50. Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass (Definitive Jux)
Aesop Rock still remains one of my favourite rappers, and he hasn’t yet really put a foot wrong. His language is flighty, verbose and unconventional, and the music never settles for the familiar. Instead, it veers across all sorts of unpredictable, occasionally even uncomfortable terrain, and the results are visceral and exciting. Like his kindred spirits in the Anticon collective, Aesop Rock infuriates those who like their hip hop baser and more aggressive. Yet, if this is a genre based largely on poetics and voice inflections – why should it not incorporate wild flights of fancy and imaginative whims just as much as gritty dissections of reality?
49. Antibalas – Security (Anti)
This one seemed to miss the radar of most UK publications, but it’s a rather joyful and exuberant contemporary take on Afrobeat. Merging the preoccupations of Fela Kuti with the more cerebral outlook of Tortoise (whose John McEntire produces and mixes the entire set), this is a multicultural extravaganza of rhythm and feel. It’s tightly organised, but also thrillingly raw, burningly intense and organic, driven in equal parts by the crisp rhythm and horn sections.
48. Cinematic Orchestra – Ma Fleur (Ninja Tunes)
Here’s an album that has grown on me considerably over the course of the past few months. This is perhaps because it’s Jason Swinscoe’s most subtle musical statement to date – now as enthralled with folk music as with jazz and hip hop. It’s a lighter, more vulnerable record than its predecessors, and a sweetly intoxicating one too. Fontella Bass again guests, apparently now quite unwell, and her damaged but undefeated vocals are quietly devastating. Elsewhere, the intricate shuffle rhythms and slow building atmospheres are masterfully handled. There are some exquisitely judged contributions from some of London’s finest jazz musicians, including keyboardist Nick Ramm and percussionist Milo Fell.
47. Basquiat Strings – Basquiat Strings feat. Seb Rochford (F-IRE)
Whilst Seb Rochford is certainly a crucial figure here, underpinning the music with subtle brush strokes and a uniquely sensitive swing, this is really Cellist Ben Davis’ project. Rightly nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, but inevitably denied its deserved victory in favour of the far more superficial Klaxons, this album is an original fusion – chamber music that grooves.
46. The Bad Plus – PROG (Heads Up)
Now that The Bad Plus’ power trio reversions of rock classics have lost their novelty value, there seems to be an increased risk of taking them for granted. This surely neglects the group’s remarkable technical ability, and their own creative impetus. Over the course of their last couple of albums, their original compositions have become more muscular, occasionally even fiery, and they polyrhythmic invention on display on ‘Prog’ is mind-boggling. Of the interpretations, David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ becomes even more theatrical through a merciless extension by pianist Ethan Iverson and Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ is imbued with reflective regret.
45. Susanna – Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos (Rune Grammofon)
Oh Susanna! What icy elegance, what subtlety, what restraint! I don’t even have any idea what Susanna looks like, but her voice is one of the most beautiful and alluring sounds to pass my ears in the last couple of years. If last year’s album of perverse covers with her Magical Orchestra hinted at Susanna’s singular vision, this absurdly titled ‘solo’ work realises this with purity and majesty. These songs are supremely understated and their grief and sadness cuts through the austerity of the arrangements.
44. Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell – Time and Time Again (ECM)
Paul Motian’s bassless trio is one of the most original groups in contemporary jazz. Frisell and Lovano seem like radically different musicians on paper. Lovano is well-versed in jazz language and produces a masterful, dominating sound. Frisell is more interested in the intersections between jazz and American folk music, and his trademark sound is more atmospheric and spacey. Yet Motian directs them into a very free and liberating creative space where, whilst restraining some of their more individualistic tendencies, they integrate in a quite remarkable symbiosis. Motian’s drumming is a language all of its own – his nimble, elongated strokes are unique among modern drummers.
43. Pharoahe Monch – Desire (SRC/Universal)
In spite of his breathtaking arrogance, after eight years of almost complete silence, Pharoahe Monch made one of the most taut and least indulgent hip hop albums in some time with ‘Desire’. It’s audacious in the extreme – how odd it is that hip hop seems the one genre of music so supremely personalised that covers are unthinkable. Monch destroys these casual assumptions with ingenuity with his version of Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’. In its genre-busting, cerebral force, ‘Desire’ seems almost like a lost classic from an earlier era, but it’s also so savage and confrontational as to resemble nothing else. He’s not shying away from key issues here – ‘Desire’ deals with gun crime, war and poverty amongst other weighty subjects. It’s an attacking, unrepentant blast from a major talent now thankfully back in the game.
42. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand (Rounder)
It was extremely irritating that all attention was focussed on the superficial Led Zeppelin reunion at the expense of either its chief motivation (the sad death of Atlantic records founder Armet Ehrtegun), or their frontman’s superb contemporary work. Plant is clearly determined not to let Zep get in the way of this fascinating collaborative project (he plans to tour with Krauss next year), but it was always inevitable that it wouldn’t have quite the same commercial impact. Plant has been delving deeper into his musical heritage over the past few years, the result being a complete diminution of rock posturing in favour of sensitively handled interpretations of an American folk canon. That Plant can immerse himself in this world convincingly is testament to his thorough understanding of the music. Whilst Krauss can sometimes be a little pristine or twee in her own work, she sounds more otherworldly and compelling here, and the combination of her voice with Plant’s is surprisingly exotic. With a band that includes the consistently innovative guitarist Marc Ribot, things were never going to get too conventional – and there’s a dark undertone to many of these inspired reworkings.
41. Okkervil River – The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)
Will Sheff continued his blisteringly intense, highly literate songwriting mission on this powerful collection, mixing brutality and tenderness in equal measure. He’s an absolutely superb lyricist, full of ideas delivered in the form of narrative prose-poems rather than conventional verse-chorus-verse songs. His vocal delivery is also savage and impassioned, although he’s increasingly capable of exercising restraint too. Once again, the arrangements were sublime, and his carefully constructed world completely absorbing.
40. Jim Hart’s Gemini – Emergence (Loop)
Those privileged few ‘in the know’ about London’s jazz scene would no doubt assert that the self-promoting Loop Collective represent one of the most promising prospects in some time. Yet Jim Hart’s Gemini, alongside Outhouse, are one of only a handful of their bands to get funds together for national tours. In spite of this, there’s not a great deal of publicity about them, and little recognition that ‘Emergence’ is one of the most confident British jazz albums of the year. Hart is a drummer and percussionist, but he concentrates exclusively on vibraphone and marimba here. He combines creative composing with adventurous improvising. There’s also a remarkably strong rapport between the musicians, driven along nicely by the swinging drumming of Tom Skinner.
39. Supersilent – 8 (Rune Grammofon)
One feels there’s probably as much myth as reality about Norwegian free improvisers Supersilent. Do they really not communicate with each other aside from making this completely unplanned music? It seems unlikely – but, as with all their previous releases, there’s a weird and unforced alchemy to this manipulated, twisted electronic noise. If anything, ‘8’ seems a little more focussed than their previous output, with each track single-mindedly developing a clear idea to its logical conclusion.
38. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam (Domino)
Animal Collective have progressively been restraining some of their more gonzo tendencies in favour of a more infectious sound that has become increasingly saccharine. ‘Strawberry Jam’ is therefore the perfect title for this sweeter-than-sweet set, but their handling of this jaunty, chirpy music somehow keeps it firmly on the right side of the fine line between insistent and irritating. There’s still a madcap experimentalism at their core, and with some surreal imagery and highly unusual sounds, they delivered their most boundlessly joyful, blissfully lysergic statement so far.
37. John Surman – The Spaces In Between (ECM)
Very little frustrates me quite as much as the notion that Classical and Jazz are mutually exclusive musical disciplines. As Hugh Masakela exclaimed at a recent London concert: ‘It’s not true that a symphony orchestra can’t swing!’. John Surman, one of British jazz’s finest talents, has long been honing his brand of part-composed, part-improvised chamber music. ‘The Spaces In Between’ is another collaboration with double bassist Chris Laurence and the Trans4Mation String Quartet, and may be the best example yet of this peculiarly effective cross-breeding. The music is richly melodic, elegiac and touching, and the quartet accompaniments veer from the languid to the surprisingly sprightly. Best of all, there’s plenty of space for exposition, and Surman has rarely sounded more in control, drawing a tremendous range of sounds from his range of saxophones and clarinets.
36. The Field – From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
Whilst I’m really no techno expert, every so often there’s an album that passes within my radar and makes me wonder what I’ve been missing. In spite of the music’s US heritage with the likes of Derrick May and Jeff Mills, most recently, these albums have mostly emerged from Europe. Laurent Garnier’s ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’ was an almighty classic and a couple of years ago, Isolee’s ‘We Are Monster’ enthralled me with its elegant constructions. Now Swedish producer Axel Willner has produced one of the most captivating electronic albums of 2007. Some have emphasised that this album shares as much with the shoegazing techniques of My Bloody Valentine and Ride as with the minimalist work of Steve Reich or indeed Mills and May. ‘From Here We Go Sublime’ is not really about clever beats (it’s almost entirely four-square), but more about mood, texture and atmosphere. Willner weaves subtle changes into his cumulative repetitions with skill and craft.
35. Erik Friedlander – Block Ice and Propane (SkipStone)
The Cello is still rarely used as an improvisational instrument, which is odd given its depth, versatility and resonance. Yet Erik Friedlander is the highest ranking of three Cellists to appear in this list. He’s one of the instrument’s master technicians, both in ensemble format and as a solo artist, as on this remarkable recording. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as John Zorn and Courtney Love and clearly has little respect for conventional musical boundaries. Sometimes his sound his harsh and grating, sometimes it is dreamy and languid. Perhaps most interesting of all is his deconstructed blues pizzicato, by which he makes his instrument sound more like a guitar. Much of this is folk music, but it is folk music completely revitalised, and imbued with a wonderfully childlike and naïve curiosity.
34. Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti)
Ry Cooder brought his magic production touch to this collection of protest songs from the determinedly gritty former Staple Singer. ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ demonstrated modern America could still sustain a fiery tradition of rebellion and saw Staples sermonising tirelessly against injustice wherever she saw it. Revitalising these civil rights songs so that they now applied to the impoverished and abused anywhere, she imbued her music with a righteous energy and powerful sense of community.
33. Stars Of The Lid – Stars Of The Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)
This is some of the strangest, most haunting and beautiful music of the year, yet it achieves this by abandoning most established musical conventions. There’s little melody or harmony and no real underlying rhythm at all – the music instead relies solely on drones and pulses, with only very slight variations in tone and pitch. Yet the bizarre song titles suggest they are not too po-faced in their approach, and the results strongly bear this out. There’s a powerful and entrancing mood, and a carefully controlled ebb and flow that takes this into weird and wonderful territory.
32. Nels Cline Singers – Draw Breath (Cryptogramophone)
Whilst the merits of Wilco’s ‘Sky Blue Sky’ divided opinion somewhat, few could argue with the extraordinary vision and talent of their lead guitarist. With an effortless mastery of the fretboard, Nels Cline is a fearsome improviser rooted in both rock and roll and free jazz. ‘Draw Breath’ is an audacious and thoroughly engaging record, with some lengthy extrapolations that take numerous risks and raise the tension to fever pitch. The group’s name is a quirky misnomer though – there’s no singing whatsoever!
31. Sylvie Lewis – Translations (Cheap Lullaby)
With a slight taste for whimsy and a genuine enthusiasm for a songwriting tradition incorporating cabaret, jazz and musical theatre, Berklee-trained Sylvie Lewis proved one of the major discoveries of the year. Deceptively light and airy, many of these songs were sweetly observed and contained real wit and emotional substance. Her voice, always admirably restrained, never exaggerated or overstated her themes. With a talent for drawing convincing characters and imbuing them with much of her own endearing personality and charm, Lewis remains one to watch.
30. Fennesz Sakomoto – Cendre (Touch)
The combination of Christian Fennesz’s laptop guitar manipulations and Ryuchi Sakomoto’s lingering, unresolved piano chords created a haunting and melancholy atmosphere. Whilst not quite as singularly brilliant as Fennesz’s ‘Endless Summer’, this was still improvised electronic music at its most human and least cloying, invested this time not with warmth, but with a frosty heart.
29. Fraud – Fraud (Babel)
With a strikingly unconventional line-up (no bass, baritone guitar and two drummers!), Fraud proved one of British jazz’s most enticing prospects for some time. This debut was unpredictable and unstoppable in its foraging for new sounds. The chattering, intricate dynamic, chiefly dictated by Tim Giles’ unstoppable, constantly interjecting percussion, provided much more than a fleeting source of excitement.
28. The Broken Family Band – Hello Love (Track and Field)
The cherished cult indie heroes changed direction slightly with this fourth long player. They mostly abandoned both their gently parodic take on country and its more aggressive punk-infused counterpart in favour of some more sincere musings about love and loss. These songs were certainly earnest, but they were also unsparingly candid and unsentimental, and frequently wise in their conclusions and platitudes. There also seemed to be a new sophistication in both production and performance, resulting in ‘Hello Love’ being the group’s strongest and most satisfying work to date.
27. Marnie Stern – In Advance Of The Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars)
Marnie Stern certainly took no prisoners with her furious, rapid fire, passive-aggressive music. Yet there was also a gift for melody lurking beneath the confrontational poise and the battering-ram assault. These shockingly immediate songs may well prove highly durable. Stern’s strong and distinctively feminine artistry was occasionally reminiscent of a more avant-garde Sleater Kinney. ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’ has ushered in a fascinating and thrilling new talent.
26. Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem Of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts)
Anyone who thought Yeasayer were unique amongst Western groups in incorporating world music influences should head here. Andrew Whiteman’s project is one of the very strongest of the Broken Social Scene axis (certainly more interesting than Kevin Drew’s slightly underwhelming ‘Spirit If…’) and this is a dense and ambitious album characterised by intricate arrangement, subtle melodic craftsmanship and rhythmic dexterity. It’s adventurous rock music, striving admirably to push this still young musical form in exciting new directions.
To be continued...