10. Tim Hecker – Love Streams
Tim Hecker is the master of affective forces in music. Since his 2011 album Ravedeath 1972, my listening to music and my experience of sound haven´t been the same. I have yet to experience this power in a life setting, but Hecker talking about the importance of fog, about the sheer intensity of loudness, actually feeling the sounds in your body stand as the reassurance, that this experience will be something to remember. His work with sounds is something entirely different from making music for enjoyment and is hard to grasp if you´re searching for easy listening. The understanding of drones, of elongated sounds, chopped organs and the semblances of air or fog have driven me to pursue studies of ephemerality and the sense and pushed me in a direction a book or teaching would have never accomplished. That being said, Love Streams is a departure or a side-step from his previous work and is already visible through his choice of colors for the artwork. Hues of neon, scattered blue and red/ pink digress from the previous scales or white, black and gray, allowing for a vast sound and Hecker stepping away from what is mostly perceived to be haunting or leaning on a darker vibe. This notion mingles with his experimentations with choirs and the voice in general. This bodily-human component was absent in his previous work and him allowing for vocals in his compositions, uplifts the idea of being affected by sounds into a completely new direction. When these voices come up, are scrambled like he messed with organs sounds in the past, when they chirp, yearn and howl through his digital procession, you´ll be at once intrigued by the strange warmth that is almost a first after experiencing Ravedeath and Virgins, although his music has never been depleted of uplifting and reconciliation. Get closer to Love Streams, listen to it in various setting, in daylight, in the depths of night, being outside, surrounded by external noise or in the silence of nature. Every time these pieces will transform themselves and the voices will provide a new material component to your understanding of Hecker ongoing creation of putting his sensory framework into sounds, trying to express intensity and sonic forces in new ways album after album.
09. Joyce Manor – Cody
This is the one album that is outright uplifting, energetic and happy of this top ten list. Cody saw Joyce Manor expanding their short and sweet pop-punk songwriting with fleshed out songs that didn´t end within under two minutes and even if this quick attack was totally infectious on their previous LP, adding a little more makes Cody´s songs instantly recognizable and lets them stay in your memory even longer. This is the LP I put on the occasion of wanting to hear something catchy and fun without too much strain in its content. Almost every song drives itself with an exploding chorus, lovely riffs, and shoutable lyrics. Every element will stick to you and you´ll know the words after three listens and over the year I longed for this album at least once every few days. Sometimes you´ll still want to feel young and carefree and that is when Cody hits home.
08. C. Diab – No Perfect Wave
C. Diab was one of the best random encounters of this year, thanks to Yndi Halda. C. Diab is a singular artist, mostly playing his bowed guitar, adding tape loops and sometimes even trumpet into the mixture. These are the droned-out soundscapes that reassure me in my belief of these kinds of music being at the ultimate core of experiencing sounds before actually starting with melodies, keys or scales. When C. Diab stretches out his guitar sounds into long waves, sometimes rattling in serenity like on “Memory As Mist” and sometimes going into the deep vibes of a cello being playing a reverby skeleton of a shell-shocked building, you´ll feel the same vibrations as the strings, resonate with the materiality of what makes these sounds as well as completely forget the sources at some point and just be intrigued by the possibilities of getting such sounds out of known instrumentals. C. Diab works at a mid-point between Tim Hecker, Brian Eno and artists like Colin Stetson. His music is very much about the ability to play an instrument, to put your everything into the connection as someone like Stetson does into his saxophone. At the same time, it is about your listening experience, the modality you yourself determine and the force of these sounds in your own understanding of your environment and the relation between these two. No Perfect Wave can be as haunting as it can serve as a base for contemplation, as much a sign of virtuosity as the ability to resonate with the schemes of your consciousness. Whatever you´ll find in it, it is an undeniably strong force.
07. 40 Watt Sun – Wider Than The Sky
This is long-form spilling your gut, coming to terms with everything that is putting your down in your life. It is sad to see 40 Watt Sun being categorized as metal because of label associations as their music has a much wider appeal and sound. If it weren’t for the length, it could easily work on rock radio stations and will surely resonate with everyone who enjoys singer-songwriter outfits. However, you´ll have to address the bleaker and more tortured nature of their songs, when thinking singer-songwriter or even folk music. This is where the band is closer to metal music than anything else, if it weren´t for the beautiful singing of Patrick Walker and the clear instrumentations, these songs and lyrics would easily work if screamed or growled. I could image some songs being covered by bands like Deafheaven and transforming their impact by loading the reflective openness with the pressures of distortions and the pain of black metal shrieking. But, this is not what 40 Watt Sun and Wider Than The Sky are. Over repeated listening, I´m still astonished by the emotional impact Walker´s voice carries over these songs, his clear sound stretching over what feels like years of observations and solitary thinking about life. You´ll get carried away by the mixture of guitars and Walker, get the title and will live inside the gaps of these words like Walker does in the wounds of his reflections.
06. world's end girlfriend – LAST WALTZ
I know it seems like a wild assessment, but I can´t help but wonder why so many artists, visually and musically, are able to create such vivid, imaginative work. From the wide world of Anime and Manga alone, stem things like the whole Studio Ghibili catalog, but artists like Films, Anoice, Mono or world´s end girlfriend are able to put into sounds what can be equally bleak and tear-jearkingly beautiful. Maybe western rationality and thinking can only yield things like Walt Disney and good, but not great imaginations, with realism being more of their mindset. But all weird theories aside, LAST WALTZ saw WEG returning for another lucid dream of sounds and the sheer scale of it cannot be grasped after only a month of being out. WEG is able to take you to wonderland with the sun-beaming and happiness oozing out everywhere and push you into ashen dystopia over the course of one musical break, one sound disrupting a song and the change of one movement. Music as an aural journal is a picture I like to evoke quite often and LAST WALTZ is pretty much the definition of encountering a whole other world through listening alone. The best moments come from WEG´s ability to go into full distortion without warning, coming back for a playful tune and keep you on toes of what to expect next, if you´re to fear or to look forward to a great reconciliation. Just pure virtuosity.
05. Eluvium – False Readings On
Eluvium is an ambient genius, solely for never sticking to a singular form or idea and elevating his whole process in False Readings On. This is the first time after stepping up and singing himself and having a feature on his previous LP, Eluvium has used the voice in his composition. The operatic voices peeking through his soundscapes recall warped versions of Riceboy Sleeps, coming off as if aged on old vinyl, spinning somewhere in the darkest corners of your mind and mingling with what is at hand. Over the course of the album you get the feeling of an arc, of losing yourself, picking up the pieces and finally finding some kind of individuality and being under the constant threat of falling apart again. This might be the aural representation of what Kafka once said about stepping outside. While other people were able to keep up appearances through their clothes, he himself was loosely stitched, constantly fearing to break apart at the seams and be exposed. When this album was released, I found myself in a state of fighting with artificiality and external influences picking away at my perception of self and confidence I took in my being. Being shaken up, these compositions helped me reflect and gain inner stability again. Listening to “Posturing Through Metaphysical Collapse”, while walking on a sunny day, it felt like an out of body experience, with the rays of the sun and the vibrant outside world becoming a distant echo of the usual grandeur it carries. Not because of the noises distancing me from myself, but because of the clarity they created the wrecked state of mind I was in, urging me to reflect, wait and take action.
04. RAIME – Tooth
It is amazing to see how much atmosphere can be created by the combination of drums and guitar. Not that Raime aren´t using other elements to create their daunting space, but most of it boils down to a few phrases of guitar, bass and drum playing. These singular descriptions cannot hold the utilization by the production duo, as they deconstruct each one of these elements to reconstruct chilling vistas of dread. If you´re somewhat keen on singular phrases and sparse sound that soundtrack experiences like the Silent Hill video game series or psychological thrillers, you´ll be more than happy with Tooth. For some, it might barely qualify as music and act more like sound collages for a haunted house or an art installation for a post-apocalyptic environment, but taking the album as is and applying it to your various spaces of listening, you´ll encounter the tension and mortuary vibes submerging any given surrounding. The menacing bass alone recalls the perception of someone who has lost his ability to hear higher frequency sounds and is only left to perceive shattering low tones that resonate with the non-cochlear. But again, this is only one layer and when the picked and pulled guitar phrases come in, your sensory field will be laden by anguish and friction without actually recalling why. The best albums of a year have to have something like this, a form of innovation or mind-bending quality that pushes my perception and experience of what you can do with sounds. And Tooth is just that, ultimate dread and bass.
03. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face
Blank Face is the perfect addition after Kendrick Lamar´s To Pimp A Butterfly. Naturally, it is a huge assessment and almost diminishing Q´s work, holding him up to the gold standard of Kendrick Lamar, but this is not a comparison of the very different sounds and album, but the expansion of perspective set forth by Q after Kendrick threw the first stone. There is ton of content in To Pimp A Butterfly but if we turn it as a entry in the overall experience of being black in America, touching on the problems of being heard, achieving actual success, fighting against discrimination and turning to the chance of loving yourself and finding some sort of answer in the transformative power of music, Blank Face is Q´s dismissal of positivity and finding a way out, while it is also a reaffirmation of the energetic nihilism that is inevitable in the living experience of blacks. This is gangster rap at a new stage, one knowing about the struggles and intricacies of the gangster life. This is not to say, that it hasn´t heard or understood Lamar´s message and the strive for a more conscious existence, but as other rappers move to this kind of positivity and “We Gon´ Be Alright” mentality, Q helps us not forget the motivations of a hustler, the bleakness of poverty and the sheer impossible nature of moving away from these things. Surely, only you can help yourself, but you have to acknowledge, that it isn´t easy to preach self-love if the system is rigged and all odds are against you. It will lead you to do and sound as Q does, being pumped and high, delving deeper into a nihilistic lifestyle only to resurface in moments of distant observation and reflection where you understand the stupidity and uselessness of this lifestyle. Until your homies hit you up again and you´re outside doing the same shit like yesterday, “I might die for shit…”.
02. Kane Ikin – Sensory Memory // Modern Pressure
I study the senses. Not just in music and sounds, but the visual, tactile, olfactive and gustatory, too. It is not about switching to one field of perception to another, it is a new way of gaining an understanding of all the senses and encountering their interconnected nature. At one point you won´t be able to skip the fact of bodiless anymore. That you, as a person, are not just an understanding mind, a thinking rational that perceives, but that your proprioception, your place on the earth and your senses constitute your body as the first and foremost channel of encountering the world. Dealing with music, especially when learning about it in school, there still is this huge misconception (thanks, classical music with all your scales and nerdy shit) that hearing music is an endower of intellect. That you hearing music is something that you´ll have to think about, analyses and dissect to gain appreciation. When getting hit by music, your first reaction will not be of emotion, but of facing the different layers and creating a response according to your civilized mannerism ingrained through studying stuff. So, good music is that which is deep and complex in an intellectual sense, lord don´t get close to feeling something. As we all know, this conception is old and outdated beyond believe. But there is still this fear, fear of understanding as a first and foremost bodily assessment you yourself and your surroundings. A listening that is material and affected by the sounds, before it is even able to label the experience as “good”, “bad” or “meh”. When encountering the sonic, the bodily reaction to it can be something greatly astonishing even though it happens all the time. You´ll find it in goose-bumps, being moved to tears without feeling sad or happy or wanting to dance while your mind tells you “noooo asshole, that´s Taylor Swift!”. As with Tim Hecker, the affective scales of sound go beyond emotional responses and point to your sensory perception and with that to your understanding of self and surroundings in all its material nature. You´ll be quick to derive emotional responses to these sounds, as these go with such experiences, beginning to paint with your imagination the reasons why you like something or why such and such meaning resonates with you. And that is totally fine, that is what I´ve been doing in writing about music most of the time. But what I´m drawn to even more, are things like Modern Pressure and Sensory Memory by Kane Ikin (and Basalt Crush which also saw release this year). Ikin´s way of construction his sounds, the bass heavy visceral environments, recalling jungle and still seeming far off from this genre, on Modern Pressure and the more in-depth, synth-heavy sound structures of Sensory Memory, let me think about affect in a way. These two projects, like many other on this list, let me think about their effect in a certain space, how these electronic sounds, without an actual source (meaning an instrument), can create such great alterations of perceiving a space. How everything can become tinted in sound and completely change how you experience and consequently feel yourself and the mood / vibe / atmosphere of a room. This is powerful and goes beyond pop music or furniture music, Ikin let loose three lessons in sound and space this year and I´ll return to those religiously in my thinking about the affective values of the sonic realm.
01. Sumac – What One Becomes
I had a feeling when The Deal hit last year. Aaron Turner was on to something. He was headed straight to reinstating my love for heavy music and update what it means to make heavy music. The Deal hinted at it and I loved it, but I still felt something to be missing, Turner and his mates holding back on us, maybe not fully confident on the whiff they had gotten or maybe just not knowing each other well enough yet. The trailer for What One Becomes (here) released in March, gave me the premonition of sound I was waiting to hear. This short sweet spot from “Image Of Control”, starting around 06:55 and lasting about thirty seconds, that was represented in that trailer had my hopes up, feeling my personal album of the year being given to the people on the 10th of June. My first listen of What One Becomes made every expectation come to live through my headphones, it was unbelieve and at first undeniably hard to digest. The excitement of listening was mixed with the strain of listening to this thing for at least five listens. The harsh sounds, the M.O. of abrupt changes, endings and transformations messed with any understanding of song structure there was. It took time to get a sense of the recording, to construct a mental picture of the sounds at present and know what to expect next. I had to dissect this album first, learn it, in a way to finally get what is happening. And after that, I let it go again. My understanding of this album, the musical pivots, the changes in pace, the pure crashes of riffs and the aggression, it all had to be stomached before taken as a whole and get back to the immediate reaction of being in awe. What One Becomes is by far the most virtuous album this year, utilizing a metal set up to break with every notion of recorded music or cohesive song, and even with what it means to play and listen to heavy music. The band feels like on a long jamming session. Them playing off each other, Turner taking the lead, teasing and pushing his companions to come along, drum their heart out and not just provide a ground for his playing, but to create with him, to set forth on what is ultimately Sumac and was captured for an hour as What One Becomes. The sheer intensity is incredible and will send your head spinning if you haven´t had any experience with sounds so disruptive and dense. I can only imagine how these jams work on a stage, have you by the neck when they hit you with full volume and the performative immediacy of being a singular experience. It must be like one free-flowing experience of sound, akin to your first encounter with music and the foreboding of the last sounds you´ll hear in your life. And while all this, the mention of heavy and genre titles like metal, might allude to a dark and tortured experience, it doesn´t feel that way. Sumac don´t really play on any dark, metal clichés or tendencies of coming off as sad or in pain. This shit if life-affirming at its core. Not just the free-flowing of sound, but a showcase of creativity and human ability. Sure, they growl and the sounds are mostly low and hard, but listening beyond this to experience incredible life-force and musicianship. My number one stop of a year must exactly do this for me. Be an example and beacon of forward-thinking sonic virtuosity, blow my mind as a listener and resonate with me and my perception, alter it and my understanding out sound and music, make me new.