Feature: Favorite Albums of 2019

People are always throwing around single descriptors to summarize the year once it’s reached its end. “My year was horrible,” “this was a historic year,” “2019 was a trainwreck.” That single descriptor changes not only based on who you ask, but what that person is thinking about when you ask them, because a year is quite a long time and any number of good or bad things can happen within it. We create our own narratives for the year based on specific contexts: personal growth, political/social developments, the state of the environment, relationships we’ve had and lost. It’s a perfectly natural response, but at the same time we have to remember that years cannot be inherently good or bad. Classifying them one way or the other necessarily diminishes the importance of events that fit the opposite adjective. A new year simply inks another tick on the timeline of our lives, and it’s up to us to evaluate what happened in the space between the new tick and the last.

This lack of ability to definitively demarcate the quality of a year applies to music as well. The various descriptors for “this year in music” are not only various, but often contradictory. I hear “2019 sucked for hip-hop” and “2019 brought us so much great hip-hop” in the same conversation; some rave about the fruitfulness of the year while others insist that not many good albums came out at all; everyone has a different idea of what the truly representative “album of the year” is. This ambiguity has a clearer answer; none of us has authority to speak so decisively about the year in music because we haven’t heard every single thing that was released. Listeners who have heard very few releases don’t have authority because they have a limited picture of what the year brought; listeners who have heard an inordinate number of releases may have a bit more ground to stand on, but carving out perceived trends and assessments from such a diverse body of material is far from an easy task. So, once again, we must reluctantly abandon our very human need to aggressively simplify and instead use ourselves as the anchor for our musical judgments: what did I enjoy most? What impacted me most strongly? What best gave a voice to the concerns I have about the world around me? We must do our best to humble ourselves. There is no right answer, no canon to be argued over, no consensus we must all abide. It begins and ends with the listener.

As with all my lists, these albums are not necessarily in order of preference. They have served many different roles, filled many different voids throughout the past 50-odd weeks. Here are my favorite albums of 2019.


Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic, Feb 8)

After that lengthy appeal to the importance of self-based evaluation, what better release to mention first than thank u, next? Ariana Grande’s most recent endeavor is also her most personal, an admirably vulnerable confession of pain, confusion, vice, and love to an unimaginably large audience. From the infectiously catchy and defiantly danceable to the tenderly intimate and crushingly sad, Grande runs the gamut of the complex emotional battlefield she’s struggled to traverse for the past few years. No other release has allowed her to be so unapologetically her, and that directness makes thank u, next something more than just a pop album, something truly special. There’s no other record this year I’ve played as many times; no other record has provided endless drunk dance parties with friends, early morning solitary singalongs on the way to work, cathartic crying sessions in the enveloping darkness. We all owe a big thank you to the biggest star in the world and her amazing ability to make all of us feel like we really know her.

Shots – Private Hate (Careful Catalog, Aug 16)

Sometimes our love for an album is bolstered by the album being a culmination of the artist’s previous work, allowing us to see the cumulative result of the efforts that came before. Private Hate is more than just a culmination of Shots’ unique brand of abstracted sound; it is a statement about sound and how we process it, a simultaneously ambiguous and defiant assertion of how sonic presence functions. Locations are portrayed with obstinate obscurity, paradoxical mixtures of claustro- and agoraphobia jam our spacial senses with irreconcilable impossibility, humanity becomes a confusingly alien intrusion. The listener is never certain which sounds are being produced and which ones are being recorded, but the singular language of Private Hate makes that distinction irrelevant; the elements are simply there, and this remarkable record leads us to recognize, and doubt, the ways in which we cast our own perceptions onto the music we hear. And even absent of the dismaying questions that Private Hate forces us to ask, it’s a stunningly sublime journey through an uncanny auditory landscape. Original review

Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling (Gilead Media, Jun 28)

I discovered a veritable graveyard of amazing new black metal this year, but my clear favorite comes from a band I’ve been listening to for many years. I fell in love with USBM legends Yellow Eyes the first time I heard their dusky, dendrophilic masterpiece Sick With Bloom, but after not being very into their next record (2017’s Immersion Trench Reverie) I admittedly wasn’t hotly anticipating their 2019 release. But from the first moments of Rare Field Ceiling it’s immediately clear that you’re listening to something exceptional. Punchy drum onslaughts barrel from the darkness like woodland armies; angular, dissonant riffs curl and meld until they explode in bursts of warm beauty; nocturnal nature recordings and ritualistic samples sew the six tracks together to form an immersive, uninterrupted odyssey. The songwriting is succinct yet sprawling and organic, the cryptic and evocative lyrics are delivered with heart-wrenching passion, and it’s so well paced that by the time its 45 minutes are over you’ll wonder where all the time went. Original review

Pom Poko – Birthday (Bella Union, Feb 22)

What’s fun music worth if you can’t jam to it with the people you love? Ever since I discovered Oslo indie quartet Pom Poko’s debut LP, it’s been a constant favorite of mine and all my friends’; the “If U Want Me 2 Stay” groove sessions never get old. This promising new band channels a great deal of auspicious influences, from Battles and Deerhoof to Ponytail and Kero Kero Bonito, but their candy-coated chimeric style is consistent and undeniably their own. The album traipses through anthemic choruses, hypnotic rhythmic meditations, achingly beautiful melodic resolutions, and affecting moments of tenderness with a hyperactive approach that’s at once fluid and jarring. Listening to Birthday requires a cessation of seriousness, a willingness to have fun no matter the consequences. As the band themselves instruct, “reduce the testosterone, increase the sugar rush, and get ready for this K-PUNK explosion.”

Andrea Borghi – VHS (Misanthropic Agenda, May 8)

I’ve now written about Andrea Borghi’s VHS LP three times, and still I feel as though my words do not do it justice. The Italian sound artist had an astonishingly prolific year (see my MVPs of 2019 feature) but VHS was his crowning achievement, a marvelous record that both demonstrates Borghi’s scavenger proclivities and puts his trademark tactility on visceral display. The eight pieces on the LP buzz and hum with crackling electricity, the result of manual experimentation and manipulation of the circuits in several modified open-back VHS recorders, and conjured in the eye of the listener is a sparking, sizzling mass of mad-scientist coils and transistors. But it’s not all mechanical, shifting synthetics; Borghi tempers his jittery voltage collages with dusty samples snatched from actual VHS tapes, brushing hiss-caked swaths of muffled humanity across the lush fields of sputtering electronics. Original review

Triple Negative – Precious Waste in Our Wake (Penultimate Press, May 16)

Multinational London trio Triple Negative first announced their existence with the TOWERS, OPEN, FIRE / Looking for Business 7″, but the true power of their enrapturing approach to rock music is realized on Precious Waste in Our Wake. The six rambling pieces sculpt themselves from a seething primordial stew of post-punk, hypnotic tribal headspace, and delirious drugged-out studio experimentation in the vein of Twin Infinitives, ambling along at an unhurried pace with impossibly loose rhythmic structure. At face value, revolutionary excursions like “Destroyer / Under the Void” and “Living Dirt Living / Silverplated Waste” are completely befuddling, prickly slabs of abstract sound grounded by the smallest amount of convention, but Triple Negative crafts such an immersive and inviting atmosphere that it’s not at all difficult to lose yourself completely in their skittering dins. Precious Waste in Our Wake is an exciting and gleefully subversive deconstruction of rock music for the modern age.

Duncan Harrison – Nothing’s Good (Index Clean, Feb 16)

Poetry is not always just about words. For some, poems are less of a defined literary genre and more of a form of expression that transcends a specific medium. Unlike some of Duncan Harrison’s previous works, much of Nothing’s Good makes use of the Brighton artist’s only sparingly, either in brief, bizarre snatches or as heavily manipulated textural elements, but the short CD is most effectively appreciable as poetry, an intimate, earthy tapestry of evocative sound woven from disparate elements. Harrison melds ghostly tape recordings, stuttering loops, fragmented junk cacophony, mysterious spoken mantras, and other oddities into fascinating, rough-edged collages whose message is not always known but never not felt. To listen to Nothing’s Good is to step into a startling and surreal world where nothing is permanent or predictable; the unassuming clatter that begins “Are You Angry?” cannot prepare you for the cut-up madness of “A Good Night,” whose aggressively heterogeneous form collapses in an assaulting squall of dying electronics, and that in turn gives no indication of the pregnant negative space that lurks between the lines of “Its Blinking Torture.”

The Wind in the Trees – A Gift of Bricks from the Sky (self-released, Feb 19)

Rising from the ashes of several portentously adventurous hardcore bands, the new Baltimore-based band The Wind in the Trees takes no prisoners with their sharp-edged, eviscerating mathgrind intricacies. A Gift of Bricks from the Sky is no noisecore-indebted blast of dizzying, bite-sized impenetrable chaos; stretching out the dense masses of technical riffs and imbuing the punkier sections with a fist-pumping energy is a palpable emotional hardcore influence that makes the album even more addicting. There are no official instrumental credits for the release, but every participant lends an essential facet to the maelstrom, and the plentiful supply of crushing unison hits and forceful rhythmic repetition makes A Gift of Bricks one of the tightest metallic hardcore endeavors I’ve heard in a long time. The superb lyrics add another important dimension to the proceedings; conveyed with both jagged, high-pitched shrieks and low guttural growls are nightmarish, violent images and cryptically communicated feelings of agony and despair that couldn’t be a better fit for the intense music they accompany. Due to “Blinding Miscalculations” alone, one of the year’s most superb closing tracks, A Gift of Bricks is sure to become a modern classic. Original review

Mosquitoes – Vortex Veering Back to Venus (Feeding Tube, Sep 27)

I, as well as many others, can confidently call Mosquitoes one of the most exciting bands active today. Since their first 7″ in 2016 the UK trio has reverently refined their dark, moody masses of no wave skronk and meticulously crafted atmosphere into something truly amazing. Drip Water Hollow Out Stone was an easy choice for my top ten in 2018, but this year’s miraculous Vortex Veering Back to Venus documents Mosquitoes at their most ambitious and singular. Spectral yet weighty bass tumbles form dark clouds of steam that fog up the glass; shivering, shattered drum work casts an illusion of structure as its sporadic throbs and rattles plant miniature anchors amidst the current; piercing guitar scrapes and nonsensical, partially formed speech trade space in the unclaimed territory of the higher register. Tracks like “VR” and the almost tear-jerkingly sublime “VS” are some of the band’s furthest steps into the abstract, resulting in claustrophobic chunks of languid nocturnal clamor whose blanketing forms are both oppressive and comforting. Original review

Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿ (Warp, Oct 4)

Lots of people have a fervent appreciation for brevity (try to complain to Jon Chang about how a Gridlink album shouldn’t cost the same as an “actual LP” and he’ll be sure to convey his), but it takes skill to pull it off, especially when it’s not something you’ve attempted before. We’ve been waiting for new music from Detroit artist Danny Brown since his 2016 opus Atrocity Exhibition, the ambitious record that won him acclaim and appreciation from a wide range of music listeners, and 2019 was finally the year with the early October release of uknowhatimsayin¿. Running only 33 minutes and finding its footing with (cautious) optimism, bright colors, and earwormy boom bap beats, it’s quite an interesting response to the fractured delirium of its predecessor. Though his past albums have all been of sizeable length, Brown thrives within the shorter format, delivering his interlocking rhyme schemes and unending love for cunnilingus over production that’s both cozy and pleasingly abstract. As always, features are utilized with masterful insight; Run the Jewels’ loudmouthed bluster makes the dissonant horn stomp of “3 Tearz” even more percussive, Obangjayar makes “Belly of the Beast” the album’s most beautiful song with his arresting croons, JPEGMAFIA delivers a hilariously out of tune yet impossibly catchy hook to accompany his production on “Negro Spiritual,” and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) adds some soul with his dreamy contributions to “Shine.” And if that’s not already enough, uknowhatimsayin¿ ends with one of Brown’s best songs yet, “Combat,” which combines an addicting instrumental with some of the finest punchline rap I’ve heard in a good while.


Honorable Mentions Chart

Feature: Favorite Compilations, Reissues, and Archival Material from 2019

2019 was a year of looking forward for many artists, but brand-new music wasn’t the only thing dominating my listening these past eleven months. From reprints of old, hard-to-find albums to collections of tracks that hadn’t previously been available at all, here are my favorite archival releases from this year.


Velo Misere – Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad (Death Kvlt Productions, Mar 1)

The Compendio de Trágicos Presagios demo (2017) and Genealogía del Eterno Desasosiega EP (2018) respectively occupy the two sides of Spanish black metal collective’s first vinyl release, a dirt-caked and shadow-drenched odyssey into lush, atmospheric soundscapes of pain, grief, and harrowing beauty. The production is murky and swirling yet never sacrifices the force of the vicious percussive onslaughts, the labyrinthine riffs, the agonized, raw inflections of the shrieks and howls. Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad feels at once fresh and out of time, a dark artifact found in the earth upon which small spots of lights begin to appear when you look at it for long enough.

Chamber – Ripping / Pulling / Tearing (Pure Noise, Jul 17)

2019 was a year in which many promising hardcore bands were picked up by larger labels, and we saw plenty of faithful discography collections released for bands like SeeYouSpaceCowboy…, Year of the Knife, Fawn Limbs, and others. My clear favorite of these, however, is Chamber’s Ripping / Pulling / Tearing on Pure Noise, which is comprised of songs from the Nashville quintet’s only two releases (Final Shape / In Search of Truth and Hatred Softly Spoken) along with the brand new “Replacing Every Weakness.” This latter track is a succinct masterpiece of modern metallic hardcore, with well-penned lyrical anguish howling over razor sharp wah stabs, low end churns, and one of the catchiest and most brutal breakdowns of the whole decade.

Katalin Ladik – Phonopoetics (Alga Marghen, Jul 19)

This wonderful LP release by Alga Marghen collects eight sound pieces by Hungarian multidisciplinary artist Katalin Ladik, a visionary creative whose work nonetheless remains largely unheard by not only the general public, but also the sympathetic ears of avant-garde listeners. Ladik’s compositions and improvisations make use of a wide variety of sound sources, from the nocturnal industrial ambience of “Reflection 7 / Reflexió 7” to the layered, spectral, vocal-only performances of “Ufo-Nopoetica” and “Lament / Sirató,” but at its heart Phonopoetics represents Ladik’s development of a poetic language that incorporates more than just speech; her poetry is all-inclusive, indiscriminate, a sublime and revolutionary dialect that draws its power from the fluid ease of gesture.

Various Artists – Towards a Total Poetry (Recital, Sep 6)

Possibly Recital’s most fascinating release even in such a formidable year, Towards a Total Poetry collects ten vocal pieces, sound poems, and radio plays by four titans of the 1980 Los Angeles text-sound scene (Paul Vangelisti, Adriano Spatola, F. Tiziano, Julien Blaine). Guttural, salivary utterances imitate surgical amputations; cardinal directions argue over a game of cards; a choral ensemble sing the “M” entries in the phone book. It’s hard to tell what’s more disorienting, the structure of the LP as a whole or the pieces themselves. Housed in a fittingly unassuming jacket with a 12 page booklet containing notes and essays by the artists, it’s definitely a document to get your hands on.

The Sawtooth Grin – Cuddlemonster reissue (Wax Vessel, Oct 4)

Ambitious Chicago passion project Wax Vessel really put its nose to the grindstone in its inaugural year of operation, releasing beloved classics of the 2000’s math/death/grind-core scene on gorgeous colored vinyl with reimagined cover artwork. So many of my personal favorites were blessed with the WV treatment in 2019 (Robinson, The Heartland, Destroyer Destroyer), but I choose to include Cuddlemonster because its reissue significantly changed my opinion of it—after only having heard low quality, compression-marred digital rips it’s truly an amazing experience to hear it now, in all of its deranged remastered glory.

Feature: Favorite Labels of 2019

Even in this era where digital music and streaming dominate, independent CD and tape labels are the lifeblood of the underground and avant-garde music community. So many, way more than we deserve, are admirable platforms for musicians and artists to get their music to new audiences, focused on supporting creativity rather than profit (though they still need your financial support too). With this piece, I hope to give recognition for the longer running labels that are still consistently great, as well as bring some newer discoveries into the spotlight.


‘Old Standbys’

Dinzu Artefacts

Dinzu is all about consistency, from its constant aesthetic focus on “contemporary art of sound by artists interested in tape manipulation, field recordings, noise and experimental practices” to the foot it maintains in the world of physical music by not providing official digital covers for its releases. The consistency, unsurprisingly, carries over into the music as well, and 2019 is an exemplary year to look to for proof. The January batch started things off strong with the acousmatic ambience of Ife from Giovanni Lami and Glauco Salvo and Fabio Perletta’s segmented sound study Hesitant. Other superb entries include Joakim Blattmann’s eclectic Bird Helmet, Eventless Plot’s captivating improvisations on Percussion Works, Andrea Borghi’s warbly textile turntabling on Tistre, and the succinct surrealism of kNN’s Granchio Pinocchio. Dinzu also released one of the year’s most impenetrable works with Luciano Maggiore’s Locu, which I am still trying to figure out.

Flag Day Recordings

Billy Pizarro’s Flag Day Recordings reached new heights of eclecticism in 2019, releasing sixteen tapes that wade through sound art, improvisation, abstract electronica, noise, film soundtrack, and many other areas. My most played release from the label this year is (perhaps expectedly) The Black Isle, a spectral phonographic work by Manja Ristić, but I also greatly enjoyed Bridges of Königsberg’s ambitious electronic odyssey Considered Parallel to Borders (Or Dividers)Without Mirrors’ nocturnal soundscaping on their self-titled tape, and both of the most recent releases from Francisco Meirino (Hear After: Matters of Auditory Paranoia) and Tim Held (Music to Come Down to).

 

Orb Tapes

Orb, whose motto is “fringe music on tape,” reliably presents an onslaught of refreshing experimental and outsider music every year, but 2019 was one for the books, with 16 superb new releases from new and old artists alike. Highlights include Every Meanest Particular, the newest raucous and irreverent free jazz excursion by Chicago quartet Galaxxu; Into the Disposal, a short but punishing coagulation of various split and compilation tracks by Lima noisegrind trio Landfill; and Lumb, the second fantastic release on Orb by indiscriminate dada collagers Sugar Pills Bone. Orb also inked itself into the contemporary Sun Ra revival with the release of Sun Ra with Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold, which collects long-shelved recordings from November of 1964.

Sentient Ruin Laboratories

Obnoxious release descriptions aside, the Oakland-based Sentient Ruin continued to establish itself as one of, if not the most prominent voices in extreme and avant-garde metal music. Beginning with Vessel of Iniquity’s Void of Infinite Horror LP, which I’ve identified countless times as one of my favorite albums of the year, the label put out nearly 30 new releases and reissues in styles ranging from nightmarish avalanche metal (Imminent HorrorThe Approaching RoarEkpyrosis) and lumbering death/doom (Perpetual AnimationVestigial, Nightfucker) to bewildering and abstract genre amalgams (ѪSpasm of LightHold Me Down). 2019 also saw an unexpected (yet more than welcome) reissue of Pseudocommando’s contemporary harsh noise classic A Home Beneath the Floorboards.

New Discoveries

Bank

NYC based label Bank is one of the most prominent mouthpieces for adventurous, confrontational, and industrial-influenced electronic dance music right now. I unfortunately don’t have the financial means to purchase many of their releases, but the one I do own, DJ Speedsick’s Nothing Lasts, hardly leaves my car’s cassette player. Other remarkable albums include Soren Roi’s sprawling double-tape techno masterpiece Retrograde Amnesia and Slave to Society’s stunning self-titled debut.

Careful Catalog

Besides releasing my album of the year (Shots’ stunning opus Private Hate), New York based label Careful Catalog came into its own in 2019 after a putting out just a single title last year (Will Guthrie’s 6 Days Into 8). So far it’s added the linguistics-based conceptual work of Connor Camburn and minuscule glitch-scapes of Takamitsu Ohta to its repertoire, and according to the website we’ll see two new editions by Mattias Gustafsson and barn sour before the year is out.

Collective Gut Distro

2019 was Collective Gut Distro’s first year of operation, and March saw it start things off with an aesthetically exemplary inaugural release: True Corruption by Fuck Shit Piss. CGD presses very limited runs of tapes occupying the dark and grimy corners of grindcore and other extreme punk music. Highlights include the self-titled tapes by fast-paced, furious, and fucked-up Indian grind trio xRepeatx and the rotted, rusty powerviolence project Construction Sports.

Regional Bears

London imprint Regional Bears released its first tape in 2017, but this past year saw it nearly double its catalog with three batches of three titles each. The roster of artists reads like a who’s who list of the underground “non-music” and collage scene, both old and new: blackhumour, Yeast Culture, Posset, AMK, Guido Gamboa, Shots, Small Cruel Party. But it isn’t afraid to branch out into more eclectic and even conventional territory either, with releases by E. Granby Granby, Schakalens Bror, and FPBJBC.

Honorable Mentions

I’d also like to recognize some other labels who brought me some of my favorite music this year, including Cadmus Tape, Hausu Mountain, Marginal FrequencyReserve MatineeFragment FactoryWasted TapesPenultimate PressSono SpaceChocolate Monk, tsss tapes, and Lurker Bias.

Feature: MVPs of 2019

Much like last year, December is a time for me to let up on my new music intake and sit back with some old favorites. To reflect on this wonderful year (wonderful for music at least) I’ll be posting the same summative features as I did in 2018. Hope you enjoy. My regular review schedule will most likely resume in the new year. Thank you to everyone for your support and love.


2019, just like 2018 (which is why I’ve very lazily reprinted the exact same introduction) was a year in which I discovered lots of new artists and got to hear new music from artists I already love. There were, however, several artists who managed to occupy both voids due to their prolificacy throughout the year. These are my personal picks for the “most valuable players” in music this year.

Andrea Borghi

The work of the endlessly creative and innovative Italian sound artist Andrea Borghi has been an important part of my music listening ever since I first heard Musica per Nastro God knows how many years ago. From hybrid sound composition and sculpture works in the form of his unique discomateria prepared records and other solo endeavors to collective improvisation, Borghi engages sound in ceaselessly various settings. In 2019 he’s been especially prolific, releasing 3discos, a collection of works composed between 2017 and 2018, on rhizome.s in February; VHS, an intimate yet raucous odyssey into the titular format that’s far and away one of my favorite albums this year, on Misanthropic Agenda in May; four textile/turntable experiments in the form of the Tistre cassette on Dinzu Artefacts in July; texts_und, a short cassette filled with lush, immersive, minuscule soundscapes, on Sounds Against Humanity in October; and recorded the ambitious Su Se Stesso as a member of the long-running improvisational quartet VipCancro.

 

Vessel of Iniquity

The mysterious Vessel of Iniquity, though officially known as the solo endeavor of musician “A.white,” can just as easily be thought of as a pitch black cavern that births this nightmarish and disturbing music. The project’s self-titled debut came out on Sentient Ruin last year, but the volume was more than pumped up in 2019 with the release of the Void of Infinite Horror LP, again on Sentient Ruin, and four subsequent self-released digital albums of remarkably consistent excellence. While Void of Infinite Horror is easily one of my favorite records from this year, I’ve not even come close to wearing it out because I have fantastic companion releases like Star of the Morning and Imitator of Miracles to give me my fix.

 

Mach-Hommy

Being prolific is more difficult with hip-hop than most genres, and it’s easy for artists who release too much music to sacrifice either quality or accessibility—or both. I’m sure we can all name some great examples. New Jersey MC Mach-Hommy (hereafter MH) isn’t as young as many of the NYC undergrounders currently taking the abstract hip-hop world by storm, but with a longer time on Earth comes wisdom, patience, and reticence. MH is known for his anonymity and reclusive nature, and his hermitic inclinations imbue his dusty boom bap beatscapes and cryptic lyricism with a unique sense of isolation that’s both unsettling and comforting. I first fell in love with MH’s music with the help of Fete des Morts aka Dia de las Muertos, and his 2019 ventures have further cemented that love: Tuez-les tous, the first of two superb collaborations with DJ Muggs (along with Kill Em All, which also introduced a new moniker for the duo), is easily one of the best hip-hop releases this year, and the short but sweet Wap Konn Jòj! is a wonderful entry in the contemporary abstract hip-hop canon.

 

Territorial Gobbing

I first encountered Theo Gowans’ music long before I heard anything by Territorial Gobbing (TG); the Leeds-based multi-instrumentalist is also a member of the irreverent noise rock ensemble Thank, whose 2017 EP Sexghost Hellscape is an all-time personal favorite. Gowans’ solo work as TG combines the same delirious, nihilistic surrealism with a more abstract palette of dictaphone skronk, mangled vocalizations, broken electronics, and anything else that catches his ear. April’s Stud Mechanism on Cadmus Tape was the first I heard, but Gowans stayed busy with releases on Cardboard Club (Ham Man Bone Jacket), Opal Tapes (Capitalist Art Is Cartoons Fucking), Panurus Productions (Sausage Chain), Infant Tree (Bit My Tongue Clean Off), and Base Materialism (Zoinks!). He also lent his talents to a collaboration with Model Warships on Wormhole World and the second side of Leap Wars’ Low Priest Run on Cadmus.

 

Daphne X

Daphne X (shortened from Xanthopoulou) is a very new discovery of mine, but I’ve had plenty of material to pore over in the form of her deconstructed, glitched-marred poetry remnants of January’s Jaguar 100% and the enrapturing digital dissections of To Be Brave on Sono Space. In addition to contributing a track to the third installment of Sono Space’s Sound Maps for the Dreamer compilation series, Xanthopoulou also curated Cachichi, an online radio platform for avant-garde music and sound art with a focus on her home base of Barcelona, Spain. Xanthopoulou may not have released an avalanche of music this year, but with the massive amount of excitement I feel for future endeavors she might as well have.

List: Top Ten for the First Half of 2019

In a minimal format identical to last year’s list, here are my ten favorite albums that have been released during the first half of 2019. As always, the order is of little importance.

Andrea Borghi – VHS (Misanthropic Agenda, May 8)

VHS is almost like an auditory laboratory experiment. This spellbinding album is the sonic result of sound artist Andrea Borghi’s choice use of objects, prepared turntable, and the innards of a modified VHS player. Moments of recognizable humanity in the form of video tape samples occasionally emerge amidst the beautiful din of crackling, buzzing electronics. Original review

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (Columbia, May 3)

Despite how much I love Modern Vampires of the City, I really didn’t have any expectations for Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years. But with Father of the Bride the band has released their best album. Moments of fragile beauty, infectious sun-drenched pop tunes, and cheerful style experiments are sprawled across the warmest, happiest 58 minutes one could ask for.

Duncan Harrison – Nothing’s Good (Index Clean, Feb 16)

The disorienting collages of Nothing’s Good are some of Harrison’s most bewildering, conjuring abstract sound environments of strangled voices, warbling tape, and disparate found sound. The artist’s penchant for nondiscriminatory sonic palettes is at the heart of this album, where all sounds, from the familiar noises of humanity to unidentifiable scrapes and smashes to completely detached electronics, are on equal footing.

Johnw – Wordless Paragraph (Absent Erratum, Mar 11)

Structurally, Wordless Paragraph is a very unique wall release. It’s comprised of seven two-minute pieces, preceded and followed by two endcap tracks running four minutes and thirty seconds each. You’d think that such short durations would diminish the walls’ atmosphere and power, but that’s not really the focus here. The concluding “-” is utterly sublime.

Soren Roi – Retrograde Amnesia (Bank, Feb 22)

Despite its length, Retrograde Amnesia maintains focus throughout, Soren Roi’s evolving compositions of heavyweight industrial techno and deconstructed electronica always imbued with a sense of forward motion, driving and loud and hypnotic and punishing. This double tape commands attention at every moment.

Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic, Feb 8)

Easily my most-played album this year. I wasn’t impressed with any of the singles, but all of them have since grown on me tremendously —with the exception of “Break Up With Your Girlfriend…” Regardless, thank u, next is Grande’s first truly personal artistic statement, a record that is her through and through, equal parts danceable hits and aching emotion.

The Wind in the Trees – A Gift of Bricks from the Sky (self-released, Feb 19)

With members of The Heads Are Zeros and Leveless, Baltimore’s The Wind in the Trees stirs up menacing squalls of complex, angular grind. Dark, surreal lyrical imagery is screamed with desperation over labyrinthine riffs and breakneck drums. The band offers a legendary conclusion with the invigorating “Blinding Miscalculations.” Original review

Marble Arch – Children of the Slump (Géographie, Mar 22)

Gorgeous dream pop with enough layers and density to soundtrack a friendly gathering or to reward a focused listen. Marble Arch’s second album is filled with blissful guitar effects, bouncy drum patterns, and a comforting, hazy ambience.

Darksmith – Poverty of Will (Chocolate Monk, Mar 22)

Even in Darksmith’s bleakest moments there’s usually a glimmer of hope, no matter how small. I’m not so sure that’s true for Poverty of Will, a terrifying odyssey through a desolate, unfamiliar world. I haven’t had a chance to get ahold of the companion art book, so I can only imagine the nightmares that are depicted by his distinct stark black pen drawings. Original review

Velo Misere – Retrospectiva de la Fatalidad (Death Kvlt Productions, Mar 1)

Including this one is sort of cheating since it collects the band’s two previous releases: Compendio de Trágicos Presagios (2017) and Genealogía del Eterno Desasosiego (2018). However, its release this year enabled me to find this band, so I think it’s fitting. This compilation introduces a larger audience to Velo Misere’s amazing brand of raw, passionate depressive black metal. Original review

Feature: Favorite Albums of 2018

Well, here it is. I listened to nearly 500 new releases this year, and as with any amount of music that size I found some things I truly love. I am excited to share them with you in the hopes that we agree, disagree, or I can introduce you to something new…or all three. The order is not important here. I adore all of these albums and I won’t diminish that by comparing them to each other. Writing about every single one would be exhausting (for both me AND you), so I plan to write about the first ten that come to mind and let the rest speak for themselves.

To everyone who somehow participated in this website in 2018, thank you. This was my first year doing consistent reviews and I couldn’t have had more fun. See you all in 2019!


Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want (Ipecac, Oct 26)

Words cannot describe the excitement I felt when Daughters, after eight years since their flawless self-titled album, released “Satan in the Wait” as a lead single back in July. The seven-minute epic dethroned “Cheers, Pricks” as the band’s longest song, and ventured into dark, unfamiliar territory with its post-punk influenced guitar slices and repetitive structures, all areas that were further explored on the masterpiece that is You Won’t Get What You Want. I won’t hesitate to say that this record deserves every single ounce of the exorbitant praise being thrown its way. From the nightmarish mood-setting on “City Song” to industrial-plagued noise rock tracks like “Long Road, No Turns” and “The Reason They Hate Me” to frenetic fretboard attacks that hearken back to the band’s earlier work on “The Flammable Man” and “The Lords Song,” everything is exactly what it needs to be. You Won’t Get What You Want is a confident entry in the awe-inspiring artistic evolution that is Daughters’ discography, and easily joins the others in my endless rotations.

Graham Lambkin & Áine O’Dwyer – Green Ways (Erstwhile, Nov 27)

Green, a beautiful color. I began my review of this double CD a month or so ago with the words “I’m fairly certain I will remember the first time I heard Green Ways for the rest of my life.” I stand by that assertion. Lambkin and O’Dwyer have captured something both familiar and impossibly unique with this album, adopting an unparalleled minimalistic approach to music-making to convey so many different scenes, emotions, and sensations. The listener is trapped inside the portable recorder the artists used to capture these sounds, but the effect is anything but limiting; we are there when the audience erupts into applause at the end of a bizarre group performance, we are there when the soft plinks of an old piano shakes the ground, we are there in that bustling crowd of people in a lively Irish town. Green Ways, despite its unapologetic sparseness, oozes with more things than music seems able to convey, than it should be able to convey. (Original review)

Setsuko – The Shackles of Birth (Dog Knights Productions, Mar 5)

There’s emoviolence with a sharp edge, and then there’s this. The Shackles of Birth is an unyielding assault of anger, barreling toward anyone who chooses to listen with its twisted hybrids of grinding blast beats and buzzsaw guitars. The LP is capped at a concise 17-minute run time, and there are absolutely no stray hairs or meandering moments; everything about this album contributes to its formidable intensity in one way or another. The production is oppressive and muddy, lending weight to the pounding rhythms and chugging, distorted bass, but also allowing the jagged, chaotic roils of tortured vocals and guitars to cut straight through. I consider The Shackles of Birth to be a modern  classic of the genre (or at least it will be eventually); it easily ranks among the most intense chaotic hardcore in its ability to grab hold and not let go. (Original review)

Posset – Totally Corporate! (Kirigirisu Recordings, Mar 17)

Joe Murray has been working with the acoustic properties of low fidelity audio material for a long time, and Totally Corporate! seems to be the embodiment of everything the medium has to offer. Murray transforms even the simplest and most mundane of sources into spellbinding spiderworks of tape hiss, distorted garble, and discomfiting clicks and clacks. The fractured, damaged operations of dictaphones and other tape recorders opens up a world of mystery, unease, and beauty, echoing the murky distance of faded memories and parts of life long gone. “Reading the Track List for Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’ Into a Broken Tape Recorder” is exactly what its title states, but even this moment of transparency does little to disrupt the immersive atmosphere that Murray has created.

Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs (Tan Cressida, Nov 30)

From its blurred cover photograph to its minuscule run time, I wouldn’t blame anyone who worried that Some Rap Songs would feel sloppy and thrown together. Actually, those are two descriptions that I would confidently apply to this album, but in the most positive way possible. On his first studio album in three years, Earl Sweatshirt ventures further into the hallucinatory sample collages and dense wordplay first hinted at by I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and its companion Solace, messily chopping up old soul records to form the basis for an odyssey through a mind that’s as lonely and tortured as ever. The album moves through its series of flitting vignettes at a brisk but natural pace, with Earl’s tumbling flows and free-associative imagery often forming the basis for the dizzying beats instead of the other way around. The last three tracks are simply gorgeous, from the achingly beautiful piano cascades and spoken words of parents Cheryl Harris and Keorapetse Kgositsile on “Playing Possum” to the shifting static of “Peanut” and the concluding “Riot!,” which somehow brings this fever dream to an organic close.

Poppy – Am I a Girl? (Mad Decent, Oct 31)

I’m only half joking when I say I could write a dissertation about this album. On Am I a Girl?, Moriah Rose Pereira takes her character of Poppy past the cutesy robotic pop of Poppy.computer and into a tour de force of polished electropop hits, mind-bending genre experiments, and a new level of social commentary. “In a Minute” starts things off strong with its addictive bass curls and the infectious vapidity of its chorus, with Poppy’s assertion that she is “busy and important” taking control of the album’s first act, which is full of more gloriously shallow expressions of vanity. The adventurous pair of interludes in turn take us into the second and third sections, which take things to new heights of absurdity. It’s impossible not to simultaneously dance your heart out while bursting out laughing at the ridiculous lyrics of “Aristocrat” or “Girls in Bikinis,” or to laugh even harder at the genre fusions of the final three tracks while headbanging to the gloriously hard-hitting metal riffs. I can’t say enough good things. (Original review)

Amuleto – Misztériumok (Three:Four, Apr 6)

The sounds of Amuleto’s Misztériumok radiate the same tension as the strings of the instruments largely used to create them. The duo sculpts physical, impacting electroacoustics from a variety of sources, but even at its most abstract and electronics-heavy the album retains the earthy feel and energy of an intimate folk song. From the second that layer of mesmerizing bass tones breaks through the bowed drones that begin “Der Turm,” Misztériumok is a sonic journey through taut, tensile compositions that exude a primordial warmth. “Urlicht” is the album’s most conventionally beautiful track, weaving fuzz-soaked harmonies in and out of each other, while “Untitled With Eye, Hand, Moon and Dog” achieves breathtaking heights through its unpredictable stop-start approach. (Original review)

Mosquitoes – Drip Water Hollow Out Stone (Ever/Never, Jul 13)

The U.K.-based avant-rock outfit Mosquitoes was one of my favorite discoveries this year, along with their closely related side project Komare. Drip Water Hollow Out Stone is the band’s first official label studio release, providing a more accessible platform to experience their uncompromising brand of fractured rock music. The LP echoes the anxious, angular guitars and unintelligible vocals of New York no wave pioneers like DNA and Mars, but there’s something much more elusive, even sinister about it. The stutter-step rhythm section forms broken grooves that amble along at a stumbling but deliberate pace, the sparse instrumental interplay somehow creating hulking, intimidating soundscapes. The vocals are nothing short of terrifying, echoing the wordless rhythms of sound poetry as they slither across these songs. (Original review)

Manja Ristić – The Nightfall (Naviar, Apr 26)

Serbian sound artist Manja Ristić has had an incredible year, but The Nightfall, her sublime meditation on the four seasons, is undoubtedly the highlight. I still struggle to find words to discuss this album despite its rare departure from my cassette player. It explores tension and freedom in equal measure, with anything from ominous guitar melodies to percussive vibraphone accompanying Ristić’s lush collages of field recordings. I won’t pretend that basing pieces of music on the cycle of seasons is anything incredibly revolutionary, but the way each season is viewed and conveyed definitely is—I can’t say I’ve ever heard a musical depiction of summer that is as foreboding as it is here. “Spring” on its own makes this album a formidable force this year; its combination of comforting melodies and sounds of laughing children is almost too beautiful to describe. (Original review)

Guttersnipe – My Mother the Vent (Upset the Rhythm, Oct 26)

The deafening racket that is My Mother the Vent is only made more impressive with the knowledge that it was produced by just two people. Guttersnipe, a duo from Leeds that features one member on guitar, electronics, and vocals and the other on drums (their real names are unknown to me), nearly perfects their semi-improvised brand of harsh rock music on this album. To say My Mother the Vent is impenetrable would be an understatement; the shrieking vocals sound like the wails of a straight-jacketed psychopath and the drums switch between Chris Corsano-esque rock improv to fiendish blast beats at the drop of a hat. The band occupies an incredible neutral zone between concise songwriting and meandering free music, frequently letting their instrumental chemistry take the songs to new places but always knowing when to reel it all back in. (Original review)


Some… “Honorable Mentions” (Feel free to zoom in, it’s a large image)

 

Feature: Favorite Compilations, Reissues, and Archival Material from 2018

In December, the month of end-of-year lists galore, I’ll be focusing more on summarizing my favorite music that I heard this year rather than reviewing new things—among obvious other reasons, I need a break from the constant new music! For me, December is not too early to assess the year as a whole, because I won’t be able to spend enough time with anything that comes out this close to the end of the year to confidently put it on a list. As with everything on this site, these lists and features will be intended to encourage discovery of new things; the fact that they are my opinions is secondary.


2018 was a year of looking forward for many artists, but brand-new music wasn’t the only thing dominating my listening these past eleven months. From reprints of old, hard-to-find albums to collections of tracks that hadn’t previously been available at all, here are my favorite archival releases from 2018.

Graham Lambkin – No Better No Worse Vol. 1 & 2 (self-released, Jan 25 & Jun 21)

This year, legendary sound collage artist Graham Lambkin made many of his releases available digitally on Bandcamp. It was the first time many of his beloved albums had seen official digital versions; many of them were released as LPs and cassettes on Lambkin’s now-defunct label, Kye, including the wonderful Poem (for Voice & Tape) and Amateur Doubles. But the uploads were also accompanied by a compilation of unreleased material that was soon followed by a second volume, and both collections rank handily among Lambkin’s best work. Vol. 1 brought us the fluid, personal “Summer Tape Work,” the mundane beauty of “The Pack,” and some informal experiments such as “Concert Review.” Vol. 2 somehow upped the ante, unveiling the gorgeous staticked sighs of “Ghost Boxes,” an abridged version of Lambkin’s arresting sound poetry piece “Unfocused Hands,” and the first official digital appearance of “Abersayne” and “Attersaye,” two of the most uncanny and affecting songs ever created.

François Bayle – Tremblements… (Recollection GRM, Feb 23)

Recollection GRM, a sub-label of Editions Mego, has been reissuing collections of significant avant-garde works, mainly in the realms of electroacoustic composition. Tremblements… comprises two pieces by François Bayle, the composer who famously coined the concept of ‘acousmatic music’ and founded INA-GRM, the label whose releases Recollection GRM reprints. Both pieces, “Tremblement de terre très doux” and “Toupie dans le ciel,” maintain a reserved, almost ambient atmosphere despite the large quantity of both synthesized and recorded sounds used throughout. This was not my first of Bayle’s works, but it was the first that I fell in love with; here, he easily matches (and often even surpasses) the skill and techniques of his mentor Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète, creating abstract soundscapes that are as focused as they are eclectic.

International Debris – 2T: Experimental Works 1995​-​2017 (self-released, Mar 27)

I’d like to say I listened to every minute of music contained on this massive collection, but if I did I’d be lying. Experimental Works collects the complete output of Ross Baker’s 2T project, as well as some releases under various other releases, from 1995 to 2017. It contains nearly fifteen hours of material that ranges from varyingly active radio play and sloppy plunderphonics to well-crafted concrète music and patient, if occasionally indulgent, drone pieces. Baker didn’t exactly use any fine-tooth combs when releasing his music, but the sprawling unfiltered-ness of Experimental Works allows it to be an imperfect but comprehensive auditory document, and listening sequentially tells the fascinating story and evolution of a developing sound artist. From laugh-out-loud moments of anti-music irreverence to periods of admirable focus like the “Headache Therapy” series, this is a compilation that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Cold Electric Fire – The Alchemist: The Complete Recordings (No Rent, Apr 24)

Even in their maelstrom of 2018 releases, No Rent Records made time for some not-so-new material. Gary Tedder’s brief stint as Cold Electric Fire yielded two CD releases and a split 10″ with Facedowninshit, and the music from all three of which is present on The Alchemist along with completely new tracks that were never released (a track from 2002’s In Night’s Dream We Are Ghosts was repurposed for the Facedowninshit split). As typical of No Rent, the packaging for this two-tape set is incredible, and the innocuous image used as the cover is a perfect representation of the meditative, droning analog ambience that was so diligently created by Tedder, radiating a comforting warmth even at the compilation’s tensest moments. The highlight of The Alchemist may be the unreleased project A Cursory Sweep of the Insurmountable, an ambitious collection of processed instrument drones. Every aspect of this release makes it one not to miss, even the beautiful photographs that color its twin J-cards and Jason Crumer’s meticulous and thoughtful introduction.

The Four Horsemen – Nada Canadada (Holidays, Nov 9)

Originally released as Canadada on Griffin House in 1974, The Four Horsemen’s debut LP was one of the finest examples of text-sound, or sound poetry, when the art form was arguably at its creative peak with peers such as Sten Hanson and Charles Amirkhanian. But Nada Canadada stands out even now, mainly because of its profound sense of community. The members, including bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and Steve McCaffery, always made an effort to keep their abstract poetry attached to its roots, and their words are almost entirely discernible even amidst the chaos whipped up in “Seasons” or “Monotony.” I think Rafael Barreto-Rivera puts it best: “The number of words we still use in our poetry comes as somewhat of a surprise to us, especially in the light of this album. Strictly speaking we cannot call what we do sound poetry if by it is meant that poetry which has its basis in non-verbal, vocal, and sub-vocal elements of sound. Nor are we into the electronic ramifications of sound in any sense beyond doing a record. We are in fact reluctant to pin the aesthetic continuum on which we operate to the first wall available. Still, perhaps the best name for what we do is what it always has been: poetry.”