Monday, January 02, 2006

Albums of the Year 2005

I’ve heard some dark mutterings recently. Thoughtful types have been suggesting that 2005 has been a bad year for music. Perhaps they’re right. But it certainly hasn’t been a bad year for records. The sheer number of fantastic albums this year has been truly overwhelming. I’m talking about really great albums; albums that enhance your appreciation of life tenfold; albums that give you a glimpse of a better life.

If there’s a problem, it’s that none of these records seem fit to lead a socio-musical movement that will Change the World – which, it turns out, is what most Rockist crit types are (still) looking for. Honestly, I thought we’d moved past that line of thinking. There’s something more than a little fascistic about wanting all of society to fall in line with the dictates of your own favourite rock singer – that leads to the hellish megalomania of Bono. Isn’t it better to look for records that really affect and change you and how you live your life? Isn’t that more healthy and civilized? Isn’t that more fundamentally exciting? The distinction I’m making is probably somewhat facile but - fuck it - it’s been a great year for music.

Or, at least, it's been a great year for ALBUMS. It's strange that, in the year when the IPod finally took over the World, there were so few songs/tracks that grabbed me and so many full-length works that captivated me. The only way I can account for that is to say that it's those who run against the tide of the times who produce the best work. Running against the tide is not the same thing as ignoring it, by the way.

Anyway, I’ve been told that the following picks are “maginal”. I find this pretty funny because of the context. The list was made for the record store's end-of-year ad, so it had to be made up of things that will stand a chance of selling.

So please do not misunderstand my previous comments about the list. I don’t mean that my picks are obscure per se but that none of them are part of a musical movement which seems to have social relevance and power (like grime does in the UK or funk does in Brazil). And I’m not championing obscurity per se, just admitting that the world of music is an incredibly diffuse and decentralized realm – and that that may not be such a bad thing.

Also, while none of these picks are exactly fit for immediate mainstream consumption, perhaps they will be one day, so long as folks in the know are prepared to champion the good stuff at the margins during lean times such as these.

Having said that, I can't help feeling that music actually LOSES its social relevance and power as soon as it becomes part of mainstream culture - just look at what a joke hip-hop has become. Perhaps there is a “becoming” stage where music is still under ground but starts to impinge on the popular consciousness – and that’s the stage where it can really make a difference. The point is that every journey has to start somewhere and that someone has to discover the artists that will come to matter.

Here's the list...

Top Ten of the Year 2005
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Insen"
More beautiful laptop and piano abstractions from German sound artist Carsten Nicolai and Yellow Magic Orchestra legend Sakamoto. Their second collaboration, Insen manages to be both austere and ravishingly beautiful. Sakamoto's extremely sparse piano motifs lift the emotional quotient of Nicolai's drones and loops, which gradually push Sakamoto into wilder and more imaginative territories.

Beequeen - "The Bodyshop"
A hugely surprising mix of ornate post-rock and haunting folk-pop from this Dutch duo more usually associated with dark ambient dronage. Mixing soundtrack twang, glitchy textures, minimalist drone, jazzy rhythms and psyche-folk vocals, The Bodyshop retains a coherently nocturnal aesthetic in spite of its colourful eclecticism.

The Fall - "Fall Heads Roll"
Business as (un)usual - hell-for-leather gutter surrealism of the first order. Mark E Smith seems to be getting better at balancing his desire for abstraction with his band's ability to rock out. He hasn't got it this dead-on since the epochal, career-rescuing Unutterable.

Konono No. 1 - "Congotronics"
Mind-blowing debut album from this veteran
Congolese street band. Congotronics is a record the context of which is almost too intriguing - it can be hard to hear the album as "pure" sound without obsessing over the home-made electric thumb piano's, salvaged colonial PAs and junkyard percussion that went into creating the sound. Having said that, it's also pretty easy for a receptive mind to be swept away by the shear primal force of the band's propulsive rhythms and earthy-yet-unearthly textures.

Stephan Mathieu - "The Sad Mac"
Stephan Mathieu represents yet another huge talent toiling away in relative obscurity. The Sad Mac is a perfectly balanced programme of digital melancholy; a varied, imaginative and beautifully realised presentation of only the finest abstract electronica; a truly moving and compelling album, quite out of step with our age of perpetual rock revivalism and mainstream apologism.

Mount Eerie - "No Flashlight"
Visionary genius in both the songwriting and production departments. Phil Elvrum's deliberate courting of obscurity and general flakiness can be infuriating but his last two albums have been works of staggering thematic cohesiveness and musical originality. More song-based than the final Microphones album (itself called
Mount Eerie), No Flashlight is, nevertheless, a formidably ambitious song-cycle and a pretty emotionally draining listen. Once again, Elvrum pits his fey vocals and hesitant guitar picking against sporadic onslaughts of overdriven percussion and sundry unplacable noises. Once again I'm pleasantly devastated.

P:ano - "Ghost Pirates Without Heads"
Best yet album from
Vancouver's finest indie rock act - profoundly ridiculous and ridiculously profound. All of P:ano's CDs have had great moments but this mini album is the band's first truly cohesive and representative statement. Mixing the eerie stillness of Young Marble Giants with the erudite songsmithery of The Magnetic Fields, Ghost Pirates deploys bass clarinet, accordion, ukelele, percussion and not much else to heart-melting effect.

Quasimoto - "The Further Adventures of Lord Quas"
Mental geometry-shifting rap music to make your third eye cry. I find it hard to understand all the naysayers who are claiming that '05 was a bad year for music but I also can't deny that it may well have been the worst year ever for hip-hop. Oblivious to rap-music's steady decline in musical and social relevance, Madlib has stayed in the lab, perfecting his own particular brand of B-boy insanity. This second album under Mad's pitch-shifted Quasimoto alias is the most insanely psychedelic record I've heard all year. Makes Late Registration seem like a small pool of lukewarm puke.

Noriko Tujiko - "Blurred in My Mirror"
The most experimental (and best) of this Japanese avant-songsmith's three 2005 albums. Noriko's songs are nebulous things, drifting by on waves of granular detritus. Still, every single one seems to hit an emotional peak that gets the ol' spine shivers going. It's probably her voice - a piercing, disingenuous thing that give away everything and nothing all at once. This is music comprised of a million divine paradoxes - truly special and uncanny.

Richard Youngs - "The Naive Shaman"
The UK's most underrated artist shows us what folktronica should have sounded like. This is a highly effective combination of Youngs' folky impulses with his noise tendencies. It's also his first album to feature noticeably digital signal processing, which is fine by me. Amazingly, The Naive Shaman has failed to shoot Richard to stardom but he continues to do his thing, joyfully oblivious to the huge piles of bullshit building up all around him.

Late Arrivals
Le Volume Courbe - "I Killed My Best Friend"
I only just got this and haven't really had time to assimilate it into the scheme of things but the early signs are gooood. The main point of interest for me was that it features members of (cue drum roll...) MY BLOODY VALENTINE (alongside members of Mazzy Star and Primal Scream). Reports really overstated the extent of MBV involvement here but this is, nevertheless, an absolutely fantastic record. Imagine Stina Nordenstrom jamming with Jandek or Noriko Tujiko getting down the Finnish free-folk underground. This is the sound of classic pop reading under the blankets, with a flashlight.

Coil - "The Ape of Naples"
Still haven't heard this but it should be out very , very soon. This is, by all accounts, the proposed major-label follow-up to Loves Secret Domain that has been in various stages of limbo for the last 15 years and that Coil were just putting the finishing touches to at the time of Jhon's death. The hype on this makes it out to be some kind of definitive Coil statement. We shall see.

Update: At the time of posting, I still haven't heard the whole album but I have heard fairly extensive sound-clips here (look under "Music"). From what I've heard, this album blows away anything else on the list. I am not even partly shitting you.

Chris T-T - "Nine Red Songs"
The first time I heard this it made me feel uncomfortable. But I still wanted to listen to it again, right away. The new album by England's most under-rated songwriter cuts against the grain of both flakedelic indie-folk and hippie-positivist protest song. Instead of quack-visionary pastoralism or patchouli-scented platitudes, T-T gives us pure posionous vitriol. This is a very interesting and meaningful update of the English folk-song tradition and I commend it to you.

Matt Elliott - "Drinking Songs"
At the time of writing, I'd only heard this one once through but on the evidence of that listening, this could have easily made it into the top 10. I reserve the right to put it in the 2006 list, should there be one. He was in The Third Eye Foundation. He's a genius.

Also...
Mike Ladd - "Father Divine"
Tape - "Rideau"

Also Recommended
Oren Ambarchi - "Triste"
Antony and the Johnsons - "I Am a Bird Now"
Coil - "And the Ambulance Died in His Arms"
DACM - "Stereotypie"
Double Leopards - "Halve Maen"
Edan - "Beauty and the Beat"
Fennesz Sakamoto - "Sala Santa Cecilia"
Frozen Rabbit - "26,000"
Gang Gang Dance - "God's Money"
Loscil - "First Narrows"
Low - "The Great Destroyer"
MF Doom - "Mm Food"
Lau Nau - "Kuutaarha"
Nurse With Wound and Jim O'Rourke - "Tape Monkey Mooch"
Om - "Variations on a Theme"
P:ano - "Brigadoon"
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Worn Copy"
Pita - "Get Off"
RATN - "J"
Peter Rehberg - "Fremdkoerper"
Rhythm and Sound - "See Me Yah"
Sebastien Roux - "Pillow"
Sunn0))) - "Black One"
Aoki Takamasa and Noriko Tujiko - "28"
Thanksgiving - "Nowhere"
Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice - "Sunset Sleeves"
V/A - "Love's a Real Thing"

Notable Labels
Apestaarje
Fledg'ling
Fonal
Hapna
Mosz

If Only I Could Hear...
More unreleased Coil stuff
My Bloody Valentine - "Remastered EPs"
More Arthur Russell re-issues

Re-issues etc. of Note
Shirley Collins and Davy Graham - "Folk Roots, New Routes"
Scritti Politti - "Early"

Notable Live Acts
Acid Mothers Temple
Boris

Fennesz
Frozen Rabbit
Tim Hecker
P:ano
Sunn0)))

Big Let-Downs
Animal Collective - "Feels"
Buck 65 - "Secret House Against the World"
Why? - "Elephant Eyelash"

Best CDs Featuring ME!
Don't forget these when it comes time to compile your own list...
The Bastion Mews - "Live at the Vernal Equinox"
connect_icut - "Moss"
Frozen Rabbit/connect_icut - Split

And While We're Getting Personal
My friend Ian Forsyth died this year. I miss him a lot. Not sure why I felt compelled to mention this here but there you have it.

5 comments:

crys said...

hey sammmm....
Thinking of you & kris.... the cats send their love...

Jonathan said...

Completely agreed about Chris T-T - album of the year, and sooo underrated. In fact, it's surprising you've heard of him over there - even here, he's unknown outside of diehard-indie-fans circles. I've got some thoughts on the album over at my blog.

daniel colussi said...

"...a small pool of lukewarm puke" - I LOVE THAT!

Saelan said...

More Arthur Russell reissues would be milk and honey, but he can't have stashed much more of that glory away, can he? I still can't believe that Another Thought and Calling Out of Context weren't even released in his lifetime. I downloaded both those albums and World of Echo about this time last year and they've consistently dominated my Audioscrobbler since then.

I'm surprised that you disliked Feels so much (you might have noticed it at #1 on my list), but it doesn't seem popular with the store staff in general. Josh was particularly vehement about his distaste for it (while being equally effusive about his love of Spirit They're Gone). I'll admit it's not quite Sung Tongs calibre, but I think it's very much in the same vein, and I wouldn't mind at all if they drifted more into the delirious pop hooks direction of "Grass" and "The Purple Bottle". They seem to be holding down the abstract end in their side projects anyway.

I'm listening to The Ape of Naples right now and it is certainly quite nice. I had a little trouble with the first half, but the last few tracks are sublime.

Anonymous said...

i really like animal collective's "feel" and p:ano is also a favorite of mine. as for the rest of the list, looks like i'll have to do a bit of research seeking out the sounds and vibe of the artists mentioned cause i've never heard of them. *rubs hands together*

see you on friday