For someone who loves music, I’ve never felt like I was good at keeping up with it, and at this time of year peoples’ blog posts about their top ten new albums leave me feeling like a bit of an underachiever. I wonder if music fans fall into two categories, the ones who are always out there searching for the new stuff, and the ones like me who listen to records repeatedly, sometimes for years. One way out of this is to write up all the music which was new to me this year, because there’s always a lot of that. One of my daughters is currently digging through my vinyl with the carefree contempt for currency of the genuine teenage music fan, and I’m going to take a leaf out of her book. Although I’m not going to start buying vinyl again: this Christmas JB Hi-Fi is full of overpriced, 180-gsm gatefold-vinyl-reissues-with-mp3-download-of-your-post-punk-classics which I find simultaneously tempting and appalling: did we laugh at all those bad 90s CD remasters of the Boomer canon for nothing? This is the music I enjoyed the most in the last twelve months or so:
Autechre EPs box set – I was ridiculously late to Autechre, didn’t even own anything of theirs until after I saw them live in 2010, for reasons I still can’t really articulate but are to do with my own mood disorder and how it relates to alienating electronica. I’ve been playing catchup ever since. The only track on this I knew was the bleak/catchy “Gantz Graf” but it’s all really good, including the early, charmingly rave-y tracks. Ae completists should also check out the four-hour mix they did for a Dutch radio station – which not only confirms my theory that they’re still b-boys at heart, but also seems designed, with its onslaught of four-on-the-floor electro, to madden their symmetry-hating fans.
Charles Cohen: Retrospective and Brother I Prove You Wrong – quite a different sort of electronica. Cohen is a virtuoso of the Buchla synth, a strange analogue machine which looks like something Spock might have jammed on in Star Trek. He’s been performing around Philadelphia since the 70s but hardly released any recordings, apparently getting widely known by being sampled on various electronica singles starting in the 90s. One of my workmates tipped me off to his new album and I then got his retrospective collection off iTunes. This stuff is really warm, generous and textured, and quite funky at times, a long way from the panic-attack-inducing airlessness of Autechre. Great walking and programming music.
Tangerine Dream – I only found out that I liked Tangerine Dream thanks to John Coulthart’s post in honour of Edgar Froese, who passed away in January. I like to rail against rock snobs so I have to confess that it has been the most dishonourable of motives, the desire of a nerdy fifteen-year-old to kick off his old Sky albums and be seen as cool, which has kept me from indulging my taste for prog and the spacier or hippyish aspects of Krautrock, and that I’ve only been able to overcome this in the last four years or so. It’s really terrible and obvious, I even gave a pass to Cluster just because they worked with Eno. Ahem: My name is Michael Lynch, and I love these mystical cosmic jams. (Except for when the singing starts. Prog vocals are still too much for me unless they’re being sung by the lady from Curved Air.)
Holden – From the same work colleague who got me onto Charles Cohen: I really like his 2013 album The Inheritors, a set of vastly enjoyable Stone Age modular synth stompers. Here’s a live performance of the whole album.
Tom Ellard: Rhine – I can’t think of an act besides Severed Heads who have such an advanced case of “I like their old stuff better than their new stuff” antagonism between fanbase and artist, to the extent that old Sevs fans are called “Cliffords” after the early compilation Clifford, Darling, Please Don’t Live In The Past. I’ll admit to having bought more remastered old albums off Tom’s Bandcamp than new ones, but this album of new songs, which I got in the fancy “hardback” edition on a USB stick with bonus material, is brilliant. Severed Heads are usually talked about in terms of their pioneering role in electronic music and video art, but Tom is also a great songwriter – ‘Recall’ is as heartfelt and moving a tune as I’ve heard all year. Also recommended: Better Dead Than Head, a compilation of reworkings of old Sevs tracks from the succession of last-ever-shows they’ve played over the past five years, and Terse Greetings, a free compilation of cut-up and droney electronic pop from labelmates on the revived Terse Tapes.
Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy – wild and free improv with beautiful strings, insane Cecil-Taylor-esque piano, signal processing and electronics, which alternates between feral squalls of noise and passages of microtonal textures which seem to freeze time: “drones” is an inadequate term. I’ve still got this on high rotation and it’s the kind of music which takes me repeated listens to explore and understand, which as it’s a live recording raises interesting questions about the difference between what it would be like to hear once and once only.
Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon – I love this crew of soul-funk-astronauts from Melbourne: this and their first album, Tawk Tomahawk, are some of my favourite Australian albums of the last decade. Blissful, off-the-cuff slices of polyrhythmic wonderland. I think “Atari” is my favourite.
Wire: The Perfect Copy – Got into a big Wire kick, thanks to @timsterne posting a link to this playlist, and finally got around to buying a copy of their 1988 album, which I’d not liked much at the time because I’d just fallen in love with their first three records and tracks like “A Head” seemed a bit too much like a lot of other dance-inflected pop on JJJ by comparison. “A Madman’s Honey” is one of their transfixing, gorgeous lyrical songs, in the vein of “Outdoor Miner”. Googling the lyrics led me to Nemrut Dagi, an astonishing ancient tomb in Turkey:
The western terrace contains a large slab with a lion, showing the arrangement of stars and the planets Jupiter, Mercury and Mars on 7 July 62 BC.
The really good bands can keep teaching you things after twenty-seven years.
Blu Mar Ten: From The Vaults – “The 90s are back” has become a Twitter in-joke but this collection of cassette mixtapes of jungle and drum & bass from 93 to 97 has been my productivity soundtrack for the past few weeks. I never thought that dropouts or the dull fuzz of iron oxide not coping with heavy bass would sound so evocative, but thinking about it, a lot of what I like about jungle is the primitive sampling, the way each break seems caught in its own “window” of sonic texture, of which the track is a collage.
Amon Tobin: The Foley Room, Dark Jovian
I picked the first of these up at Repressed Records in Newtown, who seem to be flogging off a lot of Title’s more avant-garde stock (the price stickers were still on some of them) – this is also where I got the Evan Parker record. I’ve only been aware of Tobin from a couple of excellent early tracks on y2k-era compilation albums: this one, from 2008, is the first on which he used recorded sound. There’s a DVD with a featurette documenting him recording radar domes, motorbikes, ants and lions – it’s delightfully like the episode of The Mighty Boosh where the lads record the sound of a crab committing suicide and pump it out through a shoe “for the oaky timbre”. Dark Jovian is an EP from earlier this year, mostly beat-free, inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s space soundscapes – there are echoes of Tangerine Dream here, but also Ligeti, at once vast and delicate.
Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen – New Directions in Music
Anton Webern: Complete Works (Boulez, Sony)
Ute Lemper: Three Classic Albums
Finding a CD copy of this – a 2010 reissue of a late 50s recording of early works, including Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse and Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maître – spurred me on to finally get into Webern, whose complete works conducted by Boulez are available on iTunes for a pretty decent price. Le Marteau is not what I expected from its reputation: it is intricate, but the light intstrumentation and female vocals make its complexity seem nimble and delicate rather than dense. Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse is an achingly beautiful work for five woodwinds. Webern is a revelation: there are more musical ideas per minute in these three CDs’ worth than just about anything else I own. I wish he had not been so fond of songs for soprano: for some reason I find these peculiarly grating. As decompression from these, I’d revisit the Ute Lemper box set, three albums from the 80s of Weill/Brecht and assorted 30s cabaret numbers which I got with a gift voucher last Christmas.
Madlib – Medicine Show, Beat Konducta vol 5-6, Dil Cosby and Dil Withers Suites
Jackson Conti – Sujinho
Jaylib – Champion Sound
De La Soul / J Dilla – Smell the D.A.I.S.Y.
I spent about two months towards the end of the year listening to nothing but hip-hop, after my brother Tim (who is always my best source of good new music) loaned me a heap of Madlib’s Medicine Show mixtapes and albums, including his collaborations with J Dilla and Brazilian percussionist Ivan Conti. Madlib is a genius and the Medicine Show is like a seed-bank of American genres. Sujinho is a beautiful, delirious cross-fertilisation of Brazilian and LA beats. The Beat Konducta session, a tribute to J Dilla, is a really moving record which feels like a heartfelt response to Dilla’s Donuts, and it’s hard to beat Champion Sound, where the two producers tag-team rapping over one another’s beats. I listened to so much impenetrable and abstract stuff earlier in the year that I needed to come back to earth.
[Addendum: I forgot to mention another great tribute: De La Soul released a mixtape of some of their old flows over J Dilla beats.]