15 (or more) of the top 10

The radiophonic portion of my life has an annual ritual associated with it that might surprise no one; a top ten. It’s that time again.

Left to my own devices, I would simply assume that everyone in this portion of 3-space would have no illusions about my method of work being that I play music I like, music I respect a bit more than I like, and some things my listeners ask me to find for them (or recommend). There’s really no other method to it.

About a decade ago, listeners started asking me what a list of “you know… the best stuff” was for the whole year. I thought it was a little surprising, since it seemed to me that anyone who listened to my program would know immediately what would be on the list-the recordings they heard the most often. But no. So I elected to subvert the dominant paradigm (and give myself some um… wiggle room) by listing 15 of the top 10 recordings of the year, and dedicating the first two RTQE broadcasts of the new year to those recordings (done so that everything got its own fifteen minutes of fame, more or less.

After having done that for a few years, I started to get calls from long-time listeners in early December, politely inquiring as to whether I had already settled on my list; they were wondering about whether or not they might fill a portion of their gift list with things that they’d heard on my show. While this was flattering, moving the creation of the list forward meant that it was considerably more difficult to cast a sidelong glance at the work of other “critics”-something I found much more appealing as a possibility rather than as a reality. Since WORT is a community radio station, we’re really answerable to our listeners in a pariticular way, so I was committed.

You can find a copy of that list for this year here. In case you’re at all curious (and would like to view my dreary bias set in greater detail, here are the lists for 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, and 1995 (there’s no 2002 list because I was living in the Netherlands and taking a hiatus from programming). It’s pretty obvious from looking back for a decade or so of this stuff that I might be biased toward the work of a few people-Autechre (whose collaboration with the Hafler Trio was on the short list this year), Monolake (Robert Henke’s absolutely wonderful 0bpm solo opus this year made the list with a bullet. By the way, it’s NOT true that Robert could record the sound of his kitchen sink runnning, process it, and make my best of list. He’s welcome to try.), Miles Davis’ post-quintet electric outings, and Tetsu Inoue. Unless the day comes when I suddenly decide that I have Critical Sensibilities rather than just being some guy who likes stuff, those commonalities of list are bound to emerge; they keep me honest, and potentially warn my listeners off (and you, too). Having put all those old “best of” pages back up in honor of this blog entry, I am somewhat comforted to discover that the older lists contain recordings that I think really have “stood the test of time,” or however I’d want to say that.

An unforeseen side-effect of doing two holiday gift shopping versions of RTQE in early December is that the programs pretty much organize themselves, and-from my point of view-they’re boffo shows with no filler or (required?) nods to new releases. Since I’m not slaving away on playlists, I thought I’d say a few things about some of the releases on this list, and beg your indulgence to do so.

There are a few things that aren’t here that maybe should be. Another way of saying this is that there are a few recordings that, in the course of the next year, may rise from the list of what I didn’t include to become things I return to again and again for pleasure. No, I don’t mean The Arcade Fire, Interpol, or the other critic’s darlings of the moment (although I find myself liking The Polyphonic Spree waaay more than I expected to). This list might include the deadbeat dub opus Something Borrowed on scape~ and Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling (I keep finding it in the CD player). You’ll notice that there’s already some bet-hedging on the list this year, owing to the fact that I can’t really listen to the Albert Ayler box in the background, can’t bear it in the foreground for more than a short while, and keep coming back to gaze into the blast furnace again and again. I did this with the Harry Smith collection of Americana years earlier, and am trying to develop and early warning system. If Avalon Sutra really is Harold Budd’s last recording, he at least warrants a shout-out for a lifetime of pleasure, but I think it was the Akira Rabelais remix/rework of the material that put it over the top for me. I’m not actually sure why I didn’t list the newly remastered and reissued Discreet Music, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, and Ambient 4: On Land, considering how much of my life has been lived to Music for Airports. And finally, I am nurturing a small kernel of fear that I have become so old and jaded that I can be in the presence of strong and beautiful music from old, old friends such as The Blue Nile and The Finn Brothers and fret about listing them here.

Does this sound like I am still enormously ambivalent about this whole list and recommendation thing? Yep. I generally figure that having something like 100 hours of radio time per year means I can work around that in a way that a list just doesn’t allow.

Okay-a few comments about what’s on the list:

  • The Gavin Bryars recording is a perfect example of a wrong corrected. All Ten of A Man in a Room, Gambling was originally a project sponsored by the British outfit Artangel that we ran on WORT years ago as a kind of mysterious event-it would simply appear at the same time, twice a week, for five minutes without comment… a kind of mysterious imaginary weather report (well, okay-a short description about ways to cheat at cards) with this lovely and restrained string quartet. People loved it, but Bryars’ record company at the time decided not to release the whole set. Bryars himself corrected the error on his own small label, and had done me (and you, maybe) a great favor in doing so. It’s also a kind of sad reminder that his collaborator, the Spanish sculptor and conceptualist Juan Mu&#ntilde;oz, left us entirely too early.
  • I first encountered Helge Sten (Deathprod) as a remixer, redoing the work of Norwegian electronic composer and maverick Arne Nordheim. To be honest, I picked up the recording because it had a Biosphere piece on it. His participation in the improvising ensemble Supersilent further piqued my interest, but by that time all his earlier recordings were out of print. Morals and Dogma was released this year in two forms-the recording itself, and a 4-CD box that includes his earlier work. I went for the box.
  • A friend of mine pointed out that there is a substantial amount of music by Cycling ’74 people on this list (from Huntley Miller’s EP Dowry, whose only shortcoming is that it is 1/4 as long as it should be, Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori’s duet outing, Lawrence Casserley’ appearance with The Evan Parker Electroacoustic Ensemble, and the aforementioned Mr. Henke). I was completely blindsided by this, but admit that perhaps I am paying a bit more attention to what people do with our software than in previous years. I suppose that I’ll spend the next calendar year discovering that there is a good deal more Max/MSP in this list than I’m aware of….
  • The 5-hour LaMonte Young release The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lightsain’t cheap, but it’s probably cheaper than the 5-CD Gramavision release of The Well Tuned Piano on eBay, and it plays all the way through.
  • Have I managed to avoid blooging about Siniaalto? They’re probably my personal “obscure find” for the year-a modest little Finnish outfit who does 70s-style electronic music on pre-MIDI equipment. Think of them as an “Orchestra of the Enlightenment” for synth music (with perhaps a nod to some Deodatoesque electric piano). There are some free MP3s of the work here.

Man, I should just shut up. Caveat auditor, mes amis….

15 (or more) of the top 10

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