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Best of 2006

By Marc Weidenbaum

The year 2006 marked the 10th anniversary of Disquiet.com. It was a year when rural electronica was more than a notion. When a modest battery-operated device could inspire a dozen-plus tributes. When a visit to Africa could result in an inspired work that blurred the line between documentary and sound art. When recordings from geographically remote festivals were uploaded quickly to the Internet for a global audience. When video games doubled as musical instruments. When musicians more often than ever before made their work available for remixing by friends and strangers alike.

Yes, 2006 was a very good year for music, especially for music that falls into the vaguely defined territory of ambient/electronic. What follows is my favorite music of 2006, divided into two categories: commercial recordings and free, legal MP3 downloads.

This is the first year in a while that neither list has much in the way of instrumental hip-hop or contemporary classical, which along with film scores are the primary realms of electronically mediated music beyond what is more commonly thought of as “electronic music.” I listened to a lot of both, but nothing (no Krush, Koala, K Def, Dilla or Daedelus; no Part, Glass, Reich, Ashley or Adams) stuck with me the way these 20 recordings did.

Much more surprising to me is the prevalence of something that’s often entirely absent in my favorite listening: the human voice. At least half of the commercial recordings listed here have a vocal element, including Karl Hyde’s moans on a movie soundtrack, a country singer’s surprise guest appearance on an album of sludge metal, and spoken text on albums by Matmos and Max Richter. Likewise the list of free downloads, which includes, among other things, a lengthy mix of choral music.

Nothing marks the sea change in music during the past 10 years so much as the conception of obscurity. A decade ago, when albums on labels such as Basta, Hearts of Space and Vague Terrain were among my favorites, that music was often difficult to locate for purchase. This year, all the commercial CDs listed here are available via one (sometimes more than one) online retailer and many are sold as digital downloads.

Best CDs of 2006: To begin with, my favorite 10 commercially released albums of 2006, in alphabetical order by recording artist. Links are provided, where available, to the websites of the musicians and record labels.

1. Boxhead Ensemble Nocturnes (Atavistic) The Boxhead Ensemble plays a kind of rural ambient chamber music, what Morton Feldman might have written had he been raised a Quaker. This set of eight supremely attenuated pieces milks the textural capacities of leader Michael Krassner’s cello, Fred Lonberg-Holm’s harmonica, Frank Rosaly’s drums, Jacob Kolar’s prepared piano and other instruments. Label: atavistic.com

2. Drumcorps Grist (Ad Noiseam/Cock Rock Disco) Drumcorps, aka Aaron Spectre, fills his sampler with metal riffs and computerized drum’n’bass percussion and lets ’em battle it out like a genre Celebrity Death Match. Spectre thoroughly comprehends the tribal nature of great metal, not to mention what gives a thrash guitar swipe a Zen-like intensity when set on repeat, and how the rhythms of dance music can rock as hard as any live drummer. He’s the true heir to the grindcore of Godflesh. Label: adnoiseam.net Label: cockrockdisco.com Artist: drumcorps.cc

3. Tim Hecker Harmony in Ultraviolet (Kranky) The found sounds that serve as the primary instrumentation of Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet are both self-evident and sublimated throughout. Hecker has a rare ability to mine the real world and leave it both untouched and utterly altered. Thus the deja vu sense of recognition that occurs repeatedly amid compositions that are variously water-logged with sonic density and ethereal in their fragility. Label: kranky.net Artist: sunblind.net

4. Jan Jelinek Tierbeobachtunger (~scape) A cursory misreading of the title of Jan Jelinek’s latest might suggest the word “turbocharger,” but “Tierbeobachtunger” actually means “animal observations” in German, and the set of six loop-based meanderings is anything but fast-paced. The pieces investigate the meditative quality of circular sounds, from the slow seesaw of “Happening Tone” to the tamped down vocals of “Palmen Aus Leder,” all nestled on aural foundations that share a rich, hazy abundance. Label: scape-records.de Artist: janjelinek.com

5. Matmos The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador) The ever-conceptual duo Matmos (M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel) works with a small set of associates (Kronos, Laetitia Sonami, Maja Ratjke, Bjork) to pay sonic tribute to 10 prominent, and not so prominent, gay figures, from disco legend Larry Levan, to writer William S. Burroughs, to producer Joe Meek, to Germs singer Darby Crash. The tracks share a rhythmic intent that often verges on the pointillist, but are otherwise as distinct as the individuals to whom they pay tribute, and so too are the sound sources, which include burnt flesh, adding machines, lasers and snails, just to name a few. Label: matadorrecords.com Artist: brainwashed.com/matmos 6. Mountains Sewn (Apestaartje) Mountains is the name of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp when working in tandem, and their dual affinities for string instruments and sound design bring to mind the film scores of Gustavo Santaolalla and the studio experiments of John Fahey. The use of guitar ranges between being closely recorded and being almost unrecognizable. Just compare “Sewn Two” and “Bay,” in which the plucked strings are front and center, to “Simmer,” in which they are but one among many scintillates. Label: staartje.com Artist: myspace.com/apestaartjemountains

7. Max Richter Songs from Before (FatCat 130701) Max Richter is either the classical minimalist most informed about contemporary electronic music, or the electronica figure most schooled in classical minimalism. Better yet, his growing body of work makes the case that such distinctions are meaningless. His Songs from Before mixes nostalgia-tinged sound design with lovely string and piano arrangements for a contemplative cycle. Robert Wyatt guests on a few tracks, reading segments from the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Murakami was a natural choice, given the source of the spoken text on Richter’s previous album, The Blue Notebooks: Franz Kafka. Label: fat-cat.co.uk Artist: maxrichter.com

8. SunnO))) and Boris Altar (Southern Lord) Two alpha-bands of sludge metal worship together at the altar of the drone, plowing steadily through undulating powerchords in which the drums routinely founder, wild animals caught in quicksand. A guest appearance by Jesse Sykes proves that the gauzy female vocal is the universal solvent of pop music; her turn on “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” melts dark metal into a shoegazer tune. Guests also include Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil on some abstract guitar, the Melvins’ devilish Joe Preston on nearly inaudible vocals, and members of Sykes’ band, the Sweet Hereafter. Label: southernlord.com Artist: inoxia-rec.com/boris Artist: myspace.com/sunnodrone

9. Underworld and Gabriel Yared Breaking and Entering: Music from the Film (V2) What were the two remaining members of high-concept techno act Underworld to do when their DJ, Darren Emerson, left the band? They found a willing, if temporary, third member in estimable film composer Gabriel Yared (The Talented Mister Ripley, Cold Mountain) and together scored director Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering. The result features an abundance of what one might expect (and, more importantly, hope for) from such a pairing (a mix of screen-ready strings and effervescent digital beats), but also much more, notably the closing suite, a marvel that moves from light percussion to acoustic guitar over the course of 13 meditative minutes. Label: v2music.com Artist: underworldlive.com Artist: gabrielyared.com

10. various artists Jukebox Buddha (Staubgold) One of the most remarkable recordings of 2005 wasn’t just a recording. It was the Buddha Machine, by the duo FM3, who packaged nine short sound loops into a cheap little machine that looked like a Soviet-era AM radio. Given a year to reflect on those loops and on the ingenuity of FM3’s lo-fi accomplishment, 15 acts pay tribute with a series of remixes, including Blixa Bargeld’s chirpy “Little Yellow,” Alog’s loopy “A Dragon Lies Listening” and Adrian Sherwood and Doug Wimbish’s dubby “Karma-Cola.” Robert Henke (aka Monolake) was so into the process that in addition to the quiet piece included here, he separately released a full album of Buddha Machine remixes, the 10-track Layering Buddha (Imbalance Computer Music). Two acts listed elsewhere in this year’s top 10, Jan Jelinek and SunnO))), also contribute to Jukebox Buddha. Label: staubgold.com Artist: fm3buddhamachine.com

ON THE DOWNLOAD: As I did last year for the first time, I am singling out 10 free, legal downloads as my favorites. These are all selected from the (nearly) daily Downstream entries posted on the Disquiet.com website.

To make the field a bit more knowable, this list is limited to recordings that are “of the web.” The following were not considered for inclusion: promotional tracks posted by record labels from commercial albums, downloads that are online for a limited period of time, audio that is streaming-only (such as the work sponsored by the Tate Museum at tatetracks.org.uk) and dated archival material (such as that housed in the Other Minds catalog at archive.org).

All of which is to say, everything on this list is of recent vintage and 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. Given the fluid nature of publication on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these first appeared online in 2006.

1. Chain of Tools: Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s ongoing “Chain Music” project is the classic Exquisite Corpse in musical form. One after another, individual musicians and bands are given an existing work and asked to tag on their own addition, drawing from and building on what came before. When I posted an entry on “Chain Music” in January 2006, the most recent contributor was Christopher Willits, having been preceded by Fennesz, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Carsten Nicolai and Sakamoto himself, just to name a few. Since then, three more have participated: groopies, O.Lammm and sutekh (MP3). Downstream: January 19, 2006

2. Goulash Cook-Off: For each Iron Chef of Music competition, musicians are provided the same sound sample from which they each build a unique composition in a set amount of time. A Bela Bartok piece as played by clarinetist Benny Goodman (and Bartok himself, on piano) was the key ingredient for the 43rd such Iron Chef showdown. Entries include Mike Shusta‘s deliberate investigation of some pizzicato sections, Butternuts‘ pushing it into industrial-techno overdrive, and Xmark‘s tweaking a clarinet riff into the stratosphere. Downstream: March 3, 2006

3. Bush of Samples: To promote the re-release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s 1981 sample-laden experiment, the duo approved a remarkable feat of open-source music, bush-of-ghosts.com/remix. They posted the constituent parts of two full-length tracks (20 for “A Secret Life” and 24 for “Help Me Somebody”) and allowed fans to upload their own versions. By the end of 2006, over 270 songs had been contributed, by musicians anonymous, unknown and renowned, including one by Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud. (In response to this project, I asked a dozen musicians to produce their own remixes, and I posted the resulting compilation, Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet, at archive.org.) Downstream: May 18, 2006

4. Let’s Go Tokyo: When Darren McClure and Hiroyuki Ura were to perform at the Loop-Line gallery in Tokyo, Japan, they decided upon a site-specific set, and recorded sounds from the neighborhood, which they mixed with electronic effects. Downstream: June 14, 2006

5. The Long Sample: For his 1,000-year mix of choral and other vocal music, Wobbly (born Jon Leidecker) begins with early-music heroes Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, makes his way around the globe, stopping in Japan and Kenya, before leaping into the recent present, courtesy of Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Downstream: June 30, 2006

6. Out of Africa: Alessandro Bosetti went to Africa and, like many travelers, he brought along some CDs. He also brought along some recording equipment. He played the CDs (which contained largely abstract music by the likes of Kevin Drumm, Ryoji Ikeda and Harry Partch) for locals and he recorded their responses. Then he grafted the two sets of audio together, playing simultaneously what his test audience heard and how they responded, often with imitative zest. Downstream: August 21, 2006

7. Broken Beats: To promote his new Body Riddle album on the esteemed Warp record label, Clark created a blog and posted, as promoted in advance with a calendar, three tracks, one from the album and two not. The last of them, “Dusk Raid,” was the best of the bunch, less rhythmically succinct than what came before, and rich with plucked instrumentation and broken beats that suggest DJ Krush’s machine-molested shamisen, not to mention muddled horns that bring to mind Robert Wyatt’s solemn art-pop. Downstream: September 19, 2006

8. Water Music: This piece makes a good complement to the Tokyo entry mentioned above. Chris Herbert, who’s based in Birmingham, England, was invited by Resonance FM to create an original sound collage stitched together from field recordings near the city’s waterways. The realworld noise was taped in what’s been described as a series of “sound walks” around his place of employment. Herbert released the excellent album of timbrally vague texture-music Mezzotint on Kranky this year. Downstream: October 4, 2006

9. Life After Metal: Drumcorps also made the best-albums list this year with Grist (see above). This live set (like the Chris Herbert track, courtesy of London broadcaster Resonance FM) mixes analog and digital rock noise, the slashing guitars of deathmetal and the broken beats of digital hardcore, into an event-packed, pulse-quickening, imagination-challenging, synapse-pummeling mash of maddeningly cross-hatched cadences. Downstream: October 10, 2006

10. High Wire Act: The October 2006 Instal festival hosted three days of experimental music, and much of it has been uploaded for a broader audience than was able to make it to Glasgow. Among the many MP3s is a 45-minute set that pairs Ellen Fullman and Sean Meehan. Fullman is a master of an instrument of her own devising, a series of long (like, room-length) strings that allow her to produce music whose simplicity is so dense that, counter-intuitively, it becomes opulent: single notes resound as if from a gargantuan sitar, wave forms become almost visible, harmonies take on a macroscopic lushness. In an inspired bit of programming, she played with Meehan, who focuses on one of the simplest instruments imaginable: a single drum. Downstream: November 30, 2006

REEL WORLD: As always, some of the best, and least noted, electronic music of the year was heard in high fidelity in movie theaters (and, to a lesser if growing extent, in video games). The teaming of Underworld and Gabriel Yared for Breaking and Entering may have made for the best listening outside the theater, but it’s just one of numerous excellent scores to surface in 2006… or, more to the point, to simmer just below the surface of public awareness.

Arvo Part‘s music was heard in at least two films. BT continued his transition from raves to multiplexes with Catch and Release. Clint Mansell brought together Kronos Quartet with the rock group Mogwai for The Fountain. David Torn could be heard in The Departed and the Diane Arbus biopic, Fur. Gustavo Santaolalla closed Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s trilogy with Babel, which managed to use his mix of composed music and sound-for-sound’s-sake to root three stories on three different continents. Philip Glass‘ music appeared in several films, including The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal. The record label Winter and Winter released Ernst Reijseger‘s music for two Werner Herzog films, The Wild Blue Yonder and The White Diamond, under the collective title Requiem for a Dying Planet. And Romantico, with music by Raz Mesinai, finally saw a limited release.

Composer John Tavener (whose Ikon of Light is one of the few contemporary works recorded by Tallis Scholars) stepped out of his personal abbey to compose original music for Children of Men; the audience’s ears are particularly engaged by this film, which early on replicates the ringing that follows the explosion of a bomb, a sensation that never really fully ends until the film does.

Segments from Max Richter’s Blue Notebooks were reportedly included in this year’s Stranger Than Fiction and The Night Listener. Looking ahead to next year, Richter, whose Songs from Before is singled out above as one of 2006’s best commercial recordings, is working on at least two film-score projects, writer-director James Strouse‘s Grace Is Gone (Strouse previously wrote Lonesome Jim, which Steve Buscemi directed and for which Evan Lurie wrote the music) and director Stanislaw Mucha and writer Krzysztof Piesciewicz‘s Hope (Piesciewicz wrote Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy).

Director Michael Mann revisited Miami Vice with some original music by John Murphy, but true both to the pop nature of the originating TV series and to the quick-draw, digital-video style of the movie, much of the soundtrack consisted of pre-existing tracks, including work by Moby, Nina Simone (remixed by Felix Da Housecat) and, in a nod to the self-remix, segments from previous Mann films Heat and Collateral.

A cineplex DJ much like Mann, Sofia Coppola furnished her Marie Antoinette with a hodgepodge of songs, including ones by Aphex Twin, Air, Kevin Shields (remixing Bow Wow Wow) and Squarepusher.

And while 2005’s best recordings included a video-game soundtrack, Amon Tobin’s for Chaos Theory: Splinter Cell 3, many of 2006’s best video games doubled as musical instruments, most notably Electroplankton (created by Toshio Iwai), which made use of the Nintendo DS’s many user interfaces.

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