[Updated in January 2016 to include Ruby Amanfu’s amazing album, Standing Still. See below.]
It has become an annual tradition on this blog, a chore, and — increasingly — an unwelcome reminder of how infrequently I blog these days. Life is busy, and my writing energies are differently channeled, for example into academic assignments. But music remains important, and I continue to actively combat the overwhelming taste for nostalgia most middle-aged people apparently develop at some point, by regularly seeking out new recorded music. By regularly, I mean weekly (as much as possible). Good sources include Allmusic‘s weekly email (major labels, some indies), Pitchfork’s ‘Best New Music,‘ and Bandcamp (which, incidentally, has become a hugely useful platform for legally downloading music from an ever-increasing roster of great artists). I listen to music in the car, sometimes on public transit, and often on our new Sonos systems at home, which sound better than anticipated and have reduced the ‘audio equipment footprint’ considerably (as an aside, unlike Rick Rubin, I assure you I do not organize my bookshelves by colour).
If I had to summarize ‘my year in music,’ I’d say that my general lack of interest in ‘rock music’ continues. No amount of ‘indie’ music seems to be able to produce anything genuinely interesting; a lot of it seems lumbering, deeply derivative and hubristically full of itself to me. What captures my attention tends to be classified as ‘classical’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘electronic,’ but often conventional labels don’t serve to describe it particularly well. I listen to a lot of music recorded by the ECM label, and in relation to this I sometimes notice reviewers performing taxonomic back-flips by using such terms as ‘chamber jazz’ or ‘experimental acoustic.’ None of these labels really signify something specific but serve to suggest that good music defies classification, as it always has. Hybrid categorizations also help to showcase that many very good musicians actively look to subvert, combine and generally play around with different genre forms. This is something that interests me because it engages the musical mind. For example, the triumphant ascent of Scandinavian jazz continues apace, as does the rise of afro-futurism/township tech. Where in the past such hybrid forms would never have been heard outside of their immediate birthplaces, in our contemporary world of cheap recording and distribution technologies they are captured, available and — importantly — discoverable by interested seekers.
Here, then, is my commented list of 2015’s best new music in alphabetical order:
andhim – Rollercoaster (EP): A DJ/production duo from Cologne, Germany. Their style is a kind of liquid, funky house — the base is firmly house, the superstructure often reminds me of ‘old’ trance from the 1990s. These are their own tracks (meant to be mixed, blended, worked with…) and as such perhaps not the best showcase for their work which really shines on continuous mixes like last year’s outstanding ‘Body Language Vol. 14‘ But some of the music on this EP is so great in its own right (most notably ‘Mr. Bass (Feat. Superflu’) that I think it deserves a mention. While my tastes in electronic music often run more to the experimental side, I love this for the pinnacle of contemporary house music production it represents. It’s hard not to at least tap one’s feet to it.
Andreas Staier, Freiburger Barockorchester – Bach Harpsichord Concertos: Staier is a renowned German harpsichordist and fortepianist. This is an outstanding recording of Bach’s famous ‘keyboard concertos’ (as they unfortunately came to be known when pianists started performing and recording them using modern pianos). In period performance, these works raise more questions than they answer. What kind of instrument would be loud enough to be audible over the orchestra? How big of an orchestra should they be performed with? Etc. This recording strikes an excellent balance between Staier’s relatively loud and warm sounding instrument, and a chamber version of the Freiburg orchestra. The Guardian seemed to like it, but I read one blog post from a reviewer who was clearly expecting something more in line with the ‘new orthodoxy of period performance’ (fast, metronomic, and with a harpsichord that sounds a little sharper and thinner?). I for one think this is a wonderfully balanced performance, possibly the best currently on record.
Arca – Mutant: Arca (Alejandro Ghersi from Venezuela) first came to my attention as the producer/collaborator of FKA twigs who made last year’s list. This new instrumental solo record showcases a unique production talent with seemingly limitless technical abilities and a keen ear for musical beauty which he spreads lavishly around these 21 tracks. He also produced Björk’s Vulnicura (see below), so in a way he’s the ‘experimental electronic’ producer of the moment, but there’s clearly so much more here. ‘Mutant’ is a lovely record with real depth, texture and musical interest, on par with the best acoustic or contemporary classical music of the year. One aspect that’s especially enjoyable is the tension between ‘noise’ and ‘music,’ a simple but effective contrast Arca plays on over and over.
The Avener – The Wanderings of the Avener: The Avener (Tristan Casara) is a French dance music producer who has perfected taking existing music, often from wildly disparate genres, and remixing it into a kind of pleasant polyglot house music. This gets him interesting vocalists (without having to recruit them for that staple of electronic vocal music, the ‘Featuring:’ collaboration), and, I imagine, the time to really tool away at these songs. The results are listenable more than they are danceable. Outstanding, hypnotic driving music; pleasant but there’s definitely much more to it than that. And anyone who puts Rodriguez, the Be Good Tanyas and John Lee Hooker on the same album certainly deserves praise.
Avishai Cohen Trio – From Darkness: Avishai Cohen is an Israeli jazz bassist and composer whose musical journey, for years, has been about answering the question of what a uniquely Israeli jazz could sound like. This has, in the past, involved bigger bands and more through-composed music (all very worthwhile). But once in a while, like this year, Cohen re-unites with his long-standing piano trio to record a set of new compositions. And they’re an outstanding trio, up there with the best of their generation (e.g. Brad Mehldau, EST, Tingvall Trio, Michael Wollny Trio). It’s also an interesting perspective on the ‘classic’ piano trio because the composer is the bassist and not the pianist.
Björk – Vulnicura: Björk deserves our adoration and respect for a variety of reasons, even if her music isn’t always the smoothest, easiest, or most gracious thing to listen to. Hers is a unique and difficult pursuit: making music that works hard to intervene ‘from the margins’ (as a woman from a marginal geography; as someone who thinks of herself as an artist exploring art rather than a entertainer producing entertainment). It is theatrical, more like ‘classical’ than ‘pop.’ Perhaps ‘chamber electronica’ might be a way to describe it, but it is more ambitious than that. I imagine that if Schubert were alive today, these are the sort of Lieder he might write. If you’re unfamiliar with Björk or stopped listening when she stopped making dance music in the 90s, you could give this a try. You’ll probably hate it, but afterwards you’ll discover that your whole musical world has been subtly changed, that everything you normally listen to has been a little cheapened, exposed as derivative, even vapid.
Cassandra Wilson – Coming Forth by Day: I couldn’t really say it any better than C. Michael Bailey did at All About Jazz: “Cassandra Wilson is the most important jazz vocalist of the past thirty years.” If you’ve never encountered Cassandra Wilson before, imagine a deep-voiced, immensely gifted jazz vocalist whose backing sounds less like jazz and more like a vast, open soundscape filled with conventional Americana instruments. On this record, she tackles Billie Holiday covers which sound like the sad, sad blues songs they really are.
Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was: Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld play a hypnotic, sometimes manic, borderline indescribable instrumental ‘folk drone’ — he plays various saxophones in strangely rhythmic ways using circular breathing techniques; she’s a classically-trained violinist whose sound reminds me of the late Oliver Schroer. This borrows certain ideas and textures from electronic music but isn’t primarily electronic at all. Every time I play this, I’m struck again by how outrageously advanced and cool this is. I know it isn’t for everyone; in fact, I think it’s well beyond the ‘limits’ of many if not most listeners, offering nothing at all to someone accustomed to listening casually. But I think this is the best kind of future music, and it’s one of the few Canadian acts I know that occupies the musical territory my listening habits feel most at home in.
David Torn – Only Sky: David Torn is one of the éminences grises of experimental instrumental music. This is a solo record — the entire sonic spectrum consists only of guitars and electronics played, programmed and improvised by David Torn. This is slowly developing music, sometimes moving glacially slowly, that takes a while to fully reveal its widescreen charms. Like Stetson and Neufeld above, part of the wonder here is to be reminded of how else the guitar can sound, what other noises and contexts an instrument can thrive in. Ambient Americana? Perhaps. If you heard and liked last year’s ‘Flesh and Machine‘ by Daniel Lanois, you should definitely give Torn a try.
David Watkin – Bach Cello Suites: This won a Gramophone Award for best Baroque instrumental performance, and it’s truly lovely. I can’t add anything other than to say it deserved it. Beautiful music, beautifully played.
Fantasma – Free Love: This is musically a hugely successful album by a South African electronic/hip-hop/indie rock project helmed by Spoek Mathambo, one of the stars of the ‘township tech’ movement that took South African electronic music well beyond its kwaito origins. I particularly enjoy the nods to Zulu traditional song and 60s psychedelia. This music seems interestingly representative of what South Africa is, and what it could become. Good songs, engaging sonic textures, broad appeal if you’re willing to give it a try. I hope this is merely the beginning of even greater things to come. If someone pressed me to name an ‘album of the year,’ this might be it.
Food – This Is Not a Miracle: Another installment in the ongoing collaboration between Iain Bellamy (saxophone) and Thomas Strønen (drums/electronics). The entire discography has been a wonderfully advanced and weird journey to see what jazz and ‘electronica’ could be or become — without ever involving a cheesy, clichéd, or thoughtlessly derivative note. I have infinite respect for how listenable this remains throughout. I could imagine many people might find this a bit abstract, but I enjoy it. There’s also a lot of ‘warm,’ analogue sounding drumming by Strønen on this release, and additional guitar/electronics by Christian Fennesz, an Austrian guitarist who operates in a similar vein to David Torn (above).
Franscesca Blanchard – Deux Visions: A lovely record, and an amazing debut. I co-funded it on Indiegogo after I was alerted to it via Chris Velan’s mailing list (a very good Montreal-based singer-songwriter/producer, who produced this). Blanchard is French/American, based in Vermont, and plays a fairly straight-up downtempo folk rock. The ‘catch’ is that half her songs are in French. It’s a good, warm sound that gives the songs space to breathe and her voice time to unfold its charm. As a bilingual person, I also enjoy it as a meditation on how we have different personalities depending on which language we’re currently operating in.
Herbert – The Shakes: British musician and producer (Matthew) Herbert usually makes records that straddle the divide between ‘dance’ and ‘experimental.’ He’s enough of an industry by now that none of them go unheard even if they must stretch the patience of many listeners. I bristle at his work in the same way I occasionally find Björk grating… I can see it for its courage, greatness and clarity of vision but I don’t necessarily have to like it. On ‘The Shakes,’ as on some previous records, Herbert teams up with various guest vocalists to mine the seam of ‘regular’ R&B by making the familiar strange. If someone pressed me to name a ‘political protest song of the year,’ I might say ‘Strong‘ is it.
Hop Along – Painted Shut: I was randomly poking around Youtube one day, as one does, and discovered Hop Along. This is one of only two ‘rock’ records on the list this year, and it’s damned good. Everyone who writes about Frances Quinlan (the vocalist and songwriter) writes about her voice — which is no doubt extraordinary — but I’d also urge you to listen to the band, for example the drummer with the metal brackground, who has more funk and thunder than any ‘indie’ drummer I know. ‘Painted Shut’ represents a golden moment, a confluence of unlikely factors that could have gone any which way but didn’t. Chances are this is the best ‘rock’ record of the year.
Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica – Biber Mystery Sonatas: Lina Tur Bonet is a Spanish violinist who was previously unknown to me. Here, she’s made an outstanding, beautifully textured recording of Biber’s famous scordatura sonatas with a skilled and varied chamber group of accompanists on various stringed instruments. Also, a lovely, spacious recording.
Lionel Loueke – Gaïa: Lionel Loueke is a jazz guitarist originally from Benin whose music exists along a varying spectrum of jazz, rock and ‘world music.’ This latest trio record (with long-term collaborators) is a high energy affair — less jazz, more ‘jazz rock.’ I like the unabashedly noisy and improvisational nature of it, and the intricate instrumental interplay in the group. It’s about as ‘non-jazz’ as you can get in a conventional idiom (unlike Food above, this is not trying to innovate by experimenting electronically, instead focusing on instrumental and ensemble play excellence), and I think this would make an interesting entry vector into instrumental jazz for someone who likes prog rock (although I don’t imagine that’s a large group of people).
Millencolin – True Brew: The other purely ‘rock’ record in this lineup, and how rock it is! Punk rock! I have loved Millencolin from the first time I heard them… a Swedish pop-punk band with two guitarists and a keen sense of melody. I’ve long held the theory that bands from Scandinavia (and elsewhere in the non English-speaking world) somehow try harder, using mimicry and their imaginations, and Millencolin seem like a good example of this. The lyrics may not always come out 100% idiomatically, but that’s a minor issue.
Nils Økland Band – Kjølvatn: Nils Økland plays the hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian instrument that looks like a violin with too many strings (some of them are ‘sympathetic,’ meaning they resonate/drone along when the others are being played). Økland is an adventurous musical mind, having made a career exploring how far the boundaries of traditional folk music can be pushed. Last year’s self-titled album with Lumen Drones was an exploration in a more rock direction (a hardanger fiddle power trio?). This year’s record is a little more gentle and involves hand percussion, a saxophone and other acoustic instruments. Jen said it sounded dark, like the opening theme from Game of Thrones, or the music prior to one of the scenes of public beheading. I remain amazed by how ‘Celtic’ Scandinavian folk music sounds.
Nordic Affect – Clockworking: This is an album of five contemporary small ensemble compositions by Icelandic women composers, played by an Icelandic period instrument group. Where is the line between ‘contemporary classical’ and other acoustic music these days? Listening to this, I imagine one might investigate possible fault lines in the juxtaposition between ‘composed’ and ‘improvised,’ or perhaps merely in the meta-realm where one group thinks of itself as performing music from notation (‘classical’) while another foregoes the notes (‘jazz’). This is an unusual record (to say the least), and also much more experimental and ‘out there’ than anything else on this list (including Björk and Holly Herndon, the other two candidates).
Ruby Amanfu – Standing Still: What a record! Didn’t include this at first — no excuse for that. She’s a singular vocal talent (and an amazing songwriter, though I believe these are mostly covers). Born in Ghana, raised in the US, came up through the Nashville singer-songwriter scene. A disjointed but high-quality back catalogue. She sang and performed with Jack White on the Blunderbuss tour, which is how a broader audience came to know her. Standing Still is an extraordinarily well-judged and thoughtful set, beautifully arranged and sung. She’s a mature musical talent — rapidly becoming one of my favourite female vocalists. I love the ambiguity between “Is it R&B?” and “Is it country?” (there are moments when she sounds more Dolly Parton than Dolly does herself). Covers include Dylan, Kanye, Wilco, Heartless Bastards, etc. A must-hear.
Solveig Slattahjell, Knut Reiersrud, In The Country – Trail of Souls: Solveig Slettahjell is an immensely talented and accomplished Norwegian jazz (?) vocalist who has previously released a number of outstanding records that are entirely in her own style, somehow rooted in a jazz idiom while also not like jazz at all. On this record, one of the most beautifully recorded of the year, Slettahjell teams up with Reiersrud, a Norwegian blues guitarist, and In the Country, an experimental piano trio, to play broadly in a ‘blues’ idiom. The song selections are all ‘standards’ or pop songs that have been turned into standards, and the performances are all remarkable. For a weird and wonderful taste, try Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street.’
Watkins Family Hour – Watkins Family Hour:
The Watkins siblings are two thirds of Nickel Creek, erstwhile bluegrass wunderkinder with Chris Thile, now a virtuoso solo mandolinist and big alternative bluegrass star. The Watkins Family Hour started as a monthly music revue in LA, anchored by the Watkins siblings, that included a number of recurring performers such as Fiona Apple, also an LA resident. This is very satisfying, thoughtfully played country music of the highest caliber, nicely recorded, and with none of that commercial country sheen — while also not being too self-consciously ‘alternative’ or ‘hipster’ country. Includes a surprisingly lovely version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ (from a hardly-heard 2003 album) and a very fetching and true-to-the-original (and our times) version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain.’ (Entertaining Tiny Desk concert here.)