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2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released.  This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat.  That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year.  Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011.  In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).

I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste.  A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me.  While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic.  I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking.  Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.

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This is the first article in a series where Music is Good contributors discuss the albums that have most influenced them musically. They will include some favourites that they play regularly now, but other choices will be music that they rarely listen to anymore, but had a major influence on their musical development at the time.
My selection begins with the Beatles:

The Beatles inevitably had a major influence upon me musically as I was teenager in their early days. For me this is a turning point album moving from the early fairly straight forward recordings that could be replicated on stage to the later studio based albums like Sgt Pepper. To some extent it reflects my growing up as a person alongside the Beatles ‘growing up’ musically. It is still an album I play regularly with many standout tracks for me such as “Dr Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”.

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Bill Frisell – “858 Quartet”

By Dave Sumner. Posted in Jazz | No Comments »

Crossposted from

The last time Bill Frisell recorded an album with the 858 ensemble, things were a bit noisier.  The 2002 recording Richter 858 had Frisell substituting jet engines for amps, and let the compositions not so much speak for themselves as growl and roar.  Sign of Life shows that there was a heartbeat just behind all the fury and fuel of Richter 858.

Different sound; same ensemble.  Bill brings his incomparable voice on guitar, and long-time collaborators Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, and Eyvind Kang on viola.

As with any inventive musician, Frisell’s sound has evolved over the years.  His current phase is often referred to as Americana Jazz, a blending of jazz aspirations and conventions within a folk framework.  Sign of Life fits snugly into that label, comparable to other recent releases like the excellent Disfarmer, the perfectly acceptable Beautiful Dreamer, and the under-the-radar All Hat.  It’s an album of languid back porch tunes, of foreboding compositions echoing over desolate Appalachian trails, of lush stringed instruments that is alternatingly soothing, threatening, and transcendent.

858 Quartet

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English Folk Music and Christmas carols are closely linked together. Carols like The Holy and the Ivy are many centuries old, based on an oral tradition, just like a number of folk songs. Many of these carols actually have elements of paganism and religiosity mixed together, just like many folk songs. The Holy and the Ivy is a good example of this. If you want to learn more about this carol, go to the Wiki article about it.

Right up until the end of the last century, still continuing in some areas, carol singers used to go around houses and pubs in the UK singing sometimes playing instruments, collecting money,  usually for charities. Nowadays the most likely carol singers are actually Salvation Army bands in shopping centres. But a number of contemporary English folk artists have continued the tradition of Christmas and Winter songs with their recordings.

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Gregorian Chant

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.

Chant. Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. EMI

In May 1994, something extraordinary happened: a compilation of recordings made a decade or two earlier by a group of monks in a monastery in northern Spain reached #3 on the Billboard album charts, having already been a big hit in other countries. The Gregorian chant sung by these monks and their brethren for well over a millennium is the oldest music in the classical tradition, and it remains alive in Catholic rituals today. Listeners to the Chant album were drawn by the music’s promise to, as the sleeve notes put it, “bathe the weary, worldly, unsuspecting soul in its blessing”. Certainly there’s no denying the soothing effect of those long, rhythm-free melodic lines, but this somewhat misses the point that chant’s original intended audience was as much God Himself as exhausted yuppies or their medieval equivalent. Although Gregorian chant gets its name from Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604 C.E., the music had its origins in earlier centuries. Psalmody was a key feature of Jewish worship, but not of early Christianity, and it wasn’t until the development of monastic life in the fourth century that Christian psalmody appeared, in the monks’ and nuns’ night vigils. Later, psalmodic chanting was reorganized to be spread across the entire day, in a series of seven “offices”, as well as in the daily mass. Chant has a rather arbitrary track listing, so to get a better picture of chant being sung in its proper devotional context we must look elsewhere.

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NOTE: This article has been revised to correct artist and track names.  It appears that the tags on the author’s copy were incorrect and inverted these items.  Music is Good regrets this error.

As with most blogs Music is Good’s Blogroll is where we advertise some of our favorite internet outposts.  Unlike some blogs, however, not all of the links there are technically blogs.

One of the non-blog sites listed on our Blogroll is (if you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, I strongly encourage you to check it out).  On September 22, I was looking for interesting projects on Kickstarter and stumbled upon Music from Saharan Cellphones, “a compilation of music collected from memory cards of cellular phones in the Sahara desert.”  Apparently, in West Africa folks use their cellphones to house their music collections (which are often tracks that are otherwise unreleased) and they swap songs via Bluetooth transfers.  In 2010, Christopher Kirkley, the man behind Music from Saharan Cellphones, brought a bunch of these tracks back to the States and released some on cassettes that were soon ripped to the internet and widely spread.

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Hieronymous Bosch, via Wikimedia CommonsFor a long time I’ve wanted to create some sort of beginner’s guide to classical music, but I was never quite sure how. Part of my hesitation has been uncertainty over where the beginner should start. I came to classical music as a teenager through accessible orchestral works such as Holst’s The Planets and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, but others will testify to the power of Vivaldi, or Pärt, or a particular instrument. The sensible approach seemed to be to develop a long list of recordings and let the beginner pick where to start, rather than say “start here”. The most straightforward approach to such a list would be a roughly chronological one, or at least one divided into the major periods of classical music – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and so on. But then, of course, the question is what to put on the list.

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Bluegrass has been known for its virtuosity as much as its conservatism. As much as it can be thrilling with its rapid improvisations, audiences expect musicians to sound like the men who created the genre. Nonetheless, a few people have come along over the last decade who have tried to update the genre, incorporating the ethics of Alternative without abandoning Bluegrass’ sound. For the banjo, this means honoring the Scruggs sound.

Noam Pikelny would never be mistaken for an acolyte of Earl Scruggs. He did not come to the banjo from Bluegrass, through listening to the classics of Bill Monroe and his collaborators; rather it was the other way around. He learned from players of his native Chicago and listened to the “Newgrass” records of the 1970s, particularly Bela Fleck. Playing the banjo has instead brought him to the edges of Bluegrass, developing an intuitive approach to the instrument that has made him a rising star on the “Progressive Acoustic” scene as part of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.

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In which we learn about Storms/Nocturnes, Toadswart d’Amplestone, and Bea.



Names have power.  It gets to where it’s difficult to distinguish whether the name is derived from identity or if identity is formed from the name.  Storms/Nocturnes, the ensemble name taken by the trio of Geoffrey Keezer (piano), Tim Garland (reeds), and Joe Locke (vibes) illustrates that fuzziness of origin.  They have created an album awash in dreamy melodies and rhythms like the fall of rain. 

Places have power, too.  They have their own identity, which can alter our perceptions just as we affect them by our presence.  The album VIA is a recognition of that geographical interaction.  Within the liner notes of the album are photos and reminiscences by the artists of places that each tune drew inspiration from.  It is a guided tour of the album’s music, just as the music colors the perception of each location’s photo.  It creates an odd circle of interpretation, but it’s a logical approach to such an unconventional album.

A trio of piano, vibes, and reeds isn’t the typical jazz line-up and the compositions themselves don’t evoke daydreams of 1940s Minton’s Playhouse, and yet the end result is an album of sublime jazz music.  Seven years since their last album, the trio’s ears show no rust to the receptiveness of one another’s sound.  Locke’s vibes light the path with bright runs, while Garland’s sax soars overhead and bass clarinet burrows beneath Garland’s fluttering piano.  A beautiful album by jazz vets at the top of their game.  Released in 2011 on the Origin/OA2 label.


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The Musical Christmas Rescue Mission

By David Smith. Posted in Classical, Folk, Jazz | 5 Comments »

Bruce Cockburn - Christmas

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn comments in the liner notes to his 1993 album Christmas about the realization that numbingly familiar seasonal standards “are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” He refers to his own creative process of retrieval in terms of discovering that “a little nudge in one direction or another would help to revive their ‘songness’.” The notion of reviving their “songness” stuck with me, and he’s clearly not the only artist who has felt this while listening to Christmas music. The combination of curiosity, lament, and hope that is implied in his comments strikes a chord with me at this time of year. It may well be some defect in me, but the fact is I struggle to appreciate Christmas music. Much, perhaps most of it evokes for me neither warm nostalgia nor childlike faith, but something more akin to the taste of plastic. To my ear, a lot of what I hear at Christmas is testimony to the tragic fact that it is possible to take a memorable and enduring tune, combine it with a lyric deserving of profound meditation (no, I’m not thinking of Rudolph here), and through a potent witches’ brew of forced jollity, mall marketing, kitchsy, schmaltzy arrangements, and sheer over-exposure kill it deader than the slow-moving squirrels whose remains I occasionally pass on my walk to work. For Christmas music to work, it has to contain a hint of resurrection. Here are a few recordings that I think meet the mark – not new releases, but rather musical friends old and new that continue to make Christmas musical.

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