For much of the ’00s, music writers have spent the first 11 months of each year opining on the inevitable demise of the compact disc, only to, come December, extol their favorite CDs of the year. In an effort to put our money where our mouth is and further the demise of the compact disc, we’ve decided to compile this, our first annual compendium of the best innovations, inspirations and improvisations that did not come in 4-inch, clutter-inspiring circles of plastic.
The best Web sites are the konk-your-head-with-your-hand ideas so simple that you think, “Why not me think that?” Soundcloud, like eBay, YouTube and Facebook before it, is such a painfully obvious concept as to leave you dumbfounded. A group of musical Swedish expats in Berlin got sick of the hassle involved in sharing the bumpin’ tracks they had made with their producer friends, annoyed with YouSendIt links and FTP log-ins just to check new tracks. So the Swedes designed a place to do that, and more. “Music is just kind of tricky to deal with over e-mail,” they write on the site, “so we thought we’d change that.”
The result has become a playpen for electronic labels, producers and mix DJs, though the site and concept work equally well for punkers or neogoths. Create your profile, write a bio, start uploading your tracks. Within moments they appear as an embeddable, linkable soundwave rolling across the screen. You get a “drop box,” too, where friends and foes can toss their tracks. Make friends with Diplo’s label, Mad Decent, for example, and get remixes in your drop box. Share tracks and advice. Toss a new track to a DJ on her way to a gig at Avalon. Make a killer 60-minute mix. Move it across the world in moments.
Matmos, The Supreme Balloon LP
People adore LPs, and will pay for them if you make them pretty. This year indie labels in greater numbers started tossing a nice little bonus into the sleeve — a voucher with a redeemer code for a free MP3 of the record. That way you get the pretty object and warm tone, and don’t have to deal with burning it onto your hard drive yourself for on-the-go digital enjoyment. (Capitol Records, as well, commenced issuing gorgeous, painstakingly crafted vinyl reissues of some of its classic catalog, including the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Radiohead’s entire Capitol catalog and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The problem? Each had a list price of $21, and the package didn’t include a download coupon, though it would cost them no more than a few pennies to do so.)
Over in the enlightened corner, Matador Records issued on vinyl one of my favorite records of the year, Matmos’ The Supreme Balloon, and the package not only included an MP3 coupon but four beautiful bonus tracks on hefty 180-gram wax. The full-color gatefold sleeve is printed on vibrant matte cardboard, and when you crack off the cellophane, you’re hit with the smell of pulpy substance. Place the needle gently on the record, and the warm analog tones of Matmos’ beautiful vintage synths carry you into analog bliss. Then hop on your ’puter and download the 21st-century version.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell DVD
A DVD to own, if only to reinforce the notion that the work of an undersung American original deserves to be heard by the masses, and to encourage the executors of Arthur Russell’s voluminous estate to continue to issue loving compilations of the late New York musician’s output. Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992, started making music in the 1970s, first in San Francisco and most successfully in New York City. From the mid-’70s until his death, he merged the downtown art-music scene with the gay disco scene. Under various guises, Russell made brilliant, deeply lyrical and personal cello and synthesizer songs, some stretching to 10 minutes. He produced early proto-house music as Dinosaur L that set New York lofts afire. Wild Combination director Matt Wolf’s loving hands-off documentary stitches old performance footage with first-person recollections from family and friends, and the result is a glimpse at a man whose life was cut tragically short. Thank goodness Russell was an obsessive archivist. He left behind nearly 1,000 tape reels of music.
MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” directed by Ray Tintori
24-year-old Brooklyn director Tintori went three-for-three this year with breakout videos from MGMT and the Cool Kids. The first, and best, is one for which MGMT owes him a cut of all future profits because it established the band’s magnetic aesthetic. “Time to Pretend” is one of the great rock-star songs of the century, a crystal-ball autobiography in which MGMT traces its inevitable rise and fall. Tintori carries the duo through a surreal proto-digital Odyssey, setting our face-painted heroes in an animated world with war dances and dollar-bill downpours amid landscapes that look like transcribed dreams of an android. The pair shoot flaming arrows among galloping zebra herds, surfers ride through zenith waves. Created in a trippy first-wave low-res HTML style, the “Time to Pretend” video, in one four-minute burst, establishes Tintori as a video artist whose work you’ll anticipate — no small feat. He followed it up with an eerily high-gloss Vaseline-lensed clip for “Electric Feel,” the band’s ode to the Brothers Johnson and Emotional Rescue. Ditto the Cool Kids’ weird neighborhood hustle clip for “Delivery Man.”
Over the past few years this mysterious little record label out of Portland, Oregon, has been releasing LP-only collections of beautiful early and mid–20th century American music, each 12-inch object crafted like a collection of classic short stories or a folio. The best, and most essential, is a record, first issued in limited edition in 2007 and reissued in a 1,000-press run this year, featuring a cover in stark black and white and looking like an early 1980s hardcore compilation. In big bold letters across the top: “I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE,” underneath it a cutout of a woman playing a guitar next to a grove of mod arrows. Seven songs on each side feature music from the nooks of the American immigrant experience from 1927 to 1948, when first-generation Americans, violins, guitars and snare drums in hand, streamed into the country and, eventually, into neighborhood recording studios. Mississippi Records also issued the expertly titled collection of mid-century gospel called Life Is a Problem, and last month released a second volume of blistering spiritual R&B called Fight On, Your Time Ain’t Long.
Buddha Machine 2
For insomniacs, the Buddha 2 is something to cuddle up to like a teddy bear, a little plastic box the size of a transistor radio with a button on one side, two dials on another, a circular speaker on one of the broad sides, that offers promise of sweet relief. Turn it on and a drone comes out, a soft, soothing hum that runs in a lubricated eight-second loop. You’ve probably seen a Buddha Box before; they’ve been around for a few years. But the second version of this Japanese-born device issued this year is even better than the first, with a few simple innovations that make the experience of droning out or meditating even more, er, meditative. First: Pitch control lets you adjust the pitch of each loop (obviously). Second: A few weirder loops, less yoga savasanah, more John Cage tonalism, appear among the nine. But still, the same soothing effect. Curl it close to your body during restless nights, cup it next to your ear, buuunnnngggg, buuuuunngggg, buuuunnnnnngggg, and let your thoughts drift away like feathers down the bottomless well of something or other.
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson
Carl Wilson, ace music writer for the Toronto Globe & Mail, tackles taste at its basest level: in the work of Celine Dion. Through careful ponderings, fan interviews, historical research, Canadian intuition and thoughtful, expert prose, Wilson struggles to understand the hows and whys of the Quebecois Queen, one of the most polarizing global cultural figures of the past decade, a woman whose appeal cuts across cultures and classes to approach a kind of fame seldom seen, and yet who is nearly universally despised among the critical elite. In terms of staring into the belly of the beast and finding peace and joy within — or at least tolerant understanding — this book stands alongside such classic aesthetic/cultural examinations as Dave Hickey’s treatise Liberace: A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz, and David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. A perfect little book about a “perfect” singer.