I didn’t listen to everything this year. Neither did you. I have no objective way of knowing that these are (or are not) the 20 best albums released this year. Neither do you. But these are the ones I most loved and most want to spend more time with next year, and who knows, maybe you’ll find something special here too, something you missed but can connect with and find riches in, something off your usual menu that you might come to be thankful for. If that happens even once, the list will be worthwhile. And as always, if any of the musicians drop by, thank you for the work, care, commitment, and creativity represented below.
#1. Porya Hatami – Shallow
Iran’s Porya Hatami had an enormously productive year – at least eight releases by my count. This was the first and is still my favorite. Hatami takes field recordings, gentle drones, bright chiming flutters of notes, and builds them into an enchanting and unusually well composed ambient symphony that I have been listening to all year without tiring. The irregular patters of sound unfold within an overall structure that creates a sense of focus and development. Just beautiful, a true gift. Read a full review and stream music from the album here, and of Hatami’s other releases this year check out especially Arrivals and Departures and The Garden.
#2. Pjusk – Solstøv
I am an unabashed Pjusk fan, and this pushed Shallow close for the number one slot. Pjusk continue their distinctive weaving of dusk and landscape and luminous pulses and this time add processed trumpet to conjure breath and light in the airy transitions of morning and evening. Glimpse, faded, dawn, bewitching, veil, glow – the track titles suggest the elusive textures that the music seeks to evoke. Detailed and evocative, the newest Pjusk album is as finely wrought as their back catalog. Full review here.
#3. Tord Gustavsen Quartet – Extended Circle
A second entry from Norway, this has been my most played jazz release of 2014. At the heart of it is Gustavsen’s distinctively languid piano playing, weaving innocuous seeming tunes with such a sensitive touch and timing that they float deliciously and linger tenderly in the subconscious. Listen here.
#4. Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Unintentional Sea
In some ways the opposite of Christopher Bissonnette’s album in its aesthetic, The Unintentional Sea flows through hazy, grainy curtains of delicately layered sound. Deep trembling tones and hidden crackles and rustles hint at great themes unfolding and give way to melancholy swells of subdued melody. The whole is graceful and sensitive, perfect for times of quiet solitude and reflection. Stream the album here.
#5. Christopher Bissonnette – Essays in Idleness
This one was a delightful surprise, a hugely rewarding departure from the sound of Bissonnette’s enjoyable previous releases. Here he takes a homemade synthesizer and weaves its bright, distinctive sounds into starkly expressive crystalline meditations. The sounds are cold and alien, yet strangely eloquent and human. One of the more distinctive releases of this year. Listen to music from Essays in Idleness here.
#6. Otto A. Totland – Piño
Otto Totland’s reflective piano meditations are familiar to fans of Deaf Center, his recording duo with Erik Skodvin. Here we are treated to a whole album of gently brooding piano compositions, warm and still and human, perfect for a mellow late evening. The sound is intimate, and it is no surprise to find that Nils Frahm had a hand in the recording process. Listen to a track here.
#7. Janek Schaefer – Lay-by Lullaby
The early hours of the morning, at the side of the road, drifting, half awake, snatches of static and random radio melodies, cars swishing by, a state between times and places, subtly captured in ghostly, caressing sounds. Deeply evocative. Listen to some tracks here.
#8. Loscil – Sea Island
A welcome return to the core loscil sound, this latest album weaves the characteristic gently hypnotic tones and rhythms around an evocation of the tensions surrounding an island, once home to a Native American tribe, that now houses Vancouver airport and a nature preserve. Beauty, melancholy and an underlying tension combine with the song titles into a thought-provoking implied narrative. Full review and stream of the intricate opening track here.
#9. Chick Corea Trio – Trilogy
Pianist Corea is joined by bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade for three CDs filled with scintillating live recordings made around the world. Simply three genuinely virtuoso musicians sounding as if they are enjoying themselves greatly while offering up almost four hours of captivating music. Preview the album here.
#10. Tinariwen – Emmaar
The throaty vocals, snaking melody lines, and bluesy guitars are all in full force on this latest from the Tuareg maestros, but more than anything it’s the intricately insistent rhythms that grab me by the ears and make my poor Western body want to move in more than one direction at once. A compelling glimpse into another musical dialect, seasoned with just enough of the West to provide a bridge. Stream the full album here.
#11. Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath
Billed as “twelve works for voice and 1/4″ tape”, the melodic beauty of a trained male tenor duets with a medium that encases it in loops and decays into distortion, creating a broken patchwork through which the vocal melody shines like shafts of sunlight through winter cloud. Listen here.
#12. Pascal Savy – Adrift
This almost feels like a companion album to the Rafael Anton Irisarri release – ocean-themed, built on finely textured, mysteriously swirling mists of sound with hints of strings, evoking a softly swelling place, numinous, and without horizon. Ominous moments and hints of the chaotic power of the elements resolve ultimately in a quiet disappearance into the fog. Listen here.
#13. Illuha – Akari
A little more austere in places than their somewhat lusher previous work, this latest from duo Illuha continues their focus on rustling, glistening landscapes of tiny sounds, inviting the listener to slow, to linger, to notice little, fragile shards of light and welcome them in silence. It embodies pleasure in the discovery of small beauties. Listen to a track here.
#14. Thomas Köner – Tiento de las Nieves
A departure from Köner’s accustomed arctic wastes of sonic near-absence, this 68 minute piece recalls compositions such as Michael Nyman’s Decay Music that work by letting single piano gestures decay into stillness instead of sustaining motion by hurrying into one another. Köner adds a focus on bringing deep resonances to the fore, conjuring haunting extended tones from the slide into silence. Listen to an excerpt here.
#15. Kate Carr – The Kakapo
I am cheating slightly with this one, letting it stand for a series reaching back into late 2012. Kate Carr commissioned 12 ambient works for 3″ CD, each focused on a specific bird. Taking us beyond the well-trodden path of random birdsong used to adorn relaxation music, the series yielded an array of fascinating compositions each saying something about a specific feathered creature and our relationship to it. Carr’s meditation on the kakapo, an endangered flightless parrot, brought the visionary series to a satisfying close. Listen here.
#16. Avishai Cohen – Dark Nights
This album by rising jazz trumpeter Cohen had me hooked from its plaintively bluesy, tensely brooding opening notes. The rest of the album soars and wanders through varying styles and moods, all conveying passion without bluster and an accessible yet rigorous honesty. Listen here.
#17. René Margraff – Phasen
The album’s title suggests states of being rather than stories, and indeed each track by René Margraff focuses more on a particular texture than on constructing movement. As I listen to each hazily droning modulation of noise I find myself thinking of it as the atmosphere of a room in an abandoned building, each with its own space and debris and pattern of dusty sunlight and dim atmosphere. Listen here.
#18. Peter Rosendal – Love for Snail
The title and cover offer clues to the sheer quirky difference of this album, which seems determined to figure out how many diverse ways it can make a catchy tune without losing its sense of offbeat surprise at the fresh sounds that music can make. It’s jazz of an idiosyncratic, impish bent, and it makes me smile. I couldn’t find a public stream, but it’s on the major music services.
#19. Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder – Spark of Life
I have been a fan for a while of this trio’s music and of Wasilewski’s approach to the piano. This latest release slides more easily into the background than earlier efforts, but contains plenty of beauty when given full attention. I never would have believed that a jazz piano trio treatment of The Police’s Message in a Bottle would ever be my favorite track on an album… Listen here.
#20. Lawrence English – Wilderness of Mirrors
Exploring sonic territory similar to some of Tim Hecker’s work, English offers here a series of exercises in controlled fury, a measured gusting of swirling noise punctuated with the ominous hum of absence. Finely crafted, dramatic, at some points even awe-inspiring. Listen here.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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