Viking's Choice

The Best Outer Sound Albums Of 2011

Artwork for Nicholas Szczepanik 's Please Stop Loving Me. i i

Artwork for Nicholas Szczepanik 's Please Stop Loving Me. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist
Artwork for Nicholas Szczepanik 's Please Stop Loving Me.

Artwork for Nicholas Szczepanik 's Please Stop Loving Me.

Courtesy of the artist

The synth thing has gotten out of control, folks. I like to get zoned out as much as the next guy, but it seemed like 2011 was swarming with half-baked, neo-New Age freaks that gave up on noise. No wonder synth's wunderkind, Oneohtrix Point Never, essentially made an early '00s IDM album instead — he was tired of it! Plenty of others were too: 2011 was more than synthesizers (although a few truly great synth LPs were released, including a more traditionally-minded one from Rene Hell) — deep drone, guitar abstractions and the truly unclassifiable all came through.

What exactly is "outer sound," you may ask? I didn't invent the term, but have lovingly added it to my lexicon because "experimental" feels far too limiting and "avant-garde" suggests something radically new, which isn't always the case. Outer sound is music that explores, whether it be grating harsh noise, dulcet synth tones, ecstatic dance music, motorcycle guitar improvisation, or even out-there studies in pop music.

While I didn't include it here for an arbitrarily self-imposed "No Split Records" rule, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Keith Fullerton Whitman's downright-symphonic contribution to his split 12" with Alien Radio. "101105" manages to take Whitman's recent modular synth improvisations (epiphanies unto themselves) and edits the results into a soaring realm not unlike the gorgeous arc of his magnificent 2006 live album, Lisbon. Seriously, guys, tears were streaming and face was beaming upon my first listen. It still gives me chills. You'll want to listen to the embedded stream of "101105" below. (Alien Radio's beat-based electronic twizzles are pretty rad, too.)

As with my list of the year's best metal albums, I always limit myself to 25 selections. It makes me ask myself what I really loved and what will still spin on the turntable (or iPod) years from now. You can listen to the top ten of those picks below. As always, I couldn't possibly hear every outer sound record released in 2011, which is why reading other year-end lists (and your comments) makes for good filling-in of the gaps.

The Best Outer Sound Albums Of 2011

1. Nicholas Szczepanik, 'Please Stop Loving Me'

  • Song: Please Stop Loving Me

The first time I really listened to Please Stop Loving Me was after watching The Tree of Life. Coming out of the dark movie theater, its soft, organ-like drones hugging my ears, Nicholas Szczepanik's single 47-minute piece (excerpted here) actually put me into a bit of an existential funk. Like Terrence Malick's visual tone poem, Please Stop Loving Me acts like a series of tonal relationships pulled and stretched over each other, simultaneously existing out of time and in it. Its simplistic shifts are incredibly deceptive — just when you think you've figured the piece's thematic core, darkened (yet inviting) textures seep through. But Please Stop Loving Me is by no means dark, just hopeful and bleak in a way that understands emotions as hues rather than blocks of color. (Full disclosure: Szczepanik contributed a compilation track for my record label in 2008.)

Please Stop Loving Me is available at Mimaroglu Music Sales.

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Please Stop Loving Me
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Please Stop Loving Me
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Cover for II

2. The Psychic Paramount, 'II'

  • Song: N5

If Yes learned to jam on the ecstatic eternal, if the Mahavishnu Orchestra wasn't so damn wanky all the time, if Tony Williams had discovered Can's Tago Mago, if Comets on Fire kept making blown-out blues records instead of hippie-dippie noodles (I like those, too), then maybe, just maybe, that would result in The Psychic Paramount's II. And as chaotic as all that sounds, II is all about controlling the pounding psychedelic cosmos, making it the best instrumental rock album of 2011.

II is available from No Quarter Records.

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N5
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II
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The Psychic Paramount
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Cover for How the Thing Sings

3. Bill Orcutt, 'How The Things Sing'

  • Song: How the Thing Sings

No one is playing acoustic guitar like Bill Orcutt right now. No one. The former guitarist for Miami noise rock band Harry P---- isn't out to deconstruct the blues, nor is he making an anti-music statement. How the Things Sing buzzes and jigsaws in and out of a crappy Kay guitar stripped to four strings in a way that'd make Derek Bailey do a double-take, but it also gives these blown-out improvisations pause to reflect. The guitar has been given its warning.

How the Thing Sings is available at Forced Exposure (CD/LP).

Cover for Tragedy

4. Julia Holter, 'Tragedy'

  • Song: Celebration

Talk about upsetting the year-end list apple cart: Tragedy only came to my attention but two weeks ago, but I haven't been able to leave its world since. And make no mistake, Julia Holter's Tragedy truly inhabits a world unlike any other. Those attuned to the modern Gothic atmospheres of Zola Jesus and Grouper will no doubt be drawn to Holter, but she comes more from the Meredith Monk spectrum of sonically-challenging ladies. Bits of musique-concrète, noise, drone, dreamy '80s 4AD medieval-pop and avant-classical are the touchstones for an album centered around Euripides' Hippolytus. But as academic as that all sounds, Tragedy pulls me into its emotional world as well, just as the curtain falls and the voices trail away at the finale.

Tragedy is available from Leaving Records and Boomkat.

Cover for The Wanting

5. Glenn Jones, 'The Wanting'

  • Song: Of Its Own Kind

I still haven't watched The Things That We Used to Do, an intimately-shot DVD featuring Jack Rose and Glenn Jones released last year. It sits on my shelf, awaiting a stiff drink and a good cry. It's hard not to write about any modern fingerstyle acoustic guitarist without pointing to the spirit and influence that Jack Rose had before he passed away in 2009. Rose's friend and collaborator Glenn Jones, who came out of the same '90s experimental rock scene, has actually studied the fingerstyle passed down from John Fahey much longer. The Wanting is Jones' fourth and most compelling solo album, a deceptively humble yet expressive collection of soul-searching six- and twelve-string meditations, downtrodden bottleneck blues and time-lost mountain banjo. While his Takoma school influences are apparent and acknowledged, The Wanting is wholly Jones' own.

The Wanting is available from Thrill Jockey Records.

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Of Its Own Kind
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The Wanting
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Glenn Jones
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Thrill Jockey
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2011

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Cover for The Magic Place

6. Julianna Barwick, 'The Magic Place'

  • Song: Bob In Your Gait

For a record that conjures the massive space normally reserved for cathedrals, The Magic Place sure does feel like it was made right in front of you. Pulled tight around your chest like a tattered wool blanket, Julianna Barwick's disembodied voice is the compositional core, an instrument looped and spun into celestial choral songs sometimes bedded by submerged riddims and sparse piano.

The Magic Place is available from Asthmatic Kitty Records.

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Bob In Your Gait
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Asthmatic Kitty
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7. Trouble Books & Mark McGuire, 'Trouble Books & Mark McGuire'

  • Song: Floating Through Summer

On his own, Emeralds member Mark McGuire's looped guitar work can be incredibly self-contained, which is why this collaboration with Trouble Books, the husband and wife duo of Keith Freund and Linda Lejsovka, is surprisingly, well, collaborative. An ambient-pop record by simple definition, Trouble Books & Mark McGuire is what Neil Young's much-maligned (and better than you remember), electro-minded Trans might have been if he'd lost the vocoder and kept the bummer vibe. Trouble Books' synth touches are more swelling than overwhelming, as are the duo's hushed vocals. This all puts McGuire in songwriter mode rather than future-guitar exploration; I'll be curious to see how this experience colors future records.

Trouble Books & Mark McGuire can't seem to stay in print, but you can donate and download the album at Bark and Hiss.

Cover for Consecration of the Whipstain

8. Indignant Senility, 'Consecration of the Whipstain' / Diamond Catalog, 'Magnified Palette'

  • Song: I Work For the Whip

In terms of recontextualizing music, Pat Maher's long-form abstractions as DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Indignant Senility and Diamond Catalog are miles apart from like-minded vinyl warpers. While we didn't get any slowed and throwed crunk by way of DJ Yo-Yo Dieting this year, Indignant Senility's Consecration of the Whipstain expands upon 2010's Wagner-only Plays Wagner with a wider classical vinyl plundering. Creeping and claustrophobic, the ghosts of dusty thrift stores' past comes in dynamic whispers, making for a headphone album you're afraid to leave. Joined by Lala Conchita, Diamond Catalog mines (sorry) house and techno records for a crazy-beat bricolage. Beat-based noise has been a welcome tangent for noiseniks as of late, but only Diamond Catalog's Magnified Palette and Pete Swanson's Man With Potential truly occupy that realm with authority in 2011.

Consecration of the Whipstain is available at Boomkat and Magnified Palette is available from NNA Tapes.

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I Work For the Whip
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9. Ellen Fullman, 'Through Glass Panes'

  • Song: Never Gets Out Of Me

Consisting of dozens of long wires stretched across a room, Ellen Fullman walks up and down her Long String Instrument with rosin-coated fingers to produce a sound akin to a sitar or a hurdy-gurdy. But since 1981, Fullman has done more than imitate those naturally droning instruments, developing a vocabulary all her own which all comes to an exquisite head on Through Glass Panes. Of the four relatively new compositions, two folkloric tracks feature more traditional stringed instruments (cellos, violin) as Fullman successfully experiments with an accordion-wheeze rhythm on the title track and gets sublimely massive on the solo closer, "Event Locations No. 2."

Through Glass Panes is available from Important Records.

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Ellen Fullman: Through Glass Panes
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10. Ernst Karel, 'Swiss Mountain Transport Systems'

  • Song: Oberdorf—Weissenstein

How can you distinguish the quality of one untreated field recording against another? The equipment might be better or the sequence could be cohere into an abstract narrative (see Annea Lockwood's excellent A Sound Map of the Danube), but it all comes down to sound. And Ernst Karel has found incredible vibrations on these Swiss gondolas. Maybe it helps that I myself experienced these naturally droning and just plain-cool sounding machines when I was 16 — those clicks, whirs and distant moos from grazing cows have stuck with me for over a decade. In a post-Cagean world where everything is music (and it is), Swiss Mountain Transport Systems is musical escapism in a real-world environment.

Swiss Mountain Transport Systems is available from and/OAR, Experimedia and Aquarius Records.

11. V/A, Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them
12. Eli Keszler, Cold Pin
13. Pete Swanson, Man With Potential (stream)
14. Hubble, Hubble Drums (stream)
15. Charlatan, Triangles (stream)
16. Quiet Evenings, Intrepid Trips (stream)
17. Sean McCann, The Capital
18. Loren Connors, Red Mars
19. Jon Mueller, Alphabet of Movements (stream)
20. Jannick Schou, Act of Shimmering
21. Kyle Bobby Dunn, Ways of Meaning
22. Peaking Lights, 936
23. Rene Hell, The Terminal Symphony (stream)
24. Sun Araw, Ancient Romans
25. Jeremiah Cymerman, Fire Sign

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