Monday, January 16, 2012

Best of the best of: The year in review in review

This was meant to be a rushed post before heading off on vacations in the middle of December, but due to some heavy work commitments and another bought of computer trouble it wasn’t possible. Also it seems to have blown out to be bigger than I had originally envisioned. Apologies and more regular updates coming.

As always, December means list times, the favoured format of music journalists. As always, it’s worth casting a critical eye over proceedings.
 Firstly, the caveat: what does “best of” really mean in terms of subtext? Of course all the lists begin with this phrase, but how should we interpret it? Most popular album? Most influential label? Most ground breaking track? Or is it just the editors favourite music of the year, for whatever reason (i.e. made out with someone when this track came on)? It would be nice at times to see a little more editorial boldness and transparency in this regard and, in a certain way, less democracy.

By this last statement I mean no using numbers to rank the albums, like it was an election or race, but also not to use a counting system of scores submitted by journalists, for example, to arbitrarily decide a winner based on highest score. In this sense, the RA polls in particular are a mess. One can read into them the arbitrary outcome of a voting contest by unequally chosen participants (i.e. more house fans than experimental music fans) that ends up seeming like a popularity contest. The result of the contest is undoubtedly “curated” (and rightly so) by the editors at some stage. The results then, are hard to relate to what actually happened in music or on the site this year in terms of real quality, real influence and tangible legacy. Compare for example the list of “best” tracks and the listed of charted tracks for differences.

The other extreme is a more fascist and arrogant approach, a normal consequence of journalists trying to protect their turf and keep their claim to the source cool. This may not necessarily be how it happens at Little White Earbuds, for example, but the final list of five labels smacks a bit of pretension and even a kind of social sabotage to a point. Do both M>O>S Recordings and Rush Hour need to be in such a small list for example? Was M>O>S really so good/influential/popular/ground breaking and does it add more than Rush Hour to your yearly message? Maybe, but maybe not.

In any case, here are a few comments on some of the lists and my own two cents worth. Best albums will follow in a few days time.

Part 1: Best labels of 2011.

We already mentioned M>O>S, which did release some great stuff albeit in small quantities (see below) and including one of the best releases, Morphosis’s album “What have we learned?” Their fellow countrymen at Rush Hour surely do deserve to be well up there again this year (last year they were number 1 on RA). They opened the year in full house revival mode with releases by Virgo and the Gene Hunt compilation collection, yet managed to finish the year by turning the table, laying down a template for future revivalism in their Amsterdam Allstars compilation plus a handful of great albums and even a sneaky Best Of. Full respect.

Number one at RA was the lamentable Crosstown Rebels which forms a triumvirate of scorned or adored labels consisting also of Visionquest and Hot Creations. I must confess to being totally underwhelmed by this stuff and must single out the Art Department album as one of the most underwhelming albums I came across for a long time. But anyone who keeps an eye on the RA charts will know that this is what people are playing out. And anyone with an eye on the waning comments forums will see that there is also the word “elitist” sneaking into a lot of so-called discussion of music. One chap branded Oneohtrix Point Never’s new album elitist while others bring down critics of the Hot Creation’s sound as elitists as well. This apparent class war at the heart of music is important and always existed. Perhaps here the point is that love them or hate them, these labels have earned their place, not for quality or opening up new terrain (which they didn’t), but for impact: this is the music around us, more so than the rest, the working class sound as it were. I can understand why a knucklehead tech house DJ might label Oneohtrix Point Never’s music elitist, just another word for intelligent, but it hardly hurts at all, if not its scar wears like a compliment. Impact aside, labelling Crosstown Rebel’s as simple or generic is far more descriptive and enduring whether you are elitist or not.

Crosstown Rebels Exclusive Playlist for i-D Magazine by Crosstown Rebels

Returning to the rest of the list asks another question: how many releases do you need to make an impact? The answer is of course “it depends on the quality”. But ignoring this answer and going straight for the numbers there is a few curiosities.

I would have plumped for Workshop in my top 10 since every release felt like it was essential. But there were only three releases this year, even if it felt like more, one of which, Marvin Dash’s latest, has just come out.  Workshop wasn’t in any of the major lists anyway.

M>O>S Recordings had a release schedule of 7 singles and an album, impressive for a small label. Hamburg’s Smallville released only 5 singles and one album (the slightly over rated Moomin) and still made the RAs list. Out of context, on their own Roman Fluegel had four singles and an album, Boris Bunnik as Conforce released one album and three singles (including his new Hexagon ambient project), whereas Toni Lionni released 5 singles, to pick a few random artists that matched the same output as these labels.

Some of the bigger labels making the list did have bigger release schedules, such as Hotflush and Planet Mu (as always), coming in with 14 singles and 3 albums versus about 9 singles and a dozen albums, many of which ended up on the end of year lists. These two labels in question were thus responsible for quantity and quality, but also for breaking plenty of new ground. Sepalcure’s releases, Kuedo’s album and of course Machinedrum to name the big names. Even though being number one hardly matters, to be usurped then by the middle-of-the-road Crosstown Rebels, even if the later did release a ton of stuff, must hurt. One must also shed a tear for Swamp 81 who weighed in with 7 singles, 2 of them double, and made none of the lists despite good critical feedback and harbouring some of the bigger names.

50 Weapons and Nonplus also need a bit of love for their quality control and their design, but perhaps more importantly for smashing down genre walls and becoming havens of diverse and label-less music rather than heavily curated sounds. 50 Weapons released some astounding albums, whereas Nonplus went mostly for singles, with Instra:mental’s fantastic “Resolution 653” a highlight. The tactileness of Nonplus releases also makes them particularly attractive. Finally, a special mention to Stroboscopic Artefacts who also kept their balance with intense and challenging releases on all formats, including digital-only.

Blackest Ever Black didn’t make the lists, but in terms of influence it could be argued that they had the sound of the moment going into the New Year. Similarly, 100% Silk (FACT’s 3rd best label of the year and GO! Mag’s number one label alongside Not Not Fun) was single-mindedly ignored by RA, giving only a single review to the Pharoah’s “Uhh Uhh” in October, when it already seemed too late, alas. Much like James Blake, Amanda Brown’s eccentrically curated and restless label came in for some serious critical punishment no sooner had the accolades come in. Reading her yearly wrap up in The Wire one can detect more than a healthy dose of cynicism and weariness, but one gets the feeling that this won’t put her off too much. Full support!

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