Look, 2017 was a garbage year and I think we’d all just rather move on. Nazis roamed the streets, giant hurricanes ravaged densely populated areas, half of California is on fire, all of your favorite people who didn’t die last year got outed as sex offenders, and President Donald Trump managed to gut social programs and mortgage our children’s futures so he could give the 1-percenters a tax cut they absolutely do not need. Worst of all, Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, giving the Minnesota Freakin’ Vikings the opportunity to be the first team to play in a home-field Super Bowl. The silver lining? Well, we’re not in a nuclear war, so that’s good at least. Anyway, I guess some good music was released this year, and as usual my “year-end” list is not so much a list at all as it is a haphazard lumping of various albums that I mostly already wrote about. I do not really have an album of the year, usually when I declare such a thing I wind up wondering what the hell I was thinking a couple weeks later. But there was a lot of good stuff, most of which I haven’t heard, but hey. Only so many hours in the day. So here are my end-of-the-year awards – as usual, links to better, more well-thought out opinions when they exist:
This year in review is going to be a little different than my previous ones. As always there’s tons of discussion about whether or not 2015 was a good year for music, always a fun discussion, but for me the answer is unquestionably yes. New albums by a lot of my favorites, including Susumu Hirasawa, Echolyn, Rip Slyme, Magma, Glass Hammer, Dan Deacon, Flynt Flossy, Todd Rundgren, They Might be Giants (twice!), and Datarock (sort of), among other stuff I’m a fan of, like The Tangent, Dam-Funk, Steven Wilson, Sons of Kemet, Towa Tei, The Orb, Sufjan Stevens, The Black Dog, Beardfish, Battles, IZZ, and Squarepusher. Among several others I can’t remember right now. Now none of this is making the year-end lists, except of course the Sufjan album. Sadly I’m not really able to make a list myself, as there’s just been so much good stuff that I haven’t really been able to digest it all, not that I’ve been able to the last couple years either. I have no clue what my “album of the year” is going to be and probably won’t until we’re well into 2017. It’s just been that sort of year. So instead, I figured I’d put together some disparate thoughts on a few albums I’ve listened to this year and call it a day. Year end lists are kinda dumb anyway. So let’s get started:
This has probably been the craziest year of my life. The reasons why go a bit outside the scope of this blog but suffice to say it’s pretty much had it all. As far as the music world goes, well who knows, since as usual I’m way behind on new releases. But I’ve listened to a few and I’m here to detail ’em all for you, since who knows when I’ll get around to really writing about any of this. Before we get into it, let’s look at what I’ve really been listening to in 2014:
BT as #1 isn’t really a surprise – not only did I do a feature on him but I’ve also been playing several of his albums on a regular basis. Many of his albums come with a bonus disc, plus there are lengthy compilations of remixes and OST’s with 30 or so tracks on ’em. Glass Hammer I also did a feature on, plus I’ve just really loved their work in general. Rip Slyme are always great and every once in a while I have the urge to just listen to all their stuff. Yes and Aphex Twin have both released new albums this year and when that happens I like to go through the past stuff – It resulted in two articles about the Twin, and the discovery of a bunch of Yes albums I never really gave the time of day to (particularly their 90’s work and stuff like Big Generator). The rest are just groups I’ve liked this year…Pet Shop Boys of course are classic, Plaid and Saint Etienne are fun listens, and I’ve liked a lot of Swans stuff though I haven’t yet bothered with their recent work yet. Then you’ve got Baby Einstein which quite frankly I’m getting a little sick of but hey, my one-month old son seems to dig it.
Anyway, let’s talk about the new stuff. If the title of the album is a link, that means I’ve written something about it, either here or on The Quietus.
2014 Album of the Year: Neil Cicierega – Mouth Silence
Straight up, “album of the year” is supposed to be the album you enjoyed the most and straight up there’s no better candidate for this than Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Silence. Neil of course is a guy whose work has gone viral in many, many different ways. In 2014 he started doing mash-up work, and like everything else he does it’s both intriguing and completely fucked up. At first these mash-ups just consisted of him mixing Smash Mouth’s “All Star” in with everything – it turned out to be a totally natural fit with the likes of “Float On”, but Neil kept taking it further and further. One track, called “Smooth Flow”, managed to smash together Enya’s “Oronoco Flow” and Santana’s “Smooth”, using “All Star” as a bridge, and somehow not sounding like a total trainwreck. That alone is testament to Neil’s talents as a mash-up artist, but soon enough he realized that perhaps such things could work without relying on Smash Mouth, and thus Mouth Silence was born. It’s an album I really would love to do a full-length feature on, but let me just say it’s not only hilarious, but it’s downright awesome in spots. Though there are a few tracks that concentrate on intertwining two different tunes (similar to what the majority of mash-up artists do) there are a number that are practically original compositions, sometimes sampling up to a dozen different songs. I’ve never been much a fan of mash-ups – the “hip-hop vocals over classic rock” thing always struck me as boring, and Girl Talk always felt like a meaningless exercise to me. But what Cicierega does is often beyond that; it’s not just all the holy-shit moments or the bits that make you laugh out loud, but just how cohesive he’s able to make these different strands sound together. It’s stuff that seems absolutely ridiculous on paper; who could possibly think you could reconcile “Crocodile Rock” and “Chop Suey”? It’s got to be heard to be believed, I’ll tell you what. And honestly, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed anything this year more. Go here and download ’em both.
Second-best album of 2014: Zammuto – Anchor
This is a really great disc that I hope gets some more exposure – it’s one of those albums that’s really far out and experimental while remaining accessible and fun. If you’ve ever listened to his music before, you know that Nick Zammuto is never the type to take the easy way out; everything he does is so controlled and precise without feeling rigid. What I like about him is that he knows he has a tendency to think about music in a manner that’s very intellectual or dry, and thus with his new band Zammuto he’s taken a lot of steps to loosen things up a bit. Having a top-flight drummer like Sean Dixon can open up a lot of doors but I think more than that it’s just his willingness to ride broken or unusual grooves like “Great Equator” or “Need Some Sun” without micromanaging things into oblivion. I feel weird saying this is his best work since they’re all so good, but that’s my hot take at the moment. This is one I’ll be listening to for a while.
Third-best album of 2014: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – High Life
These are a couple of guys I have real high expectations for so to say I’m not disappointed by these albums says a lot. Their first effort, Someday World, was really not bad when you took it for what it was – a bunch of unfinished demos from the Eno vault which Hyde went through and fleshed out into full songs. That might explain why there seem to be parts “missing” from time to time or why the tunes feel disjointed in spots, though really I feel its biggest crime was those fake synth-horns on the lead-off track, as that alone seemed to put everyone off. Like a lot of Eno’s collaborative song-based projects, the tunes were mostly goofy and strangely upbeat, and honestly I really liked about half of them. As a whole it’s a little inconsistent but my overall impression of Someday World is that it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone said, and it contained a number of my favorite songs of the year (“Witness”, “Who Rings the Bell”, “Daddy’s Car”). I didn’t think it was quite as good as Hyde’s solo disc Edgeland (which I’m still real high on), but for what it was it was alright. Anyway, the real surprise was that shortly after everyone chewed up and spit out Someday World, Eno and Hyde announced that they had another album in the works, one that was going to be all original material culled from jamming. With High Life, Eno surprisingly brought back that Brian Eno, the goofball funkmaster that gave us Before and After Science and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. My first impression of this album was that it was a whole host of ideas for LCD Soundsystem to rip off if they hadn’t broken up already; lengthy, two-chord vamps like “Return” and sunnyside-up funk like “Lilac” capture the vibe that Murphy had been chasing for years, and the head-spinning “Time to Waste It” is one of the year’s most intriguing tunes, featuring a vocal that’s beautiful despite being completely mutilated.
Fourth-best album of 2014: Future Islands – Singles
This has been a big year for Future Islands, and honestly I can’t think of too many bands that deserved it more. I remember seeing the band in 2008, opening for Dan Deacon, and struggling to describe to my friends exactly what I had witnessed – that sort of over-the-top sincerity and showmanship was the sort of thing you would expect from a band like The Darkness, only Future Islands felt totally legit. They weren’t synth-pop or dance-punk or anything like that, but the seeds were there. It’s been nice watching them blow up like this – they signed to 4AD and went viral thanks to a totally bonkers performance on Letterman, though as anyone whose followed the band can tell you, that’s the way they are night in and night out. Singles has all the makings of a breakthrough album for the band; the songs are memorable and intense, without being over-the-top or too wistful the way they could be on albums past. I mean, On the Water was great; probably my favorite album of 2011 really, but it’s not exactly the sort of disc that’ll win them any new fans. Hopefully Singles is the beginning of a run for them – it’s hard to think of a band that deserves it more.
Anyway, it turns out there are plenty more albums I’ve listened to this year. Some of these are nearly as good as the four I’ve listed above, or may be even better but I haven’t listened to them yet enough.
Raymond Scott Rewired
Information here. Essentially it’s three mash-up artists (The Bran Flakes, Go Home Productions, and The Evolution Control Committee) given a pass to run wild amongst the entire Raymond Scott collection. Despite what you might think such a collection may sound like rest assured that it’s generally pretty tasteful; lots of cut n’ paste but nothing overly intrusive like a snare rush or that damn stutter edit. In fact I believe it’s pretty much all sounds from the originals, sometimes organized in a more modern way but nothing out of place. Though it’s not quite “authentic” as it were I think you’d struggle to find a better representation of Raymond Scott’s musical output in about an hour – sure, there are collections of it everywhere, but they either miss a big chunk of his work or come rife with unfinished or commercial tracks that get in the way.
I like albums like this one – Aaron Ackerson is the kind of guy who realizes that he doesn’t really have a standout voice nor incredible instrumental skill, so he compensates by indulging some of his most far-out impulses. Outside of an obvious homage to Andrew W.K., the songs here don’t really sound like anything else, often combining elements that are disparite or unexpected, giving the impression of a dude just working from memory. There are so many weird compositional or production decisions that probably wouldn’t have passed on a more ‘professional’ release (not a dig, I swear). Just check out “The Ninja Song” – it sounds like three songs in totally different genres playing on top of each other, with some wacky Weird Al-gone hip-hop vocals over the top. The real keepers are the proggy/technopop tunes like “Inside” or “SHC”, and I’m still intrigued by “Taiko no Yastu”, an off-kilter collection of ideas that really goes to hell in the middle.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Personally I think the return of Aphex Twin was one year too late – how neat would it have been if RDJ made his comeback the same year as David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, and Daft Punk? I think it was only a matter of time before Aphex became Aphex again; he hasn’t been silent since the release of drukqs 13 years ago, but the stuff he has released hasn’t exactly been meant for wide release – his work as The Tuss was destined to be some obscure 12″ until a few people figured out who it actually was. I suspect measuring Syro against the rest of his catalogue is a mistake – though he’s still got the skill, too much time has passed and the zeitgeist of Richard D. James has died down. There’s almost no crossover appeal in this one, essentially a collection of meticulously sequenced acid funk which quite frankly uses little outside of the same big analog synths that the techno dudes have been using for decades now. That said, it’s brilliantly produced, almost certainly the best sounding record of RDJ’s career; the sounds are even deeper and thicker than they were on Rushup Edge and the Analord EP’s. Still, I suspect the jury’s still out on this one – it clearly is a good album, and maybe even a great one, and it’s going to be on all sorts of year-end lists like this one, though I doubt it’ll find many top spots. There’s just little to talk about here – not a lot of hooks, almost no gimmicks whatsoever, and nary a curveball thrown until the very last track. On several listens I’ve totally blanked out the second half up until “Aisatsana” starts and I think, “whoa, that’s it?”. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the second half of this album – I suspect if you reversed the track order it would be roughly the same thing. Syro is destined to be one of those albums that fans and critics listen to time and time again in an attempt to reconcile it with the rest of the man’s career and the music landscape of 2014 in general, or barring that just trying to find some sort of opinion on it other than “it’s good”.
Not much more to say about this one since I just wrote about it last week. I will say this though, before having our son we took a long and sort of useless pregnancy class which mostly just showed a bunch of videos of babies being born. The bumper music had some riff in it that got stuck in my head because it was so close to something I recognized, but I couldn’t figure out what. Turns out it was “All the Way to China” from this album. So yeah, five seconds of that tune were stuck in my head for about six hours. I guess I’ve had worse.
Doughty is turning into a real “just when you thought…” guy. Just when you thought he’d carve out his niche as a thoughtful and unique solo acoustic guy, he decided to dress up his sound and deliver a couple of albums on ATO that sounded, above everything, cluttered and desperate for a hit. Just when you thought he was running on empty, he decided to listen to his fans, strip it down, and stop overextending himself. Just when you thought he’d put his Soul Coughing completely behind him, he wrote a book on the subject, burning it all to the ground – and just when you thought he’d shunned that era of his life completely, he comes back with a collection of Soul Coughing covers. And just when you thought Doughty had completely missed why Soul Coughing fans enjoyed the band in the first place, you get Live at Ken’s House, a live-in-studio collection of his old band’s tunes that show that maybe he gets it after all, turning up the drums and bass, bringing back a bit of that freewheeling energy, and most importantly, allowing things to get fucked up a bit. Granted, Live at Ken’s House has some glaring missteps (see: both takes of “Super Bon Bon”, but one in particular…), but it immediately struck me as that album that the SC covers album should’ve been.
As for Stellar Motel, it’s again a surprise – essentially it is the hip-hop album a lot of people hoped Doughty was going to try 15 years ago, and to be honest it’s pretty good. Certainly not great, but it’s fun, and impressively fearless – it’s as though Doughty finally decided to stop trying to please his fans or his label (though I don’t think he’s been on an actual label for a few years now) and just say “fuck it”. Some real great songs here, some that’ll make you scratch your head, and some that’ll get lodged in your head whether or like it or not. I think I’ll call it a win for Doughty, who certainly has displayed an inability to stay still or stick himself in a rut, despite the fact that he’s been releasing records for 20 years now.
But wait…there’s more! Tune in next week!!!
I know I’m at least a month late with this, so let me explain. First of all, nobody reads this website so I feel free to publish this whenever I want. Secondly, the December (or worse, November) wrap ups always felt a little incomplete since they miss anything that gets released on at the year’s end, and if you look at my Album of the Year, that can be significant. Realistically, you need about a month to get a good bearing on whether or not an album is going to stick with you. I see a lot of year-end lists and I often find myself wondering how many of those albums the authors are going to be listening to even one year later. Granted, this list is going to make pretty much all the same mistakes; I don’t listen to nearly as much new music as most other music writers. According to last.fm, my top ten artists of the year include P-Model (disbanded in 1999), the Black Dog (my most recent Black Dog album is 1995’s Spanners), and Genesis (last album 1997, began to suck some time in the late 80’s). Outside of that live Underworld album I kicked this site off with, the latest album written about on Critter Jams thus far was released in 1998 (and I didn’t even write that one!) Point being I’m generally the kind of guy who spends more time discovering old albums than listening to current ones.
Thus, if you’re wondering why a certain album didn’t make the list, chances are it’s because I simply haven’t heard it. There was an awful lot to take on in 2013, which may just be remembered as the year of the comeback, as David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk, Black Sabbath (with Ozzy!), and Justin Timberlake dropped albums out of nowhere. Beyoncé did too, but she just performed at a Super Bowl so I don’t think “comeback” is quite applicable. Still – those first two are artists many thought we’d never hear from again, while the next two built up quite an insane level of anticipation by sitting around and doing nothing. By the way, did you know that WordPress automatically adds the accent mark for Beyoncé, but not for Janelle Monáe? I guess we see who really made it. Anyway, let’s get on with it:
2013 Album of the Year: Turquoise Jeep Records, Existing Musical Beings
Released about a week and a half before the end of the year, it’s no surprise why so many critics overlooked this one. I mean, besides the whole “no record label” thing. But if I’m being honest with myself, this is what takes it. Before you wonder why I’m picking something released so close to the end of the year as my favorite of 2013, keep in mind that four of its singles were released throughout the year (“Treat Me Like a Pirate”, “Taste You Like Yogurt”, “I Want Pie”, “Naughty Farmer”), and all four became major obsessions for me at some point. The new Slick Mahoney joint “Crotch Rock That, Girl” is my most played song of the year thus far, even given it’s December release date. More on this one later – an “Album of the Week” feature is coming. Let’s just say that this is what the radio should be playing in 2014.
Other albums I enjoyed:
Setna – Guerison
Setna is a French Zeuhl revival band whose 2008 album Cycle I became something of a critic’s favorite among those who run in proggier circles. Unlike most modern Zeuhl bands, the music of Setna is relatively low-key; it runs much closer to the jazzy, mathematical approach of Kohntarkosz than it does the bombast of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, What bothered me about Cycle I however was that it never quite had that release of tension, the moment where we get to hear what everything was leading to (something Kohntarkosz absolutely nails). It’s particularly strange given how young all these guys are. Guerison doesn’t really have that either, but it’s looser and more euphoric, which combined with the excellent playing and production makes this feel like a modern classic. There aren’t really a lot of bands playing this type of music right now which makes them feel all the more special.
Gary Numan – Splinter
I wrote about this album for The Quietus, in which I claimed it was his “best album in about three decades”. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s his best since 1983’s Warriors; just that it’s about as good as his classic albums, and better than all of his other “career resurgence” albums that he’s been pumping out since Sacrifice. I was worried about being hyperbolic when I said that, given that I’d only really had 10 days or so to listen to the full album. But re-listening to this throughout the year, I really think that it’s true; his other recent albums have plenty of good songs, but none of them are as varied or as solid as this one. Producer Ade Fenton really throws his weight around here, capturing the desolate sound palette of classic Numan albums like Replicas while giving some of the songs powerful, modern arrangements; single-worthy anthems like “I Am Dust” and “Love Hurt Bleed” are crushing at high volumes, while “A Shadow Falls On Me” as an excellent, spastic coda that shows off the type of innovation that a lot of post-Dance Numan albums really lacked. But Splinter gets the brooding stuff right too, and track-for-track this is one of the strongest albums of his career. Lets hope we don’t have to wait another 7 years for the next one.
Har Mar Superstar – Bye Bye 17
Another one I wrote about. My uncle introduced me to Har Mar Superstar a while ago. I thought he was funny but I wasn’t sure if his music would rise above the level of novelty for me, and his current album at the time (2004’s The Handler) wasn’t exactly going to change my mind. Man, people hated this guy back then, even though he obviously had a lot of talent. Trouble is he could hardly write a decent tune in his first few albums, unless he was ripping off Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. He’s only done two albums since then, but both of them show big leaps in his songwriting skill. 2009’s Dark Touches was a nice summation of everything the man did do well, but Bye Bye 17 was something totally unexpected; a full-on retro-soul album, and I do mean retro – it sounds like a lost mid-60’s Sam Cooke album. This was something truly exciting – when I heard “Lady, You Shot Me” for the first time I thought it was an awesome sound for him, and was thrilled to find the whole album was done the same way. Also similar to those mid-60’s soul albums it tops things off with ten songs in under half an hour; skimpy perhaps, but it hits its target so dead-on that you don’t really need for it to go on any longer. My only issue with his last two is the inexplicable absence of Dirty Preston. Bring back Preston!!!
Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Well, at least I’ll have one in common with the other year-end lists. Monáe’s Archandroid is one of those epic, all-encompassing albums that’s so obviously great (similar to say, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois) that it’s no surprise that it became a breakout hit. I don’t feel The Electric Lady quite lives up to that album, but if anything it’s truer to her R&B roots and less gimmicky, and definitely something I’ll be listening to a lot this year and beyond. The first half of this is excellent, with a great collaboration with Prince (who is perhaps Monáe’s biggest booster), a single-of-the-year candidate (“Q.U.E.E.N.”), and the insanely catchy “Dance Apocalyptic”. It’s that last one that shows off what is frustrating about this album – watching her do this song live shows her as such a dynamic, exciting performer that it’s disappointing to see that level of energy mostly absent from this album. I will say that I’ve liked this one more with every listen, and maybe the knee-jerk “not as good as ArchAndroid” reaction will look silly in a year or two.
They Might be Giants – Nanobots
Similar to the Gary Numan album, this is an example of a musical act suddenly realizing what made their early work so endearing. Not that this was totally unexpected – 2011’s Join Us felt like the sort of album that they would’ve made had they not gotten so derailed after Factory Showroom, and was one of my most listened to albums that year. Nanobots is a good deal weirder than Join Us, with some of the wildest arrangements they’ve ever attempted (“Darlings of Lumberland”), and a bunch of welcome oddness on nearly every song (some of which are “Fingertips”-like fragments, which makes the middle of this album mighty disorienting). What’s more important is that both of these guys are writing great songs again. Flansburgh certainly pulls his weight, but Linnell’s muse for off-kilter power pop has rarely been better (“Stone Cold Coup d’Etat”, “Lost My Mind”, “Icky”, “Call You Mom”). Most importantly, it has that brisk, addictive, “play me on repeat” feel to it that all the best TMBG albums had.
I also blah blah blah on this one. 2013 was the year of Underworld solo projects, as Hyde released his first solo album while Rick Smith scored another Danny Boyle film. Anyone familiar with Hyde’s work will likely recognize the themes he’s trafficking in here, as he’s still following those with broken dreams at the edge of town and finding the beauty in the mundane. This is maybe the most arty album I’ve heard this year; it’s something of a cross between Four Tet and contemporary Eno, with sputtering sounds and cut-n-paste production all over the place. But a lot of these sounds resonate awfully hard, and the songs themselves are often well-crafted; they’re often bluesy in spirit, a far cry from the “shouty techno” that most know him for. In fact, very little of this is danceable; the most upbeat, driven track was relegated as a bonus (“Dancing on the Graves of Le Corbusier’s Dreams”). The presence of so many bonus tracks is puzzling – there are six, only two of which are remixes. I wonder what the difference really is between a bonus track and an album track on a brand new album in the digital age. Either way, all these songs are worth your time; gorgeous, cinematic, and only as deep as they need to be. Still, I would love to hear Underworld release some new music in the coming year…
Cornelius – NHK Design Ah
This one was kind of a surprise. Cornelius has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist – both Fantasma and Point are so ludicrously crafted and focused that it’s no wonder that he rarely attempts to better them; after Fantasma he abandoned the Shibuya-kei style completely, and thus far the only follow-up he’s done to Point was refined so far that it’s tough to wring the same levels of enjoyment out of it. Since then, he’s done some production work (the very Cornelius-in-disguise salyu x salyu) and his usual surfeit of remixes, but nothing in the area of another album. NHK Design Ah is close, however; a soundtrack to an educational Japanese TV show, allowing Cornelius the opportunity to try out a wealth of sonic ideas, but enough restrictions to keep things snappy and upbeat. The 25 tracks here span 37 and a half minutes; the “extended” compositions are only three minutes long. Each one Is based around some sort of sonic idea, often playing with pared-down wordless vocal samples (an entire library of “aah” and “ooh” noises), or manufacturing a certain atmosphere out of disparate, easily tracked elements. Most tracks consist of only a few noises; the beats are crisp and simple, and in true Cornelius fashion the only interjections come from his usual array of sound effects. This should be disorienting given how much of a whirlwind it can be, but if anyone knows how to work magic out of a limited palette, it’s Cornelius, who’s spent the last decade reinventing himself as less a musician and more an arranger of sound. As such, you get to hear a lot of cool sound experiments, including lots of neat moments where he demonstrates how the same sound can produce contrasting feelings when played at different points of a chord sequence. Very modern, but it also feels rooted in the works of Terry Riley. Fascinating in a way very few albums I’ve heard can reproduce.
Rip Slyme – Golden Time
This one was kind of a late bloomer for me. I was concerned after their last album Star – many of the individual tracks were good, but it was the first Rip Slyme album where I didn’t really like the singles much, and even the better stuff sounded like throwbacks to things they used to do well. Simply put the fun factor wasn’t quite where it used to be. Golden Time reminds me a bit of Journey, another recent album of theirs that I liked a lot; really tongue-in-cheek in spots, fast-paced enough to cover up the stuff that doesn’t work as well, and contains a handful of nice singles to tie everything together. While the somber “Long Vacation” is probably the one that will stick with me the most (similar to “Stairs” on Journey), it’s been a while since they put out something as brilliantly goofy as “SLY” or as off-the-wall as “Ah! Yeah!”. They’re even distancing themselves a bit from hip-hop, which is probably a good thing at this stage in their career. The pogoing “Road Map” is probably my favorite right now, though like the best Rip Slyme albums I’m finding new highlights on each spin.
Denki Groove – Human Beings and Animals
After a period of being somewhat inactive (they’d still play a festival or two each year), Denki Groove went on a roll, releasing three albums and a single between 2008 and 2009. From there they unfortunately fell silent again, but Human Beings and Animals was worth the wait. Nothing here is revolutionary; it continues the recent DG trend of paring things down a bit, but this album is much more pop, to the point that the Monkees cover that caps things off actually feels natural. Sure, one of the nine tracks is a cheap shot (a remake of the 2009 single “Upside Down”), but it’s still exciting, as Denki Groove are at a spot in their career where it’s usually difficult to write concise, effective singles. Here, we get several – both “Shameless” and “Missing Beatz” use driving bass sequencers, “Prof. Radio” includes an excellent, Fatboy Slim-style breakdown, and the remake of “Upside Down” doubles down on the violin bridge that was so great the first time. But the extended tracks are the highlight – “P” features a long beatboxing section that has to be heard to be believed, and “Oyster” has a thick, enveloping synth that resonates harder than anything they’ve done since “Reaktion”. Like my choice for Album of the Year, stringing a bunch of great songs in a row is generally enough for me. I find myself playing this a lot as there’s just so much to look forward to, and unlike the last couple they never really lose the plot. Special mention goes to their live set Tour Panda which I imported; they seem to have more energy than ever, and handedly outlast the crowd that likely consists mostly of people half their age.
Albums that were good, but probably won’t get a lot of play in the future:
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
I suspect this one is going to remain in a similar category for most people. This year, Daft Punk were one of several groups that proved that “staying relevant” hardly matters anymore; the last two Daft Punk studio releases were 2005’s awful Human After All and a Tron soundtrack that was not exactly well received. The excellent Alive 2007 may explain their sudden resurgence, but the commotion that these guys caused simply by playing 30 seconds of new music on SNL really took me be surprise. I mean nobody I knew really liked them much when Homework or Discovery came out (granted, I was pretty young back then), and it seemed like only certain circles would boost those albums; their critical reputation seems to be a lot higher now, even though their flaws are even more glaring now than they were then. Random Access Memories is not really the album anyone was expecting out of these guys; it sounded like the obscure 70’s smooth grooves that they lifted wholesale for Discovery, and chances are most of the millions of people who bought or downloaded this didn’t get exactly what they were referencing. To be fair, I don’t think I do either. So here’s my impression of the album; it’s obviously been slaved over for a long time, and sounds better/more expensive than anything else on the airwaves right now. It’s designed to be a grower, which I think explains a lot of the lukewarm initial reactions (outside of those who immediately declared this the best album of the decade for some reason). The songwriting feels suspect, though I suppose it’s always been, and the devil so obviously is in the details this time around. My first impression was that it was dull, but probably would go down as their strongest album. That said, I’m not sure if I’m going to be giving this the time of day much more in the future, unless I hear a song out in the wild from it that really hooks me (as “Lose Yourself to Dance” nearly did a couple weeks ago). If I do it’s because the album’s sound is so precise and stylized that it stands apart, providing a great example of how music should sound in 2013. If I don’t it’s because, well, there’s only one “Get Lucky” to go around amist a bunch of slow bending synth notes that fill the 74+ minute runtime, and hell I haven’t had the desire to listen to ANY full Daft Punk album in years. I know this album is better than I’m giving it credit for, but I just don’t have the motivation to discover why.
Sparks – Two Hands, One Mouth
The first Sparks live album came nearly 45 years into the Maelmen’s incredible career, and it’s an interesting concept – for the first time ever, they’d perform as just a duo, nothing but Ron’s keyboard and Russell’s voice. There’s a couple of challenges here; first, they’d have to rearrange most rather dense tunes into a stripped down form without losing the spirit of the original, and secondly, they’d have to perform it flawlessly, as there’s nothing to cover up a bum note or a bad pitch. I think they handled both these challenges well; the new arrangements lose all the neat harmonization but they feel more focused than ever, and there are virtually no mistakes in the entire performance. This leaves Two Hands One Mouth as one of those rare live albums that’s less a “live” showcase and more a reimagining of various points in their catalog. Some of this is astounding – the “plugged in” versions of No. 1 in Heaven is sort of like Tangerine Dream-meets-the-disco, but in a not-sucky way. At the end of the day though these songs were so good in their original form that I’m not sure if this is something I’ll want to hear very often.
Who is William Onyebar?
Here we have a compilation of Nigerian synth-funk that’s somewhere between Fela Kuti and Flow Motion-era Can. It seems like every couple of years someone discovers something out of the woodwork that becomes a new “look how forward thinking and unappreciated this was” phenomenon; first it was Black Devil Disco Club (definitely futuristic but not quite as much so as Moroder’s From Here to Eternity, much of which was stolen wholesale for that album), then it was the discovery of acid house elements way back in 1982 on Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas To a Disco Beat (legitimately years ahead of anyone else, though the intention was hardly that). Now it’s the enigmatic figure of William Onyebar, who you can read a lot of interesting things about. The music here is trancey and driving, but isn’t recorded very well and feels rather repetitive to me. The standout is “When the Going is Smooth and Good” which is hooky and boppy and sounds like proto-LCD Soundsystem (which you could say about three dozen other bands, of course). Outside of “Good Name” the other songs haven’t quite connected though I imagine I’ll spin this a few more times at some point. I’m always fascinated with stuff like this.
Klaus Dinger’s a music legend, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by a sense of frustration when you venture beyond the man’s last really acclaimed work, La Dusseldorf’s 1978 album Viva. He’s done some good stuff since, mostly in the two albums that were intended to be follow up’s to La-D’s Individuellos but legally couldn’t be released under that name (Neondian was released as “Klaus Dinger + Rhenita Bella”, even though Rhenita Bella was not an actual person but rather a reference to “Rhenita”, La-D’s biggest hit). Since then, he took on the 9-album La! Neu? project which was mostly a collection of improvised noodling, with the only real highlights being retreads of past work (the double-disc live “Cha Cha 2000” extravaganza), and attempted to release the ill-advised fourth Neu! album, despite the fact that Rother hadn’t signed off on it – what came out (as Neu! 4) was mostly a jumbled mess of variants on the same four-chord theme. Despite the fact that he always seemed to have something in the works, he mostly fell silent up to his unexpected passing in 2008. Japandorf was compiled by his wife Miki Yui, and by the sound of it, he found a lot of inspiration from living in Japan. I’ve only given this album a few spins – it didn’t quite blow me away, and like all his post-Viva work it borrows heavily from the man’s past (another take on “Cha Cha 2000”, for Christ’s sake). But it is better than all those La! Neu? albums (sans the unreleased 5th La Dusseldorf album Blue) and if I get on a Dinger kick again I’ll probably want to hear this one as well.
Fantastic Plastic Machine – Scale
Like most recent FPM albums, this is clearly made by someone who knows what he’s doing, but it often suffers by not being able to see the forest for the trees; too many times he’s on autopilot. I really liked parts of this – “Curiosity”, “Bring Dat Noise”, and “I Was in Love”…was a bit lukewarm on everything else.
Karl Bartos – Off the Record
Karl Bartos was one of the members of the legendary Kraftwerk, who quit in 1990 due to frustration with the band moving at such a glacial pace. He didn’t know the half of it. Off the Record is a collection of songs that were mostly composed in his Kraftwerk days, but not recorded until recently. These songs sure sound like Kraftwerk – sure, there are slightly updated synths, better vocoders, and crisper beats, but the actual sounds are mostly the same. Of course you may wonder where this exactly fits in the landscape of 2013 – lots of Kraftwerk tributes have sprung up with sounds very similar to this (think Komputer) and I’m not sure if the fact that some of these could’ve been actual Kraftwerk songs makes up too much difference. Still, I did find this plenty entertaining – “Atomium” is a rather menacing single, “Instant Bayreuth” is gorgeous, sounding like outtakes from Radio-Activity and Autobahn, respectively. Meanwhile “Rhythmus” is like an alternate take on “Computer World”. Lots of vintage synths, and one song has co-writing credits by Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner. As a one-off this is a neat album; both this and his 2003 album Communication shows off the sense of melody that was so instrumental in his Kraftwerk years. But as a full album this feels a bit insubstantial.
Albums I didn’t like:
The Orb – More Tales From the Orbservatory
I think it’s fair to say that the Orb lost favor with their audience with Cydonia, and it seems they never quite recovered it. I actually think that Cydonia holds up well, even if the albums after it sometimes didn’t. When they go for a minimal, Fehlmann dominated sound such as on Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt or Baghdad Batteries, things tend to work well, but simply channeling their past isn’t working for them anymore. Lately, they’ve cluttered their discography with soundtrack stuff and collabs with geriatrics such as Dave Gilmour or Lee “Scratch” Perry, and it’s safe to say a lot of that stuff can be ignored. I like Lee Perry fine, but there’s just too much of him on last year’s Orbserver in the Star House (and too little of anything else), and this album, consisting of the outtakes from those sessions, is even worse. Let’s hear something proper, guys!
Mike Doughty – Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless…
There are so many things that I dislike about this project that I don’t even know where to start. Doughty, as all his fans likely know, recently disavowed the most acclaimed and successful part of his career (his years as the frontman of Soul Coughing), even going as far to write an entire book that purports to be about drug addiction but actually spends over half its time complaining about his ex-bandmates. After making most of his fanbase feel awful whenever they asked him about Soul Coughing or requested their songs in concert, he releases this collection of re-recorded Soul Coughing songs, done the way he “originally envisioned them”; as limp, acoustic alt-pop that de-emphasizes everything but Doughty’s guitar (Soul Coughing’s instrumental weak point) and his voice. But there’s so much more to dislike – the fact that he asked his fans to fund the recording (the same ones he’s been blowing up at for years), or the fact that he basically bribed them (via a “free ticket” drawing) to write surreal reviews on Amazon and iTunes, which of course had the side effect of driving the “average rating” way up. I don’t think any of this stuff is despicable on its own; Kickstarter and Pledgemusic have been around for years, and I know that nobody cares about the sanctity of “average customer reviews” on amazon.com. But given that it seems like it’s all being done to erase the contributions of his ex-bandmates, whose talent elevated the band from certain failure, it’s hard not to have a real bad taste in your mouth from this. The album itself being boring and useless is just gravy.
Albums that I thought were good, but haven’t listened to enough:
Melt Yourself Down
Sons of Kemet – Burn
Albums that I haven’t heard yet, but want to:
KAKU P-Model – Gipnoza
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Perfume – LEVEL3
Sting – The Last Ship
Steven Wilson – The Raven Who Refused to Sing
Primal Scream – More Light
Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Mostly new albums by artists I already like that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Zletovsko is a new sort of Zeuhl band, including the always entertaining Tatsuya Yoshida. Granted Yoshida doesn’t write the music this time around but there have been good reviews all around. Boards of Canada is supposed to be a good one but I process BoC albums about as fast as they make ’em. Steven Wilson’s been getting credit for making a progressive masterpiece that stands up with the classics he so obviously worshipped, so I’ll be sure to give that a listen. The Sting album I’m just morbidly curious about.
Well, guess that’s it for this year. Tune back in Feburary 2015! (actually, tune back in next week for another stellar overwrought “album of the week” feature!)