My Year in Lists
Week Forty Nine
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"The birthplace and benchmark of modern electronic music"¦ every home should have a copy."-Warp Records on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works '85-"˜92

"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."-Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Music and Moonlight

At its core, music is about creation, about total, uninhibited freedom and about the scope and power of the human mind. All art is this way, to some extent. What begins as an empty canvass may someday by the Mona Lisa. A block of marble might become David. Some stupid tree somewhere just minding its own business and providing shade and oxygen might be just a few years away from being Ulysses by James Joyce. Somewhere out there, a camera is turning on, and someone might be filming the next Citizen Kane, the next Star Wars, the next Casablanca. Or better yet, they might be creating something so brilliant, so unique, and so astounding no one else has even thought of it yet.

Where before there was silence, musicians create sound. Where before there was an empty, howling void, musicians create emotions, feelings, stories, and yes, sometimes even truth. That is the power of the artist and it can be wielded for good or evil. For every Mozart, there is a Will.I.Am. For every Bob Dylan, there is a Miley Cyrus. Such is the cycle of art, and dreck is the price we pay for the chance at true genius. Every time someone enters a studio to record music, they are putting themselves out there artistically. Some of them are comfortable with mediocrity. Some of them will never exceed it even if it vexes them. Some of them will create music that will change the course of human history. This week is not a story about the latter. This week is a story about people who endeavor for greatness, people who are willing to experiment, to mix it up, and to throw the rulebook out the window. None of the albums we look at this week are likely to knock your socks off and change the way you think about music, art, or human existence. But each of these artists was trying for greatness, and there's something to be said for giving it your best shot.

Richard D. James started out in the club scene in Cornwall, U.K. as a DJ. His time at the turntables taught him musical techniques and rhythm. He developed a cult following in the scene, and road that minor notoriety to the release of his first album under a brand new alias: Aphex Twin. That album, Tab's first pick this week, was Selected Ambient Works '85-'92, and while it definitely doesn't sound like anything you're likely to hear in a club (at least not most of the time), the album quickly became a hallmark of both modern electronic music and modern ambient sound.

The album is primarily an instrumental effort, though vocal samples make appearances throughout. Where much electronic music can come across as too dance-y to get at any deeper meaning, and much ambient music can end up feeling aimless, Aphex Twin manages two avoid both of those problems, focusing his ambient tendencies on a constructive rhythm and retaining a feeling of depth at the same time. The opening track, "Xtal" (an abbreviation for crystal oscillators that keep time in wristwatches) contains a female vocal sample alternating with ambient sounds, almost as if intended to keep James from going off the rails into full ambient territory. He uses as similar trick on "Tha," interspersing people talking with the ambient sounds, as if aiming to keep his ethereal instrumentations rooted in real world feelings and every day occurrences.

The album seems to be looking at the things that keep us tied to the world, even as we might be willing to drift off into our own minds. So it makes sense (to me at least) that many of the tracks that do not involve random vocal samples incorporate elements of pop culture into their sound. "Green Calx" contains many samples from RoboCop and a sample from the opening credits of John Carpenter's The Thing. "We Are the Music Makers" features the titular line of dialogue from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory several times, and what first seems like random pop culture name dropping develops power and meaning over the course of the song's near 8 minute run time. The song becomes a kind of call to action, for all of the "music makers" and "dreamers of dreams." If Selected Ambient Works '85-'92 is an examination of all our worldly ties, "We Are The Music Makers" drifts, allowing us all to contemplate a world of possibilities over one of strict, binding reality.

Aphex Twin created a sound that would influence both electronic and ambient music over the last two decades. Selected Ambient Works '85-'92 may not be among the greatest albums ever recorded, but Richard James aimed for the fences, and it's hard not to see the results of his efforts as more a success than a failure.

When last we left one Beck Hansen, he had churned out Odelay and hit the big time. During our discussion of that album, I mentioned my respect for Beck's consistent drive to experiment, yet also admitted that I had trouble considering myself a fan of his work, so varied and variable is its quality. His seventh album, and Ashley's pick this week, Midnite Vultures is more emblematic of the problems I have with Beck as an artist, which isn't to say it's a bad album, just a messy one.

"Sexx Laws" is a fascinating mixture of brassy funk music and bluegrass influenced banjo. Basically, the song is Beck at his best"”boldly experimental, genre bending, catchy and intelligent. The song takes its disparate influences and makes them work together, which is a fairly impressive feat. The success of "Mixed Bizness" is more, well, mixed. The song lacks to successful synergy of "Sexx Laws," becoming overwhelmed by the various sounds Beck tries to incorporate. Additionally, the song is a lyrical mess, losing much of the cleverness and power of Beck's best work.

"Debra" manages to contain both the best and worst of Beck within one near six-minute track. The song is ostensibly a satire of smooth jazz R&B songs about sex, and in that regard is very clever. Beck's tendency for random experimentation and lyrical absurdity, both of which tend to hurt him as much as they help him in my view, are well served here, even if the song does tend to drag on for a very long time after the joke stops being funny.

Midnite Vultures isn't a perfect album. In the standard Beck vein, the album is a mixed bag of inspired experimentation and muddled songs that feel like they never left the "error" phase of trial and error. Though I will probably never count myself among Beck's biggest fans, he is a musical figure that demands my respect, if only for his willingness to try anything and everything to create a great song. Beck isn't always good, but he is always interesting, and that, at least, is worth respect.

Steven Ellison is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane and as such has quite the sonic legacy to live up to. Following in Coltrane's oft-experimental footsteps, Ellison became Flying Lotus, and began releasing music both electronic and experimental. His second album, and Collin's pick this week, Los Angeles, was released in 2008, and joins the other two albums we have examined this week in striving for greatness, even if it falls shorter than either of them.

Ellison got his start as a musician creating the musical bumpers used to promote Adult Swim shows on Cartoon Network, a fact that is completely unsurprising after listening to the album, which works in fits and starts and sounds an awful lot like the type of background music you hear between the late night programming on Cartoon Network. "Beginners Falafel" has an intriguing central hook, yet its constant loop grates over the songs two and a half minutes (I imagine it would play better in a thirty second burst). "Orbit 405" sounds like the line for Space Mountain condensed into 45 seconds; if that's what you want out of a song, this is the one for you.

"GNG BNG" slams an appealing sitar melody into a keyboard line so mangled it sounds like the person playing it was stabbed from behind. "Antie's Lock/ Infinitum" is easily the album's high point, with Laura Darlington's voice filling in the spaces otherwise left in Lotus' music and adding a lingering feeling of emotion where most of the rest of the album feels tailored to the attention deficit.

Los Angeles isn't a bad album; its just only a good one every now and then. Flying Lotus is willing to take chances in his music; he experiments widely and succeeds occasionally at creating something memorable. Once again, it is apparent that he strives for greatness, and while he falls short, that doesn't deprive him of the kudos for trying.

Music is often about freedom to create uninhibited by any rules or strictures. The problem with such freedom is that most people don't know what to do when they are truly free. Stripped of any rules or guidelines, many people will stumble out of the gate, falling on their faces before they truly take their first steps. The freedom of creation is very powerful and very dangerous. In the wrong hands, it can create something of a mess. Yet when utilized correctly, the freedom of creation can take us to places we never even knew we wanted to go and show us places we had forgotten we wanted to go back to. It can show us ourselves, and it can remind us who we truly want to be. It can fill in a void, and make us feel whole, where before we were empty. It can organize chaos into order and make sense of the senseless. At its best, at the rarefied heights so few can reach, it can not only show us the truth, but create a new truth that will stay with us forever.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We will check out Autechre's Tri Repetae, watch as The Magnetic Fields craft 69 Love Songs, and see Ohneotrix Point Never create some Rifts.
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