January 13, 2013

Top 20 of 2012: David Smith

Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).

#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.

#2 Wil & Tarl – Angel in the House
This was the year I discovered Wil Bolton and fell in love with his work. My favorite two albums of his (Chimes for a Wall Drawing and Time Lapse) were not 2012 releases, but Angel in the House, a collaboration with Tarl Broad-Ashman on a limited 3″ CDR release, is one of the best drone pieces I’ve ever heard. Deep, rich, and warm, with shifting surface textures, when I play it, it often ends up on repeat, which is more than I can say for most 19-minute tracks. One of those albums that feels like a permanent gift.

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#3 Taylor Deupree – Faint
This album was the chief reason I could not compile this list in December; not only was it released in mid-December, but I had to wait until Christmas to unwrap the box set. Taylor Deupree has set very high standards both in his own work and in his curating of others’ releases, and his latest does not disappoint. Perhaps one of his most melodic releases, Faint hovers at the threshold of consciousness, immersing the listener in gently shifting pools of stillness.

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#4 Talvihorros – And It Was So
How do you rank an album that you discovered less than a week ago and wonder if you are overrating just because it is new and wonderful but don’t want to underrate because it’s new and wonderful? Biblical in theme and grandeur, this album offers a series of expansive and dramatic sound-collage epics fusing guitar and electronics. In collaboration with their titles, the densely woven tracks evoke mysterious worlds emerging into being. An album to get lost in.

#5 Kimiko Ishizaka – The Open Goldberg Variations
This deserves to be on more lists, not least because of what it represents. A kickstarter project was used to fund a top-quality new recording of Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations that could then be offered to the world at no cost, making one of the great classics of Western music available for free. There’s even an iPad app that can be used to follow along with the score. While the concept is admirable, the music is also beautiful, a crisp and delicate performance that keeps drawing me back for more.

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#6 Cello + Laptop – Parallel Paths
Last year I placed Owl Splinters by Deaf Center atop my list, and a year later still value it as highly. This release from new Spanish duo Cello + Laptop has a similar aesthetic of haunting, distressed strings and darkly atmospheric passages. Gentle rhythms, crackles, chimes, and wistful lyrical snatches of melody make for a meditative listening experience. I’ll be looking out for more music from these folk.

#7 Alamaailman Vasarat – Valta
Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat combine rock, jazz, klezmer, mediterranenan, and other influences into a wildly carnivalesque mix all of their own. Their latest release, Valta (full review here) is cohesive and compelling amid the mayhem, and above all great fun. Probably the only album this year to use the sound of red wine dripping from a four-meter tower to establish tempo.

#8 Loscil – Sketches from New Brighton
I have loved pretty much everything loscil has put out. This latest release continues his immediately recognizable sound and is tied thematically to previous albums. The warmly enveloping atmospheres, the gently hypnotic rhythms that insinuate their way into your subconscious, the subtle layers and patterns are all in place. A few new rhythmical twists and a slightly darker edge here and there keep things moving forward. Very enjoyable as ever.

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#9 Taylor Deupree + Marcus Fischer – In A Place Of Such Graceful Shapes
Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer have separately both made albums that I cherish; together early in 2012 they added a joint slice of beauty. At the heart of the album is a 50 minute expanse of gentle stasis filled with subtle shifts of tone, rustlings of small objects, and sounds evocative of small events carried on the air in some undisturbed wintry outdoors. Meticulous in its attention to detail and absorbing in its microscopic movement.

#10 Kane Ikin – Sublunar
Kane Ikin’s first full-length (full review here) offers up a thought-provoking marriage of cosmic distances and grainy, nostalgic sounds recovered from the past. Hazy static and lurching rhythms leave a sense of listening to distant landscapes through a grainy, earthy musical language rooted right here. Sometimes pulsing, sometimes creaking and rumbling, the tracks vary from dark to whimsical. A distinctive and absorbing release.

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#11 From the Mouth of the Sun – Woven Tide
One of the year’s first releases, this album remains one if its strongest. Featuring the collaborative work of Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist, it combines haunting orchestration, noise/drone elements, and a variety of acoustic instruments into a whole that is now mournful, now lyrical. Subtle drama arises from the interplay of the layers. (Full review here).

#12 Orcas – Orcas
This is another collaboration, this time between Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri. One could also think of it as a kind of collaboration between ambient, folk and pop musical motifs. The songs have a kind of sleepwalking melancholy, moving sedately through dreamy-yet-detailed collages of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The overall effect is soothing, melodic, and appealing.

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#13 Hidden Orchestra – Archipelago
Hidden orchestra have quickly managed to establish a unique and recognizable sound that combines elements of jazz, hip hop, electronic and classical music into a vibrant and organic instrumental whole. Their new album continues very much where the previous one left off, with plaintive melodies wed to invigorating rhythms and a sweeping, windswept sense of breadth. Excellent listening.

#14 Mark Harris – An Idea of North / Learning to Walk
Beginning almost imperceptibly with the sound of rain and birdsong, ambient electronic textures seem to emerge seamlessly from the natural environment. The album offers a single 45 minute soundscape that is marked by gentle restraint and disciplined serenity, with not a sound out of place. Very much worth slowing down for.

#15 Egyptology – The Skies

This album was a bit of a bolt from the blue. Unashamedly retro, it takes the familiar science fiction tropes of classic analog synth music and celebrates them unabashedly, injecting in the process an infectious freshness and energy. Alternating playfulness and majesty, this album is a delight throughout.

#16 The Dwindlers – Allegories
I’ve admired Benjamin Dauer’s ambient work; his releases as half of The Dwindlers head in a different direction. The warm, dusky voice of Michele Seaman reads quirky, thoughtful poetry over a musical backdrop of spare, ambling bass and percussion, creating an intimate, jazzy vibe. Very enjoyable, and one of many reasons to be sad that the Heart and Soul label has not survived into 2013.

#17 Wil Bolton – Under a Name That Hides Her
I mentioned above my new found love for Wil Bolton’s music. He had a prolific year in 2012. This full-length release shares some of the absorbing qualities of his excellent Time Lapse. Bright chiming textures, treated guitar and restrained field recordings of natural sounds combine to create an aural journey filled with light and space.

#18 Good Weather for an Airstrike – Underneath the Stars
An ambient concept album themed around the phases of sleep may more than flirt with cliché, but Tom Honey’s full length release succeeds at creating something that both subliminally drifts and retains an overall narrative shape. The best tracks are as delicate and beautiful as anything I’ve heard this year, and the album holds up to repeated listens. A soothing and thoughtful contribution to this year’s music. (Full review here).

#19 Aidan & Richard Baker – Variations On A Loop (Rhythms)
This one is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea. Two long tracks each endlessly loop a brief segment of drums, bass, and off-kilter guitar, subjecting it to gradual variation, distortion, and decay. The result is oddly compelling. The loop has a hypnotic quality, and the subtle changes offer a shifting array of textures and details, subtly modulating the mood as each piece progresses.  Best for close listening.

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#20 Ian Boddy – Strange Attractors
Ian Boddy, curator of the DiN label, has over the years put out a steady stream of Berlin school analog synthesizer music, full of burbling, pulsating sequences and drifting alien soundscapes. I find that some of his releases grab me much more than others; Strange Attractors proved strangely attractive. 75 minutes of glorious space music. (Review here)

And here’s a list of the next 20, releases that I also liked. Who knows, on a different day some of these might have been in my top 20. They are listed here alphabetically.

Ametsub – All Is Silence
B. Fleischmann – I’m Not Ready For The Grave Yet
Black Unicorn – Rediscovering Infinity
Cory Allen + Marcus Fischer – Two/Twenty-Two
En – Already Gone (Review here)
godspeed you! black emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Greg Haines – Digressions
Kane Ikin + David Wenngren – Strangers
Leonardo Rosado – The Blue Nature of Everyday (Review here)
Lessazo – Soleil d’Hiver
Lights Dim – Deep Summer
Mpala Garoo – Ou du Monde
Nicolas Bernier – Music For A Piano / Music For A Book
Nils Frahm – Screws
Off the Sky – The Lowern Decay EP
Offthesky vs Kinder Scout – The Curio Collection
Olafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Stare
Pillowdiver – Flames
Steve Peters + Steve Roden – Not a Leaf Remains as It Was

To any artists mentioned here who might happen across this, thank you for your music in 2012, and may you prosper in 2013.

Filed under Ambient, Analysis and Opinion, Classical, Drone, Electronic, Experimental, Jazz, Pop, Reviews