Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year-End Lists: LPs

[Here we go again:] Well, it's that time of year again, folks. Another calendar year's circling the drain and with it swirls a lot of music, most of it total trash but some of it very good.

These are the albums I'll be listening to past the new year. Maybe you will too, maybe you won't.  I disavow all claims to objectivity or universality. I rarely check my email, don't answer my phone, have no fixed mailing address,  and do my best to only listen to The Clash & Joy Division (and  the Supremes, of course), so I don't hear much new music.

 Go start your own blog, or better yet, go work for a major record label, if you think I'm fulla shit. I love you all.

These are the LPs.

 Dirty Beaches-Drifter/Love is the Devil:
I hate to be obvious, but this was a no-brainer.* This LP is sprawling, and sprawling in its ambition: we go from the crude, jaunty techno of "Nightwalker" to the despondent, bittersweet melancholy of "Berlin." In between lies a bewildering series of sounds and sketches, and probably a lifetime's worth of personal anguish on the part of Alex Zhang Hungtai, the frontman of Dirty Beaches.

If it wasn't a great album on its own terms, this double LP would still be a brilliant act of character assassination. Said character being the too-cool-for-school crooner of 2011's Badlands: in numerous interviews, Hungtai has described his desire to walk away from this persona, and being interpellated back into it by fans, critics, and a listening public that really doesn't listen very well.

What about the music? The two LPs have a certain internal coherence: Drifter is a series of throbbing, synth-based tunes grinding out late-night frustration, too much drinking, too much neon sleaze, too much everything. The psychosis undergirding it all begins to surface on the third track, "Belgrade": it's nothing but screaming synthesizer and howling feedback. On Drifter,  Hungtai emphasizes the imminent breakdown by switching back and forth between English, Spanish, and French for the vocals.

Love is the Devil throws form to the wind and drifts within a swirling world of missed connections, broken relationships, and memories that grow fainter the harder you try to hold on to them."This is Not My City" sets the tone: stray piano keys, xylophone(?), gusts of gray ambiance filtered through whatever memories you, the listener, impose on it. No words. The titular track is hollow, despondent: you can feel the bitterness seething just underneath the surface. "Like the Ocean We Part" might be the best track here, though: a single guitar note, repeated 'til numbness, preludes Hungtai's hushed, impressionistic tale of distance and despair.

Hungtai is easily the best musician out there these days, insofar as music consists of the attempt to create a shared experience with the listener, sonically or lyrically, and then push on towards something different than whatever emotion or impression we started with. Hungtai and his band could be smash hits with the masses, and they've chosen not to. That takes courage, but even if it didn't, they're making compelling music that demands attention. This LP puts most of the rest of 2013's garbage in the shade.**

Buy the LP HERE.

*Or maybe not; apparently it didn't make Pitchfork's list, and no one I've spoken to about this album-even those who love DB-have listened to it in its entirety. Are we just too stupid and impatient for full-on narrative soundscapes, these days? Or am I just a retarded recluse? Whatever.

**Unless you want something to dance to, in which case go get whatever Rolling Stone or Vice tells you to buy. Or just get Kanye's newest 'cause all the kiddies shake their asses to him, from what I'm told, and he had a kid with Kim Kardashian so dude must be something right, right?

 Der Tanz-Kaktusz
As I said in my original review, this was the only LP that came close to equaling or surpassing Dirty Beaches in 2013. Budapest is home to a thriving, diverse punk and garage scene right now and Der Tanz is the weirdest, and maybe the best, BP band I've heard yet.

This LP, recorded live in a disused community house, is a sonic wasteland that you can't look away from. The bass dips and dives in and out of focus, the singer intones impressionistic tales of post-capitalist collapse, and the rest of the band improvises sound collages. Der Tanz sounds like some horrific machine that kept working long after its creators died out, steadily and relentlessly threshing away in the buried ruins of a mythical civilization. Deep in the background, a lone survivor tries to warn of what has happened, but he's too little, too late: Nick Cave masquerading as Jonah?

This is difficult, challenging music that can't be fit into a genre, and you certainly can't dance to it. It's horror punk but in the Lovecraft sense of horror, not those idiots, the Misfits: der Tanz dishes out disturbing, visceral explosions of revulsion and destruction, and they're good at it.

Kaktusz was easily the strangest album I heard this year, and was also the most surprising. How bands are either strange or surprising, these days? BUY IT HERE!

Criminal Damage-Call of Death
Punk has always operated on the quantity over quality principle: better to burp out cheap 7" EPs crammed full of generic songs every coupla months than invest in high-quality production, improved song-writing, or anything else that might take time and/or skill.This is one reason why most of us lose interest in the scene after a few ebullient years' worth of being in it "for the kids."

Criminal Damage, on the other hand, is proof that you can be a top-notch punk band while barely existing, and also that the traditional punk form is still capable of expressing real problems and sharing emotions grown up humans (not that nebulous group known as "the kids") have. They've been eking out a patchy existence since 2006, averaging an LP every 3 years or so. All three are a formalist's wet dream: this band on occasion ("No Solution," "Anesthesia," "Anxiety") beats out the originals in this genre, and Paul Burdette is one of the best punk lyricists since Frankie Stubbs. The band is a tight, efficient unit: each song is economical to a fault.

The opener, "The Storm," exemplifies the Crim Dam sound: a sinuous bass line, sledgehammer drumwork, drill-presser guitar and Burdette's gruff, shouted reportage of sleepless nights, deadening frustration, and general disgust with daily life. "Anxiety" pulls off the strange feat of being an anthemic sing-along about a psychological disorder. IBurdette's lyrics will ring true for any of you who have anxiety attacks, incidentally.

This isn't even my favorite Crim Dam record, yet it still-like Der Tanz-puts most punk of recent years in the shade. Burdette and co. clearly loves what they do, and they're fucking good at it. Find out why by buying a copy of the LP, which you can do at the Katorga Works distro site!

Homeless Records' website calls Sewers "thug punk," and that's an apt moniker. This is real knuckle-dragger music. This is the best image I could think of to capture the Sewers sound:

A caveman comes home from another long day out hunting dinosaurs, scratching headlice, and other enlightened activities. His cavewoman burnt the wooly-mammoth soup, so caveman gets real angry. So angry he starts thumping the floor rhythmically with his burnished wooden club and things ain't lookin' too good for poor Ms. Cavewoman.

But all of a sudden a fucking volcano erupts and a pterodactyl comes screeching down out of the sky! No more Ms. Cavewoman, no more Mr. Caveman to carry out threatened domestic violence in Sweet Home Sweet Cave! Everything's covered in magma and pterodactyl shit! Boyhowdy!

Or, to try it another way: Sewers sounds like a buncha Vicodin freaks sitting around trying to play along to Clockcleaner records, but they can't pay attention long enough to carry the beat so they accidentally recorded one of the best noise punk LPs of recent years. All the while, the singer gurgles out disgusted grunts of joy as he no doubt makes sweet caveman love to the mic stand.

Buy this piece of stellar sludge over at the Homeless Records website!

Horrible Houses-Songs Recorded Under the Influence of the Yellow House

Everyone's favorite Scandinavian outdid even himself this time. Songs Recorded.... is a curiously coherent collection of new songs, old demos, b-sides, and other bric-a-brac from the past coupla years. Most of these tunes are fragmentary, snapshots of a mood or fleeting feeling, improvised on acoustic guitar.

The album is heavily indebted to John Fahey, but Daniel has come a long way towards crafting his own sound this year (Songs is only one of several EPs and LPs he dropped in 2013). Throughout, complex guitar picking is paired with a bittersweet, distant voice that rarely narrates but always tells a story. Occasionally, as in "Bed," a harmonica line highlights the spartan desolation of the songs.

Despite this hollowness, there's a warmth to these Songs that will stick with you after the tape ends. Crack a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, settle into your favorite armchair, and get fucked up under the influence of the Yellow House, HERE.

Anadelta-Vita Brevis:

Electronica and shoegaze are one of the more unlikely pairings I could think of, even in this age of "throw all your influences into the same toilet and see what flushing it produces." Seeing the two genre names together sorta makes you cringe: surely this is just some cutesy, bored MIT student demonstrating his mastery of modern music in an attempt to get a date, right?

No, oddly enough. What this is, instead, is a series of carefully considered tracks, using beats and bass to flesh out the expansive dreamscapes of post-rock. Sometimes, Anadelta sounds like a natural progression from Boards of Canada: once you've stopped making electronic music that's danceable, why not go for post-rock landscapes sculpted around beats? Anadelta is adept at sketching out sounds without losing control of them: they drift in and out of focus, but never become boring.

Believe it or not, sometimes I wake up in a good mood. This is the sorta stuff I listen to when I find myself in that surprising situation, and Anadelta is a good curative for the winter blues: imagine a sunny beach emerging from the hazy guitar notes.

Buy the LP here! It's hard to see, but the cover art is also quite beautiful, so fuckin' get a copy before they're sold out. Limited to 200.

 The Dictaphone-s/t:

Tours' Dictaphone has been making monotony marvelous for several years now. On their second LP, they re-trace some of the same ground covered on previous outings: cranky no wave, bang-clad punk idiocy, and krautrock noodlings.

In fact, "Verkehr" is the best track here: the Dictaphone comes dangerously close to ripping off a Neu! song, but they speed it up and shorten it. Like if Teenage Panzerkorps wasn't so noisy and could focus on one musical idea for awhile. Think dub reggae without the riddim.
This is stoner music for cranks, those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and those terminally bored by their own boredom.

Don't you wanna buy this thing? Of course you do.

The Wonderfuls-2004-2007: Forgotten Years
"I'm looking over the wall/and they're looking at me"-Johnny Rotten, "Holidays in the Sun," 1977

It's sort of fudging the rules, I guess, to include a retrospective collection in a "best of the year" list. Go tell Mother if it offends you. Last year's debut LP by the Wonderfuls was a tight, focused trip to the dark side and back again. Built on nothing but guitar and vocals, it was a desolate, unsentimental look at collapse and recovery.

This collection is a dive into the deep end of what came before. Recorded over several years, these songs are raw, demo-quality ventures into the dark corners of the mind, where the only company is Danny's guitar improvisations, Bobby's mutterings, and inner demons too ugly to confront directly. Bobby's debt to Iggy shines out here in a way it didn't on Salty Town: imagine the Pop stumbling through the studio, shouting out whatever came to mind, while Jim Shepherd was recording a B-sides collection, and you have a pretty good picture of what we're dealing with here. Some of the songs are truncated blurbs; others rival the material on Salty Town.

The Wonderfuls do not make happy music, they do not make fun music, but they do make enjoyable music, in a perverse sort of way. This album will not appeal to most people, and I can't imagine that anyone will like every track, but it's alive in a strange sort of way, more alive than Vampire Weekends or whatever the fuck else people listen to these days. Most of contemporary pop culture seems fundamentally dead to me, and the Wonderfuls don't, and I hope they keep making music.

You can buy the LP HERE. Stay tuned for a new Wonderfuls 7", due out sometime in 2014.

Tony Molina-Dissed and Dismissed:
Weezer for the internet age. This LP establishes Molina as one of the best songwriters in rock right now. This is despite the fact that most of these songs are over in lesss than two minutes (but who wants to listen to opera anyway, right?).

From the opening, screeching guitar tone, the influence of Rivers Cuomo and his rotating cast of underlings is obvious. Molina still manages to worm away from being simply a Weezer ripoff artist, though, and there's a winking sort of honesty along with a healthy dose of Pollard-style silliness. In fact he even covers a GBV tune.

Basically, this is the funnest guitar record that came out this year. If you like short sharp songs about girls and stuff, you'll like it.

Melters is sold out of the LP, but I think you can download it over at I could die tomorrow blog. Then go back to the Melters bandcamp, find their email address, and pester them to re-press this.

The Dead C-Armed Courage

What can you say about a band that's been around for 20 years, and is still releasing quality music? I dunno, but the Dead C is just that. If you're familiar with this band, you're familiar with what to expect. "Armed" and "Courage" are long-form improv pieces fashioned from rock instruments. The tracks sort of sound like Godspeed, if you took away the classical cues, dramatic tension, and paranoid dystopianism: what's left is burbling, hissing, clattering, deconstructed rock and roll. So maybe it's closer to rock-based jazz? I dunno, but it's good.

You can still buy copies of this over at Midheaven.

I'm too hungover to write proper blurbs about these LPs, but they're great and you should buy them:
Michael Wohl-8 Pieces for Solo Guitar: Long boy far from home blues, or, night time is the right time. Buy it here.

Crystal Soda Cream-Escape from Vienna: Jerky post-punk for twitchy, neurotic times, from the capital of the bourgeoisie's pathology, Wien. Buy it here.

Various artists-Noise from China: A double-LP compilation of truly ferocious noise from the world's most populous country. Not for the faint of heart. Here.