There we are then, a few hours of grotty 2010 to go and I've decided to publish a list of my favourite stuff from this year. Another list. Yes. Looking through my last.fm stats, it appears that in 2010 I have been something of a massive hippy, listening to lots of Incredible String Band, lots of Scott Tuma, and a fair amount of Popol Vuh, Horace Andy, Loren Connors and Arve Henriksen. I also listened a good deal to the 20 records listed below.
Looking for patterns in the list, it seems to me there is good deal of landscape involved in these records - landscapes explicitly referenced and projected such as in the work of Richard Skelton, Trembling Bells, Forest Swords and The Lowland Hundred, or landscapes evoked or used as a framing device such as in Barn Owl, Darkstar and Philip Jeck's resetting of Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem about the wrecking of the ship, The Deutschland. Even Demdike Stare, whose method is purely electronic and studio based, still grounded their sound in fistfuls of Lancashire soil.
The Top 10
1. Richard Skelton - Landings (feat. track 'Green Withins Brook')
Landings, an album and book release, is the culmination of a three year relationship Richard Skelton shared with the landscape of Anglezarke in the West Pennine moors. In a way it is the recording of a disappearance – of a person enveloped in grief, seeking to dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside, to escape by becoming part of the tides of the land. As part of this process Skelton used the landscape as both a kind of vast studio and an instrument, using the elements as a backdrop for the minutely pieced together nature of his compositions – which, like his spare writing style built from historical readings and impressionistic encounters with the land, are compositions built from very little: accordion drones, bowed strings, the hush of water on stone. Indeed sometimes Skelton’s method seems so inscrutable, yet so powerful and emotionally affecting that you wonder if you’re listening to a form of alchemy. Which in the end, it might just be. Full review.
2. Demdike Stare - Forest of Evil
With Forest of Evil Demdike Stare managed to reference minimal techno, dub, noir-ish soundscapes and the Radiophonic Workshop; yet with their ties to the Lancashire landscape, they also managed to make their sound ancient and telluric – there is age in this wax, age that reeks of the films of Michael Reeves, and the musty camp of Aleister Crowley. These three records were as much a work of psychic dredging and incantation as they were about sculpted beat science
3. The Lowland Hundred - Under Cambrian Sky (feat. track 'Picot')
Another vast and elemental record, Under Cambrian Sky was a quiescent open channel to the past, but always filtered through a sensitive appreciation of the present. It took the ancient myth of the flooding and destruction of a peninsula of west Wales and used it as a kind of faultline, a way of cutting through layers of history and mythology and spectrally re-inhabitabing the surrounding landscape. All this whilst summoning the likes of Richard Youngs, Robert Wyatt and Talk Talk. Quite an achievement. Full review.
4. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
The narrative might go that Joanna Newsom damaged her throat and in re-learning her voice found a new layer of sweetness she’d so far ignored. Or it might go that she hid herself away and found in the long shadows of the afternoon her California singer-songwriter self. Or it might go that maybe she just stopped trying, and in stopping trying she found this great well of untapped songs that she could simply draw and draw from. Whatever the reason, Have One On Me is a different kind of animal to the flighty intricacies of Ys. In its (long, winding) way it’s just as ambitious as that record, but, on the surface at least, it slips by an awful lot easier, and peversely doesn’t have the feel of an epic. Yet as the year rolls round and you still find yourself stumbling across new tracks, let alone new passages in the longer tracks, you wonder at the life in this thing. It’s difficult to know for certain just yet, but this may well be her masterpiece after all. Full review.
5. Evan Caminiti - West Winds (feat. track 'Glowing Sky')
Away from Barn Owl (more of which later) Caminiti indulged his love of epic guitar noise. This was a record that reeked of the elements, of deserts and wind blasted canyons. Nothing else sounded quite so immense all year.
6. Philip Jeck - An Ark For The Listener (feat. track 'The All of Water')
An Ark For The Listener is a sustained meditation on verse 33 of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem about the drowning on December 7th 1875 of five Franciscan nuns exiled from Germany. Jeck uses his idiosyncratic and inscrutable technique of manipulating old records and doctored machinery to build what is essentially a work of spectral mourning. Two of the finest pieces I read anywhere this year explain this strange and beautiful record far better than I can: Scott at Mapsadaisical and Tom at The Line of Best Fit.
7. Deadbeat - Radio Rothko (feat. track 'Site312 by Marko Furstenberg)
This snuck up on me a bit to be honest - a mix CD compiled by Montrealer Deadbeat that worked the areas between (very) minimal and dub techno it did some simple things very well, combining some classic Basic Channel and Monolake and some newer artists like the more dubstep-leaning 2562 into what was an expertly crafted and paced collection. It was a constant nagging presence throughout the year.
8. Barn Owl - Ancestral Star (feat. track 'Light from the Mesa')
Freshly signed to Thrill Jockey, Barn Owl set about producing this huge desertscape of an album. Ancestral Star built on the huge doom-laden drones of the past and worked towards something other, something altogether more sculpted and ambitious.
9. Chris Abrahams - Play Scar (feat. song 'The Same Time')
This was Abrahams' 6th solo record away from the levitatingly good jazz trio The Necks for whom he plays piano and his first for some five years. That it enjoyed such a long gestation is evident in the care and sheer detail of the textures Abrahams explores. Whether he is playing warped electronics, a church organ, a fender rhodes or simple piano this has the feeling of long labour.
10. Forest Swords - Dagger Paths
A lonely yet oddly romantic melding of dubby soundscapes and evocations of the Wirral landscape, Dagger Paths managed to sound beamed in from another place entirely and and at the same time very English. Full review.
The next 10...
11. Julian Lynch - Mare
12. Supersilent - 10
13. Winterfylleth - The Mercian Sphere
14. Guanaco - Sky Burials
15. Nicholas Szczepanik - Dear Dad (Full review)
16. Trembling Bells - Abandoned Love (Full review)
17. Ufomammut - Eve (fullish review)
18. Red River Dialect - White Diamonds (Full review)
19. The Family Elan - Bow Low Bright Glow
20. Drudkh - Handful of Stars
And so many more besides: Clouwbeck (full review), Olan Mill, Pausal (full review), Ous Mal, Teeth of the Sea, Emeralds, Natural Snow Buildings (full review), Vex'd, Ulaan Kohl, Koen Holtkamp, James Blackshaw, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, The Ex, Chicago Underground (full review), Jack Rose (full review and RIP)...
So there we are. Aside from all the great artists, I salute a whole bunch of people and sites who made 2010 what it was: Mapsadaisical, MandrewB, Rich Hughes and Tom Lecky (hereafter to be conquering worlds as The Liminal); Dan at Fluid Radio/Fluid Audio who I swear does the work of ten men; Tim Noble (Lowland Hundred sound maker and Hundred Acre Recordings head honcho who also happens to have an unbelievably good solo album on the way); Rich Thane and the guys at The Line of Best Fit; Bruno at The Milk Factory; Ash Akhtar; Dave of Low Light Mixes who continues to put out outstandingly good mixes on a regular basis; Ben Howard and Dan Auty who do the Mondo Movie podcast and have kept me sane at various times this year. And well, anyone I've forgotten.