Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Live Music

“We eulogize autumn, we long
for a better world, we seek to deliver
a purer hemidemisemiquaver,
the one brief note that says we mean,
roughshod and winged, to last forever.”
-Maxine Kumin, “Finding the One Brief Note”

The end of this year's wrap-up, my favorite shows of the year. This is the post I always write and post last because there are always a couple things in December that leave me speechless. I never want to write anything off before the solstice.

Left off this for the same reason I used to leave off Twangfest (in case anyone has been reading these for so long, going back to the LJ era) is Big Ears Festival - but I don't want to make light of that. It was so immense if I tried to carve out discrete pieces, half the list would have gotten subsumed in its tide. The most musically fulfilling and enriching music festival I've been to since the combination of Winter Jazz Fest and Globalfest in 2013 (look for a return to that in 2016 if everything goes well) or, if you think that's cheating, since Terrastock in 2008.

Again, loss colored a lot of this the way it colored a lot of the whole year - some of the people gone this year I got to know from going to shows. Even though I brought this up on the records list, let's take another moment to remember Joey Moore from The Girls!. That band only shows up on this list for FemmeFest - their first performance with the very good replacement guitarist, Joe Rosenblum, doing a damn fine job in a nigh-impossible situation -  because I was out of town for their record release in April and the few months beforehand I missed several shows because, well, I knew a record was in the can and I assumed I'd have plenty of time.

The other large-looming loss for Columbus music was Mark Flugge, pianist and educator without whom I don't think this town would be nearly as vibrant or full as it is. I didn't know Mark well but I was always overjoyed to see him and he taught many, many of my musician friends. His playing and writing were a revelation to me, one of the first great piano players I ever heard live and even as my ears got more seasoned his Firehouse tributes to Monk, Horace Silver and others were still eye-opening. I wrote up his January quintet show at Natalie's without being aware that he was struggling and it was a beautiful evening of great Monk compositions.

Not to make this about me but I was pretty stunned when Flugge's longtime sideman (and also a very fine pianist in town in his own right) Dave Dewitt read a piece of my review during the public memorial at Capital University. It reminded me that people are listening and it does matter to hear some publicly expressed praise and criticism and it's part of my impetus to start "Hey, Fred" to draw attention to things coming to town and in 2015 to review more. To try to engage in the dialogue as things are happening.  Hold me to that.

You can't exhaust yourself trying to see everything but you can't take what's in your town right there in front of you for granted either. I'm trying to remember that - or even re-learn it.

  1. La Mecanica Popular, 04/18/14 (Nublu, Manhattan) - Obviously, everything related to fame or just desserts is a crapshoot but this is the one thing I saw this year in a small room that I feel confident saying there is no justice in this world if they aren't at least Sharon Jones huge. A tight eight-piece band reinventing classic Fania-style salsa with no horns but with layers of thick distorted guitars, synths and echoey dreamlike vocals. The gauzy distortion on the vocals - like something unstuck in time - created a womb, the hard guitar was pulsing blood and the interlocking conga, bongos and timbales were the kind of heartbeat you couldn't help but move your hips to. Packed midnight and 2am sets with everyone getting beautifully, tightly, loose to instantly identifiable new classics like "La Paz del Freak" and "Guajiro".
  2. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with Soul Rebels, 12/13/14 (Newport Music Hall) - Soul Rebels, one of the finest of the new-school brass bands took the stage in total darkness and exploded. 8 pieces - 5 brass (two trombones, two trumpets, sousaphone), one tenor sax, and two percussionists - playing the kind of ecstatic cacophony that makes you glad to be alive. Voices (both instrumental and verbal) overlapping and undercutting each other, slipping from unison to harmony to delicious, electric dissonance and back again. A multi-headed beast with one mission, slipping in chunks of contemporary hip-hop (the chorus of Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" made an appearance) with classic call and response and some '70s-reminiscent R&B and choreography, making the entire crowd lose their minds. The bass drum/timbales/cowbell from Derrick Moss drenched in the reverberations of Edward Lee's sousaphone and cut through by the brightness of Lumar LeBlanc's snare kept my body twisting for a solid hour. When Trombone Shorty came out to lead his band Orleans Avenue (tenor and bari sax, bass, drums, guitar, and the man himself on trombone and trumpet) it was maybe the clearest case of a headliner proving their dominance after a band almost no one else could have followed since the Hives played after the Dirtbombs on that stage almost 10 years ago. A dynamic stage show with lights worthy of an arena but intensely human. Trombone Shorty never has a crisis of confidence. letting every one of his band members shine because there's never any doubt who you came to see and his rich, warm trombone tone and tenor voice are riveting. As good a modern funk band as I've ever seen and it's nice to see a real crowd show up once in a while for music this good; I love my seven people I see at some shows (even some shows on this list) but being in the middle of a thousand people I don't know can be a beautiful thing.
  3. Rebellum, 04/25/14 (Rumba Café) - The stripped-down pop-funk splinter cell from the mighty Burnt Sugar Arkestra sent me straight into space with their dissected takes on every good danceable funk style from the last 30 years with the same biting acid wit that characterizes the rest of the Burnt Sugar universe. Immediately graspable songs that had deep meaning inside those hooks, from the raw call and response of "Bush, baby, bush / Baby, where's your friend?" on "Start Thinking Like an Afreakun" to the icy slow soul as glimpsed through a haze of memory on "Somebody to Love You" with co-lead-singer Shelly Nicole making my blood run cold. Other general in the front vocal line, Mikel Banks, cut through whatever bullshit was in your head on songs like "Spank a Lick" and a fiery cover of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel". The rhythm section of Ohio native Jared Michael Nickerson on bass, Hiroyuki Matsuura on drums and Ben Tyree on guitar moved like a shapeshifting dragon, filling that little club with a holier than holy vibration. But the icing, the neon and the red paint, what threw it over the top, was the astonishing horn section of Paula Henderson on bari and Lewis "Flip" Barnes on trumpet and backing vocals (and a stunning lead turn on the second cover of the night, Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne") - complexity in the service of pure, raunchy, jukejoint nastiness in the best sense of the word and Leon Gruenbaum on the keys held it all together, sometimes supporting the rhythm, sometimes churning out gorgeous hooks that stuck for days. My jaw was in my lap for hours and I was indescribably jealous of those people who made it to the Used Kids instore earlier in the day.
  4. Tune-yards, 10/20/14 (Newport Music Hall) - I'm amazed something as outre, as beautifully weird and full of sharp edges as Merrill Garbus' tune-yards project can bring 1000 people into the Newport singing along and finding their own catharsis in lyrics as knotty or personal or irony-drenched as "My man likes me from behind / Tell the truth I never mind" or the staccato call and response of "No, no, no / You'll never come to my hood / Because danger is crawling out the 'wood". While I missed the horn players on record this go-round, her three backing singers doubling on percussion gave it a rich textured feeling that almost reminded me of the Boredoms or even a little bit of Neubauten but wrapped in a delicious Tom Tom Club glaze. The kind of show that makes me glad to be alive.
  5. John Paul Keith, 09/25/14 (Bosco’s, Memphis) - Almost stealthily, over the last few years and three albums, John Paul Keith has quietly established one of the best song catalogues in American music. And as good as some of what I saw at Gonerfest (the reason A. and I were in Memphis) was - and don't mistake me, Outdoorsmen, Gooch Palms, Nots, and Golden Pelicans blew my lid off - this was the best thing either of us saw all weekend. With no real expectations for a three-piece playing two sets at an Oktoberfest celebration at a brewpub (though let it also be said, it was a pretty great brewpub several of the Goner folks had turned us onto), this was a clinic on everything that's good about that kind of music and a lesson in the rivers of song and how they intertwine in American history. Going through sultry ballads like "New Years Eve" and greasy stomps like "Baby, We're a Bad Idea" with a couple detours to great, unexpected covers like Allen Toussaint/Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights". A fantastic rhythm section including a young drummer from New Orleans.
  6. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 11/14/14 (Subculture, Manhattan) - I'm sure it's getting boring for people to keep seeing Argue's big band on this list but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. I keep being lucky enough to have my NYC trips coincide with their shows and they keep blowing me away. This was a set entirely made up of unrecorded material, some of which I'd heard before like the tribute to Laurie Frink which has sharpened to an even sweeter, holier place, and the piece in honor of Levon Helm which capturI'med Helm's easy confidence and R&B fire with a loping swing and a charm you can't bottle. Some of which I hadn't yet, like "Tensile Curves" which they'd premiered at the Newport Jazz Festival this year and is the clearest link between Ellington's arranging and Argue's own vocabulary, it was magical, or a tribute to Alan Turing I didn't catch the name of that had a rage in its deep pockets. Come on, someone bring this band to town or at least Cleveland or Cincinnati? They're a natural for some art center love.
  7. Marissa Nadler, 07/18/14 (Rumba Café) - This year Rumba Cafe reasserted themselves as my favorite spot to see singer-songwriters of a certain draw and this took the cake. I've been a massive, drooling fan of Marissa Nadler since she was announced to play Terrastock 2008. She later canceled but by that time her records Songs III: Bird on the Water and Ballads of Living and Dying were in my bone marrow and it was a long six years waiting for her to play Columbus. While I would have liked to hear some earlier material, I think her record this year, July, is her best songwriting, reaching a new level of purity and communication and empathy and she delivered those songs perfectly over sparse accompaniment. On a sweltering July night after a terrific Mucca Pazza set downtown at the Jazz and Ribs Fest and before a backyard party at a wonderful friend's house, I spent an hour watching Nadler dig deep into my (and everyone else in the bar's) rib cage. Conjuring Cai Guo Quiang's gunpowder paintings and the singed edges of your brain on "Firecrackers" with lines like "We have drunk our summers away / Firecrackers burned into heaven on the floor". The kind of finely-honed character study straight out of Carver or Marge Piercy on "I've Got Your Name" - "Changed in a rest stop into my dress / Be sure not to touch the floor / I've done that kind of thing before". There's a grappling with and distrust of equanimity in these songs and feeling them breathe through me as the sweat of the day doesn't quite get the chance to evaporate was magic that's not based in wildly reinventing the song live but in trusting the song and knowing if you play it like it matters, it will matter.
  8. Reigning Sound, 08/31/14 (Ace of Cups) - Reigning Sound came back through town for the first time in quite a while - I think the first time since Greg Cartwright recruited the Jay Vons as the current iteration - and proved that "professional" doesn't have to be a dirty word. This was the most comfortable I've ever seen Carwright on a stage and while I missed some of the wildness of earlier tours, and the slightly larger band filled out his new more '60s soul-inspired material beautifully. For almost two hours, fascinatingly drawing heavily on Too Much Guitar the record the least like his terrific new one, Shattered, they found a through line of consistency and emotional directness and cemented Cartwright's status as possibly the finest American singer-songwriter of the last 20 years. Giant hooks, dancefloor stomps, and a newfound sweetness; this drove the songs home in a way someone who'd never heard them before would want to sing along to at the top of their lungs and with the smoothing out it didn't alienate those of us who came in during Time Bomb High School but, I think, brought back to the fold the fans of the earlier Everly Brothers inspired material like Break Up Break Down. A marvelous act that could do revues into their 80s and I'd still be coming out as long as my legs hold out.
  9. Mavis Staples, 08/22/14 (Scioto Mile) -  The legend in town for free with a tight trio behind her led by blistering guitarist Rick Holmstrom and featuring great Chicago chanteuse Kelly Hogan singing harmonies, in a voice that has some life on it but with that same uncommon beauty and power, trained right toward your heart, at least mine. Raunchy rave-ups including a knock-the-wind-out-of-you cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That" and hits of her own including "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself", this was a class in how to communicate without giving up any of yourself.
  10. Sinkane, 10/30/14 (Wexner Center for the Arts) - A homecoming show for one of Columbus's most acclaimed sons didn't disappoint in the slightest. Ahmed Gallab led a perfectly simpatico four-piece band from guitar and keys and with his supple high tenor voice occasionally exploding into a crystalline falsetto on classic songs old like "Runnin'" and new including most of the new record. Highlights included the simmering ballad "Mean Love" with Johnny Lam's lacerating pedal steel, the slinky dance party "How We Be" and the gorgeous "Son". The trend of the last 10 or so years in which the Wexner highlights local acts breaking through on a national stage - and beloved expatriates - is phenomenal and it's not charity. It warms my heart to hear something this great on a sound system worthy of it.
  11. Marisa Anderson, 05/20/14 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - Anderson came through town on her terrific records on Mississippi and took everyone to school on an electric guitar (occasionally switching over to resonator) virtuoso performance that linked everything from Charlie Christian to Robbie Basho to Mary Halvorson to Muddy Waters to Greg Cartwright. A phenomenal set list of (great) originals and perfectly chosen standards including "Hard Times", "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning", the antiwar medley of "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" and "Bella Ciao", a gospel medley in tribute to Elizabeth Cotten, "Deep Gap" in tribute to Doc Watson and "See that My Grave is Kept Clean". A meditative, somber but grippingly full of life instrumental performance.
  12. Oneida with Cheater Slicks and Hyrokkin, 07/29/14 (Double Happiness) - A show that doubled as the wedding reception for my great friends Fred (he for whom "Hey, Fred!" was named) and Stephanie and the first time Oneida had come through town in my memory and it was just about perfect. Hyrokkin, from Yellow Springs, played first, doing their brand of raw, spiky free jazz with heavy drone and groove elements. Local heroes Cheater Slicks played with more fire than I'd seen in a while in a long set that touched on every era of their 25+ year career. And Oneida set the air on fire, with extra punch from James McNew (Yo La Tengo) doing their blend of krautrock minimalism with psychedelic acid trails, it was an evening of heavy grooves that left me blissfully exhausted and happy.
  13. Bad Sports, 07/02/14 (Ace of Cups) - As perfect a three-piece punk show as you're likely to see anywhere. We were lucky to have Orville Neeley to come through town a couple of times and as good as the OBN IIIs set of thick, muscular '70s rock was, this made me dance and bounce until I was sore. His electric guitar shooting metaphorical sparks and his yelp built for delivering hooks you can barely get out of your head. Radioactivity who followed were also very good but after Bad Sports they had a hard, hard act to follow.
  14. Anais Mitchell, 10/02/14 (Rumba Café)- One of my favorite singers in, as I said above, one of my favorite rooms for a singer-songwriter did not in any way disappoint. Touching on her last record, Young Man in America including the title track, several rearranged songs from her folk opera Hadestown, parts of her Childe Ballads work, and even revisiting the first song of hers I ever heard, a song that still haunts me, "Cosmic American". It ran the gamut from sly seduction to acerbic criticism to plainspoken stories and observations and it did all of these moves seemingly effortlessly.
  15. King Khan and the Shrines with Red Mass, 06/12/14 (Ace of Cups) - Canadian collective Red Mass were a pleasant surprise, a modern updating of X's "metal period" Ain't Love Grand with unison male and female vocals, churning guitars, and big, heartfelt hooks.  But as good as they were, King Khan and the Shrines held that almost sold out crowd in their sweaty palms and played the audience as much as they played anything on the stage. A more midtempo new record still had stickier hooks than might have been immediately apparent and when he let the guitarist and horn section lean into something they can sink their teeth into, like "Land of the Freak", it was unstoppable. A rippling ball of furious energy.
  16. Bombay Rickey, 04/16/14 (Barbes, Brooklyn) and As Lolas, 11/12/14 (Nublu, Manhattan) - Two bands whose sets summed up what I love about visiting NYC, whole bands investigating other country's scenes, stirring in their own influences, and playing tiny bars for crowds ravenous to hear something. Bombay Rickey turned the back room of Park Slope stalwart Barbes into a sexy jukejoint with people (me among them) dancing for the entire set. A five-piece led by Kamala Sankaram on accordion and one of the most striking voices I heard all year, a soprano full of blood and sugar but pure as a blue flame; her foil Drew Fleming on guitar and backing vocals who touched on everything from Marc Ribot to Richard Bishop to Don Rich; Gil Smuskowitz on fluid, driving bass; Jeff Hudgins' alto sax that could do everything from noir atmospherics to R&B stomps with alactiry; and Brian Adler's swinging drumming on a small kit. Over that hour-plus they did Western swing, Bollywood themes, spaghetti western ballads, boleros, cumbias and even covered Yma Sumac, but never for a moment did they feel like anything other than themselves. As Lolas were in the beginning of a residency at Nublu when I saw them, one of the few clubs keeping interesting scenes alive in Manhattan, and their blend of the Runaways doing Os Mutantes-style raw, rocking tropicalia was infectious, the intersection of those two things opened them up to take whatever struck their fancy from '70s rock, Motorhead basslines popped up to get dissolved in Allman Brothers guitar harmonies or P-Funk explosions, but again, they sounded like nothing so much as themselves.. Led by ferocious frontwoman Viva DeConcini with a voice almost too big and rich for a room that size, flanked by Elaine Amherd on vocals and twisted guitar leads and Fabiana Masili on vocals and percussion with one of the tightest rhythm sections I saw all year behind them, Dawn Drake on bass and Rosa Avila on drums, this was an ass-shaking, sweat-matting-your-hair-down carnival on a Wednesday night.
  17. Travis Laplante Quartet,  04/18/14 (Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn) - Travis Laplante I've kept up with since he was in the band Little Women, his tone keeps getting more refined and his constructions more fascinating. This was a perfect quartet with Mary Halvorson on electric guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. Everyone was perfectly in sync, sly little fills adding to the whole, mutual love and appreciation from four musicians who have played together in various combinations for many years, Laplante's tenor and Halvorson's guitar leaping off one another like dancers but the solos always knew where to melt back into the whole picture. Magical.
  18. FemmeFest (various venues and nights)  - I love when this town comes together and I wish there'd been a few fewer shitty events that made us do it this year. In reaction to the laughable, badly-organized carpet bagging corporate festival Fashion Meets Music Fest's first year and specifically to the touchpoint of them bringing alleged predator R. Kelly to town (then canceling, then apologizing but not apologizing...), some of my dearest friends got together to organize a smaller, donation-only festival at a handful of rock venues to raise money for the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. It was one of the best cross-sections of what's good in Columbus I've seen in quite some time, especially impressive for the limited lead time. There was room for Sarah Cooperider, rising folk singer, and the Reverbalines (the new band growing out of Nom Tchotchkes from the core of Eva Owen and David Banbury, with guests like guitarist Matt Benz and multi-instrumentalist Virginia Pishioneri) in Kafe Kerouac; bubblegum-country The Salty Caramels and Nico-flavored drone soundscapes Cosmic Moon at Little Rock; and the centerpiece, an Ace of Cups evening with rapper Dominique LaRue who was a star, great songs sold with an uncommon energy and charm, Bloody Show with their awesome metallic Stooges stomp featuring Laura Bernazzoli and Elijah Vasquez from Day Creeper; the first public show by The Girls! with the new guitarist in an emotional, cathartic set I think most of us needed; and occasional Runaways tribute band Neon Angels with some of the best players in town. Not to mention shows I didn't make it to with synth-dance darlings Damn the Witch Siren, dark folk band Saintseneca, blues-rock Time Lords, raw stomps and harmonies from The Ferals and so many more. I hope there's another year of this because I'd love to see what this group does with more lead time and lessons learned from this year, but if they're exhausted the point was made and made well - what we do for ourselves is always better than what's brought in by outside forces.
  19. Fairfield Four, 06/17/14 (Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) - This year Natalie's kept cementing their reputation for bringing groups no one else is and this intimate brunch show by the a capella juggernaut Fairfield Four was a case in point. Drawing the connections between doo wop and sacred music, preaching and acceptance, this was the kind of glowing proclamation of love that made my heart swell and hearing those five-part harmonies bouncing around Natalie's room made even a nonbeliever like me lose his mind.
  20. Aoife O'Donovan and Noam Pikelny Quartet, 11/08/14 (Lincoln Theatre) - I also saw a show of O'Donovan at the Rockwood in Manhattan with her usual quartet but this collaborative show with banjo modernist Noam Pikelny (Robbie Fulks, Punch Brothers) on banjo and resonator guitar, Aoife O'Donovan on guitar and vocals, bassist and vocalist Barry Bales (Alison Krauss and Union Station), and master fiddler Shad Cobb (John Cowan, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith) was an exploration of all the shades bluegrass can take. Moody chamber music, light, dancing jigs and reels, lyrically driven singer-songwriter work (covers of Tom Waits' heartbreaking "Fish and Bird" and an elasticized, gorgeous take on Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio") and close-harmony vocal group classics.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Best of 2014: Recorded Music

“Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed.”
-Mark Strand, “The Continuous Life”

  1. Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else This might be the only slam-dunk on this list. Within weeks of hearing it I knew it was my record of the year, and nothing ever topped i+t. There's a thick strain of powerpop veining this new work, helped immensely by new drummer Nick German, but also by the road blending together the distinct, dramatic voices of Todd May on guitar and backing vocals and Ben Lamb on electric and upright bass with some additional color by Nate Holman's organ and Jay Gasper's steel guitar. This record is like an expressionist painter trying to depict the Hulk bursting out of his old clothes and skin: flashes of color and understood light and shadow that all focus on the rejecting of expectations. There are echoes of the canon she was put in with her previous couple albums – "Everything's Gone," the most heartbreaking song about capitalism's grinding power and lack of mercy since Fred Eaglesmith's "John Deere" or Drive By Truckers' "Puttin' People on the Moon" but it sings with her own voice and her own power. Much of the record is suffused with a grinding, sexy angst, notably "To Love Somebody," the title track, and "Really Want to See You." I got as much cathartic, punching-the-air-joy out of my favorite song of the record and of the year, "Wine Lips," than I got out of whole records. Especially the moment where Loveless moans, "I got a bad idea..." and the chorus swells up, "That's all I really wanna do...," drowning out that voice in your head but not for long it's fucking breathtaking and, for me, the moment that symbolizes the whole movie.
  2. Curtis Harding, Soul Power In a year when Burger Records broke through to a new level of consciousness, Soul Power was the record that epitomized the new diversity of sound in their stable without sacrificing even one iota of the raw energy in the best garage rock. A perfect record for keeping the sunshine in your glass and in your hips well past midnight on those nights that make you feel like a teenager again. With Harding's gospel-shout vocals and just-tight-enough backing, this was my record of the summer and on almost every party playlist I made. It hits most of the good-time grooves and moods of the last 40s years of dance music, including the chugging light-touch rock of "Surf" and "Heaven's on The Other Side," the '60s Frug of "I Don't Want to Go Home" (co-written with Jared Swilley of Black Lips), and the sharper, heavier grooves of "Next Time" and "Drive." This should send every party band not named The Dirtbombs back to the drawing board. 
  3. Owen Pallett, In Conflict I've been a big fan of Pallett since Jerry DeCicca (later on this list) brought him to Columbus during Pallett's Final Fantasy incarnation, and with every record he goes deeper and broader at the same time. This record is packed with hook upon hook, insidious in the way it gets under your skin as it tackles the themes of living in the world and knowing when to move on. These songs are a panorama of characters and stories, charming and grim, possibly best summed up by the title track in seduction-speak drifting from the metaphysical into the concrete: "I have no statement for your betterment, young man / Except for this: we all will live again / In the eyes of an actor or the light on the glass / So let me see that ass." But it drifts from "On a Path," with its keening chorus "You stand in a city / That you don't know anymore / Bent over from the weight / Of the year before," through the aching sense of lust through a glass of memory, "The innocent fun soon-to-be / Will start to feel like currency," to the intense, cathartic "The Riverbed," with its line "Lay your head, lay your heart next to mine / And try to admit you might have it wrong." Pallett's classical background is evident and deployed gorgeously; like Randy Newman, he couches so much melody and so many harmonic shifts in the string arrangements that it adds up to the most complicated three-dimensional soundscapes I heard all year, but they're maps of the human heart and nerves. This record was a great comfort and a brilliant burst of light any time I needed it this year.
  4. Jerry David DeCicca, Understanding Land I consider DeCicca a friend, but I’ve been a fan of his music for a much longer time. I don’t think he’s made a record that didn’t make my year-end list, and this first solo album without the comfort of his shifting cohort The Black Swans is so beautiful that even as a long-time fan I was stunned. This is a record with an uncommon equanimity; it’s a record about finding your way toward openness and peace without ever selling short the dangers inherent in those steps. His singing voice is soft leather and a flame in the darkness, with what feels like a new confidence and the contours under a deeper control. And he takes advantage of the wider net of collaborators, with long-term teammates like Sven Kahns on pedal steel and electric guitar, Brian Jones on percussion, Canaan Faulkner on piano instead of his usual bass, and people from his circle who hadn't yet made their way onto one of his records like avant-garde percussionist Ryan Jewell on tabla (some of the most gorgeous color on the record), vibes player Justin Woodward, bassist Andy Hamill, and superstar Spooner Oldham on a few tracks, plus strings arranged by Julien Ferraretto, as well as more backing vocalists including Kelley Deal, partner Eve Searls, and a beautiful turn from Will Oldham on "First and Last." It all adds up to a subtly colored album but a different sound world from what he's explored before, with enough detail to get lost in, but the songs never get lost. I described the last Black Swans record Don’t Blame the Stars as a record about the world and not about yourself, and with this outing, DeCicca's made a record that’s about both at the same time without cheapening either. Nature’s allowed to be nature it doesn’t have to be a metaphor, but he understands how hard it can be to not see everything as a reflection of our inner state.
  5. Julia Wolfe, Steel – Wolfe’s been a favorite of mine for a long time; I love everything related to Bang on a Can, but it’s her music that moves me most deeply. Her take on the John Henry song, Steel Hammer, falls somewhere between a Frankenstein synthesis and a Rauschenberg combine, looking at 200+ versions of the story and going through the variances but not giving one more weight than the other, following the basic trajectory of the folk song but stretching each bit out into a movement of its own. Trio Mediaeval’s vocals shift from charming and light to grim and haunting. It keeps the core of the song and its lessons, it understands the capacity of capitalism to deform and shatter and even kill everything it touches, but in our brief moments we can still win, we can still be heroes, as long as we know it won’t last long. A riveting, aching piece played perfectly by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with special attention to electric guitarist Mark Stewart who doubles on dulcimer and clogging in ways that both ground the piece in a time and place and make it stranger and darker.
  6. Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, Mother’s Touch Orrin Evans put out so many records I loved this year that I almost could have recreated my old friend's parody "Top 10 Alan Jackson Records" list for the Nashville Scene with just things he played on this year, but it was extra sweet having a follow-up document by one of the most exciting big bands working today. Thick, rich horn-writing orbiting around Evans' bluesy, crackling piano like a field of gravity.
  7. Sinkane, Mean Love Sinkane’s third record hits every great dance step the Curtis Harding record missed. His singing, especially the high parts of his range, is more assured than ever, and the grooves are thick and gorgeous, both shiny and sticky. Highlights include the title track, which rekindles decades of connection between country music and reggae, including some of the most gorgeous pedal steel I heard all year; the sly, grinning nostalgia of single “How We Be;” the falsetto and aching keys on “Son.” But it’s hard to pick highlights out of a record that made me practically dance down the street (and did make me dance in my living room) whenever it came on.
  8. The Girls!, Let’s Not Be Friends This is another record by people I'm proud to consider friends, but it's also some of the best powerpop to ever come out of this town. Let's Not Be Friends is colored by having to stand as a memorial for guitarist Joey Moore (stage name Joey Blackheart), who passed away too young a few months after this record came out. But Blackheart's thick guitar lines ring proudly with Ryan Vile's keys and backing vocals, Reaghan Buchanan's backing vocals and percussion, Bent's sturdy bass lines, and secret weapon Big Nick's intense but lithe drumming and backing vocals. This shifting, shaking, shimmying tapestry is the base on which stands the star attraction: songs that recall '60s soul and country, '90s pop-punk, and early '80s synthpop, but with frontwoman Jessica Wabbit's voice and guitar that could peel paint off walls (in the best possible ways) and crack your heart like an egg. A righteous record dissecting insecurities and early adulthood struggles with a real adult's gimlet eye that finds the intersecting point between orgasm and cri de coeur. I wish there was a little more low-end in the mix, especially because of how good the bass and drum parts are, but at the end of the day that's a pretty minor complaint for a set of songs that gave me so, so much joy. RIP Joey.
  9. Mary Halvorson, Reverse Blue Halvorson almost invariably shows up on one list every year (she also appears on Live Music with Travis Laplante) and she might well be my favorite jazz guitarist working right now. In 2014, she also put out a great record with the collective Thumbscrew, but this beguiling record, as a quartet with Chris Speed on reeds, Eyvind Opsink on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, shone light on new facts of her work. Everything is mic'ed almost uncomfortably close, chamber music blown up like a Marilyn Minter video, drifting through waltzes and blues idioms but mostly occupying a mid-tempo realm I can't think of anyone else delving into with this much vigor and intensity. 
  10. Nick Waterhouse, Holly My favorite retro-soul record of the year; a charming collection of songs wrapped around Waterhouse’s thin but appealing voice and scalpel of a guitar, arrangements filled out by a crack band including the great Ron Blake on trumpet, Jason Freese on reeds, the great Larry Goldings (Herbie Hancock, Walter Becker, Gaby Moreno) on keys, and up-and-coming LA drummer Richard Gowen keeping up with every little side step or hip dip, throwing in surprising touches but never feeling like they’re overplaying. A slurred pickup line in a sleazy bar by someone you think just might have it all figured out, these songs are perfect little vignettes on the dancefloor with just enough surreal edge to remind you how gloriously weird the music he’s riffing on was in the first place. “Sleepin’ Pills” is the standout for me, with its cracked narrative and irresistible swing, but this record is packed with classics including “Ain’t There Something that Money Can’t Buy,” “Dead Room,” and especially the title track.
  11. Sarah Manning, Harmonious Creature Another appearance by Eyvind Kang on this list, holding down the viola chair in the quintet on this record alongside Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums, providing perfect settings for the bracing, lyrical tone of Manning’s alto. There’s something pastoral and seductive about this record, but just like the best landscapes or the best odes, there are spikes throughout you should be mindful of. Kang serves as her primary foil, with rich harmonies and sparks, while Goldberger mostly provides atmosphere, knowing just when to tint the whole scene red or grey. I was drawn to this by the cover of one of my favorite Gillian Welch songs, “I Dream a Highway,” which distills the original 14+ minute track into less than five while retaining all of the tension and the mystery and the freedom, and I quickly fell in love with the rest of it: the rough edges on “Floating Bridge,” the beckoning warmth of “Three Chords for Jessica.” Maybe my favorite moment was “Copland on Cornelia Street,” juxtaposing Copland’s legendary harmonies onto the kind of jazz interplay I’ve seen on many a night at the Cornelia Street Café.
  12. Reigning Sound, Shattered Reigning Sound's bigger-label debut with Merge finds founder, songwriter, and only permanent member Greg Cartwright dipping into a more easy-going '60s soul groove a la Dan Penn and Arthur Alexander, but also a bigger swath of country in a more direct way than he's touched on since the singles-and-comp-tracks compilation Home for Orphans. He deploys his howl effectively and has a new rhythm section that fits him like a glove: Brooklyn band The Jay Vons, including longtime foil Dave Amels' organ, Benny Troikan of Robbers on High Street's melodic bass, and Mikey Post's dancefloor drums, all of which get a nice workout on waltzes like "Once More," rave ups like "My My," and maybe my favorite song, "Starting New," with its surging Stones-circa-Aftermath beat and chorus. This is a record about honoring the struggle to get through the day and speaking to the pain of those who have it harder than you; a record that knows love is a blessing and your next breath is not guaranteed but understands there's no better way to honor that than to take your time.
  13. Marissa Nadler, July With July, one of my favorite songwriters, Marissa Nadler, has made a record that’s more accessible but no less keyed into the mystery that gave her earlier work so much punch. Avoiding the gauzy reverb but trading it for layered backing vocals and arrangements that compliment her voice and guitar with strings (arranged by Eyvind Kang from Bill Frisell’s work, SUNN O))), and so many things), Phil Wandscher (Whiskeytown)’s lead guitar, Jason Kardong (Akron/Family and Sera Cahoone)’s pedal steel, and a rhythm section I wasn’t familiar with (Jonas Haskins and Randall Schowe) who play perfectly, songs that could have come out of Carson McCullers’ conscience are given texture and warmth and light. This record feels like it’s about grounding yourself and learning how to wear your own skin again; it has space for regret but is not consumed by it, and with as clear a sense of self as the material has, it understands the value of fiction, of story.
  14. Eric Revis Quartet, In Memory of Things Yet Seen Eric Revis shows up a lot on these lists, one of my favorite bass players who just keeps getting better. He plays with the best of the best and he makes everyone he plays with sound even better. This quartet record departs from the chamber music stylings of last year’s trio (which also made my records of the year) with a burst of fire music indebted to the ‘60s, but as fresh as the beauty and the horror of this year. He and Chad Taylor (whose work on the Marc Ribot Trio came very close to making this list) are one of those perfect rhythm sections where it doesn’t just feel like they’re finishing each other’s phrases, they’re finishing each other’s breath, the heavy rolling tom and stuttered kick always having a lightening from the bass and vice versa. There’s a sculptural quality not just in Revis’ bass but in the interplay of the almighty Darius Jones on alto and crushing Bill McHenry on tenor, augmented by one of Revis’s bosses, Branford Marsalis, on two songs. Tied together by a trilogy of Revis-composed pieces, The Tulpa Chronicles, and dotted with work written by the other members of the band, a luminous cover of Sun Ra's “The Shadow World,” and a Sunny Murray tune, this was music that made me feel the air around me differently. The struggle to find and see and understand what’s real and what’s a construct, even if sometimes you have to settle for a construct.
  15. Henry Butler with Steven Bernstein and His Hot 9, Viper’s Drag One of the most purely joyful records I heard all year, Butler’s warm voice and driving, soulful piano given a perfect setting by Steven Bernstein clearly having a lot of fun in his arranger/bandleader role (which is not to denigrate his fantastic greasy trumpet work throughout) with a sax section of Michael Blake, Peter Apfelbaum, and Erik Lawrence, Doug Wieselman on clarinet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Charlie Burnham on violin, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and the rhythm section of Reggie Veal and Herlin Riley. This is a classic dance party with material by Jelly Roll Morton (a mournful “Buddy Bolden Said,” a groovy “King Porter Stomp,” and a raging “Wolverine Blues”), Fats Waller (the title track), Basie (a swinging “I Left My Baby”), and rounded out by Butler’s originals. There’s a looseness and a laserlike focus at the same time, all those master players thinking and moving as one but with enough detours it never gets stale. Party music that knows a multitude of strokes.
  16. Scott Walker and Sunn O))), Soused The most surprising thing for me about Soused wasn’t how easily the SUNN O)) partners, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, fit around and in the cracks of Walker’s lugubrious croon, it was hearing that immediately identifiable guitar wash with drums behind it. I worry about calling this accessible or direct, but it definitely felt like it took on the world of the mind and the world of the world with a greater directness than Walker’s last few records, and it felt like there were more references to the rock canon – I had a hard time not drawing parallels to Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” with the similarly surreal America-gone-wrong trip of “Brando,” for instance, and the one-two punch of “Bull” and “Fetish” could have been William Basinski teasing out tape of Iron Maiden’s guitar harmonies. This was a world I went back to again and again, even when it felt like picking at a scab; there’s something cathartic and redemptive here, meditative and purging in the way of the best Sunn O))), records but with the innate discomfort (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) of the last 20 years of Scott Walker’s career.
  17. Dawn Landes, Bluebird Like most of the best breakup records, Bluebird is also a record of seduction – maybe the sexiest breakup record since Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, though in a more low-key acoustic setting, and gorgeously produced by Thomas Bartlett, who might be the best producer for singer-songwriters working today. With Rob Moose (also on the yMusic record and Gabriel Kahane’s record) providing lead guitar and strings, Tony Scherr and Catherine Popper on bass, plus Norah Jones appearing on a few tracks, every note feels perfectly deployed, running from almost-airs like “Bluebird” to humming slow dances like “Try to Make a Fire Burn Again” and “Heel Toe” to gentler work like “Diamond Rivers.” The music flows around and under and is shot through with mot justes. It doesn’t eschew complication, it doesn’t eschew messiness, but it’s the kind of record that would work if someone drunkenly quoted the lyrics to you on a hot night or if you could barely hear the music and couldn’t make out the words, it’s so in tune with itself and with the world. Everything comes together in what’s for me the centerpiece of the record, “Love Song,” with Jones’ piano and harmonies perfectly shading Landes: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s hard to know a world so bright / The Technicolor of a loving soul dimmed to black and white / I can’t count on anything but the starts in the sky / I wanna write you a love song with my life.” This is a gorgeous record about continuing to live and thrive and find space for your art and your love and your life.
  18. Mark Lomax Trio, Isis and Osiris A favorite drummer of mine in town, Mark Lomax II, who I first heard backing the great Amiri Baraka (also RIP) in his earlier band Blacklist, doesn't gig around town much, but he still plays and still puts out records as great as this one. A blistering trip that translates myth and legend into a rich sculpture of blood and flesh. Predominantly written by Lomax, with a gorgeous composition by tenor player Eddie Bayard and woven through with three improvised instrumental solos by Lomax, Bayard, and drummer Dean Hulett, this was a record indebted to the great ESP-disk and Impulse! records of the '60s, but not beholden to them, with pleasures for days.
  19. Unholy Two, This is Hardcore Unholy Two have evolved from a tossed-together side project to one of my favorite bands in town. Their sophomore record, This is Hardcore, on Gerard Cosloy's 12XU label, is a big step up from their great first record and a crunching explosion of perfectly technicolor gore, but also an exploration of extremes that's infectious if you're willing to open yourself up to it. There were days this year when this was the only thing that made the world make more sense.
  20. Pharmakon, Bestial Burden A record, like the Unholy Two record, that's hard to write about because it's so harsh and so abstract, but Pharmakon's sophomore record made in the wake of medical problems brings her voice more to forefront of the soundworld and gives her songs more of a catharic punch. As acidic as songs like "Body Betrays Itself" and "Primitive Struggle" are, there's a driving, propulsive energy that grips you by the collar.
  21. Actress, Ghettoville This was one of those records I put on when my skin didn’t fit right. Actress’s electronic textures were inspired by London, but meshed so well with the discomfort and the shuddering darkness I struggled with at times this year that I wasn’t sure which one was coloring the other. In these monuments to decay and fleeting, sneering winks at club bangers (see “Rims” for instance), Darren Cunningham made one of the few electronic records this year I wanted to go deeper and deeper into but also shy away from a little bit.
  22. Nick Tolford and Company, Just a Kiss Columbus's best party band turned out a second record I think every bit the equal of their first. A smoking cover of Bad Religion's "The Answer," arranged to sound like '60s Stones, in the thick of killer originals: raging dance party R&B like "I'm in Love" and "Every Day," smoldering after hours crooning like "Cancel Your Plans," and maybe a glimpse of things to come, the final song "All Right!!!," featuring a molten sax part from local hero Eddie Bayard in the most unhinged track the Company has ever laid down. Everyone acquits themselves admirably here, from Tolford's rhythmic keyboard playing and more relaxed singing to Julian Dassai's guitar stings to the last gasp of the surging rhythm section of Brian Travis on bass and Mike O'Shaugnessy on drums (Travis has stepped down and been replaced by Bobby Silver in the interim) and backing singers Katie Gartin, Leslie Jankowski, and Cecil Moore III. 
  23. Rudy Royston, 303 Royston, long one of the best drummers in jazz, who can fuel and lead any style of music, steps out as a bandleader and composer with this tight, tight set of music. All originals except for a moody take on Radiohead's "High and Dry" and Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," he deftly explores a variety of moods and tempos from the hard swinging to the high and sweet. Aided by a crack sextet including Nir Felder on guitar, Sam Harris on piano, Mimi Jones on bass, Jon Irabagon on reeds, and secret weapon, the great Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet. As satisfying a record of straight jazz however you want to define that as I heard all year.
  24. Gabriel Kahane, The Ambassador I worked on a long essay about this record in conjunction with the DeCicca and the Pallett that I didn’t finish (a problem that stymied me this year) and it’s both another level for Kahane (whose work I already loved) and a look at nostalgia’s beautifully appointed corpse that brought feelings to the surface I wasn’t always ready for. Tightly structured around ten addresses in Los Angeles, this record has Kahane stepping into Randy Newman territory and doing it better than anyone has since Newman’s heyday. “Bradbury” recounts parts of Blade Runner (named for the building, not the author) and cracks its chest open to deal with how we relate to one another as people, slavery as symbolism and symbolism as slavery couched in thick buzzing hives of piano chords. He dabbles in sun-dappled pop art with “Villains,” with its intentionally corny drum machine part and fluid bass line, while also delving into how modern art became tied into pop culture concepts of evil, using his lower register like a lounge lizard with Shara Worden’s vampy backing vocals slinking around him like liquid shadows – “A uniform of steel in every frame / You can think about a lot of things / Waiting for the concrete to cure.” The title track is the best Paul Simon song Simon didn’t write, including a deceptively simple chiming fingerpicked guitar and lyrics tumbling over each other to tell the story of the Ambassador Hotel (where Bobby Kennedy was shot – “since that midnight in the pantry when the country lost its hope”) told by a night manager: “Cut the lights off in the nightclub / Strip the linens from the bed / Tell the bus boys and the bellman / Better get it through their heads / That we won’t be back tomorrow / And it grieves me to tell you why / The Ambassador is bleeding out / Now they’ve let her die.” The tragic “Empire Liquor Mart” recounts the shooting of a little girl after the Rodney King beating trial over unsettling Mahlerian strings and thudding heartbeat percussion weaves in asides like Dylan or Amos – “Who wears a fishing vest to work in a liquor store?,” “It was war after a while / In each neighbor’s tired eyes/ There was nothing to persuade them / To stand down” and when Shara Worden and Aoife O’Donovan’s voices show up in harmony reminding the track, the listening, “It was never so bright / When I was young / I was too young to die,” tears come to my eyes every time. With all the terrible killing in the world this year, this track gave voice to my impotent rage, as potent an outsider’s protest song as anyone’s written in recent memory – “Nobody reads from the book of Job at the church where me and my Grandma go.” A phenomenal group of musicians, killer arrangements, and an understanding both of everyone’s complicity in the world’s inhumanity and the way the deck’s stacked against some people for generations without an ounce of hope for change. Nostalgia is death but memory’s a gift and we need to be subject to each other somehow; that’s what I got from this, but I’m still unpacking it and I expect to be for some time.
  25. AJ Davila, Terror Amor The frontman of one of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen, Davila 666, broke out on a solo trip this year and in the process reinvented/rediscovered the era when every rock band did a disco record, but please don’t think I’m using that pejoratively. I love a lot of those songs more than I like some of those bands’ canonical work, and this is 45 minutes of pure adrenaline-laced party with shout-along choruses, handclaps, and female singers (including Selma Oxor, who I didn’t realize was a big deal) on phenomenal songs like “Es Verano Ya,” “Ohh (No Te Encantes),” “Noches Negras,” and my favorite, “2333.” A coming out party and a sexy dance on broken glass.

 Songs (not on the above)
  1. yMusic, "Bladed Stance"
  2. Nicole Atkins, “Girl You Look Amazing” 
  3. Budos Band, “The Sticks”  
  4. Girls, Guns and Glory, “One of These Days” 
  5. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, "Harold's"
  6. Sugar Stems, “Only Come Out at Night” 
  7. Blueprint, “Respect the Architect
  8. Clap! Clap!, "Burbuka"
  9. Amy Lavere, “Last Rock and Roll Boy to Dance” 
  10. MiWi La Lupa, “Ashes for the Wind"
Part and parcel of the losses I alluded to in the earlier wrap-up posts, I spent a lot of time this year sinking into old favorites that reminded me of the people who took that long walk away (and in some cases that I've just always found comforting) Firewater, Nick Cave, Townes Van Zandt, Mahalia Jackson, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Bonnie "Prince" Billy. And I spent so much time on this I worried I was neglecting anything new. 

So it was a delight and a comfort to find how much music I loved this year and how hard a time I had whittling this down to even 25. There are a few threads that informed my thoughts going into this. First, this was one of the best years for Columbus music in recent memory, with the Columbus-connected (including Jerry David Decicca and Sinkane, both of whom have moved on to greener pastures) representing about 25% of this list, and great records by Tom Davis Quartet, Fly.Union, Comrade Question, Day Creeper, Los Gravediggers, and Saintseneca missing it by the barest margin. 

Second, there was a lot of jazz that turned me sideways this year beyond the six records that made this list, in a slightly different mood or with a slightly different light shining down, I could have easily included: Matt Wilson Quartet. The two Nels Cline records (one with MMW, one with his Nels Cline Singers). Ryan Keberle and Catharsis's Into the Zone and Dan Weiss's Fourteen (linked in my head because they both feel like great bands reaching a new level in the writing). JD Allen's Bloom, that reminded me of the best Sonny Rollins records but completely of the now. Orrin Evans Quintet's Liberation Blues (itself kind of a memory piece) that takes the hardbop piano quartet straight to the rafters in a blisteringly beautiful warts-and-all live set. Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Orchestra's righteously angry party record The Offense of the Drum. Tony Malaby and Tamarindo's Somos Agua... the list just goes on. Some of these it hurt to leave off but you have to cap it somewhere or you end up still debating in June.

The things that nagged me, of course, are what I missed, what the exceptions are. I was incredibly out of the loop on R&B )(
I haven't fully delved into the Tinashe or the FKA Twigs record yet) and even moreso on hip-hop (I liked but haven't fully processed the Return The Jewels 2 record, loved the Shabazz Palaces but it was a very close miss, and didn't hear much else besides the couple records represented here). The biggest umbrella disappointment for me here is how much comfort food is on this list that's no slight on any of these records, I can argue every single one of them is at the top of their game, but they almost all work in forms I have a bone-deep knowledge of and love for. 

These records are all great steak or perfect sushi or a really good vindaloo: plenty to chew on and be nourished by, but I wish there'd been more that woke my tastebuds up that I loved as much as I love a perfectly crafted folk song or a saxophone solo or a guitar that sounds like knives. In 2015 I hope to do better to listen more, to seek out more instead of just catching things already on my radar. And I hope you'll all help me there. I'd like to write more reviews in 2015, so drop me a line in the attached e-mail if you have a promo or even if you just think I'd like something.