Noise is no stranger to beats, but this year the more outsider realms of music embraced rhythm in its own disjointed, messed up and zonked-out kind of way. What Cut Hands' Afro Noise and Pete Swanson's Man With Potential began in earnest in 2011 (and continued, quite brilliantly so, with Swanson's Pro Style 12" this past fall) unlocked a fractured groove in 2012. Like any loosely organized vibe, it's unclear what the noise community will excavate from these beats, but Lee Gamble's deconstructed jungle tapes, Wanda Group's tape-hiss wonk (and anything on Opal Tapes, really), and Silent Servant's brutal and cavernous techno are just three of the year's deepest beat divers. Come to think of it, trap music is just as weird, but that's a tangent for another time.
What is "outer sound," you might ask? Few things tied together this wide umbrella of music in 2012 except that these folks are explorers, always looking for the next sound. The list below encompasses grating harsh noise, dulcet synth tones, ambient dance music, chooglin' psych-rock and whatever it is that Swans does.
A few things that didn't make the list: I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the phenomenal material that was released as part of composer Pauline Oliveros' 80th birthday celebrations. There was the stormy and spacious Needle Drop Jungle, reportedly the final recording with her Deep Listening Band, and a new version of Primordial/Lift, Oliveros' most complex and massive work. And then there's the archival 12-disc box set, Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music, perhaps one of the most vital documents of early electronic music released this past decade. In the pursuit of absorbing it all, I only regret that I did not write about any of them.
And in the mountain of cassettes that spooled around a Walkman hooked up to my system this year, Clint Heidorn's deeply heartfelt +33° 58' 41.85", -117° 49' 13.74" (The Oak Tree) was the most graceful and affecting. With some versions packaged in beautiful wooden boxes, bedded with photographs and leaves, the eight-minute piece flutters with wandering saxophone, uncertain electric guitar and upright bass until it finds a revelatory foothold in a choral group sing, like finding home just before we pass this mortal coil.
Ranking be damned, this personal top 10 list is in alphabetical order. (If you're aching for more than 10 albums, head on over to my blog for the records that I hated to cut.)