Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review of 2010 Part 3: My 100 (and a bit) Best Albums

100. Phantom - Smoke and Mirrors (La Nausee)
Hardly anyone in the mainstream media noticed this wonderful download-only album from Canadian-British duo Phantom. Luckily, I gave it a warm review over at musicOMH. Consisting of two long tracks, themselves comprised of shorter pieces segued together, Smoke and Mirrors was both demanding and rewarding. Clearly intended to be digested as a whole, it went against commercial imperatives calling for bitesize chunks of music, and aimed at reinvigorating the album format for the download market. If it didn’t quite succeed, it wasn’t for lack of imagination and ambition in the music - Phantom constructed their own seamless, intoxicating sound collage with real skill.

99. Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea (Virgin)
I surprised myself with just how much I liked this second album from a singer I’d previously dismissed as a coffee table prop. Having been through a great deal of personal tragedy and strife, that Bailey Rae returned to music at all was remarkable. That she returned with an album this deep, coherent and powerful is all the more impressive.

98. Teebs - Ardour (Brainfeeder)
This release, on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, was one of the many great electronic releases of the year - a pretty, lush, expansive work in the pastoral manner familiar from Four Tet circa Pause or Rounds.

97. Vijay Iyer - Solo (ACT)
Vijay Iyer’s solo piano music doesn’t quite have the incredible impact of his recent trio work, but it does demonstrate his knowledge of the jazz tradition as much as his intriguing attempts to subvert or develop it. He doesn’t seem as comfortable in this idiom as Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans, and he is a very different kind of pianist from those two great revolutionaries of jazz piano. ‘Solo’ shows him to be thoughtful as well as intelligent. As a result of this and some careful selections of material, ‘Solo’ is a satisfying album.

96. Andreya Triana - Lost Where I Belong (Ninja Tune)
Vocalist with Flying Lotus’ extraordinary Infinity project, Andreya Triana also made a decent album in her own name this year. Lost Where I Belong is spacious, delicate, sometimes exotic music - reminiscent of Minnie Riperton.

95. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone (Anti)
Mavis Staples’ gritty voice still sounds striking and authoritative even now. Here, in Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, she finds another musician-producer completely attuned to her needs and abilities. This is a fine, carefully crafted album of excellent songs, delivered with passion, commitment and soul by Staples.

94. Field Music - (Measure) (Memphis Industries)
Field Music’s ‘hiatus’ turned out to be refreshingly brief, a detour of a couple of years to allow Peter and David Brewis to collaborate on separate projects. Now reunited under the Field Music moniker with one of the year’s many long albums (what was in the water in 2010?), it’s hard to resist dubbing them the OutKast of British indie. The Brewis brothers certainly revel in writing far more superior and sophisticated music to your average British indie band - this was cerebral, individualistic guitar pop.

93. The Bad Plus - Never Stop (Emarcy)
I greatly preferred this to For All I Care, The Bad Plus’ previous album with vocalist Wendy Lewis. Never Stop is their first album to consist entirely of original compositions, and it served as a timely reminder that their own writing has for some time now been stronger than their infamous interpretations. They remain one of the best contemporary jazz trios - with a strong sense of time and groove, and a thrilling ability to interact.

92. Mountain Man - Made The Harbor (Bella Union)
This lovely piece of appalachian folk reminded me greatly of the very popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but with much less of a gently parodic sensibility. In fact, Made the Harbor sounds like a deeply serious record, in thrall to the sound of combined human voices.

91. Avi Buffalo - Avi Buffalo (Sub Pop)
Inevitably, much has been made of Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg’s youth (he’s still not even 20), but this would have been an impressive debut at any age. Zahner-Isenberg is a superb guitarist, and much of the excitement in the music comes from the relationship between his wiry but pretty melodies and the sudden bursts of heavy guitar improvising. If some of the song titles (Five Little Sluts, Summer Cum) lean towards the misogynistic or pointlessly provocative, this is the only downside of a summery album full of quality.

90. Mary Gauthier - The Foundling (Proper)
This is one of Gauthier’s finest album - an unflinching, brutally honest album about her own life as an adopted, initially abandoned child, and chronicling the pain and suffering of the rejection she felt on finding her birth mother. This is raw, heartbreaking music and Gauthier is one of the most undervalued singer-songwriters at work right now.

89. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening (DFA/EMI)
Basically more of the same from James Murphy - a small sense of diminishing returns after the fantastic Sound of Silver, but it would be churlish to complain when the results are this enjoyable. Murphy is, however, entirely right that it is time to move on to something different.

88. Matthew Dear - Black City (Ghostly International)
This sleek, robotic, dark and occasionally erotic album from Matthew Dear is fascinating. Dear has little shame in electronically manipulating his voice to produce some distinctly unfashionable sounds, and Black City is an individual and authoritative statement as a result of this.

87. Secret Quartet - Bloor Street (Edition)
This is essentially an album of classic-sounding acoustic jazz, benefiting from the melodic invention and clarity of tone from Martin Speake and the strong foundations provided by pianist Nikki Iles. The compositions are consistently strong and the improvising full of insight and inspiration.

86. Autechre - Oversteps/Move of Ten (Warp)
Another act to produce more music than strictly required in 2010 were electronic pioneers Autechre. I should have investigated the Autechre catalogue more throughly than I have. Occasionally, I find myself gently reminded of their existence and their deserved status. Oversteps may be the better of these two excellent albums - it’s not beat-driven and therefore avoids glitchy cliches entirely. It possibly harks back to the 80s or even earlier, with hints of Riyuchi Sakomoto or Tangerine Dream. This is all presented with a decisively contemporary spin though - and it’s impressive to find an act still keen to reinvent themselves so long into such an illustrious career.

85. Olafur Arnalds - and they have escaped the weight of darkness (Erased Tapes)
More of the same from Arnalds here on this portentously titled album (apparently inspired by the great Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr). Arnalds’ slow moving, direct and haunting melancholy is again very much in evidence, and the music is gently moving.

84. Paragon - Quarterlife Crisis (Shakewell Records)
This Anglo-German ensemble of young musicians (with composing duties shared between pianist Arthur Lea and saxophonist Peter Ehwald) now convenes infrequently but makes quirky, confident and appealing music. Quarterlife Crisis, recorded in Koln in 2009 after plenty of touring, is a delightful album characterised by a fine balance between charm and searching improvising.

83. High Places - High Places vs. Mankind (Thrill Jockey)
Another of the year’s more perversely underrated record, this infectious and likeable second album from High Places seemed to see the band relegated further to the margins. This seems strange when the album contained bright, accessible gems such as On Giving Up. The group’s approach is minimal but effective, making impressive use of space and making each note and sound matter.

82. Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT - Invariable Heartache (City Slang)
This long-awaited collaboration between Lambchop mainman Wagner and the talented singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell ended up quite a traditional affair, the duo tackling a set of Nashville country songs associated with Tidwell’s parents. Wagner’s voice sounds older and more experienced, Tidwell pulls off the difficult trick of providing a softer, but no less fascinating harmonic foil.

81. The Chieftains with Ry Cooder - San Patricio (Decca)
Everything Cooder touches seems to turn to gold. This collaboration with Irish group The Chieftains take on the weighty subject of the Irish conscripts who deserted from the American army to fight with the Mexicans in the border war of the 1840s, fusing Irish folk music with sounds from the southern US border. It’s a lengthy, challenging album, but both process and results are inspired and it stands as a fascinating document.

80. Marnie Stern - Marnie Stern (Souterrain Transmissions)
Yet more vigorous shredding from Marnie Stern and Zach Hill - their technical brilliance remains a coruscating source of inspiration rather than frustration.

79. Fool’s Gold - Fool’s Gold (Iamsound)
A group possibly named after a Stone Roses song may not necessarily float my boat these days, but Fool’s Gold are actually a treasure trove of riches. A little like Dirty Projectors, the Los Angeles-based collective fuse Western rock and pop with a variety of rhythms and playing styles from around the world. Vocalist Luke Top sings in Hebrew, adding an additional element to their extraordinary melting pot.

78. Avey Tare - Down There (Paw Tracks)
Avey Tare has sometimes seemed like the dangerous member of Animal Collective, swamping their earliest material with abrasive feedback screeches and moments of childlike whimsy. As the band have found a more successful balance within themselves, Panda Bear and Tare have both established themselves as independent artists as well. Down There is, mercifully, much less obtuse than Tare’s previous work outside the band - it features moments of twisting, eerie psychedelia and spidery melodic invention. It’s less sweet and joyful without the presence of Panda Bear, but no less peculiar and synaesthetic.

77. Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now (Names)
This faithful exploration of American country stylings is one of the best examples of this in some time. Rose is fully conversant in the vernacular of this musical tradition, and her songs are affecting and full of emotion. With her sensitive, empathetic band in tow, Rose has all the elements that make a superb singer-songwriter.

76. Jamie Lidell - Compass (Warp)
It’s a shame that this imaginative album seems to have failed to bring Lidell to a wider audience. Wisely, Lidell abandoned the slavish blue-eyed soul that rendered Jim something of a disappointment - Compass was sexier, weirder and considerably more honest. We can now again see the Lidell that made the best bits of Multiply, the Lidell who was one half of the amazing Super Collider, and even the Lidell that made the glitchy, confounding Muddlin’ Gear. Compass contained predictable hints at Prince, but less predictably, some of the meandering, fluid songwriting style of Terry Callier or even Terry Reid was also in operation here. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor is just one of Lidell’s many collaborators here, and his sonic palette is in evidence throughout the album. For all the trickery and experimentation, it’s also personal and intimate too.

75. Robert Plant - Band Of Joy (Decca)
Plant seems to have entered a new, mature and staggeringly confident phase of his career now. With many clamouring for a direct follow-up to Raising Sand, Plant refused to acquiesce, instead forming a new version of his Band of Joy ensemble. This is every bit as assured and impressive an album as Raising Sand, and is stronger still for exploring some unexpected ground (the album features faithful covers of Low’s Monkey and Silver Rider). Plant’s interests seem to move further away from straightforward rock and more into a wide range of American music as he gets older. This seems like another honest, thoroughly committed statement.

74. Cheikh Lo - Jamm (World Circuit)
Jamm’s title suggests a righteous musical party, but the word actually translates to mean ‘peace’. Cheikh Lo’s music here, although groovy and celebratory, is also light and subtle too. The warmth of Pee Wee Ellis’ saxophone is a memorable feature of this carefully balanced, hugely enjoyable album.

73. Philip Jeck - An Ark For The Listener (Type)
I remain a little suspicious of ‘sound art’ as a concept distinct from music, but Jeck strikes me as one of the strongest examples of a completely modern composer. He builds his swirling, encircling pieces from the use of old vinyl, although this is by no means a ‘sampling’ endeavour like DJ Shadow. Jeck’s mysterious, spectral sound worlds depend on careful manipulation of texture and pitch. An Ark For The Listener is Jeck’s brilliant response to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and it has all the wonder and complexity of Hopkins’ language.

72. Actress - Splazsh (Honest Jon’s)
Darren Cunningham’s self-contained, insular and mechanical electronica reached a new pinnacle on this tremendous set. It somehow sounded cold and loveless, yet deliciously seductive at the same time.

71. Hot Chip - One Life Stand (EMI)
This is Hot Chip’s most streamlined and focused work to date, perhaps a conscious response to the criticism the group received (unfairly in my view) for Made In The Dark’s scattershot tendency. There’s still room for diversity - as One Life Stand takes in English pop melodic stylings, Chicago House, Techno and modern soul. Alexis Taylor’s delicate, plaintive voice remains an intrinsic part of the group’s artistry. Their peerless merging of Taylor’s melodic sensibility with Joe Goddard’s independent, individual production values has expanded to feel more like an ensemble work. The Hot Chip live show is now impressively slick too.

70. Jason Moran - Ten (Blue Note)
The status of Jason Moran in the jazz world seems to increase year on year, Ten being another exceedingly impressive addition to his own catalogue and his work with Charles Lloyd perhaps providing an even stronger example of his rhythmic and melodic invention. This flexible, bold piano trio has, as the album’s title suggests, now been a working, trailblazing band for ten years and more. This album finds room for some healthy nostalgia - including a piece co-written with Moran’s teacher Andrew Hill, as well as interpretations of composers as diverse as Thelonious Monk and Conlon Nancarrow. Perhaps more than any of Moran’s previous releases, it offers a clear view of the heritage that has influenced his distinctive improvising. His group can still swing hard as well.

69. Nico Muhly - I Drink The Air Before Me (Decca)
It would be easy to find Nico Muhly’s ubiquity in his early-20s somewhat nauseating. Not only has he achieved considerable success as a composer, he’s produced some wonderfully evocative film soundtrack work and has become the string and brass arranger du jour for America’s indie bands. Yet listening to this recording of his major score for a dance piece, it’s hard to dispute his talent. This is a big, muscular, exciting work that even manages to make sensitive and effective use of a child’s choir. The work moves in a fragmentary fashion from the very unusual to diatonic plainchant whilst sustaining a coherent sense of identity and flow.

68. Dave Holland Octet - Pathways (Dare2)/ Pepe Habichuela and Dave Holland - Hands (Emarcy)
I am cheating more than a little here by putting these two Dave Holland recordings together, but they serve as a timely reminder of Holland’s versatility. He has now established such a coherent and winning formula with his own ensembles (as evidenced by the thrilling ensemble playing on the live recording Pathways) that it is great to here him again in an entirely different context, playing outstanding Flamenco music with Pepe Habichuela. The album is at once both substantial and delicate, with some superb cajon playing from Juan Cormona.

67. Mike Reed’s People, Places and Things - Stories and Negotiations (482 Music)
Mike Reed’s People, Places and Things project has illuminated a new side to the exciting Chicago jazz scene. Rather than venturing into modernist abstraction or contemporary jazz-rock fusion, drummer and arranger Reed has used this ensemble to explore the venerable history and achievement of modern jazz in Chicago. This excellent live recording contains a mix of new arrangements of lesser known works (Sun Ra’s El is the Sound of Joy for example) and original pieces dedicated to Reed’s chief influences. Considering Reed is a drummer-bandleader, it’s interesting how restrained and supportive his playing is here - much of this is far more about the fresh take on horn arrangements.

66. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts)
This fourth album from Broken Social Scene was in places exhilarating and menacing, even if by now the shock factor in their ideas had worn off a little. Perhaps Forgiveness Rock Record is chiefly interesting for its cleaner, crisper production - something that, perhaps surprisingly, does not really diminish the band’s ragged glory in any way.

65 = Emeralds - Does It Look Like I’m Here? (Editions Mego)
65 = Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal (Editions Mego)

I find it very difficult to separate these two Editions Mego releases in my own mind, although there seems to have been a healthy competition between the two of them for many journalists. I’m usually suspicious of music that tries so very hard to abandon rhythm (an essential element of music), but these two releases achieved their goals so superbly that they became impossible to ignore. The Oneohtrix album is more like a contemporary noise suite - brilliantly structured, moving from its most combative and abrasive to its most affecting and soothing. Throughout, there are gentle hints of melody and form, so the fact that the single version of the title track featured vocals from Antony Hegarty came as less of a surprise than might otherwise be expected. Emeralds’ album took them away from the sprawling What Happened? in favour of something a little easier to navigate. That didn’t stop Does It Look Like I’m Here? from being one of the year’s most quietly mesmerising albums, full of supremely effective ideas.

63. Laura Veirs - July Flame (Bella Union)
Another massively underrated album from a female singer-songwriter in 2010. Post-Carbon Glacier, Veirs appears to have been taken for granted a little, as she has produced decent album after decent album, but each lacking a distinctive edge that would propel her back into critical consciousness. For me, July Flame ought to have been that album - it’s a much warmer and embraceable record than its predecessors, and the writing is full of compassion and humanity.

62. Benoit Pioulard - Lasted (Kranky)
Thomas Meluch’s third album as Benoit Pioulard is his most sophisticated and coherent yet, with a sense of rapture and awareness breaking through the pervading heat-haze. This time Meluch’s understated voice seems less buried and the melodies have greater impact as a result. This is achieved without sacrificing any of the strange, eerie qualities to Meluch’s music.

61. Kairos 4Tet - Kairos Moment (Kairos)
Although much of this album seems like rhythmic brinkmanship, Adam Waldmann’s Kairos 4Tet still emerge as a more accessible, less cerebral take on contemporary British jazz. Kairos Moment is brimming with infectious riffs and hooks, and the engine of the band is the dynamic, propulsive, ceaselessly exciting playing of bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Jon Scott, two of the strongest musicians currently at work on the London scene. A guest appearance by vocalist Heidi Vogel also provides a simmering, delightful highlight. The group, now with Ivo Neame on piano, have just finished work on their second album due for release in 2011.

60. Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden - Jasmine (ECM)
This first duo recording between those great old friends and musical colleagues Jarrett and Haden had a wonderfully informal feeling to it. It’s unlikely that this will go down as one of Jarrett’s most revolutionary or adventurous statements - but then both these musicians did all that with the American Quartet. This instead has an intimate feel to it - the product of sincere mutual respect, both for each other and for the standard material they are playing. Haden’s bass sound is full and resonant, Jarrett is disciplined but typically passionate.

59. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part 2 - Return of the Ankh (Universal)
I was a little surprised not to find the long-delayed second part of Badu’s New Amerykah project absent from so many list. For sure, it’s not as surprising or imposing as the first part - instead, it refocuses attention on Badu’s most characteristic stylistic traits. Many of these are virtues, however, as her supremely relaxed phrasing and understated, near-conversational style mark her out as one of the best modern R&B singers.

58. Jaga Jazzist - One Armed Badit (Ninja Tune)
One Armed Bandit is perhaps the most focused and immediate of the Jaga Jazzist albums - full of the usual dexterity and technique, but somehow delivered in a much more compact and less showy manner. It’s tremendously exciting - a fusion music with a peculiar dancing quality.

57. William Tyler - Behold The Spirit (Tompkins Square)
One of the great joys of being a music obsessive is discovering that a musician you are familiar with from one context has an entirely different near-secret musical life. Lambchop guitarist William Tyler’s solo album is a graceful, eloquent take on similar territory to that handled so well by James Blackshaw. It’s perhaps not quite as mysterious and pervading as Blackshaw’s All Is Falling. Some of the material here seems comforting and familiar, especially The Green Pastures, which luxuriates in the textural effects of pedal steel guitar as well as Tyler’s dexterous steel string fingerpicking. This is no bad thing - Tyler is an impressive guitarist, and the music he has produced here feels homely and inviting.

56. Luke Abbott - Holkham Drones (Border Community)
This is a gently superior album, one of those recordings that worms its way into one’s consciousness and eventually refuses to leave. On first listen, it seemed like distinctive but unassuming take on electronica. Repeated listens reveal a sense of fun as well as intelligence. Probably the best release from Border Community so far.

55. Richard Thompson - Dream Attic (Proper)
Dire cover art notwithstanding, this is an urgent, vibrant album from Thompson. Recorded live on a US tour, it provides plenty of evidence not just of Thompson’s outstanding guitar playing, but of the commitment and force of his accompanying musicians. Not only this, but the songwriting is superb too, with some wry and biting lyrics.

54. Tamikrest - Adagh (Glitterhouse)
It’s perhaps tempting to dismiss Tamikrest rather casually as an identikit Tinariwen, but actually ‘Adagh’ shows them to have a potency and power that is very much their own. This is a rousing, spirited album played with insistence, determination and a wonderfully natural feel.

53. Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen - For The Ghosts Within (Domino)
Hearing Robert Wyatt’s beguiling, idiosyncratic voice - somehow always both comforting and startling - wrap itself around some of the most recognisable standards in the Great American Songbook proved one of 2010’s singular treats. The original music on this worthy collaboration is also fascinating. If not always wholly artistically successful, this is the work of brave and committed musicians and activists flying the flag for principled idealism.

52. Konono No. 1 - Assume Crash Position (Crammed Discs)
Fears that international acclaim and success might dilute Konono No. 1’s approach or sound proved mercifully unfounded. ‘Assume Crash Position’ was just as intense and thrilling an experience as its Congotronics predecessor. There is an urgency and excitement in this music that is impossible to resist.

51. The Roots - How I Got Over (Mercury)
Never quite convinced by Kanye West’s reliance on manipulated soul samples, I find that The Roots are a dependable example of how better to integrate rap and song. The unusual guest artists here (including Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian from Dirty Projectors and Joanna Newsom) fit surprisingly well into this album’s imposing and coherent sound.

50. New Pornographers - Together (Matador)
After jettisoning some of their quirkier, more appealing characteristics in favour of plodding orchestra-bolstered indie on Challengers, Together saw New Pornographers recapturing the kinetic, thrilling eruptions of joy that always made them so appealing in the first place. Carl Newman’s songwriting remains gleefully obtuse, whilst Dan Bejar continues to add his distinctive whimsy. The whole set seems to cohere more this time though, and is delivered with the confidence of a band who know exactly what they are doing.

49. Lobi Traore - Rainy Season Blues (Glitterhouse)
Of the many tragic losses in 2010, the premature death of Lobi Traore may be the saddest, robbing the world not only of one of its brightest talents but, one senses, of a musician yet to make his strongest statement. Rainy Season Blues, Traore’s first and last solo album, was recorded on the spur of the moment, after plans for an ensemble recording fell through. That it sounds so completely assured is revelatory. This is a record so deeply immersed in the blues that it drips with it. That Traore could have continued to make many more even better albums is devastating.

48. Lorn - Nothing Else (Brainfeeder)
This year belonged to Flying Lotus in so many ways, not just for the music released under his own moniker, but also for his production duties and his work as a free-spirited svengali with the Brainfeeder label. The Lorn album may be the label’s most substantial statement so far - a heavy, insistent US take on bass music that never fails to stimulate or surprise.

47. Lonelady - Nerve Up (Warp)
Warp’s attempts to branch out beyond glitchy and ambient electronica have produced mixed results, but I liked Lonelady’s twitchy ball of nervous energy far more than reviews suggested I might. This is four-square wiry post-punk set to a drum machine, with occasional nods to the relentless garage southern gothic of early R.E.M. Some angular, agitated vocals and some memorable songs enable Lonelady to communicate with stark authority.

46. Nina Nastasia - Outlaster (FatCat)
For me, this was comfortably the strongest Nina Nastasia album to date, a substantial leap forward in terms of both process and product. The arrangements on Outlaster are simply wonderful - full of unexpected dissonances and tensions, and the extra colour helps transport this well away from the conventions of singer-songwriterdom. Nastasia has always been an excellent writer - but she has never made an album quite this distinctive and compelling before.

45. Gonjasufi - A Sufi and a Killer (Warp)
Gonjasufi is a genuinely strange and unpredictable character. This collection is an inspired set of warped modern psychedelia, with inventive production from Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer. Gonjasufi’s vocals are not easily digestible - sometimes they are uncompromising and abrasive. Yet the music is mostly curiously uplifting.

44. Phosphorescent - Here’s To Taking It Easy (Dead Oceans)
Here’s To Taking It Easy is not exactly the most radical or forward thinking album in this list. It is instead a hugely successful attempt at classic American songcraft - much better than over-praised efforts from the likes of Drive By Truckers or Dylan LeBlanc. Matthew Houck’s work interpreting Willie Nelson for the previous Phosphorescent album may have had a lingering effect - much of this album comes bathed in a hazy melancholy. Much of it sounds effortless - relaxed but also literate and burning with feeling and intensity where necessary. Heij, Me I’m Light also provides a slightly incongrous, but wholly inspired detour into quasi-gospel fervour.

43. Phronesis - Alive (Edition)
This live recording may be the strongest example of Jasper Hoiby’s bass-lead piano trio so far. With Mark Giuliana on drums and the exquisite Ivo Neame on piano, there’s a real urgency and depth of expression as well as the fluid interaction we have come to expect. Hoiby’s compositions are deceptive - initially they seem rhythmically driven, but eventually come to reveal subtle hooks and intelligent use of harmony and space.

42. Trembling Bells - Abandoned Love (Honest Jon’s)
Along with Alasdair Roberts, Trembling Bells are at the absolute forefront of contemporary folk music. Propelled superbly by Alex Neilsen’s fluid drumming, an unusual quality in this music, and with Lavinia Blackwell’s majestic voice claiming ownership of Neilsen’s melodies, this is one of the most captivating and imposing ensembles working in this area of music. Trembling Bells sound at once disciplined and liberated - informed by a sophisticated understanding of the tradition but also driven by a fervent desire to take the music in new directions.

41. Vampire Weekend - Contra (XL)
Vampire Weekend’s second album, released with surprising rapidity yet actually an improvement on their debut, seems to have been rather casually forgotten come the end of year lists. Perhaps it lacks some of the debut’s ivy league humour - but if anything it builds on the open-minded fusion of the first record. Ezra Koenig’s wordy lyrics and agitated vocal phrasing remain crucial characteristics - and they elevate the group above facile and misguided accusations of cultural tourism. Make no mistake that Vampire Weekend are an intelligent and significant band more than worthy of attention and discusssion.

40. Janelle Monae - The Archandroid (Bad Boy/Atlantic)
A highlight for many music lovers and critics this year, it’s easy to see why this dynamic slice of retro-futurist pop was so greatly loved. Sophisticated pop music is hard to find - and Janelle emerged with a tremendously strong brand - a smooth but gutsy voice, great style and a commitment and passion for her music. It went almost unnoticed then that The Archandroid breaks all the rules for marketable commercial pop music - it veers wilfully from one style to another, its flow gleefully interrupted by abrupt transitions. Monae’s madcap, conceptual structure could benefit from a stronger melodic core - but the ideas keep coming so thick and fast that the flaws seem insignificant when the project is so brilliantly reckless.

39. Oval - O (Thrill Jockey)
Featuring no less than 70 tracks, many of them intentionally confounding miniatures, Markus Popp seems to have designed O in order to manipulate stats. The conceit is not entirely malicious though - through these tiny bitesize pieces, a wider coherent whole emerges. It’s clearly not about the individual tracks, but more about how the sketches combine to create something meticulously ordered and yet strangely beautiful.

38. Alasdair Roberts and Friends - Too Long In This Condition (Navigator)
Roberts revisits the traditional songbook for the first time since No Earthly Man on this dependably excellent collection - this one, as the ‘friends’ moniker suggests, a little more reliant on the ensemble sound. If it’s not quite as glorious as last year’s Spoils, it’s still a tremendous collection, Roberts’ choice of narratives occasionally erring towards the dark and terrible as much as the wistful and romantic.

37. Mount Kimbie - Crooks and Lovers (Hot Flush)
For a while, this looked as if it might be the dubstep ‘break-out’ release of 2010, a word of mouth success to rival that of Burial. If it never quite got there, it wasn’t because of lack of imagination and quality in the recordings. This is a nuanced, atmospheric work that repays close attention - a haunting statement of intent.

36. Demdike Stare - Forest of Evil/Liberation Through Hearing/Voices of Dust (Modern Love)

One of the many acts proving in 2010 that quantity could be just as significant as quality, Lancashire’s Demdike Stare unleashed three albums of similar intensity and imagination, but each with its own individual character. Forest of Evil is comprised of two dense, lengthy pieces full of murk and menace. The final album in the trilogy explores ghostly sounds and voices to tremendous effect, finding a hinterland between dub, the radiophonic workshop and local landscape. An output as compelling as it is prodigious.

35. Polar Bear - Peepers (Leaf)
Seb Rochford’s outstanding contemporary jazz group added subtle variations to their sound on this fourth album, with Leafcutter John playing guitar as well as electronics. The addition of an accompanying harmony instrument makes a substantial difference, but the group’s credit, it has not completely altered their musical personality. Rather, it has expanded the possibilities. The quirky compositions are as rhythmically stimulating as ever, but its the album’s more pensive, reflective moments that show Rochford maturing as a composer.

34. Django Bates - Beloved Bird (Lost Marble)
Django’s virtuosic, mischievous, scurrying improvising didn’t find a particularly fruitful outlet in the collaboration with The Bad Plus at King’s Place, in spite of all the mutual respect between them. Far more exciting was this brilliant, highly exciting take on the music of Charlie Parker with a Danish trio - Bates proving that Parker’s nimble writing can have audacious and exciting contexts away from BeBop revivalism. Bates imposes his own character and style on this material with complete conviction.

33. Scuba - Triangulation (Hot Flush)
The Hot Flush label is helping to steer dubstep in exciting new directions, already suggesting that it might be a sub genre with some mileage. This second album from Scuba is a significant development from his debut, pregnant with tension and murkiness, full of bold explorations of the previously unknown.

32. Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth - Deluxe (Clean Feed)
This righteous, propulsive ensemble provided one of the American jazz highlights of 2010. Lightcap’s engaging, zestful compositions provided consistent interest, whilst the playing (especially from the superb keyboardist Craig Taborn) was imaginative and sprightly.

31. Shackleton - Fabric 55 (Fabric)
Emerging at the very tail end of the year and therefore absent from most lists, this is one of the most powerful arguments for the DJ mix album as artistic statement in some time. It’s perhaps the best mix set since DJ/Rupture’s majestic Minesweeper Suite. The difference here though is it’s not just the mix that provides this album with its character - it is that is is a mix consisting entirely of Shackleton’s own work. Now forging far beyond anything that might be labelled dubstep or, more nauseatingly, post-dubstep, this is the work of an artist fascinated by the broader possibilities of rhythm, sound and speech.

30. Erik Friedlander - Alchemy (SkipStone)
The Cello has always been one of the most versatile instruments - in Friedlander’s hands it seems that it can be made to do almost anything at all, from excoriating, searing sounds to moments of sweet and tender longing. Alchemy is a solo recording that covers these bases and much, much more - a brilliant document of Friedlander’s musical awareness and expressive manipulation of his instrument.

29. Bill Frisell - Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz)
Perhaps this trio recording doesn’t really break new ground for Frisell - but then this is an artist who has covered such diverse ground that it would be hard to find another truly radical position now. Still, the music is wonderfully played, with Frisell as ever finding the common ground between various American musical traditions. There are few musicians with such a gripping contemporary voice, but with a simultaneous expert grasp of musical and cultural history. Even the most hackneyed of standards - in this case Tea for Two - sound daring, playful and fresh when played by Frisell. This does not seem to have been written about very much - but, for me, it's one of Frisell's best albums.

28. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises (Caldo Verde)
Mark Kozelek’s unwavering consistency continued in marvellous fashion on this mesmerising, beautiful album. It was the first to see Kozelek play a nylon stringed classical guitar, an instrument he appears to have taken to with genuine commitment. The songs are typically wistul, detailed and evocative and Kozelek’s voice is one of those familiar, comforting sounds that can never lose its understated appeal. What is new is the passages of elaborate virtuosity on the guitar. One of Kozelek’s best records to date.

27. Chris Abrahams - Play Scar (Room40)
This solo album from The Necks’ pianist is deceptive, lulling the listener into a false sense of security from which moments of distinct creepiness arise. Just when it feels Abrahams has achieved some kind of inner peace, a rush of Hammond Organ makes for a turbulent intrusion. It’s a strange, spectral, fascinating collection of musical ruminations.

26. Gil Scott-Heron - I’m New Here (XL)
This skeletal record sounded not so much like an artistic renewal, more like a fragmentary, hugely articulate glimpse into what remained of Scott-Heron after drug addiction and prison. It’s a tremendous album, its intimate perspective achieved not just through Scott-Heron’s audacious and autobiographical poetry but also through judicious choices of material for interpretation (Robert Johnson, Smog’s title track). One doesn’t immediately consider Scott-Heron one of the great interpreters - I’m New Here makes it clear just what a skilled vocalist he remains, perhaps even because that smooth baritone is something much more wild and ragged now.

25. Caribou - Swim (City Slang)
Dan Snaith’s work as Caribou has always been teetering on the brink of something poptastic - but his slightly mischievous streak seems to have held him back from fully exploring his music’s melodic potential. Swim is at once his most immediate and his most assured album under the Caribou moniker. It still explores some of the psychedelic pathways he has traversed already, but it feels much more streamlined and less cluttered. His voice, never the strongest of instruments, works best when at its most intimate and conversation as on Odessa, one of the tracks of the year. Much of Swim is vibrant and intoxicating.

24. Atomic - Theater Tilters (Jazzland)
Intense, tempestuous, whirlrlwind contemporary live jazz from Norway. These performances, spread over two discs, have the fire and fury of jazz-rock fusion but also the liberation and propulsion of free improvisation. It’s a manic, consistently surprising experience.

23. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and The Cairo Gang - The Wonder Show of the World (Domino)
Has Will Oldham, now on his umpteenth album, become one of those artists who is too easily taken for granted? The Wonder Show of the World seems to have been forgotten in the end of year polls. It’s a sufficiently different statement from the more acclaimed Beware to merit attention in its own right. The Cairo Gang - yet another new incarnation - is essentially a trio with Emmett Kelly and Shahzal Ismally, and the arrangements are mostly sparse and demure but this is a far stronger intimate album than Master and Everyone. These are some of Oldham’s strongest songs though - full of wit, wisdom and some characteristically candid moments.

22. Nedry - Condors (Monotreme)
Somehow I almost missed this quite wonderful album. There’s more than a slight resemblance to Bjork in Ayu Okaita’s flighty vocals and the music is soulful, evocative and occasionally daring. This is a supremely confident debut, a fully formed mature statement than grows with every listen.

21. Food - Quiet Inlet (ECM)
ECM has had a strong year, with its best releases steering clear of European jazz cliches (indeed, it’s harder to find an act more in tune with the American tradition than Charles Lloyd’s Quartet). This is a new incarnation of Food that finds Thomas Stronen and Iain Ballamy collaborating with Nils Petter Molvaer and electronic wizard Christian Fennesz. The results are glacial and insidious, in the best possible way.

20. Matthew Herbert - One One/One Club (Accidental)
If Herbert had seemed to be coasting a little recently (a pleasant if slightly unremarkable album in Scale followed by a second Big Band project), his One trilogy (the final part, One Pig, will now be released in 2011) shook things up considerably. Few could have been expecting anything quite as personal and intimate as One One, on which Herbert assumed vocal duties for the first time. Clearly his is not a technically accomplished voice, but it provided the vulnerability and honesty that the material required. It was refreshing to see Herbert veer away from political or conceptual concerns and try something different. One Club saw a new application for the modern musique concrete techniques Herbert first employed on Plat du Jour, the whole album being made from source recordings Herbert made in a nightclub. As ever with Herbert, it is more cerebral than hedonistic.

19. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Before Today (4AD)
Whilst Ariel Pink’s initial compilations of home recordings provided plenty of examples of his wayward brilliance, his insistence that the clock be reset for this first studio recording with a band suggested it offered something different and more substantial. This may be true - these lush, fuzzy detours through unfashionable realms (Hall and Oates, 10cc and Todd Rundgren may be influences) did more than just attempt to reclaim FM rock as art. Pink created a new, odd soundworld in which conventional musical taste was thrown out of the window and the resultant quirky, unpredictable sounds were completely irresistible.

18. Pantha Du Prince - Black Noise (Rough Trade)
17. Four Tet - There Is Love In You (Domino)

Two of the best electronic albums of 2010 arrived relatively early in the year. There Is Love In You may be the best work Kieran Hebden has yet produced under the Four Tet moniker, particularly striking in its use of human voices and in its dizzying cut-up rhythms. The Pantha du Prince album may have been a little sidelined by longstanding listeners who found it mildly inferior to its predecessor This Bliss. This seems a little churlish when the quality level is so palpably high. There’s a brilliant sense of atmosphere on Black Noise, and there is a warmth and a melodic quality sometimes absent from electronic music.

16. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot - Son of Chico Dusty (Mercury)
Whilst the emergence of Janelle Monae as a retro-futurist pop sensation excited almost everyone, this solo album from one half of OutKast didn’t quite get as much adulation. For me, it was actually the better record, a wonderful pot-pourri of modern soul, finding much of the common ground between hi-tech US R&B and UK bass music. Big Boi himself remains a brilliantly charismatic rapper.

15. James Blackshaw - All Is Falling (Young God)
Just when it seems that the prodigious James Blackshaw might have nowhere left to go, he takes another surprising and successful left turn. All is Falling adds yet another string to his bow by virtue of being a long form composition, its unwavering consistency being one of its many strengths. Blackshaw’s technically adept guitar playing is now taking a back seat to his assumption of a wider role as composer. By the conclusion of All is Falling, Blackshaw has dealt with both chamber arrangements and more contemporary techniques, suggesting that Blackshaw may even have yet more tricks up his sleeve.

14. Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother? (File Under Music)
It would be hard to find a stronger collection of indie-pop songwriting than this sugar rush of a solo debut from Kathryn Calder, member of both New Pornographers and the perenially underrated Immaculate Machine. As is all too predictable, it seems to have given little support in the UK, lacking adequate distribution and completely ignored by critics. This is a massive shame, as Calder is a substantial songwriting talent and this album is an affecting personal statement. Occasionally, the sweetness of its melodies threaten to overshadow the grief from which it was created. Recorded in a defiantly low-key manner at home, much of this sounds carefully arranged and crafted, and it’s hard to see how it could have been any stronger had Calder taken this material to a high end studio.

13. Clang Sayne - Winterlands (Clang Sayne)
Technically, this should probably be classed as a 2009 release, although it was only with its 2010 second run that this outstanding work started to gather more attention. Clang Sayne have to be one of the most inspired bands currently at work in this country, operating in a curious intersection between traditional folk song, jazz and free improvisation. The term ‘free folk’ has been banded around with reference to all manner of music but here, at last, was something to which it might be more appropriately applied. Laura Hylands’ beguiling voice provided the springboard for deeper, highly focused explorations of timbre and melody. This was without doubt a mature starting point, although a recent performance at Cafe Oto suggests the 2011 follow-up will be even stronger.

12. The Knife with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In A Year (Mute)
If The Knife’s contemporary ‘opera’ about Charles Darwin (in reality perhaps more of a dance piece) was slightly patchy in performance, this should take nothing away from the extraordinary score that underpins it. At the centre of it all is the remarkable ‘Colouring of Pigeons’, comfortably one of the finest tracks of the year. Yet there are other moments equal to that achievement, and the poised combination of abrasion and lingering melody gives a combination of shock and awe appropriate to the nature of Darwin’s discoveries.

11. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate - Ali and Toumani (World Circuit)
It seems odd that this second group of improvisations from two of the masters of Malian music was held back for so long but we can only be grateful that it has now appeared. Those who fell in love with In The Heart of the Moon will swoon equally to this collection - this music is so beautiful and moving that mere familiarity could never breed contempt for it. It’s the supremely balanced blend between guitar and kora that makes it so powerful - two brilliant musicians so bound in tradition and culture, playing with both expression and discipline.

10. Anais Mitchell - Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
Finally, Anais Mitchell is getting some of the attention she deserves. Her previous albums, although far more unassuming, contained some insightful, literate and delicate folk pop songs delivered in her idiosyncratic, slightly nasal pinch of a voice. Mitchell herself is a less dominant presence on Hadestown, if only because she has assembled an impressive cast of established singer-songwriters to play the various roles this reconstruction of the Orpheus myth requires. The concept would not be enough in itself to merit a top ten ranking in my list - it’s Mitchell’s execution of it, through the vehicle of some vivid narrative songwriting, that makes this so impressive. Drawing on a feast of roots music, this is steeped in tradition but delivered with individual authority.

9. The Golden Age of Steam - Raspberry Tongue (Babel)
Despite the involvement of the Mercury-nominated Kit Downes (on organ rather than acoustic piano), this vigorous, highly charged example of collective improvisation never quite got the attention it deserved in 2010. The Golden Age of Steam are both virtuosic and uncompromising, and sometimes the intensity level is so high that the music can be overpowering. Yet there is also subtlety and nuance aplenty in this superb set - this is a group of people alive to the possibility inherent in sound, in rhythm and in melodic lines.

8. Wildbirds and Peacedrums - Rivers (Leaf)
It’s barely been noted, but this conjoining of two short form EP releases presents a rather new Wildbirds and Peacedrums. It’s not just the new level ambition inherent in the choral arrangements of the album’s first half - it’s also in the attention to detail applied to sound and dynamics. This is a much less abrasive and arguably therefore also a much more widely appealing version of the group. Yet they have lost none of their imagination and desire to innovate. This music is profoundly beautiful and immersive.

7. Afrocubism - Afrocubism (World Circuit)
This project is something close to what was originally conceived for the Buena Vista Social Club, before visa issues scuppered the dream. Now some of the finest African and Cuban musicians meet in a highly empathetic, perhaps even symbiotic recording, that finds the shared ground in musical heritage. It’s a deeply traditional work, but one that gains fresh impetus and appeal from some unfamiliar instrumentation and through the knowledge and experience of the musicians involved. It is delivered with a relaxed grace typical of these musical masters and it is a consistently enriching and enjoyable listening experience.

6. Richard Skelton - Landings (Type)
Not so much an album as a full blown geographical and personal study, Skelton’s wonderful achievement transports us back to a time where landscape and location provided fertile inspiration for artists. With his nuanced, compelling music (an intriguing blend of acoustic and electronic elements), Skelton wordlessly explored links between place, grief and recovery. It’s a testament to the importance and influence of environment and the resilience of the human spirit.

5. Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa - Dual Identity (Clean Feed)
This collaborative project between two of the most imaginative and thrilling alto saxophonists at work in US jazz is every bit as fascinating and challenging as one might expect. The group now features Liberty Ellmann on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums and the whole ensemble share Lehman and Mahanthappa’s preoccupation with rhythmic intricacy. Ellmann’s spiky, dissonant accompaniment is particularly crucial. The compositions are pieced together like intellectual puzzles, but the resulting music is immediate and weirdly groovy. The sound of two alto saxophonists duetting remains unusual, but Lehman and Mahanthappa carry it off with real skill - interweaving between each other with nimble flurries without ever crowding each other’s space.

4. Tim Whitehead - Colour Beginnings (Home Made)
Based on work Tim Whitehead undertook whilst composer in residence at Tate Britain during 2009, Colour Beginnings is inspired by encounters with a series of JMW Turner paintings and watercolour sketches. It is a process-driven work in which the process is human, personal and emotional. Whitehead recorded his improvised responses to the Turner artwork and then developed ensemble compositions from these improvisations. The result is a long form work of genuine inspiration, with moments of searing, passionate joy. Whitehead not just establishes the atmosphere of Turner’s work, but also its physicality - the crashing of waves, the sun’s reflection dancing on the water, clouds floating in the sky. The recordings are impressive given the unusual performance spaces (half of the album was recorded at the work’s premier at a gallery room in Tate Britain). Whitehead sounds committed and intense as always, ably abetted by keenly aware, sensitive playing from Liam Noble, Oli Hayhurst, Patrick Bettison and Milo Fell. Colour Beginnings is the best British jazz CD of the year, and a personal and professional triumph for Whitehead.

3. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me (Drag City)
Never entirely convinced by Ys, I approached this colossal triple album with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried though - Have One On Me retains all that was magical, idiosyncratic and charming about Newsom whilst jettisoning some of her more extreme, grating tendencies. Her voice is more rounded and soulful, far less abrasive and the songs, whilst lengthy and exploratory in terms of Newsom’s ceaselessly inventive lyrics, benefit greatly from the chamber arrangements of her chief collaborator Ryan Francesconi. There are elements of West Coast folk and New Orleans jazz, but the resulting melting point is very much Newsom’s individual, original statement. Have One On Me is moving and inspiring at the same time as being overwhelming.

2. Charles Lloyd Quartet - Mirror (ECM)
Whilst some fawned over Brad Mehldau’s syrupy, over-produced Highway Rider, others realised that Lloyd’s current quartet (featuring Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland) is among the best groups currently at work in American jazz, perhaps even the equal of his hugely influential late 1960s quartet. Their studio dates tend to be calmer than their rousing, sometimes tempestuous live performances, emphasising Lloyd’s tendency towards spiritual balm. Mirror works remarkably well though - a graceful, elegant and meditative work brimming with thoughtful statements, beautifully balanced ensemble sound and refined musicianship.

**1. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (Warp)**
FlyLo’s magnum opus divided opinion between those completely immersed in its enticing alternative cosmic reality and those infuriated by what they viewed as attention deficit disorder. Yet FlyLo has never really made isolated tracks as such - these small segments may veer suddenly and unexpected into new territory, but the overall picture makes a warped kind of sense. Cosmogramma is the most intricate and sophisticated sound collage Steven Ellison has yet produced, incorporating elements of hip hop, IDM, the astral jazz beloved of his great-aunt Alice Coltrane (particularly through Rebekah Raff’s harp) and 70s fusion. It’s a challenging but deeply rewarding work with a coherent vision and appealing philosophy.

Review of 2010 Part 2: Preamble and Honourable Mentions

In part thanks to streaming services such as Spotify, and in part thanks to taking up a reviewing role for musicOMH, I heard more new music in 2010 than ever before. I've never felt that this blog should be about being selective or about following a consensus, so my review of the year has gradually gone up from a top 50 to a top 75 and, in more recent years, to a top 100. This strikes me as the only way to capture the diverse range of music I enjoy and which has had a major impact on me in 2010.

My list, as always, is defiantly personal and subjective. There are numerous lists in print and on the web that aim to showcase a consensus view from a group of writers. In writing this blog, I am not in contact with any PR companies, and I feel little obligation to include some of the albums that seem to have been wildly overrated this year. With that in mind, my review of 2010 will be a strictly Paul Weller, John Grant, MGMT, Kanye West, The Black Keys and The National-free zone, amongst many others no doubt. That I could still find 100 albums and more for possible inclusion might shock some of the UK's more complacent music critics, many of whom seem to think that there is little music of importance. Some of my choices undoubtedly come from the margins, but I think everything in this list deserves at least a shot at wider attention. Looking at the relative success of Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds this year, I feel real encouragement that just about anything IS possible.

Much as I like to leave publishing a review of the year list until as close to the end of the year as possible, I inevitably have to draw a line somewhere. This means that there are some notable absences. Two albums of uncovered older music deserve special mention - the wonderful live recording of Loose Tubes called 'Dancing on Frith Street' and Bruce Springsteen's 'The Promise', which revealed some superb outtakes from the recording of 'Darkness On The Edge of Town'. As for contemporary recordings, Supersilent released two albums worth of music in 2010, neither of which I have managed to hear yet. I also haven't managed to hear the latest releases from Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, two particular favourite artists of mine. There are no doubt others still awaiting my ears.

There is though, this year, a substantial list of albums that could easily have made the list, but which I didn't include, either for reasons of balance within the final list, or because of a slight lack of consistency within the albums themselves, or because they didn't quite hit me on a personal level. So, here are some of my omissions, many of which deserve more than a mere mention:

Superpitcher - Kilimanjaro
Walls - Walls
The Books - The Way Out
Myra Melford's Be Bread - The Whole Tree Gone
Tom Jones - Praise and Blame
These New Puritans - Hidden
Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu Steps Ahead
Max Richter - Infra
Ellen Allien - Dust
I Am Kloot - Sky At Night
Morning Benders - Big Echo
Mark McGuire - Living With Yourself
Gold Panda - Lucky Shiner
Susumu Yokota - Kaleidoscope
The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Barn Owl - Ancestral Star
Beach House - Teen Dream
Teeth of the Sea - Your Mercury
Steve Mason - Boys Outside
Antony and the Johnsons - Swanlights
Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
Elephant9 - Walk The Nile
Bushman's Revenge - Jitterbug
Allo Darlin'- Allo Darlin'
The School - Loveless Unbeliever
Olof Arnalds - Innur Skinni
Diskjokke - En Fin Tid
Darkstar - North
Manu Katche - Third Round
Nels Cline - Initiate
Wooden Wand - Death Seat
Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal - Chamber Music
Solar Bears - She Was Coloured In
Moritz Von Oswald Trio - Live In New York
Paul Motian, Chris Potter, Jason Moran - Lost In A Dream
Billy Jenkins - Born Again (And The Religion Is The Blues)
Lindstrom and Christabelle - Real Life Is No Cool
To Rococo Rot - Speculation
The Magnetic Fields - Realism
S Carey - All We Grow
Nat Birchall - Guiding Spirit
Bandjo - Bandjo
CocoRosie - Grey Oceans
Gayngs - Relayted
Everything Everything - Man Alive
Mose Allison - The Way Of The World

Review of 2010 Part 1: Short Form Releases

Before I move on to the inevitable albums of the year list, it's worth briefly drawing attention to the year's best short form releases.

James Blake - The Bells Sketch/CMYK/Klawierwerke

So significant were these three EPs from James Blake that many online publications appear to be treating them together as an album. If I had adopted the same approach, they would have comfortably slotted in to my top ten of the year. Klawierwerke was probably the most coherent and consistent overall - Blake had submitted it as coursework for his Goldmsiths music degree. The single highlight of the three EPs had to be the Kelis-sampling CMYK, an absolutely massive tune. I fear that Blake's vocal-dominated album due early next year (heralded by his recent cover of Feist's Limit To Your Love) may be a slightly worthy, sub-Massive Attack affair. Let's hope not, but if so, these three EPs together represent a major body of work.

Bjork and Dirty Projectors - Mount Wittenberg Orca
Perhaps the only disappointing thing about this EP-cum-mini album was that it sounded exactly as one might expect a collaboration between Bjork and Dirty Projectors to sound. It's meticulously arranged and brilliantly executed, and all have clearly worked hard to ensure that Bjork's presence is well integrated and not overpowering. As for Dirty Projectors, it's hard to see how they can get any better.

Animal Collective - Fall Be Kind
This formed an intriguing bridging point between the exuberance of Merriweather Post Pavillion and the weirder, more introspective nature of their earlier material. What Do I Want? Sky and I Think I Can were sublime.

Flying Lotus - Pattern + Grid World
As if the colossal, extraordinary Cosmogramma wasn't enough!

Robyn - Body Talk
Robyn's brand of commercial pop may be little different from that of the world dominating Lady GaGa, yet her strong collection of wonderfully melancholy somehow seems more honest. The Body Talk project was optimisitically billed as three albums from Robyn in a year - really, it was two mini-albums and a complilation, with some infuriating duplication of material.

Ikonika - Edits
I suspect Ikonika's debut album for Hyperdub suffered only from being a little overlong. On an EP format though, her music works supremely well - this is a sonically inventive and energising set of cut-downs from the album.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Short Cuts 2

The Roots - How I Got Over

Given their committed work ethic and prolific output, I can probably be forgiven with having lost touch with The Roots a little after Game Theory. They are a band easy to take for granted. How I Got Over must surely rank among their best efforts. It's not ambitious and unwieldy like the superb Phrenology - rather, it's more a concise, tight affair showcasing the group playing to all their strengths. The grooves are righteous and, inevitably perhaps, there are plenty of collaborations. What is particularly exciting about How I Got Over is that the roll call of guests is unusual and intriguing. Right On effectively reworks Joanna Newson's The Book Of Right On into an insistent hip hop track, with surprisingly effective results. The sublime voices of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian usher in the haunting overture A Peace of Light. ?uestlove's outrageously strong groove feel dominates the group's sound as usual and Radio Daze and Walk Alone are prime examples of the group's musical skill.

Janelle Monae - The Archandroid

Plenty has already been written about this sprawling, hugely impressive work and quite rightly it has been hailed in many quarters as one of the albums of the year. Janelle Monae has superstar quality - she is an assured songwriter with a strong voice and plenty of quirky charisma. Inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, this album veers all over the place and then some, breaking the unspoken industry rule that often places artists in a straightjacket. It seems likely that there is no containing Monae, who is as happy on driving, memorable future pop such as Tightrope as she is on moments of striking vulnerability. I'm not yet convinced that The Archandroid is an unmitigated masterpiece though - sometimes Monae seems to have foregrounded sound and ideas at the expense of strong melodies. Still, it's an exciting and original achievement - and it's great to have an artist this bold and brave striving for a place in the mainstream.

Richard Thompaon - Dream Attic
Although the sound of the Richard Thompson band is by now very familiar, it's hard to imagine Thompson making a bad album. His songriting remains focused and powerful, whilst the sound of the ensemble, never as vividly captured as on this ferocious live recording, is tough and muscular. Thompson's robust, incandescent guitar playing remains a significant defining feature of his music but Dream Attic works well because the group can sink their teeth into some outstanding material. There are some great songs here that veer from the melancholy and moving (A Brother Slips Away) to angry responses to the financial crisis (The Money Shuffle). There are a number of artists continuing to make fascinating and confident musical statements late into their careers - Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris are all good examples. Thompson should definitely be included among their number.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal
Emeralds - Does It Look Like I'm Here?

As open-minded as I am about music, I sometimes struggle with the breed of electronic composition that emphasises noise above rhythm or harmony. It is difficult to comprehend music that lacks any kind of rhythmic expression or interest. Yet these two albums, both issued on the excellent Mego album, strike me as great examples of how this kind of music can be done in a sophisticated way, without punishing the ears and testing the patience of its audience. Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal is brilliantly structured, beginning with the most sonically abrasive textures before moving towards a surprisingly peaceful, hypnotic conclusion. The stormy fuzz threatens to conceal what appears to be a benevolent melodic streak lurking just beneath the surface. The Emeralds album is harder to pin down - but somehow both mysterious and graceful. It's main achievement is to produce an edited, more manageable take on the group's improvisational history without any sense of compromise or dilution. Both records share some of the hazy, blissful introversion of Fennesz's extraordinary Endless Summer. It's easy to see why Mego took interest in both releases.

Lorn - Nothing Else
This is another winner from Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder operation. It's a brilliantly dirty, intoxicating collection - full of slow but riveting beats and bursting with ideas. Much of the music seems dark, perhaps even tinged with sadness, yet it remains a curiously enjoyable listen. This music has a magnetic pull from which it is almost impossible to escape. Bass music may be at its zenith right now - it's hard to see how the music will develop beyond splintering into ever more numerous sub genres.

Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
For some, this has been something of a disappointment. For others, it represents a distillation of BSS' most accessible traits and a pruning of their more wayward tendencies. I'm not sure the latter is actually true. For sure, the album's first half is an irresistible blast of superbly produced, near-anthemic indie-rock. Once again, BSS have placed themselves at the far more imaginative end of this music. The playing is now crisper and tighter, but the arrangements are no less fascinating. Opener World Sick arrives on a bed of delicate, strage electronics, whilst Chase Scene and the fantastic Art House Director have a cinematic energy and vividness. The album's second half is less memorable and more obtuse. It feels like something of a struggle, and there's the sense that the whole thing may be a little overlong. Still - not being quite as good as their previous work, when those albums really did set a benchmark for quality and inventiveness in rock - is hardly that much of a crime.

Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
This is a classic example of the completely lazy misuse of that old journalistic cliche 'return to form'. Shadows is not a return to anything - it's far more a continuation of the hazier, lighter, less immediate style of songwriting Teenage Fanclub have been pursuing over their last couple of albums. Like Man Made and Howdy, it's a completely democratic affair - with Raymond McGinley's more elusive, subtle songs given equal weight. Norman Blake's slices of unashamed pop brilliance - Baby Lee and When I Still Have Thee - are the exceptions here. Prevalence comes from songs of gentle, considered reflection - The Past and The Fall from Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love's rather splendid Shock and Awe and Sweet Days Waiting (the latter a song delivered with such a light touch that it could easily fall apart). The album suggests a gentle acceptance of ageing and new concerns. It seems unlikely that Teenage Fanclub will make an album as crunchy and carefree as Bandwagonesque or as bright and chiming as Grand Priz again. But why should they?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Short Cuts 1

Nina Nastasia - Outlaster (FatCat)
Nastasia seems to have become one of those artists quietly taken for granted by a critical fraternity unwilling to construct much more than a generalised impression. Given her unwavering consistency, this is not entirely unfair - but few seem to have noticed that Outlaster is surely a standout album in her now sizeable catalogue. The songs here seem richer and both more confident and more nuanced. It's really in the detail of the arrangements - written in collaboration with Paul Bryan - that the artistry of Outlaster becomes apparent though. This is a record full of tension and dissonance - familiar acoustic American music made starker and darker. Nastasia has managed to make her writing more sophisticated and expansive without losing her characteristic spare style.

Golden Age Of Steam - Raspberry Tongue (Babel)
This is, at least for me, a long awaited treat of an album. I've seen Golden Age of Steam, ostensibly a trio consisting of reedsman James Allsopp, organist Kit Downes and drummer Tim Giles live a few times over the past couple of years. Their music has evoked a series of strange and contradictory emotions in me - running the gamut from fear to ecstacy. Their improvising is pitched at an intense and demanding level - sometimes it is baffling, sometimes completely entrancing. What is clear is that these are three of the most talented musicians currently at work in London. These sessions capture some of the spontaneous kinetic energy of their live performances - but also demonstrate a musicality and compositional flair too. There's plenty of gleeful rhythmic subversion on display here - but also a piercing quality to some of the lines that Downes and Allsopp conjure up. Similarly, drummer Giles is capable of executing fearsomely complex patterns at terrifying speed, but is also musically adroit, voicing his patterns carefully to create interweaving statements and phrases. The music is fiercely propulsive, but also full of colour and concealed melodic invention. One of the highlights of British jazz this year.

Benoit Pioulard - Lasted (Kranky)
Thomas Meluch has now made three albums of hazy, translucent, homespun music under the alias of Benoit Pioulard. With each release his recordings sound more deliberate and more integrated. Lasted is the most coherent of his full lengths so far, with Pioulard's idiosyncratic soundworld at its most detailed and nuanced. With real success, he has allowed his calm, understated voice to become a stronger, clearer presence. There are all manner of intriguing stories lurking within his warm fuzz and beneath his muffled strum. Sometimes he takes some familiar, perhaps even conventional language from the world of indie-pop and transforms it into something pregnant with mystery and illusion. Tracks like Sault and A Coin On The Tongue are wistful and melodic yet also full of unexpected twists and turns. The results are spellbinding, and a powerful argument against over-production.

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT - Invariable Heartache (City Slang)
This is a collaborative effort I've known about for a while - and the resulting album is a quiet, unassuming gem. The tracklist mostly consists of cover versions of country songs from the vaults of Chart Records, a Nashville record label operated by Tidwell's grandfather. Tidwell's solo records, though beautiful and fascinating in their own right, have disguised what is actually a remarkably pure and emotive voice - one that is surprisingly suitable for these songs that are charged with longing and regret. Wagner has such a characterful, unique voice - one that is reliant on phrasing for its effect, that it would seem nearly impossible to harmonise with him. Tidwell pulls it off though, often rounding off the harsher edges of Wagner's peculiarly articulated half-singing with something warmer, but no less powerful. It is, I suspect, a deceptively conventional work - and one that has been very carefully sequenced to reveal unexpected secrets and surprises. It will almost certainly be casually categorised as a bonus curio for fans of both artists - it deserves a little more recognition and attention.

Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth - Deluxe (Clean Feed)
This is one of those insidious jazz albums - being far more about communication and vibe than intricate harmony or fluent improvisation (not to say that the latter two qualities are not also present). Much of the album's distinctive mood is created by Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes piano. This could be a mere period detail were it not for the wiry, often radical way Taborn plays on it. The warmth of Taborn's varied textures aid in the creation of a spacious, open sound. The album is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat dominated by an illustrious three-pronged saxophone frontline, although it works given how all three saxophonists (Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby and Andrew D'Angelo) play with a united sense of purpose. Deluxe is the sound of an invigorted ensemble playing refreshing, exciting music.

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
James Murphy has given strong indications in interviews of his intentions to abandon the LCD moniker and return with something a little different. This Is Happening suggests this may be a good idea. It's not that it's a bad album - in fact, it's rather good - it's just that it relies heavily on what are by now very familiar LCD tropes. The irony and wit of Murphy's lyrics remain intact, particularly on the poweful opening sequence of Dance Yourself Clean and Drunk Girls, but there's now a strong sense that this is merely repeating ground already covered to stronger impact on the wonderful Sound of Silver. Many critics have seemed unsympathetic to Murphy's rantings against the music undustry on You Wanted A Hit, particularly given how much freedom Murphy appears to have been given. I wonder if the track might not have been intended so literally - it seems like another example of Murphy's knowing wit - a thinly concealed attack on indier-than-thou hipsters. LCD really only do one thing (two if you count their occasional tender ballads). They became very good at it from the get-go - making mazimal results from the most minimal of musical ingredients. The possibility for Murphy to become a victim of his own very distinctive sound is now obvious. It's time to move on.

Tom Jones - Praise and Blame (Island)
If someone had told me I'd be writing about a Tom Jones album on this blog at the start of this year, I'd have laughed, yet here I am. I've never been a particular fan of Jones - though he's always professed to love the blues and early rock n' roll, most of his artistic decisions have tended towards the highly commercial. Sometimes, in attempting to do something hip and avoid ridicule, he has merely courted it. He also has a tendency to over-use his tremendous vocal power, brow-beating an audience into accepting his talent. On Praise and Blame, however, he may at last have found the right material for his voice as well as a sympathetic producer in Ethan Johns. The album touches on gospel, blues, country and rock and roll - and it is unashamedly uncomplicated - the kind of raw, as-live recording that Jones has been been studiously avoiding until now. The version of Dylan's What Good Am I is more painful and wracked with self doubt than the original - and benefits from a straightforward arrangement largely stripped of the Lanois murk. Elsewhere, the song selection is unfailingly judicious - and even old standards like Nobody's Fault But Mine sound full of life and vitality when passed through Jones' revitalised vocal chords. For the first time in many years, he appears to be exercising some degree of control.

Anais Mitchell - Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
For all the understandable noise surrounding Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me, this similarly ambitious gem of an album seemed to escape largely unnoticed. Mitchell is a hard-working, increasingly inspired songwriter who has pushed herself way out of her comfort zone with this concept piece about the Orpheus myth. The huge roll call of guests (including Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Orpheus, The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller and Ani Difranco as Persephone) has helped Hadestown attract more attention - but really it ought to be vying with Newsom's magnum opus in the upper reaches of critics' end of year lists. By recontextualising the Orpheus myth in depression-era America, Mitchell has created a quintessential American folk album - one that is full of the passion and drama one might expect from the stage version, but which also comes alive because of Mitchell's strong melodies and distinctive vocal character. Even when divorced from their context, a number of these songs are remarkably strong. Wait For Me, a strong feature for Vernon, is full of longing and pain whilst Way Down Hadestown offers a memorable theme, with some of the drunken, lurching quality of Tom Waits' theatrical music. The production is suitably naturalistic and restrained, allowing the vocalists to clearly portray their characters and for the quality of the writing to cut through. Superb.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge)
Perhaps my tastes have changed since Arcade Fire released Funeral and played that extraordinary debut London show at King's College Student Union. They have not, of course, veered too far from the formula that made them successful in the first place. It's just that, well, it's become so much more formulaic. The Suburbs is a long album and it certainly has its moments. Best of all is probably The Sprawl II, which takes the group way out of their comfort zone into a stranger world with a strong hint of 80s synth pop.

The Suburbs is less grandiose and pompous than Neon Bible for sure, but I'm not sure a concept album about suburban boredom and frustration is a novel or even particularly interesting idea. Win Butler's lyrics continue to fall into the pitfalls of cliche, not least in his numerous rather dismissive references to 'the kids'. For a band that have always maintained a close rapport with their audience, this seems like a strange move. On Funeral, Arcade Fire excited because they described a whole other world in vivid detail. The Suburbs describes a world that seems depressingly earthy and familiar. The stronger vocal presence here is Regine Chassagne - her floaty, wafer-thin voice adds intrigue to the otherwise relentless Empty Room. The delicate shuffle of the title track is deceptively simple and reveals greater rewards over time, but the punishing insistence of tracks like Ready To Start and Modern Man has become rather predictable.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Missing Links

I've not been writing that much here lately - instead devoting myself to the lovely people over at musicOMH. I thought I'd publish links to some pieces on albums I would have written about here.

Some great music amongst the above - particularly Alasdair Roberts, Matthew Herbert, Luke Abbott, James Blackshaw, Lobi Traore, Afrocubism and the Wyatt, Atzmon and Stephen collaboration.

My stern review of the Sufjan Stevens epic seems to have been a little controversial. I didn't think I was saying anything particularly contentious - but the album appears to have been reviewed very favourably elsewhere and certainly has its passionate defenders. I should point out for the record that I'm certainly not against 'difficult' or ambitious albums - but they have to work artistically. This one, in my view, does not.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Back To The Future

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today (4AD, 2010)

Ariel Pink is a name many will be familiar with thanks to his series of home-recorded solo releases on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label. These recordings have had an influence wildly at odds with their scale and ambition, informing critics as much as musicians (spurious categories such as hypnagogig pop seem to link back to Pink). In spite of this wide-ranging impact, Pink is making 'Before Today', his first album made with a full band, a clean slate. It's the first time he has recorded with the explicit intention of releasing the results to a sizeable audience. As such, it's predictably a cleaner, more carefully orchestrated affair than his previous work, although it retains much of the lo-fi, ramshackle charm that has gained him considerable support and acclaim. It successfully both defines and improves his distinctive aesthetic.

Much of this aesthetic involves making a case for the much derided radio music with which Pink may have grown up - the likes of Hall & Oates, Foreigner, Christopher Cross, Todd Rundgren and 10cc. The two most obvious examples of this here are 'Round and Round' and 'Can't Hear My Eyes'. Both have that soft touch drum sound and the enveloping synth pads characteristic of the early-80s (before stadium rock and the Power Station sound took over). The latter has a quite ludicrous slinky saxophone solo. These tracks don't sound like direct facsimiles of that era though. Pink takes something of the slick smoothness and syrupy melodic sensibility and refashions it for his own, more ambiguous purposes. Whilst Pink's melodies are straightforwardly infectious (whether consciously or not, the exuberant chorus of 'Round and Round' owes a debt to Deacon Blue's 'Fergus Sings The Blues'), the music is more confusing and ghostly. This is not just a nostalgia trip - but rather something a little more radical. It's a remodelling of the past.

Pink's role models are not all stereotypically unfashionable. 'Before Today' ends with 'Revolution's A Lie', which features a moody, pulsating bassline that hints at Joy Division or The Cure, two bands whose influence has never really diminished in spite of the risk of cliched miserabilism. Again, Pink makes it all much more warped and otherworldly though. This sounds like a hallucination or a nightmare, rather than any very real personal suffering. At the other end, the album is ushered in with the alluring 'Hot Body Rub', which seems to mesh 2-Tone saxophones with a mechanistic rhythm reminiscent of Neu!. Pink's new wave fascinations continue to emerge throughout - on the frazzled 'Little Wig' and the propulsive 'Bright Lit Blue Skies' particularly.

Pink has an offbeat sense of humour that results in faintly ludicrous song titles such as 'Beverley Kills' and 'Butt-House Blondies'. This also takes him into more surreal territory, such as on 'Menopause Man'. This is a rather peculiar swampy ballad that, perhaps questionably, conflates gender confusion with sexuality ('rape me, castrate me, make me gay').

Pink has little fear of the unusual, the bizarre or the frankly daft, both lyrically and musically. This means that 'Before Today' could be either a collection of elaborately constructed jokes - or it could be a brave work of near-genius. The way the absurd dual fuzz guitars of 'L'estat' slip into a lopsided swing groove would be nonsensical in almost anyone else's hands, but Pink and his band make it sound not just planned but somehow appropriate. Context is everything here of course. It's the way Pink transforms his reference points into something strange, hypnotic and utterly irresistible that makes him convincing.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Alone Together

New Pornographers - Together (Matador)
Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music)

The fifth album from Canadian supergroup New Pornographers appears to have been rather casually dismissed by British rock critics. Perhaps it's simply because it's easy to take a band for granted once they've got five albums into their career. It could be because their previous album, 2007's 'Challengers', with its heavy-handed orchestrations, was a little plodding and overwraught. It's worth stepping back and taking stock though. Did anyone seriously expect that the New Pornographers, a band who hardly ever all appear on one stage at the same time, would manage to produce five albums?

After 'Challengers', 'Together' is quite simply a breath of fresh air. The crisp, crunchy opener 'Moves' provides a timely reminder of just how distinctive and sophisticated a pop songwriter AC Newman is. The album contains some of their most infectious and irresistible songs to date. 'Valkyrie in the Roller Disco' is every bit as glorious as its title - shimmering, shiny and wonderfully slow-building. It may be their finest song. 'Up In The Dark' is pounding power-pop. 'Your Hands (Together)' is a colossal tease - leaving us primed for a full on rock shuffle beat that never arrives. Dan Bejar contributes the delightful jangle of 'Silver Jenny Dollar' and 'If You Can't See My Mirrors'. The sound throughout is colossal - cymbals seem to crash from all directions, the guitars chime beautifully.

'Together' eschews the self-importance that occasionally marred 'Challengers'. It seems that the band have rediscovered their characteristic effervescence. As a consequence, it makes for joyful listening. It's certainly sugary - the New Pornographers remain a band best consumed in small doses. Within itself, this is another fine record with a big, bold sound.

Even better though is the debut solo album from Kathryn Calder, a member both of The New Pornographers and the chronically underrated Immaculate Machine. Calder has done a great job in the New Pornographers in taking over vocal duties in Neko Case's absence at live shows, although her voice is identifiable for being more understated and less imposing than Case's. Whilst 'Are You My Mother?' occasionally traverses similar power-pop terrain to that claimed by her other bands, it's very much an individual, very personal work. It also benefits from a broader dynamic range and greater stylistic diversity. Calder is as comfortable singing a tender piano ballad as she is quixotic, unpredictable indie-pop songs such as 'Slip Away'.

The album was recorded in Calder's childhood home and was thematically informed by the two years Calder spent caring for her terminally ill mother. It can't have been an easy experience to make this music - which is why it's all the more impressive that 'Are You My Mother' is in essence such a life-affirming record. It contains songs of loss and grief ('Arrow', 'Down The River'), but it is also stoical, mature and ultimately hopeful. The lush, determined rush of 'Castor and Pollux' might be the best example of this.

With little in the way of recording technology, the help of a few friends (including members of Ladyhawke, Frog Eyes and New Pornographers), and some household items recycled as percussion instruments, Calder has made a rich, powerful sounding album. Her songwriting is offbeat, melodic and sophisticated. She pays careful attention to instrumentation - the mandolin on 'Follow Me Into The Hills' elevates the song. The ragged percussion gives 'If You Only Knew' an energy and collective spirit. Her melodies flow gracefully in elegant phrases, and her calm, sometimes soothing voice conveys insight. 'Are You My Mother?' is a tremendously accomplished debut that suggests that, with the help of a little publicity, Calder could eclipse the achievements of her colleagues.

Friday, July 23, 2010


It's been a bit quiet around here lately, I know. I've not been letting the writing slip, however - I've been contributing reviews to the lovely MusicOMH. I plan to write a bit more here soon - there's a huge backlog of releases I've been meaning to write about. In the meantime, here's a small sample of my recent listening.

Wildbirds and Peacedrums - Rivers
Luke Abbott - Holkham Drones
I Am Kloot - Sky At Night
Janelle Monae - The Archandroid
Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot...The Son of Chico Dusty
Department of Eagles - Archives 2003 - 2006
Max Richter - Infra
Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother?
Dirty Projectors and Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca
The Roots - How I Got Over
Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Here's a new blog that's really worth checking out:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good Vibes

Dadawah - Peace and Love (1974, reissued by Dug Out)

Here is a little known gem, now lovingly reissued by Dug Out and Honest Jon's. I remember this record well from my childhood, the Trojan vinyl edition being one of the weirder selections from my father's wide ranging record collection. I remember bracketing it with Keith Hudson's 'Pick A Dub' as one of the weirder, more mesmerising examples of reggae. It's not as sinister as the Hudson classic, rather more spiritual and devotional, and it still sounds absolutely revelatory. The fuddled, murky sound of the record is every bit as intoxicating as whatever producer Lloyd Charmers and engineer George Raymond were smoking when mixing it. Apparently, they stayed up all night after the session to complete the job. It's rare that albums with such a powerful, characterful sound get made with such spontaneity nowadays.

'Peace and Love' is an example of the Nyabinghi Grounation sub-genre of roots reggae. Essentially, it's a form of Rastafarian devotional music founded on the use of nyabinghi drums. The Dadawah project was one of the vehicles for Ras Michael, whose imposing, resonant voice still dominates these recordings, in spite of the fascinating presence of the music. The traditional chanting and hand drumming form the foundation of the music, but these four tracks have sublimely extended durations - ebbing and flowing delightfully, and uniting Michael's nyabinghi expositions with bass, guitars, piano and organ and a small brass section.

Roots reggae remains little explored in music criticism and in the reissue market, perhaps because greater commercial value was placed on more accessible hybrids of reggae with other western pop styles. There's so much more to discover here though - for this personal and honest music still sounds deeply unusual and exciting. Do seek this out - as well as Michael's other work as Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. It's all tremendous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Infinite Space

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (Warp)

It's very difficult to make a convincing written case for just how amazing the disjointed, disorientating, genre-spanning work of Steve Ellison is. Every rule that governs the operation of the music business, both in creative and marketing terms, Ellison breaks. His output as Flying Lotus has been lazily classified as 'instrumental hip hop' in the past, or, perhaps even more misleadingly, bracketed with the UK dubstep movement. Whilst some of the Flying Lotus work might share with the likes of Burial a compelling and murky atmosphere, Ellison's scope is considerably wider. On 'Cosmogramma', he seems to have inherited some of his Aunt Alice Coltrane's spiritual concerns. This is a work as indebted to the revolutionary jazz sound as it is to hip hop and electronica.

Initial promotional copies of 'Cosmogramma' were sent out as one long track, although the finished product is divided into seventeen largely brief segments. Part of FlyLo's approach so far has been, much like the work of Prefuse 73, a scattershot approach that makes rapid switches between styles and never allows ideas to outstay their welcome. This might be a major problem, were it not for the coherence and power of the overall vision and architecture.

To my ears, 'Cosmogramma' might helpfully be divided into three distinct movements. The short opening section, comprising 'Clock Catcher', 'Pickled!' and 'Nose Art' is the most electronic and funky section, mixing sinister undertones and playful humour. The opening gurgles and bleeps of 'Clock Catcher' offer the listener a false sense of security - it feels like we're in fairly predictable Warp territory. Similarly, the bass extravaganza of 'Pickled!' could have come from a Squarepusher record.

As it's title suggests, 'Intro/A Cosmic Drama' takes us somewhere else entirely. The longer, central section of this album is beautifully orchestrated and ferociously intense. Even so, this allows for FlyLo to veer from the delightful analogue electro of 'Computer Face/Pure Being' to the improvised drum solo that initiates 'Arkestry'. Again, the title is a giveaway - the sonic and spiritual outlook of Sun Ra is clearly a major influence. All the disparate strands are held together through the serene harp playing of Rebekah Raff.

Within this highly imaginative sound collage are some of FlyLo's most transparently commercial offerings to date. In his hands, however, they sound wondrous. The familiar murmurings of Thom Yorke make '..And The World Laughs With You...' sound eerie and mysterious. The wonderfully titled 'Do The Astral Plane' is a further reminder of Ellison's superb sense of humour. It's an irresistible slice of cosmic disco. 'Mmm..Hmmm', which features Thundercat, is possibly the most straightforwardly melodic thing Ellison has produced to date, but it also has its own unique slinky, cerebral and atmospheric charm.

Some critics have found fault in the final stretch of 'Cosmogramma', from 'Satellliiiite' onwards. It certainly becomes more impressionistic, hazy and distant at this point. To me, it is suggestive of the numinous - something unfathomable beyond the known limits of the universe. This is Ellison at his most expansive and abstract.

It's unlikely that there will be a more diverse, pleasurably confusing, radically unpredictable album in 2010. It's also unlikely that there will be another album with as convincing and exciting a vision. This is brighter, more celebratory and at times more accessible than previous Flying Lotus records - but it's certainly no artistic compromise.