Sunday, December 25, 2011

Top 100 (and a bit) of 2011 (In One Place)

100)Feist - Metals (Polydor)
99)Cornershop - And The Double-O Groove Of (Ample Play)
98)Fatoumata Diawara - Fatou (World Circuit)
97)The Field - Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
96)Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique 1 (Pi)
95)Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Wichita)
94)Kuedo - Severant (Planet Mu)
93)SBTRKT - SBTRKT (Young Turks)
92)Meg Baird - Seasons On Earth (Wichita)
91)CANT - Dreams Come True (Warp)
90)Africa Hitech - 93 Million MIles (Warp)
89)Cass McCombs - Wit’s End/Humor Risk (Domino)
88) Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica/Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure (Software)
87)A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen (Erased Tapes)
86)John Escreet - Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross)
85)Battles - Gloss Drop (Warp)
84)Roly Porter - Aftertime (Subtext)
83)Ambrose Akinmusire - When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
82)Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol.1 (Southern Lord)
81)Phil Robson - The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings)
80)Andy Stott - Passed Me By/We Stay Together (Modern Love)
79)Peaking Lights - 936 (Not Not Fun)
78)Sidi Toure - Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey)
77)Six Organs Of Admittance - Asleep On The Floodplain (Drag City)
76)Twelves - The Adding Machine (Babel)
75)Deerhoof - Deerhoof Vs. Evil (ATP)
74)Kode 9 & The Spaceape - Black Sun (Hyperdub)
73)Kairos 4tet - Statement Of Intent (Edition)
72)Singing Adams - Everybody Friends Now (Records Records Records)
71)Outhouse & Hilmar Jenssen - Straw, Sticks & Bricks (Babel)
70)Rustie - Glass Swords (Warp)
69)Clams Casino - Instrumentals (Type)
68)Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town (Domino)
67)Moritz Von Oswald - Horizontal Structures (Honest Jon’s)
66)Hiss Golden Messenger - Poor Moon/From Country Hai East Cotton (Black Maps/Paradise of Bachelors)
65)Isolee - Well Spent Youth (Pampa)
64)Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes (Night Slugs)
63)The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (Rough Trade)
62)St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4AD)
61)Mara Carlyle - Floreat (Ancient and Modern)
60)Julia Holter - Tragedy (Leaving Records)
59)Avishai Cohen - Seven Seas (Blue Note)
58)Machinedrum - Room(s) (Planet Mu)
57)Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta - Tirtha (ACT)
56)Destroyer - Kaputt (Dead Oceans)
55)Keith Jarrett - Rio (ECM)
54)Bill Callahan - Apocalypse (Drag City)
53)Micachu & The Shapes with London Sinfonietta - Chopped & Screwed (Rough Trade)
52)Dean McPhee - Son of the Black Peace (Blast First Petite)
51)Nils Frahm - Felt (Erased Tapes)/Nils Frahm and Anne Muller - 7fingers (Erased Tapes)
50)Sully - Carrier (Keysound)
49)Bill Frisell and 858 Quartet - Sign of Life (SLG)
48)Bon Iver - Bon Iver (4AD)
47)Khyam Allami - Resonance/Dissonance (Nawa Recordings)
46)Kit Downes Trio - Quiet Tiger (Basho)
45)The Weather Station - All Of It Was Mine (You’ve Changed)
44)Aquarium - Aquarium (Babel)
43)Joe Lovano - Bird Songs (Blue Note)
42)Dalglish - Benacah Drann Deachd (Highpoint Lowlife)
41)John Taylor - Requiem For A Dreamer (CamJazz)
40)Phaedra - The Sea (Rune Grammofon)
39)PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Universal)
38)The Advisory Circle - As The Crow Flies (Ghost Box)
37)Tom Waits - Bad As Me (Anti-)
36)Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die (Blood and Biscuits)
35)Kate Bush - Director’s Cut / 50 Words For Snow (Fish People/EMI)
34)Becca Stevens Band - Weightless (Sunnyside)
33)King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine (Domino)
32)Low - C’Mon (Rough Trade)
31)Thundercat - The Golden Age Of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
30)Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD)
29){Ma} - The Last (Loop)
28)Boxcutter - The Dissolve (Planet Mu)
27)Bjork - Biophilia (One Little Indian)
26)Mark Hanslip & Javier Carmona - DosadoS (Babel)
25)Kathryn Calder - Bright & Vivid (File Under Music)
24)Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
23) Hallock Hill - The Union/There He Unforeseen (Hallock Hill)
22)James Blake - James Blake (A&M)
21)Colin Stetson - New History Of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)
20)Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings (Editions Mego)
19)Brad Mehldau - Live In Marciac (Nonesuch)
18)Tinariwen - Tassili (V2)
17)Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton (Honest Jon’s)
16)Matthew Herbert - One Pig (Accidental)
15)Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One (Constellation)
14)Grouper - AIA: Alien Observer / AIA: Dream Loss (Yellowelectric)
13)Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT)/The Impossible Gentlemen - The Impossible Gentlemen (Basho)
12)Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We’re New Here (XL)
11)Charles Lloyd Quartet/Maria Fantouri - Athens Concert (ECM)
10)Zomby - Dedication (4AD)
9)tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)
8)Alexander Tucker - Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey)
7)Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
6)Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion (Edition)
5)Julian Siegel Quartet - Urban Theme Park (Basho)
4)Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (ECM)
3)Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 / Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
2)Radiohead - The King of Limbs (XL)
1)Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 5: 20-1

20) Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings (Editions Mego)
Bill Orcutt is that rare breed of artists who can actually break established boundaries on his chosen instrument and seem as if he is approaching it from a new angle entirely. All conventional techniques are abandoned. In their place comes a visceral, almost violent approach, yet at the same time an ability to draw out resonance and emotion as well as tension. The centrepiece of How the Thing Sings is the triumphant, visionary A Line From Ol Man River, one of the most shocking and remarkable recordings of the year.

19) Brad Mehldau - Live In Marciac (Nonesuch)
Recorded in 2006 but only now seeing the light of day, this extraordinary live package was one of the year’s most essential investments, consisting of 2CDs and a DVD. It captures Mehldau in a solo setting, at his most expressive and musical, improvising with extraordinary harmonic and melodic skill and a world away from the neutered Highway Rider. Every quality that has lead to Mehldau being hailed among the greats is here in abundance - his refined touch, his extraordinary separation and integration of parts, the long, fluent lines and his openness to a range of source material.

18) Tinariwen - Tassili (V2)
Opinion seems to have been divided as to whether Tinariwen’s move into a more acoustic sound world compromised their distinctive musical quality. Certainly, one of the most appealing aspect of the Malian group’s approach has been their dogged consistency of tone and attack - a bubble that Tassili defiantly pierces. It’s a bold move - but this album retains the group’s sense of hard won experience whilst expanding their lexicon. For me, it’s something of a triumph.

17) Pinch & Shackleton - Pinch & Shackleton (Honest Jon’s)
Shackleton seems to be building a career on releasing fantastic albums that little bit too late to be considered for most end of year lists. Is this a noble abrogation of the media PR circus? Or is it simply his obvious desire to release as much of his work as possible? Either way, this collaboration with Pinch is dependably brilliant - sometimes dark and oppressive, sometimes sinister, always masterfully controlled. It is a coherent whole rather than a collection of mini-masterworks.

16) Matthew Herbert - One Pig (Accidental)
By some distance the year’s most controversial album, One Pig had already enraged PETA and other animal rights supporters many months before its release. Whilst the idea of recording the life cycle of a pig farmed for meat and making musical instruments from its remains may seem like anathema to some, I found One Pig to be a thought provoking and intelligent statement from a consistently radical and committed political artist. Herbert’s intentions were less to shock and more to once again draw attention to industrial food processes (see his previous masterpiece Plat Du Jour, a particular favourite for this blog) and, most importantly, the sheer level of waste involved in animal rearing. The music itself was tough, abrasive and - at least until the daring irony at the end - entirely unsentimental. One Pig was another imaginative triumph of modern electronica and sampling techniques.

15) Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One (Constellation)
Chicago/New York saxophonist Matana Roberts appears to be the sort of constantly restless musician ideally suited to the field of improvisation. So far, she has yet to establish a regular stable ensemble, instead recording with various groups depending on her musical intentions and location. Coin Coin Chapter One, apparently the first part of a hugely ambitious project in twelve parts that aims to document her ancestral heritage back to the 1700s, was recorded live in the studio in front of an invited audience. It utilises a huge fifteen piece ensemble from Montreal. It has the urgency, passion, excitement and danger of a live recording. Much of it sounds highly liberated. But it also has plenty of compositional flair, clarity and organisation too, much of it dealing with the difficult subject of slavery. The use of the human voice is frequently masterful.

14) Grouper - AIA: Alien Observer / AIA: Dream Loss (Yellowelectric)
Whilst this eerie, beautiful double album doesn’t exactly tear up Liz Harris’ by now established sound, it does suggest that her work is becoming increasingly refined. Some reviewers have suggested that ghostly memories of composers past can be heard buried within these soundscapes (Satie, Messaien). I’m not sure I could pick out any possible samples, but I can be sure that A I A is a tremendous achievement - a consistently enthralling suite of sound.

13) Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau (ACT)
The Impossible Gentlemen - The Impossible Gentlemen (Basho)

Simcock, among the UK’s most virtuosic pianists, has long been a big name in jazz - but 2011 was the year in which he boldly stated his claim to artistic greatness. Whilst the young jazz scene in London is buzzing, it’s hard to see whether there is anyone among the legions of gifted, creative players who might join the ranks of legends or bring jazz to a wider audience. Simcock may now be that musician. On his last album, he was caught a little between his uninhibited improvising and his love for the formalism and rigour of classical composition. Good Days At Schloss Elmau, his first solo piano album, seems to integrate all his musical concerns brilliantly. At last, there’s an energy to his playing here - and a percussive quality that sometimes makes him sound, alone, like a complete ensemble. There’s also an abundant lyricism and an emotional richness to the material here.

Simcock also appeared on the debut album from The Impossible Gentlemen, a transatlantic jazz supergroup that could hardly fail to dazzle. Really, though, this album is all about Mike Walker - a superb guitar player with an incisive sound and a sophisticated composer sadly all too little known at home in the UK. He finds melody in every sequence here, playing with an authority that is genuine and devoid of ego.

12) Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We’re New Here (XL)
For some, remix albums are ineligible for these kind of lists, and it’s easy to see the argument for this. But Jamie XX’s take on Gil Scott-Heron’s final recorded work felt like a valedictory statement, and a fitting epitaph for a musical legend. Even though the two artists did not meet and communicated by post, We’re New Here still feels like a considered and complementary meeting of minds. Isolated from its original context, and contrasted with earlier recordings (including snippets from the classic Home Is Where The Hatred Is), Scott-Heron’s worn-down latterday voice acquired an even greater authority and lived-in power. Jamie XX’s music - minimal but inspired - pushed him to new artistic levels and showed that his solo career may well prove more fruitful than that of his parent band.

11) Charles Lloyd Quartet/Maria Fantouri - Athens Concert (ECM)
Along with Wayne Shorter’s Quartet, Charles Lloyd’s current ensemble are among the most stable and ceaselessly exciting in contemporary American jazz. Their concerts are completely unmatched for sustained spiritual intensity. This pairing with Greek singer Maria Fantouri is an unexpected setting for Lloyd’s rich and lyrical sound, but it works superbly, with both sides of the collaboration bringing passion, conviction and emotional depth. Lloyd’s latterday catalogue is substantial and inspiring.

10) Zomby - Dedication (4AD)
One of those strangely divisive 2011 albums, Dedication proved challenging not least because it saw Zomby branching far away from the musical approach and character that made his, erm, name - but also because of the necessarily disparate and fragmented nature of the album’s structure. Dealing as it was with issues of grief, loss and memory, this seemed an intelligent and reasonable approach to take, even if it made the experience for the listener unpredictable and strange (quite why this should be a bad thing is something of a mystery). Dedication was haunting, immersive and, perhaps most importantly of all, artistically courageous.

9) tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)
Merrill Garbus is so relentless inventive that her manic, exciting music can leave you breathless. w h o k i l l represents a substantial step forward, with studio production techniques making for a big improvement in sound quality. There’s also a feeling that these performances have been well orchestrated and arranged. Yet there’s still a certain roughness around the edges - a looseness and perhaps even improvisatory approach to songwriting that makes it all so unpredictable and wild. Certainly, few artists in the alternative pop field have made so much gold from rhythm and phrasing. She sounds entirely like herself - with little in the way of obvious reference points.

8) Alexander Tucker - Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey)
By far Tucker’s most successful fusion of electronic noise and arcane musicology yet - Dorwytch is a triumphant and innovative record - weird and wonderful at every turn. It’s also a world away from his sometimes stoically combative live shows. This sounds like a real narrative, incorporating drones, songs and some delicate passages of improvisation. What emerges is a fearlessly modern form of chamber folk.

7) Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)

This exquisite merging of musical history and modern technology really deserved more attention. Barwick loops her own vocals to create an ecstatic one woman choir - and the results are somewhere between early music and contemporary performance. Certainly, a return to the music of the distant past makes for far more stimulating retrogression than so much of the regurgitation of recent cultural history discussed in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania book. There is a purity and beauty in Barwick’s voice that makes her wordless reveries all the more haunting.

6) Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion (Edition)
Golden Xplosion was undoubtedly the year’s most virtuosic jazz album but it also stood out as uniquely thrilling and involving. The title is apt, given that much of this album sounds like a fireball of bright colours. There is a genuine restlessness at work here, not just in Neset’s tricksy, rhythmically challenging compositions but also in the individual contributions from all the musicians, not least the extraordinary drummer Anton Eger. Barely a bar goes by in which he is not putting in all his musical energy and resources in service of the impact of the ensemble. Neset’s brilliant mentor Django Bates is a characteristically mirthful presence, but is very much in a supportive role here. Whilst Neset is an outrageously gifted and articulate musician, he also finds space for some disarming lyricism and quiet reflection.

5) Julian Siegel Quartet - Urban Theme Park (Basho)
Julian Siegel is one of the great artists in British jazz and ought to be recognised as such. His work with Greg Cohen and Joey Baron is significant enough but, for Urban Theme Park, he formed what can only be described as a fantasy jazz ensemble. With Liam Noble on piano, Oli Hayhurst on bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums, Siegel armed himself with a rhythm section that is at once supportive, propulsive and creative. His compositions are deft and subtle, always seeming slightly elusive and mysterious. Yet there is also a vibrance and spirited interaction at work here that makes this a theme park of thrills and delights, which is exactly as it should be.

4) Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel (ECM)
With Gwilym Simcock’s brilliant Mercury nominated Good Days At Schloss Elmau, Brad Mehldau’s stunning Live In Marciac, Keith Jarrett’s Rio and this, the solo piano marketplace has been crowded with excellence in 2011. Taborn is a world away from Simcock’s hybrid of classical lyricism, gospel energy and jazz harmony however. He is inventing a language for the piano that seems bold and innovative. Whilst his technique is near-flawless and his flow of ideas often intuitive, Taborn is more interested here in a controlled minimalism. Every note is carefully considered and the result is a sparing, unconventional creation.

3) Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 / Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
There are few artists in the field of noise soundscaping more consistently compelling and haunting than Tim Hecker. Where sometimes this musical space can seem cold and forebidding - Hecker imbues it with a sense of longing and curiosity. Whilst the titles of the pieces hint at paranoia and anxiety - the music, particularly in its use of organ, also hints at something more mournful and a sense of faded grandeur. The additional material collected on Dropped Pianos is harsher and more unforgiving.

2) Radiohead - The King of Limbs (XL)
It seems utterly bizarre to have to refer to a Radiohead album as one of the most underrated releases of the year, but this has been the strange fate meted out to The King of Limbs. It is apparently one of the group’s more divisive recordings and can mostly be found languishing near the lower end of top 50 lists. Some found the transparent variation in style and mood between the album’s two halves difficult. In light of the special edition’s two 10” vinyl discs it would appear the track sequencing was entirely deliberate. To my ears, KoL marked a continuation and further development from In Rainbows, an even more seamless and successful fusion of a now super-relaxed, confident and impressive working band and their preoccupations with electronica and modern composition. Seeing the band live in 2012 with Clive Deamer joining as an additional drummer will surely be essential. Perhaps most impressive is how unshowy an album this is - unlike, say, OK Computer - it is completely unconcerned with being seen as important or epochal, and much more concerned with relaxed, consummate musicality. Together with the two additional singles that followed the album release, this represents Radiohead’s best music.

1) Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)
Good things come to those who wait. After eight years in the wilderness, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings returned with a near flawless album. Returning to the stripped down bare essentials that characterised their previous masterpiece Time (The Revelator), The Harrow & The Harvest proved a wonderful companion piece to that album, similarly intoxicating and so fluent in the language of traditional American songwriting that any questions of authenticity are simply meaningless. The balance of their harmonies, kept in serene proportion throughout (although in fact more sparingly used here - everything extraneous is jettisoned), the splendour of Welch’s telling lyrics, the sweet elegance of the melodies - everything just sounds so effortless, but behind it is the work of two musicians who have studied their craft with honesty, conviction and determination.

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 4: 40-21

40) Phaedra - The Sea (Rune Grammofon)
What an utterly beguiling album this is - at once icy and warm - and perhaps one of the most charming albums in recent years to be so thoroughly preoccupied with death and decay. It’s a beautiful, intensely focused work with a calm but magical presence. Ingvild Langgard already feels like a contemporary folk auteur. Sadly, it appears to have passed by unnoticed in much of the mainstream UK music press.

39) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Universal)
It would be easy to be distracted by the ubiquity of Polly Harvey’s dependably beguiling musings on war and empire. There was a crushing inevitability about her becoming the first artist to win the Mercury prize - as if going against the collective wisdom on this occasion would have been tantamount to sacrilege. Still, Let England Shake is a confident, and coherent album - a work of mature, direct and poetic artistry that somehow manages to be accessible and uncompromising in equal measure. What is perhaps more impressive is that it seemed to be a point of consensus in what is now a very disparate, fragmented and over-saturated music marketplace.

38) The Advisory Circle - As The Crow Flies (Ghost Box)
It’s tempting to be a little sceptical about the retrofuturist vision of the Ghost Box label - this new album from Jon Brooks’ Advisory Circle uses seventies and eighties government advice advertisements (from the now defunct Central Office of Information) for its main source material. ‘We make the decisions so you don’t have to’, as the introduction proudly (and somewhat threateningly) proclaims. There are hints of underlying sinister currents (Village of the Damned meets The Midwich Cuckoos, with a touch of Boards of Canada) and the swathes of old school synthesisers brilliantly capture a blend of menace and awe.

37) Tom Waits - Bad As Me (Anti-)
There has long been a sense that Tom Waits has journeyed so far across contemporary music’s wide terrain that there is little truly new ground left for him to cover. Bad As Me somewhat confirms this impression, feeling a little like a career summary in new songs. Still, it’s a typically thrilling, scattershot and engaging trip, made all the more appealing by virtue of being one of Waits’ more concise albums. Most wonderful of all about all this is Waits’ voice, which has never been more versatile or theatrical.

36) Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die (Blood and Biscuits)
Bands of this level of invention and quality in the UK are all too rare in the UK, and often it seems like critics are unprepared to take the risk in investing time and energy in their progress. After a series of mind-blowing EPs, Three Trapped Tigers finally brought their slanted take on heavy post-rock to the full album format. If anything, the intensity seemed to have been amplified even further, to the extent that it’s often hard to believe just how attacking and visceral this music is. At times perhaps a little clinical, but always virtuosic and near-perfect in execution, TTT remain one of the country’s most exciting bands.

35) Kate Bush - Director’s Cut / 50 Words For Snow (Fish People/EMI)
Kate Bush albums, it would appear, are like buses. You wait several years, and then two come along at once. Director’s Cut was almost dismissed by a pop media for whom reworking older material appears to be anathema. It’s hard to understand this attitude, which appears in sharp contradiction to that same media’s obsession with constantly reaffirming the rock and pop canon. In almost any other art form, developing existing works is seen as an essential part of the artistic process. Director’s Cut is not consistently successful - and there are points at which one might prefer the original takes - but it is a challenging, ambitious set. At its best, it offers radical and satisfying reversions (Deeper Understanding, This Woman’s Work). Both Director’s Cut and the patient, graceful 50 Words For Snow are enhanced by the colourful, textural drumming of session legend Steve Gadd. He adds a lightly jazzy tinge that heightens the expressive qualities of the music. On 50 Words For Snow, Bush’s compositions are minimal but elongated - they take as long as required to deliver her typically eccentric, poetic narratives.

34) Becca Stevens Band - Weightless
Stevens is a singer-songwriter from New York deserving of much wider attention. She operates in that hinterland between jazz, folk and Americana beloved of Norah Jones, but doing so in a much more provocative and idiosyncratic manner. Far from coffee table music, Stevens’ own songs can be rousing and touching but are often also mysterious and charming. Even more impressive here are her radical interpretations of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Animal Collective’s My Girls and Seal’s Kiss From A Rose.

33) King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine (Domino)
For plaintive and disarming beauty, few albums could compete with this all too brief but thoroughly delightful collaboration between the eccentric Fife songwriter Kenny Anderson and film composer and arranger Jon Hopkins. Satisfyingly, this seems to have put to rest the brief but disconcerting drive to turn King Creosote into a bankable indie-crossover act. How much more affecting and honest his music is when it takes place in this kind of intimate, personal space. Diamond Mine provides the perfect setting for his peculiar musings (Diamond Mine may be the only album ever to contain a verse about the difficulty in gaining planning permission).

32) Low - C’Mon (Rough Trade)
Even by Low’s doggedly consistent high standards, C’Mon feels like something of a watermark recording. After a succession of detours through territory both more aggressive (The Great Destroyer) and more experimental (Drums and Guns), C’Mon returned them to their most accessible and familiar territory, reaffirming the fundamental strengths of their slow, repetitive songs and the beautiful blend of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices and the defiant simplicity of their performances. Yet, C’Mon felt fresh because of its brilliant, irresistible intensity.

31) Thundercat - The Golden Age Of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
In which the unfairly reviled fusion genre is reconstructed and modernised with mastery and effervescence. Few albums this year have been quite as overwhelming, quite as brazenly unfashionable or quite as fun as this effort from Flying Lotus’ bass player. It’s not just a set of rapid fire bass solos (Thundercat is astoundingly dexterous and is more than capable of turning the bass into a melodic, frontline instrument) - there is soul and fire in here too.

30) Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD)
Along with Radiohead’s King of Limbs, this probably ranks as among the most listened to albums of the year for me. Its polished diversions and unusual sounds may have proved too much for the Iron & Wine fan drawn in by Sam Beam’s acoustic ruminations, but I can’t help but admire Beam’s adaptability and willingness to absorb influences from outside the American folk tradition. His voice is stronger and more upfront now, although still charmingly understated and he remains a lyricist of peerless invention.

29) {Ma} - The Last (Loop)
Among top level US jazz musicians, a debate has been raging recently over the quality (or lack thereof) in contemporary jazz. Some have conservatively criticised the prevalence of hybrid forms, something increasingly common in the thriving London jazz scene. The Last seems to be a prime example of just how well hybrids can work - improvised music with reference to the jazz tradition but placed in vivid and compelling new contexts. The blend between Matt Calvert’s bristling electronics and Tom Challenger’s fluent, sometimes caustic improvising is brilliantly executed. The textures are multi-faceted and exciting and this feels like a complete work with a detailed, filmic quality.

28) Boxcutter - The Dissolve (Planet Mu)
One of 2011’s most criminally ignored achievements, The Dissolve shared with the stunning Thundercat album unfashionable preoccupations with fusion, jazz-rock and heavy seventies funk. It addressed these concerns through the prism of UK bass music, in which area Boxcutter has been an underrated pioneer. The vocal tracks should perhaps have reached a wider audience, whilst the music here is consistently intricate, nuanced and forged with a great sense of enthusiasm and fun.

27) Bjork - Biophilia (One Little Indian)
These days, Bjork releases, whilst still infrequent and conceptually extravagant, have delivered something dependable, with a diminishing sense of the shock of the new. Perhaps, long into a career that has consistently hit the highest levels of artistry, we no longer have the right to expect the breaking of new ground. Biophilia attempts to change the way music is consumed and utilised - with its technological and educational dimensions. The music itself is more of what we’ve come to expect from Bjork - detached and intellectual whilst also wonderfully intimate and tender. The arrangements are superb, with Bjork reunited with the Icelandic choir that helped make Vespertine such a masterpiece. If anything, Biophilia is more of a grower, its tracks highly nuanced and taking a while to reveal their magic.

26) Mark Hanslip & Javier Carmona - DosadoS (Babel)

A refreshing improvised duo session, with Carmona’s free flowing textural percussion providing the perfect counterpoint for Hanslip’s eloquent, occasionally visceral saxophones. There’s a real empathy and understanding between these two musicians and the results - captured permanently on disc but never to be replicated - are thrilling.

25) Kathryn Calder - Bright & Vivid (File Under Music)
Still woefully under-promoted in the UK, Calder (a member of New Pornographers and of the sadly now defunct Immaculate Machine) is undergoing a remarkably rapid development as a solo artist. Are You My Mother? was an affecting and mature debut - but Bright & Vivid succeeds in making a bolder, more ambitious, more cinematic musical statement. Again, the songwriting is infectious, melodic and touching, and the arrangements and production detailed and clear. This is indie-pop without any of the regression and introversion that sometimes stifles the genre. It is bold and brilliantly executed songwriting.

24) Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
James Blake may have been the name to drop for downtempo electronica in 2011, but the more stealthy choice may have been this superb album from Nicolas Jaar, another impossibly young and prodigious musician in this field. With a childhood spent in Santiago and influences ranging from Satie to Mulatu Astatke, Space is Only Noise presented a poised balance between reflection and rhythm.

23) Hallock Hill - The Union/There He Unforeseen (Hallock Hill)
Tom Lecky’s two albums as Hallock Hill were prime examples of composition through improvisation. The Union was a meditative, haunting reflection made up of layered guitars whilst There He Unforeseen somehow both broadened the canvas and managed to create a more claustrophobic atmosphere. Lecky also has an assured and confident hand when it comes to complex and intricate structure. His music is beautiful, spacious and compelling.

22) James Blake - James Blake (A&M)
Few albums seemed to divide opinion quite as sharply as this debut long player from the much feted Blake. Perhaps the criticisms sprung from subconscious resentment - Blake is young, having only recently graduated from a Goldsmith’s music degree, tall and handsome, and had been given a big PR boost through the BBC sound of 2011 poll. There was also his frequent creative use of vocoder - something that fascinated some but irritated many (although it bears repeating that he wasn’t using the device as an autotune). Even without the technology, his voice is decidedly odd, yet appealing in its inherent vulnerability. The most cursory listen to this debut should establish Blake’s musicality - he has embraced the song form with as much thought and intuition as he did production at the edges of UK bass music. He’s a master of space and tranquility, two qualities so rarely found in contemporary mainstream music, and he clearly understands harmony very well. Repackaged later in the year with the broody, strange Enough Thunder EP (which included a collaboration with Bon Iver), the album became a substantial, impressive document.

21) Colin Stetson - New History Of Warfare Vol. 2 (Constellation)
Saxophonist of choice to the American indie scene (he has spent much of the year playing as part of the massive extended Bon Iver ensemble), Stetson is a hugely creative musician in his own right. Occupying a hinterland somewhere between jazz, improv and contemporary composition, this second part of the New History of Warfare series was compelling and imaginative. Stetson approaches his instrument more percussively than melodically, challenging convention and building a broad palette of sound.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 3: 60-41

60) Julia Holter - Tragedy (Leaving Records)
This is a fantastic, beautiful record, but one that is very difficult to pin down. Free from restrictions, it appears to veer over a very wide terrain, incorporating fuzzy found sounds, moments of operatic grandeur, folk ballads, and Angelo Badalamenti/Julee Cruise cinematic eeriness. In spite of this open-minded spirit of enquiry, this album still sounds emotionally overwhelmed and somehow isolated and self contained. It’s a strange and remarkable achievement.

59) Avishai Cohen - Seven Seas (Blue Note)
Few musicians operating in jazz and improvised music have quite as advanced a sense of melody as Avishai Cohen. Everything he does is supremely lyrical - with a singing, resonant quality underlying it. Added to that is the powerful but lightly executed rhythmic drive of his band. Seven Seas is once again a memorable, touching album that melds the language of jazz with the traditions of various forms of folk music.

58) Machinedrum - Room(s) (Planet Mu)
For me, this was one of 2011’s most unsettling and disturbing albums, although it came wrapped up in the guise of energising club music. Still, there’s little denying its oppressive and murky textures (ingeniously constructed), or the restless and disorientating nature of its underlying rhythms. Like much of the post dubstep/footwork landscape, it makes superb use of the sound of the human voice - fragmented and manipulated in imaginative ways - but it also has a character and approach that is entirely distinctive.

57) Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta - Tirtha (ACT)
Although this is perhaps the most explicit investigation of Vijay Iyer’s roots in Indian traditional music, it is also a refined and empathetic collaboration between three musicians with shared concerns and musical vocabulary. It is a brilliantly relaxed and exploratory venture - full of both innovation and heritage and effortlessly flowing. It sounds completely unforced - much more a natural meeting of minds.

56) Destroyer - Kaputt (Dead Oceans)
Vancouver’s Dan Bejar, also a non-touring member of Canadian supergroup New Pornographers, has been recording strange, dense and allusive music under the Destroyer name for some time now, although Kaputt is probably the first of his albums to gain significant attention in the UK. His lyrics remain surreal and verbose, whilst the music here seems like an homage to the lusher, more detailed end of 80s pop (Roxy Music, Scritti Politti, early Talk Talk). If it initially sounds dated, repeated plays reveal a deft and clever creation, with Bejar expending time and a great deal of care on every small detail.

55) Keith Jarrett - Rio (ECM)

Perhaps this should be higher up the list - there are places where it hits the dizzy heights of Jarrett’s most inspirational solo performance work. Yet there is also the lingering sense that recorded examples of Jarrett’s solo concerts are now so plentiful as to have made them seem somehow less special. Then there’s the infuriating issue of ECM’s exorbitant CD prices (£19 - £22 for this double set in most stores and no download available). Still, there’s no escaping the spiritual thrill of his rolling, urgent vamps or some of his wilder flourishes. Rio also has its moments of calm and considered reflection - almost as if Jarrett is pondering an entire career spent in the riskiest performance environment of all.

54)Bill Callahan - Apocalypse (Drag City)
Apocalypse intitially sounded like one of Bill Callahan’s more otiose and obtuse works, but an utterly spellbinding performance at London’s Barbican Centre, in which the creative, improvising drummer Neal Morgan played as significant a role as Callahan himself, brought these songs into sharper relief. It’s a brilliant, tumbling, expressive work - one of Callahan’s most musically and narratively bold.

53) Micachu & The Shapes with London Sinfonietta - Chopped & Screwed (Rough Trade)
This live concert recording of Mica Levi’s collaboration with the wonderful London Sinfonietta (one of this country’s greatest musical assets) is every bit as weird, dislocated, dissonant and invigorating as one might expect. Even the most wayward and fuzzy ideas are somehow carefully calculated and the unconventional ensemble sounds carefully integrated, although often markedly disorientating in sound and effect.

52)Dean McPhee - Son of the Black Peace (Blast First Petite)
This is an exquisite collection of solo electric guitar pieces, drenched in enough reverb to make it sound as it if were recorded in a grand cathedral. It is one of those solo albums that genuinely does sound isolated and individual - mostly tranquil, but also sometimes imbued with a fragile, brittle tension. McPhee eschews unnecessary displays of virtuosity, instead always aiming for mood and feeling.

51) Nils Frahm - Felt (Erased Tapes)
Nils Frahm and Anne Muller - 7fingers (Erased Tapes)
The German musician and composer Nils Frahm has been involved in not just one, but two wonderful albums in 2011. Felt is probably the most significant - a brilliantly touching and intimate album of calm and considered reveries, on which Frahm mutes the strings of his piano with thick felt. It is subtle and demanding, but also hugely rewarding. 7fingers, a collaboration with the cellist Anne Muller, is a superb, highly creative balancing act between the modern and the traditional. It has been unfairly neglected in the light of Frahm’s achievement with Felt.

50) Sully - Carrier (Keysound)
So much has been made of the post-dubstep landscape that this wonderful album surprised by reaffirming the classic sample and bass-heavy dubstep sound, with plenty of references back to UK garage too. In the album’s second half, he does show awareness of the prevailing trend for Chicago ‘juke’ or footwork rhythms, but in this case it is more successfully subsumed into a distinctively British sound. Carrier is a crisp, clean, focused and consistent set.

49) Bill Frisell and 858 Quartet - Sign of Life (SLG)
Frisell’s first recording with this group, inspired by a series of Gerhard Richter paintings, was one of the great guitarist’s more abrasive ventures. It gave little notice of the deceptive simplicity and staggering beauty of Sign of Life. The sense emerging here is that the 858 Quartet, with violin, cello, bass and Frisell on electric guitar, is essentially a contemporary chamber ensemble. The music traverses the great American musical landscape, from Reich, Copland, Adams and Ives to The Impressions by way of the Delta Blues singers. With its delicate themes recurring in the form of echoes and embellishments, Sign of Life feels like a coherent suite of music.

48) Bon Iver - Bon Iver (4AD)
This widescreen, meticulously arranged piece of rock composition inevitably divided opinion this year. Moving so far beyond the intimate, highly charged personal confessions of For Emma would always be controversial - but how much more exciting this is than any kind of forced attempt to repeat the unrepeatable. Arguably a little too much attention was given to the Peter Cetera of Phil Collins-esque closing track Beth, Rest. Much of the rest of this music is haunting and beautiful as well as epic, although there is the lingering sense that any kind of spontaneity and excitement has been forced out through Vernon’s almost obsessive sense of organisation. It will be interesting to see where he goes next - Bon Iver is so brilliantly crafted as to leave a suspicion that it would be difficult to take this compositional approach any further.

47) Khyam Allami - Resonance/Dissonance (Nawa Recordings)
Initially a drummer, but now justly regarded as a great exponent of the oud, Khyam Allami made one of the year’s great solo instrumental albums (and there have been many of those this year - see also Taborn, Simcock, Mehldau, Hallock Hill, Dean McPhee etc). His music is graceful and sounds effortless, but is also prone to rapid and intense flurries of activity. With a beautiful balance of composition and improvisation, this is a work proudly displaying traditional Middle Eastern influences, but also utterly unconcerned with genre restrictions.

46) Kit Downes Trio - Quiet Tiger (Basho)
When is a trio not a trio? Emboldened by the presence of various guest musicians, not least the inspired, adventurous reedsman James Allsopp (who also plays with Downes in the fiery Golden Age of Steam project), much of Quiet Tiger is at the very least a Quartet project. It’s a refreshing and satisfying departure from the reflective tone of Downes’ Mercury-nominated debut, demonstrating that he is a consummate musician with the ideas to match his phenomenal technique. Quiet Tiger is an album where the listener would be right to expect the unexpected.

45) The Weather Station - All Of It Was Mine (You’ve Changed)
Operating in a similar space to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or The Be Good Tanyas, The Weather Station produce a more modest take on traditional American folk. This is a minimal but richly empathetic album, utterly unforced and delivered without any extraneous elements.

44) Aquarium - Aquarium (Babel)
This first album from the gifted pianist and Royal Academy of Music graduate Sam Leak proved to be one of the year’s most stylistically varied and exciting British jazz releases. Leak is a sophisticated composer with a clear ability with melody and harmony. Yet he’s also clearly inspired by the wilder possibilities of improvisation and rhythm. With Aquarium he has formed a superb ensemble that is deep in expression and nuance.

43) Joe Lovano - Bird Songs (Blue Note)
Joe Lovano imbues everything he does not just with his peerless articulacy but also his highly individual, bold and vibrant sound. Now joining Django Bates in a growing group of contemporary jazz musicians suddenly keen to revisit the legacy of Charlie Parker, Lovano has taken the spirit of Bird but brilliantly adapted it for his excellent current ensemble Us Five. The results are fluent and exciting, a reminder of how important the history of this music is for its contemporary practitioners, but also a living, breathing and fresh document in its own right.

42) Dalglish - Benacah Drann Deachd (Highpoint Lowlife)
An album I’ve very quickly regretted not purchasing immediately on release as it appears to have all but disappeared, at least in its digital form. Still, this must be Dalglish’s finest work so far, a deft combination of lingering atmospherics and high frequency sonic attack. It is some of the year’s most unsettling and nervy music.

41) John Taylor - Requiem For A Dreamer (CamJazz)
Still one of the most sophisticated and innovative composers in British jazz, John Taylor has here unveiled a mature and deeply felt set of music dedicated to the late, great American writer Kurt Vonnegut. A brilliant example of how other art forms such as literature can serve as extra-musical inspiration, Requiem For A Dreamer is richly melodic and characteristically subtle. Taylor’s trio with Palle Daniellson and Martin France is communicative and light of touch, whilst the presence of Julian Arguelles on saxophones adds weight, attack and melodic potency. Splendid.

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 2: 80-61

80) Andy Stott - Passed Me By/We Stay Together (Modern Love)
These two EPs/mini albums were repackaged together as one long album towards the end of the year. Bass heavy and influenced by dub, but in an altogether distinctive space of its own, Passed Me By is singularly detached and agitated, filtering soul, reggae and r&b through all manner of abstract textural intrusions.

79) Peaking Lights - 936 (Not Not Fun)

The hazy dub of Peaking Lights proved to be one of 2011’s more straightforward pleasures, and one that did a great deal to enhance the reputation of the Not Not Fun label. The cascading, incandescent sound of much of 936 is immersive. Whilst the duo tend to eschew verse-chorus song structure, there were plenty of imaginative vocal hooks here too.

78) Sidi Toure - Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey)
Sahel Folk was the first internationally distributed album in sixteen years from the artist hailed by Bassekou Kouyate as a ‘worthy successor to Ali Farka Toure’. Sahel Folk is a series of duos with a variety of collaborators, and this setting seems to suit Sidi remarkably well. The music is relaxed, sensitive, unshowy and unobtrusive but also quietly authoritative.

77) Six Organs Of Admittance - Asleep On The Floodplain (Drag City)
This may have been overlooked simply by being one of Ben Chasny’s most inviting and least foreboding albums under the Six Organs moniker. It’s mostly an album of soft drones and calm reveries that have a cumulatively hypnotic effect. Chasny may be at his least provocative here, but he is also at his most musically eloquent and articulate.

76) Twelves - The Adding Machine (Babel)
A great example of where freedom and flexibility meet discipline and control, Twelves’ second album is both supple and fascinating. With new guitarist Rob Updegraff adding a gritty, incisive undertow to the ensemble sound, The Adding Machine further develops the group’s inspired balance of knotty compositions, melodic development and turbulent free improvisation. A strong sense of narrative is apparent throughout.

75) Deerhoof - Deerhoof Vs. Evil (ATP)

Having already achieved so much, there seems to be little that Deerhoof can do now save for repeating themselves, although each release now seems to veer further towards what might be described as accessible pop territory. There’s still plenty of infectious quirkiness here though, and the band are as innovative as always with rhythm. With every release, their sound gets crisper and more dynamic.

74) Kode 9 & The Spaceape - Black Sun (Hyperdub)
Spaceape is less of a rapper and more of a surrealist storyteller. When paired with the claustrophobic soundscapes of Kode9, his words assume an even greater potency. Black Sun is another album to veer beyond the conventions of UK bass music and microgenre classifications, often emphasising texture more than the lower end frequencies. Over on musicOMH, I described the effect of Black Sun as being a kind of ‘disaster idealism’ - a dystopian urban vision tinged with the hope that something better and more sustainable will emerge.

73) Kairos 4tet - Statement Of Intent (Edition)
Remarkably now winners of the MOBO award for best jazz act, Kairos 4tet have had a busy, impressive year. That all this has been achieved as a result of an album considerably subtler and more refined than its urgent, memorable predecessor is all the more satisfying. Now with Ivo Neame’s graceful, considered touch on the piano, and still benefiting hugely from the experienced, empathetic rhythm section of Jasper Hoiby and Jon Scott, Adam Waldmann’s compositions have taken elegiac and unpredictable turns here.

72) Singing Adams - Everybody Friends Now (Records Records Records)
Steven Adams has managed to weather the quiet storm of the Broken Family Band split with consummate ease, forming a new band and simply getting on with business as usual. Singing Adams (initially a solo side project but now a band of the same name) inevitably share some qualities with BFB - Adams’ barbed humour and his deft hand with a tune being one. Some of the shuffly or chuggy rhythmic urgency remains too. But there’s also a sense that Everybody Friends Now is a less forthright, more reflective affair - perhaps the start of Adams’ maturity as a singer-songwriter. He certainly deserves more attention.

71) Outhouse & Hilmar Jenssen - Straw, Sticks & Bricks (Babel)
The Loop Collective’s flagship band continue their brilliant explorations of groove, texture and communication here, this time working in collaboration with Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jenssen. Jenssen adds an air of menace and threat, whilst the band sound increasingly confident and controlled. The album is often brooding and mysterious but also fleet-footed and intuitive.

70) Rustie - Glass Swords (Warp)
Of all the wild electronic music released in 2011, Rustie’s long awaited debut album came brimming with the most fun. This is a sly, insanely over the top stew of retro synthesisers and modern awkwardness that is unashamedly entertaining. As the year draws to a close, it seems, perhaps surprisingly, to have moved outside genre circles to be picked up by major publications such as The Guardian.

69) Clams Casino - Instrumentals (Type)
2011 seems to have been the year of the ‘mixtape’ (even as I write this, singer-songwriter Marques Toliver has just unleashed his own rather splendid series of mash-ups), compilations of material released online, usually for free. Perhaps this format is where we’re headed in this new technological age - ‘albums’ becoming less important, but ‘selections’ of material both old and new becoming increasingly prevalent. This was a selection of beats that Mike Volpe sent to various rappers - but it’s pretty much like nothing in hip hop right now - and completely far from being generic. Although it’s termed a set of instrumentals - one of those instruments is certainly the sampled human voice, of which Volpe makes highly creative use. Much of this music is bold, intense and brilliantly arranged.

68) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town (Domino)
Will Oldham’s music seems to assume greater subtlety as he enters his mature period. After the red herring of the direct and bold opener No Match, much of Wolfroy Goes To Town is so subdued as to almost be vaporous. Whilst it’s one of his least immediate recordings to date, it does yield significant rewards. The highlight for me is the wonderful, quietly evocative New Whaling, a song largely unlike anything else he has recorded so far. Overall, this may be the best result of his experiments with female vocalists so far, the balance of the voices being remarkably complementary.

67) Moritz Von Oswald - Horizontal Structures (Honest Jon’s)
Horizontal Structures made for a marked contrast with Oswald’s previous trio release, the more propulsive Vertical Ascent. If the music here was more challenging and less immediate, it proved equally successful on its own terms. Horizontal Structures mostly eschews rhythm in favour of stark textures and rumbling undertones. These sound collages mix found sound, live instrumentation, improvisation and programming to brilliant effect.

66) Hiss Golden Messenger - Poor Moon/From Country Hai East Cotton (Black Maps/Paradise of Bachelors)
Although clearly informed by the American folk tradition, there’s something extra - something more intuitive and mysterious - about MC Taylor’s work as Hiss Golden Messenger, much of which finally saw the light of day here in the UK in 2011. From Country Hai East Cotton was a delicate and vulnerable affair, patiently unfolding and admirably understated in its execution, but with some lush string arrangements and a soulful vibe. Much has been written about Taylor’s understanding of bluegrass and folk - but less seems to have been written about the soulful side of his music, which echoes writers such as Dan Penn and Tony Joe White. His language is rich and evocative and his delivery soft and almost conversational. These two albums are an absolute delight.

65) Isolee - Well Spent Youth (Pampa)
Given the impact wearemonster had a few years ago, it’s bewildering just how ignored this latest, supposedly long-awaited Isolee album has been. Perhaps it’s too straightforward and lacks cultural currency in an electronic world that has been dominated by bass music trends in the period between Isolee albums. On the other hand, it really ought to be invigorating to hear an electronic album with rather different concerns. Well Spent Youth strikes me as being thoroughly enjoyable, and rich in melody and a careful ear for sound. It’s depressing when albums this strong are dismissed by those demanding an instant classic.

64) Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes (Night Slugs)
This austere but thrilling album from Toronto’s David Psutka felt like an artist challenging himself and rising even above his already lofty reputation (at least within bass music circles). In fact, Bible Eyes is largely free from dubstep cliche - instead reaching into other areas of minimal electronic music. It’s a confident, refreshingly consistent album.

63) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (Rough Trade)
This is the sort of unassuming, straightforwardly decent album that is all too easy to neglect when making these round-up lists, especially as it was released very early in the year. Still, it’s worth noting that this is a rare case of a ‘reaction’ album actually working very well - it’s a definite retrenchment after the theatrical excesses of The Hazards of Love. It’s a real reminder of Colin Meloy’s narrative and melodic gifts as a songwriter, and the playing is frequently marvellous, including a guest appearance from Peter Buck.

62) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4AD)
It’s immensely satisfying that Annie Clark’s odd, angular take on pop music seems to have reached a surprisingly wide audience this year. For all of Strange Mercy’s tricksiness, it also comes armed with some superb hooks and melodies, even if Clark often tries to hide this by dressing them in very elaborate, unpredictable arrangements. Clark is adept at using the studio to its full potential.

61) Mara Carlyle - Floreat (Ancient and Modern)
The long-awaited Floreat (first shelved by EMI as far back as 2008) makes me wish I had taken more notice of Mara Carlyle much earlier. She is an idiosyncratic and bold singer-songwriter, keen to explore a wide variety of musical spaces. There are hints of early jazz and show tune stylings - but also a decidedly modern touch and approach. Carlyle has a bite and a sense of humour that brilliantly undercuts her more florid, theatrical moments.

The 100 (and a bit) Best Albums of 2011 Part 1: 100-81

100) Feist - Metals (Polydor)
Metals didn’t quite have the same personal impact on me that The Reminder had (save for The Bad In Each Other, a truly remarkable song placed first that rather overshadows the rest of the album). That said, it was still a remarkably refined and controlled offering full of exceptional songwriting. Occasionally, it veered out into rawer, less polished territory, with intriguing results.

99) Cornershop - And The Double-O Groove Of (Ample Play)
These days, Cornershop seem entirely comfortable with their status as more-or-less one hit wonders. Brimful of Asha hardly seems to be an albatross around their necks. Rather, it has freed them to veer off in more artistically fruitful directions. In fact, this collaboration with Bubbley Kaur may be the highlight of their career. The fusion of traditional Indian sounds with funky grooves is surprisingly successful.

98) Fatoumata Diawara - Fatou (World Circuit)

Although born in the Ivory Coast and of Malian heritage, Fatoumata Diawara now resides in Paris and this may explain the refreshingly diverse, cosmopolitan and summery sound she achieves on this delightful album. It’s one of the most accessible albums to have emerged from the World Circuit staple in recent years - immediate, light and catchy - but this is by no means a criticism. Diawara seems brilliantly assured and her vibrant songs deserve a wide audience.

97) The Field - Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)

Axel Willner here continued his persistent explorations of repetition and cumulative intensity. Yet with every release as The Field, he continues to give the sound a slight new twist. Looping State of Mind has ratcheted up the intensity and energy levels to offer something yet more muscular and insistent.

96) Tyshawn Sorey - Oblique 1 (Pi)
Sorey is one of New York’s most astonishing, visionary drummers, having concocted the sort of rhythmic support that seems so proficient as to be near-physically impossible for the likes of Steve Lehman, Fieldwork, and Steve Coleman. This is his first album as bandleader (his solo work Koan is an entirely different beast altogether), and the work shows him to be an intelligent composer as well as a gifted musician. Sorey studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, and Oblique 1 demonstrates a contemporary approach to composition, perhaps inspired by musicians such as Henry Threadgill, in which cells and intervals are the founding blocks for development rather than melodic lines. By Sorey’s own description, many of these pieces are ‘strategies for improvisation’, and the resulting performances are turbulent and inspired.

95) Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Wichita)
This collaboration between Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Mary Timony ended up being much greater than simply a Sleater Kinney album minus Corin Tucker. Anything powered by Janet Weiss’ irresistible snare drum thwack is always going to be an enjoyable listen - but Wild Flag distinguished themselves by adopting a poppier approach. Many of these songs are blisteringly exciting but also memorable and enduring.

94) Kuedo - Severant (Planet Mu)
Former Vex’d member Jamie Teasdale’s first album as Kuedo shares with Zomby’s Dedication a rather fuzzy sensibility - a series of auditory hallucinations perhaps, or vivid dreams, although it is not as boldly fragmentory as the Zomby album. Throughout, there’s a nostalgia for sci-fi visions of the future that never quite arrived, and Vangelis’ work, particularly for Blade Runner, appears to have been a major source of inspiration.

93) SBTRKT - SBTRKT (Young Turks)
Of all the albums to emerge from the post-dubstep landscape, this is actually one of the most conventional. This, however, turns out to be its refreshing virtue. Working with a range of guest vocalists, SBTRKT works as something close to a pop producer here, and the resulting work shows a great deal of respect for the song, as well as a drive for sonic experimentation. There is a clear sense of intention throughout and the results are immediate and soulful but not overly dazzling.

92) Meg Baird - Seasons On Earth (Wichita)
I had rather casually and unfairly dismissed Meg Baird and Espers because of their association with Devendra Banhart, a musician I’m afraid I’ve never been able to take entirely seriously. This has been a big mistake, for Seasons on Earth is one of the most honest and affecting folk albums in recent memory, one that continues to grow with every listen. Baird’s voice is understated but perfect for this style, and her songs are delicate but beautiful. She is also versatile here, moving from lightness to emphatic authority with apparent ease.

91) CANT - Dreams Come True (Warp)
This side project from Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor may lack the meticulous compositional design and rich harmonies of his parent band, but it more than compensates for that with other examples of musical invention. By simplifying the writing, Taylor is freer to experiment with sound design, instrumentation and texture, the results of which take him some way from Grizzly Bear’s modern folk-tinged psychedelia.

90) Africa Hitech - 93 Million MIles (Warp)
Why has this one slipped through unnoticed? This collaboration between Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek takes slices of post-dubstep and footwork and reworks them through the prism of sleek soul. There’s a really great spirit of exploration here - finding the connections between various examples of human rhythmic experience and electronic production techniques.

89) Cass McCombs - Wit’s End/Humor Risk (Domino)
Cass McCombs has been remarkably prolific and I’d rather lost touch with his output after A, a debut I felt showed some unrealised potential. His music has become considerably less ragged since then. Indeed, County Line from Wit’s End is essentially a soft rock ballad (but an utterly brilliant one) and the production on Humor Risk is crisp and clear. McCombs is still a minimalist at heart - his songs often have little in the way of structure, preferring to repeat phrases and lines until they become very well ingrained in the memory. These two albums together do feel like his strongest burst of creativity yet but, like Ryan Adams, he may need an editor.

88) Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure (Software)

Increasingly one of the most discussed and influential musicians at work today, Daniel Lopatin’s journey towards the critical and perhaps even commercial mainstream has been somewhat remarkable. Replica and Channel Pressure saw him journey yet further from the Tangerine Dream-esque dronescapes that made his name, incorporating sound effects, TV advertisement samples and rhythmic trickery, all in the service of his ingenious play on reconstruction, memory and recall. The retro stylings of Channel Pressure ought by rights to be horrifying - yet they are somehow completely irresistible. Any album with a song title like Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me) must revel in its own irony and gleeful subversion and Channel Pressure does exactly that.

87) A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen (Erased Tapes)

This collaboration between the Californian pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie has a rather European flavour to it, as well as an overriding sense of melancholy reflection. It’s a sensitive, patient beast - and one of the most haunting and beautiful releases to have emerged from the wonderful ‘post-classical’ staple on Erased Tapes.

86) John Escreet - Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross)

John Escreet is a musician I’ve only approached very recently (having seen his bizarre and compelling opening piano set at the Henry Threadgill show at this year’s London Jazz Festival). I need to spend a great deal more time with Exception to the Rule before I’m in any real position to assess it properly - but on first few experiences, it seems that Escreet is as unconventional a composer as he is a player, juxtaposing extremes for strange and disorientating effect. His touchstones must surely be the great avant-garde piano players (Cecil Taylor and perhaps Paul Bley) but he also seems to an intellectual, considered approach with his contemporary Craig Taborn. The ensemble here includes the great David Binney and the incredibly musical drummer Nasheet Waits - these two musicians alone are prime ingredients for an inspired session, There’s a subtle element of electronic sound here too which is fresh and exciting.

85) Battles - Gloss Drop (Warp)

‘Battles without Tyondai Braxton is like cereal without milk’, so I proudly declared on Twitter when learning of the departure of the group’s nominal frontman. Too often, Braxton has been desribed as the group’s former vocalist, when in fact his musical contributions were equally significant, not least his compositional flair. Without him, the remaining power trio is surprisingly effective. Much of this music is Battles stripped down to its fundamentals, powerful, attacking and imposing. It still grooves righteously, and some of the guest vocalists prove inspired choices (even Gary Numan).

84) Roly Porter - Aftertime (Subtext)
Listen to this next to Kuedo’s Severant and it is hard to believe that the two artists were once both part of Vex’d. Whereas Jamie has gone down the Vangelis-inspired cinematic synth route with Kuedo, Roly Porter has here produced something altogether more uncompromising and decidedly uncommercial. To call this album downbeat would be misleading, as that at least implies some sort of rhythmic impetus. Instead, it is mournful, perhaps even dark - characterised by drones and sustained sounds and often confidently confrontational.

83) Ambrose Akinmusire - When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
Still only 28 years old, Ambrose Akinmusire (who played with Steve Coleman from the age of 19) emerges as a fully formed mature talent on this debut album as a bandleader. There is an immense outpouring of energy, passion and soul on this collection, as well as a fearsome technical proficiency. The set neatly juxtaposes fiery exposition with moments of resonant beauty. With the talents of Walter Smith III, Gerald Clayton, Justin Brown and Harish Raghavan also involved (and with the great pianist Jason Moran producing), this is something of a dream team from this new generation of American jazz pioneers.

82) Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol.1 (Southern Lord)
More of the beautiful same from Dylan Carlson - slow, patient, epic doom rock and windswept desert blues. As with other recent Earth releases, there is a delicious tension underpinning these five long pieces. Some subtle differences occur due to the sweeping presence of cellist Lori Goldston. Carlson remains a brilliantly selective musician, making the space as important as the limited number of notes. Volume 2 is coming early in 2012.

81) Phil Robson - The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings)
This impressive Anglo-American ensemble features the superb, mellifluous saxophonist Mark Turner, virtuosic flautist Gareth Lockrane, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Ernesto Simpson. The result, recorded live, is a combination of imperious groove from a crackling rhythm section and fluent, lengthy improvised lines from Robson, Turner and Lockrane. A tremendous, highly underrated ensemble gem.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Albums of the Year 2011: Honourable Mentions

First of all, sorry for not posting anything here since 1802.

For anyone who has not followed my writing elsewhere, my albums of the year list this year will appear from out of nowhere. I wish I had time to write about everything I've heard and enjoyed this year, but it's just not possible, especially given that my focus increasingly lies elsewhere (this has been a pretty big transitional year).

Here are some albums that, had I been in a slightly different mood, might easily have made my top 100 this year but, in the end, have lost out. The final list will appear here some time between tomorrow and Christmas Day, but I've still got a fair amount of work to do on it.

Wilco - The Whole Love (I agonised about this - Art of Almost and One Sunday Morning are two of the best songs this remarkable band have yet produced, but much of the ornate Beatles and Stones-y stuff in between doesn't quite do it for me).

Ry Cooder - Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (a fine album but not on the level of Chavez Ravine or the Chieftains collaboration in the latterday Cooder stakes)

Olafur Arnalds - Living Room Songs (lovely, as always with Arnalds, but I've included certain other examples of the neoclassical genre).

Jenny Hval - Viscera (still deciding exactly what I think of this very weird, possibly wonderful record).

LV & Joshua Idehen - Routes
JuJu - In Sound
Tamikrest - Toumastin
Alex Garnett - Serpent
Vladislav Delay Quartet - Vladislav Delay Quartet
Master Musicians of Bukkake - Totem Three
Sebastian Rochford and Pamelia Kurstin - Ouch Evil Slow Hop
Zun Zun Egui - Katang
Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin’
Matthewdavid - Outmind
Charles Bradley - No Time For Dreaming
Pat Metheny - What’s It All About
Fringe Magnetic - Twistic
Atlas Sound - Parallax
Matthew Shipp - Art of the Improviser
Gyratory System - New Harmony
Container - lp
Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What (lovely in places, but I'm not sure it's quite as good as everyone is making out. To be honest, I'd rather listen to the unfairly maligned Hearts and Bones).

Majiker - The House of Bones

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic (definitely his crispest, most enjoyable post-Pavement album since the debut, well worth a listen)

Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road

The Roots - Undun (I've listened to very little hip hop this year and am not sure where to place this. On first few listens I'm intrigued).

TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light
Sam Crowe Group - Flood Tide

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (I really liked this on release, but haven't listened to it for quite a while now)

Metronomy - The English Riviera
Peter Gabriel - New Blood
Me’Shell Ndegeocello - Weather
Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Everything’s Getting Older
How To Dress Well - Love Remains
White Denim - D
White Denim - Last Days of Summer
Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
Bibio - Mind Bokeh
Panda Bear - Tomboy
13 & God - Own Your Ghost
Dark Dark Dark - Wild Go
Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation
The Necks - Mindset
Laura Marling - A Creature I Don’t Know (by far her best yet and pretty much enough to convert me)

The Weeknd - House of Balloons/Thursday (an astonishing word of mouth hipster success this year - do I actually like it? I'm not sure)

Jessica Lea Mayfield - Tell Me

Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact (Glass Jar is amazing - what comes after kinda doesn't quite match it).

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
Beirut - The Rip Tide
Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jams
The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh

Wild Beasts - Smother (I admire them for doing something different, but I can't quite get into it - at the very least, I'd rather listen to the bands that supposedly inspired it - Talk Talk, Japan etc)

Washed Out - Within and Without
Cindytalk - Hold Everything Dear
Goldmund - All Will Prosper
Pete Swanson - Man With Potential
The Leisure Society - Into The Murky Water
Martyn - Ghost People
Little Dragon - Ritual Union
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Other Lives - Tamer Animals
Marissa Nadler - Marissa Nadler
Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain
Junior Boys - It's All True
Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part 1

Saturday, August 13, 2011

musicOMH Reviews

I should also take the time to post links to some of my musicOMH pieces. It may seem like it has been a bit quite around these parts recently, but this is mainly why! I must get a system in place where I can link to musicOMH reviews as they are published.

Nat Baldwin - People Changes
Junior Boys - It's All True
{Ma} - The Last
Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Pat Metheny - What It's All About
Sebastian Rochford & Pamelia Kurstin - Ouch Evil Slow Hop
Destroyer - Kaputt
JuJu - In Trance
The Impossible Gentlemen - The Impossible Gentlemen
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo - The 1st Album
Roy Harper - Songs Of Love & Loss Vols. 1 & 2
Thomas Dybdahl - Songs
Three Trapped Tigers - Route One Or Die
Vladislav Delay Quartet - Vladislav Delay Quartet
Kate & Anna McGarrigle - Tell My Sister
Murcof - Le Sangre Illuminada OST
13 & God - Own Your Ghost
Chrissy Murderbot - Women's Studies
Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain
Tamikrest - Toumastin
Boxcutter - The Dissolve
Jenny Hval - Viscera
Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion
Kode9 & Spaceape - Black Sun
Panda Bear - Tomboy
Phaedra - The Sea
Singing Adams - Everybody Friends Now
Outhouse - Straw, Sticks & Bricks
Sebadoh - Bakesale (Reissue)


Zomby - Dedication (4AD)

Who is Zomby? I ask this question not simply because of his commitment to concealing his identity (his real name has never been given out and he masks his face in publicity shots). I also ask it because of the often confounding nature of the music he makes under a consistent alias. Dedication is his second full-length album, but YouTube and other internet platforms are cluttered with other tracks, some half-formed, some fully-flegded, that have never been officially released. By this stage, it's quite clear that he cannot simply be categorised as a 'post-dubstep' artist, or any such fatuous classification critics might use when they are unable to find adequate language to describe music. If Where Were You In 92? offered a sincere paen to the hardcore and rave eras, Dedication is attempting something very different.

Commentary on this album seems to have been beleaguered by a lack of understanding. It has been dismissed in some quarters as being overly fragmented or incomplete. For sure, the tracks are often brief and many end abruptly and unexpectedly. Yet if Dedication really is a response to grief - the loss of a love one - then the artistic approach adopted here seems to be wholly justified. One's emotions at such a time are often not easily defined or reduced to something coherent and simple. Dedication is a complex beast, flitting rapidly between a variety of styles, colours, textures, atmospheres and emotions. Such techniques are common in acoustic improvised music (although admittedly usually over much more sustained forms), but not so often explored within electronica, with its inevitably more limited dynamic range.

With the music on Dedication, Zomby has found fascinating and original ways of compensating for the music's lack of acoustic properties. Although there are certainly some well-worn influences here (Vangelis, hints at early electronic pioneers such as Daphne Oram), Zomby's work here appears to offer some clear routes away from post-dubstep cul de sacs. It is rhythmically interesting, and predictably dominated by the effects of sound and texture, but melody and harmony are also restored to a prominent place. Sometimes the music here sounds dislocated, withdrawn and distant, sometimes it sounds surprisingly and welcomingly intimate (especially on Natalia's Song).

Although it is fragmented, it is clearly intended to be approached and digested as a whole, rather than through its individual segments. It is completely out of step with the download, attention deficit era. It has a sense of mostly wordless, musical honesty and candour that demands attention and serious consideration. Sometimes it is its briefest moments that provide the greatest interest - I love the melancholy effect of the percussion sounds on Salamander and the pads on Lucifer. Taken individually, these tracks might seem slight, but within the context of the album as a whole, they are potent and imaginative.

Albums such as Dedication remind me that, although I am a committed acoustic musician, there is much to be learned from the techniques used by electronic producers and much to be appreciated and enjoyed. Listen to the polyrhythmic approach on Digital Rain - a track that manages to be at once musically creative, contemplative and gently humorous. Here and on the wonderful A Devil Lay Here, Zomby brilliantly creates emotional impact from the most detached and ambivalent of sounds.

Dedication may only be fully appreciated with the passing of time, something that is rare for the often more immdediate, constantly flucuating trends of electronic music (I fully confess that I cannot keep up with them). It is one of 2011's most underrated releases.

Friday, July 22, 2011


I've been out in Vermont recording with Adrian Roye and the Exiles and the amazing Michael Chorney, so listening recently has partially been inspired by him:

Michael Chorney - Oom-Pah of the Ghost Parade
Michael Chorney - Songs In Secret Ink
Anais Mitchell - Hymns For The Exiled
Anais Mitchell - The Brightness
Becca Stevens - Weightless (2011)
Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake - You Stepped Out of a Cloud
Art Ensemble Of Chicago - Nice Guys
Lhasa - The Living Road
Jenny Scheinman - Crossing The Field

Also some listening inspired by Portishead's ATP event this weekend:
Portishead - Third
Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
Beak> - Beak>

Mark Hanslip and Javier Carmona - DosadoS
Zomby - Dedication
Ambrose Akinmusire - When the Heart Emerges Glistening
Ma - The Last
Nat Baldwin - People Change
Seb Rochford and Pamelia Kurstin - Ouch Evil Slow Hop
Pat Metheny - What's It All About
Memory Tapes - Player Piano
Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Marissa Nadler - Marissa Nadler
Battles - Gloss Drop

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

She's An Artist, She Don't Look Back?

Kate Bush - Director's Cut (EMI)

By audaciously re-recording and repackaging tracks from two albums in her back catalogue, Kate Bush seems to have caused some consternation. First, it's astonishing that in spite of being told that the new material from Kate Bush was not going to be a new album as such, many people still seemed to be expecting exactly that. Secondly, and more significantly, why do so may people seem to think revisiting material from the past is such a musical crime? Jazz musicians do so all the time, not just in re-interpreting the standard repertoire, but in reworking their own material. Wayne Shorter has recorded Footprints several times with a variety of ensembles. I see no reason for a song to be a solid, locked in artefact once it has been recorded. Why can it not be a living, breathing artefact, open to new performances and arrangements as time passes? Bob Dylan has long understood this very well.

Another subjective issue in any asssessment of Director's Cut is the apparent consensus that The Sensual World and The Red Shoes (the two albums from which these tracks are sourced) are the weakest and least admired of Bush's albums. I've never quite understood why this might be. For sure, Hounds of Love set an impressive conceptual and artistic standard - but I've always found an embarrassment of riches across these albums, even when they apparently present Bush at her most conventional. Her songwriting has been consistently strong.

Clearly, there were elements in the production and arrangement of this material that Bush herself was never happy with - Director's Cut has afforded her the chance to go back and make alterations. Some of these are very minor, pedantic changes. Others are massively significant. The result is an album that probably has little chance of rising to the top of fans' favourites, but which offers a brilliant case study of Kate Bush's artistic temperament and attention to detail - and, most interestingly of all perhaps, evidence of the change in timbre in her voice since the original tracks were recorded.

This change is immediately clear on Flower of the Mountain, a new version of The Sensual World in which Bush has finally been given permission to use Molly Bloom's soliloquy from James Joyce's Ulysees. Her voice seems older, perhaps wiser but also less adventurous somehow. Other than the new vocal, there isn't a lot of difference between this new version and the original, and I have to admit that the original sounded more erotic and involving to my ears. It sounds rather as if Bush is struggling to adapt the song to the words she always wanted to use. Her own actually worked more effectively. There are other alterations that seem to spoil the atmosphere of the original songs too - Lily is transformed into a rather lumbering funk-rock track, with superfluous streams of distorted guitar. It actually sounded less dated in its original guise.

Perhaps the most significant change throughout is the drums. These often seemed over-produced on the original albums, but here she has captured a much more natural, warm and acoustic drum sound. This comes across particularly clearly on the wonderful new versions of Deeper Understanding and Song of Solomon. The latter is a great example of how very subtle modifications can have a tremendous impact. The backing vocals of the Trio Bulgarka much clearer, and it has a tremendously detailed mood. The vocoder section of Deeper Understanding (featuring Bush's son Bertie) has caused some controversy. It perhaps makes the song sound less futuristic and even more of its time, however prescient it was when first released. Bush's tale of computer addiction has very much been borne out in the internet age. The mysterious, wordless extended coda, with its lithe, expressive drum pattern, is simply magnificent.

The most substantial changes are sure to divide opinion. This Woman's Work, among her most loved songs, and something of a power ballad in its original form, has been completely transformed into an Eno-esque, spacey, ambient lament. It tugs on the heartstrings a little less, but perhaps its distinctive contemplative melancholy is more nuanced and more realistic. I love both versions - the old one, of course, is very much still there. Less successful for me is Rubberband Girl, now remodelled as a clunky Rolling Stones pastiche. This kind of context just does not really suit Bush's flighty, theatrical approach to singing - it simply shows that she works far better as an idiosyncratic solo artist than as frontwoman in a rock and roll band.

Less transformative, but brilliantly designed nonetheless, is the new version of Moments of Pleasure. This was always a strong song - but even the most die-hard of Bush fans would surely have to admit that the original was a little over the top. This new version retains the piano ballad template, but the delivery and execution are considerably more restrained and elegant. Along with Song of Solomon, Deeper Understanding and This Woman's Work, it is one of the album's great triumphs.

On listening to Director's Cut, I'm reminded of something Ian Carr used to say a lot in his jazz workshops at WAC (now threatened with closure due to Arts Council cuts) - 'sometimes you have to look back in order to move forwards.' It's very wise advice actually, and I wonder when new Bush material does emerge, it might be considerably stronger as a result of her hard work on this project. Even if I'm wrong in this prediction, there's something hugely satisfying in seeing Bush wrongfoot everyone in such committed, steadfast style. Once again, it seems she is restless and on the move.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Case Sensitive

tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)

It seems as if everyone has been talking about this second album from Merrill Garbus - to the extent that it's almost tempting to veer into stubborn hype avoidance mode and simply ignore it. This would be a massive mistake though, for this album is every bit as wonderful and inventive as Garbus'type-setting is infuriating.

Garbus' solo debut Bird-Brains (OK, I can't be bothered with the upper and lower cases now) gradually worked its way to cult status, its extremely erratic recording quality failing to detract from Garbus' anything-goes approach. If anything, the frequently maxed out distortion added to the record's immense charms.

whokill is a different beast, however. It's more carefully edited, and its relatively concise running time definitely works in its favour. Also, it sees Garbus entering a professional recording studio for the first time, polishing her craft while retaining the essence of her maverick, scattershot style (The backing vocals on Gangsta are as harsh and biting as anything on Bird-Brains). In addition to whatever imaginative, creative merit this album undoubtedly has - the first impression of Garbus' ingenious work is that it is tremendous fun.

Garbus' approach is both brutally direct and wondrously wayward. Sometimes it feels as if she is throwing absolutely everything at the wall - whokill has avant garde saxophone freak-outs, Nigerian hi life style guitars and thunderous lo-fi drums. What holds it together is the element that reigns triumphantly over the melee - Garbus' jagged, unconventional voice. It's hard to find parallels for Garbus' style, but it seems to be influenced as much by hip-hop and dancehall toasting as by soul and more traditional forms of soundcraft. It is likely to be as polarising as the strange, intervalic daring of Dave Longstreth or the saccharine swoop of Joanna Newsom. For me, Garbus' versatility alone makes her an important vocal talent - she can be overpowering at one moment, the next expressing stark, naked vulnerability. When Riotriot stops and she belts out 'there is a freedom in violence I don't understand' with all the force in her lungs, it is genuinely disturbing, and yet somehow also strangely euphoric.

For all its sonic onslaught, whokill also has moments of disarming tenderness. Powa begins with strummed guitars and Garbus' fragile falsetto, before moving into more gutsy territory (Garbus' warped take on classic rock perhaps). Wooly Wooly Gong is more delicate still - a beautiful, haunting moment amidst some turbulent surroundings. These juxtapositions are always handled with thought and are carefully constructed. Garbus is clearly constantly alive to the possibilities of sound and timbre.

This is an important record - one that really establishes Garbus as a major female talent to watch alongside the likes of Bjork and Kate Bush. She is a true idiosyncratic individual, fully deserving of the hype and attention.


Enjoying lots of great music at the moment and struggling to find time to write about it.

Grouper - A I A (Yellowelectric)
tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (4AD)
Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes (Night Slugs)
Bibio - Mind Bokeh (Warp)
Vladislav Delay Quartet - Vladislav Delay Quartet (Honest Jon's)
Murcof - Le Sangre Illuminada (Infine)
Tindersticks - Claire Denis Soundtracks (free sampler with Sight & Sound)
Kate & Anna McGarrigle - Tell My Sister (Nonesuch 3 disc box set - their first two albums plus a disc of extras and rarities)
Look, Stranger! - If You're Listening EP (
Low - C'Mon (Sub Pop)
Singing Adams - Everybody Friends Now (Records Records Records)
Boxcutter - The Dissolve (Planet Mu)
Kode9 & The Spaceape - Black Sun (Hyperdub)
Chrissy Murderbot - Women's Studies (Planet Mu)
Paul Simon So Beautiful Or So What (Decca)
Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)
The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh (Bella Union) - finally checking this out properly in light of their brilliant QEH gig last week, a review of which should be going up on musicOMH shortly.
TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light (Polydor)
Cass McCombs - Wit's End (Domino)
Avishai Cohen - Seven Seas (Blue Note)
Metronomy - The English Riviera (Because)
How To Dress Well - Love Remains (PIAS) - something else I should have checked out ages ago!

Friday, March 18, 2011


Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)

The recent expansive folly of Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz gives little hint of the nature of releases on his Asthmatic Kitty label. This latest release from vocalist Julianna Barwick has a timeless feeling to it, perhaps by virtue of being as in thrall to medieval choral music as it is to modern electronics and home studio recording techniques (it was recorded at Stevens’ personal studio). Whereas Stevens threw every conceivable piece of electronic trickery at the wall for ...Adz, Barwick focuses on the startlingly pure sound of her own layered, wordless voices, with haunting and impressive results.

There’s an inevitably hymnal, sacred quality to much of this music. It’s possible that Barwick might have been influenced as much by minimal, spiritually concerned contemporary composers such as Arvo Part as much as by the solipsistic vocal arrangements of, say, Bon Iver. The desire to move beyond language also has much in common with the ethereal, powerful music made by The Cocteau Twins. Comparisons may well also be made with Sigur Ros but, for the most part, The Magic Place lacks that band’s tendency towards portentous overstatement.

Barwick’s voice always occupies the foreground of the music, sometimes in glorious harmony, sometimes with compelling polyphonic dissonances. Perhaps the best example of her real skill in arranging comes with Keep Up The Good Work, where parts that initially seem in conflict with each other are carefully entwined. The dense reverb inevitably makes Barwick sounds ghostly and detached - but this is evidently the intended effect. Often it feels like Barwick’s multi-tracked voice is communicating from every possible dimension and more.

Barwick’s chief weapon would appear to be repetitive looping, hardly itself a particularly original gambit, but she uses it to create an illusion of complexity whilst keeping her music direct and resonant. She also makes intelligent use of pitch and range - shaping her phrases by using the extremes of her register. When instruments do join or take over (there is a piano coda to the majestic Flown), they occupy the same spare, reflective ground, with languid melodic lines, long held chords and acres of space.

Slightly unexpectedly, the penultimate track Prizewinning adds in a pulsating synthesiser line and the slightest suggestion of a beat, but even this tentative step towards minimal electronica fits with the album’s cohesive mood. Barwick has managed to find an open, broad sound that is at once ancient and modern.