balam Acab – See Birds EP
- Gonjasufi – The Caliph’s Tea Party
- VHS Head – Trademark Ribbons of Gold
- Marcus Fjellström – Schattenspieler
- Zach Hill – Face Tat
- Games – That We Can Play
- Zs – New Slaves
- Fenn O’Berg – In Stereo
- Richard Skelton – Landings
- James Blake – Klavierwerke EP
- Fursaxa – Mycorrhizae Realm
- Dimlite – My Human Wears Acedia Shreds EP
- Kurt Weisman – Orange
- Clubroot – II MMX
So there it is. Something to remember is that any one of these albums may end up defining the year as much as the ‘true’ list – and that something I haven’t even heard yet may best them all. It’s happened before. This is why Optimistic Underground will soon post its first Music From Before 2010 But Discovered This Year list. This will cover the much wider range of music I was into this year, since there is already much more music out there than is being released at any given time.
[This post is subject to change. Like I'll probably add one or two more by January.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
To sum it up, here is the list in simpler form:
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
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.