Monday, December 29, 2008

top ten 10 albums from 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

10. Juana Molina, Un Dia

Is Juana Molina the Latin American Bjork? Er, probably not, but fans of exotic elf-women might will find a lot to like in Molina's vaguely alien song-constructions. (Plus, check out this album cover, my favorite of the year.) And, at the risk of essentializing, Molina's palette is distinctly sub-equatorial: it's sometimes classified as electronica, but it's driven at least as much by its Rioplatense vocals, Argentinian rhythmic elements, and loops of acoustic guitar. Warm, weird, and lovely. On Domino.

Listen: Juana Molina, "Vive Solo"

9. Cloudland Canyon, Lie In Light

A lot of bands lately have returned to drink from the well of 70s-era German progressive music, but Cloudland Canyon stands out from the pack. They approach the ecstatic, psychedelic pastoralism of that era less as a source to be emulated and more as an open-ended experiment that they have made it their mission to complete. Their 2004 album Requiems der Natur was an intriguing curiosity; this year's Lie In Light is a minor masterpiece. Thanks to Chris P. for tipping me off to these guys. On Kranky.

Listen: Cloudland Canyon, "Krautwerk"

8. Pocahaunted, Island Diamonds

The best way to imagine Bethany and Amanda, the two women who comprise Pocahaunted, is to imagine them calling to you, in their wordless sirenlike style, as you are descending deeper and deeper into a drug-induced coma. (It might even be worth waking up in the hospital just to hear these sounds.) They've been releasing a fairly steady stream of releases in obscuro formats; this one gets the nod because it benefits from its (comparatively) high-profile release on the Not Not Fun label, and because the presence of drummer Bob[b?] Bruno gives it a dose of extra structure and urgency.

Listen: Pocahaunted, "Riddim Queen"

7. Scott Tuma, Not For Nobody

Back when I lived in Chicago, I saw Scott Tuma perform a bunch of times as part of the exemplary Good Stuff House trio, so I knew he was one of the more interesting experimental guitarists out there. But that didn't adequately prepare me to expect him to release this beautiful and curiously moving album of Americana folk guitar. It retains its "experimental" status by including a few left-of-center gestures, but it's more heartfelt than it is cerebral. Thanks to Chris M. for sending this along.

Listen: Scott Tuma, "Fishen"

6. Brightblack Morning Light, Motion to Rejoin

As a guy who loves his Internet, I find Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes' back-to-nature / get-off-the-grid / Native-Americans-had-it-right trip a little hard to swallow at times, but listen to the music and you have to admit that they might be on to something: this bit of laid-back, smoked-out, electric psychedelic desert blues is a pretty mesmerizing piece of work. The best album Matador has put out since Matmos' The Civil War (2003).

Listen: Brightblack Morning Light, "Hologram Buffalo"

5. Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, Glistening Pleasure

Earlier this year, I described these guys as "hipsters who have learned that dance music is fun and sexy, but who feel just enough doubt about the enterprise that they're forced to add generous helpings of irony and absurdity lest anyone think that they're going about it straight-faced." That sounds like something that might wear thin after a few listens, but this album became one that I found myself returning to again and again, and growing more enamored of, not less.

Listen: Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, "Slow Motion Tag Team"

4. Jamie Lidell, Jim

There's an appropriative aspect to the whole "blue-eyed soul" thing that often makes me a little squeamish, so I'm a little embarrassed that I enjoy pasty-white geek Jamie Lidell's barn-burners as much as I do. On this album, Lidell's third, he strips away some of the electronic frippery and analog burble that he used to ornament his earlier albums with and plays it instead as a straight-up revivalist act. And why shouldn't he?: he's got the charisma, pipes, and songwriting chops of any one of the greats. (If you're really feeling guilty about the appropriative element and want something a little more authentic, round out your purchase of this record with a purchase of this year's fine compliation Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia.)

Listen: Jamie Lidell, "Another Day"

3. Rameses III, Basilica

Last year, Rameses III released Honey Rose, an modest yet perfect little driftwork which ended up slipping onto my Best of 2007 list. This year's Basilica shows them growing both more assured and more ambitious, releasing a suite of astral-plane drones that evokes majesty without sacrificing their characteristic gentle lull. Imagine the broadest dawn you've ever seen and you've got the recommended visual. Includes a second disc of "remixes" by drone-underground stars like Robert Horton and Neal Campbell as a bonus. On Important.

Listen: Rameses III, "Origins V"

2. The Dodos, Visiter

Two dudes, one on guitar and one on drums, one of them singing, and a female vocalist who occasionally joins in—sounds like an indie-pop formula that's pretty much been done to death. But the Dodos approach it with a zeal and urgency that make it seem brand new. Part of it is the emphasis on percussion: drummer Logan Kroeber works overtime to provide unusual timing for each song, providing sonic interest without devolving into wank, and guitarist Meric Long follows suit, exploring the potential of the guitar as a rhythmic device. The end result is little indie gems that also provide amazement and pleasure simply as kinetic or propulsive constructions. Endlessly listenable.

Listen: The Dodos, "The Season"

1. Fuck Buttons, Street Horsssing

In my imagination, the story goes like this: a couple of kids from the Bristol noise scene sagely decide to try to use structure and rhythm to harness some of the energy and intensity of noise music, in the interest of getting it to yield something amazing. And the amazing yield in question proves to be nothing less than—ecstatic beauty! Wild success. Interestingly, substitute "punk music" for "noise music" and you can see that acts like the Boredoms and Black Dice have also attempted a version of this experiment and attained identical results—indeed, look at Street Horsssing next to the Boredoms' Vision Creation New Sun and Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons.and it looks like nothing less than the disc that completes this decade's most awesome trilogy. Thanks to Nancy P. and Steve F., who both correctly intuited that I would like this album.

Listen: Fuck Buttons, "Bright Tomorrow"

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the overdriven landscape: summons of shining ruins

A nice album from 2007 that crept under my radar until I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago is the self-titled debut release from Japanese one-man band Summons of Shining Ruins [MySpace]. The pieces are mostly made with guitar drone and tape echo, which puts me in mind of acts like Rafael Toral and Area C (and anyone who likes those acts should definitely check this out), but this album also has a melancholic sweep and grandeur that sets it apart. You could almost imagine it as having been cut from the same cloth that makes up M83's overdriven electronic anthems, although you'd have to imagine viewing that "cloth" under an electron microscrope, blown up from a detail into a texture into an infinite landscape.

Or you could just click this link to hear an eleven-minute piece with a lyrically unwieldy title: "Facade was burned down, glass cracks innumerably and diffused reflection, How did I come here?"

The Summons of Shining Ruins debut is available through Moufu-Rokuon, as is this year's "sequel release," entitled "Summons of Shining Ruins 2." Also available is a collaboration (dated 2009?) between the Summons of Shining Ruins dude (Shinobu Nemoto) and another gentleman, Brian Grainger, who some of you may know as a result of his very fine release Autumn Soil Feedback (2008).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

what high school kids are up to these days

You know that LCD Soundsystem song "Losing My Edge," when aging hipster James Murphy remarks on kids who are full of "nostalgia for the unremembered 80s?" If you imagined a band entirely composed of those sorts of kids, you might have "Natalie Portman's Shaved Head," an unfortunately-named and yet shockingly entertaining band out of Seattle.

Their 2008 album, Glistening Pleasure, is the sort of album made by hipsters who have learned that dance music is fun and sexy, but who feel just enough doubt about the enterprise that they're forced to add generous helpings of irony and absurdity lest anyone think that they're going about it straight-faced. Ultimately what they've delivered is the best party-album parody since Beck's Midnite Vultures (and maybe better, since Glistening Pleasure doesn't seem to have the queasy racist undercurrents that mar Vultures' good-time vibe.)

Listen: "Me + Yr Daughter," by Natalie Portman's Shaved Head

For added fun, here's a pretty astonishing video. Godspeed, high school kids:

natalie portman's shaved head - sophisticated side ponytail from thatgo on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

this is the hammer that killed john henry, but it won't kill me

Spent some of the day today working on cleaning up and improving the Wikipedia page for Harry Smith's fantastic illegal masterpiece of curatorial preservation, the Anthology of American Folk Music... the page is still imperfect, but a lot better than it was when I got there.

Anyway, it gave me the opportunity to go back and listen through a few of the Anthology discs, and since I'm trying the annual experiment of posting more frequently to this blog, I thought I'd pick out a track to pass along... so here's Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues," sung from the perspective of a railroad worker who, (understandably!) reluctant to end up like the great (but dead) John Henry, quits the spike driving business and heads back home. This slice of back-roads Americana dates back from 1928, but aside from the old vinyl noise I think it could pass for a contemporary piece of blues-inflected folk. Enjoy.

Listen: Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues"

Friday, October 17, 2008

you seemed so nice

This Dodos track (from their very fine album Visiter) could, with only a few minor stylistic tweaks, be a an outtake from the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs project. It's one of those songs that seems on first blush to be a rather standard love song, but as the lyrics begin to develop, the song's relationship towards the beloved one descends into ambiguity, and finally it settles into a very Stephen-Merritt-ish form of infatuated contempt.

Listen: The Dodos, "Winter"

Thursday, May 8, 2008

blue like the fingernails she wore

I'm generally a believer in the idea that artists should grow and change through time, continuing to experiment and try new paths. So the fact that the songs that Mark Kozelek is currently recording in Sun Kil Moon are essentially indistinguishably compatible with the songs that Mark Kozelek was recording ten years ago with the Red House Painters should at least theoretically come as a disappointment.

On the other hand, in times of great change and personal upheaval there's a certain reassurance to be found in constancy, and the fact that I'm going through such a time right now should suggest that I could find these new songs to be a comfort.

But then again this is Mark Kozelek we're talking about, whose songs, although often calm on the surface, are not known for their psychologically uplifting qualities.

Listen: Sun Kil Moon, "Moorestown"

Friday, April 18, 2008

track of the week: "ambiguity song," by camper van beethoven

I've never really loved the use of "Indie" as a genre designator: I do use it, in my obsessively-maintained iTunes taxonomy, but its connection to the commercial dimension of the music world has always made it function a bit uncomfortably for me. The R.E.M. that produced Document (for independent label I.R.S.) sounds pretty much the same as the R.E.M. that produced Green (for major label Warner Brothers), so are some of those tracks "indie" and not others? What about the fact that I.R.S. itself was bought by EMI in 1994? And today's climate, teeming with subsidiary labels and imprints, makes it even harder to keep score, and if you were attempting to be rigorous in your use of the designator you'd drive apart bands who were making essentially the same style of music.

The option iTunes suggests, "Alternative & Punk," is another genre designator I've never loved, for reasons that don't require further explanation here. If I had my way, I'd go back to a label that seems to have fallen into disuse: "college rock," which I mainly remember from my own pre-college days, looking over the "Charts" page in issues of Rolling Stone, back in the late 80s.

That brings us to today's track, by quintessential college rock band Camper Van Beethoven: "Ambiguity Song." I'm feeling myself to be in a pretty ambiguous space lately, and so this song nicely captures my head-space some days. Unlike the concepts of "college rock" or "indie rock," the concept of ambiguity is one that does not quickly grow dated.