Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Music of 2012 (3/3)

10. Ikonika - I Make Lists EP
Ikonika's 2010 debut album Contact, Love, Want, Have was the best video game soundtrack never made.  While we've yet to see a full follow-up, this year's I Make Lists EP is a distinct statement on its own.  I Make Lists shows Ikonika working with a tighter palette of tools, repeating similar synths across tracks, but carving out nuanced variation.  Her synths don't even seem that far off from stock samples, but they sure are catchy; sort of leaves me wondering how no one else has capitalized on them like this before.  I Make Lists would still sound great paired with an arcade game, but it's also a workable club album and headphone experience.  Ikonika is working in a genre all her own that sounds a little like other producers, but also totally different from anything else.

9. Surkin - Lose Yourself (Rustie Remix)
Rustie is getting his props this year, mostly for his BBC Essential Mix chock full of like-minded maximalist artists.  In retrospect, I should have given Rustie more recognition last year for Glass Swords, but there it sits at #25.  Let it be known that the attention heaped upon Rustie in 2012 is well-deserved, and nothing proves that point better than his remix of Surkin's "Lose Yourself."  The original track was a decent vocal house jam, but not entirely noteworthy.  However, handing the controls over to Rustie, the resulting track is a perfect combination that highlight on the best parts of the aesthetics of both producers.

8. John Talabot - ƒIN LP
There is no one track on ƒIN that matches the emotional resonance of John Talabot's remix of Blue Daisy's "Raindrops," but it still offers a stable of heart-tugging house.  ƒIN is a very whole, complete album with a wide range, yet nothing veers off on a tangent.  The suite of opening tracks set the precedent for what's possible, weaving between open-sky vocal trance, swampland field recordings, and tribal chanting.  It's music designed to take you places, specifically places that are beautiful.  Talabot has a grace and patience to his compositions that pays huge dividends when he decides to go for a climax.  Dance music isn't difficult to anticipate in most cases, but even when Talabot crafts a track that hits the checkpoints you'd expect it too, he outdoes whatever you had in mind.

As much as I thought I didn't need another vowelless electronic production team, 2012 couldn't have been the year it was without TNGHT.  The duo's brand of bombastic instrumental hip-hop is absolutely massive – playing speedfreak juke off of seismic bass rumbles like they belong together.  Turns out they do.  I'm looking forward to TNGHT's next move more than any other group this year, probably because their EP sounds like the embodiment of hype.  It's short, loud, and satisfying the way a great movie trailer gets you excited for the full feature.  Here's hoping they can sustain their impressive level of energy.

6. Todd Terje - It's The Arps EP
"Infectious" is the key word here.  While Todd Terje's entire It's The Arps EP is worth your time, its lead-off track "Inspector Norse" is why this album ranks so high for me.  How can someone not want to dance to this song?  The very notion seems impossible.  If you've been following Terje for the past few years, you know him from his pitch-perfect disco edits of artists like Michael Jackson, Dennis Parker, and Chic, among many others.  He's well-versed in the kind of upbeat space disco most people associate with fellow Norwegians Lindstrom and Prins Thomas, but never executed quite like this.  Amazingly, "Inspector Norse" is appropriate for any occasion, capable of changing the mood of whatever environment it's introduced into to match its own, like the best kind of invasive species.

5. Underworld - And I Will Kiss (feat. Dame Evelyn Glennie)
The last time Underworld and Danny Boyle teamed up, we got "Born Slippy" in the film Trainspotting, the high watermark for big-beat festival rave.  I was elated to discover that they were collaborating again, this time on one of the world's largest theatrical stages: the Summer Olympics in London.  Production and spectacle were top-notch all around, but the interplay between Underworld's new production "And I Will Kiss" and the Industrial Revolution scene, culminating in the forging of the Olympic rings, was this pinnacle.  The track itself builds for almost 15 minutes with only one brief interlude meant to quietly symbolize and memorialize World War II.  The track on its own is exhausting in a way that melds perfectly with the visions of relentless manual labor from the performance.  The payoff at the end is signaled by whistling, the same used in the WWII memorial part.  It's the kind of whistling someone would make as they go about their work, simply trying to pass the time.  "And I Will Kiss" embodied the famous stick-to-itivness that Britain is known for.  It's a gorgeous song and empathetically expressive.

4. Burial - Kindered EP
3 tracks here, 2 tracks there, Burial has been trickling out some real gems the past couple years, but none quite as stunning and evolutionary as his Kindred EP.  Here Burial's productions are lengthy (3 tracks, 30 minutes), but also catchier and more melodic than ever.  On "Ashtray Wasp" he even breaks the song into movements.  Several times the track disintegrates into a familiar Burial-esque vinyl-static to reemerge with a new beat and backing samples and synths,  It could have been split into several tracks, but held together, the track lingers.  The subtle ticks and crackles are the types of sounds you'd only hear if you took time to just sit and listen to the world around you.  The title "Ashtray Wasp" calls to mind late-night diners occupied by wandering patrons with nowhere else to go.  They sit.  They smoke.  Cigarette clouds hover near the ceiling.  It's quiet, but there's still so much happening.  This is Burial's wheelhouse, and he's yet to misfire.

3. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems LP
I'm ecstatic to see how much press Andy Stott has gotten this year after such a strong showing in 2011 with his two EPs of gurgling dub techno.  He continued forging a unique path with Luxury Problems, adding vocals into the mix, chopping and filtering them as you'd expect him to handle any sample.  The vocals, provided by his former piano instructor, are breathy, and Stott uses this quality to make his chugging beats literally inhale and exhale as they go, especially on opener, "Numb."  We Stay Together and Passed Me By sound organic, but Luxury Problems sounds alive, like it has a skin that undulates as bass ripples through it.  What continues to be most impressive about Andy Stott's music is how accessible it is as beat-oriented electronic music, yet it sounds like nothing else.  It evokes nothing in particular.  It's singular, and that is such a rare and wonderful thing.

2. Lone - Galaxy Garden LP
Lone's "Raindance" was my go-to track this year when I thought to myself, "I need to listen to some music!"  I prefer to take in Galaxy Garden as a whole album, but there's not always time.  Somehow Lone is able to take the parts of old-school rave that I like the best and transform them into something fresh, otherworldly, and expansive.  At its heart, Galaxy Garden is awash in watery synths, skittery breaks, and piano stabs, but manages to be more than the sum of these parts and remarkably coherent as an album-listening experience.  I know there was a new Orbital album that came out this year, which was way better than a "comeback record" had any right to be, but Galaxy Garden carries on the tradition of early 90s Orbital in a new generation.  When I first began listening to Orbital, I didn't know that it was also used as dance music since it was such a rich headphone experience.  Likewise for Lone's entire output, but seeing it here in long-player format brings the point home like never before.  It's music that's perfectly suited to both environments and captures a balance that, for me, hits a pleasure center carved out by Orbital 2 that so few records are capable of striking.

1. Chromatics - Kill for Love LP
If I'm going to tout albums that express clear and calculated vision, none best Chromatics' synthesizer not-a-soundtrack, Kill for Love.  Johnny Jewel et al put on a masterclass in tone and pacing with Kill for Love, pairing the catchiest pop songs and the most beautiful ambient mood-pieces of the year together to tell a story of love, loss, suspense, and release.  If that sounds like a movie tagline, it's no coincidence; the album's inside booklet presents liner notes like credits at the end of a film trailer.  Like 2007's Night Drive, Kill for Love tells a story with what feels like a filmic arc, but lacking the restrictive qualities that come with crafting a dedicated film score.  The album evokes film in a recognizable way, but keeps its narrative from becoming too concrete, leaving room for interpretation.  It's not unlike Cindy Sherman's famous Untitled Film Still photograph series, just playing with scoring instead of cinematography.  While Kill for Love does these things very well, the unabashed blissfulness of their poppiest tracks here should not be ignored.  It's significant because hooks on "Kill for Love," "Back from the Grave," "The Page," and "Lady" are as good or better than anything getting major radio play.  That an album that could breathlessly soundtrack a sequel to the movie Drive while also bringing such a strong contingent of pop hits to the fore is a tremendous feat.  By the way, did I mention the album opens with a heart-wrending Neil Young cover?  It does, and it's incredible.  Nothing about Kill for Love isn't incredible.

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