This year’s best music list comes in the middle of the Great Deep Freeze of 2017, where it’s apparently colder in Canada than at the North Pole. Winter has come. This time, I have no summary words of political, cultural or technological wisdom to offer. Turn up the music and warm yourselves. I wish you all the best for 2018.
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Amber Coffman: City of No Reply — Amber Coffman, formerly a key musical partner in Dirty Projectors, is an accomplished, skilled, introspective songwriter, the kind that seems to be able to effortlessly pen instant classics, songs that right away sound like you’ve known them forever. I think this is one of the “overlooked” albums of the year, having been overshadowed by the break up of Coffman and David Longstreth, the “other half” in Dirty Projectors. When biography gets in the way, art often gets lost (or at least we make it too easy for ourselves). This is worth hearing without necessarily looking for telltale signs of a “breakup record.”
Ann Hallenberg, Il Pomo d’Oro, Stefano Montanari: Carnevale 1729 — My favourite classical album of 2017. I do periodically find myself lost in Baroque arias, wondering why there’s a need to ever listen to any other kind of music again. Ann Hallenberg is a phenomenal Swedish mezzo-soprano who here resurrects the “greatest hits” of one particularly illustrious opera season in Venice, where competing opera houses had lured Handel’s main singers away from the impresario’s London stage with offers of higher wages. Here, then, the best of Italian opera 1729, mostly by unknown or barely known composers such as Giacomelli, Orlandini, Porpora and Leo. Wildly beautiful, big Baroque bel canto pieces, meticulously played and recorded with satisfying, rich sonics. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Beatrice Rana: Bach Goldberg Variations — The young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana delivers impeccable Goldberg Variations, played with precision, heart and true insight into the music. Personally, I’ve always held that this music should only be heard on a harpsichord. Unlike others, I also never really understood why everyone liked Glenn Gould’s interpretations so much (today, they sound more like acrobatics than music-making, to my ears at least; I’m aware that’s tipping a Canadian sacred cow). But Rana has convinced me to give the piano another try, in my view eclipsing much of what’s come before her. I also enjoy her decidedly workmanlike approach to the whole thing, not offering any grand theoretical insights or interpretive frameworks. Just play the music.
Chris Thile: Thanks for Listening — Chris Thile, a mandolinist and vocalist who originally came to fame as one third of Nickel Creek, an absurdly virtuoso bluegrass group started by a bunch of teenagers, has taken over as the host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. In his first season, he wrote and performed a new song every week. This album showcases ten of them, and they’re quite wonderful. Sonically somewhere on an axis that extends from Paul Simon to Crosby Stills Nash and Young via Randy Newman, these are very, very clever songs that conceal their complexities and instrumental challenges behind thoughtful, often funny lyrics and ear-worm melodies. I could imagine that some might find these too brainy by half, but I would recommend giving them a try. Thile is a treasure.
Cold Specks: Fool’s Paradise — Cold Specks is much more interesting now that she’s ditched the faux acoustic blues routine. She’s always had something to say with her music, a talent beyond her years, but the more rootsy guitar on her previous work made it tedious. This is a breakthrough album of sad torch songs embedded in warm synths, occasionally reminding one of early 80s wonders such as Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” In iTunes, I filed this under “R&B” only because it defies any better classification. Other references might include Frank Ocean and Blood Orange.
Danay Suárez: Palabras Manuales — Suárez’s 2017 album has been several iterations in the making. Prior to this, its most definitive incarnation was hastily left behind in Cuba after Suárez left/fled the country for the United States. I don’t know if it’s the persistence through multiple iterations, but this is an outstanding record. Suárez is a rapper whose beats and soundscapes are jazzy and dubby, the music sometimes (probably inadvertently) echoing King Krule. There’s also a lot of reggae on it, which continues to be a unifying musical thread in the Caribbean (in reggaeton, sure, but also in protest music like Manu Chao’s). Dub poetry (e.g. LKJ) has always held a special place in my heart—so dub poetry in Spanish hits all kinds of notes. The production is beautiful, the collaborations powerful (Stephen Marley, Idan Raichel, Roberto Fonseca), and—to the extent that I can work out from translations—Suárez is a talented writer and lyricist.
Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf — We are occasionally reminded how folkloric traditions across Europe (and sometimes beyond) sound similarly “Celtic” to unfamiliar listeners. Here, we have a Danish string quartet playing versions of Scandinavian folk tunes (other examples, e.g. from Norway, might include the hardanger fiddle, and acidy-sounding string instrument that wouldn’t be out of place in an Irish pub; Spain has bagpipe music that is actually somehow historically connected to the British Isles). I find Last Leaf quite lovely, perfect winter music, and—like Kronos Quartet—a good example of a classical ensemble successfully breaking out of their original mould without becoming lost in translation. Impeccable ECM sound, as always.
Dirty Projectors: Dirty Projectors — The “other” half in the Longstreth/Coffman breakup discussed above, Longstreth’s record is more bitter, more self-pitying, more woe-is-me. Indulging those sentiments tends not to be a recommendation for making good art, at least as a general rule. His raw talent and indie production chops—all weird autotune-bent vocal harmonies and odd turns of musical phrase, now with more R&B touches than Dirty Projectors exhibited previously—make it work, though. The ironies in the instrumentation and arrangements mitigate some of the heavy-handed lyrical indulgences, pulling it all back from the manbaby brink more than once.
Hiromi & Edgar Castaneda: Live in Montreal — Brimming with extraordinary musicianship, this collaboration between a Japanese jazz pianist and a Colombian harpist is a joy to listen to from beginning to end. The fireworks never end, and the Montreal live audience responds accordingly. Even the Cantina Band theme from Star Wars makes an unexpected and delightful appearance.
Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator — Alynda Segarra’s songcraft is incredibly accomplished and advanced. She belongs in a select group of elite American songwriters like Carole King, Patti Smith or Laura Nyro. This is one of the great American albums of the year, at once steeped in tradition and looking forward. I seem constitutionally unable to listen to too much “rock” these days (the boredom with the genre I noted in last year’s post continues unchanged), but HFTRR somehow manages to break through that resistance. A wonderfully dynamic, muscular, taut band, too, here with occasional Latin touches (honouring Segarra’s Puerto Rican background) and just the slightest touch of boozy bar country for good measure.
Ìfé: IIII+IIII — Ìfé is a Puerto Rican ensemble strongly influenced by hip hop, R&B and electronic music. Its leader, Otura Mun, is an African-American who learned Spanish, moved to the Caribbean, and became a Yoruba priest. Spiritual, simultaneously inward-looking and evidently trying to be part of a “world consciousness,” this album is for me a strong contender for record of the year. It is lovely, detailed, highly musical, flawlessly produced and full of good ideas. It’s also often touching, funny and always deeply human despite the electronic instrumentation. (This has to be one of the better, more organic ways to use electronic instrumentation in contemporary “folklore.”) Perhaps my favourite track is “Umbo,” with its wonderful auto-tuned female vocal. Ecstatically musical, and with universal appeal.
Jesca Hoop: Memories Are Now — Definitely one of the year’s must-hear records. Hoop is a gifted songwriter—folky, but not overly so, with an occasional weird, ragtime-y sensibility (not unlike Fiona Apple, who apparently guests on one track, on harmonica), matched here with Blake Mills’ (Dawes) peerless, warm production. It’s roots music that’s resolutely forward-looking, or future folk that hasn’t forgotten its roots. (Mills’ production, this year, can also be heard on Laura Marling’s and Perfume Genius’ latest records—see below—where it is equally effective. He may be the producer of the year.)
Jhené Aiko: Trip — Aiko’s public statement on mourning and recovery after her brother’s death in 2012. It’s brave and beautiful, working up all the messy ways to search for redemption and peace through poetry. Although long, its consistent production values carry it through to dawn. Her lovely, light voice is embedded in tracks that sound, to my ears, a little like the trip hop of yore, or the mid-90s nu soul/R&B revival. I really enjoy this as a listening record, not as background music. I think it has a lot to say. Plus, concept albums about drugs have sort of fallen out of favour, so this is a welcome throwback in that regard.
Lana del Rey: Lust for Life — Del Rey hits her stride with this record, emerging as a songwriting force to be reckoned with. All that has come before may not exactly matter. Yes, her “provenance” as an artist is suspect, her stiffness on stage easy to make fun of, her rich-girl ennui difficult to forget. But if you treat this as a work in its own right, it proudly takes its place among the great American songwriter storytellers. The languid, liquid production has the sort of richness of Roxy Music’s Avalon days, unashamedly embracing an electronic wall-of-sound aesthetic. Del Rey draws me in, and she’ll draw you in too (if you give her a chance).
Laura Marling: Semper Femina — Marling, on this final album in a supposed “West Coast trilogy,” sounds evermore like a thoughtful but low-key version of Joni Mitchell. It’s easy to imagine that this was recorded with the intention of referencing, but also updating, the best of the Laurel Canyon sound from the early 70s. Complicated rhythms, complex harmonies—not at the level of, say, Esperanza Spalding, but still: not typical fare in our day. The bass playing, in particular, is often wonderful, suggesting (good) bassists are still listening to and learning from Jaco Pastorius. Recommended for those who have lists of “Sunday morning coming down” albums.
Laurel Halo: Dust — Laurel Halo makes a kind of deconstructed house music full of subtle ideas and interesting sounds. In the universe of “electronic music,” one could reasonably classify this as “ambient,” but that doesn’t really capture it. Unlike, say, the Orb’s deconstructed excursions, Halo’s work is less focused on filling the whole dynamic spectrum with synth sounds. Instead, I find myself absorbed in parsing through her abstract minimalism, picking out the rapid-fire musical references: here, she sounds a little like “African music” era Talking Heads; here’s a hint of Janet Jackson; here a dubby echo of Lizzie Mercier Descloux. Another contrast with “ambient” fare: this music is filled with vocals and poetry, referencing on occasion the aesthetic of the beat poets. Waftily, wonderfully beautiful. Your patience will be richly rewarded, I promise.
Lorde: Melodrama — A singular songwriting talent and highly idiosyncratic performer, Lorde’s second album is a young woman’s coming-of-age tale in a conflicted era. Executed with impossible wisdom for a 20-year-old, her pop chops are a reverential reflection of Robyn’s best work. Also enjoyable: various glimpses, throughout the year, of Lorde “performing” her work at award shows, each time gleefully flying in the face of our expectations about how a young woman (or really, anyone) should “perform” in public. Best moment probably her miming performance at the VMAs, in an unusual party dress/track pant outfit. Memories of meat dresses and swan costumes.
Maggie Rogers: Now That the Light Is Fading — Maggie Rogers came to keen listeners’ attention when she appeared as a student in a production masterclass offered by Pharell Williams at NYU. Williams was astounded by her song (“Alaska”) and had no constructive criticism to offer. High praise, and a high bar to meet for a young songwriter. Rogers’ EP is lovely: inventive, accomplished, unusual. It will mark a specific time in whatever is yet to come in her career—a moment too early, perhaps. She’s since toured on the back of her unexpected overnight fame, and withdrawn to think about what her next act will be. Can’t wait.
Nathalie Stutzmann, Orfeo 55: Quella Fiamma: Arie antiche — Stutzmann is a dark-hued mezzo-soprano from France who also founded and conducts her own period performance group, Orfeo 55. This record is based on Baroque arias that were compiled into a well-known training method for aspiring singers by a 19th century vocal teacher. Stutzmann’s team has gone back to the original sources and here presents period-appropriate performances that are highly enjoyable—well sung and well played.
Oddissee: The Iceberg — Oddissee is wildly prolific, one of the best “conscious” rappers at present. Lyrically, topically and stylistically, Oddissee is influenced by Rakim, De La Soul and ATCQ. The Iceberg is musically outstanding, underpinned by beautifully crafted soul beats, often involving actual instruments. I hear soul, reggae, gospel, jazz. The “live band” theme also carries through to his live shows which he performs—like The Roots—with a live band instead of a laptop. Later in the year, he released one of these shows as a live album: Oddissee & Good Compny: Beneath the Surface (Live) is also worth hearing, if only for the enthusiastic crowd.
Perfume Genius: No Shape — This is gorgeously produced and burstingly musical. It’s hard to describe this record with appropriate reference points. It has the solitude and introspection of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, the lushness of (again) Avalon-era Roxy Music, the boozy density of a jam band slowing things down two hours into a four-hour gig, occasionally the power of Brian Wilson’s richest and most personal work in the Beach Boys. You should make an effort to hear this.
Porter Ricks: Anguilla Electrica — Porter Ricks (named after a character from the 60s TV show Flipper) make “dub techno,” an immensely pleasurable and satisfying deep electronic rumble that’s somehow always a good listen, regardless of what time of day it is or what the circumstances are. Full of fuzzy arpeggiators, musical suspense and slow heavy beats, this has a logic that is entirely its own. If you need a reference point, think of some of the dubbier instrumental parts on Massive Attack’s Protection.
Quantic & Nidia Góngora: Curao — Quantic is a British electronica producer who lived in Colombia for a number of years. A consummate musician, he spent his years there exploring the local variants of music. On this album, he and Colombian vocalist Nidia Góngora present contemporary versions of typical music from Colombia’s Pacific coast. Simultaneously “African” and “Latin”—similar to other Latin American musics, yet also different and unique—this is uplifting, smart, entertaining music. Quantic’s production is flawless as ever, and Góngora’s vocals are strong and committed.
Rodrigo Gallardo & Nicola Cruz: El Origen — For a variety of reasons, I grew up appreciating South American folklore at an early age. I loved the deep, rumbly drums, the lonely-sounding natural flutes, the ecstatic whoops of the vocals, the tiny rhythm guitars. Gallardo & Cruz have made an EP that explores how to connect Andean folk to electronic music, and it’s quite brilliant. Evidently, there’s a sort of musical “reverse colonization” going on in electronic music: artists like Gallardo & Cruz—but also Ìfé (see above), Spoek Mathambo (from South Africa) and others—suggest that the increasing affordability and availability of electronic music-making tools all over the world are resulting in new mashups, blends and even genres. I for one am keen to hear more South American electronica.
Sinkane: Life & Livin’ It — Sinkane and his eponymous band make music that (weirdly) echoes my multi-culti musical socialization in southern Africa in the 80s and 90s. It’s bright, future-oriented, anchored in African-origin musical genres that aren’t limited to R&B (we hear reggae, Afrobeat, African early electronica, Afro-disco) and above all, optimistic. I found myself gravitating to it more often than not in the summer. For a contemporary North American context, this is music out of place and time. Its African explorations are as “exotic” today as Talking Heads’ were in the 80s. Doesn’t make this any less of a great record, though.
Smino: blkswn — I like my rap a little weirder and more leftfield as a rule, and Smino fits that bill perfectly. His debut album is inventive, adventurous and decidedly odd in parts, as if one had successfully managed to combine Digable Planets, Tyler, the Creator, Erykah Badu and Prince in a test tube. Never less than entertaining, there’s an awareness of the history and breadth of black music here, and a mastery of all genres that proves itself through its humour (working on the assumption that a “funny take” on anything is only credible if you’ve mastered the thing itself). Even though this is on the “jazzier” side of hip hop (and could thus be misconstrued as “old school”), Smino’s mumble rap is closer in spirit to Atlanta than New York. The record has a through-line that’s right up there with the best concept albums (even if I’m not entirely sure it is one).
Syd: Fin — Syd’s debut solo record has unfortunately been overlooked in most of the year’s “best of” lists, despite being well-reviewed when it came out. I like its slinky perspectival inversion (R&B in support of a woman desiring women) and the fact that its production values are so resolutely hip hop (rather than “soul” based). I think this is a departure for R&B that’s as significant as Frank Ocean channeling Radiohead in his bedroom studio. For all that we used to think Mary J. Blige was the “hip hop” R&B singer, we had evidently heard nothing yet.
Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan — A gloriously successful Kronos collaboration. Trio da Kali is from southern Mali (voice, balafon, bass ngoni). Complimenting them with Kronos’ strings is fortuitous, almost a stroke of genius—not because we cannot imagine such music or haven’t heard traditional West African music with “Western” strings (we have, and we know similar sounds from Egypt and other places), but because here we have an intimate, beautifully recorded “chamber” version of this idea, giving us all the “orchestral” drama of such arrangements but with Kronos’ unmatched intimacy. A testament to both groups’ musicianship and spirit of collaboration. Without question one of the loveliest albums of the year.
Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy — One of brightest, if not the brightest talent in contemporary hip hop, Tyler, the Creator released what is by far his best record this year. Full of humour, lyricism, surprising twists and turns (both musical and lyrical), jazz and soul, this manages to reveal something new on every listen while also somehow never getting old. A triumph of production “auteurship,” musicianship and intelligent lyricism.
Yo-Yo Ma, The Knights, Eric Jacobsen: Golijov Azul — The Knights are a New York based chamber orchestra. Here, they collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma to record a cello concerto (actually, a concerto for cello, hyper-accordion, percussion and orchestra) which an Argentinian composer named Osvaldo Golijov dedicated to him. The concerto is surrounded by other pieces, often nearly as interesting as the Golijov. Azul is beautiful music that is also resolutely contemporary while becoming neither trivial (à la Montreal’s Angèle Dubeau & La Pieta, unfortunately) nor disappearing into “sounds like film music” cliché. At the end are four pieces that are orchestral arrangements of Sufjan Stevens instrumentals (originally from an album called Enjoy Your Rabbit) which are also not bad at all.