Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tunes of 2010*

Tonight I will be taking after a friend of a friend and gabbing about the songs which most often found their way through my computer speakers or car stereo during the last year. As a terminally unhip suburbanite who can't tell Yo La Tengo from Yo-Yo Ma and frankly doesn't give a shit about Kanye West, none of the songs I listened to most frequently in 2010 were actually 2010 releases. I feel the same way about music as I do books, films, video games -- hell, practically every commercially-released artform out there -- that is, why rush to listen today's hot music when there's so much old stuff you've never heard before? (I might also warn you ahead of time that my taste in music is notoriously bad.)

So! Let's get this thing started. We'll be looking at twelve songs, which equates to one favorite song per month. These will not be listed in any kind of order.

A Place to Bury Strangers -- Missing You (2007)

You probably have a music geek friend -- we all do -- who keeps urging you to listen to such and such album or suggesting bands he thinks you might enjoy based on the points where your tastes and his intersect. If you're like me, what you probably end up doing is giving the album a few spins and filing it under the Pretty Good or Not My Thing indexes. What I mean to say is that unless someone shares you musical tastes down to the spicule, you are probably less likely to find a new favorite band via a friend's recommendation that by listening to the radio or going to shows and discovering for yourself what resonates with you. This has been my experience, anyway; the only exception I can think of is the day when I was about fourteen and browsing the CD section at Hot Topic (shut up) while chatting with a sales associate and fellow Marilyn Manson fanboy who suggested I check out a band called The Sisters of Mercy.

Well -- that was the only exception, until recently. Sometime around April or May, my friend Dave burned me a tower of CDs, most of which I still have yet to digest. When it came time for me to undertake a two-hour drive to Philadelphia one evening, I grabbed a few albums from the pile to listen to on the way. One happened to be the self-titled release of a band called A Place to Bury Strangers, whom I had heard of once or twice before but never listened to.

"Missing You" is the album's first song. It slammed me into the seat so hard I thought the airbag had deployed on its own. Holy shit, I thought; this is it. This is the album I have been waiting for since two-thousand-fucking-one. It's a little bit early (pre-First and Last) Sisters, a little bitta noisy, and has the flavor of that shoegaze stuff all the kids are listening to these days. In my insignificant and completely unauthoritative opinion, this is the best record to have come out in the last decade.


 A Place to Bury Strangers -- It Is Nothing (2009)

Don't worry. This will be the only time an artist is mentioned twice.
After listening to practically nothing but their first album for two months, I went ahead and shelled out for A Place to Bury Strangers' second album, Exploding Head. I kept telling myself it was a disappointment. I sighed about their easing up on the noise, vitiating the goth undertones, turning down the distortion on the vocals, and taking a much more pop-friendly approach to its composition and production. But it is hard to gripe about any of these things with much conviction when you can't seem to stop listening to it in spite of your own bitching.

"It Is Nothing" is Exploding Head's first track. There are definitely some better ones ("Ego Death" reminds me of the Swans in the best possible way), but putting both albums' first songs next to each other might help any interested readers get an idea of how the albums differ and where the band seems to be headed.


(If you like what you hear, PLEASE BUY THE RECORDS. Especially in this case -- A Place to Bury Strangers just had their tour van stolen in Europe and are hurting financially. Now is not the time to go ganking their albums.)

Pulse Emitter -- Live WFMU set (2009)

This was actually my introduction to the Oregon-based noise artist; I happened to catch this set on the radio while out on an errand last year. I went home and downloaded a bunch of the free tracks on his website (which seems to have changed quite a bit since then), since -- if memory serves -- he only had vinyl versions of his work available at that time. It wasn't until February or March of this year that I thought to track down the live set in the WFMU show archives and found the whole thing available for download in the FMA.

"Minimalist" is an understatement. This is the sort of thing I like to have on the speakers when reading something challenging or trying to teach myself basic astronomical calculations. You don't want to be distracted by lyrics or even a beat or rhythm. This gives you a steady, droning, gradually transmuting sound somewhere between music and white noise. Incidentally, after listening to stuff like this I've come to find even more pleasure in my summer afternoons in the hills. Listening music like Pulse Emitter gives you an ear for these sort of sounds in their natural occurrences -- grasshopper chirrups, crickets' hums, the cicadas' oscillations -- and allows you to zoom in and zone out on them with greater ease.


Electric Tease -- TV Is the New God, Sub 6 remix (2008)

Oh, psychedelic trance. I wish I could quit you.


Sickness -- Point of Infection (2002)

Noise is a tricky genre. My favorite artist is Whitehouse, whose founder and sole constant William Bennett had this to say when asked for his opinion on the state of the noise scene during a September 2000 interview: 

'Noise' music? Very low, I'm afraid. The old longhaired prog rock fans who make the so-called Japanese noise are dead. I think they were always living on borrowed time. That genre totally depended on the then Western interest in exotic Japanese counterculture that was fashionable in the late 80s when it all started. Things like Japanese pornography especially bondage, oriental schoolgirls, the new wave of video games, manga and anime etc, the alternative aesthetic that Japan offers. A Masonna or Violent Onsen Geisha or whatnot CD with their, you know, 'obis' .... [t]he cute little outer covers on the spine with the names in Japanese. I think that's what they're called. Well, and the at times exquisite, even sexy, presentation must look fantastic on any coffee table when heavy metal fans or the like come round to tea. I guess nobody can fail to be impressed with your 100 CD 'Merzbox' with the free 'Merzposter', 'Merzbook', 'Merzmobile' or whatever etc. (luckily it doesn't really matter that your 'Merzrom' or other discs won't play properly) - but then you must think 'what about the music?'. I'm asked about the difference between Whitehouse and all these 'noise' bands. Aside from my own subjective and personal judgments, the one fundamental difference is that people actually listen to Whitehouse. I defy many of these Japnoise fans to look me in the eye and really tell me they regularly listen to that music. Most of them are rock and rollers. Where's the content? The use of extreme sounds and noise can be very powerful utilised as a tool but not as a means in itself other than as I said as a sort of 'coffee table' statement.

I'm not particularly close to the scene, but I get the impression that this is still as true today as it was a decade ago. There are some cool artists out there, but a lot them are just throwing together albums out of screeches, whistles, and grinding static for the sake of making the most inaccesible records and most ear-splitting live shows possible. It's a lot of fun, but it gets tiresome after a while.

Sickness is no exception. I bought I Have Become the Disease That Made Me on a lark after hearing a WFMU guest offer it his most lavish praises, listened to it regularly for a few months, then put it back in its case and returned to my Whitehouse/Wolf Eyes/Hair Police diet whenever I felt a fiending for abrasive arhythmics. "Point of Infection" is my most preferred track, thanks to that piercing finish. I still bust it out now and then, especially when I'm coping with problems regarding the opposite sex. In the past I dealt with heartbreak by listening to music that resonated with my mood, but have lately found noise to be a far more effective mode of palliation. If ever you find yourself pining and crestfallen over a failed or unconsummated romance, surround yourself with speakers or slap on a pair of bulky headphones (it will not work properly unless it is deafening and inescapable) and let this blast you until you stop feeling like a person altogether.


Ground Fault Recordings album page.

Ganga Giri -- Don't Follow the Guru (2003)

Of course, you might have a case of the doldrums and prefer a sweeter flavored solution. So. Brendon Small has "Trust Yourself." I have "Don't Follow the Guru." This song makes me grin from ear to ear every damn time. And yeah, this is as close to pop as I get these days.


Praga Khan -- City of a Thousand Sins (1998)

Another track from a Dave-recommended album. Listening to Pragmatic makes me intensely nostalgic for the gritty, rock-inflected "techno" of the late 1990s and irked by today's overproduced and club-ready electro-sludge. My hope is that after ten years of paying homage to the Eighties, we'll see a similar ressurection of Nineties-style music in the decade to come. (I'm counting on it, actually; I've already invested in baggier pants.)

Fun fact: you might recognize the musician behind Praga Khan (Maurice Engelen) as a member of The Immortals, the duo responsible for Mortal Kombat: The Album. TEST YOUR MIGHT


Irukandji -- Whales Street (2005)

I am almost as much a sucker for ambient psy as I am easily sold by songs about whales. I'm sure Herman Melville is to blame for one, but have yet to decide upon a suitable scapegoat for the other -- perhaps the aforementioned club-ready electro sludge?


Fever Ray -- Morning Keep the Streets, MaJiKer remix (2003)

Actually, maybe this is as close as I get to pop. I don't know what it is about this song. There was a week or two in November when this was the only thing I wanted to listen to. It evokes that sense one gets when peeking out the blinds at three in the morning and finding that an unanticipated snowstorm has radically transformed the world -- a sad sort of wishing that everything could stay so immaculate and quiet forever.

Hmm. I should really give The Knife another shot.


Solar Fields -- Sol (2009)

On my twenty-third birthday we got really twisted and then cooled down by watching a NASA Channel feed of a satellite-mounted camera at four in the morning. It was sublime. You really had to be there, but this song takes you pretty close.

Oh, hey. Looks like Solar Fields composed the soundtrack for Mirror's Edge. Imagine that!

Capsula -- Ride the Wave (2005)

More ambient psy. This is the last track on a podcast mix I listen to when conking out in the evening (or very early morning). It's really not that special a song -- how hard is it do lay a recorded voice over a couple guitar loops? -- but it possesses a kind of melancholy fascination for me. The title and content remind me of my two favorite passages from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and strike a chord with my own personal experiences. It makes me think of being in my early twenties and trying acid for the first few times. It reminds me of going to Camp Jam and midnight drum circles with Jason and Caroline and hanging out with all the stoned, tripping, beautiful and foolish kids between eighteen and twenty-two. When you're that young and experiencing something so powerful for the first time, it is hard not to believe that you're really on to something, as the Leary/Love Generation did. "Ride the Wave" evokes the mood of a hangover -- of waking up in the morning after a festival and watching the heaps of trash blow across the deserted fairground, or suddenly realizing you've become too old and poor to afford idealistic leaps of faith.


Implant -- Surface Tension (2005)

I really dig Anne Clark. She was busiest during the 1980s and 90s and did fairly well, but never quite made the leap into commercial success. Over the last decade, the electronic dance music scene has made extensive use of her lyrics and voice across a profusion of guest contributions and remixes. If you habitually listen to trance, industrial, EBM, progressive, etc., or visit places where they get spun, you have definitely heard her voice at least once.

My favorite Anne Clark performance is on a song by Implant (and remixed by Electric Universe) called "Tune Up Your Chips and Circuits," which takes everything I like about psychedelic trance and smashes it up with the elements I always enjoyed in futurepop/EBM. I reckon it among the ten or so songs I've listened to most frequently in the last five years, which is also how long it took me to realize it might be worth seeing if she collaborated with Implant on anything else. This brings us to Surface Tension: whales and psy ambient. It doesn't take much. (Some supplementary reading for you, so that you might understand why I feel as I do about whales.)

* * *
Looks like that's that. Between now and the 25th, I will only be listening to one thing: Crom Tech's Xmas album, the one set of holiday tunes that doesn't make me want to rip my own eyes out.

Happy belated Winter Solstice, and KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES.

That hand belongs to Ryan.


  1. I tried man, I really did, but there was not a single piece in there that I could actually stand to listen to all the way through. Perhaps if I smoked pot or something I might see/hear things differently, but if I actually listened to an evening's worth of music like that I'd probably feel like the life was drained right out of me. It was certainly interesting though.

  2. Fever Ray is pretty great, even more so live as she put on an incredible visual show. It's a shame she dropped it. Anyway if you like Fever Ray you should definitely give The Knife another go.

  3. Do you have synesthesia? No, not aural anyways, you like these for their lack of coherence. Thanks for giving me a start to find music that's relaxing in a capacity different from what most hear in music.