A look back at some of the most memorable journeys in music taken this year in ambient music with an emphasis on electroacoustic, tape loops, and field recordings. Organic, warm, tactile, often improvisational, but always beautiful – among these albums we find as much decomposition as composition, an embrace of stillness and naturally occurring beauty.
Editors note: Few of the albums presented in these lists fit neatly into a single genre and we would not have it any other way, nor would the artists. The categorizations used here should not distract the reader from the joy of discovery. They are simply a way to organize and present based on my perceptions of compatible listening experiences and I was not above stretching the boundaries and making exceptions to fit in the most music possible.
Josh Mason – Hellified Irie [FET Press]
I fell hard for this album in which the artist distills memories of family and life along the beaches of Florida into an entrancing mix of field recordings, ambient textures and warm surf guitar sounds and then packaged it with an art book containing journal entries and black & white photos. Completely transportive.
Featured track: Album preview
Jeff Stonehouse – Mariners Willow [Listening Mirror]
A pastoral and heartfelt ambient journey in remembrance of the artists mother and the landscape of his youth. Bucolic sounds captured in the field recordings and the comforting repetition of the piano & guitar wrapped in airy, translucent drones are enough to enchant any listener.
Featured track: ‘Mariners Willow’
Masaya Ozaki – Fluid and Dreaming of Stripes [Eilean Rec]
At its most beautiful when a sense of melody emerges such as on the sublime ‘Snowflakes on Fallen Leaves’, but other tracks are so hushed and languid, they feel as much like deep breaths as pieces of music. Demands that the listener slow down and quiet the mind with a sense of serenity and tranquility.
Featured track: ‘Snowflakes on Fallen Leaves’
Mark Lyken & Emma Dove – Mirror Lands [Time Released Sound]
Originally created as a score to their film of the same name, the album form was given a beautiful deluxe treatment by Time Released Sound. A rich and diverse sonic portrait with a real sense of place. Its musical underpinnings eloquently maintain and direct our focus without ever getting in the way of the story that the sounds of Black Isle have to tell.
Featured track: ‘Dirty Gertie No. 30’
Darren McClure – Primary Locations [Dragon’s Eye]
A captivating experiment in the relationship between sound and light and converting wavelengths in the visible light spectrum to audio frequencies in which McClure presents three color coded locations in an immersive weave of field recordings and delicate drones.
Featured track: ‘Yellow (36.233173, 137.963208)
Ruhe – patriarchs [Eilean Rec]
Dedicated by the artist to “all who yearn for rest”. Delicate textures and aura of hushed stillness provide the gentle solace to fulfill that yearning. It weaves its own oneiric web, an autumnal dream that gives refuge far from the madding crowd.
Featured track: ‘towering’
LeBerger – Music for Guitar and Patience [Home Normal]
Inspired by Music for Piano and Patience by Ithaca Trio (a favorite here in 2013), this is a mesmerizing world of “accidental beauty”, a dance of sonic light created with processed and loop sounds generated by the acoustic guitar.
Featured track: ”fgaow-∏wrg’
Taylor Deupree & Marcus Fischer – Twine [12k]
These two originators and masters of delicate electroacoustic ambient sound design renewed their collaboration once again with this created using only two mono tape loops and four acoustic instruments. The warm hiss and haunting melodies are like a quiet siren call to the listener to get lost in the stillness.
Featured track: ”Bell
William Basinski – Cascade [Temporary Residence]
An achingly beautiful piano line looping, decaying, and reforming over the course of 40 minutes. So beautiful it defies monotony and reaches the innermost emotional core of the listener. Truly gorgeous.
Featured track: excerpt
twincities – memoirs: to dust [Unknown Tone]
An exceptionally well crafted sonic memoir documenting “the sound of decay”. Uncompromising and unflinching in its portrayal of the bleakness of the topic, but the delicate passages are redemptive in their beauty.
Featured: track ”a flown bird
the volume settings folder – Folder #05
Never afraid to experiment with concepts or stylistic approaches, M. Beckmann chose an analog and almost completely acoustic approach the fifth installment in his “Folder” series. His warmest and most compelling album yet.
Featured track: ”White Oak’s Patriarchy I’
Spheruleus and Friends – William Barber [Hibernate]
Harry Towell put out several works under his Spheruleus moniker this year, all of them well worth checking out. I particularly enjoyed this record in which the “friends” are fellow Hibernate label artists Isnaj Dui, Antonymes, Fraser McGowan (Caught in the Wake Forever) and Christoph Berg (Field Rotation) as well as label boss Jonathan Lees. A warmly nostalgic mixture of sepia-tinted electracoustic ambient and modern classical elements sparked by Leeds’ discovery of a wax cylinder recorded at a local school dating back to 1906 and featuring the voice of the headmaster who became the album’s namesake.
Featured track: ”For the Salvation of the World.
Ghost and Tape – Shift [Slaapwel]
This album which marks the return of the Slappwel label under new caretaker Stijn Hüwels eases the mind into restful stasis. A lush thicket teeming with warm tape hiss, crackling amps, soothing chimes, and fluidic sounds riding on an a stream of ebbing drones. All these elements are skillfully woven together with tremendous attention to detail and a sense of balance & harmony that is never disrupted.
Featured track: ‘Mueve’
J Butler – Memory [Flaming Pines]
“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”. How can you note love an album that quotes Oliver Sacks in its liner notes? An ode to memory bathed in the crackle and hum of warm amps, acoustic guitars, and other musical ephemera.
Featured track: ‘Memory’
Sokkyō – Long Forgotten Memories [Dauw]
This collaboration by Ciro Berenguer and Heine Christensen (aka Ghost and Tape) is a lovely montage of shimmering, delicate, and peaceful sounds – plucked guitar strings, rushing wind, distant voices, chimes, soft loops and drones – all harmoniously intertwined.
Featured: track ‘Indian Summer’
Caught in the Wake Forever – The Places Where I Worship You [Dronarivm]
A very personal and contemplative offering from Fraser McGowan inspired by a trip to the Isle of Arran in Scotland. Environmental field recordings and manipulations of 78rpm record purchased at a local shop there convey the sense of place amidst a gauzy web of melancholic drones.
Featured track: ‘Often Nowhere’
Danny Clay – ganymede [Hibernate]
Created entirely from the opening bars of a Schubert art song, “Ganymed,” using turntables, found objects, friction noises, lathe-cut records of sine-waves, piano, and music box. ‘im morgenglanze’ and the title track might test the limits of patience and tolerance for abstraction, but they are sonically mesmerizing and the sumptuously delicate ‘glow i – vi’ are worth the price of admission alone.
Featured track: ‘glow vi’
Miguel Isaza – Tempiternidad [Dragon’s Eye]
Created with a laptop and a handheld recorder in the mountains of Antioquia, Colombia is extremely nuanced, this is an album that listens as much as it is listened to, an exquisitely crafted collection that deserves to flow through audiophile quality gear to be fully appreciated.
Featured track: ”Presencia
Ryuichi Sakamoto / Illuha / Taylor Deupree – Perpetual [12k]
An amazing live set for piano, guitar, pump organ, and synthesizers performed at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taylor Deupree and lluha (Corey Fuller and Tomoyoshi Date). How can something improvised sound so cohesive and refined? Four musicians with a common vision, telepathic chemistry, and the restraint to give space to the music and one another.
Sustainer – Radiolas [Room40]
Created from shortwave radio frequencies and some very basic recording equipment while the artist was recovering from a serious health condition, this highly abstract set takes some time listening to acclimate the ear to the harmonic elements, but the effect is mesmerizing and eventually quite soothing once it does.
Featured track: ‘Radio 07’