Music 2016

I used to religiously await the end of year lists from stereogum and pitchfork, eager to learn if my own musical preferences and best picks aligned with the lords of taste. This year I completely forgot about those sites (until it was time to research this writeup). Maybe I’m just getting older, and not only feel less compelled by the opinions of taste makers, but more frighteningly, the music-phile part of my aging brain has atrophied. Probably moreso – the taste detection algorithms of Spotify have grown so advanced I no longer need external lists to feed me with a steady drip of quality tunes.

The strange thing is music has become even more personal, solitary. It’s all direct from playlist on laptop to headphones. Rarely played out loud. There’s less “hey, hear this awesome band”. There’s less roadtrip playlists. There’s less sharing a killer viral tune on social media. Even the hip radio station that boast of their taste end up playing stuff you grew bored of 6 months ago.

Maybe it was this weird year. A bunch of legendary artists died this year, so every month or so we were going back and revisiting decade-spanning discographies. And the news was an incessant blare, leaving little room for artists of merit (sans political message or high concept video) to rise above the din. The conglomeration of pop music seemed to continue. The hip-hop industrial complex was even more mainstream and revered, from Beyonce to Frank ocean. Gucci Mane had a feature on NPR. Rock music, the four piece led by drums, guitar and charismatic singer, have completely died. Electronic mixing and techniques infiltrated every other genre.

And I wonder if these trends are precisely because of the change in listening habits. There are the crowned lords and ladies of the rapidly shrinking Grammy – Clear Channel elite circuit. Then there’s everyone else, eeking out tiny fractions of pennies on Spotify and youtube plays, putting out music that’s just listenable enough to get dragged into a playlist, maybe a catchy single for a car commercial to pay the bills. Not bold or passionate enough to fill arenas or change the world, just background music to the million drones in open offices, blocking out coworkers with oversized headphones.

Here’s my List:

school of seven bells
priest
frightened rabbit
go march
postiljonen
mint julep
65daysofstatic
empire of the sun
holy fuck
infinity shred

Most Played Songs:

Best Music of the Year

Here’s my top 10  list, in randomized order:

BT – A Song Across Wires

The mixing and flow in BT’s latest is exquisite, as always with his stuff.

The album actually digs into the minutiae of EDM that elevated BT in the first place.  There aren’t as many cinematic anthems with bold vocals as Emotional Technology or Hopeful Machines.    Most of the pieces are a blend of micro breakbeats, dubstep jolts, dainty feminine voices chopped robotic, riding on a bed of precise orchestral strings.

I’ve always thought of BT as algorithmic music.  Listening to his stuff lets you hear iteration, recursion, sorting methods.  The call and response of network connections.

Most of the melodies actually feel like upgrades of past work, refactored with new equipment and algorithms, ESCM 2.0.  That record was all about transporting the listener to other realms of sound – a lush rainforest, or a dreamy sea of bubbles.  A Song Across Wires has that same transporting effect, pulling the listener down into the very electrons jolting along chains of soldered copper.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Gone Girl Soundtrack

Reznor and Ross continue their collaboration with David Fincher, and this is probably the best work yet.

One of the underlying threads of Gone Girl was the resentment Amy feels for her husband’s aesthetic choices.  Leaving New York City for a McMansion in the midwest.  Opening a dive bar, writing magazine fluff, collecting sports equipment.  That aesthetic disgust was subtly evident in the film’s quick cuts of mindless suburbia, and the soundtrack’s gauzy elevator music.

The record alternates between genteel piano and orchestral arrangements, evoking imagery of polite suburban comfort, upper middle class contentment, with just a dash of melancholy.  A period after the honeymoon: forced smiles, coordinating schedules, balancing checkbooks.

The police procedural moments (Clue One, Clue Two, Procedural) are built of plodding increments.  There’s a curiosity to the melody, plucky plinks that are distinct and hopeful, dancing before a vast background of ambient menace.

But the best parts are when Amy removes her mask and revels in her raw psychotic drive.  The monologue halfway through the film (Technically, Missing), faking the murder, driving off into the sunset.  Her mouth furrowed into determination even as her lips drip with disgust for the lower insects of humanity.  The piece starts with the same scheming pluck of the earlier stuff, but the background ambient comes to the fore, Reznor’s signature industrial roar.

Consummation is one of the darkest instrumentals of NIN’s repertoire, a blood drenched digitized scream, like that last gasp from the downward spiral.  And still there’s that hint of the suburban marriage, that piano motif riding beneath the violence.

Reznor’s catalog of horrors was always full in the face.  His protagonists and tortured souls look directly into the camera, and they understand the moral calculus of the universe – sin and pain and death and punishment.  There’s a balance to the darkness.

Fincher (and Ross/Reznor’s work for him) isn’t so monochrome.  The director is fascinated with avatars and representations.  Strange and distorted mirror images.  Tyler Durden and Mark Zuckerburg and Amy Dunne.  Ross/Reznor embrace that binary with the soundtrack, and it makes it even stronger.

Neighbors – Failure

I think I came across this band through Spotify radio, or maybe it was 88.5 before it was consumed by NPR.  Brooklyn-based indie pop band that makes breathy sing alongs, with lots of allusions to young love and university.  The outlook – privileged emo kids moan about love and friendships in a finely tuned blend of hope and melancholy – remind me of Stars, Metric, maybe some Naked and Famous.  But the music so perfectly captures that mood – shaggy sweaters, fallen leaves on the quad – that you can’t fault them for conjuring a particular image.  The songs are catchy and built well, but eventually they bleed together into a colorful blur, like warm recollections of freshman year, most of it fading, leaving isolated bits of bright light.

Alcest – Shelter

I first heard this record on some fancy web 2.0 site, complete with high resolution photos of the band on a sunshine drenched beach.  The tearing chord that opens Opale was perfectly synched to a hail of lensflares and blinding rays, so that visual metaphor is forever linked to these songs.  There’s a religious feel to the record, as if the towering pipe organ of cathedral’s past was switched out for an amped out guitar and a heavy metal virtuoso.  The backlash was an interesting aside.  Metal has lots of religious qualities – the chanting, the (often ironic) devilish imagery.  Alcest has simply switched the balance on the scale, trading the hellish for the celestial.  Instead of demonic frog-croaks, there’s angelic harmonizing.  Instead of choppy violent guitars, there’s soaring strings.  The same passion and skill is there, even if you’re left contemplating visions of puffy clouds and toga-clad angels instead of nuclear holocaust hellscapes.

Real Estate – Atlas

The follow-up to 2011’s Days is a continuation of a formula, even if it’s one that’s been perfected by the band.  The recording experience has noticeably improved: the sound is a bit deeper, the vocals smoother.  But the same rhythm and guitar riffs evoke a soothing minimalist soundscape, sitting alone and looking out on a snowy landscape, or a dusty desert.  The vocals allude to regret and distance, but it’s the distinctive plinking of melody on the reverbed guitar that tells the narrative of each song.

Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Pink Floyd has always used its own mythology as fertile grounds for songwriting.  Shine on Your Crazy Diamond, the bookends of Wish You Were Here, is an ode to Syd Barrett.  Barrett is the very definition of the 60s burnout, his brain so fried on drugs and psychedelic experiences that he retreated from the world to live as a shut-in with his mother until his death in 2006, never to make music again.

Roger Waters, who drove the most popular records of the 70s (The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon), had an even more spectacular flameout with Gilmour / Mason, mostly over money and artistic control.  Division Bell was somewhat of a mournful epitaph for that relationship, just as WYWH was for Barrett.

Endless River is even more reflective.  This is their last record, the end of a long and varied career. The guys are old. They started making music in the early 60s.  They’ve lived a lifetime of studios and concerts and jam sessions.

Endless River is a mournful journey through their history, touching on the signature guitar riffs of the 70s, some of the psychedelic beats and experimental studio squawks of the 60s, the polished soundscapes of the 80s.  Water’s politics are absent, as is Barrett’s interstellar weirdness.  The record is mostly instrumental.  Gilmour, Mason and Wright stick to their instruments.  Waters was the literate one, the guy who aimed his sights at money and time and war government and madness.

The remainder of Pink sees the music itself as Louder Than Words. The song of that title has strong ties to 94’s Division Bell – the same tempo, the same xylophone chimes, the same lyrical outlook of sour nostalgia.  But the refrain cuts through the melancholy with a bold defiance.  “This thing that we do, louder than words.”  All the fighting and sadness, for what?  All of us will be gone, our bodies consumed by drugs or cancer, and our fights will be footnotes.  But the songs will last, sailing on, an endless river.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

There’s a street somewhere in the Lower East Side that the tourists have not yet found, and the expensive boutiques have not yet colonized, and there are still neon signs for homeless missions and needle donations, and local kids sit on skateboards and share a cigarette, and last night’s liquor bottles lie smashed in a puddle of vomit in the gutter.

Maybe that street doesn’t exist anymore, but Spoon writes a fitting epitaph for a certain image of New York that’s been disappearing for years.  The bowery and CBGB and gutter punks and nicotine rasped desperation.  But the record is chilled out a bit too.  In between the grating guitars there are mellow drum bits, or tripped out harmonizing.  That’s the thrill of New York that will never fade: amidst the glamour and grime, finding a hint of the sublime.

Porter Robinson – Worlds2

Anamanaguchi released one of my top records of 2013, and Porter Robinson was my go-to chiptunes fix this year.  The record isn’t exactly chiptunes, but there are enough 8-bit video game flourishes to satisfy the craving.  Divinity is a multi-layered opening, the intro screen fading into the cutscene, some faerie spirit singing out of the mist, promising forgotten realms, hidden secrets, queued quests.  Then the base drops, the heroic motif returns, backed by amplified kickdrums and trilling algorithmic bleeps.

Chiptunes aren’t defined by the software settings used to generate crunchy waveforms.  It’s about an allusion to a certain early 90s style of video game, and in turn a time of life now drenched in nostalgia.  The regimentation of school, the threat of bullying, the promise of young love.  The best JRPGs of the era had those same threads dressed up in swords and armor.  There was always hope inherent in the pixel art and the music itself, uplifting chord progressions synching to larger numbers and unlocked criticals, till the big bad met his end and the credits rolled, already crystalizing into a particular flavor of smiling sad nostalgia.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Richard James has always eschewed the traditional formula of music.  Not just the verse-chorus-verse structure, but even the attempt to connect with the listener and carry them along some form of melody.  He mocked the formats of hip hop and industrial music with Windowlicker and Come to Daddy.  But most of his catalog consists of minimalist soundscapes, alien chirps and tweets brought to life on garage-built experimental electronics.  He has a classical gift for composition (Avril 14th), and the new record has a nice homage with aisatana [102], a contemplative piano solo on a birdsong morning.

But most of the record is cold, calculated electronica, complete with titles that look like filenames in an obscure operating system.  Minipops and Xmas_Eve feature melancholy little minor chord progression, clothed in layers of atonal percussion, occasionally broken up by ghostly vocal flourishes.  produk 29 samples commentary from snooty eurodance party girls, and 180db picks up the pace, and could be featured in a nightmarish dancehall.  The remarkable thing about the record is how listenable it is, given the odd time signatures, minor key progressions and glitchy samples.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Lost in the Dream sounds like a bestselling album from 1985, something that’s been played on the radio for ages, the singers now crusty and featured in VH1 documentaries with grainy footage of hotel debauchery.

Their sound – an amalgamation of Tom Petty’s smoky jamming and Springsteen’s driving beat – feels both classic and refreshing.  There’s a sadness and a breezy freedom to the vocals, the guitar riffs crisp but pleading.

An Ocean In Between the Waves highlights all the key points, an eight minute epic complete with screaming guitar solos and woeful tales of life on the road.

Perhaps the record struck a chord, not only for its high caliber musicianship, but the way it harkens back to an older time, the mythic past of rock bands, before all the meta-gaming of social media or the remashing of endless YouTube clips.  When a single studio mix came out of nowhere and rode the airwaves, unifying and transformative. A band ascending the stage to the roar of applause. The dream of rock and roll.

Top 13 of ’13

Here’s my top 13 of ’13. This isn’t any sort of attempt to make an objective Best Of list, its just the records that came out this year that I listened to the most. I’m often sitting in a chair, focusing on some sort of project, listening to headphones, so the sound of these records is often one that aligns with introspection.

Charli XCX – True Romance

Plenty of catchy, sing-along lyrics, but the swirling bombastic production is what sold it for me. Same with the giddy confidence in Grin and You – Ha Ha Ha.

Volcano Choir – Repave

More or less a Bon Iver record, with the cryptic lyrics, wheezy falsetto, wintry imagery. Given that he has the accompaniment of a full band, some of the songs kick into a higher gear (Comrade, Almanac) than the old frozen Emma era.

Way Yes – Tog Pebbles

In a way, this is sort of a clone of Delorean – Subiza, pitch perfect chillwave afropop. But the tone is slightly warped, like the clouds rolled in over that sunny Mediterranean beach.

Caveman – Caveman

Folk tunes with the vocals echoing out of a grain silo ala Fleet Foxes and early My Morning Jacket.

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

Sad drunken Scotsman, but with an uplifting hope of spiritual redemption (Holy). Uptempo from their earlier stuff.

Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

A throwback to The Fragile, turning inward to intricate melodies instead of loud anthemic post-apocalyptic soundscapes.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

Rumbling, epic, instrumental, like a B-side of Holy Fuck – Latin.

Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy

The soundtrack to the best video game you’ve never played.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Reappropriating disco for top 40, educating the masses on the history of dance music, all while wearing space helmets.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

Even more experimental, from the garish album art to the strange time signatures and 9 minute epics (Full of Fire).

Kanye West – Yeezus

The meta commentary on race, wealth, America, etc is thick (Black skinhead, Blood on the Leaves), the misogyny almost comical (I’m In It), but the production that’s both gritty and DIY sells it.

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

A throwback to a classic entertainer of yore. A high production record both radio friendly (Mirrors) and cutting edge (Tunnel Vision). JT has gone the opposite route of his Mickey Mouse club comrades, traded crass for class.

Chvrches – Bones of What You Believe

Exquisite electropop, with pristine clean-room synths, lots of oooohs, aaaahs, vocals spiked by fragility, melancholy lyrics drenched in sugar, like last year’s Purity Ring.

Other songs I liked:
Wild Nothing – On Guyot
Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Day
Phoenix – Bourgeois
James Blake – Digital Lion
Phosphorescent – The Quotidian Beasts
Youth Lagoon – Mute
alt-J – Dissolve Me
Empire of the Sun – Alive
Infinity Shred – Mapper
Washed Out – It all Feels Right
Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal
Naked and Famous – Rolling Waves
Drake – Furthest Thing
The Range – Seneca

Get Funky

Disco is pretty reviled these days. When we hear the word, there’s a snippet of a funky baseline, but there’s always an image. Disco balls, loud suits, big hair, cocaine and everything else. It’s mockable because it died out, a laughable relic of the 70s.

But disco was a break from the 4-piece trope of the mid-60s, with 3 minutes songs of verse chorus verse, led by the charisma of the performers. The fans were merely a screaming mob. With disco (and all that followed: electronica, dance music, hip hop), the creator was subsumed behind machinery, the beat itself was something that created an atmosphere that both audience and the DJ lived within. It was no longer about direct broadcasting (from singer to fan), but an emerging worship. The sound was mathematical, but the response was organic.

Random-Access-Memories1

Daft Punk have always worn masks. The robots (and light effects) have grown more complex as their budget has increased, but they wore them to subtract their personal lives from the music. Only the most die-hard fans know their real names, and there are just a few pictures of their faces floating around the net. It’s a Pynchonesque mystique, but it allows the listener to focus on the work, instead of a tabloid image.

Just a single listen of Alive 2007 illustrates the bombast, energy and spectacular joy of their back catalog. But apparently they got tired of the electronic dance scene, a genre limited by the hotkeys in sampling software. What better way to silence the haters then to put out an analog disco record?

Two songs stand out on Random Access Memories, not just for their playtime, but the ridiculous genre shifts.

Giorgio puts a Werner Herzog-ish monologue over the raucous club scene, retelling the history of early European techno. Giorgio wants to make “the sound of the future”, and a minimalist clicking begins, with all the unthinking nuance of a metronome. The song shifts into a dark Kavinsky synth, then jam-band guitar and keyboard. The motif is picked up in full symphonic grandeur, feeding into 80’s hair band rock god solos. We traverse the years in genres of sound, the parts played by virtuosos.  Everything changes except the sole melody and rhythm.

Touch is 60s psychedelia, Star Trek voice-overs, a minimalist set of lyrics, clearly spoken. The song is first defined by empty space and silence. The whole thing is theatrical, the expository song in a Broadway musical. You can’t help but envision an old pro in a trim suit, maybe white shoes and a cane, prancing about. A jolly band picks up, piano and brass, then moves into a youth chorus and full orchestra, over top spaceship zooming bleeps.

Most of the songs go through multiple movements, where a single motif is repeated with vastly different instrumentations and styles. Disco, jam band, rock, early synthy techno, full orchestra.

Get Lucky – the single – announces DP’s intentions with its lyrics. “The legend of the phoenix, ends with beginnings. We’ve come too far to give up what we are. So let’s raise the bar.” It’s all tropes of disco, made fresh.

Motherboard – their only progressive EDM track – simmers like the miniscule electrons firing on the titular reference, intricate baselines and guitar strings on top of a calculating melody. Halfway through there’s a system fault, some darker reality dredged up from the churning algorithms. The whole thing fades into off-key ambiance  but it grows back into the same melody, reimagined, a phoenix rising.

Contact ends in pipe organs, snare drum, astronaut samples. What more could you want in a closer?

Random Access Memories is a statement album, trying to say something with its hundreds of retro sources and samples. It’s homage to the roots of EDM, but also something erudite, scholarly, like musical anthropology. Daft punk is digging through prehistoric DNA on the record, searching like their mournful android for their ancestry, their mythology.

Given all the hype the Daft Punk machine has produced prior to the release (and the resulting critical maelstrom), it’s no doubt the album will be respected more for its message than its sound.

But there are some new seeds in here, some mutant genetic code. I’m looking forward to the remix.