Thursday, December 22, 2011

Great Big End Of Year Review, 2011 [PART ONE]

As another year draws to a close, I'm left to reflect over another great year of music and ponder the releases that I have been particularly fond of. This year, I decided to take on the arduous task of dramatically extending my coverage from the usual top ten, to include the following:
  • Top 10 free/netlabel releases [PART ONE]
  • Top 10 EPs [PART ONE]
  • Top 5 compilation albums of the year [PART ONE]
  • Top 5 labels of the year [PART TWO]
  • Top 10 minimalist/drone/abstract albums [PART TWO]
  • Top 30 albums of the year [PART TWO]
I will also outline what I've been up to myself, with solo projects, collaborations, remixes and also, a list of the free Audio Gourmet EPs that I released this year at in PART THREE
2011 has been such an incredible year for the ambient/modern classical/electro-acoustic music scene.
I was originally intending on practically writing an essay to introduce this section but I've ran out of time. At least it leaves room for improvement for next year and the lack of unnecessary waffle from me stops anything getting in the way of all this excellent music.
I hope that these lists will help direct people towards new and undiscovered music and that there will be something to discover for all. The lists are all subjective of course and are based on my own personal taste.
Where a release has become out of stock, I've either linked to the digital version or to the release page. Unfortunately, due to popularity, some releases are snapped up very quickly. If you like the sound clips or are intrigued, you might be able to find one for sale at

So, without much more hesitation, I'd best get on with it as there's so much to write!

TOP TEN EPs /3" CD(rs)

1).  Nest - Body Pilot [Serein]
Serein front-runner Huw Roberts rejoins collaborator Deaf Center's Otto Totland as Nest, contributing a stunning set of 4 pieces for 10" vinyl. There's lots of beautiful moments in Totland's piano as well as the usual stormy drones and additional musical instrument tones that won us over with last year's Retold album.
'Body Pilot' is part of Serein's magnificent Seasons series, which includes 4 pieces of 10" vinyl released this year. Nest's contribution is my personal favourite but it is strongly recommended that you delve through all four if you like what you hear.

2).  Shaula - The Girl In The Clock [Time Released Sound]
You'll read a fair bit about Time Released Sound in end of year posts as their debut year has been simply solid. 10 exquisite releases, all beautifully designed and packaged. I own the very first edition - a lavishly designed book-sized encasing which contains a 3" disc by Shaula called 'The Girl In The Clock'. I've long since enjoyed Shaula's work - more recently on Somehow recordings and also the magnificent 'Haze' album on Under The Spire, released at the beginning of last year.
I hate to tease - but this one's likely near impossible to get hold of, due to the nature of TRS' limited edition releases practically being over-night hits.
You'll really struggle to get hold of one of these - but if you do stumble across it anywhere, hit buy instantly. This is without doubt Shaula's finest work and it has been represented with the kind of packaging that has won Time Released Sound so much acclaim this year.

3).  Offthesky - The Boy With The Golden Cough [Rural Colours]
It's been another good year for one of my favourite artists, Offthesky. With stunning 12" album The Beautiful Nowhere out on Hibernate in the summer and album Endless Yonder on SEM, Offthesky's Jason Corder also managed to get out a couple of EPs this year and this is the pick of the bunch for me. It was part of  Hibernate's sister label Rural Colours 3" CDr series and as was often the case with these, it sold out in no time at all. 'The Boy With The Golden Cough', whilst being a short EP-sized release, explores dense electro-acoustic textures carefully during its brief duration.
The first piece delves through treated string sections with a subtle and percussive undercurrent. The second piece includes that signature Offthesky sound that was much enjoyed throughout The Beautiful Nowhere.
You'll struggle to snap up one of the limited edition 3"CDrs, but please do yourself a favour and spare a couple of quid for the paid download. The meagre amount will go straight to the artist and you'll be getting a couple of his finest pieces to enjoy in return.

4).  Richard Moult - Celestial King For A Year [Second Language]
'Celestial King For A Year' sees Richard Moult embark on his most elaborate solo project to date and where better to release such a beautiful set of sounds? The wonderful Second Language label of course. It opens with a superb modern classical string section that sets the scene for this fantastic three-part affair. 'Part II' is perhaps the most unique and interesting, featuring some of the most haunting vocals I have ever heard. They are both beautiful and dark, set as a complete opposite to the majestic opener. The piece starts quietly and then ebbs and flows in its intensity for its remainder. Drawing things to a carefully considered close over nineteen minutes, Moult takes his time to set the final scene. The strings return, joined with a little more soundscaping than in Part One, although this never overwhelms or envelopes them. It's a slow and careful piece, full of overtones and undertones - it's just mesmerising.
Again, sold out I'm afraid. A quick check on Discogs and I see there's a copy up for sale for 80 quid! The seller is one of these kind people who over-price limited edition records deliberately, in the hope of making a few quid. If you have money to burn and fancy making someone's day, you could do a lot worst than 'Celestial King For A Year'...

5).  Simon Bainton - Sun Settings [Hibernate]
Hibernate's maginificent 3" CDr Postcard series has brought us some fantastic sounds this year and in a highly collectible guise. I was particularly excited when one half of Pausal stepped up to the plate with an EP called 'Sun Settings'. Simon Bainton's work here includes everything from piano, strings and extending to moments of lulling drones. It was a real highlight when it came out this summer.
The duration may be short, but Bainton decided to explore it through a total of seven tracks - which is something I really like, if done properly. Simon Bainton doesn't allow his ambitions to rush him through the tracks that make up Sun Settings. Instead, they are carefully assembled and shine bright as you listen. I absolutely love the choice of photography for this one too, which really adds something to the set.
And again, you guessed it, sold out...but Simon has kindly made it available digitally for a mere £2.50 through Bandcamp. Less than the cost of a pint of beer, is that.

6).  Part Timer - Undead [Hibernate]
I'm very much a fan of John McCaffrey's work in all its guises - from the brilliant Real To Reel to his Upwards Arrows work for Under The Spire, the man is a genius. So I was understandably excited to see his name crop up on the Hibernate website, under their limited edition postcard series.
Beautiful piano, teamed with subtle strings, drones, light noise and glitches make for one hell of a listen. For the physical EP, John mixed together the four parts to make a continuous listening experience. As is the trend for these Hibernate postcard releases, it sold out in absolutely no time at all. Grab yourself a digital copy from the above link and you'll get slightly more than we did in the physical version - the tracks, unmixed in their original individual parts. PLUS! The original mix, as we have it.

7).  Gimu and Darren Harper - Field and Fern; Mountain and Sea [Rural Colours]
Two friends and artists who I have worked with on Audio Gourmet, Gimu and Darren Harper collaborated for a 3" CDr release on Hibernate sister label Rural Colours.
I've been following Darren's work for years and he's a massively under-rated artist as I've said before. His work is always crystal clear, well produced and utterly beautiful.
Hailing from Brazil, Gimu's work is unique and has been turning heads since I first released his EP on Audio Gourmet. He's gone on to work with Somehow Recordings and Childrenplay records and is an emerging artist of genuine quality.
Together, these artists combine to provide the full spectrum. With this, I mean that Darren's work usually leans on the lighter side and Gimu's is often darker and slightly noisier.
'Field and Fern; Mountain and Sea' feels like a brief and wonderous journey round the whole earth in just a short space of time. This is at the moment impossible - but with this EP, you will get that little bit closer. It is just marvellous and highly recommended.
It has sold out at source, as expected. But Darren and Gimu have kindly given permission for it to be made widely available for free. So if you haven't done so already, click away at the above link and search for the link that has in it....

8).  Damian Valles - Old Tin Will Cry [Twisted Treeline]
With the extensively detailed album 'Skeleton Taxa' out this year, it is astonishing that Damian Valles found time to make anything else this year. But he did - a couple of outstanding EPs for a start. One was part of Hibernate Recordings' postcard series and the other came out on Somehow Recordings' new offshoot label Twisted Treeline, which also specialises in 3" postcard releases. 'Old Tin Will Cry' is a two part EP of carefully unfurling drones - full of texture, as you'd expect from Valles. It moves slowly and gathers momentum from time to time and is a truly terrific listen from start to finish. It has plenty to say over its duration and will reward those who listen patiently. There's still some physical copies left, at the time of writing, too...

9).  Anna Rose Carter and Pleq - My Piano is Broken [Rural Colours]
My good friend and regular collaborator Pleq teamed up with pianist Anna Rose Carter for this fantastic but short piano suite. Pleq has been nothing short of prolific this year, particularly with his collab work. This in my view is his best, of a truly terrific bunch.
Anna Rose Carter was deservedly the winner of Fluid Radio's album of the year in 2010, with Silver Lines. She returns with another set of typically well performed compositions, underpinned by the sorts of glitchy shuffles, rustles and crackles that we've come to love from Pleq this year.

10). Listening Mirror - Spires, Spirals and Stones [Heat Death]
More excellent output this year from Listening Mirror, who established himself last year and collaborating with Kate Tustain. Listening Mirror has since gone solo and Jeff Stonehouse, the man behind the project has released works on the likes of Audio Gourmet, Entropy, Hibernate and Bathetic this year, not to mention a self released postcard EP.
In Spires, Spirals and Stones, we've an EP written in tribute to the late Throbbing Gristle legend Peter Christopherson and in collaboration with pianist Sophie Kazandjian. The two pieces are filled with beauty and are as good an example of the sorts of well-programmed soundscapes that we've come to expect from Listening Mirror


1). Various - Kanshin [Hibernate/Fluid Audio]
The brilliant respective teams at Hibernate and Fluid Radio team together for this album to raise money for victims of the earthquake which struck in March this year. Musically, it features work from some of the best names in the scene and serves as a great introducer to it. The link above features all the information you need to find out more and also, the links to where to purchase. I believe the physical CD has sold out but the download should serve you well enough, especially given the cause.

2). Various - For Nihon [Unseen Records]
In another fantastic compilation to raise money for Japan after the earthquake, Keith Kennif got together a group of friends to produce a double disc compilation album. And what talented and well established friends they are too...names including Peter Broderick, Clem Leek and Harold Budd to name but a few should get you interested if you've not already sent over your donation, in exchange for this one. There's some stunning pieces on here and it comes with my highest recommendation. Again, finding a CD copy will be tough business but your money for the downloadable version will still go in the right direction to the cause.

3). Various - SMM: Context [Ghostly International]
In an all star line-up of some of the finest names around, huge US label Ghostly International serves this superb compilation album that was released in CD, vinyl and mp3 formats. It's a reasonably short single disc affair, comprised of just eleven tracks. Stand outs include Svarte Greiner's brooding 'Halves', Jacaszek's beautiful but epic 'Elegia' and closing piece 'Pause' by Peter Broderick. Having said this, the others certainly aren't could they disappoint when they include the likes of Goldmund, Rafael Anton Irisarri and Leyland Kirby?
The best news is, this beautifully packaged released should still be available, thanks to the higher unit count that Ghostly have made available...

4). Various - Minute Papillon [Second Language]
There's been a few one minute track compilation albums about over the last couple of years, including SEM's One Minute For The Stars/Sun and then I've curated one called 'Just A Moment' to raise money for the JEERS charity in Japan, after March's earthquake.
The tremendous Second Language label have been the first and only in the scene to make such an elaborate compilation into a physical package, as far as I'm aware. Not only did they put much time into curating 60 pieces of music from 60 artists, they also went all out with the packaging, as you'd expect from them. How do you fit a credit for 60 tracks and their artists onto a CD package? Well you could oversize the packaging. Or, you could always design an inch square butterfly, print the text onto it in tiny font and provide the listeners with a magnifying glass to read it. Fantastic idea.
Musically, it's a juxtaposed set of ambient, modern classical, folk, pop, electronica and absolutely everything in between. There's something for all, as it is always changing by the nature of the short pieces. So you probably won't even bother skipping the pieces you're not so keen on and, even start to love them!
My personal favourite piece and my most listened to piece from the album, on repeat, is Hannah Peel's 'Dareh Meyod'.
Unfortunately, it has sold out, like much of the material on Second Langauge. So you'll struggle to get hold of a copy. Unless you're prepared to shell out fifty quid on Discogs, that is...
5). Various - The Clyde Parker Project [Self-Release]
In an elaborate and ambitious project, Monolyth And Cobalt has spent a long while collaborating with 32 artists in this massive 4 disc album. It's not strictly a compilation album, but it did require a great amount of curation and care from the artist. Not to mention, the highly limited CD album has been handmade too!
There's some great artists in there, including the likes of Birds Of Passage, Pillowdiver, Orla Wren and Pleq and everything has a unique feel to it too, thanks to Monolyth and Cobalt's great production skills.

For this next section, I'll run down my favourite free/netlabel releases. It will exclude anything on my own netlabel Audio Gourmet - because A. I'll be doing a discography list of everything out on AG in 2011 and B. because I don't want to show any preference to them, as I love them all.
There has been some great stuff out in the netlabel scene this year and although I've spent a lot of time focussing on buying physical releases this year, I've stumbled across a few free gems that I'll share with you here.

I won't go into great detail with the write up - perhaps just a sentence or two as a tagline to help you decide if it might be your thing. Frankly, if you need a full 3 paragraph review to persuade you to download something that is free, then I give up. It's free!!!!!

1).   Ed Cooke - Spirit House [Rural Colours]
Terrific four track EP on Rural Colours by guitarist Ed Cooke. Borders on the kind of folk/electro-acoustic sounds that I've absolutely fallen in love with these last couple of years. It features Stephen Lewis on one piece, who also plays for Rameses III and Padang Food Tigers. Two of my favourite artists of all time, so that goes some way to explain how excellent this is...

2).   Tanner Menard & Entia Non - Never Expected Your Decays [Rural Colours]
Part one of a collaborative series between these two well established artists. I've been following both for sometime and it's great to see them make such excellent music and give it away for free. Tanner Menard's piano compositions set to the murky undercurrent of Entia Non's intelligent soundscaping reminds me a little of 'Bewilderment' by Sylvie Walder and Entia Non on Resting Bell. With that being one of my favourite netlabel releases of all time, this will help draw some perspective on how good this is.

3).   Devin Underwood + Marcus Fischer – Correspond [Distance Recordings]
Disrupting a first, second and third finish from the Rural Colours label is this collaboration between Specta Ciera's Devin Underwood and Marcus Fischer. Devin's work has oft been made available for free, but it's refreshing to see that Marcus Fischer, after all his success on 12k has been willing to give this collab project away for nothing. 'Correspond' could easily have been lavishly packaged and released on any one of the DIY labels and sold out in no time. Instead, this set of beautifully textured drones is available to anyone for absolutely nothing. Incredible.

4).   Arboretus - Soundscape De Nostalgia [Hawk Moon]
As many will be aware, I love short musical releases and this brief set from Arboretus really turned my head recently. The three pieces involve polished guitar drones, rumbling undercurrents beneath them, subtle field recording texture and also, an occasional glimpse of guitar performance. This comes to the fore in my favourite piece 'Cloudy Sunday', which is the second track of the three.
It's possibly one of the lesser known netlabel releases from this year but it is one of the finest, at least to my ears.

5).   Widesky - Floating In Being [Rural Colours]
More goodness from Hibernate's sister label Rural Colours, in the form of Floating In Being by Widesky. Widesky's Seth Chrisman has released a few free EPs this year, including a 15 minute excursion on Audio Gourmet. We are told that he has an album out on Hibernate next year, so that's something to look forward to. If you're unfamiliar with his work, then there's plenty of time to familiarise yourself with it before the album arrives. 'Floating In Being' is possibly his finest work and is highly recommended - but given that they're all free, it would be well worth exploring his other excellent free EPs.

6).   Heu{s-k}ach & Pedro Sousa - I Know Not What Tomorrow Will Bring [Resting Bell]
Superb improv/experimental guitar Ep from this trio on Resting Bell. It's a full album of four mid-length pieces, that feature minimal improvised guitar sessions set to an array of finely detailed noises and sound effects. Resting Bell have slowed down their release output this year, in favour of careful quality control. And it shows...

7).   Coldstream - Drown/Lights [Rural Colours]
London based artist Dan Mumford has treated several instruments, including guitars, piano, melodica and many more into two beautiful soundscapes that were given away for free on Rural Colours earlier this year. As well as Mumford's carefully constructed soundscapes, there is an array of subtle detail underneath that was recorded in the Cascade Mountains in America, which includes field recordings and treated AM broadcasts from the area.

8).   Monolyth & Cobalt - La Température du Feuillage Entre Deux Saisons [Feedback Loop]
Another port of call for good netlabel music is the wonderful Feedback Loop label. With another solid year's output, the pick of the bunch for me is this set from Monolyth and Cobalt, which was released at the beginning of the year. It's an outstanding recording throughout and through variation of sounds, gives something for all. There's noise, hiss, static, dark ambience and then lighter, more melancholic moments of piano, strings and soft drones.

9).   Gareth Davis / Jan Kleefstra / Romke Kleefstra - Sieleslyk [Rural Colours]
The Kleefstra brothers team up with clarinetist Gareth Davis in this freebie on Rural Colours. It's a single, 21 minute piece composed for 3" CDr which comprises guitar, spoken word and Davis' clarinet, of course. The guitar is beautifully played, the clarinet adds an eeriness and the spoken word soothes. It's mesmerising stuff.
I'd also recommend checking out their recent album on Hibernate too...

10). Edu Comelles - Orange Country [Impulsive Habitat]
Another of my favourite netlabels is Impulsive Habitat, which is an offshoot of the more musical Test Tube label. Impulsive Habitat is purely for field recordings based releases and is a regular haunt of mine for subtle, quiet listening. Picking my favourite from the label is difficult but I've gone for Edu Comelles' 'Orange Country' which was released in March this year. Comelles, also responsible for the Audiotalaia netlabel put together this 13 piece headphone journey through Valencia and Tarragona in Spain during 2009 and 2010. Lots of beautiful sound to listen to, with the recommended environment being complete silence, whilst sat indoors.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Great Big End Of Year Review 2011 [PART TWO POINT TWO]

At long last, I have managed to post this list of my favourite albums from 2011. I decided to write a couple of paragraphs for each, which I have since come to regret! This is because I've had a busy start to the year, with various commitments outside of music.
Nonetheless, 2011 was a fantastic year and one that I will always looking back on fondly. I bought SO much music and I doubt going forward that I'll ever have a year where I will be able to afford to match it. So I am pleased that I've been able to put together the post that you will find below, outlining some of my favourite discoveries. I have tried to order the albums by preference, which was a really tough task. A lot of them mean different things to me at different times, so I guess if you catch me on a different day, the list may change.
The hardest thing was actually writing my comments, because writing 'this album is brilliant' for each is a bit of a kop out, however true it may be!

So here is my list, which went from a top 30 to top 33, simply because of the sheer quality and my inability to whittle it down any further. If something is unfamiliar to you, please check it out and give it a listen...


[Bedroom Community]
Coming in at first place for 2011 is a pop/folk record on Bedroom Community and the first record I own from either the label or anyone involved with this album. It came out in the summer and whilst I initially enjoyed the sample tracks, I decided not to order it at the time - perhaps in fear of it straying a little too far from the kind of music I had been enjoying at the time? Something just didn't quite grab me from those samples to make me buy.
Much later in the year during November, I found myself sniffing round it again. The 12" was on sale in Fluid Radio's Stashed Goods store and I decided to at last bite the bullet. My order was shortly followed by a strong recommendation from Dan who runs Fluid Radio and the store. He cited it as one of his favourites from this year and recommended accompanying my first listen with headphones and a walk in the countryside.
I didn't quite managed the walk as I was busy with various household tasks the following day and I simply couldn't wait until I had the free time to get out into the open air! Nevertheless, I found after a couple of listens that I was simply hooked on this album from start to finish. I practically had it on all day and returned regularly for the weeks that followed.
On paper it's a singer-song-writer album, which is something I very rarely give the time of day. That kind of music just never usually strikes a chord with me. I struggle to even get into Peter Broderick's song based work, and he's one of my favourite musicians! So what is it about this album that won me over against all odds? Perhaps it was the additional arrangements recorded in Reykjavik by Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson, bringing a subtle modern classical undercurrent to this intimate folk album. Then there's the fact that it is underpinned by a strong sense of melancholy, which seems to be the signature ingredient for much of my music taste these days.
'En Garde' is not without its more upbeat or playful moments. Terry Magson, the man behind the voice and guitar pits his lyrics with a comfortable set of guitar performances. Magson plays his guitar very adeptly and confidently; often the juxtaposed use of quickly fingered guitar strings is joined by lyrics that hint at heartbreak and despair. There are often beautiful key-changes and several twists and turns which really helps you retain interest as you listen. Add to all this the wizardry of some twenty or so Icelandic musicians and this record really comes to life. There is so much detail to listen to and get to grips with, that 'En Garde' is an album that I learn something new about with each listen. Everytime it plays, it reveals a little more to you. Whether it be a lyric, the swell of strings or a hint of brass, it will keep surprising you. Even those tracks that don't jump out at you immediately on those early listens - they will win you over and you will learn to love them.

If you ask me why I have chosen 'En Garde' ahead of so many other great albums in the modern classical/ambient/drone/electro-acoustic scene, I wonder whether it might be the sheer volume of elements that make it feel so complete. Sure, there were lots of records with great attention to detail out in 2011, but this winning me over with the added dimension of vocals helps make it all the more special.
[Fat Cat]
Back in March this year, despite being unfamiliar with his previous work, I ordered Dustin O'Halloran's 'Lumiere' on Fat Cat records. The samples were breathtaking and coupled with a support roster including Johann Johannsson, Peter Broderick and Adam Wiltzie, it was certain to be a real highlight of the year. It was only when I received it and began listening...that I began to realise just how indredible it is. It has since become one of my favourite albums ever and I have listened to it time and time again, without ever growing tired of its wealth of charm.

It has everything that forms the making of a true classic. It is varied enough to retain interest, it is full of twists and turns that occur effortlessly and it is executed exquisitely.
This group of musicians have put together something so special that it is almost impossible to describe. Genre-wise, it is straight up modern classical music, combining O'Halloran's piano with strings. Sounds simple, and in places it is just that. Yet the strings are so rich and emotive that they really heighten the impact of the compositions. When the strings rise and soar is when this release is at its most effective, but often the moments of desolate piano that precede or follow it allow the listener time and space to contemplate the spectacle whilst it is still taking place.

3. SLEEPINGDOG - With Our Heads In The Clouds And Our Hearts In The Fields
Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie has been a man on a mission this year. He's worked on the outstanding Dustin O'Halloran album 'Lumiere', is a main part of the A Winged Victory For The Sullen album and here he works alongside a set of musicians and singer Chantal Acda. The name for the collective is Sleepingdog and although a new one on my radar, they have been in operation since 2006.

I had seen their 2011 effort 'With Our Heads In The Clouds And Our Hearts In The Fields' mentioned across the net when it was out, but gave it a miss. Perhaps it was the word 'vocals', written in the press release that put me off...It's not something I normally allow to come into the remit of my music taste and if I've learnt anything this year, it is to allow such things to be cast aside and to give things a chance before assuming.
I may well have stayed with this misconception if it hadn't been for Richard at Gizeh records, who kindly sent me a copy of the album when I ordered the label's Rustle In The Stars record. So it is with great thanks to Richard, as well as the artists for the reason that With Our Heads In The Clouds... lies at number 3 in my list of best albums this year.

The album arrived right after the passing of an indian summer, here in the UK and with the cold outside setting in, it really came into its own. Initially, what caught me was the rural feel to the photography in the beautiful gatefold CD design. But what struck me even more was the beautiful music! This collection of eight songs pits a blend of orchestral and folk backdrops alongside Chantal's unique voice. The opener 'Untitled Ballad Of You And Me' is a hauntingly beautiful piece spanning 8 gentle minutes, but for me the favourite piece has to be second track 'It Leaves Us Silent'. It begins in a similar fashion to the opener, but breaks into a beautiful chorus with a strummed guitar accompanyment before returning to the icey and desolate piano notes that suited the winter so well.
The album continues to amaze and always makes me smile all the way through. Another highlight later on, is 'He Loved to See the World Through His Camera' and the closing piece 'Scary Movie' is a favourite too.

4. SCISSORS AND SELLOTAPE - For The Tired And Ill At Ease
One of three late releases that threw a proverbial spanner in the works, 'For The Tired And Ill At Ease' arrived on Christmas Eve in some of the finest packaging I have ever seen. It threw a spanner in the works because I had already done my top thirty and by the time it arrived, the thirty had become thirty two. Not being able to wittle the chart down further, I had to make it a top thirty three! Leaving it out altogether certainly wasn't an option - the album arrived at such an important time of year for me, when I needed a musical retreat more than ever. Working in retail, my job requires me to work through the post Christmas period which means little time off for recharging the batteries. 'For The Tired And Ill At Ease' became the soundtrack for this tiring end of the year period and given its intensely restful musical subject and the concept it deals with, it couldn't be more fitting.

Scissors And Sellotape is another of the hugely talented John McCaffrey's artist pseudonyms and with this release, he reignites the discography under this name which was established in 2009 on the Cotton Goods label. In choosing a label for his new output, McCaffrey's search for a new home for Scissors and Sellotape came up trumps in Facture, a label ran by Fluid Radio owner Daniel Crossley. Dan's careful attention to detail and design shows whichever way you look at the packaging in this one and is as thoroughly meticulous and beautiful as the album itself.
'For The Tired And Ill At Ease' was recorded over three hours in a church with pianist Heidi Elva. Although all things considered, 3 hours is not a massive length of time for recording an album, the result feels incredibly well put together. The eventual album fuses the piano recordings inside the church with the additional electronic processes that McCaffrey is renowned for. As a whole, it is incredibly restful. Conceptually, inspiration was drawn from an atheist's view of theology and an intrigue as to how it still provides meaning and relief from the pressures of the world. This brings me back to the restful element of 'For The Tired and Ill At Ease'. The album has not converted me nor made me consider the subject matter in great detail - rather, it has given me a retreat for when I am tired or stressed. It has become an audio comfort blanket and soundtrack for the end of 2011 and going forward too. Act fast to secure yourself a copy, as these will go in no time - and they are keepers too, meaning that leaving it to the second hand market may be pointless...
5. ÓLAFUR ARNALDS - Living Room Songs
[Erased Tapes]
This time last year, I had already announced my favourite releases of the year with a disregard for anything that came out in December. I was pretty much all set to do something similar this year - until Living Room Songs came along, forcing me to transform this top thirty list into a top thirty one list instead. Ólafur Arnalds hails from one of the leading nations in terms of producing modern classical musicians and he is not one that fades to the back of the pack, as this stunning short album will confirm.
The distributing home of Living Room Songs is none other than Erased Tapes and marks an absolutely solid year of output from them. Arnalds is one of the most consistent contributors to their catalog with releases spanning back to their early days of 2007. If perhaps the likes of label mates Peter Broderick and Nils Frahm are considered to be bigger names, they have done one thing this year to help push the work of Ólafur Arnalds to the fore by releasing albums on Erased Tapes. Arnalds' work certainly isn't outshadowed by such heavyweights - it stands up well against them and maintains the consistent quality of the label's output. In fact, as you'll notice here, for me Living Room Songs just notches a little something extra to put it fractionally higher in terms of my personal preference.

As an album, in many ways it can be easily compared to Frahm's album 'Felt' in that it is a very intimate recording, recorded in a home environment. Long something that was undesired in a recording situation in years gone by, these days the creaking of a chair adds an intimate and poetic touch to a piano performance. And Arnalds doesn't just jump on the bandwagon...
Originally, he was practicing the new work for an album and decided to record to video so that he could watch back his progress. He decided it worked so well, that he would work on something new for seven days, recording to video as he went along and enlisting the support of fellow musicians, brought into his home.

Despite being heavily tinged with melancholy and solitude, it does have a warm and inviting feel to it that makes it feel highly personal, like an invitation into the artist's home.
Add to this the signature high standard packaging by the label, and the perfect timing of a shorter duration for an album and you have something very special indeed. A note on the packaging - I think this is what ties this whole thing together and it is probably the best of the bunch this year. The colour is a warm deep maroon and inside is what looks like an old sheet of graph paper. Inside the two sleeves beneath this, you'll obviously find the disc and then inside the other is a sort of scrapbook of drawings - one to match each track. It's a nice little touch and it really helps add something to the whole package without going too over the top. My advice is to get a physical copy. They've only recently come out at the time of writing this post, so they should be readily available. For now...
[Staalplaat/Mort Aux Vaches]
In spring and at the dawn of the warmer months to follow, I noticed this collaboration from two of my favourite artists was out although not heavily promoted. Peter Broderick and Machinefabriek have collaborated before with the all-time classic 'Blank Grey Canvas Sky' and this is to be the follow up, out on Staalplaat. The Mort Aux Vaches label series translates to death to cows in English, and as a collection it has seen other artists such as Oren Ambarchi, Tarentel and Tim Hecker grace it.
There are indeed several sister labels to the Dutch based Staalplaat organisation and in truth, this is the first record I have ever purchased from them. Other than the obvious pedigree of these two artists, to me the whole thing was something of a mystery and required a little light research.

The actual concept for the Mort Aux Vaches series, aside from its strange title is based on live radio performances in the Netherlands. So for this one, Machinefabriek's Rutger Zuydervelt was joined by expert musician Peter Broderick for a live radio session of instrument performance and electronics. Then as if to make the live session more complicated and increase the margin for error, Jan and Romke Kleefstra, Anne Chris Bakker and Mr Nils Frahm were added to the performance room...

As you've guessed from the high regard I have held this record in this list of top albums for the year, nothing did go wrong. And as if it really would? All of the artists are great friends and not only that, they are all extremely talented in their field. Live re-issues only really stand out to me as an album when they are flawless and feel like an album experience and this is a shining example of one that works.
Over three tracks, the environment is built carefully from all of the contributing artists and presents itself as a beautiful modern classical suite, underpinned but never overshadowed by Zuydervelts electronics. Radio static, feedback, hiss and field recordings are the source for these and upon them, Broderick's violin performance soars. The music is incredible and once Nils Frahm's piano comes into melting pot, it somehow gets even better.
This Mort Aux Vaches excursion is built up patiently and it rewards the listener that is prepared to be patient with it. If you take the time to listen to the three long tracks, you'll be overwhelmed by what is on offer. It is very easy to completely forget that it was a live and improvised performance...

CD copies are getting tough to track down now but it is recommended to grab one if you can. The artwork is stunning - it looks a little like old wallpaper and it is held together with a split pin that goes through the centre of the front cover packaging, through the disc and pinned back on the reverse sleeve.

7. ESMERINE - La Lechuza
I own a copy of La Lechuza on both 12" vinyl and also CD. I knew once this one came out that it was something big and I wanted to make sure I got as much out of it as I could and so went for both formats.
It is a unique sounding record featuring a host of talented musicians, coming together to celebrate the life of their late friend Lhasa De Sela. Lhasa was a singer who often performed with some of the people that make up this recording and she lost her battle with breast cancer on new year's day 2010.
Rather than coming across overly melancholy at the loss, much of the album is celebratory of the creative energy that Lhasa left behind.
Whilst there are some sad moments in 'La Lechuza', Esmerine have taken great care with the track placements and the ideas within them to make sure that everything is balanced. The sad moments are often preceded, followed or joined by the playful and melodic percussion of Bruce Cawdron and Andrew Barr. This helps to offset the sadness of the strings and with a touch of beauty provided by Sarah Page's harp and then the addition of a few carefully placed vocal pieces as well as guest performances from other musicians including Colin Stetson, La Lechuza is packed full of beautiful and interesting detail.
Esmerine has always been a purely instrumental group and so vocals have been approached with great sensitivity. Firstly, in the track 'Last Waltz', Sarah Page is joined by Patrick Watson in my personal favourite track on the album. Then the vocals return in 'Snow Day For Lhasa', with Patrick Watson performing solo for this. The track is obviously a direct tribute to the late Lhasa and the song references the snow that stilled the streets on New Year's Day of 2010 when she passed away. It's an incredible piece. You can feel the cold outside whatever the time of year and it makes you feel glad to be indoors.
The final vocal piece and the album closer is 'Fish On Land', a piece written and performed by Lhasa De Sela herself before she died. As I mentioned, much of the album is colourful and vibrant through the melodic percussion and these moments are surely designed to offset some of the sadness and come across more celebratory. They certainly succeed in balancing this record as a whole, but the closing piece does feel rather sad and it Lhasa has the final say on this record. It is a fitting and incredibly beautiful closing piece to a stunning album which overall, has been one of my favourites this year. I only wish I could see them live!
Palestine by Tokyo Bloodworm is unlike anything I have ever heard before, since getting into this kind of music. I had also never heard of Tokyo Bloodworm and whilst I had heard of Moteer, I'd criminally never bought any of their records.
Better late than never and what a dramatic way to end the label's catalog. For starters, I was struck by how incredibly well designed the packaging was - it provided a huge amount of intrigue which really helped me connect with this album. It is designed to look antiqued, with a strong eastern flavour to it. Onto the music, it contained all of the elements that tick the boxes for me - lots of instruments, including guitar, strings, piano and field recordings.
Initially, it took a little persuasion for me to bite the bullet and order this one. There was a lot of talk about it at the time but for some reason, I'd miss-filed them based on a misconception I had formed about the artist name. Tokyo Bloodworm to me seemed to conjur up images of some kind of dark ambient/black metal or psych rock band which although it isn't completely outside of my music taste, it wasn't really exactly what I was looking for when I hit payday and could afford 2 or 3 new albums.

What intrigued me initially with Palestine was the roster on-board for the remixes and the design too. A glance at the remix line-up confirmed that it must be something worth a listen and by the time I did, all the versions with the additional remix disc had sold out and only the main album was available. After a swift skim through a couple of reviews and a listen to some of the sample tracks, I was impressed enough to order. Yet, nowhere near as impressed as I was when it arrived! The packaging is stunning and the music is right on par too. The three years in which artists Ryan Keane and R.A Sanchez took to painstakingly assemble Palestine, calling on additional friends lending support from their respective instruments did not go to waste.
Palestine is full of charm, hinting at eastern influences and a melting pot of other cultures and ideas. Some of the tracks fade or merge into one another whereas others stop and take time to build up the atmosphere again. There are some real stand-out pieces in the album that really heighten when you take the time to listen to as a whole. If you can source a copy, I'll leave it up to you to decide which these are. Just a word of advice, give the album time to build up, as some of its finest moments lie deep inside the tracklist and reward those who listen in one sitting.
[Rif Mountain]
This year I have discovered the work of Plinth, albeit a little late. With lots of making up to do, I downloaded some material from the artist's Bandcamp page and ordered the odd physical piece. There was lots of ground to make up and some serious catching up to do!
In June, at the height of summer, it came to my attention that an album by the A.Lords was to be released, fusing the folk based work from Plinth's Michael Tanner and Nick Palmer. Having heard a couple of fine sample tracks, as soon as the option for pre-order came up, I was into my Paypal account sending over the funds to secure my copy.

It seemed to take an age to arrive - either the pre-order was up well in advance or it was delayed. Regardless of the grumpiness I felt each time I checked the post for it and noted its absence, I can't help thinking that this record was made to be listened to after the summer has passed. It eventually arrived in early September and it allowed the warm memories of summer to live on for longer as it began to turn a little colder outside. Everything on this record is incredibly warm and nostalgic.

The press release informed that this work was slowly and carefully recorded outdoors each summer over the course of a decade. The material was the result of some meticulous microphone work that must have taken hours to perfect, at each point and location of installation. This is before you even consider the level of care and skill that went into performing and composing the music that accompanies the gentle sounds of the outdoors. How many of these sessions came to nothing? How many times did an unwanted sound creep into focus, only to be discarded? How often would the duo and their other collaborating musicians just sit and marvel at the warmth and beauty of the summer?
When considering the sheer length of time that this record took to come together, you get the feeling that there is so much more that went into the production of this record than we have access to. Of course, they would not have been working on the album 365 days a year, yet as any artist with a project in the works, your thought process remains active throughout its construction. As a duo, they would surely have regularly exchanged ideas throughout the whole process, which is a testament to the incredible amount of thought and care that has been channeled into this record.
The outdoor recordings themselves will be familiar to anyone that takes notice of the sounds to be heard whilst outside, or to people who have a keen interest in the modern classical/ambient scene. Running water, birdsong, rain. The usual suspects. Personally, whenever used to good effect, I will never tire of these. It has been mentioned by reviewers and press that these are becoming all too common and familiar.
In The A.Lords' debut release however, they are real. Real in the sense that they actually occured whilst the music was being performed. This is what makes these recordings particularly poignant.

The concepts, ideas and outdoor sounds are executed perfectly as I have mentioned above. But what of the musicianship? Perhaps this is an area with the odd flaw? Certainly not. Familiar with Tanner's solo work and that of all whom he collaborates with, the musicianship was something that I always knew would be impeccable and it certainly didn't disappoint me here.
[Students Of Decay]
A massive highlight from early 2010 was Danny Paul Grody's 'Fountain'. It was an album of song based instrumental guitar tracks with various influences including Western African 12 string 'kora' music. Returning with another stunning set of pieces, threatening to go one better than one of my all time favourite albums, Grody returns with 'In Search Of Light', released on Alex Cobb's Students Of Decay label.

I can't just go saying that it's better than 'Fountain' lightly and without outlining the firstly, the fact that it was released on 12" vinyl should give some idea as to why I enjoyed it so much. Furthermore, Grody has added more strings to his bow - including analog synths and a greater quality to the sound. Naturally, playing the album on vinyl will give you added warmth as you listen but the whole album really does feel as if Grody has pushed an extra notch up in the quality of his work. Whether this be through mastering or through a shift in skill, perhaps from his findings of recording Fountain, it matters not. In Search Of Light is a beautiful selection of instrumentals that continues the superb work that this artist started last year.

With a title such as 'In Search Of Light', you might assume that the album is a struggle between light and dark, which is also hinted at in the cover artwork. Crucially however, Grody's follow up retains the lightness and playfulness to it that was so effective in 'Fountain'. The album is not without its moments of melancholy, but it is propelled along at a steady tempo, full of colour. Fortunately for us, the light has already been found and it is presented here in a shining example of the talented possessed by Danny Paul Grody.
11. A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN - A Winged Victory For The Sullen
[Erased Tapes]
One of best received releases of the year was very welcome and well received by me, too. I've already noticed A Winged Victory For The Sullen practically everywhere in end of year charts, and the positive acclaim is very much deserved. If you're yet to take the plunge and give this one a go or you're not sure what all the fuss is about, then believe me when I say that this is a beautiful, thoroughly professional epic that cannot be missed.
Erased Tapes have been in fine form as a label this year, as have Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, who centre the production of this wonderful body of work. O' Halloran lends the piano, as you'd expect and Wiltzie works with the soundtracking. Additional musicians were enlisted for extra detail, notably Hildur Gudnadottir on cello, making for an incredible set of recordings. A Winged Victory For The Sullen, despite its bulging roster of talented contributors manages to sound beautifully considered, set at a cautious but confident pace. It never overwhelms and never fills the space un-necessarily - it is utterly, utterly gracious.

What is interesting, is that as a whole, A Winged Victory For The Sullen have a sound that is their own, despite the distinguished individual projects from the artists involved. O'Halloran's 'Lumiere' had a rich grandeur to it, Wiltzie's Sleepingdog project had an earthiness to it and Gudnadottir's collaboration with Hauschka had an experimental element to it. Yet, somehow, as a whole, these artists come up with something magical and totally different.

It has a film soundtrack feel to it, like a lot of the work coming out of Erased Tapes at the moment - it seems like 2011 will go down as the year when we listened to film soundtracks without the visuals and this, is surely the defining set.
12. NILS FRAHM - Felt
[Erased Tapes]
Business as usual and another busy year from Nils Frahm. The German pianist has helped production with the likes of Deaf Center, Machinefabriek and Peter Broderick, as well as collaborations with latter and this is before we start to look at all the wonderful mastering jobs he has done this year Somewhere amongst all of this, Nils Frahm has found the time to record a new album, out on the superb Erased Tapes label.

Felt was inspired by Frahm's late night piano sessions, in which he used felt to soften the keys as not to disturb his neighbour. In doing so, he discovered a magic to the sound and decided to rig his piano with microphones to capture this as a recording. The result is a highly intimate album, in which Frahm invites into his home in the small of the night, with a beautiful set of piano compositions.

There is a wintery feel to Felt, but a warming one which will make you feel glad to be indoors. Opening track 'Keep' moves at a faster pace to set the scene, before the icey and delicate notes of 'Less' lull the mind in preparation for what is in store for the rest of the album. As you'd expect, Frahm is in fine form, confidently performing the works with his chosen instrument. This piano suite is not just effortlessly played - it includes every small fragment of sound that was picked up by those microphones. Each creak of the chair, scrape of the piano's carcass or shuffle along the floorboards is evident for all to hear, as every bit a vital part of this album. As minute as this detail may be, 'Felt' just wouldn't sound the same without it.
Such was my thirst for music in 2011, there were a few occasions where I went straight in and purchased an album without hearing the samples. A quick glance at the press release was all that was needed with 'The Rustle Of The Stars', especially the parts that list all of the ingredients that piece it together. I seem to be magnetically drawn to music that uses a wide pallette of acoustic instruments and this is certainly something that caught my eye, without even having to use my ears. With stunning cover artwork and a limited edition run of 300 12" vinyl issues, my order went in with little further thought.

I was familiar with Frederic Oberland as he has worked closely with Fluid Radio over the years, with a recent free digital album on Fac-ture. Aside from running Gizeh Records itself, Richard Knox is also renowned for recording as part of Glissando and the newly formed A-Sun Amissa. Personally I was unfamiliar with his solo projects and was thoroughly impressed with his work alongside Oberland on 'The Rustle Of The Stars'

Thematically, 'The Rustle Of The Stars' treads the treacherous path of a polar journey to the ends of the earth and through the arctic sea, drawing inspiration along the way from early polar explorers.
It's an incredibly good piece of work, powerful and evocative throughout with a strong theme to bear in mind as you listen. There is a strong sense of drama that unfolds carefully along the way which will keep you returning time and time again. For best results, buy and use the vinyl version
14. KINDER SCOUT - The Writing Life
In an all-star dreamteam comprising of Ian Hawgood, Offthesky and Danny Norbury, this record under the alias Kinder Scout was always going to be the subject of great excitement amongst many when it was released. It was something that was carefully assembled in private between the three for quite some time, which was released without a long drawn out promotional plug. There was barely time for hysteria, and it was mainly distributed in Hawgood's current homeland, Japan. There were some spare copies that floated overseas, and to my delight, I managed to get hold of one.

Initially you will notice that whilst its assembly has been laboured over a considerable length of time, the artists have restricted their collaborative work to just four pieces of music. Usually, I prefer to listen to albums with more tracks to them, yet these mere four mid-length pieces managed to break this habit. This trio of extremely talented individual artists have chosen to merge several changing moments and moods into each track, a little like the recent work you may have heard by The Boats. What this does is holds your interest and keeps you from becoming too familiar with what is being channeled into your ears. There is a perfect blend of the organic and the electronic in 'The Writing Life', with swathes of Norbury's cello, licks of acoustic guitar complimenting a sensitive use of electronics by Hawgood and Corder. I have never heard this juxtaposition executed as well as this. They often say that too many cooks spoil the this instance, the three already talented 'cooks' combine their skills to make one of the most perfectly formed 'broths' you will ever 'taste'. Copies are in short supply - so act fast if you see one available.

15. ILLUHA - Shizuku
I've long been a fan of the excellently run 12k label, owned by Taylor Deupree. The label aesthetic openly embraces minimalism, making it accessible for those who feel open and intrigued enough to give it a chance and without too much compromise of the material itself. There is nothing pretentious about 12k and as a label, it stands as a contemporary and forward thinking movement for artistic design, both in sound and packaging.
One of the finest albums in 2011's roster is 'Shizuku' by Illuha, painstakingly recorded and assembled in Japan over the course of several months. It is one of the warmest, richest recordings of the year and for me, sums up the way I feel the modern scene is heading, utilising all of the ingredients that define it. You have the sustained ambient drones that established the genre several years ago, fused with cello strings, gentle guitar compositions, piano keys, field recordings and even spoken word, in 'Seiya'.

Illuha is indeed a new name on most, although the musicians behind it may be more familiar. One is Tomoyoshi Date who collaborated with Chihei Hatakeyama in 2010 as Asuna and Opitope, to great affect. The other is Corey Fuller, who has cropped up on Dragon's Eye in the past.
Here, the pair collaborate in possibly their finest project to date - if not certainly the one that will put them firmly on the map. 'Shizuku' was recorded in a 100 year old church, which could only add extra warmth to an already incredibly rich sound pallette and inspired set of ideas.

 16. SIMON SCOTT - Bunny
Following on 2009's album 'Navigare' and other work on Slaapwel and Immune last year, Simon Scott graced the distribution stores again this year with what's easily his finest work as a solo artist, at least in my book. The deep, atmospheric cleverness of 'Bunny' is simply genius. In a thick sheen of noise, hiss and static, this peculiar but very very intriguing story will grab the attention of most, I'm sure.
It's not a sleepy, droning affair, yet instead a musical score resting on a bed of noise and atmospherics. The noise is rarely allowed to envelope the main body of music, yet it adds a great sense of texture and atmosphere which gives it a great edge in comparison to some other works that have tried to tread a similar ground.

There is a darkness to it that is never overwhelming, but always slightly unsettling throughout. Which makes it absolutely perfect for the label that released it, Erik Skodvin's Miasmah.
In fact, it feels almost as if Scott has tailored 'Bunny' to meet the requirements of Miasmah which is a great testament to his rounded artistic ability.
Bunny is available for purchase in both CD and Vinyl formats - I plumped for the latter and have been enjoying the added warmth that only vinyl can bring.
17. OFFTHESKY - The Beautiful Nowhere
In the summer, we saw the debut vinyl release outing on the magnificent and consistent Hibernate label. I work quite closely with Hibernate and I'd known for quite some time that an Offthesky album was due for release in their catalog. Given that Offthesky's Jason Corder is one of my favourite artists, this has always been something I have looked forward to and whilst the wait seemed slow, it was well worth it.
Inspired by existentialism and a celebration of a simpler lifestyle, 'The Beautiful Nowhere' invites us to leave our cluttered and stressed lifestyles and focus on the beauty of nothingness.
Jason began working on the album in the quiet peacefulness of a log cabin in Colorado, with as many acoustic instruments as possible.

The result is yet another bunch of finely detailed sound collages from this immensely talented artist and a bunch that stands out in particular, from his already glistening repertoire.
For me, the album is at its strongest in the pieces where the guitar is put to the fore or where it is particularly evident. Pieces such as 'Poison Prophets', 'The Lonesome Crowded Nest' and 'Born Of Shy Sap'. The latter two are particularly strong, portraying the thems of isolation well.

The best thing about this album? It's still readily available for all with a turntable, with the beautiful cover artwork made to fit the sleeve of possibly the best format available, for music. The CD counterpart sold like hotcakes of course but if you haven't got a turntable and can't be bothered to get hold of one, then there's always the digital version.

18. ANTONYMES - The License To Interpret Dreams
[Hidden Shoal]
In possibly his finest work to date, this year saw the release of Antonymes' 'The License To Interpret Dreams' on Hidden Shoal. After being initially excited by the the preview samples, artwork and press release that were floating around in the run up to this, I was even more taken aback when the CD finally arrived. The music is just incredible, in what appears to be the most considered record in Antonymes' already highly successful discography.

To deconstruct such thoroughly thought out masterpiece is no easy task, yet I shall at least have a go. Put simply, we've another album that fits within the fairly simple boundaries of modern classical music, using piano and strings to form its basis. The strings were provided by friends of the artist including Field Rotation's Christoph Berg and cellist James Banbury and the piano was performed from Ian Hazeldine, the man behind the Antonymes moniker.
Strings and piano however, are not the only ingredients in this stunning album - it also consists of additional instrument sounds, hiss, static, electronics, drones and spoken word.
Overall, it forms to present itself as a rich but dreamy haze of an album, full of mystery but containing plenty of earthiness, drawn from the dramatic landscapes of North Wales in which the artist lives.

Conceptually, dreams are forever in your thoughts as you listen although, it should be pointed out that given the high dosage of musicality, this one is far from an unconscious listen. Instead, everything is carefully balanced and each track is often followed with something juxtaposing to retain the listeners interest. You are always thinking about the title and the dreamy, hazy cover artwork and what 'The License To Interpret Dreams' may mean. Perhaps everyone that owns a copy of this album is allowed a free reign to hypothesize the subjects of their dreams? We're not entirely sure what it all means until we reach track 8, 'Doubt', which clears a few of the conceptual ideas that the album is trying to get across. It's a very powerful piece and whenever I listen to the album, I find myself playing this piece a couple of times, taking in the spoken words carefully.
For me, it is the album's focal point and poignantly, Antonymes confirms this by repeating the instrumental parts of the track in the final moments of the last piece on the album, as a sort of bonus track.
Once Doubt finishes, it is followed by a piece that is completely different in mood, which is typical of this album and dare I say...dreams! The piece in question is The Door Towards The Dream, a pleasant and nostalgic piece for brass, bells and choral voice. It's a fantastic track and reminds me of the warmer months during which this album was released.

All in all, The License To Interpret Dreams is an absolute masterpiece and surely, at least to my ears, the most accomplished body of work from Antonymes so far. It has all the ingredients of a true classic and I know that this will get better with time. The years of listening to 'The License To Interpret Dreams' will surely strengthen the impact of the hefty dose of nostalgia-inducing audio that Antonymes has woven into it.
19. JOHANN JOHANNSSON - Miners' Hymns
[Fat Cat]
There's something incredible about Johann Johannsson's Miners' Hyms that really won me over this year. In a thoroughly well considered album that oozes of the history of the mining tradition, it is something that I pick up time and time again.
I had this one on pre-order as soon as it came up and I simply couldn't wait for it to arrive. If anticipation built from pre-ordering was to define this year for me, then the wait for this certainly epitomised this.

For those that didn't read anything about this project, I'm not sure where you've been...but I'll make it my duty to fill you in. Johann Johannsson is an Icelandic composer of great acclaim who spent quite a bit of time in the UK studying the mining tradition that once defined working Britain. They have all long since closed and in some places, there is little to suggest that the mines ever existed.
Johannsson's chosen concept and task was to compose a score to accompany a film of present and archived imagery by Bill Morrison, highlighting and celebrating the traditions of mining. Of particular importance were the travelling brass band rallies between mining communities and in a fitting move, Johannsson chose to work largely with brass for the soundtrack.

The standard of execution for both the composing, performance and the accompanying film are truly first class. Would you expect anything other than this from something involving Johann Johannsson, one of the finest composers around?
20. FEDERICO DURAND - El Extasis De Las Flores Pequenas
This album from Argentinian artist Federico Durand was quite simply the soundtrack to my spring and summer. I could quite literally end the paragraph there as this is reason enough for me to include it in this list. But I ought to try and give a little further synopsis of it to try and do it justice...

El Extasis De Las Flores Pequenas is a warm and inviting tapestry of gentle sounds that lends itself perfectly to the warmer months. With understated piano and guitar performances backed with field recordings, everything about it is incredibly beautiful.
The album moves lightly, always retaining that sense of warmth throughout. It is so careful and considered in its movements, that it can be very easy to forget that it is less than half an hour long. This is all part of its charm. It feels very lazy, but in a good way. As if Durand is taking great time to do nothing but consider the beauty of nature and share his findings with us.

Listening again now I remember a path I'd regularly take on the walk home, earlier in the year. Whenever the sun was shining, I'd take a detour through the park and I fondly remember on a few occasions listening to this album in headphones and it producing a smile. It seemed to heighten the warmth and also, it creates a strange feeling of nostalgia.
For Durand, it is a childhood nostalgia that he feels himself. For me and possibly anyone else that listens, it makes every day life feel like nostalgia which is an incredible thing for an album to portray.
Walking outdoors with 'El Extasis De Las Flores Pequenas' playing in the sunshine, the sounds of everyday life will creep into the relaxing quietude produced through your headphones and come part of the album.
This is a huge part of the reason I had this one on repeat through spring and summer, as each listen brought something new.
21. DEAF CENTER - Owl Splinters
Six years ago, Deaf Center's sound was receiving stacks of deserved critical acclaim and they were one of the fore-runners of the modern day scene. Back then, it was the new ambient music or modern classical but these days, we're running out of silly names for it all. It doesn't really matter though and this is a story for another day...
If you weren't around at the time when the likes of Pale Ravine first came out and Deaf Center are unfamiliar, perhaps the artists that make up this mighty Norwegian duo will explain why they are such highly regarded. Erik Skodvin, also Svarte Greiner is a phenominal artist who builds a great sense of unsettling but intensely listenable atmosphere into his work. His brilliant 'Flare' from last year was a real highlight but everything he touches always sounds magnificent.
Otto Totland is a pianist that is also one half of Nest, who also turned in an end of year favourite in 2010 with their 'Retold' album.

Such is the talent within Skodvin and Totland they are able to roll back the years and get into character again as Deaf Center. In a brooding and mysterious album that draws in all of their developments over the years, they've turned in an absolute masterpiece that is different from either of the artist's solo ventures.
The curiously titled 'Owl Splinters' is a powerful album, beautifully paced and well mastered. Searing deep string sounds build with hints of piano before breaking with the turn of a new track and revealing more of the piano compositions, where Totland has the chance to shine, albeit in typically subtle fashion.

Everything was recorded and mastered in Berlin at Nils Frahm's studio, whose mere presence could only have added to the spectacle. I'm curious as to whether he sat back and allowed the Norwegians to conjur this one themselves or whether any of his input went into making it. It's an outstanding recording that marks a real progression for Deaf Center. Against the previous material from these collaborators, it has made a huge jump in quality - and that's saying something. But given the six years that have passed and the individual explorations that Skodvin and Totland have embarked upon, their coming together again was always going to be something great.

22. TAYLOR DEUPREE AND MARCUS FISCHER - In A Place Of Such Graceful Shapes

One of last year's finest recordings was Marcus Fischer's 'Monocoastal', released on Taylor Deupree's marvellous 12k imprint. It was a firm favourite amongst many an end of year list and so it is little wonder that the label boss chose to collaborate with Fischer.
It began in Autumn 2010, at around the time when we were all enjoying 'Monocoastal' and initially, it took place through the usual internet file transfer method for long distance collaboration.
The artists soon abandoned this modern method and Fischer left Portland, USA to visit Deupree in New York for a few days to work on the project.

Upon arrival, the freezing cold and snow was naturally a source of inspiration and it stayed with them for what would become the eventual album package. And what an astonishing package it is too. Housed inside a box, which features beautiful photography of a snow covered landscape, the album is on a CD just underneath the cover. It doesn't stop there... a 7" vinyl featuring an individual track each from the artists and a booklet of photography provides further depth to an incredible piece of work.

It is clear that the events of this collaboration were very special to them and they wanted to go all out to document it for others to experience. Through the means of 12k, Taylor Deupree has pulled out everything to make this happen in packaging that is a break from the norm from their usual sleek digipack style. It's a modern and contemporary assemblage that gets across the beauty of those snow-filled few days that inspired 'In A Place Of Such Graceful Shapes'.

The music itself is a single long-form track of slowly moving passages, lending a sense of wonder as you listen. Listening out of context, this is a heady and lulling piece that is entrancing. It sits in with the old ethos of ambient music, whereby it encourages a relax state of mind that almost makes you forget that you are listening as you come one with it and it becomes one with you.
In context however, looking at the packaging and thinking about the overall concept, it becomes a soundtrack and a virtual tour of the local landscape on which it is based. It almost conjures a slow moving film in your imagination, which is helped along by the photography and the album title.

Rather than lay this project out through several short pieces, it has been woven into a single longform piece that moves very slowly and as the title hints, gracefully too. Some who don't get this album might say that it is a single minimal piece that remains static.
In response to this, I'd hazard a guess that these haven't bought the physical packaging for starters and also that they lack patience or simply haven't given it the time to unfold.
Minimal it may be overall, but a careful listen will uncover so much tiny detail underneath the 'snow'. It does change form along the way, with new and different sounds joining the movement but just taking time to arrive.
The bottom line: this is a stunning document of an actual event, represented with beautiful packaging and wonderful music.
23. WOODWORKINGS - Goodbye Homes
[Future Recordings]
Surrounded by a host of big names yet standing up strong against them is this superb short album by Woodworkings. It's a new name and label on me and with a little research, my only familiarity with the work of Woodworkings is a previous 3" CDr release on Heat Death. If it were a fraction shorter, 'Goodbye Homes' may have also been released as a 3" but instead, Futurerecordings made this into a hand-made 5" affair, whch has since sold out.

Musically, we've just three mid-length scenes that explore a blend of modern classical droning with noise texture. The noise never quite envelopes nor topples the sense of melancholy established by the strings but it serves to lightly corrode the recording with digital interference. By the second track, we're greeted by an almost post-rock guitar composition fused with more deep and emotive strings. . It folds into a droning soundscape, set at a more hushed level and accompanied by some light crackles. The final piece 'We Drilled Holes To Let More Light In' is a beautiful parting track for 'Goodbye Homes' that welcomes back the shards of noise that we heard in the first track. Perhaps the noise represents the 'drilling' that is hinted in the track title? If so, then the light that floods in through these holes is represented by the warm bed of of treated orchestral atmospherics draped beneath it. This light eventually prevails, once the drilling has stopped. The final three minutes is lush, warm and incredibly pleasant. So much so, in fact, that you may just play the whole thing again...

I'm all for short releases and if done just right, they can have a stronger effect that a longform album. And in this case, a little known artist has done just that. 'Goodbye Homes' was the soundtrack to the spring and warmer months for me this year and although you'll struggle to find a physical copy, it is highly recommended that you part with a few quid and download this one. You won't be disappointed.

[Sonic Pieces]
Pantone is the result of a recorded live collaboration between two of the scene's most forward thinking and experimental musicians. Ordinarily, I tend to give live recording albums a bit of a wide berth if I'm being completely honest. I usually prefer an album to be carefully considered over a long period of time.
With this live collaborative effort, recorded last year in London, I have been won over to the idea of a live album. Despite its spontaneous nature, it feels VERY considered. Whilst not in a studio and over a couple of years, it still retains a strong sense of coherence and feels deliberate throughout.

Both of these artists are renowned for really pushing their instruments to the limits, often challenging the way that they should be played. Hauschka's Volker Bertelmann may not be the first man to experiment with prepared piano, but he is certainly doing some unique and exciting things with it that has been turning heads. In 'Pantone', his percussive piano treatments paint the canvas laid out by Hildur Gudnadottir's droning cello textures. At times, it doesn't even feel like a piano - shuffling, semi-rhythmically.

What really works in 'Pantone' is when for just a fleeting glimpse, we are allowed to hear the instruments played in a slightly more conventional fashion. The effect of this is heightened by all of the tension built up by the aforementioned techniques. It all works so very well that is at times impossible to imagine this as spontaneous and improvised music. It is absolutely flawless throughout, with not even a trace of error.

Conceptually, the work is inspired by the sea and its many shades of blue and green and this is represented in the packaging in the release on Sonic Pieces. Just a simple shade of blue in the cover with embossed title text, with an insert image hinting further at the concept.
In short, it is a live piano and cello performance, unlike any you will have heard before all packaged in the beautiful but minimalist fashion that we have come to expect from Sonic Pieces.

25. PETER BRODERICK - Music For Confluence
[Erased Tapes]
[Hundred Acre Recordings]
In spring-time, I became aware of a new label called Hundred Acre Recordings and in this case, a new artist. For New York based guitarist Tom Lecky's Hallock Hill project, 2011 was to be a defining first year. With three different albums out the door, his debut was easily the best in my view.
'The Union' showcases his intensely good guitar playing and sound design techniques, which are always comfortable and confident. The sheer level of detailed layers that must have gone into creating this will be simply overwhelming to someone who makes music. Not only is the guitar expertly recorded in its several layers, the tracks have been carefully constructed with shards of feedback, reversing notes and fragments of acoustic and electric guitar accents.
To me, it sounds as if everything has been derived from a guitar or two and as a result, it feels like a very intimate recording.
The stuttering and jittering accent notes at times give the appearance of a faster tempo, upon carefully considered lead compositions.
'The Union' comes across well and filling the room on speakers but even better with headphones; the wealth of detail playing in stereo.

The whole thing has been mastered very well and overall it is technically one of my favourites from this year. Everything is presented confidently and clearly for you to hear and the sound quality is utterly brilliant.
[Time Released Sound]
2011 saw the introduction of the industrious and ultra-arty Time Released Sound label, with each release available as physical only, in breathtakingly good packaging. Add to this a roster of extremely talented artists and you'll soon realise why the label has been doing so well in its first year.
One artist that epitomises this kind of pedigree is the prolific Maps And Diagrams, whose 'Get Lost' came out on the label in May this year in two beautifully packaged editions.
Maps And Diagrams' Tim Martin has had a busy year through his different aliases - with his own self-releases and work on the likes of Nomadic Kids Republic, Chemical Tapes and Digitalis.

For me, 'Get Lost' is his finest record this year and possibly his best yet. Some may be forgiven for initially taking offence to Tim's choice in titling. With a glance at the maps on the artwork and the track-titles, you'll soon gather that the intention is for the listener to get thoroughly and completely lost as you listen. The opening phrases nod at nautical themes and as you listen, you'll feel as if you are setting off on a ship to some far-away land that doesn't exist.

'Get Lost' is a marvellous dreamy haze of an album full of the kind of texture we come to expect from Maps And Diagrams. With woozy drones, stereo-panning field recordings and lines of restful synth melody, you just can't help but allow this charming album to take you away. Pure quality, both in the beautifully evocative packaging and in the thoroughly well considered sound and concept. Essential.

With an album out late on in the year, The Boats return with a superb album that precedes their highly anticipated album forthcoming on 12k. The edition numbers for this are low and you might struggle to get yourself a copy now. Just 300 for the world and sold out pretty much everywhere, having ran a quick check.

'The Ballad Of The Eagle' is intended as 'a love letter left to remind fans that they will return'. A statement like this and the low edition numbers give a sense to anyone unfamiliar with their work that it might be rushed out of the door, perhaps to have a cheeky stab at the 2011 end of year lists.
Well, ask the subjects of this love letter - the fans and they will shoot you down immediately. The Boats are a thoroughly professional bunch, comprised of Andrew Hargreaves, Cotton Goods boss Craig Tattershall and fine cellist Danny Norbury. Anything involving this collective is likely to be carefully considered and beautifully put together. 'The Ballad Of The Eagle' is certainly no exception and rightfully deserves that stab at end of year best of lists. For me - now this is a big statement - this is some of their finest work. Ever.
It has everything a good album should and more . Variation is the key here - there are murky electronic passages, crackles, tape hiss, degraded vinyl samples, voices, woozy drones, piano and then a couple of features that make it all gel together. The flitting moments of Norbury's cello, juxtaposed with moments of percussion and digital rhythm. This is all blended seamlessly in an album that will hold your interest all the way through, time and time again. It is both warm and cold and stands up whatever the time, whatever the weather. The mood of the music is constantly changing - almost like a collection of carefully considered musical interludes, woven together as a tapestry.

The whole thing is packaged together in suitable Boats fashion, drawing in from Craig's Cotton Goods expertise. If you can manage to find yourself a copy of this, anywhere, I urge you to order it. You will not be disappointed! The readily available 12k album will be fantastic, but miss out on its pre-cursor at your peril.

A new name for me, Keith Freund's 'Constant Comments' was streamed in full on Fluid Radio. Released through Experimedia, I put my order in for it and awaited its arrival at my home in the UK from across the pond. In the meantime, I had the Fluid Radio stream of the album on repeat whilst I worked at the laptop. I knew this one was going to be something a bit special that would be a highlight to the year.
'Constant Comments' was in fact a highlight of the summer. Listening to it now, I can feel the warmth and brightness from the summer.

Keith Freund is also part of the husband and wife duo Troublebooks and is an all-round experienced musician and artist in his own right. This is evident in his solo work here; 'Constant Comments' is a beautifully put together collection of warm sound with beautiful guitar, moments of swirling electronic drones and field recordings.
Whilst the light and wistful guitar provide the soundtrack to this record, it is the field recordings that play a crucial part to making this so special. The field recordings feature vocal dialect of several languages, flitting in and out of focus after washes of music - making for an audio travelogue. Life is happily occuring as you listen and you just can't help but smile.
In this sense, it reminds me of Andrea Ferraris and Matteo Uggeri's album from last year on Hibernate, 'Autumn Is Coming, We're All In Slow Motion', whilst this one is definitely for the spring and summer months with added warmth from all those who invest in the 12" version...
[Time Released Sound]
Time Released Sound has enjoyed an incredible debut year, as you'll likely read on many an end of year list. Most recently, concluding this ground breaking year, Wil Bolton's Quarry Bank hit the shops. I've already seen it getting plenty of deserved praise since its release, and as you can see, it has left a lasting impression on me too...
After initially hearing the mp3 files first, in an advance promo, it reminded me of Marcus Fischer's terrific 'Monocoastal' from last year.
Musically, 'Quarry Bank' has all the quality to it that might easily have got it signed to 12k - encased in a would be sleek looking minimalist digi-pack.
Instead, Bolton's choice in label ended up being a crucial choice in ensuring the incredibly successful portrayal of the album's concept.
Quarry Bank was put together as a homage to a disused cotton mill in Cheshire, UK.
Back in the cold of February, I remember instantly purchasing this one without much deliberation. Dakota Suite's 2009 album 'The End Of Trying', whilst riddled with rather a hefty dose of melancholy, is one of my all time favourites. I was also familiar with Errante's work and so was excited at how a collaboration between these artists might sound.
Whilst 'The End Of Trying' was indeed full of sadness and despair, here 'The North Green Down' does sound a little different in terms of mood. It does grow more melancholy over its duration but this is teamed with a light helping of lingering dreaminess. The conceptual subject matter here is born out of the loss of Chris Hooson's (of the Dakota Suite) terminally ill sister in law and the last steps he took with her - in the North Green in Suffolk.
Whilst listening to 'The North Green Down', aside from the beautiful music, the word that comes to mind is length - on two counts. This is a full length album of almost 80 minutes for starters and something to take your time with. Also, and crucially, the word length applies to the drawing out of the notes - whether piano or strings. If 'The North Green Down' is a tribute album to that last walk in Suffolk, the lingering of notes stand out to me as trying to hold on to those memories, allowing them to linger for a while. Not rushing.

In terms of what comprises 'The North Green Down' - a selection of some of my favourite musical ingredients would always make for an exciting spectacle on paper. Piano, strings and guitar underpinned with Errante's cracks, fizzes and subtle electronics.
The Dakota Suite are essentially a straight-up modern classical outfit and Errante is a sound designer. In some cases, a careless sound designer can 'undo' a lot of the good work performed by the source musicians through over manipulation of the material. Not the case here.
Errante worked with great sensitivty - adding only the subtlest of the aforementioned details; crackles, fizzes, gentle tones and maybe some digital treatment to the instrument recordings. This was all that was really needed and in doing so, added that extra set of frequencies that might have been missing from some of Dakota Suite's past material.
A stand-out feature to this album is the subtle repetition that takes place. Several of the tracks have a prevailing theme, with previous parts of the album repeating themselves in a different form throughout, adding a sense of familiarity and again, drawing out those thoughts and memories.

'The North Green Down' felt perfect for the cold of February and it sounds warming and beautiful now in the cold of December. It is an absolutely stunning record that rewards anyone who cares to invest the time to listen to it in full.

[Clay Pipe]
Around a week before Christmas, as I'd pretty much decided on my top 30 albums of the year, there were three releases from the year that threw a spanner in the works and required further deliberation on my part. One is this self titled album project called Thalassing, which is a collaboration between Michael Tanner (Plinth) and Kerrie Robinson. It's an instrumental album, featuring incredibly relaxed sounds performed by the two on piano, guitar and accordion.
I did happen upon Thalassing in the summer, when it was originally released but for one reason or another (possibly lack of funds) I gave the physical format a miss and forgot all about it.
It was after the December release of Plinth's Little Winter on Tanner's Bandcamp page that I remembered it. It became my soothing soundtrack for the remainder of the year, leaving an impression so strong that I had to include it in my favourite releases for 2011. I can't help but wonder whether it would be further up the list, had I purchased and listened to it during the warmth of the summer months...

Thalassing as a whole is a beautifully paced peaceful record, set at lower than usual volume. This permeates the record, making for a most delicate listening experience - best enjoyed indoors, in silence and away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This nautical themed album is a calm, gentle and restoring listen and as mentioned in other reviews of Thalassing, it portrays the gentler side of the sea - pitting it as a polar opposite to Plinth's mighty Music From Smalls Lighthouse, from last year.

Highly recommended and I just can't wait to listen this coming springtime, in the warmth.
For those who haven't discovered this gem just yet but are familiar with Plinth's bigger projects - it sits somewhere in between 'Albatross' and 'The A.Lords', whilst retaining a unique voice of its own.

[Drifting Falling]
Damian Valles' 'Skeleton Taxa', released this year on Drifting Falling is easily his most accomplished to date, drawing from his several years as a performing musician. His work in music over the years has straddled several genres which in turn has influenced where he is at today. Skeleton Taxa is incredibly well put together; gritty, structured and full of texture and a conscious listening experience throughout. Such is the attention to detail and variation of sounds, it is an album that will hold your interest. The tracks are at times very different from one another yet somehow, it all works and blends together as an album - varied, yet orderly.

It was originally put together using some of the source material from his first release 'Count(r)ies', out on Under The Spire back in 2009, yet it presents itself as something fresh and different.
Guitar, piano, percussion and hints of ambient drones are all still evident, but with the addition of quirky scientific voice samples, sampled orchestration and even some vocals from his wife in one track, this album finds Valles in his stride.
The majority of the opening eight pieces are fairly song based, and dare I say fun at times - largely down to those scientific voice sounds. The opener 'Bones Made Out Of Bone' sets the scene, before the next few pieces grow and elaborate before the likes of 'Nightengale Floors' and 'Bell And Arc' serve as the stand out tracks on the album. Once 'Taxa' comes in, track 9, it marks the final third of the album, which unfolds slowly. It finds Valles' in a slightly more exploraty mode, allowing the notes to draw out for that little bit longer and adding a final twist to this remarkable album. Overall however, there is a great sense of timing, with each track's duration allowing just enough time to get settled into the groove of a track before going down a different avenue with each following piece. Damian Valles has managed to fit in an awful lot of different sounds that might ordinarily sound a little juxtaposed, but to his great credit, has managed to weave them together and order everything to sound beautifully cohesive and varied.

In the press-release on the Drifiting Falling website, Valles' says "I feel like it's my most accomplished work to date. The concept behind Skeleton Taxa is as a collection of individual pieces that work better as a whole, a patchwork of sorts". This quote hits the nail on the head. And what a fantastic patchwork it is too. Highly recommended.