By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In the Age of Musical Abundance, it’s the height of arrogance to think that any Best Albums list would presume to be definitive. You can have favorites in 2009, but to anoint “The Best”? No way. Too much music. In this transformative year, the fact that we don’t physically own a piece of music is no longer a hindrance to hearing it. With streaming sites like Pandora, lala and (soon) Spotify, we have music available immediately — even if it doesn’t actually reside on our hard drives. Toss in MySpace and you’ve got millions of hours of new music at your disposal anytime, anywhere. Too many options.
Sure, if you’re focusing on a specific genre, like indie rock, hip-hop, electronic music or pop, you can probably whittle a year’s releases down to a respectable 10. But for us polygeek generalists who jump from genre to genre based on mood, astral alignment and sneaking suspicion, keeping up with everything in the pile is way too much effort for too little payoff.
Like most, I become obsessed with a record and don’t want to listen to anything else. It is my driving companion, evening soundtrack, morning energizer. It rolls around in my head while I work. When something gets stuck, I become so single-mindedly focused on it that everything else falls by the wayside. What follows are 10 of my obsessions from this past year. This is the stuff that I couldn’t get out of my head, in no particular order.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble,Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s backstory is incredible: Seven of the Chicago brass band’s nine members are sons of jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran, best known for his work in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and as a founding member of Chicago free-jazz collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But unlike Sun Ra or AACM, whose structures were loose, HBE makes funky, tight instrumentals, which draw from the New Orleans brass band tradition but infuse the sound with skippin’ hip-hop rhythms. On this year’s eponymous debut on Honest Jon’s Records out of London, HBE shows incredible dynamic range. Songs like “Jupiter” are soft and focused but contain so much texture and variation that you can just see these dudes in the basement working it out over and over again. There’s an intuitiveness to the arrangements, which comes from sharing the same blood and fire. A track like “War” arrives in a burst of brass. You can almost feel your hair knocked back by the blast.
Zomby, One Foot Ahead of the Other EP (Ramp Recordings)
Nothing funkier came out this year except maybe Major Lazer, an incredible dancehall breakdown, which every Jamaican music fan should own (even if neither of the duo’s principals, Diplo and Switch, are Kingstonian). Zomby is what I want to celebrate, though. The mysterious masked man from London has forged a singular path through the world of British dubstep and guided the slow, bass-heavy, stutter-step post-jungle subgenre into a crisp, retro-future realm. He is funky in the way that Kraftwerk were funky. With beats laid so rigidly and cleanly precise, Zomby turns computer music rubbery. The sounds may be antiseptic and electronic, but they shake. “Godzilla” sounds like Detroit techno funneled through an Atari 2600 and into a frequency modulator, this weird synthetic confusion. “Gloop,” from last year’s totally weird self-titled EP, sounds exactly like its title: The preeminent sound is a digital beat that makes a gloop sound and is coupled with Fresh synthetic handclaps. Zomby’s remix of Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” cut out a lot of that band’s messier tendencies and infused it with bleeps, and, as in most of his tracks, the most prominent tones are the sound of an Atari spaceship slipping into hyperspace. Digital explosions in digital black holes make digital dribble.
Larkin Grimm, Parplar (Young God)
Parplar was released at the end of 2008, but never mind. It didn’t get any attention last year or this year, and it’s an absolutely thrilling, self-assured, funny, depressing, ferociously individualistic album. It’s the kind of record that hard-drive diggers will discover 30 years hence and create some sort of cult around. According to my iTunes, I’ve played the song “Dominican Rum” more than any other this year, and mostly that’s because it contains some of the the wittiest bitter rants this side of Polly Jean Harvey. Grimm has said in concert that the song is about Britney Spears: “The microcosmic spiraled eggs inside my uterus/Are sparkling and bursting with the greenest yellow pus/The milk that feeds my baby from my breast is flowing black/It looks like oil and smells like death and I can’t hold it back.” Touchstones? Maybe Joanna Newsom, maybe the aforementioned Harvey (who released her nearly perfect A Woman a Man Walked By with John Parish this year, another gem). But Grimm is way more pessimistic than the former, and stranger than the latter. Parplar’s tone-setting first line, repeated a few times, is: “Who told you were going to be all right?” followed by, “They were wrong.” I love that kind of pessimism, especially from a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist.