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Best of 2005

By Marc Weidenbaum

Because of the enormous amount of music released each year, it is absurd to single out a handful of recordings as “the best,” or even as “my favorites.” But also because of the enormous amount of music released each year, the exercise can be helpful. This is my favorite music of 2005, broken into two categories: commercial recordings and free downloads. And there’s a short bit at the end about the year in film soundtracks.

Best CDs of 2005: To begin with, my favorite 10 commercially released albums of 2005, in alphabetical order by recording artist.

1. Christopher Bissonnette Periphery (Kranky) While it would be inappropriate to simply reserve a spot on one’s top 10 list each year for a representative album from a specific label, there are nonetheless labels whose output in a given year (for example, Warp and Ninja Tune, at one time the Blue Note and Verve of electronica) could easily comprise a year-end top 5 or 10 entirely of their own. Kranky Records has become that sort of label, and if in 2005 albums by Keith Fullerton Whitman (Multiples, also on this list), Lichens (The Psychic Nature of Being), Brian McBride (When the Detail Lost Its Freedom) and others cemented the label’s reputation as a leading source of composerly ambience, it’s Bissonnette’s Periphery, these icily elegiac constructions built from orchestral recordings, that best exemplifies the label’s achievement. Label: kranky.net Artist: christopherbissonnette.ca

2. Colleen The Golden Morning Breaks (Leaf) Colleen is Cecile Schott, who builds lilting, elegantly layered music from the most traditional of instruments (guitar, 19th century glass harmonicon, glass glockenspiel), and this album is among the most exciting folk-tronic releases of the year. The Golden Morning Breaks couldn’t be more true to its title. Label: theleaflabel.com Artist: colleenplays.org

3. FM3 Buddha Machine Two musicians based in China make a little box that resembles an AM radio. Inside is a chip with nine short bits of music, some mere atmosphere, others like sonic ripples. Turn it on, pick a loop, and let it play. The only 2005 album I purchased two copies of for myself. No, it isn’t an LP, or a CD; it’s far more. Artist: fm3.com.cn

4. Konono No. 1 Congotronics (Crammed Discs) Even had it been cyberpunk artifice instead of regional economics, this African group’s reliance on makeshift, homebrew electronics would have been no less fascinating and enjoyable. A relic from the future. Label: crammed.be

5. Daniel Lanois Belladonna (Anti-) Anyone who’s been seeking the vocal-less dubs of Lanois’ roots-music productions for folks like the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan will find their equal here. And, freed from those acts’ audiences’ expectations, he leans even deeper into the industrial-ambient realm. Label: anti.com Artist: daniellanois.com

6. Steve Reich You Are (Variations) & Cello Counterpoint (Nonesuch) As always, Reich is at his best when he finds chinks in the armor of uniformity. The main piece is largely about the vocalists locating an uneasy harmony amid an enjoyably disparate instrumental ensemble. An additional piece, for eight cellos (or one with taped accompaniment), is the latest installment in his long-in-progress “counterpoint” series, which is becoming akin to minimalism’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Label: nonesuch.com Artist: stevereich.com

7. SunnO))) Black One (Southern Lord) Doom metal, like avant-jazz, can easily become a game of one-outsmanship, competitive acts upping the ante in a kind of aural arms race. Certainly the case here, but on Black One, the drone-rock band SunnO))) picks unusual weapons, like guest experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi, to take the sound to unexpected realms. Label: southernlord.com

8. Amon Tobin Soundtrack to Chaos Theory: Splinter Cell 3 (Ninja Tune) When a musician’s name is attached to a video game, as is the case here, it’s usually a matter of a fast buck in exchange for cultural capital. Quite the contrary for Tobin, who hasn’t simply licensed some existing music or quick remixes to a franchise. He produced his most varied album yet, ranging from futurist techno to drama-drenched string-play, and brought in a heap of guest musicians, more than on any of his previous, un-commissioned albums. Label: ninjatune.net Artist: amontobin.com

9. Stephen Vitiello & David Tronzo Scratchy Monsters, Laughing Ghosts (New Albion) The electronicist and the guitarist together make a kind of hardscrabble minimalism. Vitiello’s a conceptualist with a concern for small sounds, Tronzo a traditionalist far too steeped in guitar culture to merely repeat what’s come before; together they find common ground in the echoes. Also, Michael J. Schumacher contributes some piano. Label: newalbion.com Artist: stephenvitiello.com

10. Keith Fullerton Whitman Multiples (Kranky) Once upon a time, Hrvatski was the processing-drunk mask behind which Keith Fullerton Whitman fiddled, more often than not, with guitar-loop fantasies. Now Hrvatski is something of a side gig for Whitman, who on Multiples employed “classic” technology of the modern electronic era, which he accessed at the studio at Harvard University. If only more musicians looked past the lip of their laptops. Label: kranky.net Artist: keithfullertonwhitman.com

Side note: I had a difficult time coming up with 10 singles I loved for this year’s Village Voice poll; I just find myself repeatedly listening to three in particular: Kanye West‘s “Gold Digger,” Common‘s “Go” (produced by West) and Mike Jones‘ “Still Tippin'” (featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall). This difficulty in selecting a longer list seems odd to me, since I listened to more radio (thanks to having traded in my iPod for an FM-enabled iAudio) and bought more vinyl 12″s (for the instrumental tracks) in 2005 than in previous recent years, but there you have it. A flip through the year’s Field Notes entries on this site will include various hip-hop instrumentals I’ve singled out for recommendation.

ON THE DOWNLOAD: This year I’m singling out, for the first time, 10 downloads as my favorites. This time last year, I was of the mind that maybe two album-length works released directly to the web as free downloads (John Kannenberg’s Four Painters and Raemus’ Stream Studies) were of the caliber of the year’s best commercial recordings (say Fennesz’s Venice and Savath & Savalas’ Apropa’t). At the end of 2005, looking back on the entries in this site’s Downstream section, where I post recommended freely downloadable music each weekday, it was difficult to whittle down the list of favorites to a mere 10, since the Downstream is itself a culling of countless files out there on the web.

To make the field a bit more knowable, this list is limited to recordings that weren’t entirely promotional (like, for example, when record labels post for free a single track from a commercial album), or the temporary downloads favored by many websites. Which is to say, everything on this list is available to download, for free, right now. Click through to the original Downstream entry for more information. They’re listed here in the chronological order in which they appeared on Disquiet.com:

1. By the concise litigious standards of Danger Mouse (who combined the Beatles and Jay-Z for his Grey Album), Ninja Tune Records stalwart DJ Food‘s Raiding the 20th Century is a veritable Bleak House of mashups, an hour of copyright-teasing snippets sewn together with a blend of Christian Marclay’s sense of pop-culture curation, an FM radio promo’s interest in keeping your attention, and an NPR afternoon forum on intellectual property. Downstream: January 26, 2005

2. A 20-minute piece by septuagenarian legend Phill Niblock, “Sethwork,” in which he performs on vaguely termed “electronics” along with guitarist Seth Josel, who employs an e-bow to extend his tones to the horizon, recorded live on February 24, 2005, as part of the Other Minds Festival. Downstream: March 18, 2005

3. Credited to Aitanna77 (aka Spanish musician Mikel Martinez), the Spring Is Coming Soon EP’s four tracks (posted on the test tube netlabel) mix gently plucked acoustic guitar and a smattering of digital effects. What makes the work special is that the blend of analog and digital isn’t predicated on conflict, but on how the elements work together. Downstream: April 1, 2005

4. Chris Herbert has been long at work on an album for the Kranky label, and for now we have but a song, titled “Chlorophyl,” to extrapolate the rest from. Utterly quiet, with a pulse-soothing beat, it takes several listens to reveal itself, like a dark room slowly brought into focus. Downstream: August 11, 2005

5. In Traum (“traum” meaning “dream”), by the German act Seetyca, could very well take as its title the name of the netlabel that released it: Dark Winter. It’s nine tracks of near-lifeless, emotionally and physically remote soundscapes. Or is it? Downstream: August 19, 2005

6. Matthew Herbert‘s 2005 album, Plat du Jour (Accidental), took as its subject globalism and nutrition, as he built the tracks from food sources. The BBC filmed Herbert making an original piece, “Esme’s Waltz,” and posted the resulting MP3, a chock-a-block wind-up toy of countless little percussive elements. It’s arguable this track has an immediacy the album lacks, though that may simply be a consequence of having the opportunity to watch Herbert construct it. Downstream: September 27, 2005

7. With far more elegance than the project might suggest, (dj) morsanek is constructing an album-length collection in which each track is built from segments of pre-existing avant-garde, out-jazz and otherwise exploratory recordings, and posting them on his website. Downstream: October 3, 2005

8. Taylor Deupree built the album PostPiano 2 (12k) from piano-based work by Kenneth Kirschner, and the duo celebrated the album’s release by, in the open-source spirit, putting out a call for other musicians to tweak Kirschner’s “11/11/2003,” the same piece from which PostPiano 2 was made. The project received over 100 entries, 21 of which were selected, with highlights by Blake Stickland and Stephen Mathieu. Downstream: October 5, 2005

9. Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) sets Welsh voices to found and synthetic sounds, commissioned by the Cardiff Festival of Creative Technology. Downstream: November 1, 2005

10. This final entry isn’t really an album per se, nor is it by a single musician. Nor, for that matter, is it even complete. It’s a work in progress, with no end in sight: the “Remix! Tree” at the Freesound project (freesound.iua.upf.edu), a remarkable repository of field recordings and other public domain audio clips, intended to be uploaded and traded freely. The “Remix! Tree” is a subset of the Freesound site, where users take existing sound clips and twist them to their will. As of this writing, there are about 30 clips that have been remixed upwards of 7 times each. The tree has been featured six times in the Disquiet Downstream this past year: Downstream: August 23 Downstream: September 12 Downstream: September 29 Downstream: October 31 Downstream: November 11 Downstream: December 13 And recommended tracks from elsewhere in the Freesound site’s holdings were noted two other times: Downstream: August 16 Downstream: September 26

REEL WORLD: The year in film soundtracks was particularly noteworthy. Film scores have long existed as a parallel realm to ambient/electronic music, allowing for occasional intersections. From Warner Bros. house composer Carl Stalling to thriller-film heavyweight John Barry, the folks who set images to music for a living have provided models for audio cut’n’paste craftsmanship, as well as for background music as art. Likewise, composers from Aaron Copland to Brian Eno have lent their talents to the screen, and more importantly provided aural models for projecting all manner of spaciousness, external and internal, landscape and philosophical.

In the recent past, Lisa Gerrard, David Holmes, Clint Mansell and Cliff Martinez have contributed, year in, year out, some of the best electronic film music, all four of them having come out of the pop world (Gerrard with Dead Can Dance, Holmes as a DJ, Mansell in Pop Will Eat Itself, Martinez with the Dickies and the Red Hot Chili Peppers). But 2005 was odd in that only Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, World Traveler) came through with a big-league release, Doom. Holmes did the terrorism-themed The War Within, Martinez the SoCal culture-clash Havoc, and Gerrard (with Jeff Rona) the Native American-themed A Thousand Roads, none of which had particularly wide releases.

In the past, this turn of events would have signalled 2005 as substandard, but in those composers’ places, many ambient scores still bloomed. Just to name a few:

Holmes and Martinez made their film-world names on Steven Soderbergh projects, and Alexandre Desplat signals himself as a member of their emotionally cool school with the Soderbergh-produced Syriana. For Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), the Jet Li film, trip-hop mavericks Massive Attack brought the piano of a character played by Morgan Freeman into the score. Tyler Bates rendered some haunting cues for Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. John Powell, a wizard at three-dimensional sound, continued to bring his microsonic details to numerous major big-time Hollywood flicks, notably Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And Raz Mesinai (perhaps better known to electronica fans as Badawi, or as one half of Sub Dub) scored his first major project: Sorry, Haters. I’ll have a lengthy interview with Mesinai on Disquiet.com early next year, after it’s seen print publication.

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