Sunday, December 30, 2012

YOLO! (with thanks to AEC) Best of 2012: Visual Art

Much like my disclaimer on theater, didn't get to see as much visual art as usual - I hit about 45 exhibits all year - and in looking back I'm really surprised to see how much photography's in this top 10. And both heartened and dismayed to see how many of these exhibits are retrospectives - the fact that Alina Szapocnikow or Rineke Djikstra haven't hit my radar before is kind of shaming to me but once I saw their work that string in my heart started vibrating.

As always, everything is in Columbus unless otherwise specified.

  1. Cindy Sherman, Cindy Sherman(MoMA, NYC) - One of my favorite artists of all time in a retrospective so massive it was like gorging on your favorite food. Sure, it might have been a little overstuffed and fatigue was bound to set in at one time or another going through it, but her centerfold pictures or her film noir work, all together, was enough to guarantee the top spot on this list, and there were so many treasures besides. How many things can one face be, how many shades, how much of the world?

  2. Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture Undone: 1955-1972 (Wexner Center for the Arts) - My first impression was a female equivalent to Paul Thek (whose work I didn't know before his retrospective that was my favorite art show of 2010). A different plague and a different political machine of death, but very much the same humor and rage as sabre and shield. Working with the plastic materials of the time, the materials of her autobiography and a larger sociopolitical context but still being light in these desperately serious gestures should make everyone trying to make art blush and work much, much harder.

  3. Omer Fast, 2001/11(Wexner Center for the Arts) - Two Omer Fast pieces, CNN Concantenated given extra juice by putting it in a very middle-America IKEA bought living room behind a door and his newer 5000 Feet is the the Bestso you need to walk through a seemingly bigger-budget rumination on drone warfare with filmed reenactments of interviews, blurred-face "real" interviews which may or may not be real, and innocuous arial photography suffused with the thick atmosphere of impending doom. A riveting look at how dread evolves over a decade in the same mire that I saw half a dozen times and could have seen a dozen more and still been unpacking.

  4. Francesca Woodman, Francesca Woodman (Guggenheim, NYC) - Another photography exhibit saturated with dread and rage. These grim black and white photos are so body focused and so full of a young insouciant rebellion but hiding something darker and also something funnier, there's an acid wit moving in waves underneath. Obviously, a life cut short can give things added weight but I didn't know that part of the story when I walked into the side gallery and my eyes almost exploded.

  5. Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama (Whitney, NYC) - I saw Kusama's Fireflies on the Waterat the first or second Whitney Biennial I ever went to and it so stuck with me that I became a huge fan immediately. This retrospective made an asset out of the overstuffed quality of the Cindy Sherman exhibit, the obsessive nature impossible to avoid in Kusama's work exploding in repedition and glee, whether the polka dots everyone talks about or the soft-looking sculptures including boxes that looked like tentacles were wriggling out of them. The kind of things you desperately want to touch and frolic in.

  6. Various Artists, Radical Camera: New York Art League(Columbus Museum of Art) - This was one of my favorite surprises all year. Art so upfront about its agenda that the agenda isn't distracting but uplifting, as good a selection of modernist social realist photography I've ever seen. Even when it drifted toward the pedantic, the sensuousness of the aesthetic never let itself be forgotten.

  7. Corrine Wasmuht, untitled (Frederich Petzel Gallery, NYC) - A new-to-me selection of paintings that held me rapt, layers of thin paint over polished boards and harshly cropped digital images. The work felt like looking into a different world in the way I wanted modern art to look when I was first reading Samuel Delaney or William Gibson as a teen.

  8. David Smith, Cubes and Anarchy (Wexner Center for the Arts) - This was the first time David Smith's work really workedfor me, I saw it and I got Brancusi and Tatlin and throbbing blood below the great narrative of the steelworker artist. I was lucky enough to see this twice, at the Whitney and the Wexner Center, but I have to say the layout in the Wex did a better job of surprising and delighting me and revealing different facets of this strain of Smith's work.

  9. Rineke Djikstra, A Retrospective(Guggenheim, NYC) - I've long said any genre, any form can still have juice if it hits a sympathetic pair of eyes and someone up for twisting it till the underlying fibres start to snap. Djikstra's portrait photography drove that point home again. Sociopolitical commentary, honoring and critiquing the subject, and a glorious tension. I got lost in these pictures and didn't want to leave.

  10. Various Artists, Triennial: The Ungovernables - The Whitney Biennial left me a little cold this time but the less-warmly-received second edition of the New Museum's Triennial threw me for a loop, largely with understatement. Adrian Villa Rojar's giant robot ruins underscored a deep melancholy before you even see the title - A Person Loved Me-and Mariana Telleria's Days of Truthwith everyday objects pieced together to show a deeper, sadder poetry, were just two of the things that most spoke to me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Best of 2012: Theater and Dance

I know, it's been a while, trying to get my groove back. Please bear with a few posts of me stretching and shaking the rust off. This is the first of five posts highlighting art that shook me like a rag doll. This year really saw a flourishing of interesting Columbus theater which luckily coincided with my not getting out of town quite as much or for quite as long (the first year since I was 18 where I didn't get to Chicago once and one of my two New York trips was mostly for the fantastic wedding of two very dear friends, so no regrets but I was pulled in different directions).

These are the 10 shows I can unreservedly recommend as worth seeing. There might have been some rough parts or a false note here and there, but I came out very glad I was in the room to be part of the experience. There were other things I really liked large chunks of - Jordan Fehr and Drew Eberly's performances in Sleeper; the entire cast in the revival of Vidal's The Best Man; the singing and use of repetition in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart; the interesting, raw arrangements and band, and Josie Merkle's heartbreaking performance in Cabaret - but those shows didn't sing for me all the way. Not like the list below.

Everything is in Columbus unless otherwise specified.

  1. Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) - I love my friends and I love art and I never thought I'd have a chance to see a real production of this. The icing on a fantastic road trip up to Ann Arbor and Einsteinretains its striking weirdness as much as its uncanny beauty. It was fascinating to compare this to the production of Satyagraha I saw at the Met last year: Einstein felt like it reveled in its disconnections, and where the music wasn't as lush it was so loaded with hooks information overload set in within minutes. It sent me into fugue states of color when my consciousness couldn't process for a little while, it made my jaw heavy and my eyes wide, and it fueled overheated conversation about what seemingly nonsensical lines like a "prematurely air-conditioned laundromat" or "we need some wind for the sailboat" or "check the hems" meant. I couldn't have asked a piece of art to do more than this did and I couldn't believe how much this delivered on decades of living only in whispers.

  2. Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov adapted by Annie Baker (SoHo Rep, NYC) - Apparently it was the summer of the Vanya revivals in New York this year, but my schedule only let me have a trip that overlapped with Annie Baker's re-imagining. Sam Gold's direction was both constantly surprising and calibrated so that every decision felt inevitable. The translation crackled and the acting was the best I saw on a stage all year - orbiting around Michael Shannon and Reed Birney's two dissolving sculptures of ambition and grief, but no one didn't come with their best game. I had lines stuck in my head for weeks after seeing this, including "Your uselessness has infected us all" and "I've come to believe we're all creeps" and the set design was just the right mix of lived-in and nigh-gothic decay, the unconventional seating was worth exactly the toll it took on my knees and back.

  3. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman (Available Light) - In their third year of doing musicals, Available Light synthesized the company's overarching interest in the raw materials of creation and its metamorphosis (and what gets left in its wake) in a show that swung for the fences and just plain swung. The direction from Matt Slaybaugh and musical direction from Pam Welsh-Huggins kept all the spinning plates going a work with this many threads and characters needed, it could have fallen apart but it flew. People I expect to be great - Elena Perantoni, Ian Short, Eleni Papaleonardos, Emily Bach - were as good as I've ever seen them; people who hadn't made the biggest impression on me in their earlier work blew me away, particularly Whitney Thomas Eads; and the whole cast orbited around the swaggering, tragic Nick Lingnofski who was pitch-perfect. Additional attention should be paid to the band featuring Sean Gardner from Winter Makes Sailors and Jeff Wiseman from Mors Ontologica, one of the best uses of a rock band on stage I've ever seen in a musical, and used for one of the biggest fourth-wall-breaking laughs.

  4. 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog (Lincoln Center Theatre, NYC) - Jesus Christ. I know I caught grief for comparing this to Pinter, and it's muchwarmer, but Herzog's astonishing play had that deep, tense silence, the real subject was what was behind the words and that same terror of connection. This was the kind of play that reminds me how much I love theater. Gabriel Ebert's Leo, almost crushed under the grief of his friend's death did an amazing job of showing the charm underneath but also trying to consciously eschew it, Mary Louise Wilson's Vera avoided the "sassy older woman who says what everyone is thinking" cliches and was heartbreaking and hilarious, maybe second only to Shannon's Astrov for a performance I just wanted to keep watching for hours. Daniel Aukin's direction was wire-tight and made every moment sing just enough without feeling like underlining.

  5. The Past is a Grotesque Animal by Mario Pensotti (Wexner Center for the Arts) - At every turn this could have gone too precious, too cute. Four actors going through scenes from 10 years of a group of halfway-aimless young friends on a stage that rotated like a turntable and it's named after an Of Montreal song? But slowly, like the damaged photographys Pensotti alluded to in his making of the work, each tiny gesture, each banal moment, accrues the sadness that stars seeping into your life in your mid-20s, death and reckoning and the futile efforts to deny - or at least forestall - both. I walked out stunned.

  6. Amidst by Pavel Zustiak, adapted from Jerzy Kozinski (Palissimo presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) - Three dancers milling through the crowd, no seats, no clear separation, and one of the most striking dance performances I've seen in recent memory. There's a special electricity with the crowd moving as one to give the dancers space, to keep sightlines open, and no matter how well you think you can intimate where they'll be next, once in a while, you'll find yourself getting shoved from behind or a body right there, as if by magic. Breathtaking.

  7. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Cory Doctorow (Available Light) - Slaybaugh followed up last year's (earlier in the same season) How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe with this take on Cory Doctorow's satire. It was a little uneven and a little distant but the good parts were astonishing. Ian Short was a marvel as the flotsam washing up on the shore of the new feel-good reputational economy, and the other two-thirds of the love triangle - Drew Eberly as his baffled friend and Acacia Duncan as his much younger lover suddenly saddled to a sad, old man - were very, very good. Brant Jones' video work was better than I'd ever seen it, Dave Wallingford and Jordan Fehr's sound work was exactly what it needed to be. The kind of production that keeps everyone talking about Available Light.

  8. 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman (Available Light) - Kaufman's interlocking tale of losing what makes you - Beethoven's composing the Diabelli Variations and a musicologist writing what's sure to be her final book on same, told in parallel - is a damn fine play executed perfectly. Eleni Papaleonardos's direction is assured, loose enough to let the light and air in but always keeping the forward motion required for something with this many characters, settings and times. Josie Merkle's Katherine is the standout, with special attention to be paid to Matt Hermes (also on this list directing Good People)'s Beehoven, Dave McMahon's pianist, and extra strong sound and light by Dave Wallingford and Carrie Cox, respectively, were even better than the high expectations for this company.

  9. Good People by David Lindsey-Abaire (New Players Theater) - One of the things I was happiest to see this year was the emergence of New Players Theater. Everything I saw them do was a home run - their sharp, sexy God of Carnagewas damn near as good - and they're nailing the niche of interesting, very traditionally narrative plays that have been on Broadway or Off-Broadway in the last couple of years but doing them like a professional company. David Lindsey-Abaire's play never really tries to rise above its slice of life but there's so much life in the lines and such a real, lived-in charm and so much love for the characters that I was thoroughly charmed and rooting for them all at every step. Matt Hermes' direction was just tight enough and the acting was terrific, particularly Danielle Mann as Margie, hilarious and deeply sad.

  10. Canyon by John Jasperse (Thin Man Dance Inc. presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) - Lines of orange and yellow tape covered the Wexner Center performance space and the dancers went from prone to solo to interaction and prone again around, over and through it. This was the most visceral, even sexy, thing I saw on stage all year. Amidst the grief and the overall theme of stunted, frustrated connection, there were times when it just vibratedwith erotic energy in this hopeless, barren setting. I don't know much about dance but this was a perfect example of why it takes my breath away.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Uncle Vanya, Soho Rep

"The future hasn't arrived. It is all still

A dream, a night sweat to be swum off

in a wonderland of sand and bread.

When we woke afterward, the houses

were still standing, the green just as green,

but the seaweed had thickened and the lamp

at the end of the dock had cracked."

-Meghan O'Rourke, "Twenty-First Century Fireworks"

Apparently it was the summer of the Vanya revivals in New York this year, but my schedule only let me have a trip that overlapped with Annie Baker's re-imagining. I've read a couple of translations since I fell in love with Chekhov in High School, seen a couple of productions but I've never seen one better than this and I've never hard crisp lines that got it and drove it home as well as this wonder.

Thestage set by Andrew Lieberman with props by Kate Foster had the audience ringing the action and sitting - incredibly uncomfortably - on carpeted risers. The set is a living room with a noticeable trap door and glowing Cyrillic letters on one wall, the title of the play, dotted with furniture. The overall effect was menace and grief but it also felt lived-in, the country estate really does feel isolated and unkempt and a little bit claustrophobic.

Annie Baker's adaptation - and really interesting costume designs - is astonishing. The emotions all feel relatable but strange, of a piece with her original plays but unmistakably Chekov. She chipped away everything Sam Gold's direction was a wonder of marvelous spinning spheres, psychological and physical action and bodies in conjunction with one another and with the oddly laid-out audience. Everything I've seen him do, even things I didn't think worked 100% like Theresa Rebeck's Seminar and Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still, are always marked by distinctive, true performances and a level of constant motion that doesn't feel forced, always fed by the meat of the play.

The acting is superlative. Michael Shannon as Astrov sums up the man collapsing in on himself from boredom and frustration and ennui, every line he says carries more weight as it crumbles off his lips, hitting his mustache. Going from breaking Sonya's heart with "I no longer expect anything of myself and I don't think I'm capable of really loving people" to his acid rejoinder to Yelena, "You have infected us with your uselessness" to the tragic hammer of his summation to Vanya, "You know, I used to think that being a creep meant you were sick or abnormal, but lately I've come to the conclusion that we're all creeps. Everyone in the world, behaving naturally, is a complete creep." Reed Birney as the title character continues his sleeper trajectory started with Sarah Kane's Blasted to being the great stage actor of this moment of fear and instability, broad strokes created by the tiniest of gestures, in this case adding to a man who didn't die early enough to be a tragic figure, he had to keep living with his earnestness and his faith in others and his love of his family and it didn't quite destroy him. The spark is reduced to flickering as the sweetness and decency appear in flashes under a twisting mockery of what he used to be but Birney never plays him hopeless and never lets the audience forget why he's so respected by this gang of misfits.

Georgina Engel, a less ambitious analogue to Vanya and an indictment of how women were perceived in those days, the loving caretaker of the home, is very, very good. Matthew Maher as "Waffles", after his acne scars, gets laughs but communicates an immense amount of pain without going for obvious audience pandering. Merritt Weaver as Sonya was the light bulb moment for me, she holds the production together and is so heartbreaking in her acceptance of her grey state and even more in her brief flashes of joy and hope. The other actors are uniformly fine.

This is the kind of play that makes me love theater more and love life more. It makes me want to be a better person and love all the people who were there and experienced it with me and feel just a little sorry for everyone who didn't see it. It makes me want to be better and make something good.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

God of Carnage, New Players Theater

Man dug up demons' hoaxes there,
Considered his lust heaven,
His illusion he decreed creative,
He assumed the moment deathless.

Life to him is an enormous weight
As down there the dead bee's wing
To the ant that drags it.”
-Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Prayer” trans. Andrew Frisardi

Few things are better when you love the culture of a town than seeing the heavyweights continuing to do big things and newcomers making their presence felt with full authority at the same time.  And I'm happy to report, that in a week also including Available Light announcing a 2012–2013 season that has me drooling and Catco annoucing a 2012–2013 season that has me more excited than any of theirs in years, A. and I hit New Players Theater for the first of their productions we've gotten the chance to see, the central Ohio premier of Yasimna Reza's God of Carnage

I'd read the Christopher Hampton translation of the play being done here that was such a rage on Broadway and the West End but my trips to New York that year didn't coincide with its run, so this was the first time I'd seen it performed and it's a knockout, bravura performance. 

Reza's play is that kind of bitter, brittle comedy that needs to be played with utter seriousness and a lack of self-awareness for the punchlines to work, stirring humanity into that mix can spoil the whole cheese if not done in perfect amounts, but leaving it out just makes the whole thing taste sour and gray.  I'm happy to say this production takes those tricky emotional notes and spins them sideways sometimes, in danger of tipping over, but they always end up exactly where they should. 

Matt Hermes' direction of this is marvelous, devoting enough attention to the details –  the tiny gears of the timebomb –  but never losing sight of the full picture in a narrative sense or a physical sense.  The actors are constantly keeping each other at a distance and hemming each other in, the Brooklyn apartment is the world and the ways he gets around the question any audience member would ask “Jesus, why don't they just leave?” is part sleight of hand and party simple choreography but it's breathtaking.  And of course, the other reason they're not leaving is the intense sexual energy coursing through this; at any moment you feel like the rare spate of coming to blows could just as easily be the rending of garments except for those last vestiges of civilization, reminding me of the Goldbarth poem “Civilized Life”.  Attention should also be paid to the costumes by Michelle Whited and the set design (I apologize, I can't find my program anywhere so can't credit this person), the animal prints are a nice touch with the African art and the '60s-style modern features.

Of course, any comedy of four people in a room for an uninterrupted hour and a half is going to live and die by its performances and here New Players Theater really hits it out of the park.  Nick Baldasare, recently seen as Actors' Theatre's Oedipus and Tim Browning, recently very good in Available Light's metaphysical whirlpool Hum, are pitch perfect as the yin-yang figures of Modern Man.  Both physical performances and both Rorschach tests, looking more or less sympathetic based on the audience's built in prejudice and experiences but both glowing with a likability that's not easy to pull off in these rapid fire exchanges while behaving so badly.  Sonda Staley's character has the widest range of responses and done at whiplash speeds but somehow keeps a core humanity for the wildness to orbit around.  Jill Taylor veers a little toward the cartoony at times but if your weak link is as good as that no one has anything to complain about.

If you like contemporary theater, go see this, it takes strong material and knows exactly where to hit it so the reverberations make you laugh and shudder and gasp.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Moises Kaufman, 33 Variations – Available Light

The day is full of noise and I am
grateful, it’s full of grace
and light that takes me
up and out.  I am serious
again, forsythia bloom early
this year, I am going to New York,
goodby.  Intense
experience of pleasure has never
moved me as much as expectation
of an end to it.  Seems real,
is real.  Hello.
Tim Dlugos, untitled

Before I get into minute details of plot and incident and technicality – go see Available Light’s production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations.  It’s not here for long, just till next Sunday and if you’ve got any interest in theatre in town whatsoever.  It’s one of the most consistently acted, moving productions of a play I’ve seen in town in years – a simple story so beautifully told that I was moved to tears by the time it was over and I have a hard time picturing anyone I know not walking out enjoying it.

Kaufman’s 33 Variations is the an artful braiding of the story of a musicologist, Katherine Brandt, in Bonn researching Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for what she understands to be her final paper before succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease, the story of her daughter torn between helping her and letting her do this, and the story of Beethoven’s composing of said variations. 

The stage is hung with era-indeterminate cloth half-obscuring a platform through which you can see a piano and its player; the cloth is also the backdrop for projections, everything from text – announcing which Variation is currently being played/discussed/underpinning the action – to closeups of manuscript paper to character’s faces when the action has them in a specific position where that wouldn’t be visible to the audience. The foreground has a table and a few chairs. 

Eleni Papaleonardos directs and does an astonishing job of balancing the little moments with the more grandiose gestures and getting the pacing just right.  I used the word braiding earlier but the symmetry in the material can get beautifully messy, more of a tangle, and the moments where simultaneous action in the different periods and locations overlap, even with characters saying the same word at the same time, could’ve been cheap or too easy but it’s built with a subtlety and the choreography of bodies moving is so natural that it has the intended effect, it hits the audience like a thunderbolt: Oh. Of course.

That piano is played by Dave McMahon and he’s the grout in this production.  As it should be, everyone is in the shadow of that electric, intense music.  Having a piano player instead of recordings not only lets the production use only fragments they want or show Beethoven working through sequences, stumbling or first drafts, but it also provides breath.  Another physical voice on stage blending the colors with the actors.  To the extent that when the other 7 characters dance near the end, it doesn’t feel like an unevenly matched set for the waltz, the piano player is given his due.

Josie Merkle plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, the afflicted musicologist desperate to get one last thing done, and she’s a marvel.  I’d last seen her as a very good Jocasta in an uneven Oedipus Rex but here she soars, mapping out every part of the character as we know it.  The journey takes us from her early dismissing of Diabelli’s source waltz as trite and mediocre and trying to really figure out what Beethoven saw in it and ending up at the place of transfiguration.  Matt Hermes as Beethoven is always a physical presence even when not on stage, and the energy of his body when he is out is stunning, all the frustration and desire and desperate, searching, ego play out in every bit of his action.

Adam Humphrey is very good as the nerdy, smitten nurse who falls for Brandt’s daughter, Clara, funny and charming when he needs to be and a solid rock, at times delivering exposition in a way that doesn’t feel like an infodump and keeping the audience emotionally invested in what’s going on.  Acacia Duncan is first among equals in a cast without any bad parts, she’s luminous, coiled anticipation. 

The supporting cast keeps the quality extremely high, from Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler played by Nate Roderick, Diabelli played by David Tull initially with the broadest comedy possible then slowly given shading, and Emily Bach as Gertrude Ladenburger.  Sound and light are always good at Available Light productions, provided here by Dave Wallingford and Carrie Cox, but they have more work to do than usual and it’s fascinating to see a doctor’s visit or the raging currents of tinnitus are implied wholly with sound and light.

A. said this might be the perfect Available Light show, because it’s a crystallization of their overarching obsession about why you make art when the world’s crumbling, when your life is crumbling, and what’s the point of it all.   I’d agree with that but what I found even more beautiful here is the academic understanding transfiguration – the derivative work that’s greater because of the greater artist’s hand, but really finds its juice in bringing out all the qualities that were already in the lower-rent art that people danced and drank and fell in love and fought to.  It’s a reminder to always work, and always strive, and never settle… but also to keep your eyes and ears open to what real people, not just your fellow nerds/aesthetes, are watching and reading and listening to; you never know when you’ll find that kernel of your next great obsession.

Like Sondheim wrote, “There are prizes all around you if you’re wise enough to see.”

Monday, January 2, 2012

Records of the Year, 2011

There are always great records getting made, no matter how bad it gets.   This year I felt a little disconnected, got a little caught up in trend chasing and my motto for 2012 is fuck that noise.  I still found stuff that knocked me sideways and this is only a sampling.

1.  Blueprint, Adventures in Counter Culture – Long Columbus’s best producer, maybe Columbus’s best rapper for the last handful of years, but as big a fan as I am?  This record is a full-on motherfucker, breaking through to new clarity and new truth and leaving the listener exhilarated.  The beats have a new spacious quality, catchy and head-knocking but everything in sharper quality and the little details are more apparent and get stuck in your head – the vocoder and synth bounce of “Automatic”; the kicks and subtle static on “Go Hard or Go Home”; the huge, sparingly doled out snare sound on “My Culture” – everything feels of a piece, as an album, but without sounding samey or monochromatic.  And the words are, of course, top notch, and like the beats, the product of the same mind but still varied in tone from the singing anthem “So Alive” to the wry barfly story I think all my friends can relate to “Keep Bouncing” to the clenched fist ars poetica “Radio-Inactive”.  Lines you can quote and you’ll find something new every listen.

2.  Tune-Yards, WhokillThis might’ve been the first record I wholeheartedly loved this year; a slap across the face, a Graceland for my generation but really synthesizing and really absorbing the African influence instead of just appropriating.  Rickety keyboards, fierce lyrics, fiery drumming and that perfect sandpaper voice going from a scream to almost cabaret-style recitation.  The use of negative space and dynamics is unparalleled this year or most years, quiet and loud both have aggression and sensuality; dance and protest music at the same time, fist pumping choruses that keep the beautiful release but also undercut it.  A record like life, where sex and politics and love and joy are all more complicated then they seem and at first easily digestible slogans twist and obscure and reveal themselves over time.

3.  Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’Raphael Saadiq can do almost no wrong in my book.  Where his last record The Way I See It was a fizzy Motown riff with some of the catchiest songs of his career, a record very much about leaving other things out, Stone Rollin’ is closer to his classic solo debut Instant Vintage, a big, sweaty all-encompassing look at the world.  Beatles strings, Chicago soul horns, greasy organ, bass lines from James Jamerson play with bass lines from Steve Swallow, and Saadiq’s own guitar in the manner of Curtis Mayfield or Waylon Jennings are jumbled up in the song and the record.  This a record with songs for every dance step you know and dance steps you need to make up, familiar and warm, with the  nuttiness and complexity of the finest bourbon.

4.  Tyshawn Sorey, Oblique-I – I heard some amazing jazz this year but this one made it impossible to pay attention to anything else the first few times I heard it.  Sorey takes the spare, icy song forms of Koan and puts them in the instrumentation context of more traditional jazz – guitar, alto sax, keys, bass, drums.  The songs recall Bartok as much as Paul Motian, contained and folky enough to think you grasp them but wriggling out from that grasp and never letting you get too comfortable.  Loren Stillman’s alto sax does a lot of melodic work but just as frequently does an amazing job seeming like it’s supporting the real melody in the rhythm section. Todd Neufield, a name new to me, does a perfect job on guitar, alternating between spreading almost indistinguishable grout between organ, sax and bass with Grant Green ice skating lines and Joe Strummer jagged stabs that really let the texture show.  Keys and bass are also more than fine.  But Sorey’s drums, of course, carry the day, he sounds like the best parts of every drummer I’ve ever loved – Max Roach, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray, Elvin Jones, Jeff Watts, Paul Motian – but sounds so distinctive he’s a drummer you can pick out from a mile away in a million contexts.  Never better than doing his own compositions, sometimes using the snare and hi-hat for expected propulsion, sometimes just painting shadows with the snare, sometimes letting the song hang with the kick like a heartbeat, and usually doing at least two of these things at the same time.  Breathtaking.

5.  Black Swans, Don’t Blame the StarsEvery time a new Black Swans record comes out I say it, and I don’t see any signs of stopping: Jerry Decicca is the best songwriter in town and one of the best working today.  I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Don’t Blame the Stars but to say again, it’s not only as beautiful as all the Black Swans records but it’s a different kind of beautiful.  This is a record more concerned with the outside world and maybe more accessible to people who found the earlier work intimidating or hermetic.  All the playing is amazing, from Noel Sayre’s violin – this is the last record of their he worked on before his tragic early death – through Canaan Faulkner’s bass, Chris Forbes’ guitar, Jon Beard’s keys, Brian Jones’ drumming, all recorded crisply and warmly by Keith Hanlon.  If these songs let you go, you might be dead inside.

6.  Amy Lavere, Stranger Me –Lavere’s always been a good singer and an interesting bass player but for me this is the record where she really came into her own.  From the opening track, “Damn Love Song” with its caveman stomp drums, surging organ and guitar stings this record takes old forms and plays them with a simultaneous knowledge of the history and with such fire and confidence that they sound brand new.  One of the best breakup records I’ve ever heard, hitting all the moods from sexy to angry to wry with lyrics that lift the narrative above the self and give it independent life. Arrangements are just surprising enough without being showy, as on “You Can’t Keep Me” with a great Pat Place post-disco bass line and mariachi trumpets after “I’m not your pet / I’m gonna break the chain you have / Tied around my neck / I’m stomping out here / I hope the dishes rattle down / Off your shelf / And if I see you first / I’ll run like hell.”

7.  Craig Taborn, Avenging AngelI wrote about this record at some length already.  A shuffling of every great jazz piano solo and a meditation with so much life in it it feels breathless. 

8.  Times New Viking, Dancer Equired – Times New Viking always had hooks, but this warm, clearer record put the lyrics and the melodies a little more easily graspable.  Everyone stepped their game up in a more accessible way, Jared Phillips’ guitar, Adam Elliot’s drums, Beth Murphy’s keys, all contribute equally to infectious riffs and sticky melodies and the singing claims a more central space.  In sanding the fuzz down, instead of the smoothness being uncomplicated, new contours showed up and the swaggering melancholy that was always there was irresistible now.  For what it’s worth, this record also boasted my favorite love song of the year, “Don’t Go to Liverpool.”

9.   Now Ensemble, Awake – My favorite bit of chamber music this year.  The first track, “Change” was one of the most stunning things I heard all year with pulsing, overlapping cells of horns and piano and little guitar stings building a painting in turns, stops and surges and perfectly controlled splatter.  And the rest of the record maybe didn’t better better that but it kept the intensity up for the rest of its length.

10. Jessica Pavone, Army of StrangersJessica Pavone comes out just about every year with a record that tops everything she’s done and justifies my fandom, whether it needed justifying in the first place.  This record takes her classical work (as on last year’s lump in the throat Songs of Synastry and Solitude) and her improv work (with Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum and others) and puts them in a string-driven rock context that no one’s done this well since the first couple of Dirty Three records.  Moody washes of ink animated Stan Brakhage style, color rupturing darkness and silence splitting sound apart and vice versa. 

11. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (And Other American Stories) – Hayes Carll should be the great hope of mainstream country if the world would pay attention.  A thin voice with a tight-enough band but a textbook example of the sum being greater than the parts.  The record has a few curveballs, what feels like enough weirdness to keep the writer from getting bored or complacent, as in the cut-up morphine dream rockabilly of the title track and the Eddie Cochrane meets Booker T boogie for the new Depression of “Stomp and Holler”.  But where this excels is its takes on traditionalism, the sensitive-but-not-quite-broken Merle Haggard ballad of “Chances Are” and the almost-minimal break up remembered with a smile of “Bye Bye Baby” and the slightly political sex duet with Cary Ann Hearst of “Another Like You.”  He writes melodies you’re sure you’ve heard before and lyrics that sound like the bar conversation you always think you had until the next morning’s phone call to rattle off your indiscretions.

12. Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms – Kahane’s second album of pop songs is an ice sculpture of an exposed nerve.  It takes up the gauntlet thrown down by those beautiful David Garland records and pushes on the rib cage, connecting the inherent minimalism in rock with the pulse of minimalism and wrapping it around heartbreaking songs sung perfectly.

13. Psychedelic Horseshit, LacedMatt Whitehurts’s Psychedelic Horesehit project is often the best kind of frustrating.  He has a habit of discarding something the second he seems to have it under control, taking that one kernel of truth out of it and putting it in a context where he’s no longer so confident.  So this second proper album was a surprise but not a surprise at all.  Working principally with percussionist Ryan Jewell, this is a record of pop dance motifs including tropicalia and Eurodisco turned inside out and held together by Whitehurst’s guitar under layers of dirty gauze and that sneering, post-Ron House lyrical sensibility.  This record was a breath of fresh air whenever it came on my ipod and I couldn’t help but stop random and let the whole thing play.

14. Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi This record is a monument to complicated, raw sensuality.  As much about the way breath feels in her (for a lot of definitions of “her”) lungs, inside and out as it is about the on-the-page content.  That said, the content’s pretty damn good too with songs worthy of Roy Orbison or Nick Cave – it wasn’t a surprise when she opened for Grinderman – with minimal percussion and blankets of harmonium, cut through by oil-spill strings and Calvi’s flamenco guitar.  This record has the sexiness of being held in mid-air over curved, sharpened knives.

15. Hunx and his Punx, Too Young to Be in LoveThere are few things I like more than girl group music, and no one’s writing better songs in that mold than Hunx. 

16. Baby Dee, Regifted LightAnother great, piano-heavy record from one of the great songwriters of this confused, joyful, fucked-up age.  A few gorgeous instrumentals around Baby Dee’s always heart-wrenching and frequently hilarious songs, particular attention should be paid to the title track “His blessing glistens on my back / And multiplies / As I regift it to your eyes / Its gentleness increases”.

17. Psandwich, Northren Psych –Every few years, Ron House reappears with a new set of songs that put everyone in Columbus on notice.  One of his best bands, and that’s saying something, and they’re firing on all cylinders with Zac Szymusiak’s drums heavy on kick and tom, Bobby Silver’s melodic bass playing and the snaking, searing guitars of Brett Burleson and John Olexovitch building barbed wire sculptures around House’s voice and lyrics. 

18. Harris Eisenstadt, September SongsEistenstadt’s compositions just get stronger and his drumming continues to blow me away.  As much as I love his usual sextet, there’s a lushness and immediacy in this trio – with Angelica Sanchez on drums and Ellery Eskelin on tenor – that I can’t get enough of.  Ballads that harken back to the dark-sexy side of ‘60s Blue Note but without ever being a museum piece.

19. Cheater Slicks, Guttural: Live 2010It’s a live Cheater Slicks record they thought was good enough to release.  Of course I think anyone reading this needs to buy it.  This band has been on a big resurgence the last few years and this does an amazing job of capturing the volatile, snarling energy of them on a good night in a little bar.

20. Charalambides, ExileEverything those of us who are fans expect from a Charlambides record but somehow avoiding the trap of being stale or precious.  Christina Carter’s voice still cuts through the guitar landscapes like a knife and oblique narratives float on top of everything, meditative but always unsettling.

21. Follies, Broadway Revival Cast Recording – I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim for as long as I’ve cared about music – the same friend introduced me to Sondheim as, a few years later, introduced me to whiskey; I’m never sure if I should send him a gift every year or punch him – but the original cast recording of Follies always sounded really shoddy, despite the talk (which I believe) being that it was one of the best casts of all time.  So I knew the songs but didn’t know them until this new revival.  The cast is just about perfect – Bernadette Peters sounding incredibly fragile as Sally Durant, Ron Raines as Ben Stone coming apart – and everything is just clear enough.  These are ghosts meant to be seen in close up.

22. Jenny Hval, VisceraA perfect title for a near-perfect record.  This is an accounting of everything inside and everything that keeps a person moving, without obscuring any of the dripping unevenness. 

23. Matthew Shipp, Art of the Improviser – A perfect summing up of Shipp’s solo piano and working trio, taking on his compositions from many periods of his career and standards and applying a cubist’s logic to get at the real emotional, structural core. 

24. Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges – One of the most stunning solo saxophone composed records I’ve ever heard.  Little dashes of electronics and brief guest appearances by Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden help fill out the universe.  Just like the stunning Tara Donovan sculpture in my other best-of list I said used mylar to trap the light it’s sculpting with, these are sculptures of pure breath, exorcism via exhalation.

25. Noveller, Glacial Glow –Sarah Lipstate continues the evolution of the Noveller project getting cleaner and more focused but always keeping up that intensity and that mystery.  As a solo guitar record this is an interesting companion to the Stetson record on the list, how much feeling can you funnel through that intense, meditative stripping-away and how do you make it flower, how do you make it explode into a night sky?