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.

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