Saturday, June 13, 2015

2015: Halfway Report

Here are the albums I've enjoyed so far in 2015, with much more still to come of course. It's in bastardised alphabetical order, not in rank. There are a few albums out in what remains of June that I haven't heard yet (Richard Thompson and Neil Young especially). Albums marked with a * are ones I've had a role in promoting. I probably won't include them in the final end of year list, but they definitely deserve your attention!

A Grave With No Name - Feathers Wet, Under The Moon (Lefse)
Aine O'Dwyer - Music For Church Cleaners Vols. I and II (MIE)
Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color (Rough Trade)
Alasdair Roberts - Alasdair Roberts (Drag City)
Alexander Hawkins Trio - Alexander Hawkins Trio (Alexander Hawkins Music)
Algiers - Algiers (Matador)
Ant Law - Zero Sum World (Whirlwind)
Babelfish - Chasing Rainbows (Moletone)
Badbadnotgood feat. Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul (Lex)
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power (Glitterbeat)
Beat Spacek - Modern Streets (Ninja Tune)
Beats & Pieces Big Band - All In (Efpi) 
Benoit Pioulard - Sonnet (Kranky)
Bill Fay - Who Is The Sender? (Dead Oceans)
Biota - Funnel To A Thread (RER)
Bjork - Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Blanck Mass - Dumb Flesh (Sacred Bones)
Blur - The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night (Columbia)
Bop English - Constant Bop (Blood And Biscuits)
Calexico - Edge Of The Sun (City Slang)
Cannibal Ox - Blade Of The Ronin (ihiphop)
Charles Lloyd - Wild Man Dance (Decca)
Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth - Epicenter (Clean Feed)
Chris Potter - Imaginary Cities (ECM) 
Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld - Never Were The Way She Was (Constellation)
Colleen - Captain of None  (Thrill Jockey)
Crying Lion - The Golden Boat (Honest Jon's) 
David Torn - Only Sky (ECM)
Dawn Richard - Blackheart (Our Dawn Entertainment)
Dean McPhee - Fatima's Hand  (Hood Faire)
Egyptrixx - Transfer Of Energy (Feeling Of Power) (Halocline Trance)
Elephant Micah - Where In Our Woods (Western Vinyl) 
Entropi - New Era (F-IRE)*  
Eric Chenaux - Skullsplitter (Constellation)
ESKA - ESKA (Naim)
Fantasma - Free Love (Soundway)
Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union)
Firefly Burning - Skeleton Hill (Fathom)
GABI - Sympathy (Software Recording Co.)
George Crowley - Can Of Worms (Whirlwind)
George Fitzgerald - Fading Love (Domino) 
Ghost Culture - Ghost Culture (BECAUSE)
Ghostpoet - Shedding Skin (PIAS)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (Kranky)
Goran Kajfeš Subtropic Arkestra – The Reason Why Vol 2 (Headspin)
Grasscut - Everyone Was A Bird (LO Recordings)
Gwilym Gold - A Paradise (Brille)
Hanoi Masters - War Is A Wound, Peace Is A Scar (Glitterbeat) 
Henry Threadgill's Zooid - In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi) 
Herbert - The Shakes (Accidental)
Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon (Sony)
Holly Herndon - Platform (4AD)
Hot Chip - Why Make Sense? (Domino)
Huntsville - Pond (Hubro)
Ibeyi - Ibeyi (XL)
Ivo Neame - Strata (Whirlwind)
Jaga Jazzist - Starfire (Ninja Tune) 
Jake Xerxes Fussell - Jake Xerxes Fussell (Paradise Of Bachelors)
Jam City - Dream A Garden (Night Slugs)
James Blackshaw - Summoning Suns (Important)
Jamie xx - In Colour (Young Turks)
Jenny Hval - Apocalypse, Girl (Sacred Bones)
Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
Jim O'Rourke - Simple Songs (Drag City)
Joel Harrison - Spirit House (Whirlwind) 
Julian Arguelles - Let It Be Told (Basho)*
Kamasi Washington - The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Kathryn Calder - Kathryn Calder (File Under: Music)
Keith Jarrett - Creation (ECM) 
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Polydor)
Kenny Wheeler - Songs For Quintet (ECM)
Lau - The Bell That Never Rang (Reveal)
Laura Jurd - Human Spirit (Chaos Collective)
Laura Marling - Short Movie (Virgin)
Leon Bridges - Coming Home (Columbia)
Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour (Columbia) 
Liam Hayes - Slurrup (Drag City)
Liam Noble - A Room Somewhere (Basho)*
Lightning Bolt - Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey)
Lonelady - Hinterland (Warp)
Maria Schneider - The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) 
Marius Neset - Pinball (ACT)
Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Three (Constellation)
Matthew E White - Fresh Blood (Spacebomb)
Mbongwana Star - From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
Meg Baird - Don't Weigh Down The Light (Wichita)
Mew - +/- (PIAS)
Model 500 - Digital Solutions (Metroplex)
Moritz Von Oswald Trio - Sounding Lines (Honest Jon's) 
Myra Melford - Snowy Egret (Yellowbird)
My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall (ATO)
Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass (Spacebomb)
Nozinja - Nozinja Lodge (Warp)
Olivia Chaney - The Longest River (Nonesuch)
Panda Bear - Panda Bear vs. The Grim Reaper (Domino)
Paper Dollhouse - Aeon Flower (Night Music)
Partikel - String Theory (Whirlwind)
Percussions (Four Tet alias) - 2011-14 (Text/Bandcamp)
Phil Donkin - The Gate (Whirlwind)
Phil Robson - The Cut Off Point (Whirlwind) 
Polar Bear - Same As You (Leaf)
Pops Staples - Don't Lose It (Epitaph)
Prefuse 73 - Rivington Nao Rio (Temporary Residence)
Printmakers - Westerly (Basho)
Punch Brothers - The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch)
Rachel Grimes - The Clearing (Temporary Residence) 
Rhiannon Giddens - Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch)
Roisin Murphy - Hairless Toys (PIAS)
Rudresh Mahanthappa - Bird Calls (ACT)
Ryley Walker - Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)
Sam Lee & Friends - The Fade In Time (Proper)
Samba Toure - Gandadiko (Glitterbeat)
Samuel Blaser Quartet - Spring Rain (Whirlwind) 
Scuba - Claustrophobia (Hotflush)
Shamir - Ratchet (XL)
Sir Richard Bishop - Tangier Sessions (Drag City)
Six Organs Of Admittance - Hexadic (Drag City)
Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)
Songhoy Blues - Music In Exile (Transgressive)
Squarepusher - Damogen Furies (Warp)
Steve Gunn/Black Twig Pickers - Seasonal Hire (Thrill Jockey)
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sun Kil Moon - Universal Themes (Caldo Verde) 
Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs (Sonnet Sound)
Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Motorcade Amnesiacs (Kscope)
Swervedriver - I Wasn't Born To Lose You (Cobraside)
Taraf De Haidouks - Of Lovers, Gamblers & Parachute Shirts (Crammed Discs)
Terakaft - Alone (Out Here)
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman - The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch) 
The Decemberists - What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (Rough Trade)
The Deslondes - The Deslondes (New West)
The Unthanks - Mount The Air (Cadiz)
The Weather Station - Loyalty (Paradise Of Bachelors)
THEESatisfaction - EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Tim Berne's Snakeoil - You've Been Watching (ECM)
Tigran Hamasyan - Mockroot (Nonesuch)
Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrøm - Runddans (Smalltown Supersound)
Tom Green Septet - Skyline (Spark)
Trembling Bells - The Sovereign Self (Tin Angel) 
Troyka - Ornithophobia (Naim)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love (Jagjaguwar)
Verneri Pohjola - Bullhorn (Edition)
Vessels - Dilate (Bias)
Vijay Iyer Trio - Break Stuff (ECM)
Vincent Peirani - Living Being (ACT) 
Waxahatchee - Ivy Trip (Wichita)
William Basinski - Cascade (2062)
Young Fathers - White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada)
Zun Zun Egui - Shackles' Gift (Bella Union)


Leadbelly - Smithsonian Folkways Collection (Smithsonian Folkways)
Karin Krog - Don't Just Sing: An Anthology 1963 - 1999 (Light In The Attic)
New Jazz Orchestra - Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe (Dusk Fire)
Evan Parker/Derek Bailey/Han Bennink - Topography Of The Lungs (Otoruku/Forced Exposure)
Robin Gibb - Saved By The Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb (Rhino)
Various Artists - Next Stop Soweto 4: Zulu Rock, Afro Disco & Mbaqanga 1975-85 (Strut)
Various Artists - Nu Yorica! Culture Clash In New York City: Experiments In Latin Music 1970-77 (Soul Jazz)
The Supreme Jubilees - It'll All Be Over (Light In The Attic) 
Milton Wright - Complete Friends And Buddies (Athens Of The North)
Idris Muhammad - Turn This Mutha Out (Soul Brother)
William Tyler - Deseret Canyon (Merge)
Arthur Russell - Corn (Audika)
Amara Toure - Amara Toure 1973 - 1980 (Analog Africa) 
Iron & Wine - Archive Series Vol. 1 (Black Cricket Recording Co.)
Univeral Togetherness Band - Universal Togetherness Band (Numero)
Os Brazoes - Os Brazoes (Mr Bongo)
Michael Chapman - Window (Light In The Attic)
Arthur - Dreams and Images (Light In The Attic)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 In Albums Part 2: Top 100

100) Mark McGuire - Along The Way (Dead Oceans) 
The former Emeralds guitarist continues his beautifully wayward artistic journey by producing an expansive, epic set that offers brightness and positivity in abundance. His fuzzy guitar sounds create a hazy warmth, but there's also a fascinating range of instrumentation and texture at work here, creating a deeper, more enveloping sound.

99) Clark - Clark (Warp)  
It's probably time for me to go back and reassess Chris Clark's work so far, as this seventh album feels particularly strong. It's refreshingly free from genre boundaries - merging influences drawn from techno, ambient, house and the avant-garde, often shifting unexpectedly within the course of an individual track. Clark has talked about 'letting the weather in' on this album - about it being outward looking and 'drenched in the sounds of the outside world'. For a music made through largely solipsistic processes, it does feel very present and of the world. 

98) Andrew McCormack - First Light (Edition) 
If this talented pianist has been slightly under-recorded so far (an excellent album as leader, Telescope, and a duo recording with Jason Yarde so far), First Light compensates for this with its unassuming excellence. This is McCormack's debut with his New York trio, which features Zack Lober on bass and Colin Stranahan. It's full of delightful twists and turns, and characterised by McCormack's typically clean and flowing improvising. There's a rhythmic playfulness at work, although it mostly sounds refresingly divorced from contemporary jazz mores. It's McCormack's best work so far. 

97) Alexis Taylor - Await Barbarians (Domino) 
Await Barbarians is a more evolved and coherent solo album than Rubbed Out, focusing a little more on Alexis Taylor's songcraft. That being said, it still explores some fascinating sound worlds, from the refracted synths of instrumental prelude Lazy Bones to the more naturalistic, warmer atmosphere of the McCartney-esque Without A Crutch via the lovely rustle and crackle of Dolly and Porter. Taylor's melodic sense remains typically strong throughout, and the album contains one of his very best songs in Am I Not A Soldier - something of a platonic love song to Joe Goddard reflecting on the difficulty of maintaining friendship and creative partnership as life progresses. The album is full of such melacholy honesty and reflection. There remain critics determined to dismiss Taylor as fey - but there's much more here than that. 

96) Lawrence English - Wilderness Of Mirrors (Room40)
Australian composer cites My Bloody Valentine, Swans and Earth as key influences here, largely due to their deployment of high volume as an 'affecting quality' in live performance. I'm a bit sceptical of this approach sometime, but Wilderness Of Mirrors achieves a curious kind of graceful terror through sheets of sound. This is an impact he achieves from the outset and sustains right through to the end. In addition to its musical foundations, Wilderness Of Mirrors appears to be a political statement too. Inspired in part by Cold War propaganda, it also finds English 'shouting into the abyss' about the withdrawal of key social contracts. 

95) Phronesis - Life To Everything (Edition)
This is contemporary jazz at its most thrilling, creative and airborne. Energy, intensity and interaction are in full flight. It feels weightless and it glides and dances. Phronesis are a band that have established something of a distinctive signature sound. Life To Everything, their second live album (recorded at Jazz In The Round at the Cockpit Theatre in London and featuring all new material), continues the recent trend towards democracy in composition, featuring new pieces from drummer Anton Eger and pianist Ivo Neame as well as bandleader Jasper Høiby.
The album includes some fascinating extensions of the Phronesis sound world. The tremendous Song For Lost Nomads has a delightfully kinetic, folk dance quality, whilst Herne Hill shifts unexpectedly between pretty melodic moments and complex groove sections. There is an infectious zeal to everything here, along with an obvious mastery. Phronesis are a trio operating at the dazzling limits of musical pursuit.

94) Julian Arguelles - Circularity (CamJazz) 
Saxophonist Julian Arguelles (also part of the reunited Loose Tubes this year), assembled something of a dream team quartet for this vibrant and uplifting set. With Dave Holland on bass, Martin France on drums and John Taylor on piano, this is a resoundingly articulate and authoritative band. The music sounds ingratiating, warm and familiar whilst avoiding tropes, and it swings, sings and soars with effortless mastery. 

93) Actress - Ghettoville (Ninja Tune) 
Darren Cunningham has referred to Ghettoville as 'the conclusion of the Actress image', suggesting this will be the last album he makes under that particular moniker. If this is the case, he is finishing on what is by some distance his most dour, abrasive and alienating work. Whilst its length and nature make Ghettoville something of a foreboding work, it's also brilliantly constructed. It feels purposefully stripped back to its bare bones. Eventually, there's something compelling about its dystopian sound.

92) Goat - Commune (Rocket)
There's something entirely daft about Swedish band Goat - their name may be an acronym for 'Gathering Of Ancient Tribes' (also used as a song title here) and there is something a little naive in their masked performances and various forms of cultural appropriation. Yet, there's little denying that the music here, simultaneously kinetic and static, is breathtaking and exciting. With a thick sound drenched in reverb, Commune sounds majestic and sturdy, perhaps even defiant.

91) The Gloaming - The Gloaming (Real World)
This transatlantic supergroup have found imaginative and powerful new contexts for Irish folk music. This superbly produced and recorded album has a powerful sense of mystery and intrigue, unusual for music so rooted and traditional.

90) Lee Gamble - Koch (Pan) 
Lee Gamble makes curiously introspective electronic music (post-club music, perhaps - music for the afterhours). Koch is a gargantuan double album that, whilst exploring a wide range of moods and sensations, totally lacks the sense of the ecstatic and celebratory common to most club music. It's sometimes cold and unforgiving (the pounding beat of Motor System, for example) - at others, it's reflective and thoughtful. It's not easy to digest, but it does fuel the head as much as the body. 

89) Richard Dawson - Nothing Important (Weird World)
Richard Dawson's abrasive, unconventional guitar playing recalls the great Bill Orcutt. Yet he is also equally present and imposing as a vocalist - unleashing a whole world from conversational, Robert Wyatt-esque phrasing to strange howling. The album consists of just four pieces - two long-ish and two very long. The overall tone is jarring and discomforting. This is not easy listening but it achieves an unsettling resonance that is very much its own. Beneath the raw attack its execution and style, there is a thoughtfully structured, carefully plotted work here.

88) Nathan Bowles - Nansemond (Paradise Of Bachelors)
Given how prolific Nathan Bowles is as a collaborative musician and sideman (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt, Steve Gunn, Hiss Golden Messenger etc), it's hard to believe that Nansemond is only his second solo album. It's also hard to believe just how complete and thoroughly imagined a work it is - bristling with ideas drawn from history and literature to enhance the scope and meaning of this particular take on American folk music. It's an exciting and vivid exploration of the possibilities of the Banjo - and in how traditional Appalachian forms can be reshaped in the service of a modern ideal.

87) Tune-Yards - Nikki Nack (4AD)
More breathtaking, brilliantly executed percussive avant pop from Merrill Garbus. This time, the production values are slicker and the sound a little less raw, but there's still a high flying, tightrope walking sense of danger in everything Garbus does.

86) Monocled Man - Southern Drawl (Whirlwind)
With time now called on his larger ensemble Fringe Magnetic, trumpeter Rory Simmons has begun to explore very different musical contexts. The quirkily named Monocled Man is a trio with guitarist Chris Montague (Troyka, Colin Towns, Trish Clowes) and drummer Jon Scott (Kairos 4tet, Dice Factory, Alice Zawadzki). This bold and contemporary music might in part be inspired by New York contemporary jazz (David Torn, Tim Berne etc) but it also feels as if it draws resourcefully from a wide musical spectrum, incorporating rock dynamics and urgency. It's an unpredictable concoction - sometimes angular but often joyous too. 

85) Wooden Wand - Farmers Corner (Fire)
Farmers Corner capures James Jackson Toth changing his approach to recording - rather than aiming to make a single coherent statement in one studio, Farmers Corner captures him working on the move in dribs and drabs. It's a surprisingly effective move, as Farmers Corner finds him at his most raw and potent. Toth is both uncompromising and remarkably consistent.

84) Marissa Nadler - July (Bella Union)
Marissa Nadler's sixth album is an absolute treat, empathetically produced by Randall Dunn. The combination of acoustic guitar, synthesisers and ghostly backing vocals combine to create something both familiar and unexpected. This is a set of intimate and honest confessionals, all misread signals, regret and remorse.

83) Mary Gauthier - Trouble and Love (Proper)
Surely one of the most underrated singer-songwriters in the world, Mary Gauthier continues to make impressive, insightful albums without ever crossing over beyond her niche but loyal fanbase. Whilst Trouble and Love isn't quite the singular artistic statement that The Foundling was, it's still remarkable for its honesty and candidness. These are bold, emotional and very beautiful songs.

82) David Virelles - Mboko (ECM) 
Mboko is one of the year’s most challenging albums. Pianist David Virelles is an in-demand contemporary jazz pianist who currently plays in Tomasz Stanko’s New York quartet amongst many other projects. Mboko is something different, however, finding Virelles exploring the possibilities of sacred and devotional music. The ensemble is unusual, with two acoustic bassists, drummer Marcus Gilmore (Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman) and biankomeko percussion specialist Roman Diaz. The results are anything but cluttered - the musicians play thoughtfully, emphasising space as much as sound in a manner highly appropriate for a music encouraging reflection, contemplation and devotion. It is music that repays close attention - to Virelles’ striking harmonic choices, to the careful integration of the various parts, and to the musicians’ mastery of time and space.

81) Ambrose Akinmusire - The Imagined Saviour Is Far Easier To Paint (Blue Note)
That mouthful of a title might well be a fair representation of the complexity and intensity of Akinmusire's music. This time, he reaches out, incorporating guitarist Charles Altura, a string quartet and an impressive roster of vocalists, including the wonderful Becca Stevens for the haunting Our Basement. Its diversity risks its coherence at times, but Akinmusire's playing is consistently inspired.

80) Hildur Gudnadottir - Saman (Mute)
A return to a more modest canvas after the astonishing longform composition Leyfdu ljosinu but also inhabiting a darker sonic space, Saman is a neat devlopment in cellist Gudnadottir's fascinating catalogue. It's a powerful reminder of the depth and versatility of that particular instrument, elemental and compelling in such a contemporary setting. This time Gudnadottir also incorporates her delicate but eerie choral style vocals (reminiscent of Julianna Barwick), an effective addition.

79) Plastikman - EX (Mute)
Richie Hawtin's first album as Plastikman for eleven years ought to have felt more like an event, but perhaps all that love and awe was held back for the return of Aphex Twin. Still, EX, recorded live at the Guggenheim museum, is a typically powerful, absorbing and thoughtful construction, typical of Hawtin's work. Like Syro, it's more of a subtle evolution than a radical reinvention - but it's still a delight to hear and appreciate. 

78) James Blackshaw - Fantomas: Le Faux Magistrat (Tompkins Square)
Takoma-inspired guitarist James Blackshaw either continues to expand his reach or dilute his artistry with this soundtrack work, depending on your personal perspective. Fantomas deploys his greatest range of instrumentation in search of a more emotive and expansive soundscape that it largely achieves. It's rich, evocative music generated by an intuitive composer and performer.

77) Mark Turner Quartet - Lathe Of Heaven (ECM)
This album, both lyrical and groovy, is enchanting and refreshingly free from ECM cliche. Turner's saxophone sound continues to be rich and smooth, beautifully captured on this recording, and he has written music with an abundance of space for thought and feeling. Marcus Gilmore at the drums provides grooves that are finessed and intricate without being overly busy and Avishai Cohen provides fluent, striking trumpet playing.

76) Chaos Orchestra - Island Mentality (Chaos Collective)
This is an impressively enterprising project from Laura Jurd, Lauren Kinsella, Corrie Dick et al - assembling a big band to play their unusual, imaginative charts. Projects such as this are expensive and logistically difficult and often fall at early hurdles. This album, which sounds energised, intense and also fun - is testament to a passion and determination amongst the musicians.

75) Fire! Orchestra - Enter (Rune Gramofon)
The second part of Fire! Orchestra's bipartite project, Enter is more of the joyous same - kaleidoscopic, cosmic, psychedelic, free big band jazz. Sometimes it's wild and explosive, sometimes its dirty and groovy, but it's always engaging and free spirited.

74) Joan Shelley - Electric Ursa (No Quarter)
On first listen, Electric Ursa might seem modest, understated and implied - but further listens reveal a work of tremendous beauty and even grandeur. With instruments bathed in seemingly natural reverb, Shelley's warm but understated voice seems to be an integral part of a stately, captivating sound world. The opulent nature of the music provides a neat contrat to Shelley's homely delivery. The record is full of patient melodies that develop at an unhurried pace. Whilst it certainly references American folk traditions, it also has a sound and approach that is very much its own.

73) Michael Wollny Trio - Weltentraum (ACT) 
For many people one of the jazz albums of the year, this certainly felt like the most coherent and successful example of Wollny's idiosyncratic musical mind so far.  Particularly interesting is the way he finds unusual jumping off points for his imagination in the works of Alban Berg, a soundtracj work from Jon Brion, Edgard Varese, Flaming Lips and even Pink's God Is A DJ (with Theo Bleckmann delivering a haunting vocal). In fact, there are only two Wollny originals here - but the whole project is still shot through with his eccentricities and quirks.

72) Bitchin Bajas - Bitchin Bajas (Drag City)
It is not exactly difficult to detect the sources of Cooper Crain's music here - the minimalism of Terry Riley, or the dronings of Cluster, for example. Yet there is something more than mere referencing in these extended musical travelogues - and a certain peaceful meditativeness that feels hard won. 

71) The Lowland Hundred - The Lowland Hundred (Exotic Pylon)
This self titled work is the Aberystwyth-based band's third album, but the first to have crossed my radar. I am definitely going to have to investigate the rest of their catalogue now. This is immensely beautiful and vulnerable music. Comprised of four long pieces, it feels like an ambitious, carefully arranged suite of music inspired by the landscape and nature of the Welsh landscape. Particularly intriguing and effective is the group's incorporation of nature field recordings into their songs. This is music that consciously rejects categorisation or reduction.

70) Valerio Tricoli - Miseri Lares (Pan)
Another triumphant release for the Pan label, Valerio Tricoli's second solo album is disconcerting and full of nervous tension. A brilliant integration of improvised source material and studio post-production techniques, Miseri Lares is a vivid, lucid, brilliantly sustained double set - with multiple layers of fascination and otherworldliness in its concrete sounds. 

69) Emilia Martensson - Ana (Babel)
Just one of a number of outstanding releases from jazz singers this year (I probably should have included Christine Tobin's Leonard Cohen set too, although I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet), Emilia Martensson's Ana is a haunting, subtle and affecting set of songs, including three originals. Martensson's regular collaborator Barry Green again proves an imaginative presence at the piano and the playing throughout is full of delicate but effective touches. Martensson's singing is appropriately intimate and conversational.

68) Orlando Julius and The Heliocentrics - Jamaiye (Strut)
Drummer Malcolm Catto's The Heliocentrics join forces with Nigerian saxophonist and pioneer Orlando Julius on what is remarkably the latter's first internationally released album. This represents an extraordinary level of neglect shown towards a musician who was in fact a contemporary of Fela Kuti, and who, amongst other achievements, co-wrote Going Back To My Roots (an important song) with Lamont Dozier.

Of course, as with their work with Astatke, The Heliocentrics are much more than simply a backing band here. They inhabit the spirit of Julius’ robust, memorable and celebratory music with aplomb, constructing some intricate, agile and web-like grooves. Often, these find Catto restraining expressive and improvisatory tendencies in favour of a lighter, more supportive approach to playing, his kit blending effortlessly with a range of additional percussion sounds and interacting with guitar parts and bass lines. In addition, the band also push the sound in other exciting directions as well. So whilst the song selection finds Julius dipping back into his rich, largely unrecorded history, the sound of the album is adventurous, with echo-laden effects and other sounds borrowed from psychedeila. This never happens at the expense of the relentlessly steady grooves.

Julius’ saxophone solos veer from bright, infectious and melodic lines to purposefully jarring, unhinged trills, often within the space of just a few bars. This is music that deftly incorporates both tradition and innovation, light and shade, respect and anger. There are echoes of all sorts of ghosts (the title track’s solo seems as if it might conclude with a reference to Mongo Santamaria’s composition Afro Blue, famously recorded by John Coltrane) and this excellent record stands as a testament to the fascinating links and interactions between musical cultures.

67) Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Pinata (Madlib Invasion)
Madlib, of course, has excellent form when it comes to collaborative projects (Dilla, MF Doom etc), and this duo project with razor sharp rapper Freddie Gibbs is no exception. Second only to Run The Jewels in terms of linguistic and phrasing invention, Pinata also benefits from Madlib's crystalline production, which is both respectful of a hip hop tradition whilst also innovating.

66) The Bug - Angels and Devils (Ninja Tune)
Kevin Martin’s latest, long-awaited adventure as The Bug again features a strong supporting cast og guest vocalists. At times, it is unrepentantly unsubtle (the Death Grips featuring ‘Fuck A Bitch’ or Warrior Queen’s brilliant invective on ‘Fuck You’) but, at others, it takes some fascinating new digressions and detours. Perhaps the highlight of the entire set is Void, which features Liz Harris (Grouper) and which creates its own highly potent sense of mystery and intrigue. Throughout, it’s a typically dark and tense journey. 

65) Polar Bear - In Each And Every One (Leaf)
This album has grown on me substantially over the course of the year. Initially, it felt as if this fairly radical reprogramming of the Polar Bear sound might have been a step too far. Some of the music felt a bit fragmented, and lacked the clever frontline harmonies between Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham’s saxophones that have often made Polar Bear’s music sound so fresh and unusual. Repeated plays, however, reveal a more natural evolution, with an intelligent blend of acoustic instrumentation and electronics, partially guided by Sebastian Rochford’s change of emphasis on the drums away from cymbals. Also, where electronic music can sometimes feel highly organised, there’s a real sense of spontaneity and adventure here. 

64) Tinariwen - Emaar (Wedge)
Tinariwen’s first album recorded outside Mali (perhaps more by necessity than design), saw them build a studio in the Joshua Tree desert and invite a number of guest musicians to join them, including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer and Matt Sweeney from Chavez. The cast list might induce fear of a dilution of the band’s carefully established sonic identity - but actually, such fears are thankfully unfounded. This is in fact one of Tinariwen’s most natural and loose sounding albums - the sound of a band really demonstrating its skills in feel, time and groove. 

63) Ibibio Sound Machine - Ibibio Sound Machine (Soundway)
It’s great to see the Soundway label, already so brilliant in unearthing gems from the rich past of West African music, now stepping out into presenting contemporary artists too. Fronted by British -Nigerian vocalist Eno Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine are an exciting hybrid of West African rhythms and language with disco, funk and dance music more associated with the USA and the UK. This is a thrilling collection of infectious, energising and irresistible music that deserves a wider audience. 

62) Earth - Primitive & Deadly (Southern Lord)
Much like the similarly slow and sombre Low, Earth continue to refashion what has become a trademark sound and approach into subtly new directions. As its title possibly suggests, Primitive & Deadly sounds rawer and more brutal than recent Earth albums, with piledriving distortion, although it stops slightly short of returning to the doom metal of earlier albums. It’s a remarkably committed and focused work and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Earth deploy vocals on two of the five tracks. Mark Lanegan makes for the ideal vocal presence, his elaborate drawl having just the right level of apocalyptic menace.  

61) Noel Langley - Edentide (Suntara) 
One of the things I like most about jazz as an art form is its respect for artists continuing to develop into their later years. Noel Langley has been a musician’s musician for some time - an in-demand lead trumpet, a regular with the London Jazz Orchestra and leading horn sections for Swing Out Sister and Radiohead among many other projects. Staggeringly, Edentide is his first album as composer and leader, completed just in time to celebrate his 50th birthday.

The eight pieces on Edentide are seamlessly intertwined, and although the music frequently takes unexpected detours and drifts, it is held together by frequent return visits to the sound of the harp or a mysterious pedal drone. Langley has crafted a unique sound world that feels like an intensely personal musical space. Other musicians make crucial contributions (including tuned percussionist Keith Fairbairn and pianist Alcyona Mick, who both help define the sound), but it seems as if Langley has thought very carefully about which musicians to involve here and why.

Yet in spite of its personal nature, and Langley’s role as a humble auteur, this music is also generous and accessible. Langley claims that his intended audience is ’99 per cent of the population’, specifically those who ‘think they hate jazz’. Reaching this audience is no doubt too insurmountable a task for one musician – and one suspects that wider success for Edentide depends on a change in attitude towards jazz from areas outside the niche media that currently sustains it. Yet this is such open-minded, expansive music – rather than being introspective, it reaches out and communicates clearly.


60) Dylan Howe - Subterranean: New Designs On Bowie's Berlin (Motorik)
Alongside Nguyen Le’s Pink Floyd explorations, Subterranean provides a great example of how the popular music canon can provide fruitful material and inspiration for improvisation and development. Howe takes the instrumental tracks from Bowie’s Berlin period and, whilst being respectful to the themes, twists them in to entirely new and satisfying shapes. The settings for improvisation are often highly unexpected, and the playing (including from Julian Siegel and Ross Stanley) is tremendous. Howe and his ensemble also craft intriguing, appropriately evocative textures. 

59) Noura Mint Seymali - Tzenni (Glitterbeat) 
Seymali deals in Malian desert blues although she is actually a griot from neighbouring Mauritania. Her sound is chiefly characterised by the integration of her ardine (a nine string harp traditionally played exclusively by women) with the strident, strafing electric guitar of her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly. The sound extends and develops the fusion approach of her Azawan EP. What is perhaps most striking is Seymali’s extraordinarily dexterous and powerful voice, which projects with crystal clarity whilst darting through some tricky melodic intervals. The long notes she holds with unwavering consistency on Soub Hanallah are remarkable.

Where this music is sometimes recorded with as dry and ‘live’ a sound as possible, Tzenni luxuriates in reverb and delay (Daniel Lanois’ fusion of sounds drawn from West African music with his own take on rock production values for Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball might be a useful reference point for the uninitiated). This is perhaps most effective on the bold, urgent and forthright title track, although pretty much everything here is delivered with immediacy and authority. The West African-western rock fusion is also brilliantly encapsulated in the shimmering El Barm, which starts out as a relatively conventional 6/8 groove with a backbeat, before venturing out into more inventive and distinctively West African rhythmic territory.

There is an energy and restlessness here that feels transporting. Also, there’s a strong sense of constancy and an unwavering accuracy in the way this music is executed. It is at once trascendent and grounded. Although the melodies are sometimes strange, they are lingering and memorable (the opening Eguetmar feels as if it should be hummable in spite of its unusual intervals).

Tzenni is full of strange, satisfying and enriching moments. The loping, lopsided riff that introduces Hebebeb (Zrag) is brilliantly disorientating, whilst El Mougelmen is direct and empowered. The album’s title could translate as circling or spinning and this seems appropriate as the music often seems to have either a circling or vertiginous quality to it.


58) Kate Williams - Atlas and Vulcana (KWJazz)
Atlas and Vulcana is an album which succeeds largely on the basis of some classic virtues. Swinging beautifully, and with some majestic arrangements, this is informed, stylish writing that resonates and sings. There are strong melodies, counterbalanced by compelling harmonies and the ensemble vibe is strong, with fluent and articulate playing. There are few, if any, of the by now familiar tricks and motifs of contemporary jazz. The whole project has a compelling, brilliantly sustained narrative. 

57) Shellac - Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
For sheer rawness and urgency, Steve Albini is always the first port of call. Shellac’s first album in seven years might contain few real surprises, but then this is an ensemble that has already expanded the boundaries of what they themselves call the ‘minimalist rock trio’. No other band sounds quite like this and no other band has this level of uncompromising commitment.The sheer power of this music is fearless and intoxicating. Lyrically, as ever, this is full of brutal irony (the group of monkeys in the title track could just as easily be lads on a night out) and dry observations on society.

56) Tweedy - Sukierae (Nonesuch)
Sukierae feels like a personal project, to the extent that it needed to be something different from simply another Wilco album. This is not least because of the huge volume of material Jeff Tweedy has produced here, but also because of the mostly more subdued nature of his delivery. Tweedy’s 18 year old son Spencer offers maturity beyond his years in his approach to groove at the drum set.

The album’s purposefully jarring contrasts in mood are established at the outset. Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (no, not that one) is bitter and agitated, whilst High As Hello, more typical of the album as a whole, is a sweet tune somewhat subverted by some dissonant guitar lines. World Away is an urgent, engaging groove that deftly disguises its asymmetrical time signature. Spencer Tweedy’s presence certainly adds an energy and disruptive spirit to this music, but it is far from an immature contribution.

This music is intelligent, bittersweet and subtle. Much of its impact is drawn from sound and arrangement rather than from melody, something that allows Tweedy senior’s voice to assume its more downbeat nature. Sometimes it as if he is being absorbed within the songs. This also means that Sukeirae is not as immediate as most Wilco albums – it requires some careful navigation.

Although writing and recording began before her diagnosis, Sue Miller Tweedy’s battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma clearly informed this album. Yet the kind of emotion on display here is not always the transparent, heart-on-sleeve kind. Instead, Sukierae somehow captures both an airy melancholy as well as some unpredictable turbulence. It is likely to be misrepresented as being closest in spirit to the breezier end of Wilco’s later work. There is a case for this in reference to the delicate but nimble waltz feel of Wait For Love or the graceful Summer Noon but it is inadequate in explaining some of the album’s strange juxtapositions or its uniquely intimate minimalism. Sukierae is a distinctive work, and it gradually reveals itself to be enthralling.


55) Xylouris White - Goats (Other Music)
Another exciting duo project, this is a fascinating hybrid of musical cultures and ideas. Xylouris White pairs the texturally imaginative, loose and free drummer Jim White (The Dirty Three) with legendary Greek lute player George Xylouris. The results clearly draw on Greek folk music and established approaches to improvisation, but they are also delivered with a raw, communicative aesthetic. Both artists seem to be finding a new musical language through interaction and sparring. There’s also an ever present sense of mischief and humour.
54) Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (via BitTorrent or Bandcamp)
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes doesn’t exactly represent a radical shift in Thom Yorke’s music making approach, or in his preference for surprise online release strategies. It is spare, skeletal and largely electronic in the manner of The Eraser and, like The King Of Limbs, it clocks in at a concise and disciplined eight tracks. Again, Boards Of Canada and Flying Lotus feel like significant influences and, whilst minimal, the music also feels thoughtful and carefully designed. Those who still feel aggrieved at Yorke’s abrogation of his guitar-wielding responsibilities will not find much to love here.

Increasingly impressive, however, is Yorke’s use and treatment of his voice. His obtrusive, sometimes histrionic vocals were once both Radiohead’s soaring selling point and a sticking point for their biggest critics. Now he seems content to exercise restraint, sometimes hovering in the lower end and middle of his range (particularly on Guess Again!), at others fluttering delicately in a way that is cleverly absorbed within the fabric of each song. Echo effects are used judiciously, sometimes in order to mask or obscure literal meaning, rendering the songs impervious to obvious interpretation. This tendency appears to be even more marked in his solo material than with Radiohead. It is as if his work under his own name offers him an opportunity to be at his most introspective, withdrawn and opaque. Yorke often seems to be deliberately hovering on the fringes of his own music – and yet the voice is by far the most significant instrument at play on this album, and it is in his use of the voice that Yorke is both most playful and most inventive.

Also impressive is the way Yorke draws as much as possible from a purposefully limited set of ingredients. Guess Again! is little more than a spare chordal piano figure that hazily recalls Pyramid Song and a periodically interrupted drum beat. Yet it brilliantly creates a quietly menacing mood. Yet songs like the opening A Brain In A Bottle and the superb Interference have subtle nuances and colours that make close listening utterly essential. Interference could easily have been an earlier Radiohead song, had the chorus been delivered in a higher register over bludgeoning guitars. In this context, however, Yorke allows the melody to be understated (almost passive in fact) and affords it only the most minimal of framing. It sounds vulnerable, honest and fragile where early Radiohead could sometimes be manipulative.

For now, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been taken somewhat for granted. It could, however, turn out to be one of Yorke’s most endearing statements.


53) Andy Stott - Faith In Strangers (Modern Love)
Andy Stott is currently on a prolific artistic hot streak, with the EPs Passed Me By and We Stay Together being quickly followed by the outstanding, sleek album Luxury Problems and now this excellent new album. It has a crepuscular, menacing quality throughout, Stott creating ghostly, unusual and sometimes uncomfortable sound worlds. It feels like a celebration of the unknown and unfamiliar, and listening to it often feels like traversing a new landscape. 

52) Robert Ellis - The Light From The Chemical Plant (New West)
Another of the year’s oddly underrated gems, reviewed positively but strangely absent from end of year lists. Maybe it’s simply that Robert Ellis’ mode of delivery is too modest and understated, but it must at least be recognised the extent to which The Light From The Chemical Plant develops his sound, methodology and quality as a singer-songwriter. Ellis has stated that he wanted this album to be more about his pop side, referencing Paul Simon (he tackles Still Crazy After All These Years respectfully here) and Randy Newman as touchstone influences. The opening, slightly corny TV Song is certainly a red herring, as its conventional country tropes quickly give way to something more individual and compelling. There’s a lightness and an agile quality to the playing, and every song creates a powerful, evocative atmosphere. The whole thing is beautifully recorded and produced and the songs (Steady As The Rising Sun in particular) have the timeless, honey-drenched feel of standards. Chemical Plant, the near title track, charts an entire life-long relationship in beautiful, perfectly poised language. Sing Along is a rough and tumble hoedown and a passionate denunciation of evangelical religion. The longer, more expansive songs allow for careful arrangement and development of themes. 

51) Fofoulah - Fofoulah (Glitterbeat)
Fofoulah’s breathtaking live performances have turned many a jazz club into a party space since their formation in 2011, but their debut full length has been a long time coming. Whilst the band is mostly drawn from London’s improvising scene (most specifically members of the Loop Collective), they draw both on their own studies in West African music (perhaps beginning with the Outhouse Ruhabi project in the Gambia in 2002) and on the experience and insight of sabar drummer Kaw Secka. Few could doubt this project’s authenticity given the extent to which the band members live and breathe this music. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a drummer better suited to these restless and insistent grooves than Smith, and Phil Stevenson’s spiderly guitar lines feel effortless and comfortable. Smith and bass player Johnny Brierley (also of the Outhouse Ruhabi project) are completely locked in, and handle both the complex grooves and the periodic hits with precision.

Senegalese singer Batch Gueye is a charismatic and exciting presence on a number of tracks and Juldeh Camara is commanding on the sprightly Hook Up, on which his vocals seem to contribute to an overall sense of movement. Ghostpoet is perhaps a less expected presence, but his softly spoken rap on the hilariously titled Don’t Let Your Mind Unravel, Safe Travels proves appropriately compelling. The way in which his words mesh effortlessly with the accompanying rhythms is fascinating. Other highlights are provided by Kaw Secka’s expressive sabar drum introduction to Make Good and the elevating West African guitar lines of No Troubles. The album’s best track, however, is the seven and a half minute Reality Rek, a brilliantly disorientating journey that veers from an exploratory introduction into the band’s most restless and stirring groove, with saxophonist Tom Challenger providing a crisp, memorable phrase that holds the piece together.

At just under 40 minutes, Fofoulah is a concise and breathtaking trip, and the full joyous impact of this band needs to be experienced by seeing them live. It is, however, a great example of the ways in which studio production and articulate musicianship can work supremely well together.


50) Quadraceratops - Quadraceratops (Efpi)
Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Cath Roberts is a pretty inspirational figure, not just for the enjoyable quality of her writing (which comes laced with imagination and humour as well as musical risk taking) but also for the sheer energy and focus she brings to everything she does. The LUME improvised music nights she co-promotes with Dee Byrne (who has an album out next year on F-IRE) have gone from strength to strength, and her band Quadraceratops has now coalesced into a stable and impressive unit. The four-horned front line makes for a fresh and intriguing sound, providing a rich variety of colours. What is most impressive is the way the improvisation travels to a place quite beyond the original themes - often journeying through a range of moods and settings from the abstract to the intensely grooving. 
49) Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels Vol. 2 (Red)
El-P and Killer Mike had the surprise word of mouth success of last year with their first official collaboration as Run The Jewels. Expectations were therefore very high for this quickfire follow-up. Thankfully, the speed of its appearance did not mean it had been rushed. This is, if anything, an even more intense and colossal record than its predecessor. It is also uncomfortably filthy, swears firing at all angles and flirting dangerously with misogyny at times, but it at least benefits from Gangsta Boo and Diane Coffee providing subversive female voices. Some of this is clearly intended to be funny (‘my business card says you’re in luck/I do two things, I rap and fuck’) but thankfully this is also an angry and articulate work that savages and destroys pretenders, charlatans and the corrupted. Musically, it’s brilliant, brutal and uncompromising. It’s also remarkable for the imaginativeness of its vocal phrasing, and the sheer volume of ideas El-P and Killer Mike manage to pack in.

48) Fennesz - Becs (Editions Mego)
Purposefully pitched as a sequel of sorts to Fennesz’s classic Endless Summer album, Becs eschewed some of the more abrasive tendencies of recent releases in favour of something warmer and more embracing. Once again, his guitar is centre stage, not merely subsumed within his fuzzy drones. Here, the guitar offers hints of melody and carefully chosen chords that resonate and create a welcoming, more ingratiating mood. Like Endless Summer before it, Becs shimmers and shines - and it serves as a more than worthy sequel. 

47) Kelis - Food (Ninja Tune) 
At least until D’Angelo’s Black Messiah dropped, Food was the most satisfying reconfiguration of classic soul tropes in 2014. It’s great to hear Kelis back on track after a few largely failed experiments with pop and dance music. In fact, this feels like the most natural and confident album she has made, benefiting from a crisp rhythm section, Dave Sitek’s sure production hand and some super slick horn lines. Ninja Tune feels like a great place for her - I hope we hear this approach evolve further. In many ways it feels like the ‘live‘-sounding flipside to the digital psychedelia of Kaleidoscope. Kelis’ vocal has never quite been the silky smooth device captured on her pop hits, and Sitek has had the courage in his convictions to capture her vulnerabilities and cracks here. And who can resist a food theme? 

46) St Vincent - St Vincent (Caroline International)
An eponymously titled album released mid-way through a career usually suggests a paring down of an approach or a baring of the soul, yet Annie Clarke remains a wearer of elaborate masks. There’s her robotic, detached onstage persona, which reached an apotheosis on the accompanying Digital Witness tour, then there’s the meticulous, sophisticated and sometimes abrasive music she has made here. It’s not all surface and no feeling, however - she allows her guard to slip a little on the affecting Prince Johnny. Elsewhere, imagination and invention abounds, and her candid exploration of the mundane (‘Just an ordinary day/take out the garbage, masturbate’) might be her own take on the confessional. Musically, it’s frequently astonishing, from the wiry processed funk and nervous shredding of Rattlesnakes to the angular dancehall of Bring Me Your Loves.

45) Theo Parrish - American Intelligence (Sound Signature)
For such an influential figure in the development of electronic music, Theo Parrish has mostly avoided the long form statement. As a lengthy double set, American Intelligence feels like a major statement. It’s also as extreme a work as Parrish has yet made - one that takes his emphasis on minimalism and the brute power of repetition to some sort of logical conclusion. Listen closely, however, and nuances start to seep through - and there’s a decidedly human quality to this deceptive machine music. Over the course of the two discs, there’s also range too - from the soulful expression of Be In Yo Self to the ecstatic proclamations of Make No War. 

44) Partisans - Swamp (Whirlwind)
Contemporary UK jazz has something of a supergroup in Partisans which combines the heavy rhythm section of Thad Kelly and Gene Calderazzo with the strongest of composing frontlines in guitarist Phil Robson and reedsman Julian Siegel. Swamp is packed full of deep grooves, biting riffs, intricate melodic lines and intricate improvising. It’s a challenging and meaty listen, but it’s also exceptional for the intensity and excitement generated through ensemble interaction. Although they’ve recorded only rarely, Partisans is still a band with a symbiotic musical relationship. This may be their strongest, most authoritative work to date. 
43) Afghan Whigs - Do To The Beast (Sub Pop)
A big highlight of my 2014 was the opportunity to interview Greg Dulli, one of my musical heroes, for musicOMH. Given that only the bare minimum of the original Afghan Whigs line-up survives here (Greg Dulli and John Curley), I felt justified in asking Dulli why this turned out to be an Afghan Whigs project and not another chapter in his work as The Twilight Singers. His somewhat resentful response was ‘because I say that’s what it is’. Well, fair enough, I suppose, and the savage opening crunch of Parked Outside immediately suggests that this is a reinvigorated new version of Afghan Whigs rather than a mere nostalgia exercise. Whilst Do To The Beast doesn’t quite pack the punch of Gentlemen or Black Love (how could that level of urgency and discomfort be repeated?), it does offer pleasures both familiar and fresh.

It is Dulli’s more varied and nuanced approach to both singing and arrangement that imbues Do To The Beast with its distinctive qualities. He has drawn from some of the more subtle and interesting elements of his work as The Twilight Singers and conducted new experiments too. The piano on Lost In The Woods is somehow both dominant and vulnerable, whilst the mariachi stylings of Algiers push Dulli into singing strongly in his upper register. Can Rova is largely about atmosphere and restraint. Whilst it constantly threatens to explode, it actually sustains its tension primarily through not providing any expected firework rock dynamics. Instead of bursting into guitar-fuelled light, it gradually swells into a four to the floor pulse and some Italian house-style piano chords. It has a sense of mystery that is every bit as forthright, imaginative and persuasive as Dulli’s more excoriating personal confession but it is also wholly unlike anything he has recorded with The Afghan Whigs before.

Royal Cream and The Lottery present The Afghan Whigs sound at its more turbulent and urgent; Royal Cream briefly recalls the cruch, crackle and fire of My Enemy. Yet even these songs seem to have a greater sense of control and experience, with Dulli imbuing a sense of wisdom and insight to accompany his fever and frenzy.

Most satisfyingly of all, the album concludes vividly and with real power. The Peter Gabriel-esque percussion of I Am Fire marks another fascinating detour for Dulli, whilst These Sticks is a brilliant, patiently unfolding epic imbued with grandeur and drama. Dulli is a man still capable of the best in sweat-soaked R&B flavoured rock ‘n’ roll, but he now has a range of subtler, more graceful manoeuvres too.


42) Oren Ambarchi - Quixotism (Editions Mego)
Thomas Brinkman's weird, unnerving fast pulse whirs like a helicopter, creating a strangely comfortable bed for the rest of Ambarchi's ambitious, thoughtful long form composition. Other musical guests include Jim O'Rourke and an Icelandic orchestra - and it's not difficult to see why this took two years to make using a number of different locations. That being said, it's an eerily minimalist piece too, with plenty of space and quiet amongst the judiciously chosen sounds. The lengthy concluding part feels like an expansive piece of outreach after a curiously coccooned suite of music. It's music that demands careful concentration to catch all the considered, discrete nuances.

41) Alice Gerrard - Follow The Music (Tompkins Square)
This wonderful album, produced in a very non-interventionist way by Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor, finds the 80 year old Alice Gerrard at the top of a game. Her voice, perhaps a little frailer, still possesses a strength and depth of feeling (as well as an unpredictable versatility) and the arrangements are stark, perhaps even austere at times, so she is always right at the forefront. It’s a passionate and committed take on old time American music. 

40) Diego Barber & Craig Taborn - Tales (Sunnyside)
2014 has been a year of fascinating duo projects. Perhaps this helps combat financial constraints, but it’s satisfying that it has also yielded some spectacular artistic results. Perhaps the most fascinating has been this collaboration between classical guitarist and the versatile, resourceful jazz pianist Craig Taborn. Barber is clearly an ambitious, driven musician - and his development of a jazz side to his musicianship in order to bridge a perceived divide between jazz and classical music is laudable. Taborn will be familiar to readers of this blog, not least for his contribution to David Torn’s extraordinary Prezens album, but also for his uncompromising and highly individual solo piano album Avenging Angel. This meeting of minds is vivid and fruitful, with long form compositions demonstrating both virtuosic musicianship and sensitive artistry. There’s a perfect balance and poise in the blend of the two instruments. 

39) Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band - Intensity Ghost (No Quarter) 
Intensity Ghost is the first album Chris Forsyth has recorded with his new band, formed in the wake of the outstanding Solar Motel album last year. This provides him with a breathtaking, muscular context for his shimmering guitar lines. With the band now featuring two guitarists strafing and darting around each other, comparisons with Television are likely to be made even more frequently. Yet there is something else here too - a connection with folk music and a relentless insistence in the delivery that marks Forsyth’s continuing project as something imaginative and unique. 

38) Steve Lehman Octet - Mise En Abime (Pi) 
Arriving a long five years after Steve Lehman’s previous octet recording (2009’s astonishing Travail, Transformation and Flow), Mise En Abime develops Lehman’s range and depth in part by deconstructing the jazz tradition (there are some radical takes on Bud Powell compositions). It also incorporates live electronics (in subtle and sometimes imperceptible ways) and makes much of the custom built vibraphone played by Chris Dingman. Although Lehman’s experiements with spectral composition and complex metre could be foreboding and scientific, it is the excitement and physical thrill generated by this challenging music that makes it so powerful and memorable. 

37) Caribou - Our Love (City Slang)
If Dan Snaith had previously shown something of a split personality between his Caribou and Daphni aliases, Our Love felt like a merging of these two faces. The nightclub longing and euphoria of Can’t Do Without You provided the perfect opening gambit - only surpassed by the frazzled intensity of the title track. His slightly wavering voice remains an acquired taste, but Our Love seems to have found its most sympathetic context to date. It’s a tremendous, vibrant record - pretty much irresistible in its combination of acoustic and electronic sound worlds.  

36) School Of Language - Old Fears (Memphis Industries) 
One of the year’s most underrated records for me - it’s baffling that it doesn’t seem to have made end of year lists. It was certainly one of the major musical soundtracks to the first half of my 2014. David Brewis is such a thoughtful and imaginative musician, and his use of rhythm is unusually inventive for someone operating in the sphere of indie-rock. Often, Brewis’ individual parts are simple and direct - it’s the way he puts everything together that creates its impact. As usual, there’s also strong vocal harmonies and a melodic creativity operating here, and the whole thing is so well assembled. It sounds crisp and strong. At just 35 minutes, it’s also mercilessly concise.

35) Marius Neset/Trondheim Jazz Orchestra - Lion (ACT) 
Much of the music here is new and commissioned specifically for this project. It is some distance removed from any conventional big band sound. The title of ‘Jazz Orchestra’ seems entirely appropriate for this ensemble given the depth and range of timbre they create. The new music is predictably bold, imposing and exciting, not least the wide-ranging title track that opens proceedings. It is, of course, worth remembering that lions do sleep a lot – and this might go some way in explaining that track’s surprisingly calm and mysterious opening. Over the course of its ten minutes, Lion seems to explore the possibilities of the contrasts between supreme monarchical predator and resting threat.

The album also contains some large ensemble reversions of previously recorded work. The two title tracks from Neset’s previous album (Golden Xplosion and Birds) prove particularly fruitful vehicles for this ensemble. In its small band incarnation, Golden Xplosion seemed something of an exhibition for Neset’s rhythmic execution, but also for the rapid-fire, twitchy keyboard imagination of Neset’s mentor-turned-colleague Django Bates. In this setting, it sounds meticulously orchestrated and precise – and is able to build into bursts of glorious colour. Statements seem to snap and crackle from all sides of the orchestra. Thankfully, Birds still sounds like a truly remarkable composition a year on from its initial release, and it provides a suitably intense and dramatic conclusion to this tremendous suite of music. At its best, Neset’s music has a knife-edge sense of danger and peril.


34) Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana - Mehliana: Taming The Dragon (Nonesuch)
This is the sort of extracurricular venture that will naturally divide opinion. Any purists with little tolerance for electronics and fragmented structures will undoubtedly prefer Mehldau’s trio work. For those with less prescriptive tastes, there’s something liberating for both musicians in this duo setting and a clear sense of mischievous fun amidst the heightened claustrophobic tension.
The music here is unconventional in that the melodic development is mostly fractured, with as much emphasis placed on sound and effects as on the actual musical detail. Mehldau frequently experiments with short, clipped phrases that are then answered or accompanied by sub bass echoes. It is a very different sound world from the sustained lines of his trio improvising. Whilst it would be inaccurate to say Mehldau is out of his comfort zone here (particularly given how successful these pieces are), he has certainly found a space where he cannot resort to existing habits.

Taming The Dragon is also wholly absorbing, as Mehldau’s playfulness and Guiliana’s taut, interwoven grooves create an inescapable tension. Pieces such as the delightful, slow building Hungry Ghost even seem to draw from the approaches of post rock acts such as Sigur Rós or Tortoise. The use of sampled voices and stories (narrated by Mehldau himself in a delightfully dry tone) serve to enhance the mysterious atmosphere. The opening title track begins with Mehldau describing a ‘trippy dream’ in which he is driven around by a dude resembling a cross between Dennis Hopper and Joe Walsh. A road rage incident sparks a moment of amateur psychoanalysis as Mehldau considers the competing voices of anger and moderation ‘vying for your attention’. The music veers between awkward, skittering chatter and a full, freewheeling charge.
The instrumental and electronic elements are so well integrated that, at least in Guiliana’s case, it can be a challenge to distinguish between programmed rhythms and material performed ‘as live’ (especially on the frantic, thrilling You Can’t Go Back Now). Part of this spellbinding confusion is the extent to which Guiliana has absorbed the tricky detail of typical contemporary electronic drum patterns. He is also able to utilise a wide variety of sounds from the kit, from clicks of the drum rims and mini-cymbal work to a substantial dynamic and textural range on the drums themselves. His playing, although often bristling and very active, always neatly complements Mehldau’s intricate multiple synth arrangements. Guiliana opens up the musical possibilities of kit playing, with thoughtful phrasing and complex, fascinating groove parts.


33) Angles 9 - Injuries (Clean Feed)
Martin Kuchen’s Angles nonet make large ensemble music that is kinetic and thrilling, but also reflective and meditative. It’s not hard to love music with this kind of open-minded and open-hearted approach, but it’s about a whole lot more than a scattershot deployment of influences and reference points. The instrumentation is intriguing - with vibraphone being a particularly crucial voice. The ensemble works well on the shorter pieces (European Boogie is true to its title - a real dance number), but these are musicians capable of developing ideas over a long form piece (particularly the suspenseful, fascinating 22 minutes of A Desert On Fire, A Forest/I’ve Been Lied To). The band feels completely in touch with the traditions of the blues, as well as the spiritual dimensions and African-inspired rhythms of John Coltrane. This is also one of three appearances on this list for the excellent drummer Andreas Werliin (see also Wildbirds and Peacedrums and Fire Orchestra). I also need to thank Dave Sumner from Bird Is The Worm for alerting me to this. It’s time to explore the rest of Kuchen’s work. 
32) Aphex Twin - Syro (Warp) 
Perhaps trumped in the surprise stakes only at the last hurdle by D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, this comeback from Richard D James sounded like the return of an old friend - perhaps wiser, but largely unchanged. The opening track and lead single minipops 67 (120.2) (source field mix) is broadly representative, with its combination of deceptively sweet chiming sounds and heavily treated, alien-sounding voices. There is just enough characteristic Aphex weirdness going on here, but it now seems to sound oddly comforting and almost homely. Perhaps this is because this music is Aphex Twin’s calmest to date – whilst textures and rhythms do still shift, they do so in a much smoother, less twitchy way. This might be most noticeable on the outstanding Xmas_Evet10 (120) (Thanaton 3 Mix), which takes a number of fascinating turns during its ten and a half minutes, yet manages to sustain a convincing synthesis and coherence.

As it progresses, Syro becomes more restless and the dreamlike haze of the first few tracks gives way to something more characteristically frenetic. The first subtle hint of this comes with the awkward funk of produk 29 (101) but it is much more explicitly signposted with 180db_ (130)’s sudden lurch into a four to the floor house beat. Circlont 6a (141.98) and Circlont 14 (152.97) feel like the centre of the album, although they are somewhat colder, and a little too detached to be described as its heart. Here, the mischievous side of Richard D James is unleashed, with intrusive squelchy bass synths and disorientating drum patterns in abundance. If not exactly moving, these tracks offer a timely reminder of the sense of fun and trickery inherent in Aphex Twin’s music. The almost-but-not-quite title track is delirious and irresistible, but it also has moments of disarming tenderness as well.


31) Scott Walker and Sunn O))) - Soused (4AD)
Soused may be everything that the ludicrous Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration wanted to be - as extreme a dissection of the dark side as anything else in Walker’s foreboding catalogue, but with a naturalistic musical empathy and exploration that makes it emotional as well as serious. Brando feels like a grand (and highly successful) project to fuse his theatrical ballad singing with the industrial, harsh soundscapes of his later career. Essentially, the drones and shards provided by Sunn O))) seem perfectly integrated with Walker’s lyric-driven approach to music. These songs sound radical, and are still challenging to navigate. 

30) Frazey Ford - Indian Ocean (Nettwerk)
Indian Ocean is a fine example of an artist working through collaboration to find new dimensions to her music. Perhaps Frazey Ford’s shimmering vocal has always had a soulful edge, but that tended to be a little overlooked in the delicate twang of Be Good Tanyas’ take on appalachian folk. This set of very fine songs, many dealing with pain and heartbreak, is brought to vivid life by the lush, grooves of the Hi Rhythm Section (including the much missed Teenie Hodges) and the vibe here is subtle and compelling. 

29) Grouper - Ruins (Kranky) 
It comes as something of a surprise to find Liz Harris altering her well established approach. Ruins is one of those albums that sounds as though it was made easily and affordably – but it is also the kind of album that very few artists would have the courage or audacity to make. It is stripped back to bare bones, and it sounds vulnerable and pure. Whereas Harris has often used drones, fuzz, white noise and feedback to overwhelm the humanity her music, here she is exposed and unadorned. Nevertheless, she still sounds like a ghostly presence in her own music so, whilst standing alone in her discography in terms of its exposed vulnerabilty, Ruins also retains a somnambulant quality common to all her work.


28) Black Top - No. 1 feat. Steve Williamson (Babel)  
First of all, it’s hard to overstate how wonderful it is to hear one of Britain’s great musicians Steve Williamson recorded once again. Recorded live at Jazz In The Round at the Cockpit Theatre, the night curated by Jazz on 3’s Jez Nelson that has become one of the leading lights of the capital’s jazz scene, No. 1 is a set of stormy, turbulent improv that also finds room for considerable depth of feeling. The ensemble is an unusual one - with a radical sounding duo of pianist Pat Thomas and tuned percussionist Orphy Robinson providing the foundations. There is also the occasional incorporation of electronics to further support the mood and add some impulse and impetus. Williamson is at turns fiery and lyrical on tenor saxophone (and particularly inspired in the closing stretches of There Goes The Neighbourhood), and the interaction feels intuitive and responsive. Improvisation like this happens once and then it’s gone - we should be thankful for recorded documents of these beautiful moments. 

27) Alexander Hawkins - Song Singular/Alexander Hawkins Ensemble - Step Wide, Step Deep (Babel)
Song Singular is one of the most fluent and imaginative solo piano albums I can remember hearing in some time. Like Liam Noble, Hawkins has developed an idiosyncratic and immensely resourceful playing style. He improvises with both playful mischief and respect for the song (whilst much of this music is ‘free’, there is always an initial theme and Hawkins’ strong melodic sensibility provides a constant thread). There is an intensity and focus in every piece. It feels like a celebration of how personal processes and individuality inform improvisation, and the resulting music neatly bridges any perceived gap between the jazz tradition and the avant garde.

Step Wide, Step Deep is an ensemble project - an intriguing sextet line-up with Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone and clarinet, Neil Charles on bass, Tom Skinner on drums, Otto Fischer on guitar and Dylan Bates on violin. The music has an agile, fleet footed quality, with precise, darting unison melody lines giving way to expansive, intuitive improvising. It is remarkably intense, with energy levels sustained over long periods of time. 

26) Neneh Cherry - Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Seemingly re-energised by her outstanding collaboration with radical jazz group The Thing, Neneh Cherry’s first solo album in 18 years pursued a different direction, but with the same degree of uncompromising, adventurous zeal. Essentially a collaboration with drums and electronics duo Rocketnumbernine, and produced in collaboration with Kieran Hebden, Blank Project is a murky, cathartic experience grounded in bare bones rhythm, mechanistic textures and thunderous synth bass lines. It sometimes sounds ominous or threatening, but it’s also bold and thrilling. It brilliantly captures how oppressive and stifling our moods, fears and feelings can be.

25) Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread (Blue Note)
The River & The Thread is a late career roots masterpiece to rival Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl. Cash’s voice is beautifully delicate and malleable throughout - a real and understated instrument. The songs are erotic and sensual in the broadest of senses, dealing with love, loss, and place. It’s the sort of music that could pass by easily given how unassuming and stately it is, masterful and effortless in both construction and delivery. Listen carefully, and these songs are wonderfully moving and richly poetic. 

24) Leonard Cohen - Popular Problems (Columbia)
At 80, Leonard Cohen still seems to be incapable of retirement. In fact, he has found new, increasingly wry and self-mocking perspectives from his pensioner status. Popular Problems opens with a mischievous piece of innuendo in the form of Slow, before moving through visions of the apocalypse, New York in the aftermath of 9/11, and more introspective intimations of love and regret. Whilst it rarely veers too far from the Bontempi-budget production template that has characterised pretty much all of Cohen’s work since Various Positions, he does find an additional warmth from various instrumental and vocal contributions here. In fact, the arrangements are often thoughtful and sometimes even surprising. At only 36 minutes long, Popular Problems is crisp and concise but far from slight. It may be the best of Cohen’s later works. He finishes by suggesting ‘you got me thinking that I’d like to carry on.’ Let’s drink to that. 


23) Hurray For The Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes (ATO) 
This is where Alynda Lee Segarra’s sometimes wayward music finally coalesced into a clear and consistent proposition. On the surface, Small Town Heroes presents a studied, faithful and captivating update on traditional American folk music, Appalachian song by way of New Orleans (where Segarra resides). But it’s in the subtext that Small Town Heroes becomes really interesting, particularly in a genuinely important song such as The Body Electric. If this strain of folk music, particularly the murder ballad, has traditionally been symbolic of misogyny, and male domination, Segarra somehow manages to combine respect for the songs with a new feminist reconfiguration of the language and outlook. 

22) Pye Corner Audio - Black Mill Tapes Vol. 4: Dystopian Vectors (Type)
Perhaps the apotheosis of the spurious genre known as ‘hauntology’, the Black Mill Tapes projects of Martin Jenkins (who likes to be known as The Head Technician) is a mysterious and appropriately evocative piece of retrofuturism. It’s easy to be a bit cynical about Jenkins’ approach (and even about the results) - but this isn’t a merely slavish imitation of BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound worlds. I remain startlingly ignorant about the processes involved here - but that may well be Jenkins’ point. The project purports to be archival - a transfer of 14” cassettes that the Head Technicial has uncovered - but the regimented grooves and insistent synth bass lines seem to be drawn from a different space. Whatever it is exactly, it’s certainly absorbing and hypnotic. 

21) Robin Williamson - Trusting In The Rising Light (ECM)
Clearly, I need to explore the solo output of former Incredible String Band member Robin Williamson for ECM a lot more, because this is a startling and remarkable work. Richly allusive poetry (on this occasion Williamson’s own) and music are perfectly matched here, the music beautifully evocative of the landscapes and environments Williamson describes. Williamson works here with two versatile and imaginative American musicians - percussionist Ches Smith (Tim Berne’s Snakeoil) and violinist Mat Manieri. The resulting music has a delightfully free-sounding ebb and flow that feels at one with nature. 

20) Wildbirds & Peacedrums - Rhythm (Leaf)
Rhythm might well be Swedish drums and vocal duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ ‘reaction’ album. Their last full length, Rivers, was initially conceived as two contrasting EPs rather than as an album and featured full, wide-ranging vocal orchestration (performed by the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir) and steel pans. Rhythm is the duo’s first album in four years, and it strips things back to the original foundations of drummer/percussionist Andreas Werliin and vocalist Mariam Wallentin. They have worked in this way before, of course, but not with this level of drama and detail.

Another notable feature of Rhythm as a whole is its immediacy. Whilst much of Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ first two albums had a rawness and uncompromising force, Rhythm has an infectious quality and clarity that marks it out as the Wildbirds & Peacedrums album most likely to cross over to a wider audience. Tracks such as Keep Some Hope and Gold Digger are both insistent and artful. In addition to its bold hooks, Rhythm is also restless, turbulent and intense. This duo is an increasingly masterful unit. Even with just voice and drums, it would appear that the possibilities are endless.


19) Nguyen Le/NDR Big Band/Mike Gibbs - Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon (ACT)
Whilst I haven’t ever completely got Pink Floyd (hence the transparent absence of The Endless River from this list), this may be the album that sends me back to them. For such a hallowed work, it’s fascinating how frequently Dark Side Of The Moon is messed with (see also Dub Side Of The Moon and The Flaming Lips’ disappointing reworking). Guitarist Nguyen Le of course has a history with reinvigorating canonical rock classics (see also Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix and Songs Of Freedom), but this may be his most effective and powerful recontextualisation to date. He turns Dark Side Of The Moon in to a suite, including sections of his own music. The great arranger Mike Gibbs is typically inspired, and the bold dynamics and colours of the NDR Big Band breathe new life into this music. Vocalist Yun Sun Nah is an emotional presence, where the Floyd original sometimes feels a little cold or austere. 

18) Normal Gimbel - I Like You Bite You (Efpi)
Completely unlike anything else released in 2014, or indeed any other year, this debut album from Alice Grant and Ruth Goller, working as an acapella vocal duo, is quirky, humorous and deceptively straightforward. There’s riotous fairytale imagination at work here, and a radical sense of adventure. As with the best fairytales, there’s surreal imagery and a sinister undertow here too and these mercilessly concise, bitesize songs pack a considerable punch. The whole thing is over in 21 minutes, and leaves you wanting a whole lot more.

17) Jenny Lewis - The Voyager (Warner Bros)
The Voyager is proof, if any were really needed, that Jenny Lewis is far better as a fully fledged pop singer songwriter than as a pop singer masquerading as an indie artist. These songs are so polished, pristine and infectious that they seem almost guilty pleasures. Yet why be guilty about enjoying this outstanding, pretty much irresistible album? Lyrically, Lewis has, in the words of an old Rilo Kiley album title, become more adventurous - and her narrative songs are compelling and candid (Late Bloomer and Aloha and The Three Johns being prime examples). There is also the directness and honesty of some of her more personal writing (One Of The Guys especially). Sonically, The Voyager is dreamy and lush - with some superb playing from a supportive band. 

16) Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather (Paradise Of Bachelors) / Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - FRKWYS Vol. 11: Cantos De Lisboa (RVNG International)
Steve Gunn’s spiralling, meditative music also has a light, dancing quality that neatly combines the concerns of American folk music with a more spontaneous, improvising approach. His music is also incredibly well assembled. A track such as the effortless, fluid sounding Wildwood might have three or four guitar parts, but it still feels airy and spacious. The guitar lines themselves are graceful and melodic, not least on the bright and absorbing Milly’s Garden, and many of them could work comfortably well as contemplative instrumentals. The whole ensemble sounds vibrant and interconnected.

Those already familiar with Gunn’s work will not be surprised by his nuanced arrangements or agile guitar playing. The key developments on Way Out Weather are of course his songwriting and his singing. Gunn’s voice is rarely pitch perfect, but it’s one of those slightly conversational and communicative storytelling voices that works perfectly for his material. The rolling conclusions to his phrases are sometimes reminiscent of Bill Fay, whilst his extensions of particular syllables and emphasis on the end of lines of course hint back to Bob Dylan. With Gunn’s melodic awareness and sense of being in the moment being crucial elements, Way Out Weather is a meticulous and absorbing set of songs. 

Amongst many project this year, Gunn also contributed a substantial addition to the FRKWYS series in a duo with Mike Cooper on Cantos De Lisboa. It's a beautiful, mesmerising recording with a range of approaches to deconstructionist blues and the spiritual.


15) Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer - Bass & Mandolin (Nonesuch)
Here is one of the most empathetic duo recordings of recent years, with two masters weaving and dancing around each other with wonderful agility. Beautifully recorded (self produced but brilliantly engineered by Dave Sinko), Bass & Mandolin is both the simple artefact its title suggests and also so much more. It seems to capture every nuance and detail of the duo’s performances, from sprightly, rapid-fire mandolin runs to deftly handled harmonics. There is a palpable ambient room sound too, which succeeds in lending atmosphere and resonance to the music. Listening on headphones is an immersive experience.

Throughout the album, the duo display an impressive and highly effective dynamic range, demonstrating that purely acoustic music is often the best vehicle for contrast and surprise. Here are two human beings completely in control of both their musical language and their sound. Sometimes the songs deliver very clear emotions – the melancholy power of memory in I’ll Remember For You for example – but elsewhere the melodic and emotional qualities of the music are a little more opaque and need some unpicking. This is not a bad thing – this is music that places demands on the listener but which amply rewards careful attention.


14) Alice Zawadzki - China Lane (Whirlwind)
2014 has been a particularly rich year for female jazz vocalists, and Alice Zawadzki’s entrancing debut may be the best of an exciting bunch (although Lauren Kinsella’s crucial contributions to the albums from Blue Eyed Hawk and Chaos Orchestra should not go unmentioned). Zawadzki has assembled something of a musical dream team here, with the always excellent Kit Downes on Hammond Organ, Jon Scott (Kairos 4tet, Monocled Man) on drums, Andreas Lang on bass and one of London contemporary music’s most innovative and impressive talents Alex Roth on guitar. The result is an outstanding ensemble that plays with feeling and empathy, both supporting and enhancing Zawadski’s unusual songs with richly imagined sound worlds and a wide range of textures. There are explorations of Sephardic traditions alongside powerful psychological storytelling.

China Lane will inevitably be marketed as a jazz album, but the mindset here is so far away from being niche or alienating. Whilst musicians will find plenty of subtleties and nuances to explore, including some fluid improvising and graceful ensemble playing, there is also plenty here for those who might enjoy Björk, Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Joanna Newsom. Unusually for a contemporary jazz album, this music was written and recorded over a long period (five years), and it is characterised by a high degree of thought and care. This is inclusive music that deserves to be heard.


13) Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (Warp)
Nothing less than a musical imagining of the afterlife, You’re Dead! comes with a psychedelic sense of adventure (Ellison clearly views death as a new beginning rather than an end) and, as its title perhaps suggests, a palpable sense of the absurd and the surreal. There is something very original in Ellison’s bewildering synthesis, a musical grab bag that often appears to have unlimited horizons. Importantly, Ellison has also balanced his wayward digressions and compelling sound worlds with a greater attention to harmony and melody. There are some compelling vertical arrangements, not least for voices, an area explored in much greater depth here than Ellison has attempted before.


12) Robert Plant - Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch)
Of all his contemporaries in the category of legendary rock elder statesmen, Robert Plant may have been the most restless. Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar finds Plant accompanied by a new configuration of his Strange Sensation ensemble, now rebranded as the Sensational Space Shifters. There is a gleefully nomadic approach to this music, which ransacks North and West African music for its rhythms and American folk song for its themes, melodies and bluesy harmony. There is an emphasis on trance-like groove and band interplay that Plant clearly relishes. These outstanding songs, imaginatively and intuitively balanced by clever production, cohere to form a serious work reflecting on landscape, memory, regret and the pull of our roots. It more than earns its somewhat portentous title.


11) Toumani & Sidiki Diabate - Toumani & Sidiki (World Circuit)
There are few more beautiful sounds in the world than Toumani Diabate’s kora - and here that sound is duplicated and enhanced in a series of duets with his son. The result is both opulent and intimate - and one of the best headphones albums in some time. With Toumani’s kora in the left channel and Sidiki’s in the right, it is possible for listeners less familiar with the instrument or indeed the musicians to distinguish the contributions of both father and son. These are performances that favour dialogue and exchange over individual accomplishment, however, and whilst there are moments of sublime virtuosity, the lingering impression is of a close and powerful relationship that resonates strongly through these pieces. What is most fascinating about this music is how the parts fit together. Father and son weave an intricate and fascinatingly detailed web, the various threads coiling around each other with a simultaneous delicacy and resilience. The kora seems to be an instrument tailor made for a duo format, and it is easy to get absorbed in the variety of approaches to playing it, both as an accompanying and lead instrument.

In the face of Mali’s recent troubles, Toumani and Sidiki attempt to paint a more positive view of their country - sometimes celebratory, sometimes sober and reflective. This is a vital album for anyone interested in how musical traditions are disseminated, absorbed and reinvented.


10) Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness Of Dancers (Merge)
MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch’s fifth album as Hiss Golden Messenger, but first for the Merge label, is a work of depth, perceptiveness and charm. There is a nagging sense that Taylor’s masterpiece is still to come, yet with each release (and he is admirably prolific) he seems to be getting closer to it. Lateness Of Dancers needs some time to embed itself in the consciousness. In spite of the portentous nature of some of his spiritual references, it is also humble and unassuming (to the extent of including some introductory guidance speech before the gorgeous Chapter & Verse – “alright, let’s have another go at this”). The conventional instrumentation and song forms might lead some to consider it a conservative work – but its uniquely personal dimensions suggest otherwise. Mahogany Dread and Black Dog Wind, particularly, are among Taylor’s most honest and acute songs. Taylor’s writing combines history with quiet adventure and the feel of his excellent band is appropriately timeless.


09) Lucinda Williams - Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (Highway 20)
Her first album released on her own label, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is somehow both the longest and most focussed work of Lucinda Williams’ career. Although it takes a number of stylistic detours, it is unified by a resounding consistency not just in the quality of the writing, but also the expressiveness of the playing and the richness of the sound. Williams’ songs continue to have a cumulative impact, often through extolling the virtues of repetition and subtle development. Whilst she has always been a limited singer - it is the way she exaggerates those very limitations (a relatively narrow range, her laconic drawl, the cracks and vulnerabilities in her delivery), that make her reading of her own songs (and also the work of others) so powerful. This feels like her deepest and most soulful album to date. 


08) Mica Levi - Under The Skin OST (Rough Trade)
One half of the most extraordinary marriage of sound and image of the decade so far, Mica Levi’s sometimes abrasive, always mysterious soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s film Under The Skin also stands alone as a significant work of modern composition. The music creates a sense of distance and incomprehension, but also a menacing seductiveness too. It constructs and brilliantly sustains its own dreamlike sound world. 

07) Sun Kil Moon - Benji (Caldo Verde)
It’s something of a shame that the actual music Mark Kozelek made in 2014 (a typically prolific year if you also include recent lengthy single The Possum and his album of Christmas carols) threatened to be overshadowed by his somewhat tedious beef with The War On Drugs. Kozelek’s legendary grumpiness, much like Leonard Cohen’s perceived miserablism, is something of a red herring though. His sense of humour is bone dry - but he’s also remarkably attuned to the sad nuances of human experience and memory. Benji catalogues grief and loss, through friends and relatives who have passed, through musings on the Newtown massacre and some oddly nostalgic glimpses of family and growing up. Benji is an excoriating and mesmerising listen, Kozelek threading his narratives through desolate arpeggiated chord changes in a sort-of half spoken, half sung delivery that he continues to make very much his own. It veers from the uncomfortably lurid (Dogs), to the borderline mawkish (I Love My Dad), with plenty of bold narrative risks and surprises in between. At times it feels so exposed and extreme that it’s hard to see where Kozelek might take this songwriting approach next.

Read my review of Benji here:

06) Ian William Craig - A Turn Of Breath (Recital)
Ian William Craig is a trained opera singer from Vancouver, although his own recordings veer far away from that particular musical tradition in favour of a fertile hinterland between the plausible influences of John Tavener and Christian Fennesz. A stereotypical view of an opera singer might be of an imposing presence both physically and musically, but what is most affecting about A Turn Of Breath is the way Craig’s voice is subsumed within his overall sound collage. His voice proves flexible and multifaceted, sometimes offering vulnerable human emotion and at other times providing more textural sensations. The quasi-choral sound of many of the voice here might lead to speculation about some sort of devotional or spiritual element – and there is certainly something about the music that sounds purposefully isolated, perhaps even monastic.What is more clear is the purposeful contrast between the warmth in Craig’s layered vocals and the frostiness of his tape manipulations. The album sometimes feels like a staged battle between turbulence and light - ultimately an exploration of the transcendent possibilities of the voice. 


05) Blue Eyed Hawk - Under The Moon (Edition)
Given that even the jazz world has now fallen under the spell of the marketable debut album, it feels like a risk to suggest that Blue Eyed Hawk’s first album genuinely feels like a fully formed work. It feels carefully mapped out, whilst drawing on a range of sources both musical and literary. Utilising  some of the London improvised music scene’s brightest young talent (trumpeter Laura Jurd, vocalist Lauren Kinsella, guitarist Alex Roth and drummer Corrie Dick), this is an ensemble striving successfully for an independent voice free from genre constraints. Whilst improvisation is in abundance, it is woven more intimately within the lattice of these often haunting, sometimes turbulent songs.

Whether improvising longingly around the text for WB Yeats’ O Do Not Love So Long or developing themes around original lyrics, there is a consistent sense of real respect for songcraft. Melodies seem to be drawn from the sense of the words, and much of the improvisation is strongly connected with melodies and themes. The lack of a bass player (although synth bass lines sometimes seep in where needed) makes the band relatively unusual in both conventional rock and jazz set ups, and it seems to afford the music a strong sense of space, leaving room for textural experimentation as well as melodic development. There is great fun to be had in listening out for the small details and nuances that really make this music resonate. In sum, Under The Moon is one of the most thoughtful and imaginative albums of the year.


04) D'Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah (RCA)
So here’s a good argument for not doing an albums of the year list until the festive period. Despite the fifteen years of waiting, Black Messiah sounds like a natural product of D’Angelo’s artistic evolution. It may not sound quite as if he slaved over it for every day of that gestation period, but it does sound meticulous, every detail clearly considered - with beautifully placed soft focus horns, brilliantly executed vocal harmonies and that unique approach to groove that these musicians pretty much pioneered. It starts with the stranger, radical psychedelic soul, warped phrasing and delivery that veers between the ecstatic and the anguished. Possible reference points abound - especially Sly & The Family Stone, Prince, Funkadelic and Norman Whitfield. But D’Angelo is contributing something of his own here - a decidedly contemporary take on black music. The album, and its release method, make a strong case for the album as an experience. The credit includes the band, a recognition of D’Angelo’s enduring relationship with these musicians (Questlove, Pino Palladino and Roy Hargrove particularly) and their crucial contribution to his sound. Also, after all of his well documented personal issues, it is immensely pleasing to see D’Angelo back making music again.

03) Tyshawn Sorey - Alloy (Pi)
02) Dan Weiss - Fourteen (Pi) 
The wildly dexterous drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s third album as composer and leader is the year’s most radical, bold and well realised recording, a challenging and serious work integrating nuanced composition with spontaneous improvisation. The compositional approach mostly contrasts with the frantic nature of Sorey’s drumming, although it does share with it a resounding precision and accuracy. With pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, Sorey has essentially formed a drummer-helmed piano trio, although it is so far distanced from the established conventions of that ensemble. One of the best integrations of contemporary composition and improvisation in recent years, Alloy’s long compositions achieve the paradoxical virtue of sounding at once meticulously designed and entirely liberated.

Fourteen is another major compositional work from an exceptionally skilled and musical drummer-bandleader. It shares with Alloy a broad scope and vaulting ambition. Weiss continues to mine the language of Indian classical percussion, applying it in a highly individual manner to the drum kit - but here he also explores arrangement, contrasts, extremes and tensions to dazzling effect. With fourteen musicians, including harp and organ, Weiss’ chosen ensemble is defiantly unconventional, and he makes resourceful use of its particular possibilities in texture and timbre. It feels like a journey - one that requires some mental effort and endurance, but one which also rewards in audacious  musical inquiry and exploration. 

01) Kasai Allstars - Beware The Fetish (Crammed Discs)
Beware The Fetish is the second album from the 15-strong musical collective (joined here by an additional 24 guests) known as Kasai Allstars and it may well represent the apotheosis of Crammed Discs’ Congotronics enterprise. At two discs and over 100 minutes, it is an admirably risky and uncompromising release. It bravely goes against the grain of playlist culture, with the sleevenotes dictating that the music demands ‘total immersion’ and that it should not be consumed as ‘background music’.

Vincent Kenis’ production is remarkable for its clarity and distance. His recording style is sonic documentary – capturing the band as they sound without adding needless flourishes or tricks. Yet this is not to say that the music is without detail. In fact, it is the tiny nuances that make it such a compelling experience – the foregrounding and then backgrounding of vocals, the repetitive guitar parts that often underpin the groove (Mopero Mupemba may be the group’s defining musician) whilst percussive lines intertwine, overlay and sometimes subsume them. Guitar lines cascade and tumble, and melodies and curiously dissonant harmonies often break through.

It’s refreshing to find an album this breathtakingly confident and uncompromising that has also achieved some degree of recognition outside the ‘world’ music niche.