A collection of posts from my original weblog...or the inscrutable rantings of a madman...could be both...

Friday, December 28, 2001

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR - 2001 (PART 2)

6) Loop Guru; Loopus Interruptus/Nation Records: Another "group" I thought had disappeared also returned this year with a record. Not exactly brand-new material, but a collection of early singles and B-sides (most of them out-of -print). Their last "new" album was Loop Bites Dog, released in 1997. Then they followed up with Fountains Of Paradise in 1999, which was material that they recorded and released in 1994, on cassette only--so it was the first time it appeared on CD. Loop Guru are two guys, Ja Muud and Sam Gita, who have been recording since the late 80s but reached their current incarnation in 1991/92. They create ambient ethno-techno by fusing world music samples (say, a sitar drone, an African hand-drum and a Gregorian chant) with western dance club beats. They are the best out there doing this stuff, for my money--if you like this sort of thing. I didn't even know "Loopus.." was out until I checked out the official Loop Guru website and linked to Nation Records from there. I mail-ordered the disc from Nation and their delivery time is top-notch. Highlights are Hope - Riding on a camel somewhere, with it's dense layering of samples. Lifelust, which contains a sample that sounds like a sped-up Irish fiddle and M'rabat, the single that gave Loop Guru a brief chart showing on it's initial release in 1993. Then there's Flown, which is an ambient tour through 3 or 4 continents. Now, if they'd only start making some really new music!

7) Porcupine Tree; Recordings/Snapper-KScope Records: At first this seemed like one of those "stall tactic" albums--you know, the band is "in-between" projects, so the label scours the last record's sessions, throws in a few rare B-sides and is then able to line it's pockets with the fans' paychecks. Luckily, Porcupine Tree have enough quality leftovers to make a decent record on it's own. Steven Wilson (also of No Man), leader of P.T., has culled sessions mainly from the Stupid Dream-era ('97/'98)--including the full 13-minute version of Even Less, one of the standout tracks from that album. The songs are good and I don't find myself skipping tracks here and there--though Wilson's solos do sometimes get into 80s fret-wankery. He saves the best track for the album closer. Oceans Have No Memory is a sweet instrumental with Wilson doing the best Bill Frisell impression I've ever heard. No scales at 100 M.P.H.--it's all softened drums with a nice Hammond organ drone behind Wilson's straightforward main riff and his cascading guitar overdubs. It's a beautiful track and an excellent ending to a record--well done, boys.

8) Mogwai; Rock Action/Matador-Pias Records: I know, post-rock is a "virtual non-genre" and the earlier albums by these guys are "sloppily amateurish" at best and a "complete waste of time" at worst. That began to change with Come On Die Young, mainly due to the production work of Dave Fridmann, mostly known for his work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Fridmann is on production duties for "Rock Action" also and it's the best Mogwai album so far--and hey--if you still don't like it--it's very short, clocking in at 38 minutes for the entire record. My favorite tracks are Sine Wave, the album opener, with it's ominous synth drones and robotic vocal above the clatter towards the end of the track. Take Me Someplace Nice, which features Mogwai in their Low-soundalike mode and their strange lyrics like "...what would you do/if you saw spaceships/over Glasgow..." That's a good question, I don't really know. You Don't Know Jesus has the trademark Mogwai wall-of-noise, but only after a slow buildup and there are a couple of intriguing shorter cuts, O I Sleep and Robot Chant. These guys are really starting to hone their sound and are getting better at creating their soundscapes. Judging by their latest EP, My Father My King (produced not by Fridmann, but by Steve Albini, of all people), these Scottish lads could be just about to hit their stride. Stay tuned...

9) Super Furry Animals; Rings Around The World/Epic Records UK: I don't know too much about this record, seeing as how it still hasn't been released domestically. I have all of the Furries prior albums and judging by the superb Juxtapose With U EP and the mostly favorable reviews in the English music press, I'm giving it a Top Ten spot. Besides, how can you go wrong with a record that has Sir Paul McCartney reprising his role in the Beach Boys' Smile sessions by crunching some vegetables as a rhythm instrument and also features a John Cale cameo on a different track? You can't, my friends, you can't. The Furries once again prove that they are one of the weirdest and most creative U.K. bands in the studio at the moment and it would be nice for them to get some recognition. Oh sure, they have a sufficient U.K. following but they're not even a cult band here. I hope that changes when this album finally gets distributed here (maybe with bonus tracks, like Orbital's "The Altogether")--probably not--but one can always hope.

10) Radiohead; Amnesiac/EMI-Capitol Records: Yeah, you knew this would be here also--I know, I did say it was over-hyped and it was--but it's still a great album, especially coming so soon after Kid A. They release "Kid B"--and yet, it's so much more than that--more electronica, more unintelligable lyrics and more, for lack of a better term, melody. It's not that "Kid A" entirely lacked melody, but there are actual "tunes" on "Amnesiac" that you can hum along to and Pyramid Song is one of the best tunes Radiohead has ever committed to tape, with it's mournful piano line and Yorke's strange lyrics with black-eyed angels and astral cars. I Might Be Wrong contains the best Johnny Marr riff never played by Marr and Yorke's drunken-sounding challenge to Tony Blair, You And Whose Army, sounds like he time-traveled back to jam with The Ink Spots. There's a "Richard Thompson on Valium" guitar instrumental called Hunting Bears and for the album closer, Radiohead channel the "Spirit of Syd" in Life In A Glasshouse--which features a brass section straight out of Jugband Blues, Barrett's final Pink Floyd contribution in 1968. They brought the show on the road for a short tour and I caught one of the shows and it was excellent! It will be interesting to see where they're headed from here..there are rumors they're going back to the guitars, but I hope they leave room for a bit of "Kid C" as well.

Alright, musos--that was them. If you think of other records that you thought should have been included..um..you can't post a comment at the moment but you can e-mail me and I'll try to include your choices in a future post. And remember--the record has to have been released in 2001--I don't want any e-mails saying "Doode, your list is lame, where's Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' ?" and such. Now here's a little section I'm calling Disappointments Of The Year--albums I was excited about when I heard they were being released, but when the factory-sealed wrapping was off and the disc was in the player..well, to quote John Lydon, "Did you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

1) Mercury Rev; All Is Dream/V2 Records: I never thought of these guys as a "stick with a winning formula" band--they always seemed to forge ahead in a different direction with each record. From crazed hallucinogenic indie darlings to refined almost roots-rockers, every album had it's own unique style--until now. They enjoyed some modest success with Deserter's Songs in 1998 and with "All Is Dream", it seems they're just re-inventing the wheel of "Deserter's..". I was excited when I heard they were coming out with a follow-up, I couldn't wait to hear some new sonic inventions that would (I hoped) rival their masterpiece, 1995's See You On The Other Side. All I got with "All Is Dream" was "Deserter's Songs--Part II", right down to the "musical saw" bits in a couple of the tunes. Better luck next time...

2) Bjork; Vespertine/Elektra Records: I've been lukewarm on Bjork since Telegram, in 1997...but there a couple of ace cuts on Selmasongs, the "soundtrack" to Dancer In The Dark. My faith was partially restored, well, enough to buy "Vespertine". It's got some nice ambient moments and it makes good use of household items as rhythm loops--but I think the New York artsy-fartsy scene has softened her head for writing an exciting tune. "Vespertine" is filled with odes to her new paramour and her son--which are touching, if you happen to be one of those people. For the rest of us--well me, anyway--I miss the techno-pop fusion of Army Of Me or the zany danceable stuff like Big Time Sensuality. I'll give it another spin and see if I like it any better. I'm glad Bjork's in love and this record's great for a quiet evening with your own paramour--but if you don't have a "special someone" at the moment, "Vespertine" can be a tedious listen.

3) Aphex Twin; Drukgs/Sire-Warp Records: The once vanguard wunderkind of electronica has delivered a dud..well, two discs of duds! Tsk tsk, Richard D. James--all of us Aphex-heads were waiting for more nuggets from your studio and you give us your table-scraps from the past five years!! If you want an eloquent explanation of why you shouldn't waste your money on this--check out M.A.D.'s review at PopMatters. You can link to it from his site. There are some great cuts scattered between the two discs--but far too much just sounds like James couldn't be bothered to think of anything new to record, so he falls back on his formula beats and "squiggly" keyboard samples. Yeah, they sounded revolutionary in 1992/'93--even I Care Because You Do sounded otherworldly to me in 1995, but after the somewhat enlightening Richard D. James record in 1996 and the not-so-spiffy EPs, Come To Daddy and Windowlicker, we're all hep to the Aphex sound. Which is why James should be heading in a direction that will confound us and make us want to catch up with what he's doing, not the other way around. Alas, well--I've still got the new Underworld and Chemical Brothers records to look forward to--and maybe Leftfield will come out of hiding with an EP or something.

Friday, December 21, 2001

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR - 2001

List Note: The list is in no particular order--I didn't get organized enough to present them that way, so don't be alarmed if you think a certain disc is "better" than one that is higher up on the list.

1)Tool; Lateralus/Tool Dissectional-Volcano Records: The "thinking fan's" metal band re-surface after five years of legal wrangling and a Maynard side-outing ("A Perfect Circle"). The music dominates on this one instead of the lyrical content like on their past albums ("Undertow"/"AEnima")...and much has been said about Maynard using his best lyrics in A.P.C. but I think that works to the band's advantage. The lyrics are more oblique, with references to various colors and phrases like "watch the weather change"--while the rest of the band create near-ambient soundscapes to fill in the gaps. Oh sure, they've provided some of the old piss n' vinegar/skull-crunching power chords so the old fans can still follow the plot ("The Grudge" and "Ticks And Leeches"--my vote for the album's weakest track) but then it veers off into King Crimson territory, which I'm positive didn't set well with the baseball cap/goatee/mook set. That's alright, though, they still have Linkin Park and Cold and that shite for their mindless testosterone-fuelled adventures. Tool are still going to do things their way, no matter how many mooks decide they don't want the records or to go to the shows, and that's cool with me.

2) Kate Rusby; Little Lights/Pure-Compass Records: Folk is a genre that I can't listen to for hours and hours and still hear something new in the music, because acoustic guitars have a strange habit of sounding the same after a while. Folksingers, no matter how different their pitch of voice or lyrical content, start sounding the same also. I always liked that David Lowery/Cracker lyric "...what the world needs now is another folk singer/like I need a hole in my head...". Kate Rusby is an English folkie who is credited with nearly single-handedly reviving the genre in her homeland over the past five years or so--this is good or bad depending on your opinion. I like Kate's records because I like her voice and she really keeps her repertoire honed down to the basics--traditional English and Irish folk songs given a good dusting with her voice and gee-tar. They sound as I would imagine they sounded when first performed, that's how authentic this bird's voice is. Her originals, though not as lyrically deft as the trad. stuff, still have an appeal of their own and she performs a stunning cover of Richard Thompson's Withered And Died, that almost sounds more melancholy than the original (though Richard and Linda still hold the crown). She keeps things in a trad. vein and doesn't try to get too topical or too current, so the material won't sound dated in a few years (not a "Free Mumia" lyric in sight). "Little Lights" is her latest--but I would also recommend Sleepless (from 1999) and Hourglass (from 1997), both are excellent.

3) Orbital; The Altogether/FFRR-London Records: You knew this would be here, dintcha? The Hartnoll brothers return with another set that lacks the epic scale of their last one (The Middle Of Nowhere) but is a winner nonetheless. The press reviews were mixed and some of the criticism was deserved. Still, this is a dance act that construct albums like a guitar/bass/drums band does--then they pack up their home studio and bring it on the road for live shows! They conceive albums as a whole, not a collection of dancefloor hits or a continuous DJ mix--virtually no-one else is doing that, aside from The Orb or Electric Skychurch. I'll be sad when Orbital finally calls it quits, but 'till then, I can savor another album by them. The highlights are Tension, with it's "Surfin' Bird" sample and wiggy keyboard riffs. Oi!, a funky "git-down" jam with an Ian Dury sample and Tootled, an hommage to the hard-edged Detroit techno sound with a sample from Tool's 1993 cut, Sober. Doctor ? is a breakbeat version of the classic Doctor Who TV theme and Funny Break (One Is Enough), the single culled from the record. If you waited for the domestic version, you got a bonus disc of B-sides and unreleased tracks. I bought the import, then hit the store again for the domestic one--just for the bonus disc. It pays to wait sometimes but I'm an Orbital junkie and I had to score--and score I did!! If you want more info on Orbital, check out their website.

4) The Beta Band; Hot Shots II/Astralwerks-Regal Records: I thought these guys were finished when a whole year went by and not even an EP from them. They crashed into cult status with The 3 EPs (Dry The Rain, one of the tunes, was featured in High Fidelity) and with their self-titled full-length debut (which the band reportedly hated after hearing the final master recording). They released one further single, For You Alone/Sequinsizer, and then nothing...and more nothing (aside from a one-off project, King Biscuit Time). Then in April of this year, they drop "Hot Shots II" and almost hit the bleedin' mainstream! It's a good record--the arrangements are tighter and they sound like they're having fun in the studio again. I like the first record too and I wouldn't say this one's better--just different. They hired a hip-hop producer to man the soundboard and the production has a cleaner, crisper feel to it. But even with that, it's still the wacky Beta Band at heart--with lyrical references to pizza pies and lines like "..miles and miles of squares/where's the feeling there.." and those medieval/Gregorian chant vocal breaks. Last but not least, the album title, sharing honors with a lame Charlie Sheen action-movie spoof. My favorite track is Human Being, which combines the best of the first album and "Hot Shots.." It's got the pastoral, mellow beginning--all the twists and turns of a Betas jam and ends with a full-on electric wall-of-sound. The Scots and Welsh are out-quirking the English this year--and it's a good thing, too!!

5) Gorky's Zygotic Mynci; How I Long To Feel That Summer In My Heart/Beggar's Banquet-Mantra Records: Speaking of Welsh quirkiness--my fave Welsh psych/prog/folk-rockers released a new one this year, too. "How I Long..." continues their folk-rock forays like their previous couple (Spanish Dance Troupe and The Blue Trees) of albums. New Musical Express gave it a thrashing, calling Gorky's "hobbit botherers" and lamenting the fact that the lyrics avoid the harshness of reality. Well, I love the Gorkys and I'm definitely buying into their particular brand of escapism--you know, all the ethereal, pastoral stuff along with a healthy dose (pardon the pun..heh heh) of luv luv luv. If that makes me a "hobbit botherer", so be it. I just wish they could synthesize their older, zany psych/prog incarnation with their new, maturing folk-rock selves--that would be heavenly! Still, songs like Her Hair Hangs Long and Megan Childs' (Megan Childs...yum yum..(drool)...) showcase tune, Can Megan are instant Gorky's classics in my book. Some guy calling himself "Gorky Critic" on their website complained of plagarism, specifically that "Can Megan" had ripped-off an obscure Monkees tune. Um...O.K., she stole a Monkees tune...yup, I'm waiting for the Davy Jones/Mike Nesmith lawsuit. Anyway, this is one of my favorite records of the year--so go buy it already!!!