Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017 In Albums Part 2: The Top 50

Like many other writers (both music and film enthusiasts) I read and follow, I tend to write these lists largely for myself. It's a means of creating closure on one calendar year, and looking ahead to what might be in store artistically in the next - and it's a means of examining my own listening preoccupations. As whatever I post to the internet will inevitably stay there unless I seek to remove it, it's also a great future resource to remind me what I enjoyed this year. I may of course come to disagree with my former self in future years, but that's OK.

It's been remarkably tough to pick out a top 50 from the wealth of excellent music released in 2017, and there were many other works I could have chosen. I plan to publish a longer list of pretty much everything I've checked out and enjoyed in 2017 at some point over the next few days, so if you don't see your particular favourite here, it may well be in that group. I would encourage readers to look deep in to that list as well, as the Top 50 is largely personal and subjective. That being said, it does feel like more of the big consensus records this year (LCD Soundsystem and Kendrick Lamar in particular) haven't really connected with me quite as much.

In terms of seeking diversity, some of my decisions have been conscious - I want the list to be representative of the wide range of music I enjoy. I have sought to include both albums I enjoy listening to repeatedly for surface pleasures and other music that I find more challenging (sometimes to the extent that I'm not sure I comprehend it). I've also consciously chosen to include examples of both individual musical pursuits (some introspective or even solipsistic) and examples of the joyful results of collective music making. Other decisions have been more subconscious - I haven't actively looked to include a specific quota of female artists this year but, as with the previous few years, I'm finding my listening habits are naturally leading me more to the work of women (as should be the case).

From this exercise, I can also identify certain trends in my listening habits this year that interest me. Ambient and other forms of introspective or contemplative music have offered particular solace from a politically turbulent and frustrating year. I have also tended to listen out for examples of elements I wish to improve in my own playing - particularly for musicians I feel are strong in varying dynamics, texture and timbre. With each year that passes, I feel I become more interested in the broader possibilities of *sound*. Combinations of percussion with electronics also seem to be a prevalent feature in this year's selection. 

I've included Bandcamp links where possible so please do explore and give money directly to the artists as and when you find something you enjoy!

50. Bitchin Bajas - Bajas Fresh (Drag City) 
'Not enough sh's in 'fresh' to convey what we're trying to say'...
More delightfully protracted meditations bringing a welcome sense of peace and stasis.

49. Ron Miles - I Am A Man (Yellowbird) 
'I Am A Man' finds the excellent trumpeter Miles expanding his regular trio with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade in to a quintet, adding bassist Thomas Morgan and pianist Jason Moran. This is a remarkably empathetic unit and the music here places a refreshing emphasis on melodic clarity. As the album's title suggests (sanitation workers in Memphis wielded 'I Am A Man' placards following the death of two workers, protesting poor conditions), this music seeks to address continuing social injustices, connecting the civil rights struggle to present day concerns. 

48. Chris Forsyth and The Solar Motel Band - Dreaming In The Non-Dream (No Quarter) 
One of the best exponents of instrumental rock guitar music, Chris Forsyth frequently creates something ecstatic or euphoric from his searing, strafing guitar lines. Here, he cuts incisively above some satisfyingly relentless grooves.

47. Circuit Des Yeux - Reaching For Indigo (Drag City)
Haley Fohr's music here is very hard to pin down, seemingly perched precariously somewhere between folk, ambient, country and avant-garde cabaret. The influence of Scott Walker seems to permeate throughout, but recording in collaboration with Cooper Crain of Bitchin Bajas might have lent this project a more mysterious, otherworldly lilt. Central to it all is Fohr's low, tremulous and frequemtly affecting voice.

46. Karen Gwyer - Rembo (Don't Be Afraid)
One key element of electronic music, whether it be perceived as intriguing or frustrating, is that it is inevitably difficult to know exactly what artists are doing when they perform. With 'Rembo', Karen Gwyer seeks to emphasise the relationship between producer and audience, and the rapid decision making process that is involved in performing. Gwyer works with a wide range of mood and feeling - from the strongly physical to the transcendental.  

45. Quercus - Nightfall (ECM)
This collaboration between jazz improvisers Iain Ballamy (saxophones) and Huw Warren (piano) and the versatile folk singer June Tabor continues to yield music of powerful emotional resonance and deceptive calm. There is a wondrous interpretation of Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' and Tabor even succeeds in finding depth of feeling in 'Auld Lang Syne'.

 44. Saz'iso - At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me - The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song (Glitterbeat) 
Extraordinary, deep, melancholy music from southern Albania produced by the great Joe Boyd. The press release on the Bandcamp page gives some insight into the stories behind these haunting, captivating and beautiful songs. Some of the most effective combining of male and female voices that I've heard in some time. 

43. Robert Stillman - Portals (Orindal)
Robert Stillman is such an open-minded and quietly adventurous musician that it's largely impossible to ever predict his next move. 'Portals' is a meditative collection of ambient-sounding music (actually improvised on Fender Rhodes piano) that works perfectly as the soundtrack to the closing of another year. For those seeking to let go of all the political turbulence and frustration of 2017, this is a necessary healing. 

42. High Aura'd - No River Long Enough Doesn't Contain A Bend (Debacle)
This is a gloriously desolate sounding record, its little bends and blue notes always deployed in unpredictable ways. The combination of guitar and drones yields a new alchemy, reinvigorating musical traditions and finding new paths to explore.

41. Broken Social Scene - Hug Of Thunder (Arts and Crafts)
This is the first album in seven years from the Toronto group and surely one of 2017's most welcome returns. The quality of both songwriting and execution remained remarkably high, and there seemed to be a fresh commitment, enthusiasm and energy given over to this particular project. The band remain firm advocates of a big sound, utilising the resources of the studio to unique effect.

40. Laura Cannell - Hunter Huntress Hawker (Brawl) 
One of the many advantages of an improvising modus operandi is that it enables an artist to be much more prolific in what they produce. In just a few years, Cannell has already recorded a major body of work. Hunter Huntress Hawker was recorded at a live performance at a semi-ruined church on the Suffolk coast (although the music was apparently inspired by a performance at a secret location in London). Here, Cannell focuses on her violin playing, particularly the overbow fiddle that is so consistently fascinating. The music here is evocative and transporting.

39. The Weather Station - The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)
Tamara Lindeman looked to a more expansive palette for this album, incorporating more of a band sound in to her elaborate narrative songs. At its best, the band accompaniment is spare and spacious, ably supporting Lindeman's drifting melodies, with her vocal delivery gently floating over the slightly greater turbulence. Lindeman also wrote the curious, compelling string arrangements.

38. Schnellertollermeier - Rights (Cuneiform) 
Schnellertollermeier have been an active band for ten years and 'Rights' is their fourth album. Listening to its stretched out, defiantly minimalist constructions has certainly made me want to delve back and explore the rest of their work. Whilst these musicians have a background in jazz and improvisaton, this music is clearly something different, drawing the power of repetition from club music and its intricate lattice structures from modern composition. It manages to sound both restless and stoical. 

37. Laura Baird - I Wish I Were A Sparrow (Ba Da Bing!) 
Laura Baird's glorious, feathery voice and spare but proficient banjo playing are superb vehicles for an exploration of the Appalachian folk tradition. This is more introspective and reflective than her work with her sister Meg, Baird often a lone voice against the elements. It's all the more fascinating for it.

36. Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul - Soulfire (Universal) 
By his own admission, Steve Van Zandt had neglected his own music for too long, having played loyal lieutenant on the virtually never ending Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tour of recent years. Whilst some of his peak 80s catalogue is hampered by production values of the time and slightly dubious cultural appropriation, Soulfire subtly refreshes the classic Disciples of Soul sound of Men Without Women, and is an equally powerful recording. Recorded relatively quickly, and capturing the sound of an outstanding band delivering confident, authoritative rock and soul music (bolstered by a great horn section and excellent backing singers), Van Zandt draws from his own back catalogue of songs written for other artists. His much maligned voice is in good shape here, and its rough edges arguably work better for lead than for backing. This is an unashamedly uncomplicated and thoroughly enjoyable album and, if I'm absolutely honest, I've enjoyed it more than the last couple of Springsteen records. With Bruce now seemingly on Broadway at least until early summer, it seems likely that Steve may get time to do more with this band next year. 

35. Robert Plant - Carry Fire (Nonesuch)
Robert Plant's late career continues to be the most fruitful period of his post-Zeppelin work. Again working with the excellent Sensational Space Shifters band, Carry Fire is subtler and more nuanced than its immediate predecessor, but reveals depth and meaning on repeated plays. Drawing on folk traditions, a range of music from around the world and the conventional dynamics of rock music, Plant continues to follow his own preoccupations, largely unifluenced by any wider musical trends.

34. William Basinski - A Shadow In Time (2062) 
One of Basinski's strongest works since The Disintegration Loops, this combines two long form pieces. The first is simply titled 'For David Robert Jones' and is a moving eulogy for David Bowie. The title track might actually be better still, offering a distilled creepiness that builds to something overwhelming.

33. Shackleton with Anika - Behind The Glass (Woe To The Septic Heart) 
This intriguing set finds Sam Shackleton continuing to develop his modern electronic take on devotional music and his preoccupation with collaborating with vocalists. It follows on from works with spoken word artist Vengeance Tenfold and with singer Ernesto Tomasini and, for me, is by some distance the strongest of these experiments. Anika's Nico-esque vocal works very well in this context, and the overall sense is surreal and otherworldly. Shackleton's capacity for developing threads and ideas over long form pieces remains a great strength, and this has been a compelling facet of his music since the masterful Music For The Quiet Hour.

32. House And Land - House And Land (Thrill Jockey) 
This duo of Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise Henson explores Appalachian folk ballads with a deft touch, making the case for this music as living and breathing rather than simply a recovered artifact. Intriguing use of unusual harmony and drones too.

31. Oumou Sangare - Mogoya (No Format)
Much has been made of Sangare's supposed change of direction here, returning after eight years to work with a French production team who have also collaborated with Franz Ferdinand. Mogoya is certainly an energetic set, but it's perhaps more notable the extent to which this simply plays to Sangare's existing strengths as a vocalist and performer. 

30. Will Guthrie - People Pleaser (Black Truffle)
I might have missed this highly original work were it not for Derek Walmsley, editor of Wire magazine, nominating it as his personal choice for album of the year (it didn't make their overall list). Guthrie is an Australian drummer and percussionist living in France, and this album blends improvised drums and percussion with electronics, field recordings and, perhaps most bizarrely, fragments of a police interrogation. The collaboration between Kieren Hebden and Steve Reid might be considered a useful reference point - but this feels much more like a coherent and immersive work in and of itself, as well as being considerably wilder.   

29. Laurel Halo - Dust (Hyperdub)
Laurel Halo's woozy, lopsided electronica reached a new level of blissful disorientation here, benefiting greatly from a succession of excellent guest contributions from the likes of Hyperdub colleague Klein, Julia Holter and drummer Eli Keszler, The treated vocals remain a characteristic feature but the fluid structures and combinations of keyboards and percussion make this work feel freer. 

28. Iron and Wine - Beast Epic (Sub Pop) 
This album was conspicuous by its absence from most end of year lists and I'm not entirely sure what it is that has caused Sam Beam to fall out of critical favour somewhat. Beast Epic represented a further paring back of his sound and also proved notable for a certain restraint in his lyrics as well. While his recent music had smoothed over some of the rougher edges of his sound, Beast Epic appears to wear its flaws proudly once again. Where the results are softer, there seems to be an intriguing, paradoxical juxtaposition between words and music ('Bitter Truth' may be the world's most delicate angry break up song). Beam claims the album 'speaks to the beauty and pain of growing up after you've grown up', and I very much appreciate the notion that we all exist in a perpetual state of transition. There is still something vivid and unusual in his poetic lyrics ('there's nowhere safe to bury all the time I've killed') and Beam remains a songwriter we should treasure. 

27. Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)
The combination of jazz and poetry/spoken word has a rich history (the work of Michael Garrick in this field having particular importance for me). It's therefore perhaps not so surprising that a collaboration between a quartet of free improvising musicians and poet Camae Ayewa (who records as Moor Mother) should yield such potent results. The extent to which the poetry drives the flow, texture and timbre of the improvisers' contributions is fascinating.

26. Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings - Soul Of A Woman (Daptone)
The loss of Sharon Jones made me realise how much I'd been taking her work for granted - Soul Of A Woman, now her final work, very much confirmed this realisation. This is much more than a facsimile of a vintage soul sound. Instead, it's a refraction of such a sound until it feels timeless. The songs are exquisite and brilliantly constructed, bolstered by superb production (very effective stereo panning) and perfectly judged playing.

25. Les Filles De Illighadad - Eghass Malan (Sahel Sounds)
This is the first official studio album from the female-lead group from an isolated village in Niger, where there is apparently little in the way of infrastructure. Exploring nomadic and rural folk song traditions but delivering them in a robust and thrilling way, 'Eghass Malan' is often breathtaking.

24. Michael Chapman - 50 (Paradise Of Bachelors)
Titled in celebration of Chapman's fifty years as a touring and recording artist, 50 finds him joining forces with some of the major talents of contemporary American folk rock, including Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles and James Elkington. The track selection seamlessly mixes bold new songs with reworkings from Chapman's extensive catalogue. Whereas much of his recent work has focused on his more experimental leanings (notably the Clayton Peacock records of abrasive guitar music), 50 serves as a reminder of his skills as a songwriter and storyteller. The loose, freewheeling approach of the ensemble serves the material well.

23. Hurray For The Riff Raff - The Navigator (ATO)
The sixth and strongest album from Alynda Lee Segarra's shifting musical project justly brought her to new audiences and bigger venues this year. Cleverly constructed in two acts, this song cycle explores immigration through the eyes of an alter ego character, Puerto Rican Navi. The Navigator both explores a wider range of musical traditions, particularly those drawn from South America and Cuba, but also brings Lee Segarra closer to conventional indie-rock territory at times, albeit at times where urgency and unmediated directness are demanded by the material. This is an enriching and invigorating work, and one sorely needed at this time. 

22. Alexander Hawkins - Unit(e) (AH Music)
A characteristically wide-ranging double album, with one disc performed by a sextet and a second performed by an expansive larger ensemble. The sextet combines joyful rhythm and ebullient melodic lines with wilder improvisation. It's a clever and effective blend of immediacy and deeper exploration frequently anchored by drummer Tom Skinner's firm grooves. For the second part, Hawkins becomes director and conductor of an ensemble investigating the wider possibilities of sound  and timbre. Combining all these elements in one project is a brave move.

21. Four Tet - New Energy (Text)
Kieren Hebden's longevity as a solo recording artist post-Fridge has been impressive, and if I had to pick one artist who has been consistent in developing and expanding their language and approach over the past fifteen years or so, I might opt for him. 'New Energy' adroitly balances his more physical and introspective sides and the range of sounds he produces from a limited set up remains fascinating. Now seemingly in control of every aspect of his music, its presentation and distribution, he is free to take intriguing musical detours.

20. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Western Vinyl)
Listening to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith feels like being submerged in warm water, and 'The Kid' further develops the sensory nature of her work whilst also further amplifying her melodic sensibility. Some of the warmest and most human electronic music of 2017.

19. Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black (ANTI-) 
It's pretty extraordinary that Mavis Staples has hit one of the most artistically fruitful periods of her career well into her eighth decade. Her commitment to expressing her values through music remains ceaseless and her energy, positivity and enthusiasm through difficult times are admirable and inspiring. A big factor in her latest musical successes has been the work of producer Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and this is the first of their collaboration where he also writes the material, making this a compelling set of original, socially and politically engaged songs. Whilst Staples has, by her own admission, now lost some of her vocal range, she has lost none of the directness and clarity of delivery that defines the greatest singers, and her voice retains a striking resonance and impact. 

18. Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over (ECM)
Arguably the strongest and certainly the most immediate of pianist and bandleader Vijay Iyer's works for the ECM label, Far From Over finds Iyer once again exploring the full potential of ensemble dynamics and collective improvisation. His continued interest in complex rhythmic ideas results in music that is both cerebral and viscerally exciting. The playing here feels characterised by confident risk taking. 

17. Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE)
“What would a world look like that is truly egalitarian, with advanced technology that is in tune with nature?”  This is the question posed her, by means of science fiction, words and music, by the remarkable flautist Nicole Mitchell. The question not only examines alternative possibilities but also enables Mitchell to reflect on her concerns about life in contemporary America. In keeping with the spiritual and philosophical inquiry of musicians such as Sun Ra and Yusef Lateef, Mandorla Awakening II is a textural and contemplative experience. The music fuses supposed dichotomies - urban and rural, male and female, electronic and acoustic.

16. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing!) 
One of those albums it would be all too easy to neglect simply because it appeared early in the year, 'Not Even Happiness' represented a substantial step forward for singer-songwriter Julie Byrne ('I've got a complicated soul', she claims on 'Follow My Voice'). Byrne's airy, soft voice blends perfectly with her musical surroundings and the results are some haunting melodies which both imbue the quotidian with powerful significance and investigate deeper philosophical terrain. Travel and movement provide sources of inspiration.

15. Wooden Wand - Clipper Ship (Three Lobed)
Apparently, this album breaks something of a songwriting tradition for James Jackson Toth, finding him focusing on music first and lyrics second, rather than the other way around. The result is one of his most absorbing and ultimately moving sets, foregrounding delicate guitar arpeggios and subtle atmospheric clusters. This is not to say that the lyrics are in any way weak ('Sacrificial' is moving and 'Mexican Coke' shares something of Ryley Walker's way with a quirky narrative) but it feels as if lyrics and music have been conceived in tandem and are perfectly matched. This album's sound - subtle but robust, lingers in the mind. It could be the best Wooden Wand album to date.

14. Thundercat - Drunk (Brainfeeder)
Where previous Thundercat albums have been concise, Drunk very much feels like Stephen Bruner's magnum opus. With guest appearances from Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, it enthusiastically plays the Yacht Rock game, but also revels in intricacy and even in occasional tastelessness. It gets away with this at least in part due to its considerable humour and sense of fun (he persistently loses both wallet and phone during these narratives) but also due to its foregrounding of clear melody amidst the virtuosity and showmanship. By creating a restless and relentless journey into his own psychology, Bruner has stepped away from the shadow cast by Flying Lotus in to an impressive and dazzling sonic space entirely of his own making.

13. The Necks - Unfold (Ideologic Organ) 
I remain fascinated by the extent to which improvising trio The Necks continue to polarise opinion among jazz musicians I know - a debate that seems to tease out the quite different expectations and requirements people have from music. This band appeal to my still developing interest in the possibilities of sound - I'm compelled by the manner in which they patiently build intensity (and it remains extraordinary that the resulting peaks are drawn from just three musicians). It's also a source of inspiration the extent to which they veer away from the conventional musical roles of their respective instruments. For a band so persistently interested in music's relationship with time and place, ranking their various recordings against each other feels like a futile exercise, but a couple of elements do stand out here - the role played by the organ on Blue Mountain and the incisive contribution of Tony Buck's percussion throughout.

12. Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow (Merge) 
MC Taylor continued his prolific streak with a quickly recorded album emphasising Hiss Golden Messenger's burgeoning ensemble qualities. As usual, the songwriting was strong and brimming with insight - but this time, the detail of the arrangements, with a soulful spirit often reminiscent of Van Morrison at his best, transported the music to a deeper space. In keeping with other Hiss albums, Hallelujah is quietly insidious too, its songs gradually assuming a greater depth and resonance with every play.
11. Rob Luft - Riser (Edition)
For me, 'Riser' was the most fully realised and promising of the young British jazz debuts this year. With admirable honesty, Luft admits to perceiving himself as a performer first and a composer second, but 'Riser' still feels like an impressively realised work, not least because of the attention to detail paid to its sound. It's a kinetic and exciting work too, with agile lines neatly assembled. Dinosaur's Corrie Dick and bassist Tom McCredie provide the band with a powerful, urgent energy. The occasional influence of African rhythms and melody adds a celebratory feel.

10. Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Incidentals (ECM) 
This outstanding live set continues to broaden the range and depth of Snakeoil's sound and approach, deploying masterful dynamic control to create pieces that veer from the reflective to the tempestuous. Guitarist Ryan Ferreira offers bold interjections and bursts of chaos. Producer David Torn provides additional guitar at the climax of the long form Sideshow (and also provides the eerie, futuristic introduction to Hora Feliz) , a timely reminder that his ongoing collaboration with Berne has produced some of contemporary music's most innovative and absorbing works ('Prezens', Torn's album as leader that also features Berne, should be more widely recognised too).  Throughout, there is a finely poised balance between compositional flair and collective improvisation. 

9. Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu) 
One of 2017's most intricate albums, Black Origami is perfectly titled, its careful folds interlocking into something both radical and informed (not just by recent developments in footwork but also more longstanding trends in American electronic music). 'Black Origami' is so detailed and lovingly executed that it would be fascinating to hear it performed live by a percussion ensemble. It feels as it would work as well as a piece of contemporary composition as it does a piece of electronic sound design.

8. Fiium Shaarrk - We Are Astonishingly Lifelike (Not Applicable)
This superb, mesmerising percussion and electronics trio seem to have been somewhat ignored in the UK - but, for me, this was one of the year's imaginative delights, combining the textural and dynamic properties of drums with the mystery and strangeness of electronic sound. It's an album of striking contrasts between the abrasive and the flowing, the fragmented and the unified.

7. Craig Taborn - Daylight Ghosts (ECM) 
Working here with a new quartet featuring the great Chris Lightcap on bass, Dave King (The Bad Plus) on drums and Chris Speed on saxophones and clarinet, Craig Taborn remains one of the most imaginative and creative musicians at work on the New York jazz scene, with the dexterity to execute his ideas with precision and musicality. He also remains one of the most effective musicians at integrating electronics with the properties of what is fundamentally an acoustic music. His unusual structures and dense melodies, together with a fascinating approach to ensemble improvisation here, are not easy to digest, but they leave a strong impression and challenge us to listen closely.  

6. Joan Shelley - Joan Shelley (No Quarter)
Joan Shelley is one of my favourite singers currently at work. Her soft, understated delivery has a compelling purity and directness, leaving nothing extraneous between her lyrics and melodies and the listener. Where she adds something extra (a vocal harmony line for example), it is used sparingly and enhances the song. On this self titled album, her lyrics achieved a new purpose and clarity too, not least on the beautiful 'Wild Indifference'. It's also easily to overlook the tiny details of production that best capture acoustic music - the two guitars here panned to different channels, interacting and conversing with each other, Spencer Tweedy's occasional drums offering support and texture and never being obtrusive. The music has a gentle, dusty drift to it and there is a quiet and unassuming authority here.

5. GAS - Narkopop (Kompakt)
Wolfgang Voigt returned to his GAS moniker for the first time in seventeen years, time during which this project's influence has spread far and wide. Narkopop seemed impressively unencumbered by baggage or the weight of expectation (or nostalgia, thankfully), instead luxuriating in Voigt's impressionistic soundscapes, somehow at once both reflective and menacing. This work seemed to offer greater development and evolution, as well as being powerfully cinematic with more varied textures. Listening to this is like passing through a membrane between two worlds.

4. Bjork - Utopia (One Little Indian) 
I suspect and hope that Utopia will be reassessed in years to come, not least because it's a striking example of where a modern rapid release strategy does not necessarily serve the work all that well. Whilst critics generally received it positively, we still have to endure the limited horizons of those who still approach a new Bjork record in the hope it will provide some 'hooks'. That Utopia is actually rich in inventive melody and has sonic challenges that, given patience, become completely enthralling, inevitably seemed lost on some. In addition to this, few ventured beyond the surface presentation of this as Bjork's 'being single' album (perhaps not helped by her own flippant reference to Tinder). Thematically, Utopia actually is stark and daring in its exploration of sex ('anal entrances' indeed!) and its inextricable connections with feeling (both sensory and abstract) and nature. Its amorphous, subliminal sound world is perfectly matched with its ideas. 

3. Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society - Simultonality (Glitterbeat/Tak:Til) 
Joshua Abrams operates in a curious and highly distinctive intersection between improvised music, the mantric insistence of minimalist composition and African-inspired rhythms. What emerges most clearly on this album is group music making that is both contemplative and joyful. This particular line-up of Natural Information Society has been given time and space to develop a deeper ensemble relationship through gigging. It's a superb line-up too, including the great, loose-limbed Frank Rosaly (Ryley Walker) on drums and Emmett Kelly on electric guitar. The use of more unusual instruments, including autoharp, harmonium and Abrams' own guimbri adds both texture and character. Whilst the music still has spontaneity, it also has an engaging depth of communication and control.This music has been a great healer during a politically turbulent and frustrating year.

2. Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse (Naim)
Yazz Ahmed's La Saboteuse, as fully realised and coherent an album as I've heard all year (but intriguingly released in four instalments before the whole was made available), strikes me as one of the most captivating examples of a hybrid music. Ahmed's original compositions draw from jazz-rock fusion (Miles Davis may be an obvious reference point, but there are moments which genuinely bring his work to mind, not least in this music's use of space), Ahmed's Bahraini heritage and her contemporary experience working with a diverse range of musicians (including Radiohead, whose 'Bloom' Ahmed reinterprets with playful invention here). The ensemble includes some front rank talent, including Shabaka Hutchings on reeds, Lewis Wright on vibraphone and Naadia Sheriff on Fender Rhodes piano (a sound I'll admit to never being able to resist).
1. Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings) 
Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey took to Twitter to vent his frustration recently, obviously feeling incorrectly categorised by those who seek to label his music 'jazz'. This might be an inevitable consequence of his work as a sideman with artists at the vanguard of contemporary American jazz (Steve Lehman and Vijay Iyer particularly), or it might be more a result of this music being naturally difficult to define. What Sorey certainly does, is to explore the overlap between composed and improvised music, often in a way where the two blend seamlessly within each other and it becomes difficult to discern what is written and what is not. With this album, he continues his journey of remoulding the piano trio (see also the excellent 'Alloy'). The music has a quiet intensity, often exploring dark and deeply introspective territory over patiently unfolding long forms. It is a major work from an artist of defiant seriousness.

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