a-void.ca’s best albums of 2014

Click here to listen to the Soundcloud playlist, featuring tracks from each album

WHERE IS T-SWIFT?

Ok, I admit it, I didn’t listen to it. Nor did I get through albums by Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Keyshia Cole, Calvin Harris, et al and sundry. I also didn’t hear all of Ariel Pink, Foxygen, Swans, TV on the Radio, Leonard Cohen, Julian Casablancas and too many others to count. Don’t even talk to me about jazz or country. (I wouldn’t have much of interest to say.) So WTF *did* I listen to? I’m not even sure how to describe it. Dave-core? Morris-dance? …maybe it’s better if I don’t.

This is the odd post-poptimist desert I feel like I’ve been sent to, via my escape pod hurtling from the full time music-crit grind. The barriers have all fallen – like a lot of right-thinking people, I’m perfectly happy to flip flop from Nicki Minaj to Neil Young to Young Thug in the space of an hour, but what happens when you don’t have time to devote to what might properly be called truly Catholic tastes? Does my embracing of a specialty – electronic music, not even really including the hip-hop that used to be part of my professional bag – mean I’ve re-embraced some of the biases I spent the early 2000s working to shed, like an earnest young Chinese party bureaucrat devouring Marx and Mao, and then giving it up in favour of Day Trading For Dummies?

It’s not a question of openness, I’ve realized, but a question of how you apportion your listening time. For better or for worse, I shoved the stuff that seemed like a long shot into a hard drive folder marked ‘Later’ and threw on another platter of grime, and this is the list that came out.. There was certainly no kind of shortage of amazing electronics to digest; the volume of almost-worthy discs attests to that. (Sorry Tre Mission, SBTRKT, DMX Krew, Shi Wisdom, Mark McGuire, Run The Jewels, Pop Ambient 2015, I could go on.) The LPs that did make the cut seemed not quite dancefloor friendly, except in an abstract sense. Bits and pieces of LV and Joshua Idehen, Caribou, Distal et al slipped into my mixes with scant friction. But the inventiveness I loved often didn’t fit in the space between floor-filling singles, not that I mind. Still, this is a list borne of someone who experienced dance music in 2014 mostly in a bedroom or between headphones. Simon Reynolds’ inveighing against IDM-like anti-dancefloorism aside, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The startling truth is that being kind of lazy, in terms of challenging your sense of what you like, can still be an astonishingly rich listening experience. There was enough originality and delight in my year in albums to make the absence of all that pop and hip-hop I missed feel about as painful as the knowledge that I didn’t eat nearly enough artisanal cheese in the last twelve months – not quite the sting of regret as much as the vague acknowledgement that I may have missed something good, possibly, but it’s not keeping me up at night.

If I had one thing I would ask of dance music in 2015, it would be for the most hypnotic, challenging, arresting, electrifying albums to be a little more melodic. I love the discs I chose, but as a whole I felt like my diet was a smidge on the grey side. Producers like Mumdance and Logos, Peverelist, Objekt and others put out single after single of holy-shit-guys-listen-to-this-ism, but when I put them all in a mix, I ended up taking a bunch out and replacing them with some chooons to break up the monotony. And the grab-bag of albums felt roughly the same, though I didn’t curate this list in a similar way. You can’t turn down a slamming, mesmerizing beat like the ones all over the Next Life comp or the Clap! Clap! record, melody or no. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

Cot Damn Fall ’14 Masterpiece No. 3: Clap! Clap!

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Clap! Clap!
Tayi Bebba
Black Acre
Released Sept. 8 2014

Maybe it was the mysterious nature of the Italy-based producer behind Tayi Bebba, but the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ is now probably the first thing dance aficionados associate with Clap! Clap!. That’s a shame. Let’s assume for a moment that the person is a white man; is this then an attempt to dress up someone else’s work – maybe that of a whole culture – as something original, and then profit from it, the way the likes of Pat Boone did by rerecording early R&B hits in a more ‘white’ style? I would argue it isn’t. For one thing, it’s clear that, although the samples of field recordings on Tayi Bebba pervade the album and give it its concept (an imaginary island), they’re arguably transformed into original work by the way they’re sampled and combined with synthesized elements to make a work that has merit in its own right. Of course, the work being interesting doesn’t absolve the creator of having swiped someone else’s ideas, but frankly, it helps. Nothing about Tayi Bebba feels tossed-off or exploitative; it’s a nuanced, well-constructed work. In a certain sense, I’d compare it to A Tribe Called Red; while ATCR obviously has a direct link with its native Canadian sample sources and Clap! Clap! may not, ATCR didn’t invent their culture from whole cloth either, they just brought vibrant new context and creativity to existing material. (I find it a little odd that dogmatic left-wing radicals are, in these cases, so hung up on the idea of inherited culture. They certainly don’t feel that way about inherited wealth.) While Clap! Clap! may not have come from the culture he or she is sampling, I don’t see any attempt to claim authority or authenticity in reference to the source material, so without knowing more, I’m willing to listen.

With that out of the way, boy do I dig this record. Clap! Clap!’s talent as an arranger and producer is unmistakeable; there’s nothing outwardly ‘ethnic’ about a song like “Conqueror (remorse/withdrawn),” yet it’s just as arresting and invigorating as the more obviously African-based “The Rainstick Fable” with its chants and kalimba melody plinking and plunking away over vivid manifestations of the low end theory. Read: bass. There’s no gimmick here, that I can see; just great, kinetic dance music that borrows liberally from garage, hip-hop and dancehall as well as its sample sources to create refreshingly original stuff. I love the half-time trunk-rattling rhythm of “Kuj Yato” and the almost Bhangra-like Jew’s harp groove of “Burbuka.” Oh hell, I love it all. If you’re a fan of Mo Kolours or Flying Lotus’ early stuff, your life will be vastly improved by this album.

Cot-damn Fall ’14 Masterpiece No.2: LV & Josh Idehen

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LV & Josh Idehen
Islands
Keysound
Released Sept. 13 2014

I haven’t heard Routes, the first collaboration between production duo LV and spoken word artist Josh Idehen, so I was fairly unprepared for Islands. It hit me squarely between the eyes – these haunting but totally propulsive and danceable beats with this sharp-eyed raconteur who sounded nothing like the MCs I had heard before. Start with “Imminent,” a nasty little banger anchored with the refrain “likes to hang inna Hackney but / won’t catch him in Mile End cause / if you show face in Mile End cuz / things will likely get violent, cuz” – apparently inspired by a true story.

It could be a grime mc’s standard boast, but it feels more like an outsider noticing a neighbourhood in mid-gentrification. It grabbed me at first because my sister worked in Mile End, which up to that point I associated with the mildly miserable dead end neighbourhood of the Pulp song; after hearing “Imminent” I thought about how two people can walk the same streets and see something completely different.

In the afore-linked interview Idehen mentions he was inspired by The Streets, and that influence is apparent in the affablylazy phraseology of “New Pen,” but aching little fables like the title track and “Out of the Blue” are subtly original in their storytelling. And the beats are similarly both familiar and distinct, bumping and thrusting breaks simmering with dread. If there’s a better MC-led album this year, it’s got to clear one hell of a hurdle.

P.S. Keysound is label of the year, but more on that later…

Cot-damn Fall ’14 masterpiece No.1: Distal

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Distal
Retrograde Space Opera
Anarchostar
Released: Oct 13 2014

Concept albums! Whyyyyy. It’s 2014, is there any need? And a sci-fi one that’s also a dance album? Did Jeff Mills, great as he is, not kill that hoary old idea dead with a single ambient snooze-button blow? Suffice it to say I was not ready to embrace Distal’s latest album like a long-lost relative emerging from an escape pod crash landed on a desert planet. But like a plucky young loudmouth discovering that his main squeeze is actually his sister, here we are, and there ain’t much to be done about it.

The basic jist is that we’re plunked into an apocalyptic future where the uber-rich have fled our dying planet and we’re under constant surveillance, when we’re not fleeing the predations of ruling tribes of gangsters. There’s a lavishly illustrated website to poke through if you want to dig deeper, but personally I’m more than satisfied with knowing the thrust of things and making up the rest through the music. Largely because the music is so very, very good.

The worst thing a dance LP can be is track-y. Nothing gets boring quicker than a disc, even one with great jams, that happen to be sonically similar and presented without any kind of arc or structure. Retrograde Space Opera obviously has a structure, but just knowing that the structure is there, even in an abstract sense, makes for compelling listening. Early in the disc, cuts like “Sewers of Gattaca” balance shimmering, hummable synths with brutal barrages of drums that are less beats than they are collections of light slaps in the face. ” The ultra-hard kicks and snares pile up like the best recent grime a la Mumdance or some of the Night Slugs guys, but with a better sense of form – you always feel like the beat is taking you somewhere, and there’s a natural funkiness that a lot of other producers can’t get across while they’re doling out total screwface ruffneck business. It’s kind of amazing how listenable “Jaws of Delroy” is, given how abrasive its component parts are.

The second half of the disc is less grime than straight-up techno, and Distal pulls off both sounds as easily as a farm kid bulls-eyeing womp rats. “Don’t Need Her” is soulful despite the almost footwork-like repetition and whip-crack snare sound – if DJ Rashad had lived, I wonder if that’s what his stuff would one day have sounded like – and “Holding Pattern” and “Look Mom No Hardware” would have a Detroit purist actually cracking a smile if they came on either side of a 12-inch with a picture of a robot on the sleeve. (Not if the robot was smiling though, that would just wreck the mystique OBVIOUSLY.)  The palette is consistent throughout, all haunting synth pads and prickly hand claps, so again, it’s almost miraculous how he makes it all work together.

Some records I feel like I need to be high to fully appreciate. I don’t think the drugs have been invented yet that would make Retrograde Space Opera make sense, in a “holy shit, the lunatics are on the grass/Dorothy is walking the fence” Dark Side of the Rainbow kinda way. But you don’t need to understand it to bug the fuck out to it. I’m living proof!

Top 25 Singles of 2014 so far

You better stop, children what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
No but like, seriously, what the fuck was that? It was hella loud, yo
– Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

There have been a lot of records this year in the burgeoning BANG! BOOM! CRASH! subgenre, where the samples and/or drums are so loud they feel like they’re jumping out of your speaker and hitting you in the face, even at low volume. But the best of them remain undeniably musical, and even catchy. Evian Christ and Bok Bok are tops in this department, through different approaches; the American upstart is relentlessly melodic even with his noisiest bits (a skill he shares with Skrillex, of all people) while the Brit turns even the rawest repetitions into R&B, whether it’s with 80s quiet storm synths or the very Aaliyah-like vocal stylings of Kelela.

Looking down the list, melody is the thing, however subtle. It’s there in Martyn and Four Tet’s twinkling kalimba samples, Toronto’s Jex Opolis’ Zither EP (especially “On The Cliffs” with its stabs of vocal “aaaahs” and gently burbling drums), DMX Krew’s oddly compelling lounge-pop and even H-SIK’s amped-up breakbeat science. I used to think a hummable tune was optional, even quaint, but maybe the years of minimal tech – and the waning of the prog house sound in favour of who knows what in EDM-land – have made it more palatable, if not outright necessary.

You’ve got your grime-oriented and just plain weird producers in there, of course – Mumdance coming with a couple of collaborations (with Logos and Pinch respectively) that make it sound like there’s a vacuum cleaner and/or a rogue mobile phone behind the boards, as well as Phon.o, Lakker and L-Vis 1990 all delivering sides that are more not-there than there. But the tunes predominate, however simple — from Vitalic’s uncharacteristically pop-oriented take on Paul Kalkbrenner’s “Altes Kamuffel” to the chugging grooves from Melchior Productions Ltd., Todd Terje and KHLHI (a.k.a. Four Tet).

*Oh, and in light of the Polaris Music Prize short list announcement, it’s worth remembering that – without taking anything away from Jessy Lanza’s accomplishment – there’s plenty of Hot Canadian Electronic Action happening outside the album sphere. Jex Opolis, Tiga and Hobo on this list, plus Adam Marshall’s New Kanada label (and Graze alias), Guillaume and the Coutu Dumonts, Caribou’s Jiaolong imprint, Lunice, Kaytranada etc. Don’t sleep on the frozen north.

1. Evian Christ – Waterfall (Tri Angle)

2. Bok Bok – Your Charizmatic Self EP (Night Slugs)

3. Martyn – Forgiveness (EP) – (Ninja Tune)

4. Jus Now – Bare Wine (feat. Swappi) / Vodou Riddim (Gutterfunk)

5. Jex Opolis – Zither EP (Good Timin)

6. H-SIK – Sonic Rage / No Promises (Black Acre)

7. Sam Russo – To The Brink / Wanderer (Air London)

8. Jamie XX – Sleep Sound (Young Turks)

9. Mumdance & Logos – Legion / Proto (Tectonic)

10. Alex Coulton – Murda / Break Pressure (Black Acre)

11. Gerry Read – Shrubby (Aus Music)

12. KHLHI – Percussions (Text)

13. Komon and Appleblim – Jupiter EP (Aus Music)

14. Paul Kalkbrenner – Altes Kamuffel (Vitalic Remix) (Paul Kalkbrenner Music)

15. Juju & Jordash – Waldorf Salad/Third Planet from Altair (Dekmantel)

16. DMX Krew – Hot Punch / My Metro (Fresh Up)

17. Pinch & Mumdance – Turbo Mitzi / Whiplash

18. Melchior Productions Ltd – The Return Of The Cosmic Kids (Aspect Music)

19. Lakker – Containing a Thousand (R&S)

20. Todd Terje – Spiral (Full Pupp)

21. L-Vis 1990 – Ballads EP (Night Slugs)

22. Tiga & Audion – Fever (Remixes) (Turbo)

23. Flava D – Home / Hold on VIP

24. phon.o – Cracking Space Pt. 1 (50 Weapons)

25. Hobo – Mind Games (Soundz)

What I listened to on my summer vacation

martyn

Martyn
The Air Between Words
Ninja Tune

A quick scan over my mixes will confirm what you already suspected, that if I thought I could get away with it I would only ever mix Martyn tunes always. (Ok, maybe with a bit of Night Slugs and R&S’ roster in there as well.) He’s one of maybe three left-field/bass music producers whose embrace of four-four kick drums didnt feel like a concession, and The Air Between Words just cements his mastery. There’s a dusty, from-the-catacombs air to choons like “Like That,” whose erotic moans and swishy house piano mixed with a gloomy baseline sounds like Lil Louis’ “French Kiss” remade for a rainy day in Wales. And the languid Fender Rhodes-isms of “Drones” are perfectly offset by the insistent groove, which never lets the track sink into melancholia or pander to baser instincts. That’s really the genius of Martyn in a nutshell: capturing a feeling of unease or tension while keeping the music itself animated and alive.  Or maybe its just my overpowering urge to drop something dark and stormy like “Forgiveness Step 2” at peak time, turn the lights down – except for maybe a strobe – and see what happens.

prinsthomas

Prins Thomas
III
Full Pupp

Apparently Prins Thomas loathes the phrase “cosmic disco,” which makes me think it means something different from what he thinks it means. I read it as Kosmiche disco, a descendant of Can and other outfits bent on bringing experimental sensibilities to whatever cool shit was happening, including but not only dance music. If the definition of the subgenre doesn’t include a cut like the echo-laden, circular synth riff-driven, rolling drum hypnosis that is “Trans,” I don’t know what the hell you’d call it. In some ways this is the most stripped down of the three solo discs; it’s the most cerebral, but “cerebral” in the sense that, while the language it speaks isn’t really of the dance floor, it is viscerally intense. Not to mention sexy – I was struggling for a metaphor for bass lines that didn’t involve asses in skin-tight leather, and then I gave up, and here we are. Still. People forget that the brain is biggest erogenous zone, you know.

minerva

Maria Minerva
Histrionic
Not Not Fun

Dubby bass, hazy layers of sample smog, a singer who sounds like  she’s talking in her sleep, how can you go wrong? Even now I’m not sure. Maria Minerva seized my attention with the DIY tape underground diva vibe of Cabaret Cixous – Toronto, there are three vinyl copies in Rotate This’ deep discount bin, which tells you how many people shared my affection – and a little more polish shouldn’t have gone astray. But Histrionic always seems to be beguilingly on the verge of getting good, and after a few listens, the fact that it never does gets damnably annoying. Not even a cheeky flip of a Pet Shop Boys lyric could dispel the air half-assed art schoolism. Go away and take your sub-Lana Del Rey schtick with you.

LPs: Hercules & Love Affair get bitchy, The Horrors take speed + Future, Jakob Skott

herculesloveaffair

Hercules and Love Affair
The Feast of the Broken Heart
Moshi Moshi

I’m trying to think of a more spine-tingling sound than the bit in Hercules and Love Affair’s “That’s Not Me” when a vocal stab from Gustaph launches off into the ionosphere on a rocket made of echo. Nope, can’t do it. The new Hercules album is less an album than a collection of singles; to complain about that is like complaining that a box of doughnuts isn’t a cake. The amazing thing is that they’ve managed to make a set of tunes that are sufficiently weird and different from each other that it doesn’t suffer from the track-y-ness that some dance albums – especially house albums – suffer. “The Light” is thick and intense, with Krystle Warren giving a smouldering performance, while the single “Do You Feel The Same?” rides a perfect bit of moody 303 bass to a pulse-quickening chorus. And if you don’t totally love the throwbackness of the old-movie-dialog-snippets on “5.43 to Freedom” (“shit-kicker! Or a clever girl!… no, she’s a hippie! A communist! Probably a speed freak!”) then you need to explore your inner bitch.

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Jakob Skott
Amor Fati
El Paraiso

The number one complaint lobbed at Krautrock/kosmiche-style music is that, with the lack of harmonic and rhythmic invention and the focus on subtle change, it’s boring. The number two complaint about Krautrock/kosmiche-style music is that it’s repetitive, which is another way of saying that it’s boring. This, I’m afraid, is inevitable; arguably, it’s actually the whole point of a certain influential school of minimalism that strives to reach beyond linear structure; in other words, it’s supposed to be boring. Part of why I find Causa Sui drummer Jakob Skott’s Amor Fati so fascinating is that, for an instrumental record that fits firmly in the Kraut school in terms of repetition and harmonic simplicity, it’s still really active, ie. not boring. “Araucaria Fire” has three notes in it and it’s 8 minutes long. And yet, the swirl of distended synth squeals and Skott’s fairly virtuosic drumming are easy to nod along with. Neither is it jam-band-ish, which was my fear; the bits that are active are in the foggy middle-distance, while the most in-your-face bits are the repetitive ones. It’s an amazing formula that feels like a worthy successor to another drummer’s masterpiece, Harald Grosskopf’s Synthesist, if Synthesist had a title track that veered into Sabbath-y doom rock for a few thrilling minutes.

horros-lumi

The Horrors
Luminous
XL/Beggars Group Canada

I have a soft spot for painfully slow music, eg. screwed & chopped music, certain trip-hop (Tricky, Massive Attack, Portished and basically nothing else in that fetid dumpster of a subgenre), this mix, etc. After the hypnotically languid Skying, The Horrors have jacked up the BPMs slightly on Luminous and I have to admit, as arbitrary as it sounds, I’m not as into it. I have been known to complain about such things – the most hate-mail I ever got was for a live review of LCD Soundsystem where I lamented their playing all of Sound of Silver like it was being run through a tape-deck set to high-speed dubbing – but seriously, the absolute brilliance of their syrupy proto-shoegaze textures are somewhat less effective when you can’t linger on them. Though props for the MBV-jacking “Jealous Sun” and the gently loping “So Now You Know.” More to come after I see them live this summer…

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Future
Honest
Epic/Sony

Rappers, stop putting Andre 3000 on your albums. I was thoroughly enjoying Future’s frothy new disc – he even holds his own with Pusha T on “Move That Dope” – until I got to “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)” and had to listen to it four times to absorb every syllable. Just go listen, I’ll wait. Dre did it to Unk on the “Walk It Out” remix – “see, to me, your white tee, looks more like a nightgown / make your momma proud, take that thing two sizes down.” Now how you gonna be Unk after that? How you gonna wave a chain around and mumble just like every other rapper? Even Future, who admittedly has a pretty good thing going with his plaintive Auto-Tune croak, and who fits into Mike Will Made It’s production snugly like a rim into a tire, sounds like a dumb-ass talking about his money after Dre’s anti-car-fetish screed, ending with “I will ride my fuckin’ bike, or walk.” BURRRRRRN.

Of course, the balance is righted by Kanye’s verse on “I Won,” though when I say “verse” I really mean “horrifying Mad Libs word-association that had to have been written by a not-very-enthused intern.” “You the number one trophy wife / so it’s only right you live the trophy life”  AAAAAAARGHGHGGHHU02u450tf3djqwofhewfefw.!@@$!@#! *kicks monitor over, skulks off*