Thought I’d get an early handle on my best-of-the-year list this time around. I’ve blogged surprisingly little about music in 2011. That doesn’t mean that I listened any less, or less attentively. In fact, audio-wise, it was just this past year that I finally managed to get my hands on digital playback equipment that allows me to properly listen to MP3s or FLACs so that they actually have the richness and fullness of real music. And there has been some terrific music in 2011 (I’m not a subscriber to the idea that a particular year was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in music).
In this year’s listening, the balance swung back from classical toward the popular a little again. In the non-classical arena, the focus for me is still on acoustic music, real instruments and warm, open production. The year has also been full of delighted rediscoveries and re-connections with ‘old friends.’ For instance—even though she doesn’t have a 2011 release—it’s clear to me now that I haven’t spent nearly enough time over the years listening to Laurie Anderson, who remains a singular creative talent and political voice in American music.
As before, I will limit my lists to records released in 2011. I won’t add re-releases that came out in 2011, though there were many (like U2′s Achtung Baby, or the Smiths box set).
Best new music – Popular, jazz, world, etc.
Alison Krauss & Union Station – Paper Airplane: Finally, another Alison Krauss & Union Station album! Even though I liked her excursion with Robert Plant, it didn’t really ‘stick.’ Krauss’ clear soprano is still best framed by the inimitable “newgrass” sound of her original band of ace instrumentalists and harmony singers. Another impeccable collection of modern country songs wrapped in traditional dress, this is well worth owning and listening to repeatedly. There is something very wonderful and grounding about this band’s output—a world where such musicianship can exist cannot be all bad, despite what the news may suggest.
Amos Lee – Mission Bell: Amos Lee is a talented songwriter and, as a vocalist, sounds somewhat like the young Cat Stevens. This is his fourth solo album and constitutes a sort of emergence from under the yoke of having been typecast as a sort of Norah Jones alike in his early recording career. On Mission Bell, he teams up with the producer-musicians from the wonderful Calexico (a perennial favourite of mine in their own right, and competent instigators of making others sound cool on a number of different records, for example on the I’m Not There soundtrack). Mission Bell is well worth hearing and becomes more rewarding as you listen repeatedly.
Helge Lien Trio – Natsukashii: I haven’t written nearly enough about Norwegian jazz here. Every jazz musician in the country seems to have a unique, Nordic take on the genre. And while the roots of this trio are clearly somewhere between ECM’s spacious acoustic and the minimalist groove of E.S.T., the focus here shifts from having bebop as its base to something simpler, less technical, more emotionally resonant. Perhaps it’s a conscious further development of the moment when Keith Jarrett is said to have brought ‘folk’ elements into his solo improvisations, perhaps it’s the influence of Scandinavian mythology (or heavy metal?), but this trio sounds like the architect rock stars of what jazz will turn into eventually—and increasingly, this is the kind of talent jazz needs in order to continue to be a vital genre in the 21st century.
Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean: I deliberately listen to very little ‘indie’ music these days, having somehow grown tired of it in the last few years. Rock rarely grabs my ears the way it once used to. But this caught my ear by surprise and hasn’t really let go. Bright, intelligently arranged songs full of strong melodies. There’s a kind of 80s sensibility to this record which seems different to anything else I’d heard by Iron and Wine—it’s more ‘pop’ than the more folk/country-oriented, subdued work we previously heard from Sam Beam.
Sierra Hull – Daybreak: Sierra Hull is a very young and very talented bluegrass singer and mandolin player. As an Alison Krauss protegé, she benefits from the same widescreen production values and outstanding musicians her mentor employs on her own albums. But there’s something so singularly well done about this that it doesn’t really fit into the “sounds like” category. She plays and sings with the confidence of someone much more experienced, and her songwriting is also excellent. And there are two mandolin-focused instrumentals here that’ll make your speakers smoke.
Nitin Sawhney – Last Days of Meaning: Nitin Sawhney is a UK producer/composer/DJ who originally came to fame as part of a late 90s wave of “Asian underground” DJs who were pioneering a multi-culti dance sound (then) unique to the UK. Since that time, his songwriting ambition has steadily grown through a series of subtle and exceedingly well-produced records featuring guest vocalists from various cultural backgrounds (East, West, and everything in between). Lately, his albums have included more cultural/political commentary—usually told through fictional characters and their stories. In this latest effort, veteran actor John Hurt plays a hermitic old man with conservative, xenophobic views who’s been sent a tape containing songs that—at the surface—sound like everything he hates about the world. Listening to them, he gradually softens and gains new insights. Sawhney’s songs are outstanding miniatures, intelligently written and true to their specific genres. Highly, highly recommended (as is virtually everything else Sawhney’s ever released, including his soundtrack for the BBC’s Human Planet).
Coeur de Pirate – Blonde: My original review is here.
Tinariwen – Tassili: Another fantastic record from Mali’s most amazing musical export (currently living, that is). This is the blues in its original form, all two chords of it, and you can clearly hear where John Lee Hooker’s inspiration came from. Tinariwen are an excellent band with strong rhythm, a rock ‘n roll attitude and an uncompromising musical vision. The fact that Tinariwen are joined here once or twice by some people from TV on the Radio is only a minor distraction (and actually quite good). What’s consistently awesome is how sophisticated and engaging this trance-inducing music with the sing-song melodies and limited harmonic development is. It’s the sort of world music that gives back a mile when you give an inch.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator: I think Derek Trucks is currently the world’s best blues guitarist. He’s an unfailingly tasteful and minimalist player who seems to have no technical limitations and effortlessly puts simple licks into strategic spots in songs where they genuinely matter musically. Formerly a touring guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band and fronting his own outfit, the Derek Trucks Band, Trucks has now joined forces with his wife Susan Tedeschi (a superb blues singer/songwriter) and a cast of 11 or so others, including two (!) drummers. The results are astounding and exhilarating, half blues, half soul, all played true to the idiom with perfect phrasing on guitar and vocals. Two giants, really, at the top of their respective game. You should totally buy this.
Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: Another accomplished album by Steve Earle. Continuing the “new Steve Earle” trajectory he started in the mid 90s, this record reaffirms the departure from ‘country’ and mines an immense number of related genres: alt-country, folk, roots rock, Irish reels, even Tom Waits (who, let’s face it, is a genre unto himself). I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is merely a solid Steve Earle record (certainly not the greatest he’s made), but as such is one of the better albums of the year virtually by definition. Deeply credible, critical of the political status quo, committed to social justice without being preachy, able to wield a simple lyric like a sharp weapon, and capable of connecting to a broad spectrum of listeners: Earle has become the social conscience of roots music lovers everywhere.
Patricia O’Callaghan – Matador: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: O’Callaghan is a Toronto-based, classically trained vocalist whose considerable skills are typically brought to bear on interpreting other people’s songs. On this record, she focuses entirely on Leonard Cohen songs—music, I’ve often thought, that benefits from being performed by people who are not Leonard Cohen. O’Callaghan’s performances (one or two of which have been previously released) are so assured, so incredibly well worked out, her phrasing so spot-on, the arrangements so good, they stake a reasonable claim for being better than the originals. Her version of ‘Who By Fire’ is astonishing, her ‘Hallelujah’ impeccable and her ‘Everybody Knows’ is clean and—without Cohen’s grit—takes on a different inflection entirely that’s just as good as the original. Highly recommended. I’ve also enjoyed Patricia O’Callaghan’s album with the Gryphon Trio from earlier this year, Broken Hearts & Madmen. It’s perhaps not completely worthy of a “best of 2011″ mention (or maybe I just think there are too many songs sung in Spanish on it), but it’s also outstanding and more than deserves to be heard. I love its version of Laurie Anderson’s ‘Pieces and Parts.’
Best new classical music
Eric Whitacre – Light & Gold: Eric Whitacre is a young American composer of mostly choral music. He has, in recent years, built himself quite a reputation on Youtube (virtual choirs and the like), and his last two records genuinely ‘crossed over’ into the outer layers of the mainstream. My inclusion of this album as a “best of 2011″ pick feels slightly tentative because I can’t entirely shake the sense that there’s something ever-so-slightly
cheesy populist about some of Mr. Whitacre’s pieces… or maybe, I find myself reacting to the unbridled enthusiasm with which he’s embraced by all sorts of listeners who otherwise don’t know classical music from a bar of soap. His crossover ‘pop’ status puts him in close proximity (at least physically, in music stores) to the Susan Boyles and Andrea Bocellis of this world. Yet his music is often astonishingly beautiful, interesting and deserves a serious audience.
Kristian Bezuidenhout, Freiburger Barockorchester, Gottfried von der Goltz – Mendelssohn Piano Concertos: Mendelssohn’s early piano concertos are delightful confections of “Early Romanticism,” all pretty melodies and a string orchestra. Pre-Sturm und Drang, this reflects much of Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel’s technical advancements without yet carrying the weight of Romanticism. Bezuidenhout, who’s from South Africa, plays the fortepiano, a predecessor of the piano we know today, whose character is brighter, nimbler—but also more brittle and less ‘full’ than your Steinways and Bösendorfers. It works beautifully here (whereas I struggle with some of the piano solo material when it’s played on a fortepiano). The Freiburg Baroque orchestra does a lovely job. This is an immensely listenable release that continues to delight time and again.
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stephen Layton – Beyond all mortal dreams: American a cappella: This is a panoramic traversal of some very fine American choral music, exceptionally sung by one of Britain’s foremost choirs. All of this material is form the 20th century, but is about as far from serial music or other modernist art musics as one can imagine. Though harmonically advanced and interesting, this isn’t dissonant music. While it can sometimes be quiet, the recording’s dynamics demand your attention (this isn’t ‘casual listening music’). I hear connections between this and Arvo Pärt—much of it comes from within a distinctly religious tradition. If you’re looking for introspection and a wonderful showcase of the fine harmony human voices can produce, look no further than this.
Stephen Hough – Chopin Complete Waltzes: Stephen Hough, it strikes me, is one of the few pianists who seem to have absolutely no technical limitations. Like Marc-André Hamelin (the other pianist in the small group that immediately springs to mind), Hough appears able to focus all his energy on interpretation—on providing us with musical insights into the work. I say “appears” because I know that much of the dynamics of performance spring from “doing battle with” one’s own technical limitations, and I’m also aware that suggesting someone doesn’t have technical limitations implies that their performances would be particularly light (or that they don’t need to practice). Neither applies here or is in any way an issue (and Chopin’s waltzes certainly deserve a certain lightness of touch). This is a beautiful record—just like everything else I’ve ever heard Hough play. I would say these are definitive performances.
Heinz Holliger, Camerata Bern, Erich Höbarth – Bach Oboe Concertos: A lovely collection of well-played, well-recorded Bach concertos and sinfonias rendered for oboe and Baroque orchestra. Heinz Holliger’s research really shines here, rendering what are more often performed as works for the violin on the oboe (a legitimate transcription, and sometimes performed like that in Bach’s time), and surrounding them with sinfonias/chorale transcriptions to give them a longer arch, better shape and create a program that flows better. If you’re looking for one instrumental Baroque disc this year, this should probably be it. (Although I feel like I could have a whole separate post on “best Baroque recordings of the year.”)
Jean-Guihen Queyras, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – Vivaldi Cello Concertos: Queyras is a young French cellist whose tone is more like that of a dark viola d’amore than a cello, and he has the same lightness that someone playing a handheld instrument could achieve. I was first drawn in by his remarkable Bach Cello suites a few years ago which showcased his dexterity, lightness of touch and depth of thinking about Baroque music. Performing Vivaldi may not require the same erudition as Bach’s solo works, but these works are rendered flawlessly (even if the recording has the tiniest bit too much treble). There are also some sinfonias here by Caldara, providing a bit of balance and welcome diversion between the three-movement sets of the concertos. The Akademie plays true to its usual fiery self.
Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin et. al, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis – Handel Ariodante: This is hands down the best new opera recording of the year for me. Alan Curtis has been rendering Handel operas with his hand-picked European orchestra and an ever-more-amazing roster of singers for many years. This recording now also includes the incredible new Baroque mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato who sings this music so flawlessly that one might imagine it was written for her. What makes this even more special, though, is that every singer here is equally accomplished—so the whole enterprise never sags, drags or lags. Even if you think you don’t like opera, this may be good enough to get you into it. Handel wrote the pop songs of his era, staged with as much fanfare as a Lady Gaga appearance, and this album renders them terrifically.
Leif Ove Andsnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff – Schumann Complete Works for Piano Trio: The Tetzlaffs and Andsnes have established a kind of new European chamber supergroup through a few years of collaborating at Lars Vogt’s Spannungen chamber festival in Heimbach, Germany. Christian Tetzlaff, of course, is one of the current violin greats playing on modern instruments, equally at home in this repertoire as in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. The close ensemble work here is an expression of the three musicians’ finely honed listening skills, high musicianship and excellent preparation. I don’t feel equipped to say that these are definitive recordings (I love the Florestan Trio, too), but it’s an amazing complete compendium of Schumann trio music and consistently of an excellent standard. If you don’t know Schumann’s chamber music, you ought to hear this.
Alina Ibragimova, Cédric Tiberghien – Beethoven Violin Sonatas Vol. 3: The final volume in Alina Ibragimova’s Beethoven sonata cycle, this deserves being included in this year’s best of list: the whole cycle, which appeared on three discs over the course of the last few years, is the result of a series of very well received live recordings at Wigmore Hall. I had my heart set on not liking this as much as the Isabelle Faust/Alexander Melnikov Beethoven sonata cycle from a couple of years ago (which I thought was unbeatable), but Ibragimova and Tiberghien convinced me piece by piece. It is especially remarkable that these are live recordings; the consistent perfection delivered by these two young musicians is simply amazing. Ibragimova is rapidly becoming the new violinist to watch.
Adam Gopnik – Winter: Five Windows on the Season (CBC Massey Lectures 2011): Honorary mention goes to Adam Gopnik’s 2011 Massey Lectures which are a delight in terms of both content and delivery. In five one-hour lectures, Gopnik takes us on a whirlwind tour to explore how one might think about the ‘meaning of winter’ from various cultural and historical perspectives. He covers everything from Scrooge to fighting in hockey, arctic explorers to skating as courtship, and the intellectual enjoyment of it never lets up (if anything, he can be a bit of a fast-talker and I occasionally found myself struggling to keep up and had to go back). The book, which appeared before the audio lectures were broadcast on the CBC, is much longer and more detailed. If you want to learn something this season, try these.