Happy Holidays, dear Listeners. This is your bi-weekly newsletter collecting the best of A CLOSER LISTEN. We’re deep in our End of Year lists, so let’s jump right in.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Ambient
The best ambient albums of the year include a set of short stories, an ode to a remote island, a celebration of sailing, a score to ice diving and an expression of hope from Ukraine. Fans of classic ambience will find tributes to clouds and winter; armchair travelers will encounter two diverse destinations; and video gamers will be treated to a score from a favorite artist. Every selection is distinct. The diversity reflects the range of the genre, which has surpassed all earlier definitions of “background music” and now rests firmly in the foreground as well. This is one of the strongest collections the genre has seen in years; literate and literary, this list kicks off our countdown in style!
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Drone
A lost father, a lost artist, a lost village, lost files; and on the other hand, grace, peace, worship, epiphanies. The drone genre is home to seeming opposites that swirl about each other in a dance of yin and yang. As dark as the music may get, as deep into the cave as it may travel, it also stretches for the light. This year’s selection includes a posthumous work from a beloved artist, a celebration of autumn, an ode to geography and a raw, early response to the war in Ukraine. In these albums, one will hear unsettling tones matched by masses, words of memory and prayers for peace. Loudness can be therapeutic, and sometimes no other response makes sense. These albums find healing in the interplay between quiet and loud.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Electronic
Is it unfeeling to dance when the world seems to be falling apart? Or is the communal mingling of bodies essential to one’s well-being? The albums on this list were composed in a time of relative isolation, yet look to a time of connection. These artists mix dance beats with reflective passages, redefining the phrase deep cuts. Some found the compositional process to be therapeutic; the effect may extend to the listeners.
A special congratulations to Loraine James, who is found twice on this list in different guises. Together, the artists on this list are indeed building something beautiful, a sonic quilt of patterns and textures. As Orbit sang in 1983 (and Sonny & Cher before them), the beat goes on.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Experimental
This year’s selections are eclectic and exciting, and feature an array of uncommon instruments, radio transmissions, field recordings, experimental voice and even opera. These artists represent the cutting edge of music ~ the outer fringe that may seem strange today but familiar tomorrow. In an unusual twist, to win support across the board from our staffers, even the wildest music needed a window of accessibility. As unusual as these albums may be, each is inviting rather than off-putting, best defined as curious, intriguing and beguiling. One is even advertised as a set of sonic bedtime stories! While this music might not allow one to sleep, it invites one to dream.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Field Recording & Soundscape
What is the sound of the year? In recent years, it might have been the sound of silence, or that of pots and pans struck in solidarity; it might have been the sound of protest, or of fire. This year, it may be the sound of sirens or of the war in Ukraine. It may be the last recordings of endangered birds, or melting glaciers. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a sound can make a similar impact, especially when it may never be heard again. Our list also has room for a deserted port, a Day of the Dead parade, a complex under construction, and the soundtrack to an entire night, from dusk till dawn. For better, for worse, in all its beauty and ugliness, this is what the world sounds like today.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition
This year, artists surprised us by not only making memorable music, but experimenting with the form of presentation. One composer recorded an album in alternate versions, with different tunings; another released an album in separate parts; one completely revisited an earlier work, itself a reconstruction; one offered a related follow-up, along with an expensive series of sculptures; one read her liner notes into the album as the closing track. In an era when physical artifacts are diminishing, their creativity caught our notice. The music was amazing; whether playing their own pieces, calling new attention to classic composers or bringing the work of new artists to life, these artists never failed to fascinate and thrill. The albums below are the best of a happily crowded field.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ Top Ten Rock, Post-Rock, Folk & Jazz
One of the wonderful things about this blended portfolio is that when one genre produces less than the others, another steps up to fill the gap. This year, we are proud to say that all four made the list. Some albums are angry – a response to isolation and war. Others are playful or reflective. All of them wear their emotions on their sleeves. Is there any music as cathartic as a post-rock peak or a metal maelstrom? Music can be an outlet for rage and frustration, and as we noted in our review of Nonsun, it may also strike fear into the hearts of invaders. But sometimes we want to keep it to ourselves, and use the notes as bricks in an emotional building, as we gather our strength for battles large and small.
Read the list.
ACL 2022 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year
Thousands of submissions, hundreds of reviews, and it all comes down to this: The Top 20 Albums of 2022! Our headlines: women dominate, filling the top five spots, and a former champion returns to the top.
The top three albums share a color palette of black, white and grey. Blue starts to seep in at four; color bursts from five. In a similar fashion, the video for Sarah Davachi’s “Alas, Departing” travels from black-and-white to color, while the vinyl is verdant green. Whenever color seems to have been leeched from life, music offers a way to bring it back. The world endured yet another difficult year in 2022, but the imagination, creativity and talent of these artists renewed our hope in humanity.
1) Sarah Davachi ~ Two Sisters (Late Music)
Opening with the tolling of bells accompanied by the faintest of sine tones, from the beginning Sarah Davachi’s Two Sisters is firmly anchored in the sonic architecture of the church. Followed by a composition for voice and eventually several compositions for Davachi’s organ, it’s a grounding that provides an entry point for listeners, setting the stage for the more muted, meditative pacing of what we called the album’s ‘drone section’ in our initial review. Although written for a range of instruments (trombone, strings, flute, and carillon all figure prominently), the album’s nine compositions maintain a shared sense of time and place. There’s plenty of air and space, an attention to duration and steadiness in even the more aurally crowded compositions such as “Icon Studies,” or the more complex explorations of vocal polyphony in “Alas, Departing.” A sense of persistence and dwelling rather than change or evolution. If the dominant tempo is characterized by drones and sustains, Davachi’s organ also evokes a sense of change in its minute pulses and warbles, as well as transcendent beauty, as the melody on tracks like “Harmonies in Bronze” melodically ascends. A slight departure from the more imposing sound Davachi has explored in the past, Two Sisters leaves more space for the exploration of not just sonic space but the space of time, how the present and past can co-exist, how the sounds of the past can still stop us in our tracks, but also how they can be, and are inevitably, molded by the synthetic sounds of the present. There’s a palpable sense of holiness or spirituality on this record, not just stemming from the instrumentation but also from the willingness it asks of its listeners to just share space with it, or rather to inhabit the space its powerful, resonant sounds shape. (Jennifer Smart)
2) Pan Daijing ~ Tissues (PAN)
An inner war, a self-divisive torment, a tortuous path across the desert of the mind. These are topics by now familiar to fans of Pan Daijing, and to which she returns in the bleak beauty that is Tissues. This time around, however, the voice is a presence, no longer the specter of humanism swirling around grinding electronics. It speaks, it sings, it calls and it answers; where in past albums it signalled a void, here it sways with unbridled intensity, indicating a someone. Yet this someone is painfully broken, an object of dissolution. It feels like watching a star you know is by now gone: the allure of distant cosmic fire might remind us of life, but in recognizing its truth, we are reminded that life is only what lingers. Listen to recordings of yourself in the past: the tissue of the voice is forever degrading, whittling away and changing, at war with everything around it, lest it be destroyed (by stomach acids, by foods, by airborne infections, by time itself…). To recognize one’s own voice in the past is to recognize that we are no longer, and this music, with its electronic shrieks and drones, with its song laments and elegies, is strong enough to make anyone remember that we, too, are like stars. (David Murrieta Flores)
3) Hekla ~ Xiuxiuejar (Phantom Limb)
Hekla is from Iceland, so it follows that most of the track titles on Xiuxiujar are in Icelandic. But the title itself is Catalan for “to whisper.” The Catalan “x” sounds like an English “sh,” such that “xiuxiujar” is nearly an onomatopoeia. This title is as suitable as any– listening to the album is like embarking on a hushed midnight journey, where fog obscures one’s path and danger lurks around every corner. The language displacement of the title only furthers the sensation of disorientation, as in the journey of Xiuiujar one never knows exactly where one is. It’s also fitting that “hekla” in Icelandic means cloak, and is the name of a highly active volcano– perhaps this is the “The Hole” at the end of the album, which seems to swallow up everything in its vicinity. Xiuxiujar is composed mainly of theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without any physical contact, and cello. Theremin is a rare and difficult instrument, but Hekla is a master of her trade. And when vocals do occasionally surface, sometimes in whispers or groans, they give one goosebumps. The tonal combination creates a deep, dark, and otherworldly soundscape, making for an overall thrilling listen that titillates all the senses. (Maya Merberg)
4) Caterina Barbieri ~ Spirit Exit (Light-years)
No-one has done more to explore what the modular synthesizer can still say in the 21st century than Caterina Barbieri. Her aching play with melody and scales, and the luscious timbre of her synth rig evoke the universe of diverse references the instrument’s sound has come to sonically index—the 1980s, science fiction, film, spirituality, and even, somewhat paradoxically, nature—while pushing its sound into new emotional territories. Spirit Exit itself comes with a lot of firsts for the artist: the first use of her voice, the first use of samples, the first use of strings. It is also Barbieri’s first album constructed fully in her home studio, making Spirit Exit feel more like a coherent sonic journey than earlier albums. Its songs are in dialogue with each other, melodies and riffs return in various moments across the record, as do Barbieri’s haunting vocals. While her earlier records also approach the spiritual, there’s a stronger sense of transcendence and ascension here. Barberi’s compositions sound like the past but also the future, knowing but also searching, as she builds both intensity and stasis across the album’s compositions. (Jennifer Smart)
5) Hatis Noit ~ Aura (Erased Tapes)
How many sounds can your voice make? When babies are born, they have the capacity to make hundreds, if not thousands of sounds, but many of these disappear from disuse within the first six months. Hatis Noit heads in the opposite direction, exploring the myriad directions of tongue, lips, throat. On Aura, she yelps, coos, growls chants and sings, underlining the power of an underused resource. Even if one is not graced with such a pure, multi-octave range, one might experiment at home, and rediscover the joy of invented languages and onomatopoeia. This LP is a celebration of life, tone and color, as illustrated on the cover and communicated in its grooves. (Richard Allen)
6) KMRU & Aho Ssan ~ Limen (Subtext)
There is nothing like the sublimity of watching a natural landscape transform at the scale of human time. The video for “Resurgence”, the first track of this album, depicts an erupting volcano hauntingly recreating its surroundings. It is a haunting experience simply because what is no longer there lingers, somewhere beneath our sight, as the lava redraws the landscape anew. The music follows suit: it flows, yet grinds, like molten stone; it bubbles with electronic noises and traces the air with hisses and compressed sounds; it fills whatever space you play it in with volume. It is the perfect combination of these two artists’ practices, in terms of ambient and abrasive electronics, an overwhelming and expansive set of pieces that expressionistically builds a listening cycle of creation and destruction. The limen is the border of perception, an idea that crosses the entire album as it grows these masses of sounds — like the lands around the volcano, the music shifts right at the edge of perception, and it is impossible to truly keep in place, to fully process in the moment it happens. It will hit you, after a while, and it will burden you with the weight of the earth as it suffers its demise. Such is the power of Limen. (David Murrieta Flores)
7) Širom ~ The Liquified Throne of Simplicity (Glitterbeat)
Some instruments carry with them a sense of locality, whether actual or imagined, often conveyed through, or rescued from, the prism of post-colonialism. Just as one settles in the Appalachian Mountains with the banjo in the opening of “Wrinkles, Drifts into Sleep”, the second track on The Liquified Throne of Simplicity, one is immediately whisked off to West Africa with the balafon. The accompanying documentary shows Širom traveling to rural communities in Slovenia to perform the album, often hopping from one instrument to the next in the middle of any given track. It’s not surprising then to learn that Samo Kutin describe their music as “imaginary folk”, to Jakub Knera in an interview for the Quietus where she talks about her connection to Slovenian folk songs and the need for music and rituals to go through life. As one character says in the documentary, “I can only try and maintain some kind of normal climate within myself. I feel this is a major success in itself. To be at peace with oneself in the face of all that is happening.” (Gianmarco Del Re)
8) Daniel Bachman ~ Almanac Behind (Three Lobed Recordings)
The use of collage techniques in music always has an estrangement effect: there is something familiar here, but it is altered in ways that are in need of reckoning. It is the articulation of a new real, of another ordering of what we can perceive, and it is in failing to recognize what we think we should that another understanding begins to emerge. In bringing together field recordings, older US traditional instruments like the harmonium and the banjo, as well as noises produced from digital translations between images and sounds, Bachman transforms a US classical ideal of nature into something violently intervened, chopped up and regurgitated. The harmony sought in those ideals, in the ‘organic’ qualities of the instruments or the veracity of the sound document, becomes subverted through cutting and pasting, through juxtapositions that uncomfortably twist their assumed musical qualities into something acousmatic, a noise that is simultaneously precise and diffuse. It happens here, but it happens all over; like the climate change that is the album’s topic, the resulting noise pushes everything else to the limit of what we actually understand. It’s all uncertainty beyond this point. (David Murrieta Flores)
9) Galya Bisengalieva ~ Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive (One Little Independent)
I have not watched the documentary, as freediving gives me a sense of “reversed vertigo”. Asking my laptop whether there are any benefits to holding one’s breath? I got the following answer. “Some preliminary animal studies show that holding your breath may help to regenerate damaged brain tissue.” This may also explain why it has become a common practice in breathing techniques to relax and lower inflammation.” But how safe is it? “The first thing that happens when you hold your breath is oxygen levels decrease. Then, carbon dioxide levels increase because your body gets rid of that gas by breathing out. This state is called hypoxia. After just a minute or two, your cells start to behave differently than they normally would. This can affect all of your organs.” As most of the tracks on this album are just over one or two minutes long, as befits most film scores, I tried to listen while holding my breath. I failed, my lungs not being exercised enough, but the elemental power of the music became even more apparent. This is an album that doesn’t just listen to nature, but to the body as well.as well. (Gianmarco Del Re)
10) Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch ~ Ravage (Fatcat/130701)
Written in the aftermath of the death of Levienaise-Farrouch’s father’s, Ravage captures the emotional whiplash of grief. It’s a cinematic album (which makes sense for the composer who has been busy the last several years writing soundtracks)— not shy to foreground romantic, breathless piano playing, but equally invested in building layers of ominous, textured and choral drones, sometimes moving between the two in a single track. As we noted in our original review, the album begins darker, its first half more angry and brooding, building intensities through Glassian repetition and ominous layers of rippling drones. The second half is emotionally lighter, characterized more by solo piano hesitantly carving out melody and harmony. When drones do resurface, such as on album closer “Parting Gift,” they’re at the service less of rage than of a sort of resignedness, an opening gesture towards the co-existence of beauty and sorrow depicted by the lighter tones of strings and piano. Ravage is another excellent example of how an album can artfully build in layers of reference across its tracks while advancing a narrative. An at times devastating blend of solo piano and emotive drones, Ravage sonically captures the highs and lows, rage and apathy, murkiness and clarity, that accompany grief. (Jennifer Smart)
11) Loraine James ~ Building Something Beautiful for Me (Phantom Limb)
It’s been quite a year for Loraine James, with two albums in our Top 20, confirming her position as one of the UK’s most vital and creative producers. Building Something Beautiful For Me just nudged ahead in the final tally, possibly because it takes as inspiration the work of New York composer and performance artist Julius Eastman, who died in 1990. It is only recently that Eastman’s work has been rediscovered; and his breadth of work was remarkable – he could write short, hook-laden pieces as well as long-form piano works. James takes original material and deconstructs it before building something beautiful anew. There are many parallels between James and Eastman – we can sense the spirit of the latter resting on James’ capable shoulders. (Jeremy Bye)
12) Katarina Gryvul ~ Tysha (Standard Deviation)
Tysha means silence, and the album was born from isolation: one of the last pandemic albums and one of the finest. Gryvul toys with perceptions of silence and sound, voice and instrumental, pop and avant. Her music is vibrant and energizing, the polar opposite of lockdown. Sadly, the album had only been out for 13 days when Ukraine was invaded; Gryvul was safe, but her homeland was not. She reappears on the label’s just-released From Ukraine, For Ukraine, another strong entry from Standard Deviation. If her music now seems prescient, it’s because one type of isolation has been traded for another, one strand of silence superseded by an even more dangerous strain. (Richard Allen)
Original Article (This Bandcamp Friday, Support the Music of Ukraine)
13) Hüma Utku ~ The Psychologist (Editions Mego)
It is unusual for an album about the mind to be so forceful. You could expect some nebulosity, perhaps some ambient tropes, maybe even a jarring drone here and there if the mind in question is a darkened one. But The Psychologist treats the mind like a body, which means agile beats and dense electronics designed to raise your hair and make your skin crawl. Without the divide, the mind is a muscular experience, the feeling of a twitch pulling from a nerve somewhere, the numbness from an accidental blow against some surface. It is suitable that Hüma Utku cares little for genre divisions, making music with the capacity to make you think through your body, through movement both voluntary and otherwise, as it effortlessly transitions from clear-cut EDM to droning wails, from industrial aggression to ambient deambulation. Like nervous impulses, it is electric through and through, a jolt of aural activity that has no qualms about pummeling your ears into submission as much as just letting you drift away into the haze of dreams. It may sound obvious, but your experience will be defined by your reactions to these stimuli; what may not is that these stimuli aim directly at your tics, at your lapses, at the tensions developing in your tendons every time you think. (David Murrieta Flores)
14) Daniel Avery ~ Ultra Truth (Mute)
Ultra Truth is strikingly multidimensional, with each of 15 tracks bringing something unique to the (turn)table. Some tracks are amoebic, with airy walls of synth, while others contain wild and complex breakbeats. Despite the variety, the album is completely cohesive. The overarching sound is fuzzy and spacey, and the emotional overtone is dark but not despairing. Daniel Avery brings several guests onboard, often sampling emotionally heavy vocal snippets of confessions and reminiscences. In this aspect Avery likens himself to Fred Again, who recently skyrocketed to fame in light of his Actual Life series, described as a “collaborative diary.” Of Ultra Truth Avery says, “This album is about looking directly into the darkness,” and it seems like this idea is particularly compelling to today’s audiences. Many find certainty, authenticity, and genuine connection sparse in the current era. Thus, Avery delivers Ultra Truth right on time. (Maya Merberg)
15) Hannah Peel & Paraorchestra ~ The Unfolding (Real World)
The Paraorchestra made their first appearance on record when they worked on Paul Weller’s On Sunset. Of course, such is the way with session orchestras, the collective name was their only billing. On The Unfolding, each member is named – not just on the sleeve but when Hannah Peel reads the credits on the closing track. It’s a neatly understated nod to inclusivity, which is what the Paraorchestra is all about. They’ve had documentaries made about them, and they have played outdoor festivals but, really, it is the music presented here that matters. A journey from atoms through elements and back again, The Unfolding is a widescreen and generous work with moments of lush orchestration for home listening and other passages of taut rhythm and bounce to excite a large crowd. (Jeremy Bye)
16) Cafe Kaput ~ Maritime (Themes and Textures) (Clay Pipe Music)
Ambient music is meant to evoke certain reactions in its listeners, usually of serenity and peace. But the best ambient albums are are able to permeate so deeply that they don’t just alter one’s mood, but construct a new emotional atmosphere. Such is the case with Cafe Kaput’s recent release. One boards the boat when one hits play on Maritime, and rest assured there’s no chance of seasickness here. The album brings easy afternoons of sun and sea, even the track “Mid December,” and even if one’s own mid December is not particularly sunny. A comfortable and effortless listen through and through, the album keeps crewmembers well entertained. Splashes of more upbeat and energetic tracks invigorate, such that the Maritime experience leaves nothing to be desired. (Maya Merberg)
17) Max Richter ~ The New Four Seasons (Deutsche Grammophon)
The album so nice, we bought it twice. Revisiting Recomposed, his earlier revision of Vivaldi, Max Richter accomplishes something truly remarkable, infusing a classic with new life – again. A new generation coming to Vivaldi through Wednesday’s “Winter I. Allegro Non Molto” will find the rest of the symphony here, in an accessibly modern version. The orchestra is young and diverse, while subtle synthesizer contributes a nearly-invisible electronic undercurrent. Is it blasphemy to call this our favorite version to date? We just did. (Richard Allen)
18) Jilk ~ Haunted Bedrooms (Castles in Space)
Haunted Bedrooms may have been released on April Fool’s Day, but the music is no joke. (We’ve waited all year to say that!) Jilk is a perennial presence on this list, thanks to an enthralling blend of ambience, modern composition and folk electronics. The highlight: a ten-minute extravaganza with Haiku Salut, which twists and turns, wrangling unexpected emotion from its grooves. Jilk’s track titles recall post-rock, while their album art is reminiscent of New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies. References aside, Jilk has developed a signature sound, enough that we would recognize them blindfolded ~ a sure sign of success. (Richard Allen)
19) Vanessa Wagner ~ Study of the Invisible (InFine)
The cover art shows sculptures of two mouths removed from their faces, touching but not quite kissing, with one set of lips parted slightly and the other shut. Observers don’t see any facial expressions, bodies, or colors. And do we need to? The photo speaks volumes. With Study of the Invisible, Vanessa Wagner proves the merit of minimalism, if anyone ever doubted it. She shows how fewer notes and less sound can be more emotive, when a song is played well. On solo piano, Wagner covers a range of contemporary minimalist songwriters, including Philip Glass and Roger and Brian Eno, and a number of younger and more unknown composers. Accompanying the album, a pair of performance videos play with ideas of reflection, shadow, and obscurity. The effect explores how sensory perception translates into mental and emotional experiences. Study of the Invisible reminds us that– as frequently repeated as it is forgotten– sometimes less really is more. (Maya Merberg)
20) Whatever the Weather ~ S/T (Ghostly International)
Registering her second entry in this year’s Top 20, Loraine James produced glassy, almost weightless electronica for her Whatever The Weather project. Putting the deconstructed R&B of her last album Reflection to one side – for now – there are very few vocals present, and the beatless tracks glide along. Only “30˚C” gets close to the glitchy cut-up sound of earlier James productions. But the rhythms remain: there are clattering, busy drum patterns on several tracks, which are as close to ambient jungle as we heard all year. It’s a sumptuous, gorgeous listen – and it taps into the peculiarly British obsession with the weather that makes us love it even more. (Jeremy Bye)
And that’s it. Next week, a special off-week edition featuring ACL 2022: Sound Propositions. And then the next week, our Winter Music Previews! Happy New Year!
Super list. I have included Hatis Noit in mine and love the Vanessa Wagner album.