Friday, January 06, 2012

random thoughts on the end-of-year faves

* Nearly everything in my fave album list is electronic... but little is electronic in the Electronic Dance Music sense (the little that is, is so in a rather notional way, as with Glass Swords, most of which I find hard to imagine rocking clubfloors, or Maria Minerva, more like a private interior homebody dream/memory of dance than actual functional bodymusic for gregarious spaces) (and then you have footwork, which bangs-and-works for those only for whom it was originally and specifically made and is highly dysfunctional for everybody else, making it much more of a headtrip contemplative experience). But equally the electronic music on my list isn’t anything much to do with the IDM tradition either. It’s coming out of post-noise, or 5th wave industrial esoterica...

but no, there’s hardly a guitar in there, and when they show up they’re not particularly rocking uses of guitar. Is rock finally over, in both the underground and the overground? (Ignoring all the living dead still walking among us such as The Black Keys). Is all this underground stuff in some sense literally post-rock? Dunno, but even in the indie-ish stuff I don't care for much, the guitar seems to have lost its privileged status as an instrument. It’s just one of many sound-generating implements available.

* That said, must confess to a certain fatigue with the electronic overload. Got sent so much of the stuff and downloaded even more. Whether this is all in the wake of Oneohtrix’s deservedly immense influence, i don't know, but there is a surfeit of music coming out that’s using either real synths or soft synth replicas. A kind of analogue maximalism, since the tracks tend to be on the long side, and if there’s not a proggy busy-busy-fingers ornateness there’s often a certain epic sweep and scale to the music, as well as vaguely conceptual-conceit vibe. Heard rather too many albums where the sound palette presses all the right buttons {in both senses!) on an idle, distracted listen, but if you actually pay attention, a certain compositional weakness becomes apparent... and where it’s not at all obvious or clear what the purpose of the music really is. (There’s people who release several lengthy records per year who might do better to release just the one. But then that increasingly applies across the board in the Zones).

Another downside aspect to the electronic listening deluge: a lot of this stuff strikes me as part of the syndrome of "arrested futurism". Which is to say that while there's nothing that particularly retro or nostalgic about this synth music's intent or vibe, it's not particularly innovative either... it is resuming approaches developed by Berlin School/New Age/Space Music/Subotnik-era/etc that were once exploratory but can now only be considered a settled tradition ... contributing to areas of activity that were already rather crowded in their own heyday (Seventies, Eighties).... so there's a sense of, at worst, redundancy, and even in the better exponents, the nagging doubt, "what is actually being added here, or taken further?"

* As I suggested in the NNF profile for the Wire, this is the time of the concept-musician, where the framing of projects is essential. A certain kind of music-journalist and blogger loves this kind of thing, because it gives them something to riff on and riff off (the musician generates a stream of fully rationalized, eloquently expressed explanations of what they’re doing, and knows very clearly what they’re trying to achieve, and at that extreme verges on obviating any kind of role for the external commentator). The leading exponents of this state-of-art (Lopatin, Ferraro) operate at a very high level, but as with any genre when you get into the second-division there’s a steadily rising quotient of bullshit. Increasingly with the post-hynagoggy/post-haunty underground I’m minded a little of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word... the danger zone where music can’t actually be enjoyed or even felt without the intervention of a concept. (Read Tiny Mix Tapes and sometimes it's a bit like how reading October or early Seventies Artforum must have been).

* Another tendency, seemingly countering the music-for-concept’s sake/music-as-text tendency, is towards a kind of pure aestheticism: what you might call the New Exquisite... releases by Balam Acab, Water Borders, the Deeep, etc that are very attractive listens but leave you with a disquieting inkling sense of “why?”... and in that sense remind me a little of certain late Eighties moment of vaguely alternative, atmospheric, well-produced to the point of being slightly prissy music (the 4AD of Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Wolfgang Press... Cindytalk... Talk Talk even). The New Exquisite blends somewhat with the New Religiose: a sort of vague, muffled gesturing at the sacred, the transcendent, that you get in the vocal stylings or vocal science of such as Julianna Barwick or Clams Casino (trip hop meets Burial innit)

* couldn't be bothered with doing Reissues this year: barely remembered any notable ones (exceptions: LFO’s Frequencies and the Sweet Exorcist RetroActivity package; Those Shocking Shaking Days: : Indonesian Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock and Funk 1970-1978; T.C.M. / The Criminal Minds; a few African things earlier in the year...). The well of the past getting dry, finally?

* Sam Macklin expressed surprise at my singles/tunes-of-2011 list's being over-run by Top 40, since he'd argued in his own end of year thing that the pop mainstream was at its lowest ever ebb! Well no doubt contingency plays its part, being in the car a lot in L.A., the banging beats suit the sensation of motion. I think by certain axes of measurement you could indeed say the pop mainstream is at its lowest ebb (philosophically, lyrically, songcraft in the mature sense of what that can be, musicianship in the conventional played sense... the dearth of characters and real stars, with singers reduced to depersonalised components in the blare of faceless clubpop bollocks). But in terms of catchiness, upfulness, danceability, crafty thrills-per-minute programming of pleasure-machinery, and sheer antirockism (rock has just disappeared from the mainstream – we are in a post rock universe now – real ordinary people do not give a shit about electric guitars – Jersey Shore types prefer Roland 303 riffs!) it’s definitely something of a high point for chartpop.

at the same time, it's rather striking how "rock’n’roll" -- not in any musical sense but as an abstract spirit ("rockstar"-ness: heedless hedonism, hard partying, not giving a fuck about the cost or consequences, inordinate self-regard) is draped all over current pop.(Hence the various songs referring to “Jagger”). Particularly with the endless stream of songs that espouse a kind of apocalyptic hedonism, hit after hit about how this could be my last night my last cup, gonna drink like it’s my last night, baby we don’t have tomorrow, Britney's "Till the World Ends" (co-written by Ke$ha)... and then you think of Rihanna's cheerless "Cheers" – Dionysian Keith Richards/Guns N'Roses darkside thrillseeking with some recession precarity desperation chucked in (max out those credit cards, live like there's no tomorrow just like those fuckers in Wall Street). After a few drinks too many myself I tweeted that Ke$ha is our Jim Morrison but I kind of meant it–she is responsible for a lot of the new reckless get-wrecked spirit in music. (The word "fight" appears obsessively in her songs, a deliberate echo of her heroes the Beastie Boys and "fight for your right to party"). There were moments last year when most of the Top 40 seemed to be singing variations on: "well, I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer/the future's uncertain, and the end is always near."