Best Albums of 2012: Editorial Picks

15 Jan 2013 — Editor

So here it is, the final part of our 2012 retrospective: the editors' favourite albums of last year. Read about both our top 5 picks and check the rest of the selection below. As always, thank you so much for bearing with us, it means the world. We're can't wait for what 2013 will bring. 


#01. Lee Gamble - Diversions 1994-1996 (PAN)

When I first wrote a few lines about Lee Gamble’s stunning masterpiece Diversions 1994-1996, I think I ended by saying that this EP is ‘hauntology done right’. That was before the artist started stressing in every other interview that ‘this isn’t a hauntological document’, and that he wasn’t at all ‘nostalgic’ about the passing of jungle’s heyday. This slight overemphasis might partly be owed to the discussion following Simon Reynolds’ accusations against contemporary recycle culture in Retromania and the subsequent vocal rejection of any musical work that suggested any sort of inordinate retrospection. It’s basically the same discussion that surrounds every release by Burial (and both Adam Harper and Rory Gibb would like to tell you something about that). If you reduce hauntology to nostalgia (which might in a way be valid as regards the Ghost Box label), you might have a point. However, in view of Diversions 1994-1996, I’d stick to my guns; if anything, the work transcends the author’s original intentions regarding this point. Mr Gamble might not have summoned the ghosts, but they came to the party nonetheless. Just considering the EP’s bare methodology and sonic qualities, there has nothing more haunting been put out in 2012. Still, while the stripped-down elements of old jungle mixtapes breathe the genre’s hidden undercurrents and in this way cannot escape their origin, i.e. the past, Lee Gamble’s highly enjoyable intellectual clusterfuck is nonetheless targeted at the future. With his subsequent (and equally excellent) full-length Dutch Tvashar Plumes, Gamble has proven that he is very much looking ahead, and that he is one of the most modern thinkers in contemporary electronic music. Diversions 1994-1996 remains a hauntological document; it is not, however, an example of pastiche. So the ghosts may stay – they do not bother anymore.

#02. Vessel - Order of Noise (Tri Angle Records)

In her write-up yesterday, our author Kelsie Brown was perfectly right when filing Seb Gainsborough’s debut full-length roughly under ‘dark electronic’ – intimidating shadows are the principal images evoked by Vessel’s musings. Still, it felt somewhat odd this year to watch critics struggling to bring Order of Noise in line with the rest of Tri Angle’s famed and slightly over-hyped roster. You can try and liken this LP to the output of oOoOO, Holy Other, or Clams Casino, but you will most certainly miss the point. Where those other ‘dark’ artists employ a strong, more or less consistent narrative in order to create haunting sonic landscapes, Young Echo offspring Gainsborough is way too concerned with his seemingly infinite curiosity to get even close to any sort of coherence. Order of Noise is a sketchbook of musical ideas that comprises anything from deranged dub experiments that recall his hometown Bristol’s rich heritage in this regard (though he says that he’s not much into dub himself) to pieces of slow-burning, almost beatless ambient and some of last year’s most secretly successful dancefloor killers, like the endlessly exciting “Lache”, somewhere beyond the fringes of techno and house – all tied together merely by Gainsborough’s sheer playfulness and eagerness to explore. Some parts of Order of Noise suggest that this shouldn’t even have become an album in the first place – a couple of 12” EPs would have done the job just as well. But it is a terrific collection of etudes from start to finish, and we should be glad that 2012 also marked the year when Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle started opening up towards more uncertain and genuinely surprising territory.

#03. MM/KM (Mix Mup & Kassem Mosse) - S/T (Trilogy Tapes)

For years now, Leipzig resident Gunnar Wendel aka Kassem Mosse has proven that house music can be anything but clean, sterile, and predictable, but nothing so far had been as purposefully off-kilter as his all-too brief collaboration with fellow Leipzig artist Mix Mup. MM/KM never saw a digitally release (there are only a few Soundcloud snippets, plus some Youtube uploads if you’re lucky), and the small vinyl edition, dropped without much fanfare by London’s seminal Trilogy Tapes sometime in early 2012, sold out in the blink of an eye; so there’s a good chance that this is one of those few releases that went on to define the year musically without having been heard properly by most interested listeners. Which probably makes it all the more special, but is still rather unfortunate, as MM/KM is one of those rare examples of electronic music that is actually capable of reconfiguring the contemporary dance music landscape without even trying. On the surface, what’s most striking is the obvious fact that the EP is the result of two likeminded musicians who just started out to have a whole lot of fun – nothing seems planned, nothing comes across as an overly intellectual effort; the basic structures remain minimal, the rhythm repeatedly loses focus, the kickdrum appears almost tired of actually leading the way. Elements are introduced en passant and abruptly dropped with just as much indifference, ensuring that the listener will never be lulled into too much comfort. The result is a stunningly soulful and actually funky piece of music that manages to captivate all along; if you are able to dance to this mild and wonderful cacophony, Mix Mup and Kassem Mosse would probably be happy. If not, the two sure as hell had their lark already anyway.

#04. Dean Blunt - The Narcissist II (self-released / Hippos In Tanks)

A thirty-minute tale of violence and a relationship falling apart, unsettling and painful yet including some of the most innocently pretty music heard in all 2012: Dean Blunt will always shine most when he’s at his darkest. Most elements on the mixtape, dropped for free online in February and only recently properly released by Hippos In Tanks, are classic Hype Williams material: the menacing drones, the infinitely engaging popcultural allusions, the samples that often sound so awfully familiar that they won’t leave your mind for days. The melodies, the rhythmic structures, the music’s narrative are pop in its purest, most undisguised form, even if Blunt’s croon might not be for everyone. This explains why something so wilfully deranged and sick could become such a success that quickly exceeded insider circles, while it also explains why there will always be those who don’t really get it – in his approach to the canon of popular music, Blunt indeed resembles early Ariel Pink or John Maus (even though their sources differ), who also until recently kept having a hard time to convince certain kinds of audiences. Dean Blunt, as well, can so far not be considered a great performer – his drug-induced pop is mostly driven by academic intent, albeit a twisted one. The nightmare laid out in The Narcissist II finds its climax and resolution roughly after 25 minutes, when a disturbing recording of sirens, thunder and screams dissolves into last year’s finest and most breathtaking ballad, Blunt’s achingly beautiful duet with partner-in-crime Inga Copeland, re-contextualising that certain Julee Cruise sample so flawlessly and appropriately that the listener is left wondering why Blunt hasn’t already moved on to become a big-time producer for some chart-breaking mainstream artists. On the other hand, he was probably just too stoned when the call came in.

#05. Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Hyperdub)

Would it be an overstatement to call Laurel Halo’s Quarantine the single most analysed piece of underground pop music in 2012? Probably. Yet there were just too many things to ponder on: That twisted, fascinatingly appalling cover art. The fact that the album was put out by London bass institution Hyperdub. The way Laurel did mostly not process her vocals like she had done on her debut EP King Felix. The fact that the LP mostly spared beats while maintaining a complex, multifaceted rhythmic structure. That you could neither dance nor relax while listening; indeed, the fact that you were almost forced to listen: this is nothing you will hear in a shopping mall or in an elevator. It’s very much the opposite of muzak. The unease you could create when playing this at a party. That it was made by a woman: No beat! No relief! That rawness, the alienation, why? The helplessness when talking about the LP, barely hidden by the ever-repeating platitudes. The fact that the album so openly yet so subtly points towards the future; that it was one of the few truly modern, unashamedly challenging works in 2012. The fact, at last, that it is the effort of genuine musical genius; whatever else was misconceived, most understood at least that pretty well.

#06. Old Apparatus - Harem EP (Sullen Tone)

#07. Lukid - Lonely at the Top (Werkdiscs)

#08. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

#09. Actress - R.I.P (Honest Jon's)

#10. Holy Other - Held (Tri Angle Records)

#11. How To Dress Well – Total Loss
#12. Austin Cesear – Cruise Forever
#13. Madteo – Noi No
#14. Motion Sickness Of Time Travel – S/T
#15. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
#16. Ital Tek – Nebula Dance
#17. Sand Circles – Motor City
#18. Pye Corner Audio – Sleep Games
#19. TVO – Red Night
#20. Silent Servant – Negative Fascination

–– Henning Lahmann


#01. Holy Other - Held (Tri Angle Records)

With its persistent approach, Holy Other's With U took a sharp pace in the direction of dark electronic music, easily voted as one of the most interesting electronic pieces of 2011, and as predicted, the direction of his debut LP Held did not take a dramatic shift. Next to the likes of Holly Herdnon or Laurel Halo, Held can in no particular way be labeled as unique in its genre, but few other electronic producers have shown such emotional presence as Holy Other, communicating the scars of time and how it can make you feel inescapably invisible. If this is an inner urge to disappear or rather a fear of fading is hard to say, but it also made us realise that Holy Other never needed a face to go with his music. Even after stepping out in the daylight, it is now more obvious than ever that his music has always spoken as an identity by itself, questioning whether deciding to stay anonymous or not is of any relevancy at all. But where With U would often show signs of insecurity, Held has found a way to deal with this emotion, and stands out as a much more reflecting piece as a follow-up, both technically and emotionally.

#02. Port St. Willow - Holiday (self-released)

"Sometimes the veil of ‘music journalism’ slips from my forgetful head and I simply indulge in a record," Tom Johnson writes in his review of Holiday, "forgetting to share it with anything but the walls of my room and the insides of my ears". If this is another example for why Holiday is one of the best-kept secrets of 2012, I somehow feel less guilty for pulling the exact same example, cause indeed, the debut LP of Nick Principe's solo project Port St. Willow alters a substantial feeling of sacristy, just as if the record is unable to reveal its magic to more than one pair of ears. Then again, Holiday rarely comes out as selfish, but rather firmly compassionate as it enlightens us to the broken limbs of a personal tragedy, asking to be approached it in its chronological order. If you haven't already guessed, this is another difficult thing to ask for in a year in constant motion.

Looking back at 2009 and The Antlers' excellent Hospice, few are surprised to learn that Principe and Peter Silberman have been friends and recording buddies since long before then, and somehow obvious, Port St. Willow shares many ideas with his soulful friend. But where Hospice lays bricks over its tragedy with uncomfortable noise, Holiday replies in utter silence, unwillingly building fences between inner emotions and the real, breathing world. Perhaps it is time to change that.

#03. Julia Holter - Ekstasis (Rvng Intl.)

Tragedy, Julia Holter's "DIY" debut that saw its emerge in 2011, was so full of ideas it almost came out as a bit too overwhelming, but despite its sometimes edgy sound, it introduced us to an exiting new form of firmly produced art pop combined with highly intellectual songwriting. On Ekstasis, Holter builds on the same lyrical and structural intelligence as her debut, carefully assembling words of love over deep, picturesque atmospheres, but with her mind placed in a different space than the "everyday" bedroom musician. Her lulling vocals now feels somewhat closer to us as, piercing through the coils of traditional instrumentation and shady synths. The meaning behind the album's title-- to be or stand outside oneself-- feels particularly apt here, marking Ekstasis as her strongest work to date and one of one of the most inspiring records of the year. (originally posted on Ad Hoc)

#04. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

When the dry, industrial beat kicks in after two minutes and twenty-four seconds into "Numb", sweaty heads lower and eyes close over the smoky, Berlin club landscape, sucking the ravers into a delirious, apocalyptic atmosphere that could only have been directed by Andy Stott. "Numb" is indeed a proclaimed standout on Luxury Problems, the first out of four tracks on the album that features the vocals of his piano teacher Alison Skidmore, leaving a unique signature to his obscure dub techno, suddenly humanizing our observation of his industrial landscape. But the underground is never far away from Stott's soundscape, and all though it weights up with adding entrancing beauty to the organic disarray, the alarming machinery will always be lurking around the corner.

#05. Blondes - S/T (Rvng Intl.)

For some reason, the term "hipster house" has been associated with Brooklyn duo Blondes a few times too many, a reference that probably says more about their own technical approach to the genre rather than its actual sound. Up until the digital reveal of their debut album, Blondes' music had only been possible to enjoy via the vinyl format (or for those with access to, strictly recorded with live electronics. Not that this alone is the reason why the birth of the rather annoying term of genre has blossomed around them, but none of that was never really important, as their non-digital modus operandi truly adds a tactile touch to their slow-building compositions. In all honesty however, there is nothing particularly 'unheard' about Blondes self-titled LP. Compared to the vicious race of house producers constantly trying to create new sub-genres, Blondes have an almost selfish vision of how their ideas connect and form a sound, careless of whether it has been done before or not. In other words, this is exactly where they manage to stand out from the crowd-- by not trying so hard.

#06. Valgeir Sigur∂sson - Architecture Of Loss (Bedroom Community)

#07. From The Mouth Of The Sun - Woven Tide (Experimedia)

#08. Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Hyperdub)

#09. Hundred Waters - S/T (OWSLA/)

#10. The Caretaker - Patience (After Sebald) (History Always Favours the Winners)

#11. Tomas Barfod - Salton Sea
#12. How To Dress Well - Total Loss
#13. Lee Gamble - Dutch Tvashtar Plums
#14. DJ Rashad - Teklife Vol 1: Welcome To The Chi
#15. Vessel - Order Of Noise
#16. Heathered Pearls - Loyal
#17. Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin - Instrumental Tourist
#18. Airbird - Trust EP
#19. Actress - R.I.P
#20. TOPS - Tender Opposites

–– Tonje Thilesen