15. William Basinski - Vivian & Ondine
William Basinski is one of the most adept composers to work with a writing process that in less skillful hands leads only to tedium: the tape loop piece. His best known works, the Disintegration Loops, explore the phenomenon of slow decay, as elegant orchestral passages on antiquated magnetic tape repeat over and over, each time losing sonic data as bits of the tape flake off. This newest work, Vivian & Ondine, is at the same time more subtle and more directly engaging than those prior masterpieces, making it one of his very best recordings.
At low volume or on speakers that can't provide much detail, Vivian & Ondine plays out much like Basinski's El Camino Real (2007). A neo-Classical theme of magisterial, sublime beauty is repeated again and again. The loop is short, only a handful of seconds, but it possesses timelessness - as one might experience from the iteration of a mantra, hearing the loop indefinitely causes moments just prior to or beyond the present one to take on an identical quality. Unlike El Camino Real, which is beautiful in a coldly austere and uninhabitable sense, the repeating theme of Vivian & Ondine is warmly reassuring and comfortable, like an infinite series of slow rolling waves in a tropical sea. If there really is anything to the healing power of music (which anecdotal evidence has suggested for centuries), this music has that to the fullest.
But beneath the surface of the aqueous main theme is a world of activity, as any pair of headphones will reveal when you listen to Vivian & Ondine in a very quiet room. Basinski compiled a collection of additional short loops, including gently percussive crackles and pops, delicate scrapes against guitar strings, siren-like chimes, and melodic and textural embellishments of the main theme. All the while the main theme repeats, Basinski adjusts which of these auxiliary loops is playing and how loudly (they are always kept low in the mix). Therefore Vivian & Ondine is much more than a simple tape loop composition, in fact having a generous live performance element; this recording was made live in one take in Basinski's studio in Los Angeles. Monumentally beautiful and full of details to discover for many, many listens.
14. Taylor Deupree - Shoals
I've had relatively less time to digest this album than the other ones this high on my list, but I could tell from the first 30 seconds of my first listen to it that it's special. Taylor Deupree - ambient artist, photographer, software designer and head of the consistently great label 12k Records - was given a pretty much ideal situation to make this album. He was afforded the full resources of the University of York Music Research Center, which presumably means he was allowed to use top equipment to make anything at all he could reasonably envision. When presented with such a multiplicity of options, an artist is often wise to set up some strict creative limitations to work within, which is what Deupree did: all of the sounds comprising Shoals are digitally enhanced recordings of Balinese and Javanese gamelan instruments.
With this stringent compositional decision in place, it's wondrous how much the album sounds like somebody placed a very tiny microphone in a natural setting, admist dripping branches, chattering insects, snapping twigs, distant bird cries, clattering rocks and rotting tree trunks. The lovely cover photograph and titles such as "Shoals", "Rusted Oak", and "Falls Touching Grasses" enforce this overall naturalistic aesthetic, and like habitats, the songs evolve, slowly, continuously, and organically. However, now and again sounds intrude that are clearly electronic and processed (especially on the more ambiguously titled "A Fading Found"), thwarting any attempt to categorize this as one of those sounds-of-nature ambient albums. In reality Shoals is a complex electroacoustic work, beautifully juggling sounds of polar opposite qualities - wood/metal, transient/stable, warm/cool, natural/fabricated - and contemplating the sole source of all those sounds richly deepens the experience.
In terms of Brian Eno's criteria for effective ambient music (that it should be as ignorable as it is engaging), Shoals strikes an almost perfect middle ground, but more often than not ends up being too engaging to ignore (certainly not a strike against it). Although there are not really any discernible melodies or harmonic progressions to hold on to, its diverse array of lush timbres and textures makes Shoals one compelling listen.
13. Chubby Wolf - Ornitheology
Here we go - another lengthy excursion into finely honed yet totally unabashed beauty. Chubby Wolf was the moniker of the late Danielle Baquet-Long for her solo releases, and this long two-sided cassette was only her third such work to see the light of day, after L'Histoire and the EP Meandering Pupa. I recommend all of my readers check out this detailed, heartfelt and difficult to follow up review over at 5 Against 4, which blog declared Ornitheology to be the best album of 2010. It's a big claim that I have no intention of trying to refute, as the album is indubitably flawless. Why it only landed at #13 on my list, well, quite a lot of music came out last year that to my ears is in a neighborhood of as 'good as it gets'; I've had some real hair splitting to do in numbering these Best 15, and basically I regard them all as essential.
Back to the actual reviewing. The two album-long tracks here are "On Burnt, Gauzed Wings" and "Phantasmagoria Of Nothingness (Prey To Our Emotions)". These are accompanied by the following poem, written by Danielle and printed in the cassette case insert: "You glue wings to / my ideas about love; / Though, / There is something in / the way they take flight, / spin and begird, / returning again / in the manner of flocks / that suggests / they sprouted manifestly." Combined with the dedication "To my Will", the message couldn't be more clear: this music is a direct distillation of love to sound waves. If it all sounds a little sentimental, it should. This is Romanticism with a capital R at its very finest, stripping away the intellect, the ego, and leaving only feeling. That pure feeling is presented with a raw intensity that has been matched only on albums by Celer (I'm thinking especially of Engaged Touches, Mane Blooms and I Love You So Much I Can't Even Title This).
Superficially speaking Ornitheology operates in the classic long-form Celer style, and many of the remarks I made about their albums Cursory Asperses and In Escaping Lakes, particularly about their use of through-composition and very slow change, apply equally well to this album. There are notable differences, however. Both tracks on Ornitheology use fairly restricted palettes, so they really sound like single long pieces, rather than ten or more short pieces with inaudible boundaries. The variations they undergo are intensional rather than extensional - different arrangements of consonance, dissonance, and dynamics are ceaselessly juxtaposed without conventional development or a sense of direction. The effect is somewhat like wandering through a very small and confining labyrinth in which the walls shift their configuration, constantly giving you slightly different views of the same central abstract object, namely, unwavering devotion. Immersing oneself in this feeling for fully 80 minutes is challenging, bracing, and ultimately affirming as it requires mustering quite a bit of devotion in itself.
It's a happy fact indeed that most Chubby Wolf albums have yet to be released, as we almost surely have additional gems to look forward to. Ornitheology is the brightest thus far.
12. Brother Raven - Diving into the Pineapple Portal
It's a bit difficult for me to explain why I like this short, quirkily-titled album quite so much, but a starting point is that my first listen to the opening track gave me a similar feeling as when I first heard the original recording of Terry Riley's "A Rainbow In Curved Air". What these pieces have in common includes a reliance on overlapping textures of short synth pitches, energetically and buoyantly repeating, with certain melodic lines using different echo periods, so that a thick, polyrhythmic construction results. Both of these pieces also work within a certain dreamy, laid back and positive vibe I associate with the 70s and psychedelics. Influences on Brother Raven, a synth-based duo from Seattle, WA, seem to include Kraut rock and/or so-called "kosmische" groups of the late 60s to 70s, more modern dream pop bands, and to somewhat less of an extent, contemporary electronica/glitch.
For all their experimenting with strange noises, the accessible melodic element to their music is always foremost, and there is also a strong rhythmic component to all of the tracks. "Diving Into The Pineapple Portal", the opening, longest and best track, settles into a joyful groove based on quintuple-time while duplets and triplets bubble about and compete for your attention. "Speaking Whale From My Sea Canoe" emphasizes sustained drone tones, appropriately enough, but it also features a background ostinato in a quick seven-time. Odd metric divisions like this are unusual for this kind of music, effectively anchoring the somewhat noodly melodies without giving the pieces a rhythmically boxed in and constrained feel. The closer "Happy Astronaut" utilizes this component best - I just can't count out how that track works for the life of me, yet it clearly has 'bars' and could be given a definite (if completely artificial) time signature. Brother Raven are doing very fresh things on various technical levels, but most of all their sound exudes playfulness, naiveté and a lack of pretense. Diving Into The Pineapple Portal is the album on my list which most sounds like it was created by benevolent aliens.
11. Chihei Hatakeyama - A Long Journey
This album snuck up on me and blew me away. Chihei Hatakeyama is a prolific musician with about ten albums out since 2006, most of which appeared in the last two years. He is a true musical Impressionist, with highly visually descriptive titles such as "The Moon Reflecting on the Surface of the Ocean" bestowed upon nearly every track he records. A Long Journey probably refers to Chihei's own artistic path, which always seems concerned with recreating lost places, moments or feelings. The album is fairly brief at 34 minutes and passes by as a series of ten vignettes, all nostalgic in character and seamlessly blending recognizable instrumentation (guitar, piano, bell tones) with abstract drone material derived from thereof with a laptop. The majority of the tracks feature direct melodies and chord changes to follow, and very earnest ones at that, giving them the feeling of something closer to 'songs' than 'ambient compositions' (though the distinction is only one of vague connotation). Many though not all of the tracks also feature anecdotal field recordings, always to illustrate, as on "Within New Trees" which includes families chatting in Japanese, leaves in the wind, gentle wooden knocks, and a squeaking swing, among other events. The most impressive of the field recording heavy tracks is "The Distant Sound of a Bustle", which effectively summarizes in four and a half minutes what Celer's Generic City is all about (not at all to say Generic City is any less valuable), and which finally forced me to find myself a new direction/format to work in for my own music, because this guy is just too good at this stuff. Hats off! If the late Luc Ferrari's then-unprecedented Presque Rien ou le lever du Jour au Bord de la Mer was musical photography, Chihei Hatakeyama is a master musical videographer.* The closing track "The Dance of The Sea" features field recordings alone, of light rain on the ocean, a boom of thunder, heavier rain, a chiming bell calling in children at play, more thunder, and a sudden crescendo of excited bugs. This ending is somewhat abrupt, though it does successfully get across a sense that ordinary, day to day events often regarded as mundane are in fact precious and beautiful from another angle, and that these qualities are encoded in their associated sounds. Although I haven't yet heard the definitive Chihei Hatakeyama album, A Long Journey stands out in maturity and variety, and has some of his individually strongest tracks to date.
*I don't seriously intend to compare the quality of these two great artists with this metaphor.
Top 10 coming who knows when!