Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Albums Of The Decade

Here are 50 albums from the 2010s that continue to have importance and resonance for me (one per artist):

Zomby - Dedication (2011)
Jam City - Dream A Garden (2016)
Ian William Craig - A Turn Of Breath (2014)
Four Tet - There Is Love In You (2010)
The Knife - Shaking The Habitual (2013)
Iris DeMent - The Trackless Woods (2015)
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)
Hildur Gudnadottir - Leyfdu Ljosinu (2012)
Marius Neset - Birds (2013)
Rustin Man - Drift Code (2019)
Bill Callahan - Dream River (2013)
Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (2011)
Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (2011)
Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (2016)
Laura Cannell - Simultaneous Flight Movement (2016)
Matthew Herbert - One One/One Club/One Pig (2010-11)
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager (2014)
Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee (2015)
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko (2013)
Bob Dylan - Tempest (2012)
Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises (2010)
Anton Hunter - Article XI (2018)
Anais Mitchell - Hadestown (2010)
Bill Frisell - Big Sur (2013)
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Clang Sayne - Winterlands (2010)
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (2015)
Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society - Simultonality (2017)
Paul Buchanan - Mid Air (2012)
Radiohead - The King Of Limbs (2011)
Bjork - Vulnicura (2015)
Richard Skelton - Landings (2010)
Tim Whitehead - Colour Beginnings (2010)
Dan Weiss - Starebaby (2018)
Blue Eyed Hawk - Under The Moon (2015)
Charles Lloyd Quartet - Mirror (2010)
75 Dollar Bill - I Was Real (2019)
Shackleton - Music From The Quiet Hour (2012)
Kasai Allstars - Beware The Fetish (2014)
Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The More I Fight, The More I Fight, The More I Love You (2013)
Low - Double Negative (2018)
Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude (2017)
Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (2010)
D'Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah (2014)
Wayne Shorter - Without A Net (2013)
David Bowie - Blackstar (2015)
Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me (2010)
Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (2011)
Maria Schneider - The Thompson Fields (2015)
Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers (2012)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

2019 In Review Part 3: New Music Shortlist - The 50 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2019

50) Damon Locks and Black Monument Ensemble - Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem)

Sprawling and significant work from a sound collagist that began with compiling audio from civil rights speeches and ended up incorporating choirs, dancers and improvising musicians (including Angel Bat Dawid on clarinets).

49) Alasdair Roberts - The Fiery Margin (Drag City)

A clear and mercilessly concise album, rich in space and timbre, that feels like Roberts' most confident and mature work.

48) Jefre Cantu-Ledesma - Tracing Back The Radiance (Kamadu)

Absorbing and healing electro-acoustic ambience where every slight rustle or movement has an impact.

47) Hiss Golden Messenger - Terms Of Surrender (Merge)

Perhaps because it is mostly subtle and slow burning, it felt a little as if this latest instalment in MC Taylor's commendably prolific output was somewhat overlooked this year. It's a genuinely excellent record though - filled with characteristic symbolism, imagery and insight.

46) Wadada Leo Smith - Rosa Parks: Pure Love (Tum)

'An oratorio of seven songs', this is another intense and committed piece of socio-political artistry from the great trumpeter, improviser and composer, whose late career seems to have produced some of his best work.

45) Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I Have Made A Place (Domino)

Will Oldham's first album of original songs in quite a while is richly arranged and rousing.

44) Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - Miri (OutHere)

A calmer and deeply personal work from the great Malian Ngoni player and his tremendous band, still making vital, passionate music.

43) Alex Rex - Otterburn (Tin Angel)

The in demand drummer and Trembling Bells member Alex Neilsen's artistic response to the tragic and unexpected loss of his brother is one of the year's most moving and coherent statements. Drawing from Fairport Convention, Dylan, Will Oldham and rockabilly, but held together by Neilsen's gracefully wayward vocal, it's an absorbing and unusual set of songs. Why has it not appeared in more lists?

42) Jamila Woods - LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar)

A great aquatic, submersive soul sound and detailed, sometimes strident songs named after black or brown cultural icons.

41) Bill Orcutt - Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)

After investing some time in deconstructing the Great American Songbook in often fearless and radical ways, it seems jarring to refer to Bill Orcutt's return to original composition as his most accessible work - but this may just be what it is. There are hints of Bill Frisell here in Orcutt's current emphasis on folk tinged melody although there is more typically searing and abrasive improvisation and an interest in the wide sonic possibilities of the guitar.

40) Chris Forsyth - All Time Present (No Quarter)

Although nominally a Chris Forsyth solo album rather than a Solar Motel Band work, All Time Present still (mostly) has a strong, glimmering and often euphoric ensemble sound.

39) Hildur Gudnadottir - Chernobyl OST (HBO/Touch Music)/Joker OST (Warners)

Two of the most striking and powerful soundtrack releases in a great year for film music composition. Chernobyl has an appropriate dark abrasiveness and Joker has a building tension.

38) Chris Lightcap - Superbigmouth (Pyroclastic)

A line-up combining two recent Chris Lightcap ensembles - Superette (which released an album last year that somehow sadly passed me by - I'll go back to it now) and Bigmouth. The music is propulsive, melodically engaging and highly interactive.

37) Wilco - Ode To Joy (dBpm)

Like most of Wilco's more recent output, Ode To Joy is a subtle and slow building work, but it is also one that better fuses Jeff Tweedy's current preoccupations with calm and space with the band's justly renowned intensity as a live act. There is an admirable quiet force at work here that rewards close attention.

36) Helm - Chemical Flowers (PAN)

Perhaps the most playful and richly textured electronic album of the year, and certainly one of the most stimulating.

35) Jonny Mansfield - Elftet (Edition)

The Kenny Wheeler prize-winning vibraphonist and composer has assembled an A team larger small ensemble, producing a hugely ambitious set of music that is at turns thrilling and moving.

34) Dave Harrington Group - Pure Imagination, No Country (Yeggs)

Perhaps still best known for Darkside, his collaborative project with Nicolas Jaar, guitarist Dave Harrington has produced one of the best sounding albums of 2019, a music full of mystery and awe, melding jazz approaches with electronic, progressive rock and dance music influences.

33) Elkhorn - Sun Cycle/Elk Jam (Feeding Tube)

Two luminous albums of reverential guitar-duelling improvisation from the duo expanded to a quartet (with Willie Lane and Ryan Jewell guesting).

32) Deafkids - Metaprogramacao (Neurot Recordings)

An apocalyptic concoction of percussive rhythm and enclosing noise from the distinctive Brazilian band.

31) Sarathy Korwar - More Arriving (The Leaf Label)

An important work for these polarised and divided times, fusing genres and cultures, incorporating contributors to the rap scenes of Mumbai and New Delhi and capturing the life experience of its creator. It is rhythmically compelling throughout.

30) Richard Skelton - Border Ballads (Aeolian)

A rich and coherent work of contemporary instrumental music clearly rooted in the geography and environment of the Scotland-England border.

29) Our Native Daughters - Songs Of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways)

This excellent set, reclaiming early minstrelsy and engaging with black American cultural history, is my favourite of the great Rhiannon Giddens' two collaborative projects this year.

28) Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains (Drag City)

If David Berman's return to music after 12 years initially felt like a darkly witty acceptance and confrontation of his personal demons, it's now sadly impossible to separate this striking encapsulation of his painful insight from his tragic death earlier this year. Given time, we will hopefully be able to accept Purple Mountains as one his most immediate and melodically glistening works.

27) Big Thief - U.F.O.F. (4AD)

Already a growing success story with an impressively dedicated audience, it felt like Big Thief really hit their stride in 2019. Largely moving away from the more conventional country tinged rock of their previous albums, UFOF hit on a more ethereal and subliminal soundworld (and felt appropriately at home on the 4AD label). Their second album of the year, Two Hands, is also well worth investigating, not least for its occasional burst of excoriating guitar improvisation, but UFOF has the edge for its more unusual and unexpected experiments, everything still coalescing around Adrienne Lenker's malleable vocal delivery.

26) Padang Food Tigers - Wake Up Mr. Pancake (Blue Hole Recordings)

If many of these albums have a strong sense of adventure or are rooted in particular geographical location, Padang Food Tigers' excellent fourth album conjures a sense of home, family and roots with an intoxicating combination of warmth and melancholy. The music is minimal and spacious but beautiful - an experimental remodelling of country and folk music. 

25) Nate Wooley - Columbia Icefield (Northern Spy)

An album of some timely significance for me personally, as the undoubted highlight of my 2019 was a trip to the Canadian Rockies, including a visit to the Columbia Icefield that inspired this unusual, densely structured, imposing and inspiring music.

24) Underworld - DRIFT Series 1 (Smith Hyde Productions)

Underworld's ambitious pledge to release new music every Thursday for a year initially looked like grand folly, but the results together constitute one of the major artistic achievements of recent years. They also serve as a useful reminder of Underworld's core qualities, still very much present and correct even as they seem to operate a slightly more low key space in the electronic music world. Perhaps the key highlight was the collaboration with The Necks. It is, however, undoubtedly a challenge to digest it all!

23) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ghosteen (Mute)

A unified suite of music, mostly eschewing rhythmic propulsion, and instead exploring mood and texture through the use of keyboards and synthesisers, with Cave's impassioned and moving vocals at the forefront.

22) Kris Davis - Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic)

Assembling an impressively diverse roster of improvising musicians (Nels Cline! Esperanza Spalding! Terri Lyne Carrington! Marc Ribot!), pianist and composer Kris Davis has concocted a selection of music that is at once both cerebral and visceral.

21) Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich - A Tangle Of Stars (New Amsterdam)

This duo album brings together two excellent guitarists from different worlds for the first time. Iimprovised music specialist Mary Halvorson, whose 'Code Girl' album featured highly in my list last year, and Deerhoof's John Dieterich seem to combine together with agility. The playing is often acute and attacking, and the resulting music is fearless and thrilling.

20) Brittany Howard - Jaime (Sony)

Striking out on her own, one senses that Alabama Shakes' 'Sound and Colour' awakened a greater sense of purpose and musical identity in Brittany Howard. The remarkable 'Jaime' leaves any vestige of a classic rock sound behind, instead opting to draw deeply from soul, funk, gospel and psychedelia but place these influences firmly in a contemporary setting. Howard's impressive range of vocal approaches imbues each of these songs with its own distinct character. 

19) Holly Herndon - PROTO (4AD)

Created with Spawn, an AI machine, but sounding palpably human (to the extent of refashioning folk singing approaches), Herndon continues to ask vital questions about our relationship with technology, and the ethical questions surrounding technological progress.

18) Mark Lockheart - Days On Earth (Edition)

Mark Lockheart's music for jazz sextet and full orchestra here is dynamic, multi-faceted and often celebratory. Lockheart has been involved in some of the key ensembles in British jazz (Loose Tubes and Polar Bear), and is having a particularly strong run in his own projects. In his own words, "music is connected to life, love and joy" and much of this album is richly joyful.

17) Eli Winter - The Time To Come (Blue Hole Recordings)

Strikingly beautiful set of solo guitar music, with an aura of natural sounding reverb and a strong sense of contemplation.

16) Art Ensemble Of Chicago - We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi Recordings)

Tenacious surviving members Roscoe Mitchell and Famadou Don Moye have recruited an impressive new generation ensemble (including Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother) to celebrate the potent and radical legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago over 50 years, and to establish new territory to explore, both live and in the studio. 

15) Solange - When I Get Home (RCA)

An album that feels even stranger and more purposefully warped and refracted than Solange's previous high watermark A Seat At The Table - she remains one of the most singular and inventive artists in modern R&B, and judicious in her choice of collaborators too.

14) Slauson Malone - A Quiet Farewell 2016-18 (Grand Closing)

A fascinating sound collage, encompassing jazz, electronica and hip-hop, from Jasper Marsalis (yes, *that* Marsalis dynasty). A ceaselessly absorbing, disorientating and mysterous achievement.

13) Liam Noble - The Long Game (Edition)

Liam Noble remains one of the most thoughtful and idiosyncratic jazz composers and improvisers in UK Jazz. Working here with Seb Rochford and Tom Herbert (the indomitable rhythm section from Polar Bear), the contemporary trio setting has opened up new musical spaces for Noble to explore (not least with more use of electric keyboards). The Long Game, exploring waiting for the right moment, extemporises on clear concepts, develops deeper grooves and frequently finds a sense of freedom in patient reflection. Alongside the great Romance Among The Fishes, it's one of Noble's finest albums to date.

12) Chris Brokaw - End Of The Night (tak:til)

Outstanding album of guitar-focused instrumental music from the former key member of Codeine and Come.These pieces have a thoughtful and melancholy quality to them, and the mood is languorous and considered.

11) Sarah Louise - Nightime Birds and Morning Stars (Thrill Jockey)

One half of the House and Land duo veers out at a compelling tangent, adding layers of electric guitar and sonic textures to her poignant delivery of Appalachian folk melodies to create a distinctive and otherworldly suite of music.

10) Jake Xerxes Fussell - Out Of Sight (Paradise Of Bachelors)

Jake Xerxes Fussell's regeneration of traditional American folksong reached new elevated heights on this outstanding album, as defined by the nuanced quality of its musicianship as by his communication of the material. It's an often lightly groovy and nimble work, steeped in a rustic, timeless atmosphere.

9) Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)

Matana Roberts' ongoing Coin Coin suite (the proposed whole is 12 parts, perhaps slightly more realistic than Sufjan Stevens' long aborted 50 States project) continues to produce searing political statements and overwhelming music, all while experimenting with a range of approaches to composition through improvisation. This installment also has a strong spiritual and storytelling element, contributing plenty of evocative personal memory, and there is a clear sense of the project developing with each separate release.

8) Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society - Mandatory Reality (Eremite)

With Abrams' music now focused on an eight piece incarnation of Natural Information Society (with guests including Hamid Drake and Ben LaMar Gay), Mandatory Reality focused on qualities of patience, slowness and focus. Abrams' music here is satisfyingly compelling and mesmeric, and with his own guimbri still at the forefront, it really sounds like little else out there.

 7) Joan Shelley - Like The River Loves The Sea (No Quarter)

There remains something beautifully insidious about Joan Shelley's spare style of songwriting and the pure clarity of her vocal delivery. Even with guests including Will Oldham, there are no extraneous elements in the arrangements and everything seems delivered in service to the song itself. These songs often take a while to implant themselves in the consciousness of the listener, but once there, it is hard to shake their sense of beauty and grace. 'The Fading', in particular, was a song I returned to frequently in the closing stages of the year, and it has provided me with great solace and reassurance. 

6) Alice Zawadazki - Within You Is A World Of Spring (Whirlwind)

Singer, songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki is one of the sharpest talents currently at work in UK jazz, her music heavily featuring improvisation and drawing from jazz harmony, but also incorporating a range of specific folk music (particularly from Eastern Europe) and a melodic sensibility that imbues her music with features common to the work of Björk, Joni Mitchell or Joanna Newsom. The music on Within You Is A World Of Spring is meticulously crafted, using the resources of the recording studio to excellent effect, but also achieves an emotional transcendence (particularly on two wonderful songs Keeper and God's Children). This is a clear development from Zawadzki's already excellent debut China Lane.

5) Vampire Weekend - Father Of The Bride (Columbia)

 An album seemingly misunderstood by some critics this year - it's not actually all that long, and nowhere near as unwieldy and wayward as some suggested. In actual fact, Father Of The Bride demonstrated clearly that much of Vampire Weekend's melodic invention and quirky arrangements came from Ezra Koenig, and they were not so reliant on the presence of Rostam Batmanglij as many envisioned. Father Of The Bride beams with inventive wordplay, and incisive melody, with a gleeful ransacking of an even wider range of musical genres and influences, resulting in a knowing and imaginative synthesis. It's also tremendous fun, a quality that should not be underestimated.  

4) Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars/Western Stars - Songs From The Film (Columbia)

I remain completely obsessive about Springsteen as a songwriter and a live performer but, abandoning a fan's perspective and being completely honest, Western Stars is the first project of his I can get behind more or less unreservedly in quite some time. I'm sure the Broadway show proved a moving experience for the few lucky enough to be there, but it also abandoned the careful universalism of his songs in favour of a focus on his own life, with an occasionally hokey tone to the spoken word segments. High Hopes worked well enough as a gathering of odds and ends (and it was great to hear the band recording more or less together in the studio again) but it should not have been marketed as a cohesive album. Wrecking Ball produced an E Street Band tour to rank alongside the very best but the production on the album was often cluttered and gimmicky. On Western Stars, only There Goes My Miracle really falls victim to Springsteen's recent tendency to leave his producers (in this case the loyal Ron Aniello) to do whatever they want (and I include the live film soundtrack alongside the studio version here because I greatly prefer the live treatment of this song, which allows the lead vocal and the arrangement to breathe). Western Stars had been known about for so long (sometimes dubbed the country project or the Copeland project) that it had become doubtful that it would ever appear. That, in the end, it is no disappointment, is perhaps a vindication of Springsteen's tireless revision of its contents. It did deliver the rich, sweeping arrangements that were long promised (with strings and horns characterising the sound as much as steel guitar), and also songs rich once again in character and pointed, poignant observation. It also contained Springsteen's strongest and most varied vocal performances in the studio for some time (listen to the much more ragged takes from Working On A Dream alongside this and marvel that they were most likely actually recorded quite close together). Springsteen loves the freedom and space of the American West, but also carefully uses this geography as a microcosm for his lifelong exploration of the 'distance between American dream and American reality' and the occasional conflict between collective values and individual freedom.

3) David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith - Son Of Goldfinger (ECM)

A brilliant combination of musicians - and one of the year's wildest and most unclassifiable works in the field of improvised music. I am often drawn to the occasional works that appear on ECM but largely reject the standard ECM sound (David Torn's own Prezens would be another great example of this). The lengthy pieces veer between an ecstatic turbulence and more meditative qualities, exploring sharp contrasts in an acute and impressive way. The strong interaction between the musicians is palpable throughout.   

2) Rustin Man - Drift Code (Domino)

Former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb's first solo album proper (arriving some seventeen years after his excellent duo recording with Portishead's Beth Gibbons) emerged in early February and has struck a chord with me throughout the year. Partially it is down to Webb's purposefully fragile vocals resembling Robert Wyatt somewhat, but perhaps there is also something in its gently adventurous take on folk songcraft that speaks to the current turbulent condition of England, but which also offers something warming and optimistic. 

1) 75 Dollar Bill - I Was Real (tak:til)

Deploying a flexible and often expanded line-up, 'I Was Real' served as both a summation of 75 Dollar Bill's enthralling, mesmeric modus operandi and a clear development of their craft. Now exploring sound and texture as much as cyclical motifs and unusual rhythmic metre, Che Chen and Rick Brown have produced an innovative, intense and assertive sound world that is entirely their own. The results are also not in any way academic and their work often has a physical impact, but it's also good to experience music in this fast and over-saturated age that really does demand patience and attention to detail.