It’s that time of the year again, and as always the ‘Best Of’ lists for 2011 were flying in thick and fast pretty much since the start of December. The critics’ consensus and Let England Shake aside though, there has unsurprisingly been a pretty large omission of ambient and drone albums at the top of the standings. Hopefully this review will serve to shed some light on some of these records which have been so criminally overlooked as well as give some greater credit to the ones that did manage to make it onto the end of year lists.

10. Blanck Mass – Blanck Mass [Rock Action]
Ben Powers’ debut album takes a more freeform musical direction but one no less apocalyptic and dystopian than his better-known project Fuck Buttons. The relentless 4/4 beats are dropped and the space opened up is filled with choruses of heavily arpeggiated synths, cataclysmic drones and sparsely reverberating skeletal percussion. Working solo means Powers has arguably delivered a more varied palette of music overall, from the experimental dabblings of ‘Fuckers’ to the full on thirteen minute freak-out ‘What You Know’. For all its quirkiness, however, there is a constant and tangible sense of euphoria throughout. If Fuck Buttons is music for the end of the world, Blanck Mass is the soundtrack to its rebirth.
Blanck Mass – Land Disasters by theQuietus

9.Kyle Bobby Dunn – Ways of Meaning [Desire Path]
Ways of Meaning marks a watershed moment for Kyle Bobby Dunn’s career, a move away from the sprawling, experimental discography of his youth to a more concise and inviting full length. Not that he’s completely abandoned the previous stylistics of his work, but now there is a conscious thought behind actually making an album rather than simply sporadic collections of songs. Even at fifteen minutes long the playfully titled ‘Movement for the Completely Fucked’ remains soft and airy as it glides quietly along across a spectrum of interspersed glacial drones. KBD might be getting older, but thankfully he’s not settling down into a comfortable mid-career maturity any time soon.
Kyle Bobby Dunn – Ways of Meaning (album preview) by experimedia

8. Sleepingdog – With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields [Gizeh]
With Our Heads in the Clouds… is perhaps not the purest of ambient records released last year, the soft background drones blended with the arrangements and lush vocal melodies of orchestral pop in equal measure. But there is no denying the ambience in mood and feeling that Chantal Acda manages to instil across these eight tracks in spite of this fusion. Everything from the electro-acoustic strums to the simple piano riffs and softly spoken lyrics maintains a stable and soothing rhythmicity, the most noticeable shifts coming only when her voice breaks above an unassuming whisper. What Sleepingdog has achieved is a calm yet stimulating rethink about the composition of ambient music, and that can only be a positive thing.
Polish love song (edit) by adambryanbaumwiltzie

7. Peter Broderick – Music for Confluence [Erased Tapes]
In geography a confluence is a coming together of two rivers, and although here it refers to a documentary film, Broderick’s third score for Erased Tapes no less appropriately coalesces all the elements of his previous work into his most complete and successful LP. The terse beauty and cohesion of Music For Falling From Trees; the eerie melancholy of Float; the delicate wispy vocals of How They Are; all in a piece long enough to not leave you feel like you’re being frustratingly teased into waiting to hear the next instalment. If you’re new to Peter Broderick you could do a lot worse than start here.
Peter Broderick – It wasn’t a deer skull by elafini

6. Mark McGuire – Get Lost [Editions Mego]
It may be a clichéd thing to say, but Get Lost proves more often than not to be a perfect summation of the listening experience one takes with Mark McGuire’s latest offering. Indeed almost half the album is spent immersed in closer ‘Firefly Constellations’ – a dizzying yet glorious climax of aquatic-like burbles, improv guitar and sweet, melodic piano. Get Lost is that rarity of a record that remains relevant all year round, whether it be woozy and psychedelic in the summer or vast and comforting for the cold months ahead.
Mark McGuire / Get Lost (PDIP-6521) by pdis_inpartmaint

5. Geotic – Mend [Self Released]
Overshadowed perhaps by Will Wiesenfeld’s better-known Baths project, Geotic’s Mend was quietly released online for free within days of 2011. Certainly it has the feel of a DIY bedroom endeavour; fourteen snippets of lo-fi ambience with loose, breezy guitar loops and no shortage of background fuzz. Understated in appearance it may be, Mend’s composition is not to be undermined. Everything is precise and well arranged; nothing feels out of place or overworked, while the barrage of riffs exhibits an exemplary keenness for pop sensibilities. Then again, what else would we expect from the man who gave us Cerulean the year before.
Geotic – Unwind by VHSLove

4. Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere [Fat Cat]
It isn’t surprising to learn that LA native O’Halloran has spent considerable time in Italy and Germany, his classical ambient work moulded in the same vein as Europeans like Nils Frahm and Ludovico Einaudi. From the opening surge of ‘A Great Divide’ which quickly retreats into twinkling glockenspiel and back to sweeping strings, Lumiere is constantly ebbing and flowing, never giving full bent to any one particular sound or emotion but remaining tense and unpredictable. ‘Fragile N.4’ is somewhat an anomaly, rich with triumphant crescendos and perpetual optimism that begins to reflect the album’s title, but Lumiere as a whole is an album that requires a keen and attentive listen, and it duly rewards you when you do.
7 Fragile N.4 by Dustinohalloran

3. Grouper – A I A: Alien Observer / Dream Loss [Yellowelectric]
Based on 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up A Hill you would think Grouper aka Liz Harris was preparing to finally move out of the thick haze of her debut Way Their Crept. Double album A I A eradicates that notion entirely, dragging you back into an environment where Harris’ reverb drenched guitar swirls into vaporous, murky drone. The sweet melodies that characterised the likes of ‘Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping’ haven’t been lost, and in fact they might even be more prominent, but only occasionally like in ‘Alien Observer’ do they manifest themselves as actual vocals. For the majority of the time her voice stays weightless and obscure, tantalising as it sings words always just out of audible reach. It’s a formula that keeps you coming back for more.
Grouper – Alien Observer by felix-5

2. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – A Winged Victory for the Sullen [Erased Tapes/Kranky]
Dustin O’Halloran clearly wasn’t content with just making one great record this year. Teaming up with Stars of the Lid member Adam Wiltzie to record a second, the result is not so much a compromise as a perfect harmony of the two men’s styles. O’Halloran’s piano retains its sparse poignancy, but it is played with new-found force and solidity. Likewise Wiltzie’s stringed drones are not so dense and unyielding, but they are no less full and expansive. In short it’s a record that delivers with such aplomb due in no small part to the understanding and harmony that clearly exists between the two, and as such it succeeds – as was intended – both as a beautiful album and memorial for Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous.
A Symphony Pathetique – A Winged Victory For The Sullen by bshwedel

1. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972 [Kranky]
Tim Hecker has unfortunately become somewhat of a Bon Iver figure this year in that, like the Wisconsin cabin, everyone seems insistent on focusing primarily on the cultural back-story to Ravedeath. There’s a lot more to it though than just that. Like most of Hecker’s work it thrives on unity, flowing as a continuous piece engulfing the listener ever more as it progresses. But whereas Harmony in Ultraviolet induced images of colour and light Ravedeath occupies the dark, and not just through its bleak, monochromatic cover. From the outset it’s filled with crunching and angular oscillations and drones, creating songs which are simultaneously abrasive whilst oddly gratifying. With the piano drop theme and the idyllic moving to rural Iceland to record in a church all aside it’s an album that deserves to be taken at greater face value for what it is – fifty-two minutes of powerful and evocative ambient drone.
Tim Hecker – Studio Suicide by alexandroid

So what can we expect from ambient music in 2012? Ghostly International – despite not featuring in the top ten – have nevertheless had a pretty strong year with releases from Jacaszek, Tycho and The Dead Texan’s Christina Vantzou all making a mark, and their brilliant new SMM compilation series which unveiled in March with Context is set to become an annual and no doubt highly anticipated feature of the label’s release schedule.

On the artists themselves Texan drone specialists Stars of the Lid are well overdue an LP appearance: barring Brian McBride’s The Effective Disconnect of last year and A Winged Victory for the Sullen the band haven’t released a full length together since 2007’s And Their Refinement of the Decline. Elsewhere no-one would bet against Mark McGuire’s prolific recording output to continue (although whether that means Emeralds gets back off the ground again is another matter). Blanck Mass is hopefully a precursor to a 2012 Fuck Buttons effort, while ambient post-rock luminaries Hammock have so far never had more than a two year gap between records. Here’s hoping.

One release that is already concrete is Windy & Carl’s We Will Always Be, forthcoming on February 13th through Kranky. Additionally the Hollie and Keith Kenniff (aka Helios) collaboration A Deep and Dreamless Sleep it yet to make an appearance despite being slated for a late 2011 release. It’s obviously far too early to tell, but both add weight to the prediction that it will more likely be duos that rule the roost in 2012 in contrast to my top 10 of this year which is almost entirely dominated by solo projects. Until then though (if you haven’t done so already) go and listen to the Tim Hecker magnum opus that is Ravedeath, 1972, my #1 ambient album of 2011.

Related posts: