The 25 best reissues and retrospectives of 2016
From Harry Bertoia’s singing sculptures to Vivien Goldman’s bedsit-punk creations, Mikey IQ Jones picks the very best of the year’s reissues, retrospectives and archival material.
Dear readers, it’s been a while. After an extended and unpleasant health-related sabbatical, I’ve returned to send this cesspool of a year off with as high and complex a cluster of notes as we can collectively conjure.
While I originally took a different approach compiling this list, these last few weeks led me to scrap much of what I’d chosen and instead pick records that more explicitly offer therapeutic benefits to the listener. These 25 platters (plus a few bonus ones for good measure) were made to provide escape and release, to confront and even sometimes heal the damage being thrown at us at the dawn of a new year.
Recovering from my health troubles, I found myself increasingly drawn to extended and sustained sonic environments that envelop the listener and lift (or submerge) them to sanctuary. I craved songs of resistance removed from the cliches of “protest” music, sought seldom-explored and perhaps even newly imagined (vintage) worlds to which I could transport my thoughts and dreams – and sometimes I just wanted to dance the fucking pain away.
There’s a little of all of that here, and as always with this column, numerical rank is less important than making the effort to consume and absorb as much of this music as possible. Whether you binge listen or take your sweet time, all of these are essential to my world in one way or another, and their magic is contagious. Happy listening, freaks. See you on the other side of the annual divide.
25. Sonya Spence
Let’s start things off in a lighthearted style. I’ve always been a sucker for the smooth sounds of lovers rock, that breezy fusion of heartbroken girl group soul with a Jamaican rockers bounce, and Sonya Spence’s 1981 Sings Love has long been a personal favorite. Original copies sell for crazy sums, and while it’s been officially released in Japan (of course), more thrifty vinyl hounds have had to settle for bootleg copies with flawed sound. Give praise and your firstborn lovechild to the fledgling Norwegian label Attic Salt for this official reissue, spread across two LPs for that extra bass bump.
Spence’s honest, pained voice has an almost folky quality to it, blanketed by a lush harmony chorus while the band crafts free soul grooves peppered with smooth horns and a piano that’s often mixed right at the front of the stereo spectrum. It’s a modest record, quiet and tender yet still big on the bounce thanks to Sonia E Pottinger’s spacious production. That Spence was the lone author of all of these songs is also remarkable; the album is from an era when it was almost unheard of for women in reggae to be writing their own material, let alone working behind the boards. Grab the one you hold most dearly and rock to these sweet rhythms.
24. Carl Stone
Electronic Music From The Seventies And Eighties
This trippy 3LP retrospective of early electronic experiments by American composer Carl Stone is a minor revelation in sampled plunderphonia and proto-turntablism, showcasing seven extended works by the man who brought minimalism to the punks and jazzbos at a time when NYC’s avant-garde loft scene was beginning to expand into the reaches of the mainstream media.
Stone’s early works include a pair of Buchla explorations recorded while the artist was studying with Morton Subotnick and James Tenney at CalArts, a series of hypnotic, slowly evolving loops and heavily chopped staccato soundbursts plundered from Asian folk recordings and American soul classics, and some obtuse urban glossolalia seemingly sourced from recordings of automobiles in motion. Freakishly, a great number of these pieces foreshadow the aesthetics mastered to critical acclaim by Leyland Kirby’s V/VM and Caretaker projects, albeit presented in more stretched out, longform structures (and in live performance, to boot).
The Unseen Worlds label has long been a reliable source of notable experimental documents, but this collection stands tall thanks to both its sheer length and the unimpeachable quality of the works within.
23. The Lines
The Lines were a London group who dropped a handful of singles and albums on Red Records before seeming to vanish without a trace. New York label Acute first recontextualized the band’s forgotten legacy back in 2008 with a pair of excellent anthologies, and this year its ended its trilogy of Lines releases – and its own operations – with Hull Down, the band’s “lost” third album.
Recorded circa 1983 and 1984, these tracks are cubist clusters of robotic synthpop and what could almost be considered pop-industrial, contrasting jagged machine rhythms with arid synthscapes and vaporous atmospheres. While The Lines were contemporaries of groups like Wire, Coil, and Depeche Mode, their sound on Hull Down manages to blend those DNA strands, winking in the direction of the post-punk era’s most visceral styles but creating a racket uniquely the band’s own.
Dan Selzer at Acute dusted off the original cassette sessions and “assembled what might have been a third LP,” shining a neon light on a group that should be far better known, exploring sounds that resonate just as powerfully today as they might have back then, particularly in the renaissance of the synthwave and industrial underground scenes. This is essential listening for any synthwave/minimal heads, not to mention anyone who digs the more esoteric and mechanized strains of the art punk scene, and ends Acute’s stellar run on the highest of notes.
2016 enjoyed a splendid, sweaty dip into the sounds of the 1980s French Caribbean, a time when biguine, gwo-ka, and tumbele musics fused with the cosmopolitan synthesized sounds of then-contemporaneous pop and soul, creating an island boogie scene that drove diggers and DJs mad with excitement. Heavenly Sweetness’s Digital Zandoli collects 12 slices of this Carib synth soul culled from a number of rare releases that were almost un-Googleable until now. I only knew three of these cuts going in (and owned two of them prior), so the album proved to be a godsend even for a zouk kook like myself, while being a delectable introduction to the sound for neophytes. Fusing island rhythms with keyboards, jazzy horns, machine beats, and seductive vocals, it’s one of the most humid quiet storms set to wax.
One contributor in particular stands out as the compilation’s aesthetic godfather: Wally Badarou, the keyboard legend best known for his work in the Compass Point All-Stars backing the likes of Grace Jones and Gwen Guthrie. If you’re familiar with his 1984 solo masterpiece Echoes, you’d perhaps be surprised by Back To Scales To-Night, his impossibly rare 1980 solo debut for Barclay. Instead of the moody, neon-hued instrumentals of his most iconic work, Back To Scales showcases Badarou as a hesitant frontman, not only tickling electronic ivories but also singing atop some pretty badass slices of AOR soul. It’s a charming if somewhat awkward debut, not without its flaws but delivering some absolute bangers as well, offering a parallel approach to what Stevie Wonder was exploring with his contemporaneous Hotter Than July album. There are hints of the lush soundscape mastery that was just a few years away for Badarou, while nodding to the post-disco climate shaping much of the island funk scene at the time, including Wally’s own work at Compass Point with Sly & Robbie.
Lastly, 1982’s Syn-Ka by zouk synthesist Claude Rodap is a humid surrealist dreamscape hovering somewhere between cosmic fusion funk and new age drift; uptempo percussion and slithering bass grooves underline layers of synth and electric piano, birthing a strain of tropical prog-zouk that sadly never flourished elsewhere. It’s a bit more openly weird, with some deep grooves and virtuosic playing that walks the tightrope between avant obscurism and dancefloor hedonism. Bust these three bangers out during your coldest winter days of discontent and sweat the pain away in fine style.
Many of you will be familiar with Wolfgang Voigt’s hugely influential Gas project, collected earlier this year in a massive 10LP and 4CD box set on his own Kompakt label. Box delivers a near-comprehensive journey through one of the most influential discographies in minimal and ambient techno, created to bring the calming peace of the forest at dawn into a nightlife netherworld.
Such seemingly new age hippy mysticism can ring disingenuous to the modern urbanite, but Voigt’s recordings as Gas captivated listeners in a way that perhaps none of his myriad other projects ever managed. That he did so with music that was so slow to evolve, so placid in its execution yet nuanced in its detail, was a minor miracle. This is music for deep listening, meant perhaps not to elevate, but to concentrate; loops are plundered from classical dirges and mutated to majestic yet menacing muffled crawls, while kick drums are muted beyond recognition, as though the listener is focusing on their own heartbeat as the lone anchor in a dark and foreboding environment.
With each album spread across three sides of vinyl, augmented by tracks from the Oktember 12″ and Tal90 projects, Box is an intimidating prospect. Yet wandering deep into these Grimm forests is what the music is designed for; either take the work as a whole, or disregard it entirely, for the woods will still be there when you need them.
Chances are you’d not heard of French composer, filmmaker, and pianist Christophe Chassol at the start of the year, but that likely changed after his work with Frank Ocean on Endless and Blonde. As well as providing some minimal piano and keyboard accompaniments to a few of Ocean’s tracks, Chassol released a new album of original music this year and two stunning albums of archival material which seamlessly blend the worlds of minimalist composition, environmental field recording, modern jazz, and even a bit of international folk music.
His records each focus on the sights and sounds of a particular nation or region, and his second album Indiamore, first released on CD in 2013 with an accompanying hour-long film, was finally issued on vinyl for the first time this year via his longtime label Tricatel. Throughout the album, Chassol cuts up and samples his own film travelogue documenting a trip to Calcutta, harmonizing speech loops and building upon musical motifs with piano and orchestral arrangements, but never losing sight of rhythm and dance.
With a background as both filmmaker and composer, scoring horror films and the like, Tricatel also released a second volume of his Ultrascores compilations, collecting film cues, remixes and one-off collaborations alongside reworks of album cuts, making for a perfect double-dose of discovery. Chassol’s music is ideal for those who find themselves drooling over Death Waltz and Waxwork soundtrack reissues, not to mention being inspirational fodder for eager listeners hyped on Frank. Chassol doesn’t sound like any of that music himself, but he’s bringing a vital new strain of creativity to their worlds.
19. José Mauro
There were a number of stellar Brazilian albums that could have been included, but as much as I love Hyldon (covered in a previous column) and Tom Zé (whose Fabrication Defect LP was finally pressed to wax by Luaka Bop, and whose seldom-heard 1984 left-turn Nave Maria — essentially Zé’s own Climate Of Hunter — was reissued via Polysom), this fascinating and often foreboding album had to be the one.
The lone album by a mysterious and promising young talent named José Mauro, recorded and released in 1970 by Forma Records head Roberto Quartin, is one of the most breathtaking and potent albums of post-psychedelic protest music to emerge from the aftermath of the Tropicalist movement. Made during a period after Veloso, Gil, et al burned their allegiances to Brazil’s military dictatorship via handmade fuzzboxes, only to face deportation and exile, yet before Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges dropped the epic masterpiece Clube Da Esquina, Mauro’s extended baroque folk lament is an altogether more despondent and morose statement.
Featuring lush arrangements by leading maestro Lindolfo Gaya and a minimal palette of acoustic strums and harpsichord and autoharp plucks, Mauro burrows firmly into dissidence and defeat, made all the more saddening considering that rumors abound regarding his disappearance. He seems to have vanished entirely without a trace, believed to either have died in a motorbike accident prior to the album’s canceled commercial campaign, or be living in poverty in the favelas of Rio. His fate may remain unconfirmed, but his legacy lives on, and thanks to Far Out Recordings, new generations can discover this stunning, singular work.
18. Various Artists
Boombox: Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro and Disco Rap 1979-82
Soul Jazz has a reputation for top-notch compilations that offer crash courses in styles and genres both beloved and obscure; they are, in essence, the K-Tel of the millennial generation. One of the label’s best releases in 2016 was a lengthy investigation into the sounds of New York City’s early electronic rap productions, featuring a number of rare records that soundtracked breaking competitions and block parties across the five boroughs between 1979 and 1982.
This is the underground rap scene’s early DNA, filled with post-funk bangers played by live bands, maintaining the party roots of the sound’s foundation records but transitioning into a more nuanced and fully arranged presentation. The compilation also demonstrates clear vocal evolutions, with rhymes and deliveries growing increasingly complex – though the lyrical focus is still centered around the party. Instrumentally, there’s a heavy focus on sultry post-disco grooves, with supple, rubbery bass lines and polyrhythmic percussion anchoring synth riffs and drum machine skeletons, foreshadowing the shift into electro’s more aggressive future-shock. Boombox is one of the best Soul Jazz sets in ages, a legitimate party in a box, overflowing with underground deep cuts that have seldom — if ever — been spotted on other collections.
Trevor Jackson threw us all for a loop with the unexpected Previously Unreleased, a mammoth anthology of unheard demos, outtakes, and alternate mixes culled from his years as the mastermind of Playgroup, perhaps one of his most satisfying yet misunderstood projects. Spanning nearly two and a half hours and 26 tracks across either nine 12″ singles or a tidy 2CD set, Previously Unreleased arguably surpasses (or at least supplements) the excellent FORMAT album from last year as Jackson’s most definitive musical statement.
While the eponymous Playgroup album brought collisions of post-punk, hip-house, disco dub, and even a bit of dancehall ragga, this new archival set adds dirty electro breaks, some belching and squelching acid house grinds, and a heaping portion of dub disco and boogie to the floor, making up for some of what the FORMAT set seemed to be missing as a career overview. These are some of Jackson’s dirtiest, most raw and satisfying tracks, and to think – this is what was on the cutting room floor. There are echoes of everything from ESG and Jah Shaka to the Pender Street Steppers and Prince throughout, fusing old and new, clean and filthy, rough and smooth. House heads, minimal synth and post punk jerks, even old-school electro robots are going to find a lot to get freaky with here, and if you dig the likes of Actress, Sotofett and even Theo Parrish, you’re in for one hell of a party.
Vinyl is great, but hearing these all played together via the CD or digi bundles turned out to be one of the best parties I’ve thrown in ages. Jackson remains one of the dance world’s most knowledgable curators; that he’s also this talented at fusing his influences into something so respectful and revelatory is just ridiculous.
16. Various Artists
Sharon Signs To Cherry Red: Independent Women 1979-1985
Kudos to Cherry Red for having the sense to know that this collection was long overdue, and the self-awareness to name it after a song which gleefully mocks their entire early aesthetic. Sharon Signs To Cherry Red: Independent Women 1979-85 is a double-CD compilation (there’s an abridged vinyl version now too) collecting seven years of women in DIY during the peak of post-punk, with everything from scrappy garage and power-pop delights to sullen exercises in that trademark Cherry Red earnestness (which Norwich upstarts The Kamikaze Pilots hilariously send up), with handfuls of dub philosophy and bedsit synth-pop thrown in for good measure.
As well as artists like Dolly Mixture, The Mo-Dettes, Family Fodder, Marine Girls and Vivien Goldman, it’s often the lesser-known groups (who typically only made a single or two before vanishing) who shine most brightly. Key tracks of the era by The Petticoats, The Avocados, Twa Toots, and A Craze feature alongside one-offs that only the most dedicated Messtheticists would recognize. These two discs offer up a sprawling yet vivid portrait of just how revolutionary the DIY post-punk movement was for women in the UK, and while many of these songs definitely show their age, there’s a timelessness to the sentiments that extends from the girl-group era up to the pop present day.
15. Michel Houellebecq
The lone album by infamous French poet and author Michel Houellebecq remains a surprising minor masterpiece, removed from his public follies and misanthropic press-baiting shenanigans. Recorded between 1997 and 1999, when Houellebecq was writing Les Particules Élémentaires, and released in 2000 under the artistic direction and production of Bertrand Burgalat (on his Tricatel label, later home to the Chassol albums also on this list), Présence Humaine features the author reciting selections of his poetry framed in Burgalat’s sleek psych-prog arrangements and occasional splashes of sleek Kraftwerkian robotics.
Easy comparisons can be made to Serge Gainsbourg’s nicotine-stained 1970s monologues, but musically the record owes more to the likes of Leo Ferre’s blistering collaboration with French proggers Zoo, or late-period Nino Ferrer, who also stitched tales of cynical romance and existential dread into musical arrangements indebted to soul, psych-rock, and elegiac organ harmonics. According to Burgalat, the album was a complete ass-ache to record, and the experience was apparently so traumatic for him that he deleted the record and refused to reissue it for years.
In celebration of Tricatel’s 20th anniversary, Burgalat had a change of heart and, for the first time ever, reissued the album on limited vinyl and CD with new sleeve art. The CD edition also includes two bonus tracks featuring Houellebecq’s only other recorded songs — made in collaboration with the esteemed Jean-Claude Vannier, of Melody Nelson and L’Enfant D’Assassin De Mouches infamy. Not long after its release, Houellebecq went on to become an enfant terrible in the literary world, while Burgalat maintained his quiet dignity and turned to Robert Wyatt as his next collaborator. For a brief moment in 2000, though, Houellebecq’s human presence shone through, and this snapshot of that calm before the storm is priceless.
14. The California Playboys
Trying To Become A Millionaire
Long a holy grail among private-press funk and soul collectors, the lone LP by a group of session heavyweights dubbing themselves The California Playboys was self-released in 1976 to little fanfare outside of the local San Francisco scene, where it originally saw release via the Loadstone label. Many of its cuts gained dancefloor traction over the years in the Northern Soul scene, and later on among dusty-fingered private-label soul spelunkers, and for good reason — the LP is stuffed to the gills with deep rhythms, vocal harmonies and percolating Latin and proto-disco beats. Manufactured Recordings managed to track down Playboys guitarist Robert Jacobs (who also arranged the songs), scanned one of his sealed mint archive copies, and beautifully remastered the platter thanks to engineer Jessica Thompson, who regularly works her magic on the Awesome Tapes From Africa catalogue.
Each track here veers into a different zone, continually snapping and stomping (to quote the little footnote hidden on the sleeve: “Disco Sound HOT”) with a robust heart. The musicians have one hell of a pedigree, having played with the likes of Irma Thomas, the Pointer Sisters and Little Johnny Taylor, and that same blend of bluesy boogie soaks into each song. A prime example of a forgotten classic given a new injection of life thanks to thoughtful label patrons.
13. Various Artists
More Better Days
Better Days was an imprint of Nippon Columbia active from the late ‘70s through the mid-1980s which gave voice to a number of talented young musicians and composers getting their start in the jazz and fusion scenes in Japan. The label was a hub for innovation, where artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto planted synthetic zen gardens while saxophonist and composer Yasuaki Shimizu led solo excursions through multiculturalist terrain and brought Mariah together for one last Fourth World masterpiece. Percussionist extraordinaire Pecker explored dub music with the help of some of Jamaica’s top session players, and a collective calling themselves Colored Music hot-wired their jazz-fusion dreams to a proto-house ‘Heartbeat’ to create one of the first true examples of what could be called “future jazz.”
Those are just the examples I’ve covered in past columns. This year, DJ and producer Chee Shimizu, of Japanese balearic groovers Discosession and the Organic Music collective, compiled an illuminating introduction to Better Days for its parent label Nippon Columbia, guaranteed to be your new Balearic audio handbook for months to come. Each of its two CDs (or two double-LP sets) focuses on a theme, the first highlighting the more avant synthwave and song-oriented experiments, the second picking the multiculti jazz, boogie, and fusion-oriented titles. It’s one of the most eclectic yet unified label compilations in ages, and even as someone who has collected the label for over a decade and a half, I’m thankful for Shimizu to have unearthed some rare gems. While not everything on Better Days sparkled with as much magic as these cuts, the compilation focuses on both underground hits and extreme deep cuts, as any worthy compendium should. It’s lovely to see the label finally getting its due, even if it’s inevitably raising the prices of those original pressings!
There’s not a great deal that needs to be said about these albums, I’d imagine — Autechre’s first three albums, given new vinyl pressings by Warp earlier this year, remain cornerstones of FACT’s coverage. And yet somehow, as the duo have continued to contort, crush, and reconfigure their sound over a career now spanning over 25 years – reaching new heights this year with their epic 248-minute opus elseq 1-5 – a return to these more “user-friendly” dispatches reveals a heart that has lately been encased in a near impenetrable shell.
All three albums still display an allegiance to booty-popping electro and break culture, even at their most cubist. While Tri Repetae was arguably the start of both Autechre and Warp’s unstoppable second wave, where machines began to sound as if they were programming themselves, Amber stands as a curious and often straightforwardly “beautiful” album, filled with small flourishes that the duo would quickly discard, never to be heard again. Each of these albums is of considerable importance, so take your pick with where to begin, or simply go for broke and splurge on all three at once. If you’re feeling bold, play them simultaneously.
11. Chris McGregor & Castle Lager Big Band
Jazz / The African Sound
Chris McGregor was a South African pianist, composer, and bandleader who stood alongside Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand as one of the most influential figures in the nation’s rich history of jazz music. His bands The Blue Notes and The Brotherhood Of Breath helped to expand knowledge of the region’s township and kwela styles among British and American listeners, and successfully integrated their styles into more abstract European concepts of free improvisation as practiced by the likes of Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, and Keith Tippett as McGregor’s career progressed. Though his early music has enjoyed a number of retrospective compilations since his death in 1990, McGregor’s full history has seen little love in the vinyl world outside of rare and prohibitively expensive original pressings.
Jazzman did us all a solid this year with their beautiful reissue of McGregor’s 1963 big band classic The African Sound, recorded by The Castle Lager Big Band, a special expanded group featuring members of The Blue Notes as well as an auxiliary gallery of South Africa’s most talented jazz players. The album stands as one of the most important documents of modern African music, but had remained unavailable (legitimately at least) since before apartheid – until this year. Its historical relevance — featuring a politically risky multiracial group, and highlighting compositions solely by South African composers Dollar Brand, saxophonist and clarinet player Kippie Moeketsi, and McGregor himself — is equally matched by the stunning sounds contained within its grooves.
Swinging on a rich bouillabaisse of post-Ellingtonian rhythm and harmony, the album stands the test of time and makes for one of the best jazz reissues of the year, hands down. Put aside your Miles Davis and Mingus LPs for a while and discover the true birth of the cool.
10. Manuel Gottsching
Ah, E2-E4. Ground zero, a record that paved the way for so much of what FACT (not to mention elsewhere) holds true, yet for decades plagued by the sonic limitations of the physical form, until the advent of the CD. Even then, it still sounded like shit for many more years. Guitarist and boffin genius Manuel Göttsching goofed around and essentially invented the next few decades of club music without even intending to get his groove on. Originally intended to be a personal meditative tape for travel, Göttsching has spent the better part of his career after E2-E4‘s 1984 release date making sense of his creation, the same way we continue to revel in its mesmerizing symmetrical beauty.
While an artist-approved, self-released CD and digital edition saw release a few years back, it took an age to get this unintentional behemoth of dancefloor hypnosis properly cut for vinyl fetishists. Praise be to MG for finally pulling off that final checkmate in 2016, as nerds, noobs, and prog rock goons collectively rejoiced.
If you aren’t familiar with the album, marvel at how, after just over half an hour of what seems like an unending cycle of ascending arpeggiations, Göttsching finally and oh-so-tactfully caresses a guitar solo into your brain, in a way that even the most tight-assed detractors can respect and possibly even enjoy. If you’re keeping score, Göttsching recorded the entire thing in one go, solo included, no second takes. This album has been endlessly imitated yet never duplicated, and still sounds like the stairway to heaven rebuilt as a chillwave escalator.
9. Dow Jones + The Industrials
Can’t Stand The Midwest (1979-1981)
The Family Vineyard label’s retrospective of Indiana post-punkers Dow Jones + The Industrials is further evidence of the wry muscle and brainy anxiety so prevalent among the same American Midwest underground that gave rise to bands like Pere Ubu, Devo, and The Embarrassment. The Industrials were a little more raw and aggressive than those groups, though, while possessing just enough of their peers’ obtuse dorkiness to keep things aesthetically unified — their keyboardist and resident synth boffin Brad Garton went on to record as “Mr Science” and is now the director of the Computer Music Center at NYC’s Columbia University.
Can’t Stand The Midwest compiles the band’s scant discography — their side of a split LP, a 7″ EP, assorted compilation tracks, and a smattering of unreleased live cuts — into a set that fuses the barbed-wire spit-gob snottiness of classic garage punk with loads of DIY science-fair splatter and obtuse art-school bleepage, anchoring lyrics that satirize the patriotic pride and nationalist arrogance running rampant just as the Reaganomic Cold War years approached. As we sadly enter another four years of American conservativism, Dow Jones’s hot-wired protest punk sounds, for better or worse, all too relevant again.
8. Michal Turtle
Phantoms Of Dreamland
(Music From Memory)
British-born composer and DIY savant Michal Turtle first resurfaced thanks to a beguiling yet beautiful archival 12″ on Music From Memory in 2015. That masterful single sent crate-diggers into a Discogs frenzy, so thankfully the label followed up with a double album earlier this year, proving to be one of the crown jewels in their catalogue. Phantoms Of Dreamland features more tracks from Turtle’s DIY masterpiece Music From The Livingroom, expanded and augmented by a number of previously unheard cuts from his archives.
Throughout Dreamland‘s 15 tracks, Turtle takes the Fourth World exotica owned by the likes of Jon Hassell and casts it skyward, seeding its surrealist jungles with pastel-hued cloud cover. Synthesizers gurgle like babbling brooks while patterns of minimalist hypnosis circle upward. Throughout these cuts, a number of offbeat, slurred vocal chants and mumbled invocations drift in and out, bringing to mind the electropop experiments of Arthur Russell’s Calling Out Of Context, if he’d had the luxury of jamming with Wally Badarou in a lush Bahamian bungalow instead of a recording in a dingy Lower East Side walkup.
This is obtuse environmental pop crafted to glorious imperfection, acknowledging styles but refusing to bow to their standards, instead conjuring new worlds and inviting listeners into the landscape via magic carpet. Next to their Vito Ricci and Gigi Masin compilations, it currently stands as the third corner of Music From Memory’s mighty triumvirate.
7. Various Artists
Sky Girl: A Sentimental Journey Through Folk Pop, DIY New Wave, & Art Music Micro Presses 1961-1991
This heartfelt compilation by fledgling Australian label Efficient Space was a true labor of love, a stunning collection of heartbroken songs culled from rare private and vanity pressings spanning 30 years. Despite the wide window of time, Sky Girl is masterfully sequenced, with eclecticism working in its favor rather than detracting from its delights. The comp dabbles in everything from stripped-down Marine Girls soundalikes to forlorn ‘60s Laurel Canyon folk-pop, moving from domestic synthwave experiments to psychedelic bedroom soul, often playing like an expertly curated mixtape made by a dear friend. Every song is seemingly guided by a powerful emotional undercurrent, taking the oft-fetishized private press object and presenting it with a love and respect seldom provided beyond ironic novelty with similar types of reissues.
It’s been a long time since a compilation has struck me so profoundly, but this was easily the most wonderful and surprising discovery of the year on a personal level, and to see it earn fairly widespread attention across the underground community was a minor delight. Shining through the gloomy grooves that haunt these four sides of vinyl, one thing continues to resonate: this one put the art in heart.
(HMV Special Products Japan)
There was a smorgasbord of vintage Japanese delights that could have been included this year — a year during which prices for a lot of Far East synthwave, city pop, boogie and AOR ambient platters began fetching foolish prices on the Western collectors market. But aside from the previously mentioned Better Days collection, there could be only one true candidate. The eponymous 1985 LP by Aragon is the result of a collective of top Japanese session players coming together to record some film soundtrack work and cutting this devastating audiophile’s wet dream in the process, a postcard from an imaginary fourth world landscape where traditional court music influences collide with gypsy folk, Andean charango lullabies and gentle new age synthesizer breezes.
There’s a menacing percussive undercurrent to some of the pieces, and Kazuhiro Nishimatsu’s seductive, androgynous vocals add soaring drama. The entire thing was recorded in a state of the art studio, complete with binaural microphone heads shaped like Easter Island statues (check the illustration on the album’s back cover), and good god, does it sound like it. The album is pure escapism, a dreamscape that’s less manic and tense than Mariah’s Utakata No Hibi, which explored similar fusions but with markedly different ingredients.
Aragon never recorded another album (the only other full-length associated with their name is actually an audiophile stereo demonstration record meant to display recording techniques, and features two of the group’s songs in assorted demo formats leading up to what becomes the final finished studio rendition), leaving this one incredible document behind before wafting away into the aether like dandelion seeds in the wind.
Chee Shimizu curated this 180-gram remastered reissue via HMV’s in-house label and his own Japanism imprint. (There’s also a remastered CD kicking around from years back that features bonus tracks from the aforementioned demonstration album.) This one has long been a desert island album for me, one of my favorite meditative soundtracks, 38 minutes of total bliss out in the fields and gardens of an undiscovered country. True story: I overheard my flatmate playing a track he’d made last year utilizing a sample from this album, and when I asked him in shock “Did you sample the Aragon record?!” he responded with amazement that I both knew and owned it, which led to us becoming close friends. This fucking album has magical powers.
5. Vivien Goldman
Resolutionary (Songs 1979-82)
British music critic and journalist Vivien Goldman was a key mover and shaker during the salad days of the UK’s post-punk/DIY boom, and one of the British music weeklies’ loudest champions of reggae music and the sounds of the African diaspora, which were slowly working their way into the record collections of punks and art rebels. Goldman also recorded a scant handful of excellent singles and collaborations during the period, made with the likes of Adrian Sherwood, David Toop, Robert Wyatt and members of Public Image Ltd, Aswad and The Flying Lizards.
The eight songs collected on Resolutionary — collecting her two contributions to The Flying Lizards’ 1979 eponymous debut album, her 1981 Dirty Washing EP on NYC’s iconic 99 Records and her rare 1982 12″ recorded as Chantage — are mini marvels unto themselves, intimate snapshots of modern domestic and financial dissonance, police harassment, and the search for modern love as viewed through an intelligent feminist lens. That the lyrics of all of these songs still ring true speaks to both the power of her insight and the white male oppression that continues to dominate too much of this world.
Her charming chanteuse-next-door vocals are intertwined with psychedelic exercises in dub technique, casting Goldman as Alice wandering through the ganja-fogged looking glass into a world of bedsit musique concréte, avant-reggae, French-Caribbean cadence and spindly free improv. Adrian Sherwood and David Cunningham’s combined production work serves as an excellent bed for her playful diva moves, and the collection ably demonstrates what made this era so magical, a snapshot of playful protest during times of stress and sociopolitical strife. It’s wonderful to finally have these crucial releases compiled into one tidy, compact remastered package.
4. Bohren & Der Club Of Gore
I know, I know: “Where the hell is Angelo Badalamenti’s Music For Twin Peaks? What the hell is wrong with you, dude?!” I’m not including that reissue in this list for a few reasons – mostly because the music itself has been widely available before this year, even if not on vinyl. Sorry, Agent Cooper – but don’t cry in your cherry pie just yet. In place of Badalamenti’s score, I’ve chosen an album long overdue a vinyl release, also reissued on CD again after falling out of print for far too long. Sunset Mission is the jaw-dropping third album by German doom jazz merchants Bohren + Der Club Of Gore — arguably the greatest band to take Badalamenti’s blueprint and dip it in the same ink that penned Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries before burying it under the blackest of earth. (Speaking of Black Earth, that Bohren album was also reissued this year, but more on that in a minute.)
Sunset Mission was a turning point for Bohren, a jazz band comprised of former hardcore and metal musicians looking for a new sound. The album was the first to introduce saxophonist Christoph Clöser after the departure of founding guitarist Reiner Henseleit, and with his arrival came the missing piece to their near-perfect puzzle. The group’s crushing, doom-laden sensuality finally found its mature voice. The album is an extended suite of noirish tone poems intended as the purest and most romantically foreboding mood music you’ll likely ever hear. It takes the eerie, skin-crawling synthesis of Badalamenti’s backwoods nightclub swing and slows it to a crawl, its nothingness engulfing you in a blanket of cold sweat and pillow-biting moans.
Many argue that the album’s 2002 followup, Black Earth, is the group’s apex, and on certain days I’ll agree, but Black Earth had already seen both an American CD reissue via Mike Patton’s Ipecac label and a very limited original vinyl release on Wonder back in the day. Because of this, Sunset Mission takes the crown this year. If you don’t know either, buy both, and eat some cherry pie while you prepare to reenter the Black Lodge.
3. Harry Bertoia
This beautiful, unwieldy 11-CD box set is a true totem of art as therapy, of sound as healing balm, of aesthetic as conductor to pure meditative trance states. Sonambient collects a series of privately pressed LPs released in the early to mid-1970s featuring artist and furniture designer Harry Bertoia “playing” his huge metal sculptures. Those can be seen via striking photographs on the original LP sleeves, replicated in the box set for each of its respective discs as well as in the copious booklet.
The sounds that these sculptures produce range from softly elongated drones to wild multiphonic textures and bell tones that sound like sophisticated synthesizers or alien ritual musics. Bertoia’s sculptures are simultaneously both ancient and modern, and they’ve never sounded better than they do here, as the folks at Important Records have managed to source these remastered CDs from the original master tapes (save for one of the albums, for which the masters have apparently been lost).
This is possibly the most quintessential collection of ambient music ever made: equal parts environmental recording and musique concrète taken to its most literal and logical metallic extremes. The only thing missing is a Blu-Ray/DVD collecting films of the sculptures in motion, but hey – it’s a fucking miracle that this collection happened at all. Important Records’ John Brien deserves a medal for the work he’s done here, and knowing the amount of time he spent at the Bertoia studio working on this epic endeavor, he hopefully got one. As if that weren’t enough, the label has also just begun a series of new, previously unheard releases from Bertoia’s family archives.
In a year in which inescapable digital noise became an affront from all angles and contexts, Sonambient is a subtle reminder of the magic of the natural world, augmented by the wonder and ingenuity of the human mind. While I’m often hesitant to engage the idea of “purity” in music (whatever that might mean), you’d be hard-pressed to find sounds in the natural world that remain as pure yet complex as those inside this magical box.
2. Anna Homler & Steve Moshier
Breadwoman And Other Tales
Breadwoman was a multidisciplinary creation by Los Angeles performance artist/vocalist Anna Homler and composer Steve Moshier, who collaborated in 1985 on a privately dubbed and distributed cassette, reissued in 2016 by RVNG Intl. with additional material. A stunning document of modern mysticism and rhythmic synthesis, it has touchstones of familiarity for anyone interested in the underground sound-art scenes that produced Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Annea Lockwood or Laurie Spiegel, but filters it all though a calming balm, balancing the pinging waves of Moshier’s echolocational electronics with the soft vocal of a mysterious, matronly spectre singing lullabies to frightened children.
Influenced by Polynesian vocal chants, gypsy music, Bulgarian women’s choirs, and New Orleans soul, Breadwoman’s songs strip away the baggage of coded verbal language to leave only unfiltered emotive ululations, finding an ocean full of creatures in her breath, and an orchestra in her kitchen.
As a character of Homler’s creation, she intended the original cassette as both a document of Breadwoman’s language and songbook, as well as a soundtrack to her public performances. To quote Homler herself about the healing power of Breadwoman’s music: “I had to be Breadwoman to allow myself permission to sing, to find my voice. After I found my voice, I didn’t need to wear bread anymore.” In a year when so many voices were stifled or lost (including Steve Moshier, who sadly passed away this year), Homler’s homeopathic tones for mental therapy provided many with a beacon back to themselves.
1. Julius Eastman
Julius Eastman’s powerful Femenine was almost a no-brainer to take the top spot. A previously unpublished recording of a thought-to-be-forgotten composition by an openly gay African-American composer/vocalist/pianist, whose life was fraught with struggle and tragedy, Femenine finally saw the light of day this year. Perhaps best known to casual listeners as the wild stentorian baritone who bellows “BAAANGGAAAIIYAAA!” on Arthur Russell and Dinosaur L’s epochal dancefloor classic ‘Go Bang?’, Eastman also conducted Russell’s private press classical LP Tower Of Meaning (reissued this year) and regularly performed with figures like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson and Peter Maxwell Davies.
He was fond of performing in dresses to subvert gender norms, especially in the stuffy world of the New York classical conservatory, in which he composed, performed, and conducted pieces with confrontational titles like ‘Crazy Nigger’ and ‘Gay Guerilla’, bringing forth high-octane liberation and protest music via the trojan horse of modern minimalism. The majority of his life’s work and legacy was thrown out on the street during a forced eviction, taken to a city dump, and thought to be largely lost for decades. This newly recovered and excavated piece just happens to be entirely unconfrontational, a minimalist invocation of warmth and hope for a change that likely isn’t going to come.
But wait, it does come — as the piece slowly evolves, its layers of woodwinds, piano, violin, pitched percussion and synthesizer slowly intertwine and dance around one another as mechanized sleigh bells provide a festive anchor that further subverts. Julius Eastman was one of downtown New York’s most unique talents in an era seemingly overflowing with them, an elemental force who couldn’t be tied to “norms” of race, gender, sexuality and community. Long seen as a peripheral figure, in the last decade Eastman has seen his legacy slowly but surely recompiled.
It seems likely that younger generations of listeners, activists, and creators will be able to look at Eastman with a different gaze. While progress in our nation has been all too regressive recently, we need more composers and creators like Eastman in the public eye and ear to remind us that, much like minimalist music itself, shit’s eventually going to come back around and repeat itself, whether you’ve got the energy and patience for it or not. Plant your feet, take your stance, but always be listening and ready to move with the sound, because the noise carries overtones and undertones that resonate more loudly in spaces of decay and attack. We’ve got a winner, folks. No contest.
Mikey IQ Jones is on Twitter
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