John ~ The Forest and the Sea (Staubgold). Two travelers become
lost in the woods, are surrounded by night creatures, and wake up
with wings. At least that’s what seems to be happening in this
Grimm and unsettling tale. The music is bracketed by field
recordings: boots crunching on leaves, waves lapping against
forsaken cliffs, a horse galloping past hidden alcoves. “The
Forest and the Sea” is as mysterious as a Gypsy caravan and as
tantalizing as a gingerbread house; its inventive spirit makes it the
year’s top album.
~ October Language (Carpark). “October Language” is
grain and gauze, the sound of systems failing and things falling
apart. The master tapes escaped New Orleans just before Katrina, and
this scarred symphony, released soon afterwards, became its elegiac
witness. One can almost hear the phone lines failing, the circuits
sputtering, the levees beginning to break. This duo spots sparkling
shards beneath the debris, dredges beauty from the Bayou’s
drenched decay, and returns a sense of regality to its residents.
~ Heart (Collectief Debonair). Easily the year’s best kept
secret, Belgium’s “Heart” is Wim Maesschalek’s
labor of lost love, a heartbroken, electronic treasure. Strings are
plucked by a shipwrecked troubadour; bells tumble in the surf; white
noise washes ashore like the unbidden madness of sorrow. Every few
minutes, the instruments converge for consolation. The listening
experience is fragile and intimate, akin to cradling a broken baby
bird. The handpainted tour EP, “Herfst,” makes a
wonderful companion piece; details at www.wixel.be.
~ Progress – Reform (Fierce Panda Records). What’s not to
like about iLiKETRAiNS? They dress in British Rail uniforms, create
low-budget stopgap animation videos, and write songs about historical
figures: failed expeditionist Captain Scott, chessmaster Bobby
Fischer, railroad tyrant Richard Beeching. Their songs start as
silent as snow and climb to cacophony; their vocalist channels
Michael Gira, and their sense of choral drama rivals that of Roger
Waters. If this mini-LP (7 songs) had been any longer, it would have
topped the chart.
Halda ~ Enjoy Eternal Bliss (Big Scary Monsters/Burnt Toast Vinyl).
Only four songs, but over an hour long, “Enjoy Eternal
Bliss” rounds out last year’s self-produced EP, a layer
cake of guitars with violin filling and glockenspiel glaze. Music
for mountain peaks and outstretched hands.
~ Define the Great Line (Tooth & Nail). Most Christian acts
are lesser versions of their counterparts in the secular world;
Underoath is different. “Define the Great Line” is a
remarkable step forward for this veteran hardcore band: an
uncompromisingly heavy, richly textured, emotionally charged opus of
spiritual striving and secular rage. Freaking amazing.
Byen ~ Samme Stof Som Stof (Paper Bag Records). Under Byen
(“Under the City”) hails from Denmark, but begs the
exclamation, “I can’t believe it’s not Bjork!”
Vocalist Henriette Sennenvaldt shares the same quirky intonations as
the Icelandic singer, and is backed by tuba, bowed saw, and (shades
of Portishead!) theremin. “Samme Stof Som Stof” (“Same
Stuff as Fabric”) alternates between tender and triumphant and
slowly reveals its own, distinctly Scandinavian identity.
~ The Floating World (Nettwerk). Anathallo (“renew,
regenerate, bring forth”) is another Christian band that
refuses to be pigeonholed. “The Floating World” is based
on a Japanese fable about an adopted dog whose murder brings about a
mini-apocalypse. The music is thick and evocative, with theatrical
elements. Anathallo’s live show is incredibly entertaining, a
tutorial in synchronized exuberance that features xylophones, step
dancing and balloons. Of special note is the album’s elaborate
packaging, a die-cut sleeve connected to a generously comprehensive
Ef ~ Give Me Beauty … Or Give Me Death! (And the Sound).
Sweden’s Ef scores with this post-rock opus, which features
occasional male and female vocals as well as the requisite wall of
sound. Similar to Explosions in the Sky: a little bit of hurt with
a whole lot of healing.
~ A Sea Horse Limbo (intr.version). Brussels artist Jerome
Deuson continues to evolve with this sophomore effort. The addition
of vocalists (most notably, Avia Gardner’s Jenna Robertson) and
a live drummer demonstrates his passion for expansion. The sound is
still electronic, but now includes subtle post-rock elements, which
come to the fore in the feedback-laden live show: the shape of
things to come? Check out more of the aMute family on Jerome’s
new music label, Stilll!
Also Worth Note
Kira Kira ~ Skotta (Smekkleysa). Yet another delightfully off-kilter Icelandic wonder.
Blueneck ~ Scars of the Midwest (Don’t Touch). More epic sounds from Great Britain.
Ryan Teague ~ Coins and Crosses (Type). A holy hybrid; music for modern monasteries.
Sufjan Stevens ~ Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty). Better than frankincense & myrrh.
Johann Johannson ~ IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (4AD). Music from a dying machine.
Mono ~ You Are There (Temporary Residence). Sad, sprawling Japanese soundscapes.
Helios ~ Eingya (Type). Piano wunderkind adds electronic instruments to his repertoire.
Greg Haines ~ Slumber Tides (Miasmah). Only 18, and already drawing popular notice.
Tim Hecker ~ Harmony in Ultraviolet (Kranky). The granddaddy of tuneful tinsel.
Machinefabriek ~ Marijn (Lampse). The sound of gears and nuts cracking loose.
Songs ~ Vocal
Bruce Springsteen, O Mary Don’t You Weep
Snow Patrol, Chasing Cars
Murder by Death, The Big Sleep
iLiKETRAiNS, Terra Nova
Sol Seppy, Enter 1
Songs ~ Instrumental
Paavoharju, Yllaan on aamu, korennot ja kesa
Yndi Halda, Illuminate my heart, my darling!
Mogwai, Friend of the Night
Max and Harvey, Sleep
The Year in Books
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief.
A Holocaust novel about art, friendship and love, narrated by Death.
Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat.
How to sum up a life: a surprisingly funny history of obituary writing.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide.
When clouds gaze down on us, what do they tell each other we look like?
Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu.
Short stories set against the backdrop of Jonathan Norrell & Mr. Strange.
John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things.
A modern fairy tale about the lessons of classic fairy tales.
Rachel Cohn and David Levinthan, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
A young adult novel that features – and showcases – a running soundtrack.
Lynne Cox, Grayson.
The perfect beach book, a slim tome about swimming with a baby whale.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road.
A bleak and bitter vision of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic world.
Keith Donahue, The Stolen Child.
While a fairy falters in the human world, a human thrives in the fairy world.
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
An incredible debut that comes to a shocking and sudden end.
Top 4 Movies of the Year
United 93: A total triumph from every angle and in every category.
Pan’s Labyrinth: Returning the fairy tale genre to its horrific roots.
The Prestige: How far would you go in your pursuit of vengeance?
The Descent (British Version): Do you like scary movies? See this.
~ Rich Allen