Tag Archive: Janelle Monae


Welcome to the first proper post of 2017. Some people reading the blog last year may have noticed that I tried to review more music by women, in fact I was trying to strike a 50-50 balance between the music I reviewed that was by men and music that I reviewed that was by women. I managed to get that balance. This year and beyond I want to try and achieve that balance in my own music collection. I know that I may never reach a 50-50 split as there are just less women making music but I feel like I manage to balance these things in the rest of my life (films, T.V. podcasts etc.) While the music industry seems uninterested in pushing women to the forefront of music (other than pop music). I personally love and respect women both in general and in terms of artistic expression especially in music but feel that my music collection doesn’t necessarily reflect it enough. So I want to tackle this lack of balance in my own collection and hope we can all spread this positive message far and wide.

I’ve come across lots of talented artists/bands/producers but I’ve decided to ask for some recommendations as female bands/artists/producers struggle to gain the same amount of attention as their male peers. To help with the recommendations process I have created a list of music that I own by/or featuring women. I hope that this list gives you an idea of my taste and avoids people recommending artists or releases that I already own. I’ve also included a list of priority purchases so you know what I’ve got in mind to buy in the future. I’d buy them all but my benefit won’t allow for that and I will still buy some music by men as this is about striking a balance rather than cutting something out completely. .

I’ve set up a new Twitter account, @HerSonicFiction, where I’ll share what female artists I’m listening to now. Feel free to Tweet your recommendations at me or put them in the comments below. If we can all use #HerSonicFiction then we can introduce each other to some great female artists and encourage even more people to listen to and buy music by women.

Albums I already own

Kate Bush – “Hounds of Love”

Elza Soares – “Woman at the End of the World”

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – “Man Alive”

Lindstrom & Christabelle – “Real Life is no Cool”

Solange – “A Seat at the Table” & “True”

Aretha Franklin – “The Very Best Of”, “Amazing Grace” & “Lady Soul”

The Staple Singers – “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself”

The Slits – “Cut”

Erase Errata – “At Crystal Palace”

M.I.A – “Arular” & “Kala”

Julia Holter – “Ekstasis”, “Tragedy” & “Loud City Song”

Deerhoof – “Offend Maggie” & “Breakup Song”

Stereolab – “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” & “Mars Audiac Quartet”

Colleen – “Captain of None”

Bjork – “Post” & “Medulla”

Erykah Badu – “New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War”

Neneh Cherry & The Thing – “The Cherry Thing”

Junglepussy – “Pregnant with Succcess”

Suzanne Ciani – “Lixiviation 1969-1985”

Kelis – “Tasty” & “Kaleidoscope”

Ikara Colt – “Chat and Business”

Janelle Monae – “The Archandroid” & “The Electric Lady”

New Order – “Technique”

Pixies – “Come On Pilgrim”, “Surfer Rosa” & “Doolittle”

Thee Satisfaction – “Awe Naturale”, Transitions”, “THEESatisfaction Loves Erykah Badu”, “Snow Motion” & “EarthEE”

Sleigh Bells – “Treats”

Patti Smith – “Horses”

Solex “Solex vs Hitmeister”

The Raincoats – “The Raincoats”, “Odyshape” & “The Kitchen Tapes”

Talking Heads – “Talking Heads ’77”, “More Songs About Buildings & Food”, “Fear of Music” & “Remain in Light”

Tom Tom Club – “Tom Tom Club”

Tamikrest – “Chatma”

Tune-Yards – “Nikki Nack” & “Who Kill”

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – “Fever to Tell”, “Show Your Bones”, “Its Blitz” & “Mosquito”

Jamila Woods – “Heavn”

NoName – “Telefone”

female-pressure – Various Artists – “Music- Awareness & Solidarity w- Rojava Revolution”

Priority purchases:

more Kate Bush – suggestions very welcome

Lauryn Hill – “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

Missy Elliott – “Miss E…So Addictive” & “Under Construction”

FKA Twigs – “LP1”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “EARS”

Dawn Richard – “Redemption”

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This post is the first of two that mark the end of Sonic Fiction for the foreseeable future and probably forever. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but I feel that as much as I’m still as passionate about all the music reviewed on the site I have to now focus purely on my own music career and improving those skills.

Last year this post was called “Top Ten Alternative Release of Year” but this year I decided to drop the word Alternative as I felt it was misleading, I haven’t come up with a decent replacement word so just left a genre name out. This last covers everything from funk to ambient via desert blues and there will be another list tomorrow for the Top Ten Hip-Hop Releases of the Year.

Thank to everyone whose read, commented on and retweeted/favourited/followed Sonic Fiction in its three years in existence. I will still keep the Sonic Fiction Twitter account alive as my own personal account so you can still find out about new music via that account.

1. Jamie Lidell – “Jamie Lidell” (Warp)

2. Boards of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)

3. Janelle Monae – “The Electric Lady” (Wondaland)

4. Julia Holter – “Loud City” (Domino)

5. Factory Floor – “Factory Floor” (DFA)

6. Colleen – “The Weighing of the Heart” (Second Language)

7. Tamikrest – “Chatma” (Glitterbeat)

8. Mulatu Astatke – “Sketches of Ethiopia” (Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village)

9. Moderat – “II” (Monkeytown)

10. Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus” (ATP Recordings)

Jamie Lidell – “Jamie Lidell” (Warp)

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Jamie Lidell’s new self titled album may just be his best yet. It’s packed from start to finish with tracks that are suffered to gills with funk. This is however no ordinary funk, Lidell has never been one to do things the usual way, the high point of his career prior to this album was “Multiply” (2005) a collection that combined classic soul and funk chops with the forward thinking electronic glitches and edits of his label Warp. The first single from this album ‘What a Shame’ certainly promised a repeat of this direction, with its stretched grainy vocals and chopped up drums and though these and other similar sounds crop up throughout the album it’s definitely a funk album, just a freaky funk album! The album opens with the Gliding pitching synths and hard hitting drums and probing funk synth bass of ‘I’m Selfish’. It’s followed  by the huge pop of ‘Big Love’ its comes on like 80’s Prince with neon synths. ‘Do Yourself A Faver’ starts off with Thick synth bass and ghost delayed synth melody before evolving into a slice of classic George Clinton electro-funk! ‘why_ya_why’ updates New Orleans funk for the 21st century with stride piano is combined with crunching, head nodding beat and squelchy synths and some excellent horn blasts, the lines between organic and electronic are blurred. ‘So Cold’ and ‘Don’t You Love Me’ stand out from the rest of album with the former offering up Icy lead synth and pad open but contrast it with the huge rush of the chorus, the later is slower number with 80’s ballad stylings which picks up the pace and reintroduces the funk elements around halfway through. Its genuinely hard to fault Lidell on an album that superb from start to finish, a true funk masterclass.

Boards of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)

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After all the mysterious codes, album playback’s in a desert and media hype we finally have the new album from Boards of Canada. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” doesn’t disappoint and stands up alongside the rest of Boards of Canada’s stellar back catalogue. There are two things that you notice after you first listen to the album 1) this isn’t a playful album filled with childlike nostalgia like “Music Has The Right To Children” (1998) 2) this is the most rhythmic Boards of Canada album to date from the drum beats the verge on hip-hop at times to the Vangelis style arpeggios and shifting synth textures.

The album opens with synthetic horn fanfare that purposefully recalls the introduction to an 80’s T.V. show, however this is a misleading and by second track and single ‘Reach for the Dead’ a few minutes later its clear this is going to a much darker proposition. The next track ‘White Cyclosa’ plunges us further into the darkness with its dread inducing synth drone, minimal echoing synth melody and unsettling shifting synth tones that rear their ugly head two minutes in. On ‘Jacquard Causeway’ a semi industrial beat competes with a curving synth melody and its counterpoint. As the song progresses more echoing synth melodies are added and the beat has acoustic layers added and feels looser as time goes on.

With its thin lightly modulated synth line and ethereal sounding vocal textures ‘Cold Earth’ is one of only tracks on the album that recalls earlier Boards of Canada releases albeit with a skittering beat and melody that jumps erratically around the beat and stereo field. ‘Sick Times’ also recalls earlier releases but with a darker, tenser atmosphere and thick, serrated electronic drums competing for the listener’s attention. ‘Collapse’ acts as the centrepiece to the albums palindrome structure it’s groaning reversed vocal effects set the disturbing tone and the Vangelis style arpeggio is another one of the albums key tropes. Next up is the album most playful track ‘Palace Posy’ with its bouncing synth bass and melody play off an almost head nodding hip-hop beat later a delayed synth stab and rhythmic synth melody kick and give the track yet more rhythmic variation, the closest thing to pop song that Boards of Canada have produced to date. ‘Split Your Infinities’ is another album highlight that opens with huge swath of synth drone and twinkling distant synth arpeggio, all this is underpinned by a crunchy beat and lo-fi vocal sample that come in, in the tracks second half. After the intensity of ‘Split Your Infinities’ and ‘Uritual’ the lighter and more pleasant ‘Nothing Is Real’ gives the listener a chance to relax, a pattern it repeated across the album’s structure.

The closer trio of tracks is one of the finest I’ve heard this year, starting with the digital degraded rhythmic synth riff and deep twanging bass guitar of ‘New Seeds’ which recalls Ennio Morricone’s finest soundtrack work but with a modern electronic twist. The track also has some great vocal textures and treated acoustic drums. ‘Come to Dust’ perfectly balances the darker and lighter elements of the album sound combining a deep  synth drone and distant vocal texture with a spacious beat and synth melody and topping it all off with a fast moving arpeggio. The album finishes with ‘Semena Mertvykh’ and the album deepest and darkest synth drone which is twinned with a synth melody so distant it sounds like its coming from down a deep pit, static and tape hiss add to the track’s creepy, dark atmosphere.

There was a eight year wait between Boards of Canada’s last album “The Campfire Headphase” and “Tomorrow’s Harvest” but the wait was worth it with Boards of Canada producing another exceptional album.

Janelle Monae – “The Electric Lady” (Bad Boy/Wondaland)

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“The Electric Lady” is Janelle Monae’s much anticipated follow-up to her delightfully insane and eclectic debut album “The Archandroid” (2010), which featured in my Top 20 Albums of the Year 2010 on this blog. The new doesn’t disappoint mixing up a whole range of musical genres across its nineteen tracks and continuing to explore Monae’s dystopian future where she plays the character of cyborg Cindi Merryweather. The main differences between the two albums is that on “The Electric Lady” there’s a romantic subplot and Monae has a few attempts at her own take on modern R&B a genre she’s expressed much frustration with in the past.

The album opens as “The Archandroid” did with a classical suite called ‘Suite IV Electric Overture’ which features twanging tremolo guitar, slow yet purposeful strings and a low slung head nodding, thin fuzz guitar and a heavenly choir. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in there a flourish of strings that leads into… ‘Give ‘Em What They Love’ featuring Prince. In fact, Prince is the most appropriate musical reference for this track with its slick funk rock guitar and thumping minimal beat. In the chorus a shuffling acoustic guitar enters adding to the slinky groove. In verse two Prince sing falsetto over his own perfectly poised guitar melody. There’s also a great guitar solo by Prince halfway through the song but Monae is the Purple One’s equal and is never in his shadow. Next up is the album’s first single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ featuring Erykah Badu, the track kicks off with a funky guitar riff and subby bass drum and subtle tambourine groove. Then some P-Funk synth swiggles drop in before everything gets extra funky in the chorus. The track reminds of Thee Satisfaction albeit with major label production. Monae’s first attempt at a straight R&B is ‘Electric Lady’ featuring Solange. It opens with staccato vocals and fuzz guitar solo before the main head nodding funky beat and bass line drop and Monae and Solange’s vocals interweave creating harmonic heaven, later they create some fantastic melodies together too. The beat and bass line reminds me a lot of Solange’s tracks on her own ‘True’ EP and Monae has praised her as one of only artists pushing R&B forward. ‘Primetime’ featuring Miguel is another attempt at R&B this time Monae trys her hand at a ballad. In the intro Miguel adlibs over his own vocal distant vocal harmonies and a beat thumps and echoes out. Monae pushes the boat out vocally for the chorus before a cool fuzz guitar solo kicks. Things drop down again for Miguel’s first verse proper. Despite the cheesy lyrics, sounds and guitar solos, I really like this R&B and I don’t like R&B ballads.

‘Dance Apocalyptic’ is a fantastic pop song that combines acoustic rhythm guitar, upbeat drums and great claps. It strongly recalls ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast, which is no bad thing. ‘Look Into My Eyes’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ show that Monae can deliver emotive vocals, something that she’s been accused of lacking in the past. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Code’ and ‘Ghetto Woman’ add to the album funk quota the former combing flanged wah-wah guitars and thick bass with subtle yet bouncy drums and some nice twinkling vibraphone melody. I love the synth swiggles in the chorus. The later continues with the synth swiggles and pumping synth bass, recalls Stevie Wonder in his 70s prime.

The only real misstep on the album (apart the interludes which add nothing to the album musically or thematically) is the closing track ‘What An Experience’ with its 80’s style synth stabs and hip-hop drums come across as cheesy where the aim was for something emotive. However, this a minor complaint on an exceptional album that equals Monae’s debut in terms of both ambition and great tunes. You need “The Electric Lady” in your life.

Julia Holter – “Loud City Song” (Domino)

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Julia Holter returns with “Loud City Song” her third album in three years and the first to record in a studio instead of her bedroom studio. It is immediately evident that this album is both similar and different to those that preceded it. The album is again themed but this time instead of an Ancient Greek theme were transported to 1940’s Paris and the film/novel ‘Gigi’ and Holter’s home of Los Angeles the inspiration for the album. Holter also continues to play with both avant garde and pop music though whereas her previous albums felt grounded and homemade “Loud City Song” brings in elements of jazz and soundtrack music that make for more upbeat and sweeping arrangements.

‘Maxim’s I’ is a great example of the leap that Holter’s made on this superb album. It begins with quiet hi-hats & cymbals play in the distance overlapping each other. The tension rises with strings and heavy piano and a synth pad enter for the beginning of the song proper. A full drum kit plays beneath all of this and Holter’s sparse lead vocal. Then there’s a breakdown to piano and violin around 2 minutes 30 seconds in before a new drum beat and Holter enter creating something that sounds like a more muted version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire De Melody Nelson”. The first section and beat returns around 4 minutes in and is later joined by what sounds like a new thicker pad sound. Next up is ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ the most effective use of field recordings in one of her songs to date. The field recording of “the brisk footfall of her fellow passersby evokes claustrophobia, danger and paranoia (is she being chased? Or is it all in her head?)”, it sets the tone for the nervous and menacing song that follows perfectly.

‘Maxim’s II’ opens sharply with Holter’s lone vocal and surges of strings. Horns join in honking before a vibraphone enters followed by pounding drums and bass guitar. Everything breaks down around two minutes in with Holter sing over just a field recording. Then huge honking horns and orchestral percussion crash in and push the joyous track along. Around 4 minutes and 30 seconds in the beat breaks down into something more strict and industrial, globs of metallic guitar, thick synth drone and squawking sax make the tracks chaotic climax. Album closer ‘City Appearing’ is an example of something else Holter manages to deliver across the whole of the album which is expert use of dynamics and texture. It begins with just Holter’s naked voice and stark piano chords. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in a wet, subtle synth pad enters glistening and slow moving. A drum beat coated in reverb enters around 2 minutes 40 seconds in. Then 3 minutes 24 seconds in a double bass line enters giving the track new purpose. Around 5 minutes in the synth pad rises to a level that causes the track to feel both tense and swirly which is emphasised by the acoustic drums that shift about below the surface.

With “Loud City Song” Holter may have delivered her best and most fascinating album to, she has managed to make a record that is hugely ambitious and hugely satisfying for the listener. Holter has truly mastered using space, dynamics, texture and improvisation alongside melody, harmony and composing. She is able to paint pictures and evoke emotion with both field recordings and musical elements and effortless blend or move between the two. It is difficult to define, is she an experimental artist or a pop artist or both? Whatever she is it’s a joy to listen to and experience.

Factory Floor – “Factory Floor” (DFA)

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I’ve been a fan of Factory Floor since discovering them back in 2009 when The Quietus began championing their cause. Since then the trio have collaborated with the likes of Simon Fisher Turner, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, released a series of astonishing 12” singles and remixes and stunned many a gig and festival audience. All this has lead to one of most highly anticipated albums of the year and it doesn’t disappoint.

The album opens with ‘Turn It Up’ which sets the scene for the rest of the album perfectly. It opens with electronic percussion that’s swiftly followed by a bass drum, processed male vocals and intense electronic cowbell. Nik Colk’s vocals join the male vocals and the track starts to feel like a minimal Arthur Russell production but more industrial in feel. Chattering techno hi-hats cut in upping the tension. The vocals get increasingly more processed and alien as the track progresses recalling those of Laurel Halo circa ‘Logic Hour’. Next up is ‘Here Again’ which begins with a synth arpeggio that fades in and out of view. Live drums kick playing in a breakbeat style and female vocals echo out. The track reminds me of Chris & Cosey who Factory Floor have collaborated with. There a great clap that comes in around two minutess in. Another arpeggio comes in to play counterpoint to the original in the third minute. the second half of the track is dominated by lots of descending delay effects, rolling toms and chattering hi-hats Colk’s vocals hovering just above.

The single ‘Fall Back’ combines a thumping acoustic bass drum, throbbing synth arpeggio and slap in the face electronic snare and toms during its intro. Colk’s vocals cut in coated in  thick effects (pitched shifted, with maybe some reverb). The chattering hi-hats kick in around 2 minutes in and give the track extra forward momentum and a faster feel. I love the way the intensity builds and when the acid bass that kicks in part through with its great spluttering, squelchy sound. ‘Two Different Ways’ is an great track that shows off the band ability to make you dance as it does their industrial intensity. It starts off with electronic bass drum and snare, backing huge synth arpeggio, toms roll in and out and hi-hats tease, the female vocal drops in coated in reverb. Wood blocks kick in with a funky rhythm around three minutes in. Wet, gloopy delay effects drip over the mix around the four minute mark, then the track finds yet more momentum with the synth bass arpeggio growing stronger and stronger as the track progresses.

The album finishes with the one-two punch of ‘Work Out’ and ‘Breathe In’. The former picks up where ‘Two Different Ways’ left off as electronic drums and percussion thump and patter while a stabby bass synth plays over the top. Tom-toms fall all over the place. Colk’s vocal echoes out creating a harmony. In second half there are more delay effects and an arpeggio that add variety and intensity, as does noise mixed in with the hi-hats and synths. A funky more resonate synth enters around 5 minutes adding extra movement and impetus to the track. The latter is the perfect end to the album and strongly recalls Cabaret Voltaire in their mid 80’s electro prime.  A thick bass synths starts things off before being swiftly joined by a tough acoustic four to the floor beat and intermit processed vocals. The vocals are used as samples rather than typical use of lead vocals.

All-in-all Factory Floor have created a great debut album that both lives up to the four years of hype that preceded it and is also surprisingly accessible compared to what I (and most critics) had expected. Go out and get yourself a copy of “Factory Floor” you won’t regret it.

Colleen – “The Weighing of the Heart” (Second Language)

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‘The Weighing of the Heart’ is Colleen’s first album since 2008, it’s also the first her first album to feature her own singing and extensive use of percussion instruments. In interviews Colleen has explained the album took so long to make as she’d fallen out of with music and took a break from both creating and listening to music.

After her enforced hiatus she has returned with an album full of beautiful music yet unorthodox music that is uniquely her own straddling the genre’s of folk, chamber pop and world music and never losing it natural feel. Opener ‘Push the Boat onto the Sand’ is a fine example of mixing of genres of unorthodox use of both her viola (its tuned like a guitar and plucked not bowed) and song structure (she uses simple repeating loops, then replaces that loop with another and then another) it also evokes a sense of Spain where she lives and records. ‘Ursa Major Find’ uses the same structure but has a more intimate and angelic feel perfectly complimented by a melody played on an antiquated sounding keyboard. ‘Humming Fields’ with its offbeat bass drum pattern and music box style melody sounds like a group of musicians playing in a room, in fact this a trick that Colleen pulls off across the second half of album and you forget this is the work of a lone person. ‘Going Forth By Day’ starts with just a lone plucked viola melody before it evolves into a more rhythmic pattern and is joined by a wavering oboe melody, a lovely track.

Colleen saves the best til last through with the final three track on the album proving to be the highlights of a great album. This trio begins with ‘Moonlit Sky’ which sees the return of the oboe again complimenting the viola perfectly before the unexpected arrival of an organ that gives the track a dynamic lift and some extra warmth. It’s followed by the scrambling viola melody and gorgeous vocal harmonies and African percussion of ‘Breaking Up the Earth’ before the title track rounds everything off with echoing viola and yearning violin melodies.

All-in-all Colleen has created an album full of beautiful and orthodox music, with enough depth to keep listeners discovering some new with each new play.

Tamikrest – “Chatma” (Glitterbeat)

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In 2011 “Toumastin” Tamikrest’s second album made number five in my Top Ten Albums of the Year and threw down the gauntlet to the kings of Tuarag (Sahara desert blues) kings Tinariwen. Now they return with a new album that pays title to the women, children and old people who are the victims of the war that’s been raging in their homeland. The band themselves had to escape to Algeria where they recorded “Chatma” (the title means ‘sisters’ in French). The album sees the band in fine form both solidifying what they’d achieved on the previous albums and adding to it with new elements (hand claps, synths), slower more reflective  tracks (something the band hadn’t done before), the addition of former Tinariwen singer Wonou Walet Sidati and a sharper, lusher production job.

The album opens with ‘Tisnant an Chatma’ and there synths are evident from intro before the lead guitar enters and Sidati talks in her native tongue. After about 30 seconds the assured drums and bass guitar and rhythm kick leading the way and picking up where the band left off on thier last album. An early highlight is ‘Itous’ which starts with a deep sparse bass line and hand percussion, swiftly followed by rhythm and lead guitars and interchanging lead vocals. Its more contemplative in tone than any Tamikrest track before it and puts down a marker for the rest of the album. More hand claps utilised around the 1 minute 20 second mark. I reaaly like the cutting, choppy rhythm guitar in the second half of the track. ‘Achaka Achail Aynian daghchilan’ continues the comtemplative tone with its combination of picked naturally reverberate acoustic guitar and quiet almost whispered male vocals and thick but not intrusive electric guitar chords.

Next up another change for Tamikrest in the faster tempo’d ‘Djanegh etoumast’ that opens with muted rhythm guitar riff before the lead guitar comes in a big chord is stuck and a faster rhythm of drums, percussion, bass and guitar kicks in. Shortly after the hand claps and vocal chants join in. There’s some great guitar solos in the instrumental sections. A drum break, bass solo and revered drum sounds introduced briefly after the three minute mark before the guitar drive back in to take the song to its climax. ‘Assikal’ sees the band exploiting the modern production techniques of reversing (a piano in this case). The guitar melodies float in before a male vocal sings quietl over, lots of overlapping reversed piano and then the loping percussion and lead guitar proper are slowly faded in. The track has a stately assured feel. Around two minutes the reversed piano and spoken word returns, the guitar echoes out infinetly. Three minutes fifty seconds in hand percussion and a wooden flute come in swiftly followed by the lead guitar, the one thing holding this whole complex track together.

A dirty analogue synth drone rises at the start of ‘Takma’ before hard drums bang and clatter, the lead guitar darts around the mix and chunks of fast and funky rhythm guitar and bass chugs below. It takes a moment to get used to this newly more uptempo Tamikrest but once I did the track and especially the synth and drums sounded great. The album closes with the brilliant ‘Timtar’, reversed guitars open the track giving way to the lead guitar and a deep bass drum, the melody is quite sparse compared to typical Tamikrest melodies. A wonderful gentle male vocal melody moves slow across the backing track. More drums enter around 2 minutes 30 seconds but they are subtle yet add just enough forward momentum to stop the track from stalling. The rhythm comes in towards to the end of the track to provide the same forward momentum.

All-in-all “Chatma” is the crowning achievement of Tamikrest’s career, the band managing to retain what made so great in the first and combine it with new elements and techniques to that enrich their Tuarag sound. Highly recommended for fans of Tuarag artists such as Tinariwen, Group Inerane and Group Doueh and those that like of sound of the descriptions in this review but have yet to explore this genre.

Mulatu Astatke – “Sketches of Ethiopia” (Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village)

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I first came across Mulatu Astatke’s music after buying “Inspiration Information” (2009) a collborative album made with London’s funk/jazz/psychdelica band The Heliocentrics. The album hasn’t been off my mp3 player since and I’ve explored his impressive back catalogue of Ethio Jazz (the genre he pionneered in the late 60’s that combines tradtional Ethiopia modes and rhythms with those of Western jazz) albums. Four years later he returns with an album that gets closer to his aim of a perfect hybrid of Ethiopian music and jazz. The album features a number of tradtional that have been modified by Astatke so that they can play the 12 tone Western scales used in jazz.

The album opens with ‘Azmari’ the whole of Astake’s band in full swing, playing an Afro-funk/Latin jazz rhythm, brass stabs, upright bass underpins the patter of percussion and drums shift under everything. A krar (six-string lyre) flys in playing a counterpoint melody to the brass. There’s a great tense battle between the instruments around 2 minutes 40 seconds in, then the track breaksdown to upright bass twang, masinko (single-bowed lute) scraping and a vibraphone twinkling high above. The intros drums, percussion and melodies dive back in soon after. Next up is ‘Gamo’ a fast moving krar melody, upright bass line, clip-klopping percussion and African vocal chants open the track. Then the brass moves in and out with purpose. The track feels both Latin and African all at once (a trademark of Mulatu’s sound), it’s light yet not without substance. There’s a nice krar solo and low synth drones come in for the final minute or so, the interweaving male and female vocals are great too!!

‘Gambella’ starts with three sparse melodies playing out (vibes, piano & krar) over tumbling toms and waves of cymbals, this creates a forboding atmosphere but with shafts of light courtesy of the cymbals, vibes and high piano notes. The full beat, bass line and acoustic guitar melody kick in at 1 minute 30 seconds in before the horns strut in and blares out over the top. There’s great attitude in the male vocals, which are supported by the female backing vocals and they remind of how the vocals are used on Talking Heads “Remain In Light”. It’s followed by ‘Gumuz’ which begins with chanted male vocals and distant female vocal chants before phased guitar, double bass and a shuffling Latin rhythm slink in. An acoustic guitar plays a rhythm that gives the whole track forward momentum. There’s some nice electric piano chords that introduce themselves during a breakdown around 2 minutes 30 seconds and add warmth throughout the rest of the track. It’s the most modern of all the tracks I’ve hear from Astatke and he just about pulls it off, though some of the sounds are a little too smooth and polished and thus come off as a bit cheesy.

The album finishes with two great but contrasting tracks in ‘Motherland Abay’ and ‘Surma’. The former opens with sparse reverberate piano chords, swiftly followed a picked krar melody, chimes and the bowing of the masinko. Mulatu’s vibraphone twinkles in and out of the mix. This mix of instruments creates a desolate atmosphere. A washint (bamboo flute) enters and creates a haunting melody that swoops down on the listener. The masinko drives in low in the 4th minute before a light drum beat and stringed melody and trumpet take over the vibraphone playing sparsely above and around them. The latter combines a drum roll that brings in the horns, percussion and bass line. The track breaks down for the verse, that features a tightly coiled guitar riff (muted), an acoustic guitar melody, shuffling drums and the horns all backing guest Fatoumata Diawara lead vocals. The track feels a lot more like an Afrobeat or High Life track than the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu’s usual tracks. It’s sound is sparser and more poppy than the rest of the album.

In “Sketches of Ethiopia” Astatke has created an album that comes close to matching both solo work from the late 60’s and early 70’s and the “Inspiration Information” album that are regarded as his best work. A little more time with the album will no doubt confirm if it equals these past achievements and reveal yet more detail of this meticulous yet effortless artist. Highly recommed to existing Astatke fans and fans of East African music.

Moderat – “II” (Monkeytown)

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Moderat released their first album four years ago it neatly combined the aggressive, dark techno, dancehall and hip-hop influenced side of electronica duo Modeselektor and the dreamy atmospherics and emotive vocals and guitars of electronica artist Apparat. Now the experienced trio are back with a new collaborative album “II”.

The album differs from their debut in that whereas the debut featured much more dramatic peaks and troughs across its running time, there was a handful of harder and danceable tracks were the beats were more prominent. This no problem as the trio are just as adept at slow burning and emotive tracks as they are club tracks.

Another difference is that the Moderat sound has been developed more organically, as the trio admitted in a recent interview with XLR8R that the previous album was “based on old ideas from all of us. We just had a folder and we put all of the ideas in there and we kind of recycled them”. The trio ended creating new ideas from scratch for “II” and this has led to a sound in which elements from the two different parts of the group are not fighting each other but complementing and contrasting with each other instead. All-in-all its a more well rounded and sonically consistent album.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/69467838″>Moderat “Bad Kingdom” | Monkeytown Rec.</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/pfadfinderei”>Pfadfinderei</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

After a brief intro track to the set the scene the album really gets going with ‘Bad Kingdom’ with its spiky synth bass, Apparat’s contrasting vocals (plain in the verse, dreamy and distant in the chorus) and brilliantly designed synth sound that bleep, squeal and honk. ‘Versions’ keeps the quality level and tempo high with airy fast moving pad and slinky percussion providing the energy behind rising and falling vocals and slow moving synth bass. ‘Milk’ provides the toughest and tensest track on the album with a slippery but hard techno synth bass and thin atmospherics setting the tone before another bass layer joins in thickening the sound and bringing with it reverse effects and the full drumbeat that features a very crisp and hard snare! An epic, emotive techno track should go down well in Berlin’s clubs. ‘Gita’ highlights Moderat’s ability to create incredibly detailed and texture tracks from seemingly just a few musical elements. It combines fuzzy digital bass synth, clicking, clacking electronic drums that back Apparat’s naked, and multi layered vocals. As the track progresses a synth pad and two melodies sneak underneath the vocals. After several listens I suddenly realised one of the melodies sounded like marbles falling from your hands and bouncing up into the air.

Overall it’s hard to find fault with “II”, my only real criticism is that I’d have liked some MC driven tracks like “BeatsWaySick” from the debut album but it’s a minor criticism. Moderat have created an album that could grow to be as great if not better than its predecessor was.

Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus” (ATP Recordings)

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It has been four years since Fuck Buttons up their game on their second album “Tarot Sport” which made Sonic Fiction’s Top Ten Albums of the Year 2009. Both members have worked on other projects the most high profile of which was Benjamin John Power’s dark ambient side project Blanck Mass. Now they return with new album “Slow Focus” and the promise of a sound underpinned by hip-hop beats.

The album opens with ‘Brainfreeze’, which opens with the duo’s previous trademark tribal drums and thick snaking synth covered in grimy distortion that slink all over the drums. As the track progress more and more layers of synth are add until a new pad sound changes the song’s feel from claustrophobic to triumphant. Next up is ‘Year of the Dog’ and begins with synths bubbling up through a soup of reverb/delay before an aggressive arpeggio fly into view. Later in the track a disturbing cacophony of violins enters before the arpeggio reasserts itself and angelic sounding pad joins the melee.

Album centrepiece ‘The Red Wing’ kicks off with a hip-hop beat and chirping synth start this track before a corroding synth bass line enters. A synth riff enters and echoes out in the distance, the riff comes front and centre as the track evolves and the synth bass and synth drones gets stronger. ‘The Red Wing’ could easily be an epic track by either Boards Of Canada or El-P and that is no bad thing! ‘Sentients’ starts with resonate electronic percussion which suggests a Congotronics influence and spluttering synth blasts before a central hip-hop influenced beat kicks in. Another synth enters whistling like R2D2. A new counter point melody enters played by a resonate 8-bit vocal synth melody and is quickly following by a wave of corroded synth. Finally another pad enters giving the track a horror film/John Carpenter vibe.

‘Prince’s Prize’ and ‘Stalker’ both feature glassy FM synth melodies with the former utilising a double time hip-hop beat and reminding me of Gang Gang Dance and Mouse on Mars. While the latter adds glistening synth later after glistening synth layer until its epic climax.

The album ends with the tumbling brittle synth melody, thumping bass drum and huge ascending synth chord progression of ‘Hidden XS’ a transcendent finale to breathtaking album.

I was excited about ‘Slow Focus’ before hearing it but never thought that Fuck Buttons would find another level to take their synth noise sound to, however they have set the bar extra high with this brilliant album.

JANELLE-MONAE-ELECTRIC-LADY-e1376434058729

“The Electric Lady” is Janelle Monae’s much anticipated follow-up to her delightfully insane and eclectic debut album “The Archandroid” (2010), which featured in my Top 20 Albums of the Year 2010 on this blog. The new doesn’t disappoint mixing up a whole range of musical genres across its nineteen tracks and continuing to explore Monae’s dystopian future where she plays the character of cyborg Cindi Merryweather. The main differences between the two albums is that on “The Electric Lady” there’s a romantic subplot and Monae has a few attempts at her own take on modern R&B a genre she’s expressed much frustration with in the past.

The album opens as “The Archandroid” did with a classical suite called ‘Suite IV Electric Overture’ which features twanging tremolo guitar, slow yet purposeful strings and a low slung head nodding, thin fuzz guitar and a heavenly choir. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in there a flourish of strings that leads into… ‘Give ‘Em What They Love’ featuring Prince. In fact, Prince is the most appropriate musical reference for this track with its slick funk rock guitar and thumping minimal beat. In the chorus a shuffling acoustic guitar enters adding to the slinky groove. In verse two Prince sing falsetto over his own perfectly poised guitar melody. There’s also a great guitar solo by Prince halfway through the song but Monae is the Purple One’s equal and is never in his shadow. Next up is the album’s first single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ featuring Erykah Badu, the track kicks off with a funky guitar riff and subby bass drum and subtle tambourine groove. Then some P-Funk synth swiggles drop in before everything gets extra funky in the chorus. The track reminds of Thee Satisfaction albeit with major label production. Monae’s first attempt at a straight R&B is ‘Electric Lady’ featuring Solange. It opens with staccato vocals and fuzz guitar solo before the main head nodding funky beat and bass line drop and Monae and Solange’s vocals interweave creating harmonic heaven, later they create some fantastic melodies together too. The beat and bass line reminds me a lot of Solange’s tracks on her own ‘True’ EP and Monae has praised her as one of only artists pushing R&B forward. ‘Primetime’ featuring Miguel is another attempt at R&B this time Monae trys her hand at a ballad. In the intro Miguel adlibs over his own vocal distant vocal harmonies and a beat thumps and echoes out. Monae pushes the boat out vocally for the chorus before a cool fuzz guitar solo kicks. Things drop down again for Miguel’s first verse proper. Despite the cheesy lyrics, sounds and guitar solos, I really like this R&B and I don’t like R&B ballads.

‘Dance Apocalyptic’ is a fantastic pop song that combines acoustic rhythm guitar, upbeat drums and great claps. It strongly recalls ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast, which is no bad thing. ‘Look Into My Eyes’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ show that Monae can deliver emotive vocals, something that she’s been accused of lacking in the past. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Code’ and ‘Ghetto Woman’ add to the album funk quota the former combing flanged wah-wah guitars and thick bass with subtle yet bouncy drums and some nice twinkling vibraphone melody. I love the synth swiggles in the chorus. The later continues with the synth swiggles and pumping synth bass, recalls Stevie Wonder in his 70s prime.

The only real misstep on the album (apart the interludes which add nothing to the album musically or thematically) is the closing track ‘What An Experience’ with its 80’s style synth stabs and hip-hop drums come across as cheesy where the aim was for something emotive. However, this a minor complaint on an exceptional album that equals Monae’s debut in terms of both ambition and great tunes. You need “The Electric Lady” in your life.

2nd September

Doctor Zygote – “Grupo Zygote” (Black Acre)

Doctor Zygote is a hip hop and instrumental beats based producer of music. Alongside DJ Jazz T he runs Boot Records, and also Zoot Records- a new sister label geared towards instrumental music. Alongside an unnamed rapper he is a member of STRANGE U.

9th September

Factory Floor – “Factory Floor” (DFA)

After two years of singles and build up it seems that the band will finally release their much anticipated début album in May 2013 on DFA records. The album will be preceded by the single ‘Fall Back’ eight and a half minutes of slow burning dance floor intensity.

Janelle Monae – “The Electric Lady” (Atlantic)

The follow-up to Monae’s debut album “The Archandroid” (2010) has been announced and is preceded by the single “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu.

Mum – “Smilewound” (Morr Music)

Morr Music press release:

You don’t need to be Freud to regard teeth as a delicate issue. They can make joy look joyous and pain look painful, and on the cover of the new múm album they do both at the same time. As “Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is Okay” (2001), “Finally We Are No One” (2002) and “Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know” (2009) “Smilewound” is another example of the band’s art of juxtaposing two conflicting meanings and taking advantage of the energy created through the tension between both.

Sparser in sound than many of its predecessors, “Smilewound” is an airy, relaxed record. The múm-core-duo of Örvar and Gunni doesn’t make you laugh out loud (except maybe for the quirky vintage Arcade-sound-start of “When Girls Collide”), but it will make you smile often – despite the heavenly voices singing about violence in one form or another in most songs. Musically, múm’s capability to build playful electronic sound-ornaments around simple melodies is in full bloom. And these days they know that trimming the ornamentation can strengthen the melody. Take “The Colorful Stabwound”: an aguish drum’n’bass piece and”Smilewound” gets close to a straight pop-song. Even that isn’t very close, but it combines its rhythmic strength with a simple yet effective piano-line and the soothing lushness of a female voice to something compelling that follows you like the smell of a delicate eau de toilette. Or “Candlestick” which started out as a little ditty strummed on an acoustic guitar many years ago and has grown into this bouncy piece of synth-pop that changes its musical colours every couple of beats until you feel comfortably dizzy. Perfect pop in very fancy clothes. No wonder that antipodean pop-princess Kylie Minogue wanted to collaborate with múm on the “Whistle”, the main song in 2012-movie “Jack & Diane”.

Recorded in, among other places, the band’s practice-space, an old baltic farmhouse and on the kitchen-table after dinner, the album was produced by múm themselves. And being the revolving collective they are, it comes as no surprise that we see the return of former member Gyda. Defining satellites as part of the core fits nicely with the band’s penchant for ambivalence – in fact that’s part of the album’s charm.

Youngblood Brass Band – “Pax Volumi” (Tru Thoughts)

The latest is the band hope to complete the new album in autumn 2012 with a release planned for the the new year accompanied by an extensive world tour by this excellent live act!!!

 

Liam’s Albums of the Year 2010

I think its been a very strong year for music overall and a step up from 2009, though there’s been some high-profile disappointments e.g. Four Tet, MIA, Maximum Balloon etc the real musical landscape seems in a very health state and I think our review of the year bears this out. We’ve both tried to consider what and who has defined the year as well as our own tastes.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Returnal’ (Editions Mego)

In any other year this wouldn’t have been anywhere near my Albums of the Year list but discovering Ambient music and  ‘Returnal’ itselfs excellence plus Oneohtrix’s dominance of year make this one un missable album.

2. Gorillaz – ‘Plastic Beach’ (EMI)

In terms of song based albums this was incredibly strong from the word go. Add to this the concept behind the album, its environmental message and the incendiary return of Bobby Womack. ‘Plastic Beach’ hangs together while cover an incredible range of musical genres including classical, Oriental, hip-hop, grime, electro, pop and rock to name but a few.

3. El Guincho – ‘Pop Negro’ (Young Turks)

El Guincho stepped his music up several gears on this his second album. Taking in Spanish pop, hip-hop, South American music and 80’s heartthrob Luther Vandross. This gave the album its unique sound combining crisp, heavy but danceable rhythms with a glossy production resulting in an album that always puts a smile on your face.

4. Konono No.1 – ‘Assume Crash Position’ (Crammed Discs)

This is another summer blockbuster, this time from Congo. Five years on from their début Konono No.1 returned and seemed to have completely flipped their formula on its head. Instead of the persistent distorted thumb pianos occupying the top of the mix they changed places with waves of reverb drenched sound that had previously hidden beneath them. This changed the sound dramatically creating a more relaxed atmosphere.

5. Mark McGuire – ‘Living with Yourself’ (Editions Mego)

2010 was a busy year for Mark McGuire as well as releasing Emeralds critically acclaimed ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here?’ he produced this his first properly distributed solo release. There’s a lot more space in this than Emeralds latest and ambience and melody share equal billing on this great guitar record.

6. Flying Lotus – ‘Cosmogramma’ (Warp)

With ‘Cosmogramma’ FlyLo has transcended any of the generic tags applied to his music. Yes there are snatches of hip-hop, jazz, chiptune, funk and soundtrack music sometimes all at once but the sound can never be pinned down. It may not quite live up to the hype that preceded it but its ambition takes it close.

7. Big Boi – ‘Sir Luscious Left Foot…’ (Def Jam)

I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Speakerboxx’ Big Boi’s side of the OutKast’s 2003 double album. But ‘Sir Luscious Left Foot…’ is completely different album stuffed full of phat, funky beats that could only come from a member of Atlanata’s finest.

8. Sun Araw – ‘On Patrol’ (Not Not Fun)

18 months ago I hadn’t even heard of Sun Araw, but since hearing his music for the first time this spring I’ve been pretty much addicted. This latest album brings new depth to his dub-infected beats and shimmering wah-wah freak outs. The atmosphere and noises go to the next level and I await his next full length journey with bated breath.

9. Lindstrom and Christabelle– ‘Real Life is No Cool’ (Smalltown Supersound)

Lindstrom took a break from his usual cosmic disco dabbling to create a credible pop record with irrepressible Christabelle. Despite its catchiness and production gloss Lindstrom still provides surprises and twists not traditionally found in pop. The highlight of this outstanding collection is the Dr. Dre aping ‘Lovesick’.

10. Matthew Dear – ‘Black City’ (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear returned this year with a concept album that hung together brilliantly and restored the faith of those critics who’d deemed his earlier effort ‘Asa Breed’ erratic. The conceptual arch of the record made a real difference and makes for a darker but no less thrilling experience.

11. Hot Chip – ‘One Life Stand’ (EMI/DFA)

In some ways Hot Chip are their own worst enemies and this would have charted higher if it had more of the unpredictability of ‘Made In The Dark’. Having said that this record strikes a balance between warm and sweet and sentimental and sickly. Not an easy achievement by any means.

12. Errors – ‘Come Down with Me’ (Rock Action)

When this album I heard about this album I didn’t get that excited but as the release drew nearer I revisited their début and realised it was much better and warmer than I remembered. I had feared Errors would become a forgotten second tier post-rock band but instead they stepped up a gear with an album packed with highlights. Go see them live and buy the album you won’t regret it!!

13. Jamie Lidell – ‘Compass’ (Warp)

This album was definitely a grower at first half the material failed to make an impact on me; however repeat listening has paid dividends. Lidell has returned to his schizoid genre and mood hopping and this album benefits massively, from dust ball hip-hop of ‘The Ring’, the super deep bass of ‘She Needs Me’ and the desolate beauty of the title track.

14. The Black Dog – ‘Real Music for Airports’ (Soma)

Another great ambient album in that’s had a few (Oneohtrix, Emeralds etc), this time taking on the inventor and king of ambient music Eno himself and succeeding. Created using field recordings made in airports combined with synths, bass and beats The Black Dog blew Eno’s utopian ideal out of the water.

15. Baths – ‘Cerulean’ (Anticon)

I’ll admit that I’ve not been taken with Chillwave as it swept all before it in last year or so. Though Bath début album touches on similar sounds and ideas I believe (as do some journalists) that he isn’t a part of the genre. Baths cover everything from ambient instrumentals through to tracks featuring his angelic vocals and everything in between, his beat slip and slide with the elastic and liquid music that plays around them.

16. These New Puritans – ‘Hidden’ (Domino/Angular)

These New Puritans showed up a lot of their fellow ‘innovative’ indie bands this year by delivering this combination of medieval sounding brass and woodwinds, children’s choir and dancehall beats. It could have been a disaster but instead band leader Jack Barnett’s proved he is a great composer of ground breaking music.

17. Evan Caminiti – ‘West Winds’ (Three Lobed)

Since the end of last year and hearing Sunn O)))’s I’ve discovered more and more drone/doom metal music including Earth, Zaimph and Caminiti’s other project Barn Owl. This album is best of this year’s release and features seven of incredibly provocative pieces including one of my favourite tracks of this year ‘Glowing Sky’.

18. Janelle Monae – ‘The Archandroid’ (Bad Boy/Atlantic)

Like Flying Lotus Monae attempted to produce an ambitious sci-fi concept album and overall she succeeds, however during the second half of the album elements don’t gel as well and the last track could do with  being half as long. There are still many great moments but for now Monae shows the potential to become a truly great artist.

19. Kanye West – ‘My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy’ (Mercury)

This album would have easily been in my  Top Ten if it had only been released a couple of months earlier the lack of time to listen to and digest this means it just straps in because of its ambition and this point what seems to be a high proportion of great tracks.

20. Sleigh Bells – ‘Treats’ (Columbia)

When I first heard Sleigh Bells demos I’ll admit that I wasn’t 100% sure what all the fuss was about, I loved ‘Infinity Guitars’ but other than that they didn’t inspire. However, they’ve proved me wrong with this début album that blends cute pop vocals and melodies with crunching guitars and huge beats. A refreshing slap in the face from a band with a lot of potential to expand!!

Honourable mentions:

LCD Soundsystem – ‘This is Happening’

Caribou – ‘Swim’

Holy Fuck – ‘Latin’

Tobacco – ‘Maniac Meat’

Pocahaunted – ‘Make It Real’

Review of the Year – Observations

Two words seem to have loomed large for me musical this year Ambient and African. Both These types music that were almost completely new to me at the start of the year. Ambient music has actually helped change my perception of what music can be, I’d often dismissed it in the past as it wasn’t attention grabbing enough but I was missing the point. Though I still actively listen to it, I also use it while I work to help me focus (Brian Eno’s ‘Ambient#4: On Land’ is particularly good for this). Ambient has changed the way I choose what music to listen to and judge whether its good or not, I can appreciate subtlety much more.

Meanwhile I’ve gone from only having heard Konono No.1 and Amadou & Miriam to hearing King Sunny Ade, Tinariwen, Tony Allen, Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astake and compilations featuring Afrobeat, Funk and traditional music from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and Togo. I’ve been most impressed by ‘African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s’ (Analog Africa) which is pretty much as the title suggests, only don’t be expecting an African Hawkwind.

Finally I’ve noticed there’s been a massive increase in quality remix albums, it had seemed that they’d been completed derided and I couldn’t remember the last good/great one I heard. This year has been a bumper year, Health ‘Disco2’ is the pick of bunch 24 great and varied electronic remixes that putting the originals in brand new contexts. We were also treated to remix albums of Caribou (‘Swim Remixes’), Gonjasufi (‘The Califph’s Tea Party’), Errors (Celebrity Come Down With Me’), Bear In Heaven (Best Rest Forth Mouth’), the latest instalment in RVNG Records Frkwys series of remixes and collaborations that saw Juan Atkins, Hans-Joachim Irmer (Faust) and Gibby Hayes (Butthole Surfers) remixed (admittedly awful) psychedelic rock band Psychic Ills to stunning effect.

Vier’s Albums of the Year

20. The Knife, MT. Sims and Planningtorock – Tomorrow, In A Year (Brille): This was never going to be easy. The Knife don’t do easy. The first disk fights the listener at every step. It is confrontational, violent and refuses respite. It beats you into the place of  Charles Darwin, consumed by nervous excitement and anxiety as you walk on alien territory. The second disk offers some humanising introspection and displays The Knife’s (and their collaborators) powerful song writing ability to turn even routine biological observations into heartbreaking poetry. Tomorrow, In A Year isn’t enjoyable, it isn’t supposed to be. Much like Darwin’s vocation, you don’t have to like it or understand it but you must respect it and its objective.

19. Walls – Walls (Kompakt): Haunting and emotive, Walls’ blend of distant thumps and skewed vocals make a compelling, slow-grower.

18. Jatoma – Jatoma (Kompakt): A late entry to the list has given Jatoma a low position nonetheless the cloaked threesome’s debut deserves to be listened to. The sparkly, modulating synths and exacting drums hark back to Cluster and Kraftwerk and on the straighter dance tracks ‘Durian’ and ‘Bou’ the influence of The Field is channelled into gauzy loops and arpeggios.  This and Walls fit Kompakt perfectly and point the way to the next era of the Cologne label.

17. Washed Out – Life Of Leisure (Mexican Summer): This debut is the sound of summer nostalgia. Revealed by the cover’s lilac dream, warm washes of synths and the sighs and lilts of Ernest Greene’s drenched voice.

16. Caribou – Swim (City Slang): Opening with seasick standout ‘Odessa’, Swim is steady and deceptively dark. The accomplished production places an interesting stereo field on the tracks, giving the instruments and rhythms a side-to-side, rocking feel, which works impressively well both at home and in clubs – something few dance albums have fully mastered.

15. Holy Fuck – Latin (Young Turks): The four-piece adeptly construct tracks that are direct yet reveal deeper layers and sounds on repeat, demonstrating that as well as effected soundscapes they can make confident songs.

14. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (DFA): Of all the albums on the list This Is Happening was the most troublesome. When it hits it proves James Murphy is an incredible composer, lyricist and singer (tender crooning replaces the snot) and it proves LCD are an incendiary unit. So their third album should be top 3 but, but… when it doesn’t hit its pastiche-y, uninspired and, worst of all, irritating, because it could be fucking great if only those influences, which were previously sown together with love and affection, were not so glaringly obvious now. The total of their sum parts made LCD exciting yet for This… it is as if Murphy collected those sum parts then went missing but, but… even if for One Touch, Dance Yrself Clean and I Can Change alone it still deserves a place in the top 20.

13. Marc Houle – Drift (M-nus): The Techno Priest delivers an intense lecture in experimental techno as Drift travels from the suffocating winter darkness to the onset of spring. As the ice recedes Houle’s mood has lightened: the tracks develop playfully, analogue synths are tweaked and melodies shine. An eloquent representation of December’s freeze.

12. Black Dog – Music For Real Airports: Composed of field recordings and recalling Autechre and Plastikman, Music For Real Airports recreates an alienating environment where disconnected bleeps, beats and deep bass drums meet brittle hi-hats and ambient atmospherics that oppose Eno’s 1978 utopia.

11. El Guincho – Pop Negro (Young Turks): In direct contrast to Drift, Pop Negro is an aural Um Bongo – refreshing, bright yellow and highly addictive. El Guincho sings in his native, both joyous and yearning, Spanish, while intricate compositions of bouncing melodies, 808 claps and Latin pop are so full of life you bounce back to summer, Um Bongo in hand.

10. Harmonious Thelonious – Talking (Italic): German techno, Minimalism and African percussion are not the most obvious partners but Talking combines these influences with ease. The producer’s debut is a trance-inducing collection of hypnotic rhythmic patterns and danceable voodoo atmospheres. Its pulse is driven by African rhythms and European electronics that create a challenging, playful and deeply idiosyncratic record.

9. Zola Jesus – Stridulum II (Souterrain Transmissions): After sitting on the boundaries of my usual taste I checked out this release after she gained support from Fever Ray, with whom she shares a kinship of producing cathartic and oppressive yet seductive reassurances you want to selfishly take for yourself.

8. Magda – From The Fallen Page (M-nus): After the first listen I was disappointed that this wasn’t as varied or as distinctly ‘Magda’ as her much praised mixes are. With repeated listens her debut reveals her personality is more delicately placed alongside tongue-in-cheek glimpses of Italian horror movie sounds, dark atmospherics and awe-inspiring basslines.

7. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal (Editions Mego): For me Returnal brings to mind GAS. Drum-less synthesiser constructs have the air of classical music’s rise and falls and dignified ambience but where GAS is isolation, Lopatin’s creations evoke a dreamy silvery trees and ghostly voices blanketed by a thick fog.

6. Matthew Dear – Black City (Ghostly International): Dear’s third album under his birth name sees him fully immersed in the role of the seamy narrator that Asa Breed hinted at. The thick Talking Heads-indebted productions and bodiless utterances swallow his voice as he recounts strangely alluring tales of desire and sleaze.

5. Konono No.1 – Assume Crash Position (Crammed Discs): Similar to other list entries the songs on Assume Crash Position instantly hit, giving out a warm, uplifting feel while endowing an ample amount of depth, breadth and emotional resonance. The Congolese group prove that artists don’t need the best equipment money can buy to create impressive music.

4. Marcel Dettmann – Dettmann (Ostgut Ton): Lovers of deep, warm techno should listen to this Berghain resident’s debut. Dettmann is an effortlessly lean example of present-day techno structured with an elegance that only German artists are achieving.

3. Ellen Allien – Dust (Bpitch Control): It isn’t the perfectly skewed electronic pop of Berlinette but thankfully it’s not the unrelentingly dull Sool. Allien is back doing what she does best. Belying her attention to detail, Dust is a collection of playful and immediate hymns to love, sex and dancing.

2. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise (Rough Trade): With a cover that isn’t what it first appears, the songs within unfurl and open up to reveal a meticulous mix of haunting chimes and clusters of percussion that build into something dark and forceful, giving Hendrik Weber’s Black Noise a sound that always seems to be on the edge of erupting into something devastating.

1. Thomas Fehlmann – Gute Luft (Kompakt): This took the pole position on the ‘Best Album’s Of The Year….So Far’ June piece and it remains there six months on. Though composed as a soundtrack to real-time documentary ‘24 Hour Berlin’, Gute Luft plays like a loving tribute to Fehlmann’s partner Gudrun Gut. Drums shuffle and rebound, claps and basslines thrust hips, synths bathe, sing, slink, embrace and reminisce, creating a perfect example of sensuous and dreamy elegance.

Mixes of note:

  • DJ Kicks: Apparat (!K7) (which features a new track from Telefon Tel Aviv, the first Joshua Eustis has made since Charlie Cooper passed away in 2009)

  • Ben Klock – Berghain Vol. 2 (Ostgut Ton)

  • Marcel Dettmann – Berghain Vol. 4 (Ostgut Ton)

  • V/A – Fünf (Ostgut Ton)

Honourable mentions:

  • Reboot – Shunyata (Cadenza)

  • Efdemin – Chicago (Dial)

  • Greie Gut Fraktion – Baustelle (Monika Enterprise)

Spotify playlist:

Sonic Fiction’s Albums of the Year 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Year – Observations

Due to the wealth of Berghain and Ostgut Ton releases I’ve been inspired to listen further to the spiritual forefathers: Basic Channel, GAS and Pole etc., all of whom I missed the first time round, owing to being at primary school. As discussed in my minimal techno piece these artists composed some of the most vital and interesting music of the nineties and are still essential: their material has birthed the recent dub-techno stirrings from Berlin and elsewhere. Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock, the Action Man poster boys of the resurgence in metallic, intense and climatic Berlin-centred techno, have released one effortless album, an EP and a handful of mixes. Listening to these is an education and an exciting preview of what is to come.

After reading the Kosmische Musik book (see below) I listened to Harmonia with Zuckerzeit and Tracks and Traces standing out. I went back to most of Cluster’s catalogue and found Sowiesoso and their 1977 collaboration with Eno to be the best introduction to the genre, though all are worth checking out.

On another note, 2010 has been absolutely dominated by doorstop. For a genre that was spawned from the underground we have witnessed a depressing inevitability in it going mainstream: advert soundtracks and daytime Radio 1 plays, guest spots and interviews (She-devil Fearne Cotton and dullstent! Skills!). It is everywhere, omnipresent, ubiquitous, all-pervading, as such I cannot hear, read or type that word anymore without wanting to burn it . Worst still is that duckstep is so ball-achingly tedious, a fact no one has critically addressed as everyone is falling over themselves praising the most monotonous and lifeless sound that has plagued this year’s musical landscape. Perhaps in 2011 it will go back from whence it came.

Books

Earlier this year I read Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and its Legacy, which is a comprehensively-written collection of the German Kosmische Musik artists. The author and journalists contribute an overview of Germany and the mindset of the generation born during and after WWII to put the work of the artists in a fascinating context. Also on the list was Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a collection of moving stories of those who lived under Communist rule in East Germany interspersed with Funder’s retrospective view (the book was published in 1997) on the regime, the people who upheld it and those who it destroyed and how Leipzig (where the Stasi headquarters were based) and Berlin have dealt with the effects of the Berlin Wall falling and the full extent of the regime being uncovered. Both are entirely worth reading.

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