Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone has a wonderful holidays. I am going to take a blog hiatus until January 7, 2013 so I will see all of you in the new year.

Jam of the Day: Lone - "Ghost Channel"

808 State-ish track from producer Lone that was made prior to his brilliant album Galaxy Garden.

2012 Favorite Albums: Numbers 10-1

And now, the final albums at the top of list of 2012 Favorite Albums:

10. Jessie Ware - Devotion

Jessie Ware's back story reads like a 50's musical, backup singer plucked out of obscurity on the strength of her voice and pushed into the spotlight. What's different about Ware is how she has taken all of this in stride, seeing it all as a lark, that she is somehow playing a role, and none of this should be taken all that seriously. While her self-deprecating view of being a pop star keeps her grounded, there is nothing in her music that shows her not taking her craft seriously. Devotion is one of the best debut releases in ages, and is quite simply the best pop album of the year so far. Ware was noticed first singing on several EDM and UK bass singles from producers SBTRKT, Sampha, and Joker, her earthy voice the calm center around all the swirling electronics. It was fear at first that her solo material would stay too close to this type of track and that her voice would be lost within too much production overload. Instead, Ware chose to work with producers Dave Okumu (of UK art-rockers The Invisible), Julio Bashmore, and Kid Harpoon (who worked with Florence and the Machine on their sophomore album Ceremonials) and has put together a collection of tracks that put all the focus on Ware's amazingly supple voice, which can veer sharply from a Sade-like coo to a full on Whitney Houston rafter raiser in a split second. Main producer Okumu's touch is felt the most on the album, providing a subtle, and minimal backing but not providing merely aural wallpaper; the music works with Ware rather than overpowering.

09. Burial - Kindred EP

Though we know a little more about 2-step master Burial, aka Will Bevan, since the release of his landmark album Untrue, he has not been quick to capitalize on his fame and influence by releasing a ton of music. We've only gotten a couple of collaborations with Four Tet and Thom Yorke, and last year's stunning Street Halo EP. And those releases have stuck fairly uniformly with the Burial aesthetic, with minor variations that still seem to evoke the typical Burial sound while still advancing his sound. Scheduled to be released last year, but held up by production issues, Kindred is the latest teaser from Burial. While not a full album of material, indeed, Burial seems less than in a hurry to come out with another full length, Kindred's three tracks, which are longer and denser, take up almost 30 minutes of run time, and, in fact, show a new side to his sound, while still retaining the "Burial" trademarks. While pitch-shifted vocal samples still play a role in Burial's world, the are not the focus here, simply becoming another element in the mix. What is most striking about these tracks, aside from their length (two tracks edge the 12 minutes mark while one is almost 8 minutes), is the density and pure weight of what is going on. Burial's previous work was all about atmosphere, while here, the tracks become all about texture.

08. Deftones - Koi No Yokan

Seven albums in, one wouldn't expect a band to be still toying with and expanding their sound, but Deftones still are working subtle changes into their music, making one of their strongest, if not best, albums ever. Coming off the devastating car crash that leaves their original bassist Chi Cheng still recuperating, it was not known how it would effect the band. After shelving the Eros album, Deftones released Diamond Eyes which was amazingly assured and their most direct work yet. Focusing more on sound dynamics and less of their aggressive side, it was an album that many were confused about because it almost hinted at a dormant "pop" side to the band. Honestly, while I love their harder edged material, I do have more of a soft spot for when the band goes off grid into a more alternative/indie/shoegaze direction. Koi No Yokan is probably the best of both worlds for people who like all the sides of the band. There is a nice mix of rougher material and more esoteric numbers, with vocalist Chino Moreno toning down his more annoying screamo qualities. And most striking about the album is how amazing it all sounds; the production work makes each track soar with dramatic touches.

07. The Twilight Sad - No One Can Ever Know

No One Can Ever Know is a complete triumph of a band updating their sound and taking it in a fresh direction, but it still sounding like the band itself. There will be no mistaking that this is not a Twilight Sad album, Graham's voice is still front and center, bearing the emotional weight. Of course the most significant change is that keyboards and drum machines take the lead, with only a few tracks even containing guitars, and when they are in the mix, they are used in a more textural way. The album is brutal in its icy precision; beats are martial and unforgiving, keyboards are bleak and cold, with Graham's voice the only source of humaneness. Even so, the lyrics are still as haunting and disturbing as ever. Where on Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters the lyrics described the effects of physical and emotional abuse while growing up, No One Can Ever Know is all about the damage later on in life. In fact, the album is almost nihilistic in its themes, the protagonists all damaged and bent sinister in their lives, with the music making it seem like all is hopeless.

06. Miike Snow - Happy To You

Miike Snow, the indie-electronic trio comprised of the production team of Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (also known as Bloodshy & Avant) and singer Andrew Wyatt, released their debut album back in 2009 and it was a surprise success considering how strange the album was. It was thought originally that Karlsson and Winnberg, who had produced for Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna, would create a fairly traditional pop album in the mold of those artists, yet confounded everyone with the quirky nature of their tracks. It was an album that, while having several immediate sounding singles, still took a long time to grow on me, having to earn its spot among my most listened to records. Since that album, they have toured extensively and have released some one-off singles here and there, never really giving much indication what direction they would be heading in. Over the past few months, through viral video and ad campaigns they have been teasing the new album Happy To You, most notably through a very bizarre series of videos featuring the "perfect man" named Jean Noel Mustonen. This search for and attempts at perfection are littered through the lyrics of the album, the characters always undone by their faults and imperfections. Despite some of the jauntiest and brightest musical backing, there is an intense sense of loneliness and melancholy throughout the record. It is pop music as soul diving exploration.

05. Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

When asked about the meaning of the title of their 5th album, frontman, guitarist and songwriter Joe Duplantier said “When you become a musician, you don’t have a boss telling you what to do so you have to be very responsible.” Then notes that, “With freedom comes responsibility, so I’m asking myself, ‘What is freedom? What does it mean to me?’ L’Enfant Sauvage reflects on that. There’s no answer though. There’s just life and questions.” Through 11 blisteringly precise tracks, Duplantier and company touch on many themes of self-reliance vs. dependence and how ultimately we are all in control of our own lives and how we live it. L'Enfant Sauvage is a brilliant metal album that I highly recommend checking out if you are even remotely interested in the genre at all. Aside from the usual intense guitars, guttural howls, and machine like drumming, there is a focus here on melody, texture, and impact that raises it above mere technical proficiency to something bordering on the sublime.

04. Halls - Ark

London producer/singer Sam Howard, a.k.a. Halls, is likely bored of people comparing to other artists. After floating through his debut Ark, the names that flutter forth include James Blake, Burial, Tim Hecker, Hood, and Talk Talk; all distinct and wondrous acts that could cause the most confident artist in the world to crack under the weight of the pressure of the comparison. To Howard's credit, he seems to understand this pitfall and instead of trying to skirt the comparisons, he chooses to ignore them and adds his distinctive take on more singer-songwriter leaning UK bass music. Ark will always be known for the amazing first single "White Chalk," which pulls its influence directly from James Blake, striking forward on stark piano chords and Howard's wan, plaintive voice, pinged by echoes of electronics and then it all falls silent, the kick drum comes in and the choir of voices. It is a pure moment of beauty that never fails to make the hair on my arm stand on end. "White Chalk" is a stunning track that is one of the most sonically perfect songs you will hear all year. For most young artists, having such a distinctive and brilliant track such as "White Chalk" makes most of their other tracks pale in comparison. Howard doesn't choose to remake this moment over and over again, and certainly, while no other track quite stands out like it, Ark still showcases an artist that knows what he is doing if still searching out what his sound is.

03. Beach House - Bloom

Over four albums Beach House has never made drastic changes in their sound, choosing to add, refine, and polish it subtly and gently. You can basically enter their world at any point and be transfixed and transported into a gauzy realm of drifting keyboards, shimmering guitars and singer Victoria Legrand's amazingly evocative voice. With 2010's Teen Dream, I thought perhaps Beach House had reached the height of their powers and sound, and could take it no further. To me, there is really no other song as perfect as "10 Mile Stereo" from that album; its power to take over my emotions is unparalleled. It is the equivalent of knowing when there is nothing left to say and leaving at just the right moment; keeping your audience sated, but still wanting more. While I always wanted more from them, in my heart I knew I was going to be disappointed. Initially, Bloom sounded too much like Teen Dream, as if the songs could have been recorded during the same sessions. Several listens in I still wasn't really finding anything new that excited me, but something kept pulling me back to Bloom, and wouldn't release its grip. It finally dawned on me that , while Teen Dream was a fantastic record and has some of their best songs ever ("10 Mile Stereo," "Norway," and "Walk In The Park"), the album as a whole falls short of brilliant because of a couple of weaker tracks. Bloom, on the other hand, doesn't have any one or two songs that stand out from the pack; instead, the entire record is uniformly stellar. Each track plays of the next and taking one out would disrupt the entire flow. Their command of melody and strong lyrics propels them into the upper echelons of indie-rock. Bloom is their first masterpiece, and is a singularly haunting experience.

02. Sun Airway - Soft Fall

I saw the Philadelphia-based duo Sun Airway open for White Lies and Asobi Seksu in spring of last year and their brand of heavenly synthpop was refreshing but ultimately seemed lacking in a lot of substance. Upon listening to their debut album Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, nothing much changed my initial impression of their sound. The album was a very competent collection of dreamy, chillwave inspired laptop/bedroom pop that never seemed to reach out for anything daring or out of the norm. In this day and age, however, I am always willing to give a band that is remotely listenable a second chance, as the racks are littered with bands that have really mediocre debuts that come back with something completely amazing second time around (Radiohead springs to mind). Not that I am throwing Soft Fall in the same pile as The Bends, but in the realm of major leaps in sound and quality, Sun Airway's sophomore album is a complete gem.

Strangely, there is really not much different from their debut. They are still moving in a netherworld between Animal Collective's dense sonic explorations and the softer chillwave vibes of bands like Washed Out and Active Child, but here, instead of sounding wispy and fey, there is more complexity to their music, adding needed weight. it helps that songs all work together cohesively, making a much stronger statement. With that said, I will admit that initially Soft Fall comes across as insubstantial, and only after many listens does the brilliance of these tracks surface. But give it the time in needs, and you will not be able to stop listening to it.

01. Purity Ring - Shrines

Earlier this year I saw Purity Ring open for Neon Indian in a small club and was completely unimpressed by their performance. Granted, the sound was erratic and overpowering, making their setup of sampler and vocals even more limited. Singer Megan James and instrumentalist Corin Roddick relied too heavily on gimmicks rather than letting the power of their music rule the day. Roddick performed behind a table with a strange light installation that also served as a percussive instrument, lighting up when struck. James, wearing hand-sewn clothing, lurked about the stage with a halting presence, seemingly unaware of the audience before her. Based on my initial impressions I was ready to dismiss their debut album outright. When Shrines arrived in my inbox, it was with a heavy sigh that I set out to listen to it, but tried as I might, I couldn't dislike it. In fact, I couldn't stop playing it. What came across as muddled and tinny on the live stage was transformed in the studio; the production a dense, tactile beast of a thing, jumping out of the speakers to wrap you up in its spell.

Shrines is a mix of clattering, slowed down Dirty South beats, atmospheric keyboards, and James' innocent coo, which is manipulated, twisted, and mangled within an inch of its life. To a friend, I likened it to Clams Casino producing for The Knife/Bjork/Liz Fraser. The soundscapes produced by Roddick are never overdone or busy, there is a perfect place for every note, and nothing is squandered. Shrines is simultaneously warm and inviting, dark and foreboding; reveling in the push and pull between the two.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 Favorite Albums: Numbers 20-11

Almost to the end, here is the continuation of my list of 2012 Favorite Albums:

20. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

With their name taken from the function used to create a triangle symbol on a Mac computer, four-piece Cambridge quartet Alt-J obviously have no intention to color between the lines. Drawing comparisons from everyone from Radiohead to The xx, to Foals, and snarkily categorizing their sound as "folk-step," Alt-J are restlessly inventive, combining stark guitar-led numbers with subtle electronics and samples, all anchored by singer Joe Newman's gravelly croon. Upon reading the almost endlessly glowing reviews from the UK press about their debut album An Awesome Wave, I was a bit concerned that the hype was more than the music could bear. In this case, the hype is, for the most part, warranted. An Awesome Wave is a solid, and at times brilliant debut that always seems to be one step ahead of one's expectations.

19. The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence

Capping off a whirlwind year of almost unbearable hype, two mix tapes, mysterious videos, collaborations with Drake, and a hundred different remixes, Canadian collective The Weeknd finish up their mix tape trilogy with Echoes of Silence. Where House of Balloons reveled in its luxurious tales of debauchery, and Thursday almost collapsed under its industrial cacophony, Echoes of Silence is akin to the long walk home from a night of excess. More muted and, dare I say it, more accessible than the previous installments, Echoes of Silence is perhaps the easiest entry point to The Weeknd, but is still uniquely The Weeknd. The focus this time is less on sonic exploration and more on Abel Tesfaye's gorgeous falsetto.

18. Swans - The Seer

Swans' reputation after 30 years of recording and performing is nearly unimpeachable. From their no wave beginnings, brutal punishing live shows, up to their embracing softer, more ambient textures, they have always pushed the boundaries of what their music is and can be. Leader Michael Gira disbanded the group in the late 90s to form a new band The Angels of Light which focused more on songwriting and embracing a more traditional, alt-country feel. In the late 2000s, Gira announced that he had more to say with Swans and toured along with releasing a new record,My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which, while not a stunning return to form, was a solid return for the band. As described by Gira, Swans' latest record The Seer "took 30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album, as well as any other music I’ve ever made…" Indeed, The Seer touches on almost everything, drone, no wave skronk, industrial, blues, ambient, black metal, and country, and basically bludgeons the listener over an incredible 2 hour run time, with the title track alone going well over 30 minutes. The Seer is a challenging listen, one that both encapsulates Swans' full body of work while also taking it the next level. This is not made for passive listening; it practically begs you to try and ignore it.

17. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Grizzly Bear's last record Veckatimest wasn't so much their breakthrough album as it was a light-year leap ahead sonically and creatively. It was a dense, challenging listen that still held up as one of the great pop albums of this century. I will admit that when I got the follow up Shields in my inbox I was hesitant to even load it on my iPod for fear it would end up being horribly disappointing or at worst, merely ok. Thankfully, the two teaser tracks "Sleeping Ute" and "Yet Again" were classic Grizzly Bear and made me less apprehensive about diving into their first new music in years. In comparison with Veckatimest, Shields is a more streamlined record, less complex and more direct; not to say that Grizzly Bear have become The xx or anything, there is just more economy at play. As with the new record from The xx, the retreat to a more minimal palate seems and feels right here, as if the band knew that taking things in the opposite direction would have been a step backward. Ultimately, Shields stands on its own in the Grizzly Bear canon as its own beast. It definitely sounds like and is a Grizzly Bear album, but indicates that the band knows what they want to do with and in what direction they want to take their sound. From the folky warmth of Yellow House to the insane cacophonous brilliance of Veckatimest, to now the measured chaos and control of Shields, Grizzly Bear reasserts their claim to being one of the most exciting and creative rock bands in the world.

16. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory

I will admit that the debut album from Cloud Nothings was unmemorable to me. I actually had to go back and listen to it again in order to try and remember what their sound was like. Cloud Nothings was 11 blasts of short pop-punk that held no personality or interest for me, and was quickly forgotten amid much stronger releases in 2011. Almost a year to the day, they return with their second full length, Attack On Memory, and whether it is owing to a new found maturity or the production work from the legendary Steve Albini, this album is tighter and full of memorable hooks, and is balls out one of the best sounding rock records of the year. Albini gives the tracks more room to breathe, which is a mere 8 tracks, feel more substantial and not as slap dash as their debut. Previously, Cloud Nothings' sound perched precariously on the edge of twee. Muscular, and more strident, these tracks are full of coiled menace, ready to attack at a moment's notice.

15. Arca - Stretch 1 & 2

Venezuelan born, New York based producer Arca released his first EP Stretch 1 back in April on the fledgling UNO NYC label. It mainly got attention based on the creepy video for the single "Ass Swung Low," featuring the strange computer animated images of kids and babies spitting out some of the most hilariously vile words ever. But more distinctive was the production itself, vocals low and manipulated within an each of their life, as if Tricky was brought back as a cyber-demon. The beats slowed down to an almost coma-like pulse, a dense foreboding atmosphere of drugged out paranoia. The rest of Stretch 1 does what any good debut EP should do, provide a nice overview of what the artist can do, and indicate what direction they are heading in. Where Stretch 1 is a perfect intro into Arca's off-kilter world, it almost does nothing to prepare you for the all-out sonic brilliance of Stretch 2. Stretch 2 never seems to follow any set pattern, and the first few listens can be frustrating as it becomes difficult to settle into any sort of groove. The blunted feel of the album takes flight in the middle with tracks like the punishing "Strung" and the aptly named "2 Blunted" whose vocals are so manipulated and twisted into a druggy haze you almost can smell the smoke.

14. Man Without Country - Foe

Welsh duo Man Without Country (with a third man for live performances) are in a community of synth-pop/shoegaze acts that focus less on synth hooks and more on a broad cinematic sweep of lush synth washes. Bands like M83, Hooray For Earth, Bear In Heaven, and Delphic come to mind. In interviews the band describe their band name as referring to a feeling of not being connected. In keeping with this description, Man Without Country's debut album Foe is a hunting and gloomy batch of tracks that hold a fairly despairing view of humanity, relationships, and life in modern times. Although a reading of the lyric sheet can get a little depressing, thankfully the music is for the most part lush, with pulsating dance beats meant to bring you on the dance floor and not isolated in a headphones cocoon.

13. Crystal Castles - (III)

After their abrasive debut album, I really pondered where Crystal Castles could go with their sound as they seemed to have boxed themselves into a corner. With their second album, not much really changed, however, there seemed to be a better flow and mix to the their tracks when generally follow a "pretty" and "harsh" pattern. With (III), again, there is not a change up in sound so much as a change in focus, leaning more towards "pretty" and almost completely forsaking "harsh." For some, this lack of a push and pull over the course of the record might seem to be heresy, but for me, this clarity, if you will, adds a much needed element that has always seemed to be lacking. Here, the tracks flow into and out of one another seamlessly, without the crazy juxtapositions of earlier releases. Where the music is more streamlined and trance-like, the unsettling vision of the lyrical themes is where the contrasts are now focused. And with Ethan Kath holding production duties, he almost renders Alice Glass' vocals inhuman, twisted and manipulating them beyond recognition for the most part, only letting slight glimpses throughout the fog of electronics.

12. Brandy - Two Eleven

The title of Brandy's sixth studio album Two Eleven refers both to her birthday and also the day that one of Brandy's idol's Whitney Houston passed away, and finds the singer in a more reflective mood. Coming off the relative failure of her last record Human, Brandy veers away from the more edgy material she did with Timbaland, and moves back to more traditionally grounded R&B. Working with a army of producers, including Sean Garrett, Bangladesh, and Rico Love, Brandy mostly eschews fancy production except on a few tracks, preferring to focus more on her voice, which is in fine form here. While there are plenty of different songwriters working with Brandy on these tracks, there is a consistency here that keeps it from feeling like a jumble of different tracks. The songs deal primarily with relationships in various stages, and provide a prism into the mind of a woman figuring out how to deal with those issues. It is both joyous and painful, but a necessary path to take in becoming who she is.

11. Errors - Have Some Faith In Magic

Post-electro instrumental quartet Errors, from Glasgow, Scotland, have been amassing critical acclaim and bigger audiences over the years since forming in 2004. Their first two albums, It's Not Something But It Is Like Whatever and Come Down With Me, were full of spiky, hypnotic synth driven post rock that definitely earned them the title, the electronic Mogwai (in fact, the comparison is even more apt considering the band is on Mogwai's Rock Action label). Before Have Some Faith In Magic was released, there were rumors that this would be the Error's "vocal" album. While indeed the band have incorporated "vocals" into the mix, this is not like a Depeche Mode album, instead, the vocals, which are all but unintelligible, merely add another layer of texture and sound. It creates a more nuanced sound for the band and gives an indication of where the band is headed. Perhaps with more confidence, they will actually put together true lyrics and vocals for future albums. For now, however, we are left with this incarnation, and quite rightly, it is a good place for the band to be. Have Some Faith In Magic is perhaps their most cohesive and well-thought out record so far, and while there may not be the same sense of danger and wonder that their earlier albums provided, this new found focus definitely makes up for it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jam of the Day: Cloud Boat - "I Left For A Reason (It Escapes me Now)"

Evocative track from the London duo combines ethereal guitars over a skittering beat with a melancholy vocal.

2012 Favorite Albums: Numbers 30-21

Hump day and halfway point in my list of favorite albums of the year:

30. Tame Impala - Lonerism

Tame Impala's debut album Innerspeaker was a pleasant surprise when it hit in 2010. A potent mix of sixties psychedelia, Brit pop reverence, and chugging riffage all washing over you like waves. While it wore its influences on its sleeve, Innerspeaker was a surprisingly modern take on the styles, and transcended any claims of being mere copy-cats. Sophomore album Lonerism is still a Tame Impala record but the sonic palate has definitely been forced wide open, sounding bigger and more expansive, and bursting at the seams with new ideas and sounds. Lonerism is a darker, melancholy record about general themes of isolation and introspection, which are more subtle than overt throughout the tracks. There is density to these tracks, but the analog instrumentation is mostly warm and inviting. There is more attention to keyboards this time around, and elevates Tame Impala's sound ten fold, allowing their songs to have more heft and weight to them. Several of the tracks off Innerspeaker were all swirly haze and nothing of much substance to hold them down. Lonerism feels tangible and the work of a band that wants to push where their sound goes. While Innerspeaker was a really good record, Lonerism is Tame Impala's first foray into great territory.

29. Passion Pit - Gossamer

Where Passion Pit's debut album Manners was a technicolor Disney cartoon, follow up Gossamer is the Pixar animated 3-D IMAX extravaganza. The album is both brighter, darker, subtler, over-the-top, and basically every other dichotomy you can imagine. In lesser hands, this approach would come across as schizophrenic and slap-dash, however, lead singer Michael Angelakos along with Manners producer Chris Zane have all the balls in the air and masterfully keep them at play. The album veers wildly between electro-pop raveups, everything but the kitchen sink production numbers, to beautiful takes on modern R&B, all of it anchored by Angelakos' supple voice. Where in the past he could lean too heavily on his screeching falsetto, here, it is used sparingly, allowing Angelakos to use his wide range to excellent effect, bringing out subtle nuances throughout.

28. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It

Seattle songwriter Mike Hadreas (a.k.a. Perfume Genius) burst onto the music scene a couple of years ago with the haunting and stark collection of piano ballads called Learning that were so intimate you could hear his feet on the piano pedals. Lyrically, the album was full of confessional tales that spoke honestly and openly about the singer himself, and were almost harrowingly personal. After a period of isolation due to some trauma and self-destruction, Hadreas emerges once again with another set of piano based tracks called Put Your Back N 2 It, which ups the production quality and range of instrumentation, but still keeps its haunting, confessional feel. While these tracks are quite personal and intimate, dealing with Hadreas' addiction and emotional issues, as well many songs from a gay man's point of view, there are more universal themes here dealing with intimacy, addiction, feelings of self-worth, violence, family, and hope that will resonate with a far larger audience. The album also has a broader palate of instruments in which he can fill in the colors of his music. Most of the tracks are piano based, but there is also room for guitars, keyboards, and even *gasp* drums. Put Your Back N 2 It is an emotionally draining album but one that ultimately focuses on hope and is one of the best albums of the year

27. Bear In Heaven - I Love You, It's Cool

Bear In Heaven's last album, the brilliant Beast Rest Forth Mouth, was a Bergman movie in comparison to their new album's technicolor/vistavision spectacle. Trading BRFM's glacial cool for brighter moods and temps, I Love You, It's Cool is a shimmering day-glo fantasy, full of bursting synths, driving rhythms, and wide open expanses. While the tracks on BRFM could get lost in their insular world, the 10 tracks here are practically begging to be played in a huge stadium.


16-year old wunderkind producer Marcel Everett, who goes under the moniker XXYYXX, is in that sort of undefinable stage where his musical output is frequently all over the map, trying a little Dirty South, two step, garage, dubstep, chillwave, and glo-fi before swirling around and starting all over again from the beginning. He is young enough to where this comes across as youthful experimentation and not a case of ADD. On his second full length, the self-titled XXYYXX, he is still searching for his own distinct style, often wearing his influences a little too brashly on his sleeve, but despite some musical similarities, his producer chops are too instinctive to dismiss the music as outright aping. I suppose if you want to get general about his sound, this music could be called future garage. Using mostly hip-hop inspired beats under atmospheric synths and rumbling bass, XXYYXX focuses on a slowed down aesthetic with vocal samples stretched and pitch shifted into almost unrecognizable forms.

25. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel

Uncompromising and stubborn, Fiona Apple always follows her own path. Following the success of her debut album Tidal and her hit single "Criminal," Apple refused to let that success determine the direction of her career. She could have easily chosen to repeat that formula over and over again, exploiting herself and her songs, and yet, she forged ahead with her unique vision. Following Tidal with a second album with a ridiculously long title (the album shorthanded as When the Pawn... actually is a poem with over 400 characters) and a much more inscrutable trajectory, Apple made no bones about her eccentricity, and even seemed to revel in it. This eccentricity, however, caused many issues between Apple and her record label. The follow up, entitled Extraordinary Machine, was recorded over a period of several years and found its release date delayed several times, leading to the assumption that Apple's label was unhappy with its commercial prospects. After an Internet campaign to the get the album released, leaked versions of the album, and more delays, the album was released to universal acclaim, showcasing more elaborate instrumentation and songwriting; a far cry from the relative simplicity of Tidal. Not much has been heard from Apple since that release. After promoting the album, Apple basically disappeared from public view to work on songs. Seven years later (and with much less controversy), Apple finally releases the follow up, The Idler Wheel... (again with the long, drawn out album title), and again changes direction. Where Extraordinary Machine threw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, The Idler Wheel has a much more limited palate, primarily focusing on Apple's piano with some percussive effects provided by drummer/producer Charley Drayton. The Idler Wheel is not an easy album to warm to; Apple's opaque, looping lyrics and the minimal, yet flourished musical backing initially keep one at arm's length. But listen after listen, the album finds a way to seep into your veins; a turn of phrase, a delightful piano melody, or even an odd use of percussion hook you deep into its spell.

24. Sigur Ros - Valtari

Valtari is a gorgeous record and impeccably produced, its 8 tracks forming more of a singular experience, a suite of songs, instead of individual moments. There is an ease with the flow of the record, taking its time to get where it is going. The album feels like a journey through life, beginning in hushed environments, getting louder and more purposeful in the middle section, then slowly fading into nothingness. Like its haunting, magical album cover, Valtari defies easy description or logic. It will either speak to you or not. I resisted for the longest time, allowing my initial disappointment to cloud my enjoyment of what is a very intimate, special record. It inhabits that space in the day between light and dark when everything seems to be in a hyper-twilight; where everything has both a crystalline clarity and hazy outline, where it both illuminates and confounds. There is a complexity here that is subtle and sublime, and takes you on your own personal journey, wherever that make take you. Valtari is stunningly realized and one of the best records of the year.

23. Death Grips - The Money Store

Sacramento, California rap/punk/noise trio Death Grips burst out of thin air last year with the excellent mixtape Exmilitary, which found its way onto many best of lists. I enjoyed it and appreciated it, but the sheer aggression and brutality of it all left me a little cold and unwilling to fully embrace it. Since its release, the trio, made up of Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride (vocals), Zach Hill (production / drums), and Andy Morin aka Flatlander (production), has signed a major label deal with Epic records, gone on tour (with celebrated sets at Coachella), and have now released the first of two planned albums, The Money Store. Moving to a major label has not effected Death Grips' vision and sound much, if at all. There are no high stakes producers, pop sheen, or collaborations with Nicki Minaj or some other singer/rapper. Basically it is a logical progression from Exmilitary, retaining the bleak world view and intense sonic production, but sounding more expansive, and hookier/catchier. Not that these are mainstream/pop tracks; they just have more to them that brings you back again and again.

22. Mount Eerie - Clear Moon/Ocean Roar

There is a theory that past, present, and future exists all at once and that our tiny brains cannot handle this complex concept and so it only recognizes the present and unfolds everything in a linear progression. I think sometimes the brain slips and we do get small glimpses of what multidimensional time is actually like, either through deja vu, premonitions, or dreams and nightmares, and these moments are what cause us anxiety, emptiness, loneliness, and melancholy; to know that life is but an instant, happening all at once, vast and extreme, but ultimately, and hauntingly meaningless. Not that this is the overarching concept or meaning behind the new Mount Eerie record Clear Moon, but it was something that kept drifting in and out of my mind while it drifted in and out of head. Part of a two album cycle, Clear Moon is Phil Elverum's first release this year (the second being Ocean's Roar, due in the fall), and is said to be his contemplation of growing up and living quietly in a small northwest town and how brief moments of clarity break through. The record was recorded in a de-sanctified church using only analog equipment, and has a gorgeous other-worldly sound and feel to it. Elverum allows the record to be deeply personal but also universal. We have all at some point in our daily lives been overwhelmed by the vastness of the world and existence, and Clear Moon is almost the perfect encapsulation of those moments.

The flip side to Clear Moon, Ocean Roar sonically is cast from a similar mold, the presentation is far louder, distorted, aggressive, and sloppier, exchanging the internal contemplation for external strum and drang. The press release describes Ocean Roar as “the audio equivalent of the blanket of thick dark water vapor that covers the Pacific Northwest for most of the year, revealing only brief glimpses of illumination..." insisting that these are not songs per se but “studies in sound, attempts to alter the way the brain experiences its surroundings after being subjected to endless chords, repeating note flurries, stretched drones. It’s 'psychedelic' in same way as seasickness or vertigo. Warmth and distortion, burning driftwood, 9 months of rain.” While it is a rather obtuse description of the album, after listening to it, it begins to make sense. Most of the tracks are well north of 5 minutes long, taking the time to explore repetition, drone, and the ugly with the beautiful. Ocean Roar feels like Elverum needed to open the door to the church he records in and get outside his head for awhile and breathe the fresh air and explore the environs of the Pacific Northwest.

21. Yeasayer - Fragrant World

On their 2007 debut album All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer epitomized the height of Brooklyn hipster cool, merging all sorts of world music genres into a surprisingly cohesive mix of dancey electronic pop. 2010's Odd Blood found them trying to expand upon that sound, and while featuring some really great tracks, seemed to be a little too much too soon, as if their vision was greater than their abilities. On their third album Fragrant World it feels like those abilities have finally coalesced, delivering 11 tracks that each stand on their own and also function as a whole, seamlessly flowing together. Working more from a electronic bent, Fragrant World is a swirling mix of gorgeous electronic atmospheres, hooky synth lines, dense drum programming and percussion, and tweaked and pitch shifted vocals.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jam of the Day: Starkey - "Command"

Damn, this is a heavy track.

2012 Favorite Albums: 40-31

Continuing my list of favorite albums of 2012, here are numbers 40-31:

40. Santigold - Master Of My Make-Believe

As the album title and striking cover photo demonstrate, however, Santigold is in complete control of her vision. Master Of My Make-Believe is a further honing of the sound from her debut. Still mixing everything from reggae, EDM, hip-hop, and alt-rock, Master Of My Make-Believe isn't an immediately gratifying album; there is nothing as bracing as "L.E.S. Artistes," "You'll Find A Way," or "Lights Out." In fact, it takes quite a few listens for the hooks to appear and grab you. But it is definitely worth the effort to get to know these amazing tracks.

39. Orbital - Wonky

I am always wary when bands/artists get back together after breaking up, especially when said reason for splitting was because the band felt uninspired. So the ultimate question becomes are you getting back together for financial reasons or because you truly have something relevant to say after so many years? Based on Wonky, I can definitively say it is for the latter reason. Once one of the major stars of UK techno, brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll could seemingly do no wrong, until the disastrous one-two punch of The Altogether and The Blue Album finding Orbital in a massive creative rut. The band split thereafter, reforming in 2009 for a series of live dates, which apparently sparked their creative juices, culminating in their new album Wonky. To call this a return to form would do this album a disservice, because it doesn't sound like a band trying to re-create their old successes, but using that merely as a building block to explore other avenues while always focusing on the melodies, which is what made them such an important techno act from the beginning.

38. Sleigh Bells - Reign Of Terror

Thankfully, Reign of Terror is not a carbon copy of Treats. While there are still tracks that could have easily fit on their debut, the band is smart enough to explore other avenues on the album, like the final three tracks that focus more on texture and atmosphere than outright aggression. For that alone, this makes Reign of Terror an illuminating listen.

37. Kindness - World, You Need A Change Of Mind

Kindness, the solo project of UK/Berlin based auteur Adam Bainbridge, obviously has a penchant for 80s funk pop and slick R&B, tossing in equal amounts Prince and Janet Jackson along with other 80s pop acts that utilized R&B shadings, such as China Crisis, The Blue Nile, Scritti Politti, and even Bryan Ferry. Thankfully, Bainbridge merely uses these as a starting point for making his own unique, fascinating tracks.

36. John Talabot - fIN

Barcelona house producer John Talabot has stated in interviews that he doesn't understand how people call his debut album ƒIN "tropical" or "sunny," preferring to say his music is shadowy and obscured. I can actually see both sides of the coin. There is a definite undercurrent of Balearic sweep in these tracks, the synths and beats heading ever upward, seeking release. But there are a lot of dark textures lurking in the background as well, giving these house tracks some edge and bite. While this is technically a "house" record, nothing quite fits perfectly in that square. So many difference influences find their way into this tracks, that by album's end, you are left with a familiar, yet oddly uneasy feeling. Nods to Balearic pop, Boards of Canada style IDM, UK bass music, 80s synthpop, all weave and intertwine throughout ƒIN, never jarring and always in sync with the flow of the record. Vocals are sometimes overt, but mostly he employs a variety of samples that consist of either chanting, vowel sounds, burbling, or even a horror movie scream, utilizing them all as just another sonic element in the mix. ƒIN is a wonderful headphones album, where multiple listens are necessary to get the full effect. The most startling aspect to all this is how he keeps everything in control, the builds and releases never seem calculated or unearned, all feeling organic and in the right place.

35. Hot Chip - In Our Heads

I will be the first to admit that, up to now, I have not been the world's biggest fan of UK dance-pop act Hot Chip. This is primarily due in part to vocalist Alexis Taylor's voice which I find borders on annoying. While I much prefer the almost monotone, deep intonations of fellow vocalist Joe Goddard, Hot Chip tends to default to Taylor more often that not. When the music backing the vocals is great, I can usually overcome my aversion to Taylor's voice, however, most of Hot Chip's albums/singles haven't been intriguing enough to make me want to soldier through them. With the release of their fifth album In Our Heads, I was resigned to giving them one more shot at trying to win me over. First off, Taylor's voice, which I still think is one inch away from nails on a chalk board to me, is a lot more subtle this go around. Although there are a few moments when his affected falsetto dominates a track, for the most part, he reigns the proclivity in and sings in a deeper range, which brings out a more human, emotional element to the tracks. And adding to my enjoyment, the album is thick with amazing dance tracks and evocative ballads.

34. Chromatics - Kill For Love

Portland, Oregon's Chromatics, made up of singer Ruth Radelet, guitarist Adam Miller, drummer Nat Walker, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel, occupy some netherworld between Italo-disco and M83's polished analog/shoegaze pop. Indeed, there are many correlations between Kill For Love and M83's opus Hurry Up, We're Dreaming; both are double albums, both utilize older, analog equipment, and both have an epic quality to them. The sound is slightly different, however, instead of reaching for the stadium-ready grandeur of M83, Chromatics are far more interested in a more delicate, personal quality. It's as if these songs are meant to be heard on lonely drives at night, or under the covers with a thick pair of headphones on. Another bizarre comparison I experienced while listening to Kill For Love is with This Mortal Coil's Filigree & Shadow, which seems similarly structured with key songs surrounded by odd/entrancing instrumentals, and a penchant for intriguing cover songs, and an overall goth-pop vibe.

33. DIIV - Oshin

From humble beginnings as a bedroom pop project from Beach Fossil guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, DIIV (originally named Dive but changed because of a Belgian band with the same name) has since expanded to a full fledged band with 3 additional members. While there is similarity in sound with his full-time band (as well as peers Real Estate and The Drums), the nostalgia tinged quasi-surf rock they proffer is skewed more towards dream pop, emphasizing influences from acts like The Smiths, The Railway Children, Innocence Mission, and The Ocean Blue. There is a shimmering, light-on-water quality to the record which comports with Smith's quote that all the band members have water signs. The quartet's debut album Oshin is not going to win any awards for originality or for diversity, however, it transcends this limitation by being 13 tracks of pristine, dark-edged guitar pop, each song merging into the next to create one suite of tracks that sticks in the mind for a long time after the final track has faded.

32. Lone - Galaxy Garden

UK producer Matt Cutler, operating under the Lone moniker, obviously adores his collection of late 80s early 90s rave records, especially the ones from 808 State, who brought a more ambient take to the pulsating rhythms and strobe-like synth stabs of club music. His last record Emerald Fantasy Tracks was a favorite of mine a couple of years ago, its neo-rave leanings tempered by a more current sounding icy texture, as if rave were hijacked by Boards of Canada. While I loved that record, it held to its one conceit fairly rigidly, without room for exploration or much diversity. With his latest record Galaxy Garden, he is still painting from the same box of rave colors, but is coloring outside the lines now, allowing tracks to breath more and go off on different tangents.

31. Menomena - Moms

That we even have a new Menomena album is a miracle in and of itself. During the recording sessions for their last album Mines, Danny Seim and Brent Knopf had just gone through divorces, and Justin Harris was immersed in therapy, but somehow they were able to put together their most concise and well, rather "pop" album. Of course, what came out on record did not show what was going on behind the scenes, with little to no communication going on between the band members. After the release and during the supporting tour, Knopf finally left the band, leaving Seim and Harris to continue on as a duo. The pair decided to come up with a thematic thrust for the new record that, while not a concept record per se, stems from each others relationships with their mothers; Seim's mother having died many years prior, and Harris essentially being raised by his mother alone. Moms is more about the results of their respective childhoods, and there are haunting passages of loneliness and searching despair, desperation and resentment, and overall melancholy. It is a difficult record to get through at times, but making up for the thematic bleakness is the music which is their most aggressive and harshest in ages, twisting, pushing, throttling, and strangling the songs forward, trying to make sense of how to get out of the dark hole that's been dug.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jam of the Day: Chloe Howl - "No Strings"

Catchy as hell pop track from up and coming UK singer Chloe Howl.

2012 Favorite Albums: Numbers 50-41

This week I will be listing my favorite albums of 2012. Here are numbers 50-41:

50. Clams Casino - Instrumental Mixtape 2

Clams Casino's first mixtape came out of nowhere last year to be one of my favorite releases. His work was astonishingly full-formed, and instantly distinctive and recognizable. Creating beats for rappers Lil' B, A$AP Rocky, and Mac Miller among others, his spacey, shoegazey vibe was unique to the hip-hop world, and oddly enough translated even better when heard separate from the vocal tracks. With his second installment hi style has not really changed much over the course of the year; he still has a slowed down, ambient vibe, sludgy beats, and a penchant for an odd sample here and there. His tracks, for the most part, don't follow the regular hip-hop pattern of laying down a strong foundation and then letting it endlessly loop in the background. Clams Casino uses a lot of breaks, divergent paths, ambient interludes, and an almost endless supply of electronic textures to fill out the spaces and created one of the most beguiling albums of the year.

49. The Walkmen - Heaven

While The Walkmen have been more of a singles act for me (their previous albums never did much for me as a whole), but with Heaven they have stuck to a theme and are better for it. As The Talking Heads once sang about heaven, "it's a place where nothing ever happens," and for Hamilton Leithauser and Co., this is not necessarily a bad thing. The songs on Heaven deal with the joys of family, stability of relationships, and how perspectives and goals change over time. Not that this album is a sunny walk in the park; frequently these realizations are hard fought and won, and it is always a struggle to keep them. Heaven is album about that struggle and how sometimes you come to late to those realizations and are left with nothing.

48. Liars - WIXIW

With their latest album WIXIW (pronounced "wish you"), the focus is not on anything specifically thematic, instead choosing to rely primarily on electronics, immersing the songs in waves upon waves of synths and clattering drum machines and percussion. Although the music in a way is their most accessible, it is still first and foremost a Liars record, so there is a subtle undercurrent of dread and menace seeping in and out through its run time.

47. Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

One of the most divisive personalities and records of the year, Lana Del Rey was both lauded and pilloried for her almost too studied onstage persona. But when the music is this good, it can be overlooked. Her laconic, smoky delivery over strings and hip-hop beats was hard to resist. While it is too soon to say whether she is all hype and no substance, her debut record definitely indicates she is not going away anytime soon.

46. The 2 Bears - Be Strong

The 2 Bears, the side project of Hot Chip's Joe Goddard and Raf Rundell, is an homage to both gay subculture (Goddard and Rundell, who are both straight, fit the "bear" description) and to the classic house music that has influenced and inspired them. Be Strong is a strong collection of house and two-step anthems that holds its own among its peers owing to its creators' obvious affection for their influences. Through its 12 tracks, the album takes stops in Chicago, Detroit, and the Caribbean, and is a statement about the healing/loving/positive nature of dance music. But first and foremost it is a fun, frisky record. While still a side project, this is no off-the-cuff throwaway. You can feel the tenderness and affection put into each track.

45. Matthew Dear - Beams

Matthew Dear doesn't stay in one place very long. From his debut Leave Luck To Heaven which plundered the halls of micro-house, Asa Breed's excursions into more vocally led pop, to Black City's dark journey into sleazy funk, each release has progressed and adapted from what went before, morphing into something new yet unmistakably Matthew Dear. Beams doesn't necessarily veer too far from Black City's darker tone, but reveals a definite change in influence, leaning heavily on Talking Heads' Fear Of Music/Remain In Light period and Bowie's Thin White Duke era. There is a lot of stiff, robotic funk mixed in with loose free form jams that give the record a strange, off-kilter feel, but somehow manages to always stay on track. Beams is a dense record, featuring lots of percussive elements, thick bass lines, warm washes of analog synths, and the love-it-or-hate-it deep, monotone vocals of Dear. There is an anxious feeling that permeates the record, but unlike Black City's overt paranoia, the warmer nature of Beams keeps you further on edge as the record progresses.

44. Hospitality - Hospitality

I feel very paternal towards the debut album from Brooklyn three piece band Hospitality, which chronicles the day in day out goings on of twenty-somethings in New York, and all their yearnings, fumblings, and musings. You want to wrap these characters up in a blanket, serve them hot cocoa and tell them it will all be ok. The band itself, fronted by singer/guitarist Amber Papini, borrows liberally from a wide range of different bands, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, and The Clientele for example, but what they lack for in originality they make up for it with superb song craft. Tight arrangements and interesting background flourishes mesh well with Papini's fragile voice and her insightful, wry lyrics.

43. Paul Banks - Banks

Banks shows that Paul Banks still has some magic left in him from the early Interpol days, and that it just had been getting clouded a bit. Saddled without the weight of expectations that usually comes with an Interpol release, Banks takes a deep breath and feels more relaxed than he has in ages. It is a record that takes no big chances or leaps, but sticks to what he does best, which is a good thing in this case.

42. A Place To Bury Strangers - Worship

A Place To Bury Strangers is similar to bands like The Ramones, AC/DC, or basically any punk band at all, not in terms of sound at all, but in terms of having an aesthetic and sticking to it. In contrast though, where some bands tend to repeat themselves ad nauseum, some, like APTBS, work more at subtly shifting their sound from record to record, providing their bread and butter tracks but surprising you with something new each time. APTBS' palate is always suitably dark; cavernous drums, ominous bass lines, and enough squalling, feedback heavy guitars to bring down city walls. And with song titles like "Alone," "Revenge," "Mind Control," and "Fear" you know it's not going to be a sunny walk in the park, but when you go to APTBS, you know what you are getting.

41. The Invisible - Rispah

With their second album, gone are the sprightly jams of the debut album supplanted for a more somber, melancholy tone. Instead of the usual references to Bloc Party, TV On The Radio, and LCD Soundsystem, Rispah seems deeply influenced by Radiohead at their most searching. There is a languid, dreamy quality to these somber tracks, like you are inside the head of the griever, all their emotions swirling in a mix of sadness paired with all the good and bad memories of their loved one. The album is bookended and infused with samples of the traditional spirituals that add a personal touch to this sad, melancholy tracks.