Best of 2015: Part 1 - Kosmische/Instrumental/Soundtrack/Jazz/Dance

That time of year again when we take stock. It's good to take stock, be thankful for what you have, mourn what you miss, make plans for the future, rekindle memories.

Musical memories are obviously pretty specific, conjuring up a place, a time, the people you were with, or maybe just how the music made you feel. It can even seem like music transports us back to a more innocent time. Last January really does seem like a long time ago and some of this list dates back that far. Musical memories are always personal and often completely private.

This list is the first part of a four-part (probably) series. I'm a bit of a hoarder so lists tend to be long. But everything here is treasured by me. I'm calling it Kosmische/Instrumental/Soundtrack/Jazz/Dance. As usual, tags are somewhat arbitrary but let's go with those. And the tunes are in no particular order. I'm aiming for the second part of the review sometime between Christmas and New Year's if you're a diary watcher, then the third and fourth in early 2016.

Enjoy. I do.

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1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Euclid (Western Vinyl)
A sublime album of kosmische tunes generated from an instrument called the Buchla Music Easel.

Warm, organic and thoroughly accessible, there’s also a lovely playful bounce to the opening tracks, like this one.

It came in at the start of the year and stayed with me all the way through.



2. Qluster – Spuren im Schnee (from the album Tasten, Bureau B)
Plangent and plainly beautiful piano music. Three pianos in fact, played by Hans Joachim Roedelius, Onnen Bock and Armin Metz. There’s a post classical feel initially but the longer you listen you find the brilliant drift and sustain of the music approaches Roedelius’ seminal ambient work with Cluster.



3. Polar Bear – Don’t let the feeling go (Leaf)
Another classic cut from these jazz fusion pioneers which came to us in the spring.

Classy and unfussy jazz grooves carried by a lovely supple double bass and a hi hat heavy dropped snare beat.

A pair of saxophones join in midway through for extra propulsion entwining sensuously around the vocal refrain making for a great accessible whole.

That refrain is practically a mantra and you do feel it amounts to another inspiring message of hope from this special group.



4. Rozi Plain – Actually (from the album Friend, Lost Map Records)
One of my standout songs of 2015, an earworm built around a memorable rumbling bassline and a genius kosmische synth melody. In a major key but enigmatic as anything and catchy as hell. From February –

Then it fizzes out in just 3 minutes, short and snappy as a pop song. It has more in common with kosmische than pop or even folk. You might feel the urge to dance to it although maybe slower than you’re used to.

An exultation amid intrigue, a questioning probing somewhat cautionary tone.

In all a fabulous uplifting reshaping of folk music.



5. Owensie – Dramamine (from thw album Dramamine, Out On A Limb)
Picked Spanish guitar, delicate, reaching harmonies (featuring Conor O’Brien of Villagers), droning reeds in support. The tempo is a shade quicker than (the previous album) giving the song an extra urgency, culminating in the marvellous wordless vocal interludes which drift over an unexpected tumbling chord sequence.

It’s dreamy and mysterious and deserves a huge audience. One of the songs of this or any year.



6. Laura Cannell – Two winters (from the album Beneath swooping talons, Front & Follow)
Another singular Front & Follow release from the English multi-instrumentalist.

The instrument on show in this track is the remarkable sounding double recorder, which combines notes from different registers. The best comparison I can think of is the uilleann pipes with the drone operating underneath the melody line.

The effect is something between medieval music and the freaked folk of The Wicker Man soundtrack. A rural sound certainly, a cousin of birdsong but with bracing notes of dissonance. This from the press release sums it up nicely.

Tapping the potent rural landscape and long-dormant musical modes, this album encompasses both wild animal calls and long forgotten liturgical chords, which drawn through Laura’s music seem to originate from the same ahistorical place.

It’s tremendous and is guaranteed to make you forget about social media for a while.



7. Noveller – Fantastic planet (Fire)
Epic compelling guitar soundscapes by Sarah Lipstate of Austin Texas (she originally defined herself as a guitar project although there are apparently some synths at work here).

The tone can turn from brooding to meditative at the flick of a wrist and it makes sense to discover that Lipstate is also a filmmaker, so assured are the switches in mood.

Opener ‘Into the dunes’ creates a terrific sense of foreboding with low drones and crunching power chords edging into creeping John Carpenter territory. 'No unholy mountain' takes a prismatic psych approach to arpeggios and sound bleed which is pure gorgeousness.

There’s a distinct Reichian flavour to the opening cascade of notes in ‘Rubicon’ and a great hint of Orange Juice style new wave verve about the overlapping guitar lines in ‘Sisters’.

And check the lovely ambient Badalamenti haze of ‘Concrete dreams’.

Whatever the mood what I particularly like about this album is the restraint - the build is measured, never forced, never false, always organic.

Beautiful instrumental music and sterling stuff all round.



8. Julia Kent – Asperities (Leaf)
More compelling cello instrumentals from the New York resident, this time with added deep sea and darker notes.

Epic, very much widescreen and profoundly emotional music.



9. Slow Moving Clouds – Os (Paper Palace)
Once more heavy on the strings, this is a beautiful record finding the common ground between Irish and Finnish traditional music. In fact, that overlap takes in all kinds of other tangents – classical, ambient, folk drones among others.

I had the pleasure of seeing the band play live recently in Cork. The tone of the album could be taken as sober, reflective but live there’s great gameyness and humour to the music. Aki, the Finnish connection, did the introductions – Danny Diamond on too many fiddles (there were several), Kevin Murphy on grown-up fiddle (cello) and himself on crippled fiddle (nyckelharpa).

The music that night showed something like the ambient drift of Sigur Ros in places, the cello heaving and swelling like a proper bellows. The full dynamics of the instruments were heard too, with scrapes, slides and harmonics all used. At times, there was a strident string quartet feel (it's a trio I know but the nyckelharpa is like two instruments in one), other times it came across as some wonderful mutant strain of chamber folk.

Most of the time they just played stirring and boisterous (or mournful) folk tunes with seesawing cello and keening fiddle. It's like folk music reaching out into the ether, majestically. Plenty for trad fans, plenty for classical fans, great tunes with inventive arrangements for all music fans.

So, a beautiful record. Get into it.



10. Mikael Tariverdiev – Film Music (Earth)
Someone who only came on my radar a few weeks ago but a wonderful discovery courtesy of curator Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld and Earth Records.

Mikael Tariverdiev is a household name in Russia, thanks to his prolific output as a classical composer in general, but also for his work in tv and film. However, I’m guessing even the most conscientious cinephile from this part of the world might not have heard of him (and of course that’s what curators and labels are for).

This handsome triple album collection compiles his film work, in particular three main soundtracks from the 1960s – Goodbye Boys, Snow Over Leningrad and I am a tree.

Jazz predominates, a lovely smoky Russian take on the form – a spectrum from slow blues piano to ragtime tunes to furious jams with wailing sax solos. There’s also a hint of the French jazz style, and chanson here and there – that giveaway dampened guitar strumming and brushed snare. The brilliant ‘Waltz from The Last Thief’ uses accordion and marimba, to intoxicating effect. There are shades (a foreshadowing maybe) of Morricone in the wordless female vocal work. And Tariverdiev’s training under Khatchaturian is reflected in some elegaic classical pieces.

Crucially, the arrangements are small scale – no orchestras here, the prevailing convention in Soviet cinema at the time, but more intimate ensembles giving a lovely light, airy atmosphere to the music. This lightness counterpoints perfectly the general mood of sentiment and nostalgia.

The piano playing in particular is sublime throughout, full of warmth and feeling and the recordings are superb.

An absolute joy of an album and a fascinating insight into a culture not well understood in the west. Check some pieces below and you'll find more tracks in recent playlists.

*By the way, the background story to the compilation itself is also fascinating, featuring the very filmic scenario of Stephen Coates transfixed by the music playing in a Moscow café some years ago, and his subsequent search for it - a search that lead him to Vera Tariverdiev, Mikael’s widow and possessor of his vast recording catalogue.



11. Jóhann Jóhannsson – End of summer (Sonic Pieces)
Another late in the year entry, another soundtrack piece from the Icelandic composer, in fact a soundtrack to a film of the same name he made himself.

The film is about a trip to the Arctic and the music has all the gravitas and sombre strangeness you might associate with that landscape.

The title might be end of summer but really the music says nothing but winter.

Compelling is a word.

End Of Summer - Part 3 (Excerpt) from Jóhann Jóhannsson on Vimeo.



12. Jean Jacques Perrey & David Chazam – Electropop parade (from the album ELA, Freaksville)
One to file between Esquivel and your favourite Disney soundtrack classics (that description would be enough for me personally).

Perrey is one of the original musique concrete artists and something of a Moog maestro having been drafted (or drafted himself) in to test the instrument by Mr Moog himself way back when. Chazam is the young French knob-twiddler who took him up on his invitation to collaborate in 1996. I'd recommend you check the full backstory at the bandcamp below.

This tune is just a joy, a riot, a hoot. It's actually a version of Perrey's own 'Baroque Hoedown' which has been used by Disney as part of its theme park parades. So plenty of pop references crawling inside themselves if you're bored.

Which you won't be whlie you're listening to this.



13. G Rag & Die Landlergschwister - Poem for the Viking of 42nd Street (Gutfeeling Records)
Hard to classify this one but I love it. There’s a touch of Tom Waits, a bit of Balkan and Bavarian folk, New Orleans swing, plus there’s a brass band involved which is irresistible in itself (to me anyway, I hope you agree).

The title is of course a reference to Moondog, the blind self-taught “street” musician Louis Hardin who made a name for himself in New York in the 1950s and 60s. Kudos for that too.

The band is from Munich and I strongly recommend taking a minute also to look over their ace version of the DAF tune ‘Der Rauber und der Prinz’, seen here performed live to revellers on the street (it might well have been during Oktoberfest). Watch them bust their moves, some in traditional Bavarian garb, to a bunch of accordions, trumpets and a megaphone – it’s almost as entertaining as the music.





14. Marcus Hamblett – Three four (from the album Concrete)
I came across this guy through Rozi Plain – he played on her album Friend and is an in-demand session head for many bands – although this album charts quite different and fascinating territory.

I’m a big fan of both Tortoise and Ennio Morricone and fans of both of those will find plenty here.

This largely instrumental track starts out like the former, all leisurely low slung guitar, oozing synths and pitter patter hi hat. The latter stages see a shift to a sublime wordless vocal and rolling toms.

The Quietus called it Joe Meek if he’d dug John Cage, which is good. I’m sticking with Tortoise if they were arranged by Ennio Morricone (could still happen, says you).

Hamblett is one of Brighton’s always interesting Wilkommen Collective and a member of the band Sons of Noel and Adrian. He is also an intriguing multi-instrumentalist composer in his own right.



15. Circuit des Yeux – Do the dishes (from the album In plain speech, Thrill Jockey)
A compelling and invigorating slice of what sounds quite like performance art on record from Haley Fohr of Chicago.

The minimalist opening on this album standout might put you in mind of the gradually phasing patterns of Steve Reich but with added distorted oomph.

It turns out this opening was created by cutting up and looping an original ethnographic field recording from Laos (you really would swear it’s an organ), a piece of information that only adds to the impression that this woman is not fucking around.

That and these words I suppose.

There is something deep inside of you
Something that’s worth reaching into
It makes me tremble
It makes me shake
It’s a risk I’m willing to take


That grinding loop then drops out suddenly, taking Fohr’s rollercoaster of a voice with it and leaving in its place a sparse ghostly playout as a catch your breath coda.

It’s an intriguing, even chilling, piece of work all round.

*This video features full frontal nudity so is very much NSFW.



16. HeCTA – We are glistening (from the album The Diet, Merge/City Slang)
A class of a Lambchop sideproject involving Kurt Wagner, Ryan Norris and Scott Martin of that revered Nashville band turning their hands to electronic dance music, as a follow on from their CoLAB EP from 10 years ago.

On the face of it, you’d be hard pushed to identify any common features with the source group, although of course Lambchop have always had a strong current of soul running under its country top notes.

‘We are glistening’ has Wagner’s wonderful hangdog croon (it just never gets old) over a busy backbeat of high hats and clicks and later on a series of sumptuous brass swells. John McEntire gets a mention on the bio as an influence and it’s probably the closest the album gets to that smouldering and soulful strand of Tortoise.

In fact, it’s probably the closest the album gets to that smouldering and soulful strand of Lambchop.

Which is to say it’s class all over.



17. Dawn of Midi – Nix (Erased Tapes)
A throbbing, insistent beat from this American three piece which would remind you a bit of Hauschka or Caribou in its circular polyrhythms.

What these guys wring out of keys, double bass and drums is incredible.

It’s wonderful.



18. De Lux – Oh man the future (Innovative Leisure)
A genius turn from the LA duo which takes two crucial elements of the vintage Talking Heads sound and fuses them with an authentic 21st century anxiety.

Those elements are the relentless pulse bass of Tina Weymouth.

And the declamatory, talking-loudly-to-myself vocals of David Byrne.

World War 4. US Civil War 2027. No jobs. No money. Everything is free.

They suggest a scenario in which dancing to a four to the floor beat can alleviate this state of affairs. Not a solution maybe but a way to soothe your mind and body.

You might even feel like embracing an uncertain future if the soundtrack is as brilliant as this.



19. SlowPlaceLikeHome – Dear Diary (from the album Romola)
An album which got a welcome re-release this year from Keith Mannion of the Atlantic north west corridor (that’s Donegal to you).

This tune gets me every time with its initial floating kosmische, before the great jangly, Orange Juice-y finish complete with (faux) brass.

Lovely.

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