2012 has been dark. Weather and hobbies have kept me indoors far more than usual. Music has performed a different function this year, too. I’ve preferred albums to hover somewhere below the conscious, as a backdrop to plotting and writing stories.
While there are albums that have proved most effective at blocking out the outside world, they haven’t all become favourites in the normal sense. The three albums that I’ve loved most this year have one thing in common: collaboration. They all take simple forms which become convoluted and unpredictable through introducing chaotic elements.
The big three
Since April I’ve had Carter Tutti Void’s album Transverse on constant rotation. There’s something beguiling about it, with an appearance of little going on but actually serving as a template for the listener to imagine all sorts of hidden melodies. That it’s a live performance is staggering. I wish I’d been there.
Philippe Petit’s Cordophony is either an album that went under the radar for most music publications, or it’s one that just appeals specifically to me. In 45 minutes it covers a vast spectrum, short soundtracks to all sorts of imagined scenes. According to the press release, Petit plays ‘processed acoustics/field recordings/foundsounds + electronics + turntables & glass manipulations + percussions + synths/piano + balloons’ and there are 17 other musicians involved, including Nils Frahm. The album is a swirling mix of cello, electric harp, vibraphone, tibetan bowls, flutes, gongs and prepared piano, but sounds like something from another world.
Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s ‘Black is Beautiful’ is another shimmering oddity. More a collection of sketches than songs, it gives the impression of flicking through radio stations. This is my understanding of what hauntology should be – I could convince myself that I’d heard any number of these pieces in my childhood, complicated by the inclusion of an unlabelled cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s 1979 track, ‘Baby’. Totally alien and totally familiar.
The rest of the top ten
Mature Themes, by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, didn’t capture the attention of the music press in the same way as 2010’s Before Today. But it’s a really strong record and the move to less a lo-fi production might make it endure longer. It’s a terrific mix of styles, sounding like Beefheart, Zappa and Gong. The title track and ‘Only In My Dreams’ are perfect pop, ‘Early Birds of Babylon’ surprises me each time I hear it, and there’s another cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s ‘Baby’, making a nice link to Blunt and Copeland’s album.
I’m not sure what kind of status Purity Ring’s Shrines has by popular consensus, but it’s the electropop album I’ve been waiting for for a long time. Megan James’s vocals are sharp, memorable melodies but it’s Corin Roddick’s backing work that makes it. The pitchshifted, choppy samples remind me of a more clubby take on The Knife’s Silent Shout. His synths saturate the album, often overwhelming the vocals. The effect is like examining intricate artworks with the low summer sun blinding your eyes.
Cellist Hildur Gudnadottir’s album Leyfdu Ljosinu is a single 40-minute track, recorded live with no post-production. It’s staggeringly beautiful.
The best albums often don’t fit neatly into particular genres. Dance Classics Vols I & II from NHK’Koyxen don’t match my normal tastes, and yet I’ve listened to them both endlessly in the second half of 2012. Something about these short, skittery bursts really puts me in some kind of flow state.
On its release, I fully expected Liars’ WIXIW to top my list of 2012 favourites. Seeing them perform live in Berlin cemented my love for the band’s new direction. The standout track, ‘Brats’, is still the most anarchic, infectious thing imaginable.
Unlike the immersive Splazsh, Actress’s R.I.P is a weird collection of vignettes. On some listens they can seem insubstantial, on others they seem to stretch out, hinting at something far broader. A really eccentric but compelling album.
The Seer by Swans is a late entry to my top ten. I’d struggled for a long time to get around to devoting full attention to the 2-hour opus, in the knowledge that it would be demanding and no kind of background to any other activity. It’s an amazing album, huge in ambition, and it’s hard to believe it’s an album release and not a retrospective of a lifetime’s work. I suspect I’ll love it more and more with time.
- Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin – Instrumental Tourist
Beautiful drones. This is what I write to.
- Au – Both Lights
Colin Stetson’s addition to the lineup makes a great band greater. At it’s best, it sounds like Animal Collective playing Steve Reich.
- Fieldhead – A Correction
Not as firm a favourite as 2009’s They Shook Hands for Hours, but still sublime.
- Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
Hypnotic and overwhelming.
- Fenn O’Berg – In Hell
Another terrific collaboration. ‘Christian Rocks’ and ‘Omuta Elegy’ are outstanding.
- Mouse On Mars – Parastrophics
The most fun, and funniest, album of the year.