The rest of 2014

One thing I would like to know is whether critics in the pre-digital era used to feel the same sense of angst over the pile of unlistened-to albums at the end of the year that I do now. It’s not just that there may be great records lurking in the unheard – that’s inevitable – but more that even the most stringent criteria for narrowing the pack seems to leave a bunch of albums that make the theoretical cut, but that I just didn’t get around to. We’re talking records by legends outside my chosen genre (Neil Young, Leonard Cohen) or on labels I love but by artists I’ve never heard of (the Light In The Attic set of native North American pop and rock). Reissues fell by the way side entirely. A singles list would have been a nice idea.

Well after my year end list was done, guilt drove me not into my usual relief rally of listening to old favourites through to the new year, but trudging back through the unheard to try to do right by the artists whose albums didn’t make my list, or practically anyone else’s. (On the plus side, my instincts about which records not to worry about during year-end crunch time proved largely spot on.) But before we dive back into the race against time and sanity, here’s a quick run through the ones that 2014 forgot.

PMM And Tuff Sherm
Gracefully Force Consensus
Reckno

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And here I thought the cassette revival was only for garage bands who think the upper and lower ends of the audio spectrum are so not punk. Tuff Sherm’s relentlessly anti-melodic assembly line funk and PMM’s self-contained ambient discomfort machines contrast starkly at first, but the lines blur as the tape goes on (PMM’s “Vitality” is a terrific take on Sherm’s clanking four-on-the-floor industrial machinery, while Sherm’s “Nature’s Revenge” is pretty enough to stop time – and, at 1:07, far too short).

Keyshia Cole
Point of No Return
Interscope

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I guess it’s not cool anymore to pay attention to R&B, all the good liberal music critics have moved onto new country or polka or something. In that spirit I will refrain from a deep sociological dive into unpacking what “Rick James” says about black femininity post Eric Garner or something (“slap a bitch like Rick James”), and just point out that it’s a pretty solid jam. Cole’s voice is versatile but still distinctive, pulling off the monotonous, defiant hook with plenty of gravitas then getting all Alicia Keys-mellifluous on the verse. I might get a bit weary of the angst here and there, but guest shots by Future and 2 Chainz provide a foil. Bonus awesome: No better phrase sums up the lousy, exhausted, inevitable feeling at the demise of a relationship than “this party ain’t a party, it ain’t jumpin’ no more,” especially how she sings it, like a long exasperated sigh.

Lussuria
Industriale Illuminato
Hospital Productions

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Despite the presence of a steady beat, albeit one that sounds like it was filtered through a mixing board with epically dirty pots, I feel like Lussuria’s latest is fundamentally an ambient mindfuck that is best enjoyed through headphones at high volume. This is the record I thought/hoped I was getting when I gave into the hype and checked out the Actress record. It’s claustrophobic, dry, chalky and just broken enough to seize the imagination, but just conventional (read:tuneful) enough not to get boring. Admittedly I only need to own a couple of records that sound like this – at most – but this is one of them.

Orlando Julius with the Heliocentrics
Jaiyede Afro
Strut

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I could not name a Heliocentrics record off the top of my head but my impression is that I’ve tried to like them repeatedly and been disappointed each time. And I’ve never heard of Orlando Julius. And on a cursory listen, Jaiyede Afro leans more toward the slower, less firey Afrobeat jams than my favourite Fela discs. So, back of the pile, until one day doing laundry and it came on, and I slowly but inevitably realized the repeatedly compounded errors of my ways. The grooves hover like mosquitoes in humid air, with more than a hint of Latin influence, sonic descendents of the West Indies slave trade come back to their roots yet nonetheless transformed. And James Brown has never been such an explicit influence on Afrobeat as on “In The Middle,” to predictably thrilling results.

Sebastien Tellier
L’Aventura
Record Makers

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How Sebastien Tellier managed to fall off the English pop press’ radar after the success of 2008’s Sexuality is baffling but maybe not surprising. This one wasn’t produced by half of Daft Punk, but hey, it did have production by Arthur frigging Verocai (and Jean Michel Jarre and Phillipe Zdar) so maybe give it a listen, anglos? It’s not quite impeccable but L’Aventura certainly has its moments, like a holiday that’s in some ways more fun to remember afterwards than to experience at the time. The loping, slightly seedy strings-dtenched lushness of tracks like “Sous Les Rayons du Soleil” might be a little too leisure suit-tacular for some, but scratch the Formica surface of “Ambience Rio” or the subdued bossa of “L’Adulte” and you’ll find tidily composed and arranged songs with elegant chord sequences that Jobim himself might have admired.

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!

The five best records you missed in August

(Well I don’t actually know if you missed them, for all I know you’ve been bumping Lee Gamble in your jeep at all the cookouts I just don’t get invited to.)

jameshoff

James Hoff
Blaster
PAN

I did not know that James Hoff was 1) a “conceptual artist” – scare quotes very much intentional – or 2) that this album was made by infecting an 808 with a computer virus or something. It’s kind of a miracle then that the results are listenable in their own right, at least by my definition of listenable. I’m sure my neighbours wouldn’t agree. But that’s what you get for living next to a guy who enjoys fiery blasts of digital distortion seemingly spat out at random. Blaster is oddly musical in that way only noisy stuff can be – it gets your back up with the obvious affrontery of the genre, but then your brain starts looking for the stuff around the edges of the noise, around the relationship with the other musical elements, and you find yourself settling in for something like a pleasurable experience. I say bring it on.

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Total 14
Kompakt

I vividly remember the moment when I fell in love with Kompakt’s Total series. I guess I had read about it somewhere, and I made one of my awkward visits to a specialist DJ shop where the guy behind the counter looks at me flicking through the two racks of albums and not looking at the singles on the wall, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. This one was in a basement near Queen West and Spadina, and I recall checking out several tracks – gee buddy, I thought, how come your ‘new’ albums are out of the plastic and being handed over to n00bs like me to hopefully not scratch them with one of these turnable needle things I’ve heard of? – and being smitten enough to fork over an obscene import price that probably wasn’t even particularly marked up.

I still have that copy of Total 2, and digital copies of all the Totals since floating around various hard drives, and they are never, ever disappointing, which is frankly amazing. Kompakt has always escaped the boring-minimal-techno trap by embracing pop elements like vocals and layered melodies, and there are too many great examples in Total 14 to list. But extra credit has to go to striking cuts like Voigt & Voigt’s beat-pop workout “Tischlein Deck Dich,” Dawud’s slinky “Lydia” and The Modernist’s “Die Fette Gazelle and the Hidden Six Pack,” which is so perfectly paced it could be an Elmore Leonard novel.


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Mono/Poly
Golden Skies
Brainfeeder

You don’t see a lot of releases from the old guard — and I use the term advisedly — of instrumental beatsmiths these days, certainly not as much as in the earlier part of the decade. But it’s not just longevity that makes Mono/Poly such a key figure in what’s left of the scene. Golden Skies is as richly textured and inventive as records like these get, with layer upon layer of dreamy melodic material over beats that gently propel the tracks along. “Alpha & Omega” is a highlight, all arpeggiated synths drifting off into space over a beat that sounds like a ping pong ball stuck bouncing in a vending machine. (In space.) If the frigid string swells and warm pads in “Night Garden” don’t make the hairs on the back of your neck do a little dance, you may in fact be dead.

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Lee Gamble
KOCH
PAN

I feel like I get sent a lot of techno singles made up almost entirely of clanking noises, white noise, pink noise, brown noise and a fascist kick drum banging away for six minutes. It’s nice to hear a record – a full length, no less – that has all of those things, and a soul to boot. I can actually listen to KOCH all the way through without forgetting it was on, and feeling the urge to check the health of my refrigerator. It helps that Gamble plays the spare melodic elements off each other rhythmically in a way that sounds like a language that makes sense together, rather than someone just stacking drum machine patterns on top of each other until the track can take no more. (Can you tell I feel like whining about the state of techno?) Admittedly I could do without the purely ambient tracks, which lack Gamble’s deft rhythms to offset the slightly plain textures, but they make nice palate cleansers before the next slammin’ groove invades the ol’ ear canals.

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Roman Flügel
Happiness Is Happening
Dial

OK this came out September 1 but who’s keeping track? It might have slipped by me anyways if i hadn’t listened past the odd first track, which feels like it was left off the end of a shoegaze album the mastering engineer was doing before opening the Happiness Is Happening folder on his desktop. But that’s more a testament to Roman Flügel’s range of material than a weakness, veering from the Kraftwerk-ish electro pop of “Friendship Song” to the Cybotron-like rising arpeggios and stadium-sized handclaps of “Parade” in the course of just a few tracks. Invention is the order of the day, and nowhere else is it in sharper relief than on “Stuffy,” whose chameleonic drum patterns and jittery synths hold onto a consistent mood while throwing the listener into a tumble-dryer of a track. It’s good fun from a stalwart figure who deserves more attention than he sometimes gets – being hard-to-pin-down isn’t a great marketing strategy but it certainly makes for a fun album.

 

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)