Saturday, December 29, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 5: The Top Ten

10. Sun Kil Moon - Among The Leaves (Caldo Verde)

Although it still very much foregrounds his mordant vocals and classical guitar playing, Among The Leaves also marks a noticeable change in direction for Mark Kozelek. For the most part, the songs are shorter, there are a hell of a lot of them (seventeen!) and they are often characterised by the caustic, confrontational humour of his live performances, perhaps the first time this has been captured on a studio recording. Mark spends much of the album complaining about the absurd lifestyle of a touring musician, in spite of the fact that many listeners might be envious of his position. His wit is dry and biting, but there is also a beautiful tenderness here too, most clearly felt on Song For Richard Collopy, a tribute to his former guitar restorer. For all the whinging, Kozelek's passion and complete immersion in the art of songwriting is crystal clear - and it's hard to see him doing anything else. In its own rather obtuse way, this is among his best albums.

musicOMH review

09. Sam Lee - Ground Of Its Own (Nest)

Sam Lee has been something of a folk entrpreneur in London, uncovering inspirational traditional songs and running the Nest Collective night. The event has highlighted a whole world of broad-minded and richly experimental interpretations of what folk music should mean, and has also created a strong sense of loyalty and community. Lee's own music has proved to be bold and exciting - here is an album of traditional songs with no guitars, but plenty of fascinating and unusual instrumentation. So, whilst respectful to the origins of the material, the music also sounds exotic and challenging, and Lee's theatrical but amiable and unforced voice carries these stories quite brilliantly. There's plenty of darkness here (not least in Lee's highly personal reclamation of the anti-semitic song The Jew's Garden), but also plenty of hope and compassion too.

musicOMH review

08. Staff Benda Bilili - Bouger Le Monde! (Crammed Discs)

Here is an album I felt was oddly taken for granted this year. More of the same it may have been, perhaps, but who could possibly object to more of Staff Benda Bilili's almost obscenely joyous music? This is a more vibrant, energetic and perhaps less subtle album than Tres Tres Fort, really capturing the exuberance, spirit and passion of the band's extraordinary live shows. After a brilliant, moving triumph in the face of adversity, Staff Benda Bilili are cleverly avoiding the trappings of success - well on their way to being one of the best bands anywhere in the world. 

musicOMH review

07. Anais Mitchell - Young Man In America (Wilderland) 

One might forgive Anais Mitchell if her masterful 'folk opera' from 2010 Hadestown had left her nowhere left to go.  However, Mitchell is not seemingly an artist to either get stuck or turn back. Her work has followed an impressive trajectory from the intimate grandeur of Hymns For The Exiled to this brilliant, expansionist folk vision. The huge guest cast may have gone, but refocussing on Mitchell's own distinctive voice reminds us of her artistry, and the sheer craft and lucidity of her songs (the title track, Tailor and Shepherd must rank among her finest works). Todd Sickafoose's production is again both sympathetic and adventurous, and the musicianship is dependably skilled and colourful. Mitchell's father is the face on the cover art, and the song Shepherd is based on a story he wrote. Sining from the perspective of the opposing gender is a common trait in folk music - and is something that Mitchell handles with aplomb here. Indeed, Mitchell seems able to place herself in a fascinating variety of situations and stories, but always allows her own singular, awe-filled voice to cut through. It feels tapped in to both American myth and American reality. John Murphy at musicOMH called this Mitchell's 'second consecutive masterpiece'. He's absolutely right.

06. Vijay Iyer Trio - Accelerando (ACT)

Vijay Iyer is a man of theories, concepts and ideas, this much we know, drawing as much from his background in academic science as from his vast knowledge of a range of music. But Accelerando may represent his most cogent transformation of these ideas into thrilling, visceral and exciting music. His trio with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore is now a very stable unit, and one of the most powerful and dizzying piano trios in contemporary jazz. The piano trio is an area in which the market is saturated, but Iyer is still bringing fresh tricks and maverick techniques to the arena. In his choice of interpretations, Iyer continues to do much to open up the music to untrained ears, but he is also doing this with honesty, integrity and continued commitment to his own personal vision. His own compositions are becoming ever more assured too - tackling specific ideas in depth without feeling over-burdened or encumbered with mathematics. The idea is always subservient to the feeling and passion in the music, and the closing take on Duke Ellington's Village of the Virgins reminds us of Iyer's innate soulfulness too.

musicOMH review

05. The Invisible - Rispah (Ninja Tune)

This second album from the London trio might represent the boldest step forward of 2012. Whilst it retains many of the core virtues from the band's debut in terms of intelligent use of the studio and in riveting groove, it adds a newfound depth of feeling and a refreshing adventurousness. Some of this may be derived from the death of nominal leader Dave Okumu's mother during the process of making the record. Indeed, the music here is bookended and interspersed with samples of ritualistic singing from her funeral, a boldly personal and undeniably moving gesture. It perhaps draws inspiration from some of the great studio music of the 80s (Talk Talk, ar kane, The Cure, Japan), but the resulting concoction is very different from all of these possible influences. Rispah feels like an extended meditation, its whispery melodies subsumed within the overall textures of the music. It often has a fluid, aquatic sound, but sometimes the rhythms are clipped and angular. It is a studio creation for sure, but one that also feels like the work of a very human, fully committed band. I was lucky enough to interview Dave Okumu this year, as he was convalescing from a near-fatal electrocution onstage in Nigeria - and he spoke honestly and personally about his tragic recent life experience and the making of this album.

musicOMH review

musicOMH interview

04. Actress - RIP (Honest Jons) 

Darren Cunningham’s music as Actress has always had a nebulous, elusive quality, even as many tried to categorise it within the parameters of UK bass music. With R.I.P., that sense of mystery and strangeness has become the core and focus of his sound. R.I.P. frequently seeks to deny electronic music its most recognisable conventions. Four to the floor beats are often absent or merely implied, and the music's often beautiful vistas are sometimes deliberately obscured. It's a hazy, uncertain and hallucinatory world through which Cunningham walks. This is the work of a clever, playful deconstructionist.

musicOMH review

03. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange (Mercury)

This, perhaps surprisingly, is probably the album I've listened to most this year. On the basis of Ocean's mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, which partially engaged me, I wasn't expecting to like it quite as much as I did. Still, it's one of those albums that surprises and delights through both unpredictablility and consistency. For a major label release, it's quite stylistically madcap, and Ocean and his collaborators have produced a refreshingly musical R&B product, with strong harmony and clever, twisting melodies. It is constantly keeping the listener on their toes, waiting for the next big surprise. Whilst Ocean had been roundly hyped, few could have expected music of this level of imagination and ingenuity, or a lyrical mind so fresh and exacting.

02. Shackleton - The Drawbar Organ/Music For The Quiet Hour (Woe To The Septic Heart)

Although already a dauntingly prolific artist, this represents Sam Shackleton's first real engagement with coherent long form statements (discounting last year's collaborative work with Pinch). The Drawbar Organ EPs are engaging, and easy to place within the lineage of Shackleton's existing output, but it is the orchestrated composition of Music For The Quiet Hour that is the real masterpiecce here. Packaged together in a box unified through the exciting artwork of Zeke Clough, this also represents an enjoyably rebellious defence of music as a physical product. It is hard to imagine appreciating this fully via means of a digital download. Music For The Quiet Hour is full of imaginative tropes, from intriguing cross rhythms to bold rhythmic modulations. Yet it is the return of Vengeance Tenfold on vocals that arguably does most to elevate this work into dazzling new territory. Shackleton often uses the movement and cadence of this apocalyptic quasi-poem to inspire the shape and drive of the music. There is also a sense of purposeful disruption here - of ideas being deliberately refracted, altered or halted with little prior warning. It's a brilliant work, and it points to a very exciting new future for Shackleton. 

musicOMH review

01. Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform) 

Much as this has been a dependably excellent year for contemporary music, this has been this first year in a while where there really has not been a real contest for the top spot in my end of year list. This is because it's simply impossible to find another record this year that compares with this magnum opus on any meaningful level. Ten Freedom Summers is not an album as such, but more the culmination of an entire life's work. It is more than four hours' worth of music, delivered at the highest level of intensity and creativity, and inevitably cannot be digested in one sitting. It is music you could live with for an entire lifetime and still not fully comprehend all of its unusual angles and perspectives. Yet, as with Tim Berne, there is so much of Wadada Leo Smith's earlier output I still need to explore too!

Smith’s music, appropriately strident and unwavering, is inspired by the Civil Rights struggle in America, focusing mainly on the turbulent 10 years between 1954 and 1964, although this final version of the story takes us through to 9/11 and beyond. Using both the current line-up of his Golden Quartet (sometimes becoming a quintet when the two drummers play together) and a chamber ensemble, Smith shows an acute ear for effective instrumentation. He varies the combinations of musicians to create contrasts, frequently extreme in nature, that run the gamut of human emotions.

Whilst a lot of freely improvised music avoids hooks and consciously eschews the lure of the groove, Smith has opted to do neither in this context.  Many of the pieces are built around repeated figures or motifs that linger long in the memory. Throughout the four discs, there is a strong unity of music and purpose, form and content.

Anthony Davis’ piano is a formidable presence throughout, chaotic and turbulent where necessary but also offering a range of colours and approaches. It perhaps works best in combination with the chamber group, creating striking and unconventional harmonies.

Whilst Ten Freedom Summers may be historic in inspiration, it is undoubtedly intended to be appreciated now and to have resonance for the contemporary moment. It is as much a passionate warning against regression as it is a brilliant celebration of hard won victories. It would be hard to find another musical document created with this much invesment of personal dedication, emotion and artistic brilliance. It is a visionary work of protest and power.

musicOMH review

Friday, December 28, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 4: 25 - 11

25. Lau - Race The Loser (Reveal)

US producer Tucker Martine, who has also worked with the likes of Laura Veirs and The Decemberists (and who also worked on some demos with R.E.M. before the band stupidly junked them in favour of working with the ghastly Jacknife Lee) serves as the perfect foil for Lau's adventurous breed of folk music. The results are delightfully unforced, warm and enveloping, like a cloak. Perhaps Lau's part-improvisatory nature as a live band has been stripped back here in favour of something a little more planned - but it's a fascinating evolution, and one which emphasises many of their strengths, including the glorious vocals of Kris Drever. There are frequent unexpected and thrilling shifts in gear and mood, yet it all seems to make perfect sense. There's a strong sense that love, care and craft have gone into making this record.

24. Paul Buchanan - Mid Air (Newsroom)

In some ways, Mid Air is one of the year's simplest creations, in that it mostly strips away the sophisticated sheen of Buchanan's former band The Blue Nile in favour of delicate, quietly intense vocal and piano performances. The songs are similar in terms of mood, shape, theme, pace and harmonic qualities. The cumulative effect is a haunting beauty and touching fragility which prevents it from becoming boring - there are so many tiny details to observe and cherish. Much about this music is understated, but music and lyrics work brilliantly together and conjure vivid images in the mind. Buchanan has modestly described the album as a 'record-ette', but it stands tall on its own terms. Buchanan offers proof that simple does not have to mean simplistic. It's a real tribute to this album's achievement that it has made me want to spend some more time with The Blue Nile's catalogue too. 

23. Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Crown and Treaty (EMI)

Bookended by moments of transcendental optimism, Sweet Billy Pilgrim's third album feels carefully structured in spite of Tim Elsenburg's admirable anything goes approach to sourcing musical inspiration. Whilst much of this music is bucolic and reflective, it also displays a much more nimble, groovy side to the band. Throughout, there is a stunning degree of attention to detail and the quality of sound and attack is consistently remarkable. Yet all the band's tricksy arrangements and obsessive production values would come to nothing were it not for Elsenburg's often haunting, always beautiful songs. 

musicOMH review

musicOMH interview

22. David Byrne and St Vincent - Love This Giant (4AD) 

If this pairing had not been preceded by failry heavy advance publicity, it would not have been easy to see it coming. Yet the collaboration between David Byrne and Annie Clarke actually makes real sense, in spite of the gap between them in terms of age and experience. This sort of collaboration is commonplace in other forms of music, particularly the jazz and folk worlds, so there is no particular reason for it being unexpected in the world of art rock. Both musicians favour complex, intricate arrangements and unusual melodies. If this can sometimes lead to self-conscious experimentation at the expense of emotional involvement, this is not the case here. The deployment of a horn section over and above keyboards or guitars creates a sense of real joy and celebration, many of these staccato rhythms creating something urgent as well as fascinating. 

21. Four Tet - Pink (Text)

As this is really a collection of singles in album form, I might well be breaking my own rules by including it. Still, I'm pretty sure I've done the same for the likes of Burial and Shackleton in the past, and this is simply too good to ignore, perhaps even the highlight of Kieren Hebden's recorded career so far.  Following There is Love in You, the collaboration with Burial and now this, Hebden certainly appears to be on a hot streak. Part of this success appears to be grounded in Hebden's rediscovery of dance music tropes. The music collated on Pink feels like a successful merger of his more experimental impulses with the demands of the dancefloor.

20. Grizzly Bear - Shields (Warp) 

Of the current bonanza of creative American independent rock bands, Grizzly Bear were the ones to really seize the moment upon their return this year. Not only did Shields sound bigger and more ambitious than Veckatimest, it also worked superbly on those terms, with bold melodies and structural complexities that felt woven into the tapestry of their songs-as-compositions. The contrasting individual personalities within the band seem to be less noticeable now, as it is beginning to feel like a true collective.

19. Padang Food Tigers - Ready Country Nimbus (Bathetic)

Padang Food Tigers have made a beautiful warm bath of an album here - its tantalisingly brief miniatures combining into a singularly blissful and evocative experience. Its combination of acoustic and electronic instruments with field recordings is gentle and decidedly appealing - we are left with something far from what could either be described as folk or electronica. The duo have very much created their own world and their own language here. 

18. Michael Chorney and Dollar General - Dispensation of the Ordinary (Michael Chorney/Bandcamp)

This outstanding, spirited album from Michael Chorney's new band will get a full UK release on CD next year (and hopefully the band will be playing some shows over here too), but it's already available via Bandcamp. It's a potent blend of blues, American folk, improvisation and tinges of free spirited jazz, a fusing of ramshackle clatter with subtle, deep musicality. Chorney is an understated musician who knows that less can often mean more, and he has a keen ear for sonic detail. His voice has a homely, amiable, welcoming quality to my ears. His band are brimming with life and make strong personal contributions. The results are some timeless and hypnotic songs that keep revealing new elements with every play.

17. Tetras - Pareidolia (FSS)

This is not only some of the year's wildest, darkest music, but also some of its most patient, unfurling slowly in protracted crescendos over four lengthy improvised pieces. It is often built on repetitive bassline ostinatos and organ drone, but there are also expressive colours, often provided by percussion. It's a heavy, grim listen at times, albeit in the best possible way. I wouldn't normally link elsewhere from here, but I have to credit Scott McMillan for mentioning this to me, and his piece over at The Liminal is well worth reading, particularly given how intelligently it places it in a broader context harking back to Miles Davis' electric fusion.

Tetras At The Liminal (Scott McMillan)

16. Richard Skelton - Verse of Birds (Corbel Stone Press) 

Richard Skelton is not one for producing easily digestible work. More often than not, his output has been multimedia, with music designed to evoke place, memory and experience that can also be found detailed in accompanying literature. Verse of Birds is a particularly unforgiving 105 minutes, but it benefits hugely from the investment of time needed to appreciate it as a whole. The music was written and recorded on the west coast of Ireland, and it certainly has a weather-beaten, coastal feel to it. With this and Landings, Skelton's music seems to be offering a richness and depth all of its own, with unusual textures and harmonics crafting recreating landscapes through sound. Skelton's music also seems to capture the inherent complexity of human emotion - although not celebratory, it is also not straightforwardly dark or melancholy. It is music that is open to moving wherever experience and nature guides it.

15. Alasdair Roberts and Mairi Morrison - Urstan (Drag City)

It felt like this excellent album was somewhat overlooked in 2012, possibly at least due in part to Sam Lee's justified dominance of the folk scene. Still, Alasdair Roberts remains Scottish folk music's most seasoned and radical exponent, and this collaboration with Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison yielded lively, sometimes tempestuous results. This is folk music with visceral energy and restless forward motion - it is without doubt respectful of the traditions and stories of the past, but it also kicks them screaming into new life. Hearing Roberts' distinctive voice in this new context also offers new perspectives on his work.

14. Hallock Hill - A Hem Of Evening (MIE)

Tom Lecky's work as Hallock Hill continues to be mysterious and engrossing. A Hem of Evening (what a lovely title) is something of a departure from what we have heard so far, at least in structural terms. Comprised of two long pieces (quaintly described as Side A and Side B - I love this), it is a meandering, ponderous work in the best possible way. That being said, the music here also seems consciously limited to a small palette of notes, and Lecky keeps returning to particular note choices as a kind of axis, or perhaps a clarion call. His guitar sound is even more magical here, reverberating beautifully, and leaving gentle overtones in the silences. Like most of Lecky's music, it feels subtle on first listen, and then cumulatively bewitching. It is an unassuming, modest reimagining of the possibilities of the guitar.

13. Hildur Gudnadottir - Leyfdu Ljosinu (Touch)

This is a truly remarkable achievement for the Icelandic cellist and composer - a single take single 40 minute piece of music recorded live at the Music Research Centre at the University of York and captured without any post-production intervention. The piece was performed without an audience, which in part accounts for the eerie sense of stillness at the music's core, a reminder of just how important environment and location is for any recording.  The title translates as Allow The Light, and the calm, centred music has a sense of small cracks permitting light to shimmer through. Space and silence are used to maximal effect, and the whole piece is delivered with patience and understanding. There is an empathy at work here, particularly in the way in which Gudnadottir blends her voice with its surroundings, in spite of it being the product of the work of a solo musician.

12. Tim Berne - Snakeoil (ECM)

From a point of view of scandalous unfamiliarity with his work (save for a couple of palpably intense improvised concerts at the Vortex), Tim Berne is rapidly becoming one of my favourite musicians (at least in part due to a lovely evening spent with Tom Ward and Cath Roberts at the very end of April 2012). Being an ECM release, Snakeoil might prove somewhat divisive as it does soften some of the sharper edges of his compositional voice. The chamber acoustuc intimacy of the sound clearly suits the ECM aesthetic, although the music is largely free from cliches, and definitely has Berne's distinctive imprint. The pieces are both lengthy and breathtakingly adventurous, and the mood shifts radically between the melancholy and the exuberant. With clarinetist Oscar Noriega, keys man Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith, this is a new and exciting chapter in Berne's career - another reinvention.

11. Henry Threadgill's Zooid - Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp.(Pi)

Much as I adore the music on this concise, hugely exciting set, if I can indulge myself a little, the thing I most love about it is the final track. This finds the full credits for the album being read aloud. This is a brilliant repost and solution to the problems of the download era. Personnel and recording credits are crucial to any understanding of jazz and how the music has developed and, yes, continues to develop. Threadgill is one of this music's great pioneers, being one of the earliest experimenters with hybridising improvisation and avant garde contemporary composition. Understanding his current mindset also requires some knowledge of his supporting players - not least Liberty Ellman's unique, often perplexing guitar lines and Elliot Humberto Kavee's dexterous, intricate drum grooves. There is little sense of barlines or structural breaks. It is a seamless, flowing, and fearlessly uncompromising approach to arrangement and composition. The Zooid ensemble, now twelve years old but still sounding radical and fresh, is an ecentric array of instruments and these musicians do not just adapt to the demands of Threadgill's approach, but they have served to enhance and develop it. This is difficult, challenging music, but it is also so exciting and turbulent as to leave you breathless. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 3: 50-26

50. George Crowley Quartet - Paper Universe (Whirlwind)

This was an impressively mature debut from the young saxophonist, seeking to craft affecting, memorable themes more than to push boundaries. Working with Kit Downes' trio as a rhythm section meant that Crowley had an intuitive, experienced band capable of sensitive support and nimble interaction. But it is Crowley's thoughtful, imaginative writing that gives all the players (including Crowley himself, who improvises with genuine authority) inspiration. 

49. James Blackshaw - Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death (Important) 

A return to the Important label for the first time since his debut long release did not herald a retrenchment from Blackshaw. He remains dependably prolific, and with each statement veers further and further away from the Takoma school of guitar playing that characterised his earlier releases. There remains a spiritual depth and mantric quality to his playing though, even though the arrangements are now multi-faceted and even here incorporate vocals (courtesy of Genevieve Beaullieau), vibraphone and Hammond B3 as well as piano. Blackshaw's piano playing seems more confident here and whilst this in some ways feels like his most conventional work to date, it may also be his warmest.  

48. Food (Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen) - Mercurial Balm (ECM)

Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen's Food project has evolved into perhaps the most assured example of a hybid between improvised and electronic music. As with its predecessor, the excellent Quiet Inlet, the emphasis is on mood and atmosphere rather than on structure or form - and the music has a gentle, amorphous quality that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. Often, the music seems less about individual statements than about a blend of its various sonic elements. Although the album varies ensembles (Christian Fennesz, Elvind Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and Indian guitarist Prakash Sontakke all guest) and live and studio contexts, it has all been regrafted into one elegant, seamless whole.

47. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes (Warp)

Following up an album as sound-defining and brilliant as Cosmogramma was never going to be easy. At times on Until The Quiet Comes, it not only felt as if Steven Ellison was returning to previously traversed territory, but it also that the record as a whole lacked the sense of concept and coherence inherent in its predecessor. Until The Quiet Comes is an album that rewards patient listening, however, eventually revealing not only greater depth but also a welcome sense of fun. It's a much more relaxed and unassuming work than Cosmogramma - a playful side-step rather than a regression. 

46. Sun Araw/The Congos/M Geddes Gengras - FRKWYS Vol 9 (RVNG International) 

Not content with having one of the most exciting rosters of any of the independent labels, RVNG also have the quite wonderful FRKWYS series, creating inspired, frequently unlikely collaborations.  Along with last year's Blues Control and Laraaji meet-up, this may well be the finest of the lot, with Jamaica's legendary reggae vocal group pitted alongside Sun Araw, a natural worshipper at the altar of dub. The result is more abstract and disorientating than Heart of the Congos, but with similarly apocalyptic fervour. It feels like a respectful meeting on both sides - with each party unafraid to take risks or to misappropriate their respective signature sounds.

45. Cody ChesnuTT - Landing On A Hundred (One Little Indian)

Ten years after the unwieldy, wayward, often brilliant Headphone Masterpiece, Cody ChesnuTT returned sounding like a completely different artist, seemingly born again in more ways than one. If that debut made the case for lo-fi, homespun recording techniques and a devil may care approach to sequencing, then Landing On A Hundred makes the case for a super tight backing band and expert studio production. This music is part of a strong gospel soul lineage, and makes few obvious concessions to modernity. Yet it all sound honest and convincing, and ChesnuTT's reformed fervour comes across as a real conviction. The spirit of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway are certainly here, although it might be more accurate, if unfashionable, to compare ChesnuTT with the wayward, madcap genius of Terence Trent D'Arby.

44. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

Andy Stott's short form releases from last year were fractured and uncompromising, stark visions that did a great deal to raise his profile without making any artistic concessions. Luxury Problems is an easier ride, its title very suggestive of the sleek, leather-clad sound of the music. It works brilliantly as a contrast with its predecessors - with regular beats more the order of the day and some ingenious manipulation of voices. It is the sound of the discomforting side of modern western lifestyles - of modern guilt.  

43. Six Organs Of Admittance - Ascent (Drag City)

Essentially a Comets on Fire album in all but name, this album reunited Ben Chasny with Ethan Miller in a blistering, visceral psych shred that delivered every bit as much as it promised.  The ensemble approach marks a discontinuity with the freak-folk/drone direction of previous Six Organs releases, but the music shares Six Organs' general tendency for openness and space, in spite of Chasny's wilder improvising. It's a genuinely transcendental experience and, for me, the finest Six Organs album to date.

42. Bob Dylan - Tempest (Columbia)

There is a problem at the heart of Tempest, and it isn't Bob Dylan's weathered growl of a voice. His exhausted vocal chords now work perfectly with his bluesy, apocalyptic material. The further he gets from conventional melody and the closer to preaching or rapping, the better he sounds. The problem is more with the machine-like monotony of his very professional backing band. Many of these songs seem to beg for them to free up a little more, but they stay resolutely regimented. Still, the problem isn't terminal - as this is Dylan's most lucid album for some time,  a whole lot better than the lightweight Together Through Life and characterised by some violent, engaging and, well, tempestuous narratives. Much of it still appears to be cobbled together from a wide range of sources (some understandable, some baffling - Scott Warmuth's outstanding blog is well worth a read for more information). Is this plagiarism? Is it a moral problem? Or is it an incredibly creative collage that justifies much of the uncritical acclaim? Either way, the sound of the exhausted Dylan spitting out these words with genuine vitriol remains pretty much unbeatable. 

41. Field Music - Plumb (Memphis Industries) 

Plumb is Field Music's best album to date and it pulls off the neat trick of making a series of often very short fragments cohere into what might be a suite of loosely connected ideas. The Brewis brothers continue to write with both radical ambition and genuine affection - as in thrall to direct melodies as they are to unusual time signatures and strange rhythmic emphasis. 

musicOMH interview

40. Duane Pitre - Feel Free (Important)

Feel Free is an intriuing title for a compositional work supposedly built around random computer generated patterns. Perhaps this works so well at least in part because Pitre took the computer generated patterns and performed them himself on guitar, adding human agency into the mix. The other musicians are then given freedom to either interact with this foundation, or to consciously ignore it. This is mysterious, elusive music - there is definite feeling here, but it's not always clear as to exactly why. What Pitre seems to have succeeded doing is creating an emotive form of music that exists without any obvious manipulations. 

39. Jack Davies - Jack Davies Big Band/Southbound/Flea Circus (V and V Music)

Jack Davies has been something of a fearless jazz enterpreneur in 2012, establishing his own record label and releasing three albums of his own work simultaneously. This is a lot of music for people to digest, and the very differing styles of these three works might leave audiences pondering as to the true nature of Davies' musical identity. For the open-minded, the answer will be simple enough - here is a musician naturally drawn to a range of contexts and sound worlds who cannot be contained within a restrictive genre bracket. The Flea Circus project explores a love of chamber music, whilst Southbound intially appears to be the most radical and challenging of the three projects, with fragmented music emphasising spontaneity and dialogue between the band members. The most impressive of the three albums has to be the outstanding Big Band recording, which demonstrates the fluidity and maturity of Davies' compositions. 

38. THEESatisfaction - AwE NaturalE (Sub Pop)

This is a crisp, fiercely independent debut by two hyper-aware, original wordsmiths in thrall to the rhythm and cadence of speech. It also refuses to adhere to hip hop conventions, challenging preconceptions with its frequent diversions and tangents, as well as with its preference for murky, spellbinding musical arrangements. Stas and Cat are bold personalities, and their music is reckless, unique and captivating. 

37. 1982 and BJ Cole - 1982 and BJ Cole (Humbro) 

In what appears to have been a bumper year for collaborative projects, this was one of the most fruitful. These improvised pieces have a gentleness and relaxed feel that seems to aid fluidity and meaning, with the legendary slide and pedal steel guitarist finding a brilliantly supportive and provocative context for his beautiful sounds. 

36. The Cairo Gang - The Corner Man (Empty Cellar)

I'm not sure I would have come across this were it not for the recent collaboration between The Cairo Gang and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, arguably the very best of Will Oldham's current prolific streak. Emmett Kelly's music as The Cairo Gang shares a certain purposeful vulnerability with Will Oldham, although his songs also often seem more robust and direct. This serves as a neat companion to Elephant Micah's rather similar sounding Louder Than Thou - again very much of a kinship with the likes of Jason Molina and Mark Kozelek - laconic and ruminative, with deliberaately protracted melodies, but also powerful and lingering long in the mind.  

35. Gareth Dickson - Quite A Way Away (12k Records) 

Dickson has served as a touring guitarist with Vashti Bunyan and that indiosyncratic folk lineage is very much living and breathing in his work as a solo artist. Yet his music also has an unforced ambience all of its own - his songs are deft and subtle, and full of intriguing nooks and crannies. His use of reverb and echo takes the music well beyond folk conventions into somewhere more eerie and foreboding. Both his articulations on the guitar and his soft vocal delivery (reminiscent of Nick Drake at times) are delicate, perhaps even almost reticent. This is beautiful music.

34. Josh Arcoleo - Beginnings (Edition) 

Young saxophonist Josh Arcoleo already has a distinctive sound and refreshingly laid back playing approach. He always sounds relaxed and in command of his material - never trying to force preconceived ideas or designs. His compositions are sparse, spacious affairs that place strong, direct ideas at the forefront. Arcoleo was the first winner of the Royal Academy of Music's Kenny Wheeler Prize, enabling a recording contract with Dave Stapleton's superb Edition record label. For a debut recording, this is a really assured and convincing work. Arcoleo's improvising builds to impressive degrees of intensity, and his compositions exploit deep but unimposing rhythmic foundations. The title rightly suggests that this is just the start of Arcoleo's career - but his music already feels free, weightless and unburduned.

33. Brad Mehldau Trio - Ode / Where Do You Start  (Nonesuch)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with Brad Mehldau and his range of projects. These are actually the first albums from his working trio in some time, but it feels like Mehldau's ubiquity is inescapable. This is not entirely unwelcome, and this year's flurry of activity has generated two contrasting but consistently engaging albums. Ode focuses on Mehldau's originals, and features some brilliantly conversational playing from the trio, although it does oddly lack much in the way of dynamic contrast. The music on Where Do You Start, mostly interpretations, is more expressive and malleable, and it is probably Mehldau's best recording with this incarnation of his trio (Jeff Ballard is brilliant, mercurial presence throughout). 

32. Alexander Hawkins Ensemble - All There, Ever Out (Babel)

Alexander Hawkins really ought to be considered a national treasure. He is an iconoclastic, singular musician with a restless drive to keep progressing and developing. This is music by an artist with courage in his convictions, working with empathetic musicians to create something brave and imaginative. Hawkins' superb foils here include the liberated, mischievous percussionist Javier Carmona and the superb cellist Hannah Marshall. The album as a whole is brilliantly unpredictable and playfully obtuse, displaying a steadfastness in refusing to conform to stylistic expectations. 

31. Ivo Neame - Yatra (Edition)

Pianist Ivo Neame's third album is a giant stride forward, the work that should really cement his reputation as a leader and composer as well as an in-demand sideman. He has ensembled a surprising ensemble combining players who might not be expected to all work together - including Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Yarde, brilliant groove master drummer Dave Hamblett, vibes player Jim Hart and Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby. It's little surprise that this group has produced some taut, riveting contemporary grooves delivered with confidence - what is perhaps more refreshing is the strength and depth of Neame's arrangements. The unusual combination of instruments allows for rich, colourful and intelligent orchestration. As an improviser, Neame has always been thoughtful - deploying plenty of purposeful pauses and varying the shape and pacing of his lines. Yatra's meticulous planning is matched by energy, poise and strength of feeling.   

30. Goat - World Music (Rocket Recordings)

This intoxicating, swampy, sweaty music from Swedish debutants Goat is a brilliant kind of fusion - mixing some dense American-sounding grooves with some melodic lines that could be drawn from the Middle East. It's one of the year's most thrilling, immediately enjoyable releases, brimming with energy and untamed fervour. It is all captured with appropriate rawness - any polish would have greatly diminished its potency.

29. Phronesis - Walking Dark (Edition) 

This is an album I have to confess that I've neglected for a while. On first listen, it felt a little as if it might be 'another Phronesis album', with all of that band's recognisable and admirable qualities, and easy to take for granted. Repeated listens towards the end of the year have revealed something rather different, however - a Phronesis record with increased depth, range and sensitivity in addition to the familiar lithe grooves and bass/piano unison lines. This is partially a result of the more open and democratic approach to composition - but increasingly Phronesis feels like a truly leader-less trio - an open-minded and flexible group experimenting with sound and musical language in a way that yields huge rewards. 

28. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Columbia) 

It's unreasonable to expect a man in his mid-70s to produce work to rank alongside the best in his catalogue, but Leonard Cohen seems intent on doing just that. With members of his touring band in tow this time, Old Ideas creates a happy marriage between his intentionally cheesy bontempi bedroom sound and a more naturalistic, human approach. Cohen's wry observations are pithy and frequently humorous, and his voice sounds richer and yet deeper still. This isn't as weird as Dear Heather, nor as weighty as Ten New Songs - indeed, it might be the lightest and most fleet footed of his recent works, in spite of its determinedly laconic pacing. What it has in abundance is the wit and wisdom of a true poet.

musicOMH review

27. Susanne Sundfor - The Silicone Veil (Sonnet Sounds)

It has been great to see the brilliant Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfor finally attain some recognition here in the UK with this excellent album. Sundfor works in collaboration with Lars Horntveth, the talented multi-instrumentalist from Jaga Jazzist. Together, they craft a crepuscular electro-folk that is both stark and seductive - an irresistible darkness laced with deceptive sweetness.

musicOMH review

26. Iris DeMent - Sing The Delta (Flariella)

Staggeringly, this is Iris DeMent's first album of new original material in 16 years. If she has been suffering from writers' block, then she has found intriguing ways of dealing with it, boldly confessing to new spiritual scepticism and operating in a refreshingly new, southern soul context. It's a sublime accompaniment for her distinctive, slightly harsh vocal delivery and for the powerful emotional resonance of her simple, honest songs. Her themes, often focused around family and memory, might well be rendered sentimental or nostalgic in lesser hands - DeMent imbues them with a profound wisdom and truth, not least on the extraordinary title track, in which the last weeks of her mother's life become a microcosm for celebrating an entire American culture. If only she would come and perform some shows in the UK!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 2: 75-51

75. Matthew Bourne - Montauk Variations (Leaf)

A solo piano album of uncommon patience and grace - and a fascinating contrast with Bourne's  more untamed improvised ensemble work. There are hints of wildness here, not least in dedications to Cecil Taylor and John Zorn, and there is a preoccupation with sound as much as with harmony. Still, the predominant feeling is one of happy suspended animation, music where you can hear the musician's brain cells working their magic.

musicOMH review

74. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II (Southern Lord)

A fascinating interview with Dylan Carlson in The Wire last year discussed the many virtues of War's Four Cornered Room, one of my favourite tracks whilst growing up and exploring my parents' record collection. That track is slow, serious and spacey, with a sense of creeping unease, building as much as humanly possible from essentially one chord and a few additional notes. It's easy to see the parallels with Earth's patient but menacing sound world, even though one might never have associated Carlson's heavy rock background with War. It's a rare example of a fascinating and helpful comparison. This second volume in the Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light series essentially offers more of the beautiful same, with Cellist Lori Goldston playing more of a key role. 

73. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball (Columbia) 

Springsteen's response to the global financial crisis and its impact on ordinary Americans was not in the slightest bit subtle. It's hard to see how the fantasies about violent, murderous revenge on bankers really help anyone. Still, amidst the righteous anger, there was also a sprinkling of tenderness and the usual sense of resilience and hope. Land of Hope and Dreams had a stoical studio makeover, with a brilliant last blast from the much missed Clarence Clemons, whilst the title track is a moving, celebratory eulogy for the demolished Giants Stadium. Throughout, there's a love of Irish folk dance and a splash of the American storytelling model of the Seeger Sessions, all fused with the E Street Band's relentless and monolithic energy. As with most recent Springsteen albums, there are distracting production flourishes (particularly with occasionally intrusive programmed drums), and it all came together much better in concert (that horn section was an absolute masterstroke) - but resistance, as ever, is futile and, at its best, Wrecking Ball is the sound of a compelling American legend, still in thrall to the virtues of hard work, and still able to speak to working people as no other multi-millionaire celebrity could.

72. Neneh Cherry and The Thing - The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound)

One of the year's most satisfying collaborations, and an album that threw Neneh Cherry out of her studio enhanced comfort zone right back to her freewheeling roots. It paid brilliant tribute to her father and had such raw, blistering spirit throughout. I was lucky enough to interview Neneh about this album earlier in the year, and she spoke articulately and enthusiastically about the 'lifesaving' force of the project.

musicOMH interview

71. How To Dress Well - Total Loss (Weird World)

Tom Krell's warped, haunted R&B proved to be an excellent vehicle for this examination of grief and loss. What could easily have been rendered sentimental turned out to be haunting and powerful, even if Krell's adoption of soul tropes can sometimes feel a little forced. Total Loss works well because there is such a personal, intimate feeling throughout that it feels like a primal, honest statement. Another successful feature is Krell's economical approach - nothing here is extraneous, and every effect is used for a real purpose.

70. Blues Control - Valley Tangents (Drag City) 

Valley Tangents is one of the year's strangest albums and it's hard to explain quite why it is so effective. It is resonant with strains of barroom jazz, albeit played with a fairly rudimentary grasp of technique and rhythm. It's mostly very imprecise music, but it is without doubt utterly riveting. It's  a peculiar, deceptive combination of raw rock and roll and improvised sketches that has a strong cumulative impact.

69. trioVD - Maze (Babel) 

Another brilliant rude awakening from the Leeds power trio, Maze is a significant advancement on their previous work both in terms of arrangement and in the fearsomely precise nature of its execution. This is music that bursts from the blocks with pulverising force and refuses to acquiesce.

musicOMH review

68. Holly Herndon - Movement (RVNG International) 

An increasingly common feature of experimental electronic music has been to explore and exploit the malleable nature of the human voice. Holly Herndon has made an album that does this quite brilliantly, avoiding some of the potential pitfalls of such a project. Movement never sounds academic or studied - instead, it is mostly thrilling and engaging music, in which the most human of sounds is suddenly rendered part of a detached, disconcerting machine sequence. 

67. Troyka - Moxxy (Edition)

Of the many lauded acts of London's contemporary jazz scene, Troyka are the band with which I've most struggled. I've seen them live several times and often come away feeling that I've wanted to enjoy the experience but have not quite been able to yield to it. The high level of musicianship in the group could hardly be in doubt - and all three musicians (Chris Montague, Kit Downes and Josh Blackmore) are among my favourite improvisers in other contexts. Yet there's always been something a little off-putting about Troyka's tricksy, attention deficit approach to composition. Sometimes I just wish the grooves would develop more before the next idea is introduced. Moxxy, however, has lead me to revise my opinion. Perhaps it's simply that it feels like a massive step forward from the debut - the writing is definitely stronger and the pieces feel more complete. There's more of a sense of breathing space and the music doesn't feel like it's constantly striving to dazzle or impress. Instead, this is actually a thrilling and genuinely exciting set - full of rhythmic invention and wizardry, but also benefiting from a more evolved sense of theme and development. They could yet become one of my favourite bands.

66. Zhenya Strigalev - Smiling Organizm Vol 1 (Whirlwind) 

Royal Academy of Music graduate Zhenya Strigalev has long been one of the true characters and prime movers of London's jazz scene, booking gigs and organising jam sessions at Charlie Wright's and performing regularly himself.  He has taken time to begin recording as a bandleader though - and this gestation has paid massive dividends. For Smiling Organizm Vol 1 (is there going to be a Vol 2?), he has assembled a transatlantic dream team of a band, including the idiosyncratic, brilliant pianist Liam Noble, two American bassists (Larry Grenadier on acoustic and Tim Lefevbre on electric), and the superb drummer Eric Harland, who purposefully matches dexterous technique with deep groove. Strigalev has a gift for bizarre juxtapositions, mixing the musical influences of his Russian heritage with contemporary asymmetry or burning post-bop vitriol. Strigalev's almost absurdist rapid fire improvising often seems to have only tangential connection to his themes (this feature came across even more strikingly in the astounding launch gigs for the album at Strigalev's natural home Charlie Wright's), but this is all part of the quirky, maniacal fun.

65. Donald Fagen - Sunken Condos (Warner) 

Donald Fagen returned with what must be, by his slothful standards, unusual haste. The Nightfly, Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat have been retrospectively grouped together in a trilogy, but it's hard to see how Sunken Condos represents much of a departure, either musically or conceptually. It's a brilliantly Donald Fagen-esque album, with generous sprinklings of his intellectual bent, hipster irony and brilliant horn charts.

musicOMH review

64. Cooly G - Playin' Me (Hyperdub) 

Signed to Hyperdub back in 2009, it's taken Merissa Campbell quite a while to get her debut album out there. The resulting music is actually quite some way from UK funky genre tropes, instead offering something much weirder and more intoxicating, with its stuttering guitar samples and string pads. Campbell's voice floats above it all with a curiously disconnected, ghostly quality. Perhaps strangest of all is the cover of Coldplay's Trouble, which finds a genuine tenderness in an otherwise sickly stadium ballad.

63. Jessie Ware - Devotion (Island) 

It's rare for me to find a major label-backed pop act that I like - Jessie Ware is such an artist. She is undoubtedly a natural talent, with a rich and powerful voice that creeps up on you but never smothers you with unnecessary virtuosity. Perhaps most importantly of all, she has worked with sensitive musicians and producers, including The Invisible's Dave Okumu, who have crafted clever, appropriate accompaniments for her superb songs, many of which are wonderfully infectious. This is a lush, genuinely soulful debut and it richly deserved its Mercury nomination. 

62. Sidi Toure - Koima (Thrill Jockey)

Malian musician Sidi Toure has been a quite brilliant and unexpected signing for Thrill Jockey, and has now produced two richly rewarding albums for the label. It's a natural development from the rustic, homely duets of its predecessor, with more fleshed out band arrangements recorded in a studio. Like much Malian music, it has a joyously hypnotic quality and a nimble, dancing feel even with very sparing use of percussion. It is an absolute delight from start to finish. I don't normally use this space to plug gigs - but it's worth mentioning that Sidi will be performing alongside the majestic Tamikrest and the amazing Bassekou Kouyate at the Barbican's Sahel Soul event in January, a surely unmissable concert.

61. Dice Factory - Dice Factory (Babel) 

Dice Factory is comprised of some of the London jazz scene's brightest individual talents -  saxophonist Tom Challenger, madcap pianist George Fogel, bassist Tom Farmer and the ever in-demand, multi-tasking drummer Jon Scott. The band are named in homage to Luke Rhinehart's classic novel The Dice Man, and the music explores the relationship between chance and structure in improvisation, inspired in equal parts by Vijay Iyer and Deerhoof. There's certainly a thoughtful, perhaps even intellectual quality to the music, but the group's fearless, well organised explorations are also bold and exciting. Dice Factory started life as a jam band, and even following a long period of development, that spotaneity is very much still present. There's also a real oddness to much of this music (particularly the angular, striking Gooch). As intricate and attacking as this music could be, the band often find moments of singular grace and lyricism, and striking dynamic contrasts abound.

60. Tindersticks - The Something Rain (Lucky Dog)

I wish I could claim to be a long-standing Tindersticks fan with a vast knowledge of their now substantial repertoire, but the truth is that they've been a band it's taken a long time for me to appreciate. I've tended to find Stuart Staples' deep, half-mumbled singing in the club style a little off-putting, even when I've enjoyed the delicate, fragile soul of their music. Although their personnel has changed, they still seem to release albums of dependable quality, and The Something Rain has encouraged me to delve back into their earlier work (it turns out I particularly like the second self-titled album and Curtains). The Something Rain might even rank as one of their best - characterised as it is by brilliant arrangements and understated beauty. This Fire of Autumn is one of my favourite songs of the year, whilst Chocolate is a brilliant story-as-song with a surprisingly comic flourish at its close.

59. Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill/Americana (Warner)

I have not been as indulgent towards Neil Young's wayward latter career as many of his more ardent admirers. He has at times been mind-numbingly repetitive or simply staggeringly careless in what he has chosen to release. For me, though, this reunion of Crazy Horse, that most dogged and determined of bands, has been a reminder of his core talents. Some dismissed Americana, a collection of mostly American folk standards transformed into familiar Crazy Horse trudges, as a big joke, but I think it stands alongside Springsteen's Seeger Sessions project as a singular, career revitalising work. It's hard to see how hoary old standards such as Clementine or Oh Susanna could have been made to sound more like brilliant, coruscating Neil Young originals. That he also managed to produce Psychedelic Pill, a lamely-titled but mostly thrilling double album of warmly familiar extended Crazy Horse jams, has been something of a revelation. The album has the occasional lapse into sentimentality or farce, but many of the songs rank among his very best, particularly Ramada Inn and Walk Like A Giant. 

musicOMH review

58. VCMG - Ssss  (Mute)

Vince Clarke and Martin Gore haven't worked together since the formative days of Depeche Mode, but this remote collaboration does not herald a return to the blissful infectious pop of the Speak & Spell era. It is rather a faithful reconstruction of the early days of techno and, judged on its own terms and its own ambitions, it's difficult to see how it could have been any more successful. Perhaps surprisingly, Clarke seems to have had little knowledge of techno until recently, and perhaps that distance, or rather fresh appreciation, is what has imbued Ssss with its often childlike sense of awe and wonder. There is a warmth and joy here often absent from the genre.

57. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)

If Swing Lo Magellan initially felt like a rather unassuming, less ambitious work when compared with the likes of Bitte Orca, Rise Above or The Getty Address, repeated plays revealed a statement of surprising depth. It doesn't quite have the coherence and flow of its predecessors, feeling more like a collection of sketches - but many of those sketches strip down Dave Longstreth's compositional approach to its absolute core, and his turbulent melodies and improbable harmonies still feel very much alive. There is also something admirable in the music's relative minimalism, not least because Longstreth has resolutely refused to repeat himself.

56. FLY - Year Of The Snake (ECM)

The trio of Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard continue to make lyrical, emotive music with subtle shades and deep interaction. What is perhaps most enjoyable about Year Of The Snake is that it sounds refreshingly unlike an ECM release - there's much more rhythmic invention here than on the average glacial European offering. This feels like a real departure from the trio's previous releases, with the multi-part The Western Lands showing a darker, more ruminative side to the group and Grenadier's lengthy Kingston pushing further into abstraction. There's a strong sense of forward motion throughout this very fine album.

55. El-P - Cancer For Cure (Turnstile)

This most radical pioneer of visionary hip-hop continues to make striking, uncompromising music on the margins, and Cancer For Cure is a more than worthy addition to his catalogue. The opening track, which bears a surprising resemblance to The Prodigy, thankfully proves to be a red herring - throughout the rest of the album, the tone is dark and menacing. There have been few colder, more frightening openings to a track than the opening lines of Tougher Colder Killer. The guest appearances have varying degrees of success, but the album manages to cohere in spite of this.

musicOMH review

54. Julia Holter - Ekstasis (RVNG International)

My intital review of this much loved second album from Julia Holter may have been a little on the harsh side, although I still feel it lacks some of the depth and mystery of last year's outstanding Tragedy. Still, it has brought Holter to a much wider audience and this cannot be a bad outcome. Holter is inspired in exploring textures and the many facets of the human voice, and there's something ethereal and compelling about her arrangements. Holter certainly seems to be a restless artist, always pushing for something new and unusual.

musicOMH review

53. Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Hyperdub)

This weird and wonderful music felt hermetically sealed, insular and isolated, making its title strikingly apt. Consciously eschewing rhythm in favour of experiments with sound and layering, Quarantine was frequently an uncomfortable and disorientating listen. The melodic lines, often deploying unpredictable, jarring intervals, are often intrusive and dominant, and it is difficult to tell whether these pieces have been meticulously pre-arranged or whether the melodies have simply been casually improvised.

musicOMH review

52. Narasirato - Warato'o 

This vigorous, refreshing album has a special place in this year's list for succeeding in completely redefining my relationship with one of the world's most unfairly derided instruments - the pan pipes. Forget any ghastly Pan Pipe Moods stereotypes here - this is the pipes as you have never heard them before. Hailing from Malaita in the Solomon Islands, Narasirato explore that region's music with a joyous energy and irresistible fervour. The pipes prove surprisingly versatile, veering between percussive blending with the drums and playing a more leading melodic role. The intensity of projection in the group's vocal performances is also remarkable.

musicOMH review

51. Monolake - Ghosts (Imbalance Computer Music)

Robert Hencke remains one of the most gifted exponents of machine music, in part responsible for the development of the Ableton software and creator of some structurally pristine but impressively challenging music as Monolake. Ghosts is now the second part of a projected trilogy of long form works that begun with the excellent Silence in 2010. What is most impressive about Monolake is the extent to which the human creator behind the technical brilliance always cuts through. This music is appropriately haunting, with an intentionally monochromatic but nuanced sweep.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of the year 2012 Part 1: 100 - 75

The order here is inevitably slightly arbitrary. I make no apologies for inconsistencies of opinion and rating between original reviews and rankings in this list - relative opinions do change quite rapidly. It is probably best taken as simply a list of albums I've enjoyed in 2012, although the top 30 probably reflects my true favourites. I realise I have written next to nothing on this blog in 2012 and I hope this list goes some way in compensating for this paucity of activity - that is, if anyone remembers this place still exists! I've included links to my reviews of some of these albums for musicOMH if anyone would like to investigate further.

100 = Bill Fay - Life Is People (Dead Oceans) 
100 = Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar (BMG)

Here are two excellent albums that begin the list only because I didn't feel they were quite the solid gold masterpieces many well-meaning writers wanted them to be. Kevin Rowland's self-lacerating comeback definitely drags in its cabaret section, but is bookended by songs that rank with his finest. Vocally, he is in superb form throughout, and there's a thrilling vibe that captures the emotional rollercoaster of his words. We believe in his soul.

Bill Fay is a modest man who thoroughly deserves the success and acclaim he has achieved this year not least because he has no interest in such things. He remains an honest, peerless artist primarily directed by spiritual concerns. If the arrangements on Life Is People sometimes erred towards the staid and plodding, at its best it proved characteristically moving, particularly when Fay was more or less alone at the piano (his stately version of Wilco's Jesus etc and The Never Ending Happening). Sometimes, a sense of mystery and awe abounded (City of Dreams) and this also worked very well. If Life Is People sends a new audience back to his 70s Decca masterpieces, this will be a very good thing indeed.

musicOMH review (Bill Fay)
musicOMH review (Dexys)

 98. Calexico - Algiers (City Slang)

These days, it is fairly easy to predict what a Calexico album will sound like. If the band have hit a comfortable groove, then at least that sensation is a satisfying one, particularly given the affectionate detail and sensitivity in both their musicianship and their songwriting. Algiers had a much-trumpeted New Orleans dimension, although I'm not so sure this came through that strongly. In places it returned to the unfairly derided rock edge of Garden Ruin - but it also contained some of their most touching songs, Fortune Teller being a particularly fruitful example.  

97. A.C. Newman - Shut Down The Streets (Fire)

Carl Newman's solo work seems to be somewhat dismissed here in the UK. It's hard to fathom why, as there are few solo singer-songwriters this imaginative with melody. His songs remain unpredictable and surprising, in spite of the fact that he has developed something of a signature sound. Newman's colleague in the New Pornographers Kathryn Calder appears frequently here, adding strong vocals and some of her flair for instrumentation and arrangement appears to have influenced Newman too. This is power pop with individual quality and ambition.

96. Charlatan - Isolatarium (Type)

Unusual, swirling and hugely immersive synth soundscapes. A captivating and enthralling listening experience that keeps throwing up new details, shades and tones.The sounds here feel hazy, warped or refracted. It's disorientating, but at times oddly comforting too.

95. Jessica Sligter - Fear and the Framing (Humbro) 

A new name for me at the very close of play this year - and I'm very glad to have let this sneak in. Sligter deftly blends singer-songwriter conventions with approaches and colours drawn from the avant-garde.

musicOMH review

94. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Big Moon Ritual/The Magic Door (Silver Arrow)

The Black Crowes always tended to be too slavish to a particular kind of canonical past for me (although their catalogue certainly has its moments). These two albums from Chris Robinson's latest project proved visceral and thrilling, however, not least because of the presence of some superb musicians (including the excellent Neal Casal). Totally unconcerned with commercial pressures, this exploratory, often improvisatory music felt compositionally faithful but also allowed for moments of brilliantly unhinged wandering.

93. Ry Cooder - Election Special (Nonesuch)

Cooder just seems to keep getting better, to the extent that even his throwaway releases sound brilliantly crafted. His satirical side has been getting a good look in recently - but for me this deft commentary on issues surrouding the US election was stronger than last year's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. Cooder's late blooming talent as a songwriter shows no signs of dissipating and the playing remains dependably lucid and skilled.  

92. Pelt - Effigy (MIE)

The tragic loss of Jack Rose could easily have dealt a blow to Pelt from which it might be impossible to recover. Instead, Effigy might just be their most compelling and sophisticated work - an elaborate, protracted revery and elegy both in touch with musical traditions and thrillingly contemporary in sound and approach. This has made me want to delve deeper into the work of both Pelt and Rose - artists with which I'm currently only cursorily familiar.  

91. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch (4AD)

It might have lacked the coherent terror of The Drift, but Bish Bosch compensated for this with a wry and sometimes uncomfortable sense of farce. At its best, it had an urgency and immediacy that sounded like a vehement warning, even when the fragmentary nature of Walker's compositions can feel confounding or incomplete. It's worth emphasising that nobody else sounds like this and, as is usually the case with Walker, it rewards repeated listens.

musicOMH review

90. Juju and  Jordash - Techno Primitivism (Dekmantel)

If techno is often a genre known for exploration through conscious limitation, this duo from Amsterdam make a refreshingly wide-ranging, questing form of the music. This is a long album made up mostly of long pieces - there's a strong sense of narrative to each one, with nuanced colours and a fluent, spellbinding musical language at work. Here is a powerful reminder of the capacity of music to create different worlds and to render the here and now blissfully irrelevant.

89. Mariee Sioux - Gift For The End (Almost Musique)

Much as I love Joanna Newsom, it always strikes me as at best odd and at worst unjust how little publicity has been afforded to the almost equally flighty and scintillating Mariee Sioux. This third album is in some ways her most assured and confident - she is more controlled and selective, with seductive and intriguing results.

88. Matthew Dear - Beams (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear's journey from techno to bright eyed synth pop, via some sleek leather fantasy, is peculiar on the surface but in reality has sounded rather effortless. His detached, robotic voice is more prominent still here (often telling stories with a distinctly melancholy or solipsistic hue), but the music is more radiant and vibrant than anything he has attempted before.

87. Esperanza Spalding - Radio Music Society (Decca)

Along with Robert Glasper's Black Radio, this excellent album sparked a rather unfortunate and distracting debate within the jazz community. Is it jazz, or is it pop? If it's the latter, is its (relative) success a 'bad thing' for jazz as a genre? Frankly, why does anyone care? Jazz is in good enough health both in the US and here in the UK for it not to matter if one of its more accessible exponents veers in yet more commercial directions. Casting these concerns aside though, even a quick listen to Radio Music Society should reveal the care, knowledge and great ears that have gone into the arrangements. The rich harmonies and deep grooves should be food enough for any jazz fans - and pop listeners should embrace the chance to hear some more adventurous and challenging melodic lines.

86. Jessica Pratt - Jessica Pratt (Birth) 

Singer-songwriters often seem to be shouting to be heard, but Jessica Pratt's sublime and understated debut arrived with more of a sensuous whisper than a scream. The influences are transparent - 60s and 70s folk, Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell - but Pratt's stories have a quiet intensity and personal resonance of their own. Nothing is overheated or insistent - the dynamic is mostly hushed and gentle, and Pratt's exquisite delivery delivers much in very small gradations. Music with so little need to state its purpose tends to work through implication and suggestion - such is Pratt's distinctive talent. More please. 

85. Elephant Micah - Louder Than Thou (Product of Palmyra)

It begins with the rustle, rumble and quiet chaos of a rehearsal. Yet, for the loose off-the-cuff feeling of most of the music here, the songs feel breathtakingly literate and complete. They are miniature kitchen sink epics to place alongside the work of Mark Kozelek, Jason Molina or Will Johnson, and the breezy manner in which they are delivered often serves to mask some occasional and unexpected lapses into excoriating attack.  Like many of the albums on this list, it's also somehow unassuming - quietly casting its spell rather than insisting that you listen straight up. This is obviously a quality I admire more and more as I get older.

84. Partikel - Cohesion (Whirlwind)

Here is an energetic, exciting trio that manage to create all manner of suspense and suggestion without the presence of a chordal instrument. Whilst nominal leader and saxophonist Duncan Eagles is a fluent and articulate improviser, his rhythm section of Max Luthert and Eric Ford provide not just strong support, but also a sense of mutual adventure and experiment. Ford is rhythmically playful throughout, but also manages to draw an impressive range of colours and textures from his drums. Danger is never far away with this music, but the playing is assured and sensitive too, and the memorable compositions offer firm thematic grounding.

83. Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin - Instrumental Tourist (Software)

Bit of a dream team, this, probably to the extent that it couldn't really go wrong. This mostly improvised collaboration may, for me at least, lack the emotional pull of Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972, but it does contain some fascinating sound worlds that often play with our expectations. There's also much more specific musical information than one might expect from two artists predominantly preoccupied with sound collage and drone. I hesitate to dip my toe into the 'hauntology' debate, but there does seem to be a sense of a journey through forgotten, neglected worlds here. 

82. Lindstrom - Six Cups Of Rebel/Smalhans (Smalltown Supersound) 

2012 has been a particularly productive year for Lindstrom, with these two releases offering very different sides of his musical personality. With Smalhans, a streamlined mini-album, we are in familiar cosmic synth territory and the results are predictably irresistible. Six Cups of Rebel, however, is a very different beast and proved more divisive. For me, it was a wonderful surprise - a true flight of fantasy that found one of electronic music's leading figures branching out into increasingly weird and risky territory, blending organ music, compositional minimalism, trancey grooves and rampant wildness. 

81. Raime - Quarter Turn Over A Living Line (Blackest Ever Black) 

That I found myself enjoying this album tremendously as the end of the Mayan calendar loomed cannot be entirely coincidental. Raime's debut felt like a more articulate and natural documentation of perpetual apocalypse than Godspeed's decent but overly-familiar comeback. In fact, this often feels like the soundtrack to a surveillance state, with helicopter blades whirring and all manner of menacing sound choices. It's dark, mechanistic and sometimes brutal - but there's a humanity lurking within these cages too. 

80. John Surman - Saltash Bells (ECM) 

A 'solo' album from John  Surman, with its use of multiple saxophones and clarinets, as well as multi-tracking techniques and synthesisers, can no longer offer the shock of the new. Indeed, much of Saltash Bells could have been recorded at any point during Surman's illustrious career. Yet its expressive playing and meditative qualities could only have come from Surman - and his immediately recognisable sound is all over this very fine, typically evocative collection. 

79. Demdike Stare - Elemental (Modern Love) 

This lengthy set compiles some EPs released by Demdike Stare in the wake of their outstanding Triptych 3CD set. It's quite challenging to digest and maybe lacks something in the way of conceptual coherence - but it is brilliantly moody and stark nonetheless. They remain masters of the slow build - often delaying pivotal moments for as long as possible in the service of music that is full of auditory nightmares and ugly tensions. 

78. Oriole - Every New Day (F-IRE) 

In the relatively long gap between Oriole releases, guitarist and composer Jonny Phillips spent time living in Cadiz. If anything, the experience seems to have strengthened his resolve and identity as an artist. Every New Day amplifies all of the qualities inherent in Oriole's music so far - mellifluous, touching melodies that glimmer and dance, the rhythms of the world delivered in informed but unshowy fashion and a rich, evocative band vibe that honours the places and memories that inspire the music. There is a lightness of touch and maturity throughout.

musicOMH review

77. LV - Sebenza (Hyperdub) 

If the admirable intentions of the Africa Express tour sometimes tend to fall flat when rhythmically advanced West African acts combine with the more rhythmically and harmonically stilted end of UK drongey indie, here is a fusion of several musical cultures that works brilliantly. The resulting music, which blends UK bass music with the sounds of South Africa, is effervescent and joyous, as one might expect, but it also has a harder edge that serves as a compelling juxtaposition. Featuring contributions from Kwaito duo Ruffest and Spoek Mathambo, this is a true meeting of minds that demands to be heard. 

76. Sylvie Lewis - It's All True (Sylvie Lewis)

That Sylvie Lewis is not more widely known is a great injustice. This is her third album and follows deftly in the footsteps of its predecessors, although perhaps this time with a little more confidence in its style that harks back to the American standard repertoire. There's a sprinkling of cabaret and musical theatre, but Lewis' unhurried, wry delivery is always a complete delight, somehow combining both art and artifice. This collection is mercilessly concise but, as a result, it is free from excess. It is a brilliant encapsulation of her effortless way with words and melody. 

Albums Of The Year 2012: Honourable Mentions

As always, I find picking even a top 100 a near impossible task. Every year, I devise increasingly absurd conditions by which to rule out a handful of the year's finest releases from my list, which is drawn from increasingly larger spreadsheets. Can I really sustain this for much longer??

This year I decided to render ineligible any albums where I had a personal vested interest. These include three albums on Basho Records where I have helped out with the PR:

 Trish Clowes - and in the night-time she is there
 Christoph Stiefel - Live!
The Golden Age of Steam - Welcome To Bat Country

 These are highly accomplished albums that have been a major part of my life this year. I recommend them highly and with complete honesty. Trish's writing has grown considerably between the release of Tangent and this second album, particularly in terms of her arranging for strings. The music is beautifully subtle, and characterised by warm, affecting melodies and a lyrical quality. Christoph Stiefel's live album is a brilliant example of piano trio interaction and rhythmic creativity. The Golden Age of Steam album has sadly been a little neglected in my view - it's a brilliant, kaleidescopic torrent of wild ideas and inspired improvising, with a quirky sense of humour and a psychedelic range.

 I should also mention Gwilym Simcock, who is managed by Basho and released the very fine Lighthouse album on ACT with Tim Garland and Asaf Sirkis. Some other albums that didn't quite make it through, but which I've really enjoyed. This should also serve as a note for myself to return to some of these, as some of them I just haven't quite managed to spend enough time with. Perhaps on a different day, some of these would have made the list.

Daphni - Jiaolong, Gareth Lockrane's Grooveyard - The Strut, Dave Douglas - Be Still, Damon Albarn - Dr. Dee, Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man In The Universe, John Abercrombie - Within A Song, Robert Ellis - Photographs, Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet On Sky, Carter Tutti Void - Transverse, Orbital - Wonky, Hot Chip - In Our Heads, The 2 Bears - Be Strong, Animal Collective - Centipede Hz, Susanna - Wild Dog, Lightships - Electric Cables, Micachu and the Shapes - Never, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury - DROKK, Jack White - Blunderbuss, Grimes - Visions, Liars - WIXIW, Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament - The Violence, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland - Black Is Beautiful, Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It, Wishmountain - TESCO, Singing Adams - Moves, Dirty Three - Toward the low Sun, Laura Jurd - Landing Ground, Rick Simpson - Semi Wogan, Lambchop - Mr M, Mount Eerie - Clear Moon, Eric Chenaux - Voice and Guitar, Nedry - In A Dim Light, The Bryan Ferry Orchestra - The Jazz Age, Death Grips - The Money Store, Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, Angel Olsen - Half Way Home, Patti Smith - Banga, Fennesz - Aun, Corin Tucker Band - Kill My Blues, Alexander Tucker - Third Mouth, Spain - The Soul Of Spain, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Trembling Bells - The Marble Downs, Dan Deacon - America, Mark Lanegan - Blues Funeral, Peaking Lights - Lucifer, Alex Hutton Trio - Legentis, Avishai Cohen with Nitai Hershkovits - Duende