2019 – The Year in Review – Top Albums (Ambient)

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

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

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 Górecki

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 Kankyō Ongaku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 AnoyoAgora feels like a voyage among the stars that turns out to have actually been a descent into the Mariana Trench.

2 Mort Garson

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

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)

 

Swan Songs: Music for Your Final Exit – Apple Music Playlist

NPR’s All Songs Considrered compiled a user-generated list of 100 songs that people would like to have played at their memorial service / funeral / wake / what-have-you… you know… when you’re dead.

Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit

I recreated NPR’s Spotify playlist in Apple Music:

https://embed.music.apple.com/us/playlist/swan-songs-nprs-all-songs-considered/pl.u-JNLGsl6G6l

Some great songs on this list. Also a few head-scratchers (at least in my mind).

I also compiled a few of the songs which I think personally are most fitting for such an occasion. Apple Music Playlist (much much shorter than 100 songs) below:

https://embed.music.apple.com/us/playlist/swan-songs-joels-apple-music-playlist/pl.u-a9q0SRGoGR

 

2017 – The Year in Review – Music

2017 was a great year for music – as many musicians took up the mandate to go forth and create art that speaks to the mind, heart and soul in the face of a geo-political landscape being haphazardly ripped up by an infantile narcissist.

There were much-balleyhooed releases from Arcade Fire, Beck, Chad VanGaalen, Cold War Kids, David Bazan, Destroyer, The Drums, Fever Ray, Frankie Rose, girlpool, Guided by Voices, Jeremy Enigk, Johnny Jewel, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Kelly Lee Owens, King Krule, Lali Puna, LCD Soundsystem, Lorde, The National, Nick Hakim, Pallbearer, Phoebe Bridgers, Rostam, ShitKid, St. Vincent, Sweet Baboo, Thundercat, Vagabon, The War on Drugs, Why?, The xx, and Zola Jesus… but none of those are in my personal list of the top 15 albums of the year.

I listened to 119 albums in 2017 from almost as many different artists. Here, then, is my short list of the top 15 albums of the year:

15. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

15 Wildly Idle

I’ll sing it to you softly, it’s so terrifying
When I hold you like a flower
I hold you like an hour glass
I hold you like you’re the only thing I love

~ Flower Glass

Hand Habits is Meg Duffy. Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) is her first studio album.

14. Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

14 Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

Pop up goes the weasel
Bobby’s mind has thinned
And I’m the best dressed and they’re not
That sorry ’cause I never came out

~ Do Yourself a Favor

This album is named after Bobby Jameson, whose stage name was Chris Lucey. He was briefly a fixture of the protest music scene in the 1960s. His origins remained mysterious for many years, as he faded from the scene and became an alcoholic homeless bum. Eventually, he overcame the alcoholism and lived for the better part of 20 years in obscurity with his mother in San Luis Obispo County, CA, before launching a series of autobiographical YouTube posts, which he kept up until his death in 2015.

Ariel Pink is Ariel Marcus Rosenberg. Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is his 11th studio album.

13. Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift

13 The Greatest Gift

As the mystery of the cross
Asa Lovejoy lost the toss
And the fountain in the rain
Where my sorrow still remains
So I run to my friends and lovers
I lay down my life for my brothers
As I abide in peace
So will my delight increase

~ The Greatest Gift

Sufjan Stevens’ devastating Carrie & Lowell was my top album of 2015. Here, he presents a series of outtakes, demos and remixes of songs from that album, along with one or two b-sides.

The Greatest Gift could be considered to be his 13th studio album.

12. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

12 Out in the Storm

I hoped howling out all this truth
Would be liberating
But all the pity spills from the seams
And everyone questions the unseen

~ No Question

Waxahatchee is Katie Crutchfield. Out in the Storm is her fourth studio album.

11. Big Thief – Capacity

11 Capacity

What did you tell me Mary
When you were there so sweet and very
Full of field and stars you carried all of time
Oh and heavens when you looked at me
Your eyes were like machinery
Your hands were making artifacts in the corner of my mind

~ Mary

Big Thief are Adrianne Lenker (guitar, vocals), Buck Meek (guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums). Capacity is their second studio album.

10. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

10 Crack-Up

White oceans roar
A frightened fool stokes heatless fire
But if you need to, keep time on me
If you need to, keep time on me

~ If You Need to, Keep Time on Me

Fleet Foxes are Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Morgan Henderson. Crack-Up is their third studio album, and first full-length since 2011.

9. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

9 Pure Comedy

There’s no one old on Magic Mountain

~ Magic Mountain

Perhaps the most politically-charged album on my top-list. Father John Misty seems to have a lot to say about the worldviews which dominate our headlines today… only trouble is, it’s pretty nigh impossible to discern his own worldview from the content of his lyrics. Ah well, music can be largely subjective and I’m not too concerned with deriving meaning from it at every turn… but when the whole point of a record seems to be to make a kind of statement, perhaps it would help to be a little more concise. In any case, this is a record which captured and held my attention.

Father John Misty is Joshua Michael Tillman. Pure Comedy is his third studio album under the moniker.

8. Fletcher Tucker – Cold Spring

8 Cold Spring

The world I long for stays hidden
Clouds shroud the gates

~ Buried on the Wind

Fletcher Tucker’s haunting, psychedelic-drone-folk album Cold Spring was assembled over the course of four years in Big Sur, CA. It is a beautiful record. See him in the album art, above? You may have to squint. Don’t take my word for it; instead, go and read Aquarium Drunkard’s excellent write-up.

7. Kevin Morby – City Music

7 City Music

Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy
They were all my friends… and they died.

~ 1234

Kevin Morby was the bassist for Woods and the frontman for The Babies before embarking upon a solo singer/songwriter career. City Music is his fourth solo studio album.

6. Trevor Sensor – Andy Warhol’s Dream

6 Andy Warhol's Dream

I’m gonna be someone tonight

~ The Money Gets Bigger

When consistency is pitted against talent, consistency is usually going to win. Happily, in the case of Trevor Sensor, we have someone with a consistent penchant for belting out raucous, crowd-pleasing power ballads AND the talent to assemble something new from the potholes and well-worn ruts of this road-most-traveled: rock music. His gravely, muppet-esque singing voice makes every song so much more world-weary and enjoyable.

Trevor Sensor is… Trevor Sensor? Andy Warhol’s Dream is his debut album.

5. Temples – Volcano

5 Volcano

Standing up like a wild impala
Standing down like a weekend martyr

~ Oh the Savior

The U.K. has been the source for many of the world’s most storied and influential bands: The Zombies, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Who, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, The Clash, The The, U2, Radiohead, Coldplay (gasp!), Elbow, Keane, Klaxons, Wild Beasts, Harry Styles- the list goes on! Temples should be added to that pantheon, ’nuff said.

Temples are James Bagshaw, Tom Walmsley, Sam Toms, and Adam Smith (not the Wealth of Nations guy). Volcano is their second studio album.

4. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium

4 Planetarium

Tell me I’m evil
Tell me I’m not the name of love
Tell me I’m evil
Tell me I’m not the face of God

~ Saturn

Step aside, Gustav Holst, there are some new kids on the “music of the spheres” block. And they pray for us.

3. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

3 Turn out the Lights

Cause if you swear that it’s true then I have to believe
What I hear Evangelicals say on TV
And if there’s enough left after everyone else
Then why, then why, then why not me?

~ Happy to be Here

Julien Baker’s spare arrangements, coupled with her Sunday-morning-service vocals and raw, deeply-personal lyrics, make Turn out the Lights a powerful record.

Turn out the Lights is Julien Baker’s second studio album. She is merely 22 years old.

2. Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017

2 OKNOTOK

I won’t run away no more, I promise

~ I Promise

20 years ago, Radiohead released OK Computer. 20 years later, the album still stands as a massively influential artistic achievement. The entire extra album’s-worth of b-sides solidifies its reputation as a legend.

Radiohead are Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Philip Selway (and also- shhhh- Nigel Godrich). OK Computer was their third studio album when it was originally released in 1997. Since then, they have released 6 more proper studio albums.

1. Bombadil – Fences

1 Fences

I raise up my binoculars and
I see everything everywhere
I see detail, of that, I’m sure
But I don’t see me, and that hurts the most

~ Binoculars

Bombadil previously topped my list of albums in 2013 with their 4th studio album, Metrics of Affection. I went to see them perform at the Casbah in San Diego on June 19, 2016, prior to the recording of Fences. There, they performed many of the songs that would end up on the album. They even performed with a brand-new microphone all of the band members were pretty stoked on. Each one of them took turns on various instruments and all of them lent vocals by clustering around their shiny new mic. After the show, I chatted for a bit with band-member Daniel Michalak, who is a super-pleasant dude.  Fences came out in March of 2017 and has been playing non-stop in my car, my house and my headphones ever since.

From tender love ballads about the mysterious mathematics of love, to excoriating an American Evangelical Christian base who bought into a campaign of hatred, bigotry, naked avarice and plainspoken evil, Bombadil’s sixth full-length has it all. Laden with pleasant arrangements and plenty of hooks, the subject matter of each song can range from adorable sentimentality to withering criticism. For me, Fences is an album that never gets old.

Bombadil are Daniel Michalak, James Phillips, and Stacy Harden. Fences is their sixth studio album. It was recorded at Tiny Telephone with John Vanderslice in San Francisco.

Listen to a playlist of some of Joel’s favorite songs from 2017 on Apple Music:

https://tools.applemusic.com/embed/v1/playlist/pl.u-Vk1dtj868j?country=us

Full list of music Joel listened to in 2017:

  1. Actress – AZD
  2. The Afghan Whigs – In Spades
  3. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
  4. Aldous Harding – Party
  5. Algiers – The Underside of Power
  6. Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother
  7. Angel Olsen – Phases
  8. Arcade Fire – Everything Now
  9. Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson
  10. Baths – Romaplasm
  11. Beach House – B-Sides and Rarities
  12. Beck – Colors
  13. Big Black Delta – Whoru812
  14. Big Thief – Capacity
  15. Bill Benzel & Jim Earp – Mainland Style
  16. Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind
  17. Biosphere – The Petrified Forest EP
  18. Bob Dylan – Triplicate
  19. The Bob’s Burgers Music Album
  20. Bodies of Water – Spear in the City
  21. Bombadil – Fences
  22. Bonobo – Migration
  23. Briana Marela – Call It Love
  24. Chad VanGaalen – Light Information
  25. Chuck Johnson – Balsams
  26. Cold War Kids – LA DIVINE
  27. Cut Copy – Haku From Zero
  28. Cut Worms – Alien Sunset EP
  29. David Bazan – Care
  30. David Bowie – No Plan EP
  31. Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed
  32. Destroyer – ken
  33. Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors
  34. Don Bryant – Don’t Give Up On Love
  35. The Drums – Abysmal Thoughts
  36. Elbow – Little Fictions
  37. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
  38. Feist – Pleasure
  39. Fever Ray – Plunge
  40. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
  41. Fletcher Tucker – Cold Spring
  42. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert
  43. Four Tet – New Energy
  44. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical
  45. Future Islands – The Far Field
  46. Gas – Narkopop
  47. Gaussian Curve – The Distance
  48. girlpool – Powerplant
  49. Gordi – Reservoir
  50. Grandaddy – Last Place
  51. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
  52. Guided by Voices – August by Cake
  53. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)
  54. Hello Shark – Break Arms
  55. Hoops – Routines
  56. Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF – Cascades
  57. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
  58. Jeremy Enigk – Ghosts
  59. Jlin – Black Origami
  60. Johnny Jewel – Windswept***
  61. Josh Ritter – Gathering
  62. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
  63. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid
  64. Kathryn Kluge & Kim Allen Kluge – Silence (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  65. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
  66. Kevin Morby – City Music
  67. King Krule – The OOZ
  68. Kraus – End Tomorrow (2016)
  69. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things 2 (Original Series Soundtrack)
  70. Lali Puna – Two Windows
  71. LCD Soundsystem – american dream
  72. Liars – TFCF
  73. Lo Tom – Lo Tom
  74. Lorde – Melodrama
  75. Miya Folick – Give It To Me EP
  76. The National – Sleep Well Beast
  77. Nick Hakim – Green Twins
  78. Nightlands – I Can Feel the Night Around Me
  79. Pallbearer – Heartless
  80. Perfume Genius – No Shape
  81. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
  82. Psychic Temple – IV
  83. Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
  84. Real Estate – In Mind
  85. Rostam – Half-Light
  86. Run The Jewels – RTJ3
  87. San Fermin – Belong
  88. ShitKid – Fish
  89. Silver Fleet – Demo
  90. Slothrust – Show Me How You Want It to Be
  91. Soley, Sin Fang & Örvar Smárason – Singles 2017
  92. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
  93. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
  94. Steady Holiday – Terror EP
  95. Sudan Archives – Sudan Archives EP
  96. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live
  97. Sufjan Stevens – The Greatest Gift
  98. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium
  99. Sweet Baboo – Wild Imagination
  100. Sylvan Esso – What Now
  101. Temples – Volcano
  102. Thundercat – “Drunk”
  103. Tim Heidecker – Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker’s Trump Songs
  104. Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution
  105. Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno – Finding Shore
  106. Toro y Moi – Boo Boo
  107. TORRES – Three Futures
  108. Trevor Sensor – Andy Warhol’s Dream
  109. Vagabon – Infinite Worlds
  110. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
  111. Washed Out – Mister Mellow
  112. Wavves – You’re Welcome
  113. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
  114. Why? – Moh Lhean
  115. William Eggleston – Musik
  116. Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses 1 – EP
  117. Woods – Love Is Love EP
  118. The xx – I See You
  119. Zola Jesus – Okovi