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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.