Looking back at my list for 2011 probably reveals more about me than it does the state of ‘underground’ music that year. It was drone- and ambient-heavy, reflecting what made up the majority of my listening matter and not a great deal about what was truly going on around the fringes. So this year I’ve tried to balance things out a little better. In the list below you’ll find dark ambient nestled comfortably up against off-kilter pop, and fingerpicked guitar instrumentals making pals with the purest field recordings. There is no rap in this year’s round-up, but that is mainly down to the happy fact that the underground took a real tilt at the mainstream this year. You can find exciting young artists like Le1f, Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$ on our overall rap and R&B list.
Please enjoy the download links that have been kindly donated by the labels and make sure to rummage deeper into their catalogues. I promise you it will be worth it.

Greg Haines, Digressions [Preservation]

Digressions is the result of a school orchestra production that Greg Haines was involved in, with the aim of getting pupils to think differently about composition. The music that developed was recorded and then added to by Haines, producing a delicately nuanced album that bares comparison with masters like Arvo Part but is distinctly of its time. The pieces build to emotionally engaging crescendos in a fashion not unlike Godspeed You! Black Emperor's most heart-rending work, and there are myriad electronic layers to unravel too. Musicians such as Peter Broderick also appear, giving Digressions a real sense of incredibly fruitful collaboration but never sacrificing the music's often overwhelming personal power.

Altar Eagle, Nightrunners [Digitalis Recordings]
The husband and wife team of Brad and Eden Hemming Rose released Nightrunners in September. For all intents and purposes a pop record (albeit an off-kilter one), the album reflects the experimental label’s respect for modern artists like Robyn, with serious tips of the hat to the early 4AD roster. “We will break through” goes the chorus of 'Carousel Ocean', seeming to hint at a genuine desire to appeal to a more mainstream audience and if songs like 'Runaways', 'New Designs' and 'Digital Gold Futures' are anything to go by, the duo's dreams may be realized sooner rather than later.

Sleep Research Facility, Stealth [Cold Spring Records]
SRF’s Kevin Doherty created Stealth using field recordings made inside and around the infamous B-2 Stealth Bomber, which was grounded for maintenance in the UK. Allowed unprecedented access to the hangar, Doherty presents the bomber as a sentient being in its own right. It exudes a menacing, insect power – all clicks and impatient buzzes – as the engineers scurry along its contours, their radios crackling, like worker bees around their queen. Stealth is a rare dark ambient album with as much political weight as it has sonic depth; a masterpiece.

Daniel Bachman, Seven Pines [Tompkins Square]
A prodigiously talented twenty-two year old acoustic fingerpicker, Daniel Bachman was an affiliate of the late, great Jack Rose (he produced the artwork for Rose’s final album, Luck in the Valley) and the influence has rubbed off. Formerly performing under the Sacred Harp moniker, Bachman is happiest at home in his native Virginia and the state’s green and pleasant land informs his music, as well as its rich history. The touchstones here are giants like Elizabeth Cotton, John Fahey and Michael Chapman, so it's almost startling to hear someone so young produce material so accomplished. Tracks like the twisting 'Mount Olive Cohoke' and the intricately laced 'Copperhead' mark Bachman out as a serious contender. I think 2013 could be his year.

Asio Otus, Taivaallisia Tulia [SicSic Tapes]
Finland’s long history of UFO sightings lends itself to a spooky, backwoods whisper of a cassette on Frankfurt’s excellent SicSic Tapes. Asio Otus (Latin for Long-eared Owl) is Taneli Lehto and Jaakko Padatsu, a couple of well-humoured fellows with enquiring minds. Bringing together archived interviews with ‘witnesses’ and a ragtag selection of bizarre folk tales involving Indian Humanoids and mysteriously stained patches of snow, Asio Otus use sky-bound synth and motorik thrust to produce two sides of alien intrigue that respectfully refuses to confirm belief or foster doubt. As a result, Taivaallisia Tulia is the kind of album that will have you researching as opposed to debunking, and it provides the perfect soundtrack. I bet it sounds great on a cold winter’s day too – so get this on repeat over the coming months.

Bil Vermette, Archives I [Field Studies]
A geographer by trade, Bil Vermette has nevertheless been a staple of New York City’s experimental underground since the late 1970s. Eric Hanss’s Field Studies label gave him a long overdue opportunity to step into the spotlight in 2012 with the release of Archives I, a compilation of Vermette’s work spanning 1978-1988, and it's hopefully the beginning of an extensive series. Vermette's sonic palette ranges from oceanic depth to stratospheric altitude, basing themselves around themes marked out by the track titles. 'Church Scene', for example, uses long monastic organ tones that weave around each other like incense plumes from a swaying thurible, and 'Rainforest I' floats dreamily downriver as quick jungle eyes peer out through the trees and bright birds flutter over. That it still sounds so contemporary is much to Bil's credit; he's not a prophet, he's just an incredibly forward-thinking musician.

Heroin In Tahiti, Death Surf [Boring Machines]
A stirring combination of arid Morricone atmosphere and a junk-heavy Dick Dale groove, it's fairly safe to say you won't have heard much like Italian band Heroin In Tahiti's Death Surf before. The combination, to their credit, never seems misjudged (in fact, it makes you wonder why the connection has never been made before); the two sounds are a match made in an echoing, empty heaven. From the frantic face-off of 'Campomorto' to the stranger-in-town sludge of 'Ex-Giants on Dope', Death Surf is an ever fascinating journey through two colliding sonic environments. If Clint could surf, 'Spaghetti Wasteland' might be the soundtrack. A heady concoction indeed.

Sex Hands, Season 1 [Giant Hell]
The Friends-obsessed Manchester band first caught my attention when the video for ‘Way No Way’ hit the ‘net. Further exploration revealed the free-to-download Season 1, an album on which all the tracks base themselves around randomly picked quotes from the comedy series. Taken out of context, the lyrics seem to take on a peculiar kind of gravitas; Friends highlights like ‘The Moist Maker’, ‘Joey’, ‘Janice’ and ‘Jingle Bitch’ all surround a spot-on cover of The Clean’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’, and the cult New Zealand band is as close to a precedent as Sex Hands have in this day in age.

de la Mancha, The End of Music* [Karaoke Kalk]
Dag Rosenqvist is well-known for his work as Japer TX, but his work with long-time friend Jerker Lund in de la Mancha has so far gone largely unnoticed. Whether it's down to snobbery (the soaring Sigur Ros-esque pop on The End of Music* is a world away from the ashen landscapes invoked on Rosenqvist's recent solo albums) or a simple lack of exposure, de la Mancha's failure to reach out of the realms of indie curiosity and into mainstream stardom is as baffling as it is reassuring. With songs like the mighty 'Erase', the pounding 'At Lands End' and the low-key glory of 'Hidden Mountains' the duo deserved a lot more attention than they received. Any comparisons with Bends-era Radiohead would be entirely justified.

Lumisokea, Selva [Eat Concrete]
Lumisokea's debut album Automatons resonated with the click and chug the album's title suggested, but Selva took the duo into darker, more ominous territory. Hailing from Italy and Belgium respectively, Andrea Taeggi and Koenraad Ecker use prepared piano, cello and some enormous beats (fans of Ben Frost and Roly Porter will find much to enjoy here), all the while scattering the picture with gleaming pebbles of electronic glitch and cavernous echo. The growling opening track 'Diserta' sets the scene before 'Lume' omits screeching beams from the heart of a whirling neutron star, tempered only by the eventual arrival of Lumisokea's trademark skittering drum patterns. Selva is a much fuller-sounding album than its predecessor, and more fascinating for it; 'Veltro' and the title track stand out as particularly absorbing examples of the way the duo create seemingly endless depth through gradual layering and the appropriation of the space in which they work to provide a sense of organic derivation.