My albums of 2019

Time for my albums of the year. It’s just about possible that this list will give a hint about what I needed to get from music in 2019: mostly calm, with a little bit of escapism.

As always, there are several records I’m gutted to have to exclude. This year, that includes releases by Croatian Amor, Merzbow & Vanity Productions, Nkisi, Rian Treanor, and Richard Skelton. Random observation: several of these would have been even harder to omit if the whole album had been as strong as its stronger moments, and several of the records that did make the cut had the advantage of simply being shorter. Maybe this was a year when less was more? Anyway, here are the lucky winners…

  • Fabio Orsi’s Sterminato Piano, two kosmische-adjacent sides which are just astonishingly good, “maximalist music made with a minimalist’s attention to detail”.
  • Maria W Horn’s Epistasis, four minimalist classical tracks with influences ranging from the tintinnabuli technique of Arvo Pärt to doom and black metal music from the early nineties, and “a thing of subtlety and beauty that combines seemingly simple elements to quietly spell-binding effect”.
  • Octo Octa’s Resonant Body, which is acidy housey breaksy rave, and a giddy head-rush of a record that provided the most delirious thrills of the year.
  • Shida Shahabi’s Shifts, intimate and evocative piano accompanied and a subtle touch of synth and electronics, “tender, with a quiet touch of sadness, but ultimately gently uplifting”.
  • William Basinski’s On Time Out Of Time, in which the master makes a forty-minute piece based around the LIGO gravitational waves signal — an appropriate subject given his remarkable ability to seemingly distil the essence of a moment in time and stretch it out to epic durations, and arguably his most serenely wonderful work to date.

My albums of 2018

Annual round-up time! Lots of lovely rekkids this year (I think I say that every year, but it’s true every year!). In the classical/drone/ambient space, I loved records from Clarice Jensen, Lubomyr Melnyk, and Sarah Davachi. In the nice gentle techno space, there were corkers from ASC and (stretching the genre-bucket a bit, here) Automatisme. In the electronic ambient space, I swooned over releases from Abul Mogard and M Geddes Gengras. Elsewhere, I’m sad to miss out albums from Atom™ & Lisokot, IVVVO, and especially Maarja Nuut & Ruum. But the winners are…

  • Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Glass. An ambient masterpiece played live on a house that, when it finishes, makes me feel like I’ve been holding my breath for the last half an hour.
  • Anna von Hausswolff’s Dead Magic. Drone rock with pipe organs, what’s not to love? It’s got an epic power and also some great tunes and all-in-all it’s a cracking good listen.
  • Christina Vantzou’s No. 4. A richly varied classical/drone work of huge invention, with a fantastic control when marshalling the talents of her musicians, a wonderful sense of texture, and a great knack for dropping in the perfect dose of melody at the perfect moment. The whole thing is just delightful. (Her joint record with John Also Bennett gets an honorable mention, too.)
  • Eartheater’s IRISIRI. A feminist avant-pop classic which builds disparate and not always easy elements into a coherent whole without seeming forced, and does it absolutely brilliantly. This is a record that I’m sure I’ll be coming back to over and over again for a long time.
  • Head Technician’s Profane Architecture. Big and chunky and bouncy and fluid and basically really good retro dark acid techno. And, in case you’re not already sold, it’s themed around brutalist architecture.

Happy New Year, y’all!

My albums of 2017

Alright, then, popkids, time for my annual round-up…

I listened to lots of great records this year, thanks everyone! My longlist included records by Aiden Baker & Karen WillemsColleen, Duran Duran DuranHior ChronikKelly Lee OwensMarcus FjellströmStill, and William Basinski, but none quite made the final cut. I spent a long time with a shortlist of six, and I really wanted them all to make it — but what’s the point in having self-imposed rules if you’re not going to keep them? If the whole of the Ellen Allien record had been as good as its best tracks then it would have been a shoo-in, but a couple of less-awesome tracks meant it had to go.

So, here are my five best albums of 2017.

  • I described Caterina Barbieri’s Patterns Of Consciousness as “close to perfection” at the time, and I stand by that. I reckon it’s clearly the most genuinely innovative and genuinely beautiful thing the recent modular synth revival has produced.
  • At the start of the year, I wouldn’t have expected to be including an electropop record here, but Kalieda’s Tear The Roots just blew me away.
  • It’s hard to know what to say about Mike Cooper’s Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer except that, if you haven’t heard it, you really should, because it is strangely wonderful.
  • If you have an albums-of-2017 list and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async isn’t on it then I think we need to have a little talk, because surely this is just objectively a work of genius from start to finish.
  • Rounding the list out (alphabetically speaking) is Spatial’s A Music Of Sound Systems, which I described as “a kind of deconstruction of a sound clash” and more importantly as “jaw-dropping”. (Incidentally, the remix record is worth checking out, too.)

And as a bonus, this year I’m naming my five best-of-the-rest tracks from the longlist. They are the title track from Colleen’s A Flame My Love, A Frequency, Pryor Acid from Duran Duran Duran’s Duran, Physical from Ellen Allien’s Nost, CBM from Kelly Lee Owen’s (ahem) eponymous debut album, and Don’t Stop (Wondo Riddim) from Still’s I.

Happy 2018!

My albums of 2016

So, that 2016, huh? It would seem shallow to comment on the year musically without mentioning that, in a wider sense, it’s been a pretty momentous and frankly shitty twelve months. But I don’t want to get into politics here, so let’s leave it at that.

The other popular theme of 2016 has been the deaths of famous people, including many musicians. The one that affected me the most deeply by far was the passing of Leonard Cohen. I don’t talk about him much here, because he fits into a different mental box to pretty much all my other listening, and also because I don’t think I could do him credit, but his words and music are super-important to me and I’m sad there won’t be any more. For the same reason, You Want It Darker isn’t competing for the prestigious title which I’ll eventually get around to bestowing on 5 lucky albums in this post.

So. Anyway. I listened to a great deal of very fine music in 2016. And I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going back and listening to a bunch of stuff from earlier in the year to try to combat recency bias. And, following on from a great tradition, here’s what I thought…

Towards the minimal end the dance/electronica spectrum, Dorisburg’s Irrbloss made me very happy. Towards the maximal end, there were so did the awesomely unhinged bits of acid-fried analogue insanity in Africans With Mainframe’s KMT, and maybe even more so Xosar’s Let Go.

In the more-or-less classical world, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Orphée was sublime, and Colin Stetson’s Sorrow (A reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony) was powerfully original. Edging into the ambient, Bethan Kellough’s Aven was a hugely exciting debut, and Svarte Greiner’s Moss Garden felt like it was breaking significant new ground, while Rafael Anton Irisarri’s A Fragile Geography was simply bewitching. And on the doomy drony front, St Francis Duo’s Peacemaker Assembly and Jon Mueller’s Tongues were both, in their different ways, just huge.

Defying even those vague genre boundaries, I loved the hypnotic techno/jazz/kraut/disco/something of Oren Ambarchi’s Hubris, and the gentle but compelling American primitive of East Of The Valley Blues’s EOTVB.

But, finally, here are my 5 picks for my actual final actual albums of 2016:

My albums and tracks of 2015

For some reason, I found picking my top 5 albums of the year particularly hard this time around. My long-list was 18 records long, and it was a struggle to get it down to 14, then 10, then 6. And in the end, I dropped the lovely Xerrox (Vol. 3) only because Alva Noto had made the list five years ago.

Other near misses included Zarelli’s Soft Rains (feat. Leonard Nimoy!), Andrea Taeggi’s Mama Matrix Most Mysterious, Gabriel Saloman’s Music Building Vol. 2, Ghost Harmonic’s Codex, and Ricardo Donoso’s Saravá Exu.

So, without further ado, or other such clichés, the winners are…

  • Blanck Mass with the anthemic noise/pop of Dumb Flesh (CD, Sacred Bones, May)
  • Blond:ish with the eclectic psychy techy house of Welcome To The Present (CD, Kompakt, October)
  • Lau Nau with the evocative modern classical / ambient / Finnish folk of HEM. Någonstans (CD, Fonal, July)
  • Oiseaux-Tempête with the inspired and powerful post-rock of Ütopiya? (CD, Sub Rosa, April)
  • The Woodbine & Ivy Band with the eclectic (yes, again), rousing, and moving folk-ish of Sleep On Sleeping On (CD, Static Caravan, March)
Finally, my tracks of the year from records which don’t feature on those records. I’m upping this to a list of 5 as well this year (and if that’s a cheaty way of including the some of the album runner ups… well, what of it?).
Okay, bye!

My albums and track of 2014 (an out of band post)

Right, then, time for my self-indulgent annual round-up. For the first few months, 2014 looked like being a lean year… but things picked up big-time, I got majorly obsessed with new discoveries several times over the winter, and it ended up being really tough to pick my top 5 albums.

First noteworthy result is that, despite my well-established obsession, Aphex Twin didn’t make the cut: Caustic Window I ruled ineligible on the grounds of actually being twenty years old, and Syro was great and all, but not quite great enough. When I first discovered Angel’s Terra Null, I’d have said it was a shoo-in, and I still think it’s a phenomenal piece of work, but somehow it got edged out in my affections. Also on the long-list would be Duane Pitre & Cory Allen’s The Seeker & The Healer, and Neel’s Phobos.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the winners:

  • The utterly charming melodic classical ambient, all swathed in twinkling piano, of Bing & Ruth’s Tomorrow Was The Golden Age on RVNG Intl.
  • The perfect balance of fuzz and reverb with little lost tunes of Fennesz’s Bécs on Editions Mego (a real grower for me, that one).
  • The rich and emotional deep house blended with modern classical and jazz of Francis Harris’s Minutes Of Sleep on Scissors & Thread.
  • The joyously infectious and inventive glitch of Kyoka’s Is (Is Superpowered) on Raster-Noton.
  • The seventies-style synth loveliness (without a hint of retro cleverness) of Locust’s After The Rain on Editions Mego (again).

As for track of the year… I was tempted by As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), by Harold Budd remixed by Akira Rabelais, which forms the second disc of Avalon Sutra, but at 69 minutes I thought that might be taking the mickey. A close runner-up, then, is You Were Wrong from Sd Laika’s That’s Harakiri. But since the shortlist contained four tracks from the same album, it was pretty much guaranteed that one of them would win, and this is the one that popped out on top:

  • The classic breakbeat rave of Amp from Icicle’s Entropy on Shogun Audio, which just makes me grin like the fool that I am.

My albums and (new feature!) track of 2013 (an out of band post)

Time for another annual round-up. In addition to picking my top albums, which has been giving my fun and headaches for four years now, I’ve added a top track selection, which is basically me cheating to get myself out of a tricky position.

In alphabetical order, my Albums Of 2013 are:

  • French avant-garde poetry and Scottish experimental guitar-torture combine to fantastic ranty effect on Anne-James Chaton & Andy Moor’s Transfer.
  • American dub techno and Canadian electronic ambient combine to fantastic floaty/dreamy effect on Bvdub & Loscil’s Erebus.
  • An Aphex Twin fan and a Mogwai fan (from the west of England) combine to fantastic psychedelic effect on Fuck Button’s Slow Focus.
  • German techno and Norwegian campanology combine to fantastic melodic plinky-plonky effect on Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory’s Elements Of Light.
  • A giant submarine is filled with insects to fantastic effect on Senking’s Capsize Recovery. (Sorry, there’s only one of him… but you were probably getting bored of the “combines” riff anyway.)

Also very much worthy of note was William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops box set, but that was really only technically a 2013 release, so I reluctantly disqualified it.

Google Music All Access users can get the playlist here, most people with Google accounts should be able to hear the first 90 seconds of each track.

And finally my Track Of 2013 is: the glorious, silly, and thrilling ten minutes of proper dark industrial techno awesomeness which is You Show Great Spirit from Prurient’s Through The Window.

My Albums Of 2011 (an out of band post)

While prepping my Albums Of 2012, I realized that I’d completely failed to do 2011. So let’s backfill. In alphabetical order:

  • Balam Acab’s bizarre squeaky-voiced psychedelia Wander/Wonder
  • Byetone’s unashamedly catchy clicks’n’bass monster Symeta.
  • Jóhann Jóhannsson’s gorgeous, nostalgic, and uplifting The Miners’ Hymns.
  • John Tejada’s sublime shuffling techno classic Parabolas.
  • Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer’s endlessly enthralling half-forgotten dream of music, Re: ECM.

It was a tough year. I could have almost filled it with Raster-Noton releases alone: Byetone edged out Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto alone, and the awesome poetry of Anne-James Chaton. A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Kreng, and Tim Hecker were all in the running, too.

My Albums Of 2012 (an out of band post)

It doesn’t do to rush these things, but after giving this weighty matter the care and consideration it undoubtedly deserves, I can finally unveil my Albums Of 2012. In alphabetical order, they are:

Maybe it’s cheating to include two double albums. Maybe it’s especially cheating that the Grouper double was available individually the previous year (but I had thoroughly failed to see her appeal before this release so I think it counts). Maybe you’ll think I’m being willfully obscure with the Musette (but my fondness for it is sincere and irony-free, so there). Maybe you’ll think I’m being disgracefully mainstream with the Godspeed (well, then, tough). Maybe… no, I can’t think of any reason to apologize for the Shackleton, Music For The Quiet Hour in particular being one of those records which re-astonishes me with its genius every time I listen to it. Nor for Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose record induces the closest I’ve had to what I imagine a religious experience is like in quite a long time.

Honourable mentions must go to Barker & BaumeckerMohn, and Richard Skelton.

And finally, Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas came out in January 2012, and is utterly wonderful and stands with his best work and clearly I adore it… I didn’t write about it here because, for me, his music falls into a totally different category to this stuff, and satisfies a different part of my brain. Maybe it’s terribly unfair of me to exclude him on that basis. Sorry, Leonard, we love you.

My Albums Of 2010 (an out of band post)

We interrupt your normal service to bring you my Albums Of 2010. I seem to have bought 29 records released in 2010 so far, and reviewed 26 of them here, so I decided to allow myself a top 5. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

I sort of regret restricting myself to 5. I regret having to leave out the Senking and Philip Jeck records, both omitted as much on grounds of variety as quality. I regret having to leave out extraordinarily inventive records like Matthew Herbert’s take on Mahler. I’m a little sorry there wasn’t any proper techno or house in there, but it didn’t seem to be a vintage year, as far as I heard.

More seriously, I feel bad about the fact that of the 8 individuals represented here, 7 are white and all 8 are male. (For the record, Hildur Gudnadóttir was the one woman to make the short list.) I suspect this says a lot about the people who make these sorts of music, or at least the people who get widely enough released for me to come across them. Nevertheless, I resolve to try to think about this more in 2011.

P.S. Somewhat later, I have noticed that the Margaret Dygas record came out in 2010, and I’d failed to tag it. It would totally have made the shortlist, and possibly the final cut. (This changes the stats on both techno and women, for what it’s worth.)