Here's the concluding part of this year's list. Comments, as always, are actively encouraged, even if it's only to quibble with what I've left out. Positive further recommendations are always appreciated too.
50. Boris – Smile (Southern Lord)
The extent to which ‘Smile’ differs from Boris’ previous output has perhaps been overstated. Yes, the opening salvos are more melodic, perhaps even pretty by the group’s usual sludgy standards, but the rest could hardly be described as accessible. With guest appearances from Ghost’s Michio Kurihara (with whom the group recorded an entire collaborative album last year) and Stephen O’ Malley from Sunn O ))), much of the record is blisteringly intense. Whilst vocals now feature on every track, there’s also a heightened interest in sound and its power to distort, disturb and confuse. It’s a shame that the international edition omits a key track from the Japanese version – try and seek out an import if you can.
49. Scorch Trio – Brolt! (Rune Grammofon)
Raoul Bjorkenheim’s frenzied guitar shredding helps make this just about the most frenetic, unhinged recording in my 2008 list. In some ways it seems defiantly unmusical – dealing more in outbursts than in clear phrases. But this is a systematic form of communication in itself, and the music is thrilling in its abrasive urgency and cathartic effect. Bjorkenheim features again higher in this list.
48. Outhouse – Outhouse (Babel)
Outhouse, the flagship band of London’s wonderful Loop Collective of musicians, looked for a while like the brightest hope for British jazz. Yet a wave of publicity and good will seemed to dissipate slightly when this album finally surfaced. Perhaps it’s just that the album took too long to emerge, and that some of the compositions had already surfaced on the band’s initial EP. Still, it seems like they’ve failed to capitalise – and this is a shame, because ‘Outhouse’ is a tremendous debut, full of fiery, gutsy playing, particularly from Dave Smith, who’s drumming is inventive and playful. Robin Fincker continues to draw a weird and wonderful array of sounds from his saxophones.
47. Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You (Domino)
This wonderful set of quirky, frequently hilarious pop music is massively entertaining. It combines archness and irony with vigour and ambition. This is some of the most intricate programmed music you’re likely to hear and it must have required meticulous and patient effort in its production. The melodies are often every bit as imaginative as the stuttering rhythms and the rough edges are brilliantly contrasted by Tundra’s saccharine voice.
46.Grace Jones – Hurricane (Wall of Sound)
It’s always great to have pop artists as flamboyant and charismatic as Jones, but few could have expected her comeback album to be quite this good. Mostly, it eschews crass attempts at modernisation in favour of concentrating on what she did best in her halcyon days – that sinister, slinky, reggae-infused groove. Occasionally it veers into darker, Massive Attack-inspired territory (particularly on the terrifying ‘Corporate Cannibal’) but it manages to retain its distinctive personality and sense of humour in the process. The personal and autobiographical nature of some songs mark it out from Jones’ back catalogue – an attempt to break away from the idea of Jones as a mechanical, perennially detached and disguised figure.
45. Matana Roberts – The Chicago Project (Central Control)
More Chicago jazz shenanigans, this time on a gritty and intense workout imbued with a spiritual quality throughout. It’s an iconoclastic record whereby structure is toyed with imaginatively (improvisations are often linked by hints and snippets of themes or melodies) but it’s also appropriately reverent towards the music’s legacy. The group sounds liberated by Roberts’ overwhelming presence as a leader. The music is busy and agitated, but also utterly thrilling.
44. Pat Metheny Trio – Day Trip (Nonesuch)
Metheny’s trio with the swinging bassist Christian McBride and fluid drummer Antonio Sanchez is a group of heavyweight musicians but they manage to make the compositions here sound light and airy. This is one of Metheny’s more immediate and approachable efforts – not as sophisticated as his collaborations with Lyle Mays, but predicated on an uncommon musical empathy and a highly developed melodic sensibility.
43. Joan As Policewoman – To Survive (PIAS)
This graceful, elegant collection of modified torch songs (the emotion is present but the theatricality has been muted) shares something with Feist’s ‘The Reminder’ in its insight into human relationships and naked vulnerability. Joan Wasser’s writing is deceptively simple – these songs are beautiful, subtle and have real depth, as well as a magnetic pull that draws us right to the core of what it means to be human.
42. Matmos – Supreme Balloon (Matador)
A baffling omission from even the more adventurous end of year lists, this is perhaps the most compositionally adventurous of Matmos albums. In veering away from particular conceits (there’s no sampling of surgical procedures or sexual congress here), they have produced something free of marketing gimmicks, but which retains their core musical virtues. ‘Supreme Balloon’ is their most mysterious creation yet – crafted from a range of sonically arresting vintage instruments. It’s a thoroughly absorbing listen, one in which ideas are developed to their logical conclusions.
41. Goldmund – The Malady of Elegance (Touch)
A collection of sombre, dignified skeletal piano pieces, this is one of those records that attests to the potential for simple statements to be the most profound. The music moves as slowly as one of Bela Tarr’s infamous tracking shots – and with a similar grace and poise. The overall effect is both mesmerising and moving.
40. Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek – Elixir (ECM)
I’m sometimes a little agnostic about Garbarek, but this record is a sly and magical concoction. Marilyn Mazur plays a whole wealth of percussion, including the now infamous Hang drum. At the very least, therefore, this record is notable for exposing the gimmicky limitations of the Mercury nominated Portico Quartet. Of course, it’s much more than that though – a record that makes duo playing sound rich and full, with some wonderfully expressive performances. The tracks are often brief and sketchy – but combined they make for a compelling and soothing whole.
39. Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp)
If a couple of tracks had been excised from this, it would have been every bit as brilliant an album as ‘Like Weather’ or ‘Courtesy of Choice’. As it stands, it’s yet another statement of Leila’s peerless ability to combine unusual, homemade music with original vocal contributions. Just when you thought that there could be no more interesting Beatles covers – she produces a radical and striking interpretation of ‘Norwegian Wood’ for good measure. Immersing yourself in this music is like entering a fairytale world of magic and foreboding. Why her live set supporting Bjork was so confrontational and ultimately boring when her recorded music is so rich and fascinating makes for a somewhat baffling conundrum.
38. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Lie Down In The Light/Is It The Sea? (Domino)
OK, so I’ve cheated twice in this year’s list by banding two albums by the same artist together. Whilst he can be contrary and frustrating, Will Oldham still manages to be remarkably prolific. Whilst a new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy would once have been expected to reach the upper echelons of the MOJO or Uncut polls, ‘Lie Down In The Light’ was completely ignored this year. It’s actually one of his best albums, delivered with a newfound sophistication and stateliness. The live album is more raucous and attacking, and features yet more unexpected reworkings of Oldham classics thanks to the irreverent backing provided by Scottish group Harem Scarem.
37. Polar Bear – Polar Bear (Tinted Angel)
The lukewarm reception to this album from some of UK jazz’s most reputable commentators suggests that Seb Rochford’s group are now being taken for granted. I think there’s a strong argument that this record, despite being overlong and unimaginatively titled, is the band’s finest album to date. The electronics of Leafcutter John now play a much more significant role – in conversation and sometimes in argument with the glorious saxophone duelling of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham. Rochford’s own playing remains groovy and defiantly subtle – he has made a name for himself as a drummer without acrobatics or showy virtuosity – just meaningful playing that informs and supports his radical, fascinating compositions. That a number of these pieces seem informed by personal experience adds to the record’s considerable charm.
36. Dave Holland Sextet – Pass It On (Dare2/Universal Classics)
I must admit to having been slightly surprised to find this coming out on top in the Jazzwise albums of the year poll. This was partially as a result of their usual preference for hip young gunslingers, but also because it initially seemed like another excellent set from a composer and performer who has never made a bad album. It mostly revisits previously recorded material, dating back as far as 1985, but it is now presented by a new group, with only Robin Eubanks remaining from the previous quintet. The major differences come with the addition of pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Eric Harland, who plays with an astonishing level of flexibility and dynamism. This imbues the group with a fresh impetus and a new sound, whilst sustaining Holland’s familiar compositional characteristics.
35. TV On The Radio – Dear Science (4AD)
It took me a while to ‘get’ this album whilst everyone seemed to be salivating over it. Initially it seemed like another rather calculated attempt to move into Prince-emulating territory, although further listens reveal that the unique qualities of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s songwriting and sound are still present. It’s unfortunate that much of the attention falls on to Dave Sitek (especially when his production work for other artists doesn’t always represent the midas touch many associate with him) – it’s really Adebimpe and Malone’s voices that make this music so refreshing and mysterious.
34. Kasai All Stars – In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate The Head of His Enemy By Magic (Congotronics/Crammed Discs)
For those enchanted by Konono No. 1 and their astounding thumb piano music comes a further project from the Congotronics staple – a collective of 25 musicians. All are from the Kasai region but apparently come from a variety of ethnic groups. The result is a cultural mix that makes this exciting and striking music. The group inevitable create a fuller, denser sound than Konono, and much of the interest comes from their head-spinning rhythms.
33. Django Bates – Spring is Here, Shall We Dance? (Lost Marble)
Django Bates continues to polarise opinion in the jazz world – there are those who find him intolerably whimsical and those who admire his rhythmic and harmonic sophistication more uncritically. I have little problem with his quirky humour, and his insistence that adventurous music can be sophisticated, challenging and entertaining all at the same time. Bates remains a first class arranger whose music is full of quirks, tricks and unexpected transitions. With all the larking about, Bates also has some serious points to make here – about both personal freedom and civic responsibility.
32. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part 1: 4th World War (Universal)
Sadly, not much in the way of R&B or hip hop has really come under my radar this year. Whilst I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in either area, this is still quite an unusual situation. This latest album from Erykah Badu strikes me as exceptional – a record that has pushed her to a high level of creativity. It’s a defiant, politically charged statement, full of themes it might be easy to neglect in light of the election of Barack Obama. The music is also nuanced, soulful and expressive – Badu managing to avoid the mechanistic pitfalls of some contemporary soul.
31. Susanna – Flower of Evil (Rune Grammofon)
This latest collection from the dependably prolific Susanna slipped out almost unnoticed but might in fact be her best collection to date. These minimal, icily elegant cover versions will not sustain her for an entire career, but while she’s still refining her processes and delivery, every album improves on the last. The version of ‘Without You’ with Will Oldham completely transforms the song, as do the majestic interpretations of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ and, more unexpectedly, Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’. This is beautiful stuff.
30. Box – Studio 1 (Rune Grammofon)
Like the Scorch Trio album (and also featuring that group’s blistering guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim), the Box project proved almost exhausting in its savage intensity. A supergroup brought together by filmmaker Philip Mullarkey as a film and music project, the band features the superb talents of John Zorn, Stalle Storloken (of Supersilent) and radical drummer Morten Agren. What elevates this above some of the other genre-crossing free music experiments is its occasional grasp of more pensive and reflective forms.
29. The Dodos – Visiter (Wichita)
I don’t like to advertise here, but Amazon appear to be selling this excellent record for the bargain price of £3.98 right now. I would advise readers to take advantage – as this ramshackle, clattering, spirited album is one of the most enjoyable of the year. Sounding like a less lysergic, less processed Animal Collective – The Dodos’ percussion driven music is vibrant and joyful, but also frequently aggressive and infused with the blues. The untamed momentum and yelping vocals could potentially be irritating were it not for the high quality of the songs, which are consistently arresting and infectious.
28. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (DFA/EMI)
It would take a very churlish and humourless person to resist this hugely satisfying chunk of nu-disco. It’s worth mentioning that it’s not all cheesy mirrorballs and octave bass lines though – there’s some much more unusual and subtle writing coming into play in the album’s more elusive second half. Similarly, the opening track is a quite extraordinary concoction of multi-tracked Antonys. His voice, although increasingly ubiquitous, still sounds haunting, albeit with less gravitas and more urgency in this rather different context.
27. Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (Warner Bros)
As an album act, Gnarls Barkley seem to have been somewhat overlooked. ‘The Odd Couple’ didn’t exactly contain another phenomenal smash such as ‘Crazy’, but as a piece of warped, deeply unusual pop music it excelled. In ‘Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?’, a response to the death of James Brown, Cee-Lo Green crafted a modern soul classic and a song that ought to stand the test of time. Throughout, Danger Mouse’s backing tracks demonstrate a wider range of influences – including 60s psych pop, punk, folk music and punk. It’s surely one of the best albums to have come out of the mainstream in some time.
26. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp)
FlyLo would probably define himself as a hip hop artist, even though this largely instrumental music is considerably more fractured and surreal than such terminology might imply to the casual listener. There’s something ominous, foreboding, sometimes even terrifying about this music, cloaked as it is in fog and murk. It’s like entering a version of the city where the glamour has been surgically removed and only the sinister undertow remains.
25. Nico Muhly – Mothertongue (Brassland)
Nico Muhly is another Philip Glass protégé threatening to become much more interesting than his mentor (seriously – who would actually listen to Glass over Muhly or Arthur Russell?). He has made a substantial career for himself already as an arranger for the likes of Bjork, and his collaborations with Toumani Diabate and Antony and the Johnsons must have made for highlights of the Barbican’s recent concert series, although I couldn’t attend either. This work shows off his range, invoking as it does Riley, Stockhausen, early music and the folk tradition. The title track seems to string together disconnected vocal sounds to make a whole new language of its own. The guesting Sam Amidon contributes a more conventional, but no less affecting narrative. It’s a striking record, where patterns and systems help tell intriguing stories.
24. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (4AD)
This is more than an interesting stop-gap while we wait for the next album from Daniel Rossen’s main project Grizzly Bear. It’s a fascinating, beautiful album in its own right. It has frequently been banded together with the likes of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver as another contemporary exploration of an American folk tradition – but there’s something more theatrical and whimsical going on here, perhaps informed by psychedelia or the playful experiments of Syd Barrett. This is music full of charm and warmth with a strong helping of sugar.
23. Philip Jeck – Sand (Touch)
I only came to this album late in the year. Having had my interest in turntables piqued by Shiva Feshareki’s wondrous collaboration with Natalie Clein, I set out in search of original music using record decks as an instrument. Jeck’s work is a world away from Shiva’s rhythmic outbursts though – it’s a moody, unsettling world of scratchy, fuzzy ambience that demonstrates how versatile turntable music can be. What is particularly impressive about ‘Sand’ is the sheer emotional force of this music, even when it lacks the discernible traits of pitch, harmony and rhythm. The album as a whole has a cumulative impact that is close to overwhelming.
22. Blink – Blink (Loop)
This is one of those excellent trio albums where a group emerges that is much more than the sum of its already impressive parts. Particularly crucial to this triumphant summit is classically trained percussionist and jazz drummer Paul Clarvis, whose expressive, individual and informative playing does much more than simply gluing the group together. He pushes them into more liberated, exploratory territory. As a result, pianist Alcyona’s compositions are more interesting than those on her own album from a couple of years ago, and saxophonist Robin Fincker plays with a particularly musical intensity. Each player brings a different element to the collective and the result is a satisfying meeting of minds rather than a jarring mismatch. Blink seem to find that intriguing intersection between formal composition and free improvisation far more comfortable than many others operating in similar territory.
21. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont (4AD/Kranky)
This one is less a case of cheating as Bradford Cox gave fans a little treat in the form of a bonus disc when the physical version of ‘Microcastle’ finally surfaced. The unexpected joy is that ‘Weird Era Cont’ is every bit as singular and exciting as its parent album, with plenty of weird and wonderful noises floating in and out of an eerie and disorientating mix. ‘Microcastle’ is notable for its incorporation of 50s and 60s pop influences, something which Cox has spoken about clearly, but which some critics have mistakenly chosen to downplay. Cox has not aped these forms, but rather subsumed them into his warped, outsider aesthetic. Deerhunter unsurprisingly have a loyal following, but ‘Microcastle’ gives them a strong weapon with which to break out of the indie ghetto, should the conditions be right for them to do so.
20. Elvis Costello and The Imposters – Momofuku (Lost Highway)
Why does Weller merit a space in many of the mainstream top tens, but Costello, making yet another excellent album, can barely even summon a mention? Perhaps on this occasion, it’s a result of his own mischievous engineering. Having promised in an interview with Word magazine to abandon making albums, ‘Momofuku’ appeared quite suddenly and unexpectedly as a digital release. Clearly recorded very quickly, it had a loose, spirited and rough n’ ready feel – but the songs bear the quality hallmarks of their creator, from the uncharacteristically earnest to the more predictably visceral. Costello’s voice is at its most versatile too, both raucous and emotive.
19. Vijay Iyer – Tragicomic (Sunnyside)
It’s no surprise that Vijay Iyer, whose composing and piano playing are equal parts visionary and academic, has a degree in Mathematics. He has a preference for rhythmic complexity (rock critics who think that Foals are the height of rhythmic invention need to hear this music), incorporating polyrhythms and metric modulations, but manages to soften these harsh edges with an equally strong sense of melody and harmony. As a result, this is music that sounds troubled, but which comes with an abiding faith that change is achievable. Iyer himself says, with a pomposity usually the preserve of a Steve Coleman or Keith Jarrett-esque auteur: “A tragicomic outlook can ease our pains of metamorphosis and help us dream the next phase into being.” It’s somewhat clumsily expressed, but the gist of his argument is sound – it’s important to provide levity in even the toughest of times.
18. Erik Friedlander – Broken Arm Trio (Skipstone)
At Trinity College of Music’s Open Day this year, I overheard a conversation and found myself compelled to interject. One young potential undergraduate made the bold and somewhat ill-informed claim that there were ‘no jazz Cellists’. I first pointed out that we had an impressive jazz Cellist right here in London in the form of Ben Davis of Basquiat Strings and Oriole. I then also pointed out that there were other Cellists elsewhere passionately dedicated to expanding the language of an already uniquely versatile instrument – Fred Lonberg-Holm and Erik Friedlander particularly. It’s always a joy to come across a musician for the first time and then discover they’ve produced a wealth of material already. This was the case for me when I first encountered Friedlander’s music last year. This trio date with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin is sometimes bouncy and jubilant, sometimes sober and deeply tasteful. It consistently maintains a commitment to exploring the range of acoustic timbre and in exploring the possibilities of playful rhythmic interplay. It’s a total joy to listen to, and one of the finest unsung jazz releases of the year.
17. Curios – Closer (Impure)
Pianist Tom Cawley seems like a liberated artist now. He’s absconded from Acoustic Ladyland to focus on his own trio, winners of the Best Band Award at the BBC Jazz Awards. Their second album is both playful and contemplative, beautifully controlled and a wonderful showcase of collective empathy and interaction. Cawley has a delightful touch, and an impressive range of sound. Drummer Josh Blackmore is a prodigious talent, managing to combine fearsome dexterity with a clear musical mind. Even at their most serene, the group are completely engaging.
16. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (XL)
Vampire Weekend could easily turn out to be another Strokes (knock out three albums that are basically the same and then end up with nowhere to go). But what they have in abundance that some other US indie prospects lack is a sense of fun. The focus on Ivy League campus politics won’t sustain an entire career – but this album’s geeky lyrics are enjoyable enough when taken in isolation. Musically, it’s simple, direct and immediate, making thorough and effective use of its ‘world music’ influences. Bafflingly, everyone keeps barking on about it being influenced by Paul Simon – surely Talking Heads is the more obvious and appropriate reference point for this kind of African-tinged angular post-punk? Vampire Weekend stand out from the crowd simply through having written a set of really excellent songs.
15. Vandermark 5 – Beat Reader (Atavistic)
Here’s that other superb Jazz Cellist, Fred Lonberg-Holm, adding depth and texture to the weird and wonderful music of saxophonist Ken Vandermark. Vandermark dedicates each tune to another artist, not necessarily musicians, and there’s a strong sense of a broader intellectual process at work here that goes beyond the act of the spontaneous statement of ideas. The group is relentless and unforgiving, but also one where sounds and effects are carefully juxtaposed. The result is a music that can be wild but which also comes with its own rigorous internal logic.
14. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band – Season of Changes (Verve)
Brian Blade is a majestic drummer whose broad range of experience leads him to produce unpretentious music that communicates directly. As part of the radical group that has regenerated Wayne Shorter’s artistry, he has been partially responsible for some of the most important music of the past two decades. Some have bemoaned the fact that ‘Season Of Changes’ is uncharacteristically concise for a jazz release, but its brevity does not mean that it is slight. In fact, this seems like a lesson in how to produce detailed, composed music, with space for lyrical improvisation that is also accessible and immediate. Blade’s experience playing drums for songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris seems to have directed him towards an appreciation of simple forms – some of these pieces are little more than developed melodies, but they work because of their spare beauty. Elsehwhere, the frontline players merge together with impressive accuracy, and the fluency of the playing is exciting. In its movement from righteous grooving to reflective tranquillity, ‘Season of Changes’ packs a wide range of feeling into its tight timescale.
13. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Bella Union)
Were someone to do a poll of polls for 2008, this would most likely emerge as the overall critics’ favourite. I have no problem with this – for all the historic comparisons to Crosby, Stills and Nash or the contemporary references to My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes seem like one of the revelations of the year for their ability to forge their own sonic space. Neither of those bands ever explored the possibilities of baroque and medieval influences to quite the extent that FF incorporate them here. The critical emphasis is always going to be on those wonderful harmonies, which imbue the music with a strong sense of the spiritual and transcendent but it’s the music that actually interests me more. The arrangements are so much more ambitious than most rock bands of this nature can muster.
12. Bill Frisell – History, Mystery (Nonesuch)
Frisell is a dependable artist with a singular style that always sounds unique regardless of the varying contexts in which he locates himself. History Mystery is a sprawling double set resulting from two separate commissions, one for music to soundtrack a Public Radio series, the other for a collaborative work with a comic book illustrator. If anything, it’s a broad summary of his career preoccupations, incorporating original composition, Malian desert blues and interpretations from the American songbook. Much of it was recorded live, which judging by this and the equally impressive ‘East/West’ set, may well be the best environment for capturing Frisell’s qualities now. The larger octet provides a rich and full sound, but somehow sustains the kind of spaciness necessary for Frisell’s slow, ruminative and unshowy phrases to shine. Frisell is a key figure in contemporary American music – perhaps this is best attested by the peerless reading of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ contained here – a hopeful prophecy now fulfilled by the election of Barack Obama.
11. Benoit Pioulard – Temper (Kranky)
Benoit Pioulard’s ‘Precis’ was a fascinating but slightly sketchy debut. ‘Temper’ expands on the premise, making something that is both more accessible and more substantial than its promising predecessor. There’s still some kind of bucolic, naturalistic charm about this record, but its processed digital sounds make it feel slippery and unusual too. Any lyrics are almost completely inaudible, so an emotional connection comes not from themes or language but rather from the sound and construction of these clever modern folk pieces. Pioulard is a particularly promising example of the musician-producer auteur.
10. Fieldwork – Door (Pi)
Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey all on the same session?! This really is a contemporary jazz supertrio and every bit as dangerous and exciting as its line-up would suggest. This has a more elastic, free spirit at its core than the independent work of either Lehman or Iyer, although Tyshawn Sorey’s formidably accurate drumming ensures some sense of stricture is retained. Both fiery and respectful, there’s an energy and restlessness in the playing that brings out the most individual traits of all three players.
09. Beatundercontrol – Cosmic Repackage (Malicious Damage)‘Fusion’ is still a dirty word for many music lovers – but I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe the extraordinary sound Ulf Ivarsson has created here. Splicing together elements from jazz, dub, krautrock, even metal, he made one of the most fascinating works of the year. It’s an immersing listen, free from any conception of boundaries and full of intriguing compositional devices. The arrangements are intelligent but not overly complicated and the overall effect is striking and heavy. Sometimes the music is oppressive and dark, sometimes it is deceptively light. Perhaps its rather ugly title puts people off – this is a wonderful album that deserves more attention.
08. Bobo Stenson Trio – Cantando (ECM)
This is a record of almost unimaginable control and subtlety, one that relies on implication rather than statement and where the connection between the three players is unshakeable. Every jazz musician recognises the need for spontaneity in this music, but few can identify the distinction between instinct and intuition. Informed by experience, the best musicians can restrain themselves from splurging out everything in their heads. Drummer Jon Falt seems like a prime example here - adding conversational strokes to the music and supporting where necessary. That he integrates so warmly and intelligently with Stenson and his lyrical bassist Anders Jormin is testament to his skill and natural talent. The selections here rework pieces by Ornette Coleman and Alban Berg, which shows the wide range of Stenson’s musical understanding. Perhaps the highlight is the extended free improvisation ‘Pages’, which proves these peaceful musicians are also liberated and original.
07. The Bug – London Zoo (Ninja Tune)
This has been rather misleadingly clumped with the dubstep genre, when Kevin Martin’s real sonic concerns are a good deal more varied and complex. This confrontational, uncommonly angry blitz of digital dancehall achieves what Bloc Party failed to realise on ‘A Weekend In The City’ – an intelligent, excoriating portrait of a contemporary London riddled with violence and fear. It’s certainly terrifying – but the sheer determination to rage on is powerful. In spite of essentially consisting of individual tracks that exhibit the talents of a variety of guest performers, the whole album coheres remarkably well.
06. Portishead – Third (Universal)
Fears that Portishead would end their long hiatus with a record that merely restated their core values proved unfounded – there was nothing remotely dated or unambitious about ‘Third’. This is as claustrophobic and gripping a record as I’ve heard this year – it grasps the listener in a vice and remains unrelenting and unmerciful until its conclusion. Only the bucolic ‘Deep Water’ really changes the mood, and it has a cleansing effect, but still Beth Gibbons sounds fearful and intimidated, held down by the limitations of modern living. It’s a discomforting, disorientating and confessional work full of regret, but one that seems honest rather than forced.
05. James Blackshaw – Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square)
It’s certainly strange and surprising to hear James Blackshaw open his latest magnum opus on piano rather than guitar. Perhaps his spare, lingering chords offer some kind of counterpoint to the rest of this album, which must be his most richly orchestrated and most technically accomplished work to date. The extraordinary sound of his twelve string guitar is difficult to describe – it’s like being faced with impassable terrain or a cascading waterfall. Yet navigating through his imposing landscapes is a great joy and a decidedly relaxing and positive experience.
04. Fennesz – Black Sea (Touch)‘Black Sea’ slipped out in mid-December and I haven’t really yet had time to compose my thoughts on it. I am clear in my mind, however, that it’s on a par with Christian Fennesz’s best work and is more than a worthy companion to ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Venice’. It’s a more audacious record than last year’s collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto and one that makes more transparent use of Fennesz’s guitar amidst the hiss and hum of his laptop noise.
It’s clearer from ‘Black Sea’ that Fennesz is a dexterous and intelligent musician – there are points here where the swirling guitar becomes the dominant feature, rather than simply being subsumed into the attendant fog. Fennesz manages to achieve this without losing his music’s inherent sense of weirdness and fog though – his tracks seem to unfold gradually in a voyage of discovery, beginning quietly in confusion and ending boldly in clarity. There’s a sense of danger and malevolence at every turn, but a romanticism generally wins out.
03. Toumani Diabate – The Mande Variations (World Circuit)
Perhaps one of the major joys in exploring music from around the globe is the opportunity to hear unusual instruments unique to particular locations or cultures. Toumani Diabate is the virtuosic master of the kora, a Malian 32-stringed harp carved from a calabash that produces a wonderfully peaceful, soothing sound. ‘The Mande Variations’ presents Diabate unadorned and alone, without overdubs, and its riches are plentiful and varied. Many of these pieces are hymns to Diabate’s major influences, but they are played with a character, panache and feeling unique to Diabate himself. Although studio recorded, this is probably the closest work in recent years to the emotional abandon of Keith Jarrett’s best improvised concerts, and Diabate brings a similar sense of joy and awe to his kora playing.
02. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (4AD)
It’s easy to get cynical about albums like this, which build slowly through word of mouth and internet buzz and then get grasped eagerly by the music press and become ubiquitous. Justin Vernon may well have been flabbergasted that this intimate, personal record travelled so well in 2008. The backstory that surrounds it – which involved Vernon going to a rural cabin to record and hunting his own food – may well be completely fabricated for all I know but it certainly added a useful layer of mystique for marketing the music.
Really, though, it’s all inessential. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Emma of the album’s title is a real figure in Vernon’s life or not. What does matter is the extraordinary sound of this record – the warmth of the acoustic guitar and the ethereal quality of its layered choir of multi-tracked Vernon’s. Then there’s his voice itself, which is wonderfully versatile – moving from biting aggression on the choruses of ‘Skinny Love’ to haunting tenderness on the sublime closer ‘Re: Stacks’.
Few singer-songwriters manage to draw such richness from fundamentals. There isn’t much involved here except for guitar, voices and occasional percussion. The album is both elemental and elusive, direct but also ambiguous enough (not least in its unusual, poetic lyrics) to leave itself open to a variety of interpretations. It’s the album I’ve listened to the most in 2008.
01. Wildbirds and Peacedrums – Heartcore/The Snake (Leaf/Caprice)
My second case of flagrantly breaking established rules completes the 2008 chart. Sweden’s Wildbirds and Peacedrums were the revelation of the year for me both in their recordings and in live performance. I initially discovered them through the Raven Sings The Blues blog and I’ve yet to read anything substantial about them in the UK music press. Is this because they’ve won a Jazz prize in Sweden and have therefore been classified as a marginal concern? Or is it because the press here usually don’t bother investigating Scandinavian or European music in any great depth? Either way, the non-appearance of these records in any review of the year lists is absolutely criminal. Music this original and superbly executed should not be ignored.
‘Heartcore’ is really a 2007 album, but only received UK distribution through the Leaf label this year. It’s such beguiling and direct music, mostly stripped back to just drums and Mariam Wallentin’s peerless voice – and it’s amazing how much pure, genuine and unvarnished emotion the duo draw from that basic set-up. When they do add new elements, they are there for their textural effect and their emotional impact. ‘I Can’t Tell In His Eyes’ is as lush and touching a ballad as I’ve heard this year, made all the more impressive by its considered melding of electronic and acoustic sounds. Elsewhere, they can be brutal and forceful and – in spite of the absence of a harmonic instrument and unusually for a Scandinavian group, very much in touch with the blues.
‘The Snake’ develops the sound, and is closer to the overwhelming brilliance of their live performances. It’s also a darker, more opaque record, echoing some of the spirit and style of Portishead’s ‘Third’. It requires some effort from the listener in order o appreciate fully Patience is rewarded though, as the interaction of drums and vocals proves even more fruitful and creative here. It has yet to be officially released in the UK, but can be heard in full on some online outlets. Let’s hope Leaf pick it up for a proper 2008 release.