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.

The Long Bright Dark

HBO has a thing for Louisiana.  True Blood, Treme, and now True Detective.  Maybe it’s the tax breaks, or the distinctive mise-en-scène of a Spanish moss shrouded bayou.  Or maybe since Katrina, when the southern gothic literary tradition became glaringly real on CNN, the State has dominated a cultural sub consciousness, the glory of crumbling Americana.


True Detective’s format leads itself to acclaim: top actors at the apex of their creative powers, a young novelist and director, a full eight hours to tell a story.  All those pieces work very well together, and the show will rack up awards and sell lots of artfully packaged box sets.

But I think what caught so many viewers off guard was how dark the entire thing was.  These were some of the scariest, most disturbing episodes of television I’ve ever watched.  The initial murder was draped in horrific imagery and menace with hardly any gore.  And after that we listened to Rust and Marty talk in two different timelines.

A cardinal rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”.  And yet, that’s where we find ourselves, listening to Marty and Rust tell the story to two detectives.  It’s testament to McConaughey and Harrelson we remain captivated.  Of course, there’s some dramatic irony when their recounted tale doesn’t match up with the events played out on the screen.

Our narrators are unreliable, and the camera possesses a certain perspective as well.  The landscape shots are slow zooms, clipping the tree tops, the vantage of a malevolent god.  And there’s some criticism about the male gaze, gratuitous nudity, objectification of the paper-thin female characters.

I’ve come to see the “sexification” as intentional.  Even the opening credits are a mix of caustic Louisiana landscapes and writhing female flesh – literally exposed on the faces of Rust and Marty.

Note how the women in Marty’s life are beautiful, Playboy centerfold quality.  Rust is in with the sad and dirty truckstop girls, and he turns them down, preferring a bottle of pills under the table.  Even Maggie, the one woman who crosses the line between the two, has a rutting, guilty encounter with Rust – far from the acrobatic and sensual affairs Marty imagines.

Since the 80s popularization of the horror genre, there’s been a formula: take something wholesome (summer camp, a pristine neighborhood, etc) add an evil element, and watch things fall to pieces.  Innocents are killed, perhaps the villain is stopped.  But in the end, we’re still left with that default control state that the world (sans our villain) is good.

Cosmic, existential horror works in the reverse.  The default state of the universe is misery, terror and despair.  For a time, something heroic may rise for a time, but it will always be crushed and decay.

Horror lost its meaning, going from a true supernatural fear, to something to joke about, rubber masks, and teenage pranks.  Those tropes were our protection. By putting something frightening – death, demons, the occult – into a set of familiar characters, we could shrug off the fear with a laugh.

The old Lovecraftian horror envisioned malevolent Old Ones, beings outside of time and space, who watched us with hungry and angry eyes.  The new nihilism, explained by Rust, has a lot of the same despair and horror, but Cthulu has been replaced by the cold laws of physics.  Human consciousness is a mistake of evolution.  Love and human relationships are just a veneer, a trick to get us to reproduce.  Even concepts of good and evil are emergent behavior, irrelevant to the pull of gravity or the strong atomic force.

Rust goes further, talking about a perspective from outside of time, where all our actions are pre-ordained, and can be viewed as a “flat circle”, ever repeating, confined within realm of possibility.  We’re ultimately trapped within that circular prison.

One interesting reading is that we – the audience – are those old gods.  We watch the True Detective story on its flat circle (DVDs), skipping chapters, fast forwarding and rewinding, Rust and Marty seeking clues and shooting creepy murderers without end.

And so it comes back to us, the viewers.  How we respond to the things we’re seeing.

There was some backlash at the conclusion.  Disappointment that the conspiracy wasn’t cracked open, that fingers weren’t pointed at the high and mighty, that all the clues weren’t consumed.

I’d call this the Lost syndrome: we want to build crazy conspiracies, and then have the show validate them.  When the show takes a different path, focusing on character or theme instead of the intricacies of plot, we get angry.

Even as Rust explains “Nothing in this world is solved,” some still viewed the show from that lens of 80s horror, that all the evil in the universe of the story can be pinpointed exactly on the conspiracy.

The idea that things are messy (cases aren’t solved, there are gray zones of evil, our actors aren’t either heroes or villains) is what is disturbing to the audience.  They want to wrap up their genre feast of serial killers in a neat package, all the trope checkboxes marked off.  Fact is – the Yellow King cult was just a McGuffin to illustrate true existential horror, not only in the southern gothic tradition (rural decay, poor backwoods life, inbreeding, sexual abuse and debasement) but all of life.  That was Rust’s feeling, that regardless of where he went (undercover in the Mexican cartels, up north to Alaska to work as a fisher and trapper), the horror of life followed him.  It was inescapable, part of his reality.

Only when he was reduced to a coma, and he had a glimpse of some deeper force, could he see beyond the horror.  The world is still filled with darkness, but maybe there is some light.

So too with the show. Some of these hinted images were the most disturbing things I’ve seen in some time.  Difficult to sleep through.  But it’s the glimmer of hope at the end, and the change in the heart of Marty and Rust, that elevates True Detective beyond quality genre fodder.

I’m looking forward to Season 2.

The Dark Tower

Note: There are spoilers from The Dark Tower in this review.  Don’t continue unless you’ve read the whole series.

Recently I’ve been getting this urge to go through stuff I wrote a while back, archived files in obscure directories buried deep.  To dust them off, read them through, see if they can be salvaged.  There’s almost a mystical sensation, as though some external force triggered a memory of the work in my brain.  It’s an itch you can’t scratch, these words you made at some time, and they’re rotting somewhere in the dark, and you have to bring them to light.

The Dark Tower

There’s a scene in the Dark Tower when Stephen King encounters the characters from a novel he’s shelved.  Roland Deschain and Eddie Dean, perfect doppelgangers for Clint Eastwood and John Cusack, standing real as day, decked out in gunslinger gear.  They confront him on his laziness, his inability to focus and complete the tale.  They threaten and hypnotize him.  He promises to write, but fails.  Years later, in the book’s 1999, he pays the price for neglecting the urge – getting struck by an inebriated driver, potentially letting the thread of the universe crumble.

This is a continuation of the biggest twist from Song of Susannah – King writing himself in as a character.

For those who approach fantasy from the Tolkien worldview, where the world must be self-consistent, this feels like blasphemy.  But blending the worlds – joining the reader with the world on the other side of the door – has a pretty strong tradition in fantasy writing.  CS Lewis, The Neverending Story, Harry Potter, even Peter Pan, exhorting the audience to clap Tinkerbell back to life.

But wasn’t it narcissistic to make himself a central pillar of the book’s universe?  To write in a fictionalization of his own accident, which brought him close to death, rendering him nearly crippled and unable to write for years?

It comes back to the fact that the Dark Tower story took him thirty years to write.  In the book, he can only explain the delay from his usual prolific pace as some flavor of fear. Some part of him knew this tale had a deeper thread than the other pulp airplane novels of killer dogs and haunted hotels.  There was something more than just cheap thrills and horror.  There was a deeper existential meaning, beneath the assembled geek-culture detritus (Star Wars droids, Wild West gunmen, New York gangsters, etc).  And yet he was stuck, fearful of committing those dreams and visions to paper.  Then a van struck him on a rural road in Maine, and he looked his own death in the face.  It felt fated, Roland and Jake come from another world.  Ka.

King himself admits the tale gets off track, and it isn’t perfect.  There are weak moments, when the dramatic tension isn’t finely honed, and the tale staggers, or lacks any impression of symmetry.  The fifth and sixth books are the biggest sinners in this regard. Wolves of the Calla a regurgitation of the Seven Samurai motif from Wizard and Glass, re-imagined with Eddie and Jake and Susannah.  Song of Susannah simply moving pawns into place, time traveling to different spots in New York and Maine and engaging in minor gunfights with little at stake.

But The Dark tower, the final book, redeems the whole enterprise, and solidifies the series as one of the best fantasy heptalogies of all time.

The copy I got was a beautiful paperback from the shelves of a used book store, and entire case dedicated to King’s work, his name in that same bold white font all down the spines, the titles of the tomes in their blood red or poison green script evoking all the yummy genre horror on which he sits the throne.  And my book was a true door stopper, the size and heft of a brick, with a dozen full color illustrations scattered through the chapters, the key scenes of novel brought to an epic vision.  That was always one of the pleasures of reading fantasy pulp novels – the beautiful hyperrealist fantasy art on the cover, oil paintings in the vein of the Dutch masters, all bold colors and strong brush strokes.  The color of the earth, the texture of old stone, the horrific visages of Lovecraftian monsters once only imagined brought into some form.

And those set pieces in the Dark Tower are some of the best I’ve read in King’s work. The showdown in the New York Dixie Pig, the birth of Mordred, the raid on Algul Siento, the trek across the frozen wastes, the final showdown at the Dark Tower – moments that cry out for a movie (or HBO TV series adaptation).  And the writing itself is honed and streamlined, with just enough of the mid-world colloquialisms (do ya fine) and literary flourishes to keep a picky reader turning pages.

Near the end of the novel, there’s an artist character who can sketch intricate and detailed renderings of the world around him, and in doing so, bring them to life.  One can’t help but feel King sees himself such an artist, and this work possesses a similar sort of magic, at least for his own reality.

And he gets a little fancy with all his inter-textual references to his own writing and his inspirations.  There’s even a conversation Roland has with Susannah regarding King’s work (which they hypothesize is the root of their own reality), and King’s inspirations (the Robert Browning poem).  Which is the source?  How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go, or can you go?

King’s addiction is another deep allusion in the work.  Roland seeks the Dark Tower with an unyielding and often inhumane drive, destroying the lives of friends and innocents.  And his fate is something out of a Greek tragedy, forced to re-run the race, push the stone back up the hill, ouroboros.  Ka’s a wheel.  The only character with a truly happy ending is Susannah, who turns away from the Dark Tower, the potential for true knowledge of the universe, to live a sort of ignorant bliss in a pocket universe.  But she can see her friends, and drink hot cocoa mit schlag on a winter’s day in New York.

I started reading the Dark Tower series seven years ago.  I read roughly a book a year.  At first I was skeptical and dismissive, thinking the half hazard way King threw together a mishmash of genre elements was laziness, that he was scamming his readers.  But at the end of it all, with a long view, the whole thing has such a unique flavor that it stands alone, and stands strong.  In a way, I’ll miss the fact that the adventures of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy are done.  But in King’s reckoning, they’ll continue on for another recursive pass, possibly in another imagining (Film?  Video games?)

Or maybe years from now, a young writer, driven by the recollection of a pulp novel he picked up from the shelf of a garage sale, maybe a swig of cold beer, will lean over his keyboard and hack away, another quest for Roland.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

coma coma commala come

for now our tale is done

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