Aphex Twin : Drukqs (Warp/Sire). Richard James is one strange fellow. The British producer does his damnedest to scare away potential listeners, but he still manages to command a sizable audience that hangs on every menacing metallic synthetic fragment, scattershot break beat, placid soundscape, and irreverent vocal he can toss up. While some critics, citing a lack of cohesion, have suggested Drukqs is merely James's way of clearing out his hard drive of all his old material (and that may be true), I think the album's multifaceted sides are more a reflection of the wide range of emotions James tackles through his music. This is by no means an easy or comfortable album. James's penchant for hyper-hysterics runs rampant on several tracks. Yet there are plenty of tracks that consist solely of pensive piano playing and ethereal pulsars, reminiscent of his early work. The more I listened to Drukqs , the more I liked it.
Jack Dangers: Hello Friends (Shadow). Toasted, nicely toasted. Lifting a quote from Jack Dangers' highly entertaining mix CD Hello Friends, toasted seems to be the best way to enjoy the fifteen-track opus from the legendary breakbeat master behind Meat Beat Manifesto. Though MBM isn't quite dead, it's clear Dangers's attention has been focused on the dub leanings of Tino Corp. Hello Friends is comprised of previously released tracks on vinyl from Dangers, Tino, Ben Stokes's DHS, and Mike Powell. The result, while not necessarily technically perfect, is a beat fiend's wet dream, as Dangers slides effortlessly from the mambo-fused "Tropical Soul/Tino's Beat" to the tongue-in-cheek head-nodder "Christmas in Hawaii" or the gleaming Latin groove of "Kick It Dub" (featuring a hilarious sample from Charlie's Angels). Don't miss Cuban maestro Tino and his amazing drumming abilities on the bonus video track! What a joy!
Richie Hawtin: DE9: Closer to the Edit (Minus/NovaMute). Richie Hawtin has been at the forefront of confronting new technology since debuting in the early 1990s with FUSE and his most well-known moniker, Plastikman. His sparse and mechanical sound influenced many producers, emphasizing space and substance over predictability by de-emphasizing melody. Yet his recent material has seemed more about technical skill than substance. But on DE9, Hawtin raises the bar for himself and all electronic musicians with a jaw-dropping mix CD that brings back the subtle funkiness of his early material with an intricate yet minimal 21st-century flair. DE9 is attracting headlines because of a new technology called Final Scratch, which enables the user to "play" a digital music file via a specially made blank vinyl record. Featuring 31 actual "tracks" from a slew of Detroit artists, the album actually contains hundreds of loops and snippets from more than 100 tracks by artists such as Carl Craig, Theorem, Basic Channel, Stewart Walker, and many others. The result is an amazingly complex album that is still seeping into my brain months after its release.
Herbert: Bodily Functions (!K7/Soundslike). The trend of the year was taking sampling to the next level by using unconventional sounds such as surgery, random conversations, and breaking plastic. On Bodily Functions, Matthew Herbert marries unlikely field recordings with warm and inviting jazz arrangements (using such live instrumentation as piano, stand-up bass, clarinet, violin, flute, and trumpet) and thumping house beats amidst a recurring theme about human interaction. The result is one of the most uniquely satisfying albums of the year. Indeed, Dani Siciliano's luxurious vocals provide the perfect counterpart to Herbert's sensuous, propulsive music. If nothing else, this is a great way to introduce jazz snobs to electronic music.
Ursula Rucker: Supa Sista (!K7). This was the triumphant year for spoken -word goddess Ursula Rucker, as she moved from being a well-known talent in her native Philadelphia to a full-blown international star. Previously best known for her stirring and troubling poems that closed the last two Roots albums, Rucker eliminates a predisposed aversion to spoken word with the raw, emotive album Supa Sista. Combining forces with several producers (including 4 Hero's Dego McFarlane, Jonah Sharp, King Britt, Alexkid, and Philip Charles), Supa Sista seethes with anger and fury as Rucker addresses tough social topics such as domestic violence, poverty, drug abuse, racism, and sexism. Her eloquent vocals are accentuated thanks to the album's spare production, combining hip-hop, jazz, drum and bass, and soul in a smooth style that never overpowers Rucker's forthright intonations.
Slicker: The Latest (Hefty). This album by Chicago's Slicker (John Hughes, who also runs the Hefty label) is a crackly noise-trip of supernova proportions, set at armchair impulse power speed. Taking a side-door exit from the post-rock experimental world of his previous work, Slicker here gravitates toward a downbeat, abstract blend of digital and organic musical matter that fluctuates between IDM, glitch, and 21st-century jazz. Featuring guest appearances from the cerebral electronic duo Matmos (on the nimble "Swap Track") and other Hefty labelmates, The Latest challenges the listener through a series of minimal shifts in time and tone, creating an aural atmosphere that's refreshingly chilly and spatial. -- Tim Pratt
Buck 65 : Man Overboard (Anticon). There was a deluge of eccentric, polysyllabic white-boy rapper records this year, and many of them were well worth the money. I do have reservations about the obscurantism that seems to motivate their lyrical approaches -- too many WPMs (words per minute) and opaque references. Buck 65 gets my vote for enunciating clearly and making his clever wordplay meaningful. Any emcee who can eulogize his mother who died recently of breast cancer and not sound corny gets mad props in my book. He also scratches like a DMC champ, samples Metallica, and declares, "I can't wait until the day I ride around in rocket cars/Wear short-sleeved shirts/And all I eat is chocolate bars." The Anticon label has been accused of making rap safe for the alternative rock crowd -- I say bring on the thrift-store sweaters and shoegazing. Emo-hop deserves its time to shine, and might prove to be the ideal antidote for victims of rap's platinum-poisoning epidemic.
Interfearence: Take That Train (Ubiquity). I'm not sure how they made all of this stuff, but it sounds like acoustic disco to me. Flutes pick up melodies in place of synths, hand percussion supplants programmed thuds, and tribal/ devotional chants that don't sound lifted from National Geographic specials echo all throughout the mix. But it's not the novelty of the instrumentation alone that earns my vote -- these two Londoners know how to whip the shindig into overdrive with toe-blistering tempos and savvy build-and-release dynamics. In the same constellation perhaps as the confounding and (in my opinion) overly flapped-about broken beat scene, but sans the yuppie snootiness and preoccupation with supposedly rarefied subtlety.
Mr. Velcro Fastener: Lucky Bastards Living Up North (Statra). Electro, that homo erectus that both techno and drum-machine-based hip-hop descended from decades ago, continues to defy natural selection and show up its offspring with its technological sophistication. But it must be damn hard to market, because even most loyal electronic music devotees missed out on this apocalyptic dance-floor imploder (even with the free cutout robot toy included in the liner notes). Mr. Velcro Fastener is a Finnish group that understands electro is based on a certain insane impossibility: a system of angular machine rhythms, crystalline synthesizer cascades, and guttural vocoder moans that intermesh to create a stiff, menacing funk. MVF's source sounds are so evil they should send people running for their mental stability.
The Parallax Corporation: Cocadisco (Viewlexx). Hailing from The Hague and named after a Seventies paranoid conspiracy film, the Parallax Corporation is the leading group behind the worldwide Eurodisco revival. Actually it's pretty much the only group, but its sputtering retro weirdness really should be the next contagion to take over clubland. (Never happen.) For inspiration corporation chairmen I-f (best known for his underground anthem "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass") and Intergalactic Gary mine the work of Italian electronic pioneer and film-score master Giorgio Moroder (Blade Runner, Scarface), a deviant miscreant most contemporary house and techno producers try hard to forget. Juicy, throbbing bass lines push these tracks into back alleys of cheap lust and bad drugs, exactly where dance music began and to which it will inevitably return.
Pep Love: Ascension (Hiero Imperium). Quietly, perhaps even conservatively, Pep Love has established himself as one of Northern California's most feared secret weapons on the mike. And he couldn't have made his ten-years-in-the-making debut at a better time -- his Hieroglyphics crew is coming off a series of disappointing albums (Souls of Mischief, Del) and indie hip-hop in general is in a creative lull. Ascension is more than a classic rap album, it's a tribute to the straightforward, gimmick-free beats and lyrics that put the East Bay on the map. Plus Pep's flow is absolutely his own, a rarity in this day of Eminem and Cash Money clones. Some reviewers fault him for being too wordy, which to me is like dissing a mathematician for using too many numbers.
Prefuse 73: Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives (Warp). Much ink has been spilled over the arranged marriage of bleeding-edge electronic experimentation and hip-hop, that laptop nerds like media darling Kid606 and his Tigerbeat6 crew are influenced by rap, and that chartbusting R&B producers like Timbaland must listen to jungle. While music from both of these camps is satisfying in its own right, neither so far has arrived at a hybrid that can appeal equally to the other side. Enter Atlanta's PreFuse 73, the first producer who could lure as many hip-hop fans as IDM followers (although the fact that it's on techno heavyweight Warp probably means far fewer hip-hoppers found this awesome debut). The fact that glitched-up, creeping melodic undertones coexist so well with chopped vocals from lyrical sharpshooters Aesop Rock and Divine Styler suggests that the rocky honeymoon between these supposedly white and black musics might be moving into the sweet lovin' stage.
Princess Superstar: Princess Superstar Is (Corrupt Conglomerate). My vote for the best hip-hop single of the year is the Princess's "Bad Baby sitter," an überraunchy rallying call for all the six-dollar-an-hour teenage laborers who put the kid to bed, invite the boyfriend over, and "know how nice it is to get laid while you're gettin' paid." The comparison is really too obvious to make (she even puts it into one of her songs), but Princess Superstar is the closest thing we have to a female Eminem. Overwhelming lyrical dexterity, oodles of shock value, too much personal information, the whole platinum-blond thing ... the only difference is she doesn't hate guys and takes herself less seriously. And the duet with Kool Keith should not be missed. -- Darren Keast
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