Albums of the Decade

This is a list of my favourite fifty albums of the last ten years, from 2010-2019. Making this list has been fun, arduous, and more time consuming than I’d care to admit. I’ve been putting it together in bits of spare time over the past year or so. It has involved a lot of revisiting albums, thinking about albums, and listening to new albums that kept coming out as I was going. For every album I ended up including, there was another album (or two, or three) I had to cut to make room.

Why was I so excited to put this list together? It was a much more fulfilling list to make than my usual end-of-year round-up. Perhaps it is because the last ten years more or less map onto the first ten years of my adult life. Music has always been a big part of my life, and so making this list was to some extent a process of going back over the soundtrack of my 20s, seeing how my tastes have expanded and mutated over the years, and how my life has changed too. It certainly brought back lots of memories.

A few words on the nature of the list. I’ve stuck to a rule of one album per artist. The list would be very different otherwise, but I think that rule makes for a more interesting read. It’s safe to say that the majority of the artists below (though not all) released other wonderful albums within the same time span. Some of them released more than one truly great album, which necessitated a bit of hand-wringing over which to choose. I’ve generally mentioned that in my write-ups where it’s occurred.

The ordering has been agonised over, carefully thought through; and yet it remains, as it must, imperfect. Ranking things is an inherently silly thing to do. But it’s fun. It’s also worth remembering that this is a piece of writing first, and a ranking second. Sometimes the ordering reflects that. It’s also a very personal list. It’s a list of favourites, not a best of. Having said that, I’ve not included anything for purely personal reasons. That is, I would contend that each one of these fifty albums is very good in their own right, separate from my attachment to them. Each is worth any curious listener’s time and attention.

I have tried to keep my write-ups for each album short and varied. Sometimes I have described what I think is good about the record in as simple and clear a way as I could. Sometimes I have taken a more oblique approach. Sometimes I’ve given context, and sometimes I’ve left you to do the research yourself if you’re not already familiar. Hopefully this mix of styles keeps things fresh rather than being infuriating. The aim is, as always, to inspire you to listen, either again or anew. I’ve provided a link to a key track for each album as a taster.

Of course, such a list can never be a full picture: only a snapshot. I surprised myself by what ended up being cut. Any picture of my listening of the decade would have to include a lot of artists who aren’t on this list, both big names and personal favourites. I’m going to resist the temptation to list them here, partially to avoid spoilers and partially because any such list would be incomplete. But suffice to say, just because someone isn’t on the list certainly doesn’t mean I didn’t find a lot to admire and enjoy in their work across the decade.

A decade is only significant because we make it significant. If we didn’t have a decimal numeral system, it wouldn’t feel significant at all. And maybe it isn’t? But these albums are. Or they are to me. For the past ten years, I have spent a significant part of my free time listening to albums, giving them my full attention, approaching them with an open mind and open ears. These were the fifty best ones I heard.

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50. Emeralds – Does it Look Like I’m Here?

We kick off with Emeralds: spirals of glittering synth arpeggios whipped up into tornadoes of komiche splendour. These are huge compositions, gathering in the speakers like weather systems. They spin in and out of field. This is absolutely a nighttime record, and should only be listened to between the hours of, let’s say, 11pm-4am. It should also be listened to as loud as possible. It reminds me of driving home late at night from my girlfriend’s house, through the dark woods of Woodbury Common. The limbs of the trees overhang the road, flickering like ghosts in the headlight beams. I feel myself as a small presence in the universe.

Taster track: Candy Shoppe

49. Women – Public Strain

A modern post-punk masterpiece, Public Strain is the very definition of a grower. At first, the overwhelmingly muddy, lo-fi production and twisting, nonlinear song structures are hard to find one’s way around it: a monochrome maze of alleyways and dark passages that feel like unnecessary detours on the way to final track ‘Eyesore’, the obvious and immediate highlight. But as you listen more, as you get to know the maze, the journey becomes almost as thrilling as the destination: full of subtle melodic payoffs and buried harmonies. I say ‘almost’. ‘Eyesore’ will always remain the highlight, its final intertwined guitar-and-bass riff (you know the one I mean if you’ve heard it: that riff) the shimmering culmination of what the rest of the album is building towards. It always makes me tear up a little, partially because of guitarist Chris Reimer’s tragic death shortly after the album was released — as the song fades out, I imagine that riff continuing on forever, somewhere up in heaven.

Taster track: Eyesore

48. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Dorset, some five years before the Brexit referendum, this album has taken on a new life for me since 2016. It now seems to foreshadow the shaky, post-Brexit/pre-Brexit nightmare we find ourselves in daily, with all its attendant ugliness: “Goddamn Europeans, take me back to beautiful England!” she sings on ‘The Last Living Rose’. You can hear the words reverberating in the church. The sound is damp and very British, but also furious and angry. War is another recurrent theme: Harvey sings with gritty poetry of “young men, hiding with guns, in the dirt” (‘In the Dark Places’) and soldiers who’ve “seen and done things they want to forget; seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief” (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’). It is some of her finest songwriting, backed by instrumentation which is somehow lush, understated, and earthy all at once.

Taster track: The Last Living Rose

47. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

A ‘nepenthe’ is a cure for sadness, a medicine. Barwick’s record is undeniably uplifting — there are moments here where soft pillows of choral voices break over each other like huge, shifting, cumulonimbus clouds lined with golden light, moments that sound heavenly. But any medicine for sadness must contain sadness within it, the hair of the dog. What stops Nepenthe from tipping over into the saccharine, what lifts it to the level of transcendence, is a continually churning darkness: moments that evoke not choirs of angels but night falling over a windswept field, or the pitch-hued mystery of a deep lake. The Magic Place is gentler; Will is darker still; but it is Nepenthe where Barwick strikes the perfect balance between light and dark, night and day.

Taster track: Forever

46. Mary Lattimore – At the Dam

It’s such a simple idea that it is hard to believe no one has done it before: long, improvised runs of harp, twisted and coiled by live electronic effects. The result is extremely relaxing, but also has a spookiness and otherworldliness to it that reminds me a little of Karen Russell’s short stories: its magic has a little shagginess to it, the electronics fraying the harp around its edges. This is not the music of the stars, but of the amateur astronomer camped out in the desert, wrapped up in a scruffy jumper, searching out wonder with their telescope. The titles suggest the start of a story — ‘Otis Walks into the Woods’, ‘Ferris wheel, January’ — and the listener is left to search out the rest. I’ve picked At the Dam as I find it the clearest, simplest expression of her central musical idea, but Lattimore has produced a whole body of wonderful work this decade, much of it in collaboration with other artists, and it’s all well worth exploring.

Taster track: Otis Walks into the Woods

45. Colleen – The Weighing of the Heart

Anchored in Cécile Schott’s expressive playing of the viola da gamba, an instrument which looks like a cross between a cello and a guitar, this is an album which is full of surprises and curveballs. Like Lattimore, Schott uses loop pedals and electronics to augment her playing; like Lattimore, these effects are never used out of laziness, but only to develop the compositions further. Bells, clarinets, a wonderful barrage of organ (at the climax of ‘Moonlit Sky’) and various other instruments, as well as a few simple sung vocals here and there, are all used to similar effect: to add moments of wonder and delight. Though intricate it is never fussy, and though complex it is never difficult: it is a record of simple pleasures. Fitting, then, that the highlight for me is the simplest track of all, the solo viola de gamba performance ‘Geometría del Universo’, which thrills through nothing more than its lively, virtuoso playing.

Taster track: Geometría del Universo

44. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.

In just a few short years, Big Thief have become one of the most exciting bands in America. On last year’s U.F.O.F, their finest album yet, they combined raw emotion, felt like a cut to the body, with spectral dreaminess, little magical touches that flicker around the edges of the music. The result is utterly beguiling. Like all their music, it is built on a few key ingredients: the naked vulnerability of Adrienne Lenker’s voice; her sometimes uncomfortably precise and wounding lyrics; and the subtle, imaginative playing of her three band members. What really makes the band special, though, is the clear bond the four musicians have with each other, both musically and personally. Listening to this, I picture four friends stood huddled in a river, facing inwards, the water up to their knees. Cattails sway by the riverbank. They spy a U.F.O. in the distance, an eerie orange light high up in the huge, open sky — but it isn’t scary, because they’re with each other, maintaining contact.

Taster track: U.F.O.F.

43. Jlin – Black Origami

Black Origami is a barrage of rhythms that never settle into a groove, but keep folding in on themselves. It sounds like a New Year’s Day Parade along an Escher’s staircase: military drums, steel drums, footwork drums, electronic drums, all come marching past and then reappear again upside-down, sideways, back-to-front, overlapping in new configurations. The party ends up in the steel mill critics can’t stop mentioning, where there’s an impromptu dance competition among the workers: bodies folding, twisting into impossible shapes, each trying to one-up and out-do the other. They’re bending sheet metal, spinning on poles. Shafts of sunlight enter through a crack in the grimy window, little bullets of silence. The marching band comes crashing in again through the doors of the emergency exit. The manager’s upstairs playing Resident Evil, and sometimes the sounds of the game come spilling out of his door.

Taster track: Nyakinyua Rise

42. Sun Araw – On Patrol

On Patrol is psychedelic dub music, so lo-fi it’s no-fi, the sound blown out and waterlogged. The trippy nature of this album is furthered for me by a weird glitch on my burnt CD copy: a scratch on the surface causes the last track ‘Holodeck Blues’ to judder near the end, stutter for a few seconds, then start playing an endless loop of mid-album highlight ‘Deep Cover’ until you press stop. I have never bothered burning another copy: that digital equivalent of a locked groove, that warping back to the middle, is now a unique part of the album as I know it. (It helps that ‘Deep Cover’ is one of the few songs I could listen to on repeat forever.) The album is a total, transportive experience: close my eyes, and I’m travelling through a cyberpunk swampland, smoke billowing from the back of a busted bayou boat. There are mutant alligators in the water staring up at me with their neon green eyes. We pass a burnt out car sinking into the mud. Its radio is still playing ‘Deep Cover’ on that loop.

Taster track: Deep Cover

41. Destroyer – Poison Season

The grittier, moodier middle cousin of Dan Bejar’s loose trilogy of records this decade, Poison Season takes the sophisti-pop of Kaputt and dusts it a up bit: it’s a bit more weather-beaten and weary in its tone, if not its sound. Both are masterly, near-perfect albums, but while Kaputt had the greater impact more widely, Poison Season just has the edge for me personally. (The third, ken, is great too.) In Bejar’s hands these swooning, sumptuous, sax-slick songs become surreal and transportive, a trip through an ersatz past.

Taster track: Times Square

40. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it from Here…

By far the best reunion record of the decade, We got it from Here… was that impossible thing: a comeback album from a legacy act that somehow not only didn’t disappoint, but that actually built on and furthered the legacy. This easily stands up with The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders as Quest’s top-tier work. It is as good as, if not better than, those early 90s classics. It does that by having it both ways: it is absolutely the classic Quest sound (‘Ego’ and ‘Whateva Will Be’, in particular, sound like long-lost cuts left off those earlier albums), but it is also absolutely contemporary, absolutely — both lyrically and musically — an album of 2016. ‘The Space Program’ and ‘We the People’ are the best one-two punch opener on a hip-hop album I can think of; closer ‘The Donald’ is genuinely moving. It’s a 90s and a 2010s classic, rolled up into one.

Taster track: We the People

39. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems

A subtle, supple techno album built around various combinations of deep, muffled bass, slightly off-beat rhythms, lots of soft and eerie reverb, and the texture and hiss of Stott’s piano teacher’s voice, which is heavily sampled throughout. The result is a highly interior sound world, full of atmosphere, like fog creeping through the mind, gradually enveloping it. Yet within this essentially monochrome landscape, Stott finds surprising variety — no two tracks sound the same. They’re also liable to do unexpected things midway, as on the title track, where what sounds like a higher fidelity song occasionally stumbles for a few seconds into the mix (see 2:06 for the first example). Stott has continued to tease out new possibilities from this sound world on subsequent albums Faith in Strangers and Too Many Voices, but this remains his high point so far.

Taster track: Luxury Problems

38. Caribou – Swim

If Luxury Problems is an example of dance music in monochrome, then Caribou’s fifth album Swim is its opposite: dance music in technicolour. The record has a unique energy to it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Everything is slightly oversaturated. It’s a damp, wet sound, but a bright and sunny one too: the results are full of rainbows, like light catching water spraying from a fire hose. It’s as if various strains of minimal electronic music, including house and techno, met sunny psychedelic pop and had a weird, mutated lovechild. I can’t think of anything else like it: it’s a total kaleidoscope of sound. (Side note: For a record that’s so sunny and outdoorsy, most of my memories of listening to this are weirdly in kitchens. The coiled energy of ‘Sun’ and ‘Bowls’ are surprisingly good for cooking to.)

Taster track: Bowls

37. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

One of the best debut albums I heard this decade, Moses is certainly one to watch for the 2020s: I’m very excited for the follow-up, græ, later this year. He has a gorgeous, crooning voice, which is set here in a hugely exciting variety of different contexts: an internet-enabled journey through rock, R&B, experimental electronics, pop, folk and field recordings. Despite those different influences, the album is full of space, each of its musical elements starkly highlighted against a surrounding bed of silence: like the floating body on its striking cover, its shape sharp against the white wall. The resulting sound is like Matisse’s cutouts, with Sumney’s voice the scissors gliding swan-like through the paper.

Taster track: Doomed

36. Amen Dunes – Freedom

This is tough like chewing on a piece of ginger, and it grooves like a rattling train. Populated with fallen surf heroes, glue addicts, Roman emperors, Melville characters, vampires and Napoli thugs, it is an exploration of self as refracted through others. Cut through this and it’s like taking a knife to carbon fibre: tightly wound threads encased in a soft-touch sheen. Perfect, masterful songwriting. Enough said.

Taster track: Believe

35. Mitski – Be the Cowboy

Across three albums, Mitski has developed a wholly unique songwriting voice, one marked as much by what she leaves out as what she leaves in. Often, on Be the Cowboy, she gives us what feels like one verse and one chorus, with the second half of the song apparently chopped off, or else skipped over to get to the coda. That sounds easy enough, but it isn’t: most songs with such a structure would simply sound like a song with two parts, free from the idea of verses and choruses altogether. How do you imbue a song with that sense of phantom limbs? I’m not sure, but Mitski continually does it, and the songs are all the more powerful because of it. The same is true of her lyrics, which often seem to simultaneously reveal too much and yet not give anything away. She’ll give us a feeling or an object or a character, evoked with such piercing detail that it feels confessional, and yet leave the other parts of the story implied, ghostlike. That mirroring of songwriting with lyric-writing, each simultaneously concealing and revealing, is what makes her so riveting.

Taster track: A Pearl

34. Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa

Utterly infectious, catchy melodies collide with complex, clattering Congolese rhythms and punk energy in this one-of-a-kind album. Hailing from the streets of Kinshasa, where much of the band still live and busk, Mbongwana Star are a ferociously talented seven-piece who smash together African and European ideas with abandon. You can smell and feel the busy, bustling city in this music. Yet, at the same time, there is also something wonderfully spacey about it, as suggested by the astronaut-like figure on cover: the first track (and original album title) is ‘From Kinshasa to the Moon’, which gives some idea of where the album is going to take you. This is music which is simultaneously hyper-local and interplanetary.

Taster track: Nganshe

33. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

Stereogum infamously dismissed this album as “just fucking puzzles”. Well, you know what? I like puzzles. If piecing together these cracked, fragmented songs is the sonic equivalent of doing a cryptic crossword, then sign me the hell up. In truth, the lyrics, while full of metaphor and wordplay, are often clear and powerful in their evocations of modern life; they are certainly less opaque than, say, Bon Iver, who Fleet Foxes were in their early days often grouped together with. The songs, meanwhile, are beautiful, intricate things: if they are puzzles, then they are those carefully crafted wooden ones, full of delicate moving parts. As usual, beautiful harmonies and top-notch musicianship are on display throughout. The production is also lush and inviting. It’s a real treasure of an album, I think.

Taster track: Third of May / Ōdaigahara

32. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Titanic Rising sounds like a classic 1970s Californian singer-songwriter album, but its concerns are thoroughly contemporary: climate change, online dating, the loneliness of 21st century life. There is so much care and love that has gone into this album, right down to its immediately iconic front cover, which was created by building a real bedroom set and then submerging it (along with Natalie Mering herself) in water. That care is reflected in the immaculate sequencing, mixing, and mastering of the album itself, not to mention the quality of the songs. Even from the first few singles it was clear Mering was onto something special here. Yet who could predict how grandly theatrical (or rather, as album highlight ‘Movies’ would suggest, cinematic) the whole thing would sound when put together? It feels to me like the soundtrack to a long-lost musical, and is so evocative that I can follow along with it, picturing the characters and scenes as it unfolds. It is a complete, front-to-back, fully absorbing experience.

Taster track: Movies

31. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

For me, the quintessential London jazz album of the 2010s. I remember buying UK jazz albums a decade ago, stuff like Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Roller Trio, Led Bib and the like. Some of that is really good music, but it always felt a little bit safe somehow, even when it was, on the surface, noisy or abrasive. The last decade, though, has seen UK jazz evolve into something vital. Now many of the same players (Seb Rochford from Polar Bear, for example, joins in on most of Your Queen…) are playing jazz like they invented it, like they have something urgent to communicate. Perhaps it is the chaos of the times. This is a fiery and political record, reminding me of 70s jazzmen like Art Blakey, Bubbha Thomas and Max Roach, how they made jazz into something urgent and political. Like all the best jazz, it is promiscuous, always with one foot in other genres, borrowing, imitating, thinking forward. At the same time, I’m struck by how it does so much with so little: it’s a very minimal album, just sax, drums and tuba. In contrast to the cosmic searching of Shabaka Hutchings’s other (also brilliant) band, The Comet is Coming, Sons of Kemet’s sound is stripped back, pared to the essentials, and defiantly earthbound.

Taster track: My Queen is Harriet Tubman

30. Jolie Holland – Wine Dark Sea

A hugely underrated talent, Holland really stretched out and shot for something very ambitious on her sixth album Wine Dark Sea. Mixing jazz, folk, blues, rock and country, the album is something like a celebration of different guitar textures. There are a lot of guitars on this thing. The liner notes in the album’s booklet describes them wonderfully, as it tries to indicate who plays which part: “ranting, weeping guitar”; “clonking, detuned rhinoceros guitar”; “solemnly witnessing guitar”; “rhythmy shimmery guitar”; “arsonist guitar (enters at solo)”; “space cows coming home to roost”; “Cy Twombly mandolin”, etc. The result is an album which is highly textural, in places almost abstract, but is at the same time anchored by a number of brilliant, quite traditional country and blues songs. An overlooked gem of an album.

Taster track: On and On

29. Grouper – A | A

Grouper’s songs are so muffled one can barely hear them. Using a simple palette of sounds, consisting mostly of piano, distorted electric guitar and voice, she constructs miniature worlds, then buries those worlds under layers and layers of dust and static. The effect is haunted, and haunting. There’s nothing quite like it — it captures a particular emotion so evocatively that when I feel that emotion, there’s only Grouper to turn to. The closest I could get to describing it is that it sounds like the peace one feels walking in a graveyard, or along a bleak beach on a wintry day. There is sadness in it, yes, but it isn’t depressing, nor is it especially pensive or melancholy: it is just a warm sadness without the wish to dissipate it. She has many wonderful albums, which are remarkably different from each other considering her relatively niche aesthetic, but A | A, which consists of two parts, Dream Loss and Alien Observer, is her masterpiece.

Taster track: Vapor Trails

28. Mountain Man – Made the Harbor

When one thinks of music that foregrounds the voice, one tends to think of big, powerful, individual voices: the powerhouses of soul, perhaps, or folk singers with unique cadences. (I’ll leave you to fill in your own examples.) But I can think of no record that captures the pure physical pleasure of singing — the feeling of breath going in and out of the diaphragm, of hearing your voice move from inside to outside — more than this one. Mountain Man are three women, singing folk songs, some originals and some covers, some sung in harmony and some in the round, sometimes with a little acoustic guitar for backup, often simply a cappella. That’s all there is to it, pretty much, but the effect is spellbinding. Just really magical. The songs are all wonderful, too — I carry them with me, and have sung them in all sorts of places. (I have a particular memory of wandering in a coffee plantation in Vietnam and singing ‘Mouthwings’.)

Taster track: Mouthwings

27. Julian Lynch – Mare

Like putting on a really comfy pair of old slippers, or drinking a cold beer on a hot day, there is something immediately comforting about Mare. Yet there are musical ideas here that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anywhere else — really unique approaches to composition and texture. You’re just not going to find anyone shouting from the rooftops about it. It’s not that sort of album. It’s comfy, and warm, and all too easy to take for granted. I love it. It’s my fuzzy jumper album, my slice of apple pie album, my never-fails-me pick-me-up album. It’s an album that reminds me how small things can make a difference.

Taster track: In New Jersey

26. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

The Caretaker’s music is an investigation into themes of memory and forgetting. Stitched together from samples of old, poor-condition 78s, mostly pre-WWII ballroom jazz records, the work recalls William Basinski’s use of decaying recordings to evoke particular emotions (most famously in The Disintegration Loops, which I wrote a long essay about here). Here the particular emotions come from the nostalgia of the old ballroom tunes in combination with the loss and degradation implied by the vinyl noise and static. The idea is a relatively simple one, but the effect is complex and profound. As the album advances, the samples become more fragmented and distorted, dropping out sometimes from one of the stereo channels; one feels the past literally slipping away. Memories becomes confused: ‘Mental Caverns Without Sunshine’ plays again, a few tracks after it has already played.

The Caretaker’s more recent work has been linked more explicitly to Alzheimer’s disease, and has been made on a much larger canvas — his most recent project, Everywhere at the End of Time, unfolds over six-and-a-half hours, with the last few hours reaching new levels of disintegration, degradation and, eventually, total loss. That project is remarkable, and admirably ambitious, but Empty Bliss remains the more powerful experience for me because of its concision: one can sense the whole of a life lived and lost in under an hour. It is also more open to interpretation: it could be someone remembering, or someone forgetting; it could be a lost world, or a world that never existed to begin with; it could be the Titanic sinking as the band plays on.

Taster track: Mental Caverns Without Sunshine

25. Atlas Sound – Parallax

Shortly before the release of Parallax, Bradford Cox released, for free on the internet, four volumes of demos and home-recorded sketches called Bedroom Databank, Vols. 1-4. In that collection was an early version of ‘Mona Lisa’, which sounded to me like someone singing alone in their bedroom into a hairbrush, imagining themselves on a stage surrounded by people, longing to be a star.

On the cover of Parallax, Cox is that star, chiaroscuro-lit, clutching a vintage microphone. And on the version of ‘Mona Lisa’ which sits at the centre of this album, he sounds like the inverse of the singer in the demo: someone up on stage, singing to hundreds, but longing in their mind to be back in their bedroom, back on their own. That clever effect comes from Cox’s talent as a singer, which is often overlooked. But it is also emblematic of the particular mood of this album, which is all about loneliness. It contains several haunting moments: I particularly admire how much work the word ‘probably’ does in the title track’s chorus: “your pain is probably equal”. It is as cutting and exact a line as any I’ve heard sung. Then there is the howl of pain on the closing ‘Lightworks’, where Cox sings “everywhere I look there is a light and it will guide me”: you desperately want to believe him, but hear, in his voice, that it probably isn’t true. All of this is in addition to the album’s main draw, which is, as always, Cox’s brilliant, sticky, intuitive way with melody: as Bedroom Databank shows, songs seem to just pour out of the man. Whether on his own or with his band Deerhunter, he is one of our best living songwriters.

Taster track: Mona Lisa (Bonus: Mona Lisa (Demo))

24. Four Tet – There is Love In You

While the whole thing is Four Tet at his finest, it is the first twelve minutes of this album that really shine: one of the best one-two album opening punches I’ve ever heard. We begin with ‘Angel Echoes’, four minutes of circling drums and synth washes coming into view over the horizon. Glockenspiel arrives. The ghost of the album title is formed in the way the almost wordless female vocals are cut together. More elements arrive: it becomes difficult to keep track. It is like new love fluttering into being inside your ribcage. Everything comes closer and closer, and then collapses.

Enter ‘Love Cry’: 9 minutes, 14 seconds of total, unadulterated musical pleasure, every microsecond of it controlled to deliver as much of a hit as possible. We begin in the rubble of the previous track, with what sounds like photocopier noises, which then coalesce into a faint rhythm. Wisps and whirrs of other sounds flicker around the edges. Then, at 1:05, a double drum hit: like someone falling through a door. (It reminds me a little of the famous kicking-down-the-door drum hit that opens Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, only it feels more like a tumble.) A shuffling drum rhythm starts up, shifts around, sometimes building up as though about to take off, sometimes muffling down to just a kick drum. Finally, a voice arrives: ‘love cry… love cry… love cry…’ Those two words, repeated over and over, contain more than many whole songs. That is life, no? Sometimes you love, sometimes you cry. There is joy, there is pain. The way the two are stitched together, the word ‘cry’ always feels like it is surprising the word ‘love’ — even on the hundredth repetition it feels unexpected. We are never ready for pain.

Taster track: Love Cry

23. Panda Bear – Tomboy

Brian Wilson described the Beach Boys’ Smile, the never-finished follow-up to Pet Sounds, as a “teenage symphony to God”. In 2011, The Smile Sessions was released, assembling the recordings from the abandoned sessions to resemble the album Brian had intended to make, producing the closest thing to a finished Smile we’ll ever get. (Side note: it is astonishing. I decided it didn’t really ‘count’ as an album ‘of the decade’, recorded as it was back in the 60s, but if you do want to count it then please move it up to number one on this list. Or maybe number two. But no lower.)

What does all this have to do with Panda Bear? Well, in the same year as those sessions, Tomboy was released, and to me, it feels like this century’s answer to Smile: it, too, is a teenage symphony to God — or at least, to some higher power. Panda Bear’s work is often compared to The Beach Boys because of his harmonies, but what really makes the comparison stick is his collision of effortlessly cool, laid back style and yearning spirituality: there’s even a song called ‘Surfer’s Hymn’ on here. The music is built around simple maxims, repeated until they become mantras. The effect feels both minimalist and cavernous at the same time, drenched as everything is in reverb, as though recorded in a huge, echoey church. When everything comes together — as on the bridge of ‘Last Night at the Jetty’, the coda on ‘Alsatian Darn’, and the final sung harmonies on ‘Benfica’ — the effect is transcendent.

Taster track: Alsatian Darn

22. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

Cosmogramma resists taxonomy. Here are some of the genres listed at various points on the album’s Wikipedia page: electronica, IDM, psychedelic hip hop, ambient, chip tune, digital glitch, dubstep, drum and base, free jazz, nu jazz, house, P-funk, soul, techno, Afrofuturist, maximalist, and that great catch-all ‘experimental’. Sure, you can hear some of those influences in here, but really what the collective author of the page is trying to say is: we have no idea what this sounds like. If you tried to map this album you might end up with something like its artwork: overlapping circles, symbols and lines, gestural and spectral, suggesting a map of the stars or instructions for a cult ritual. Structurally, it feels as though it is always in the process of inverting itself: the first track begins in media res, while the ‘Intro’ comes in at track four. This is the great unfolding ‘cosmic drama’ (the phrase the album’s title is a mangled mishearing of — uttered by Ellison’s great-aunt Alice Coltrane, who more than anyone is this album’s guiding spirit) as mapped by one intrepid adventurer through it.

Taster track: Drips//Auntie’s Harp

21. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

Hecker’s music is often described as ambient, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. For this is music that keeps your attention rapturously held. Noise or drone might be more appropriate terms, although they suggest a formlessness, a lack of melody and beauty, which again gives the wrong impression. Whatever genre it is, Hecker is certainly the master of it, and has released a number of essential albums this decade, of which Ravedeath to me is still the best. Beginning with compositions played on a pipe organ in a Reykjavík church, Hecker then augmented these with guitar and piano, before partially destroying the results through digital processing. The results are extraordinary, beautiful, and immediately visceral, like photographs being dissolved in a bath of acid. It is heavy yet light, crushing and uplifting at once. It has no real sense of structure or development: it just is, an experience more like touching a material than listening to music. Like that piano being pushed off the roof on the cover, it is a single moment held in time, something forever on the cusp of dropping.

Taster track: The Piano Drop

20. Cass McCombs – Wit’s End

One of my favourite living songwriters, I sing McCombs’s songs to myself all the time, not only because I love the stories they tell and the images they conjure, but because I love his way with melody, how it feels in the mouth, in the throat. There is no one I enjoy singing along to more. And what a bounty of songs he has given us over the last ten years, releasing six (!) great albums, ranging from the freewheeling, genre-agnostic double-disc Big Wheel and Others, to the sumptuous, laid-back Mangy Love, to the rarities collection A Folk Set Apart. He is very much an artist of the song rather than of the album — each collection is really just the latest batch of goodies. Front-to-back, though, my favourite grab-bag remains 2011’s solemn, minimal, slow-tempo set Wit’s End, a winding road-trip of an album that journeys through different forms of longing and yearning. It takes in some of his best characters: a cave-dwelling hermit, a lonely doll, a singing corpse, a minstrel and his muse. Best of all is opener ‘County Line’, on which the narrator, driving back to his childhood home, wonders about how things have changed, and how his old county will receive him when he arrives.

Taster track: County Line

19. Bjork – Vulnicura

A brutal, eviscerating excavation of heartbreak and all that it entails — the entrails it leaves strewn across the floor of two people’s lives. A lot of breakup albums fall into one of two traps. They are either too melodramatic, a trap Bjork skirts close to (it is Bjork after all…) but ultimately avoids by focusing on the ordinary, pedestrian details of two entangled lives (‘History of Touches’) and the complex, nuanced emotions that result from that entanglement (‘Lionsong’). Or they are too quick to make light of the breakup, too eager to move on and find solace in self-empowerment. Bjork finds that solace at the end of this album, but only after recognising how drastically everything has changed (‘Black Lake’, ‘Family’). For a breakup is literally that — a breaking up, a shattering — and the self is therefore irreparably damaged or altered in the process. To risk that damage is what makes a relationship real — it has stakes. Vulnicura, in its soul-baring vocal performance, its diamond-sharp lyrics, and its startling blend of string arrangements and cutting-edge electronic production, is an album that conveys the full reality of those stakes.

Taster track: Stonemilker

18. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan is a polite, well-respected indie darling who behaves like an undiscovered outsider artist. He does whatever the fuck he wants. Over the last decade he has scored a dance performance based on the Ten Commandments, written an avant-garde string-led paean to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, released his second five-disc-long Christmas album (plus an accompanying ‘chopped and screwed’ hip-hop Christmas mixtape), made an hour-long ‘homage to the apocalypse’ which was for some reason marketed as an EP, and collaborated with members of The National on a suite of music based around the planets. Along with Carrie & Lowell, his only other official studio album this decade was The Age of Adz, a baffling, melodramatic, occasionally brilliant piece combining goofy electronics with grandiose string arrangements and lyrics about Jesus, robots and volcanoes, which culminated in a 25-minute long song.

By contrast, Carrie & Lowell seems almost boring. It’s about as standard as you can get: 45 minutes, eleven songs, played mostly on acoustic guitar, with a few backing vocals here and there, and some occasional, subtle piano or synth. But it is, in fact, the most original, and best, record he’s ever made. I love maximalist Sufjan, but it turns out minimalist Sufjan is even more powerful. He focuses on making every small moment count: the tiny pause, for example, after he sings “I want to save you from your sorrow” on ‘The Only Thing’. That is maybe my favourite tiny moment of music from the whole decade.

Taster track: The Only Thing

17. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Outside the White House black men are gathered, celebrating, bringing the funk, realising the long-ago dream of Parliament: the chocolate city with vanilla suburbs. (They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, sang George Clinton forty years before he’d open ‘Wesley’s Theory’). Yet all is not well. Drugs, poverty, racism, they’re still continuing. Obama may still be in office, for now, but the hope of 2009 is very much in the rear view mirror; no one knows yet what is to come in 2016. The problems don’t vanish at the happily-ever-after; Kendrick might have reached the success he’d been striving for, but his anxiety, confusion, pain, doubt, frustration, they’re still there. They don’t just up and disappear. Life goes on.

Taster track: For Free?

16. Elza Soares – A Mulher do Fim do Mundo

There’s a story to be told, when assessing the music of this decade, about late left turns by established greats. I’m thinking of David Bowie’s burning out all-guns-blazing on Blackstar; the continued late-career blooming of Mavis Staples on albums like We Get By and If All I Was Was Black; Leonard Cohen’s final smoke-charred albums. There is something particular about this ‘late’ work: something about age setting the artist free to tear up the rulebook and do what they want.

But I have never heard the freedom of lateness expressed more vitally than in the three incredible albums released in the second half of this decade by samba legend Elza Soares, of which the first — A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, or ‘The Woman at the End of the World’ — remains the most powerful (perhaps simply by nature of being the first). This is an album that heaves, sputters and gurgles with life. Soares’s aged, guttural voice is full of gusto, and it growls its way through a suitably chaotic, explosive instrumental backdrop that takes in punk, ska, noise rock, jazz, and a dirtied-up take on the samba through which she made her name. It is a concoction unlike anything I’ve ever heard. You’ve got to hear it.

Taster track: A Mulher do Fim do Mundo

15. Deerhunter – Monomania

Mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania… mono mono mania…

Taster track: Monomania

14. D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah

Slipping in at the tail end of 2014, and so avoiding a lot of year-end lists, Black Messiah feels like an album both of its time and out of time. Out of time in that it isn’t particularly contemporary in its sound: it’s full of 70s funk sounds, and its warm, grainy production is decidedly analogue, giving it a feeling of timelessness. Indeed, the album took a long time to make, and is clearly the product of great care, passion, and obsessive attention to detail; drummer and producer Questlove describes D’Angelo building his own patches from scratch to get just the right sounds. But it is also decidedly of its time in its themes and lyrics, particularly in its focus on the repeated killings of unarmed black men by American police forces. That it remains so funky, hopeful, and full of light and space musically only makes that darkness, when D’Angelo does touch on it, hit all the more powerfully.

Taster track: 1000 Deaths

13. Laurel Halo – Chance of Rain

A rainy street in Berlin. Or imagined rain. Staring at my weather app, I’m inhabiting a future where it’s raining and it’s not raining at the same time. I’m in the roll of the die. In limbo.

Taster track: Oneiroi

12. Goat – Requiem

Records aren’t your friends. They make poor friend substitutes; I know this from experience. I think one of the problems I have with Spotify is that it seems to think we should ‘like’ music in the same way we ‘like’ other people. But that’s not what experiencing music is like: I don’t go to hang out with it. It’s like conflating a list of your Favourite Actors with a list of Actors You’d Most Like to Have a Beer With. They’re totally different lists.

But if this was a list of Records I’d Most Like to Hang Out With If They Were People, then Requiem would be at the top. Requiem would be my best bud. I’d hang out with Requiem every day. I’d give the best man’s speech at Requiem’s wedding and I’d talk about how I first met Requiem dancing in a muddy field at End of the Road, and how we’ve been inseparable ever since. Then I’d get drunk and kiss Requiem and piss off Requiem’s new bride and persuade Requiem to run off with me instead. Because I fucking love Requiem. It’s warm and lush and inviting, infectiously rhythmic, full of psychedelic flourishes, Afrobeat grooves, snarling riffs and jazzy flute trills. It’s the lighter, sprightlier sister to its two (also excellent) older, harder-hitting siblings; it likes lounging around sometimes, but it still kicks just as much ass when it wants to. It is the most fun I have had listening to music all decade.

Taster track: Trouble in the Streets

11. Anna Meredith – Varmints

Anna Meredith’s music is full of energy. She takes classical compositions and shiny electronic pop songs and smashes them together like a kid with a couple of dustbin lids. There is an intoxicating and childlike joy in this music, in which the pure pleasure of making sounds is palpable. This isn’t just a kid banging a saucepan though. The danger, perhaps, of the fizzing, bubbling energy is that it distracts from just how much technical skill there is underpinning Meredith’s compositions. This comes across most clearly in her live show: I have seen her twice, and each time I was blown away by the sheer talent of Meredith and her band. The use of unexpected and overlapping time signatures, as well as sudden compositional shifts, makes the music sound as though it is often on the verge of falling apart — yet the band always somehow know exactly where they are and what they have to do next. Varmints shows how complicated and technical musical ideas can produce results that are nonetheless thrilling and fun to listen to, that hit you right in the heart.

Taster track: Nautilus

10. Low – Double Negative

A flickering electric light outside a closed department store. An empty car park. Huge swathes of darkness. The air is cold, and you can feel it as you breathe it in, filling your head, you can smell it. Somehow, even though it’s shrouded in darkness, the world feels more real then. The faint outline of a holly bush, a trickle of water running off the pavement into the drain. You can almost feel your blood beating in your brain, the faint pulse keeping you alive. For now. For the moment.

Taster track: Quorum

9. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

In his brilliant work The Four-Dimensional Human, Laurence Scott writes: “Did we imagine, during the first whisperings about this exotic thing called the internet, which in the mid-1990s began to possess certain chosen desktops in the school’s computer lab, that it would ultimately create an analogue to life, a collapsed replica of the world that we inflate with each journey inside and which contains many of the same concerns and dangers?” This conflation of reality and virtuality seems to me to be the great subject of the music Daniel Lopatin makes as Oneohtrix Point Never. The way he, on the appropriately-named Replica, takes his junk-shop source materials — sounds from commercials, low-budget documentaries, the various detritus of the everyday — and breathes not new but renewed life into them by bringing them into an incorporeal, shimmering, and essentially playful digital space captures better than anything else what modern life among the internet feels like: that strange extension of human life into the fourth dimension of the internet. But this is not the perfectly-curated feed of an Instagram influencer, where only the prettiest, best-framed details are chosen. No, this is the weird corners of the internet, the YouTube videos with views in the dozens, the Tumblrs filled half with dead links and half with strange, contextless moments divorced from earthly life. This is music that evokes what it is like to increasingly spend so many little fragments of our time — every snatched second, every toilet break, every kettle boiling — in an ever-expanding replica of our ‘normal’ 3D world.

Taster track: Sleep Dealer

8. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleurs libre

I can think of no other project from this decade more ambitious than Coin Coin, Matana Roberts’s planned twelve album series investigating themes of identity, memory, ancestry, slavery, race, and time. So far, Roberts has recorded and released the first four albums of the series, which range dramatically in style and tone: this first chapter was made with a sixteen member band, while chapter two was recorded as a sextet and chapter three is a solo work created using field recordings, loops and effects pedals. The project is interesting for a number of reasons, but one is the relation between its form and its content, between the nature of its composition and its themes. The music is rooted in improvisation, but is also partially composed using conceptual methods and graphical notation. This is a work planned out in advance: yet, assuming Roberts continues at a similar rate, it will be another 20 years before the project is completed, before some of the improvisations which were planned at the start of this decade actually come into being. That creates some fascinating overlaps with the music’s themes of memory, ancestry and time; and it will be interesting to see how the project continues to shift and change as the world around it shifts and changes too.

I knew little of that, though, when this album first blew my mind back in 2011. All of that is very interesting to think about, but it isn’t what hit me. What hit me was the extraordinary power and beauty of the music itself. What hit me was Matana working her way up from a stuttering newborn’s glottal mutterings to a full-throated scream across the first minute of ‘Pov Piti’. What hit me was the artistry with which so many styles of jazz, from screeching avant-garde to romping big-band, were woven into the same tapestry. What hit me was the burst of applause at the end, reminding me that what I’d just heard was recorded live in performance. It is simply the best, most vital jazz album I heard all decade.

Taster track: Kersaia

7. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

An album of extraordinary precision, each song pared to the bone, with singer Mike Hadreas not repeating a verse or even a line unless it needs repeating, not adding anything that doesn’t pull its weight. That is not to say Too Bright sounds minimalist: the gongs and siren blasts of synth on ‘My Body’, the buzzing fuzz-bass on ‘Grid’ (courtesy of Portishead’s Adrian Utley), the flurries of handclaps on ‘Longpig’, and the mixture of bright keyboards and swirling synth work on ‘Queen’ could hardly be described as such. But each element is present here for a reason, each sonic touch supporting the song, adding nuance and complexity to it. And what extraordinary songs they are: by turns tender, muscular, withering, withered, defiant, longing, battered, loving.

Taster track: Fool

6. Holly Herndon – Proto

My favourite album of last year by some margin, Holly Herndon’s remarkable Proto was made using an AI computer ‘baby’ called Spawn, which Herndon created herself in a “DIY souped-up gaming PC” and then ‘taught’ to sing using her voice. As she worked on the album, she fed parts of the developing music into this computer, who recomposed it and fed it back to her. The line between what Spawn contributes to the album and what Herndon herself has made is thus blurred: I have listened to this many times, and cannot hear any obvious places where the music shifts between woman and machine.

As with Roberts’s Coin Coin, though, this narrative around the album is simply one aspect of it, the part which is interesting to think about, and easiest to write about. What matters most is the result, and what the album is like to listen to. Well: it is glorious. It is not an easy listen, and it took me multiple attempts before it started to click: the sound, especially across the opening third of the record, is very dense and overwhelming. But then, listening to ‘Frontier’ one day, everything suddenly clicked into place. I heard how Herndon was combining ancient-sounding harmonies and choirs of human voices with alien electronics, not to contrast them — as artists like Bjork and Arca have done so powerfully — but to suggest continuities between them. The results are radical and truly futuristic: a vision of a possible world which is neither dystopian nor utopian, but is simply the next step in human evolution. Utterly, utterly remarkable music.

Taster track: Frontier

5. Julia Holter – Tragedy

For me, Julia Holter is the artist of the decade. No one else has more consistently produced such unique, exciting work in such volume across the last ten years. Since appearing more or less from nowhere in 2011, she has produced five stunning albums, each different from the last, each utterly essential listening. I could easily pick any of the five for this list: Aviary is her most ambitious and original album, while Have You in My Wilderness is her most fully realised, her most ‘perfect’ from front to back; Ekstasis has her best song (‘Marienbad’), while Loud City Song is the one that moves me the most personally. But when all is said and done, I think her debut, Tragedy, remains her best overall work.

I vividly remember first hearing it, back in 2011, and thinking: music can be like… like this? It was baffling. It didn’t seem to fit into any genre I could grasp. It sounded like high art, but also like bedroom pop recorded to a shitty cassette tape. It sounded ancient, but also modern and new. It was clearly intricately composed, with an ‘Introduction’, ‘Interlude’ and ‘Finale’, yet parts of it felt like they’d drifted together by accident: it kept stopping, little bubbles of silence on the tape. Every time I listen to a new Holter album I get this feeling: that truly anything might happen at any moment. That is a very hard feeling to conjure in a way that isn’t exhausting for the listener. That is, it’s easy enough to just throw a bunch of random sounds together and call it music. But to have those surprises be satisfying, and still surprising, on the second or third or tenth or twentieth listen — that takes real care and talent. Holter has both in spades.

Taster track: Finale

4. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

Black Up is a hall of mirrors. It’s a trip through outer space, and it’s a kid playing hopscotch in the dirt. It’s a laser beam coming out a flimsy cardboard ray gun. It’s an old scratched saucepan I’m washing up that looks like a U.F.O. for a moment. It’s a fortune teller’s caravan, and it’s a car trunk rattling with bass in the middle of the night. It’s a trumpet made of tin foil, a kids choir clapping hands in time to atoms whizzing round the Large Hadron Collider. It’s spacey and psychedelic, and it’s earthy, tough, and minimal. It’s snapping muscular grooves and drifting ambient fog. It’s my favourite hip hop album. No qualifiers.

Taster track: Swerve… (Bonus: Black Up Short Film)

3. Richard Dawson – Peasant

Richard Dawson’s music is nothing less than a force for good in the world. I find it encouraging and grounding in a way I do nothing else. I want to live like Dawson sings: honestly, emphatically, and empathetically, full of gusto and heart. There is, of course, a surface-level heartiness to his music, one that comes from his gruff, Newcastle accent, his earthy and prickly guitar tones and the gritty observational details of his songs. But that is not what I mean when I describe it as hearty. I mean that it seems rooted, that it seems to come literally from the heart. It comes from a place of real honesty, about himself and about the world, and from a place of real compassion, too: his songs are always about other people, filled with the minute details of their lives.

On Peasant, that compassion extends to the imagined lives of a group of townsfolk in fifth century Bryneich, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the area around the current Scottish-English border. This world is evoked in remarkable detail, but it is the emotional truth of it that makes the album so endlessly rewarding. We feel the communal panic as a chorus of village voices sing of “scouring a fortnight in the hills” for a lost boy, finding him finally “pointing from a sett, a small grey hand”; then the music shifts from public to private, to an anxiously noodling guitar and a lone voice, scared by the boy’s death, stuffing “straws into their windows” and covering their goats’ faces with “tansy rags” for protection. There are no shortcuts to making music like this: it simply requires excellent writing, the perfect marriage of a well-observed lyrical detail and the melody in which it’s couched, in combination with production choices — a blast of horn, a shiver of noise — that tease out every emotional nuance of that detail. And then another moment like that. And then another. Keep going and eventually you have a masterpiece.

Taster track: Ogre

2. Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté – Ali & Toumani

To give some idea of how much I love this album, let’s say this. For me and my partner’s wedding a few years ago, I made a playlist of music to play in the background. That playlist began with the entirety of this album. And then, later on, the track ‘Be Mankan’ again, a second time. There was just nothing else that set the mood — that got to the core of what we wanted that day to be about — so well. Like Dawson’s, this is music that somehow expresses how — no, teaches how — to live and be our best selves.

The second album of duets between guitarist Touré and kora player Diabaté, following their highly-lauded 2005 album In the Heart of the Moon, these are the last recordings Touré made before his death in 2006. As such, this does not really feel like an album ‘of this decade’ — though released at the very start of 2010, it was recorded four years earlier — and I was in two minds over whether to include it. Yet, in the end, I could not leave it off.

Taking various pieces from throughout Touré’s career and reworking them, the album has the feel of someone going back through their life and reliving each memory one last time while they still can. The album has an extraordinary sense of peace, one that I have only heard on albums made in the presence of encroaching death: if I may make a wild comparison, for a second, I hear a similar peace in moments of J Dilla’s masterpiece Donuts. But while that record has a profound sense of solitude to it, made by one man and a sampler on his literal death bed, Ali & Toumani has a contrasting spirit of togetherness and collaboration. My knowledge of Malian music is simply not good enough to hear all the complexity in this work (Touré, from the north of Mali, and Diabaté, from the south, are coming from very different backgrounds, and there is a fusion of different folk styles going on here), what does come through, even to my untrained ear, is a great sense of friendship overcoming difference, and the bringing together of different ideas and approaches (Touré’s questing spikiness and Diabaté’s cascading grace) to create something that could only be made through dialogue.

That is one reason this places so highly: that spirit of dialogue is something that feels so sorely missing in our world right now. But the other reason is this: it is just the most unbelievably, gorgeously, sumptuously, rapturously beautiful music.

Taster track: Be Mankan

1. Joanna Newsom – Divers

Divers is many things. It is the distillation of Joanna Newsom’s songwriting into its purest form, reining in the sprawling tendencies of her other masterpiece this decade, 2010’s Have One On Me, to create something shorter, subtler, and stranger. It is a book of poetry — complex, beautiful, and densely allusive poetry — hiding in a lyric booklet: note, for example, just how many different things she does with bird metaphors throughout. It is a masterpiece of arrangement, a huge variety of instruments giving tone, nuance and shape to Newsom’s compositions without ever overwhelming them. It is a document of virtuoso playing and singing: a voice that does not get enough credit for how malleable and expressive it has become over the course of four albums.

But above all, it is a truly beautiful and moving meditation on time. ‘Sapokanikan’ takes us deep into the past, burrowing through the layers of history under the busy surface of New York City. ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’ takes us far into an imagined future, telling the story of a time-travelling military unit from the perspective of a soldier’s wife. These are wildly inventive, imaginative songs, full of melodic and linguistic play. But the album is at its most powerful when it deals with time on a human scale: specifically, the intertwined experiences of time, death, and love. Across the intricately braided stories told throughout the record, Newsom reveals how death is necessary to give love stakes. In doing so, she reawakens my senses to the “nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life”, as she sings on the extraordinary closer, ‘Time, as a Symptom’. Every song on Divers is so fresh, so revelatory, that it is like being given eleven new colours to see with; eleven new shades or hues that one couldn’t see before in the world, but now one can. What more could one ask for from music?

Taster tracks: Time, as a Symptom, Sapokanikan, Anecdotes

Albums of the Year 2018

Perhaps because it got off to a slow start, with many of the best releases not arriving until the second half of the year, 2018 felt, as it unfolded, like a quiet year for music. When people asked me what I’d been listening to (a question I’m always very happy to be asked, but which somehow causes the immediate jettisoning of every recent album from my memory), there wasn’t always an obvious, standout answer. Yet, as I put together this list, gathering all of my favourite releases from the past year together, I was struck by just how many excellent albums there were to choose from. I actually think this has been a great year for music. And there is, as always, plenty I haven’t got round to listening to yet, including some new releases from TQR favourites like Anna Meredith, Elza Soares, Ian William Craig, Josephine Foster and The Spirit of the Beehive. All great artists who’ve made my top tens in the past, but whose new albums for whatever reason haven’t climbed to the top of my ‘to listen to’ list yet. (Blame the constant desire to search out something new.)

Such was the volume of great stuff to choose from, I thought I’d begin the post with a roundup of ‘runners up’ — sixteen records which didn’t make my top ten, but which I also enjoyed, and some of which I think are truly excellent. (Sixteen is an arbitrary number, but it makes a pretty 4×4 grid.) After that, I’ll talk about my ten favourites in a bit more detail.

So, here we go…

The Runners Up

One of the best live music experiences I had this year was seeing Yo La Tengo play ‘You Are Here’ from their wonderful new album There’s a Riot Going On, on a cool late summer evening at End of the Road Festival. Their new album is peaceful and warm, stuffed with ideas yet never showy. No other band has so much talent and yet wears it so lightly. Fifteen albums deep and they’re still going ridiculously strong.

In a great year for jazz-related releases (see also numbers 6, 4 and 3 below), Kamasi Washington’s epic, searching Heaven and Earth naturally stood out, as did Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids’ cosmic, genre-hopping An Angel Fell, the title track of which was one of my favourite tracks of the yearThere were jazzy undertones, too, to parts of Eiko Ishibashi’s The Dream My Bones Dream, a smoky and layered collection of avant-pop songs produced by Jim O’Rourke.

There was a ton of great experimental-electronic stuff popping up all over the place this year, from Gazelle Twin to Eartheater to Lotic to Elysia Crampton. All provided engrossing listens, but the two stuck out most (in addition to numbers 10, 8 and 5 below) were Tim Hecker’s surprisingly minimal and unsettling Konoyo, built around manipulations of the sounds of a Japanese gagaku ensemble, and the experimental gospel album soil from Josiah Wise’s project serpentwithfeet, an utterly unique sound built around repetitive mantras and cutting-edge, Arca-like production.

I was really excited when Mountain Man announced their new album Magic Ship — their first, Made the Harbor from 2010, is a personal favourite. Their mostly a cappella music is full of the private joy of singing — it sounds like a rehearsal in a back room, three women taking simple pleasure in harmonising with each other. A great example of how music can be quiet, simple, small, and still really powerful.

There were plenty of great sunny weather records this year, and a long summer to go with them. Mélissa Laveaux’s Radyo Siwèl is full of life, drawing from Laveaux’s Haitian heritage to reimagine Creole folk songs as sprightly, spiky, electric anthems. (This really nearly made my top ten; it’s ace.) Kadhja Bonet stewed up some psychedelic soul on Childqueen, the perfect laid back album for a late summer evening; ditto Khruangbin’s wide-ranging Con Todo El Mundo, which travels all over the musical globe while remaining remarkably chilled out.

One of my favourite obscure bandcamp finds this year was Cult Party, whose album And Then There Was This Sound is the best thing you definitely haven’t heard this year. Homespun folk stretched out into weird and wonderful shapes, especially on the twenty minute long opening track ‘Hurricane Girl’. Similarly elastic was Sandro Perri’s In Another Life, a kind of ambient-lounge-pop record where songs sprawl and unwind (the title track is nearly twenty-five minutes long) without losing interest.

Ryley Walker kept busy this year, putting out the downbeat, subtle Deafman Glance, in addition to the more unexpected move of covering Dave Matthews Band’s The Lilywhite Sessions in its entirety. Mary Lattimore also had another busy year; in addition to the dreamy, unfussily detailed harp-and-electronics excursions on Hundreds of Days, she also put out a great collaboration with Meg Baird from Espers, Ghost Forests.

Finally there were some great indie rock releases this year to keep the eternal indie-loving kid inside me happy. Beach House continued to find new shades of their dream pop sound with 7, while Mitski put out a great record with Be the Cowboy, which has been dominating a lot of the critics’ end-of-year lists, and about which I can only add that yes, I agree, it’s great.

So, those are the runners up. A lot of incredibly good stuff, and enough on their own to declare 2018 a decent year for music. And yet, there are ten more still to come. The following ten albums were all challenging, rewarding and moving in totally different, unique ways. I highly recommend them all. Let the countdown begin…

The Top Ten

10. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love

yves

This is one of the darkest, most anxious records I’ve ever heard. It would be difficult to describe it as a pleasurable listen, but it is certainly an affecting one. “Safe in the hands of love, that’s where I feel the pressure”, Tumor sings on the unexpectedly catchy lead single ‘Noid’. That lyric seems to capture the whole sound-world of the album — the sound of danger invading safety, of a previously safe space collapsing in on itself. The anxiety gathers itself up over the first six tracks, from the distant horn fanfare of ‘Faith in Nothing Except Salvation’ to the more explicit cries and worries of the three vocal-led, poppier tracks in the centre. The rest of the album that follows seems to disintegrate, giving over to layers of almost unlistenable noise, and yet the track titles (‘Hope in Suffering’, ‘Let the Lioness in you Flow Freely’) suggest a kind of overcoming. It’s like a storm stripping a building of all its contents and concrete, leaving just the metal frame, bent and reimagined into new shapes.

9. Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss

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This is a subtle, nuanced record, the bones of which are just guitar and voice. Yet despite those simple ingredients, it sounds just as genuinely new and exciting as anything else on this list. Lenker’s unique voice — both literally and figuratively — imbues her record with such exquisite emotion, it almost makes other records sound dishonest by comparison. Her guitar playing is also quietly astonishing, full of detail. I love her band Big Thief (their brilliant album from last year, Masterpiece, has grown on me a lot) but I’m tempted to say Lenker’s solo stuff is even better — it really highlights her unique approach to melody and texture. There are very subtle backgrounds to these songs, bedrocks of piano or synth, which are so far back in the mix they become almost like atmosphere, like the ambient noises of imagined rooms. And indeed this is an involvingly atmospheric record, an immersive headspace best experienced on a quiet evening, in low light, in rapt attention.

8. Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of

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In comparison to some of his previous work, Age Of feels fairly slept on, which is a shame, as I think it’s among the best things Daniel Lopatin has ever made. It covers a huge amount of musical ground: most obvious are the addition of new age sonics to the sound palette, audible on pieces like ‘RayCats’ and the title track, and the introduction of upfront (albeit heavily processed) vocals on tracks like ‘Black Snow’, ‘Babylon’ and album highlight ‘The Station’. Yet the album also brings back elements from each of his previous experiments: the plunderphonics of Replica, the digital glitch-fest of R Plus Seven, the teenage angst of Garden of Delete, from which ‘Warning’ feels directly lifted. In its breadth, Age Of feels like the culmination of Lopatin’s war against what he calls ‘timbral fascism’, the idea that certain sounds are inherently more musical than others. For despite its occasional difficulties and sharp edges, it is really a very musical album, full of gorgeous melody and harmony, and deeply evocative sound-worlds. No one else makes music like this, and we shouldn’t start taking it for granted just because this is something of an OPN highlights reel, rather than a brand new direction.

7. Amen Dunes – Freedom

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Amen Dunes’s songs are like tightly coiled springs of indie rock brilliance, simmering with under-the-surface energy. They’re all cool on the surface and bubbling underneath. In many of these songs, tension seems to build and release simultaneously — I wish I had a better technical knowledge of music to understand how he creates this effect, but I find it incredibly addictive. Album highlight ‘Believe’ — by some considerable margin my favourite song of the year — builds and builds, piling on great idea after great idea, without ever quite boiling over. I don’t know how he does it. There are just so many fantastic scraps of melody stuffed into one tiny song without it feeling overworked. Elsewhere, ‘Blue Rose’ shakes with gritty confidence, ‘Calling Paul the Suffering’ skips around and bops, and ‘Skipping School’ and ‘L.A’. are the sound of an open road captured on tape.  The lyrics explore masculinity, the complexity of ‘bad boy’ figures (‘Satudarah’ and ‘Miki Dora’), and, above all, the many meanings of the word freedom. A great follow-up to the also excellent Love from 2014. He’s great live, too.

6. Park Jiha – Communion

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Like Yo La Tengo’s record, Park Jiha’s Communion offered peace and humanity whenever I needed it this year. It was an album to return to when I needed a glimmer of light. Sitting somewhere in a nexus between jazz, classical minimalism, and traditional Korean music, this is maybe the most straight-up beautiful music I have heard all year. Tracks like ‘Sounds Heard from the Moon’ and ‘Accumulation of Time’ are shimmering, Reich-like sheets of yanggeum, a hammered dulcimer. Better still are the pieces using piri (a double reed bamboo flute) and saenghwang (a mouth organ), which imbue the music with breath and life. The intense, gorgeous title track is a highlight, as is the serene ‘Longing of the Yawning Divide’. The last two pieces then bring the reeds and dulcimer together, climbing cosmically towards the record’s climax. Magnificent stuff.

5. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

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Some records — like my favourite album of last year, Richard Dawson’s Peasant — take us back into the distant past. SOPHIE’s album instead takes us to a distant, imagined future, to a ‘Whole New World/Pretend World‘, a world where materials have become completely plastic, where anything is able to transform into anything else, or to stop mid-transformation and remain in a kind of molten, ambiguous physicality. SOPHIE uses sound itself to create this world, melting genres together, splicing together different sounds on an almost molecular level. She imbues her music with such incredible physicality (seriously, I don’t understand what she’s doing to the sound to make it sound so physical) and yet her productions have no tangible relation to any specific source in empirical reality: they seem to exist in an entirely digital sphere. The album is also incredibly well sequenced: a true journey across different soundscapes, sometimes evolving gradually and sometimes turning with whiplash speed from one style to another. It is thrilling. I have never heard anything like it.

4. Lonnie Holley – MITH

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This is a hugely ambitious record from Holley, an outsider artist who makes junk sculptures from recycled found objects. (Such art is a personal obsession of mine, ever since I first accidentally stumbled across Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens in Philadelphia). The approach to sound on MITH is in some ways similar to junk sculpture: rooted in spiritual jazz, the album is yet another (albeit wildly different) example of the melting and melding of different styles. Its sound is exploratory, occasionally psychedelic, and always searching. It is also a very political record, a state-of-the-nation document of America in 2018, as most powerfully felt on its grandest, hungriest tracks: the growling ‘I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America’ and the incredible, eighteen-minute centrepiece ‘I Snuck Off the Slave Ship’. But I find it just as captivating, and just as emotionally affecting, in its quieter moments, too, like the trippy ‘How Far is Spaced Out?’ and the demented lounge of ‘There Was Always Water’. This is powerful, remarkable music.

3. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

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Your Queen is a Reptile is an exploration of rhythm, and of the possibility that rhythms can carry ideas. Like Holley’s, this is a very political album, this time dealing with the currently chaotic state of the UK. It feels like the first truly post-Brexit album (a description which might put you off, but shouldn’t). Yet despite some vocals on the first and last tracks, and the nods in the track titles to women of colour (‘My Queen is Ada Eastman’, ‘My Queen is Harriet Tubman’, ‘My Queen is Angela Davis’ etc.), the majority of Sons of Kemet’s ‘message’ is carried in the rhythm. This is passionate music, filled with both anger and defiant hope, made by people searching for a place to belong in a country that seems to have voted them out. The two drummers (Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick) layer rhythms from jazz, funk, punk, dub, reggae, and various African musics into a storm of percussion, which the horns are able to leap off of and build on; indeed, Theon Cross’s infectious tuba playing is a big part of the album’s rhythmic appeal too. The tenor saxophone of Shabaka Hutchins — one of the central figures in the UK jazz scene, who’s played with The Comet is Coming (who are also ace if you’ve never checked them out) and Shabaka and the Ancestors, and who put together the compilation We Out Here — provides the music with its wings. Most impressive is the fact this album just does not let up — it just gets better and better as it progresses, building to almost an hour of infectious, insatiable music.

2. Low – Double Negative

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Having been a huge fan of Low for over ten years now (which still makes me a relatively young fan of the band; they’ve been around for nearly twenty-five), it has been exciting and strange to see them suddenly getting so much attention for their new album. Partially this attention is because it’s excellent. But it’s also partially, I think, because the album has a slightly easy narrative around it: long-running, well-respected band responds to Trump’s America by destroying their old sound with electronics, tearing it apart, descending into fragments and distortion in order to reflect the chaos of the current climate. The reviews practically write themselves. So it’s an easy album for critics to love; perhaps almost a bit too easy. And that is my one reservation about it: that, in fact, Low have always been an interesting, experimental band, who have always rebuilt their sound up from the ground each time; that underrated albums like 2013’s The Invisible Way, which made use of piano in a way Low had never previously explored, or 2007’s Drums and Guns, which also had some really unusual production choices, were just as interesting and just as worthwhile as Double Negative, even if they weren’t as easy for critics to write about.

So there’s my caveat. Now for the more important bit: Double Negative is ridiculously good. Just ear-meltingly brilliant. A complete, immersive sonic experience. I cannot get over how good it is. The production is astonishing, the layers of distortion and noise conveying so much emotion — I don’t think I’d ever realised there were so many different kinds of distortion before. More importantly, the songs are incredibly strong throughout, emerging out of the noise in continually unexpected ways, and packed with Low’s always brilliant melodies and signature two-part harmonies. I couldn’t possibly pick a highlight: the whole thing needs to be heard front to back. This thing sounds cavernous in places, yet it never loses a sense of intimacy. There are tiny touches — like the rasping-for-breath synth that comes in about 1:12 into ‘Dancing and Blood’ — that catch me by surprise every time. A totally unique album that I’ll be returning to for years to come. 

1. Julia Holter – Aviary

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With Aviary, Holter has crafted a huge sonic world to explore. It really does feel less like you’re listening to an album, and more like you’re wandering around in a vast landscape, full of gnarled trees, strange birds squawking, medieval monks chanting, massive clouds moving over the tops of mountains. Holter has talked about how the record doesn’t necessarily need to be listened to all the way through (though I’d add that it is very well sequenced if you choose to listen to it that way); rather, the listener can find their own path through it. What’s most impressive, though, is that she has created this wholly immersive experience not using fancy interactive apps or VR headsets, but simply using sound. The combination of sounds on this record make it sound truly three-dimensional, almost non-linear. I don’t feel like I play through the album, but like I play around inside it. This was maybe the defining feature of much the music I enjoyed this year. I’ve said similar things about SOPHIE’s record, about Lonnie Holley’s, about Oneohtrix Point Never’s; even Low’s album might be seen as making their sound less linear, more exploratory and explorable. These are albums that are playful in their combination of genres and ideas, and that feel, as a result, almost interactive in the way they are experienced by the listener. They are truly, in every sense of the word, worlds of sound, waiting to be explored and uncovered every time you press play.

Holter pushed this idea further than anyone else this year. The quality, variety and imagination on display across this album blows me away every time I hear it. It is a colossal, absurdly ambitious record, an hour and a half of almost limitless creativity, in which centuries-old musical ideas and languages are melded imperceptibly with modern synthscapes, elements from free jazz, krautrock, and a whole variety of other 20th and 21st century traditions, all wrapped up in breathtakingly beautiful songs. The overwhelming beauty of it — the generousness of that beauty — reminds me of Bjork’s Utopia from last year, and yet there are also passages of confusion, density, almost horror. It is cathartic and transcendent. It crowns a discography — running from Holter’s 2011 debut Tragedy, through the brilliant Ekstasis in 2012 and Loud City Song in 2013, to her breakthrough Have You in my Wilderness in 2015 — which is unmatched by anyone else this decade. It has been an absolute pleasure to follow along since 2011 and see her develop as an artist. And though Loud City Song remains (I think) my personal favourite, Aviary feels like the culmination of everything she’s been building towards. It is a towering achievement, and, to my mind, the most essential album of 2018.

Thanks and Playlist2018trio

So there we are. Thanks for reading. I hope this has helped you discover something new that you’ll enjoy and that you haven’t heard before. To that end, here’s a Spotify playlist with a track from each of the albums I’ve mentioned, plus a few others to round it up to an even 30. Spotify is great for discovering things, but please support the artists and buy the music if you like it.

I’ve been really quiet on the blog this year, but I promise I haven’t abandoned it entirely. Indeed, one of the reasons I called it The Quiet Return is because I don’t see it as a place I have to constantly worry about generating new content for (I don’t want to write things just for the sake of it), but simply a place where I can come and reflect when I feel I have something to say: a place I can quietly return to. Having said that, I’m hoping to beat my very low bar of two posts next year and put a few more things up! So hopefully see you again here in the new year.

For now, happy Christmas, and happy listening…

The Unframed

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In San Francisco, they encrypt around 10% of the internet using lava lamps. This is because the pattern of the lava lamps is truly random.

For example: yarrow stalks, dice, coins, shuffled cards, the I Ching, the roulette wheel. Also: radioactive decay, thermal noise, shot noise, avalanche noise in Zener diodes, clock drift, the timing of actual movements of a hard disk read/write head, radio noise.

And still I wish you’d appreciate my little boxes I put everything in.

But everyone appreciates everything, you say! We’re always giving each other a round of applause, all the time, eternally clapping. Only our tempos change.

Which might lead to something like Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’, our claps always phasing in and out. Our lives phasing in and out. Like when I see you in the street after a while, and you’re buying yoghurt, but I missed you all the other times you were out buying yoghurt.

Only ‘Clapping Music’, the Reich piece, was based around mathematics, around fixture, whereas our amorphous rounds of perpetual applause are never fixed in tempo, or in anything.

Out in the supermarket, I’m hunting for something, someone.

I pick up a mango: on the label, someone has written, in tiny black pen: looking in the wrong place, listening at the wrong time.

I say to it: “One of the reasons I can’t get on with Instagram and the like is that they are (dis)organised in an endless stream of time, break-less, frame-less. What is it, I think, that connects one photo to the next? Are they a series? But they don’t go together! It bugs me that the colours don’t harmonise with each other. It bugs me that they don’t fit together, don’t coalesce aesthetically, in their little grid. Or, when they do, they feel fake for doing so; as though your whole life could be one colour palette!”

Another way to put it is that there are no albums.

Because the album is dead, the big billboards pronounce, silently.

Every other month we read another piece about how the album as a format is dying. But maybe this year it is really true?

Because the internet, PC music, SoundCloud rap, [blank]wave. These are things that have little to do with the idea of a complete statement; things that have little use for frames, chassis, bodywork.

Then along comes Sophie and releases the stunning Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides while proclaiming she has no interest in the album as a format and I’m like, please, you don’t sequence your album this damn well if you have no interest in the album as a format.

But then, have you ever heard an album where everything is quite so in flux? Where the material of the sound itself seems to be melting and coalescing in real time? Where the platitude “I can be anything I want!” sounds like it is actually true? Like she could actually be a mango or soft serve or a hundred tiny moments in spacetime?

And yet, what a material record this is too — with its sounds like smashing glass and rubber and the sticky floor of a cinema rendered in slabs of synth.

Split atoms — that, in sound.

How could you trivialise that, by putting it in a frame?

The unframed, I say, unable to ditch the definite article.

I have been trying to buy frames, recently, to put up pictures in our house. They are ludicrously expensive, or else they are cheap and flimsy and don’t work. The perspex cracks; it wobbles as I remove it from the scratched black plastic rectangle, which is a few cm too narrow or an inch too wide. (Shopping for frames, you’ll soon learn your metric conversion tables; or not, as it turns out). The little metal tabs around the back won’t open (they dig under the fingernails; I retaliate, forcing a screwdriver underneath) and then they won’t stay open (curling back, flattening, before I can get the MDF back in). I am ready to fling the thing on the floor and hang ripped strips of the picture from the ceiling instead.

Who has the attention span for an album anyway? This mango came all the way from Kenya!

And so everything gets shorter. And so along comes Whack World, the new ‘album’ from Tierra Whack, which consists of fifteen one-minute songs. They all seem to cut off before they really get going, like thoughts trailing off. They are not miniature songs, like those of Tony Molina, who also just released an ‘album’ that runs less than fifteen minutes; they’re more like ideas for songs. Or just the product of an overly-distracted brain? Each minute packed with a million sparks. Technicolour pops. Sherbet pockets.

And on the other end of the spectrum of shortness, Grouper, with Grid of Points, which is so short and spare it is barely there. The trace of an album, the ghost of an album. But is absolutely heavy with feeling.

I don’t say this to judge: I have room for one, then the other.

I throw on this, I throw on that: a towel, a wrap, a temporary housing. Every day packing up all our stuff and moving to the next house down the street. By December, we’ll have moved out of the city.

Is an initial idea as suggestive as the finished product? Maybe more suggestive? I could write you love letters and send you glittering jewels in the post, but you’ll have stopped reading by then. So I’ll stop soon, too, in a few.

Strip it back, pare it down.

Where’s the DEER?
Where’s the BARGAIN?
Where’s the BOUNTY?
Where’s the DUCK?
Where’s the GAME?

I do like a concept album, little mango. I like a concept sticking everything together all gluey. Isolating this body of sounds from all the other sounds in the universe.

It’s impossible, though, for other sound not to bleed in.

“Noise, clamour, din, hubbub, racket… unmusical or confused sounds. Noise is the general word and is applied equally to soft or loud, confused or inharmonious sounds: street noises… Din suggests a loud, resonant noise, painful if long continued: the din of a boiler works.”

Sir, are you going to buy that?

Here I come, headphones on, whizzing into orbits.

Albums of the Year 2017

Thanks to streaming, I listened to more new music this year than ever before. And so even though this list is twice as long as last year’s, these 20 albums feel like only the bare essentials, the absolute best of the best. Somehow I haven’t found room for albums as excellent as those by Kelly Lee Owens, Slowdive, Destroyer, Feist, Big Thief, Jay Som. Any one of those would have probably broken into my top ten last year. But hey. Too much good music: that’s not a terrible problem to have.

It’s fashionable to bash them, but I love year end lists. Re-listening to each of these records, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would choose over another if I had to: this is what being a music nerd is all about. Loving and obsessing over music. And I love reading other people’s lists, too, the more personal and different to mine the better. So while I made this list mostly for my own enjoyment, I also hope you’ll find something new to listen to because of it. Read the descriptions, find something you don’t know that sounds appealing, and give it a try.

As an addendum, I’ve also made a short list of overlooked/underrated albums that didn’t make the list proper. These wouldn’t necessarily be numbers 21-30 (though a few would, along with the albums mentioned above) but are simply albums I haven’t seen on other lists, or that I feel deserved some extra attention. Check that out here. And check out the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, with a choice cut from each of these 20 albums. OK, enough preamble, here we go…

20. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology

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First up are three albums inspired by interplanetary space travel. The first is this psychedelic gem from Jane Weaver, which builds infectious pop songs out of motorik rhythms and komische synths, in a way that will appeal to fans of similarly cosmic-minded groups like Broadcast, Stereolab and Belbury Poly. (That is, people like me). There are touches of krautrock, library music, vintage-sounding electronic experimentation. Can’s Malcolm Mooney even shows up on ‘Ravenspoint’ to deliver a strange monologue about how we’re all “on our way to… dust”. But these are easy songs to like, melodic and breezy, delicate even, and never overstuffed with sounds or effects. They’re kept light and aerodynamic, so that they might take off into the stratosphere.

19. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz

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Quazarz is a set of twin albums exploring (in a fairly loose sense) the concept of an intergalactic alien being who arrives on earth and is baffled by our addiction to technology. So far, so out there. But in fact, this is maybe Shabazz Palace’s easiest album to get into, in that it unfurls at a fairly relaxed pace, and is far too languorous and sprawling to demand anything other than casual, exploratory listening. It splits the difference between the most ambitious musical statement an act can make, the double album (with its 1970s associations of intricacy, pomposity and grandeur), and the most slapdash and raw and immediate, the rap mixtape. Quazarz isn’t quite either, but finds a strange middle ground between the two, and the result is Shabazz’s least essential but also most fun and lively body of work; indeed, on highlights like ’30 Clip Extension’, ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘Welcome to Quazarz’, they’re as dazzling as they’ve ever been.

18. Hannah Peel – Mary Casio

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This beautiful, singular record describes (sonically) the journey of an old woman from the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley who decides to travel into space to try and see Cassiopeia. It combines analogue synthesisers with a full 29-piece traditional colliery brass band, producing a unique combination of textures, one that reminds me a little of Dan Deacon’s more classically-minded work, as on the back half of America. The music is, in all senses of the word, dreamy: it has this incredible sense of will, of the title character resolutely following her ridiculous dream. A spectacular journey is described here, but it’s never clear if it’s a journey though space or through the mind; whether the constellations are of stars or of neurons.

17. PC Worship – Buried Wish

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I am obsessed with junk art and visionary environments, and Buried Wish sounds like a punk record scraped together from loose detritus, assembled from scratch, from scrap metal. Saxophones wail at dawn, rain falls on an empty moon. Rivers run sideways through trash and dead flowers. All the guitars are a little detuned, a little off. ‘Back of My $$$’ absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel, thick with scuzz and dirt; the tape sounds completely destroyed. ‘Help’ has these demented, descending wails that remind me of Liars, crying through a backdrop of atonal string scrawl and prickly bits of out-of-tune guitar.  But there is just enough song at any one point to keep you rummaging through – all the junk shaped into melodies without losing its essential quality as junk.

16. The National – Sleep Well Beast

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With Sleep Well Beast, The National quietly evolved to make their best album since Boxer, expanding, rather than tearing up, their basic approach. All the hallmarks of classic National are there: the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitar lines, the almost imperceptible mesh of rock instrumentation with strings and horns (seriously, this is their secret ingredient: no one else does it better), Brian Devendorf’s kinetic drumming (their other secret ingredient), Matt Berninger’s lyrics (their other other secret, or not-so-secret, ingredient). But new innovations lick around the edges of the songs: electronics flicker like dying lightbulbs, echo chambers bounce slithers of melody into hypnotic new shapes. Most importantly, though, the songs are all great: twin highlights ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, especially, but also the lovely ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ and the raucous ‘Turtleneck’. And ‘Empire Line’, too. Oh, and ‘Born to Beg’. OK, well, all of them.

15. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

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Throw almost every touchstone of 20th century art rock into a blender, lace with anxiety, depression, cocaine and bravado, and hey presto, American Dream. This is all about the execution: every tiny, fine detail sounds laboured and obsessed over, perfected. Nowhere is this more apparent than highlight ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which spends 3 minutes and 38 seconds building tension with little more than some rumbling, distant drums, Murphy calling out into the void, before that big, dumb synth line comes in and pounds three notes like a headache for a whole minute, its insistent force begging for something more complex to counter it, until finally, at the 4.45 mark, the melody’s exploded and bent into all these wonderfully kinetic fragments, pulled about all over the place, with a sense of intense satisfaction and playfulness. The whole thing is so engrossing that – even on a fourth or fifth listen – I forget there hasn’t really been a beat yet, and it catches me by surprise when the drums-proper come in at 5.14, and the vocal hook almost exactly a minute later, to produce a late-blooming slice of disco perfection, cowbell and synth-strings all.

14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

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DAMN. is at once both tighter and punchier than jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly, yet messier and more flawed as well. It is simultaneously a spiritual album, and a gritty, corporeal one. The album is structured around these contradictory impulses, moving dialectically between unresolved oppositions: heaven and earth, ‘Love’ and ‘Lust’, a proud-sounding tune called ‘Humble’ against a humble-sounding tune called ‘Pride’. Then there is the whole playing-it-forwards-or-backwards thing, which would be gimmicky if it didn’t work so well at formally encapsulating the themes of time, choice and chance that Lamar explores on opener/closer ‘Blood’ and closer/opener ‘Duckworth’. But the real thrill, as always, is hearing Kendrick rap, which reminds me more than anything else of Coltrane playing the sax – he just takes flight.

13. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

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Everything about Painted Ruins is dense and knotty. It is sequenced almost breathlessly, crescendoing, yes, but never bubbling down to anything less than a rolling boil. Every song is stuffed full of ideas and intricate moving parts. Whether it would be better if it opened up and breathed a bit more is up for debate, but there is a great deal of beauty and craft here, and, taken individually, perhaps the best batch of songs they’ve ever written. ‘Three Rings’ is my second favourite song of the year, twisting and thrashing its way towards a glorious pay-off; it contains everything I love about this band. ‘Systole’ is a late highlight, too, with the unexpected surprise of Chris Taylor on vocals, and the revelation that there are at least three great singers in this band of four unfairly talented musicians. You can hear the individual personalities of each of them (Bear’s expressive drumming, Droste’s choirboy harmonies) but they work together in perfect harmony. That’s the rare mark of a great band.

12. Juana Molina – Halo

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Halo, as its freaky cover art suggests, is skeletal — a bone yard — its bass-lines spines. In fact, everything here has the quality of backbeat, of bass and drums, of lithe rhythm. The synths have these hollow, marimba-like tones, like a bone being finger-drummed. There are frequent noises that sound like wind howling through hollow bones (which is presumably how flutes were first made?) and a noise in ‘Cosoco’ that sounds like a howling wind imitating an owl. The album’s title is a reference to the Argentine folk legend of the will-o’-the-wisp, known as the “luz mala” (Spanish for “evil light”), which floats above the ground where bones are buried. The hollow, natural, skeletal sound Molina has developed here proves versatile, moving from tracks that sound lightly funky and buoyant (‘Sin Dones’) to spooky and somnambulant (‘Lentismo Halo’). ‘A00 B01’ is the most delightfully strange song here: hollow woodblock percussion and little spindly threads of guitar over a synth loop that sounds like knuckles rolling rhythmically over the squishy buttons of an old mobile phone (and is later joined by a chorus of dying dial tones). Freaky magnificence.

11. Colleen – A flame, my love, a frequency

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Cécile Schott continues to restlessly redefine her sound with every album. Her music is fantastic, and deserves far more fans. Whereas early albums collaged acoustic sounds into new sonic landscapes, and her last couple revolved around the engrossing sound of the Renaissance-era treble viola de gamba (filtered, on the brilliant Captain of None, through a range of dub effects), A flame, my love features a slight, minimal palette of Critter & Guitari synthesisers run through a few Moog pedals. That’s it. And yet, there has always been a crystalline feel to what she makes, and this new sound emphasises that beautifully. It is transportive, transfixing music. Though her least organic-sounding record, it feels even more in tune with nature, full of lyrical images of bats swooping through the night as they hunt, of winter dawns and stars outshining us. There is a sadness, too, shot through the whole thing (“the world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue, and I came home with a fistful of fear”) one that becomes more present when one learns of the album’s back-story: Schott’s close brush with death in Paris on the night 2015 terrorist attacks. Death and life entwine in this music – one is never present without the other, and that is a source of both sadness and comfort.

10. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

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This is a very minimal album, naked as Sumney’s back, weightless as his floating body. Much of the music on this list – see numbers 9, 3 and 1 especially – is concerned with the connections we make with other people, the networks of relations that sustain us: with love, with friendship, with community. Aromanticism is, as its title suggests, an inverse of that – an album that feels alone without necessarily feeling lonely. It is about the pleasure of one’s own company. The brilliant contradiction is that it is also an album steeped in the language of R&B, a genre obsessed with love and sex and coupling – and it sounds, throughout, sumptuous, bodily, erotic, gorgeous. The tension between the overt romanticism of the music and the lonely aromanticism of the lyrics is the heart of this album. It’s also full of unexpected melodic and harmonic touches – the flute at the end of ‘Make Out in My Car’, that harmony on the last word of “I’m made of liquid trust” (‘Don’t Bother Calling’). The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Doomed’, one of the best songs of the year: Sumney’s vocal performance – a quiet, battered falsetto – is completely enrapturing, lifted up as the track progresses by deep, mournful synths that slowly crash in like waves. Breathtaking.

9. Laurel Halo – Dust

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‘Dust’ here is a term here with lots of implications and associations: of warmth and the analogue (in contrast to the cold, futuristic sound of Quarantine, or the dry, brittle Chance of Rain); of cosmic, interstellar dust clouds (picked up in the spacey titles like ‘Syzygy’, ‘Sun to Solar’, ‘Moontalk’); of dusty sounds found and collected (much of this record has a quality of being overheard); of dust motes swirling in a beam of light through a window. That last image captures how unstable this music feels, every sonic element constantly in motion, its relation to every other element in flux. And relations or networks are a key theme here. Much of this record seems concerned with what, or who, we surround ourselves with, something picked up in Halo’s bringing in multiple vocal collaborators for the first time. On ‘Jelly’, negative voices lick the edges of the track’s consciousness – “you don’t meet my ideal standards for a friend, and you are a thief, and you drink too much”. We can surround ourselves with such negative feedback, or we can surround ourselves with things that encourage us: the soft, enveloping vocal melodies on ‘Like an L’, or the bizarre encouragements (“then she licked my leg and gave me some sisterly advice”) of ‘Syzygy’. Just as things start to become a bit of a blur, the album is brought back into focus by late highlight ‘Do U Ever Happen?’, which is wonderfully surreal: a clumsy, slumbering beat, with Halo and a backing choir in two intertwining melodic spirals. This album is that rare thing: a genuinely avant-garde record that remains compulsively, repeatedly listenable.

8. Perfume Genius – No Shape

no shape

I wrote a whole review of this already, so I will just fill this space up with a repeated claim: Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius.

7. Jlin – Black Origami

origami

What impressed me most about Black Origami was the revelation that Jlin composed the tracks chronologically, in ‘real time’ if you like, starting at the beginning and working forwards, without going back and making edits. It’s like a very slow kind of improvisation. That such intricate, complicated tracks could be made in such a way is just insane to contemplate. The other thing I love about this album – and this is going to sound strange – is how meditative it is, almost in spite of itself. Of course, this is an overwhelmingly noisy record, an absolute barrage of rhythm, but it’s also full of tiny pockets of space. Rhythm, after all, relies on gaps, on tiny bits of silence and quiet. And the rhythms are so unrelenting that you can almost hear through them to the quiet; the concentrating, zen-like mind of the dancer as their limbs flail at inconceivable speed. Then there is the idea of origami, itself a practice of meditation, and that cover art, in which sheet metal (industrial rhythm) has been folded and folded (almost crumpled in places) to become something new: the perfect metaphor for this insanely brilliant, forward-thinking artist’s approach to sound.

6. The Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

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I am going to make a bold comparison here, and it is to Loveless. It is not that the two records sound similar, necessarily. But Loveless is a masterpiece, I think, because it strikes an exact balance: between masculine and feminine, between soft and loud, between melody and noise. And Pleasure Suck, too, captivates because of its exact blend of honey and vinegar, of sickly melted sugar and battery acid. From the first moments – what sounds like a violin playing in a blustery street; then a strum and a buzz; then a crash as a song starts seemingly in media res – it is clear that this is going to be a special record. And it doesn’t let up the whole way through, moving through what feel like fine slices of song cut into each other, or like slits in a spinning zoetrope. It is just the perfect blend of dissonant noise/ambience and catchy songs. If you have any interest in either of those things, please, listen to this.

5. Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

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Is Mirror of Wind a fantasy album? Look at the miniature world of that still life: a bee, a magic crystal, an offering of red flowers, a mirror that reflects only mist, a candle in a cave, the tilt of its flame suggesting wind. Then listen to ‘Primeval Currents’, and hear how the sonic elements interact: strange instruments, producing sounds that feel recognisable (plucking, bubbling, chiming, buzzing) but which come from not-quite-identifiable sources (a mallet? a clarinet? a field recording of birds, or insects?). Or ‘Veils of Crocus’, in which instruments strum and drum, whoosh and whirl, swirl and conjure, punctured by flurries of voices incongruously chanting “cha cha cha”, as though we were on a beach somewhere. Or ‘Hex Prism Palace’, in which notes are bent out of shape in a temple on a distant hill. It is the music of places that don’t exist, that could never exist, except that they can exist through this technicolour world of sound – the music of imaginary worlds.

4. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

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Crack-Up is the album I listened to in the early hours of the morning on my wedding day. It’s the album we had playing in our rented car, driving on our honeymoon through the spectacular, mountainous countryside of Perthshire, Scotland. ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ – undoubtedly the best song of the year – was playing in my head the whole two weeks. That opening melody with its gorgeous, unexpected harmonies (“light ended the night, but the song remained”), and the cadence of Pecknold’s voice as he replies in solo (“and I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, in the lashing rain”) puts a lump in my throat every time. It throws open the curtains to a nine minute journey through mountains, rivers, harmonies, drums, craggy valleys, guitars like dappled sunlight, pianos like water flowing over rocks. “To be held within oneself is deathlike, oh I know,” he sings, with almost unbearable emotion. If Crack-Up suffers from anything, it’s that ‘Third of May’ is too good, and that the rest can feel merely like a build up to, and release from, that towering centrepiece. But no, that’s ridiculous. ‘On Another Ocean’, ‘Fool’s Errand’, ‘I Am All That I Need’: these are the best songs Fleet Foxes have ever made, expanding their sound to the point that it literally cracks open, cracks up, and spills out all the light inside.

3. Bjork – Utopia

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Bjork is making the best music she’s ever made. A tall claim, certainly, but it’s true. Vulnicura was a masterpiece, the strong contrast between its mournful strings and its stuttering, broken beats the perfect evocation of heartbreak and divorce. Utopia is its necessary inverse, its mirror image, the yin to its yang. The strings are replaced by flutes, and the flute arrangements, throughout, are almost unnecessarily gorgeous. Indeed, if there is one impression this album makes above all, it is of overwhelming, sumptuous, rapturous, relentless beauty. It is, by design, too beautiful. (The only reference point I can think of are the later films of Terence Malick.) It is too much. It is too long. There are too many interludes. There are too many flutes. Her voice is too expressive, too broken, too open, over-emoting, leaking all over the music. Because it is only in that excess that she seems able to heal the gaping chest wound opened up on Vulnicura, here “transformed into a gate where I receive love from, where I give love from”. The length of the album seems designed to incubate a kind of patience; this album will never work unless you give yourself up to it, listen to it the whole way through, with open ears and open mind. Because healing takes time. Because love takes time, and is work. Because it takes time to “imagine a future, and be in it”.

 2. Arca – Arca

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Part (though it really must be stressed it is only part) of Bjork’s recent success is her creative partnership with the young Venezeulan producer Alejandro Ghersi, a.k.a. Arca, who helped produce Vulnicura and provided some of the beats for Utopia. Bjork has described their partnership as the “best musical relationship she’s had” and as a “synergy when two people lose their ego”. And it goes both ways, because it was Bjork who encouraged Arca, on his latest, self-titled album, to open up his mouth and sing. His voice is a revelation. It is almost exactly what you would expect from his production work: brittle, bruised, aching. But it is also extremely versatile, and Arca covers a great deal of emotional ground, making sometimes violent swings in its mood, as from the alternately mournful/wailing and delicate/resigned ‘Coraje’, into to the aggressive ‘Whip’, and out into the chilled, almost danceable ‘Desafio’. The synergy of the voice and the beats is fantastic throughout, to the point that his body (for it is above all a bodily, or embodied voice) seems to melt into his machines, the distinction between them becoming liquid. One almost doesn’t notice that the voice has disappeared entirely by closer ‘Child’, a negative of opener ‘Piel’, in which an initially a capella melody is hummed almost under the breath, slowly opening out into a full-throated cry as it is joined by both high, whining and deep, foreboding lines of synth. The album is perfectly sequenced, and is utterly absorbing from start to finish. It gets so close to you, so bodily and intimate, that it feels almost dangerous, like licking or touching bare wire with wet fingers. There is never quite a cathartic moment – it’s all danger, desire, electricity, tension, eroticism, caress, fingers slowly closing round your neck but never quite squeezing.

1. Richard Dawson – Peasant

peasant

What do you want from an album? Do you want to learn, in quite some detail, how to authentically wash and dye wool as if you were in the Middle Ages? Do you want to hear a man sing the words “he gives me a potato” in a Newcastle accent? Do you want to listen to an acoustic guitar being fingerpicked with so much vigour it sounds as though it might bleed? Do you want melodies that terrify you, or sooth you, or bring you to tears, or turn themselves upside down when you least expect it? Do you want to be surprised? Do you want to learn about the Pin of Quib, and the Bog of Names, and the Fortress of Long Wings? Do you want stories, or characters? A masseuse “tired of kneading the knots from the bulbous backs and necks” of men? A soldier with a “heart full of dread” and the “memories of kisses spilled upon his chin”? That is, do you want to be taken to another place? Another time? Into another body, or eleven? Can an album really do that? Peasant is the best album of the year partially because it does all those things. But also because it is an album about community. I moved into a new house this year, and it is the first time since I was a child in my parents’ house that I know both my next-door-neighbours’ names, and the names of the people in the houses next to them, and in the houses opposite. Our road is a small community, and people look out for each other. I am a naturally shy, introverted person who likes to spend a lot of time by myself – but even I can’t survive without a community of people around me. Not just people who I love and who love me, but also casual acquaintances, neighbours, workers, people who make stuff I need, who do jobs I can’t do, maybe even some people who might read the things I write. And yet, communities all around us are dissolving or splintering or splitting apart. The news brings daily doses of terror, new superstitions and lies, new failures of empathy. Lots of things might be to blame for this: consumerism, ‘social’ media, the loss of traditional social centres like libraries, churches, or clubs. But whatever the cause, it’s something we need to fight against. Dawson finds an analogy for all this in a world that disappeared over a millennium ago, but that feels startlingly familiar. Though the specifics are alien, the concerns of the characters he creates “in the kingdom of Bryneich” are our concerns. That is why this album is so deeply moving, so devastating. It is the year reflected in a muddy, medieval puddle; an unexpected, unlikely, baffling snapshot of 2017.

Overlooked Albums 2017

As an addendum to my Albums of the Year list (check that out here), here are ten more albums I enjoyed this year that feel overlooked or under-appreciated, that I haven’t seen on other end-of-year lists, or that I just wanted to point to and say “hey, this was good too”. This isn’t necessarily numbers 21-30 on my list; rather, it’s a chance to focus on things you may not have encountered elsewhere, or may have forgotten about. (For more, see my two Quarterfaves posts from earlier in the year). Spotify playlist at the end, with a whole bunch more stuff on it, most of it pretty experimental.

Julia Lucille – Chthonic

cthnoicIt has been a year of excellent ‘dream music’, from the return of shoegaze pioneers Slowdive to the ethereal threads of Julie Byrne. Overlooked and underrated is this gem from Dripping Springs based Julia Lucille, the same Texas town where Cross Record recorded the brilliant Wabi Sabi last year, which has a similar vibe – it’s clearly a town that seeps into the music. This is dream folk from the underworld (‘chthonic’ is a term describing spirits or deities from under the earth), its ethereal, diffuse atmospherics tempered by Lucille’s baritone guitar, which gives the songs this dirty, dusty, low-end quality, and offsets her very breathy voice. There is a contrast, too, between the gorgeous layers of harmonies and the little touches of dissonance. An album to let wash over you.

Sephine Llo – I, Your Moon

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Sephine Llo has the voice and the musical chops of someone with degree-level classical training, and a CV full of impressive jobs and achievements: stints at Westminster Abbey and Abbey Road, awards for composition and recording. And yet I, Your Moon feels charmingly homemade and instinctive. It’s the sound of someone who’s learned and absorbed all the rules and is now doing whatever the hell she wants. The instrumental background feels cobbled together from whatever found tools and sounds might best capture the emotion she’s driving at: the title track alone features a SH101 synth, a hulusi (Chinese gourd flute), strings, baritone guitar, a typewriter, the birds outside her window, guitar feedback, skin sounds… But it’s never kooky or eccentric for the sake of it. The album’s recording was interrupted by the death of her husband, and it is marked by an indelible sadness; but also, a slow climb back towards hope.

Avey Tare – Eucalyptus

eucalyptus

Dave Portner’s new album as Avey Tare was so deeply personal and unbeholden to expectations that one imagines he might not have released it at all. Indeed, this sounds like some lost new age classic uncovered in a basement somewhere, the kind of thing that would have made it onto Light in the Attic’s compilation I Am the Center. It is a strange, languid, meandering trip. This unhurried, relaxed sound was explored further on Animal Collective’s brilliant, also overlooked EP from earlier this year, Meeting of the Waters, which Portner recorded with fellow member Brian Weitz live in the Amazon Rainforest: if you like Animal Collective and haven’t checked this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Nick Hakim – Green Twins

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First off: album cover of the year. But the psychedelic soul concoction housed inside is great, too, and feels both retro and thoroughly modern. Much of the production is pretty lo fi, with sounds fraying at the edges, dissolving; that complements the sensual, vulnerable vocal performance from Hakim. But the best moments are the unexpected production touches, like the weird crying baby sounds at the end of ‘Needy Bees’, or the way ‘Cuffed’ seems to melt towards its end, or the mishmash of backing vocals behind ‘Slowly’.

Art Feynman – Blast Off Through the Wicker

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I first discovered Luke Temple through his Here We Go Magic project, an occasionally brilliant band who were always a little uneven. The name change with this new album seems to mark a renewed, refreshed energy, and these are funky, detailed, expressive songs that please the Talking Heads lover in me. Apparently there are no loops or drum machines on the whole thing, though it sounds constructed entirely from such materials; that might explain its baggy, lively charm.

Sam Amidon – The Following Mountain

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Amidon’s first album to consist only of his own songs (he’s known for recording mostly covers, an approach steeped in the idea that songs that don’t belong to any one person; ‘folk music’ in its oldest, truest sense), The Following Mountain is in every other way vintage Amidon: genuinely odd, jazz-infused folk songs, sung in a gravelly, distinctive voice. It becomes better as it progresses (though the lovely ‘Juma Mountain’ is an early standout), finishing with a twelve minute folk-jazz-improv freakout which was apparently the initial source of the other eight songs.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

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This album exists for the dead of night – I’ve only listened to it around midnight, or in the early hours of the morning, when I’ve been unable to sleep. It is haunted music. Most tracks consist of only a couple of elements, delicately balanced – not quite in sync, as the title suggests. Sakamoto is obviously a prolific and highly regarded artist, though he was new to me this year (I came to him through his influence on the also excellent Visible Cloaks album, Reassemblage). This album – full of gentle surprises – has been a great introduction. 

Various Artists – Mono No Aware

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Mono No Aware, a compilation of artists on the Berlin-based PAN label, manages to sound like a distinct, complete work without erasing the identity of the individual artists. That’s a difficult balance to achieve with any compilation, but even more so with ambient and experimental noise music, where sounds can easily bleed into one another. But each track here feels like a new voice temporarily becoming audible, like a face glimpsed through the fog. The title is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (literally “the pathos of things) and it is the perfect title for this haunting collection.

Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

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Pillows and clouds of soft noise, breaking on a distant horizon. It’s like a perfect meeting of William Basinski’s disintegration and Richard Skelton’s natural earthiness. English is a very erudite, thoughtful composer from Brisbane, Australia; his attention to detail in creating what is essential very amorphous music is what lifts it above other ambient sounds of this ilk. If you liked GAS’s Narkopop from earlier this year, definitely check this out.

The Green Kingdom – The North Wind and the Sun

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Somewhere between ambient and pastoral, instrumental folk, with occasional twinkling, celestial elements like the xylophone on ‘Rusted Relic I’. Reminds me a little of Rameses III’s album I Could Not Love You More. Very gentle, very peaceful. Out on Lost Tribe Sound, which is a fantastic label, home of the absurdly prolific William Ryan Fritch (who also used to release stuff as Vieo Abiungo). Everything on that label is worth a listen.