20. Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée
Jóhannsson himself writes about the gaze of Orpheus towards his Eurydice in the vain of an interpretation given by Maurice Blanchot: The gaze, which turns Eurydice to dust, for that was Orpheus only condition in getting her back from the Underworld, is also the gaze of inspiration. This theme of creativity stemming from something that causes pain, something that is forbidden or transgresses a boundary is something we find in Orphée and Jóhansson´s work time and time again. These, mostly short, tracks follow a similar structure of sweeping, cascading upwards, while also crumbling, employing small sparkling sounds or musical ideas that seem to pick on the basis set for by strings and keys. This gives the undeniable feeling of unattainability, of never being able to grasp the beauty that lies in these small compositions. Much like a gaze, a peak of something breathtaking that will destroy it in retrospect. While the theme of the Orphic hymn reoccurs through the song titles alone and serves as the sung closer for the album, Jóhannsson reflected this notion of ethereality in his compositions, with the actual story serving as an attached layer of understanding his work. This is the beautiful failure of holding on to things, the failure of not letting go at the right moments and living with the shambles of one’s own quest for something greater. Art.
19. The Field – The Follower
The Follower shows The Field at his most psychedelic yet. While the last two, Looping State of Mind and Cupid´s Head were pulling the same strings sonically, with the former being the more techno kind and the latter delving into darker territories, this album is the still darkened marriage of these sounds. Opening with the title track, you actually hear the transition of sounds, The Field setting things off in medias res and pummeling you with a steady beat for the first four minutes until lighting up with a spacious bass heavy glade, slowly growing groovier and disco-like without ever letting up on the shifts of short vocal phrases. The cut is deep and bodily affecting, building itself up again layer after layer, sharpening its grasp between some uncanny sounds just until the breaking point let everything dissipate with clean drums alone. It only get better from here, with slow burner “Pink Sun” functioning as an homage for Andy Stott´s repetitive vocals bits and pieces, conflicting it with psyched-out guitars and The Fields own vision of bass beats, “Monte Veritá” being the jittering centerpiece and “Soft Streams” letting some rays of light through the barrage of muddled noise. Closer “Reflecting Lights” brings the psychedelia out big time, shooting Eno´s like drones of happiness up with an eerie synth sound and drums that transform into actual percussive sounds and the last half of the track bringing that sun-soaked guitar layer that could have been ripped from Ambient Three. The Follower is for nights of focus and working on your biggest ideas, it´ll help you transcend your own thoughts and restriction through its vast openness.
18. Touche Amore – Stage Four
Loss and grief are the center of Stage Four. Jeremy Bolm, wordsmith of Touché Amoré losing his mother to cancer, her dying while he is on stage, living the dream. Him not being able to listen to the last voice message for almost a year, packing up her stuff, wondering about religion, imagining the life choices of the deceased. You´ll encounter these bits and pieces over the course of the album, I encourage you to read the lyrics while listening for the full impact. Musically the band has softened their sound, Bolm sometimes even trying to sing, moving away from his scream or spoken word delivery. The post-rock elements, the clear churning guitars, the wide open chords speed up for the hardcore crashed one would expect, they shape shift the emotions between keen understanding and calm recollection to saddened anger, hard-earned truths of ending lives. For all this weight, Stage Four is an incredibly smooth listen, paced with the band´s known sense of acceleration, just clocking in over 30 minutes. At the end, you´ll get some relief, Bolm understanding of never quite grasping the whole existence of his mother, facing the inevitable causes of her death and finding a way to move on and let her rest. Consequently this album will stand as the greatest way of paying homage and letting go, the mature hardcore kind of processing a trauma – and for us as listeners this is not only Bolm telling his story, but going through these thoughts and emotions with him, empathetically encountering the same and taking away some active knowledge ourselves, for we´ll all have to face what he is facing one way or another.
17. Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement – Green Graves
Representation of the jungle range in every direction. This year we had the orientalist notions of The Jungle Book and Tarzan in the cinemas again. Funny shit, for the most part, a life lived in harmony and the human spirit winning over nature's force. Now enter Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. The name alone will break any kind of positive image you can build, spiritual enslavement alludes to a force that will break you, counteract the willingness of harmony and symbiosis and will push you into an unforgiving entity. The rainforest doesn´t need the human influence, the only thing they have brought is dischord. Not without nature trying to strike back, bring disease, and kill us with humidity and whatever animals it can throw at us. Green Graves is your fever trauma, sweating and shitting after being infected, fearing for you stupid life and reminding you of nature´s law. Setting things off with “Return Of The Yellow Herb Ambient”, you´ll be introduced to the steady rainfall accompanying most of the album. The creeping drones, the far off sounds of percussion emerging and adding some kind of drab beat to your misery. While the eerie sounds on this project, sometimes being a menacing drone and sometimes just being the dripping of water, make most of the album, the times Dominick Fernow utilizes drums and bass to the mix are alienating as much as they draw you in. Surely, these beats recall some kind of notion of tribal drumming, or unfamiliar rituals of bad trips, but the layers remain strictly artificial as do these drones. You don´t encounter a bunch of field recordings or archive material, but the imaginative innovation of Fernow in his evocation of the rainforest, and it´s most artificial moments will be those that´ll transport you the deepest to horrors of Green Graves. However, don´t be scared, there is appreciation to be had, we´re just listening to these sound and will take away amazement about this contrived representation of invented landscape.
16. Young Thug – No, My Name is JEFFERY
JEFFERY is the most adventurous album borrowing on rap and hip hop sounds this year. I take some gripe with the movement of artists re-using jazz and funk sounds or going full gospel and people calling this kind of stuff innovation. It does sound good and played like Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino, can bring something that sounds pretty fresh and expands the horizon of hip hop, too. But that is not innovation or experimentation, at the most, it is a creative utilization and nostalgic handling of certain elements. Thugger brought something fresh with JEFFERY, by his usage of voice alone but equally with his overall presentation. The album cover with Thug posing in a Raiden-like dress expands on played out masculine ideals and what rapper should portray overall. Even singing rapper like Drake still adhere to a strange masculine relation and will not give up on that last beacon of being authentic in the eyes of those, who think singing isn´t hard enough. Young Thug clearly doesn´t give a fuck. The way he flows, stretching his voice, howling, gasping, almost screaming, straining and almost losing his voice is the magnificent innovation of just not giving a fuck and being about sound over any kind of image and clichéd existence. JEFFREY uses song titles to give reference points to the inspiration of greater influences of the sound, ranging from “RiRI”, “Harmabe”, Future, to Wyclef and “Kanye West”. These names rarely tie back to the music of the respective artists, sometimes mimic their sound or songs but more or less serving as Thugs point of departure for his own blend of sounds. There is positivity on JEFFERY, even when Thugger talks about fucking your bitch or shooting someone. Many songs are centered on love and yearning for his girl. When he goes off the rails on “Swizz Beatz” for the refrain of “Love, Love, Love” you´ll hear an artist that is hungry and creative beyond belief. He doesn´t need an impeccable flow or great content, he can innovate just be singing like a mad man.
15. Sioum – Yet Further
Not by chance is this the best instrumental rock record of this year. I´ve been waiting for Sioum to drop their newest album since they dropped their debut in 2010 and just had a feeling it would be great. Yet Further was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, by fans showing support and believing in a band that broke with an incredibly atmospheric mix of math-rock, chiptune / synth-work and metal riffs. There might be some other bands that work in that lane, but none of them reach such heights as Sioum did and do on this LP. Opener “Tribulation” waits for its thunderous beginning with a patient, foggy drone, breathing for almost five minutes until the band build the tension with crushing guitars, processed keys and an otherworldly ragged start and stop dynamic. The dynamic of each track, the band building and deconstruction their walls of sound with horrific phrases or clear moments of keys, show immense growth from their first LP. The crushing moments have become more nuanced and heavier, while the ambient reaching gaze of drones and outright harmony have become even more sobering. You´ll see this understanding of building tension especially in “I Died Once”, for the track never really burst open, carrying its own weight in the form of forlorn keys transgressing for guitar without great notice. The visuals of Yet Further are something to be commended, too. Choosing a variety of abstract expressionist paintings, recalling more ordered variations of something Pollock or Riopelle would have painted, you´ll be able to grasp synaesthetic semblance between the way Sioum construct their epics and the ways chance, mastery and an understanding of material make for such artwork. The perfect concurrence between order, tension and chaos, Yet Further will impress its motion on your mental framework.
14. BWANA – CAPSULE'S PRIDE
The anime Akira is one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, better than any narrative something like Star Wars could ever tell. Deemed cyber-punk and dwelling on the dark tones of the genre, Akira paints a vision of the future that is still pretty much grounded in realism and actual human behavior. The behaviors being greed, violence and hubris for the most part. Taking this material, quotes from the movie and sounds from the equally great soundtrack, Bwana recreated many of the best moments and feeling of the movie without sticking to the scripts too much. You´ll get the great chase scene from the beginning, the psychedelic visions and face-melting dreams, the destructive force of technology and other remarkable scenes and atmospheres. You know when an homage album using these visions to make dance-influenced tracks has succeeded in its ambition when you feel the music becoming part of your visual memory of the movie and even creeps into your aural thinking about the movie. Someone could easily do a recut of these scenes and sell the tracks as part of the actual soundtrack; I would say that people wouldn´t notice. What Bwana accomplishes, is to take the spirit of cyber-punk, the scary visions of a not too far-off future, the dread and the aspects of human warmth and ambition and mold them into electronic tracks. This is the power of sampling and the sonic grip of electronically produced sounds. And big up for spreading the album over the TOR network for the first few days of the release, nothing would have been more fitting.
13. Drake – Views
Views is by far not a perfect album, especially in the line of Drakes otherwise cohesive albums. Conceptualized as an homage to his hometown Toronto and the progression from winter to summer and back to winter, the various influences and styles weigh down on the overall flow of the record. Still, what is rough around the edges when Drake does it, is still a great album full of remarkable tracks. “Keep The Family Close” alone is an opener that wasn´t talked about much this year, falling behind the dancehall singles like “Controlla” or “One Dance”. The one reference point here might be Sam Smith´s James Bond theme song “Writing On The Wall”, with Drake for the first time in his career going almost full orchestral, singing his heartbreak over a set of strings and a slow acoustic bass. The operatic vibe of the intro never reoccurs over the course of the whole album but shows Drake at his most risky and creative – and moreover most unique. The thing that makes Views and makes it scattered of sorts, is the growing size of the OVO brain trust and Drake´s own longing to incorporate it all into one record. You´ll get him rapping hard(er) on “9” or “Weston Road Flows”, reprising his role from If You´re Reading This, doing one in the vain of Majid Jordan, casio-preset keyboard and all in “Feel No Ways”, doing some smooth rnb with PARTYNEXTDOOR and Jeremih on “I´m With You” and even his hit “Hotline Bling” as the last track of the bonus version. All songs sound incredibly good, manifesting Drake as being able to change his style, be ignorant with Future and heartbroken and introspective as he was before, the only gripe is that many faces of him start to show and not fit into one project for the first time. It is on tracks like "Fire and Desire”, “Keep The Family Close” or “U With Me?” that you get the most cohesive version of Drake, him channeling the 6 and not letting it talk for him completely. All criticism aside, I still enjoy this album and this might be one of the most played sets of songs of this year.
12. The Hotelier – Goodness
“You can´t live in anguish your whole life” is one of the lines Christian Holden said in a massive interview with Stereogum (http://www.stereogum.com/featured/anarchy-in-worcester-mass/) for the release of Goodness and it stuck with me throughout my listening. Goodness is an album on forgiveness and moving on, healing in a sense, understanding the workings of the world and your own pain and not answering with anger but with calmness. As most emo / rock experiences build on friction and a fighting mentality, against what is keeping you down, something you´ll encounter with the Hoteliers last album, too, Goodness channels these discrepancy, of death, failing relationships and ageing in general, and sets out to see the bigger picture and workings behind your own negative emotions. It is a change in perspective, seeing the “spot of brown on white” as beholding the underlying beauty of this world. The tracks are bombast and generously spacious at times, but still come at you with strange drum patterns, seemingly missing song structures and elevating instrumental, camp-fire singing interludes. Everything leads to grasping the same understanding of life, Holden and the band members might have in writing and playing this album. Nothing might be “ok” in your life, but you´ll understand that sometimes you´ll have to change your perception and attitude to change the discrepancy’s haunting your inner peace.
11. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
Last year Chelsea Wolfe brought us the terrifying acoustic-doom of Abyss and this year Emma Ruth Rundle furthered this gut spilling combination of sounds with her album Marked For Death. Not that these two albums and artists are completely similar, ERR has a pained delivery that doesn´t seem to play with darkness or imagery like Wolfe, her expressions, the religious or mythical references, her perception of nature and death seem to be the results of long contemplations and not just the workings of songwriting alone. On Marked For Death you´ll get a great discussion of death, love and mental health, set to reverb-soaked guitar, menacing drum sections and Rundle´s at time blood freezing vocal performance. The moments of wishing for death, being over and done with life and its struggles don´t actually need to be read in the lyrics to be understood in the doom evoking instrumentals or her disintegrated howling. The darkness she constructs is thick and tactile, something you´ll understand if you´ve ever faced draining self-doubt, lacked the will to live or feared living from the sole prospect of having to die (or not being loved). Every single track plays on these emotions in one way or another and ERR exposure to us as listeners will have you feeling vicarious at times, questioning the boundaries of such music as art, self-expression and plain-spoken exorcism of demons.