End of 2018: A List and Mix by Harry Towell
Irregular Crates and Whitelabrecs owner Harry Towell (Spheruleus) has put together a list of his favourite albums of the year, complete with a mix. Read below for Harry’s summary of the year followed by the top 20, complete with links and commentary for each record. Click the image above to listen to a mix show Harry has created, counting down with a track from each of his favourite albums.
“2018 has been quite the year! In the last few years I had found my musical taste hopping around all kinds of genres as I scoured for obscure experimental sounds but this year, I seemed to wrap myself in the trusty, comforting sound of Ambient music more than anything else. That’s not to say that I didn’t listen to lots of Hip Hop, House, Jazz etc but it’s more that Ambient seemed to soundtrack the year and strike more of a chord.
End of year lists can seem a bit tiresome for some and I’ve read a few comments recently where people see them as being a bit pointless, or a final plug for blog or website traffic. I notice that some struggle with the subjectivity of it all – the big magazines and blogs announcing their lists as ‘the best of 2018’ as if they’re an authority, telling us what to listen to and what’s cool.
I find the whole task itself to be rather arduous, what with writing and organising a ginormous blog post with lots text, formatting, proof reading, editing images for cover artwork etc. Usually, this is with next to no time to spare as the festive season descends. However, the stress of this is always worth it for me in the end. If I can help the scenes in any way by introducing readers to some new artists/labels but also, it is a chance for me to map out the year I’ve had personally, so that in years to come, I can reflect on this. I think that for many who tend to write these lists, they too want to both share and document their own personal thoughts and experiences.
So my list certainly isn’t telling you what’s the best music and I don’t proclaim to be any sort of authority either – it’s a chance for me to share these records in the hope that if there are some unknown items, you’ll check them out.
Some will have seen the announcement I made at the end of September on my label Whitelabrecs, that my wife and I had a baby daughter Isla. She is our first born, so for most of the year there has been this anticipation for her arrival and then of course, she was born into the family and has been a huge part of the remainder of this year as our lives have changed forever. Time has become my enemy for getting administrative music tasks complete but during the spare time I’ve had this year, I’ve had my headphones in knowing all along, that the music I listen to will give a nostalgia that will really hit me when I listen to music from 2018 in a few years time.
Last year I did a big spreadsheet using a rating/scoring system to create what I thought was a mathematically precise order for my favourite records. This year, I almost joined some of my peers who list things alphabetically but instead, I found a listing app that I could keep updating and re-ordering – a running chart, if you will.
The list swelled to nearly 50 albums and a glance over all the omissions from the chart disappoints, me as it really was such a great year! These include Sven Laux who is incredibly talented as an artist and has become a good friend too, heavyweights such as Hammock, Goldmund and From The Mouth of The Sun as well as Hip-Hop instrumentals by Hentzup, rzuma, Natse and Lungfulls. There were also top records from Ekin Fill, Chihei Hatakeyama, Offthesky and a beauty from Steven Legget. Still, I decided there wasn’t the time to do a top 50 blog post, so there had to be a cull.
Usually I tend to write a long intro about all the albums in the top 20 – this year, I simply can’t be bothered! So instead, you can check these all out below, complete with a brief comment for each…or, you can give the mix a spin, which is presented like a bit of a chart show, counted down by my wife. This year’s cover artwork was shot when I was stuck in the congested Fenland roads on the way to work, during heavy snowfall in February.”
“I’ve had this one since it was released but from October onwards, I found I was hardly able to put this record down, following the birth of my daughter Isla. I own it on vinyl and have enjoyed listening whilst rocking her to sleep – this magical record is expertly composed and produced and will surely be a an all-time favourite for both personal and musical reasons.”
“光 is an album of dusty, low-lit piano melodies from a large selection recorded by this much-travelled artist and owner of Home Normal. It was released in the summer and I’ve listened to it countless times and I’m now excited to own it on vinyl too, with Ian re-pressing it to 12″ wax. It’s piano music that is somehow more Ambient than Modern Classical, which could perhaps be likened to an intimate living room recital of Eno and Budd’s Ambient 2.”
“A hiatus of several years since his Cotton Goods material which I must admit, I hadn’t checked out – I’ve really enjoyed this James Stephen Finn electro-acoustic album which is centered around guitar interspersed by clicks and cuts. Field recordings, bells, loops and micro detail – ‘three months’ bears all the hallmarks of the sort of timeless mid-2000s material that we reflect so fondly on, typical of Cotton Goods, Moteer and City Centre Offices. Beautiful.”
“For years, Ben Howard’s music has been pretty readily available with it reaching the mainstream. I first discovered that I enjoyed his work when his album was playing in a local shop and I decided to ‘Shazam’ the album that what was playing to find out who it was. I didn’t connect massively with it once I had chance to listen again back home but after seeing he’d a new record out this year and with an endorsement from Dan Crossley of Fluid Radio who is a fan, I decided to buy a digital copy of Noonday Dream. I noticed through comments on social media that many fans of Howard struggled a little with this record and I see some mainstream media publications didn’t give this the best review. For me, I loved it and even bought it again on vinyl. It’s experimental but its lyrical content and song structures gave an immediacy that I can’t always get from Ambient music, which meant I’ve listened regularly this year – both on vinyl and on the iPod.”
“We had a pretty decent summer here in the UK so I can’t complain too much but this year I didn’t take a holiday overseas to enjoy more exotic climes. I found my escape time and time again in this, Magnétophonique’s discography assemblage which will transform you to an unmanned island full of colour, heat and exotic birds. I didn’t manage to grab one of the cassettes but I imagine this album sounds lovely with yet another layer of hiss and warmth.”
“In an album which told me I’ve been missing out on some quality music on some of my favourite labels, from an artist that’s been active for over a decade, I’m so glad for the introduction to Grouper this spring. Grid Of Points is a mini album or long-playing EP if you prefer marrying Liz Harris’ beautiful vocals with piano/reverb. The whole thing’s incredibly moving and intimate and had me scouring her back catalog.”
“Archives had a belter of a year, I’m sure many will agree. Of course, their ability to present exciting artists both familiar and undiscovered is a huge part of this. But the way the albums and artwork is put together to make for the whole package is what really built the intrigue for me. Not least, when I discovered ‘Silence’ by Luis Miehlich, an artist that I was yet to discover. The artwork literally pulled me in and then this subtle, beautiful array of drones has very much become my ‘sleep album’ for 2018.”
“I’ve been following Federico Durand’s work for many years and have also enjoyed pretty much anything fine art imprint IIKKI books has put out too since its emergence. However here, this package pretty much sums up the year in the perfect formula: vinyl + beautiful artwork + tape effects as well as the serene, child-like melodies that provide a restful backdrop. This is another piece of vinyl that has been both successful in getting my baby daughter off to sleep but also, it’s been enjoyable for me to be able to sit and listen to both sides of the LP.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed Lost Tribe Sound’s material last year and this year they continued this good work with several high quality releases. I was pleased that as well as this, I was introduced to some new names – ranking highest is Luton, with ‘Black Box Animals’. It is absolutely brimming with dramatic and intricate detail using cinematic and electro-acoustic instruments. Every track tells a different story; some moments are sombre, some lighter, some a little darker and it’s virtually impossible for me to pick a favourite as this is best as a cohesive whole. ”
“I’ve made no secret of my love for the Gentleman Losers and own everything they’ve ever released. I was delighted after such a hiatus last year when they released Permanently Midnight and this year they’ve wowed me again with another album dropping in deepest, darkest December to throw a spanner in the works for my end of year list. This time I’ve literally had a week to get to grips with a deeper, dare I say more Ambient approach to their signature sound. I’ve had it on non-stop but feel more attached to the top 9 due to the events of the year but I can’t help but wonder whether this would have been up there if I’d have had it a few weeks back…”
“Moderna have a reputation for releasing some of the finest Modern Classical material around and generally speaking, I tend to enjoy the Icelandic composers’ strand of this movement. I was certainly not disappointed by Snorri Hallgrimsson’s Orbit, which was recorded at Olafur Arnalds’ studio in Reykjavik. Strings and piano are of course aplenty and to expert effects, but what makes this album particularly special are the vocals.”
“I recall Northener’s early work on Hibernate and Under The Spire and I’ve long since followed and enjoyed Home Assembly Music’s finely curated catalog. What I enjoy about all of their releases is firstly, their willingness to press vinyl of course but also, they do not set about one specific genre and every release is designed according to the album. ‘End Of The Holiday’ is a hazy return to UK full of holiday memories, with guitar and synth layers weaving warmth over subtle beats.”
“So long as Michael Cottone releases an album, it is likely to feature in my end of year list and his record for Sound In Silence was something I ordered on CD, and left the disc in my car where this was played an awful lot. I’ve never tired of these beautiful melodies which showcase some of the acoustic guitar sounds present on his album for Lost Tribe Sound last year and also, some of the more droning moments you’d associate with his earlier work.”
“I enjoyed and charted Max Ananyev’s Communication on Preservation back in 2016 and the follow-up here for the trusty Serein imprint is astoundingly good modern classical music, which steps outside of the box slightly in its approach. The guitar playing is very quick at time but yet still, the moments of silence and dreamy washes make for an enthralling listen. Superb artwork too!”
“Another entry for Lost Tribe Sound and this one saw the collaboration between a new name to me, Gavin Miller alongside Aaron Martin who provides the cello for the first part of the album, ‘Upper Course’. The record is presented both with and without Martin’s cello atmospherics and you can either listen to one or the other, or both!”
“Another inclusion for Archives and this one was an ultra comfortable first foray into vinyl for the label, with an artist that had received much critical acclaim for Short Stories in the year prior. Leaving for me came at a time when I’d gone a bit vinyl mad but also, near to the birth of my daughter. ‘Leaving’ was waiting for me when I returned home from the hospital to catch some much needed rest and so its meditative, dreamy state was the backdrop to that return home.”
“Marcus Fischer and Simon Scott are two artists I’ve admired over the years with both contributing more than the odd classic. Both have graced the 12k catalog before so I was intrigued by this collaboration which is made all the more of a prospect by the beautiful artwork. The resulting recordings are 3 mid length to longform gapless pieces of electro acoustic drone.”
“Dronarivm are another label that took the vinyl plunge this year, at the suggestion of Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Sakevych and this tape eroded modern classical gem is easily one of the year highlights for many, me included. I must admit, I’ve intended for a while now to order this on vinyl and have not got round to it but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the digital version I purchased, which has been on heavy rotation during the last few weeks since it was released.”
“Released on Japanese imprint Spekk as well as Taylor Deupree’s own 12k label, Fallen has been up there since the start this year with its intimate, intricate beauty. It hints at previous albums Twine and Somi but hones in on the piano as the notes hang in the air alongside the fizz of decaying tape reels.”
“Anyone that is familiar with my music taste will know that I’m not just into Ambient, I also gravitate to Electronica, Deep House, Jazz, Hip Hop and pretty much any experimental genre that sounds good. I recently discovered Mansur Brown’s debut on Black Focus, a label that’s had a solid year with owner Henry Wu also releasing his own record as Kamaal Williams which also wasn’t far off this list. ‘Shiroi’ showcases Brown’s adept guitar skills with many different strokes and tones and for me the pick of the bunch, ‘Motions’ which uses a dubby loop to set the scene before there are guitar licks aplenty that build into an interlude before returning to that dreamy, dubbed out state.”