So many of the best works from the past year complemented one another that I felt it fitting to link those compatible works together. Tim Hecker’s two albums are a no-brainer, as are the pairing of Pye Corner Audio’s second full-length with his Study Series collaboration with The Advisory Circle (actually, I could have made that a triple pairing with The Advisory Circle’s full-length, too, but I decided to pair that one with a thematic complement of its own). The rest of the pair-ups are described below. In all, you get 20 album recommendations from me this year, and since I think the only real benefit to lists like this is the chance for me to recommend good music to others, that’s an extra 10 albums (or, if you are being picky, 9 albums and one single) for your consideration. As always, I’ve provided links to guide you on your shopping. Happy listening!
Top 10 Albums
- Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 and Dropped Pianos: I’ve been a fan of Tim Hecker’s music since Radio Amor back in 2003. His mix of guitar, field recording, and drone/dissonance has developed and morphed into an art form all his own, and this year we got to witness not only one of his finest works in Ravedeath, 1972 but also a bit of a “making-of” in the form of Dropped Pianos, a “rough sketch” album of recordings Hecker made at a church in Iceland before they were processed into Ravedeath. Oddly enough, the music on Dropped Pianos is every bit as fascinating and haunting as the more “finished product,” which is a testament to Hecker’s skills as a musician–no matter what he does, it’s fascinating. The piano and organ compositions on Dropped Pianos are both beautiful and unsettling, but they are only part of the story here. There’s a use of reverb and delay throughout that stretches the notes out so they overlap with one another, creating an unnatural sense of space, as if Hecker were stuck in a canyon, a million miles from the nearest person, his only friend the echoes of his music bouncing from wall to wall. And then he went a dozen steps further on Ravedeath, 1972, refining and enhancing the sound, transforming simple echoes into overpowering symphonies like “Hatred of Music I” that couple that basic piano and organ with a wall of sound that bends and sways from noise into churning, unbelievably lovely melodies and then back again into noise. The music here is so powerful, so deep, so rich, and so beautiful that it took me the length of the year to process and appreciate (meaning that I didn’t really like it at first, but now I can’t stop listening). This is essential music from a wonderful artist. And I would be remiss not to mention the cover art for the albums, featuring guys pushing a piano off a building. 2011 will be remembered as a year of protest and uprising–first in the “Arab Spring,” later in the capitalist west. Hecker released his album in the early part of 2011, long before most of this had taken place. The cover image is more provocative than its MIT origin, but it is an image that has stayed in my mind all year long as I watched the transformation of so much of our world from passivity into action and beyond.
- Pye Corner Audio, Black Mill Tapes Vol. 2 and Study Series 07: Autumnal Activities (w/ The Advisory Circle): It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of both Pye Corner Audio and Ghost Box, so I was thrilled when these two works came out. Volume 2 of Black Mill Tapes picked up where Vol 1 left off: unbelievably good analog synth explorations that exist as alternate universe leftovers of 1980s action film soundtracks (assuming that the 1980s of that alternate universe was far, far cooler than the ones I remember). So Vol 2 came out earlier in the year, and I’ve been waiting for Vol 3 (which is forthcoming, I’ve been promised), so it was nice to get a little PCA sliver in the form of the latest Ghost Box “Study Series” release. I was fully prepared to love the PCA song on this single, but I was very surprised by the wonderful Advisory Circle song, which was even better than that The Advisory Circle’s full-length (and that was pretty fantastic to start with). All in all, banner year for people who love squelchy analog synth music from the UK.
- Leyland Kirby, Eager to tear apart the stars and The Caretaker, An empty bliss beyond this World: Leyland Kirby is 2011’s MVP for his output alone. Not only did he release these two wonderful creations but he issued three Intrigue & Stuff EPs, each as different as the last, and he tops 2011 off with the soundtrack to the film Patience (After Sebold), which might end up on next year’s best-of list. Oh, and he redid his website and created a subscription service for his fans so they get all of his music as soon as it’s available. Amazing energy, to be sure, but what matters is the music, and the music here is wonderful. I don’t think Eager to tear apart the stars is the equal to 2009’s Sadly, the future is no longer what it was, but that’s like saying the fifth season of The Wire wasn’t quite as good as the other four seasons–it’s technically true, but who cares since it’s still better than almost everything else. Both of these albums are wonderful, and while they share a similar tone (and shape), they are quite different in execution. Caretaker albums center around the manipulation of samples (generally old songs from the 20s or something) as a way of exploring the experience of memories as they fade. An empty bliss is very similar to the Caretaker works that preceded it, though there’s a sharpness and vivacity to this work that is an interesting contrast to some of the more difficult Caretaker albums like Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia. For example, a track like “Moments of sufficient lucidity” introduces a lilting piano melody that plays, stops, and repeats again and again amidst the crackles of an old LP until the melody abruptly stops. The effect is a combination of melodious peace and uncanny apprehension. It’s fantastic. By contrast, Eager to tear apart the stars is a symphony of piano, distortion, synths, and despair. There’s the same repetition of phrases as in the Caretaker work, but here there’s no hope, only an endless, slow, plodding, repetition until a final surrender. It’s not a depressing album, but neither is it the kind of thing I usually listen to first thing in the morning. Together, these are overpowering statements from one of the great artists working today. What’s more, he’s also one of the most prolific artists, too, which means there is much more to come.
- The Advisory Circle, As the Crow Flies and Adrian Corker, Way of the Morris (Soundtrack)–It was, to be sure, a very good year for pagan-fused English music. Of course, The Advisory Circle’s idea of paganism is to combine traditional English concepts of seasonal change and ritual with the omnipresence of totalitarian government–a combination that I find particularly fascinating, actually, since it lets me imagine a world where Christianity and all its baggage didn’t exist but the world was still just as screwed up and confused as it is now (that, by the way, is my personal vision of an alternate universe, in which the Roman Emperor Julian [the Apostate] didn’t die in the Persian desert and managed to squash Christianity as he had intended). Really, though, As the Crow Flies is a wonderful collection of classic Ghost Box tinkering, and this is probably The Advisory Circle’s finest hour so far (though, as I said above, the Advisory Circle song “Cloud Control” on the Study Series single outdoes even this wonderful work). Adrian Corker’s soundtrack to a movie about Morris dancing, on the other hand, is just plain pagan dreams, complete with old English creation myths about foxes dancing the world into being and music that makes me think that jumping up and down with handkerchiefs in my two hands is something I would like to try someday. I haven’t seen the movie (though I intend to as soon as I can), but the music here is just weirdly wonderful and intricately varied. At one minute, it is reminiscent of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; at another, it becomes a Richard Thompson soundtrack; at yet another, it’s a remix of Chris Watson recording bird sounds. Through it all, though, there is an eeriness that unsettles, confuses, and fascinates in the grand tradition of hauntological goodies like Ghost Box and Broadcast.
- Zomby, Dedication and Nothing–I don’t dance, so I prefer the kind of electronic music that doesn’t require dancing. But I can appreciate and enjoy dance music on its own. Luckily, Zomby straddles that line between dance music and sitting on my ass music and he does it quite well. Dedication is a wonderful work that I’ve been listening to since it came out. It’s a feast for the ears, going in all sorts of directions, from the shotgun sample opening (reminding me of Portishead’s “Machine Gun”) to the dub-fused “Alothea” to the Emeralds-if-they-didn’t-use-guitars “Black Orchid” to the retro-Martin Dennis-funk fusion of “Salamander” to all sorts of other weird destinations. And to just prove that he can do straight out dance music, he came out with Nothing at the end of the year, filled with unapologetic (but interesting and enticing) dance music that even makes me want to dance. Great year for Zomby (and Zombies, too, thanks to The Walking Dead).
- PJ Harvey, Let England Shake and Tom Waits, Bad as Me–I am fully aware that these are the only two artists that most people would have heard of prior to reading this list. PJ Harvey and Tom Waits are kindred spirits, though, wouldn’t you say? Both just took a left turn at the rock musician door and wandered into their own spaces where they explore whatever the hell they feel like exploring. PJ Harvey’s album is probably the finest work of her very impressive career, and it’s got more awesome pop songs than anything else released this year (my favorite, “This Glorious Land,” is featured on my top singles list). Tom Waits album is another Tom Waits album, which is to say a wonderful thing (though I wouldn’t call it revolutionary).
- Jon Brooks, Music for Dieter Rams and Music for Thomas Carnacki–This is the year of the Advisory Circle, to be sure. Jon Brooks is part of #2 and #4 above as his alter-ego, but under his own name he released two incredibly interesting albums on his side-label Cafe Kaput. These are theme-based album of the highest order. Music for Thomas Carnacki is Brooks’s “soundtrack” to an imaginary film of the enterprising “ghost hunter” Thomas Carnacki, the hero of William Hope Hodgson’s books. Think of it as a kind of Hammer Horror tribute to the author and his creation. Each song is an eerie fragment of electronic noodling, capturing the spirit and soul of a moment in Hodgson’s stories. It’s a spooky album to be sure–great for Halloween. By contrast, Music for Dieter Rams is an album-length homage to the famous industrial designer. All sounds from the work were sampled from one of Dieter Rams’s creations, a small alarm clock. Despite the limited sound palate, it’s amazing what Brooks is able to create here. The songs are as rich and as varied as those on Thomas Carnacki (or any Advisory Circle release, in fact), from the slow synth moan of “Feldstarke” to the bubbling, bouncing joy of “Wanduhr Weltzeit.” There’s very little that Jon Brooks can’t do, it seems.
- Byetone, SyMeta and Mika Vainio, Life (…It Eats You Up)–There are two sides to Pan Sonic’s music: short, sharp shocks and long, loud roars. Byetone is an artist who seems to have latched on to both of these, and his creation here is like Pan Sonic’s music filtered through Raster-Noton’s trademark “glitch” beats. “Helix” is a perfect example: the thumping kicks, fuzzy noises, stabbing roars could come straight from any Pan Sonic album (like Kesto, for example), but in Byetone’s hands the rhythm and propulsion dominates in the same way that the dissonance and discord dominate in Pan Sonic’s hands. As a huge Pan Sonic fan who was very sad to see the duo end their run, I’m happy that at least one artist is keeping their ideas alive. Of course, someone else who is keeping their music alive is…the members of Pan Sonic themselves, like Mika Vainio who has released the incredible Life (It Eats You Up), where he focuses on the long, loud roars that Vainio’s solo work is so often partial to. Even here, the dual layers of rhythm and noise come together and diverge in new ways. There’s a sense of John Zorn-esque jazz floating around the edges of the noise and the grime in these tracks (thanks to the heavy use of guitars throughout), with beats existing not for rhythm but for accentuation (as in “And Give Us Our Daily Humiliation”). There’s an incredible variety and ingenuity to these songs, proof (if any was needed) that Mika Vainio isn’t going away anytime soon.
- Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse and Kode9 & The Spaceape, Black Sun–Dubstep has spread everywhere, to the point that the term really doesn’t mean anything at all anymore. So forget the term. Thundercat is an LA artist (part of the Brainfeeder group that includes Flying Lotus) and this is his first full-length, and boy is it good, featuring as it does the best song of the year in “Daylight” and a host of other groovy, time-warped tunes, as if he’s remixing Earth, Wind, and Fire with Ableton Live. This is the happiest, most entertaining album I listened to this year. Kode9 & The Spaceape’s Black Sun, by contrast, was one of the darkest (as the title suggests). This is the second collaboration between Kode9 and The Spaceape. While their first album felt like a stripped-down update of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat ‘an Blood, this album is quite different. The music here is much more varied, grooves and melodies ranging from the head-on power beats of “Am I” to the more atmospheric, Burial-esque “Neon Red Sign” to “Otherman,” which builds from a Tim Hecker stream of noise into a crispy, static filled groove that rolls and blurs while Spaceape raps through a telephone (or so it sounds). Amazing work.
- The Kramford Look, 1970 and Rangers, Pan Am Stories–Okay, I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I remember the haircuts and the clothes; I lived them. Trust me–the memory of that time is WAY better than the real thing. I’m guessing that neither the Kramford Look nor the Rangers were around then, and that’s a good thing. If they had, they would have never been so fascinated with the music of that time to the point that they would take the core elements of that music and reimagine it and reinvent it anew. 1970 could easily be the soundtrack to a Blacksploitation film or one of those Steve McQueen films about killing bad guys in San Francisco or a Spaghetti Western or an old Doctor Who episode. Ah, but the trick is…it’s all of these things and more, a mix of funk and opera and bawdy and schmaltzy, all intertwined around one another. Take “Shoebox at Sea,” which begins with a sound from Doctor Who and then builds into a smooth jazz beat from a cop drama that merges, somewhere along the line, into a funk line from some strange Harlem drug film. I know nothing about the Kramford Look, but my guess is that they are too young to be burdened by the 70s. This feels like music from people who grew up watching and thinking and dreaming about a time long past and seek to revive that past through music that knows no racial barriers, no political leanings, none of the baggage brought about by actually living through that tumultuous time (a time, most people forget, of deep musical segregation). Rangers, on the other hand, have a different objective: to take all the crappy rock music from the 70s and 80s and distill it into swirling, lo-fi mini-epics. This album is very reminiscent of last year’s Suburban Tours, but Pan Am Stories features more vocals and (dare I say) coherent songs than that former work, and it’s prettier, with intricate guitar work and some nice rhythm stuff. Of course, it’s all presented in a lo-fi fog, as if it was recorded 25 years ago and left in the back of someone’s closet to be unearthed in 2011, but that quality is exactly what makes the music so interesting and so memorable: Rangers are, if anything, the 70s and 80s rock version of The Caretaker, examining the memory of rock before it fades into oblivion.