Artists who veer toward the more haunting end of the ambient music spectrum are surprisingly common these days; blame it on the global financial crisis for creating an environment conducive to unmitigated despair and helplessness. Or maybe the pessimists among us are just feeling a bit more musically creative these days. Whatever the case, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out as an artist creating dark ambient music, primarily because so much of it is just so not what it should be — which is to say, frightening in any sort of memorable way. Grimoire, from the mysterious Miasmah project Kreng, may very well have been 2011’s most frightening album across any genre. Classical instruments interspersed with ritualistic percussion made this release slightly more active than your proper ambient album, but the incorporation of ominous, drawn-out strings, as well as samples from recordings who-knows-how-old, helped to create a decidedly haunting and airy atmosphere. “Wrak,” with its cacophonous, free jazz-like mixture of horns and noise, was easily the standout track, but “Balkop” was similarly remarkable for how beautiful and subdued it was. Regardless of any differences between songs, the whole of Grimoire was certainly one deserving of your nightmares.
39. Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa
This year, my Tumblr’s dashboard blew up with fake Polaroids of young, decidedly non-Indians in jean shorts, big ol’ headdresses, and Indian wedding jewelry — at the same time. No matter how foreign something is, if it’s pleasing to our senses, we can find a use for it ASAP. When it comes to “world music,” that means we only jack the pretty stuff. (Not that I’m complaining — arguing against cultural appropriation is to deny that cultures are, and have always been, as fluidly impure as the US’s drinking water supply.) Then there’s Arrington de Dionyso, whose Suara Naga was built from the messy sounds that would clear a Starbucks in a snap: mainly, aggressive throat singing in Indonesian, but also bass clarinet, funky-ass guitars, sex-dripping backup vocals, and a world of musical traditions. By deliberate lyrical obfuscation through a language most Americans have never even heard before, the album probably says something about how meaning is usually left behind when music crosses cultures. But more interesting is simply how awe-inspiring it all sounded. As Arrington’s mouth teased out sounds and cadences that should only seem possible from the forked, foot-long tongue of a demon, Suara Naga made the case that, as experiences go, listening trumps intellectualizing. The album’s swagger wasn’t affect; it was ritual.
Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1
The darkness of the United State’s Pacific Northwest can be overwhelming at times. By day, the evergreens and mountains of the local wilderness are viewed as sweepingly majestic. At night, they take a looming and threatening quality, like they could take over the inhabited cities haphazardly settled inside in an instant. Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 is the group’s most regionally referential album, from the art by Seattle native Stacy Rozich to the inclusion of new members Karl Blau on bass (K Records folk stalwart) and Lori Goldston on cello. Losing the densely packed arrangements of The Bees Made Honey in The Lions Skull in favor of a more skeletal and melodic sound, the four-person group played with a deep sound that ebbed and flowed both methodically and unexpectedly throughout. The “less is more” approach coupled with the complex melodic interplay between four musicians at their best created a record steeped in beauty, menace, and mystery. Earth released their best album in 2011. Much like the wilds that surrounded the musicians, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 must be experienced to be understood.
The Brazilian pastimes of bossa nova and samba, like most other ethnocentric genres, rarely get studied and fleshed out in their homeland. If they do, it is a mere co-opting with a “safe” popular genre such as American rock or European pop. This is not an argument that ideological purity is predominant in these genres or that such co-opting results in something of lesser quality than the original; what Berlin transplants Chico Mello and Nicholas Bussmann aspire with Telebossa is an essential deconstruction of both genres that only strengthens their compelling elements in ways thought only possible in the streets of São Paulo and elsewhere. Never once did their self-titled debut feel anything other than Brazilian, despite basic concepts such as syncopated rhythm given an expansive context with a string section from Bussmann and Werner Dafeldecker (like in “Seculo Do Progresso”). Even the one song that gave away the source of the material, “Der Falsche Raum,” felt more like a set of sambistas playing with chamber music practices than anything specifically European. But in their reassessment, they added a unique depth that greatly strengthened the punch that such genres can inspire, creating a new space for samba to work with.
36. Future Islands
On the Water
When last year’s In Evening Air came out, Future Islands probably became instant favorites for an awful lot of people. I don’t know if On the Water had the same effect. In Evening Air engendered a certain rush of love, a rush in which the Future Islands of On the Water don’t seem particularly interested. No, On the Water was more about deepening that love, and it expressed that feeling through its every aspect. From first listen, it was clearly a more measured, patient release than their past work, with an extremely rewarding focus on the lush interplay of bass and synthesizer. But the concept extended beyond pure sonics, as the record formed a 40-plus-minute examination of how love can deepen and dissipate. Who can better render that concept in righteous, verge-of-tears glory and still offer a patient, legitimately mature take? Nobody, really. Maybe fewer people learned that this year, but On the Water gave certainty to those already aware.
35. The Men
A brief survey of Leave Home’s press starts to read like a genealogy taken from some indie rock Bible, with The Men garnering comparisons to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, The Butthole Surfers, Spacemen 3, Swans, and Neu!. One could be tempted to look at the album title lifted from The Ramones, at the bridge to “()” audaciously swiped from “Revolution,” and at the record’s frenzied contents that careen from heavy psych to bulldozer punk to paint-peeling sludge noise and chalk this up to postmodern pastiche. But The Men are working in an older tradition where, in the words of Tom Petty (as quoted by guitarist Mark Perro), “Every rock ’n’ roll song is the same.” It’s an approach so disarmingly guileless that it’s hard not to fall in love with these guys. In a year where some of our favorite pop records were quoted, sampled, and appropriated into existence, The Men posed the question, “Why should kids with laptops get to have all the fun?” With Leave Home, the Brooklyn four-piece stitched together the tattered hides and mildewed bones of our indie rock heroes to make an album that went for the throat like nothing else we heard in 2011.
34. Panda Bear
Hearing about the listening party for Panda Bear’s impossibly hyped Tomboy earlier this year, I immediately got tickets and shortly after hopped on a bus to New York. The experience was like a religious ceremony. The audience sat on the floor of venue Le Possion Rouge in silence as Tomboy boomed out of the speakers for the first time to the public. Everyone seemed to agree, despite the delays, the divisive singles, and the 12-plus months of waiting: Noah Lennox had delivered. Using the simple combination of drums, guitar, and piano with various effects. Lennox built and repeated melodies until they became musical mantras. All the while, his voice, which has never sounded better than on this record, soared over the musical foundation. In Rolling Stone, Lennox described Tomboy as emotionally heavy, having the feel of “weathering the storm.” The album balanced introspective darkness like “Tomboy” and “Scheherazade” with moments of pure euphoria found in “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Last Night at the Jetty.” That storm truly did feel weathered by the time “Benfica,” possibly Lennox’s most beautiful composition to date, brought this brilliant album to a close.
33. Rafael Toral
Space Elements Vol. III
Is it wrong to compare Space Elements Vol. III to Herbie Hancock’s 70s future-jazz masterpiece “Rain Dance”? Both rely on loose electronic exploration occasionally anchored by live drumming that’s firmly planted in the period’s new-jazz school (for Herbie, free-jazz; for Rafael, post-free jazz). I know it sounds better to put on vague critical airs, but Toral’s approach here was pretty simple: he’s injecting life into an old idiom, something jazz musicians often attempt but usually with over-calculated results. Toral’s tactic was freedom — freedom from too much knowledge, employed through various electronic instruments that “don’t have a conventional interface.” The musician had to build an understanding and method for the instrument from the ground up and then express it in a live setting. With the resurgence of analog synthesizers, a lot of artists probably unknowingly ran into this situation in 2011 (“Hey, what does this knob do?”). For Toral, this guessing game was his natural environment, allowing him to create a genuine sense of exploration. Tension was built through discovery colliding with convention, note clusters encircling bouts of silence, and our perception of jazz’s potential being continually recreated.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83’s Anthony Gonzalez promised something “very, very, very epic” and subsequently churned out a double album magnum opus enlightened, rather than weighed down, by nostalgia. Comprising 22 tracks, many of which were indeed epic, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming positioned Gonzalez as more of a lead singer than any of his past work allowed. Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova’s whispers opened the “Intro” and set the tone for the familiar M83 synths to come to the fore, amid a mammoth choir and, finally, Gonzalez’s most assertive vocals yet. It was indicative of what would unfold over the course of the next 73 minutes and also the perfect build up to “Midnight City,” a song featuring the memorable rooftop-shouting lyric “The city is my church!”, not to mention one of the best saxophone solos we’ve heard in a long time. Hard synths and 80s pop were still intact (“OK Pal,” “Claudia Lewis”), as were nods to childhood innocence (“Raconte-Moi Histoire”), while burning ballads (“Wait,” “Splendor”), an arena-rock era Simple Minds-like standout (“Reunion”), ascending ambient sounds (“Steve McQueen,” “Echoes of Mine”), and disco-inflections (“New Map”) helped round out this sprawling (though surprisingly undaunting) promised epic from M83.
Past Life Martyred Saints
Listen to enough albums in a lifetime and you’ll start to forget why music meant so much to you in the first place. The process of finding an artist’s place in your life becomes intellectual rather than emotional. That’s the paradox of criticism. Yet every once in a while, a musician breaks through the noise and forces you to make space for her. I’ve been listening to the feedback-drenched chord progressions and faraway, exploding percussion of Erika M. Anderson’s post-Gowns solo debut for over six months, and I still can’t entirely explain why her music cuts so deep. Sure, there’s the desolate honesty in lyrics like “Great grandmother lived on the prairie/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’/ I’ve got the same feeling inside of me/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’”; the way EMA radiates confidence and vulnerability at the same time; and the collective unconscious-nudging echoes of folk songs and lullabies that haunt Past Life Martyred Saints. But picking out those parts doesn’t even begin to do justice to the whole, a dangerously insightful album that dug deeper with every repetition.
• Souterrain Transmissions: http://www.souterraintransmissions.com