Writing for Foxy D. reminds me that the music world in 2011 is thriving. Music is (as it always has been) a teeming ecosystem now deep in the process of shedding major-label shenanigans, just like the food ecosystem is slowly beginning to reject factory farming. For 2012: continue to look closely and go deep…
Alvarius B., Baroque Primitiva LP (Poon Village)
Over and over, Alan Bishop’s (Sun City Girls) latest solo album was my favorite listening experience of the year. Even with the second side being made up almost entirely of wispy instrumental pieces. Even with about as much polish as an average 4-track demo. Even being made up of a compilation of tracks recorded over several years in just as many locations. Even with the goofy closing cover of “God Only Knows.” Made me wonder what everything else could be missing, or what Mr. B. possesses. Maybe it’s the same thing that convinced all those women to form that mandala…
I will have to admit here that I don’t really listen to individual songs, especially at any point during the last year. Any choices I make would be in the bad conscience of ignorance. I believe in albums! Aughhhh!!! I’ll have to get back to you on this one. 2012 will be the year of the song. I promise.
Black Swan, In 8 Movements LP/CD (Experimedia)
The anonymous Black Swan had me at hello with blurry classical music LP samples, heavy dark drone texture, and a devastating compositional arc. Hearing this you can hear the emotional potential of drone.
David Sylvian, Died In The Wool 2xCD (SamadhiSound)
Died In The Wool is technically not a reissue, but a reinterpretation of the songs constituting Sylvian’s excellent Manafon. But since they are actually the same pieces, and because I think most reissues are ridiculous—Rolling Stones’ Some Girls on CD, DVD, CD+DVD, BluRay, vinyl, or deluxe vinyl+CD+DVD+BluRay, anyone?—I’m going to take the liberty to once again champion the long-ago lead singer of Japan in my year-end thoughts. Both the concept and execution of Died confirm that he is one of the most innovative artists working today. Collaborating with composer Dai Fujikura, Sylvian reworks the stark electroacoustic minimalism of Manafon into arrangements for string quartet, improvisation by an ever-growing cast of European improvisers, samples, and other sound tools, resulting in a frequently amazing musical complement to Sylvian’s honeyed-with-gravitas voice. The working methods are both personal and cutting-edge, the music striking from start to finish. I venture to say that this is truly important work. Even more surprising, for those on the other side of the pond, is that Sylvian is actually undergoing a March concert tour.
Best Various Artists Compilation
V/A, Ibi Na Bo / Hotter the Battle / The Eyo Beats tapes (Domino Sound)
For these we have to thank Matt Knowles, New Orleans-based eponymous label and Record Shack owner and reggae DJ. This trio of tape compilations of fantastically lovely ‘60s and ‘70s African and Jamaican tunes has been dubbed directly to tape from 45s. Stacked up impressively by the front counter with their eye-catching, sun-faded printing, they invite exploration, discussion, and foster a sense of community, adding to the overall sweet and necessary vibe of the Shack. The store and the comps are a must for any visit to NOLA.
Merzbow, Merzbient 12xCD (SoleilMoon)
This is a good starting point: this massive output totaling twelve full CDs and a projected fifteen or more LPs—more than the entire discography of most influential bands—was rediscovered by Masami Akita simply laying in a box, as it had done since the early ‘90s. This is better: the pieces on the CDs are revelatory, offering a glimpse into the true depth of Merzbow’s sound-world. This is a person who, to produce “ambient” music, used cheap consumer and broken electronics, homemade sound generators, and even acoustic instruments, generated layered clatter and abstract action-oriented “playing,” stripped away all vestiges of tonality. The point: this sense of “ambient” is truly original, individual, and coherent, an essential side of Merzbow.
Best Cover Art
Rene Hell, The Terminal Symphony LP/CD (Type)
I wasn’t too excited about this category once I remembered that my beloved copy of Douglas Quin’s Fathom (Taiga) had been produced in 2010. But the iconic black violin on the cover of Symphony, besides being iconic, jives perfectly with the structurally and sonically innovative music on the disc. Type had a really fantastic year with releases in general, and they all look amazing, so there’s that too…
Best Vinyl Only
Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides, Low Fired Clay Escape LP (Carnivals)
A contemplative and very pleasing set of live pieces by the English duo of Kelly Jones and Pascal Nichols. These two seem to hit their stride regularly, although this was my first exposure to them. I don’t want to reduce any of their contribution to an ethnic fantasy, but portions of these improvisations made up of flute, feedback, and loping percussion, and field recordings remind me of a Japanese film that should have been made in black and white in the Fifties—a soundtrack to a film telling the most Zenlike, contemplative, and revealing story. That’s how vivid they are.
Best CD-R Only
“Field Recordings From Sichuan and Yunnan, China” CDr (Nada)
I got the disc from this whisper of a label with no information or even an identifiable artist, and these are just literally field recordings from China. But they’re very good, even in urban settings, and the anonymity I just like. There is a story behind this release that almost no one knows, perhaps a very personal or interesting one—certainly the best experience I had with a CD-R all year.
Best Cassette Only
SSPS, Highly Sensitive Safeguards Secure tape (Obsolete Units)
Excepter’s Jon Nicholson provides an encyclopedic synth reference without really providing one. That’s just to say that we should reference it. This cassette, thankfully quite long (C74), touches on vintage house, electro, and industrial and snakes all the way up through the present, reminding us of the underground dance roots of electronic music. All the pieces are lean and mean, and it sounds great on tape.
Best Live Show
Morton Subotnick @ Empty Bottle, Chicago, Neon Marshmallow Fest, 12 June 2011
A true master teaching all the boys how it’s done. An incredibly lively and interesting, well-paced set. And to hear the Buchla in the flesh—worth the price of admission alone.
Cave, Neverendless LP/CD (Drag City)
Living in Chicago from 2007 through 2011, I was fortunate enough to witness all but the very beginnings of Cave. Formed of expats from Columbia, MO, the band once possessed a chaotic, devil-may-care roughness. Early lineups included two drummers, multiple guitarists, three keyboard players. Backed by the excellent Chicago label/record store Permanent, Cave developed an enviable and deserved reputation as the tightest band in Chicagoland, a force capable of harnessing tremendous energy with its hypno-kraut-garage sound. But gradually that energy started to be shaped, and then to be obsessed over. The full extent of the damage is evident on Neverendless, which I was shocked to find is, well, boring. It didn’t rock and didn’t take chances. Don’t get me wrong; the band’s audience is growing through increasingly steady touring and promotion, and I still wish them all the best. And they’re damn good—better than ever. But, pulling themselves up out of the teeming Chicago psych ward, Cave has polished themselves thin and glided through into a dimension that, while more palatable, has lost its edge. Personally, I notice that this seems to parallel my own time in Chicago. Is it just nostalgia I’m feeling?
That I would trumpet the “classic rock” horn in these end-of-year pages. Hey—did you guys know that classic rock is totally amazing? Late-Sixties work of previously prehistoric figures like Zappa, the Stones, Soft Machine, and the Band blew my mind over and over this past year. Have a yearn for a zooming free-jazz groove in 7/8? Check out the second Soft Machine album. Want to hear the true godfather of punk? The proof is in the first Mothers of Invention record, Freak Out! Need to win a debate about the best lead singer of all time? Seriously, look no further than Jagger. Want a lesson in how a band should play together? Dig the Band on their first two albums. To complement the year-end remarks of my friend Nick Zettel, whose 2011 trajectory was a reverse image of mine: sometimes looking back yields just as much excitement as looking forward. The incessant mind demands more!
New York City prices!