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January 2019 Playlist Breakdown (Pt. 1)

So I’ve been building a playlist in Spotify for the whole month of January so far. I toss things in that I’m hearing which are great. It’s a new method for me, and it’s been going pretty well so far. Here’s a bit of a run-down on what’s in the list so far and why it’s there. These albums are in no particular order.

The River – ETHEL and Robert Mirabal. ETHEL is a famous string quartet, and Robert Mirabal is a Pueblo flutist and vocalist. Their collaboration is a beautiful, moving, satisfying exchange of ideas from very different cultural backgrounds. It seems that they each play to their strengths instead of watering each other down; Ethel’s thick string work provides a powerful backdrop to the Pueblo vocal and flute melodies. Impressive opener “An Kha Na” sees the quartet laying down a drone that a growing chorus of singers harmonize over; it’s nigh-on mystical and reverent all by itself. Highlight “Run for Rain” sees a staccato vs legato arrangement mirror a poem by Mirabal about running and scrambling. The spoken word is some of the most gripping that I’ve heard in a long time: even, earnest, and calm, but with a latent intensity that fits perfectly with the arrangement. “Tsintskaro Memory” sees Mirabal’s flutes take center stage, to lovely results. A deeply unique album that just works perfectly.

Monument Valley II Soundtrack – Todd Baker. I love the kitchen sink: I want beats and synths and strings and guitars and genres and moods and vibes and lushness and sparseness altogether. I want to see a huge array of ideas all jammed into one thing and see it all work together like a tapestry. That’s what this album is: a soundtrack to an indie video game that sounds like low-key sci-fi techno one moment, minimalist ambient the next, and gamelan music the third. (No, for real! “Gamelan Rain Melody” is composed of gamelan performance!) Baker is massively talented to pull all this off. This was recommended to me as excellent working music, and so it is: it’s got motion and interest to keep things moving but not so much that it steals your attention. (I’m sure this makes it excellent video game music too.) Just fantastic.

Cold Math / Sans Drums – Panfur. Cold Math lives somewhere between tropical house, artsy post-dub, and trance music. There’s even a bit of reggaeton rhythm (riddim?) and trap ideas thrown in. It’s a great trip through various types of electronic music, all held together by a spartan, space-heavy oeuvre. Also great for working to. Sans Drums is literally sans drums, relying heavily on strings, piano, and various types of synth for rhythm and drive. This is a more sentimental album than Cold Math, as a result–lots more melody and mood. It’s also a little less polished than Cold Math; it has some moments where the implementation of the experimentation doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the ideas. But overall, an interesting take nonetheless.

Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky. Not instrumental at all, this is an album of Gullah music. I’d not been very familiar with Gullah music, which is why I checked it out. Turns out Ranky Tanky plays a brand of music that fuses chilled-out New Orleans Second Line, gospel vocals/lyrics, and American acoustic folk tunes. It’s relaxed and comforting music, making for a great Sunday morning album. The performances are all of very high quality, from the vocals to the brass to the rhythm section and beyond. Lovely.

Chick Corea – assorted songs. I have heard of Chick Corea often but never listened, so I put the most-listened songs on Spotify on this list. I’m still not a jazz connoisseur, but I can say that I enjoyed listening to these tracks far more than most jazz I’ve been exposed to, smooth or otherwise. I still have nothing meaningful to say about jazz, in my opinion, but I’m getting closer to getting it, I think. Maybe.

Englabörn and Variations – Jóhann Jóhannson. Another musician I’d heard of but never listened to, I picked this one up and have loved it. Jóhannson’s minimalist, fusionist take on classical music is just the sort of thing I’m interested in: “Odi et Amo” pairs a mournful, legato string quartet with a vocalist singing an Ancient Roman love/hate poem through a vocoder. A doomy piano completes the arrangement. It’s like Daft Punk at a funeral. It’s amazing. The minimalist arrangements of strings and piano continue throughout; it’s generally intimate, quiet work that moves peacefully through– even the tension of “Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei” is cut with legato lines and gives way to a bouncy, elegant, tango-esque atmosphere. Yet the work never lapses into ambient/atmospheric music; this is not ambient music (in the Music for Airports sense), but compositions intended to be featured and heard as performances. Jóhannson could do a lot with a little. It’s a shame he died in 2018, before I even really got to know his music.

Wojciech Karolak – assorted songs. I found a copy of Karolak’s Easy! at Spinster Records in Tulsa, and I stupidly didn’t buy it. I don’t know how I resisted the magnificent cover art, but maybe I thought I couldn’t get it home in my luggage or something. I don’t know. But there’s not much Karolak available on Spotify, sadly, and the funky, bluesy,  groovy, jazzy organ-based instrumental psych-lite is much missed. The few tracks that are there show off a unique mind and a deft hand at way-out-there instrumental music. If you find any Karolak in your journeys: buy it.

Camper Mode – Kai Otten. See my review here.

Gorilla EP – BeatLove. Big, lush electro that meshes great percussive beats, zooming phased synths, boomy bass synths, marimba, and more into an expansive experience. Goes especially well with ODESZA (especially “Train,” what with the pop-leaning female vocals and driving vibe) and others of the ilk. This is the sort of thing that I have limited words to yet explain but am very into these days. Highly recommended.

Ambiance – Ølten. I’ve gone through various phases where I’ve been into and not into post-rock. I went through a phase where I very much enjoyed the music of ISIS (before the name ISIS was associated with a terrorist group instead of the post-metal band) and have enjoyed Explosions in the Sky quite a bit. But then there’s also been times where I just can’t get into another metally, grumbling outfit. There’s a specific X factor in the songwriting that makes me interested or not in a post-rock/post-metal band, and Ølten has it on Ambiance. It’s ironic that this is called Ambiance, because it is very noisy and not ambient in the traditional sense: there are towering guitars, pounding drums, and furious moods. But it’s all done very effectively: I believe Ølten more than I do other bands of this ilk. Maybe it’s the melodies, maybe it’s the song construction, I don’t know. But this is top-shelf angry instrumental music, and if you’re into that, here you are. I like pg.lost and I like this, so I think others who like pg.lost might like this one?

I’ll be back soon to break down some more of January’s playlist. Until then, happy listening!