James Knapman :: Top lists for 2009

Top 10 releases ::

Alva Noto 1903 image 1 :: Xerrox Vol. 2 (Raster-Noton)

It seems my suspicions regarding this album all turned out to be true. Xerrox Vol.2 has been endlessly rotating on my CD player, on my iPod, at work, in the car, twisting through my brain, my dreams, as my waking moments… this music practically runs through my veins now. The Xerrox series is a towering achievement and we still have three volumes of it to go. Not since the Orb’s U.F.Orb has an artist’s work affected me so. Truly mesmerising.

Yagya 1903 image 2 :: Rigning (Sending Orbs)

And I was right about this release too: it simply refuses to release its hold on me. I’ve recommended and played this album to so many people now, and every single one of them has incredibly taken with it, more so than perhaps any other album of its kind. It seems to have amazingly broad appeal and accessibility but is still quite unique, charming, warmly enveloping and comforting; not something that can be said about many releases in the genre. This is a dub techno masterpiece that genuinely adopts a unique approach and delivers atmosphere and emotion in equal quantities.

Kettel 1903 image 3 :: Myam James 2 (Sending Orbs)

Ordinarily this would have been at the top of my list but frankly, the quality of Yagya and Alva Noto’s work have pretty much eclipsed everything else for me this year. Myam James 2 does hold the distinction of featuring what is without a shadow of a doubt one of my favourite tracks of all time… in any genre… ever.

“Kingscourt Imp” is an epic, five-phase joyride filled with harpsichord madness (you can never have too many harpsichords), acid squelch, pealing synths and exquisitely timed breaks. Its bittersweet melodies when entwined with Advocaat’s evocative sleeve imagery are enough to bring tears to the eyes, evoking memories of happier times long since past; the kind of heart-string tugging piece that one would normally expect to close an album rather than open it. It is perfection. Elsewhere on the album there’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach that by rights shouldn’t work, should render itself as a sprawling mess. But this is Kettel we’re talking about here, so of course it isn’t. Where part one of this two-part project was a collection of discrete electronic pop, Myam James 2 is a fully-fledged, narrative-driven epic that seamlessly blends pretty much every music style Kettel has ever explored. Miss it at your peril.

Point 7 1903 image 4 :: What? (Toytronic)

One of 2009’s most pleasant surprises was this unexpected release from IDM veterans Toytronic. Point 7 turned out to be label founder Chris Cunningham himself, and What? was both nostalgic and a breath of fresh air in equal measure. It’s everything a Toytronic release should be. What’s sad, however, is that it appears to have been the label’s one last hurrah, as even their long-dormant website no longer exists, simply redirecting to a Discogs.com page instead. Please don’t go Toytronic!

cv313 1903 image 5 :: Live + cv313 Live at D.E.M.F. after party 2008 (Echospace [Detroit])

Not as hard to pin down as you might think, this Japanese-only Echospace [Detroit] release infuriated firstly by being a Japanese-only release, then infuriated still further by being one of the label’s best releases in a while, and then capped it all off by being available as an even more limited two-disc edition that was not only a Japanese-only release, but also only available to purchase from a single retail outlet. In Japan. It seems that a 2-disc cv313 studio recorded release is on the way from Echospace [Detroit] sometime this year, so the new and/or previously unreleased tracks that appear on this set will no doubt become available in new versions soon, but this remains a genuinely compelling and much more dance floor driven Echospace experience than their other 2009 output, and it is great to hear it (and how well it works) in a live context. Well worth hunting down.

Intrusion 1903 image 6 :: The Seduction Of Silence (Echospace [detroit])

Echospace [Detroit]’s first “proper album” as opposed to their previous mix compilations of Model 500 and Deepchord material, this was the first and best of Hitchell’s own releases last year (which turned out to be a busy one for the label), featuring as it does the twin colossi of the “Tswana” and “Intrusion” dubs in all their glory, coupled with far more personal, ambient works and some more overtly dub leanings.

Markus Guentner 1903 image 7 :: Doppelgaenger (Sending Orbs)

What’s this? We get an apocalyse heralding three Sending Orbs albums in one year!? Yet another reason to celebrate 2009 then, before the world comes to an end. Guentner may be known to people via his releases on Kompakt and Ware. These people will also know that the term “minimal” is ubiquitously applied to his work, and even this release doesn’t escape, Sending Orbs describing it as “a field trip into minimal-ambientland.” If Doppelgaengers construction is minimal this is completely lost on me, as it’s presentation is anything but. I personally find little that is notably minimal on this varied and fascinating album that effortlessly spans a wide gamut of ambient styles, imbuing every track with a verdant, perfumed panorama of alien landscapes teeming with strange and exotic wildlife. Exquisite.

The Orb 1903 image 8 :: Baghdad Batteries (Malicious Damage)

And this was, for me, 2009’s most surprising surprise. Oh look… it’s not really an Orbsessions album at all! Surprise! No, wait… what? Unlike the last two volumes in the Orbsessions series, this is actually a collection of recordings a single set of studio sessions that, frankly, gel better as an album than anything else the Orb have put out in years. I’m genuinely nonplussed as to why it has the Orbsessions subtitle and I think if anything this has probably hampered its success. It’s not even packaged similarly to the previous two sessions albums. Baghdad Batteries oozes a unique character that has been missing from The Orb’s work since Orbilivion, and this is an amazing return to form for them.

Brock van Wey 1903 image 9 :: White Clouds Drift Of And On (Echospace [Detroit])

Of all the Echospace [Detroit] releases from 2009 this was the one that polarised critics as they either doled out unhealthily hyperbolic praise (this magnum opus and work of unfettered genius) or unfairly dismissed it as a malingering, sentimental or maudlin self-indulgence. It isn’t really either. What it is is a deeply personal work with a very finely tuned atmosphere, tone and emotional weight. It’s easy to see why it divides listeners. Hitchell’s palindromic second interpretations disc turns out to be a highly enjoyable, if somewhat typical Echospace album in its own right and lends weight and variety to this excellent release.

Kraftwek 1903 image 10 :: The Catalogue (8xCD box set) (Mute)

Wow… are… are you sure you’re quite finished now? Hmm? I mean… it’s only been, what, eight years since this was announced, and a mere five since the first promo box was released? Are you really sure you’re not rushing things? In all seriousness, though, it was undoubtedly worth the wait. These classic and incalculably influential releases sound utterly thrilling on these re-mastered, almost re-created issues of eight of Kraftwerk’s icon albums, to the point where it’s easy to start questioning just how old much of this material really is. Even the comparatively recently re-mastered Tour de France has been re-polished until you can see your face in it. Housed in beautiful yet appropriately minimal and understated packaging, everyone should own at least one of the albums in this almost timeless collection.

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Honourable Mentions ::

Various Artists 1903 image 11 :: Warp 20 Box Set (Warp)

And so Warp Records waded in with the imaginatively titled Warp 20 box set, determined to celebrate their 20th anniversary in style. Featuring Unheard; a host of previously unreleased material and Infinite, a series of DJ-friendly locked grooves across a series of 5 slabs of 10″ vinyl; Chosen, a two-disc collection of “best of” material as nominated by the public themselves on one disc and label co-founder Steve Beckett on the other; Recreated as series of inventive, often downright strange cover versions of Warp tracks by Warp artists and finally the exclusive Elemental, a brilliant hour-long Osymyso megamix of Warp’s eclectic back catalogue. There’s almost a massive paperback catalogue featuring artwork for just about every Warp release to date. This was a worthy celebration of one of the most influential records labels of its time, and worth owning for the excellent Elemental disc alone.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim 1903 image 12 :: Twice Born Men (Samadhisound)

This album might seem like it is in rather odd company considering the rest of the releases on this list, but there’s enough electronic invention and atmospheric knob-twiddling going on here for it be up there with the rest of them. Featuring a time-worn, maritime theme that has been exquisitely worked into every facet of the work and some of the most penetrating and affecting melodies of the year and Twice Born Men (nominated for a Mercury Prize) is one of the greatest successes Sylvian’s boutique label has put out in its history.

Variant 1903 image 13 :: The Setting Sun (Echospace [Detroit])

Yes, another Echospace [Detroit] release in the list, but it was a very, very busy year for the label with not only four long-players released, but a host of additional twelves as well. This one sees Hitchell in entirely beat-less territory, each track drenched in rain (somewhat at odds with the project’s title), Hitchell’s trademark soft white noise and seductive, contemplative melodic structures. The only shame of the CD release is that it doesn’t include (on a second disc) the simply astonishing “FallingStars” – the 58 minute epic that accompanied the digital release of The Setting Sun in 2008.

Leyland Kirby 1903 image 14 :: Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was (HAFTW)

It’s great, but I’m still not entirely sure why. The sheer epic scale of the thing shouldn’t automatically bestow worth upon the project, and I don’t think it does per se; many of these tracks are far longer than they really need to be. But there’s something about the cumulative sense of sadness, glimmerings of hope and sheer passion that has gone into this often queasy musical quest that makes it compelling listening.

AtomTM 1903 image 15 :: Liedgut (Raster-Noton)

This enigmatic and often downright weird release on Raster-Noton still delights on repeat listens. They obviously love it over there because it comes packaged in a bold green version of their super-deluxe slide-out CD packages. Yes, green; not white. And with debossed gold-foil blocking and everything. With influences ranging from Kraftwerk (informing the auto-tuned robotic vocals and Florian Schneider actually contributing a vocal on the final “hidden” track) to classical works, AtomTM’s laser-etched techno frequencies are distorted by structured interference and infused with quintessentially German melodies in waltz and bossa-nova styles. At just under 36 minutes, it’s a giddying experience that couldn’t possibly overstay its welcome.

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