Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 Albums: Half Time Report

I don't normally do this - but, then again, why not? Here are the albums I feel are worth hearing from the first half of 2014. Please note they are not ranked yet.

Actress - Ghettoville (Ninja Tune)
Afghan Whigs - Do To The Beast (Sub Pop)
Alexander Hawkins - Song Singular (Babel)
Alexander Hawkins Ensemble - Step Wide, Step Deep (Babel)
Alexis Taylor - Await Barbarians (Domino)
Alice Zawadzki - China Lane (Whirlwind)
Ambrose Akinmusire - The Imagined Savious Is Far Easier To Paint (Blue Note)
Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Ben Frost - Aurora (Mute)
Bobby Avey - Authority Melts From Me (Whirlwind)
Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana - Mehliana: Taming The Dragon (Nonesuch)
Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes (Columbia)
Chaos Orchestra - Island Mentality (Chaos Collective)
Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio - Big Ship (Basho)
Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots (XL)
Dan Weiss - Fourteen (Pi Recordings)
Doug Paisley - Strong Feelings (No Quarter)
Drive By Truckers - English Oceans (ATO)
Dylan Howe - Subterranean - New Designs On Bowie's Berlin (Bandcamp/Motorik)
East India Youth - Total Strife Forever (Stolen Recordings)
Elliot Galvin Trio - Dreamland (Chaos Collective)
Emilia Martensson - Ana (Babel)
Fatima Al Qadiri - Asiatech (Hyperdub)
Fennesz - Becs (Editions Mego)
Gruff Rhys - American Interior (Caroline International)
Gwilym Simcock - Instrumation (ACT)
Gwilym Simcock & Yuri Goloubev - Reverie at Schloss Elmau (ACT)
Hidden Cameras - AGE (Evil Evil)
Hurray For The Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes (ATO)
Ibibio Sound Machine - Ibibio Sound Machine (Soundway)
Jack White - Lazaretto (XL)
JC Sanford Orchestra - View From The Inside (Whirlwind)
Jeff Ballard Trio - Time's Tales (Okeh)
Joel Harris & Anupam Shobhakar - Multiplicity (Whirlwind)
Kasai Allstars - Beware The Fetish (Crammed Discs)
Kelis - Food (Ninja Tune)
Kevin Drew - Darlings (City Slang)
Led Bib - The People In Your Neighbourhood (Cuneiform)
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires - Deconstructed (Sub Pop)
Lee Fields & The Expressions - Emma Jean (Soul and Truth)
Let Spin - Let Spin (Efpi)
Linda Perhacs - The Soul Of All Natural Things (Asthmatic Kitty)
Luke Abbott - Wysing Forest (Border Community)
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else (Bloodshot)
Marissa Nadler - July (Bella Union)
Marius Neset/Trondheim Jazz Orchestra - Lion (ACT)
Mark McGuire - Along The Way (Dead Oceans)
Matthew Halsall's Gondwana Orchestra - When The World Was One (Gondwana)
Me'shell Ndegeocello - Comet Come To Me (Naive)
Michael Wollny Trio - Welltentraum (ACT)
Mogwai - Rave Tapes (Rock Action)
Monocled Man - Southern Drawl (Whirlwind)
Morgan Delt - Morgan Delt (IMPORT)
Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights (Lester Records)
Neil Young - A Letter Home (Third Man)
Neneh Cherry - Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Nick Malcolm Quartet - Beyond These Voices (Green Eyes)
Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing, Glauco Venier - Dance Without Answer (ECM)
Normal Gimbel - I Like You Bite You (Efpi)
Noura Mint Seymali - Tzenni (Glitterbeat)
Owen Pallett - In Conflict (Domino)
Pat Metheny - Kin <--> (Nonesuch)
Perc - The Power and the Glory (Perc Trax)
Peter Edwards Trio - Safe and Sound (Edwards Music Productions)
Phronesis - Life To Everything (Edition)
Pigfoot - 21st Century Acid Trad (Village Life)
Plaid - Reachy Prints (Warp)
Plastikman - Ex (Mute/Minus)
Polar Bear - In Each and Every One (Leaf)
Pye Corner Audio - Black Mill Tapes Vols 1-4 (Type)
Real Estate - Atlas (Domino)
Robert Ellis - The Light From The Chemical Plant (New West)
Roddy Frame - Seven Dials (AED)
Ryley Walker - All Kinds of You (Tompkins Square)
School of Language - Old Fears (Memphis Industries)
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - American Adventure (Spartacus)
Silence Blossoms - Silence Blossoms (Efpi)
Snarky Puppy - We Like It Here (Ropeadope)
St Vincent - St Vincent (Caroline International)
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Wig Out At Jagbags (Domino)
Steve Lehman Octet - Mise En Abime (Pi Recordings)
Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (Loose)
Sun Kil Moon - Benji (Caldo Verde)
The Notwist - Close To The Glass (City Slang)
The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)
The Woodentops - Granular Tales (Cherry Red)
Tim Garland - Songs To The North Sky (Edition)
Tinariwen - Emaar (Wedge)
Tori Freestone - In The Chop House (Whirlwind)
Toumani Diabate & Sidiki Diabate - Toumani & Sidiki (World Circuit)
Traxman - Da Mind Of Traxman, Vol. 2 (Hyperdub)
Trio Riot - Trio Riot (Efpi)
Tune-Yards - Nikki Nack (4AD)
Vermont - Vermont (Kompakt)
Vijay Iyer - Mutations (ECM)
Wild Beasts - Present Tense (Domino)
Withered Hand - New Gods (Fortuna Pop)
Wooden Wand - Farmer's Corner (Fire)
Zara McFarlane - If You Knew Her (Brownswood Recordings)


Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 In Albums

This year, I've simply decided to avoid editing altogether and just list pretty much all the albums that I've enjoyed this year. When trying to edit down my long list, I found I had a relatively clear picture of what the top, say 75, albums of 2013 had been, but I was much less clear about what to include and what to omit in the lower reaches. I could easily have constructed several different top 100s and been both happy and dissatisfied with them every time. Shirking the responsibility of editing has afforded me an opportunity to highlight some excellent albums that I just haven't found the time to write about earlier in the year. For better or for worse, Spotify and ridiculously cheap download services (64p for The Necks' Open on emusic!) have made it much easier to digest a vast wealth of music - and I'm still fortunate enough to be sent a lot of material, particularly contemporary UK jazz.

I have to declare an interest for the albums marked * in that I helped to promote them, in exchange for a modest portion of my income. That being said,  I'm fortunate enough to only be working on projects where I enjoy and respect the music. Indeed, all three artists have featured in my lists in previous years, well before I started working with them.

There's a rough ascending order in place here, but it's inevitably fairly arbitrary in places.

And yes, I know that in spite of listing this many albums,  I've still missed the Nick Cave album. I struggled with it.




170) Splashgirl - Field Day Rituals (Hubro) 
        Oddarrang - In Cinema (Edition)


Here are two similar-sounding albums that will inevitably fall into the tedious, endlessly debated 'but is this jazz?' category. Norwegian piano trio Splashgirl are far removed from the conventions of the piano trio format - there's little detectable Bill Evans influence here and the band prefer to focus on colour, texture and mood rather than interaction. Field Day Rituals can either drift by pleasantly or, given focus and patience, it emerges as something a little disquieting. In All The Vowels Missing, there is also one moment of resonant and haunting beauty.

Finnish five piece Oddarrang play with the dynamics and sometimes bludgeoning intensity of an indie-rock ensemble, often resembling Sigur Ros or Godspeed You! Black Emperor more than any of their European contemporary jazz peers. What distinguishes them from arena-chasing post-rock or indie bands is the strong sense of narrative and adventure within the music, and a close attention to detail, particularly with regard to timbre and sound. There is promise here, although it would be great to also hear them attempt something with more urgency on their next recording.

Read my full review of Oddarrang's In Cinema here


169) Dawn Richard - Goldenheart (Our Dawn)

This is probably the most commercial sounding album in my round-up, and certainly the one with the most deployment of autotune. Dawn Richard and her producer and writer Andrew 'Druski' Scott use this to create a sound rather than imperfections - and Richard comes across as an almost machine-like presence here, some sort of R&B fighting machine (and indeed, the theme throughout this record is very much fighting some sort of cosmic or emotional battle - she's always 'ready for war'). At its best, this is shimmering and splendid, highly processed pop music that slays everything in its path - but at 63 minutes it does become trying, and it's near impossible to digest in one sitting.

168) Matt Ridley Trio - Thymos (Whirlwind)
This is the in-demand bass player's first album as leader, and it is a confident and exploratory set. There's an admirably diverse approach that sees the core trio occasionally augmented with the great Jason Yarde on saxophone and Vasilis Sirkis on percussion. There's considerable range and depth in the opening piece (Siamese Twins) alone, which veers from a slow burgeoning freely improvised beginning to an agile and lightly active groove. Theme and Variation manages to disguise its tricky time signature changes with a delightfully singable melody and a fleet footed folk-dance quality. It also showcases Ridley's own strongly melodic approach to improvisation on the bass, with his very clear quality of sound in the upper register of the instrument.

167) Egyptrixx - A/B Til Infinity (Night Slugs)

For all its many qualities, Egyptrixx's 2011 album Bible Eyes did feel like a collection of tracks more than an album as such. With A/B Til Infinity, Toronto-based producer David Psutka has made a long form work with a narrative structure. It's nervy and menacing in style - much more of a listening record than a club record, characterised by noise and sound (sirens and rain especially) as much as by its recurring scalar and arpeggiated motifs.


166) Kurt Vile - Wakin' On A Pretty Daze (Matador)
        Cass McCombs - Big Wheel and Others  (Domino)


Kurt Vile's breezy slacker pop is finally starting to make sense to me after numerous attempts. Vile shares a reputation for laconic idleness with Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, although his shimmering, often soothing music here lacks that band's penchant for explosive guitar interjections (Vile's solos unfold at their own pace and tend to fold inside the music). The songs on Wakin' On  A Pretty Daze share ruminations on the demands of the musician lifestyle with those on Among The Leaves, last year's exceptionally dry Mark Kozelek album.

Cass McCombs is a songwriter with some superficial similarities to Vile, but his prolific work remains considerably underrated. He released two excellent albums in 2011 (Humor Risk and Wit's End) and this year, he unleashed an epic double album. His songs are often languid and unassuming, sometimes even defiantly static - and they can take a while to worm their way under the skin. Big Wheel, however, is his 'wild west' album - encapsulating an unrestricted, uncompromising and violent world dominated by mythology and individual moral codes. It seems appropriate that it is so sprawling and unwieldy a statement.

165) Arctic Monkeys - AM (Domino)

I'm not sure if it's simply that I've been using a lot of their material in teaching my drum students this year (hits! breaks! fills! content! from an indie-rock band!), but I seem to be belatedly coming round to Arctic Monkeys. Alex Turner remains an engaging vocal presence (although he's tempered some of the harshness in his voice), but the production here feels much more developed and attuned than their earlier albums (which had a tin shack rawness). Perhaps it's the experience of having worked with Josh Homme that has expanded their sound, but AM seems to have balanced their wit and energy with maturity, authority and subtlety. One downside - a preponderance for very similar slower tempos - initially refreshing, but perhaps ultimately problematic.

164) Olafur Arnalds - For Now I Am Winter (Mercury Classics)

Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds was gently nudged into the popular consciousness this year with his typically glacial soundtrack for ITV's acclaimed drama Broadchurch. His major release, however, was this frosty gem - a little less overwhelming than previous releases perhaps, but still characterised by a disarming simplicity and directness in the writing. Once again, electronics are effectively integrated with the arrangements.

163) Josephine Foster - I'm A Dreamer (Fire)

Josephine Foster's mannered, somewhat theatrical vocalising is not always that ingratiating a sound - but it works partiularly well on this, arguably her most comfortable-sounding album to date. I'm A Dreamer draws on jazz-inflected country in much the same way as Jolie Holland's early solo albums, and it has a similar gentle swing and intoxicating melancholy. Whilst it has all the hallmarks of Nashville Country (brushed snare drum, acoustic bass, pedal steel aplenty), I'm A Dreamer feels considerably more otherworldly and disembodied.

162) Erin McKeown - Manifestra (TVP)


McKeown sounds more comfortable on this self-released album than on its overly-polished but melodically slight predecessor Hundreds Of Lions. Whilst some of the politics sounds a little verbose and vague (especially on the title track), there are also moments of incisive force (the bluesy licks of The Jailor, the horn-laden urgency of The Politician) and more familiar moments of delicate beauty (Proof, among her best and most soulful songs to date). Throughout, the arrangements lack extraneous bluster in order to best preserve a sense of attack and poise, and McKeown's melodic gifts are well attenuated. Live in London early in the year, these songs came across very strongly in solo performance.

161) Stornoway - Tales From Terra Firma (4AD)

Stornoway are often casually dismissed as a second division Mumford & Sons by serious music writers, but this is hugely unfair. Brian Briggs has a delicate, gentle and understated voice that can build to something impassioned and his melodies are warm and ingratiating. Tales From Terra Firma, however, took the band somewhere else - preoccupied with detailed, lavish arrangements, it's a fascinating balance between simple directness and a lust for complexity. It also had a strong narrative motion, with elaborate, wordy songs (with a delightfully English eccentricity) that ebbed and flowed and demanded greater attention than their earlier material.

160) The Flaming Lips - The Terror (Warner)

The Flaming Lips' retraction from the glorious techincolour pop of their commercial and critical peak continues apace. What is particularly interesting about this phase of their career is that they now seeming to be making unpredictable and wayward music with considerably more skill and nuance than in their freaky (largely unlistenable) early days. The Terror is true to its title in that it is unsettling, disquieting but also weirdly groovy in places. It represents the seductive temptation of the dark side.

159) Suede - Bloodsports (Sony)

Well this turned out to be better than it had any right to be - so much better than expected, in fact, that it stands up alongside Coming Up as the best of the post-Bernard Butler formation of Suede. There's plenty of portentous melodrama on display here - the sort of theatricality Suede always did very well before they descended into faux-glam self parody. Returning to work with Ed Buller again has clearly refocused the band, and Buller now seems able to create a more robust, less thin sound than in his 'no bass' days. A genuine and welcome surprise. Where's that new Blur album, then?

158) These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds (Infectious)


One of the year's bravest albums, Field Of Reeds completely separated These New Puritans from the angular British alternative rock scene from which they first emerged. It is an album that demands complete attention and focus from its audience - and, unlike many releases designed for the digital era, it absolutely has to be digested as a whole. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, but a more accurate comparison might be Mark Hollis' even more minimal, gently questing solo album. This certainly feels like an exercise in developing Jack Barnett's burgeoning compositional skills (and it's arguable that it might be too much of an 'exercise' at times - one senses there's a still better album to come). There's a tremendous spaciousness in this music - but also a curious, elusive quality - often as if extraneous sentiments and emotion have been surgically excised. Once yielded to, it's hard to escape this captivating, compelling music.

157) Matt Mitchell - Fiction (Pi)


As a sideman, pianist Matt Mitchell has one of the most impressive CVs on the American scene, having played with Tim Berne's Snakeoil as well as with John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet. This album, a series of duos with drummer Ches Smith, is hugely unconventional, given that it developed from a series of etudes Mitchell developed to help him practise. It's like a freshly cleaned window into the processes and disciplines of a high level improvising musician, and a compelling educative guide through the integration of composition and improvisation. These performances also have an energy and forward motion that comes through very clearly.

156) Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads (Wilderland)

Admirers of Anais Mitchell's two consecutive masterpieces Hadestown and Young Man In America may not have been aware of Mitchell’s enduring love for the folk music of the British Isles, nor perhaps of the extent of the influence of these songs on the American folk tradition (a number were included in Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music). Some have found Mitchell and Harmer's well blended approach too saccharine for this darkest of source material. Whilst there is little of the stormy, turbulent quality a band such as Fairport Convention once brought to Tam Lin (which Mitchell and Hamer tackle with more restraint here), there is a peculiar kind of strength and austerity to be found in the confidence and clarity with which Mitchell and Hamer deliver these long, wordy narratives. The warmth of the production and the cosy intimacy of both the vocal and instrumental blends have a rather hypnotic effect that provides a purposeful contrast with the gravity and torment of the stories themselves. This produces a distinctive and curious tension within the performances.
Read my full review here

155) A Grave With No Name - Whirlpool (Stare)
        Hebronix - Unreal (ATP Recordings)


Previous Grave With No Name albums, whilst always interesting, have tended to be characterised by Alexander Shields' fascination with sound and texture. Whirlpool is where his songwriting comes to the fore. It's still a meticulously crafted, shimmering structure (and the intentionally obfuscating fuzz and distortion is still present in more economical doses) but this time the songs are less-detached (with vocals in the audible foreground rather than subsumed within a sheets of sound mix) and delivered with a liberal coating of honey. It's possible to hear a love for R.E.M. and The Replacements through these concise, well-formed but sonically expansive songs. It's a major evolution for this project.

Shields' good friend Daniel Blumberg has been involved in at least two well publicised musical projects from a very young age (Cajun Dance Party and then Yuck). Neither of these bands made much of an impression on me - but Blumberg's debut with his own project is immersive and compelling. Recorded with former Royal Trux man Neil Hagerty - it veers between the curiously introspective and bright, bold melodies (especially on the glorious Wild Whim). At times gently shambling, at others wilfully stubborn and eccentric, Unreal is dreamy and damaged.

154) Phil Meadows Group - Engines Of Creation (Boom Better)

Just awarded the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award for young musicians, Phil Meadows is currently riding the crest of a wave. This debut recording is impressively assured and also refreshingly concise. Meadows has assembled something of a dream team of young British improvising talent, including Chaos Collective members Laura Jurd (trumpet) and Elliott Galvin (piano and Fender Rhodes), drummer Simon Roth and Conor Chaplin on bass. The music is charcterised by a light and nimble dance-like quality, occasionally interrupted by Meadows' forthright, assertive interjections (most notably on the opening Fin). The contrast between acoustic and electric versions of the ensemble is particularly effective.

153) Hejira - Prayer Before Birth (Accidental)


Hejira are a group of musicians who have been quietly honing their craft for some time now (guitarist Sam Beste has played keyboards for Matthew Herbert and Amy Winehouse, drummer Alexis Nunez has also worked for Herbert as well as being part of the sadly underrated Golden Silvers). With Herbert at the controls, their debut album is as much an exercise in atmosphere and soundscaping as it is in quality songwriting, a sense of mystery and otherworldliness pervading throughout. The group are musical kindred spirits with The Invisible in that regard, although the male-female vocal unison lines help craft a more distinctive character. This is very promising material, often with the confidence to remain understated.


152) Van Dyke Parks - Songs Cycled (Bella Union)

Marketed as Van Dyke Parks' first new solo album in 24 years, Songs Cycled was actually something a little different - a curious collection of reworked older material and collated new material from last year's series of 7" vinyl releases. It all hangs together remarkably well, somehow working as both a retrospective and a fresh statement. This being Van Dyke Parks, it's gloriously eccentric, from its smash and grab raid on various musical cultures to the mirth and playfulness Parks exudes throughout. Parks may still be better known for his collaborations (particularly with Brian Wilson), Songs Cycled demonstrates the full extent of Parks' musical auteurism.

Read my full review here

151) Bruno Heinen Sextet - Tierkreis (Babel)
        John O' Gallagher - The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind)


Here are two fascinating albums by improvising musicians exploring 20th century composition. Given my fairly limited knowledge of the work of Stockhausen and Webern, I may not be all that well placed to discuss this music, although I am fascinated by the manner in which both Bruno Heinen and John O'Gallagher have co-opted and reworked their source material. It feels as if there is a genuine individuality at play in both albums - both easily as much the work of their musically eloquent and articulate creators/arrangers as of the original composers.

Stockhausen's Tierkreis is a cycle of twelve melodies, each representing one of the signs of the zodiac. It was originally composed for the same number of music boxes, and some of the original music boxes now reside with Heinen's family (his parents are musicians that worked with Stockhausen). This therefore feels like a personal project as much as a broader desire to use modern composition as a springboard for improvisation. An improvisers' gaze can bring a very different perspective to this music - and Heinen seems preoccupied with sonic and textural blends. There's a constant conversational dynamic in this interpretation of Stockhausen's work. Heinen's last recorded work, with this group's rhythm section (bassist Andrea Di Biase and drummer Jon Scott) as Dialogues Trio was a series of compositions inspired by Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It seems that he can take inspiration from the most unlikely of places.

The Grammy award winning American saxophonist John O'Gallagher (a new name to me this year) first encountered the music of Anton Webern in a music history class at Berklee during the 1980s.  Webern's twelve tone music has something of a reputation for dissonance and difficulty - but part of O'Gallagher's mission here has been to tease out its inherent melodic quality, something he has done remarkably well. The music here also has the adventurous and intensity that characterises much contemporary jazz playing - as well as a liberated sense of flight and freedom.

It's not too difficult to imagine purists being offended by the audacity of these works - or even by their genial wit and invention. But why not recontextualise music when, through doing so, it's possible to arrive at something quite new?


150) Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare (Bella Union)

With its remarkable cast of guest performers (Graham Nash, David Crosby and Roy Harper all take part), Jonathan Wilson's second exploration of Laurel Canyon folk-pop could easily have been a grand folly. Wilson continues his preoccupation with ornate, lavish, Brian Wilson-esque arrangements here, but there's also a calmness and reflection inherent in these delightful pieces. His music unfolds and extends gracefully - so that whilst ambitious and potentially excessive, it's also somehow modest and humane. The songs here also benefit from a number of unpredictable twists and turns, which sometimes puncture the dreamy haze to surprising and beneficial effect (especially on the remarkable Dear Friend).

149) Drew Gress - The Sky Inside (Pirouet)


As a bass player, Drew Gress is one of the most in demand of US musicians, having worked with John Hollenbeck's longstanding Claudia Quintet, John Surman, Marc Copland and John Abercrombie amongst many other legends. He is also a continually evolving bandleader as well and The Sky Inside might well be his highpoint so far as a composer. With Tim Berne on saxophone, Ralph Alessi on trumpet and the rhythm section completed by the extraordinary pianist Craig Taborn and the free-flowing, imaginative drummer Tom Rainey - the Gress ensemble is something of a dream team. These are musicians who now have ingrained, symbiotic musical relationships - and there is a strong sense of development and narrative throughout, taking Gress's compact themes to lofty heights via wholly unexpected tangents. There's also a delicacy and subtlety to the delivery here - this is absorbing music that rewards close attention.

148) Jupiter & Okwess International - Hotel Univers (OutHere)

It's difficult to believe that this is the first international recorded statement from Jupiter Bokondji and his extraordinary Congolese band - so long have they spent building an unshakeable reputation on the African music touring circuit. The documentary film Jupiter's Dance, made by the same team behind the film about Staff Benda Bilili, brought Jupiter to wider attention here in the UK. There is an unshakeable energy and drive behind this music - and the fast grooves flash by in a joyful, defiant and relentless rush. The spirit of rebelliousness and celebration is completely irresistible.

147) Matias Aguayo - The Visitor (Comeme)


One of the year's most purely enjoyable electronic records, The Visitor emerged from a five year period Matias Agauyo had spent travelling the world. In the process, he has gathered together an intriguing roll call of guest vocalists, with which to offset his own playful semi-snarl. He seems to have brought a party spirit wherever he went, however, and The Visitor has a real feel of a journeying sound system - a feeling of constant movement and discovery.

146) Dean Blunt - The Redeemer (Hippos In Tanks/World Music)

Dean Blunt's radical sound collage seemed to adopt a more human face here, particularly with his unusual vocals pushed into the foreground. A warmer sound seems more appropriate for an album supposedly structured around a breakup - but there was also a sharper radicalism at play here too, and a returning feeling of dread and detachment that has characterised all of Blunt's work so far.

145) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito (Polydor)
        Arcade Fire - Reflektor (Sonovox)


Two albums from returning big alternative rock acts that had some superficial similarities, not least in their embracing of rhythm and groove, the involvement of James Murphy at the mixing desk and the co-option of echo-laden production techniques more familiar from dub plates. This was less unexpected a turn from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, particularly given their flirtation with synth pop and disco on It's Blitz!, but Mosquito still made for a quixotic and surprising listen. Some of it is a little forced (the gospel choir on Sacrilege is a bit 1997), but as always, Karen O remains an outlandish and agile presence.

Sometimes people who find a band at their earliest stages follow them wherever they may go, but sometimes they feel cheated into sharing them with the masses when they achieve commercial success. This seems to be the case for some of Arcade Fire's many admirers, but alongside this backlash came a whole range of previously unheard 'I told you so' types claiming to have always known about the band's many limitations. Reflektor is, apparently, merely U2 with added bongos (well, congas, to be more accurate). Well if it sounds like U2 at all (which it doesn't much), it's the risk-taking U2 of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. It may be overlong and, yes, Win Butler's lyrics are sometimes banal (but no more so than all those horrible references to 'the kids' on The Suburbs that were largely indulged). In fact, much of the music on Reflektor is so vibrant and enjoyable that the lyrics don't really seem to stick out much of the time. Some of the intensity and strangeness of Funeral is here again now, just in a rather different context. With hints of dub, the music of Haiti, funk and club propulsion, Reflektor feels a little like a smash and grab raid on other musical cultures, but it's an oddly successful synthesis that somehow also retains the band's own moody character.

144) David Bowie - The Next Day (Sony)


The album that prompted the year's most bizarre and uncritical reception - The Next Day may have taken ten years to arrive, but it actually sits very comfortably alongside its two most immediate predecessors (Reality and Heathen). Both of those albums were perfectly decent, but mostly ignored by a music press for whom Bowie seemed to have run his useful course (particularly odd when Dylan's every move at this time was being hailed as a masterpiece).  With its combination of partially modernised glam rock stompers and the occasional peculiar mood piece, The Next Day traverses very similar terrain but arrived in a storm of obsessive hype. It's another good David Bowie album, no more and no less.

143) Robert Mitchell - The Glimpse (Whirlwind)

One of the year's real oddities - an album of music composed solely for left-hand only piano. Often regarded as a fluid, dexterous musician, Robert Mitchell has also demonstrated strong preoccupations with the use of space and depth. It is these qualities, perhaps inevitably, that come to the fore on The Glimpse. From the opening improvisation on Amino to the interpretations of Hersch and Mompou, the music is ruminative, reflective, patient and thoughtful. It is not an easy listen, but then it is not really intended as such. Mitchell is interested in the new pathways that can be opened up through imposing limitations. It provides a strong counterpoint to the now ingrained conventions of contemporary British jazz.
Read my full review here

142) ReDiviDeR - ReDiviDeR Meets I Dig Monk, Tuned (Diatribe)

There's certainly something of a clever-clever approach going on with this band, not least their palindromic name and preoccupation with anagrams. This album's title is partially an anagram of United Kingdom. This album augments the Irish quartet with some UK guests, including Kit Downes on keyboards and Ben Davis of Basquiat Strings, Oriole and The Ligeti Quartet on cello. It's a heady and often dazzling mix, with quirky, joyfully tangled themes and some wild, expressive improvising. Drummer and bandleader Matthew Jacobson's writing is nimble and nuanced too. The overall highlight might well be Velvet Pouch, on which rising star guitarist Alex Roth cooks up a real storm.

141) Kairos 4tet - Everything We Hold (Naim Jazz)

There has been a notable trajectory over the course of three albums now for Adam Waldmann and his group. In spite of its impassioned politics and firebrand title, Statement Of Intent for the most part pursued a more mature writing style with greater depth and subtlety. Everything We Hold continues this trend, whilst also offering strong, affecting songs that might increase this band’s commercial potential (there are guest vocal turns from Marc O'Reilly, Emilia Martensen and the still superb, sadly neglected Omar). It’s a rather special piece of tightrope walking from Waldmann.
Read my full review here

140) Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium (ATO)

The Silver Gymnasium is Will Sheff's arch and self-aware exploration of nostalgia, a loose concept album surrounding Sheff's hometown and the experience of growing up. The album's first half is exceptional, with some of Sheff's sprightliest and most memorable pop songs, mostly stripped of the kind of brooding angst that has characterised some of his work in the past.  The horn-laden blue eyed soul of On A Balcony and the ecstatic backing vocals on Down Down The Deep River are particularly joyous surprises. Elsewhere, Sheff decides to decorate his investigations of an earlier time with sprinklings of that era's instrumentation and production sensibilities. His verbose, sprawling lyrics are the one constant in Okkervil River's constantly shifting story.


139) Volcano Choir - Repave  (Jagjaguwar)

Those who struggled with Justin Vernon's more expansive sonic designs on the second Bon Iver album will find little of solace on this Volcano Choir album. It is not much like its predecessor Unmap - and feels like much less of a collaboration. It is really Vernon writ large. Occasionally, it feels a little manipulative and grandiose - but there's also something majestic in its windswept bluster. This is not least because Vernon's approach to vocal harmony remains distinctive and remarkably intuitive - and beneath all the big melodies and sonic decorations, there tend to be some beautifully tender moments waiting to be uncovered by more patient listeners.

138) Sebadoh - Defend Yourself (Domino)


A comeback album from one of the key bands that soundtracked my youth - my own expectations for Defend Yourself were always going to be unreasonably high. The dialectic between Lou Barlow's elegiac, mournful and sensitive songs and Jason Lowenstein's passive aggressive urgency remains in place, but it's arguably Lowenstein who comes out on top here, with some of his stranger, more inventive songs contributing searing energy. Although it is home-produced, there are times when Defend Yourself feels a little too well recorded - lacking some of the harsh dose of reality that usually accompanies Sebadoh's finest songs. Barlow's songs are rarely quite as good as Keep The Boy Alive, the splendid comeback single from last year sadly not included here - but I Will is a majestic rewrite of Beauty Of The Ride. Judged purely on its own terms, however, Defend Yourself remains a charged and exciting listen.

137) Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II (Jagjaguwar)

Ruban Nielson's Unknown Mortal Orchestra project evolves in delightful ways on this excellent second album. It is a beguiling and refreshing musical synthesis drawing from folk, psychedelia, blues and progressive rock. Nielson's imaginative guitar playing has something of a Johnny Marr-esque quality - restless and rarely content to simply provide the obvious support. As with the otherwise outstanding Caitlin Rose album, curious sequencing pulls away much of the momentum in the album's mid-section, but that can do little to dilute the overall beauty and intricacy of Nielson's constructions.

136) Chris Potter - The Sirens (ECM)

When big-name American musicians move to ECM, the results can either be inspired or insipid, depending on the extent to which Manfred Eicher's approach to sound and production has limited the artist in question. In Chris Potter's case, Eicher's influence is somewhat welcome. Potter is usually a fluent and unrestrained improviser, never knowningly understated. The Sirens, by way of contrast, is a meticulous and thoughtful composition cycle inspired by a re-reading of Homer's The Odyssey. Written in just two weeks, it is ironic that it feels like one of Potter's most ruminative and contemplative sets - full of breathing space and lingering impressions. The use of both Craig Taborn and David Mirelles as pianists provides further fruitful contrast and interaction. Potter himself sounds typically assured throughout, whilst valuing atmosphere and feeling over bombast or showboating.

135) Elephant Micah - Globe Rush Progressions (Bluesanct/Product Of Palmyra)


A major influence on the likes of Dark Dark Dark and Hiss Golden Messenger, Elephant Micah has been a big discovery in the field of songwriting for me over the past couple of years. Globe Rush Progressions did have an earlier limited vinyl release, but was sold out and considered lost. With CDRs rediscovered, it's great that these excellent recordings have now seen the light of day. Songs appear to be mutable, malleable forms in the hands of Elephant Micah - melodies and lyrics are delivered with a real sense of fluidity and freedom. This is particularly true in the case of this short set of eight tracks, which seem to have been assembled from experimental sessions rather than with a clear album arc in mind. It's full of weird and wonderful sounds, menacing echoes and portentous suggestions, smoke and mirrors.

It can be purchased here, along with a number of other Elephant Micah recordings. The catalogue is well worth investigating.

134) Romain Pillon - Colorfield (Whirlwind)


133) The Cairo Gang - Tiny Rebels (Empty Cellar)


With just six short tracks, Tiny Rebels is more of a mini-album than a full length release. Recorded in only a week, it has an immediacy and rawness that places it in stark contrast with its immediate predecessor The Corner Man. Here the focus is on Byrdisan twang and brighter melodies and harmonies. It certainly puts further distance between the music of Emmett Kelly and that of his frequent collaborator Will Oldham. Whilst the process of making Tiny Rebels might have been fast, it hardly feels slapdash - this is a cogent and powerful set given additional force by its brevity.

132) Blue Touch Paper - Drawing Breath (Provocateur)


Colin Towns is a superb arranger and his Mask Orchestra has provided some highlights in British music over the years (The Orpheus Suite and Another Think Coming particularly spring to mind). Blue Touch Paper, a sextet, has afforded him the chance to experiment a little more with a smaller ensemble setting, as well as exhibit his own piano playing a little more. He has gone for a remarkably wide range of flavours and sounds, drawing from Afro-Cuban musical traditions, Tango, Zappa-esque jazz rock and even Weather Report-esque fusion moments with plenty of synth pads and fretless bass. Whilst there is a decidedly contemporary feel to some of the more elaborate melodies, much of the sound palette is not particularly fashionable, and is the more refreshing for this. Drawing Breath is a considerable improvement on its hit-and-miss predecessor - the ensemble sounds much more assured here, and the energy levels are consistently high. Any band that features both Mark Lockheart and Chris Montague is always going to be stimulating from an improvisational perspective and whilst Towns' arranging skills might lead to greater restrictions, here there is considerable space in which they can operate.

131) Eyes Of A Blue Dog - Rise (Babel)
        Fringe Magnetic - Clocca (Loop)


It has been quite a year for British trumpeter and composer Rory Simmons. His work with Jamie Cullum has no doubt kept him busier than ever, yet he still found time this year to launch a new project and retire his most long-running one. Clocca will be the last album under the Fringe Magnetic moniker, although surely not the last time Simmons will work with many of these musicians. If the project has run its course, it has done so in style, as Clocca is both Fringe Magnetic's most challenging and unpredictable work and arguably its best. Folk and classical influences assume a yet greater role here, and the whole recording feels confidently and adroitly integrated. The two part title track develops a particularly memorable and striking theme through two very different contexts. Fringe Magnetic is an unconventional ensemble, but there's a sense that Simmons has found the right voice for the group here - with clear intentions and skilled execution of his ideas.Vocal contributions add a sense of theatre and character.

The Eyes of a Blue Dog project also makes good use of vocal contributions, this time focusing purely on the mysterious tones of Elisabeth Nygard-Pearson. It's an international collaborative project that also includes the Norwegian drummer Terje Evensen. It couldn't really be much further removed from the compositional approach of Fringe Magnetic. Here, the focus seems to be on atmospheric electronics, floating and dancing lines and breathing space. It's intoxicating.

130) Lubomyr Melnyk - Corollaries (Erased Tapes)


I'm still not entirely sure whether solo pianist Lubomyr Melnyk's concept of 'continuous music' is genius or bullshit. I'm less concerned with him breaking piano speed records than I am with the mesmerising quality of his music, however, something that now sits very comfortably in that home of modern minimalism, the Erased Tapes label. Indeed, produced by Peter Broderick and mastered by Nils Frahm, it feels almost as if this is a symbiotic collaboration between artist and label.

I reviewed Melnyk in concert here 

129) David Binney - Lifted Land (Criss Cross)



It's difficult to believe that Lifted Land was recorded in just one day, so utterly well honed are these performances. It's an intriguing and not entirely cohesive combination of Binney's most organised compositional work and some more unpredictable detours into improvisational wildness. As always with Binney, it's a pleasingly demanding listen. The clear highlights are the lengthy pieces As Snow Before The Summer Sun and The Blue Whale, a real narrative journey of a composition with slowly ratcheting intensity, including an explosion of chaotic notes from Craig Taborn at the piano.

128) Benin City - Fires In The Park (Audio Doughnuts)


This is a terrific debut from the collaboration between Joshua Idehen (an artist with a primary role in the spoken word scene through his excellent Poejazzi night and who made the excellent album Routes with LV last year) and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Tom Leaper. There's so much stylistic variety here, incorporating dub, reggae, atmospheric rock and other forms of rhythm-heavy music. Yet a consistent, intuitive production holds the whole thing together. Co-producer Theo Buckingham also plays the drums, with taut, sometimes fragmented and attacking rhythms that not only provide a foundation, but seem to inform the whole mood and feel of each track.

127) Samba Toure - Albala (Glitterhouse)





Yet more great music from Mali, of which there has been an abundance this year. Samba Toure is even confident enough in his stature and abilities to refer to himself in the third person during the opening Be Ki Don. Albala confronts the political situation in Mali a little more directly than other albums that seem to have assumed an at least partially coincidental political edge. This is a defiant work, but it is also characteristic of Malian desert blues in its gentleness and control.

126) Super Best Friends Club - Super Best Friends Club (Hakisac)


There's a gonzo energy to Super Best Friends Club's anything goes approach to arrangement here, and a madcap energy that is completely infectious. It's not clear how much is planned and how much is the product of spontaneous jamming - but there's something seriously entertaining about listening to them try and squeeze in all their words and ideas as if their lives depended on it.

125) Ikonika - Aerotropolis (Hyperdub)

Perhaps more refracting than reflecting memories of classic house and R&B, Sara Abdel-Hamid’s second full length album as Ikonika came as something of a surprise. There were influences here that must surely pre-date the birth of much of this music’s intended audience – not least the techno of Derrick May or the still memorable hit releases that emerged from The House Sound Of Chicago (among them Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and Farley Jackmaster Funk). Although there are some moments which hint back at her earlier detached and clinical approach to production and composition, much of Aerotropolis is much warmer, with an immediately winning energy and positivity.
 Read my full review here
 
124) The Memory Band - On The Chalk (Our Navigation Of The Line Of The Downs) (Static Caravan)



Whilst I really enjoyed the first Memory Band album, I haven't quite managed to keep up with their output for whatever reason. On The Chalk is an ambitious construct, and one that shows the journey Stephen Cracknell has undertaken in making it, both metaphorically in terms of his musical progression, and literally in terms of miles walked on foot. For this is a musical examination of the Harroway, the oldest road in Britain, which led from the east out to Stonehenge, and parts of which still exist. Some of the atmospheres here are elegiac, and seem broadly celebratory of our cultural heritage. Yet there are also some unsettling, perhaps even terrifying moments too. As ever, Cracknell is far from being a folk purist, also exploring the useful resources of sampling and electronics. 

123) The Thing - Boot! (The Thing)

The first of many Mats Gustafsson appearances here, indicative of just what a productive and enterprising musician he is. Typically, The Thing received a huge boost in attention last year for their excellent collaboration with Neneh Cherry and then immediately went back to being a cult act for their new album. The music they make independently is certainly a good deal more aggressive and uncompromising than their work with Neneh, and Boot! is a bracing, brain-scrambling listen. As always, Paal Nilssen-Love gives a tour de force performance at the drum kit.

122) Arve Henriksen - Places Of Worship (Rune Gramofon)

A series of reflections on religious sites provides the perfect context for Arve Henriksen's unique and spiritual-sounding approach to trumpet playing. An appropriately haunting and haunted set of performances that needs to be lived in for a while.

121) Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City (XL)

Modern Vampires Of The City is a playful, mischievous album. It initially feels too conscious an attempt to strip out all the interesting elements from Vampire Weekend's music. There are few references to highlife and soukous here, but plenty of driving, nimble indie-rock. Yet there's still something quirky and unusual about Vampire Weekend here - however hard they might try to be more conventional, there's still an underlying weirdness and individuality that really makes this work as a set of idiosyncratic pop.
 
120) Geri Allen - Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations (Motema)


I come to this series of piano works for Motema by Geri Allen somewhat late in the day, as this is the third and final in the series. Still, any set of music relating to Motown is likely to entice me, and it really is time I listened to Geri Allen's playing more closely. Like Mark Lockheart's interpretations of Ellington, these pieces use the original Motown pieces as a springboard rather than a rigorous template - and it's hard to imagine results (intelligent, contemplative, expansive) so different from the compact three minute pop songs that inspired them. And yet, there's an energy, soulfulness and sense of history here that makes perfect sense.
 
119) Grumbling Fur - Glynnaestra (Thrill Jockey)


The collaboration between Daniel O'Sullivan and Alexander Tucker is delightfully eccentric, but also poised and considered. It's delightfully imaginative but somehow at the same time earthy and real - like a split screen between a dream world and mundane reality.
 
118) Troykestra - Live At Cheltenham Jazz Festival (Impossible Ark)*


If it initially seemed difficult to imagine how the twitchy, attention deficit music of Troyka could possibly work in a big band setting, this live recording gave a clear answer - with surprising and commanding ease. The arrangements are bold and imaginative, and do much to convey and enhance the drama in this tricky music. The core trio plays with their customary brio, handling intricate grooves very comfortably and subtly varying their approach for the new context. There's an evolving maturity in Troyka's music - and this raises expectations considerably for their forthcoming third studio album, due in 2014. 

117) Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon (RCA)

Given that I usually avoid uber-hyped BBC Sound Of... artists like the plague, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed Laura Mvula's debut. She is a really class act, who clearly understands what she is doing in terms of harmony and arrangement.  Far from being predictable mainstream retro-soul, Sing To The Moon has a unique and fascinating sound world, drawing from jazz and sugar coated pop in equal measure. Mvula is a delightfully understated singer, rarely straining to assert her authority and communicating in a relaxed but clear way. I really hope she's given the space and time to continue in this way.

116) Nils Frahm - Spaces (Erased Tapes)


Frahm describes Spaces as a 'field recording' drawn from years of live performance, which is a very novel and interesting way of approaching the age old concept of the live album. Frahm's contemplative, often minimalist music certainly relates with space, time and location and Spaces has an intriguing sense of flow, in spite of it unifying a variety of different strands of Frahm's work. With long, patient pieces (For is elaborated into a 17 minute suite), this is very much Frahm in excelcis.

115) Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Sony)

It's something of a shame that JT indulged himself by protracting his return to music over two albums, particularly given that the second part seemed to focus far more on his limitations (the lyrics!) than on his considerable strengths. Some have also bemoaned the extended length of the tracks, claiming that the songs are not strong enough to withstand the hyper-produced extemporisation, but it's clear that the main influence here is 80s and 90s 12" cuts, and this is something I can appreciate and which I think largely works. Even Part 1 has its horrendous lyrical howlers (let's not analyse Strawberry Bubblegum too much), but in reuniting JT and Timbaland (who is at the top of his game here), it also produces some primal, brilliant modern day pop-soul. There's the Curtis Mayfield-inspired gem Pusha Love Girl, the absurdly addictive Let The Groove Get In and the glorious synthetic psychedelia of Mirrors. The live band also appears to be absolutely killing.

114) Pet Shop Boys - Electric (x2)

Oh, what a relief it is that the Pet Shop Boys have made an unequivocally excellent album again. Electric pushes all their best buttons - taut robotic club music aligned to brilliant, witty pop songs (Love Is A Bourgeois Construct!), with Neil Tennant back on great form. Produced superbly by Stuart Price, Electric is a close cousin to their masterpiece, Introspective. Brilliantly entertaining as their recent tours have been, they have exposed the danger of them lapsing into being a purely nostalgic act - Electric gives them a much needed hard reboot.
 
113) Pure Bathing Culture - Moon Tides (Memphis Industries)


Many have already highlighted the sonic common ground between Portland-based Pure Bathing Culture and Beach House although, to my ears, Pure Bathing Culture are the band that many mistakenly believe Beach House to be. Here is a sort of C86 lo-fi dreamy drum machine-fuelled indie pop, but with a breathtaking lyrical and melodic quality, unafraid to burst into kaleidoscopic choruses (especially Pendulum and the folk-song simplicity of Dare The Dream, comfortably two of the finest songs of the year). 
 
112) Dave Hamblett - Light At Night (Whirlwind)


As might be expected from a drummer-bandleader, Hamblett’s compositions are energetic and exciting. They also demonstrate strong musicality and depth of awareness. He can write intricate, imaginative and unpredictable melodic lines such as on the opening Dark Sky but also shows a preference for imaginative arrangements (something afforded by the group line-up, with its dual saxophone front line and with both guitar and piano). The backings for many of the solos from saxophonists Josh Arcoleo and Joe Wright contribute to the overall momentum, whilst the various shifts in rhythm and feel are somehow both unexpected and very natural. Hamblett and his musicians are also adept at handling textural variations. Hamblett’s touch is deft and subtle on The Lighthouse, whilst Ivo Neame’s deployment of electric piano on the two part Zoom Out helps create a sense of mystery and wonder.

Light At Night feels very carefully sequenced, with a slow building introduction, its ruminative ballads placed centrally and perhaps saving the best until last with the engaging, visceral asymmetrical rhythm of the title track, over which Hamblett cuts loose brilliantly. It is a confident first step in what will surely become a fruitful and exciting musical journey.

Read my full review here
 
111) Mark Lockheart - Ellington In Anticipation (Subtone)


Mark Lockheart must now be considered as one of our most influential and significant saxophonists, having worked with major bands such as Loose Tubes, Perfect Houseplants and, more recently, with Polar Bear. All three of these acts have shaped the direction of British jazz and improvised music to such a substantial extent that Lockheart's work as a leader and composer has sometimes been unfairly overlooked. His previous album of originals, In Deep, is a particular favourite of mine, and Ellington In Anticipation marks an interesting shift in focus and direction. It includes a number of Ellington's most well loved themes (including those written by others but closely associated with him), as well as four Lockheart originals that draw inspiration from the great composer, arranger and bandleader (one of the true pioneers of jazz as an art form). These are not faithful renditions, but rather individual interpretations, from the irreverent (a skirting improvisation around Take The A Train that hints at the theme rather than stating it, a version of It Don't Mean A Thing that, well, doesn't swing)  to ingenious inserts of fresh material (My Caravan, Come Sunday). With Finn Peters and violinist Emma Smith also present in the frontline, Lockheart brilliantly utilises his wide range of colours and timbres, his arranging skill once again very much at the forefront.

110) Africa Express Presents Maison Des Jeunes (Africa Express/Transgressive)

If the Africa Express concerts have been somewhat mixed bags, as much dependent on the roster of UK acts involved as to the qualities of the visiting African artists, Africa Express as a recording collective has turned out to be considerably more fruitful. Africa Express artists and producers spent seven days recording in Bamako, Mali for this project and the resulting album has introduced a new wave of Malian acts who are at least mostly new to me. Songhoy Blues provide the strongest example of Mali-west fusion, working with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner on a bluesy track that leaps and bounds. This is the full list of musicians involved, with many new names clearly worth investigating further: Adama Koita, Bijou, Doucoura, Gambari , Kankou Kouyaté, Lobi Traoré Band, Moussa Traoré, Songhoy Blues, Talbi, Tiemoko Sogodogo and the Yacouba Sissoko Band – as well as Western producers and musicians André de Ridder,  Brian Eno, Cid Rim, Damon Albarn, David Maclean (Django Django), Ghostpoet, Holy Other, Jeff Wootton, Lil Silva, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Olugbenga Adelekan (Metronomy), Pauli The PSM, Remi Kabaka, Sammy Jay, Seye and Two Inch Punch.

109) Ollie Howell - Sutures and Stitches (Whirlwind)


Drummer Ollie Howell, whether through shrewd networking or good fortune, has been blessed with the patronage of no less a figure than Quincy Jones (who has referred to Howell quite exquisitely as 'a 360 degree beautiful young cat'). Jones certainly couldn't have been immune to Howell's astute melodic sensibilities, with the themes on Sutures and Stitches being refreshingly memorable. The album's title refers to Howell's period of multiple neurosurgeries to correct a brain malformation. The writing of a number of these pieces apparently coincide with that time - and it seems as if Sutures and Stitches (its title itself reflective of the experience) represents a positive response to adversity. It is wide-ranging, inspiring and inspirational music, enhanced by the talents of a sprightly and confident young band (Duncan Eagles and Max Luthert from Partikel, trumpeter Mark Perry and the excellent pianist Matt Robinson, surely soon to make his own mark as a bandleader).

108) Promised Land Sound - Promised Land Sound (Paradise Of Bachelors)

Promised Land Sound may be the least original of the clutch of Paradise of Bachelors acts that appear in this list, but their supremely accurate facsimile of 60s garage rock tropes is so well executed as to be irresistible. A touch of the Byrds and some Nashville twang personalise the experience to a tiny degree - but it's hard not to simply relax and enjoy these excellent songs, regardless of them sounding as if they come from another time. 

107) Matthew Herbert - The End Of Silence (Accidental)

It might just be that we've reached saturation point with Matthew Herbert's work after the epic One trilogy - but it did feel as if The End Of Silence was given unusually cursory attention by the media. Perhaps it's more that is is probably his least accessible work, taking the modern musique concrete approach of One Pig and Plat Du Jour to even harsher and more uncompromising sonic extremes. The process seems appropriate for Herbert's material here - as this work takes a five second sample of a bomb being dropped over Libya by pro-Gadafi forces. Herbert's process now seems to be to explore time, history and politics through sound. Few artists are this audacious in confronting terror.

106) Rachel Musson, Mark Sanders, Liam Noble - Tatterdemalion (Babel)

In which three of my favourite current musicians come together for a powerful, extreme improvisation date. Sanders is a remarkable drummer, with a kind of flexibility and dexterity that appears to defy the laws of physics. Liam Noble remains one of Britain's most individual and imaginative piano players (and his excellent blog shows him to be a tremendous musical philosopher too).  Rachel Musson is a versatile, creative saxophonist interested in a wide range of sound and timbre. Sanders is the only one of the three musicians who might be considered a free improv specialist (and even this preconception is probably inaccurate), and Tatterdemalian has an appropriately questing, experimental atmosphere. The three musicians seem united in their search for new surprises.

105) Kitchens Of Distinction - Folly (3Loop Music)

With the seemingly endless fervour for reformations and comebacks, here's one very special return that sadly seemed to slip through the cracks a little. The album's title even seems to be a wry, knowing reference to the accidental, unplanned nature of their return. Still, Folly is the band's first album for nearly twenty years - and it's excellent. The Kitchens were one of the most provocative bands of the late 80s/early 90s, a time still deeply divided and nursing the wounds of Thatcherism. Patrick Fitzgerald made his homosexuality a frank cornerstone of the band's lyrics at a time when it was not easy to do so, and their music was often dark and imposing. Judging by Folly, it still is. It's big music, and recognisably within an indie-rock template, but the group rarely take easy choices. Like Mazzy Star's similarly protracted comeback, Folly doesn't attempt any modernisation in the band's sound (Julian Swales' swirling, shimmering guitar effects remain central) - but it does feel carefully designed and thought out, even as it explores real depth of feeling.

104) Machinedrum - Vapor City (Ninja Tune)

Somehow, the fact that Travis Stewart had made a second album as Machinedrum (switching labels from Planet Mu to Ninja Tune in the process) nearly passed me by. It's thankful I caught up at the last minute, as Vapor City is a more varied and surprising record than its predecessor. It might be a little less focused as a result, although the imaginary metropolis concept does at least offer some thematic coherence. Yet there are plenty of moments when Stewart seems to be deliberately challenging himself - and striving to create new and engaging sound worlds. Center Your Love sounds almost bucolic, whilst the album's second half deals more with pensive, sustained textures.

103) Andre Canniere - Coalescence (Whirlwind)


Coalescene is UK-based but US-born trumpeter Andre Canniere's second album for the Whirlwind album, and it shows him to be an evolving, forward thinking talent. The music is urgent and groovy but full of compelling contrasts too (the opening Sweden Hill moves from a busy, imposing opening theme to an improvising section that is full of breathing space). There's some pivotal playing from the group - Ivo Neame is a pianist well attuned to careful placement when accompanying and space when soloing, and drummer Jon Scott imparts his characteristic bristling, restless energy. Canniere has developed a clear, bright and confident sound.

Interestingly, Coalescence also finds Canniere dealing with one of the biggest challenges for anyone specialising in original instrumental music - how to engage with a concept or theme beyond the music itself. Many musicians prefer to let the music speak for itself, finding immersive interest in musical patterns or structures. Yet there's little doubt that having extra-musical ideas can help non-musical audience members engage more with the creative process, and appreciate and understand the results a little more. Canniere's engagement here with themes - the constant movement of the musician, US gun crime, protest and place - gives his music additional resonance and depth. 

102) The Field - Cupid's Head (Kompakt)

From the outset, Cupid’s Head sets out its stall as The Field’s most uncompromising and extreme work thus far. 20 Seconds Of Affection evolves almost imperceptibly over its nine minutes – and even by Willner’s standards it is pulverising and relentless. It is almost as if the music leaves the sound system and buries itself deep within the listener’s brain. There’s a somewhat calculated austerity at work here too, rigorous and detached, yet beneath the rather brutal, omniscient fuzz is a discreet and heartening warmth that keeps rising to the surface, though it never quite breaks through.

If Cupid’s Head’s predecessors aimed at something transcendent or nostalgic, this album is doused in a pervasive realism. The occasional deployment of distortion maybe hints at a lingering anger or resentment, whilst the presence of detached, ghostly human voices shows Willner is a master controller of his music’s constituent elements.

Read my full review here

 
101) Howe Gelb - The Coincidentalist (New West)


Another songwriter we can too often take for granted, not least due to his very prolific work rate. The Coincidentalist finds Gelb back in his driest and most intimate territory, and it is a startlingly good collection of songs. It's fantastic to hear Steve Shelley in another context, and M. Ward is becoming much more interesting when putting his excellent guitar skills to good use as a guest than he is as a songwriter in his own right. Picacho Park is among Gelb's most touching and affecting songs, whilst the dry as a desert humour of Vortexas (this version featuring Bonnie 'Prince' Billy reminds us quickly of Gelb's core characteristics.

100) Tamikrest - Chatma (Glitterhouse)


The imposition of sharia law in Tamikrest's home town has left the Malian Tuareg group in exile in Algeria, and a strident defiance and righteousness can be heard throughout this excellent album. Indeed, the album’s title means ‘sisters’, and the band have dedicated it to “the courage of the Tuareg women, who have ensured their children’s survival and the morals of their fathers and brothers”. This fascinating formulation at once seems to celebrate female strength and dignity whilst reinforcing traditional patriarchy. The resulting music seems, appropriately, to both celebrate the group’s musical lineage and point in some compelling new hybrid directions. Whilst there's still plenty of desert blues conventions here - there are also plenty of unexpected and successful breaks with the routine.
Read my full review here

99) Holden - The Inheritors (Border Community)

James Holden's second album is comfortably the most ambitious and most artistically successful statement yet from Border Community (which astonishingly celebrated its tenth annivesary in 2013). This is a long, riveting work that is also characterised by an unusually rough, distorted and ragged sound. It is all based around single takes from Holden's modular synth - a prime demonstration of how alien and disorientating analogue instruments can sound. It's also the umpteenth album to contain an instrumental piece called Sky Burial - what is it about that title?

98) Mountains - Centralia (Thrill Jockey)

This is music that focuses strongly on integration and common ground – particularly that fertile space found when acoustic instruments and electronic sounds are combined. Typically for Mountains, it is also a patient and graceful affair, their layered textures and graceful crescendos building in a slow and stately manner. The landscape of Centralia is wide and expansive but also desolate and isolated.
Read my full review here

97) Matmos - The Marriage Of True Minds (Thrill Jockey)


Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt have made a long career from high concept hijinks - whether it be exploring the sounds of the operating theatre (A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure) or dabbling in dedications to famous and influential homosexuals (The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast). The concept behind The Marriage Of True Minds may just top the lot - apparently it is based on a series of parapsychological experiments in which participants had to report on information about creative intentions received telepathically! The music here is some of Matmos' most propulsive and entertaining.

96) Okkyung Lee - Ghil (Editions Mego/Ideologic Organ)


The cello is one of the world's most versatile instruments, and I am fascinated by its possibilities in more extreme contexts. Korean cellist Okkyung Lee might be the most skilled exponent of avant garde cello currently at work, and her extraordinary scrapes, taps and attacks take the instrument to its furthermost visceral sonic reaches. Whilst Ghil feels and sounds like a close, intimate solo album - it's actually more of a collaborative project, with Norwegian engineer Lasse Marhaug having played something approaching a Teo Macero role in recording and editing the performances.

95) Jon Hopkins - Immunity (Domino)


Hopkins' soundtrack work and even his charming collaboration with King Creosote couldn't quite prepare us for the depth and breadth of this excellent album (it would have been another worthy Mercury winner). Hopkins apparently slaved diligently over Immunity for some nine months, and it sounds like it. The attention to detail has resulted in some ravishing sounds. It also feels not just like a journey through a night out, but also an intimate tour through Hopkins' recording world and processes. One suspects that it might have been Hopkins more than Brian Eno who made Viva La Vida by some distance Coldplay's most palatable album, and I shall no doubt enjoy investigating his back catalogue a little more as a result of this.

94) Laura Veirs - Warp and Weft (Bella Union)

It remains all too easy to take Laura Veirs for granted, such is her dependable regularity and consistent quality as a songwriter. Warp and Weft ought to offer a timely reminder of her talents as it's one of her strongest works. Tucker Martine continues to be one of my favourite producers (I'd love to hear the scrapped demos R.E.M. made with him before employing the far inferior Jacknife Lee), and the sound of Warp & Weft is even more lush and elaborate than previous outings. It's also another excllent pop album to feature a guesting Brian Blade, the influence of jazz textures and rhythms stated much more explicitly here (mostly in reference to Alice Coltrane).

93) Camera Obscura - Desire Lines (4AD)

If it initially seemed that Camera Obscura's fifth album would be more of the same, that proved to be an only partially accurate preconception. Traceyanne Campbell's songs remain simple, melodic and direct, and the arrangements that accompany them continue to bring them to very vivid life (northern soul remains an obvious influence). Yet, there are subtle differences in production style and approach here, and the pace is more varied.

92) Rudresh Mahanthappa - Gamak (ACT)

Gamak features some breathtaking, highly kinetic and thrilling music, fusing Indian musical concepts with Western groove based approaches. It is tightly executed and densely packed with challenging ideas. The guitarist Dave Fiuczyski is superb throughout, often playing a lead role and varying his sound over a wide range. There's plenty of fizzing interaction and sparring between the musicians.

91) Mazzy Star - Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes of an Hour)

Much like My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star returned after a long absence sounding pretty much as if they had never been away. It is as if they had been living in a sealed box in the interim (not counting Hope Sandoval's low key releases with The Warn Inventions of course). The chord changes remain intentionally limited and the pace is still languid. There is the expected slide guitar. David Roback's playing remains fuzzy and glowing - adding a sense of warmth to Sandoval's potentially disaffected reading of the melodies. No alarms and no surprises here - but it's hard to think of a better alternative.

90) Factory Floor - Factory Floor (DFA)

In spite of containing a number of previously released singles, Factory Floor's long awaited debut album surprised people by being a relatively straightforward dance album - albeit a mighty disconcerting and mechanical one. This is music with a harsh, concrete exterior, which eventually reveals itself to be intensely physical and compulsive. The ghostly human voices that occasionally punctuate do so with clinical detachment.

89) Omar Souleyman - Wenu Wenu (Ribbon Music)

Staggeringly, this is actually the first studio album from Syrian legend Omar Souleyman (not, of course, including the five collections released by the forensic Sublime Frequencies label). Souleyman specialises in dabke - a folk dance music with a strong social function. He built his reputation performing at thousands of weddings. Wenu Wenu was actually produced by Kieran Hebden (who has had a busy and productive year), although there are few overt signs of his intervention. He has successfully captured the intense party vibe of Souleyman and his fellow musicians, and the unique sound of their instruments, unusual to western ears.


88) Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus (ATP Recordings)

Slow Focus seemed to be where Fuck Buttons finally realised some of their considerable potential. It's a stormy, turbulent collection of music, punishing but also weirdly exhilarating. Some of the levity that used to sweeten their bitter pill has gone - and Slow Focus feels like a long journey through a very dark and dangerous night. 

 
87) μ-Ziq - Chewed Corners (Planet Mu)
     Heterotic - Love and Devotion (Planet Mu)
 

Although I've enjoyed a lot of the release on Mike Paradinas' Planet Mu label recently (not least because it so often seems to be right at the vanguard of electronic music), I have to confess to having lost touch a little with his own work since Royal Astronomy. This year, he was behind two strong, positive-sounding albums, one made under his regular Mu-Ziq alias and the other in collaboration with his wife as Heterotic. Both these albums appear to explore personal concerns and are very synth pad and mood heavy - largely free from the influence of the techno, dubstep and footwork that has emerged from the Planet Mu label.

86) The Handsome Family - Wilderness (Carrot Top)

What can really be said about yet another excellent Handsome Family album? If you already know their gothic, melancholy American folk music, and the brilliance of Rennie Sparks' lyrics, then you'll probably already know everything there is to know about Wilderness. This time, the songs are all named after animals (from Flies to Wildebeest) - the natural world seemingly providing a springboard for typically evocative and emotive writing. Like Low or Teenage Fanclub, The Handsome Family are one of those bands achieving greatness through their unchanging constancy.

85) Depeche Mode - Delta Machine (Mute)


It's generally possible to judge when enduring artists are treading water by the number of songs from the previous album that remain in their live set lists when they begin promoting the next one. With Depeche Mode, it's usually one or two at most. Much as they remain one of my favourite bands, and a justifiably influential act, it's arguable that they haven't made a crucial album since 1997's Ultra. Delta Machine definitely felt like a step in the right direction. Whilst it had moments that continued to trade on the supple electro-blues and arena electro balladry that have become their stock in trade, it also branched out into more adventurous and combative sonic territory at times, with some memorable melodies and some of Dave Gahan's strongest vocal performances. Whilst I only rarely feel like returning to Sounds of the Universe or Playing The Angel, Delta Machine feels like it will have greater endurance.

84) Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven (Warp)

R Plus Seven found Daniel Lopatin continuing to distance himself from the bleak, unremitting drones and fuzz that intitally built his reputation. Instead, we are left with a broader, more unpredictable sound collage drawing on Tangerine Dream-esque arpeggiated patterns, unusual percussion sounds, cross rhythms and disorientating effects. It may not necessarily be entirely coherent, but it's certainly dazzling.

83) Duane Pitre - Bridges (Important)


Bridges aims at merging Eastern music (both form and tuning) with western musical techniques, as well as melding old and new. These are two long pieces that are taken from a more substantial suite (it's a shame that there isn't yet a recorded release featuring the complete work). This is gloriously patient, unhurried and meditative music remarkably out of step with the quickfire pace of our times. 

82) Reuben Fowler - Between Shadows (Edition)

Young trumpeter Reuben Fowler (who could recently also be heard as part of Boy George's touring band) has made a debut album with the sort of project usually reserved for artists long into their careers. The big band he has assembled is something of a dream team of British talent crossing generations, as well as securing a guest performance from the great US trumpeter Tom Harrell. All this is far from mere hubris – Fowler has supplied his extraordinary ensemble with some sumptuous, sophisticated charts. Perhaps wisely, he has not attempted to reinvent the wheel with Between Shadows. Whilst it’s full of distinctive touches and has a strong sense of personal authorship behind it, it doesn’t feel like a premature magnum opus. Instead, Fowler has drawn assiduously both from the rich tradition (the Between Shadows suite, which forms over half the album, even co-opts A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square) and from his more immediate sources of inspiration (including the much-missed Round Trip trumpeter and tireless supporter of the London scene Richard Turner, whose composition Too Minor opens proceedings). The resulting hybrid produces something vibrant, often gently swinging and deploying a range of affecting colours and arranging techniques.
 Read my full review here

81) Dave Holland - Prism (Okeh/Dare2)

As consistently excellent as Dave Holland's work has been over decades, there has for a while now been a sense that his rather formulaic compositional style (but what a formula it is!) needed some refreshing. That new approach arrives with Prism. It finds Holland working with some musicians with whom he already has a solid working relationship (guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland), and adding the radical, brilliant in-demand pianist Craig Taborn on piano, and electric keyboards. The tracks with Taborn on electric keys bring home the evolution most clearly - this is a tougher, louder and more insistent band than any other Holland ensemble, and for the most part Prism is driving, heavy jazz fusion. Sometimes, the pieces seem to combine many different facets of the music - Choir veers from a joyful calypso-flavoured groove to a hard swinging section. Holland allows all members of the band to offer compositions, so the result is varied and multi-faceted, albeit often hinting back to the endless resource of the blues (particularly on Holland's beautiful The Empty Chair, in memory of his late wife Clare).

80) Elvis Costello & The Roots - Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)

This album was responsible for one of my true highlights of the musical year - a surprisingly amiable press conference with Elvis Costello himself. If Costello does have a prickly side, it definitely wasn't present here (although I was lightly tickled when he ranted on about not having to do press junkets whilst, erm...). I seem to be one of a few people who have stuck with Costello through his chameleonic phases (responsible for some of his best work in my opinion), but even my patience was a little stretched by the overlong and mostly unmemorable National Ransom. This collaboration with The Roots was fresh, and surprisingly effective. Costello's snarl works very well as a quasi-rap, and the cut and paste approach borrowing choice moments from earlier songs served as Costello's distinctive version of sampling. Tripwire was also one of his simpler and more soulful songs. It would be great to see this performed live at some point. It's great that Costello has the freedom to experiment in this way - and how boring it would be if he simply gave everyone what they seem to want and re-recorded This Year's Model once every couple of years.

79) Julia Holter - Loud City Song (Domino)

I felt for a while that the prolific Julia Holter's third album in as many years might be a little too theatrical for my personal tastes. There's certainly a strong element of musical theatre here, and it feels very far removed from the distorted weirdness of Tragedy (not least because the nature of the ensemble required actual studio time). Repeated listens, however, reveal a meticulously crafted and painstakingly arranged song suite, her own interpretation of Colette's novel and later the musical Gigi. Holter uses this story of a woman's emotions and society's expectations as a vehicle for a reflection on the frantic pace and loudness of modern urban living. There's a playfulness amidst the detail and drama.
 
78) Linda Thompson - Won't Be Long Now (Proper)


New Linda Thompson albums are relatively rare things. but Won't Be Long Now is as assured and affecting a collection of folk music as she has yet produced. As has now become expected, this is very much a family affair, with plenty of musical and writing contributions from Teddy Thompson. Particularly exciting is the appearance of former husband Richard Thompson on guitar for the astonishing, devastating opener Love's For Babies and Fools. Their relationship, once notoriously fractious, appears to have now reached a pleasing and productive compromise. Her voice, affected by dysphonia, is an unusual and harsh sound, at once biting and fragile. But a voice with noticeable imperfections really brings these narratives to light - and the unaccompanied live reading of Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk is a powerful reminder that she is among the greatest folk singers we have.

77) Califone - Stitches (Dead Oceans)


Apparently, Califone nearly fell apart after 2009's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. To be honest, it's not all that hard to see why. This is one of America's most consistently brilliant bands, with a discography that is justly acclaimed. Yet a few years ago, arguably at the height of that acclaim (if I recall correctly, they were promoting the Roots and Crowns album), this band could still be seen performing at the Windmill in Brixton. How that can possibly be viable economically I do not know. Yet, here we are, two albums on and Tim Rutili is still working industriously in the Califone name, after a year devoted to TV and film soundtracks. Some personnel changes don't seem to have done much to dilute or change the Califone sound - and Stitches is a typically beguiling collection. Perhaps there's more focus on Rutili's voice and lyrics here and a little less on the sonic interventions - it feels like a purposefully reduced version of the Califone aesthetic. The sound is a little drier too. As ever, it's understated and wistful, with a peculiar rustic charm that reveals itself over many plays. It seems unlikely that this will provide Califone with a commercial breakthrough - but few bands could deserve it more.
 
76) White Denim - Corsicana Lemonade (Downtown)


I'm not sure why I've been so resistant to White Denim so far - this has clearly been something of a mistake. It's hard for me to put Corsicana Lemonade into context as there is still much of their prolific catalogue that I need to explore. Apparently it restrains some of their wilder indulgences and passion for jamming group improvisation, but it still feels as if much of their matematical precision and hyper-engaged repackaging of classic rock influences remains intact. Another album partially produced by Jeff Tweedy (when he is going to find the time for the next Wilco album is rather uncertain), Corsicana Lemonade brilliantly captures the sound of an expert band, and is a delightfully melodic, memorable, breezy summer treat.
 
75) John Wizards - John Wizards (Planet Mu)


John Withers, a South African producer and writer here collaborates with Rwandan singer Emmanuel Nzaramba. The result is a beguiling multicultural concoction that is one of the most original and unusual albums yet released by the excellent Planet Mu label. It is stylistically diverse, although much of its character is assembled through borrowed West African guitar riffs and joyful melodies. It's all very intelligently pieced together, and it's one of the year's most uplifting releases too.  

74) Laurel Halo - Chance Of Rain (Hyperdub)

Chance Of Rain is a typically strange and difficult album from a musician obviously keen to avoid categorisation. Whereas Quarantine had divided listeners by foregrounding her unusual vocals and creating plenty of uneasy dissonance, Chance Of Rain seems to be a colder, brutalist tour through modern techno. That being said, it is opened and closed by two brieft, deceptively pretty electric piano pieces which carry hints of jazz and soul. The rest of the album displays a tough confidence, and a fascination with sound and texture. There's very little in the way of melody or harmony - more a vigorous sound collage that unnerves and unsettles. Subtle shifts in sound somehow make radical differences to the nature of the music.

73) Vieux Farka Toure - Mon Pays (Six Degrees)

It is far from coincidence that the title translates as ‘My Country’ – this is a proud and stoical album that celebrates Mali’s cultural and musical heritage in the face of the threat posed by the Islamists.
Vieux Farka Touré is perhaps still perceived as being in the shadow of his justly celebrated father, in spite of some substantial musical achievements of his own (not least the lovely Fondo album from 2009). Mon Pays presents a new way of looking at the family dynamic – as a shared, continuing lineage. This narrative both celebrating and reimagining the past is perhaps best served on Safare, Vieux’s loyal, passionate take on one of his father’s songs. With the usual mesmerising stasis, kora and guitar threading gently around each other and light calabash instead of drums, this music manages to be simultaneously vibrant and contemplative.
Read my full review here

72) Thundercat - Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)

Apocalypse is another fascinating instalment in Stephen 'Thundercat' Bruner's ongoing collaboration with Flying Lotus. Much of it is vivid and melodic, with mischievous subversive undertones. There's more emphasis on Thundercat's amiable but imperfect voice, and a little less on his virtuosic bass chops (although there are still some jaw dropping moments transforming the bass into a lead instrument). There's also plenty of the Alice Coltrane-influenced spiritual jazz travelling that has characterised much of the Flying Lotus output. The skittering groove of Heartbreaks + Setbacks and the irresistible party funk of Oh Sheit It's X clearly should have been genuine pop hits. The pieces are all ruthlessly concise and compact, until the epic three part closer that pays tribute to the much missed prodigious pianist Austin Peralta, who played on Thundercat's Golden Age of Apocalypse album and died far too young.

71) Marnie Stern - The Chronicles Of Marnia (Kill Rock Stars)

Things change subtly, perhaps even imperceptibly in Marnie Stern's frenetic world of madcap shredding. Still, the switch in personnel behind the drum kit (Zach Hill is replaced by Oneida's Kid Millions) ought to make for a substantial alteration, particularly as Hill's hyper-fast, hyper-co-ordinated playing was a pillar of Stern's signature sound. Weirdly, the opening Year Of Glad reminds me of David Brewis' work with School Of Language - and it's immediately clear that Kid Millions' drumming, whilst provocative and pro-active, has a little more ebb and flow than Hill's relentless clatter. Stern's glorious tapped cross-rhythms are still a major feature, but more seems to be being made now of the integration of various parts and on tracks like Noonan, there is more emphasis on a sort of militaristic groove.

70) Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, London Vocal Project - Mirrors (Edition)

This is not a new suite of music from Kenny Wheeler, but it has long been overdue a recorded outing. It is the first time the legendary 83 year-old trumpeter and composer (a genuine original and pioneer, particularly in terms of harmonic approaches). Here he sets poems by Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and WB Yeats to sprightly, involving music. The lyrics rarely seem to scan comfortably, but this seems to be almost the point - they prompt some crafty, skipping, mischievous melodic writing from Wheeler. The combination of the ever-brilliant Norma Winstone with Pete Churchill's London Vocal Project makes for a delightful sound, and the ensemble sounds relaxed and at ease with the material too.

69) Grouper - The Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky)


The prospect of a set of unheard out-takes from Liz Harris' majestic Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill was one of the year's most mouth watering prospects. The Man Who Died In His Boat makes for an intriguing companion volume to that great work. It's a lesser cousin, perhaps, but one which shares a degree of solipsistic artistry and a sustained musical vision. Harris' music often feels introspective in the extreme - perhaps even introverted. It's often as if she doesn't intend anyone to be listening in, and is chronically unaware that anyone might be doing so.  

68) Dalglish - Niaiw Ot Vile (Pan)


More creepy, menacing and fragmented electronica from Chris Douglas, Niaiw Ot Vile is dedicated to his late friend and Isolate records founder Wai Cheng. It might not be entirely unreasonable to assume that this is Douglas' exploration of grief - although it hardly approaches this is an obvious or sentimental way. It is every bit as clinical and detached as previous Dalglish works, and no less exciting or turbulent. Dalglish's quite wonderful non-electronic mix (http://recordlabelrecords.org/dalglish-exclusive-rlr-mix.html) might give some indication of where he is coming from (Mingus, David Sylvian. He seems intent on refreshing electronic music and steering clear of its current pitfalls and cliches (what he views as 'Enya tribute bands' and, more imaginatively, 'arpeggio reliant moles'). Douglas is clearly very musically literate.


67) Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe (Dead Oceans)

For her third full length album, Julianna Barwick worked with Sigur Ros collaborator Alex Somers, the string group Amiina and members of mum to provide a different context for her glorious looped wordless vocal reveries. Thankfully, Somers opted not to smother her elegant vocal constructions (pure and beautiful when simply standing alone) with too many additional layers of instruments. There's the occasional minimal piano, or a melodic line later echoed by the strings (rarely sounding like a conventional string quartet). It's a clever, sure-footed way of developing Barwick's oeuvre - overwhelmingly moving on first listen, but something that could easily turn into a cul-de-sac quite quickly. Perhaps more shocking than any of Somers' interventions is the inclusion of actual language on the delightful One Half - this really does feel like the outer shell protecting Barwick's world has been broken! Nepenthe's deft avoidance of many pitfalls suggest there is considerably more mileage left in Barwick's haunting writing.
 
66) Bill Orcutt - A History Of Every One (Editions Mego)


Bill Orcutt's guitar music has always been abrasive and harsh - it's all about the sharp edges, and there's something innately confrontational in the way he attacks the strings of his instrument. Yet, you can hear him singing along gamely, with clear as a bell ideas that would sound very different were they played more conventionally. It's such an intriguing combination - but Orcutt seems to have a blues sensibility that has been ironed out of a lot of other music of this type. He knows that life is not plain sailing - this is music for our every day frustrations and anxieties, cathartic and healing. It is a genuine surprise to find him turning his attention to interpretation - especially when the pieces here are so familiar and ingrained (corny would probably not be too unfair a word for When You Wish Upon A Star, Zip A De Doo Dah or Onward Christian Soldiers and, God save us, White Christmas). So, what is Orcutt playing at here? Is this genuine, or a big ironic joke? It has a clear antecedent in Derek Bailey's late masterpiece Ballads, and Orcutt similarly tears apart the rulebook here. It's safe to say these interpretations bear only tangential resemblance to their most familiar forms. It certainly features some of his boldest contrasts, both his most intense and most restrained modes of playing come to the fore here - and perhaps it's irreverent rather than ironic.

65) Dunmall - Hanslip - Gibbs - Ricart - Weeping Idols (FMR)

One of the best examples of improvised music this year, this unusal collaboration between Paul Dunmall (celebrating his 60th birthday in 2013), his regular playing companion Philip Gibbs, the much younger Loop collective musician Mark Hanslip (who has otherwise been a little quiet of late) and Ed Ricart, a guitarist from Ohio. I know shamefully little about three of these musicians, although Hanslip is someone I've followed with interest over the past five years or so. Weeping Idols is an assured and intriguing set of music - and it would be hard to detect any barriers to the playing empathy of these four musicians, in spite of age and geographical distance. There are all manner of unusual tics, whirrs and effects, all four musicians seeking for unconventional ways of drawing sound from their instruments. There's also a great discipline at work too - people drop out, often for extended periods of time, allowing for contrats in combinations of musicians. The two saxophones, two guitars ensemble is a fascinating one to begin with, of course, but these musicians manage to take it in further unexpected directions. As improvised music shoud be, Weeping Idols is filled with arresting sounds and approaches and plenty of surprise.

64) Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself Down (Leaf)

2013 inevitably brought more silly contributions to the 'is jazz dead' debate. We could of course also debate for hours as to whether the Melt Yourself Down album could be classified as jazz (there aren't many clear solos). If it is, then it would be harder to find music that sounded any more alive than this. Much like Pete Wareham's previous band (Acoustic Ladyland), MYD produce concise, spiky pieces of energetic, punk-spirited jazz, only this group draws more heavily on world rhythms and dance music. This time the brilliant Shabaka Hutchings joins in to give the reed assault even more incendiary force, whilst percussionist Satin Singh and vocalist Kushal Gaya add new dimensions. It's one big cultural fusion party.

63) Richard Thompson - Electric (Proper)

It seems as if Richard Thompson can do no wrong, so consistent is the quality of his output. Coming quick on the heels of Dream Attic, this album continues Thompson's current preoccupation with a 'live' sound. Whilst Dream Attic found Thompson and his band debuting new material on tour and recording it in a live setting, Electric is a more conventional studio album, but it aims to capture something as close as possible to the sound of the band playing live (a breathtaking sound indeed). Thompson's own playing is typically inspired, and dexterous and impulsive drummer Michael Jerome also plays a substantial role. There are some truly great songs in Salford Sunday and Another Small Thing In Her Favour - and is the raw blues of Sally B a sardonic dedication to Sally Bercow?
 
62) Chris Forsyth - Solar Motel (Paradise Of Bachelors)


More untethered guitar jamming from the Paradise of Bachelors staple, Chris Forsyth's Solar Motel has been described as coming from an intersection between Television and The Grateful Dead. It has a bright, fiery sound and some scorching playing that, in spite of largely being based around a drone, seems to take flight and travel freely. The effective segues between the parts leave it as an epic continuous suite of music.

61) Prefab Sprout - Crimson/Red (Icebreaker)

For a while, given various health problems including troubled hearing and sight, it seemed as if Paddy McAloon would not be able to make music again - yet here he is, with a record almost as strong as his finest work. As one might expect from a Prefab Sprout record, Crimson/Red is lush and layered, but the manifold adornments (with McAloon now playing all instruments himself) never detract from the high quality and sophistication of the songwriting. McAloon's voice remains a thing of wonder - breathy and gentle, but also carrying with it a biting articulation that crackles through his wittiest observations. In spite of his old eccentric current appearance (silver hair and long silver beard), his voice still sounds remarkably youthful and unscarred. There are times here when McAloon could do with some editing - sometimes he just used one silly synth sound too many - but few can produce music this effortlessly ambitious and striking.

60) Four Tet - Beautiful Rewind (Text)
      Four Tet - 0181 (Text)


Over the last couple of years, Kieran Hebden seems to have embraced internet freedom, dropping new music as and when he feels like doing so, but at the same time castigating services such as Spotify for trampling on musicians' rights. The singles compilation Pink was a career high point, but his releases this year have been less straightorward. Hebden has now almost entirely dispensed with the crystalline melodic patterns that characterised Pause and Rounds and earned him the dubious 'folktronica' tag. A further continuation from There Is Love In You and Pink, Beautiful Rewind is an exuberant, devil-may-care, sample heavy smash and grab raid on dance music culture, filled with what some will probably view as dated breakbeat and drum and bass references. The human voice seems to be Hebden's chief melodic resource now - and he has become an exceptional manipulator of vocal samples (perhaps this is why people believe the 'Four Tet is Burial' hoax - there's now a good deal of common ground between the two artists). This kaleidoscopic journey through UK beat development is like a collection of dreams and memories.

0181, initially released as a free download through Soundcloud in February, offers something approaching an alternative history of Four Tet. Spliced into one 38 minute sprawl of a single track, it splices together sketches recorded between 1997 and 2001. This is really quite a novel way of issuing old music that is in need of a home and it also serves a reminder that club music has always been at the very heart of Hebden's modus operandi.

59) Juana Molina - Wed 21 (Crammed Discs)


For some reason, I've allowed much of the music of Juana Molina to pass me by so far. Judging by Wed 21, this is a regrettable mistake that should be rectified as soon as possible. Perhaps this is groovier and more biting than her previous works (I'm not sure), but it is an album of real charm and imagination, not least in the bewitching multi-tracked vocal arrangements. Although it's mostly based on light touch performance and production and as a consequence is quiet and delicate, there's also some a real sense of rhythmic adventure resulting in some rollercoaster moments. 
 
58) Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle (Virgin)


I have on occasion been a little agnostic about Laura Marling, but how wonderful it is that, in spite of having a no doubt high pressure major label deal, she has been given the space to grow in exciting and unexpected ways. For a while, Marling was forever being referenced only in the context of her famous ex boyfriends (Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink), but it is now clear that she is a far more original and deft artist in her own right. The raga-like quality to much of this music is fascinating, as is the album's gentle story arc following the rejection and rediscovery of love and idealism. Marling seems to have completely retreated within her own world, without much concern for what anyone might expect from her. 

57) James Blake - Overgrown (Atlas/Polydor)

Ah, a worthy winner of the Mercury prize, which probably means the curse will strike for James Blake in 2014. Let's hope not, because he is now stretching his individual brand of digital songcraft in fascinating ways. This is a gentler, more vulnerable album than its predecessor, and its peaks (especially Our Love Comes Back) are richly emotive. He is adept with intriguing harmony, as well as being a master of the use of space. 

56) Emily Baker - All At Sea (self released)

As lovely a set of acoustic songs as I've heard in 2013, this could easily stand side by side with the Laura Cantrell album as a prime example of contemporary songwriting. The delicacy and sensitivity in the delivery of these songs is often quietly awe inspiring but Baker has not quite yet reached the sizeable audience she undoubtedly deserves. Baker has a deceptively understated voice - she delivers melodies with fascinating and subtle contours. An equally major contribution to this album comes from the superb multi-instrumentalist Fiddes Smith, who executes gentle textural shifts with skill and musicality.

55) Aquarium - Places (Jellymould Jazz)

Sam Leak's second album with his excellent Aquarium quartet feels like a clear progression from his debut. Whilst it may not have a tune quite as immediate as that album's springy Grasshopper, these compositions feel more mature and the playing is sensitive and alert at all times. The title track has a fluttering swing that is refreshingly rare in contemporary UK jazz, and Catherine Grove even has a thrilling ascending post-bop theme. By way of contrast, Marrakech has a lush, absorbing melody that rewards close attention. Leak surrounds himself with outstanding musicians - there are few more dependable rhythm sections than Calum Gourlay and Josh Blackmore (who here proves himself as deft with subtle textures as with meticulously constructed grooves), and reedsman James Allsopp is everywhere at the moment for a reason. He is supremely versatile, and can draw such a wide range of moods and emotions from his playing. Yet it is Leak himself who stands out here - his elaborate, sustained and detailed lines are never predictable, but are always informed by a strongly melodic approach to improvisation. He plays with rhythmic invention too - sometimes he seems to stretch time and space.

 
54) Brass Mask - Spy Boy (Babel)


Tom Challenger's octet captures the rays of light from New Orleans jazz fundamentals (particularly Mardi Gras street bands), but proceeds to refract them through an avant garde lens. Spy Boy is a refreshing, sometimes tempestuous listen with joyful shuffle rhythms brushing against ecstatic blow-outs and a wild, risk-taking spirit.  Challenger also cites one of my favourite albums as a big influence on this project - Henry Threadgill's Just The Facts and Pass The Bucket.

53) Diana Jones - Museum Of Appalachia Recordings (Proper)

I have to confess to not knowing all that much about Diana Jones, although her approach to old time American music appears to be equal parts Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent.  So called because it was recorded at the Museum of Appalachia in Clifton, Tennesee. These are actually original songs, although they sound so well worn and timeless that they could be old standards. Jones is accompanied here by Matt Combs and Shad Cobb. The sound is clean and direct and spare, and Jones' voice is unfussy, but has an unusual twang of its own.
 

52) The Impossible Gentlemen - Internationally Recognised Aliens (Basho)*


Here, the great transatlantic jazz supergroup really cut loose, making an album that sounds like it was a total blast to write and record. Sometimes it feels a little less sophisticated than its predecessor, compensating with a developing love of groove, rhythm and feel. That being said, the irresistible changes of that underpin the deceptively simple lithe funk of Heute Loiter have the urbane quality of Steely Dan. There's also a palpable sense of humour here, not only in Steve Swallow's hilariously grumpy complaint about marauding tourists that opens Crank Of Cam Bay, but also in the musicianship itself - particularly in the burgeoning musical relationship between Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker. Still, compositions such as Barber Blues and Just To See You retain some cryptic intricacies, and the whole recording brings with it an infectious joyfulness. It's worth noting that the band also performed one of the gigs I've enjoyed most all year - a glorious celebration of improvising prowess, band energy and empathetic feel at Pizza Express in London (apparently it wasn't even anywhere near the best of their four night residency). 

51) Steve Gunn - Time Off (Paradise Of Bachelors)
      Golden Gunn - Golden Gunn (Three Lobed Recordings)


Steve Gunn has been another of 2013's feverishly overactive musicians. He might be best known for his role in Kurt Vile's band, but he also operates as part of a very fertile scene that goes well beyond conventional preconceptions of folk or singer-songwriter music. Here are just two of his brilliantly conceived efforts from this year. Time Off expands his duo with John Truscinki to a full band, with Justin Tripp joining on bass. It is hypnotic and unrepentantly circular - but as well as exploring familiar guitar territory (think Fahey, Jansch, Chapman), it also showcases Gunn's exceptional and unexpected gifts as a bluesy singer-songwriter (JJ Cale might be a good reference point here).

Golden Gunn is that very rare thing - a Record Store Day project that might well come to have some enduring worth. Much more than the usual over-hyped offcuts that the day tends to serve up, this is a fresh collaboration between Gunn and MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch of Hiss Golden Messenger. Delightfully, it sounds very little like Gunn's other work or even much like HGM. Much of the music is even more mesmeric and gently repetitive than anything on Time Off. It sculpts an intriguing atmosphere but does demand a considerable degree of patience. There's also a gracefulness and welcoming quality to much of the playing, which compensates for this. Particularly brilliant is the weird modified blues of The Sun Comes Up A Purple Diamond. The result is a warm and heartnening amalgam of different artistic strengths.

50) My Bloody Valentine - m b v (m b v)


There have been so many false dawns when it comes to new material from Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine, that it was hard to believe that the sudden internet drop of this new album wasn't some kind of elaborate hoax. Still, enough fans had kept the faith to cause the website's server to crash under the strain, all of them downloading a dogged and determined album that mostly sounds as if it could have been released in 1994. This album apparently includes material that dates back to sessions in 1996 and 1997, but which Shields has slaved over meticulously for many years since. The level of continuity between Loveless and m b v is striking (particularly given the long intermission), but not at all unwelcome. Shields' murky, fuzzy soundworld remains fascinating, perhaps particularly so given that its influence can still be heard all over the place, although it somehow feels more disciplined and limited here - as if Shields slaved over removing extraneous elements rather than adding more. Only Tomorrow is as good a pop song as Shields has constructed - its typically disguised melody (goodness only knows what he's singing about) teasing and enticing us, the unwavering power of Colm O'Ciosoig's drumming adding some sort of regimental groove. Gratifyingly, My Bloody Valentine still stand out from their legion of imitators - Shields' disorientating preference for pitch bending creates something distinctive and unusual, and there's something admirable about the constancy and force of their beautiful noise. The sudden outburst of drum and bass - an interjection that might have been explored further, perhaps dates the music, but then again, perhaps it doesn't. The beatific closer Wonder 2 sums up everything that is awe inspiring about this band.

49) Tim Hecker - Virgins (Kranky)


Following up a significant masterpiece such as Ravedeath, 1972 was never going to be easy, but Canadian sound artist Tim Hecker appears to have found yet more new ways of creating new worlds with Virgins. It's less mournful and more violent than its predecessor, but in furthering the musical relationship with the Bedroom Community staple of producers and composers, it also sees Hecker continuing his route to a more naturalistic, performance based method of working. Hecker still has the ability to startle - there are savage bursts of noise and gradually encircling, claustrophobic sound worlds galore here. 

48) Dawn Of Midi - Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear)

This is one of the year's strangest albums. I can be a bit resistant to this kind of reinvention of a format (in this case the long-established piano trio), as it can be a bit gimmicky. On Dysphonia, Dawn of Midi seem to set out to play as few pitches as conceivably possible, indeed much of the album is anchored around single note ostinato figures. It really should not work, but it emphatically does, all the while taking minimalist concepts to entirely new extremes. It's difficult to tell how much, if any, improvisation there is here - but the lattice effect created by the seemingly orchestrated interlocking parts is curious and captivating. Essentially, what Dawn Of Midi come to resemble is an acoustic incarnation of an electronica act.

47) Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Columbia)

Here is a prime example of how reactions to an album (including my own) can be conditioned by marketing and expectation. A tremendous pop single (the Blurred Lines it's apparently OK to like), The Pharell Williams and Nile Rodgers assisted brilliance of Get Lucky suggested that Daft Punk's fourth album would be another nostalgic exploration of robotic disco, this time with added special guests. Well, Random Access Memories certainly furthered Daft Punk's retrofuturist preoccupations, albeit this time in a very different way. At a time when music industry economics seem to force most acts into downsizing, Daft Punk have been unrepentant about scaling up - employing high end, technically proficient session musicians to produce a live, organic take on their work. Get Lucky deceived us all into thinking this would be a matter of straightforward entertainment. Instead, we got smooth yacht rock (Game of Love), a synth rock extravaganza with amazing drums, over which legendary disco and electro producer Giorgio Moroder delivered his life story and an epic, grandiose piece of electro opera (Touch). Perhaps the album Random Access Memories most closely resembles is Air's similarly misunderstood electro-prog magnum opus 10,000 Hz Legend (a record I still love unconditionally, and dearly wish Air had never retreated from). Once Random Access Memories can be appreciated on its own terms, it emerges as a courageous album - flirting with all manner of unfashionable influences and crafting something sophisticated and intelligent.

46) Autechre - Exai (Warp)


It's possible that we may have reached a stage where Autechre have been restlessly creating music for so long that they have become a little taken for granted (they influenced Radiohead's biggest sonic shift, but let's move on now). Exai seemed to pass by largely unnoticed - a shame considering that it's definitely one of their bigger, bolder statements in terms of both quantity (it's a double album) and quality. Exai is certainly a challenge - but Autechre's music has never been easily digestible, and there's an argument that they are at their best when at their most uncompromising. Perhaps there's little here that truly develops their sound - but the same uneasiness and awkwardness that has characterised their music to date has been amplified to brilliantly intense levels.

45) Sons Of Kemet - Burn (Naim Jazz)

Described as a supergroup in some quarters because of the range and depth of talent in their line-up, it seems more accurate to describe Sons of Kemet as a powerful meeting of minds – a space where Shabaka Hutchings’ interest in cultural history and politics can fuse with an appropriately heavy band vibe. The line-up is certainly unusual, and a palpable fusion of old and new. Hutchings plays a variety of clarinets and saxophones, the low end is provided not by a bass but by Oren Marshall’s fervent tuba (inevitably harking back to the foundational days of New Orleans jazz) and the rhythm section is completed by both Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford (who also handles production duties) on drums. As well as jazz and electronica, there's a strong influence of Rastafarian Nyabinghi music, particularly in Rochford and Skinner's duelling drumming. Hutchings' melodic lines are sometimes fragile and sometimes remorseless, but the music is always alert and aware, with a carefully crafted studio atmosphere.

Read my full review here

44) Boards Of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)

We've been here before....or have we? This is the sense of unease and uncertainty that always greets a new Boards Of Canada release. With increasing gaps between their emissions from their hermetic world, it would be easy to dismiss Tomorrow's Harvest as more of the same from the elusive Scottish duo. Yet it begins with what sounds like a TV theme fanfare, before taking in what might well be the influence of John Carpenter's legendary soundtracks for his own melodies. It is still deeply unsettling and paranoid-sounding of course - but there is less refraction and warped pitch - instead, the deceptively simple, eerily fragmented melodies seem clearer and less obscured.

43) Benoit Pioulard - Hymnal (Kranky)

Inspired by religious iconography found on journeys in the South East of England and in Europe, Hymnal feels like the most developed and certainly the most devotional of Thomas Meluch's recordings under the Benoit Pioulard pseudonym. It is both haunted and haunting, captivating in its refracted view of the spiritual world. As with previous Benoit Pioulard releases, it combines some very conventional elements (breezily melodic vocal lines and strummed acoustic guitar) with stranger constructs (drones of various kinds, static and white noise, general obfuscation). The sonic mix remains original and compelling, and Hymnal feels like a set of relics.

42) Jaga Jazzist - Live With Britten Sinfonia (Ninja Tune)

A superb recording of one of the live music highlights of 2012 (I was fortunate enough to have been there), Live With Britten Sinfonia fizzes with vitality and orchestrated intensity. This is a widescreen, high definition enhancement of Jaga Jazzist's already riveting, thrilling groove music. The Britten Sinfonia are an experienced and adaptable ensemble, effortlessly blending with the core Jaga ensemble and providing just the right amount of energy and attack for this exciting material.

41) Zomby - With Love (4AD)

A sprawling, unwieldy double disc set that veers abruptly between different styles and sounds, With Love might be the year's most widely misunderstood album (although reactions to it have not been assisted by Zomby's aggressive and combative stance on Twitter, particularly when anyone dared to make the obvious comparison with Aphex Twin's Drukqs). The stereotyped preconception of Zomby is of an impatient artist with a short attention span, always keen to move on to the next thing and happy to throw out anything he records. Few seem to have considered that the abrupt, clipped endings of many of these tracks might actually be an intentional device – and that the sudden shifts in atmosphere (the ambient-tinged mood music with handclaps on Isis suddenly giving way to a slowed down old school jungle beat on Overdose) might be suggestive of a more complex and nuanced artistic personality. There is a cumulative effect at play on both discs - the first feeling dark and occasionally menacing, a consciously unsettling listening experience, with the second disc finding Zomby in serious, more reflective mode.

Read my full review here

40) Iron & Wine - Ghost On Ghost (4AD)


Sam Beam's journey away from isolated folk intimacy to jazz and soul-tinged intricate arrangements continued apace here. What is perhaps most interesting about Ghost on Ghost is just how smooth its sound is, with warm and relaxed performances that mostly opt to avoid tension. This will certainly not be an album for everyone, although the deep grooves provided by jazz drummer Brian Blade do give the music some edge. Beam's voice is a little stronger these days, and he gamely works alongside his big, bright horn charts, although it does feel like his increasingly fussy arrangements might now be detracting from his distinctive, highly creative lyrics.

39) Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren, June Tabor - Quercus (ECM)

This delicate, beautiful set of live performances might be the purest celebration of song released during 2013. June Tabor remains a revelatory singer, drawing an enhanced spectrum of emotion from her folk source material, or from poetry. Pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy play sparingly and with clear intentions here, always showing great respect for the song (As I Roved Out is one of the most beautiful recorded performances of the year). The sound is crystalline and beautiful (as one might expect from an ECM production) - it's calm and quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

38) Laura Cantrell - No Way There From Here (Spit & Polish)

Following her splendid tribute to Kitty Wells, Laura Cantrell returns to her original writing on an album that seems to have just slipped out without much in the way of fanfare or critical attention. This is a shame, as there's an argument that No Way There From Here might be her finest album to date. It certainly presents her writing in its strongest light so far - songs that have been written with real love and care, with strong, memorable melodies delivered in Cantrell's customary understated, almost conversational style. Mark Nevers' production is dependably warm and empathetic too.

37) El -P & Killer Mike - Run The Jewels (Big Dada)

It's slightly disturbing that this appears to be the one token hip hop album on my list this year (especially when the list is so rambling and unedited). Perhaps others can point me in the direction of equally compelling works that I missed (other than Yeezus). Still, what an album this is. El-P's production has lost none of its firebrand potency, but the rapping seems to be an opportunity for these two to relax a little, loosen up on the angry invectives and big each other up a bit. It's full of ludicrous threats, exaggerated machismo and frankly hilarious verbal jousts.

36) Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Shadow Man (ECM)


As often seems to happen, Tim Berne's ECM ensemble has now assumed the name of its previous album, perhaps with the aim of becoming a long term, evolving concern. Shadow Man suggests that focusing on this group would reap considerable rewards, as this is one of the most daring and original ensembles currently at work. Although a fearsome free improvising saxophonist, Berne is also an adventurous and organised composer, and so effective are the arrangements on Shadow Man that is very difficult to detect where composition stops and improvisation begins. The group can veer from a chamber-like intimacy to searing intensity almost imperceptibly and the three exceptionally long pieces (two at just under 20 minutes, one at 23 minutes) are far from indulgent, instead demonstrating Berne and his

35) Atoms For Peace - Amok (XL)


Although the kind of supergroup that could easily result in some sort of vanity project, Atoms For Peace's debut recording actually felt more like a natural continuation of the concerns of Thom Yorke as a solo artist. This stark, minimalist, percussive, awkwardly physical music feels like a more austere version of Radiohead's recent sonic explorations. For a record built from jam sessions, it sounds meticulously planned and designed. Flea sounds supportive and groovy rather than showy (far more interesting a musician here than when with RHCP). There's a familiar uncertain, enigmatic menace here too, Thom Yorke's vocal so ofen a vague forewarning of impending doom.

34) Broadcast - Berberian Sound Studio (Warp)

2013's first excellent release, and this soundtrack album still stands up as the year closes. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, one of 2012’s finest films, recalled Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation in its vivid, enthralling sound design. Listening to Broadcast’s soundtrack divorced from Strickland’s images, it becomes clear just how vital their music was to the strength and impact of the picture. There are swirling, mesmerising themes which appear and later recur, whilst there are also moments of sinister abrasion (Found Scalded, Found Drowned). The echoes of previously heard themes, motifs make for a compelling examination of memory and experience as much as for an effective soundtrack. The concise nature of these sketches means that this is not a work preoccupied with developments within individual pieces, but rather with how development can be achieved cumulatively through fragments, the tiny drip, drip, drip of information eventually creating something potent and overwhelming.

Read my full review here
 
33) The Knife - Shaking The Habitual (Rabid)

Weirdly, The Knife have been responsible for some of the highpoints and a real lowpoint of my musical career. The highpoints are contained here, on this sprawling and audacious double album that veers from chilling mechanistic disco to half hour long drones and white noise. It certainly fulfills its title's promise to break conventions and challenge expectations. The lowpoint was the Shaking The Habitual 'live' show - a piece of crass and uninteresting postmodernism featuring backing tracks, bizarre costumes, lame choreography and papier-macher fake instruments. It was never clear what, if anything, The Knife themselves were doing on stage. A big hilarious joke for them, perhaps - but something of a chore for the paying audience. Still, that couldn't entirely dilute the overwhelming impact of this manic, ingenious album.

32) Chris Thile - Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch)

What a simple but unexpected concept this is - virtuosic musician Chris Thile performing Bach solo violin compositions on the mandolin. Thile has spoken of Bach as his first meaningful experience with classical music, and has also described his admiration for the legendary Glenn Gould recordings (where Gould's playing has a rhythmic attack mostly associated with what Thile describes as music 'with a pocket' or 'a groove'). This certainly draws on the concealed common ground between Bach (essentially the pioneer of modern harmony) and an American folk tradition. It also affords a surprising opportunity for Thile to reign in some of his more showy tendencies - here it is his pure, startling musicality on display (and what a superb musician he is). To recontextualise Bach is a particularly brave gesture - but Thile pulls it off with aplomb.

31) Alela Diane - About Farewell (Believe Recordings)

If the Wild Divine album sometimes flirted a little too much with mainstream radio country (something perhaps better left to Caitlin Rose), About Farewell is a quite brilliant return to Alela Diane's core virtues as a songwriter. It's an honest and personal collection of songs - delivered with both conviction and a sense of mystery. This is an evocative, meticulously arranged group of gently unfolding confessionals and the overriding sense of melancholy and reflection no doubt owes much to the sad premature end of Diane's marriage to Tom Bevitori (who had been the driving force behind the Wild Divine project). It features some of her most evocative and touching singing to date, along with some subtle and inventive phrasing. The aching beauty at the heart of these songs possibly makes it her finest work.

30) Darkside - Psychic (Matador) 

An album that somehow seemed to pass me by on release, I've only come to Nicolas Jaar's superb collaboration with guitarist Dave Harrington very late in the year. Still, a mere couple of listens already reveal this record's manifold pleasures and its delightfully immersive sound world. Harrington's surprisingly bluesy guitar playing is brilliantly integrated with Jaar's sonic tapestry, perhaps because he is also intimately involved with the writing and production. It is not simply a matter of guitar being added as a superflouous afterthought - this is a distinctive and successful project in its own right. This is seductive, fascinating music, filled with all manner of nooks and crannies - it demands to be investigated and explored with an open mind.

29) John Escreet - Sabotage And Celebration (Whirlwind)


Doncaster-born pianist John Escreet has found the potent improvising scene of New York his natural habitat - and he remains a gifted but provocative musician. Throughout Sabotage And Celebration, he uses a range of different ensembles (for example, the mischievous, unpredictable The Decapitator is a trio piece and Adam Rogers guests on guitar for Laura Angela). This can sometimes result in a confused jumble of styles and approaches, but Escreet makes it all feel a part of one continuous and coherent vision, not least because surprise and turbulence are a core part of his musical language. Some may find Escreet’s maelstrom too far removed from a perceived jazz lineage or heritage, particularly given the wide array of other musical styles that he assimilates here. For those prepared to take the plunge, however, Sabotage And Celebration is one of the year’s most dazzling recordings, something of a composition masterclass and a satisfying balance of science and spirit.
Read my full review here

28) Colin Stetson - New History Warfare 3: To See More Light (Constellation)
      Colin Stetson and Mats Gustafsson - Stones (Rune Gramofon)


Musicians of the avant-garde frequently find themselves searching for new approaches to their instruments, disregarding convention and established technique in search of the unexpected and new. Colin Stetson is a master of this – finding guttural, fuzzy, violent sounds from his saxophone (the extraordinary, confrontational and highly percussive Brute), but also finding a disarming warmth where necessary (the almost delicate conclusion to Near Mirrors). His solo saxophone recordings, made without the use of overdubbing, make him sound like an entire ensemble rather than a lone warrior. His work on To See More Light exhibits powerful, brave juxtapositions and contrasts. Even the presence of Justin Vernon, adding his otherworldly contemporary choral vocals to four tracks, doesn't really soften or diminish the intensity.

Released early in the year, Stetson's duo album with Mats Gustafsson inevitably didn't get the level of attention it deserved. It's a decidedly more challenging listen - an onslaught of ideas and energy that doesn't ever really stop to relax. It's clear that these musicians enjoy sparring with each other, and the partnership feels like a very natural meeting of minds. Saxophone duos also remain a relative rarity even in free improvisation.
Read my full review of To See More Light here

27) Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady (Wonderland Arts Society/Bad Boy)

Fans of Janelle Monae would by now roughly know what to expect from The Electric Lady - a radical approach to genre, with a variety of styles and approaches held together by Monae's increasingly bizarre sci-fi android concept. The extent to which a listener follows the plot of Cindi Mayweather's story (difficult given that The Electric Lady is apparently intended as a conceptual prequel to 2010's The Archandroid) perhaps doesn't matter too much. What is much more interesting is the way in which Monae investigates issues of racial, gender and sexual identity through music and video. The Electric Lady also emphasises the deepening quality of her writing and singing (her range is remarkable). It also all comes with a very satisfying sense of fun, and this time her ballad writing is stronger and more developed too.

26) Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In (Names)


Whether a conscious aim or not, the sheened FM radio polish of The Stand-In appears to have elevated the excellent Caitlin Rose to larger venues and something approaching genuine popularity. This is really just standard mainstream country rock - perfect music for driving of course - but it does what it sets out to do so well, with such memorable melodies, that it is pretty much impossible to resist its charms. The musicianship is crisp and spirited throughout (live - her band always seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously and it's easy to see why). That being said, the smooth production values do sometimes risk obscuring the bitterness and heartbreak in the lyrics - this could either be viewed as a needless obfuscation or a fascinating contrast (sad songs that sound alarmingly upbeat are of course a classic pop songwriting tactic). Either way, this is a point worthy of debate. There's also a nagging sequencing issue for me here - with slower paced songs clustered together at the heart of the album. This is the only thing keeping it away from my top 20, however.

25) Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)


Matana Roberts has stated that the Coin Coin series will eventually run to twelve albums, so it seems that this is only the start of a very long ride. The first volume assembled 15 musicians in a blisteringly intense, sometimes confusing live performance. This instalment finds Roberts working with a more intimate quintet - albeit one with impressive flexibility.  Inspired by the life of Roberts' grandmother, and incorporating spoken word elements drawn from her testimony, Mississippu Moonchile impressively unifies a number of different strands of jazz, from righteous swinging to liberated free improvisation. The most surprising, potentially polarising and ultimately most effective element here is the unmovable presence of operatic tenor Jeremiah Abiah. Much like Wadada Leo Smith, Roberts apparently uses graphic scores to convey her intentions, and Coin Coin may well be transpire to be her own magnum opus, much like Smith's Ten Freedom Summers (my clear album of the year last year).

24) Roy Harper - Man & Myth (Bella Union)

The inclusion of this album in other lists (mostly compiled before the dismaying news of child sex abuse allegations against Harper broke) seems to have caused some consternation on Twitter and elsewhere. First of all, let's keep in mind that these are allegations at this stage, and it doesn't look like they will come to trial until well into next year. If they are proved correct, it will undoubtedly become quite difficult to re-engage with Harper's music. This would be a real shame, as this comeback to recording is quite superb, full of his trademark philosophical questioning, scepticism and suspicion of authority. If all these things were not such substantial foundations of Harper's songwriting aesthetic, perhaps it would be easier to overlook his possible past indiscretions. Still, it would be outrageously dishonest not to include this album here. I've listened to it a lot, and even its more straightforward, Dylanesque musical settings are enjoyable. I had also been exploring Harper's catalogue more generally since seeing his outstanding set at 2012's Cambridge Folk Festival.



23) Alasdair Roberts & Robin Robertson - Hirta Songs (Stone Tape)
      Alasdair Roberts - A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)


It's been a tremendous year for fans of Scottish folklorist and songwriter Alasdair Roberts, with two excellent albums. Hirta Songs, a collaboration with the Scottish poet Robin Robertson only had a low-key release, but it might just be the better of the two releases. It's certainly the more varied, with Robertson himself reciting his own words to a harp accompaniment on two pieces. More generally, his words - preoccupied with the interaction between people and landscape, provide potent material for Roberts - and his music appropriately pursues contrasts, rises and falls, interesting dynamics, feelings of stasis and movement, sensations of open space. A Wonder Working Stone is a lively and sometimes turbulent ensemble outing exhibiting Roberts' more free-wheeling approach to folk rock. Sometimes the clatter of the band pushes Roberts' voice beyond its limits - but, for the most part, this feels like a drunken celebration (as dark as its subject matter often is, much of A Wonder Working Stone is curiously uplifting). As usual with Roberts, heritage, tradition and innovation are inexorably intwined.
Read my full review of A Wonder Working Stone here

22) Rokia Traore - Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)


Working with John Parish, and with the musical line-up including the superb drummer Seb Rochford and the lithe and groovy bassist Ruth Goller, Beautiful Africa very much feels like a meeting of minds between Mali and the west. There's a brilliant intensity and energy of course, but also a near perfect balance of light and shade. Traore is masterful at extrapolating her themes, and her interactions with backing vocalists provides particular energy and motion.
Read my full review here

21) Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory - Elements Of Light (Rough Trade)


This is a collaboration as much between man and machine as between different musicians. The star of the show here is the carillon, a set of 50 bronze bells that staggeringly weighs in at three tonnes, performed by the Norwegian carillonist Vegar Sandholt. Hendrik Weber has also opted to collaborate with The Bell Laboratory, a percussion group from Norway who bring a sense of urgency and a luminous glow to his precision moulded, glistening techno. Whilst the trademark Pantha Du Prince glacial shimmer is still very much present, Elements of Light feels like it captures Weber emerging from a hermetic sound world. Whilst Black Noise emphasised neatly enclosed, shorter form pieces, Elements Of Light is very much an experiment in extemporisation and development. Segued together, the five tracks that make up Elements Of Light combine to form an extended single piece of music that is consistently enthralling. The suite has been pieced together and organised with great care, with two lengthy, patiently unfolding movements surrounded by three shorter, more atmospheric mood pieces. The temptation to see this as a stopgap (why are collaborations nearly always viewed in this limited way?) will no doubt be overwhelming - but this would miss this music's vaunting, and largely realised ambition.

Read my full review here
 
20) Jessy Lanza - Pull My Hair Back (Hyperdub)


Drawing on 80s R&B (especially those pivotal Jam and Lewis productions for Janet Jackson) and Chicago House, Ontario vocalist Jessy Lanza's debut (recorded with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys) traverses fresh ground for the ever-reliable Hyperdub label. Greenspan and Lanza rigidly adhere to a less is more approach here, and the results are enticing and seductive. Lanza’s voice is fragile, wispy and full of breath, yet at the same time exudes a confrontational and physical confidence. Greenspan’s accompaniments are often limited to a percussion track and a single set of lingering piano chords, or an even more isolated bass line. What this achieves is to reduce the music to its absolute core essentials. The elements that remain in place are often irresistible – from the nostalgic, syncopated hand claps to the exciting, often near-ecstatic melodies. There is a constant sense of propulsion and energy, even though everything is handled with an enviable lightness of touch. There's an austerity and curious sense of disconnection that seems perfect for these times.

Read my full review here

19) Satelliti - Transister (Cuckundoo)


Another major discovery for me this year, Satelliti are an Italian duo who, despite their limited manpower, seem to pack in much of what I love about music generally. It's a heady mix of improvisation, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, electronic interjections and clattering drum rhythms that link contemporary jazz groove with heavy rock and club music. Somehow it all coheres in thoroughly mesmerising fashion, with a powerful spirit of adventure.

18) Kit Downes - Light From Old Stars (Basho)*

Inspired by ideas of scale, Coen Brothers movies, Twin Peaks and Japanese video games, Kit Downes' third album is cosmic in scope but economical and precise in its delivery. It's the clarity and directness of the musical ideas on Light From Old Stars that make it so appealing - a beautiful theme developing from a presaging, portentous motif on the tremendous Wander and Colossus, the soft, gently bristling rhythm that underpins Jan Johanssen, or the thrilling exchanges that open What's The Rumpus? - all seem executed with authority and precision. Expanding the ensemble line-up to a quintet (his core trio with Calum Gourlay and James Maddren plus cellist Lucy Railton and in-demand reedsman James Allsopp) has enabled a greater range of timbre and sound - and a more melodic approach than on the freewheeling Quiet Tiger. It all feels cogent, lucid and coherent - the strongest full length statement that Downes has yet made.

17) Mark Kozelek & Desertshore - Mark Kozelek & Desertshore
      Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle - Perils From The Sea (Caldo Verde)


It would seem that no year would be complete without at least two Mark Kozelek albums (he released three this year). These two represent two contrasting sides of his work musically, although there's a common thread to be found in his still-developing approach to singing that helps unify these two recorded statements. The album with Desertshore is as close as we'll get to a Red House Painters reunion and, for the most part, it emphasises the rockier side to his musicianship (although there are plenty of sustained hazy atmospheres too). The collaboration with Jimmy LaValle has resulted in an entirely different muscial context - a largely minimal and lo-fi electronic accompaniment, complete with synth pads and occasional bleeps. It's mostly successful and unobtrusive, providing a strangely appropriate accompaniment to Kozelek's increasingly dense narrative songs. Some of these songs, particularly Gustavo, Baby In Death Can I Rest Next To Your Grave and Sometimes The Wonder Of Life Prevails are among his most personal, moving and thought-provoking. Kozelek's autobiographical (or are they?) tales seem to be somehow simultaneously self effacing and breathtaking arrogant (the hilarious cocksure rant against Nels Cline and others on the Desertshore album's superb Livingstone Bramble for example), and his method of phrasing and storytelling often now seems peculiarly close to a form of rapping. Next year, there will be an album of moping Christmas carols (I shit you not!) and, perhaps more appealingly, a brand new album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. Judging by what has been dripfed to us so far, this album promises to tie up a variety of strands of Kozelek's writing in quite some style.

16) Dan Nicholls - Ruins (Loop)


Keyboardist/organist Dan Nicholls has made some interesting comments on the problematic use of the word 'jazz' recently, claiming that much of the music that is emerging from the UK contemporary jazz scene has something of an 'underground sensibility.' It can be frustrating that the word 'jazz' has such negative connotations for many, and it seems worth considering how we might alter that perspective. Yet Nicholls is right that the best of this music is brave and subversive - his own excellent debut album being a prime example. Co-produced by Matt Calvert (also of the outstanding group Three Trapped Tigers), Ruins sometimes feels like a modern fusion with electronics and rock dynamics playing crucial roles. It's not an easy listen by any means - it's structurally adventurous, and Nicholls' writing tends to feature intricate lattice effects of interweaving lines rather than a conventional approach to melody. Still, the music has a palpable sense of menace and foreboding, and it feels like a particularly honest attempt to make sense of a violent and manipulative world.

Read my full review here

15) Fire! Orchestra - Exit! (Rune Grammofon)


Not to be confused with the UK's F-IRE collective (and the accompanying record label), Fire! is a trio featuring the increasingly ubiquitous Mats Gustafsson (one of the world's most pro-active musicians, he rarely seems to stop, as well as finding the time to satisfy his vinyl collecting addiction), Johan Berling (Tape) and the superb drummer Andreas Werliin (Wildbirds and Peacedrums). This recording features a much larger ensemble, with 28 musicians drawn from the broad range of Swedish improv, jazz and rock. There are also intriguing vocal contributions from Sofia Jemberg and Mariam Wallentin (Werliin's partner in Wildbirds and Peacedrums). It's a brilliantly nostalgic record, harking back to that period where jazz was breaking rules and pushing the freedom agenda. There are hints of the New Thing, and of Sun Ra. Perhaps the clearest antecedent is the brilliant album Art Ensemble Of Chicago made with the great gospel and soul singer Fontella Bass. Yet Exit! works so well because it also has a life and spirit that is very much its own, present in the peculiar vocal and explosive rock interruptions, as well as in its sustained exploration of hypnotic and open grooves.

14) Bill Callahan - Dream River (Drag City)


Bill Callahan seems to have been making the finest music of his career over the course of the past three albums. Perhaps abandoning the Smog moniker opened up new possibilities in his mind - whatever the cause, he keeps finding fascinating and subtly different new contexts for his mordant, dry and often deadpan writing. Callahan's songs continue to take a philosophical approach - examining the key issues of existence - death, observation, relationships, sex, sometimes from a seemingly rather skewed male gaze, but more often these days with a dry wit (one of the album's most memorable lines - 'the only words I've said today are "beer" and "thank you"'). Musically, Dream River is lush and enticing, listening to it feels like floating. It might feel a little warmer than previous Smog and Callahan efforts, but its meandering nature means its pleasures and depths reveal themselves slowly over time.

13) The Necks - Open (ReR)

One of my greatest musical regrets so far is never having seen Australian improv trio The Necks live (I missed the Cafe Oto residency through sheer disorganisation in not booking a ticket in advance). This is a situation I plan to rectify in 2014 (especially with news that the band will return to London for a show at Bishopsgate Institute. The Necks have always been a band that defy easy categorisation - and this comes across very strongly on Open, drawing as it does from fundamentals of ambient and contemporary classical forms more than from any jazz tradition. As usual, these three musicians seem to have an unshakeable empathy and collective intuition, and they are constantly alert and aware, creating subtle, almost imperceptible shifts in timbre and attack. The title here seem less elusive, almost too obvious - but it's worth remembering the importance of space in The Necks' music - perhaps more here than in any of their previous releases. It's rare to find musicians this attuned to the possibilities of both sound and silence. Sometimes, the dying ring of a cymbal is all that is required for in-depth exploration.

12) Hiss Golden Messenger - Haw (Paradise Of Bachelors)

It feels slightly painful to have this album narrowly miss out on the Top 10, as I've listened to it a great deal. I've certainly enjoyed all of MC Taylor's work as Hiss Golden Messenger so far, but Haw seemed to explore some new avenues, sometimes branching away from the Willie Mitchell-esque backbeat feels that characterised Poor Moon (compelling for one album but a possible limitation over time). There are time signature shifts and nuanced textures - song structures and melodies seem to range a good deal wider, although Taylor remains partial to country-soul in the manner of Tony Joe White. There are familiar lyrics dealing with issues of folklore and spirituality, and the band (including Phil Cook, Nathan Bowles and William Tyler - further signs that a cross-pollenating folk scene is developing) play with a light touch skip and jump.

11) Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dream Project (Pi Recordings)


Another one to irk the jazz purists, particularly given its obvious potential for being dismissed as 'interview music', this third album in a conceptual trilogy for pianist Vijay Iyer and lyricist/poet Mike Ladd is a real highpoint in cross-genre experiment. For this album, Mike Ladd adapted accounts of the dreams of ‘soldiers of colour’ who fought in the two major wars since 9/11 (Iraq and Afghanistan). As well as Ladd’s interpretations, there is a series of first person accounts from Iraq veteran Maurice Decal and also from remote drone pilot Lynn Hill.

The accompanying music certainly draws from both jazz and the avant-garde (and features some magnificent players including guitarist Liberty Ellman and celebrated cellist Okkyung Lee) but, like both previous Ladd/Iyer collaborations, it also delves deep into funk, electronica and hip hop to create a fascinating and often thrilling hybrid form. At all times, Iyer’s music ably supports and enhances the thoughts and feelings of these former servicemen and women. The whole project feels like a document of individuals' struggles with memory - is it better to fight it or to face it? The result is compelling and beautiful; troubling and moving in equal measure.

Read my full review here
 
10) Marius Neset - Birds (Edition)

The title track from Marius Neset's second album for Edition may be my favourite piece of music of the year - it's a delightful exploration of birdsong by way of folk dance and melody and knife-edge syncopation. It features some adroit and limber musicianship, making some very complex material feel light and effortless.  Whilst this album retains some of Neset's frantic, busy outpourings of musical language, there is a keener focus on arrangement, texture and colour here, so that the album feels more balanced and poised. There are unexpected detours for more impressionistic approaches too. Birds already feels as if it might be a masterpiece. Neset has since made the move from Dave Stapleton's impressive but modestly sized Edition label to the German label ACT. It will be interesting to see what he does next.
Read my full review here

09) Low - The Invisible Way (Sub Pop)
      Retribution Gospel Choir - 3 (Chaperone)


It's a little tricky to explain my continuing love for Low in the context of my growing appreciation of more complex and elaborate musical forms. Still, there's something so admirable about their dogmatic adherence to their core qualities - straightforward but beautiful vocal harmonies (it's hard to imagine a more glorious sound than Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker harmonising with each other), rigorous slow tempos and skeletal, laconic melodic lines. Working with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy as producer, Low have once again further refined their aesthetic, using the piano as a dominant instrument (offering new textures and colours) and amplifying Mimi Parker's presence beyond a supporting role and having her harmonise with herself as well as with Sparhawk. The tempestuous Clarence White and the plaintive, haunting Holy Ghost could stand comfortably alongside their best work.


Alan Sparhawk's work as Retribution Gospel Choir now seems like the unrestrained flipside to Low's ascetic discipline. Here, he is able to indulge his wildest Neil Young fantasies, extrapolating two pretty threadbare songs well beyond their logical conclusions. The result is something of commanding stoicism, strength and power.
Read my full review of The Invisible Way here  (I now think I underrated it a little)

08) Craig Taborn Trio - Chants (ECM)


Taborn has been relatively under-recorded as a leader, yet the recordings he has made are all in some way game changers. The electronics-heavy Junk Magic broke new ground in the consummate integration of improvised and electronic music, whilst 2011's Avenging Angel seemed to offer an entirely new and uncoventional approach to solo piano. Chants at last captures his superb trio with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, musicians who have an instinctive understanding of the intricacies and unique challenges posed by Taborn's writing, with its agile counterpoint and motivic developments. Taborn's control, articulation and independence remain remarkable, comfortably placing him at the very top level of modern piano playing. But Chants remains as interesting for its moments of pensive beauty and thoughtful reflection as for its considerable virtuosity.

07) William Tyler - Impossible Truth (Merge)

William Tyler's role in the revolving cast ensemble of Lambchop only hinted at the strength and depth of his own solo work. The music here is made with Tyler’s now customary care and attention to detail but this time it feels a little less like an extended meditation and more like a vivid, lucid dream. It is also music with a strong sense of wide open space – of the expansive desert of the American west, the lingering memory of Ennio Morricone soundtracks (particulary, and perhaps most appropriately, on The Geography Of Nowhere).

This is a thoughtful work full of joyous little surprises, not least the way Cadillac Desert suddenly and quite unexpectedly blossoms into a gentle Nashville shuffle slightly reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s I Want You, or the sudden shifts in feel within We Can’t Go Home Again. This is no small achievement in an idiom recognised more for its stoicism, rigour and hypnotic qualities. This is among the year's most evocative and breathtaking recordings.
Read my full review here

06) Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko (OutHere)

Whilst this exceptional third album from the Malian band should not be seen as a direct response to the volatile political situation in Mali (the recording sessions coincided with the coup), the curious mixture of anger and celebration in the music captures a particular defiance and resilience within Mali that now seems topical. Recorded with producer Howard Bilerman, better known for his work with the likes of Arcade Fire, Jama Ko has a crisp urgency and cleanness, but Bilerman has also shown a considerable sensitivity and deference to the incredible sound and vibe of the band. This is a triumph in the face of very real adversity.
Read my review here

05) Cian Nugent & The Cosmos - Born With The Caul (No Quarter)


Irish guitarist Cian Nugent has been working away quietly for a few years now, gradually building an impressive through word of mouth and the patronage of other artists. Born With The Caul does feel like a substantial step forward, however - a real triumph of an album that not only emphasises Nugent's exquisite, expressive guitar playing but also affords plenty of space for some substantial contributions from his ensemble (not least Alibhe Nic Oirereachtaig's sometimes mournful, sometimes celebratory viola, which feels crucial to this music's success). It also finds Nugent embracing electric playing, and the two longer pieces twist and turn in strange directions, and possess a wilful, wild turbulence that recalls Fairport Convention, Television or a more disciplined and more techinically proficient Crazy Horse. There are residual touches of Nugent's more Takoma, James Blackshaw-esque playing too. These three pieces may be long - but it's almost impossible to tear your ears away from such an exciting escapade.

04) Bill Frisell - Big Sur (Sony Classical)


Big Sur, the result of a Monterey Jazz Festival commission for Bill Frisell to craft a musical response to the California coastline, draws together two of Frisell's recent working ensembles, the chamber group 858 Quartet and the Beautiful Dreamers trio. The result is an unconventional, bassless ensemble that shimmers, shines and, where necessary, grooves (particularly on the wonderful driving blues of The Big One). This is Frisell at his most focused on arrangement and feeling – and the jazz purists are likely to remain unconvinced as the role of improvisation is further limited here. The pieces are mostly concise at under five minutes, but each has an evocative breadth and depth of its own. Really, this is very clever, very impressive music indeed. To execute this hybrid of near-baroque string quartet stylings, blues lines, American folk and interactive ensemble playing without any of it sounding forced is remarkable. Frisell’s unique personal style is now so established and assured that this music feels thoroughly mesmeric and absorbing. This is music as elemental and rugged as the American landscape it purports to reflect.
Read my full review here

03) Matthew E. White - Big Inner/Outer Face (Domino)

Big Innner might officially be an album of 2012, but it received its UK release early in 2013, only to later be repackaged with the accompanying Outer Face EP. White has been one of the discoveries of the year - an unassuming, perhaps even humble singer but with a taste for altogether more lavish arrangements (Phil Cook and Trey Pollard adorn his music with all manner of horn bursts, elaborate string flourishes and gospel-tinged harmonies). A professional session musician, Big Inner seems to have been crafter largely as a showcase for White's home studio and musical collective, Spacebomb. What a showcase it is - nothing appears to be too excessive, although the music somehow still has an economy and discretion where necessary and White's soft mumble of a voice has a vulnerability that is strangely touching, if not always conventionally melodic. The old cliche about great composers stealing rather than borrowing comes to the fore here, as White is an expert hand in assimilating moments from his inspirations. Will You Love Me borrows liberally from Joe South's Games People Play, before bursting beautifully into the middle eight from Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross. It turns out that this makes for a wonderful chorus. Brazos ends with an increasingly ecstatic chant of 'Jesus Christ is our Lord, Jesus Christ is our friend!', interpolated from a less familiar source - Jorge Ben's Brother. White is careful to credit all his sources properly - but what is really remarkable is how well these quotations are subsumed within his original contributions. He has brazenly made them his own. The Outer Face EP now serves as a fascinating contrast, stripping out most of the ensemble and focusing more on White's dry vocals and a penchant for slinky, insidious groove. In its own way, it works just as well.

02) Wayne Shorter Quartet - Without A Net (Blue Note)


One of the more amusing things I read on the internet in 2013 was an invisible jukebox gamely carried out by the legendary drummer Albert 'Tootie' Heath. When confronted with a recent Wayne Shorter Quartet recording, he exclaimed: 'Brian Blade, you sound like you're pushing your drum kit down the stairs!' This, of course, is a common criticism of contemporary jazz - and there can be few bands more likely to polarise the uninitiated than Wayne Shorter's current group. Now 80, Shorter has lost none of the fire and desire to keep pushing musical boundaries and developing his own artistry. Without A Net contains some of the most intense and wild music of the year, yet it also reminds us of some of Wayne's core virtues - imaginative melodic writing and a detailed ear for arrangements (Pegasus, accompanied by a wind ensemble, is one of his most sophisticated and sustained pieces of writing). This band always feels like a voyage into the unknown - there have been times when it hasn't quite worked, but more often than not, their adventurous sensibilities and collective musical language produce something thrilling. There's also a real exubernance and sense of joy in these live performances.
Read my full review here

01) Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti)


It's unsual to find a singer-songwriter still growing in confidence and quality this far into their career - but there are many reasons why Neko Case's sixth studio album was the album I played and enjoyed most in 2013. Case is still pigeon-holed as part of some sort of alt-country scene, but that now feels rather wide of the mark. Her songs are part-gothic fairytales, part excoriating autobiography - and the playing on this album is loose-limbed and mysterious. These are her lushest, most elaborate songs to date, and also at times her most questioning, confrontational, painful or defiant. It's an album of extremes - but often with opposing extremes battling against each other during the same song. They are also mostly concise and taut - her writing superbly economical. The stunning highlight is the accapella Nearly Midnight, Honolulu - a remarkably brave move that showcases both her artistry and confidence. It also strips her away her trademark magic realism in favour of something personal and forthright.