Here are a handful of records I enjoyed last year.
Yara Asmar – Home Recordings 2018-2021 (Hive Mind Records)
The debut album of the Beirut-based puppeteer/video artist/multi-instrumentalist, built on recordings captured on cassette and mobile phone. These tracks hang on the edge of wakefulness, with the edges of diurnal reality melting into dreamt synthesiser waltzes, the chimes of deconstructed music boxes and accordion wash. Home Recordings resides at that weird periphery of our imaginative abilities, where playful endearment can so easily teeter into something more unsettling.
MIKE – Beware Of The Monkey (10k)
MIKE is a cascade. Of romance, of grief, of grit, swirled into lyrical simultaneity. The synergy between the rapper and producer dj blackpower is really something at this point – the words roll into the funked ballads and become inseparable from them – although the odd gem of a line still juts out. “Tryna find somewhere to bleed in the shark tank”. Gorgeous.
Aleksandra Słyż – A Vibrant Touch (Warm Winters Ltd)
Gigantic severe drones for strings, saxophone and Słyż’s own modular synthesiser. The instruments converge on single notes and hold them until the structure verges on bursting, with marginal pitch misalignments causing the whole thing to throb, with harmonics streaming over the surface like sweat or tears. This feels like the impossibility of absolute romantic unity – bodies pressing together in a bid to become one, hitting the hard boundaries of flesh and irreducible spiritual difference.
Katie Dey – Forever Music (self-released)
These are beautiful, broken electronic songs – the voice cracking, the violin creaking – that try to crush their sadness beneath a veneer of sweetness and social obligation. There’s a huge 00s emo energy at work here. Every song is fabulous (although “Equidistant” just pokes out as a favourite) and I’ve potentially listened to this more than any other record this year.
Eiko Ishibashi – Drive My Car OST (Newhere / Space Shower)
This perfectly encapsulates the gentle, coasting energy of the film; that of passengers silently sinking into the depths of their own psyche on long drives, sent in gentle circles by loops of piano and strings. There’s a lounge jazz energy here – something mundane, idling, everyday – yet the real magic of this score is how Ishibashi inserts a void of sadness at the centre. Technically I’ve only seen the film twice, although listening to this soundtrack vividly revives its every atmospheric shade.
OHYUNG – imagine naked! (NNA Tapes)
One of the most remarkable aspects of Imagine Naked! is how it contrasts to OHYUNG’s previous work. Their first album PROTECTOR centred on brief, furious blasts of experimental rap. This is a two-hour ambient record built on loops and field recordings, with the longest piece reaching 37 minutes. It’s ironic that the track titles ends with exclamation points (each is a line derived from t. tran le’s poem “Vegetalscape”) as this record is anything but punctuative; instead it’s the gradual unfurling of realisation, tracking an ascendent arc from the superficial beauty of the loop’s first instance to the utter heartwrench of its umpteenth manifestation.
Meshuggah – Immutable (Atomic Fire)
This feels like the spiritual successor to Meshuggah’s stint between 2002 and 2005 (Nothing, I, Catch 33). The constituent parts are unequivocally those of a metal band, yet the way these elements are rendered feels thoroughly uncanny, Sisyphean even – the riffs never escape the lower registers, the snare drum slumps dependably onto the third beat of every bar. Could it be that Meshuggah are parodying themselves? Is Immutable, as the title suggests, the reflexive machinations of a band doing the same thing unrelentingly, driven by nothing but existential habit and unable to stop?
Sun Yizhou – Noise Floor (bluescreen)
Becoming acquainted with Sun’s work this year has been one of my primary joys. Among a series of releases that dangle themselves over the boundary between “doing” and “not doing”, this is perhaps the most succinct distillation: the noise floor generated by Sun’s studio equipment, which he theorises might be due to Chinese 50 Hz household AC, or dust inside the mixing board. It is apt to consider this in relation to “noise wall” – if the latter is vertical by virtue of being mindfully constructed from source materials, then the former is horizontal by extending its receptive radius to that which is already present.
Liew Niyomkarn – I Think Of Another Time When You Heard It (Chinabot)
I take this record as a reflection on the tenuous nature of the self – the semantic centre around which fleeting thoughts, deep-set memories and sensory experiences all congregate. Synthesisers sound like they’re both burrowing deeper into field recordings and wriggling away from them. Spoken passages come through the distortion of a battered intercom, emulating the dual-consciousness that arises during self-talk. As per the record title, the runtime is dominated by a sense of displacement, by overlain realities of fraught and questionable congruence.
John Ondolo – Hypnotic Guitar Of John Ondolo (Mississippi Records)
My son loves this record, specifically “Wazazi Musilie”, and as a result I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. Thankfully it’s wonderful so I don’t mind a jot. John Ondolo was born in Tanzania and spent a lot of time recording singles in Kenya during the late 50s and 60s. At the core of his sound is repetition – the melodies are looped until it feels like Ondolo is unable to escape them, like a nail in the tyre of a moving car. They’re catchy and joyous, with rhythms that interlock in the most satisfying way.
NNAMDÏ – Please Have A Seat (Secretly Canadian / Sooper)
I stumbled upon the track “Anti” while browsing Bandcamp and became obsessed for a number of weeks. The track starts on its root chord and then never returns to it, with a piano loop and lethargic trap beat stuck in a state of despondent tension for the rest of its runtime. It turns out the rest of the record is great too and absolutely rife with surprises: there are jaunts into math rock and the odd prog rock firework, lots of goofy lyrics splayed into radiant overdubbed harmonies. Everything coheres thanks to NNAMDÏ’s excellent production job, which is a masterclass in the art of transition and genre hybridisation.
Xhosa Cole – Ibeji (Stoney Lane Records)
Featuring seven percussionists of African descent, Ibeji is a series of duets completed by Cole’s saxophone, interspersed with interview clips taken from extensive conversations with the collaborators. Two themes protrude. The first is the act of questioning – explicit in the interviews that dive into heritage, family, improvisation and education, but also present in the buoyancy and flux of the duets themselves, which retain the sense that they could go absolutely anywhere. The second theme is duality – the album title refers to “twins” in the Yoruba religion of the Yoruba people, and the record constantly encounters references to diasporic double-consciousness, the simultaneous act of listening and performing within improvisation etc. A wonderful and open-ended work.