A Closer Listen’s Best Field Recording & Soundscape Albums of the Decade

If you’ve ever wanted to get into field recordings, this article is a perfect place to start.  Field recording and soundscape artists capture sounds before they vanish, preserving them for future generations.  Our best of the decade list includes the sounds of the Pollinaria Farm (Italy), a melting glacier and a winter storm; a walk into the Polish forest; a dozen celebrations of a dozen birds; a recreation of a 7th century soundscape; a meditation about silence and sound; and a requiem for the BBC World Service.  Our listeners will travel to Ireland, Iceland, Antarctica, Thailand and more!

And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents the Best Field Recording & Soundscape Albums of 2010-19!

Chris Watson ~ In St Cuthbert’s Time (Touch, 2013)
Chris Watson is best known as a wildlife recorder: if you want to hear lions devouring their prey from inside the carcass, or the sound of a whale breaking the ice at the pole, he’s the man to ask. He’s also presented Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day programme, which shares recordings of mainly British birds for early risers. Birds feature a lot on In Saint Cuthbert’s Time, too, which is an attempt to capture a 7th Century Soundscape of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island. As much of Watson’s work is to accurately capture the sounds of a location, this album presents something of a departure for him: to skip back some 1,200 years by ignoring the noise of people, boats and cars, and focus on the wildlife with the occasion sound emitting from the monastery. That ‘ignoring’ bit is no small task, and it must have taken Watson many hours to record and piece together the resulting album. Split into four tracks, one for each season, the listener can treat it as a virtual time machine, and let the imagination conjure the scenes of monks, seals and waves; or you can delve into the accompanying booklet and read about the island and its history from scholars at Durham University. Either way, In Saint Cuthbert’s Time is a brilliant, rewarding listen. (Jeremy Bye)


Daniel Blinkhorn ~ Terra Subfónica (Gruenrekorder, 2013)
Billed as a series of “radiophonic miniatures,” Terra Subfónica is the aural version of a breakfast cereal variety pack.  Blinkhorn serves computers and clocks, serenades and seas, the amplified human body and the sound of his own children playing with toys.  The album is held together by a sense of wonder. While listening, one begins to think about the sounds of one’s own house, car and community, and the question, “What makes a sound appealing?”  Those unsure of what they enjoy may find some direction here; and if not direction, joy.  (Richard Allen)


Howlround ~ Ghosts of Bush (The Fog Signals, 2012)
You might expect a field recording album to contain some outside recording (such as in a field), but The Ghosts Of Bush gathers its atmospherics from the interior of a building. Bush House, to be precise, the former home of the BBC World Service which closed its doors for the last time in July 2012, but not before a plucky studio manager had walked its corridors late at night, committing what was there – and not there – to tape. These tapes were then spooled onto reel-to-reel recorders and the most interesting elements looped and layered (it’s a technique that Howlround still employs). The result is decidedly spooky; the atmospheres captured unsettle the listener as if the building was aware its days were numbered and the ghosts in the machines and the walls were having one last attempt to communicate their secrets. It’s a fitting tribute to a building with over 70 years of history, the ambience truly resonates. (Jeremy Bye)


Institute of Landscape Architecture ~ Melting Landscapes (2018)
Melting Landscapes is not only an incredible research project; it’s also a crisp set of field recordings presented in exquisite fashion, accompanied by a book of album-sized photographs. One can view the subject while listening to its demise.  The timely project draws attention to the threat of climate change through the lens of the Morteratsch Glacier.  Side A concentrates on the beauty of snow and ice; Side B traces the melt from drip to torrent.  Science, art and politics converge, underling the importance of significant action now.  (Richard Allen)


Izabela Dłużyk ~ Soundscapes of summer (LOM, 2016)
One of our favorite stories of the last decade is that of a blind woman who became an incredible field recording artist.  Izabela Dłużyk traveled into the forests of her native Poland to capture the sounds of swallows and seas, then structured her album to replicate the rhythms of a single day.  She has some of the best ears of any field recordist we’ve ever covered; the crispness of this set puts the listener right in the forest with her.  A follow-up, Soundscapes of spring, was released a year later; we’re hoping for two more to complete the cycle.  (Richard Allen)


Kate Carr ~ Lost in Doi Saket (Sound map, 2014)
When the decade began, we were unfamiliar with sound maps.  In 2014, Kate Carr surprised us twice: first, by releasing this spectacular set of Thailand field recordings, and second, by coming in at #2 on our overall list of albums from that year ~ although technically, this wasn’t an album.  (A “real” album of highlights, Overheard in Doi Saket, followed on sound card.)  More than any release this decade, the sound map led listeners to appreciate the genre, thanks to its accessibility and charm.  While travel is typically remembered through the eyes, Carr offers an alternate angle on global experiences.  “How was your trip?” one might ask.  “What did it sound like?”  (Richard Allen)


Lawrence English ~ Viento (Room40, 2015)
The wind is howling; the temperature has dropped to -40.  What should you do?  For most people, the answer is obvious.  But for Lawrence English, the answer is, “Go outside and start recording.”  This is the sound of nature’s fury, taken from within the storm.  Viento reminds us that nature is not always safe; sometimes it is wild and dangerous.  If you’re looking for a wind recording, this should be your go-to piece.  It’s only one of English’s many albums on the subject, but it’s his rawest and his best. (Richard Allen)


Pat Collins & Tadhg O’Sullivan ~ Silence/Sound (Farpoint Recordings, 2015)
There may be no such thing as silence, but this hasn’t stopped us from pursuing it.  Silence is integral to the field recording artist, whose definition may be physical (no sound), categorical (no sound from outside sources) or personal (an internal silence).  Pat Collins’ 2012 film Silence traces the journey of Eoghan, a field recordist returning to his native Ireland; this is the impressionistic score.  Through dialogue and sound, O’Sullivan meditates on the dual subject, nestling into each sonic source to appreciate every gift the ear can gather in.  (Richard Allen)


Philip Samartzis & Daniela d’Arielli ~ A Futurist’s Cookbook (Galaverna)
When people find a favorite song, they want to play it over and over.  The same principle holds true for a person’s favorite sound, and A Futurist’s Cookbook has plenty to choose from: grain, rain, sheep bells, and the album’s most endearing touch, noodle-making machines.  Italy’s Pollinaria farm is filled with sonic treasures, and Samartzis weaves them into a comforting, homespun soundscape while d’Arielli provides the pictures .  A few words here and there cue the listener to the specific source.  When it’s over, we all go out for pasta.  (Richard Allen)


Various Artists ~ Bird Box (Birds of a Feather Boxed Set) (Flaming Pines, 2014)
Years before Sandra Bullock lost her vision and stumbled through an apocalyptic landscape on Netflix, there was another Bird Box, this one collecting the 12 CD3″s in Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series. This is a fun format, and seeing everything in a tiny birdhouse is a treat.  The singles had been released in pairs (like Noah’s ark!) over the period of a year, and helped to make field recording accessible to the mainstream: each release inspired by a specific bird, most including the sounds of that bird and every one including musical and/or soundscape material.  While the bird box sold out long ago, these fine recordings remain.  (Richard Allen)

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