There seemed to be more music than ever this past year — commercial and free alike. In order to make a list of best free music, it’s helpful to narrow the field a little. Not everything below is from a netlabel, but the netlabel spirit infuses it — that is to say, this is all music intended by the musicians for free distribution. Much of it is associated with the Creative Commons and all is selected from this site’s Downstream department during 2010.
To constrain the field, to make it knowable, this list is limited to recordings that are “of the web.” The following were not considered for inclusion: individual promotional tracks (and excerpts) posted from existing or forthcoming commercial albums (special “mixes” were considered for inclusion, as were situations in which entire commercial albums were made available for free download, as in “choose your price” scenarios in which zero is an accepted amount), downloads that were placed online for a stated limited period of time, audio that is streaming-only, and dated archival material (work that would be considered a “reissue” in the commercial world, such as the majority of what is housed at ubu.com). Also not considered for inclusion were tracks whose links have subsequently gone offline. (An intelligent case has been made that there is no such thing as “streaming” — that all audio is downloaded, in that it is at some point resident on your computer. However, for the purposes of this list, the focus is music that is fully intended to be downloaded.)
All of which is to say, everything on this list is of recent vintage and is available to download, for free, right now.
These 10 are listed here in the reverse chronological order in which they appeared on Disquiet.com. Given the fluid nature of publication, attribution, and collation on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these audio files first appeared online in 2010, but many if not all of them did. And if some of them are older than that, at least this mention might gain them a new audience. Click through to each original Downstream entry for more information, and to the release’s source to get the tracks.
1. Site-Specific Estonian Deep Listening: Based on a recent recording by Berlin/Amsterdam-based saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit, he can be added to the list of Deep Listening devotees. Earlier this year in the Estoian city of Tallinn, he filled a reverberant, abandoned seaplane hangar with echo upon echo of his solo horn. The performance was captured (not just as audio, but in the color photos) by John Grzinich on May 29 of this year. Downstream: October 8, 2010.
2. Halls of Silence: John Kannenberg visited 11 of the world’s best-known museums, and all we got was 11 blank tapes. Well, not really — what we get is recordings of silence, each 4’33″ in length. That’s silence with an implied capital S, silence as in John Cage’s framing of unacknowledged sound, the background noise of real life. Each track — from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing to the Van Gogh Museum in the Amsterdam — contains 4’33″ of uninterrupted, unedited semi-silence (“unmanipulated phonography,” as the liner note puts it). And with a sly nod, the collection ends at that bastion of popular noise, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Downstream: October 1, 2010.
3. Where Drone and Orchestration Meet: Saiph‘s Diffusion limns that space where electronic drone and classical orchestration meet. There is no doubt, in “Einsames Element,” that those are, indeed, tremulous strings amid the woodsy percussion, even if the strings are playing a role more likely to be handed to a synthesizer these days. And even on repeat listen, the knowledge of those traditional, symphonic materials doesn’t make it any more clear what, exactly, is the source of the light gusher of white noise, the fizzy wonder with which begins “Der Letzte Mensch.” Saiph’s melding of these elements puts guesswork aside, in favor of a contemplation of the inherent narrative, as when after-dark ambience, brush fire, footsteps, and horror-show voices collide late in “Mensch” for a truly filmic enterprise. Downstream: August 12, 2010
4. A Netlabel Retrospective: The variety on Elisa Luu‘s recent release, The Time of Waiting, from the netlabel known playfully as La Bèl, is enough to suggest less an album than a reel — less a collection of interrelated music than a set whose lack of self-evident correlation serves the primary purpose of expressing the wide range of which Luu is capable. And to that end, it more than succeeds. There are playful beats, distorted as if through a watery mirror. There is quasi-orchestral extravagance, shot through with a theremin-like lead. But if one track must be selected, the keeper is the set’s opener, “r735,” which has four distinct elements that balance each other perfectly. Downstream: July 19, 2010
5. A Solar Salute: There are 25 tracks on the compilation One Minute for the Sun, each 60 seconds in length, and each paying tribute, in one manner or another, to that great blinding fireball in the sky. Sublamp, a woozy, deep drone, offers thick bass-heavy undercurrents, while Koutaro Fukui’s track, which directly precedes it, is a watery burble, like a dozen frogs gargling before bedtime. A lot of the tracks traffic in a certain gauzy ambience, but the best of them disrupt it, like so many rays piercing a cloud. Downstream: July 15, 2010
6. When Ennio Met Primo: Texas-based lawyer-cum-beatmaker (and, more recently, San Antonio City Council candidate) Diego Bernal returned with Besides …, nearly a dozen tracks of downtempo, hip-hop-infused, crate-digging goodness. Lightly strummed guitar at the opening of “A Long Second” suggests some regional flavor, as flanging light noise and a raspy drum kit kick in, followed by wisps of r&b horns that sound more like memories than like samples. “Blue Neon,” a particular favorite, makes the most of a back beat, a hi-hat, a vocal call-out, and some sour organ playing. The music is the like some secret side-project team-up between Ennio Morricone and DJ Premiere, mixing atmospheric melodrama and rough beats. Downstream: April 8, 2010
7. Electronic Free Improvisation: If only there were a thin line between electronic music and European free improvisation. Instead, there’s more of thick, broad line — a gulf at times, really — between digitally processed music and the rich culture of abstract ensemble play. It’s a gulf occasionally, and increasingly, bridged by individuals like Ikue Mori and bands like Diatribes. The latter, consisting of d’incise (laptop & treatments, objects, percussions) and Cyril Bondi (drums, percussions), recently teamed up with the trio HKM+ (Ludger Hennig: laptop & software instruments; Christof Knoche: bass clarinet, live electronics; and Markus Markowski: prepared guitar, laptop & software instruments) and three other musicians: Piero SK (saxophones, metal clarinet), Robert Rehnig (laptop & software instruments), and Johannes Sienknecht (laptop & software instruments). The result is spectacular. Downstream: April 5, 2010
8. A Jazz/Hip-Hop Rematch: The feedback loop between jazz and hip-hop takes another enticing spin in the work of the Chicago quartet Spinach Prince. As heard on its recent self-titled album, the group has come up with a highly potent recipe that mixes jazz touches (trap-set rhythms, meandering woodwinds, instrumental soloing) and the basic building blocks of old-school beat-making (samples of found vocals, emphasis on texture, tight metric loops). Downstream: March 22, 2010
9. The Dark Side of Fusion: The murky and atmospheric noise-jazz of Leandro Ramirez‘s album jaja sh represents the dark side of fusion. His loosely strung instruments play rough, sour chords and single-note riffs in a manner that traces its mode back to that of Ornette Coleman, the great jazz saxophonist. Even though there’s no saxophone heard here, there’s something in the way Ramirez’s melodies seem to move backwards, as if feeling their way up a creaky staircase, that brings to mind Coleman’s more outward-bound experimentation. Downstream: January 27, 2010
10. Every Photograph Has Multiple Soundtracks, Don’t It: As part of a new experimental series (titled simply Synaesthesia — i.e., the confusion of senses) at his musicofsound.co.nz site, Tim Prebble asks his readers to compose works that are suggested by a given image. Three audio segments were uploaded when I first wrote about the music inspired by a photograph shot at Tanah Lot in Bali. Martin’s is a dirgey drone supplemented by echoed vocals and a slow, noisey rhythm. The track by üav works in bell tones and kettle-style drums and otherworldly halos of sound. And a piece by ccu is more fragile and closely mic’d than the other two, a mix of taut ringing sounds (perhaps from a kalimna) and rough surface texture.
All three, especially when heard with Prebble’s photograph in mind, suggest rituals at dawn or dusk. A fourth track was added after I first wrote about the series. This year-end acknowledgment is as much for Prebble’s assignment-based project overall as it is for this particular episode thereof (it dates from very late 2009). The series is currently up to its ninth edition. Downstream: January 7, 2010
And three others:
¶ WHY?Arcka‘s 26-track Exhibits A-Z compilation of experimental break beats was still a work in progress when I listed it, last year, as one of 2009′s best. This year, he completed it: arckatron.bandcamp.com.
¶ This easily ranks as one of my favorite releases of the year, but since I was directly associated with it even if entirely uninvolved in its creation, I took it out of the running for the ten best: Soothing Sounds for Baby: luvsound.org.
¶ Every year there is at least one track that I listen to repeatedly yet never manage to write about. I will at some point sum up what is great, in my estimation, about “Homage to Jack Vanarsky,” a duet for viola and motorized gadget on the album Solo Viola d’Amore by Garth Knox (volume 5 at shskh.com), but until then, just go give it a listen.