Friday, 31 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - the final five

5. Beach House

Beach House seem to grow with each album, and this year's Teen Dream was a marvel. Lo-fi organ, plucked guitar - the basic elements rarely seem to change very much, but the recipe always seems to work. On one level, it sounds like something from a well-crafted French mixtape. But those fibrous, wire-drawn guitars haunt the ear, with a twang that reminds me of Town and Country. And there is something inescapably dolorous about the voice of Victoria Legrand. Let's see what she can do with a phone book.

4. Flying Lotus

I remember listening to Cosmogramma late at night in the country with the windows down in my car, and thinking - woah, THIS is the album for late-night driving. Which it is. Or one of them, at least. Deeper than Los Angeles and more finely honed, this was an album that seemed to offer more the more you listened. Miracles of purified pop such as MmmHmm sit alongside hushed, half-buried gems like Thom Yorke number And The World Laughs With You - a song that would be the centrepiece of most ordinary albums. There are plenty of broken beats in there too - although perhaps they sound more shattered, fractured or just smashed then anything else.
FlyLo got cross recently when he missed out on a Grammy for this album, but he has nothing to worry about - all the right people knew this was dynamite.

3. Local Natives

Gorilla Manor was for 2010 what the Fleet Foxes debut was for 2008. That this wasn't recognised more openly was one of the great disappointments of the year for me. The album sneaked out late last year, but drew wider attention upon its US release in February. Airplanes was the immediate hook - but tracks such as Cubism Dream and Stranger Things had a bewitching beauty to them that screamed of greatness. Attacked by some for sounding too much like too many other bands, they need to shed their influences - but have already landed one of the year's killer albums.

2. Twin Shadow

If Morrissey started listening to Junior Boys, it's possible this is the sort of record he would produce. Twin Shadow's George Lewis Jr unleashed Forget on the world this year like a man letting off a bomb. And when the bomb went off, it sounded like the 80s. At its best, utterly unbeatable, although the record is one of peaks and troughs. But what a talent - and God only knows what he could go on to achieve.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never

It's not an obvious thought, but it's increasingly becoming clear that Daniel Lopatin is this generation's answer to Aphex Twin. Musically, it's not really a fair comparison, but he is starting to look like the figurehead of modern electronic music - or even perhaps its saviour. When Rifts dropped last year, it was like a new civilisation had been uncovered, and the people in it all listened to Boards of Canada. This year, with Returnal, it felt like we had been given a secret glimpse of what the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey might have listened to when they were off duty. Like so much great music today, it borrows from the past to take us somehow one step closer to the future. Deep, and mouthwateringly brilliant.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part seven

10. Washed Out

Last year, Washed Out's Ernest Greene seemed on the cusp of something major. The delectable Feel It All Around and the almost impossible to find High Times generated a huge buzz in 2009, which this year it was expected would see him rise to great success. But, a split 7" and a couple of stray songs aside, it's been a quiet year. Nonetheless, You and I was one of the year's finest songs, its poignant, downbeat wistfulness easily confirming the talent Greene has.

9. Hot Chip

Hot Chip tread a thin line between the grating and the great, but more often than not, this year's One Life Stand stayed on the right side of things. While they still drift into naff, chirpy, chunky pop at times, tracks such as Keep Quiet and the magnificent Take It In are among their best. Music rarely sounded so uplifting.

8. Autechre

If nothing else, 20 years after they started, Autechre remain hugely productive. Sean Booth and Rob Brown might do most of their collaborating from different ends of the country now, but they still managed to reel off two substantial slabs of rarified electronics this year - Oversteps and Move of Ten. Both felt difficult - consciously so - but this has been the pattern since Confield. Yet while they stray at times down dark, cold, academic alleys, they can still bash out a tune when they feel like it. And, when that happens, there are few better things in music.

7. Darkstar

This was the year Darkstar went from being generic dubsteppers to the next Massive Attack in one giant leap. It surely can't have been as easy as it seemed - they were accomplished but unremarkable bass-heads a year ago - but North was beautifully poised and polished, a sort of companion piece to Waiting For You by fellow Hyperdub label mates King Midas Sound. Perhaps the two bands have opened up the way forward for dubstep - a genre that has been in need of a shake-up for some time now.

6. Curren$y

Kanye might have gathered the garlands, but Curren$y's releases this year were a reminder of just how warm and inviting hip-hop can be. As we watched Curren$y brush his teeth on the video for Breakfast, it was clear this was a man who did not stand on ceremony. Easy-going, with a great eye for every-day minutiae, this is the sort of rapper you could see yourself going out for a beer with. If you're the kind of person who drinks with millionaire rap stars.

The 40 best things in music this year - part six

15. Seefeel

They vanished in the middle 90s when probably the most daring, interesting band in electronics. Now they return, too many years later to seem credible. What for, you might ask. Well, that's what I had thought, but the EP they put out this year dispelled the doubts - unleashing as it did a soft, nuanced, Fenessz-esque spiderweb of sound that lined up the possibility that these guys might have something powerful still to say. Time will tell, but what came out this year has left its mark.

14. Emeralds

Does It Look Like I'm Here? was the token electronica album in the end-of-year lists of many indie critics in 2010. Following on from the deep space, Faust-like keyboard symphonics of Oneohtrix Point Never last year, the layered, high concept electrical fizz of Emeralds was always going to capture the attention. For me, the hype never quite amounted to as much as it should of, but underneath there was a sound that deserved to be heard. Emeralds - like the blinding light of the television on their album cover -have something irresistible about them.

13. Deerhunter

When Deerhunter first emerged on the scene, it genuinely felt like we had the next Pink Floyd on our hands. Cryptograms, the feedback-soaked breakthrough album, was at times a revelation - and totally unpredictable with it. For all their talents with a catchy tune, this was a band willing to break boundaries. And their work since then has confirmed that. They might not quite have progressed to genius status, but Halcyon Digest was further evidence that this was a band standing head and shoulders above the run of the mill gee-tar scene.

12. Radio Dept

Musically, I've always been a little sceptical about Sweden. Whatever that fine country produces, I think of ABBA and something naff sticks in my throat. But, kneejerk racial stereotypes notwithstanding, Radio Dept did as good a job as anyone in 2010 at making music for the summer. Clinging to a Scheme was laconic, chilled, detached - but somehow lovely at the same time. No idea what they did before this, but it made me want to pour out a Pimms and lemonade every time I heard it.

11. The Books

So good are this band, you wonder why everyone else doesn't just give up. Shrewd, great with samples, deliciously playful, they seem to bend the template of guitar music to within an inch of destruction. Which can surely only be a good thing. The Way Out, as expected, carried on where they left off with the era-dominating Lost and Safe. Too clever by half, but who could not love them?

Monday, 27 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part five

20. James Blake

Can't quite work out this James Blake fella. Starts out with a string of low-key dubstep EPs, then flips over and turns out doleful Feist cover versions. Whatever he's up to, everyone is raving about him, and for a change it seems like the recognition might be earned.

19. Wild Nothing

If a label chief had dreamed up a 21st century re-interpretation of The Cure, the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine in one neat package, then this is probably what they would have sounded like. But there is more to Wild Nothing than 80s retro marketing. Talent, for a start. And anyway, sometimes a band can get away with wearing their influences on their sleeves - and Wild Nothing are that band.

18. LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem used to be just about the biggest band in the world. Then they made their so-so second LP to bafflingly universal acclaim and it all started to go a bit sour. This year, with the release of This Is Happening, it felt like things were going from bad to worse. The raw energy, the excitement, the cleverness of the first record had gone altogether - to be replaced with loud, overlong, uninspiring retreads. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but it was my reading of things when I first picked up the record, and I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to it ever since.
Yet despite the disappointment, they are a great band - and sneak in on that basis.

17. Caribou

Dan Snaith aka Caribou has been around for a while now. He's sort of the Jon Obi Mikel of electronica - Mr Consistent, rarely makes a mistake, rarely lets you down. But I'd never been sure whether his music was ever truly fascinating. With his new LP, Swim, it began to seem like I might have been wrong. In parts Balearic rapture, in parts pure, unalloyed pop, Swim was an album that seemed to sweep all aside - like Obi Mikel suddenly winning the golden boot.

16. Four Tet

Renowned New York jazz drummer Steve Reid, a regular Four Tet collaborator, died this year. In some ways, Keiran Hebden's There Is Love In You felt, perhaps accidentally, like an appropriate way to send him off - wistful, downbeat and yet somehow joyous. Another who has been producing solid albums for years, Hebden raised his game with this one.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part four

25. Loscil

Sparse, moody meloncholia might not be a bad thing to have as a speciality. Loscil seems to have taken a bit of a kicking in some quarters from the critics, but at his best he is still producing some very compelling ideas.
Perfect music for staring at storm clouds, in other words.

24. Best Coast

This really is delightful. Garage rock with a hint of of Jesus and the Mary Chain mashed together with the bittersweet, love-lorn ramblings of songwriter Bethany Cosentino. And the Sun Was High - which, maddeningly, is not on BC's debut LP - could be just about the most uplifting song on romantic longing I've heard since I was a teenager.
As for Crazy For You, it's possibly the best thing you could listen to while snorting lemonade through a straw.

23. Javelin

Is this what they listen to in the hood? I'm not so sure, but Javelin this year strung together a sound so damn funk-filled, that it had me feeling it might be. No Mas was an album to be played at high volume in the car, at the very least, and with the top down if possible. But so rich was the hip-hop on show here, it would sound just as with it if you put it on while cruising along Skegness high street. Word.

22. Grouper

Liz Harris might have only released a couple of singles this year, but the haunting sound first properly heard by most on Grouper's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is still reverberating around the alternative music scene. Rarely can an album so lethargic have sounded so captivating. And the singles - Vessel and Hold/Sick - bewitchingly picked up the thread of her previous work.

21. Hype Williams

I can't think of anyone since Burial who has given off so much mystery. Hype Williams - who the hell are they? The Guardian didn't have a clue when they profiled them earlier this year, and neither do I. They don't seem to have actually released anything that you can buy in the shops yet, but there's plenty of material on the internet. In sound, somewhere between some sort of post-hauntological excavatory 80s noise experiment and a DJ set of electronica played at half speed. Baffling, but interesting.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part three

30. Pantha Du Prince

Techno - nobody listens to that anymore, do they? Well, maybe some people have lost interest, but Pantha Du Prince's Hendrik Weber has done as much as anyone to change things with his dark, subtle, transformative soundscapes. Weber's Black Noise has been showered with garlands already this year - although surely its placing on this list will be the thing that pleases him most.

29. Ariel Pink

2010 was the year Ariel Pink went viral. They had been knocking about for a while when I first heard them some seven years ago. This year they seemed to go from alt hipster nobodies to the 21st century's answer to the Beach Boys. Neat trick.

28. Games

Does Daniel Lopatin ever relax for a minute? At the moment, he's probably the most productive man in the drone/ambient vibester scene. In fairness, Games is only half his work, with co-author Joel Ford taking on joint duties somewhere in the studio. After all the bleepy 70s synth odysseys from the Rifts albums, Games is very much light relief - like an Alexander O' Neal mixtape done by DJ Screw.

27. Memoryhouse

These guys might have a contender for song of the year with the hazy, lazy, dreamy trippiness of To The Lighthouse. Probably what people who sail yachts and live in white houses on the beach would listen to if they checked this website. Next year this band will either vanish tragically into the oblivion, or release the next White Album. You heard it here first.

26. Gigi

Forty people were involved in the making of the debut Gigi record earlier this year. That's right - 40. There are fewer people in the Chelsea squad. But Maintenant is not a raucous mess, nor a confirmation that too many cooks spoil the broth. Instead, Canadians Nick Krgovich and Colin Stewart almost pulled off what they seemed to be trying to do - become the next Phil Spector. Maintenant is a charming jumble of classic 60s pop. And who could see anything wrong in that?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part two

35. Oriol

When Night and Day dropped earlier this year, it was like someone had re-recorded the soundtrack to Miami Vice while off their face on rum and coke. Evoking the beach, the night, the sea, the LP was at once contemporary and sweetly nostalgic. Which is to say, it was top notch - and Oriol someone to watch out for next year.

34. Ital Tek

Alan Myson, the man behind Ital Tek, has been rolling out near-flawless dubstep for two or three years now. And so it was no surprise when he carried on as usual with the excellent Spectrum Falls and Midnight Colour. Now it's just a question of whether he will start getting the same sort of attention other, far less talented dubsteppers have been lapping up for what seems like years.

33. John Roberts

Dull name, but music that is most definitely not dull. In a revival of the sort of warmth and melodic depth that house has been lacking so much in recent years, Roberts demonstrated a deftness of touch and great ear for a tune. One to play on repeat before big nights on the town - although it serves just as well as come-down music after the main event.

32. Mark McGuire

McGuire's work with Emeralds may have gathered far more attention this year, but it was the driven, fretting intensity of his solo album that stood out more for me. With a sound like an unused instrumental from the Joshua Tree, this was music that felt like it was trying desperately to break out - but somehow still held it all together.

31. Avi Buffalo

Some people have described them as Shins-esque, which I don't see as true, but what the hell - these guys just like a good old sing song. Their debut record was never going to move the avant gardists to rhapsody, but sometimes there's nothing wrong with a band who simply set out to make well-crafted music, and do it well.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The 40 best things in music this year - part one

2010 didn't feel like a vintage year, but then they never do, do they? There were definitely a lot of good records around, but few great ones. As usual, I'm scrambling to catch up on what I missed out on. I don't own the Kanye record, for instance, and the Actress LP barely registered with me when I heard it.
But after spending hundreds of hours listening to the music of 2010, this is what stood out. My list is not ranked, so 1 and 40 are of equal merit in my eyes. It would be better to rank it, but - who am I kidding - I couldn't be arsed.

40. How to Dress Well.

They emerged this year, but were still pretty low key about three months before the hype broke out. Then they started releasing records with people in gimp suits. Think it's just one guy. He has a blog still, which shows you he is "still a chill bro", as Hipster Runoff might say. Fits in to that chillwave sound that was prominent a few months ago, but less retro and more layered.

39. Active Child

The Guardian described this guy as like Fleet Foxes if they had swapped guitars for synths. That doesn't do Active Child justice at all, but there is something very haunting about the delivery of singer Pat Grossi. They are also akin to the chillwave vibe, but again take it in a different direction. Properly speaking, Active Child are an 80s synth band trapped in a fog machine.

38. Baths

Sweet, jumpy electronica probably sums the music of Will Wiesenfeld up pretty well. Lush, lovely singing over blissed out post-trip hop. Sort of thing you might listen to in the bath with the lights low. If you do that kind of thing.

37. Hammock

When I heard Hammock at the start of the year, I thought: this is going to be big. But no-one seems to have talked them up much since. Probably got jumbled together with all the other droney ambient hipsters out there - thanks Oneohtrix! - but their sound is like Eno in his heyday or Stars of the Lid. Genuinely thrilling.

36. Space Dimension Controller
It's going back a while, but I think this came out in 2010. Which is good, because it's on my list. Disco mixed in with the music to a perfect French porno. Perhaps. Again, amazing. And probably no-one bought it either, so that bumps up the alt factor.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The art of brevity in music

Short songs are normally throwaway - interludes maybe, or just scraps picked up from the cutting room floor. But when they are done the right way, short tracks can be up there with the best. There is something very poignant about an infectious melody that disappears so suddenly after being introduced. The idea was dwelt on extensively by Sartre in Nausea. When I look at my record collection, I'm hard pushed to find much decent music under 7 or 8 minutes in length. Electronica especially seems to lend itself to long, drawn out ideas that need time to develop. Such is the case with much music.
But Brian Eno's Another Green World is a perfect example of a piece of music that achieves both brevity and profundity in its short duration. Arena references aside, the music lingers long after it is over. Daringly, and cleverly, Eno even allows much of the track's short lifespan to be measured out in silence, as the refrain slowly seeps into the mix. Yet, at around 1:47, this is probably one of his very best tracks.

An outfit on the old Evolution Records label put together music designed to be short enough to fit on an answering machine. Perhaps that is too short - the results there (I think it was Jak and Stepper who made it) were mixed at best. But such brevity was back in those days a welcome antidote to the long-established tendency to drag things on. The Orb famously did this with their endlessly massive A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain. Their Blue Room EP as well went on for about an hour.
Of other examples of the short but sweet that spring to mind, Prefuse 73's savagely effective The End of the Biters International is in my view one of the highlights of modern hip-hop, at less than a minute and a half.

But perhaps there is no mystery in this at all. Pop music has excelled for decades at short lengths. Indeed, back in the 50s and 60s, two and a half minutes was standard duration for a song. And going much further back than that, the poetic lyric - the very quintessence of expression - has for centuries thrived on saving rather than wasting words.
We keep hearing that we live in a time of information overload and of short attention spans. So maybe the short song really is the best way forward for us all.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The sampling of DJ Shadow - a breakdown of Midnight In A Perfect World

When this album came out, it was hailed by almost everyone as a very good record. But for my mind it wasn't given anywhere near enough credit. The album featured that year in many of the top 10s, but other records that many people would probably struggle to remember now where above it on the lists. NME said the Manic Street Preachers' Everything Must Go was a better listen, which is extraordinary (and more than a little bit embarrassing) in retrospect. They also had Supergrass' Fuzzy Logic ahead of it - which is just laughable.

But other, apparently wiser sorts were just as guilty of looking a gifthorse in the mouth. Wire magazine had it at 27 that year, behind Photek's lacklustre Hidden Camera, Lamb's wine bar drum n bass debut, Squarepusher's patchy Feed Me Weird Things, Plug's decent but hit and miss Drum N Bass For Papa, and the debut from postrock noodlers Tortoise (not to mention the inevitable placings for Einst├╝rzende Neubauten and Derek Bailey).

I think now it is perhaps clearer that Entroducing was a monolith of 90s music. It still sounds far, far ahead of its time, and it's one of the four or five best albums I've ever heard.
When I started looking into the samples that made up the album, I thought at first I would realise how little of it was actually Shadow's work. But I think the opposite is in fact the case.
A look at any of the tracks on that splendid record shows us both the diversity of sounds he reaches for, and the masterly and unexpected treatment he gives them. The pitching of a stray piano riff from a David Axelrod tune in Midnight In A Perfect World is a case in point. Shadow is the perfect miner of forgotten musics. Most of the material he used to compile Entroducing is either neglected, obscure or downright naff. But he weaved it into something endlessly fascinating. The tragedy for music is that he never got close to doing anything like it again. But perhaps that just makes Entroducing all the more special.
These are five of the principal records used in Midnight In A Perfect World. Just click the youtube link when it comes up to view the first one.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Great film soundtracks: Sonatine

Sonatine has to be one of my favourite films. Takeshi Kitano is the protagonist, a Yakuza gangster who becomes embroiled in a power struggle that leads to blood-soaked inter-gang warfare. The film has a very high body count. At the same time, however, it is light, evanescent, beautiful. Yin and yang or something like that, perhaps. This scene captures one of the light, playful moments. And the soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, with its odd, chirpy, computer game like quality, is a delight.
I haven't seen the film for about 15 years. In fact, I daren't watch it in case I spoil it for myself. But the film is superb, and the soundtrack its beating heart.

Lady in Red revisited

Wire magazine looked at this a few months ago, but it bears re-examination. Chris De Burgh's Lady in Red is a terrible song. But used as source material, two of the day's most prominent electronic artists have transformed the banal original into something quite different. First off, Caretaker / VVM / James Kirby rips the song apart, radically rewriting it as a guttural dirge that is both funny and unnerving at the same time. And the bass line is truly chilling.
Then Oneohtrix Point Never (before he got noticed) has a go at turning De Burgh's song into a floating ambient lament to infinity.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Records that time forgot

It wasn't around for more than about five minutes, but Ipswich's Deep Red Recordings made two of what are still my favourite records, years after I first heard them.
Tom & Tom's Downforce and Dr Know's Make Me Feel were both put out under pseudonym by the former Stupids punk stalwart and latter-day drum n bass prodigy Tom Withers, aka Klute.
According to discogs, Klute started releasing drum n bass records in 1995, so these appear to be amongst his first efforts in d n b. And they really are deep, tremendous, ethereal tracks. Downforce is harder - if that is the right word - with the amen break rolling along for much of the time. But it is layered out with a sound that it is almost alien in its richness to the ragga boy nonsense being peddled by many at the time.
Dr Know has a similarly lush feel, but is more chilled - a sort of flipside to Downforce.
Deep Red Recordings only released six records, and only two of these were by someone other than Withers.
It's not clear why they ceased recording, but the brevity of their history almost makes the music that they did release seem all the more worthy of our attention.
Klute went on to a successful career in d n b, and is still around today.
But these unknown, enigmatic dancefloor elegies still resonate - and thrillingly so.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Unheralded masterpieces, number one

Everyone has these in their collection.
This is from Seefeel's Succour, which was the culmination of their brief stay at Warp Records.
Much more glacial than their guitary, vaguely My Bloody Valentine stuff on Too Pure. They split up not long afterwards, with Mark Clifford continuing to make jagged, abstract electronica as Disjecta on Warp for a time. Sort of derivative Aphex, frankly.
But Succour was a tiny, perfectly formed masterpiece. Has so few elements to it, but everything feels just right.
They've recently reformed, sounding more like Fennesz than anything else now, but this early stuff is priceless.

Get on with it

There is no blog out there dealing with electronic music in the way it should be. There is no website or magazine or newspaper doing it either. And goddamit this is not the blog to change that.
No, all I can aim to do is jabber on about music I love and hope some of it makes sense.
At the same time, no doubt, I'll throw up stuff about news, films, books and all the finicky mishmash of my life.
It's time for end of year lists. Pitchfork has done one (, cokemachineglow has done one (, the Wire has done one - even though, as a subscriber, I've somehow yet to see it.
As usual with me - and I suspect many other people - it's that time of year when you realise you've missed out on most of the great records of the year. I try my damnedest to pay attention, but I've only picked up a handful of CDs that are now being hailed as the best this year produced.
Who cares, I guess. But it does remind me of that annual treat that was John Peel's Festive 50.
I remember spending hours trying to whittle down my favourite three tracks of 1994 to send off my votes on a postcard to the show.
With that in mind, here's the only one of them I can remember still now: