Counting Snowflakes...

by Stefan Braidwood

28 December 2004


Asking me to rate albums of one genre against one another is a little like asking me how many gears I want on my tuna, so here’s a trawl through some of the amazing music I’ve come to love over the past 12 months, sorted loosely by genre. I’d just like to thank my editor for putting up with me throughout the year (and not killing me when she sees this) and also everyone reading this who puts in the time to find the artists who care more about what their music can do for you, than what you can do for their bank balances. Together, we’re slowly making a difference. Amen to that, and to 2004.

Subtle’s A New White (Lex) is undoubtedly the most extraordinary album I’ve heard this year; Doseone and Jel creating music that draws from everywhere (dub, punk, jazz…) but is really a gateway to somewhere entirely new. Crunk Juice‘s record first week sales show that the public prefer throwing hip-hop’s imagination out of the window; Subtle watch it pull itself messily back together, Iron Giant-style, then kit it out in a natty white suit and present it to you personally. As witnessed by tracks as instantly unforgettable as “Red, White & Blonde”, there remain few things in this world as disturbing and as beautiful as Doseone singing with himself.

Not being a fan of Kanye as a rapper or a person, I can still claim that this year’s been better for hip-hop than last year. Sure, Saul Williams’ self-titled return on Fader was a disappointment apart from “Black Stacey” (the most intimate and intelligent dissection of racism since “Clear Blue Skies”), and ended up the sparser cousin of Thavius Beck’s grimly hypnotic Decomposition (Mush). But Illogic’s finally-released Celestial Clockwork (Weightless) showcased a much matured and more well-rounded MC whilst still pleasing fans of the word “canopy”, Cryptic One’s Anti-Mobius String Theory (Centrifugal Phorce) battled his own raging nihilism across a glacial sci-fi backdrop and won, and Diplo’s joyous Florida (Big Dada) was pulsating proof that crunk could be subtle and spiritual as well as a booty’s best friend.

Props go out to RJD2’s Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux) for discovering hip-hop’s volume button—hey, it took the Pixies 20 years to do it for rock, so he’s punctual—and Blockhead for going it alone with the appeallingly rambling Music By Cavelight (Big Dada), though it couldn’t touch his classic remix of “Shook Ones pt. II”. Finally, UK hip-hop had a fantastic year despite the media’s continued focus on two grime/garage figureheads to the exclusion of the actual scene, with the sympatico and socially conscious Skinnyman perhaps most worthy of wider acclaim for the excellent Council Estate of Mind (Lowlife). “Home’s where the heart is/so hip-hop/is right here” he raps on “F*ck The Hook”, and he’s right.

On the worryingly unsuccessful Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine (Arista), the “life-like laser beam” drinks deeply from soul and gospel and lets the light fantastic fountain forth, proving on at least half of the album that he can go toe-to-toe with both of Outkast on his own. Yeah, the album has its darker and weaker moments, but there are entire songs here as good as anything soul or hip-hop have produced in a good long while. “Living Again”, with its irresistible horns and impassioned, complex testifying, has become a personal anthem. He truly “can bust a rap/to make a blind man/believe in the boogie”, and he does it in gloriously funky technicolour with an infectious grin. Believe? You will.

Every bit as good but less overtly exuberant, Zap Mama’s Ancestry In Progress (Luaka Bop) draws on the looser, more dulcet African roots of soul from a Philly perspective, whilst Tanya Stephens proved on Gangsta Blues that intelligent, feminine dancehall is no contradiction. Lots of riding the boom wok, sure, but if her voice on “What A Day” doesn’t touch you, then I doubt you’ll find a redemption song that will. Staying in Jamaica, Rhythm & Sound’s w/ The Artists was finally brought to CD this year, floating some of the world’s most beautiful voices over immense dub oceans of warmth to blissful, contemplative effect. The more mesmeric side of modern soul has also found a home in France, in Jeff Sharel’s deep electro; try and track down the Blue Lines-evoking Resistances (Bleu Electric). As far as modern R&B is concerned, I haven’t heard anyone bring more artistry to “disposable pop” than the Timbaland-helmed Afrodisiac, though Brandy seems to be teflon-coated with regards to any lasting public (or critical) affection.

This has also been a glorious year for re-issues, even though I’m not going to dwell on the fantastic output from the lads at Soul Jazz, who seem to be putting out classic compilations every two weeks, or Damon Albarn’s Honest Jons label (love the Candi Staton especially chaps). Outshining even the well-named The Essential Isley Brothers (Sony), the deluxe edition of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (Hip-O), with its bonus cd of original instrumental takes of such unknown ditties as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, is a bursting casket of delights. The way the industry mistreated and then forgot about the Funk Brothers, creators of more pop pearls than anyone else in history, is an injustice of truly colossal proportions. Reparations are made in some small way here (as on the film of the same name): witness James Jamerson’s peerless bass playing, wonder all over again at the timeless simplicity of “My Girl”, get torched by the incendiary funk of “I Can’t Get Next to You”, bow down, weep. As Lamont Dozier says with quiet certainty on one of the interludes: “They were the best… ever.”

Equally invaluable, the reissue of The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier (Ace) adds three unnecessary but delicious bonus tracks to this awe-inspiring classic. He may still be playing, he may even amaze on occasion, but he’ll never recapture the monstrous intimacy of this 1965 debut, nor the lustre of his voice that makes listening to it like being bathed in the radience of an entire horizon come sunset. The real reason why all these technically impressive youngsters can’t touch him, though, is that they try to sing with their voices, when Callier simply uses his entire soul. Play “Cotton Eyed Joe”, you’ll understand. Also worth seeking out is You Thrill Me by Patty Waters (Water), a collection of previously unreleased songs, studio out-takes and the solo piano piece “Touched By Rodin In A Paris Museum” by an artist whose hushed finesse, suffice it to say, makes Norah Jones sound like Lemmy.

Repetitive music prodigy Theo Parrish also had his exceedingly rare vinyl masterpiece Parallel Dimensions re-issued on CD by Ubiquity, which should be instantly snapped up by house heads and afrobeat fanatics alike. If you judge an artist by his best moment, then the 12 minutes of dreamily expanding deep soul/r&b/jazz pulse that is “Summertime Is Here” may indeed justify the claims of his genius. In other matters dubby, Kranky maintained their superb quality control and brought us Pan American’s jazziest album yet, Quiet City, Strategy’s gorgeous Drumsolo’s Delight and Loscil’s First Narrows, although personally I feel that the latter has yet to surpass his sublime submarine-themed Submers of two years ago. Alex Kidd also put out Dubphonic’s sexy, billowing Smoke Signals (Hammerbass) with two of his friends, Zenzile upped the ante for sensuality with another live EP on Zenzile meet Cello (Small Axe) and refractionist wunderkind Vladislav Delay gave us a glimpse of his Demo(n) Tracks (Huume), further evidence that he can bind ruptured sonic fragments into drifting tapestries of nigh-miraculous calm.

The mixing and melding realm of electronica has been a haven for those seeking innovation twinned with harmony this year; Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks (130701) creating a breathtaking sense of space and awe around his minimalist compostions for organ, piano and strings was matched by the filmic ambient flux of German duo SWOD’s piano snowfall on Gehen (it means “to walk”, but also “to leave”), perhaps the apex of a fantastic year for Berlin label CityCentreOffices. Leaf also lived up to its reputation, gifting us (amongst many other oddities) with Triosk’s haunting yet peaceful electrojazz on Moment Returns and a debut album from Scandinavian collective Efterklang, Tripper, that melded Sigur Ros’ ethereal vulnerability with choirs and orchestration in a way Bjork can only dream of, and delivered my song of the year in “Collecting Shields”.

The classical and the modern merged to equally mellifluous effect on Digitonal’s return, The Centre Cannot Hold (Seed), that will satisfy any Dntel yearnings in evidence since Give Up. Scott Herren, meanwhilst, stayed largely under the radar bar two stunning records (album Apropa’t and EP Manana, both on Warp) under his Savath & Savalas moniker, which proved beyond doubt that electronic music could be as affecting, soft and sensuous as any “natural” recordings, and more human than most. Watch for his new alter-ego, Piano Overlord, early next year. Dante Carfagna, editor of Wax Poetic, also emerged from the shadows to make quite a name for himself in the field of instrumental hip-hop with the pastoral beauty of Jeux De Ficelles (Memphix) as Express Rising. Despite the fact that I appear to have been the only one in the universe to really get it, though, I’m stubbornly sticking with my guns with regards to notorious noisemarine El-P’s Blue Series Continuum collaboration, High Water (Thirsty Ear) as one of the year’s best and most important albums: I think it’s a flawed but brilliant capturing of New York’s soul since 9/11, and when I walk through city streets after dark with “Get Your Hand Off Me, Pig” ricocheting through my headphones, it’s as cool as Miles behind me eyes.

When it comes to jumping around like a goon, however, no-one came close to Evil Nine’s long-delayed “You Can Be Special Too” (Marine Parade), which perfectly demonstrates why breakbeat has done so well in a year when house dragged itself along through a haze of commercial inertia, trance slipped further into mechanical mundanity and drum&bass travelled off into a cathartic but largely undanceable psychotic frenzy courtesy of the likes of Pendulum. The beats impact like rhythmic nailgun rounds but still stay supple, thick bass wells up in funkily hypnotic waves and layers of psychedelic effects combine to completely overrun the conscious mind in way as vital as prime Prodigy. If you’re dumb enough to put Aesop Rock on a party track (lead single “Crooked”, which rocks like a bastard), then maybe you’re dumb enough to notice which word takes precedence in the term “dance music” and remember that it ignores the magic word, preferring two orders: DANCE. NOW. Evil Nine: they wreck shit.

For pure euphoria, though, breakbeat crew The Breakfastaz came through with sequence of blistering singles, culminating in the stupendous double A-side on Mob Records that was home to “Greenlight”: touted as the 2004 “Locust”, it delivered with rush to spare. With any luck we’ll see an album from them in the coming year. Similarly irresistible were the funk/soul/hip-hop gumbo cooked up by Black Grass on Grass Roots (Catskill), and, for those of a more traditional leaning, the electrifying pedal-steel whigouts of Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s exultant Unclassified.

Wielding the axe with a totally different purpose, Mastodon established themselves firmly as metal lords of the twin guitar onslaught with Leviathan (Relapse); a record that explosively mined the potential for gothic violence and dread of Herman Melville’s classic white whale mythology. I might actually have enjoyed the record more if they’d left out most of the muddy “singing”, but hey, the drumming’s fantastic too. Staying with noisier rock, Secret Machine’s psychedelic, bombastic epics on Now Here Is Nowhere made me feel excited about guitars again after a fallow period of a few months; their success makes it all the harder for me to understand Hope of the States’ lack of ubiquity following the release of their superbly plaintive and harrowing The Lost Riots, completed only months after their guitarist was found hung in the recording studio.

In a year packed with danceable British rock bands cooed over by the media, I found Razorlight (Vertigo) to be the only group who managed to live up to the hype throughout an entire album; their debut, Up All Night, was fantastic and contained a plethora of moments as right as the choruses of “Golden Touch”. Oh, and I’m sure everyone’s heard or bought the TV On The Radio album by now, but for me it’s still the Young Liars EP (available in the UK only at the beginning of this year, in very limited quantities) that captures the marvellous potential of this most exciting, eldritch and soulful of new groups fully.

Just as hotly tipped by the British music press, on These Were The Earlies (WEA) the Texan/UK collective took Californian harmonies, free jazz, electronica, folk and Heideggerian philosophy and somehow made them collage into a lysergic, playful and deeply enjoyable whole, although the album’s may well have been the strident brass of “Devil Country”; like a stand-off in a dust storm between Jason Pierce, Ennio Morricone and the Beach Boys, on peyote. They also produced and featured on Micah P Hinson’s debut, ...and The Gospel Of Progress, where their varied palette set off the raw songwriting of the youthful Cash-successor to startling effect. Laura Veirs presented an entrancing modern take on Americana with the bleak but bright Carbon Glacier (Bella Union), whilst Jolie Holland stayed firmly entrenched in her own private, jazzy take on the 40s with the release of Catalpa and Escondida (both on ANTI); records that charm and comfort as much with their acceptance and artlessness as with their delicate optimism.

And finally, newcomers Hot Chip (who’ve already been remixed by Four Tet) put out the Playboy EP (Moshi Moshi), where the bared-to-the-bone, hymnal harmonies of “Defeated By Technology” suggest truly great things for the folk/funk/electonica group. Returning from nowhere after an absence of over half a decade, Bark Psychosis’ Code Name: Dustsucker (Fire) manages to weld electronic desolation to the warmth of folk in a similar way but on a much larger scale; the lustrous calm of closer “Rose” is so poignant it’s almost painful, and will doubtless comfort anyone who felt betrayed by Wilco’s latest. I’d like to leave the last words to Portland resident Scarth Locke, whose multi-faceted and charming debut Thunkadelicate (CreatioNation) provided solace during the harsher periods of this year: “Do the right thing/It’s worth the cost.”

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