Sunday, January 17, 2021

Best Of 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

The only pure hip hop album on my Top 25 was Alfredo, the devastating team-up between Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist (see also his brilliant live session with the El Michels Affair). But that doesn't mean the year was devoid of exciting or even important releases from that realm, not to mention R&B and Reggae. A few of those showed up in earlier posts, which are listed first and included on the playlist below. 

Of Note In 2020: Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae
Charlotte Dos Santos - Harvest Time
Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2 (Deluxe)
Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)
Quakers - II - The Next Wave
Supa-K: Heavy Tremors

Clipping - Visions Of Bodies Being Burned How far you want to dive into the references to classic horror films and homages to an earlier generation of hip hop artists on this latest from Daveed Diggs' group is up to you. Even if totally ignorant of all the cogitation behind their creative process, I can't imagine the brick hard, serrated beats - constructed by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes with other collaborators - combined with Diggs' machine-gun delivery not having an impact. Part of that is the sheer viscera Diggs pumps into couplets like: "'Til nine months later with a stomach full of Devil baby/She startin' to think it's time to pump the brakes/But that train left the station with the Great Migration/Bloody tracks left right by the drain, say the name." You would not be mistaken if you assigned the album to the same moment that gave us HBO's Lovecraft Country, another canny a mix of pop-culture inside jokes with social commentary. So whether it's the words or the grim soundscapes that discomfit you while listening, either way you will not be bored.

Conway The Machine - From A King To A GOD, No One Mourns The Wicked (with Big Ghost Ltd.), and Lulu (with The Alchemist) Maybe it's the raw winters of Buffalo that forged this indomitable rapper, who seems to have endless bars to deliver over beats by some of the best producers around, including DJ Premier, Havoc, Big Ghost Ltd., and The Alchemist. In some ways, there's nothing on these three albums that couldn't have come out five years ago, but rather than live on the cutting edge, Conway seeks merely to be excellent. He's also damned convincing in whatever tales he's delivering, with a persona of having come through the fire to rise to the top. But among the brags are heartfelt and humble moments of reflection, as on The Contract from Lulu: "Let's toast to my enemies, no, let's toast to my injuries/Turned my negative to positive, I don't need no sympathy/I'm the GOAT 'til infinity, I wrote with intensity/Plus, my potent delivery, I just hope they remember me." If he keeps up this pace and quality, he'll be impossible to forget.

Megan Thee Stallion - Good News Like Conway, Megan sees no need to jump on trap or drill trends, just serving up fun, creative beats from a roster of expert producers (I count 20!), and slathering her diamond-sharp rhymes all over them with infectious glee. Her joy - and ours - comes not only from her sheer skill with syllables, but her complete lack of inhibition, which can also be found on WAP, the era-defining single (and video!) she made with Cardi B. While Cardi is not on the album, there are a ton of other guests, but she lets none of them dim her shine, although Dababy and Sza come close. While Don't Rock Me To Sleep, the one pure pop move, is regrettable, mainstream hip hop this good is not as common as it should be so all is forgiven. Not that she would care what I think - nor would I want her to!

Jean Dawson - Pixel Bath The Pigeons & Planes Discord is one of the brightest spots on the internet, full of positivity, constructive criticism, and enthusiastic sharing. While time constraints have me mostly lurking, my antennae are always up for something getting a lot of attention, and this nearly genre-free debut quickly bubbled up. As much a rock or pop album, with all the soaring guitar solos and sticky choruses that implies, it slots in here nicely due to its omnivorous nature and sharp attitude. While there is plenty of youthful angst, it fortunately stays to the right side of emo, landing almost in a post-punk zone on occasion. It's anyone's guess where Dawson goes from here, but his options appear to be unlimited.

Spillage Village, JID & EarthGang - Spilligion Even before I knew this collective was from Atlanta, GA, I was getting strong OutKast vibes based on the beat-making, which is colorfully original yet steeped in funk, soul, gospel, etc., and the variety and energy of the flows. Loads of pop smarts, too, with several songs achieving ear worm status. Perhaps a testament to the deep collaboration underpinning the whole album is the fact that, with 20+ producers and a more than a dozen rappers, Spilligion not only doesn't collapse under its own weight, but is actually a joyful and consistent listen. You can listen free on every service, but tell me you aren't tempted by this vinyl package, which is as exuberant as the music.

Goodie Mob - Survival Kit Speaking of the Dirty South, here comes the Mob with their first album in seven years - and one of their best. Even at nearly an hour, it does not overstay its welcome thanks to the lively tracks by Organized Noise and energized and engaged rhyming from everybody, including the three stellar guests: Chuck D, Andre 3000, and Big Boi. Considering the way 2021 has kicked off, I'm going to keep this album close at hand. As Khujo Goodie says in the title track: "Mask on, gloves on, we ain't out the woods yet/The power of the mind is my survival kit."

Run The Jewels - RTJ4 Some have complained that while this is good, it's nothing new from Killer Mike and El-P, but I think the former is carrying the latter less often, which is refreshing. El's beats are as great as usual, with more of an electro flavor (and a great Gang Of Four sample on The Ground Below), inspiring Killer Mike to some awesome heights, as on this verse from Goonies Vs. E.T.: "Ain't no revolution is televised and digitized/You've been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys/Cues to the evening news, make sure you ill-advised/Got you celebrating the generators of genocide/Any good deed is pummeled, punished, and penalized." There's also a devastating Mavis Staples feature on Pulling The Pin, and one of the best rallying cries ever on JU$T: "Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar." When I start using paper money again, I will be looking hard.

Sault -  Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) Through a combination of savvy marketing and a canny combination of influences ranging from Black Heat and 24 Carat Black to contemporary funk, R&B, and hip hop, this mystery collective topped many a list of 2020's best music. Much of that acclaim was deserved as they delivered two albums full of sticky tunes, danceable grooves, and up to the minute rallying cries. However, each album is salted with PSA like interludes (like You Know It Ain't) that lose their luster after a few listens. But there is much that is thought-provoking and much that is sheerly enjoyable here. Maybe next time around they'll realize they have nothing to prove.

Orion Sun - A Collection Of Fleeting Moments And Daydreams This slightly updated version of her 2017 EP shows off Tiffany Majette's talents with exquisite focus, slightly more so than her other 2020 release, Hold Space For Me. But both make great use of acoustic guitars, scratchy records, bossa nova samples, and Majette's voice, which has a delicacy belying its hidden strengths. Both records are a time-lapse view of a new original blossoming before your ears.

Kali Uchis - Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios) Anyone who's heard 2018's Isolation, Uchis' first album, would know from songs like Your Teeth In My Neck that she is "sin miedo" (without fear) - and that she's an endless font of melody. That combination means it's no surprise that this album of mostly Spanish language material goes down so smoothly. She traverses boleros and reggaeton with equal ease, demonstrating that steely delicacy on song after song. Even on a banger like Te Pongo Mal, she never oversells, making an album that will work at a party but also in quieter circumstances. The last track, Angel Sin Cielo, which could have been a tour de force of layered vocals over acoustic guitar, is an unfortunate misfire, but the rest is close to perfection.

Denise Sherwood - This Road If the name looks familiar to you from the On-U Sound universe led by Adrian Sherwood, you're already on the right track to digging this delicious debut by his daughter. Apparently years in the making as she sought her voice, it's helped by that temporal variety, with touches of trip-hop and drum & bass among the sleekly assured reggae you would expect. And it's a gorgeous voice, too, confident yet restrained, with the low-key strength of someone who knows they have nothing to prove. More than holding its own among classics from the New Age Steppers, African Head Charge, and other Sherwood projects, This Road sees the On-U legend yet being written. All hail!

Toots & The Maytals - Got To Be Tough That was a bit of a sorry roller coaster ride we went on last year with this reggae legend. First, there was his inspiring interview in Rolling Stone, which revealed a long-in-the-works new album would soon be coming to fruition, with the unlikely help of Zak Starkey. Then, just days later, the dispiriting news that this indefatigable force had been felled by complications resulting from COVID-19. So now the album had the dual weight of not only being his first in ten years, but his final statement. I'm happy to report that, after a shaky start (the first song is annoying, the second inconsequential), and despite an unnecessary remake of Three Little Birds, this is a fine album. His voice sounds strong throughout and there are more than a few songs - the title track especially - worthy of including on a career-spanning playlist. There may be more in the vaults that will come out posthumously, but for now this will serve as a capstone to a life in music that needed no burnishing. 

Singles: This category always churns up essential stand-alone singles. In 2020 there was the aforementioned WAP and we also got Frank Ocean singing dreamily in Spanish on the spare Cayendo, the warm Terry Callier/Isley Brothers vibes of The Sun by Secret Night Gang, Hot Sauce, another tasty lagniappe from Pinkcaravan!, and Lockdown, the quarantine smash by Anderson .Paak. He rose to our current moment with one his best songs yet, somehow giving us permission to dance while looking squarely in the face at some of the challenges of 2020. My grandchildren will understand a bit more of what we're going through when we play them Lockdown. What music will you share with them to help them understand?

For more from these genres, check out my archive playlist - and make sure to follow the 2021 edition so you don't miss anything.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB
A Vacation In Hip Hop Nation
A Few Brief Words About Some Recent Hip Hop

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Best Of 2020: Electronic

Electronic music comes in many flavors and sometimes it's as much about the attitude as the instruments used. But one thing all the albums below have in common is the presence of synthetic sounds or treated instruments. My Top 25 included five albums that could slot in here (Molly Joyce, Matt Evans, Nnux, Miro Shot, and Yaeji), but there were a number of others that transported me, which I have detailed below. Let them take you places.

A few of these were included in previous posts - links to those will come first, followed by new reviews.

Hear tracks from these albums here or below.

Of Note In 2020: Electronic

Roger Eno & Brian Eno - Mixing Colors (also check out Film Music: 1976-2020)
Seabuckthorn - Through A Vulnerable Occur (also check out Other, Other)
Beatrice Dillon - Workaround

Daniel Wohl - Project Blue Book Soundtrack This show, a UFO procedural on The History Channel, has ended, but Wohl's expertly crafted and evocative music lives on in this tightly assembled soundtrack album. While the emotional depths of Corps Exquis or Etat are only hinted at, Wohl's burnished textures and subtle structures are put to excellent use. 

Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never I'm not sure if Daniel Lopatin, who performs as OPN, reached a new level of feeling on his soundtrack for Uncut Gems or if a key turned in me, giving new access to his music, but this new album is similarly dazzling. One main difference is the presence of hopeful and even upbeat sounds, as opposed to the unremitting (and wonderful) grimness of Uncut Gems. His use of unexpected sonic juxtapositions and overlays puts him in the class of master bricoleurs, giving us soundscapes both adventurous and assured. I'm now looking forward to investigating the last decade or more of ONP albums to see what I missed the first time around!

Various Artists - Music From SEAMUS, Vol. 3 and Vol. 23 These archival releases from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States are consistently fascinating, whether it's the mutating piano on Larry Nelson's Order And Alliance (1991) from the first or Chester Udell's assemblage of metallic and white noises on Steel Golem (2011-12) from the second. And how cool to see Switch~Ensemble crop up here, in a recording of Christopher Chandler's Smoke And Mirrors from 2013, a gorgeous miniature of enhanced chamber music.

Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders This is an album to sink into, as Lattimore's harp loops and echoes, like ripples on a pond, enhanced by delicate touches of guitar and synth from Slowdive's Neil Halstead. File under: Balm for the soul.

Corntuth - Music To Work To There's some of the simplicity and cockeyed optimism of Raymond Scott's Soothing Sounds For Baby in these 13 tracks "written on the fly on a 1983 Yamaha DX7 and run through a Yamaha R100," but also unexpected moments of drama and a melodic sense straight from pop music. A-009 even brings a touch of soul to the experience. Whether you choose to have this delightful collection accompany your work or a strenuous session of cloud gazing is up to you, but I think you'll find it equally appropriate to either occasion.

Epic 45 - We Were Never Here There were always ambient touches to their gorgeous future-folk songs, never more so than on their masterpiece, Weathering, which was both in my Best Of 11 and 100 Best Albums Of The 2010's. On this lush album, they go all in - no words and few beats - and have arrived at their best since Weathering, with only a hint of the 80's tinniness that has crept into their work of late. Listen carefully and it may lead you down a hall of memories you forgot you had.

Emily A. Sprague - Hill, Flower, Fog Like Epic 45, Sprague is a very good songwriter (work she releases as Florist), who also pushes into ambient electronics, and this may be her best yet in that field, with much of the tuneful charm of her song-based work. As the title suggests, engagement with nature is an inspiration for her work so if your quarantine has you missing the outside world, put up the video for Star Gazing on the biggest screen in your house and revel in imagery and sound.

Glass Salt - Greetings There's a sense of intuitive collage to these tracks by Caylie Staples and Johann Diedrick, with voices set alongside synth sounds and unidentified percussive noises. There's a gentleness here, too, perhaps a product of what appears to be a seamless collaboration, something to which we can all aspire. Yet another great release from Whatever's Clever!

Sofie Birch - Hidden Terraces and Behind Her Name Chestnuts Fall Forever On these three long tracks, Birch combines piano, field recordings, and electronics in what feel like films for the mind. The way she imperceptibly moves from section to section in each piece gives you a sense of a firm structural hand even as you lose yourself in the languor.

Michael Grigoni & Steven Vitiello - Slow Machines A shimmering combination of Grigoni's luminous work for stringed instruments of all sorts and Vitiello's enhancements, including synths, field recordings, etc. Vitiello is an old college friend and usually plies his trade more in the realms of installation-based sound art so I'm thrilled to have this cogent and supremely listenable album to enjoy at home - and share with you.

Ian William Craig & Daniel Lentz - Frkwys Vol. 16: In A Word Collaborating with pianist Lentz seems to have brought new subtlety to Craig's signature glitched and chopped vocals. Contemplative, but with an edge.

Nils Frahm - Tripping With Nils Frahm Aside from one or two overly sentimental solo piano moments, this is genuinely thrilling - in a quiet way - as Frahm builds up his hypnotic electro-acoustic tracks in front of a rapturous live audience. Get closer to the experience by watching the documentary film.

Narducci - El Viejo Soundtrack Matthew Silberman, who records as Narducci, shows great skill with texture and dynamics, drawing you through the narrative of this documentary about athlete Thom Ortiz. Narducci has been busy this year - he also released a soundtrack for another documentary, Until the Day Someone Puts Me in a Coffin, about Brazilian Ju Jitsu, and a single called Ancient Dialogue, an intriguing blend of sampled Inuit singing and electronics with a true ceremonial flair. I could do with more of that combination, but instead I'll just put the video on repeat and go tripping with Narducci.

Taylor Brook - Apperceptions Composer Brook shows a very different, but no less innovative, side of himself here than on the cutting edge chamber music of Ecstatic Music, his 2016 album with Tak Ensemble. Featuring improvisations for his electric guitar and an "audio-corpus-based AI improviser" he designed, these tracks are full of sinuous melodic lines and chords that feel lit from within, gently growing more complex as the computer takes up the themes and provides its own variations. Should the singularity ever occur, I hope Brook and his software collaborator are on hand to provide the soundtrack.

Adam Cuthbért & Daniel Rhode - Greet The World Every Morning With Curiosity And Hope The title of this latest from the modular masters of Slashsound says it all for this perfect blend of burnished tones and cautiously optimistic vibes. And what better way to start the new year?

For similar noises, check into this archive playlist with much more where these came from and follow the 2021 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
Best of 2019: Electronic
Best of 2018: Electronic
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Best Of 2020: Classical

Since much of the "classical" music I listen to is by living composers and performed by non-profit ensembles made up of young musicians, the shutdown of live music has hit them particularly hard. So, if you hear something you like below, consider purchasing it from Bandcamp or another service. If you prefer not to acquire music, even as a download, make a donation where it will help. 

First up are links to my posts covering 50+ albums(!) in this sphere, followed by short takes on many other fantastic releases that astonished with their creativity, commitment, and impact.

Listen to excerpts from most of these in this playlist or below.

Of Note In 2020: Classical
Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer
Y Music - Ecstatic Science
Quarterly - Pomegranate 
Barbora Kolářová - Imp In Impulse
Richard Valitutto - Nocturnes & Lullabies
Cenk Urgün - Sonare & Celare
The String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Afterimage
Clarice Jensen - The Experience Of Repetition As Death
Luis Ianes - Instrucciones De Uso

Record Roundup: Unclassifiable
Wet Ink Ensemble - Glossolalia
Jobina Tinnemans - Five Thoughts On Everything
Amanda Gookin - Forward Music 1.0
Ning Yu - Of Being
Andy Kozar - A Few Kites 
Dai Fujikura - Turtle Totem
Collage Project - Off Brand
Matteo Liberatore - Gran Sasso
Sreym Hctim - Turn Tail

Record Roundup: Vox Humana
Roomful Of Teeth - Michael Harrison: Just Constellations
Roomful Of Teeth - Wally Gunn: The Ascendant
Lorelei Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail (Version for Women's Chorus) 
Quince Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail
Michael Hersch - I hope we get a chance to visit soon
Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass For The Endangered
Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn / Build
Missy Mazzoli - Proving Up
Du Yun - A Cockroach's Tarantella

Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Christopher Trapani - Waterlines

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 1
Michi Wiancko - Planetary Candidate
Clara Iannotta: Earthing  - JACK Quartet
Gyða Valtýsdóttir - Epicycle II
Tomás Gueglio - Duermevela
Kaufman Music Center - Transformation

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2
Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time
Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement
Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time
Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber
Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 3
Christopher Cerrone - Liminal Highway
Christopher Cerrone - Goldbeater's Skin
Stara: The Music of Halldór Smárason
Third Sound - Heard In Havana
Jacob Cooper - Terrain

Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade
Ash Fure - Something To Hunt
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma 
Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone
Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu
Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes
Nicolas Cords - Touch Harmonious
Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach: Complete Cello Suites
Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)
Wang Lu - An Atlas Of Time
Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities
Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply

John Luther Adams - Become River and Lines Made By Walking Become River, the first of The Become Trilogy to be composed, now receives the same gorgeous treatment from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony as Become Ocean and Become Desert. While quite a bit shorter than either of those, it is no less satisfying an opportunity to contemplate the wonders of our natural world and Adams' gifts as a composer. Lines Made By Walking is also Adams' String Quartet No. 5, and is just as lush, elegiac, and architecturally sure as it seemed when I saw the New York premiere performed by the JACK Quartet, who play it here. The album also includes Untouched, another three-movement piece for string quartet, but one in which there are no stopped notes, only the sound of natural strings and harmonics, and a wonderful immersion in the drone and sparkle of these instruments. 

Kirsten Volness - River Rising On these six pieces for electronics and mostly solo instruments, Volness displays both a piquant melodic sense and an adventurous command of texture. Whether inventively dissecting ragtime in the nearly club-ready dance rhythms of Nocturne or spiraling into the ether on the yearning title track, brilliantly played by violinist Lilit Hartunian, there's plenty of variety and no shortage of personality on this wonderful album. It will stay with you - as will the trippy visuals for the "Psaltriparus minimus mix" of Nocturne, one of the best videos of the year!

Patrick Higgins - Tocsin I was not previously familiar with Higgins, who also works in the realms of math rock and electronic music, so I probably got to this through Mivos Quartet or Wet Ink Ensemble, both of whom perform on this assured and explosive collection of chamber music. SQ3, performed with frightening ease by Mivos, makes the most of the instrumental possibilities while also carrying you through a four-movement narrative. In Wet Ink's hands, EMPTYSET [0,0] is a fascinating little engine of interconnected sounds.  We also get the title piece, an alternately busy and spectral trio for piano and two cellos, played with swagger by Vicky Chow, Mariel Roberts, and Brian Snow. There's also a sweet arrangement of Bach's unfinished Contrapunctus XIV, mere icing on a dense cake baked with intensity by an emerging master.

Pierluigi Billone - Mani. Giacometti and 2 Alberi Here we have two epic pieces by Billone, the first for violin, viola, and cello and the second for alto sax and percussion. Each is played with pure commitment by Distractfold and scapegoat respectively, two ensembles new to me, and with such expertise that the performance melts away into a pure experience of sound. That same sense of "ritual moment" I felt in 2015 at a Talea Ensemble concert of Billone's works is present on this album as well. Turn your first listen into an event - I guarantee it will be memorable.

Christopher Luna-Mega - Aural Shores Here's another name new to me, but with the involvement of JACK Quartet, Splinter Reeds, Arditti Quartet, and New Thread Quartet, I suspected it would be worth a listen. I was not wrong. Luna-Mega uses field recordings and a deep engagement with natural sounds as leaping-off points into musical innovation and delight. Perhaps most astonishing of all is Geysir, with pianist Seung-Hye Kim in a bizarrely consonant conversation with the titular water feature. In short, burbles and bubbles combining with knotty piano gestures for a truly startling masterpiece. But I love the whole album, which was nearly a decade in the making. Hopefully we don't have to wait that long for more.

Dana Jessen - Winter Chapel The evocative title will not lead you astray as Splinter Reeds co-founder and bassoonist Jessen takes you on a winding pathway of resonant noises in these six improvisations. From bird-calls to sinuous melodic lines, all of which she explores with mastery, nothing about her instrument is alien to Jessen. After a few plays, you will feel the same way.

Jen Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey - Invisible Ritual Shortly into this series of duos between Curtis (violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble) and Sorey (composer, multi-instrumentalist, here playing drums or piano), I completely forgot they were improvised, so structurally satisfying is each piece. That sense of being in good hands as a listener is there in both the high-wire moments and the contemplative sections, with the latter being some of my favorite moments on this dazzling collection. Everything from Neue Wiener Schule knottiness to jazz fusion thrills to post-rock quietude and more are reference points and connecting the dots is pure delight.

Julia Den Boer - Lineage Of the four Canadian composers represented on this sparkling and contemplative collection of piano music, only Reiko Yamada was known to me. But I quickly fell for the world Den Boer creates from the first notes of 371 Chorales (2016), a short piece by Chris Paul Harman. Tombeau (1996) by Brian Cherney did not break the spell, weaving a tale across its seven movements, and neither did the searching interior monologue of Matthew Ricketts' Melodia (2017). Yamada's Cloud Sketches (2010) closes the album, a very 21st century update on impressionism with a little touch of Schumann. Gorgeous stuff and Lineage has been go-to "morning album" since I first heard it.

Thomas Kotcheff - Frederic Rzewski: Songs Of Insurrection Could there have been a better year to release the world-premiere recording of this 2016 piece? Well, maybe any of the last four, but I'm happy to have it now. Rzewski's applies his pointed and inventive variations to a global lineup of resistance songs, ranging from Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, that anthem of the Civil Rights movement, to Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller, from a 19th-century Korean peasant uprising. Along with Rzewski's tart compositional approach, Kotcheff's stylish playing, including some fearless improv, ties all of these varied works together and reveals a piano work for the ages. And even if you wouldn't sing along to any of these at a protest, as Ted Hearne suggests in the wise essay included in the smartly assembled booklet, we can always "think of the concert hall as the setting, and perhaps the subject, of the protest itself." 

The Crossing - Michael Gordon: Anonymous Man, James Primrosch: Carthage, and Rising w/ The Crossing The variety of works pursued by this choir, whether in the moods they set, or the concerns they address, is as dazzling as their technical skills. Under the direction of Donald Nally, they never cease to amaze in their total immersion within the sound world of any composer with whom they choose to work. The Gordon piece, for 24 unaccompanied voices, gives a biography of the NYC block where he lives, from meeting his wife to finding commonality with the homeless, all served up in melodies and harmonies both plangent and haunting. Carthage, which was nominated for a Grammy, finds Primrosch engaging with texts that explore the nature of our purpose on earth, whether by Meister Eckhart, 13th-century monk, or contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson. As you might imagine, this inspires an melodic architecture and harmonic counterpoint not too distant from ancient chants, yet there's still a freshness and originality here. The last release of the three contains all of The Crossing's virtues in one extremely enjoyable package - uplifting, even, as the marketing promises. David Lang's Protect Yourself From Infection, composed for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu epidemic, is obviously on point, and we also get Ted Hearne's What It Might Say, a soulful piece based on Winnicott's theories of communication between infant and mother. The whole thing, including two stunning Buxtehude cantata movements, is sequenced for maximum enjoyment. If you're looking for choral music, just set up a Google alert for The Crossing and take whatever they give you!

Silkroad Ensemble - Osvaldo Golijov: Falling Out Of Time Almost anything I could write in this format about this extraordinary piece would feel inadequate. A shattering 80-minute "tone poem with voices" based on David Grossman's book of the same name about child loss, there are moments of beauty, moments of pain, and a baffling variety of sonic texture and detail, from the high-pitched pipa to modular synthesizer. I admit to being a Silkroad skeptic, such is the facility with which they please PBS fundraising audiences, but I take it all back. This recording falls into the realm of a public service and the deep collaboration with Golijov, a major composer who has been MIA for too long, has resulted in a rendering of a new masterwork that is hard to imagine being equalled. As someone whose child died, I am filled with gratitude to all involved. Whatever grief or bereavement you have experienced, this work will touch you in ways art rarely does. Do not hesitate.

Counter)induction - Against Method With players like Miranda Cuckson (violin), Benjamin Fingland (clarinet), Dan Lippel (guitar), Jessica Meyer (viola), Caleb van der Swaagh (cello), and Ning Yu (piano), there is no hype in calling this ensemble a supergroup. In celebrating their 20th anniversary, they've assembled a collection that plays to all of their strengths - from an interest in instrumental interaction, as in The Hunt By Night (2020), the charming Douglas Boyce trio that opens the album, to cutting-edge practices, as in Meyer's own Forgiveness (2016) for bass clarinet and loop pedal, a deceptively quiet exploration into uncomfortable emotions. The performances are all excellent, the sound is warm yet crisp, and the whole album satisfies far beyond its commemorative purpose. Here's to another 20 years!

Scott Lee - Through The Mangrove Tunnels Somehow conjuring everything from noirish swagger to chamber jazz with a string quartet, piano, and percussion, Lee has crafted an album-length piece that is a cinematic blast from start to finish. Having it played by the ever-amazing JACK Quartet with Steven Beck (of my beloved Talea Ensemble) and Russel Harty (a drummer equally comfortable in classical and jazz) doesn't hurt in the least. Based on the history of Florida's Weedon Island (an axe murder! a failed movie studio!), I only hope that when the inevitable Netflix docu-series is made, they're smart enough to use this delightful and highly original music.

Happy Place - Tarnish Somewhere at the intersection of jazz, art rock, and contemporary chamber music, drummer/composer Will Mason has cooked up a thrill ride, aided and abetted by such luminaries as Kate Gentile (drums), Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy (vocals), Andrew Smiley and Dan Lippel (guitars). You will be deliciously off-kilter throughout this brittle and brilliant album.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Sola This spare, haunting piece for viola and electronics is the first salvo in a new commissioning project from Lanzilotti, whose In Manus Tuas was a highlight of 2019. It's a accompanied by a long interview with the composer, which is full of insights but not something you'll want to hear each time you listen to the piece - which is likely to be often as it is very beautiful and gorgeously played.

Want more? Dive deeper into this realm in my Of Note In 2020: Classical (Archive) playlist and make sure to follow this year's to keep track of what is to come!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Classical
Best Of 2018: Classical
Best Of 17: Classical
Best Of 16: Classical
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Classical & Composed

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Best Of 2020: The Top 25


While I believe all of these albums to be objectively excellent, filled with sincerity and innovation, even more crucial than whether they are "the best" is that they became the most necessary for me, the ones that demanded repeated listens, the ones I turned to most often. Some you may have heard of or seen on other lists, others may be completely unfamiliar. I think you will find each of them worthy of your time and attention - let me know if you agree. I'm not going write a think-piece on how much we all needed music in a year like the one almost past - there are enough of those around - but I will express my heartfelt gratitude to our finest musicians with astonishment at their continued creativity, bravery, and sheer industriousness. Looking forward to thanking as many of them as possible in person across the footlights!

Click "Play" on this playlist or below to listen to a track from each album. Since I've covered each of them elsewhere, follow the links to read my thoughts. What topped your listening in 2020?

Coming soon: More opportunities to elevate 2020's musical excellence in genre-specific lists for classical, electronic, hip hop, R&B, reggae, jazz, Latin, global, rock, folk, reissues, and everything in between!

Celebrate over a decade of "Best Of" lists:

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)

Although "catching up" is an unattainable goal, what follows is a quick multi-genre run-through of things I'm burning to present to your beleaguered attention before the end of the year ruminations and revelations begin.

Wang Lu - An Atlas Of Time After 2018's stunning Urban Inventory, I knew to expect even greater things from this composer and this album exceeds those imaginings in every way. The title piece is a five-movement spectacular, incorporating orchestrations that Bartok would envy alongside electronics and prerecorded material for collage-like effects that will have your head spinning in the best way. It's astonishing in its concision and power and the performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with Gil Rose conducting is unlikely to be equalled - but that doesn't mean I don't think others should try, and often, in concert halls across the globe. The album also includes Ryan And Dan, a duet for saxophone (Ryan Muncy) and guitar (Dan Lippel) that manages to combine post-punk, free jazz, art rock, and modernism in a mesmerizing seven minutes, Double Trance for string quartet, played by Momenta Quartet and showing mastery of the medium, Unbreathable Colors, a sparkling and off-kilter piece for solo violin (Miranda Cuckson), and Siren Song, which puts more of her orchestral artistry on display. Fearless, fun, fascinating - and emotionally compelling - the world of Wang Lu is one of my favorite destinations. Plot a course ASAP.

Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities How you relate to these two half-hour+ pieces may depend on the musical references you find within. For me, the opening section of the title track, played with a casual perfection by Bearthoven, sounds like a fragment from a Tim Buckley session, circa Happy Sad or Star Sailor, with a starring role for Pat Swoboda's woody bass. Then it moves into a something that triggers the PiL/Flowers Of Romance synapse in my brain before entering a period of extreme repetition. To that last point: not everyone will be able to take this level of minimalism, but I love it, finding a kind of tart wit to each iteration. Played by the piano-percussion lineup of Bent Duo, Unsettle shades into an acoustic form of ambient music, with plucked piano strings hanging the air, populating their own resonance. I'm getting Eno/On Land vibes, but as I note above, your results my vary. Curious? There's only one way to find out...

Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply In 2018, I attended the world premiere of this majestic piece for 50 violins and one-bit electronics at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. It was glorious and I ended my review with these thoughts: "While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine." And now we have this recording, made in Amsterdam last year, to bear out my statement. Listen and let it bathe you in sound.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist.

S.G. Goodman - Old Time Feeling I'm not sure if this debut album was long in the making, but Goodman's voice rips out of the speakers with a captivating impatience, even on the ballads. The production by Jim James foregrounds her remarkable clarion call, which feels drenched in her Kentucky roots, surrounding it with tube-fired guitar, drums, and the simplest of bass lines. The songs are crafted from a deep well of Americana, with country, blues, and folk blended in such a way that the seams are invisible. As the title indicates, Goodman must be an old soul - one listen and she's also an old friend.

Jeffrey Silverstein - You Become The Mountain Pedal-steel infused minimalist mysticism here, with Silverstein your gentle guru. A song title like Cosmic Scene may not sound promising, but such is Silverstein's sincerity that he gets away with it and leaves you wanting more. I put this on and I'm instantly walking in the woods, after rain, smelling leaves and hearing water's gentle movements. It's a trip, alright.

Melody Fields - Broken Horse In 2018, I called this band "Swedish psychonauts who seem to travel through space and time with equal ease," when reviewing their debut album. These four new songs find them in an almost singleminded pursuit of draggy sparkle and shimmer, hitting the mark every time.

Boogarins - Levitation Sessions With the longest track clocking in at under seven minutes, you know this is going to be a different experience than their 2017 epic of the stage, Desvio Onirico, but these are different times. It's no less excellent, however, and finds them blazing through a career-spanning set of songs from their first four albums and Manchaca Vol. 1, their marvelous odd'n'sods collection that also came out this year. Platinum-sellers in their native Brazil, Boogarins will always be on my hit parade!

Tracks from these and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) playlist.

Vibration Black Finger - Can't You See What I'm Trying To Say Percussionist and keyboard player Lascelle Gordon has come a long way since 1985, when he was a founding member of the Brand New Heavies, a group which always struck me as superficial. But everything here is 100% REAL, whether in abstract explorations like the title track or the furious groove Acting for Liberation, Pt. 1, which seems to incise itself on your mind and body more deeply with each passing moment of its expansive 10-minute length. Surely one of the most authentic progeny of the spiritual jazz movement, VBF are not fooling around.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Jazz, Latin & Global) playlist.

Quakers - II - The Next Wave When I included the debut from this hip hop collective in my list of the 100 greatest albums of the 2010's earlier this year, I was fully convinced it was a one-off. I was even growing a little nostalgic, remembering how it introduced me to both Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, both of whom I went on to interview, but still feeling a bit stung by its lack of seismic impact. Eight years later they are back and it's as if no time as passed. Eclectic beats, varied rappers, including Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, and just as much fun. Also a blast is Supa-K: Heavy Tremors, their "beat tape" - 50 tracks in 49 minutes - which had my wife asking, "Is this J Dilla?" Not quite, but it certainly hits that spot very sweetly. Welcome back, Quakers, long may you rock my world.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Hip Hop, R&B, & Reggae) Playlist.

Elsa Hewitt - Ghostcats This EP is an extra fuzzy excursion from Hewitt, and all the more charming in its graceful electronic distortions. Hewitt's world enters the physical realm with her handmade cassettes and this one was very special - I celebrated it in this unboxing video - but a talisman is not required for the magic to happen. All you need do is push play.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Electronic) playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Of Note In 2020: Classical
Of Note In 2020: Electronic
Of Note In 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade

The turns of history that have transpired since I started this post are even more head-spinning than the kaleidoscopic variety of music I discuss below. But the fact remains that whatever happens in the world of politics, we will always have artists to inspire us and reflect the world back to us in ways that lend perspective, strength, and solace. With the monumental election now behind us, the end of the year also seems to approach ever more rapidly. However, I will attempt to get one or two more "regular" posts up before we start delineating the best of 2020. Because, yes, there is yet more mind-blowing music to cover!

Tracks from the albums below, and many others, can be found here or below. Click follow to make sure you don't miss a thing.

Ash Fure - Something To Hunt The first time I heard Echoes by Pink Floyd (which was shamefully late in the game), I thought, "This should be played in concert halls around the world." So when I put on this album, the first portrait collection of Fure's music (also shamefully late!), I felt my vision coming to a certain kind of reality. Especially on Shiver Lung (2016), which opens the album, there's a sense of distant observation, narrative sweep, and mounting terror that brings some of the legendary band's sounds and structures into the realm of contemporary composition most effectively. I'm not surprised to read that it's an excerpt from a longer work, The Force Of Things: An Opera for Objects, as Pink Floyd themselves fruitlessly pursued an album made solely for household objects. As heard here, Shiver Lung is a landmark work of nearly pure sound that makes astonishingly original use of the forces of the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform most of the pieces on the record. I've probably rung this bell too often already, but if you have some bigger speakers in your house, let it rip on them for full immersion. Something To Hunt (2014) is more recognizable as ultra-modern chamber music, although of a highly distinctive nature, with strings plucked and stroked, and a dynamic architecture that edges towards chaos before pulling back. 

Soma (2012), a reflection on Fure's grandmother's Parkinson's disease, is a restless assemblage of piano notes, rustling strings, and white noises, and would fascinate even without knowing the inspiration behind it. The most stripped-down piece here is A Library on Lightning (2018), which makes the most of a trio of trumpet, bassoon, and double bass, ranging from skeletal stretches to furious conglomerations for a discomfiting 14 minutes. Bound To The Bow (2016) is presented in a spellbinding live recording by the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra and brings us full circle to the sound world of Shiver Lung, with shimmering electronics blending with the acoustic instruments. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff and the perfect conclusion to Something To Hunt, which finally begins to slake the thirst I've had to dive into Fure's music, which, like that of Anna Thorvaldsdottir is highly complex but holds broad appeal. Don't miss it.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma Speaking of this Icelandic wonder, her first portrait album, which introduced me to her music nearly a decade ago, has been reissued in a stunning remaster by Sono Luminus, and includes a new recording of Dreaming performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. You have no excuse to miss it the second time around.

Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone Funny how the world converges sometimes. Just today I started catching up with the awesome podcast from TAK Ensemble, listening to Hannah Kendall interview Elaine Mitchener and thinking I need to follow up on both of them. Then I plucked this album off my teetering stack and spotted Kendall's name among the seven composers Leclaire included here. At just over three minutes, Kendall's piece is short but characterful. Called Joe (2006),  and based on the photo of the same name by Richard Boll, it asks more questions than it answers while conveying empathy for its subject. Leclair's technique in this world premiere recording is flawless, as it is throughout this concise collection. There's plenty of variety here, too. In The City At Night (2008) by Jenni Brandon has some of Gershwin's jazzy insouciance, full of dance rhythms and narrative thrust, while Kara Obermüller's different forms of phosphorous (2020) tends towards abstraction, exploring extended techniques. Perhaps most radical is Música invisible (2004) by Cecilia Arditto, which has Leclair removing the reed and bocal to make some very human noises. 

The Obermüller and Arditto pieces are also recorded for the first time, as is Layered Lament (1984) by Faye-Ellen Silverman, which in its use of electronics is at least 20 years ahead of its time. Besides just being a good listen, such advocacy and archiving make Music For English Horn Alone, which also includes fascinating works by Meera Gudipati and Lisa Bielawa, a truly important release and one that will define this repertoire, for years to come.

Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu This gorgeously recorded collection of Lemaître's cello music, played with mastery and a deep connection by Dan Barrett, was my introduction to the French composer. Based on these jewel-toned pieces, which often tingle the spine and always engage the mind, I'm ready to deepen the friendship. The album opens with Orange and yellow II (2013), in a transcription from the original two-viola version, making full use of the eight strings as Barrett duets with Stanislav Orlovsky. Inspired by Mark Rothko and written in tribute to Morton Feldman, the two cellos pursue a dialogue that is as riveting as listening in on a conversation by dazzling intellects. Like many of the pieces, the highly resonant acoustic is almost another instrument, with notes hanging in the air and echoing in the distance. 

Mnaïdra (1992) and Plus haut (2018) are the two solo works here and a good measure of how Lemaître's work has developed over the years. The former is lyrical and almost folk-like, with gentle strums and tidy melodies, while the latter is an epic of abstract yearning, ending with a series of piercing repeated notes ("higher" - as implied by the title) that will stay with you for some time. Pianist Jed Distler is on hand for Stances, hommage à Henri Dutilleux (2015), which has single notes from the keyboard decorating long, ruminative lines from the cello, like sunlight sparkling on water, and you would likely not need the title to recognize Lemaître's debt to his fellow French master. The album also includes Thot (1994), which has Barrett playing with clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki in a wonderfully hushed exploration of woody textures. Read the notes and you will find that Lemaître is, in some ways, what you might expect from a cultured French composer: elegant, well-read, well-traveled, and with phenomenally assured technical skills. But that doesn't mean that this music isn't quietly surprising and the fact that it is surpassingly excellent is likely a result of all those qualities. There's something to be said for new music made old school!

Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes This high-concept album interleaves the five movements of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 with five new pieces commissioned by Brooklyn Rider from some of today's most notable composers. While Beethoven's 250th anniversary was obviously an impetus for putting the album together, along with the world's desperate need for healing, there's no way the group could have predicted just how much healing when they commissioned these works a few years ago. I'm also fairly certain the group was not expecting Beethoven to become a flashpoint in the ongoing quest for social justice in classical music. While celebrating his "genius and humanity," as violist Johnny Gandelsman puts it, is a valid point in every year, whether the concept ultimately works for you will depend on your patience for listening to Beethoven. For me, I'm just not in the mood - and not for ideological reasons but for musical ones. I have shelves of the stuff, after all, and it just felt too familiar, even in their lapidary performance. So after a couple of listens, I teased out my own playlist of just the new works and...WOW. This is some of the best string quartet music of recent years. 

Matana Roberts' borderlands... opens the album in cinematic fashion, with indistinct voices, "Psycho" jabs, intricate and angry pizzicato, and the occasional moment of calm. By the time the players started spitting out "We hold these truths! To be..Self Evident!" I was almost on my feet. Reena Esmail's Zeher (Poison) seamlessly combines the sinuous melodies of Indian classical music with brusque chording for a bracing and beautiful eight minutes. I was reminded of her lovely piece on Nicholas Phillips' Shift and once again have a whetted appetite for more. The third new piece on Healing Modes is Gabriela Lena Frank's Kanto Kechua #2 and, based on this commanding and incantatory work, she is someone about whom I need to know more - and here's the perfect place to do just that. 

Then we get i am my own achilles heel, a mesmerizing 12-minute piece from Du Yun, which maps out a wide dynamic range, from airy whispers and pensive melodies to gnarly tangles of sound. She can do no wrong. The final new piece is by Caroline Shaw, the tuneful, Americana-infused Schisma, ending the album on a perfect note of hopefulness, although in no ways uncomplicated. By all means, follow the program and listen to Healing Modes as programmed by Brooklyn Rider. But if that's not hitting the spot, find your way to these wondrous new works through other means. 

Another hint of the depth of talent in Brooklyn Rider is violist Nicolas Cords' new album, Touch Harmonious, which mixes new works by Anna Clyne, Dmitri Yanov Yanovski, and Dana Lyn with older pieces by Britten, Handel, Bach, and other, all played with the same burnished tone and emotional engagement he displayed on Recursion, his solo debut from 2013. Gandelsman also has a new album, following up his complete recording of Bach's Solo Partitas, this time assaying the master's Complete Cello Suites transcribed for violin, including the first-ever recording of the 6th suite on a 5-string violin. It's a fleet-fingered take, emphasizing the Baroque dance rhythms embedded in each movement. Gandelsman's technique is flawless yet imbued with personality, making you hear these oft-played works anew. Now, if I could just get cellist Michael Nicolas to give me a sequel to Transitions, my life would be complete...for a little while, anyway!

Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers Though inspired by the fearsomely complex player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and some deep thoughts about just intonation and Hermann von Helmholtz’s book On the Sensations of Tone, these nine piano pieced gleam with off-kilter charm, like a futuristic blend of Aphex Twin, Roger Eno and Erik Satie. Put it on and the sparkle will fill your room, like mirrored mobiles spinning around themselves, as you hear the piano in a whole new way.

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Record Roundup: Strings And Things
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras
Jace Clayton's Call To Conversation