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Best of Boston 2009

Manufactured landscapes

Highlights from a banner year in wordless music

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Photo by Jon Leone

Depending on our mood, most of us seek out albums that coddle our hopes, fears, and concerns; failing that, we want escapism, foreign environments that either take us where we want to be or startle us with the thrill of the new. Most of these satisfactions can be met through sheer lyrical acuity, but they can't resonate without the proper atmosphere.

The six albums that follow — all rooted, to one extent or another, in minimal electronic music — are some of the mile markers of what is already an exceptional year in (well, nearly) wordless music. They tread diverse terrain, from slick, exotic dance beats to hard-charging guitar rock to a short piano loop repeated with barely-perceptible alterations, but all share a commonality you won't find in lyrics-based music. Rather than speaking for their audience, they serve as auditory Rorschach tests, an uncertain picture the listener has to project his or her own images — goals, dreams, and, indeed, nightmares — onto. These albums succeed because we can no longer close the doors they've opened to us.

Animal Hospital, Memory (Barge)

Wistful, angsty, and at times unnervingly evocative, the outstanding second full-length by Boston experimental musician Kevin Micka (his third, Good or Plenty, Streets and Avenues, came out digitally this year on Mutable Sound) consists of three epic, 12-to-18-minute post-rock beasts abutted by four shorter, more ambient tracks. The song titles — "His Belly Burst," "2nd Anniversary" — hint at the moments each are based on (beginning with the music box nativity of "Good Times"), but Memory's best songs have the sprawl and narrative detailing of an unabridged biography.

Jonah Sacks's swelling, tremulous cello on "His Belly Burst" recalls a Jonny Greenwood score until it rests on a loop, seceding to truculent drums and a churning whirlpool of guitar, fraught with tension and ornamented with imploding synth samples. The explosive "And Ever...," all punishing bass and screeching spikes of guitar, reaches monumental heights before naturally bowing to the squishy, peaceful minimalism of "A Safe Place" and lapping waves of "Nostalgia." Memory's structure is episodic both as an album and in its individual pieces; every new flare-up is an argument best left buried, a fear you've never uttered, or a reassuring moment of tranquility. (Animal Hospital performs at P.A.'s Lounge in Somerville, Massachusetts, on May 20 — possibly with a cymbal on his head!) CG

Mountains, Choral (Thrill Jockey)

Listening to Mountains raises interesting questions: What makes one ambient album stand out from the rest? How exactly does one make a more engaging drone? Their bombproof solution might at first seem heretical, or at the very least unorthodox: they only write half the music. A healthy percentage of all of the sounds found on Choral can't necessarily be credited to the Brooklyn duo of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp. But it's exactly this "other" half of the album, the found sounds and field recordings, that makes the music pop with a refreshing sincerity, as they are tucked nicely into the mix with Mountain's careful production skills.

The pair diligently bleed their elements together, as hellish rainstorms mingle with distant, raspy synths, while the woody, recognizable timbre of a human voice flutters in and out of the mix. Clinking glasses, reverbed beyond recognition, accompany accordions, guitars, and more synths. Mountains take heed of notes passed over or disregarded as everyday occurrences, and tenderly add them to this album, amplifying them to magnificence. AF

William Basinski, 92982 (2062)

Like his masterpiece, 2002's four-hour, six-part The Disintegration Loops (also 2062) — which captured the sound of Basinski's ambient recordings decaying as he attempted to convert them from analog tape to a digital format — 92982 is mostly made up of music the classical composer and avant-gardeist recorded in the 1980s. Performed in a Brooklyn studio with open windows, the noise of rolling thunder, fireworks, and passing helicopters morph tranquil ambient passages into urban meditation, akin to crossing a long bridge at night with headphones on. As Basinski's music interacts with its backdrop, it also remains in conversation with the warped texture of its analog home: "92982.4" is a bar of piano music continuously folding in on itself as what sounds like the low whir of tape wheels spinning flutters in and out of the channels. CG

The Field, Yesterday and Today (Anti-/Kompakt)

Hitting stores May 19, Yesterday and Today is the superior follow-up to 2007's most acclaimed electronic album, From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt). Lone band member Axel Willner's technique is as repetitive as ever — his techno beats are often like the apex of an imagined, cerebral club hit put on a 10-minute loop — but Yesterday and Today uses more live instrumentation than its predecessor (Battles workhorse John Stanier, of the six-foot-high cymbal, helps out on drums), and the difference makes all the difference: Where Sublime was heady and insistent, Yesterday and Today is expansive and, at times, ironic.

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Related: Tim Hecker | An Imaginary Country, Same difference, Me time, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Andrew Frederick, Animal Hospital, Axel Willner,  More more >
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