ACL 2016: The Top 20 Albums of the Year

worlds-end-girlfriend-plein-soleilThe last album we reviewed this year ended up being the best ~ in light of the title, a fitting end.  Our cover image is taken from its lead video; the actress seems to be giving the album a closer listen.  

During the last month, we revisited our reviews, put our favorites on repeat, debated and created our lists; and finally we came to a consensus.  2016 may have been a terrible year for politics and for peace, but it was a great year for music.  The artistic impulse is an act of creation in the midst of destruction, courage in the midst of fear.   We needed these albums, and just when our spirits were at their lowest, they appeared.  We hope that you enjoy our selection of The Top 20 Albums of 2016!

1) World’s End Girlfriend ~ Last Waltz (Virgin Babylon)
Trump? Brexit? Perhaps for us at ACL, the biggest shock of 2016 came from the East in the late appearance and victory of Last Waltz. In a year with no clear winners, World’s End Girlfriend’s Katsuhiko Maeda produced a clear winner at the death. And how fitting that it’s a record of bombast and despair, complex and tumultuous as our world has been this year. Maeda’s most apocalyptic yet introspective work yet, Last Waltz reins in the chaos and thrilling genre splicing of Seven Idiots (“Radioactive Spell Wave” excepting); instead it reflects more cohesively, more ominously on the uncertainty faced by many today. Dark synth and guitar lines prevail, backed by sombre violins, cacophonous beats, gnarly distortion and rending soprano. Maeda’s mastery of meshing electronic music with orchestral post-rock can be seen as an allegory for our times: the digital world upending the traditional, the clash of soulless against soulful, heretic against dogmatic. Yet for all the bleakness permeating this wonderful record, there are kernels of peace and intimacy to be uncovered too, and “Last Blink” makes for a comforting coda. Death beckons us all, but if we can say sayonara with a dance alongside a loved one, that would make the best of all possible ends. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

2) Roly Porter ~ Third Law (Tri Angle)
Perfect stillness. Absolute zero. There’s an alternative interpretation to be made regarding Third Law in which the music is meant as anti-cinematic, anti-descriptive – if the title refers to the third law of thermodynamics, in which the movement of energy stops entirely at 0 degrees Kelvin, motionlessness becomes key. Sure enough, the titles of the pieces indicate some action taking place, but if absolute zero is unattainable in practice (let alone in nature) and entropy is the norm, a tension in which these actions are frozen arises: they are almost unmovable images that bleed sound, that ever-so-slowly break and pull apart, dying across millions of years like stars. That’s not to say that it’s a slow album, but that its greatness relies on structures in tension, of drones that turn into ambience that sometimes lets beats take place – only do stars continually explode and unleash massive energies in an environment where everything else freezes to death or needs an atmosphere to keep it safe from stillness. Third Law pushes electronic music to the edge by bringing to the fore its inherent opposition to that which is unmovable. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

3) Eluvium ~ False Readings On (Temporary Residence)
Angelic tones and celestial beings run their pale, transparent fingers through False Readings On, the eighth release from Eluvium. This is reflective music for transient, temporary bodies struggling to cope – that are, in reality, on the verge of shutting down. With more of an emphasis on the electronic, Portland’s Matthew Cooper explores the self and its inner psychological workings, conflicts and associations – primarily the negative forces of fear, self-doubt and anxiety, and 2016 had a lot of that. Ambient music can be most effective in periods like these, though; when things don’t go the way they perhaps ought to, or when things are looking decidedly grim. In times of stress, ambient music is a comforter and a healer, so maybe ambient needs a frail uncertainty in the way that yin needs yang or the way that a healthy faith needs a dose of doubt: the emotional character of the music is all the stronger for it. As the operatic vocals ascend, the music takes on a spectral, flowing beauty, and it approaches its subject sensitively; its subtlety makes it all the more emotionally moving. Reverb-laced choirs and air-conditioned drones only help in developing an atmosphere of calm – it isn’t anxious at all, but it’s there in the back of the mind, fizzing like an unopened can of Coke, threatening to explode with white noise; harmony within disharmony. False Readings On has a quiet, transforming power that regenerates the soul.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

4) Jherek Bischoff ~ Cistern (Leaf)
It was clearly a wise decision for Jherek Bischoff to shed vocals entirely with his latest solo LP. Solitary in composition and concept, if not execution (see the extensive performer credits), Cistern was inspired by the composer’s confinement in a two-million-gallon underground water tank replete with natural reverb – but its seeds were planted far before as Bischoff recalled while in the tank boat trips taken in his childhood. Such memories seem vividly conveyed in the set’s more saccharine moments (“Headless”), but these bob in isolation on still waters far-reaching. Sedate and lulling into reflection, drawn-out violins are carried by tidal waves of slow, rhythmic cello, as in the plodding album highlight “Closer To Closure “ or the more ominous “The Wolf”. At times like a flock of gulls the strings take off to soar with rapturous repeating melody (“Cistern”) – compromising the set’s singularity yet making the heart soar alike. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

5) ‘Olafur Arnalds ~ Island Songs (Mercury Classics)
Leave it to someone like Arnalds to make such an ambitious project sound so humble and small in scale – Island Songs is an aural folk journal of Iceland for which many other artists would have probably been happy to claim some sort of national significance. This is not that kind of gesture, with its vulnerability, its intimate tone, its utterly personal revelation of a man’s relationship to a place, a time, and the people in it. Arnalds seems to be a Romantic still, framing that relation through an impassioned lens that resists confinement while being able to portray meaningful emotion with just a simple piano melody or a string harmony that barely whispers its presence to the listener. It’s not so much a minimalism as it is a kind of affective precision, like the charcoal outlines of a mountain range in the cover: an intangible suggestion that seems to carry all the feelings in the world with it, because those mountains are as much uniquely yours as they are someone’s, perhaps everyone’s. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

6) Matmos ~ Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
Let’s be frank: it’s just a washing machine. And we love it. At first it seems parodic of the Matmos process in which they operate sounds into music, and while it might as well still be conceived as such, it’s incredibly engaging for its very range, in which you’ll feel drawn to the rhythms, intrigued by the sound sources, perhaps (once the novelty wears off) even notice how sad and how joyful it often is. The operation of the machine is as much a gesture as it is procedure, a momentary occurrence that draws a tenuous line between work and play that in the end subsumes the earlier into the latter. If play involves a paradox of utter seriousness and utter humorousness, Ultimate Care II (how can care be ever ultimate, anyway?), Matmos have made their most playful album yet, full of little, often astonishing details that question music as much as they mock it. Care is like an emotional act of playing: rules reinforce a fundamental loving purposelessness, and it is great just how full of feelings this recording of an object we mostly deem as functional is. Listen well, and listen carefully, because this is life. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

7) Colin Stetson ~ Sorrow (52Hz)
Classical music doesn’t usually cross over, but there was something special about Górecki’s Third Symphony, which premiered in 1977 but became a global phenomenon in 1992, selling over a million copies.  A generation later, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is being introduced to a brand new audience.  Colin Stetson’s stunning version preserves the passion while trading the quietude for dynamism.  The music topples at times into post-rock, thanks to the contributions of Rebecca Foon (Esmerine) and Sarah Neufeld (Bell Orchestre).  It’s one of the most visceral albums of the year, amplifying the emotions to an almost unbearable degree.  (Richard Allen)

Review and purchase link

8) ‘Olafur Arnalds ~ Late Night Tales (Late Night Tales)
It’s unusual for a compilation to make it onto our year-end listings, but this Late Night Tales mix is a stunner. As the lovely, angelic music of Julianna Barwick’s “Forever” takes you away, you know you’re in for a special mix. ‘Olafur Arnalds allegedly spent months curating this mixtape, describing it as ‘the soundtrack of my life’, and the effort he put into it certainly shines through. The Late Night Tales series is well known for its quality, but they’re also personal expeditions. The same is true here; its glowing, ambient atmospherics and its casual-but-emotive air means it’s perfect as the long nights descend.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

9) Paul Jebanasam ~ Continuum (Subtext)
Continuum completes Paul Jabansam’s journey from investigating earthly representations of the heavens to studying the heavens themselves. It’s a thrilling journey that starts with a surge through our atmosphere (“depart as…”), the vessel powerful yet vulnerable against the weight of the cosmos. Lines of communication crackle, encasements fracture and electrics falter. As we escape gravity’s clutches (“eidolons beginning…”), senses reorient to survey infinity and soothing melodies emerge, yet cannot manifest clearly. We seem to drift for aeons until the fabric of reality itself falters (“search another…”), our senses assailed with existential ripples that converge then separate. We seem to drift with Aeons – perhaps the spirits that emerged previously – who could lay to rest doubts of divinity. But in the end, it concludes not with the comfort of knowing, but with the beauty of not knowing. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

10) Roger Goula ~ Overview Effect (Cognitive Shift Recordings)
London-based composer Roger Goula astonished late in the year with a set charting the psychological change an astronaut undergoes when first viewing the Earth from space. Droning strings and analogue synths combine to convey the vastness and vacuity beyond our atmosphere, while the human element is voiced through a variety of lead instruments, including ukulele, electric guitar, cello and violin. In its calm first third, Overview Effect is glacial in its immensity and stillness. As the astronaut drifts farther from home, which soon appears as a mere “Pale Blue Dot”, emotions and drama crescendo in baroque violin solos that coruscate and thrill. Throughout, the electronics hum far below – the backdrop of darkness perennial. A breathtaking debut for both label and artist. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

11) Kjartan Sveinsson ~ Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen (Bel-Air Glamour, Vinyl Factory)
Henryk Górecki’s popular Third Symphony was the subject of a great re-interpretation by Colin Stetson this year, but it is arguably Sveinsson who has made a closer tribute in the form of Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen (roughly, “the sound of divine revelation”). Not only does it allude to the modern sacred music tradition of which Górecki is an important part of, it also brings to bear its particular mixture of styles, giving ‘neo-classical’ frameworks of composition a minimalist treatment that distills their classicality into its other, a deeply moving emotionality. Where Sveinsson deviates from the ‘holy minimalists’ is in his use of silence; the presence of the divine comes here from an essential quietness, from the peaceful tumult of the surface of the primal waters, and thus it does not emerge, it simply always is. You just need to listen, truly listen, and you will find yourself above a sound-full sea of light. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

12) Sustainer ~ Medicina (Eilean)
Medicina‘s haunted sounds are composed out of half-forgotten melodies and rusty orchestral compositions. They arrive from the 60’s and 70’s, but they sound much older than that: like some lost Disney picture from the 1940’s that was actually never released for fear of it being too dark. And, seemingly overnight, this kind of music disappeared, too; it never showed up in the record stores, never mind year-end lists. These easy sounds are lifted from muzak, but they’re more than that. As they’re looped and layered, they weave a darkly magical spell through its hundred-acre woodland of ambient. Sustainer (Barcelona’s Alex Alarcón) has created a record that is made all the stronger for its use of overlooked, lonely and undervalued elements. Remember, music is for life, not just for Christmas. At times as light as the hop of a bunny, it later drunkenly descends into a dark daze where its dreams morph into ink-stained nightmares that blot out the joy of the conscious mind, and the bright rays of an animated sun, its smiling face etched in pencil and ink, are slowly erased.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

13) Drombeg ~ Earthworks (Futuresequence)
As royal strings mix with cold, atmospheric textures, Drombeg’s Earthworks slowly inflates, sweeping over the landscape and casting grey shadows over everything it touches. Slivers of sunlight emerge from the yawning mouth of a sullen cloud, and as the music washes over the listener – what Thom Brookes describes as ‘a soundtrack for the middle of nowhere’ – the rugged, untamed landscape of his Ireland slowly unfurls. Geological structures that have been there for centuries slowly take their place beside a variety of field recordings and gently inserted electronics, but the soft yearnings of a tender piano create more of a cinematic feel; you are instantly there, in a beloved, wonderfully preserved part of the country, without any jagged rocks protruding from the music. This is rich, adored and atmospherically dense ambient.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

14) Tilman Robinson ~ Deer Heart (Hobbledehoy)
2014’s Network of Lines was a great record. Deer Heart is even better. Sadly, it seems to have been borne of strife, the cover and track titles depicting a couple – and a person – being cleaved in two. The music reinforces this, lurching from extremes of tranquil piano and chamber pieces (“Her Heart Was Warm…”) to electronic constructions of abrasive drone (“Pareidolia”). That these extremes appear so early creates a pleasingly unsettling experience for the rest of the set, as Tilman Robinson covers much in between, including ambient synth and polyrhythmic excursions. A deliberately fractured record whose closer breaks down in the most literal way, Deer Heart displays this exciting composer’s dexterity – and we can only hope has helped to heal his heart. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

15) Wang Wen ~ Sweet Home, Go! (Pelagic)
“What makes Wang Wen stand out from other post-rock bands?” Formally, not a lot, to be honest. “Then what are they even doing in your list?” you might ask. The answer is simple: the meticulous attention to detail. All the Big Ideas that post-rock usually handles often fail to be translated well into the music, not for lack of passion but for their association to Big Idea conventions (say, the grand narrative stakes of the long build-up and the crash), something that Wang Wen manages to avoid because they do not just wield those ideas, instead they construct them with a myriad small compositional approaches. Post-rock pieces are usually easy to get lost in – the scale and the scope welcome it – but Wang Wen does not want to get lost in melancholic intensity, they want to keep the road in view, to make you feel something and realize it every step of the long path to an end that will just trigger another beginning. Restraint and consciousness, contemplation and feeling: you never arrive, but that’s the point of listening. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

16) Films ~ signs from the past (Ricco)
The latest LP from Japan’s Films is one of several releases in our list of 2016’s finest and supposedly instrumental records to feature vocals; not only that, the vocals are intrinsic to the fragile beauty of signs from the past. From resigned sighs and whispers to operatic harmonies and crescendos, the two female singers imbue these floral piano compositions with a fragile yet determined humanity, warmly welcomed to help turn our backs on 2016. Films exhibit a renewed focus that dispenses with experimentalism to fuse more seamlessly their chamber, electronic and post-rock elements. With colorful passages of dulcet escapism and soporific orchestration that crescendos to the sublime, signs from the past is a wonderful album and in many ways one perfect for the holidays: soothing, heartfelt and with no mention of Christmas. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

17) Ian William Craig ~ Centres (Fatcat/130701)
A lush, decaying beauty flows out from the cracked walls and peeling melodies; Centres is a mausoleum that’s physically ageing and declining, but it’s built on the stones of unfading love. Ian William Craig’s vocals are more pronounced and the thin, sighing harmonies of the past show more urgency. They’re ‘fundamentally distressed’, a protest aimed at the unstoppable disintegration of all things. But the music can spring up from the ground like new shoots, healing itself with a single hope. The swirling, ethereal harmonies are still inside, but some sub-pop structures are now present, too, growing like vines around the frail and weakened structure. Shining intermittently through the moss, the textures are always on the verge of breaking up. An exposed heartbeat circulates through the music, a pulse which slowly pushes his musicianship forward.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

18) Explosions in the Sky ~ The Wilderness (Temporary Residence)
Continuing to stay relevant while many peers have faltered, the seminal Texan post-rockers produced another wonderful LP that further evolves their evocative sound. Belying their name, Explosions in the Sky have lowered their sights to the ground as they have matured, and in The Wilderness they find bountiful pickings. Although surrounded by guitars, the drums have always been paramount to the band’s delivery, and here Chris Hrasky produces remarkably bare rhythms that lull and entrance, yet subtly introduce exquisite shifts (a highlight being the bass change in “Logic Of A Dream”). Together with more subdued guitars and increasingly pervasive electronics, the landscapes The Wilderness carves out are less mountainous and desolate, more undulating and intimate. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Review and purchase link

19) Dakota Suite & Vampillia ~ The Sea Is Never Full (Karaoke Kalk)
When it is intensely life-affirming, sorrow can be a beautiful thing. The Sea is Never Full attempts to bear the sonic scars of an overdetermined cruelty, the despair that only the uneven relationship between the human will and chance can visit upon anyone. Composed after the catastrophe at Fukushima, Japan, it is a lament born from the ocean’s hunger, a somber meditation upon its natural vitality; it is a nature that cares, that passionately devours its children, like Cronus. Divided into distinct movements, the album’s consistency works like classical pieces of old, with various thematic currents that are nevertheless grounded on a profound elegiac sadness, sometimes melodically pleasing, sometimes noisy, and sometimes just utterly painful. Dakota Suite have always been good at melancholic tones, but their collaboration with a fierce collective like Vampillia has brought out a piercing edge that truly feels funereal. (David Murrieta)

Review and purchase link

20) Teasips ~ Proxemic Realms (Heavy Mess)
Proxemic Realms sits two thousand feet up, closer to the heavens and further away from the soil, its legs wrapped in a comfortable, Lotus position, drinking in the mountain air, or, perhaps, taking slow sips from it. Angela Frances Wilson’s music as Teasips is more than refreshing – it’s rejuvenating, like a shower for the mind. Its pan flute has the clarity of peppermint tea and a sound of eternal peace slowly filters into the music. It echoes into the valleys and sighs over the cold, wide lakes, and a soft breeze carries it further still. It’s affected by the elements, because she continues to play even as the dark sound of thunder sweeps the land, threatening to send the pale, thin melody off course. As the rain slowly falls, the water becomes a cold kiss. Her sustaining, light melody isn’t in a hurry, and it seems to question the propensity for high levels of activity: why the rush? It’s serenity, and the rain helps to refresh the air.  (James Catchpole)

Review and purchase link

2 comments

  1. niaL

    Glad to see Eluvium’s “False Reasings On” and WEG’s “LAST WALTZ” in this great list. I would have ad “Betrayal and Reincarnation” by yodaka (Kashiwa Daisuke’s post-rock band). It’s rather a difficult listen but very atmospheric.
    Keep up the great work a closer listen..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: