* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *
Bringing the year to a very happy end, here’s the second twenty of my forty Best Albums of 2010:
20 | Anders Brødsgaard – Galaxy
In terms of CD releases, precious little contemporary instrumental music has made any kind of impression this year, which i find rather worrying. Not so with Anders Brødsgaard, whose 40-minute orchestral work Galaxy, composed over 10 years ago, finally found a release on the innovative Danish Dacapo Records label. A work of that scale, composed as a single movement span, is likely to put off some people, but it’s such a relief to hear music not constrained by the kind of generic limitations that afflict so much new music. Brødsgaard lives up to his cosmic title; drawing on a plethora of compositional ideologies, and structuring them on a spiral, he’s created one of the richest orchestral works i’ve heard in a long time.
19 | Get Well Soon – Vexations
Neil Hannon pissed away his credentials as a pop sophisticate long ago, and the mantle has fallen to Konstantin Gropper, whose Get Well Soon project has been gradually making a name for itself over the last few years. His unique brand of instrumental pop, akin to Belle and Sebastian but more bullish, is brilliantly displayed on Vexations, the lyrics of which are worthy of a lengthy discussion in their own right. i wrote at length about this album back in March, and my views have, if anything, intensified; ever serious but always accessible, Gropper’s melodies are utterly exquisite, augmented by the deftest of instrumental accompaniments.
18 | Celer – Honey Moon
My plea that Celer’s music be allowed more time to emerge hasn’t been heard: 2010 saw no fewer than 12 releases, amounting to 11 hours of music. It’s a regrettable state of affairs, and is already having a negative impact; this year i’ve heard a number of people express the view that their interest is waning, which seems to have more than a little to do with the rate at which these releases appear, with little time in between to absorb and digest them. But anyway, to my mind, Honey Moon stood out significantly more than almost all of the rest, displaying most impressively the kind of focus that characterises Celer’s best music. Beauty and stillness continue to be the epicentre of Celer’s interest, and the way they’ve managed to achieve both on this album is breathtaking.
17 | Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love
Not many people can get away with the kind of laid-back, easy-listening stylings that Belle and Sebastian call home. What saves them from twee-pop oblivion is the depth of Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics coupled to the musical maturity brought to bear on them. There are throwbacks aplenty to music of earlier decades—the title track is staunchly rooted in the ’60s; “I’m Not Living In The Real World” evokes the late ’70s; “I Can See Your Future” is somewhere between late ’80s and early ’90s—yet they’re all unerringly modern, unmistakenly new. Best of all though is “I Want the World to Stop”, one of the finest songs of the year.
16 | Ambarchi/O’Rourke/Haino – Tima Formosa
Presumably like many people, i wasn’t sure what to expect from the coming together of three such diverse, creatively strong figures. The resulting disproportional triptych is almost unbelievable, the power of the electronics nearly too much to take yet kept so brilliantly under control. But nothing can prepare one for Keiji Haino’s simply astonishing vocal delivery, soaring and screeching like some inconsolable keening, far, far beyond what seems remotely possible. There’s a distinct shift through the small central and large final panels, but it’s Haino again, now turning his flute into a jet whistle, who again dominates. Ambarchi and O’Rourke’s ability to work so seamlessly together with Haino is remarkable, their respective electronics and piano noodlings constructing a wonderfully dense, oppressive broth of clatters and drones.
15 | Jonathan Uliel Saldanha – The Earth as a Floating Egg
The most exhilarating avant-garde album of the year (and one of the best i’ve ever heard), this is nothing less than an epic from Saldanha, in which instrumental forces and electronics are equal partners. It’s almost operatic in scope, and not just because opera singers are involved; ancient mythologies and legends are evoked, presented with great, even overwhelming, ceremony. At times (as in the awe-inspiring “Chasm”), it’s as though Saldanha has pulled the earth of the title to a standstill, its elements colliding together with mounting force. Language finds itself turned inside out, phonemes transformed into the building blocks of wildly spinning textures; brass counterpoint dissolves into a pair of sopranos at the limits of their upper register. The sheer range of invention is astounding, and while its unflinching surrealism could prove alienating, Saldanha keeps a firm grip on reality, enabling his complex vision to blaze coherently.
14 | CocoRosie – Grey Oceans
It’s been three long years since the Casady sisters’ last album, but everything about Grey Oceans makes the wait worthwhile. Few female artists have done more to loosen the strictures of song structures, and the eleven tracks on this release are more elastic than ever. Above all, the album attains an unfettered lyricism way beyond their earlier music; their experimental nature hasn’t changed one iota, but whereas in the past the girls’ enthusiasm to throw all manner of disjunct ideas into the pot to some extent diminished the power of the vocals, here they reinforce and clarify them (heard to excellent effect in “R.I.P. Burn Face”). And they’re still beautifully eccentric; “Hopscotch”, a song with more weighty intentions, keeps losing focus, hilariously collapsing into music hall piano riffs.
13 | Yui Onodera and Celer – Generic City
Field recordings (e)merge seamlessly and effortlessly in this album (reviewed back in October), kept at arms length from the ambient textures early on, later brought together and interspersed more boldly. Third track “The Street of a Rainy, Gray Day” achieves a sense of union between the two kinds best, nicely blurring the distinction between raw and processed sounds to great effect. Above all, as its title implies, Generic City is about evocation and allusion, bringing vividly to mind the sensations emanating from city life, but stylised and abstracted beyond mere reportage.
12 | Hans Zimmer – Inception – Music from the Motion Picture
Film soundtracks are at their most effective when they’re assimilated into the visuals, enhancing them with a light, almost invisible touch. While the complexity of Inception‘s narrative could have led Hans Zimmer to take that to extremes, he had the confidence to match Christopher Nolan’s bold images, eschewing the brain-dead genericism that epitomises most soundtracks these days. Zimmer’s score brings some imagination back to the genre, blending electronic elements among the orchestral histrionics with real skill, producing the most exciting score of this kind since Don Davis’ The Matrix: Reloaded. Centrepiece “Mombasa” is breathlessly exhilarating, while the languid ambient numbers (chiefly “Old Souls”) recall Vangelis in their immobile beauty.
11 | Matthew Herbert – Mahler Symphony X Recomposed
The only album this year, i think, to make me exclaim a genuine “WTF?” when i first read about it. Herbert’s take on Mahler’s 10th Symphony Adagio (and it’s just this first movement that Herbert has taken on, not the whole thing) is not so much “recomposed” as reconceived; in his hands it becomes some kind of post-apocalyptic relic, washed-up, diminished, defocused and wrecked. Never lapsing into hauntological cliché, Mahler’s music occasionally blasts through Herbert’s layers of obfuscation; at moments like these, as in the fourth track, the collision of forces is nothing short of awesome.
10 | Richard Skelton – Untitled
Towards the close of last year, Skelton brought out his much-heralded Landings (which featured in my Best Albums of 2009); this release, in a complete contrast, came out quietly, almost tacitly, attached as a bonus disc to the reissue of his Crow Autumn. It contains a fabulous selection of pieces from several of Skelton’s musical alter egos; as Heidika, the focus, twice, is on overlapping guitarwork (the “Reworked” version proves the more interesting); as A Broken Consort, he’s in trademark territory, fashioning dense fabrics of noisily bustling strings. As himself, he appears in three more guises, solo artist, collaborator (with Machinefabriek) and interpreter (of Saddleback); all demonstrate Skelton’s powerfully potent, single-minded vision, heavily informed by folk practice, infused with both the grief and the geography from which it all emerges. Looking forward, a survey of Richard Skelton’s work will appear on 5:4 in the spring, together with an in-depth interview.
9 | Of Montreal – False Priest
i defy anyone to listen to Of Montreal without a broad smile on their face—even if, as was the case with 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, it’s a smile expressing confusion as much as delight. False Priest, though, is all merriment from start to finish, Kevin Barnes defining himself as the archmage of post-funk retro campery. Each song’s delivered with the élan of the world’s most outré extrovert, never showing off for a moment, displaying nothing but the most incredible array of influences and raw talent. Given a lengthy review back in September, anyone hosting a New Year party should put this album on to be guaranteed a smash of an evening.
8 | United Bible Studies – The Gascoigne Observatory
United Bible Studies didn’t just take a step forward with this release, they launched into entirely new sonic territory, bidding an emphatic farewell to their folk foreground. Defying easy categorisation (as all the best music does), this 36-minute improvisation spends a good five or six of them simply setting the scene for what’s to follow; and what does follow (described more fully in my recent review), emerging from hesitant strings, is music as from the dead of night, moving with minimal haste, its sounds only occasionally recognisable in the gloom. That is, until the latter stages of the piece, when more radiant ideas slowly emerge; i described this conclusion as “a vast, coruscating worship” and that was no mere hyperbole, it really is as powerful as that.
7 | Clouwbeck – From Which the River Rises
Richard Skelton’s assorted aliases have already been mentioned, but it’s as Clouwbeck that he’s impressed me most. This album—despite being, at 33 minutes, one of the shortest in the list—is one of his finest creations. “From the Aegir” almost seems to peak too early; 6 minutes in, there’s already been a slow introduction and a huge climax. But Skelton’s forces fade without dying away, lurking at the periphery, before returning for an even more effulgent display. It may be Skelton’s most multi-layered composition to date; the latter climax is a bewildering seething mass of strings. “The Water’s Burden” opts to glower rather than shine, its broodings finally ushering in an unexpected piano, scattering some of the darkness but never losing it completely.
6 | Celer – Dying Star
Reviewed back in August, i described Dying Star as a masterpiece, and that view hasn’t changed. Its overwhelming restraint was clearly an issue for some, while others sought to make a rather crude and over simplistic connection to the death of one of its creators, Dani Baquet-Long (honestly, can’t we move on?). Demonstrating just how arresting quiet, gentle material can be, this album goes way beyond conventional ambient music; it is, in fact, Celer’s most courageous release since Sieline, about as minimal as one could ever get in this medium. Within such a context as this, the tiniest of fluctuations becomes a major gesture, and one’s perception of time is transfigured; i’ve never felt 50 minutes pass so quickly.
5 | Stefano Scodanibbio – Oltracuidansa
In perhaps the year’s most fascinating electroacoustic work, double bass aficionado Scodanibbio has turned the stereotypically ungainly perceptions of the instrument upside down. The 8-channel tape part expands the solo instrument into a double bass chorus, and the result is a tour-de-force of ingenuity in which at almost no point does Scodanibbio play the instrument in a manner one might consider conventional. It’s the duration that makes the piece succeed as well as it does; anything shorter could become a vacuous circus piece; at just under an hour, though, one is irresistibly drawn into its massive canvas, the edges becoming lost from sight. In any case, Scodanibbio is no showman; Oltracuidansa is a work more concerned with subtlety than virtuosity.
4 | Christopher McFall – Lost at sea and seldom found / The Anatomical Submissiveness Of Lions
McFall’s impeccable handling of field recordings was taken to a new level of experience on this pair of releases, the former of which is available free here, from the Impulsive Habitat netlabel. On cassette release The Anatomical Submissiveness Of Lions, the sources are disfigured beyond the point of recognition, taking on a horribly ominous countenance. Lost at sea and seldom found, on the other hand, while hardly less brutal with its material, allows in a greater amount of both diversity and light. And even when things become briefly identifiable (as in the hydrophone recordings in “The persistence of breakable memory”), they do nothing to trouble the concentration of McFall’s sonic environment. Both these albums suggest McFall is perhaps the best artist working with field recordings today.
3 | Keith Fullerton Whitman – Disingenuity/Disingenuousness
Despite its brevity—which, at a mere 33 minutes, only just goes beyond the realm of an EP—the amount of boundless energy with which Whitman teases his analogue paraphernalia makes this seem like a much longer release. The sheer relentlessness is impressive enough, but it’s the filigree surface movement that stands out most; in fact, it makes a distinctly refreshing change to hear music of this sort, not content to settle for interesting textures, but instead taking charge of the minutest of details, pulling, contorting, flicking and yanking them into ever new shapes. All of this intense detail may account for the album’s duration, but it makes for a breathless rather than an exhausting listen, and i’d have loved to have heard much, much more of this fantastic stuff.
2 | The Birthday Massacre – Pins and Needles
As i pointed out in my review back in September, The Birthday Massacre’s previous releases have been good, but by no means outstanding. The relentless energy and songwriting prowess on show through each and every song on Pins and Needles therefore set it miles apart not just from their earlier work, but pretty much every other electronic rock act around. Despite being a studio creation, it has the scope and vitality of a live concert performance, the songs following each other in an order that’s both satisfying and logical. Utterly thrilling from start to finish, it’s also the perfect vehicle for singer Chibi’s superb vocals, alternating between soft whispers and passionate declamations. Fourth track “Control” is without a doubt my song of the year, as relentlessly infectious now as when i first heard it three months ago. Whatever you may think about music with the “goth” epithet attached, or synthrock for that matter, The Birthday Massacre have redefined the genre on this outstandingly brilliant album.
1 | Chubby Wolf – Ornitheology
Danielle Baquet-Long’s legacy is only just beginning to emerge from the shadows, but this, her first posthumous release, sets the bar exceptionally high. Released on cassette, yet in effect a double album, Ornitheology is one of the most relentlessly impressive ambient albums to have ever seen light of day. Baquet-Long’s solo music has always been demanding—and presenting the listener with twin 40-minute tracks is certainly quite a demand—but the rewards are remarkable. While the second track more-or-less keeps its reserve (“too warm to be ascetic, too cool to be ecstatic” i wrote back in July), the opener, “On Burnt, Gauzed Wings”, throws open the floodgates of raw, unchecked beauty. Every time i’ve listened to this track—which, by itself, lasts longer than some albums—i’ve never failed to be very deeply moved. It seems to work on every possible level; whether approached from a cerebral or an emotional angle, it responds and relates to that approach. Without wishing to get anthropomorphic, it’s as though it empathises with the listener, and music like that is rare indeed.