Great albums are great albums. Hence, when the annual end-of-year lists come around, many of them feature -- in varying orders -- the same records. You'll have to wait until Monday to see where (or if!) your favorite record of the year made it into Epitonic's staff list, but in the meantime, I'd like to take this opportunity to present to you an alternative Top 10. The albums below all stood out for me in 2011 but will very likely not appear on the vast majority of publications' best-of lists. Most of these records, tapes, downloads and CDs were released on smaller labels and in limited numbers. Nevertheless, the artistry and vision involved in both the music and the presentation is of the highest quality -- and quite often surpasses the more "obvious" choices you'll see over and over again. I have nothing against the mainstream; I know good music when I hear it and I've voted for my fair share of popular artists over the last month. But these guys have been doing it all with a smidgen of the budget and deserve the recognition I hope this run-down gives them. I heartily recommend you spend some time with these artists in 2012. Maybe in time they, too, will start to appear on everyone's end-of-year lists. Fingers crossed and away we go!
1. Implodes: Black Earth [Kranky]
Covering all bases from Sonic Youth to JAMC and cloaking it all in dread black metal atmosphere, this is the best thing I've heard on Kranky in ages. It lulls as much as it rocks and if it doesn't get under your skin and make it creep, there's something amiss. The vocals swim beneath rivers of reverb and delay, the atmosphere is a devilish fever dream. To top it off, "Marker" makes me think of the cow slaughter scene at the end of Apocalypse Now. This is a hell of a journey and Implodes are serious contenders.
2. Terrors: Lagan Qord [Weird Forest]
Weird Forest hasn't put a foot wrong in 2011 but for me Terrors' Lagan Qord was the best of a pleasingly disparate bunch that included stellar stuff from the likes of Lil' B, Garrincha & The Stolen Elk, and Noveller. Technically a compilation (these tracks first saw the light of day on ultra-limited cassettes), Lagan Qord nevertheless holds together superbly well. Cracked, heartfelt and achingly beautiful, Elijah Forest's songs sound as though they come from a plane of existence somewhere in between this one and the next. His shattered version of "God Bless The Child" is truly something to behold.
3. Rob St. John: Weald [Song, By Toad]
Falling somewhere among Nick Cave in scale, Zelienople in tone, and Nick Drake in emotional resonance, Weald is a genuinely astonishing debut statement from UK singer-songwriter Rob St. John. Weald was only released in November but it has ascended to the top of my rankings through sheer number of spins. It's dark in places and funereally paced, but ragingly honest and intense. If there was any justice this would be 2011's For Emma, Forever Ago. It's that good.
4. Aaron Martin & Justin Wright: The Light Poured Out Of Our Bones [Preservation]
Preservation's Circa series of limited edition CDs for 2011 was a delight from start to finish, but this collaboration between multi-instrumentalist Aaron Martin and synth noisenik Justin Wright (aka Expo '70) was the best of the lot. The two approach the music from totally different angles and combine magnificently, like rare elements busting out of supernovae. Circa will crank up again in 2012 so keep an eye (and ear) out for more goodies.
5. Ricardo Donoso: Progress Chance [Digitalis]
Okay, so there might be a hint of nepotism here but in truth there could be any number of Digitalis releases on this list because the label has enjoyed a great year. Inspired by the wee small hours comedown rave parties Donoso enjoyed in his youth, this is essentially a beatless trance album meant to accompany a zone-out session. Using subtle synth pulses where you'd normally find pounding beats, this album's appeal should know no boundaries -- fans of Kompakt will likely find just as much to enjoy as the hardened experimentalist will. There aren't many people I wouldn't recommend this to, which is saying something...
6. William Fowler Collins: The Resurrections Unseen [Type]
The darkest drone-smith currently working, William Fowler brings a touch of the Old West to his pitch-black soundscapes, conjuring images of ghost towns strewn with bleached, fly-blown cattle corpses and ancient gangs of squabbling vultures. The air of dread is always palpable, and song titles like "Abattoir" and 'Ghost Choir" add to the gloom. Listen to this whilst reading Blood Meridian and you're in for one hell of a night.
7. Death Grips: Exmilitary [Third Worlds]
If you think Tyler, The Creator is scary, then you clearly haven't heard Death Grips yet. Without doubt one of the most furious hip hop statements of the year, Exmilitary is loud, violent and unforgiving. This is one for fans of dälek and Techno Animal. Hella's Zach Hill plays drums, which should give you some idea of where this is coming from, but you're really nowhere near until you've heard "Guillotine", "Spread Eagle Cross The Block", or "Klink". Meanwhile, Tyler is now quivering in a corner somewhere having soiled his kooky briefs listening to Exmilitary.
8. Seasons (Pre-Din): Lesser and Still [Thy-Rec]
2011 has been something of an annus mirabilis for drone and ambient music, so it's sad that Seasons (Pre-Din) decided to call it a day with Lesser and Still. For my money, the mysterious Mr. (Pre-Din) has released some of the most engaging drone music in recent years, and he left us with one of his best. Consisting of five connected tracks that get heavier as they progress, the music on Lesser and Still is a far cry from the quaint piano tinkles he started out with in 2007, yet still provides a fascinating (if slightly unsettling) insight into a creative mind that reached an exhausted end.
9. Derek Rogers: The Exhaustion of Emotion [Bridgetown Records]
People will tell you there's nothing to feel in ambient music any more. These people are idiots. The Exhaustion of Emotion takes you on a trip through a netherworld you never knew (or wanted to believe) existed. Don't fall for the Hollywood sunsets on the cover art -- we're in some gritty situations here. I moved to LA with dreams, man, and ended up whoring my ass to B movie stars just to buy a sandwich. Now I'm hooked on smack and "sandwich" is a euphemism for "extreme suppository." My favorite tape of the year...
10. Women In Tragedy: Diane Arbus [Inyrdisk]
Women In Tragedy's final release as a solo project (Bob McCully has been working under the moniker for years), Diane Arbus is the towering culmination of everything that has gone before it. Consisting of eight monstrous tracks spread over two albums, Arbus defies categorization through relentless genre-hopping. Noise rock, drone, post-rock, metal, and even a hint of prog all go into the melting pot and come out sounding like nothing else I've heard in a long while. Startlingly loud and unstoppable in all its pummeling glory, Arbus wins my Surprise Of The Year™ award. Now a four-piece making relatively straightforward metal, Women In Tragedy will release Medusa in 2012.