CD/Digital releases

Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

This is a list surrounded by other lists leading to other lists, lists … that explain everything by being gateways into worlds of sound, feeling and information…
…the love of making lists is an attempt to remind us of what it is that has happened, and what is happening, all at once, as time and humanity collapses into itself. …
The list is a collage of hopes and wishes, of knowledge and exhibitionism.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

So we move on to the list of lists, the forty albums that have made the greatest impact over the last twelve months. Here are the first twenty to have made the cut.

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Best EPs of 2012

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The list is what brings a world of chaos into some kind of pattern. The list fixes a broken world floating out into the outer world of emptiness. The list links us to ourselves, places us together, puts us in order. The list soothes us in the way it organises memory and shapes the consciousness. Everybody loves a list for making sense of the awesome nature of all the stuff that surrounds us. The list is at the heart of everything. Everything is part of a list. Humanity is one long list linking nothing with something.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Paul Morley telling it how it is, & as the year starts to fade away, it’s time once again for the series of lists detailing the best of the best that’s passed through my eardrums in the last 12 months. We begin, as ever, with the ten most outstanding EPs. Read more

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, and the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, and connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy and imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she and Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon and exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging and blushing of colours and motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another and allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect and are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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A spine-tingling fusion: Alone Architect

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A release i’ve been anticipating for a while came out recently: the self-titled debut EP from Alone Architect. Much of the best electronica-fuelled songwriting in recent times has emanated from Canada, and Alone Architect is no exception, being the project of Montreal musician Jeff Feldman. Feldman posted a couple of teaser tracks online some weeks back, one of which featured the unique vocalisations of Elsieanne Caplette, chanteuse of the outstanding duo Elsiane. The song in question, “The Incision”, proved absolutely captivating, and promised big things for Feldman’s forthcoming EP; it does not disappoint.

The EP comprises six tracks whose brand of electronica is dark bordering on nocturnal. But it’s not yet another generic exercise in pseudo-post-apocalyptic knob-twiddling; on the contrary, rhythmic drive and overt lyricism pervade Feldman’s darkness, adorning it with splashes of colour and lightening its heavy undertones. Opening track ‘Moth to Flame’ exhibits both, although with a sense of distance. Feldman spends some time establishing layers of accompaniment (drawing heavily on the spectre of late ’70s Jean-Michel Jarre), and when his voice finally enters, the lyrics are bent out of shape almost to the point of obscurity. However, this is more than just a song—the absence of a chorus in its structure reinforces the point—and its climactic moments are carried by music alone, the words falling silent. It’s followed by the goth-inflected “Not Alone”, sung by Angela Boismenu whose voice seems to combine the best aspects of Cher and Amy Lee. Laid back in tempo, it nonetheless packs no little punch in the choruses, a punch that Feldman ramps up as the song progresses. Lyrically, despite the convolution of its poetry there’s real passion here, made all the more potent by a switch to triplet rhythms in the middle 8 and the abrupt fragility at the start of the coda. Read more

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The concerto reinvented: Jakob Kullberg – Momentum: Nordic Cello Concertos

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i’ve commented in the past about the number of contemporary composers drawn to writing violin concertos—they’ve been a regular fixture among the works premièred at the Proms in the last few years—but personally, i’ve always been more drawn to the cello concerto. Composers exploring this medium seem, almost unavoidably, to feel the urge to tap into things deep and profound—or at least, profoundly mysterious. This is definitely what pervades one of the more interesting CDs i’ve been sent recently, a disc that has been strangely ignored by most commentators. Showcasing the seriously impressive talent of Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg, together with the Poland-based New Music Orchestra conducted by Szymon Bywalec, the disc explores cello concertos by arguably the three most renowned Nordic composers, Per Nørgård, Arne Nordheim and Kaija Saariaho. Nørgård’s second cello concerto lends its name to the album as a whole—Momentum—and it’s a wisely chosen title, as the concept of momentum—or more specifically the way it manifests itself within a larger dramatic dialogue—seems to be of central importance in all three pieces. Read more

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Music of a dark and difficult pathology: Tansy Davies – Spine

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Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms and King’s College, Cambridge) and performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focussed on several of her more well-known works, including neon and Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber and solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings and the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy and clarity seem to be important and significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, and which clearly go down well with audiences and ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive and thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices and objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes and Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark and difficult pathology. Read more

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Attraction & resistance: NMC Debut Discs – music by Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura and Sam Hayden

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i don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe NMC Recordings as one of the bastions of contemporary music in the UK. For as long as i’ve been listening to new music (more than two decades now), NMC’s output has been a dependable point of continuity, and many of their releases have become both landmarks and benchmarks in the history of late 20th- and early 21st century British music. So it’s exciting to see NMC embarking on a bold new initiative: Debut Discs, a new series of 12 recordings to be released over the next four years, exploring the music of “emerging British composers”, whose music is currently under-represented on CD. Launched last month, the first three discs are devoted to the music of Dai Fujikura, Sam Hayden and Huw Watkins. They make for a stimulating and highly contrasting trio, one that resists and attracts in roughly equal measure.

Huw Watkins’ music is emphatically the latter, being by far the most accessible of the three. He opts for a nostalgic brand of music, earnest and lyrical, harking back to an earlier time. There’s nothing pastiche about what he does, and yet it seems entirely right to describe the five pieces on his disc as “neo-romantic”. Melody presides, and while Watkins affords them the opportunity for considerable variety and invention, there’s the unshakeable feeling that one’s heard all this before. The skill with which the pieces are put together can hardly be criticised—there’s not a note out of place, and Watkins’ sense of drama is strong—but the shadows of their progenitors are often so potent as to be a fatal distraction. The piano music—represented here in one of Watkins’ earlier works, the Four Spencer Pieces, played with consummate skill by the composer—manages to loosen its bonds to the past, but they’re the exception on an album that’s otherwise frustratingly over-familiar and straight-laced.

Caught betwixt the extremes of attraction and resistance is the music of Dai Fujikura (born in Osaka but resident in England since his mid-teens). The forthright independence of Fujikura’s compositional manner is striking, eschewing the styles and mannerisms of his birthplace; indeed, “Everytime I see some ‘Japanesenesses’ in my own score when I am composing, I delete them”. The five pieces on his disc comprise three substantial ensemble works and two brief solos, all very different in nature and instrumentation. What unites them is a fresh relationship with lyricism, one that allows Fujikura the possibility to go where his ideas take him, where unexpected episodes or shifts feel entirely comfortable (a quality he shares with Takemitsu, but for entirely his own reasons). The sudden bassoon cadenza in Secret Forest is an almost shockingly fragile hiatus in what is otherwise a dense and homogeneous work, dominated by huge bursts of string activity, while the latter half of Phantom Pulse somehow abruptly navigates from percussive bombast to a cloud of resonant lacework with no ill effects. But it’s the closing work, Okeanos, that shows off Fujikura’s skill best, the introduction of sho and koto contributing in no small part to its deeply hypnotic (and at times gorgeous) five movements.

Discussion of Sam Hayden’s music has hitherto been dogged by references to its apparent inaccessibility. But his music requires no apologia; it’s true that it is both powerfully demonstrative and utterly individual, but if ever there was a perfect invitation to the listener to sit up and engage with something on its own, genuinely new, terms, this is it. Everything about these four ensemble pieces (plus an electroacoustic chamber work as a bonus download) cries out its contemporary credentials, from the compositional techniques Hayden uses (brief descriptions of which double as programme notes) to the titles of the works, and there are times when it almost feels like a kind of aesthetic clipping is happening. But overall, it’s an invigorating kind of resistance, and gazing into the textures and structures Hayden creates is simultaneously disorienting and captivating. It’s not without its problems; in misguided, the intended momentum seems to short circuit under the strain of its stop-start material, and both system/error and presence/absence come across less as immersive encounters than (undeniably impressive) spectator sports. However, in the 20-minute Die Modularitäten, Hayden finds a perfect synthesis of his techniques and outlook; its polyphony is highly dramatic and deeply engaging, less a series of episodes than a large, unfolding narrative with a plethora of twists en route; and the moments when electronics lurk, barely audible, at the periphery are pure magic. Bonus work schismatics is also outstanding, the solo violin establishing a dialogue with electronics that one doesn’t just follow, but is pulled right into its epicentre.

All three releases are available on CD everywhere, and on download from the NMC shop.

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