Finding the energy to write about the year’s favourite music doesn’t come as easily as it used to anymore. This year, I’ve literally left it to the last hours of 2014 and am now trying to cram it in like a school project on a deadline. None of which should detract in any way from the fantastic music listed below. While I don’t think 2014 was a “bumper” year in music for me—or maybe in music generally—it was also far from a bad one, and there were a number of standout releases. In previous years, I had enough to say for two separate blog posts (one about classical music only, and another about ‘everything else’). That’s not the case this year. On balance, I listened to comparatively little classical music in 2014, despite the fact that Gramophone faithfully arrives once a month to tell me about new releases (as I write that line, I realize how incredibly fuddy-duddy it sounds). So, I’m combining two posts into one. Here’s the list. Forgive the brief notes.
Dunedin Consort, John Butt — Mozart Requiem: An extraordinary Requiem recording. Butt has been mining the rich seam of vocal Bach and Handel for a few years now, either in one-to-a-part renditions, or with soloist-led choirs. There is an immense textural clarity in this Requiem; one can almost ‘see’ all the parts snap together to make a whole. If you only listen to one recording of Mozart’s Requiem, make it this one, etc. etc.
RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Hans-Christoph Rademann — CPE Bach Magnificat: 2014 was CPE Bach’s 300th anniversary year, so naturally there were a number of releases. Because of my love for vocal, and especially choral music, this one felt like a standout release. I used to think that I wasn’t so keen on the ‘galant’ style (a kind of transitional hybrid between Handel and Mozart, if one wanted to be crude about it), but this recording is well on its way to convincing me otherwise.
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra — The Beethoven Journey (Vols. 2 & 3): The final two installments of Leif Ove Andsnes’ ‘Beethoven Journey,’ a survey of the five piano concertos. It’s legitimate to ask whether anyone needed yet another recording of these. I had at least six versions in my iTunes library before Andsnes (if you must know: Brendel, Barenboim 2012, Goode, Lewis, Perahia, Pollini 2007). But Andsnes is special somehow; I’ve always loved his Haydn and Mozart concerto recordings, and his Beethoven is thought-provoking and technically masterful. Crucially, he uses a modern piano—I have decided I cannot stand the sound of a fortepiano in this music. (Although I insist period instruments sound better in almost everything else, particularly given how much performance practice has evolved in the last 20 years, the piano is some sort of incommensurable boundary object for me. Even if Mozart, Beethoven and the late Haydn would have heard their own music played on a fortepiano, do I have to subject myself to that horrible sound, too?)
Martha Argerich, Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado — Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 25 & 20: We lost Mr. Abbado in 2013, shortly after this was recorded. I had been keenly awaiting every new release of his with the Orchestra Mozart for a few years, particularly in Mozart. He emerged as the great Mozartian conductor in the last few years (previously, that honour would have been Charles Mackerras’, no doubt), shining an almost impossibly clear light on the inner part-writing of even the most complex orchestral works. A great loss, but a beautiful last recording. Argerich is amazingly fluid throughout.
Cecilia Bartoli, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis — St. Petersburg: Bartoli continues her archival work with this release of little-known Russian Baroque arias. As ever, the discoveries are delightful, her singing beyond reproach, and her chosen band is outstanding. On one hand, this is never necessarily more than great entertainment; on the other, quite often that’s all I want.
Ana Tijoux — Vengo: I feel very, very unqualified to discuss this because I don’t speak or understand Spanish (beyond some basic phrases). But energetically and musically, this is so amazing that I’ll talk about it anyway. First, it has the year’s best song, ‘Somos sur,’ on which Ana Tijoux raps about the plight of threatened, oppressed and displaced populations everywhere. There’s a cameo by Shadia Mansour, who raps in Arabic, and who has the nervy energy, flow and anger of a young Eminem. Through the magic of technology and imagination, South American indigenous rhythms turn into a spectacular hip hop from the margins. You know that reed flute that you first heard on your parents’ Los Incas albums from the 60s? These guys just claimed it back in a big way. Hip hop, one of the musics that capitalism created, can be both a vehicle for all that’s wrong with the world (guns, bling, gangstas) and all that’s right (bricolage, speaking out against empire, political dance parties). This one’s the latter.
Aphex Twin — Syro: Wonderfully old school, this, yet also quite modern. I couldn’t say it better than Allmusic.com did: “Low on frenetics, Syro is anchored by rotund and agile basslines that zip and glide, and it’s decked in accents and melodies that are lively even at their most distressed. It also flows easily […].” I don’t listen to much of this kind of electronic music anymore (does anyone?), but this felt like hanging out with an old friend and finding him surprisingly pleasant after all these years.
Beatenberg — The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg: A new (to me?) band from Cape Town that puts itself at the intersection of mbaqanga, 80s pop, a little reggae, and modern indie rock… in short, many of the unique musical influences I grew up with. K. from California, one of our family visitors over the holidays, immediately associated Beatenberg’s sound with Vampire Weekend’s (whose first album showed distinctly African influences for reasons that have mostly remained opaque). The standout track for me is ‘Beauty Like a Tightened Bow.’ (In another spectacular failure of the music industry, I have no idea where you would buy this if you live in North America or Europe. Well, I’m sure you’ll have your sources.)
Beck — Morning Phase: This came out early in the year, sort of the first major music ‘talking point’ of the year. There’s not a whole lot else to be said about it. It really is quite wonderful. Sunday morning music. Coffee and a newspaper.
Bryan Ferry — Avonmore: A new Bryan Ferry record is always an event (for me). This one harkens back to the heyday of his 1980s samba-influenced croonerdom (which was really just an extension of Roxy Music’s last studio album). Ferry has always had a knack for performing other people’s songs better than they did themselves. There are two covers here towards the end, and they prove that his own songs are just as good as other people’s. The whole thing feels like melancholy disco. Entirely amazing.
Carlene Carter — Carter Girl: The best country record of the year. Carlene Carter, surrounded by an all-star band, creates versions of Carter Family songs that are uniquely hers, and uniquely 2014. The musicianship is amazing, the songs’ transformation is nothing short of masterful, and even though there are a few duet moments that could—with anyone else’s songs—easily have turned into pop country tear jerkers, it’s all very listenable. Favourite song here: ‘Blackie’s Gunman.’ Repeat one, ad infinitum.
Eno & Hyde — Someday World & High Life: Two LPs by Brian Eno and Karl Hyde. Karl Hyde having become the contemporary version of David Byrne. I like the experimental spirit here… Eno is definitely best when he’s collaborating with someone whose primary focus is words. As a 20-year admirer of Hyde’s words, this is very satisfying for me. It harkens back to when Taking Heads flirted with African music and funk. I couldn’t point to a ‘song’ that stands out per se, but the whole thing is excellent. Someday World came out first and I think I like it (slightly) better, but they’re great as a pair.
FKA twigs — LP1: Album of the year for me. She is so monstrously talented that everything else somewhat pales in comparison. I can’t but think of her as the lovechild of a young Kate Bush and Tricky. I don’t know if it’s R&B or electronica or pop, but its abstract, broken beats-upon-beats (courtesy of her ongoing collaboration with producer Arca, whose solo work is intriguing but who is ultimately propelled into a whole other league by twigs) are nothing short of astounding. Lyrically, she is a lot more forward than anything contemporary R&B typically has to offer, reciting a kind of breathless sensual poetry full of desire and sex. Fantastic.
Future Islands — Singles: The other album of the year for me. Their career-defining moment on Letterman was a good showcase for who/what they are. I love the theatrical performances of lead singer Sam Herring (visually and sonically), the hard-working bass player, the early 80s disco-electronica grooves. All of it neatly combines into an electro-pop that reminds one of Depeche Mode in its heyday, of Japan maybe, and Herring conjures up a young Bryan Ferry, if not in timbre then definitely in theatricality and vocal seduction.
In the Country, Solveig Slettahjell, Bugge Wesseltoft, Knut Reiersrud — Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic II: Norwegian Woods: A beautiful (jazz?) album from ACT, showcasing some of the best musicians Norwegian jazz has to offer. I feel very drawn to this aesthetic that seems to combine jazz’s instrumental and improvisational prowess not with North American blues but rather with Nordic folk harmonies and musical tropes. That said, Knut Reiersrud actually contributes a flawless blues guitar, but as a jazz instrument. And Slettahjell is nothing short of amazing (on anything she’s every recorded, and I think I may have heard it all).
Jacob Young — Forever Young: One of my favourite ECM jazz releases of the year, and another Scandinavian-influenced record. Young (guitar) plays with the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (see next entry) and saxophonist Trygve Seim. It’s quiet, full, richly detailed and musically outstanding, for example in how Young and Wasilewski (both playing chordal instruments) never get in each other’s way. A word of caution if you’re not typically a jazz-listener: Seim often plays a soprano saxophone, so if your ears are tainted by Kenny G., you may not appreciate this. Or you could use it as a palate-cleanser to overcome the problem.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio w/ Joakim Milder — Spark of Life: I’ve liked everything I’ve heard that involved Marcin Wasilewski, including this latest trio record (with a saxophonist guest). I’ll let you read the Guardian’s summary review.
My Brightest Diamond — This Is My Hand & None More Than You (EP): There is something wonderful about Shara Worden’s songs. They have a theatrical or cinematic quality, some are a little like cabaret, and she performs them with real dynamics and a steadfast disregard for coolness. The flute seems to be a recurring motif (it was also prominent on 2011’s All Things Will Unwind). Highly recommended records.
Nickel Creek — A Dotted Line: Nickel Creek were amazing during their first turn of duty, even as teenagers. Chris Thile, mandolinist, vocalist and main songwriter, has since become the embodiment of the hipster bluegrass performer, working under his own name, with the Punch Brothers and in a multitude of collaborations. This record—a welcome return for Nickel Creek, who always had a unique chemistry—follows on from the complex pop song structures and textures they explored on their previous album. This is ‘indie’ bluegrass of the best kind. Some of it can be a little abstract at times, so maybe ‘prog’ bluegrass could also work as a label.
Robert Plant — Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar: Robert Plant, whose solo work often seemed incomplete, as if he was trying very hard not to sound anything at all like Led Zeppelin, finally releases a solo record that works as a solo album that’s not also somehow self-erasing. I like the unique Celtic-North African-electronica textures. Some of the songs do sound somewhat reminiscent of U2’s heyday (produced by Daniel Lanois) as my brother-in-law pointed out over the holidays, so if you’re allergic to Bono then this may be less of a slam-dunk for you. The songs are good, the band is good, the production is outstanding, and—importantly—it doesn’t really sound like an old guy’s music (at the very least: not like a nostalgia act).
RX Bandits — Gemini, Her Majesty: The band that only I know. (I’m kidding. But also, I’ve never met anyone else who had any idea who these guys are.) I’m pleased to report that their crowd-funded 5th long player was a good ‘investment.’ In a nutshell, this is a highly skilled SoCal punk/ska band which has, over the course of five records, evolved in a very interesting ‘prog punk’ direction, with distinct reggae and R&B influences. The best reference point that comes to mind is the apparently effortless mastery over complexity that The Police had in its heyday. Another outstanding album from RX Bandits.
Susheela Raman — Queen Between: Raman is a British Indian singer-songwriter who, according to Wikipedia, “is known energetic, vibrant, syncretic, and uplifting live performances built on the sacred Bhakti and Sufi traditions of India and Pakistan.” I’ve followed her career for years. It has evolved towards an ever more organic-sounding way of embracing Indian and Pakistani music, and is perhaps less ‘world fusion’ now than regionally specific music with very contemporary production values. There’s a theatrical urgency to Raman’s music that is strangely ‘punk’ although, to be sure, nothing here is punk at all. Another crowd-funded venture I participated in, another pleasing outcome. (Another music industry fail: apparently, you can’t officially purchase this anywhere in North America.)
Things that came out too late in the year to be sure about
TV on the Radio — Seeds: Not sure about this yet because it’s too recent, but a new TOTR record is always welcome. Brooklyn’s best band, I think, and a lot of good bands hail from Brooklyn.
Anouar Brahem — Souvenance: I just recently got this. I’ve liked Anouar Brahem’s previous work (what I’ve encountered via ECM), and this seems quite special. It’s a two-disc instrumental suite with a full orchestra that explores the massive political transitions in his native Tunisia. Outstanding sound, and beautiful music. Give it a listen.