25 Favorite Releases of 2017

In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share some of my favorite releases of the year. Obviously not exhaustive; just some personal highlights. Quite a few of these are giant major label releases, so I’ll be taking down those download links quickly or leaving them off accordingly. Let me know if links are broken. Happy holidays!

 

Previously: 2016 | 2015

Alice Coltrane – Divine Songs, 1987
buy comp / download
Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 2, 1987
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Cleaners From Venus – Going To England, 1987
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David Sylvian – Secrets Of The Beehive, 1987
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Depeche Mode – Music For The Masses, 1987
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dip in the pool & Masahide Sakuma – 黒いドレスの女 OST, 1987
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Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris – Trio, 1987
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Elicoide – Elicoide, 1987
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Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full, 1987
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Frankie Knuckles & Jamie Principle – Baby Wants To Ride/Your Love, 1987
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Geoffrey Landers – Many Hands Make Light, 1987
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George Michael – Faith, 1987
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Haruomi Hosono – The Tale Of Genji, 1987
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Ichiko Hashimoto – Mood Music, 1987
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Isabelle Antena – Hoping For Love, 1987
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Laraaji – Essence/Universe, 1987
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Masahiro Sugaya – Music From Alejo, 1987
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Meredith Monk – Do You Be, 1987
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Michael Jackson – Bad, 1987
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Pet Shop Boys – Actually, 1987
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Phuture – Acid Tracks, 1987
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Pizzicato Five – Pizzicatomania, 1987
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Prince – Sign O’ The Times, 1987
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Sinead O’Connor – The Lion And The Cobra, 1987
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Yasuaki Shimizu – Music For Commercials, 1987
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Kenji Kawai – Ghost In The Shell, 1995

A few days ago, poor Steve Aoki revealed his remix of the iconic 攻殻機動隊 (Ghost in the Shell) theme for the forthcoming remake. The remix is the EDM equivalent of trying to embroider lace with a power drill, and incensed anime fans have flooded the comments with rage (as well as with links to the also-iconic theme from the Stand Alone Complex series). Rather than adding further insult to injury, I wanted to share the original soundtrack, as it’s one of the best anime soundtracks (and arguably one of the best soundtracks, period).

To make the aforementioned theme, scoring giant Kenji Kawai combined Bulgarian choral harmonies and traditional Japanese vocal techniques into a wedding song with lyrics in the ancient Japanese language Yamato Kotaba. The theme is repeated in three different variations, all of which should give you goosebumps. The rest of the soundtrack is gorgeous, murky atmospherics: submerged keyboards, sparse taiko, synthetic strings, ominous clanging, a lone (Spanish?) guitar. If you haven’t seen the movie, song titles like “Nightstalker” and “Floating Museum” should be able to paint a sufficient picture. The real curveball is the closer, sometimes listed as a bonus track, which is a bubblegum pop sung in Cantonese. Many reviewers complain about the inclusion of the jarring closer, but I think a slightly psychotic ending makes sense in the context of a movie about fragmented personhood in a cyberpunk dystopia. Bonus round: here’s a very beautiful live performance of the theme.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Symphonic Suite AKIRA, 1988

It was very moving that a handful of you reached out to check on me after a week of silence–I appreciate the concern! I’ve been a bit absent for two reasons, the first being that trying to do anything on the internet these days invariably gets derailed by a wormhole of endless bad news. The second (happier) reason is that my partner and I just moved into an apartment together last week, so I’ve been in heavy nesting mode, and now that we’re done fighting about whose duvet cover to use I can finally look around and feel funny about feeling this happy.

I’ve been holding off on a Geinoh Yamashirogumi post because I felt nervous about picking one record, but here we are. Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a massive musical collective, purportedly several hundred members deep, that emerged when a choir founded in 1953 began testing the limits of what choral music can do. Their study of world music and eventually digital audio techniques led them to release a series of records in which they covered an enormous amount of ground, culminating in a trio of records concerned with the cycle of life and death. Luckily, one of those three records happened to be the Akira soundtrack.

There are a lot of repeating motifs across the trilogy, both thematically and in direct sonic parroting. All three use choirs to astonishing effect: Balinese kecak aided and abetted by reverb and multiplication; individuals pacing back and forth and winding their voices around one another, frantic, fuming, barely even singing; Japanese Noh undercut by taiko; buzzing hives of thousands hulking thunderously; whispers volleyed back and forth for minutes on end; traditional spiritual chant gone off the rails–songs that are so intensely evocative of huge, folk-futurist environments that they’re uncomfortable to listen to in your apartment (though they work very well on the subway). They also all lean heavily on gamelan: interestingly, in the 1980s MIDI synthesizers couldn’t accurately replicate the tonality of the traditional gamelan ensemble, so the group had to custom-program their synthesizers in order to build the necessary micro-tuning tables.

I picked Akira from the trilogy because it hinges the three together: Ecophony Rinne (1986) brought the group to the attention of director Katsuhiro Otomo, who (as the story goes) wrote the group a blank check with which to make this soundtrack–meaning that this record enabled them to push their technical possibility forward and further develop the musical language that they had already been speaking for years. I love the case this album makes for what movie soundtracks can (and perhaps should) do, the way it refuses to be background music (or even conventionally cinematic) but instead dives into the movie’s messy chaos and bounces around and off of it, building and dying in time. The closing “Requiem,” as the title suggests, starts as a reverb-soaked Western mass, but the organ goes astray and eventually loops back into the opening “Kaneda” theme, at which point it becomes clear why Katsuhiro Otomo commissioned a score from a group obsessed with life and death cycles: the inhabitants of Akira are fixated on the past in a desperate attempt to avoid repeating their catastrophic mistakes in the future. The parallels extend further: the music of Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a splicing of traditional folk spirituality with advanced programming, and Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo still clutches to religion in spite of its pseudo-futuristic setting. Cleverer and weirder still is when a prog-pop song steps in after eight tracks. It’s jarring enough to make you wonder if you’re listening to a different record, until within seconds you pick up on the familiar jegog percussive backbone, which makes such perfect sense that you might feel more “in on the joke” than you ever have before. Brilliant from all angles.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that moreso than with most records, having a “preview track” here doesn’t make much sense, as this album is so diverse and can only really exist as a whole. Please take the track below with a big grain of salt, and if you’re at all interested, do consider a listen in its entirety in headphones.

20 Favorite Releases of 2016

In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share some of my favorite releases of the year. Obviously not exhaustive; just some personal highlights. Let me know if links are broken. Happy holidays!

Previously: 2015

Arthur Russell – World Of Echo, 1986
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Bill Nelson – Getting The Holy Ghost Across, 1986
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Cocteau Twins – Victorialand, 1986
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Cocteau Twins & Harold Budd – The Moon And The Melodies, 1986
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Coil – Horse Rotorvator, 1986
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David Hykes – Harmonic Meetings, 1986
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Double Fantasy – Universal Ave, 1986
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The Feelies – The Good Earth, 1986
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Felt – Forever Breathes The Lonely Word, 1986
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Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Ecophony Rinne, 1986
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Hiroshi Yoshimura – Soundscape 1: Surround, 1986
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Isabelle Antena – En Cavale, 1986
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Janet Jackson – Control, 1986
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Just-Ice – Back To The Old School, 1986
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Linda di Franco – Rise Of The Heart, 1986
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Nu Shooz – Poolside, 1986
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Riccardo Sinigaglia – Riflessi, 1986
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Toshifumi Hinata – Reality In Love, 1986
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Virginia Astley – Hope In A Darkened Heart, 1986
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Zavijava Orchestra – Rivers Of Light, 1986
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[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 7: Voices Special

I made a two hour mix for NTS Radio of songs with vocals that are significant to me. I had originally set out to focus on experimental vocals, but I realized that so much of what might sound experimental to western ears—Tibetan chant, Inuit throat singing, Chinese folk—is deeply traditional, not experimental at all. Instead, I approached this as two hours of vocal milestones, be they from technical, stylistic, or emotive standpoints. It’s not possible to make a two hour comprehensive survey of strong vocal traditions, nor of the most important singers, though there are quite a few of both categories in here. Putting this together was hard, and while I could easily have spent years digging and rethinking, I set a month time limit to ensure that I would finish it at all.

As I was making this I also thought a lot about how Björk framed her almost entirely vocal record Medúlla as a response to September 11th–both the event itself and the subsequent wave of patriotism and xenophobia that she experienced as a foreigner living in New York. Making an all-vocal album was, for her, a coping mechanism and a means of trying to reconnect with what it means to be a human.

Lastly, a note that this isn’t as listenable or poppy as the mixes that I typically make, though I did try to arc it in a way that feels good. I’m not really sure what its ideal listening environment is–it probably involves headphones–so I hope that you enjoy it all the same! If you’d like an mp3 version you can download it here. Thank you for listening 💜

Tracklisting:
1. The Impressions – For Your Precious Love
2. Meredith Monk – Strand (Gathering)
3. Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Genesis (abridged)
4. Bessie Griffin & The Gospel Pearls – Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
5. Philippine Madrigal Singers – Pamugun (comp. Francisco Feliciano)
6. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes – Jusqu’à Ce Que La Force De T’aimer Me Manque (excerpt)
7. Emma Kirkby & Gothic Voices – O Euchari (comp. Hildegard von Bingen)
8. Björk – Pleasure Is All Mine
9. The Ronettes – Baby I Love You (Isolated Vocals) (excerpt)
10. David Hykes & The Harmonic Choir – Arc Descents
11. Unknown Artists – Sumi Yeinyo (Hani Crying Song) (Southern China)
12. The Beach Boys – Surfer Girl (Alternate Version)
13. John Jacob Niles – Go ‘Way From My Window
14. The Tallis Scholars – Spem In Alium, Motet for 40 Voices (comp. Thomas Tallis)
15. Geinoh Yamashirogumi – Doll’s Polyphony
16. Young Thug – All Over
17. Ghédalia Tazartès – Une Voix S’en Va
18. Yma Sumac – Taita Inty (Virgin Of The Sun God)
19. Arthur Miles – Lonely Cowboy, Pt. 2
20. Angkanang Kunchai With Ubon-Pattana Band – Isan Lam Plearn (excerpt)
21. The Hilliard Ensemble – Viderunt Omnes (comp. Pérotin)
22. Ustad Ghulam Ali & Asha Bhosle – Salona Sa Sajan Hai Aur Main Hoon
23. Patti Page – Confess (excerpt)
24. Monks of Gyütö Tantric College – Sangwa Düpa (excerpt)
25. Amália Rodrigues – Gaivota (excerpt)
26. Unknown Artist – Akazehe Par Une Jeune Fille (Burundi)
27. Anna Homler & Steve Moshier – Sirens (excerpt)
28. Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – Stani Mi, Maytcho (Get Up, My Daughter)
29. David Hykes & The Harmonic Choir – Rainbow Voice
30. Lucy Amarualik & Mary Sivuarapik – Song Of A Cooking Seal Flipper
31. Dr. Octagon – Halfsharkalligatorhalfman
32. Judy Henske & Jerry Yester – Rapture (excerpt)
33. The Hilliard Ensemble – Sabbato Sancto – Responsorium 5 (comp. Carlo Gesualdo)
34. Linda Jones – Your Precious Love (excerpt)

The Hilliard Ensemble – Carlo Gesualdo: Tenebrae, 1991

Another expert overview of a favorite composer’s work from the venerated Hilliard Ensemble. Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) was an Italian prince, count, and renaissance composer, who is mostly known for his madrigals, particularly those that disregarded the tonal conventions of the time and explored extreme chromatic progressions and unprepared changes of harmony, i.e. changes without a harmonic bridge. This was arguably without precedent, and wasn’t really seen again until late 19th century impressionism. The music is notoriously difficult to perform live, with careening harmonies making it particularly easy to veer off-key. In spite of the daredevil compositions, the songs are stunningly beautiful, if a bit nervewracking. Stravinsky was a big fan. Aldous Huxley, who once listened to Gesualdo while under the influence of mescaline, wrote the liner notes for a 1956 LP of Gesualdo’s work. Herzog made a pseudo-documentary about him called Death for Five Voices.

Perhaps somewhat relatedly, Gesualdo was also known to exhibit characteristics of serious mental illness, was a repeat murderer, and a masochist, leading some to suspect demonic possession. After the murders, the story goes that he was so paranoid that he went on a tree-cutting rampage around his castle so as to be better able to see potential threats from far away. It’s also believed that he may have ordered his own death. He’s become a vampire-esque figure of fascination for many (I can’t help but think of Gilles de Rais), an interest that seems a bit fraught to me–but I can’t argue with the music. Enjoy!

buy / download: disc 1, disc 2

Gavin Bryars – The Sinking of the Titanic, 1990

A piece with a long, dense backstory, and many different iterations. As such, The Sinking of the Titanic feels very much like a living work-in-progress, just as contingent on the live performance as on composition, which is part of what makes it so special. Bryars explains the piece’s inspiration here and details its growth and performances here. The piece is a consideration of the sounds generated by the string sextet who played on the boat deck of the Titanic as it sank, and what the sounds would do if the music had continuously played into the water:

Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the Boat Deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge. The rediscovery of the ship by Taurus International at 1.04 on September 1st 1985 renders this a possibility. This hymn tune forms a base over which other material is superimposed. This includes fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg’s impact, and so on.
Bryars began writing it in 1969 and recorded a 25 minute version of it in 1975 as a first release for Brian Eno’s Obscure Records (Eno himself produced the recording). After Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic’s wreck in 1985, Bryars dramatically reworked the piece to include additional sonic elements detailed above, as well as two children’s choral ensembles. The work was performed at the Printemps du Bourges festival in Belgium in 1990 in a Napoleonic-era water tower, with the musicians performing in the basement of the tower and the audience listening on the ground floor. The empty top floors of the tower acted as a giant reverberation chamber. For this recorded version of the live performance, Bryars added the sound of other ambient spaces, including that of the swimming bath in Brussels where the piece was performed “live” on a raft in 1990.

The Tallis Scholars – Spem In Alium, 1985

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is considered by many to be one of the most important English composers ever to have lived, and is definitively one of the most important composers of early choral music. His crowning achievement, “Spem In Alium,” is a ten minute long 40-part motet that borders on psychedelic: ceaselessly shifting, simultaneously hyper-precise yet almost shapeless. From Wikipedia:

The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices. It’s most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten- to twelve-minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas.

I’ve been listening to this album for ten years and it’s still disorientingly beautiful. The other works in this collection are gorgeous in their own right, with “Sancte Deus” and “Miserere Nostri” being personal favorites. Not included are his “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” cited as his other masterwork; I’m also a chump for “If ye love me“…there are plenty of other compilations worth seeking out. Happy December, but also, listen to this all year round.

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Monks Of The Monastery Of Gyütö – Tantras Of Gyütö: Sangwa Düpa / Mahakala, 1988

The most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Makes the entire pretense of heavy metal look like Sesame Street. Recorded at Gyütö Tantric University, one of the great colleges of the Gelugpa, the Established Church of Tibetan Buddhism, by David Lewiston, protégé of Thomas de Hartmann, decade-long resident musician at the Gurdjieff Foundation, impetus behind the Nonesuch Records Explorer Series (fans of the Voyager Golden Record are familiar with his work), and responsible for a huge body of recordings of world music made in the very small window of time during which lightweight portable recording equipment allowed for high-quality recordings to be made in remote places and traditional music hadn’t yet been ravaged by globalization. Happy Halloween, y’all.

Hildegard von Bingen – A Feather on the Breath of God, 1984

Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, poet, doctor, visionary, Christian mystic, and polymath. She founded the practice of scientific natural history in Germany, lived to the age of 81 at a time when the life expectancy was early 40s at best, and wrote the oldest surviving morality play (sometimes called the first musical drama). Despite having no formal musical training, she was responsible for some of the most hauntingly beautiful and enduring music to come out of medieval Catholicism. Her compositions broke many of the existing conventions of plainchant, using extremes of register, dramatic leaps of pitch, melismas and flourishes to express rhapsodic, overflowing emotion. Sublime delivery of this collection of her songs by UK ensemble Gothic Voices and soprano Emma Kirkby, globally renowned early music specialist. Perfect hurricane soundtrack music.