ACL 2012: The Top 20 Albums of the Year

Godspeed!Thousands of releases, hundreds of reviews, and it all comes down to this: the Top Twenty instrumental and experimental releases of 2012.  This isn’t just the one percent; it’s a small percent of a percent, the cream of the crop.

This year’s top selections span a wide variety of genres, but prove a major point: that powerful music doesn’t need lyrics to succeed.  A secondary point: the best songs are not always the shortest.  And a third: all formats, from vinyl and cassette to compact disc and digital download, are fully in play.

These are the recordings we loved the most this year.  They’ve already stood a small test of time, but we believe that the years to come will prove them to be of enduring value.  And now, in order of preference, the staff of A Closer Listen presents the Top 20 Releases of 2012.

1) Godspeed You! Black Emperor ~ Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
Let’s not talk about triumphant returns – let’s talk about triumphant downfalls instead. Allelujah is a story of a thousand images in a few words, a moment of clarity before the last breath taken, an inescapable reversal of fortunes. All other stories are played within it, first as tragedy, then as nothingness, ending abruptly with the sigh of an epoch: the tiny lights hesitate, the darkness recedes, and it all starts anew. To call it a coincidence is to remain oblivious to the quiet, deeply moving call of the wild, the one that has demanded justice forever… Allelujah, and perhaps even GY!BE itself, is not a victory but an awe-inspiring disaster ten years in the making, the inevitable in flourish amidst the thought of us ever reaching a kind future. This is A Closer Listen’s album of the year not only because of its directness, its hopeful honesty, but also because of its timing, because it’s the kind of downfall we need to live, the final event that will allow us to emerge ‘like worried fire’ into a gamelan-like community, brimming with light. (David Murrieta)

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2) Kyle Bobby Dunn ~ Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn (Low Point)
Two hours of drifting, effortless, ambient drone from the prolific Mr Dunn, Bring Me The Head of… has clearly nestled its way into the consciousness of the writers at A Closer Listen. It’s possibly because Dunn has created an immersive experience from what seems a fairly simple set-up – let several guitar drones interweave in an ethereal manner, and allow the texture of the music to evolve. It’s a minimalist approach that leaves plenty of space for the listener; one isn’t overwhelmed by the density of this music but rather borne aloft on soft clouds of gauzy sound. It may be a comfort in times of sadness, fill the gaps between silence during happier times, or possibly soundtrack those moments between waking and sleep; you can bring your own interpretation to this music. Everybody who listens to Bring Me The Head Of Kyle Bobby Dunn will hear something different, and that’s why we love it so. (Jeremy Bye)

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3) Richard Skelton ~ Verse of Birds (Corbel Stone Press/Aeolian)
Richard Skelton has a wide history of recordings of excellent quality, having earned a reputation for greatly arranged, intense music that leaves no emotion untouched. Verse of Birds is not only no exception, but also a very high point in the artist’s output, one signalling even deeper valleys and motionless lakes to come. It is like being in contact with the tradition of nautre-as-music, finding solace in the distant echoes of caves, sharing yourself with the falling autumn leaves, tracing a sacred place that will remain untouched for centuries to come, known only to you as you discover its secret landmarks within the harmonies of the violin. The music of the spheres is not light-years away but merely seconds – it vibrates within your every move as you come upon the surfaces of trees and the subtle paths of animals. Skelton has graced us with the gift of nature (the nature he sees and breathes, the nature he is), and what an amazing gift it is. (David Murrieta)

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4) 36 ~ Lithea (3six)
36 is ambient music in its purest state, and Lithea is a rare flirtation with innocent, musical beauty. Dennis Huddleston forms clouds of entrancing ambience, where the soul slips away into another reality of love, peace and tranquility. Lithea is gorgeous music, crafted with a caring precision and an attention to ambient subtlety. Diving in, you’ll find a treasure trove of gorgeous tones and cloudy atmospheres that roll over the eyes like caressing tendrils of soothing steam. Absolutely sublime.  (James Catchpole)

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5) Greg Haines ~ Digressions (Preservation)
One knows an album is very good when every track on the album could be labeled as the best track on that album. One knows it’s a great when every track could be one of the best tracks of the year. But an album transcends that and becomes a masterpiece of modern music when all tracks are almost better than anything released in that year and they all work together brilliantly to form one coherent, magnificent whole. To put it in the most clichéd way ever; when the whole far supersedes the sum of the parts. Digressions is exactly that latter kind of album and it places Greg Haines head and shoulders above most contemporary classical composers. Just listen to the surge of emotion at the end of “Caden Cotard”, the timing of the piano chords among the dancing cellos in “183 Times” or the mind boggling arpeggios rising from the background in “Azure” and all the aforementioned will become a matter of fact. (Mohammed Ashraf)

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6) Sigur Rós ~ Valtari (XL)
It was no accident that Valtari was initially filed under Ambient on this site, for this is an album that bears all the hallmarks of the genre – soft, lush keyboards, atmospheric crackles, slow tempi and precious little in the way of drumming. Yet Sigur Rós are a (post-) rock band and fit many of the expectations there too – tracks that are epically widescreen, building patiently to crescendo and release, strings and chorus where appropriate (and SR can splash out on getting The Sixteen on board here), songs that were clearly designed to capture the forces of nature on a geographical scale rather than written to be strummed away at an open mic night. In some ways Valtari is a retreat to the sound of ( ), away from the poppy, more obvious post-rockisms of Takk… and Me∂ su∂ í eyrum vi∂ spilum endalaust, and it might not necessarily appeal to fans of those two albums who could argue that it’s not immediate enough, containing several tracks that are unlikely to appear in trailers for movies or nature documentaries. They should give it time, though – Valtari is a luminescent rather than anthemic record, as essential as anything they’ve ever done and likely to be a favourite for years to come. (Jeremy Bye)

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7) Kreng ~ Works for Abattoir Fermé (Miasmah)
“These are the sounds I have been listening to for as long as I can remember, It was always John ZornJohn CageDuke EllingtonDiamanda GalasYma SumacLes BaxterMartin DennyEnnio MorriconeBernard HerrmannCoilJohn ColtraneMiles DavisSun RaScornAphex TwinAutechreJ.S. BachDanny Elfman,Alan LomaxDJ ShadowJohn Barry, GodfleshDJ VadimTortoiseJerry Goldsmith, Billie Holiday, Amon TobinDmitri Shostakovich, Throbbing GristlePan SonicKevin MartinBrian EnoMorton FeldmanCharles Mingus, Art BlakeyMax SteinerThomas NewmanMike Patton, etc… I have no idea what unites them, but I think it has something to do with shying away from doing what is expectable. Reaching for something that is unknown to mankind, taking a risk and putting your vulnerable self out there.” – Peijn Caudron aka Kreng

Kreng is Belgium’s  Pepijn Caudron, and though his work may appeal to fans of dark ambient, his latest release demonstrates how that aesthetic can be harnessed while working within the forms and timbres of a very different genre.  Works for Abattoir Fermé  consists of 4 works each in two parts, written to accompany silent theatre pieces and a TV series staged by the Belgian experimental theatre group Abattoir Fermé.   (Joseph Sannicandro) 

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8) Julia Holter ~ Ekstasis (RVNG)
Ekstasis is Julia Holter’s second release, and it’s a stunner. Her beautiful singing is seemingly capable of any and all emotion. Shining with surreal positivity, her vocals are always upbeat and almost choral in delivery. Added syncopated beats overflow into her vocal harmony, and incandescent synths further deepen the experience; the whole effect is magic. Ekstasis is a brave concoction, but where Holter really shines is in her artistic originality, and her amazing depth of creativity that simply oozes off of the record. Her music positively projects itself and always keeps you attentive. Despite all of the elements coalescing, Ekstasis never feels full to bursting; it’s just the right mix. Ekstasis could be considered faintly eclectic, pulling as she does from multiple musical influences –  and in so doing, her creativity is allowed to transcend into pure, artistic gold – seen through the eyes of a musical goddess.  (James Catchpole)

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9) Simon Scott ~ Below Sea Level (12k)
In the initial review, much was made of Below Sea Level‘s accompanying book and bonus live disc which was all well and good but it is worth pointing out that they aren’t essential to an appreciation of the record – those who just want to download the album or are too cheap to spring for the luxury edition (such as myself) should not feel short-changed with the artifact that lands on the doormat or channels through the ether. A record should, after all, stand or fall on the music – or sounds, depending on your point of view – contained therein without worrying too much about the artist’s biography, or his photographic skills. So to the disc itself, which is a seven-track suite of pieces based on field recordings made in the Fen country of East Anglia, a sizeable area of drained marshes which exist below sea level, protected by embankments. The recordings themselves are sometimes recognisable – bird calls, the clang of agriculture – and sometimes left to the imagination. Over these carefully crafted soundscapes, Scott adds a subtle musical colour, a little impressionistic guitar or piano – just enough to blur the lines between a field recording and an ambient piece. It’s like travelling through the landscape with a favourite record quietly playing through the headphones; maybe Eno’s “Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960”, inspired by the coast not too far away. (Jeremy Bye)

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10) Caspian ~ Waking Season (Triple Crown)
Caspian tinkered with their patented sound in small yet significant ways over the years, but never before have they attempted the sonic overhaul found on Waking Season. Their third full-length features hushed shoegaze vocals and a grander spectrum of sound that often incorporates the organic and the surprisingly folky. While retaining their trademark ethereal post-rock thunder, Caspian have proven themselves capable of pushing their work forward into new and exciting realms. Can’t wait to see what’s next for the Boys from Beverly.  (Zachary Corsa)

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11) offthesky + Radere ~ I Will Love You, Always (Full Spectrum)
Colorado-born, I Will Love You, Always is a dream of inspiring, experimental drone. Deep in the forests, hues of a luminescent green rises through the tree-lines, where thin trails shine through in a prism of white light amid a radiant drone. A dedication to vocalist Whitney Houston, love surrounds the atmosphere like the comforting presence of the trees, smiling down upon us like an affectionate angel. There’s also a layer of nostalgia; our heroes pass away, but they never leave our hearts. Affection breathes deeply throughout the two experimental drone pieces. The tape used to record the album is also a source of love for the two musicians. White light may pour down, but the music is so colourful that every degree of the rainbow is enjoyed during its course. Above the forest, a cry can be heard. I will love you, always.  (James Catchpole)

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12) Plinth ~ Collected Machine Music (Time Released Sound)
Time Released Sound is our label of the year here at ACL for good reason, and Plinth’s Collected Machine Music, along with Taskerlands, is a big reason why. This album is made up of what I’d call ‘small music’, and that’s absolutely a huge compliment. This is sound that unfolds delicately, flower-like, as you listen, with every attention to space, texture, and tiny detail one would expect from such a specific undertaking. These ghostly little machines leave chilled notes in the haunted air long after they ring out, and weave a spell-bound tapestry of yearning and awe as they drift away on strings of light. Antiques never sounded so cool.  (Zachary Corsa)

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13) Olan Mill ~ Paths (Facture)
It was early or mid February. I sat down in my hotel room in Tehran after nearly a day’s worth of travelling by boat, car and plane for some much needed rest. Knowing that only a certain kind of music, a certain kind of album would guide me into the mindset I’d longed for. Having fallen head over heels in love with Alex Smalley and Svitlana Samoylenko’s debut Pine, listening to what they had in store in their sophomore effort seemed like the right choice. By the time “Springs” started, I was positive that it was the only reasonable choice I could’ve made. Paths is not only an extension of their sound, it’s a refinement and a more emotionally heavy musical proposition altogether. It’s thirty minutes of lush soundscapes and immaculately layered drones. Worlds spring to life, variations come in slow and subtle yet change everything, beauty rushes out of the speakers with every passing song and at the end one is left drained yet grateful for having been given the opportunity to tag along for this experience. (Mohammed Ashraf)

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14) Matteo Uggeri | Luca Mauri | Francesco Giannico ~ Pagetos (Boring Machines)
The long-awaited final chapter in the Between the Elements quadrilogy didn’t disappoint.  Together the four releases cover a wide spectrum of experimentation and aesthetic forms.  The first three installments – the sparse desert drone of Erimos, the slowly unfolding melodies of Nefoldhis,  and the electroacoustic smokiness of Kapnos– were released in rather quick succession in 2007. Pagetos is the most melodic and hopeful of the series, and all the more so due to the context of the long wait for its release.   Matteo Uggeri and Luca Mauri both recorded tracks on Kapnos, credited along with six other artists to The Meerkat collective, a group of  Italian experimental music enthusiasts who coalesced around an online message board.  Uggeri is also a quarter of Sparkle in Grey, who  along with Maurizio Bianchi produced Nefoldhis.  Uggeri and MB first conceived of theBetween the Elements series together, but I think it’s safe to say that Uggeri deserves great praise for Between the Elements.   As the development across this series shows, MB has been overshadowed.  Uggeri’s recent Fields of Corn with Bob Corn was also one of the most interesting of the year, literally recordings of folk songs made in a field.  Uggeri tackles each of his different projects with artistic focus, thoughtful concepts and a careful command of how to produce engrossing compositions by balancing the various resources at his disposal. Combining field-recordings, mild treatments, and occasionally his trumpet, Uggeri weaves fragile but startlingly beautiful moments interacting with Francsco Giannico’s piano and Mauri’s guitar.  Like the brief existence of morning frost, Pagetos is worth revisiting again and again. (Joseph Sannicandro)

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15) Anoice ~ The Black Rain (Ricco)
The Black Rain will possibly grasp every one of your nerves and make them tired with melancholy, with an aching for the unknown as everyone around you seems to dream of nuclear fallout. Anoice have stepped outside their usual cheeriness and made their most moving album to date, surrounded as it is in the mantle of catastrophes, awakening the tragic potential of their neoclassical style with the drama of civilized self-defeat. Images of atomic demise abound, but they are always underlined by a slight sense of overcoming, of a sadness so great it must lead to brighter places so as to avoid the reign of absolute death. Other post-rock bands tried similar approaches with their albums this year, but few were as compelling, as complete in the array and depth of the emotional commitment portrayed, as Anoice was. I think you won’t need more than one listen to realize that because of this, The Black Rain is, undeniably, one of this year’s most special records. (David Murrieta)

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16) Tyneham House ~ Tyneham House (Second Language/Clay Pipe)
A concept album centred around the ghost village of Tyneham in Dorset, the music here frequently belies the unhappy source of inspiration. Once a small yet flourishing village, Tyneham was taken over by the Ministry of Defence during World War II and never returned to its inhabitants. The music here seems to capture the sound of the settlement when it was a thriving place, being of a generally cheerful, folky nature. Acoustic guitar and flute interweave in a most beguiling way on these brief tracks, evoking a pastoral setting of long midsummer days, birds nesting in the trees, the cat watching with interest, the local post office being the centre of gossip and the phone box offering the only visible indication of a modern world beyond. The original release came with a cassette that is fortunately part of the download, two longer pieces of sound collages that range from the sound of rain to snatches of folk song. The contrast with the composed tracks is stark and yet between them a picture of a community is not merely sketched but vibrantly coloured in. The musicians behind Tyneham House are anonymous, but if you like the work of Keiron Phelan and David Sheppard, then this album will definitely appeal. It’s a miniature wonder. (Jeremy Bye)

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17) Black Elk ~ Sparks (Koen Music)
Fans of almost all types of music covered by A Closer Listen have been treated to a number of amazing collaborative albums this year, and one of the best is definitely the quartet of Ian Hawgood, Clem Leek, Tim Diagram and Danny Norbury aka Black Elk. Sparks is the culmination of all four artists’ abilities as instrumentalists and sound architects, beautifully simplistic and chilling all at once moving from the quite to the intense at all the right moments and ends up being one of the most essential aural journeys of 2012. (Mohammed Ashraf)

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18) High Aura’d ~ Sanguine Futures (Bathetic)
John Kolodij has been producing top notch music for sometime now (cf. Third Life) but has fully arrived as an artist with Sanguine Futures.  For what is ostensibly a drone record with a somewhat depressing title, it’s far more dynamic and engaging than that lets on.  Many artists working in any genre that features sustained tones allow themselves to fall into a land of grey in which they begin to sound indistinguishable, but Kolodij has a much more interesting palate of sonorities.   As one might expect from patient, long-form music, the album itself  is a coherent and compelling whole, whose reputation is surely destined to grow, whether the futures be sanguine or not. (Joseph Sannicandro)

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19) Tonesucker ~ Omnia Convivia Crastina (Onoma)
Tonesucker was consistently ranked among our staffers as one of our favorite releases of the year, and the heady wave of buzz has been well deserved, indeed. While much noise music can often come across cold and clinical, Omnia Convivia Crastina is absolutely bursting with robust and colorful life. There’s no randomness to this melee; everything is as utterly composed and perfectly interwoven as a fine photograph, with each rattle and each drone falling jigsaw-like into perfect and precise anointed place. Noise music doesn’t have to be arbitrary chaos; sometimes it can be as moving and  stirring as the simplest of gorgeous melodies. In 2012, Tonesucker’s unique take on the genre carries the day.  (Zachary Corsa)

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20) Pie Are Squared ~ Three Quarter Moon / Memory et cetera (self-released)
Three Quarter Moon was recorded during Mohammed Ashraf’s time on two off-shore rigs and three supply boats. Serenely, the at-peace ambience unfolds at its own pace. It’s possible to imagine the ocean below, cycling forever. Pie Are Squared captures an atmosphere of isolation in Three Quarter Moon, but it’s an inviting solitary experience. The entrance of the deep, tripping beat transcends the music and places it onto another level entirely. Memories et Cetera is similarly thoughtful, with “Rig Dronium”, the painful absence of loved ones in “Mom”, and the falling, golden orb of “Supply Boats and Sunsets”, with optimistic rays of light percussion and an intense, last blaze of a piano progression ensuring a perfect finale. There aren’t any guitars, which is a departure – perhaps setting a course for the rig – and this different outlet has ensured a different atmosphere. Above all, it feels like it’s a deeply personal record. There’s no mastering – it’s music in its unfiltered state of beautiful drift – and based on this outstanding release, unfiltered is the way to be.  (James Catchpole)

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Another chart entry for Omnia Convivia Crastina by Tonesucker | plesiosaur~

  2. Pingback: LCNL 017: Tacoma Tarpits (High Aura’d) | a closer listen

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