Saturday, January 25, 2020

Best Of 2019: Out Of The Past

The flood of music from “out of the past,” representing both reissues and never-released music, is dominated by super-deluxe boxes with lavish packaging and extensive documentation. Some of those are represented below but conspicuous by their absence are certain high-profile fetish objects, such as the Abbey Road 50th anniversary doorstop and various Bowie boxes. In the case of the latter, these are certainly attractive, real shelf candy, but the lo-fi demos will likely only fascinate for one or two listens. As for the Abbey Road set, while there are some nice fly-on-the-wall moments from the outtakes, none of it captivates as much as the similar material on the White Album box. When it comes to Giles Martin’s remix of the album, I compared it to the 2009 CD and my vinyl copy - an original 1969 pressing - I found it added little. The CD still sounds, well, FAB, and even through the crackle, my $1 record sounds warmer and more cohesive - and isn't that what we want from The Beatles?

Press play on this playlist or below to listen along to selections from most of these albums while you read.

Reissue Of The Year

Peter Laughner For decades, he has just been a name to me, credited with writing Life Stinks on Pere Ubu’s debut album, The Modern Dance. I was dimly aware of his important role on the family tree of Cleveland proto-punk and art rock as a founding member of not only Pere Ubu but also Rocket From The Tombs, from which the Dead Boys spawned. Yet this labor-of-love box set reveals the man in full, or as full as possible for someone who died at 24 and never officially released any of his own music. Perhaps most surprising is the discovery that Laughner (pronounced “LOCK-ner, btw) was one of the greatest interpreters of poetic singer-songwriters that ever lived, turning in deep, passionate covers of songs by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Tom Verlaine, and Van Morrison. He somehow enters the core of the songs, illuminating them from within even though the recordings are rough. He even digs into Robert Johnson with stunning effectiveness, further proof that he was an old soul. Laughner, a true believer in rock & roll as a musical and spiritual pursuit, also wrote some nifty originals and in Cinderella Backstreet came up with one of the best band names of all time. Unfortunately, his immersion in music was only exceeded by his immersion in hard living, leading to the pancreatitis that killed him. The music in this set, crackling with life, along with the lavish hardcover book, which includes his perspicacious music journalism, puts Laughner in my living room in an almost physical way. Invite him in. Note: this set is not on Spotify but you can hear samples here

Runners Up

Gene Clark - No Other Deluxe Box Set While it looks like 4AD outdid themselves with the packaging here, it sold out so fast I’ve never seen it in the wild. Demand was high as this is one of the great lost albums of the 70’s, buried by David Geffen after Clark and collaborator Thomas Jefferson Kaye burned through $100K with only eight songs to show for it. While the album as released is a beautiful piece of Americana, with songs, like Silver Raven, that seem to come from the earth itself, we now know where the money went. Clark and Kaye took their sweet time exploring a wide variety of approaches to the songs, probably racking up big studio bills in the process. We also now know that the takes they chose to assemble the final version were not necessarily the best ones, but simply the most accessible ones. Other versions explore a funky and soulful sound that is startlingly contemporary. Check out my playlist, The Other No Other, to hear what could have been. 

Bob Dylan - The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings Though not an official entry into the Bootleg Series, this was the only archival release I wanted from the man in 2019. I’ve been fascinated by the RTR ever since I stole my sister’s copy of Hard Rain and took Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook out of the library, devouring them both and willing myself into those legendary shows. And this is the motherlode, five complete concerts, fascinating rehearsals, and a disc of tantalizing odds and ends. If you already know every note of Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975 - or were mesmerized by the footage in the Scorcese “documentary” - you must acquire this handsome package. 

Classic Rock Lives - LIVE

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Live At Woodstock It was early in this century before I even knew CCR performed at Woodstock. Then I got a bootleg and was even more confused as they steamrolled through a set that left the crowd screaming for more. Chalk it up to John Fogerty’s legendary perfectionism - I’m glad he finally relented and allowed this storming set to be released. 

Allman Brothers Band - Live At Fillmore West ‘71 A few months before their iconic recordings at the east coast Fillmore, the ABB put on some smoking hot shows in San Francisco. They developed further by the time they got to NYC, but any chance to hear Duane'n'Dickey at their peak (not to mention Gregg) is one I’m going to embrace. 

The Yardbirds - Live and Rare I felt a little burned when all these tracks showed up on Spotify after I bought this set, but then I watched the DVD was glad I had laid down the cash. The footage is crystal clear, formatted for contemporary TVs with no loss of important information, putting Jimmy Page and his mirrored Telecaster right in your face. It’s a jaw-dropping feast for fans of the band. The discs are well-organized and packaged, too, a further bonus for getting the physical version. Also, while most of this is live material, the remastered mono of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago finally reveals the layers in this remarkable song. It’s like hearing it for the first time - and I’ve had an original copy of the 45 for nearly 40 years. 

Jimi Hendrix - Songs For Groovy Children Awesome to finally have all these sets in one place - the four versions of Machine Gun constitute one of the great American symphonies - even if a little Buddy Miles goes a long way.

Tin Machine - Live at La Cigale Paris, 25 June 1989 I’ve had a bootleg of this blistering show for years - now everyone can revel in Bowie’s art-punk freakout band at their best. It's a sharp cut above the Oy Vey Baby album, which was from a later tour and finds them indulging some regrettable instincts. For more Tin Machine fun, read my thoughts on the 30th anniversary of the debut album in Rock & Roll Globe.

Visionary Vocalists

Tim Buckley - Live at The Electric Theater Co, Chicago 1968 Not since Dream Letter: Live In London came out 30 years ago has there been as revelatory a live release from Buckley - and this one is even better. He is in rare incantatory form here, barely pausing for breath between songs, several of which feel like improvisations in the moment. His voice is at its most stunningly elastic, whether in the falsetto of Hi-Lili Hi Lo or the long notes of Wayfaring Stranger. The recording is quite good, mainly foregrounding Buckley and his 12-string guitar but the throb of the unknown bass player and Carter C.C. Collins's congas is an essential element. The road to Happy Sad definitely leads through this incredible performance. What other treasures remain in the archives?

Scott Walker - Live On Air 1968-1969 These TV recordings have been released before but it's great to see them back in print. Even with the slightly harsh sound, the sense of what it would be like to be in the presence of Walker unleashing that divine baritone on stage is impossible to ignore. With so few live performances over the years, this is something to savor over time, especially his own songs, which are the best here next to those by his beloved Jacques Brel.

Brazilian Gems

Ana Mazzotti - Ninguem Vai Me Segurar God bless Far Out Recordings for the unending flow of sparkling Brazilian music! This 1974 album deserves to be in the front ranks of any collection from that time and place. Mazzotti's languid and lovely voice is brilliantly supported here by most of Azymuth plus her husband, Romilo Santos, on drums and the results are just sublime. Also reissued is her second, and last, album. Her short, rich career deserves wide recognition.

Azymuth - Demos (1973-1975) Vols. 1&2 Speaking of Azymuth, they are in staggering form on these home recordings, all made before their first official album. I actually prefer these to some of their later recordings, which tended towards overproduction. Far Out to the rescue again!

Reggae Rarities

Brown Sugar - I'm In Love With A Dreadlocks: Brown Sugar And The Birth of Lover's Rock, 1977-1980 If that title doesn't already tell you what you need to know, how about the first complete collection of the sweet and sassy British vocal trio that included Caron Wheeler, later of Soul II Soul? How about 13 songs with Dennis Bovell at his best behind the boards, lacing each solidly rhythmic song with glistening guitar hooks and burbling keyboards? YOU will be in love with Brown Sugar.

Cornell Campbell - King Of Collie and I Man A The Stal-A-Watt A few years ago, I scooped up the out-of print-collection, Natty Dread, which featured recordings by Campbell from 1975-83 and introduced me to one of the sweetest, most versatile of all Jamaican singers. These recordings come from 1970-75 and are even more consistently great. The production, mostly by Bunny "Striker" Lee is also top notch - essential roots!

Various Artists - Do The Moonwalk In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing comes this 20-track collection of pure lunacy - some of the most fun ska and rocksteady you can imagine and a party platter that is out of this world.

Spiritual Soul Explosion

Various Artists - World Spirituality Classics Vol. 2: The Time For Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us With the first entry in this series from Luaka Bop focusing on the Ashram-based recordings of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, it was hard to know what they would do for a follow-up. Well, on this spectacular collection, they’re giving us the funkiest, most soulful gospel that you didn’t know you needed by artists you’ve never heard of, a flood of emotionally rich, spiritually nourishing tracks that expand on the message and music of The Staple Singers, Andrea Crouch, and others. As an act of scholarship infused with love, this set will likely never be bettered. 

Stax “Soul Explosion” Series As detailed here, the 50th anniversary of the Stax "Soul Explosion" has led to a tsunami of long lost records from the label’s storied history - get to know them from my playlist and then find your own favorites. 

James Brown - Live At Home With His Bad Self Finally! This is the full concert that the Sex Machine album was based on, free of overdubs and studio tracks. Brown was too angry at his JB’s - who quit over low pay and poor working conditions immediately after the show - to release it at the time. Fifty years later, it sounds as good as you would imagine, with seven performances seeing the light of day for the first time. 

Beverly Glenn-Copland - Primal Prayer Existing at some under-explored intersection of jazz, new age, funk, soul, and art song, Glenn-Copland might get his own Luaka Bop compilation someday. Until then, he’s doing a fine job of reintroducing his albums into the marketplace, including this gorgeous and expansive set from 2004, originally released under the name Phynix. Layers of keyboards are matched by Glenn-Copland’s vocal range, given full flight in inventive counterpoint through double and triple tracking. A trans man who made his first album in 1970, Glenn-Copland has been in the background offering succor to those in the know for decades. Let that exclusive coterie now include you. 

Post-Punk Glories
The Cigarettes - You Were So Young It seems like about every 10 years, some reissue label says, Hey, remember The Cigarettes? In the future they will turn to this collection, every song released by the razor-sharp British quartet from 1978 to their demise in 1981, plus some live sessions for John Peel. When you need some more of that Buzzcocks or Stiff Little Fingers vibe, it’s right here waiting for you. 

Ut - Conviction Angular, dissonant guitars, polyrhythmic drumming, tortured, slightly off-key vocals - it could only be No Wave, the downtown NYC movement birthed partially in reaction the creeping slickness of new wave and synth-pop. And Ut, the trio of Nina Canal, Jacqui Ham, and Sally Young, were one of the best of the lot. Stick a cassette of their debut album in your Walkman and get on line for the Mudd Club. 

Eclectic Ambiance

Ernest Hood - Neighborhoods By the time Hood assembled this one-off album in 1975, he had been incorporating field recordings into performances as a member of Portland, OR’s jazz scene for decades. Blending hyperlocal sounds (kids playing kick-the-can, people watching fireworks) with charming and bittersweet synth melodies puts his neighborhood somewhere between Brian Eno’s and Mr. Rogers’s. It’s a place you’ll want to visit often. 

Laurie Spiegel - Unseen Worlds The decade-plus gap between this and her classic debut, The Expanding Universe,is more of a reflection of the challenges she faced as a pioneer of electronic music - and a woman - than any lack of ideas. But there was no sense of struggle in the final product when it arrived in 1991, just the gleaming darkness of these beautifully polished soundscapes. Yet another reason to celebrate this extraordinary talent. 


Radiohead - Minidiscs [Hacked] I don’t know if I totally believe the back story about how these discs came to light, but I was more than happy to drop $18 (which went to Extinction Rebellion, anyway) for 16 hours of OK Computer demos and live recordings. While there are some incredible concert excerpts here, my favorite stuff is raw, intimate, fly-on-the-wall studio and home demos. Revealed is a group of sonic and emotional seekers of everything music has to offer - and they keep finding it, over and over again. 

Prodigy & Mobb Deep - Shot Down After Albert “Prodigy” Johnson died in 2017, I assembled a 25-song Spotify playlist to go along with an article I wrote for Mass Appeal about his legacy. As of today, there are only 14 songs left, a sign of the disarray his discography is in right now. That’s probably why this mixtape, assembled by DJ Whoo Kid in 2006, sounds so good. This was the controversial Blood Money era, when Mobb Deep signed with 50 Cent’s G-Unit, but the beats are mostly tight and Prodigy and others (even Fitty!) display a relaxed mastery in their flow. Maybe a time will come when Prodigy’s estate clears up any issues and we get the career overview this NYC legend deserves. 

Various Artists - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Quentin Tarantino’s extremely entertaining exercise in manic revisionist nostalgia exists outside the cinema almost as successfully as it does within, as proved by this brilliantly sequenced collection. Putting the radio announcers and ads in there was a stroke of genius, lending an authenticity to a landscape of pop and rock just that much different than what you might associate with 1969. Kudos to Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor, Mary Ramos, who deserves no small part of the credit. Learn more about their process in this compelling podcast from the BBC. 

What old sounds were making your year? There’s a good deal more in this archived playlist - and make sure to follow this one so you know what 2020 brings us from out of the past. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Best Of 2019: Classical

As far as music that I covered throughout 2019, this is the second largest category. At the top you will find links to previous posts to remind you of the best in composed music about which I’ve already written. Following that are a number of special items that I either missed along the way or that came out late in the year. Press play on the playlist so you can hear what I’m talking about!

First Quarter Report: The Albums
Melia Watras - Schumann Resonances
Sæunn Thorsteindottir - Vernacular
Unheard-Of Ensemble - Dialogues
Nicholas Phillips - Shift
Louis Karchin - Dark Mountains/Distant Lights
Greg Chudzik - Solo Works, Vol. 2

Record Review: Beauty... And Darkness
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - In Search Of Lost Beauty...

Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism
Rand Steiger/International Contemporary Ensemble - Coalescence Cycle Volume 1: Music for Soloists and Electronics

Record Roundup: Contemporary Classical In Brief
Seattle Symphony Orchestra - John Luther Adams: Become Desert
Caleb Burhans - Past Lives
Alex Weiser - And All The Days Were Purple
Matt Frey - One-Eleven Heavy
Caroline Shaw - Orange
Siggi String Quartet - South Of The Circle
Duo Zuber - Blackbird Redux
Rupert Boyd - The Guitar
New Thread Quartet - Plastic Facts
Splinter Reeds - Hypothetical Islands

Record Roundup: Past Is Present
JACK Quartet - Filigree: The Music of Hannah Lash
Wild Up - Christopher Cerrone: The Pieces That Fall to Earth
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - in manus tuas

Record Roundup: String Theories
Ben Melsky/Ensemble Dal Niente
Ashley Bathgate - Sleeping Giant: Ash
andPlay - playlist
David Bowlin - Bird as Prophet
Kronos Quartet - Terry Riley: Sun Rings

Record Roundup: Contemporary Kaleidoscope 
Tak Ensemble - Oor
Jessica Meyer - Ring Out
Ted Hearne - Hazy Heart Pump
Daniel Lippel - Mirrored Spaces
Dither - Potential Differences

It’s almost embarrassing how much more familiar I am with Hennies’s Twitter presence than her music, but she is truly a virtuoso on the platform. That doesn’t explain why I wasn’t even aware of this album until December, when it showed up on someone else’s “Best of” list. But I’m glad I caught up with it as it a striking work, nearly an hour long, scored for percussion trio and piano. The piano, played by Phillip Bush, cycles through a meditative series of suspended chords that anchor the piece and provide equilibrium amongst the chatter, clatter, and general disruption of the percussion. Perhaps due to the inclusion of improvisation, which is a feature often included in performances by Meridian (Hennies, Tim Feeney, and Greg Stuart), there’s a sense of never stepping in the same river twice when listening to Preservation. Or that could simply be the interaction of my emotional state with the music, and the fact that sometimes time pressure dictates I start where I last left off and return to the beginning. This is one of those recordings that becomes a companion, defining a personal era, and I plan to keep it close. I’m also glad that I learned about Black Truffle, which released it, as they are definitely on the right track, including the packaging, which features an excellent photo by Abby Grace Drake, another artist whose work I plan to investigate further. P.S. This album is not on Spotify, but you can listen easily on Bandcamp. I have also included an excellent piece by Hennies from a compilation called Infinite Futures and highly recommend you clear 30 minutes of time to watch her performance of Falsetto, three years in the making. 

Hildur Guõnadóttir - Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) The Golden Globes already got hip to this Icelandic cellist and composer’s achievement. But I didn’t need an awards show to be certain that her piercing, claustrophobic, and doom-laden sounds are at least as responsible for the film’s success as Joaquin Phoenix’s blistering performance in the title role. Also true is that if you just want some pitch-black modern music for cello, orchestra, and electronics, look no further whether or not you’ve seen the movie. 

Iceland Symphony Orchestra - Concurrence Of course, if we’re talking Icelandic music, the name Anna Thorvaldsdottir should not be far from your mind. Happily enough, this immaculately performed collection has a commanding new piece from her, Metacosmos, which has a cinematic sweep of its own. Also included is Haukur Tómasson’s Piano Concerto No. 2, alternately busy and pensive, with some of Shostakovich’s bite, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, a glistening tone poem with surpassing mystery, and the same recording of Páll Ragnar Pálsson's Quake that appears on Sæunn Thorsteindottir’s wonderful Vernacular. Altogether, a wonderful follow up to Recurrence, the first entry in the ISO’s series under conductor Daniel Bjarnason. Volume 3 coming in 2021? I’ll be there!

Echo Collective - Jóhann Jóhansson: 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann Released on what should have been Jóhannsson’s 50th birthday, you might think this 40-minute, 12-movement string quartet is appropriately elegiac for a final posthumous release. But elegy was basically Jóhannson’s metier - and who knows what else is in the vault? But whether or not you know who Heinzmann is (I didn’t), this an immersive and involving work, with a welcome austerity in place of the sentimentality Jóhannsson could sometimes fall into outside of his film scores. The recording is beautiful and the playing by Echo Collective essentially perfect. If this is indeed the final recording of Jóhannsson’s music, it is a more than fitting capstone to a remarkable career which ended far too soon. 

Kaija Saariaho - True Fire, Etc. and Circle Map, Etc. Moving on to Finland, here are two spine-tingling albums from a composer who manages to carry a through-line straight from Sibelius, Shostakovich, and Britten, while still remaining thoroughly herself and contemporary. Perhaps it’s her seeming belief in the ritual power of orchestral music and its ability to create a whole world where seconds before stood only silence. The performances, by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic, are crisp and committed, with special note given to baritone Gerald Finley’s commanding take on True Fire. Saariaho’s operas usually get the most attention, often via complaints that they aren’t often performed here. Between these two albums we have a half-dozen excellent opportunities to get her music in American concert halls - who will pick up the slack?

Meara O’Reilly - Hockets For Two Voices Like the mighty aglet, which ensures laces pass smoothly through the holes in your sneakers, hocketing, which is a technique of alternating notes, pitches, or chords between two instruments, is so familiar that you might not even know it has a special name. You’ll recognize its centuries-old provenance in O’Reilly’s work, which occasionally sounds Baroque or even Medieval. But neither Monteverdi or Bach was ever this drily witty - and it’s hard to imagine anyone in their day executing something with the perfection O’Reilly demonstrates here, singing both parts of her own piece. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! 

Wendy Richman - Vox/Viola While I have heard string players vocalize along with their instruments, Richman’s debut solo album is the most sustained investigation of the practice I can recall. Richman, the founding violist for the International Contemporary Ensemble, commissioned all nine pieces, demonstrating not only superb taste in composers but an adventurous spirit that has her going all-in on whatever they dish out. It’s no surprise that her viola technique is beyond a compare, but her voice is equally controlled and flexible, whether as a honeyed mezzo on the British Isles folk of Christian Carey’s He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (based on lines from Yeats), or gasping and ululating on demanding pieces by Lou Bunk and Everette Minchew. At some of the darker moments, the late work of Nico may come to mind, or even Diamanda Galas. The sequencing of the album is quite brilliant, too, giving you the feeling of being led through an experience, rather than being manhandled by the stylistic twists and turns. This is true right to the end, as the last track is Ken Ueno’s stately Song For Sendai, almost coming full circle to the mood of the Carey piece. On the whole, a triumph. Listen and hear a genre being born.

Polish National Radio Orchestra with Beth Gibbons - Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 I’m going to be honest here. I am a huge Dawn Upshaw fan but I sold my copy of her recording of this piece - and I had gotten the disc for free! But the idea of Gibbons pushing herself into this territory was too compelling to ignore. Mostly known as the vocalist for Portishead (although her album with Rustin Man is a lost classic), Gibbons is known for a wracked vulnerability married to an intonation and relation to pitch that is completely wonderful in that context - but how would her voice fare here? The good news starts before she enters, with Krystof Penderecki (himself!) conducting with a drier approach than David Zinman took in that earlier recording, which veered towards bathos. Gibbons follows Penderecki’s lead for her brief statement in the first movement, letting the music carry the emotion. She has more to do in the second movement and you start to feel her lose herself in the music, drawing the listener deeper in as well. No vibrato, either, which makes a huge difference. While I still have my quibbles with Górecki’s simplistic architecture, this version gives me new respect for his achievement and is the one I will return to when in need of “sorrowful songs.” Gibbons can write her own ticket now and I can’t wait to see where it takes her. 

Lise Davidsen - Strauss: Four Last Songs/Richard Wagner: Arias from Tannhaüser, etc. I have brilliant recordings of most of these pieces on my shelf (Gundula Janowitz, for one), not to mention what Spotify holds, I listened to this in spite of myself. I’m glad I did, however, as Davidsen is the real deal, a soprano who seems to immerse herself in the emotions and narratives of the songs and arias. The support from the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Esa-Pekka Salonen is sensitive fully engaged. It’s mind-blowing when you consider she heard her first full opera a mere five years ago. She was born to sing this music and apparently she can act, too. A friend’s father her saw her at the Met in The Queen Of Spades had this one-line review, “They should keep her.” I hope they do, and if we can hear her in some contemporary music that would be a nice bonus!

Michael Hersch - Carrion-Miles To Purgatory On this collection of three duos, Hersch is as unafraid as ever to look in the face of darkness. The first piece, ...das Rückgrat berstend, has violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Jay Campbell emerge from silence, intertwined like a vine on a leafless branch. Then Kopatchinskaja intones a text by Christopher Middleton, translated into German, and a sense of ceremony takes over. The blandly titled Music for Violin and Piano is an excerpt from an evening length medley of earlier works played at National Sawdust by violinist Miranda Cuckson with Hersch himself on piano. The section we get here is a highly dynamic, seamless piece that works entirely well on its own. Cuckson and Campbell join forces for the title work, an alternately anguished and solemn 13 movements based on poems from Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. It's not until the last, and longest, movement, that we feel some compassion start to creep in. Hersch is not an easy listen, but I am always fulfilled - and even cleansed - by time spent in his sound-world.

New York Philharmonic with The Crossing and the Young People's Chorus of New York City - Julia Wolfe: Fire In My Mouth A sense of righteous if controlled fury fuels this epic oratorio for chorus and orchestra based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This piece of history is ever-enraging, and even more unfortunately, ever-relevant. I can only imagine the impact of seeing this in the concert hall, with the huge forces amassed and the chorus snipping garment shears in the the second movement's coup de theatre. But the superbly recorded album will pin you back in your seat well enough! Kudos to Jaap Van Zweeden for conducting and the NY Phil for commissioning, and Donald Nally's leadership of The Crossing is as crisp and nuanced as we have come to expect from their long discography. This album bodes well for the Van Zweeden era, especially among us who were concerned about his commitment to the music of living composers. 

William Brittelle - Spiritual America I can't quite put my finger on my initial discomfort with this album. Was it the ultra-slick prog-rock guitar that laces through the massive composition? Was it the involvement of Wye Oak, a band I have always consigned to the ranks of the NPR-beloved and overrated? Or was it simply the discomfort Brittelle himself was struggling to interrogate as an "agnostic Buddhist" still living with the aftermath of a conservative Christian upbringing? Further listening has allowed me to sit within all the  varieties of discomfort engendered by the piece - and notice the influence of the similarly ambitious Scott Johnson (including his processed guitar tone) - and come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion: Spiritual America is a knockout. This is the kind of big, bold, sometimes even crazy symphonic work of which we could use a lot more, with orchestral brass and strings competing with fat synthesizers, rock drums, choral singing, and more. Even Wye Oak impress, with Jenn Wasner's gorgeous vocals soaring throughout. Ryan Streber, an engineer par excellence, deserves a pat on the back, a hug even, for blending all these disparate sounds in a way that sounds richly integrated and massively powerful. While a division in Brittelle's mind was the impetus for Spiritual America, this is the kind of music that could bring together people of many musical stripes, perhaps within sight of some amber waves of grain. Massive respect to all involved, not least to the leadership of both Nonesuch and New Amsterdam, who joined forces to bring this behemoth to life.

Riot Ensemble - Speak, Be Silent On their third album, this London-based new music group comes into sharp focus with four world premiere recordings, including the title track, which they also commissioned. Kicking off with Chaya Czernowin’s Ayre throws down the gauntlet and puts their virtues on display with a fearless performance of a work that traverses from barbed wire knottiness to glassy sighs and moans. Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy, by Mirela Ivičevič, is even more colorful, a crisp synthesis of percussion, piano, winds, and strings that keeps you alert and on the edge of your seat even through repeated plays. Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent is three movements of an almost theatrical bent, including a dialog for a muted trumpet and an anguished violin, with the bold and colorful suspense of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with the tense quiescence of Rebecca Saunders’s Stirrings Still II, which has the effect of centering the listener after all that came before. Also included is Thorvaldsdottir’s Ró, first recorded by the Capital Ensemble on Aerial in 2014. The Riot’s version is a bit slower, making for an even more hypnotic experience. It’s always good to see new works get further established in the repertoire with additional recordings, but the full strength of this album is in the premieres, and they are very strong indeed, and meticulously performed. 

Piccola Accademia Degli Specchi - William Susman: Collision Point While the name of the title piece may imply drama or even violence, this album is instead an inviting collection that finds a middle-ground between the pure charm of those mid-70’s Claude Bolling albums and Reichian repetition. The culmination of a 10-year collaboration with “the little academy of mirrors,” the pieces reflect Susman’s deep engagement with their unusual instrumentation of flute, saxophone, violin, cello, and piano four-hands, and the players fulfill their briefs with an appropriately light touch. 

Colin Hinton - Simulacra The line between composed and improvised music blurs most wondrously on percussionist Hinton's latest dense slab of jazz-like chamber music. The players, all of whom are longtime collaborators, distinguish themselves by dispatching whatever Hinton tosses their way, with special note paid to Edward Gavitt's exquisite work on both electric and acoustic guitar. My beloved Jimmy Giuffre and Kenyon Hopkins records now have a new friend. 

Cassie Wieland/Erich Barganier - in a (once-) blossomed place This split EP is an exciting snapshot of two composers who may just be moving too fast to make an album right now. Each demonstrates loads of sonic personality in their two tracks, from the organic feel of Wieland's Weeds, performed by line upon line percussion ensemble, to the strangled stridulations of Barganier's The Veneer Melts for two violins and electronics.  Grab on now - next time you look they will be somewhere else. Plus, for ten bucks you can get a tote bag and the digital album!

yMusic - Marcos Balter: We Carry Our Homes Within Us, Which Enables Us To Fly Composed for a Bill T. Jones dance piece, Balter's 20-minute work is full of melody, rhythm, and life. You can watch a terrific documentary on the their process of working together here - or you can just listen and explore your own language of movement to these lively and lovely sounds.

Clarice Jensen - Drone Studies This two-track single doubles down on the mesmerism Jensen, a cellist, composer, and co-founder of ACME, put forth on her awesome solo debut in 2018. Which means you will be deeply fascinated and experience some sublime psycho-acoustical effects while listening. My sense is that calling these finely crafted soundscapes "studies" is doing them a disservice as they feel entirely complete within themselves. More please.

Believe it or not, this is not everything that caught my attention in the classical sphere in 2019. Dive in to this playlist to find additional listening.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Classical
Best Of 2017: Classical
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2015: Classical & Composed