1. Camu Tao, King of Hearts – It’s a shame the first full-length solo by this Columbus legend is just coming two years after his death, but we’re all richer for having it. This record is an open wound, an open bottle, and punk as fuck. Full of surging, catchy beats using pop interpolations that always cut deeper than you think at first; the ramshackle lo-fi nature of the record makes it feel more personal but also makes it sound fresher, makes it jump out of the speakers at you. Passion and urgency, time isn’t long on this earth for any of us.
2. Jack Rose, Luck in the Valley – Another beautiful record my life is better for having in it but a damn shame it had to come out posthumously. His most spacious work, a few tracks with the Black Dirt Pickers, old pal Glenn Jones, Harmonic Dan, with amazing warm solo tracks like “Blues for Percy Danforth” and house-party tracks like a version of WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” that should make everyone who thinks about covering that chestnut give it up or “When the Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops”. A breakthrough even for someone like me who loved all his records.
3. Victoire, s/t – This eponymous debut full-length by Missy Mazzoli and her primary working ensemble is the most accessible classical/new music record this year – or, I’d say, of a number of years – a series of beautiful, jagged miniatures. There’s something astonishingly fragile about the writing on this but also a strength coursing through the song’s veins, the Bryce Dessner-featuring “Song for Mick Kelly” about the character from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features a keening, mournful violin line that lacerates the drone of the organ. “Song for Arthur Russell” captures and summarizes everything I love about Arthur Russell’s music better than a million covers I’ve heard, with the mild electronic percussion, more Reich than Paradise garage, the cut-off vocals that reach for ecstasy but are always getting subsumed into the sound, never quite hitting release, and the buzzing strings over the suspended chords from the keys. Now, for next year, a label needs to start putting out Mazzoli’s longer-form orchestral and chamber works so she can keep blowing all our minds.
4. Chocolate Genius, Inc., Swansongs – I like to think in a parallel universe – maybe Lethem’s parallel universe where Gravity’s Rainbow won the Hugo – Chocolate Genius’s Blackmusic won a whole mess of Grammys and a new undercurrent of deeply personal, cliché-adverse R&B rose up in its wake. Everything he’s done since then has been of the highest quality but nothing’s punched me in the gut in the same way until the new one. Indebted to history, check the “Walk On By” referencing intro to “Enough For You”, but not beached on it, still swimming, still surprising, “Now we’re on dry land and you miss the seaside / Say you want another point of view / But when we make love, you wake up so hungry / I wish I had enough for you”. Working images over to create an impression the way Mark Eitzel or Prince or Me’Shell N’degiocello does, and with a variety of moods his leathery, limited voice can wrap around, from that song’s melancholy to “Kiss Me” and “When I Lay You Down” with their lackadaisical seduction through the almost-gospel sunrise of “Ready Now”. Like any record worth a damn, the music tells more of a story than the lyrics, tones warm and foggy for the voice and the songs to drift through, indistinct enough you need to pay attention but everything you need to hear comes right into focus when you listen for it.
5. Current 93, Baalstorm, Sing Omega! – I already blogged about this record at length, but months late it’s still holding up and even growing in my memory. A collection of love songs for the world and time and a record of the light after mourning (not a typo).
6. Anais Mitchell and guests, Hadestown – I remember the first time I heard Anais Mitchell, “Cosmic American” and I was struck by the purity of the voice and the grit of the lyric, and this record – a song cycle in the manner of Randy Newman’s Faust featuring a ring of folk superstars to retell the story of Eurydice – delivers on that promise in spades. Ambition only matched by its self-assurance and quality, helped by crystalline production from Todd Sickafoose. She and Justin Vernon nail the flirty quality of young Orpheus and Eurydice, Greg Brown and Ani Difranco both sexy and ominous as Hades and Persephone, I think I passed this on to more people I know than any other record on my list this year.
7. Unholy 2, $$kum of the Earth –The Unholy 2 in 3D Cinemascope at last, a record that perfectly captures what’s great about this band, the deep groove troughs and Chris Lutzko’s guitar tone that’s all sinew and gristle, Adam Smith’s sculpted delay and electronics, and Bo Davis’ drumming that knows exactly where the beat is in what feels like chaos. What was once easily dismissed - or enjoyed – as a cross between Suicide and Pussy Galore, now shows all of its elements and asserts itself as its own animal, with thanks given to the production work of Cheater Slicks’ Tom Shannon and Guinea Worms’ Wilfoster (who also put out a hell of a record this year) that finds clarity in the murk and puts the gravel back on the road.
8. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, Ali & Toumani –Two artists who made an indelible impact on the world and on me in particular when I just started going to bigger concerts, in their second duet record sadly released after Toure’s death. Every note is measured and balanced and still spontaneous and of the moment, a record for prayers and hangovers and that leaves you with a little more hope for the world when you’re done with it.
9. Sharon Van Etten, epic – Where Van Etten’s Because I Was In Love was a perfectly chiseled set of sharp, funny, introverted almost-haikus, this sophomore effort lives in the world. Bigger arrangements with drums, guitars up in the mix that make you nod your head, sweetly moaning steel guitars and multi-tracked harmonies on the vocals, but everything’s used judiciously. What she trades in on the side of the cryptic and the internal she gains in the strength of her voice and a different kind of purity. The year of diligent work and touring has aided in the confidence to come right out and say, “Say it outright / If you don’t wanna see me tonight / And you won’t if you don’t want to / Hide it from me if you must / Hide it from me if you don’t trust / Anything I say to you” and say it with her voice growing higher and stronger, not shirking away, not building a castle in the sand but walking right toward you.
10. Jason Moran, Ten – Everybody’s saying it’s the year of the piano in jazz, and true enough there were great solo records by Vijay Iyer, Geri Allen, a Brad Mehldau that got a lot of attention, and the best record of The Bad Plus’ career but this is the piano record that stuck with me, haunting me. His tone’s never sounded better, the rhythm section of Taurus Mateen and Nasheet Waits still have that unmistakable swing and texture, and the tunes are badass. “Feedback Pt. 2” with its layer of electronic noise filling in the cracks between the notes but somehow making it seem more spacious, the melancholy “Pas De Deux – Lines Ballet” and the hard-charging “Gangsterism Over 10 Years” are favorites, but there’s not a bad track on this.
11. Punch Brothers, Antifogmatic – Chris Thile’s chamber-bluegrass quintet released an unassuming record this year that had the best songs they’ve recorded that drift into more of a Richard Thompson territory, more complicated than the earlier heartbreak lyrics, so many fantastic moments on this. “You Are” tracking the transition of learning to love again over off-kilter harmonies and repetition, the gorgeous ballad “Alex” with its hook “You’re only as good as your last goodbye” and Thile’s mandolin breaking up the pleasantness with a thrash I’ve rarely heard on the instrument. “Rye Whiskey” as traditional as the record gets with a gang-shout vocal, strong straight rhythms on a good-time drinking song and the old blues trick of ending each verse with “Have I ever told you ‘bout the time I ….” and not resolving the line until later when the song sags a little under a mandolin line wrenching the darkness out of the high strings as it moves into “When I took you/ And took her / For granted” and the same chords shift into that seeping dark oil-paint mode. It’s got enough interesting harmonic material to keep a jazz or chamber music fan listening but the songs are so strong you wish there were ballsier bands to cover and propagate this material.
12. Mary Halvorson Quintet, Saturn Sings – Her most conventional record but also maybe her riskiest, adding trumpet and tenor sax, it sounds like a Horace Silver record that came from space. Melodies you could sing along to, and every time the first song comes on the rhythm section of John Hebert and Ches Smith has me nodding along and smiling, but it’s not as simple as that might sound, there’s always something I don’t expect around every corner. This record is a sunrise and snow splitting and liquefying under your boots and the last blooming roses of summer.
13. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty – A record stripped down to prime effectiveness, with old partners (Andre 3000 contributes the wobbly, clattering beat of “You Ain’t No DJ”, Sleepy Brown shows up on “Turns Me On” for his patented off-kilter loverman croon) and new (Janelle Monae’s perfect hook on “Be Still”, Gucci Mane on “Shine Blockas” which would be a massive hit in a better world) doing exactly what they do best. A head nodder that also sticks words in your head for days and with beats full of little touches and hooks that also help it stick to your ribs but never trying to be anything but a great hip-hop record.
14. Janelle Monae, The Archandroid- This is the record where Monae filters and distills the last 30 years of R&B from solo George Clinton to Teddy Riley to Grace Jones to Prince to Angie Stone and recombines the DNA so it never sounds like just a throwback. “Make the Bus”, the collaboration with Of Montreal is one of my favorite tracks and I never liked anything I heard from Of Montreal, she and Saul Williams team up for “Dance Or Die” with should be the year’s perfect club single. The record could’ve stood a little editing, but I found myself smiling every time a song of this popped on my ipod, and I find it very heartening there’s an R&B record taking these chances.
15. William Parker, I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield – There are few things in music I love more than Curtis Mayfield, and this collections of live recordings of William Parker and band taking on Mayfield’s beautiful melodies in post-‘60s fire music style hits the spot. This record took songs I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved music and let me hear them with new ears, as on the 21 minute “If There’s Hell Below” with Hamid Drake on drums and Parker, telepathic as ever, kicking the rhythmic intensity up just a notch so the horns just boil on top with the vocals and Lafayette Gilchrist’s piano the only thing that lets our ears catch up. Or the gorgeous ballad “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, with this Sabir Mateen solo as raw as anything I’ve ever heard him play that only intensifies the beauty. There’s enough familiar to keep us engaged, like the fanfare at the front of “Freddy’s Dead”, but always some new left turn you didn’t think of. Vocalist Leena Conquest has never sounded better than on this, very few singers work over this kind of music, Patty Waters, Fontella Bass, but she never gives up any ground, she works the songs down right to their heart. Amiri Baraka’s poetry and incantations are the flame inside the songs, sometimes retelling the stories of the songs, sometimes filling in an emotional context, sometimes just beautifully riffing where the music takes him.
16. Ashley Paul, To Much Togethers – Anyone who talks about this record in terms of dissonance is the same kind of lame who talks about Rothko in terms of Pantone. Overdubbing her visceral saxophone and mingling it with Taisho Koto and some scraped percussion on “Wedding Song” and probably a few other instruments I can’t place until all I have to focus on is the sound and the feeling. Deeply contemplative but also unsettling, the mood is set of being at ease with the world but also deeply skeptical of it, the Meredith Monk-like loping rhythms of “One One”, the dragging, shadowy lines of “Another Walk in the Park.” One of the most spiritual experiences I had with a record this year. Stunningly gorgeous.
17. Ohneotrix Point Never, Returnal – I was really torn between this record and the new record from Cleveland heroes Emeralds, both on Mego, both very similar records and both major leaps forward, but I just plain listened to this one more. Synth with a warm palette and a perfectly assured hand, from the post-glitch flowering of “Nii Admari” through the orchestral glaze of “Stress Waves” on to the Tangerine Dream-in-a-cuisinart of “Ouroboros”.
18. Demon’s Claws, The Defrostation of Walt Disney – Demon’s Claws take that methamphetamine homemade human torch energy and channel it into something seemingly more placid but also more deadly on this new record. From the opening open-wound stomp of “Fed From Her Hand” through the low-rent swaggering echo and guitar of “Catch Her By the Tail” into the chopped up Western landscape of “Anny Lou”, this record might take a while before you show symptoms, but if you like the rawer side of rock, you’re going to keep coming at it unprotected until you know you’re infected.
19. Parting Gifts, Strychnine Dandelion – After a 2009 where two of my favorite rock bands, the Reigning Sound and the Ettes put out records that weren’t bad but were nowhere near their best work, Greg Cartwright and Coco Hames teamed up on this project that clearly rejuvenated their songwriting. Not straying from the blueprint of their two primary bands, but playing everything with a freshness that makes it feel brand new, from sock-hop standards like “Keep Walkin’” through sexy mud-covered stomps like “Don’t Stop” and tragic ballads like “Born to be Blue”, I wasn’t bored for a solitary second of this record.
20. Scott Woods, Sunset Clause – Maybe the first spoken word record ever to make one of these best of lists? The only other I could think of was Sekou Sundiata’s second record for Righteous Babe but I can’t find a list from that long ago. Columbus’ pillar/exemplar of all things poetic, Scott Woods, made the best record of his career this year, finally stripped down enough it doesn’t need musical tracks, just a combination of live and studio work and that perfect voice. Amazing persona pieces like “6 in da Morning”, “Jesus, Judas and the Case of the Old Woman’s Son: A Murder Mystery”, and “To the High School Thug that Broke into His English Teacher’s Car”, gorgeous lyricism crossed with justified and blue-hot rage on “How to Make a Crackhead”, “The Organist”, “Lamborghini Hickies”, notes on what’s wrong with poetry today including “Lynchings”, and hilarious geek-speak on “Cthulhu Calls for Love”, “Dungeons and Dragons”, “I hate Zombies Like You Hate Me”, and “Bob Ross Loves You Baby”, this shows every aspect of his poetic voice and leaves you assured there’s more coming.
21. Judith Berkson, Oylat – This record finally – and beautifully – captures what I hear the first time I saw Berkson at a back yard show Gerard Cox organized a number of years ago. Unadorned, on a combination of of the reedy thinness of an electric piano and the richness of an acoustic but both played with this almost-clipped touch. Taking classic Jewish cantor material, ‘30s standards and some thorny originals and approaching it all in the moment so it retains a sexuality and a sensuality and an ache that echoes long after the record’s over.
22. Marc Ribot, Silent Movies – A less conceptual solo record than Spirits or Don’t Blame Me, but some of his most gorgeous playing. Really letting the Latin and classical influences come through. Standout tracks include “Delancey Waltz” that sounds like its titular street slick with rain and everyone trying to keep their balance, “Fat Man Blues” with its low-slung swing, and the one-two mournful punch of “Empty” and “Natalia in Eb Major”.
23. Rashied Ali and Henry Grimes, Spirits Aloft – It’s hard for any record of Ali on percussion and a string player to not get compared to his record with Leroy Jenkins, especially since Grimes plays violin as well as his standard upright bass for much of this record. But everything on this live date is perfectly recorded and in the moment but still with everything they’ve experienced and everyone they’ve played with a shadow in their hearts.
24. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening – Every time I try to write LCD Soundsystem off, they come back with a record I think is even stronger. The dynamics, the singing, the writing, I feel like everything is just that notch stronger than their previous releases, and the hooks on this are monstrous. While there isn’t a song that killed me the way “All My Friends” did, there also isn’t any filler.
25. Sarah Kirkland Snider, Penelope – A very different take on the sequence in the Odyssey that Enda Walsh took on in his play of the same name that also made my best-of list. Played by NY new music ensemble Signal and with vocals by Shara Worden, the melodies stick in my plasma and everything has the weight of myth and the deep sadness of living.