Well, 2018 is almost done happening, so it’s about time for me to drop a year-end roundup or something… emphasis on the “or something.” Unlike in the past few years, I’m not really feeling the album-by-album write-ups this time. Music writing is generally not a passion of mine, but I do still want to provide what semblance of a platform I can for the music I enjoy. Granted, this year I didn’t so much find myself returning to contemporary albums as I did listening to older ambient music, minimalism, and stuff of that nature. Too much Morton Feldman, for instance. And fuck, I’ve even been nostalgically returning to some early vaporwave like Vanishing Vision—how ironic is that?
Anyway, my taste has for a long while gravitated to music that gives me plenty of space in which to get lost, so around halfway through this year, I pretty much drifted away from most in-your-face music. Might explain why an undoubtedly great album like Haru to Shura didn’t carry over from my mid-year list. The top 10 I came up with this year is still somewhat dynamic; just figured I’d explain my prevailing listening habits. Hopefully you dig the albums that ended up making the cut. If anyone wants to discuss them down in the comments, I’ll of course be as responsive as possible. That’s more fun than me just solipsistically writing a mini-essay for each one.
If you’re just dipping in and out, thanks for checking out this list and for following TND this year! It has now been five whole years since I started here, and I’m happy and grateful to still be aboard this ship. Wishing you all happy holidays.
Notes: The titles don't display on mobile for whatever reason, even when I take them off hover-only. Sorry, mobile users. The list is in ascending order and the last slide is just for you. / Honorable mentions were added on 18 December.
Oh wait, to pad out this article I can tell you about my best live music experience this year, which was seeing a free improv set by the legendary Keiji Haino and Mitsuru Nasuno in Tokyo about a month ago. They were billed as “No Not Jazz” (frankly I’m not sure if that refers to the duo or the event) and performed at a tucked away space in Shibuya called LUSH. It was a perfectly intimate venue. Its capacity is apparently 200, though I’m having a hard time imagining even half that fitting into the room. The drinks were relatively cheap, but I’m cheaper, so I met the one-drink minimum with a tumbler of Jack and was good. The pre-show music consisted mostly of the blues, which was appropriate considering the genre’s influence on Haino. I’m mostly bringing this up because several tracks from Gil Scott-Heron’s final album I’m New Here were played and it served as a reminder of what an unsung masterpiece that album is. It’s a swansong on par with Blackstar (or Lulu if you’re a sick fuck such as myself), so please check it out if it has gone under your radar, or if it’s been a while.
Now, I knew going into this set that Haino would be on percussion, so I wasn’t disappointed when I saw no guitar on stage. He has become a guitar hero of mine through Fushitsusha and solo efforts like Watashi Dake? and This Is the Son of Nihilism, but my introduction to his work was the Tzadik release Tenshi no Gijinka, on which he primarily played exotic percussion instruments. I also quite like Origin’s Hesitation, a later Fushitsusha release that has a similar drum kit / bass set-up. All that being said, I was a little taken aback when all I saw on stage was a bass guitar and a snare drum. That’s right: Haino, the absolute madman that he is, was about to play nothing but a snare drum for about two hours. Not even with a variety of mallets—just a pair of brushes!
The set was divided into 40-50 minute halves with an about 10-minute-long intermission. The first half in particular played out like a conversation between Nasuno’s bass and Haino’s drum. As with any relationship, sometimes the instruments got along smoothly and sometimes shit got downright argumentative. The two performers had unbelievable chemistry and sold the musical exchanges in an actorly way. It was such a joy just watching them play and reading their facial expressions. To his credit, Haino managed to explore a wide range of sounds considering the intense limitations he imposed upon himself. He could of course vary the attack and interval of his strikes, throw off the snare, and run the metal bristles of the brushes across the drumskin, but it speaks volumes about Haino’s ability as an improviser and showman that he was able to keep those things riveting the entire time. So yeah, he expressed himself just fine with nothing but the snare and a few shouted words, one of which was “allegro.” During a particularly allegro part, he knocked over his drum in the heat of the moment. There are few musicians I’d call badass for doing that, but he’s one of them.
Though if I’m being completely honest, Nasuno stole the show. I was transfixed by him most of the time and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know he was on the bill—can’t blame it on not being able to read kanji, either, ‘cause his name was written clear as day in kana. For those unaware of Mitsuru Nasuno, he was in a recent iteration of Fushitsusha and is also an Otomo Yoshihide collaborator, going as far back as the Ground-Zero days. As far as I’m concerned, effectively improvising on bass is a lot harder than on guitar, but Nasuno is a veteran in the scene and made every note count. He also had what appeared to be a contact microphone attached to one of his tuning keys, which amplified the creaking of the instrument. I shit you not, there was at one point a bass creaking solo performed solely by leaning.
The first half was a breeze. I was surprised to hear it went on for almost 50 minutes, as it felt like half that. During the intermission, I went to drain the vat while my less frugal friend got another bourbon. Then we retook our seats for the second half, which started with a serious change of pace. Nasuno controlled a bass feedback drone that reverberated through Haino’s snare. I suppose Nasuno was the bassist and percussionist for this phase, easily the loudest of the set. Imagine the “It’s Not Jackie Chan” sketch’s low frequency counterpart—suffice it to say we’d all answered “Jackie Chan.” My head and my cojones were neck and neck in a race to see which would explode first. After about 10 minutes, just before any anatomical detonations could occur, it was back to business as usual for the remainder of the performance.
I’m not sure if the drum and bass came to any sort of resolution by the end of it all, but c’est la vie. If such a thing did happen, it was probably during the encore, which sounded like a deconstructed version of “Nattanjanai” from Fushitsusha’s Live 1. Then Haino bowed and uttered a “dōmo arigatō.” After all the musical turbulence that had just transpired, those gestures were almost ironic in their modesty. And that was that. Moral of the story: you haven’t lived til you’ve seen Keiji Haino in his element. No matter what instrument is at his disposal, you’re guaranteed an intense experience.
OK, for real now…