THE THING IS, it gets harder and harder to round up ‘the best’, and put it all in a nutshell. Since the worlds between high art and pop culture were pulled back away from each other, everything, it seems to me, has continued to fragment into a welter of tiny micro-scenes. My favourite pop always had a little bit of “avant” between its glib choruses and well-rounded verses. You know, a little bit of danger on the edge of town, or at the very least, some funny noises to give some lemon zing to the sweetness. It’s not like that anymore.
I’m not one of those old curmudgeons who bores everyone to death about the parlous state of modern music. The truth is, good and great music is being made, and probably more of it, much more, than ever before. It’s just that, with the ever-expanding interweb, it’s harder than ever for a musical magpie like myself to find those special little niblets that don’t quite fit into one genre or another, because we’re expected to conform to genre peccadillos. I’ll listen to anything if it’s got ingredient ‘x’, but wading through (for instance) the latest hip-hop releases just to find that one special song or album or mixtape… well, that’s slim pickings, the law of diminishing returns, and one hell of a waste of one’s short time on earth.
The other thing is that you can’t find good stuff on the charts any more. I know, you’ve always had to go much further than top 40 lists to find some of the best stuff, but there were always some gems to be found amongst the top commercial performers. In my very humble (and possibly curmudgeonly) opinion, this is no longer the case. The charts have, by and large, reverted to a pre-1960s model whereby they are expected to be non-threatening, and to perfectly go with whatever advertising medium they were built to adorn.
I listened to less music in 2011 than any other year of my life, partly because I was so busy writing about subjects other than music, but also partly because I was rebelling against the glut of online media. At times, it felt as though – between record companies, publicists and even friends – I was being force-fed a plethora of downloads and streaming samples that I couldn’t possibly hope to process (psychologically, I mean). And hell, I HATE listening to music on my computer. Give me a room, a couple of lovely perfectly positioned floor standing loudspeakers and a couch with a sweet spot any time… and the time to listen, with no interruptions. Curmudgeonly? So be it.
In 2012, I’ve decided to be proactive, and to find ways to chase those special sounds. I know that in 2011, I missed some great ones, just by being too busy to be a fan.
Meanwhile, in no particular order:
James Blake – James Blake
I wrote: “James has seemingly achieved the impossible, by refusing to accept the codified condition musical styles are supposed to conform to.”
Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
I wrote: “It’s an album of immersive ruminations and astounding beauty.”
Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil
I wrote: “Matsuzaki’s guileless vocals continuously work in opposition to the cut-and-splice noise injunctions, the haywire grooves and stray post-psychedelic riffery.”
David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time
“It’s the malevolent swagger of the latter [Dean Stanton’s demented miming of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’] that permeates the controversial auteur’s first album and mostly, it’s great.”
Gwilym Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau
I wrote: “As an album of solo piano extemporisations, rather than the noodlesome self-importance of Keith Jarrett it evokes Chick Corea’s splendiferous Piano Improvisations 1&2… and was influenced as much by the classical canon as contemporary jazz.”
The Unthanks – Last
I wrote: “Last’s genius is the way it frames Rachel and Becky’s austere but finely nuanced vocal interpretations with orchestrated arrangements that owe as much to the artful ambience of Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt and classical spiritualists like Arvo Part than to the folk firmament at large.”
Ricardo Villalobos/Max Loderbauer – Re: ECM
I wrote: “Instead of the kind of artistic necrophilia instanced by Natalie Cole’s “duets” with her father, the mutational flux between the pure electronics and the crystal clarity of the original recordings summons a whole new sound world.”
Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
I wrote: “Yes, it’s made in Nashville, but there’s an old-world austerity, a lack of pretension, and refreshingly uncluttered narratives, that makes The Harrow & The Harvest a gripping listen.”
Best Local Recordings
Bachelorette – Bachelorette
I wrote: “It squirms its way into your auditory pleasure centre through her singular dedication to making something original out of the detritus of pop music.”
An Emerald City – The Fourth
I wrote: “Mostly comprising long-form, percussion-driven pieces with spectral keyboard figures and a dedication to the psychedelic id, The Fourth is really something.”
The Desotos – Your Highway For Tonight
I wrote: “Gurney’s songs here are frequently in the doldrums, and almost always dipped in strong sentiment. That means that Your Highway For Tonight isn’t exactly a barrelful of monkeys, but it’s not about sliding aimlessly around in discontent, it’s about finding some way to ruminate on those blows life keeps dishing out, and moving on, and the band respond with a sound that matches his lyrics, perfectly.”
F In Math – Couch EP
I wanted to like the Unknown Mortal Orchestra album all the critics raved about, but found it annoying and its lo-fi sonics annoying. F In Math, however, though just a brief 5-song EP, was a joy of insane vocoder, crunchy drum programming and surprisingly catchy songs, while remaining odd.
Vorn – Down For It
I wrote: “What’s really great about Vorn is the untethered, unmoderated creativity, together with lyrics that are funny and caustic and don’t give a shit who they might offend.”
Hollie Smith & Mara TK – Band Of Brothers, Vol. 1
I wrote: “It’s great that Smith has allowed her voice to be manhandled by this studio creativity, where the songs and lyrics are somewhat submerged, but never annihilated, by the sonic experimentation and pervasive rhythms.”
Immram – The Voyage Of The Corvus Corrone
I wrote: “This elaborate jape is one of Paul McLaney’s best works, with a warm, atmosphereic sound that’s closer to mid-period Pink Floyd than any of the more consciously virtuosic progressive rock bands of the era.”
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
I wrote: “Grohl and buddies have done the unthinkable, and proved that it’s possible to make a more or less real-time analogue album that sounds incredible, and puts the lie to the whole process of artificially jacking up sound levels so as to give it more “guts”; there’s real heft and energy to both the performances and the way they’re captured.”
KD Lang – Sing It Loud
I wrote: “Much of the album is swoonsome, and peddle steel guitars and ukuleles abound; but so do reverberant guitars, crisp drums and deep, woody bass. Yes, the recording quality is superb.”
Best Part Of An Album
Bic Runga – Belle
I wrote: “The prime offender is [Kody] Neilson, whose big mistake is an aesthetic one, taking on the affectations of past musical genres and ending up with pastiche… Runga told me that if left to her own devices, she would probably have made a children’s album, or a Vashti Bunyan record, and how that could have led to commercial suicide. She’s probably right, but that would have been something for the ages.”
Battles – Gloss Drop
I’ve a huge soft spot for any group brave enough to show its progressive rock roots, even if it does lack the chops required for a genuine bout of instrumental virtuosity. But despite enjoyably thunderous drumming, some idiot was allowed to leave his Emulator set to “Trinidad Steel Band”, which only varies in degrees of attenuation and note length, not in its annoying, lo-res sonics. This ruination of an album that does contain a quotient of good musical ideas may have been a consequence of the super-talented Tyondai Braxton’s absence, but the fact that it actually got made and marketed without someone going “hey, this just isn’t good enough!” says a lot about why “Indie Rock” of a slightly avant persuasion seldom finds its definitive self, and therefore, generally stays stuck in its geeky ghetto.
Records I Got Over Really Quickly
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I wrote: “The musical equivalent of saturated fats lurk in both the creamy vocals and Robin Pecknold’s earnest lyrics, which provide fodder for ridicule.”
Best Reissues –
Highway – Highway
I wrote: “Its songs are barely disguised jam sessions showcasing the group’s affinity with both the dual-guitar country boogie of the Allman Brothers and Little Feat, and the groove machinations of James Brown – NZ classic.”
Pixie Williams – For The Record: The Pixie Williams Collection
“While the style sits somewhere between the yearning, instantly nostalgic wartime near-vaudeville of Vera Lynn and the easy sensuality and fluid guitar of Hawaiian music, it’s Williams’ seemingly effortless, egoless vocals that captivate.”
Worst Album –
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
I wrote: “Like the sickest bit parts of New Order, U2 and Simple Minds mixed into some unpalatable cocktail, Mylo Xyloto is practically untenable.”