Thursday, January 5, 2012

smilecoldanatomy's top 10 of '11

behold! my top 10 albums of 2011. if it comes a few too many days into the new year, consider this an even more carefully considered list.

for me, 2011 was more about the track, or the label, and i'll readily admit that my scope at times was quite narrow. still, there were a handful of albums that gripped me either because they seemed so charmingly accessible that i'd tune in repeatedly, or because they were challenging journeys deserving of attentive but more occasional listens, or because they were so surprisingly different. or it was a combination of all that. anyway, my picks... read on:

10. margaret dygas
margaret dygas | perlon


it's hard for me to explain what draws me to the music of margaret dygas. she has a way of creating slinky, vaguely funky tracks with percussive riffs that are often tense and frustrating, but always crisp. from the piano angst of 'missing you less', to 'country way of life's far-away synth lines, to the bizarro vibes of 'ocbinh's groove' (perhaps the most appropriate title of the six tracks), dygas' self-titled LP for perlon was one of my most listened-to albums of 2011.

9. kangding ray
OR | raster-noton


of kangding ray's three albums, stabil still is my personal favorite - those sounds felt like they were gently pulled from bits of sonic fabric - but it's easy to see how OR is a natural progression for the experimental producer. compared to his delicate, idm-ish forays of yesteryear, there's an underlying strength in OR that is hard to resist. it starts from the beginning with 'athem,' whose muscular low end provides a perfect anchor for some sensual female whispers. while the penultimate 'monster' feels a bit out of place, the warm glitches and sonorous drones of 'leavalia scheme' and 'le belle' finish the journey with one final emotional arch. kangding ray's prior albums have proven him to be an adept storyteller - maybe the best on raster-noton's label roster - and OR continues that trend.

8. moomin
the story about you | smallville


i've heard dismissive opinions (not entirely unjustified) that there's nothing special here, but i love smallville, and i'm a sucker for deep, emotive house music, so the story about you sates both of those desires. it opens on the beach (i think) with some sea-swept sounds and the devices that, for me, set moomin apart from similar artists: the melodies. they shine like no other. sure, there's a bounty of delicious analog percussion to chew on in tracks like 'sundaymoon' and 'you,' but it's the starry-eyed riffs of 'raw like 97' and 'watermelon' that will likely twinkle in your ears long after the final fade-out. moomin's full-length debut is my favorite deep house album of 2011.

7. alva noto
univrs | raster-noton

alva noto

now, let's switch gears back to another raster-noton release. univrs was carsten nicolai's second album this year as alva noto (he produced another with ryuichi sakamoto) and if you were looking for 2011's best album for testing out the frequency response of your speaker system, this would be it. a semblance of accessibility is created in an obvious highlight, 'uni acronym,' which features the robotic voice of anne-james chaton, but contrasted with OR, univrs is a difficult journey. it won't appeal to many, but that doesn't mean it's not worth at least an hour of your time.

6. perc
wicker & steel | perc trax


i'm used to perc's more immediate techno work but the UK producer's debut full-length effort is worthy of plenty of praise. listening front to back, it's a cinematic experience that perfectly realizes the dark, uniquely textured world of sound, especially in centerpiece tracks like 'you saw me' and 'pre-steel,' that's hinted at in the best material offered on perc trax previously. full of low-lying, gothic atmospheres and drums that growl, moan, hiss and collapse, wicker & steel sets a new standard for the artist and the label.

5. echologist
subterranean | steadfast


one for the late nights when the beat blurs too much to matter. i couldn't even really recite more than the title track's name from memory; subterranean just keeps moving, slowly but insistently, and with no kicks. it recalls the more abstract works of basic channel, but does so in a definitively modern way. the album is, essentially, an endlessly modulated series of dub chords, and it is a triumph - easily among the most hypnotic pieces of music i've heard in 2011.

4. xhin
sword | stroboscopic artefacts


i've already said enough about this album. lucy's wordplay for working bees was a strong effort, but it's remarkable how fast music evolves, especially within an open-minded techno label like stroboscopic artefacts. released just eight months after lucy's album, xhin cut even further into the future with the exceptionally lush sword.

3. surgeon
breaking the frame | dynamic tension


a psychedelic masterpiece, surgeon proves with breaking the frame that after more than 15 years in the biz, he's still at the top of his game. even though a lot of these tracks could work on a dancefloor, as an album it's a perfect combination of contrasts, starting with an ambient intro that leads to the hybrid rhythms of 'transparent radiation' and achingly blurry melodies of 'remover of darkness.' the B and C sides of the vinyl version offer up pummeling techno and spaced-out introspection, respectively, while the album's final moments seem to point straight into the cosmos. there's a constant tension between light and dark throughout breaking the frame, and it's easily one of the most emotional techno albums of the year.

2. planetary assault systems
the messenger | ostgut ton


as planetary assault systems, luke slater's affiliation with ostgut ton continues to be a successful one. after releasing 2009's excellent LP temporary suspension, the label has brought the veteran producer to create another PAS masterpiece. compared to the study of contrasts in surgeon's album, the messenger is all about pacing, starting with the ethereal 'railer (further exploration)' and moving into progressively more sinister moods through the cunning, 5/4 techno of 'bell blocker'. 'call from the east' and 'motif' show slater's ability to circle over the dancefloor like a vulture, and 'black tea' ends the album on a typically tough (albeit abrupt) note. it's all put together with a strong, detailed approach to production, and it's further proof that luke slater continues to rank among the world's most exciting techno producers.

1. nuel
trance mutation | further records


sometimes, great things come as a surprise. nuel, often alongside his friend and fellow italian producer donato dozzy, has spent the last few years creating a form of techno that could certainly be described as deep and atmospheric, but the best descriptor might just be organic. nuel's material is simply bursting with warm, earthy textures. with that point made clear, maybe trance mutation shouldn't have been such a surprise for me: while dozzy's full-length K on further was a meditative journey across the realms of ambient techno and downtempo, nuel's effort for the label goes even (ahem) further, eschewing *any* techno sensibilities. as described here, it's a collection of seven songs made over seven days with an emphasis on acoustic instruments, and as an album it stands almost completely removed from its time. if anything, trance mutation recalls the acid-tinged folk albums of the '60s and '70s, with its heavy dose of reverberated, occasionally fuzzy guitars (most favorably for me on 'rhythm') and plenty of uncommon time signatures. when album-closer 'gender' seems to hesitate as it winds things down, you probably won't want it to leave. trance mutation is a wonderful expansion of nuel's sound. it has quickly become a personal favorite, and if it's not one of the best LPs to come out of 2011, it's at least one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

... and that's all folks. happy new year, and i'll be back with more very soon.

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