ACL 2014: The Top 20 Albums of the Year

Victory GarlandThis year’s #1 pick united the staff, and will be seen by many as the obvious choice.  But surprises abound deeper down the list, no more so than our #2 pick, which challenges the entire definition of “album.”

The 20 picks below represent less than 1% of the music our site received in 2014.  In order to make the list, each selection had to be championed by at least two staffers.  This is an elite group, representing only the best of the best.

The uniting factor for our site’s first three #1 picks is that the roots of each are decades deep.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor has been around since 1994, Stars of the Lid since 1995 and Tim Hecker since 2001.  Each has influenced others on the list; their sonic tendrils are deep and wide.  And yet, each has continued to compose and record meaningful, relevant music.

Post-rock continues to thrive on this year’s list, although perhaps not the post-rock one might expect to find; a relatively new band breaks through in a big way, while a perennial favorite continues to shine.  Modern composition continues to make a strong showing.  But the biggest surprise is a field recording entry in the form of a sound map.

In recent years, we’ve accepted the fact that an album may only exist in digital form.  A sound map is an expansion to a multi-directional yet still finite form.  Field recording is particularly suited to this manner of presentation, as it has roots in the physical world, an irony not lost on our staff.  In this particular case, a physical version is also available, and is honored in The Year’s Best Packaging; this presentation is nearly as creative as the original release.  As artists struggle to find an audience, it’s refreshing to encounter something new, a sign of boundaries gently nudged.

Each staffer was asked to choose his own Top 20 from the shortlist of 70 (7 top 10s).  These votes were then tallied and ranked.  And now, in order of preference, A Closer Listen presents its Top 20 Albums of 2014!

1) A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ Atomos (Erased Tapes)
Atomos, the sophomore album from A Winged Victory for the Sullen, is a breathtakingly beautiful experience – we wouldn’t have expected anything else. But its beauty isn’t just skin-deep. Atomos isn’t exactly more of the same, nor is it a radical departure. By expanding their sound, Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’ Halloran have created more space; the music now feels like a living room without the sofa. Instead, the room is filled with sparse piano arrangements, swelling strings and soft, guitar-based drones. The album succeeds not with a shout, but with a quiet glow.  (James Catchpole)

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2) Kate Carr ~ Lost in Doi Saket (Sound Map)
Field recording collections sometimes run the risk of alienating those not already inundated into the world of all-encompassing sound maps. It’s only rarely that a release transcends the sometimes-staid subject matter of field recording and finds itself not just accessible, but delightful, to outsiders. The greatest compliment one can pay to Ms. Carr’s ever-growing body of acclaimed work is that it is the perfect entry point for one unlearned in the realms of natural sound recording. The Thailand of this album is a musicality of dense whispers and roaring gusts, and we’re lucky that Kate Carr’s brought us along on her journey. It’s more than feeling as if you’re there; it’s as if you feel you’ve become part of the landscape itself. All of this proves how much each of Ms. Carr’s releases is anticipated, and treasured.  (Zachary Corsa)

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3) Erik K Skodvin ~ Flame (Sonic Pieces)
What does Erik Skodvin, one half of legendary ambient duo Deaf Center and the man responsible for the chilling, sinister soundscapes of Svarte Greiner, really have to prove to us in 2014? His legacy has already been cemented for future generations of intrepid audiophiles. Well, how about the fact that sometimes even the darkest of basements can be penetrated by radiant light through a grimy window? That’s the best way to describe the subtle glory of Flame, all skittering textures and heart-swelling surfaces. This is Skodvin at his most widescreen and cinematic.  For every weary shadow inhabiting the corners of his work, here he finds ways to bathe even the dimmest hues in fragments of icy light. So what does Skodvin have to prove in 2014? That his palette is still expanding, letting all sorts of colors erupt.  (Zachary Corsa)

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4) Valerio Tricoli ~ Miseri Lares (PAN)
Even as a fan of Tricoli’s early work with the trio 3/4HadBeenEliminated and of his collaborations with Thomas Ankersmit, and even considering the PAN label’s consistently high quality of work, nothing could prepare me for Miseri Lares. Eight years since his solo debut (issued by Giuseppe Ielasi’s now defunct Bowindo label), the time honing his craft was well spent. Tricoli brings together the expertise of amateur musique concrete techniques, the energy and intuition of a seasoned improviser, and the vision of dedicated composer. More important than any particular technique or sound is Tricoli’s ability to render such affective moods out of narrative fragments, to manifest “the irrational horror within” through 77 minutes of sound. Tricoli’s crowning achievement, Miseri Lares is a masterwork of subtle, surprising and suspenseful sonic sculpting.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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5) Rumour Cubes ~ Appearances of Collections (Self-Released)
There’s a definite sense that post-rock has grown up with all of us. That’s not a bad thing, of course, particularly when we consider that albums like Appearances of Collections are best enjoyed at times of both rational and emotional turmoil, when the sweet orchestration and its resolution in rock forms are sure to push straight into the heart and mind, for both anguish and comfort in equal measure. In those times, it is albums like this that will constantly remind us of the intensity of our feeling, its dramatic overtones, its sheer importance. Appearances is one of the year’s best, and we mean that both because it is a technical achievement (sixteen musicians doing swift, concrete musical gestures – this is, make no mistake, a well-oiled machine!) and a significant, moving work. I, for one, am truly glad that the genre refuses to die, and does so with style. (David Murrieta)

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6) Christopher Tignor ~ Thunder Lay Down in the Heart (Western Vinyl)
It starts with the reading of a surreal poem by the once little-known poet, John Ashbery, before taking inspiration from one of the lines and proceeding into a 20-minute arrangement. Adopting the themes of revival and interpretation, Tignor’s remarkable LP is centred around that arrangement, which masterfully marries a string assemble with electronics, sound manipulations and a full drum kit. Having fused modern composition with post-rock so effortlessly, Tignor then proceeds to reinterpret himself, producing three shorter pieces composed only of sounds from the centrepiece. Here the coalescence of multiple genres is reinforced with droney, synth-based passages, ambient electronica and industrial beats. Rewarding examination of its narrative’s genesis, Thunder Lay Down in the Heart succeeds in beckoning sounds – and a poem – from their natural habitat and repurposing them for a different place, a new time. (Chris Redfearn)

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7) This Will Destroy You ~ Another Language (Holodeck/Secretly Canadian/Suicide Squeeze)
Following up the jawdropping Tunnel Blanket was no easy task, but TWDY have transcended the pillowy gloom of that album with Another Language, burying experimental swells in shoegazey layers of ethereal sound. Though they’ve lifted some of the curtains of doom of their past efforts, Another Language still churns with haunted melodrama, and is all the better for it. From the chiming rush of “New Topia” to the massive Slowdive tidal wave of “Dustism”, TWDY continue to cement their reputation as a cerebral and envelope-pushing band.  (Zachary Corsa)

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8) Christina Vantzou ~ No. 2 (Kranky)
The second musical outing of Brussels-based visual artist Christina Vantzou possesses an undeniable majesty. Yet No. 2 is majestic without being overly weighty, in either atmosphere or length.  Like a fine cloth woven with gossamer thread, one can be draped within and wonder at its creation, yet not be drowned in its folds. Backed by a 15-piece ensemble, the pieces distinguish themselves with a variety of dominating voices ranging from horns and strings to synths and a harp. But the vocal and choral sections are most intrinsic to the ethereal atmosphere, and most responsible for pushing the LP towards the ambient end of the modern composition spectrum. These spacious passages project the occasional peaks of triumph, especially present in “Going Backwards to Recover That Which Was Left Behind”, to greater heights. (Chris Redfearn)

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9) Petrels ~ Mima (Denovali)
All great works of art are open to interpretation, for they have many sides to be explored by very different people at very different times and places. Petrels’ Mima is multiple, open, as multi-dimensional as the science fiction stories that inspire it, written into our modern heads as visions, as mythical moments of existential self-inquiry that plot, more often than not, a utopian course beyond the clouds of knowing that hold us in our place. Perhaps his best yet, this album flows like a machine designed to care, meticulous and tranquil, full of slow-burning drones and electronic beats that shine against a blinding sun of noise. It is warm and fragile music, even if at its core one finds a mix of awe and fearful expectation, suitable for a certain kind of optimism long gone, long lost in the treacherous paths of the twentieth century.  This is a soundtrack for a type of hope well worth recovering, one that is not afraid to think impossible thoughts. (David Murrieta)

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10) Black to Comm ~ Providence (Dekorder)
In Providence, something’s not quite right. Black To Comm’s music sounds like it could have come from a science fiction novel, with squelchy synths and Bigfoot beats crashing around a lesser known corner of a national park. Swampy tones bleed into the muddy trenches of a deep dub.  A flurry of white noise, blended with a higher drone, sees that the music ends on a wave of euphoria. The old, drum n’ bass styled beats kick the music into a fight or flight response, picking up the pace as it veers towards the end. Sirens blare from inside the science lab. It’s only 14 minutes short, but it’s a brilliant exercise in experimentation.  (James Catchpole)

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11) Ian William Craig ~ A Turn of Breath (Recital)
No words can better do justice to this unique release than those penned by our own Richard in his review. In short, A Turn of Breath is the work of an opera singer straying far from his field position. With a single voice, reel-to-reel tape and the tentative intrusion of synths and even an acoustic guitar, Ian William Craig seems to give voice to the human spirit itself, in all its inchoate fragility. The effects and filters to which this voice is subject signify the trappings and travails of modernity – one possible theme being how reliant we are now on machines to convey our conversations, rather than doing them face to face. What long-term suffering to our souls, this impersonal form of communication? Yet by the record’s close, entire passages of words are finally discernible, completing the soul’s transcendence with the message: we will prevail. (Chris Redfearn)

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12) Lawrence English + Stephen Vitiello ~ Fable (Dragon’s Eye Recordings)
Fable springs to life with a refreshing immediacy and energy.  The work of these two composers is just as likely to be subdued and subtle as loud and dense. Fable is something else entirely, cunning in its juxtaposition of timbres and rhythms, allowing for space and silence rather than manipulating sustained tones and dense layers of sound. No less a cohesive work than one has come to expect from artists of this caliber, each individual track stands on its own, feeling complete whether or not heard in the context of the complete album. One may not be able to perceive the traces of each artist’s distinct contributions, yet Fable is animated by the tension of collaboration.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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13) Hiss Tracts ~ Shortwave Nights (Constellation)
Another Godspeed side project? No, not exactly. Hiss Tracts carves a unique musical identity all their own, and stands well apart from their clamorous Montreal brethren as a result. This collaboration between GSY!BE’s David Bryant and Growing’s Kevin Doria has resulted in blossoming blooms of scattered tapes and burrowing synths. These are frayed and torn reels of film dissolving in scratches and chemicals and the ravages of time, sending static flares heavenward as they fly. Surreal and harsh, soothing and harrowing, Hiss Tracts is your new-era soundtrack to the desolate wastes, a sort-of post-post apocalyptic wash of noise where the car fire has long since burned out and all the people have melted away. Shortwave Nights is a comfort that only could come from restless experimentation.  (Zachary Corsa)

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14) Lawrence English ~ Wilderness of Mirrors (Room40)
Like his excellent 2011 album The Peregrine, Wilderness of Mirrors draws its conceptual framing from literature, in this case a fragmentary poem by T.S Eliot reflecting on memory and imagination. The entirety of the record is rich in texture and easy to become lost in, each potential event an iteration of something already gone or yet to come. There’s no revelation waiting, no resolution to come, no linear narrative to grasp hold of, just a spiral of refracted signals competing to be heard. More aggressive than expected, the density encourages high volume and an attentive listener. One might continue flipping the LP (or listening on shuffle) and easily lose track of time, lost in its wild environs. Multiple listens feel like visiting the same setting, but never from the same perspective.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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15) Kyle Bobby Dunn ~ Kyle Bobby Dunn & the Infinite Sadness (Students of Decay)
Kyle Bobby Dunn has done it again. Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness is a deeply melancholic monolith that can crumble even the stoniest heart. It’s a long journey, but that’s not a criticism. On the contrary, the album benefits from a long running length – it’s deeply beautiful. The cool drones feel tired as they sustain, sink and repeat, trailing off long into the dusk, becoming pale ghosts as they travel. Solemn drones lay their heads low. Dull strings rise and fall. These slow movements are icy, like a choked, white breath of air in the cold of January.  (James Catchpole)

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16) Death Blues ~ Ensemble (Rhythmplex)
Ensemble is, like its name indicates, more than just a series of tracks, more than just an album in the conventional sense. This is a collective effort, both in execution and in the way the pieces relate to each other as a group.  Each instrument adds a feature to each one of the aurally depicted masks, drawing grooves beneath the eye-holes with a guitar-like harmony here, making the cheekbones stand out with an electronic melody there. The album’s almost unclassifiable nature doesn’t prevent us from coming face to face with the music. On the contrary, it invites us to join in, to project our own masks onto its soundscapes. (David Murrieta)

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17) Matthew Collings ~ Silence is a Rhythm Too (Denovali)
By now there’s no doubt that Matthew Collings is an innovative composer on the scale of Ben Frost, Greg Haines, Tim Hecker, Nico Muhly, and so on. His work has become gradually outstanding, and with Silence is a Rhythm Too he’s blazed his own path through contemporary music, recording an album that is as emotionally intense as it is complex. Like the art of his peers, it strides a fine line between a radical form of pop experimentalism and the even less accessible leanings of the avant-garde, proving itself deep and defiant while not being entirely confrontational toward common forms of listening. Whenever someone starts to berate the present in favor of past musics, I always think of all these composers doing so much exciting work, and cannot help but imagine how silly that someone will feel when they eventually read the fascinating history happening right here before us, of which Collings and his fellows are a crucial part. (David Murrieta)

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18) Wrekmeister Harmonies ~ Then It All Came Down (Thrill Jockey)
J.R. Robinson’s debut full-length You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me appeared prominently on our Top 20 list last year, and Then It All Came Down follows up on its promise. The CD edition of his latest includes both, giving new listeners an excellent opportunity to get lost in Robinson’s engrossing album length compositions. No surprise for a project inspired by the filmmaker Bela Tarr, Wrekmeister Harmonies excels at the cinematic approach to sound composition, driving narrative through slowly developing musical passages culminating in a roaring sea of dread. His last record was inspired by films of decaying Detroit, and its successor is no less apocalyptic in scope. Inspired by a 1973 Truman Capote interview with a musician-murdering member of the Manson Family, Then It All Came Down proceeds like a dramatization of their encounter, slowly transitioning from the ethereal and soothing to dark and abrasive. The final quiet of the coda allows the weight of this transition to sink in, an existential dread that can’t easily be discarded.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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19) P Jørgensen ~ Gold Beach (Low Point)
Gold Beach screeches and squeals. The surf ripples and rustles as the tide creeps in and then drags itself back out. The atmosphere is anchor-heavy, and it’s hard to make out the beach in the pitch black light. In 1944, many men lost their lives on this beach, and the solemn strings are all too aware of it. Static fades in and out, like a radio frequency lost in the void, lost to the years. The strings are soaked to the bone with a deep sadness, but the music rises above it. Its courageous attitude, its duty and sacrifice, block out the fear and win victory over the night and its crawling hand of evil. The rain falls, the wind flickers past. The sand covers up the blood, but history can’t hide it.  (James Catchpole)

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20) Pascal Savy ~ Adrift (Eilean Records)
Adrift is a landmark release for Eilean Records, reflecting the seascapes that border the fictional island of Eilean, which is part of the label’s larger cartography. By using a wide range of original source materials to voice the restless immensity of the ocean and the imposing presence of the nearby land, the French composer also assures its landmark status in the more acclaimed sense, masterfully mixing organic field recordings, tape loops and acoustic instruments with electrical feedback and droning synths to create a mood both mysterious and eldritch. Not as far as ‘dark ambient’, the titles alone (“Ghost Echoes”, “Disappearance”) convey the subtler foreboding of these eight pieces, whose natural place in the day would be dusk. Imbuing a fictional subject with a mythical status, Adrift divorces the mind from the everyday and yet lingers within like fog over water. (Chris Redfearn)

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: Accolades for Recital artists in 2014 | Recital

  2. Zenon Marko

    Superb selection! So happy to see that you made Atomos the #1 for the year. What a beautiful album. Especially nice on the clear vinyl version. The Christina Vantzou album is also a favorite, lush follow-up to the debut. Rumor Cubes an This Will Destroy You are new discoveries for me, and I became an instant fan.

  3. Thanks for this! So many new great discoveries all at once.

  4. SpizenKlasse

    Interesting list! Thanks!
    My view in one clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdHW8ElDG8I

  5. Pingback: Teaching Artist

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