This was a good year for music for me, and by that I mean that I’ve probably spent more time communing with guitars and amps and small but expensive metal boxes than I have worrying about staying on top of the trends. Because, really, when you’re making music that makes you happy, who cares about the trends? (In other words, I feel a lot like Adrian Mack, although I’m more polite. And I’m not going to put any historical music on my list but, yeah, I’m with him on that Native North America compilation.)
Not one but two mandolin albums made the Top 10 long list this year, with this narrowly trumping Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer’s Bass & Mandolin for the top spot. I’m not quite sure why, except that Israel’s Avi Avital brings an edge to his playing that’s expected in bluegrass but that’s truly rare in the classical world.
Songs for the Underclass
The musical highlight of my year was getting to play in Art Bergmann’s band—and watching him transform from a frail survivor into a one-man electrical storm on a nightly basis. For proof that his writing has been similarly renewed, check out this four-song EP’s caustic and chaotic “Drones”.
The Nels Cline Singers
Using Macroscope as Exhibit A, you could easily argue that guitarist Nels Cline is a popularizer as much as he is an innovator; much of the music here builds on earlier work by his heroes John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie, and the late Jim Hall. But Cline brings so much of his own energy to the table that no one’s complaining.
One defining trend of the current moment is that of musicians visiting the past in order to invent the future, and there’s no better example than this fantastic fusion of rural Moravian melody and urban improv. Working with material collected by Julia Ulehla’s great-grandfather during the early 20th century, the singer and her guitarist husband, Aram Bajakian, have arrived at music that’s deeply affecting and powerfully new.
Neelamjit Dhillon Quartet
Inspired by but only occasionally referencing the 1914 incident in which 352 mostly Punjabi immigrants were turned away from the port of Vancouver, multi-instrumentalist Neelamjit Dhillon’s debut as a leader is a smouldering monument to the brutal past, elegantly lit by hope for the multicultural future.
Obliquely drawing on a period of great personal torment, In Conflict immediately seduces the ear with its rich textures, and then releases its meaning over time. Pallett is one of the most ambitious musicians in Canada, and that he has something to say greatly adds to his allure.
Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suites
The veteran avant-jazz trumpeter’s Ten Freedom Summers was edged out of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for music by violinist Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, but this is a similarly expansive undertaking. It’s also evidence that age is no barrier to excellence or ferocity in jazz, with 72-year-old drummer Jack DeJohnette giving a master class in how to stretch, fold, and sequence time.
Outspoken and charismatic, Tanya Tagaq gets most of the media attention, and rightly so. But the Polaris Prize–winning Animism also showcases the telepathic rapport she has with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and how forward-thinking improvisers can inject both intensity and joy into what increasingly passes for pop.
Lullabies for one’s inner monster, as crafted by Calgary’s inimitable master of the handmade and the surreal. Strange and lovely as Shrink Dust might be, however, it’s probably only a teaser for the full-length animated feature Chad VanGaalen is threatening to spring on us next year.
The electric guitar has been with us for 80 years or more, but most contemporary composers remain immune to its nasty, gritty possibilities. Victoria-based Adrian Verdejo has tracked down six who aren’t, though, making Modern Hearts a most auspicious debut.