Best Albums of 2011 (Part 2)

* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

A list gives us the surface of something, and that leads to another list, which contains more surface, and from there, more lists, and more surface. The lists make up the surface of the universe, and the fact that the lists lead to other lists, […] list upon list leading to list upon list, it all helps supply the hidden depth in the universe. The depth where things start to get really interesting.” (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here’s the conclusion of my own list, with my favourite 20 albums of 2011:

20 | Merzbow – Kamadhenu
The more Merzbow i listen to (and i’ve listened to a lot), the more amazed i am at the seemingly endless extent to his creativity. It can seem as though his continual outpourings of new material connote a kind of arbitrariness, as though Masami Akita was simply picking random quantities of effluvia and allowing audiences to make of them what they will. But the standard of his music suggests otherwise, and from the very first moments of this album one’s forcibly yanked into Akita’s soundworld, which is so varied and compelling that it seems rather crass to describe Akita simply as a “noise artist”. Kamadhenu is an uncommonly inventive and subtle album that ruthlessly explores its subject matter with the focus of a laser; and there’s nothing arbitrary about that. [Norman Records]

19 | Ulver – Wars of the Roses
For the last ten years, Ulver have increasingly found themselves bereft of a suitable genre. In their hands, black metal has gradually been turned inside out, and an assortment of diverse elements including jazz, dark ambient, film soundtrack, neoclassical and the indescribable have gradually become incorporated into their soundworld. Wars of the Roses is the strongest and most mature example yet of the group’s stylistic no man’s land, in which nothing remotely conventional takes place. Even a song like “Providence”, which begins familiarly enough with the trappings of a mild rock ballad, quickly dissolves into a downright weird space filled with drones, shivering violins and croaking voices. Songs have never sounded anything like this before. [Amazon | iTunes]

18 | Chubby Wolf – Los que No Son Gentos
The strong legacy of Danielle Baquet-Long continues in this fine album that i reviewed back in August. Each new Chubby Wolf release reveals ever more clearly how distinct her solo work is from that created as half of Celer. It’s the concentration of the music—the way that ideas feel compressed into tight time-spaces—that’s particularly engaging here, and while it lacks the full-on beauty of last year’s Ornitheology (although, pretty much all albums lack that kind of beauty), this remains—of what we’ve heard so far—some of her very finest music. [Dragon’s Eye Recordings | Boomkat]

17 | aTelecine – A Cassette Tape Culture Phase Two
aTelecine have released quite a lot in the last couple of years, but the great thing is that it remains pretty unclear where they’re coming from. Sasha Gray and Pablo St. Francis clearly love darker shades of experimentalism, yet they’re unafraid to call upon the traits of all kinds of music, so askance beats, contorted vocals and analogue electronics jostle strangely beside crude cut-ups and collage-like textures. Keeping it all coherent requires skill, and this album displays it in every track; considering that many of them are outtakes and demos, their achievement is all the more impressive. Expect even bigger and better things from aTelecine in 2012. [Boomkat]

16 | Akita / Gustafsson / O’Rourke – One Bird Two Bird
Bringing together Masami Akita, Mats Gustafsson and Jim O’Rourke sounds like a recipe for the world’s most out-of-control sonic firework display. That wouldn’t be a wildly inaccurate assessment either, yet it’s the way the three of them combine both their talents and their discrete musical contributions in these two 20-minute improvisations that’s most striking. Gustafsson often aligns himself with Akita’s squealing squalls (both imitating and being imitated by them); meanwhile Akita and O’Rourke hurl their electronics at each other and find, somehow, that they mesh perfectly. Even in the brief moments of respite, these three are white hot together. [Discogs | Boomkat]

15 | Tartar Lamb II – Polyimage of Known Exits
Financed via Kickstarter, Toby Driver’s latest project finds him returning to—and reinventing—Tartar Lamb, the entity by which he released Sixty Metonymies back in 2007. Polyimage of Known Exits originates in a live performance from 2010, which Driver et al have subsequently worked on and honed. The result is four movements in which jazz-inflected noodlings coexist with dreamy, quasi-psychedelic episodes, the surfaces of both worried by electroacoustic scrapes. There’s a kind of majesty in Driver’s carefully-negotiated improvisations, and even at the times when one feels perhaps a little lost in the proceedings, the sense of a greater mind overseeing things never goes away. [KayoDot.net]

14 | Hecq – Avenger
Ben Lukas Boysen does like to tease; most of his albums start with a soft, gentle introduction before the real business—pummelling the listener to bits—gets started. True to form, Avenger starts in this way, but he’s upping the ante these days, with bass and beats that are bigger and dirtier than ever before. Dubstep is a concept that sits exceptionally well in Boysen’s rhythmic vocabulary, although what he’s doing with it is a far cry from most. Wisely, he’s pared back the range of invention from that heard on Steeltongued, as well as most of the lush harmonies, thereby enabling the tracks to hit even harder; “Bane” is a case in point, its shuffling tempo occasionally lurching forward at double speed, while “Nihilum” positively bruises the ears with its heavy off-beat drums. The raw nature of the music won’t please all Hecq fans, but if you can take it, it’s breathtaking. [Grooves-Inc | Amazon]

13 | Jenny Hval – Viscera
2011 has been such a good year for song, and few have been more exploratory than Jenny Hval on this 9-track wonder. Let’s face it, anyone who begins their debut album with the words “I arrived in town/with an electric toothbrush/pressed against my clitoris” has something pretty forthright and personal to say. The title says it all; Hval’s narrative is body-centred, almost uncomfortably so. But Viscera feels less like a preordained journey than an exploration of self-discovery and -expression, and a profoundly intimate one at that. Hval’s notions of what a song can be are excitingly radical, radiating out from her prose poems (which you can read here), using whatever means seem necessary to aid that process. A genuinely ground-breaking debut. [Amazon | iTunes]

12 | Björk – Biophilia
Not much music these days is worthy of its own hype, but Biophilia is an exception. Irrespective of that hype, though, i think what connects people most instinctively to Björk’s music is the ingenuous relationship she has with her subject matter. Regardless whether it’s human relationships or the interactions of nature and the universe, Björk’s awe and wonder of them is the same, viewed with a child-like, wide-eyed fascination and innocence that too many adults have lost. Of course, such sincerity would count for little if her music was ordinary, but ‘ordinary’ is probably a word missing from Björk’s vocabulary. Forget the hype and all the hullabaloo about quirky new instruments and so on; like Jenny Hval, all Björk cares about are the songs; focussing on them is time seriously well spent. [Bjork.com]

11 | Ektoise – Kiyomizu
Ektoise are a new discovery for me this year, and i’ve been listening to this second album of theirs a lot. Their music is a highly complex synthesis derived from, amongst other things, rock, ambient, jazz, metal and electronica, extremely diverse elements that are handled with an aplomb and transparency of touch that’s truly remarkable. The album’s central track, “There and Here” is a model example, layering jazz piano above grimy electronic beats on a bed of shoegaze bass, interpolated by some weirdly experimental episodes. It’s abundantly clear that Ektoise are a bunch of musicians who not only know exactly what they want to do, they know how to do it, with a minimum of fuss. As such, there’s no filler or padding on Kiyomizu; every note counts, every sound matters—which is not something you can say about a lot of music. [Bandcamp]

10 | Svarte Greiner – Twin
In the realm of ambient, Erik K. Slodkin (=Svarte Greiner) is, for me, the current master of the dark arts. So it’s pretty disgraceful that this impeccable release was only made available with the vinyl edition of Owl Splinters’ Deaf Center; Twin is way too good to be discreetly tucked away like that (especially as, in truth, it’s far superior to Deaf Center). The first third of its 45-minute duration is built on an oscillation between two deep notes, that swiftly get laden with a hundredweight of grinding, writhing layers of noise that spark out harmonics as though produced by its own sonic friction. A quailing, drone-like interlude leads to the decidedly enigmatic denouement, seeming to build massively but then abruptly quietening itself, only to grow again, hovering like a cadence that can’t quite commit, and ultimately shivering out of existence. [Not presently available]

9 | Access to Arasaka – Geosynchron
Not many artists can successfully create a dish of glitched beats with ambient dressing; once upon a time, Hecq was the master, but these days Access to Arasaka has taken the mantle. Taking his name from the game “Cyberpunk 2020” hints at what to expect; the glitchtronic soundworld Geosynchron inhabits—fashioned in roughly equal parts from IDM and ambient electronic with a dash of drum and bass—is evocative and delivered with a flourish. What’s so interesting about the textures in this music is the way the beats—conventionally an underpinning background element—are perpetually on the surface, dancing and skitting around like the focal element in Autechre’s Gantz Graf video. Often, a collection of seemingly asynchronous beat elements are brought abruptly into focus, providing episodes of genuinely danceable music, but that’s beside the point really; it’s form and æsthetic that are important here, dazzling the senses. [TympanikAudio]

8 | Grutronic and Evan Parker – Together In Zero Space
i still don’t really know what to make of this release—i just know that, whatever it is, i absolutely love it. Grutronic is a new name to me (when time allows, i’ll be checking out this free download), but judging from this recording, made at the 2009 Next Festival of Advanced Music in Bratislava, their mission is to put Parker’s already frantic playing through a myriad electronic processes, while striving to minimise the distance between theirs and Parker’s distinct sounds. Somehow, they succeed, and the two lengthy pieces included here demonstrate superlative skill at melding acoustic and electronic sources. [Psi]

7 | Xela – Exorcism
Just four weeks ago, John Twells—the guiding force behind the Type label—released as a free download his latest album, announcing it would be his last; and as valedictions go, Exorcism is exceptional. Lo-fi and darkly psychedelic, laden with bells and gongs, it begins heavily redolent of ritual (one can imagine it accompanying a 1970s Hammer film), made more unnerving by the music’s immovable focus. Exorcism is a triptych, and the middle section yields to warmth, the gongs fading within a rich ambient soundspace; here, things move, and even before it makes an appearance the bass causes ripples on the surface. It eventually overshadows everything, continuing into the final section as a drone onto which layers of melodic detritus are piled high. At the last, they’re all ejected, leaving just the drone and the gongs resounding. Twells certainly knows how to go out in style. [Free download]

6 | Black Swan – The Quiet Divide
Having grappled with it repeatedly throughout the year, it only struck me a few days ago that what this album really sounds like is a palimpsest. As though it’s been stitched together from nearly a dozen half-erased tapes, the music falls somewhere between hauntology, ambient and silence. It’s one of the few albums i imagine would sound amazing on vinyl, where surface noise would really add to the scale of its ruin. In fact, silence never happens, but there are long stretches where what we imagine to be ‘the music’ has been removed, leaving the grain of the what we also imagine to be ‘the medium’ exposed; i’ve never heard anything quite like this before (even from Leyland Kirby), and the way it confounds one’s notions of what constitutes material—and, for that matter, what’s meant to be heard as a reference to past material and what’s to be heard as a comment about that reference—is deeply thought-provoking. [Bandcamp]

5 | Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing
i said a lot about this album in my review back in May, so there’s little more i can add. i’ll admit it still makes me boggle a bit at the beauty of its songs; it’s difficult to discern whether they’re the product of an extremely clear set of intentions, or whether they arise from slow experiments with an open objective. But regardless of the compositional backstory, the result is so polished and so completely different from any other songwriter that the only response is simply to yield and be taken up into something rare and marvellous. [Janet Records | Bandcamp]

4 | Indignant Senility – Blemished Breasts
When i wrote about this release in October, i was focussing on its nature as a ‘contemporary epic’. Durationally speaking, it’s not the longest of these 40 albums, but it is, i think, the one that sustains itself most consistently and immersively over an extended period of time (in this case, around 100 minutes). It lacks the frivolity and downright irreverence that some may feel to be sine quibus non in Pat Maherr’s output; but as i’ve pointed out before, as Indignant Senility he taps into a more serious and thoughtful vein, one that demonstrates above all his keen handling of diverse sound materials. Blemished Breasts just wouldn’t work as effectively as it does without an innate sense of large-scale control, an ability Maherr clearly has in spades. [Free download]

3 | Monty Adkins – Fragile.Flicker.Fragment
This is a release i really didn’t see coming. In 2008, as Mathew Adkins, he created a work for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival titled [60]Project, commemorating 60 years of musique concrète; Adkins took short bits of material from 60 composers and created the most wonderful electronic soundscape (available on CD from empreintes DIGITALes). Fragile.Flicker.Fragment, released in April this year, is no less impressive, but is music of a very different kind. If anything, it’s ambient by accident—but it just so happens to be one of the best ambient albums ever made. What sets it apart from pretty much all other ambient music is the depth of compositional understanding and level of technical excellence that Adkins brings to all his projects. But the beauty of it all—!—i can honestly say i really haven’t heard an album as incredibly beautiful as this in years—its intricately-made soft structures are stunning to behold. [Audiobulb | Boomkat]

2 | Three Trapped Tigers – Route One Or Die
OMG : i think that’s probably the most succinct and accurate way of describing both my initial and my ongoing reaction to pretty much everything Three Trapped Tigers have released. This is their first album, but the three EPs that have preceded it through the last couple of years have made it absolutely clear what was coming. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of what happens when Tom Rogerson, Adam Betts and Matt Calvert pit their wits against each other. Great arching melodies litter the music, somehow sitting entirely at ease amidst the plethora of convoluted rhythmic paroxysms that propel each track on. Conceptually, that’s redolent of Aphex Twin, but while TTT’s sound almost always projects the effects of electronica, their palette is rock-based, guitars and drums savagely ordered into metres that defy one’s ability to discern or calculate. It’s simply amazing that an album like Route One Or Die can exist; the unchecked fury of their music is unparalleled in its complexity and incandescence. [Amazon | iTunes]

1 | The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation – Anthropomorphic
“It is, if i may be so bold, flawless; if anything better than this is released in 2011, it will be miraculous”—so i wrote in my extensive review back in May, and while some fantastical things have happened in 2011, they haven’t included miracles. Anthropomorphic is a colossus, an hour-long improvisatory symphony the depths of which provide more details and intricacies on each new listen (only this morning i noticed it ends as it begins; played on repeat it continues seamlessly). TMFDC have somehow managed to fuse remote music tenets—jazz, doom, avant-garde, drone, electronic—into a unified act of contemporary composition that beggers belief. It isn’t just the success of this fusion that impresses, though, it’s the sophistication the group has in working with all those elements; none of them feels borrowed, or grafted on; each and every component of Anthropomorphic is there because TMFDC know it’s precisely what’s needed at that moment in the work’s slowly-unfolding narrative.

i’m conscious that, though it wasn’t deliberate, both the EP and the album that i’ve deemed the best of 2011 are a pair of dark and deeply disquieting works. But despite the fact i described Anthropomorphic before as “a dystopian masterpiece, a reverie for the end of the world”, i feel the work acquits itself as an overtly positive act in the face of disaster. There’s no doubt that it occupies a blasted musical landscape, but TMFDC don’t just sit around fashioning dour textures from its debris—no, they sing, constantly they sing. Much of it is lamenting, keening, ululating a fraught response to its sonic environment, but regardless, they fill the charred aftermath of catastrophe with the most heartfelt song. “where everything’s nothing—arise,my soul;and sing” wrote E. E. Cummings once, and that’s precisely what this album does; i, for one, find that to be a supremely positive and inspiring act. Anthropomorphic sets an example, perhaps even teaches us something—and how much music can do that? [Bandcamp]

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2 Responses to Best Albums of 2011 (Part 2)

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for repping Björk and Deerhoof! I didn't see any particularly esteemed reviews of those albums this year. . .

  2. Anonymous

    Svarte Greiner too heh?
    I'm ever more impressed.

    Deaf center are a big favourite.

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