Saturday, January 28, 2017

Best Of 2016: Reissues

While 2016 had few precious moments of downtime between great new records, there were still a few reissues and other sounds of the past that forced their way into my listening. The jury is still out on Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, however. Thirty-six discs of concerts from that earth-shattering year might just be overkill even for a massive Dylan fan like me. Granted, it's a bargain at less than $3/disc, but what I'v heard so far was not as strong as Bob Dylan Live 1966, which was released nearly 20 years ago. Let me know if you plow through all of it and feel differently. There's also the matter of The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl - while I'm still desperate to see the movie, I'll stick with Atlanta 1965 when I want a blast of the Fabs at their best. From performance, to sequencing, to over-done remixing, Hollywood Bowl is a highly compromised document.

The Big Boxes

Erik Satie & Friends - Original Albums Collection Like the Dylan live box, this is also a bargain, 13 discs for about $30, and it's filled with wonderful music. First of all, you get several different recordings of Satie's best-known piano pieces by under-recognized artists like William Masselos and Daniel Varsano. Second, you get many rarities, like Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhome en bois (Sketches and Enticements of a Fat Wooden Man), a three-movement suite for piano. You also get valuable context, with compositions by mentors, colleagues, and proteges like Debussy, Milahud, Ravel, and Poulenc. With recordings spanning 1930 - 1979 you can compare and contrast performance styles over the decades. The packaging is also great, made up delightful miniatures of the original albums. Squint your eyes and read some of the liner notes to marvel at the fact that once a case had to made for Satie's value as a composer. That he was far ahead of his time is not in doubt. As Jean Cocteau said "Satie teaches the greatest audacity of our epoch - that of being simple," which is one reason he resonates so much with the great popular music of our epoch.

Pink Floyd - The Early Years 1965-1972 Nothing simple about this massive undertaking, which includes 11 CDs, 8 Blu-ray Discs, 9 DVDs, 5 seven-inch vinyl singles, and over 40 items of memorabilia. All of this material gives ample opportunity to focus on both the achievement of Syd Barrett but also Pink Floyd's least understood period, the time between their debut album and Dark Side of the Moon. The new remastering I've heard is fantastic, sharpening up the sound, but also making it somehow more accessible. The live and alternate takes seem to have been chosen with care, and even with all the bootlegs I have, there is plenty that I've never heard before. The set also contains the first ever official audio only release of Live At Pompeii, which is a beautifully recorded snapshot of their performance style on the eve of DSOTM. Here's hoping the next set is as generous with the amazing concerts where they road-tested that album months before it came out.

Cluster - 1971-1981 Although they never crossed over into popular success like Kraftwerk, Cluster was certainly one of the most important German bands of the "Krautrock" movement. This crucial nine disc set puts all of their marvels in one place and allows one to trace their evolution from Art Gallery experimentalists to creators of music of great beauty and wit. One can even hear echoes of Satie in the limpid piano playing of Hans-Joachim Roedelius. The glossy surface of Cluster & Eno, the first of two albums they made with that avatar of ambient, is still stunning after all these years, and the second, After The Heat, contains Eno songs as good as on Before And After Science. The final disc of the set contains two previously unreleased live recordings, from 1972 and 1977, which proves how closely they clung to first principles throughout their career, even as the albums embraced more rock elements. The liner notes by Asmus Tietchens are also a treat. For example, discussing 1979's Grosses Wasser,  he writes: "Whilst nothing is left to chance, each of the six Cluster pieces effervesces with a certain joie de vivre, providing ample scope for artistic spontaneity. Above all, one can hear that, as the saying goes, less is more." When you consider that Roedelius and his partner Dieter Moebius were also mainly responsible for the output of Harmonia, which had an enormous influence on David Bowie, it becomes ever more obvious how important they were. Kudos to bureau b for this landmark collection.

Rock & Pop

Led Zeppelin - Complete BBC Sessions It's hard to imagine anything improving this set, which lived on my iPod for years in its original two-disc incarnation. But if you haven't heard it yet this new three-disc version is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with some of the most seismic music ever. OK, Jimmy, how about some 1975 concerts now? Or new music??

Big Star - Complete Third Take the full ride to the creation of one of the great almost-was albums of the 70's. I've heard the packaging is less than stellar but the liner notes are well worth your time.

Arthur Lee & Love - Coming Through To You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004 I always say if you're a fan, you can add one star. I'm a huge fan of Love so I would give this uneven set four stars if I used them - but I would hardly recommend a new listener start here. Lee is one of the most contradictory figures in rock, mainly because he seemed to turn his back on the delicate chamber psych of Forever Changes to embrace a harder-edged sound heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix. The fact is that if you look at his career as a whole, it's Forever Changes that is the anomaly, but one he returned to in the 2000's, performing it with expert replicators Baby Lemonade and a chamber orchestra. That's on disc three and some of it is quite good. Vocal inconsistencies mar some of the songs but he seems to be enjoying the adulation for his lost masterpiece, without any of the contempt I've noticed on other concerts from this period. Disc one is my favorite, though, focusing on the vital period following the release of Four Sail, which I hold in as high a regard as Forever Changes. If you're a lover of Love this is essential, just be prepared for some patchy sound quality and shaky performances throughout. 

Elliott Smith - Heaven Adores You (Soundtrack) It's hard to listen to any Elliott Smith without retroactive foreshadowing of his tragic early death, but that's even more true of this sensitively compiled album of fragments, demos, and live recordings. I still need to see the movie but this collection serves as a good reminder that there was always more to him than the mopey troubadour. Like Kurt Cobain, the angst wouldn't have meant much without an astonishing gift for melody. 

Gary Wright's Wonderwheel - Ring Of Changes Don't laugh - I still rock Love Is Alive on a party mix and Dreamweaver is deathless AM radio psychedelia and proto synth-pop. This previously unreleased album is from a few years before those 70's juggernauts and finds Wright and future-Foreigner Mick Jones pursuing an almost cookie-cutter classic rock sound, only the format hadn't been invented yet. This is in no way unfinished, but is rather a fully polished production with layers of keyboards, guitars, and backing vocals. Based on the sound alone, I would say it's nearly as much Jones's album as Wright's. If I were going to put on my A&R hat I might say I don't hear the killer single, but Goodbye Sunday is filled with yearning and has some tasty George Harrison slide guitar, almost sounding like a more polished Big Star, and Creation is a mini-epic with some great harmonies, a soaring chorus, and guitar riffs galore. Take a great trip to a past that never quite existed. 

The Clientele - A Sense Of Falling: Strange Geometry Outtakes When one of your favorite bands goes quiet, you depend on little bonuses like this. Featuring five unreleased songs and an instrumental version of Losing Haringey, this is about as exquisite a 22 minutes of music as you will find. Standouts are When We Last Spoke, which has that wonderful conversational style Alasdair MacLean perfected, and Spanish Night, an intensely delicate skein of acoustic guitars. Come back, Alasdair!

Various Artists - New York Noise: Dance Music From The New York Underground 1977-1982 Sometime in the early 80's, Mike Diamond and I worked our connections to gain entrance to the apartment of rock critic Chip Stern. We heard he was selling promo copies for cheap - and it was true. I remember scoring a white-label advance copy of Remain In Light and Soapsuds, Soapsuds by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden (you gotta hear their take on the Mary Hartman theme!) but Mike was quick on the draw and grabbed up No New York, a landmark collection of punk funk produced by Brian Eno. I was jealous at the time but this is even better - one song each from DNA, Material, The Bush Tetras, The Contortions, Mars, and more - practically everyone who made the Mudd Club great. This is also James Murphy's Rosetta Stone and, because it's on Soul Jazz, I'm sure the book is filled with great pictures and liner notes that make all the right connections. 

Soul, Funk, Gospel

Betty Harris - The Lost Queen Of New Orleans Soul Think Lee Dorsey's sister and you'll get some idea of the quality of this welcome collection, especially the first half. Dorsey might have gotten the more indelible material but that just means Harris has to work harder and she sings the hell out of the first six tracks. Also, she still has producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint on her side, which is almost always a can't-lose proposition - ditto for house band The Meters. The killer opening cut, There's A Break In The Road, is a case in point. It features some ill feedback and is practically a concerto for drummer Zigaboo Modaliste - it must be heard to be believed. Harris also goes head to head with Dorsey on Ride Your Pony and it's a photo finish. She gets softer - even maternal - on the latter half of the compilation but does nothing to belie its title. Another Soul Jazz special.

Betty Davis - The Columbia Years While this unfinished material doesn't come up to the quality of Betty Davis or They Say I'm Different, it's a fascinating, fun, and funky window into her development as an artist. We also get a taste of her then-husband Miles Davis's style as a producer: "Sing it just like that, with the gum in your mouth and all," he rasps before Politician Man kicks off. This may be for fans only, but if you've heard those other records, there's a good chance you are a fan. 

Johnnie Frierson - Have You Been Good To Yourself Frierson was a minor player at Stax Records who was taken out of the game by military service. In the 90's he recorded these songs in his living room and distributed them himself on cassette. Now, these rough-hewn and committed performances are getting a well-deserved shot at a wider audience. The propulsive title track is the star, an empathetic self-help treatise in song ("Have you been getting eight hours?"), but there are no false notes on this brief collection of spirited gospel. Be good to your ears and give this a listen. 

Reggae & International Sounds

Various Artists - Tape Rolling! Featuring productions by Bunny Lee from 1971-74 this is a typically great Pressure Sounds collection of roots reggae. There are a couple of familiar tunes (Man Next Door, Cherry Oh Baby) but most of it is off the beaten path - and just as good as those classics. They even managed to find three Cornell Campbell songs that aren't on the spectacular two-disc Natty Dread anthology, which is now sadly out of print. Prepare to be transported. 

The Wailers - The Wailing Wailers These early cuts by Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley have been reissued many, many times in various forms and varying sound quality. So it's nice to have their first album in the original sequence with the original cover and in smashing sound. Simmer Down never sounded spicier. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - The Legend Live Flash forward to 1979 and you have Marley in his world-beating years, recorded at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. This is a valuable release as it contains more material from Survival, a slightly overlooked album, than any other official live album. However, I'm not sure it's as sharp as performances from Minneapolis, Wisconsin, or Boston from the same tour - do a little digging a see what you think. The show was professionally filmed - and quite well, too - and a DVD is included. Caveat Emptor: The set list on the CD is missing two songs - but you can hear it all on Spotify

Various Artists - Power To The People! A Survey of Zimbabwe's 70's Revolutionary Rock Scene It's become clearer over their years that rock & roll was international from its very beginning. This intriguing collection from Now-Again Records also further proves that where stakes are high the music thrives. All the bands here are tight, anthemic and just slightly off-kilter. Like reggae, which had some of its roots in sounds that blew in on the trade winds from New Orleans, much of the interest lies in how they get it "wrong," sometimes by being unable to avoid the influence of their own traditions. So let Wells Fargo, Stars Of Liberty, et al, school you with unique take on 70's sounds on this brief sampler, which is fortunately a harbinger of more extensive work by Now-Again Records to come in this area. If you're impatient for more, check out the first-ever release of the debut from Wells Fargo, available at Rappcats or by joining Vinyl Me Please

Odion Iruoje - Down To Earth This one and only album by the self-proclaimed Sound President is getting a much-deserved re-airing by Soundway Records after an extremely limited release in 1983. An accomplished Nigerian producer who had worked with Fela in the early 70's, among many others, Iruoje tackles everything from updated Afrobeat to Juju to disco on the six tracks. The first track also features a rapper (perhaps Tunji Oyelana?) who is surprisingly facile by the standards of the day. Too bad Sylvia Robinson didn't get the message (pun intended) at Sugar Hill Records! It's also too bad that Iruoje didn't make more albums. 

José Mauro - Obnoxius Brazil is almost as bottomless a source of great musical discoveries as Africa and Jamaica. This full-fledged Tropicalia masterpiece from 1970, features production that is sometimes lush and sometimes wacky - often at the same time. There's nothing obnoxious about Mauro's suave tenor, though, even when he seems terminally amused by whatever he's singing about. The songs are often like little suites, moving from section to section in a series of left turns that always come full-circle. My Portuguese is non-existent but in titles like Talisma, Apocalipse, and Exaltação e Lamento do Ultimo Rei, I detect religious themes. No girls from Ipanema in sight, but don't shy away as this lost classic occupies a nice middle ground between Jobim and Os Mutantes. 

Soundtracks & Soundscapes

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence Unlike that other David Bowie movie whose soundtrack went unreleased until 2016, this one was obviously an instant classic from first hearing. For years we had to be satisfied with the beautiful suite Sakamoto arranged for his Playing The Orchestra album. Now we have every theme from Nagisa Oshima's brilliant film, each little minimalist piece incrementally drawing you into the psychological warfare at the heart of the film. Some of the synth tones are a bit of their time (1983) but it's a worthwhile journey nonetheless. A nice bonus is Forbidden Colors, the vocal version of the theme featuring the dulcet tones of David Sylvian.

Tod Dockstader - From The Archives This is truly a labor of love for Thomas Steenland, who founded Starkland Records in the 90's to give proper release to the music of electronic pioneer Dockstader. This album consists of 15 never-before-heard tracks, the cream of thousands of pieces left behind when Dockstader died in 2015. He was a master of texture, combining bell-like sounds with serrated patterns, for example, and creating as distinctive a sound as greats like Brian Eno and Laurie Spiegel. Each short piece asks you to confront the emotional complexities of sheer sound: this piece is unsettling, you might note - but why? Where does abstraction connect with cultural mores and biographical experience to create moods and initiate narratives? In this way, Dockstader's elemental work is much like abstract paintings, for example by Rothko or Rinehart. This fascinating album is a tribute to Dockstader's memory and a great opportunity to reengage with an artist who was uncompromising toward the end. We owe Steenland and Starkland a true debt of gratitude - start paying it back by making a little room in your life for this music.

Listen to a track from each album below or in this playlist. There are also more things to discover in the complete Of Note In 2016 (Reissues) playlist. What music shouldered its way out of the past and into your life this year?

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

This post is my last retrospective look at 2016. Coming soon: a rundown of some upcoming releases and a guide to getting AnEarful of the music you need in 2017.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

I like to think that besides being adventurous I'm also a loyal listener, willing to follow people down whatever winding streets and (sometimes blind) alleys they travel. But I also have to go with my gut when something is not up to the standards musicians have set for themselves, which happened a number of times this year.

Albums by Wilco, Hamilton Leithauser, Sean Lennon, Sam Beam, Paul Westerberg, and Metallica all disappointed me this year, much as I tried to like them. There were a few good songs among them and none were cynical failures, but I do think it's notable that all except Wilco and Metallica were collaborations, wherein may lie some of the roots of my dislike. Artists like Rostam Batmanglij, Les Claypool, Jesca Hoop, and Juliana Hatfield seemed to bring out something close to the worst in Leithauser, Lennon, Beam, and Westerberg respectively. Here's hoping they follow their own muses next time around.

Even though these were all past Top 20 artists, I didn't despair. The universe will provide, I thought, and it did: new favorites like Benji Hughes and Warhaus, among others, made astonishing records that fed my soul and delighted my mind. And there were the fantastic albums, EP's, and singles that I never had a chance to feature (aside from a tweet or three), which is what the rest of this post will be about. Some of these were new to me entirely, others are people I've had an eye on for a while, and two are legends in late career. Good listening guaranteed...


Morgan Delt - Phase Zero Two years on from his debut, Delt refined his take on psychedelia with addictive songs that have a way of seeming to alter the space you're in, both mentally and physically. Rather than sounding like a band, all the sounds interlock, with multiple guitars creating polyrhythmic meshes that the drums merely reinforce. Delt's singing sometimes seems like an interior monologue further making this multicolored gem a great headphone trip.

Richard James - All The New Highways Not to be confused with Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, this guy is also a veteran player, having been a founder of Welsh psychedelic folk rock maestros Gorky's Zygotic Mynci back in 1991. On Highways, his fourth album since Gorky's broke up in 2006, he avoids some of the slightly forced playfulness they often pursued, preferring a more naturalistic approach. Think more Led Zeppelin III, Side Two, than Kevin Ayers. There's a lovely woodiness throughout, even when the rhythms tend towards the hypnotic drive of Krautrock. Some of the songs are instrumentals but James's lived-in burr of a voice is always welcome, as is this album - it may be the finest work of a long career. 

Lost Animal - You Yang Many is the time when I'll read a friend's best-of list and know every album but one. That can be a golden opportunity to find something great but it's just as often a dead end. This time it was the former, I'm happy to report, as You Yang is a consistently inspired album, with Jarrod Quarrell (who effectively is Lost Animal) laying his Dylanesque drawl over keyboards, drum machines and sharply plucked bass. He explories many interstices in his quirky sound, adding sax and melodica for color, and employing backup singers to keep things from getting too insular. There might be as much synthesized sound as some of the entries on my Electronic list but the attitude is all rock and it's no surprise when things get a little noisy in Message For The Future. Quarrell released his first Lost Animal in 2013, which means I have some catching up to do - now you do, too. 

Savoy Motel If it's rock attitude you want, these glammed up guys and gals have it to spare. Their self-titled debut has riffs galore, overdriven lead guitar licks (is that a Les Paul through a Marshall stack?), a funky beat that actually swings, and catchy songs. Savoy Motel are often lumped in with the Lemon Twigs, for whom they are opening on tour, but the latter's overstuffed and mannered tunes can't hold a candle to what's going on here. At its best, this is just plain fun stuff and a little bit raw. My only advice is, being that they're from Nashville, they might want to focus to what that town is known for - songwriting - because there are only five good songs (out of eight) on the album. The last third sinks as they get lost in aimless jamming. Including the sly 2015 single Cool Air would have improved things immeasurably. If they keep it short, tight, and groovy throughout their next album, it will (to quote their press release) "completely dominate the music world of tomorrow!"

Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression "Way better than I expected" is a pretty shaky scaffold on which to build a critical response.  Also, since Iggy hasn't made an album I felt compelled to listen to more than once since New Values in 1979 (OK, maybe Soldier in 1980, but I don't sing any of those songs in the shower), my expectations were pretty low in the first place. But I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, partly because he claims this is his finale, and partly because he has made five albums that are part of my lifeblood: Funhouse, Raw Power, Kill City, The Idiot, and Lust For Life. In the end, while this is his best album in decades, it's not quite a return to form. Producer/Guitarist Josh Homme and Iggy's other collaborators create some interesting and varied backdrops for his baritone musings, but too often those musings devolve into first-draft doggerel by the second verse, if they haven't already started there. Iggy's energy here has neither the snarl of The Stooges era nor the grandeur of the Bowie years - he's just sort of there, perfectly adequate but not riveting. Still, if this is truly his last album, it's more than respectable, and based on the recent live album, he's still acquitting himself nicely on stage. 

Julia Jacklin - Don't Let The Kids Win Like Angel Olsen, Jacklin trusts the verities of the great songwriters of the past, tapping into classic 50's and early 60's folk-based rock & roll. There's also a sense of decorum that is most welcome in these clickbait-dominated days. In opener Pool Party when she sings "I want to give you all of my love," it sounds she's talking real commitment, not a Tinder quickie. She's versatile, too, driving the band home on the rocked-up Coming Of Age and also remaining completely compelling on Elizabeth, a gorgeous acoustic ballad. This consistently great album is one of the debuts of the year. I don't know about "the kids" but I sure want Jacklin to win, however she may define the term. She's leaving Australia and touring America with Andy Shauf in the spring - maybe I'll see you at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 17th. 

C. Duncan - Midnight Sun Duncan came to my attention when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his album, Architect. More than one friend for whom I played it remarked that they were reminded of Fleet Foxes, but without the clunky pandering of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. While the focus on Midnight Sun is still Duncan's beautiful high tenor, the sound is quite different, filled as it is with ethereal keyboards and songs that seem barely tethered to the earth. It's very seductive and works best when Duncan gets a little splashy,  like on Other Side, which draws on some of the drama generated by fellow Scots Simple Minds. I could've used more of that. Still, Duncan is a melodically sophisticated songwriter and growing as a sonic explorer. I plan to stay in touch with his next move.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Everything Sacred There's also a Scottish tinge to this multicultural trio, as it features James Yorkston, a folkie of some renown from there, along with Suhail Yusuf Khan from New Delhi, and Jon Thorne, double-bassist who's known mostly for his live work with the electronic duo Lamb. Khan is kind of the star of the show for me, with his lovely voice and the haunting sounds of his sarangi, an Indian instrument that sounds a little like a bowed sitar. Start with Knochentanz, the expansive and astonishing opening track and you'll be hooked. Save for the cover of Ivor Cutler's Little Black Button, which is a misfire, the whole album is a gem. One reason I love this record is that it hearkens back to the the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, which featured a divine mixture of folk and Qawwali performed by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (it's the only time Eddie Vedder got my money - and it was worth every penny). Everything Sacred doesn't cut quite as deep as Dead Man Walking but it's one of the year's most beautifully contemplative records.

Sophie Cooper - Our Aquarius, Etc. If you loved Everything Sacred and are now craving more droning sounds, look no further than Sophie Cooper. She creates pure hypnotism every time she sings and with everything she plays, including trombone. She's also prolific - if you put Our Aquarius together with the other music she released last year into a playlist, you get nearly 90 minutes of fascination. Many is the Monday that I eased into the week in just such a fashion. She's a special talent who's not afraid to be very diffuse and interior, although the rewards are many if you reach out to meet her. You'll have more opportunities to do just that in 2017 - apparently a new album is in the works.

Mavis Staples - Livin' On A High Note While this isn't as inspired as Your Good Fortune, her EP from 2015, the legend is in fine voice throughout and the vibe is relaxed and upbeat. I don't want to be mean, but if I needed any more proof that folks like Merrill Garbus (Action) and Neko Case (History Now) are not world-class songwriters, their contributions here leave no doubt. Fortunately, the last two songs, Jesus Lay Down Beside Me by Nick Cave, and MLK Song, a setting of one of King's speeches by producer M. Ward, end the album on the promised high note.


Ocean Music - Wake: Three Songs The evolution of Richard Aufrichtig's art continues, as he puts his expansive, emotional songs in the context of an absorbing and sometimes intense indie rock sound. See them live to achieve liftoff and keep your fingers crossed for an album in 2017.

Ann Driscoll - Pushpins Although this five-song EP has a cover only Pinhead could like, this multi-instrumentalist from Ohio knows how to deliver songs loaded with charms. Her lyrics are clever and she's already mastered electro-pop and indie rock - no limits to what she can do in the future.

Nine Inch Nails - Not The Actual Events This teaser for the next NIN album got a little lost in the year-end shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised, even if it wasn't as "impenetrable" as Trent Reznor promised. But She's Gone Away had some good creep factor and The Idea Of You reminded me a little of 2wo, Reznor's 90's project with Rob Halford of Judas Priest. In my world that's a good thing!

Acid Dad - Let's Plan A Robbery I should have included this riff-tastic garage rock (or "NYC Psych Punk," as they would have it) in my Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., but I'm only human. I suspect things might get a little wilder on stage, which is why I've been trying to see them forever - maybe in April when they hit Le Poisson Rouge. Take a look to see if they're coming to a town near you first.

Pussy Riot - XXX I'm slightly taken aback that Make America Great Again, a slinky, earworm of a protest song with a great video, didn't blow up bigger. Maybe it's that name, but with certain quotes being repeated on the news ad infinitum, it really shouldn't matter. The fact that the other two songs aren't as compelling is no strike against these committed artists. Considering the fact that they are more of a performance art political activist collective than a band in the conventional sense makes MAGA even more impressive.

Remy Shand - Archives Vol. 2: California Instrumentals Singer, songwriter, producer, player of many instruments, this Canadian R&B master sold hundreds of thousands of records for Motown back in 2002, earning a Juno and several Grammy noms in the process. For a minute, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. He's also somewhat of an enigma, having basically disappeared after his one and only album. He's been slowly leaking out singles and EP's over the last few years, with varying results, and this is one of the most interesting. Jazzy, yes, but also touches on easy listening and ambient music. Get reacquainted with a unique talent.


Courtney Barnett - Three Packs A Day She knows we want more and managed to eke out this breezy gem while touring the world.

Father John Misty - Real Love Baby Like Barnett, demand far outstrips supply where the good Father is concerned. Drenched in vocal harmonies and echo, this is even more redolent of the 70's than usual, with a chorus that is pure "soft rock," i.e. perfect.

Drugdealer - Suddenly (feat. Weyes Blood) I don't know about drugs but I would definitely buy a slightly used Badfinger or Carol King song from this guy. His loopy, stapled together lite rock was a bit much over the course of an album, but this single is pure mellow gold. Tip of the hat to Lyle Preslar and Jim Shearer from The Week In Music for this recommendation.

Tammy - Hated It (With You)
 This witty duo (consisting of Aaron Mendelsohn from Isadora and a singer who just goes by "Brooke") has a lovely sweet'n'sour chemistry on this country-pop breakup song. There's more on their album, released late last year, but I haven't absorbed it all yet.

Mark Eitzel - The Last Ten Years The former American Music Club maven is in fine, windswept form on the lead single from Mr. Ferryman, which will be released in later in 2017. Pairing the introspective Eitzel with Bernard Butler (formerly of sleek rockers Suede) was a canny choice and could lead to Eitzel's strongest album in decades.

Warbly Jets - Alive These future L.A. icons deliver a polished monolith in their first official single. Julien O'Neill, ex-Napoleon, mashes the keyboards as stylishly as he used to play guitar. World domination to come - stay informed.

Beck - Wow I just keep playing it over and over again...more please, Mr. Hansen.

Nicole Atkins - A Little Crazy I think the world of this oh-so-tough South Jersey siren. Her last album, Slow Phaser, was one of the best of 2014 so naturally I pre-ordered the new one. This epic 60's ballad has me willing to double my order!

Holly Miranda - Hold On, We're Going Home -  One of two new songs on a revised version of her covers EP, Party Trick. Leave it to this genius to make a song by Drake seem significant. The other new song, Love Came Here, is a devastating tribute to the late Lhasa de Sela, who wrote and sang the original. Any year with new music from Holly is a good year (there was also a fun Christmas album with Ambrosia Parsley and Chris Maxwell) so this improves your karma, 2016. Don't forget us in 2017, Holly!

Listen to a sample from all the albums described above in this playlist or dive deep into the full 10 hours of everything rock-ish that was at least vaguely interesting in 2016.


I also covered valuable new releases from Cory Taylor Cox, Bob Dylan, Max Jury, Sonya Kitchell, and Chris Maxwell in Record Roundup: American Tunes back in June and excellent albums by Field Music, TV Girl, and Wire were featured in Best of 2016 (So Far), Part 1 and Part 2, back in July. In October I published the aforementioned Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., which shouted out killer albums from Exmagician, Journalism, Pale Dian, The Stargazer Lilies, Nap Eyes, Frankie Cosmos, Tacocat, Feral Conservatives, Self Defense Family, Scott & Charlene's Wedding, Parquet Courts, Omni, Big Thief, The Amazing, Ryley Walker, Lucinda Williams, and Dinosaur, Jr. It's no knock on any of these that they weren't ultimately in the Top 20 - just yet another testament to the extraordinary music of the year just past.

Coming soon: Best Of 2016: Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and old recordings newly released. And that will be IT for 2016!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Best Of 2016: Classical

If you're looking for optimism - and many people are these days - look no further than the world of classical and composed music, which is thriving even as the music business continues to evolve. Out of the onslaught of releases, I tend to focus on new music, including many world-premiere recordings, partly because I'm an adventurous listener and partly because I did a lot of concentrated listening to bedrock repertoire at the dawn of the CD era.

Some new albums of old music rise above the pack, however, because they bring rare pieces to light, put familiar pieces in a new context, or because of the extreme excellence of the performers. I discuss some of these below, but I also recommend perusing the Of Note In 2016 (Classical) playlist for more old wine in new bottles, including a number of Shostakovich recordings. 

Get Reacquainted 
In the interest of space, I will begin by pointing you to some of the year's best that I covered in previous posts but that didn't end up in The Top 20. All of these records continue to enrich, enlighten, and entertain me, and I think you will find that at least some do the same for you. 

Discovered But As Yet Uncovered
My listening in this general area of music extended well beyond what I covered above. Some discoveries came via the various PR firms who are gracious enough to keep me in the loop, others through blogs, people I follow on Spotify (check out Eule Chris - he lives on the cutting edge), or even corporate newsletters. Some, however, came from an unlikely source: the Grammy nominations

Even though the headlines are usually about pop-star rivalries (Beyoncé vs. Adele, anyone?), eleven nominations are in the classical vein. Until this year, I had never thought of mining that list for recordings I might have missed. I immediately went to Spotify's Grammy playlist to see what sounded good and discovered that they ignored that side of things completely. Instead of just getting mad, I made my own list for all to enjoy and in the process found a some great records, including the first three reviewed below.

Martin Kuuskmann - Bassoon Concertos Kuuskmann is a bassoon player of extraordinary skill and feeling and here introduces Christopher Theofanidis's equally extraordinary Concerto. This is a work of subtlety and wit which is beautifully orchestrated and unafraid to tap into the holy drone on occasion. It really needs to be heard to be believed. Kuuskmann follows it with the sprightly Concerto in F Major, WoO 23 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a student of Mozart's. Kuuskmann handles the requirements of this minor masterpiece with aplomb and its Classical intricacies resonate nicely with the Theofanidis work. I do somewhat question the wisdom of including a third concerto, in this case Mozart's K. 19 in B-Flat Major, as I find myself growing fatigued when listening to all three works in a row. The audience (this superb-sounding album was recorded live) doesn't seem to mind, responding enthusiastically to all three concertos and to the lagniappe of an encore, a short piece by Tōnu Kõrvits. You don't have to listen to all three in a row, however, but listen you should, especially to Theofanidis' brilliant piece. (Nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition)

Ludovic Morlot & The Seattle Symphony - Dutilleux: Orchestral Works 
Henri Dutilleux is probably the third greatest French composer of the second half of the 20th Century. But don't take such a qualified statement as damnation via faint praise. It's just that when Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen are in your cohort it's easy to be overlooked. That trend should be reversed by excellent collections like this one, overflowing as it is with brilliantly orchestrated, colorfully melodic music. It you agree, there's more to discover, like the definitive recording of his song cycle Correspondances featuring the great soprano Barbara Hannigan. (Nominated for Best Surround Sound Album and Best Engineered Album)

Ian Bostridge & Antonio Pappano - Shakespeare Songs Let's be upfront here: Bostridge is the greatest living singer of lieder and art song. He brings the necessary interpretive nuance along with the requisite spirit of scholarly inquiry, reinvigorating this art form with every project to which he puts his lilting tenor and lively mind. Shakespeare Songs, which includes settings of the Bard's words by Finzi, Korngold, Tippett, and Stravinsky, among others, is no exception. The sequence flows naturally, like a good recital, and persuasively makes the case for this mostly unfamiliar material. Pappano and Bostridge work together very well, and the brief additions of lute, flute, viola and clarinet lend sparkle and variety. That said, one of the most remarkable songs is the a cappella closing track When that I Was but a Little Tiny Boy by an anonymous composer. Based on a lyric from 12th Night that is probably older than Shakespeare, this tune contains in its two and a half minutes all that song can do to connect humans across the centuries. It's a fitting end to a collection paying homage to Shakespeare's 400th birthday. (Nominated for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album)

Ian Bostridge & Xufei Yang - Songs From Our Ancestors Besides being a great artist, Bostridge is always busy - this is the other great album he released in 2016. Yang is a wonderful guitarist who collaborated with Bostridge on his collection of Britten songs a couple of years ago. Like Pappano, she is a great accompanist with plenty of personality, and a perfect partner for Bostridge. Featuring both British and Chinese songs as well as classics of German lieder, this is a beguiling and smart album that illuminates traditions of both artists. It also has the world premiere of Welsh composer Stephen Goss's fine song cycle Book of Songs for Tenor & Guitar, which was commissioned by Bostridge and Yang and uses Chinese poems from millennia ago. Keep an eye on Bostridge in 2017 - I'm sure he'll be up to something great!

Talea Ensemble - Aaron Helgeson: Poems Of Sheer Nothingness This challenging album pushes the idea of song into the furthest realms. Featuring committed performances by the Talea and soprano Susan Narucki, the title piece includes lots of extended techniques for all the players. Notes on a page (Of Sappho) is a setting of fragments by the Ancient Greek poet by Anne Carson, a true genius of letters. Helgeson is more than up to the task and the results are sublime. High culture gets no more elevated - and ultimately elevating - than this. 

Gerd Schaller with the Philharmonischer Chor Munchen, Philharmonie Festiva - Anton Bruckner: Sacred and Organ Works 
In the classical tradition, much of the singing is to the glory of god, which is the case with Bruckner's Third Mass and his setting of Psalm 146, both included here. But you don't have to be a believer to feel the spirit animating such magnificent music, especially in such towering and inspired performances. Schaller is an experienced conductor of Bruckner's symphonies and brings all of that knowledge to bear here, with a firm hand on structure and dynamics. There's about 25 minutes of organ music ending this double album which I am less able to judge but I would be surprised if it didn't meet the highest standards. Bruckner was a deeply devout man, making this some of his most personal work. I can't imagine him not being grateful for this collection of an underserved portion of his repertoire - I know I am. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Arrival (OST) One of the reasons Jóhannsson is so in-demand as a film composer is his ability to illustrate the underlying emotions in a narrative. For Sicario, his sonic dissection of dread elevated further what was already a superior police procedural. This nearly classic sci-fi movie benefits from the way Jóhannsson uses chords, harmonies, and textures to illustrate the mystery, terror, and hope in the story. It's hard to imagine a better match of music and film and it's a great listen outside of the theater as well. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Orphée With Hollywood constantly calling, and other film projects, it's been six years since Jóhannsson recorded a passion project. He engages with narrative here in any case, loosely tracing the story of Orpheus, the rock star of Greek mythology who lost his wife Eurydice to the underworld because he couldn't follow directions (namely "Don't look back"). Jóhannsson's approach is poetic enough that you don't have dwell on the narrative unless you want to. The touches of glitchy electronics and half-heard vocals keep Orphée from being cavity-inducing but it is still very...pretty. There's enough variety to make for a satisfying listen, though, and the last track, performed by Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices, is truly stunning. Perhaps Skylark should add it to their set-list.

Lucy Claire - Collaborations No. 2 and Selene (Music For Contemporary Dance If you're a fan of Jóhannsson and peers such as Nils Frahm or Ólafur Arnalds, you would be seriously remiss in not getting into Claire's work. She creates post-ambient chamber music of surpassing beauty and brings her production skills to bear as well, making each piece a rich experience. If you seek icy textures married to melodies that convey a dignified melancholy, look no further than these two EP's. To make it easy for you, I've combined all of her 2016 output into this playlist - what are you waiting for? 

Scott Walker - The Childhood of a Leader (OST) This is the second soundtrack by Walker, the genius singer/songwriter/composer who took a sharp left turn from pop stardom in the 70's and never looked back. This 30-minute suite is far more sophisticated as orchestral music than his work for Pola X in 1999, and is another window on which to view his remarkable development as an artist. Regardless of the quality and content of the movie, this is dark and exciting stuff, with some original and avant garde textures. But there's enough connection to composers like Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rosza to make it Walker's most accessible music in decades.

Francesco Giannico & Giulio Aldinucci - Agoraphonia This richly immersive album builds on crowd-sourced field recordings around the idea of the town square, which were then blended into five electronic suites comprising ambient, atmospheric, mechanical, and industrial sounds. It's a bit of a mind movie and if you like the M.O.T.H. album mentioned above you'll want to screen Agoraphonia in your cortical theater.

Peter Schaaf - 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys This charmingly single-minded collection makes a perfect palate cleanser for the mostly heady listening to which I've been steering you. Consisting of sets of waltzes by Schubert, Brahms, Dvorák, and Ravel, it's a great opportunity to compare each composer's approach to one of the original dance crazes. Schaaf has had a 50+ year career as a pianist, accompanying such luminaries as Yo Yo Ma and tenor Jon Vickers. After a long break to become a professional photographer, he returned to the keyboard with an album of Isaac Albéniz's Iberia in 2008. Schaaf's playing here is always lucid and light, never attempting to ascribe more importance than necessary to these miniatures. It's a delightful album and if listening to 44 piano waltzes sounds like overkill, you can do what I did and make a playlist for each composer. The album is self-released and can be purchased or streamed on Schaaf's website - pay a visit and tap your toes in 3/4 time.

Check out tracks from most of these releases here and find even more bounty in the Of Note In 2016 (Classical) playlist. I've also started up lists to gather 2017's notable music - concentrate on classical by following this one.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B