M M & M’s 100 from the noughties – 2006

If I were choose any of the top tens as the best, then 2006 would have to be the one.

BARDO POND – Ticket Crystals (ATP)
Probably the best yet by the psychedelic sludge rockers with four of the eight tracks exceeding ten minutes, and none the worse for it. I’ll even forgive the Beatle tune.

BOXCUTTER – Oneiric (Planet Mu)
One of the two bright new dubstep artists who appeared in 2006, Barry Lynn’s take on the music was relatively sharp and clean with definite nods to Artificial Intelligence era Warp as well as the grime scene.

CARLA BOZULICH – Evangelista (Constellation)
The title of her first solo album for Constellation morphed into the name of her band for the next two. Bozulich’s bruised, harrowing album featured a number of the usual Hotel2Tango suspects, but it’s the astonishing emotional range of her voice that dominates the record. Not one for dinner parties.

BURIAL – Burial (Hyperdub)
As you get older, there’s less and less new music that genuinely takes you aback. It’s not that music becomes less important, it’s just that you’ve heard so much that it’s hard for something to be genuinely startling. Burial’s first album completely got me on the first listen. Unquestionably my artist of the decade.

CLOGS – Lantern (Talitres)
Violinist Padma Newsome has been increasingly busy as the National’s unofficial sixth member and guitarist Bryce Dessner is also a member of both bands. But Clogs are the equal of their more illustrious associates, although operating in a very different field. The violin, guitar, bassoon, drums format is an unusual one, but there’s nothing gimmicky about the music. Although mainly neo-classical instrumental pieces, the highlight is a vocal track, the beautiful, folky nocturne “Lantern”.

JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON – IBM 1401 A User’s Manual (4AD)
An elegaic suite to an obsolete mainframe computer, with the giant beast contributing its own ghostly melodies. It’s a modern symphony of epic melancholy. As a bonus, there’s also a moving rendition of a Dorothy Parker poem, “The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black”.

JOANNA NEWSOM – Ys (Drag City)
It took a long time for this to melt my heart even though I could recognise it objectively as something of a masterpiece. Newsom’s voice is not something many people feel neutral about. Her Grimm-like fairy tales eventually weave their spell. A beguiling and unique record.

I can count the number of non-music CDs in my collection on the fingers of, erm, one finger. As a child, I was always absolutely fascinated by the sea. Living in the suburban Thames Valley, I didn’t get to see it that often. When I did, I used to weird out my parents by sitting on a breakwater and just watching the waves. Storm is simply two tracks of field recordings made by Watson and Nilsen of a single storm system that passed across the UK and on to Scandinavia. Wind, waves and wildlife – nothing added.

SCOTT WALKER – The Drift (4AD)
TOM WAITS – Orphans (Anti)

Two albums I still haven’t completely got to grips with for different reasons. Sometimes I wish everyone would stop making new stuff for a year to allow me time to give some older records the attention they deserve. Waits’s album is a bulging triple helping of old songs, new songs and other stuff he’d not got around to putting out before. Unlike anything else of this kind of provenance, it’s definitely not something you could whittle down to a single disc without losing some real quality. Walker’s set is dense and difficult. It’s like going through a computer game with tons of levels. Each listen reveals a bit more, but I’m not sure I completely get it yet.

Just to highlight how good 2006 was, no room here for some brilliant stuff by Clark, Pan American, My Latest Novel, Ali Farka Touré, Prince Valium, Camera Obscura, Bob Dylan or the London Sinfonietta’s Warp release.

M M & M’s 100 from the noughties – 2005

Perhaps it’s an indication of how the internet was breaking down national barriers and making it easier to hear stuff from all over the globe, or perhaps it’s just happenstance, but my ten for 2005 includes artists from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the UK.

BOOKS – Lost and Safe (Tomlab)
Some found the addition of vocals to the (so far) most recent Books album distracting, but I thought it added an extra dimension to the New York duo’s playful electronic folk.

DIRTY THREE – Cinder (Bella Union)
A great sprawling 19 track collection from the trio saw them exploring many areas that had lain untouched before, including two tunes with guest singers Cat Power and Sally Timms. The power remains undimmed. It always seems like messrs. White, Turner and Ellis are all playing in their own bubbles, and yet the results never seem awkward or dissonant.

KRAFTWERK – Minimum-Maximum (EMI)
With a group as precise as Kraftwerk, you’d have thought a live album would be a bit pointless. But Minimum-Maximum shows off gleamingly retooled, and in some cases completely remodelled, takes on the classics, as well as punchier versions of the Tour de France Soundtracks material. If you just wanted one Kraftwerk album (and I don’t know why you would), I’d say that this was almost a perfect primer.

MONO / WORLD’S END GIRLFRIEND – Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain (Human Highway)
“Full of sound and fury; signifying nothing”. That quote from Macbeth would sum up the opinions of Mono’s critics, and I do have some sympathy. The thing is, the sound and fury is just so damn gorgeous and exciting! Katsuhiko Maeda’s contribution to the band added a new neo-classical element to the sound – one which they would push even further.

MURCOF – Remembranza (Leaf)
Album number three from the Mexican genius, and the brew of dark beats and classical samples was as heady and intoxicating as ever.

NATIONAL – Alligator (Beggars Banquet)
The National’s breakout album. Simply a collection of brilliant, uplifting songs dominated by Matt Berninger’s desperate baritone. It climaxes with “Mr November”, one of the most cathartic songs I’ve ever heard.

BJ NILSEN – Fade to White (Touch)
Props to Scott at Mapsadaisical whose glowing testimony led me to check out Benny Nilsen’s music. “Fade to White” is essentially an ambient drone collection, but the somnambulant drift is punctured by moments of terrific sonic violence.

PORT-ROYAL – Flares (Resonant)
This came out of nowhere. A collection of instrumental rock and electronic atmospheres that verges between heady post-rave to serene ambience and holds the interest throughout. It’s still an album I play fairly frequently, and can pick up new nuances every time.

SHINING – In the Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be a Monster (Rune Grammofon)
Try sticking this in a pigeonhole. Avant-prog-jazz-metal? There’s nothing Shining like more than twisting your expectations into knots. Oh, and battering you over the head with a sound like a runaway train. Not that they don’t do subtlety too. Genuinely exciting music.

VEX’D – Degenerate (Planet Mu)
Disc one is the album proper, disc two a collection of singles, but it works perfectly well as a whole. Dark, creaking monstrous dubstep with skeleton rattling bass frequencies. The balance of the rhythms seems so precarious, like the whoosh you get in your head when you stand up too quickly.

Album – BLEEDING HEART NARRATIVE – Lung Mangled Bear (Tartatuga 2009)

Just a quickie to let you know about Tartaruga’s Christmas Pressie for all you lucky people. Lung Mangled Bear is a sixteen track, 80 minute remix collection of tracks from Bleeding Heart Narrative’s superb Tongue Tangled Hair album from earlier this year.

Some of the remixes are more like complete reconstructions. All are well worth hearing. The Talkingmakesnosense mix of “David Foster Wallace” stretches the original to three times its length, burying the vocal line in blankets of drone until it’s barely audible. Elsewhere tracks are stripped down to virtually a single component, or taken into weird new directions (drill ‘n’ bass, thudding beats, even neo-prog). It’s definitely worth your time, as is its parent album. You can download it for nowt at www.tartarugarecords.com.

01 A Dialogue (Brassica’s Dark Side of the Live Aid remix)
02 All Your Words (Brometer remix)
03 Tongue Tangled Hair (The Exploits of Elaine remix)
04 David Foster Wallace (Talkingmakesnosense remix)
05 Turn Colours Turn (Max Bondi remix)
06 Tilted The Wall (Ala Muerte remix)
07 A Dialogue (Okkam remix)
08 Port and Cigars (Ladyscraper remix)
09 Protect Short Samples – Feeding Art Larynx With (DJ Topgear remix)
10 Henry Box Brown (Throwing Stones remix)
11 Fuchsia (Keyboard Choir remix)
12 The Cartographer (Destructo Swarmbots remix)
13 The Vast Museum of Insignificant Things (Euhedral remix)
14 A Your W (JRS Nocturne remix)
15 Hedlitez (Blinddate remix)
16 At The End of It All (DJ Floorclearer remix)

M M & M’s 100 from the noughties – 2004

ARCADE FIRE – Funeral (Rough Trade)
It built a following slowly, largely by word of mouth, before the journo hype machine jumped on the bandwagon. A prime target for the hipster “I never really liked them anyway” brigade, but it still sounds terrific to me. Less said about the follow up the better, though.

BLUE NILE – High (Sanctuary)
They pop up every decade, stick out an album that still uses a palette of sound that could come from their eighties heyday and promptly burrow away back into hibernation. As a fully paid up fan, I guess we wouldn’t have it any other way. High is far from perfect, but when it does hit the spot, it does so in a way that no other band can. And I could listen to Mr Buchanan singing his grocery list quite happily. Time for a follow up Paul?

FENNESZ – Venice (Touch)
My personal favourite of Christian Fennesz’s records. The ten minute section of “Transit”, with David Sylvian, and “The Point Of It All” is about as close to perfection as any music I’ve heard.

It sounds like a requiem suite, with nods to Arvo Pärt and Gorecki. Slow, stately and stunningly beautiful.

MURCOF – Utopia (Leaf)
On paper, a slightly ragbag collection of remixes and three new tracks. But it hangs together as well as any of Corona’s studio albums and gets played round these parts as often.

PAN AMERICAN – Quiet City (Kranky)
Another missive from Mark Nelson of quiet wonder with David Max Crawford’s trumpet and flugelhorn adding a yearning element that reminds me of Miles’s Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud.

PAN SONIC – Kesto (Blast First)
Nearly four hours of music that ranges from the ear-splitting to the ambient (the uncharacteristically reflective hour-long drone piece “Säteily”). It covers all bases of the duo’s sound, and some new ones too.

MAX RICHTER – The Blue Notebooks (130701)
The notebooks in question were written by Franz Kafka and the recording is peppered with extracts read by actress Tilda Swinton. Pianist Richter is accompanied by a string quartet on an album whose mood is as reflective and yet slightly disturbing as Kafka’s writings.

TOM WAITS – Real Gone (Anti)
Real Gone is unusual in ol’ Tom’s canon in that it’s largely an album recorded with a standard guitar, bass, drums rock ‘n’ roll line-up. The absence of pump organs and the like doesn’t make the music any more conventional. The surrealism is intact, but there is also a harsher side, with an uncharacteristically angry side of the laconic Waits coming through.

WILCO – A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Just as good as its predecessor, with pop, country and experimental wig outs rubbing shoulders perfectly happily.

The musically fragmented decade – a few thoughts

I’ve been posting my 100 albums from the noughties recently (more tomorrow) with a year-by-year selection. Others (and there are many, many others!) have been doing top 20s, 50s, 100s etc as a decade long overview. Simon Reynolds noticed a very marked tendency for albums from the first half of the decade to garner 80-90% of the top ten placings in the various listings and offered some compelling reasons why in this Guardian article.

I pretty much agree with nearly all of his points. The internet and download culture has made it cheap and easy for musicians of all stripes to self-release their music. Some in a hope of attracting the attention of a record company, some just because they want the fruits of their labours heard. As a result the number of releases have reached unprecedented levels. I have no scientific basis for saying this, but I bet there was more music issued in 2009 than in all the years up to the end of the seventies combined if you include both physical releases (and the endless repackaging of old material) and the rapidly expanding download cottage industries.

The results of this hyperbolic increase in music released has led to the mainstream and the majors becoming more and more safe and conservative. They realise that their most reliable income streams are from a) ‘fifty quid bloke’ – the Mojo reading male with ready cash whose tastes are firmly planted in ‘classic’ rock, and will happily fork out for remastered reissues, box sets and all manner of fancy but pricey special and limited editions: things like the Neil Young Archives, the Pixies’ Minotaur and the rest. Then there’s b), the great majority for whom music isn’t central to their lives, but they like a nice tune. These are the people who buy Susan Boyle, X Factor and Katherine Jenkins records as well as the more conservative and tasteful indie rock such as Keane and Coldplay. Outside of that, the music industry knows that its consumers are picky and risky to market to and are no longer willing to invest in music for its own intrinsic value.

So we have a self-perpetuating circle. The more adventurous music enthusiasts are finding less and less new stuff that interests them in their local HMV, and are finding that more and more of it comes from small labels, both physical and web based.

Is this a problem? Well, for consumers, no. For bands who dream of being the next Radiohead, very likely. I can’t see there ever being a next Radiohead – a band who appeal to the masses and yet remain sonically adventurous. It’s a divide that will soon become impossible to bridge. This is something that has already happened with classical music and jazz, where people who pushed the music forward ended up losing the mass audience. Most enthusiasts of both those genres probably listen to very little that’s contemporary.

Returning to Reynolds’s article, I think it’s inevitable and unavoidable that the idea of any kind of consensus is doomed. People are zooming off in their own directions, picking tips up in their own virtual communities, and finding music that feels personal to them and that’s their own discovery. They’ll have favourites, but it’s unlikely that their list will tally with anyone else’s, simply because it’s unlikely that any two people will have heard the same things. You can see this in the end of year lists (tallied with admirable patience by DJ Martian). There’s very little sense of any pattern.

Rock (in its broadest sense) isn’t dead – far from it. But its days of being a mainstream cultural force are. Whether that matters or not is beside the point. I can see there being no let up of interesting, creative and terrific music during 2010 and beyond. Just don’t expect any of it to really penetrate the mainstream.

Album: INVERZ – Slow (Phantom Channel 2009)

Slow consists of four treated guitar works by Greek musician Sawas Metaxas. The pace is glacially slow, and the mood reflective. “Home End” is stripped of almost all adornment, leaving the basic plucking of guitar and bass accompanied by the fizz and whine of radio static. Nothing else on the album is that barren, though. Ambient washes of sound bring a lushness to second track “Everything In Order” and the title track mashes up some gentle acoustic playing and rinses it through with loops of static pops and clicks, almost like a Basic Channel mix of John Fahey.

Saving the best to last, “New Found Lands” mixes cello drone, feedback hum and glassy ambience to create a long meditative piece of considerable depth. As with most Phantom Channel releases, Slow is a free download, and as with most is highly recommended.

1 Home End 12:56
2 Everything In Order 6:56
3 Slow 5:04
4 New Found Lands, New Found Sounds 14:52