2009 was no slouch year for Raster-Noton, with excellent releases from label stalwart Alva Noto and Atom™’s (satirically) pretentious tribute to German electronic music. Best of them all was SND’s comeback album, Atavism, in which the glitch duo posed the question: just how minimal can minimal techno get and still be groovy? The answer, as it turns out, involves stripping away the reverb and percussive detritus that often marks the genre, instead focusing solely on a drastically limited palette of harshly digital sounds. Yet from this small bag of pads, kicks, and other hits, SND produced an album that becomes undeniably infectious through its obsessive repetitions. These 16 untitled tracks are the cleanest, sharpest edges in any electronic music ostensibly for dancing—everything has been sanitized and computer-sequenced. But, to paraphrase Carl Craig’s reaction to the similarly stark Kraftwerk, this is so stiff that it’s funky.
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A considerable part of Serengeti’s outsider appeal has always been his choice of subject matter that exists under, or completely beyond, other rappers’ radars. It therefore seems fitting that Terradactyl achieves such excellence through using “off the grid” living as a creative premise. To execute the concept, Serengeti is joined again by Don’t Give Up collaborator Polyphonic, and the mixture of lyrical and musical/production chops is even more successful and cohesive this time around. A rarity like Terradactyl is especially precious at a point when the evolution of so-called underground hip-hop has resulted in a surfeit of rhymers saying nothing meaningful over quirky, lifeless beats. Beyond its superiority within the genre (and Anticon’s quality dominance in general), Terradactyl is significant for the many sociopolitical realities it reflects. Bearing the insight and expressive sweep of a city symphony documentary, the album is the year’s best use of hip-hop as a means of reflexive sociology, with Polyphonic’s production offering surprises around every corner of Seregeti’s vividly realized lyrical landscape.
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.
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.
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