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Techno Beat

This year seemed like one big interlude, a time of waiting while something cool happened. Unlike previous years that began with excitement about a new genre or sound, 2001 was a year of experimentation and reflection, as producers searched for new ways to produce electronic music.

There was the rise of two-step, which made big inroads into the mainstream thanks to its combination of soulful R&B, house, hip-hop, and breakbeat. Craig David, who was first introduced to the US via the UK two-step duo Artful Dodger (which has already split up), helped bring the sound to the mainstream this year with his big hit "Fill Me In."

The year also saw the advent of the fractured laptop sound, characterized by such terms as "microsound," "microhouse," or "glitch." Whatever term you prefer, the style brought with it a newfound emphasis on intricacies, minimalism, and harshness that coalesced to lean toward a more technical sound.

Artists such as Matmos and Matthew Herbert explored the use of field samples such as the sounds of liposuction, laser eye surgery, and biorhythms in the context of creating music. I believe this is only the beginning.

Aphex Twin: Drukqs (Warp/Sire). Richard James is one strange fellow. The British producer does his damnedest to scare away potential listeners, but he still manages to command a sizable audience that hangs on every menacing metallic synthetic fragment, scattershot breakbeat, placid soundscape, and irreverent vocal he can toss up. While some critics, citing a lack of cohesion, have suggested Drukqs is merely James' way of clearing out his hard drive of all his old material (and that may be true), I think the album's multifaceted sides are more a reflection of the wide range of emotions James tackles through his music. This is by no means an easy or comfortable album. James' penchant for hyper-hysterics runs rampant on several tracks. Yet there are plenty of tracks that consist solely of pensive piano playing and ethereal pulsars, reminiscent of his early work. The more I listened to Drukqs, the more I liked it.

Björk: Vespertine (Elektra). After waiting nearly four years for a proper full-length from the quirky Icelandic artist (Selmasongs notwithstanding), Björk returned with the hauntingly intricate album Vespertine. Decidedly more sedate and meditative than previous material and with no clear-cut dance-oriented tracks, Vespertine finds Björk experimenting with majestic orchestral strings, lush harps, a full-blown choir, and slithery beat and programming collaborations with San Francisco duo micro-glitch artistes Matmos (who toured with Björk), the UK's Matthew Herbert, and many others. And then there's Björk's vocal range, which seems stronger than ever (check "Cocoon" to hear her hit those near-impossible high notes). Opening track "Hidden Place" is one of the most beautiful songs Björk's ever written, an ethereal ride into the gossamer regions of her head. Gorgeous, heartfelt, dizzying, sexual yet technical, Vespertine is a highly personal and intimate album.

BRMC: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Virgin). Yeah, so BRMC sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain. When I picked up this record last spring, my friend exclaimed, "They sound like everything I've heard before!" Maybe so, but then again, who cares? Frankly, after spending years in the lofty clouds of electronic music, it was nice to hear a straight-up rock record that manages to kick your ass and keep you singing those catchy melodies. Indeed, the Bay Area trio has made a promising debut with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, combining whooshing, shrill guitars that fly over your head and saturate your ears with emotive, brooding vocals. There isn't a bad song on the entire record, ranging from the head-nodding anthem "Red Eyes and Tears" to the aching fury of "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll (Punk Song)," the blazing epic "As Sure as the Sun," or the swooning album closer "Salvation," which asks the question "Do you feel alive?" You should, especially if you grew up in the 1980s, as BRMC channels the alt rock sound of a foregone era. Whatever your age, BRMC's melodic psychedelic pop-rock is damn fine.

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