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.