They came from Belgium. Berlin. England in the 70s. Japan. Iceland. Oberlin, Ohio. Cologne. Iceland again. Berlin again. Camberwell, London. Brooklyn. Paris. Kyoto. None of them were The Strokes. Few of them were in anyone else's end of year record selections. (But then neither was 'Folktronic' or the records I put out on American Patchwork by Phiiliip and Rroland, or the record I released in Japan with Emi Necozawa, Mashroom Haircat by Mashcat. Ah well.)
What do they have in common, these records, apart from the fact that they all came out in 2001 and I enjoyed them? Perhaps a certain joyful marginality, a pursuit of private jokes and pleasures, a cute formalism, an uncommon interest in creative process for its own sake.
When playing friends Scratch Pet Land for the first time I often pick a track from the Ski-pp Records compilation, an odd little thing called 'Sol 303' in which an insane burbling man and an insane burbling acid keyboard take turns to parrot each other. This is the what-the-fuck Ubuesque side of the brothers Baudoux, an example of the Belgian spirit of zwanze -- surreal irreverent mockery -- as well as a reminder of the kind of genre-defying inventive madness now sadly missing from Aphex Twin records. 'Solo Soli iiiii', Scratch Pet Land's first full-length album, is a friendly, playful and listenable experience, an African-tinged, curious and intimate exploration of concrete acoustic textures which avoids all known musical cliches. My favourite record of 2001, and one that for me has redefined the possibilities of sound, sensibility and technique in avant pop.
Although they're Belgian, Scratch Pet Land are released on Mouse on Mars' label Sonig in Germany, a country which seems to have taken over from Japan as the world's leading musical edge. For the last couple of years I've been enjoying Kriedler, To Rococo Rot, Sack & Blumm, Fumble, Hausmeister, Pole, Noto, Fennesz and Stereo Total. The latest Tarwater is not a full new album but music made for a Polish play. As compelling as ever, though, is this group's poignant combination of lush, sentimental, subtly ticking electronic washes with lyrics so steely, alienated, scientific and existential they could have sprung from the pen of Alain Robbe-Grillet. The result is deeply emotional, somehow reminding me of the more atmospheric works of Joy Division.
F.S. Blumm, one half of Sack & Blumm, the cute electronic duo on Cologne's excellent Karaoke Kalk label, made a beautiful record full of alpine charm when he decided to record a sort of anachronistic pre-electronica on the 19th century's answer to sequencers, music boxes, roll pianos and mechanical automata. This is not just a fascinating what-if proposition on a par with 'What if Bach had a Moog?', it's also a pretext for a record of unearthly beauty.
Crazy Curl are a cute Japanese girlband of post-Shibuya tendency (think Yukari Fresh without the electronics, think early Kahimi). Rechenzentrum make moody rustling crackling records. Iceland's Mum are warm, melodic and maternal, like being wrapped in seal blubber or bubbling in a volcanic hot spring of pleasing blue-grey-pink minimalist-humanist design. Bjork's 'Vespertine' positively brims with noisy, trembling delight in sex and life, and, in the Japanese release, extra track 'Generous Palmstroke' is my favourite example so far of the burgeoning Folktronica genre, with Matmos laptopping over a melody that could have come straight from June Tabor or King Henry VIII.
Britain doesn't figure strongly on my list, though I couldn't resist the latest release from the indefatigable Stereolab, whose 'Captain Easychord' EP contained, in songs like 'Long Life Love' easily the best and strangest chamber pop arrangements I have ever heard. (Much kudos must go to the brilliant Sean O'Hagan.) Stereolab seem to be increasingly rare examples of artiness in a country overtaken by manufactured idiot pop and sullen plodding guitar rock. Britain seems, in the process of mastering the art of marketing, to have killed the goose that lays pop's golden eggs. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, Stereo Total have the map to a pop goldmine which never seems to be exhausted, and 'Musique Automatique' is more evidence of their genius. This is pop as it should be: communistische attitude mit kapitalistische energie; French girlband bubblegum with German engineering. Don't let the subtitles scare you away.
Also back in top form is Toog, who brings us more quirky tales of wild jackalopes and vengeful statues. Nobukazu Takemura makes computers sing more beautifully than anyone except perhaps his labelmate Nobuyasu Sakonda. You could do no better thing this year than buy the whole Childisc catalogue.
Finally, a couple of American records. The Gongs are art students at Ohio's Oberlin College, and their homeburn CD-R 'Introducing The Gongs' is the record I knew had to exist somewhere: a contemporary fusion of ethnic instruments (gongs, logs) and modular electronics which sounds like Harry Partch, Low and The Incredible String Band. I would love to release this record one day on AmPatch, if I can stay in business long enough. Dymaxion's singles collection is full of the kind of charmingly maladroit sampling not heard since early Solex, emphasising the kind of chunky, rough-hewn textures and artworld theory formerly favoured by Buffalo Daughter-eraTakako Minekawa.
2001 was a year served and perhaps saved by artist-curated labels -- Mouse On Mars' Sonig, Takemura's Childisc, my own American Patchwork, Stereolab's Duophonic... It was also a year when the bankruptcy of Grand Royal and Trattoria reminded us that these labels are never more than a couple of steps from silence and oblivion. There simply aren't enough creative people in the world to buy the records creative people consider important. Go forth and multiply, great souls!
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