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Best Electronic Music of 2006

Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

Tim O'Neil sorts through a multitude of techno, microhouse, mix CDs, and mash-ups to offer up the year's best in electronic music.

If the year 2006 was notable for any particular trend in the world of electronic music, it was the continued prevalence of "greatest hits" compilations from the genre's biggest names. While on the one hand this can certainly be seen as a positive development -- if you consider that dance music was once considered by many to be a fad that would never produce artists or groups capable of producing a full career's worth of material -- it still can't help but make a body feel old. I mean, seriously, have Moby and Fatboy Slim really been around for that long? It doesn't feel like it. Have Massive Attack really graduated from young innovators into the position of elder statesmen, practically an institution unto themselves? Apparently so.

Surprisingly, given his nature as the most pop-friendly of straight-dance artists, Fatboy Slim's hits collection, Why Try Harder? was perfunctory, ill-sequenced, and contained little in the way of extras or bonus features. Fatboy Slim continues to record interesting music, even if it is consistently more low-key than that released during his popular peak, but Why Try Harder? didn't seem like much in the way of a bid for relevancy. Ditto for the Prodigy's Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005 collection. As with Fatboy Slim, while the actual tracks themselves remained for the most part unimpeachable, the collection itself seemed less a statement than a stopgap (the Prodigy at least deserves props for providing ample bonus material for the longtime fans, which is more than I can say for Fatboy Slim). Moby's Go promised the first-ever comprehensive overview of his prolific recording history, but instead provided a deceptively narrow look at one of the most diverse and important careers in modern music. Conversely, there were no real flies on Daft Punk's Musique 1993-2005 -- they even threw (some of) the videos onto a bonus disc. But seriously, Daft Punk have released all of three albums. If you already have Homework and Discovery, well, you don't really need Musique.

The Future Sound of London's Teachings from the Electronic Brain was depressing, inasmuch as it pinpointed just how far that once-storied group had fallen since its mid-'90s heyday. It doesn't seem like very long ago that the FSOL was one of the premiere names in electronic music, but a long hiatus that happened to coincide exactly with the genre's high water mark in the late '90s and early '00s diminished its profile, while a disastrous comeback record that brought to mind nothing so much as Syd Barret's acid-casualty outtakes pounded the final nail in the coffin of a once-formidable career. (It is worth noting that the group's absence was prompted by an extended illness by frontman Garry Cobain, so they can hardly be blamed for missing out on the peak years.) It is almost inevitably that the group will be remembered as little more than a footnote at this point, but Teachings from the Electronic Brain goes a long way towards arguing that they were at least a consistently interesting footnote.

Laurent Garnier's plainly-titled Retrospective delivered where many other retrospectives floundered, offering a compelling look at one of the most underrated careers in modern music. With an output that ranges widely between the worlds of jazz, techno, and downtempo while still remaining firmly rooted in the world of house, Garnier deserves credit for having remained at or near the apex of international club culture for almost the entirety of his almost two-decade career. 2006 also saw the overdue American release of Bob Sinclair's DJ tribute to disco godfather Cerrone -- essential listening for anyone interested in the roots of modern dance, and the evolution of disco into house and techno. No less essential, Tommy Boy released The Tommy Boy Story Vol. 1, the first of hopefully many further excavations into their massive vault of hip-hop and dance classics, hearkening back to the days right after the fall of disco when hip-hop and house shared the same rowdy apartment in downtown Brooklyn. While Tommy Boy has never shied away from repackaging its back catalog, this is essentially the perfect format: the original unedited 12" mixes of classics like "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat", unmixed and even presented in faux record sleeves. Even if you've already got most of these records in one format or another (and you probably do), this is the format for the ages.

The most satisfying compilation of the year, however, was undoubtedly Massive Attack's Collected. In just about every way possible, Collected surpassed the competition, both in terms of the quality of music on display and the class with which it was displayed. Not only does Massive Attack have one of the strongest discographies in recent decades, not only is the token new track their best in years, but the deluxe edition even comes with a DualDisc positively stuffed with deceptively essential rarities ("I Against I" deserved a spot on the hits disc, dammit) and, almost as an afterthought, every single music video from the group's storied career. (Yes, even that really freaky clip for "Teardrop".) If you buy one career-spanning retrospective this year, make it this one -- even if you already own everything Massive Attack has ever released, you will not walk away disappointed.

Some of the most important records in the history of electronic music were refurbished and rereleased this year -- if you don't already own a copy of Depeche Mode's Violator, well, you've no excuse now that just about the entirety of Depeche Mode's back catalog has been remastered. While they don't always get as much credit as they should, they are without a doubt one of the top-five most important bands in the history of electronic music, and a significant influence on contemporary rock as well -- why the fuck aren't these guys in the Hall of Fame already? I suppose they just had to induct Paul McCartney three times. This year also saw the release of yet another Depeche Mode "hits" package, The Best of Depeche Mode, this one a single-disc look at the entirety of their career. They may not yet have as many compilations as New Order, but the gap is shrinking. The Pet Shop Boys saw the release of not only a career-spanning retrospective, in the form of Pop Art, but also their best-received album in years, Fundamental. It's rare for any group still around after the two-decade mark to get such rave reviews for recent material, so I guess Messrs. Tennant and Lowe have to be doing something right.

While certainly less fondly remembered, Heaven 17 are still worth remembering, and their catalog has seen a similar upgrade -- if you've only got the patience for one, check out the Gang of Four-by-way-of-synthesizers agitprop of Penthouse and Pavement. Of a decidedly more recent vintage, the man formerly known as Manitoba, Daniel Snaith, re-released his first two LPs -- Start Breaking My Heart and Up in Flames -- under his new Caribou pseudonym. While his first album remains mostly charming, Up in Flames remains one of the most consistently interesting electronic albums of the current decade, greatly enhanced by a bonus disc full of rarities and remixes. And while it may not have aged as well as Remain in Light, Brian Eno and David Byrne's other great collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, also saw re-release this year. If you consider yourself an electronic music fan and you don't own this album, well, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe Tiesto has a new CD out.

Two of the best electronic music releases of the year weren't even technically electronic music. Indie stalwarts Tortoise released a comprehensive box set of rarities, remixes, and live cuts, A Lazarus Taxon, that deftly navigated the liminal zoned between leftfield electronic music and instrumental "post-rock" -- of especial interest were remixes by figures as disparate as Autechre and Steve Albini. The Eraser may have been ostensibly a Thom Yorke solo album, but the real stars of the show were Nigel Godrich's ice-cold beats and sparse, paranoid instrumentation. Poised somewhere in the middle ground between Timbaland and Venetian Snares, the result was a uniquely focused solo outing, and certainly a far more concise a statement than Radiohead's Hail to the Thief.

Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment of the year for me was Aphex Twin's Chosen Lords. If Richard D. James had just released the entirety of his vinyl-only "Analord" series on CD, that would have been a milestone recording, assured of a place at or near the top of any list this year. But instead, James chose for whatever reason to compile a selection of tracks from the project -- 11 tracks culled from 12 12" releases. This is an incomplete statement no matter how you slice it, a slap in the face for those of us who simply can't afford to follow James's whims across a year's worth of hard-to-find 12" records. Considering how many times in the past James has not balked at releasing massive double albums, it is bizarre that he would acquire a taste for brevity at such a comparatively late date.

If I felt like cheating and having a Top Fifteen instead of a Top Ten, it is almost certain that Daedelus' Denies the Days Demise would be on it, as well as the Rapture's Pieces of the People We Love. The former was an almost-perfect slice of baroque instrumental hip-hop from one of the genre's rising stars, while the latter was a much better record than anyone had any right to expect from a band that by all rights have been an indie-rock one-hit-wonder. The verve with which the group conjures the frenetic presence of Fear of Music-era Talking Heads is simply uncanny -- if only every group that purported to blend the worlds of dance and rock did so with as much competence, the world would be a much better place. And although Kid 606's recent Pretty Girls Make Raves was met with some pretty fierce indifference, I'd like to go on record saying that I quite liked it. If I'd been in a different mood when I sat down to compose the list, Miguel Depedro's spot-on tribute to the classic rave sound might very well have made it.

So, here's the list. If you don't see your favorite electronic/dance release of the year, well, just assume that I didn't hear it (and not that I didn't like it and chose not to mention it for fear of incurring angry letters). This is by no means a comprehensive list, or even really PopMatters' list -- this is my list, with all the bias that implies. I don't pretend to have heard everything, but I heard a lot. Hopefully you'll be inspired to check out something you would not otherwise have heard.

Album: The Exchange Session Vol. 1

Artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Display artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Label: Domino

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/hebdenkieran-theexchangesessionvol1.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-03-07

UK Release Date: 2006-02-27

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Album: The Exchange Session Vol. 2

Artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Display artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Label: Domino

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/hebdenkieranandstevereid-theexchangesessionvol2.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-06-06

UK Release Date: 2006-05-22

List number: 1

Keiran Hebden is a mastermind of modern electronic production who records as Four Tet; Steve Reid is one of the most storied jazz percussionists in history, having worked with the likes of Miles Davis, James Brown, and Fela Kuti, in addition to his work as a session drummer during the formative years of Motown. Perhaps on paper the pairing might seem odd, but in reality this is one of the most inspired team-ups of recent years. Straddling the line between free jazz and dense experimental electronic music, The Exchange Sessions are musical artifacts of unparalleled imagination and confidence. Split into two CDs seemingly at random, both discs present a picture of effortless musical rapport that surpasses generic boundaries and easily qualifies as the most effortlessly exciting musical event of the year.

Multiple songs [Streaming]

It was a big year for Hebden and Reid. Under his Four Tet alias, Hebden also released an entry in the evergreen DJ Kicks series, as well as a similarly eclectic compilation of remixes. The Steve Reid Ensemble also released Spirits Walk, technically a 2005 release that didn't actually cross the pond until earlier this year. Spirits Walk is important as something of a companion to the two Exchange Sessions, featuring Hebden prominently on electronics throughout.

Free jazz gets a lot of flack, some of it undoubtedly deserved. So does jazz fusion. The Exchange Sessions qualifies as both: entirely improvisational, composed in equal amounts of electronics and acoustic drums, as indulgent and hypnotic as you could reasonably expect. But somehow it manages to surpass the already-high expectations engendered by the participants' pedigrees. In every way, this is a truly essential listening experience, one of the year's few genuine surprises. In her review of the second disc, PopMatters' own Jennifer Kelly put it perhaps as succinctly possible when she said:

Hebden and Reid have locked onto some sort of transmission from a higher consciousness here, and if you listen hard enough, you can feel it right along with them.

If you haven't yet heard The Exchange Sessions, all this hyperbole might seem excessive -- once you actually do hear them, however, no amount of rhetorical excess could possibly seem excessive. Simply flawless.Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: The Exchange Session Vol. 1|Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: The Exchange Session Vol. 2

Album: Klunk

Artist: Motor

Display artist: Motor

Label: Novamute

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/motor-klunk.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-07-25

UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

List number: 2

2006 was a banner year for techno -- despite essential releases such as Kompakt's Total 7 and A Guy Called Gerald's Proto Acid: The Berlin Sessions, it was Motor who came out of nowhere to drop the best hard techno album of the year. Mr. Nô hails from Paris, Bryan Black from Minneapolis; they met in London and have worked extensively with Felix da Housecat. None of these facts have much bearing on the duo's sound, however: hard, throbbing, raw, powerful, Klunk is the antidote for anyone who may have had their fill of the fragile, deracinated microhouse sound. The album is built around massive singles "Sweatbox" and "Black Powder", but there's nary an ounce of fat or filler to be found. There is something to be said for straight techno, unadorned, unmixed, uncut. Simply powerful.

Multiple songs [MP3]Motor: Klunk

Album: Hello Everything

Artist: Squarepusher

Display artist: Squarepusher

Label: Warp

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/squarepusher-helloeverything.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-10-17

UK Release Date: 2006-10-16

List number: 3

Sometimes it's difficult to judge Squarepusher albums for the simple reason that they often seem to be less about destinations than about the journey. Sometimes they can seem tentative, sometimes retrogade; always they are preoccupied with movement, going forward into new territory. It seemed to me at the time that 2004's Ultravisitor carried the unmistakable air of a transition album, the kind of temporary statement an artist makes on his way from one place to another. Sure enough, Hello Everything is a quantitatively more assured effort from Tom Jenkinson. The live instrumentation that seemed occasionally awkward on Ultravisitor is here incorporated into a more cohesive whole. The overall effect is at times overwhelmingly profound, the sound of a dozen different ideas about music and sound cohering into a single, glorious crystalline entity.Squarepusher: Hello Everything

Album: Donuts

Artist: J Dilla (Jay Dee)

Display artist: J Dilla (Jay Dee)

Label: Stones Throw

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US Release Date: 2006-02-07

UK Release Date: Available as import

List number: 4

It goes without saying that Dilla died too soon. It is unfortunate that he had to wait until he was dead to achieve as much success as he has during the past year, but I suppose it's better than not being remembered at all. While he will always be primarily remembered as a true scion of hip-hop, it is also worthwhile to place his achievements in the broader context of electronic music. Donuts isn't just an instrumental hip-hop record, it's a bold mission statement on the malleability of sound. Sampling can be a boring regurgitation, or it can be forward-thinking, musically expansive, and even downright trippy. While much of his work can appear deceptively straight-forward, Donuts is unhesitantly experimental, filled with bizarre loops and strange psychedelic cross-currents. In its own quiet way, Donuts was as masterfully weird and riotously cerebral as anything else released this year.J Dilla (Jay Dee): Donuts

Album: Night Ripper

Artist: Girl Talk

Display artist: Girl Talk

Label: Illegal Art

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/girltalk-nightripper.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-05-09

UK Release Date: Available as import

List number: 5

Just when you thought you'd heard the last word in mash-ups, Girl Talk hits the scene with this unapologetically daffy tour de force. It's not enough, anymore, just to put two songs together in order to create a new hybrid. By now we've all heard Soulwax and DJ Z-Trip and Richard X, and most people were probably ready to write the phenomenon off as a fad of sorts, simply a fun gimmick that had lingered past its sell-by date. But Night Ripper surpasses the very notion of faddishness: by cutting and splicing so many songs in such an expert way, he actually succeeds in creating something entirely new and different, a musical artifact of impressive intricacy and ingenuity. Most mash-ups last about as long as novelty records, but this one is something different. The massive confluence of free associations and unexpected juxtapositions instill a uniquely intoxicating effect, like melting your record collection down into a single frothy brew and downing it in one sip. Emotionally complex, consistently funny, and technically staggering, it's not just fun to listen to, it's downright revolutionary.Girl Talk: Night Ripper

Album: The DFA Remixes: Chapter One

Artist: Various Artists

Display artist: Various Artists

Label: DFA

Label: Astralwerks

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/various-thedfaremixeschapterone.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-04-04

UK Release Date: 2006-03-27

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Album: The DFA Remixes: Chapter Two

Artist: Various Artists

Display artist: Various Artists

Label: DFA

Label: Astralwerks

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/dfa-remixeschaptertwo.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-10-03

UK Release Date: 2006-10-02

List number: 6

First, there really is no reason why they had to release these discs separately. I'm sure the reason for doing so is monetary: you can get more money from releasing two separate CDs than from a single double-CD set. But the fact remains that if you get one, you need the other. And you definitely need these. For anyone who was disappointed by the surprising lack of cajones on LCD Soundsystem's debut album, these collections of the DFA duo's best mixes will serve as a welcome antidote. Sure, you've probably heard some of these before -- Le Tigre's "Decepticon" was a hit back before anyone knew who Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy were. In their expert hands, a track like Tiga's "Far From Home" becomes a cosmic anthem, and Goldfrapp's "Slide In" becomes surpassingly psychedelic. As remixers, the DFA are some of the very best, not to mention the most versatile, and these discs chronicle some of the most exciting moments in the recent history of dance music.Various Artists: The DFA Remixes: Chapter One|Various Artists: The DFA Remixes: Chapter Two

Album: Scale

Artist: Matthew Herbert

Display artist: Matthew Herbert

Label: !K7

Label: Accident

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/herbertmatthew-scale.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-05-30

UK Release Date: 2006-05-29

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Album: Slappers

Artist: Dani Siciliano

Display artist: Dani Siciliano

Label: !K7

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/sicilianodani-slappers.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-09-05

UK Release Date: 2006-09-04

List number: 7

If you know who Matthew Herbert and Dani Siciliano are to begin with, you probably also know they're married. To some, I suppose, it might seem flip to merely conflate the albums like this -- isn't it dismissive merely to lump Siciliano in with her husband, like some sort of appendage or whatnot? Well, not really. You'd have to look pretty hard in the history of pop music to find a husband/wife team with as much creative synergy as this one. Siciliano's voice is practically synonymous with Herbert's music (at least the poppier stuff he releases under the Herbert name), and Siciliano's voice is almost inextricable from Herbert's distinctively precise broken-beat microhouse. They bring out the very best in each other. Scale is the more approachable of the two albums, a conscience decision to make a lighter record than 2005's occasionally dour Plat du Jour; Slappers is, at least on first exposure, slightly more recondite. Scale is lush where Slappers is slightly more contemplative. Both albums are surpassingly good -- two sides of the same coin, as different as night and day.Matthew Herbert: Scale|Dani Siciliano: Slappers

Album: Total 7

Artist: Various Artists

Display artist: Various Artists

Label: Kompakt

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/various-total7.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-08-22

UK Release Date: Available as import

List number: 8

After seven years of strong offerings, is it really a surprise to see that Kompakt is still producing some of the best techno in the world? Let's be frank, most labels that last this long start to slow down, surpassed by faster, smaller competition or brought low by their own success. Thankfully, Kompakt actually seems to be improving with every passing year. As a result, not only is Total 7 one of the best albums of the year, but it's also Kompakt's most diverse release to date, stretching from the label's trademark microhouse sound and into the realms of vocal house, downtempo, and even a bit of trance. They might not have the shock of the new on their side anymore, but familiarity needs not necessarily breed contempt.Various Artists: Total 7

Album: Science Faction: Bmore Gutter Music

Artist: Various Artists

Display artist: Various Artists

Label: BBS

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/various-bmoreguttermusic.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-09-12

UK Release Date: Available as import

List number: 9

You can be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the sheer quantity of mix CDs released in any given year. It's hard to wade through all the dross in hopes of finding something good. The Fabric brand is always a good bet -- Cut Copy's excellent retro-tinged Fabriclive mix was one of the year's highlights. Laurent Garnier and Carl Craig's double-disc Kings of Techno mix was an unqualified delight. But without a doubt the best bang-for-your-buck in this year's crop of mix CDs was Aaron LaCrate's contribution to Breakbeat Science's new Science Faction mix series, Bmore Gutter Music. It may be profane, offensive, silly, and downright weird at times, but it's also got the kind of blistering energy that simply can't be denied. Hailing from Baltimore, the "Bmore Gutter Music" scene grew from the same multi-generic stew that gave us Diplo and the Hollertronix crew. Anyone who has been waiting for dance music to catch up to the advances of crunk and hyphy need look no further -- this is techno stripped to its bones, spliced with old-school ghetto-tech and sprinkled with the essence of 2 Live Crew. It may not necessarily reflect well on me, but I can't think of another CD all year I enjoyed as much as this one.Various Artists: Science Faction: Bmore Gutter Music

Album: Crazy Itch Radio

Artist: Basement Jaxx

Display artist: Basement Jaxx

Label: XL

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Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/basementjaxx-crazyitchradio.jpg

US Release Date: 2006-09-12

UK Release Date: 2006-09-04

List number: 10

It's not their best album, not compared to 1999's epochal Remedy or 2001's assured Rooty. But it is an improvement on 2003's overrated Kish Kash, which garnered so much initial attention but hasn't aged nearly as well as its predecessors. Thankfully, Crazy Itch Radio is nowhere near as hyperkinetic and jam-packed as Kish Kash. It still feels stuffed to the gills in places, but it seems as if the duo have at least acknowledged that an album like Kish Kash was so dense as to be almost unlistenable in places. There are still a few moments of confusion and chaos -- why the hell did they bury the lead on "Hush Boy" but have a grimey Muppet scream the chorus? -- but when the Jaxx are on, as on a track like "Take Me Back to Your House", they work better than almost any other dance act in the world today.Basement Jaxx: Crazy Itch Radio

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In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

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