Best of 2012: Conrad Schnitzler’s Endtime

Many of us avoid preparing for our own “endtime.” But Conrad Schnitzler, who passed away in 2011, made sure that his last work, “Endtime,” counted. The CD (out on M-Minimal) surveys his forty-plus years of electronic music making with a single 70-minute mix comprised of 36 selections. Those not familiar with Schnitzler’s important contributions to krautrock and experimental electronica are likely to be blown away. For fans it will be a bittersweet but rewarding valediction from a talented, imaginative, and musically adventurous spirit.

“(rom another late work, the Con LP)

Best of 2012: BMOP

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, continues to be persuasive advocates for American composers: both live and on CD. Under the direction of Gil Rose, BMOP is one of the few orchestras devoted to American music that regularly – and prolifically – records. Their imprint, BMOP sound, released several noteworthy recordings in 2012. Among my favorites was a double CD of John Harbison’s opera Winter’s Tale, a relatively early work that boasts a wonderfully pungent and engaging score.

Stream: Winter’s Tale, opening (via File Under ?’s Tumblr page).

Best of 2012: Ty Segall

Prolific yet unpredictable, Ty Segall is a standard bearer for the most recent group of artists who have managed to resuscitate garage rock and punk, genres that some thought had already been mined of all their freshness by several previous such returns. The Ty Segall Band’s In the Red release Slaughterhouse is one of three recordings on which Segall appears in 2012: he also recorded Twins under his own name via Drag City and Hair with White Fences.


There’s little doubt that Iggy Pop and the Stooges are patron saints of Segall and company. The singer’s throaty cries also channel Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Eric Burdon in places. Yes, he has collected the right records; but Segall’s isn’t living the garage punk experience secondhand. The seemingly restless creativity that fuels his prolific streak also inhabits the nervous energy and chaotic spirit of Slaughterhouse, Twins, and Hair. All three recordings exude a swaggering ebullience that can’t be faked or finessed by hype proliferators.


File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Rangell and Schiff’s Bach CDs

Bach: The Art of Fugue
Andrew Rangell, piano
Steinway & Sons CD


Bach: Das Wohltemperiete Clavier
András Schiff, piano
ECM Records CD

Those who read this site likely already know that I have a soft spot for well performed renditions of J.S. Bach’s music. That said, I’ve seldom felt as strongly about a recording of The Art of Fugue that employs piano instead of harpsichord or ensemble as I do about Andrew Rangell’s recent disc for Steinway & Sons’ label. Let’s face it, even with all of the contrapuntal intricacies and rhythmic variety that Bach employs in constructing this late masterwork, it is still a whole lot of unabated d-minor to which to listen. In their interpretations, too many pianists go too far one way or the other: pretending that they are playing a harpsichord and supplying their recording with attendant quirks or instead ignoring period practices altogether and allowing their pacing to become inert, their tone stodgy, and the work as a consequence to seem bloated. Rangell’s got the “Goldilocks solution” for Art of Fugue; with lively pacing and  rhythmic vitality but without ignoring the capabilities of the glorious Steinway grand at his disposal, the pianist’s recording seems “just right” yet still capable of affording surprises.

Another excellent recording released this year that seems “just right” in its approach to Bach is pianist András Schiff’s latest rendition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM Records. Schiff is a pianist I’ve long regarded as a musical touchstone: one of the finest interpreters of Bach at the piano and a necessarily solid  counterweight to some of Glenn Gould’s extravagances and extroversion. His WTC for ECM demonstrates detailed preparation as well as intimate familiarity with all of the preludes and fugues; no doubt this is abetted by a rigorous performance scheduled incorporating these pieces. Schiff is also willing to take risks and try some different interpretations this time out. He never treats the Bach oeuvre as an ossified canon, but as an evolving document in which composer and interpreter can engage in a kind of dialogue, separated by centuries but united in this stirring music.


File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Constellation Records


Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first studio recording in a decade, is a powerful wallop of gale force proportions. It seemed only appropriate, then, that we kept it in frequent rotation during our recent weathering of “Frankenstorm” Sandy. Doubtless, some reached for musical “comfort food” of a different sort.


A couple of the tracks on Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are familiar to fans as mainstays of the band’s live shows; the rest of the material is new. The old tag for the type of music that GY!BE make is “post-rock.” The old saw about the shape of pieces written in this genre: “They start out quiet and get progressively louder – one long crescendo.” While there are a number of pieces in their catalog that could be described as having rough contours that resemble this description, it was reductive a decade ago and is even more inapt today.  Godspeed still prefers long form pieces, but there are plenty of details that depart from the script of “inexorability” and instead provide contrasts and detours. In short, they are as musically engaging as ever. But why are they back now?


With an affinity for leftist political positions, GY!BE seems to have returned to the field at a curious, yet opportune time. Departing in the midst of Bush the younger’s “reign” and absenting themselves during Obama’s tepid first term, one might guess that the band refrained from recording and, until 2011, touring, as a gesture akin to throwing up one’s hands at the absurdity of it all. Again, that’s a reductive oversimplification; the group’s members have been busy with various other projects and one needn’t make a one to one correlation between their music and political activism.


That said, their return this fall, at the height of election season, is a reminder that many constituencies are not being well represented, either in Godspeed’s home country Canada or in the US, by the current political parties in power. While certainly no fans of conservatism, one imagines that this time out the band might be venting their spleen at those too divided or timid to push for real change. The yawps of fury and fortissimo bursts of sonic sheets evident on Alleluia! could be reckoned as a musical call to action for those disaffected on the left.


Never ones to make overtures in explicit terms in their lyrics, there is still something cathartic about hearing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s abstract yet crystal clear musical essays in the wake of storms, the continued neglect of climate change’s impact, persistent wars, debt negotiations, and big money’s unfettered ascendance in the political arena. By demonstrating musical integrity in the face of a changing industry landscape, GY!BE reminds those who dared last time around to set their sights on “hope” that hope without hard work, follow through, and even a measure of stubbornness won’t get them closer to achieving their goals. Is it any wonder why Alleluia’s grim-faced stoicism and musical intensity seems particularly apt in late 2012, even after the specter of a Romney presidency has been banished? Welcome back.



“Joseph, lieber, Joseph mein” (Video)

What a choral tag team! New York Polyphony joins forces with Anonymous 4 in a perfect performance of Praetorius (video below).

One of the best choral CDs of 2012: EndBeginning, a release by New York Polyphony. With a program preponderantly built from sixteenth century polyphonic treasures – alongside a work from the 14th century by Machaut and one by living composer Jackson Hill – the CD charts a moving trajectory from grief to hope to transcendence. All of the works are sumptuously sung. It is particularly fortunate the ensemble has turned their attentions to Crecquillon and Brumel, who deserve wider currency. One is glad also for the inclusion of the mid-Renaissance gem “Absalon Fili Mi,” which again is performed movingly. A little musicological caveat: many scholars now attribute the piece to Pierre de la Rue, not Josquin, as the CD’s booklet avers.

Best of 2012: Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream

Tramp (2012, Jagjaguwar)

Two of our favorite indie pop/folk chanteuses, Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream made the most of 2012. Van Etten’s Tramp was a “breakout” album, but one in the best sense: it raised her public profile while compromising none of her musical integrity and ingenuity. Check out videos below of her performing single “Serpents” at Studio Q and killing it at SXSW 2012. You can view her (NSFW) video for “Magic Chords” via YouTube here.

Golden Record (2011, Secretly Canadian)

Little Scream’s Golden Record was a 2011 release, but continued in heavy rotation this year; its beguiling song “The Lamb” got appropriately beguiling video treatment (below). And lots and lots of touring.

Finally, one of our favorite covers of 2012, courtesy of the Onion’s AV Club: Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream supply a re-conception of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.”