Christopher McFall

Best EPs of 2010

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And so it finally begins, the lengthy annual retrospective of all that was best in 2010. As usual, let’s start with my run-down of the 10 Best EPs of the year:

10 | dB Soundworks – Steambirds (iOS) Soundtrack
Something of an oddity in this list, perhaps, but Danny Baranowsky’s synthetic score for the splendid iPhone game Steambirds is incredibly effective. He’s managed to capture perfectly the atmosphere and mannerisms suitable for the game’s airborne antics, bringing to mind the soundtracks of any number of British WWII films. The four-minute “Main Theme”, in particular, is full of variety, never composing by numbers, while the additional “Boss Track” takes the invention even further, supplemented by two splendid miniatures, corresponding to success or failure in the game. It’s available free (or not, if you’re feeling generous) via the dB Soundworks Bandcamp page. While you’re there, check out Baranowsky’s music for Canabalt, also stirring stuff.

9 | David Lynch – Good Day Today/I Know
Okay, hands up anyone who predicted David Lynch would bring out a single this year? Keep your hand up if you also knew it would be a delicate electronic dance number. No-one? Defying expectations with his typical enthusiasm and flair, Lynch’s twin A-side took everyone by surprise, maybe even Lynch himself. Über-processed vocals, autotuned to the nth degree, laid over a brisk, unimposing disco beat, it could all have been horribly cheesy. But Lynch somehow pulls off experiments like this, not only sounding like no-one else, but actually making it kind of cool. The more laid-back “I Know” is even better, more obviously Lynchian, ominous and rather unnerving. Read more

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Best EPs of 2009

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As December draws to a close, it’s time once again to cast our collective eye back over the last 12 months. Before we get to the highlights, it’s only fair to say that 2009 has been filled with more than its fare share of disappointments. Kraftwerk finally succeeded in releasing The Catalogue, the “re-mastered” versions of their output, although success is hardly the word for a project that managed to inflict so much bombast on the music, bludgeoning it into the 21st century; only a few of the albums came through unscathed. Dangermouse and Sparklehorse managed to distract attention away from how genuinely awful was their album Dark Night of the Soul by whipping up a frenzy about that great über-menace the Corporate Record Label; for once, a label did listeners a favour, consigning this vacuous lame duck to peer-to-peer oblivion. A-ha attempted a revivification of their image, returning to ’80s synths, but in a context so compressed as to be almost impossible to listen to; Foot Of The Mountain must take the award for the most horrifically over-compressed album in recent times, although the fact it only has a single good song (“The Bandstand”) lessens the blow somewhat. Muse got delusions of orchestration, turning their quirky and usually impressive ideas into something damp and actually rather camp; The Resistance was hardly the best name for such a lacklustre album. Even the powerhouse that is Lydia Lunch seems to have lost her way, Big Sexy Noise only living up to the last of those epithets, and not in a good way. And one of the best songwriters of them all, Neil Hannon, rested firmly on his laurels with The Duckworth Lewis Method, his tongue so far into his cheek that it must be causing facial damage. It’s a shame that Hannon so often resorts to comedy and pastiche (forever lurking audibly in the wings of his Divine Comedy output); album highlight “The Age of Revolution” proves what the project might have been capable of, while “Jiggery Pokery” is absolutely horrific. But for me, the worst album of 2009 was a tie; Joe Goddard proved he’s simply rubbish both in and out of Hot Chip, his first effort, Harvest Festival, among the most dreadful experiences i’ve had this year. And what exactly led Tori Amos, one of the most interesting singer-songwriters of the last decade, to release the monstrosity that is Midwinter Graces? it is, literally, shockingly bad.

But let’s turn away from such infernal offerings, and move in a more paradisical direction. Thankfully, 2009 has also been filled with an abundance of excellent releases, and that’s where our attention should be fixed, beginning with the best EPs of the year. Read more

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Mixtape #12 : Electronics

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Back, not so much with a vengeance as a new mixtape; the theme this time is simply electronics. Many of the pieces are rather long, so this mix, more than the others, features excerpts rather than complete works.

The mix opens with one of the most exciting electronic works by the duo FURT. Taking Brahms as its starting point, “Rigor” immediately slows, seemingly descending closer and closer upon its surface, the ensuing music seemingly scrutinising the Brahms material at the microscopic level. i was fortunate enough to witness this piece performed live (at the ICA, back in the mid ’90s), and it was thrilling, a truly memorable experience. The complete work can be downloaded free from FURT’s website; link below. “fol4” is Autechre‘s expanded version of “Fol3”, found on the limited double edition of Quaristice. It’s just as mercurial as its sibling, darting between the speakers with nervous, frenetic energy, from which assorted rhythmic patterns obtrude. A brief interruption comes in the form of Alva Noto’s “fontlab4.0”, one of his assorted miniature slews of (presumably) raw data from his superb album Unitxt. i’ve been interested in Ambrose Field‘s work since i heard him give a talk at Birmingham University about 15 years ago; he has a unique and fascinating approach both to sound itself as well as to its relationship to the listener. Included here is an episode from his splendid electroacoustic work Expanse Hotel, “Orient Express”. Next a work taken from an ancient off-air radio recording lurking in my archives, a work titled “Augustine’s Message” by the Welsh composer Robert Mackay. i’ve not heard anything else by Mackay, and sadly this piece doesn’t appear to be available on any releases, but i’ve been able to clean up the recording very well, and it nicely demonstrates the composer’s joint interest in music and drama. Despite its brevity, “Augustine’s Message” is an intense, beguiling listen. Then a lengthy excerpt from one of my very favourite composers, Roland Kayn. Kayn’s electronic works are nothing short of amazing, spanning vast durations with equally vast slabs of sound, slabs that are constantly re-shaping themselves. To my knowledge, few of Kayn’s works have been reissued on CD (the main exception being Tektra), but most of his vinyl releases can be found in high quality rips on the web (particularly here). Included here is a portion from the first part of his 1979 cycle Infra, “Isotrope”. Also conceived on a large scale is Pan Sonic‘s album Kesto (234.48:4), encapsulated in its 61-minute final track, “Säteily (Radiation)”. The excerpt here demonstrates the track’s beautifully radiant, shining character. Read more

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Mixtape #9 : Best of 2008

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Today 5:4 is one year old, and to celebrate that—and continue the celebration of the best albums of last year, here’s a new mixtape, featuring tracks from each of those albums. Not surprisingly, it’s the most eclectic mix so far, and also the longest, just a few seconds shy of 3 hours. Start 2009 with the best of 2008—enjoy!

Here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2008

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

It’s been difficult deciding what i feel are the best albums of 2008. Partly, because i’ve listened to so many (of the 667 albums i’ve listened to this year, 141 of them were released in 2008), but also because i’m conscious of a number of albums that i haven’t yet listened to, and which could well appear in this list. Anyhow, all lists of this kind are provisional, so as things stand today, here are the 5:4 Best Albums of 2008:

40 | Squarepusher – Just A Souvenir
On the one hand, this album isn’t as successful as Squarepusher’s last and best album, Hello Everything. On the other hand, Tom Jenkinson is just so talented that even failed experiments like this are better than most. Quite what led him to resurrect 70s electronics and seek to incorporate it into his style is anyone’s guess, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. At times it’s downright annoying, and overall there’s a diminished sense of unity across the album; yet tracks like “Tensor in Green” and “Quadrature” are brilliant demonstrations of the kind of synthesis of which Jenkinson is capable.

39 | Nurse With Wound – Huffin’ Rag Blues
NWW have turned down the absurdism somewhat on this release, allowing the jazz inflections to come through unfettered. Nonetheless, there’s still sufficient surreal juxtaposition of material for this to be a superbly eclectic electroacoustic outing. “The Funktion of the Hairy Egg” is especially effective, and the outstanding track on this disc, which also features irr. app. (ext.)’s Matt Waldron and is mixed by Andrew Liles.

38 | Gregor Samsa – Rest
Another great album from this band, who are able to sound simultaneously languorous and ecstatic. At times it’s a little too shoegaze for its own good, but most of the album is particularly effective, and sometimes strikingly delicate. The vocals, in particular, are often ethereal to the point of becoming inaudible, providing a wonderful mysterious surface beneath which the textures can drift and intermingle.

37 | Byetone – Death Of A Typographer
Despite being fairly typical Raster-Noton material, this album displays real variety, encompassing lovely ambient episodes along with the familiar glitchy electronica. There’s a markedly industrial tone to the beats, but they’re delivered with such panache that they never feel oppressive. It also lacks the coldness that seems to accompany, say, Alva Noto’s recent material (although, having said that, i really liked this year’s Unitxt, despite it not appearing in this list); this is surprisingly light and warm dance music.

36 | AGF – Words Are Missing
A rapid, insistent album, with Antye Greie’s voice (along with pretty much all other sounds) fragmented into a myriad shards. The constructions she makes from these pieces are consistently engaging, while not perhaps representing the best of her work; at times, the music are off-puttingly minimalistic. Nonetheless, the deep beats that permeate the tracks give them a potent physicality that is infectious; and, as in “Dread In Strangers Eyes”, influences of musique concrète and collage-like techniques give the album a fascinating variety.

35 | Ladytron – Velocifero
There are distinct traces of Curve in Ladytron’s latest release, which is most definitely no bad thing. This is particularly the case with “Runaway”, recently released as a single and easily the best track on the album. First and foremost, though, Ladytron have brought out their best album to date, filled with dirty, somewhat languid rock-tronica.

34 | Deerhoof – Offend Maggie
i wrote about this album back in October, and my initial disappointment about this album has, to some extent, given way to (i hope) a deeper appreciation. It still doesn’t quite capture the unbridled fire and passion of Friend Opportunity, but there’s a maturity present here that perhaps i wasn’t expecting. A flawed masterpiece it may be, but any group or album that can come up with a track as astonishing as “Jagged Fruit” is nothing less than brilliant.

33 | Stephan Mathieu – Radioland
A curious assemblage of thoughtful meditations, this is ambient from a more heavyweight perspective. At least, that’s the way it comes across, like vast heavy nimbus clouds, their complex inner structures ever shifting. The result is powerfully hypnotic, and often very beautiful, particularly “Auf der Gasse”.

32 | Implex Grace – Through Luminescent Passages II
i wrote a fair bit about this release back in November, so i won’t repeat that here. Since then Michael Goodman has made it clear to me that what i perceived as a lack of direction is something quite intentional on his part, and while i’m prepared to accept that, the brevity of the tracks, i feel, still militates against the kind of ‘meditative’ state he desires. All the same, it’s still an interesting counterpart to volume 1, focusing more on the noise end of the ambient continuum. It’s still available free of charge, here, in FLAC and mp3 formats, direct from Goodman’s netlabel, Distance Recordings.

31 | Ran Slavin – Nocturnal Rainbow Rising
Ran Slavin’s latest release is another free download, from the excellent Crónica netlabel. It’s a disc that demonstrates real skill at shaping sound, as well as formidable restraint, the tracks given space to develop at their own pace, never seeming forced along. Its use of bass frequencies to punctuate the material is very striking; “Pure Honey in Lack One” is perhaps the best example.

30 | Specta Ciera – Mystic Valley Parkway
Yet another free album, released through Distance Recordings, and available here. This is music reassuringly difficult to categorise, bringing together diverse sound sources into a melange within which they briefly become obvious before being re-absorbed. At times (“I Lost The Dream Archive”) it becomes really breathtaking, dazzling the ear with its restless activity. Read more

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