It’s an interesting mix this year: half of these records reflect their makers’ highly politicized engagement with the world, while the rest describe interior landscapes or complex psychological states. What links them all is technical proficiency, unbridled imagination, and a fearless disregard for genre.
Bill Frisell’s other 2013 release, Big Sur, is beautiful and bittersweet, but this solo undertaking finds the Seattle guitarist diving deeper into otherworldly soundscapes and outré noise—which makes for a much truer picture of what lurks beneath the nicest man in showbiz’s amiable exterior.
Loud City Song
Although you’ll likely find Los Angeles native Julia Holter filed under “indie rock”, she’s also got a degree in composition, and Loud City Song is as much a new-music song cycle as a pop record. Some might find Holter’s fragile voice off-puttingly waifish, but her surging, near-orchestral arrangements compensate nicely.
Vaincu.Va! Live at Western Front 1978
Why is an archival recording from 1978 on a 2013 Top 10 list? Well, I was at the original concert, had my 23-year-old mind blown, and still find Evan Parker’s solo saxophone wizardry astonishing—which made it easy for me to write the liner notes for this vinyl-only release.
Montreal-by-way-of-New-York band Plumes epitomizes one of this moment’s most promising trends: the merging of new-music smarts with pop-music immediacy. Here, that means singer Veronica Charnely writing her songs on electric guitar, then giving them to percussionist-composer Geof Holbrook to arrange for a band that includes both bass clarinet and harp. Plumes is a lovely and very promising debut.
Alasdair Roberts & Friends
A Wonder Working Stone
He’s Scottish, wordy, and weird, so why wouldn’t Alasdair Roberts be my favourite songwriter (other than Bob Dylan, of course)? A Wonder Working Stone doesn’t quite match the heights of the luminous The Amber Gatherers or the eldritch Spoils, but does an appropriately wondrous job of balancing the charming with the uncanny.
Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
Composer and saxophonist Matana Roberts compares her compositional approach to quilting, which is an apt analogy for the way the 18 short pieces here add up to a kaleidoscopic overview of her family’s triumphs and tragedies under the yoke of American apartheid.
Stefano Saletti & Piccolo Banda Ikona
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Italian multi-instrumentalist Stefano Saletti has collected political songs from around the Mediterranean, arranged them for his band of all-stars, and delivered a record that is at once a manifesto, a dance party, and a masterpiece.
West African music is beautiful, rock is urgent, and this fusion of the two has the kind of beautiful urgency that’s rare in any genre. Recorded in the wake of the Islamist insurgency in Mali, singer-guitarist Rokia Traoré’s collaboration with PJ Harvey sidekick John Parish has a political dimension, but its overall tone is one of fierce glee.
Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
Austere to the point of severity, marked by a sepulchral, reverb-cloaked hush, and delivered at the pace of a funeral cortege, Outstairs is as serious as serious music gets. But when bandleader and keyboardist Christian Wallumrød warms things up with lush horns, the effect is transfixing—and transcendental.
Christian Zehnder and Gregor Hilbe
Although they’re nominally Swiss, I don’t know what planet these two really come from. But it’s one where funky beats, creaky accordions, and ethereal overtone singing can happily coexist, and I think I’d like to live there, too.