Albums of the Year 2012
This here blog isn’t dead, just sleeping. Maybe. In any case, the temptation to indulge in an end-of-year wrap-up post was just too great to resist. Actually getting around writing the post or even compiling an albums-of-the-year list proved to be tricky though. There was, after all, the promise of a new My Bloody Valentine album arriving in mid December. With this veritable sword of Damocles a-dangling, who could make a judgement about the year in music? Only a fool, surely!?
Still, the penny had to drop eventually and it was certainly bound to drop before the album. Waiting until a new MBV album comes out before you do something? Now that’s foolish! No point in basing your blogging around Kevin Shields’ promises. The show must go on. Lists must be compiled, judgements made. But if the (alleged) album does emerge before the end of 2012, this entire post will be null and void. Oh well.
That’s one caveat. Another is that this December has proven to be unusually busy and stressful. Therefore, this typically epic (though probably shorter than usual) year-end post was typed in an even-more-than-usually-even-more-than-usually haphazard fashion, in stolen moments, usually late at night. No proofreading, no promises of accuracy or coherence.
Now back to judging other people’s efforts…
On the whole , 2012 had a similar feel to 2011 – a creeping sense that this was a terrible time for music, uncannily coupled with an inability to keep up with the endless stream of worthwhile (and often excellent) releases. This, of course, has something very boring to do with the Internet, so let’s gloss over it and examine some of the releases that didn’t slip by our notice.
One more thing before we get to that though. As ever, comments are strongly encouraged. Don’t be afraid to point out glaring omissions. Don’t be afraid to call this here blog on its bullshit. Don’t be afraid.
Top Ten Albums of the Year
1. Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu – Palimpsest (Schwebung) LP
French polymath Sylvain Chauveau* and German sound art dude Stephan Mathieu – both longtime Bubblegum Cage III favourites – made the admirable decision to collaborate. And the results turned out to be even more than – even better than – the sum of their parts. Apparently, Mathieu sent Chauveau a series of drones, over which he expected the multi-talented composer to arrange some string and piano parts. Instead, Sylvain chose to sing a few songs by arch indie rock moper Bill Callahan aka Smog. The combination of Mathieu’s ominous drones, Callahan’s morbidly mordant lyrics and Chauveau’s rich, slightly cracked voice is astonishingly effective and Palimpsest is a wonderful example of what happens when everything just falls into place. A brilliant idea, perfectly realised. Anything with Sylvain Chauveau’s voice on it seems to polarize listeners but for Bubblegum Cage III, this is the album of the year – no doubt.
(*He was billed as being from Belgium when he played in Vancouver but the Internet suggests otherwise.)
2. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch (4AD) 2LP
Another maddeningly odd collection of theatrical avant rock opuses from the legendary recluse. The first record, in particular, is breathtakingly weird and powerful. The whole sequence of songs from “Corps de Blah”, through the monstrous “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)” and on to “Epizootics!” is surely one of the most extraordinary, hilarious and disgusting sequences of songs in the history of recorded music. Sadly, the album doesn’t retain that level of quality right to the end but even its weaker tracks are dotted with moments of truly impressive ingenuity and courage. A legend walks among us again.
3. Holly Herndon – Movement (RVNG Intl.) LP
An extremely accomplished mixture of advanced granular synthesis, fearless vocal improvisation and Detroit techno pastiche from the year’s most exciting new artist. Movement recalls the classic early 2000′s computer music of Mego artists like Farmers Manual and General Magic, as well as the sidereal electronica of Love’s Secret Domain-era Coil. What’s perhaps most exciting about Movement is that it represents an increasingly rare instance of a trained electroacoustic composer who is willing to step outside the academy and present her work in a nominally “pop” context. The results are uneven but that only makes them more exciting, in a weird way. Movement manages to sound like a perfectly assured piece of work and like the first tentative steps towards something authentically incredible.
4. The Automatics Group – Summer Mix (Entr’acte) CD
Rave-pop hits reduced to digital sound dust by this consistently intriguing UK sound art project. Conceptually fascinating digital signal processing procedures are brought to bear on a range of bangin’ choons to produce something that sounds like a fire-damaged tape of classic Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound tracks. Somehow, it all has a remarkable amount of emotional resonance. Summer Mix feels like the melancholy undertow of the party-hard ethic that seems like mainstream music’s prevailing reaction in the face of endless recession and oncoming ecological disaster. Reading too much into it? Nah – this shit is deep!
Technically, this was released right at the end of 2011 but it came out way too late to appear in any 2011 lists and it’s just too damn good to be omitted from this here blog’s 2012 list. So there.
5. Woebot – Hallo (Hollow Earth) CD
Abandoning sample collage in favour of English-eccentric songwriter primitivism, Woebot made the bravest album of the year. Not that Bish Bosch wasn’t madly courageous but Scott Walker is a seasoned, highly-respected pro, who’s been in the game since his teens, able to muster considerable resources at the drop of a hat (or a twitch of the sunglasses). Mathew “Woebot” Ingram, on the other hand, is a hobbyist and autodidact who started making music relatively late in life. Hallo is a grand act of will. Recorded with admirable depth and clarity, Matt’s rudimentary instrumental and vocal performances are thrown out into the spotlight, seemingly unprepared for the audience’s scrutiny. While there can be no doubt about how difficult exposing himself in this way must have been, it’s all a bit of a trick. Everything seems rickety and tentative at first but once you’ve exercised the aforementioned scrutiny, you’ll notice a stubborn, assured confidence to these simple songs. The man has a vision and he means to see it through. He’s a visionary.
6. Actress – RIP (Honest Jon’s) 2LP
Another extremely satisfying digital techno journey from the enigmatic West Midlander. Apparently, RIP is a concept album based on Paradise Lost. It certainly seems to have a grand narrative behind it – starting off gently and gradually accumulating dramatic gravitas as it progresses. In terms of Darren Cunningham’s personal journey, RIP is certainly a step in the right direction. Less reliant on muddy side-chaining compression and general lo-fi tactics, Cunningham has the confidence to let his beats pop and granulated sample loops sing. Rather confusingly, music critics continue to portray Actress as an earthy analogue type, even as he displays a growing mastery of contemporary computer music techniques. But that’s the thing about Darren Cunningham – he’s never quite what you expect him to be. He seldom does exactly what you imagine he might but he always does it at just the right moment.
7. Oren Ambarchi – Audience of One (Touch) 2LP
Ambarchi was even-more-than-usually prolific this year but nothing else he released quite scaled the heights of this double set (though the duo with Robin Fox, discussed below, came pretty close). When experimental musicians move away from electronic minimalism and towards a more fleshed-out live band sound, they tend to lose the plot a bit. But the distinctly organic and collaborative feel of this album is every bit as focused as any of Ambarchi’s solo sine-tone guitar excursions. While the audacious, 33-minute “Knots” is the clear centrepiece of this album, it’s the more compact, song-based material that has the greatest impact – specifically “Salt” and “Fractured Mirror”, which turns out to be a cover of a track by Ace Frehley of Kiss! Oren Ambarchi is a true obsessive who knows the mutually-alien worlds of classic rock and avant experimentalism inside and out. And he knows how to meld them like pretty much nobody else around right now. Also, our friend Crys Cole plays on this record. Yay, go Crys!
8. Fieldhead – A Correction (Gizeh) LP
It’s easy – and fun – to see this series of blustery electronic miniatures as a loving tribute to Canada’s great north-west. Just as Loscil’s Endless Falls did in 2010, A Correction perfectly conjures the mood of a rainy Vancouver afternoon, using warm chord washes, grainy digital electronics and melancholy strings (Fieldhead was based in Vancouver when he recorded this, though he has since moved on). However, compared to Loscil’s manicured lawn of sound, this is an overgrown weed patch, wild and unruly. That’s wild as in wilderness, not as in rock’n'roll excess. This is perfect music for staring into the vast expanse of fuck all that lies to the north of any Canadian city. Having said that, it’s actually a very compact album – shorter than that one long Oren Ambarchi track! To be so expansive and so concise all at once is quite an achievement.
9. Moritz von Oswald Trio – Fetch (Honest Jon’s) 2LP
While nothing can quite match the future shock of the MVOT’s debut (Vertical Ascent), this collection is probably the Trio’s most well-rounded collection of minimal dub-jazz. More than anything, Fetch recalls the cinematic/industrial ambient-fusion albums Australia’s Paul Schutze was producing in the 90s. Which is to say, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anything quite like this. Moritz von Oswald’s past with dub techno pioneers Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound is audible throughout but it’s filtered through a seemingly unique approach to live band interplay – the specifics of which are hard to pinpoint. Whatever may be going on, it has led to an album that’s consistently listenable and stylish but never overly decorative or polite. It’s like making friends with a rather erudite extra terrestrial.
10. Mark van Hoen – The Revenant Diary (Editions Mego) 2LP
Another superb solo album from the ex-Seefeel/Locust/Scala guy. Perfect electronic avant pop for bedsit brooding. According to Editions Mego, the basis of this album was recorded “on four-track tape, using a minimal set-up, reminiscent of his first early 80s musical adventures”. However, it doesn’t exactly sound like Sebadoh or whatever. The Revenant Diary is full of chunky beats, sliced-up loops and time-stretched voices. The fact that all this digital magic really does sound like it’s been recorded to cassette tape gives the whole thing an uncanny, ghostlike feel, which recalls both Boards of Canada and The Fall’s underrated Bend Sinister (which was mastered from a cassette). Like all of this guy’s best work, it’s intensely personal but also very accessible. Seems like only a matter of time before he gets the widespread acclaim he’s deserved for so long.
Other Absolutely Top-Notch Stuff
My Bloody Valentine – EPs 1988-1991 (Sony) 2CD
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything (Sony) CD
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (Sony) 2CD
At last! The long-promised MBV remasters, including remixed versions of three never-officially-released-but-still-widely-circulated demos on the EPs compilation. Still no vinyl though. And it really seems like the press/public response to these releases was a little muted – they just kinda dribbled out, having leaked a couple of years previously, around the originally-slated release date. None of these CDs were even mentioned in The Wire magazine’s reissues-of the-year list, for instance. But make no mistake – THIS IS THE BEST MUSIC EVER RELEASED. EVER! More than 20 years after the original releases, it still sounds at least a decade ahead of anything else happening in rock, electronic or experimental music. Show some respect – this is it!
Diamond Version – EP1 (Mute) 12″
Diamond Version – EP2 (Mute) 12″
Two EPs of block-rockin’ glitch beats from Raster Noton’s Alva Noto and Byetone. The worst you can say about this stuff is that it’s like the thinking person’s brostep. But this material is as smart and sophisticated as it is brutally efficient. It’s absolutely precision tooled to sound as pulse-increasingly insurrectionary as possible but it still finds time to open out big yawning chasms of dub space. And with the ironic deployment of corporate sloganeering, sometimes delivered via synthesized robo-voices, the overall impression is of a post-punk Kraftwerk. This may be the most purely exciting music of the year.
Burial – Kindred (Hyperdub) 12″
With Burial going from strength to strength, Kindred was the post-dubstep pioneer’s most ambitious release to date. Epic to the point of practically being a mini album, this 12″ sees Burial in uncompromising mood. He’s not one to rest on his laurels – he’d want to make himself far more uncomfortable than that. By the time you read this, there should be another 12″ in circulation. It’ll probably be bonkers!
Disco Inferno – The 5 EPs (One Little Indian) 2LP
Ian Crause – The Song of Phaethon (no label) download
The CD came out last year but it’s worth flagging up the rather fancy 2LP edition of The Five EPs. Absolutely peerless sampledelic post-rock genius – and a historically important document of a band at the height of its powers.
The Song of Phaethon, meanwhile, is a recent solo release from Disco Inferno front-man Ian Crause. Essentially, it’s a single epic song divided into three parts. Much closer to the classic DI sound (with a touch of The Legendary Pink Dots, oddly enough), it was one of the most remarkable and innovative releases of the year. Unbelievably, Crause self-released it through his Bandcamp page because (he claims) he can’t get any record labels interested in his new material. It’s a truly shameful reflection on our times that there hasn’t been some kind of indie bidding war for this material. Make no mistake, like The 5 EPs, this is historic stuff.
Plays:four – Lay Doe (no label) download
Phenomenal debut EP from this terrifyingly young Vancouver electronica trio. The template for Lay Doe clearly comes from early 2000s glitch techno, with Jan Jelinek emerging as a particularly strong influence. But the end result has a claustrophobic, compressed sound that is distinctly contemporary. Seems like a tantalizing glimpse of great things to come.
Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin – Instrumental Tourist (Software) 2LP
Oneohtrix Point Never/Rene Hell – split (NNA Tapes) LP
Two really great releases featuring Daniel “OPN” Lopatin. The collab with Tim Hecker was definitely a strong top ten contender and both of these records feel like “proper”, fully-realised releases, rather that stopgap projects. It’s worth noting that the Rene Hell side of the split LP is actually really fantastic too.
Oren Ambarchi & Robin Fox – Connected (Kranky) LP
Oren Ambarchi – Sagittarian Domain (Editions Mego) LP
More Ambarchi stuff. The collab with fellow Australian Robin Fox (an excellent solo artist in his own right) is a finely-wrought duo to rank alongside the Hecker/Lopatin record – and, as such, another strong contender for the top ten.
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (Modern Love) 2LP
Some fans found it an unwelcome retreat from the finely-tuned lo-fi of Stott’s previous EPs but – to these ears – Luxury Problems is his most focused work to date. Imagine the new age post-punk of early 4AD, locked to the minimal techno grid.
The Caretaker – Patience (After Sebald) (History Always Favours the Winners) LP
A great soundtrack to a great film about a great writer. The Caretaker’s finest hauntological moment.
KTL – V (Editions Mego) 2LP
Fenn O’Berg – In Hell (Editions Mego) 2LP
Another great year for Peter “Pita” Rehberg and his Editions Mego family of labels. No solo Pita work emerged but he did contribute to these two excellent releases. The KTL track featuring Johann Johannsson is particularly impressive.
Valgeir Sigurðsson – Architecture of Loss (Bedroom Community) LP
Probably the best “neo-classical” album of the year – certainly ahead of the pack in its expertly-controlled edgy dissonance. And you’ve gotta love that crazy Icelandic surname.
Monolake – Ghosts (Imbalance Computer Music) 2LP
A “dancier” take on the moodily obsessive sound Robert Henke perfected on his masterpiece, Silence. A little patchy but with many moments of true brilliance. Oh and live, loud and quadrophonic at Seattle’s Decibel festival, this material really was something to behold.
No UFO’s – MPC Tracks Vol. 1 (Nice Up International) cassette
Cloudface – Wyre Drive (Nice Up International) cassette
No UFO’s brings the murky, sample-based discursiveness. MPC Tracks sounds like Demdike Stare suffering from chronic indecision and deserves a vinyl reissue. The Cloudface is really good too, offering a more analogue take the on the same aesthetic
En – Already Gone (Students of Decay) LP
Now that Mountains decided to go analogue/crap, the En boys look set to become the new kings of naturalistic electro-drone.
Loscil – Sketches from New Brighton (Kranky) 2LP
Gradual development is the name of the game with Loscil, on the micro and macro levels. Just as each song builds and morphs almost imperceptibly, each new album subtly introduces a few new ideas. Sketches from New Brighton is no exception. It’s not his most fully-realised album but when you begin an album title with the word “sketches”, you pretty much excuse that in advance.
Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland – Black is Beautiful (Hyperdub) LP
It’s Hype Williams, yo. If you like Dean and Inga’s brand of smarmy hipster dicking about, you’ll love it. If you don’t, you may have no soul.
Fennesz – AUN (Ash International) CD
Fennesz – Fa 2012 (Editions Mego) 12″
Fennesz Wozencroft – Liquid Music (Touch) USB drive
AUN is a fairly forgettable film soundtrack. Fennesz by numbers, really. Excellent in places but no substitute for a fully-fledged new solo masterpiece. Fennesz’s side of the 12″ is just okay too, revisiting a track from his debut album Hotel Paral.lel. The Mark Fell remix it’s twinned with is actually kinda shitty. Liquid Music, an audio-visual collaboration with Touch boss Jon Wozencroft (reviewed here), is definitely the most satisfying of these releases. And of course, the aforementioned Fenn O’Berg album is excellent.
Richard Youngs – Core to the Brave (Root Strata) LP
One of the better Youngs releases of recent times. Might be described as “noise-folk”.
Vladislav Delay – Kuopio (Raster-Noton) CD
A real late arrival. Haven’t had time to get to grips with this but it’s Vladislav Delay doing what he does – wonky glitch-dub – which has to be a good thing. Sounds better than the last album – maybe a bit dancier.
V. Vecker Ensemble – In the Tower (Majorly) LP
Nam Shub – Cascadia (no label) LP
Post-rock is alive and well in Western Canada, as evidenced by these two highly-commendable releases from Vancouver. Keep an eye on the Majorly label.
Gunshae – Out of Darkness… Light (Ohm Resistance) CD
Thomas Koner – Novaya Zemlya (Touch) LP
Deison – Quiet Rooms (Aagoo) CD
Filip Gorecki – Aura & the Dark Fruit (Panospria) download
And ambient music of the mean-and-moody variety is alive and well all across the globe. Particularly nice to see that Koner and Vancouver’s Gunshae are still in the game. Gunshae’s Lost Cascadian Suite is also available for free download from Panospria, as is the excellent debut album from fellow Vancouverite Filip Gorecki.
White Poppy – I Had a Dream (Not Not Fun) cassette
Best indie rock band in Vancouver? Sounds a bit like Papa Sprain! Worth breaking the Not Not Fun boycott for.
Vincent Parker – Import Culture: Respecanize P2 (no label) download
More Vancouver goodness, this time of the beat-driven, electronical kind.
Ty Segall – Twins (Drag City) LP
The Oh Sees – Putrifiers II (In the Red) LP
With “EDM” psuedo-raves dominating arenas across North America and rock seemingly absent from the mainstream for the first time in 50 years, it’s odd to see the dogged survival of the post-White Stripes garage rock underground. And it’s even odder to note that some of the stuff it’s producing is pretty fantastic.
prOphecy Sun – Bird Curious (Panospria) download
Spell – Lull (Panospria) download
More from Vancouver. Bird Curious is an album of eccentric improvisations recorded on an iPhone. Lull is the second EP from prOphecy Sun’s dark electropop project. Download them here and here.
Seekersinternational – The Call from Below (Digitalis) LP
Yet more goodness from Vancouver. This one sounds like a more maximal, chaotic take on Rhythm & Sound’s dubwise early 12″s.
Nicolas Krgovich – Real Life (no label) download
In lieu of a new album from Krgovich’s No Kids, we’ll have to accept this solid collection of covers in an 80s R&B stylee.
Mute Branches – So Remote (no label) download
A delightful little IDM obscurity. Well worth taking a chance on.
Father Murphy – Anyway, Your Children Will Deny It (Aagoo) LP
A very disconcerting avant rock effort, which pokes around the darker corners of post-punk. Reviewed here.
Bellows – Reelin’ (Entr’acte) CD
Giuseppe Ielasi – Untitled (Entr’acte) CD
Two more tasty slices of electro-improv featuring the ever-reliable Italian Giuseppe Ielasi.
Raime – Quarter Turns Over a Living Line (Blackest Ever Black) LP
Spartan, haunted beats for fans of Scorn and Seefeel’s underrated Succour.
Cowards – See ‘Em, Be ‘Em (Cowards) 7″
Twangy avant-punk from – yes – Vancouver. Sounds exactly like early Swans if you play it at the wrong speed.
Lee Gamble – Diversions (Pan) 12″
Dark ambient tracks made with samples of the atmospheric breakdowns from rave records. The execution doesn’t quite live up to the concept but what a concept!
Black to Comm – Earth (De Stijl) LP
Ekkehard Ehlers – Adikia (Staubgold) LP
Two slightly disappointing efforts from longtime Bubblegum Cage favourites. In each case, creaky-spooky soundscaping is thrown even further off kilter by some frankly grating vocal interjections. These are both worthwhile efforts but they don’t deliver on the level we have come to expect.
Reissues, Vinyl Editions etc.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Rifts (Software) 5LP
This here blog’s ability to comment on this here item will depend almost entirely on that there Santa’s generosity.
A.R. Kane – Complete Singles Collection (One Little Indian) 2CD
Nice to see this collection of proto-shoegaze classics getting the reissue treatment. The first disc essentially constitutes the band’s best album – surpassing even the brilliant but uneven 69.
Can – The Lost Tapes (Mute) 5LP
A trawl through the krautrock legends’ jam-tape archive yields a surprisingly (though, it has to be said, not entirely) consistent collection of classic-era material.
Dreamscape – La-Di-Da Recordings (Kranky) LP
A very welcome archival LP collecting almost the complete works of this obscure shoegaze act from Bristol. The second release on this list that sounds a bit like Papa Sprain.
Sonic Youth – Smart Bar, Chicago, 1985 (Goofin’) 2LP
A highly-exhilarating live bootleg recording from back in the day, digitally restored by Lee Renaldo’s son (!)
Top Ten Live Sets
Faulty memory will probably ensure that something particularly thrilling has been omitted from this particular section (see edits, below) but off the top of the old head, it would go something like this:
- Monolake in Seattle
- Byetone in Seattle
- Actress in Vancouver
- Sylvain Chauveau in Vancouver
- Oneohtrix Point Never in Vancouver
- Ty Segall in Vancouver
- Secret Pyramid in Vancouver
- Plays:four in Vancouver
- Cut Hands in Seattle
- Biosphere in Seattle
And that’s about if for another 12 months. See you in the New Year! Or not. Whatever.
- Oh yeah, Neil Young & Crazy Horse played a couple of months ago. That would be about number six in the Live Sets list.
- Haven’t heard the new BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa yet.
- Didn’t the other guy from Basic Channel have some kind of solo album out this year?
- Also forgot about Type’s reissue of Biokinetics by Porter Ricks. Definitely one of the reissues of the year.
- RIP MCA.
- Ah! Saw Swans play too. That was even better than Neil Young. Not that interested in hearing the new album but the show was great.
- Probably need to hear that Shackleton thing.
- Mount Eerie did an awesome show in Vancouver. Forgot about that one. And didn’t he do two albums this year?
- It’s weird how people have commented on this post via Twitter, Tumblr and Last FM but not in the comments box for the post itself. The Internet has changed.