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hits of the year

ah, it's that time of year, or just after it, when the self-respecting music nerd pauses to reflect on the year that was. when she (or he) reflects on everything they've bought or (increasingly) downloaded while continuing to search for an elusive hard copy that might not even exist.

since i used to do a radio show, this was normally the time when i would do my annual best of and, since old habits apparently die hard, i still do that sort of thing in my head.

of course, the world is a far different place than it was back in olden days (the 90s). the internet, computer software and dirt cheap production costs have brought an undreamt of democracy to music. no longer does an aspiring artist have to wait long years to find a penurious label willing to put their album in the queue of things to be released when next month's unemployment cheque clears. oh no, now everyone who has a computer and a dream can be a musician, distributed internationally, accessibly to all. and this is something to be celebrated, since it means that there is more variety, less censorship and generally fewer barriers. sort of.

the problem is that, with so much music flying around, new acts appearing and disappearing and myriad channels of distribution, it can make it a great deal more challenging to find the good stuff. for me, finding music that i like is generally akin to finding a needle in a haystack. it's just that every year, it seems to be a much larger haystack. democracy is empowering and all, but why does it always seem to breed such mediocrity? i don't want to hear any more artists aping strict genres that outlived their meagre usefulness ten years ago. i don't want to stare at an online distribution catalogue and puzzle over what makes any of the groups different, distinctive, talented. in fact, as i search for music, the description that has intrigued me most often is "i don't now how to describe this".

it seems that, as time goes on and i get old and cranky and impatient, i find it more difficult to locate new artists who appeal to me and who seem to have their own unique sound. it couldn't possibly be that i'm becoming harder to satisfy. it has to be that musicians have gotten less imaginative, less daring, less willing to take risks.

perhaps that's why i found that the best releases i heard this past year were all from artists who have made careers out of sounding like no one else. current 93's the black ships ate the sky, coil's black antlers (technically a reissue), deutsch nepal's erotikon, scott walker's the drift and whitehouse's asceticists are all excellent examples. these are all artists who defy imitation and these are all albums i know i'll be listening to for years to come. but where are the next generation?

it's not like there haven't been artists to arrive on the scene more recently who hold a special place in my heart. venetian snares are an example and hospitality is a beautiful follow-up to rossz csillag... novy svet, probably my favourite band to emerge in the last ten years, had supposedly called it quits, but it appears they are too well-loved for the world to let them go. the years since their final release have, if anything, proven busier for these adorable eccentrics than those previous. although it was released in 2005, i didn't get my hands on a copy of their latest collaboration with o paradis until this year, and it remains a favourite, an exquisite balance between sentimentality and sleaze, with just the right touch of twin peaks ambiance. (i'm happy to report that novy have apparently given up the pretense of retirement and are appearing at a festival this month in leipzig.) germany's galakthorroe label continue to produce early spk-style industrial (there is no other term and there is no one else who deserves it) sludge electronics, most notably a stellar 7" by maska genetik that left me salivating for more, more MORE.

but by the standards of the music world, particularly in the adreanline-hyped, caffeine-freak world of the internet overground (because, let's face it, most of what we're talking about here is over people's heads, not under their feet), venetian snares, novy svet and galakthorroe are pretty much established. they have fans, rabid gangs of them, in fact. while still painfully obscure, they are not waiting to be discovered. so what's next?

this is where the unfettered democracy becomes problematic. as i said, there's a lot of bad music out there. for every niellerade fallibilisthorstar, the are three dozen people who heard a merzbow record and thought that making noise would be easy and so rebellious. there are diamonds there, to be sure, but they are harder to find than ever, especially since so much of it happens outside the purview of any record label, anonymously, independently in the truest sense of the word.

a few artists to catch my ear recently, and i'm sure there are more: the aforementioned niellerade, unidad sasao (former novy svet collaborator), burial, guilty connector, lingua fungi (best band name ever), black mayonnaise (possibly worst band name ever), even the sweetly honest country-folkishness of vetiver or the surprisingly innovative, stilted hiphop of cadence weapon made me sit up and take notice... all fairly new, all artists i hope will build on their strengths for years to come. is there another great among them? possibly, but i suspect not. (feel free to have me eating my words by this time next year.)

i have no doubt that some of the best music of the year passed me by, because i was simply unable, despite my best efforts, to connect with it. (i'm still hunting for more than fleeting clips of neuntoter der plage and burial hex among others and, dammit, i shall succeed.) it's a paradoxically exciting and frustrating situation that i've learned to live with. i'll keep hunting, keep hoping and keep listening. it's the best a music nerd can do in these challenging times.

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