Before we say goodbye, we thought we'd bring you our collective favorite albums of 2011.
Ash Borer: Ash Borer [Pesanta Urfolk]
Chillwave. It's been shoved down our throats over the past couple of years due to its ease of creation and distribution (thank you Ableton Live soft synths and plug-ins; thank you Soundcloud and the blogs that embed you!!), and a lot of it fucking sucks. This year saw some lazy remixes and underwhelming sophomore releases from the first batch of the genre's icons, and the honeymoon phase ended. Disappointment sets in as the blogosphere continues to herald "the next big thing" and humors publicists' requests for coverage-- maybe for the sake of traffic, maybe for the lack of a better voice. You feel a craving for something visceral. Something different.
Ash Borer enters the scene with an undeniably strong album that doesn't asked to be loved, appreciated, or even known at a time where being an artist seems to require having at least three social media outlets. The sheer weight of this headbanging LP is staggering, and its tension-building ambient moments are just as captivating as the chaotic ones. You don't have to be a diehard black metal fan to feel the impact of their bludgeoning drums, soaring guitars, and anguished screams; Ash Borer's raw power translates to any audience. Epic. --Ric Leichtung
Blues Control & Laraaji: FRKWYS Vol. 8 [RVNG Intl.]
There've been a bunch of all-star collaborations this year-- Kanye and Jay-Z, James Blake and Bon Iver, Flaming Lips and Lightning Bolt-- that've doubled as a stroke of marketing genius and a fan's wet dream come true. There have also been a few lesser known meetings-of-the-mind orchestrated by RVNG Intl.-- Julianna Barwick and DNA founder Ikue Mori, Emeralds and soundtrack man Alan Howarth, the staggering five-way between Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo, and Lopatin-- that've been truly stunning. But the synergy between Blues Control and new age zitherist Laraaji trumps them all. Laraaji's been playing music for more than 30 years and is a seasoned improviser, taking on the role of the trio's leader and lifting the noise duo’s psychedelic scuzz to celestial heights. Few collaborations have tapped into something as special as this one. --Ric Leichtung
The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World [Self-Released]
It was a busy year for Leyland Kirby and his peripatetic musical endeavors. Under his given name, Kirby released the beautifully meditative Eager to Tear Apart The Stars before delving into three volumes of electronic manipulations in the Intrigue & Stuff series. His release as The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, landed the softest but burnt the brightest. Using a collection of run-down ballroom jazz 78s as his basic source material, Kirby continued his thematic study into the mind's inevitable fissures, the disconnects that frustrate the desire to cling to a perfect, complete memory.
Kirby's masterful manipulation and distortion of the 78s was so effective that they no longer seemed to belong to the past, or to the present.. An Empty Bliss resides in a kind of temporal limbo, reminding us that the opaque memories of a life -- what is salvaged and what is lost -- follow a most mysterious, inaccessible logic. It was a moment of exquisite calm, humility, and fragility amid the mad dash to omnipotence that is information super highway; it told us that no matter how imperfect, what we are left with is all that we have, and must be cherished. --Daniel Gottlieb
Death Grips: Exmilitary [Self-Released]
Death Grips are a mess, an anomaly that coheres through a set of intertwining delusional threads, mostly relating to personal obsessions and their limits. As much the phrase "practice makes perfect" proves true for beatsmith Zach Hill, MC Ride does the same in his mantras, using repetition as a coping mechanism for his abyss. There's a reason a Charles Manson sample opens this album: he's taken delusion into another universe. Ride really believes he's the king. Tell yourself anything enough times and you're Ringo Starr, guy.
Future Shuttle: Water's Edge [Intercoastal Artists / Holy Mountain]
When Future Shuttle released their debut EP Water’s Edge in late August, they established themselves as an outfit that makes nu age music for body and spirit alike. Their blend of synth, flute, samplers, and beats elegantly intertwines the cosmic and the earthly. Through sounds that evoke flowing streams, bird and dolphin calls, and the vibrations of ancient rock formations, Jessa Farkas’ voice resonates with striking humanity. It is as commanding as it is sorrowful, bringing to mind both the mortal condition and our desire and power to transcend it. In “Rain Source,” Farkas repeats the mantra, "I became everything that I’ve ever encountered," as the relationship between humans and each element of their environment is emphasized. Similarly, as “spacey” as Future Shuttle’s music is, every component is crystal-clear, a voice within its vast landscape. --Samantha Cornwell
Holy Other: With U [Tri-Angle]
Due to the ghostly vibes and his Tri Angle roster spot, Holy Other's work is mistakenly cast as something gothic, dark, or due to be canonized in wing-ding letters in some infinitely vacuous witch house manifesto. In reality, this past year found the veiled Manchester producer offering something far different from those suspected shock and horror tropes: the romantic hybrid house of With U. Holy Other's deep, disembodied vocals echo like distant memories as screwed orchestral swells and choral bass moans swallow them up. The atmosphere of yearning is palpable, whether for past love or new direction; the subdued lust of a simultaneously ravenous but tender one night stand looms over the hungry pleas of With U, especially in the meter- and momentum-shifting standout, "Touch." Holy Other's debut is a triumphant melding of R&B's emotion, bass culture's sensuality, and house's heartbeat, and the result is one of the year's most intimate albums. --Matt Sullivan
Iceage: New Brigade [Escho]
It's been a hell of a year for Iceage. Their first full-length dropped in their native country of Denmark in January. By June, they had gotten What's Your Rupture on board for a US release, toured with Fucked up, captured the attention of an Odd Future-obsess press (remember them?), and basically taken the underground music world by storm-- all pretty much by accident. They put out one of the most talked-about records of this year, and although their high school status, their notoriously bloody shows, and the controversy surrounding the Nazi doodles surely played their parts, the album had the kind of energy that hadn't been heard in years. Iceage is the type of band that sparks obsession. They put their hometown of Copenhagen on the music map by coining a movement and rekindled faith in a genre that had been stagnating for a few years. Mostly, they brought punk back into our minds, at least for a little while. --Ric Leichtung
John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves [Ribbon]
If 2010 was the year when the music elite deemed Ariel Pink worthy of their ever-loving embrace, then 2011 was the year when they extended a tender hand to his CalArts classmate and lo-fi co-"discoverer" John Maus. However, as a series of revealing interviews following the release of his remarkable We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves made clear, Maus’ relationship with industry success was a complex and acrimonious one. Pitiless Censors was brimming with concepts and conjectures about modern political inertia, the sclerosis of advanced global capitalism, and the challenges they pose to the individual subject.
The album balanced and combined these influences accordingly: it's cerebral and conceptually driven, but also a revealing portrait of John’s personal and artistic struggle to break through these restrictive forces. Pitiless Censors thus gave us an image of Maus inhabiting a role not dissimilar to the lighthouse that appears on his album art: luminary but mysterious, vulnerable yet resolute, anxious to illuminate a place that lies just outside what it can reach. "This is where a human being finds himself"-- using the musical tools of the past, feeling ambivalent about the present, and longing for the possibilities of the future. In 2011, we welcomed back John Maus, the Believer. --Daniel Gottlieb
Julia Holter: Tragedy [Leaving]
Equal parts electronic pop and minimalist chamber music, Julia Holter’s Hippolytus-inspired debut puts both conservatory kids and bedroom producers to shame. Not too many artists manage to square the large and sprawling with the focused and minutely detailed, but this Los Angeles composer will channel just as much rigor into an extended drone as she will a loaded pause. Rather than belabor the plot details of Euripedes’ tormented love story, she abstracts it into a feeling of hovering doom.
The atmosphere is thick on Tragedy. Husky strings, white noise, harpsichords, fog horns, and crackling opera LPs cohere with mounting pressure, only to plateau until we forget that they are supposed to set the scene for a narrative event: a bit of dialogue or monologue set to words, such as in “The Falling Age” and “Celebration,” where her voice evokes Enya auditioning for a Madrigal choir, or single “Goddess Eyes,” where it’s clipped, vocoded, and maybe a little cold. Tragedy is the kind of record that makes you feel as though you’ve traveled far by the end-- through time, though space, though multiple musical languages and sounds that you never thought of as musical to begin with. Still, from start to curtain call, you can feel the clock ticking at every moment. --Emilie Friedlander
Julian Lynch: Terra [Underwater Peoples]
As life on Earth tends to move in circles, so has much of the music of 2011. Where many of this year’s releases are grounded in computer-driven loops and synth-based repetition, Julian Lynch’s Terra cycles through nylon, four-stringed guitar, meditative jazz clarinet, and hushed, tabla percussion. The Madison, Wisconsin-based ethnomusicologist refines the wide panorama of influences that was already present on his past releases, reaching into the past with smokey, prohibition-era falsetto croons and ‘50s music box piano symphonies while keeping it “modern” with his proggy guitar-synth. His third studio effort sounds more refined, more concise, and more three-dimensional than anything we've heard from him before. In another instance of coming full circle, Terra marks his return to Underwater Peoples, the home of his first non-CDr release, a split 7” with childhood friend Ducktails.. --Mary Katherine Youngblood
Jürgen Müller: Science of the Sea [Foxy Digitalis]
In 1979, German oceanographer Jürgen Müller built a music studio on his houseboat off the North Sea and slowly recorded an album inspired by the natural wonders that surrounded him. There were about 100 copies made, most of which were given away to his peers in the oceanic field; by some bizarre stroke of chance, one of them ended up in the hands of Brad Rose at Foxy Digitalis, who reportedly restored the album. The story is a library music collector's dream, and is unbelievable from the get-go, but Science's sophisticated palette is probably the most conclusive piece of evidence we have that Jürgen Müller and his project are the stuff of myth. Most exotica albums coming from "Jurgen's" time were awfully shallow listens, the cute wordplay and kitsch concepts constituting the core of their appeal. Science draws from the shimmering textures of the late, great Mort Garson and evokes the minimalist side of Raymond Scott. It's too damn good to be true. Its story is an integral part of the album, but its validity as a work of art doesn't hinge on fact-- it's in the beauty of the music, and the ideas lurking in its great depths that make this album more than a myth. --Ric Leichtung
Laurel Halo: Hour Logic [Hippos In Tanks]
MP3: Laurel Halo: "Aquifer"
One night at CMJ this year, I pushed forward to the front row of 285 Kent's attendees to catch Laurel Halo. As I walked away from the stage, the buzz in my headspace was killed with another concert-goer's groan-inducing synopsis: "Wow, she really killed it… for a girl." The blatant sexism of the analysis was a little stunning, but it seemed to fit in oddly well with a long line of bizarre preconceptions about this year's divisive ode to time-leaping-- and her best work yet-- Hour Logic. Halo's EP is the soundtrack to an imaginary silent sci-fi film where a cultural shift in information retrieval and consumption leaves significant effects on our brains' memory capacity and habits. It's a contemporary thesis on the possible aftermath of inhabiting a world like Far Side Virtual's for too long, drawn from futuristic bouts with electronic classics. Ultimately, that cerebral take is best left for the forum; Hour Logic's constant forward momentum is designed to be felt. The finer details of the painstakingly orchestrated domes and arcs of this symphony can be almost overwhelming, but the Detroit EMF veteran hasn't taken a left turn-- she's reached further for the future. --Matt Sullivan
Liturgy: Aesthethica [Thrill Jockey]
There’s no doubt that Brooklyn black metal outfit Liturgy pissed a lot of purists off this year when Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, their philosophizing Columbia grad of a frontman, published his infamous “Transcendental Black Metal” essay on the Internet. It renamed the “blast beat” the “burst beat,” boasted several black-and-white diagrams, and combined a band manifesto of sorts with a vision of the genre moving toward its ideal culmination in "the self-overcoming of Hyperborean black metal." (The implication being, of course, that Liturgy would be the band doing all the overcoming). At the end of the day, Altered Zones can only admire Hunt-Hendrix’s willingness to think deeply about what his own aesthetic choices mean, and will remember 2011 partly as the year when Aesthetica took the pummeling 16th notes, ecstatic death cries, and shifting guitar tremolos of black metal and showed us non-specialists just how powerful that language can be. It was also the year that the band lost perhaps its strongest music asset in virtuoso drummer and Guardian Alien mastermind Greg Fox; whatever you’d prefer to call his athletic and idiosyncratic pattering, it combined the thrill of total destruction with the joy of being alive. --Emilie Friedlander
Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica [Software]
For those of you keeping score at home, this is Dan Lopatin’s third appearance on an Altered Zones year-end best album list, the first two being for Games’ That We Can Play and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal last year. November’s Replica reconfirmed Lopatin’s status as an ingenious samplist whose complex process doesn’t prevent him from creating music that’s both erudite and somehow nearly as accessible as the TV commercials that provided his source material. The songs shirk narrative and explicit meaning, opting instead for contrapuntal juxtapositions and textured sound collages. Lopatin's magnum opus. --Luke Carrell
Peaking Lights: 936 [Not Not Fun]
Peaking Lights had several key elements of their sound place for their 2009 album, Imaginary Falcons, but the duo’s ability to weave noise-pop together with a humid strain of dub lay buried under a heavy dusting of drone and hiss. The project had plenty of promise, but it needed to be coaxed out into the setting sun. 936, this year’s subtly addictive gem of an album, has been buffed to a faded neon sheen, run through the heaviest dubplates, and pumped through a V.F.W. hall public address system straight into our hearts. Scotch Taped beats snake through oil-slicked puddles of bass that feel perfectly primed to rumble the speakers of the average ‘78 Escort. Indra Dunis’ honeyed coo seems to languish forever in a pool of hushed purple light while Aaron Coyes’ homemade synths billow into every available audible nook left behind. In short, 936 is a sweaty beast of a record. --Andy French
Pete Swanson: Man With Potential [Type]
I was wrong when I said the NYPD should play this on LRAD -- it belongs to Occupy. I mean, can you imagine the first hook, a full four minutes in, dropping as Zuccotti Park or Frank Ogawa Plaza faced eviction? Though Pete Seeger's endorsement was nice, did we expect much energy or inspiration from a 92-year-old, withering "This Little Light"? If the opener of Pete Swanson's Man With Potential, "Misery Beat," was meant for any catharsis at all, there's plenty of miserable subject matter to mine nowadays. Sure, it's named for the singular, but this entire release carries the imminent movement of massive crowds, exemplifying the power and potential of wordlessness. Perhaps the title points more to Swanson's autonomy, as he departed from the much-loved Yellow Swans duo three years ago.
Throughout this edict for Type Records, Swanson ping-pongs pointed loops through fields of scuzz, his deliberate modulation stretching each interval to its limit as agressive, head-bobbing beats sneak in. And while you can almost read the formula adhered to, no two tracks carry identical temperament or momentum. Man With Potential is thoughtful on a long-term scale, speaking to anyone with a pulse and a modicum of collective sense. --Dale W. Eisinger --Dale W. Eisinger
Prince Rama: Trust Now [Paw Tracks]
I think it's no secret that times are pretty tough for everyone nowadays, and Taraka and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama know this as well as anyone. Trust Now is their first album since founding member Michael Collins left the group and it slimmed to a duo. It's an airing of grievances, a mourning period, but also a survivor's statement of perseverance. We find a new Rama, re-energized and dressed for the battle arena. Shadow Temple's sophisticated drumming, swarming synths, and banshee-strength wails are more potent than ever on "Rest In Peace" and "Summer of Love," although the celestial prog of "Incarnation" and "Golden Silence" alludes to an age of enlightening surrender, a place where moments in time seem to lose their linearity. Trust Now is an important message of faith in an era where hope is dwindling and little seems trustworthy. --Matt Sullivan
Pure X: Pleasure [Acéphale]
Calling Pure X’s Pleasure a summer album wouldn’t be wrong. Lord knows it had a strong run as the soundtrack of choice for a host of sweaty activities over the course of the season, but as the album made so many return trips to headphones, ear canals and turntables, a new character emerged in the textures of those carefully interpreted songs: a tinge of darkness, equally honest and murky, that never really takes shape, but might be a bit sticky. Fellow Austinite Malcolm Elijah’s vids for "Surface" and "Easy" and the glamour shot of bondage cuffs on the album art display this theme, but avoid devolving into camp menace. This is holistic music, best enjoyed live and loud-- exactly like it was recorded. --Luke Carrell
Run DMT: Dreams [Culture Dealer]
Mike Collins has been an ambassador to all sounds weird and wonderful for a couple years, making the Run DMT moniker a mascot for the type of abstracted sound collages that have characterized the best of Baltimore's underground. Dreams is a series of fleeting, intergalactic visits that channel the spaced-out pondering of Bong Voyage, the classic '60s pop bounce of his Spruce Bringsteen split 7", and the spiritual awakenings of a deemster-fueled blast-off. Considering that it was recorded a few years ago, there's something of an old (but not that old) school charm to Dreams, recalling the excitement of exploring the vast unknown of the late aughts' blogosphere --the scene that Collins cut his teeth on-- for the very first time again. I am reminded of a time when I first heard Run, discovered Altered Zones, and ran away to Brooklyn to fashion dreams into reality. Needless to say, it's inspiring to hear Collins do the same with this labor of love, which almost didn't see the light of day. --Matt Sullivan
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 [Kranky]
From Tim Hecker’s interest in the sonic refuse of the digital age emerged one of the most enduring albums of 2011. "I became obsessed with digital garbage, like when the Kazakstan government cracks down on piracy and there's pictures of 10 million DVDs and CDRs being pushed by bulldozers." From the portmanteau of the record to the image of the piano drop to track names like “Studio Suicide” and “Analog Paralysis, 1978," Ravedeath, 1972 was consumed with the timelessness and transience of sound. Its twelve elegiac pieces shifted from moments of action to periods of stasis. Passages of ambient purity tussled with lurching movements of hazy noise; synthesisers from the studio dialogue with organ sub-bass recorded in an Icelandic church. It was a journey that slowed down time to the point of stopping it altogether. --Daniel Gottlieb
In our year-and-a-half on the information highway, we had the good fortune of witnessing what was at once a very prolific time, a very confusing time, and a very exciting time in underground music. Instead of quoting ourselves, we combed through the 100 features and profiles we've published to bring you some reflections from the folks who inspire us.
Underwater Peoples' Evan Brody
I cite this moment when Sawyer and I were sitting outside our sophomore dorm room at college. We said to each other, "Man, we’re bored. We want to do something more exciting." --Interview with Jenn Pelly, May 2011
I see politics and art as separate trajectories. There's a political dimension to music, to the extent that it would be a disruption of the regime of the sensible... but it certainly isn’t collective mobilization against the state in the name of radical equality. The protest lyric is a poor substitute for radical political thought or a new idea of politics.
AZ: Is that why you have protest lyrics in your music?
The idea there is that sums up the impetus, lyrically, of all genuine art. It's an explosion. It's a Molotov cocktail in the fuckin' police station. It's rights for that which can have no rights, to the extent that it anticipates a world to come-- not this world. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander & Ric Leichtung, July 2011
All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks-- buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is-- because people kind of live in it already. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander, November 2011
I remember during the [Harald] Grosskopf panel at Unsound Festival, Laurel Halo said something interesting about grappling with a world that is completely and totally inundated with technology. There's something about dealing with period technology that makes us feel more human or more relatable. Something about getting the whole machine purring feels very cosmic and brings technology back in harmony with art. --Interview with Daniel Gottlieb, June 2011
AZ: It’s funny that there are indie bands coming up now that would kill to use the equipment that was frustrating to you back then.
I like the idea of it as well, but there are too many problems! --Interview with Blondes, Emilie Friedlander, & Ric Leichtung, May 2011
People like to ask me where I live, and sometimes I give different answers. There is a new 7” coming on Baselic records, and the label guy asked me what city I was from. I was with a friend, and we were talking, and he said I should say I was from Djakarta. So I did, and then it was on many websites. On the High Wolf MySpace, it says that I am based in Brazil. Many times people think I’m from Los Angeles. When you hide something from people, they really want to know it. --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, March 2011
Cleaners From Venus' Martin Newell
I’m very flattered that people like my old stuff so much but really, it was me and Lol [Elliott, from Cleaners] in the kitchen! We were broke but inspired and enjoyed listening to it. But I think the biggest pleasure we got out of it at the time was that I used to make homemade beer, and Lol used to make these candles, 'cause he didn’t have enough money to pay his electricity bill. So I used to swap some of the beer for some dope that someone else used to grow, and we would make our own music on cassettes that Lol stole. And I thought one night-- stoned, drunk, listening to music by candlelight--, "We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves tonight, and it’s cost nothing!" That was sort of the epitome of anarchy for me: generating our own everything. It was fantastic. --Interview with Richard MacFarlane, June 2010
After getting a sense of his musical tastes, I finally asked [Speculator's Nick Ray] what kind of music he played (I hate to assume genres these days). "Pop," he replied, then let a beat pass before explaining. “But not in the popular music sense. ‘Pop’ is no longer defined by what’s actually popular; it’s defined by a structure. You know, melodies, guitars, catchy hooks.” --Marissa A. Ross, December 2010
AZ: Recently you’ve toured and collaborated with Ariel Pink. How has that been?
He’s one of my best friends, and it was totally effortless. I think artistically we are the same. It’s like "skillful non-skill." The greatest advice that he’s given me was, “Whatever it is that you’re doing, don’t figure it out.” --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, January 2011
The core concept of now age is we're living in “ghost-modernism.” It's not really like post-modernism; it's beyond that now. It's gotten to a point where the past is just recapitulating itself through kitsch and nostalgia. Every new gesture is just an imprint of an old gesture. We're haunted by so many other past styles and tastes in so many ways. I'm interested in the creation of a new relationship to time, where it's not being recapitulated, but instead looking into the present moment and really seeking out music, materials, structures, people, fashion, and whatever is within this lens of the present. --Interview with Ric Leichtung, November 2011
I've always had a powerful sense of the space-- physiological, emotional, spiritual-- invoked by music. I've always used music that way in my life, using it to create, augment, and enrich experiences. I don't think of myself as a songwriter at all, because what I'm after is some distillation of that effect, creating environments with certain properties and relationships. So often those moments in music that have powerful effects on me are fleeting-- like an outro, or a couple bars right before the second chorus. I'm interested in evoking those spaces so that I can stay a while. --Interview with Michael C. Powell, September 2011
NNA Tapes' Matt Mayer & Toby Aronson
Matt: With harsh noise in general we both noticed a shift in the mid '00s. Like Toby mentioned, a lot of the dudes doing the harder noise started doing ambient, which seems like a total 180 shift. It created a lot of interesting results, where the noise influence would rub off on the ambient and vice versa, creating this cool hybrid. And now where we are in 2011, it's all become smeared together.
I feel like the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I’ve always really liked lyrics, and I’ve always really liked vocal stuff, and playing a lot and going to noise shows, I’ve felt in some ways unwelcome. There’s this unwritten rule saying, "You can’t use lyrics that people will understand." I thought there were supposed to be no rules. [Noise] turns into the most codified, regimented form of music, which is not what it should be at all. When Gowns first started off, some people didn’t know how to take us. They were like, "This band might be cool if they didn’t sing." I wonder if it's something about the idea of masculine, abstract sound experiments, and not allowing a range of emotions to come through. For a lot of people who are doing experimental music, at some point it becomes like, "I built this Max patch that does this." It's about the experiment, and the set of parameters. You’re supposed to be tuning out everything but your ears. --Interview with Samantha Cornwell, June 2011
Emeralds' Mark McGuire
We have always somewhat embodied our surroundings and our heritage in our sound. In Ohio, there’s a huge middle class, and a lot of people work their whole lives... there’s always a feeling of struggling, and the feeling that Cleveland's like the joke of the world... We're not a cultural mecca; it's not where all the big stuff's happening. There’s definitely a lot of people out of work, and there’s poverty: it makes people, it's a tough city. But people from Cleveland are proud that they’re from there... It's this kind of tense, dark, and industrial place that has a lot of hidden beauty and a lot to offer, and that comes across in our music. --Interview with Ric Leichtung, February 2011
I got an e-mail once after I was like, "Holy shit, I'm going on my first tour!" I put it on Facebook or something, and Dominick Fernow wrote to me saying, "Congratulations." He had just joined Cold Cave, things were happening for him, and he was like, "Best of luck to you, thank you for having the courage to succeed." It occurred to me that for so many people, it's very hard to feel okay with success, because success is not cool. It supposedly tarnishes your thing; it ruins little pockets of scenes and the self-importance that comes from thinking you're the only people in your town that are doing something. That's what stops a lot of really talented people from sharing their music and turning it into a career. --Interview with Emilie Friedlander, November 2011
[Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin; photo by David Black]
By Emilie Friedlander
One unseasonably warm October morning in Brooklyn, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin opens the front door of a three-story brick walk-up on a busy thoroughfare in Greenpoint. The 29-year-old Boston area transplant is wearing a black Celtics cap and a green Carhartt jacket. He speaks with the sing-song drawl of a proud stoner, and appears to be freshly woken up. I am here to chat with him about his solo album, Replica-- his fifth since 2009, and his first since becoming a co-founder, with Joel Ford, of Software Records, a subsidiary of Brooklyn label Mexican Summer.
In many ways, Replica is his sparsest, warmest-sounding, and most tightly constructed work to date, offsetting his signature, Juno 60 drone cumuli with a focus on the looped sample as a compositional building block. Lopatin's repetition-based arrangements-- masterminded with the help of childhood friend Al Carson, Mexican Summer’s in-house producer-- are more likely to evoke jazz, ‘90s IDM, and J Dilla than the retro-futurist, ‘70s and ‘80s synth ephemera that his fans have come to expect.
Sample-wise, Replica culls primarily from a DVD compilation of American daytime television commercials from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a particular emphasis on the melodic, rhythmic, and psychic surprises that can arise when you play a single sound bite on repeat. During our conversation, he brings me over to his computer and clicks play on a sound file labeled “Dinner Conversation”: mostly dead air, but with occasional eruptions of smacking lips, clicking tongues, “ooohs,” ahhhs,” “mmms,” and other non-verbal intimations of gustatory delight.
This a commercial for this Nestle coffee-- “almost kind of a fake, high-end coffee, and they were giving the impression of elegance in the commercial,” Dan explains. He has removed every bit of the soundtrack that was designed to be heard-- in other words, the commercial’s intended message-- and isolated traces of what he described as the advertisement’s “subconscious”: not the scripted spectacle which attempts to make us crave Nestle, but its unruly, awkward, and even blushingly libidinous inner life. “It's not meant to be like, 'I'm fucking with advertising, man!'” Dan exclaims, his eyebrows rising as far as the brim of his hat. “I don't feel that at all. It's revealing that we're not in a perfect system though we want to be. We want to believe that we're efficient and perfect, but things are totally out of control and chaotic, like the way we speak and the way we think.”
Lopatin had us at Replica's first hello with the teased beat of "Sleep Dealer," but the sad synths of the album's title track and the hypnotic "smuh"s of the third single, "Nassau," left us hungry for more. Fortunately, Oneohtrix Point Never's magnum opus has been uploaded to Mexican Summer's Soundcloud for all to hear. Essential listening. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
Get your copy of Replica from Ford and Lopatin's own Software label
"Nassau" is the third single from Oneohtrix Point Never's upcoming album, Replica. It's perhaps the most representative of the inventive sampling Dan Lopatin's been exploring of late, which involves taking the soundtracks from commercials from the '80s and '90s, subtracting the scripted action, and leaving behind the organic moments in between. A few words from Lopatin on the subject below, in advance of our artist profile next week:
"A lot of that for me is just noticing cadences in conversation, especially with human voice, which has become the most inspiring thing to me in recent memory, as important to me as the synthesizers. Those two things, for me, most powerfully describe what reality sounds like, musically, other than like Jimi Hendrix taking a guitar solo. It's that kind of personification of sound-- zeroing in on cadences and natural rhythms and melismatic sound as being sad or rounded things as having an apparent emotional quality. I've just been thinking about basic musical components and then applying that to conversation, street sounds, sounds of machinery. That's what, I feel like, I dialed in on." --Ian Pearson, Altered Zones via Boiler Room
Replica drops November 8th from Ford and Lopatin's own Software Label
Listen to the haunting piano-based title track from Oneohtrix’s Point Never’s new LP Replica, a “song cycle based around lo-fi audio procured from television advertisement compilations.” Replica is out November 5 on Ford and Lopatin's Software label. --Chris Cantalini, Gorilla Vs. Bear
"Sleep Dealer" is the first track to hit the web from Oneohtrix Point Never's from Replica, the anticipated follow-up to Returnal, one of our favorite records from last year. With smooth flutes, swelling synth strings, and refreshing exhales of breath, this chopped but beefy cut just makes us more and more excited about the upcoming album. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
Replica drops this November from Ford and Lopatin's own Software Label
Brooklyn's RVNG Intl. doesn't just pay lip service to music as ongoing dialogue between past and present; it unites the pioneers of yore with their contemporary admirers, and facilitates that dialogue in the literal sense. Earlier this year, the label recruited an all-star line-up of millennial synth revivialists to remix the entirety of Harald Grosskopf's 1980 Synthesist LP and perform alongside him as he recreated the album in full at NYC's Unsound Festival. Through its long-running FRKWYS 12" series, RNVG has also facilitated collaborations between The Psychic Ills and Juan Atkins; Excepter, Chris Carter, and Cosey Fanni Tutti; and more recently, Julianna Barwick and DNA's Ikue Mori. For Volume 7, the imprint brought minimalist composer David Borden together with Dan Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never, Ford & Lopatin) at Atlantic Sound Studio in DUMBO for two days of straight jamming in August 2010. Laurel Halo, James Ferraro, and New York composer and sound designer Samuel Godin rounded out the group into a full-on synth ensemble, and the tapes were edited down into a limited edition 12". "People of Wind," part two of which you can hear below, is one of the calmer, earlier takes in a session that eventually culminated in a "Fourth World Freak Out." --Emilie Friedlander, Altered Zones
FRKWYS VOL. 7: BORDEN, FERRARO, GODIN, HALO & LOPATIN comes in CD and LP formats, and is available for pre-order now via RVNG Intl.
The cat's outta the bag: Disco Naïveté leaked Oneohtrix Point Never's remix of "Swanlights" by Antony and the Johnsons. A Record Store Day exclusive, the track appears on the b-side of a gorgeous 10" slab of clear vinyl. Though the edit is listed under the OPN name, Lopatin told to us that "it was produced by F&L at the Mex Summer studios... I definitely incorporated huge, vertical musique concrete/cutup style cuts, in the manner by which we arranged sound on Channel Pressure." --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
While the "Swanlights (OPN Edit)" will tide us over as we wait for Ford & Lopatin's Channel Pressure, out soon on their Mexican Summer imprint Software, revisit the first single under the new-ish name:
David Daniell and James Elliott of Antiopic Records have teamed with Thrill Jockey to curate the colossal Benefit For The Recovery In Japan, a 2-part, 64-track digital compilation featuring a good chunk of the biggest heads in fringe music around the globe, including Fennesz, Tom Carter, The Ex, Oneohtrix Point Never, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Grouper, Dirty Projectors' Nat Baldwin, Rhys Chatham, Prefuse 73, Growing, Tim Hecker, C Spencer Yeh, Sam Prekop, Mountains, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, and Jackie-O Motherfucker. The comp was produced in collaboration with Bettina Richards of Thrill Jockey and Regina Greene of Front Porch Productions, and mastered by Chicago electronic musician Greg Davis. 100 percent of proceeds go to Civic Force, a Japanese non-profit specializing in domestic emergency relief. --Emilie Friedlander, Altered Zones
Benefit For the Recovery in Japan is available via Fina Music. Purchasing may take a few tries, as the site has been swamped. Full tracklisting after the jump.
Field Day announced the initial round of artists that will be gracing the stage at London's Victoria Park on August 6th today, gathering together a motley crew of beat-making producers, indie rock stalwarts, and everything in between. The intrepid John Cale heads the bill, with new Software mastermind Dan Lopatin delivering his unique brand of psyched-up electronica as Oneohtrix Point Never and appearances by AZ faves Ariel Pink, Ducktails, and Hype Williams. The list is deep, with Mount Kimbie, Actress and Chicago kraut-jazz-everything legends Tortoise. -- Daniel Gottlieb
Head over to the Field Day website for the full line-up and ticketing info. Or, if you have a baby shower to attend on August 6th, look below for a brief assortment of sounds you will be missing out on.
Dan Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never and Games is quite the young enterpriser. Between recording and touring, founding his own Upstairs CD-R imprint and doing A&R consulting for Hippos in Tanks, his track record over the past few years reads like a healthy reminder that success and creative integrity aren't mutually exclusive. Pitchfork reported Wednesday that Games, his ultra-smooth, "futuristic production team" with Tigercity's Joel Ford, has changed its name to Ford & Lopatin-- presumably, to preempt legal issues with a certain rapper on Interscope.
And now, these two Massachusetts natives and lifelong friends have founded their own imprint via Brooklyn's Mexican Summer, itself a subsidiary of Kemado. The label will be called Software and it's presently slated to release F&L's debut LP in early June, a Oneohtrix Point Never album in September, and miscellaneous goodies from Demdike Stare, Autre Ne Veut, Prefuse 73's Guillermo Herren, Megafortress, and Joel's solo project, Airbird. When we phoned Lopatin on Wednesday, he was sitting in the pair's brand new HQ: a state-of-the-art recording studio built by Kemado founder and producer Tom Clapp, which will double as an office and their very own control room.
AZ: So how did you and Joel link up with Mexican Summer?
Dan: Keith Abramson, the founder, wrote us an email inviting us to come over and see what was going on at the label. When we saw the studio, we got really excited. Having that space and the freedom to work without time restrictions or pay dates appeals to us, because it can take a lot longer than two weeks to do a record. Sometimes we want to jam for 12 hours straight. And I didn't want the pressure. Having a studio built into the label is kind of an old school model-- like Stax Records or something. It's just a rarity, like a vertically integrated label studio. It made us really stoked. No amount of money can replace having a home to make music.
AZ: And a built-in office…
Dan: …and a place to feel like home. It just makes you more productive and creative.
As 2010 draws to an close, Altered Zones brings you its collective year-end recap. Today, we list our favorite albums of the year. Check our list of tracks here, our list of videos there, and don't forget to stay tuned through the holiday break for daily year-end mixtapes from our favorite artists.
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today [4AD]
When attempting to blurb Ariel Pink's ambitious masterpiece Before Today for my own year-end list, it occurred to me that literally every dialogue about this record and its brilliant, transcendent pop songs had been exhausted elsewhere: Ariel emerges from his bedroom, abandons lo-fi, records in a real studio with real musicians for a real label, drops his breakout record, some irrelevant shit about chillwave, etc. So I enlisted the opinion of chillwave inventor Carles of popular weblog Hipster Runoff fame, a longtime Ariel Pink fan himself, who summed it up like this: “It seems as if perhaps the world has finally caught up with Ariel Rosenberg, and our ears are finally ready for his textures. Before Today is history, while the future is a mystery but today is a gift which belongs to Ariel Pink." --Chris Cantalini
Autre Ne Veut: Autre Ne Veut [Olde English Spelling Bee/Upstairs CDR]
Of the many R&B-nodding white guys making conceptual pop music this year, Autre Ne Veut's debut on Olde English Spelling Bee/Upstairs was one of few that had a completely unique spin. While HTDW had a darker, more pained take, ANV was minimal, clubby, filled with strange effects and unusual instrumentation. And, unlike HTDW, his live show was amazing, with him squirming on the floor and flailing his limbs like a wounded lamb. What that lamb proved was that Toni Braxton-loving white guys can have their cake and eat it too, and not in some W'burg 2006-era ironic way. This is the pop music everyone makes in their shower or in front of the mirror, only it's real. --Michael P. McGregor
Big Troubles: Worry [Olde English Spelling Bee]
Big Troubles' LP dreams finally came to fruition in the third quarter of 2010, when Olde English Spelling Bee released their debut full-length, Worry. The 14-track record bristles with buzzing grit and downright catchy vocal parts, penned by Big Troubles co-masterminds/songwriters Alex Craig and Ian Drennan. Their sound is often touted as a perfect marriage of searing shoe-gaze distortion and early '90s radio rock, but the sum of the descriptors proves greater than its parts. Big Troubles truly champion an exciting and relentlessly loud form of rock and roll. --Ian Nelson
Clive Tanaka y su orquesta: Jet Set Siempre 1° [Tall Corn]
Clive Tanaka is a mysterious figure. Signs point to him being from Japan, Chicago, Brazil, and other far-flung locales, but no one's been able to pin him down yet. It's almost as if he's attemping to throw you off his path by giving false clues. But the international hook works: His Jet Set Siempre 1° tape melts down sounds from all over the globe into vintage synth bangers. How many people can make a robotic voice sound so damn passionate? In futuristic utopias, Clive Tanaka definitely owns the night. --Jheri Evans
Cloudland Canyon: Fin Eaves [Holy Mountain]
Kip Ulhorn's euphoric plunge into synth-driven psych hides an underlying swell of sadness beneath its gauzy pop structures. With the addition of his wife Kelly to the fray, Ulhorn steers Cloudland Canyon away from its Krautrock roots and into a gloriously lush shoegaze present. The result is some of Cloudland Canyon’s catchiest songwriting yet, ensconced in shimmery pop foam and radiant noise, spiraling ever closer to bliss. --Andy French
Earl Sweatshirt: EARL [OFWFKTA]
OFWGKTA: soon to become a household acronym striking fear into the hearts of parents nationwide. These adolescent Los Angeles natives don't just produce their own warped beats; they spit rhymes that even Ted Bundy would find kinda fucked up. Their now missing member, Earl Sweatshirt, isn't any less twisted than the rest of his crew; he's just able to make some of the most vile verses sound eloquent. On "Assmilk", a track from OFWG founder Tyler's Bastard LP, Earl calls himself the "reincarnation of '98 Eminem", a pronouncement that rings true in both content and delivery. His eponymous LP was self-released earlier this year, and the kid leaves no rock unturned. With themes ranging to threesomes with Pam Anderson and Miley Cyrus to stabbing cops and cannibalism, he's definitely not tackling your everyday high school problems. Unfortunately, his parents failed to see anything creative about this and shipped him off to boot camp (or so we think). Hopefully, he'll take this as a learning experience and come back even more ferocious than before. #freeEARL --Nathan Smith
Games: That We Can Play [Hippos In Tanks]
It's interesting to watch our perception of the '80s evolve from a kitschy, "what was I thinking?" decade into an endearing, "those were the days" one. Once upon a time, the era was the butt of as many jokes as Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Chuck Norris combined. Despite flashbacks of gaudy clothing, nowadays the '80s would seem to have some lasting value after all. With their That We Can Play EP, the Brooklyn electronic duo of Joel Ford and OPN's Daniel Lopatin sums it up in a phantasmagoria of lithe synths, robotic melodies, and stiff drum-machine beats. Their songs bring back childhood memories of lying on the living room floor watching Airwolf and MacGyver, or wishing you had more Atari games to play. It's precisely this sort of nostalgia that makes for GAMES' best instrument. That We Can Play soundtracks our memories with sounds as familiar as they are fresh. --Will Abramson
Gatekeeper: Giza [Merok]
Gatekeeper’s Giza EP is an immaculate sound wave designed to paralyse unexplored areas of the human psyche with fear and delight. "Look in the mirror", say Gatekeeper three times. The only valid boarding pass for this voyage is your soul, so please have it open and ready. Upon launch, "Serpent" burrows its way down to the spinal column, where it takes control of your body with an injection of Front 242 serum straight to the nervous system. The rest is a feverish hallucination of wild contortions and glimpses from horror films that were never made. This EP is literally a killer. --J
How To Dress Well: Love Remains [Lefse/Tri Angle]
How To Dress Well has had an amazing year, and much of that centers around Love Remains. The songs are inspired by R&B from the late '80s and '90s , but they have a distinct bedroom sound that elevates their emotional resonance. The entire album holds together seamlessly, but each track stands just as strong on its own. Love Remains grabs you by the heartstrings and allows you to experience How To Dress Well's most impassioned emotions, and that's no small feat. --Jheri Evans
James Blake: CMYK [R&S]
On this his third EP, released through legendary label R&S, London's unspeakably prolific James Blake came into the collective consciousness and established himself as one of the most forward-thinking, genre-defying, and exciting producer/songwriters of the year. Whilst all four songs on the release continue to hold their own, its status as landmark of the last 12 months is won by the title track's chopped, haunting R&B sample, and its seamless transition from a sparse and subtle, atmospheric arrangement to a heart exploding, sub-bass tour de force. --Sahil Varma
Julian Lynch: Mare [Olde English Spelling Bee]
Sound-shaper Julian Lynch composed the low-key, non-traditional psychedelia of Mare in his home states of New Jersey and Wisconsin. With its eclectic instrumental palette, ranging from Eastern to Western and Native American spiritual, the LP boasts more influences than the ear can absorb in one sitting. Like lots of '60s and '70s psych-folk songs, Lynch's have a carefree and endearing yogic leisure about them. --Ryan Ellis
Mark McGuire: Living With Yourself [Editions Mego]
Guitarist Mark McGuire is perhaps best known as one-third of Cleveland Kosmiche revivalists Emeralds, but he has released no less than 30 solo albums in his 23 years on Earth. His Living With Yourself LP on Editions Mego is not only one his most accessible works to date (read: physically available), but also his most technically accomplished. Across eight loop-based sound collages, McGuire whisks through a psychic landscape as vast and minutely textured as America seen from 10,000 feet above. But Living With Yourself is less an exploration of space than an excavation of time, setting McGuire’s processed guitar reveries alongside sound-fragments from the musician’s own childhood. Hard not to feel a little bit like a voyeur when we hear a five-year-old McGuire introducing himself as “Mark”, but who are we to say that pop music hasn’t always been the highest form of autobiography? --Emilie Friedlander
oOoOO: oOoOO EP [Tri Angle]
"NoSummer4u", the track that put San Francisco-based bedroom recorder oOoOO on the map, is an enchanting, gothic-tinged synth-pop ballad, underpinned by foreboding atmospherics and a clinical, hip-hop-inflected beat. His debut self-titled EP presents a darker, more confused vision; oOoOO's skewed take on commercial electro-pop celebrates its decadent glamour while going out if its way to expose its rotten core. From the stuttering, fractured R&B wasteland of "Mumbai" to the barren faux-funk of "Hearts", oOoOO is a beautiful still of urban yearning and mindlessness captured through the stained glasses of a romantic outsider, a guttural fairy tale orchestrated by delayed vamps and diseased synth tones. --Noam Klar
Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal [Editions Mego]
Returnal sees psychedelic-drone linchpin Daniel Lopatin's amorphous, ambient landscapes mapped with more definition than ever before. Attached to OPN's ever-so-slightly rigid structures, the sad, far-out sprawl and bottomless celestial drip of "Drifts" render a consistently beautiful, frequently devastating effect. OPN draws sadness and redemption out of distinctly alien textures with the deftest of touches. --Jack Shankly
Rangers: Suburban Tours [Olde English Spelling Bee]
Every time I put on the debut full-length from fellow former-DFW-suburb-dweller Rangers, I find myself moved by all the woozy, warped filmstrip vibes, inextricably tied to murky memories of a time and place in my youth. I think this is the kind of (possibly manufactured) nostalgia Nick Sylvester was talking about in his piece about Ariel Pink and hypnagogic pop, where he jokingly describes "half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement." Okay, good point; but Suburban Tours emanates an affectingly real, often melancholic warmth that transcends any of these increasingly derogatory, of-the-moment genre tags.--Chris Cantalini
The Samps: The Samps [Mexican Summer]
On their self-titled debut EP, Haunted Graffiti member/new Nite Jewel full-timer Cole MGN and his side-project the Samps take deconstructed, sample-based pop to a whole new level. Their chopped-and-flipped retro-futuristic electro-funk is never anything less than exhilarating, elevated as much by the crew's obvious affinity for pioneers like the Bomb Squad and Dilla as their desire to create "glorious compressed FM gold." The whole thing's a blast; more than anything else, this shit gets us psyched to see where the Samps and like-minded dudes like Games are going to take this steez next. --Chris Cantalini
Sun Araw: On Patrol [Not Not Fun]
On his fourth LP, Sun Araw, aka Cameron Stallones, delves deeper into the heavy-psych he's been maneuvering in for a few years. On Patrol was not only a manifesto, but a coming out party for this deepest of zoners. His work with Magic Lantern and releases on Not Not Fun and Woodsist have been extremely influential on kids tempering in mystic psych explosions. On Patrol, a 2xLP featuring some of the most vibe-encompassing album art I've seen in a long while (also by Stallones), is the culmination of the exotic psych-dub sound he has been chipping away at for ages-- one that is uniquely Sun Araw, while harking where the diesel rumblings are headed. --Michael P. McGregor
Ty Segall: Melted [Goner]
Whether you pump Dead Moon full of steroids or blast The Stooges through a megaphone, you'll probably get something equally as robust as Ty Segall's third album Melted. It's a throwback album, treading retro ground as far back as The Sonics, and taking a flame to the oil stains that dripped on the floors of garage rock for so many years. Simultaneously, Ty manages to ignite the same fire in the current, gaseous cloud of seemingly omnipotent, hazy, nostalgic rock. Melted is a step forward from the snarky days of his debut Lemons, with Ty letting go of the defiant angst he once harbored. He still keeps that punk rock sword in hand, but rather than flail around wildly, he dishes out calculated thrusts and slices. --Will Abramson
Yellow Swans: Going Places [Type]
The Portland drone duo of Peter Swanson and Gabriel Saloman recorded the majority of Going Places after deciding to part ways in 2008. With a backstory like that, it’s hard not to feel touched by these six wooly excursions into the void. Relying more on tape loops and field recordings than their previous efforts, Going Places piles fuzz, hiss, bells, and aborted melodic lines into mile-long vistas of undulating, overtone-speckled squall. It's as dense as a brillo-pad, as tender as a beating heart, and as devastating as the sound of a distant werewolf howling past the point of exhaustion. --Emilie Friedlander
Zola Jesus: Stridulum [Sacred Bones]
Between Stridulum and Valusia and collaborations with LA Vampires and Former Ghosts, 2010 has been a busy year for Zola Jesus. She cast her biggest stride early in the year with Stridulum, a departure from '09's considerably lower-fidelity, "diamond in the rough" album, The Spoils. Stridulum paved the way for a clearer, more sonically refined and diverse Zola, exchanging 15 crunchy, overly saturated noise pop tracks for 6 fully developed, silky smooth synth pad and drum-machine driven songs. Zola's voice is undeniably among the most unique and arresting around. But it would fall flat if the atmosphere that fostered it weren't as lush and subtly nuanced as its counterpart. Swelling crescendos, doom, and gloom in all the right places. --Ric Leichtung