URB Magazine calls Artifacts a hip-hop album, unquestionably. I challenge that statement because I feel that just cheapens the icy beauty of 2008's best album. That challenge'll take some doing since most of my friends into labels like Mush, Anticon, and Stones Throw are feeling this album from long-standing San Antonio micro-imprint Exponential. Even my friends who would turn their noses up at those kinds of "race" records yet turn around and buy albums from WARP (WASP?) artists like Boards of Canada and Flying Lotus are feeling this one. Sure, Artifacts is even constructed of pastiche of loops-just like a hip-hop album but the only guy in hip-hop capable of making a record like this is DJ Premiere-from whose playbook Aether borrows liberally. I can practically guarantee that Primo ain't gonna be rockin the M83 or My Bloody Valentine's "Glider" EP in search of those fragile melodies and tender hooks all over this sucker. Twenty years ago this album actually would have been labelled some sort of goth or Cure-damaged amalgam stripped of the boom-bap and it's hard to shake the emotional and art-damaged beauty Aether steals directly from dudes like Roger Eno and Steve Reich on this album. But here comes the "amen" break, some Lee "Scratch" Perry sub bass action, the latest noise from Berlin, and even a few timbales. Voila! Suddenly the trip down new romantic lane got enough rhythmic go juice to keep high school kids from getting their asses kicked for daring to explore their sensitive side. There are so many possibilites uncovered on Artifacts from indie to ambient but what this is definitely not is unquestionably hip- hop but rather one of the great downtempo chill albums of this decade.
John Tejada-Fabric 44 (Fabric London)(UK)
Twice last year, the Fabric label looked out westward for some top shelf DJ mixes. First we had Mark Farina on #40- who sounded better than he had in years- and closing out the 2008 roster comes this offering from Los Angeles techno veteran John Tejada. This guy has been around forever and worked in every facet of techno including mid 90s drum & bass. But at his molten core, like many other DJs from LA, you'll find a KDAY influence buried below. The infamous AM radio station was known in the 1980s for it's electro party style music typified by artists like the World Class Wreckin Cru and J.J. Fad. As expected the mix has some of those KDAY electro underpinnings but could have used some old school quick mixing tricks to enliven it because the second half of the mix after Orbital's acid/piano house classic "Farenheit 303" just fades into a dull and tuneless mess. It's a shame because the first half of Tejada's mix brings out some undiluted techno influences and frankly it's a breath of fresh air to hear that in opposition to all of the SF tech house and everyone else's just plain dreary minimal. Too bad Fabric 44 is so hit or miss as if Tejada can never quite find the right groove. If techno boys like Carl Craig and Justin Maxwell ain't your bag I'd say you can probably safely miss this one but even if you do like this kind of stout techno you may be kinda disappointed by Fabric 44's lack of focus.
Hercules & Love Affair-S/T (DFA)(US)
I absolutely loved this record. It has become one of my favorite mainstream pop records since the second B-52's album. And while there is no "Planet Claire" on the self-titled debut album from this NYC nu disco outfit they do manage to crank out a theme song ("Hercules Theme") and "Blind"- one of the finest singles of 2008. "Blind" especially has the whole Nile Rodgers Eighties thing going on but the lyric delivered by transgendered persona Antony is as painful and bittersweet as anything penned by Patti Smith. That combo of Manhattan indulgence and Lower East Side grittiness had me immediately identifying with Hercules and Love Affair while the slick dancefloor production left me ready to bust a move. I wish more pop albums could be this bold and yet still manage to have some fun.
Various-Sean's Lolla 08 Mix
My pal Passean has a definite nose for good pop music and this collection inspired by his annual pilgrimage to Lollapalooza was an excellent indicator of what was actually good last year that got played on the radio-something most of you reading this will quickly discover I know little about. Cat Power does her best to sound like Chrissy Hynde jamming with the Muscle Shoals players on the empowering rocker "Aretha, Sing One For Me" while WARP artist Jamie Lidell channels his inner-Motown on "Little Bit Of Feel Good", "Another Day", and "Wait For Me" from his latest. These artists shocked me by wearing their influences so much on their sleeves and yet the retro appeal somehow really worked for both of them quite well. I was also surprised at how I absolutely fell in love with the Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson pairing "Valerie". I know the inspiration for the song is the Brill Building and old Phillie Spector all the way but with a barbed lyric and Winehouse's raspy pipes I'd say this song was better suited for a punk rogue like Johnny Thunders. But with all of those greats dead now (RIP Ronnie Asheton) who could even do this song properly- (although I do have visions of Elvis Costello & the Attractions...)? I really miss simple two and half minute pop gems like "Valerie" and Mick's kid seems capable of making them in his sleep, to Mr. Ronson I say "kudos". Lastly, I wanted to mention Marshall Law-a DJ my man Passean really supports and turned me on to a few years back. Law is obviously an old school college radio DJ and instead of creating the typically annoying Beyonce vs Nirvana or Phil Collins vs ANYBODY mash-ups associated with dead- from- the- neck- up plane crash survivors like DJ AM. On the two cuts on this comp he wields his massive record collection like a highly specialized weapon. The street music rave-up is part hip hop and part The Blow Up and could only be topped by the flawless "All Apologies" mash-up. I generally hate mash-ups because they debase the power of the DJ's hands but when I hear a cat like this tear it up manually on Nirvana like that it restores my faith in the DJ-which has been shaken these past few years. The rest of the disk is loaded mostly with the typical college rock faire that I have grown tired of over the years and did little to spark my interest but these above mentioned artists made me rethinking writing off 2008 as a total lost cause.
Lars Horntveth-Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound)(Norway)
Norway's Smalltown Supersound imprint is no stranger to 30 minute plus epic tunes-look no further than Lindstrøm's latest album for proof of that fcat. However the sophomore album Kaleidoscopic from Jaga Jazzist leader Lars Horntveth takes that extreme to its logical conclusion with an album that is 37 minutes long and composed entirely of one track-"Kaleidoscopic". Do I dare call this a single and how much will it cost if I buy it on iTunes? Performed by Horntveth and the 41 piece Latvian National Orchestra the album is a concept soundtrack to an imaginary movie and what a movie it must be. I hear echoes of George Martin's side on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine album and even funky old Lalo Schiffrin in some places but generally Kaledioscopic sounds like a low rent version of Phillip Glass on ecstasy at a rave trying to convince everyone he's Steve Reich and coming up with the soundtrack to The Party instead. It's fun but in the same hollow kitchy way those Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman records are too.