By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Analysis and Opinion, Classical, Dance, Drone, Electronic, Experimental, Jazz, Post-Rock, Techno, Vital Albums, World | No Comments »
Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.
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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.
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Any list implies criteria, but let’s eliminate some obvious candidates. This is not a list of the most original, or significant, or skilled, or successful releases of 2013. There is so much that I simply did not listen to that those kinds of judgments are out of reach (for me as for everyone else). Instead, I asked myself: if I were to be separated from my music for a month or two and could only keep 20 albums from my collection with me, all released in 2013, which would I choose? This approach keeps me from adding or skipping things because I somehow feel I ought to. Worthy or not in the ears of the world, this is what I liked most from this year’s releases. Listen in; who knows, you might like it too.
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I reviewed here the most recent album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat. Following that review, Stakula, the band’s leader, kindly agreed to an interview, offering some insights into the processes behind the music.
Valta is an addition to what by now is a substantial body of work, and Alamaailman Vasarat has established a distinctive sound. Has anything changed on this album compared to previous releases?
The most obvious changes were in the lineup. Before the Valta sessions, our new drummer Santeri Saksala had already performed with the band for a year, much to our enjoyment. The live performances really tightened up and had a whole new level of energy. In the Valta sessions, his knowledge and passion for the drums as instruments made a huge difference to album sound, not forgetting some of the most memorable improvised moments, like in the opening track “Riistomaasiirtäjä”. His contribution has made a huge impact in the overall sound of the band and we’re very happy to have him on board.
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Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).
#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.
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The Nordic Jazz sound has situated itself solidly at a distance from Jazz’s epicenter… introspective, austere, with drifting melodies, and rhythms that often eschew swing for drama. And as musicians from that fold push the envelope ever outward, it gets to where, perhaps, the music stops being Jazz at all. In the face of whether an album is of value, this genre philosophizing is a small matter.
What is of more compelling, though ancillary interest, is that by pushing the borders of Jazz outward, musicians who typically play other types of music are testing the waters of Jazz. Some, like Splashgirl, have actually built a foundation in one of the slight areas of fuzziness where genres cross over.
Combining elements of a Jazz piano trio, ambient electronica, and alt-classical new-schoolers like Nils Frahm, with Pressure, Splashgirl has created an intoxicating brand of music that may be tough to categorize, but very easy to enjoy.
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Slumber takes you, and as time passes, you slip into a vivid dream. You are at a heavy metal concert, and thrill to the first deep and doom-laden, viscerally crunching chords. Then you realize that what you thought were guitarists have morphed into cellists, and as the tempo shifts into double time a saxophone adds a frenetic melody. As you look around you find that you are actually sitting outside a cafe in Eastern Europe, and what started as a metal band is now playing klezmer. Some villagers are dancing – somehow it doesn’t strike you as odd that they are dancing the tango, or that evocative middle eastern melodies drop in and out of the tune. You glimpse palm trees, and then hear a jazz ensemble playing somewhere behind you as a marching brass band passes in front, with heavy metal riffs returning to punctuate their melody. But as you turn to watch, you are sitting in the corner of a deserted café in which the pianist is playing his way plaintively towards closing time. In your dream all of this makes sense; the transitions are not jarring but part of an oddly continuous dream logic in which you are in constant movement toward a destination that is ever on the tip of your tongue, yet each passing location is oddly right and vivid.
Such is the experience of listening to an album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat (which translates as “Hammers of the Underworld”). Alamaailman Vasarat create hugely entertaining instrumental music that draws from a bewildering variety of world music genres and fuses them within a progressive-rock-like inclination towards ever-shifting rhythms and bombastic flourishes.
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The ECM catalog is filled with piano trio albums of austerity and minimalism. For a piano trio to approach an album with a Doing More With Less minimalism is a daring venture, because the high risk is a drowsy album that ends up sounding flimsy and thin or, worse perhaps, lounge music for the late night dinner set. It’s not an easy thing to do, the peaceful piano trio recording.
The choice of notes has to be impeccable, since there ain’t gonna be as many to offer the listener. Honor has to be paid to the silence, and used as effectively as the sound made from the black and whites. Bass and drums have to be more than just tools of accompaniment, but in the framework of the quiet piano trio, they need to be sure to only use their Inside Voices. And then there’s the compositions themselves… it makes for great drama to witness the pianist furrow the brow and grimace and fire the inner core in the search for the perfect notes, but on a studio recording, none of that is gonna translate to the listener through the speakers if the tunes don’t have some spark of life, and all that dramatic minimalism will get drowned out by snores.
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“To me, it’s bogus that art can only be in museums. The real art is what goes on when people don’t expect it. My idea of a good time is getting in front of an audience and giving them more than they expected. That makes it a worthwhile, fulfilling thing to me.” – David Olney
Townes Van Zandt’s short list of favorite music writers included Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and … his buddy, David Olney. Obviously Olney keeps pretty good company, and deservedly so (except Eric Taylor once said, “Townes must have had a drink or two when he said Olney was up there with Mozart – Olney’s about as good as it gets when it comes to writin’, but he don’t sing like Mozart.”). With a career spanning more than four decades, he’s had time to polish his art to a fine shine. Whether performing blues, jazz, country, or folk ballads, Olney excels in them all – not to mention he can seriously rock. In short, David Olney is one brilliant artist – even if he doesn’t sing like Mozart. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with next.
His latest venture is a unique series of thematic mini-album EPs on his own Deadbeet Records label, two of which have been released so far. Each EP consists of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog tunes combined with brand new songs to create its own unique theme. The series capitalizes on Olney’s special talent for spinning a tale, which has made him one of the most original and impressive storytellers in the music business.
“Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.’” (From the CD cover)
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Marking Anders Koppel’s first solo Hammond organ release, Everything Is Subject to Change is an intriguing mix of atmospherics and organics. Pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Benjamin Koppel imbue the music with an austere elegance, whereas Anders Koppel’s organ and Jacob Andersen’s percussion brings an earthy element to the music. The balance between the two makes for an album that equally engages head and heart.
Your album personnel: Anders Koppel (organ), Benjamin Koppel (saxophones), Kenny Werner (piano & Fender Rhodes), and Jacob Andersen (drums & percussion).
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