Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tunes of 2011*

Greetings and Happy Solstice Day, fellow sentients!

You have my sincere apologies for the silence lately. I've been pouring all of my spare energy toward the completion of a rough draft for a certain project, and starting today I am not allowing myself to bathe or shave until it is complete. Afterwards I will seal it in a cask deep beneath the Earth's crust and revisit it the day of the vernal equinox (March 20). Then I will let you know if all the time and stress I sunk into the fucking thing was worth it. Between now and then I will be working on comics, Mother series pieces, making The Novel available, and other fun stuff. Hoo-hah!

Anyway! It's the end of the year again, and time for another run through my favorite songs of the last 365 (or so) days. As before, two points must be made before we wind up the hit machine:

1.) You will notice that most of these songs were recorded before 2011. I am not a "hep cat." What I am with is not it. This is not a list of my favorite songs released this year; it is a list of the songs I've enjoyed and listened to most this year.

2.) If you were to ask me, I would refer to my musical tastes as "eclectic." If you were to ask anyone else, they would probably describe them as "horrible." Just a warning.

3.) These are arranged roughly in the chronological order of when I first/most listened to them, so we end up with something like one song per month.

Shiloh -- Café del Mariachi, Nick Warren remix (2007)

I believe I've listened to this song only once over my home speakers, which was the first time I heard it. But I've probably listened to it in the car 100 - 200 times in the last year. It is an excellent soundtrack for a commute.

Writing compelling blurbs about electronic music can be damned difficult. Go on, take a glance at Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone's annual Top 100 lists and see how many of the descriptions of/justifications for their selections are able to explain that song without referring to its lyrical content, vocals, instruments used, the personality and public image of the artist, or its context within the music scene.* A song becomes much easier to write about when you have more to work with than a faceless assortment of blips, beeps, and thumps.

As far as I can tell, "Café del Mariachi" is about gobbling psilocybin, sitting down at a Starbucks in Mexico, and feeling progressively more jittery and paranoid as the place fills up with inexplicably menacing people and the trip approaches its peak.

Okay, fine. You listen to it. You tell me what you get from it.


Solar Fields -- Das Bungalow (2009)

Oh! Weren't these guys part of last year's collection? I shall justify my inclusion of a song from the same record (Movements) by saying that it wasn't until this year that I bought and listened to the whole album.

Most songs on Movements evoke a sensation of drifting weightlessness, and "Das Bungalow" is par for the course. The impression I get is of Newtonian motion -- of moons, planets, and mechanical satellites lazily tracing out their orbital paths through empty space. Maybe what I'm actually doing is imagining scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I saw for the first time this year and HOLY SHIT I WANT TO BE I AM A STAR-CHILD) and replacing Strauss, Khatchaturian, and Ligeti with Solar Fields?

But the title? "Das Bungalow" suggests that the thoughts and images the song's composers bore in mind while writing and recording it were much different than what it suggests to me.

Music is a funny thing. In some ways it is so much more communicative than language, and in others it is so immitigably opaque.


The Sounds -- Under My Skin (2002?)

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of hits on The Sounds' YouTube videos, I am forced to guess that I missed the boat by nine years or so. Par for the course for Pat.

I first heard them (and this song) during one of Radio Ghoul School's erratic periods of functionality, and was struck most by Maja's voice; it strikes this perfect tension between abrasive rawness and vulnerability. I can only imagine how it must feel to produce such sounds from one's own throat.

As it turns out, "Under My Skin" is a B-side from The Sounds' first album. I was disappointed when giving it a quick listen and finding it a lot softer, more polished, and less real than the song that introduced me to the band and HOLY SHIT RADIO GHOUL SCHOOL IS UP AGAIN. Listen to it while you can!

Anyway. The Sounds, ladies and gentlemen!

(Shoot. Radio Ghoul School is down again. That was fast.)


SPK -- Metal Dance (1983)

I can't get over my astonishment that music like this existed at one point. Even if the UK's sensibilities were still informed by punk, how the hell did a group like SPK ever get on television? How the hell did eighties pop ever fuse with old school industrial? By today's standards, could you even conceive of a pop act that uses power tools in its live performances and represents itself with lyrics about mankind's ruin mistaken for civilization's progress? God, I was born in the wrong fucking decade.

I still prefer SPK's earlier, more avant-garde material, but this dancey-noisey stuff ain't half bad. It's still got the same deliciously dark neo-Futurist flavor, but with a pinch of sugar and a splash of cream. "One step, one step forward, two steps back..."


Julianna Barwick -- Prizewinning (2011)

This would be the first of the two songs on this list which I was introduced to by NPR. Good god, am I ever becoming lame in my old age.

How to describe a sound like this without resorting to non-descriptors like "ethereal" and "ambient?" To me, "Prizewinning" sounds like the transition from heavy drowsiness to slumber and into lucidity. Maybe because I first heard it beneath the April full moon I can't but associate it with the changing of the seasons -- of winter thawing into spring on its approach back to summer and then toward winter again.

(When I shut my eyes with this song playing, it is always twilight or moonlit night. Plants do most of their growing at night, and people do most of their changing.)

I suppose none of that was very descriptive of the song, either.


Electric Universe -- Conscious (2009)

I take back what I said last year, psychedelic trance. I'll never quit you, and you won't hear me saying otherwise ever again.

I recall an evening back in October, when I was still getting settled at my abode in Pennsylvania. During a visit to an old college friend living in Philadelphia, I allowed myself to be talked into giving her and her roommates a lift to a concert in a West Philly park. Electric Universe's Sonic Ecstasy album was in the CD player, and man -- did my passengers ever whine about it. How can you listen to this, I feel like I'm having a seizure, etc., etc.

Funny. And here I though Electronic Universe was on the poppier end of the psy/goa spectrum.

When we arrived at the park and listened to a group of synth rock, chiptunes, and ambient noise acts run through their sets, my passengers did not make a peep of complaint -- which struck me as somewhat odd.

Maybe it's the lack of a human element? "Machines don't have feelings," writes an electronic music scholar, "and neither does trance." I would imagine that folks who tend to listen to indie pop bands, know the performers' names, and tell swooning stories about meeting them after their shows mist find it terribly off-putting to be confronted with a type of music consisting only of inorganic textures, tones, and time signatures; that is not only inarticulate but can hardly even be said to denote any of the three basic "happy," "sad," or "angry" feelings.

"Conscious" is impersonal, vaguely sinister, and makes you feel as though your own thoughts are having little choreographed spasms. And I love it.


London Elektricity -- Just One Second, DJ Kan mix (2011)

I wonder if anyone else who listens to a lot of electronic music gripes about this?

A scene half-dominated by faceless artists from Eurasia can be hard to navigate, so many of us turn to mixes and podcasts assembled by conscientious and savvy DJs to keep us in the loop and expose us to new artists. One hitch to this is that any decent DJ will tweak the tracks in his mix -- a pitch shift here, a BPM change there, etc. -- so it is often the case that the incomplete song you hear between 32:10 and 34:45 does not exist anywhere else as you're hearing it. When you check out the original song, what you listen to will be different from the tune that first caught your attention.

And so we come to London Elektricity's "Just One Second" (2008) which was remixed by Apex in (2009); and in 2011, the Apex remix was remixed by DJ Kan for its inclusion in his "Day of Parkour mix," which was aired on a popular Internet radio station earlier in the year.

Most of what's in "Day of Parkour" isn't quite my preferred flavor, but I really enjoy Kan's unique version of "Just One Second" under the right circumstances. There are certain sunny days in May when one feels entitled -- irresistibly compelled -- to roll the windows down on the highway and blast stupid happy electro-pop.

Well...here's a link to DJ Kan's page. You can listen to the first two minutes of the mix (which is also the first two minutes of the song), or download the whole thing.

Echotek vs. Side-Effect -- Another Age (2005)

Good psytrance comes on slow. Its mode of operation is gradually hypnotizing the listener and then setting off a localized explosion in his brain. The effect is severely diminished without a suitable interval between the crescendo's foot and its peak. Ideally, the crest of a psytrace track should, to put it in technical terms, melt the listener's face from his skull.

A lot of psy artists like to employ a build-up period before the climax -- like a receding trough preceding the tidal wave. I appreciate how "Another Era" slams the listener with a crest that comes straight out of nowhere like ZANG, and liquefies the brain just as well as any track with a drawn-out rise telegraphing its peak.


Tom Wopat -- Ode to Billy Joe (2011)

This would be the the second of the two songs introduced to me by NPR. The first song ("Prizewinning") I heard on New Sounds; this one I heard on Jonathan Schwartz's Saturday Show.

It must be said how much I love Jonathan Schwartz. Until I moved to Pennsylvania, I actually looked forward to hearing him on the radio every weekend afternoon. (I suppose I could still stream his shows, but listening to the radio in the car and at your desk just aren't the same.) His shows consist of him playing a stack of Sinatra records (maybe with some Crosby and a few other miscellaneous artists sprinkled here and there) and talking very slowly, very softly, and very aimlessly between songs. It is some seriously excellent radio, and I miss it.

One Saturday afternoon he played this BANGIN' cover of "Ode to Billy Joe," but I totally forgot the name of the artist by the time I stepped out of my car. Since WNYC doesn't archive his playlists, I had to drop Mr. Schwartz an email on the topic, and he responded first thing Sunday morning. I tell you my heart was going pitter-patter.

What? Oh, sorry -- I've allowed myself to become distracted from the matter at hand by my girlish crush on Jonathan Schwartz, and now we are almost out of space.

Tom Wopat's "Ode to Billy Joe" is a most excellent cover and a clever twist of a classic; the perfect soundtrack for waking up at noon on a languid August Sunday, loafing on the back porch, and drinking a beer for breakfast.

Listen! (Buy the album!)

Magman -- Sanctuary, PsyAmb mashup (2011)

For over a year now I've been a regular and avid listener of the monthly podcasts over at PsyAmb. Though I really dig this sort of music, it might do its job a little too well sometimes. After an an hour of psychedelic chillout tunes, you snap out of it and find that it is often hard to distinguish the parts you most enjoyed from the rest -- because the mixes are so aurally unobtrusive and consistently low key, the songs to blur together in your recollection until you've listened to it another couple of times.

Adding credence (as far as I'm concerned) to my "most people only care about music with recognizably human characteristics" theory is the inclusion of Magman's "Sanctuary" on this list as a representative of all the hundreds of psychill tunes I've listened to and loved during the past year. The original version of the song has no vocals, and is a decent enough listen -- but the inspired wizard over at PsyAmb took it, spliced it together with a Bill Laswell track (featuring Anne Clark and Genesis P-Orrige!!) called "The Tale of Caliph Hakem," and turned it into something that immediately snapped me out of my revels and made me dash to the computer to consult the playlist.

You can listen to/download the mix here; "Sanctuary" makes its entrance just after the thirty-five minute mark.

Art vs. Science -- Magic Fountain, Royalston Remix (2010)

I admit it: the inclusion of this song is a capitulation to dubstep. As a whole, the BBBBWWWAAAAAMMMMPPPP movement is still a festering polyp on the vital tissues of electronic music, but it's been around long enough that some artists have taken pains to mitigate its suckiness to the point where it is not only listenable ("drumstep?" I can maybe live with that), but actually kind of fun -- provided you're with your friends and screwed up enough that the silly lyrics make you fall over and laugh until you can't breathe. Such was the case with this version of "Magic Fountain" included on a Hospitality Records mix.

Sam (who introduced me to the tune) tells me that it always makes him think of an ice cream parlor on Long Island. I've never been there myself buMOTHER OF GOD THERE IT IS!!!

I can't look at this without experiencing some residual giggles from the first time I heard IN THE BEGINNING!! THERE WAS A FOUNTAIN!! BUT IT WASN'T!! JUST ANY FOUNTAIN!!!

(I must express my disappointment with the artists' choice of name. There is no good reason why art and science should be fighting.)


Immortal Technique -- Rich Man's World (2011)

Alright, kiddies. You want your song of the year? You've got it. I'm calling it.

Time Magazine is calling 2011 the year of the protestor. From Africa to Europe to the United States, people numbering in the thousands rose up to take a stand against tyranny. The Arab Spring was a backlash against the tyranny of oppressive dictatorships; the Occupy movement is an outcry against the tyranny of vampire squid (and other like bloodsuckers).

Occupy Wall Street was a long time coming, and Immortal Technique -- a panther among the preening and posturing pussycats of mainstream hip hop -- will tell you why. "Rich Man's World' might as well be Occupy's mission statement -- if it didn't suggest the movement wasn't doing or going far enough.

To let you know how serious he is about this business, Tech has put out his Martyr album out for free. Get it. Listen to it. Learn it. Love it. Viva La Revolución.


* What? Sure -- I talk about the package more than the contents, too. But I never claimed to be a music critic.

1 comment:

  1. Dug Pharoahe Monch's W.A.R. album even more than the Martyr. It's not as socially conscious, but the title track touches on the same things, and I think the album as a whole is stronger.

    As an aside, I really think music criticism would be difficult to write. It is the most subjective medium, and pretty much everybody is going to have a different interpretation of a given piece. I can understand why critics feel the need to attach a narrative to a piece, as the only thing left is their feelings.