Monday, December 12, 2011

2011: Music in review

It's the holiday season, and you know what that means; it’s time for critics, bloggers, and music-nerds world over to jump to conclusions and revisit music from the entirety of the calendar year. As early as a month before the year is even over, “Top ____ of 2011” lists pop up everywhere, which I find helpful purely for musical discovery’s sake. Also, interesting essays and articles. Two in particular I found interesting were 2011Dispatches from the Pop Museum by Jonathan Dean and Maximal Nation by Simon Reynolds. The former explores all sorts of musical trends going on in 2011, everything from the status of postmodernism in music to indie music’s current obsession with retro-futurism, and the latter is a piece that focuses on “digital maximalism” in electronic music and also touches on the action of nostalgia in the current musical community. The nostalgia factor is not new for Reynolds. His book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past has been the centerpiece of much of the musical discussion this year, and I’m disappointed to admit that I haven’t actually read it yet; it’s on my list. Another good article from this year that touches on retro-obsession is the one that I mentioned in the Nirvana post I did a while ago. It is a Slate article titled The Ghost of Teen Spirit: Why We Should Let Kurt Cobain Rest in Peace, also by Simon Reynolds, who uses the Nevermind anniversary as a launching point for more discussion about retro-obsession. I may not agree with all of his opinions, but Reynolds has certainly been fueling the musical discussion this year.

The issues, questions and answers provided by those three articles basically boil down to the assessment that people these days are looking towards the past more than the future. Bands are using lo-fi equipment, deluxe reissues come out extremely often, and we obsess over our record collections, relics from the past. I am no exception. In the wake of the Nevermind discussion, waves of memories are coming back to me, and I find myself missing music from a decade that I scarcely remember, saudade in full effect. Basically, my problem is that these days, music doesn’t quite have the cohones it used to. Although I’m an electronic-head now, I grew up on rock-n-roll, and I definitely miss a time when that was popular and to be frank when indie music was less overwhelmingly wimpy. Currently indie rockers are leaning more towards lo-fi, DIY electronic aesthetics that blur their music into ethereal, impressionistic styles, as with chillwave and hypnogogic pop. In a way, it seems regressive, but as Dean points out, this might be a premature assessment: "when the past sounds more like the future than the present does, revival becomes progressive."

Sidenote: this whole past-obsession that electronic music may or may not be going through lately is in itself a re-hash of the past. Around fifteen years ago, a little electronic band from Edinburgh Scotland was making a splash because they recognized the special relationship that memory had with music. Boards of Canada are the originators of this “hypnagogic pop” and I frankly haven’t heard enough discussion of their influence in the discourse on current music. Music Has the Right to Children was loaded with warped old TV samples from commercials and documentaries, and the band’s lo-fi approach was influential to say the least. It’s definitely somewhere we can trace some of the current retro obsessions to.

I don’t want anyone to let all this retroactive discussion distract them from the fact that there are a lot of legitimately exciting and new things going on in music right now. As far as electronic genres go in 2011, things have never been moving faster. The underground electronic scene is sprawling and largely focused on the low-end, hence the name that much of the scene has adopted: "Bass Music." A lot of the current elements of bass music have been adopted from or influenced by dubstep, which has essentially imploded and lost all of its original support within the past year or two. Burial has moved on to bigger and better things, and was never really dubstep in the first place so much as “Future Garage,” another broad catchall term with vague connotations. Artists have been breaking down the genre into its fundamental elements and playing Frankenstein with the pieces, creating a "Post-Dubstep" aesthetic. Dubstep stars Vex’d broke up last year and its two members, Roly Porter and Jamie Teasdale (aka Kuedo) proceeded to reject their old sound, go solo and make two of the most progressive electronic albums of the year: Aftertime and Severant, respectively.

The latter falls into the genre known as “Footwork,” an offshoot of Juke which is coming out of Chicago. The most ardent supporter of Footwork is by far Mike Paradinas, who with his Planet Mu label has released the vast majority of the genre’s major releases: two “Bangs & Works” Chicago Footwork compilations, Kuedo’s Severant, DJ Diamond’s Flight Muzik and Machinedrum’s Room(s). At its best this music is enthralling and at its worst incredibly irritating. The one who I think has really nailed the style is Travis Stewart with his work as Machinedrum and with Braille in Sepalcure. And then we had Andy Stott, who essentially tore techno to shreds with his two albums from this year, reanimated its corpse and sent it walking all over the place to scare the shit out of people. It’s easily the darkest, most oppressive music put to wax in 2011, and people are starting to argue that it has had some serious impact on the bass music scene.

And of course, there are the issues that Reynolds’ brought up in his Pitchfork piece. Glaswegian producer of about my age Russell Whyte, aka Rustie, has been labeled by numerous publications as a “maximalist” that blows music up to epic proportions. Glass Swords is his debut LP and it is pretty much the epitome of ambitious excess. Reverb runs rampant, synthesizers climb to great heights and the whole thing generally sounds like a weird rave designed for ‘90s children, with video game samples darting around the listener’s headspace, disappearing as soon as they appear to give way to different sounds.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s Ford Lopatin also released an album that has been getting a ton of press, Replica. It’s probably the weirdest little album of the year, comprised mostly of found sounds looped into oblivion and treated with atmospherics. His modus operandi is in many cases here to sample split-seconds from old commercials from the ‘80s and other such sources and loop them to create a steady rhythm in the strangest of contexts. Notice the decade difference between their source material, then between their ages.

I absolutely respect Rustie’s balls-to-the-wall, “maximalist,” grandiose approach to electronic music. To be sure, he’s taking a musical philosophy and engaging it on a deep, complete level. To some people, Tam Gunn and Simon Reynolds included, this is an exhilarating sound, ambitious in ways minimal electronic music has always feared of being. Also, there’s the novel thrill of hearing someone who grew up playing shit like Ocarina of Time and watching Johnny Quest now incorporating these obscure facets of ‘90s culture into art, the target audience of which are probably retro-obsessed music nerds like me in the first place. However, Glass Swords straight up gives me a headache. I feel like an old person when I say that at times, there’s a bit too much going on at once in that record.

Somehow, Daniel Lopatin’s hyper-minimalist approach is convincing me a bit more, though we could just as easily argue that there isn’t enough going on in that record. It’s a record that doesn’t move, sound, or feel like other records, and that in it of itself is significant. I find it impressive that he is doing much more than plunderphonics here. He is taking the tiniest and most unlikely musical elements and by reappropriating and repeating them, brings out their true essence, which is often completely unexpected. This is the kind of musical postmodernism that Jonathan Dean was talking about.

Comparatively, Replica and Glass Swords sound like audio love letters to completely opposite ultimatums on the artistic spectrum; is less more, or is more more?

To me, this bipartisan dichotomy is incredibly unhelpful to understanding the things that are going on in music right now. The kinds of people that read and write articles like these have been listening to music and going to shows for years. They know damn well that this is not a polarized issue. We have big non-band-more-collective types of groups going on stage, rocking our worlds sometimes and becoming a cluttered mess other times. In the same way, we’ve all seen solo acoustic guitarists we were embarrassed for, and if we’re lucky every once in a while we hear one that can just fill a room. Looking at it as an issue of less or more seems incredibly reductive.

So while I find myself reluctant to even acknowledge this dichotomy, one record this year, the record that convinced me more than all others, stated its maximalist ethos within its first five seconds, in one single phrase. Simon Reynolds also pointed out this moment. The rest of the record is so good that I must either dismiss this first moment as a fatal flaw in its ideology, an easy way out of a complex problem, or engage the issue head on and come to some conclusions.

“I can hear everything; it’s everything time.” – Gang Gang Dance, “Glass Jar”

Gang Gang Dance really reached for the stars this year, putting together their catchiest, most fun and polished album yet, Eye Contact. They clearly have no qualms or insecurities about their status as an avant-garde band making a not-really-avant-garde album. Eye Contact gets adventurous but it never quite gets bizarre, like the band’s previous albums have. Mark Abraham has sagely pointed out that despite claims to the contrary, Gang Gang Dance is not following Animal Collective’s career arc. Instead, they are advancing their own sound in the direction they have been since their breakthrough album Saint Dymphna, which essentially blew the lid off of dreamy, experimental dance music in the late 2000s and might have paved the way for Merriweather Post Pavilion. The times I’ve seen GGD live, they’ve always been ecstatic to be there and absolutely bent on making the audience have fun. The “everything” factor here might have something to do with that; simply going for it, not worrying about their avant-garde cred and instead making a lovely psychedelic pop album, the best in a long time. They aren’t afraid to please, and I like that.

Neither are the chillwavers, and if chillwave did anything significant this year, it probably just crashed and burned. The genre’s three major progenitors – Washed Out, Neon Indian and Toro y Moi – all released underwhelming second albums this year. I didn’t really follow the scene closely because to be honest if those were the biggest profile releases, I didn’t see much in this genre for me. I don’t dislike the aesthetics. In fact, I think lo-fi electronics really do have a future in music, but I think people need to figure out a way to utilize them that is a little more technically impressive, because to be honest while a lot of this stuff is pretty, it can be quite boring as well.

I hate making blanket statements about topics as hugely complex as music, but my gut feeling is that all this retro-obsession is essentially an attempt to try to make sense and celebrate our past in order to better understand what we are doing now and what we will do in the future. It’s true, our past is incredible, and the farther we get away from it the more apparent that becomes. And it’s true that incredible things are going on in music now, and we don’t fully understand them, because we're in the middle of them and it's hard to get an outside perspective. We pine to be nostalgic about these things, and pine for a time in the future when these works of art that we find so incredible will have the kind of legacy they deserve. We imagine a future where our children listen to our hip music, which is frankly an extremely un-cool proposition for them. All this is why we frantically rank albums and try to regain our bearings around this somewhat arbitrary cut-off time of year when a calendar switch somehow represents a quantum shift. We’re praising and panning works of art that are less than a year old, that haven’t had time to sink in, that we haven’t even had experiences with.

And that basically brings me to my core philosophy on music that I’ve noticed after years of listening and consuming and experiencing. Basically, the way I see things, the only way for music to really have an impact on your life is by having experiences with music, and being able to look back on these experiences in the future. Example: I got to know one of my favorite albums, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, by listening to it on my garage roof in the Summer, during hard times, and the circumstances absolutely raised the value of that album to a transcendent level, for myself anyway. Critics, bloggers and fans talk about music as objectively as they can so that they can try to get a hold on it and understand it, while in actuality the really special thing about music is its subjectivity and the personal relationships it has with people. Someday, the records that have come out in 2011 are going to be old news, and we’re going to be onto something completely new. By then, the music from now will have soundtracked vital moments in your life. You might have related to songs or albums completely, lyrically or in mood. You’ll have gone through innumerable musical “phases” that will act as reference points in your life. Some teenager somewhere is going to get their heart broken to some Bon Iver song and from thereon out that song will either mean the world to them or haunt them forever. Someone is going to lose their virginity to Nostalgia Ultra, and power to them. It will be significant to them, and that’s what’s important.

So to me, one of the most important elements of music is memory. I think people are picking up on this, and I think that’s why we have all the retro-futurist shit going on nowadays. Artists are even toying with these ideas more overtly. Experimental musician Leyland Kirby’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (under the name "the Caretaker") used memory failure as its main theme, a logical exploration of the mind through the study and depiction of defective versions of it. The record uses samples from old Swing records from as early as the ‘20s, which makes me feel like he is going a lot farther with these ideas than most of his contemporaries. I honestly don’t think there is anything particularly special about the ‘80s musically in comparison to any other decades that would make it such a popular time to revisit. It’s just that the young twenty-something people who are making music now grew up in the ‘80s, and that’s what they’re nostalgic about. Rustie, a child of the ‘90s, has started his career, and it’s obvious what time frame he remembers fondly. Somewhere down the line, God forbid, people are going to start getting nostalgic about Glass Swords, and maybe even Replica, and even all the chillwave and hypnagogia. Things go in cycles. Always have, always will. Maybe my rock music will get some grit eventually. Until then, what can I do except remember?

As for my favorite music of the year…An awful lot of really good stuff came out this year, and a couple bona-fide classics. Here are some of my personal favorite albums.


Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place
While many musicians really experimented with rhythm this year, Julianna Barwick rejected it completely. My sleeping patterns have never been healthier.


Bobby - Bobby
One of Mortigi Tempo's favorite underground records of 2011. Rarely am I ever impressed by anything that you can really only label "indie pop," but this is so ace. Very gentle and rhythmic, with some of the catchiest melodies I heard all year. Charming.


Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
Probably my most highly anticipated release of the year. People have been giving it shit for not being quite as jarring and experimental as Saint Dymphna, and maybe it isn't, but it's definitely their best song cycle yet. "Glass Jar" is probably my track of the year, but the whole thing is a great psychedelic pop album.


Laurel Halo - Hour Logic
So modern techno still has guts, it seems. While a lot of electronic music is being decidedly regressive, Laurel Halo is absolutely a believer that classic techno theory can be taken to incredible, new and technically impressive places. This shit moves fast and it's exhilarating to keep up with.


Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
Sitting down to listen to a Tim Hecker album, espeically one of his more emotional and dynamic albums like this one, is kind of an active process and requires quite a bit of patience. Still, it stands that this is one of the more beautiful, expressive things I've heard all year.


.L.W.H. - The Tape Hiss Hooligan
 From a production standpoint Hodge doesn't do anything too crazy or experimental here, but his beats are fucking devious. They make the rest of the Ova crew's rapping sound fucking scary even though they're pretty much rapping about the typical stuff. This album builds an atmosphere and takes you on a trip. Hodge is in the upper echelon of producers right now, and this is all he needs on his resume.


Machinedrum - Room(s)
Probably the most excellently stylized electronic album since Untrue. Both are: miles above everything else in their genres, great at using altered vocal samples, rhythmic and exhilarating. The difference is that Untrue is a wholly uncomfortable experience to listen to while Room(s) is a hell of a lot of fun.


Jurgen Muller - Science of the Sea
Ok, so this album might have actually been made in 1982 give or take, but it was reissued in a year where it was absolutely relevant to what was going on in the indie and electronic scenes. Either that or it was actually made this year and it's a big hoax. Who the fuck knows. It's beautiful.


The Psychic Paramount - II
Any album that starts like this one has my attention, and that energy carries through the entire thing. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only vital rock album I've heard in years. We need more bands like these guys, who aren't afraid to be loud, fast and aggressive. I'm hoping the stark political and social landscapes these days will lure them out.


Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
Best rap performance of the year, hands down. No one is on Ishmael Butler's level right now. He's doing something totally abstract with hip hop in regards to lyrics, rhythm and production, turning it into a vehicle for a whole host of complex ideas. Exciting shit.


Andy Stott - Passed Me By / We Stay Together
The darkest, most disturbing music to come out in 2011 and strangely also the most addictive. Stott has obliterated dub techno and what remains are these grotesque, skeletal remnants. He knows exactly how to hook his listeners with minimal, pulsing 4/4 beats, and then proceeds to really fuck with them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The internet has been out for a few days in my apartment building. Most of the international students would have you believe it is the end of the world but I like having to go out to the library or a cafe to get internet. I waste far too much time at home on my computer anyway. I bought a bag of limes and have been squeezing chopped quarters and eighths of them into my water and onto whatever food seems to go good with them, which seems to be mostly everything. Last night we drank Leffe and Strongbow Gold, enjoyed some a lot of white widow with Jerry, the Container of Poor Judgement and watched Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. We've resolved to make this a Tuesday post-field-trip tradition. Our kind of amazing Art History professor has brought us not just to museums in the area but also to Haarlem, and the Haag.

As I'm getting older, I find myself downloading just as much electronic music as I always have, but mostly only really connecting with music made some time ago. I've been digging on funk and soul music since I held my Summer job, which allowed for music listening so long as it wouldn't offend old white people waiting for their Diet Cokes and paninis. James Brown gets my blood pumping. A good groove makes me want to dance and sing. Is that one measure of the quality of music, how much of a physical response it elicits? But then Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin On makes me feel like I want to lay down like they do in Trainspotting, and I'm guessing that was Sly's intention; Riot is still one of my favorite albums right now. Al Green clearly understood love on a profound level. If you can't get down to at least a couple D'Angelo songs, we can't really relate. I'm over halfway through Infinite Jest. I think that means I'm about to finish it in a relatively fast amount of time, though this is simply a prediction based on my prior reading pattern of taking months (or in this case, years) to finish the first half of a book and only days to finish the second half. I will make risotto tonight. I seem to have pretty accurately learned my lovely late stepmother's risotto techniques. I think one of the things that kills me most is that her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking is gone. Luckily those memories are not so tenuous. I have resolved to cook more. I've also learned my grandmother's grilled cheese sandwich secrets. Now to get that potato pancake recipe from my mother down...

I have a whole fuckload of photos from Europe. I may put some here soon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Some good new stuff

So after a bit of a dry spell there is an ass load of really good electronic music coming out around now.

The two former members of the now defunct dubstep duo Vex'd, Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter, are both releasing their own solo albums, Teasdale under the name Kuedo. They are both very good. Kuedo's album Severant is more beat oriented, and you could probably categorize it as "bass music" or "future garage" if you were so inclined. Roly Porter went in a completely different direction with his LP Aftertime, which is much more concerned with elements of musique concrete and ambience. They are both absolutely worth checking out. I honestly can't decide which I prefer.


Those two albums really wowed me but it's hard to say that either of them are easy listens. This new LP by mystery producer patten conversely aims for the pleasure centers in the brain and is honestly way more experimental and exciting anyway. I'm hearing all sorts of parallels to everything from My Bloody Valentine to Flying Lotus to Oval to that collaboration Teebs and Jackhigh did last year. This is what we call 3D sound. The album is so giddy with excitement and new ideas that it can hardly contain itself. Very fun and different music.


I listened to that Andy Stott album Passed Me By earlier in the year and wasn't really feeling it. Since then I've done a full 180 degree turn and I can't get enough of what the man has to offer. His new album, We Stay Together, could act as a companion piece to Passed Me By. Both showcase his twisted take on bass music: suck out all the treble, warp the results and leave it all out in the open, in negative space, to create a haunting, pulsing, almost primal sound.


Composers Adam Wiltzie (of Stars of the Lid) and Dustin O'Halloran have collaborated under the name A Winged Victory for the Sullen and have released an album of the same name. If you know either artist you can sort of know what to expect here: beautiful melancholy piano and strings with swashes of electronic ambience. It is delicately composed music that is soft to the ear. Very beautiful and moving stuff. I'd highly recommend it if you want something lovely to fall asleep to.


Warp signee Rustie is dropping his debut album Glass Swords soon. It has already gotten a lot of praise as being some of the best electronic pop music to come out in a long time. There are definitely some transcendent moments here. This is exciting, energizing music that takes a lot of cues from '80s pop as well as pushing things forward with modern sounds. There's nothing particularly experimental about this but it stands as an effective amalgamation of a lot of styles into an incredibly catchy product.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ongoing list of Stroopwafel dishes

Straight up Stroopwafels - Incredible instantaneous pleasure. If you are in Holland smoke cigarettes, stop that and allocate your funds to Stroopwafels. A much more satisfying addiction

Peanut butter + Stroopwafel - Thick and wonderful.

Jelly + Stroopwafel - Fruit goes well with Stroopwafels so jam and jelly usually complement them quite nicely.

PBnJ Stroopwafel - Sex

Super Stroopwafel, from the market near my apartment - These are the big ones that they warm right in front of you. They taste much different. It's hard to describe and a bit hard to remember right now. Definitely worth checking out.

Grilled Cheese and Stroopwafel Sandwich - A worthwhile experiment but I wouldn't really go out of my way to do it again. It was definitely weird. I would rather have both things by themselves.

Fried Stroopwafel - I saw God

Still yet to try:
Nutella + Stroopwafel

I'm forgetting stuff. I'll edit this when I remember or try something new.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


If you're looking for a good summation of why Nevermind changed the face of music and youth culture, you'll have to go elsewhere. I'm no musicologist; God knows I try. I've read some good articles. Slate had a good article earlier in the year about the state of the Nirvana legacy today. Drowned in Sound also has a good, honest critique of the recent Nevermind reissue. There are some others I'm having a hard time finding. I'll put them here when and if I find them. I probably have nothing new to add to the twenty-year-running conversation about Nirvana and Nevermind. The only things I can really share are my experiences.

I literally have no recollection of my life pre-Nirvana. I'm not going to say "I was there." I was one year old when Nevermind dropped, only just a bit older than the baby on the cover. I was there, but it was my mother that was really there, exposed to the music of the time and able to appreciate the music as it happened. She listened to the radio and she had a CD player. So yes, I heard Nirvana, a lot of Nirvana, on the radio or otherwise, for the entirety of my childhood. It wasn't until middle school, though, that I rediscovered my mothers CD collection and all of its gems, including most of the Nirvana CDs, which included Nevermind.

Can you imagine what that must have been like? For someone entering puberty, confused as fuck about everything and in doubt of himself and the world around him, Nevermind was pretty much a gift from above. It was cathartic, emotional, punk rock as hell, confrontational and nihilistic at once, and it practically underwent its own identity crisis every time I spun it. In a way Nirvana's music made a whole wealth of my own repressed emotions acceptable, because someone else expressed them: Life really just isn't fair, it's okay to hate your parents for divorcing, the truth is ugly, you don't have to dress like everyone else, people just aren't listening.

In addition to life lessons, Nirvana taught me about a whole new world of music. My obsession with them did not come without a hell of a lot of research into an incredible amount of liner notes, articles, websites, books, VHS tapes, interviews and more. Kurt pushed all of his favorite bands harder than his own, and I would have never known who scores of bands were without his guidance. Through his words, Kurt introduced me to indie rock. Could there be a greater gift than that?

This 1992 interview is proof that Kurt was completely aware of the effect that he was having and would have on young people like me. He realized it and after the fact he continued to spread his knowledge of music and the music industry to everyone he could. That's a pretty generous stance to take on music. His words being broadcasted on MTV and the like, how could he not take advantage of his popularity and use it to change things for the better?

And I suppose I should write a paragraph about the actual music. A big topic of discussion about Nevermind, especially recently, has been about its production values. Some people say they cheapen the album. My feeling is basically that this album's glossy production has nothing to do with why it was popular. Nevermind blew up because it is a legitimately good album. A good album for rock music, for punk music, and most importantly for pop music. To me the keystone of the Nirvana oeuvre is the Unplugged album. Take all the production values away from those songs and you just have some beautiful melodies, simple as that. The "secret" to Nirvana's success is the painfully obvious fact that Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter.

To say Nirvana was important to me would be a criminal understatement. They opened up completely new worlds of thought, music and expression that I had never thought possible. I can imagine that thousands, millions of kids went through the same stuff about ten years before me, and at the same time as me, and still do now, and will continue to do so ad infinitum, at least as long as kids are still into rock music.

To me, that's what I find really impressive about Nirvana, Nevermind, Kurt Cobain. I was relating to this music with my mother. Thirty plus year age gap, there. That's the kind of pathetic reality that Kurt Cobain sought to steer young people away from. I guess that didn't work the way he planned, at least in my case. I think he underestimated Nevermind.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writing about music...

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it's a really stupid thing to want to do."
Elvis Costello, in an interview by Timothy White entitled "A Man out of Time Beats the Clock." Musician magazine No. 60 (October 1983), p. 52.