Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Distrans Continuum Top 10 Albums of 2018

Must do something about the infrequency of posts on this blog... First step, get the obligatory top 10 albums of the year post out of the way. Hardly incitement to read the rest of the blog, you may be thinking. Well, indeed. I have to confess my musical explorations have been focused elsewhere in 2018 - and I hope to make a post about that soon enough.

Anyway, 2018. Before getting into the top 10, it's fair to say that my lack of attention to new releases has laid bare my default buying habits - indie rock by artists in their heyday 10-20 years ago. Okay, it's not that homogeneous, but it's also fair to say that I've not been massively inspired by 2018 either. A number of critically acclaimed records don't make the cut here because they left me cold - even by artists I normally love, like Julia Holter (too experimental, too much hard work), Kamasi Washington (too samey, too long), Kurt Vile (see Kamasi Washington) and Oneohtrix Point Never (just not up to past high standards).


10. Papa M - A Broke Moon Rises

The second recent-ish album from David Pajo after 2016's brief and surprising comeback, Highway Songs. A Broke Moon Rises sees Pajo return to the familiar chilled out instrumental acoustic territory of older classics like 1999's Live From A Shark Cage, and the end result is a delight that appears to have been overlooked by a lot of critics.

9. Kelly Moran - Ultraviolet

Okay, so I wasn't entirely on autopilot in my 2018 album explorations. Kelly Moran was a new discovery for me, and on hearing this I quickly snapped up her preceding album, Bloodroot (2017). The attraction here is Moran's unique sound obtained from her custom-modified piano, which is perhaps best showcased on the track 'Helix'. I'm not sure this album completely fulfils Moran's potential, but it is certainly one of my standout listens of 2018.

8. Death Cab For Cutie - Thank You For Today

This one was a bit of a surprise entry. I'd almost written off Death Cab after their decent-ish but ultimately underwhelming 2015 release, Kintsugi. Despite it's insipid cover and title, Thank You For Today is a much needed shot in the arm for these beloved indie rock veterans - great production, lyrics and a consistent all-round listen.

7. Belle & Sebastian - How To Solve Our Human Problems

Less of a surprise, but very much in the veteran indie theme of this top 10. Although not really a proper album, this collection of 3 EPs is a nice addition to Belle & Sebastian's already extensive discography. True, there's nothing much new here, just a really strong collection of songs without the slightly artificial disco styling of their last album, Girls In Peacetime Like To Dance (2015).

6. Jlin - Autobiography

Time for something a little different to break things up. Autobiography is the third full-length album from electronic 'footwork' artist Jlin, and is her most satisfying album to date. Perhaps the key difference here is that the music was composed to accompany a dance performance arranged by Wayne McGregor. Whatever the reason, this album is consistently compelling, with many well-executed twists and turns. Looking forward to the next proper album.

5. Beach House - 7

Another great album from Beach House? Not exactly. Yes, I've included it in my top 10. There are plenty of stand-out songs here, such as early highlight 'Lemon Glow'. At the same time, despite a tweaked sound, I think this album may mark the start of peak Beach House for me. Perhaps the track listing didn't quite flow as well as on their previous albums, or maybe I've just heard too much Beach House. Either way, this is their first album in a long time that hasn't felt like a truly essential listen, despite its evident qualities.

4. Low - Double Negative

Let's file this one under refreshing change of direction. Not that one was necessarily needed - their previous album Ones And Sixes just made my top 10 for 2015. It's not quite the Low meets Bon Iver transformation that some critics billed the album as, but nonetheless this is invigorating and enchanting in ways Low have rarely been before, if ever.

3. Frankie Cosmos - Vessel

I  don't get the relative lack of attention Frankie Cosmos gets. Okay, the music tends to review well enough, but somehow her albums seem to disappear when it comes to too many end of year lists. This is another superb pop gem that follows hot on the heels of the similarly excellent Next Thing, my #2 pick for 2016. As ever, many of the tracks here are fleeting in their brevity. This can be a bit of a double-edged sword, leaving the listener lamenting their shortness, but encouraging repeated listening...

2. Tim Hecker - Konoyo

Another refreshing change of direction, this time a little more subtle from ambient-electronic instrumentalist Tim Hecker. On Konoyo, recorded in Japan, Hecker seemingly adds his own spin on recent Western rediscovery of Japanese environmental-ambient fourth world music from the 1980s and 90s, in a style that is reminiscent of the excellent 2017 album Reassemblage by Visible Cloaks. While many agree that Hecker's first four albums are frustratingly difficult to separate in their excellence, his later releases have been a bit more divisive. Konoyo makes a strong claim to being Hecker's best release of the last 10 years.

1. Melody's Echo Chamber - Bon Voyage

What a pleasant surprise this album turned out to be - a clear #1 by some distance. While I loved Melody's self-titled 2012 debut album, it also had its flaws, most notably petering out just over the halfway mark. Bon Voyage is a shorter listen, at 7 tracks and over 33 minutes, but this time there is no let up. There are frequent changes of pace, often within tracks, which pay-off more often than not, producing an exhilarating listen, perhaps best exemplified by the track 'Desert Horse'. Hopefully it won't be another 6 years before the next album...

Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Distrans Continuum Top 10 Albums of 2017

Okay, this post comes a little late. Nevertheless, we're just about still in the first quarter of 2018, so a respectable period of time has passed for a proper retrospective on 2017. One of the reasons the post is so late is that I'm a bit old fashioned, and wanted to wait for the physical releases of one or two records, especially Fever Ray's Plunge. As it happens, that album didn't make the cut, but in the meantime I've had long enough to firm up a definitive top 10.


10. Kamasi Washington - Harmony Of Difference

Kicking off the top 10, I'm cheating a little bit by including an EP. Still, this is such a good record, and clocking in at over 30 minutes is worthy of inclusion alongside full-blooded album releases. Harmony Of Difference comes hot on the heels of Washington's superb 3CD 2015 album The Epic, and the shift towards a more concise musical statement is both refreshing and rewarding. The EP better captures the emotion and euphoria of Kamasi Washington live, right from the get go on opener 'Desire'.

9. The Shins - Heartworms

While it's been five years since the last Shins album, Heartworms is a welcome return to form from James Mercer. While the sound is denser, and seems less effortless and airy than the classic Shins albums of the early 2000s, this is definitely one of the better comebacks of 2017.

8. Broken Social Scene - Hug Of Thunder

Another comeback album, an even longer hiatus - the last BSS album being released in 2010 (the excellent Forgiveness Rock Record). Although it fades somewhat in the second half, Hug Of Thunder sounds just as urgent as their classic You Forgot It In People (2002). The title track is a sublime slice of indie rock - as are many others here.

7. Toro Y Moi - Boo Boo

The most underrated album of 2017? Boo Boo must be a contender. While Toro Y Moi's previous albums have glittered while flattering to deceive, Boo Boo really delivers with his most consistent and compelling album yet. Unjustly perhaps, the record seems to have passed beneath the radar of many 2017 best album lists. Not only are there some great pop tracks here, but there's a new depth of emotion that really comes to the fore in some of the instrumentals.

6. Fleet Foxes - Crack Up

Another comeback album, and one that many were eagerly anticipating. While it doesn't take the easy route that the band could have opted for by reproducing the formula of their previous albums and EPs, Crack Up fulfills the promise of those releases, and challenges the listener to boot. Most importantly, it still sounds unquestionably like the Fleet Foxes of old.

5. Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now

I have a special affinity for the music of Jens Lekman. While most consider his best album to be 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, for me it will always be 2012's break-up record, I Know What Love Isn't - every single track seemed to evoke some deeply-felt aspect of the divorce I was going through at the time of its release. Life Will See You Now occupies something of the territory between those two aforementioned releases - at once fun, witty and contemplative.

4. Do Make Say Think - Stubborn Persistent Illusions

Another comeback album, and this one is yet again a serious contender for the best release in the band's back catalogue. As with Broken Social Scene, the keyword with this album is urgency. While many past DMST albums tended to meander around in jazzy and spacey instrumental rock, Stubborn Persistent Illusions drifts closer to the sounds of mainstream post-rock (if not a contradiction in terms), with resoundingly euphoric results.

3. Slowdive - Slowdive

Okay, this is the last comeback album on the list, but boy, what a good one, and what a wait. Slowdive's self-titled album comes a full 22 years after 1995's Pygmalion, disproving the notion of the slow decline after an initial burst of creative and innovative releases. I'll be frank, while I love Souvlaki, Slowdive is the better album. This is as good as any dream-pop the likes of Beach House have made in the last 10 years.

2. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister - Planetarium

Something of a divisive release, this album is long, sprawling, illogically ordered, and messy. At the same time, it is utterly gorgeous, and defies all its faults to demand listen after listen. There are many high points here ('Jupiter', 'Venus', 'Pluto' and 'Saturn' are just a few), and while the longer instrumental tracks may put some people off, I found their presence vital to do justice to the celestial theme of the music. Well worth coming back to if it didn't click straight away.

1. Visible Cloaks - Reassemblage

Wow. I've long been a fan of electronic ambient music, but this album not only blew me away, it also opened my mind to a new world of obscure electronic albums from 1980s Japan (future blog posts to follow on this subject). Like a lot of minimalist ambient music, getting the most out of this requires careful selection of context and mood, so in a sense, it is harder to compare directly with the other music on this list. Aside from the music itself, another major reason it is number one is the impact it has had on my music buying and listening in the last year or so. After delving into some of the music that inspired this album, it was pleasing to hear, among other things, echoes of Japanese maestro Yoshio Ojima, an artist I would have probably never encountered without hearing Reassemblage.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Symbol of life, love and aesthetics. A tribute to the music of Susumu Yokota (1961 - 2015)

Susumu Yokota was a multi-talented Japanese electronic musician who released a series of influential albums from 1993 - 2012. He died in 2015. After coming across Susumu Yokota's music through a chance internet recommendation earlier this year, I found myself strangely compelled to track down the majority of his releases (at least those produced under his own name), and here we are.
For most Western listeners, the standard gateway to Susumu Yokota's discography is Sakura, released in 1999 to a fair amount of critical acclaim in the North American and European music press. Sakura is a lush and mesmerising album, combining ambient soundscapes, samples, house-beats and occasional jazz to wonderful effect. This is an album of subtleties that rewards repeated listening (headphones are recommended), but there are obvious highlights as well, including the haunting 'Kodomotachi' (children), which samples Joni Mitchell's 'Songs To Aging Children Come' (1969).

As good as Sakura is, it would be a mistake to confine oneself to this record alone. For many, the next logical stopping off points are Sakura's follow-up releases, 2001's Grinning Cat, and 2002's The Boy And The Tree. While both these albums undeniably feature moments of creative beauty, most notably 'Lapis Lazuli' and 'Secret Garden' respectively, I missed the same connection that came so easily with Sakura, and found these two to be largely disappointing. In the context of Yokota's full discography, for me the obvious successors to Sakura are 2003's Laputa, and 2010's Kaleidoscope. These albums are two of Susumu's strongest electronic-ambient releases, and both demand to be listened to in their entirety. In this respect it is harder to list highlights for these records. From Laputa, I found 'Degrees Dream' to be particularly affecting - a lazy, floating track that almost sends me into a day dream when I hear it. Likewise, Kaleidoscope's 'Blue Moon' successfully melds eastern instruments and chanting with western bells and choir in another dreamlike transcultural odyssey - a soundscape that re-appears more prominently on Susumu's last record, Dreamer.

An obvious facet of Susumu Yokota's discography is its impressive breadth and diversity of musical styles. The first group of albums worth mentioning consist of his pre-Sakura electronic releases, including his 1993 trancy debut The Frankfurt-Tokyo Connection, 1994's Acid-house Acid Mt. Fuji, and my personal favourite, 1997's Mouse On Mars-like Cat, Mouse And Me. While lacking the depth of his later releases, these albums certainly don't lack for charm, and more than hint at some of the further riches to come. All three clock in at over 70 minutes, and therefore involve a considerable investment of time. I found the initially beguiling Acid Mt. Fuji to test my patience the most as the least varied of the three, whereas Cat, Mouse And Me features many delightful changes of direction - highlight 'Wait For A Day', 'Cat, Mouse And Me' and 'Dodo' all had me clamouring for multiple repeated listens. Alongside these early releases it is also worth mentioning the excellent Image 1982 - 1998 compilation, which is half low-key guitar instrumentals from the 1980s, and half Sakura-style electronic ambient pieces from the 1990s. On the other hand, Magic Thread (1998) is a minimalist ambient affair that is largely forgettable, aside from the odd interesting moment.

Susumu's work diversifies again into the 2000s and beyond. Perhaps the best release from this era, and rival for Sakura's crown as the finest Susumu Yokota album, is 2005's Symbol. Symbol is a bold departure from previous releases, and in essence is a skillful mash-up of various Western Classical music pieces stitched together with more than a veneer of Susumu's deft collage of beats and samples. The end result is quite simply gorgeous, and is likely to appeal to listeners put off by his more abstract electronic releases. The more accessible approach of Symbol is taken to another level on 2007's Love Or Die, which is probably Yokota's most commercial sounding album, melding some strong piano-driven tracks with Susumu's signature electronica. Commercial shouldn't be taken as a criticism here - there are more moments of beauty and stand-out tracks than in any of his other releases, but paradoxically at the same time it feels just a little too structured, produced and choreographed.

Another predilection in Susumu Yokota's work is his liking for ethereal and folksy female vocals. This is the emphasis for another couple of albums, 2006's Wonder Waltz, and 2009's Mother, which each make use of a number of guest vocalists. While neither of these records are particularly consistent by Yokota's usual standards, each one features stunning stand-out tracks, from the lullaby-like 'Don't Go Sleep' on Wonder Waltz to the piercing Nancy Elizabeth vocals on 'A Flower White', the enchanting 'Meltwater' and mournful '12 Days 12 Nights', all on Mother. Mother is certainly the stronger of the two, and like many of Susumu Yokota's later releases has perhaps been unfairly overlooked in the Western music press.

Susumu Yokota's last studio album is 2012's Dreamer. This album and its cover are steeped in Asian mysticism, and the music is testament to Susumu's evident interests in fusing elements of Western and Eastern music, as well as styles and sounds from across his career. This album sadly received little fanfare in Europe and North America, and reviews are hard to come by on the web. Dreamer is a challenging but rewarding album, epitomised by the jarring but alluring second track 'Flitting Ray'. The album also features two stomping housey tracks, 'Inception' and 'Animiam Of The Airy', which are surely a nod to Susumu's pre-Sakura days, and bring a necessary change of pace and and urgency missing from much of Yokota's earlier work. The end result is an impressive, albeit idiosyncratic monument to Susumu Yokota's fundamentally innovative and affecting musical career.

Aside from a few promotional photographs, it is difficult to get much sense of the man behind the music. The 2016 re-release of 1994's Acid Mt. Fuji paints a picture of Susumu as a mysterious, almost romantic figure, a lone artist who seldom gave media interviews, and was prevented from giving regular live performances by an ongoing state of poor health. This picture of the introspective artist is heightened in particular the sleeve notes from the Image 1982 - 1998 compilation, which features a list of paintings, collages and photos produced by Susumu in 1987-8 (including the cover art for 2007's Love Or Die album - shown above), in addition to a short essay by Susumu about the tracks on the album. It seems fitting to end this tribute with a quote from this essay, as Susumu describes 'Kona' as a theme influencing his very earliest music:

Kona is a Japanese word for powder - an assemblage of white grains. I wished to be Kona. I wished to be Kona at the moment of death. Things I wanted to do were becoming very clear because of this wish. Sugar, stevia, some chemical drugs, and ceramics are a gathering of super-particles. Accumulate some white Kona and blow on them. They will scatter can never be replaced exactly in their original form. Like the vagueness of memories. Bones of the dead are shattered like Kona and sprinkled over the homeland. Children can fly in the sky when sprinkled with Angel's Kona.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Distrans Continuum Top 10 Albums of 2016

Another year, another top 10 albums list. It's probably worth stating that I didn't find 2016 as rewarding for new music as 2015. This isn't such a terrible indictment on the year though, given how much I loved 2015. But no honourable mentions this time. I had high hopes, but several albums disappointed and missed out - I'm thinking specifically of Explosions In The Sky, M83 and Tortoise, who all released records that ultimately did not live up to past highs. And yes, I'm in the minority camp that didn't see anything special in the new Bon Iver record either. It was pleasant enough, I suppose. Ho hum.

FYI, this year's top 10 was compiled with a refined methodology, drawing on a balanced combination of individual track ratings and overall album impressions compiled over multiple listens. More than ever, I am convinced that this is the best of what I have heard this year, although as usual I reserve the right to discover new things that I've missed and retrospectively change the list! On with the countdown...


10. Animal Collective - Painting With

In the aftermath of their 2009 magnum opus Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective have been cast as a band in decline by many critics. I really liked 2012's Centipede Hz, but it lacked the killer singles of Merriweather, as well a distinctive new creative direction. In some ways, Painting With is a more frustrating listen than Centipede. It is one of Animal Collective's most inconsistent albums, with some tracks that really detract from the overall experience, like 'Vertical'. Yet there are also incandescant positives. 'FloriDada' and in particular 'Golden Gal' are a couple of the best songs written by the group. Crucially, there are enough other high points scattered through the record for it to sneak into my top 10 for 2016. 'Natural Selection', 'Spilling Guts' and 'Summing The Wretch' and a host of others all add up to what is an overwhelmingly fun listen. Don't cancel your subscriptions just yet.

9. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - Ears

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was a major new discovery for me in 2016. Following quickly on the heels of official debut Euclid (2015), Ears is a more focused offering of organic synthesizer music that conjures a rich tapestry of distinctive, sometimes tantalisingly brief soundscapes. While others have likened it to Rifts era Oneohtrix Point Never, this record sounds much more crisp and teems with life. Although there is some structure here, the album seems more than content to fill space while it unfolds, drawing in the listener with changes of vista before slow release comes via a kind of wide-screen ambiance. The wonderful album cover is a really apt visualisation of the music: colourful, eclectic and quite simply gorgeous.

8. The Field - The Follower

Continuing in the vein of electronic music, this time at the (opposite) very structured end of the spectrum, comes The Follower. This is the fifth album by Swedish producer Axel Willner, aka The Field. Differing little in style from his previous releases, this is minimalist ambient techno at its finest. The Follower is all about the progressively subtle layering and varied use of samples over tracks that can last between 8 and 15 minutes. Getting the best out of records by the Field has always been about finding the right circumstances to allow the music to penetrate one's subconscious, for example, repetitive chores around the house or data-entry work well for me. While I have used the word 'ambient' to describe The Follower, stand-out tracks like 'Monte Veritá' demand attention and encourage the imagination to wonder in equal measure. The beautifully unexpected mid-track tempo change here is just one of many small joys on this album.

7. Yeasayer - Amen & Goodbye

Yeasayer may not enjoy the popularity and critical acclaim they once had, but nevertheless delivered a cohesive gem of an album in 2016 in Amen & Goodbye. From intro track 'Daughters Of Cain' to 'Half Asleep', the first third of the record makes for compelling pop with a sophisticated sheen, until 'Dead Sea Scrolls' breaks ranks with its fun but ultimately tedious repetition of 'Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba baa yah'. The rest of the album falls into line nicely until the gorgeous and heartfelt penultimate track 'Uma'. Good as it is, there's a sense that Yeasayer sound a bit left behind in 2016 - but if it really is amen and goodbye from Yeasayer, this would not be a bad way to say it.

6. James Blake - The Colour In Anything

The much-anticipated follow-up to slightly disappointing Overgrown (2013) finally arrived in 2016, clocking-in at a whopping 75 minutes and 17 tracks. While I'm not against long records per se, The Colour In Anything could have been a really great record if it had been subject to more critical quality control. The first 10 tracks make for an utterly compelling if typically bleak listen, with 'Love Me In Whatever Way' and 'Timeless' being particular highlights. After 10 tracks, the record sounds like a genuine album of the year contender, but then comes 'I Need A Forest Fire', featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. While I've enjoyed past collaborative appearances of JV (Lia Ices' 'Daphne' is a particular favourite), this track just drags on, with a tedious repeating vocal sample, and ultimately signals a downturn in the quality of the rest of the album. Although several tracks show promising hints such as the title track and 'Modern Soul', it never quite hits the same heights and immediacy of the first 10 tracks. A flawed masterpiece.

5. PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project

Another long-anticipated follow-up, this time to the excellent Let England Shake (2011), which conjured an emotive post-colonial critique of English history and identity. The Hope Six Demolition Project addresses similar political themes, this time taking aim at the spectre of global capitalism and its various negative consequences. While tracks like rousing opener 'The Community Of Hope', 'A Line In The Sand', and 'The Orange Monkey' most certainly hit their mark, the album suffers from a disappointingly weak closing quarter. Although it does not really break away from the shadow of its predecessor, this is nevertheless a more than worthy follow-up.

4. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead's latest offering provides yet further evidence that they are incapable of making a poor album (well, Pablo Honey aside). What's more, A Moon Shaped Pool sounds as essential and urgent as Radiohead have ever sounded. For me, the real highlights here are the beautiful 'Identikit' and 'Present Tense', but there are no obvious weak points on the album, as we've become accustomed to with the band over 20+ years. If I had to quibble, the closer 'True Love Waits' is not a good fit with the rest of the record, which makes sense given the song was originally written in their (first) heyday in the mid-nineties.

3. Jóhann Jóhannsson - Orphée

Jóhann Jóhannsson has built an impressive back-catalogue of records over the last 15 years, subtly blending classical composition and instrumentation with background electronica. While much of his past work focuses on scoring film soundtracks, Orphée represents the first stand-alone record since 2008's Fordlandia. Taking the Orpheus myth as a general theme, this album represents an important shift from smaller labels like Fat Cat to renowned classical label Deutsche Grammophon, seemingly following a similar path to composer Max Richter, who shares a similar musical approach. Unlike Richter however, whose DG debut From Sleep (2015) did not quite live up to previous releases, Jóhannsson manages to showcase his undeniable talents to great effect on Orphée. There are many beautiful moments here, some fleeting, others more sustained, ranging from the child-like sadness of 'The Drowned World', the regretful 'A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder', the shimmering and contemplative 'By The Roes, And By The Hinds Of The Field' and the cathartic closer 'Orphic Hymn'. This is undoubtedly one of his finest albums to date.

2. Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing

Second place in 2016 goes to Frankie Cosmos' brilliantly concise Next Thing, which packs 14 songs into less than 30 minutes. Cosmos, aka Greta Kline, is already the master of melodic indie pop songs that cram witty reflections into 2 minutes or less. What's more, Next Thing is tremendously consistent, a real step up from its otherwise solid predecessor Zentropy (2014). Everything bubbles along nicely until the latter half of the record, where many of the highlights seem to be gathered, including 'Outside With The Cuties', 'What If', and 'O Dreaded C Town'. The perfect accompaniment to a spare half-hour, whatever the circumstances.

1. Jessy Lanza - Oh No

This year's number one goes to a record that has slowly pushed itself to the top of the line after listen after listen, until one day it dawned on me that this would become a personal favourite. It follows roughly three years on from Lanza's well-crafted debut, Pull My Hair Back (2013), which marked her out as a new artist to watch. Oh No is a sublime blend of sophisticated pop sung over sharply produced electronic dance music, the latter immediately coming to the fore on opener 'New Ogi'. While the record stutters a little with second track 'VV Violence', the tempo ebbs and flows in the more challenging first half of the album before settling down in part two. The final four tracks 'Vivica', 'Oh No', 'Begins' and 'Could Be U' effectively propelled this album into my number one spot for 2016. This closing song arc gradually builds up steam towards crescendo and release on 'Begins', with 'Could Be U' providing a kind of chilled retrospective on the whole affair. Much of this is understated and detached, which is admittedly a big part of the charm of both her records for me, but perhaps also a factor in the record's below the radar status on some of the more prominent end-of-year lists so far. If Oh No is anything to go by, however, it won't be long before Jessy Lanza gets the recognition she deserves.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

(Non-canonical) Visions of Dune - part 2

The Dune universe continues to inspire a range of films and music projects, even though none has achieved the commercial success of equivalent doorstop novels such as the Lord of the Rings, not to mention SF films such as the Star Wars franchise. In this second installment, I take a look at some of the more recent (and unlikely) additions that have drawn my attention in the last year or so.

The greatest film never made?

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) is a documentary of Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed attempt to make Dune into a film in the mid-1970s. While this may not sound like the most exciting premisefrom the first five minutes it is apparent that Jodorowsky's vision of Dune was utterly compelling. This documentary is in equal measure a story of galactic ambition, creative excess, and ultimately, a tragic missed opportunity - or was it? It seems almost everyone who invested substantially in the project managed to get something special out of it in the end. The film highlights the influence of this project on a range of genre-defining SF films such as Aliens and Star Wars, some of which involved some of the same personnel from Jodorowky's project. Those wishing to get an idea of what the film would have been like are advised to check out Jodorowsky's graphic novel series the Incal (and connected later books like the Metabarons), the first installment of which was illustrated by Jean 'Moebius' Giraud, artist from the original Dune film project.  I found these disappointing from the perspective of my interest in Dune. The Incal is a justifiably a classic graphic novel but lacks the depth of the Dune novels, whereas the Metabarons shamelessly rips-off elements of the Dune story in a reductive pulp-style. Both left me with the impression that the story and myth of Jodorowsky's Dune may have actually been better than whatever form the finished film would have taken, despite its star-studded line-up with the likes of Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali.

But it doesn't quite end with the otherwise excellent documentary film. The original film would have supposedly featured some of the best bands of the 70s that were capable of evoking SF soundscapes, including Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. With this in mind, I was curious when the soundtrack to Jodorowsky's Dune scored by Kurt Stenzel was released in 2015.

I've already expressed my admiration for other music inspired by the Dune universe in the previous installment of this blog post (especially Zed's Visions Of Dune), so how does this latest version measure up? I remembered liking the music from Jodorowsky's Dune, which comes flooding back with the sinister and mystical opening track, 'Coming Of A God'. The rest of the soundtrack almost picks up stylistically from where Zed's (1979) Visions Of Dune left off, complete with ample synthesizers and the occasional snippet from the film interviews with Jodorowsky himself. The overall aesthetic is excellent, but at 33 tracks and over 75 minutes, I can't help wondering if something half the length would've been more effective. While several tracks would have worked well in a score for Dune itself (past or future), others are more appropriate for the documentary, and some of these tend to be less compelling to come back to. Overall, this is a nice addition to an already impressive catalogue of music linked to the Dune books - not the most essential, but it does a good job in evoking the essence of Jodorowsky's weird and ambitious take on Frank Herbert's monumental novel.

Lastly, and as promised, this brings me to consider another musical project linked to Dune - Grimes' Geidi Primes (2010), named after the home planet of House Harkonnen.

This is one of Grimes' first records, and along with Halfaxa (2011) it lacks the complexity and self-assured quality of breakthrough album Visions (2012), and pop-masterpiece Art Angels (2015). What is interesting about the album is its Dune-themed song titles, comprising 'Caladan', 'Sardaukar Levenbrech', 'Zoal, Face Dancer', 'Feyd Rautha, Dark Heart', 'Shadout Mapes', and 'Beast Infection' (possibly referring to the 'Beast' Rabban?). These titles underline more than a passing interest in the Dune universe, which recall an interview in which Grimes (real name Claire Boucher) expressed an interest in directing yet another film of Dune. The titles that fit the music best are 'Shadout Mapes' and 'Zoal, Face Dancer', and while 'Feyd Rautha, Dark Heart' has a certain dark quality to it, without the titles in mind when listening to this there's little that really evokes Dune in the way of the other musical projects associated with the franchise. It's a nice album, but more so for fans of Grimes than fans of Dune.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Distrans Continuum Top 10 Albums of 2015

There are only moments of 2015 left now, so it's time to reveal my top 10 of the year. No doubt I'll discover more excellent music from the year in the future, and change my mind about the order and contents of this list - but right now, in the last moments of the year, this was my 2015 in music...

A few more thoughts before getting down to the list. I doubt there will be few surprises, since most of the records have already featured countless times in more well-read lists than this one. There is no pretense about picking the more obscure releases (although see my Honourable Mentions). However, I will try to justify my selections, and I hope that this will provide an interesting slant for some readers. Enjoy at your leisure!


10. Low - Ones And Sixes

First up in my top ten is what seems like the 20th record by Low. I've followed Low for a long time, and it's a real testament to the band that they've been able to produce such a strong album after so many years and so many solid records without changing anything major. Don't get me wrong, for all the plaudits I've never considered Low amongst the upper echelons of my favourite artists - their mid-2000s output didn't click with me much, and while I liked the odd song from 2011's C'mon and thought 2013's The Invisible Way was a return to form, they haven't pulled up any trees for quite some time. Ones And Sixes takes all the classic Low ingredients but brings with it a renewed directness and urgency that is utterly invigorating. For this reason I think it comes close to surpassing both their debut record, I Could Live In Hope (1994), and the more accessible Things We Lost In The Fire (2001). What's more it gets better, track by track, from the building power of opener 'Gentle' to its closing moments.

9. Dungen - Allas Sak

Like Low, Dungen have been around for some time, and it feels like almost as long since they produced a truly great record - with 2004's Ta Det Lugnt still regarded as the defining moment by many. I'm ashamed to say that I came close to leaving their previous two releases in a charity bin on the eve of this release - two records that had disappointed because I wanted another Ta Det Lugnt and was unable to appreciate them on their own merits - that is until I heard this. Allas Sak is a real breath of fresh air. While its charms aren't obvious unless you're a died in the wool fan of late 60s and early 70s psychedelia (I'm not), I found there to be real substance here - also keeping in mind that I don't understand a word of the band's native Swedish. The first track to hook me was the instrumental 'Flickor Och Pojkar', before I came to appreciate the gorgeous 'En Gang Om Aret', by which time the entire record had me under its spell.

8. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness

I had high hopes of this album, and despite initial disappointment, here it is sitting pretty in eighth place. Let's get the negatives out of the way first - I found the pacing of the album to be awkward at first, with the longer and slower tracks dissipating the record's momentum, and I also thought a couple of tracks were needlessly irritating, notably the 'uh-oh' ridden 'Betsy On The Roof'. However, these discomforts quickly faded after repeated listens, with every track sounding better and better. While I still prefer 2012's Ekstasis, the sheer quality and subtlety of this record are too great to for it to be excluded from my top ten, and 'Night Song' must be one of the best tracks I've heard all year.

7. Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again

I had not heard of Jessica Pratt at the beginning of the year, but the discovery of On Your Own Love Again forced me to track down her debut album very shortly afterwards. Listening to her latest release, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the album came out in 2015 and not 1975 - the record would almost make more sense as a long lost masterpiece that's only just come to light. At slightly over 31 minutes, this album is a tightly packed and carefully-crafted gem. While Pratt's lyrics and voice paint her as a kind of gentle and fey outsider, the tracks are far more confident and self-assured than on her 2013 self-titled debut. Songs like 'Game That I Play', and the closing pair, 'Back, Baby' and 'On Your Own Love Again' ooze class, and suggest much to look forward to in the future.

6. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden Of Delete

As a long-time fan of OPN, aside from the excellent Replica (2011), I've always been most disposed towards his first trio of albums reissued on the Rifts compilation (2007-09), which are essentially essays in Tangerine Dream-esque synthesizer music. Since then he's reinvented his sound on each successive release, and GOD is no exception. This time there is a kind of distorted pop music mentality at the heart of the album, subject to the usual OPN barrage of weird electronic effects and juxtapositions. This all works surprisingly well - the result is at once a record that is OPN's most accessible as well as his most bizarre. While some of his albums have left me cold (2010's Returnal) or mostly lukewarm (2013's R Plus Seven), this one is oddly alluring from start to finish.

5. Holly Herndon - Platform

Staying with electronic music, Holly Herndon's Platform manages to edge into my final five of 2015. There are many stylistic similarities between this album and the last three or so by Oneohtrix Point Never, but I prefer this one for its sonic clarity, its use of vocals and vocal effects, and its underlying message - all exemplified on one of my favourite songs, 'Unequal'. While thoroughly innovative and enjoyable, in different places this record also inspires contemplation and evokes sadness, which for me raise it above most of the other releases I've heard this year. Although many will find the music simply too weird and disjointed to give this record a proper chance, Platform is easily more accessible than Herndon's debut Movement (2012), and deserves serious attention.

4. Beach House - Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars

No doubt cynics will see this as a ruse to include an extra album in my top ten... So let me first make something of a defence. In the first place, I genuinely feel that both records deserved top ten status on their individual merits. Secondly, I'm mindful of other bands who have managed to release two albums simultaneously and have them lumped together in end-of-year lists. Lastly, and most importantly, I'm intrigued by the idea of re-writing history and wondering how these albums would have been received if they had been released together, and not a few weeks apart. Obvious parallels would then include Deerhunter's Microcastle/Weird Era Cont., M83's Hurry Up We're Dreaming, and even Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me. Putting the boot on the other foot, while these are all excellent double (or triple) albums, had they been released on single discs I can't help wonder if their fanfare would have been a lot more muted - all three of them have weaker moments that tend to be dwarfed by their sheer size as artistic statements. Likewise, I also wonder that if Beach House had put these two out as a double album, the collected content would have been far better received... Anyway, in my eyes 2015 was a great year for Beach House. They have managed to follow-up two stellar albums in Teen Dream and Bloom with another two in the space of a year that more than adequately complement their repertoire. Good music does not have to be innovating all the time.

3. Tame Impala - Currents

Unlike the apparent majority for whom Lonerism represents Tame Impala at their peak, I can confidently state that Currents is my preferred album by the Antipodean rockers band. As this list makes plain, it bothers me little whether a band uses guitars or electronics - and in this case the issue is largely irrelevant given the quality of the tracks and depth of emotion that Currents manages to conjure. This is a break-up record, and one that sensitively deals with a familiar narrative that accompanies the end of a long-term relationship - seemingly from the perspective of the partner seeking to move to pastures new. There are many highs here, not least the opener 'Let It Happen' and closer 'New Person, Same Old Mistakes', but it was the less heralded tracks that really sucked me in - 'Love/Paranoia', which confronts the injured party's need to make sense of the end of the relationship, and even 'Past Life', despite its slightly cringeworthy documentary quality. All this has a depth and cohesiveness that elevates Currents above both Lonerism and Innerspeaker.

2. Björk - Vulnicura

Second place in my top ten goes to another break-up record, this time documenting a divorce, and one seemingly from the perspective of someone witnessing their world and family fall apart around them. As one might expect, such an album is harrowing at times, and in this case the songs are presented in order of events as they took place. If Tame Impala's Currents is a celebration of breaking out of the cage of an unhappy relationship, Vulnicura deals with the anger, deep loss, and mourning of a once-cherished partnership. This is without doubt the best Björk album since Medúlla and possibly even Vespertine, which was my personal favourite. Given the rather specific subject matter, this is not necessarily an album for everyone - at least, having gone through divorce myself in recent years, I found the content to have added personal significance (although see also what I say below for the number one record!). As a bonus, Björk also released Vulnicura Strings, which is effectively the same album re-ordered and stripped down to vocals and the string-section. While this second release lacks the same impact as the original, for a handful of tracks their rawness is enhanced by this simpler treatment, so it is well worth checking out if you liked the main release.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

As I write this I'm conscious of a recent article that humorously predicted what kinds of things a person's number one album of 2015 said about them. Since Carrie & Lowell deals with the death of Sufjan Steven's less than ideal mother (at least in some key areas of parenting, like not abandoning your child in a shop), surely this record can only be held in such esteem if someone else had the same feelings and experiences relating to their own (dead) mother?! Not at all. Carrie & Lowell is the number one record of 2015 for me, not in this case through some kind of shared experience, but rather because of Sufjan's innate ability to communicate the depth of his own feelings in a highly affective manner. Listening to Carrie & Lowell is a positively cathartic experience, ultimately evoking an overwhelming optimism in the face of confronting inherently personal human frailties and weaknesses. While 'Fourth Of July' reminds us repeatedly that 'we're all gonna die', in the context of the album this comes as a call to make the most of the time that we have, rather than give in to despair.

I hope you enjoyed the music of 2015 as much as me. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and see you soon with more posts in 2016!