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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.

I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.

[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]


#20 Offthesky – The Door in the Wall
Part of the intriguing Book Report Series by Wist Rec, in which musical interpretations of literary works are packaged with the relevant book, this 3″ release offers a compelling musical reading of a short story by H. G. Wells (full review here). Offthesky’s full-length release The Beautiful Nowhere was another candidate for this list, but the added interest of music interpreting text and the story deepening the music lends extra weight to this excellent little electronic tone poem.


#19 David Wenngren & Christopher Bissonnette – The Meridians of Longitude and Parallels of Latitude
This is simply an exceptionally fine ambient/drone release. Its aural textures are complex and interesting throughout, accented with subtle small sounds. As its grainy landscape ebbs and flows, it holds the attention from start to finish, sensitively balancing mood and forward motion. This is one that I will be returning to often.


#18 Jacaszek – Glimmer
Unashamedly pretty classical motifs emerge from a veil of grainy electronic murmurings, creating an ongoing tension between bright, disciplined clarity and gauzy, undulating currents and eddies of distortion. The effect is like hearing snatches of classical music through a window while standing on an incessantly rolling, creaking boat in the fog. An admirable restraint gives the whole a sense of delicacy.


#17 Esmerine – La Lechuza
The sophomore release from Esmerine (formed by members of GYBE and Silver Mt. Zion), La Lechuza, is more accessible, relaxed, and complex than the band’s debut and expands their musical palette. It moves from sparkling rhythmic patterns in which marimba and strings dynamically intertwine to poetic, softly yearning songs, with cello, harp and saxophone adding to the rich tones.


#16 Tinariwen – Tassili
I know folk who prefer their earlier albums, but to my ears the laid-back acoustic sound of Tassili is captivating. The sinuous, swaying rhythms and earthy vocals soon get under the skin, offering the sense of joining a campfire singalong in an unknown language. The lyrics are worth reading in translation also, weaving poetic tales of desert life.


#15 Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender
The Long Surrender is my favorite Over the Rhine album of their last several releases. It contains the usual collection of memorable, thoughtful songs, wryly insightful lyrics, great vocals and understated accompaniment. It moved up on to this list in large measure because of ‘Infamous Love Song’, a magnificent return to the dramatically verbose poetry of early Over the Rhine material.


#14 Minizza – Hotel Monterey
A single 50+ minute piece of experimentation that begins with found sounds, moves through a variety of atmospheres and sound effects, and ends in blissful strumming, this album impresses with its constant shifts of sound, a surprise around every corner. This enables it to capture the attention more consistently than your average drone/environmental marathon. Don’t expect songs or tunes, but do expect an absorbing listen if you have the patience to tackle it.


#13 Double Handsome Dragons – Double Handsome Dragons
This one requires no patience at all. It is here not because it’s great art, but because it’s great fun. Boundless energy, an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to composition, and a collection of at times hilarious science fiction movie samples are stirred together into a manic and gleeful instrumental rock record that makes me want to move and always makes me smile.


#12 Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras – The Song of the Sibyl
I don’t buy very many classical recordings, and even less Christmas music, but this is gorgeous. Three versions of a liturgical chant performed in Mallorcan churches since the Middle Ages soar with timeless beauty. The singing is fine, and the instrumentation atmospheric. As my daughter put it, this is “epic”.


#11 Erik Nilsson – Recollage
A free download from the Luxus-Arctica label, this release by Erik Nilsson delights at every turn. Cut up fragments of acoustic instruments, beats, and environmental sounds are painstakingly combined into an unfailingly tuneful and entertaining whole that transcends its techniques through sheer musicality. Perhaps the year’s best free release.


#10 Tim Hecker – Dropped Pianos
Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 earned a mention on many end of year lists; personally, I preferred the less heralded companion release. Presented as a series of sketches and outtakes from the Ravedeath album, it keeps the underlying piano recordings closer to the surface and offers a more sonorous, mysterious, and oddly melodic sound world than the finished manipulations of Ravedeath.


#9 Kangding Ray – Or
On this release Kangding Ray takes the stern, minimalist approach approach to techno characteristic of raster-noton stalwarts Alva Noto and Olaf Bender, defrosts it somewhat, and adds vocals and an overarching concept (Or is both the French word for gold and an English word denoting choice). The whole has a warmer sonic atmosphere than is typical for the genre. Great driving music.


#8 *Shels – Plains of the Purple Buffalo
The second album from *shels takes elements of post-rock and post-metal, blends in a few other musical accents, adds ecstatic, mostly wordless vocals and expansive melodies, and produces from the mix a joyous suite of songs that sway back and forth from the quiet and pretty to the soaring and grandiose. Listened to from start to finish it offers a sweeping journey that communicates joy in making music.


#7 Alva Noto – Univrs
The latest installment from the more club-oriented side of Carsten Nicolai’s musical psyche, Univrs (full review here) offers up more of the jagged, cerebral beats already heard on Unitxt and Transform. This release tops its predecessors, however, with a fascinating combination of geometry and motion. Complex and precise rhythms and warm buzzing textures dance elegantly around each other. Minimal techno at its finest.


#6 Daniel Thomas Freeman – The Beauty Of Doubting Yourself
This represents a rare and significant achievement: a drone album with a dramatic story arc. The shifting textures, each finely realized, move us from darkness through crisis into light. The album chronicles the artist’s experience of and emergence from depression; the sparing spoken word samples and track titles cast this as a story of salvation. Rarely has a drone album been so evocatively profound.


#5 Nils Frahm – Felt
A collection of compositions for lightly prepared piano, Nils Frahm’s Felt combines meditative passages that stretch out and explore the resonance and decay of individual notes with compositions in which flurries of bell-like notes flutter like clouds of butterflies. This is an album that overflows with musicality. It’s an aural delight from start to finish.


#4 A Winged Victory for the Sullen – A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Bringing together Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid fame and Dustin O’Halloran (see elsewhere on this list), the debut release by A Winged Victory for the Sullen gracefully occupies a place poised between neo-Romantic piano melodies and ambient drones. Absorbing and emotive, the album offers both moments of wistful melody and some of the richest sonic tapestries of any release this year.


#3 Illuha – Shizuku
The 12k label has gone from strength to strength this year, releasing several candidates for this list. Shizuku is something special. In common with a number of recent 12k releases, it emerges from a bed of rustling small sounds used to build a gently shifting landscape in which the attention is drawn more to individual blades of grass and their slight movement relative to one another than to sweeping vistas. To this it adds melodic guitar, cello, and piano motifs, and also some dignified spoken word in Japanese. The results are filled with tender detail and laden with beauty.


#2 Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere
On Lumiere, Dustin O’Halloran takes the simple, inviting piano compositions of his earlier releases and adds texture using electronics and strings. The results find him moving in similar territory to Max Richter or Ólafur Arnalds, creating luminous post-electronic chamber music. Tender and inviting, the brief compositions work fine as background music but also offer beauty enough for contemplation if made the center of attention.


#1 Deaf Center – Owl Splinters
I’ve greatly appreciated the material released by Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland under a variety of names, and this year’s new release by Deaf Center is magnificent. Deeply resonant drones and the groan of distressed strings create atmospheres filled with brooding portent, and are interrupted by petite piano passages of fragile, crystalline beauty. Listening to the album is like walking through a dark, forbidding forest and happening across small clearings where springs are illuminated by thin, pure shafts of light. The attention to detail throughout is impressive – not a sound seems placed other than where it needs to be. There are some very dark passages, but in the end the light, delicate and vulnerable, wins out.


David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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