Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums of 2013
Reviewed by Mike G, November 17, 2013
This year is a bigger list than last. 2013 marked my return to radio with The Cosmic Lounge show on Digitally Imported's Chillout Channel and, while my show doesn't really have a bias towards either past or new music, I did find myself exploring more new stuff than I might have otherwise.
AMG's Best Albums Of 2013 mix is my best-of year 2-hour mix and features music from many of the albums reviewed below.
Needless to say, this list is my personal faves and I'm sure you'll have some of your own that you think absolutely, positively should have been included here. 'Twas ever thus.
Here are AMG's Best Albums of 2013, in no particular order...
Various - I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 (Light In The Attic Records)
Think you know new age music? Maybe not. This fascinating 2-CD set looks back on the days when American new age was a cottage industry and some of the music was very fine indeed. I concur with the release notes on I Am The Center: "New age, at its best, is a reverberation of psychedelic music, and great by any standard. This is analog, handmade music communicating soul and spirit, often done on limited means and without commercial potential, self-published and self-distributed. Before it became big business and devolved into the spaced out elevator music we know and loathe today, this was the real thing."
The 20 electronic, acoustic and electro-acoustic tracks on I Am The Center mostly originate from West Coast composers and date between the mid-1970's and the mid-1980's. Some of my faves are here - Iasos, Aeoliah, Don Slepian, Michael Stearns - alongside a fair number of artists whose music I've never heard before. There's lots of harp, flute, bells, organ, electric piano and a plethora of early analog synth sounds. Although everything here has been remastered, what's striking in hindsight is the soft-edged sound design. The crisp high-end and heavy compression applied to so many modern electronic productions seems eons away. This is quiet music for quiet times, so be sure to play it on headphones or in a noiseless environment.
The compiler-producer of this project, Douglas Mcgowan, was not even born when much of this music was made. His unique perspective and natural curiosity has not only unearthed some great music but also some fascinating contemporary interviews with key figures from the scene, featured in the accompanying CD booklet. I Am The Center is a treasure, a reminder of the free spirits that roamed the earth in new age's early days, before corporate interests and the calculated, cheesy muzak of labels like New World and New Earth spoiled the party.
Various - Oxycanta III compiled by Maheine (Ultimae Records)
After ambient techno-trance label Ultimae Records wrapped up its pioneering Fahrenheit Project series in 2007, I found subsequent various-artist albums to be somewhat spotty quality-wise and collectively lacking a clear sense of direction. After such an auspicious start, it was hard to get a sense through the compilations of where the label was going; instead it was single artist albums by Carbon Based Lifeforms, Connect.Ohm, Asura and Sync24 that really impressed.
Enter DJ and label co-founder Maheine with Oxycanta III, a beautiful and intelligent collection of new material which happens to steer clear of my current pet hates in ambient beats: lazy prettiness on one hand and digital glitch overkill on the other. To my ears this is Ultimae's strongest compilation in many years - the best since the first Oxycanta (2006), in fact. Like that album this is one of label's quieter comps, built on a foundation of light beat patterns, mysterious melodies and an almost infinite variety of floating, cosmic sounds and textures. The album peaks with a haunting three-track sequence featuring music by I Awake (aka Thomas Huttenlocher) and 36 (aka Dennis Huddleston). Icy piano figures with strings and drones bookend a track called "Seance" on which a creepy, descending melody rides a muted drum pulse, its rhythm suggestive of an old pendulum clock.
Oxycanta III is Ultimae's progressive ethos of "panoramic music for panoramic people" writ large. A must for label fans and also a decent introduction if by chance you are yet to encounter the deep, multi-coloured and mind-expanding wonders of the universe known as Ultimae Records.
Kosmischer Läufer - Secret Cosmic Music of the East German Olympic Program 1972-83, Vol. 1. (Bandcamp)
A hoax, yes, but a glorious one. This year's most intriguing release was Kosmischer Läufer, an album claiming to be lost tapes of vintage 70's Krautrock that was secretly commissioned by the East German government to motivate Olympic athletes in training. The story goes that a film sound editor and composer by the name of Martin Ziechnete was visited in West Berlin in the early 70's by two members of East Germany’s ruling party on behalf of the Nationales Olympisches Komitee, who somehow had heard about Ziechnete's work experimenting with Western-style electronic music in the vein of bands like Neu and Kraftwerk.
In truth, the whole thing was the work of a couple of pranksters from Scotland who set up a Bandcamp page and created an elaborate back story via media releases and social channels. More than one blog took the bait - Dangerous Minds among them - until some of the more observant readers did a little research (for example, Martin Ziechnete does not exist) and pointed out that the recordings sounded a little too clean to pass as authentic studio productions of the era.
Clean production aside, the analogue spirit of Neu, Cluster and Kraftwerk - as well as Boards of Canada and early Vangelis, funnily enough - dwells within these six melodic compositions with uncanny presence. The sequence of tracks gradually builds in tempo and intensity - the faster "motorik" beats sound like textbook Neu - before finishing with a gentle, trippy fairground melody. As a pastiche, the album shows impressive attention to detail in recreating a strain of early Krautrock that never was. But it's more than just clever; it's soulful, too.
Funniest online retort to those who called out the hoax: "We locked Vangelis in a room with hours of filmstrip soundtracks and old educational TV logos. He died. We did this for SCIENCE. Shut up."
Boards Of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp Records)
"Children have the right to more Boards Of Canada," cried one fan on AMG's Facebook page back in May. Indeed, its been eight long years since the last Boards Of Canada album. The anticipation has been enormous so it's just as well that this reclusive duo - siblings Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin - seem to once again have ignored the weight of expectation that's hung over this and every release since their 1998 breakthrough Music Has The Right To Children. Because that weight is absurdly heavy - partly due to a salivating indie and alt rock media - and something that no mere mortals could hope to deal with head-on.
Tomorrow's Harvest shows the duo once again going their own, methodical way and producing beautiful things; a compelling mashup of slow cut-up breakbeats, lo-fi samples, detuned analog beauty and haunting chorales. Cuts like "Reach For The Dead", "Jacquard Causeway" and "Cold Earth" are lovely in a harmonic sense but also edgy and strange. The album's ecological concerns and overall sense of foreboding help provide the exquisite tension that's always been a hallmark of BOC's best music.
The influence on electronica of this Scottish duo's eerie, brittle-edged ambience is formidable; they've inspired many and been imitated by thousands of laptop techno wannabes in the last decade and a half. The band's recent lengthy silence led some of us to wonder whether Boards Of Canada had called it quits. Yet here they stand in 2013, alive and more than well. Long may they haunt us.
LSG - The Unreleased Album (Solieb Digital)
LSG is Oliver Lieb - the German dance and electronic music innovator, DJ and prolific remixer. The belated release of The Unreleased Album completes a trilogy of superb chillout releases that were recorded around the turn of the millennium, the other two being his much-lauded Into Deep (1999) and the downtempo remix project The Singles Reworked (2004). This shelved album from 2002 - unreleased due to record company upheavals - was first made available for fans some years ago as a mid-quality MP3. Now at last we get the real deal, remastered and in full quality.
And it's wonderful: a spacey, melodic, 70-plus minute fusion of down-to-midtempo breakbeats, tech-trance and ambient, spiced occasionally with bytes from an anonymous female vocalist. LSG's brand of breakbeat is utterly different from, say, the stoned trip-hop of Ninja Tune label's chillout material or even the smoother, airy progressive breaks sometimes favoured by house DJ/producers like Sasha. During the period when Oliver Lieb was making the big room club trance he's best known for - the 1990's - he famously spent a lot of time fashioning his own sounds rather than relying on presets. That effort shows in most of what he does - both then and now - including his chilled LSG material which consequently hardly sounds dated at all. It's stark, beautiful, alien music. It never eschews melody, but doesn't overuse it either. It's also surprisingly sexy at times, suggestive of machines doing naughty things. There's eight untitled tracks in all, the last of which brings the album to a rousing climax of frantic drums and a sparkling, pinging melody.
In an interview with AMG this year he said: "I was thinking for a long time that I wouldn't release The Unreleased Album because it was done so long ago. Maybe people wouldn't understand it." He need not have worried. Soon we'll be getting two more additions to Oliver Lieb's still small downtempo oeuvre: a new LSG album, plus a deep ambient release called Inside Voices.
Sounds From The Ground - Tribes (Upstream Records)
Last year's Widerworld album from exotic ambient dubsters Sounds From The Ground was a cracker - big on groove, dreamy harmonies and well-realised ideas. With this year's album Tribes, the UK duo Elliot Morgan Jones and Nick Woolfson hit the mark again. It rings enough changes on their widescreen sound to keep longtime fans excited and should prove a striking listen for anyone else who lends an ear.
This time SFTG's often dark-edged downtempo seems a little darker, feels a little more urban and menacing. The openers "Infrared" and "Carousel" sneak up on you with their uncluttered melange of snaking bass, drums, synthetic tones and subtle strings. "Feels Real" breathes new life into atmospheric drum 'n' bass with an inspired SFTG overhaul - grungy bass, gorgeous synth overlays, and an elastic fast/slow tempo that pulls you in two directions at once. "Nova Stone" is a fresh and funky dub-tech groove as tight as tensile steel wire, and the stop-start pattern of "Dimewater" sounds like perfect mood music for a stalk and chase scene.
Only a couple tracks show an obvious link back to Jamaican dub, but that's always been the case for this band. From their very first release back in the mid 1990's the duo has been exploring places far away from straight renditions of that style, thus the 'exotic' label that I'm fond of appending to the ambient dub tag. On Tribes they're still pushing, creating, trying things and - amid all this exploration - not forgetting how to hold a tune.
Steve Roach - Live Transmission from the Drone Zone at Soma FM (Projekt)
In the 1970's and early 80's there arose a thread of American ambient e-music that, while often confused with Californian new age, had greater longevity embedded in its DNA than the output of many a new age musician. Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Michael Stearns were the leading lights of this school - aided greatly by exposure on Stephen Hill's radio program Music From The Hearts Of Space - and all three are still active today.
2013 saw Steve Roach returning to live performance for the first time in some years. He played three venues - the Ambicon 2013 festival, plus a live webcast from Soma FM's San Francisco studios, plus three shows at the Vortex Dome in Los Angeles later in the year. This double-length album is from his Soma FM gig and it's truly glorious. I saw his Ambicon show in May and musically Live Transmission is in the same league, just longer - a slowly developing tapestry of improvisation and prepared themes performed on a mix analogue and digital gear. All the elements of his sound are there: vast slow moving clouds, breathing synthetic chords, shakers, didgeridoo, dark tribal beats, pretty Berlin-school arpeggios and loads of samples from natural environments. The music's complexity and emotion, and its undeniable psychedelic power, is not simply gifted to you. It demands patience and a certain surrender to the fact that you're going on a long, gently twisting journey.
Steve Roach's discography is so vast, his creative achievements and his influence on other e-musicians so hard to measure, that no one album could even approach being a rough summary of his work. Live Transmission is hardly a greatest hits set anyway - a version of "Looking For Safety" that originally appeared on his epic Dreamtime Return (1989) is the only track here that would be widely recognised among Roach fans. But what this album does show is tremendous poise - a live performer in complete command of his art and still inspired after more than 30 years of music making.
Woob - Ultrascope (Bigamoebasounds)
Paul Frankland aka Woob's reputation was cemented very early in his career with the classic Woob 1194 release on Emit Records in 1994 - an album of eccentric, cinematic, surrealist wonder, impressive as both ambient composition and sound design. Frankland returned to recording as Woob in 2010 and we've had a steady stream of releases since then. Ultrascope is most impressive, a collection of dark widescreen music for head trips and 3D adventuring. The last proper Woob album Return To The City (2011) had an urban future noir quality to it, whereas this one maps an altogether more alien terrain.
The title track surges and sighs with a dramatic string-laden melody, big drones and thundering drums. "Horizon Vector" is one of several tracks that uses a Berlin-school arpeggio but in this case slightly detunes it, giving off that surreal air that Woob does so well. The 24-minute "Ultrascope II" veers between gorgeous, soaring synth chords and dark, sustained strings that hover as if in suspended animation, skirting the edge of outright dissonance without tipping you into the abyss. Of course it's all very cinematic - a Woob trademark - and a good deal of this album would be a perfect foil for Ridley Scott's Prometheus visuals instead of the purely functional atmospherics that passed for most of that film's score.
Despite some obviously dramatic flourishes, Ultrascope is a subtle piece work; it may even sound impenetrable on first listen and disjointed for a few more listens after that. But with time it reveals its deeper purpose, in the some way that Woob's best music always has. And subtle as it may be, it doesn't work as background sound. A Woob album is conceptually a very different proposition to, say, Brian Eno's ambience. Listen he who ventures, or don't bother to venture at all.
Derek Carr - Binary Son (Psychonavigation Records)
Irishman Derek Carr was unknown to me until indie electronic label Psychonavigation Records started making noises earlier this year about the upcoming release of this, his third album. Carr is a disciple of Detroit techno, usually occupying the more melodic and relaxed end of that spectrum, and he is exceptionally good at it.
Binary Son has some of the most profoundly uplifting melodies I've heard in a while, without an ounce of cheese or sentimentality. This is machine music with depth and humanity, a melange of icy strings, warm gliding keys, and programmed beats both simple and complex. "Station To Station" is a gorgeous mid-tempo cruiser with a chugging bassline and gentle, happy synth figures. "Martian Lander" soars on pretty bleeps and strings, and the ultra-smooth 4/4 groove of "The Engineers" echoes the loving vibe of deep house pioneer Larry Heard - not for the first time in Carr's oeuvre. The album's closing track "The Windmill" is a dark-edged exception to the rest; a slow, brooding machine pulse crawling beneath a haunting whistle.
"Soulful" is a word that gets used a lot by listeners describing Carr's brand of techno and I think that equates pretty closely with "tuneful". On Binary Son he shows an impressive knack of being able layer melodies, including the bass notes, to create a lush effect without actually thickening the sound. A sense of precision and clean space remains, a quality that's integral to the Detroit sound regardless of whatever variations or new innovations come with it. Personally, Derek Carr has been my big discovery of 2013 and I'm finding much to love as I explore his back catalogue.
Banco De Gaia - Ollopa: Apollo Remixed (Disco Gecko)
Toby Marks aka Banco De Gaia's pioneering mashups of rock-dub-ambient-trance-techno-world music in the 1990's were inspiring and very influential. Albums such as Last Train To Lhasa (1995) set an exceptional standard in both composition and craft. In the decades that followed, many newer artists thrived in Banco De Gaia's wake, especially exponents of ethno-ambient and the chilled global exotica that's come out the psytrance and dub scenes. Which, perversely, is one reason why more recent Banco De Gaia albums haven't had the same freshness or cut-through, including this year's Apollo (2013). How do you stand out in an overcrowded bazaar of artists working same genre, some of who may be offering wares - gulp - better than yours?
Cue Ollopa: Apollo Remixed, Toby Marks' most inspired creative decision in years: collaboration with some of the best electronic and downtempo talents of the generation that followed him. Psychill maestro Tripswitch takes "Acquiescence", formerly a pleasant meeting of strings and operatic vocal, and turns it into a slow, hypnotic widescreen groove with intoxicating Arabic aromas. New Zealand duo Deep Fried Dub jettisons the unexciting rock drums of "Oriea" for a tight, crunching dub beat guaranteed to induce serious head nodding. And on it goes, nine remixes in all, most of them stellar.
Among all these artists, the odd one out - in terms of genealogy, that is - is hippie techno outfit System 7 whose two members Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy pre-date Banco de Gaia by decades. They were part of 70's prog rockers Gong - and also recorded the influential psy-ambient album Rainbow Dome Music (1979) - before eventually finding a second life in ambient dance music. Here they fit right in, delivering a sparkling remix of "For Such A Time", adding spiraling bell-like melodies and an absolutely thumping mid-tempo polyrhythm.
Perhaps aware that a breakthrough was needed, Toby Marks has taken a risk with Apollo Remixed, placing his trust in these fan-artists to reinvent and re-inspire Banco De Gaia's sound. The result one of this year's best albums - a fresh, dynamic slice of exotic electronica.
Various - Die Welt ist Klang: A Tribute To Pete Namlook (Carpe Sonum Records)
It's only fitting that one of the most prolific recording artists in the history of music - in all recorded music, not just a genre - should be honoured with a sprawling 8-volume tribute album. Fax Records founder Pete Namlook (1960-2012) released hundreds of his own albums and EP's over a 20 year period and released hundreds more by other artists. He was one of the leading lights of new-school ambient and chillout, but it wasn't only the sounds of techno and trance that informed his music. Jazz, rock, Krautrock, Karl Stockhausen...there was so much that shaped Namlook's musical outlook and it shows in the amazing diversity of his recorded legacy.
Die Welt ist Klang ("The World Is Sound") was put together via a crowdfunding campaign by Dave from EAR/Rational Music, the longtime North American distributor for Fax and related labels. The album is presented thus: four volumes of mostly new or unreleased music by former Fax artists, and four volumes of new material by mostly unknown musician-fans.
It would take pages to review so much music in detail; suffice to say the standard of contributions overall is very high. Interestingly, most of the former Fax artists here don't seek to recapture peak moments from their past works. They just do what they do - from beatless ambient to bleepy dance grooves, from lounge to techno, from gentle dissonance to sweet, tender melodies. As for the the 40 or so musician-fan contributions, they were chosen from a large pool of submissions by a blind vote. Although there are some easy-to-spot pastiches among them, here too there is much freshness and surprise. Namlook, after all, was more than just the sum of his recordings. Fax Records was an expression of his passion and uncompromising independence, and his DIY business model was in itself hugely inspiring to other e-musicians.
At US$45 for the digital download or US$90 for the 8-CD box, Die Welt ist Klang is ridiculously good value and you can feel warm and fuzzy knowing that all profits go to Namlook's family. You don't even need to be acquainted with Namlook's music to justify the purchase; it's a massive treasure chest of (mostly) new ambient and electronica. Some of it is the sound of now and some of it wistfully looks back. All of it acknowledges the contributions and example of one remarkable man.
Maluns - Straight Theory (Cosmicleaf)
Straight Theory by newcomer Maluns is the sound of psytrance conceived at more modest velocities and, oh my sweet lord, does it deliver. The opener "Glimpse" is actually not slow but still supremely chilled, with electric guitar figures rippling across the surface of a smooching bassline. "Captain" has a gorgeous, arcing melody that's pure euphoria, while "Flux" is a very beautiful example of harmonic layering with synthetic and vocal textures. A dark edge is apparent in much of Maluns' richly textured trance, creating depth and drama and mystery. His music also reinforces my long-held notion that at 140bpm-plus speeds some good ideas in dancefloor psytrance get lost, simply because it's just too fast for certain dynamics to work. Fortunately, the psy scene also has Maluns and his like-minded brothers in chill, so everyone's happy. A fantastic debut from this new Swiss artist. Buy Straight Theory from the Cosmicleaf Bandcamp page.
Nick Muir & John Digweed - Versus (Bedrock)
The more recent dance music compilations by UK progressive house label Bedrock have included a chillout disc (they call it "electronica" - chillout is a dirty word now apparently) with downtempo remixes by various dance producers. On Versus, however, label co-founders Nick Muir and John Digweed do it all themselves - one disc of this 3-CD is devoted to their own original chillout compositions. Lots of floaty and bubbling sounds on the early tracks eventually coalesce into a series of trippy widescreen breakbeats and slow 4/4 grooves that hypnotise with a kind of minimalistic repetition. The overall lushness is almost a return to the classic Renaissance sound that Digweed and cohort Sasha championed up to early 2000's, before progressive dance DJ's and producers seemed to react en masse against rich tonalities (you can blame cheesy Eurotrance) in favour of rather grim tech house. Versus is most welcome: intelligent, warm and texturally innovative, and just the ticket for after-club chilling out, long drives or just lazy days at home. Buy Versus from Beatport.
Benji Vaughan - Even Tundra (Twisted Records)
Psychedelic label Twisted Records - home of Simon Posford's Shpongle and Hallucinogen projects - is not a label you could pin down to just one sound. Label regular Benji Vaughan (aka Prometheus and Younger Brother) continues that tradition with his new album of quirky, warm instrumental electronica, the first released under his own name. Tempos range from slow to allegro and there's no single style that dominates. The lovely melody and brittle crunch of the title track sounds like Boards Of Canada on happy pills. "Black Box" is a quasi deep house track with wafting tones and haunting voice bytes. The twisted, hyperactive textures of "Everything In Colour" make a stark contrast with its slow, lumbering groove. Even Tundra is an eccentric delight, full of good ideas and boasting sound design that's packed with tiny details; only repeated listens will reveal them all. Buy Even Tundra from the Twisted Records website.
Adam Michalak - Returning To Essence (Silent Season)
Canadian label Silent Season has been carving out an interesting niche in ambient dub, drone music and minimal techno since 2007. Return to Essence by newcomer Adam Michalak is seriously atmospheric stuff forged from the clean, smooth beats of slow minimal techno and the reverberating, ricocheting treatments of dub. His semi-dissonant style is admittedly an acquired taste; some listeners will hear little more than 4/4 monotony in tracks like "Rusty Leaves" and "Dense Fog". The album works best at volume, where you can hear the exquisite details and tonal touches in Michalak's arrangements. And at the centre of it all is a compelling stillness, hard to describe but easy to recognise once you've been there and back a few times. Buy Return To Essence from the Silent Season website.
Bonobo - The North Borders (Ninja Tune)
Bonobo is my favourite among Ninja Tune's more accessible acts: a multi-instrumentalist, breakbeat boffin and a gifted composer of great musicality. He paints his melodies like watercolours, mixing and matching colours but blurring the edges, teasing your imagination. His electro-acoustic sound is globetrotting world music in a way, but at its core it never strays far from his love of chilled hip-hop and breaks. The North Borders is no radical departure from his last two long players Days to Come (2006) and Black Sands (2010), though he has rung a few changes. Some of the beats sound more electronic and techy than before and in the case of "Cirrus" and "Don't Wait" they resemble the simple, metronomic beat patterns of deep house. "Cirrus", however, is classic Bonobo is every other respect with its rich tapestry of exotic sounds and a gentle melody performed on xylophone and bells. The album is about two thirds instrumentals and the handful of tracks with straight-up vocals and lyrics are curiously flat, suggesting that ditching songs altogether wouldn't be a bad idea for next time. Buy The North Borders from the Ninja Tune store.
Stelladrone - Light Years (Energostatic)
What Pink Floyd and the original Berlin-school ambient pioneers first seeded in the depths of galactic space, successive generations of e-musicians have enthusiastically carried on. Spacemusic - and I mean spacemusic in the literal sense, not the broader Hearts Of Space definition - seems eternal, a cosmic sound born of electronics and synthesisers and for which Lithuanian composer Stelladrone has an exceptional ear. His new album Light Years moves somewhat beyond the simpler drone-based music that dominates his earlier material to more structured pieces. Sometimes they're very much in the late Berlin-school mode; the deeply gorgeous arpeggios of "In Time" sound like one of the best film soundtracks that Tangerine Dream never got around to making. Some tracks are more epic - the opening "Red Giant" is a stunner - while the lush chord progressions of several others bare a strong resemblance to the chillout versions of 90's club trance classics like Energy 52's "Cafe Del Mar". If you can forgive a few derivative moments, Light Years is first class tripping for the more active astral traveler. Buy Light Years from the Energostatic Records site or Stelladrone Bandcamp page.
You can hear music from many of the above releases on The Cosmic Lounge edition 037 (Dec 2013) - my best-of-year mix.