Real Existing Pop Dystopia

13 Apr

Continuing dialogue in a case like this might be of limited productivity – there’s much talking at cross purposes, for many different reasons, but I’m still very pleased that Trevor Link took the time to write a considered response to my broadside (all one really can ask) as a means of clarifying his own position, even if most of my points were either not understood or flatly rejected. I’ll take the opportunity to also write a second rejoinder in which I can strive for further clarity, even if most of his points I will not understand or flatly reject.


While I believe there are some irreducible differences in opinion here, much of the misunderstanding or disagreement may stem from very different definitions and usage of language. This was probably inevitable when the word most central to the discussion was “pop,” a word that has been stretched near the point of illegibility. One of my the two main motivations for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” was to try to work out exactly what Link meant when he used the word “pop” in talking about music. His pop utopia doesn’t include the music that those fascistic rockists might enjoy (how odd is that he says “How many sophisticated consumers of music wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, say, the Beach Boys” when, have you ever heard of Pet Sounds, one of history’s most critically fawned-over albums? Or does “The Beach Boys” here mean “Surfin’ USA” and “Kokomo?”), and the “sophisticated” music “which strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it.” This could not be the world of pop I recognized, that gloriously multivarious constellation of all those musics that come from outside the academy and the court and don’t aim at abstract extremes (Serialism, Noise, and certain other explicitly experimental genres – not that they don’t have their merits, but they could quite reasonably denied the label ‘pop’) that I derived great pleasure from. The pop that Link discusses must be something different, something narrower, and there must be some attributes that delineate it from the greater body. From what I could tell, what set the ‘pop’ he was discussing apart was that it did not have any ‘limits’ – that it took its focus on ‘pleasure’ to extremes. This was something that seemed familiar – this described as a category so many of the unpleasant songs that I had been made to listen to by radio stations, bars, clubs, and those friends and acquaintances who will justify the worth of any song with the phrase “it’s so catchy!” or “I miss the 90’s!” ‘Manufactured Pop,’ then, to describe this subset of pop music which passes the test of being ‘unintellectual’ enough to be authentic and truly pleasurable. (And may I note how bemusingly surreal it is be called over-intellectual for my response to a 7600+ word essay on pop utopianism that cites Deleuze. DELEUZE.)

 To mirror the numbered list of replies in “’Pop Utopianism’ And Its Discontents” at times perhaps being indulgently glib, before making a final attempt at clarity:

1. Link writes:

If I do focus on chart-based pop, it’s precisely because there is a tacit assumption in, at the very least, North American culture that it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music. Until that changes, I’ll continue to champion it, though wholly out of love and never out of mere contrarianism.

First of all, this ignores a distinct shift in “alternative” and “mainstream” music criticism in the last decade towards an embrace of more and more chart-based pop music in the last decade – simply find search for Pitchfork Media’s reviews from the 90’s, then compared those to their list of Top 20 albums of 2000 and then to their track and album best-ofs for the last few years. If you’re feeling a bit masochistic, you could even subject yourself to the writing of Sasha-Frere Jones. The image of the snooty music journalist dismissive of “pop” is outdated, at least among the under-60 crowd. That’s only focusing on critics and those who actively seek out their advice – on a broader view, it’s simply absurd to say about “chart-based pop” that in North American culture “it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music” – exactly the music that more than any other (except perhaps a few classical pieces which have been given particular social functions) is impossible to dismiss and ignore because there are commercial and social structures which deliver it to as many physical and social spaces as possible.
2. I failed to engage with the ideas about the politics and taste of music “i.e. how rock can be linked to authoritarian ideologies” because it was easily the weakest part of “Pop Utopianism.” Rock music (entirely ignoring Rock’s root identity as, and frequent return to, hip-swiveling R&B) is, via Dyer, assigned “thrusting and phallic qualities…which in turn suggests a verticality, an “up-and-down”-ness, that is very potentially authoritarian and hierarchical at root (hence the elitism so prevalent in rock music cultures.)” This is garbage pseudo-Freudianism which doesn’t hold up to any interrogation. (Is the up-and-down-ness in the bodily movement that accompanies some rock subgenres and subcultures? Are mosh pits authoritarian? Are the screaming teenage girls at a Beatles concert jumping up and down all trying to assert their dominance over the lowly subordinate screaming teenage girls who are merely clapping and swaying? Are they subliminally embodying the hierarchical patriarchy that flows through that Liverpudlian White Male Rock & Roll? Is the up-and-down-ness sexual? Is all male sexuality authoritarian? Is the ghost of Andrea Dworkin haunting this space? All of this would hardly, in any case, seem consistent with the pleasure-above-all mentality of “Pop Utopianism.”)

More importantly, this attempt to brand rock snobs authoritarian drastically misconstrues the nature of authoritarianism, particular its fascist strands. No fascist movement I’m familiar with has ever been about cultural distinction, sophistication, or intellectual purity. They instead focus on the right and necessity for certain groups to have power over others due to tradition, strength or notions of purity – inherent qualities which put them at the apex of a natural order. The qualities of those chosen groups cannot be reasoned with or denied, just as we are asked not to reason with or deny “pure” pop music and the pure, uncomplicated feelings they engender. My reference to Führerprinzip was in no way facetious; the Führer is supposed to function as the conduit and amplifier for the collective desires of the volk (excluding those nasty degenerate intellectuals who spoil all the fun) in a similar way the pop mega-star functions as the conduit for the collective desires of the modern consumer-citizen. Fortunately, the pop mega-star does not have the same evil role, but the logic is analogous.

It’s a bit hard for me to understand how one criticizes the hierarchical nature of rockism and then turns around to credit the church with a function of “actualizing social desire” similar to the dance floor (is David Guetta Cardinal Ratzinger?) but that is a small point that doesn’t go much of anywhere, except to Lady Gaga, who, again, is a chart-pop figure we have been told to take very seriously by many critical voices in quite a number of publications, and again, I find largely but not entirely unlistenable, due in large part due to awful, overloaded production.

The accusation of ethnocentricity is quite easy to laugh off: I’m accused of displaying “no real knowledge of what K-pop means in the Korean context or what makes K-pop different from other forms of pop music.” But “Pop Utopianism” / We Need To Talk About K-Pop is centered around the idea that K-Pop exemplifies the positive qualities found in manufactured pop universally, so I’m not even sure what I’m being accused of. Yes, K-Pop as a phenomenon is portrayed by Link as superior – especially in its sincerity – to American strains of global manufactured pop, and I would agree that the pop mixtures being made now in Korea are distinctive. If it’s agreed that both strains are, fundamentally, Link’s Pop, what I label manufactured pop, then it’s irrelevant to the argument what exactly the smaller differences are. In regards to Link’s “formative academic period in life…spent researching indigenous cultures and religions” which makes my supposed “suspicio[n] of anything that overturns individuality” he finds in my writing to be “somewhat offensive,” I find the implied flattening of difference between “indigenous” socialities and the socialities of industrialized, specialized, mass-media connected cultures to be deeply puzzling coming from what is portrayed as an anthropological perspective.

3. Link dismisses my “reductive,” “simplistic,” ‘endlessly repeated’ use of the phrase “manufactured pop music,” which, again, is a term summoned to deal with the narrowing, reductive definition of pop used in the Manifesto. One of his reasons for casting doubt on the phrase is its power to invoke critiques of the classical Hollywood system. I actually think this is a productive analogy: both genres produced many works of worth and diverse qualities, and many works of questionable worth, but the system in which all these works are produced and distributing has problematic, ideologically destructive and dystopic elements; there’s a reason why Godard could love Hollywood films and so hate Hollywood.

Link casts the assembly-line metaphor as denigrating the care, attention and artistry put into the actual creation of pop tracks:

Teddy Park can be a hit-maker for YG Entertainment, but he’s also purely an artist as well, no different from any other artist throughout history. (And if you ask me, he’s a really good one too.) The author’s description of “a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment” strikes me as crude, a degrading way to describe what is a highly creative process.

But each pop song can be both – the specific creation of an individual and the interchangeable new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment – there’s nothing contradictory about this. Stargate and Ester Dean can care greatly about the music they make, but ultimately most of their material will also be input for a system seeking revenue and market share.

The maximization of hookiness and forcefulness in manufactured pop music is also responsible for how tiringly formulaic it can be if the system calls for a musical product that can reliably command the widest possible spectrum of listeners, then the music will tend to use a narrow set of elements and structures, in a more limiting way than the sense in which any music of an identifiable genre must use some common and therefore predictable elements. That Nickelback is both singularly horrid and hugely successful is tied to the fact that you can play two of their hits over each other. Certainly artists can innovate at the same time they aim for the common denominator, and there are plenty of good to great songs that can be found within the system of manufactured pop. (I invoked Motown in a clumsy attempt to preempt questions of well-pop-has-always-been-manufactured-what’s-different now? I certainly have no desire to valorize any period as a golden age of pop music – plenty of the material released on Motown and contemporary labels is rather forgettable, no less than in any era, but a particular production aesthetic renders that forgettable material less actively unpleasant as bad or mediocre pop music from other pop eras. While I do delight in connecting with a well-written pop song, my listening is broadly more driven by considerations of timbre and overall sonic texture. There’s no reason to deny that production sounds change withtechnology and fashion, and that along with new creative opportunities come misuses and new chances to bludgeon listeners.)

4. Link contests that as my rebuttal gets closer to speaking directly about K-Pop, it gets worse. I “express surprise” (actually, I don’t, but thanks anyway) that I actually find “a couple” of K-Pop songs I can enjoy (in the We Have To Talk About K-Pop mix, I have heard K-Pop before and they number more than two) and my implication that “K-pop as a whole is largely unlistenable” is “rather offensive…mostly because it assumes that there might be some objective grounds on which he can write off and condescend to an entire nation’s pop industry.” For Link,

personally, I could never imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output, even if I had little interest in it, because what I value as a music listener is the idea that there’s good music everywhere.

On the other hand, its easy for me to imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output because I would make that statement about ALL countries with pop music, and I would do so precisely because I deeply believe in the idea that’s there good music everywhere. That belief has lead me to spend enough time searching for good music from anywhere and everywhere that I have encountered very large volumes of bad or painfully mediocre music from all around the globe. For each sublime tune or intoxicating eddy in the global pop flows, there are many blandly derivative copies of commercial forms and schmaltzy traditional performances. Music is amazing and there’s a terrible lot of it that’s not very good. Bad music, however, can not only vary in how good or bad – how pleasurable or unpleasant – it is judged to be from the perspectives of different listeners, it can take on new qualities in different times and different places and when it is taken as inspiration or reappropriated for sampling – small moments in otherwise unremarkable bodies of work can become the nutrient matter for rich, lively new forms.

The one statement to which I actually do take offense comes when Link says he “hate hate hate[s]” the “facile comparison of pop music to junk food” because it’s “silly and ungrounded, and again, it betrays another kind of class prejudice.” Here, the accusation of class prejudice actually bristles: if you (this is the generic ‘you’) can’t accept that any serious opposition to the system of industrial agriculture, which has fast food as its quintessential distributional form, includes a fundamental insistence to the right of all people to the healthy food denied them by the socio-economic system of which agro-industrial production is a central part, and instead fall back on lazy stereotypes of privileged Whole Foods Liberals (and, by the way: fuck them) then you’re a slimy reactionary who has no right to speak of utopias.

The analogy holds. Preparing sweet or fatty foods is not evil, just as making saccharine pop songs is not evil. Some of the end results may be transcendently delicious, many will be basically satisfying in expected ways, some will be unpleasantly overwhelming in their over-use of certain ingredients, and this reaction will be determined to a great degree by the predilections and sensitivities of the recipient. None of the results is unethical. However, the system of fast food and industrial agriculture that commoditizes and distributes sweet or fatty foods on a massive scale is harmful in very real ways that are much more than a matter of aesthetic snobbishness.

This is the second and much more important reason I had for writing “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music” – the conception of “Pop Utopianism” needs to be problematized and interrogated because it ignores the ways in which manufactured pop is embedded in the real existing dystopia of the contemporary global economic system, which functions by presenting us with a continual supply of commodities which provide certain narrow, easy forms of pleasure, and it asks us to not think further about or reassess this initial pleasurable reaction, instead continuing to acquire similar commodities (perhaps with some added superficial novelty) which will elicit similar pleasurable reactions. This is precisely what the Manifesto asks of us – don’t over-intellectualize, simply be happy with a product so wonderfully tuned to illicit pleasurable reactions in your brain-body interface.

Pleasure is vital to any true utopian vision, because it is vital to human experience and any true utopian vision has a deep consideration for human wellness and flourishing (but it can’t just be one person being “really really happy,” unless you’re arguing from a solipsistic or peculiarly monist perspective.) Yet we can see that the simple vision of unreflective pleasure presented in “Pop Utopianism” cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already the model of the still far more dystopian economic model that rules the world around us. The effects of production, distribution and consumption for manufactured pop music are innocuous compared to most of the tangible commodities we consume – some artists are taken advantage of, some music industry executives get too much money they don’t deserve, some snobs like me have to repeatedly hear a set of songs they don’t like (one can also consider the socially corrosive settings that manufactured pop is often experienced in – the “dismal clubs of forced-fun music” that Gavin Mueller dubbed “utopias of date rape;” I wouldn’t emphasize this aspect as much, first due to the troubles of proving causation, and second because the manufactured pop form Link is specifically celebrating may not have the same correlation.) The point is that the uncritical relationship to superficial pleasures is much the same. Moving beyond our real existing dystopia will involve reflecting deeply on the pleasures presented to us, their richness or shallowness, their quickness or longevity, and their wider implications. As rhetorically or personally abrasive as I may have been at times in this essay, I am sorry that Trevor Link experiences clinical depression, and (I think) I can understand how that could make intense pleasures all that more important, but it must be recognized that pleasures can be qualitatively different from each other, that they can be deep or fleeting, healing or destructive.

We inch closer to utopia by both celebrating and critiquing our pleasures; by constructing truly wild, diverse, changing, decentralized, heterodox ecologies of music, which will include ABBA, Juke, K-Pop, and all the “over-intellectualized” “half-pleasures” that “Pop Utopianism” maligns.

If we can imagine evolving beyond capitalism and the other dystopias we struggle with, we can imagine moving beyond pop music and non-pop music.

We can keep the music.

We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music

9 Apr

Eventually, copyright law will dictate that all songs include a Diplo co-production credit by default.

This piece derives from years of simmering misgivings about how some music critics have been writing about the mass-market, Top 40 pop music which, we are told, has experienced a renaissance in the last decade, what could be called, and will be here, “manufactured pop music.” It is more specifically a response to “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto,” written by Trevor Link (@loosejoints) and posted on the Occupied Territories tumblr, where it accompanies an MP3 and video mixtape called “We Need To Talk About K-Pop.” I’ll try to provide a brief summary of what I think “Pop Utopianism” is about, but the following will still make more sense if you read that first; it should be said that is of some length. This work is shorter, but, mercifully, it contains no references to Freud, which should count in its favor.

“Pop Utopianism” is an impassioned explanation of why Link finds K-Pop enthralling, placed in the context of wider plea for what he refers to pop music. The four foundational points of Pop Utopianism are, in brief:

 (1): Pop music is at its most utopian when rooted in our experience of pleasure. This is because pleasure confronts us with an inescapable sensation of how we would like life to be like, a glimpse of utopia.

(2): Pleasure in itself is hardly controversial, but in order for this pleasure to be truly utopian or transformative, it must be ecstatic pleasure without imposed limits.

(3): Pop’s unrestrained sense of pleasure strongly aligns it with play, as well as fantasy.

(4): Perhaps more than most forms of music, pop music (including disco) is not only rooted in the body but is also embodied.

Link connects his argument to past debates about whether Disco was reactionary, Capitalist, inauthentic when compared to folk and rock music (this was preceded by debates about folk vs. rock, a “body music” in its time, to be sure) and to the concept of “rockism” in which music critics treat other genres as fundamentally unserious. The arguments, both borrowed and original, are convincing enough, however I don’t think they are convincing when used to make the arguments Link does about modern pop music. Debates about folk vs. pop (the distinction being entirely artificial, pop music simply being folk music written after the introduction of recording and mass media) rock vs. hip-hop and pop vs. the academy should be long buried by now. We all, or at least anyone remotely interested in discussions such as these, accept Pop in its many forms. Link, however, wishes to actually narrow what can be considered pop to the Top 40, its direct stylistic forebears and its transglobal cousins, such as K-Pop. “Sophisticated” music which “strives for the pleasureableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it” is disqualified as providing only “safe, intellectually satisfying half-pleasures, “clever, yet ultimately tepid.” Link goes on to say that those who enjoy this “sophisticated” put themselves ‘above’ pop music “because it cannot serve their fascistic, anti-social, and narcissistic (not to mention non-pleasureable) aims.” Well, now that the F-word is out of the box, there’s no point in resisting it:

We need to talk about the intrinsic fascism of manufactured pop.

Now, I can’t stress enough that I’m not suggesting that Trevor Link is a fascist or that his passionate enjoyment of K-Pop is fascistic. It’s telling, though, how his manifesto and mixtape are sprinkled with fascistic language. We’ve already seen the denunciation of sophisticated intellectuals and their devitalizing intellecualization. In writing about K-Pop, the songs are described with words like ‘undeniable,’ the performers as ‘commanding,’ Link often asks in bewilderment how anyone could not like a particular song, and what might possibly be wrong with someone who doesn’t. Pop music defined in this manner is that music which speaks directly to a some pure, untainted and authentic human nature, presumed to be shared by the mass of society. Those who lack this nature or would turn against the spirit of purely pleasurable music are perverted intellectuals. This music is in turn performed by pop singers who “are constructs pulling together material from a kind of collective unconscious, the actualization of social desire,” which would also function as a concise description of the theory behind the Führerprinzip.

If the pop music Link is talking about encompasses certain pleasurable musics but not others (the ‘tepid’ ones) then we need to find a good way to distinguish what exactly the pop under discussion in the Pop Manifesto is; it will also serve as a good definition of ‘manufactured pop.’

I suggest that manufactured pop music is characterized by a central concern to maximize two attributes: ‘hookiness’ and forcefulness. Forcefulness commands the body to join in certain physical rituals; hookiness commands the mind to return again and again to certain sets of tunes. The myriad hooks in any particular manufactured pop track serve a second purpose of making it even more indistinct: not sticking with any single element for long enough to distinguish the song, the entire body of contemporary manufactured pop becomes an inseparable set of hooks and commands.

I label it “manufactured” not because it is made with computers or other machines It is manufactured because it is made in an assembly-line process to function as an interchangeable commercial commodity. The use of machines only determines its manufactured quality to the extent that technology is used a) to increase efficiency and b) to increase the power of command. Synthetic sounds can be given an overwhelming power; new production methods attempt to subdue the listener, keeping ahead of its audience as the public ear becomes accustomed to an ever wider range of sounds. Motown could be seen another assembly-line system for creating pop music, and should be seen as a historical predecessor of modern systems of pop music manufacture, of studio systems in both Korea and the US. An important difference for the listener is that Motown’s sound was finely-tuned decades before the loudness wars, so while the songs may have been created purely to illicit the most direct forms of pleasure, the forcefulness of the music was not overloaded, and it was not yet necessary to have four ‘hooks’ per song. This is a quantitative difference which I think becomes a qualitative difference: Motown and other pop-music factories of the past may have been making manufactured pop music, but it was different in kind from the music we are increasingly being asked by critics to openly embrace.

This recent contestation that we should all be listening to manufactured pop music because it efficiently delivers certain narrow forms of pleasure, that if we refuse there is something wrong with us – this is a distinctly fascist impulse. That is not to say that I believe that manufactured pop music creates fascists, or that Trevor Link is consciously or unconsciously acting as a fascist, or even that I have no interest in K-Pop or any song to be found on American charts. I find K-Pop fascinating enough as a specific instance of manufactured pop music that each time I discover a K-Pop song I can actually listen to, I’m filled with a particular delight. Any pop music that we discover anywhere can be included in our personal or social utopic visions and used along the path to them. If you like a song, that’s fine. If you like an entire genre, good for you. We can listen to pleasurable, worthwhile music from production centers in Motown or the Brill Building in decades past or a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment last month. However, privileging a particular form of pleasurable popular music as the only legitimate form of Pop (Link executes a simple reversal of rockism by implying that the inauthenticity and artifice of pop music is actually what makes it authentic) denies listeners the choice of which qualities in music, in which combinations, are important to them: the hookiness and forcefulness of the music is instead held aloft as the supreme values for pop music, the songs with the most force and the strongest hooks are judged better than other songs in an imagined competitive arena (and performers can literally be judged in competitive arenas which are then broadcast on television.) This is an attempt to strangle the wonderful, messy heterodoxy that has emerged with the Internet. At the time that Richard Dyer wrote his “In Defence of Disco” (it’s the article that comes right after two defences of paedophilia in the summer 1979 edition of Gay Left) it would have made sense to simply appropriate the pop music that was widely available for purposes of pleasure, spontaneous community creation, identity play, and the like. There is no reason to accept this state of affairs today. We have as both listeners and producers of music an unmatched power to create a thriving ecology of pleasurable music on local and global scales.

So, there: I’m bothered by being told that I should be listening to more Top 40 pop, and that if I don’t enjoy it, I’m stuck up, over-intellectual, and just plain wrong. “Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto” and this piece and Link’s are both the results of immediate reactions: Link would never think to write such a lengthy exposition on K-pop if he did not find the direct experience of K-Pop to be exceedingly pleasurable, and I would find no need to label manufactured pop ‘intrinsically fascist’ if I didn’t find the experience of listening to much of it to be viscerally unpleasant. Again, if those K-Pop songs do bring Link pleasure, and that pleasure holds up to later scrutiny, as it seems to have done, then good for him, and plentiful thanks for creating an annotated mixtape that serves as a nice introduction to the genre for outsiders – a number of these songs I hadn’t heard before, and a few of them I can even tolerate or enjoy (if you’re curious, “Nu ABO,” which is toned down just enough to be listenable, and “Lucifer,” which sounds like it comes from an alternate universe.)

That being said, while the enjoyment of manufactured pop is defensible, I don’t think the idea that it can serves as a utopian model withstands scrutiny. The utopian model of manufactured pop is false because it is based on a ‘limitless pleasure’ which is only poorly simulated by maximizing and overloading a few narrow pathways of pleasure, just as the huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup in a soda assaults our receptors of sweetness, and a fast-food hamburger latches on to our umami receptors while overloading our senses with a bevy of added chemicals. In both manufactured food and manufactured pop, we see a product designed to be a commodity which will impel its consumers to return again and again. This sort of utopianism based on the illusion of limitless pleasure fails because any inspiration to think of a better future is rerouted to a media that invites us to the false, shallow utopia it has constructed in the present day. The actual products that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sell may do work on the body to prepare us, but it’s the advertisement that they and other corporations broadcast that really insist that these commodities function as a direct link to utopia. In K-Pop this link to images and in turn to the broader consumer society are very clear: K-Pop videos are even more overloaded than the songs that accompany them, and most of them are little more than a hyperactive succession of the alluring limitless number of colorful, shiny, and novel material objects that a commodity-producing world economy promises us; the experience of watching could only be replicated by candy-flipping in a haute shopping center.

Deflecting criticism of manufactured pop music by making dated claims that such critics are over-intellectual elitists who hate or misunderstand pleasure and the body is akin to branding a critic of fast food a health nut or giving the label of teetotaler to anyone who points out that methamphetamine is too powerful a stimulant. The idea that consumer goods, pop music among them, are appropriated by consumers in creative ways was an important one when it was introduced many decades ago, but since then we have seen that these activities have their limits. A commodity system cannot be defeated by the many small actions of consumers integrating products into their lives and personal narratives in ways unintended by producers. Capitalism is entirely capable of adapting to such.

Manufactured pop music cannot serve as a utopian model because it is already part and microcosm of the dystopian economic model of the present.

It may also fail as a model for utopia, but I’d like to briefly present another musical form that has existed for some time now but is only very recently receiving broad attention and increased critical appraisal, and which I think is intrinsically more transgressive.

Juke, even more than K-Pop, is centered around a dance culture. Unlike the dancing that one encounters in a K-Pop video or the dismal setting of a typical American club playing manufactured pop, where dancing is routinized, directly or indirectly choreographed, the “footwork” dance culture surrounding juke involves explosive, unbounded bodily self-expression (point number two in the manifesto) in a social setting. With its unconventional rhythms, abrasive textures, and counter-intuitive structures, it demands little but attention to the ways in which it subverts expectations. The lyrics of manufactured pop are generally agreed to be fairly meaningless (not a problem in itself) the words instead functioning as “vocalized beat” which add to the hookiness of each song. Juke, built upon unceasing repetition of words, phrases, or vocal noises, brings this pop logic to the fore, and plays with it in productive ways. Some Juke tracks are built around words or phrases that could easily be seen as violent, casually misogynist, or as objectifying women. The most interesting work done by Juke occurs when words and phrases are repeated so many times, in such rapid succession, that not only do they cease to hold any meaning, they actually begin to sound like other words and phrases. The function of the voice in manufactured pop music is taken to such an extreme that the music travels through meaninglessness and discovers a new territory of possible meanings. These are possible meanings, and are very much undetermined, as the new meanings will be decided upon by the brain of each listener as it begins to test different interpretations of the vocal sounds being heard. (“When I came?” “When I gave?” “When I cave?” “Spinn?” “Spit?” “Spill?” “Rashad?” “Ur-sher?” “Watch out?”) This is an crucial part of Juke’s transgression and even perhaps its utopian potential.

Whereas manufactured pop presents its listener with a centrally produced object of narrow, superficial perfection, Juke takes rough, imperfect elements from the world around it, combines them in an initially jarring manner, and in the process creates transcendent, ecstatic moments which are legitimately surprising. Absolutely nothing is surprising about the feelings which manufactured pop music is supposed to instill in you as a listener and a body; each element of the music is engineered to sickly extremes in an attempt to elicit specific, expected reactions, inviting you into a false contemporary paradise. Juke invites listeners to join in an unfolding process of creating utopian situations. It suggests that utopia is not something that that will be sold to us, but that utopia is something we can find, something we can construct from elements of the world around us, even if they may be ugly and mundane.

The World’s Only Iron Giant In A Unipolar World

20 May

The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s 1999 directorial feature-length animated debut, is, a first and foremost a feel-good children’s movie, yet as a film set in the earlier years of the Cold War, half a decade after The Day The Earth Stood Still was released, it also tackles the same issues surrounding violence as a methodology and provides an intriguing counterpoint and complication of the earlier work.

Iron Giant opens with the recently achieved launch of Sputnik and explicitly deals with anxiety about annihilation, which was not yet so fully developed when The Day The Earth Stood Still was made, and as Iron Giant is a product of the 90’s, it is clearly a retroactive commentary on Cold War anxiety, and not a representative product of it. The central problematic figures of both, however, are quite analogous: seemingly all-powerful robotic beings from outside the Earth who use violence to counter violence. In Day, the purpose of the robot Gort is laid out very plainly by the alien emissary Klaatu, but in Iron Giant  the titular robot arrives on Earth with no explanatory companion, and a case of amnesia which leaves his true purpose unclear even to himself. This makes the Iron Giant a more complicated figure, more in line with actors in the real world that attempt to use violence to quell violence.

So: Sputnik is launched and not too long afterwards, a skyscraper-sized metal creature plummets into the sea off the coast of Maine, a young boy finds it, discovers it has a (metaphorical) heart of gold, finds a beatnik artist-run scrapyard with metal for it to eat, and hides it from the federal agent who is sure that it’s a dangerous Soviet weapon. Along the way, boy and ‘bot come across a deer felled by hunters, ‘bot learns that guns kill, and, when boy then plays with a toy ray gun, the sight of the fake gun activates some as-yet latent weapon that shoots from his eyes.

They killed Bambi...again.

This leads to a series of events in which the US Army attacks the metal creature, who, when it thinks the boy has been killed, transforms from cute tin man to frightening killing machine, straight from War of Worlds. Those being attacked by the robot don’t know that it has, so far, been a friendly companion to a young boy, learning about the world in a childlike manner, and is now reacting to violence done against himself and his human friend. They do not associate their actions with his, and have no particular reason to think that the robot was not in fact sent as an instrument of destruction. In fact, as viewers even we cannot be sure of this: the Iron Giant’s transformation into a weapons platform is accompanied by the fixing of a dent in his head that is suggested to be the cause of his amnesia. He may, in fact, be reverting to his original programming to destroy Earth’s inhabitants, and when he sacrifices himself to save the townspeople from the nuclear missiles that were foolishly launched at him, we cannot be sure if this defensive, sacrificial act is in his original nature, or if it derived from traits learned during his time with the boy.

Whether the original intent behind sending the giant to Earth was a friendly or aggressive one, whether it is armed for war or armed to function as a Gort-like anti-violence police, there is very little way for the inhabitants of Earth to ascertain the truth, they can only directly react to what they see: a super-weapon spreading devastation. As viewers of the film, we have an emotional connection to the robot and believe that if the Army had not attacked him, he would not be attacking them.

As informed Westerners, we may think that the United States and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force had good reason to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda training camps and deny them a safe haven, and we may think that remaining there can be justified as necessary to prevent the takeover of that country by violent extremists and to improve the “quality of life” of those living there. (Leaving aside for the moment how flawed this thinking may be.) However, when surveys show 92% of Southern Afghans never having heard of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it’s hard to see how this narrative can be communicated or accepted by Afghans themselves: they are much more likely to see Western military forces as a metallic, mechanized giant on a rampage. Even as informed observers, can we really be sure that the actions taken by this mechanized system are purely defensive in nature, and not an emotional outlashing or the expression of some fundamental programming?

By making drawing out the complications that arise from the sort of armed enforcement of order present in the Day The Earth Stood Still, The Iron Giant comes closer to portraying how such an approach often plays out in the real world, and suggests that the nature of armed intervention is largely determined by how it seen: it is only a paranoid, militarized mindset that turns the giant into a problem to be tackled by the military, and an outlook with such a limited toolset will tend to create more and more problems that appear to be thusly fixable.

Making Eye Contact

10 May

(Cross-posted on O(h)rtlos)

It’s a well-established cliché that telecommunications technology and high-speed transportation methods make the world a smaller place – that they modify (shrink) space, or the experience of space.

It might be more useful to say that communications technology contracts time, and that with the creation of the Internet, time has shrunk to nearly a singularity in much of the world, communication becoming sufficiently dense to create an moment of simultaneous awareness. However, this in turns problematizes the distances of space in new ways.

There are plenty of empirical phenomena that can be used to gauge series of events, and to thereby say that certain events happened at the same time, others before or after, but in terms of subjective human experience, time has traditionally passed not simultaneously, but in parallel. We can say that a certain event in human history occurred somewhere in Mesoamerica in what we now call 1000 CE and that another event happened in the same year in a region of the Ural mountains, and this will be empirically true so far as it can be measured against another event which happened simultaneously to both (a certain volcanic eruption, say or the passing of a comet) yet in terms of human experience, time was passing in Mesoamerica and the Urals in parallel: while they were both happening at the same time, the lack of interknowledge between the two experiential time streams separates them. This is true of smaller distances: Early Medieval Spain and Early Medieval France may have been closer to having simultaneous streams of time, but events (or information about the events, or meaningful effects stemming from that event  that happened in a Spanish village would still take time to reach a French village, and this is part of what imbued time and space with meaning: space was what it took time to travel through. Space separated times and time separated spaces, they were measurements of each other.

With contemporary telecommunications and data storage, there comes a deep spatio-temporal disorientation. If I can follow events in, for example, Cairo’s Tahrir Square in real-time day after day via Twitter and al-Jazeera, it becomes increasingly uncanny that my quotidian experience, as dictated by interaction with my direct physical environment, stays the same, that I do not find myself swept up in a factory strike or swept away by military police. As time shrinks we are confronted by the fact that space has not shrunk commensurately, and the increasing disconnect makes space considerably weird.

There is a simultaneous effect working on the past as more and more cultural material and information is stored and made increasingly available: the singular moment fostered by communications technology reaches further and more widely into the past. If, for example, the most-recently released English fusion of dubstep and Chicago footwork and the most recent “Cold Wave” compilation of Belgian synth-pop come to me simultaneously, in the same formats and through the same channels, both seem equally contemporary and of the present moment. This phenomenon then goes on to influence the creation of new cultural materials, and one hears more and more artists influenced equally by bands of young white middle class Americans from four years in the past and compilations of West African guitar pop recorded in the early 1970’s that were re-issued four years in the past, and in a few more years I would be completely unsurprised to hear newly created works that split the difference between Cold Wave and second-decade dubstep. Materials spiral steadily toward the center of the temporal singularity, and in being transmitted through a global communications network, works that were once tied to a place more and more lose spacial specificity due to temporal simultaneity.

It becomes easier and easier to absorb without a second thought these combinations of what were previously spatio-temporally disparate influences. 70’s afro-pop and mid-aughts indie rock combine to the extent that a fusion of the two (controversially at first) eventually it becomes its own strain of pop music. We listen to post-dubstep R&B and begin to forget that we didn’t listen to R&B in the first place. Eventually, people who only listened to post-dubstep R&B will make their own R&B, and it will eventually seem to fit perfectly next to R&B made two to three decades previous.

However, there are artists that can still create their own powerful disorienting effect, and again this disorientation is spatial.

All of which is to say that today, May 10th, is the release date of Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact, and the foremost question in my mind when I listen to that album is: where and when will people listen to music like this? It is full of songs that, if I try fumbling towards a description, I would have to call New Age Stoner Jam Old-Skool Rave Revival Chinese-Pop from the 2030’s. Where would such a music be made? In what contexts would people listen to it, what will the physical environment in which that they negotiate their quotidian lives be like? To respectfully disagree with Mark Abraham in Cokemachineglow, I believe he sells the album short when he says that “the band is demanding we hold their gaze while they school us on the finer points of the popular music of the last 30 years,” thereby making it less exciting than the more ahead-of-the-game Saint Dymphna (2008). I wouldn’t say that Gang Gang Dance is deliberately and self-consciously mining the past, they are merely operating in a space in which the past (and future) have collapsed; Mark Abraham seems slightly annoyed that the album opens with the quote “I can hear everything–it’s everything time,” but he may be reading it incorrectly. The phrase doesnt’ mean that it is “time for everything” – that is, time for Gang Gang Dance to combine everything they can muster over the course of the album following that introductory quote, but that the album takes place in “everything time,” the temporal singularity in which past, present and future are folded together. (On a sidenote, It’s also more likely — certainly more appropriate — that the increasing-infinity interludes refers less to “the ten-year-old’s game of ‘infinity x 3′ trumping lesser infinities” and more to the Georg Cantor’s concept of the transfinite.)

Eye Contact is the exemplar of a field of work being released this year that could be called “Futuristic Non-Anglo-American Pop Made By Anglo-Americans,” along with Rainbow Arabia’s Boys and Diamonds and, to some extent, Battles’ Gloss Drop (they decided to borrow a Chilean on Köln’s Kompakt label and a Japanese mad visionary to speak for them) and Ponytail’s Do Whatever You Want All The Time.

Like Boys and Diamonds, Eye Contact suggests a kind of conjectural or imaginary world music. On that album, Rainbow Arabia summons the strand of Swedish pop that combines 80’s synth memories with chintzily borrowed africanisms, and stretches it into an invented future, perhaps one in which Chinese artists begin to borrow cultural elements from the countries (many African) which the PRC has, in the past half-decade, begun to send investment dollars and Chinese workers to, forming a new syncretic music based on new conceptions of periphery and core. Of course, it’s unlikely that such music will ever come to pass in such a context: even if the 2030’s do see a wave of Chineseafrosynthpop, it will probably sound unlike either of these albums. However, when technology continues to compress time into a singular moment, why wait to create a music until it’s chronologically or geographically appropriate? The deep spatio-temporal disorientation brought about electronic telecommunications creates a confusion in both listener and artist: how can Gang Gang Dance not feel that they are perfectly capable of using the elements of the past to create the future music of other peoples, and how can I, as a listener, wary as I try to be of “appropriation” and allow Euro-American subjectivities to speak for the “other,” not somehow believe that this band, and those like them, are able to do just that?

Eye Contact ends with a robot voice whispering “live forever,” and this is the ultimate effect of the squashing of time, perhaps one part of why so many tech-optimistic futurists insist on predicting some sort of  human immortality by the end of the century: if one is constantly in an eternal moment, how can one ever expect to die? That voice commanding us to “live forever” may as well be the voice of the Internet itself.

Oh, and if you were wondering: it’s a very enjoyable listen, too, synthy, percussive, complex and messily beautiful music that sounds like what the future used to sound like, what the future sounds like now, and quite possibly what the future will sound like in the future. I’m not sure if, come December, I will consider Eye Contact to be the “best” album of the year, or the one I enjoyed the most, but I have no doubt that it will win the Zeitgeist Award for 2011.

Strange vibrations.


On Libel? (Academic Freedom, Truth and Whatnot)

10 May

In this lecture delivered at The New School, Akeel Bilgrami has a number of incisive things to say about what academic freedom is, how it should be justified and the deeper ways in which it is stifled or blocked in contemporary academic discourse. En route to his conclusion he attacks what he calls a “classically liberal” fallibilist defense of freedom of speech (academic and otherwise) that he identifies with John Stuart Mill, and if I may make the unwise decision of picking nit with a professor of Philosophy at Columbia, I think his critique is unneccessary for making the very good points he concludes with, and flawed in and of itself.

He identifies Mills argument for freedom of speech thusly:

Premise 1:  Many of our past opinions, which we had held with great conviction, have turned out to be false.  

Premise 2:  So, some of our current opinions that we hold with great conviction may also turn out to be false. 

From these premises, he drew a conclusion about tolerance and free speech,

Conclusion:  Therefore, let us tolerate dissenting opinions just in case our current opinions are wrong and these dissenting opinions are right.

Bilgrami’s begins to attack this reasoning:

To begin with, even at a cursory glance, you will notice that the judgement in the first premise is made from the point of view of one’s current opinions and convictions.  It is from our present point of view, from what we currently take to be true, that we are able to say that our past opinions are false.  But the judgement in the second premise is telling us that our current point of view may contain false views and therefore to be unsure and diffident about them.  Now, if we are unsure about our current beliefs, and our judgement in the first premise is made on the basis of our current beliefs, then to that extent we must be unsure of our first and basic premise.  Any conclusion based on it therefore is bound to be, to that extent, itself shaky and uncertain.

This idea, that the fallibility of past opinions cannot be known because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” is, itself, a held opinion, and can therefore be false, does not, for me, hold water, because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” and “some of current opinions may also turn out to be false” are both neccessarily true because the only alternative possibility is for there to be a point in time at which all current opinions are true. This would seem to me to be an obvious impossibility: knowledge must be limited and therefore imperfectable: to store all information about the universe, it would be neccessary to use an amount of matter equal to all the matter of the universe, and if one were to somehow store information about the universe outside the universe, that would demand a recognition that there is even more outside the universe which we cannot have perfect knowledge of. These theoretical extremes have very little to do with the sorts of opinions that both Mill and Bilgrami are talking about, but they do function to show that Premise 1 and 2 are neccessarily true. They can be supported against Bilgrami’s objections by the addition of the premise:

Premise 0: At no point will all currently held opinions be all perfectly true.

Bilgrami prefers Mill’s other arguments for freedom of speech, for example that it breeds creativity, diversity and moral courage, and while I may agree that these are more noble and attractive, I see no reason to throw out the “meta-inductive” reasoning presented above. To me, the oddest part of Bilgrami’s complaint is this:

But, now, if that is so, there is something internally peculiar about an argument that appeals to the value of truth and the goal of pursuing the truth, as it does, while also implying, as the second premise does, that we can never know that we have achieved the truth.  How can we claim to have a goal that we can never know we have achieved, when we have achieved it?  What sort of goal is that?  It is not perhaps as peculiar as having a goal that we know that we can never achieve.  That is outright incoherent.  You cannot coherently strive to achieve what you know to be impossible.  But to allow that we can achieve a goal and yet insist that we can never know we have achieved it when we have, though not perhaps outright incoherent, is a very peculiar understanding of what goals are. 

Truth-seeking is not a “goal” in the sense he wants to insist upon, it functions more as an orientation or an attitude. He is essentially calling the scientific method incoherent: this central axis of modern truth-seeking is not at all about finding things that are true and knowing with certainty that they are true, it is an attempt to compile an increasing number of correlations between theory and observed reality while striving to falsify previously held opinions and theories, thereby aligning it quite closely with Mill’s meta-inductive argument. Falsification is possible while absolute verification never is; without the assumption that some past and current opinions must be false, there is little reason to continue the pursuit of truth.

Bilgrami asks

If the goal of inquiry into the truth that all academic institutions embrace is really to pursue in this way something that we never can be sure we have achieved, then we must be assuming that what we do, in pursuing it, is a bit like sending a message in a bottle out to sea.  We never know what comes of it, we never know that it has arrived.  What sort of epistemological project is that?

and I would suggest that it is the only sort of epistimelogical project possible, thank you very much.

Bilgrami then states that this Millian meta-inductive argument, which he finds so much fault in, is directly tied to the form of “balance” in academic life which is used not to inspire the full consideration of all available evidence but to require that two sides of a disagreement be presented, which often amounts to a bullying tactic for the side with little or no evidence at all to be included in a discussion. While I agree that this conception of balance is unacceptable, I don’t see that Bilgrami even bothers to explain how Mill’s reasoning leads directly to.

After he leaves Mill be, Bilgrami’s piece becomes much more illuminating, as he moves to discuss his idea that the most subtle, and therefore in some ways the most injurious form of academic unfreedom is the exclusion of alternative frameworks of investigating, thinking and knowing, which also excludes the evidence and arguments that might arise from that framework, which are never taken into consideration, but also never consciously excluded because they are never even brought into the awareness of the guardians of academic orthodoxy. It’s worth reading, and he ends by making a point I myself tend to emphasize: that academics (and people in general) have more of a moral responsibility to criticize those systems of which they themselves form a part, or to which they are more directly connected.

It is said that whenever Sakharov criticized the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the fifties, he was chastised by his government for showing an imbalance and not speaking out against the treatment of blacks in the American South.  That is precisely the kind of imbalance that courageous academics are going to be accused of by the enemies of academic freedom in this country, and I hope that all of us will have the courage to continue being imbalanced in just this way.

[Echo regularly criticizes the PRT's treatment of dissidents.]

Liberal Interventionism & Space Esperanto

30 Apr

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend a 35-mm screening of 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, a film I’d actually not yet seen, although my penchant for bad Keanu Reeves vehicles had previously brought me in contact with the forced, formulaic 2008 remake.

While many of the plot points have since become the stuff of sci-fi cliche, it still has considerable charms – the central acting duo is superb, with a nuance performance from Patricia Neal’s and Michael Rennie’s bemused but earnest professorly Klaatu seemingly planting the seeds for both Spock and David Bowie. Compared to any movie made for mass consumption today, it gets straight to the point, the premise being well established within the first three minutes, mercifully sparing the audience from the boilerplate character introduction that has become de rigueur. The dramatic event that serves as the film’s namesake is also refreshingly low-key: most of the Earth’s electric devices stop working for 30 minutes, something that no-one would bat an eye at in a more contemporary sci-fi film.

Of course, The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t really a science fiction thriller, it’s a classic Cold War “why can’t we all get along” nuclear-anxiety lecture piece. However, the mechanism through which this lesson is imparted by Klaatu (the assembled species of the other planets apparently speak Esperanto) works to remind us of the common ideological roots of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism, and how the Beltway view of the world has developed over the last 50 years.

Klaatu comes to visit “in peace and with goodwill,” but the message he  delivers at the end of the film contains an odd sort of peace. He states that the peoples of other planets now live without violence between them, but if the aggression and war that humans currently practice on Earth is brought out beyond its atmosphere, they will have no choice but to destroy the entire species, perhaps the whole planet, although what exactly all other species of flora and fauna have to do with it is never made clear.

This kind of peace – be nice or be destroyed – seems to have become the guiding principle of a military superpower which for the last few decades has been utterly incompetent in attempts to negotiate the prevention or termination of violent conflict elsewhere in the world, but has, with some regularity, been willing to summon the Iron Smiley Face of armed intervention, from the troubled actions in the Balkans and Libya to the clearly deranged neo-imperalist invasion of Iraq. (While there were enough commercial and geostrategic interests in the later case for the idea of “intervention” to be bypassed entirely, enough of the people who planned and supported the invasion believed it for it to be relevant.)

What’s more interesting is the method by which the other planets came to live in peace in the first place – they built robots that would destroy them if they acted aggressively against each other. So, while The Day The Earth Stood Still might seem to be a cry against the madness of a nuclear-armed world, the answer presented in the plot is actually just another form of mutually assurred destruction. A galaxy of Gort-enforced order reminds one of America’s position in today’s world a technical sense, as we, too, are now instructing machines to enforce a moral order, as with the increasingly visible unmanned aerial vehicles that run illegal CIA assissination campaigns over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen,  and now appearing over Libya (or, leaving the UAV’s aside, as with a military whose freedom of action is based entirely on technological superiority).

Klaatu’s solution to violence shares with the dominant Western order a basic inability to craft solutions with tools besides those which created the problem under consideration. This conceptual trap leads to the tremendous waste of using foreign occupation to try to fix Afghani problems that have in large part been caused by decades of foreign occupation, the waste of spending over $500,000 per missle to destroy miltiary vehicles on Libyan highways that the major Western powers were only all too eager to sell to Qadaffi mere years ago.

50 years, ago, the well meaning American idea of  peace was a world of robots poised to violently punish the violent, and it’s only too easy to see how that contradiction has remained and festered in the national imagination since.

Moral Snails

26 Jan

This New York Review of Books piece places a meditation on observing the behavior of snails next to an account of Siberian tiger management, and both species display behavior that appears to be similar to human behavior. Snails help each other to find food or escape from crates they are trapped in, while a tiger tracks down a person who had been capturing tiger cubs, killing him and destroying everything with his scent.

This leads me to an additional thought extending of the previous post’s discussion of the cyborg ethics of eating. Might animal behavior such as this suggest that human judgements on the morality of food consumption in nature are actually not so much inappropriate insertions of moral concepts into a moral vacuum as they are an imposition of human ethics on living beings which possess their own ethical systems? Would attempts to modify existing ecological systems in order to make them more ethical in our eyes then not be a form of inter-species cultural imperialism?

High-Futurist Cyborg Syrup

26 Jan

Tim Maly, of “cyborgs & architects” blog Quiet Babylon, has written a piece as part of the trans-web Food for Thinkers series; it’s title is “The Cyborg Ethics of Eating,” and it has some problems. (It’s not too long, so if you’re going to read this piece, I would absolutely recommend reading that one first.) Starting from the suffering of animals in contemporary, meat-eating food systems, he discusses Jeff McMahan’s idea that predators in nature are immoral and should all be killed, and he uses a quote from Thomas Jefferson that downplays the suffering of the enslaved as merely “transient” in order to suggest that causing suffering in plants may someday be seen as a moral wrong. He then reaches the conclusion that using technological replacements for the eating of food may eventually be required by ethics. This end point is not itself evil, at first glance, but in logical sequence used to reach it ignores the world as itself in favor of extreme abstractions, creating an absurd ethics which defends living beings so vigorously it finds life itself to be morally suspect, an ethical system which condemns those very processes that have lead life on Earth as we know it.

It is also a logical sequence with many flaws of reasoning.

It may be instructive to begin with slavery, which is introduced in quoting Thomas Jefferson’s letters, and compare it to the how animals and plants fare in the contemporary food system. Arguments against killing animals for food are millennia old, but modern factory farms are particularly unethical not because the animals raised in them ultimately die, to be consumed for food, but that the animals are born and live in miserable conditions. Animals on small farms and in the wild will similarly die, perhaps to be eaten for food, just as other members of each species have, since first they evolved. They will move around and eat food they have evolved to eat, instead of being restricted in their movement and force-fed inappropriate meals and antibiotics and growth hormones to compensate for their terribly unhealthy living conditions and to turn them into freakishly modified producers of certain biological goods to be consumed by humans. Similarly, while hard labour could be seen as alien to the basic human condition as a hunter-gatherer, slavery is particularly immoral, and not because those enslaved will work and then will die; most free(r) people also have to work for much of their lives, and all, so far, have died. The moral problem with slavery is that the people enslaved are horribly restricted in their lives, often in conditions far enough from the evolved physical and psychic tolerances and needs of the human organism as to cause great suffering.

Turning now to the idea of “plant suffering,” as supposedly evidenced by chemical distress signals. Animal suffering is not viewed as a moral wrong is not based on the screams of animals, or any other outward signs – otherwise, we might have to think of old, creaky houses as being in pain. Calling the chemical distress signals of plants “screaming” is extravagant and unfounded anthropomorphizing. Maly frames those signals as proof that “plants want to live, too,” but if action taken to sustain biological life is proof of suffering, then plague bacteria must also be considered worthy of ethical consideration, and some thought should be give to a future time when technology may give us both the ability and perhaps the responsibility to wipe out the world’s zooplankton, who have preyed on innocent, photosynthesizing phytoplankton in an aeons-long genocide of simply unimaginable magnitude.

No, in the ethical systems we can actually construct and follow, we are required to consider animal suffering as being to some extent morally comparable to human suffering because we have comparable nervous systems, and, as we know that our sensations, emotions and manifested self-awareness arise from the working of that nervous system, we must be open to the possibility that all of these phenomena are present, at some level of complexity, in animals. (Unless we are to escape to the deus ex machina of, well, a deus.) There is some comparison to be mada between Jefferson’s description of African Americans and the modern view held by many who would dismiss the ethical significance of animal suffering in factory farms. In both cases, the “sensations” of the suffering being are accepted as real but are denied significance on the grounds that they are not part of a larger, meaningful life of the mind. So while I would not, like PETA, suggest that there is an equivalence between human slavery and animal bondage, I would say that there is enough of an analogy to be drawn that I can imagine that at some point in the future, attempts to justify systems of animal exploitation for economic benefit (meat, after all, has never been cheaper) may be seen as offensive just as widely as today attempts to justify slavery are seen to be.

However it is difficult for me to imagine a world in which we could possibly induce that a wheat plant, or a field of wheat plants, has a subjectivity and experiences something that could be understood as suffering when harvested and consumed as food. That’s not to say that plants aren’t fascinatingly active and responsive living beings, but the empathic gap between plant and animal biological systems is simply overwhelming.

Even if this gap was eventually spanned, there is a reason McMahan’s brief dismissal of plant suffering can never be as offensive as Jefferson’s attempt to explain away suffering among enslaved African Americans: recognizing in other human beings the qualities of feeling, thinking and experiencing, is an extremely natural and human thing to do, and was done at Jefferson’s time and, I am willing to assume, at all times before him. Jefferson was rejecting a basic empathic position in order to justify an economic system designed to benefit a few at the expense of many; this is offensive. To empathize, really empathize, with a food crop, however, is a much more complicated mental operation, and with much less precedent. (It is clear that humans evolved to be able to see feelings in other humans, I know of no evidence that we evolved the the ability to see feeling in plants.) McMahan is justifying an economic system that benefits all animal life on the planet Earth at the expense of a very different category of life, it is much harder to take offense at this.

A note, also, on enlightened white males such as Jefferson. While I realize blogs are a place where authors can and should fully inhabit their subjectivity, Maly here is discussing hugely broad ethical issues, and so I think it may be permissible to chide him for universalizing a particular perspective, one that can be attributed to European males, but are not limited to them. Maly declares that

The course of human history is the long slow process of according a greater number of living things status as moral beings owed rights and protections. For the most part, we’ve worked out that women, people of different racial backgrounds, and non-landowners deserve dignity.

To which I have to say – what do you mean WE, white man? “A long slow process of according a greater number of living things status as beings owed rights and protections” might describe, in some loose way, what has been happening, off and on, among many European peoples since the fall of the Roman empire, although it couldn’t be accurately applied to the continent as a whole – the (re)conquest of Muslim Spain by Christian Europeans was a step backwards in this imagined process, and there have been plenty of even more catastrophic revokings of rights and protections in the centuries since, no matter what trend lines we try to draw behind them. Going beyond Europe, the process Maly speaks of might be applied, periodic backsliding forgiven and ignored, to most sedentary, agricultural, ownership-based societies around the world. Each society has made progress in different areas at different speeds, of course – Hindus may be far ahead of many others on the matter of bovine dignity, for example, but in many cases they remain woefully far behind when it comes to the dignity and rights of women. (I don’t mean to make any essentialist statements about the nature of Hindu religion(s), I’m simply saying that rural Hindu culture makes the subcontinent one of the worst places in the world to be born poor and female.)

However I won’t recognize this as a process that describes all of human history. The Arawaks who first met Columbus with open arms had no difficulty recognizing these complete strangers as fellow beings deserving of all the rights and protections they shared amongst themselves. It was the Europeans (who, when history is being drawn as a long slow process from better to worse, are generally considered to be farther along) who had great difficulty discerning that those that they had just met deserved dignity.

It is not only the logic of inevitable progress at work here, but also the logic of inevitable decline. McMahan and Maly both use the environmental damage already done by the human species as a justification for the ideas they present – animal species are going extinct at accelerated rates due to human activity, so why not just selectively eliminate predator species; civilization is increasingly terraforming the planet, so why envision any limit to radical restructurings of Earth’s ecosystem? It’s somewhat odd that, in justifying giving plants ethical consideration as individual organisms, Maly says that plants are “active vigorous participants in the ecosystem,” when he so completely ignores ecology in projecting his post-food cybernetic future. McMahan does the same – when herbivorous animal species no longer have predators, due to hunting, habitat destruction or importation to areas with fewer predators, the results can be so damaging to plant species, other herbivores and the balance of the ecosystem as a whole that people end up having to cull the herbivores, tasking humans with systematic klling that predators had once been doing, free of charge and free from guilt. Maly conceives of an eventual future in which human-cyborgs survive by “converting energy and nutrients directly into sustenance.” Yet the nutrients human bodies require, excepting minerals, are produced by plants; exactly where else should these nutrients come from? Many modern processed foods may appear to never have had anything to do with plant life, but even the most dazzlingly unnatural food products were reassembled from the carbon harvested from food crops, and generally a lot more environmental damage is done by turning food crops into abstracted future nutrients than would occur in the process of growing and consuming a crop. Perhaps organic material could be gathered from dead plants that had lived out their full life spans, but to take this for processing in nutrients for human consumption might simultaneously cause some detritivores to starve to death – also, by these standards, an ethical dilemna.

It should also be pointed out that our civilization is “terraforming” the planet (de-terraforming? terradeforming?) largely because of our energy consumption, and agriculture is a very effective solar energy collection technology. While today this is often combined with fossil fuel inputs, in the form of fertilizers and fuel for machinery and transportation, at a basic level, agriculture is a wonderful way to cover large swaths of land with self-constructing biological machines that collect solar energy and convert it into nutrients that can be directly and efficiently consumed by human beings. To replace such a low-impact energy technology would hardly seem to be doing the Earth a favor. The only scenario I can imagine in which post-food human beings cause less harm to other forms of life than do food-consuming human beings is one in which near-limitless electrical energy produced by fusion power is either used to process inert materials into consumable nutrients, or plugged directly into a newly battery-powered human body.

So, in a future where humans become alchemists with almost infinite sources of power, the idea of going beyond food could become practical, but until then it really remains outside the discussion. Being theoretically feasible, however, does not necessarily make it desirable. One of the principles of contemporary first-world ethical food consumption – eating locally – hopes not just to reduce fossil fuel use in the transportation of food and give economic support to small regional farmers, it also seeks to deepen consumers’ understanding of, and emotional connection to, the production of the food they eat and the ecological systems that make it possible. The provided ethical justification for turning human beings into post-food supermen is to protect both plants and animals from being killed and eaten by people. Yet if purchasing food from a supermarket instead of buying it from a farmer (or being a farmer) leads people to not take into consideration how the plants are grown and the animals live, if it is easier to buy a hamburger every day than to raise and slaughter animals to produce enough meat to eat a hamburger every day, how likely is it that human beings who have removed themselves from the food chain entirely will maintain a higher ethical concern for other life forms? Environmentally destructive practices are already facilitated by an ideology that considers our species to be separate and superior to nature and not dependent on its operations for survival. If that were to actually become true, I find it likely that an involved, stakeholding participant is likely to be more benign than an aloof god. The occupants of the halls of Olympus are rather notorious for their disregard of the rights and dignities of beings below them, and it wasn’t because they ate and drank, but that they didn’t truly require other life forms for survival.

Maly is always an interesting writer to follow, precisely because he allows his speculation and imagination to roam far from conventional present day ideas. Here, however, the ideas fall short both in the scrutiny of their practical basis and the consideration of their ultimate ethical ramifications; the end solution is in many ways more troubling than the original problem. I would offer two explanations for this. As many interesting insights as it produces, the cyborg discourse is born of a teleological view of history in which human enlightenment steadily expands the purview of ethics and technology inevitably solves all problems. The second reason has more to do with emotional motivation. Maly is right when he says that generally, we don’t like being confronted with the realities of how our food is produced, and that most consumers in industrial/post-industrial nations cope through “squeamishly avoidant ignorance.” I don’t know what Maly’s own dietary habits are; this article didn’t give me the impression that he is a practicing vegetarian, but he may well be. Even if he is, his plant-only diet would likely still be unsustainable and destructive in many ways, as my diet is, and the diets of most anyone reading this. Squeamishly avoidant ignorance is not available to Maly, and so he deals with the stresses of being a part of an ethically troubling food system in a different way. He shifts the focus from difficulties in the system as it actually exists, such as the suffering of animals living and dying in factory farms, to hyperbolic concerns with the “chemical screams” of plants, and answers them with presently impossible solutions, thereby excusing the humanity of today with following through with them. This allows us all to get back to speculation and new media, much more and fun and a good deal easier to face.

Topnotch Stuff As A General Rule: Some Music I Enjoyed In 2010

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again, when people vaguely remember enjoying winter weather, and I start in on an ill-conceived list of my favorite music of year, start agonizing about the music I didn’t hear often or early enough to include, get too stressed out about it and rush it to completion.

You know, the holidays!

I’ll be presenting my favorite 20 records, followed by ranked lists of records in various genre categories which make absolutely no sense but were the closest I could get to grouping albums that seemed somewhat worth comparing to each other.

So: Combining the futility of writing about music with the stupidity of ranking it?


“Just remember if you become obsessed with something you stop making sense to other people”

Top 20

20. New Pornographers – Together [Matador]

- Pop Music Poppy Pop Award, Year Two Pop One Pop.

19. Vampire Weekend – Contra [XL]

- Albums like these are the closest thing we still have to Whit Stillman movies, really. The partial shift of emphasis from guitars to cheery little synths parallels the shift from guitar to synths seen in Congolese music as the 70s turned to the 80s, it also makes them sound more like They Might Be Giants. If you happen to be someone who’s still caught up on the “Ivy League kids appropriating African styles” thing, you need to do some more reading.

19. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy [P-Vine]

- Shugo is an all powerful, iron-fisted despot who rules over the world of incredibly precious chamber pop. This is music for decorating acorn houses.

17. Maria y Jose – Espiritu Invisible & Kibose [Grabaciones Amor / Cocobass / Self-release]

- Bedoom-pop raptor house? Singer-songwriter tribal guarachero? Sensitive club bangers? Tijuana’s answer to El Guincho? Ruidoson? The only artist on this list to release an album for free on

Answer: All of the above.

These two releases are available for free, entirely legally, here and here.

16. The Radio Dept. – Clinging To A Scheme [Labrador]

- If, in the next few weeks or months, Sweden extradites Julian Assange to the United States, this album will stand as the opposite of that, in every way. Everything great about Swedish indie-pop is summarized by Second track “Heaven’s On Fire,” which begins with Thurston Moore declaring “I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist system that is destroying youth culture,” epitomizes everything wonderful about Swedish indie-pop. I pondered using words to describe it, but it is already itself a perfect summary of what it represents.

15. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me [Drag City]

- It took me all year to realize I liked this album, as a work. I knew from the beginning that I liked many of the compositions, but it was simply too long to consider as an entity. Coming back to the album, which may as well be several, I realize that these songs have taken root deep within me, unattached to this release, or this year, eerily eternal. Joanna Newsom has turned herself into a river.

14. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest [4AD]

- Bradford Cox is the spiritual nexus of blog-pop. Whether chillwave, glo-fi, or beach-rock (witch house doesn’t count) they all bob in his wake, whether approach from the realm of guitar noise or carefully constructed bedroom pop, he is where their desires meet, and it is his vision of what is gorgeous in music that they aspire to replicate more than any other. Bradford Cox’s music, solo and in group, no longer concerns itself with much of anything besides that vision.

13. Future Islands – In Evening Air + Undressed [Thrill Jockey]

- The opening seconds sound more like Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (the Radiohead of the first half of the 1980’s) than nearly anything else I’ve heard recently, certainly more so than OMD’s own disappointingly Pretty In Pink style History of Modern. Future Islands have had the phrase “New Wave” thrown at them. The Undressed EP revealed that the band’s singer Sam Herring is actually just Matt Beringer of The National, bitten by a radioactive Tom Waits, but by day the band masks this identity with 80’s indented bass lines and synth-work. It’s a comfortably familiar but unique combination.

12. Maps & Atlases – Perch Patchwork [Barsuk Records]

These guys (a truly amazing live band) released a number of math-rock EP’s successfully balanced technicality and melodic appeal. Raise your hand if you can sing along to Ted Zancha. Releasing a full length, they have decided that they are an Afro-Math band, and have decided to come clean about their love of the Apples in Stereo. I couldn’t be happier.

11. El Guincho – Pop Negro [Young Turks]

A lot of 2010’s blog-hype music vaguely replicated the feeling of being at a beach: any beach or all beaches. El Guincho’s music creates the feeling of being on an island: any island or all islands (he is originally from the Canaries.) He captures the exuberance of island music, while avoiding its downsides, such as often being sloppily made in an overwhelming style with chintzy-sounding hardware and software. A nicely layered, woozily rapturously techno-humanism perfectly expressed by the Carl Sagan-quoting best music video of the year:

10. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot [Def Jam]

- I can guarantee that this would have been in a higher berth if it weren’t for the worthless band that dares call itself “Vonnegut” (RIP) and its bland, awful rap-rock crooning singer who always come in to ruin the otherwise great track “Follow Us.”

That’s besides the point, considering that this is probably the most vibrant and fun record ever made by a rapper 16 years after his first LP.

But I’m still angry.

9. Baths – Cerulean [anticon.]

- Kte…Fuck…Take Emeralds, the Radio Dept., hell, most of the records on this list, chop them up and put the bits into the centrifuges used by Flying Lotus’ nuclear program (he’s got one and he’s going to use it to sell fissile material to the Maldives) and after several months you have this: mutated, brightly glowing synth-croon-hop. Cerulean blue…cerulean blue…

8. Darren Hanlon – I Will Love You At All [Yep Roc]

- Likely the most good-natured record on this list, and by the most good-natured person. Sustained, direct sincerity, done with humour and without being cloying, is an impressive accomplishment by itself. Filling well-written songs and perfectly-scaled accompaniment with it is another matter entirely.

7. Sam Amidon – I See the Sign [Bedroom Community]

- If Sam Amidon goes on to have a long recording career, he could be one of the great voices of recorded music, floating out in the Yorkosphere. Not only is it lovely to listen to, it reflects the nature of the music that Amidon makes. While Amidon is only 29, and looks younger than that, he gives off the impression of having spent decades eating rustic toast in a backwoods cabin when he sings the beginning of each line. Yet his voice always folds back into itself, pointing at something fragile and vulnerable. Amidon records traditional folk songs that immediately bespeak their age, performed in such a way as to have a direct emotional relevance, leaving no question of being merely an academic exercise. Like his voice, they sound young and old; questions of time and duration are further complicated when he pulls tricks like covering R. Kelly’s “Relief” (2007 saw Amidon recording a version of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.”) Music travels back and forth across the historical point where folk music becomes pop music, falsifying the distinction between the two. Working with producer and Bedroom Community label head Valgeir Sigurðsson means ICELANDIC BONUS POINTS.

6. Kanye West – My Dark Twisted Fantasy [Def Jam]

- I’ll get straight to my thesis. My Dark Twisted Fantasy is the musical equivalent of a Charlie Kaufman film. Actually, it’s all Charlie Kaufman films wrapped up in one. Except perhaps for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, being an adaptation. (Also…I haven’t seen that one.) Charlie Kaufman writes films, often featuring characters that either seem to be based on him or NAMED AFTER HIM AND PLAYED BY NICHOLAS CAGE, that are about simple human foibles, exaggerated and then played out on increasing ridiculous and grandiose stages. The beats here resemble like the warehouse spaces that Philip Seymour Hoffman fills with the absurd, exacting theatrical replication of all the minutiae of his life, which is just what Kanye does with his soundscapes.

As an amusement, here’s a movie-by-movie look at other parallels:

a. Being John Malkovich: Man finds a tunnel to the fame he desires through a vent/Rockafella, an opportunity which he takes advantage to take his particular passions (puppetry/vocoders/e-mailing pictures of his penis) to a larger stage than anyone would expect they would receive or perhaps deserve. “Malkovich Malkovich” = “Kanye Being Kanye.”

b. Human Nature: Why should I bother, you haven’t seen it. Anyway, it’s about “civilized” people acting “uncivilized” and vice-versa, College Dropout Kanye is Rhys-Ifans upon first being trained by Tim Roth.

c. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In which the protagonist travels back to things done by and done to him in failing romances, decides to do them all again.

d. Adaptation: A writer (Kaufman/West) creates a screenplay in which he is a struggling with his art (The Orchid Thief/808’s and Heartbreaks) casting a inexplicably huge star with a bizarre personality (Nicholas Cage/Kanye West) to play both a exaggerated version of himself and his rather different fictional twin brother (“Conscious” Kanye West / “Lady Gaga Tour” Kanye West.) The work ends with a sudden, violent change in genre (a thriller wherein Nicholas Cage dies in Nicholas Cage’s arms / a political album sampling Gil Scott-Heron) that brings the whole into question.

When approaching this album, one should look past whatever one feels about Mr. West as a cultural phenomenon or as a person and simply look at it as a work of art that features characters based on the writer(s) involved and their lives, as ugly and ridiculous as that can be. It’s an album full of men, chiefly Kanye but also Pusha T and Jay-Z, who sound sick of themselves and their interactions with other people. (There’s also Rick Ross, who condemns himself by merely existing, Nicki Minaj, who I’m not ready to talk about, and Rihanna, who may as well be a contractual obligation.) Like Kanye’s contradictions? The album is full of them. Hate Kanye? Kanye hates Kanye too, or at least he often hates “Kanye,” however much Kanye there may be in Kanye. The real point is that by presenting Kanye and Kanyesque characters and situations under a burning spotlight, the album describes and explores what is wrong with people like Kanye and the society in which he exists than does most art.

Besides, there aren’t going to be too many more albums that sell 496,000 copies in the United States in their first week of release and feature 9-minute centerpieces that start with the sound of Erik Satie in a mental institution, bring in a beat left over from the soundtrack to the first Matrix film, let Pusha T nastily self-depreciate over strings, and end with the album’s star slobbering into a vocoder in a bathtub for several minutes.

If there ARE going to be a lot more of those, pop sensations are going to be a hell of a lot of fun for a while, although I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas will find a way to ruin it.

Or, in one sentence: I’m not going to rewatch Synedoche, New York very often, but I’m damn glad it exists.

5. a. Mount Kimbie – Crooks & Lovers [Hotflush Recordings]

b. Four Tet – There Is Love In You [Domino]

c. Caribou – Swim [Merge]

d. Luke Abbott – Holkham Drones [Border Community]

e. Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner [Ghostly International / Notown]

Making 5 albums count as one item on the list? Lame? Yes, let’s move on, as I mostly want to use the opportunity to coin the name for a movement of sorts, one that has been compiling its style for several years now, but which really made its presence known with full lengths, and my main purpose in delineating it is to proffer obnoxious puns as genre labels. It could the name like Domestic House, Housestead or Dewstep, “Organic Techno” would be another one, but much less fun. It takes the “pastorality” found in the earlier careers of Four Tet and Caribou, along with the ever-present spectre of Boards of Canada, that particular feeling of the electromagnetic wound back and forth though carbon and silicon systems and fuses it with the experimental dance forms that effervesce out of London and Brighton.

This is the sound of the spirit of the project of rural broadband.

…I just want an excuse to say Dewstep and Domestic House a lot.

4. Los Campesinos! – Romance is Boring [Arts & Crafts]

- Nothing expresses quite how long a year can be as this album.

3. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma [Warp]

Okay, so Kanye West blew up the sound of pop today, splattering the walls with acrid candy paint in a single screaming singularity, Kanye being Kanye being Kanye being Malkovich. Getting the now exactly right is admirable, but here’s some future business that may never be caught up to. This is SERIOUS COMPUTER JAZZ, people. This is the pinnacle of all computer jazz made so far. Have you ever seen Flying Lotus smile? He’s seen through your soul, he met with the electronic mind in another dimension and probably had sex with it, he’s had a cup of yerba mate with God, and traded a rare 7” single. He’ll never tell you what God gave him in return.

But he thinks it’s quite funny.

2. Javelin – No Mas [Luaka Bop]

Is this a greater artistic accomplishment than all the records preceding it? Perhaps not, but it means more to me than any of them, and having that power also denotes accomplishment of a sort. In their meticulous re-appropriation of old sounds, Javelin achieves everything that chillwave would like to, but falls short of.

Javelin is joy.

1. Das Racist – Sit Down, Man / Shut Up, Dude [Greedhead / Mishka / Mad Decent]

2010. The year that the people of Reykjavik, Iceland, betrayed by international financial capitalism and members of the Icelandic government and banking sector, handed the office of the Mayor to Jón Gnarr, an former punk, stand-up comic and television personality who is married to Bjork’s best friend (because everyone in Iceland knows Bjork), and handed control of the city council to Gnarr’s Best Party, composed of friends with similar backgrounds. Gnarr and the Party had the single-greatest political advertisement of all time, and they ran on a platform that included items like free towels at all swimming pools, a polar bear at the zoo, and “Effective democracy” because “Democracy is pretty good, but an effective democracy is best (That’s why we want it.)” Funny, but frivolous and silly.

Except that upon closer examination, these planks have substance. Arctic ice melt has lead polar bears to swim to Iceland, and putting them in a zoo would be an alternative to shooting them, as had previously been done. Iceland’s geothermal activity is enough that some of their swimming pools could qualify as natural spas, but the official European definition of a spa requires that spas provide free towels. Free towels at swimming pools would make them spas, and boost tourism. This is, to reverse a phrase from Victor Vasquez, “all that stupid shit that’s actually smart.” A member of the Best Party once explained to a journalist that if the Best Party wasn’t the Best, it wouldn’t be called the Best Party.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Das Racist group was asked this question:

NYT: What separates you from other rappers?

Victor Vazquez: We’re the best rappers. Himanshu Suri: We are better at rapping than everyone else who raps.

Das Racist are the Best Party of rap. If they weren’t the best, they wouldn’t be called Das Racist. They entered the public consciousness with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” a song first stupid, then hilarious, then stupid, again hilarious and ultimately bizarrely subversive, a trojan horse to ready your brain for the music they have released since They are the funniest artists currently active, but their humour is covering disillusionment and a biting critique of all the mediocrity, racism and stupidity they see around them. They want to make jokes, talk about smoking weed and do critical analysis at the same time, and this is what makes them both so much fun and so much more truly old-school than those “conscious” groups that repeat empty platitudes about reclaiming hip-hop culture over tired beats. Simply put, they rap about whatever they want to rap about, and they want to rap about a lot, and all of it is edifying in someway or another. Did I mention that every song is catchy to the point of corroding ones brains with months and months of repetition?

A post-modern Native Tongues crew, Das Racist is the perfect punchline to the joke of a “post-racial,” post-Bush America, and they are your new favorite rap group.

If they aren’t, maybe you don’t like rap music.

Or words.

Or music.

See a doctor.

Oh, and both were released as FREE MIXTAPES, and can still be found thusly, although they are currently retailing for a whopping 50 cents each on bandcamp. Sheesh, for reals.


1. The National – High Violet [4AD]

- To listen to the National’s music is to travel alone in the dark, to walk from coffee house to apartment to familiar show-space to family home, tracing routes between locations rich with memories, summoning all the regrets and reconsiderations that accompany such activities. The National hit their stride in writing these soundtracks half a decade ago, so by now they are quite good at it.

2. The Walkmen – Lisbon [Fat Possum]

- I assume the name is a shortened version of Drunken 3AM Parade Through The Streets of Lisbon Upon Visiting The City for the First Time

3. Wolf People – Tidings / Steeple [Jagjaguwar]

- Both of these albums take metal and proto-metal of the 70’s and very late 1960’s, dialing back the elements that would become metal, leaving bare the deliciously uncool folk elements that lay at it’s heart (oh yes, there are flutes here,) yet still finding time for guitar pyrotechnics. Tidings, by far the superior of the two LP’s, presents an exceedingly crisp and precise version of that style, bringing in the best of non-Eno 70’s production sounds and some tape music elements as well.

4. Tera Melos – Patagonian Rats [Sargent House]

5. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor [XL / Meroc]

- A heartland rock garage punk take on British Sea Power’s brand of soaring guitar rock full of historical allusions. For those who would like the Hold Steady more if they were less literal, more ideological and regularly stretched out their songs to 7 minutes or more. This album is a whole lotta America.

6. Suckers – Wild Smile [French Kiss]

7. Fang Island – Fang Island [Sargent House]

- Chants and guitars, changs and guitars, chants and guitars, chants and guitars…and singing drummers?

8. Pomegranates – One of Us [Afternoon Records]

9. Spoon – Transference [Matador]

10. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

- Why are there so many Scottish bands that sound like this at the moment? Anyone know?

11. Tame Impala – InnerSpeaker [Modular]

12. Good Shoes – No Hope, No Future [Brille]

13. Dungen – Skit I Allt [Mexican Summer]

14. Wolf Parade – Expo 86 [Sub Pop]

- Cokemachineglow ruined the field of saying things about Wolf Parade.

15. Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern [Kill Rock Stars]

16. Cloud Control – Bliss Release [Ivy League / Liberation]

17. White Denim – Last Day of Summer [Self-release]

Generally Rock-Derived Pop

1. Field Music – Measure [Memphis Industries]

- Alas poor Measure, you were released in February and everyone forgot about you. Beatlesque and Wilson-like orchestrated 60’s pop/rock by way of early-aughts XTC and Super Furry Animals (Apple Venus, Rings Around the World, Phantom Power.) They’re going to sit inside a piano, and they’re going to listen to it grow.

2. French Quarter – It’s Not Just Kissing [Gilgongo Records / Life's Blood]

- Takes Stephen Steinbrink’s delicate existenial acoustic songs more in the direction of the icy, sparse funk of The Whitest Boy Alive and the weightless alt-country of Souled American. Dance music for pink slips, break-ups and funerals.

3. Foals – Total Life Forever [Sub Pop / Warner]

4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs [Merge]

- There are times that being entirely removed from a music can allow someone to see it more clearly – hence it took a friend’s mother to say that The Suburbs “sounds like ABBA on steroids,” and she is quite right. In the eponymous opening track, Win Butler sings about all the houses built in the 70s finally falling, and the ensuing album sounds as though the band is sifting through the rubble of the 1970’s musical architecture, building little a variety of different structures with what they find. The result owes as much or more to Tom Petty than David Byrne and Brian Eno, and is as much arena rock as it is chart-busting Swedish disco-pop. Half-Light II, in fact, sounds a bit like all four of those artists cutting a track in 1977 Berlin, where as Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is absolute ABBA.

WARNING: MELODRAMA. This being the Arcade Fire, I assume you were prepared for that.

5. Owen Pallett – Heartland

6. Mice Parade – What It Means To Be Left-Handed [FatCat Records]

- A boy and a girl sing along with acoustic afro-pop gestures, celtic-folk noodling, drizzled with Bossa Nova extract and served in a giant powl of post-rock guitars. If that sounds good to you, let’s hang out.

7. Junip – Fields [Mute]

- Do you like Jose Gonzalez? Do you like instruments that aren’t acoustic guitar? I have something to tell you about…

8. Miles Kurosky – The Desert of Shallow Effects [Shout! Factory]

- If you liked Beulah’s final album Yoko, you should like this album. If you don’t like Beulah as much as I do, you may not like this album as much as I do. (The first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club.) Think of it as The Suburbs with a more certain focus and a less grandiose scale. Science and a steady hand are what you need now.

9. Hiiragi Fukuda – My Turntable Is Slow [Sloow Tapes / Self-release]

- Syrupy, loopy, lollygagging psych-folk goodness.

10. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz [Asthmatic Kitty]

- Sufjan’s electronic output has never been quite good enough to stand on its own, and his other work can at times be simply too tame and pleasant, so, even though he may dip his hand into the same bag of tricks a few too many times here, it’s still refreshing to hear him blend the two strains of music into a somewhat cohesive whole. Furthermore, he sings himself commands in the third person, and then repeatedly insists that he’s “not fucking around,” when he clearly is. I enjoy that.

11. Working For A Nuclear Free City – Jojo Burger Tempest [Melodic]

- If the concept of “post-rock” had emerged in early-90’s Manchester…

12. Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill [4AD]

- As is tradition, each year has it’s own (non-Los Campesinos!) UK-based heart-on-sleeve, uber-direct guitar-pop album. Pete & the Pirates released Little Death in 2008, and last year We Were Promised Jetpacks belted their little hearts out. On a more acoustic tip is Beachcomber’s Windowsill, from Oxford’s Stornoway, who have a lot of nice songs about love and strolling through meadows or whatever. I don’t care too much…some candy is delicious. Everybody needs the song “Zorbing” in their life.

13. Clinic – Bubblegum [Domino]

- See O(h)rtlos

14. Efterklang – Magic Chairs [4AD]

- This is some symphonic-ass pop.

15. Clem Snide – The Meat of Life [429 Records]

- Eef Barzelay also sings about Sufjan Stevens.Just…just don’t listen to the last song. Rhymes like that should simply not be heard.

16. Avi Buffalo – Avi Buffalo [Sub Pop]

17. Connan Mockasin – Faking Jazz Together [Phantasy]

- Or: Through the Looking Glass.

18. Paleo – A View of the Sky [Partisan Records]

19. Race Horses – Goodbye Falkenberg [Fantastic Plastic]

20. Jumbling Towers – The Kanetown City Rips [Self-release]

21. Villagers – Becoming a Jackal [Domino]

22. Gigi – Maintentant [Tomlab]

- IndieBrill.

23. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Let It Sway [Polyvinyl]

24. Land of Talk – Cloak and Cipher [Saddle Creek]

25. Menomena – Mines [Barsuk]

26. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor [Frenchkiss]

27. Huw M – Os Mewn Swn [Self-release]

28. Here We Go Magic – Pigeons [Secretly Canadian]

29. These New Puritans – Hidden [Domino]

- While this superficially might not sound terribly difficult or strange, I consider it to be one of the oddest records on this list. It’s a sort of MIDI post-punk chamber grime. (Decipher THAT.) Militant, possibly meaningless chanting, bassoons, gun-shot beats, quoting the way M.I.A. says “Fire.” Then again, this is the band that asked us, over and over again “What’s your favorite number? What does it mean?” the last time they came around.

30. Shrag – Life! Death! Prizes! [Where It's At Is Where You Are]

31. Who Knew – Bits and Pieces of A Major Spectacle [Devilduck Records / 101]

- So, this is just an Iceland band who sounds exactly like Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary era, for the most part. Still, good job!

Guitars: Garage Rock, Punk, Post-Punk, Surf Rock, Indie Rock, etc.

1. Women – Public Strain [Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar]

2. Wild Nothing – Gemini [Captured Tracks]

3. Grass Widow – Past Time [Kill Rock Stars]

4. Play Guitar – Shields and Don’t Worry About Death [Noyes Records]

- O(h)rtlos

5. Surf City – Kudos [Fire]

6. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding [Merge]

7. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks [Matador]

8. The Strange Boys – Be Brave [In The Red]

9. Tamaryn – The Waves [Mexican Summer]

10. Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Rush to Relax [Goner Records]

11. The Limiñanas – The Limiñanas [Trouble in Mind]

12. Best Coast – Crazy For You [Mexican Summer]

13. The Art Museums – Rough Frame [Woodsist]

14. Aias – A La Piscina [Captured Tracks]

- Singin’ in Catalan!

14. Explode Into Colors – Quilts [Kill Rock Stars]

15. Vaselines – Sex with An X [Sub Pop]

16. Love Is All – Two Thousand & Ten Injuries [Polyvinyl]

17. Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils [Captured Tracks]

- 2010 Blog Rock Award for getting straight to the point.

Folk / Acoustic Pop

1. Jack Rose – Luck in the Valley [Thrill Jockey]

- Rose’s final work splits the difference between his older purview of Faheyesque Roma-raag-Americana and his recent forays into more standard Appalachian folk and Blues. Both jaunty and mystical, infinite and intimate. An artist who will be missed.

2. The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt [Dead Oceans]

- Kristian Matsson, his voice the eerie Dylan double that it is, works in a genre based entirely around writing and performing Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” again and again. Turns out there are many fruitful way to do so, and the Wild Hunt is a noteworthy improvement on 2008’s already very good Shallow Graves. Even piano balled “Kids on the Run,” reveals some beauty under its overwrought exterior if listened to often enough.

3. Mimicking Birds [Glacial Pace]

- In forming Ugly Casanova, Isaac Brock described a man who would show up at early Modest Mouse shows and eventually left a notebook full songs that would become Sharpen Your Teeth. While that songwriter is most likely an invented character, Nate Lacy of Mimicking Birds is a real person who still seems to come directly from the same invented world of Ugly Casanova.

4. Ólöf Arnalds – Innundir Skinni [One Little Indian]

This is the music one listens to the night after you’ve finished decorating Shugo Tokumaru’s acorn. Everyone in Iceland knows Bjork.

5. Mountain Man – Made the Harbour [Partisan]

5. Cheyenne Marie Mize – Before Lately [Thirty Tigers]

6. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig [Nonesuch]

7. Cotton Jones – Tall Hours in the Glowstream [Suicide Squeeze]

8. Ô Paon – Courses [Self-release]

She’s Quebecois, and releases her albums on K Records, but I still can’t but help think about medieval French folk music, the somewhat mystical kind that can be droning or stark. There isn’t a hurdy-gurdy here as far as I could tell, but it would fit in. Earthy stuff.

9. Corpus Callosum – Corpus Callosum [Self-release]

10. Sea of Bees – Songs for the Ravens [Crossbill]

11. Pauline En La Playa – Fisica Del Equipaje [Siesta]

12. Harlan T. Bobo – Sucker [Goner Records]

13. Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang – The Wonder Show of the World [Drag City]

14. Laura Gibson and Ethan Rose – Bridge Carols [Holocene Music]

15. Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring [Kill Rock Stars]

16. Micah P. Hinson – Micah P. Hinson and the ‘Pioneer Saboteurs’ [Full Time Hobby]

17. Dark Dark Dark – Wild Go [Supply and Demand]

18. My Bubba & Mi – How it’s done in Italy []

19. Bronze Horse – Bronze Horse [Oakhill Records]

20. Nomen Novum – Go Primal [Self-release]

21. Peter Morén – I Sparen Av Taren [Morén Pop]

22. Phil Selway – Familial [Bella Union]

23. Kurt Weisman – Orange [Autumn Records]

24. Kath Bloom – Thin Thin Line [Caldo Verde Records]

Electrowashed Pop

1. Beach House – Teen Dream [Sub Pop]

2. Avey Tare – Down There [Paw Tracks]

3. Silje Nes – Opticks [FatCat]

4. Islaja – Keraaminen Paa [Fonal]

5. White Hinterland – Kairos [Dead Oceans]

6. Laetitia Sadier – The Trip [Drag City]

7. Lali Puna – Our Inventions [Morr Music]

8. Tunng – …And Then We Saw Land [Thrill Jockey]

- Every day I’m hustlin’ / Every day I’m hustlin’ / Every day I’m hustlin’

9. Fredrik – Trilogi [Kora]

- Tunng for night-time; what Under Byen should have turned into by now. It was a good year for Malmö.

10. How To Dress Well – Love Remains [Lefse]

11. Serafina Steer – Change is Good Change is Good [Static Caravan]

12. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Autumn, Again [Self-release]

13. Benoit Pioulard – Lasted [Kranky]

14. Glasser – Ring [True Panther]

15. Anni Rossi – Heavy Meadow [4AD]

16. Pop Winds – The Turquoise [Artbutus]

17. School of Seven Bells – Disconnect from Desire [Vagrant]

18. Eluvium – Similes [Temporary Residence]

Electro-Pop / Synth-Pop / Synth-Funk / Chillwave / Glo-fi

1. Hot Chip – One Life Stand [EMI / Parlophone]

2. Delorean – Subiza [True Panther]

3. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening [DFA]

- Dance Yrself Clean is one of the three best LCD Soundsystem songs, with that huge, huge, hugely inevitable drop, and top-form drunken sing-along lyrics. It’s tough to lead with that, and the rest of the album never quite catches up, but as long as you don’t find James Murphy’s persona grating (I don’t have a problem with him) there’s little denying the man knows how to engineer some sweet-sounding nouveau punk-disco. Hey, I think “You Wanted a Hit” is somewhat clever!

4. Grimes – Halifaxa [Artbutus]

5. Matthew Dear – Black City [Ghostly International]

6. ceo – White Magic [Sincerely Yours]

7. Kisses – The Heart of the Nightlife [Self-release]

8. Darkstar – North [Hyperdub]

9. Toro y Moi – Causers of This [Carpark]

10. To My Boy – The Habitable Zone [Von Braun Records]

11. Airliner – None [Self-release]

12. Twin Shadow – Forget [Terrible Records]

13. Royksopp – Senior [MB3 Records]

14. Blackbird Blackbird – Summer Heart [Self-release]

15. Kele – The Boxer [Witchita]

16. Mark Van Hoen – Where Is The Truth [City Centre Offices]

17. Rudi Zygadlo – Great Western Layman [Planet Mu]

Hip-Hop / Rap

1. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach [EMI]

- What is there to say about Damon Albarn’s project? He puts De La Soul on the charts a decade after anyone could have expected that to happen, and then brings them together with my man Gruff Rhys. This album opens with Snoop Dogg, mostly because it can. Lou Reed drops in to be vaguely silly! Mos Def shows up, as he is wont to do for these sorts of parties. This is, after all, an album from the man who keeps Tony Allen on retainer just in case he has an idea for a whimsical side-project. This qualifies as a hip-hop album mainly because hip-hop is at this moment the best space in which to throw things at each other for the fun of it…and because you’re a hugely successful musician.

2. Sleigh Bells – Treats [Mom + Pop / NEET]

Rap noise-pop from people born in the the imagined 80’s American theorized by The Go! Team’s Thunder Lightning Strike.

3. Black Milk – Album of the Year [Decon]

4. Tobacco – Maniac Meat [anticon.]

- Face-melting is a phrase bandied about to describe anything deformatively (I’m MAKING it a word) loud; Tobacco shows that to be insufficiently specific. This is what a face melting really sounds like.

5. Def Sound – Def Sound IS Alive [Self-release]

6. Baloji – Kinshasha Succursale [Kraked]

7. Teebs – Ardour [Brainfeeder]

8. Spoek Mathambo – Mishini Wam [BBE]

9. Shad – TSOL [Black Box Recodings]

10. Strong Arm Steady – In Search of Stoney Jackson [Stones Throw]

11. Black Sheep – From The Black Pool of Genius [Audible Treats / Bum Rush]

12. M.I.A. – MAYA [XL / Interscope]

- Well of course M.I.A. is full of shit…did reviewers not realize that when they were busy praising her first two albums? I hardly think that not being entirely fake was ever the point.

13. The Roots – How I Got Over [Def Jam]

- Conscious Yacht-hop from the most professional band around. They really know how to rock a fresh Joanna Newsom sample, I will give them that.

14. Uochi Toki – Cuore Amore Errore Disintegrazione [Koch]

- Difficulty, angry, avant, Italian.

15. Serengeti & Polyphonic – Bells and a Floating World [anticon.]

16. Gonjasufi – A Sufi and A Killer [Warp]

17. Shigeto – Full Circle [Ghostly International]

18. Kidz in the Hall – Land of Make Believe [Duck Down]

19. TOKiMONSTA – Midnight Menu [Art Union / Listen Up]

20. Suzi Analogue – NNXTAPE [Self-release]

Funk / Soul

1. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid [Bad Boy]

- I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy anything with a Georgie Fruit appearance this year.

2. Bonobo – Black Sands [Ninja Tune]

3. Teengirl Fantasy – 7AM [Merok / True Panther]

4. Velella Velella – Atlantis Massif [Self-release]

5. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way [Daptone]

6. Rafter – Animal Feelings [Asthmatic Kitty]

7. Aloe Blacc – Good Things [Stones Throw]

8. !!! – Strange Weather, Isn’t It? [Warp]

9. CeeLo Green – The Lady Killer [Elektra / Asylum]

10. Ratatat – LP4 [XL]

Global / Globalist

1. Sun City Girls – Funeral Mariachi [Abduction]

- A posthumous release for the group and member Charles Gocher; they now and have always put any other application of the phrase “freak folk” to utter shame.

2. Rita Indiana Y Los Misterios – El Juidero [Premium Latin Music]

- Punk Merengue? Cumbiawave?

3. Clorofila – Collective Presents: Corridos Urbanos [Nacional]

- The Nortec sound that has been brewing in Tijuana and its surrounds for at least the last decade has a bit in common with cumbia digital or nueva cumbia found in Argentina and Mexico; a lot of dubby accordions and horns grafted to danceable rhythms and big drum sounds. The Nortec Collective’s sense of humour (“Naked Ladies”) is so far a lot better, and their songwriting chops can be quite impressive. I’m tempted to call it hella guap.

4. Omar Souleyman – Jazeera Nights: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria [Sublime Frequencies]

- Technically a compilation, but whenever Sublime Frequencies puts out Omar Souleyman tracks, it’s the first time they’ve been released in the United States, and the first time I’ve heard them. It didn’t catch me quite as strongly as the label’s two previous releases of his work, but he’s still the smooth mack-daddy king of crazy-ass Dabke styles.

5. Hayvanlar Alemi – Guarana Superpower [Sublime Frequencies]

- Anatolian surf-rock

6. Konono No. 1 – Asssume Crash Position [Crammed Discs]

7. Las Balkanieras – Las Balkanieras [Germaica]

- This album can get pretty goofy, but in a fun, early 90’s way. These three women have a Balkan-New Jack Swing-Dancehall style. M.I.A. recast as TLC or Salt-n-Pepa.

8. Gogol Bordello – Trans-Continental Hustle [Columbia]

9. Burkina Electric – Paspanga [Cantaloupe Music]

Post-Rock / Post-Something / Slowcore / Kosmisch

1. PVT – Church With No Magic [Warp]

2. Nice Nice – Extra Wow [Warp]

3. The Books – The Way Out [Temporary Residence]

4. The Octopus Project – Hexadecagon [Peek-A-Boo Industries]

- The Octopus Project, they of electrical plug masks and theremins, haven’t exactly changed their formula since the early aughts. They’ve been releasing very listenable, reasonably complex, somewhat electronic, somewhat post-rock flavoured albums every few years in that time, and in the process, they’ve quietly snuck into serious Terry Riley territory, Ten-minute album centerpiece “Circling” sounds like it’s spelled, and it is gorgeous and massive. The band can now reach amazing volumes without ever having to raise its voice.

5. Julian Lynch – Mare [Olde English Spelling Bee]

6. Rhys Chatham – The Bern Project [Hinterzimmer]

- Along with Glenn Branca, the biggest figure in composing works for overwhelming numbers of guitars comes to visit his child, post-rock, smack it around a bit.

7. Stereolab – Not Music [Duophonic UHF]

8. Dosh – Tommy [anticon.]

9. Sam Prekop – Old Punch Card [Thrill Jockey]

10. Forest Swords – Dagger Paths [Olde English Spelling Bee]

11. Kyst – Cotton Touch [Gingerbread Records]

- Less post-rock, more rock-as-afterthought. Less singing with guitars, more singing to guitars.

12. Holy Fuck – Latin [Young TurksI]

13. Eris – Feast of the Appetites of Eris [Domino Sound]

- New Orleans brass group that sounds like a pack of wolves scouring Dark Ages Europe. RIYL Jeff Magnum’s Bulgarian field recordings, Orfeu Negro

14. Fond of Tigers – Continent & Western [Drip Audio]

- Fond of Tigers have managed to never be on the Arts & Crafts record label, but they play the kind of music that would be released on that label, likely as someone’s side project. Horns and strings, everything on a large scale, but in a way that says “everything going to be fine!” instead of “everything is falling down.”

15. Nels Cline Singers – Initiate [Cryptogramophone]

Electronic / Dance – Dubstep, Future Garage, House, Techno, etc.

1. Matthew Herbert – One Club [Accidental]

2. Shed – The Traveler [Ostgut Ton]

3. Jatoma – Jatoma [Kompakt[

4. Ikonika – Contact, Want, Love, Have [Hyperdub]

5. Efedmin – Chicago [Dial]

6. Superpitcher – Kilimanjaro [Kompakt]

7. Matt Shadetek – Flowers [Dutty Artz]

- Thoughtful and amped, thoughtful and amped, thoughtful and amped…and violent?

8. Oriol – Night & Day [Planet Mu]

9. Magda – From The Fallen Page [M_nus]

10. Copy – Hard Dream [Audio Dregs]

11. Chemical Brothers – Further [Astralwerks]

- The Brothers Chem do a retro-futuristic update that sounds like Neu punching French House in the head. Repeatedly! That’s when they’re not playing around in “oh yeah, we made a song with Noel Gallagher” mode, with mixed results.

12. Elektro Guzzi – Elektro Guzzi [Macro]

- Live band minimal techno means creepy trance jazz.

13. iTAL tEK – Midnight Colour [Planet Mu]

Shit Robot – From the Cradle to the Rave

- Remember when you thought that retro-futuristic Irish house records should have cool, leering anti-modern screeds from Ian Svenonious? That was a weird dream, wasn’t it? OR WAS IT

14. Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise [Rough Trade]

“Sonic House.” I still don’t know what that means. Noah Lennox floats around.

15. A Guy Called Gerald – Tronic Jazz: The Berlin Sessions [Laboratory Instinct]

16. Thomas Fehlmann – Gute Luft [Kompakt]

17. Ceephax Acid Crew – United Acid Emirates [Planet Mu]

Space Disco – Yes, Separately.

1. Ichisan & Navoka – Yugo Tempo [Nang Records]

- Agitfunk?

2. diskJokke – En Fin Tid [Smalltown Supersound]

3. Acid Washed – Acid Washed [Record Makers]

4. Prins Thomas – Prins Thomas [Full Pupp]

Experimental Electronic / Home Listening / Glitch / Breakcore

1. Ous Mal – Noujuva halava [Preservation]

2. Silver Bullets – Citta Invisibili [Stunned]

3. Bramblings – Nudist Collection [Self-release]

4. Kemialliset Ystavat – Ullakkopalo

5. Igorrr – Nostril [Ad Noiseam]

- O(h)rtlos

6. Pye Corner Audio Transcription Services – Black Mill Tapes, Vol. 1 [Self-release]

7. The Knife, Mt. Sims & Planningtorock – Tomorrow, In A Year [Mute]

8. Frank Bretschneider – EXP [Raster-Norton]


1. Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here? [Editions Mego]

- Or: Music for Spaceports. An ambient album you can rock out to? A rock album you can fall asleep to?

2. Phonophani – Kreken [Rune Grammofon]

3. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal [Editions Mego]

4. Mark McGuire – Living With Yourself (+ Invisible World, Tidings, Amethyst Waves, Vacation Days) [Mostly Editions Mego]

5. Luis Nanook – Place [Flyrec]

6. Alva Noto – For 2 [Line]

7. Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – Bird, Lake, Objects [Faitiche]

8. Kid606 – Songs About Fucking Steve Albini [Important]

Jazz & Classical

1. Zs – New Slaves [The Social Registry]

- O(h)rtlos

2. Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit [Ninja Tune]

3. Young Jazz Rebels – Slave Riot [Stones Throw]

4. Originalljudet – Originalljudet [Kalligrammofon]

5. Mulatu Astatke – Mulatu Steps Ahead [Strut]

- For being a new Mulatu Astatke album, it’s not exceptional. For being an album, it is exceptional, because it’s newly recorded master from the king of Ethiopian funk, an icon from a great moment in musical history from a country with a fascinating musical culture.

6. Wim Mertens – Zee Versus Zed [Usura]

7. Supersilent – 10

- This is the sound of zero-point energy, the product of particles randomly phasing in and out of existence in a vacuum.

8. Brooklyn Rider – Dominant Curve [In A Circle]

Historical Disco Opera

1. David Byrne & Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love [Nonesuch]


1. Laurie Anderson – Homeland [Nonesuch]

2. Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here [XL Recordings]

Compilations & Reissues

1. Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers [Crammed Discs]

- Sometimes I think record labels are stalking me. How else could Crammed Discs decide to release an compilation that features “indie” artists like Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Micachu, Deerhoof, Megafaun and others creating songs inspired by, remixing or sampling Congolese electrified-mbira trance music that has been released on Crammed, by Konono No. 1 and others of their ilk. That’s just an absurd fantasy tailored precisely to my musical tastes! COME ON!

2. Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El Fna [Sublime Frequencies]

- Moroccan street festival music. If the cherubim guarding the Garden of Eden were accompanied flaming guitars in place of flaming swords, they would be used to play music like this.

3. Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to A Disco Beat [Combay Connection]

Simply put, you need to hear this album. Indian film composer orders some synthesizers and drum machines, programs some raga progressions, and ends up independently inventing acid house before the genre arises in Chicago. Again, keep in mind, this is raga acid house. Simply amazing.

4. Palenque Palenque: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91 [Soundway]

5. Omar Khorshid – Guitar El Chark [Sublime Frequencies]

- Khorshid is a kick-ass Egyptian guitarist, but it’s also worth noting that his work also features some of the best sci-fi vintage synth lines around.

6. HEALTH – DISCO2 [City Slang / Lovepump United]

7. Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 1 [Stones Throw]

- While I obviously didn’t live in Europe in the Cold War, this is what I imagine being caught between the Soviet Union and the United States felt like.

8. Casiokids – Topp Stemning Pa Lokal Bar [Universal]

- A singles and remixes collection from Casiokids. Several of these songs have become some of my favorite electro-pop singles of all time: if you haven’t heard “Finn Bikkjen!” and “En Vil Hest,” you really, really need to.

9. Cumbia Beat Vol. 1 [Vampisoul]

10. Music from Saharan Cellphones, Volumes 1 and 2 [Mississippi Records]

- As much a report on a techno-anthropological phenomenon as a compilation, these are quite literally songs found in storage on cell phones in the arid desert regions of Western and Northwestern Africa, where cellular devices are often used for file sharing and storage more often than they are used for voice calls. Most of these tracks are from Niger and Mali, with some coming in from Morocco and the Ivory Coast. There’s a range in genre and quite a few interesting modern fusions, from the so-called “desert blues” with drum machine backing to Malian pop that seems to hold a distinct kuduro influence.

12. The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia In 1970s Nigeria [Soundway]

13. Excavated Shellac [Parlotone]

- Are you ready for 78 RPM?

14. Angola Soundtrack – Special Sounds From Luanda 1965-1978 [Analog Africa]

15. Saigon Rock & Roll: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974 [Sublime Frequencies]

- As the name suggests, these are all recordings in American-supported/occupied Saigon. Remnants of an unsustainable bubble…how many of these people were both alive and in Vietnam by the end of 1975?

16. Potomac Shivers – Oh Eight To Oh Ten [Self-release]

- When seen live, they struck me as delightfully Beulah-like. These recordings are more in the vein of Bradford Cox’s looping lo-fi (LO-FI) bedroom pop, with Appalachain echos. Dope.

17. Nigeria Special vol. 2 Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-76 [Soundway]

18. Jahtarian Dubbers, Vol. 2 [Jahtari]

- Largely European netlabel dedicated to modern digital dub. The soundtrack to the movie Tron, if Lee Perry played Jeff Bridges’ role. Or Tron 2, if Lee Perry played Jeff Bridges’ role. Insert The Scientist joke here.

19. Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa [Honest Jon’s]

- I guess the closest thing I can compare Shangaan Electro (also called Tonga Disco) to is the juke/footwork genre originating in Chicago. It’s usually up around 160 BPM, it’s a largely cheesily-produced, repetitive dance form, and while it can be somewhat abrasive, it’s frenetic insanity is alluring. I’m more sold on tsonga than footwork, though. It’s also been around for decades.

20. Ethnic Minority Music Of Northwest Xinjiang, China [Sublime Frequencies]

- The relentless, galloping strings of Central Asian music are here rendered in absoring patterns, recorded excellently. You might be wondering if I just like everything Sublime Frequencies puts out; the answer is yes.

21. P.E. Hewitt Jazz Ensemble – Winter Winds [Now Again]

22. Luk Thung! The Roots of Thai Pop [Zundrangma]

Dara Puspita (1966-1968) [Sublime Frequencies]

- Remastered versions of songs from Sukarno-era Indonesia’s finest (probably) all-girl garage-rock group.

23. Mount Eerie – Song Islands Vol. 2 [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

- Looks, it’s Phil Elverum. Some of this has been released before. Some not. Some of it is okay. Some of it is excellent. Thanks, Anacortes?

24. Lagos Disco Inferno [Academy LP’s]

25. The Desperate Bicycles – Singles [Nonprofit]

- 70’s post-punk-pop. Mmmhmm.

EP’s / Singles (Does it make sense to separate these? Not really!)

Keepaway – Baby Style & Kompetitor

Dirty Projectors & Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca

- I hope that every Dirty Projector release from here on in has “Orca” in the title.

Breton – Sharing Notes & Counter Balance

The War On Drugs – Future Weather

Javelin & 2

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – All In Two Sixty Dancehalls

James Blake – CMYK / Klavierwerke / The Bells Sketch / Limit to Your Love

Twin Sister – Colour Your Life

Tanlines – Settings

Highlife – Best Bless

The Tallest Man on Earth – Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird

Sharon Van Etten – Epic

Edan – Echo Party

Mothlight – Chrysalis

Teki Latex – Answers / Dinosaurs With Guns

El Remolon – Pangeatico

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Sketches

Future Islands – Post Office Wave Chapel

Wizards – Spinning Flowers

Girls – Broken Dreams Club

Para One – Kiwi/Toadstool

Duck Sauce – Barbra Streisand

Dreams – Simple Steps

Black Books – An Introduction To…

Debruit – Spatio-Temporel & Heart Beats For Haiti

Dimlite – Prismic Tops & My Human Wears Acedia Shreds

Ayobaness EP

Tortoise – Why Waste Time?

The Clientele – Minotaur

Games – That We Can Play

Brothertiger – Vision Tunnels

Dozens – Dozens

Double Dagger – Masks

Kupa – Pairat EP

Panda Bear – Tomboy / Last Night At The Jetty

Bambounou – Animism

- He just listens to the drums, and nods his head.


Hypno – Over the Top

Janka Nabay – Babu King

No Monster Club – Tropical Decibels Volume Two

British Sea Power – Zeus

Koala – Xibalba

Megafaun – Heretofore

Pepepiano – Babes

Headless Horseman – 5songs

DJ Zinc – Wile Out

The Suicide of Western Culture – The Suicide of Western Culture

Edu K – Flutesnoot

Harry Benson – Kudzu EP

SBTRKT – 2020

Wentworth Kersey – ((O))

The Samps – The Samps

Bert on Beats – Suomo

Padang Food Tigers – Born Music

unouomedude – Marsh

Malente & Dex – Habibi

James Pants – New Tropical

Squire of Gothos – Squire Bathing

Forro in the Dark – Perro Loco (Remixes)

Evenings – North Dorm

Claps – New Science

I Can Lock All My Doors

19 Nov

I’ve never watched the series Doctor Who. Tackling decades and decades of past production would be daunting, and I’ve read that the series possesses years’ worth of material which are simply goofy and meandering. Still, I found this essay, part of the September-long 50 Posts About Cyborgs series to be very thought-provoking.

In case you don’t care to read it yourself, here’s as quick a summary as I can make of it: in the Doctor Who mythology, the Daleks, silly-looking cyborgs who are perennially on the verge of conquering the universe, are the descendants of an extremely Nazi-like culture living on a planet embraced by a never-ending war which has proved so damaging to the environment and civilization that life has been reduced to small bands of scavenging soldiers and, hidden away in bunkers, lunatic commanders with grandiose conceptions of final victory. Their leading scientist, already disfigured by the radiation and toxic chemicals blanketing the planet, has a plan for both victory and the survival of the (master) race – genetically modified people will live inside and as a part of the Daleks, which will be mobile, armed bunkers for each individuals, who will go on to be psychotic, child-like robo-Nazis rampaging across the universe, driven completely insane by their permanent bunker mentality.

Well alright.

There is, actually, a reason for me to mention this. In traveling across the country, I passed through a number of areas run down urban and semi-urban areas where all the cars looked better maintained than the homes and stores, and none of the drivers appeared the least bit interested in stopping (I see you, Calumet City.) I found myself thinking that contemporary car culture has a lot of similarities to this bunker mentality. The driver, ensconced in the car, is avoiding an unpleasant environment, both ecologically degraded and post-industrially economically degraded. As in the case of the Daleks, the very tool that is used to avoid the outside world is helping to create the conditions being escaped. The ancestors of the Daleks create new weapons of war to protect themselves from what their previous weapons of war have done to their planet; a transportation network dependent on automobiles is not only a source of pollution, it can precludes having healthy, sustainable urban cores. The proto-Daleks consider themselves a master race; a certain amount of the attraction of cars can be attributed to the ability to separate one’s self from all those who can’t afford their own personal, mobile bunker. At the same time they concerned themselves with purity, the proto-Daleks had to become horrible mutants to in order to form the organic part of the cyborg Daleks. People on Earth, meanwhile, in the attempt to minimize contact with fellow commuters and fellow citizens, damage their health through the stress of traffic and the lack of exercise a car-bound lifestyle often leads to. The popularity of SUV’s, while having thankfully subsided somewhat, could still certainly be seen as a partial militarization of the mobile bunker.

Just a thought. I do not, as of yet, have anywhere further to go with the parallel.

In fact, perhaps I just wanted an excuse to link to Doctorin’ the Tardis, another entry in the KLF‘s late-80s and early-90s quest to turn the cold mechanistic process of hit-making toward bizarre ends.

[Echo stars in Dr. Whenceforth, coming soon as a mid-season replacement on SyFy.]


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