Every so often an area sees its scene explode not just locally, but nationally and internationally. This has happened before in the Twin Cities when the late ’70s funk scene exploded behind Prince and The Time, then in the early to mid ’80s the local rock scene had its turn led by Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, and the hip hop world of the early to mid 2000s was greatly influenced by Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Following developments in 2011 it is quite possible we are standing on the verge of the Twin Cities pop scene taking its place at the top of the heap.
The Twin Cities pop movement is led by three bands who started to break through last year, and now find themselves at the edge of stardom. All three are most certainly pop bands, but they come at the genre from very different perspectives. One is garage influenced guitar pop, another uses electronics to create a smooth dream pop, and the last features dark, smoldering synth pop. Each have an album due in 2012, though, and are set to make lots of noise locally and internationally.
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Transcontinental Railroad (Source: Wikipedia)
This is part of a series suggesting ingredients for mixtapes or playlists on a variety of themes.
Trains are such a common theme in some genres of music (especially country and blues) that Smithsonian Folkways has a generous compilation
, there are online guides
to releases, and Wikipedia offers a lengthy list
of train songs. But this piece is not concerned with songs about trains. I’m more interested in instrumental music, and in trains as instruments. I’m going to suggest below a short playlist, much of which can be had for free and all of which involve the sound of trains. First, however, I’ll turn to the “why?” question.
Train sounds and modern music have long gone hand in hand. In the mid-twentieth century, recordings of train sounds played a significant role in the development and marketing of high fidelity recordings and, a little later, of stereo. Cook Laboratories rose to prominence in the early high-fidelity movement after scoring a hit with recordings of locomotives at the 1949 Audio Fair – apparently “fevered audiomaniacs” were “blanching with ecstasy at the tremendous whooshes and roars.” (The quotation comes from Greg Milner’s fascinating book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, in which the story of these developments is colorfully told.) A special exhibit at the 1953 fair wowed and/or alarmed visitors with a three-channel recording that created the illusion of a locomotive bearing down on listeners.
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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.
I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.
[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]
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2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.
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offthesky - The Door in the Wall
I was an easy recruit. I stumbled across a new label called Wist Rec and one of its early projects, the Book Report Series. The series consists of releases of music inspired by literary works selected from among the Penguin Mini Modern Classics. Each release takes the form of a 3” CDR attached to a copy of the book upon which it was based. A translucent dustjacket mingles the names of musician and author. This combination of book and music is, according to the Wist Rec site, intended to “allow one to glean new, immediate connections between differing art forms,” and each release is limited to 100 copies. This was already intriguing. Add the twin facts that one of the works chosen was a short story by H.G. Wells that I remembered particularly admiring some years ago, and that the artist who would be covering this work was one already responsible for well over 200 tracks in my music library, and it was an easy decision to order The Door in the Wall by offthesky.
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“People were more interested back then than today in this serious electronic music” comments former Kraftwerk member Klaus Röder in an interview for the recent documentary film Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution. “Yes, people today are interested in techno and so on, but I’ve had the feeling…that no one knows that it exists, the serious or so-called serious electronic music.” He may have a point – I’m guessing that most of the crowds at Germany’s famous “Love Parade” were not thinking “Ah, Stockhausen!” when they geared up to party. But the opposition of “techno” and “serious” is a little too easy. Alva Noto (the main recording alias of German electronic artist Carsten Nicolai) is one of the more significant reasons why.
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