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.