Albums of the Year 2010
There were a lot of great records this year. Sure, it may not have felt like A Great Year for Music, as such but there were at least a few records that had all the tell-tell signs of future-classic status. More to the point, there was something in the air – a subtle shift; a hint of a near future where musicians will once again aspire to make classic records. Some of this year’s best albums had a genuine freshness – something that hasn’t been sensed much at all in recent times (in fact, much of the best music in recent memory has fairly reveled in its own fusty mustiness).
This diffuse sense of freshness might have more to do with listeners’ attitudes than with the music itself. Gradually, snobbery is giving way to inclusiveness and fear is giving way to curiosity. A lot of the music that would have been extremely marginal during the previous decade is now finding at least a modicum of an audience.
It is affecting the music too. Some artists who might previously have been satisfied to simply do their thing now appear determined to do something else altogether – see the Album of the Year for proof. So, for audiences and artists alike, ambition and originality are coming back into style. 2010 may not have been a vintage year but it was a pretty good year. And more importantly, it left us with the impression that things are only going to get better over the coming decade.
The usual disclaimers apply, especially this one: nobody has enough time on their hands to do a particularly good job of writing a monumentally epic blog post like this one, so you’ll doubtless forgive the cavalcade of typos, marginal grammar and stylistic clunkers appearing throughout (not to mention the rather half-baked theories outlined above).
THE TOP TEN
1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal (Editions Mego) LP
(Also, Returnal 7″)
Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) has built a reputation as a pastiche artist par excellence – someone able to conjure up a bygone age of analogue synth atmospherics with the flick of his calculator-watch-clad wrist. For people whose appreciation of Lopatin’s work is dependent on this perception, Returnal was a disappointment, not to say something of a shock.
The fact is, though, the popular perception of Oneohtrix Point Never is somewhat inaccurate. First of all, it’s worth noting that Lopatin is not a straight-up analogue purist. The two main weapons in his arsenal seem to be a hybrid analogue/digital synth (the Roland Juno 60) and a fairly recent “groove box” sampler (the magnificent Korg ES-1).
Furthermore, there’s always been more to OPN music than sci-fi-themed synth-scapes. For instance, Lopatin’s “echo jams”, as showcased on projects like Memory Vague, use sample processing to take fragments of 80s pop into weird new places. Spiritually, this puts OPN in league with those lo-fi yacht rockers in the hypnagogic pop movement but in material terms, much of Lopatin’s work bears little structural resemblance to anything else out there.
With all this in mind, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Returnal was released by Editions Mego (a label commonly associated with austere laptop electronica) or that the album’s first side opens with a prolonged burst of sliced-up digital noise. Admittedly, the sheer onslaught of “Nil Admirari” is rather bracing but the way it dissolves into “Describing Bodies” and returns, in dubbed-out form, at the end of the album (as “Preyouandi”) suggests that this is, to some extent, OPN business as usual. Y’see, like all Oneohtrix albums, Returnal has an extremely dramatic sense of narrative structure.
It might just be his most ambitious narrative yet – it’s certainly his most ambitious structure yet. Whatever its context, whatever its influences and affiliations, Returnal is musically magnificent. A genuinely uncanny false memory – a glimpse of an improbable past or the very possibility of a future. And the album of the year.
The 7″ that followed the album really helped to cement Returnal’s brilliance in many people’s minds. By re-imagining the album’s title track in collaboration with Antony (he of the Johnsons) and Bubblegum Cage III hero Christian Fennesz, Lopatin showed his willingness to step out of the hypnagogic basement and into the light of a whole new world.
2. Oval – O (Thrill Jockey) 2LP + download
(Also, Oh 12″, Ringtones download and Ringtones II download)
One slight bummer about 2010 was that some of the year’s most striking and original music was made by a bunch of old has-beens from the 90s. Shouldn’t the young guns be taking care of this sorta thing? It’s just weird. Kinda creepy and wrong.
Really though, who would have thought Seefeel would turn up and release the best single of the year (Faults)? And who would have thought Markus “Oval” Popp would ever show his face again – with that look of vague bureaucratic indifference still intact? Popp, you’ll remember, backed himself into a theoretical corner about 10 years ago, at which time he was commonly making pronouncements along the lines of “who cares what I think the music should sound like?”
Around the same time, glitch – the sub-genre of experimental electronica that Oval basically invented – was seriously running out of creative steam. If a great inventor and innovator like Popp was going to make a comeback somewhere down the line, he’d surely have to distance himself from the generic clicks-and-cuts that came in the wake of classic Oval albums like the all-but-peerless 94 Diskont. Perhaps sensing this, Popp only recently managed to break his creative and theoretical deadlock – and he did so by almost completely reinventing the Oval project.
Much has been made of changes to Popp’s technical set-up – swapping custom-made software for generic plug-ins; improvising on actual instruments… But the real change that gave birth to the new Oval sound was a slight but significant shift in theoretical focus. Oval was always a critical project – one dedicated to a thorough but non-aggressive deconstruction of its chosen subject matter. But whereas the subject matter of Oval in the 90s was digital audio, the reboot zoomed in on music itself. Oval 2010-style seems very much like Popp’s attempt to take music apart in order to see how it works, both materially and in a more abstract, semiotic or even spiritual sense.
O and the EPs that accompanied it (Popp refers to the whole project as “O(h)”) are certainly his most musical releases, in the conventional sense. The really shocking thing for many long-term fans was the appearance of four-square rhythms, pounded out on a real live drum set. Hearing out-and-out beats in Oval-world was so shocking that many people didn’t even seem to notice that most of the other sounds were originally produced by acoustic guitars. Oval with acoustic guitars? What is this – a Gastr Del Sol record???
Well, no it’s not. It’s not even like that at all. Hell, it’s not quite like anything else (always a running theme in any good end-of-year-list). Perhaps it’s like a Gastr record in spirit, though – in it’s determination to poke and prod the most standard of musical building blocks into startling new shapes. This is where the freshness comes in – the whole O(h) project fairly reeks of clean air and renewed vigour.
Popp certainly seems pleased with the new sound he’s invented. He must have released going on for 100 tracks this year (many of them short “ringtones”) – and all drawn from the same basic musical template. Having thoroughly investigated this particular formula, one has to wonder where he’ll turn his attention next. Can’t wait to find out!
3. Mount Kimbie – Crooks & Lovers (Hotflush) 2×12″
Dubstep has been twisting itself into all sorts of odd shapes over the last few years, some more interesting than others. The two main modes of post-dubstep strangeness seem to be obnoxious quirkiness (aka wonky) and a strangely emo tendency towards doleful emotionalism (everyone who wants to be the next Burial – you know who you are, emostep culprits!) Not that this stuff is bad per se – much of it is actually very enjoyable. It just seems a little cheap somehow; lacking in charm.
The two fresh-faced lads in Mount Kimbie, on the other hand, make music that’s as charming as can be. Sure, their sound is off-kilter and soulful but it doesn’t have the smugness or the self-pitying glumness that blights a lot of related sounds. Saying Crooks & Lovers is unassuming sounds like damning it with faint praise. But that’s how they get you. On first listen, it all seems a bit off-hand; throwaway – short (36 minutes), light and bouncy. Listen a few times, though and it reveals itself to be ingenious, open-hearted and infectiously funky. It’s not an outwardly heavy record, in any sense but when it hits you, it hits you like a tonne of bricks. And then it apologizes for the inconvenience.
There are distinctly indie-rock-friendly elements here (not least: guitars). With many dance music acts, these would come across as cynical attempts to court the lucrative middlebrow market. But with Mount Kimbie, it all seems like a natural upshot of sincere musical interests. So, when Crooks & Lovers wins the Mercury Music Prize, it’s unlikely to go to these boys’ heads. They seem like the types to shrug something like that off and go back to doing what they actually want to be doing. Whatever that turns out to be in the future, you should be listening.
4. Sylvain Chauveau – Singular Forms [Sometimes Repeated] (Type) LP
France’s Sylvain Chuaveau is certainly versatile. His output ranges from orchestral soundtrack music, to arid digital electronica, to acoustic Depeche Mode covers(!) With its sparse, glitchy electronics and rich, declamatory vocals, Singular Forms is heavily, heavily in debt to the recent work of Scott Walker and – especially – David Sylvian. This is tricky stuff to pull off but if anyone has the chops (if not quite the voice) to make it work, it’s Sylvain Chauveau.
The David Sylvian comparisons are hard to get away from (particularly with the whole weird Sylvain/Sylvian thing) and there are a few English-as-a-Second-Language moments in the lyrics but – on the whole – the quality of the material here is high enough to make such reservations irrelevant. This is a concise album (33 minutes) but it’s an extremely ambitious one that has a genuine sense of Importance about it. Singular Forms is courageous, impressive and often incredibly beautiful.
5. Actress – Splazsh (Honest Jon’s) 2LP
While audiophiles continue to decry the overuse of compression in digital music production, artists throughout electronic dance music’s broad church are making it their aesthetic raison d’etre. The Mount Kimbie album has that pressurized feel of radically over-compressed audio but it’s Actress – aka Darren J. Cunningham – who is the high priest of compression-as-psychedelia. Splazsh perfectly embodies the pressure cooker atmosphere of a long, hot urban summer. It’s like a fire hydrant that’s fit to burst.
While Cunningham is often identified as a post-dubstep artist, his beats have the straight-ahead drive of house music and his sample-mangling techniques recall both classic hip-hop and glitch. But what this sounds most like – usually for better, occasionally for worse – is today. Splazsh is a flagrantly contemporary record; a pointedly digital, pointedly lo-fi burst of colour and energy. It should be obnoxious, thin and abrasive. Instead it’s energizing, witty and often beautiful. “How is this achieved?” you may ask. Well, it’s called musical talent and what we have here is a major talent.
(Also, it’s been suggested that Cunningham is actually using a lot of analogue technology to get that densely compressed sound, which might explain why it floods the ears, rather than simply assaulting them. Anyone who has details of this fellow’s actual working methods is encouraged to leave a comment, explaining all.)
6. Mark Van Hoen – Where is the Truth (City Centre Offices) LP
This fellow was one of the founding members of that Seefeel band (remember them, eh?) and was also involved in Seefeel spin-off act Scala. He’s additionally known for his work as Locust. Wherever he’s gone, he’s peddled a pretty nice line in experimental pop tunes. Where is the Truth continues in that vein and contains possibly the single most beautiful song of the year – “Your Voice”.
It’s great to see someone like Van Hoen, who’s been toiling at the margins for so long, still at it and producing some of his best work ever. His live performance at the Decibel festival in Seattle was one of the highlights of the year, too.
7. Loscil – Endless Falls (Kranky) 2LP
Vancouver’s Scott Morgan – aka Loscil – began incorporating live instruments into his electronic sound-scapes a couple of albums back. The results were predictably seamless – twinkling Fender Rhodes and aching e-bow guitar stitched artfully into Morgan’s thick, warm blankets of sound. On Endless Falls, Loscil continues this aspect of his explorations but displays a new willingness to let the instruments be themselves, rather than merging them into the overall field of sound.
It’s not a huge change but then it never is with Loscil. His work is all about gradual development, after all – inky loops incrementally gaining density over repetitive but intricate rhythmic patter(n)s. Still it’s a significant change; a quantum leap, of sorts. What it brings to Scott’s sound is a previously unheard human agent, which adds to the considerable emotional weight behind his music. This effect is compounded by the appearance of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, providing spoken-word vocals on album closer “The Making of Grief Point”.
And unlike all previous Loscil albums, this one is available on vinyl. Which makes it the one to get, if only by default.
8. Klimek – Movies is Magic (Extended Version) (Anticipate) LP
In 2009, Klimek – aka Sebastian Meissner – released a CD called Movies is Magic, which turned out to be one of the best abstract electronica albums of that year. This year, Meissner made the rather perverse move of releasing a rather more accessible and musically conventional version of the same album exclusively on vinyl.
This Extended Version adds torch song vocals and danceable beats (and some more slightly unfortunate ESL lyrics) to the original album’s appropriately cinematic atmospheres. Theoretically, this could have resulted in some sub-Portishead dinner party music. But there’s plenty here to stop that happening. Fierce intelligence, a palpable sense of dramatic tension, thematic cohesiveness, a non-specific sense of melancholy and an ongoing commitment to no-holds-barred abstraction all conspire to steer this LP way clear of any tepid socializing. It’s an act of sly musical seduction that someone like Matthew Herbert can only dream of.
Great cover too.
9. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Autumn, Again (Mis Ojos Discos) LP
(Also, Nitetime Rainbows 12″)
Philadelphia’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow made it onto last year’s list too. How, you might ask, does a contemporary indie rock band make it onto the Bubblegum Cage III’s year-end list for two years in a row? The answer is obvious: Because this band is fucking awesome, that’s why! But to be more specific, it’s because A Sunny Day in Glasgow is the only contemporary indie rock band that really matters – the only one the goes beyond its specific influences and the current fashions, to produce something truly unique and special.
Hyperbole? Sure but isn’t that the default mode of indie rock criticism? To be a bit more “fair and balanced”, it did seem, a while back, like indie rock was undergoing some sort of creative renaissance. There are certainly some reasonably interesting acts out there catering to the indie audience (Dirty Projectors being a notable example, with various others cropping up on this here blog’s summer mix CD). But most of the current crop of more-interesting-than-you-might-expect indie rockers are really only good for a song or two, usually downloadable from The Hype Machine. ASDiG’s songs, on the other hand, are so immediately energizing and resonant that they fairly compel the attentive listener to seek out at least one whole album.
Autumn Again is a good one to seek out. Like several of this year’s best, it’s a short album (33 minutes, in case you’ve keeping track). Apparently, it’s made up of out-takes from 2009’s epic Ashes Grammar. This seems hard to believe because – as the subtitle Pop Songs 2010 suggests – Autumn Again contains some of the catchiest tunes ASDiG has ever written. If you were making an album and you’d written songs as infectious as “Drink, Drank, Drunk” and “How Does Somebody Say When They Like You?”, why would you leave them off the finished product?
Perhaps it makes sense, though. Ashes Grammar was like one huge ebbing, flowing unified whole. The discrete pop songs featured here might get lost in that oceanic mass – they fare better in this slimmed-down, compartmentalized context.
Other than that, this release represents sonic business as usual: multi-tracked, half-buried vocals, heavily processed guitars, imaginative use of electronics and lashes of reverb on everything. But it’s not what they do, its the way they do it. And right now, nobody does it better than A Sunny Day in Glasgow.
10. Fenn O’Berg – In Stereo (Editions Mego) 2LP
(Also, Fennesz – Szampler cassette, On – Something That Has Form & Something That Does Not LP, Fennesz Daniell Buck – Knoxville LP, Fenn O’Berg – Live in Japan Part One LP, Fenn O’Berg – Live in Japan Part Two LP and a bunch of reissues)
Blimey! 2010 saw a veritable onslaught of Fennesz-related vinyl. Perhaps the most notable release was In Stereo, which reactivated the great man’s long-dormant trio with Peter “Pita” Rehberg and Jim O’Rourke.
Unlike the previous Fenn O’Berg releases, In Stereo is a “proper” studio album. Whereas those previous releases were goofy, mind-bending and occasionally beautiful, In Stereo is dramatically structured, dynamic and not a little dark. The emphasis is still on chaotic laptop duelling but there seems to be a bit of live instrumentation in the mix too. On “Part I” there’s even a rather stirring drum solo! The point is that, by moving into the studio, these Fenn O’Berg chaps came up with the most serious and the most seriously brilliant music they’ve ever recorded together.
To be honest, though, the material on the two (2!) live Fenn O’Berg albums that Mego put out later in the year was just as good as the studio material (especially the phenomenal first side of Live in Japan Part One). Also notable was Szampler, a cassette dump of audio from Fennesz’s old hardware samplers, which makes for a surprisingly coherent listening experience. Something That Has Form… also deserves a shout out here – it’s a low key but utterly beguiling collaboration with On – aka that fellow Sylvain Chauveau and Steven Hess of Pan American/Labradford.
As for the re-issues, the 2LP version of Endless Summer has to be heard to be believed – the bonus tracks are superb, there’s a stunning 15-minute version of “Happy Audio”, the remixed Tina Frank artwork is gorgeous and the LPs themselves have the loudest, most vivid pressings imaginable, courtesy of Dubplates & Mastering.
BUBBLING UNDER (in rough order of preference)
Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me (Drag City) 3LP
Another epic piece of work from the angelic Ms. Newsom. Still, while it is very, very long and impressively coherent, Have One On Me doesn’t quite have the sense of overreaching ambition that made Ys a classic. Instead, it has the feel of someone settling into a sound that will form the basis of a long and productive career.
The Fall – Your Future Our Clutter (Domino) 2LP
A solid effort from the greatest of all rock institutions. Not a patch on 2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent but definitely in the same vein.
Woebot – Moanad (Hollow Earth) CD
The blogging legend’s most accomplished sampledelic excursion to date. A beautifully written love letter to his voluminous record collection.
The Third Eye Foundation – The Dark (Ici d’Ailleurs) LP
Look who’s back! Perhaps sensing that his fan-base had lost interest in his more song-based solo career, Matt Elliott has reactivated The Third Eye Foundation’s doomy beat-scapes. Seriously, The Dark picks up exactly where 2000’s Little Lost Soul left off. Which is a bit weird because TEF has previously showed considerable album-to-album progress. Now, with ten years between albums, Elliott has chosen to give us more of the same. Which ain’t necessarily a bad thing because Little Lost Soul was a fantastic album and The Dark is an extremely ambitious development of its aesthetic.
Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Live in New York (Honest Jon’s) 2LP
More alien chattering from the Basic Channel man and his band of sickly techno aesthetes. Weird hearing a live crowd whooping along to the steady course of this impeccably un-dynamic music, though.
ALSO RECOMMENDED (in rough order of preference)
Seefeel – Faults (Warp) 10″
Absolutely the single of the year. A stunningly infectious and richly textured comeback by one of the most legendary acts from the early UK post-rock scene. The self-titled full-length, scheduled for a February release, promises to be one of 2011’s best albums (if “Dead Guitars” is anything to go by).
Fieldhead – Long Train Journeys (Gizeh) download
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Love is a Stream (Type) LP + CD
Pita – Mesmer (The Tape Worm) cassette
Alog/Astral Social Club – Split 12″ (Fat Cat)
Secret Pyramid – Ghosts (No label) CDR
Esperik Glare – Disruption (Else Product) CDR
Emeralds – Does it Look Like I’m Here? (Editions Mego) 2LP
Yellow Swans – Going Places (Type) LP + CD
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today (4AD) LP
Empty Love + Sade Sade – s/t (Diadem Discos/Bien Bien) CDR
Jim O’Rourke – All Kinds of People – Love Burt Bacharach (AWDR) CD
Haven’t Heard Yet
Koen Holtkamp – Gravity/Bees
anbb – Ret Marut Handshake
BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa – Space Finale
Marcus Schmickler – Palace of Marvels
Cindytalk – The Poetry of Decay
…and goodness knows what else!
A FEW LIVE HIGHLIGHTS
Oneohtrix Point Never, Fennesz and Noveller in Seattle
Fennesz in Vancouver
Robert Henke and Mark Van Hoen in Seattle
Mount Kimbie and Teebs in Seattle
A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Solars in Vancouver
Robin Fox in Vancouver
Tim Hecker and Loscil in Vancouver
Ben Frost, Grouper, Lawrence English and Rafael Anton Irisarri in Seattle
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti in Vancouver
..and a bunch of awesome local shows in Vancouver, featuring the likes of Loscil, Pink Island, EDR, Aerosol Constellations, Ora Cogan, Fieldhead, Gunshae, Prophecy Sun, Secret Pyramid, No UFO’s, Scant Intone, Souns, Kellarissa, Magneticring, Dr. Dad’s Sound Lab, Solars, Holzkopf, Angel Lust, coin gutter, Empty Love, Broken Sleep, Glaciers, The Rita, Flat Grey, AHNA, Twin Crystals, Diadem and so many more… Quite the little scene you people have going for yourselves!
Edit: Fans of this particular scene should make sure not to miss the show at Blim on December 10, which is part of the SquareWaves festival and has a line-up including Fieldhead, Secret Pyramid & Scant Intone (!), Magnetic Ring and many more.
Another edit: Also, there’s another Quiet City show at Blim on December 17. Details here.
A REALLY GREAT RECORD FROM 2009
Richard Skelton – Landings (Type) 2LP+CD
Keeping up with new music is hard. Compiling an end-of-year list is hard. Inevitably, you’ll spend half of, say, 2010 catching up on stuff that quite possibly should have made it into your 2009 best-of list. 2010 yielded plenty of 2009 discoveries – SunnO)))’s terrifying, hilarious and truly brilliant Monoliths & Dimensions being one notable example (Monolake’s gorgeous Silence being another, Lawrence English’s A Colour for Autumn being yet another). There isn’t room to discuss them all here but one 2009 release that deserves more than a passing mention is Richard Skelton’s Landings.
Most writing on the subject of Skelton’s music focuses on the tragic biographical events that inspired it and the unusual set of non-musical practices that are involved in its creation. All this is highly relevant but it can sometimes obscure one of the main upshots of Skelton’s unique approach to instrumental melancholy – which is that he puts out a lot of music and most of it sounds remarkably similar. It could be argued that – beautiful and unique as Skelton’s music is – most people only really need to own one of his albums. But they do need to own one – and Landings is the one they need to own.
Landings has all the slowly modulating, rough-hewn strings, sparse piano figures and subtly processed drones familiar from Skelton’s previous work. But it’s striking for both its epic scope and it relatively large amount of musical variety. Everything Richard Skelton does is beautifully realised, so when he decides to deliver a masterpiece, you know you’re in for a treat.
A COMPILATION FOR WINTER 2010/11
Why not? Click here to download the whole damned thing. And enjoy!
1. The Fall – “Bury Pts 1 & 3”
2. Oval – “Hey”
4. Darkstar – “Gold”
6. Hype Williams – “MVP ’94”
7. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Bright Lit Blue Skies”
8. anbb – “One”
12. Le Volume Courbe – “I Love the Living You”
13. Oneohtrix Point Never – “Returnal (Remixed by Christian Fennesz)”
15. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – “Mirrors Death”
16. Das Racist – “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”
And as a special bonus, here’s a re-up of last year’s winter compilation featuring The Fall, My Bloody Valentine, Antipop Consortium, King Midas Sound, Mordant Music, Broadcast & The Focus Group, Richard Youngs, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Nudge, Pulido Fennesz Siewert Stangl, Sparklehorse + Fennesz, Black to Comm, Moritz Von Oswald Trio, The Field and Flight of the Conchords.
Well, that appears to be it for another year. Seems likely that this here blog will take a bit of a break at the start of 2011 but rest assured: this ain’t over.
Peter Christopherson 1955-2010
Harvey Pekar 1939-2010
Captain Beefheart 1941-2010
OTHER LISTS (updated regularly)
My Bloody Valentine forum
Everything’s Exploding (members only, sorry!)
Rafael Anton Irisarri
The Original Soundtrack
Tiny Mix Tapes
Red Cat Records
Raven Sings the Blues