How to build a Top 10 list in five easy lessons: Nod to Vancouver’s never-stronger underground scene, led by a number of mostly female-fronted acts who can’t be characterized as anything other than “progressive”. Choose three releases from the Munich-based ECM label—it issued 44 albums in 2017, and half of them could have been on this list.
Pick one avant-folk album that offers a new and uncanny world couched in a bizarrely distorted version of a comfortingly familiar sound. Honour the fact that there’s more to life than the English language. And for God’s sake don’t let on that for the last month you’ve mostly been geeking out over Peter Green’s luminous guitar tone on an overlooked blues gem from 1969, Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. Ah, nostalgia. Sometimes, but not often, it’s okay.
The Book of Transfigurations
Singer Julia Úlehla’s great-grandfather Vladimir Úlehla literally wrote the book on Czech folk music as a pioneering ethnomusicologist during the first half of the 20th century. Her husband, improvising guitarist Aram Bajakian, has played with Lou Reed, John Zorn, and Diana Krall, among others. When the two fuse their interests and experiences, as they do here, they create an extraordinary melding of the past, present, and future, with their sympathetic band contributing kicking beats and nuanced, atmospheric textures. This is simply a great record, but Úlehla and Bajakian’s rapport is even more palpable live; should you get a chance to see them in concert, take it.
Like Alasdair Roberts and Joanna Newsom, Richard Dawson has an uncanny ability to create strange new worlds from the motley rags and tatters of history. His sixth solo album (and likely breakthrough effort), Peasant, is a series of character sketches—“Soldier”, “Weaver”, “Prostitute”—set in an unforgiving landscape that could be either medieval or postapocalyptic. Gorgeous tunes and surreal arrangements lighten the gloom in a most delightful way.
The Gamelan of the Walking Warriors
Gamelan Beleganjur and the Music of the Ngaben Funerary Ritual in Bali
Between the time I started compiling this list and now I’ve had two friends die, and another is being tested for cancer. So this intense, percussion-heavy ritual music, potent enough as an ethnological document, has taken on a layer of personal meaning that might not translate to other, less mournful listeners. Then again, everybody dies.
A Pouting Grimace
It’s a hard call: which Matt Mitchell album makes the Top 10 cut? Førage is a diamond-sharp solo-piano presentation of saxophonist Tim Berne’s music, but the wildly expressive A Pouting Grimace adds electronics to the mix (along with a who’s who of young Brooklyn overachievers) to make a strong case for the notion that contemporary improvised music is the new psychedelia.
Only a Visitor
I’m always going to be a sucker for any album that blends birdwatching and gamelan-influenced melodies, but what lifts Lines above the merely whimsical is the brilliant rapport between singer-pianist Robyn Jacob and backing vocalists Emma Postl and Celina Kurz. There’s something elemental about this vocal trio—and that’s perfectly suited to Jacob’s lyrics, which address fundamental questions about what it means to live in this fragmented, unfair, and beautiful world.
Drawing on the wide-screen visions of older Vancouver improvisers such as Ron Samworth, Peggy Lee, and his mentor Tony Wilson, guitarist Cole Schmidt has added volume and darkness. That’s never more apparent than on Sick Boss’s opening track, “Amadman”, which could easily serve as the soundtrack to a very weird superhero flick, complete with chase scene, percussive gunfire, and a deeply psychotic flashback sequence.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Forget the self-dismissive title: Incidentals is the sound of a great band getting even better—and deeper—as the multilayered, 26-minute-long “Sideshow” amply proves. With producer David Torn adding fuzzed-out guitar atmospherics to Berne’s band of avant-jazz virtuosos, the piece blends coiled-spring intensity with passages of chilly introspection that showcase drummer Ches Smith’s knack for timbral as well as rhythmic exploration.
Six magnificent chamber musicians—including cellist Peggy Lee, who’s also a member of Sick Boss and Dálava—tackle a well-chosen program of newish works, with the highlight being Music on Main composer in residence Nicole Lizée’s “Sculptress”. A tribute to British electronic-music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, it toys with the tropes of “library music”, but also contains some deliciously rhapsodic passages that are anything but anonymous.
Craig Taborn’s cryptic-crossword compositions somehow link the jazz greats of the past to the present moment: there are passages here where the pianist sounds like a careful student of Bud Powell or even Art Tatum, but then the sounds will slide into locked-groove stasis, revealing the influence of electronic dance music and minimalism. And sometimes the music incorporates all of these things at once, and more. Taborn is such a thoughtful composer that he can get shifting planes of almost-orchestral colour out of a simple acoustic quartet.
My Foolish Heart
A late-career masterpiece from one of my guitar heroes, My Foolish Heart also shows why Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and especially Nels Cline consider Ralph Towner a lifelong source of inspiration. You’d never guess that the Washington-state-born musician is 77 from this solo recording, which is consistently provocative, beautiful, and played with the nuanced attention to detail that has always been a Towner hallmark.More