Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best Albums of 2008: 15-6

15. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
It's one thing to use 8-bit sounds in your music, but quite another to use the best 8-bit sounds. Crystal Castles is one of those bands where I had more bootlegs and demos than I knew how to categorize. Having no idea what was the proper version of anything is an aesthetic that is carried over into their self-titled album. The LP jumps all over the place, blurring the line between original material, sampled based material, and remixed material. On one hand there's Crystal Castles vs. HEALTH, but on the other is the track "Vanished" which is basically a CC remix of "Sex City" by Van She. This interplay is pretty interesting, and raises some significant questions about authorship and ownership. This aside, the music is still pretty great. I've grown more detached to the screamo side of CC in favor of more subdued fare like "Magic Spells" (my favorite song from the album) and "Reckless." It'll be interesting to see where the band goes from here, especially considering their most recent remix included no 8-bit samples at all.

14. Quiet Village - Silent Movie
This album may give off the vibe of a film score, but it would definitely be a film score that demands your attention during the movie, and not just providing a pleasant backdrop. Each song would also be coming from a totally different movie as well, and it's fun to imagine the genre-specific imagery that would accompany each song, especially since this is something I have a tendency to do with instrumental music anyway. If all you know of Matt Edwards is Radio Slave, the sound of Quiet Village will be incredibly surprising. There's is very little "techno" at work here, instead Edwards is pulling more from his Rekid alias side of things, but stripping the club atmosphere in favor of the movie theater. I heard they did a live show where they essentially brought people into a tent and piped in their album while they screened silent films, which is probably the best way to accurately "perform" this album anyway.

13. DJ/Rupture - Uproot
Rupture outdoes himself here with what is definitely the most accomplished release of his career. With more listens, Uproot would likely ascend higher on this list, but for now it stays here. A denser atmosphere has been curated here than on Special Gunpowder, bestowing more of a moody, ambient setting. I tend to favor this strategy by default (but can definitely go the other way too) and it's nice to see it accomplished with such attention to detail here. The mixing and track selection is picture perfect, resonating between history and contemporaneity in a very dynamic sense. With still no new Avalanches record this year, Rupture more than fills the gap left behind in their absence and given me a whole host of artists to seek out more material from.

12. Sally Shapiro - Remix Romance Vol.1
Sure, I liked the original Disco Romance alright, it appealed to certain sensibilities, but I've since come to enjoy the darker side of Italo disco more via Chromatics, Glass Candy and others. So when the album is remixed by some of the best new (neu) disco and Balearic-themed producers, the results are totally right up my alley. I don't know that a comparison between this and the original is really apt, but I can say for sure that I like this one better. Add to that that everything Juan Maclean has touched recently has been nothing short of fantastic, and the album leads off with one of my favorite producers as of late, Tensnake, turning out the best version of the most recognizable Shapiro track, "I'll Be By Your Side" that has been, and likely will ever be, created. Normally remix albums fall pretty flat with a couple standouts, but Vol. 1 here is clear exception. I haven't listened to Vol. 2 which on the surface seems unnecessary, because this is already the perfect compliment to the original.

11. Clark - Turning Dragon
Dear God this album hits hard. Each beat is the audible equivalent of someone's face being smashed with a cinder block. It's a dry and gritty baseline, making use of noisy textures in a profoundly visceral manner. True the album isn't without its blissful breakdowns, but rather than the quiet ecstasy evident is Body Riddle, Turning Dragon more just offers a brief opportunity to lick your wounds. The hooks are catchy enough that you may feel compelled to dance, but if you try, you're likely to invent all sorts of moves that you never knew you had in you. I suppose the closest thing I can think to relate this too would be Clark's Warp brethren of IDM staples, but I happen to think he stands out pretty brilliantly from the pack. If you ever wanted to listen to the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic urban war zone, look no further.

10. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
Ha, this is my indie rock entry this year, which is funny because rock people (the music kind, not the mutant kind) point out how dancey this band is. I suppose it's true, but I found them catchier, more consistent, more well-rounded, and more fun than their MGMT (great singles, meh album) and Vampire Weekend (meh) contemporaries. I came to Cut Copy more through them being remixed, but have since adopted a wealth of original tracks as being superior to any remix that follows them. I'm also pretty excited to see them live in the Spring as I picture them naturally awash in tinted lights as seen in the cover. The album continues this feeling of being awash in the sound, keeping everything very fluid. Through there are some driving beats, melody takes precedent and occasional group harmonizing results in a bit of a Klaxons-like vibe, but more sophisticated and less undirected youthful recklessness. It's been a good time for Australian music lately, which is a trend that I hope would continue.

9. Portishead - Third
I was totally surprised by Portshead this year. First we get their new material fresh off an 11 year hiatus, and then it sounds like this. Whether or not they sound like they used to is a moot point, the new sound is striking and varied and kind of depressing and pretty wonderful. Every track on here has at least one point where the instrumentation absolutely clicks and creates a memorable sound that yearns to be replayed. I really appreciate the varied song structures as well, keeping the whole thing feeling rather unpredictable, but without getting completely unhinged. The tone is sparse, hard, and cold. It's something that can only be played in specific conditions or risk putting everyone around you into an edgy state. Oh, and Beth Gibbons sounds as good as ever.

8. Ellen Allien - Sool
Speaking of sparse... This is one of those albums this I initially dismissed. Having come out of her collaboration with Apparat in what could only be classified as a techno pop album, we get Sool, just about the most minimal non-ambient album I've ever heard. I came back to this though, and tried to parse through its hard exterior, and once I did, the results were incredibly rewarding. This is the best Allien release yet, and a fresh take on what minimal techno can be (not everything has to aspire to Villalobos standards). It's hard to talk about the sound of Sool without stepping on the analogies of other critics, but I particularly liked the envisioned scenario that there are tiny machines that have evolved in the absence of humans, and they decide to make music. The point is that maybe it would sound like this. There's a weird organic structure that exists within the framework here, but it's tough to put your finger on exactly what quality it possesses. It remains that Sool continues to intrigue.

7. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
Now it's easier than ever to get your non-weirdo friends into Gang Gang Dance. Following in the footsteps of "Nicoman" from their RAWWAR EP, GGD have taken on a more pop and much more polished sound. Listening to this and then going back to God's Money, I have to say that I prefer the older material, but Dymphna is an exiting evolution for them nonetheless, and a bountifully accomplished album. It's their most varied effort to date showing a wide variety of influences, and thus helping to create what can only be defined as the sound of contemporary New York music. When I think of the New York sound, I don't think of The Strokes or The Rapture, but rather this mishmashed collage of sounds and musical sources. Ironically then, for all their weirdness, GGD become an articulate voice for this sound; one that I hope continues it's evolution into whatever form it takes next. Oh, and for all the talk the true pop songs ("House Jam" and "Princes") received from critics, the best track is actually the instrumental "Vacuum." Just wanted to get that out there.

6. Air France - No Way Down
I'm still riding on last year's high of Studio and The Tough Alliance, and it leads straight to Air France. Here we have the release of a new EP and then a mini-album that places that EP together with 2006's On Trade Winds to create this stunningly blissful listening experience. Air France is different from their fellow Swedes though, less epic and more intimate than Studio, and more straightforward and less conceptually perplexing than The Tough Alliance. Sure the vibe is similar, but I could never mistake one for the other. Air France are close to the sound of The Avalanches in tone, but with a beachier vibe and without the hip-hop background. The draw comes from the creative use of samples, recontextualizing disparate elements into something that becomes a unified statement. There's a playfulness and a humor that makes No Way Down really easy to like, but I'd argue that there's plenty of content to unpack within the very accessible surface.

5 comments:

medina said...

Welcome Dan!
I was wondering if someone was going to have Portishead...I feel bad about not including them, I just didn't listen enough. Also thanks for mentioning Aileen I didn't know there was a new album, I'll have to get it.

Daniel said...

Crystal Castles already lost the 8-bit on that album. Magic Spells and Tell Me What To Swallow have no 8-bit.

Nick said...

I don't think I ever made it through a single Portishead song. I was not a fan of them before, so perhaps I just didn't know what was going on...

Michael said...

I dismissed Sool as well. I need to go back to it in the winter, though. I do love ellen...

Blake said...

I am so excited to check out some of these. Thanks for writing about them! Nice to have a little more diversity on the year-end lists.