frieze invited 15 artists and writers to discuss some of the significant musicians and releases of the last 20 years
My Bloody Valentine
Looking back from 2011, Loveless seems like one of the last innovative milestones in rock. Building on ground broken by their 1988 debut, Isn’t Anything, My Bloody Valentine used the traditional band format of voice, guitar, bass and drums to encase summery melodies and woozy harmonies within monumental walls of noise and processed sound. Recorded against a backdrop of feverish creativity in dance music, Loveless introduced new textures and sonic atmospheres into rock that have proved deeply influential despite the genre’s subsequent backwards retreat. Later that decade, the Luddism of Oasis and then Coldplay’s stadium-size crocodile tears would send guitar music spinning into an antediluvian swamp of laddish sentimentality. Without the example of My Bloody Valentine and a handful of others to cling to, rock might have drowned long ago.
Dan Fox is senior editor of frieze based in New York.
‘Boom Bye Bye’ (1987/92)
Nowhere on Earth is music more important than in Kingston, Jamaica, and nowhere produces such great music. Even now, there are days when I’d subscribe to both views, but back in May 1992 every day was like that. During one week in Kingston, night after night in the dancehall, night after night this Bubu. Bubu? Never heard of him. No other song drove the crowd so wild; they were beside themselves with the Bubu bass and the gunshots. The bass belonged to Buju Banton, just 18, the new King of the Dancehall. Great, I’ll play it on my radio show. On my last day in Jamaica, I have a date with a journalist. I rave to him, too. He’s not so enthusiastic. Asks me if I know what Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’ is about. No idea. It’s about killing gay men – hence the gunshots. Exuberant celebration of heterosexual desire, to the greatest music in the world, is a dance on the graves of murdered homosexuals. The kids are not alright.
Klaus Walter is a writer and broadcaster based in Frankfurt am Main.
‘Guilty feet have got no rhythm’ – George Michael himself uttered the strange curse that would haunt his entire career. He wasn’t a good dancer and yet, after Madonna and Michael Jackson, he became the third-biggest pop star in the world. But because he was playing the role of the heterosexual pop star for far too long, he developed a horror−sexual taste manifested in videos and album covers: black satin sheets, uptight supermodels, jazz-bar interiors, stalkerish bikers, chrome sofas. His career amounted to the desperate quest for good taste in false circumstances. And yet there is still that unmistakable, beautiful voice that sounds like a desperate, yet unbroken woman from the pages of Valley of the Dolls (1966). It’s a voice that tests new tunes while crying, and is appeased with icy white wine and a little bit of valium.
Sarah Khan is a novelist based in Berlin.
‘Ghosts of My Life’ (1993) Here, in 1993, the spectres of my past – and future – lives converged. Rufige Kru (Goldie and Rob Playford) were at the leading edge of what, for many of us, was the most important cultural development of the 1990s: jungle. With jungle’s rhythmic psychedelia, UK dance culture vindicated and intensified the cyber-theory coming out of California. ‘Ghosts of My Life’ appeared as jungle was turning to the dark side; you can practically hear the last traces of ecstasy ebbing away, rave’s smiley sprites mutating into malign myrmidons of melancholy. The lead sample – slowed down to the kind of inhuman speeds that jungle routinized – improbably comes from Japan’s 1982 single ‘Ghosts’. A line is drawn back to the synthetic art pop of the early 1980s, and also – though nobody knew it then – forward into the early 21st century, when the long-since arrested momentum of jungle’s popular Modernism will become just one more ghost stalking a stalled present.
Mark Fisher is a writer and editor based in Felixstowe.
Basic Channel was both an iconic techno label, established in Berlin in 1993, and the nom de plume for Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus. The entire project was shrouded in mystery: the duo refused to do interviews; their vinyl releases bore a minimum of information. The first time I heard a Basic Channel track on a big soundsystem, sometime in the mid-90s, the experience was so overwhelming I started to cry. This concentrated laser beam of sound was minimal techno writ large – minimal as maximal. The music’s heavy dub low-end, its strange undercurrent of distortion, the bass drum that sounded like it was playing underwater – the sounds of these records spawned legions of imitators, but very few came close.
Geeta Dayal is a writer based in Boston.
Different Class (1995)
Britpop was a typically ’90s jingoistic confidence trick, a revival of a revival which, horrifyingly, has itself been revived in turn. In among all the flag-waving there was one pyrrhic victory – Different Class. Pulp were a minor post-punk band who suddenly got interesting after nearly 15 years of obscurity, and this is their masterpiece, a collection of songs about class, sex, urbanism and the uncomfortable conjunctions between them. The two songs at its centre – ‘Common People’ and ‘I Spy’ – are depictions of the parlous class war after the UK miners’ strike, reduced to individual acts of terrorism, dramatized by a cranky motorik reduction of disco. In the absence of a movement, Pulp tried to keep the art-school pop tradition alive during what proved to be its final death throes.
Owen Hatherley is a writer and architecture critic based in London.
‘Common People’ (1995) Noel Gallagher, ‘To Be Someone’ (1999)
There are two songs that relate to the way I have found my identity in my work. One is Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Dealing with social class growing up in San Francisco was major, and I love Jarvis Cocker’s casual engagement with the rich girl he meets at Saint Martins College. The other song is ‘To Be Someone’: I love the sad, soft version sung by Noel Gallagher on Fire and Skill (1999), an album of songs by The Jam. ‘To Be Someone’ was the name of the retrospective of my work that travelled around the USA in 2008. And yes, that’s why I did all that art, ‘to be someone’. Mary Heilmann is an artist based in New York. Björn Gottstein Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M It’s still unclear how what transfixed Toshimaru Nakamura before his instrument could bestow such a sense of both oppression and bliss on his audience. Nakamura was playing the no-input mixing board, which he feeds back into until it starts to sing of its own accord, and with enchanting beauty. I first saw Nakamura at a loft in Berlin, together with Sachiko M, whose sinusoidal tones seemed to rob the music of any sort of body whatsoever. This school of musical reduction was christened ‘Onkyo’ – the echo of sound. Its subversive attitude of denial called the very concept of music into question at the end of the ’90s. Initially its quietude was ascribed to the fact that the main venue in central Tokyo did not allow high sound levels. It only later became clear that the music was a metaphor for resistance, elevating its listeners above the white noise of the congested information channels of an over-engineered world.
Björn Gottstein is a music journalist based in Berlin.
Vision Creation Newsun (1999) Super Ae (1998) saw Boredoms corralling the chaotic noise of their previous recordings into hyperreal rock music, tossing motorik beats, thrash and space-rock into an exuberant acid punch. Follow-up Vision Creation Newsun aimed even higher, opening with infectious percussion jams over which soared iridescent, major-key synths, swooping filters, chants and bird calls. The tightness and brightness of both sound and delivery – a singular intensity and otherness that often characterizes Japanese psychedelic music – lifts the album far above hippie pastiche, although that doesn’t mean it’s not playful. It is in fact playful with intent, with an infectious, almost militant prettiness that repositions extreme music as something joyous, inclusive and spiritual. Its imprint could be heard, and seen, throughout the following decade, from Animal Collective’s indie trance to Lucky Dragons’ participatory electronica, and I wonder whether the repurposing of New Age tropes by the post-noise/hypnagogic scene could have happened without it.
Frances Morgan is a critic based in London.
Aaliyah and Timbaland
To call Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody?’ (1998) a song is to contain it. Its four and a half minutes are: surprise, silence, syncopation as worldview, baby cooings, proof that pop can be more accepting of undiluted idiosyncrasy than any avant-garde, and Aaliyah’s flawless voice singing existential doubts inseparable from the body’s vulnerability. ‘We Need a Resolution’ (2001) was another of her alien-and-catchy moments that reconfigured the possible. This was the start of our current genre-melt: producer Timbaland and Aaliyah refusing to draw a line between weird and the rest of the world. Nowadays countless bands craft covers and talk homage. What assumptions about rhythm and soul did these brief partners have to dismantle in order to build such freedoms?
Jace Clayton is a writer and musician based in New York.
Björk, Vespertine (2001)
Matmos, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (2001)
Vespertine’s working title, ‘Domestika’, is key. Built from a wintery array of noises – music boxes, insectoid clicks, the crunch of snow – it’s an album that moves between homeliness and prayer. It is also the most pristine-sounding record I know. San Francisco duo Matmos co-produced it, swaddling Björk’s voice in miniscule sounds that feel both organic (processed heartbeats, exhaled breaths) and glisteningly synthetic. I think of Vespertine as the spectral doppelgänger to Matmos’s notorious LP of the same year, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure: an unflinchingly bodily album of glitchy electro moulded from field recordings the pair made in LA plastic surgery clinics. Because, in their very different ways, both albums are carnal, both are somehow hopeful.
Sam Thorne is associate editor of frieze based in London.
Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol.1 (2003)
This was the first release from the now highly esteemed Sublime Frequencies record label. Compiled by Alan Bishop, it’s a rich collection of songs from Indonesia’s largest island. Lifted from bartered cassette tapes and radio recordings Bishop made during a visit there in the late 1980s, the compilation showcases an extreme diversity: droning beat pop, early Orkes Melayu songs, Batak Tapanuli, traditional Minang music and folk drama soundtracks heard by only a handful of outsiders. For its wide-eyed embrace of world music, Sublime Frequencies has become one of the most influential and relevant labels of my lifetime. Sounds of Sumatra was the template for all of this, directly inspiring a wealth of listeners to open their ears to an under-reported world.
Chris Tipton co-runs Upset The Rhythm, a DIY record label and music promoter, and is based in London.
Carlos Kleiber (1930–2004) It is often said that this or that conductor is a magician, but it really was the case with Carlos Kleiber. His way of working was so different from what is now the norm, and was fast becoming so in the 1960s when he cut his teeth: he had a tiny repertory, did few performances and demanded many rehearsals. His colleague Herbert von Karajan waspishly observed that Kleiber only conducted when his fridge was empty. But there was such luminous musicality to everything he touched, which today we’ve more or less lost in this age of career conductors, under-rehearsed orchestras and fast-declining audiences. By the 1990s Kleiber was pretty much a recluse, but in 1994 he conducted Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911) in Vienna, the DVD of which is an unbearably moving testimony to a different age and culture. There should be more empty fridges!
Paul Kildea is a conductor and writer based in Berlin.
Fizheuer Zieheuer (2006) It is permanently playing in my head like a special kind of tinnitus. War veterans who claim they’re picking up local radio signals from the shrapnel shard lodged in their craniums would discover that they were inadvertently describing Fizheuer Zieheuer to their otolaryngologist. It’s the music for pushing a shopping trolley, for Carl Andre’s poems and … for the trial of Slobodan Miloševic. I’m singling out Serbia because Fizheuer Zieheuer is a re-edit of ‘Pobjenicki Cocek’, a folk song performed by Blehorkestar Bakija Bakic from Vranje. However, stick it on any event after 1950 and it becomes the only sound that fits. It’s both beautifully precise, materially, and lugubrious, temporally, occasionally making as its point an awful return, or fold of different tempos, colliding its ‘player’ and ‘crowd’ in a tangle of limbs.
Adam Chodzko is an artist based in Whitstable.
Michael Jackson (1958–2009)
I read a book as a child in which one character had topsy-turvy optics: at a mile, he was a towering giant; at ten miles, his image was so vast and indistinct it blurred into the sky; up close, he was tiny, shrunken, sad and lonely. After 1991, the year of Dangerous, this became Michael Jackson’s story. He was the colossus of rock, pop and soul, and yet his music, his shows, his stunts, even his sins, were increasingly about powerlessness, isolation, terror, catastrophic body-anxiety – and besides, no one seemed to hear a word he was singing anyway, let alone decode the goth-industrial prison-sheen of his later darkling sound. To hide in plain sight is one thing; to be trapped in the panoptical glare, cursed to stay masked and misread despite your every art-move, is a bewilderingly compelling anomaly.
Mark Sinker is a music critic based in London.
First published in Issue 141