Wednesday, December 7, 2016



1/ DIZZY RASCAL – “I Love You” (white label)

And this year the criteria are… surprise, surprise, surprise. When the bass-blasts tear through like Rotterdam Terror Corps and the electro claps scythe ‘n’ shear like stressed metal, “I Love You” hits with the force of an aesthetic ambush: this ain’t UK garage as we’ve known it. Then the rap enters--a high-pitched male voice, weirdly poised between distraught and derisive: Roll Deep’s Dizzy Rascal making his solo debut--and you know you’re witnessing the birth of the New Thing; #8 in a series of convulsive renewals with the hardcore/pirate radio continuum. I want to believe this is the real-deal paradigm shift so much that I can’t trust what my ears are telling me: that it is.

Must have heard this about ten times on the pirates before anybody played the actual A-Side, the vocal cut. Increasingly the dubstrumental flipsides of top tunes seem to be preferred, as backing tracks for MC’s freestyling. It’s mostly Dizzy, with a girl cutting in now and then, and even after a score of listens I still don’t quite have a grip on the lyrics, whether there’s a narrative as such. It’s more like a panoramic, fractured overview of modern romance, unified by a consistent harshness of tone that mingles contempt, coldness, callousness, me-I-disconnect-from-you. Meanwhile, the fembot’s lobotomised voice incanting “I-love-U” in speak-and-spell tones seems to be there to parody or puncture the vacuousness of Barbie-style love und romance. Chilling but thrilling.

2/ DJ MARKY & XRS featuring STAMINA MC – “LK (Carolina Carol Bela)” (V Recordings)

After seven years of sweltering humidity Manhattan-style, I actually found summer in London---near-constant rain, the lowest amount of sunshine in a couple of decades---literally refreshing. Wearing a sweater in August: what a buzz! Besides, who needed sunshine with “LK” supplying the summer vibes? Marky Mark & XRS’s drum’n’bossa reworking of a Jorge Benjor & Toquinho tune from 1969 is the first D&B record I’ve paid money for since 1997. And it would hit our rented living room like a bolt of joy, either with the inanely-upful-yet-irresistible MC vocal or as the instrumental version.

Must admit there was a great vibe emanating from the drum’n’bass pirates this summer; the scene seems always to be on the verge of a comeback, but the music never quite makes it for me—good to see vocals and pop sensibility making a reappearance, but the beats are just too linear, still stuck in the one-bar loop rut that Tim Finney @ Skykicking’s identified as drum’n’bass’s post-techstep downfall. Likewise the beats are the least interesting thing about “LK”, supplying propulsiveness but nothing else; what makes it sublime is the plangent and sparkling cat’s cradle that is the pizzicato acoustic guitar figure, the gulf-stream currents of warm bass, and the nape-tingling vocal melody (hard to tell if it’s a straight lift from “Carolina Carol Bela”, or whether vocal science has been been brought to bear in repatterning it). Apparently this tune wiped the floor with Fischerspooner on Top of the Pops, which is just icing on the cake.

3/ MUSICAL MOB—“Pulse X (VIP Mix)” (Inspired Sounds Records)

Backing track of the year. Literally: it’s only raison d’etre is as a launching pad for freestyles. “Pulse X” (just one of a series of mixes: “Y”, “Z” etc) raises the same question as “Grindin’”: is this even music? Strictly speaking, it’s unlistenable on its own, outside the mix, and all the way from beginning to end. It barely has structure, just alternates between three simple, pared-to-the-bone patterns; rhythmic propulsion stripped of all affect, bar an aura of bleak purposiveness. Apparently people on the scene use the term “eight bar” to describe this style of nouveau 4-to-the-floor garage, ‘cos after eight bars it switches. Musical Mob’s own term is “raw for the floor” (the title of another of their tunes, which I yet to hear, at least knowingly). In “Pulse X”’s wake, there’s a whole mini-genre of this stuff, just beats and acrid bass, tunes like Rolldeep's "Creeper": not DJ tools, which is how such minimal and tracky tuneage functions in other genres like techno, but MC tools.

Apart from working as the spartan backdrop for the MC to ride, a beatscape to negotiate, the other main use of “Pulse X” is to be dropped for a minute or less, simply to rachet up the intensity level. When that doom-boom pulsekick pounds, boo! It’s a track that’s designed to be dropped, rewound once, maybe twice, and then mixed out again as swiftly as possibly.

A few months ago I googled to find out whatever I could about Musical Mobb, which turned out to be hardly anything, but it did pull up an old ILM thread from the early summer (the topic was trends in 2002 and whither-next for music). And there was “Pulse X”, mentioned in passing as “UK garage’s nadir”, a death-knell. Hmmm, maybe it is, within UKG's own aesthetic terms. But in creating its own scale of values and desirable qualities (concussive, punitive, flagellant, desexed, joy-stripped: Swans’ Cop meets Schoolly D’s “PSK What Does It Mean” meets Rotterdam Termination Source's "Poing") this track creates its own perverse aesthetic universe. Like “I Love You”, it signals the birth of the New Thing.

4/ LAID BLAK – “Scream & Shout” (Moist)

It’s not all darker-than-thou UK gangsta menace, this garage rap biznizz. All kinds of voices—playful, humorous, downright affable—can seize this moment. There’s room for Busta Rhymes dementia (see Robloe & Kin featuring Nor-T Jack Fever’s “Bounce”, below), for Shaggy-style comic loverman braggadochio, for Barrington Levy-like tender charm. Flitting between the last two modes, here’s Bristol crew Laid Blak and this overlooked gem of a tune, which is about as far from garage rap’s customary skrewface as possible. The bit where a tipsy-sounding Mc Joe Peng mumbles mawkishly “he is a nice and decent fellow, I am a nice and decent fellow, we’re all nice and decent fellows” might be my favorite vocal moment of the year. He’s such an amiable sort he can even get away with a move-on-up positivity sermon without making you cringe: “I don’t mean to make you paro/but what about tomorrow?/If we continue with this way of life we’re heading for pure sorrow/And what about our children?/What future have we gave them?/Enjoy it now ‘cos when it’s gone expect a little mayhem/I’m talking to my brethren/I’m talking to my sistren/It’s time for us to pick up the fight ‘cos we want our children to live right.” The jaunty “Original Vocal Mix” is the one to go for, reminding me slightly of prime Madness, but the more garagey DJ Lewi Dirty Vocal Mix is also good.

5/ GK ALLSTARS – “Garage Feeling” (GK Allstars)

This chart’s fastest riser; a week ago it would have been just crinkling the edge of the Top 20. “Garage feeling, come on ravers, feel what I’m feeling” is the chorus lick, but it doesn’t feel like garage: the ominous glower of suppressed thunder running behind most of this track is more redolent of the blaring noise-riffs on Trace/Nico/Ed Rush/Fierce tunes from ’96 (i.e. the kind of dirgefunk that originally drove the jungle massive into the garage in the first place). A lot of garage rap, it’s like No U Turn if they’d used MCs, and the MCs tried to match the sheer toxicity of the noise with their lyrics. The No U Turn boys talked about wanting to “hurt people” with their beats, of being on a “hurter’s mission”, and that’s what most of the MCing is about: verbal maiming, ego-mangling, rubbing people’s faces in their nobody status. Not this tune, though: “Garage Feeling” is a celebration, albeit one queerly pitched between euphoria and dread: a communal anthem for a scene organized around the dream of leaving behind your community and achieving megastardom. What’s to celebrate? Just the struggle, the determination, the confidence that you will triumph. Shining in the darkness.

6/ STYLES – “Good Times’ (Ruff Ryders)

B-boys on E, slight return. Well, the hip hop/Ecstasy raveolution didn’t quite pan out, but a handful of mersh-rap tunes this year continued the eerie-echoes-of-ardkore syndrome. Most notably this Swizz Beatz/Saint Denson co-production of the first single off the debut solo album by Styles, second-fiddle to Jadakiss in those unloveable Lox. Speeding up and doubletracking old-soul diva Freda Payne into a brace of bliss-giddy hummingbirds, this is pure ’92 business, complete with synth-gurgles out of “Papua New Guinea,” a subliminal stab pattern groove that’s like hardcore running at quarter tempo or even slower, and love-song-subverted-into-drug- song cheekiness (Freda’s swoony “I get high high high high/high on your memory high on your memory”). Except, except, this tune’s not about E, it's about weed. And it’s as harrowing and nihilistic a glimpse into the motivations for some kinds of recreational drug use as any smack or crack confessional. “I get high as a kite/I’m in the zone/All alone/Muthafucka case I’m dying tonight… I’ma smoke ‘til my lungs collapse…. Yeah I smoke like a chimney/Matter fact I smoke like a gun when a killer see his enemy... Shit, I get as high as I could/Cos if you see things/like I see things/I’ma die in the hood.” This ain't Cheech & Chong. With the fade-out's sign-off "I am the ghost/floating" making a chilling link between getting wasted and gangsta's "we already dead" fatalism, the title “Good Times” emerges as bitterly ironic--like Chic’s song of the same name was actually intended to be, as opposed to how it was taken by the disco nation.

7/ PLATINUM 45 featuring MORE FIRE CREW – “Oi!” (Go Beat)

Like “Bound 4 Da Reload” this took me about six hearings before I could get my head round it: so harsh, so rigid (those dead-eyed looped “hey”’s and cold cold claps), and, like “Reload”, so ruthlessly amelodic it initially appears to be completely hookless. But as with “Reload”, repetition proves it to be insanely contagious and something of a landmark release: a real generation divider, bearing the same relation to UKG-as-was that the first Casio-driven dancehall tunes like ‘Sleng Teng’ did vis-à-vis roots reggae. The jabbered words remain largely unintelligible to these ears, though, and I still haven’t worked out how you’d dance to it: the core pulse seems most suited to the pogo, believe it or not.

8/ VITALIC-- “Poney Part One” (International Deejay Gigolo)

Did this even come out in 2002? Heard it on the dancefloor a lot this year, though, and think maybe it got re-released in some form; what the hey. As Tom Ewing observed on NYLPM, this is not a song so much as a sound; in that sense it’s much more techno in spirit than Nu-Wave. It’s as if glamour somehow abandoned its human husks and became a freefloating ectoplasmic entity, a spectral incandescence, a brilliantine trembling and aching of the air itself. “Poney Part One” is the best example of electroclash’s definining irony/liability: for a genre dedicated to bringing back songs and stars, its best tunes are depersonalized instrumentals. If “Poney”’s magnesium-majesty were anything like the norm, the nu electro would fulfil and surpass the hype a hundredfold.

9/ CLIPSE – “When The Last Time” (Arista)

Does the world really need another Lox? “Obnoxious with the women”, endlessly referencing the powders that made their wealth and laid waste to their community, faces frozen in masks of disdain, leaving a trail of ho’s in their wake like used condoms, the aptly named Malice and Pusha T are not nice fellows. Still, for the Neptunes’ maddening noise-riff (gets me flashing on SMF’s
h-core classik “Rush Stimulator”), for Kelis chick-lost-her-mind vocal loop, and for this killer couplet about a girl stepping into his car--“She know from the beginning/She added to the list of them chicks that I done bin in”—I must confess I find this impossible to resist.

10/ GENIUS KRU – “Course Bruv“ (Kronik)
Like Laid Blak’s “Scream & Shout”, this tune (which came out late in 2001 I believe, but I loved it this year, so…) is loveable because Genius Kru are just so goddamn amiable. They just wanna spread “nuff love” and they’ll even share their drink with you, ye olde rave stylee. The brain-infesting chorus goes:
Male VoiceCan I have a sip of that?
Genius KruCourse bruv!
Sexy Husky-Voiced Female: Can I have a sip of that?
Genius Kru (going up slightly in pitch): Course luv!!

The whole tune, with its ditzy string-section and bubblebath synth-swirls, is like an endless carousel loop of bonhomie. “Still having fun inside the party/Still got the Rolies and the ladies/Still don’t wanna hurt nobody.” Love it to the bone.

11/ PITMAN – “Phone Pitman/Pitman Sez” (Pitman)

Hip hop is so massive as a cultural influence in Britain now that it has spawned its own micro-genre of parody rap, with an undercurrent (a la Ali G) of genuine anxiety about the (Black) Americanisation of UK youth. But this 7 inch single, purportedly by a rapping Yorkshire miner, wouldn’t be half so hilarious if it didn’t actually have an authentic North-of-England flow that actually works as hip hop: the droning phlegmatic stolidity of the voice, its baleful bulk dragging through the beat. It’s a joke, except it sort of isn’t. As per Terry in The Streets’ “Irony of It All”, the UK has its own thugz, and while they don’t carry Uzi, you’d still do well to cross the road to avoid them. (Won't quote any lyrics, because if I started I'd end up quoting them all, like kids in the schoolyard the day after everyone's favorite sitcom).

12/ HEARTLESS CREW – “The Heartless Theme aka The Superglue Riddim” (Warner)

More positive G-rap: a wonderfully jaunty groove hooked around an insouciant whistling synth (like the kind of chirpy early-bird
milkman who drives you up the wall) while Heartless Crew rap about how their success is all down to years of dedication and honest graft dating back to the early Nineties: “When we go shopping buy the latest design/That that that that that’s mine/Heartless Crew we bought the whole shop/Some people thought that we hit the jackpot/Or if we done a move that was hot/but nah nanana nah we been working hard.” And if you thought their name signified war-of-all-against-all ruthlessness, think again: they’re heartless cos “our hearts are inna the music.” Aaah.

13/ JA RULE feat ASHANTI – “Always On Time” (Murder Inc.)
Ashanti’s golden filtered vocal might be the most gorgeous sliver of melody this year, and Ja Rule remains as loveably ludicrous as ever, from his DMX-to-the-power of 10 honey’n’gravel voice to his dress sense, which in the video for this song makes him look like he’s in Pilot or Sailor or like some superfly version of John Lennon in the early Seventies.

14/ MC GOD’S GIFT versus TEEBONE – “Tribute to 32 MCs” (Solid City)

A testament to the importance of MCs in UK garage, this tune pays homage to thirty-two true originals—from founding fathers like Creed, Kie, Sharky P, Munchie, PSG, Neat, Blakey, Charlie Brown (RIP), right through to nu-skool boys like Neutrino, Wiley, Asher D, Romeo. And what better method than the sincerest form of flattery? Expertly forging their signature licks and trademark catchphrases, God’s Gift crams so much V.I.B.E. into such small space, it’s enough to make your head explode.

15/ THE STREETS – “Let’s Push Things Forward/All Got Our Runnins” (Locked On)

An album artist, obviously, but if you’re going to record an Aesthetic Manifesto/Call-to-Arms you might as well release it as a single. But I’m mentioning this mainly for the B-Side “All Got Our Runnin’s”, one of my favorite tracks on the pre-release version of Original Pirate Material, but at the last minute inexplicably pulled and replaced by “Don’t Mug Yourself”. As well as being very funny and touching in a Madness-in-dejected--but-still-jaunty-vein sort of way, this song is totally radical in UK garage’s flash-yer-cash context: all spend and no thrift, the protagonist is paying for last week's "living for the moment" and struggling to make it ‘til next pay day.

16/ WILEY KAT featuring BREEZE, DANNY ISHANCE & JET LEE– “I Will Not Lose” (Wiley Kat)

In the quasi-orchestral mode of Pay As U Go Kartel’s “Know We” and Wiley & Roll Deep’s “Terrible”, this is a U.K. counterpart to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, the 8 Mile soundtrack megahit about seizing your opportunities ‘cos you may only have one chance to blow. As the idea of collective advancement fades from the U.K.’s popular memory, we seem to be becoming more and more American: suckers for the anyone-can-make-it lie that is the USA’s great ideological sleight of hand. Something about the way Wiley seems to almost choke up on the word “lose” in the chorus “I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever,” while martial tympani boom beneath him and a cello mournfully aches, seems to intimate that deep down he knows he might very well lose; and that winning in itself, within the terms of the game-as-set-up, is a kind of defeat. Because to make it means you have to leave so many behind.

17/ SOMETHING J/DJ MAXXIMUS – “Mercedes Bentley Vs Versace Armani” (Warp)

From the real thing to an IDM parody of 2step (Squarepusher ‘My Red Hot Car’ style). Well, not exactly: the story goes that DJ Scud was visiting these guys in Germany, and at some point tried to explain what UK Garage was about, as a culture, and played them a few tunes. And this track was the guys’ subsequent attempt to fabricate, from hazy memory, their own idea of UKG. Actually, it sounds more as if No U Turn had jumped ship from drum’n’bass in ’97 and really crudely leaped on the speed garage bandwagon. The more fucked-up and lurching “Dub Plate Remix” is the killer version. Like Scud/Errorsmith/I-Sound’s Roots Rock Ravers EP of last year, or the music of Hellfish & Producer, it’s the kind of phantasm-sound that makes you wish there really existed an entire subculture constructed around it.

18/ LUDACRIS – “Move” (Def Jam South)

It’s hard to take Ludacris seriously when he tries “menace”, but the groove itself intimidates with its slow-moving and bullying bulk. I especially like the scrapey drum sounds like a lion’s claws lazily worrying its prey to death.

19/ THE FOO FIGHTERS-- "All My Life" (major label)

I always thought this group were the definition of mediocre, and never understood why one of the great drummers of our time would abandon the kit for the mic’. But hey, he’s got another great drummer behind him, and this is the most dynamic and excitingly structured mainstream rock song I’ve heard in a while.

20/ JURASSIC 5 – “What’s Golden” (Interscope)

Bassline! But in truth I only really like this ‘cos it reminds me of The Stranglers! Seriously – the fuzzy melded keyboard/bass groove could be right off No More Heroes or Black and White, it’s a dead ringer for “Bitchin’” or “Nice “n’Sleazy” or even “Dead Ringer” itself. So domineering is that groove, I’ve yet to pay a second’s attention to the rhymes.

21/ BIG TYMERS– “Oh Yeah” (Cash Money)

What I like about this—apart from the supremely nifty and nubile groove—is its unexpected tone of monogamous affection and tenderness. This song is borderline marital! “No need to use a rubber/I'm your number one stunna/Now look what we done did/Messed around and had kids.” Probably just a calculated ploy to please the ladies, but could it be the Hot Boys have grown up?

22/ BLACK OPS Vol 3– “Howlin (Sublow Pressure)/Theme” (Black Ops)

With its bleep’n’bassy neo-electro sound and titular echo of Unique 3, ‘Theme’—so minimal they couldn’t be bothered to give it a proper title—suggests a Moebius loop of rave history. 1989: B-boys turn into ravers/2002: ravers turn back into rappers. But it’s “Howlin’” that’s the tear-out tune here: faecal blare of acid-bass, lupine whinny of synth, and funky-shuffle breakbeats that sound simultaneously frisky and ponderous, like the drumsticks are made of lead. Black Ops cru: one to watch for 2003.

23/ ROBLOE & KIN featuring NOR-T JACK FEVER---“Bounce” (Locked On)

In the gibbering-loon-on-the-mic tradition of Busta Rhymes, Slarta John and ragga deejays too numerous to list, the preposterously named Nor-T Jack Fever rides a limb-dislocating, wildly bucking robo-rodeo groove somewhere at the intersection of garage, dancehall, and Miami bass. Oddly the overall effect isn’t comic but faintly disturbing.

24/ THE STROKES – “Someday” (RCA)

With this song/video I finally got The Strokes: they’re the American Supergrass, right? The whole thing is all about the pleasures of being young: smoking cigs, drinking too much, staying up late, the odd bit of shagging, having good hair. And then writing incredibly tuneful and endearing (if slightly wet) anthems about it all.

25/ MISSY ELLIOTT – “Work It” (The Gold Mind)

Not nearly as good as last year’s “Get Your Rinse On”: the groove sounds kinda clumpy when heard on a big system, the garbled
vocal hook gets annoying real quick, the verses see Missy blatantly biting Busta Rhymes’s flow, and overall, the whole song seems to be little more than a concatenation of ultimately grating gimmicks and novelty effects. But for the ace video (that little white girl rocks!) and just the way Missy says “get your hair did,” this earns a smidgeon of affection.

The runners up:

Kevin Blechdom, I Love Presets EP and Your Butt EP; Clipse, “Grindin’”; K2 Family, "Danger"; 50 Cent, “Wanksta”; Purple Haze Crew, “Messy”; Dem Lott, "Dem Lott's Ere Now"; Adult., “Me and My Rhythm Box” [aka Adult’s “CompuRhythm Version” remix of Soul Oddity’s remix of Phoenicia’s “Odd Jobs”, on the Odd Jobs: Discrimination EP]; Eminem, “Lose Yourself”; Saftey Scissors Versus Kit Clayton, Ping Pong EP; Nas, “Made You Look”; Ultrasound feat. Elizabeth Troy and Specialist Moss, "Heavyweight"; The Rapture, “ House of Jealous Lovers”; Ashanti, “Foolish”; Groove Chronicles, "Riddim Killa"; Tiga & Zyntherius, “Sunglasses At Night”.


1/ THE STREETS – Original Pirate Material (Locked On)

The bleeding obviousness of this choice pains me a little. I’m tired of reading about this record, tired of thinking about this record, but I’m still not tired of playing this record, and Mike Skinner’s next is the record I’m most eager to hear. Besides, what’s so bad about consensus anyway? It’s a reflection of the fact that this album is simply in a different league from any other 2002 long-player. And, yeah, that’s not such a huge compliment as it sounds, this year being rather thin on the long-player front, but in any year Original Pirate Material would jostling with the toppermost.

2/ VARIOUS ARTISTS Garage Rap, Vol. 1 (Eastside)
In 18 months or so, UKG’s gone from having an absolute flood of compilations (circa 2step’s chartpop crossover zenith, with most of the comps redundantly overlapping and stuffed with the same annoyingly obvious choices) to the present situation where there’s almost no comps whatsoever. Exactly the same thing happened with hardcore in 1991-92: just as the singles chart was over-run with rave anthems, there was a deluge of ravesploitation comps with titles like Bangin’ and Rush Hour. When the music went dark and the hits abruptly dried up, suddenly the comps vanished--just at the point when the music was getting really interesting, really twisted, really in need of compiling. UK garage likewise is in dire need of compilations right now because unless you are involved in this music as “a way of life”, unless you are going to the specialist shops (and while London has dozens of them, some conveniently central like Blackmarket and Uptown in D’Arblay Street, and others scattered across Greater London, the rest of the UK/world is fucked, basically—Juno and other mail-order companies notwithstanding), and going on a weekly basis, you’re going to miss some amazing tunes. Tunes that in years to come will be as highly sought after as the darkcore and early jungle tunes that now sell to collectors for anywhere from 15 to 200 quid.

As far as I’m aware, there’s just two comps dedicated to MC-fronted garage (So Solid’s Fuck It, while excellent, doesn’t count ‘cos it has instrumentals and R&B-flavored 2step songs in its mix) and by far the superior of these two is Garage Rap, Vol. 1Despite its being heavily advertised on the pirates, I had to hunt the fucker down; none of the megastores or Our Price type chains stocked it. Eventually I found one in an “urban” music store on Ladbroke Grove. This must reflect the fact that (as with darkside in ’93) most people into this music buy it on 12 inch the week it comes out (or just tape specific shows off the pirates), and as yet there’s hardly any scene outsiders who want this music in pre-sifted, dilettante-friendly form. Or at least that is the perception on the part of retailers and the music business. Which is a pretty weird state of affairs only a year after So Solid Crew went #1 in the singles charts and sold nigh on half-a-mill copies of their debut album, but there you go.

The comp? It’s got GK Allstars’ “Garage Feeling”, my #5 single of 2002. It’s got 2001 classics from Pay As U Go and Wiley & Roll Deep, “Know We” and “Terrible” respectively—both chips off the same block of string-swept, regal grandeur. I’m not sure if I can express exactly why the latter’s couplet “All I know is thugs and criminals/My style is quite explainable” gives me a tingle every time I hear it. It’s got something to do with the way the language and phrasing of all these garridge emcees is being pulled in three directions at once---Jamaica, B-boy America, and then underlying/undercutting everything there’s this inescapable, bathos-heavy Englishness, a dank and shabby smallness of spirit that deflates the self-aggrandisement. It’s the way “quite explainable” immediately cramps the gangsta-ragga swagger.

Garage Rap also has great tunes like Dem Lott’s “Dem Lott Is Ere Now,” Twisted Souls’s So Solid-cloning “Roll and Ride”, and K2 Family’s “Danger” (killer lines, which again only work in a pinched London accent: “tight when I spit/we drop hits like shits/in toilets”). Overall, like an above-average-but-not-quite-outstanding session on the pirates, this comp has that curious power of all genres based around scenius rather than genius: the cumulative power of its changing-same-yness, where genericity becomes a positive aesthetic force. You love it, can’t get enough of it, want more of the same-only-slight-different.

3/ CASINO VERSUS JAPAN Whole Numbers Plays the Basics (Carpark)
Not sure why this record touches me so deeply. Partly it’s do with the way Whole Numbers evokes a specific golden age of electronic dance music, a period of unparalleled bounty: all the stuff happening in the early nineties, 1991-94, that wasn’t hardcore/jungle. For there was so much else to be into! Early chill-out, when it was quite a beguiling notion; the first glints of post-rock when it was actually a pretty good idea (i.e. mostly British and mostly coming from MBV-fan indie-kids who’d just fallen for electronica in a big way---your Seefeels and Disco Infernos); R&S as they turned away from Belgian hardcore’s sturm und drang with Mundo Muzique’s “Andromeda” and Jam & Spoon’s “Stella”, Tresor (‘Klang Der Familie’, “Drugs Work’, et al), Plus 8, UR making that shift from stormcore to ‘Jupiter Jazz’, even some early trance (Hardfloor, Vapourspace), and Underworld had their moments (ooh ‘Rez’)… And there was Orb and Orbital (ooh ooh ‘Halcyon’, ‘Belfast’….), and above and beyond them all Aphex Twin: must have played the first Selected Works at least one hundred times in ‘93. In fact in 1993, give or take the entirety of tribal house, and the greater part of handbag, and the frigid pounding tedium that trance degenerated into by the end of that year, you could survey the whole span of this electronic dance music thing and quite reasonably conclude ‘what’s not to like?’.

What Whole Numbers specifically taps into, though, or reactivates, is the way so much of the music of 91-93 was nakedly emotional in a quite unabashedly moist way, shamelessly tugging at your heart-strings; the way it seemed to bath in sheer sonic beauty without needing to throw in glitches or other noise-tics as vanguard credentials.

But there is clearly something intrinsic rather than merely reference-point related that is so affecting about this album. Eagle-eyed Marcello Carlin spotted that Whole Numbers wears its heartache on its sleeve, in the form a quote from the late Justin Kowalski, the brother of Casino-creator Erik Kowalski. He died in 2000 aged only 28. And that makes for a much more specific connection than I’d thought with one of the key early Nineties co-ordinates for this music, Global Communication’s 76: 14 album, and specifically the track “14:31” a/k/a “Ob-Selon Minos”, a gorgeously stately and reverb-blurry requiem for Tom Middleton’s grandfather, based around the pulse of a grandfather clock. It was the first funeral Middleton attended, he didn’t know how to react, kept his tears inside; and later described this track as an exercise in learning how to grieve—sonic tears. If Whole Numbers really is one long tribute/remembrance/threnody it would explain a lot about this record’s special poignancy. At times, its celestial carousel atmosphere makes it seem like an imagined heaven for the dearly departed.

4/ BLEVIN BLECTUM – Talon Slalom (Deluxe)
What’s with all the Blectum-hataz out there? I can sorta kinda see the scepticism/exasperation with the Kevin solo EPs I Love Presets and Your Butt, which walk a thin and teetering tightrope between the gorge of gross on one side and the vale of twee on t’other. (Personally I love the stuff, it cracks me up—and “Mr. Miguel”, her lewd love song to Kid606 is real tuneful in a Tori Amos meets Enya sort of way). But Kevin’s other half’s Talon Slalom dispenses with the whole side of Blectum that revels in silly voices and between-track skits and scatomaniac fantasy worlds, instead concentrating on textures and warped melody (i.e. the sort of sheer sonic accomplishment that won Blectum from Blechdom that Ars Electronica Award). Beyond these Wire-y credentials, Talon Slalom also has “charm” in both the personable/attractive and magic/enchantment senses of the world. Who could not love "Rockitship Long Light Years," a steampunk spacecraft clanking and creaking as it struggles to reach escape velocity? Or the fever-dream carny music of “Oxsmas” and “The Wicked Pair Were Dancing (For Copp and Brown)” (the latter being a duo who recorded albums of macabre bedtime stories for children)? Who could fail to be touched by the way Blevin likewise parenthetically dedicates no less than four songs to her boyfriend J. Lesser? The most gorgeous of these--"The Way The Cookie Crumbles Straight From the Horse’s Mouth"—chops and timestretches some classic blissed-diva samples (some famous from being used in Nightmare On Wax’s “Aftermath”) and turns them into the sort of sonic Valentine’s Day card a glitch-fiend like Lesser would truly appreciate. Overall, this record shows how things that are ghastly defects in rock—quirkiness, eccentricity, whimsy—are actually positive attributes in electronic music, lending personality, warmth, and wetness to what too often seems clinical, disembodied, and dry.

5/ RECLOOSE – Cardiology (Planet E)
Something of an aberration, this, for me: a Planet E release in my Top 10! Surely this ought to be exactly the sort of refinement and all-gates-open eclecticism I usually find so drearily mild. Subtleties galore. (Apparently, in Mike Skinner’s personal slang lexicon, “subtle” means “boring”. Chap!). But Cardiology also has a hookiness, an almost-pop instantness that swayed me on the first play (just as well as I’m not a patient fellow). There’s a thin line between “warm” and “tepid”, but like Herbert, Ananda Project, and precious few others, Mr. Recloose walks it very well. Cardiology brings real substance to the wishy-washy idea of a post-everything omni-sound that weaves together flavas and feels from Detroit, jazzy drum’n’bass, micro-house, R&B, disco, 2step. To be honest the idea doesn’t even sound that appealing on paper, and the recorded manifestations of it (like broken beats, Viktor Duplaix) have so far been underwhelming. But while Cardiology offers nothing to get behind ideologically, its sheer sonic voluptuousness is utterly seductive. Killer tune after killer tune, from the phantom funk of “Ghost Stories” to the gaseous soul of “Kapiti Dream,” from the softcore rave flutter-riffs of “Get There Tonight” to the Jacob’s Optical Stairway-like limpid phuture-jazz foliage of “Absence of One”.

6/ KAITO – Special Life (Kompact)
From a parallel universe, where trance isn’t shite. As I said here before, this is like the Chain Reaction aesthetic, only sourced in Jam & Spoon rather than Chicago-Detroit: ten minute tracks, poised between catatonic daze inducing monotony and perception-sharpening ever-shifting inflections, endless billowing texture-folds and scintillating melody lines. ‘Trance’ in its original undegraded sense: reverie, grace, utter absorption in the be-here-now. The year’s best argument for ecstasy with a small ‘e’. Or for Ecstasy with a bloody big E, come to think of it.

7/ BOARDS OF CANADA – Geogaddi (Warp)
Not as inexhaustibly listenable to anything like the degree that Music Has A Right to Children remains, but this gets its high placing for the blown-away impact it had the first three or four times I heard it. If the best bits--"1969", "The Beach At Redpoint", "Sunshine Recorder", "Music Is Math”-- are essentially more-of-the-same-only-more-so, the lazy/stagnant critique is easily deflected by the “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” riposte. More damning are the numerous unfulfilled attempts to stray from the formula (those trademark just-off-pitch synths like washed-out Super 8 home movies), which often sound merely gnarly and unlovable a la Autechre. But there’s a handful of successful steps outside their own norm ("Julie and Candy": Loveless if Kevin Shields had tried to achieve the sound in his head armed only with a recorder and a toy piano; "Alpha and Omega," Orientalism a la Holger Czukay ‘Persian Love’ and Byrne/Eno’s Bush of Ghosts; the hallucinatory vividness and micro-sonic intricacy of “The Devil Is In The Details") and these suggest the group have a future beyond self-parody. Mind you, with a sonic self as distinct and bewitching as BoC’s, I could certainly withstand some of that—like say, another 107 albums’ worth.

8/ and 9/
TIGA/VARIOUS ARTISTS – American Gigolo (Turbo/International Deejay Gigolo)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau (Ghostly International
These two stand out amid the poor plethora of nu-wave/electroclash compilations as making a very good case for the back-to-the-Eighties initiative as an endlessly fertile vista of possibilities, as opposed to the dead-already fad that it feels like at the fag end of 2002. Tiga’s mix-CD is especially stunning because he makes this genre, which unlike house/techno/trance is not especially designed to be mix-compatible, really work as a flow. Tune after stunning tune affirm Gigolo’s pre-eminence as pioneers of elektro-noovo, alongside Adult/Ersatz Audio and I/f/Viewlexx. Highlights: Tiga’s awesome remix of Linda Lamb’s sultry, magisterial “Hot Room”, the pervy Teutonica of Dopplereffekt’s “Porno Actress”, the retina-scorching glitterball that is Vitalic’s “Poney”, the neon shimmerscapes of Der Zyklus II's "Elektronisches Zeitech" and Miss Kittin & The Hacker's "Stock Exchange". (The nu-wave dedicated disc two of Tiga’s Mixed Emotions: Montreal Mix Sessions Vol. 5, on Turbo, is also excellent, if more subdued and less songy). Unmixed, Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveauis actually a concept album, and comes in a beautifully book-styled package which explores the connections between art nouveau and Italo-disco. The actual contents don’t quite substantiate the concept, though, and about halfway through the record reverts to that first-wave electro-revival sound of 96/97/98---more tracky than songful, with the various producers’ roots in techno clearly audible, and barely a vocal in earshot. The first half of the record is stunning though, from Legowelt's impossibly stirring “Disco Rout" to Solvent's celestial vocoder-hymn "My Radio" and the Human League sound(-of-the-crowd-)alike that is Adult.’s “Nite Life.”

10/ LIARS – They Threw Us All In A Trench and Stuck A Monument On Top (Blast First/Mute)
This doesn’t seem quite so exhilarating as when I first heard it, and is no match for the adrenaline explosion of Liars live. It’s also becoming increasingly hard to maintain the argument that there’s anything intrinsically different about what neo-postpunkers like Liars are doing and the period dramalama of The Hives and co; its just a different set of archives that’s been drawn on, and one that’s more open-ended and less played out through repetition (the garage punk revival was stale when the Fleshtones and Hoodoo Gurus were doing it, 21 years ago). At their best --"Mr Your On Fire Mr," "Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris With ESG" —Liars are G04’s “Natural’s Not In It” played with the bestial looseness of the Birthday Party or Stooges. But all those reference points (including their own nod to/borrowing from NYC punk-funkers ESG), noble as they are, only underline the band’s failure, at least so far, to transcend the record-collection-rock/bootleg mash-up pick’n’mix syndrome. (But who does, really? Certainly not Recloose or Metro Area or Playgroup or most anybody in dance. Only hip hop or the heavily hip-hop influenced—garage rap—seem to be able to sample yet remain impervious to the malaise of bitty referentiality. A mystery that deserves some investigation). Unlike many of their post-punk-redux peers, Liars seem to actually want to be about something, to have real content to substantiate the thrilling surface projection of missionary zeal. But such is the Mark E. Smith-style encryptedness of the declaimed lyrics, it’s hard to work out if they have a critique. It’s all a bit clouded and willfully opaque. Still, this is exciting enough to give them the benefit of the doubt, and hope for more next time.

THE NEXT THIRTY, in no particular order

Never quite sure if it’s the replicant aspect or the rumba that I’m enjoying in this record—there’s the suspicion I might dig a straightforward average-quality rumba record just as much. This collaboration between Atom Heart and Burnt Friedman is in the grand tradition of Germans infatuated with their rhythmic Other(s) ---think Can’s “Come Sta, La Luna” and their ethnological forgeries series---and it serves as a salutary, slightly disheartening reminder that there’s entire continents (specifically Africa, Asia, and South America, although maybe the last one is a half-continent) I’ve yet to engage with.

ROYSKOPP – Melody A.M. (Astralwerks)
Somehow I get the impression this is the kind of middlebrow fare that’ll get you mocked by Kirk DeGiorgio; one friend described it sniffily as "the kind of dance record rock fans like.". So what--this is lovely. Like The Avalanches on hash and Horlicks, rather than E and Freixenet. Or like a more earnest, less whimsical Wagon Christ.

‘Snot these MCs and producers’ fault that as a Brit twist on hip hop, they’ve already been outflanked by garage rap. Dubbed “bouncement” by its backers, this sound weaves in dancehall and Dirty South flavors, but compared to, say Robloe & Kin’s similarly sourced and truly bent “Bounce”, it sounds a bit subdued. Taken as its own thing, though, tracks like Gamma featuring Shadowless’s “Killer Aps” and Ty’s “Don’t Care” are extremely listenable. Ever since hardcore swallowed hip hop whole—sampladelica, breakbeats, sub-bass, MCs, the lot---I’ve always regarded Britrap as a lost cause. But finally the U.K. does seem to have both the innovative production and emcee skills/rhymes/character to rank globally. Of course, such is the US rap scene’s nativism and isolationism (a curious syndrome worth analysing in depth: weird how US hip hop’s awesome self-sufficiency, its totally closed-offness to foreign influences, oddly mirrors the country’s America-First foreign policy),
this stuff has about as much chance of impacting hip hop’s homeland as rap from Croatia does. Fuck ‘em though, it’s their loss, even if they’ll never know.

VARIOUS ARTISTS--Fuck It! The Official So Solid Crew Compilation (So Solid Beats)
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Crews Control: MCs Inside the Ride (Warnerdance)

Fuck It! is excellent but coming out at the very start of the year, this double-disc comp is full of 2000/2001 material so feels a bit timelagged by this point. A great catch-up for the current g-rap explosion though. Highlights: K2 Family’s awesome bass-bibbler “Bouncing Flow”, the washing-machine-on-self-destruct bass-roil of DJ Narrow’s relick of Corrupted Cru’s “G.A.R.A.G.E”, and Purple Haze Crew’s “Messy,” alternating between patois-gnarly gruffmale verses and an indelible girls dem sugar-sweet chorus (“P-Haze they messy messy… them mans they are rude”). Crews Control, a pun excruciating enough to have been thought up by yours truly, is a double-disc that would have made an awesome single, with just a little too much in the way of flaccid padding. Disc One’s killertunes tunes come from Heartless Crew, Blazing Squad, Ultrasound/Specialist Moss (grievous bassline, sicksick) Zed Bias/Juiceman & Simba, Elephant Man versus Horsepower, Groove Chronicles (featuring Rodney P’s angular-as-fuck chorus), and Oxide & Neutrino with the straight up UK hip hop of “Rap Dis” (alpha-male derision at its most vindictive). Disc Two’s gems include P-Haze’s “Messy”, More Fire’s “Oi!”, K2’s “Bust”, Zed Bias again (with Dynamite, Sweetie Irie, and Spee this time), and burial tune of the whole comp, Genius Kru’s “Course Bruv”, worth the admission alone even in its mix-truncated form. London massive take note: there were shitloads of Crews Control going real cheap in Music & Video Exchange last time I looked.

HELLFISH AND PRODUCER– Bastard Sonz of Rave (Planet Mu)
HELLFISH–Meat Machine Broadcast System (Planet Mu)

If this sound, which flails and pummels somewhere at the intersection of gabba, old skool ‘ardcore, electro, and drill’n’bass, was a fully-fledged subcultural movement, and I was half my age and on the appropriate drugs, it might very well be my life. Hellfish & Producer’s music is as well-produced and nuanced as any microhouse or IDM auteur you care to mention, it’s just that the “aesthetic” is about bludgeoning you to a pulp. A weird blend of neat-freak attention to detail and axe-maniac frenzy, this is not so much “intelligent hardcore” as Mensa-level gabber. All stop-starts and drastic dynamics, it’s verging on Math-rock levels of structural complexity, bearing the same relationship to Sperminator/Elstak/Mokum that King Crimson bore to the Dave Clark Five and early Kinks. Bastard Sonz is not collaboration but a split album, with all but one track done separately. On the whole, I lean slightly towards the Producer stuff as a marginally more inventive carpetbombing of the senses, but the Hellfish stuff is real good too. And you’ve got to love the latter’s way with a title: “Dangerous Turd”, “Guerrillas On the Piss”, “Canaboid (3814 Joints Later)”, ”Toilet Wars”.

GEEZ’N’GOSH--Nobody Knows (Mille Plateaus)
AKUFEN—My Way (Force Inc.)
After the first three tracks, My Way is one long Todd Edwards’s rip-off. It’s amusing to see people hailing this guy for his “trademark vocal cut-up/radio dial style”, when the trademark belongs to somebody else and Akufen is flagrantly infringing. Still, the world is not exactly over-run with Todd Edwards copyists and we could certainly use a few more. The striking difference between the originator and the imitator is that My Way tracks like “Deck The House” don’t have that lambent devotional warmth that true believer Todd achieves with his sample-choir. The effect is more choppily post-modern and fractured, making me imagine what it might be like to inhabit the scatterbrain of someone who’s eighteen and has barely known a world without videogames, an infinity of TV channels, MP3s, etc. This effect is most pronounced on the most Todd-like track, “Heaven Can Wait”, and maybe this is the tune’s point: the brittle, feverish hell that is postmodernity’s “mire of options,” where desire can’t even focus on an object for long without distracting itself. Where Todd’s stuff is reaching out for nirvana, an end to lust and appetite, Akufen is all about being enslaved by vritti, rhythm, the restlessness of desire.

Geez ‘n’ Gosh’s Nobody Knows may have no debts to Todd Edwards whatsoever for all I know, but its use of gospel vocals achieves a similar effect: the rapture and reverence, gratitude and grace of one who’s been born again in the Lord’s love. If there’s piss being taken here, it hardly shows through the very straight face this music maintains; if you didn’t know the perpetrator (Uwe Schmidt, a.k.a. Atom Heart) was the same guy behind Senor Coconut’s Latin versions of Kraftwerk classics, you might well think this was part of some new offshoot genre, Christian glitch. (Well, there’s a Ravers-for-Christ scene, so why not?). The closest thing to a wisecrack here is the way one gospel singer’s “swing” is isolated from “swing low, sweet chariot” and turned into a chant/injunction, thereby referencing house and garage’s swing (Mood II Swing etc) as opposed to the Lord’s vessel descending to swoop the faithful home to heaven. What’s especially clever and interesting about this record is the way the vocals are processed to sound even more faded-by-time and mixed way low (as opposed to way upfront, the obvious house way of using gospel uplift), so that they figure as almost inconspicuous elements of the glitchscapes. This somehow brings out the eerieness of religion, its grotesque fairy-tale quality. Is this record in fact an IDM riposte to Moby’s Play? Sort of, this is how to do it, chum…

CLIPSE – Lord Willin’ (Arista)
Was it Kodwo Eshun in his N.E.R.D. piece on Hyperdub
who described the Neptunes as belonging to that class of nerd who use their wit and knowledge of arcana to hang out with the bullies, thereby acquiring glory/status/menace by association? That would certainly seem to explain their whole thing with Clipse, the way Pharrell Williams likes to get his voice on the records and his scrawny unmuscled physique into the videos as much as possible. As the umpteenth retelling of the Staggerlee story (as per Greil Marcus in Mystery Train: the black rebel who breaks all limits, but only within his own community, and at his own people’s expense), Clipse seem like another dose of the same old same old: fresh sound, fresh flows even, but the stalest of socially destructive myths (and if you don’t think fantasy has reality-effects on people’s behavior, then to be consistent you must also believe all forms of music are equally trivial; you can’t talk about music’s power, without acknowledging its power to harm, corrupt, misguide). With Clipse/Neptunes, it doesn’t really work to squint your ears and try to isolate the thrilling sounds from the regrettable lyrics, because the stripped, raw nastiness of the form is inseparably bonded to the in-your-face noxiousness of the content. Case closed, then, except for the sudden sideswipe of this Pusha T verse in “I’m Not You”, in which you witness Staggerlee’s secret remorse and in turn are astonished to find yourself actually empathising with the crack dealer, even feeling sorry for him. “You and I don’t share no common bond/So forgive me if I don’t receive you with open arms/It shames me to no end to feed poison to those who could very well be my kin/But where there’s demand, someone will supply/So I feed them their needs, at the same time cry/Yes it pains me to see them need this/All of them lost souls and I’m their Jesus/Deepest regret and sympathy to the streets/I’ve seen them pay for their fix when their kids couldn’t eat/And with this in mind I still didn’t quit/And that’s how I know that I ain’t shit/My heart bleeds but that’s aside from the fact/I live for my kids and theirs and them young ones after that.

Against all the odds, I/f and friend wring a few more drops of delight from the Eighties-retro thing. (Sidenote: there’s a song here which slags off “electroCash” as the great nu-wave swindle—which seems to be a common perception. But can Larry Tee really be making much, or any, money off this scene? Does anyone really believe Fischerspooner got paid 3 million? That ten thousand W.I.T. front covers are a source of income?).

PANTYTEC—Ponyslaystation (Perlon)
FARBEN—Textstar (Klang Elektronik)
MICHAEL MAYER--Immer (Kompact)
SND–Tender Love (Mille Plateaus)
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Montreal Smoked Meat (Force Inc.)
VARIOUS ARTISTS—Selection 1 (Trapez)
VARIOUS ARTISTS/SWAYZAK—Groovetechnology v1.3 (!K7)
VARIOUS ARTISTS—Clicks’n’Cuts 3 (Mille Plateaux)

And microhouse a/k/a the more dancefloor-leaning end of click’n’glitch continues to chug along very nicely. Expecting a convulsion of any sort from it any time soon would, I suppose, be both churlish in the face of such pleasure-bounty and also kinda contrary to its foundational charter of aesthetic principles, which are pointillist and tending towards endless, infinitesimal subtilisation: evolution through involution.

In Fine Style’s inclusion here follows in the wake of Philip Sherburne’s take: the best way to understand/enjoy Horsepower Productions is as a genre-of-one---micro-step, a Chain Reaction informed/infused take on UK garage that strips away most of its “cliches” (a/k/a enduringly potent and socially resonant vibe-triggers) and focuses instead on its subliminal skank.

PLAYGROUP---DJ Kicks (!K7)
That Playgroup album proper is a curious thing: every time I play it, I like it less. B-level songcraft is the problem: all those tunes that make me flash on The System or Robert Palmer in the early Eighties. But this mix-CD is a fabulous exploration of unusual terrain: a mix of Eighties and Eighties-evocative tracks, all mid-tempo, many with a dub-disco/reggaematic funk feel. Metro Area make an appearance, and that sets the coordinates: post-disco but pre-house, non-frantic, a mixture of sensuality and sadness. In other words, the absolute opposite of the other Playgroup mix-CD of this year (see below: Still On the Fence section).

INTERPOL—Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)
Surprised how much I liked this record, which strikes me as not nearly so much of a specific rip-off as the Joy Division-clone accusations would suggest, but rooted in a much broader 1979/80 sound-and-vision: Bunnymen, The Sound, Comsat Angels, 154 Wire, as well as the Hannett Sound. Cold clear skies, godless and slate-grey; rock, purified by punk, but prepared to risk grandeur again; young men in Oxfam overcoats, the world on their shoulders. If it’s okay for whole mini-genres of groups to base themselves around the sensibility of Gram Parsons or Brian Wilson, then why shouldn’t Interpol use that dawn-of-the-Eighties North-of-England sound as their roots and taking off point? I reckon it’s those very sharp suits that account for about 80 percent of the hostility towards them; a group that well-dressed can’t possibly be for real, is how the thinking goes.

DJ SHADOW—The Private Press (MCA)
He’s still got it. But if you’re not wearing headphones you might as well not bother.

METRO AREA Metro Area (Environ)
Until quite recently this was going to be in my Over-Rated of 2002, but on some impulse I whacked it in the machine one more time and was suddenly won over. (Chastening thought: how many records are you just one play for loving/understanding?). Bloody annoying actually, I had a whole diss-ertation written in my head. How they were like Modeski Martin & Wood, subtlety-riddled, the tunes mere showcases for certain fetishised period textures (syn-drum sounds, Klein & MBO-style drum machine breaks, etc). How it was ‘intelligent electroclash’, all the pungent cheese and drama-queeny excess expunged to leave something that while never as wack as the worst electroclash, never reached its rare heights either. How… hang on a minute, I’m supposed to be praising the thing. It’s, er, great! Buy it! You won’t regret it.

As you can see I’m more attached to my reasons for disliking Metro Area than I am to my recently-developed reasons for liking them, which are much the same as anybody else's (ghost-disco, blah blah, delicious echoes of Prelude/West End/Sleeping Bag yawn). I guess it’s the Recloose problem: there’s nothing here to get behind, ideologically. Just another attractive and endlessly playable record woven out of allusions to other much earlier records that I really loved and which actually seemed to mean something at the time. (Most of these records were from ‘New York’, which to someone living first in edge-of-the-Chilterns Hertfordshire and then in Oxford represented an exoticism and “edge” that’s almost impossible for me to recreate mentally, now that New York, albeit a vastly transformed New York, is my everyday life). So there’s nothing here to match the juicy-fruit sexiness of Vicky D’s “This Beat Is Mine,” the monstagroove carnality of Gwen Macrae’s ‘Funky Sensation’ or Cheryll Lynn’s “Got To Be Real”. But the album is steeped in these juices, the love is luminous, and sometimes reflected glory is enough.

MISSY ELLIOTT—Under Construction (The Gold Mind, Inc)
TWEET—Southern Hummingbird (the Gold Mind, Inc.)
WASTELAND—Amen Fire (Transparent)

All the advance buzz on ‘Work It’ set me up to be underwhelmed, but all the early negative reactions to the album have had the opposite effect: set me up to be, if not over- then at least sufficiently whelmed. It don’t seem nearly as crap as it’s made out to be, by some. Some good tunes, some good grooves. Lots of annoying speechifying in between the tracks, but that’s what the skip function on your CD remote’s for, innit? Right now I like this slightly more than the second album, but not nearly as much as #1 and #3.

The Missy-overseen Southern Hummingbird is Craig ‘I-Sound’ Willingham’s favorite album of the year (a fact which finally convinced me to buy the thing). I reckon this must be the vanguard noisetronica equivalent of that syndrome where your real gangsters don’t listen to gangsta rap, they like to chill to The Dramatics and Anita Baker. Likewise Craig clearly spends so much time making/deejaying ear-scouring stuff professionally, in his down-time he wants to hear something soothing—like this ballad-and-midtempo-jam laden Tweet album, which has just enough of a Missy/Tim avant-R&B twist to engage the Wire-reader’s ear.

Talking of I-Sound, Wasteland is him and long-time ally DJ Scud doing the splatterbreaks equivalent of slow-jams. In fact, underneath the deadly plumes of noise-smoke and radioactive crackles of distortion, a lot of the grooves are based on the jitterfunk template invented by Timbaland and developed by 2step. Technically an early 2003 release (it’s just got bumped back due to a pressing plant error), this shows how slowing the tempo can actually be more intense than cranking full-tilt; by working against reverb and echo, velocity tends to flatten the soundscape to 2D, whereas slow’n’low allows space—sensual or sinister--to open up between the beats. Seduction music for Merzbow fans.

O.U.T.H.U.D.---S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D (Kranky)
Post-rock seemingly sourced in Edge’s playing on The Unforgettable Fire and Jean-Michel Jarre as much as the obvious “Losing My Edge” canon. What a strange world we live in.

This is a great mix-CD because it pulls together all these actually-disparate and far-flung sounds but in the best way homogenizes them---makes them seem like they belong together and actually are the soundtrack to some real subculture. It's the same dirty trick--hoodwinking you momentarily that all evidence to the contrary this is actually a golden age for dance music we're living through--that is pulled off, differently but with equal potency, by the Ellen Allien mix-CD. So Dave (who he?) Tarrida's spectrum spans from (speak of the devil) Bpitch Control to the Horrorist (here collaborating brilliantly with Neil Landstruum), from Cristian Vogel to Hakan Libdo to The Mover, along with a bunch of brilliant unknowns (to me) like Aeox and Black Ops (not the UK garage outfit). The result--exemplified by Tarrida's own slinky gloomcore-meets-2step track "Terminally Yours"--is dark, sensual, twisted, doomy yet euphoric; it perfectly blends pounding 4/4 relentlessness and almost-IDM/microhouse levels of kinky spatial intricacy; and if there was a club playing exactly this sound I'd be there every week.

Various Artists--Fuzzy Boombox v.1 (Fuzzy Box); Elephant Man, Higher Level (Greensleeves); Position Normal, Goodly Time (Rum Records); Boom Bip & Doseone (Mush); The Chemical Brothers, Come With Us (Astralwerks); Marumari, The Remixes (Carpark); Antipop Consortium, Arrhythmia (Warp); the Coral (Deltasonic); Various Artist, Cuisine Non-Stop (Luaka Bop); Buzz Circuits, The Very Best of (Deluxe); Thomas Fehlmann, Visions of Blah (Kompact); Blectum from Blechdom, Fishin in Front of People: the early years: 1998-2000 (Pthalo); Req, Sketchbook (Warp); Scion, Arrange and Process Basic Channel Tracks (Tresor); Ellen Allien, Weiss.Mix (Bpitchcontrol); Boom Bip, Seed to Sun (Lex); Keith Fullerton Whitman, Playthroughs (Kranky); Alias, The Other Side of the Looking Glass (Anticon); The Fire Show, Saint (Perishable); Earl Zinger, Put Your Phazers On Stun Throw Your Health Food Skyward (!K7); Various Artists, Urban Renewal Program (Chocolate Industries); Wire, Read & Burn (PinkFlag); Euphone, The Lakewood (Bubblecore); Station 17+, Hitparade (Mute); Roots Manuva, Run Come Save Me/Dub Come Save Me (Big Dada); John B presents Brainstorm (Beta Recordings/Gizmo); Sage Francis, Personal Journals (Anticon); Various Artists, Night Owls and Night Owls 02 (Deluxe); Various Artists, Asthmatic Worm (Mobile); Various Artists, Seasonal Greetings (Mobile); Black Dice, Beaches & Canyons (DFA); Radian, Rec.Extern (Thrill Jockey); Beachwood Sparks, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry (Sub Pop); Shelleydevoto, Buzzkunst; Sutekh, Fell (Orthlong Musork).

OLD STUFF: reissues and ‘basement tapes’

THE FUTURE & THE HUMAN LEAGUE--The Golden Hour of the Future (Black Melody)
"We are the Human League, there are no guitars…". 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal: spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from a group that at this point had as much in common with pre-punk progressives like Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz"; the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his most ethereal; "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face", "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations. Best of all are the opening and closing tracks. "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed, while the ten minute long "Last Man on Earth” fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title with its aching vistas of cold electronic beauty.

VARIOUS ARTISTS--Verschwende Deine Jugend: Punk und New Wave in Deutschland (1977-83) (Ata Tak)
PALAIS SCHAUMBURG—Palais Schaumburg (Tapete)
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Teutonik Disaster (Munk/Gomma)

This double-CD makes a good case for West Germany as the number 2 world territory for post-punk, after the U.K. and just ahead of America. Chris Bohn was right all along! Palais Schaumburg’s classic debut album reveals them to a German counterpart to the Associates circa Fourth Drawer Down, poised between the sombreness of post-punk and the giddy revelry of New Pop and mutant disco. It was produced by David Cunningham of Flying Lizards, a group who seem to have been quite influential in Germany, judging by the quirky contents of Teutonik Disaster.

At last one can read Robin Carmody’s epic Radiophonic Workshop piece from an informed perspective! The music turns out to be quite as quirky and captivating as you might hope, although this reish is a tad stingy, sticking to the original 1968 album plus a couple of bonus tunes, and not exploiting the remaining 33 minutes of CD-space by filling it with creepy soundtrack bits from Dr. Who. (In fact it’s a Dr. Who-free zone, for some reason). Alternately charmingly eccentric and pretty fucking disturbing, this collection of jingles, radio-drama themes, and incidental music lies somewhere between Joe Meek, Raymond Scott’s music for babies, and musique concrete. Other bits sound like the missing link between The Shadows and early Cabaret Voltaire. This makes you wish Sonic Boom would get his skates on and release the cache of archival Radiophonic and post-BBCRW Delia Derbyshire material he is apparently harboring. Most of all, BBC Radiophonic Music has exactly the quaint, creaky aura that you’d hope when it comes to the institutionalised avant-garde. You can almost hear the tea lady coming round with her urn: “Doughnut as usual with your cuppa, Mrs. Derbyshire? How many sugars, Mr. Briscoe? Goodness, you lot dunnarf make some queer noises in here!“

LUDUS--The Damage (LTM)
Much more pop-cuddly—all winsome warbled melody and tumbling percussion--than you’d expect given Linder’s confrontational legend (performing at the Hacienda in a frock made out of cuts of meat and chicken giblets etc). As well as this compilation LTM seem to be CD-reissuing all the original EPS and mini-LPS in their original form.

THE BLUE ORCHIDS--a Darker Bloom (Cherry Red)
Acid-doused and brazenly mystical, this hallucinogen-gobbling Fall offshoot kicked up a hypno-swirl of discordant guitar and incense-and-belladonna keyboards that couldn’t have been more dissident in its early Eighties context of New Pop and bleached funk. Politically as well as sonically: This album stages a quiet refusal of the “climb the money mountain” careerism of the Thatcher/Reagan era. “Dumb Magician” (from The Greatest Hit, the Orchids masterpiece, almost all of which is included here) offers a devastating critique of the dis-enchanted worldview that comes with pursuing worldly success: “try so hard to get your foot in the door/get what you ask for and nothing more” (a subtle swipe at Rough Trade labelmates turned major labels entryists like Scritti and Aztec Camera?) before offering the defiant call-to-transcendence: "The only way out is UP”. “Low Profile” is their turn-on/tune-in/drop-out anthem (“no compromise in the name of truth/keep a low profile/serene inspiration”), the inexorable rumble of the rhythm section driving a gold-dust-rush of sound as triumphant as Felt’s own loser’s anthem “Primitive Painters.” Martin Bramah and Una Baines’s lyrics teem with pagan poetry and ache with naked pantheist devotion: “get down on your knees/just touch the flesh of the breeze/and feel release”, “with hearts that burst when we salute heaven”,” “ate the fruit of surrender/surrender to no one”. “Visions of splendour, two left feet” goes “Sun Connection”, perfectly capturing the group’s uncanny merger of sublime and clumsy. From the burst-levee roar of early singles stuff like “Disney Boys,” “The Flood” and “Work” to the serenity of the latterday Agents of Change EP (whose piano-rolling “Release” is enjoyably reminiscent of The Stranglers’s “Don’t Bring Harry”), A Darker Bloom gives you a chance to discover a remarkable, if sadly compact, body of work.

HERBERT—Secondhand Sounds: Herbert Remixes (Peacefrog)
If I was a musician and did remixes regularly, I’m sure that whatever my conscious intentions, I’d subconsciously find myself holding back my best ideas and reserving them for my own tracks. That just seems like human nature. So when you gather together an artist’s remixes for other people onto two discs, not only does this draw attention to the trademark tricks and default mannerisms that get deployed time and time again, you also get a weird effect: it’s like you’re in a parallel universe where everything is identical, Herbert is exactly the same person as a character, with all his preoccupations and artistic traits, EXCEPT that instead of being a first-rate talent, he’s a second-rater. (Wyndham Lewis might have been a right cunt and a fascist sympathiser to boot, but when he opined that in arts criticism, if you weren’t able to talk about things being first-rate and second-rate, then there wasn’t much point in carrying on, he was onto something: distinction, in a work, a melody, a voice, is both an endless mystery we write around as best we can, and the absolute critical thing). Anyway, that’s what it’s like listening to this CD: most of the time there’s a barely perceptible but distinct lessness of quality compared with his own records. Still, even slightly dilute Herbert is pretty delectable, and [warning: bathos imminent] this is a great record for when you have people round for dinner.

ULTRAMARINE--Every Man and Woman Is a Star (Darla)
Blue Orchids-like shroom-enhanced pastoralism, with acieeed bass, chugging house beats, and lots of soft-rock samples. In my Top Five electronic albums of all time.

VARIOUS ARTISTS--London is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950—1956 (Honest Jon’s).
Catches both the optimism and disillusionment of the first-wave of Caribbean immigrants as they arrive in the U.K. and are not exactly warmly embraced.

VARIOUS ARTISTS--Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds from the London Dancehall, 1986-89 (Honest Jon’s)
Vital background research for anybody attempting a dissertation in UK MC-ology (working title: “You’re a Bunch of Chatty Bastards: Caribbean Diasporic Oral Cultures and the Other-isation of British Youth"). This catches a moment just before acid house changed the game forever, and includes some people who went on to be staples of the Shut Up and Dance stable: the Ragga Twins, Peter Bouncer.

ESSENDEN AIRPORT—Sonic Investigations of the Trivial (Chapter)
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Can’t Stop It! Australian Post-Punk 1978-82 (Chapter)

This compilation, and the stuff by Essenden Airport (an Antipodean Young Marble Giants, if you will) show why Australia was the number 4 territory for post-punk, after America and just ahead of Belgium/Holland.

VINCENT GALLO—Recordings of Music For Film (Warp)

Anti-NY is a real odd’n’sods package, worth getting for Viven Goldman’s proto-On U “Launderette” and “Drum Mode” by Basquiat’s group Gray, who turn out to be really rather good. Briefly a member of Gray, Vincent Gallo has been doing lo-fi soundtracky stuff for low-budget movies since the early Eighties: haunting, oneiric, despondency-as-epiphanic-trance.

VARIOUS ARTISTS--Hustle! Reggae Disco: Kingston, London, New York (Soul Jazz)
Just the fantastic kitschadelic cover image alone makes you want to get behind this collection of lover’s rock versions of disco hits. Post-2step it has a lot of ideological appeal too: inauthentic reggae, glossy instead of earthy, Jeri-curled instead of dreaded, and strickly for the ladies massive. Some of the versions are actually rather thin fare (the cover of “I’m Every Woman” just sounds so mild compared with Chaka’s torrid original, and the stab at ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is misguided) but ‘Ring My Bell’ and ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ work divinely, and the remake of The Whispers’ sublime “And the Beat Goes On” is gorgeous. Most of all this renews my determination to get hold of some Janet Kay records.

More good old stuff:
Boards of Canada--Two-ism (Warp); Hi-Scores EP (Skam)
A Certain Ratio–Early (Soul Jazz)
Royal Trux- Hand of God (Domino)
Muziq – Tango n’ Vectif (Planet Mu)
Ian Dury—Ten More Turnips From the Tip (Ronnie Harris Records)

Open to persuasion but as yet unswayed

MY COMPUTER–Vulnerabilia
This is impressive but there’s something too perfect and poised about it. The singer belongs to that category of leaves-me-cold magnificence that includes that McAlmont dude and maybe even Billy McKenzie from Perhaps onwards.

THE FLAMING LIPS–Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
THE ROOTS—Phrenology
COMMON--Electric Circus

These get lumped together because they all fit a syndrome/ shtick/sales pitch that goes something like: “Behold the Immensity and Breadth of Our Vision”. Ambition–heroic, or overweening, your call–is what these records trumpet so loudly.
Paralleling a certain sort of literary ambition (those who still attempt the Great American Novel, like The Corrections, a/k/a in Britain The Novel of Its Time, a la Martin Amis’s Money), these artists would like to address a no-longer-existent audience, an educated listenership that transcends genre. (Genre, being predicated on taste-tribes, is inimical to this sort of Album, which aims for universality, is predicated on the notion of an Everyman or human core beneath all the identity politics). Of course this kind of Record, like that kind of Novel (or Movie) is now just a genre in itself, one among many. Common’s Sergeant’s Pepper mimicking cover seems like a conscious attempt to situate itself within the Art Rock tradition, although Black pop has its own canon of concept album peddling visionaries (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, etc) and of course there’s Jimi Hendrix, somewhere between the two. Bits of Electric Circus (an echo of Jimi’s electric skychurch?) is quite impressive as pure sound, but this guy’s whole shtick (redeemer of a hip hop gone to the dogz and the thugz) is incredibly off-putting and tedious, no? Lauryn Hill, but bald and with balls and a beard. How’s this verse for a cloying-fit-to-getcha-retchin’ New Man soft-but-strong come-on? “…Put down your bags, love/I know in the past Love/Has been sort of hard on you/But I see the God in you/I just want to nurture it/Though this love may hurt a bit… I want to build a tribe wit’choo/Protect and provide for you/Truth is, I can’t hide from you/The pimp-in-me may have to die with you.” Ka-blooowierrghhh!! You really have to hear it in his ‘caring’ voice for the full upchuck effect though.

As for Flaming Lips, I suppose I should be well behind this latest effort, being a pro-pretentious art-rock type. They're part of a whole mini-genre of contemporary rock bands who aspire to partake of that going-crazy-with-the-overdubs, spare-no-expense, “Genius is Madness/Madness is Genius” lineage that includes Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks/Tim Buckley/Scott Walker/Todd Rundgren/Big Star’s Third Album etc etc. Groups like Mercury Rev (whose last two albums did nothing for me), Olivia Tremor Control, Spiritualized… Thing is, it’s so much easier to make these epic-seeming, sonically lavish albums nowadays, with cheap or self-owned studios and Pro Tools and the like. You don’t need full orchestras and ruinously massive studio-time costs and major label executives tearing their hair out. It’s sort of budget visionary, which somehow makes a difference.

For sure, there are moments all over Yoshimi and especially all over Phrenology that drip with pure beauty and invention (“Water” is extraordinary), although much of Yoshimi is “visionary” only in the sense that Electric Light Orchestra made visionary epics. But I dunno, when artists are trying so blatantly to blow minds, something in me resists: my mind curls up tight like a hedgehog rolling in a ball, and resolutely refuses to be blown away.

A final jibe: if The Roots are, like Common, all about marshalling a spiritual and intellectual renaissance for rap, Black America, and possibly Mankind to boot, if they decry modern hip hop’s materialism, they really ought to attend to the plank in their own eyes first and have a word with the record company about ecologically unsound and extravagantly wasteful promotional gimmicks. Their previous album was sent to select journalists as a tape glued into a Walkman – fucking annoying, you couldn’t remove the thing without destroying the machine. But Phrenology tops this by coming as a promo disc glued into a portable CD player, again impossible to extract without destroying the machine.

ADD N TO (X)–Loud Like Nature
It’s great they’re all about making electronic music that rocks, but all of sudden it’s like they’ve turned into the Glitter Band

I’ve persevered but this music doesn’t invite strong feelings beyond ‘nice’. Pleasant, clever, and the band are cute as fuck, but the doubt lingers that Ladytron simply don't have the voices or the songs to really spar with the ruthless mainstream pop music of the early Noughties. Or, more pointedly, with the ruthless mainstream pop of the early Eighties.

DALEK–From the Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots

Shouldn’t we all be over “noise” by now?

EL P–Fantastic Damage
Fabulous sounds, but this guy should just keep his gob shut.

PLAYGROUP--Party-Mix Vol. 1
DJ/RUPTURE–- Minesweeper Suite
2 MANY DJs--As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt 2

Radio Soulwax and Party-Mix Vol. 1 induce a curious sensation, a mix of delight and staleness. If familiarity breeds contempt, then what is the appropriate aesthetic response to a music that is based entirely around the play of familiarity and unfamiliarity? There’s a smugness that suffuses everything that 2 Many DJs do that for me almost completely vitiates the undeniable wit, skill and entertainment value involved in their juxtapositions. The Playgroup mix is interesting for the way it mostly weaves together the non-obvious bits of its Eighties classics: not the killer hooks but the other captivating features, the intros, bridges, drum breakdowns. In the end though, this album wears you out with its good-bittiness; running through what seems like hundreds of records, it never allows you to settle into enjoying anything before it flits off to another track. If DJing was a disease, a delirium tremens of the central nervous system, this record is like Trevor Jackson’s in the hospice and the priest’s been called for last rites.

DJ/Rupture: smart cookie, excellent taste, seems like a nice chap. And here we have another interesting selection expertly mixed: so many good records, assembled and interconnected with abundant skill, and all with the best of intentions. And yet, and yet, the end experience is so even, orderly, flat, polite. A rupture-free zone, in fact. About as far from the original evocations of "mash up" as imaginable.