Saturday, December 29, 2007

It Snowed on Christmas Day!
For those of you who think that all of Canada is permanently under three feet of snow, I should point out that it's actually pretty rare to get any snow in Vancouver, so it was a real treat to have a light dusting of the stuff on Chrimbo day. Wheeee! Of course, the snow did make it rather hard for Sneefler to find somewhere she could take a whiz.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Top Ten of the Year 2007
Okay, so it hasn't been a great year for music. Really, though, that's a statement that needs to be qualified or - at least - seen in context. Saying that it hasn't been a great year for music shouldn't be taken to imply that there hasn't been a tonne of wonderful albums this year.

The problems I've had with music in 2007 have had less to do with the my subjective judgment on how much "good" stuff has been produced than with disturbing trends in the way people have been acquiring and consuming music. MP3s and Web 2.0 have been encouraging a superficially "informed" but utterly un-engaged approach to musical culture - one that favours received knowledge and opinions over active listening and having a personal relationship with individual works.

Of course, what really bugs me is that people have been listening to soppy retro bullshit on MP3 and ignoring the really really great vinyl LPs that I bought this year. Hmm... So, apparently, this does have something do with my subjective judgments. But what the hell, eh? This is supposed to be the preamble to my top ten of the year and what could be more subjective than an end-of-year list?

Subjectively speaking, then, I feel obliged to tell you that the albums you've all been listening to are a pile of crap and that, if you paid attention to me once in a while, you wouldn't be missing out on all the real music. I'm kidding, of course but the serious point is that most of my favourite records of the year seem to have been heard by a distressingly tiny number of people.

I know it's childish and that I shouldn't care but do I find it somewhat disheartening - not just because it means that people are missing out on great (even important) music but because it shows that I have little or no remaining common ground with most other music fans. This was brought home to me with a horrid thud when I realized that not one of my picks had made it into a single Zulu Records staff top ten this year.

Still, a lack of common ground is pretty much endemic to the overcrowded music marketplace of the web world. It's inevitable and shouldn't be seen as a sign of my personal isolation or other people's bad taste. Like I said, your faithful corespondent heard a lot of great records this year - and I'm willing to bet that there are dozens and dozens of great records that he didn't hear this year.

So how to go about compiling a list of the year's ten key albums? A lot of obvious choices sprang to mind. Many of my favourite artists put out absolutely stellar records and CDs this year. It would have been easy to make a top ten entirely out of such albums but where's the fun or the use in that? And once you get beyond the obvious stuff, you get embroiled in such a morass of wonderful and obscure gems that it's truly hard to know where to start.

Clearly some ground rules had to be established, to cut the pack down a bit and exclude some of the less imaginative choices. The rules I came up with were:

1. No CD-only releases (and no CDRs or tapes, either)

2. No albums by artists who have appeared on previous BB Cage top tens

3. No EPs or mini albums

4. No re-issues or vinyl editions of albums from previous years

5. No albums by me (but - ahem - feel free to include LA: An Apology in your end-of-the-year list)

I thought that applying this set of rules (or rather limitations) to the list might make for a more original, exciting and useful top ten than would otherwise be possible. Maybe it would have done but I had to face up to the fact that some of my motives for placing these limitations were pretty shady:

1. Opportunity to show off extreme vinyl snobbery;

2. Excuse to leave sub-par Fall album out of the top ten, without admitting that it really is a bit crap;

3. Stress-reducing way of making it easier to shave the list down to a mere ten records from the dozens of possible contenders;

Additionally, I realized that there were a couple of albums - Noriko Tujiko's Solo and the Fennesz/Sakamoto collaboration - that couldn't be left off the list even if they were only available as CDs. So, I ended up using my rules more as a set of guiding principles than a slab of rigid commandments. Basically, it helped me make tough decisions about borderline cases and to prioritize newer and less well-known artists. Think of it as a kind of music nerd affirmative action.

So, sure, some of the following choices are a little predictable, if you know my tastes. But what's it to you? This is my freakin' blog, motherfucker.

Top 10 Albums of the Year

1. Von Sudenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions (Domino) 2LP
Hate to admit it but this really does piss on Reformation Post-TLC from a great height. Essentially, Tromatic Reflexxions is the Fall album that many of us have been waiting to hear ever since The Unutterable trumpeted a major return to form that never fully materialized.

Sure Country on the Click and Fall Heads Roll are great albums but - for the most part - they're great garage rock albums. By collaborating with Mouse on Mars, Mark E Smith has found a way to pursue his interest in avant-lumpen dance-rock, making the world a much funner place along the way.

Tromatic Reflexxions really is a blast. This is probably a result of MOM's fearless slicing, splicing and Autotuning of MES's voice into a series of hilariously infectious, digitally fractured chants and catchphrases. Nobody in the producer's chair has showed such a willful lack of respect for Smith's voice since the great John Leckie produced The Fall's unequaled mid-80s masterworks.

High praise indeed but well deserved. Tromatic Reflexxions is a classic. Every song is catchy, clever and entirely invigorating. Album of the year.

2. Fennesz Sakamoto - Cendre (Touch) CD
In sharp contrast, this debut full-length from the duo of Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto distinctly recalls the early days of ambient music, when artists like Eno, Popol Vuh and Harold Budd were unwittingly setting the template for what would become new age music. Still, given the unsettling hesitancy of Sakamoto's piano playing and the murky DSP magic that Fennesz manifests, it's hard to imagine ever hearing this album at a health spa.

Cendre is unrelentingly fascinating and gorgeous from start to finish and - while it doesn't quite have the edge of Sakamoto's work with alva noto - it's guaranteed be an extremely satisfying listen for fans of either of the artists involved.

One has to wonder, though, when the next solo Fennesz album is coming our way. Why does he make us wait so?

3. Noriko Tujiko - Solo (Editions Mego) CD
If only Fennesz had the work ethic of his sometime Editions Mego label-mate Noriko Tujiko. One might be forgiven for saying that Noriko tends to churn albums out, if that didn't suggest a certain lack of quality. In fact, her work is consistently among the most brilliant and individual music being made today. So, here we are again - another top ten of the year, another wonderful Noriko Tujiko album that just had to be included.

Solo doesn't really say much not covered by Noriko's other albums. Basically you get all the glitchy textures, serpentine song structures and vertigo-inducing melodies you'd expect. The real upside of this is that it gives us fans exactly what we want and offers newcomers an extremely concise and representative introduction to the work of a shamefully underrated artist.

4. Alog - Amateur (Rune Grammofon) 2LP
Unusual that many of my favourite records this year had such a palpable sense of fun about them (okay, maybe not many but some is unusual enough). Perhaps it's a reaction to the horrible prevalence of dour, Grey's Anatomy-ready indie rock, right now. Anyway, the fun continues here.

Norway's Alog seem to have made Amateur by recording themselves bashing whatever came to hand, then feeding the results through some freaky-ass customized software. The results vary from utterly alien avant pop to warm, quasi-organic digital abstraction.

Let's be honest, most contemporary post-glitch electronica takes itself pretty seriously, while offering nothing more challenging than a fairly middlebrow combination of folksy acoustic melody and grainy digital textures. Alog, by contrast, provide something genuinely innovative and challenging, delivered with exceptional verve and good humour.

5. Haswell and Hecker - Blackest Ever Black: Electro-acoustic UPIC Recordings (WEA) 2LP
While it seems likely that Russell Haswell and Florian Hecker had a lot of fun making this duo album, the prevailing mood on Blackest Ever Black is unrelentingly modernist and highbrow. All the better for it, too - in the current
cultural climate, we need artists of focussed seriousness more urgently than ever.

So where does the fun come in? Well, Haswell and Hecker are artists who exist at that weird nexus where highbrow intent coexists with a rather puerile/prurient love of taboo subject matter. Hence the fact that this album was made using Xenakis's vintage images-to-audio computer music system UPIC, which allowed the duo to have a bit of a laugh, making music by tracing images of pornography, explosions and erm... kebabs.

The results are a lot less abrasive and a lot more fun than one might expect, given the hideous racket that these two make on their solo recordings. Still, the fact that Blackest Ever Black was released as a double vinyl LP by Warner Classics and Jazz is frankly astounding.

6. 3/4hadbeeneliminated - The Religious Experience (Soleilmoon) LP
Also astounding is the extraordinary fanciness of the hand-made packaging that encases this particular album, as previously discussed. The fact that the "delicately perfumed" sleeve of The Religious Experience gives of a noxious chemical stink that induces a violent allergic reaction in Kris has seriously discouraged me from ever actually taking it off the shelf. Which is a shame because the music on the record itself is truly fantastic.

Italy's 3/4hadbeeneliminated are one of those bands who fall through the cracks of niche marketing, gaining attention from a variety of musical subcultures but never acquiring the devoted admiration they deserve. Their DSP textures appeal to abstract electronica fans, their improv rock stylings have caught the attention of free folk freaks and their dark moodiness appeals to industrial goth types. But they don't really fit in anywhere and - as far as I'm concerned - they're all the better for it. There's nothing else quite like The Religious Experience and how many albums could you say that about in 2007?

7. Ben Frost - Theory of Machines (Bedroom Community) LP
Like 3/4hadbeeneliminated, Ben Frost brings some much needed edge and attitude to the New Electronic Underground. Theory of Machines is based on a fairly strict formula of moody granular clouds of sound, occasionally underpinned by booming, distorted slow-motion beats. But as a whole, the album is extremely dynamic and well paced, with plenty of variety coming in (distressed guitar, elegiac strings...) and a very cinematic sense of overall structure. This is an ambitious and admirably well-realized piece of work.

Something tells me that Ben Frost will be receiving a certain amount of media attention in the coming years. He seems like a chap who could go far. It will help that Theory of Machines comes to us courtesy of Bedroom Community, an Icelandic label with links to Bjork and Will Oldham. Bedroom Community is shaping up to be one of the most diverse, consistently interesting imprints currently operating and the label's high-profile associates should be enough to get it at least a modicum of attention.

8. Islaja - Ulual Yyy (Fonal) LP
Also coming straight out of Scandanavia is Finland's Fonal label, which has been responsible for some really quite intriguing avant rock records over the last few years. Right now, the world of music seems to be squarely divided between tedious sub-Coldplay singer-songwriters and nihilistic makers of formless noise. In this context, Finnish acts like Lau Nau and Islaja appear like a breath of icy fresh air, bringing a much more satisfying blend of free-form improvisation and structured song forms.

Islaja, in particular, manages to make songs structures that sound uncannily spontaneous; always on the edge of collapse but never without focus. Ulual Yyy takes an even greater leap away from the obvious by focusing on much sparser, less organic textures than one might expect from an act so closely associated with the free folk scene.

Her sound is low key and intimate but - make no mistake - this is a major work.

9. The Focus Group - We Are All Pan's People (Ghost Box) CD
Another sonic essay on lost futures from the Ghost Box label. The label's most definitive statement of intent since Belbury Poly's marvelous album The Owl's Map, which arrived in my household just too late to be included in last year's top ten. However, where The Owl's Map is endearingly goofy and melodic, The Focus Group's jarring sample collages are abrasively angular and disconcertingly alien.

It's easy to feel that the Ghost Box crew overshadow the originality of the music they produce with excessive retro-futurist rhetoric. Sure, in the post-meaning age of digital downloads and MP3 blogs, it's nice to see a label obsessed with setting it's own context in obsessive detail. It would be interesting, though, to hear this album with no idea of what the heck the whole thing was supposed to mean. Having said that, it's hard to take the mystery away from something this genuinely odd.

10. Burial - Untrue (Hyperdub) 2LP
This one almost didn't make it to the top ten. There were good reasons for not putting it in, at least according to the loose rules I set for myself. But if I'm honest, the real reason I was going to leave it out was that I didn't want to get involved in the heated debate it's provoked since its release.

Not sure why this is. I actually think it's fantastic that people can still get so worked up about an album. It's as if people feel that Burial owes them something epochal. In those terms, even if Untrue isn't the best album of the year, Burial is quite possibly the year's most important artist.

Perhaps the reason I wanted to avoid the Untrue debate was that the album provokes such a strong emotional reaction in me that I get faintly hysterical at the thought of having to defend it against naysayers. This really is an incredibly poignant record. Nothing else this year presented such a believably soulful reaction to its particular time and place.

The issue of soul may just be the problem, though. Most people who object to Untrue seem to feel that Burial rather overdoes his use of vocal samples from anonymous R&B tunes. It's understandable that an overabundance of vocal science might be a little grating for some people. I suspect that the same thing has put some people off the excellent new Richard Youngs album (see below).

Nevertheless, how listeners can fail to at least be impressed by this album's technical and musical ingenuity is somewhat perplexing. I mean, how does he do it? It's as if Burial is laying down big surges of classical strings and choirs, pitting them against vocals forced into the same key via Autotune, underpinning the resulting melange with worryingly un-quantized beats and topping it all off with a layer of gritty, filtered noise. But there's way more to it than that, even. On every listen, Untrue, reveals a new vocal filigree or destabilizing layer of polymetrical delay.

Stunning stuff. No debate. One little complaint, though - it would have been easy to fit the whole CD on a single LP, so why release the vinyl as a double set minus some of the album's most interesting tracks? Because you think DJs are going to play this stuff to get the party started? Really?

Top Three Songs of the Year
Killer cuts from Von Sudenfed, Noriko Tujiko and Burial for you online streaming pleasure.

Bubbling Under
Scott Walker - And Who Shall Go to the Ball? and What Shall Go to the Ball?
This limited edition EP of instrumental music composed for a contemporary dance piece is surely the most extreme thing Scott has ever done. Makes The Drift seem like a walk in the park.

Richard Youngs - Autumn Response
Like many Richard Youngs albums Autumn Response seems to be based around a set of limiting rules - kind of like the ones that (only just) kept him out of the top ten proper. Youngs is no stranger to Blogglebum Cage end-of-year lists and the prospect of including him again did feel a little obvious. In the end, though, it was my growing obsession with the Burial album that got him booted out. This is somewhat appropriate considering the fact that - as already alluded to - Autumn Response, like Untrue - trades heavily on the use of digitally manipulated vocals.

Which brings us back to the set of rules/limitations that Youngs used to make the album. All of the tracks on Autumn Response are fairly straightforward songs sung by Youngs with acoustic guitar as his only accompaniment. The left turn comes when he starts to use his computer to create delays and phase patterns that recall both classic New York minimalism and olde English folk music.

The results are disconcerting - hypnotic to a point but way too far off-kilter to ever be lulling. For some reason, these songs give me a very strong image of someone slapping Devendra Banhart repeatedly in the face and it seems that I get some kind of sadistic pleasure from this image. Confusing because I actually like Banhart but appropriate as a comment on Autumn Response as a whip-smart challenge to the complacent pastoralism of the US freak folk scene.

Pita - A Bas la Culture Marchande
I'm a pretty big fan of Peter "Pita" Rehberg but I normally far prefer his immersive, drone-based work to his more rhythmic, concussive material. Surprising then, that this sparsely-packaged LP on Carlos Giffoni's No Fun label really did it for me, despite focusing on the latter style. A Bas... is a fairly audacious mix of digital noise and silence, which ranks among Rehberg's best work.

Also great to see Pita so active on other fronts, with his reactivated Editions Mego label going from strength to strength and...

KTL - KTL 2 and KTL 3
This has been a good year for catching the darker-than-thou duo of Pita and Sunn0)))'s Stephen O'Malley on vinyl. Both of these fancily packaged items are extremely powerful and both are worth owning.

But it's on KTL 3 that Pita's digital interventions come to the fore. Far from a formulaic exercise in post-metal droning, this one-sided LP, on the aforementioned Russell Haswell's OR label, showcases Pita's talent even better than the solo disc discussed above.

KTL 3 is an exceptionally special release and was mainly excluded from the top ten on the basis of the rule cutting out EPs and mini albums. In spite of the duo's high work rate, there's certainly no lack of quality evident here.

Oren Ambarchi - In the Pendulum's Embrace and Lost Like a Star
Only just got Ambarchi's latest studio album, In the Pendulum's embrace. Early impressions suggest that Pendulum would be a front-runner for top-ten status, had it arrived a little earlier. Certainly, Ambarchi is a perennial Blogglebum favourite and this album sees him on top form.

No huge surprises here but plenty of lovely little ones (unusually conventional guitar sounds and even a little singing). In the Pendulum's Embrace may not add much to Ambarchi's already sizeable body of work but it's an excellent representation of what he does and - as such - a great place for newcomers to jump in to his world of meditative guitar and electronics.

The live LP Lost Like a Star is also worth mentioning because:

a. It's fancy;

b. The title is a Scott Walker reference (I think);

c. Ambarchi was responsible for the best live set I witnessed this year.

Playing at Vancouver's Scotiabank Dance Center, Ambarchi started off by deploying the kind of filtered-to-sine-waves guitar loops that fans associate with him, before building layer upon layer of oddly modulated noise, then finally dropping in a titanic quasi-black-metal riff at just the right time.

Noticeably, the set was good enough to win over quite a few people who were in only in attendance to see other artists on the bill. Hopefully they all own In the Pendulum's Embrace by now (as per my comments above). The set collected on Lost Like a Star isn't quite so memorable but it's pretty damn good, all the same.

Trimbal - Soul Food Volume One
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Trim is by far the best MC that the grime scene has produced. Ever. By far.

Shame he's decided to release a series of half-assed "mix tapes" instead of a proper album. Still, we should be grateful for all the Trim we can get.

The Fall - Reformation Post-TLC
I liked it!

Also Highly Recommended
Esperik Glare - Dumpster Divebombing Lessons
Flat Grey - XXXXXX
Giuseppe Ielasi - August
Lim - His Destinys Dub
Mordant Music - Carrion Squared
Rosy Parlane - Jessamine
To Bad Catholics - Mallorytown
Tu M' - Fragile Touch of the Coincidence

Re-issues, Vinyl Editions and Compilations
Boris and Sunn0))) - Altar (3LP)
Tim Buckley - Starsailor (180g LP)
Fennesz - Plays (10")
Fennesz - Endless Summer (CD)
Fennesz - Hotel Paral.lel (CD)
Tim Hecker - Harmony in Ultraviolet (180g LP)
Caetano Veloso - Araca Azul and Irene 1969 (180g LPs)
Scott Walker - Scott, Scott Two, Scott Three and Scott Four (180g LPs)
v/a - Box of Dub (3LP)

Some Singles
Oren Ambarchi/Lasse Marhaug - "Worried Friends"/"Nervous Enemies"
Burial - "Ghost Hardware"
High Places - "Shared Islands"/"Universe"
Von Sudenfed - "The Rhinohead" and "Fledermaus Can't Get it"

Other Artists of Note
Fovea Hex

Forthcoming/Haven't Heard Yet
Scorn - Stealth
Sun - I'll be the Same
Trimbal - Soul Food Volume 2
v/a - Box of Dub 2

Still Waiting for...
A new Fennesz solo album
That new Oren Ambarchi album on vinyl
The moment when I finally "get" Ricardo Villalobos

Too Late for Last Year's List
Belbury Poly - The Owl's Map
Mordant Music - Dead Air

As usual, I'm sure there's a bunch of important stuff that's accidentally been left out but that's yer lot for this year. I'll add anything I remember after the fact in the comments box. And your greetings, suggestions and abuse are welcome, as ever.

See you all in 2008.