A 2019 Year in Review list of albums that primarily skew towards the ambient, electronic, experimental and instrumental. I created a separate list for 2019 because I found myself increasingly turning to such records throughout the year. Part of the allure would definitely have to be the meditative, relaxing quality of many such recordings. Another might have been simply a kick I got on, after years of only occasionally listening to the odd Brian Eno ambient masterwork. Behold, the list:
15. Ernest Hood – Neighborhoods
A re-issue of an album originally released in 1974, assembled from a mesmerizing array of found sounds, field recordings and proto-ambient electronic music, Neighborhoods truly evokes a memory of times past. The auditory equivalent of being teleported back to a time without the internet, cellular phones and a myriad of digital devices with screens. Unencumbered by such modern niceties, the album streams past at a laconic pace, and, not unlike Midnight Cowboy, one of my favorite films first viewed in 2019 (and celebrating its 50th anniversary), it possesses the distinct quality of being a coherent slice of life, perfectly captured in the moment.
14. Sigur Rós – Variations on Darkness
Consisting of two, 20+ minute long tracks, Variations on Darkness is assembled from unreleased Sigur Rós material, as well as various multitracks of songs culled from the band’s back catalogue. The music was premiered at the Nordur og nidur festival, and utilized as a soundtrack to choreographed performances from the Iceland Dance Company. Cavernous and shot through with a palpable sense of foreboding, Variations on Darkness made for a terrific soundtrack to any daily news dump from 2019.
13. Beth Gibbons, The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra & Krzysztof Penderecki – Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)
Beth Gibbons is the lead vocalist for Portishead. Krzysztof Penderecki is a Polish composer whose work has been featured in films, most notably The Exorcist and The Shining. Here, they take on Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s famous Symphony No. 3. A sprawling, mournful piece of composition, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs plays like the score to the denouement of a Sam Mendes picture.
12. Various Artists – Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
Perhaps it is indeed emblematic of what Pitchfork deemed, “the growth of functional listening,” that I happened to compile this particular album list for the first time this year. The ubiquity of supermassive streaming libraries now virtually at our fingertips and always available for our thirsty eardrums means we can find ways to soundtrack our lives at any and every moment we wish. Kankyō Ongaku is such a soundtrack*, culled from a number of Japanese ambient electronic artists from the 1980s. This compilation is curated by Spencer Doran, of Visible Cloaks, and released on Light in the Attic Records (the very same responsible for the Lewis reissues and subsequent solution to the decades-old mystery of their provenance). Highly recommended. *The vinyl release of this album is a 3 x LP and features 25 tracks, while the streaming version is limited to only 10.
11. Steve Hauschildt – Nonlin
Steve Hauschildt, formerly of Emeralds, released Nonlin, his latest LP on Ghostly International, in late 2019. I hitherto had only a dim awareness of his work. Much like another of my favorite albums from 2019 (Floating Points’ “Crush”), Nonlin offers up a hybrid cross-section of thoughtfully-composed electronic music, leaning rather heavily on the synthesizers. An art-house Stranger Things soundtrack, if you will.
10. Nils Frahm – All Encores
All Encores is a collection of the contents of 3 Encores EPs released over the course of 2019 on the heels of Frahm’s excellent 2018 LP, All Melody. Representing a selection of works that are far more spare and unassuming than the baroque, multifaceted splendor of All Melody, the collection of EPs would be a fitting accompaniment to any sort of weather, be it fair or frightful.
9. Lightbath – Selected Public Works, Vol. 3
A brand new discovery for me in 2019, Lightbath is the brainchild of composer/improviser Bryan Noll. Selected Public Works, Vol. 3 collects various of his modular synthesizer performances from the past 4 years. Volumes 1 and 2 have been released only on cassette tape thus far, while Vol. 3 is available to stream online. Another EP, Vol. 4, was also released in late 2019. His work is reminiscent of Brian Eno, SURVIVE, CFCF and Oneohtrix Point Never. The soundtrack to a celestial zen garden.
8. Glok – Dissident
Another brand new discovery for me in 2019. Glok is the electronic alias of Andy Bell, guitarist and vocalist of the English shoegaze band Ride. A sprawling record, Dissident fuses, “synth wave and Detroit techno via a love of John Carpenter soundtracks with dissonant atmospherics and an acid throb,” and rewards many repeat spins.
7. Floating Points – Crush
Floatings Points is Sam Shepard, a DJ, musician and producer from the UK. Crush is a record I have been looking forward to ever since his debut, Elaenia, was released back in 2015. A deep and exacting record, Crush is something of a Rube Goldberg machine in album form. A musical sub-genre called ‘Braindance’ supposedly applies here. The album offers up tasty morsels in a precisely-constructed presentation format, and you can pluck any one out to enjoy. A virtual buffet that has been thoughtfully arranged and pared back to showcase a number of unique tastes.
6. Hauschka – A Different Forest
Volker Bertelmann is the name of the experimental “prepared” pianist who goes by Hauschka. Once upon a time, he was a member of a German hip-hop group. Nowadays, he has undergone an extended metamorphosis to become, more or less, a bonafide neoclassical pianist. A Different Forest is very much a straightforward affair, and requires nothing more than a simple appreciation of the unprepared ivories to enjoy. His playing on this album is expressive and warm.
5. Kelly Moran – Origin EP
Kelly Moran’s follow-up to her excellent Ultraviolet, released in 2018. Like Hauschka, she is a specialist of the “prepared piano,” which is a piano that has had its sound altered by the placement of various objects on or between the strings. Origin is a no slouch for an EP, clocking in at over 36 minutes in length. Here we find some brand new material, along with improvisational, proto-versions of pieces from Ultraviolet. The tapestry of mesmerizing sounds she conjures from the piano is at once both ostentatious and austere.
4. Tim Hecker – Anoyo
Tim Hecker followed up 2018’s Konoyo (this world) with companion piece Anoyo (the world over there). The tracks on the latter come from the same sessions that produced the tracks on the former. Drawing upon Japanese court music style gagaku, Hecker recorded Anoyo with the ensemble Tokyo Gakuso. A voyage into the vacuum of space. Boundless and immense.
3. Fennesz – Agora
The first LP from Austrian composer Christian Fennesz in 5 years, Agora is an album of layers. Despite being recorded largely indoors with guitars, the four tracks comprising its 48 minute runtime manage to evoke an eerie spaciousness. Unlike Anoyo, Agora feels like a voyage among the stars that turns out to have actually been a descent into the Mariana Trench.
2. Mort Garson – Plantasia
Another reissue, this one from Mort Garson, a pioneer of discrete music and electronic composition. Originally released in 1976, Plantasia is a wonderful cornucopia of Moog synthesizer music, surprisingly organic and warm, and absolutely on-point as far as its central conceit is concerned (music for plants and the people who love them). 40-plus years later, thanks to projects such as the MIDI Sprout, music for and by plants feels more timely than ever.
1. Nivhek – After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
Nivhek is a new moniker for Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper. This record is comprised of two long-form performances, each broken into two pieces, and originally performed as a part of two different artistic residencies: one in Murmansk, Russia, the other in the Azores, in Portugal. Taken together as a full release, now, in 2019, and clocking in at just about one hour, the cumulative result packs a mighty wallop. From glossolalia to drone to faraway bells and chimes, found sounds and malfunctioning equipment, distant footsteps and funereal abysms of sound, the album plays like a long stroll deep into the desolation of winter’s grasp. As with many of the albums I’ve selected for this new Year in Review list, it rewards patience and many repeat spins.
Apple Music Playlists:
Top of 2019 – Albums (Ambient)
Top of 2019 – Top Songs (Ambient)