Tunequest Year in Review 2008

This year’s end summary is going to be a little shorter than in the past, for two principle reasons: 1) 2008 was a lot busier for me than recent years, so my opportunities to explore and listen to new music were more limited, and B) I spent a lot of the free time I did have listening to audiobooks and podcasts rather than music. Indeed, 2008 saw only 510 new songs added to my library (with 103 of them largely unlistened because they were added in the last two weeks), compared with 2051 new additions in 2007.

And looking back over the numbers and trends, it is clear that my musical year for the most part ended toward the end of summer, since that’s when the new additions and activity begin tapering off.

Let’s not mistake quantity for quality though. 2008 was not without its highlights. Here’s a look back at the best music I discovered in the past year:

Kelley Polar: Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens (2005); I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling (2008)

love songs of the hanging gardens

In December 2007, I heard my first Kelley Polar song. In January 2008, the album that song appeared on (Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens) rocked my world. I wrote on tunequest:

it pulls at you with pulsing with heady rhythms, ass-shaking grooves and a surprisingly high level of singability. The aspect that strikes me the most however, is how the music simultaneously seems to sound sparsely populated yet vast and teeming with activity. A bit like the seeming emptiness the heavens above, which when looked at closely is full of magnificent detail.

i need you to hold on while the sky is falling

Following shortly on my discovery of Love Songs, Polar’s second album, I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling, was released on March. While I was less ecstatic about it than I was toward Love Songs–it’s darker tone and more intimate feeling weren’t quite as compelling–I still found the album quite enjoyable. It’s even grown on me a bit since the original review.

Together, the albums made a significant mark on my musical year.

Ratatat – LP3 (2008)

ratatat lp3

It should be of no surprise to long-time readers that Ratatat’s third LP made a big splash around here. Released in early July, LP3 rocked up my charts, becoming the most played artist, album and songs of the year.

With its simultaneous expansion of both guitar and keyboard sounds, the album pretty much ruled my summer.

The Breeders – Mountain Battles (2008)

mountain battles

After six years since their last album, The Breeders typified the idea of pent-up demand. The band has consistently ranked near the top of my favorites, which makes it frustrating that it spends long hiatuses between releases.

It’s made all the more frustrating by the album’s short length, approx. 36 minutes. But those 36 minutes are pure gold. As I said in my original review, the band’s “low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.” The buzz and good feeling I got from this record’s release was capped off by finally, after 14 years, catching the Breeders in concert in June.

Stereolab – Chemical Chords (2008)

Stereolab is another perennial favorite around tunequest and a new album is sure to be listened to with much delight. Chemical Chords was no exception. The groop took a slightly different approach to this album, consciously creating shorter, simpler, more poppy songs than in the past. The result is a refreshing buoyant, dare I say happy, feeling from a band that has traditionally been cool and detached. Happy looks good on them, as I noticed when the band swung through town in September.

Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (2006)

Before picking up So This Is Goodbye, Junior Boys had long been on my radar. It was the opening band at a show I went to four years ago and they piqued my interest then. But it wasn’t until I happened across the record on eMusic that I finally checked the band out.

I was not disappointed. So This Is Goodbye is fantastic album. Expertly produced and crafted, the smooth electronic tones have an intimate, downtempo feel that borders on melancholic. It’s almost a rainy day album, except that it’s got too much shine behind it.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Music for 18 Musicians (2007)

This album arrived late in the year, just before Thanksgiving, but it packed quite a wallop.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is a notoriously hard piece to perform. So it is something of a shock to see this, and pardon the bluntness, “no name” orchestra release what is probably to best rendition of it ever recorded. Written in 1974-1976 and focused largely on Reich’s fascination with harmonics, Music for 18 Musicians creates cyclical, trance-inducing soundscapes that mesmerize and fascinate the ears and mind. Grand Valley State’s recording is the first made in surround sound and it is a thing of sublime beauty that is quite an accomplishment.


There you have: tunequest highlights from 2008. There’s always great music out there and although 2009 is shaping up to be just as busy as last year, here’s hoping I have to to discover some of it.

Johnny Greenwood – Bodysong: Accessible Abstracts

Johnny Greenwood - Bodysong

get bodysong at amazon

All the recent Radiohead hoopla reminded me about the band’s other driving creative force: Johnny Greenwood. He’s the lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist responsible for a lot of those awesome riffs that Radiohead fans love oh-so-much (he tied with fellow band member Ed O’Brien as Rolling Stones’ 59th and 60th greatest guitar players of all time). Besides his work in a rock band, Greenwood also composes music of a more classical nature. In fact, he’s been the BBC’s composer in residence since 2004.

His first solo release is Bodysong, the score to the 2003 film of the same name. I remember reading a little about it when it came out, but have just now gotten around to giving it a serious listen. Overall, the album’s style is aligned with contemporary classical, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. It sweeps between orchestral strings, flighty jazz and mellow ambiance while maintaining a cohesive identity.

Unlike what is typically thought of as abstract/avant-garde music where the art derives from the sculpting of sound that isn’t necessarily pleasant to listen to, Bodysong is largely recognizable as traditional music, though not with much pop sensibility. The music here is compelling, if not particularly catchy.

In the case of many of the score’s more mellow tracks, it’s tempting to describe them as “soundscapes,” like a minimalist rising and fadings of tones. But the work here shows too much structure to be classified that way, with rhythm and percussion giving form to the formless. Greenwood’s compositions are abstract without being inaccessible.

Of the thirteen tracks on the disc, Convergence and Splitter are the two highlights. Convergence takes a page from Steve Reich’s book, feature overlapping layers of pure percussion that mesmerizingly diverge and converge with each other. It’s hard to not try a pick out the various patterns. Splitter, on the other hand, is a freeform jazz piece that could easily be using the same New Orleans jazz band from Amnesiac’s Life in a Glass House.

One of the more interesting results of Bodysong is how it reinforces the idea that Radiohead really is a functioning unit. Johnny’s influence on the band’s music is readily apparent in the soft piano of the album’s opener as well as in the various electronic interjections.

Overall however, I was quite surprised by how listenable Bodysong is, despite being what should be “difficult but rewarding.”

And a multi-track sampler from the film:

Jonny Greenwood – Bodysong

tunequest week in review

for the week ending may 20, 2006.

stats: a superlative week here at tunequest. 394 songs played over 25 hours and 40 minutes. a further 5 songs were removed from the library for a net progress of 399, a new record. frankly, i'm surprised by the results. an afternoon braves game and a couple of extented meetings cut into my normal office listening time and i didn't really expect saturday's listening to be able to compensate. not that i'm complaining about it. i'm thrilled.

highlights for the week include sharing the chicago symphony's performance of mahler's no 6 with the neighborhood, revisiting some  grunge and post-grunge rock from nirvana's bleach and soundgarden's down on the upside, appreciating the smooth grooves of the well-pollished idm of to rococo rot's hotel morgen, getting funky with morton steven's very compelling tv score to hawaii five-o (best tv theme song ever!), and finally finally finally finally getting through all those babylon 5 scores* (it took 7 weeks, but i did it), as well as enjoying a host of other really great music.

also mixed in this week were a couple of james bond scores (john barry's diamonds are forever and david arnold's die another day. both excellent) and william shatner's has been. now don't laugh at this, but that shatner album is some powerful stuff. he's got a very engaging spoken-word delivery as well as some respectable collaborators. the result is 11 songs that pack more heartfelt sentiment than all the songs on top 40 radio in the past 10 years combined. i mean that.

it was also apparently "records that time forgot week" here at tunequest. i only covered 7 albums in that short-lived series, and 3 of them managed to pop up this week: can's ege bamyasi, louis and bebe barron's score to forbidden planet and martin denny's space-exotica extravaganza exotic moog. as soon as i track down that file, i'll post it.

see this week's complete list of albums in the extended entry.

*technically, i have one album left, a compilation called 'the best of babylon 5.' it's currently not eligible for play because the tunequest-ipod is into the I's and it's not smart enough to ignore the "the" at the beginning of album names. artists yes, albums no.

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“difficult but rewarding”

I took an hour out of the tunequest this morning to listen to an episode of the Sound of Young America, a radio show/podcast that I discovered in January. In all seriousness, I’m not a fan of talk radio as a format; I find that listening to other peoples’ conversations grating. I’d rather be having my own conversations or listening to music.

SoYA instantly cut through that avoision. Besides host Jesse Thorn’s nearly-perfect-for-radio voice, the show’s attitude is, well, awesome. In fact, the show bills itself as "Dedicated to things that are awesome" and I can certainly get behind that. I think I fell in love with the show almost instantly one cold, wet, dreary and long Atlanta commute home. The guest was Josh Kornblut, who talked about his one-man Benjamin Franklin show.

Now, like any good American, I’m fond of the Founding Fathers for their intellectual, diplomatic and governmental achievements. But the flipside of that adoration manifests itself by thinking that it’s hilarious to place them outside of their historical context, like Ben Franklin besting Jimi Hendrix at air hockey "that’s game, Hendrix". And when Jesse Thorn seemed as excited as I did about Franklin, that sealed the deal right then and there. themodernista accuses me of having a man-crush on Jesse.

Unfortunately, with tunequest occupying up almost all of my free listening time, our affair has been scattered and brief. So today’s episode was not only a rare treat, but relevant to my project here because it dealt with the topic of "rock snobs" a phenomenon with which I can claim some familiarity. I freely admit that I have some rock snob-ish tendencies, which definitely shows through my desire to collect rare and obscure music and eschew the pop charts.

Though I think the term "snob" is a little inappropriate for me, since I honestly try to keep an open mind about music and try not to be too exclusionary. I’m not ashamed to say that my library contains some Eminem and even one Limp Bizkit song (okay, I am a little ashamed of that one. But it is a decent rock version of the Mission Impossible theme, so it gets bonus points from the Lalo Schifrin association).

(BTW, I can’t stand genuine rock snobs, so I try to avoid those circles. I don’t need to follow who’s acceptable to listen to this month. And I certainly don’t need anyone’s approval of my musical tastes; At my age, I don’t need much street cred. Plus, the inherent negativity of the generic rock snob is quite off-putting.)

Of course, I wouldn’t be undertaking the tunequest if my collector’s habit hadn’t gotten out of control.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The progression of a rock snob was discussed on the show, from the acquisition of a velvet underground record (or other acceptably legendary artist) at age 18 and the subsequent search for ever-more arcane and obscure music. Eventually, that search leads to music that is so unappealing that it can only be enjoyed intellectually, by telling oneself that it is brilliant and that if someone else doesn’t think so, then they just don’t get it. (On that point, the episode does make a slightly negative mention of Steve Reich, to which I must object. His Music for 18 Musicians is both listenable and provocative. But if you don’t agree, I won’t accuse you of not getting it.)

To the appropriately discerning ears, said music can be called "Difficult, but rewarding," an endurance test of sound and noise that for all the effort required, when it’s finished, you can say, "That was worth it."

Which, in turn, brings me to Chicago Underground Trio, a group who I’ve categorized as avant jazz. It is the type of music that fits the above description. It is a swirling cacophany of trumpets and drums that takes momentary breaks into recognizable forms of music before beginning the assault again. The musicianship of the performers is not in question–they are affiliated with Tortoise after all–but this record really is a chore to listen to. In the end, I found it difficult but not rewarding.