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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Best CDs of 1999

By Marc Weidenbaum

  1. Beaucoup Fish Underworld (JBO) Take the title of the accomplished British dance trio Underworld’s latest album to mean what you like. The peculiar word pairing Beaucoup Fish may simply be an expression of the breadth of material here. The vocals alone range from the intricately computer-enhanced engineering of the opening track, “Cups,” to the Depeche Mode-style crooning of “Shudder/King of Snake,” to the deadpan spoken word of “Bruce Lee,” on which vocalist-guitarist Karl Hyde intones a mash of wordplay that imitates the digital cut-and-paste methods the band often uses to process its lyrical content. Now, keep in mind that this is by no means a vocal record. It’s a dance record, and as expansive a dance record as we heard this year — replete with sultry, soulful, cinematic, midnight-hour cruising epics (“Cups,” “Push”) and driving anthems, like “Kittens,” which keenly recalls “Rez,” the early, pulsing techno niche hit that cemented the group’s renown. A love for detail threads through the album, which hums along like an expertly coded program, bringing us an iteration closer to the day when machines are fully appreciated as instruments.

  2. Niun Niggung Mouse on Mars (Sonig/Rough Trade) A wide-ranging full-length from one of the most hard-to-pigeonhole duos in electronic music — part dance music, part environmental, with nods to everything from hip-hop to chamber composition.

  3. Kakusei DJ Krush (Sony/Red Ant) Released initially on Sony in Japan, this is Krush’s tribute to DJ Premier: virtually no vocals, just loop after loop of abraded hip-hop that follows a rhythm skewed like the gait of a wounded animal.

  4. Scope Nobukazu Takemura (Thrill Jockey) Superminimalist music that plays doppler tricks on your ears with carefully choreographed patterns of clicks — a blueprint that’s an end in itself. Experimental electronic music has more than its share of pointilists. Takemura distinguishes himself with a composer’s sense of dramatic arc, distinctly Eastern tones and much sonic subtlety.

  5. Parallel Processes Jake Mandell (Worm) The album takes its title from computer terminology for multitasking, but unlike much electronic music being produced in this moment of inexpensive CPUs and a flush economy, Mandell’s is a distinctly human effort: warm, humorous, playful, single-minded.

  6. The West Matmos (Deluxe) The atmospheric world of electro-acoustic music, meshing the digital and the analogue, gets an incredibly crafty addition thanks to Matmos, the conceptually oriented San Francisco duo, and a host of friends (on, among other things, slide guitar, drums, jew’s harp, trumpet and more).

  7. Modulation and Transformation 4 Various artists (Mille Plateaux) Three CDs of dedication to near silence and vertiginous depth. Ambient music tends to get typecast as sonic wallpaper, and this claustrophobic collection takes revenge on that mindset. It features Terre Theamlitz, Low Res, Mouse on Mars, and Kerosene among others.

  8. Cadman Requiem Gavin Bryars (Point) Another beautiful set of compositions from one of the earliest musicians to directly influence Brian Eno. Bryars is best known for his Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a tape-loop composition from the ’70s that resurfaced in 1993 with additional vocals by Tom Waits. Cadman is a five-part requiem for a friend who died in the 1988 Lockerbie jet terrorist bombing; it’s an achingly beautiful piece scored for voices and strings, with all the hush of a Gregorian chant. Also included are settings of eight poems by Etel Adnan and a piece titled Epilogue from Wonderlawn (1994), a minimalist work for strings. The album shows that “ambient” is about artistic intent, not technology.

  9. Royal Astronomy µ-Ziq (Astralwerks/Planet µ) More electronic explorations from one of Britain’s bright young things, composer-performer Mike Paradinas, a close associate of Aphex Twin known for his humor and love of rhythmic barrages and video-game sonics.

  10. 20′ – 2000 (series) Various artists (Noton/Raster) Not an album but a series of short CDs produced by a variety of musicians in response to the following challenge: write music for the last 20 minutes of the 20th century. The 12 releases, one for each month of 1999, feature: Komet, Ilpo Vaisanen, Ryoji Ikeda, coH, Beytone, Senking, Thomas Brinkmann, Scanner, Noto, Mika Vainio, Wolfgang Voigt and Elph. Much of the music is microsonic in nature, more a matter of technological ambivalence than of high spirts, more sine wave than auld lang syne.

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