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.


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