Monday, January 07, 2019

Best Of 2018: Electronic

The music I put in this category is not always primarily synthetic or computer-driven yet evinces a certain artistic stance that makes it fit. My Top 25 included three albums along these lines: You Were Never Really Here by Jonny Greenwood, Zebra by Arp, and Quilt Jams by Elsa Hewitt, but there were quite a number of other excellent releases that kept me coming back for more. Find out about them in this unordered list, starting with some I covered in a post early in the fall.

Record Roundup: Electronic Excursions
Good Luck In Death - They Promised Us A Bright Future, We Were Content With An Obscure Past
Novelty Daughter - Cocoon Year

Various Artists - S&S Presents: Dreams Intrigued by the gorgeous packaging and the promise of an unheard track by Mutual Benefit, I picked this up at their concert at Park Church Co-Op last month. What I ended up with was entree into another world. Although I was familiar with many of the artists (Sea Oleena, Julie Byrne, Kaitlyn Aurelia Amith, etc.) the compilers, who run a blog called Stadiums & Shrines, had not crossed my radar before. Based on their series Dreams, for which they commissioned favorite artists to step slightly outside of their lanes and compose ambient tracks inspired by collages created by S&S co-founder Nathaniel Whitcomb from images clipped from one vintage travel book, they know what they're doing. As expected, Bali, the Mutual Benefit song, is a standout, a pure distillation of their current approach into instrumental form - but there is no filler on Dreams. Stream the album and you will find yourself sinking slowly into a transporting continuous experience - but if you buy it on vinyl or digital you can also lose yourself in those wonderful collages along with writings by Dave Sutton and Matthew Sage. Now leave me alone as I have to catch up on a decade of Stadiums & Shrines!

Enofa - Arboretum Displaying a command of structure not so common in this genre, Ross Baker’s 42-minute suite masterfully blends electronic and acoustic instruments with field recordings for a cinematic journey in sound. His album Melkur, which came out late in the year, finds him bringing the same approach to shorter pieces, mostly with success. Another release, the 15-hour compilation 2T: Experimental Works 1995-2017, explains why he’s so good - he’s put in the work for decades.

Masayoshi Fujita - Book Of Life Composer and virtuoso vibraphonist Fujita has a way of creating sound images that feel as natural as breathing. The use of nouns related to nature and weather (fog, snow, clouds and mist all make appearances) in the song titles is perfect for the atmosphere that will be created while you play this lovely music. There's also sense of melancholy and exploration, which keeps things from becoming too precious.

Laraaji/Arji OceAnanda/Dallas Acid - Arrive Without Leaving Just when we needed him, the man born Edward Gordon has been having a major moment for the last couple of years, from reissues and remixes to concert appearances and now this album. A collaboration with OceAnanda, his longtime partner in leading meditation workshops, and a synth trio from Texas, this album finds his trademark autoharp combining perfectly with they synths and OceAnanda’s mbira to create swirling clouds of sound that warm your heart and soothe your mind. All these years later, you can still hear the beauty and humanity that stopped Brian Eno in his tracks on a New York street corner before he invited Laraaji into the studio to create Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance.

Tim Hecker - Konoyo Almost a decade ago, Hecker corralled my consciousness (and that of many others) with Ravedeath 1972, but nothing really grabbed me since then. Until Konoyo, that is, which puts his supremely beautiful textural combinations on full display in a seven-song suite that is not so much cinematic as novelistic, with certain sounds almost becoming characters to be followed as you listen. The emotions here - wistfulness, sorrow, acceptance - are deep and deeply nuanced. It would be easy to assume Hecker is running on some kind of extraordinary series of instincts in putting this stuff together, but more likely there's a load of craft and experimentation behind it all. Either way, the end result feels completely inevitable without a hint of contrivance.

Rival Consoles - Persona Compared with Tim Hecker and some of the other items on this list, this project of Ryan Lee West's almost seems to be delivering pop songs, although of a brooding and moody variety. Take the title track, which uses a subdued dance beat to push sweeping chords through time and space, with a central hook that echoes in my mind for days. 

Nils Frahm - All Melody The vinyl package of this is so fantastic that it took me a while to reconcile it with how wildly uneven the album is. The first two tracks, for example, are almost completely forgettable, but then we get magic like A Place, My Friend The Forest and Harm Hymn. If he could have kept the quality at that level, it would have been extraordinary. The duff songs are more than made up for by an accompanying EP called Encores 1, which is all top notch stuff. Sometimes even someone as talented as Frahm might not know what his best work sounds like.

Kuuma - Level This is another collage-like blast from the mind of Adam Cuthbért (I-VT - see above, slashsound,etc.), this time purporting to the "the origin story of Kuuma, a databorne algorithm," which is fun to think about while you listen. Get the picture here - or just listen and let your imagination write your own story.

Viberous - Splintered This queasy and claustrophobic trip into sonic degradation was introduced to me by Cuthbért, who remixed the last song, Nettle, and could be seen as of a piece with Kuuma and I-VT. Do I sense a movement? Sign me up!

Ian William Craig - Thresholder Speaking of sonic degradation, no one does the "machines breaking down with film burning in the projector accompanied by Gregorian chant" like this classically trained singer, songwriter and producer. Of course, he's been doing his thing since at least 2014 when he released the stunning A Turn Of Breath. This album finds him in top form, so if you're still unfamiliar feel free to start here.

Frederic D. Oberland - Labyrinth In addition running Nahal Recordings, who released the epic Good Luck In Death album mentioned above, and his work as a photographer, Oberland is also a producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist. Labyrinth is his second album and manages to somehow be both pitch black and optimistic. With inspiration coming from Dante and the "anguish and ecstasy" of George Bataille's Inner Experience, I suppose that's to be expected!

E Ruscha V - Who Are You There is also optimism to be found here, in the latest work by Ruscha who has a large collection of vintage gear and knows how to use it. Ruscha knows how to have fun, too, such as on the title track, which would be the perfect accompaniment to an underwater robot ballet. Some of the delight to be found here may have a genetic origin, as Ruscha is the son of one of my favorite artists, Ed Ruscha. Book a flight on Guacamole Airlines if you need to know more.

Narducci - Break The Silence Matthew Silberman, who made one of the best jazz albums of the decade a few years ago, is the main man behind Narducci and one of these days I need to ask him why that name? But for now, I'm too busy being fascinated by all the ideas behind the four tracks on this EP, which feature electronics, sax, vocals and even a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. There is enough ambition here, and (dare I say) spirituality that listening is a deeply involving experience. Sometimes I play it on repeat, which is a sure sign that I want more.

Saariselka - Ceres I've been waiting for something new from Marielle V. Jakobsons ever since Star Core came out in 2016 and just recently became aware of this shimmering collaboration between her and Chuck Johnson, a pedal steel player. The combination of his treated guitar with her Fender Rhodes and other keyboards is just sublime. If another year must go by without a follow up to Star Core, additional music like this would make the passing of time completely painless.  

Elizabeth Joan Kelly - Music For The DMV Isn't it funny that most of the artistic children of Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music For Airports are for much less mundane uses (meditation, primarily) than visiting a transportation hub? Kelly, a composer from New Orleans, has taken her inspiration in the opposite direction, to a destination even more reviled than JFK or LGA: the Department of Motor Vehicles. While one would think that relaxing sounds would be the best thing to help survive another license renewal, Kelly uses a variety of shiny textures and bright melodies to instead provide distraction. And there's plenty of that to be found here, as well as charm, especially in the three tracks classed as Gymnopedies. Best of all, however, is Call My Number, which has an almost comical sense of yearning and absolutely reminds me of that time when the scheduling system crashed at the DMV and I lost my place in line.

Brian Eno - Music For Installations There are few artists who loom larger in the field of electronic music than Eno and even fewer that could credibly release something like this five hour behemoth of a set. Stretching back as far as 1985, the set collects nearly everything Eno created for his installation work or other visual projects like 77 Million Paintings, which combined software and sound art. The penultimate "disc" is called Making Spaces and was originally sold at installations. Featuring short pieces, including a beauteous number for guitar called New Moon, it showcases a different side of the artist, closer to the concision of Music For Films Volume II than the rest of the set. There are also four tracks for "future installations," which qualifies as a new Eno album of gleaming subtlety and proves once again that nobody does it better. 

Find tracks from all these releases, except Cocoon Year and Splintered, in this playlist or below. Want more? Check out the Archive, which has several additional hours of electronic intrigue to explore! What did I miss?

You may also enjoy:
Best of 2018: The Top 25
Best of 2018: Classical 
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic

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