Friday, February 3, 2012
2011 in 2012: some by no means final thoughts...
As you may have read in my final post for 2011, I really lovehate the EoY malarkey. It’s as necessary as it is impossible: to try to put a year in some kind of order, to give it good sense, to make it meaningful. I mean, fuck, I’m still trying to understand the past decade’s worth of musical statements and changes. So in a Pyhrric bird flip to timeliness, here, in February, are my final thoughts on 2011.
What can we say about 2011? The soufflé didn’t rise? Some did, some didn’t... It’s about time? Sure, but it always is. Things are never timeless. Nothing except God is outside of time, or so she tells me. Apparently that’s why we need saving, and why we’re so hard to redeem (like vouchers from a now-bankrupt department store). There are still important things about last year we won’t know for some time, such as whether the FBI’s crackdown on one-click download sites like megaupload will have any affects/effects on people’s downloading habits. Dave the Silent Ssg suggested it’s a bit like Whack-a-Mole. I'm worried, given that the FBI did get Capone, but the US got prohibition into the bargain... I’m also skeptical, given that, in my view, what most people want most of the time is convenience, provided quality is deemed sufficient (the Walkman beat the hi-fi, the iPod beat CD). Ie, most of us are content to listen to depleted music, provided the content is delivered well enough, and above all conveniently. Dead Kennedys said it best. So then, what was 2011 about? Doom/Gloom, retromania, and synths aside, I can see two things that, from my perspective, really set 2011 apart as an excellent vintage: collaborations, and mixtapes.
Within the spectrum of music I gave my attention to (a mere sliver, but then, I only have two ears and one iffy brain), 2011 was a massive year for collaborations. More specifically, collaborations between veterans and/or masters (sorta 'super groups', though it's hardly The Travelling Wilburys), often working in pairs, sometimes in trios and the odd quartet. The following spring to mind immediately, leaving aside HTRK and Junior Boys (who, while notionally duos, are sorta/kinda bands, and don’t really seem to fit among the following): A Winged Victory for the Sullen; Noto + Sakamoto; Fennesz + Sakamoto; Burnt Friedman + Jaki Liebezeit (okay, they are a band); Ricardo Villalobos + Max Lodebauer; Pinch + Shackleton; Jonsson/Alter; Atom + tobias.; Roll the Dice; Moritz von Oswald Trio; Vladislav Delay Quartet (to say Sasu otherwise had an 'off year' would be an understatement... time for a 'year off'?), and Haino, O'Rourke & Ambarchi (which also wins best title of the year, I think... Leyland J Kirby will have to try even harder on this front now). I add in Peaking Lights' 936, because it was just such a fucking good album, probably my 'high rotation' favourite, and an album I listened to all year without getting at all sick of...
Several of these collaborations produced exceptional, if unsurprising results. A lot of them were my favourite records to actually listen to. Again, this is unsurprising, given that we’re dealing with well-established projects and, well, middle-aged dudes and dudettes who’ve really nutted out their approaches to sound. This is why, fundamentally, I think of the best of these as culmination records, recordings that cash out a bunch of ideas that have been kicking around for the past decade or more. But/so: not that exciting, really. And also, you know, I really hope that each is kind of the ‘last one’ in its sequence or series. For the sake of transformation. Culmination, then conclusion, then... rip it up, and start again. To continue on these trajectories would be to court the trage-comedy of true repetition. Add in more time, and you’ll end up with farce, if Woody A is to be believed. But being careful, culminating collaborations between people who really, really know their shit, these records are also very satisfying, if you give them your full attention. Repeat: they are amazing to actually listen to. Which I think you should, especially the following (strict three sentence summa applies):
Winged Victory: The compositions are magnificent, and the recording is astonishing. It breathes, it cries, it swoons and subsides. This is pure Kranky sigh music.
Noto/Sakamoto – Summvs: I was obsessed by Vrioon, and never quite loved Insen – but this one has the most consistent, subtle, and involving compositions. I feel like this recording needs to be ‘set’, like a table for dinner. My advice on perfect setting: play it at high volume around sunset after a long sunny day.
Friedman/Liebezeit – Secret Rhythms 4: Friedman and Liebezeit’s first collab is, for me, one of the great recordings of the 00s, while 2 and 3.... sounded like mere sequels. But here, the edge is back, and each of these ‘pistes’ pushes further than both have managed to go together into their amazing sound world. And: what fucking time signature is that?!
Portable/Portable – Into Infinity: This album is a pair collab. It's Abrahams vs himself (confronting himself with himself, singing over the top of himself, playing himself, ‘killing himself softly with his song’ &c). Until this release I was an ever-curious Portable skeptic (well, I liked his Bodycode album), but here? The ‘high school existential’ mode of the lyrics (kinda naff, but in a soul-baring way that makes me love them), the harmonies, the arrangements... it took a decade of trying for him to get his formula just right, and here, perfectly, it is. An audacious house album in 2011. The soufflé riseth.
The medium is the message (and the massage!). But what is the medium for the mess age? And what kind of massages could it convey? The medium-quality medium that is mp3 manages to evoke a lot of thought and emotion in people, considering the necessarily depleted nature of the signals it carries. It’s not just that most of the message arrives in spite of the depletion. As Soullessness is going to point out to us for hours, it’s also that the medium enables different kinds of messages to be conveyed. In case you hadn’t noticed, mp3 actually has marvellous creative possibilities. And I see mixtapes as one set of these.
Okay, there’s nothing ‘2011 new’ about either mp3 or mixtapes, but nonetheless, several of recordings I was most obssessed by last year were mixtapes. Not albums. Not EPs. Mixtapes... that were often denser, and more challenging and interesting than the published work of the artists who assembled them. And they’re free! You don't have to get whacked with the IP phallus of the angry sovereign, Mr Mole (see megaupload link). We really need to pause and appreciate this for what it is. A feast is in front of us. What follows are a few of the recent best:
Endless House Foundation - FACT 223: this is just such an engaging and wonderful listen. The track selection and programming is flawless. Proof of this is that I have played it end-to-end pretty much once a week since it was released.
Psychological Strategy Board - Industry, What Industry?: this one is deep and intense. If you haven't read Glister, by John Burnside (great review here by Irvine Welsh), you should. This mixtape takes me into that headspace (sort of 'mixed in' to The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt), an English headspace, where things are old and falling apart... (sorry England, but that's cool, you've been falling apart for hundreds of years). Thank you Pontone!
Moon Wiring Club - FACT 310: I'm still digesting this one. The density, the care, the audacity! To me this is the clearest demonstration of the artistic superiorities of mp3 as a medium.
Mark Van Hoen - Pontone Synth Mix: Hands down, the best introduction to 'synth' I could give anyone. I especially like the carefully curated focus on earlier stuff. This is obviously by someone who knows their shit, and has been at it for a while. Wisdom, I think that's called. Yes, this mixtape is nothing but wise choices. And, well, you'd be wise to get your ears around it.
AnD - No UFOs mix: Still digesting this one, too, but it's awesome. Goes well with the recent Sandwell Where to Next? farewell mix. One look at the tracklist and you'll understand why...
c) some albums stand alone
Finally, one album - my undisputed favourite of the year on all counts, aforementioned others notwithstanding. Julia Holter’s Tragedy. There are some dodgy vinyl rips kicking around. Don't stick with them. Get FLAC at least, it’s worth it. 'Cos this is the most original, involving, challenging and rewarding album from 2011, without a doubt, one that could never have been a pair collaboration. This is one woman's musical vision, and, wow, she nailed it.