Music

My Favorite Music of 2011 (1 of 2)

My music habits last year were … conventional.

Some graphical observations:

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Click to enlarge

Some non-graphical observations:

  • 10640 plays: an average of 200.75 songs per week and 10439.25 per year (thanks to Last.fm tools).
  • My 2011 folder (i.e all the music that I stumbled onto this year) comes to 20.6 GB. That’s not counting saved Spotify playlists.
  • Definite skew towards electronic music. Ok, who am I kidding? It’s all electronic music.
  • Female vocalists/songwriters/musicians dominate the list, like always.
  • Very less Indian Film Music. Only two albums make the cut, but just because I did not find most of the new releases adventurous enough. Entertaining, yes, but not adventurous.
  • I was introduced to a bunch of new artistes that I had not heard before, which made me very happy.
  • Most of the music last year was legal, and I also hit up a lot of concerts – 24 in all. Good times.
  • There was a definite Scandinavian bias to my listening, which got all the more obvious the second half of the year. This list does not reflect this, though.

The list below features  albums released in 2011, including two that are not officially out so far.

 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L

Merrill Garbus kicked my teeth in when I first heard her album this year, and later on went on to knock me half-dead when I saw her live. Whokill is pure aggression at times, whimsical vocal calisthenics at others, a mind-melting package of stunning originality. You won’t find a single filler song on this album. Every track forced me to pay complete attention to what I was listening, and that is primarily what I look for in an artist – the ability to grab me by the scruff of my neck and not letting me budge for the duration of their album. I am hard to please. This album is harder to resist.

Oh Land – Oh Land

Too little, too late. I wish I knew of Nanna Øland Fabricius’s music a little early this year. She came up in a chance conversation during a Feist concert, when a friend and I were talking about our musical tastes and I mentioned Bat For Lashes and Lykke Li. She was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard of Oh Land, and once I checked out this album, I figured out why. An ethereal voice, and a musical sensibility that makes you think of moonlit nights and wide open spaces. Oh Land was making this album for me, I can tell.

Muchuu – On Beyond

I would sell my soul to this brother-sister duo if I could. They’re immensely talented, Millie’s vocals and lyrics shimmering and gliding over George’s breathtaking arrangements. This is their second album, and I loved that the band stayed clear of repeating the formula of 2010’s whimsical Adventure We Go. Their music reminds me of reading Enid Blyton novels in the winter sun, of finding magic in the shape of random rocks on the ground, of wanting to run away from school and spend the afternoon exploring. It’s hard to categorize this band – the closest I can get to describing them is ‘pure’. Pure magic.

James Blake – James Blake

The first time I listened to James Blake, I nearly got arrested. I had bought new speakers – the splendiferous Audio Engine A5, and was..umm…test-driving them. At 11 PM in the night. My neighbors called the police, just when the epic build-up to ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ was on, and it is to Blake’s credit that despite being scarred by this incident, I still adore this album. It’s creepy and comforting at the same time.

Dev – The Night the Sun Came Up

Before you dismiss Dev as another dance-floor-happy Lady Gaga-wannabe, I suggest you take a good look at yourself in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with being dance-floor-happy. Dev’s music is catchy, sassy and with the right kind of crunchiness. Funnily, the album hasn’t been released in the US yet, except for the singles ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Bass Down Low’, both of which kick maximum ass. But what surprises the most are the understated, low-key ones – ‘Dancing Shoes’, for example, and ‘Shadows’. You have my complete attention, madam.

Justice – Audio,Video, Disco

These guys made me wait a long while – I heard Cross in 2009, cruising through the mountains of Romania with a Finn. This album is like a demented electro-prog-rock mashup that is confused about its eighties-ish existence in a non-eighties world – and I do not mean this in a bad way at all. Robotic voices croon in falsetto ; phased synth leads play hide-and-seek with orchestral violins simmering with suppressed fury. And ‘Canon’, the highpoint of the album is an anthemic riff-fest that makes my heart pound just as madly as D.A.N.C.E did. This is how you live up to expectations.

Ram Sampath – Delhi Belly (OST)

Sure, weaving a song around a sophomoric swear-word gets your attention, but it’s the unpredictability of Delhi Belly that sucker-punched me. Laugh-out-loud funny, brash and dripping with wicked satire, Sampath’s  musical chutzpah can easily induce nightmares in genre purists. And in the middle of all the attitude and oomph, there’s ‘Tere Sivaa’, a tender little gem of a love song that makes me all warm and fuzzy. Now when’s this guy’s next release?

AR Rahman – Rock Star (OST)

Every time I convince myself that Rahman is done with surprises, that his music is familiar enough for me to casually dismiss any new release, the man goes and proves me wrong with stunning aplomb. The soundtrack to Rock Star deserves a post in itself, and I have allowed sufficient time to pass, to distance myself from the emotional reaction and allow an objective, balanced look at the album. But my knees still go weak when ‘Tum Ho’ plays, and ‘Phir Se Ud Chalaa’ still makes me fly. Fuck. This. Album.

Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (OST)

Reznor and Ross collaborated for the first time on the soundtrack of The Social Network, three years ago. They won an Oscar. While the two have been keeping busy (check out their side-project How to Destroy Angels), it took David Fincher to bring the two to film scoring again, and the three-hour long soundtrack was my work-soundtrack for most of December. Grim, dark, pulsating with tension, perfectly conveying the psychotic dread of snowy Swedish expanses, and the disturbed mindscape of our heroine.

Various Artistes – The Dewarists

The Dewarists was an exciting concept in a year when every music channel in India seemed to discover the wonders of unplugged music. Most of them, like the rehash of Pakistan’s Coke Studio Sessions, crashed and burned under the weight of their not-quite-and-yet-there Bollywood hangover. But this show combined the visual splendor of a travel show (throaty voiceover included) with unlikely musical collaborations and managed to do justice to its own concept. Imogen Heap with Pentagram front-man Vishal Dadlani, folk-rockers Indian Ocean with Silk Route’s Mohit Chauhan, veteran rock bands Agnee and Parikrama collaborating with singer Shilpa Rao were some of the acts that showed the magic of good old-fashioned jam sessions, free of vacuous market-oriented pap.

Honorable Mentions: Lamb – 5,  Metronomy – The English Riviera, Cliff Martinez – Contagion OST, Bjork – Biophilia, Feist – Metals.

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Music

Pieces of Sound

I hum to myself a lot. All these pieces of sound that rattle inside my head, like this non-stop radio station playing my favorite and non-favorite tunes, they sort of simmer and then overflow. Not complete songs, mind you, those only play when I am really bored, and I haven’t been bored in a long while now. What I hum are just fragments of tunes, sonic branches that come and go as they please.

It’s a harmless habit that inches more towards annoying  if you are the person sitting next to me in office. Somewhat creepy if I am doing it in the bus and you’re sitting next to me, so I don’t.

It could be worse. There was this time in college when I absentmindedly whistled in class. I did not do it on purpose, I swear, but the subject and the lecture were boring and the tunes, they wouldn’t just stop. I do not blame the lecturer for thinking someone was trying to disrupt his class. He took it in his stride initially – would just stop and look around trying to read the faces of the students sitting in the general direction of where the sound came from. It sort of helped that I do not pucker my lips when I whistle.

I consciously stopped doing that. It was stupid. But some of my classmates felt more mischievous than I did, and began using it as a  thing to disrupt the class. The next time it happened, the lecturer threw a fit and refused to take any more classes until the culprit came to his room and apologized. Nobody did, and finally I went and confessed to having done it before. He was remarkably nice about it, I remember, just asked me not to do it again and came back to take classes from the next day. I am not sure he believed me saying that I had not done it that time.

The other major class disruption had to do with the bassline of ‘Urvasi’, back in school. It’s possible for an impressionable fifteen-year old to come up with a way to generate something similar to the sound of a synth-bass from the back of his throat. It’s also completely possible for said fifteen-year-old to figure out that others cannot localize the source of a sound produced that way, especially if one keep a straight face. Someday, when I am back in Guwahati, I want to confess to Rana-sir that I was the guy messing with his Advanced Mathematics class, and not someone playing Kaadhalan from the road, and that it was not necessary to shut all the windows every day before class to block that sound. This was done totally on purpose, oh man, I was a total douchebag.

On the plus side, I do hum in tune. It’s loathsome to be in tune when the song in question is Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’, but I manage.

On the hum-list right now:

  • The first few lines of Zeb & Haniya’s Chup, especially the main trumpet line.
  • Random lines from the Rock Star album. The lines translate to “All that I wish to say/is ruined/by the words I employ”. I also try to hum parts of the first song of the album, called ‘Phir Se Ud Chalaa’, which is devilishly tough to transcribe on a single vocal line, let me tell you.
  • The main bass-groove in the Attack the Block OST.
  • The opening to ‘Tom’s Diner’ by Suzanne Vega.

It’s interesting – well, maybe just to myself, but that’s the whole point of this blog, isn’t it? – that some of these tracks just come out of nowhere. The Rock Star tracks are fairly obvious. ‘Chup’ comes from my recent rediscovery of the Zeb/Haniya album thanks to the Dewarists episode that I talked about a few days ago. Attack the Block, when I began humming it and realized what I was doing, became a mystery to me, until I realized that the bass-line is somewhat similar to a loop that plays in Monsters Ate My Condo. (Which is this awesome iPad game that I am playing at the moment, and it has gotten me interested enough to miss my bus-stop a few times)

Funny things happen. ‘Sahara’, from the Sivaji OST began playing in my head when I was reading Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen, because Sahara is the name of one of the characters in the series. That morphed into an upbeat rendition of the ending of Dil Se, which I’ve mentioned earlier as the inspiration behind the main melody of Sahara, and suddenly became a mashup of the opening melody to ‘Tom’s Diner’ and Fallulah’s Bridges’.

That’s not just it. The guitar and trumpet line from ‘Chup’ are trying very hard to remind me of ‘Mrs Robinson’, and I have no idea why. ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ floats in every now and then too.

It gets awkward sometimes. Especially when I’m humming something and someone asks me what the tune is, and I realize that I have to backtrack, in my head, to figure out what it was. That takes time. And makes me appear completely stupid.

The worst it gets is when I pause and realize that I am in the middle of a tune that I should not really be humming. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, for example, the song by Deep Blue Something. Or ‘Two of Us’ by the Beatles. That’s when I shake myself out of it and change channels, in my head. Some pieces of sound do not belong there anymore.

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Music

Björk- Crystalline

Medulla was the last Björk album I listened to with religious intensity. After that, there was a parting of ways, a stupid feeling that she had peaked and it would be embarrassing to have her newer output wash away the intensity of old. But back then, once upon a time, Björk was Music 101.  Her alien-accented voice not only turned my knees to jelly, it also represented an expansion of my consciousness. She taught me that music need not always be comforting and happiness-inducing, that it was not necessary for the words in a song to rhyme, that discordance can transport you to a new world. My knowledge and my appreciation of music became inconsequential, it felt like I knew nothing. She challenged my taste, she made me hunger, and I fell in love.

I would be distorting facts to suit the point at hand if I said that everything I subsequently listened to was because of Björk. But I’ll admit this: the kind of music I love and actively seek features female artistes twiddling knobs and going bat-shit crazy with their voices. I attribute this completely to my not-quite-adolescent slobbering over her, and the need to satisfy the musical hunger she brought into my life.

‘Crystalline’ from Biophilia, her latest album, is not a song, in my opinion. It’s a synaesthetic experience, especially if you own an iDevice. The song saw life as an App, where you had to guide a gliding object through three-dimensional tunnels, picking up crystals on the way. What you pick determined what you heard. Instead of being a distraction, the game became a mesmerizing visual interpretation of the musical experience. Suddenly, Björk has found a new way of crawling out of my headphones into the hidden places of my brain.

Side note: The tinkling chord progression that cocoons the majority of the track is played on the gameleste, a combination of the Indonesian Gamelan and the celesta that was commissioned by Björk for this album. There’s a lovely Youtube video that shows the making of the instrument, here.

 

It is easy to say that the last minute of the song, where the drums cut loose, is the Epic Win moment of the album. But listen closer. If the beat were a living thing, I would say that the composer almost eases it into that last minute. When the song begins, the beat tiptoes into the sound-scape tentatively, a bass kick at a time, and then tries to settle into a hissy groove. But like a petulant child that cannot decide how best to draw attention to itself, it tries to be oh-so-quiet; then froths and seethes, trying to attach itself to the loop sailing smoothly by in whatever way it can. Björk’s voice flirts again and again with the percussion in subtle ways – the rolling ‘r’ when she rhymes “with our hearts” with “quartz”, of the drawn-out sibilance of her “polygonssss”. But it is also the voice that keeps the beat in check, forcing it to morph into different rhythmic sub-explosions in course of the song as it tries to break free of the claustrophobic layers of chorus and gamelesta. Until that crucial last minute when, as the chimes fade away, the drums declare independence. It is pure, gleeful sonic destruction, and one can almost imagine her standing on one side and smiling at her creation as it lays waste to the house that the song built, the impotent sputters and fizzes transformed into violent, happy percussion patterns.

It ends the same way it begins – without warning. And I am in love again.

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Uncategorized

Just stuff.

I saw True Romance last night, the Uncut Director’s Cut. I have to admit that except for the Quentin Tarantino association, I knew virtually nothing about the movie. Was taken aback by the Sonny Chiba references. Too many monologues abound – but hey, what’s a Tarantino-scripted movie without monologues? Dennis Hopper waxes forth on Sicilians, Christopher Walken makes a chilling guest appearance, Christian Slater talks about Oscar movies, Sonny Chiba, Elvis Presley, James Gandolfini gets poetic about killing, and Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn get into detail about the how prison life contributes to a happy marriage. Probably the best Doctor Zhivago reference in any movie I’ve seen. What also struck me was the uncanny resemblence to some of the plot points in Preacher ( the comic book) – the “Mentor” appearances in the restrooms ( Val Kilmer played that? Wow! ), the way the characters Alabama Worley and Tulip O’Hare have this inherent ass-kicking ability inside themselves that manifests in odd, scary ways.

My DVD ( bought for 20 Rs in Kathmandu ) appears to have three commentary tracks, the deleted scenes and the alternate ending. Heard the first fifteen minutes of the Tarantino commentary today morning – yum!

Awesome music find of the week: Balligomingo. Luscious female vocals over soaring, lush electronic soundscapes.

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Uncategorized

Asa Chan and Jun Ray – Jun Ray Song Chan

The album Jun Ray Song Chan starts off with Hana, Japanese for flower. The song is nearly similar to Tsuginegi To Ittemita, staccato bursts of Japanese chanting processed electronically. There are two voices, a guy who sounds like he has had his vocal chords reworked with a heavy hammer, and a female voice that brings to mind a stoned J-pop singer. Backed with a melancholy violin melody and paced by the weirdest sounding tabla you will ever hear. And I mean a genuine tabla, not one of those electronic thingummijigs Talvin Singh uses. The combination makes for one very odd listen, especially when the chants are spliced and precisely echoes the tabla player’s flourishes.

Just when I was done with Hana and was about to dismiss the band as a one-trick pony, ‘Preach’ kicks in. Starts off with a brass signature accompanied by squelching sounds. ( Did these people play a trumpet underwater? Man! ) Then the tabla goes mad for quite sometime – forcing me to reduce the volume on my speakers. Surprise, surprise, the squelching sounds turn out to be spoken voices! There is a sudden burst of an acoustic guitar in the proceedings. Where on earth is this song going?

‘Kobana’ begins with a mouth-organ solo, with the same chants from Hana playing in the background, only modified to a high pitch. This song is like a reworked version of the first song, the mouth organ melody being the focus here. A freaking eerie melody at that.

‘Nigatsu’ is the strum of an acoustic guitar in a thunderstorm. More creepy voices, but a more coherent ( and soothing) guitar melody. The more I listen to the chanting voices, the more they sound like chopped syllables from a random conversation. The guitar goes away completely at the end of the song, replaced by a tanpura and a sitar. And electronic phase riffs.

‘Goo Gung Gung’ is probably the most conventional Oriental arrangement. You do realise that the word “conventional” here is relative to the rest of the album? It’s too short for my taste, as is the next track “Kutsu #2”. ( Incidentally ‘Kutsu’ comes at the end of the album. )

The longest track in the album ‘Jippun’is a frenzy of trippy electronic pitchshifting and kanjira ( Yes, Kanjira ) flourishes. At nine minutes and thirty three seconds, it’s like the bastard child of Bjork and Zakir Hussain ODed on ecstasy and came up with this track. Ditto ‘Tabla Bol (Catastrophe)’, the second last song on the album.

And unless I am losing my mind, ‘Kokoni Sachiari’ has the same sample as the beginning of ‘Beat of Passion’ in ARR’s Taal, the breathy whistle that starts BoP. It also has some sexily processed sitar sounds – sitar in an IDM track!! I didn’t think I would see the day.

I had heard ‘Tsuginegi to Ittemita’ about four years ago, and was fortunate enough to come across a complete package of all of Asa Chan and Jun Ray’s albums ( two in all, not counting an EP ). I don’t think these folks are ever going to attain mainstream popularity any time, considering the kind of music they make. ANd there’s not much information about them available online either, so I cannot even find out why so many Indian elements persist in a Japanese band. Do they play these instruments themselves or are they sampled? I am betting on the former, though.

Here’s the video of Hana,in case you are interested.


Also on the playlist:

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy – Johnny Gaddar OST
The Cinematic Orchestra – Ma Fleur
Guitar Prasanna – Be the Change

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