Mix Tape #36 : Best Albums of 2015

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

In keeping with 5:4 tradition, here’s the new year Mix Tape showcasing music from each of my Best Albums of 2015. Three hours that demonstrate something of the sonic wonders that materialised last year. Enjoy! — and there are links to buy each of the albums featured in the last two days’ articles.

As usual, the mix tape can either be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2015 (Part 2)

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And here, bringing 2015 to a truly glorious end, is the conclusion of my countdown of the year’s best albums.

20 | James Newton Howard – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The Hunger Games film series has always been more about people and relationships than mere action, and James Newton Howard has consistently mirrored that in his scores. For the final film in the story, Howard gets archetypal, his score working as well as it does by juxtaposing crushingly imposing climaxes, reinforced by massive bass underpinning, with delicate folk music elements that (echoing the film) powerfully intimate the fragility of each and every one of the lives lost or threatened. Soaringly beautiful, solemn, spine-chilling, epic: a fitting accompaniment for the finale of one of cinema’s more emotionally involving franchises of recent years. [Amazon]

19 | Line Katcho – Pulsions

Québécoise composer Line Katcho speaks of using sound in her work “as kinetic matter, representing movement, forces and gestures”, and that’s abundantly clear throughout the five pieces on Pulsions. Their acousmatic nature is characterised by sounds that often fall just beyond one’s reach of recognition, Katcho whipping and spinning these sounds such that they become like gusts of wind manifested as solid objects. These are in turn sliced and fragmented into huge swirling clouds of sharp-edged matter, penetrating a variety of pitched materials, including deep bass drones and undulating sheets of consonance. Captivating and magical. [Kohlenstoff]

18 | Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

It’s three years since Holter’s superb second album Ekstasis (one of my Best Albums of 2012), an album that drew liberally on musical manners from an earlier time, which is also a defining feature of Have You In My Wilderness. One detects backward glances to the lyrical mindset of a figure like Bacharach, particularly in album opener ‘Feel You’ (which could almost be a 21st century render of a number from the ’60s), as well as permeating the jaunty melody of ‘Silhouette’ (until the wonderful point where it structurally breaks apart, unleashing a host of strings) and the lush accompaniment surrounding Holter in ‘Night Song’. But discrete points of influence are numerous and treated extremely fluidly, jazz and improv jostling with ballad and baroque pop elements. An air of wonder pervades throughout, as present in the palpable sense of joy that arises from Holter’s unexpected arrangements as it is in her lyrics. [Amazon]

17 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – In the Light of Air

“The latest CD from Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, In the Light of Air (out on Sono Luminus), develops further her distinctly elemental approach to music. Here, we’re immediately plunged into a primitive, even primeval place, filled with sounds at once inchoate yet at the same time stylised, producing a kind of heightened, ritualistic tone. Things move, yet for the longest time everything seems essentially static, held in check by its own oppressive weight; but, heralded by twangs on deep piano strings, Þorvaldsdóttir conjures up an atmosphere like folk music waking up, underpinned by some unstable drones and enriched by a movement away from gesture towards melody. […] In the Light of Air‘s conclusion bears similarities to its opening, yet is quite transformed, still decidedly weird but fundamentally more stable. Once again, with characteristic economy of means, Þorvaldsdóttir has created a stunningly immersive soundworld, the music of which conveys perceptible threads of narrative, yet which remains resolutely strange. This is perhaps her most primordial music to date, and it’s extremely impressive…” (reviewed in October) [Presto Classical]

16 | Man Without Country – Maximum Entropy

Surely contemporary pop’s most forward-looking and exhilarating synthpop duo, Man Without Country have somehow managed here to top their sublime 2012 debut, Foe. Sensitivity has always been pivotal to their music, a potent human presence balancing out the electronics, along with a leaning (it would be overdoing it to call it more than that) toward hints of the soundworld of their ’80s predecessors. Tracks like ‘Laws of Motion’, a delicious duet with White Sea’s Morgan Kibby, and ‘Virga’ demonstrate how subtle is their handling in this respect; one feels distant memories being triggered yet everything is fresh and new, making for a complex aural result. Ryan James’ vocals are as breathily ambiguous as ever, pushing the lyrics into a middleground of expressive potential, and the duo don’t seem to be anywhere near to using up their gift for lyrical ingenuity. [Amazon]

15 | C Duncan – Architect

You really don’t see music like this coming. Christopher Duncan’s approach to songwriting taps into a musical equivalent of summer holiday polaroids from the 1970s. Far from sounding merely like a retro throwback, his songs are homages to a kind of folk simplicity, inhabiting a dreamlike world of technicolor cheerfulness and harmony. One of the things that’s so remarkable about Duncan’s music is how it never feels remotely twee (despite how i’ve just described it), and also—considering how its composer wasn’t even born until 1989—how authentically it speaks. There’s a decidedly wistful punch being packed here, Duncan’s captivating voice emerging like a pristine artefact from the past that you’d thought was lost many, many years ago. Gorgeous. [FatCat Records] Read more

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Best Albums of 2015 (Part 1)

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Pausing only to reiterate once again how fundamentally definitive and provisional are all lists, here we go with my countdown of 2015’s best albums, starting with numbers 40 to 21. Part 2 tomorrow.

40 | Andrew Liles – Miscellany – Lussuoso (Electronics: 1990 to 2015)

The first of several epics on the list, Andrew Liles’ consistently unpredictable output was dominated in 2015 by this dazzling three-hour celebration of diverse electronic works dating back a quarter of a century. As the name implies, Miscellany is a veritable hotchpotch, one with a distinct leaning toward the more raw end of electronics. But this is merely the basis for a kaleidoscope of works encompassing radiophonic mayhem, intense beat-driven numbers overlaid with John Carpenter-esque basslines and/or Wendy Carlos-esque baroque twiddling, expansive ambient vistas and delicate, multi-layered bits of melodic tracery. It all makes for an entirely bewildering yet mesmerising experience. [self-released]

39 | Benge – Forms 4 – Moor Music

The latest in Ben Edwards’ ongoing ‘Forms’ series (begun in 2013) is this fine album, created using just a single synthesiser, the Yamaha VL1-m. The sense of evocation here, mingled with elements of nostalgia and retro sensibilities, is strong, conjuring up a soundworld that’s abstract and elemental yet drenched with connotations and allusions. And on top of all that it’s really very beautiful. [self-released – free download]

38 | Kate Havnevik – &i

Punchy, imaginative pop that builds directly upon the foundations set out on her 2011 album YOU. Smooth electronica is still the music’s most prevalent quality, but Havnevik keeps it informed with gruff basslines and itchy rhythmic diversions. Her voice is as gorgeous and indeed gymnastic as ever, turning endless cartwheels and somersaults which both reinforce the emotive core and embody the anthemic frivolity of her exquisite songs. [self-released]

37 | IAMX – Metanoia

The product of a runaway success crowdfunding venture, Metanoia finds Chris Corner extending further the utterly unique IAMX sound. His songs have always inhabited the widest of extremes in order to capture faithfully life’s emotional highs and lows, embracing grit and grime as well as the most ecstatic heights of elation (that voice!), and this album is no exception. Song titles like ‘No Maker Made Me’, ‘Say Hello Melancholia’ and ‘Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me’ are simultaneously brave—potentially suggesting a rather off-putting emo sensibility at work—and profoundly honest; yet the beat goes on, and while there’s more than an element of danse macabre permeating these songs, the restlessness of their rhythms keeps them from becoming self-indulgent. [self-released]

36 | Alva Noto – Xerrox Vol. 3

Xerrox Vol. 3 inhabits a very personal environment, founded upon broad washes of soft ambience, overlaid with bursts of electronic babble and semi-arbitrary burblings that more-or-less coalesce into melodic shapes. The slow, sedate manner of the first two Xerrox albums often suggested the solemnity of a ceremony, but Nicolai keeps things lighter on this occasion: materials are thinly-layered and clearly demarcated, and the general tone is one of buoyancy and lift, each track practically floating on its own thermal currents […] Avoiding the tendencies so many ambient composers make when attempting to tap into the idea of outer space, Xerrox Vol. 3 instead offers something that manages to evoke immensity and things unknowable from the perspective of a lone, small individual, at once infinite and intimate.” (reviewed in June) [Raster-Noton]

35 | East India Youth – Culture of Volume

William Doyle’s second album is a little hard to pin down. “The end result is not what was in mind” he sings, and it’s tempting to hear that as a descriptor for Culture of Volume itself. At its heart is a light-footed pop sensibility—Doyle is an irresistible melody-maker—yet this sits within a context of convoluted structures that often feel like miniature operas, their drawn-out dramas telescoped into four-to-six minute time spans. Whether expressed over an unstoppable pulse or through long-form lyrical lines (as in album highlight ‘Carousel’), they make Culture of Volume one of the year’s most beguilingly off-kilter pop albums. [XL] Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

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A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

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BCMG, CBSO Centre: Dominic Muldowney & Howard Skempton

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The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Eastern Waves, Arditti Quartet

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Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnikwas decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Ensemble Grizzana, Philip Thomas

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Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. Read more

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