10: ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER
If 2009 was the year that Oneohtrix Point Never was became an underground sensation, 2010 saw him make a serious incursion into the mainstream. OK, “mainstream” is overstating it, but there’s no doubting OPN’s star status in our strange little world. Returnal begins with five minutes of heavily distorted noise, perhaps a sardonic nod to his finding himself on Editions Mego (a label hitherto synonymous with vicious experimental electronics), and definitely an effective palate-cleanser, clearing space for the (inner) space odyssey that’s about to commence.
‘Describing Bodies’ picks up where OPN’s cult Russian Mind and Zones Without People left off, pure cosmic drift. ‘Stress Waves’ is more of a bridge, pointing to previously unexplored territory with scuffed yet stately synth sequences that combine interplanetary wonder with quotidian sadness. Perhaps it’s foolish to put too much stock in a name, but the title of this album suggests departure from the astral plain and heading back down to earth with a bump. Certainly as the album progresses, the atmospherics become less expansive and more claustrophobic, earthy, inward-looking.
The title track is the album’s keystone, marking OPN’s most pop moment to date (no surprise that Antony Hegarty lent his vocals the 7″ version) whilst also recalling the late Peter Christopherson’s digital manipulations as Threshold HouseBoys Choir. ‘Preyouandi’ comes across as an explicit homage to Jon Hassell’s Possible Musics and Earthquake Island - right down to the shambling, water-logged percussion and clipped, insect-like synth patterns. Again, a rejection of the cosmic in favour of the earthly is implied; ‘Preyouandi’ is more Heart of Darkness than Solaris, or at least suggests that the two might be more similar than first meets the eye.
We’ll admit that there have been moments over the past year when we’ve wondered whether Oneohtrix Point Never might just be a convenient and arbitrarily assigned poster boy for the hyperactive global synth scene, and that his music is as popular as it is because it provides a nice unobtrusive soundtrack to internet surfing, babysitting, college assignments. In short, we thought it was ambient. The riveting, often terrifying Returnal makes us ashamed for thinking any such thing.
09: ALTERED NATIVES
TENEMENT YARD VOL.1
‘It’s Just a Crush’
The spry garage-techno path which Horsepower Productions started upon but eventually abandoned as dubstep took shape is but one of several aborted or forgotten UK soundsystem narratives that Altered Natives’ Tenement Yard seems to pick up, dust down and carry forward across its zippy duration. It marks an obvious continuation of the broken beat tradition, a thread running from Nu Era and Maddslinky through to more recent fare from A Made Up Sound, Martyn and the ragged syncopations of UK funky, with an added dose of ‘ardkore pirate character.
‘Body Gal’ and ‘What Life Once Was’ recall both Roska’s ‘Elevated Levels’ and the frost-bitten Berlinism of a Radio Slave or a Shed, but Natives (real name Danny Yorke) takes the drum choppage to a level of dirt and disorientation that none of those esteemed producers would be willing or able to countenance. That’s the thing with Altered Natives – he’s not content to settle for one beat pattern and bleed it dry over the course of a track, as pretty much every other artist on the planet is. There are at least three distinct drum parts running through each of his productions, and they’re made to collide and collude so tightly that the resulting tracks can be tracky, trancey, breaksy, jacking and rampantly bruk all at the same time. If there were any club cuts released this year as righteous as ‘Splintered’ and ‘It’s Just A Crush’, we haven’t heard ‘em.
In what’s been a fairly dreary, frigid year for house/techno albums, Tenement Yard came from way, way underground to save the show. Rejecting wholesale the sweet-toothed synthesizer sounds that have become such a fixture of the Hyperdub era, it marks a wonderful return to the real raw, and not at the loss of depth or sophistication. As hectic, unpredictable and excessive as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, but far more crisply edited, Tenement Yard deserves to find an audience outside of the UK underground that has already declared it a masterpiece.
DOES IT LOOK LIKE I’M HERE?
‘Now You See Me’
Some long-time fans complained about the polish of Does It Look Like I’m Here, the prolific Emeralds’ first album for Editions Mego, but the rest of us saw that polish for what it was: progress. The sheer high-res vividness of this record might be anathema to the noise fans who’ve nurtured the band for most of their career, but it does accentuate the incredible complexity of the music, whilst making it more accessible.
Opener ‘Candy Shoppe’ is every bit as mouth-watering as its name suggests, with John Elliot and Steve Hauschildt’s lapping synth arpeggios recalling Steve Reich and Philip Glass as much as any kosmische tinker, and Mark McGuire’s rising guitar lead risking and ultimately overriding 90s post-rock connotations in its unabashed quest to tug the heart-strings. ‘Double Helix’ is absolutely devastating – the lilt on McGuire’s playing here somewhere between Manuel Goettsching and witchy British folk – while ‘Goes By’ and ‘Access Granted’ come over like a space-age Vini Reilly. Emeralds have achieved that alchemical point that most bands only dream of, where at key moments the contributions of each member are inseparable, where synths, guitars and field recordings become indistinguishable; indeed, you soon lose track not only of who’s playing what, but what time it is, where you are, who you are. That’s psychedelia.
It’s not all plain sailing though: the title track, no doubt devastating when rendered live, comes across as proggy stodge on record, and ‘Summerdata’ and ‘Science Center’, though beautifully rendered, fail to distinguish themselves compositionally from the plethora of wiggy synth music flooding our lives right now. But the album’s closing sequence assures this record its modern classic status. ‘It Doesn’t Arrive’ is like dub-techno shorn of its bass and cast out into the woods, and ‘Now You See Me’ sees McGuire unleash his prettiest, most plangent ever riff as Hauschilt and Elliot coax liquid rainbows from their machines. Unbearable bliss.
THANK ME LATER
(YOUNG MONEY / UNIVERSAL)
‘Shut It Down’ (feat. The-Dream)
If 2010 had one theme, it was, as Kanye West once put it, to drive slow. US hip-hop, R’n'B and indie alike decided this was the year to pay tribute to Houston’s chopped and screwed legacy, but few did it as subtly and satisfyingly as Drake. Thank Me Later has its thrilling high-points – there were few musical moments as stirring this year as the intro to ‘Over’, for example – but mostly, listening to this long-awaited debut album was like wading through a swamp of cocaine-numbed confusion (“bout to roll me up a blunt with my list of regrets”, anyone?).
‘Cece’s Interlude’ and ‘The Resistance’ are contradictions murmured while slipping in and out of a lucid dream, while the record’s seven minute centrepiece, ‘Shut It Down’, is one of the greatest slow jams that The-Dream’s ever been involved in. For the song’s epilogue, Drake mutters a complete reversal of its first verse, using the same lines he’d previously used to prep-talk the song’s subject to try and force her into bed. He tortures himself for his indecision throughout this record, and that’s what makes Drake such a perfect figurehead for modern day hip-hop, and Thank Me Later the natural successor to – and, we’d argue, step up from – 808s and Heartbreak.
A criticism that gets made of Salem is that they haven’t changed their sound since their first 7″. This seems to miss the point. What’s great about this group is that from early in their careers, they pinpointed a sound that they wanted to strive toward that hadn’t really been done before – namely, an unholy blend of horror synths, drum machines, wraithlike vocals and hip-hop – and set about honing it, without even half an eye on the musical movements going on around them.
King Night is the most powerful example of the Salem sound to date, drenched in static and distortion, with the band’s most beautiful moments (‘Traxx’, and the revamped version of early single ‘Redlights’) juxtaposed against some of their sparsest, most desolate lows (‘Trapdoor’, ‘Tair’). If this had come out two years ago there’d be nothing else like it; the fact that that’s not the case now is testament to just how influential Salem have been.
When FACT interviewed Darkstar, then a duo, last year, it served to emphasise their image as an act confused about their own position in the musical landscape. Here were two Northerners living in London, with a simultaneous taste for guitar bands, hip-hop and garage struggling to work out how to absorb all of these influences into their own output. Meanwhile, their confessed love for computers was seemingly contradicted by a fear of losing the human elements to their music. In that interview they stated that their debut album would be released in early 2010 and hinted that it may be quite a departure from earlier singles.
To say that North is a departure is an understatement; it’s more of a total reinvention. At some point last winter what existed of the original record was semi-abandoned, Darkstar ceased being a production duo and – by adding a full-time vocalist, James Buttery – became a fully fledged band; dance music made way for melancholy, experimental synth-pop. In the ten months since their debut was originally due the group had completely reimagined themselves, and in the process, produced a fragile, engaging and emotionally driven full-length; one borne from the computerized claustrophobia of the modern era, humbly offering an incredibly satisfying – if temporary – escape.
04: TEENGIRL FANTASY
‘Dancing in Slow Motion’
Is it a sign of the times that some of the best house music of the year came from two college kids in Ohio with basic production equipment? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; Teengirl Fantasy doubtless don’t give a fuck. Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss had always professed their love for Chez Damier, but it’s the nonchalance for house history – and, most vitally, the distance they keep from it – that makes their music special. On their debut album, 7AM, they make house music that’s completely free of pressure, standards and stigma; house music that melts down in front of your eyes, that’s as rough as any J Dilla record, and full of gloriously pop-rooted vocal samples.
In terms of the actual sounds used on this album, there’s comparisons to be made between Teengirl Fantasy and Animal Collective, but whereas 90% of Animal Collective’s career has seen them use these earthy tones to create something washed out and impenetrable (bar, obviously, during their later, more human moments such as ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’), Teengirl Fantasy use them to create a world that’s inviting, human, and crucially, funky. ‘In the Rain’, for instance, pairs them with bouncy basslines and tropical drums, while ‘Koi Pond’ drowns them in drums more akin to a Paul Ritch or Plastikman record, and ‘Further the Feeling’ fits them into a playful melody that skips around you ‘til you’re dizzy.
There are two obvious stand-outs on 7AM, and they’re both among the tracks of the year – the incredible ‘Cheaters’, and ‘Dancing in Slow Motion’, a Polaroid-shot slow jam full of tumbling 808s, gongs and finger clicks; Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess featuring with one of the vocal performances of the year. But perhaps what’s most impressive about 7AM is how much better these tracks sound in the context of the album; a perfectly arranged nine-track LP that makes complete sense as a whole, and arrives completely free of self-consciousness – a rare occurrence in an age where house music has a genuine problem simply letting go.
Following his perfectly formed debut Hazyville was always going to be a challenge for Darren Cunningham, but he acquitted himself with aplomb on Splazsh, enriching and enlarging his sound without compromising on the torrid weirdness that makes him so valuable.
The London-based producer displays here, more than ever before, an uncanny ability to craft grooves at once liquid and granular, fully justifying the Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir comparisons regularly levelled at him. Deep house, grime, hip-hop, boogie-funk, minimal wave and electro influences exert themselves across the LP’s hypnotic duration, and Cunningham responds to each one in turn wittily and idiosyncratically, subtly subordinating them to his unique and clammy vision.
Throughout Splazsh it feels like we’re listening to an artist for whom techno is an inspiration, but not something that he wishes to imitate; indeed, techno is to Splazsh what garage was to Burial’s debut LP; ever-present, a foundation even, but somehow also a ghost, an impression, something only half-perceived – through a fug of blunted memory, YouTube overload and serotonin depletion. Crucially, though, there’s a flamboyance, and playfulness, to proceedings; it’s not all rain-grey melancholy, nightbus paranoia and makeshift Pot Noodle ashtrays. There’s life and colour everwhere: see the squashed funky house of ‘Always Human’, the sinewy Metroplexisms of ‘Let’s Fly’ or the overloaded dubstep-not-dubstep of ‘Wrong Potion’. Rather than being a cold-blooded enactment of “techno”, one of those wet-ink facsimiles churned out by Motor City Drum Ensemble or whoever, Splazsh is a beautiful, highly personal misinterpretation, or mishearing, of its tropes. Hauntological house, anyone? Or simply the first truly British-sounding techno album of the 21st century?
02: KANYE WEST
MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY
(ROC NATION / DEF JAM)
‘Runaway’ (feat. Pusha T)
What more can be said about Kanye West’s magnum opus that hasn’t been said to date? And we know, calling something a magnum opus is the biggest cliche in music writing, but if ever an album deserved it, it’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The lead-up to the album involved outbursts on chat shows and Twitter, leaked nude pictures, and surprise performances at Facebook’s office and over the tannoy on a Delta Airlines flight. It didn’t do videos; instead, we had a thirty minute promotional film built around ‘Runaway’ and a “moving portrait” for ‘Power’. It was the biggest album of the year before it even came out.
And against all odds, maybe even miraculously, the music lived up to the hype. Each song is a grand narrative in itself, with subplots, solos, epilogues and some of the best-picked guest appearances of the year – Nicki Minaj’s show-stealing appearance on ‘Monster’ is an obvious call, but how smart a call is Rick Ross’s intro on the same track, for instance? It teeters on the balance between being a raw, cipher-driven hip-hop record and a capitalist pop behemoth, and somehow ends up giving you the best of both worlds. In a world of extended EPs, double-packs and “mini-albums”, where artists almost seem scared to commit to the full-length format (and when they do, particularly in hip-hop, we end up with bloated, filler-heavy albums), here, finally, was a huge pop album with content to match its ambition, and the greatest record that hip-hop’s biggest personality has made to date.
01: FOREST SWORDS
(OLDE ENGLISH SPELLING BEE)
Forest Swords’ Dagger Paths is FACT’s album of 2010.
Collecting tracks from a couple of obscure cassettes, it was originally issued as a vinyl EP by New York’s Olde English Spelling Bee label back in February, and just last month was expanded for a UK album release by No Pain In Pop. Though the bonus tracks add a great deal, it’s the six tracks on the OESB 12″ that represent the most unified, moving and substantial musical statement we’ve heard all year.
This is an album that captivates from the off: as soon as you hear the opening strains of ‘Miarches’, you know that you’re being inducted into a completely unique, and very personal, sonic universe. It’s strange, in listening to music, how easy it can it be to forget about the musicians who make it – to focus only on the sound itself, rather than all the human activity that went into making it. Dagger Paths ,the work of a young, unassuming Wirral-dweller named Matt Barnes, never lets you forget that. Like an old blues recording, this is physical music, with all the flesh and blood and craft laid bare. Behind every one of its arcing, twanging Morricone-esque riffs, you can hear a hand patiently scraping across guitar strings, the sound echoing around the room it was recorded in. For all the heavy studio treatment, this is pretty much as raw and intimate as it’s got for us since Arthur Russell’s World Of Echo.
Forest Swords is one man, The Wirral’s Matt Barnes. With his dubwise predilection for gauzy textures and sensual fuzzy gasps, Burial and Fennesz are immediate reference points, but the more you live with the record, the more a distinctive, brutally minimalist aesthetic comes to the fore. The way Barnes arranges his sounds and rolls out his beats betrays his love of jagged R&B and hip-hop, but that pop sensibility is distended by his penchant for distant, anguished vocals, punishing drones and martial percussion sourced from the devil’s own dancehall.
Listening to Dagger Paths is like bearing witness to some very private act of catharsis. It’s an overwhelmingly sad record, but it’s incredibly beautiful too, and out of that beauty a cautious hopefulness emerges. 2010 was, for most people we know, a year of reflection, of realization that all is not well in the world and that the future, for better or worse, is more of a blank slate than previously imagined. Forest Swords’ Dagger Paths exquisitely hymns the anxiety and excitement of the age.