Music not only plays a role in the work we do at Retronyms, but it's also a fundamental part of any given workday. Since we've hit the halfway mark in 2010 already (!), I compiled a list of some of the favorites that have been playing on my headphones.
Thomas Fehlmann "Gute Luft" (Kompakt)
From the opening staccato, delayed chords of "Alles, Immer," there is something incredibly comforting and familiar about this release from veteran Fehlmann. He's reached a point in his career where he doesn't so much surprise as satisfy with some really compelling and polished tracks. Working on this soundtrack, Fehlmann has room to roam into the airy outer reaches of his repertoire, dropping the beat completely at times to lend a more freeform, ambient touch. But then there's the beat, that purely Fehlmann sensibility... hugely magnetic and lending an anchor to these tracks."Gute Luft" represents Fehlmann's finest repertoire gestures organized into a sleek mosaic, one that is not entirely new sounding, yet somehow still wholly impressive.
Watch/listen: "Alles, Immer"
Flying Lotus "Cosmogramma" (Warp)
The free spirit that runs throughout this album is not so far off from that of the jazz genre at its more adventurous -- though rest assured that no one genre defines this album, where even distinct track markers are not obvious distinction points. Flying Lotus flits between tempos, timbres, genres and sounds effortlessly across these 17 "tracks" (some of which shift gears radically as separate ideas mid-stream). It's his most vibrant and exciting collection of material to date, always surprising you as it comes. Just when you think you have it figured out, he lobs a straight up smoky disco track at you ("Do The Astral Plane"). It says volumes that one of the least interesting things about this album is the appearance by Radiohead's Thom Yorke -- a track that is quite good actually, but not any more noteworthy than the ingenuity expressed throughout this entire release.
Listen/watch: "Table Tennis"
Glitterbug "Privilege" (c.sides)
Epic and elegant, this double album from Glitterbug manages to both accommodate fans of melancholic tech house as well as those who'd rather sit and ponder. Many of the more upbeat tracks here are functional for a dancefloor but share the same gloomy overtones worked by contemporaries such as Lawrence, Fairmont and Pantha Du Prince. The LP cuts out a lot of the fat and streamlines the release into a much smaller batch of tracks, but this is perhaps best experienced as the full 20-track double-CD/digital version. In its full running order listeners are treated not only to some slick melancholy tech house tracks but also some interesting diversions like the stark piano exercise of "So Could We," the quasi-dubstep break of "Parted," the odd acoustic drum kit of "Waves," the Eno-esque ambient beauty of "Lionheart" and more. It's a lot to digest in one go but those who lend their time will not be disappointed.
Marcel Dettmann "Dettmann" (Ostgut)
Marcel Dettmann is one of a handful of producers releasing music through the Ostgut imprint, affiliated with the Berghain club night at Panoramabar in Berlin. His first full-length album is impressive, because many times the LP format for producers can wear thin after a few tracks. Being an LP, it does afford Dettmann some creative license that strays from immediately DJ-friendly fare, such as the more severe "Argon" that kicks things off or the broken, urgent beat of "Home," but he doesn't indulge those impulses as much as one might expect. Most of the tracks here are extremely minimal techno, tried and true. They work well for mixing but also are quite good on their own. "Silex" and "Irritant" have the murky, underwater pulse of Basic Channel classics, but often times he's more direct. "Captivate" has a compelling hook that never lets up, and "Screen" is a creeper with its insistent bass kick and subtle layers of sound. It's hard to describe why I find this to be such a strong album, and anyone who doesn't have an affinity to minimal techno might not find it to be so special, but this resonates deeply for me. Extremely lean and expertly controlled.
Autechre "Oversteps"/"Move Of Ten" (Warp)
In 2010 we have not one but TWO brand new albums from Autechre. They've already redefined IDM as geeks know it through the late 90s and early 00s, and their last several albums have found them exploring the outer limits of accessibility through often tuneless and highly irregular programming, sound experiments and vaguely improvisational-sounding sprawls. Oversteps is their proper album release, while Move of Ten is a somewhat supplemental "EP" (true to Autechre's reputation, this so-called EP is actually 10 tracks totaling about an hour's worth of music). Oversteps is probably the more adventurous of the two, an impressive outing that includes 14 tracks running a pretty dynamic gamut. There isn't a whole lot on here that sounds as wildly new for 2010 as some of their late 90s releases did at the time, but they make up for that with some really sharp sound-shaping and interesting musical ideas. In fact, you might say that this is their most "musical" sounding release in some time.... not shying from melodic references or steady rhythmic structures as much as they seem to have in recent years (whether this was deliberate on their part, I can't say). The first few tracks have their signature off-kilter rhythmic play, but when "known(1)" comes on, its weird bright synths and weirdo chord progressions make it easily the boldest move of theirs in some time. And it's refreshing that for every sputtering, unpredictable exploration there is a counterpoint based in melody or texture that is somehow soothing and inviting, such as the warm welcome of "see on see." The regular beat that's introduced in "Treale" is a nice groundwork to appreciate the more odd sonic things happening while bobbing your head, something that I haven't noticed on an Autechre record in a long time. In some instances I get the vaguest notion of dubstep in these tracks, but they don't really sound anything like that genre -- it's more like a hint at awareness without pandering to the formula at all. Move of Ten is more predictable to a certain degree, in the sense that it relies more on regular, metered rhythm as a framework and then wanders within that structure. There is less of the fully scattered spectrum of Oversteps, for example, in "pce freeze 2.8i," which features a prominent and regular drum loop... but it still is a strange one with its atonal flourishes (oddly dissonant chords that bring to mind Penderecki). "nth Defuseder.b" sounds like Autechre piggybacked onto a Boards of Canada palette, full of airy synths and drones, little melodic touches and again a more reliable drum pattern. It's immensely satisfying to hear Autechre continue to refine their craft by mixing and matching between things they've already explored as well as introducing new elements and ideas. The two releases work well side by side as a mammoth new slab of material and are likely to top my list at the end of the year as well.
Watch/listen: "nth Dafuseder.b"
The National "High Violet" (4AD)
I've always been somewhat resistant of the hype of The National, but they won me over with this one. It's incredibly even -- no real standouts necessarily, and a persistent sound throughout its various tracks. But its stride is maintained from start to finish, with a coursing rhythm section and lush string arrangements to flesh out its songs, washing over like a warm wave.
Watch/listen: "Bloodbuzz Ohio"
Loscil "Endless Falls" (Kranky)
Loscil has been on a slow but steady trajectory away from the electronic pulse of his earliest outings on Kranky toward something more sublime and organic. Endless Falls is the next logical step in that journey, with a gorgeous palette of strings, drones, textures and overtones. The tools are still predominantly electronic, but these 8 tracks exude something tragic and human and cut deep in the process. The title track that kicks things off is by the far the richest, with its clear, beautiful acoustic string arrangements and persistent, lingering drones. The tracks that follow are comparable if at times less immediately stunning, navigating through the slice of hazy melancholy Loscil has carved for himself. Daniel Bejar from Destroyer appears on the last track, reading a monologue about the creative process. It could have gone horribly awry, but the decidedly gloomy track that percolates underneath fits perfectly with his thoughts about music: “I should only make things I understand … however imperfect. It’s not even like dictating to someone… it’s less than that.”
Watch/listen: "Endless Falls"
Oval "Oh" (Thrill Jockey)
Ten years of silence from Oval and then.... "Oh!" So perfectly titled, and perfectly executed. It's startling to hear Markus Popp embracing musicality again after almost completely eradicating it from his music. The first song "Hey" is bright and spry, full of unusual plucked string sounding melodies (synths? samples? who knows?) and sampled live drum kit. The only real similarity to Oval's previous repertoire is the stunning attention to detail and the otherworldliness that you feel when hearing it. Beyond the sparkling first track, most of the rest of "Oh" is dreamlike improvisation. There are tinges of Oval's past in some of the noodlier tracks like "Homesick" or the square, suspended tones of "Kastell 4," but these are fleeting as Popp has clearly advanced past the technical rut he may have found himself in at the turn of the century. Exciting stuff.
The Chemical Brothers "Further" (Virgin)
I was knocked down the first time I played this new one from the ever-changing Chemical Brothers. There are shades of where they were heading with this one on the last full-length (We Are the Night) in shimmering tracks like "Burst Generator" or single B-side "Electronic Battle Weapon 8," but as an idea this is probably their most concise and deliberate outing since their debut. One might call this their shoegazer album, because it has all the light and air and brightness of shoegaze pop, but it still works as a dancefloor album, even when it veers far off course. It's a surprisingly unified and nearly perfectly executed selection of tracks that reminds everyone that the Chemical Brothers are still capable as ever of surprises and creative success.
Watch/listen: "Escape Velocity"
Stars "The Five Ghosts" (Soft Revolution)
It's about time -- Stars has come back to making a full-blown pop album. The Five Ghosts finds them exploring electronics more in the mix, with a few straight-up synth tracks like "The Last Song Ever Written" and "The Passenger." Amy Millan shares vocal duties significantly more here, a welcome change-up because her voice is actually very nice. Standouts are the bright pop rock of "Wasted Daylight," the chunky chorus of "We Don't Want Your Body" and the lo-fi dance-pop of "The Passenger."
Watch/listen: "We Don't Want Your Body"
ANBB "Ret Marut Handshake" (Raster-Noton)
Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva/Noto) with Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten? Sign me up. It's nothing so off what you might expect -- Noto's signature buzz and pulse is here in full effect, and Bargeld's crystal-clear German vocals provide a unifying thread. I don't understand a word personally, but that's never deterred me. "Ret Marut Handshake" and "Electricity is Fiction" have more of a visceral rhythmic quality, whereas the other tracks veer more into a more "musical" region that Bargeld is clearly more comfortable in, based on Neubauten's recent output. It's outstanding.
Watch/listen: "Ret Marut Handshake"
Tracey Thorn "Love And Its Opposite" (Buzzing Fly)
Tracey Thorn is one chanteuse that I consider essential to pop music. The same attention to detail and lovely songwriting is present, but Thorn and producer Ewan Pearson have largely traded in the glossy synth-pop sheen of her previous solo album for a more acoustic and intimate sound here. There is a clear single ("Why Does The Wind?") but many of the other tracks are quite stark and scaled back, even when there is a subtle amount of detail at play. It's definitely a sleeper of an album, not half as immediate as her last album, but striking a quite nice middle ground between the various points of her long-running repertoire.
Watch/listen: "Oh, The Divorces!" (live on Later with Jools Holland)
Crystal Castles "2" (Polydor)
A friend of mine described this as "It sounds like they're having an awesome party one room over, and I'm not invited." I get what he means -- the production is a bit murky in spots and overcrowded, but nothing sounds so immediate. Still, this is a really nice progression from their debut, a dense and gloomy synth-pop crossover album with some bite. Despite lacking all the rougher edges of some of their earliest output, they make up for it with a moody edge that seems to push them into a new place.
Jonas Reinhardt "Powers of Audition" (Kranky)
Jonas Reinhard is one of Kranky's more recent additions who seems to operate in his own orbit, breaking away from the drone-ambient pack like signature pop signees Deerhunter did in their own way. Opener "Mumma Deed Family Clone" begins things off droney enough, but suddenly then "Atomic Bomb Living" catapults us headlong into the heart of Neu!-esque krautrock. Reinhardt seems keen on the same vague homage to the past that labelmates Cloudland Canyon have explored in recent years, never sounding like a total rip-off but also not shy about his reference points and a clear love for this music.
Watch/listen: "Near a Mirrored Pit Viper"
Massive Attack "Heligoland" (Island)
Many years have passed since Massive Attack's original heyday, and, like Bristol compatriots Portishead, Massive Attack has changed their sound yet again. Robert Del Naja a.k.a. 3D is still the driving creative force, but he’s re-enlisted original partner Daddy G with songwriting on several tracks (other founder Andrew Vowles did not rejoin). Most notable is the roster of guest vocalists, something that also characterized the last couple of albums; these vocalists are free to run in the direction of their respective choice, but the songs remain true to Massive Attack’s vision. The most immediate distinction between this album and previous efforts is that it feels far less sampled or synthesized. Of course there is still a certain amount of that (probably more than meets the ears), but the extensive use of acoustic drum sounds and piano removes these even further from the so-called “trip hop” genre that the group has always been loosely assigned. This is what I’d call a sleeper success — it has tinges of greatness but nothing so strong as to make it really pounce. Still, it’s another strong entry into Massive Attack’s ongoing repertoire of solid music. They have sidestepped genre cliches with something that will likely hold up against the test of time, although time will only truly tell.
Watch/listen: "Paradise Circus"
LCD Soundsystem "This Is Happening" (DFA)
"This is Happening" doesn't really stray from the sensibility or formula of past LCD releases... Kick-off single "Drunk Girls" fulfills the role of raucous rocker track, and while it's not a personal favorite, I can appreciate its sense of humor because once again he's sort of nailed it. "One Touch" is sort of like "Get Innocuous!" part 2, but it's a pretty irresistible jam. And "I Can Change" is clearly the standout, sporting the best vocal of his LCD career. Never mind that "Somebody's Calling Me" is a shameless homage to "Nightclubbing" when "You Wanted a Hit" is such a great reference to new wave pop without being ironic. Time will tell how this settles in alongside his other LCD albums, but in this early impression for me, it rivals his strongest previous work.
Watch/listen: "I Can Change"
Ceephax Acid Crew "United Acid Emirates" (Planet µ)
Squarepusher's younger brother Andy Jenkinson has been making playful, skittery melodic music as Ceephax for some time, but this release on Planet µ is the clincher. He's reinvented himself as the go-to guy for acid house throwback, and this album (sporting one of the best pun names of all time) is the real deal. There's not really a bad track to be heard. "Castilian," previewed on Planet µ's "200" comp, is the odd man out as it sounds much more like his older, faster breakbeat tracks, but still tucks in alongside these other more straight-up dance tracks because it's just so damn fun. So this album delivers full-on acid house, some fun video game soundtracks, some more emotive slightly slower fare, and acid-tinged space disco. There's really not a bad track to be found. It's so much fun!!!
Watch/listen: "Life Funk"
Frank Bretschneider "EXP" (Raster-Noton)
Frank Bretschneider has always fit neatly into the borderline non-musical, rhythmic pulse of Raster-Noton and its ilk. The first time I heard his music was his album Rand on Mille Plateaux, a super severe entry into their then newly-established Clicks_+_cuts series of releases. It was around 2000 and artists were beginning to fully embrace the concept of "error music" or supremely reductive rhythmic electronic music that was almost fully divorced from the concept of dance music. The opening segment of this mini-album is not surprising, but from the stuttering crescendo of sound that concludes it, things get significantly more interesting. Suddenly Bretschneider is not so staid and conservative -- he's getting downright playful with the vague ghost of free jazz haunting his electronics.
Watch/listen: "Chamber Jazz, Biplex, Blue: Cyan"
Four Tet "There Is Love in You" (Domino)
Kieran Hebdan's Four Tet project continues to evolve with this latest album, which seems heavily influenced by his collaboration with Burial. There is much more of a reliance on a 4-to-the-floor pulse, but he choose to generally use a more sampled/acoustic drum kit still on many of these tracks. His affinity to bright, twinkly chimes and plucked strings is here still, providing a high-end textural sound to many of the tracks while he also explores cut-up vocal samples. This looping effect that he uses more obviously on this album could be likened in the most vague way to Jan Jelinek or The Field, while his sonic palette is decidedly more acoustic and sampled. There is something about these tracks that seems somehow less adventurous than his previous earlier work, but it doesn't matter -- nearly everything on here is totally ace.
Watch/listen: "Plastic People"
Scissor Sisters "Night Work" (Polydor)
Stuart Price is the go-to guy for dance music gold. His solo work under Les Rythmes Digitales was ahead of the curve at the time (the lack of a follow-up has perhaps made it more legendary than it really ought to be considered) and his work with Zoot Woman was always infectious pop, but it was when he paired up with Madonna that he skyrocketed into the pop echelon. He's taken his hand to other mainstream pop acts, but perhaps he's met his match with Scissor Sisters, an act that appear to have benefited greatly from the focused collaboration that has ensued on Night Work: it's their best album yet. It has Price's fingerprints all over it, but it doesn't sound like he completely steered it -- this is still by and large a Scissor Sisters album. It's a much smarter and better approach to late 70s / early 80s discotheque pop compared to Goldfrapp's recent Head First. There really isn't a bad track on here, but they definitely saved the best for last: the gloomy, hazy "Invisible Light" that rounds out the album is the clincher.
Watch/listen: "Invisible Light"
The Books "The Way Out" (Temporary Residence)
The Way Out continues the Books duo's signature combination of goofy found recordings, folk guitar riffs, odd plucked percussive sounds and breezy vocals. The main difference here is their willingness to kick up the tempo and move almost into dance music, embracing the dense, raucous vibe of artists like Jason Forrest or maybe Mouse on Mars, but still working largely within the palette they've established over their career. I find these bursts of energy to be the most exciting and rewarding parts of the album so far, especially the frenetic stuttering fun of "A Cold Freezin' Night" and the dense quasi-dance music of "I Am Who I Am."
Watch/listen: "A Cold Freezin' Night"
Caribou "Swim" (Domino)
This album sort of startled me when I put it on. Had Dan Snaith finally succumbed to trends and created a mediocre dance album? At a glance that was how it struck me, but upon further listen this is a hugely infectious album that, while yes, tied to a more disco groove, is still mired in the smoky psychedelia that he's been exploring since his second album "Up In Flames" (back before he got litigated out of the name Manitoba). But it's actually quite exciting to hear him reframe some of his gestures, textures and moods within a more dancefloor-accessible paradigm. There are no clear standouts for me, just a nicely even collection of tracks that straddle at-home listening and dancefloor potential.