Although the various strains of ambient music have their fans, it’s rare that a band crosses over, even to the extent of getting signed to a bigger label and having their album reviewed among the more common indie/rock fare out there. With Choral, Mountains not only crosses that threshold into the wider music fan consciousness, they prove they deserve to be there. After two stellar albums on their own label, their Thrill Jockey debut may be their best yet. Based around heavily manipulated acoustic guitar tones (but including everything from books to ice water as source material), the duo’s blissful drone feels fresh and oddly natural in a genre that at its worst can feel canned and disposable. Choral is by turns euphoric, pastoral, lysergic, and seething as well as a hundred other things, but it’s never for a second less than gorgeous.
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Mika’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much is the natural follow-up to his Life in Cartoon Motion in that it carries over the same energy and exuberance of his debut while adding more depth to the songs. The album opens with the single “We Are Golden” and it may as well be “Grace Kelly” 2.0 in the best way possible. Mika’s crafted yet another instantly catchy and idiosyncratic melody into a great single. Falsettos and handclaps abound, along with terrific choruses resulting in an album of such exuberance that it defies the listener to not give in completely. The album jumps from Mika’s piano sing-alongs to the Caribbean-tinged “Blue Eyes” to the gospel choir-backed “Touches You” to a tender duet on “By the Time” with Imogen Heap. Mika’s strength lies in his ability to infuse so much joy into his music. Who else could make a song about hating the rain (“Rain”) sound so wildly happy? The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a true pop album in the best sense of the word and Mika remains poised as that rare songwriter who straddles the line between artistic experimentation and a true popular sensibility, all the while creating irresistible songs.
Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt’s first solo album as Lotus Plaza has an incredibly personal feel to it, as if Floodlight Collective was made with the primary intention of satisfying its creator. And while most albums made in this manner veer into the realm of self-indulgence, Pundt has created a remarkably buried, but brisk, and tangled, but tempered sound. On “Whiteout” and “These Years”, his voice calls out from beneath a sonic abyss of twinkling effects and layered pads, not so much struggling to be heard, but rather enticing the listener to venture downward. Building on the first half of Deerhunter’s self-proclaimed genre of “Ambient Punk”, Lotus Plaza’s album dabbles in drone on the title track, while “Antonie” would easily have felt at home on Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s first solo album as Atlas Sound. For more inventive moments, see standout track “Quicksand”, which synthesizes ‘60s doo-wop sounding beats with a surf-like guitar, coated with gorgeous atmospherics.
From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, electronica often has a natural inclination to sound like the music of robots. Precision beats and cold melodies compel movement and ring with huge volume but the genre often fails to synthesize music that sounds flawed, intimate and well, human. Canadian duo Junior Boys’ 2009 album Begone Dull Care is significant in its ability to warp clunky electronic beats into emotional, empathetic songs. Transcending genre, the album simultaneously blends fluid structure with colorful statements on love that swing from sexy to sweetly innocent in a matter of measures. Deep and dynamic, Begone Dull Care is so enjoyable and relatable perhaps because it is so well layered and prone to pleasing changes that make it brazenly addictive. Entrancing love ballads like “Hazel” take washes of perky synth bits, a ferocious beat, and stacked melodies into a climactic duo with romance stained vocals. As the ecstatic energy of one solo dwindles, the ominous sweep intro of the melancholy “Sneak a Picture” transforms the an exuberant mood into the sound of a rainy, dark dance between majors and minors. With careful attention paid to the rich interplay between parts and a penchant for authentic transformations within songs, the Junior Boys gifted 2009 with an insanely catchy collection of tunes that rewrites a human sort of electronica for the year’s lovers and broken hearts.
Mark Pritchard is an incredible musical chameleon—while the earlier half of this decade saw him making an homage to library records with the mellotron-filled Harmonic 33 project, that little “1”–-also a nod to the Detroit influence—changes the game to hip-hop, techno, and dubstep. Taking cues from J-Dilla and Cybotron, Machines is a reflectively cold, yet subtly satirical take on retro-futurism. Tracks like “Galag-A”, with its classic video game title and decayed faux-Plaid synths, look inward at the mechanical visions of the future from yesteryear. “Falling Away”, with Steve Spacek, puts a human voice to the achingly expressive beats. Machines is an unmitigated triumph and a career high-point; given that Mark Pritchard was one half of Global Communication, the duo responsible for timeless ambient house classic 76:14, that’s saying something.