Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - Fifty Great Releases, 40 - 31

40. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

This album put Sufjan Stevens firmly back on my radar. I had kind of lost interest by the time Illinoise had been out for a year, and it seemed like his material after that was rapidly declining in substance. An album of lesser Illinoise outtakes; a Christmas collection. Then eventually came The Age of Adz, which totally defied my expectations and found Stevens exploring a much more electronic sound, full of urgency, anxiety and doom. Melodramatic this is, to the extreme, and the closing track exceeds 25 minutes and finds Sufjan busting out the vocoder, a regrettable last-minute miscalculation in my opinion. The best moments of the album though are mind blowing arrangements on the level of Tyondai Braxton's crazed Central Market.

39. Brian Eno - Small Craft on a Milk Sea
A slightly uneven bag, but the better tracks are the best Eno has released in decades, equal to his classic recordings. I think Eno should leave the beat-driven techno-esque tracks to younger souls and play to his strengths, namely creating mesmeric soundscapes tinted with direct melodies. Fortunately, the majority of the tracks on this album are of the latter type, and they are exquisite.

38. 1000names - Illuminated Man

1000names are a Bulgarian duo who sound a little too close to pre-Cosmogramma Flying Lotus for comfort. That said, this album is undeniably jammin', without one wasted track. Their craft is superbly polished, with all the tricky syncopations and lush textures that define this genre. Unfortunately it sounds a little too much like a product of its times to get higher on my list. Still, if you're a fan of this type of music, you won't regret having this one in your collection.

37. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

First let me admit I haven't listened to this one enough times. It's a tough pill to swallow, even though individually just about each song is quite strong. Three disks is a lot of music to push on anybody, even if it's really nice music. I just can't muster the endurance to figure out the plan of this album, its structural arch. But when I pick a song at random, I'm reminded of all the reasons I love Joanna Newsom, and plus, her voice has gotten better than ever. I think this could click for me in a big way yet, but for now Ys remains her masterpiece.

36. Asura - Asura
Here is another album with some slight potential to be confused for early Flying Lotus, but fortunately Asura mostly works in a pallet that is distinctly softer and cooler than Mr. Ellison's, resulting in an album that is more laid-back and impressionistic than any by FlyLo. It's gotten to the point that a lot of people are producing impressive sounding beats, so this is no longer enough to declare a musician as artistically relevant. Good thing Asura can go beyond that and make a tightly-focused album with a sense of movement from start to finish, always accessible and groovin' but with an introspective edge. This impressive debut clearly has a honed statement behind it (though I won't attempt to translate it into words), and it promises great work in the future.

35. Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal

I had the great pleasure of seeing Oneohtrix Point Never rearrange gray matter at the Low End Theory, a most unlikely venue for his music. There are no beats here whatsoever, and he didn't drop a single one that night, either. I heard one guy shout "Play some real music!"; he clearly didn't appreciate or understand the trip OPN was taking the rest of the club on. To my great amusement, one couple standing right up by the stage was making out for almost his whole set. This is visual music that will show you worlds you didn't know you could dream about. The opening track is a burst of ultra-intense noise in dozens of colors (brace yourself!), and from there things settle down into much more dreamlike territory for the rest of the ride. The sound of an astronaut with dementia dreaming of an artificial intelligence disintegrating into an accretion disk of blue-hot plasma - that is something not too far from OPN's sound.

34. Shigeto - Full Circle

Another instrumental hip-hop album, and there are more to come. This stuff has just been exploding the last couple of years. Once again, a lot of the tropes you find here were essentially pioneered by Flying Lotus, but it's important to consider that nowadays the beat situation is like what happened with jazz and its great innovators - a figure like Bill Evans comes along, and suddenly everybody is playing stacked fourth voicings. Now, people still make effective use of those voicings today, and it isn't really fair to say they're ripping off Bill Evans, just like it would be unfair to call this album a ripoff of Flying Lotus. Shigeto is blazing his own intriguing trails, prioritizing lyrical melodies and nonstandard instrumentation (I hear some traditional Asian sounding instruments, hearkening to Shigeto's ancestry). Importantly, this album easily elevates itself above being a "collection of beats" and sounds like an artistic statement.

33. Gang Gang Dance - Kamakura

Only 15 minutes long, the single track on Gang Gang Dance's Kamakura EP covers more interesting territory than your typical band has recorded in their whole career. The first 10 minutes are a whirlwind ride through various mutations of funky breaks, fragmented hip hop, grime, dub, and general psychedelia. Things then wind down to an elegantly lyrical and melancholy finish, as Lizzi Bougatsos provides her singular vocals for the first time on the recording. People accustomed to her frenetic whoops and tribal babble won't find any of that here, only beautiful restraint. GGD have been on a serious roll with God's Money, Saint Dymphna, and now this. I regard them as the finest band of the weirdo-indie Brooklyn scene; they're certainly the hardest to pigeonhole.

32. Jason Moran - Ten

This album sees Jason Moran pulling out a lot more stops and displaying more baffling inventiveness than Lost In A Dream, album #47 on my list. This kind of jazz isn't to everybody's taste, because they do a lot of crazy things with time signatures and tempo changes and unusual scales, that might be regarded as being mostly for fellow musicians to appreciate. As I hear what they do, it always serves a greater purpose, not to show off chops. "Gangsterism Over 10 Years" is bliss in groove form - I don't hear too much jazz that makes me go "this just rocks so hard". Backed by a high-caliber and very dynamic band, Jason Moran displays his full potential on this thrilling record. Jazz is so far from dead!

31. Guilty Simpson - OJ Simpson

Another Madlib invasion, this is one of the least conventional rap albums of the year. It's bloated at 24 tracks, and only about half of those have rapping. The rest aren't disposable skits, however, but a collection of great Madlib beats with thought provoking spoken word samples that tell a story. This makes OJ Simpson an unabashed "concept album", and a somewhat challenging listen - Guilty's rap tracks are so good, one almost wishes it was a more straightforward collaboration. But with Madlib on deck nothing is ever straightforward, and repeated listens reveal this to be a deep, robust and nuanced journey, even if it seems unfocused at first.

To be continued!

2010 - Fifty Great Releases, 50 - 41

It's that time of the year and best-of lists are cropping up all over the web. I think a lot of people out there agree that 2010 has been a spectacular year for a lot of varieties of music. To my ears, hip-hop has been particularly strong, and I can't wait to see how it continues to develop in the new year. As I want to mention quite a few albums, I won't be able to say more than a few words about each one. The order I list these albums in should really be taken with a grain of salt - I'm only going to mention things that made a solid positive impression on me, and in many cases albums will be so close in quality that I'm just going to have to make an arbitrary decision in ranking them. Also, my current stylistic predilections are obviously going to bias this list in favor of hip-hop, jazz, and ambient music. Without further ado...

50. Kanye West - My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy

I'm basically getting this one out of the way as soon as possible. I do indeed think it's good enough to warrant a mention, and leagues above Kanye's last effort 808s & Heartbreak, but there has been a lot more exciting music this year. As usual, Kanye's beats are on point, his lyrics by and large unmemorable. That some people regard this as the essential album of the year is beyond me. It's possible I'm being unnecessarily harsh here - this album is well worth a listen, but I feel the need to counteract the hype slightly if at all possible.

49. Hidden Orchestra - Night Walks

A relatively recent discovery for me, and one I plan to revisit many more times. Darkly orchestrated noir beats that remind me a bit of the Scandinavian neckbreakers Xploding Plastix. Groovy, jazzy, and easy to enjoy.

48. Caribou - Swim

I want to love this album, as it's by a beatmaker with a penchant for psychedelics who also happens to hold a PhD in mathematics. Despite these qualities in its favor, this hasn't yet transcended beyond just solid dance music for me. I can definitely see it growing on me, though - its lush arrangements and catchy melodies are admirable.

47. Paul Motian - Lost In A Dream
This is one of three albums on my list featuring pianist Jason Moran, who I believe to be one of the most significant young players on the scene today. Moran has a lot of styles under his belt, being a student of the peerless virtuoso chameleon Jaki Byard, and like his teacher he switches between them with arresting grace. Compared to his album as a leader Ten and his work with Charles Lloyd Mirror, however, this album suffers a little bit from "typical ECM syndrome" - the tunes mostly plod along, exploring dark modalities and using a lot of open space. Part of this is on account of Paul Motian leading; for decades now the drummer has been developing an unorthodox approach that provides pure color but little in the way of regular or driving rhythms. Still, this is really beautiful work.

46. Black Milk - Album of the Year

Album of the Year isn't the album of the year. But it is a vital example of contemporary hip-hop true to the roots of the genre while exploring fresh territory. Black Milk raps and makes his own beats, and is better at both activities than most musicians who do only one or the other. Funky fresh.

45. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Here's one of several albums on my list I could easily be underrating simply because I haven't been so into this type of music in the past year. If melancholy acoustic folk is up your alley, consider this one of the best releases of the year. All of Sun Kil Moon's albums are great and this is no exception.

44. Baths - Cerulean

This is the first and so far only release on Anticon that has really caught and held my interest. That's because it doesn't sound like an Anticon record at all. Baths is a frustratingly young (as in I'm jealous) beatmaker who actually went to my high school in the San Fernando Valley and is now more than holding his own in LA's Low End Theory scene. Unlike most future-beat crafters, Baths makes his own (processed) vocals a major part of his sound, which is bright, childlike and pastoral while also distinctly weird. The vocals are odd, but this is ultimately too tight and catchy to resist.

43. Extra Life - Made Flesh

This is one of those albums I've listened to a couple times and decided I love, yet rarely find myself wanting to put on. Most of that has to do with that avant-Medieval-metal hasn't been my cup of tea this year, but this is still amazing, forward-looking music that sounds like no other band I'm aware of. Charlie Looker works in a style that has the potential to be utterly cheesy, but executes it with total sophistication. There are more than a few "holy crap"-inducing flourishes on this remarkable album.

42. Vijay Iyer - Solo
Like with Caribou, I have automatic admiration for Vijay Iyer for his holding a PhD in math. Then there's the fact that he's an excellent improviser on the piano. On this album, his first playing by himself, he opens with a beautiful, shimmering cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature". Like, how much cooler could this guy be? That said, the album isn't higher on my list because even I with my love of formalized and mathematical music can understand the criticism against Vijay Iyer that his playing is at times a little too rigid and structured, a little bit lacking in sensitive dynamics. The album also feels a little more like a collection of different songs than a unified statement. Regardless, there's a lot of fascinating and moving content here.

41. Dimlite - Prismic Tops

One of the most tricky to unlock mostly-instrumental hip hop albums on my list. There's plenty here that's immediately accessible, but beat-alchemist Dimlite layers in so many unexpected left turns and proggy conceits that I still don't have a clear understanding of how the album unfolds, after several listens. This is a compliment; few beat-based albums are slow to reveal their secrets and able improve with time. Richly complex yet always able to make your head nod.

To be continued!