Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.
#1. Wil Bolton – Inscriptions
I have loved many of Wil Bolton’s releases, and this one was especially captivating, a cohesive suite of carefully textured ambient soundscapes of great warmth and delicacy. A delight for the ears from start to finish. Full review here.
#2. Nils Frahm – Solo
Nils Frahm has had a prolific year, including a film score and electronic duets with Ólafur Arnalds, but where he remains unrivaled is as a painter of fragile intimacy on the piano. This collection of solo piano pieces did not disappoint, offering both slow affection and rhythmic drive.
#3. Kari Ikonen Trio – Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories
From scampering piano romps to meditative arco bass passages, from stately melodies to discordant experimental interludes, this album charms with its variety and adds another thread to my fondness for Scandinavian piano jazz.
#4. Porya Hatami and Darren Mcclure – In-Between Spaces
A delicious marriage of McClure’s abstract tones and Hatami’s gently burbling textures, this joint essay in textured ambiance is gently reflective in mood, a continual, fragile, questing movement within a basic rest. Another excellent release for Hatami, and a fine companion to McClure’s excellent Primary Locations from earlier in the year.
#5. Den Sorte Skole – Indians and Cowboys
Den Sorte Skole take thousands of small samples from old vinyl records and weave them into eclectic tapestries in which they become a cohesive, dappled, new whole. An unerring sense of groove is married to sounds and voices from the past and around the world. Get it for free at the artists’ site here.
#6. Esmerine – Lost Voices
Marimba, percussion and strings are the backbone of Esmerine’s moody miniatures. The music sometimes shares the ponderous majesty of related bands godspeed you! black emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, but its idiom is more acoustic, rooted in marimba, strings and drums. Lost Voices builds gentle rhythms, passages of lyrical beauty, and outbreaks of restrained melodic intensity into a wistful and dramatic whole, arguably their best yet.
#7. Emily Hall – Folie à Deux
Ostensibly an opera about shared delusion and receiving cosmic messages from an electricity pylon, this charming release sounds more like ambient than opera. Pure, melodic voices meditate dreamily on madness and our relationship to each other and the world that speaks through our electric technologies to the accompaniment of electronic textures, creating a mesmerizing and delightful sound.
#8. Kangding Ray – Cory Arcane
I expected this year’s blockbuster from the raster-noton label to be Alva Noto’s Xerrox 3 (which I liked, but am still growing to love), but in the short term at least was more impacted by Kangding Ray’s uneasily skittering techno. Intricate rhythms shift and collide, accompanied by a narrative about the decay of consumerist technological society yet carrying a visceral appeal as pure sound.
#9. Autistici – Temporal Enhancement
Abstract in concept (an exploration of our perception of sound in its relation to time) and in execution (a focus on sounds themselves and their tensions with one another), this album nevertheless also manages to cohere as a compelling and finely wrought listening experience. The second entry on this list from the Dronarivm label, which had a fine year.
#10. Dag Rosenqvist – The Forest Diaries
Rosenqvist had a busy year, but charmed me most with this disarmingly simple set of piano/organ meditations that combine stillness with an undercurrent of dissonance. Notes are allowed to linger and decay, giving time to absorb and reflect. Music for a thoughtful evening.
#11. Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer – Twine
Another serving of the distinctive kind of microscopic beauty that Deupree’s 12k label has been honing for many years now. Gently hissing tape loops undulate their way softly through time, sparsely dusted with gentle chimes and wobbles, seeping softly into the future.
#12. En – City of Brides
En’s follow up to the excellent Already Gone uses their distinctive palette to good effect. Passages of calmly undulating drones sit in tension with densely layered flurries of sound that reach for a cascading majesty of sound, all heard through a dreamy, blurring filter. A distinctive world of sound to get lost in. Full review here.
#13 Seckou Keita – 22 Strings
This album offers elegant, and life-affirming instrumentals by a master kora-player from Senegal, a few of them accompanied by gentle vocals. African and Western sensibilities interweave in the compositions, and the sound is delicate and warmly inviting.
#14 Goldmund – Sometimes
Another entry in the atmospheric piano miniatures genre, this deeply melodic and contemplative album combines the gentle piano gestures with light electronic washes to create a beautiful sonic landscape that invites introspection.
#15. Port St. Willow – Syncope
The instrumentation here is sparse and restrained, the falsetto vocal plaintive. Patient percussion, punctuating flutters of guitar and electronics, and the undulating melodies create an atmosphere that reminds me of late-period, post-pop Talk Talk.
#16. Ian William Craig – Cradle for the Wanting
Ian William Craig has spent several albums doggedly refining an unusual recipe – ambient compositions based on varying kinds of manipulation of his trained tenor voice. Cradle for the Wanting is perhaps the purest installment yet, the haunting, wordless vocals dancing with their own sonic decay.
#17. Christopher Bissonnette – Pitch, Paper & Foil
Very much in continuity with last year’s Essays in Idleness, this album continues Bissonnette’s move away from his earlier ambient palette and into his engagement with quavering synth soliloquies. I am left feeling as if it is less a matter of playing music on the synth and more of coaxing the synth into speech, drawing forth a fragile voice from it that sings in its own expressive tongue.
#18. Rafael Anton Irisarri – A Fragile Geography
Irisarri’s work is consistently worth listening to, and here as always he achieves a depth of texture and grandness of gesture that lend tremendous weight and presence to his dronescapes. Another important release to add to his growing oeuvre.
#19. Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol 3
Xerrox Vol 2 is an album that I admire greatly, and there was a 6-year wait for its successor; I think my ears were therefore too primed for something similar. Xerrox 3 is more sparse and subdued and yet also more overtly emotive. Like all of Carsten Nicolai’s work it exudes precision and care. I suspect it will continue to grow on me.
#20. Fabio Biondi – Vivaldi: I concerti dell’addio
I ended up listening to a lot of Vivaldi this year after learning that his music didn’t have to be played like the Vivaldi I grew up hearing. Fabio Biondi’s versions of Vivaldi are always vibrant, and this new collection has rich texture and the accustomed verve.
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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