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.
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)
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)
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.
So we all tend to discover some of our favorites of a given year immediately or long after it has passed. I decided to share mine. Despite being the first week of January, I’ve already discovered, revisited, and heard enough albums in a better light (courtesy of my brand new Sennheiser 280‘s) to start a list going. This is the first in a series to unfold for the next month or so. All I know for sure is that this music is at least as worthy of a listen as anything listed in Best of the Rest 2010, or even Best of 2010.
Forest Swords – Dagger Paths
This album I heard once, the moment it dropped. Despite intriguing me somewhat, it managed to slip to the back of my must list and languished for the rest of the year. Spotting its placement on several highly respectable year-end lists, I felt compelled to give it another chance. So thank you, fellow list makers. Especially my friend at Bubblegum Cage III. What sets this material apart from the beat scene or the solo-psych-project folks – or anyone else for that matter – is the serpentine guitar work and murky, lived-in feel of every moment. Lurching beats dangled around thunderous, bassy guitar melodies and an almost tribal, foot stomping ethos, this (frankly) astounding debut sounds like the work of an accomplished veteran, confidently going out on a limb, then rising, rising, rising. The only direct reference point I have is Gang Gang Dance, live, lately. Don’t look to their records for anything like this; you had to be there. Thankfully that ecstatic experience seems to be just what Forest Swords aims for and achieves on this album.
How To Dress Well – Love Remains
Honestly, I kept away from this one out of sheer knee-jerk hipster/pitchfork/etc rejection. I shouldn’t have. It’s so much more (and less, in a good way) than what it’s been sold as. Far more psychedelic than any description employing “r&b” infers, it’s a syrupy miasma of primal notions and half-thoughts, the bits and bytes of heartache and longing twisted up in a melting dream logic David Lynch would be proud of. This is drone music for the dance party comedown, dance music for the somnambulist, love songs for the fucked up.
Shackleton – Fabric 55
So I had the impression that Fabric mixes were simply a series in which an artist makes a DJ mix of other artists work. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re just alright.. but they’re never essential or brilliant like the artist’s own work. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Shackleton mines his own discography, past present and future, using elements of his Three EPs release as thematic glue to bind a striking set of 22 tracks that, to me, is possibly the final word on dubstep as we know it. One listen through and I’m already confident that I’ll be spinning this more than his prior album – and I absolutely LOVE that album. This one is simply more vibrant, active, playful. It shuffles off on an oceanic dub odyssey, seamlessly whirling through almost 80 minutes of depth charge awe. The fact that I ignored this profoundly satisfying set, from a personal favorite artist, makes my head spin.
If you’ve got suggestions for something I may fall in love with, please leave a comment. We all benefit from hindsight. MORE to come…
23 Skidoo were born skirting the fringes of post punk, industrial, funk and dub, a nearly peerless realm infrequently visited by A Certain Ratio, Throbbing Gristle, and This Heat. Twisting these genre elements through a strangely appealing recombination act was just the beginning of what the band means; it’s a coldly academic observation neglecting the warmly aggressive, primal energy bursting through the sonic capillaries of every piece they wrought. Honestly, the only act I could consider a true musical neighbor are the willfully radical legends The Pop Group. This is a remarkably good thing.
First of all, Seven Songs is 8 tracks long. That’s the first clue about the contents of this enigmatic, quintessential release – like The Pop Group, their modus operandi was grounded in subverting expectations and twisting them into something altogether surprising, thrilling, and a little bit scary. The limitless ingenuity spread across these 32 minutes constantly pulls the rug out from under the listener, encouraging fleet feet and an open mind. Unexpectedness, in this case, means welcome change and otherworldly juxtapositions, with the comfort of a trail guide who – despite a melange of insanity – knows exactly where he’s taking us.
Articulated noise pulls straight into a gutteral dub beat and tribal percussion stabs while the band cuts in and out with all manner of wordless vocal bursts and sheets of guitar noise on first cut Kundalini, laying the foundation for a record every bit as catchy as it is obtuse. Next off we’re treated to a skittering drum kit and funkadelic guitar, touchstones of Sly & Robbie infused dub, and one of the most ‘conventional’ moments of the album before dropping through the trumpet accented drone abyss of Mary’s Operation, leading directly into the asterix of a track 4, Lock Groove, which is aptly titled as anything here. This is also the reason the album is appropriately named – 30 seconds of oscillations do not make a song, thus “7” is indeed correct. But I digress.
Picking up the scattered shards and welding them into a lumbering prehistorical Transformer, New Testament proceeds to stride right into the path of album highlight IY. Kicking off with energetic, get-up-and-dance (or kick ass) percussion and a swaggering muted horn, it’s equally ready-made for epileptic dance fits and barnstorming runs over decaying industrial districts. Building through a propulsive rhythm motorcade to a fevered crescendo, the track sweats out all the clap-happy energy – leaving the album in a whirlpool of dread and ennui. Amping up the atmosphere beyond smoke-machine-and-lights-out darkness, Porno Base nearly defines the word cavernous and sets the stage for quirky closer Quiet Pillage. All cricket-squeak guiro and steel drum swarm, the track gradually shifts toward a subdued ambient pulse and wood flute accents before dissipating entirely, like waking from a disturbing, curiously addictive dream.
Like I said, this exists on its own terms, and anyone half interested should get to know them.
[pick this up at boomkat or amazon - the 2008 reissue sweetens the deal with bonus tracks and a welcome remaster ]
Transcendence is my favorite Alice Coltrane album. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, by anyone. I’ll try to concisely extol the many virtues of this wonderfully titular-promise-fulfilling album.
“Transcendence is the key that unlocks the indelible mystery of Alice Coltrane’s music. It is the unerring creative mission statement, the irresistable driving force that pushes her soul towards your own.
Reaching the listener emotionally, psychologically and spiritually is an essential part of the endeavour but the act of going beyond conventional forms of communication, of acceding to a higher state of consciousness, is the ultimate raison d’être.”
Since the liner notes in my handy CD reissue lay it out so succinctly I feel the need only to briefly describe the music itself: Divided into two distinct phases, the album starts off with meandering cloud like shimmers of Alice’s effortlessly magical harp. At first nearly traditional sounding, emulating the first rumblings of a symphony, the amorphous harp-based sound winds through the second, more abstract track, before gathering into a purposeful rhythm by the ending of the third (title) track. The final echoes of this din softly give way to the low end hum of Ms. Coltrane’s sublime organ workout which drives the rest of the album along a hand-clapping soulful singalong evocation of the various names of the gods. It’s a sort of western gospel/eastern philosophy mashup so comfortably entwined that it comes across like the most natural progression of this idea possible. The sharp tonal divide would stand out more if it weren’t the perfect combination of contrast and duration: the buildup feels like meditation, being lost in thought and nothingness, before a moment of clarity snaps the world into focus. The local cohabitants emerge and reach towards the outer edges of the world as the gods’ names are chanted in the communal practice of Sankirtan, Alice’s favorite sacrifice. It’s an elated ride from introspection to vocal providence; such an enjoyable trip that we’re nigh unaware of the spirituality fueling the journey. Turn this on and let it get you high – or get high before turning it on. Transcendence is all that matters.
Can rock the world. Really fucking hard. If you don’t know this in your body and soul, then take the time to either A) reassess your lifestyle, or B) start listening to their albums and make life a little better for your self and loved ones alike.
Exploding onto the earth with their debut album Monster Movie as a woolly, ragged psychedelic unit, Can morphed into the towering kings of krautrock with Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi before shedding any conventional sense of genre or precedent with the transcendental masterpiece Future Days. The four tracks on this album move through galaxies of musical topography in such a slippery enigmatic form that precious few moments are liable to be pinned down under a paradigm; it simply rides freely on it’s own bent energy, on a different level altogether from the band’s output, before or since. This album is like riding astral seas through the universe, a glass ship gliding over sparkling azure waves – all of existence thrown into sharp relief from this perspective, clarified as the remarkably beautiful creation it truly is. It’s the sound of propulsive, disorienting adventure and inner peace realized one in the same. It’s action and understanding. It’s a compulsively listenable record from one of the best bands of the 20th century. Just listen.
[get your hands on this through amazon or boomkat or treat yourself to the vinyl LP from musicdirect for a reasonable price]
ROVO. Get familiar. Featuring electric violinist Yuji Katsui and guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto (of Boredoms), this group has built a rock solid career releasing consistently vibrant, energetic, forward-looking, impeccably arranged tribal/jazz/electronic/noise/funk/dance-fueled records. Yes, I just made a reductive chain of genre names. Read on to know why…
Mon is an unequivocal masterpiece. Currently in the center of ROVO‘s ever-expanding discography, this is, to me, their most representative album – an absolute highlight of effortlessly addictive yet experimentally-tinged instrumental groovy goodness. I truly hope you give it a listen. For your own sake.
For many people (like myself), discovering this band is that *aha!* moment when they realize there is, in fact, a group making the kind of music that resembles what they’d subconsciously love to hear. This is dream music in the most literal sense; it’s a perfect combination of previously-unrealized elements brought together in a cohesive, ambiguously, strikingly original sound. Still, there’s a warm familiarity bred of the intuitively catchy, effortlessly hypnotic beats. Even if it’s not horizon-expanding for you, this album has my guarantee as an invigorating wave of narcotic bliss. Jump in, the water’s warm. You’ll be back for more.
[this is a reasonably difficult album to track down, but I've found copies on amazon.jp (don't worry, it can be read in english) and ROVO's myspace has more info]