Friday, December 29, 2006

They Did It Again!
I avoid the New Year festivities like the plague. But if I was going to go out...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Albums of the Year 2006
Last year's top ten was preceded by a short rant castigating those who bemoaned the state of music circa 2G5. I guess my general gist was that there was plenty of good music out there, you just had to look for it. I still feel the same way but I'm beginning to think a lot of the best stuff has such a marginal presence that it barely seems worth mentioning. In particular, the (non?)scene that I've been calling the New Electronic Underground appears to be making no impact whatsoever on the record-buying public.

None of the top ten actually comes from the NEU, which might be indicative of the fact that the "scene" hasn't really managed to throw up any fully classic works yet. Or it might be because I've started to feel that pushing this stuff on people is pointless because nobody's ever going to bother listening to it. For whatever reason, excellent albums by Guiseppe Ielasi, Sebastien Roux, Mountains, Tape and various others did not make the final cut.

Instead, the albums I've selected seem to conjur some ghosts from my past. We'll get to that right away...

Top Ten Albums of the Year
Biosphere - Dropsonde
A marvelous exercise in giving the people what they want. Dropsonde doesn't do anything to expand Biosphere's (admittedly rather dated) sound-world. On the contrary, it does exactly what you'd expect it to. Luckily it does so nigh-on perfectly.

So, yes, one of my favourite albums of the year is an ambient techno album built on jazzy drum loops and soothing synth pads. Snicker all you like but - while just about everything else this year sounded utterly sterile and pre-set - Dropsonde wove just enough error and imperfection into its highly accomplished mix to prevent triteness from ever setting in.

Burial - s/t
One of two albums on the Hyperdub label to make it into this year's top ten. Hyperdub is living proof that the willfully eclectic, unselfconsciously intelligent spirit of the 90s lives on in some quarters. As if to ram this point home, the label even put out a 12" by quintessential post-rock renaissance man Kevin Martin. And, while I'm not sure that the dubstep scene that spawned Hyperdub represents the future of music (or even the future of electronic dance music), it is - at the very least - keeping alive some of the more worthwhile ideals from the recent past.

None of this really adds to or detracts from the fact that Burial's self-titled debut is flat-out amazing from start to finish. Like Basic Channel trying their hand at drum'n'bass or :zoviet*france: having a stab at trip hop, this album is deep, dark and (yikes!) danceable. It actually reminds me of the Scritti Politti album discussed below, insofar as it makes a point of messing with cliches to surprisingly moving and occasionally hilarious effect.

Can't - New Secret
I can't claim to be very turned on by the post-Wolf Eyes noise underground that is so vigorously active right now. It's not the same-ness of the music that bothers me so much as the bozo-gonzo, semi-ironic machismo of it all. I've been told, for example, that if I like Pita, I'll love Prurient but I just can't get past that guy's S&M cover art.

It makes sense, in this context, that today's most interesting harsh noise artists should all be female. Can't aka Jessica Rylan is pretty much the queen of the scene right now, as far as my bleeding ears of concerned. New Secret is a genuinely uncanny picture disc cut with hesitant confessions mumbled through home-made synths and FX boxes. Mostly, it's just some distortion and yet nothing has ever sounded quite like this. Truly, a unique talent.

Current 93 - Black Ships Ate the Sky
The most ambitious Current 93 album in years and one of the best ever, by my estimation. Black Ships Ate the Sky is so overwhelmingly powerful that I'm able to love in unconditionally in spite of myriad potentially off-putting factors. I mean, isn't apocalyptic Christianity best left to the odious Neocons and their ilk? Aren't guest-appearance-laden luvvie-darling fuckfests like this something to be avoided like the plague? Apparently not.

David Tibet's increasingly erm... complex vision thing is so searingly righteous and heartbreakingly humane that it eliminates doubt at 40 paces. Also, every single guest star on this album is performing his or her fucking heart out (Will Oldham never sounded more at home!) This is no flaky goth black-slapping session, this is LARGE SCALE.

Ekkehard Ehlers - A Life Without Fear
Clearly, I'm very bitter about how unfashionable anything related to the "glitch" craze of the late-90s has become (except, perhaps, certain elements of the minimal techno scene). Still, it really does mean that a lot of great stuff goes under even the smartest peoples' radars. Case in point, the fact that this album did not make it into K-Punk's recent discussion of "hauntological blues" (actually, I only skim-read this post, so maybe I missed a reference but I fuckin' doubt it). For what it's worth, the best glitch music is inherently hauntological and much of the blogsphere propaganda bigging up hauntology reads suspiciously like the articles folks were writing about glitch (not so far) back in the day.

A Life Without Fear is hautological glitch-blues of the first order and it's hard to believe that I was actually disappointed when I first heard it. Good thing I kept coming back to it. Ehlers has achieved something very special here - a genuinely uncanny almalgam of the organic and the electronic, epitomized by his habit of putting a laptop through two guitar amps when he plays live.

kode9 + the Spaceape - Memories of the Future
The other Hyperdub release to make it into this list. If the Biosphere album sounds like the 90s caught in amber, Memories of the Future sounds like the 90s just kept going. The sound is distinctly now (lots of parping VST synth presets and off kilter R'n'Beats) but the attitude is strictly 90s - intelligent, eclectic and pre-millennial.

You've got to admire kode9's poor work ethic, too. A substantial chunk of this album has already been issued on 10" singles over a not insignificant period of time. Apparently, kode9 is the only person who makes music at home on a computer who doesn't have a backlog of 10 billion unreleased tracks. Instead he has focus, which is probably why so many of these tunes hit their target dead on.

Razor X Productions - Killing Sounds
Hey and look who it is! It's "quintessential post-rock renaissance man" Kevin Martin. Boy, this top ten really is turning into an exercise in 90s nostalgia, isn't it? I suppose I'll have to explore this phenomenon at greater length in the future. For now, let's just consider the phenomenon that is Kevin Martin.

You might think that, seeing as he seems to have actually established some kind of audience for his music recently - K-Mart might have moved on a bit since his days languishing in obscurity as leader of God, Techno Animal, Ice etc. In fact, Martin's recent work - which usually pairs him with Jamaican dancehall vocalists - is every bit as skull-crushingly intense as anything he did as a pioneer of the early UK post-rock scene. This album collects a series of singles made with digi-dub producer The Rootsman and a whole host of gruff-voiced singers and deejays. It's killer.

Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer
So much has been written about this album that I barely know where to begin. So much really great stuff has been written about it that I feel rather humbled. Let's just say, straight off the bat, that this is the album I listened to most in 2006. That may be because it was the year's best non-difficult/experimental album but I'm willing to stick my neck out and declare it Album of the Year full stop.

I mentioned before how I love the way Green plays with cliche on White Bread... To qualify this a bit, Green has spent 25 years exploring the language of popular song - tearing it open and prodding its guts - and has reched a stage where he commands complete control of this language. At this point in his career, there's simply no need for a trade off between knowing irony and helpless sincerity - they can coexist undiluted, each reinforcing the other's strengths. This is a state of affairs that is essentially impossible to achieve but it crops up again and again on White Bread... Which, I suppose, makes it impossibly good.

Raphael Toral - Space
While the New Electronic Underground has thus far failed to produce an epochal classic, some of the old guard of post-Oval abstract electronica have been doing their best work yet over the last couple of years. NEU-affiliated glitch veteran Stephan Mathieu made the top ten last year with The Sad Mac, an album that still floors me with its simple beauty every time I return to it.

This year with have the Ekkehard Ehlers album and this, which approximately does for jazz what A Life Without Fear does for the blues. Essentially, it sounds like In a Silent Way played by narcoleptic androids. It's the type of record that seems to slow my heart-rate and speed my brain function simultaneously, a distinctly uncanny feeling. Like much of this top ten, Space succeeds in doing this because it is so remorselessly serious and rigorous. The other-worldly beauty emerges almost in spite if itself. The more straightforwardly humanistic NEU acts could learn a thing or two from this.

Scott Walker - The Drift
The language of popular song has always maintained that the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl. Somewhere along the line Scott Walker realized that the saddest thing in the whole wide world if to see your family raped to death by the secret police. I know that' a pretty tasteless way to make a point but I honestly can't think of another way to account for The Drift.

Darkness in music has long been tied to adolescent male angst and power fantasies. This year saw some valiant attempts to tackle the truth about humanity's dark side with intelligence and rigour - A Life Without Fear is notable in this regard. The Drift has to be one of the most authentically dark records ever made, which makes it as compelling as it is challenging. This album isn't as unlistenable, as some would have you believe. The real problem is that it offers no resolution or comfort. So, it's not hard to listen to per se but it's hard to have listened to.

Top Three Re-issues of the Year
Oren Ambarchi - Grapes from the Estate
Originally released on CD by Touch and recently reissued as a Southern Lord double LP. Given its label pedigree (both companies are run by excellent graphic designers), Grapes from the Estate was always going to look great. Trust me when I say it sounds just as good as it looks.

Where Rafael Toral has abandoned dreamy guitar processing in favour of pure sine tones, Oren Ambarchi has reduced his guitar sound to pure sine tones, via copious amounts of processing. That's not to say that this album is as austere as Ambarchi's previous Southern Lord LP, Triste. In fact Grapes... is his most melodic and accessible work to date.

Coil - Black Antlers
Other than the Scritti Politti effort, the album I actually listened to the most this year was The Ape of Naples by Coil. Attentive readers will remember that Ape... was one of those albums that came out just too late for the 2005 list and just too early for the 2006 list. Really though, it's such a work of timeless magnificence that tying it to any particular year seems a little petty.

Black Antlers is great too. A rejigged and remastered version of a digital/CDR release, which was the only MP3 download I've ever actually paid for. Like Ape... it's a song-based album in the style of the Musick to Play in the Dark series. If you're a fan of the later Coil, then this is essential. If you're not, then I pity you.

Arthur Russell - Another Thought
While Another Thought is essentially a ragbag of demos originally released (by Phillip Glass!) shortly after Arthur Russell's death, it's actually his most accessible and coherent album. The recording is clear, the tunes are catchy and Arthur's singing and cello playing never sounded so instantly appealing.

It's not unearthly or unique like World of Echo but it's a great starting point for Russell neophytes and essential for fans. Great to see it back in print. My only concern is that there might not be any more of these albums waiting in the vaults.

Song of the Year
"Monkey and Bear" by Joanna Newsom
Seems like it would be stating the obvious to include Ys in my top ten albums. I hate all those lists that are the same as all those other lists. Still, there's no denying that it's an impressive piece of work. Sure, there's lots to dislike about Newsom's studied kookiness and her proggy pretentiousness. Luckily for her, you get a pass for that stuff if you're a genius.

That's right, I said "genius". And you can look no further than "Monkey and Bear" for proof. I can't think of many examples of narratives this coherently, meaningfully magical in popular song. The words are incredible and Joanna's delivery gives them absolute authority. What really gets this to the top of my personal pop chart, though, is Van Dyke Parks' utterly utterly bonkers orchestral arrangement.

Other Notable Releases
Current 93/Om - Inerrant Rays of Infallible Sun (Blackship Shrinebuilder)
Deathprod - s/t 10"
Chihei Hatakeyama - Minima Moralia
Guiseppe Ielasi - s/t
Loscil - Stases and Plume
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Mountains - Sewn
Om - Conference of the Birds
Donna Parker - Debutante
Rhythm and Sound - See Mi Yah Remixes
Arthur Russell - First Though, Best Thought and Springfield (reissues)
Sebastien Roux - Songs
Tape - Rideau
Thom Yorke - The Eraser
Richard Youngs - Advent (Reissue)

Lots of others that I can't remember. Suggestions in the comments box please.

Two New Mix CDs
Just let me know if you want one.

The Acid Folk Volume Three
John Renbourn - "Down on the Barge"
Shirley Collins - "Adieu to Old England"
Vashti Bunyan - "Where I Like to Stand"
Davy Graham - "Anji"
Bill Fay - "Warwick Town"
Bert Jansch - "I Have No Time"
The Watersons - "The Whitby Lad"
Fairport Convention - "Tale in Hard Time"
Fresh Maggots - "Rosemary Hill"
Anne Briggs - "Living by the Water"
Sandy Denny - "Late November"
Martin Carthy - "Lord Randall"
Steeleye Span - "Rougues in a Nation"
Trader Horne - "Morning Way"
Kevin Coyne - "Evil Island Home"
Trees - "Fool"
The Pentangle - "Cruel Sister"

Sam's Mix CD for Winter 2006/7
The Fall - "I'm Ronney the Oney"
Dangerdoom - "Crosshairs"
M. Sayyid - "M. Sayyid is the Future"
Roll Deep - "Graveyard"
kode9 + the spaceape - "Portal"
Thom Yorke - "Black Swan"
Scritti Politti - "Throw"
Arthur Russell - "Springfield (DFA Remix)"
Coil - "Sex with Sun Ra (Part Two)"
Scott Walker - "Darkness"
Greg Davis and Sebastien Roux - "I Never Met Her"
Ekkehard Ehlers - "Die Sorge Ghet Uber Den Fluss"
Oren Ambarchi - "Happy Ending"
Tim Hecker - "Stags, Aircraft, Kings and Secretaries"
Loscil - "Subaquatic"