Maybe it’s me, but it’s an odd-ish year musically. I’ve gone through dull spots when I’ve convinced myself that 2012 mostly sucked or was very average at best — and then *bam* something comes along and knocks you over again. And like last year I noticed a filling of the wow cup as the year draws to a close.
I liked lots and lots of records this year but — perhaps appropriately as you get older, a pretty good percentage were records from past ages. However, it amazes me just, despite hunting and buying vast amounts of music over the past forty plus years, there is still so much old stuff to still discover. Murray Cammick turned me on to my current favourite from years past, the George Faith album Super Eight produced by Lee Perry. I mean, I knew and loved his cover of Diana, but never looked beyond it. Likewise the two incredible Philadelphia International collections, the 4 CDTom Moulton remixes and the 10 CD40th Anniversary box set have never been away from my player.
I really liked the last three tracks on the Beach Boys album and kinda dug much of the rest of it despite the fact that these tracks were deemed uncool, even the Mike Love track (I didn’t say that). I thought the criticism pointed in their direction vis-a-vis surfing/beach lyrics was at best ingenuous — really what on earth do you expect The Beach Boys to sing about? Third World debt? Especially with an odious old prick like Love at the financial tiller, a man whose relentless greed driven thuggery would cower emotionally far stronger souls than Brian Wilson. It was the most surprisingly lovely record of 2012.
I bought loads of old NZ 45s, on labels like Zodiac, Peak, Impact, and La Gloria. Some I bought just for their sleeves and accidentally discovered they were quite good (The Howard Morrison Quartet — yes, seriously — the live routines are absolutely hilarious and John Baker pushed me towards a really passable ’67 cover of The Spencer Davis Group’s Keep On Running on a Howard (that’s SIR Howard to you boy.… as he once instructed me and Paul Fuemana) Morrison solo album on arguably the most reliably awful label in NZ ever, Joe Brown — would you really call a label that unless you were being somehow ironic?). Many were not.
They feel like roar past at quite a rate as they end, but going back through the music in each one in detail in December they somehow see almost eternal. Some of the stuff on this page seems like half a decade back.
The records I liked a lot in 2011 provided – I thought – a fairly short list as I mentally worked them through the other night.
And then I woke in the morn and tried to write this list down. I scanned iTunes and pulled apart the recently neatly stacked records and CDs on the shelf to try and work out exactly what I’ve listened to in 2011.
Of course this list would be longer If I added in all the older records I either discovered or re-discovered in 2011. I’d be forced to add two Bowie albums from his largely ignored later years (the common wisdom of course is that his ‘interesting’ career path ended abruptly after Scary Monsters in 1981), Heathen and 1. Outside, or the compete 70s oeuvre of Gil Scott-Heron after he passed, or countless old 12” singles that took my fancy for a day or two whilst I banged them to death only to forget them again for a year or perhaps more – The timeless FKEP anyone?
I’ve added a couple of re-discoveries or reworkings, the Trax and Nu Groove re-edits, and the never actually fully released before Smile simply it seemed wrong not to.
However mostly the records here are new and new sounding enough for me to offer another blast of hogwash at Simon Reynolds’ Retromania thesis and to anyone who leapt all over it this year. So…
As Trax was to Chicago I guess you could say that Nu Groove was to the big Apple. It was the label that rode the path to the future in that city in the late 1980s, and in a way it was more important. Not only was it not run by charlatans, as Trax was, but it encouraged invention (at Trax that was largely incidental/accidental) and created a huge part of what we thought of as electronic music (Dance Music doesn’t work – this wasn’t just music to dance to) in the next decade and beyond.
Nicholas is a 25 year old Italian who has embraced all that, perhaps in a way that only a younger person not in awe of the legacy could do, and twisted a dozen key moments into something both vaguely contemporary and reverential, albeit not claustrophobically so.
As with the Trax album, he hasn’t tried to force these songs onto a modern dancefloor, and in a world awash with awful remixes of songs you loved that’s important to me.
The remix of Houz’ Nergroz (producer Rheji Burrell, who along with his brother Ronald played a key role at the label) ’92 classic How Do You Love A Black Woman, a dramatically sensual fusion of raw r’n’b, King Tubby, and what we were to call deep house in years to come, is worth the price of admission to me. He tags it the “Fierce Beats Remix” but it’s far more provocative than that. Instead he draws out and teases with the famous lo-fi organ refrain and taunts with a snippet of the vocal sample that punctuated the original. It pads and sways in a way that simply restates just how important Nu Groove was to so much that came afterwards.
That music is as important to me as this next record:
As I tweeted or maybe Facebooked – if you don’t get Brian Wilson I can’t help you.
I’d like to develop that line just a little more, but it may offend.
How does somebody not get Brian? Unless they’re Mike Love in which case they make up for it by consciously and continuously belittling him, screwing him and then bathing in the credit and income he’s bought you thereafter. And reforming the band to bleed him just one more time.
I digress – but I probably needed to, and now I’ll finish the diversion the way it should always be finished: Fuck Mike Love. Really.
Prior to 1966 just about the only people to have added external sounds to pop music were Shadow Morton and Spector, and they limited it to rain, thunder and a motorbike. In ’66, with Pet Sounds Brian Wilson took that a little further. Let’s Go Away For a While and the title track were the amongst the first pop records that tried to conjure something more than just fun and emotional attachment to a person or a thing. The first of the two, an instrumental that blissfully evoked a journey and was an aural and subjective precursor to Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express, offers the most direct suggestion of what was to come – or not come at least for some 45 years (officially) – with Smile.
And that makes Brian Wilson a spiritual and conceptual godfather of much of what I’m writing about below, from sonic guitars to the bass-based revolution that dominates the last part of the first decade of the twenty first century.
So here we have a story – I think, as I’m still not quite sure what it is in this Barnum and Bailey concoction – built using farmyard and building site noises, layered/structured warm analogue audio complexity that we seem to have lost the ability to create in these digital days, gorgeous harmonic progressions and cadences, intensely psychedelic melodic tangents – sometimes rambling — with such scope they could really only be handed down by a semi-crazed drug-fucked genius deaf in one ear.
And of course inclusive of Brian’s finest composition – Surf’s Up.
A few million words have been expended on Smile since 1967 and I don’t feel much need to add many more (although I guess I have), suffice to say this release is perfectly structured to accommodate the level of intense anorakism – with boxed sets and outtakes galore, many of which offer more insight into the semi-finished album on offer than the album itself – the customer feels comfortable with. And now resplendent in the sort of sonic quality and finality those shitty bootlegs never offered (and I own a few).
It’s everything you wanted it to be, way better than the still worthy solo remake in 2004, and it’s every part of what you wanted to hear or deconstruct of the legend – you choose – and as with the mighty Pet Sounds Sessions Box, offered in way that adds to the magic rather than stripping the mystery.
Me? I’m in the corner under a blanket with headphones very tightly on, listening over and over to the sublime Surf’s Up demo, ironically with all that stuff I rambled about up-thread stripped away.
Let’s start the new stuff with an album that – and this and the one after are the only ones on this list I think – almost, and just almost — justifies Reynolds’ loudly voiced circular-obsessive pitch.
Does that matter? No, not at all. Music does not always need to be radical. I also like Nick Lowe and Mayer Hawthorne. And I dig this.
Guitar based rock has become an indulgence rather than a journey of discovery for me, but I still thrill to it — nothing quite kicks like amplified noise.
For all that, this sparkling record – which I first heard on 95bFm, so radio still offers discovery sometimes, albeit less and less if I’m honest – which draws a direct line back to Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, stopping off along the way at early power-pop, Wire’s Chairs Missing and that debut Jesus and Mary Chain longplayer (and yes, the opener Iceblock steals a chorus and melody from Real Life’s Send Me An Angel without obvious shame), was my day starter for several weeks. I’d wake with the ‘Don’t Forget / you never forget’ chorus of Circles, or the pseudo-modernism of Disco’s intro and tinsel chorus in my head.
The touches of electronica in the construction do give it a sheen of modernity but at its soul this is closer to The Ronettes or The Righteous Brothers than any reference point it might try to claim in 2011.
I don’t think this is record for the times, but it was my record for a time.
When I bought this unheard from Conch in Ponsonby, I asked what it sounded like. It sounds like an album made by a bass player Dustin said.
Marcus Miller? Paul McCartney? Stanley Clarke? John Entwhistle? Bootsy?
But, yeah, he was absolutely right. I get it now.
A year or more in being recorded, The Golden Age Of Apocalypse seems to exist mostly because it was fun to make. There is no grander reason for it in the greater scheme, and the story goes that co-producer Flying Lotus, for whom Thundercat (= Stephen Bruner) plays bass, had to push the artist into finishing the fun and putting the thing into the marketplace so we could all enjoy.
Bass players make those sorts of records. Nobody else quite can. Think of The Fireman, or Jah Wobble, or, hell, the complete works of Larry Graham, post Sly – they simply groove and more or less ignore the commercial or artistic imperatives that limits or corrals the records made by musicians who were driven instead to be vocalists or lead guitarists (McCartney straddles both camps, but he’s Paul McCartney, and he either invented or at some stage restated most camps).
Dreamy, lazy, unpredictable, soulful, and — I keep trying to convince myself — thoroughly modern despite the fact it wraps itself around the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and George Duke, I’ve dug this album a lot in the last few months.
And yet without aggressively struggling to achieve that artistic imperative, it achieves it nevertheless as it builds towards the last two tracks, the almost surreal semi-cinematic double act of Mystery Machine and the all too brief expanse of Return to The Journey.
I guess it’s nothing special, it is after all a bass player’s album. But in aspiring to be nothing special it is.
If this album contained only Danny Native’s 18 Ghost Hands it would be enough to sell it to me – the mighty Dee Patten revisited and stripped back to the rhythmic essence that made Who’s The Bad Man (originally on Leftfield’s Hard Hands label about ’95) one of my favourite singles of that decade.
But it doesn’t of course. This collection of assorted mostly unknowns, produced by Londoner Danny Yorke (ie. Danny Native), a follow on to 2010’s Tenement Yard album (there was a volume two this year), doesn’t break any new ground but still sounds rather magnificent at some volume as I bounce around the house (I no longer do clubs – I don’t want to be the sad old guy at the end of the bar), as it pulls together and lovingly restates the most thrilling – noisy — elements of dance and rave culture and does so with some panache.
It’s a joyous record, which just works.
Danny tweeted a few days back that he was somewhat disappointed at not being named in any end of year lists. Well, I might not be Pitchfork or Factmag but this was one the records I thrilled to most in 2011. Ok, Danny?
Devonté Hynes was also Lightspeed Champion. Then he was the brief flavour of the month, with a most-likely spread in Mojo – which must be the kiss of death – and he released a country-folk-rock-lite album that had mixed reviews. As has this, but I don’t care because I like it. Lots.
It’s odd. Like the misplaced soundtrack to some lost half-finished David Lynch movie – the cliched one where a confused and lost couple in an old broken Impala stumble into a beaten-down club for respite where they find David Sylvian fronting a pick-up band – played by Orange Juice.
Unless you place it that context it doesn’t make sense. Once you do, it does.
Yep, its eighties’ reference points are strong but structurally – the arrangements, and the space – have a now about them that betrays the latter part of the decade it was made in. It has to have arrived post Massive Attack, but, more, after Mathew Dear’s two solo longplayers and that solitary astounding album from Damian Lazarus.
Hell, there is no way this record could’ve arrived before The XX.
A year or so back I listed volume one of this in my 2010 list. In the twelve months since this sound has exploded, becoming the dominant gamechanger in contemporary music in 2011. From hip-hop to bass to IDM — plus anything else that touches on any of these — juke has radicalised the way music was made this year.
The whole Juke/Footwork ethos thrills me: brutalised snippets of random melody (with a clear debt to J Dilla although he was gentler in his appropriations) and sound, often violently digitalised and reassembled without respect or deference. It’s excites.
And I guess I’m not alone – at least half the releases on this page wear an influence, sometimes substantial, from the rush to embrace this sound.
I’d be foolish to describe this album as anywhere close to easy to listen to – it loops, crashes, soars, speeds and then often unpredictably stops in 26 sometimes rather brief (although the tracks are mostly longer than Volume 1 – there are actually semi-songs here) melodramatic bursts of intense energy. Like Dilla, it draws the melody out from small parts of larger creations, and amplifies that element before quickly casting it aside and moving on.
I don’t ever expect a wide audience for this, as much as I personally buzz to it. Its wider influence is undeniable though, which takes me to:
Eighties r&b vocal samples – the big gorgeous but wretched ballad type, think Alexander O’Neal, Morris Day and Paul Lawrence – stripped of their post-boogie synths and structure and dragged in pieces, sometimes a tiny fraction, other times a whole verse, to a bass soundscape mostly defined by the aforesaid Chicago juke and the urban inventiveness of Britain’s eternally bleak urban spawls.
And thus, appropriately, this is made in Liverpool, in the same way the UK garages and clubs have ripped apart and subverted US underground sounds since The Beatles (and then often handed them back – witness the interesting US made stuff in the often very regressive and somewhat depressing Pitchfork 50 this year: it almost all draws from Britain’s cities).
Half the fun is trying to work out exactly where that verse comes from – what battered 12” tucked in the back of a box that I haven’t played for decades has that very familiar few seconds been lifted from? It’s a game that can drive you nuts.
Most fun, part dua. A record to lift you back to mid-nineties rave culture, albeit with twists added from the present day.
What? No, me neither. I was well past rave culture by the mid 1990s, hanging out blowing whistles and sucking on various gases to get a thrill never quite did it for me. It was little like the ugly end of the punk era after 1980 – when the distant ‘burbs who never quite got it earlier on, all rushed to town and misunderstood. And, yes that’s as elitist and old-ist as fuck because it wasn’t my scene but it’s my page, so be it.
So mostly I liked this because it was both uplifting at a time when I needed inspiration and because of – once again – how it gathered past strands together and unashamedly modernised. A track like Surph might have all the synths and sway of an old Network kiddie-rave tune but the vocals and the production takes it bang into 2011. In late 2012 it will probably sound dreary, but I rarely take more than a handful of records I love with me from year to year, and this is one I know I’m just loving for the moment.
House music has lasted far longer than it should have. It’s overstayed its welcome by a decade or more, and yes as cynical as I want to be about it, like rock’n’roll, which had its last inspired, non-recyling, moment around 1990, I’m still a sucker for a recording like this and I’m a sucker for Omar-S, who’s raw grooves travel their own individualist course.
This album is almost an anachronism in 2011 as electronic music flows and mutates at an increasing speed, driven by the past, the future and the technology, but it really doesn’t matter because – with the sole exception of the grating Look Hear Watch — with an unnecessary porno sample swamping the whole track – every track on here is agelessly sublime.
What really gets me – at this particular moment, probably not in five minutes but I’ll write it down whilst I think of it in case it slips – is: who are all these people? Not specifically the two people who made these two records, but the hundreds of people who arrive every year, make astounding records and then seem to slip away. It’s mostly a 2000s phenomena — at least to the levels we now see it.
The thing is, at least half the people who have made the music I’m talking about on this page are new to me. I have never heard of them before. And I may not hear of them a year or so from now. Our turnover has accelerated and continues to do so.
Maybe I’m ignorant. Maybe the world has passed me by and I simply don’t know anything anymore. Or maybe it’s just become so pepper-shot democratised out there that the taste or market makers no longer make any rules that matter.
Almost no records make every list. In 1979 when I was a kid, Talking Head’s Fear of Music, Gang of 4’s Entertainment, Armed Forces, London Calling, Setting Sons and about a dozen other albums made every single end of year summation.
That was it unless you niched yourself in jazz, classical or country.
No longer – there are literally hundreds of records that are now amongst the best of 2011, and that’s a mighty thing. No longer are a few scribes and a few content-creating corporations defining what we like or should like. There is no need to feel insecure because you simply don’t get the widely touted top album. Or know who they are.
Now you make your own list and the rest be damned.
So — returning to this — I’d not spent much time with Travis Stewart, despite the fact his name had gone around and round since 2001, and he recorded for a well trendy label (Merck). It was more a case of other folks mentioning him and me not really taking the time to notice, and then when I heard Room (S) somehow feeling insecure or inadequite in the knowledge that I’d also missed things like this (from 2009):
Thus I comforted myself with the above personal meme. You can’t know everything.
And jumped into Machinedrum’s 8th or 9th album, depending on how you measure these things, on its own merits, partially based on the fact that Planet Mu is the one label that’s not let me down in the last year or two.
Room(s) finishes with a tune called Come1, a joyous tune which leads from a piano and percussive riff that really could’ve been lifted from an old UK house stormer, circa 1992 (think Congress ), it seems rather out of place here although the point of the placement seems obvious: none of the tracks before could’ve existed without it.
The ten earlier tracks provide a complex but grand amalgam of contemporary styles, genres, sub-genres, and mini-genres and it is all but none of those exactly — the parts have created a greater whole. A gorgeous, unique and utterly confident release that was as perfectly pop as a record could possibly be without feeling the need to be subsumed by a charge for the charts.
And in that way it will likely define this year far more as time passes than much of what we hear on radio and see in our top 40s. I feel the need to toss superlatives at Room(s), but can’t find anymore that don’t sound trite (I think I’m already sailing too close to that..), so I won’t.
Record of the year maybe?
And if that wasn’t enough, Sepalcure – Stewart with Praveen Sharma – have made an album that might also make claim to that. It’s odd to hear such a celebration of all things electronic, as filtered by the British underground, come from American producers, but so it is. The shambolic route that is the endless dissection and reassembly of all things dance and rhythmic by UK acts in the past twenty years or more provide the backdrop and elements necessary for this wonderfully soulful excursion that even borrows a line or two from Pete Townshend on one of the standouts, See Me Feel Me.
Less dense and arguably a little more flowery than Stewart’s epic solo disc, Sepalcure makes few claims to be much more than just a wonderful listen, an acceptable artistic indulgence. And so it is.
Vaughn Robert Squire is from Vancouver and is a big part of the reason Canada has become really interesting musically in recent years. Free to all comers via his website (there is a new album up there in the past day or so, but I’ve had no time to listen).
Stylistically this sits in the never-never land from long long ago, where genres sat together comfortably — where house music and hip-hop were related and ideologically co-existed. And thus you have deep, deep house — with clear references to the music found on that Nu Groove record above, next to hip-hop that knows both Pete Rock and Shadow. And it’s extraordinary, and sensual and quite timeless.
I like the way this record is intentionally un-numbered – you choose the track order that suits you. I find myself ordering the slower tracks – what could tentatively be called hip-hop – towards the end of this sprawling collection that embraces styles that supposedly clash. To flow from the faster tracks — house if you need a descriptor, and mostly we do, to the down paced tunes makes sense.
From LA and unashamedly lo-fi, this album, an almost perfect melding of hip-hop and an alternative, almost folky ethos, was perhaps the most immediate thing I listened to all year. I feel in love with it first after finding this video on some site or other, and the album followed quickly.
A collection of ghostly, intensely melodic and irresistible mini-symphonies that sometimes feel almost too fragile to exist in the real world beyond the creator’s head, Bad Vibes is the opposite of much else I’ve liked in 2011 in that it’s not complex or technology driven. But for that that, I find this sits comfortably with the surreal, spectral aura of much of the best music I’ve heard and loved this year.
And yes, it’s almost too late to say anything more about it as it became the hipster album – they call it a mixtape but the line is at best arbitrary surely — to own and love this year. I did both despite its ubiquity and omnipresence — and Drake’s latter day anointment.
I’ve long had a strong love-dislike thing going on with New Zealand hip-hop. Every time I fall head over heals with something – and there have been more than a few moments across the years – I get bludgeoned in short order by something else that misses the point so awfully that it drives me away.
And then there is this – a bonafide classic of underplayed homeliness, culturally unique, for want of a better word but there rarely is one, soul that buries all those cringe factors once again and takes me back home again.
I worry that the system is so restricted in New Zealand these days, so defined by a very few anointed big acts, that the wealth of fascinating acts, like @peace, often slip through the cultural cracks. Why isn’t this album everywhere? Is it on mainstream radio? Or then, perhaps it is and I missed it from afar. It did however take a couple of clued up friends to point me towards it.
Why do I search YouTube and get “No video results for “@peace””? The NZoA grants list seems to be devoid of their name. Hopefully it’s just because they haven’t asked.
Sure, it has a clear debt to the seminal Native Tongues posse, and whilst it is arguably somewhat unadventurous musically, the sounds are still sublime and it speaks to me in way most hip-hop in 2011 doesn’t. The words are considered, evocatively emotional and uniquely those of a young voice in the country I grew up in and call home, and that makes it much more than just another hip-hop record.
What any ugly word dubstep has become. It’s the ultimate musical hate word now. Much like Prog was in 1977 or Trance in 2000. Grumpy old men sit in cafes complaining that the clubs have become infested by ‘dubstep’. Forums rage against it. There are dozens of Facebook pages like <a href=“https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dubstep-needs-to-die/100427843330164″>this.
And then there are records like this: wonderful, dramatic, almost ethereal at times, inspired and organic collections that hover around the history of the term but have long ago moved on from the thing that so many love to despise.
These two – Pinch (Rob Ellis) and (Sam) Shackleton — defined the progressive edge of the genre and Pinch’s Underwater Dancehall, from 2007, sits comfortably as one of the decades classics. From it emanated so much, and yet here we are four years on with an album that makes Dancefloor seem almost Neolithic.
The ghost of post-punk past – not the sounds, but the ethic – infuses this. It’s radical, experimental and soothing all the same time. It takes few prisoners but offers up little resistance when you want to love it.
A couple of years back I rather fell for Andy Stott’s Unknown Exception, a compilation of his earlier vinyl releases. I liked, then loved and swooned around to it, despite the fact that little on it was in anyway sonically innovative. It was – simply – a gloriously warm, heavily melodic, comfortable melding of classic deep-house and nu-techno that I loved to have around.
Despite my love affair (and the fact that I still play it all the time) I mostly lost touch with Stott’s releases thereafter. His name would appear on release sheets, I’d see the odd track on Boomkat or Phonica, but unintentionally I’d lose the thought to listen in the increasingly disorganised – and sometimes frantic — way I hunt the internet for new music.
And then came Passed Me By, and, a month or two later, its sequel We Stay Together. A couple of online reviews drove me back towards the guy and I bit.
In a way I’m glad I didn’t try and cross the ground between the compilation and this duo of less than full length releases (both are around 35mins) because that allowed me to approached the first of these, Passed Me By, as a novice – unprepared – and I wasn’t led down or confused by what may have been a fairly uncomfortable route to this place (I’ve since taken a couple of inquisitive steps backwards into 2009 and 2010 and I’m not unhappy I missed the stop 0ffs).
Passed Me By, and the record that followed, have almost no relationship with Unknown Exception, aside from a name. You can’t draw an unbroken line between the three.
So instead of the traditional electronic dance landscapes of the earlier work, Stott now confronts and challenges the listener with something that sounds like the aural equivalent of Logan’s Run. The albums, or album if we consider these to be one work – are almost leaden in their slow post apocalyptic grind, which sounds awful but is majestically quite the opposite.
There is an obvious debt to the fractured tonality of Actress, and yet Arthur Russell’s most adventurous and intriguing work is all over these records, as is the minimalism electronica of The Field, Shackleton and Maurizio and yet it is none of these as this work stretches the relationship between techno, dub and texture just that little further.
Bleak, dark, and extraordinarily beautiful, perhaps the album/s of the year.
This was an amazing, wonderful year to be listening to new music.
As an aside, every one of these — with the exception of She’s So Rad and Thundercat — I own the digital edition of. This is the year I mostly dispensed with CD altogether, and will now, unless unavoidable, purchase on file and vinyl.
I promised, swore to, myself that I’d not bother with this in 2010.
For over twenty years I’ve either provided or simply published a best of the year list. In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, when I contributed a dancefloor column to Rip It Up magazine, I was tasked by Murray Cammick with the best dance and hip hop records list each year. I was also, most years, asked to give other mags a best of the year list, mostly a top five.
When I did bFm, between 1989 and 2002, our ten best records of the year was an annual feature, and indeed, twice we were actually offered a one off spot outside the ghetto that the station gave electronic and hip hop back in those days, to broadcast the chart to a daytime audience.
On George FM I compiled and broadcast the best of the year in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Since then the list has been blogged only and, to be honest, I only did it last year out of habit.
However, here I am this year again writing a list. I’m doing this not so much in the belief that what I list here really matters (although I was chuffed at having my list last year picked up by at least three US compilers of the year’s charts) but as a way of documenting to myself what I really enjoyed this year.
And with that, it’s not a best of in any sense — in 2010 with the massive amount of music now released each year (yep — music is dying folks) such would not only be impossible but something that reeks of ego. The other barrier I now have is that I’m older. I may love and be enthralled by all sorts of music, but I know there is much that I don’t quite get in the same way a 19 year old would. I guess I have to accept that. That said, I get to have a history that a 19 year old doesn’t have and hence I’m able, with some comfort to toss in a couple of records by old folks. It’s a bonus I enjoy.
So, yes, not a best of 2010 — I have no idea what that would look like — but instead a list of the records I’ve thrilled to this year.
Have you heard Cheaters? Of course you have — everyone has. Or at least it’s one of those songs that drills itself into your head and you assume everyone thinks it’s an anthem for the ages — like Joe Smooth’s Promised Land, Ten City’s Right Back To You, or Sterling Void’s It’s Alright. Cheaters is one of those. Big, Big, Big and soaring. I love it even if it sounds like it was made some 25 years ago. The album though is absolutely nothing like it. Yes it has another ‘song’ — Dancing In Slow Motion — which is lovely rather than huge and perfectly placed two thirds of the way through an album that, as much as you would expect, from Cheaters, would explore the roots of house, does quite the opposite and takes you on a trip through a post minimal dub infused vista. If that sounds silly and pretentious, it is and that, I think, is the point of placing Cheaters at the end — it washes that all away and you are, or at least I am, back on the floor of a big early 1990s dancehall again at 5am.
If the last album promised to look backwards and yet didn’t, Altered Natives, really one guy, Danny Yorke’s, first album of 2010 (he did two) did quite the opposite. Reading the reviews I don’t think everyone quite got the references in this album which pointed back, perhaps unintentionally but I doubt it, to so many classic house records so faithfully. It works because that’s all it does — in a warm affectionate way it references rather than parrots or relies on those roots, and then strips those references into a record that sounds surprisingly contemporary. From Todd Terry on Body Gal and Oh My Zipper, The Burrell Brothers on Afterlife Riddum to tracks which echo Larry Heard, Wayne Gardiner, Tenaglia and mid 1980s Chi Jacking loops, you get the starting point almost immediately but then have to go where Yorke takes you with that. Killer track: I’m Just A Crush, all banging keys and 808s on a record that sounds like it should have an early Strictly Rhythm catalogue number. Blissful but noisy.
Whilst the commercial centre was going all gaga over Kanye’s album (which I quite liked even if it was far less adventurous than oft claimed to my 30 year jaded hip-hop ears) out on the edge the Chicago cut’n’pasters in the briefly hip as hell Footwork / Juke scene were turning out discs that made that album sound as radical as a German schlager collection from the late 1960s. The first of these two albums was a compilation of independent singles from the still-in-his-teens Nate, going back over the two or three years, whilst the second is an album in its own right. Both however were simply astounding. The drama, raw bravado, sheer audio inventiveness and the gall made me smile repeatedly. The disrespect shown for just about everything that passed in front of the sampler and the fusion of hip hop, bootie house, rave and the whole damn kitchen sink of sounds available to anyone with a computer shows there is life in this creaky old thing called house still. The sort of records that Iggy Pop or George Clinton would be making if they were 18.
This was fun. It gets the most fun award and also the best album Prince Should Be Recording of the year award. I’ll toss in the the best butt wagging basslines of the year too, not that I do huge amounts of that — so lets make it the best chair wobbling basslines award.
I watched a BBC documentary on Krautrock last night and felt an urge to play this godchild of that movement (or series of movements) immediately afterwards, which I did. House music and techno, during their first creative surge in the 1980s and 1990s produced so few worthy long players so it comes as a surprise that the dub infused heirs of those years are now, year in, year out, producing so many. I’m guessing that’s because the disco roots are now almost subsumed by things like Neu! and Can via Brian Eno and the dub that has been part of the urban European aural landscape since the 1980s. Whatever analytical cast you put on it, this is a pretty astonishing album which, as the cliché goes, takes you on some journey.
Prism, a lovely song which wrapped an ethereal diva-ish vocal around a flitting acid bassline was the key track on this but the balance of it was rather glorious, and yet another pointer that the divisions between house, techno of old and dubsteppy type things are now irrevocably blurred. Vaguely epic stuff.
I keep on coming back to Cybotron when I listen to this, perhaps because, by nature I have trouble leaving so many records I grew with behind as we all do. However despite the contemporary smart-kids nature of this album the ghost (or aurra — he is, after all, still with us) of Juan Atkins looms large, and also, despite the words that surrounded its release, this is hardly the first record to use old game noises to make music. But it made me smile a lot and six months on it still does. I do dig the way the very best electronic records draw in so many disparate threads and then, unlike traditional rock’n’roll when it does the same, irreverently reinvents rather than just restating as guitar-bass-drums inevitably does. Sara Abdel-Hamid does that by stripping back the Kraftwerkian elements and adding a lightness that Magic Juan missed. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it all. I do that. I love this record.
I guess these should really be in the pop part of this, below, but they found themselves moved up the page for two reasons — firstly because they appear on the justifiably famous (revived) Belgian techno label R&S — and secondly, because the second EP is a jump back to a sound that fits that classic label’s tradition rather the appealing almost crossover pop-esque of the title track of the first. Regardless, both EPs were big stuff and the guy is going to find fame and fortune in 2011.
Ok — best album I’ve heard from New Zealand in years. Seriously. I fell in love with Buffalo in a way I haven’t with a New Zealand release for many a year. I like many NZ records on their own merits (although I’m aware there are some I give extra leeway to simply because of where they come from) and every now and then one plonks itself in front of me and I play and like it a lot. Given its relatively low international profile I have to work really hard to find New Zealand music. However few have had the impact this has had on me — I’d happily list it in my five greatest New Zealand long players ever. It’s a Mental Notes of its time and, for me at least, that praise doesn’t come higher. I absolutely dug the way it seemed to reference back to our psychedelic past and perfectly built on that — listen to The Fourmyula’s UK version of Home then this album’s Golden Ship and tell me they don’t share blood even if the latter is somewhat more epic in design. I’d not played the album for a month or two and went back to it when I was writing this. It has grown in stature. Faultless.
It’s the record that everybody seemed to talk about for a month of two and if I’m being honest I’m thoroughly sick to death of it at the time of writing– or at least I thought I was until played it again just now and understood yet again why Kali and Sun are two of the most affecting and timeless pop records I’ve heard this year. I liked the live album too and liked just as much how it confused US reviewers who’s first exposure to Sun Ra was the PR sheet that came with it.
Wow this is an odd, wonderful record. A pop record drenched in (lots of) soul, dub, electronica (Pitchfork called it ritualistic avant-pop which works for me although I’m still not sure quite what that exactly means, but then I’m often not sure what this long player exactly means) and the kitchen sink. There are times I think I’m listening to a record Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis made at the tail end of a bender in the early 1980s — the next moment I’ve got Arthur Lee banging into Sylvester Stewart and yet none of this could really have existed even a couple of years ago. A gamer changer? Sure, but there is a lot of that going on right now.
Pop, pop, pop — and from a much hyped underground label (Hyperdub). However pop it is and as that it is quite something. I’ve played and played this and still do, but was forever bemused by the endless reviews telling me that the album was drawing heavily on the prototype electronica records of the early 1980s. Really, it has a Human League cover but that’s about it. Nothing here sounds like the League’s albums, or others by Numan, OMD, BEF, Foxx or any other act from the era I can think of. I guess one writer tags it thus and the sheep follow. Ten perfectly formed airy songs that if anything owe a slight debt to the fragility of soundtracks by the great Roy Budd, although they’re more concise than Hudd’s grim Northern landscapes were ever allowed to be. They have words too.
An odd and eccentric release that I’m still coming to terms with (it came to me late in the year) but strikes me as the confused sibling of the aforementioned Darkstar. Wow — there are some fabulous sound explorations underway as we head into the second decade of the century. The removal of the distractions of record label pressure by the imploding industry has just, as I hoped, loosened the ties in the same way arrival of labels like Rough Trade and Small Wonder did 30 plus years back. Like the Autre Ne Veut above (with which it shares an indie imprint, NYC’s Olde English Spelling Bee) I really don’t feel ever feel totally comfortable with or understand exactly what this is but it intrigues every time I play it. And I really love the way albums have become concise again. It is quite brilliant. I think.
When put next to many of my favourite records in 2010 this is a very easy record to like or even love. Bristol’s Guy Middleton has gathered twelve heavily melodic compositions which, often obviously but never overwhelmingly so, blends modern r’n’b, the more spacious jazz of the seventies, the deep moodiness of the likes of Fingers Inc, and best of all refers strongly to his city’s native traditions most especially one of my favourite bands ever, Smith & Mighty (this is on the same label, Punch Drunk, as that duo’s Rob Smith). And the gorgeous Beautiful Complication should make a hell of a radio single. But of course it won’t.
My rock’n’roll album of the year. As I touched on above, I think rock’n’roll in its traditional forms has long since stopped reinventing. Instead it restates now and has done for twenty plus years. But, hell, this is fun and as much as it adds nothing new to an oft restated idiom which seems to go in circles, it’s a great record with huge slabs of just about every late 60s UK psychedelic band you can name mixed in there — as The Guardian said it’s as if no new music has reached Western Australia since 1969. I doubt this will be a record for the ages, or even 2011, but I liked it in 2010.
Aloe Blacc fills the same hole that Mayer Hawthorne did a year earlier which, given that they are on the same label, is hardly surprising. There isn’t a radical nor a revolutionary moment on this record, but that’s the point and it’s all the better for it.
James’ name appeared on two albums in 2010, this very contemporary reworking of the idiom he’s working in, bringing in the likes of Flying Lotus and Moodymann, and covering (with added vocals) Benga; and the much slighter (and later) For All We Know with pianist Jef Neve, which revisited American standards with less success than the venerable Brian Wilson (below). You have to hope that that second album wasn’t the beginning of a retreat back to the safety (and, I guess, bucks) of the Norah Jones market, but it’s concerning. I don’t begrudge the guy the dollars but one can but sense that the lush modern sound he was finding on the two Brownsville albums (this and the 2009 album, The Dreamer) offered a career path that would not only have more longevity but would arguably be more rewarding not just for the listener (meaning me) but Jones. I get the feeling I’m assuming too much.
You’ve not a heard a disco record until you’ve heard Gibbons mindblowing 12” mix of the first record ever to appear commercially in that format, Double Exposure’s Ten Percent on Salsoul. Lush, swirling percussive sex on vinyl that nags at you and tosses you around for the best part three minutes before dropping into a chorus and then drawing you back away from that. There are times when I think it is the finest record ever made, although other times I conclude that the balance of this compilation is even better.
Monster selection. I guess I could live without yet another copy of Fonda Rae’s Fat Rat, and the Gladys Knight is also on the Gibbons comp (albeit in a longer mix) but the Sun Ra, Lydia Lunch, Aural Exciters (early August Darnell) and James Blood Ulmer tracks are worth the price of admission to this killer comp documenting a small part of the extensive catalogue of productions by this hugely important but mostly unhailed NY producer/engineer. And if those tracks aren’t enough, the compiler has been clever and used the B side mix of the much compiled Wax The Van by Lola. Originally on Jump St in 1986, every other comp this appears on uses the A which is fine, but any DJ who’s ever filled a floor with it knows the wigged out Jon’s Dub is the killer. It’s here.
Why is this so short? 28 minutes and you are left wondering where the rest is. The master, who few would have believed would last this far into the next century, returned with an album that may have been slender time wise but was massive any other way you measured it and is, to my ears at least, his best since the mid 1970s. Wrapped in contemporary urban flavours, the UK sort, track by track — this has to be played as a single work like the Wilson below — it’s an album that almost a year after it’s release, I still find myself finding new things in everytime I play it, despite its length — and I play it almost every day. Given his personal past and recorded history, you’d forgive the guy for simply walking through this. I guess he doesn’t know how to do that.
Every year I list an Elvis Costello album and every year I realise that I’ve not played last year’s one for a year. That said I like a habit and I have a habit of not wanting to break it. An album that rewards in places. The best bits are, with one exception, the slow tracks but perhaps that’s just me — I’ve not ever really enjoyed a hoedown but I’ve always melted at the Macmanus balladry that used to fill his B sides in the early days but slipped onto the albums themselves as time passed. That’s Not The part of Him I’m Leaving is maudlin, depressing and all the better for it. Five Small Words, the only up track I like, shimmers like The Byrds do Merseybeat. You Hung the Moon is the song your grandmother listened to on the Sunday afternoon request session, and quite lovely for it. Bullets For The Newborn King, just bass, voice and guitar, is an heir to those early 7” flipsides, that made those singles so desirable. Best of all is the devastatingly beautiful All These Strangers . Its initial slightness belies the fact that it’s the key track on an album, once I’ve programmed out a couple of those less attractive stompers and rockers, I’ve played and loved a lot this year.
This shouldn’t work. It sounds horrific on paper and I’ve had to put the thing on again to reassure myself that I’m not making a fool of myself by touting it. It works. It’s charming, it’s lovely, the two new songs, co-writes from half finished Gershwin works, are gorgeous and are the best thing Wilson has done since the early 1970s (allowing for the fact that 2004’s Smile was a recording of an earlier suite), the voice which has been a weakness in recent years is just fine and he brings new life to songs you thought you’d likely never want to hear again, simply by opening up and accentuating with a very soft touch their native melodies. Not once does he overplay and yes well… a simply wonderful album which demands that it’s played in one sitting from beginning to end. Who would’ve thought…