It's Christmas Eve! Here's a Christmas treat for all regular readers - this year's abums of the year list. If you come back on New Year's Eve, you should be able to find my best of the decade countdown up then. Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas!
100. Pet Shop Boys - Yes (Parlophone)
After the nadir of ‘Release’, Pet Shop Boys seemed to realise that their winning formula didn’t need to be adapted too much in order to sustain interest. ‘Fundamental’ had more energy, and some surprising political anger behind it. ‘Yes’ seems more based on human relationships, but it has some of the duo’s most engaging melodies for some time. I’m not sure the collaboration with Xenomania was strictly necessary, but it has certainly resulted in some fine songs. Neil Tennant continues to improve as a vocalist, retaining his deadpan delivery but adding phrasing and expression. Poptastic, naturally.
99. She Keeps Bees – Nests (Names)
A male-female duo playing stripped down blues-informed garage rock – does that sound familiar? She Keeps Bees have a gutsy, forthright take on the form though, and by reversing the roles, have at least distanced themselves a little from the obvious White Stripes comparisons. Compacted into a mercilessly brief 27 minutes, this is one of 2009’s most raw and unadorned musical statements.
98. Flaming Lips - Embryonic (Warner)
‘Embryonic’ is a sprawling, babbling mess of a record but not one without tremendous pleasures. These songs are supposedly studio jams, but they seem carefully constructed, or at least edited. This at least pushed Flaming Lips out of a safe zone, and back into the world of the fearless.
97. Atlas Sound - Logos (4AD)
This might be Bradford Cox’s most interesting work to date, one which further reveals his interest in 1950s and 60s pop singles and which takes his love of sound to new levels. It’s a much more widescreen, macrocosmic effort than his previous album as Atlas Sound, taking in collaborations with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Sterolab’s Laetitia Saedler, but retaining Cox’s own distinctive musical DNA.
96. Candi Staton - Who's Hurtin' Now (Honest Jon's)
A straightforward follow up to the superb ‘His Hands’, this again sees Staton delivering muscular country soul. It’s powerful stuff, with Staton’s gritty voice remaining largely undiminished.
95. Paul Burch - Still Your Man (Ramseur)
This is a delightful album of old-timey rockabilly, country, gentler serenades and blues. Burch carries all this off because he has such a complete love for and thorough understanding of the American musical tradition. You could easily imagine these songs nestling into an episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour.
94. Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care (Domino)
A great collection of soulful synth pop – veering between the effortlessly funky and the hazily soporific. It’s a gently seductive album.
93. Bill Frisell - Disfarmer (Nonesuch)
‘Disfarmer’ is another one of Frisell’s occasional ambling side-steps. It’s perhaps not a major statement along the lines of ‘Blues Dream’ or ‘Have A Little Faith’, but its gentle, almost lazy-sounding country shuffle is the result of Frisell’s mastery of his instrument. He remains one of my favourite musicians in jazz – his harmonic sense is deep and intuitive, but his openness to connections between various forms of music also sets him apart.
92. Prefuse 73 - Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (Warp)
It looked as if Scott Herren had lost the midas touch, but this sci-fi extravaganza is a reminder of how skilled a producer he is. The skittering beats and short, sharp shocks remain the Prefuse trademarks.
91. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP)
With Andrew Weatherall in the producer’s chair, F*ck Buttons have expanded their sound into something imposing and irresistible on ‘Tarot Sport’. It’s an electronic take on structures and ideas familiar from what is often termed ‘post-rock’, and the bursts of noise are this time more carefully integrated into the overall whole. This is a confident and controlled work.
90. Liam Hayes and Plush - Bright Penny (Broken Horse)
The reissue of Liam Hayes’ magnum opus ‘Fed’ seems to have opened the doors for his return to a modest limelight – this time with an album that sounds strongly influenced by Burt Bacharach and Philadelphia soul. It’s a sugary confection for sure, but one that sounds sincere. It may not be quite as substantial as ‘Fed’, but these straightforwardly affecting songs are the work of a real talent.
89. Joe Lovano Us Five - Folk Art (Blue Note)
This is a slightly unexpected detour for Lovano, one of America’s greatest saxophonists, now being energised by a younger band. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a rhythm heavy record characterised by rhythmic interaction. Lovano also finds room for moments of real beauty and moments of fiery abstraction. A compelling session.
88. Alela Diane - To Be Still (Names)
‘To Be Still’ is a superb showcase for Alela Diane’s inventive songwriting and wildly compelling voice, which somehow manages to be peaceful and violent all at the same time. This album has a great, naturalistic sound too.
87. DOOM - Born Like This (Lex)
Only a dispiriting vein of casual homophobia blights this otherwise superb album by one of rap’s greatest mavericks. ‘Born Like This’ is an otherwise heavy beast – dark and mesmerising in the way of Doom’s best work.
86. Hildur Gudnadottir - Without Sinking (Type)
Cellist Hildur Gundnadottir has crafted an album full of space and time, but one which rides in on a wave of quiet, steely determination and vivid menace. Much of it sounds ominous and threatening. It’s a very striking work, carefully constructed and brilliantly executed.
85. Acoustic Ladyland - Living With A Tiger (Strong and Wrong)
With Chris Sharkey on guitar replacing keyboardist Tom Cawley, Acoustic Ladyland returned in an even more aggressive incarnation. ‘Living With A Tiger’ is a relentless, explosive album, but one which also finds space for brooding and for earthquake-inducing grooves. Sharkey’s effects-laden chaos sounds great when pitted against Seb Rochford’s insistent but relaxed drumming.
84. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)
It’s difficult to see how the HBE will develop or refine this formula on future releases, so thoroughly entertaining is this debut. The combination of driving funk or hip-hop beats with a New Orleans-style brass group would probably be a mere gimmick were it not for the exuberant quality of the playing and the intelligent arranging on display here. It results in one of the year’s most fun albums.
83. The Hidden Cameras - Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts)
In which one of my favourite indie groups make a bold bid for wider appeal with an ambitious album retaining much of their old merriment, but also veering into grander, more windswept territory. The addition of synthesisers has refreshed the more playful aspects of their sound, and Joel Gibb’s masterful melodicism remains strong.
82. Jim Hart's Gemini - Narrada (Loop)
Jim Hart is a multi-talented percussionist and composer and in Gemini, he has assembled a powerhouse group of young musicians, full of vitality and enthusiasm for improvisation and interaction. The rhythm section of Jasper Hoiby and Dave Smith is driving and intense, contrasting with Hart’s jubilant and reflective themes. The compositions on ‘Narrada’ seem to be further developments from those on ‘Emergence’ – Hart is a brilliant musician who seems to be growing in stature.
81. Partisans - By Proxy (Babel)
Partisans remain one of the spikiest and most rhythmically attuned ensembles in British jazz, preoccupied with time shifts and quirky, unpredictable melodies. Gene Calderazzo’s effortlessly creative drumming is always a highlight of any recording he appears on, and whilst this band like to take twists and turns, they can also groove brilliantly, or craft a darker, more mysterious atmosphere.
80. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It (Sony)
Finally released in the UK in 2009, Raphael Saadiq’s second solo album is a masterful facsimile of classic soul music, with a particular nod to vintage Motown. It’s all done with tremendous love and enthusiasm that it manages to go beyond being a purely retrospective exercise – Saadiq brings a fresh, crisp sound to proceedings and also happens to write exceptional songs too.
79. Charles Spearin - The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts)
The idea of finding musical phrasing to match the contours of the human speaking voice is no longer much of a novel idea – Steve Reich explored similar ground with ‘Different Trains’ and the YouTube video of one of Sarah Palin’s interview responses turned into a jazz piano solo shows what can be achieved through the process. Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin has now reaped further rewards from this process in recording various people discussing the concept of happiness, and making entire compositions from their conversations. The music is a strange
78. The XX - The XX (Young Turks/XL)
There’s something untrained but wholly natural about The XX’s skeletal soul music. It reminds me most of ‘Colossal Youth’, that superb Young Marble Giants album but there are also hints at the more contemporary work of Bjork collaborator Leila. Many did not like the flat, dulled sounds of the group’s two vocalists, but the voices seem to mesh together effortlessly, and there’s something believable and honest in their casual insouciance. There is a lot of potential here.
77. Broadcast and The Focus Group - Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp)
I’m not sure I get this whole ‘hauntology’ or ‘hypnagogic’ thing yet (aren’t these just terms invented by journalists?), but this collaboration between Broadcast and Ghost Box artists The Focus Group contains a wealth of bizarre and intriguing material, much of it seeming to hark back to the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Initially billed as a stop-gap EP, it’s actually a short album constructed from short snippets – a collage in which the sum is much greater than the parts.
76. Apostle of Hustle - Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)
Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman continues to produce brilliant, entertaining albums with Apostle of Hustle – surely now more his chief preoccupation than a side project. ‘East Darkness’ is a mercilessly concise, but typically artful work, one which imposes rhythmic invention and clever dynamics on to what is ostensibly a rock production.
75. trioVD - Fill It Up With Ghosts (Babel)
There probably aren’t any rock bands around in Britain who can play with the burning intensity of trioVD, ostensibly an improvising jazz trio. This is visceral, searing, tremendously exciting music played with real vigour and energy.
74. Cortney Tidwell - Boys (City Slang)
‘Boys’ found a range of satisfying contexts for Tidwell’s haunting, spectral voice, the quality of her songwriting continuing to develop. The subtle hints at Nashville country are all the more fascinating for being buried beneath swathes of dreamy atmospherics and lush noises.
73. Gwilym Simcock - Blues Vignette (Basho)
Simcock’s second album, a double set, seemed meticulously planned to show off the diversity of his talent, incorporating his classical preoccupations in solo playing and duo performances with a cellist. The second CD was devoted to his new trio, another setting in which brilliant young drummer James Maddren can make a major contribution. Hopefully ‘Blues Vignette’ hasn’t exhausted Simcock’s manifold abilities – whilst it’s not as coherent as ‘Perception’, it is a rich, personal album full of confidence and sensitivity.
72. Volcano Choir - Unmap (Jagjaguwar)
How to follow up an internationally acclaimed word-of-mouth sensation of a debut album? Perhaps the best option is not to bother working on a proper follow up, but find an entirely new setting. Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, achieved this successfully by teaming up with Collection of Colonies of Bees, a little known Wisconsin instrumental group. The result placed Vernon in a more abstract, less impressionistic context, removing him from the direct environment of the ‘song’.
71. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs (Matador)
Yo La Tengo continue to expand their reach here, combining their brighter side with moments of scintilating menace. It’s one of their more sprawling and ambitious records, a little difficult to digest in one sitting but full of inspiration and adventure.
70. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)
Although recorded and released remarkably speedily by the standards of today’s market schedule directed music industry, ‘Two Dancers’ was a massive step on from Wild Beasts’ acclaimed debut. Much less extravagant, but retaining the band’s theatrical sensibilities, these songs benefited from greater attention to detail and from arrangements that somehow managed to be simultaneously minimal and lavish. Whilst Hayden Thorpe’s outrageous falsetto will always alienate some listeners, he also remains the group’s distinctive weapon – a real vocal character. This is a very British record – along with the likes of Golden Silvers, it suggests that there is once again potential in our music.
69. Lars Horntveth – Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound)
2009 saw a number of musicians associated with ensembles bursting into the world of contemporary composition. Battles’ Tyondai Braxton made ‘Central Market’, an informed but playful record that sounded exactly how one might imagine a contemporary classical take on Battles to sound. Jaga Jazzists’ Lars Horntveth produced something more sustained and immersing – with plenty of ideas that are developed as well as stated.
68. Zed-U - Night Time on the Middle Passage (Babel)
Striving to break free from the jazz tradition, but maintaining a commitment to spontaneous and fearless improvisation, the trio of Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles and Tom Skinner have developed something fresh and exciting here. In their more relaxed moments, Zed-U achieve a sort of dub-jazz hybrid, and Hutchings’ melodies are given space to breathe. Yet there are also explosive, wilder moments too. It’s refreshing to hear a band so unconcerned with genre or classification, making great strides for something new.
67. Antipop Consortium - Flourescent Black (Big Dada)
It’s a shame that, in the plethora of band reunions, the return of Antipop Consortium seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been away all that long or maybe it’s because, in fairness, ‘Flourescent Black’ isn’t quite as radical and exciting as their earlier material. Still, it’s a brilliantly constructed reminder of their wonky, warped and disorientating take on hip hop. It breaks no new ground for them, but it’s good to have them back. No one else makes rap sound this adventurous and stark.
66. Stefano Bollani - Stone in the Water (ECM)
Bollani is a technically accomplished pianist, with classical influences as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz tradition. His more restrained recordings give little indication of the experience of seeing him perform live, a situation in which comedy seems to play as important a role as the music. ‘Stone In The Water’, a trio album showcasing Bollani’s expressive side, features some tremendous ensemble interaction. It’s a subtle but absorbing work.
65. Black To Comm - Alphabet 1968 (Type)
Apparently, the idea behind ‘Alphabet 1968’ was for experimental musician Marc Richter to make an album of ‘songs’. In that case, these are some of the least conventional ‘songs’ you’re ever likely to hear. This is a hugely original mix of gamelan percussion, static and found sound that, in spite of its disparate tangents, works brilliantly as a whole.
64. The Invisible - The Invisible (Accidental)
I usually hate reviews that focus on the identification of cultural trends at the expense of discussing the actual music, but 2009 does seem to have thrown up some intriguing developments. There’s the increasing number of bands mixing electronics and live performance, the vast numbers of bands strongly influenced by music from Africa (especially Mali) and then there’s whole rather baffling hauntology thing, with which I’ve yet to successfully engage. The Invisible certainly fall into the first category, but then they also fall into another – a growth in the number of bands with real technical ability on their instruments and with a serious interest in composition (see also Dirty Projectors, Three Trapped Tigers, Mew, Blk Jks and others). This debut is brilliantly produced, with an encapsulating, immersing sound. Tom Herbert, also of Polar Bear, provides some brilliantly dominant bass lines and the whole record effortlessly combines percussive drive with hypnotic atmospheres.
63. The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa (Moshi Moshi)
This collaboration between the charmingly named production duo Radioclit and singer Esau Mwamwaya first emerged last year on an effervescent and celebratory mix compilation. So successful was this that a studio recording was planned, the results being this fresh and enjoyable hybrid music. There’s so much African-western fusion at the moment, and this feels like a particularly open and unprejudiced time in modern music.
62. Blk Jks - After Robots (Secretly Canadian)
This rock band from South Africa are superb – managing to mix the joyful energy of township music with western psychedelia and hard rock. The music here is rhythmically intricate and delivered with a blistering intensity. Best of all are the tracks with scintillating horn arrangements from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
61. Monolake – Silence (Monolake)
This one was only released a few days ago and possibly would have been placed higher had I had enough time to digest it fully. There’s so much to absorb in Robert Henke’s meticulously constructed sound world – a world that goes well beyond the spurious genre classifications into which electronic music is often divided. Some might call this techno, but this does little to describe Henke’s fascination with rhythm. A tremendous record that simply sounds phenomenal.
60. Tomasz Stanko Quintet - Dark Eyes (ECM)
Controversially abandoning his young Polish rhythm section, Tomasz Stanko returned with a new and different ensemble for ‘Dark Eyes’. The result was a brighter, more imposing sound, a bold step away from his familiar ethereal atmospherics. Stanko’s playing remains highly distinctive and easily identifiable, and it was refreshing to hear his vocabulary in a new context.
59. Mos Def - The Ecstatic (Downtown)
It may not say anything terribly positive about the state of hip hop in 2009 that this defiantly classicist album might be the year’s major artistic statement. After a period spent devoting time to his acting career, Mos Def re-emerged to remind us what an energetic and intelligent rapper he is, with what may well be his most consistent and enjoyable album. The arrangements are kinetic and grooving.
58. Supersilent - 9 (Rune Grammofon)
This is certainly a strong contender for the year’s weirdest album. Following the unexpected departure of drummer Jarle Vespestad, Supersilent reconfigured with a radically different set up. All three members are playing organs here, although the sound of each is excessively treated, and the range of sounds drawn from each instrument is extraordinary. Perhaps inevitably, there’s less interest in rhythm here, and these improvisations become textural experiments. It probably won’t be remembered as the greatest Supersilent album, but it’s a fascinating example of how to make an unpredictable musical statement.
57. Golden Silvers - True Romance (XL)
At last, an intelligent British pop album! Despite what our proud media might tell you, such albums are remarkably thin on the ground these days. ‘True Romance’ manages to take the better elements of the Britpop movement (think Supergrass circa ‘In It For The Money’ or ‘Fuzzy Logic’ era Super Furry Animals) and adds layers of jazz and soul. The songs are infectious and memorable and are iced with some exceptionally witty lyrics.
56. City Center - City Center (Type)
The extroardinarily pervasive influence of Ariel Pink's home recordings appears again here on this subtle leftfield pop gem. The reverb-heavy vocals add to the sense of summer heat-haze, and when combined with the oddly jaunty strumming and quirky percussion interjections, it makes for a peculiar and heady mix. This record weaves its own idiosyncratic and charming web.
55. David Sylvian - Manafon (Samadhi Sound)
'Manafon' is an exceedingly brave and individual record, and one has to admire it simply for how far Sylvian has come from his pop star persona. ‘Blemish’ was a lightning bolt of drama and catharsis, and Sylvian has not looked back since. With ‘Manafon’, Sylvian has crafted his own hermetic space, completely isolated and detached from any fashions, trends or prevailing winds. There are difficulties – the lack of dynamic contrast, the dominance of Sylvian’s rich baritone vocals. But there are also abundant qualities – insight and compassion, and the sense of striving for a new musical language.
54. Olafur Arnalds - Found Songs (Erased Tapes)
Initially given away one song per day via Twitter, this new mini-album brilliantly developed Arnalds' gorgeous strain of neo-classical melancholy and brought his music to a wider audience. It's an effortlessly direct and affecting sound, capturing a sense of loss and sadness.
53. Vladislav Delay - Tummaa (Leaf)
Along with the Moritz Von Oswald album, ‘Tummaa’ represents an intriguing trend attempting to marry the conventions of programmed electronica with spontaneous improvisation. ‘Tummaa’ is a subtle, slippery and elusive work, but one that amply rewards close attention. These compositions are considered and sophisticated.
52. Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine (Secretly Canadian)
Jason Molina has been a dependable candidate for my end-of-year polls for as long as I've been writing this blog, although there's a justifiable sense that he may have been doggedly charting the same terrain for a little too long now. Certainly, his vocabulary remains confined to a fairly narrow metaphorical space, but 'Josephine', something of a song cycle, at last pushes away from the Neil Young and Crazy Horse template that has characterised Magnolia. It's a dusty, sad and beautiful album in which Molina's voice, at the forefront, carries a whole world of melancholy feeling.
51. Mew - No More Stories... (Sony)
In spite of losing band members along the way, Mew continue to get stronger and more adventurous with each release. They are dependable for the rich, clear quality of their sound and the haunting effect of their vocals. 'No More Stories' is also one of the most rhythmically exciting rock ensemble albums of the year, placing them in a league with the likes of Dirty Projectors and Three Trapped Tigers in the sophisticated arrangement of their music. They've also produced some touching and memorable melodies here too and the full picture contains a striking mix of muscularity and vulnerability.
50. Outhouse Ruhabi - Outhouse Ruhabi (Loop)
This collaboration between London-based improvisers Outhouse and five sabar drummers from Gambia appears to have been a successful, mutually satisfying project. It demonstrates that Outhouse are open-minded musicians with a broad conception of what constitutes contemporary jazz. The drummers are fully integrated into these compositions, sometimes fuelling them. It’s consistently engaging, and often thrilling – one of the best Loop releases so far.
49. Mountains - Choral (Thrill Jockey)
This kind of combination of electronics with acoustic instrumentation could easily become a tired cliché, but Mountains’ quietly expansive approach makes it work wonderfully. These tapestries of sound seem straightforward initially, but gradually reveal further layers of detail and texture. It’s all the more impressive on the discovery that Mountains record largely live and in real time.
48. Liam Noble Trio - Brubeck (Basho)
Here is a fine album reaching back into the output of one of the major figures of American jazz, and reinventing that music with inspiration and intelligence. 'Brubeck' is first and foremost a superb example of piano trio performance - full of spotanenous wit and energy. It's also a splendid extrapolation of frequently familiar themes, all delivered with the perfect combination of reverence and originality.
47. Tinariwen - Imidiwan: Companions (Independiente)
Tinariwen’s steadfast desert rock continues to be radical and exciting, a combination of vibrant rhythm, traditional storytelling and steadfast drones. 'Imidiwan' may be their most complete album to date, with the familiar drones and handclaps accompanied by a tender sensitivity. The music is resolute and repetitive, but also full of drama.
46. King Midas Sound - Waiting For You (Hyperdub)
Having made one of the most uncomfortably captivating albums of the decade as The Bug with ‘London Zoo’, Kevin Martin seemed strangely dissatisfied. The result was a new moniker – and a single collaborator in vocalist Roger Robinson. Martin’s dank claustrophobia remains here, but is accompanied by a new humanity, warmth and a tentative positivity. The result is an intriguing and original development of the dubstep sound.
45. John Abercrombie - Wait Til You See Her (ECM)
This is almost certainly the most romantic jazz album of the year - one which teeters on the precipice between sentiment and sentimentality but manages to stay just on the right side of it thanks to Abercrombie's economy and taste. It's a splendid, sustained vision, delicate and touching, with a satisfying combination of light and shade. It's some distance from the playful bounding of recent Abercrombie efforts such as 'Cat and Mouse', but a change is surely as good as a rest.
44. Califone - All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans)
Califone have to be one of the world's most consistent and consistently underrated bands. Perhaps its because their music has an unassuming experimentalism at its core - a desire to fuse archaic Americana with a contemporary impulse. The result is a modern folk music that sounds natural and unforced, completely removed from the 'freak folk' artists that tend to acquire more publicity. This superb album continued their quest with a quiet audacity.
43. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (Jagjaguwar/PIAS)
This was so much better than it had any right to be. As little as three years ago, J Mascis and Lou Barlow supposedly held each other in mutual contempt. Rumour has it that communication between them is still somewhat limited. This seems to have only added to the fire in the music - Mascis' wall of distortion sounding as effortlessly brilliant as ever. More surprising is that it still sounds vital and relevant, where so many other reunions have seemed purely nostalgic. Perhaps that is due to the quality of the songwriting which, while still consisting of non-commital titles that hint at Mascis' trademark sloth, is crisp and powerful. Mascis has evidently mellowed sufficiently to allow Barlow to contribute some songs too, both of which are excellent.
42. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti)
'Middle Cyclone' saw Case successfully navigate a path between her trademark country-noir and something brighter and more direct. Her no-frills voice still comes with a lingering resonance and a singular communicative power. Perhaps more importantly, her songwriting has continued to develop and mature, and 'Middle Cyclone' artfully balances introspective melancholy with empathy. In the title track, 'Polar Nettles' and the surprisingly breezy 'People Got A Lotta Nerve', it contains three of her most memorable songs. The image of the 'Cistine chapel painted with a gatling gun' in 'Polar Nettles' is particularly striking. Having said all that, I could still happily do without the 31 minutes of crickets chirping at the end!
41. Phronesis - Green Delay (Loop)
Jasper Hoiby, a Danish bassist now resident in London, has raised the game with this second album for his trio. This time round, Ivo Neame replaces Magnus Hjorth on the piano, and the group seems to achieve a higher level of interaction and rhythmic drive. This is definitely a piano trio led by the bass and not the piano, with much of the muscular forward motion coming from Hoiby himself. The compositions are memorable and the playing is fearless and exciting.
40. Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (Warner Bros)
SFA became another band to follow the Radiohead/Bloc Party model by first offering up 'Dark Days/Light Years' as a download from their website. Whilst their previous few albums have all been consistently good, this seems to represent something of a rejuvenation. The madcap approach is back, with wonderfully warped melodies bouncing against summery harmonies and motorik grooves built through studio jams. As always, SFA manage to make this mess endearing and fun rather than indulgent.
39. Levon Helm - Electric Dirt (Vanguard)
At the risk of courting controversy, I can't help feeling that 'Electric Dirt' is a much more satisfying trawl through American roots music than Dylan's 'Together Through Life'. Helm isn't writing much these days, but he inhabits these old-timey songs with a gutsy enthusiasm that belies both his age and his recent battle with throat cancer. This is music out of time, played with affection and commitment by a superb group of musicians (including former Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell), with a joyful conviction and swing in its heart.
38. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - I Speak Fula (World Circuit)
Kouyate’s follow-up to the acclaimed but slightly understated ‘Segu Blue’ is a massive step forward, full of passion, energy and joy. Kouyate gets top billing for his mastery of the ngoni, but this is undoubtedly a collective effort and the vocals of Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko are crucial to its overall impact. Vibrant and rhythmically adventurous throughout, this is triumphant music.
37. The Field - Yesterday and Today (Kompakt)
‘Yesterday and Today’ proved a more than worthy successor to Axel Willner’s masterful ‘From Here We Go Sublime’, both reiterating and developing his trademark sound. It’s hard to imagine a more brutally insistent music, but the surrounding fuzzy haze also means this is warmer and more welcoming than most four to the floor house music. The presence of Battles drummer John Stanier adds further propulsion, but the Korgis cover suggests a softer, perhaps even saccharine dimension.
36. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (Rabid)
With this first solo album, Karen Dreijer Anderssen shows enormous promise, and threatens to become a female artist with the stature of a Bjork or a Kate Bush. This is strange and unsettling music, perhaps all the more so for its revelling in domesticity. For all the intimacy of its themes, it still feels detached and alienated, simultaneously bleak and affecting.
35. James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game (Young God)
James Blackshaw’s move to Young God doesn’t seem to have prompted any marked increase in exposure or popularity, although his devoted following remain committed to evangelising for his prodigious talents. ‘The Glass Bead Game’ continued to explore his piano playing in addition to his magical, swirling textures on the twelve-string guitar, with dependably hypnotic and powerful results. He has now moved well beyond being a mere disciple of the Takoma school, and is starting to forge his own unique musical path.
34. Henry Threadgill's Zooid - This Brings Us To, Vol 1 (Pi)
Relatively little is written about Henry Threadgill, in spite of his major standing as a composer and his adventurous approach to music, particularly involving unconventional ensembles. His work for Columbia records could do with reissue and reappraisal (how about taking a break from the endless repackaging of Miles in favour of a more novel legacy series?) but his recent work has gained respect thanks to support from the mercurial Pi record label, which also releases music by Steve Lehman. That Threadgill is aligning himself with a new generation of musical innovators perhaps tells a great deal about his audacious outsider status. ‘This Brings Us To’ is a somewhat fragmented but hugely engaging listen, demonstrating Threadgill’s ongoing interest in timbre. He imposes what appear to be severe restrictions on the group, dividing the players into cells which explore a specific three note interval group. The result is an interweaved web of sound producing an exciting tension.
33. Susanna and the Magical Orchestra – 3 (Rune Grammofon)
‘3’ saw Susanna Wallumrod raise her game considerably. It was not so much the curveball choice of covers that proved problematic but more that her very austere, minimal music needed to gain a new dimension. ‘3’ delivered that new aspect and more, with a broad palette of retro synthesiser sounds providing a warmer orchestration for Susanna’s now frequently multi-layered vocals. This sounded quite unlike her previous work, but retained much of the icy charm and gentle empathy that has made her so appealing.
31= Tom Cawley and Kit Downes – Homely (Impure)
31= Kit Downes Trio – Golden (Basho)
It doesn’t really make a great deal of sense to separate these two excellent albums, as they both feature the young rising star pianist Kit Downes, and there’s a good deal of overlap in terms of the compositions featured. ‘Homely’ is a rare treat in that it’’s a piano duo album with Downes’ mentor and Curios leader Tom Cawley, featuring some expressive playing and a gentle mutual respect between the two musicians. Downes’ trio gamely stepped in for Curios at a gig at the 606 when Cawley injured his hand and, in doing so, played one of the finest sets I’ve seen all year. This music has a maturity which belies Downes’ youth, with an elegiac quality and a lightness of touch. A major asset is drummer James Maddren, who has a singing, legato quality to his sound, and an ability to stretch time like elastic.
30. John Surman - Brewster's Rooster (ECM)
John Surman’s recent preoccupations, including work with choirs, string quartets and organist Howard Moody, have hardly suggested an imminent return to muscular jazz. Yet, with ‘Brewster’s Rooster’, that return has come, with a powerhouse ensemble featuring John Abercrombine on guitar, Jack De Johnette on drums and Drew Gress on bass. The recording is a little springier than their blisteringly intense set at the London Jazz Festival, but the memorable themes cut through even more clearly here. De Johnette is at the top of his game on the simmering ‘Counter Measures’ and Abercrombie is characteristically thoughtful and lyrical throughout, the perfect counterpoint to the intensity of the rhythm section.
29. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Domino)
This fine album genuinely represents something of a transition for Callahan, something he has long threatened but never quite succeeded in producing. It’s certainly a long way from the dour quality of something like ‘Rain on Lens’. Instead, he’s embraced his inner warmth, and reminded us all that there he was always so much more intelligent a writer than his reputation as a casual misanthrope suggests. The music is lush and ingratiating, the perfect foil for his near-conversational vocal phrasing. The album is certainly front-loaded, with some of the best songs of Callahan’s career pushed into its first half, but the whole is a bold and well executed move.
28. Big Air - Big Air (Babel)
This international group began in 2001, bringing Chris Batchelor, Steve Buckley and Oren Marshall (the first two both Loose Tubes alumni – when will that band’s music be reissued on CD for heaven’s sake??) together with New York musicians Jim Black and Myra Melford. Melford is one of the most idiosyncratic pianists currently at work, sometimes angular but often flowing with rapid, lengthy phrases. This superb recording brings together sophisticated composing and adventurous playing, with a mood that veers between triumphal and regretful.
27. Tune-Yards - Bird Brains (Marriage)
This was a discovery late in the year for me, a clear example of how publishing your year-end list too early can result in terrible omissions. Consistently surprising, engaging, challenging and exciting, Merrill Garbus recorded this entire collection on a digital voice recorder and pieced it together using shareware mixing software. The sound quality is thus understandably rough, and sometimes so abrasive as to be unpleasant. But the sophistication of the work behind it is really quite remarkable. Garbus’ fuses her ukulele with self-made field recordings to create something highly original and frequently touching. Her versatile voice can be confrontational or tender as required, thus the range of emotion on offer here is dazzling. It’s a triumph of individual initiative.
26. The Unthanks - Here's The Tender Coming (Rough Trade)
I was unfairly dismissive of Rachel Unthank when ‘The Bairns’ was nomimated for The Mercury. I intend to return to that record properly now that I understand why more discerning critics were hailing it as the finest album on the shortlist. ‘Here’s the Tender Coming’ introduced a name change, to reflect Becky Unthank’s shared vocal role, but maintained the poignant and charming take on traditional folk music. These delicate narratives are delivered without affectation and with arrangements that support rather than smother the essential vulnerability of the songs. There are hints at some more contemporary influences too.
25. Moritz Von Oswald Trio - Vertical Ascent (Honest Jon's)
Combining the regimented, programmed precision of techno with the thrilling freedom of improvisation is not an easy task. In fact, on the surface, it might even be futile. Yet this record, where the interest is almost purely in the interaction between percussion and machines, somehow manages it without trying too hard. There's a real sense of magic and spontaneity to this recording, with a formal logic and meticulous construction lying behind it. It's a substantial achievement.
24. Vandermark 5 - Annular Gift (Not Two)
This live album finds Vandermark 5 on furious form, but also curiously groovy. It is in some ways their most conventional recording so far, but only in as much as they use rhythm as a support for their continuing exploration of the outer reaches. Here, they work remarkably well as a unit, and the results are energising. As ever, there are many unexpected twists during these lengthy pieces, with a surprising degree of introspection and reflection to balance the caterwauling. It is all vital and highly charged. It must have been a real treat to attend the gigs at which these recordings were made.
23. Health - Get Color (City Slang)
This vigorous, uncompromising mix of sonic aggression and eerie, partially obscured vocalising is a powerful and majestic beast. There’s also a sense of concision and control where it could so easily have become indulgent – and it feels like Health are making a considered musical statement. Its murky and otherworldly but also somehow very primal and real. This is artful music, as regimented as it is visceral.
22. Sian Alice Group - Troubled, Shaken, etc (Social Registry)
This intoxicating, intelligently sequenced set possibly represents the single biggest improvement between albums for 2009. This group demonstrated promise with their minimalist debut, but now they have built on that template to make a much wiser, more creative musical statement. Sian Ahern’s whispery, sinewy voice is at once a distant and imposing presence here, much more so than on the debut. Pitchfork bizarrely argued that this album saw the band abandoning interest in rhythm but, to these ears at least, it’s a considerably more percussive work than its predecessor.
21. Leonard Cohen - Live in London (Columbia)
This document of the first of Leonard Cohen’s O2 arena shows from last year is a beautiful time capsule, forever preserving the clear triumph of his comeback to the stage. Financial motivations must now be fulfilled, but the tour continues on, and has even featured some new material that we can only hope Cohen plans to record as soon as possible. This is of course valuable for the remarkable songs, played with consummate taste and depth by an extraordinary band. These intimate performances made the enormodomes he had managed to sell out feel like modest arthouse cinemas. It is also invaluable for the wit and wisdom Cohen dispenses, finally putting paid to the myth that he is simply a dour miserabilist.
20. Mark Lockheart - In Deep (Edition)
Mark Lockheart is an established musician who deserves a good deal more recognition. Whilst he is noted for his role in Polar Bear, he’s actually part of a generation of jazz musicians that go back to Loose Tubes – Chris Batchelor, Django Bates, Iain Ballamy and Tim Whitehead also among them. His own music is sophisticated, but also open to new ideas, and on ‘In Deep’ he has surrounded himself with a balanced band of propulsive youngsters and the insight of more mature musicians such as the great pianist Liam Noble. The result is a set of both grace and danger, as ruminative as it is fiery.
19. The Necks - Silverwater (RER)
Australia's great improvisers stretch out here which, for them, means a single piece of nearly seventy minutes in duration. For some, its repetitive cycles and patient unfolding might be too great a test of will. Yet its meticulous layering, immersive sound effects and the sheer amount of music they manage to draw from a four note bassline is quite remarkable. It's more about atmosphere than emotion and, as such, is perhaps better aligned with ambient music than with jazz. The piece's second half has unpredictable and unexpected tensions.
18. Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellery (Rough Trade)
The unpolished, very dirty sound of the Shapes is probably not to everyone’s tastes, but there’s little doubt that Mica Levi is a major new British talent. Formally trained in composition at the Guildhall school of music, she has combined this with her alter ego as Micachu, a lo-fi artist writing searingly honest, rough songs characterised by angular, staccato rhythms and a surly confidence.
17. Alasdair Roberts – Spoils (Drag City)
Seemingly in tandem with his mentor Will Oldham, the unshakeably consistent Roberts seems to be discovering the possibilities in a looser, freer form of folk music. Whilst ‘Spoils’ still demonstrates great respect for form, it develops the content in increasingly spidery and inventive ways, with some superb playing from Roberts’ accompanying musicians. With one foot firmly in the Scottish folk tradition and the other marching firmly forward, he is creating compelling, timeless music.
16. Oumou Sangare – Seya (World Circuit)
The return of one of the most positive and life affirming voices in Mali was a cause for celebration, and the great comeback album ‘Seya’ did not disappoint. Sangare has long been a strident advocate of women’s rights and has bravely used her music to challenge conventional attitudes in her society. Whilst we can’t understand her lyrics here, there’s a stridence and confidence in the music and in the vocal phrasing that suggests righteousness, in the best possible sense.
15. Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor (Drag City)
Whilst Jim O’Rourke’s avant garde credentials are frequently overstated (his output demonstrates that he’s at least as much of a traditionalist and the more far out material has generally been as a result of collaboration), this certainly came as something of a curveball. His two previous albums had been largely song-based, but ‘The Visitor’ presents one single, unbroken 37 minute piece of music. On the surface, tt’s hardly something designed for the ADD-afflicted mobile and internet generation. On closer inspection though, the story is somewhat different. ‘The Visitor’ is packed with ideas, and flits whimsically between textures and moods. It could have been easily separated into shorter pieces, but O’Rourke is clearly playing some sort of perverse game by stringing it all together. Overall, it’s a demonstration of O’Rourke’s musicianship. He plays all instruments himself, his guitar playing alone an endless source of variety and inspiration.
14. Branford Marsalis Quartet – Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music)
The recent departure of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts has finally punctured what was one of the longest serving stable ensembles in the jazz world. Indeed, this wonderful album demonstrates not only the group’s consistently high standard, but also Marsalis’ commitment to democratically functioning groups. All four members contribute compositions, which veer between the lyrical and the fiercely intense and the dynamic within the group is not merely well-rehearsed but positively alchemical.
13. Kronos Quartet – Floodplain (Nonesuch)
Kronos continue to demonstrate their openness to new possibilities and contemporary settings with this magisterial set of music, both new and traditional, from the flood plains of the Middle East. It’s a timely reminder that much of this area, now a stark ideological battleground, was once the cradle of human civilisation.
12. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy – Beware (Domino)
Am I the only person to think this is comfortably Will Oldham’s best since ‘I See A Darkness’? Maybe ‘The Letting Go’ was braver and more off the beaten track, but there’s a consideration with feel and arrangement here which adds a fresh dimension to Oldham’s familiar style. Similarly, the bold colours provided by the backing vocalists and what seems to be a genuine playfulness in some of the lyrics mean that it isn’t all darkness by any means. The concert he played in London in support of this record was also loose and liberated, with a sense of spontaneity too often absent from song-based music.
11. Tara Jane O' Neil - A Ways Away (K)
Tara Jane O’Neill’s haunting drone-folk reached what might be an apotheosis on this stark and intense but also strangely comforting album. The combination of austerity and warmth in her work makes for an original and bewitching sound and it’s great to uncover another artist looking to extend the possibilities of what can be done with the enduring form of the song.
10. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT)
I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by Vijay Iyer and his somewhat mind-blowing scientific approach to music. He is preoccupied with patterns, structures and the complicated rhythmic cycles he has inherited both from his Indian background and his enthusiasm for African music. His recent article on the Fibonacci sequence in music, published in The Guardian, opened new doors of perception to musical approaches very different from my own. ‘Historicity’’ expands on many of his familiar themes and ideas, and has been unfairly criticised in some quarters for featuring interpretations of both his own earlier work and of the work of others. The material drawn from the pop world provides some of the freshest revelations, given Iyer’s thrilling takes on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Big Brother’ and MIA’s ‘Galang’. On the latter he does indeed make a successful attempt to transcribe the contours of MIA’s half-sung rap. As far as repeating himself is concerned, constant revision, with the light of fresh inspiration, is a crucial part of the jazz tradition. On this evidence, Iyer is entirely right to suggest that in order to move forwards, sometimes you have to look back.
09. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)
'Bitte Orca' doesn't quite have the same shock of the new that came with both 'The Getty Address' and the remarkable 'Rise Above' but it does do a very successful job in recalibrating Dave Longstreth's flighty, highly composed avant-rock music for a wider audience. Retained are the fearless, fearsomely controlled dynamics and unpredictable twists and turned - new is the cleaner, crisper sound. It feels like more of a group effort too, with Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian offering understated, convincingly honest vocal contributions. In 'Stillness is the Move', it even produced something approaching an anthem.
08. Memory Tapes - Seek Magic (Something In Construction)
The combination of nostalgia and melacholy has made this something of a personal favourite for me in the final quarter of the year. Philadelphia's Davye Hawk is certainly a talent to watch, someone with remarkable attention to detail - these songs are as much sound designs as they are melodic and rhythmic statements. 'Seek Magic' borrows a sense of abandon and discovery from club music, but couples it with a powerful sense of memory and imagination.
07. Staff Benda Bilili - Tres Tres Fort (Crammed)
This band of mostly disabled street musicians from Kinshasa have been a major sensation this year, their invigorating, rumba-infused music coming with jubilation and triumph. Clearly influenced by some of the icons of Congolese music (most particularly Franco), the band has taken this sound further and developed a party spirit all of its own, a sound representative of triump in the face of adversity, of overcoming your limitations.
06. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)
After some intense internet hype, the eventual release of 'Veckatimest' proved something of a muted anticlimax. Reviews were mainly positive, but hardly hyperbolic or ecstatic, and a small chorus of naysayers even gathered against it. I wonder if the album's compositional structure, coherent mood and abundant subtleties have blinded people to its quality. I suspect this is as sophisticated a record as has been made by a rock band in recent years, superbly atmospheric, meticulous in its construction, combining a shimmering beauty with an underlying sense of menace and risk.
05. Joshua Redman - Compass (Nonesuch)
Initially intending to continue the exploration of the piano-less trio format already captured on 'Back East', Redman ended up closer to an Ornette Coleman soundworld on some of these tracks, employing two drummers and two bassists. The group's strong sense of implied harmony dominates the proceedings, although on this occasion there is a fluidity and spontaneous inspiration that elevates this to the status of being Redman's most daring and complete album to date.
04. Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men (Samadhi Sound)
In spite of (or perhaps because of?) its Mercury nomination, this beautifully constructed, sophisticated and emotionally rewarding album has been curiously absent from most of the major year-end lists. This is a deeply intelligent work, marrying evocative words with elegant arrangements characterised by aspiration and ambition. Understandably, this has been compared with the similarly paced work of Elbow - but, whilst it has a similar warmth and compassion, it foregoes that band's predilection for terrace anthems in favour of a graceful weightlessness. Sweet Billy Pilgrim have created their own mysterious landscape - both dangerous and immersive.
03. Keith Jarrett - Testament: Paris/London (ECM)
Keith Jarrett certainly makes the most from his limited public appearances these days, releasing his two rapturously received European solo concerts from late last year across three CDs for maximum return. It's fortuitous then that these performances were such a personal artistic triumph too, capturing the preoccupations, influences and expressions of an entire career in a series of miniature epic improvisations that demonstrated Jarrett's open-minded philisophy and profound feeling as well as his undoubted technical flair. Here are pieces that veer from the lushly romantic to the surprisingly confronational, all delivered with unflinching commitment and passion. Music created in fleeting moments with a powerful lasting value.
02. Steve Lehman Octet - Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi)
Combining his interests in music technology, asymmetrical metre and the methodology of 'spectralist' composers, Steve Lehman managed to craft the year's most viscerally exciting jazz album. This music's combination of precision and momentum, effortlessly both controlled and informed by Tyshawn Sorey's drumming, seemed bewildering on first listen but eventually revealed a thrilling and dynamic core. The rigorous harmonic and structural constraints provide the lines – reading between them illuminates a world of intuitive interaction and freedom.
01. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
Animal Collective have slipped insidiously into the mainstream this year, a significant triumph given how little, if anything, they have compromised. Their customary sense of sun-drenched melody has now been pushed into the foreground, with the love of static and feedback replaced by some less interventionist and more complementary noise. 'Merriweather', more than anything a conventional rock band could concoct, feels inspired by the great communal experiences of house and rave music - an expression of radiant and transcendent joy. It combines a primitive urgency with a characteristic sophistication and ambition in its construction. The array of sounds and effects deliver a sensory assault, albeit one that seems positively to invite our submission. It might not be a particularly distinctive or imaginative choice to top this list - but it is the album I've listened to and enjoyed most this year.