Wednesday, December 15, 2010

list o' lists

It's that time of year when people make lists. I'll be making one soon enough. but for now here's some lists by others.

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First up, one from Geeta Dayal, who notes that listmaking is something of a masculine activity. accordingly hers is a list-not-list, without numbers, and lacking that strained strenuous air of must-mention-everything. I particularly enjoyed the bit about extracting maximum pleasure potential from Ariel Pink's Before Today:

"I’ve listened to the album at a variety of different speeds — 33 rpm, 45 rpm, pitched down to a sludgy -8, pitched up to a peppy +4 — and I’ve been fascinated by it every single time. (I like it backwards, too.)"

Makes me think I really should get it on vinyl.

Also struck by her favourite record of the year, the DFA anthology of Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra. The original LoLO records are things I've passed by countless times in the second-hand bins (see also: David Van Tieghem) but now Geeta's got me thinking I've missed out.

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I was impressed by NME's The Top 50 Albums of the 2010 issue (4th December). Well written; the selection showing a marked slant towards the oddball, prickly, and difficult; some good essays (one, in fact, on it being the year of the difficult album)... and capping it all, These New Puritans's Hidden as Album of the Year. Which is a bit like Melody Maker making the Young Gods's debut Album of the Year in 1987--critics doing what they should do, stepping out in advance of their readership, leading rather than following.

For my own part Hidden is something I admire more than adore. Actually the first time I heard it I was totally knocked out. But then--as if backlashing against my own opinion--the second listen was more underwhelmed; now I'm somewhere in between. In the tradition of Deceit and Hex, the pale grey vocals fall short of what's proposed by the music; they could do with a Franz Treichler, a more dramatic and imposing vocal presence. Still, you have to salute their ambition.

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I've often thought that FACT is the magazine whose taste I'm most simpatico with, so it's always a surprise to look at their end-of-year LPs and tracks and find A/ so few of the things I loved this year in there and B/ so many things listed I've not heard. When I have a spare, um, six hours I'll go through that Top 100 Tracks of the Year list and methodically listen to the audio helpfully put next to the write-ups (100 X 4 minutes per track - a conservative estimate, a lot of it being dance music - = lotta listening). For now I'll just note that the write-up for their #2 track of the year, Ramadanman's "Glut", almost reads like faint praise:

"What still amazes us about ‘Glut’... is as you listen to it, you’re incredibly aware of every move it makes, and why it’s making them – there’s almost no surprises, because it all makes such perfect sense and it’s all so perfectly timed. Like all he’s doing is filling in the obvious gaps with the obvious colours."

Excellent tune actually, but I like "Tumble" (bit like So Solid "Dilemma" crossed with Lizzy Mercier Descloux's Mambo Nassau) and the jungle pastiche "Don't Change For Me" even more.

big up FACT for making Olde English Spelling Bee its Label of the Year, although again, slightly taken aback that they didn't even mention Rangers's Suburban Tours, easily my favourite of OESB's output this year, and a strong contender for favourite album.

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Pitchfork's Top 100 Tracks of the Year and Top 50 Albums of the Year (just started, with Honorable Mentions).

Anointing "Round and Round" as Track of the Year means that Pitchfork is in perfect concord with my four year old daughter, who loves the song and sings the chorus with gusto and real feeling (albeit slightly mangled, "I'm coming, I'm coming back to the barn"). (I'm rather concerned that I've interfered with the proper functioning of the hypnagogic pop process, created some kind of temporal feedback loop, a recursive short circuit. If a piece of hypnagogic pop becomes part of the memoradelic bedrock of Tasmin's psyche, rather than some actual real-deal 2010 pop music, isn't that a bit like the implanted memories in Blade Runner?)

Scanning the list it occurred to me that Pitchfork has developed a house style for these kind of lists (see also the book they did a few years ago, The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide To the Greatest Songs From Punk to the Present) which is cautious about reaching for significance and concentrates instead on a kind of inventory of pleasures, which in turn involves a breakdown of a track into its components and constituent sources, where the song/album/artist is positioned within the genrescape, etc. (A generational sensiblity perhaps, shaped by the internet, mixtapes and playlists, the disintegration of larger entities into the song as unit-of-pleasure). In the case of "Round and Round" that approach fits perfectly because as Mark Richardson notes in his write-up, the song is exactly the sum of its perfect parts ("an intro, a variation, a funny little break with a sound effect, a section that pauses just before the big refrain, and then that huge chorus"), assembled with an "astonishing level of craftsmanship" and succeeding "brilliantly for the same reason great Burt Bacharach songs work-- because every chord change and turnaround and melodic leap is in exactly the right place." You could substitute "Steve Miller" for "Burt Bacharach" in the sentence and everything would still apply--indeed 70s and 80s "radio rock" is more what Ariel's aiming for. As Mark noted in his original review of Before Today, those radio artisans "were pros who knew something about intros, codas, and middle-eights, how a certain kind of chord change can cause the turnaround to the chorus to hit a little harder... there's a real sense of musical delight on Before Today; the sections sound logical but never predictable, and there are wild bridges and short bits that emerge seemingly randomly but wind up taking the song somewhere unexpected."

A huge amount of what makes rock and pop enjoyable relates to this level of asignifying craft: aspects of the songwriting and recording process that are far more technical than they are expressive or communicative--how this bit fits with that bit, the way one song section transitions into this song section, bridgework and arrangement, contrasts of texture, hooks, ear-catching gimmicks (the flurry of handclaps in Miller's "Take the Money and Run") and their timing, the swerves that still surprise even when you know they're coming because it's your umpteenth listen. It's something that music criticism generally hasn't dealt with much in the past, because it's hard to do with any specificity, and also there's been all these other levels of significance, resonance, expression, intent, to work with and make a meal of. The emergence of a criticism that attends to this stuff and is "against interpretation" (or at least guarded about it) seems like an interesting and valuable direction. What it would need itself to guard against is lapsing into a kind of culinary conception of music (all about ingredients, the harmonious balance of flavours, etc). In practise, it tends to be a little too plaisir and not enough jouissance for my taste. But then I'm a captive of my own generational sensibility in this respect, no doubt.

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The Wire's end-of-year issue is out now but only digitally/for subscribers, not on the stands yet. So I shouldn't divulge the results, except to say that the #1 Album is very cool (only a Honorable Mention at Pitchfork) and that Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal achieves exactly the same (very high) placement as Rifts did last year--surely an unprecedented feat.

There's also, as you'd expect, some interesting surveys of broad currents within underground music in 2010. David Keenan supplies a curious conflicted essay in which he seems to want to both start the backlash against hypnagogic pop while continuing to champion and perpetuate it, or at least the key operators within it. I say "curious", but actually it's totally understandable, and indeed I've been there before myself. It's a perennial contradiction of undergroundism: rant and rail about the crucial music of our time being ignored but then when people stop ignoring it (there's a big swipe from DK at Altered Zones, Pitchfork's sister-site for H-pop and related micro-genres) and when a second-wave of operatives take up the ideas, botching them or watering them down.... you're aghast. You don't want to abandon the theory but at the same time it feels like the practice is starting to discredit the ideas: a real bind. Tough too for the artists, the originators: someone like James Ferraro invents the formula, then other people adopt it, causing his own work to seem formulaic.

Lisa Blanning has some on-the-money comments about the post-dubstep interzone noting that with operatives like Night Slugs et al there's been the emergence of "a real 'wot do you call it' sound... but part of the reason this sound doesn't have a name is because it doesn't have any defining characteristics. It's a mixture, instead of a synthesis, of so many existing club forms. While it doesn't lack energy, the pursuit of the next mutation is audibly uncertain, and it probably won't come from this quarter."

This chimed with the feeling I got reading Martin Clark's Pitchfork survey of the year in dubstep/grime/funky/dubbage/road rap... the sense of a congested space, a frenetic criss-crossing of DJs and producers akin to a crowded concourse at a railway junction... a bustling profusion of genres blurring into each other... Yet house and garage and funky and 2step aren't that far apart really, the distances between them aren't large enough for the movements to-and-fro across that space to register as a soundclash or transgressive passage through border control... Blackdown's survey forms a book-end to 2010 with his behold-the-plenty column from the start of the year... which was one of the things that first got me musing towards the concept of hyperstasis.

"Next to no dance music (been a bit boring really)" avers Matthew Ingram in his own short 'n' sweet list at Cybore (he also makes some acerbic points about critics being "bedded" within movements of artists... when the people you're reviewing are just a tweet away there's a strong disincentive to rock the boat). I wouldn't be so dismissive as Mr Woebot, but I do think that the quality, diversity and hyperactivity of the last year or two masks a deeper structural impasse. Just about the only dance thing in Matt's list is DJ Roc's The Crack Capone. From my particular vantage point, it seems revealing that the strangest dancefloor mutant of recent times has emerged from a subculture that is insular, functionalist to the extreme (the music only exists for dancing, to enable a specific form of dance), and lo-tech. This resemblance of juke to hardcore carries through to some of its surface features: the broken-yet-fluid beats, the split-level rhythms, the tempo-manipulated vocals.


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"Next to no dance music" in The Quietus top-40-of-2010 either, actually. Unless Demdike Stare count. Which I don't think they do. They're in there for the same reason Salem are at #2, Swans at #3, and (to an extent) Liars at #1, and why doomy types like The Body ("this world, our culture, and perhaps our entire civilisation are seemingly doomed to utter failure... the idea of a bleak future, with or without people, is the predominant vision of our work") and Zola Jesus also place high. Nu-Goth vibes in the area. As signposted in the Top 40's title: Angst Music For Sex People.