Each of these sixteen albums is conceptually, thematically or musically connected to a sense of a particular place or moments in time. While this is a somewhat common motif in instrumental music (ambient in particular), it is absolutely integral in these outstanding works released in 2019. Some are personal narratives and some are depictions of landscape either real or imagined. Others are sonic interrogations or interactions inextricably linked to the locations where they were formed. Whatever their nature, all of them proved captivating and memorable. One might say they represent the very essence of stationary traveling…
Ai Yamamoto – Going Home [Dragon’s Eye Recordings]
Originally from Shizumi, Kashiba City in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, Ai Yamamoto is a composer & sound artist who has been making music in Melbourne, Australia since the early 00s including work with such artists as Lawrence English and Ben Frost. Her debut on LA based Dragon’s Eye Recordings is a welcoming sonic journey back to the quiet spaces, forests, and rice fields of her hometown presented in a multi-facted three-part long form track that is both warmly inviting and subtly immersive.
Released on digital only
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett [Real World]
While many of the albums featured here evoke sense of place through textural and atmospheric cues, this delightful excursion by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh with his 10-string hardanger d’amore fiddle and pianist/producer Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman does it with pure musical expression as they embark on a free-spirited peregrination drawing inspiration from the locations in which they recorded, the pioneering photography of Saul Leiter, and a plethora of musical & literary sources ranging from Keith Jarrett and Van Morrison to WG Sebald, Roald Dahl and Antoine deSaint-Exupéry. A life-affirming record and dazzling display of improvisational musicianship.
Released on 2x vinyl LP, CD, & digital
Ceeys – Hiddensee [Neue Meister]
The final chapter in their triptych centered around growing up in East Germany and living through the dramatic political & cultural changes culminating in reunification with the West, brothers Sebastian & Daniel Selke take us to Hiddensee, a small but picturesque holiday island in the Baltic Sea that attracted some of the most famous artists & intellectuals of the early 20th century while also serving as a popular family vacation spot as well as a haven for dissidents throughout the GDR era. Using vintage equipment and a “cubist” style which intertwines playful experimentation with traditional classical motifs, the album illuminates a fascinating period of personal, political, and cultural history.
Released on vinyl LP, CD, & digital
Celer – Xièxie [Two Acorns]
“A week before leaving, I bought a dictionary and phrasebook…”
Will Long’s preternatural ability to capture scenes and emotions in a kind of musical amber and then turn it into a story comes to the fore again on Xièxie, in which he takes us on an excursion from Shanghai to Hangzou on China’s high-speed rail line. Like a cinematographer who slows fast-moving action on celluloid for dramatic effect, Long creates a mesmerizing soporific reverie punctuated by scene-setting cues like the bustle of a busy station or the whir of a speeding train. To deepen the immersion, he narrates the journey in the liner notes with all the eloquence of a novelist. Pico Iyer once said “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves”. By the time this album drifts to its conclusion, I felt as I had done a little of both
Released on vinyl LP, CD, cassette & digital
El Conejo – Tempestede Tropicale [La Petite Chambre Records]
“I remember playing my grandfather’s old guitar, tuneless, and the haunting sound that it made…”
Nostalgia is at the heart of the music Bruno Nunes Coelho (Ana, Constantina) makes under as El Conejo, a project inspired by the first chords he played on his grandfather’s old guitar and the memories of the places he has lived. ‘Tempestade Tropical‘ focuses in particular on a short time spent living in the city of Rio de Janeiro and the loss of his father during that period. Like his leporine avatar, he is ever the keen observer attuned to the flora & fauna that surrounds him. While many of us might associate Rio with the spectacle of its dramatic vistas, sprawling diversity, and colorful festivals, Coelho, turns inward to gently explore the immutable cycles of life universal to all places as well as his own memories and losses.
Released on cassette & digital
Erland Cooper – Sule Skerry [Phases Records]
Erland Cooper and his talented supporting cast return in 2019 to continue the story with another transportive musical portrait of one of the planet’s most enchanting places. Entitled Sule Skerry, the new album shifts perspective from the sky above the Scottish archipelago and its avian fauna to the sea below and the people whose lives & stories are inextricably linked to it. Whereas last year’s Solan Goose was breathtaking in its panoramic sweep, Sule Skerry charms equally but tacks in a more episodic fashion with more lyrical content in both the songs themselves and in the interviews with the locals woven into the compositions. The music remains decidedly cinematic and subtly imbued with greater dynamism as Cooper is now painting a portrait of a mighty sea teeming with life, steeped in mystery, and capable of fearsome power.
Released on CD & digital
Glåsbird – Glåsbird [Whitelabrecs]
The first full-length album from the anonymous Glåsbird majestically explores the the sprawling ice-capped island country of Greenland. As if commissioned to score a documentary soundtrack and informed by hours of immersive research, the artist turns violin, cello, guitar, and filigreed tape effects to form a musical lens through which we can take in the sweep of a wondrously imagined geography. You can easily envision the icy shimmer and glinting light of its stark landscape and the feel the profound sense of isolation and tranquility.
Released on CD & digital
Josh Mason – Coquina Dose [Florabelle]
“Coquina Dose is the book on your nightstand under a lamp with a 40 watt bulb. It’s driving alone at night up and down the strip looking for a pool to crash. It’s the endless lights of luxury, hotels, oceanfront dining. It’s dogs barking, the wind off the water, dead friends, and sunsets that are no longer free. Everything humming, everything buzzing. It’s a new day, in the same circuit. Short interesting rides, followed by a loss of momentum. Notes of grass, lychee, pineapple, burnt sugar.”
A collage of warm guitar lines, sonic ephemera, and wistful melodies that evokes the hazy torpor of Florida summers past through a nostalgic lens, a motif Josh Mason has beautifully staked out as all his own. You can practically feel the mugginess in the air and the ennui that settles in during the long, humid days. Like a lean, but well-written novella, it’s gift for eloquent understatement beckons you back over & over to pick up on new details, gain a different perspective, or simply to enjoy the comforts of its growing familiarity.
Released on vinyl LP & digital (a few limited test press editions may still be available)
Kinbrae – Landforms [Truant Recordings]
As Kinbrae, twin brothers Andrew & Michael Truscott mix brass, acoustic guitar, percussion and musique concrète to paint a panoramic portrait of Scotland’s longest river, the mighty Tay, while reflecting on the impact of growing up along its banks. The album unfurls like a cinematic travelogue that takes in the river from its origins on the slopes of Ben Lui in the west to its eastern tidal reaches near Perth as it approaches the North Sea. It is a meandering 120 mile journey through a vast catchment presided over by iconic bridges, sprawling countryside, and bustling towns. To help create an expansive sound worthy of the album’s central protagonist, the Truscotts collaborated with Ben Chatwin (aka Talvihorros) who provided additional instrumentation as well access to his Edinburgh studio where they were able to experiment with adding modular synthesizers and effects into the mix.
Released on vinyl LP & digital
M. Grig – Mount Carmel [12k]
A composer & multi-instrumentalist originally from the Pacific Northwest, who now lives in Durham, North Carolina, Michael Grigoni aka M. Grig specializes in dobro, lap steel guitar, and pedal steel guitar. Having produced several EPs and done a fair amount of film & session work, Mount Carmel is his first full length album as well as his debut on the venerable 12k label. Using an approach that derives from his introduction to ethnography while studying at the University of Washington, Grigoni creates an impressionistic memoir of time spent exploring the hills of Los Peñasquitos near San Diego, California while growing up. Rather than attempt to recreate this environment sonically, he evokes a halcyon state of mind through fine-grained textures and warm acoustics to sublimate the contours of landscape and memory into something universal and timeless.
Released on CD & digital.
Michael A. Muller – Lower River [Beacon Sound / 1631 Recordings]
Co-founder of Austin-based ensemble Balmorhea, Michael A. Muller makes his full-length debut as a solo artist with Lower River, an album which began as a sound experiment in 2018 that spans from the Oregon coastline all the way to rural southern Italy and the remote fishing villages of southern France. It is an engrossing musical travelogue that is both abstractly referential and deeply introspective, a self-described exploration of “place where time, space, and self are occluded”. The music has a distinctly filmic quality, at times, acting like a sort of camera panning slowly across landscapes frozen in the amber of memory. While Lower River may have been inspired by very specific scenes and locations, Muller has molded his impressions of those places into rewarding inward journeys unbound by the specificity of place or time.
Released on vinyl LP & digital.
OHIO – Upward, Broken, Always [12k]
One of the highlights of a truly resurgent year for 12k, not to mention the musical year overall, is this stunning collaboration by label found Taylor Deupree and composer/musician/multimedia artist Corey Fuller. The name of the project is dual reference to the US state where both artists were born as well as the first song they developed for it, a cover of the Damien Jurado indie classic. There is a special aura to this record, the kind of which is ultimately hard to put into words, but which can be keenly felt in the listening. Blossoms of cathartic intensity provide the most breathtaking moments while the more delicate sections are equally powerful, albeit in a different way. Also not to be missed is the companion album Interludes in which Deupree & Fuller offer up three gorgeous long-form ambient ghost trails of the original pieces.
Released on vinyl LP & digital.
Rafael Anton Irisarri – Solastalgia [Room40]
“The homesickness you have when you are still at home.” That is how Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht pithily explains the meaning of solastalgia, a word he coined as a way of conveying the “feeling of chronic distress caused by negatively perceived changes to a home and its landscape”. A suite in six movements, Rafael Anton Irisarri‘s musical interpretation of this concept is a potent sonic brew on a colossal scale that puts us in the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, wide-eyed and self-aware even as we are surrounded by forces with a power we can scarcely comprehend. It is an impressive musical distillation of being awe-struck, angry, sad, and helpless all at once and a masterful fusion of composition, artistic expression, and sound design that will leave you pondering its impact long after the storm clouds have dissipated.
Released on vinyl LP, cassette, & digital.
Richard Skelton – Border Ballads [Aeolian / Corbel Stone Press]
Having recorded over 30 albums & EPs as well as creating music for exhibitions, performance, feature films and documentaries, Richard Skelton offers up one of the most lyrical recordings in his canon with this collection of songs inspired by the well-watered border country where Scotland and England meet. It is an evocative place and that makes fertile territory for Skelton’s vivid sonic explorations while favoring concise melodic structures over the sprawling, glacial soundscapes that feature in much of his recent work. Only someone who has inhabited the place he is portraying – walked in it, lived in it, felt its undersong, and pondered its history – could produce something that resonates so deeply.
Released on CD, & digital.
Tim Linghaus – We Were Young When You Left Home [Schole Records]
“In a nutshell, “We Were Young When You Left Home” is about kids
and their struggle with divorce, separation, loss and finding a place in
this world. I believe we cannot help it. We are bound to cope with the
repercussions of our parents’ decisions forever”. – Tim Linghaus
Born in the GDR in the early 1980s, musician Tim Linghaus has spent the past few years releasing understated but beautifully crafted albums exploring themes of childhood and memory. We Were Young When You Left Home continues in this vein while displaying a sophisticated level of song craft only hinted at in more ambient leaning albums like Vhoir (2016, Moderna Records), Memory Sketches (2018, 1631 Recordings), and About B. (2019, Sound in Silence). Having developed a fondness for the style of those records, it took a little acclimating to get used to the more prominent vocals and strong indie pop undercurrent, but on each listen the appreciation grew more & more for the sheer beauty, musical dexterity, and raw emotional honesty of what Linghaus created.
Released on vinyl LP & digital.
Vargkvint – Hav [Piano and Coffee Records]
Sofia Nystrand named her solo music project Vargkvint after a dissonant musical interval known as the “wolf fifth”, an apt metaphor for her enigmatic sound which offers sweet enchantment permeated with an aura of ancient & primal forces. On Hav, Nystrand weaves a spellbinding tale of the sea that embraces all of “its beauty and its menace, its life-giving and its life-taking”. Sounds of lapping surf, howling winds, and creaking masts vividly evoke a maritime setting while the music itself has the very ebb and flow of the tide and the salt air on its skin. Such an epic tale needs narrators and these come in the form of folk instruments like the harmonium, zither, and saw, a male choir, and of course Nystrand’s own own arresting voice. A unique and captivating journey.
Released on vinyl LP & digital.