Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Of 2019: Electronic

Even though I attempt to craft my posts to reflect my listening throughout the year, I heard way more electronic music than I wrote about this year. Something to work on for 2020! However, four albums that could easily fit in this category, Thom Yorke's Anima, Daniel Wohl's Etat, Drinker's Fragments, and Elsa Hewitt's Citrus Paradisi, were in my Top 25, so make sure you catch up with those ASAP. Now, on to all of the plugged-in things I've waited to tell you about, from ambient excursions to more aggressive explorations. At the top is a playlist so you can listen while you read - if you haven't already beaten me to these stellar records, I hope you find new worlds of transporting sound within.

Fennesz - Agora If you read the backstory, about Christian Fennesz losing his studio and moving all his gear back into the bedroom of his Berlin flat, you might expect something spare and lo-fi. Spare yes, with slowly building slabs of sound created by his guitar, laptop, field recordings, and the human voice. But also sonically magnificent, with rich, enveloping bass and sparkling highs. The approach is mostly ambient, but when the elements of melody emerge on Rainfall, it hits like warm sunshine. One imagines Fennesz's editing talents are as good as his recording skills to arrive at these four perfectly calibrated tracks. Let's hope we don't have to wait another five years for the next one! Note: Fennesz is on tour and will be appearing in New York on March 14th as part of the Ambient Church series - should be quite a night.

Seabuckthorn - Crossing Here we have another master of the guitar + electronics micro-genre, except Andy Cartwright uses mainly acoustic instruments to make his music, lending an organic feel to his soundscapes. Crossing comes just a year after the excellent A House With Too Much Fire and finds him moving away from the epic towards the gently hypnotic. There’s still some drama here, especially he when uses a bow to create flanging shafts of sound. Cartwright is just one of the most singular musicians working today and I highly recommend finding him in his niche. 

Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan - New Rain Duets I had to do a Google to confirm that this is that same McCaughan who leads Superchunk and founded Merge Records - indeed, it is! He must have been developing his synth skills in private as I never would have expected him to be such a sensitive partner for Lattimore’s harp. That instrument is the star, however, and the atmospherics and treatments amplify all of its glittering qualities, so surely expressed by Lattimore’s deft hands. The result is simply lovely. 

Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima, & Satsuki Shibano - FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem This series creates meetings of the minds that usually have me wondering how they could have ever been thought of, much less executed, such as the classic collab of California electronic gurus Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras with Jamaican harmony trio The Congos, which came out in 2012. This one is more of a straight line, with Visible Cloaks (Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile) displaying the influence of both Japanese ambient masters on their sublime Reassemblage in 2017. But just because it makes sense on paper doesn’t mean that serenitatem is any less surprising in how gorgeous it is.  In fact, even more so than any of their individual achievements, this album arrives at what seems to be a form of chamber music, one in which a collective memory or dream of what that could be provides the guiding force. It just sounds right, as if synthetic and acoustic instruments had always coexisted and there was no higher state of listening than to hear them together. Just fantastic and a new landmark in this remarkable series. 

Arp - Ensemble: Live! That exclamation point suggests that following up last year’s excellent Zebra (#18/25) with a live album seems to have surprised Arp mainman Alexis Georgopoulos as much as it surprised me. But those songs translate marvelously in this studio session performed by him and four other musicians. There are also new songs, giving us a snapshot of Georgopoulos’s methods almost as a work in progress. While Zebra remains an artistic peak for him, the delicious noodling here hints at new buds about to blossom on his creative vine. 

Daniel Lopatin - Uncut Gems Original Soundtrack I can’t tell you how someone who hasn’t seen this high-intensity movie would experience this soundtrack. But I can easily say that Lopatin (who usually records as Oneohtrix Point Never) made an enormous contribution to the film with these rich, pulsing, and occasionally bombastic tracks. Best thing he’s done and maybe he should borrow the emotional narrative from film more often. I doubt you’ll be able to turn it off - just as you can’t look away from Adam Sandler’s astonishing performance. 

Adam Cuthbért & John Adler - Scarlet Rising Moon Speaking of soundtracks, someone hand these two a script, STAT. Adler’s gleaming trumpet tells stories all on its own, and supported by Cuthbért's analog synths and dense beats, it’s a gripping tale indeed. Paging Blade Runner 2075 - your score awaits. Until then, I’ll make up my own interstellar epics as I listen. BTW, if you buy the nifty USB edition, you get 14 further minutes of this stuff plus a variety of intriguing extras. 

Elizabeth Joan Kelly - Farewell, Doomed Planet On her last album, Kelly was seeking escapism from the grind of long lines at the DMV. This time around, she has bigger problems on her mind. If that moment of exile comes, I can imagine watching the big blue marble disappear in the porthole while listening to her loopy melodicism and watery textures, which brought both Eno’s Apollo and David Torn’s guitar to mind. By the time we get to the chillier confines of Cosmonaut Chorus, however, our current home, with all its flaws - or more precisely, flawed inhabitants - starts to seem a little more welcoming!

Caterina Barbieri - Ecstatic Computation The title gives a hint of Barbieri's retro-futurist approach, which finds her putting Buchla modules through their paces to make melodic and immersive pieces that make the idea of synthetic music seem brand new all over again. The ecstatic part is maybe a reminder that electricity lives within us - as do mechanics - making for music that is strikingly human.

Suzi Analogue - ZONEZ V.4: Love Me Louder Speaking of ecstasy, whenever I can stop moving to her music, I sit in wonder at how she takes such simple elements - a kick, a snare, some pinging keyboards - and assembles them to create songs that are wickedly kinetic. Analogue occupies a wonderful *zone* all her own, adjacent to hip hop, r&b, and dancehall, but 100% electronic. Even such collaborators as RP Boo and Mike Millionz become mere ghosts in her machine - or fuel for the fire that will burn long after these tracks are ringing in your ears. P.S. Being that this is "The Audio/Visual Moodboard of Suzi Analogue," I would be remiss if I didn't point you in the right direction for some fun videos.

Hyperion Drive - Hyperion Drive This is a new collaboration between some old friends, Alice Tolan-Mee and Ethan Woods, who sometimes performs as Rokenri. This is a bit of a switch from the "chamber-freak-folk-tronica" I enjoyed on 2018's Mossing Around EP, being altogether sleeker, synthier, and sexier than that earlier collection. Tuneful, too, and unafraid to be just a bit weirder than the average electro-pop. Be the first on your block to own the cassette - unless you live on my block ;-).

Miro Shot - Servers This collective germinated in some of the ideas - both sonic and philosophic -  put forth by Roman Rappak when he was in Breton. Combining catchy melodies with dense electronics and lyrics that inquire about how technology, globalization, and our struggling planet serve to simultaneously bring us together and drive us apart, the four songs here are also part of a bigger plan to bring VR and AR to the concert experience. So far that has only happened in Europe, but this Breton fan doesn't need bells and whistles to be damned excited about what I've heard so far. More to come in 2020. Join the Collective - you just may find yourself contributing to their next video, as I did to this one.

Carolina Eyck - Elephant In Green/Elegies For Theremin And Voice/Waves (With Eversines) Eyck marked the centennial of the theremin with three releases giving an overview of her trajectory as she develops a repertoire of songs and sounds that combine her bell-like voice with the instrument. I had the privilege of seeing her in concert, which not only exposed me to her uniquely engaging stage presence but also gave me window into the structure of her music. While I'm not as taken with this direction as I was with her stunning collaboration with ACME (11/20, 2016), she's still doing something melodically, sonically, and emotionally that I can't find anywhere else.

Emily A. Sprague & Lightbath - full/new  While I've been familiar with the RVNG label for some time (see FRKWYS above), I only recently became aware of their space on the lower east side known as Commend. When I went there in November to see sets by Adam Cuthbért and Phong Tran I found a jewel on Forsyth Street, a small record store and performance space perfect for intimate performances like the one captured here. Sprague is also the singer-songwriter behind the charming Florist but has been traveling into ambience for a couple of years. Beautiful stuff, too, with stretched out chords supporting outgrowths that hint at the melancholy song-craft of Florist. Lightbath, the project of Bryan Noll, sparkles with the underwater hypnotism of early Eno instrumentals, which means I swoon as I listen. I think you will, too.

For more goodies in this vein, dial up my Of Note In 2019: Electronic (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

This is undoubtedly my most conflicted category. When it comes to jazz, I can be very contrary even about the most highly rated albums, noting, “that sounds a lot like jazz,” which in my world is not really a compliment - unless I’m referring to a record from the 20th century. I don’t claim to know where this quest for newness comes from and can only say that I know what I like. As for “Latin,” it’s far too a reductive term for music that originates in traditions as disparate as Mexico, Brazil, and Portugal. Also, I continually feel like I’m missing the best stuff. Feel free to share if you know of a good source for any type of Latin music. Then there’s “Global,” which is my attempt to corral music with roots from everywhere but the US, UK, and the places associated with Latin music, while avoiding the much-abused term, “World Music.” But the point isn’t so much of what things are called but how they sound and that’s what makes this group work. With that in mind, the playlist is organized not by region or style but for maximum listening pleasure - at least I think so!

Note: As always, if I’ve covered something previously just click the link to find out more.


Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and Heritage II

Producer, arranger, and keyboard whiz Mark de Clive Lowe had a banner year, with no less than five albums bearing his name and/or critical involvement. Besides the Heritage albums, there were these gems. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe - Church Sessions Even more collaborative than the two albums above, this album arose out of club nights of the same name. MdCL invites rappers and vocalists to the party, but the musical personality is all his. Synth swoops, dubbed out production, flashes of drum’n’bass. Heads were made to nod to music like this. And keep an eye on Todd Simon - his trumpet solo on Esss (Love The Space) is a supercharged flight of fancy. 

Ronin Arkestra - First Meeting and Sonkei These two albums find MdCL leading the cream of Tokyo’s jazz crop, including Shinpei Ruike, Kohei Ando, and Wataru Hamasaki (horns), Hikaru Arata and Nobuaki Fuji (drums), Tsuyoshi Kosuga (guitar), Sauce81 (electronics), and  Shinju Kobayashi (bass). The result is not unlike an update on the riff-based soul jazz of the late sixties, with bold themes, energetic soloing, and deep grooves. The keyboard playing is spectacular but MdCL gives everyone a chance to shine. First Meeting was their first recording and the confidence level must have been high as they even assay a credible take on A Love Supreme. Sonkei feels a little more lighthearted, even shading into a flavor of pop-jazz at times. But it all comes across as an authentic expression of brilliantly skilled and inventive musicians.

Mark de Clive-Lowe will be making a fairly rare NYC appearance on January 12th at Drom - I'm going to try to get there. 

Sylvie Courvoisier and Alfred Vogel - Pulse Last year, Courvoisier made a record with her trio called D’Agala that put her firmly on my list of jazz people to whom attention must be paid. This year, I was rewarded with this knotty series of duets with percussionist Vogel, who seems to match Courvoisier’s every twist and turn at the keyboard with a few of his own. Besides making for an invigorating listen, Vogel’s inventive and incredibly detailed work at the kit has put him on the list as well. Courvoisier also released Time Goes Out, more duets, this time with violinist Mark Feldman. It’s an album more to admire than to love, but expecting more than one of those per year would be greedy!

Resavoir - Resavoir After London and Los Angeles, Chicago is probably the place people are looking to for evidence of a jazz renaissance. Maybe it should be first, because this wonderful album hits my sweet spot more firmly than The Comet Is Coming or Kamasi Washington, two avatars of those respective scenes. Led by composer, producer, and arranger Will Miller (also responsible for sampler, trumpets, and keys), this sparkling collective creates an organic soundscape that grabs you without seeming to try too hard. Call it ambient jazz if you want, or just wonder at how rich an atmosphere they create whether or not you’re paying close attention.

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise This sprawling, often pissed-off epic is equally defined by the spidery cello of Lester St. Louis as it is by Branch's trumpet, which gleams as much when muted as when screaming to the sky. Chad Taylor's work on mbira and xylophone also adds enough texture to be almost tactile, with Jason Ajemian's bass keeping things from floating into the ether. "We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists!" Branch shouts as the refrain for Prayer For Amerikkka Parts 1 and 2 and, as satisfying as it it to yell along with her, you also get the idea that she's just as confused about how we got here. As always, I'll seek answers in the music, such as the busy staccato of Nuevo Roquero Estéreo, which puts me in the same mood as one of those shambling latter-day epics by Charles Mingus. I think he'd want to sit in.


Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 - Joia! Careful observers might wonder how many people of Welsh descent live in Brazil. That’s unclear, but you would be correct if you assumed Carwyn Ellis came from those foggy environs west of England. He also founded a band called Colorama and has worked with St. Etienne, Edwyn Collins, and The Pretenders. It was Chrissie Hynde, in fact, who spotted Ellis's affinity for Brazilian sounds and introduced him to Kassin, the legendary producer and multi-instrumentalist, who then connected him to some of the finest musicians in the country. The big surprise is not how nimbly they navigate cumbia, bossa nova, tropicalia, etc., but in how seamlessly Ellis’s Welsh language vocals blend with the breezy sounds. If you didn't listen too closely, you might just think it's Portuguese. Whatever the lyrics, this is just a delightful album with enough variety to serve as a party mix. Put it on at your New Year's Eve shindig and see if you agree!

Sessa - Grandeza Then again, if it's Portuguese you desire, sung in a warm tenor full of character, Sessa is your man. The settings are organic, too, a blend of samba, bossa, tropicalia, and folk, making for a lush canvas of a record. Sink in.

Ana Frango Elétrico - Little Electric Chicken Heart Elétrico (not her real name, I assume) is another poly-stylistic Brazilian adventurer, with an urban sophistication that is utterly captivating. There are some angles to this brief collection that are almost cubist - your head will be spinning in the best way - but always couched in a wistful tunefulness that makes it all sound so easy.


Elito Revé y su Charangón - UEA! Founded by Elio Revé in 1956, and led by his son Elito since 1997, this band is an icon of Cuban salsa and they are in very good form here, with an exuberance that would be almost cartoonish if the clavé rhythms weren't so tight. Translation: fun. There are a number of guests, most notably Telmary, who sounds like she's having a blast on La Guagua - you will be, too.

Telmary y Omara - Puras Palabras This single puts Telmary, a legend in the making, alongside Omara Portuondo, a true legend of Cuban music, who will be 90 years old next year. She's semi-retired now and most of the precision and power is gone from her voice, but the way she floats it out over the updated groove is brave enough to move the stoniest heart.


Mdou Moctar - Ilana (The Creator) "Desert blues" has become shorthand for guitar-driven music from West Africa, and once in a while I think the musicians themselves have taken that shorthand too much to heart. Yes, a certain hypnotic repetition is part of what makes the music feel so good, but that shouldn't be accompanied by complacency. On his latest album (and first with a live band) Moctar is the antithesis of complacency, pulling each fiery guitar line seemingly directly from his soul and often ending songs in a furious swirl of sound. His sheer shreddability and inspired use of power chords has also broadened the base of interest in Tuareg music - at least if the classic rock Facebook group I'm in is any measure. If the "double denim" crowd is getting the memo, you might want to climb on board, too.

Tinariwen - Amadjar One way this venerable Tuareg band has dealt with a tendency towards sameness in their sound is by mixing up where they record - and with whom. Their latest, most of which was recorded on the road through the Western Sahara, adds Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian griotte, into the mix, along with westerners Cass McCombs and Warren Ellis. Recording in the wild, so to speak, has leant a welcome campfire warmth to the texture of the album, with the group vocals arising from the grooves with real spontaneity. Just like the nomads who were their ancestors, Tinariwen just keep moving along. We're lucky to be along for the journey.


Alogte Oho & His Sounds Of Joy - Mam Yinne Wa Arising from the same Frafra tradition as Guy One - and also working with producer/impresario Max Weissenfeldt - Oho very nearly didn't get to make this breakthrough album after his motorcycle collided with a car. Recuperation became a creative wellspring and every song here bursts with the sheer appreciation of being alive. Weissenfeldt's canny production adds rich analog synths to the soundworld, adding a touch of swirling surrealism to the horn and percussion-driven grooves. Reggae and Latin rhythms also come naturally to all involved and only add to the delight. Between this and Guy One, I would keep a close eye on the Philophon label as they don't seem to put a foot wrong.

The Polyversal Souls - Singles Case in point about Philophon are the string of singles by this multi-generational band of highlife and Frafra all-stars. Horns blare, drums stay deep in the crease, vocals chant mesmerizing lines of melody, while guitars and saxophone vie for dominance. In short, we're talking about all the things that make Ghanaian music so fantastic all in a few neat little packages. East also meets west when they team of up Ethiopia's Alemayehu Eshete on a few songs, finding common ground even with thousands of kilometers separating Accra from Addis.


BLK JKS feat. Morena Leraba - Harare After putting a toe in the water of new music with last year's tribute to Hugh Masekela, the genre-busting Johannesburg band is now threatening their first new album since 2009's After Robots. This single, with its acoustic textures, hip hop beats, and haunting melody, has anticipation running high among those in the know, which should now include you. The delay continues, however, with a new release date for Abantu/Before Humans now set for February 2020. What's another few months after a decade??


Elaha Sooror & Kefaya - Songs Of Our Mothers After winning Afghan Star, Sooror got the heck out of Dodge (or, in her case, Kabul) and landed in London, where she connected with Kefaya. This duo of Giuliano Modarelli, an Italian guitarist, and Al MacSween, an English keyboard player, has a preternatural skill with combining various traditions with contemporary production techniques in a way that seems authentic, likely due to their deep collaborations with other musicians. The backing they construct for Sooror pulls against her sweet, flowing vocals in all the right ways, adding synths to the sitars and somehow never sounding cheesy. The songs are all adaptations of Farsi folk songs so they've likely been through more dramatic changes than whatever these guys can throw at them. The result is a deeply involving album that's obviously a passion project for all involved. Let's imagine a future where they could take this music back to Afghanistan and play it for all who wanted to hear it without retribution.

For more listening in these areas, check out the Of Note In 2019: Jazz, Latin & Global (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Best Of 2019: The Top 25

“Where there is doubt, there can be no doubt,” Robert De Niro said in Ronin and that becomes my guiding principle around this time of the year as I confront the conundrum of what ends up on this list that wasn’t on the mid-year Top 25 - and what drops off. Much of it comes down to what I listened to the most, usually a sure sign that it belongs here. But there were a couple of things I played over and over, hoping they would connect fully, eventually admitting they were mostly excellent, even life-giving, but they had a moment or two that caused doubt. And where there is doubt there can be no doubt.

Looking back, I’m somewhat surprised to see three-fifths of the list coming out of the realms of rock, folk, pop, etc.,  but I just have to accept that that’s what I needed to get through. There's also a clue in the fact that 305 of the 812 tracks - nearly 40% - I put into my general Of Note playlist were sorted into the Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist. To anyone affronted by what dropped from that July list, I will firmly say, It’s not them, it’s me. And don’t forget, there are many "Best Of" lists yet to come as I try to pay homage to another great year for music. 

Listen to selections from each album here or below. As usual, if I’ve previously written about a record, click the link to learn more about why it’s here. 

9. Angel Olsen - All Mirrors Funny how you can still be surprised by how much an artist can surprise you, even when they have traveled as far from their roots as Olsen did between Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014, #15/20) and My Woman (2016, #17/20). But that was the case when I first heard the audacity of All Mirrors, still a jaw-dropping experience these many listens later. Connecting with two composer/arrangers, Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, who both straddle the worlds of classical, rock, and soundtracks, was a genius move as they contribute wildly creative string arrangements that dominate a number of songs. Babbitt co-wrote all the music with Olsen, which is the first time she has collaborated to that extent, and played a good number of instruments on the album. Producer John Congleton does a fantastic job of blending all the organic and synthetic sounds. 

Olsen doubles down on her retro-futurist torch singer persona, coming on like Julee Cruise’s cyborg progeny, hyper-emotional, and with a superhuman power. She has found new dimensions to her voice as well, wielding each tone, texture, and timbre with astonishing control. Like all of her albums, All Mirrors  touches on elemental subjects of love, friendship, and self-actualization, making for a richly immersive song-cycle that seems to only expand as it grows more familiar. A triumph for Angel Olsen and a wonderful addition to what is already one of the most rewarding discographies of the decade. 

11. Starcrawler - Devour You That part of the thrill provided by the short, sharp, shriek of their debut was untapped potential is firmly proven by Devour You, which succeeds even beyond my wildest expectations. The LA quartet were no doubt helped by producer Nick Launay (Bad Seeds, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, etc.), far more skilled in the studio than Ryan Adams. Time on the road has lent both solidity and swing to the rhythm section of Austin Smith (drums) and Tim Franco (bass) - listen to them groove on “You Dig Yours” - while wunderkind guitarist Henri Cash now has the most exciting riffing hand in the business. But he also has developed the musicality to create layered parts full of fine detail and raw power. Then there is Arrow de Wilde, who shows herself equally at home fearlessly snarling out sarcasm as she is sending a soaring ballad(!) like “Born Asleep” into the stratosphere. The variety in the songwriting shows not only ambition but a deep engagement with the history of rock. Unlike an earlier generation of punked out rockers, they don’t want to burn it all down - but they do want to light a little fire under a genre where introspection may be easier to find than instigation and inspiration. But don’t get it twisted. While Starcrawler may be showing signs of maturity and nuance in concert they’re still the same filth-peddling, blood-spewing circus they’ve always been. On Devour You, the combination of those primal urges with a bit more sophistication is nothing short of intoxicating. 

24. Kanye West - Jesus Is King Back In 2004, I put one foot in front of the other to Jesus Walks. The fact that I got to work ready to do my job every day I owe at least in part to the strength I got from West's classic track and the album it came from. Then, in 2010, after a string of good albums (interrupted by 808's and Heartbreaks), he gave us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in the running for album of the century. It pulled me through a long winter and, while I can't remember what was stressing me at the time, I know MBDTF helped the situation. The point is, when you connect with the work of an artist on these levels, you give them the benefit of the doubt. Yeezus was another stunner, angry shards of glass aimed at every target in sight, including himself. The Life Of Pablo, scattered as it was, gave us hints of strength among the sorrows and lousy laugh lines. Then came Ye, undoubtedly the worst project West ever put his name to, only partially redeemed by Kids See Ghosts, his collaboration with Kid Cudi from the same year. Despite all the self-instigated click-bait madness that accompanies West everywhere, I still go back to those old records and get what I need. Now we have converted Kanye, not an automatic deal-breaker even if there are references to “prosperity gospel” that rub this atheist/socialist the wrong way. After all, I have included gospel music in my listening since I was hooked by a Mahalia Jackson LP I pulled out of the stacks at my local library almost 40 years ago. 

I don’t feel I have to defend what I like to anyone, so I’ll just say that I get some of the old West fire on Jesus Is King combined with the inspiring energy of the African American gospel tradition. While this is not a straight-up masterpiece like Dylan's Slow Train Coming, the listening experience - for a West fan, anyway - is not dissimilar. Part of the energy comes from what seems to be a disordered mind, like the way the first song, Every Hour, starts just a tad in progress, as if someone un-paused the tape recorder after the song began. There are other weirdnesses (“Chick-Fil-A”??) and hints of the under-cooked quality that has become an unfortunate signature of West’s work since Pablo. On the other hand, Jesus Is King contains some of West’s finest vocal work ever, whether rapping tight to the groove of Follow God or emoting soulfully on God Is. As for guests, the most impressive is the team-up of a reunited Clipse with Kenny G. on Use This Gospel, the kind of left-field combo that is the glory of the best hip hop since the Bronx schoolyard days. I am drinking deep from this cup, taking the bitter with the sweet, and wondering where the journey goes next. 

If I’ve introduced you to something you didn’t know you needed, let me know! Don’t see your favorite here? Tell me all about that, too. It just may be on an upcoming genre-specific list. Stay tuned for the whole series, encompassing:
But not necessarily in that order, which will only add to the fun. This is supposed to be fun, right?!?