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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#40-31]

Okay, we’ve made it to Day 2 of this countdown. In case you missed the first set of 10 albums, aka #50-41, you can click here to bring yourself up to speed. The collection of records you’ll find below has a little something for everybody, I’d say. Well okay, maybe not EVERYBODY. But there’s some great synth pop, some punk rock, some electronica, some hip hop, and a little bit of experimental whatnot in there for good measure. If there’s a theme to be pulled from this portion of the countdown, it’s that change is inevitable, and can often turn out for the best. Anyways, let’s just get right into it. Here’s the Top 50 Albums of 2014: #40-31!

Album Review: Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma [Warp]

When it comes to electronica music, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t know much. I tend to prefer my songs with guitar, or at the very least a chorus that attempts to get itself stuck in my head. Ask me to tell you about the difference between house and dubstep and IDM and I’ll give you just about the blankest stare you can possibly get. Yet a good electronica album, for me, is hard to find, and there are occasionally tricks certain artists can use to attract my attention. Girl Talk, what with his myriad of samples that pulls from so many familiar and classic tracks, is easiest on my ears because I know what I’m hearing. Electronica artists that are also able to generate much hype amid their peers or other artists I boldly respect can catch my eye as well. Then there’s the easy way – get some artists I love to do some guest work on at least one track, which will basically guarantee that I hear at least that single song. This is how Flying Lotus snagged me, both on the recommendation of my personal hero, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, but also through his active participation, lending guest vocals to the song “…And the World Laughs With You,” which also earned him hype in all the right circles. Thom also had Flying Lotus open up for his “solo” band Atoms for Peace on their recent short tour earlier this month, where I happened to attend one of the Chicago dates. Honestly, when I walked into the venue I thought Flying Lotus had already finished and they were playing your standard between-set DJ fodder while waiting for Atoms for Peace to start. That is, until I noticed the one guy on stage with his laptop, who eventually grabbed a microphone and said, “Thanks Chicago!”. So, against my better judgment, I’m all for giving the new Flying Lotus album “Cosmogramma,” a quick try and review before it comes out on Tuesday.

Given how little I know about both electronica and any Flying Lotus material prior to “Cosmogramma,” I’m surprised that the album impressed me as much as it did. I suppose that like any musical form you’re not acquainted with, if you hear something special or unique in it, you’re more inclined to understand how it might be viewed as brilliant. In this case, I’m highly impressed with how FlyLo is able to use a multitude of instruments, everything from the harp to acoustic guitar to saxophone and just about every percussive instrument in existence (ping pong balls?), melded around his computer-generated melodies. There are seemingly impromptu jazz breaks, string sections, bass-heavy grooves, and fanciful dream sequences all packed into this album, and almost all of them work towards the space opera concept the record is supposedly centered around. I can tell you this much – from the opening beats of “Clock Catcher” through the ethereal “Satelllliiiiiteee”, this is a damn near perfect album. I loved every second of that first half, which includes exceptional highlights such as the Thom Yorke-guesting “…And the World Laughs With You” and the funky “Do the Astral Plane”. Things get a little sketchy after that, what with “Germain Haircut” and “Recoiled” both being a little listless and lacking, but the electro blips and symphony into soft palate harp combination on “Drips/Auntie’s Harp” isn’t half bad, and I’m effortlessly charmed by “Table Tennis”.

So I guess you can mark down that as somebody who doesn’t consider himself an expert nor even a general fan of electronica has found lots to like about Flying Lotus’ “Cosmogramma”. The main reason why, I’ll argue, is that there’s so much more to this material than your average electronica artist puts in. It feels less like a record based around certain beats and grooves and more like an instrumental artistic experiment that just so happens to feature a fair amount of electronica. Rare is the record so carefully composed and layered as this one, and given the difficulty of reproducing this live on your own with a laptop, it’s no wonder I didn’t give much heed to FlyLo’s pre-Atoms for Peace performance. This guy is clearly brilliant, on the level that somebody like Aphex Twin is brilliant (hint: this is a high compliment). Yes, this is the best flat-out electronica album I’ve heard so far this year (of note, electro-pop, ala LCD Soundsystem, doesn’t fall into the category just described). You will probably see me mention it again at the end of the year among my favorites. Well played, Flying Lotus. You suck me in with a Thom Yorke recommendation and guest vocal, and have me leaving with high praise all around. This album may not push me into a new-found love of electronica, but it does generate enough good will to make me more open to releases similar to this in the future. Consider that a best-case scenario. I hope you’ll give “Cosmogramma” a try, as I did, and I hope you’ll also not regret it, as I did.

Stream the entire album at Myspace

Non-album track: Flying Lotus – Quakes  (via The Fader)

Preorder “Cosmogramma” from Amazon

Show Review: Atoms for Peace [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 4/10/10]

While the members of Radiohead are out and about doing various other things to keep busy in between studio time, band frontman Thom Yorke has decided to play some shows around the U.S. in support of his 2006 solo record “The Eraser”. Yes, it’s been 4 years since that album was released, but given that Yorke never toured around it back then doesn’t mean he can’t tour around it now. He’s also recruited a motley band of musicians to help translate the largely electronic record into something a full band can perform on stage. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea is the second most prominent member of this newly formed band, which is filled out by longtime Radiohead producer and friend Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and multi-instrumentalist Mauro Refosco. They settled on the name Atoms for Peace and have been making their way across the country playing a handful of dates before wrapping up at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. The tour reached Chicago for a pair of sold-out shows this past weekend at the Aragon Ballroom.

Opening both shows was electronica artist Flying Lotus, who has a new album “Cosmogramma” coming out in a couple weeks with a track that features Yorke on vocals. Unfortunately Yorke didn’t make an early appearance Saturday night to perform the track, but the set was still excellent anyways. The challenge was mostly trying to get a massive crowd moving while you’re hanging out behind a laptop on a table with a lone spotlight overhead. Girl Talk remains one of the most exciting electronica artists out there today for the wild lengths he goes to get an audience energized and having a good time. Flying Lotus is no Girl Talk. He did keep the tempo largely upbeat for his set though, and for a room full of people all there with the express purpose of seeing Atoms for Peace, that anyone danced at all was an accomplishment. While much of the set sounded like standard club DJ fodder, there were a few elements thrown in here and there such as horns and harps that deviated from expectations and provided some added excitement. Still, it wasn’t nearly as thrilling as your average band playing instruments on stage.

The between-set talk amongst the crowd was all about how Yorke and his bandmates were going to translate the minimalist electro-based sounds of “The Eraser” into something a five guys could play with traditional instruments. As soon as Atoms for Peace took the stage, it was clear that would be a non-issue. Amid intense roars from the crowd, the band gave a quick wave as Yorke quickly sprang across the stage to the piano and began hammering out the first few notes of the album’s opening title track. Flea quickly joined in on bass, bouncing, bobbing and weaving around like there were insects all over his body and he was trying to shake them off. Waronker and Refosco doubled up on percussion duty while Godrich manned keyboards and all sorts of other electronic gizmos. All said and done, the guys took the quiet and mournful tone of the song and cranked it up a couple extra gears. It was a conceptual arrangement that worked out like gangbusters, giving the track a life that you’d never expect it to have.

The rest of the set went similarly, with Yorke bouncing between piano and guitar or just entirely freaking out and dancing across the stage with a microphone in hand. Flea continued to match his energy at every turn, putting on his wild man show less for the attention and more out of his own necessity to play his bass with as much punctuation and personality as possible. For “Skip Divided”, Flea set down his bass and picked up a melodica. That gave the song some Middle Eastern flavor, though the instrument did wreak havoc with the Aragon’s speakers, which squelched painfully every now and then. Refoso’s everyman role had him playing some particularly odd instruments, one of which was the surreal and odd Brazilian bow. Meanwhile Godrich and Waronker both equally held their own in compositional and rhythmic strength, continuing to add propulsion and intensity to songs that had only hinted at it on record. They took these small and personal melodies and turned them into something stadium-sized and crowd-pleasing. The energy in the music also translated to energy on stage, and that in turn resulted in particularly inspired performances towards the end of the set with “Harrowdown Hill” and “Cymbal Rush”. Both songs operated as slow burners on stage, starting out quiet and then building tension until they finally burst into cathartic explosions of energy and sound that thrilled and satisfied. They took the main part of the set out on a particularly high note, and gave the crowd something to really cheer about.

At the start of the encore, Yorke returned alone to play some quieter songs on both the piano and guitar. He started with a brand new song he’s been working on with “his other band” Radiohead, which is currently being called a number of different things, including “Chris Hodge” and “Let Me Take Control”. Either way, with just Yorke and an electric guitar, it was a surprisingly small and intimate moment following a set that was nothing short of huge and bombastic. Yorke also performed an unreleased song from the “Kid A” era known as “The Daily Mail” on the piano before launching into a crowd-pleasing “Everything In Its Right Place”. The full band finally returned for a performance of Radiohead b-side “Paperbag Writer”. The energy and arrangements kicked back into high gear for “Judge. Jury. Executioner”, and the percussion was out of control for “The Hollow Earth” while Yorke flailed around like a man possessed. “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” brought an official and highly satisfactory end to the fun and occasionally strange evening. Each member of Atoms for Peace set down their instruments one by one and wandered off the stage with a quick wave and the screams of a clearly impressed audience.

Looking at the entire show from a sound perspective, given that the Aragon is notorious for their shoddy acoustics, Atoms for Peace fared relatively well on Saturday night. Whoever was handling the soundboard clearly knew how to get the most out of the band, though there were some small issues early on as Yorke’s vocals were a little low in the mix and being drowned out by the guitars and percussion. There was also the aforementioned squelching that was coming through the speakers during “Skip Divided” while Flea was playing the melodica. Outside of those small sound issues, I had a minor problem with the manner in which the band performed the songs. “The Eraser” album is one of quiet and dark mystery and intimacy, and Atoms for Peace chose to reconstruct the melodies to suit the large venue and keep the crowd satisfied. It’s an understandable decision to make, and it was definitely interesting to hear how each song was changed, but that loss of reflective, personal moments bothered me just enough so that I felt it worth mentioning. Of course with sweaty bodies piled upon sweaty bodies across the floor of the Aragon, one could say that everyone got more than their fair share of intimacy during the show anyways.

Set List:
The Eraser
The Clock
Black Swan
Skip Divided
Atoms for Peace
And It Rained All Night
Harrowdown Hill
Cymbal Rush
New Song (aka Chris Hodge or Let Me Take Control)
The Daily Mail
Everything In Its Right Place
Paperbag Writer
Judge Jury & Executioner
The Hollow Earth
Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses

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