No Age | Nouns | Sub Pop
To say that this was the year of No Age is to perhaps overstate the two-piece’s influence. It’s not like they were in The Dark Knight or pal around with Katy Perry. But to a certain subset, No Age became the voice of a maturing downtown L.A. scene, one that reverberated not only westward to Venice and Santa Monica but eastward to Chicago, New York and London. Yes, on the surface, No Age is but two punkers banging on drums, kicking on effects pedals while strumming on distorto-guitars and singing little songs about … what, exactly? It’s not gonna earn them a Nobel Prize (though it did earn them a Grammy nomination — for best packaging). But the excitement that Dean Spunt and Randy Randall generated in the world of rock felt so real, so thrilling, because it’s always cool to be reminded that rock & roll can still birth The New, that beneath its signifiers, postures and millions of spent verse-chorus-verse patterns that have risen from it, something surprising, joyful and genuinely hummable and danceable can arrive on our doorstep that both honors and ignores all those other songs. Nouns: Eleven cuts in 30 minutes, the lot of which was probably recorded in a few weeks and for a few hundred bucks, but that hits more raw emotion than a hundred million copies of Chinese Democracy.
Flying Lotus | Los Angeles | Warp
If all you’d heard of Flying Lotus was his album debut, 1983 (if you’d heard it at all), the local newcomer might have seemed an odd signing for Warp Records, a label with a rich history of pioneering top-shelf electronic music. That 2006 release was exceptional only in parts — namely, the nugget groove of each track, which was ultimately looped anywhere from one to six minutes too long. Lotus’ grimy beats begged the accompaniment of rappers who never showed, and despite favorable digital flourishes and the occasional sampled string swell, the listener was left searching elsewhere for drama. But those shortcomings are now excusable: That record was an outcropping of Steven Ellison’s work in crafting bumper music for Adult Swim. For his true album-length debut, FlyLo turned to his own city and found drama aplenty. Gone are the locked grooves, and in their place: a mercurial landscape that never rests. Dirty, complex and dynamic, Ellison’s work exudes vibes that instantly mellow all they touch. It’s entrancing music under a shimmering haze of crackle and ambient noise, with a bump underneath that pulls liberally from African, boom bap and IDM sources.
The Chapin Sisters | Lake Bottom LP | Plain Recordings
Whether it’s the result of heredity or environment, the Chapin Sisters have a special talent for weaving their voices to create gorgeously haunting harmonies. Abigail and Lily Chapin are the daughters of folksinger Tom Chapin, half-sister Jessica Craven is the daughter of horror-film director Wes Craven, and all three are nieces of the late songwriter Harry Chapin. They earned some initial notoriety for their glacially mournful remakes of such fizzy pop ephemera as Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Madonna’s “Borderline” and the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over,” but the release of their full-length debut, Lake Bottom LP, this year showed that the trio can also write memorable songs. The bewitching “Kill Me Now” frosts its austere acoustic-guitar plucking and Jessica’s lovelorn lyrics with windswept, high-&-lonesome harmonies, while Abigail’s funereal ballad “I Hate the Moon” is even starker and sadder, and just as beautiful. The songs are delivered with little more than Abigail’s and Lily’s guitars, apart from the occasional coloring from a guest pianist or violinist, but they don’t need much embellishment because of the trio’s marvelous voices, which are more distinctively beguiling than the better-known Watson Twins’.
The Knux | Remind Me in Three Days | Interscope
You move to L.A. to become a rapper, a writer, an actor, a statistical casualty. Your boggle-eyes become bleached from strong sun and bright, blinding bulbs. You follow the girls to the club because you don’t know where else they cluster. You can’t get in. A phalanx of fedayeen in fedoras slither past you — they mumble slick, snarky snipes in your direction. You remember their faces. Eventually, you figure out how to gain entrance. At first, you can’t comprehend the jive, but soon, you assimilate. You learn when to nod blankly. A corn-haired Barbie from Bel Air puffs a Parliament and tells you about Marc Jacobs boots, Yorkshire terriers and Daddy. What’s your name, again? The screenplay sells or you get the part or the advance is fat. You acquire your disciples: scions, party kids, deep-pocketed old men with mercury eyes. You learn where to purchase the best blow — how to ladle it out in slow, cruel increments. Naïvete corrodes into a cold realism that neatly parallels the slimy, grainy powder clinging like burrs to the back of your throat. At 2 a.m., the party shifts back to your starter palace in the hills. There’s an aspiring actress in your bed, lurkers lingering in the living room. You want to sleep but your blood is bilious, your limbs cataleptic, your mind drifting through an early-morning amphetamine haze. You limp to the balcony to watch a sallow sun drip sulfurously onto an ashen dawn. That’s the story of the Knux’s Remind Me In Three Days. If greatness doesn’t lie in this pair’s future, remind me in three years.
Mia Doi Todd | Gea | City Zen
Singer-composer Mia Doi Todd’s Gea makes time stand still, starting with a track called “River of Life/The Yes Song” that clocks in at 10 1/2 minutes. It’s an unusual way to begin an album, but a typically original way for this superbly idiosyncratic artist. Gea is the seventh in a series of shockingly intimate and musically intrepid works in which this gentle heroine of progressive music in L.A. has, with finely plucked acoustic guitar and alluring voice like cut crystal, brought the tone of private pleasures and pains to resonantly rich new territories. Todd’s oeuvre is that of a folksinger with a new kind of folk on her mind, albeit one who explores deeply intimate concerns in gently avant-garde musical settings. And Gea, she says, is a morning album; while these songs do feel achingly personal, the album has a parallel warm and inviting air, partly due to the fuzzy blanket of a droning harmonium alongside Todd’s precisely fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the discreet pitter-patter of Andres Renteria’s percussion, and the unobtrusively engaging horn-winds-strings settings provided by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Produced by Carlos Nino, Gea’s open-armed vibe owes heavily to this small family of sympathetic friends Todd surrounded herself with for its recording.
Lucky Dragons | Dream Island Laughing Language | Marriage Records
Lucky Dragons are a couple; transplanted Ivy Leaguer artists with matching alien-toddler haircuts who make rocks sing, who are, along with No Age, the serious ambassadors of L.A.’s pro-positivity scene. The duo’s shows are heaven-bent on inclusion. They play on the floor, eye to eye with the audience, and break down the formal barriers by making the audience the band — or perhaps, more accurately, the instruments themselves. Using complicated little boxes and wires, a laptop and some contact mics, Lucky Dragons’ audience forms a circuit of sorts, which changes pitch and sound depending on how many people hold hands or touch. Laughing Language (their 18th, if you’re counting) could be considered an afterthought given that the performance-based realization is the band’s locus. Does amplified rainstick translate onto record? Yes. It has all the clarity and meditation that Lucky Dragons’ spontaneity and group-huggy shows negate; translucent, soft hums get looped and doubled into steady banging; maximal chimes build into a wall of psychedelic glee; tribal clunk gives way to a wild lurching augmented by a recorder solo. The 22 tracks on the record display fantastically disparate damage: the processed tribalism of the Master Musicians of Jajouka; sour Ethiopian tonality; the insurgent disco of the boogie-down Bronx circa ’81; Arthur Russell’s space dub; Teutonic laptop minimalism; Tom Tom Club. “Later Hater” cribs Green Velvet’s classic “Percolator.” In Lucky Dragons there is much of what is missing in dance music (and the underground in general): concrete ideas and transgressive, progressive earnesty. Next level, indeed.
Madlib | Beat Konducta Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite | Stones Throw
Squander an hour of your life on MySpace trolling for underground hip-hop producers and within three clicks you’ll start striking wan white kids from Weehawken who by virtue of pawing a soul sample in Pro Tools think they’re the second coming of J Dilla, who has become the 2Pac for crate-diggers. Not like you’d have to worry about that with Madlib. He and the erstwhile Jay Dee were kindred spirits, Beat Konducta’s blunted helium-voiced L.A. id complementing to Dilla’s somber Lake Michigan soul. Competing types such as theirs become either fast friends or mortal enemies. Luckily, they were the latter, frequently collaborating and undeniably influencing the other during their formative years.
Beat Konducta Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite is Oxnard native Madlib’s tribute to his deceased friend. On its own merits, it’s an excellent instrumental hip-hop record, another worthy installment in an already stellar series. But in its greater context, every scratch, break and suffering soul sample feels fraught with profound loss and existential weariness. Song titles include “For My Mans (Prelude),” “The Mystery (Dilla’s Still Here),” “In Jah Hands (Dilla’s Lament),” “Infinity Sound (Never Ending)” and “The Main Inspiration (Coltrane of Beats).” If that’s the case and Dilla really was hip-hop’s Trane, then it’s not altogether unreasonable to deem the prolific, brilliant Madlib the genre’s answer to Miles Davis.
Health | Health//Disco | Lovepump United
As one of the astute young men of Health once said, “You can always make friends with the other kids in class, even if your favorite band is Slayer and theirs is Bell Biv Devoe.” Such a grand metaphor touches on how this L.A. noise-rock-pop-dance aggregate couldn’t be bothered differentiating between sounds that make you twitch and sounds that make you dance. Emanating from the scene that birthed similarly inclined noise/rock/in-between/nowhere nihilist-optimist squeal thumpers No Age, Health issue their diametrical oppositions on their own label, which also released their blissfully screechy self-titled full-length of 2008. That disc is a prime recent example of how the new noise/rock continuum can be plundered and pummeled to gloriously rocking and crowd-pleasing effect. But then, even better, a few months later the band issued Health//Disco, comprising rad remixes of a bunch of their stuff from refreshingly out-there remix nerds such as Crystal Castles, Acid Girls and Toxic Avenger. These mixes, for the most part, tromp over the original versions, to frequently frenzied, often chillingly beautiful and mostly ecstatic effect. Heh, heh, sure, you can “dance” to it. And, interestingly, such exploratory stuff gets weirder and weirder the more you listen to this absolutely contemporary sound.
Various Artists | Perfect as Cats: A Tribute to the Cure | Manimal Vinyl
This collection by the white-hot Manimal Vinyl imprint has two things going against it from the start. First, it’s a tribute album. Second, it honors a band whose work is so ingrained in the brains of a generation that any misstep becomes magnified. And yet, and yet, somehow the double-CD Perfect as Cats manages to capture a uniquely Los Angeleno musical moment (even if the featured artists come from many points on the globe) by celebrating the work of Robert Smith and the Cure. It does this by minimizing the dated sounds and recording techniques that situated the original releases in 1980s England (in essence, squeezing out the overtly synthetic touches) and transforming the Cure’s catchy, optimistic melodies and love songs into deep, psychedelic excursions and electro-acoustic diversions. Over 33 songs, bands as diverse as England’s Bats for Lashes and Jesu, Copenhagen’s Katrine Ottosen (a nice version of “Love Cats”), and Atlanta’s Kaki King (a highlight, “Head in the Door”) celebrate melancholy love. The majority of the 33, though, are from Southern California, and dictate the direction. Indian Jewelry turns “The Walk” into a staticky, defeated tragedy. Rainbow Arabia’s version of “Six Different Ways” somehow stays true to the letter of Smith’s arrangement but makes it totally brand new. Xu Xu Fang’s “Fascination Street,” which opens the collection, sets the tone: The song’s always been about that wobbly bassline, and XXF isolates it, feasts on it, wallows in it. It’s hard to succeed on tribute albums, for sure. Most of them suck. But this one not only doesn’t suck, it harnesses Smith’s heavenly/melancholy songs to create new surprises.
Abe Vigoda | Skeleton | PPM Records
Even if No Age’s sudden rise threatened to make the Smell scene last year’s news, Abe Vigoda’s lower-profile triumph affirmed what the rest of us already knew: L.A.’s in no danger of running out of good ideas, and they’re still wafting out of a dirty old alley in the Historic Core. Technically, Abe Vigoda’s young cadre hail from Chino, but the quartet has long been associated with downtown. Skeleton is their third album, and the timing for their “tropical punk” to come to fruition couldn’t be better. Just as East Coast preppy-pants Vampire Weekend was giving us lessons in comma (and product) placement over artfully ripped Afro-rock, Abe V. appeared with a bag of mush-mouthed stream-of-consciousness poems and a shit-ton of guitar that channeled equal parts wall of awesome and African thumb piano. The album feels both youthful and local, but big for its britches in all the right ways.
NOTE: You know it’s a good year in L.A. music when a whole other credible Top 10 list could be delivered with little or no overlap. Here’s a selection of great L.A. records that didn’t make our final 10: Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers; Darker My Love, 2; Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV; Beck, Modern Guilt; Inara George and Van Dyke Parks, An Invitation; Neil Hamburger, Sings Country Winners; Emily Wells, The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties; Le Switch, And Now … Le Switch; John Tejada, Where; The Henry Clay People, For Cheap or Free; Daedelus, Love to Make Music To.
Conspicuous absences: Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy; Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun; Megapuss, Megapuss.