Mix Tape #32 : Best Albums of 2014

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HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Many, many thanks to all of you who have followed the blog through the last 12 months, particularly to all those who have commented and tweeted in response or retort. As usual, here’s my new year mix tape featuring a track from all forty of my Best Albums of the Year. i said yesterday how 2014 had been a breathtaking year, and listening to this 3-hour condensed version of its best music, i really think that becomes obvious.

Enjoy! – and assuming you do, please support the artists wherever possible; links to purchase each of the albums can be found on the last two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by the download link; and you can also stream the mix tape via Mixcloud. Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (Part 2)

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Bringing the main course to an end, here’s the conclusion of the countdown of my forty best albums of 2014. It’s been a breathtaking year.

20 | Salvatore Sciarrino – Cantare con silenzio

Easily one of the strangest albums of the year, from a composer who continues to push back the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary classical music. Two of the three works on the disc focus on the flute, sometimes violently foregrounding it while elsewhere it becomes lost amidst heavier forces. The oldest work on the disc, Berceuse, is wonderfully weird, summarised in my original review as “like a seething, roiling organic mass, acting in waves of dense, surging material, it’s as inscrutable as it is hypnotic”. [Presto Classical]

19 | Bass Communion – Box Set

This rather wondrous 4-disc box set brings together a considerable number of rarities from Steven Wilson’s Bass Communion back catalogue. The earliest dates from as far back as 1998, the first of the deeply impressive Indicates Void series based on individual instruments, all of which still sound overwhelmingly modern. In many ways the collection proves how polarised is the Bass Communion canon, not just encompassing but often directly addressing extremes of serenity and cacophany. Regardless of which end of the spectrum Wilson finds himself, his highly-sculpted results are staggering to behold. [Steven Wilson HQ]

18 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Jennies Made Me Do It {1}

Three pieces originating in Matt Waldron’s collaborations and split releases with the equally unhinged At Jennie Richie, they chart an ambitious path through highly complex sonic imagery. ‘Studio Backflow’, unusually for Waldron, is driven along by a relentless pulse, slowly processing past a kaleidoscope of manic sights; ‘Foregone And Ungotten’—the highlight of the disc—begins as a radiant texture before passing down into something altogether more sinister and strange, whereupon it fragments and roams around in a seemingly endless dark space. [Bandcamp]

17 | OY – No Problem Saloon

One of 2014’s most marvellous oddities, No Problem Saloon melds African & European styles and manners into a uniquely congruous confection. Unaffected almost to a fault, OY’s lyrics tackle subjects almost embarrassingly slight (the joys of afros and dreadlocks) as well as deeply profound, the latter captured in the album’s standout track ‘Doondari’, which recounts in detail the stages of the Fulani story of the creation of the world. From my review: “Essentially a slice of drum-pumped electronica, Frempong’s rapid meandering through the repetitions of the story resembles a scrambling recitative passing through an assortment of episodes that skew off at oblique angles, the references to creation & milk finally combining in the quiet wail of a baby.” [Crammed Discs]

16 | Senko – Dronetudes

Despite the title of Danish musician Daniel Kosenko’s latest album, drones are not the primary focus of Dronetudes. Some of these absorbing studies do involve them, draped like large swatches of fabric across each other to create extended forms that shift and shimmer. Beats predominate too, though, existing both in sympathy with and counter to this slower material, and Kosenko clearly revels in the disjunct interrelationship, heard to best effect in ‘karpus trio’—a track that clearly can’t sit still—and album opener ‘wolfsong’, the underlying light of which is continually flecked and tickled by surface-layer beat tracery. [Hymen]

15 | John Pickard – Gaia Symphony / Eden

John Pickard’s magnum opus for brass orchestra and percussion has been given a superb new recording by the Norwegian Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag. Although daunting in terms of both scale and scope, the Gaia Symphony is an immensely accessible and immediate work, carving “huge, rough shapes but handles them as though they were fluid, forming them into pounding rhythms and pseudo-fanfares” (from my review). Anyone potentially put off by the thought of 65 minutes of brass music: think again – Pickard has revivified the medium for the 21st century in this astounding piece. [Presto Classical]

14 | Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal – The Raid 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of 2014’s most exhilarating movies needed nothing less than a score that matched it in terms of both violence and dexterity. What it got was easily the year’s most breathtaking soundtrack, one that moved and acted with the skill of the film’s hero, Rama – biding its time (and thereby tapping deeply into the emotional subtexts that run like threads throughout) before unleashing onslaughts of unimaginable ferocity and virtuosity. Music remade as a martial art. [Amazon]

13 | Markus Reuter – Sultry Kissing Lounge (Crimson ProjeKCt Tour 2014)

Superficially similar to the EP of tracks recorded in Australasia (included in my Best EPs of the Year list), this extended set originating in European concerts goes very much further and deeper. ‘Patricia’ sets the bar very high, filled with surging triadic waves that continually hint at but thwart any cadential connotations; ‘Lorena’ opts for a vaguer harmonic language that threatens to be dragged into the depths. All 13 of these remarkable improvisations are outstandingly beautiful, crowned by Reuter’s thrilling white-hot guitar improvisations, frenzies shaped into melodies like strands of lightning from a Tesla coil. [Iapetus]

12 | St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Something from Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne seems to have rubbed off, as her latest album has a distinctly heavyweight lollop in its step from the get go. Songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ are punchy as hell, eat beat like a slap in the chops. Her experimental nature still pervades every song, making even relatively conventional numbers like ‘Psychopath’ sound oblique; standout track ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ encapsulates the album, pushed along with military precision while exploring unexpected side alleys en route. Not a verse-chorus structure in sight. [Amazon]

11 | John Cage – Works for Two Keyboards • 2

Xenia Pestova, reigning queen of the toy piano, reunites with Pascal Meyer on this superb second survey of John Cage’s two-keyboard music. In my review i remarked how their performance of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos “is as fascinating as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, their navigation through Cage’s indeterminate score resulting in a mercurial kind of halting hocket between the toy pianos & an array of bizarre sounds.” The prepared piano music is no less striking (and more gamelan-like than ever), testifying to the continual freshness and unpredictability of Cage’s music. [Amazon] Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (Part 1)

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And so to the main course: the countdown of my forty best albums of the year; part 2 will follow tomorrow.

40 | Bora Yoon – Sunken Cathedral

Korean-American composer & singer Bora Yoon’s latest album is a fascinating intermingling of traditional and experimental elements that Yoon describes as “a sonic journey through the chambers of [the] subconscious”. Her songs are personal yet aspire to and evoke heights of mystical ecstasy; my review summed up Sunken Cathedral as “heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it … a tour de force of the most imaginative kind of avant-garde lyricism” [Innova]

39 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Aerial

Þorvaldsdóttir’s approach to composition is heavily informed by an interest in textures, heard to excellent effect on the six works on this album. A recurring feature—and a beguiling one—is her predilection for rendering sounds vague, bereft of an obvious point of origin—no mean feat in instrumental music. Yet for all its unfamiliarities, her music is in the best possible sense accessible, employing structures and juxtapositions of material that are often disarmingly simple, making their point with utmost clarity. [Amazon]

38 | Weeping Willows – The Time Has Come

Anyone with a fondness for the easy listening of the 50s and 60s will find much to love about Weeping Willows’ latest album. The Swedish group’s adoration of its tropes makes the inevitable elements of pastiche forgiveable, but transcending the air of homage is singer Magnus Carlson’s voice, which here comes close to lyrical and vocal perfection. The arrangements are sumptuous and sensitive, but they wholeheartedly serve Carlson’s singing, conveying alternate waves of elation and sorrow. [Amazon]

37 | Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf

Time away from the flogged-dead-horse The Pipettes clearly does Gwenno Saunders a world of good. Hinted at in a collection of singles that began emerging last year, Y Dydd Olaf boldly enters a soundworld informed by crowd-friendly pop yet drenched in an unmistakable ambiance that harks to a more monochromatic past (without resorting to ghastly ersatz retroisms). These twin forces, inviting and distancing respectively, establish an equilibrium of sorts but Gwenno’s vocals—sung in her native Welsh—gently undermine this, making her songs sound at once familiar yet wonderfully strange. [Peski]

36 | Jenny Hval & Susanna – Meshes of Voice

Not quite the explosion of vocal ingenuity one might have expected, yet Meshes of Voice nonetheless charts a pretty fearless path through new realms of song-writing. What constitutes the foreground in these songs is an aspect ever in flux, with vocal lines often submerged in multiple layers of material, the half-glimpsed words only one—and by no means the most important—part of their communicative language. Elsewhere, folk tendencies arise strongly, rooting the music in an authenticity of utterance that prevents it from losing itself in mere expressionism. [Norman Records]

35 | Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

One of the beauties of Deerhoof’s music is that it manages to have its tongue permanently in its cheek while maintaining a capacity to invent and challenge conventions. Perhaps that’s just another way of simply saying that Deerhoof find music-making endless, immense fun – something that radiates throughout La Isla Bonita, from the playful cowbell repetitiveness of ‘Paradise Girls’, the stop-start metric shuffling of ‘Tiny Bubbles’ (a song seemingly going at three speeds at once) and the leftfield construction of seemingly straight-faced album closer ‘Oh Bummer’. As ever, wonderful stuff. [Boomkat]

34 | Black Swan – Tone Poetry

Black Swan’s unique take on hauntology has featured in many of my Best of the Year lists, and their latest offering is no exception. Tone Poetry is less caked in detritus, with the result that its surface is not merely strikingly visible, but often brilliantly bright. This surface becomes the focal point for a series of searing lyrical episodes, some (‘Prophecy’) packed with muscular strength, others (‘Rapture’) barely emerging from the dazzling light noise that fills them. Hauntological artefacts remain, though, occasionally coming forward to cast a sepia wistfulness on everything. [Bandcamp]

33 | Paul Dolden – Who Has the Biggest Sound?

Dolden’s particular compositional angle has much to do with layers—lots of them, stacked on top of each other way beyond the point when the structure should come toppling down. But this outrageously reckless approach is one of the key things that makes his music so strong and so appealing, coupled with a mischievous sense of fun, which has arguably never been more obvious than here. As i noted in my review: “the combination of voices and orchestra is used to initiate some almighty pile-ups, along the way peppered with weird carillon/jazz mash-ups with more superimposed saxes than you could shake a stick at, florid episodes running at Nancarrow-like breakneck speed, rock-out reveries a la Buckethead, Zappa-esque synth ensemble passages and a surreal take on country music”. How could anyone resist that? [Starkland | iTunes]

32 | Gazelle Twin – Unflesh

While Unflesh didn’t (because it couldn’t) live up to the hype and expectations that preceded it, what Elizabeth Bernholz has created here came as a genuine surprise. Gone are the roaming, elevated forms of melodic lyricism that characterised The Entire City and last year’s Mammal EP, replaced by an aloof, clinical sense of detachment. Beats and patterns predominate, the lyrical content obsessed with what it means to be human—with the combined result sounding like an alien’s perspective on the subject. Fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. [Amazon | Bandcamp]

31 | Poemss – Poemss

Trying to second-guess what Aaron Funk is going to do next is a mug’s game. All the same, few could have even imagined Poemss, a collaboration with fellow Canadian Joanne Pollock, eschewing Funk’s trademark breathless break beats in favour of laid back tempi, dreamy atmospherics and delicate melodies, executed with the kind of self-effacing, authentically unpolished vocal delivery one rarely hears from established artists. The electronica is as intricate and imaginative as ever, though, accompanying and encasing their voices in a veritable celebration of the joys of analogue synths. [Planet Mu] Read more

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Best EPs of 2014

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It’s that time once again, so as the year starts to sputters to its close, here’s my annual round-up of the best encounters i’ve had with 2014’s crop of new releases, beginning with the top 10 EPs.

10 | Deaf Center – Recount

Feel the solemnity; Norwegian duo Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland’s latest missive comes drenched in autumnal melancholy, an aimless piano picking its way through the penumbral space that is ‘Follow Still’ while the ground shifts beneath. Ominous sounds lurk at the periphery, dispelled in second track ‘Oblivion’, a beautiful essay in the darker forms of ecstasy. [Boomkat]

9 | Monolake – X I E

Having toyed with both ambient- and beat-based materials in the last few years, Robert Henke’s new release (his first in two years) brings them together. Bookend tracks ‘Xor’ and ‘Ethernet’ are pretty delicious slivers of hectic electronica, held together by a cluster of clanging rhythmic loops, but it’s central track ‘Inwards’ that, despite being the shortest on the EP, goes deeper, a timely reminder of just how fresh ambient music can sound in Henke’s hands. [Hard Wax | Boomkat]

8 | Dwntwn – Dwntwn

Whereas dance-oriented music has been the focus on their previous EPs (The Red Room and Cowboys, both released in 2012), Dwntwn have placed much greater emphasis on song on the five tracks of this self-titled EP. ‘Til Tomorrow’ tops off its exquisite melodic writing with a gradual shift from delicacy to full-on impassioned outburst, while ‘Heroine’ folds the mildest of country touches into a heart-felt ballad packing considerable pain beneath its grace. [iTunes]

7 | Squarepusher – Music For Robots

“In this project the main question I’ve tried to answer is ‘can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?’” The fact that much of this EP sounds essentially identical to Tom Jenkinson’s recent work, plus the ‘uncanny valley’ effect that such razor-sharp accuracy engenders (redolent of Zappa’s synclavier work) perhaps renders his question moot. Yet working with a trio of Japanese robot musicians has clearly unleashed a distinctive burst of imagination; ‘Dissolver’—a fiery quasi-extemporised workout—is arguably the finest demonstration of this unique collaboration, but ‘World Three’, involving the unlikely presence of a pipe organ, brings an oft-absent pensivity to Squarepusher’s output. [Bleep]

6 | Monty Adkins – Residual Forms

Monty Adkins’ work continues to plough increasingly deep furrows into material at the meeting point of ambient and experimental electronics. The results are uniformly beautiful, and this short piece is no exception, slow shifting chords and clouds matched by episodes of more blistered music, positioned with Adkins’ typically unerring skill so as to draw out a potent sense of inner drama. [Crónica – free download]

5 | Darren McClure – The World Is Made Of Words

Born in Northern Ireland, today based in Japan, Darren McClure’s latest release is a gorgeous and impressively focussed slab of electronics. The work’s drones seem immovable yet malleable, McClure often pushing and shaping them in such a way so as to obscure both their pitch and timbral qualities; a delicate garnishing of almost-identifiable noises on the surface keeps the music and one’s listening experience sharp. [Yugen – free download] Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première) & Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Wolfgang Rihm – IN-SCHRIFT-II (World Première)

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Earlier this week it was announced that the recipient of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for music composition is Wolfgang Rihm, for his 16-minute orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT-II. Whatever people may say about Rihm (and, in more recent times, who hasn’t?), it was a superb decision, as this particular piece has considerable ambition in terms of both sound itself as well as the way it speaks within the performance space. Rihm is hardly the only contemporary composer to have these concerns, of course, but IN-SCHRIFT-II, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, makes an overwhelmingly immediate and deep impression that genuinely sets it apart from what one usually encounters in new music. And yet, to dance on the head of a paradox for a moment, you could easily argue that there’s not that much new about it—it certainly doesn’t break new ground, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and in fact pretty much nothing about it at all sounds familiar. Rihm’s soundworld is remarkably immersive and attractive, non-threatening but nonetheless thrilling and in no small part that’s down to the very specific choices of instrumentation he has made, with heavy stress placed on lower instruments.

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Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner

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On various occasions in the past, i’ve written about the music of American experimental composer Kenneth Kirschner. His work, all electronic and available free via his website, is endlessly fascinating, exploring a wide and unexpected variety of sonic shapes and timbres within formal contexts that take a radical approach (informed in part by the music of Feldman) to notions of narrative and development, with a tendency toward indeterminate—or at least, perceptually indeterminate—structures. Kirschner’s considerable output deserves much greater exposure and engagement than it has hitherto received, which makes yesterday’s release of Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner, a multimedia project celebrating and exploring his music, extremely welcome.

There is a 188-page ebook comprising a selection of essays, articles and interviews (two contributed by me), with an accompanying 4½-hour digital album containing responses to and remixes of Kirschner’s music by an eclectic cluster of composers—Tom Hodge, Ambrose Field, Maps and Diagrams, Christoph Berg, Marco Oppedisano, Adam Barringer, Orphax, Yukitomo Hamasaki, Monty Adkins, Erdem Helvacioglu, Billy Gomberg, Tomas Phillips, Shinkei, Stefan Goldmann, Anne Guthrie, Dirk Serries, L’Eix, Stephen Vitiello, Tobias Reber, Steinbrüchel—plus an additional software-based indeterminate composition created by myself. Further to this are a small number of videos by Sawako, Monty Adkins & Julio D’Escrivan, Josh Ott, Andy Graydon and Molly Sheridan.

The project is published by Tokafi, and in keeping with Kirschner’s own approach to releasing his work, the entire kit and kaboodle are available free of charge via the Tokafi bandcamp page (of course, feel free to pay something if you can).

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