Well, 2016 was a right pile of shit, wasn’t it? Luckily, there was some fucking great music released, to relieve the pain just a little. Some of it might even be… important?
This here blog has long been a once-annual affair. Just an albums-of-the-year post every December, banged out in an hour or two. The writing may well be pretentious gobbledegook; the grammar and punctuation almost certainly aren’t 100% correct; you can pretty much guarantee a few serious factual errors…
But the music is fantastic and that’s what matters.
Right now, the current state of the world has to make you wonder if there will be an internet – or even a planet – upon which to publish this sort of list, come December 2017. And even if we’re left with anything more than a smouldering pile of ashes, won’t such things nevertheless appear appallingly trivial?
For now though, the question for list compilers everywhere has to be: What sort of album could possibly top an AotY chart in such an unceasingly bleak and unsettling context?
Top 10 Albums of the Year
1. Shirley Collins – Lodestar (Domino) LP
An album like this, it turns out. One of the most distinctive voices in English folk music makes her first album in over three decades and it has just the right mixture of brutality and compassion to divine some kind of sense from the world around us. That voice is even more distinctive now, sounding like creaking oak timbers on one of the many ships featured throughout this nautically-obsessed collection. Aside from boats, the main theme of the album is death – and the chillingly sparse, beautifully recorded arrangements are more than appropriate for this subject matter. But at 81, Shirley Collins certainly doesn’t seem ready to slip from this here mortal coil. On Lodestar, she sounds invincibly stoic – like she could quite happily sit out another three decades; like she could wait out a nuclear winter.
2. Trim – 1-800 Dinosaur Presents Trim (1-800 Dinosaur) 2LP
Grime’s finest emcee finally makes the experimental album he’s always had in him. The lyrics are as hilarious and bizarre as ever and the slooow beats – by a bunch of James Blake-associate nerds – push the plastic presets and clipped drums associated with classic grime right to brink of entropy. This is a landmark release both inside and outside the genre, so those of you with a prejudice against all things grimy in the 2010s need to knock it of a just listen.
3. Autechre – Elseq 1-5 (Warp) 5xDL
Massive, ridiculous, unmanageable and utterly singular in its alien brilliance. A five-hour stream of brain-scrambling digital abstraction that seems insurmountable at first – it opens with a barrage of percussive insanity and features several tracks that push well past the 20-minute mark. Still, there’s enough simple beauty lurking on Elseq‘s 3 and 4 in particular to lure fans of the Manchester duo’s early work (which itself got a welcome vinyl reissue this year).
4. Biosphere – Departed Glories (Smalltown Supersound) 2LP
An unusually sparse collection of highly-processed ambience makes for Biosphere’s best LP. In the past, there’s always been something a bit corny about Biosphere – all that film dialogue, for starters! But that’s generally been a big part of the appeal, to be honest. Here, the sound is austere and any hint of corn is scrubbed right out. But nothing is missing. The panoramic scope and awestruck wonder are broader and deeper than ever.
5. Trembling Bells – Wide Majestic Aire (Tin Angel) LP
Folk-rock throwback business that is more than redeemed by its consistently excellent tunes. You can’t underestimate the power of a good tune, really. In recent years Jim O’Rourke and Mark Van Hoen have managed to elevate albums that should have sounded insufferably cheesy or played-out, simply by loading them with gorgeous, unforgettable melodies. Aside from being inherently hard-to-resist when done well, this approach creates a context for the continued exploration of styles that might normally lead you to wonder if people are really still doing that. On “Swallows of Carbeth”, Trembling Bells sound almost laughably like classic-era Fairport Convention. But oh what a tune!
6. Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force – Yermande (Ndagga) LP
The Basic Channel guy successfully fuses his dub-techno genius with Senegalese funk. It’s astonishingly well realized, with Ernestus stripping the sound back to reveal its perplexing rhythmic intricacies and make ample room for its haunting melodic beauty to become all-encompassingly cinematic. ME has been absolutely on fire recently. In particular, his remixes of Nigeria’s Obadikah are essential listening for those of you craving something in the vein of classic Rhythm & Sound.
7. Westside Gunn – Flygod (Daupe!) 2LP
A harshly thrilling update of the 90s golden age hip-hop sound, straight outta Buffalo. In a sense, this seems to be about as far away from the Shirley Collins album as you could get. And yet both deal with violence in a way that is as horrifically surreal and dispiritingly mundane as it is when you’re unfortunate enough to encounter it IRL. Bottom line: both albums are truly great folk art that make deep-rooted traditions sound fresh and vital.
8. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris (Editions Mego) LP
Combining 80s film soundtracks and afrobeat rhythms to audaciously brilliant effect.
9. Paul Jebanasam – Continuum (Subtext) LP
A galaxy-shattering wedge of cinematic electronica.
10. Pita – Get In (Editions Mego) LP
The Mego boss is back with a typically confrontational collection of electronic abstractions.
And here’s a bunch more stuff…
The Next 10
11. Matt Elliott – The Calm Before (Ici d’Ailleurs) LP
12. Scott Walker – The Childhood of a Leader (4AD) LP
13. Roly Porter – Third Law (Tri Angle) 2×12”
14. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner - The Revenant (New Regency Music) 2LP
15. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai (self-released) LP
16. Juan Atkins & Moritz Von Oswald – Borderland: Transport (Tresor) 2LP
17. Loscil – Monument Builders (Kranky) 2LP
18. Monolake – VLSI (Imbalance Computer Music) 2LP
19.Oval – Popp (Uovooo) LP
20. Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger (Drag City) LP
If you think Elseq is hard to handle, try messing with Stephan Mathieu’s monumental 12CD work-in-progress Radiance. There’s every reason to suspect that the six volumes of Radiance to emerge so far might constitute one (or six) of the albums of the year. But it’s all a bit much to take in. Maybe the holiday season will provide some time for more in-depth investigations into the nature of this particular monolith. In the meantime, here’s a handful of other really excellent albums to which you should lend your ears…
- Yves Tumor – Serpent Music
- 3/4hadbeeneliminated – Speak to Me
- Sarah Davachi – Dominions
- Demdike Stare – Wonderland
- Christian Fennesz & Jim O’Rourke – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry
- Fis – From Patterns to Details
- Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni – Les Filles de Illighadad
- Tim Hecker – Love Streams
- Hieroglyphic Being – The Discos of Imhotep
- Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée
- Kiki Hitomi – Karma No Kusari
- Eric Holm – Barotrauma
- Ian William Craig – Centres
- Jem Circs – s/t
- Kel Assouf – Tikounen
- Nicolas Krgovich – The Hills
- Klara Lewis – Too
- Ramzi – Phobiza Dia: Vol. 1
- Seekrs International – Lovers Dedication Station
- Tumastin – Amanar
- Valerio Tricoli – Clonic Earth
- Zomby – Ultra
Singles, EPs, Tapes etc.
- Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II tape
This one is unmissable. A pretty under-the-radar release by Vancouver’s true king of emotive drone-scapes, which you should not allow to pass under your own personal radar because it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Plenty of people are doing the crybaby drone thing right now and most of them fall into the same generic traps, time and time again. This release avoids those traps very deftly indeed. It’s as smart at is sad but track five will, nevertheless, leave you in absolute tatters.
- Mark Ernestus vs. Obadikah – April 10″
- Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden I 10″
- Burial – Young Death/Nightmarket 12″
- Sleaford Mods – TCR 12”
- Horsetail – Hollow Sea DL
- Farmers Manual – glague general gen DL
- Loscil – Sine Studies 2 7”
- Karl Fousek – Pattern Variation tape
- Fousek/Hansen/Tellier-Craig – No Sound Without a Misunderstanding tape
- Kyoka – SH 12”
- The Fall – Wise Ol’ Man 12″
It’s been a great year for reissues, with a whole bunch of favourite artists getting long-overdue represses – notably, the Autechre albums mentioned near the top of this page. Let’s hope the vinyl bubble lasts long enough that this trend continues for at least another year or two. Maybe someone will finally do the Disco Inferno albums.
- Coil – The New Backwards
- Painkiller – Execution Ground
- Guy Reibel – Douze Inventions en Six Modes de Jeu
- Locust – Morning Light
- Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Songs of Forgiveness
- Iannis Xenakis – La Legende D’Eer
- MF Doom – Unexpected Guests
- William Basinski – 92982
- Zabaya – Azna de L’Ader
- Carl Stone – Electronic Music from the 70s & 80s
- J Dilla – The Diary
- Autechre albums
- Yoko Ono albums
- Flying Saucer Attack albums
- Godflesh albums
- Sonic Youth albums
- Pram albums
- Melvins albums
The live highlight, on a personal note, was obviously the Stewart Lee-curated edition of All Tommorow’s Parties in North Wales. Amazing sets from Datblygu and Sleaford Mods plus The Bevis Frond, Trembling Bells, Richard Youngs, The Fall, Stew himself and many, many more. This event had a distinctly weird vibe, probably caused by the ATP organization’s in-progress implosion but the convergence of so many favourite artists in one place was absolutely sublime. Had some nice walks on the beach too.
Also memorable was Brix Smith’s appearance at Rough Trade East in London, reading from her excellent autobiography, The Rise, The Fall & The Rise, as well as playing some acoustic songs and answering questions. Kris looked after her pug, while she sound checked. And speaking of blondes with pugs…
- Maria Bamford – the only comedian even nearly as funny as Stewart Lee
- Stewart Lee – the only comedian funnier than Maria Bamford
- Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell!
- Recollection GRM and 70s/80s electro-acoustic music, generally
- Curits Roads, Barry Truax and early granular synthesis, generally
- Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog and Welsh-language music, generally
- Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar and crazy Saharan rock, generally
- The Bevis Frond
- Leslie Winer
- Digital Eurorack modules
Let’s be frank: the whole year was a serious let-down. Part of the reason that Shirley Collins had to top this here list was that 2016 ended up simply marinated in the stench of death. So many legendary musicians died that it seemed like barely a week went by without some new round of RIPs on Twitter. On a personal level, the passings of Prince, Dale Griffin and Jean-Claude Risset were particularly significant (not to mention those of some beloved animal pals – don’t worry, Sneefler’s fine!) Then you had Bowie, Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Alan Vega, Geneviève Castrée, Bernie Worrell, Dave Swarbrick, Phife Dawg… The list goes on.
But at least some of these folks were elderly and had clearly made peace with the world. The point is, death is expected, sooner or later – so it’s not exactly a let down. What is far more disappointing is the aforementioned state of world affairs: Brexit, the international rise of fascism and the collapse of American democracy. Without wishing to lapse into poor taste, you have to wonder if those dearly departed musicians might have gotten out at just the right time. At least they didn’t have to suffer through Kate Bush voicing her support of the UK’s crypto-fascist Prime Minister.
So, right now, musical disappointments like Katie Gately’s frankly unlistenable debut full-length seem decidedly meh.
Wish it was possible to say that 2017 will be better but it’s more than likely to make 2016 look like a walk in the park. In the meantime, you might want to make sure you really get as much joy out of this holiday season as you can. Seriously.
(P.S. As mentioned before, this post was created with reckless haste. If you spot anything glaringly missing or false, please post a comment to that effect and I will make the required additions/corrections ASAP.)
Edit: Late Additions
Normally, this section might be used to add recent discoveries found via other albums-of-the-year lists. But in this case, most of the following albums were actually released after this post initially went online. The big discovery was Sendai – a dream-come-true cross between Autechre and Roly Porter. All three of the Belgian duo’s albums are (it turns out) excellent but the new one might be the best yet. Oh and the new Rashad Becker is phenomenal too.
Anyway, the following list may get added to as and when new discoveries are made:
- Sendai – Ground & Figure
- Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. II
- Cindytalk – The Labyrinth of the Straight Line
- Sarah Davachi – Vergers
- Blessed Initiative – s/t
- Terminal Cheesecake – Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients
- Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival
Pretty sure there’s at least one Seekers International album that remains unheard too. Who can keep up?
A year of surprises and a year of puzzles. Where did that Dr. Yen Lo album come from? Why didn’t the Holly Herndon and King Midas Sound albums deliver on their promise? How to explain the appeal of that Datblygu album?
Top 10 Albums
- Dr. Yen Lo – Days with Dr. Yen Lo
Underground rap veterans make a mostly-drumless concept album based around The Manchurian Candidate and it’s an improbably beautiful album of the year.
- Theo Burt – Gloss
Beyond any theoretical obfuscation the Automatics Group dude may run, this clearly sounds like a chip tune cover of an early Oval album. Mind-bogglingly lovely.
- Datblygu – Porwr Trallod
After two decades out of the game “The Welsh Fall” returns with an album that is more inventive and certainly more moving than anything Mark E. Smith has done in many years.
- Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
Ludicrous 70s soft-rock schmaltz wedded to horrifyingly misanthropic lyrics. And yet everything is so pitch perfect that the whole is utterly seductive.
- Stephan Mathieu – Before Nostromo
This drone/ambient tribute to the first Alien movie yields one of Mathieu’s darkest and complex albums – and also one of his best.
- Sleaford Mods – Key Markets
A confident return to form after the extremely disappointing Divide & Exit. Still patchy but the best moments are as vividly righteous as they are deliriously vitriolic.
- Max Richter – From Sleep
Perhaps the eight-hour full version of Sleep is the real deal but this condensed version is in itself a real high point among the recent history of post-minimalist composition.
- Heather Leigh – I Abused Animal
Like the Datbygu album, this reduces song form to its bare essentials in order to deliver something incredibly courageous and emotionally raw.
- M.E.S.H. – Piteous Gate
An abstract electronic debut that has the kind of energy and inventiveness you only get when reach exceeds grasp.
- Dasha Rush – Sleepstep
Lovely nocturnal electronica which probably manages to be the lushest album ever released on Raster-Noton, without sacrificing the formal elegance associated with that label.
The Next 10
- Joanna Newsom – Divers
- Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 3
- Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
- Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Sounding Lines
- Duane Pitre – Bayou Electric
- Holly Herndon – Platform
- King Midas Sound & Fennesz – Edition 1 Instrumentals
- Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015
- Rabit – Communion
- Sunn O))) – Kannon
Aine O’Dwyer – Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I & II
Seekers International – Her Imperial Majesty
Mark Van Hoen – Nightvision
Other Great Albums
Tim Catlin & Machinefabriek – Whorls
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Year with 13 Moons
Crys Cole – Sand/Layna
Colleen – Captain of None
Ian William Craig – Cradle for Wanting
Sarah Davachi – Baron’s Court
The Fall – Sub-Lingual Tablet
Robin Fox – A Small Prometheus
Yair Elazar Glotman – Etudes
Chihei Hatakeyama – Moonlight Reflecting Over Mountains
Helm – Olympic Mess
Kid606 – Recollected Ambient Works Vol. 1: Bored of Excitement
King Midas Sound & Fennesz – Edition 1
Nicholas Krgovich – On Cahuenga
MED, Blu & Madlib – Bad Neighbor
Neu Balance – Rubber Sole
Vincent Parker – Purge
Philippe Petit – Multicoloured Shadows
Ramzi – Houti Kush
Run the Jewels – Meow the Jewels
Senking – Closing Ice
Wand – 1000 Days
Automatics Group – Summer Mix
General Magic & Pita – Fridge Trax Plus
Arthur Russell – Corn
Loscil – Plume
J Dilla – Dillatronic
Sun City Girls – Torch of the Mystics
Singles, EPs etc.
Kuma – Mine
Loop – Array 1
Loscil – For Greta
Sleaford Mods – Talk Bollocks
Anna Zaradny feat. Christian Fennesz – RE:EM
Oval – Retina Score
The Autechre show in Vancouver was so next-level that it seems reckless to list anything else beside it.
And of Course
There’s loads of stuff I still haven’t heard and probably a few things I’ve forgotten about. Still listening, still learning.
If you’re at all concerned about the place of music in our culture, 2014 was a terrible year. If you’re just looking for some awesome shit to listen to, it was a fantastic year. Who can keep up? This is, inevitably, an incomplete list. Still listening, still catching up.
Top 10 Albums
1. Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused (4AD)
Hard to pick between this and the Fennesz but – really – Soused is some next-level shit
2. Fennesz – Bécs (Editions Mego)
A partial return to his Endless Summer sound and well worth the wait
3. Oval – Voa (self-released)
Technically, this came out digitally in 2013 but the vinyl is the real deal
4. Diamond Version – CI (Mute)
Top-ten-worthy for Leslie Winer’s cameo alone – the rest is just (delicious) icing
5. Tape – Casino (Hapna)
Pure melodic loveliness? No: specifically impure melodic loveliness
6. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
His most accessible yet but still utterly, utterly knackered
7. Oren Ambarchi – Quixotism (Editions Mego)
Ambarchi’s best in ages – imagine a Moritz von Oswald Arkestra
8. Loscil – Sea Island (Kranky)
Finally, Loscil manages to integrate discontinuous elements into his oceanic swells
9. Black to Comm – Black to Comm (Type)
A massive, mind-fraying psychedelic journey into the heart of the drone
10. Locust – After the Rain (Editions Mego)
Inexcusably gorgeous radiophonic melodicism from Mark van Hoen and co
- The Bug – Angels & Devils (Ninja Tune)
The best bits are as good as anything but there are a few duff tracks
- Sleaford Mods – Divide & Exit (Harbinger Sound)
A very disappointing, patchy follow-up to Austerity Dogs but the peaks are miles high
- Actress – Ghettoville (Ninja Tune)
- Lee Gamble – KOCH (Pan)
- LCC – D/evolution (Editions Mego)
- Tujiko Noriko – My Ghost Comes Back (Editions Mego)
- Vladislav Delay – Visa (Ripatti)
- Lawrence English – Wilderness of Mirrors (Room40)
- Fennesz – Mahler Remixed (self-released)
- Eric Holm – Andøya (Subtext)
- Nicholas Krgovich – On Sunset (NK World Service)
- Kyoka – Is (Is Superpowered) (Raster-Noton)
- Klara Lewis – Ett (Editions Mego)
- Madlib – Piñata Beats (Madlib Invazion), Rock Konducta Vol. 1 and Rock Konducta Vol. 2 (Rappacats)
- Namoi Punk – Television Man (Captured Tracks)
- Nochexxx – Thrusters (Ramp)
- Thee Oh Sees – Drop (Castle Face)
- Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)
- Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)
- Arbutus – Bedroom Safari (Vague Sound)
- Sarah Davachi – August Harp (Cassuna)
- Holly Herndon – Chorus and Home (RVNG Intl.)
- Sleaford Mods – Tied up in Nottz (Little Teddy) and Tiswas (Invada)
- The Bug vs. Earth – Boa/Cold (Ninja Tune)
- Ian Crause – The Song of Phaeton (self-released)
- Dalglish – Dorcha Aigeann (Ge-stell)
- Lee Gamble – Kuang (Pan)
- Katie Gately/Tlaotlon – split (FatCat)
- Oneohtrix Point Never – Commissions I (Warp)
- The Fates – Furia (Finders Keepers)
- Leslie Winer – Witch (Superior Viaduct)
- Basic Channel – Q-Loop (Basic Channel)
- The Fall – The Unutterable (Let Them Eat Vinyl)
- Secret Pyramid – The Silent March (Students of Decay)
- Sleaford Mods – Chubbed Up + (Ipecac)
- Kate Bush in London
- Loop in Vancouver
- Big Joy Festival in Vancouver
- Roly Porter
- Sleaford Mods
Oh and I had an album out this year, for what it’s worth.
Small Town by the Sea (Aagoo, 2014), is simultaneously connect_icut’s most accessible and most ambitious album. It’s the first to feature a truly solid rhythmic underpinning (aka beats) but it also packs in all manner of epic song structures, processed field recordings and general psychedelic madness. Dedicated to connect_icut’s home-base in Vancouver, Canada, Small Town by the Sea twists familiar environmental sound tropes (bird song, ocean waves) into new shapes, creating an uncannily powerful sense of place and time. As with all connect_icut productions, the results are both enveloping and ominous. The album is being issued in two completely different versions – a tight, punchy mix for CD/download and another, more expansive mix for vinyl. To provide the deepest, most immersive sound possible, the vinyl version has been cut as two 45rpm 12″ singles.
- Listen to “Tennis Players” on SoundCloud
- Listen to “Bathroom Mirror” on SoundCloud
- Listen to “74 Guitars” on SoundCloud
—Praise for Small Town by the Sea
- “It is a gripping-by-the-throat beauty.” – Caleidoscoop
- “Six intriguing tracks and each one is effective and reflective. Smart and resilient electronic music from a different mental space.” – Babysue
- “A perfect album for those who are driven by curiosity.” – Paperblog
- “With adventure aplenty while rich in sounds and effects, this album dwells in being one hell of a seaside resort excursion.” – Penny Black Music
- “More than an album – a real psychic journey.” – ImpattoSonoro
- “Has a pleasant weirdness that sparks your imagination without giving you a headache.” – WRUV
- “It’s a place for daydreamers, deliberately instigating lapses in concentration.” – Rock-a-Rolla
Recommended if you like: Actress; Burial; Vladislav Delay; Demdike Stare; Fieldhead; Forest Swords; Holly Herndon; Monolake; Oval; Rhythm & Sound; Andy Stott etc.
The new connect_icut album – Crows & Kittiwakes Wheel & Come Again – is now available on LP (with deluxe eight-page booklet) and CD. The most intense and cosmic expression of the connect_icut sound so far, it anchors all manner of granular chaos and glitched-out abstraction in a solid foundation of three-chord pop. But don’t take our word for it: listen to a couple of songs on Soundcloud or watch the video for “Imperial Alabaster”.
And here’s where you can mail order a copy:
- Buy the LP from Aagoo (North America)
- Buy the LP from Rev.Lab (Europe)
- Buy the CD from Rev.Lab (Europe)
- Buy the LP or CD from Midheaven (North America)
- Buy the WAVs/MP3s from Juno
Recommended if you like: Oren Ambarchi, Black to Comm, Kim Cascone, Sylvain Chauveau, Dalglish, Greg Davis, Vladislav Delay, Ekkehard Ehlers, Lawrence English, Farmers Manual, Fennesz, Ben Frost, Lee Gamble, Gas, Katie Gately, General Magic, Tim Hecker, Holly Herndon, Giuseppe Ielasi, Klimek, Machinefabriek, Stephan Mathieu, Mountains, BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa, Oval, Rosy Parlane, Pita, Roly Porter, Sébastien Roux, Sohrab, Tape, Rafael Toral, Tujiko Noriko etc…
Praise for Crows & Kittiwakes Wheel & Come Again:
- “Excellent” Simon Reynolds
- “A faultless album for those who want to immerse themselves totally in the flow of their own consciousness, for those looking for healthy and lawful means to cross the barriers of the senses.” Libero (Italy)
- “An overwhelmingly great album!” Caleidoscoop (Netherlands)
I’m going to keep it short this year for four reasons: (i) Promoting the new connect_icut album is time consuming, particularly when it’s just become available on vinyl and CD; (ii) most of the picks here are pretty obvious, at least to anyone who’s seen previous Bubblegum Cage lists; (iii) specifically, it should be bloody obvious what this here blog’s favourite album of the year is and everything else kinda, sorta pales by comparison; (iv) it seems like nobody even reads music blogs anymore, so…
If you’re looking for an overview of what 2013 was all about musically, then look to point two, above. In spite (or perhaps because) of the Internet opening everything up to everyone all the time, seems like it’s easier than ever to just stay in your own musical bubble and only bother with new albums by your favourite artists. Or maybe some of us are just getting old. Either way, it doesn’t feel great.
As always, this was written in a hurry, at the last minute. Apologies for the inevitable, grammatical and factual errors.
Here’s the list…
Top Ten Albums of the Year
1. My Bloody Valentine – m b v (no label) LP
This was the big one, of course. In a year of long-awaited albums (Boards of Canada, Daft Punk…) this was the longest awaited. And in many ways, the rapt critical reception it received was puzzling. The fact is, m b v: doesn’t hang together as an album; has a rushed, demo-ish feel; features two throwaway instrumentals; starts with what sounds like a Slowdive B-side; in no way lives up to any of the band’s classic, Creation-era work.
Here’s the thing, though: MBV’s Kevin Shields is still so far ahead of the pack that none of that really matters. Even a below-par Valentines album achieves peaks of complete otherness that nobody else working in any genre of music can come close to matching. And the peaks here are truly vertiginous, especially the ecstatic “Only Tomorrow” and the roller-coasting “In Another Way”. What is more, m b v contains some of Shields’ most sophisticated songwriting as well of some of his most bizarre experiments. Disappointing? Kinda. Godlike? Oh yeah!
2. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual (Mute) 3LP
Another long-awaited album and another mixed bag. Shaking the Habitual is a rambling, inconsistent mess of haranguing political doggerel, primitive electro blats and grotesque transmogrifications. But it’s delivered with such wild-eyed conviction that one can hardly help but be sucked in. It’s hard to fault The Knife’s ambition or the commitment they show to their cause. The wonderful “Full of Fire” acts as a telling microcosm of the album, thundering blindly towards the horizon, becoming more crazed and mutated as it goes on and on and on.
3. Secret Pyramid – Movements of Night (Students of Decay) LP
The work of Vancouver’s Secret Pyramid is sure to appeal to fans of cultish dreampop acts like Flying Saucer Attack and Lovesliescrushing. But on his first vinyl release, he truly comes into his own with a series of genuinely haunting nocturnal ruminations, each based around a simple, achingly beautiful chord progression circling amid a gathering swarm of spectral drones. This is a pitch-perfect album experience that absolutely deserves your attention.
4. Forest Swords – Engravings (Tri Angle) 2LP
While he has associated himself with American labels peddling voguish hypnagogic pop and witch house, England’s Forest Swords has a great deal more in common with the darker end of 90s UK post-rock, particularly Scorn and The Third Eye Foundation (more of whom later, sort of). Chiming guitars, bumping beats, eerie samples and a mood of vague foreboding are all deployed to emotionally evocative effect. Engravings is the sound of a major talent slowly and subtly emerging.
5. Cindytalk – A Life is Everywhere (Editions Mego) LP
Another album of solo laptop exploration from under-appreciated industrial music veteran Gordon Sharp. Like all Cindytalk records, A Life is Everywhere furthers Sharp’s singular vision, which is as empathetic as it is harsh.
6. Dalglish – Niaiw Ot Vile (Pan) LP
It has been observed elsewhere that Dalglish manages to evoke deep melancholy while deploying hardly any of the signifiers one would normally expect from emotionally-downcast music. Imagine a more contemplative take on Autechre’s most abstract moments.
7. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7 (Warp) 2LP
Like Dalglish, OPN’s Daniel Lopatin makes instrumental music that is both conceptually smart and emotionally evocative. R Plus 7 uses complex structures, self-consciously cheesy presets and sliced-up digital madness to explore the loneliest stretches of the information superhighway.
8. Matt Elliott – Only Myocardial Infarction Can Break Your Heart (Ici D’ailleurs) LP
For those of you who haven’t followed the Third Eye Foundation man’s progress, he’s now crafting singer-songwriter albums mixing elements of Leonard Cohen, flamenco, Yiddish folk song and surreal electronics. This is not as good as 2012’s The Broken Man but it’s still pretty damned powerful.
9. Stephan Mathieu – Un Coeur Simple (Baskaru) CD
On The Falling Rocket (Dekorder, 2LP), Mathieu crafted his darkest drone epic to date. But the more diverse Un Coeur Simple was his finest release in a typically prolific year.
10 Locust – You’ll be Safe Forever (Editions Mego) LP
Another solid effort from Mark Van Hoen, returning to his mid 90s alias and honestly sounding like little or no time has passed since he last used it. If you like Boards of Canada and don’t think “trip-hop” is a dirty word, you’re going to love this.
Other Top-Notch Stuff
Ian Crause Downloads
Talking of the mid-90s, Ian Crause has essentially picked up where his band Disco Inferno left off back then. That may not seem too exciting to those not aware of how far ahead of the game DI’s virtual-reality rock was but the tracks posted on Crause’s Bandcamp page over the last 18 months or so represent some of the most startlingly original music of the last 20 years. It’s shocking this material hasn’t gained wider exposure. Still, the fact that the page appears to be blank right now might suggest he has plans for some kind of real-world release.
Diamond Version – EP3, EP4 and EP5 (Mute) 12″s
In the age of EDM and brostep, it’s nice to know that electronic music can still deliver visceral thrills without having to dumb itself down one bit. The Raster-Noton-associated duo of Alva Noto and Byetone went from strength to strength to strength in 2013. Hopefully, there’s more to come.
The Best 2012 Release This Here Blog Totally Slept On
Lee Gamble – Dutch Tvashar Plumes (Pan) LP
This fellow has a lot in common with Actress, not just in his habit of pulverizing techno tropes into unstable sound dust but also in his ability to convey a sense that the whole thing is part of some impenetrable prank. But Lee Gamble’s background is apparently more academic and his deconstructions are more extreme. Everything on Dutch Tvashar Plumes sounds somehow utterly wrong and yet the album has a consistent atmosphere and sense of development that belies its outwardly half-baked conception. Puzzling and wonderful.
Dutch Tvashar Plumes very nearly made it into the top 10 for 2013 but it turns out to have been released in November 2012. Huh.
This is an incomplete list of other worthy releases. More may be added, if and when they spring to mind:
- Aerosol Constellations – Dark Side of the Sun (Isolated Now Waves/Thankless) LP
- Juan Atkins & Morris von Oswald – Borderland (Tresor) 3×12″
- Autechre – Exai (Warp) 4LP
- Blondes – Swisher (Rvng Intl.) 2LP
- Dean Blunt – The Redeemer (Hippos in Tanks) LP
- Broadcast – Berberian Sound Studio (Warp) LP
- The Bug and King Midas Sound – various singles
- Sarah Davachi – The Untuning of the Sky (Full Spectrum) cassette
- EVOL – Proper Headshrinker (Mego) LP
- The Fall – Re-Mit (Cherry Red) LP
- Father Murphy – Anyway Your Children will Deny It: 9 Heretical Views (Aagoo) LP
- Fennesz – 17.02.12 (Song Cycle) 2LP
- Marcus Fjellstrom – Epilogue M (Aagoo) 12″
- Katie Gately – s/t (Public Information) 12″
- Tim Hecker – Virgins (Kranky) 2LP
- Giuseppe Ielasi/Kassel Jaeger – Parallel/Greyscale (Mego) LP
- Kemper Norton – Lowermoor (More Than Human) 12″
- Nicholas Krgovich – Who Cares? (JAZ) LP
- Loscil – Intervalo (Frond) LP
- Main – Ablation (Mego) LP
- Mountains – Centralia (Thrill Jockey) LP
- Murcof & Phillipe Petit – First Chapter (Rev.Lab) LP
- Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin (Castle Face) LP
- Oval – Calidostopia! (no label) download
- Vincent Parker – Hypo (no label) download
- Duane Pitre – Bridges (Important) LP
- Plays: Four – Lay Doe (More Than Human) 12″
- Prophecy Sun – Sleep Fever (Panospria) download
- Quasimoto – Yessir Whatever (Stones Throw) LP
- Roger Robinson – Novella EP and Contemplate Mixtape (no label) download
- Ty Segal – Sleeper (Drag City) LP
- Secret Pyramid – Distant Works I (Proposition) cassette
- Souns & Scant Intone – Attempts Space Time (Panospria) download
- Touch Sevens singles
- Zomby – With Love (4AD) 3LP
Looking Forward to in 2014
- No UFO’s