ACL 2015: The Top 20 Albums of the Year

Le GramophoneRich picked Matana Roberts, Chris picked Michael Price, James picked Ian William Craig, David picked Holly Herndon and Joe picked Heroin in Tahiti.  But this year’s #1, one of the longest albums ever recorded, drew support from across the board.

We received approximately 2500 eligible albums for review consideration in 2015 (not counting all of the rap and singer-songwriter material), which represents only a fraction of the instrumental and experimental music released during the year.  Most of it was good, some of it was great, and we knocked ourselves out trying to cover the very best.  By December, the cream rose to the top, and we achieved a healthy consensus, which can be found in the list below.

This year’s cover image is a woodcut titled “Le Gramophone”, produced by Jean-Emile Laboureur from 1918-1921!

And now, in order of preference, A Closer Listen presents its Top 20 Albums of the Year!

Sleep1) Max Richter ~ Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon)
The 8-hour Sleep received mass media coverage, while the live performance in London set two world records.  An album of excerpts (From Sleep) brought a nap-length version to the public, while a box set offered the full evening of rest.  A remix set, led by a Mogwai rework of “Path 5”, is scheduled for early 2016, along with a spring tour.  This saturated awareness helped the album to cross over to the wider world.  In 2015, Sleep became an ambassador for instrumental music.  Yet Sleep is more than a news story or gimmick.  Deceptively simple at times, this symphony of sleep offers a depth of emotion, especially apparent on “Return 2 (song)/nor earth, nor boundless sea”.  People will be talking about Richter’s achievement for years, even if they never play the whole thing.  The combination of skill, execution and ambition make it our site’s #1 album of 2015.  (Richard Allen)

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2) Matana Roberts ~ Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee (Constellation)
One more step in Matana Roberts’ epic, one more deeply moving suggestion that history simmers underneath it all. It is the artist at her most personal, most engaging, and yes, most experimental. Jazzy tones collide, drones fade in and then dissolve like phantoms, and everything is carried by her voice(s). Where in Chapters One and Two a sort of archival practice was set in motion, in Three the metaphorical association of documentary bits and music is done away with in favor of oral history, of the much more directly emotional involvement of a memory expressed. River Run Thee indeed – our dreams are but the spring from which the past perpetually flows, speaking for us, speaking as us. This is how Three’s particular brilliance shines through, placing the artist at the center of a tide of remembrance, drawing out the many voices she’s composed of, pointing not so much at her singularity but her multiplicity. If this music is astonishing already, we can only imagine what comes next, and we can’t wait for it to happen. (David Murrieta)

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3) Ian William Craig ~ Cradle for the Wanting (Recital)
Ian William Craig’s music is haunting. These ambient hymns are incredibly fragile (and incredibly pretty). On Cradle For The Wanting, deep, layered vocals accompany the glowing, tape-infused loops, and they’re as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Like a cluster of falling leaves, the rusty harmonies swirl slowly. It’s an ambient fugue, and its sombre tone stays with you.  (James Catchpole)

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4) Esmerine ~ Lost Voices (Constellation)
I was skeptical that a ‘rock album’ from Esmerine would top the Istanbul-influenced majesty of Dalmak, my personal record of 2013, but the Canadian coterie have certainly pushed themselves admirably to try. Key to the triumph of Lost Voices is its selective use of the expanded group’s arsenal, with which they incorporate favoured colours within a new tonal palette. The quieter, mallet-driven pieces are vintage Esmerine, while the louder, drum-backed tracks lift the band’s fascination with varied rhythms and Arabian melodies to another level. This ever-evolving group continues to delight. (Chris Redfearn)

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5) Holly Herndon ~ Platform (4AD/RVNG)
Platform embraces the multiple meanings of the word by making explicit the various relations at work in all hearing, constantly provoking the listener to ask “why?” and “what?”. Stuff like the seemingly over-the-top monologue in “Lonely at the Top”, which almost drives the album to a complete halt (in conventional musical terms), demands a contextual approach, stepping outside of it for a moment in order to look elsewhere for meaning. This ironic mode seeks to connect, to start a discussion, to be shared and questioned, but while such an approach is not unique, the form it was given by Herndon & company does point at collaborative possibilities unusual in the field of (pop) music. It pretends to be something more than an artwork (like, say, Florian Hecker & Reza Negarestani’s Chimerizations), more than ‘just’ music, but without renouncing the communality of pop, that great public discourse. This is some of what makes Platform one of the best ‘objects’ we’ve listened to this year, wrapped as it is in smart and catchy electronics, designed to be heard, spoken about, broken down, and most importantly, connected with concepts, with visual art, with anything and everything you can. (David Murrieta)

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6) Kreng ~ The Summoner (Miasmah)
The Summoner grabs the hermetic, noir aesthetic that forms the undercurrent of Kreng’s work and gives it another life. The sound collage he so effectively experiments with in past albums, with its literally analogical, magic operations, is not the key component here, perhaps because this is not about treading into the unknown (‘outside’), it is about a process, a symbolic here and now geared around the ego (‘inside’). It is a ritual, a projection of an order that is changing, and so it must be composed, it must follow certain steps that fully express the inner life that will be poured into the summoning, the evocation of something that, in alignment with the basic alchemical formula (‘as above, so below’), comes from the deepest recesses of the self. The experience is harrowing, and so is this album. A genre leap and quite the simple instrumentation highlight the extremes that flow into each other, the intensity of silence that begets the intensity of sudden musical bursts and viceversa, a mythical dance of death and life. It is this profundity what makes The Summoner so sublime, so dynamic and yet still, and one of 2015’s most memorable albums. (David Murrieta)

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7) Michael Price ~ Entanglement (Erased Tapes)
We called out Entanglement in the spring as likely being ‘one of the vital releases of 2015’, and so it proved to be. Michael Price’s first major work as a solo artist, after almost two decades involved with film soundtracks, is a breathtaking set that evokes different landscapes, cultures and eras. It is carried by timeless winds, yet there is no sense that the composer looks only to the past – among the chamber sections and female soprano, arpeggiated synth lines and mobile phone recordings come across as enchanting anachronisms. Entanglement is both heartbreaking and life-affirming, and deserves to be a soundtrack in your life. (Chris Redfearn)

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8) The Frozen Vaults ~ 1816 (Voxxov)
The Frozen Vaults produced one of the coldest records of the year. It could be classed as arctic ambient. The freezing conditions wrap themselves around the piano, the cello and the violin. The year was 1816, and it was one of the coldest years on record. Icy tones and lingering, ice-carved drones produce a record permanently drenched in the cold light of day. Fog descends over the city, shrouding the rivers. In 1816, the sun forgot to shine.  (James Catchpole)

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9) Disasterpeace ~ It Follows OST (Milan Records)
Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide. Gonna find you, and take it slowly…  It Follows is a modern horror classic (and a reminder, if one was needed, that having sex in a horror movie is never a good idea. It leads to a lot of problems, and I’m not talking about STDs), but the soundtrack is often just as important as the picture. Disasterpeace’s soundtrack is crucial to the overarching atmosphere of the film. Its gritty location of Detroit and its compact, suburban setting – picket fences, a teenager’s bedroom, a school classroom – took the everyday and made it creepy as hell. The synths have a late 70’s / early 80’s feel to them as they cut into the music. At times, a frenzied section that recalls Psycho sets the alarm bells ringing. You can imagine gazing into that dead-eyed stare as the stalker approaches you – never running, because that would be too easy. The synths slowly walk towards you, closer and closer. You can’t outrun it, and no matter where you go, you can’t escape it. It’ll always be walking. It Follows.  (James Catchpole)

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10) *AR ~ Memorious Earth (Corbel Stone Press)
This was a great year for albums that exceed the categorization of ‘music’, and Memorious Earth is at the forefront of a pretty impressive list. Recorded as the soundtrack for a film of the same name, it’s nevertheless part of a greater collaborative art project between Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson that deals with our linguistic relation with the planet. If we consider it as one huge organism, how does the landscape remember the names we’ve given to it? There is only one track, “Now This Terrestrial Sea”, a metaphor that resists memory by appearing suddenly, and it slowly builds momentum into a tidal wave of drones that do not hide their artificiality, crackling with digital noise, filling its ‘organic’ qualities with stress, with a tension that cannot seem to collapse. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional 1:1 map in “On Exactitude in Science”, the things become the names, the earth becomes a sea, and the landscape changes with the words it often seems to elicit from us. This is one of the best albums of 2015, but it will probably make waves for a long, long time. (David Murrieta)

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11) Godspeed You! Black Emperor ~ ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ (Constellation)
Godspeed have always been the best kind of romantics, putting ideals, commitment, action and emotion at the forefront of everything they have done, but never before have they pushed so deeply into the messianic. (There were some rather restrained hints in Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! even with the title.) This drive, this absolute conviction, makes their music even more compelling.  Their focus makes every track seem concise (even at 14 minutes). Additionally, they’ve pretty much updated post-rock by integrating ideas and sounds with a pop avant-garde edge (seriously, “Lambs’ Breath” wouldn’t seem out of place in a Sunn O))) drone black mass); gone are the humanistic musique concrète interventions and the tiny lights in resistance, replaced by a different kind of apocalyptic sense, one that might prefer to talk of salvation and defiance, of a sunray so intense the darkness becomes terrified. Asunder is a triumph, and will lift your spirit so that it can no longer withdraw. (David Murrieta)

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12) Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie ~ Travels in Constants Vol 24 (Temporary Residence)
I literally cannot even remember when I subscribed to Temporary Resident’s Travels in Constants series, but it was probably in order to get Vol. 12, Mogwai’s contribution. I don’t think anyone, least of all the label, expected it to take this long to wrap up the 25-volume series. But that’s part of what makes this EP so special. No advance notice, no expectations, just the two final CDs appearing in the mail out of the blue one day. And even better, an EP from Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie. This surprise EP doesn’t stray too far from the sad, slow moving drones and introspective examinations of timbral detail we’ve come to expect, but that’s fine if you’re Wiltzie. Best known as half of two duos who can basically do no wrong, Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Wiltzie reliably produces beautiful music. This solo EP is recognizably within the same sonic sphere as those projects, and will certainly appeal to their fans. He’s not breaking any new ground, yet the opportunity to work solely with classical instrumentation affords a rigour and attention to detail that crystallizes Wiltzie’s aesthetic of close listening. Collaborating with the Budapest Art Orchestra and conductor Peter Pejtsik grants Wiltzie’s delicate melodies a purity and richness that makes this EP more than just a peek at the next SotL album. (Joseph Sannicandro)

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13) Rutger Zuydervelt ~ Sneeuwstorm (Glistening Examples)
In 2015 Rutger Zuydervelt (aka Machinefabriek) remained as prolific as ever, and amazingly his work continues to progress, becoming more refined, more conceptually grounded, and often more stripped down. He’s released a lot of good records this year, likely with more to come before December is done, so it can become very easy to lose track of what he’s been up to, easy to overlook yet another Machinefabriek release. But Sneeuwstorm is among the best work of his career, one you shouldn’t let pass you by. I’m not sure why a record like Deining is released under the name Machinefabriek (with Anne Bakker) while others, like this one, are under his birth name. Certainly Bakker’s violin contribution to that record was more technically demanding and is more in the foreground, whereas the saxophones of Otto Kokke and Colin Webster are treated as mere raw material to conjure up a snowstorm. But we can only speculate. What I do know is that Zuydervelt often seems to be most inspired when working with the timbre of the saxophone, whipping up a monochromatic tempest of buzzing drones, textured field-recordings, and noisy loops.  You’ll want to get buried under these drifts. (Joseph Sannicandro)

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14) Anoice ~ into the shadows (Ricco)
‘We are losing something important, aren’t we?’  Into the shadows represents another triumph for the Japanese group, and closes a trilogy on the theme of memory. Anoice urges us not only to acknowledge humanity’s wrongdoings, but to immerse ourselves in them in order to re-emerge, cleansed. The mood is sometimes tragic, other times beautiful, but at all times intoxicating. into the shadows also offers a modicum of hope.  Interspersed with the guitar-led and ambient tracks are moments of piano-led light that suffuse the gloom and warm the soul. (Chris Redfearn)

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15) AUN ~ Fiat Lux (Cyclic Law)
AUN’s music is a crystal palace that transports the listener away from this world and into another dimension. Stuttering electronics and incredibly deep, spacious drones act as a portal.  Almighty pillars stretch out towards the stars. As the drones are ushered out, shy voices peek through, filling the space with their ghostly presence. Fiat Lux is an all-consuming record.  (James Catchpole)

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16) Oiseaux-Tempête ~ Ütopiya? (Sub Rosa)
Do the birds that some say appear only when storms are nigh come because of the storm, or do they perhaps cause the storm? The France-based post-rock collective’s second LP in as many years poses this question, with a tumultuous cover to match – a metaphor of the political/social upheaval witnessed during their Mediterranean travels. Ütopiya? expands (and contrasts) the viscous timbres of the self-titled debut with highly effective bass clarinet, which in places veers the bleak soundscapes toward a form of jazz. Challenging and engrossing. (Chris Redfearn)

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17) Peter Gregson ~ Touch (Sono Luminus)
Like its mainly monosyllabic song titles, Touch is is understated yet profound. Many compositional styles abound across its eight tracks, from the Reich-esque multi-layered restraint of “Time” to the chamber-like simplicity of “Chorale”. While muted and graceful overall, Peter Gregson’s cello can’t help but shine, its melodies that tentatively emerge from the undergrowth forming the LP’s many highlights. If the holidays are overwhelming, Touch offers a chance to breathe in the breathless pace of modern life. (Chris Redfearn)

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18) Heroin in Tahiti ~ Sun and Violence (Boring Machines)
Sun and Violence is a remarkably executed and ambitious sophomore album from this Roman duo, a journey into the abyss of the Mediterranean psyche. Abandoning the Pacific flavor of their debut, they instead look for inspiration closer to home. Fusing folk rhythms from around the Mediterranean over beds of ambient sound, melodic psychedelic lead-guitar riffs serving to anchor the ship from steering too far off course. Heroin in Tahiti occasionally achieve levels of dramatic intensity, but are restrained enough that they never drift into aimless noodling or unfocused improvisation. Instead, each song is rigorously structured, and a strong sense of narrative propels the album forward. Samples were drawn from recordings made in Italy during the 1950s by noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella, in a sense almost turning the gaze of the anthropologist around, “Othering” one’s own culture in the process. Sun and Violence is the soundtrack to an hallucinatory sun-bleached film noir, a modern mythologization of the dark side of Italy. (Joseph Sannicandro)

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19) Julia Kent ~ Asperities (Leaf)
Beauty in bleakness: a difficult thing to find, but one that Julia Kent seems to be uncovering with increasing ease. Asperities marks the cellist’s return to ACL’s year-end lists following the success of 2013’s Character, which we marked as the moment Kent found her own voice. Abrasive in subject but mellifluous in tone, the foreboding atmosphere of Asperities is made all the more arresting by the ease with which its layered cello lines beckon us toward its embrace. Do we succumb to the surface temptation or recoil from the inward threat? A beguiling record inspired by conflict, which inspires the very same in the listener. (Chris Redfearn)

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20) Jeff Stonehouse ~ Mariner’s Willow (Listening Mirror)
Mariner’s Willow is perfumed with a pure, loving heart. At just over thirty minutes, it’s truly beautiful ambient music. The birds sing, the air sighs and the electric guitar, drenched in reverb and slow, ghostly chords, plays its aromatic song in remembrance. You may hear the wind blowing, but it may also be Alica Merz (Birds of Passage), who provides the silky vocal sheet. This is the essence of true love – remembering a specific time in a place that feels like home. It’s a moment that can never be repeated, but one that will always be remembered and cherished.  (James Catchpole)

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for this. Great site.

  2. Great list. Great website. Keep up the good work!

  3. gianmarcodelre

    Thanks again to all for another great sonic year!

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