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 TempĂ©rature 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.

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