1. 2010-14

    My favorite albums:

    10. Rebekka Karijord: Music for Theater and Film (2014)

    9. The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011)

    8. The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme (2010)

    7. Adam Green & Binki Shapiro: s/t (2013)

    6. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)

    5. Feist: Metals (2011)

    4. Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks (2013)

    3. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

    2. Beachwood Sparks: The Tarnished Gold (2012)

    1. Arp: The Soft Wave (2010)


    And my favorite songs, roughly ranked from top to bottom. Sorry 2014, your contributions have not sufficiently sunk in yet.


    Cass McCombs: County Line (2011)

    Phosphorescent: Song for Zula (2013)

    LCD Soundsystem: I Can Change (2010)

    Little Scream: The Heron and the Fox (2011)

    Arp: Pastoral Symphony I. Dominoes II. Infinity Room (2010)

    The Walkmen: Heartbreaker (2012)

    Josh Ritter: Hopeful (2013)

    Andrew Bird: Danse Carribe (2012)

    Tame Impala: Apocalypse Dreams (2012)

    Adam Green & Binki Shapiro: Here I Am (2013)

    Los Colognes: Working Together (2013)

    Vampire Weekend: Unbelievers (2013)

     

  2. KRANK 178: Benoit Pioulard: Hymnal (2013)

    Coming on the heels of two Grouper records in a row (KRANK 176, KRANK 177), it’s almost too much to take in a new record from Benoit Pioulard, aka Thomas Meluch, whose own aesthetic is of a kindred spirit to that of Grouper. Like Liz Harris’s project, Meluch blends and obscures his songs with lo-fi ambient textures. It’s an approach, well documented at this point, that a lot of Kranky artists have taken.

    Those artists on the label who aim for a balance between songwriting and ambient pieces all come at that challenge in different ways. Grouper washes out her music in such a way that it’s almost a moot point to try to separate the songs from the sonics. Windy & Carl seem to be more of an ambient project that tosses in one or a few vocal tracks per album. Jessica Bailiff started out by doing both but eventually shifted focus away from her ambient side.

    Meluch, who possess the strongest hooks of them all, has always let his songs step forward first. His soundscapes have sometimes seemed merely interstitial, and in other cases been as thoughtfully produced as his more traditional songs; in the case of his third and best album, Lasted (KRANK 145), Meluch often successfully blended both elements in the space of one track. On Hymnal he tries something new. Eight of the twelve songs here are typical Pioulard vocal/guitar “ambient pop” tunes, all around three minutes. Smack in the middle of the record Meluch places the much longer “Gospel,” a droning chord that undulates in a slow wave-like pattern. Another longer piece, “Knell,” comes near the end of the record. These two tracks stand out from the rest, signifying gravitas and depth—a chance to bliss out amidst Meluch’s sometimes morose melodicizing. But in the end they aren’t enough to bring Hymnal up to another level. That’s because those other eight songs, with a couple of exceptions (most notably “Foxtail”), just don’t stand out from each other. Following the centerpiece of “Gospel,” one might expect the rest of a record to take a turn—to ramp up, slow down, go epic, or shrivel into minimalism. But it doesn’t do any of that. It just carries on as the first half did. Hymnal has its moments, but more often than not it feels flat. 

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  3. KRANK 177: Grouper: The Man Who Died in His Boat (2013)

    Although five years separate the original release of Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (KRANK 176) and The Man Who Died in His Boat, the songs on each were recorded at the same time. Harris claims the songs of the later album are not outtakes, but rather were always intended as a companion album that simply went unreleased until now. That makes a fitting narrative for Kranky, which released The Man Who Died in His Boat and reissued Dead Deer at the same time. “Unreleased companion album” certainly has a loftier ring to it than “b-sides.”

    It forces comparisons between the two. As might be expected they are not wildly different—still present are Harris’s soft and obscured voice, bassy guitar strum, and echo-laden, homespun production. Like Dead Deer, Harris’s songs are more deeply felt than on the more disembodied sound of A I A (KRANK 168). But The Man Who Died in His Boat is moodier and less melodic. There are moments on Dead Deer—foremost “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping”—hinting that the Grouper aesthetic might be suppressing Harris’s secret identity as a folk-pop songwriter. Those moments are mostly absent on the companion album, with the exception of the heartfelt closer, “Living Room”—perhaps the most clear-eyed song in the Grouper catalog. That song aside, it’s the ambient pieces like the simmering “STS,” the ethereal “Difference (Voices),” or the haunting piano of “Vanishing Point” that provide The Man Who Died in His Boat with its best moments.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  4. KRANK 176: Grouper: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008; reissued 2013)

    This week I listened to Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, widely considered Grouper’s best effort to date, in various contexts—earbuds while walking to work, loud on the car stereo, on my office speakers while working. But my most arresting experience with the record came at home, at night, after the kids were in bed, the music of Liz Harris set to low volume, drifting out of my crummy Mac speakers. The songs benefitted from passing though the atmosphere, and my psyche was more receptive to the sound as I lay in the dimly lit room, the first quiet moment of a very long day. The album felt not too dissimilar from A I A, released on Kranky a year earlier (KRANK 168)—spectral, as if filtered through mist. (Originally released on Type and now reissued by Kranky, Dead Deer predates A I A’s release by four years.)

    But I also listened to Dead Deer at high volume on better speakers just a day earlier, and I knew that the album actually sounds much more distinct than the way my ears heard it in my living room. Many of the songs here are not amorphous at all; Harris’s acoustic guitar and self-harmonizing vocals are prominent; her songwriting (as opposed to her soundscaping) is apparent. The songs inside of A I A are practically drowning in Harris’s watery production aesthetic; on Dead Deer they swim closer to the surface.

    Harris is not a terrifically skilled guitarist. Most of her songs feature an all-downstrokes strum. But after a while the songs cease being about how they’re played and rather about how they feel. Dead Deer begins with its most melodically memorable tracks—“Disengaged,” “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping,” and “Stuck.” But midway through that third song the album shifts in tone. The melodies remain but that steady strum begins to take hold. “Stuck” is a beautiful track that, you may or may not realize, just kind of goes on and on. If you relax into it, Harris’s constant strums and echoing voice(s) become hypnotic. The strum carries through other songs—the very similar “Traveling Through a Sea,” for instance. I’d go so far as to say her unwavering rhythm is just as essential as her lo-fi, affected production in creating the album’s mystical nature. It’s a good example of how Dead Deer burrowed into my mind there in the living room, when I couldn’t fully make out what was happening in detail—I was responding to the aura of the music, not the music itself.

    As I write this I realize I’m engaging with Dead Deer in much the same way I’ve done with Charalambides (KRANK 095) and Christina Carter’s solo albums (KRANK 075): the more you lose focus, the better the experience. And yet Harris and Carter have very different approaches—Carter, either solo or in Charalambides, creates hypnosis through repetition, an almost primal performance, and fairly raw production. Harris does the opposite in nearly every instance: her production is awash in reverb, her performance delicate, her songs languid and loose. You can hear Grouper in two ways: relax and let its natural currents lead you, or wade through the water to find Harris’s songs—an often stunningly beautiful blend of melody and melancholy.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  5. KRANK 175: Pan*American: Cloud Room, Glass Room (2013)

    Twenty years since Labradford’s debut (KRANK 001), Mark Nelson’s raison d’etre remains minimalist sound and incremental evolution. Just when you think he might be headed for an aesthetic left turn—the Pan*American debut (KRANK 025) compared to the rest of Labradford, say—he slips right back into his firmly marked territory. This became most apparent when his Pan*American project, circa Quiet City (KRANK 065) started to feel more and more like a new phase of Labradford, despite no one else from Labradford being present. But in the context of the narrow space in which Nelson operates, he finds ways to make subtle shifts that can feel significant—the trumpet on Quiet City, the clicking electronics of The River Made No Sound (KRANK 051).

    The biggest difference between Nelson’s first and second act is that Labradford, even in their quietest moments, felt like a band. There were three guys, all with their roles to play, all contributing. Nelson has had many contributors and guests on most of his Pan*American albums, but through it all those records have sounded like the vision of one man: Mark Nelson. 

    Cloud Room, Glass Room, Nelson’s seventh album as Pan*American, once again feels like a huge shift in approach, despite it sonically not being too distant from anything else he’s done. And it feels monumental precisely because, for the first time, Pan*American feels like a band and not a solo project. Not incidentally, Labradford bassist Bobby Donne appears on three of the seven songs. Also along for the ride is drummer Steven Hess (a man with numerous credits to his name, including albums with Locrian, Fennesz, and others). This is Hess’s third outing with Nelson—he’s been on board since 2006’s For Waiting, For Chasing (KRANK 152), but it isn’t until this album that he seems truly free to bring something to the music that is his—see the pumping pulse of “Relays” or the skittering percussion of “Glass Room at the Airport.” Donne, too, plays a significant role on each of his three appearances—”The Cloud Room,” “Relays,” and “Virginia Waveform.” He plays simply—his bass lines are just a few notes, nothing flashy. But in the context of Nelson’s quiet work, Donne’s presence is bold and up front. Even in comparison to those Pan*American albums that have emphasized a full band, the rhythm section has never felt so empowered. Nelson meanwhile feels like an equal participant, his guitar adding color to each track but never dictating the proceedings. It’s no surprise that the trio is returning in 2014 under a new guise, Anjou. They deserve to be recognized as a group and not sidemen supporting one artist’s vision.

    What makes Cloud Room, Glass Room even more rewarding is that the songs highlighting Donne and Hess only tell half the story. The album alternates between those fuller tracks and cold ambient—probably the most ambient Nelson has ever been. Taken all together, Cloud Room, Glass Room is the most dynamic album Nelson has ever made as Pan*American. It moves. It has ups and downs. There is slack and there is tension. It’s quintessential Nelson: so close to what he’s been doing all along, yet so impressive for how he’s grown.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  6. KRANK 174: Implodes: Recurring Dream (2013)

    Implodes’ 2011 debut (KRANK 156) was a washed-out swirl of dread, vacillating from recorded-in-a-dark-cave rockers to recorded-in-a-dark-cave soundscapes. Recurring Dream picks up where Black Earth left off, and it improves on the formula—not least because the songs, if you can echolocate them, seem more thoughtfully structured, and the album as a whole feels more cohesive.

    But saying Implodes succeed because of their songwriting seems almost to miss the point. If they wanted to put that foot forward, they wouldn’t produce their records the way they do. That clamoring reverb is an essential, purposeful part of Implodes’ sound. It surrounds the music, an envelope of chaos. It’s effect, as the album title suggests, is not unlike the same dream-like quality I noted in my recent write-up of Grouper’s A I A (KRANK 168): by placing the music inside a sonic fog, it obscures the listener’s impression in the moment, and memory after the fact. (Of course the music of Implodes is miles from Gouper; they’re bigger, more imposing. In the Kranky-verse I’d call them descendants of the short-lived but epic Magnog, KRANK 010). Could I sing an Implodes song to you, or hum one of their melodies? God, no. I can only describe how their music makes me feel—agitated, paranoid, even a little panicked.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  7. KRANK 173: Ethernet: Opus 2 (2013)

    Tim Gray returns for his second outing as Ethernet, once again with the intention of making a kind of ambient music specifically geared toward meditation and hypnosis. As on 144 Pulsations of Light (KRANK 136), Gray’s stated purpose doesn’t necessarily result in a kind of music that is groundbreaking or fresh—nor is it bad.

    I get the sense from these six tracks, each around 7-10 minutes, that Gray’s music is not just made for meditation but through meditation— that is, Gray is likely not in a lucid state while making these sounds. There is an improvisatory air to Opus 2, as if Gray’s drones and textures are leading him deeper into the zone rather than having any kind of composed architecture. Opening track “Monarch” is held together by a heartbeat bassline pumping under oscillating atmospheres; Gray plays a melodic synth line on top but it meanders, seemingly lacking premeditation.

    But then that’s kind of Gray’s deal, right? It’s easy to get lost in Opus 2, to let your mind wander (expand?) while the music moves around you like a cloud. Maybe I’m fighting that sensation when I wish for more clarity of sound, sharper production. Track by track, all the elements of Opus 2 pile up against each other—bass throbs, droning washes, melodies, high-frequency tones. They all seem equally placed in the mix, one big mush. That dullness of sound causes the album to melt together, a morass of sonics too busy to ignore but too amorphous to command your attention. This may be exactly how Gray likes it.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  8. KRANK 172: Steve Hauschildt: Sequitur (2012)

    I am 37. Born in 1976. My earliest exposure to pop music, outside of my parents’ folkie record collection, was the early 80s sound of synth-heavy radio songs and hokey keyboard film scores. As my tastes developed over the decades I was able to find pleasure and excitement in contemporary niches and the sounds of past decades. And when new acts mine the past for fresh ideas, I can usually get on board.

    But the sound of that synthesizer, circa 1984, rubs at me—which, if you haven’t pieced it together, is the sound of Steve Hauschildt’s second album. Perhaps it’s a Pavlovian recall of what is essentially the least sophisticated period of my life. I can’t help but hear something childlike and naive in Sequitur. I had similar feelings about Tragedy & Geometry (KRANK 160), though the sensation is more acute the second time around. I wonder: if I were a decade younger, would I react to this music differently?

    Hauschildt’s music is not exactly synth pop (aside from the Daft Punk-lite “Constant Reminders”), but it is made entirely from vintage synths of the era. The same was true of Tragedy & Geometry, but on that album Hauschildt veered between Tangerine Dream-like forays and ambient atmospheres. Sequitur is very much not an ambient album. The synth lines are busy, bass and light beats propel many tracks, and the short, instrumental songs rarely fall into abstraction. Hauschildt has made a relaxing, nostalgic, smooth electronic record—and insofar as that was his intention, he succeeds. I won’t be going back to this much myself, but don’t blame the record—blame my childhood.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  9. KRANK 171: Loscil: Sketches from New Brighton (2012)

    What separates a great Loscil album from a merely good one? Honestly, not a lot, and I’d be hard pressed even to articulate the small differences. To his credit and his detriment, Scott Morgan is exceptionally consistent in his output. Fresh ears could start in on his discography at any point and be pleased with their choice of entry—likely even claim that first contact as their favorite. On the other hand I wouldn’t argue with a longtime listener who claims diminishing returns.

    For me, Loscil hits a sweet spot—and I’d even place Sketches from New Brighton in the upper tier of his output, alongside Submers (KRANK 058) and First Narrows (KRANK 069). Like his other albums, this is cool electronica, a hybrid of dub and ambient with flashes of the minimal techno blips Morgan mostly excised from his system after Triple Point (KRANK 049). As on his more recent efforts Morgan invites other musicians in—longtime collaborator Jason Zumpano on Rhodes and Shane Nelken on guitar—though in typical fashion it is really all about Morgan’s electronics. It’s easy to forget other people on playing on these records—credit due to Zumpano and Nelken, however, who both add some nice color to “Hastings Sunrise.”

    Morgan’s songs are moody and patient, built around very simple chord progressions and a faint dub repetition. Maybe the beauty of his work is there in that word progression. As atmospheric as his music can be, it’s not ambient. It doesn’t drone or recede or envelop. It ebbs. It flows. It bobs like a small craft on the sea. There’s a peacefulness to his music—stillness without stasis. As long as he’s serving it up, I’ll keep ordering it.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  10. I knew going into this batch of ten that it was going to have some quality stuff. I wasn’t expecting some of the longer tenured Kranky artists here to turn in their absolute best work.

    I have a private playlist on Spotify that is just made up of the Kranky albums I haven’t yet gotten to, so I’m constantly deleting albums as I review them. After eleven months, it’s slightly surreal to see the number of hours in that playlist shrink down—just a little under thirteen hours left. The next batch is the second to last, and includes more Grouper, plus the return of Loscil, Pan*American, Ken Camden, and more. As with this and the last batch, I’m not expecting any duds.

    As always, you can catch up on all past writings via the archive—search by catalog number or by artist. You can also hear nearly every single album released on Kranky via this Spotify playlist

    A+ to A-

    • Mirrorring: Foreign Body (KRANK 162A+
    • Windy & Carl: We Will Always Be (KRANK 163A+
    • Disappears: Pre Language (KRANK 164A
    • Oren Ambarchi and Robin Fox: Connected (KRANK 169A
    • Tim Hecker: Dropped Pianos (KRANK 161A-

    B+ to B-

    • Jessica Bailiff: At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky (KRANK 170B+
    • Felix: Oh Holy Molar (KRANK 165B
    • Grouper: AIA (KRANK 168B
    • Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action at a Distance (KRANK 166B-
    • Dreamscape: La-Di-Da Recordings (KRANK 167B-

    C+ to C

    C- to F

    Average grade for KRANK 161–170: A+
    Average grade for KRANK 151–160: A+

    Average grade for KRANK 141–150: A
    Average grade for KRANK 131–140: A
    Average grade for KRANK 121–130: A+
    Average grade for KRANK 111–120: B
    Average grade for KRANK 101–110: A

    Average grade for KRANK 091–100: A
    Average grade for KRANK 081–090: B
    Average grade for KRANK 071–080: B-
    Average grade for KRANK 061–070: D+
    Average grade for KRANK 051–060: A

    Average grade for KRANK 041–050: A+
    Average grade for KRANK 031–040: C
    Average grade for KRANK 021–030: A
    Average grade for KRANK 011–020: B-
    Average grade for KRANK 001–010: C+