Best CDs of 2001

  1. Kingdom Come Ingram Marshall (ECM) The album contains three pieces, the most noteworthy of which is “Hymnodic Delays,” a series of settings that contemporary-classical composer Marshall did for a spare vocal quartet who sing centuries-old New England hymns. The hymns would be beautiful enough on their own, but Marshall, who has long been a proponent of experimenting with sound technology, employs digital delays, which lend a warm, church-like reverb to the voices. Just about everything that any individual member of the quartet sings is repeated several times, making the group sound significantly larger than it is, and lending a ghostly aura to everything they utter.

  2. Cinemascope Monolake (ML/I) Each of the songs on Cinemascope, by the German act Monolake, begins as one might expect a normal pop song to begin. In Monolake’s case, the sounds aren’t the humble strummings of an tune, but the deep house beats of an electronica single. When lyrics fail to arrive, the background comes into the foreground. With its subdued rhythms and rudimentary palette, Cinemascope recalls the drive-by-night techno of Underworld and the antiseptic throb of Richie Hawtin. Monolake explores familiar elements of pop music in a manner that sheds new light. Two standout tracks are “Alpenrausch,” which mimics a simple hip-hop drum loop, and “Ionized,” which must be the most extreme reduction of the Bo Diddley beat ever recorded. If you appreciate the Diddley beat as one of pop music’s great spices, then you must sample this highly condensed rendition.

  3. Hard Again Scott Tuma (Truckstop) Scott Tuma’s Hard Again has been compared with the work of John Fahey, as has the music of his former band, Souled American — all of which is true enough, but not necessarily helpful because Fahey’s music, a philosophical brand of Americana, is criminally underheard. Fahey passed away just shy of his 62nd birthday, a few months before Hard Again‘s release, and there’s been no more-fitting tribute. It’s an album virtually free of vocals, capturing all the beauty of country and folk music without ever dangling a true hook, let alone a verse or a chorus. This is, to use the word twice in a single column, attenuated music—music featuring familiar instruments (guitar, bass and the drums of Jim White, best known as a member of the instrumental rock act Dirty Three) and familiar techniques (experimental overdubbing, for example), but the result is mysterious and beautiful.

  4. A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure Matmos (Matador) The duo Matmos confronts criticism that electronica is “cold” and “inhuman” by employing source material that emanates from the body: samples from plastic surgery-the snap of cracking bones, the glurp of extruded fat. But even without that background information, the resulting record still bubbles with life.

  5. Supermogadon Marumari (Carpark) Shimmering, midtempo lounge music. Perfect for fans of Mouse and Mars’ early records, with their “Muzak of the future” sheen.

  6. Vespertine Bjork (Elektra) A siren of the Information Age, Bjork continues to explore the potential of new digital forms of expression, without letting go of the desire to record memorable songs. For Vespertine she tapped one of the most inventive electronic duos, Matmos, to assist in the album’s production.

  7. Bodily Functions Herbert (K7) The title of Herbert’s 2001 album suggests samples of inopportune human sounds (as does Matmos’s 2001 album, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure), and there is a bit of that here, but the subject of the title has likely more to do with dancing and lovemaking. Either of those activities would benefit from this background music, as long as you don’t mind the occasional vocal intruding on your privacy. The album is a wide-ranging collection of subdued music, from what sounds like light jazz fusion, were it not for the insurgence of pixelated sounds, to a kind of sedate house music. What makes the album a triumph is Herbert’s ability to make the range of songs work together as a whole, and to bring conceptual detail-mindedness to areas of electronic music that often favor function over form and content.

  8. Since I Left You The Avalanches (Sire/Modular) There’s a genre, or a club of sorts, consisting of bands who recycle our favorite music for us — music we love but don’t recognize, because their samples mangle it so; music we would have loved, but didn’t have much of a chance previously, because it’s so obscure. The term for this for music for a long time was “big beat,” because the result of the manipulations were often set atop a heavy-handed, dance-floor-ready rhythm. There were the Propellerheads, the Chemical Brothers, the Neptunes, not to mention Fatboy Slim. And, then came the Avalanches, whose full-length debut is an engrossing, pop-minded collage of old and new, with the emphasis on the borrowed.

  9. Electric Ladyland Clickhop Version 1.0 Various artists (Mille Plateaux) Not exactly the K-Tel of electronic music, the adventurous Mille Plateaux label has built a reputation for compilations comprised of the most with-it composers and performers. This edition, a two-CD set, includes music by DJ Spooky, kid606, Jetone, Andreas Tilliander, Din, Frank Bretschneider, Vladislav Delay and members of Laub and Anti-Pop Consortium, among others. The music collected here suggests an application of rigorous experimentation to the more populist sounds of hip-hop and breakbeat music.

  10. Masses Spring Heel Jack (Thirsty Ear) The record label Thirsty Ear is home to a large number of free and otherwise avant-garde jazz musicians. For this album, the label enlisted one of its non-jazz acts, the British electronic duo Spring Heel Jack, to collaborate with its jazz roster. The result is a set of challenging listening that may sit midway between industrial-environmental music (lots of space, a strong arrhythmic tendency, an emphasis on texture) and European free improvisation (group play, non-traditional use of instruments, alternately strident and meditative sounds), but it’s so so distant from either of those realms that it has, in essence, staked out territory all its own. Participants include saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Matthew Shipp, trumpeter Roy Campbell, viola player Mat Maneri, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, and saxophonist Evan Parker. The album is the first in an intended cross-cultural imprint for Thisty Ear, called Blue Series Continuum.

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