Like a whole swathe of ambient music, Pjusk‘s work relies on a scaffold of cues for the imagination to add a representational dimension to the raw sounds. Once one has learned that Pjusk are Rune Sagevik and Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik from the west coast of Norway, that their music is composed in a small cabin high in the mountains, and that their characteristic one-word track titles translate as “twilight”, “fog”, “hollow”, and the like, it is nigh impossible not to hear the murky atmospheres and dank rhythms of their music as evoking contemplation of a lonely landscape wreathed in mist and locked in a stasis measured in geological time. These associations are woven more literally than ever on their newest release, Tele. The album is released on the Glacial Movements label, a label that is single-mindedly dedicated to “glacial and isolationist ambient” and offers a growing series of releases that set out to evoke “places that man has forgotten…icy landscapes…fields of flowers covered eternally with ice… The cold and silent night that falls upon the glacial valleys…” The album’s title, Tele, is a Norwegian word for frozen underground water, and the track titles this time have also moved down into the cold earth, invoking gneiss, flint, slate, granite, crystal. It is thus not too big a surprise that the album’s opening is the most darkly monolithic of the Pjusk catalog to date; the surprise is that it ends with one of their brightest moments.
There seems to have been a recent flurry of new creative partnerships between established solo artists working in the generous borderlands between neo-classical, electronic, and ambient music. In fairly quick succession we’ve been treated to lovely debuts from A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran) and Oliveray (Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick), with the first Orcas release (Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri) on the horizon. Now add to that list Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist (who has most commonly recorded as Jasper TX). Their debut album as From the Mouth of the Sun is to be released at the end of January on Experimedia, and is recommended listening.
Here as elsewhere, 2011 finished with the customary best-of-year lists, inevitably confronting the dedicated music lover with large numbers of as yet unpurchased albums said to be the cream of the crop; catching up would cost a small fortune, even if 2012 held no new promises. Well, 2011 also saw the release of some excellent albums offered for free download, and a few of the Music is Good authors have put together a list of their favorites across several genres. All of the albums listed below can be downloaded either for free or on a “name your own price” basis (donations encouraged, but with no minimum) from the artists or labels or at bandcamp. You can also stream some of them below. Our thanks to these artists for making such good music freely available.
This is part of a series suggesting ingredients for mixtapes or playlists on a variety of themes.
Every December I put together a mixtape of what I find to be some of the best tracks of the preceding year. I say ‘some of the best tracks’ because in addition to including great songs I have two main goals: 1) For the mix to actually be a mix of sounds and styles; and 2) for the parts to make up a coherent whole.
As I noted in my best albums of 2011 post, I found the year somewhat weak when it came to top shelf albums. When I sat down to put together my favorite tracks that was not an issue, though, and I had to do some serious cutting. So while this list gives me a chance to recognize a number of bands that do not appear on the album list, tracks like Bon Iver’s “Holocene” (ridiculously good despite my indifference to the rest of that album), Tom Waits’ “New Year’s Eve”, Low’s “Witches”, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s “Heart in Your Heartbreak” ended up being elbowed out.
Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by Parisian collective FareWell Poetry is one of the more absorbing musical journeys of 2011. It is also an album that wears its ambition on its sleeve. A Super 8/16mm black and white film on DVD (trailer here), filled with images of compulsive self-absorption and erotic obsession (warning: nudity), accompanies the 20 minute opening piece, and there’s also an iPhone app to go alongside both. The lyrics take the form of extravagant spoken-word poetry boasting a lofty lineage:
‘As True As Troilus’ takes its title and mythology from Chaucer’s important 14th century poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a retelling of a ‘faux’ Greek myth with Medieval origins, in which the main protagonist Troilus falls in love with Trojan Cressida who finally deceives and leaves him for the Greek soldier Diomedes. The narrator of ‘As True As Troilus’ (just as Chaucer’s narrator) uses this myth to explore his own romantic mythology, using the characters and their situation to recount his own plight, illustrating the destruction of his own failed relationship with tableaux from the Trojan tale.
Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which portrays the same doomed love affair, also plays a role, and Ovid is cited in the film. Described on the band’s site as a “bold and electrifying project,” we are left in no doubt that this is a work of substance.
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.
Don’t believe the opening notes of Lama‘sOneiros… they’re a lie and they’ll steer you the wrong way. The pronounced bounce and charge of trumpet and bass is like a doorway into a confused Ringling Bros. tent. It’s the opening statement to both song and album. It says, hey, this is what it’s all about. But it’s a lie. Because after the first 30 seconds, the carnival packs up and leaves town, and all that remains are long beautiful trumpet calls, low and serene, over a sea of electronics and gentle rhythms. It’s a dramatic moment on a dramatic album.
2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.