Dropping The Pressure on 2004 by David Day
The freaky-deeky microhouse funk of Spektrum flew below the radar in the US, but Enter The Spektrum slowly emerged as the must have set for a phalanx of European DJs, particularly with remixes from Richie Hawtin, Alter Ego and Tiefschwarz.
German techno continued to knock things over, all over. Le Dust Sucker (a k a Fabian Grobe and Markus Schobel) cut a self-titled LP that will draw more and more attention in the years to come. Mixing an industrial grind with cold funk edits brings throngs of rockers to the dancefloor. The debut slices in a Thrill Kill style, but with enough thoughtful samples and distance to keep it fresh.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Bavarian speaker diving at a Robag Wruhme show, either. Appropriate, too, as it's Ophelia-sampling title track stutters like a Hazzard policeman but kicks like Bruce Lee. Wuzzlebud KK does for microhouse what Aphex Twin did for IDM. All in all, this was the year techno had people searching for subwoofers on craigslist.
Nouvelle Vague was the easiest CD to sell in the store, even on expensive import price: "It's post-punk covers inna french bossa nova style with new-gen ye ye girls who have never heard the songs before... what's that? You'll take two?" Cobble together some random video, clear some American copyright laws and it's CD/DVD/Remixes time in the states.
Junior Boys and Last Exit must have been in-store play CD of 2004.
Kanye West took Pazz and Jop early on. He just snatched it out of the air, most probably by track 4, the effective "All Falls Down,” which lifted previous Pazz & Jop (and Grammy) winner Lauryn Hill. The brilliant track also contains the line: "Drug dealer's buy Jordans / A crackhead buys crack / and a white man gets paid off of all of that" which caused B.E.T. to censor the word "white" (a choice that is still baffling). The whole of College Dropout is brilliant, though. It's hard to quantify the gumption West has: there's the epic and album-ending slap in the face to record executives who turned him away; there's the "I dare you to play this so you will" single of "Jesus Walks" (which isn't as pure a song as some on the right would have you believe); there's the slow jam cut titled "Slow Jamz" that features an actor on lead vocals singing about singers; and the tales of corporate racism at the Gap, and Jay-Z's guest appearance and, and, and. It will be hard to forget the exclusive on-line live video for "All Falls Down," either, wherein West purposefully wears a backpack, empty and open, as a point of pride. For Kanye West, 2004 was truly a triumphant success.
Yet it's fierce competitor may well put Brian Wilson on the cover of the special Village Voice poll. SMiLE is a recording of something composed 37 years ago, but is not considered a reissue. Those are the rules. This will bring some criticism as SMiLE is a reissue of some measure or another. And it's hard to call it the album of the year due to the fact it was composed, as mentioned, almost 40 years ago.
3 Chairs: Detroit supersubhouse quartet cut a record together. Malik Pittman, Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite and Kenny Dixon. Rarely has music been so far deep. Dance music at the Marianas Trench.
Annie didn't quite come from nowhere, her "Greatest Hit" hit the charts pretty hard in 2000, but her Anniemal LP, which wisely includes the song, overtook the ears of pop lovers worldwide. It's self-reflexive "Chewing Gum" was one of the smartest singles of the year, and on the single, Richard X's production is remixed by Mylo to boost the pop wattage that much more. It is a dub version, however, probably at the behest of the speaker community.
More vocal electronic dance sounds broke out of the Areal label with Ada, who put a little aspartame in the bubblegum with her smartly distant derivation.
Sitting poolside about 50 feet from the ocean at the Mayan Riviera, which CD do you expect to sound the best? Chances are you wouldn't guess Oren Ambarchi's Grapes From the Estate. Pinpoint tones long enough to lay out with and pitches shift softer than an Italian gearbox. One of the most beautiful sounds of 2004.
In a year of electro-house gone pop, Australia reinvented the Cars as a french cabaret house DJ collective. Like the Avalanches, Cut Copy put an Aussie twist on a current trend, with cheeky phone dialing melodies, filtered vocals and rock-style reprises. This kind of music should be really popular.
Zero 7 did what few bands do these days: exactly what made them successful before. Although tweaked ever so slightly (the songs are a bit longer and composition is toyed with a bit), When It Falls employed many of the same vocalists from their smash hit debut, dealt with similar universal themes and deliberately re-emphasized melody to deliver a remarkable follow-up. Remixes turned in by Ben Watt and the mighty Yam Who were notable, but it was the Dangermouse remix of “Somersault” which will be remembered as one of the first big singles released only through iTunes.
With all this French this and House that, it would seem lame not to recognize the talent and success of Franz Ferdinand. While FF turned the turntables on fans and collectors alike, getting Daft Punk to tweak out their biggest hit, "Take Me Out,” the duo demonstrates how close rock and dance music get with just a flip of the switch.
Despite all these seemingly sexy sounds, the sexiest release may well go to Canadian Scott Montheith a.k.a. Deadbeat, who composed a dub record based in part on the echoes of crickets. Even on the clock radio, this thing lives and breathes. Something Borrowed, Something Blue marries the gurgling magma dub of Pole to the pings and chimes of microhouse for the after-hours CD of the year.
While on a trip up to Canada, I put in an unmarked CD into my discman, unsure of what is was, save for a ring of doggy bones around the edge. For the next 10 minutes I had no idea what I was listening to. The bounding avant-barbershop vocalisms, the tightly-frantic hammering percussion, the intonations of an improvised language – it was magnificent music. Within the first three songs, the mystery disc had combined the joy of experimentation with the traditions of timbre, melody and delivery. One of the strangest, most lovely things I had heard in sometime. I popped open the CD player and hoped to get a hint of some kind as to the author. The mastering imprint: FATSP08. It was the Animal Collective.
Also: Iron and Wine Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop), Joanna Newsom The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), Susanna and the Magical Orchestra Lists of Lights and Buoys (Rune Grammofon), Gravenhurst Flashlight Sessions (Warp), Trashcan Sinatras Weightlifting (Spin Art), Octet Cash and Carry Songs (Diamondtraxx), Robert Le Magnifique Hamlet by Tepr / My Dog is Gay (Idwet), Moodymann Black Mahogani 2 (Peacefrog), Claro Intelecto Neurofibro (Ai)
About two or three seconds into "Drop It Like It's Hot", there's something that hasn't been on a hip-hop rhythm track before. Tongue clicks open up some classic Snoop Dogg rhymes bound for a capellas in years to come. That's right, tongue clicks. That's some true African shit right there and Pharell and Chad know that. Good on them.
DJ tip: if you play a song and half the crowd hoots like their ass is on fire, keep that one in your bag for next time. For ever. See: "Dude" Beenie Man featuring Ms. Thing.
Allying itself with the attitude of Nancy Whang (LCD Soundsystem, Juan MacLean, etc.), Soulwax made a massive single with "NY Excuse.” David and Stephen Dewaela harnessed some old-fashioned Gotham vitriol aimed squarely at the US Government: "This is the excuse!" Nancy yells, "That we're making!! / Is it good enough for what you're paying?!?" By the time this question is repeated for the 10th or 12th time (and "paying" starts sounding like "pain"), it's pretty clear what they're talking about. With the churning guitars and escalating beats, it is so effective that after six minutes, a listener might end up frantically stapling painted poster-board to some wooden stakes. The best protest song of the year, hands down. Seriously, put your hands on the floor, step away from the turntable. You have no right to be silent.
Hot Chip "Playboy", it was quite a freaky year. Hot Chip seems to get that. With the dials broken on their phas-or component, they imagine bouncing down the cobblestone strip in 20" rims, "blazin out yo la tengo.” Like I say, freaky.
An acid-house revival unto itself, "Rocker" went from small German pressing to Ibiza anthem to P. Diddy in 2004. Indeed, decade-old duo Alter Ego released the one-sided 12” on Germany's Klang Elektronik label only to see it remixed (Black Strobe, Eric Prydz), repressed, reissued (by Fatboy Slim's Skint UK) and visualized through a beer-advert-sexy video. Now we are to believe P. Diddy himself, erstwhile Ibiza gadabout, wants to release it in the US on his Bad Boy label. So why all the fuss? Well, imagine huge distorted guitar compressed beneath the crescendo-ing crunch of a 4/4 steam roller, cut up at the right times. It's pretty massive. (I clearly remember hearing this for the first time in Miami spinning under the outstretched arms of Michael Mayer. Needless to say, the crowd was off its you-know-what).
The psychedelic house music market is being cornered by the French, with the Karat label and singular artists like Chloe, Krikor and Arc. Aysam's "Starry Return" from the frightening Katapult compilation adds to the asset pool.
The temptation of Aesop Rock as trackmaster was much too great for Evil Nine, so they and the Marine Parade label pursued it only to get outsmarted. "Crooked" is set to keep rocking dancefloors for some time to come. The MC delivers a calibrated, sticky hook that turns the breaks sound into a swinging backbeat: "We don't like it / when the city / people act crooked / when the city people / crooked then we can't / get down cut.”
And then there's Mylo, a geeky Scottish songwriter who discovered DSPs and electronic drum pads, loved him some French House music, and scored a UK phenomenon. "Drop the Pressure" and its staccato house beat is, believe it or not, instantly recognizable due to it's innately melodic sound. "Bump, buh, bump-buh!" goes the beat, as the vocals arrive, the bass drops for about one-minute... and then it comes back. Crowd goes wild.
There are numerous singles on the new Phoenix pop project Alphabetical. "Run, Run, Run" is the first one that jumps out, with its N.E.R.D. homage of a rhythm and catchy chorus. "Everything Is Everything" is a powered pop monster of a song that can be nothing but a #1 hit. "Holding On Together" is textbook Phoenix, broken love English with AM organs and a slow beat. "If It's Not With You" is a slow jam from a distance ("The more I try / The less I care about it"). But if there's one song with a chance for breakout success, it's "(You Can't Blame It On) Anybody" another song about a break-up (like many many Phoenix songs), but this one has a cute narrative that runs throughout, precise vocals and an obvious structure. Thomas Mars does his best to string together some English that makes sense, and does: "Love is evil.” While we're on the subject, almost all Phoenix songs keep the same beat throughout the entire song (and it could well be they are all about having an illicit affair).
We are only at the early stages of the prude-ification of America (which does not bode well for pop music) but there are already some casualties – like the Scissor Sisters. "Take Your Momma Out" is one of the most lyrical and melodic songs of the year, yet didn't seem to rise past the MTV2 ceiling. Despite the song's loving premise and toned-down video, the Scissor Sisters were probably regulated to the side as gay freaks by the now overly-conservative corporate media superstructure. (I don't think this is much of an exaggeration. No matter how it tested – if it even got that far – it's hard to imagine a blockheaded morning host on Clear Channel going from his lisped impression of Elton John into this number, innit?)
If it's a singles list, somewhere on it Belle and Sebastian will appear. And here they are. But combine the groop's usually deft harmonies with production from the Avalanches and step back from the recording studio. For "I'm a Cuckoo (by the Avalanches)" Bobbydazzler enlists the Southern Sudanese Choir to complement Stuart Murdoch's melody line, and boy does it. When what sounds like it won't work does, something unique is happening. A character named Zazun accompanies with a flighty flute and Murdoch bops along on top. From Glasgow to Africa via Australia. That's some shit.
For more than a decade, Diggin in the Crates member Fat Joe has commanded respect from the hip-hop community for his knowledge of the art and his devotion to the sampling tradition. So when they came up with the hook to "Lean Back,” blunts were rolled up all around the South Bronx all singing "Said my niggas don't dance / We just pull up our pants and / Do the Rockaway / Now lean back / Lean back / Lean back / Lean Back / Come on." (When my non-music-obsessed friend the pool cleaner asked me "Who is this Fat Joe?" I knew I needed to hear this).
German label Playhouse continued to blaze a trail towards "greatest label on earth" status throughout 2004. Not only did they release astonishing compilations and albums, but singles too. Fabrice Lig's "Meet U In Brooklyn" is the most pop of the bunch. Over seven minutes in length, it starts out as an Environ clone, complete with handclaps and congas, but as synth lines are added and chords are introduced, it transforms into a tweaked, dense, pop-locking groove from Mars. Three minutes in, vocal da-das drop. The last minute is a deep Detroit bounce. A deliberately diverse cut.
Tick-tock, tick-tock goes the metronome throughout the appropriately named "Timecode," which was one of two breakout smashes from the crew over at Kompakt. Justus Kohncke, a Kompakt artist who quite enjoys singing as much as he enjoys producing, has cut a number of classics. So this is to be expected at this point. The A side of Zwei Photonen, "Timecode" descends and ascends the keyboard in line after line, setting you up. Soon enough, the delicate techno-pop sound is broken up by a four-bar processed distortion, only to break again like a Hawaiian tide.
The other Kompakt smash was Rex the Dog's bombastic "Prototype.” Aside from Rex the Dog, only Mylo could claim to more collected cache in 2004. This was the first single to get the music industry's attention (Rex the Dog has gone on to do some stellar remixing this year too), and for obvious reasons. Like Alter Ego's "Rocker,” Prototype is an acid-heavy, red-lined monster, plodding around the dance floor. While it seduces with shimmery trance, it’s plotting the tweaked-out hook. It's about to hit you over the head. Duck.
"Anything is plenty, man" croons a solemn voice in the contemplative "Anythang" from "rapper's rapper" Devin the Dude. The best thing about this track is the simplicity. A simple bass line and some guitar meanderings, an effective cymbal crash and some handclaps: OK, let Devin do the rest. The next best thing about this track is the length, over five minutes, which can keep DJs quite busy on the remix, echoes, flanger, reedits. Whatever, it all works. Devin worldwide, ya'll.
Though it already sounds dated, "Why?" has to be included in any singles recap as it was the most controversial single of 2004. Sure, it highlights the voice of rising star Anthony Hamilton, it showcases the semantic talents of Jadakiss and calls out everyone from Kobe to the justice system. The controversy, however, centered around the line "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" a not-so-radical sentiment that's shared by tens of millions of free thinkers worldwide. Yet the line put Mr. Jason Phillips atop the AP newswire, on the radar of notorious rap-hater Bill O'Reilly and caused a panic in the offices of record executives – who went so far as to cut out the word "Bush" from the video. Phillips went on the defensive, standing his ground for one story. The next day, he proclaimed it was a metaphor, and soon enough was not being heard from at all. It followed that the Jadakiss album fell off the charts, but the sentiment remains, in t-shirts worn by Carmelo Anthony, on marginalized websites and whispered in dinner conversations around the nation. As Phillips says: "Why rap? / Cause I need airtime."
Others: Lopazz "I Need Ya" (Output), Diplo "Diplo Rhythm" (Ninja Tune), The Stills "Still In Love (Extended 12" Remix)" (679), Jay-Z "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" (Roc-a-Fella), Chelonis R. Jones "I Don't Know" (Get Physical), Ludacris "Splash Remix Feat. Raphael Saadiq" (Def Jam), Daniel Wang "Berlin Sunset" (Ghostly), The MFA "Difference It Makes" (Kompakt Pop)
10 Compilations: Nicky Siano's The Gallery (Soul Jazz), Katapult (Karat); Famous When Dead III (Playhouse); So Young But So Cold: Underground French Music (1977-1983) (Tigersushi); The Chill Of Collette (Colette); DFA Compilation #2 (DFA), Kitsune Midnight (Kitsune), F.U.N. (Fine Music), Saint Etienne: The Trip (Family), 16 Killer Nuggets of Funk (Payback)
10 Mix CDs: Unclassics (Environ), Misch Masch (Four), All People Is My Friends (Kompakt), MIA / Diplo Piracy Funds Terrorism (Hollertronix), My Parade (BPitch Control), The Glimmers (Eskimo), Get Physical (Get Physical), RVNG PRSNTS MX3 (RVNG), How to Kill the DJ Volume Two (Tigersushi), 4Hero Life:Styles (Harmless)
10 Reissues: Zolar X Timeless (Alternative Tentacles), Cristina Sleep It Off and Doll in the Box (Ze), Arthur Russell World of Echo (Audika), David Hemmings Happens (Rev-O-La), Annette Peacock My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook (Castle), Cloud One Atmosphere Strut (P&P), Candi Staton S/T (Astralwerks), The United States of America S/T (Sundazed), The Zombies Odyssey & Oracle (Fuel 2000), International Submarine Band Safe At Home (Sundazed)
By David Day