What a weird month for music! I spent this whole month working on my artist career but not so much my software career (which will be changing soon!) and my listening experience was changed as a result. I actually had to carve out time to actively listen instead of it being built in to each day, so the process was a little bit different than it has been. However, the results are pretty much the same as they would have been otherwise, since my tastes haven’t changed dramatically during my other life shifts.
There has been a shift towards a few things this year that make it particularly exciting and this outlet a really good one for me. Most of the development involves analog appreciation of a couple different kinds (Outsider House and Progressive Electronic), but there’s a question of how old loves stay fresh that I’m constantly trying to answer (R&B, Techno, Garage). I’ve also been thinking about listening format. In one sense, it’s all vinyl, tapes, or digital only. In another sense, it’s RSS, bandcamp, and social media. In a third sense, it’s crowd-sourced lists, professional opinions, and self-promotion. I want some of each!
Not too many albums with words this month - if you’re looking for folk, there’s Esmé, R&B then Kelela, and Casper Skulls for a bit of garage. Besides that, there’s a whole mess of lo-fi and abstract house and electronic. It’s really good though! I swear it keeps getting better, and that’s only partially to satisfy my obsession with living in the present. There are so many sounds to be excited about and so little time!
Stay tuned for the end of year list that I’m going to feverishly assemble over the next month while I try to cobble together all the things that I’ve missed so far. Let me know if that’s anything in particular I should try to check out! Quick!
Best LP: Esmé Patterson - Woman to Woman
I didn’t find a ton of music with words this month, but I’m also very content with what little I did find. Ostensibly written as a series of responses to not-exactly-love songs named after women (Loretta, Eleanor Rigby, Alison), Esme’s first solo collection hits all the right notes. Woman to Woman is Americana that shoots out in many different directions. On the A side, there’s the slide guitar romp of highlight “Never Chase a Man,” a voyage towards the tropics on “Oh Let’s Dance” and hand-clap, organ-laden glam on “Tumbleweed” and bluesy “What do you Call a Woman.” The B-side is markedly slower, quieter and has more musings on death. There are some lovely highlights in “The Glow” and the solo acoustic closer “Wildflower.” The latter has a very Milennial second verse that I love: “Fever of youth it keeps the mind so clean / We get hungry, we get reckless, we get drunk on our thoughts / We see right and wrong and nothing in between / We borrow to buy what can never be bought.” Put it on and let Esmé howl, yelp, and croon her way into your heart.
Best House LP: Erik Luebs - Absolute Presence
This is the kind of melody-centric downtempo house that not only do I like, but I think that other people like, too! And it’s pressed on pink vinyl! The melodies are gorgeous, the beats are kinetic but never get stale, and the transitions between movements are so smooth that it’s effectively presented as one piece. “Losing It” builds on the synths momentum of the opening track, deepening both the bass and the synth melodies. “Eyes Closed” uses the same 2-step shuffle but takes a cinematic turn once synth melodies combine together. “Outpouring” breaks the momentum of the first half by dissolving into a drone that incorporates guitar and synth in one o”Ff the best moments of the record. The flip side picks up the beat again for the literally named “Climbing Arc,” which incorporates some more pleasant feedback into the beats, fulfilling the promise of the first side. The closing track, “Reawakening” is a satisfying climax and denouement to combine the mood and sounds of the previous tracks.
Best Tape: Roche - Dawn of the Next Cycle
Not as concept-heavy as its recent companion tapes, this is more like big room house done the 100% Silk way. Many tracks are nearly danceable and are often made up of separate pieces that each play very well on their own. Check out the disparate pieces of “Churning Your Chest” or the catchy as heck highlight “Breathe Deep.” Songs never get stale because of the many moving parts that are always pushing forward. This is important for the format of a C60 because I never have an attention span of an hour unless I have a specific reason. “Visions Again” is the only part that slows or quiets down as the intro to the B side, but then “Positive Sky” moves things back towards the dance floor, the bedroom, or the kitchen (wherever you like listening to House). That, the exciting “Time Remaining” and the chugging but pensive “Look Inside Yourself” make for a great trio to finish off a vibrant listen.
Best Acid House Tape: Nackt - Virex
I’ve gone on record as saying I don’t really like 303’s and the sounds that they produce, but I think it might be that the context is just usually wrong for me. That isn’t the case with this 100% Silk tape! It’s definitely my favorite label this year, with many more hits than misses. These are live-to-tape analogue experimentation that are as restrained as they are fun. The acid squelches are rubbery instead of painful and the drum tracks are lo-fi and well curated. “Full Coat” is an early highlight, providing a two-note chime melody over multiple bouncing acid synths provided by collaborator Cm-4, who is listed on five of the seven tracks on this tape. “Ford” takes a turn towards drum mania as all three producers fill the sixteen beat loops with claps, toms, and cymbals galore. Nackt is solo again for the great “Black Widow,” which has the most interesting melodic developments of any track. “Husk” is also brilliant and contains the only vocal clips on the record. I particularly like the spliced up and later completed in coincidence with a drop: ‘I would give anything!’ This is in the top releases that the big three outsider tape labels have put out this year (100% Silk, 1080p, Opal Tapes).
Best Sci-Fi Disco Tape: Sasha Conda - Bronco
This one seems to be flying pretty far under people’s radars, but it’s clearly awesome and deserves to be heard. This is out on Not Not Fun, ironically less prolific super-label of 100% Silk. I always think releases should tell a story, so a tape that’s a collaboration between a science fiction author, Patrick Scott Walsh III, seems like it’s going to tremendously soar or miserably fail. It ends up sounding like I think Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” would sound. I don’t know the content of the story, but from what I can tell: things start out pretty groovy to introduce the “Bronco” character, things are going great when “Jackpot” hits, but then some serious plot stars to happen as “Into the Dark” takes us for a deep disco funk trip. “Unscheduled Vr” sounds like we’re taking to the streets for a previously unintended night ride, and “The Plasticmen” is probably some type of pursuit that stops very abruptly. I’m not super sure what happens after this climax, but “Forbidden Stratum” almost sounds like a standoff that develops into a realization of something coming to fruition. Things do seem to have gone badly by the time we’re in the “Void,” though. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted!
Best Bass LP: Rabit - Communion
Not for the faint of heart! This is an industrial grime album, in specific terms, and it’s pretty good! Each song poses a variation on the structure that the album creates, which all sounds sort of like UK grime (though Eric Burton is from Houston, TX) but alien and alienating at the same time. At the beginning of the record, synth parts lead simple melodies while drums carry on the cacophony around them. It sounds better here than it has in the past: nothing feels thin anymore and it’s consistently out of control in a slightly different direction than immediately before. The highlight for me is “Pandemic,” which succeeds as being quite a bit more terrifying that what comes before and after it. Actually, the latter third feels like a comedown and is a little less satisfying, but it feels important to slow down a bit after all that mayhem. Put this on when you want to listen to “crazy people” music and you’ll be very satisfied.
Best Experimental LP: Robin Fox - A Small Prometheus
This has been a good thought piece for me in terms of what I need to hear about a piece of music in order to know my interest level in it. I’m turned off by a lot of the sounds on this record at first blush, especially the out-of-phase experiment on “3 Phase” to begin it all. As I started to hear it come together, I recognized it as a thing that I’m actually pretty interested in: out of control of the artist, but within the creative boundaries that were drawn. So much of improvised music is like that, and it’s something I’m only coming around to now. I’m glad I stuck it out, and I encourage you to do so if you’re curious about electroacoustic or noise at all. This could be a good place to start; check out “A Pound of Flesh, ” for example. It’s noise but not unpleasant, it shifts and turns but doesn’t overwhelm, and its composition uses silence and dynamic ranges in good contrast. It’s like looking at a “good” abstract painting. The title track is built from contact mic, lit matches and unidentified hisses, and satisfies in a similar way as crackling records. Fox gives these sounds form with the use of a few well-placed tones: the first on the record. “Dark Rain” is the perhaps more unsettling sister track of the opener and gives the listener some satisfaction as it evolves and comes into phase as the track progresses. The backside is built out of two mammoth pieces, “Antlers” and “Through Sky.” The former almost evokes a pastoral scene if you let it, and the latter builds into the strongest and most satisfying drone on the record.
Best EP: Kelela - Hallucinogen
I’m secretly a huge fan of R&B of all kinds (See Natasha Kmeto, and Janet Jackson’s new album is pretty good), and not so secretly really Bass music production, so this all-too-brief EP really hits home for me. “Gomenasai” has the best production: cavernous bass throbs, sparkling vocals, and occasional cowbell weave around Kelela’s vocal track perfectly. “Rewind” picks up the tempo with a boom-bap beat that gets frantic and manic as it winds into the hook. The best hook might be on “All the Way Down,” with the gloriously unsubtle but carefully sung ‘cared before but baby now I don’t give a fuck.’ The last two tracks set up and deliver the sublime “The High,” which has the sparsest sound design of any track. This EP should unite many different types of music listeners with the combination of experimentation and pop sensibilities.
Best Outsider EP: Lnrdcroy - UNTHANK008
This was a surprise! It’s way less outsider-y than Lnrdcroy’s 1080p release last year and I’m not sure what kind of a tone it’s setting for this young label, Unthank. I haven’t found any of the other releases on it yet but it’s a sub-label of what seems like a pretty small label, already. All that is to say, I got led here to enjoy some abstract house music, and it turns out these three are cuts from live performances, so there’s that performative hardware improvisation aspect that I’m really liking. I think “Freedom for Antboy II” is the masterpiece, combining asymmetrical mechanistic glitchy sounds with shimmering ambient washes. There’s a brief interlude that leads well into the flip, where “Terragem” is quite a banger. Five minutes in, things start to come full circle, as you hear ambient washes and glitches under the Detroit-y techno beat. At its mean, this release sort of fits into an Outsider genre label, but it really succeeds because of the distance between its extremes.
Best Ambient House EP: Mikael Seifu - The Lost Drum Beat
This is a special little release. The titular A-side has a UKG shuffle that is woven around patches of ambient and a vocal sample. The mania of it all is supposedly Ethiopian music influenced as Mikael hails from Addis Adaba, but feels like Speed Garage or Footwork to me. “Brass” is a different beast altogether, though it does have the same concept of bringing mania and ambience at odds. A lot of nice things, but nothing too substantive, happens for the first four and a half minutes before the horns come in, and soon after, a beat! The horns sound melancholy when set against the sparse backdrop
Best Bass EP: Akkord - Obelisk
Monolith / Megalith is a hilariously aptly titled duo of tracks. Monolith is all Emptyset style cavernous ambient with beats smattered throughout. It acts as a prelude to Megalith, which builds on the space of the A-side, bringing it a chugging two-toned bass thud, some breakbeats, and an ominous synth to lead the way into the darkness and back out again to the more kinetic conclusion. These two are pretty satisfying, true-to-form Akkord and they leave me wanting more.
Best Electro House EP: SDC - Correlation #3
This is my introduction to Space Dimension Controller and the completist in my hates coming in mid-series. I haven’t gone back to the first or second Correlation, but if the name serves, I’m sure they have something in common with this one. This one opens with a breezy house track that should have Mood Hut fans watering at the mouth. Deep funk takes over for “The Nova Report” before giving way to an electro-funk party in “Galactic Insurgents.” The closing track, “Scatter Scanners,” is a fast but melancholic electro tech house workout with jungly drum programming that serves as an excellent closer to an EP that goes all over the place.
Best Techno EP: Lee Gamble - B23 Steakhouse / Motor System (Extension)
Hey! Is Lee Gamble a “normal” techno producer now? This isn’t exactly normal techno, since it’s actually really good, but it sure is more direct and hard hitting than his PAN releases of the last few years. The A-side builds away and towards some sweet pad hits and screwed-down synths in an exciting percussive workout that breaks a bit in the middle section but never really lets up. The flip is a bit slower, a bit thuddier, and has more melody, but is no more similar to KOCH. It may be the more exciting of the pair, as its well-sequenced vocal samples, ambience, and increasingly powerful and frenetic percussion all hit at just the right times.
Best Garage EP: Casper Skulls - King of Gold
This is some nice Sonic Youth aping that actually comes through a Parquet Courts filter, which is funny because transitively, Parquet Courts don’t always sound like Sonic Youth. The guitars on “King of Gold” do some really nice Thurston/Lee things and instead of a weighty rock installment, we get a concise poppy gem (I do still love Sonic Youth). The B-side goes a little more post-hardcore garage instead of noise rock garage. Both are good. This always makes me want to rock.