Noveller – Fantastic Planet

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Noveller – Fantastic Planet

Sarah Lipstate has, on Fantastic Planet, created an essential dichotomy:  an album that is at once a deeply interesting work of beauty that is also utterly banal.  As far as ambient music goes, the best stuff has always been able to function on its own, giving the listener room to conjure up their own ideas about what’s going on.  Mediocre ambient feels as though it lacks context; they’re soundtrack pieces without a soundtrack,, backing tracks to over-ambitious poets or underground performance art pieces.  Lipstate crafts something that sits squarely in the middle, saved from being purely mediocre by virtue of the deft touches she brings to her craft.  The synthesizers are draped in glammy nostalgia, the bass is immediate, and the guitars sound like dozens of hours were spent on the processing of them alone – which, given her main focus on the instrument, they likely were.   From a musician’s standpoint it’s an interesting album to pick apart for the “how did she get that sound” aspect, but that can only carry you so far.  Divorced from gear-nerdiness, it becomes apparent about halfway through that there’s nothing to really hang your hat on in the pieces.  Nothing sticks.  I’ve listened to the album three times and there’s nothing that stands out to bring me back in, just a blur of well-arranged instruments.  If you have some futurist art piece you’d like a musical accompaniment to, here’s your thing, but otherwise there are better ways you can occupy your time.

Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2

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Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2

The large expanse of time between Drukqs and last year’s Syro was apparently still a busy time for Richard D James.  On the release of Syro he commented that he had a great deal of music stuffed away on his hard drive, and it seems that this is true.  This EP follows very closely on the heels of that album and follows the trend of using the raw names of the files on his hard drive as the song titles.  The similarity ends here; this “EP” (which reaches nearly half an hour) features what seems for all intents and purposes seem like saved files from the staging area of his DAW.  The second track is a twenty second run of snare rolls, ferchrissakes.  Despite the dumping-ground nature of most of the album, there are some great moments, two of them named “diskhat”.  They’re head-nodder tracks for sure, but “piano un10 it happened” is a beautiful piano track reminiscent of “Avril 14th”.  Still, though, it feels like an album full of cast-off material, which is admittedly not strange for the arc of his career, but doesn’t make for essential listening.

 

 

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums Of 2013 (So Far), Part Five

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And here we are at the top 10.  What a ride.  Or something.  This list will probably undergo some transformation before the end of the year, naturally, but it’s hard to say how radical that change will be.  Especially the top 10, although I’m certain some of it will shift before we call it quits on 2013.  And if you haven’t bought my book yet, you should do that before the end of 2013, too.  Or, say, before the end of today.  That would be nice too.  HINT HINT: http://amzn.to/19HF1tc

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#10:  Baths – “Obsidian”

Cerulean was such an amazing debut that it was hard for me to imagine Will Wiesenfeld topping it.  Yet, here we are, with the stellar sophomore album Obsidian.  The terms are darker, this time around; the aching beauty is souring, turning in on itself, yet never once does it become a drag to listen to.  It will leap out of your stereo and ask you to commiserate with it, and you will.

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#09:  FIDLAR – “FIDLAR”

Here we are, sweating through the summer of 2013, and to aid in this we have an album that breathes sweltering punk abandon, from the opening shots of “Cheap Beer” (I DRINK CHEAP BEER SO WHAT FUCK YOU) through each and every classic L.A. skater punk nugget.  They win no points for originality, and they don’t need to:  this is pure, raw rock ‘n’ roll, and if you need more than you should simply have another beer and repeat until you don’t care any more.

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#08:  Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”

I heard “Get Lucky” on an Easy Rock format station the other day.  That’s how ubiquitous this album is getting:  your mom has heard it, your office secretary has heard it, the middle manager at your firm has heard it, all the kids in your class are blasting it from their bedroom windows.  My neighbours are doing that, possibly right as we speak.  It’s not the most pretentious or artsy funk album, but it’s certainly the most effective.  Daft Punk Everywhere:  that’s the Summer of 2013, folks.  Now lose yourself to dance.

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#07:  Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold”

Barely an album from 2013, but technicality is the soul of life, or something; regardless, the album counts (thank you mid-January re-release) and is top-to-bottom impressive.  This is a album of poppy punk, but not pop-punk; it lacks the genre’s characteristically annoying adolescence and sk8r-boi mentality and substitutes smart melodic sense and a refreshingly full brevity.  These songs will stick in your head and they will take up residence there.

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#06:  Foxygen – “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic”

There are albums that are derivative and this is a bad thing; they wear their influences like riot shields, proclaiming that they’re just like Band X in an attempt to woo people who are looking for bands just like Band X.  Then, there are bands like Foxygen.  Foxygen is not original.  One listen to “No Destruction” will tell you immediately that they are heavily indebted to the magic of the Psychedelic Sixties.  At the same time, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly which bands they’re ripping off at any one given time.  Instead, it’s safest to say that they’re ripping off the entire decade at once:  We Are is a distillation of every great moment the decade produced, solidified into one hell of an homage.

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#05:  Boards Of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

There are a number of bands releasing albums in 2013 that haven’t released albums in quite some time.  It may not have been as long an interval from The Campfire Headphase as, say, Loveless, but it’s safe to say that, of all the classic bands, few have or will approach the level of quality offered up by this Scottish duo.  That Campfire alienated a lot of long-time fans is a matter of public record; to the group’s credit, Tomorrow’s Harvest sounds like it takes up where the much better Geogaddi left off back in 2002.

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#04:  The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”

The band’s sixth album finds them settling into a serious groove, where the style is their very own and it’s done to perfection.  It continues on perfectly in an evolution of sound from Alligator onward, mellowing out slightly from High Violet but retaining the crushing sense of sad-eyed aplomb.  It’s hard to name a better pop band operating today.

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#03:  Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

An immediately gripping set that combines the best parts of black metal with the best movements of post-rock and creates something that may not be entirely wholly new but is definitely the most cohesive statement of such music ever made.  The bleak, winter-driven howls and blur-of-shoegaze guitars are there, but the suite-sets and crescendo-patterns are pure post-rock; the result is something that is not black metal, but can be considered to be truly post-black metal.  Definitely a junction-point in the fringe of music, and an album that will be pored over and discussed for years to come.

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#02:  Kanye West – “Yeezus”

The most divisive album of the year:  those who like it, like it a lot, and vice versa.  The distorted synths and electro drums gained fans and enemies in equal measure.  The fact, however, is this:  even when it was obsessive online haters trying to dominate the conversation, it still meant that people were talking about Kanye and only Kanye.  The man is likely the premier artist of our musical times, a juggernaut that is helping to bring hip hop into its artistic phase, much as the Beatles helped usher in the artsy phase of rock ‘n’ roll.  The album is a winner, though, repetitive internet shitposters be damned; it is a brutal blend of swag rap, pummeling post-OFWGKTA production, and trap music, touched off with a classic Kanye soul sample in the end.

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#01:  Deerhunter – “Monomania”

Deerhunter have been the most consistently impressive rock band in recent memory; Cryptograms, Microcastle, and Halcyon Days are all stone cold classics, utilizing devastating rhythms, obscure vocals, and a deliciously smoky sense of haze to craft the very definition of cutting-edge indie rock.  Monomania finds them stripping away a lot of that haze; the idea this time out seems to be to craft a much more stripped-down, straight-ahead version of Deerhunter, and the results are nothing short of stupendous.  It’s a leather-jacket album, touching on garage, freewheeling spirits, and a newfound love of the Grateful Dead.  For longtime fans of the band, this can be somewhat off-putting at first, until that first rhythmic groove kicks in; from then on, you realize it’s Deerhunter, larger than life and fifty times tougher.  Much like Microcastle, it’s become my go-to album:  when all else fails, I reach for Monomania, because I’m always in the mood for it.

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part Four

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Top 20 time, with a couple of radical Scandinavians, some burning garage rock, some glittering cold post-punk, and a stunning ambient debut.  Did I mention that you should buy my book?  Did I mention that you can get it right here and it only costs $3?

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#20:  The Knife – “Shaking The Habitual”

Silent Shout was a glittering example of how effecting pop could be forged out of Eurotrance cheese.  Shaking The Habitual is an example of how to advance social justice through pure dark noise.  Less a darkwave/pop album than it is a black ambient record, the Foucault-referencing, hyper-radical tracks found on here seem at times to eat light.  The perfect soundtrack for when your radical gender studies study group starts to get druggy.

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#19:  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Push The Sky Away”

If Dig Lazarus Dig!!! was the raucous, garage-blasting record that rejuvenated the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away is the contemplative record that digs through the ashes of that barnburner and finds peace, serenity, and further reasons to remain unsettled.  There is a core of strength at the heart of all of these songs that sustains the listeners for long after the last notes of the hymn-like title track fade out.

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#18:  Oblivians – “Desperation”

Sixteen years after their last record, the legendary Memphis garage punks have put out an album that sounds like a direct evolution of the point that they left off at.  The band slashes along with more verve and energy than a thousand younger bands.  It’s funny, though, in an existential way, that the band couldn’t drop this album until well after the death of super-fan Jay Reatard; it sounds pretty much like an album that late juggernaut would have recorded, had he matured slightly before killing himself with coke.

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#17:  Savages – “Silence Yourself”

The hot buzz band to watch for the year, Savages take a, uh, savage look at the modern rock scene and ask you to despair.  They then cobble together a mix of post-punk, electro-pop, and krautrock and ask you to drink of it.  When you complain, meekly, that it tastes bitter, they tell you that the taste is merely your own tears.  And you weep again.

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#16:  Var – “No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers”

The Copenhagen band does pretty much everything I just said about Savages, but does it slightly better.  Also, can I take a moment here to express my undying love for whomever designs the LP covers for Sacred Bones?  The unity of design makes me want to die of sheer happiness.

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#15:  Thee Oh Sees – “Floating Coffin”

The veteran garage band rolls on, crafting an album that is at once heavier and more cohesive than anything that they’ve released before.  Don’t be fooled, though:  the San Fransisco band still throws out moments of sheer psychedelic bliss , a skill with which they have no equal today.

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#14:  Kurt Vile – “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze”

Kurt Vile makes gorgeous, sprawled-out stoner pop seem absolutely effortless.  Even when the tracks stretch to the nine minute mark (as on the opener, for example) they don’t lose their way; the maintenance of cohesion is nothing short of amazing.

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#13:  Grouper – “The Man Who Died In His Boat”

Liz Harris’ newest album is, at it’s heart, merely tracks that were recorded during the sessions for 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up The Hill.  The trick, however, is that the album never once sounds like a collection of cast-offs or b-sides; it is a strong, shimmering, beautiful collection all on its own.

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#12:  Pissed Jeans – “Honeys”

Honeys is a motherfucker of an album, in a way that their previous effort, King Of Jeans, came close to but never quite achieved.  I first caught this band on a Sub Pop sampler in 2009, and Honeys fulfills the sheer weight of smashing ambition that leapt out of that disc and tried to strangle me.  Not for the faint of heart, or for anyone who dislikes crushingly heavy hardcore riffs.

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#11:  Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”

My wife keeps asking me why I’m listening to house music.  Like the terrible music snob I am, I have to tell her two things:  first, it’s ambient electronic, and second, it’s jaw-dropping.  Jon Hopkins has been kicking around for a while; he’s collaborated with Imogen Heap, hooked up with Brian Eno, co-produced Viva La Vida (Or Death And All His Friends), and most recently teamed up with Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote for 2010’s diamond-in-the-rough Diamond Mine, which is where he first caught my attention.  Immunity is possibly the best ambient album released in a decade, without hyperbole.  I literally cannot stop listening to it.  Someone help me.  Please?

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part Two

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Woah, here we are again, going from 40 to 31 for fun and profit (no profit).  Again, a gentle reminder to check out my book located here for all of your post-apocalyptic Toronto fun.

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#40:  Bonobo – “The North Borders” 

Bonobo’s 2010 album, Black Sands, was a godsend of minimalist ambient downtempo production, and while The North Borders doesn’t quite scale those lofty heights, it is still very, very good work.  There’s a sense of flow and form here that can be often lacking in his contemporaries.

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#39:  Autechre – “Exai”

The British duo are up to eleven albums now and they never quite get easier.  Exai further explores the realms of noise and dissonance within an electronic setting, and is probably their strongest work since the late 1990s.

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#38:  Waxahatchee – “Cerulean Salt”

Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s second album, which ups the gambit on very personal songs and improves the quality.  Humble weariness, mundane disappointment, and wavering fragility abound.

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#37:  Jello Biafra & The Guantanamo School Of Medicine – “White People And The Damage Done”

The punk legend blasts on with his new band and his new, post-Occupy sense of purpose.  Slashing power chords and strident anger bring to mind the best of the Dead Kennedys, with shiny new production values.

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#36:  Cayucas – “Bigfoot”

A big blast of a summer album.  Nothing original or innovative, but still great fun regardless.

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#35:  Ghostpoet – “Some Say I So I Say Light”

The man’s name is completely appropriate:  this is ghostly ambient hip hop with a blurred urban eye for poetry.  Something to contemplate through headphones in the dead of night.

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#34:  Dirty Beaches – “Drifters/Love Is The Devil”

Part lo-fi rave-up, part ambient noise experiment, all Canadian road warrior, Dirty Beaches brings that sweltering night rush to life.  Equal parts dread and abandon.

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#33:  The Flaming Lips – “The Terror”

The experimental psychedelic rock band (the Pink Floyd of our times?) forges on with a spacey, dread-filled album obsessed with the central terror of existence:  that, even without love, life muddles on, empty yet filled with its own hideous vitality.  How many people thought, after picking up Transmissions From The Satellite Heart on the strength of “She Don’t Use Jelly”, that we would be here twenty years and a legendary career later?

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#32:  Pheonix – “Bankrupt!”

The French art-pop band returns with another solid collection of dancey radio-ready hits.  Hard to deny, even if you’re not normally into this sort of thing.   The band takes the synths, shoves them to the front, and crafts a gigantic stadium festival dance party.

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#31:  Chelsea Light Moving – “Chelsea Light Moving”

Post-breakup, Thurston Moore brings out the big guns, releasing an album of classic indie stomp with dollops of that signature Sonic Youth searing skronk.   The legacy of a classic band is in good hands.

Grouper – “The Man Who Died In His Boat”

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Like the Cocteau Twins before her, Liz Harris deals in an abstractly intimate type of songcraft that transcends lyrical clarity; much of the time, she comes across as an artist intent on sketching out melodies and creating the ghosts of folky pop songs.  This vocal ambiguity pairs with the mournful atmosphere and the organic noise instrumentation to evoke emotions that you can’t even really name.  Is it existential sadness?  The acceptance of inevitability?  Something as mundane as merely missing another human being?  I strongly suspect that the effect will be different for each listener, making this an album that you can take home and make your own, an album whose intimacy is intensely personal and achingly beautiful.  It was written at the same time as 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and it makes a more than worthy companion album to that modern classic.  They both outline a contemporary redefinition of the possibilities inherent within ambient songcraft, and allow the listener to pour themselves into the emotional mould that Harris presents and holds tantalizingly just out of reach.  The Man Who Died In His Boat is ostensibly a “folk” album, but it far outstrips the limitations that the genre often imposes on artists.  By welding elements of experimental noise and studio effect play with downtempo acoustic chording, Harris crafts something more along the lines of a discourse of elemental dread, loss, and recovery.

FINAL MARK: A

[Obligatory suggestion to try my book before you buy my book at http://www.trevorjameszaple.com ]