Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best of 2013: Recorded Music

Man, there were some tough calls to make for this list but that's the best kind of problem to have.  There are some major blind spots I'm not happy about - why did I only hear half a dozen rap records and even less contemporary R&B? - but each one of these records shook me in a real, even if hard to define way.

  1. Aoife O’Donovan, Fossils - Any of my top five could’ve been the number one record.  Their one commonality is that the minute I hit play, wherever I was, I stopped and exhaled and thought My god, I’m glad this record’s in my life right now.  This might be the record of the year.  I knew Aoife a little bit when she was in college and I kept up with her career through the grapevine and her fine records with Crooked Still and her song on the last Alison Krauss record.  But when this hit me it was still a revelation.  A ferociously sexy and stirring record painted in inkwashes and shimmering pastels underpinned by a wry, real, knowing darkness.  “Red & White & Blue & Gold”, maybe the song I played the most this year, takes a slice of life story about July 4th and being newly.  in love and shades it until it’s so real the paper’s starting to flake and fall apart.  Her voice both reaching and feeling like it’s just falling into place on “Come on / Let’s kiss / In the July sun / Beneath the July sky / Oh the feeling I get / When you pass me by” and Charlie Rose’s pedal steel and Rob Burger formerly of Tin Hat Trio’s Spooner Oldham-styled Wurlitzer swirling around her and around each other is a moment that made me stop dead the first time I played it and still gave me chills when I played the track again when I was writing this.  “Beekeeper” shares similar slacker-boy-love-and-skepticism DNA with Megan Palmer’s “Davey” and Ani Difranco’s “Napoleon” but the specificity and compositional rigor put it in the rarefied heights of Joni Mitchell’s “A Strange Boy” - “Hey, today’s the day - are you ready to fall? Are you ready to jump / From a plane with a stranger on your back?” with the strings pulling everything taut.  But the record’s far from monochromatic.  “Oh, Mama” takes a standard whiskey-drinking singalong and elevates it to Gillian Welch levels, “Fire Engine” is the best country shuffle I heard all year and “Pearls” is a paranoid  love song like almost no one writes anymore.  The playing throughout is top notch and Tucker Martine’s production is the best I’ve heard from him since Bill Frisell’s The Intercontinentals (which is saying something considering his work on Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone made this list last year, but I stand by it).  
  2. Todd May, Rickenbacker Girls - Todd May’s been in contention for best songwriter in town for almost as long as I’ve known there was music in my town and with his first record under his own name he carved out a knotty, snarling masterpiece of finding your place in the world.  I gushed about this record at some length here, and raved in person to everybody I know over and over again but every time I play it so many moments still stop me cold, bring me up short.
  3. Jason Isbell, Southeastern - Isbell was a songwriter I always liked from his first appearance with the Drive By Truckers (and he made an impression even on that first tour which stopped at Little Brother’s with Slobberbone and my pals in the Sovines) but this is his best record by a wide margin.  This record feels like it’s about the world, he’s taking the whole world into his approach and filtering it through himself.  The characters’ criticisms don’t feel like self-pity and it’s entirely free of solipsism.  People and places are drawn as though they’re really seen. I swear out of 12 songs 9 made me go “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better song” at least a couple times, but I have to go with “Relatively Easy” , every line carved with no flash, nothing left behind - “Watch that lucky man / Walk to work again / He may not have a friend left in the world / See him walking home / Again, to sleep alone / I step into a shop / To buy a postcard for a girl” is the fucking bridge.  And the playing is top notch, from Will Johnson and Kim Richey adding harmonies (the latter underlining the similarities to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker but not in any bad way) to his new wife Amanda Shires’ soaring violin lines to Brian Allen and Chad Gamble’s just-enough rhythm section.  Every part of this record feels in its place and of its place. Here’s to hoping this is the start to a dozen or more records in this league and it’s not just a mic drop before a victory lap but even if this is all we get it’s more than enough.  
  4. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon - There’s no surprise this would end up on my list the second it was released, after my gushing over Argue’s first album Infernal Machines and the theatrical collaboration with Danjel Zezelj this music was composed for at BAM making one of my shows of the year two years ago. But I’m overjoyed to report it’s even better than I was expecting.  A soulful panorama going from Sousa-esque marches to loping punch-drunk waltes reminiscent of the Carla Bley/Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra to rippling minimal scene painting.  Every bit of promise on the first record is brought to full flower in Brooklyn Babylon and the playing is nothing short of breathtaking.  Best big band record in recent memory.
  5. Erik Friedlander, Claws and Wings - A heartbreaking series of woodcut miniatures written by Friedlander and played perfectly by him with assistance from Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics.  A tribute to Friedlander’s late wife, the dancer and choreographer Lynn Shapiro, this set contains some of Friedlander’s most romantic and lustrous music, sensual with an underpinning of darkness and a tension that haunts the listener long after the record’s stopped.  Many of the songs hinge on his thick pizzicato playing with what feels like arco lines dubbed in later, even after Courvoisier and Mori, who both play as beautifully as I’ve ever heard them (saying something for two musicians I easily have 20 records by).  A new high water mark for my favorite cellist, bar none.
  6. Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, Holdin’ It Down: The Veterans Dreams’ Project  - Keeping the trend going, I’ve been a huge fan of both these artists since I first heard them, Welcome to the Afterfuture for Mike Ladd which came out when I was in college and his work with Burnt Sugar and Roscoe Mitchell for Vijay Iyer around the same time.  But possibly my favorite work for either is their collaborative work, starting with In What Language? still my favorite record to take on globalization and the implied class structure inherent in travel in a post-9/11 world even 10 years later.  And this third record in the series is the most moving, riveting work yet.  Transmuting interview materials from soldiers (including the voices of real veterans Lynn Hill and Maurice Decaul) and framing it in music including gorgeous jazz piano, the cello of Okkyung Lee, the crunch of classic era hip-hop (ably abetted by Guillermo Brown on drums and electronics and Kassa Overall on drums), Liberty Ellman’s guitar occasionally conjuring mainlined acid rock and creaking, woozy chamber music.  Music that dares to ask what we give our soldiers after we ask them to give up so much and how their dreams, literal and figurative, are changed in the wake of their homecoming.  I got this record a couple weeks after I finished reading David Finkel’s fantastic and harrowing Thank You For Your Service and they’ve complicated each other in my memory ever since.  I don’t think I can ask anything more of art or journalism.
  7. Mary Halvorson Septet, Illusionary Sea - My favorite jazz guitarist right now gets better with every single record.  Adding to her core group by degrees - first trio, then quintet, now septet - but deploying each of those additional colors judiciously.  And this expands on the very Horace Silver-ish stylings of the two Quintet albums but, perhaps cushioned by the the thickened low-end of Jacob Garchick on trombone and Ingrid Laubrock on second tenor, her guitar goes off in even spikier, more angular directions.  Deeper clarity in the writing and also a wilder imagination.  This record feels like a composer/player relationship (or, I guess, siv of them) hitting an apotheosis.  A record that makes me want to know what’s next and makes me want to cling to what’s now for a little longer.
  8. Oblivians, Desperation – I’ve commented more than once that the handful of times I’ve seen the Oblivians as a reunion act have blown the door off whatever venue and situation they’re in and their return to recording for the first album since 1997 is a perfect return to form.  A little older and wiser in some songs like Greg Cartwright’s “I’ll Be Gone” (maybe the best song he’s written, which is saying something) and  “Come a Little Closer” but with the snotty soul-punk charm undiminished on barn burners like Eric Friedl’s “Woke Up in a Police Car” and Jack Oblivian’s “Back Street Hangout”.  A band known almost as much for their record collecting as their songwriting, that pays off here with three stellar covers, especially Stephanie McDee’s zydeco/polka stomp “Call the Police”.  A record for cheap whiskey and dancing far longer than you should.
  9. Eric Revis Trio, City of Asylum - I saw this trio in a very cramped club (after waiting in line in the cold) at Winter Jazzfest and it was gripping but it took living with the record for a little while to really get a handle on it.  Eric Revis, who has been one of my absolute favorite jazz bassists of the last few years (also seen on this year’s phenomenal Tarbaby record that came very close to making this list) and assembling a trio with Kris Davis on piano (also on the Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House record) and one of my all-time favorite drummers, Andrew Cyrllie, is a match made in heaven.  Those three fit together like pieces of a puzzle you suddenly falling into place.  Davis has grown with power and intensity in every context I’ve seen her in over the last few years and she’s a marvel here, all splintering rhythm and deep melodic intensity.  And that melodic imagine is matched point for point by Revis whose imagination comes through in a more unfiltered way than on any of his earlier records and Cyrille’s sense of joy and gravity is the perfect foil, everything bouncing off of eveyrthing else, always connected to the world even in its deepest abstractions.
  10. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories – My god.  This record slapped me across the face and made my jaw slack.  The strongest writing for character and place and feeling I’ve heard in I don’t know how long, delivered by the kind of supple, expressive voice Nashville doesn’t have a lot of anymore. A truth-telling country record in the style of Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson, clearly pitched for the mainstream not the (also wonderful) limited audience of Guy Clark and Eliza Gilykson.  Perfect, warm playing and songs that sketch lives where no one is blameless but also no one is without hope. Clark wields detail like a Raymond Carver story deploying it with a wry sense of humor on songs like “Stripes” where the narrator only restrains herself from killing her cheating paramour because of the prison fashion choices and “Illegitimate Children” detailing a bar scene happening every night in America (and elsewhere).  And using that same specificity for maximum heartbreak on timeless weepers like the devastating “Just Like Him” and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, maybe the best cheater’s ballad since “Dark End of the Street”.
  11. Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd, Hagar’s Song - Maybe the jazz record I played most, just a gorgeous duet record  going as deeply into melody as anything I heard all year.  Charles Lloyd’s gorgeous, singing lines and tone on tenor have a phenomenal showcase playing off Moran’s piano which goes into some surprising shadings and textures but also lays back a lot.  From the original suite that’s the titular piece and centerpiece of the record to joyous runs through everything from Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” to Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is my Woman Now” to Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” this is a tribute to American song as a river and a universe.
  12. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris – I was woefully out of the loop on new hip-hop this year but if you’d told me a couple years ago I’d have two records from the Odd Future camp on my year end list I don’t think I would’ve believed you.  Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris is an unflinching, stoic take on the pressures of society, family and the pressure on yourself to be great when it feels like so much is riding on you at such a young age.  Woozy, off-balance but infectious beats and a deadpan delivery plus very well-chosen guests make this one ear worm after another, with my favorite track being “Sunday” featuring Frank Ocean (rapping, not singing) with a hook about trying to deal with the light of clarity and lines like “What good is West Coast weather if you’re bipolar? / If I’m’a need this sweater / I’d rather be where it’s cold.”
  13. Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backwards. - Before now, my favorite Robbie Fulks records were overstuffed, at times messy, explosions of genre like Couples in Trouble or Let’s Kill Saturday Night.  But his newest record, his most focused since Country Love Songs (I’m discounting the covers records), all small group acoustic playing and grim narratives about life barely clinging to the margins is a fucking punch in the gut and as close to a masterpiece as he’s made yet.  Focused around Fulks’ longtime collaborators Robbie Gjersoe on guitar (maybe the finest lead guitarist for this kind of music living today) and Jenny Scheinman on violin, augmented by Ron Spears on mandolin and Mike Bub on bass, not a note is out of place and nothing feels like the kind of forced flurry of notes that bluegrass can descend to, and Fulks’ voice and guitar have never sounded more assured.  In these songs he sketches out characters who are haunted by what or who they left or who they’ve become, drenched in a bitter irony that isn’t about shirking emotion but about filtering out the poisons that infect us all if we’re not vigilant and kill us little by little.
  14. John Paul Keith, Memphis Circa 3am – I worry whatever I’m going to say here sounds like damning with faint praise but rest assured this was one of the most satisfying listening experiences I had all year.  This is the best meat and potatoes rock record in recent memory, full of songs about the ease and the grit of finding yourself at the end of another long, boozy night produced beautifully by Roland Janes who has a resume going back to playing guitar for Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the perfect set of ears for capturing the essence of 1000 Memphis nights on the reels.  Keith’s third record with his band the One Four Fives takes everything good on the first two (and there was plenty good,The Man that Time Forgot especially is still in pretty heavy rotation around my house) and distills it down and opens it up.  Mark Edgar Stuart’s thick, melodic bass (also a fine Memphis singer-songwriter) and John Argroves heavy, swinging drumming fall right into place and lay down a bass for Keith’s uncommonly clear and soulful guitar and the best singing he’s ever laid on wax.
  15. Nadia Sirota, Baroque - Sirota doesn’t just evade the sophomore slump, she sailed far over it and kept flying.  For her second record she commissioned new pieces from some of the hottest composers working including Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein and Nico Muhly and it’s my favorite record to write to of the whole year.  Her viola soars through different contexts, keeping that signature juggling of clarity and jaggedness while dipping over and under Valgeir Sigurosson and Paul Evans’ production and electronics or waltzing with organist James McVinnie on Shara Worden’s composition “From the Invisible to the Visible”, maybe the sexiest piece of music I heard all year.  This is a classical record about right now and a little bit of tomorrow (hat tip to John Logan) and I promise you there are hundreds of children playing viola in their school orchestra who are going to find this and it’ll light their fire to play for the rest of their lives.  In a generation we’re going to hear this record talked about as a key influence for players who are blowing us away.
  16. The Internet, Feel Good - A more sedate record than the first The Internet album, but while the hooks sneak up on you here Syd tha Kid and Matt Martian’s psych-quiet storm project is some of the sexiest most insidiously catchy music I heard all year.  In some ways this feels like the light to Nick Cave’s similarly thick, humid vibe-heavy record this year, Push the Sky Away, and it’s a similar kind of record I just wanted to crawl inside and curl up, there was always a melody to get stuck in my head and there was always something new to find in the textures.
  17. Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House, Strong Place - Just the other day A. and I were discussing our second NYC trip together where we saw some amazing music but what may have most strongly stuck in my head was an early Ingrid Laubrock show since moving to the states with Tom Rainey on drums and Mary Halvorson on guitar in the old Issue Project Room.  Years later, Laubrock’s transmuted that promise and raw energy into a refined, ass-kicking voice on her instrument and maybe my favorite quintet in jazz right now.  From the first track, “An Unfolding” which is like watching a sunrise through a spider web-cracked window this covers so many moods so deftly it’s sometimes hard to keep up with but it’s always worth the effort, any work you put into this record is more than rewarded..Rainey’s a rock in any group but he sounds particularly good here, keeping the band on rhythmic track and nudging it in less-expected directions and John Hebert on bass (also phenomenal on the Halvorson record that made this list) knows exactly where to slip in and where to lay back.  Kris Davis on piano and Mary Halvorson on guitar nudge each other and always have the perfect melodic counterpoint snapping the listener back to attention.  Just a goddamn fine band operating at the height of its powers.
  18. Charles Bradley, Victim of Love - Charles Bradley might be the finest retro soul singer of that generation working today and this record was his best appearance on record yet, Gospel shouts and raspy balladry wrung through soundscapes provided largely by the Menahan Street Band and longer, spikier songs, including highlights like “You Put the Flame on It” and the one-two record closing punch of “Hurricane” and “Through the Storm”.  Perfect songs perfectly tailored for the artist.
  19. Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner - One of my favorite artists, DJ/Rupture, recording an album under his own name that’s a take on two compositions - “Gay Guerrilla” and “Evil Nigger” - by the late, great Julius Eastman   The playing by David Friend and Emily Manzo is great, taking a few liberties with the score and using judicious editing and mic placement but keeping everything necessary intact and highlighting these works for multiple piano as still vibrant, alive art.
  20. Olivia Block, Karren - Easily the best injection of field recordings into an orchestra composition context with Block’s own icy electronics gluing it together.  A gorgeous, haunting album full of very subtle surprises.    


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