Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Music of the Decade: Runner-Ups

The blogosphere has come alive with posts championing various albums as the best of the decade. Which is funny, because I thought we had one more year to go! Nonetheless, after I found myself responding in comment form to some of them, I thought it best to present my own winners here, even though I recognise how useless such an enterprise is. After all, I barely listen to contemporary music. But then again, that might be an advantage, as I'm largely immune to the usual hype and trends. The good stuff filters through. Sometimes this even corresponds with what has been hyped.

My list will contain many choices you will expect and maybe some you don't. I base it entirely on my own subjective position as an electro-acoustic composer with a great love for post-punk music and adventurous forms of all stripes.

Björk: Vespertine (2001) The turn of the decade marked a child-like return to innocence and the sound environment of the womb. Coco Rosie, mùm, Antony and the Johnsons and more conformed to this inward-looking mode of heightened subjectivity and sensitivity. And most of it bugs the crap out of me. Except for Björk and her exercise in music box melodies and soft-spoken intimacy.

The Two-Minute Miracles: Volume II (2001)
The Two-Minute Miracles: Volume III (2003) Anyone who bemoans the loss of song-writing craft in this mediated world obviously hasn't heard The Two-Minute Miracles and their perfect pop creations. I first came across them in a rock bar in London ONT and knew I was in the presence of true musical genius. I got a copy of their demo from the singer, Andy Magoffin, who has made a career of hiding his light under a bushel.

Several albums later the band are still working it out in the best possible ways. Only one of the 13 songs on Volume II tops the three minute mark. "Rayon Queen In A Nylon Dream" and "Name That Song" you can play at my wake. Ditto "Aphasia" and "Stall Tactics" from Volume III (The Silence of Animals). They are all so supremely cute and hummable and tap-your-feet-ish. But dear heart, I'm getting carried away.

(If you can't travel to London ONT you might get their music as downloads from Zunior or on CD from Teenage USA. But you should really go to London instead.)

Sigur Rós () (2002) And here it is again, the womb, the open parentheses, wide for all to enter, with blank pages for your own thoughts and a whole new language, Hopelandic, to convey the wishes of a new generation. This is revolutionary music, the sheer melancholic joy of which will wipe out the stagnant forms of existing society once and for all. Can we have a louder crescendo? Can we have a deeper harmony? Can we have a more plaintive vocal? No. This is where it all culminates, in the barren heaven we call Iceland. And, oh yes, the videos.

Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) Wilco are really an entirely average band, so how they managed this is a mystery. Great cover. Great title. Great use of COMET transmission recordings (for which they were sued, but, you know). The rest should be all alt-rock cliches, but despite the pathetic vocals there are some lovely moments of suspended noise and interpolated emotion. "Ashes Of American Flags" should be crap, but is actually one of the best post-911 songs I have heard; the last minute of noise and bombardment is perfection. (And on the cover: twin towers.)

Similarly elsewhere: Wilco should be failures but instead pull rabbits from hats. "Poor Places" winds up to incredible intensity. "Reservations" from beginning to end lies in some kind of Big Star parallel universe. And no-one can ever do that except Big Star themselves. So maybe Wilco are some kind of genius? Damned if I know.

Wire: Read & Burn 01 (2002)
Wire: Read & Burn 02 (2002)
Wire: Send (2003) They're back...again! The history of Wire is a history of returning -- whoever named their first compilation got it right in one. This time they're in full guitar loop overdrive, still ironic but now noisier. Better? Likely not, but these first doses of the newest version of this particular conducting metal rod puts most of their grand-children to shame. Lots of track repetition between these three disks means you end up buying each one. Not exactly value for money but valuable nonetheless. "It's all in the art. Of stopping." But they don't stop. So what does that tell us?

Cliff Martinez: Solaris OST (2002) Once a drummer in unlikely bands, Martinez can now craft a perfect fusion of orchestral score and glitch electronica (ouch! those cliches!), married to a tone poem of a film that is clearly the best thing this director has ever done. I love Tarkovsky but this is another film for another time and place (this time, this place). Heart-breaking and ice cold. Perfectly cast. Perfectly sound-tracked.

Ulrich Schnauss: A Strangely Isolated Place (2003) Here is the romantic warmth of the Cluster school of German motorik electro-groove, complete with just the right mix of happy thoughts and cool rhythms. Dense and amateurish too, when it needs to be. A special record for my love and I.

Tortoise: It's All Around You (2004) Everyone hates this Tortoise album but I am content to think it their best. Some of their earlier material was too scrappy and their boxed set, while impressive, contains a lot of dross. Live I preferred Isotope 217 -- Tortoise seeming to work too hard to attain their relaxed groove. I think that's what reviewers dis here, the sense of striving and cohesion. But what doesn't work in the scramble of the sweaty alcohol-fumed bar might work on headphones in the quiet of my studio at 3am. The perfect illusion they create for me here is one with hyper-real imagery of the cover. Yes, they know exactly what they are doing. And it is something wonderful. And something entirely fake.

Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)
Compelling emotions, stories from adolescence and a sway and swoop that can incorporate punk with rock with folk without really caring that there is any difference. Arcade Fire: you might have heard of them. But still, some good, huh?

Rheostatics: 2067 (2004) I'm not sure you can still call them a dark horse after a couple dozen albums, several books, radio specials, art installations and stage plays. You can be sure, though, that they'd never ever hit it big with such willful descents into "stupidity" (quotes always intact) as "Power Ballad For Ozzie Osbourne". The stupid know they're being clever clever and the clever wonder why they bother to pander. Then both sides get mighty pissed off. The truth is they always loved Rush and Ozzie and Neil Young and Devo and Scott Walker. Oh, and hockey. So what you hear is what you get. Mostly.

Live they were crap except when they were the best rock band on Earth. On which nights you actually knew there are reasons why rock exists... and not just to fill out the muscle shirts and the tight trousers. Other times everyone hated them; I mean, they sing like women, right? But is anyone else going to write an alien conspiracy song about a WKRP character? Or redo one of their own tunes -- about teenage suicide nonetheless -- as a piece of electro crap? Or sing about feeling guilty for not having shot a gun? I mean, what wimps, right? Right?

Then you get "Making Progress", one of the most heart-breaking tunes ever. And "Little Bird". And "Shack in the Cornfields". And of course they produced their most accessible album as their swan-song. Bastards.

Bark Psychosis: ///Codename: Dustsucker (2004) Two albums in two decades is not exactly pushing the boat out. But when they are as definitive as those from Bark Psychosis you can rather forgive them the longueur. In case you missed it, this band is the one the term "post-rock" was invented for, perhaps to fill a gap in vocabulary that comes when jazz sensibilities meet rock chords in a loose improvisational way, and not with the over-determined rigidity of so-called jazz-rock.

This Dustsucker is in deep narcosis; this is driving down the highway stoned music, like a chapter from a bad Bill Drummond novel. You put this on and drift away, but never ever in the fall-into-your-arms-all-safe feeling of the rave. Here there's always a concrete embankment waiting in the dark. It's J.G. Ballard on ecstasy.

One could complain that it's not all as focused as it should be. But "Shapeshifting" builds to a lovely noise mass. And "Burning the City" is my favourite song of forever. "Did you ever hear the one?"

C-Schulz & F.X. Randomiz: Das Ohr am Gleis (2004) Processing train sounds electronically is the oldest cliche in the book, dating right back to the genesis of musique concrete in Pierre Schaeffer's "Etude Aux Chemins De Fer". But these two composers, from opposite sides of the Cologne tracks (as it were) make it sound like the freshest idea to hit rotating disks. Modulating between pulse and noise, field recording and synthetic augmentation, this album (available in a dual disk format that includes a surround sound representation) is streets ahead (tracks ahead?) of what generally passes for decent electro-acoustic music -- in the pop or academic worlds.

The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat (2004) I'm sure you've heard of The Fiery Furnaces, since they are the darlings of those webzines that champion cool before quality. And for most of the records this band has released that would be true as well. They have some sort of output problem -- Stereolabmania let's call it -- that compels them to issue every utterance of their musical muse as though it was Ubu's own defecatory Ode To Joy. In amongst this effluence are pearls of interest (please don't mention the swine) that largely arise from the Lego construct song-structures, right-inside-your-head delivery and pirate-fixated lyrics. And that's not nearly enough hyphens (not yet) to sum up this lot.

Never has anyone got as much out of their name as Eleanor Friedberger, and her brother isn't doing too badly either. When I hear Totoro mentioned at about minute seven of "Quay Cur" I wonder if they have been watching the same anime as myself. No, likely they're saying something completely different. And that's only the questions thrown up by one small snippet of one not-so-small song on this very long album. Imagine how confused and bemused you will be after the eleventh time signature change, the four-hundredth chord, the eight-thousandth rhyming couplet? What about when they rhyme "Valencia" with "in extensia" (only because they pronounce stuff the 'Merican way, natch)? What about when they inform you that "Donna had a Scotch and made him switch off the porn, because there's nothing that's dirty about the ocean in the morn"? What about the cheesy organ (who's your grandmother?) and whacked out duophonic synth lines all over what should be (maybe, possibly) guitar-based folk songs? What about the strangulated syntax of "Where did you for lunch-time go?" That's better writing than most bands manage in a career.

This is what you'd hear at a free performance in a bookstore in Iowa if the daughter of the store-owner had learned everything she knew from Baptist Bible Camp, The Residents and Tiny Talent Hour. And then been forced to listen to her older brother's collection of Scandinavian prog rock, imitating the songs on her Casio. While harbouring a deep love and respect for James Joyce.

So maybe you could stop reading me as I try to do the impossible and describe this train-wreck of an album... and instead start listening to it. For the perfection of the punch-line half-way through "Chief Inspector Blancheflower"... and much more. You'll laugh until you stop.

Architecture In Helsinki: In Case We Die (2005)
Here is illustrated a delicate balance: cleverly orchestrated pop music with idiosyncratic instrumentation and novel song forms performed with spirit and a certain sense of rightness. It's as though every performer was channeling their inner child in perfect synchrony. Not surprising then that it never worked out nearly so well for them subsequently. But listen to this one particular gem of an album and you'll be jumping on the spot, spinning round and round, while singing along in your best fake opera voice. Every song is better than the one before. And since the first song is amazing, that means we end up in the stratosphere pretty darned soon.

In case they die they've produced a lasting work of wonder. I'm sure for that they sleep better nights.

Millions: The Notebook Behind Your Eyes (2008) With thousands of independent labels and tens of thousands of artists, surely some great music is being created that I will never hear? Yet every time I tune into possibly OK net labels or MySpace pages I am deluged in crap. As I am sure you have been.

But not this time.

You don't know who this is, but it's one David Suss from Brooklyn. He releases cassettes (remember them?) and burns his own CDs for labels no-one will ever know. "The Notebook Behind Your Eyes" is the best drone music since Phil Niblock. And drone music is possibly the most difficult music to make interesting. There's complete brilliance on display here, as organ piles upon synthetic chatterings and guitar washes. It all keeps evolving and doesn't hold back on the noise quotient. No-one will mistake this for ambient. It's incredible.

OK, so, there you are. Some great music that might just change your life. But these are just the runner-ups. So, next time: the album of the decade. I hope you are ready. I hope you are sitting down. Because nothing will prepare you. No, nothing at all.



Anonymous said...

Great list for sure. Looking forward to the best album. Wondering what you think of the recent reformation of the Wild Swans and their new single. I've heard that you are a fan.

robin said...

The Wild Swans actually have two new singles and I have heard one... and wish I hadn't. Some things are best left alone. Some magic cannot be recaptured.

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