#7

November 19, 2010

Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
neo-psychedelia, experimental-pop, electronic
2007

On every album prior to this one, Animal Collective had maintained a fairly even balance between “songs” and “soundscapes”, splitting their time almost equally between Animal Collective - Strawberry Jamalien pop songs and drifting, longform experimental pieces, giving them equal appeal to fans of the infectious as well as the cerebral, yet perhaps never quite satisfying either side to the fullest extent. On Strawberry Jam, they finally decided to swing the pendulum all the way to the “songs” side, resulting in what was their catchiest, most accessible and concise work yet. This couldn’t have pleased me more, as all of my favourite songs by the eccentric four-piece have been their more overtly melodic pieces, like Sung Tongs’ “Who Could Win a Rabbit”, Feels’ “The Purple Bottle” and Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished’s “April and the Phantom”, so an album with nothing but those sorts of songs was always going to be a hit with me. The album lays out nine slices of vital, quirky, unconventional pop music, conveyed through jittering synths, warm acoustic strums, kaleidoscopic production and off-kilter vocals (delivered predominantly by my preferred Animal Collective vocalist, David Portner a.k.a Avey Tare, in this instance) that drip with emotion at every turn. Several of those songs rank easily amongst the best “pop” tracks the group have recorded, and if I were to put together a list of my favourite Animal Collective cuts I suspect that “For Reverend Green”, “Peacebone” and “Fireworks”, all of which appear on this very album, might find themselves at the top (with “#1” and “Winter Wonder Land” sitting not too far behind). The album is very economical and well-contained, with no individual song ever outstaying its welcome (which has been an occasional issue in the past), and “Derek”, the album’s carnivalesque finale, makes for a perfectly timed end of the line. With 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, the group streamlined their sound even more, filtering out many of the most vital eccentricities (Avey Tare’s prominent vocal being the most crucial) such that, to me, the result felt watered down and significantly less engaging. Strawberry Jam marked the colourful peak of one of the decade’s most interesting and exuberant groups.

 

#9

November 17, 2010

The Books – The Lemon of Pink
electronic, folk, field recordings, sound collage
2003

When you boil it down to its core ingredients, The Lemon of Pink is essentially a folk record, but the songs here have been chopped, spliced, sampled and rearranged into a sonic collage of delicate vocals, found sounds and a wide variety of gentle instrumentation including guitars, violins, banjos, percussion and more. In a feat not to be overlooked, the duo have managed to create one of the most warm, inviting and human albums I’ve ever heard, amazingly without more than a small handful of actual lyrics, so most of this feeling is carried strictly by the music itself, as well as the snippets of random sampled chatter (including conversations, educational clips, announcements and more) that are littered generously throughout. The whole album is characterised by an inclusive and celebratory tone, which is shown to full effect on some of the highlight tracks, such as the quirky “Tokyo”, the Einstein-quoting “There is no There” and the gorgeous “Take Time”, a track which has endured as a personal favourite throughout the decade, having lost none of its impact over years of repeat listens. To put it simply, The Lemon of Pink is an abstract work of art with a single purpose – to The Books - The Lemon of Pinkwash away your concerns and make you feel content, happy and completely at ease. I’m constantly impressed by the fact that The Books have managed to make an album so satisfying on two extremely different levels – while the album is meticulously assembled, making The Lemon of Pink a real joy to deconstruct and examine for its finer details, against significant odds it’s also one of the most powerfully emotive and affecting albums I’ve ever heard.

 

#10

November 16, 2010

Broadcast and The Focus Group – Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
electronic, psychedelic-pop, found sound, musique concrète
2009

Imagine you’re standing at the entry to a very long hallway, lined with doors stretching out before you farther than the eye can see. Behind each door is a small room containing the sound captured from a certain time and place. It could be an instrument, a song, a concert, a TV show, a telephone, a conversation, a radio transmission, a nursery rhyme, a piece of machinery, a childhood memory, a waterfall or some other ambient environmental noise. Imagine that, as you stand there, the entire hallway is tilted ninety degrees, transforming it into a seemingly bottomless tunnel, and you’re falling into it in slow motion, Broadcast and The Focus Group - Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Agedrifting endlessly further down (at this point, you have to forgive me for the blindingly obvious Wonderland parallel, but bear with me). As you fall, the doors floating past you begin to open and close, seemingly at random, revealing snippet after snippet of disparate sound, emerging, overlapping and disappearing again before they can fully take shape. Barring a few brief forays into more fully realised musical exploration, that rabbit-hole-esque scenario is precisely what it feels like to listen to this album, the first joint-effort between UK art-pop group Broadcast and electronic musician Julian House a.k.a The Focus Group. It’s essentially 3 or 4 brief psych-pop songs with hundreds of slices of musique concrète scattered about them, neatly divided into 23 tracks, many of which don’t reach the two-minute mark. It’s surreal, disorienting and occasionally unnerving, but mostly it’s just really, really dreamy. If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is, but far less so than you’d expect, thanks to the meticulous degree of care and craftsmanship displayed by both parties in piecing together this wonderful collaboration. I’ve often heard claims of albums with hypnagogic properties – I’d argue that Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age comes closer to genuinely fulfilling those claims than any album I’ve heard before.

 

#40

October 14, 2010

Boards of Canada Geogaddi
IDM, electronic, downtempo, ambient
2002

Geogaddi remains the pinnacle of Boards of Canada’s work, taking the skittish beats and dreamy atmosphere of Music Has the Right to Children and fleshing it out to its most organic, seamless state. Paradoxically, the music here feels both timeless and anchored, in that it powerfully evokes thoughts that seem tied Boards of Canada - Geogaddito a certain place and time, such as childhood adventure and uncertainty (an evocation rendered even more prominent by the assorted samples of children’s speech and laughter scattered across many of the album’s tracks), but it never becomes distinct enough to determine just whose childhood we’re revisiting, leading to a sense of constant displacement that’s central to the album’s impact. The mixture of short and long tracks draws an interesting line between “songs” and “snippets”, infusing Geogaddi with an almost chaptered feel, with the snippets acting as palate cleansers and enabling each of the “proper” songs to have an even greater individual impact on the listener. Each of my personal favourite tracks – “Music is Math”, “Julie and Candy”, “1969”, “Sunshine Recorder”, “The Beach at Redpoint”, “Dawn Chorus” and “You Could Feel the Sky” – are made so much more powerful by the way that they arise seemingly out of nowhere, rather than trailing immediately after other full-length tracks. Music Has the Right to Children positioned Boards of Canada as one of the late-90s most exciting electronic acts. Geogaddi not only surpasses it, but also holds a place as one of the very best electronic albums of the 2000s.

 

#42

October 12, 2010

Konono N°1 Congotronics
African music, electronic
2005

Konono N°1 are a Congolese percussion group, active since sometime during the 1970s, who until quite recently were totally unknown outside of their home country. After decades of obscurity, the group were catapulted to international success following the release of their second internationally distributed album Congotronics. They are noteworthy for a number of reasons outside of their impressive career lifespan – to bring their music to life, they create their own instruments and amplification gear Konono N°1 - Congotronicsentirely from trash and old automobile parts, including homemade thumb-pianos, a scrap-metal amplifier shaped like a giant horn and microphones made from blocks of wood and car batteries. The result is a rough-yet-bubbly explosion of lively thumb-piano, trashcan percussion – most noticeably a dense layer of very reedy sounding snares – and exciting call-and-response vocals, formed around looping melodies and longform compositions that make the album seem a lot like one enormous song. Despite initially sounding a bit thin (due mostly to the stripped back nature of the instrumentation and the lack of fully fleshed-out production), it quickly becomes apparent that this music is played surprisingly hard and heavy, making for some of the most unrelentingly energetic music I’ve ever heard. The album might take some getting used to for unaccustomed listeners – they may find it to be unfamiliar and scattershot, not to mention repetitive – but after a handful of listens don’t be surprised to find yourself really warming up to it. Those repeating themes aid familiarity to keep you afloat, while it’s all underpinned by a very rigid backbone of unwavering percussion. Once it gets under your skin – and assuming you have a pulse, it will – the addictive rhythms and communal vibes are going to compel you to move. Don’t put it on if you’re about to perform brain surgery because, honestly, it’s too damn hard trying to keep still while Congotronics is playing.

#49

October 4, 2010

Venetian Snares Rossz csillag alatt született
electronic, IDM, drill & bass, breakcore
2005

Canadian electro-wiz Aaron Funk delivers breakneck speed drum & bass with silky, melancholy orchestral arrangements layered over the top. There’s such a tense, sinister vibe about this album that’s quite gripping, as though Funk knows precisely how to power his compositions by feeding off the listener’s growing sense of unease, and then delivers it back to them Venetian Snares - Rossz csillag alatt születettten-fold. He’s displays a fine grasp on how to utilise the emptiness between sounds, allowing the recordings to breathe and spaciously expand to cavernous extents. Funk pulls his influences from a range of times and places, with the classical influences covering a wide range of composers (an area which isn’t my strong point, so apologies for leaving it as vague as that) and the beats recalling mid-to-late nineties Warp artists like µ-Ziq, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin (in particular, this album feels like the natural extension of the classical-meets-jungle promise shown with “Girl/Boy Song”). “Szerencsétlen” opens the album (after a brief introductory track) and feels like its most instantly accessible piece (and is therefore a good one to sample if you want a taste), but I really love “Második galamb” for the creepy spoken-word intro and absolutely bugf*ck-insane second-half.

#54

September 23, 2010

MuAfro Finger and Gel
house, electronic
2003

I’m reasonably certain that Mutsumi Kanamori eats babies and can kill you with her brain. The lead singer for punk-house freakshow Mu delivers her punchy, broken-English caterwauling with such fearlessness and defiant attitude, that when she belts out lines like “Show me what you want mutherfucker! Who do you think you are? You don’t know how strong I am!”, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that she might physically burst forth from your speakers, primed to kick your ass halfway into next week. If it sounds like Afro Finger and Gel is a touch on the difficult side of the listening spectrum, that’s because it well and truly is. Kanamori’s vocals are completely awesome – although that only really becomes Mu - Afro Finger and Gelapparent after a few listens; to start with she’s just really scary – and Maurice Fulton wraps her up in a prickly DJ set of abrasive, thumpy and distinctively retro-flavoured house music. This album really won me over for a handful of primary reasons. First of all, nothing I’ve ever heard sounds even remotely like Afro Finger and Gel, so it certainly scores big points for originality. Secondly, all the scary unfamiliarity of the album gives way to some really addictive grooves and surprisingly enticing singalong vocals, so it demands repeat listens based on far more than novelty alone. Finally, the album is hilarious. Whether it’s the ridiculous talk show parody of “My Name is Tommi” (best track, fyi), the “where the hell did that come from?” R&B breakdown partway into “Let’s Get Sick” or the mind-bending juxtaposition of Kanamori’s indignant vocals against the jaunty piano backing on “Hello Bored Biz Man”, the album delivers plenty of smile-worthy moments and even a few laugh-out-loud ones. But mostly, it’s all about Kanamori being awesome – did I mention she kicks ass, eats babies and can kill you with her brain?

#58

September 18, 2010

Various Artists塊フォルテッシモ魂 [Katamari Fortissimo Damacy]
video game soundtrack, jazz, j-pop, lounge, electronic
2004

Various Artists - 塊フォルテッシモ魂Vocoders, electronic, samba, jazz, goofy hip-hop, Latin dance passages, titanic horn sections, j-pop, a capella, piano overtures, carnival sounds, mambo, lounge music and a whole bunch more, all wrapped up in infinite feel-good vibes and a sense of sheer unrelenting mayhem. The soundtrack to Katamari Fortissimo Damacy is a hyperactive delight, fearlessly sampling genres with total abandon throughout its generous 21 track runtime. If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to exist inside a video game, then this is about the closest you’ll ever come to finding out. Even if you’ve never played a Katamari game (tip: you should), the music still carries a giddy, animated vibrancy all on its own, one which delights without the merest hint of context. There’s also some highly irreverent humour to enjoy throughout the album, from the ultra-sincere piano version of the game’s cheesy theme tune (“Overture”) to the robotically monotone, looping singalong of “You Are Smart”, which functions as a wonderfully patronising reward for performing well during the game itself. The bottom line is this – this album is just so lovable, in all of its glitchy, can’t-sit-still glory, that I can’t imagine any lover of good pop music not getting down to it. By the time the ridiculous sweeping horn section of “Katamari on the Rocks” hits, anyone who isn’t pogoing around their loungeroom has to admit that they’re secretly an android.

#62

August 30, 2010

Squarepusher – Go Plastic
IDM, drum & bass
2001

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.

#72

August 16, 2010

Air10,000 Hz Legend
electronic, ambient, experimental-pop
2001

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.

#88

July 16, 2010

Autechre – Confield
electronic, IDM
2001

Autechre - ConfieldFor a long time I felt that Autechre were my least favourite of the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) crowd, with their well regarded 90s output (including the highly lauded Amber and Tri Repeatae) never really grabbing my interest. It was only recently that I bothered to check out their work from the following decade, and it left me asking “why the hell didn’t anyone tell me they got so much better?” Confield is everything I wished those earlier albums were – an electronic album that perfectly harnesses the balance between the mechanical and the organic, leading to the application of descriptors which seem contradictory yet all equally apply. Throughout its nine tracks, Confield somehow finds common ground between the meticulous and the chaotic, the melodic and the avant-garde, the distant and the emotive, the precise and the unpredictable, the discomforting and the inviting, all-together making it an record of very impressive breadth and depth. I regard it as their career highpoint.

#99

July 3, 2010

Ulrich Schnauss – A Strangely Isolated Place
ambient, electronic
2003

A Strangely Isolated Place isn’t a groundbreaking album in the field of electronic music, nor is it especially creative, experimental or challenging. The synths are your basic layered variety and the beats sound like something that any reasonably talented bedroom-producer could make on their laptop. It’s the sort of album that flies way under your radar, never Ulrich Schnauss - A Strangely Isolted Placereally putting itself out there as an important work, content in its aim to merely leave the listener feeling good. In this goal, it passes with flying colours. This is the kind of simplistic, by-the-numbers work that reminds you that, in the hands of the right person, sometimes less is more, as Ulrich Schnauss’ musical creations put up no barriers to enjoyment whatsoever, enveloping the listener in buoyant washes of sublime ambiance one track after another. It’s absolutely wonderful stuff, seemingly underwhelming for the first minute or two (so make sure you wait those two minutes out), it just gets under your skin and leaves you surprised at just how much you want to listen to it over and over again.