[END OF YEAR] You Ain’t Heard Nothing Like This: Best Experimental, Minimalist, And Ambient Tracks Of 2014
It was a strange experience. I sat down to finally curate and annotate this list, approaching with some anxiety, as only a few tracks stood out as obvious contenders for inclusion. Would I even be able to identify 20 “best” minimalist, experimental, and ambient tracks of 2014? What would “best” even entail? How could I make a case for some of the more diverse tracks I wanted to include? It became strange in that as my fingers began to depress these keys, I couldn’t record the names and tracks quickly enough, and within a few short moments had far exceeded my alotted quota. Maybe 2014 was a better year for this genre than I immediately remembered? While annotating, this was definitely confirmed: damn, what a year! Such incredible music that will be difficult to best in 2015 (musicians, that’s your challenge!). With a few exceptions, 2014 saw an enriching of already-existing trends, not taking the genre elsewhere as much as showing what more can exist within the confines as we know them right now. That’s not a weakness our a fault in the least bit; rather, it contributes a deeper and more fulfilling elaboration on the current state of electronic music. And that’s always a blast to see.
Before the list, let me explain that this contains the best minimalist, experimental, and ambient tracks of the year. A few tracks included below ask us to question what each of those terms mean. I included them for this very reason: that’s what experimentalism is about. Quite a bit of diversity appears here, with some tracks leaning clearly more toward one of the three terms above. But my goal here was to find tracks as close to the nexus of the three as possible.
20. Ian William Craig – On the Reach of Explanations (A Turn of Breath, Recital)
19. Anjou – Sighting (Anjou, Kranky)
18. Douglas Dare – Nile (Whelm, Erased Tapes)
17. Perfume Genius – No Good (Too Bright, Matador)
16. The Inward Circle – Ancient Arithmetic of the Hand (Nimrod Is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre, Corbel Stone Press)
15. Loscil – In Threes (Sea Island, Kranky)
14. Joseph Curwen – Keziah Mason (Shunned House, Invisible City Records)
13. Bitchin Bajas – Brush (Bitchin Bajas, Drag City)
12. Oren Ambarchi – Quixotism Part 5 (Quixotism, Editions Mego)
11. Gazelle Twin – I Feel Blood (Unflesh, Last Gang Records)
10. Ben Frost – Nolan (Aurora, Bedroom Community)
In the context of this list, Ben Frost’s “Nolan” is by far the most alienated from the rest, and I am able to just barely justify its inclusion – like many of Frost’s tunes, “Nolan” seeks to bludgen you into motivation, not to quietly stir emotions. Frost here seeks to overwhelm and drown you in maximilist composition. Seriously, there must be a dozen separate tracks at any given time in this track. However, “Nolan” embodies an approach to electronic music that rarely peeks its head out in the contemporary electronic scene: it is loud and extreme enough to put you flat on the dirt, and in its blunt confrontationalism lies an experimental creativity that merits inclusion on most any list of best electonic music in 2014. Revisiting this track several months after its original release, I felt a compulsion to create so siezing as to become a single-minded obsession. We need more tracks like this in our lives.
9. Hauschka – Craco (Abandoned City, City Slang Records)
I’m going to sum up Hauschka’s “Craco” with a monologue that doesn’t apply to me, but is what the track seems to say to me: “I’ve been betrayed, deserted, and hurt, but I’m starting to free my reservations toward it, and accept my lot. I’ll be OK. In fact, I’m learning, little by little, to love that about myself and my life. Who wants to be one-dimensional? To not know pain? Kurt Vonnegut once said he would never read a novel written by someone under 25 years old; I don’t share that sentiment, but I do respect and admire the growth that comes out of pain and loss.”
8. Federico Durand – Un Claro del Bosque Iluminado por la Luz de Luna (El Estanque Esmeralda, Spekk)
Upon hearing Federico Durand’s 2014 album El Estanque Esmeralda, I became embarassed that I had not already been deeply in love with his work. Like the rest of the album, “Un Claro del Bosque…” calms deeply and evokes precisely what the title implies it should: peaceful, supine views of a full moon peeking through tree branches, overwhelmed only by the encroachment of the adjacent person on your emotional heartstrings. The instrumentation is lovely enough to draw tears.
7. Kassem Mosse – Untitled (C1) (Workshop 19, Workshop)
On full-length albums, particularly albums interested less in coaxing than in confronting, it’s often the in-between tracks – the interstitial spaces – that generate the most creative uses of (the absence of) sound, distilling an idea to its simplest elements. It’s usually those in-between tracks that catch my attention the most. This track is a good example of that. Drastically different than the rest of the album, Mosse excels at making transition beautiful, a memorable moment that demands multiple returns to the album as a whole. Here, reverbing percussion delivers a nearly pop-worthy melody, but it’s a simple melody that is maximized in its reduction to a single instrument.
6. Fennesz – Bécs (Bécs, Editions Mego)
For such an innovative and masterful composer as Christian Fennesz, his 2014 album Bécs flew under most music critics’ radars. As one can detect on “Bécs”, Fennesz continues to push the boundaries of quiet, ambient electronica. Lush distorted guitars and violins circumnavigate one another, taking shoegaze down 3 or 4 notches while remaining genuninely exciting. Tracks like this are why I love hearing new music: after the last note fades you walk outside newly awakened to the depths and richness and qualities of light. Tracks like this unfold new color in the world.
5. Eliane Radigue – Mouvement 3 (Naldjorlak 1 (Pour Violoncelle), Shiiin)
I’ll go ahead and be honest with readers here: for as long as we both inhabit this planet, for every year she releases an album, she’ll be on my list of best tracks of that year. Single cello that pulses, screeches, wails, and wavers. Radigue has been a master of electronic music for around 50 years now and in this release, by featuring an acoustic instrument, asks us to reconsider what we might consider electronic as opposed to digital, drone as opposed to symphony, and even music as opposed to noise. True artists can do that comfortably, and it would only be condescending to grant that acknowledgement to this patron saint of electronic music.
4. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers (Faith in Strangers, Modern Love)
The cover of Andy Stott’s Faith in Strangers album features an austere sculpted-stone head on display in front of a window overlooking a city. The statue brings to mind some indigenous artwork as well as the ultra-minimalism of Constantin Brancusi. But more importantly, it echoes the minimalism and contrast present in this album, epitomized in the title track. Gentle classic R&B keys underlie simple and complementary vocals and a techno(ish) beat. A charming and alluring track results. “Faith in Strangers” is versatile and ineresting enough to stand its ground in a party, in an office, or on your phone while watching out a 747 window a nighttime cityscape descent. This track can be on repeat for days.
3. Steve Hauschildt – Watertowers (Air Texture Volume 4, Air Texture)
Dreamy, soothing, pulsing, flitting, complex, hopeful, ephemeral – this is one of those tracks that mysteriously speaks to everyone, but speaks differently for each person. You easily write your own biography into this track, picking up on different narratives depending on where you’re coming from. That’s a quality that’s difficult to nail down in a single track, but Hauschildt accomplishes it here through subtlety and finesse instead of the heavy-handed expressionism that would have affected oppositely. It’s worth noting that the collection “Watertowers” commences, Air Textures Volume IV, although a stellar release in its own Hauschildt-curated right, seems to play catch-up with the superb opener. That’s not a lack of the rest of the tracks, just a statement about how deeply moving “Watertowers” is as a singular entity.
2. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Atomos VII (Atomos, Erased Tapes)
Atomos, the long-awaited follow-up to AWVFTS’s eponymous 2011 release not only lived up to the built-up expectations, it laughed at us for our anxieties that Atomos might not surpass it. Every stellar track buttresses “Atomos VII” (strangely, track #6), which features their classic beautiful string composition with bubbling electronic bass-cello beat about 3/4 through the track. The track marks a shift in the album, from quiet introspective meditation to a gaze across musical spectra for the remainder of the album. Atomos VII balances contemporary classical with glimpses at a fundamentally electronic aesthetic, a rarity in its perfect execution.
1. Actress – Our (Ghettoville, Werk Discs and Ninja Tune)
There’s no doubt that Actress released the best album of the year, and choosing a best track from this album is an exercise in close reading/listening. I appreciate quiet, minimalist tunes that still somehow manage to squeeze in a memorable melody; here Darren Cunningham — under his moniker Actress — manages to master both these while challenging us with sounds we’ve never heard in this context. Actress throughout this album, exemplified on this track, tells us he doesn’t really care if we like the way he makes music, because he’s going to continue on his track and bring us along on his terms only. (Luckily for him and for us, Actress’s music constitutes a phenomenal listening experience) On “Our”, gentle, crystal-clear reverbing melodies overly independently-thinking beats, but the real stand-out here, which makes this track unmistakably the genius of Actress, is the electric waves of static and rattling. These waves provide sonic grounding to propel you from one note to the next. In the dilapidated parlance of our times, “this”.