Friday, June 29, 2007

Top 15 Albums of 2007 So Far (Pt.2)

Well, its been awhile since I started this, mainly because I landed myself in the hospital and my grandmother died, so its been hard to get to write much. But here it is, the continuation. Hopefully everyone who is following this diligantly will wait a few more days for the conclusion, but let's be honest, who is really?

6) Blonde Redhead - 23

Blonde Redhead have never been the most groundbreaking, original band out there, and things haven’t really changed all that much. However, on 23 they have found a sound that sounds so much less forced and approximated than their earlier releases for Touch and Go. Their evolution into a 4AD group has been the best thing that has happened to the band, even if they are sticking fairly closely to the 4AD formula of swirling guitars and breathy vocals. There is still a level of angst present in their music, especially in Amedeo Pace’s songs. So much so that in a way this album seems like the darker cousin to last year’s Asobi Seksu album. This is just one more reminder that the shoegaze genre is not as dead as it has been pronounced to be.

7) The Conformists - Three Hundred
By now, the wait for Three Hundred has become just as infamous as the music that it contains. However, unlike other albums that have gone through label hell recently (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which has become the indie media’s go-to example for this kind of thing) this album sounds like it has just emerged from the hellish struggle it has gone through to even see the light of day. These tracks were recorded at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini in 2005 and the band has been playing them live for at least as long, but this music does not feel the least bit old or outdated. There is no one else doing what the Conformists are doing, such raw, fucked up, and ultimately hysterical ejaculations. Three Hundred makes you hate people.

8) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Since moving to New York City last year, I have spent unbelievable amounts of energy trying to assimilate into a culture that I only vaguely feel a part of. I’ve worked on my expressionless stare, learned to cross streets before the lights tell me its safe...and tried as hard as I could to get the jokes in “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” If I worked hard enough I could become jaded enough to be brought down by the city that has seemed like my savior ever since the move, and maybe then I would be qualified to be a true New Yorker. Luckily Sound of Silver is much more than some silly kid’s soundtrack to getting out of the midwest. Some of these songs even come close to touching his earlier singles, which is a feat that could not be said of LCD’s self titled album. “North American Scum” to “All My Friends” is one of the best song sequences this year. The bass synths on “All My Friends” are some of the deepest and moving sounds produced in the 00s. I am still one of those kids that thinks New York still exists, though, despite all of my hard work.

9) The Clientele - God Save The Clientele
God Save The Clientele is the antithesis of Sound of Silver in that instead of glorifying the City, The Clientele seem much more content in quaint suburban evenings where nothing much happens, but that’s the way everyone likes it. The struggle to balance these two lifestyles has been the most prominent _____ in my life during the past year. The haze that enveloped The Clientele’s earlier albums has been lifted almost completely with God Save The Clientele, but with that change have come more interesting, engaging melodies and orchestration that fits the band’s aesthetic quite well. With each new album The Clientele releases, I get scared that this might be the one where they lose their spark, but with each album I am reassured that even though they are evolving, it isn’t necessarily a negative change. This is one of the most consistently rewarding bands of the past 10 years and it is hard to understand why they haven’t gotten more recognition for their greatness outside of a few good Pitchfork reviews.

10) Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline
There has only been one time where I have stayed awake during one whole disc of Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline. Not that it isn’t an exciting album that is complex and spectacular, but rather I feel so comfortable whenever it is on that I’m transported to a place that can only really be understood while asleep. One of my main criticisms of most ambient music is that there is very little sense of the artist in the music, that drones cannot be filled with as much sorrow or disgust, happiness or joy, as other types of music. Stars of the Lid have shattered that notion, and have evoked all of those emotions in ecstatic ways. And Their Refinement of the Decline is overwhelming, but that just gives us more to discover over time, more to reward us in the end.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Top 15 Albums of 2007 So Far (Pt. 1)

Well folks, we’re halfway through 2007, and its time to round up what this writer believes are the best releases of the year so far. These will be posted in installations of five, starting at the top. Please give feedback or tell me what you think of my picks, writing, or hairstyle.

1) El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

The fact that this album opens with dialogue from Laura Palmer (well, after Donna Hayward’s opening query) is one of the best things about this album. The fall of that character is mirrored throughout I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead as El-P gazes at modern American society and sees that we are in the same plummet as Laura was in her last days. This isn’t a warning, but a mourning of what could have been and what is likely to come. And the sound, this record sounds like the death of society, with beats that pound on your skull and wriggle into your subconscious until you find yourself twitching to them days later. Even when El-P is rapping about more personal matters he is able to make them feel relevant (“The answer is yes, the city wants you gone/and that’s the only thing connecting us, but that connection is so strong”) and is able to connect it all back to the overall theme of self destruction (“How the fuck are you supposed to explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?”). I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is one of the only hip-hop albums in recent history that seems like it is less of a hip-hop album than a grand statement, and it is one of the grandest yet.

2) Panda Bear – Person Pitch

I’m going to say it: Person Pitch is miles above any Animal Collective record. What it lacks in the immediacy of “Who Could Win A Rabbit” or “Grass,” it makes up for in overall arc and development. Even though most of the songs had been released as singles beforehand, it seems almost an impossible task to take them out of the context of the album. “Comfy In Nautica” is a perfect opener, “Bros” is a perfect centerpiece, and “Ponytail” is a strangely perfect closer. There is always so much going on throughout the album that there is something to discover every single listen, and that is the sign of a truly great album that will be approachable for years to come.

3) The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

From Here We Go Sublime is a great record for all the reasons described below.

4) Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Before Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, Kevin Barnes could be called many things, but a self-pitying narcissist wasn’t one of them. This type of turn for any songwriter could be for the worse, but Barnes takes his self-pity and inverts it, turning it into highly entertaining damaged synth-pop. Barns is desperate, begging himself for a “mood shift, shift back to good again/come on, be a friend.” This was the feel good album of early spring that was actually a feel-so-terrible-I-want-to-hide-in-my-room-for-days album of early spring. Only on Hissing Fauna would Barnes sing such a standard line as “Lets tear this fucking house apart,” followed by the gruesome inversion “Lets tear our fucking bodies apart.”

5) Battles – Mirrored

Mirrored shows what good can come out of a band eschewing traditional songwriting for “mathier” techniques. Instead of simply relying on their chops and odd time signatures to reel us in, which is sadly what most math rock does nowadays, Battles creates whole suites and seamlessly strings together complex musical ideas, if that is prog-rock enough for you. They have strange house of mirror-like melodies over their bubbly masterpieces. Sure, they are competent technically, but what is present here that separates them from the math rock bands that will never get out of basements and arts centers is that they are skilled musicians as well as technical players. Battles can write a pop song like “Atlas” and still turn it into a mindfuck begging the question, “WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?”

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Discussion of Two Kompakt Records (aka The Inagural Post)

There have been two releases this year on Kompakt that have caught the eyes of many critics. Gui Boratto is a Brazilian producer who has been working for ten years with various artists from Brazil (including Gal Costa) and around the world (Garth Brooks?) before he decided to concentrate on his own works in 2005, resulting in the album released this year, Chromophobia. The Field is the moniker of Axel Willner, who hails from Stockholm, Sweden and was signed to Kompakt after sending in a demo to the label. His first album, From Here We Go Sublime is the most critically acclaimed album of 2007 according to Metacritic. While they come from different backgrounds and are sonically quite disparate, they deserve to be compared purely because they are the most prominent releases of this year on one of the most prominent techno labels in the world.

From Here We Go Sublime works within many more genre constraints than Chromophobia. For most of Sublime the kick is consistently four on the floor and there is most often a "pah" to compliment it, while the beats are much more varied throughout the latter. This makes Chromophobia much easier to digest on first listen, rather than Sublime, which is so consistent with its throb that by the end it would be no surprise if the listener's heartbeat was altered for a week. It is in many ways like Seefeel’s Quique in it’s pairing of ambient shoegaze and techno textures. There is excitement in Chromophobia, and that excitement is palpable in the structure of the songs and in the sequencing. As the album builds and eventually climaxes we are bombarded with phrases like "what a beautiful life." Boratto is constantly teasing the listener, removing elements of the track and adding them back in, letting them build and take their own shape rather than trying to meticulously control them. By the time we get to the album's best track and aforementioned climax "Beautiful Life," we are ready to forget about anything that may be plaguing our minds and smile and nod our head as we are enveloped by synthesizers.

From Here We Go Sublime, on the other hand, is a more difficult listening experience and is easy to get lost in. The repetition can become numbing, especially as only one track ends before the five-minute mark. There is very little of the excitement found in Chromophobia throughout Sublime. In the place of that joy, there is instead relentless perseveration and blankets of haze, the music hardly ever letting go. It is not only mysterious, but also impenetrable and distant in a way that only records made on a machine can be. There is absolutely nothing human about the sound of From Here We Go Sublime. Even the sampled voices like the ones on the opener "Over The Ice" are inhuman and cold, manipulated so their original intent is lost.

All of these points, however, are not negative criticisms but exactly what this type of music should do to the listener, whether on the dance-floor or not. The creation of electronic dance music may be one of the biggest admissions of human loneliness and alienation of the past half century. Through technology we have been able to express the loneliness and inhuman feelings that were unable to be expressed previously because music actually had to be created by the humans themselves. When dancing in a club, which was the original intent of house and techno, one is as solitary as one can be when surrounded by people. Everyone is looking for a partner, a fuck, a temporary solution to a larger problem that plagues everyone from the moment they learn about sex. You are never as alone as when you are looking for a companion.

The repetition that is such an integral part of The Field's music, and much electronic music in general, is a form of comfort and a shield from the unpredictability of life outside that contained environment. No matter how hectic and unpredictable life can be outside of the dance-floor, there is always the assurance that the next bar will go to the same chord it did before, that the kick will still pound away, and there is finally a constant in life. This repetition invites us to let our guard down and throw ourselves into the music, forgetting all except the beat and following it through the night.

Of course if From Here We Go Sublime was simply a genre exercise, even a fairly good one, it wouldn't be half as brilliant as it is. The fact that Willner creates something unique out of such a strict formula is what makes it so remarkable. It is great simply because it is so rigidly formulaic, but the formula is used in ways that create a sense of an artist. A Field track is definitely a Field track, from the hazy shoegaze synths to the chopped up vocals. This approach is what makes it hard to sit through the first time the listener is presented with it, but with repeated listens the music opens up and we are able to dive in and let the throb overpower us.

From Here We Go Sublime presents the listener with many more complexities and contradictions than Boratto’s album, which is exactly what good electronic music should do. Chromophobia is an amazing album, but is not as complete a statement as Sublime is. Many times it feels as if it is simply a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, which is what Willner achieves to such an amazing degree. Chromophobia will appeal to rock and pop listeners as well as the rabid Kompakt fans, while Sublime will most likely appeal more to the genre’s core audience. It is highly unlikely that any electronic album will touch these two this year