This column is studiously avoiding all references to Mayans, apocalypses and other portentous 2012-related imagery, but for whatever reason, 2012 has been a fucking mental year for both your correspondent and pretty much everyone he’s ever met. It’s been a strange year in terms of culture, too — with all possible caveats about the difficulty of evaluating situations while you’re still in them, it seems to get harder every year to define coherent trends and directions and… well, “scenes”, for want of a better word, both in music and in culture generally. This is due largely to the fact that the volume of culture we consume and to which we’re exposed seems to increase every year.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course — having access to a wealth of culture is a pretty awesome thing, particularly if you’re old enough to remember slogging up to the newsagent to see if the latest month-old NME was in stock yet so you could find out what was happening on the other side of the world. Your correspondent has little time for reactionary mumblings about the short attention span of today’s always-on generation and other such post-millennial angst — as far as I’m concerned, we’ve never had it so good, and it’s a pretty exciting time to be alive if you’re a fan of music and/or creative pursuits in general.
With all that said, I’ve found myself appreciating a certain sense of stillness in the music I’ve listened to this year. With the exception of thoroughly awesome but very un-serene records by Swans, Liars and Scott Walker, most of the music that’s ended up on NY Conversation‘s iPod this year has been of an ambient/atmospheric bent, music that connects on an emotional level without demanding one’s attention the same way that having an angry dude shouting in one’s ear does.
Happily, this has been a good year for such music. My favorite record in this genre is by Brooklyn producer Jakub Alexander, who goes by the stage name Heathered Pearls and produced one of the very best records of the year in his debut full-length LP Loyal. The knock on ambient as a genre is that it often eschews melody for atmospherics, as if the two were mutually exclusive — Loyal, by contrast, embraces both ideas and weaves them together into songs that are as pretty as they are immersive. This column interviewed Alexander around the time of Loyal‘s release, and he described the record as ultimately a functional piece of work: “I really wanted to write stuff that people could be calm to.” It’s certainly a record that’s gotten NY Conversation through some difficult times this year, and if your year has been similarly dramatic, you could do a lot worse than looking to Loyal for some much-needed tranquility.
Apart from Loyal, there’ve been beautiful records in a similar vein from Motion Sickness of Time Travel — who released her third killer record in the space of two years with her epic self-titled four-track LP — along with Billow Observatory, Icelandic wunderkind and talent-to-watch Úlfur, Grouper/Tiny Vipers collaboration Mirroring, Montreal instrumentalist and Grimes collaborator d’Eon (whose Music for Keyboards Vol 1 basically sounds like Fripp and Eno without the Fripp bits), genre overlord Brian Eno, and our very own Children of the Wave. And, of course, there’s also the swanky deluxe reissue of William Basinski‘s enduring masterpiece The Disintegration Loops, which only sounds more remarkable today than it did when it was released a decade ago.
Some of these albums are entirely ambient (Eno’s LUX, for instance) and others are more song-based (Children of the Wave, in particular), but they all share a sense of transportive beauty, the ability to somehow make quotidian concerns melt away into nothingness. If only dealing with such concerns in real life was so easy.
Beyond the world of ambient music, you’ve probably read more than enough end-of-year lists already, and you’ll be able to read mine in our end-of-year issue (spoiler: the answer is Swans), but there are a few thoroughly overlooked releases I’m gonna take the opportunity to rave briefly about in my remaining 50 words — Woods‘ beautiful psy-folk opus Bend Beyond, the fascinating proto-electronic soul compilation Personal Space, John Cale‘s appallingly-titled but unfairly overlooked Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, the beautiful recently uncovered Karen Dalton tapes issued under the name 1966, and Gudrun Gut covering Tina Turner on Wildlife. Until next year, gentle readers!