#1 Throwing Snow — Embers
I am automatically sceptical of concept albums. To me, they often come across as ham-fisted and gimmicky. Embers, my favourite January album, is a kinda-sorta concept album that avoids this trap. Its central concept — the abundance of cycles in nature — is a constant but subtle presence, right from the cover of the album to its structure. This concept transforms what is already a bunch of solid electronic tracks into a solid album.
The album starts with the sound of a rural fire, placing us in front of a source of heat and light in the dark wilderness. Throughout the album, chirps and clicks reinforce this setting. It’s an odd setting for dance music, but on Embers, it works to create a uniquely organic backdrop.
What unravels against this backdrop is a uniquely organic brand of electronic music that oscillates between warm and cold, dark and light, upbeat and downbeat. A few songs into the album, a pattern forms. A motif is introduced, and subsequently broken down until it collapses into a dull hum. From this, another motif rises, crescendoes, and collapses into a dull hum of its own. And on and on it goes.
Right from the outset, it is clear that Embers is an album-lover’s album. The buildups are slow, the transitions are seamless, and the sound covers a lot of ground — from nocturnal house music, to drone-y ambient music, to wibble-wobble IDM. Most importantly, the music is consistently catchy, meaning the album always feels significantly shorter than its hour-long runtime. In keeping with its theme of cyclicality, the album ends like it starts: with the sound of a crackling rural fire. It’s the perfect way to end an album that’s intended to be looped, and is good enough to warrant it.
#2 Cloud Nothings — Life Without Sound
My first Cloud Nothings album was Attack on Memory, whose singles — Stay Useless, and No Future/No Past — I loved. The album? Not as much. The album itself was a massive hipster hit, with a whole bunch of online superstar reviewers praising the band’s shift from poppy punk to edgy post-hardcore. I, of course, never knew a poppy Cloud Nothings. To me, Attack on Memory, and its followup Here and Nowhere Else, sounded a lot more wallow-y than edgy.
Life Without Sound, the third Cloud Nothings record I have heard, is my favourite by them. Firstly, the depresso is dialled down quite a few notches, a decision that gets my thumbs-up. Secondly, I think the music is just flat-out more interesting. ‘Catchy’ is a word I find myself using a lot these days, and this album not only has a whole bunch of catchy songs, but also is just catchy overall.
I have never been a huge fan of the lyrics of Cloud Nothings’ songs, which often come off as drenched in self-pity. While that isn’t as much of a problem in this record, I continue to tune out most of the lyrics. That said, I would recommend this album to fans of pop-punk and post-hardcore. It’s a good, straightforward, and mostly enjoyable experience.
#3 Neil Cicierega — Mouth Moods
The only fair way to describe Mouth Moods, and the two previous Niel Cicierega albums — Mouth Silence and Mouth Sounds — is post-pop mashup comedy. For context, the reference to mouths in all three albums comes from Neil Cicierega’s obsession with Smash Mouth’s All Star, which features prominently in all three albums.
For fans of western pop culture of the nineties and early aughties, this album is a goldmine of oh-I-remember-that. In just the first song, there’s Smash Mouth, of course, there’s Cake, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, MC Hammer, that this-iiis-the-story-of-a-girl song, that Everybody Dance Now song, and that Kung Fu Fighting song. In just in the first song.
This isn’t ground-breaking stuff. And there are several moments when you won’t be able to shake off the image of some dude at his laptop layering song after song on some free music-maker type software. But there are certainly more moments when you’ll find yourself bopping and laughing.
#4 William Basinski — A Shadow in Time
Someone online referred to William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time as an audio sculpture. That sounds about right. More than any other ambient music I’ve heard, William Basinski’s music has a stillness to it. It doesn’t seem to move forward in time so much as it seems to reveal itself upon careful inspection.
This is an album that won’t reveal itself over five listens, but one that will continue to throw surprises on the 100th listen. I sense this is one of those albums that will continue to grow on me.