Albums of the Year 2009
A festive, holiday, Yuletide gift to you: The Acid Folk Remix Project Volume Two is complete and you can download it by clicking on this link. Full details further down in this post but first… the list.
This list is incomplete. How many recent albums by favourite artists remain unheard? How many obscure gems remain undiscovered? Who can keep up? This list is provisional. The definitive version may never exist.
Best albums of the noughties? Maybe. All in good time. That would take a hideous amount of research and – frankly – a rather better memory for names and dates. For now, it’s hard enough to piece together the highlights of these last 12 months.
Was it a good year for music? Was it really so awful? Who can say? After all, how many great discoveries of 2009 were technically released in 2008? How many of 2009’s great LP releases emerged on CD the year before? Where to draw the line?
Oh and don’t expect some kinda overview of the state of (the) music (industry). Do you really want to read another tedious think-piece about how MP3s are saving the world and/or ruining everything? Yawn.
Sure, coded opinions and suggestions for ways forward may be embedded deep within this post. You can dig for them at your peril. The music industry can go hang. Trite as it sounds, this post is strictly about the music, maaan.
It is worth noting one upshot of the music industry’s increasing conservatism, though: This year, it seemed like nobody wanted to release a record in anything other than the holiday shopping season (or at least the preceding six weeks – December itself is a notoriously slow month for new albums). How to keep up with this flood of eleventh-hour releases?
So many questions, so few answers. In the final analysis, it hardly seems worth agonizing over. The albums below are all fantastic and well worth discovering. This list may not be definitive but it is a wonder to behold.
One final disclaimer, this post is quite long and was written at the last minute, during a rather busy time of the year. As such, it is likely to include even more typos, borderline grammar, factual inaccuracies and half-baked opinions than usual. Please do point out any glaring errors or broken links, via the normal channels.
Okay, that’s enough lame excuses. Let’sh get shtarted…
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
1. Nudge – As Good as Gone (Kranky) LP
As Good as Gone seems like a pretty modest proposition. Nudge is just about as unassuming a band name as you could hope to find. The band itself is a loose collective of mostly Portland-based dilettantes led by Audra Glint label boss Brian Foote and featuring Paul Dickow (aka Strategy) and Honey Owens (aka Valet). Their latest album is short, to the point and avoids showy bombast to the extent of being positively diffident.
This is a small album, then but hell yes is it ever perfectly formed. Oddly enough, this kind of short, well-structured album seems to be making a bit of a comeback right now. As a format, it’s ideal for either legal or illegal consumption – for economical vinyl releases or full-album blog downloads.
But As Good as Gone is more than just a tidy little package. It’s a record that displays admirable restraint and good judgement at all levels. It’s an electronically-enhanced avant rock album that manages to be simultaneously Spartan and luxurious – lightly misting dry’n’heavy dubwise rhythm tracks with an ocean spray of dream-pop guitars and vaguely distracted-sounding vocals.
This formula makes explicit the links between Can’s aquatic mantras, PiL’s death disco and the moonscapes of early UK post-rock. But As Good as Gone never seems like its trying to make a big deal of all this – nothing here is cheaply showy; every note and texture is purposefully-chosen.
While it’s certainly an immediately ear-grabbing record, As Good as Gone‘s real strength is in its ability to gradually win over the listener’s heart and mind. In other words: it has hidden depths and it’s a grower.
This, friends, is what it’s all about. Seemingly out of nowhere, with little or no fanfare: the album of the year.
2. Black to Comm – Alphabet 1968 (Type) LP
To a great extent, darkness continues to be the prevailing mode of experimental music’s international underground community. This mode generally expresses itself in the form of faux-metallic low-end droning or murky lo-fi ambiance. More often not, it expresses itself as a set of empty gestures, signifying nothing more than “this is dark because that’s what we’re into right now”.
Today’s dark stuff often sounds like it was made in the afterglow of a stoned horror flick viewing. Consequently, it tends to come across as doubly mediated. This is not the stuff real nightmares are made of. Sure, nightmares are often baroquely horrifying but they can also be cathartic, illuminating and even entertaining. Strange as it may sound, seeing minor permutations on a recurring nightmare can actually be very intriguing.
Enter Black to Comm aka Dekorder label head-honcho Marc Richter. His latest album – Alphabet 1968 – is as uncannily dark and illuminating as a really, really interesting nightmare – it’s like musical night vision! The tracks are mostly based on short sample loops, like recurring dreams in miniature – an approach that is sure to please fans of Colleen, Ekkehard Ehlers, The Focus group and Gas.
Like the Nudge record, this is a concise and beautifully structured little album full of concise and beautifully structured little tracks. And like the Nudge album, it manages to be truly, excitingly brilliant, without being flashy or smug about the whole thing.
Another unexpected treat and very nearly the album of the year.
3. Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Vertical Ascent (Honest Jon’s) LP
The concept is easy enough to grasp: Moritz “Maurizio” Von Oswald, one half of the legendary German dub-techno duo Basic Channel, forms a live improvising trio, which includes acclaimed abstract electronica artist Vladislav Delay on percussion. But the sound that this Moritz Von Oswald Trio makes is another matter – all unspeakably alien pulse and clatter, more stark and robotic than any of Von Oswald’s more straightforwardly electronic work.
Vertical Ascent, the trio’s debut recording, is a somewhat difficult record to get into. The first three of its four long tracks are off-putting in their dry austerity, offering few obvious points of reference to even the most attentive listener.
The fourth and final track will seem more familiar to fans of Von Oswald’s previous work (it could almost be an early Rhythm & Sound tune) but it still feels frustratingly enigmatic. It’s as if, having stepped into the limelight as a live performer, Maurizio needs to do something that will protect the anonymous non-image he has spent years cultivating.
Of course, it’s the album’s wilful refusal to engage that ultimately makes it compelling. This might not be the year’s best album but it may just be the year’s most original and intriguing record. A remarkable piece of work, which really does seem to be the product of some alien intelligence – alive, organic and yet utterly unknowable.
4. King Midas Sound – Waiting for You (Hyperdub) CD
Kevin Martin has been on the scene since at least the early ’90s, when he helmed such extremist UK post-rock outfits as God, Ice and Techno Animal. Throughout his entire musical career, he’s been dealing with competing compulsions towards rock density on one hand and dub space on the other. Much of his work is reliant on shear heaviosity – massively compressed slabs of mid-range noise that seem to suck the air out of the room. Elsewhere, he’s displayed a penchant for dub reductionism and a knack for creating dark, strung-out atmospheres.
In recent years, Martin has achieved unprecedented levels of popularity and critical acclaim – mainly for his work with reggae singers and deejays under the guise of The Bug. Last year’s Bug album, London Zoo, felt like a bit of a false start. Martin seemed like he was trying to appeal to an even wider audience, without abandoning the heavyweight sound he’s built his reputation on – stripping his blaring faux-dancehall beats back to the bare essentials of boom, bap and bass. The results were mixed.
On the debut King Midas Sound album, Martin seems to have perfected the formula he was developing on London Zoo. King Midas is supposedly his dubstep project but it clearly has a life of its own. Largely a collaboration with Trinidad-born poet and singer Roger Robinson, Waiting for You is as based in lovers rock – the sweet bubblegum of 1980s London reggae – as it is in dubstep. Robinson’s voice is disconcertingly sweet and high and yet he asserts himself as a startlingly intelligent and powerful presence over Martin’s titanic riddims. Truly this is a collaboration of equals.
Its also an absolutely fucking stunning record. Every song is beautifully realised and utterly heartbreaking. It gets better with every listen. If this list were to be revised a year from now, Waiting for You might just have worked its way to the top.
As it is, it already has the best album cover of the year – you’ve gotta love the way “collection” is misspelled in that laundromat window!
5. Broadcast & The Focus Group – …Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp) LP
Birmingham’s retro-futurist post-rockers Broadcast have been going from strength to strength in recent years. This collaboration with The Focus Group – aka Ghost Box label founder and ace graphic designer Julian House – is possibly the best thing either party has been involved in. It’s a quintessentially hauntological collage of song and sound, which recalls Faust, The United States of America, White Noise and a lost age of utopian English boffinry that is truly worth reanimating.
6. Mountains – Choral (Thrill Jockey) LP
Mountains is a New York-based duo, which has been toiling in obscurity for a few years now, self-releasing albums full of pastoral folktronica par excellence. For Choral, Mountains moved to the relatively high-profile Thrill Jockey label and unleashed four sides featuring some of the duo’s best work to date – very likely to appeal to fans of Fennesz, Greg Davis and late-period Gastr del Sol.
7. The Field – Yesterday & Today (Kompakt) 2LP + CD
Sweden’s Axel Willner – who releases music as The Field – does things that no electronic dance music artist in his or her right mind should ever do. And he makes it all work wonderfully, through sheer force of exuberance. Cover versions of terrible ’80s soft-rock hits! Live Afrobeat drumming! Bouncy tech-house tracks that modulate between two chords for over 10 minutes! All of this sounds utterly life-affirming on Yesterday & Today. The year’s most purely uplifting album.
8. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Discos) 2LP
“Shoegaze” has to be the most insulting genre term ever invented, doesn’t it? Who would want to admit to playing “shoegaze” music?? But wait! There’s a new wave of shoegaze bands and they’re being labelled “nugaze”!! That may be even worse but… Did someone just say “shitgaze”?
Well, this has little to do with Philadelphia’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow. The members of this band are doubtless massive fans of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive but they have enough wit and inventiveness to lift themselves above the – cough – nugazing hordes.
In fact, if this band harks back to a sub-genre of early ’90s UK indie music, it’s to post-rock rather than shoegaze. At times, Ashes Grammar recalls recently-reformed UK post-rock legends Seefeel (but with added song-writing skills).
It’s an epic album that works wonderfully as a complete piece – an audacious and heroic move from an outwardly shy and self-deprecating band. You have to watch out for the quiet ones.
9. Mordant Music – SyMptoMs (Mordant Music) CD
The most song-based missive yet from Mordant Music – a mysterious collective operating deep within the hauntological hinterland. More prosaically, this album recalls Eno’s witty art-rock period, Underworld’s literate techno and The Fall’s acerbic magic realism. Best lyrics of the year.
10. Shackleton – Three EPs (Perlon) 3×12″
A fellow traveller of the Mordant Music organization, Bristol’s Sam Shackleton makes post-dubstep music that recalls the industrial exoticism of Muslimgauze, Kevin Martin’s monumental Techno Animal project and the more interesting aspects of recent minimalist dance music. The Three EPs is rhythmically intricate, without ever being fussy and it’s affectingly moody, without lacking a sense of humour.
Magneticring – Magneticring
Long-awaited debut LP from Vancouver’s Joshua Stevenson aka Magnetic Ring. Given the length of the wait, it’s unfortunate that this album doesn’t really represent the true extent of Josh’s talents – concentrating instead on some precision-tooled kosmische synth action. As a pure listening experience, though, it is thoroughly, thoroughly satisfying.
DOOM – Born Like This
Another reliably patchy collection from hardcore rap’s last remaining square peg. MF Doom continues to rhyme about himself in the past tense and the third person, over beats that genuinely deserve to be called “wonky”. There are a few misfires and the subject matter is occasionally odious but what else would you expect from a survivor of hip-hop’s early ’90s golden age?
Tim Hecker – An Imaginary Country
Canada’s Tim Hecker has really been picking up steam in the last few years, becoming one of the most prominent abstract electronica artists currently operating. An Imaginary Country represents a bit of a cooling off after the febrile Harmony in Ultraviolet but it doesn’t show any signs that Hecker is losing his spark. Can’t wait to hear what he does next.
Ekkehard Ehlers & Paul Wirkus – Ballads
This album relies a bit too much on Ekkehard Ehlers’ penchant for squeaking, scraping contemporary classical/improv sounds to deliver the full-on blissout fans of his best electronic work will be craving. Still, anything with his name on it is worth investigating and this taut, tense duo album with Paul Wirkus is no exception.
Antipop Consortium – Fluorescent Black
APC couldn’t really have picked a worse time to reform. The type of cerebral underground rap that Beans, Priest and Sayyid specialize in is deep in the Black Hole of Cool, with no immediate signs of escape. Perhaps, if they’d arrived baring a really killer comeback album, they could have circumvented the music-listening public’s temporary prejudices but Fluorescent Black is decidedly patchy and doesn’t have the growing power of APC’s first two albums. Still, the good patches are as dizzying as anything these guys have done – which is to say utterly.
Vladislav Delay – Tummaa
Richard Youngs – Under Stellar Stream
Sparklehorse + Fennesz – In the Fishtank 15
Mokira – Persona
Richard Youngs – Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits
Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor
Mountains – Etching
Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto – UTP
Empty Love + Sade Sade – s/t
Woebot – Automat EP and East Central One EP
Flight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
SONGS AND SINGLES
My Bloody Valentine – “Kevin Song”
Pulido/Fennesz/Siewert/Stangl – A Girl and a Gun 7″
The Fall – Slippy Floor 7″
Stephan Mathieu – The Keys to the Kingdom 10″
Esperik Glare – As the Insects Swarm 7″
Burial & Four Tet – black label 12”
Antipop Consortium – “Get Lite”
Flight of the Conchords – “Carol Brown (Stick Around)”
STILL HAVEN’T HEARD BUT PROBABLY REALLY GOOD
Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol.2
Belbury Poly – From an Ancient Star
Coin Gutter – Broken Lily
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Leyland Kirby – Sadly The Future Is No Longer What It Was
Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem
Richard Skelton – Landings
Mark E. Smith & Ed Blaney – Smith & Blaney
Sunno))) – Monolith’s & Dimensions
Woebot – s/t
NOT ME PRESENTS: THE ACID FOLK REMIX PROJECT VOLUME TWO
This here blog’s first festive gift to you – Not Me’s second volume of UK folk remixes and re-imaginings. You can download the whole thing by clicking on this link (http://www.mediafire.com/?xzxg5mhyt2k) or get the individual songs you want from the track-listing below.
1. Comus – “Bitten (Not Me Remix by Esperik Glare)”
This first of two genuinely terrifying mixes by Wyoming’s Esperik Glare should put paid to any notion that The Acid Folk Remix Project Volume Two is going to be some sort of pastoral lovefest from start to finish. Having said that, this is not generic dark ambient rumble or harsh noise assault but a genuinely cinematic piece of abstract electronica.
2. Not Me – “APC Meets Fairport Convention Upcountry”
There’s a cute story behind this one. While connect_icut was struggling with a remix of “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention, the estimable Wonk flagged up the existence of WFMU’s Antipop Consortium remix contest. The Antipop track (“Reflections”) was 89 BPM. The Fairport track was roughly 91 BPM. Could the vocal track from the former be layered over loops of the latter? Here’s your answer. Sadly, the track was not eligible for the contest on account of uncleared samples, hence the existence of a separate “Reflections (connect_icut Remix)”.
3. Historian Trinkets – “She Walked Through the Fair Gathering Mushrooms”
Little is known about this artist. “She Walked Through the Fair Gathering Mushrooms” may or may not be entirely sourced from recordings made in the 1980s. All we can say for sure is this: Clannad!
4. Nick Krgovich & Rose Melberg – “Coldest Night of the Year (Version Two)”
This is where the lovefest starts. A charming Vasti Bunyan cover from Nick of No Kids and Rose, formerly of Tiger Trap and The Softies. You can find the original on Vashti’s Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind, a compilation of her early singles and demos. This cover is one of two versions of the song recorded by Nick and Rose. The other is available as part of a festive compilation album called The Mental Beast Eggnog Experience.
5. Johnny Payne – “Meet on the Ledge”
The lovefest continues. Not sure exactly which Vancouver indie bands Johnny is currently playing with but they are doubtless greatly improved by his presence. Johnny had a bit of a cold when he recorded this Fairport Convention cover and was a little worried that he might come out sounding like Kermit. In fact, Devendra Banhart would probably give up a lung if it would help him sound this good.
6. Skullfucker – “The Witch”
Skullfucker – aka Dan from Vancouver drone rock duo Solars – gives his new microKORG synth a workout on this cover of Mark Fry’s “The Witch”. Understated and moodily atmospheric, this thoroughly excellent recording is perfectly complemented by…
7. Secret Pyramid – “Milk and Honey”
A really, really incredible Sandy Denny cover from Dan’s buddy Amir – the other half of Solars. This recalls the pastoral dreampop of Flying Saucer Attack, with the lo-fi murk replaced by piercing psychedelic clarity. More stuff like this, please Amir!
8. Shirley Collins – “Adieu to Old England (Not Me Remix by connect_icut)”
A darkly hypnotic remix of this classic Shirley Collins a capella. The remix is as a raw and scary as the emotions evoked by the original. To put this another way: it was made really quickly and sounds like hell. But – y’know – in a fun way.
9. The Watersons – “Hal-an-Tow (Gunshae’s Winter of Discontent Remix)”
Last year, Vancouver-based ambient duo Gunshae went to town on The Watersons’ recording of “Christmas is Now Drawing Near”. This year, Kuma and Eve do the same to “Hal-an-Tow” – turning a song about the coming of spring into a meditation on deep winter dread. Chilling, in every sense.
10. Wonk – “Cellular (Lord Summerisle is My Co-Pilot Mix)”
The aforementioned Wonk – aka Vancouver multi-disciplinary artist Christopher Olson – with a track based entirely on samples from “A Very Cellular Song” by The Incredible String Band. It starts off Steve Reich, ends up Nurse with Wound and it’s all good.
11. Skullfucker vs. connect_icut – “Evil Island Home”
The undisputed hit of last year’s Acid Folk Remix Project was a hair-raising, lo-fi cover of Kevin Coyne’s “Evil Island Home”, which came courtesy of that Skullfucker fellow. This epic remix reinstates a previously AWOL guitar solo, adds about three layers of murk and plays out with a churning schaffel coda. Ten points if you can spot where that drum loop’s from.
12. The Pentangle – “Lyke-Wake Dirge (Not Me Remix by Esperik Glare)”
And if you thought Esperik Glare’s first contribution was scary… Here, the solemn executioner’s drum that marks time in The Pentangle’s rendition of “Lyke-Wake Dirge” is filtered into a sky-rending, thunderous roar. The punch line of “And Christ receive them all” starts to sound much more like a threat than a promise of redemption.
And that’s all. Happy holidays. See you in the New Year.