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.