Thursday, January 13, 2005

Best Albums of 2004

In no particular order, mind you. Except for the first, that is, which was the bestest of them all.

Last Exit- Junior Boys: Effortlessly drawing from and weaving the past influences of New Romanticism, David Sylvian, early OMD, Derrick May, Timabaland andThe Blue Nile and forging them with an irresistibly spacious delicacy, silky melodies and a keen sense of newfangled production finesse, the Junior Boys album was my favorite album of the year. Electro-pop hasn’t sounded this buoyantly longing since New Order’s heady days in the mid 80’s.

The Blue Notebooks- Max Richter: Actress Tilda Swinton’s voice appears from time to time, reading excerpts from the writings of Kafka and Czelaw Milosz, her voice mingling with the highly affecting ambience of a ticking clock, a train passing and a typewriter. Surprisingly, it’s not pretentious really, though it does smell of libraries and sounds like something we’ve heard before with all those violins, cellos, and pianos churning melancholy motifs. Winter music, for sure- cold white light through windows and gorgeously meditative, that too. "If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”

Black Mahogani- Moodymann: Kenny Dixon, Jr’s past few albums have been harassed by annoyingly indulgent sound collages, his otherwise sublime disco-house grooves given too little room to stretch out before being submerged in murky party chatter (endless replications of the first few seconds of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On?- which he’s also sampled and looped) along with Dixon’s own stoned ramblings and found sound experiments. On Black Mahogani, however, he seems to have reached the perfect balance, the party chatter sound collages actually working in accord with the music (he’s cutting them up more, giving them more polyrhythmic stress) to create a suite of murky funk house that effortlessly takes detours into swanky lounge, blaxploitation samples, and some of his most joyous and successful 4/4 grooves and riffs.

Thé Au Harem D'Archimède- Ricardo Villalobos: Rhythm as texture, often subaqueous. Swamp gas harnessed and transformed into polyrhythm. Micro sonic incidentals accumulate baggage and take on meaning- little sputters and splashes, hisses and crackles- continuously clustered and diffused atop ever morphing 4/4’s and fluky bass lines. Markedly organic, too, with acoustic percussion intimately miked and crisply springing upward and out from spongy crevices.

Margerine Eclipse- Stereolab: Their first album after the tragic death of band member, Mary Hanson and their best since Dots and Loops. There’s been a lot of pooh-poohing concerning the bands lack of “progress” over the last few albums, and admittedly, when buying a Stereolab album you acknowledge and appreciate that you’ll probably be getting more of the same- and, sheesh, given the sonic gold they’ve successfully mined from this territory over the years, even those albums that weren’t exactly consistent had more then enough about them that was fantastic and rewarding. So this one- not earth shattering, no, but solid and charming and lush enough to offer numerous rewards of wow and flutter. The Man With One Hundred Cells, for example, offers one of the loveliest examples of all that is right with a Farfisa organ played properly.

SMiLE- Brian Wilson: It took me a long time to break free of my Beach Boys prejudices. For a good while they acted as the contemptible totems of the Golden Oldies circuit, with its heavy syrup of canned nostalgia and (we’ll have) fun fun fun summer tours attended by balding boomers and their bored spawn. Of course, fronted as these tours are by the contemptible Mike Love, who was notoriously and forcefully opposed to the ingenious direction Wilson was taking the Beach Boys back in the days of Pet Sounds and the famously abandoned original SMiLE, it’s not so difficult to understand my disesteem, no matter how rehabilitated he may be. Now, of course, all Beach Boys disregard has been put aside by the fact that, without a doubt, Brian Wilson was and continues to be, as this album attests, a fucking genius. It really could have gone so horribly horribly wrong. You held your breath when you put it on. But damn if he didn’t get it about as right as you could some 30 years later.

Avalon Sutra- Harold Budd: Like Stereolab, Harold Budd has been successfully mining his own distinctive niche for a while now. Roughly 30 years , in fact, of which I’ve been tagging along for over 15 of- ever since I heard and fell in love with his track, The Gunfighter in the autumn of 1989. Avalon Sutra, recorded for David Sylvian’s new label, Samadi Sound is supposedly his last album, though given how prolific he’s been over the last decade and his age (68), I can’t imagine this is anything more then a marketing conceit or Mr. Budd talking nonsense. Like most of his work over the last 30 years it’s decidedly minimalist and vapidly pretty, his piano meanderings adrift in soft pedal reverb and sometimes accompanied, to great effect, by violins, flutes and a saxophone. I would build a house here, where the sky goes on forever.

Venice- Fennesz: Christian Fennesz is a master of processing the shit out of sound. Venice is teeming with laptop manipulations of granulated guitars and sonorous static lapping up to the edge of the speakers and spilling over. Discharges of distortion are rounded off and tamed, layered and stripped back, sunk and extinguished. Glacial drones gurgle, sputter, peal back, bristle and becalm. Austere, gentle, finely sculpted- at times like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless slowed down to a fraction of its proper speed.

The Milk-Eyed Wonder- Joanna Newsome: “That voice.” the critics meme proliferated, “you either love it or you hate it.” Oh, how I loved it- girlish, to be sure, but maturely assured and like a fictional protagonist from the weird coalmining hills of yore. In this month’s Wire Newsome says that when making the album she “was listening to a lot of old Appalachian folk recordings” and that what wowed her about them were the odd timbre of the voices, their unaffectedness (“they don’t adhere to conventional ideas of beauty”) and the fact that “there can be worth and strength in an unconventional voice.” Definitely. Couple that, then, with her expressive, versatile harp playing (usually the only accompanying instrument) and supple melodies and you get more inspired greatness coming down from the mountains.

Funeral- The Arcade Fire: After, Junior Boys, the years best debut. It’s brimming over with spine tingling teenage anxieties and idiot glees. It’s sometimes sloppy, overly lush and always, always (and I mean always) kicking me in the ass, pumping my fists in the air and making me feel Annie Lennox-like 17 all over again. There’s a touch of New Order in Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) circa Brotherhood and they channel it so well that their collective powers to endear are set repeatedly to stun. Oh, the grandeur. It’s not all nostalgia poses however. It’s now, man, totally now. Homebred and seemingly out of nowhere, it’s earnest all over its sleeve and their ballads incite just as much shiver as their fever dreams. I feel like I’m still discovering this one.

Riot On An Empty Street- Kings of Convenience: Norwegian fey, they harmonize like sweaters and corduroy. Though we’ve been spared, we’re aware that this could find its way to Starbuck sound systems, inoccously mingling with the hum of laptops and espresso machines. But fuck it. It made me love its neutered seductiveness late this summer when Cathy and I were lolling at a B&B in Galena-that day the rain fell all afternoon and we did the requisite curling up with books and ate coconut chicken with salsa for dinner.

Odds and Ends: Seven Swans-Sufjan Stevens, Underachievers Please Try Harder -Camera Obscura, Rejoicing In Hands- Devandra Banhart, Ta Det Lugnt- Dungen, Milk and Honey- Klimek, The Lovely- Mara Carlyle, We Shall All Be Released- The Mountain Goats, The Tigers Have Spoken- Neko Case, Kompakt 100, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb- U2.

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