Thursday, December 27, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 3: 50-26

50. George Crowley Quartet - Paper Universe (Whirlwind)

This was an impressively mature debut from the young saxophonist, seeking to craft affecting, memorable themes more than to push boundaries. Working with Kit Downes' trio as a rhythm section meant that Crowley had an intuitive, experienced band capable of sensitive support and nimble interaction. But it is Crowley's thoughtful, imaginative writing that gives all the players (including Crowley himself, who improvises with genuine authority) inspiration. 

49. James Blackshaw - Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death (Important) 

A return to the Important label for the first time since his debut long release did not herald a retrenchment from Blackshaw. He remains dependably prolific, and with each statement veers further and further away from the Takoma school of guitar playing that characterised his earlier releases. There remains a spiritual depth and mantric quality to his playing though, even though the arrangements are now multi-faceted and even here incorporate vocals (courtesy of Genevieve Beaullieau), vibraphone and Hammond B3 as well as piano. Blackshaw's piano playing seems more confident here and whilst this in some ways feels like his most conventional work to date, it may also be his warmest.  

48. Food (Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen) - Mercurial Balm (ECM)

Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen's Food project has evolved into perhaps the most assured example of a hybid between improvised and electronic music. As with its predecessor, the excellent Quiet Inlet, the emphasis is on mood and atmosphere rather than on structure or form - and the music has a gentle, amorphous quality that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. Often, the music seems less about individual statements than about a blend of its various sonic elements. Although the album varies ensembles (Christian Fennesz, Elvind Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and Indian guitarist Prakash Sontakke all guest) and live and studio contexts, it has all been regrafted into one elegant, seamless whole.

47. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes (Warp)

Following up an album as sound-defining and brilliant as Cosmogramma was never going to be easy. At times on Until The Quiet Comes, it not only felt as if Steven Ellison was returning to previously traversed territory, but it also that the record as a whole lacked the sense of concept and coherence inherent in its predecessor. Until The Quiet Comes is an album that rewards patient listening, however, eventually revealing not only greater depth but also a welcome sense of fun. It's a much more relaxed and unassuming work than Cosmogramma - a playful side-step rather than a regression. 

46. Sun Araw/The Congos/M Geddes Gengras - FRKWYS Vol 9 (RVNG International) 

Not content with having one of the most exciting rosters of any of the independent labels, RVNG also have the quite wonderful FRKWYS series, creating inspired, frequently unlikely collaborations.  Along with last year's Blues Control and Laraaji meet-up, this may well be the finest of the lot, with Jamaica's legendary reggae vocal group pitted alongside Sun Araw, a natural worshipper at the altar of dub. The result is more abstract and disorientating than Heart of the Congos, but with similarly apocalyptic fervour. It feels like a respectful meeting on both sides - with each party unafraid to take risks or to misappropriate their respective signature sounds.

45. Cody ChesnuTT - Landing On A Hundred (One Little Indian)

Ten years after the unwieldy, wayward, often brilliant Headphone Masterpiece, Cody ChesnuTT returned sounding like a completely different artist, seemingly born again in more ways than one. If that debut made the case for lo-fi, homespun recording techniques and a devil may care approach to sequencing, then Landing On A Hundred makes the case for a super tight backing band and expert studio production. This music is part of a strong gospel soul lineage, and makes few obvious concessions to modernity. Yet it all sound honest and convincing, and ChesnuTT's reformed fervour comes across as a real conviction. The spirit of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway are certainly here, although it might be more accurate, if unfashionable, to compare ChesnuTT with the wayward, madcap genius of Terence Trent D'Arby.

44. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

Andy Stott's short form releases from last year were fractured and uncompromising, stark visions that did a great deal to raise his profile without making any artistic concessions. Luxury Problems is an easier ride, its title very suggestive of the sleek, leather-clad sound of the music. It works brilliantly as a contrast with its predecessors - with regular beats more the order of the day and some ingenious manipulation of voices. It is the sound of the discomforting side of modern western lifestyles - of modern guilt.  

43. Six Organs Of Admittance - Ascent (Drag City)

Essentially a Comets on Fire album in all but name, this album reunited Ben Chasny with Ethan Miller in a blistering, visceral psych shred that delivered every bit as much as it promised.  The ensemble approach marks a discontinuity with the freak-folk/drone direction of previous Six Organs releases, but the music shares Six Organs' general tendency for openness and space, in spite of Chasny's wilder improvising. It's a genuinely transcendental experience and, for me, the finest Six Organs album to date.

42. Bob Dylan - Tempest (Columbia)

There is a problem at the heart of Tempest, and it isn't Bob Dylan's weathered growl of a voice. His exhausted vocal chords now work perfectly with his bluesy, apocalyptic material. The further he gets from conventional melody and the closer to preaching or rapping, the better he sounds. The problem is more with the machine-like monotony of his very professional backing band. Many of these songs seem to beg for them to free up a little more, but they stay resolutely regimented. Still, the problem isn't terminal - as this is Dylan's most lucid album for some time,  a whole lot better than the lightweight Together Through Life and characterised by some violent, engaging and, well, tempestuous narratives. Much of it still appears to be cobbled together from a wide range of sources (some understandable, some baffling - Scott Warmuth's outstanding blog is well worth a read for more information). Is this plagiarism? Is it a moral problem? Or is it an incredibly creative collage that justifies much of the uncritical acclaim? Either way, the sound of the exhausted Dylan spitting out these words with genuine vitriol remains pretty much unbeatable. 

41. Field Music - Plumb (Memphis Industries) 

Plumb is Field Music's best album to date and it pulls off the neat trick of making a series of often very short fragments cohere into what might be a suite of loosely connected ideas. The Brewis brothers continue to write with both radical ambition and genuine affection - as in thrall to direct melodies as they are to unusual time signatures and strange rhythmic emphasis. 

musicOMH interview

40. Duane Pitre - Feel Free (Important)

Feel Free is an intriuing title for a compositional work supposedly built around random computer generated patterns. Perhaps this works so well at least in part because Pitre took the computer generated patterns and performed them himself on guitar, adding human agency into the mix. The other musicians are then given freedom to either interact with this foundation, or to consciously ignore it. This is mysterious, elusive music - there is definite feeling here, but it's not always clear as to exactly why. What Pitre seems to have succeeded doing is creating an emotive form of music that exists without any obvious manipulations. 

39. Jack Davies - Jack Davies Big Band/Southbound/Flea Circus (V and V Music)

Jack Davies has been something of a fearless jazz enterpreneur in 2012, establishing his own record label and releasing three albums of his own work simultaneously. This is a lot of music for people to digest, and the very differing styles of these three works might leave audiences pondering as to the true nature of Davies' musical identity. For the open-minded, the answer will be simple enough - here is a musician naturally drawn to a range of contexts and sound worlds who cannot be contained within a restrictive genre bracket. The Flea Circus project explores a love of chamber music, whilst Southbound intially appears to be the most radical and challenging of the three projects, with fragmented music emphasising spontaneity and dialogue between the band members. The most impressive of the three albums has to be the outstanding Big Band recording, which demonstrates the fluidity and maturity of Davies' compositions. 

38. THEESatisfaction - AwE NaturalE (Sub Pop)

This is a crisp, fiercely independent debut by two hyper-aware, original wordsmiths in thrall to the rhythm and cadence of speech. It also refuses to adhere to hip hop conventions, challenging preconceptions with its frequent diversions and tangents, as well as with its preference for murky, spellbinding musical arrangements. Stas and Cat are bold personalities, and their music is reckless, unique and captivating. 

37. 1982 and BJ Cole - 1982 and BJ Cole (Humbro) 

In what appears to have been a bumper year for collaborative projects, this was one of the most fruitful. These improvised pieces have a gentleness and relaxed feel that seems to aid fluidity and meaning, with the legendary slide and pedal steel guitarist finding a brilliantly supportive and provocative context for his beautiful sounds. 

36. The Cairo Gang - The Corner Man (Empty Cellar)

I'm not sure I would have come across this were it not for the recent collaboration between The Cairo Gang and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, arguably the very best of Will Oldham's current prolific streak. Emmett Kelly's music as The Cairo Gang shares a certain purposeful vulnerability with Will Oldham, although his songs also often seem more robust and direct. This serves as a neat companion to Elephant Micah's rather similar sounding Louder Than Thou - again very much of a kinship with the likes of Jason Molina and Mark Kozelek - laconic and ruminative, with deliberaately protracted melodies, but also powerful and lingering long in the mind.  

35. Gareth Dickson - Quite A Way Away (12k Records) 

Dickson has served as a touring guitarist with Vashti Bunyan and that indiosyncratic folk lineage is very much living and breathing in his work as a solo artist. Yet his music also has an unforced ambience all of its own - his songs are deft and subtle, and full of intriguing nooks and crannies. His use of reverb and echo takes the music well beyond folk conventions into somewhere more eerie and foreboding. Both his articulations on the guitar and his soft vocal delivery (reminiscent of Nick Drake at times) are delicate, perhaps even almost reticent. This is beautiful music.

34. Josh Arcoleo - Beginnings (Edition) 

Young saxophonist Josh Arcoleo already has a distinctive sound and refreshingly laid back playing approach. He always sounds relaxed and in command of his material - never trying to force preconceived ideas or designs. His compositions are sparse, spacious affairs that place strong, direct ideas at the forefront. Arcoleo was the first winner of the Royal Academy of Music's Kenny Wheeler Prize, enabling a recording contract with Dave Stapleton's superb Edition record label. For a debut recording, this is a really assured and convincing work. Arcoleo's improvising builds to impressive degrees of intensity, and his compositions exploit deep but unimposing rhythmic foundations. The title rightly suggests that this is just the start of Arcoleo's career - but his music already feels free, weightless and unburduned.

33. Brad Mehldau Trio - Ode / Where Do You Start  (Nonesuch)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with Brad Mehldau and his range of projects. These are actually the first albums from his working trio in some time, but it feels like Mehldau's ubiquity is inescapable. This is not entirely unwelcome, and this year's flurry of activity has generated two contrasting but consistently engaging albums. Ode focuses on Mehldau's originals, and features some brilliantly conversational playing from the trio, although it does oddly lack much in the way of dynamic contrast. The music on Where Do You Start, mostly interpretations, is more expressive and malleable, and it is probably Mehldau's best recording with this incarnation of his trio (Jeff Ballard is brilliant, mercurial presence throughout). 

32. Alexander Hawkins Ensemble - All There, Ever Out (Babel)

Alexander Hawkins really ought to be considered a national treasure. He is an iconoclastic, singular musician with a restless drive to keep progressing and developing. This is music by an artist with courage in his convictions, working with empathetic musicians to create something brave and imaginative. Hawkins' superb foils here include the liberated, mischievous percussionist Javier Carmona and the superb cellist Hannah Marshall. The album as a whole is brilliantly unpredictable and playfully obtuse, displaying a steadfastness in refusing to conform to stylistic expectations. 

31. Ivo Neame - Yatra (Edition)

Pianist Ivo Neame's third album is a giant stride forward, the work that should really cement his reputation as a leader and composer as well as an in-demand sideman. He has ensembled a surprising ensemble combining players who might not be expected to all work together - including Shabaka Hutchings, Jason Yarde, brilliant groove master drummer Dave Hamblett, vibes player Jim Hart and Phronesis bassist Jasper Hoiby. It's little surprise that this group has produced some taut, riveting contemporary grooves delivered with confidence - what is perhaps more refreshing is the strength and depth of Neame's arrangements. The unusual combination of instruments allows for rich, colourful and intelligent orchestration. As an improviser, Neame has always been thoughtful - deploying plenty of purposeful pauses and varying the shape and pacing of his lines. Yatra's meticulous planning is matched by energy, poise and strength of feeling.   

30. Goat - World Music (Rocket Recordings)

This intoxicating, swampy, sweaty music from Swedish debutants Goat is a brilliant kind of fusion - mixing some dense American-sounding grooves with some melodic lines that could be drawn from the Middle East. It's one of the year's most thrilling, immediately enjoyable releases, brimming with energy and untamed fervour. It is all captured with appropriate rawness - any polish would have greatly diminished its potency.

29. Phronesis - Walking Dark (Edition) 

This is an album I have to confess that I've neglected for a while. On first listen, it felt a little as if it might be 'another Phronesis album', with all of that band's recognisable and admirable qualities, and easy to take for granted. Repeated listens towards the end of the year have revealed something rather different, however - a Phronesis record with increased depth, range and sensitivity in addition to the familiar lithe grooves and bass/piano unison lines. This is partially a result of the more open and democratic approach to composition - but increasingly Phronesis feels like a truly leader-less trio - an open-minded and flexible group experimenting with sound and musical language in a way that yields huge rewards. 

28. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas (Columbia) 

It's unreasonable to expect a man in his mid-70s to produce work to rank alongside the best in his catalogue, but Leonard Cohen seems intent on doing just that. With members of his touring band in tow this time, Old Ideas creates a happy marriage between his intentionally cheesy bontempi bedroom sound and a more naturalistic, human approach. Cohen's wry observations are pithy and frequently humorous, and his voice sounds richer and yet deeper still. This isn't as weird as Dear Heather, nor as weighty as Ten New Songs - indeed, it might be the lightest and most fleet footed of his recent works, in spite of its determinedly laconic pacing. What it has in abundance is the wit and wisdom of a true poet.

musicOMH review

27. Susanne Sundfor - The Silicone Veil (Sonnet Sounds)

It has been great to see the brilliant Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfor finally attain some recognition here in the UK with this excellent album. Sundfor works in collaboration with Lars Horntveth, the talented multi-instrumentalist from Jaga Jazzist. Together, they craft a crepuscular electro-folk that is both stark and seductive - an irresistible darkness laced with deceptive sweetness.

musicOMH review

26. Iris DeMent - Sing The Delta (Flariella)

Staggeringly, this is Iris DeMent's first album of new original material in 16 years. If she has been suffering from writers' block, then she has found intriguing ways of dealing with it, boldly confessing to new spiritual scepticism and operating in a refreshingly new, southern soul context. It's a sublime accompaniment for her distinctive, slightly harsh vocal delivery and for the powerful emotional resonance of her simple, honest songs. Her themes, often focused around family and memory, might well be rendered sentimental or nostalgic in lesser hands - DeMent imbues them with a profound wisdom and truth, not least on the extraordinary title track, in which the last weeks of her mother's life become a microcosm for celebrating an entire American culture. If only she would come and perform some shows in the UK!