2018 was an amazing year for field recordings and soundscapes, perhaps the best to date. We reviewed over 40 works this year, and had an incredibly difficult time choosing ten for this list since the overall quality was so high. Many of the recordings told stories; some captured specific audiographies, while others warned listeners of impending global catastrophe.
The strength of the genre is demonstrated in a number of continuing series, the most comprehensive being the sound files compiled by Cities & Memory. The latest collection, Sounding Nature, holds over 500 sounds. Every Sunday morning in Toulouse, France, Stéphane Marin introduces a sparkling entry in the project Each Morning of the World; the latest set is titled Oceanian PhoNographic Mornings. Early this year, Sonospace unveiled the second installment of Soundmaps for the Dreamer, an incredible collection of 37 unique contributions. Bivouac Recording continues to amass a wonderful collection of 60 Minute Cities, the latest covering London, Yerevan and Philadelphia. Over at Flaming Pines, Kate Carr released four new entries in the Tiny Portraits series, while offering the previous releases in a single package. These are only a few of the great places to find field recordings and soundscapes; others include the ever-reliable digital labels Impulsive Habitat and Green Field Recordings, where all releases are free to download. Or one may simply Google “sound maps” or scroll through the Bandcamp releases tagged “field recording” and “field recordings.” (We recommend artists and labels use both tags, as many people search only for one or the other.)
So why does the genre receive so little coverage in the mainstream media? It’s not the lack of physical recordings; of the ten picks below, one is available on cassette, two on CD, four on LP and one on a USB card. Nor is it the lack of relevance; most releases include site specific wonders, human interest stories or both. Our theories are twofold. The first is that in our experience, field recording artists don’t send their works out for review. We write this because we review more than we receive. Most of the works we review were never submitted; we found them on our own. In a typical week, we might receive dozens of ambient submissions, and no field recordings at all, despite the fact that we know they are out there! The second is related; to our knowledge, since the demise of beloved blog The Field Reporter, no single website has appeared that is both dedicated to the craft and active on a daily basis. (If we’re mistaken please let us know, as we’d love to feature it on our Links page!)
There’s actually a Bible verse that relates to this (although obviously it was not written about field recordings): How can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent (Romans 12:14-15, NLT)? Despite the proliferation of the genre, many people don’t even know it exists; they may possess a pleasantly lingering memory of a new age nature recording (probably a thunderstorm), but that’s about it. But when people are asked if they’d like to hear some of the world’s strongest winds, or if they miss the sound of projection film, or if they can name the distinctive sounds of their hometown, ears perk up. This is what the genre has to offer, and more: field recordists capture unique and often newsworthy sounds (for example, Timothy Grieve-Carlson’s home recording of Hurricane Harvey on Sounding Nature); they travel to distant lands to record endangered sounds, offering an aural parallel to Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See; they take us to places we’ve never been, and perhaps have never heard of (Vlieland, Unguja, Ajdovščina, Bio Bio and the Kosciuszko National Park). There’s an amazing capacity for growth in the industry ~ even more now that the expenses of field recording have dropped. Most folks can record on their phones, while deciding whether to invest in more calibrated equipment. All the genre needs is publicity, which is what we hope this article will achieve. And now, A Closer Listen presents the best field recordings and soundscapes of 2018!
Field Works ~ Metaphonics: The Fair State (Temporary Residence)
Metaphonics is a massive box set, highlighting the intersection between field recordings and music. The best of the seven records is a sound collage that highlights community challenges in the age of layoffs and climate change. Threading speeches, news reports and interviews through a narrative of sound, the album paints an evocative portrait of the state of Indiana, where kindness is still a virtue but the trees are falling down.
Michael Lightborne ~ Sounds of the Projection Box (Gruenrekorder)
A love letter to cinema, specifically the golden age of human projectionists, Sound of the Projection Box captures sounds that are swiftly becoming extinct; yet by the end, it introduces new sounds that cannot be heard without amplification. The state of cinema is changing, and with it equipment and personnel. Lightborne helps us to remember the wonder of the old days, when people could still be surprised by the experience and connected to the person behind the projector.
Francisco López ~ Sonic Fields Vlieland (Self-Released)
The USB card drive is a convenient, eco-friendly, yet underused format. Lopez uses it to full advantage on this 3-hour release that one can carry in a wallet. Originally presented as a set of sounds accessible only after hiking, it has now been made available to the general public. While listening, one becomes attuned to the sounds of Vlieland, a natural paradise home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and very few people. This unspoiled sonic beauty is rare, yet divine.
Gonçalo F Cardoso ~ Impressões de uma Ilha (Unguja) (Edições CN)
Like the release above, this album covers but a single location: the tropical island of Unguja. The sounds of fishermen, singers and children are woven into a soundscape that is never far from the sea. Cardoso lived in this bucolic setting for enough time to call it home, and the warmth he feels for his subject matter shines through these grooves. These may just be impressões, but they sparkle like a miraculously legible travel journal washed up on a distant shore.
Institute of Landscape Architecture ~ Melting Landscapes
Melting Landscapes has been appearing on multiple lists this month, and for good reason; it’s a complete package, from concept to execution. The liner notes, black-and-white photography and glacier-colored vinyl appeal to the eye; the cold, crisp recordings capture the ear. As climate change continues to gain momentum, ravaging nations in indiscriminate fashion, so do the deniers. (When presented with findings from his own administration, a certain president we refer to as He Who Must Not Be Named responded, “I don’t believe it.”) This release would have been important whenever it appeared, but it’s especially relevant now.
Philip Samartzis & Daniela d’Arielli ~ A Futurist’s Cookbook (Galaverna)
Field recordings can be incredibly serious, but they can also be incredibly fun. This is the case with A Futurist’s Cookbook, which plunges happily into the life of a farm, highlighting cows, grain, machines and noodles. The photos that accompany the release are a huge part of the appeal: clean, evocative and educational, they portray the agricultural industry in a positive light. The Pollinara farm must have been overjoyed at the result; as Samartzis writes, “only a futurist meal can lift spirits.”
Simon Šerc ~ Bora Scura (Pharmafabrik/Sonospace)
This is not the time of year to walk around Ajdovščina (Slovenia), but this is exactly what Simon Šerc did in order to capture the sound of the roaring Bora winds. At one point, the wind was clocked at 295 km/hr. In such conditions, signs rattle, roofs bend, and field recordists attempt to stay upright. This is a violent recording, a field recording equivalent of death metal. As we endure our own storms this winter, we can play this disc and imagine that things could always be worse.
Philip Sulidae ~ Ramshead (Unfathomless)
Summer travels in Australia’s Kosciuszko National Park led to this exciting soundscape, in which field recordings form a succinct impression of place. There’s so much action in this set piece that one may hear it as a movie. By layering and manipulating his sounds, Sulidae creates something that is more representative than it would have been as sonic snapshots: an irony not lost on the listener. An extra congratulations to the superb Unfathomless label, which reached its 50th CD in 2018 and continues to be one of the best in the field.
Matthias Urban ~ SiAl (Dinzu Artefacts)
Four years of pristine Icelandic recordings converge on this cassette, unfolding as the story of a sonic adventurer, plunging himself into polar temperatures, daring the surf to swallow him whole, gingerly approaching the local seal population and asking for ~ no, stealing ~ an interview. Urban released a wide variety of recordings this year, but this is his best, a cacophony of surf and snow that sounds as bracing as the conditions in which it was recorded.
Valentina Villarroel ~ Mares (Sonospace)
Sometimes a simple concept is all it takes. We love the beach, and Mares brings us right to the wrack line, then beyond. Mares is one of the crispest, cleaning recordings we’ve heard all year, a celebration of shorelines and and the people who walk them. Recorded all around Bio Bio (Chile), Mares helps us to remember summer even when the axis of the earth plunges us into darkness and cold.