Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 in Albums Part 2: The Top 50

With time very much against me this year, and with a comically absurd volume of music to revisit, I've decided to take a different approach to listing 2016 albums this year. I've listened to and enjoyed something approaching 260 albums this year and, whilst I would like to acknowledge them all, writing in detail about all of them would be an Herculean task and any attempt to rank them would be beyond arbitrary. So, I'm trying to keep to the spirit of my recent longer, more diverse lists whilst also being more realistic. This post features more detailed commentary about what I consider to be my personal top 50. Keep in mind that this is only the albums this year that I connected with the most. I will then list the remaining albums in a subsequent post, in an unranked order, with shorter descriptions where possible. There are excellent works at both levels of the list!

Some continued trends in my listening (none of them conscious impositions): Growing representation of female artists, increased proportion of instrumental music. 

50. Western Skies Motel - Settlers  (Lost Tribe Sound) 
Western Skies Motel are from Denmark, but their music is much more evocative of rural America (as they put it 'the dry winds of the American prairie'). In addition to the strong sense of geography and place, their music also feels richly emotional, without being sentimental. Fragile guitar picking blends with drones, the occasional harmonium or shimmering stringed instrument. It's very cinematic music - the sounds carrying a strong sense of imagery for which the accompanying sepia photographs feel appropriate.

49. So Percussion - Glenn Kotche: Drum Kit Quartets (Cantaloupe Music) 
Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche has spent large chunks of the past two years on the road, so it's perhaps double impressive that the minimalist miniature percussion quartet compositions on this set are so effective and well realised. Kotche explores both melodic and quirky sounds (from marimbas to sirens and vibraslaps) to create vivid, entertaining pieces.

48. Nikki Yeoh - Solo Gemini (Infinitum) 
It's hard to believe that this is Nikki Yeoh's first solo recording. Hired by Courtney Pine at a young age, Yeoh has also led the excellent piano trio Infinitum with Mark and Michael Mondesir, as well as touring internationally with a wide variety of musicians. She is rightly respected by musicians and audiences alike but has recorded relatively infrequently. Solo Gemini is an impressive encapsulation of Yeoh's skills as both composer and improviser, with a strong emphasis on personal inspirations and the art of storytelling. Partially as a result of its gestation, the selections here are drawn from a 25 year period (the oldest piece here is Moonlight Serenade, written when Yeoh was just 18) but the execution and development of the pieces brings mature and fresh perspectives. It's a record full of ideas, characterised by a broad appreciation of music (incorporating minaimalism, third stream and bebop influences) but also by judicious musical choices. Let's hope it doesn't take 25 years for the next one!

47. Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM) 
This rich and contemplative duo set might be my favourite of pianist Vijay Iyer's recent works for ECM, such is the high level of empathy and interaction between Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. There's no self conscious virtuosity here - even Iyer's longstanding preponderence for complex rhythmic invention is scaled back. Instead, the musisicans adroitly explore space, resonance, texture, sound and meaning. The improvising seems to effortlessly achieve a purposeful dialogue. It both demands and rewards close attention.

46. Botany - Deepak Verbera (Western Vinyl) 
The third album from Spencer Stephenson creates a both absorbing and disorientating astral meditation from layers of intriguing samples. This is beautifully digressive music, abandoning established conventions in favour of associative wanderings and mysterious allusions. The title Deepak Verbera evolved from 'deep verb', the notion of deep reverb, but actually ended up having broder meaning ('deepak' in Hindi is a source of light). Stephenson's aim appears to have been to create ambient music designed to be heard at high volume rather than seep into the background. He has succeeded on this basis and more.

45. Monocled Man - We Drift Meridian (Whirlwind)
This represented a major shift for Rory Simmons' group, incorporating vocalists, electronics and an impressive focus on production as well as musical performance. Musical reference points from notional jazz communities might include keyboardist Craig Taborn’s wiry, fragmented and thoroughly brilliant electronics project Junk Magic or David Torn’s industrial, menacing masterpiece Prezens. More recently, and perhaps more pertinently for Simmons, trumpeter Dave Douglas made a similarly immersive and atmospheric journey through electronic sound worlds on his High Risk album. Simmons has also spoken of musical influences well beyond the jazz world, including the likes of Clark and Jon Hopkins.

Whilst these sound worlds sometimes seem cold and detached, the music also has a sense of melancholy that hints at loneliness and isolation. The latter emotion is significant, given that Simmons’ inspiration from the album was Pocket Book of Remote Islands, a book by German writer Judith Shcalansky, detailing her childhood interest in disparate islands and their inhabitants. For example, Tromelin Island, the location that gives name to the album’s mysterious, compelling overture, is the site of the wreckage of a slave ship that ran aground in 1761. It is also appropriate that the music consistently evokes both mystery and awe.

The album achieves an impressive unity and coherence in sound. Recurring characteristics include eerie echoes and reverb, purposefully splintered and broken grooves and coiled, deceptively delicate picked guitar lines. The approach to melody seems to lie mainly in the exploration and development of short, insistent motifs. Vocalist Emilia Martensson adds inventive phrasing in her understated but impressive contributions (particularly on the haunting title track). It is a work where attention to detail in sound design is as important as individual improvisatory contributions or compositional approaches to harmony and rhythm. Some of the depth in sound is achieved through the judicious use of effects, and in the intricate blend of acoustic and electronic drums. The approach manages to make many of these pieces sound simultaneously muscular and vulnerable.

Read more at http://www.musicomh.com/reviews/albums/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.musicomh.com%2Freviews%2Falbums%2Fmonocled-man-drift-meridian#YseuMvsGtYtlwdAy.99

44. Marius Neset - Snowmelt (ACT) 
Given that Marius Neset’s small band writing already sounds full to near-bursting point, one might be forgiven for questioning whether a work for jazz band and contemporary chamber orchestra might end up feeling overwrought. Could this simply be a case of too much information? Neset’s insistent rhythms and fluttering, angular melodies might perhaps be wearing in this context.

Refreshingly, Snowmelt has actually captured new sides to Neset’s writing and has found him very successfully finding poise and balance between his established writing style and these less familiar aspects. Whilst the music retains the hectic, fleet-footed folk dance quality of much of his small band work, it also expands upon more sensitive qualities only previously hinted at (for example on Angel Of The North from the Golden Xplosion album). What is even more impressive is that amidst all this writing, Neset has still left plenty of space for improvisation, including some stellar contributions from his bandmates. The opening prologue highlight’s Neset’s solo soprano saxophone and the wide range of sonic possibilites he can extract from the one instrument, whilst the Paradise section of the suite Arches Of Nature finds pianist Ivo Neame taking flight.

By devoting most of Snowmelt to long compositions (the wild, euphoric 12 minutes of the title track and the expansive suite Arches of Nature), Neset allows himself the time and space in which to explore his theme of extremes and contrasts. The music here ranges from abrasive dissonance to a rich, sensitive lyricism. He manages to explore the latter tendency without crossing over into the lachrymose or sentimental, instead establishing a mature and thoughtful dimension to his writing.

Read more at http://www.musicomh.com/reviews/albums/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.musicomh.com%2Freviews%2Falbums%2Fmarius-neset-london-sinfonietta-snowmelt#cmtecquejUFEVxgP.99

43. Tim Hecker - Love Streams (4AD) 
If one of the characteristics of Tim Hecker's work has been a certain kind of distance and detachment - ideas expressed through often abrasive static and noise, Love Streams seems to offer a greater sense of intimacy and warmth. The opening Obsidian Counterpoint is almost melodic, bubbling and fizzing in ways unusual to Hecker's work. This album is also particularly interesting because it finds Hecker working with choral voices, both in terms of digitally manipulating source material and in the writing of new choral parts. In separating the sound of these voices from conventional language, he creates something unusual and striking. This might be Hecker's most outwardly beautiful and exposed work.

42. Tindersticks - The Waiting Room (City Slang)
Tindersticks are a band that seem to grow in importance and personal resonance for me with each passing year. Part of this may be tied up with my growing appreciation for the films of Claire Denis, so many of which are scored by the band. There's another aspect to this too - a growing need for music that refuses to press obvious buttons, that captures emotion and drama through its restraint. So, whilst The Waiting Room is undeniably delicate and subdued, it also finds the band exploring rhythm in their own controlled and soulful way (check the hi-hats on Second Hand Man and the superb Were We Once Lovers has real urgency). It also features some magnificent string and horn arrangements (the latter courtesy of contemporary jazz legend Julian Siegel). The re-emergence of the sadly missed Lhasa De Sela on Hey Lucinda also provided one of the year's genuine shock moments.

41. Thalia Zedek Band - Eve (Thrill Jockey)
Formerly guitarist and vocalist with Come, Zedek is a vital figure in alternative music to whose music I am admittedly arriving very late in the day. Eve feels like a vital starting point, however, its potent and raw band sound revelling in dynamic control and dense emotion, with David Michael Curry's viola a distinctive element. Despite the obvious force of the band, Zedek's voice always remains a stark and striking presence at the forefront of the music.

40. Lambchop - FLOTUS (City Slang) 
The last few Lambchop albums have arguably been a little too easy to take for granted and it has felt for a while as if Kurt Wagner needed to make some changes to his modus operandi. Flotus represents such a step, incorporating electronic sounds and vocal effects into Lambchop's hermetic sound. It is of course not Wagner's first step in to such territory, having previous collaborated with XPress-2 and having released an album last year with his electronic project HecTA. Flotus was actually recorded around the same time as the HecTA record but is a much more successful experiment. It's inevitably tempting to compare this with Bon Iver's 22, A Million (which also relies heavily on vocal trickery), but Flotus is warmer, more inviting and, crucially, much less cluttered. Bookended by two very long tracks, there is space here both for wordy exposition (In Care Of 8675309) and for extended minimalist introductions (The Hustle). Also, in addition to all the effects, the music is also rooted in subtle, softly executed grooves.

39. Ian William Craig - Centres (FatCat)
Ian William Craig's first album for FatCat expands his sonic armoury with synthesiser, Hammond organ, guitar and accordion in addition to his extraordinary voice and customary tape manipulations. IWC's processes with sound distortion and tape loops seem largely unfathomable, but the results are tangibly beautiful and haunting.

38. Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids - We Be All Africans (Strut)
In west coast alto saxophonist and bandleader Idris Ackamoor's own words, this is 'a message that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all one family, the human family and we need one another in order to survive on this planet that we all share.' We Be All Africans is a kinetic and thrilling counterbalance to some of the more dismaying prevailing political and social trends of 2016. Its fusion of space age improvisation in the manner of Sun Ra, West African Fela-esque grooves and infectious chants and melodies makes for an exuberant, joyous listening experience. For those whose interest is piqued for the first time, there's also a great compilation of earlier material available on Bandcamp.

37. Teenage Fanclub - Here (PeMa) 
Teenage Fanclub albums are sadly infrequent now but when they arrive they feel as reassuringly familiar as old friends. Yet, also like an old friend, this band seems to continue to grow and develop in subtle ways. Their music is hardly radical, but there are few bands with this many songwriters who have made the democratic approach work so well. Here is by some distance the strongest of their independently released, post-Creation work - with a little more scuzz and bite than Shadows but still capturing the understated classicism of their songwriting without fanfare, bells or whistles. Norman Blake's songs still sound effortless, with their melliflous melodies, whilst Raymond McGinley still sounds edgier, perhaps more cynical and world-weary (not a criticism, his outlook balances the otherwise relentless sunshine). Gerard Love arguably comes out of this one the strongest - particularly in his matching of delicate, understated verses with soaring, joyful choruses.

36. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger (Concord) 
Of all the elder statesmen legends still at work, Paul Simon is arguably the most taken for granted. He rarely seems to be afforded the kind of column inches regularly dished out to Dylan or Springsteen. Whilst his live sets still seem to favour the ubiquity of past achievements (particularly Graceland, which now seems to have been successfully divorced from the controversy of its original context), he still seems keen to challenge and push himself in the studio. Both this and its predecessor (So Beautiful Or So What) are beautiful sounding records, meticulously put together. Stranger To Stranger couples minimal, percussion heavy arrangements with some crisp and incisive lyrics, Simon's sense of irony and biting humour still predominant.

35. Padang Food Tigers and Sigbjorn Apland - Bumblin' Creed (Northern Spy)
Having come to adore Padang Food Tigers' 2012 album Ready Country Nimbus, I was delighted to discover this collaboration with harmonium player Sigbjorn Apland. With its use of found sounds to establish mood and feeling (perhaps creaking doors or floorboards, birdsong, running water, rainfall), this feels like music made on the back porch of an isolated homestead somewhere in rural America, but the duo of Spencer Grady and Stephen Lewis actually live in London. Whilst the music could hardly feel less urban, it offers a welcome respite from the ceaseless pace and intensity of city living to a more introspective and thouughful space, both intimate and open. This is a lovely record.

34. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Whilst the weird form of groupthink that often clouds the afterlife of Radiohead records remains deeply frustrating (King of Limbs now seems as inaccurately condemned to minor status as Hail To The Thief was before it), there's no denying the stealthy impact of A Moon Shaped Pool. Rather than portraying it as a 'return to form' cliche, it might have been more interesting to explore its subtle variations in more natuaralistic band dynamics (it sounds less like an in-the-studio creation than KoL), its deft interweaving of influences drawn from psychedelia, freewheeling folk and spiritual jazz (particularly on album highlight The Numbers), and the careful integration of some features more characteristic of Jonny Greenwood's solo and soundtrack work (particularly the string arrangements). It's more of a melting pot than its immediate predecessors - but many of its contrasts create intrigue and suspense (this actually comes across more to me than the much-discussed post-breakup element).

33. Mary Lattimore - At The Dam (Ghostly International) 
The five semi-improvised harp pieces collected here (solo, but incorporating overdubs and quirky effects) are characterised by a philosophical, solipsistic character, and a strong sense of patient exploration. Inspired by a journey across America to the west, and by the rhythms of Joan Didion's essay writing, Lattimore seems unhurried, more interested in the journey itself than the eventual destination.  It captures something of the relationship between the land and the individual. 'The Quiet At Night' may be the most perfect marriage of music and title in 2016.

32. Moon Bros - These Stars (Western Vinyl) 
This is actually the sixth album Matt Schneider has recorded under the Moon Bros. moniker but the first to cross my radar (and thanks to Alexander Shields of A Grave With No Name for suggesting this, and a few other albums that make this list, to me). This actually feels like a record tailor made for me as it takes Schneider's love for Nashville country songcraft and filters it through a more liminal, improvisatory approach. This hybrid works remarkably well, and the resulting music has both graceful fluidity and lingering melancholy.

31. William Tyler - Modern Country (Merge) 
Expanding to a full band electric sound, William Tyler now channels Mark Knopfler and Daniel Lanois within his modern day appalachian folk music. This is a warmly atmospheric, healing record that never quite settles in to the background - there's always some detail in the playing or intriguing effect to keep the music simmering. It's an intriguing evolution in both Tyler's playing and his sonic palette - and he admirably keeps refusing to repeat himself.

30. Dinosaur - Together, As One (Edition)
Trumpeter Laura Jurd has been a favourite of this blog in a number of different musical situations for some time now, not least the excellent Blue Eyed Hawk collaborative band. Jurd has been working with pianist Elliott Galvin, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Corrie Dick for a while, but has now cemented this band's existence as a separate entity. Some distance from the impressionism of Landing Ground (her first album under her own name), Dinosaur embraces electrified sound worlds, looping repetitions, hypnotic grooves and bold playfulness.

The music is often built on open-sounding structures, direct melodic devices and repeating bass figures, yet the band can also handle Jurd’s more intricate rhythmic devices (Primordial, for example) with startling accuracy. For the most part, this is the sort of writing that lends itself very well to development and improvisation, as there are few limits on where it can be taken when the individual contributions of all the musicians come in to play.

Whilst the clearest reference point for this music is surely electric Miles Davis (specifically those brilliant transitional records Filles De Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way), the open landscape of this music is sometimes redolent of our own countryside and hints at more personal, distinctive and homegrown elements. In addition to the transparent electric ensemble lineage, there are moments that hint at trumpeter Ian Carr’s experiments with classical and folk idioms on Northumbrian Sketches and Old Heartland (Carr was also Miles Davis’ biographer). It’s an intriguing mix executed with agility and a strong sense of energy and forward motion throughout.

Read more at http://www.musicomh.com/reviews/albums/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.musicomh.com%2Freviews%2Falbums%2Fdinosaur-together-as-one#hUgvo1OvS4sjzTsI.99

29. Kendrick Lamar - untitled . unmastered (Aftermath Entertainment) 
Essentially a set of outtakes from To Pimp A Butterfly, this mini-album might lack its predecessor's sociopolitical sweep, but the creative way it is stitched together by association allows it to work as a fascinating and effective companion piece. The pieces, going back to 2013, are given date stamps for titles, but what emerges is a unified document of Lamar's musical and lyrical adventurousness (it often feels like an unstoppable torrent of words). If this is a stop-gap release, it's an exceptional one. Also, as an aside, listening to this next to the brilliant album from A Tribe Called Quest - it feels like I can discern the influence of Q-Tip on Kendrick.

28. Frank Ocean - Blond(e) (Boys Don't Cry) 
Much of 2016 was spent waiting for Frank - his notoriously unreliable tweets and hints suggested new music only for the tantalising promise to be repeatedly retracted. When new music arrived, it came in the most fascinating (and, it has to be said, admirably ruthless) of ways. A video album, Endless, given to Apple Music as en exclusive, extricated Ocean from his record contract and allowed him to release Blond, apparently the real deal as far as a follow-up to Channel Orange was concerned, independently. Fortunately, Blond now seems to be occupying the higher echelons of many end of year lists, but many of the immediate hot takes seemed misleading. Dismissed as 'lacking melody' by many expecting more of Channel Orange's savvy modernisation of classic soul tropes, Blond worked best as a continuous suite of music, a hazy, somnambulent set of fading memories, capturing the way youth quickly drifts in to nostalgia. It's a set of emotions filtered through the unreliability of recollection, the sometimes fragmentory, often drifting music a perfect realisation of Ocean's core ideas.

27. Brigid Mae Power - Brigid Mae Power (Tompkins Square) 
Brigid Mae Power's airy, ethereal music sings the virtues of simplicity and space. The opening 'It's Clearing Now' is stunning, built on a repeating two chord strumming pattern. It feels devotional, like a chant, a raga or a mantra, but over and above it is Power's understated but versatile voice, pulling and stretching at the song's elastic melody. Whether accompanied by pump organ or piano, Power's voice always seems full of mystery and longing.

26. Aziza Brahim - Abbar el Hamada (Glitterbeat) 
Another excellent album from the Sahrwi singer, perhaps as impressive for its sense of restaint and elegance as for its rhythms. At the forefront of a considered blend of acoustic and electric instruments, Brahim's clear and compelling voice is very much the heart of this record.  The album mixes traditional Saharawi rhythms with musical ideas from Senegal and the Mediterranean. It's perhaps worth noting Brahim's significant mission statement in her own words: “I’m not able to separate politics, cultural and personal concerns. So, the focus of my music is all of these areas at the same time. Political, because of its commitment to the denunciation of social injustice. Cultural, because it searches for new musical ideas. Personal, because it expresses the worries of a person that aspires to live with dignity in a better world.”

25. Oliver Coates - Upstepping (Prah) 
Few musicians can have had quite as multi-faceted and successful a year as cellist Oliver Coates. As part of the London Contemporary Orchestra, he helped craft the exquisite and imaginative orchestrations on Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool. Very late in the year, he also released an excellent collaboration album with Mica Levi. His own solo recording is pretty remarkable in its own right. Somewhat in the spirit of Arthur Russell (an obvious comparison many have already made, but no less meaningful for this), Coates has recorded a wholly contemporary album of minimalist, instrumental dance music using only his cello. Even the drum tracks are manipulated from samples of himself playing cello.  Coates sustains a murky atmosphere at times reminiscent of Burial but the processes and ideas behind Upstepping are very much his own.

24. Heron Oblivion - Heron Oblivion (Sub Pop)
The Sub Pop website describes this quite brilliantly with the words 'pastoral pummel' and I honestly don't think I could come up with anything better. This 'supergroup' combines Ethan Miller and Noel Von Harmonsen from the mighty Comets on Fire with vocalist Meg Baid (Espers, The Baird Sisters) and Charlie Saufey of Assemble Head. It's a world of striking contrasts, imbuing nature with a scorching sense of wildness and unpredictability. 

23. Shabaka and the Ancestors - Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood)
Whilst crossover projects such as Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming have garnered more attention for saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (the latter nominated for the 2016 Mercury Music Prize), Wisdom of Elders might be his most interesting and rewarding recording. Connected to a group of South African musicians via Mandla Mlangeni of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, Hutchings and the band recorded this music in just one day. Drawing from South African Nguni music, the American jazz tradition and calypso among other forms, this is music with all the urgency and intensity familiar from Hutchings' other projects, but with deeper, resonant compositions offering a great springboard for improvisation. The combination of drums, percussion and warm Fender Rhodes keeps this music in touch with its influences, but Hutchings' energy, commitment and great sound also roots the music in the present moment.

22. case/laing/veirs - case/laing/veirs (Anti) 
Whilst Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs could all be said to operate in some form of hinterland on the outskirts of the country music tradition, the announcement that they had collaborated on an album together still came as something of a surprise. The result proved to be more than the sum of its part - a seamless, brilliantly executed blend of their individual vocal and songwriting characters, glued together by Tucker Martine's swirling, opulent production. This is a record of genuine sophistication. One of my big wishes for 2017 is for some live dates for this project in the UK.

21. 75 Dollar Bill - Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock (Thin Wrist Recordings) 
Stoical, repetitive and ritualistic, this set of four mostly long pieces is strikingly original. Yes, the music can be said to reference African 'desert blues', particularly in the incisive, gritty sound of Che Chen's modified guitar, but it replaces the urgency of that music with something more contemplative. With percussionist Rick Brown mostly playing cajon, it's a notably unconventional duo sound, and one that encourages close listening to pick out very small details. If you are prepared to leave the world for an hour, this is a deeply satisfying way of doing just that.

20. Henry Threadgill - Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings) 
A heartfelt tribute to the composer Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, who died in 2013, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs marks yet another impressive chapter in the continued development of Henry Threadgill's compositional voice. Written for the larger Ensemble Double Up, incorporating two pianos and a broader range of textures and possible sound worlds, the first three parts of this expand the palette of Threadgill's interval-based approach to composition that he has been exploring with his band Zooid. Also incorporating elements of Morris' 'conduction' work, the music is gestural and physical. For the fourth part, Threadgill departs from this approach in favour of something both more personal and universal - a funereal elegy for Morris that is powerful and moving.

19. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) 
Atrocity Exhibition is a multi-layered and complex work that will take many months of listening to unpick. For example, it apparently features numerous references to Brown's earlier work threaded throughout. But even enjoyed as a standalone statement, Atrocity Exhibition is pretty remarkable, not least for the virtuosity in Brown's wordplay and his singular ability to adopt a wide range of voices. It feels like a confrontational record - and enjoyably abrasive - but the combination of Brown's conceptual and intellectual verbosity with the intense, forceful production results in something vivid and compelling.

18. Noura Mint Seymali - Arbina (Glitterbeat) 
The second (and superior) international release from the Mauritanian singer is a versatile triumph, contrasting blazing, strident performances with moments of rich melodicism. The small band sound is still dominated by the adapted Moorish guitar of her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly, although tracks such as Mohammedoun are notable for the intricate rhythmic interlocking of the whole band. There's also room this time for an occasional more wistful and reflective quality to emerge.

17. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS (Western Vinyl)   
This seamless meshing of electronic and acoustic sounds, utilising vintage synthesisers and woodwind instruments played by Bitchin Bajas' Rob Fyfe comprises some of 2016's most meditative music. A lot of this also feels aquatic or grainy (at least in part due to the lightly effervescent synth sounds and the processing of Smith's voice), a little like moving through warm ocean waters. Whilst the pieces are mostly concise, it also seems to come together as a single long form work. It has been a deeply soothing balm in this most troubling of years.

16. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
Despite being rumoured for many years, the eventual appearance of a sixth album from A Tribe Called Quest still made for one of 2016's biggest surprises. Completed shortly before the sad death of Phife Dogg, this sprawling, hugely entertaining set stands as both a fitting memorial for Phife and a strong concluding statement for the group. There are the inevitable strong contributions from guests (notably Busta Rhymes), but they never threaten to overshadow the distinctive rap voices from the individual members of Tribe. Like A Seat At The Table, it also presciently addresses the station of the nation in the USA.

15. Solange - A Seat At The Table (Saint Records/Columbia) 
Whilst most of the music industry focus this year may have been on sister Beyonce's Lemonade, Solange Knowles quietly made the more compelling music, partially for its deft modernisation of psychedelic soul but also for its social and political engagement and strong personal dimension. This is a long album that manages to cover a lot of ground within its striking, unified sound world. Solange's soft, controlled vocals are not outwardly virtuosic but still span an impressive range, and the layering of vocals to create lush, sophisticated harmonies are one of this album's many musical charms. An honest, compelling document of contemporary black womanhood, alongside reminiscences in the interludes from Solange's parents (one of the best interludes finds Tina railing against those who would suppress black pride), this is a strong reminder of the notion that the personal is political.

14. Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee/Vestapol (Merge) 
I find Hiss Golden Messenger albums tend to be insidious - initially feeling ingratiating but relatively straightforward, they then gradually reveal considerable nuances and depths over time. The prolific MC Taylor's songwriting continues to be poetic, perceptive and self critical, and he remains one of the great chroniclers of the internal conflicts and tensions inherent in a touring musician's life. Heart Like A Levee continues his evolution in to more expansive arrangements, with a strong focus on groove (not least on Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer, the great one chord jam of 2016). There's also space for evocative writing too, not least on the plaintive Cracked Windshield. The deluxe edition came with a bonus album too good to be condemned as merely something extra - Vestapol is a fully realised set of acoustic songs.

13. William Bell - This Is Where I Live (Stax) 
The soul legend's return to Stax is unlikely to win any prizes for innovation, but in terms of sheer quality, it is one of the year's most remarkable achievements. At the age of 77, Bell is still in strong voice and performing at the top of his game. This album is also superbly produced, with a remarkably warm vintage soul sound. The songwriting is also first rate. Bell is one of the most significant writer-performers in the history of American soul music, but not actually written about all that often. That should change.

12. Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans) 
Ryley Walker's self constructed persona as a lumbering, careless provocateur belies the increasing depth and intuition in his music, although both man and music channel a kind of audacity. In actuality, Walker is a musician who knows exactly what he's doing, from the increasingly disarming frankness of his lyrics (think Marks Eitzel or Kozelek) to his choice of improvising collaborators from the Chicago scene (guitarist Brian Sulpizio, free flowing drummer Frank Rosaly). With songs developed from improvisations, producer LeRoy Bach seems to have helped channel some freewheeling ideas in to something both flexible and coherent. Certainly, much more of Walker's personal voice seems to be cutting through here - whereas Primrose Green effectively channeled his key influences (Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake etc), it's not only easier to discern the influence of improvisers such as Jeff Parker here, but also Walker's own story. The most exciting thing about this record is its suggestion of potential - there's surely a masterpiece still to come.

11. Robert Stillman - Rainbow/Time Of Waves (Orindal) 
I'm cheating a little here by combining multi-instrumentalist Robert Stillman's two releases this year (both short form - one a mini-album, one a 4 track EP), although it feels justified in that they complement each other in compelling ways. Released in January, Rainbow began 2016 with a sense of both melancholy and celebration. Reintroducing Stillman's tenor saxophone and built from multi-tracked recordings of himself on various instruments, Rainbow effortlessly draws connections between disparate influences - minimalist composition, the spiritual jazz movement, Milton Nascimento, Ornette Coleman, aspects of Harry Smith's anthology of American folk music. Structured around dedications to members of his family (including his daughter Ruth who sadly passed away), the landscape in Kent and to this station wagon, Rainbow is a meditative, deeply personal work that is also broadly inspiring. Time Of Waves focuses more tightly on some of Stillman's more abstracted, experimental leanings - ambient and drone particularly. It's an improvisation for saxophone with effects and cassette players. Musically, it's very different from Rainbow, but it creates a similarly personal feeling - Stillman's musical interpretation of contemporary life ('we are living in a time of waves').

10. Laura Cannell - Simultaneous Flight Movement (Brawl) 
Recorded live in a single take at Southwold Lighthouse, Simultaneous Flight Movement arguably does more than any other recording in 2016 to incorporate the physical environment in to its sound. The natural reverb is particularly effective on the tracks on which Cannell plays various recorders. Cannell is a fascinating musician, with training and experience in baroque and medieval music but also in experimental contemporary worlds too. Her own music channels the ghosts of the past in to something new and urgent, integrating composition and improvisation, history and current experience.

9. Khmer Rouge Survivors - They Will Kill You, If You Cry (Glitterbeat) 
This third instalment of Glitterbeat's Hidden Musics series may be the most significant. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia is widely accepted to have killed a quarter of Cambodia's population. A tragedy of that magnitude also inevitably had a significant impact on the country's art and culture. Here, producer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, amongst others) has recorded fourteen performances by survivors of the Killing Fields. The resulting collection is desolate, haunting and overwhelming - but also a vital, living, breathing testament to the power of music.

8. Linda Sharrock (In) The Abyssity Of The Grounds - Gods (Golden Labs) 
Being strictly limited to just 300 copies probably didn't help its cause much, but it has been astonishing just how little writing there has been about this outstanding album. Outside the pages of The Wire, it seems to have received no analysis or discussion at all. It's actually a fascinating counterbalance to all the works of grief and departure that have characterised this year (and it's probably not too much of a spoiler to say this top ten), in that Gods celebrates endurance and adapting to radically altered circumstances. Having suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009, Linda Sharrock's voice has become a sort-of low rumbling moan some way distant from her intense, transcendent work with husband Sonny on masterpieces such as Black Woman and Paradise. And yet, this new voice is also a great communicator, both blending with and occasionally provoking the musicians in this wild, fiery ensemble. Gods might be the most tempestuous set of free improvisation released in 2016 - far from easy listening, but rich with its own rewards.

7. Wadada Leo Smith - America's National Parks (Cuneiform) 
As if emboldened by the fully deserved acclaim for Ten Freedom Summers, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's late career continues to go from strength to strength, refocusing his work around his thematic suites. This is another major work that continues to exhibit Smith's strong sense of economy. He can imbue a couple of notes (or even simply the placement of those notes) with a sense of intensity and drama. The combination of cello and trumpet as forefront voices is intriguing. This all works brilliantly for an examination of the public landscapes of the USA.

6. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed)
Whilst I couldn't quite get in to the nebulous Push The Sky Away (the previous Bad Seeds album), Skeleton Tree proved sonically fascinating by developing the strongest aspects of that album's sound (creative use of space, quieter dynamics, eerie textures). Any discussion of the musical success of this inevitably became swept away by the context of the album's release following the tragic death of Cave's teenage son. It's true that, whilst it was mostly written before the event, Skeleton Key does seem, perhaps mysteriously, to channel a palpable sense of grief. It is stark and frequently overwhelming, sometimes unsettling but also offering tremendous empathy and consolation.

5. Shirley Collins - Lodestar (Domino)  
Painfully reflective of her modus operandi of collecting old folk ballads (both well known and neglected), it’s perhaps apt that Shirley Collins now herself possesses a rediscovered voice. Diagnosed with dysphonia following the end of her marriage to Ashley Hutchings (Fairport ConventionSteeleye Span), Collins was left unable to sing; Lodestar is her first album in 38 years. Returning to recording (and live performance) after such a long period away would be an event for any artist, but Collins is a singer whose presence through influence has spread far and wide during her absence. 2014’s Shirley Inspired concert and recording emphasised her importance to a new generation of song collectors and performers (including her friend David Tibet of Current 93Alasdair Roberts and Sam Lee).

All of these musicians have, in their own distinctive ways, shared Collins’ predilection for drawing out the weirdness and darkness in traditional song. If anything, this aspect of her music is greatly heightened here by the deepening of her voice. This imbues the songs with vividness and experience, somehow at once both robust and vulnerable. By celebrating both the strengths and weaknesses of this remarkable instrument, Lodestar feels entirely free from any form of burden or pressure. Collins possesses the sort of voice that compels the listener to focus, perhaps precisely because of her rejection of any kind of extraneous adornment. With the vocal takes recorded at Collins’ home, Collins seems at her most relaxed, able to inhabit each song completely, focusing relentlessly on clarity of communication and respect for the melodies. The music on Lodestar is all about the song, rather than about Collins’ musical personality.

Collins captures a hinterland between tradition and vanguard and many of the arrangements feature subtle but highly effective nuances that greatly enhance the sense of atmosphere and foreboding.
Whether stark and menacing, grief-laden or simply plain daft, Lodestar is a triumph of storytelling and sound.
Read more at http://www.musicomh.com/reviews/albums/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.musicomh.com%2Freviews%2Falbums%2Fshirley-collins-lodestar#ibIkpbGW9or08Wv8.99

4. Dan Weiss - Sixteen: Drummers' Suite (Pi Recordings)
Like Tyshawn Sorey, Dan Weiss is a drummer composer of considerable facility and resource (it's surely no coincidence that the same label is releasing work from both these artists). The follow-up to the expansive Fourteen, as its title suggests, Sixteen uses an even larger and more unconventional ensemble to explore Weiss' preoccupation with orchestration. Here, Weiss makes a virtue of what is too often dismissed as a limitation for drummers-as-composers - a focus on rhythm. He has transcribed specific passages from some of his favourite drummers (each track is named after a specific drummer) and used these ideas as the foundation for his themes. This re-establishes the rightly celebrated idea of 'melodic rhythm', vital to any jazz drummer seeking to play musically, and both celebrates the importance of studying the past and making an individual contribution to the music's evolution. Some would no doubt say Sixteen doesn't sound very much like jazz - but they would have missed the point. This is exactly what jazz should be - an approach or a state of mind informing the arrangement and expression of music.  

3. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (Columbia) 

Again, it's hard to divorce this from the sense of poignancy that comes with the knowledge that this really is Leonard Cohen's final statement. This is an idea that has been discussed for some time of course and Cohen had been throwing in dry witted lines about death and the ageing process as long ago as 1988's I'm Your Man ('I ache in the places where I used to play'). Whilst it is full of songs of departure (not least the masterful 'Leaving The Table'), You Want It Darker actually feels a good deal less final than the weirder Dear Heather. Whereas that album seemed burdened and serious, You Want It Darker (in spite of its title) often feels light, airy and relaxed - approaching the end with a considerable sense of humour and a sense of being at peace. It's almost as if Leonard looked at the geopolitical turmoil of western politics in 2016, found it a little too close to his intimations of doom on The Future, and wisely checked out. We will be bereft of his voice, but this subtle, intimate and beautifully arranged work (more human in sound than its immediate predecessors) will stand alongside his other masterpieces as an enduring statement. 

2. Tyshawn Sorey - The Inner Spectrum Of Variables (Pi Recordings) 

One of those works that occupies such a unique space on the musical spectrum that it is hard to know how to define it. This is far too organised and composed to be straightforward jazz, yet its emphasis on gestures, textures, concepts and in-the-moment spontaneity (through the vehicle of 'conducted improvisation') suggest something well beyond the bounds of even the most adventurous modern composition. Sorey is a fearsomely inventive musician - a dexterous drummer with a keen sense of complex polyrhythm and subdivision, but also someone interested in both the spiritual dimensions of music.  That he is now taking up a professorship in place of a retiring Anthony Braxton seems highly appropriate as he is one of a handful of musicians carrying the torch of fully integrating composition and improvisation. 

**1. David Bowie - Blackstar (Columbia)**
It may in many ways be the obvious selection but Blackstar synthesised so much of what I love about music. In utilinsing Donny McCaslin, Tim Lefevbre, Jason Linder and Mark Guiliana in his band, Bowie not only proved himself capable of late career innovation, he also opened hearts and minds to the approaches of contemporary jazz musicians. Sounds that so often receive short shrift from rock and mainstream critics suddenly became embracable. Only someone churlish would be cynical enough to dismiss this. That unfortunate events only added to this album's cultural importance - not least imbuing it with a hitherto concealed poignancy and symbolism. Combining some of Bowie's most moving songs and melodies with the near-scientific rigour of these musicians resulted in something new and exciting. 


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