Whilst the official 10-year anniversary of HearFeel falls on the 1st February 2022 (a decade on from the first “official” post), this December is the tenth end-of year. Around this time, as many of us are wont to do, I normally piece together some kind of annual retrospective that looks back at some of my favourite albums of the year in a neatly compiled list of recommendations.
But since this year is a bit more special than most, I thought it would be a good chance to go over this decade of year-ends and look back on some of my essentials.
Many long time readers may find this all yawn-inducingly familiar as a number of the records I want to cover here I have already espoused the virtues of, some on quite a few occasions. Nevertheless, we’re going to go back in time once again and sing the praises of a collection of records that I’ve found enjoyable, important, life-altering, thought-provoking, exciting, humbling, and any other adjectives you want to throw at them. And since a chunk of these are not Ambient-adjacent per se, there might be some new introductions here.
Before I get into it I just want to extend my sincere thanks to everyone, readers and artists alike, who have given me a reason to keep this little thing alive for so long. I genuinely had no long term plans when I first started slapping away at a keyboard as a bare-faced 18 year old, but the endless stream of views and submissions and interactions keeps me justifying sticking around. I wish that I had more time to devote to this endeavour, and I’m deeply sorry that things have so drastically slowed down over the last few years, but know that I don’t have any intention of giving up anytime soon, and at this point I’d quite like to see where we’ll be in another ten years time. So thank you all.
2012: Matthew Dear – Beams
2012 was the year of music for me; I had never, and will never again, listen to as much music as I did that year. So much of it new, so much of it exciting and strange and exploratory; looking back most of it was also terrible, but for me, whose journey up until that point was relatively short, it was all revelatory.
Seeing all the works I loved and listened to the most that year is deeply nostalgic, and records like Chromatics’ Kill For Love, and Grimes’ Visions remain indelibly etched into my psyche. Dear’s Beams wasn’t one on my radar at the time, and it wasn’t until years later that my deep love affair with this record (and his work more generally) began, but I can’t pick anything else for that year.
Deepening his use of vocals, Beams is a fluidic, suggestive, romantic electronic record existing in a realm caught between Synth Pop, House, and Techno. It has feverish highs, crooning sexy mids, and eloquently despondent lows, a veritable rollercoaster of intimacies.
I love love love it, and although not what I would have chosen as a primitive late-teen, retrospectively this is my capstone of an excellent year of sound.
2013: Lusine – The Waiting Room
I make it no secret that I owe Jeff McIlwain, aka Lusine, an awful lot for his music. His 2009 LP A Certain Distance was an instrumental moment in my pivot towards alternative electronic and ultimately ambience (with a few detours), and without it we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Four years after discovering the album that changed it all for me, The Waiting Room released to ensure my deepening love affair with Jeff’s discography was permanised. I have never before or since been more excited by an album release, and I distinctly recall crying with happiness over hearing “Get The Message” for the first time in the wee small hours of a dark February night in my uni digs. Yes I may have been drunk.
TWR further establishes the Ambient Pop direction laid down by its predecessors, entirely foregoing the robotic vocoder featured heavily in ACD in favour of a more dualistic approach with Jeff’s subtle spoken word duetting the ladies. It’s still got all the typical Lusine Microhouse and Ambient Techno flair and polish, and in all honesty is probably his most cohesive album.
I guarantee that almost anyone can find something they’d enjoy here, it’s so cleverly accessible and yet so singularly Lusine that it’s impossible not to get along with.
2014: Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath
2014 was a crushingly good year for music, just a relentless stream of amazing material from the likes of Marble Sky, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Fennesz, Ben Frost, Eno & Hyde etc. It almost feels unfair to have to pick one…so I’m making a special mention below. That being said, A Turn of Breath wasn’t just another great album in a year of great music, I consider it to be one of my favourite records of all time: make no mistake, this one album practically justifies 10+ years of listening to me.
If there’s one record here that I would implore you to listen to if you haven’t already (I don’t know how you’ve been missing my memos on this for seven years), do yourself the favour.
An album of change, of new starts and old closes, of fresh beginnings and lost ends, Ian suspends his angelic classically trained voice over haunted and distressed tape loops and mulched acoustica. It heaves in heaviness, its constant lo-fi aura projecting a fond, decaying past that competes with the gentle warm hues of a hopeful but unknown present and future, a battle of inner selves embroiled in some slow motion emotional tussle.
It is painfully exceptional, a masterstroke in feeling and atmosphere: a timeless classic.
2014 Special Mention: Kyle Bobby Dunn – And The Infinite Sadness
It’s impossible for me to mention 2014 without talking about Dunn’s Infinite Sadness. I’ve also talked about this sweeping opus on numerous occasions, and despite everything I probably still will. The culmination of a number of years of slowly expanding epics (ultimately trumped in length by progeny From Here To Eternity), Infinite Sadness is a graceful slowburner of emotional guitar drone.
Often remarked by its creator as a void of despondency, my reading of this (in my opinion) career defining record is rather softer and more flexible. Whilst much of the tongue-in-cheek, self-referential titling ala Stars of the Lid plots a constellation of loneliness, of romantic and interpersonal failures, the music itself hums in endlessly graceful poignance which just manages to suit any environment.
As I have written before, I have taken this album anywhere and everywhere, heard it under all sort of conditions and circumstances in all sorts of places, and each time it seems to offer something new in its reading. It is comfortingly familiar, reassuringly safe, and timelessly elegant.
2015: Clarence Clarity – NO:NOW
Another late arrival, NO:NOW finally came onto my radar in early 2019 after several years worth of recommendations finally became inescapable. My one wish is that I’d heard it back in 2015 so that I could have had four extra years with this monolith.
This debut is simply unreal, there’s no other way of putting it. A delirious, dense, genre-bending, super individualistic, well produced, seamless explosion of energy, this is a tour-de-force that will leave you reeling. Hovering somewhere in Glitch and Art Pop, and Alternative R&B, Clarence knits an epic narrative that touches bases on everything disturbingly modern.
Internet and porn addictions, digital escapism, social media, existential dread, self-consciousness, self-aggrandisement, loneliness. It’s a damning and overwhelming experience. But damn do we get a peek into CC’s thoughts and perceptions for 60 gripping, hyperactive minutes. And after 16 tracks of tease, when “Cancer In The Water” finally arrives for the payout fuck does it feel good.
An absolutely unbelievable record that will leave you stunned whether you love or loathe it, and one of the greatest modern experimental Pop forays.
2016: Animal Collective – Painting With
2016 was not an especially good year for me. I was at a personal low for much, if not the whole of, the year and it seemed there were few things at the time that served to lift my mood. It did eventually turn around at the end with a big shakeup in circumstance, but an enduring point of mood-lightening sound in AnCo’s poorly received Painting With helped see me through.
Decried as being their least creative and “poppiest” endeavour as the members move towards middle-age, many consider this their worst record. Which is a shame, because the more stripped back sound, bouncy beats and reciprocating hocketing vocals suffuse this with a fun, childlike energy.
It’s not, admittedly, my favourite record of theirs (2001’s Ark neé Here Comes The Indian has that honour), however it is absolutely packed with great tracks that I find I can throw on anytime I need a pick-me-up, or when I’m in the car, or in the kitchen…
“Natural Selection”, “Spilling Guts”, “Vertical”, reflective closer “Recycling”, it’s just so densely entertaining: I have a distinct fondness for this, and I think this is deeply, deeply underrated.
2017: Blanck Mass – World Eater
2017 was the year of political records. With a year of Trump’s presidency already down and Britain steaming headfirst into Brexit, things were looking pretty bleak. That’s where the cathartic aggressions of Ben Power’s bold World Eater come in.
Finally releasing the shackles from his cerebral self-titled debut and the more restrained predecessor Dumb Flesh, this one pulls no punches and is sure to scour you wholesale. From the tilted madness of the opener right into the punishing industrial electronic of “Rhesus Negative” we hardly have time to catch our breath until the record ends. Even the seductive transmuting ambiences and Vaporwaving of “Minnesota/Eas Fors/Naked” feel threatening and artificial after the early horrors.
In the same way that news in 2017 just felt like an endless torrent of misery and violence, so Blanck Mass forges ahead bullishly, drenched in irony. Funnily enough this album only seems to get more apt as time goes by, and remains a formidable yet engrossing listen.
2018: Chihei Hatakeyama – Butterfly’s Summer and Vanished
I loved it at the time, and I love it more now. Chihei’s crystalline drones in Butterfly’s are sublime, oneiric, ethereal.
I find, sitting down to write something short and snappy to articulate some sense of attachment and explanation over this record, struggling to put the words together. It is an endlessly crashing wave, a never ending sigh, an ever turning dandelion seed trapped in a paperweight. Caught within is a glowing memory of love and light, Summer Sun squeezed and cooled into a single receding point.
Truly beautiful, and a true standout these last few years.
2019: Hannah Diamond – Reflections
Reflections is Hannah’s long overdue debut; in production limbo for a number of years, AG Cook eventually found time to produce this for our girl and thank god he did really. In many ways the epitome of PC Music scene, and the truest demonstration of its ability to properly fill a full record, Reflections is a modern Pop album for modern people.
Almost too glossy, this finds itself brimming with shimmering expanses of synths, awash in both cerebral and bombastic electronica that builds the set pieces for Hannah’s vocals. Have you ever heard someone’s voice turn into an electric guitar? Well, “Make Believe” makes it happen and it’s glorious.
Mostly this record touches on feelings of loneliness in digital spaces, isolation of self despite the ubiquity and pervasiveness of social media. It’s sadly romantic and self-critical, doused in this deep Pop facade as only Millennial meta-ness can achieve. A brilliant, superbly produced effort.
2020: Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
As I mentioned last year there was some stiff competition in the upper tiers of musicdom for me, with Autechre’s Sign arriving to perfectly capture the bizarre zeitgeist of a year crushed with coronovirus. Though Sean and Rob certainly did put out an amazing return to form, OPN’s languid and carefully chaptered Magic OPN just pips it.
For over a decade now Daniel Lopatin has been plumbing a sound that is at once both fearsomely modern and intractably nostalgic: no one makes MIDI harpsichord or 80s synthesisers sound as good as Dan. So crisp, so obviously modern, and yet so suffused in the feeling of times gone by that it leaves the listener in a state of chronometric confusion. It echoes a world filled with technological and cultural advances that remains generationally glued to some peculiar, perhaps even misplaced, sense of nostalgia.
Honestly this thing is just an intelligent and compelling release that at once both acknowledges and materialises the navel gazing and deeply retrospective feelings of Millennials who can recall a simpler time, and satirises this constant desire for a barely experienced past.
It’s become far more difficult as I’ve gotten older and wis-, well, older anyway, to speak as authoritatively at the end of each year on the greats from that year. Increasingly it’s become harder to feel sufficiently detached and have that adequate degree of separation that provides for retrospective clarity. It’s definitely a case of overthinking things, but historical precedent says my thoughts on each year do mature with distance and so it’s with hesitance, but not a lack of precision, that I present a softer focus.
I’ll be honest, 2021 failed to strike me with many of its offerings: the volume of new work churned out in both ’20 and ’21, coupled with the ennui and burnout of CoViD, has meant I’ve found it challenging to be invested. To that end, of the narrower than usual few that have struck me is this piece on the self in space from Rousay.
I love its free-form, sketch like, almost diaristic field recordings that float us through snapshots of Claire’s reality, taking us through the banal and brilliant in her life with equal weighting. It just feels so intimate and in tune with its condition in its surroundings, and “peak chroma” is just a SOTY highlight for me on its own. An excellent piece of craftsmanship.
At the end of the day, over the last decade I’ve listened to perhaps 12,000 records: it’s always rather unfair to distil things down in this way to a <0.1% cream-of-the-crop and there are, of course, many hundreds of albums and artists who have left their mark. Indeed, all one has to do is go back through the 500 or so written pieces I’ve posted here in that time, a curated record of some of the most interesting and beautiful listening experiences I’ve had, to get a sense of that.
Over these many years I’ve become quite pleased and proud of what’s been accomplished here, and what I intend to continue to accomplish, and I hope you all feel the same as we continue to venture together into the great musical unknown ahead of us.
Much love and thanks,
Chris // HearFeel