So, here it is. After months of listening and trying to piece together my thoughts, I’ve finally been able to compile my favourite 100 albums of 2012.
I’m certain there’ll be some that I’ve missed that I’ll only come to discover in 2013. Sometimes the sheer volume of stuff coming out means I miss things I should really have picked up on (for example, I rather shamefully never got round to listening to the most recent albums by Nils Frahm, Hallock Hill & Euros Childs in time).
There’s been a lot of talk in the music press this year on the lack of any runaway candidates for album of the year and I guess that was reflected to an extent in my list. Up to a few weeks ago the top 10 was fairly fluid. Certainly, I found it harder to order the list than in previous years. Anyway, here it is. If anyone makes it through all of the 7000 words below they truly deserve a medal.
100) Deerhoof – Break Up Song (ATP)
Break Up Song was another album of enjoyably frazzled, constantly-in-flux noise-pop from Deerhoof. It may not have been quite up to the standard of Milk Man or (career highlight) The Runners Four but it managed to strike a balance between discordance & accessibility. They played most of it when I saw them at the Garage in December.
99) Max Richter - Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Decca)
Richter has firmly established himself in the circle of elevated modern classical composers over the last decade, with albums like The Blue Notebooks, Memoryhouse and Infra becoming notable examples of the genre. On this release he offers something slightly different – a recomposing of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. He’s quite respectful of the original score in many places, leaving large sections untouched but he does add some interesting touches along the way.
98) Clinic – Free Reign (Domino)
I have to confess that for reasons unknown I've slightly lost touch with Clinic over recent years. It was good to see however on their 7th album, that they still don't really easily fit in anywhere. Free Reign proved their slightly sinister synth-heavy drone and warped psychedelia still sounded as great as ever, and it was good to see that frontman Ade Blackburn still sings with that nervy, breathy shakiness.
97) Leverton Fox – The Human Arm (Not Applicable Records)
It was by no means an easy or comfortable listen but The Human Arm was another album that demonstrated the wealth of interesting music being made under the surface/at the margins, quite often unfairly deprived of coverage. It was one of the more inscrutable and esoteric releases of the year, portraying a dark, deconstructed and opaque sound world.
96) Pjusk – Tele (Glacial Movement)
An excellent set of sparse, abstract, shadowy ambient soundscapes from Norwegian outfit Pjusk, their first release on the Glacial Movement label.
95) Damian Valles – Nonparallel (In Four Movements) (Experimedia)
I first became aware of Canadian musician Damian Valles via the excellent futuresequence compilations. Nonparallel (In Four Movements) was constructed by piecing together fragments of instrumental records released by Nonesuch in the 1960s/1970s. It might initially have seemed a narrower in sound compared to Skeleton Taxa, his album from 2011. The four movements of Nonparallel possessed a discreet power and formed a soundtrack to a cold and harsh environment (sort of like if The Road by Cormac McCarthy had been a piece of music rather than a novel).
94) Krar Collective – Ethiopia Super Krar (World Music Network)
I first became aware of the Krar Collective when reading about the Africa Express tour that travelled through the UK in 2012. Originally from Ethiopia but now based in London their sound is centred around the krar – an Ethiopian 6 stringed lyre and along with the soaring vocal harmonies it ensures the album has a vitality and energy rarely matched elsewhere this year. I don’t appear to have listened to quite as many African albums as I’ve done in previous years but this was one that firmly stood out.
93) Dead Rat Orchestra – The Guga Hunters Of Ness (Critical Heights)
I saw DRO supporting Godspeed at Kentish Town Forum and their live show very much matched this record, quite abstruse and existing very much on the periphery. It was minimal but in a more unorthodox way than that word usually implies, appropriating the elements of chamber music and post-rock. The Guga Hunters Of Ness was originally recorded as a soundtrack to the BBC documentary of the same name.
92) Holly Herndon – Movement (Rvng Intl)
Something stealthy, visceral and primal ran through Movement by Holly Herndon. The fusion of the human voice with technology proved at times to be a pleasingly disorientating experience, and always an unclassifiable one. It reminded me in a way of Tragedy by Julia Holter from last year in how avant, cerebral and cut-up-and-re-pieced it sounded.
91) Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin – The Instrumental Tourist (Software)
For some reason I was expecting this to be more of a maximalist and abrasive listen but it ultimately didn’t turn out that way. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of dissonance but on the whole it sounded more underplayed and strangely more effective for being so. It was possible to detect individual components of each artist’s sound and on tracks like GRM Blue II it felt almost like an electronic representation of musique concrete.
90) Ratchet Orchestra – Hemlock (Drip Audio)
I discovered this via Stuart Maconie's Freakzone programmeon 6Music. Further investigation revealed a Godspeed link (it was recorded by GY!BE bassist Thierry Amar) but the sound was far removed from the returning Canadian post-rock ensemble. Mixing both traditional and free jazz sounds it managed to result in something sonically dense and dynamic. It reminded me of acts like Exploding Star Orchestra but it was also possible to catch glimpses of the likes of Chick Corea within the heady mix.
89) Zelienople – The World Is A House On Fire (Type)
The latest album from Chicago’s Zelienople reminded me of Grouper’s excellent double album A I A from last year in terms of the beautiful bleakness and blurry, cathartic quality. It also sounded as if it had been constructed from similar raw materials to Talk Talk’s seminal Spirit Of Eden & Laughing Stock albums, whilst also simultaneously reflecting vocalist Matt Christensen’s innermost emotions.
88) Mirror To Mirror – Body Moving Slowly (Preservation)
I first became aware of this album of chiming, glistening ambient electronica when I read Minotaur Shock tweeting about it and although quite different in sound it is possible to identify shared aesthetic and common musical values between the two artists.
87) The Bad Plus – Made Possible (Ent. One Music)
The eighth album from The Bad Plus was accomplished, assured and consistent, ranging from glittering piano-led pieces (Pound For Pound) to dynamic, colourful tracks (Seven Minute Mind) and percussion-driven romps (Re-Elect That).
86) Lambchop – Mr. M (City Slang)
Mr M. was Lambchop’s 11th album and was very much a continuation of the muted, understated sound of their late albums. I reviewed their show at the Barbican for musicOMH.
85) Shoeb Ahmad – Watch/Illuminate (Mystery Plays Records)
Mystery Plays was a label that had a promising 2012, taking tentative steps towards establishing itself as a welcoming home for experimental electronic music. The debut by Australian musician Shoeb Ahmad offered ample proof of this – an album that interweaved disparate sonic fabrics, integrating electronics, guitars and vocals. It served as a reaffirmation of the joy of musical discovery, showing how things of value can be found in unexpected places.
84) Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti – Gramercy (Miasmah)
I’m finding that context is getting increasingly important when listening to new albums, specifically the environment in which they are first heard. For this album, the setting was a night-time walk along the Thames after I’d been to a concert at the QEH. Maybe the darkness of the night and slow movement of the nearby water added something to the alien, esoteric and unusual sounds found on this album that saw clarinettist Davis combine with cellist Marie. It was very well suited to the Miasmah label.
83) Oren Ambarchi – Audience Of One (Touch)
Oren Ambarchi has established himself as one of the leading leftfield/avant-garde composer musicians over recent years, largely down to his live performances and superb albums like this. It was dominated by the 32 minute long Knots which showcased his strengths perfectly, a bass driven drone with overlaid percussion building into a thunderstorm of electronic distortion.
82) Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet (Real World Records)
The eponymous third album from Portico Quartet represented their biggest advance yet. With hang player Nick Mulvey departed their sound expanded to incorporate a wider range of influences. I reviewed their show at York Hall for musicOMH.
81) Ryan Francesconi & Mirabai Peart – Road To Palios (Bella Union)
2012 may have been a quieter year for Bella Union (especially compared to the bumper year of 2011) but they should be commended for this release by guitarist Ryan Francesconi & violinist Mirabai Peart. Francesconi has played with Joanna Newsome (and was ‘musical director’ on last year’s Have One On Me) but this album is much simpler and more plaintive and reflective, reminding me at time of Kingfisher by the much-missed Bert Jansch.
80) Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)
Shields was definitely a little bit more difficult to penetrate than its predecessor Veckatimest, something demonstrated by their headline slot at EOTR (which I enjoyed overall but it did feel like they might have benefitted from being a little further down the bill). It managed to be angular, intricate and ornate and proved that they are progressing into one of the more distinctive musical voices in alternative rock.
79) Golden Fable – Star Map (Full Of Joy Records)
This was an album I discovered via the reliably excellent Gideon Coe show on 6Music. It was on tracks like Almost Golden and the Cocteau Twins-esque Sugarloaf that they impressed most. Dreamy, butterflies-in-the-stomach, soft-to-touch, soar-away, alternative-pop.
78) Pyramid Blue – Pyramid Blue (Lovemonk)
I heard both Gideon Coe and Stuart Maconie play tracks from the debut album by this Spanish band on 6Music. Their geographical origins are interesting given the music on display - a collection of humid groove-based and brass-led offerings that wouldn't sound out of place on an Ethiopiques compilation.
77) Yoshinori Takezawa – Dream Line (Schole)
I'm not sure why but I was expecting Yoshinori Takezawa to be another addition to the growing list of Japanese musicians who make pristine, ambient electronic music (very much in the vein of Ametsub, say) but this album revealed him to be much more. Sure, there are plenty of electronic references in Dream Line (both subtle and overt) but there is more in the way of pastoral, acoustic instrumentation and short piano interludes. When clipped female vocal fragments rise to the surface it recalled the youthfulness and innocence of early Múm.
76) Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando (Act)
The last involvement I had with the music of jazz pianist/composer/bandleader Vijay Iyer was on Historicity, released back in 2009. I unintentionally seem to have missed his next two records but I enjoyed getting reacquainted with him on Accelerando . The sheer pace, vibrancy and dexterity of sound on display here cemented his already elevated position in the jazz world.
75) Lightships – Electric Cables (Geographic)
I reviewed Electric Cables for musicOMH.
74) John Storgårds Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra – Rautavaara: Modificata (Cello Concerto/ Percussion Concerto) (Ondine)
I don’t usually include classical albums in these lists, and in general feel that ‘true’ orchestral, contemporary classical music is best experienced in the concert hall, but this recording of John Storgårds conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in performing three pieces by Einojuhani Rautavaara was too good to ignore.
73) The Boats – Ballads Of The Research Department (12k)
This was my first experience of The Boats, an ensemble I’d been meaning to listen to for a long time. It consisted of four extended pieces; celestial opener The Ballad For Achievement and drifting beauty of The Ballad For The Girl On The Moon both stood out as highlights. I’ll definitely be exploring their back catalogue during 2013.
72) Porter Ricks – Biokinetics (Type)
I only recently discovered that this album was originally released back in 1996, being reissued this year to mark Type’s 100th release. I’m including it in this list on this basis. It re-emphasised how far ahead of its time it was, sounding really contemporary and fresh. The slightly eroded, tarnished quality to the tunnelling, beat-driven music on display here made me prefer this over new releases in this genre by artists such as Monolake etc.
71) Windy & Carl – We Will Always Be (Kranky)
We Will Always Be was the 11th album from Michigan duo Windy & Carl and it was another beautiful instalment of meditative, guitar-derived ambient music. It opened with the tender and poignant For Rosa, the only track on this album to feature the vocals of Windy Weber. Elsewhere, highlights included the shimmering beauty of Looking Glass and weightier, looming Nature Of Memory, whilst the album closed out with the epic 18 minute long Fainting In The Presence Of The Lord.
70) A Whisper In The Noise – To Forget (Exile On Mainstream)
I saw this Canadian duo play an excellent show at Cafe Oto in May in support of this, their fifth album. The music unfurled at a glacial pace, recalling early Low and occasionally Galaxie 500, resulting in a powerful soundtrack to melancholy desolation.
69) The Haxan Cloak - The Men Parted The Sea To Devour The Water (Latitudes)
I discovered the debut album by The Haxan Cloak at the start of the year and this 27 minute follow up was also excellent. It started with looped vocal sounds, before broken and displaced beats assumed greater prominence, gradually transforming itself into a dark ambient drone.
68) Actress – R.I.P (Honest Jon’s)
I liked R.I.P much more than Darren Cunningham’s previous record Splazsh, essentially I think due to the greater breadth and consistency of sound.
67) Erland Dahlen – Rolling Bomber (Hubro)
Rolling Bomber by Norwegian percussionist Dahlen was quite an eerie and desolate listen where silence, space and texture were afforded equal importance. What I liked most about the album was how detailed and irregular the drumming was over the seven tracks.
66) Suzanne Ciani – Lixiviation (Finders Keepers)
Another reissue but I’m including it here as Suzanne Ciani was a new discovery for me this year. She has been called “the Delia Derbyshire of the Atari generation” and it’s an appropriate reference. Lixiviation was a collection of fascinating early electronic pieces by American/Italian composer-musician Ciani. She has an interesting story behind her and this release is a testament to the value of labels like Finders Keepers in making such music available to wider audiences. Much of the album was concerned by short pieces produced for commercial purposes but in Eighth Wave it also contained one of the most sublime pieces I heard in 2012.
65) Will Dutta – Parergon (Just Music)
Read my review of Parergon on musicOMH.
64) Jason Lytle – Dept. Of Disappearance (Epitaph)
Dept. Of Disappearance was a warmly received set of softly-intoned, introspective songs from ex-Grandaddy man Jason Lytle. Seeing him reform his original band to headline the closing night of EOTR was one of 2012's live highlights for me and this debut solo album proved his songwriting powers had remained fully intact over the intervening years.
63) Pye Corner Audio – Sleep Games (Ghost Box)
In many respects this was very much a Ghost Box release, especially the way in which the gently warped electronic melodies and sense of retro-futurism ran through the album but it also brought something else that hadn’t been so prominent on recent releases on the label, most noticeably in the beats and percussion that were dispersed over the course of the album. It all added up to a hugely enjoyable listen.
62) Grasscut – Unearth (Ninja Tune)
One of those albums that was pleasingly difficult to place into one musical box. A nuanced set of songs, strong on melody, that seemed to be coated in a gauzy electronic sheen. It also featured the vocals of Robert Wyatt and Gazelle Twin and the drumming of Seb Rochford. It reminded me of seeing them back in 2010 at a Daylight Music show at Union Chapel with Marconi Union (who also feature in my top 100 list later on).
61) Bee Mask – When We Were Eating Unripe Pears (Spectrum Spools)
Very good second album from Chris Madak, aka Bee Mask. Seven short electronic pieces that ranged from Emeralds-y expansive ambient journeys to splintered, bolted-together sonic collages.
60) Wild Nothing – Nocturne (Bella Union)
The second album from Wild Nothing retained the melodic nature of their debut but also showed that Jack Tatum wasn't standing still musically. If Gemini was influenced primarily by C86 Nocturne seemed to take more inspiration from a wider 80s synth-pop sound, closer to the likes of New Order. I saw them play a sold-out show at the Lexington in November.
59) Alog – Unemployed (Rune Grammofon)
Read my review of Unemployed on musicOMH.
58) The Magnetic North – Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North (Full Time Hobby)
The debut album by The Magnetic North was inspired by a dream that frontman Erland Cooper had, in which he was encouraged to write an album about his homeland – the Orkney Islands. It reminded me of last year’s debut album by Lanterns On The Lake, possessing a similar quietly windswept feel and sense of managed ethereality to it.
57) Dolphins Into The Future - Canto Arquipelago (Underwater Peoples Records)
DITF is Belgian electronic musician Lieven Martens and on Canto Arquipélago he weaved together sounds of dispersing waves, chirruping birdsong and dissipating bubbles into a gently esoteric, sub-aquatic 30 minutes. Best appreciated on headphones, firmly distanced from the outside world.
56) Holy Other – Held (TRI ANGLE)
One of those albums that (for me) kind of came out of nowhere. I wasn’t familiar with Holy Other (a DJ who has impressively managed to maintain a sense of mystery to date – his name hasn’t been revealed and his background is a cause for speculation). It contained hints of Burial and Zomby, sounding contemporary and urban, especially in its overall stylistic projection. It was a difficult album to accurately gauge the mood of – melancholy at times but also at times soulful and warm with an ability to emotionally engage.
55) Roller Trio – Roller Trio (F-IRE)
Jazz albums that get nominated for the Mercury Music Prize can sometimes be unfairly dismissed/overlooked by some but I have to say I’ve enjoyed a lot of them; Basquiat Strings, Zoe Rahman and Kit Downes to name a few. This debut album from Roller Trio went beyond jazz in many ways, being full of sharp, stark punctuations and pulsating, unrestrained energy.
54) Ametsub – All Is Silence (nothing66)
2012 saw the welcome return of Ametsub one of Japan's finest exponents of electronic music. All Is Silence was another highly listenable album, extending and developing the themes of his previous albums. The hints of Boards Of Canada-style electronic melodies and cyclical beats were still present but took more of a backseat to normal, allowing room for his own personal sound to loom over the album.
53) Silent Servant – Negative Fascination (Hospital Productions)
Silent Servant is LA based musician/producer Juan Mendez and Negative Fascination was one of the year’s most striking debuts, simultaneously embracing techno, noise and post-punk (certainly the spirit and feel of the latter, if not completely the sound). It had an unembellished, almost industrial quality to it and a grainy, opaque darkness slowly cast itself over the seven tracks. The album closed with a track named Utopian Disaster which seemed quite an appropriate finale given what had went before it.
52) Slugabed – Time Team (Ninja Tune)
This album by Brighton based Greg Feldwick was another really fresh-sounding album that stood out, offering much to discover on repeat listens. It possessed some of the quirkiness, overt beats and spiralling motifs you'd find in the music of, say, Daft Punk and generally had a really accessible, playful, unburdened quality to it. Very worthy of the Ninja Tune name.
51) Willits + Sakamoto - Ancient Futures (Ghostly International)
Another excellent collaboration from American guitarist Christopher Willits and esteemed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the overlaid, spectral guitars of Willits merging seamlessly with the synthesiser contributions from Sakamoto. A subtle ebb and flow existed within many tracks that suggested something deep and oceanic.
50) Simon Scott – Below Sea Level (12K)
The incorporation of sounds of the natural environment and field recordings into electronic ambient music has really taken off over recent years, opening up the genre to a welcome additional dimension. Cambridge based Simon Scott proved he was very much at the forefront of this development with Below Sea Level, an album that saw him make several field recordings around the East Anglian Fens (that collected the varied sounds of the wider natural environment, local wildlife and motor vehicles) and merge them alongside music from his guitar. It many ways it was probably the closest 2012 got to Chris Watson’s excellent El Tren Fantasma album from last year.
49) Demdike Stare – Elemental (Modern Love)
A brilliantly ominous, dark double album from Manchester based duo Demdike Stare. The mid section in particular with its dislocated percussion and claustrophobic, drawn out drones stood out. I remember it taking on special significance whilst stood on a cold, dark train platform in Hackney as I returned home after a gig.
48) Oneohtrix Point Never / Rene Hell - Music For Reliquary House / In 1980 I Was A Blue Square (NNA Tapes)
The respective albums released last year by OPN and Rene Hell both made my Top 100 albums of 2011 so this coming together was always going to be a must-listen for me. The 5 tracks contributed by OPN were arguably the more surprising of the two, much more radical than I had expected, splicing distorted vocals and processed sounds together into something that didn’t sound dissimilar to some of John Cage’s early electronic music.
47) Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras & The Congos (RVNG Intl.)
In a year of several high profile collaborations this meeting of American musicians Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras with legendary Jamaican reggae vocal outfit The Congos was one of the most successful for me. It worked surprisingly better than it initially looked on paper, especially the way in which the vocal harmonies of the latter were embedded alongside the reverberating guitars and dubby atmospherics generated by the former to create something striking and euphoric.
46) Clark – Iradelphic (Warp)
I didn’t really connect with Chris Clark’s last album Totems Flare as much as I’d expected. Iradelphic fared much better though, aided by the judicious use of traditional instrumentation and vocals alongside the regular electronic sounds you'd normally associate with a Clark record. It had a similar feel to The Campfire Headphase by Boards Of Canada at times.
45) Lone – Galaxy Garden (R&S)
Looking back, I don't think 2012 will be regarded as a great year for what I'd call 'mainstream' electronica but one album that did stand out was Galaxy Garden by Lone (Nottingham based musician Matt Cutler). Accessible, vivacious, melodic and really well executed.
44) Belbury Poly – The Belbury Tales (Ghost Box)
The latest album from Jim Jupp was another nostalgia-tinted, melodic release, still inspired by the sounds of old library music, lesser known folk music, old TV theme tunes and half-remembered cultural ephemera. It was more vocally inclined than many Ghost Box records also, revealing that along with the Pye Corner Audio record the label was showing signs of change.
43) Sundog – Insofar (Penguin Cafe Orchestra)
The first solo album by Penguin Cafe frontman Arthur Jeffes under his Sundog guise saw him retain some of the sounds and musical vocabulary of his (and his father's) bands but also provided subtle signs of progression into other, wider musical territory. I can’t wait to hear what he does next (the Penguin Cafe show at Cecil Sharp House in January should provide a good indication).
42) Valgeir Sigurdsson – Architecture Of Loss (Bedroom Community)
The first few tracks on Architecture Of Loss seemed a little over polite and unsubstantial, and on first listen, raised the prospect that Sigurdsson's follow up to Draumalandid may pass by unnoticed. However, the second half was far more rewarding, the sound gradually growing wider and denser in sound. If strings dominated the opening passages, it was electronics and beats that defined the later stages, successfully recasting the album as a whole.
41) Land Observations – Roman Roads IV-XI (Mute)
The debut album by James Brooks (previously of John Peel regulars Appliance) had a meditative and linear quality, that came from a math-like, proliferating grid of guitar strands. It was also a good example of artists making albums that tackle unusual & interesting concepts (this was inspired by the subject of Roman roads).
40) Trembling Bells & Bonnie Prince Billy – The Marble Downs (Honest Jon’s)
Marble Down’s was one of the year’s finest collaborations. It was quite telling that it was the updated folk sound of the Trembling Bells that was most prominent, such has been their impressive ascent over the last few years. I reviewed their show at Union Chapel in May for musicOMH.
39) Loscil – Sketches From New Brighton (Kranky)
Sketches From New Brighton saw Scott Morgan return with another album of deep, concentrated, still ambient. It also saw him return to the Kranky label, and also focus on a purer electronic sound after his use of cello on Endless Falls. Can’t believe his show at Cafe Oto in March falls on the same night that Yo La Tengo play the RFH.
38) James Yorkston – I Was A Cat From A Book (Domino)
Sadly, part of me will remember 2012 as the year I had to miss James Yorkston's Moving Up Country show at Cecil Sharp House but I Was A Cat From A Book offered significant consolation. Opening track Catch contained the characteristic, softly-spun beauty of his earlier albums, while Sometimes The Act Of Giving Love featured arguably my favourite lyric of 2012: “Sometimes the act of giving love can fool you into believing you’re receiving love”. Quite.
37) Marconi Union – Different Colours (Just Music)
Different Colours was another album of pristine, flawless ambient electronic from Manchestrer trio Marconi Union. They always maintain such rigorously high standards, ensuring each release is engaging and inclusive.
36) Damien Jurado – Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)
The 11th album from Damien Jurado bore all the hallmarks of his previous work - an emotionally bruised collection of songs, full of forlorn beauty & introspective yearning, yet it was also a record that felt like it was reaching out in a greater way to connect to its listeners. Some tracks weren’t a million miles away from classic Neil Young and the use of female/children’s backing vocals helped impart a lighter, softer feel.
35) Hidden Orchestra – Archipelago (Tru Thoughts)
I saw Hidden Orchestra play show at the QEH as part of theLondon Jazz Festival a few years ago supporting Murcof & FrancescoTristano. Archipelago, their second album, takes jazz as its starting point but quickly moves towards something more cinematic and widescreen. Some albums need more patience, time and attention and this was one but it provided significant rewards in return. It showed clear signs that they've progressed as a band, sounding like it had been really deliberated over to ensure the end results turn out exactly as intended.
34) Dirty Three – Toward The Low Sun (Bella Union)
I reviewed Toward The Low Sun for musicOMH.
33) Swans – The Seer (Young Gods Records)
Michael Gira & co returned with The Seer, a typically imposing, imperious and uncompromising listen. I’m looking forward to seeing them at KOKO in April.
32) Musette – Drape Me In Velvet (Hapna)
Drape Me In Velvet was one of those beautiful little oddities that didn’t really seem to fit in anywhere. Released on the Swedish label Hapna, it sounded a little like a sort of lo-fi, water-damaged Penguin Cafe Orchestra. It also reminded me of the curios released on labels like Trunk Records and Finders Keepers whilst also hinting at the temporal displacement and degraded/deteriorated sound of recent records by The Caretaker.
31) Rough Fields - Edge Of The Firelight (Bomb Shop)
Electronically tinged, lo-fi bedroom pop from Manchester based musician James Birchall. Much of the album saw soft, euphonious sounds arranged alongside gentle, toned down My Bloody Valentine-esque hazy guitars, underpinned by crisp, clipped beats. Closing track Curtain Music was the highlight, recalling classic Beta Band/King Biscuit Time in its sloping beats and rolling rhythms.
30) Ryan Teague - Field Drawings (Village Green)
Ryan Teague's debut Coins & Crosses album marked him out as one of the leading new modern classical composers. His second album Causeway saw him change direction, focussing on solo acoustic guitar based pieces. For Field Drawings however, he reverted to the former, employing a wider instrumental palette (strings, piano, marimba & glockenspiel were all prominent) to produce a quite superb album that showed that, when on this musical territory, he’s up with the best.
29) Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes (Warp)
It's probably a cliché but Flying Lotus albums really do take you on something of a journey – an often quite thrilling, kaleidoscopic ride through the myriad tunnels of modern music. This may have been slightly more muted and restrained than Cosmogramma but still proved a fascinating listen. And one of the best things about Until The Quiet Comes is that despite multiple listens it still felt like there was a lot left to discover.
28) Greg Haines – Digressions (Preservation)
It was interesting to observe the genre of modern classical this year and see what directions it moved in. The genre continued to expand both sonically (incorporating more in the way of ambient/field recordings) and numerically (in terms of the quantity of releases). However, the negative side-effect to this expansion was the difficulty that many artists experienced in forging a clear identity. For Greg Haines however this wasn’t an issue. His music has always had a real austerity and emotionally affecting, almost draining quality to it, attributes very much present on Digressions. Taken as a whole, it was possibly his best work to date, extremely powerful in places, especially the near-overwhelming sadness of 183 Times which recalled the intensity of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa.
27) Padang Food Tigers – Ready Country Nimbus (Bathetic Records)
Ready Country Nimbus was a collection of short, contemplative acoustic guitar-based pieces with occasional vocal fragments and home recordings sewn into its fabric. It was also another album in which the particular context where I listened to it felt quite important. It seemed to give early morning commutes into work in darker, more autumnal settings a complimentary soundtrack, and without wishing to sound overly sentimental, helped reveal some of the latent emotional facets to everyday life. It came across as a very personal album but one that was able to project and share that particular quality.
26) Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man In America (Wilderland Records)
Young Man In America proved that Anaïs Mitchell was able to relay experiences and convey emotions with raw power rarely matched elsewhere this year. Upon listening to the album the initial focus can tend to zoom in on her remarkable voice but to do this to the detriment of the superb musicianship and strength of the songs would be a mistake. I was disappointed to keep missing her gigs, I imagine she’s pretty spellbinding live.
25) Olan Mill – Home (Preservation)
Preservation had a good 2012 and Home by Olan Mill was arguably their best release, a succinct album that seemed to exist entirely up in the clouds, in an untroubled state, set free of the world. At times it recalled early Tangerine Dream whilst also containing hints of modern classical that made me think of Eluvium, especially in its strong emotional resonance.
24) Sigur Rós – Valtari (Parlophone)
The sweeping grandeur of previous albums may have been slightly scaled back but Valtari was still a wonderful, if understated listen. The quieter, more sensitive nature of the album seemed to be reflected by the fact that not many of the tracks on Valtari featured in their 2012 shows, Varud being the main exception. I’m looking forward to seeing them in Brixton in March.
23) Three Fields – Cambridge Blue (Installed Worlds)
I loved the simplicity and purity of Cambridge Blue by Three Fields - eight instrumental tracks centred around synthesisers and piano. It reminded me at times of something like Snowflakes Are Dancing by Tomita, all neutral tones and pastel brushstrokes. Its relative modesty of sound, especially the way in which the tracks interlinked and flowed over the album, actually elicited a greater emotional response than I’d expected.
22) Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard (Domino)
I thought Adventures In Your Backyard represented a noticeable leap in terms of quality of songwriting and arrangements for Canadian singer Patrick Watson. It had a more evocative feel to his earlier albums, hinting at new directions, and in Into Giants boasted one of the best pop songs of the year in my opinion. I reviewed his show at St. Stephen’s Church in Shepherd’s Bush for musicOMH.
21) Minotaur Shock – Orchard (Melodic)
As Minotaur Shock, David Edwards has always specialised in the melodic, beat-laden end of electronica and there was much on fourth album Orchard to back this view up. Yet, it also showed a broadening of his musical palette. I guess if you had to select two tracks to illustrate this you’d go for Ocean Swell and Too Big To Quit, the former being classic Minotaur Shock – fresh and reinvigorating – whilst the latter had a mildly Eastern mystical quality to it. It was a more nuanced album than some of his others, sounding almost as if it was designed to reveal its strengths over a greater number of plays (without ever really sacrificing his distinctive identity).
20) Julia Holter – Ekstasis (Domino)
When I first listened to Ekstasis I found a lot to like but also remember feeling a tiny bit underwhelmed, essentially due to how it compared to its predecessor Tragedy. Whereas Tragedy was one of the most startlingly original releases of recent years, Ekstasis seemed to be a step towards a more ‘mainstream’ sound, which I wasn’t expecting. However, the more I played it the more its beauty was revealed. Surprisingly it sounded quite similar to Broadcast in places. It’ll be fascinating to see where she goes next.
19) Lau – Race The Loser (Reveal)
Not many bands this year managed to take the traditions and core sound of a particular style of music and update it so vibrantly and successfully as Lau did with folk on Race The Loser. Far From Portland didn’t sound so dissimilar to Dirty Three while The Bird That Winds The Spring saw melody burst out joyfully. I’m not sure how I missed Lau’s previous two albums to be honest (this is their third) as I’d really enjoyed Kris Drever’s Black Water album from 2006 but I’ll definitely be investigating further based on this.
18) Calexico – Algiers (City Slang)
No one does alt.country with quite the masterful finesse and attention to detail as Calexico. Indeed, you could apply this claim to music in general. They’ve reached the point where they can be seen as a 'model' band in many respects. Dependable, consistent releases are what we’ve come to expect from Joey Burns & co. now and Algiers was a return to something approaching their core sound, building on the evocative Carried To Dust.
17) The Invisible – Rispah (Ninja Tune)
I came to this brilliant album quite late in the year. Emotionally fraught and soulfully shaded, you can tangibly sense the pain that lies behind the music (singer Dave Okumu’s mother passed away during the writing of Rispah). In terms of sound it saw them take the classic alternative guitar band sound and overhaul with electronically augmented textures to produce something genuinely exciting.
16) Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
The surprise return of GY!BE saw them deliver an album that, for me, seemed to be closer to the sound of their live shows rather than their earlier records. Consisting of two extended pieces and two shorter more drone-based tracks it was harder, heavier with a greater focus on riffs. It showed they had lost none of their powers of soundtracking anxiety and dread.
15) Advance Base – A Shut In’s Prayer (Orindal)
An endearing innocence permeated this album by ex-Casiotone For The Painfully Alone man Owen Ashworth. Many of the keyboard melodies had an almost child-like quality to them and the melancholy, lo-fi wider sound found a harmonious match in the personal, moving storylines conveyed in the lyrics (most notably in Riot Grrrls and Summer Music). It seemed to get unfairly overlooked in other end of year polls.
14) Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Crown & Treaty (Luxor Purchase)
The second album from Sweet Billy Pilgrim seemed to gain praise from all parts of the music press and it was much deserved. Crown And Treaty was a beautifully crafted album that covered wide musical and emotional ground, resulting in both an alternately propulsive and affecting listen. There weren't many albums that displayed the hallmarks of mainstream guitar based sound that actually did much for me this year but this emphatically stood out, containing some really moving, heartfelt moments.
13) Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes (4AD)
On first listen it was tempting to dismiss Mature Themes as a semi-ridiculous set of skewed, vaguely self-parodic songs. I remember listening to it sat in a park on a lunch break, chuckling out loud. Despite its flaws however, it was apparent that it had something, specifically some supremely melodic songs with some nice lo-fi hooks that kept drawing me back to the album. Some reviews absolutely slated it but the more I listened to it the more I came round to the opinion that Ariel Pink was being sincere, trying to make the best album he could, imperfections and all (I now believe him when on the title track he sings “I wanted to be good, I wanted to be good my baby”). Over time I also began to enjoy the silliness of some of the lyrics. There’s more than enough in the way of ‘serious’ and ‘weighty’ music out there. Sometimes you just want to hear a man with bright red hair sing about “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs”.
12) Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular)
I enjoyed Tame Impala’s debut album Innerspeaker a lot but for me Lonerism represented a move forward. The fuzzy, swirling psychedelic guitar-pop was still very much in evidence but seemed better placed to cross over to the mainstream (which it did, judging by its appearance in many end of year lists). I loved how most of the tracks seemed front-loaded with melody, positively buzzing with energy, and (in some cases) bypassing traditional verse-chorus-verse song structures.
11) From The Mouth Of The Sun – Woven Tides (Experimedia)
As I mentioned earlier, with each passing year the genre of modern classical can at times begin to sound ever more homogenous, the sheer breadth of releases making it difficult for albums to stand out. Yet, Woven Tides did just that - a powerful, deep piece of work from Das Rosenqvist (who usually releases music under the Jasper TX name) and Kansas based composer Aaron Martin.
10) Trouble Books - Concatenating Fields (Bark & Hiss)
Trouble Books moved their wayward, slanted outsider-pop into more esoteric, abstract territory on Concatenating Fields. I loved the lo-fi sound and off-kilter melodies on second album Gathered Tones, vaguely reminiscent of Yo La Tengo (especially during the hushed male/female vocals) and possessing the same kind of sense of otherness found in early Fiery Furnaces records. Concatenating Fields wasn’t quite as accessible but was still a superb follow up. They really should be better known.
9) Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
Read my review of The Tarnished Gold on musicOMH.
8) Besarin Quartett – II (Denovali)
Denovali Records were a new discovery for me this year and this album by Thomas Bücker under the Bersarin Quartett name was for me the most compelling and evocative instrumental album released in 2012. Panoramic in scale and majestic in execution, it offered a truly experience-improving listen.
7) Mount Eerie – Clear Moon (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Clear Moon was the fifth album by Mount Eerie but it was the first I had heard, and had me quickly scurrying through Phil Elverum’s back catalogue. It showed just what is still possible with guitar music and the unexpected directions it can be pushed in. A quiet sense of cold, bleak doom infiltrates much of it, whilst it also contained hints of the pathos of Grandaddy and intimacy of early Iron & Wine.
6) Paul Buchanan – Mid Air (Newsroom Records)
Mid Air confirmed Paul Buchanan’s position as one of the most affecting (if somewhat under-appreciated) vocalists of his generation. It was a beautifully elegiac set of piano-based songs with subtle string accompaniment. They were undoubtedly very personal in nature but the sheer sentimental weight of the songs transferred over to the listener instantly. Newsroom and the title track were both good examples of the emotionally entrenched, tear-stained concoction of sadness and regret and longing that permeated the entire album. I found myself walking through a dark, deserted and neon-lit Soho in the rain one December morning with this on the headphones and it seemed the most perfect set of circumstances in which to listen.
This interview on The Quietus was one of the best things I read all year.
5) Tindersticks – The Something Rain (Lucky Dog)
4) Dan Deacon – America (Domino)
For me, America was so far ahead of anything else released this year in terms of breadth of sound, realisation of ideas and sheer ambition. Within it I heard tiny elements of Animal Collective, Sigur Rós, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Brian Eno. Moments of sublime beauty rubbed shoulders with distorted electronics and noisy, abrasive guitars and the four-part string-based suite that closed the album was both elegant and spine-tingling.
3) Neil Halstead – Palindrome Hunches (Sonic Cathedral)
Palindrome Hunches offered proof that quiet music can sometimes be the most powerful. It may have been slight, pretty and sensitively delivered but was also a hugely comforting listen and exerted a real emotional impact. The wistful Spin The Bottle was a contender for my favourite song of the year. Puzzles Like You by Halstead’s former band Mojave 3 was one of my favourite guitar albums of the last decade but this arguably surpassed it. I saw him play an intimate show at the Brixton Windmill in November.
2) Beach House – Bloom (Bella Union)
My love of Baltimore duo Beach House has grown over the years since I first heard their debut eponymous album back in 2006. Their fourth record, Bloom, was their most complete yet, proving that theirs was music to yearn for and irretrievably lose oneself in. It was undoubtedly their most pop album, yet also retained some of the sense of veiled mystery established on the earlier records. Tracks like Other People, The Hours and Wishes also demonstrated the ability of their music to reach out, comfort and reassure. Seeing them headline EOTR was quite special.
1) Sun Kil Moon – Among The Leaves (Caldo Verde)
As always, the album I rank number one is essentially the one I've returned to most often over the year and this year saw Sun Kil Moon pip Beach House to the top spot in a late surge. 2012 was the year I really rediscovered Mark Kozelek after unintentionally neglecting him for a few years, and it was all down to Among The Leaves.
It was by no means a perfect album but saw him in slightly more relaxed mood, delivering songs with touches of humour (Sunshine In Chicago), greater narrative detail (The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man) and minor structural alterations (Young Love) while still upholding the poignancy and sheer beauty of his music and voice. It also proved he’s still brilliant at writing lyrics observing people and relationships.
Its affect on me grew throughout the year, peaking in November when I saw him play an excellent show at Union Chapel (both this gig and the album also caused me to revisit some of his older albums for the first time in years which was a magnificent experience). Quite simply, there was no other album quite as cathartic and restorative as this...