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tag: year's best

Best of 2011: The 10 Best Free/Netlabel/Creative Commons Releases

For several years now, the heart of this site has been its Downstream department, which celebrates specific instances, on an almost daily basis, of freely and legally downloabable music — most of which are in the MP3 format, and many of which originate on netlabels. What follows are my 10 favorites of 2011.

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 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 chronological order in which they appeared on Given the fluid nature of publication, attribution, and collation on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these audio files first appeared online in 2011, but many 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.

Duet for Viola and Sculpture: Consider this a love letter to a love letter. I’m increasingly certain that my favorite single track of recorded music from 2010 was “Homage to Jack Vanarsky” by Garth Knox, off his album on the netlabel SHSK’H (, Solo Viola d’Amore. Despite the album’s title, this particular track is, technically, not a solo viola work. It’s a duet for Knox’s viola and a small mechanical device. The device was created by artist Vanarksy, a sculptor who was Knox’s late father-in-law. It makes a distinct creaking sound, like metal coming occasionally into contact with wood. As the device makes this sound, for close to eight minutes straight, Knox’s viola glides in and out.

An Ambient Collaboration: Unlike a lot of collaborations by ambient musicians, the dual effort by Devin Underwood and Marcus Fischer, Correspond, sounds, in fact, like more than one person is doing the work. In general, ambient music is about the sublime: maximum effort for minimum impact, a surface of almost ignorable refinement masking all manner of activity buried deep below. Individual ambient musicians strive to make something that is both worthy of attention and capable of being relegated to the backdrop. Two musicians working together in an ambient mode need to find a balance without so forsaking their individual voices that the fact of the collaboration becomes almost a distraction from the singularity of the finished work.

Country Songs Minus the Songs: Like the work of Scott Tuma and the Boxhead Ensemble, the four tracks that make up Widesky‘s EP Floating in Being sound like country songs minus the songs. It’s as if a crack Nashville session band had found themselves, while tuning up, so enamored of the sounds they were emitting, they they just stuck with tuning up, with hearing how the lightest touch of a guitar, and the mere movement of percussion instruments, would yield a thing of such beauty that they needn’t concern themselves with lyrics about broken down pick-ups and love gone bad. On perhaps the strongest track on Floating in Being, which would be “A Torpid Memoir,” the voices of children open and close the piece (they also provide transitions elsewhere on the recording). The effect is to frame the associative dreamstate of the rest of the work with literal calls back to reality, even if the reality is itself a thing of playfulness.

The Wild West: They rattle like the wheels on an old covered wagon. What we’re hearing, though, is not wheels but what the wheels might have trampelled, the brittle foliage of the west. There is in the track, according to its brief descriptive note, “wild fennel, pine trees and thistle,” the latter of which provides the track’s name. The result is a survey of rough scratching, tactile noises that edge toward erasing the ephemeral nature of digital recording. And while wagon wheels play no role in “Thistle,” which was created by Oakland, California, musician Jen Boyd, a record player (as pictured above) does.

If It’s Broken Beats Don’t Fix It: If ever there were art music disguised as downtempo broken beats, it is Paul Crocker‘s Equilibria, recorded under his Dustmotes moniker and released for free download by the estimable netlabel. On “Inner Tuning,” a mix of plaintive violin, post-rock exotica percussion, and a soundbite recording of a crime report all collide into a dramatization that’s less about narrative and more about frozen time. Early on, a slowed-down siren makes its way from one ear to another. At first, it’s just an effect rendered for its sonorous musicality, but then it reveals itself to have been a premonition of ill deeds. It’s the siren you hear as an everyday soundmark of urban life, only to be confronted later by the specific stark reality of that siren’s meaning — noise revealed as signal — when you flip on TV after dinner.

Remote in the Reeds: The netlabel Stasisfield, at, run by John Kannenberg, has ventured deep into rarefied sonic territory in the past, but its current release may be its most sonically remote yet. Recorded by Coppice, a duo from Chicago, it is an extended survey of small tones. Coppice is Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer, and they based the work, titled Vinculum (Courses), on what is described as “bellows and processed reeds” (the full materials were, apparently, an “8-channel installation with shruti box, free reeds, accordion, acoustic filters, and electronics”). As those materials might suggest, the sounds are delicate, venturing into the realm of pure tone, one after another, starting so quiet as to be mistaken for dog whistles, and slowly growing in intensity.

Streampunk Ambient: Stephen Vitiello (interview: “In the Echo of No Towers”) has a long-term installation he recently unveiled at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts. The work, titled All Those Vanished Engines, is a collaboration between Vitiello and the novelist Paul Park, who wrote a narrative that Vitiello then set to sound. This edit removes the spoken vocal, to reveal the underlying current of pneumatic activity, a kind of steampunk ambient music.

The Bees of War / The War of Bees: Apostolos Loufopoulos‘s “Bee” has been recognized with an Award of Distinction by this year’s Ars Electronica. It is a thrilling feat of audio imagery, putting the listener on the wings of its title subject. Much of the experience involves the illusion of motion through a three-dimensional space, but it isn’t all fast-passing objects, virtual wind, and the razor flutter of forewings. There is a martial beat that brings another illusion to the fore, the illusion of anthropomorphism. We don’t just settle onto the bee’s back for this ride. In Loufopoulos’ telling, we appear to swear allegiance to the Queen and proceed quickly into a state of warfare. There is martial drumming that clearly intends to signal active battle. There are rat-a-tat-tat percussives that may be rooted in the rhythms of wings, but they also bring to mind machine-gun fire. There is a tonal hum that could be the kind of rapid action that presents itself as a mirage of stillness, but it also posits a psychological toll. And then there are hints at orchestral scoring, bringing to mind the big screen WWI and WWII dramas of the past. Loufopoulos’ technical mastery is state-of-the-art, but it works precisely because his allusions and entertainment instincts are splendidly old-school.

Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads: The series outdid itself by commemorating the 75th anniversary of November 23, 1936, when two men sat down and had their solo performances documented in audio recordings. These men were Robert Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, and Pablo Casals, the pathbreaking cellist and master interpreter of Bach. They never met in person, but certainly did meet at the crossroads of antiquity and technology. And to tie it all together, Brendan Baker contributed a “mashup,” combining two of the 1936 recordings, imagining the duo as if playing side by side. The term “mashup” suggests a kind of violence, a yoking together, when in fact the result is fittingly lovely and reflective.

43 Sequences from Today’s Future: The excellent electronica site compiled the second of its massive, overstuffed collections of alternately ethereal and unnerving sound. Sequence2, as the album is titled, collects some 43 tracks by numerous musicians who will be familiar to readers of this site (among these contributors being Nils Quak, the Oo-ray, Nobuto Suda, Guy Birkin, and Specta Ciera), and there are many more who will provide welcome new experiences. Rhian Sheehan‘s “Liber” (track 2) is one of many dawn-break efforts in widescreen ambience here, and it is distinguished by its pizzicato texturing. Beautiful Bells‘s “Panic Attack 2” (track 10) has the muted future-jazz horn of an early Ben Neill. The sing-song nature of Josh Mason‘s “Freedom Time” (track 37) sounds like Brian Eno’s career in reverse, as if elegant pop experiments were slowly emerging from ambient explorations.

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Best of 2011: The 10 (or 12) Best Commercial Ambient/Electronic Albums

This is the first in a series of best-of lists to be published for 2011. There will also be lists of best free/netlabel music, best movie scores, and best iOS sound apps. And for the record, so to speak, the word “best” is used in the colloquial sense: It simply means my favorites of the year.

There has likely been less commercial music discussed on in 2011 than in any previous year since the site’s launch, almost exactly 15 years ago, in December 1996. This relative absence wasn’t intentional. It doesn’t even particularly reflect my daily listening habits. But it does, in retrospect, reflect my imagination. I listen to enormous amounts of commercially released music, much that is sent to me for promotional purposes, much that I hear online, and much that I myself purchase. My email inbox is overrun with inbound, unsolicited, but often welcome, invitations to listen to the commercial music for free (un-commercially, as it were, though in the end, the whole act of promotion is itself a commercial enterprise).

Yet still, there is something about a commercial record that felt inherently stolid in 2011 — not all commercial records, and not the music specifically. The music can be dynamic, adventurous, but the enterprise can still feel rote or calculated or misguided, or some combination thereof.

I spent a lot of time listening to, and thinking about, and interacting with, the music than emanates from generative sound apps (those based in Internet browsers, and those that come in the form of mobile-device apps). I spent a lot of time listening to, and thinking about, the music that emerges from various outposts of the “free music” movement/phenomenon (from netlabels in particular, and also general Creative Commons work, as well as work that is released for free with no apparent tie to or, perhaps, even knowledge of either of those philosophically informed communities). I spent a lot of time listening to commercially released music, but rarely this year did I think about it with the energy that I did my other listening.

All of which is in no way intended to diminish the 10 (or 12) commercial recordings listed below. Nor is it my sense that following list could easily be swapped out with two or even four more lists of fascinating sets of 10 albums from the past year. These were selected because any other such lists would still have some sense of absence. The music here touches on a variety of approaches, which is part of what makes it feel whole. There is voice-infused music, and sound art, and something not too distantly related to dance music, and noise, and elegant ambience, and contemporary classical, and remixes — and more. There are small-scale recordings, and recordings for which institutional financial support was necessary. In two cases two albums are listed, because they are by the same artists and were released this year and feel of a piece with each other. (And it at least one of the two cases, they were subsequently packaged together by the releasing record label.)

All of which is to say, in a year when I didn’t write about much commercial music, when it came time to list my 10 favorites, the list expanded to 12. They are listed here in alphabetical order by musician. Yes, “musician,” singular. One thing that struck me when I completed this list is that all these albums are, with the exception of the ECM remix collection, solo records.

Julianna Barwick‘s The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty): Julianna Barwick is a choir of one. She makes music in which layer upon layer of her singing, vaguely druid in its tonal quality, form slow cascades of seemingly wordless invention. The effect is both meditative and cathartic. Other elements make themselves heard, including a minimalist piano that sounds like Harold Budd at work on one of Tom Waits’ detuned barroom favorites. This is music that could all to easily lapse into treacle, but it shows restraint, not in its ambition, but in its affect. … More on Barwick at Listen to the album in full at More on the record at There’s also a collection of remixes, Matrimony Remixes, which I cannot recommend; the beats just make all the songs sound like the closing music to a Disney animated film.   Jefferson Friedman‘s Quartets (New Amsterdam): The collection contains two complete string quartets and a pair of remixes. The quartets (which date from 1999 and 2005) are alternately fierce and pastoral, and they distinguish themselves with the extent to which the instrumentalists are treated as equal partners, and the extent to which the arrangement is the music: theme and melody rarely stand out above the musical interplay. They are performed here by the Chiara String Quartet, for whom they were composed. The Matmos remixes are some of the duo’s strongest recent work, especially the closing track, “Floor Plan Mix,” which achieves a spectral quality in its distillation of the source material. … More on the musicians at,, and Listen to the album in full at More on the album at   Grouper‘s A I A : Dream Loss and A I A : Alien Observer (Yellow Electric): Between their titles and approach, these are at least companion collections and more like parts of a whole (think how with the final two thirds of the Star Wars or the Lisbeth Salander trilogies, neither half is particularly satisfying without the other). Grouper is Liz Harris, and her two 2011 full-length releases, though available separately, deserve consideration as a whole, not simply because their titles and covers suggest them as halves of a pair, or entries in a series, but because they similarly eke songs, or song-like formations, from quiet accumulations of vocals and supporting sounds. There is a lot of freak folk, or “drone folk,” out there in drone world. These recordings are closer to “drone singer-songwriter.” … Both albums are sample-able at the music retailer, among other places: Alien, Dream.

Tim Hecker‘s Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky): Hecker took source recordings he made of a pipe organ in Iceland and then went to work on them. Each glitch is a synapse-firing crisis of faith. Each echo maps the architecture of the place. Each mass of synthesized material fills the empty church in your mind. The cover shows a piano being pushed off the edge of the building, which makes for a colorful (or, in this case, black-and-white) polemic. There is tension in this music for certain, but it’s more likely to instill in experimental musicians the desire to explore pipe organs than to dispose of them. … More on Hecker at The music is sample-able at, among other retailers.   Jacaszek‘s Glimmer (Ghostly): In traditional terms, this is the prettiest album on this list. It is built from harpsichords and string sections and other classical instruments, which in combination lend it a storybook quality. It’s less fragile than it is dainty, but the daintiness is undergirded with filmic tension, like something out of the Quay Brothers at their most romantic yet mischievous. And the “traditional” instrumentation is just part of the sound design, mixed in with all manner of knocking and general acoustic haze. … More on the album at, where it is also available for streaming. More on the composer at the somewhat out of date

Eli Keszler‘s Cold Pin (Pan): Based on a massive sound-art installation by Keszler, the album comes in two parts: a recording of his invention (“14 strings ranging in length from 25 to 3 feet are strung across a 15 x 40 curved wall, with motors attacking the strings, connected by micro-controllers, pick-ups and rca cables”) and a recording of Keszler performing freely improvised jazz alongside the sculpture with Geoff Mullen, Ashley Paul, Greg Kelley, Reuben Son, and Benjamin Nelson. The artwork is impressive, and the album is a model for documenting site-specific installations. … More on the album (including sound and video) at More on Keszler at   Israel Martinez‘s El Hombre Que Se Sofoca (Sub Rosa): Six tracks of resplendent noise. The pieces range from deep washes of grey haze to jittery and anxious scattered samples. Melodic and cinematic washes give way to harsh deadspace. The impact is true to the title’s depiction of suffocation. A major album by the Mexican sound artist and musician, who is also a co-founder of the adventurous record label Abolipop. … More on the album, including two sound samples, at the record label’s website. More on Martinez at and   Andy Stott‘s We Stay Together and Passed Me By (Modern Love). Two albums of closely related yet disparate takes on club music. At its essence, this is the most minimal of minimal techno, but it seems more interested in exploring aridity than dankness, a rare and particularly welcome variation in this arena. … Listen to Together and Passed at their respective Soundcloud set pages.
  Amon Tobin‘s ISAM (Ninja Tune). It was almost as tempting to list this album under “best scores of 2011” as it was to list Kid Koala’s own recent Ninja Tune release (a soundtrack for a graphic novel he wrote and drew) simply as a commercial album. ISAM, in essence, is a recording of the music to Tobin’s audio-visual concert performance of the same name. It is brash and moving and, more than anything he has done previously, free of riffs intended and required to signal affiliation with a particular techno genre. … More on Tobin and the release, including streaming music and video and a free download, at   Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer‘s Re: ECM (ECM): The repeated use of the “re” prefix on this album — every one of the 17 tracks on its two halves — suggests that someone at the company still thinks of remixing as a purely post-production undertaking, rather than part of the artistic process. But still, it is a good thing that the estimable ECM label let DJs Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer wander through its back catalog, unearth samples, and render from them sonic tapestries. The music, with its constant presence of dust formations, has the texture of affectionate archival research. (It’s very close in spirit to Bill Laswell’s Panthalassa stroll through Miles Davis’ work.) … Discussion and music at More on the record at

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Best of 2010: 10 Best Netlabel/Free/CC Releases

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.

Listen Up: The Estonian hangar in which Thomas Ankersmit recorded his live performance

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 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 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 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.

Play Bali: The photo that Tim Prebble challenged musicians to provide a score to

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:

¶ 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:

¶ 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, but until then, just go give it a listen.

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Best of 2010: 8 Best iOS Sound/Music Apps

Following is a list of the eight new iOS apps that this year best exemplified the intersection of sound/music, interactivty, and mobility — that is, of apps designed for the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Last year’s list of best iOS apps had 10 entries, but the shorter list this year isn’t intended as any sort of sign of a diminution of creativity in iOS development. Quite the contrary, this year’s list is simply more categorically selective.

There are at least two major branches of iOS sound apps right now: those that emulate (or otherwise augment) instrumentation, such as virtual pianos and turntables (as well as guitar tuners and effects pedals), and those that explore new realms of interactivity.

In its widely reported year-end “Rewind” assessment of “app trends,” Apple labeled these categories, respectively, as “Band in a Hand” and “Generative Art & Sound” (which combines visual and sonic tools). This year-end list focuses on the latter.

Further winnowing the potential contenders, all the apps listed below were released this year. I thought about including previously existing apps that showed a major upgrade this year, but decided to focus on new apps, in large part because an insignificant number of apps from 2009 in this interactive realm showed any significant improvement in 2010.

The eight best sound/music apps of 2010 are, in alphabetical order:

1. Aura 2: Flux: This ambient-music creation tool nudges toward instrument territory (or, more to the point, compositional territory) but emphasizes the casual playfulness of its own homegrown visual interface (iTunes), one that encourages an exploratory approach. Various moods and sounds can be combined to create systems-fueled compositions based on how elements are organized. Aura’s interface provides a kind of visual programming language made of building blocks (and, like another app listed here, Reactable, is thus reminiscent of the old Logo programming language). More details at the developer’s website,

2. Immersion Station: This seemingly simple app allows you to place a set number of globes on a grid, each globe representing a different sound loop (iTunes). The grid is distorted based on a one-point perspective, which means that the further back a globe is placed (the closer it approaches the horizon), the quieter it is in the mix. The real clincher is an “evolve” mode that takes a given arrangement and slowly shifts it as time progresses. The app was developed by longtime electronic musician Steve Roach and software engineer Eric Freeman. More details at

3. Inception: This is a bespoke edition of the RjDj app, developed as a free adjunct to the Inception film (iTunes). It processes the sound around you in real time, transforms it in ways that the developers liken to a dream state. Some of the transformations involve musical cues from the film. The common software-development term for this kind of thing is “reactive,” or “augmented.” An even more appropriate word would be “wonderful.” Additional coverage: a story I wrote about the app’s release for, a list of the RjDj/Inception developers’ favorite aspects of the apps, and a list of the best movie scores of 2010 (which includes Inception). More details at

4. Mixtikl: This app almost doesn’t belong on this list, because there is nothing casual about it (iTunes). It is a highly detailed generative-sound creation tool, one that has far more in common with computer music software than with the playful, intuitive apps listed here. However, even if that does put it strongly in the “instrument” category, the fact is that it has no analog (so to speak) in the realm of traditional musical instruments. It also includes a growing library of in-app sound generators. As a sign of its non-iOS-specificity, there are Mixtikl versions for a growing number of operating systems, including Windows and Mac, at the developer’s website,

5. Thicket: This is, at its essence, an interactive single (iTunes). The touch screen lets the user alter in various ways a piece of music — an alternately bouncy and reflective bit of refined techno — and the visuals associated with it. The alterations depend on the number of fingers used, the patterns drawn, the speed at which they are drawn, and the angle at which the device is placed. Additional coverage: an interview with one of the app’s developers, “Being Decimal: The Anticipatory Pleasures of the Thicket App.” More details at

6. Reactable: This is, like Flux, a node-based ambient-music tool with its own internal structural logic (iTunes). It is the second most complex of these apps (after Mixtikl), but the invested time is rewarded handsomely. Like Aura (mentioned above), its building-block interface and systems-oriented progressions suggest a distant lineage to the Logo programming language. It originated as physical, tabletop interface and was later ported to a software-only tool. More details at

7. Sonic Wire Sculptor: In simplest terms, this iOS app takes line drawings and turns them into sound (iTunes). Create new compositions by carefully delineating a structure, or just input an existing image, like a face, and listen to how it sounds. Then — and this is what really pushes Sonic Wire Sculptor over the top — rotate the line drawing in three-dimensional space to hear geometric variations on the musical theme. More details at

8. SoundyThingie: This one is the sole iPad-only app on the list (the developer has stated that iPhone development is “tricky because iPhones have very weak processor”). It provides a blank slate on which the user draws lines, lines that are subsequently interpreted as sonic instructions (iTunes). Speed, position, and other factors influence the resulting audio. Of all the apps here, this one probably has the most self-evident roots in the tradition, so to speak, of non-traditional graphic scores in avant-garde music. More details at

A few additional notes:

¶ These are all iOS apps, which is not intended to dismiss mobile-app development on Android (I own a G1 phone, and when its contract runs out at the start of 2011, I will almost certainly replace it with another Android-based phone), Windows 7, or any other operating system, or browser-based (largely Flash) interactive sound toys. Much of the energy that for over a decade fed the audio-games/sound-toy world in web browsers seems to have migrated to Apple’s operating system, but here’s to hoping that the development world diversifies in 2011.

¶ There are, indeed, other types of sound apps, including streaming audio, like Pandora and Soundcloud; so-called “soundboards,” which collect sounds related to a specific subject, like The Simpsons; and brand fodder, which provide fans with a virtual trinket, the app equivalent of glossy pamphlets purchased from concert concession stands. And judging by sheer number, “farts” could easily be its own subcategory.

¶ I considered including Papa Sangre on the list (iTunes) because it is (reportedly) the first ever audio-only video game. However, much as that sounds like a wonderful melding of Janet Cardiff and Nintendo, there is no sound manipulation within Papa Sangre, so it doesn’t really fit into this list.

And needless to say, if anything prominent is missing, do not hesitate to let me know.

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Best of 2010: 10 Best Film Scores

There are two subsets of ambient/electronic music that often get overlooked in discussion. One is the instrumental backings of hip-hop (and, increasingly, r&b and pop songs), which are constructed from fragments of samples in a manner that would make John Cage or John Oswald proud — and whose inherent abstractions become self-evident when relieved of the songs’ vocal content. Much of my music-buying every month is of instrumental hip-hop tracks, yet year in year out I never seem to make much progress on putting an end-of-year list together of my favorites.

In any case, the other subset is soundtracks, not just to films, but to television, video games, advertising — and, increasingly, to consumer devices, such as alarm clocks. Easily one of the most intoxicating electronic “hits” of the year was Chilly Gonzales’ “Never Stop,” which appeared in several iPad commercials. I, personally, consume far more television than I do movies, and I need to pay more attention to television incidental music. That is, I pay attention to it — I’m especially fond of the late Rubicon, of The Walking Dead, of Big Love, of Fringe and, of all things, of CSI: Miami, the latter of whose sound designers have been out of control lately — but, again, I never seem to manage to get a proper list together. (NCIS, by the way, deserves some credit, too; that show has an almost vaudevillian approach to music timing.) Perhaps next year.

Now, there may be far fewer films — and, thus, far fewer film soundtracks — than there are non-soundtrack CD releases each year, but like any such list, this one is still hampered by how much time I have. (It’s also hampered by how many scores are actually released commercially, though I’ve come to understand that’s become less of an issue thanks to digital-only albums.) There are many 2010 movies I didn’t have a chance to see, especially ones with work by some of the leading composers in the realm of so-called underscoring, in which the music bleeds into the sound of the film, such as Gustavo Sanaolalla (Biutiful), David Holmes (The Edge), and Lisa Gerrard (Oranges and Sunshine), just to name a few.

All of which is to say, here are the 10 movies scores of the year — scores that employed tenets of an ambient/electronic approach, alphabetized by movie title.

1. The American Herbert Grönemeyer (EMI) No major motion picture this year confronted silence — or at least the absence of speech — with the elegance and coherence of The American. The story of a mercenary gun craftsman on the run in Italy, it probably has less dialog than does any other movie to open in the top three, let alone the number one spot. Grönemeyer, as a result, has vast spaces to fill, but he does so without ever letting the audience lose a sense of the sounds of the world, whether it be the workspace where the gunmaker plies his trade in secret, or the city and rural environs he finds himself in. One particularly great scene has him timing his efforts so that he can mask his hammering with the ringing of church bells. Of course, that scene’s credit goes to the movie’s director, Anton Corbijn, but it provides a sense of the silence-coaxing context in which Grönemeyer was composing.

2. Black Swan Clint Mansell (Fox Music) Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island wasn’t the only film this year to take classical music and let it serve a psychological thriller. Here, it is, of course — we are talking about ballerinas — Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but mixed with Mansell’s trademark electronic textures. It isn’t quite chopped and screwed, but it’s enticingly on its way there.

3. The Fighter Michael Brook (Relativity) Michael Brook is one of those few composers whose scores are always listenable unto themselves, apart from the films they serve, and yet they serve the film nonetheless. It was very risky for this particular film’s director, David O. Russell, to align his movie’s desperate realism with Brooks’ fourth-world dreaminess. But Russell no doubt heard in Brooks’ tonal sketches something akin to the flow of blood in one’s ringing ear.

4. The Illusionist Sylvain Chomet (Milan) This is, on the surface, by far the least technologically mediated of the soundtracks listed here, but it’s not only for association with the winning Triplets of Belleville score that director Chomet draws attention. His take on jazz and chanson pastiche emphasizes atmospheric content over song content in a manner that’s quite conscious of the functional purpose of popular music: as a soundtrack to goings-on, as a mood-setter. There’s also, for all Chomet’s love of swing, an animator’s metronomic pulse in everything he does. Just listen to the pitter-patter xylophone in “Blue Dress,” or the piping piano of “Paris London.”

5. Inception Hans Zimmer (Warner Bros.) No score this year got more attention, and deservedly so, for its accomplishment in taking narrative structure to heart. Inception would be receiving major year-end praise if only for its utilization of elements of “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf to seem as if Zimmer had majestically slowed it down, matching the relationship that the film suggested between nested dreams and temporal experience. But, in addition to that, Inception is simply one of Zimmer’s best scores. Along with Sherlock Holmes, it shows that he’s moving away from the synthesizer-driven material with which he’s long been associated. (And, in a true act of dedication, he and director Nolan then teamed up with the crew behind the iPhone reactive-audio app RjDj — more on which when I post the best iOS apps of the year.)

6. The King’s Speech Alexandre Desplat (Cutting Edge/Decca) The rare orchestral score that is subdued, truly subdued — not Mahler-subdued, all that inner turmoil, but Satie-subdued. The movie is about a British royal overcoming a speech impediment. The work probably served as a good balance as Desplat toiled around the same time on the score to a film about another anointed one overcoming childhood trauma and gaining leadership skills and self-confidence: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

7. Shutter Island various (Rhino) Not a particularly great film, but a fascinating score. No original music, just various greatest hits of 20th century (and some 21st century) classical music. To use Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes” (performed by the Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by John Adams) in a psychological thriller would be obscene, only if you live in a world that cherishes the self-ghettoizing of classical music. Also here: Nam June Paik, Brian Eno, John Cage, and Max Richter, among others. The approach brings to mind Stanley Kubrick (think of all that Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey, forcing out poor Alex North’s original music), though apparently it was not the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, but instead Robbie Robertson (of the Band) who put it all together.

8. Social Network Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross The movie is directed by one of the most formally accomplished filmmakers, David Fincher, and written by one of the contemporary screenwriters most comfortable with theatrical staginess, Aaron Sorkin. So who better than rock’s romantic figure with the drum-machine heart to score it. Reznor and his colleague Ross turn in a spectacle of cold-bloodedness, emotional short circuits, and frayed nerves. (The one unfortunate thing about the score to Social Network is how frequently it is attributed solely to Trent Reznor, when in fact it plainly bears a dual credit between Reznor and Atticus Ross. So, also check out this year’s The Book of Eli, which Ross scored by himself. Lackluster movie, but a bracing score; Ross funnels ragged industrial pop into a song-less space that is rich and vibrant.)

9. The Tempest Elliot Goldenthal (Zarathurstra) Goldenthal is one of the most scene-chomping film composers of our time, and yet there’s always a detail-mindedness to his work. There’s something about his broad palette, his mix of rock’n’roll energy and minimalist patterning, that makes him a kind of Hollywood kin of the Bang on a Can folks. He especially goes all out when he teams with his wife, director Julie Taymor, as he does here.

10. 127 Hours A.R. Rahman (Interscope) It isn’t a surprise, after the triumph that was Slumdog Millionaire, that its director, Danny Boyle, would re-team with its composer, A.R. Rahman. What is a surprise, one that speaks to Boyle’s counter-intuitive imagination, is that he brought Rahman, one of the major figures in Bollywood movie music, to work on a film that takes place in desolate Moab, Utah — and that Rahman would, for the most part, rein in his penchant for the boisterous in favor of a story-appropriate aridity.

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