Best Albums of 2016 (Part 2)

Here they are, then: the best of the best of 2016, each and every one of them packed full of the rarest imagination, invention and ingenuity. i can’t recommend them highly enough.

20 | Fritz Hauser – Different Beat

Different Beat, a double album of music by the Swiss composer and percussionist Fritz Hauser, seeks a more radical mode of articulation which, from one perspective, could be heard to obviate the idea of emotion or expression. […] Hauser’s disinterest in swift or easy dramatic development becomes overtly manifested in Double Exposition, a 27-minute piece that achingly slowly develops its rigid regularity of cymbal strikes, eventually expanding its palette and range of gestures into a place of utter depth, entirely vindicating the time taken to get there. […]  The result [in final work Rundum] could almost be electronic, a gorgeous, hypnotic, slowly-shifting textural soundscape where one quickly abandons trying to work out how things are happening and simply relishes what is. In all these works, there’s a general avoidance of an overt sense of narrative, where events are at once pointless yet obsessively determined.” (reviewed in February) [Neu Records]

19 | Matmos – Ultimate Care II

Matmos have always pushed the envelope in their quest to forge fantastical soundworlds from the most unexpected and prosaic of sound sources. For Ultimate Care II, the duo turned to their trusty Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine, creating what they describe as “an exploded view of the machine, hearing it in normal operation, but also as an object being rubbed and stroked and drummed upon and prodded and sampled and sequenced and processed”. At 38 minutes’ duration, this is possibly Matmos’ most deliriously ambitious work to date; from its sloshing, overture-like beginnings it subsequently establishes rhythmic patterns and cycles that are then extensively developed and reworked, interspersed with numerous asides, blind alleys, red herrings and periods of repose, even entering into the shallow end of ambient soundscapes. But the clunking mechanics prevail, resulting in a climactic final dance of utter joy. An amazing aural experience. [Bandcamp]

18 | Supersilent – 13

Following a two-year gap, the boys—Helge Sten, Arve Henriksen and Ståle Storløkken—are back. The trio’s improvisations here have a primordiality that, even considering their previous work, is strikingly strange, harking back to an earlier epoch and/or even another world entirely. Each of these nine pieces feels like an ethnomusicological artefact from a different galaxy, documenting activities that suggest ritual or merriment or contemplation. Weird melodies spiral up and out, accompanied by or perhaps merely in the proximity of convoluted networks of percussion and lengthy tracts of synth stains. Impossible-to-dance-to beats coated in thick layers of biting pitch form the firmament for what might be song lyrics or maybe an incantation. To call it futuristic is to sell it absurdly short; listening to 13 is like being afforded a glimpse of music in the 22nd century. [Bandcamp]

17 | The Natural History Museum – Attenborough

Over the last few years i’ve been repeatedly wowed by Irish musician Dunk Murphy’s work as Sunken Foal; for this project, he’s teamed up with singer-songwriter Carol Keogh. One of the things that typifies Murphy’s previous work is its overwhelming clarity, and that’s a key characteristic of the songs on Attenborough. Keogh moulds her voice into a variety of guises: initially as a shape-shifting alien (‘Mom’), latterly as a laid-back noirish choir (‘Ratty’) but most often providing an invaluable soft counterbalance to the pristine precision of Murphy’s arrangements (‘Daga Gadol’, ‘Surfing the Severn Bore’ – the latter a title that greatly appeals to me, being as i am a Cotswold lad). Theirs is a musical marriage made in heaven, Keogh’s contorted melodies nestling perfectly betwixt Murphy’s pounding bass and punchy percussion; all wrapped up in complex, unpredictable structures, this is music that reformulates the words ‘pop’ and ‘song’. [Bandcamp]

16 | Ladyhawke – Wild Things

It would take something special for Pip Brown to surpass the breathless rock majesty of her previous albums Ladyhawke and Anxiety. Wild Things isn’t merely special, it’s a significant development in her musical outlook, marking a movement away from the hard-edged grit of her earlier work in favour of a clean electropop aesthetic. It’s a gutsy move, and a supremely successful one, in which the recurring refrain of opening track ‘Love Song’ acts like a manifesto for Ladyhawke’s new soundworld: “this is what a love song sounds like”. The synth purity running throughout Wild Things reveals anew just how lovely Pip Brown’s voice is, particularly in the romantically impassioned title track. [Amazon]

15 | Cliff Martinez – The Neon Demon (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

For The Neon Demon, one of the year’s most horrifically mesmerising movies, Cliff Martinez has responded to director Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal forensic scrutiny of the ruthless vacuity of the fashion industry by creating music appropriately haughty and coated with ephemeral glitter. Martinez’s analogue synth-heavy score flits between portraits of superficial beauty and evocations of the nightclub, enhanced by ‘The Demon Dance’, a superb slice of dance music from Julian Winding (the director’s nephew) which featured prominently in the trailer. Overall it’s a score that caresses as much as it scarifies, dressing up the movie in a powerfully unsettling garb of glitz, grime, glamour and gore. [Amazon]

14 | Chaya Czernowin – The Quiet: works for orchestra

“Rumbles, tappings, scrapes, flutterings, air noise and other anonymous sounds (usually impossible to trace back to a particular instrument) become a kind of granular clay from which Czernowin sculpts elemental formations that hint at, flirt with but only very rarely embrace tangibility. […] The ‘substance’ is to be found in the vagueness and the vaporous outlines of what may or may not be the makings of a concrete idea. […] Above all, though, this is music less about specifics than a precarious balance of forces held in a volatile equilibrium. Breathtaking.” (reviewed in December) [Amazon]

13 | Claude Vivier – Kopernikus

By far one of the most jaw-droppingly weird releases of the year, this disc is special in two respects. First, because it’s the debut release from new label Bastille Musique, about whom i’ll be writing more in the new year. Second, because it finally makes widely available an important work by Claude Vivier, a composer ludicrously under-represented on disc at present. As operas go, Kopernikus is as ground-breaking as it is disorienting, for the most part utilising an imaginary language in such a way as to undermine the concept of meaning while at the same time reconstructing (and/or forcing us to reconstruct) what verbal meaning can actually be. This performance by Opera Factory Freiburg, with the Holst-Sinfonietta, pushes the word ‘gusto’ to a whole new level of intensity, their unchecked enthusiasm bringing immediacy to one of music’s most gloriously puzzling operatic works. [Amazon]

12 | John Wall – Muta Variations

“As in all of Wall’s work, there’s a tendency to occupy extremes of register with generally restrained dynamics, establishing another Wall paradox, raw electronics delicately rendered into the most intimate filigree. […] Wall’s very particular aesthetic—random yet meticulous—reinvents pitch and pulse from scratch, as well as redefining what constitutes structure and syntax, from the microscopic scale of each tiny, transient gesture expanding to the level of a phrase, a sequence, a track, an EP. Like a raw data stream from an alien world, Wall’s electronics do what seems unimaginable in contemporary electronic music, tapping into something genuinely new.” (reviewed in July) [Bandcamp]

11 | Daniel Wohl – Holographic

A dense, evolving sequence of electronic tapestries, Holographic is, according to the composer, “about exploring different worlds–improbable combinations of sounds–hidden and imaginary sonic landscapes both acoustic and electronic.” What’s reassuringly unusual about it is the way it alludes to the approaches and mannerisms from a variety of strains of electronic musical thought (including ambient and acousmatic) but doesn’t embrace any of them too single-mindedly. Wohl’s compositional drive is more mobile than that, weaving heavily processed acoustic sounds as well as much longer slabs of ideas into cohesive pieces that sound capricious yet paraxodically seem characterised by a rigorous underlying sense of order. [Bandcamp]

10 | Jonty Harrison – Voyages

“…large-scale tapestries that exist at the delicate liminal point between authenticity (raw and untouched) and artifice (clearly juxta-/superimposed). The latter is emphasised throughout the fourteen minutes of Espaces cachés, something of an essay in qualitative shifts and jump cuts between assembled groups of sound sources. […] As its modest but ambitious title suggests, Going / Places doesn’t simply expand this idea, it explodes it […] Harrison’s moulding of the recordings into complex fabrics turns Going / Places into a stunningly vivid piece of uncanny metarealism that encapsulates both the physicality and the psychology of the present experience together with aspects of memory and anticipation.” (reviewed in December) [electrocd.com]

9 | Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’

“This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. […] Fraunberger doesn’t so much play the instrument as fibrillate it, and ultimately it’s only a matter of time before death reclaims it. Yet this brief, wild act of transient resuscitation enables it to unleash a tragic, post-mortem testimony to its existence…” (reviewed in July) [Bandcamp]

8 | Francis Dhomont – Le cri du Choucas

“When it comes to acousmatic music as its finest, though, Francis Dhomont remains one of the best of the best. […] Dhomont regularly fashions material that’s beautiful but barbed, sometimes arranged in multiple layers of dense activity, sometimes shot through with thin splinters of razor-sharp pitch over roiling depths. […] Coherent and organic throughout, the drama […] is just as much to do with the way musical materials are judged and handled than with the work’s more immediately tangible text component. […] Le cri du Choucas contains music more dark and uncomfortable than one expects from Dhomont, even in the work’s closing moments; far from offering a reassuring conclusion, it passes instead through angular, awkward, even ugly passages, surrounded on all sides by ominous glowering layers of sound seemingly coloured different shades of black. At its end, Le cri du Choucas sounds stunned, which is precisely how i felt too. It’s another spectacular creation from an undisputed master of the art.” (reviewed in May) [electrocd.com]

7 | Three Trapped Tigers – Silent Earthling

It’s been a long—five years!—and increasingly exciting wait for Three Trapped Tigers’ new album, but goodness it was worth it. TTT practically exist in a genre of their own making, a unique instrumental merging of math rock and ambient electronica, setting up nervous sonic environments that pass back and forth between overdrive, twee melodies and lace-like delicacy. Silent Earthling is more than just a worthy successor to their groundbreaking 2011 debut Route One Or Die, it attains even greater ecstatic anthemic heights while taking their rhythmic convolution to new quantities of power and intricacy. These are simply some of the greatest songs without words ever recorded. [Amazon]

6 | Katie Gately – Color

My first contact with Katie Gately’s music was via her remix last year of Björk’s ‘Family’ (on the first of the Vulnicura remixed series), which in no way prepared me for the rip-roaring leftfield festivities that litter her debut album. There’s a pop sensibility at its heart, but Gately pushes at its limits so much that the seven songs on Color become something completely other, pleasingly hard to define. Opening track ‘Lift’ seems to suggest we’re in for a playful electronica romp, reinforced by the cheeky processional of ‘Tuck’, but beyond this the album enters very different waters, approaching existing styles and idioms seemingly with suspicion, interested more in subverting them to her own ends. There are glimpses of cabaret (‘Rive’) and ballad (‘Color’) but the album hits its zenith with ‘Sire’, a complex industrialised song that leaves all sign of existing models way behind. [Boomkat]

5 | Sleigh Bells – Jessica Rabbit

To be honest, although there are plenty of tracks on their previous albums that i really love, i don’t think i’ve taken Sleigh Bells terribly seriously in the past. That’s all changed with Jessica Rabbit, a collection of songs that find Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller radically reconstructing noise pop from the ground up. Their innate playfulness here finds expression in mid-track tilt-shifts, tempo changes and volte-faces, and a more substantial and telling approach to melody. None of this should suggest that Jessica Rabbit is an over-serious album, though: on the one hand, this is by far their most accessible music, but they’re as uproariously abrasive as ever, if anything more so due to the lyrical extent displayed here. The delightfully pretty refrain of ‘I Can’t Stand You Anymore’ says it all; music to be revelled in but not to be trusted for a second. [Amazon]

4 | C Duncan – The Midnight Sun

i’ll admit it: although i was extremely excited to hear C Duncan’s new album, i was also honestly afraid. Last year’s Architect had been so good that it seemed hard to believe he’d be able to live up to it, let alone surpass it. Yet, somehow, implausibly, he has—The Midnight Sun is contemporary pop not just at its finest but leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. What hasn’t changed is Duncan’s voice, as exquisitely, moodily breathy as ever, sounding like he doesn’t so much sing his melodies as exhale them. What’s new here are the quality and intricacy of the arrangements, which Duncan has ramped up considerably: the gorgeous harmonic treatments of ‘Nothing More’ and ‘On Course’, the transcendent floating layers of ‘Like You Do’, the softly brooding heaviness of ‘Wanted To Want It Too’ and the title track, and the wistful nostalgic strains of ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Last to Leave’. Christopher Duncan truly is the master of modern day pop. [Amazon]

3 | Christian Fennesz & Jim O’Rourke – It’s Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry

While i’ve generally remained relatively indifferent to their respective solo outputs, this collaboration between Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke has yielded something sensational, combining drone, ambient and noise in two lengthy tracks, each around 20 minutes. The first: a lovely, slow measured ascent into radiant noise retaining a strong veneer of consonance, coming out the other side into an ocean of more focused but conflicted beauty. The second: developing from gentleness into melodic noise that’s more hard-edged (due to razor-sharp upper and booming lower frequencies), dissolving into a complex but stable layered ambient texture that finds its own way, via sudden bursts of guitar chords, to a place of further radiance. Sheer glory. [Boomkat]

2 | Autechre – elseq 2

Last year came the epic that was AE_LIVE; this year Autechre have extending their long-form (r)evolutionary glitched beat-tronics in a quintet of albums of which the second, elseq 2, is utterly flawless. More than ever before there’s the sense that it’s not just an internal logic at play in these pieces, but an unequivocal artificial intelligence, determining, governing, shaping and evolving the sound materials in real time to its own inscrutable creative agenda. The range of invention on these three pieces is completely mind boggling, their levels of labyrinthine intricacy staggering to behold; there’s not a single dull or unengaging moment in any of them. Opening track ‘elyc6 0nset’ is one of their most awe-inspiring achievements—it needs to be heard to be believed—but even in the tiny five-minute ‘chimer 1-5-1’ the music progresses through a meaningful narrative, all the time undergoing a burbling development. And with closing track ‘c7b2’ Autechre place noise squarely at the epicentre of 2016’s most downright dirty demonstration of beatplay. [Autechre]

1 | Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky

When i first listened to Kayo Dot’s Plastic House on Base of Sky, late one summer night in total darkness, as the final notes of the final song died away i realised that i was sitting with my mouth wide open. This reaction doesn’t happen very often, but then it’s not everyday that one’s confronted by music of this magnitude. Twelve months ago, writing about my 2015 album of the year, i remarked on my inherent resistance to critiquing music about which i feel most passionate. That’s certainly true again this year, but for slightly different reasons with PHoBoS. To return to that first encounter, it was immediately obvious that i’d been listening to something genuinely marvellous, a supernal act of music-making that left me exhilarated and exhausted. But it was a gut feeling, an instinctual reaction, and in the intervening months i’m not sure i can honestly claim to have managed to move much further beyond that. So to an even greater extent i feel really rather inadequate in trying to convey the immensity of what Kayo Dot have done here.

Let’s latch onto what’s obvious and start from there. The melding of Toby Driver’s music with Jason Byron’s splendidly allusive lyrics is designed to speak with a deliberately heightened—no, elevated—mode of expression. In this respect, PHoBoS easily constitutes Kayo Dot’s most challenging music to date, featuring incredibly dense textures avoiding wide dynamic variation, which can initially seem as forbidding as a vertical rock face, without an obvious or easy point of access. This is further complicated by the approach taken to structure. From one perspective, these five epic songs retain traces of the language of prog rock, insofar as their structures are unconventional, even somewhat whimsical and rhapsodic, and certainly designed only to make sense over an extended period of time. Yet on repeated listenings it becomes clear that what appear to be connections to the conventions of song structure are in fact illusory; these songs aren’t so much structured as segmented, like the separate constituent parts of a larger organism. The lyrics, both in their own right as well as in the way Driver delivers them, obfuscate the situation further; Byron’s texts are essentially prose poems, and Driver meanders around them with a freedom that makes each song’s ultimate trajectory feel spontaneous and impossible to predict. However, several of them—’All The Pain In All The Wide World’, ‘Rings of Earth’ and ‘Brittle Urchin’—shift on their axis around the mid-point, making one think vaguely of sonata form and its progression towards the development of ideas, but this doesn’t ring wholly true either. More meaningful is the way these mid-point shifts tend to cast a darker pallor over proceedings, making one question the song’s deeper—musical as well as lyrical—meaning and intent, tending to lead to reflective closing moments (this is particularly noticeable in the latter stages of ‘Rings of Earth’, Driver’s voice dropping into a significantly lower range for the text’s closing stanza).

But for all their apparent inherent difficulties, one cannot hide from the overwhelming truth that, although it seems contextually impossible, these five songs nonetheless speak with an immediate raw power. Their elevated mode of expression in turn elevates us, and we ride high on Driver’s soaring melodies and are plunged deep into each song’s kaleidoscopic textural mélanges; we may lose our breath, may splutter and flounder, but we never stop being dazzled, and amazed, and baffled, and elated. Besides, it’s worth bearing in mind that none of these challenges are wholly new within the scope of Kayo Dot’s previous output. Toby Driver’s affinity for lucid dreaming has always had a tendency to produce the most wondrously esoteric musical shapes and sentiments. Yet while PHoBoS is surely the most extreme manifestation of this in their work to date, its flexible forms and complex textures—shot through with layers of electronic strata—combine to make these songs sound not simply progressive but entirely visionary. Only in the most tenuous sense is this an album of our time; the reality is that Plastic House on Base of Sky is a masterpiece pointing far, far ahead into the beyond, beckoning us to follow. Let’s go!

[Kayo Dot]

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