September 15, 2010

Tom Zé Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício)
Brazilian, experimental-pop, samba, MPB

Tom Zé is one of the most incredible cases of long-running musical creativity you could ever hope to discover. A major innovator throughout the late-60s and 70s, Zé languished in obscurity for decades, being overshadowed by more well-known Brazilian counterparts like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben and Joao Gilberto, and it wasn’t until David Byrne happened across and re-released his material during the 90s that he finally found a more substantial following. Zé turned 70 in recent years, so you could certainly forgive him for releasing safe, comfortable retreads on an irregular schedule. You could forgive him for retiring all-together. He’s never been one to take the easy route, though, and the 2000s have marked one of the most prolific and creative periods of his career, seeing the release of half-a-dozen (really great) albums during that span. Danç-Êh-Sá, a homage to rebellion and Tom Zé - Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício)sacrifice throughout Brazil’s history, is my pick for the best of the lot, and it ranks amongst the best work of his career. The combination of styles on display here is mind-boggling, as Zé not only borrows from a handful of existing genres (samba, avant-garde rock, tropicalia, bossa, hip-hop, afro percussion styles, electronic music and a-capella to name a few) but also manages to create invigorating sounds and textures that are totally unfamiliar (even in the context of Zé’s body of work) and maddeningly hard to pigeonhole, with his boundary-pushing use of vocal sounds in particular being just amazing. Immersing yourself in his mad creation is like stumbling into an immense festival full of colourful characters and technicolour mayhem.



August 30, 2010

Squarepusher – Go Plastic
IDM, drum & bass

While Music is Rotted One Note would be my pick for the best Squarepusher album, I think Go Plastic might be my favourite, if that makes any sense. It’s one hell of a weird album, a Frankenstein’s monster of breakbeat electronica that shambles its way through 2-step garage-parody (“My Red Hot Car”), Squarepusher - Go Plasticsublimely moving ambiance (“Tommib” – which you might have heard floating by during one of the hotel-room scenes in Lost in Translation), cool-as-ice chillout vibes (“Plaistow Flex Out”), surprisingly emotive D’n’B (“I Wish You Could Talk”) and insane, go-nowhere noodling (the oft-skipped “Greenways Trajectory”, which sounds like a “made up as I went along” monstrosity intended for masochists with 6-second attention spans). It’s arguably Tom Jenkinson’s least cohesive album, so how is such an unfocused wreck worthy of such praise? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt that at least seven of the album’s ten tracks are individually flat-out great, and there’s a certain “deformed charm” about the whole mess, but I’ll tell you the real reason: “Boneville Occident”, “Go! Spastic” and “The Exploding Psychology”, three of the greatest pure electronic songs of the decade. That sort of quality is just impossible to ignore.


August 27, 2010

Juana Molina – Un Dia

After first encountering Juana Molina with her utterly gorgeous 2006 album Son, I tracked down and hungrily devoured the rest of her catalogue, which included 2008’s lovely Un Dia. It stands firmly as her finest release to date, and everything you’d expect to hear from the Argentinian singer/songwriter is still in full effect – buoyant vocals, traditional South Juana Molina - Un díaAmerican instrumentation mixed with glitchy post-production and the airy atmospherics that seem to permeate all of her work – and it’s as lovely and inviting as ever before. Molina doesn’t stick entirely to the status-quo, however, as these eight songs have been injected with a bustling, cyclical rhythm (sometimes percussive, sometimes vocally driven) that’s somewhat uncharacteristic of her earlier work, which was so floaty it bordered on ambient. It’s a welcome addition, as it pushes Molina’s work forward into previously uncharted waters, but never robs it of the earthy warmth we expect from her music. A couple of the album’s most noteworthy highlight tracks are “¿Quién? (Suite)” and “Un Dia”, the latter of which might be my favourite Molina song to date.


August 27, 2010

椎名 林檎 (Ringo Shiina) – 加爾基 精液 栗ノ花 (Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana)
experimental-pop, j-pop

Pop songstress Ringo Shiina, 椎名 林檎 (Ringo Shiina) - 加爾基 精液 栗ノ花 (Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana)who enjoys huge mainstream popularity in Japan yet remains relatively obscure to Western audiences, is regularly cited as an example of a pop musician with a flair for the experimental. To this end, she finds herself being compared to similarly minded female musicians like Bjork. In a career forged on blurring the line between infectious melody and extensive creativity, Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana – her third album – stands as her most overtly left-field work, but don’t let that scare you – those tags of “experimental” and “left-field” are 99% indicative of Shiina’s firm desire to achieve a unique sound via her broad palate of musical influences, encompassing genres which are grounded firmly on the listenable and accessible side of the spectrum. There’s flourishes of jazz, electronic-pop, girl-group, rock, balladry, singer/songwriter and (of course) j-pop littered throughout the album, and these frequently overlap with one another in the course of a single track, and while the album’s production aims for a big, bright, polished sound, it never becomes cluttered, overbearing or weird for weird’s sake. This is the kind of music where the individual parts making up the whole are simple and familiar but the overall result is something altogether unexpected and delightful. Between her solo work and her releases with group Tokyo Jihen, Shiina released a number of knockout albums during the decade, enough to put her in serious contention to be regarded as its finest individual artist. You can be sure this won’t be her final appearance on the list.


August 26, 2010

CommonLike Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate contains some of the more intellectual, thought-provoking hip-hop I’ve heard, not just because it contains Common - Like Water for Chocolate“serious” content, but also because Common has a real knack for structuring and delivering his lyrics in a manner that makes them stick in your mind with a lasting impact. He achieves this over and over again throughout the album (just check out this line from “The 6th Sense” – “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want millions / More than money saved, I wanna save children / Dealing with alcoholism and afrocentricity / A complex man drawn off of simplicity / Reality is frisking me” – just one excellent snippet of many). What’s more, his flow is amongst the smoothest, most mellow and charismatic I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, and the production is absolutely slick throughout. Personal favourites include album-opener “Time Travellin'”, “The 6th Sense”, the hilarious “A Film Called (Pimp)” and the moving biographic track “A Song for Assata”. A standout album that’s got a decent chance of appealing to non hip-hop fans as well as those who dig the genre.


August 26, 2010

electropop, hip-hop, world music

M.I.A’s first album, Arular, never really gelled at all for me. It was musically jarring in a manner that rubbed me the wrong way, and I found it to be frustratingly inconsistent in quality. After a handful of listens it was finally relegated to the big pile of music I rarely bother to revisit. Because of this, I steered clear of Kala upon its release, assuming that I’d be in for more of the same. It wasn’t until I had a brief obsession with the ubiquitous single “Paper Planes” that I finally decided to check the album out, and even then I was hesitant about being drawn in by a singular hit. Better late than never, though, as Kala brings together Arular‘s more promising aspects – punchy rhythms, dynamic vocals, wry humour and political M.I.A. - Kalaawareness – refines them, tidies them up and streamlines them through a Indian-pop-meets-Western-dance-party sensibility. The results are a bevy of creative, dancefloor-burning tunes: “Jimmy” is a swirling Bollywood gem, “Bird Flu” and “Hustle” are both pleasingly feisty, her reworking of “Mango Pickle Down River” takes the didgeridoo samples and vocals from the original by indigenous Australian group The Wilcannia Mob and adds a couple of Maya’s own verses, a cool London grime backdrop and some sharper production, and “Paper Planes” and “Boyz” – the latter being my personal favourite – are bouncy, anthemic and brimming with attitude in a manner that makes them two of the decade’s most impossibly addictive singles.


August 25, 2010

Jack RoseKensington Blues
American-primitivism, solo-guitar, folk, instrumental

Jack Rose pretty clearly establishes himself Jack Rose - Kensington Bluesas a disciple of John Fahey on Kensington Blues, his fifth and best known album of American Primitivism. The fascinating instrumental guitar style, a traditionally vocalless method which combines neo-classical and avant-garde approaches with country/blues finger-picking techniques, was invented by Fahey in the 1950s, and Rose makes an exceptional contribution to its continued development. He does a terrific job straddling that fine line between the style’s melodic aspects and it’s more “musically academic” ones, making for an album that’s quite breezy and easily listenable, yet at the same time impresses with its complexity, masterful playing (Primitivism often showcases some pretty nimble fingers, and this album is no exception) and attention to detail. The three-minute title track opens the album, and serves its purpose beautifully as an accessible, concise introduction and a taster of what’s to come, with the remainder of the album shifting between self-contained songs of similar brevity and longer passages of more overtly ambitious work. Rose suddenly and unexpectedly died in late-2009, at just 38 years of age, bringing premature closure to a career that had already delivered one masterpiece and certainly had the potential to deliver more. Kensington Blues ensures that he will always hold a place in the upper-echelon of players of American Primitivism, and of guitarists in general.


August 23, 2010

Bobby PreviteThe 23 Constellations of Joan Miró
avant-garde jazz, modern classical, minimalism

The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró is a collection of creative jazz snippets by New York musician Bobby Previte, utilising a variety of instruments (both traditional and somewhat unconventional) and some subtle electronic touches to achieve a lush, theatrical aesthetic that strikes a range of emotional chords. Keeping things uniformly short and sweet, each one of his sonic concepts is given just enough time to establish itself and whirl around the listener’s mind for a quick spell, and is then elegantly concluded to make way Bobby Previte - The 23 Constellations of Joan Mirófor the next one. Previte deserves some major kudos for knowing exactly how much space any given concept deserves when he commits it to record – when you’re trying to cram 23 individual pieces into a single recording, each of which with their own distinct style and personality, it’s inevitably going to be difficult to avoid sounding cramped and chaotic. Nothing on The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró ever wears out its welcome, though, nor does anything ever feel underdeveloped or clash with a neighbouring piece, which is really quite remarkable when all of your songs fall in the 90-180 second range. Instead, the songs fit together quite beautifully, fulfilling their purposes flawlessly, both as distinct jazz concepts and as the combined elements of a colourful tapestry.


August 20, 2010

The FallImperial Wax Solvent

It’s almost impossible to talk about Imperial Wax Solvent without focusing on its 11-minute highlight “50 Year Old Man”, Mark E. Smith’s snarling, acidic ode to being exactly that. With its ferocious guitar assault, sneering lyrical challenges (“I’m a 50 year old man / What you gonna do about it?”) and surprise banjo-solo interlude, it makes for an incredible centrepiece. Pleasingly, the rest of the album measures up, trading in lean run times and snappy hooks which perfectly offset “50 Year Old Man’s” excesses. Plenty of stylistic ground is covered: “Alton Towers” sounds like The Fall in a haunted house, and opens the album in a cool and arty way; “Wolf Kidult Man”, “I’ve Been Duped” (featuring Smith’s wife Eleni Polou on The Fall - Imperial Wax Solventlead vocals) and “Tommy Shooter” all veer into boozy-but-tempered post-punk; “Strange Town”, “Can Can Summer” and “Is This New” are closer to rumbling garage-rock; and “Tourig” springs up out of nowhere with a detour into thumpy electronica. In the end, though, it comes back to “50 Year Old Man’s” themes of age and experience, as “Exploding Chimney” winds up the album with Smith coolly claiming “Believe me kids, I’ve been through it all.” By all accounts, he has, and to still be making albums as brilliant as Imperial Wax Solvent is damn impressive.


August 19, 2010

Tom WaitsAlice
singer/songwriter, experimental

Emotionally driven and lyrically quite beautiful, Alice presents a side of Tom Waits that’s remained reasonably well hidden over the years. Certain unavoidable idiosyncrasies remain in place – Waits still sounds like he subsists on a diet of cheap liquor, cigarettes and gravel – but they’re harnessed in new directions that make this album something of an Tom Waits - Aliceunexpected delight. Those looking for grimy, “The World Died Screaming”-esque songs and clunky, kitchen sink instrumentation can find them on the same-year companion release Blood Money (another great album), which leaves Alice mostly populated by dignified story-songs and tender ballads of surprising sincerity. There’s an abundance of great material here, including the fantastic title-track, the authentic tear-jerker “I’m Still Here”, the grand-yet-slightly-uneasy “Lost in the Harbour” and the demented “Kommienezuspadt”, one of the album’s few madcap stompers. It’s a must for fans, but as something of a departure from his usual sound, even detractors may find something they enjoy.


August 18, 2010

Ghostface KillahSupreme Clientele

Ghostface Killah - Supreme ClientelePerhaps more so than any other hip-hop album I’ve heard, Supreme Clientele sounds like a spectacle. The production is robust and attention-grabbing, with sampling so big, bright and unmistakable that it hits like a Mack truck. Meanwhile, Ghostface himself is a larger-than-life beast, delivering emcee work that’s punchy, rapid-paced and utterly commanding, and his outpouring of free-flowing non-sequiters is something of a marvel (“Hit Poughkepsie crispy chicken verbs throw up a stone richie” indeed). Just check out the explosive, widescreen attacks of songs like “Apollo Kids” and “Nutmeg” – the latter of which, incidentally, is a probable victor for “best rap song of the decade” honours. In a genre that’s so often anchored around bragging and one-upmanship, albums like this one make everything around them seem timid and uncertain. It’s not uncommon for rappers to spend an album sounding like they want to conquer the world, but when Ghostface Killah does it he sounds like he’s going to succeed so effortlessly.


August 16, 2010

Air10,000 Hz Legend
electronic, ambient, experimental-pop

10,000 Hz Legend is Air’s “rock album”, so to speak, augmenting the French duo’s electronic music with guitars, foot-tappy melodies, prominent vocalists and an absence of the group’s trademark, floaty “loungetronica” for about 90% of the album. With its surreal lyrics and more hard-edged electronic effects, it could be said that the album is weirder than Moon Safari, but it arguably has more mainstream appeal – the aptly-titled “Radio #1” works well as a sing-along single and the charismatic guest appearances by Beck, Jason Falkner and Buffalo Daughter help several the songs to avoid sounding faceless. The humour present in tracks like “How Does it Make You Feel” and “Wonder Milky Bitch” are a welcome delight, never detouring into novelty but instead injecting the songs with a touch of humanity that’s sorely lacking from albums both before and since. Air - 10 000 Hz LegendThe couple of ambient tracks play out with a new twist, too – the Egyptian-sounding themes of “Radian” are like nothing else the group have created yet, and closing track “Caramel Prisoner” is like wading through syrup (or floating in space, I still haven’t decided). With many regarding it as something of a sophomore slump, my love of 10,000Hz Legend makes me feel a bit like the solitary flag-waver in an otherwise empty parade. I’ll keep on waving my flag, though – albums with this much personality are worth it.


August 13, 2010

Kandia KouyatéBiriko
African folk music, Malian

Kandia Kouyaté is widely considered to be Mali’s best female pure vocalist, and verges on being a national treasure for it. Biriko is a near-exhausting showcase of her profound ability, as Kouyaté unveils passage after passage of simply amazing vocal-work across the album’s eleven lengthy tracks (only two of them clock in at less than five minutes), ranging across Kandia Kouyaté - Birikofragile melancholy, soulful grooves and robustly commanding hollers. The backing instrumentation – played almost solely on traditional African instrumentals – is pleasingly melodic (sometimes playfully, sometimes more restrained), yet is subtle enough to avoid distracting the listener, allowing the focus to remain solely on Kouyaté’s vocals 90% of the time, the remaining 10% being composed of finely played instrumental introductions or interludes. For fans of exceptional vocal showcases – regardless of their attitude towards “world” music – Biriko is downright essential.


August 12, 2010

Amon Tobin – Supermodified
IDM, breakbeat

Many people would simply label this “drum & bass” Amon Tobin - Supermodifiedand avoid the headache they’d get by trying to further categorise Amon Tobin’s work within the many sub-genres of electronic music. Truth be told, Supermodified is really an amalgamation of swing music, found sounds, ambient textures, occasional sci-fi vibes and jazz instrumentation, all combined with the pulse-raising percussion that D&B is known for. What on Earth do you call that, jazzy-cyber-swing & bass? Tobin has been doing this sort of thing since 1997’s Bricolage, and he remains one of electronic music brightest leading lights. Supermodified stands as the best album in his catalogue, striking a perfect balance between catchy, memorable tunes and eccentric, creative touches, with some generous dashes of futurism and nostalgia peppered throughout. Highlights here are numerous, particularly on the album’s first half: “Get Your Snack On” burns up the floor with its propultive rhythms, “Four Ton Mantis” showcases smooth funk with Eastern tinges, “Precursor” is an exercise in jittery lunacy, “Keepin’ it Steel” shows some very creative twists on metallic percussion and the smooth ‘n’ sultry “Slowly”, with its smokey lounge vibes, is just marvelous – in my opinion Tobin’s single finest moment.


August 11, 2010

Carla Bozulich – Evangelista
singer/songwriter, avant-folk

Evangelista kicks off with the lengthy “Evangelista I”, which is simply one of the most gut-wrenching, intense and emotionally powerful songs of the decade. It opens the album with such force and conviction that all the remaining tracks – wonderful as they are, particularly centrepiece “Baby, That’s the Creeps” – can initially feel like something of an afterthought. Carla Bozulich - EvangelistaBozulich’s brand of gothic folk/country is immediately unique, taking a select few recognisable influences and then submerging them in a dark wash of spare guitar melodies, drifting organs, distant, brush-based percussion, psuedo-industrial sound collaging, liberally applied distortion and spacious, labyrinthine song structures, all of which lend the album a constant sense of dislocation and unease, as though the songs might be swallowed up by darkness at any moment. Bozulich’s ghostly vocal style wavers along the various stages between a barely-there, etherial whisper and a gutsy, attention-holding howl, making for an amazing performance, as she purges her deepest emotional turmoil on every track to create something that’s often harrowing, yet also strangely beautiful and moving. What it boils down to is that Evangelista is one of the decade’s most idiosyncratic, unforgettable recordings – this is music that stays with you long after the album rolls to a close.


August 6, 2010

Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days
folk, singer/songwriter

This entry could have just as easily been for either of Iron and Wine’s other albums, The Creek Drank the Cradle or The Shepherd’s Dog, because, honestly, Sam Beam is one of those musicians who seems to be incapable of writing a song that’s anything less than really pleasant. The quality of songwriting plateaus at a consistently high level throughout his catalogue of albums and EPs, something that I’ve always found really impressive. However, Our Endless Numbered Days always seems to come out on top as my personal favourite Iron and Wine album. I think the crisper, cleaner production works really well with Beam’s particular brand of sweet, subtle folk music, such that it lifts this album a couple of notches above the already lofty standard set by more spare sounding The Creek Drank the Cradle. I’d single out “Sunset Soon Forgotten”, “Love and Some Verses”, “Sodom, South Georgia” and “Naked as Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered DaysWe Came” (easily Beam’s best song up to this point) as my favourite tracks on the album, all of which create a wonderful, sleepy vibe of contentment that’s really prominent throughout Our Endless Numbered Days (a vibe which, incidentally, matches perfectly with the drawing of a relaxed-looking Beam which can be seen on the album cover). Like I said, though, the man is the very definition of consistency, so consider this a recommendation that you check out his entire body of work.


August 5, 2010

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
psych-rock, experimental-rock

The Flaming Lips - EmbryonicThis one might be the biggest surprise of the decade. After playing it disappointingly safe with the sub-par, Yoshimi-retread of 2005’s At War With the Mystics, a lot of people had written The Flaming Lips off, placing them firmly in the “past their prime” basket. A few years passed with little in the way of band activity, before finally Embryonic came out of nowhere in 2009 to be the group’s most daring album in over a decade. Beyond being merely a comeback, I’m seriously tempted to call this the best thing The Lips have ever released (you can toss a coin on that one, because it’s down to this and Clouds Taste Metallic). The insular sound, the cosmic production, the jarringly vibrant instrumentation, the labyrinthine sequencing and the double-album format – all of these things constituted pretty bold steps at a time when everyone was expecting Wayne Coyne and Co. to once again maintain the status quo and make another album that fell into the (now thoroughly tapped) “life affirming” niche of their previous 2 or 3 releases. Instead they put everything on the line by creating perhaps the darkest album of their career, and the payoff has been tremendous. You can colour me very surprised – I just didn’t think they were still capable of making something this original and flat-out great.


August 4, 2010

Asobi Seksu – Citrus
shoegaze, dream-pop

The 2000s seemed to be the decade of genre-revivals, Asobi Seksu - Citrusand shoegaze got its turn like everything else. A handful of promising acts popped up during the middle part of the decade, blending layers of distortion with blissful pop in their best attempts to emulate My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Where many of those bands failed, or achieved merely average results, I think Asobi Seksu succeeded admirably with their second album. Citrus has the usual swirly distortion combined with pretty vocals, but what sets it apart is the band’s willingness to focus on tunes over texture, allowing the latter to be more of a background feature than a key element. The riffs here are seriously infectious, and the songs have a hooky pop sensibility about them that works beautifully. My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece Loveless initially seems like an appropriate reference point, although after further consideration is becomes obvious that Asobi Seksu are nowhere near as occupied with meticulous craftsmanship or impenetrable layers of sound, and Yuki Chikudate’s gorgeous vocals sit a lot higher in the mix than Belinda Butler’s ever did. Essentially, Asobi Seksu just wanted to make a series of knockout, catchy pop songs, and Citrus is exactly that, fuzzy guitars or otherwise. Highlight tracks like “Strawberries”, “Strings”, “Nefi+Girly” and especially the big single “Thursday” rank amongst the decade’s most addictive tunes.


August 3, 2010

Heavy Trash – Going Way Out With Heavy Trash
rockabilly, garage-rock, psych-rock

This rockabilly side-project turned out to be a perfect fit for Jon Spencer, best known for his work with The Blues Explosion. With his Elvis-tribute vocal style and constant swagger, it’s a schtick that fits Spencer so comfortably that it’s a wonder he didn’t try it sooner. Teaming up with rock ‘n’ roll guitar-wiz Matt Verta-Ray, Spencer injected some much-needed vitality into his noticeably flagging career (the Blues Explosion hadn’t put out a solid album since the late 90s), and with Heavy Trash he sounds completely at home and brimming with confidence. Nowhere is that more evident than on the duo’s kick-ass sophomore effort Heavy Trash - Going Way Out With Heavy TrashGoing Way Out With Heavy Trash. Taking hold of the rollicking rhythms, sexed-up lyrics, sly humour and outlaw personas of their more streamlined debut, Spencer and Verta-Ray augmented their sound with a hint of psychedelia and some heavy blues overtones, and then simply cranked everything up to a higher level. Big favourites are the killer single “Way Out” and the trippy closer “You Can’t Win”, but the whole thing is a floor-stomping triumph, worthy of high volume and high rotation.


August 2, 2010

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
art-pop, progressive-pop

Bitte Orca strikes me as less a “pop album” and something more akin to an academic study in melody. Dave Longstreth assembles his pieces like a composer, and even though the results can be a little bit bewildering at times – it’s fair to say that he intentionally skews an awful lot of standard, pop-music conventions – there’s an underlying solidity to the songs that makes them surprisingly easy to sink into. In that regard, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Dirty Projectors and avant-pop pioneers Talking Heads. However, while David Dirty Projectors - Bitte OrcaByrne’s obsessions with world music and the exploration of sound resulted in Talking Head’s finest albums being amazingly broad in scope, Longstreth prefers to stay closer to home, sticking primarily to the use of guitar, bass, keys, percussion, mild electronics and (a myriad of uses of) the human voice. His toolkit might be limited, but he finds an incredible number of uses for every tool. Band members Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, whose voices were used quite sparingly, if at all, on previous releases, get a stronger showing here, and the album is so much richer for it, with “Stillness is the Move” in particular being a wonderful vocal showcase. The album is possibly a little front loaded, with the first four tracks being arguably its best, but the quality remains high enough that it never becomes a problem. Fans of willfully creative and unusual pop music should consider this essential listening.