Well here we are again, HearFeel’s fifth end-of-year list. Firstly I feel that I should apologise: despite the fact that 2016 felt like the year to end all years I still managed to average at least one post per week and 2017 has fallen quite short of that. I have never posted as little as I have through this year and I’m sorry. Creative droughts and new work commitments that took me too long to adjust to have meant that I’m only just coming round to getting that boost into enthusiasm to write. That being said, I have still been keeping up with a decent amount of listening behind the scenes so I’m still able to present you a list of great music despite everything.
An interesting collection of records I have for you as well, certainly one of the more eclectic lists for a few years. To compensate for the socio-political turmoil that faces us as every turn, it seems that creators everywhere have been working hard, whether that be to echo and add to the commentary or to zone it out entirely. This is happening across all genres, though in an interesting turn it seems that Ambient musicians are now beginning to make more pointed statements in their art than ever before. A few outliers have certainly been doing this for a number of years, but the prevalence has escalated as the genre has grown in popularity and scope. You won’t find too much political churning in this list besides the odd couple, but it’s worth pointing out since it seems to be a motivating factor in rebellious art right now; 2017 has been a good year for content all round, let’s hope it continues even if/when things begin to simmer down.
As always thank you all for the support over the last 12 months, to the kind people new and old who send me music and read my material. I hope to see you all in the new year with lots more content! As always, reviews (where applicable) are linked in the album titles listed below, selected tracks from the records are linked beneath, and now Bandcamp/purchase pages are included. Enjoy!
Opening piece “John Doe’s Carnival of Error” impersonates current world affairs to a tee: an off-puttingly bright, dystopian carousel moving slightly too quickly, a miserable circus of sentiment that’s about as outdated and clownish as the real thing. World Eater is a punishing and occasionally satirical swipe at the whole deluded, ignorant elite that only ever seem to get greedier. This is a pretty dense and occasionally aggressive affair, but it plays its hand well and is an extremely mature record from a seasoned musician at the top of his solo game. Strap yourselves in for some serious catharsis on this one.
Listen: The Rat
Purchase on his Bandcamp
I didn’t want to push the political commentary too hard but it’s tough when the best content from the year just happens to align itself that way. The Shameless Years is a very different product to the #1 spot though; rather than rally and scream and feel the torment, it moves with a deepening sense of resignation and weariness in the state of the world at large. It croons and grieves in characteristic Irisarri guitar bending fashion, and collaborator Siavash Amini brings further insurmountable darkness towards the close. Cinematically disaffected.
Listen: RH Negative
Purchase on Umor Rex’s Bandcamp
3. Karine Polwart – A Pocket of Wind Resistance
I don’t wish to sound overdramatic but A Pocket of Wind Resistance may be one of the best sung and spoken-word records I’ve heard in a very long time. Somewhere between a Folk record and musical essay, Karine effortlessly weaves multiple narrative plotlines into a seamless record that touches on moors, childbirth and allegorical geese and moss, and beyond. This is a really lovely and extremely thoughtful record with staggering depth, a very competitive record within the top 3.
Listen: Sphagnum Mass for a Dead Queen
Purchase at Hudson Records
4. Bicep – Bicep
Before Ambient there was Electronic for me; Trance, House, IDM, these were my starting blocks before venturing out into more diverse musical territory. They still call home sometimes though, and in the deep cuts of Bicep I’ve managed to find something of a compromise. Teetering into ambience these old school beats with their fresh production have made for some pretty great listening this year; no hidden agendas, no bullshit, just great tunes.
Purchase on their Bandcamp
Anyone who knows me or has been following HearFeel for any length of time knows of my admiration for Jeff McIlwain’s Lusine project. Seeing this in the top 5 should come as no surprise, though for me this last in an unofficial trilogy doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessors. His push for more vocals is excellent, however, and his endlessly textured pieces are as rich and as crisp as always; A Certain Distance finally appears to have a resolution and it’s a thankfully satisfying one.
Listen: The Level
Purchase at the Ghostly Store
6. FOUDRE! – Earth
FOUDRE! is something of a Dark Ambient supergroup, with the likes of Saaad, Frederic Oberland, Christine Ott and Paul Regimbeau (Mondkopf) combining here to create a live soundtrack to an experimental film, and the result is mesmerising. Minutes just seem to disappear into its void, time lost to its slinking, bleak drone lows, wild electroacoustic flickerings and destructive synth peaks. Cinematic in the truest sense, and rightly so; truly great work that exceeds the constraints of its associated visuals.
Purchase at their Bandcamp
7. Julie Fowlis – alterum
Another long running favourite of mine, Julie Fowlis sings predominantly in Scottish Gaelic, her sweet Folk songs transcending language barriers. Much of the more energetic jigs and mouth music of previous records has been stripped away however and, with the introduction of English pieces here, alterum is a rather different production than expected. The change is welcome though, and this more haunting album is a gentle reminder of Gaelic’s fragility and importance as a language.
Purchase at her website
Last year Mikael’s gorgeous EP Intentions and Variations received a special commendation on my end of year list and I’m very glad to say that his latest record has found a place on the list proper, and top 10 no less. This definitely has a more lo-fi vibe, is a little less painterly and a little more drawn out, but it’s still very poetic and luxurious in presentation. There’s a real sense of mixed perspectives here as each piece carves out its own little angle on the world in rich electroacoustic deliberation.
Listen: Topology of Clouds
Purchase at his Bandcamp
A crushing record, Markland charts the journey of Norse explorers on the coasts of Greenland and Canada, though rather than being momentous and jubilant it’s wracked with fear and doubt. True discovery is terse and those unforgiving foreign shores are beset with menace and punishment, the lengthy guitar drones often summoning The Ballasted Orchestra reminiscences when you’re not staring into the abyss. Edge of the seat listening.
Listen: Ostara’s Return
Purchase at their Bandcamp
Flowers are the focus of Jacaszek’s buzzing KWIATY, filled with complex fragrant airs that lose the listener in fractal descents of electroacoustic reverie. Ethereal vocals that flit between Polish and English add a further layer of mulch to a number of pieces here, often giving tracks an increasingly melancholic vibe, the paradox of gifted flowers: all sweetness in themselves, but sad in their gesture. This is a peculiar record but there are some real gems here.
Listen: To Perenna
Purchase from Boomkat
Durand’s music has a timeless, nostalgic feeling, a reminiscence for moments that you’ve never lived almost. The loops are always so fragile and quiet, always carrying a thinned feeling of time and place in their twinkling, shimmering, gauzy strokes. This is a delicate and transportative album that’ll have you yearning for lazy holidays and thoughtful nights.
Listen to: El cascabel de plata
Purchase from 12k
12. Siavash Amini – TAR
For a record that came out in June there certainly isn’t much light to be found here: TAR is as sticky and as suffocating as its namesake, a thick and heaving journey through Amini’s tortured electronica. I couldn’t find the right headspace to ever write this one up, suffice it to say that this is another excellently crafted, emotionally draining beast from Siavash.
Listen: Rivers of Tar
Purchase from Hallow Ground’s Bandcamp
13. Loess – Pocosin
Considering 8 years have passed since Loess’s last full length release, this came as a very welcome surprise. This is a great IDM project and interestingly they have continued to explore their characteristic sound despite their hiatus and the steady decline of IDM’s popularity. Tinged with nature sounds and field records, you’ll find yourself at the dark interface between urbanity and the wider world in this lush record.
Purchase at n5MD’s Bandcamp
This dreamy little number is filled with gorgeous acoustic moments, piano strokes gracing rich drone backfields and counterbalancing more Electronic driven aspects. This is another rather cinematic production as it casts its gaze longingly towards the heavens; I think if you’re looking for a record that captures the essence of Ambient’s purpose and grace, this is it.
Purchase from Home Normal
16. 36 – Black Soma
If there’s one thing I admire the most about 36 it’s his commitment to consistency: his material over the last decade has been iterative and evolving, of course, but always careful to maintain the sonic niche he’s carved out for himself. Recent records/EPs with their space-y themes and big synth vistas have been particularly close-knit and dramatic, though Black Soma looks to be the best of the lot so far. Very evocative.
Listen: Black Future
Purchase from 3six
17. Peter Broderick – All Together Again
The 9 colourfully distinct shapes of the cover reflect the nine pieces of this off-cuts compilation record, a selection of shorter pieces sandwiched by 3 bold, longform tracks. Despite the somewhat eclectic nature of its constituent elements this actually works surprisingly well as a cohesive whole and brings new life to otherwise lonely singles. Some real gems here.
Purchase from Boomkat
18. Forest Swords – Compassion
Whilst not quite as interesting as his 2013 debut Engravings (perhaps due in part to the rise in popularity of this style of music), Compassion‘s tribal and ethnic beats croon with a darkling, foreign lilt. Quite veiled and spectral at times actually, and more rhythmically driven than the debut.
Listen: The Highest Flood
Purchase at his Bandcamp
19. Christopher Willits – Horizon
I don’t have very much to say about Christopher’s latest release except that it is pleasant listening, an Ambient experience that one could compare (loosely, sonically) to Robert Rich’s Somnium efforts. Elongate melodies, hazy synth and guitar drones, soft exterior sounds like a Mediterranean evening; just relax.
Purchase from the Ghostly Store
20. Locust Toybox – Drownscapes
Those familiar with David Firth’s strange Youtube animations over the years will know of his affinity for Aphex Twin, BoC, and other late 90s electronic/IDM music. This latest record very much feels like a homage to that era of sound, strongly echoing the off-kilter and strange machinations he’s known for in its woozy and lo-fi loops. There’s a certain precious naivety here that I seldom feel in music, like a baby exploring the strangeness of the world.
Purchase from Ninja Tune