The big winner is bleeding-edge composer Son Lux, who handily flips the second installment upside down largely by placing digital drums and chirps alongside perversely overeager pseudoclassical instrumentation, vaguely in the template of Björk’s remarkable unhinged-camp Sinatra-shrieker “It’s Oh So Quiet.” (He reportedly didn’t actually listen to the full songs he was remixing until he had finished his new versions, which seems to have worked out surprisingly well.)
Many rock bands have moved toward incorporating electronic sounds over the past decade or so. Do you think that has left listeners more open to your music?
Yeah, definitely. When I started out ten years ago, people thought about electronic music and they instantly thought about quite extreme ends of it. Synthesizers and drum machines, lots of digital processing. Nowadays, everything is mixed together a lot more, and people don’t even know what they’re listening to.
There’s my ballot, of course, and Glenn McDonald’s usual statistical analysis (he was quite fittingly tapped by the Voice to run the official numbers this year), but also this time a short bit in the commentary portion of the program.
As a displaced second-generation, it warmed my heart a bit to see legendary Indian film composer A.R. Rahman finally get his due in the States thanks to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, the ensuing performance during the Grammy Awards broadcast, and, of course, that crucial assist from M.I.A.’s tidy soundbite referring to him as “the Indian Timbaland.” It’s a shame, however, that it took six years to come up with a suitable follow-up to Jay-Z championing Panjabi MC. Come on, second-most-populous country in the world, get your act together.
(Also not me, but getting warmer, I suppose.)
Since the Petey Pablo song is a good six years old at this point and “Jai Ho” as sung by the Pussycat Dolls makes me die a little inside with each masochistic tick of the iTunes play count (yes, I downloaded it, shut up), I’ll instead point you here to “Mann Chandre” from his decent (if ultimately not quite ballot-worthy) ’09 album Connections. I’m not so sure about the Voice’s section heading, which is “Yes, I ‘Actually’ Like It: More music to love, loathe, fear, and tragically fail to avoid,” but I’ll guess I’ll just assume the first option there unless explicitly told otherwise.
Now, I’ve voted before, but this time my guiding logic was a lot more interesting (a relative term there, I realize).
First, the unranked singles portion. I was far better equipped to handle that part this year, in large part because I’ve been closely following former Stylus Magazine writer Will Swygart‘s awesome new Singles Jukebox blog, in which he aggregates the scores and witty blurbs about current pop singles from his own fairly killer lineup of music critics; it’s a bit like a daily P+J pill, in a way. The Jukebox first crossed my desk around the time they skewered Parachute, a pop-rock band based in Charlottesville which I wrote about on several occasions for The Hook; it was both brutal and captivating, and I’ve been addicted ever since. The caveat here — and it’s a big one — is that I didn’t manage to get around to sifting through Pitchfork’s 2009 best-of yet. It’s been compiled into a single handy download, available via your favorite troublemaking website. Say what you must about other aspects of their editorial coverage — there’s some baggage there, at least — but I really can’t argue with the taste; 2007 and 2008 (also available via the same) were superb. (I will also point out, however, that somehow my stated preference for the wonderful remix of Das Racist’s otherwise grating snack food devotional chant “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” was not preserved, and the votes for both were apparently collapsed when tallied.)
The album portion will require a bit more explanation.
See, while I am a voracious listener and obsessive hoarder, for the most part I am quite over the album as an arbitrary grouping construct for listening; Smart Playlists > iTunes Genius > Shuffle, and so forth; no big surprises there, I’m sure. But in addition, I still tend to listen more as a fan and a musician rather than as a critic, which means that I’m looking for things I can love and/or learn from (ideally both) rather than pontificate on or publish about. Come to think of it, even when I’m wearing the critic’s hat, I’d say it’s of far more value in the long run to spend my energy making friends with established works of far-reaching cultural relevance than running around trying to obsessively catalogue everything that’s new and undocumented. More bluntly, and obviously: I care more about what it sounds like than when it was released. However, I write in various forms for what can only sensibly be considered the mainstream music press, which overwhelmingly tends toward discussing new albums. Thus, I have a little conflict on my hands.
I should therefore be considered fairly incompetent with this sort of thing, grand statements about evaluating the best albums of the year and so on, hence my even-steven ten-point ratings across the entire group. Honestly, it all just amounts to a mad dash every November or so to find ten that I’m not horribly embarrassed to throw my support behind. (I realize there’s plenty of amazing stuff being made, though, so that’s less a cynical humbug in which I hate all contemporary music and more like an admission that I’m not particularly inclined to look for it in my increasingly-rare elective listenings when there’s still so much Mingus or whatever which I haven’t learned yet.)
Anyway, last year I barely made it to the tenth. This year, I found nine. This brings us to another substantial disconnect between my head and my writings, and then to what just might be the strangest album represented in the poll this year.
Thanks to other facets of my life (I have them, I swear), I have a substantial amount of training in things like music theory, arrangement, audio engineering, and production technology, and though they all certainly inform my evaluations when I’m writing critically, they’re fairly difficult subjects to address directly unless I’m dealing with a specialty publication like Tape Op, Create Digital Music, or Indaba (although I did recently get away with dropping some theory on Lady Gaga for PopMatters). So given the opportunity, and finding myself in a bind just hours away from the submission deadline, I decided to give slot #10 over to my hyper-technical side.
I’ve been doing a lot of web development in PHP lately, specifically with the “object oriented” paradigm, in which the functionality is captured in small modular chunks and recalled asymmetrically instead of simply run from the beginning of the script through to the end. That logic is just a way of organizing concepts, though, and has also been used to great effect in several audio-specific programming platforms that I’m really interested in learning as a way of taking my interest in controlling audio technology to its logical extreme. They essentially let you sculpt sounds using the most low-level fundamental elements your computer can possibly control — oscillation frequencies controlled by mathematics controlled by data flow structures, and so on. Max/MSP and PureData are the most popular graphical options among these, but I’ve lately developed a particular interest in a similar textual platform called SuperCollider, mostly due to its elegant program infrastructure and also its ability to export to Apple’s industry-standard Audio Unit plug-in format, which allows finished projects to be run as fully-integrated elements of more common audio workstations like Ableton Live or Apple’s own Logic and GarageBand.
It’s quite incredible. It runs on code and equations, like so:
And I find putzing around inside quite fascinating even though I don’t really know how to drive it yet. It even shares vague syntactical similarities with PHP.
So then a funny thing happened earlier this year among SuperCollider users: presumably as equal parts a show of coding virtuosity and a means of much-needed social interaction, the finest among them started sharing their sound creation codes using Twitter, which obviously meant that a complete idea had to be executed in under 140 characters (in some cases even leaving room for the #supercollider hashtag, which is of course all the more impressive). Some of them are quite captivating, all things considered. Immediately after submitting my ballot, I fully intended to write my own 140-character tidbit by the time the issue came out, but damn, this shit is hard! Not quite there yet, unfortunately. So instead…
(As far as I can tell, the code is also the title of the piece, which is either cute or infuriating, depending.)
A sort of best-of was promptly curated by UK tweako-tune mag The Wire for digital release (aka “woohoo we made a zip file!”) as SC140. I am sure you’ll be shocked to learn that I’m the only guy who voted for it.
One of Kieran Hebden’s more aggressive outings under the Four Tet moniker, Everything Ecstatic veers away from the rustic acoustic guitar loops which, for better or worse, came to represent his earlier work. Here, he replaces those sounds with low-pitched synth rumbles, buried beneath the drum machines like the unrelenting drone of a factory assembly line.
As an aspiring music writer, I’m always following bylines and tracking other writers as they hop around between publications, which is why I was able to conclude long ago that eMusic’s editorial division is probably the strongest on the internet. I’m still a little woozy at the thought that I’m now part of it myself. Since I know most people don’t obsess over critics the way I do, a quick run-down of some of the other eMusic contributors whose work I’ve admired elsewhere:
- Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork and the New York Times
- Michaelangelo Matos, formerly of Idolator and Seattle Weekly
- Will Hermes of the New York Times, who is also quite possibly my absolute favorite Rolling Stone writer
- If it’s not Will Hermes, it’s probably Evan Serpick
- Robert Christgau, the longtime Village Voice writer widely considered the “Dean of American rock critics”
- Chuck Eddy, former Village Voice music editor and Rolling Stone contributor
- Joe Levy, once music editor at the Voice, then the editor of Rolling Stone’s music section, then editor-in-chief at Blender (and now staring at pretty girls all day for Maxim following Blender’s unfortunate demise a few months back)
- Pitchfork managing editor Mark Richardson
- Andy Beta, hyperactive freelancer for Spin, Paste, and the Village Voice
- Andy Battaglia of Pitchfork and The Onion‘s AV Club
- Jess Harvell of Pitchfork and Idolator
- Melissa Maerz, once of New York Magazine and now with Rolling Stone
- Philip Sherburne, electronica guru for Pitchfork (and, notably, a Hot Chip sanctioned composer in his own right)
- Matthew Perpetua, founder of Fluxblog, quite possibly the first-ever MP3 blog
- Chris Weingarten, the go-to guy for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice who started reviewing records on Twitter after deciding that this industry was going to hell in a handbasket
- Thurston Moore, frontman for Sonic Youth
It’s really amazing that they’ve been able to collect all these heavyweights under one masthead. Most dizzying of all, though:
That’s right, I’m now writing alongside Kurt Loder, whose MTV News briefs were a staple of my after-school vegging-out through the 90’s and present every step of the way — prodding me along, actually — as I grew to become an obsessive music fan.
Here’s the thing, though — eMusic isn’t, as you might think, a music magazine.
Rather, it’s an MP3 download store in the vein of iTunes. Its prices are considerably lower, however, and its catalog is heavily skewed toward indie labels. Particularly in the earliest days of the digital music Wild West, it made for a much more customer-friendly download service than Apple’s. For one thing, the audio encoding algorithms were better, a detail about which I care quite a bit, and there wasn’t any Digital Rights Management, a sort of catch-all term for the various forms of nefarious copy protection horseshit that the major labels once demanded the download stores employ before they’d permit inclusion of their tracks. Your previous purchases could even be downloaded repeatedly if need be — say, in the event of a hard drive crash or laptop theft.
Most striking of all, though, was that rather than $1 a-la-carte purchases, a low monthly subscription fee would get you unlimited access to the catalog, meaning that you could explore new music with reckless abandon. A few people used to complain about the selection, which excluded almost all major label content, but I’d just run searches for phrases like “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits,” and the results would overflow with guys like Hank Williams and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Andrew Lloyd Weber — all hugely influential artists that I felt compelled to teach myself about even if they were off the beaten path. With said path being beaten mostly by dolts like My Chemical Romance, it was hard for me to see this as a problem.
eMusic started enforcing monthly limits on customer downloads in 2004 after independent music became hip again and the site’s popularity increased accordingly, which was unfortunate for the customers, but an understandable move overall because the free-for-all obviously wasn’t financially sustainable if proper royalties were to be paid out to the artists. The landscape has changed a lot since then, but even though iTunes has since dumped DRM and doubled its audio encoder bitrates, and even though eMusic has since increased its prices and embraced major label content, I still think they’re doing something remarkable. If you haven’t already, go check out the page on which my review appears and/or one of the artist pages. You will, in a manner of speaking, see the entire internet at a glance.
I spend a lot of time navigating the intersections between art and technology, and can unequivocally say that eMusic’s site is a case study in awesome. They’re able to pull in data from other places — Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, the All Music Guide — by sending queries through cross-site connection protocols called APIs. (That’s “application programming interface,” not “Automated Processes, Inc.,” although I can see where the ambiguity comes from.) For example, if they send an artist’s name as specified by the All Music Guide’s API, they might get his bio in return, and then by doing the same per YouTube’s instructions, they can return all his related video embeds.
This is all then rendered as part of the page content, and the effect of so many API’s working successfully and in synchrony is quite breathtaking, producing an evolving aggregate snapshot of the music you’re inquiring about compiled from sources all over the internet. At the risk of sounding like a raving partisan lunatic, especially given my earlier thoughts regarding their other writers, eMusic’s may be the most technically remarkable, staggeringly efficient music discovery platform I’ve encountered. In fact, though I’ve let my payments lapse on a couple occasions — mostly because the music submitted for the coverage I was writing for The Hook had piled up ominously — I’d usually still log in and browse around even though I couldn’t download anything. eMusic might not be able to offer unlimited downloads the way they once did, but the site makes for a very compelling substitute.
As for the ways in which the art — by which I mean both my writing and the songs I write about — collides with the technology, it’s pretty clear to me that eMusic considers their writers an important part of the equation. Just as the writer in me is thrilled about getting filed away alongside Kurt Loder, the geek in me is excited to watch as the writer gets a seat right next to the Wikipedia API. Welcome to the machine, and so forth.
First, although I’ve been published by the Voice a few times before, that was the first article which was long enough to get me into the table of contents. It’s crazy to see my own name next to those of Rob Tannenbaum, Tom Robbins, J. Hoberman, and of course Michael Musto.
Second: predictably, the Anamanaguchi guys and I spent a lot of time discussing synthesizers during the interview, but since that material wasn’t really appropriate for the Voice, I instead sent the tech talk to Create Digital Music, an awesome and remarkably high-traffic niche blog which consistently publishes some of the best coverage of music technology you’ll find anywhere.
Vijith: Do you write using a guitar or a Nintendo?
Pete: The music is pretty melodic, so it’s pretty transferable from instrument to instrument. Anything I write on guitar I can put on the Nintendo, and anything I write on the Nintendo I can usually play on guitar – unless it’s way too fast, which it usually is.
Even speaking strictly as a reader, I really can’t recommend CDM highly enough; publisher Peter Kirn is both a music software programmer and, by day, a professional writer, so the posts are always informed, insightful, and far more literate than most studio trade rags. If your interest in creative technology tends elsewhere, you may want to check out Peter’s other sites instead, including Create Digital Motion, which is aimed at animators and visual artists, and the community-oriented Noisepages.
At PopMatters, a review of Blipfest 2008, the largest chiptune show of the year.
I’ve fiddled with the programming enough to know that this stuff doesn’t come easily. There’s a certain sameness to a lot of it on the surface—all lo-fi electronic music in 4/4 with house-derived “drum” sequences which rely on filtered white noise—but after taking in a couple of sets, the differences between the artists become more readily apparent. Bucket-headed spaz-dancer Sulumi’s restless melodies were a fantastic highlight, skipping across the room like so many chips of shale across a Mario 2-2 swimming level, but geek-chic Asian chick Bubblyfish had the most depth, with an enthralling opener which expertly transitioned from jovial Katamari plinks to ominous Metroid gloom over the course of ten minutes.
PopMatters has published my complaints again, this time about the new album from jazz drummer Steve Reid and techno tinkerer Kieran Hebden.
Reid’s creative phrasing and pulse games are, as always, a fascinating contrast to the rigid rhythmic grids typical of Four Tet constructions, but on NYC the pair doesn’t seem to find a happy middle ground anywhere. With Reid on tap, ready to dive in headfirst with limbs flailing and very few responsibilities, you almost have to wonder whether Hebden just found himself in over his head; the album may have been considerably more focused if Hebden had sampled Reid’s performances and woven them in as loops. But that would defeat the whole point of the project, now wouldn’t it?
Probably, but it would have also put its crucial flaw to bed. A number of Hebden’s most compelling pieces as Four Tet start with the thumping of a lone bass drum or the cautious clicking of a hi-hat sample, only building to the sort of Taurined-out pitter-patter-slosh of something like “Sun Drums and Soil” after a fairly lengthy expository period. Here, largely due to Reid’s presence—specifically, his sense of texture and Hebden’s apparent competitive desire to goad his MacBook into keeping pace from the get-go—the joy of hearing the motifs evolve is gone.
Squarepusher‘s compositional philosophies have always fascinated me, so I jumped at the chance to use them as a lens into his latest album.
Tom Jenkinson announced his new album, “Just a Souvenir,” with a long recount of a dream and/or acid trip in which he watched a seemingly conventional rock band pound out extraordinary otherworldly sounds. As a result, it’s hard not to consider a thematic connection of sorts to 1998’s thoroughly confused “Music Is Rotted One Note,” in which Jenkinson played a one-man band wearing as many jazz-fusion hats as he could find. “Rotted” was considerably more aggressive with its mission statement—samplers and drum machines were banished entirely—but the concept of the music originating with blobs of meat is still a common thread. For a guy who writes essays called “Collaborating with Machines”, this is not a trivial detail.
Jeremiah Johnson makes lo-fi techno using video game hardware, and you’d be astonished at how competent it is.
The assumption that Johnson is mixing together sets of different video game soundtracks is a pretty common mistake. The guts of this process are actually considerably more interesting, though: Specific timbres and pitch sequences are programmed using special cartridges—some homebrew software burns on blank cartridges made with expensive proprietary writers, others imported from Europe thanks to an industrious German—and are then sent through an amplifier several hundred times larger than the carts they start on. But it’s not quite that simple—first, the signals have to pass through Johnson himself.