Have to love cassette tapes, right? The rattle of a tape in its case. The satisfying snaps and clicks of a tape player in operation. The screech that precedes a tape exploding into sinewy tangles of plastic. The tape is undeniably archaic, but it’s also a survivor: the only truly portable, physical analog music format ever and growing more popular every year. The number of labels and individual artists releasing tapes now was unimaginable a few years ago, and while “Vinyl is back!” headlines still somehow dominate, the cassette has truly come into its own. Artist and fans have recognized the tape as more than an economical alternative to a “proper release,” as evidenced by increasingly invested and elaborate packaging, prolific outputs, and careful mastering jobs that cater to the format’s unique sonic properties.

This list is an extremely reductive guide to some of the releases and labels that helped push the boundaries of tape releases in 2012 by featuring excellent work from artists whose work was symbiotic with the format. In that vein, I tried to focus on releases that aren’t available in other physical formats, but that wasn’t a hard and fast rule by any means. There is also a strong bias for awesome and artful packaging. Simply put, these are some of the releases that stuck with me and surprised me over the course of the year. Don’t approach this as a definitive list (I didn’t), but rather as good place to start your own exploration as 2013 and more stacks. Allons-y!

Angelo Harmsworth, Silent Orgasm

It’s hard for some people to get excited about drone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re that kind of person, Angelo Harmsworth’s Silent Orgasm tape might be what changes, or at least expands, your mind. This body of work is as warm as it is involving, with strong melodic components that are as anthemic as they are sometimes abstract. That said, this is by no means “beginner” in any way, with the untraceable song structures expertly toying with the listener’s desire for climax (pun intended) and teasing the ear from behind shifting layers of fuzz.

Angelo Harmsworth’s Silent Orgasm is now available from Bathetic Records.

Branches, Ninguém É Como Tu

Portugal’s Pedro Rios, AKA Branches, is a master of careful repetition and deliberate addition. With Ninguém É Como Tu, he presents an extremely dense body of work that experiments with minimalist phrases in compelling and very human ways. The complex tapes has something new to offer every time it’s played, making the longer tracks some of the most compelling. This is a tape I’ve found myself getting lost in over and over, though perhaps the times I’ve enjoyed it most have been when I’ve actually abandoned my search for a clear formula and let the tracks pass by without trying to grab onto each phrase. Suggest you try listening on headphones and watching the world around you suddenly fall into bizarre patterns.

Branches’ Ninguém É Como Tu is now available from Solid Melts.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon, (s/t)

While Gareth Munday, aka Roof Light, and Alicia Merz, aka Birds of Passage, are both mature artists in their own right, their work as Brother Sun, Sister Moon is something altogether special. Merz’s signature whisper and wintery sensibilities complement Munday’s powerful sampling techniques to create a varied self-titled release that resonates with shoegaze, folk, and ambient sensibilities in genuinely refreshing and surprising configurations that are neither overreaching or out of the can. There’s plenty here to like and the continuous play format the cassette offers is an ideal way to experience all that Brother Sun, Sister Moon has to offer.

Brother Sun, Sister Moo's self-titled cassette is currently out of print from Cooper Cult.

Free Weed, Free

Erik Gage of Gnar Tapes creates soft stepping rock and roll under the name Free Weed. His latest release, Free, takes notes from lo-fi friendly genres galore, but constantly gives the impression that there is a much bigger sound hidden just behind the smoky gauze of party house atmosphere. The best part? That big sound is actually there all along, allowing Gage to pull these big power pop moments seemingly out of nowhere. This smart, even artful approach to lo-fi is used to maximum effect, which translates to good times for all and a multidimensional listen.

Free Weed’s Free is available on Cassette from Lillerne Tapes.

Patrick Higgins, STEREO

The phrase “quadraphonic recording” tends to set expectations of something so purposefully erudite and abstract that you’d probably have a better time having your friend who is really into Stockhausen explain the record to you, rather than actually listening. Even the idea of a quadraphonic tape release is inherently a bit exclusive, what with the need to sync up two stereo tape decks or actually own a quadraphonic mixer. Enter: NYC composer and Zs/Bachanalia member Patrick Higgins’ STEREO. The level of ambition and execution in this three-part, 40 minute long composition are powerfully matched, and the level of technique and the sheer amount of polyphony in this piece are actually stunning. This release pushes the conventions of the tape medium and the ear of the listener. The manic energy and uncanny appeal can’t be denied as this fever dream brain puzzle rips itself open again and again.

Patrick Higgins’ STEREO is available from Words+Dreams.

hamaYôko, La Tour des cranes

The Antwerpen/Beograd based symbiotic labels No Basement Is Deep Enough and Male Bonding have a reputation for putting out idiosyncratic releases, with handmade packaging to match. hamaYôko’s La Tour des cranes is no exception: each tape case also contains a bag of rodent and bird bones. I haven’t been able to exactly pin down how a tiny plastic ossuary falling into your lap every time you open a tape case affects your state of mind when listening to said tape, but regardless, it’s now an almost inseparable part of that listening experience. The smell of old bones certainly reinforces Yôko Higashi’s soulful alto growl and creeping bass-heavy synths’ sense of menace, while the music’s theatrical poise is broken only by intense moments of violent dissonance and musique concrete. La Tour des cranes offers an artful deconstruction of both pop and avant-garde approaches, and merits recognition for its intentional refusal to commit to either.

HOUNDsds, Phone Thou

As I noted in my original #HeadCleaner entry on HOUNDsds Phone Thou, this tape “will likely appeal to people who enjoy The Cure’s more concrete, percussive material but hate Robert Smith’s voice and have always wished that someone would replace him with softer psych-tinged cooing.” I not only stand by that statement, I have realized that perhaps I am one of those people. My own complicated relationship with the music of Mr. Smith aside, this tape has remained a reliable go to source for a healthy dose of mid-tempo pop over the course of 2012 for myself and anyone else who can hear me playing it through my walls at any given time. Playing this at high volume makes me feel like I’m the best neighbor ever! By listening to this over and over, I am making the world better, and you can, too!

HOUNDsds’ Phone Thou is currently out of print from Chill Mega Chill Records.

Katrina Stoneheart, (s/t)

As the driving force behind Solid Melts and an avid collector, Drew Gibson knows his way around the world of tapes. His prolific tape output under the name of Katrina Stoneheart (yes, THAT Katrina Stoneheart, Pound Puppies fans) reflects that deep understanding and, dare I say, love for the format. The penchant for sprawling, highly textural pieces inevitably draws comparisons to Gibson’s contributions as a member of Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk, but this self-titled tape is a much more introspective affair best suited for listening under the same circumstances in which it was made: alone in a room, with plenty to think about. It might also make you crave gummy candy if you stare at the cover too long.

Katrina Stoneheart’s self-titled cassette is now available from Lillerne Tapes.

Lazy Magnet, Crystal Cassette

Cassette runs from Night-People are always an event. For fans of quality music on cassette, grabbing one of these runs guarantees listening pleasure. Lazy Magnet’s Crystal Cassette managed to stand out, even in such excellent company. Jeremy Harris’ solo project of over 10 years is still on its genre hopping game, this time featuring an outing into danceable electronica that recalls the mid-career glory days of Severed Heads put through a more demure filter. There’s a constant smirking quality here that signals not only an awareness of dance pop tropes, but the confident ability to execute them flawlessly and move to the next without breaking pace.

Lazy Magnet’s Crystal Cassette is available from Night-People.

Magic Eye, Shreddin’ on Heaven’s Floor

And now for a little night music. Edinburgh-based ensemble Magic Eye’s appeal can’t be denied. On Shreddin’ on Heaven’s Floor the band split their time between wistful dream pop tunes and a B-side full of airy tracks. This is the kind of tape that will let you make the most of an afternoon out with a Walkman running errands. In other words, it’s smart mood music that’s almost perfectly suited to the medium. And yes, they cover Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in a beautifully understated way. Easily a favorite all around, and especially magic on cassette.

Magic Eye’s Shreddin’ on Heaven’s Floor from Animal Image Search is currently sold out.

Oliwa, Rituals

Buenos Aires, Argentina has a treasure in Oliwa. The complex sequences found on Rituals are more than the sum of their mathematically derived parts and span an impressive spectral range. The cassette actually manages to rein in the sound in the middle range, lending extra heft and resonance to the Oliwa’s thrumming digital palette. The result is tropicália for the neon jungle, with minimal progressions and aggressive arpeggiators creating their own polyrhythms across your stereo channels in a controlled, graceful swarm of sound.

Oliwa’s Rituals is available from Zeon Light Kassett.

Parquet Courts, American Specialties

I chose Parquet Courts American Specialties to kick off the #HeadCleaner column because I felt that it embodied the freedom of expression on the cheap that the cassette tape empowers so wonderfully. That, and they gave me the tape the day after I decided to start the column. With art styled exactly like the greasy Chinese takeout menu that’s slowly turning into a brittle chunk of dust on the side of your refrigerator as you read this, the tape immediately recalls a slew of your favorite guitar pop and not so pop releases from the past 30 years. The inclusion of sideways an unexpected instruments helps spice up the tape, while also foreshadowing the more focused post punk sound that has emerged in their follow up release, Light Up Gold. Alternately charmingly deadpan and winkingly emphatic, the Jonathan Richmond comparisons are justified, but a more apt description might be Thurston Moore jamming with Tyvek after they’d kidnapped him and forced him to listen to James Chance for a few weeks. Something like that.

Parquet Courts’ American Specialties is still available from Night Moves.

Power Animal, Exorcism

There’s clever use of samples in pop music, and then there’s Power Animal’s Exorcism. Call it sampledelic. Call it plunderphonic. It’s undeniably smart music that manages to bend well-known samples to its own ends, while still telling its own story. It’s nearly impossible for an album, compilation, or whatever to offer up stabs at an earnest pop anthem ad infinitum, but that’s just what this tape does, track after track. The B side of remixes from Lushlife, Melting Season, Spirituals, Botany, and Golden ages are much more than a footnote, adding depth through reinterpretation that defies the trend of the disposable, blog-fodder remix.

Power Animal’s Exorcism is currently sold out, but still available digitally from Crash Symbols.

Troller, (s/t)

It’s been a hell of a year for Austin’s Holodeck Records, to say the least. They’ve been putting out amazing tapes of synth-driven music like the world was actually going to end, after all. From that output, Troller’s self titled tape still stands out, having been a reliable source for heart rending and body liquefying tones that balance sophisticated drama and head banging impact. The vocals are wistful and haunting. The sound design is deft. The bass is thick enough to justify turning this up so loud that you can’t hear your phone ring. It’s the kind of music that makes you wish you had a real depressive, heavy phase going on, just so you could put this on and wander around your apartment ashing cigarettes on the floor. Sorry in advance, floor.

Troller’s self-titled tape is sold out, but still available digitally from Holodeck Records.

The Undertakers, (s/t)

The folks at Burger Records released somewhere around 150 tapes this year. Sorry there’s no exact number. You can try counting, if you have the time. Regardless, that’s prolific as hell. Among that number is a collection of 1967 recordings from The Undertakers, a group from Mannford, Oklahoma. The tape consists of a wide variety of recording, including some live recordings that still have a psychic beer smell after all these years. It’s not just a chronicle of a time and place, it’s a really fun garage tape, and that’s never out of style.

The Undertakers’ self-titled cassette is available from Burger Records.

More Than Honorable Mentions

The Savage Young Taterbug, Theme For Gasoline Weirdo (out of print from Night People)
Piper Spray, Greatest Adventure
Man Made Hill, Intercourses (Thanks, Coco!)
Honeydrum, Brokenhearted with a Busy Schedule
M. Geddes, Gengras Beyond the Curtain
Cleaners From Venus, Living With Victoria Grey
Coachwhips, Bangers vs Fuckers
Thousand Foot Whale Claw, Lost in Those Dunes
Super Minotaur, (s/t)
JSHIH, Interval
The Middle Class, Out of Vogue