Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 In Albums Part 2: The Top 100

100) Trembling Bells - The Sovereign Self (Tin Angel)

Trembling Bells’ fifth album captures the band at their most robust and muscular. The music is bold and often noisy - with duelling guitars (including new member Alasdair C Mitchell) and bandleader Alex Neilson’s tumbling drums matching the impressive force of Lavinia Blackwall’s vocals.  It’s the band at their least derivative and most breathlessly exciting, but also at their darkest and most challenging. Incorporating Greek tragedy and Dennis Potter, it’s a fascinating melting pot of ideas and concepts.

99) Polar Bear - Same As You (Leaf) 

A quick companion piece to In Each and Every One, Polar Bear’s latest album is another logical step in their movement beyond the confines of a jazz niche. There’s still an experimental approach here, including improvisation, but the overall whole is more meditative or spiritual. The heart of the album can be located in the two lengthy pieces (We Feel The Echoes and Unrelenting Unconditional), although the irresistible Zen-like repetition of Don’t Let The Feeling Go also served as the closest thing the band will get to a pop hit.

98) Let Spin - Let Go (Efpi)

The avowedly democratic edgy jazz rock band returned with a second album that built on the successes of their impressive debut. Led Bib saxophonist Chris Williams remains a charismatic musical presence, and the strong rhythm section of Finlay Panter and bassist Ruth Goller form a resolute and propulsive foundation. Guitarist Moss Freed provides thoughtful, considered colours and sounds, and can also enhance the insistent rhythm presence where necessary. There is a strong group dynamic at work, both in terms of the interaction and spontaneity within the band but also in the ability of all four members to compose music that suits a coherent overall aesthetic.

97) Bilal - In Another Life (eOne Music/Purpose)

In Another Life is a neo-soul album that avoids any attempt to sound conspicuously modern. Recorded by producer Adrian Younge on analog equipment with mostly live instrumentation, it feels like an attempt to integrate Bilal’s strong concepts with the looser spirit of the R&B jam. The drum sound, particularly, is remarkable, and the dirty bass echoes Pino Palladino’s playing for D’Angelo. Not perhaps as strange or unexpected as some of Bilal’s work, it is nonetheless an absorbing sound world. 

96) Hanoi Masters - War Is A Wound, Peace Is A Scar (Glitterbeat)

Marking the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam was, this Vietnamese take on the Buena Vista Social Club concept captures local musicians delivering authoritative performances of songs that might otherwise be in danger of disappearing. These songs, using traditional instrumentation, suggest intense feelings of grief and loss still pervade. Musical director Van Anh-Vo has done a remarkable job in curating these often minimal, but strikingly haunting and devotional renditions. A fascinating introduction to a musical tradition with which I'm largely unfamiliar.

95) Anthony Child - Electronic Recordings From The Maui Jungle Vol. 1 (Editions Mego)

Acclaimed techno producer Anthony Child, perhaps better known under his Surgeon moniker, here eschews beat driven propulsion in favour of a focus on sound, texture and mood. Recorded in the jungle of Maui, the unusual environment provides an intriguing backdrop that suits this particular project (it is sometimes possible to discern natural field sounds amidst the electronic drones and motifs). 

94) Vessels - Dilate (Bias)

Dilate fulfilled on the promise of 2013’s Elliptic EP by delivery a full change in direction for the Leeds based group. Moving beyond their early explorations in post rock territory, Dilate saw the group embrace club polyrhythms and synthesiser sounds, largely rejecting their earlier emphasis on guitars. What they may have lost in terms of dramatic dynamic shifts, they gained in terms of cumulative building of tension.

93) Sons Of Kemet - Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do (Naim)

Returning for a second album with a small line-up change (young tuba player Theon Cross took over from Oren Marshall), Sons Of Kemet developed some of the themes and ideas of their debut. Lest We Forget... contained more of  the emphatic grooves, sparring percussion and infectious, minimal melodic lines that define the band’s uplifting, righteous sound. The music here also drew on many inspirations from saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ wide-ranging interests in literature, politics and post-colonial identity, drawing connections between sound and environment.

92) Laura Jurd - Human Spirit (Chaos Collective)

Now a BBC New Generation Artist and with a Parliamentary Jazz Award to her name, the young trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd seems unable to put a foot wrong. With wide ranging influences from classical and chamber music through to rock, Jurd seems to be precisely the kind of musician who ought to benefit greatly from the multi-faceted BBC scheme. For listeners only familiar with her more contemplative and impressionistic debut Landing Ground, Human Spirit may come as something of a surprise. Informed by her recent experience with Chaos Orchestra and Blue Eyed Hawk (BEH guitarist Alex Roth, drummer Corrie Dick and vocalist Lauren Kinsella are also present here), the music here specialises in knotty groove-based songs. It also explores the arranging possibilities of an intriguing ensemble line-up (two trumpets, trombone, bass saxophone, guitar, drums and voice), as well as making thoughtful use of the individual skills of the musicians (including Kinsella’s remarkable vocal improvising).

91) Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood (Spacebomb/Domino)

Matthew E. White’s second album refined the sumptuous arrangements of Big Inner and intergrated them more smoothly with the slinky, groovy rhythm section feel and dynamics. It also introduced an irreverent, self mocking humour to proceedings (particularly on Rock & Roll Is Cold) and, on occasions, a more generic approach to lyrics and melody. As a result, it doesn’t feel as much like a grand statement of intent as its predecessor - but it is a richly enjoyable, superbly played collection.

90) Kathryn Calder - Kathryn Calder (File Under: Music)

Physical copies of the New Pornographers/former Immaculate Machine machine member’s third solo album still seem to be scarce (a £20 import on Amazon, for example), although it is readily available as a download. It’s a slightly moodier, more introspective record, with fuzzy edges, although it retains her great gift for simple, clear, affecting melodies. It feels like a transitional record - moving towards possibly making music on a grander scale, but still aware of the intimate, homely qualities in her voice and songwriting.

89) Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and The Rajasthan Express - Junun (Nonesuch)

The musical collaboration that provided the material for Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent short film, Junun finds the Radiohead guitarist working with Shye Ben-Tzur, an Israeli musician and songwriter based in India. Junun is a fascinating meeting across musical cultures, with Greenwood serving as an empathetic, facilitating presence rather than an imposing musical personality. The grooves are infectious and, as with Anderson’s film, the project captures a strong sense of awe and excitement in spontaneous, collective music making.

88) Fiddes Smith - Seascapes (Bandcamp)

Brighton multi-instrumentalist James Fiddes Smith has long been an important figure on the British folk and singer-songwriter scenes, contributing guitar, mandolin and banjo to the work of Emily Baker and Sharon Lewis among many others. Seascapes is a concise collection of solo banjo music intended as a collaboration with artist Nic De Jesus for his Mare Incognitum exhibition. It works very well as a work in its own right too, given the range of possibilities it explores for Smith’s chosen instrument. It is a world away from familiar bluegrass or Appalachian contexts. Instead, it is a quiet, contemplative and patient work, interested in a range of sound and textures and hugely appreciative of the value of space and silence in music.

87) Charles Lloyd - Wild Man Dance (Blue Note)

A superb live recording of a new long form suite of music commissioned by Poland’s Jazztopad festival in 2013, Wild Man Dance provided a symbolic homecoming to Blue Note records for Lloyd. Continuing some of the European concerns of his wonderful Athens Concert, the suite features Greek lyra player Sokratis Sinopoulos and Hungarian cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs. Yet this music also represents something of a fresh start and clean break too, with Lloyd working with a new rhythm section (Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders and Gerald Cleaver) instead of the longstanding, supreme musical relationship he forged with Jason Moran, Reuben Rodgers and Eric Harland. The result is a characterstically thoughtful and devotional music exploring a range of unusual textures and sounds. It demands close listening but is a rewarding and transporting experience.

86) Dave Douglas - High Risk (Greenleaf)

Whilst it’s no longer a particularly ‘new’ development, 2015 has been intriguing for the number of albums integrating electronic music techniques with improvisation and jazz (see also Kneedalus, Matana Roberts, Troyka and Floating Points). Of those recordings, this might be the one most in touch with a jazz tradition, although trumpeter Dave Douglas remains keen to branch out and explore, recognising that this tradition is and ought to be flexible and adaptable. His judiciously selected ensemble enhances the results too - drummer Mark Guiliana (soon to be heard on David Bowie’s forthcoming Blackstar) is comfortable and experienced in this world, bass player Johnathan Maron plays in a thoughtfully sparing but present manner (often contributing to the creation of tension), and Shigeto contributes much of the music’s dreamlike atmosphere. The crucial ingredient, however, is Douglas’ beautifully informed playing and pure, crystalline sound.

85) Kode9 - Nothing (Hyperdub)

One of the year’s bleakest and most harrowing sets of electronic music, Kode9’s Nothing attempts to deal directly with the void that exists following grief and loss (one part of the context here is the sad untimely death of frequent collaborator Spaceape). There are vocals here, but they exist as ruthlessly edited, disembodied samples (Zero Work is built around a single grunt) - and the beats are more stuttering and disruptive. It’s a curiously, but perhaps appropriately, detached sounding record. The most startling moments comes at the end, with the ten plus minutes of Nothing Lasts Forever providing an alarming reminder of impermanence. 

84) Vula Viel - Good Is Good (Vula Viel)

Vula Viel’s bandleader Bex Burch spent time working a traditional apprenticeship as a Gyil maker, with these pieces of traditional Dagaare music passed to her as part of that process. This music integrates the functional with the artistic - three of the pieces are funeral music, the others were intended for recreation. Filtered through the perspective of busy, in demand musicians on the London jazz scene, the music assumes an exciting new life that blends the physical and the cerebral.

83) Michael Gibbs - Michael Gibbs & The NDR Big Band Play A Bill Frisell Set (NDR)

The extraordinary arrangements of Michael Gibbs (surely only Maria Schneider is a contemporary rival for creating overwhelming beauty and surprise in large ensemble works) together with the guitar playing of Bill Frisell is something of a musical dream team (Jeff Ballard on drums too!). Frisell’s playing here is magnificent, finding the appropriate space within these detailed and vivid big band arrangements to make meaningful statements (amazingly, this is his first appearance as a featured soloist on a big band recording). Gibbs’ arrangements are both clever and beautiful - even something as familiar as The Beatles’ You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away assumes fresh weight, brightness and depth here.

82) Michael Chorney & Hollar General - Shameless Light (Bandcamp)

The soft, understated and conversational nature of Michael Chorney’s vocal delivery combined with the quiet insight of his songwriting continue to beguile. Shameless Light also brings the contributions of this excellent band in to sharper relief too - with delicate brush strokes of lead guitar from Brett Lanier, subtly driving bass from Robinson Morse and sonically aware, dynamically controlled drumming from Geza Carr. There’s also a fascinating and supportive cast of additional musicians, including bass clarinet improvisation from Alec Spiegelman and a range of backing vocalists. As might be expected, it’s beautifully recorded too.

81) Sir Richard Bishop - Tangier Sessions (Drag City)

Admirers of Sir Richard Bishop had a bountiful year, with the chance to rediscover his old band Sun City Girls’ most important work, and this new collection of brilliantly crafted solo guitar music. Recorded in just a week during a trip to Tangier, the work is in large part improvised, but also feels coherent both thematically and in terms of its approach. Bishop frequently singles out key ideas to develop and expand artfully. There’s a sense of playfulness with time and rhythm - tempos are elastic, time is stretched and bent out of shape.

80) Israel Nash - Israel Nash’s Silver Season (Thirsty Tigers)

Perhaps the nearest near contemporary comparisons for Israel Nash’s dusty psychedelic country rock are Will Johnson (particularly in South San Gabriel guise) and the greatly missed Jason Molina (in Magnolia Electric Co guise), although Nash also of course harks back to key figures such as Neil Young and Gene Clark. Silver Season is a little uniformly paced - but that works in that it helps anchor and define a coherent vision and sound world. These songs are steadfast and patient, but also vivid and richly imagined. The abundance of pedal steel and Byrdsian twang is enveloping. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

79) David Torn - Only Sky (ECM)

David Torn’s last work for ECM, the industrial, clamorous and innovative Prezens, remains one of my favourite works of improvised music of the 2000s but this solo work could hardly be more different. Essentially recorded live and spontaneously, albeit with the aid of a dazzling array of effects, Only Sky is as much about the moment as Prezens’ most scorching moments, but in a more reflective and contemplative way.  Sometimes it feels as if Torn is trying to alter the sound of his instrument - to make the guitar sound as little like a six stringed chordal instrument as possible. Yet at other moments, it feels as if he is trying to delve deep in to the American folk tradition. It’s a desolate, windswept sounding work full of melancholy self-reflection.

78) Olivia Chaney - The Longest River (Nonesuch)

Like many long gestating debut albums, Olivia Chaney’s The Longest River draws together the threads of her performing career so far, and captures the warmth and intimacy of her bare bones sound. It also combines her own songs, including the delightful Swimming In The Longest River and Imperfections, with arrangements of folk songs and judiciously chosen interpretations (Sidsel Endresen and Alasdair Roberts). Her nuanced vocal phrasing creates poetry from everyday experience - Imperfections is essentially a list of mundane flaws - and her delivery is almost conversational at times. It’s a graceful, quietly authoritative work that shows major promise.

77) Kneebody and Daedalus - Kneedelus (Brainfeeder)

An inspired collaboration on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Inspired by the concept of the ‘singularity’ (fusing of humanity and technology), contemporary jazz act Kneebody have combined with producer Alfred ‘Daedalus’ Darlington (saxophonist Ben Wendel and Darlington were apparently high school friends) to explore the integration of electronic production strategies with acoustic musicians. Their working musical relationship actually dates back over a decade, and this strong sense of kinship, mutual respect, empathy, experience and understanding really cuts through in this excellent recording. The ten compositions here are either malleable or elastic, but they are also confident and clear in their intentions - this is sonically detailed (the combination of electric and acoustic instruments creates an extraordinary range of sounds) and atmospheric music that is also playful, groovy and urgent.

76) Scott Tuma - Eyrie (Immune Recordings)

Somehow I almost missed that the wonderful Chicago guitarist Scott Tuma had released new music this year (even his Wikipedia entry isn’t updated to include this). This is Tuma’s music at its most unashamedly pretty and delightful, with an intimate sound that captures something of the minor surprises of everyday existence. A follow-up double album, No Greener Grass, was supposedly also scheduled for 2015 release, but will now hopefully follow in the new year. Good times for admirers of Tuma’s spare and haunting sound.

75) Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs (Sonnet Sound)

Fans of the morose, menacing avant garde pop Susanne Sundfør explored on The Brothel and The Silicone Veil may be surprised by the ostensibly more commercial perspective of Ten Love Songs. On first listen, it feels like a big Euro pop album - so much so, in fact, that there are at least two tracks that might not sound out of place as part of the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a reminder that surface sheen and disposability can sometimes enhance, rather than detract from, the overall emotion and feeling of music.

74) Seabuckthorn - They Haunted Most Thickly (Bookmaker)

Guitarist Andy Cartwright is a loose associate of Dean McPhee, although his own approach to solo guitar work here is somewhat different - less sepulchral and more layered. Radiating fingerpicked parts, on a variety of guitars (six and twelve strings) often with overdubbed accompaniments, sometimes create a sense of familiarity but at others create a feeling of foreboding. There’s a feeling of meditating on nature and landscape - its beauty and its elemental force. 

73) Nadia Reid - Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs (Spunk)

The sort of late, understated release that is destined to miss out on most end of year lists, New Zealand singer-songwriter Nadia Reid’s debut album is an impressive, fully formed, mature work of considerable insight and beauty. This is honest, unforced writing and singing. Reid’s band are also adept at creating mesmerising accompanying textures, from the strongly amplified fug of Reaching Through to the multi-faceted guitar textures of Track of the Time or Holy Low. Reid’s voice has a depth and rich soulfulness throughout.

72) Jessica Pratt - On My Own Love Again (Drag City)

Jessica Pratt’s strange, mannered delivery and airy, haunting accompaniments make her music feel trapped in amber. The atmosphere is somehow at once both homely and slightly sinister (not least when she experiments with speed alteration and pitch bend). It’s an eerily beautiful set, reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan or Linda Perhacs but also with a curious ambiguity that is entirely Pratt’s own. 

71) Phil Donkin - The Gate (Whirlwind)

Bassist and composer Phil Donkin has been a somewhat nomadic musician, working successfully in London, New York City and more recently in Berlin. His first album as leader for the Whirlwind label sees him assemble an impressive quartet of US and European talent, with Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone, Glenn Zaleski on piano and Jochen Ruckert on drums. At 72 minutes, it’s long even by jazz album standards but, whilst there is much to digest, there is also an impressive depth and range that keeps the music both challenging and engaging.

These are musicians adept at creating different environments, of responding to each other and of pushing the whole ensemble to higher levels. This makes The Gate a thoroughly absorbing listening experience and hopefully a big step towards Donkin becoming more well known as a composer and leader. It’s as good an example of small band jazz as will likely be heard in 2015.

70) Bixiga 70 - III (Glitterbeat)

Hailing from Sao Paolo, Bixiga 70 produce a muscular world fusion music that incorporates elements of West African high life, Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat and musical ideas drawn directly from their own South American heritage. There’s a terrific energy to all the material here and the sound is potent and strong, not least because of the presence, precision and dynamism of the horn section.

69) Alasdair Roberts - Alasdair Roberts (Drag City)

After the fuller, bolder expanses of A Wonder Working Stone, it’s perhaps little surprise Alasdair Roberts felt it necessary to strip back to core essentials for his next step. The eponymous title, several albums in to a consistently impressive solo career, perhaps also suggests that Roberts feels these stark, powerful songs are the heart of who he is as an artist. There are moments of philosophical inquiry (‘The Problem of Freedom’) as well as some of his strongest folk melodies (‘The Way Unfavoured’ and ‘In Dispraise of Hunger’). 

68) Jam City - Dream A Garden (Night Slugs)

Dream A Garden is the sort of work that polarises opinion because of its marked difference from the artist’s previous output. Whereas Jack Latham’s earlier album as Jam City, 2012’s Classical Curves, was a superb (and already influential) example of insistent but radical club music, Dream A Garden sees Latham adopt a more tempered and romantic approach, incorporating guitar and vocals in to hazy auditory hallucinations. Whilst the overall feeling may be calmer and more serene, the music still fizzes and crackles with ideas and restless creativity.

67) Troyka - Ornithophobia (Naim)

Troyka are one of the UK’s strongest examples of improvising musicians seeking to move outside of a jazz niche. Whilst they are without doubt inspired by contemporary improvised music (particularly New York musicians such as Craig Taborn and Tim Berne), they also tap in to the turbulent attention deficit restlessness of Flying Lotus or Squarepusher, the hard hitting adventurous groove of Deerhoof and maybe even the lattice-like structures and explosive qualities of Dirty Projectors circa Bitte Orca. In addition to the rampantly unpredictable turbulence and precise execution of fiendishly difficult parts that has long defined the band’s approach, Ornithophobia adds eerie themes and moments of surprising delicacy. It is their most focused and fulfilling work so far.

66) Thundercat - The Beyond/Where Giants Roam (Brainfeeder)

More of an EP than an album (six tracks, two of them very short), this still feels like another major statement from Stephen Bruner. More focused on mood and atmosphere than groove or Bruner’s trademark bass shredding, this music felt aquatic, dream-like and surreal. Particularly significant are Bruner’s lush vocal harmonies, which do much to imbue this music with its otherworldly quality. Bruner says more in this short set than many artists do across a full 70 minutes.

65) Marius Neset - Pinball (ACT)

It might be possible, particularly given his prolific output over just four years, that Marius Neset’s brand of complex, lattice-like compositions and proficient improvising might be in danger of becomeing a bit wearying. Having said this, however, Pinball continues to stretch his own musical operation. Whereas his previous work, Lion, explored orchestral colours, Pinball represents a return to small ensemble writing. If his music doesn’t quite sustain the shock of the new that came with Golden Xplosion and Birds, it has added depth and range, playing to the strengths of his ensemble as to his own considerable abilities. There’s also a vivid brightness to much of this music that renders it irresistible.

64) Lau - The Bell That Never Rang (Reveal)

With each new release, the ever-innovative Lau veer further from anything that might be termed traditional folk music, in terms of territory that is stranger and less clearly defined. But Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O’Rourke’s very strong melodic sense remains, not least on the effortlessly anthemic chorus of First Homecoming. The focal point of this set is the title track, a 17 minute commission to collaborate with the magnificent Elysian Quartet, which achieves a kind of graceful solitude. Produced by Joan Wasser, The Bell That Never Rang represents a further expansion of the band’s sonic possibilities and an intriguing combination of expansive arrangements with introspective qualities. For all its sometimes reserved thoughtfulness and experimentation, however, Lau’s music here also deals with the common currency of memorable epithets and chants (‘no-one knows where you’re going and no one thinks to tell you’).

63) Badbadnotgood with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul (Lex)

One of the major trends for 2015 seems to be the interaction of jazz with hip hop and electronica. If Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was the fruit of this inter-relationship in the mainstream, there were also fascinating examples to be found at the margins too, such as this collaboration between Canada’s Badbadnotgood and the Wu Tang Clan member. The resulting music is cinematic (hints of Lalo Schifrin and even John Barry at times) but also hard hitting where necessary. In terms of Ghostface’s contribution, it’s not as dark or edgy as Fishscale, but it’s more about how his phrasing integrates with the ‘as live’ contributions of the band - the more nuanced dynamics pushing the vocal delivery to greater intensity levels.

62) Ryley Walker - Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)

A better showcase for Ryley Walker as a songwriter than his debut, Primrose Green also pulls off the neat trick of realising Walker’s primary ambition to create something looser, freer and more spontaneous. Walker may wear his influences proudly, but he appears to understand the John Martyn of Inside Out as much as he understands the John Martyn of Bless The Weather, and he has hired a band of seasoned Chicago improvisers to flesh out his vision here. The music is gently nostalgic, and full of wistful, undulating rhythms, but there is also a searing quality to some of the playing, and some moments of full throttle turbulence too.

61) Tom Green Septet - Skyline (Spark)

Young trombonist Tom Green (winner of the 2013 Dankworth Prize for composition) crafted an impressive debut with the entirely self-released Skyline. Working in a relatively unusual and fascinating mid-sized ensemble, this particular configuration of musicians afforded Green a valuable opportunity to experiment with small group orchestration and colour. The results are genuinely affecting - with agile, dancing lines enhanced and supported by rich, invigorating harmony.

60) Sun Kil Moon - Universal Themes (Caldo Verde)

Sadly, Mark Kozelek’s aberrant behaviour in interviews, via his website and, most seriously, on stage in London adversely affected the reception of this strange album. Kozelek is a complex, difficult person, veering between self-deprecating humour and what at least appears to be aggressive misogyny. Some of that conflicted personality is captured here, in an album that veers between moments of frustration and uncomfortable aggression, and brilliantly rambling, beautiful diary-narratives-as-songs (Birds Of Flims may be the most potent example of this style to date). It’s his most indulgent album - but perhaps that in itself is interesting.

59) Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)

The title of Julia Holter’s fourth widely available album is basically perfect - it’s her most welcoming work by some distance, but the terrain is not always all that familiar or easy to traverse, and it somehow feels both vast and empty. Her vocal delivery is curiously flat (in terms of articulation) and detached, and sometimes her words seem purposefully designed not to scan. The music, although richly melodic, is also sometimes mysterious or theatrical. It’s a fascinating record, and it’s satisfying that it has continued her journey to a wider audience.

58) Africa Express - Terry Riley’s In C Mali (The Orchard)

I’ve now begun what will no doubt be a very long term project to familiarise myself with the work of Terry Riley this year - I appear to already have the bug. In C is Riley’s most famous piece, and sometimes (perhaps inaccurately) described as the first minimalist composition. Written in such a way as to allow for numerous interpretations (Riley provides a series of 53 short musical phrases that can be repeated or arranged in various combinations), In C has endured partially because of its sense of possibility and adventure. It is ripe for reimagining even in unexpected contexts. Actually, the pairing of stoical West African rhythmic music with minimalism of course finds plenty of common ground, and this is a particularly uplifting and successful recasting.

57) Punch Brothers - The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch)

Punch Brothers may have once defined themselves as ‘aesthetically a bluegrass band’, but really they are a group that refuses to recognise boundaries or classifications. Their one consistent aim, from the four part suite The Blind Leading The Blind right through to this new album has been to demonstrate a wide spectrum of possibility for a purely acoustic unit. With its themes of inter-connectedness (and associated isolation) in the modern digital world, The Phosphorescent Blues reaches out with some of the band’s most intricate and engaging music. The tripartite Familiarity is particularly exhilarating in its scope and ambition. Drummer Jay Bellerose and producer-guitarist T Bone Burnett add crucial but discrete contributions - making this another subtle evolution in the band’s approach.

56) Joshua Abrams - Magnetoception (Eremite)

Bass player for Town & Country and an experienced hand on the Chicago improv scene, Joshua Abrams is also an adept composer and bandleader. The music on Magnetoception explores possibilities for an ensemble using the distinctive textures of the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute Abrams has now used on three recordings for the Eremite label. The results are a striking and original hybrid of international folk music, minimalist composition and improvisation. This is a mesmerising, wholly absorbing work, played with keen attention to detail.

55) Phil Cook - Southland Mission (Thirsty Tigers)

A seasoned session musician, co-leader of Megafaun and touring member of Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Cook has been heard by many but remains known by relatively few. Southland Mission is essentially a modern gospel album - filled with faith and joy, but also touched by the roots and country rock that informs much of Cook’s musicianship. Cook seems to be a natural collaborator, and a modest but very skilled enabler. He deserves to be more widely heard.

54) Jaga Jazzist - Starfire (Ninja Tune)

Starfire is Jaga’s most evocative album in a while - metropolitan, physical and stimulating. Whilst the title, logo and promotional text hint at a Star Wars and space preoccupation, the bulk of the music here is actually more earthbound. Here Jaga Jazzist focus on the artificially transcendent experiences of life on earth (driving, clubbing, travelling etc). They find something spectacular and colossal in the everyday. Their fusion of jazz, composition and electronic music cultures remains staggeringly precise and exciting.

53) Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal - Musique De Nuit (No Format!)

A beautiful, touching companion piece to the duo’s earlier Chamber Music, the interaction of kora and cello puts a fragile but romantic new spin on kora music. Half of the album was recorded on Sissoko’s rooftop rather than in a studio - and the whole set has an open, spacious feel to it to contrast with the intimacy of Chamber Music.

52) Lonelady - Hinterland (Warp)

As wiry, minimalist, angular and urgent as her debut, but somehow more fleshed out and fully realised, Hinterland is a brilliant encapsulation of Lonelady’s modern post-punk aesthetic. Hinterland really ups the ante in terms of groove - there are deliciously lithe bass lines and thoughtfully constructed drum parts. Yet equally significant is Julie Campbell’s versatile and impressive voice. Much less cold and detached than Nerve Up, Hinterland is less resistant to exploring feeling and emotion through musical tension and layering.

51) Daniel Bachman - River (Three Lobed)

North Carolina-based guitarist Daniel Bachman (he originally hails from Virginia) has apparently released six albums in the last four years, but River is my first encounter with his music. On River, Bachman feels intimately connected with the land (and the water flowing through it). Interpreting the greatly missed Jack Rose’s ‘Levee’ places Bachman in a contemporary community as well as in a long term lineage, and his own pieces capture a panoramic range and depth of feeling.

50) Tim Berne’s Snakeoil - You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM)

The Snakeoil project has found Berne at his most inspired, a whole new and compelling chapter in his musical career. Berne is one of those musicians who revel in making it difficult to discern what is composed and what is improvised - confusing for some, perhaps but an irresistible puzzle for others. Even though this version of Snakeoil is larger (now incorporating guitarist Ryan Ferreira), it is an ensemble still preoccupied with space, nuance, playfulness and responsiveness.

49) Laura Cannell - Beneath Swooping Talons (Front and Follow)

I’m not sure I could ever have predicted that this year’s list would have featured a recorder player, but not only is Laura Cannell a skilled practitioner of her two instruments (she also plays the extraordinary sounding over-bowed violin) but she is also an artist capable of breathing vivid new life in to the old forms she explores. Her enthusiasm and passion is evident throughout this vivid, often startling collection. Of a piece with the work of Richard Skelton, Cannell’s music evokes nature and wildness as much as it does folklore and tradition. 

48) Ivo Neame - Strata (Whirlwind)

Ivo Neame is well regarded as a pianist who can handle complex and rigorous demands, whether in the open, ingratiating setting of Kairos 4tet, with the rhythmic trickery of Phronesis or in the risk-taking environment of Marius Neset’s band. He deserves to be recognised more widely as a leader, not least because Strata is his strongest integration of richly imagined composition and exploratory improvisation to date. He’s also assembled a skilled and empathetic ensemble, featuring saxophonist Tori Freestone, remarkable percussionist Jim Hart, two bass players (Tom Farmer and Andrea Di Biase) and the formidably groovy drummer Dave Hamblett. These are evocative, thoughtful sound worlds that deftly balance excitement and reflection.

47) Hallock Hill - Folsom Cave (via Bandcamp)

Guitarist Tom Lecky’s latest work consists of two pieces intended as side-long compositions on vinyl. It’s enjoyably quaint that Lecky has maintained this intention in the more transient digital age. Where so much sound and noise competes for space (one quick glance at the size of this list confirms this!), Lecky’s current music demands patience, contemplation and complete absorbtion. Lecky makes the listener feel alone with just the musician for company. The result is occasionally imposing and challenging, but more often than not, it feels like an experiment - a gentle examination of the listener’s responses and interpretation.

46) Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power (Glitterbeat)

Hot on the heels of 2013‘s outstanding Jama Ko and with a further beefed up, more muscular sound, this is the sound of Bassekou Kouyate fully embracing his newfound role as international star bandleader. With Chris Brokaw guesting on guitar and Dave Smith (London’s Loop Collective of jazz musicians and also from Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters) on drums, this is Kouyate’s closest collaboration with western musicians and western sonics to date - yet it involves musicians who are hugely sympathetic to the traditions and intentions coming from Kouyate himself. This is energetic, celebratory and infectious music, and the album’s all to brief running time is mercilessly concise.

45) Richard Thompson - Still (Nonesuch)

Richard Thompson’s ceaseless motivation and conistency remains an inspiration. Still finds Thompson subtly remodeling his approach by pairing with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (in the producer’s chair here). The result is a deceptively straightforward and unadorned recording, capturing the warmth of the Richard Thompson electric trio playing. The songwriting is typically witty and incisive, albeit with an occasionally biting streak. Thompson’s vocal phrasing still relishes his offbeat poetry, and his guitar playing remains defiantly individual, with fascinating note selections and a coruscating style.

44) Becca Stevens Band - Perfect Animal (Decca)

If Becca Stevens’ music has become more accessible since her extraordinary debut Tea Bye Sea (not least because of the appearance of her imaginative cover versions in increasing volume), it has retained a harmonic and rhythmic intricacy that belies a jazz background (Stevens very much moves in that world - and guested on Ambrose Akinmusire’s last album).  On Perfect Animal, her writing is idiosyncratic and restless without ever being irritating - dealing in switches in feel and texture with effortless command. The cover versions don’t stray too far from the original melodies and forms, although the sheer presence of acoustic instruments played so ably breathes new life into these formerly hyper-produced songs.

43) Blur - The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

In the end, this probably generated a little less heat than one might expect from a delayed comeback of this magnitude. In all honesty, it’s also highly doubtful that the Blur of 2015 come with the same importance for me personally as they did 1994-1999. There’s also the lingering sense that Damon Albarn viewed this whole venture as an inevitable side show from his numerous other projects. And yet, respectfully moulded into coherent shape by Graham Coxon and Stephen Street, The Magic Whip really does work well as a new chapter in the Blur story. It flirts with elements of Albarn’s solo career, but for the most part is considerably less dour. It’s great to have Coxon’s strafing, mischievous guitar back in the fold, although he’s a little less keen on gleeful sabotage here than in the past. Indeed, his more subtle playing contributes greatly to some of the song’s isolated, peculiar atmospheres. There could be a big debate as to whether accusations of cultural tourism thrown at Albarn’s lyrics stick - they are certainly not among his most inspired. But melodically and sonically, The Magic Whip is fascinating.

42) Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue - Sounds & Cries Of The World (Pi Recordings)

In the promotional video for Sounds & Cries Of The World, the enterprising and remarkable Jen Shyu rattles off a string of self-defined roles that demonstrate her as having the very definition of the modern portfolio career. She is an avant-garde vocalist and a talented dancer. In addition to this, she is keen to define herself as a ‘researcher’ and much work clearly takes place at the planning and development stages of her projects. The outcome here is fascinating. To hear music characteristic of the traditions of the East (Shyu visited Taiwan, East Indonesia, Korea and Timor-Leste, the latter her mother’s homeland) refracted through the particular playing approaches of American improvisers (including the great Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Dan Weiss on drums) is unusual and radical. It’s an unusual combination of the theatrical and the intimate.

41) Jim O’ Rourke - Simple Songs (Drag City)

Jim O’ Rourke’s first Drag City release in six years may be the first to dispense with the filmography of Nic Roeg for its title, but it feels in many ways like a sharper, more concentrated continuation of ideas he first explored on Insignificance. O’Rourke is so unafraid of unfashionable influences that its hard to know where sincerity ends and irony begins, or vice versa - but maybe that’s the point - these are acerbic, pointed songs also possessed of wit and warmth and the intricate, labyrinthine music frames the ideas perfectly.

40) Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi Love (Jagjaguwar)

The hazy psychedelic sheen has been replaced by an enlightening retro-futurist sound with less emphasis on intoxicating guitar lines and much more on synthesisers, vintage keyboards (or at least sounds that seem to emulate them), lithe bass lines and rhythm. Whilst these songs are unlikely to scale chart heights, this really is pop music – albeit of an intricate and ambitious kind.
The writing and arranging on Multi-Love is broad and uncompromising, to the extent that it takes a few listens to get past listening on the level of pure aesthetics (a level on which Nielson excels) and to hear the nuance, subtlety and melodic invention on display too. Multi-Love is more than just a brilliantly designed sonic facade – its excoriating examination of modern psycho-sexual mores is impossible to resist, so too its musical detail and understanding.

39) Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Motorcade Amnesiacs (KScope)

Sweet Billy Pilgrim, one of the UK’s most adventurous bands, have achieved a neat trick with Motorcade Amnesiacs. Tim Elsenburg and his ensemble have engineered some substantial developments in their sound and approach, but without losing any of the boldness and innovation that made them so interesting in the first place. There are greater roles for individual band members (particularly Jana Carpenter, who sings lead vocals on several of the tracks), unusual and striking arrangements, a sharper pop sensibility to match the progressive overtones and a greater sense of fun. If it doesn’t quite cohere as strongly as its predecessors, that may at least be partially the point. After listening to much of this music, it’s hard to see why heavy rock riffs to rival Black Sabbath shouldn’t sit comfortably alongside Tears For Fears-inspired sophisticated pop, sudden injections of disco grooves or the country and blues-tinged melancholy largely contributed by Jana Carpenter. Whenever Carpenter sings, the music seems to adopt different qualities – more reflective and melancholy perhaps – but not in an introverted way. Her tone is also brighter and more outward reaching. It is this further meeting of worlds – unforced and compelling – that makes Motorcade Amnesiacs such a successful work.

38) Wilco - Star Wars (dpBM/Epitaph)

Star Wars has both a spontaneity and a tautness that announce it as the band’s most exciting album in some time. At just 34 minutes, it is ruthlessly concise. It is Wilco at their most carefree and energised. Radical guitarist Nels Cline is once again permitted to be mischievous (perhaps even purposefully tasteless at times) and some of the unpredictable, off kilter quality of Glenn Kotche’s drumming has come to once again upset the mood and feel of Tweedy’s songs. It’s also Wilco at their least smooth, this time once again channelling Tweedy’s love of ’70s radio rock through less conventional arrangements. This is the sound of a band ruthlessly channelling their most thrilling elements.

37) Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color (Rough Trade)

If there were a prize for biggest development between albums, then Alabama Shakes would surely be 2015’s most triumphant band. This is not to say that their debut Boys & Girls wasn’t a strong debut, just that in terms of sound and tempo it risked being a little too tightly focused, perhaps even one dimensional in its southern rock and soul roots. Sound & Color finds a much wider range of textures and contexts for Brittany Howard’s belter of a voice and empathetic producer Blake Mills (himself an excellent singer-songwriter), has clearly encouraged the band to take more risks. Whilst some moments do hint back to the band’s more conventional roots, so deft is their handling of questing space that they now sound more comfortable on the psychedelic soul of Gemini and Over My Head. This is a hugely satisfying trip from a transformed band.

36) Firefly Burning - Skeleton Hill (Fathom)

Based in East London, Firefly Burning are a five piece ensemble with versatile musical backgrounds, including in the field of free improvisation. Perhaps as a result of this, there is a freewheeling anything goes approach to arrangement here that can see any one individual song drawing inspiration from folk song, gamelan, chamber music and jazz. Their unusual sound comes in part from their relatively unconventional line-up, with Sam Glazer on cello (among the most versatile of instruments) and James Redwood on violin providing a string section as interested in percussive textures as in lush, melodic lines. Then there’s the crucial presence of John Barber on piano, who deftly incorporates much of the Steve Reich influences. There is a confident mastery of arrangement, space and dynamics here that demonstrates the extent to which the ensemble has developed since Lightships. The sound here is both richly intriguing and subtle, a neat tapestry that is a joy to unravel.

35) Alexander Hawkins Trio - Alexander Hawkins Trio (Alexander Hawkins Music)

Still one of the most innovative and distinctive musicians currently working in British jazz, Hawkins has now formed an unexpected trio with bassist Neil Charles and versatile drummer Tom Skinner. Whilst Skinner is perhaps better known for his work in more dance/world-oriented ensembles such as Melt Yourself Down and Sons Of Kemet, his expressive, intelligent but relatively direct playing here works perfectly. It sometimes feels as if Hawkins wants to run the entire gamut of musical approaches in small group playing (sinewy grooves to free association via curious introspection) and more - his orchestrations at the piano remain fascinating, but he also plays with an attack and precision that is thrilling. 

34) Dean McPhee - Fatima’s Hand (Hood Faire)

Dean McPhee is a solo electric guitarist from Yorkshire. His music has an engaging otherworldliness, greatly enhanced by his use of reverb and tremolo effects and by his patient approach to composition and performance. There is a sepulchral, spiritual sound to this music (perhaps partly in the steely focus and devotion with which McPhee plays), although it does not appear to be overtly religious in outlook or inspiration. It is perhaps more about reflection, thought and dreams. McPhee is clearly a dedicated, cautious craftsman, and whilst these mostly lengthy pieces might feel like meditative improvisations, it is clear that there are strong elements of both preparation and development in McPhee’s work. His approach to playing is formed in large part through relationships between the lower and higher strings on the guitar. He picks out key notes and returns to them persistently, almost as underpinning drones. Listening to his playing is an absorbing experience.

33) Miguel - Wildheart (RCA)

A kaleidescopic, artful and hugely confident pop album that has transported its creator in to a different league. Wildheart is reminiscent of Prince’s great period or the best work of Terence Trent D’Arby in its absorbtion of rock tropes within an R&B/pop framing. The variety of musical colours and textures is unusual for a modern mainstream pop record and sets this apart. Sexually candid, but also emotional, heartfelt and honest, the album presents a compelling narrative. California is the album’s dark heart, but Miguel is the forthright, powerful personality providing its soul.

32) Myra Melford - Snowy Egret (Yellowbird)

Pianist Myra Melford’s current working quintet is a supergroup of some of the most adventurous musical minds on the American improvisation map. Tyshawn Sorey, Liberty Ellman and Stomu Takeshi provide the rhythm section (shared with Henry Threadgill’s Zooid) and their substantial experience playing together shows through in their confident handling of tricky material here. They are joined by trupeter Ron Miles, whose pure sound provides a sense of flight here. Given that this music is supposed to be just one part of a multimedia work also incorporating dance and video art, it’s remarkable how complete and fully realised it sounds alone and captured as a recording.

31) The Necks - Vertigo (ReR)

Each Necks album is somehow the same, and yet different, from its predecessors. Vertigo shares common ground with the majority of the band’s output in that it features the band exploring improvisation over the course of one long, unbroken piece. Whilst their studio albums have always explored the full possibilities of the recording studio, on Vertigo they seem particularly keen to exploit the increased options available through overdubbing and treatment. This results both in some unfamiliar sounds (at least to those who have enjoyed the band’s live sets) and a rather ominous character to proceedings. Tony Buck’s consistent bed of percussive sounds at times becomes less of a support and more of a menacing provocation, whilst the overall mood feels dark and tense.

30) Songhoy Blues - Music In Exile (Transgressive)

Mali continues to produce breakthrough international artists - and Songhoy Blues are among the most exciting of recent years. Whilst they partially explore what has here come to be termed ‘desert blues’, they are less trance-like than Tinariwen, instead favouring a raw energy and defiant spirit on one hand, and a more acoustic mournfulness on the other. At their most urgent, their guitars are rough as sandpaper, and the grooves are relentless and uplifting. Sobour is a case in point, opening the album with an infectious enthusiasm.

29) Colin Towns Mask Orchestra - Drama (Provocateur)

Colin Towns has long carved a respected and successful career as a composer for TV drama and theatre projects (his suite for the Orpheus ballet was one of my favourite recordings of 2004). This double set is his typically imaginative inversion of the relationship - music inspired by drama and theatre rather than composed for it. Given that these are responses to the intimacy and physicality of the theatre, it’s no surprise that this music both has an athletic quality and that it comes with a powerful intensity.

28) Eric Chenaux - Skullsplitter (Constellation)

Don’t let the brutality of its title fool you - in many ways, Skullsplitter is Eric Chenaux’s most intimate work. Vocally, Chenaux sometimes resembles Arthur Russell in his understated, slightly conversational style. He also shares with Russell a desire to merge experimentation with conventional form. His voice is therefore matched with deliciously warped and refracted guitar sounds, curious harmony and a distinctive playing style. It all combines to create a fuzzy, disorientating ambience.

27) ESKA - ESKA (Naim)
The story of Eska Mtungwazi’s 2015 is a particularly heartwarming one - few artists deserve the acclaim she has received this year more. Eska has long been a hugely respected artist - both for her own solo projects such as English Skies and her collaborative work with the likes of Matthew Herbert (she has also worked on the forthcoming Grace Jones album). For some artists, a debut gestating for five years using various producers and covering wide musical terrain might lead to incongruity at best or disaster at worst. Not only has Eska survived these possible pitfalls, but she has transformed them into virtues. The gestation has meant that the album really captures her individual voice as a writer and singer whilst the variety in the instrumentation and sound presents her as an open-minded seeker of new ideas. In terms of feeling, the music here veers from thoughtful introspection to transcendence, and stylistically, it takes in English folk, West African rhythms, jazz, soul and melodic exuberance. It is perplexing, to say the least, that the Mercury judges opted for the faux-theatrics of Benjamin Clementine over a genuine talent we should treasure.

26) Floating Points - Elaenia (Pluto)

Sam Shepherd’s debut album as Floating Points is a fascinating and enriching evolution of his craft. With rhythms mostly played using live instrumentation, and a reliance on analogue synthesisers and vintage keyboards (such as the warm sounding Fender Rhodes piano), this is as carefully integrated a contemporary ensemble sound as could be conceived. With hints at Miles Davis in his fusion period, this is beautifully textured music unafraid of natural human qualities and improvisation. It is also a masterful display of dynamic control - its quiet sections are so quiet that they are rendered inaudible during the morning commute. Sometimes the music seems to almost disappear, and this is so refreshing at a time when mastering conventions tend to make everything louder than everything else. It is music that demands attention, and repays it generously. 

25) Loose Tubes - Arriving (Lost Marble)
This is right on the boundary of whether a release should be considered ‘new’ or whether it should be a ‘reissue’. Eight of the eleven tracks here are taken from the vital British big band’s 1990 Ronnie Scott’s shows (including topical announcements that still resonate in today’s climate - ‘let’s not go to war in Kuwait’), the final additions to complement excellent previous releases Dancing On Frith Street and Sad Afrika. The remaining three tracks are new BBC commissions for the band’s superb reunion gigs last year. They are the group’s first new works in 25 years. These new pieces are anything but afterthoughts - they are richly imagined and brilliantly performed, in the spirit of the original band but also taking in new directions for composers Django Bates, Eddie Parker and Chris Batchelor. These pieces demonstrate a new life blood in the ensemble, and it would be great to think that this reunion venture has become more than a temporary money-spinner.

24) Four Tet - Morning/Evening (Text)
The past few years have been wildly productive for Kieren Hebden, although they haven’t quite resulted in a coherent long form statement (brilliant compilations as Four Tet on Pink and also as Percussions) - until now. Morning/Evening offers a vivid soundtrack for the bookends of a day with appropriate nuance and shading - whilst it has the clarity and directness of dance music (four to the floor pulse etc), it also has the more painterly sense of improvised music. Experimenting with long form pieces is usually fruitful for Hebden (see also 0181 and the brilliant Thirtysixtwentyfive) and so it remains here. Both Morning and Evening sides are superb examples of musical development from minimal foundations (a vocal sample, an advancing and retreating beat and some Terry Riley-esque organ). Capturing a sense of domestic homeliness against the thrill of city life, this is a simple idea executed well. It is Hebden’s most carefully constructed and structured work to date.

23) Sam Lee & Friends - The Fade In Time (Nest Collective)
The Fade In Time represents a clear continuation and development of the concerns Lee began on his excellent debut Ground Of Its Own. This time, the arrangements are more expansive, with even bolder choices in instrumentation and colour, never made at the expense of the songs and the strong emotions at their core. Lee’s band features cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, Steve Chadwick on trumpet, percussionist Josh Green, violinist Flora Curzon and, crucially, Jonah Brody on koto. It’s a strong ensemble with great touch and sensitivity, but also capable of creating theatrical flourish where appropriate. Lee is unafraid of making many of these old, collected folk songs groove. It’s an adventurous form of musical fusion cooking, in which elements from West African, Indian and Asian music are added to melodies from the British Isles. Whilst much of the album is breathtakingly physical, this is counterbalanced by moments of haunting, mournful beauty. Lee also makes brave and imaginative use of field recordings to introduce his interpretations.

22) Dr. Yen Lo - Days With Dr. Yen Lo (Pavlov Institute)
Comfortably the year’s most original and intriguing hip hop album, this mostly beatless work feels like a coherent journey into an alternate world. Inspired by the character from John Frankenheimer’s film The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Yen Lo is a collaboration between rapper Ka and producer Preservation that feels like a fully realised novel approach to rap. It might be closest in spirit to some of the Anticon output, although it lacks the archness of that collective, favouring instead a sense of mood and theme, with moments from the film threaded between the tracks. The lack of overt rhythm means that the music here feels curiously dark and unresolved, Ka’s phrasing and articulation providing pretty much all of the forward motion. The production is woozy and discombobulating (Funkadelic with the funk surgically removed) but Ka’s words are alarmingly real.

21) Low - Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop)
Low have long been a dependable and consistent band, but they do seem to have been on a particularly strong run of late, with the memorable, melodic and chiming C’Mon, the more naturalistic, intimate ensemble sound The Impossible Way and now the darker, more mechanistic approach of Ones and Sixes. Low remain a band highly attuned to the nuances of sound, from the blend of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices, to the impact of electronic effects, to the particular dynamic of a brush against a snare drum. It’s for this reason that their songs do not need to be complicated - simple harmony and clear melodic contours continue to serve them very well indeed. It’s all about the dynamics, the sound and the mood. In this case, there’s a starker, more atavistic approach that perhaps emphasises tension over beauty. It’s these subtle distinctions that allow individual Low albums to assume clear identities, in spite of the consistency of the band’s presiding concerns.

20) Joan Shelley - Over and Even (No Quarter)
It is a genuinely tough task to make a record that sounds this pure, clear, simple and direct. There are no mannerisms or affectations in Shelley’s vocal delivery - she simply does not need them. Last year’s excellent Electric Ursa created an atmosphere through a magically nuanced ensemble sound. Over and Even strips everything back to an acoustic folk approach, but is no less meaningful or entrancing. Will Oldham guests on a number of tracks. Mostly his voice is backgrounded to support Shelley’s. Working with female vocalists is something Oldham has obviously enjoyed greatly in his own career, although there his own purposefully wayward voice has tended to be the dominant presence. Here, he proves himself a surprisingly agile and adept source of support, enhancing Shelley’s capacity to communicate rather than detracting from it. The songs themselves are remarkable - beautifully melodic without being predictable, her lyrics poetic and honest. Shelley brings an elevated sense to the everyday (‘the scent of the morning coffee’) and has a real eye for both the smaller details and the big picture in relationships.

19) Henry Threadgill’s Zooid - In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi Recordings)
At 71, Henry Threadgill is still remarkable in pushing the boundaries of compositional technique and exploring the integration of compositional and improvising approaches. This might notionally be performed by jazz musicians, but Threadgill has intended the work to be performed in spaces usually reserved for chamber music. These lengthy pieces, each focused on a particular instrument, but incorporating ensemble interaction, certainly have a sense of intimacy and closeness. Guitarist Liberty Ellman remains a crucial presence, his singular plucked style incorporating both abrasive attack and curious rumination. As ever with Threadgill’s music, it is rhythmically intricate and beautifully confounding. A double set, this takes some serious digesting, but it’s worth confronting the challenge.

18) Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass (Spacebomb)
This is one of those glorious records, ornate yet also compact, that simply leaves you wanting more. The juxtaposition of Prass’ shrill but empathetic voice over the lush, soulful arrangements of the Spacebomb crew makes for something both inspired and unusual. Whilst there are all sorts of possible reference points (Motown, Dusty in Memphis, early Laura Nyro perhaps), the considerable expertise that has gone in to this record imbues it with distinctive vitality and identity. Also, there’s a genuine longing and heartbreak in these songs that is at once old fashioned and refreshing.

17)  Billy Jenkins - Death, Ritual and Resonation (DOTP)
Using close microphone placements and minimal compression, Billy Jenkins has produced an album of solo low strung guitar improvisations that feels intimate and direct. Its challenges are admirably unavoidable, but it also has a palpable human quality. Jenkins is a British Humanist Association accredited conductor of humanist funerals and this recording is directly inspired by non-religious ritual. Much of this music, very personal and inimitable, could provide a source of consolation (and Jenkins is rarely without humour) - but it also feels like a fearless confrontation of the parts of life we often prefer to ignore. Jenkins always plays with a personal, individual quality. It might be largely irrelevant to its musical quality, but this was also by some distance the most thoughtfully presented promo package I received in 2015. 

16) Kenny Wheeler - Songs For Quintet (ECM)
This is a difficult one to write about, given the towering sense of loss that the jazz community and jazz audience still feels following Wheeler’s passing last year. He was one of the giants of the music - in many ways a compositional genius, not least for his unique ability to make extremely complex structure and harmony sound beautiful and pure. Songs For Quintet sort-of has the feel of a jazz equivalent to those highly lauded late Johnny Cash American Recordings albums. His playing diminished only in its sense of frailty and vulnerability. Whilst the sound is softer and some notes are scuffed, in terms of communication, insight, humanity and imagination, Wheeler remained a singular and musical presence to the end. His accompanying musicians (Stan Sulzman, John Paricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France) play with a subtlety and grace that is supportive and empathetic. John Paricelli’s guitar creates an airy lightness and the playing generally has a wistful, autumnal feel to it.  In this setting, the melody becomes all important, as it should be. It is a beautiful, deeply touching set.

15) The Weather Station - Loyalty (Paradise Of Bachelors)
I’ve enjoyed the songwriting of Tamara Lindeman for a while now, but this was a huge leap forward artistically. Loyalty captures the perfect marriage of her approach to lyric writing (allusive and literary but also precise and concise - they are printed as miniature stories rather than verse on The Weather Station website) with delicately evocative, detailed musical arrangements. Her delivery is steely and understated and feels appropriately intimate - like many of the best singer-songwriters, it feels as if she is communicating to the listener alone. With the emphasis on the road, and on unfamiliar places, there’s an obvious kinship with Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, although Lindeman has a distinctive presence of her own. It’s a wonderful headphones album.

14) Ian William Craig - Cradle For The Wanting (Recital)

With his second album in as many years, Ian William Craig continues to mark himself as one of the most interesting, unclassifiable musicians at work. A trained opera singer, Craig clearly has considerable technical capacity - but he is aiming for something very different from the grand theatre of his background. Cradle For The Wanting is a darker counterpart to A Turn Of Breath - a little less haunted romanticism and a little more melancholy and gentle menace. With just voice and tape loops, Craig conjures dense, vivid sound worlds rich in atmosphere and feeling.

13) Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)

Whilst so many bands have been content to tap the lucrative reunion market, Sleater-Kinney took the more admirable approach by returning with all new material and a reinvigorated sound. Whilst this auspicious event may have been heralded at the end of 2014 with the Start Together retrospective, the fuel behind their busy year of touring was this concise but exhilarating set of new songs. Much of it is a reminder of what made S-K so vital in the first place - all flailing energy, righteousness and power - No Cities To Love feels as much like a call to arms as anything they’ve done. But it’s also an evolution too - now with crisper sound and more attention to detail, it’s so refreshing to hear a band return after a long absence having assumed a new breadth and depth. 

12) Kamasi Washington - The Epic (Brainfeeder)

Much as I really like this album for a variety of reasons, I have to admit to a lingering frustration at the marketing of it as ‘the jazz album of 2015 it’s OK to like’. How many of the people who have so warmly embraced Kamasi Washington’s impassioned revival of spiritual, intense, hard swinging jazz listened to any other improvised music this year? Oh well, no matter - at least it has resusitated jazz once again (!), and it has the potential to introduce a new audience to a very fertile LA jazz scene. Also positive, via Washington’s connections with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, is the forming of connections between jazz and other radical forms of music. Of course, excess is Washington’s calling card here - 3CDs, mostly very long pieces, extended improvisations, big, brash, sometimes cluttered arrangements. The intensity is intoxicating, however, and the vibe at the core of the band is wondrous. The only question is - if you start with a statement this confident and ambitious, where on earth do you go next?

11) Antonio Sanchez - Birdman OST (New Regency Music/Editions Milan)

Like Mica Levi’s brilliantly disorientating soundtrack to Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. drummer Antonio Sanchez (perhaps best known for his work with Pat Metheny) created a work that redefined the parameters of soundtrack composing. Not only this, but Sanchez’s work has also had the possibly unintended consequence of altering public perception of his instrument. Whilst jazz audiences will be familiar with many of the more textural, melodic and sound-based approaches to drumming that Sanchez employs here, more general audiences more used to drums being in a timekeeping, supportive role have no doubt been enlightened and inspired by this music. Exaggerating and enhancing the film’s restless movement and turbulence, Sanchez constantly spars with the camera, creating a sense of forward motion and palpable anxiety.

10) Mbongwana Star - From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

It has been particularly satisfying to see a couple of albums break out from the needlessly restrictive ‘world music’ niche this year - the excellent Songhoy Blues album (see no.34) and this restless, exciting debut. Mbongwana Star formed from the ashes of the hugely successful Staff Benda Bilili, although they have here eschewed that band’s live aesthetic and celebratory music in favour of a more studio-oriented approach. This is not to say that the music is any less inspiring - it is simply that its joyful rhythms and themes sometime comes with more ambiguous undertones. This is music that resists classification, drawing from both Congolese tradition and from Western rock and pop mores to create a fascinating hybrid.

09) Holly Herndon - Platform (4AD)

Platform more than fulfilled the promise of the multimedia singles Chorus and Home (both included here), marking Herndon out as one of the most radical and compelling artists currently at work in electronic music. Herndon is preoccupied with ideas and sound - and the imaginative integration of the two is what makes her music so absorbing. There is certainly a conceptual and artistic streak to Platform, but it never feels like a sound installation - as well as dealing with politics (surveillance, identity, social relationships), it also captures something insightful and personal about the role of technology in our lives. The music is brilliantly composed and edited, with a curious mix of detachment and detailed analysis.

08) Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth - Epicenter (Clean Feed)

Bassist Chris Lightcap is one of contemporary American jazz’s strongest composers and bandleaders - his music has a real energy and bite, and his themes are often bright and memorable. There’s also a thrillingly urgent interaction in his Bigmouth ensemble, between some world class musicians (Craig Taborn, Tony Malaby, Chris Cheek and Gerald Cleaver) and it is captured with real verve here. The group is adventurous, exploring a wide range of textures and dynamic possibilities. Particularly interesting are the experiments with unusually short pieces - the mysterious, gentle canter of White Horse and the more forthright, intense Down East. The frontline of Malaby and Cheek is powerful and versatile, whilst Taborn plays with characteristic freedom and originality, especially on the thrilling title track. The influence of a raw, radical rock and roll aesthetic can be felt on Down East, and more transparently in the interpretation of The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties.

07) Joanna Newsom - Divers (Drag City)

Divers is one of those insidious, dangerously deceptive albums. On first listen, it feels almost as if Newsom has condensed her artistry a little too much, perhaps in the interests of greater accessibility. Yet, give it time, and it gradually reveals itself as yet another major work - a collection of breathtaking songs with a diverse range of approaches. Divers neatly synthesises Newsom’s various arrangement tactics so far but also has an internal coherence all of its own. Vocally, she now has a technical control to match her range and sense of adventure. The title track is as devastatingly emotional as anything she has yet written, whilst Sapokanikan condenses her wild intricacy and flighty imagination. As ever, these songs demand complete immersion, for their unashamed love of language, intricate linear forms and vivid musical beauty. 

06) Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

Sufjan Stevens has form for going big - whether it be the absurdity of the projected 50 states project (now inevitably abandoned), the lavish arrangements of Illinoise or the electronic clutter of The Age Of Adz. For this project, however, he returned to skeletal, intimate arrangements and bracingly personal songwriting. Less, it transpires, is undoubtedly more. Carrie and Lowell is unashamedly simple, direct and devastating, and delivered with profound artistry. It’s also worth noting that Stevens hasn’t entirely abandoned the electronic flirtations of ...Adz here - these concerns are simply absorbed more effectively in to these nuanced electro-acoustic textures. It is both Stevens’ most consistent and most powerful work.

05) Iris DeMent - The Trackless Woods (Flariella)

It would be pleasing to think that series 2 of The Leftovers (which uses Let The Mystery Be as its theme tune) might do for Iris DeMent what the first series of True Detective appears to have done for The Handsome Family. Those who head directly from that song to here, however, might end up somewhat perplexed. The Trackless Woods is an unusual project for DeMent, temporarily abandoning her own lyric writing in order to explore the work of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Much of the album is simply DeMent’s vulnerable but striking voice and piano. Mostly recorded at home, it is both natural and very close up sounding. You can hear the sound of the room, and sometimes of physical movement within it. When the music branches out to explore ensemble settings, it is remarkably delicate and nuanced, every note and chord delivered in the service of the song. There’s a curious disconnect in hearing such an American voice explore often distinctively Russian concerns, but the poems also provide much common ground with DeMent’s explorations of (sceptical) faith, family and love. A low key masterpiece.

04) Bjork - Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

Whilst every Bjork album is worthwhile, her most significant and enduring are arguably based on emotional rather than conceptual conceits. It is these works that present Bjork at her most artistically intimate. Vulnicura serves as a devastating flip side to Verspertine, forensically detailing a relationship break-up in the wake of Bjork’s (now sadly acrimonious) separation from Matthew Barney. It’s her most direct work in some time, musically spare and clear (focused on strings and beats, and with her voice appropriately at its most exposed), and delivered in her characteristically strange and frank language. Eight or so albums in to her solo career proper,  it is hardly surprising that Vulnicura occasionally echoes past glories (Stonemilker feels like a brilliant recontextualising of Joga), but it is also a distinct work with a mood and voice of its own. It has moments of sublime discombobulation (Notget, Atom Dance) and emotional and erotic memory (the brilliantly weird History Of Touches). Perhaps most effectively, Black Lake explores the full journey from sadness to rejuvenation via anger.

03) Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Polydor)

For me, To Pimp A Butterfly was perhaps the year’s most unexpected triumph. Kendrick Lamar’s kaleidoscopic, socially engaged reinvention of hip hop proved so wide ranging as to be almost exhausting. With contributions from an exciting cohort of American jazz artists (including Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington), this music feels breathtakingly alive, free from both formula and cliche (the opening sample from Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger Is A Star proves to be a gateway to the album’s ideas and concerns rather than a production characteristic). It provides an exciting and unpredictable conduit for Lamar’s brilliantly articulate, acute and politically charged lyrics. This is an album that manages to be political, confrontational, celebratory (it has its fair share of party tunes amid the experiments with jazz) and personal (Lamar explores depression too) in equal measure. It all coalesces with the philosophical, brilliant conceit of the imagined interview with Tupac Shakur.

02) Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee (Constellation)

Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin project (a planned 12 album cycle) is increasingly gearing up to rival Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers as a major expression of black culture, politics and history through music. This third installment, recorded solo, intertwining Roberts’ saxophones with a variety of field recordings and audio samples, might be her most radical statement so far. It examines the history of the slave trade with an excoriating eye, refusing to dilute its horrors or temper its extremes. It is also characterised by tremendous pride, and an ecstatic quality that reflects emancipation. Whilst Roberts’ saxophone is still a crucial presence (although often subsumed within broader sheets of sound textures with electronics), it is her voice (spoken and sung) that makes the work cohere as a complete whole. Sometimes it sounds strident, sometimes it aches with suffering and injustice. It makes little sense to dive in and out of River Run Thee - it requires complete surrender to its necessarily uncompromising approach. It is 2015’s most potent exploration of tragedy in music.

1) Maria Schneider - The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)

Maria Schneider often seems like the archetypal ‘musician’s musician’ - an artist hugely respected by the cognoscenti, but one who has yet to really be acknowledged beyond the jazz niche. Schneider necessarily records and tours relatively infrequently (her orchestral projects require substantial financial and personal investment). In addition to this, her unremitting stance on streaming and commercial download services, although admirable in many ways, means her music is hard to find unless you are aware of her Artist Share site (The Thompson Fields is available, at a hefty £20 price tag, exclusively through this site and at her shows).  Importantly, the site also allows Schneider’s fan base to generously fund her work through donations and commissions.

Another obfuscating factor may be Schneider’s musical role, more akin to a composer and arranger than a performer and improviser (although she leads her orchestra with impressively animated conducting). Most jazz musicians set out to break the perceived barrier between composition and performance through improvisation - but perhaps the nearest parallels to Schneider’s work are George Russell and Gunter Schuller, two very important musicians in the development of the music not as well recognised as, say, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. And yet Schneider has just played a pivotal role in the creation of David Bowie’s forthcoming album Blackstar (she worked on the original arrangements for Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) and ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, and members of her orchestra play throughout Blackstar).

Schneider undoubtedly deserves wider recognition beyond the jazz niche for her own extraordinary work. The simple reality is that this music is some of the most beautiful written and recorded in any genre in recent years. It is unashamedly emotional and stirring but without ever crossing the line in to sentimentality or earnestness. It is evocative of the open landscape of Schneider’s native Minnesota, with attendant feelings of home and belonging. Yet it is also far from conservative - the writing and arranging is adventurous, open and unrestricted and the instrumental soloists are given space and freedom to explore their own interpretations of Schneider’s creative and thematic concerns. Saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson improvise thrillingly on Arbiters Of Evolution, the former now justly Grammy nominated for his contribution.

Schneider’s long term mission to capture the beauty in nature reaches a kind of apotheosis here - from the gentle, gracefully building awe of Walking By Flashlight (inspired by Ted Kooser’s wonderfully economical poem) and the title track to the wilder expanses of Arbiters Of Evolution. To call Schneider’s ensemble a big band is to miss its remarkable versatility - in colours, texture and sound. She emphasises her more unusual instruments - baritone saxophone, accordian and guitar, to wondrous effect. A glorious synthesis of sound and life experience, and 2015's most complete and coherent work. 

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