This was an odd year for recorded music for me. It wasn't until I was looking over everything I listened to that I realized how many great records I heard this year. Very few of them fell under the rock rubric but this list could have been twice as long and I'd still be cursing leaving things off. It depresses me that this is overly white and overly male but that's not on anyone but me. I need to make sure my ears are open.
Black Swans, Occasion for Song - Lots of records made me come up short this year, short on description of the depth of feeling and craft, records that made me treasure the world a little more, but none did it as immediately and as often as this Black Swans record. By now it's a cliché for me to call one of their records a masterpiece since I've been doing it since their first album, Who Will Walk in the Darkness With You, but it keeps being true. The best, warmest vocal from Jerry Decicca yet, the always-pristine arrangements have an even deeper level of telepathy, and melodies so ingratiating that the painful subject matter stands in even stronger relief, like the black in a Goya painting. Not one note, not one lyric is out of place here.
Jessica Pavone, Hope Dawson is Missing - For the one and a half of you who pay attention (hi Mom), Pavone's a perennial player on this list. Since I first saw her duo with Mary Halvorson in one of the terrific shows Gerard Cox books in town, I've been a huge, drooling fan, and while I wouldn't want to judge, maybe the chamber music work she's doing with Tzadik is my favorite stuff of hers. This expands the string quartet from Songs of Synastry and Solitudewith Halvorson on guitar, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, and Emily Manzo on vocals. A gauzy rumination on what happened when personified hope is just goneone day and you don't know if you'll ever see it again but you keep looking because you don't have evidence of the contrary, that I couldn't stop listening to.
Keith Rowe, September - One of the darkest, most beautiful things I heard all year. One 35-minute track recorded live on the anniversary of 9/11. I'm not sure I have words to describe this but from the minute I heard it it was beguiling to me, and it's still jaw-dropping and some of the best music for writing I've heard, ever.
Tift Merritt, Traveling Alone -None of the conceptual trappings of the last few records but this is the first Tift Merritt record I've loved since her work with Two Dollar Pistols. Righteous band, led by the dueling lines of Eric Heywood on steel and Marc Ribot, continuing his ascent into a new clarity and sharpness, on electric guitar. And a set of songs that hit all of her modes and do them all justice, not feeling like playing dress-up: particularly the country soul duet with Andrew Bird, "Drifted Apart", my favorite single song all year, the blissfully sensual "Feeling of Beauty" and "Small Talk Relations", the shuddering "Still Not Home", and "Spring" which feels to me like an ars poeticafrom the opening/refrain, "Oh, it is a mystery like a lover's touch / Brings a blossom from a winter's bud" through her snarling "Wilt and will wither with all you've left / Beauty is defiance in the face of death".
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. City -Sometimes it's nice to see the hype machine/popular consensus/whatever get it really right. This record so stunned me that I found myself, a few beers into the evening, talking to A. and comparing a song on it to an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle but you know, part of me (even as I understand the absurdity and pretension) wants to stand by that. It's a record of deep focus about mastering the art of losing and recombining the raw elements of your life and the pop culture swirling around you into something you can stand on, but still, always, being entertaining. The beats swing and creep and soar and crowd around you and Lamar's mastery of every great West Coast rap style after Egyptian Lover is so ingrained he can play with it. A masterful storyteller and brutal self-critic - "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" is the best 7+ minute rap song since The Coup's "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Grenada Last Night"- but also unafraid to have lines about wishing "[his] dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So [he] can fuck the world for 72 hours".
Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America - Anais Mitchell reteamed with Todd Sickafoose who produced her fantastic concept album Hadestown for a collection of her best songs yet, no big name other vocalists, no gimmick stealing her shine. Her thin, reedy voice is deployed like a stiletto on a dark, cold night, and her simple, hypnotic guitar and band is perfectly taut behind her. She uses the conventions of the classic folk song, with lines like "Please the god of Abraham / Every day a dying day", and I say usesvery deliberately because she doesn't play withthem, though there's a real sense of playfulness on here, every detail, every chord change, every inflection is chosen and deployed for utmost heartbreak or charm or joy, not necessarily separated by song.
Sinkane, Mars - A long contender for first among equals in the Columbus expat done good category, Sinkane hit a new plateau with his record Mars. The kind of future R&B I wish more people did with an immaculate sense of joy and fun, sleek but never slick and sexy but eluding cliché unless it knows the cliché well enough to subvert it while still using its innate juice (like the wah pedal on opening track "Runnin'" or the flute and bongos combo on "Makin' Time"), a record rich in detail but never bogged down by it.
Antony and the Johnsons, Cut the World - No surprise this made it on my list. Antony is the one artist I can think of I wish would do moresinging with an orchestra and what this doesn't have from the live set I saw him do a few years ago it makes up for it by providing different, unexpected pleasures. The physical thump of added percussion on "Kiss My Name", the almost unbearable humming tension behind his voice on "Another World" and a version of "Cripple and the Starfish" that outdoes the studio cut in a way I didn't think was possible.
Mary Halvorson Quintet, Bending the Bridges -Mary Halvorson's first quintet record blew me away, someone grappling with Horace Silver's language in a fully modern, engaged by other currents of music and art of the last 40 years, way. And this takes that and explodes it. The band feels lived-in, the songs old friends there to be challenged and interrogated because you know that will bring the best out of them. The front-line horn writing for Jonathan Finlayson and Jon Irbagon is thorny and sweet, John Hebert's bass full of melodic surprise and never-less-than rock solid rhythm, Ches Smith's drumming that starts in the pocket and finds other pockets inside of that pocket, and of course Halvorson's guitar playing, going from cubist flamenco through Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock and ending up purely her own.
Gentleman Jesse, Leaving Atlanta -My favorite straightforward rock record of the year. I've liked the earlier Gentleman Jesse and His Men records but this was a revelation. Songs Nick Lowe or Graham Parker would've been proud to have written, as typical a rock trope as feeling hemmed in by your little town and hating yourself a little for how much you're annoyed by it and merging these angsty lyrics with a bouncing back beat and sharp guitar riffs and a yelp that begs you - or me, anyway - to sing along.
Tim Berne, Snakeoil - Tim Berne doesn't make bad records but this feels like a class of its own. The writing's stripped down a little bit, the sound is that rich ECM production so you can hear every inch of every sound but it doesn't feel glossy or airless (like, I'm sorry to say, a few Evan Parker records on that label did). His writing's still redolent of him, the twists and knots, but there's a peaceto it. His alto and Oscar Noriega's clarinets playing perfectly shadow and light one another, Matt Mitchell's piano is the grout adding color and texture, and this is the best showcase for Ches Smith's drums I heard all year (including his fantastic playing on the Mary Halvorson record so you know that's saying something).
Blueprint, Deleted Scenes - I'm a sucker for this kind of "process" record, where an artist makes clear the material was intended for something else and it's been repackaged. In every case you can feel the choice that led these songs to not make the cut for Adventures in Counter Culturebut these are better songs than most artists ever write and I was very glad to have the opportunity to hear them, a few of them are among my favorite 'print songs ever.
Orrin Evans, Flip the Script -In a year with a very good Vijay Iyer record, a very good Bad Plus record, among others, this was the piano trio record that crushed me and kept me coming back again and again. I heard Orrin Evans in Bill McHenry's band and I'm a big fan of that Tarbaby record with Oliver Lake but I was unprepared for a record where he did this much heavy lifting that moved me so deeply. He and his rythym section, Donald Edwards on drums and Ben Wolfe on bass, go through the gauntlet of moods and even find a way to put a new spin on maybe that hoariest of standards "Someday My Prince Will Come".
Traxman, Da Mind of a Traxman- I've talked the last couple years in this space about reinvigorating my love of going out and dancing but this is the year that overlapped with my rediscovery of great dance music, at least dance music as I understood it when I went to clubs a lotat 18 or 19. This is a constantly unfolding tapestry of sounds and moods that touches on every music I've ever loved and still comes out surprising and fresh and new and makes me want to move even when howI'm supposed to dance to it puzzles me.
Missy Mazzoli, Song for the Uproar (The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt) -The cast recording of Mazzoli's first opera and I'll be honest, I'm still digesting it but there wasn't a moment's doubt for me that it belongs on this list or that it'll be giving me something to chew on for quite some time. Some songs are already etched into my grey matter like "This World Within Me is Too Small" or the looping, delirious vocals tumbling over each other on "100 Names For God".
Liminanas, Crystal Anis -Another snarling, sexy platter from Liminanas, everything a finely tuned clockwork mechanism built out of smoke and good bourbon. This is the kind of record you want to put on at a party or put on alone when you get home from the party and just let it play through and you'll find different things in both circumstances but it's just as good for either.
Bill McHenry, La Peur du Vide - I saw this band in a stint at the Vanguard last year and everything clicked for me in a way McHenry's work with Paul Motian didn't yet. At the time I thought a large part of it might have been the first time I saw Andrew Cyrille live with that drum sound that so enraptured me got stars in my eyes but hearing a recorded document from a later week they did reaffirmed everything that was great about that set. Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass (whose damn fine 11:11 record from his Parallax project came within a hair's breadth of making this list), know exactly where to come in, where to open up and where to limn the sharp, intricate constructions in. I've talked about "sunrise music" before, something I find on occasion that feels like it makes the world make a little more sense when I'm on the bus into work watching the sun come up over the east side of town, and this was my favorite example of it I've found this year. Maybe that I've found since Tyondai Braxton's Central Market.
Fort Shame, Double Wide - Fort Shame were one of my favorite Columbus bands the minute I heard them, and how could they not be, with Todd May from the Lilybandits/Fallow Valley Sinners/etc and Sue Harshe from Scrawl on dueling lead vocals and songwriting duties. Over the last few years they added George Hondroulis from much-missed band The Evil Queens on drums to Jamey Ball's melodic, swinging bass, to complete a rhythm section with as much power and depth as the songs and the two voices started to integrate more into a fusion of Kurt Weill and Whiskeytown that kicked my enthusiasm into high gear. This record is the flowering of all those elements coming together and catching fire. You can dance to it or you can lay on your living room floor, it's got pleasures for days.
Bang on a Can, Big Beautiful Dark and Scary -My favorite straight classical record this year. Julia Wolfe's title track was a classical piece that had me ready to shadowbox with angels walking down the street, clusters of strings and a piano beaten like it stole something. The arrangements of Nancarrow's player piano pieces worked in a way that kind of thing almost never works for me. Michael Gordon's "For Madeline" is something I tried to write a poem even in the same stratospherea dozen times. I don't think I could point out a clunker track on the whole double album.
Jacob Garchik, The Heavens - Like the Mazzoli, I got this late in the year but it grabbed me by the lapel and said "Change your plans." The subtitle of an atheist's gospel trombone record seemed a little too cute but I'd heard Garchik in a few contexts and his playing's always top notch (especially on the 40Twenty record that came very close to making this list this year) and I heard about ten seconds of that first track, "Creation's Creation" before I was hooked. The harmonies are like the way the light hits a crumbling street at the end of a beautifully exhausting day, the melodies are astonishing. A singular record from a voice I get the feeling is just starting to really come into his own.