Albums of 09: The Final Frontier

Late in the year I realized that one of the dominant themes amongst some of my favourite albums of 2009 was a sort of forward-looking futurism. That’s not to say that the music itself was inherently new, much of it is informed by post-Apollo 70s era krautrock and early electronic work, but it had an other-worldly voyager character to it that points at a novel, if nostalgic, trend. Long and slow synth lines enter and recede, low-fi blips and old sci-fi sounds, and the occasional sample, pop in as though there’s a laser gun fight happening outside. Repetitive sine wave oscillate and meander throughout, echoing across time, while the drones and hums of engines in the distance propel you to undiscovered planets. Soundtracks for hyperspace travel.

Albums of 09 part 1

Emeralds – Emeralds & What Happened

No one better captures that essence than the improvisational, experimental prog collective that is Emeralds. Their CD What Happened, a collection of live improvised recordings, summarizes their aesthetic as best as it can. It’s a great, droning ambient disc that also highlights the problem with an improv band: without the need for studio perfection, they can produce a lot of unique music. Unfortunately, while prolific a lot of that output seems inaccessible and lost to underground cassettes and limited vinyl pressings. Much of the reason for the CD recommendation arises from some of this peripheral output, mostly because my absolute favourite track “Geode” can be found on their self-titled LP. But all this side content just adds to, and never diminishes, the appeal of What Happened.

Oneohtrix Point Never – Rifts

A 2 CD set from another prolific artist that combines three previous albums, two of which were also released this year, and a bunch of unreleased material into one sprawling set. It’s the perfect introduction to his work, as it was for me. Rifts takes a far more nostalgic and electronic approach than Emeralds, seemingly more overtly referencing early 80s computer infomercials, computer graphics, and low-tech sci-fi (like this scene from Stalker.) One moment you have an ambient soundspace and then something like this this, but it’s never jarring because it’s all so thematically interconnected. It do wish I could see his DVD project because if the clips on YouTube (the above link and “Nobody Here“) are any indication it is definitely something I would be entranced by, and the visual style perfectly captures the OPN sound.

Belbury Poly – From a Distant Star

The BBC first started broadcasting in 1922 which means that the signals have travelled 87 lightyears out into space. If the inhabitants of 58 Eridani heard these early broadcasts, sampled them, and sent signals back to Earth[1], it might not be out-of-place to imagine it sounding like From a Distant Star. The album is entwined in that kind of almost creepy nostalgic happiness of old low-quality children’s broadcasts and late night radio plays and home gardening advice shows. It’s very playful, full of almost toy-like instrumentations, and strangely melancholy at the same time. The Hidden Door (weird YouTube video featuring pictures of Polish girls) is the standout for me, but Adventures in a Miniature Landscape is a better example for that clownish, melancholy flavour.

Alva Noto – Xerrox Volume 2

If Alva Noto’s Xerrox Volume 1 is music for airports copied over and xeroxed a hundred times[2], then Volume 2 is the equivalent music for spaceports. Carsten Nicolai’s “Xerrox” project takes its name from its basis in some theoretical ideals involving copying in the digital age and what “original” means in this context. Or something. Despite the art house justifications for it, not all that unexpected from the Raster Noton label, it is perfectly enjoyable ambient music. I especially love “Xerrox Sora” which which starts as this clicking badly copied bit that fades away into an ocean of chords and white noise that crescendoes and just instantly fades away leaving nothing but echoes of itself for the last minute and a half.

The previous Volume 1 was equally good and when you consider the packaging that comes with these releases I eagerly await, and hope for, a Volume 3 in 2010.

Nosaj Thing – Drift

Los Angeles is getting a lot of buzz thanks to Flying Lotus, Samiyam, and The Gaslamp Killer and their unique style of instrumental hip hop genre spanning beats. In some ways it feels like the American parallel to UK dubstep[3]. Nosaj Thing is very much rooted in that scene but replaces a lot of its roughness with a more mellow, at times melodic, spacey synth approach. There are multiple instances of synthesized choirs and voices giving Drift a celestial, if digitized, aesthetic that seems to be more informed by classical symphonies than hip-hop mix tapes. I was instantly hooked on this album after hearing the breathy, melodic beats of “Fog”. It’s so good. If I were to make a Top Five list, rather than an indecisive Top Fifty Five, this would surely be in it. The pseudo Elite 2 inspired artwork doesn’t hurt.

  1. Entirely possible since 58 Eridani is about 43 light years away giving them just enough time to send a response. I’d be arriving now. Though, of course, the pedants would note that they’d be responding to the absolute earliest broadcasts from the beginning of the 1920s.
  2. Not literally Eno’s Music for Airports. The majority of samples and audio sources on Volume 1 were recorded in airports and during flights, though you could easily make the connection to Eno’s work too.
  3. It’s all interconnected, really, with Flying Lotus and Samiyam appearing on London’s Hyperdub records.
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