Gift Guide 2003

What better for a last minute holiday shopper than a last minute gift guide? This is a list of ten recommendations for ambient/electronic music presents for all manner of recipients, from your cousin with basic pop tastes (the Chemical Brothers’ recent greatest hits package, naturally) to a workmate who wants something loud to drown out the water cooler chatter (why not a Merzbow remix collection?).

All of these albums were released this year, so with the exception of the DJ Z-Trip title (which is something of a grey-market item), they all should be readily available. Most of these should be locatable on the Amazon ( and Barnes & Noble ( websites, but be sure to check the excellent online storefronts of such independent retailers as Other Music (, out of Manhattan) and Aquarius (, out of San Francisco).

It’s certainly too late to go the postal route for Hanukkah, and probably for Christmas as well. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.


Boxhead Ensemble Quartets Atavistic

For the recipient who subscribes to No Depression magazine and is still mourning June and Johnny Cash’s deaths. No doubt there’s an unrepentant analog-ist on your gift list, the kind of person who disdains technology, vociferously. They probably use computers at work just like the rest of us, and then use alt-country (Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, what have you) after hours to escape to a mythic (and, while we’re at it, entirely fictional) halcyon time when music was played on porches and life was simpler. In any case, the Boxhead Ensemble makes ambient music for acoustic folk fans. Quartets is dreamy stuff — think of it as a rural soundscape.


Karsh Kale Liberation Six Degrees

For the recipient who likes to travel the world from the comfortable vantage of an armchair. Karsh Kale is a nimble Indian percussionist who embraces technology, and creates rich, lush, loungey music, the sort of thing that has you ask a cashier (maitre d’, receptionist, etc.) what exactly that is playing in the background. Guests include Bill Laswell, who has been pushing this sort of “fourth world” music for decades, and Zakir Hussain, the tabla legend.


Merzbow Frog: Remixed and Revisited Misanthropic Agenda

For the recipient who understands that noise is just the flip side of the ambient coin. Hrvatski (Keith Fulleton Whitman), Pita (Peter Rehberg) and (Christian) Fennesz are among the dozen or so acts to remix the famed Japanese noise artist Merzbow (Masami Akita) on this compilation set. Think about wrapping it up with the original album, Frog, from which the source tracks were drawn.


Doron Sadja A Piece of String, a Sunset 12K

For the recipient who likes the sound of his own thoughts. In the world of so-called microsound music, the 12K label could be said to make some serious noise — if its releases sounded louder than a whisper. This five-track set, Sadja’s debut album, is a classic microtonal release, dividing the octave into a fractured scale of some twelve dozen notes. Don’t be deceived by the near-silence, though; some of the sounds on this set are almost painfully high-pitched.


DJ Z-Trip Live: Los Angeles, CA 2003 For the recipient who likes to listen to several records simultaneously. There’s no record label, per se, associated with DJ Z-Trip’s latest album, since, well, to put it lightly, it’s probably not the kind of record the Record Industry Association of America looks kindly on. Fortunately, the RIAA is more worried these days about downloading than about sampling (hip-hop has long since gone legit), which gives this ambidextrous phenomena (born Zach Sciacca) some leeway to mix up name-brand pop like freeform mashups — not novelty combinations, but madcap pop chimera, part hard rock, part classic rock, part hip-hop. Has to be heard to be believed. Recorded live earlier this year.


Fennesz Live in Japan Headz

For the recipient who thinks electronica is all studio wizardry — but is open to finding out otherwise. Christian Fennesz, who records under his last name, improvises on a combination of laptop and amplified guitar. This album, recorded live earlier this year, captures him at the height of his powers. It’s alternately fuzzy and warm, sedate and contemplative, melodic and tuneful. There’s more information at Fennesz’s website ( and the album is purchasable direct from the Touch label’s shop (here).


James Tenney Selected Works 1961-1969 New World

For the recipient who’s a history buff. The history of electronic music has certainly stretched further back into time when one of the most notable reissues of the year is a reissue of a previous reissue — well, not quite a triple reissue, but a 2003 reissue of a 1992 collection, on Frog Peak/Artifact, of music recorded three decades earlier. In any case, perhaps the third time will be the charm for this set of circa-1960s experimental work by composer James Tenney, then working on synthesizers at Bell Telephone Laboratories. If you want to read up on Tenney, New World put the liner notes up on the web as a PDF file (here). Tracks include “Collage #1 (‘Blue Suede’),” “Analog #1 (Noise Study),” “Dialogue,” “Ergodos II (for John Cage),” “Phases (for Edgard Varèse),” “Music for Player Piano,” “Fabric for Ché” and “For Ann (rising).”


Chemical Brothers Singles 93-03 (Astralwerks)

For the recipient who longs for electronica’s initial, early-’90s pop upsurge, when the beats were hard and candy colored. Hard to believe, but it’s been a decade since DJs Tom Rowlands and Ed Simmons, recording for a brief time as the Dust Brothers (named in honor of the Beastie Boys producers), debuted their homebrew, sample-laden craft — a unique flavor more pop music than dance, a heady premonition of what came to be known as “big beat.” This Chemical Brothers compilation (they changed their name before fame found them, but not before the original Dust Brothers’ lawyers did) collects the tracks “Song to the Siren,” “Chemical Beats,” “Leave Home,” “Setting Sun,” “Block Rockin’ Beats,” “Private Psychedelic Reel,” “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” “Let Forever Be,” “Out of Control,” “Star Guitar,” “The Test,” “Get Yourself High” and “The Golden Path” — and there’s a second CD included for a limited time with live cuts and remixes.


Various artists Lost in Translation Emperor Norton

For the recipient with a short attention span, and a taste for mood music. Lost in Translation is, perhaps second only to Groundhog Day, the film to make the best, most subtle use of Bill Murray’s comic skills. But forget the movie, we’re here for the sonic wallpaper, which includes one of the least temperamental tracks ever credited to Squarepusher (“Tommib,” off his 2001 Go Plastic), work by the Air associates who scored director Sofia Coppola’s previous film, The Virgin Suicides, and a batch of atmospheric tracks by Kevin Shields (the man behind the quintessential shoegazer band, My Bloody Valentine). Oh, and there’s a bonus track of Murray lip-synching “More Than This,” originally by Roxy Music (albeit after Brian Eno left the band).


DJ Kid Koala Some of My Best Friends Are DJs Ninja Tune

For anyone you love, or even like. Kid Koala makes electronic music for just about everyone. The turntablist has the downtempo flavor that rings true with hip-hop fans, but his 78-rpm samples will sit well with old timers who think electronic music can’t swing. Once upon a time, Koala was simply one of the world’s best turntable wizards. He could slice and dice vinyl with beats to spare. He’s developed into a collagist and sound artist in a league of his own.

Happy holidays.

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