Best albums of the year 2016: Alexander Varty

    1 of 11 2 of 11

      I was toying with the idea of handing my 2016 Top 10 over to the ECM label, which has been on a glorious roll for the entirety of this decade.

      Three of the records here—from Michael Formanek, Ches Smith, and András Schiff—are from that imprint, and it would have been easy to select seven more.

      Instead, I opted for records that are explicitly about communication, whether that’s the instinctive sharing of improvised sonic information, a call for unity in the face of a world gone mad, or the miraculous survival of a lost musical language.


      A Tribe Called Red — We Are the Halluci Nation

      Urban aboriginals welcome the world to their party on this gloriously openhearted invitation to think and dance. Hints of Latin music and Sami singing creep into the mix, although A Tribe Called Red’s underpinnings of powwow chanting and drumming are even more vividly present on a record that pulsates with strength of purpose.


      Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus — The Distance

      Drawing on inspirations as diverse as cosmic French composer Olivier Messiaen and American jazz philosopher Duke Ellington, this Brooklyn big band has a vast range and high standards. Leader Michael Formanek writes intricate charts, but his huge sound on the upright bass makes sure that they’re delivered with a visceral kick.


      Mary Halvorson — Away With You

      Mary Halvorson’s angular melodies reflect her mentor Anthony Braxton’s influence, but there’s an underpinning sweetness to this octet recording that Braxton’s music often lacks, making it an exceptionally appealing document of state-of-the-art improvisation. And then there’s the fact that, on guitar, Halvorson goes places no one else can find.


      Veda Hille — Love Waves

      Neither musical theatre nor a concept album, Love Waves is Veda Hille’s first singer-songwriter record in quite some time. It’s also her initial venture into electro-pop, crafted with the help of studio guru and New Pornographer John Collins. The sounds might be familiar, but Hille’s oblique intelligence ensures that the effect is ever-fresh.


      András Schiff — Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas

      Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositional genius finds its purest expression in his string quartets and piano sonatas, and no one gets to the heart of the latter more insightfully than András Schiff. Reviewing Schiff’s 2015 concert at the Chan, I praised his songlike elegance and superhuman concentration; in this collection of the complete sonatas, there are 11 CDs’ worth of that brilliance to enjoy at home.


      John Scofield — Country for Old Men

      The punning title’s no joke: the senior member of guitarist John Scofield’s quartet, bassist Steve Swallow, is a spry 76. The concept—country songs given a jazz makeover—has also been around for a while, but trust me: once you hear Scofield and company tackle Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”, you’ll celebrate the wisdom of age.


      Ches Smith — The Bell

      The bad news is that The Bell falls just short of capturing the ferocious focus of drummer Ches Smith, pianist Craig Taborn, and violist Mat Maneri’s February 17 concert at the Western Front. The good news is that their show was the best thing I heard all year, and this will get you 98 percent of the way there.


      Tanya Tagaq — Retribution

      If the state of the world makes you want to scream, you’re in good company. Tanya Tagaq’s new effort is more straightforward than her Polaris Prize–winning Animism, but no one speaks—or howls—for the Arctic and the Earth with more conviction.


      Various Artists — Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

      I don’t think we’re supposed to recommend archival recordings, but this elaborately packaged collection of four CDs and a 120-page book isn’t exactly Foghat’s Finest. Praise to novelist and composer Paul Bowles for documenting these ecstatic sounds, and to the Dust-to-Digital label for making them widely available!


      Various Artists — The Lost Songs of St. Kilda

      It’s almost a ghost story: the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda had a thriving musical culture when it was evacuated by government order in 1930, but no one thought to document its hymns and work songs.

      One nameless piano teacher remembered them, though, and taught them to a boy called Trevor Morrison, who carried them in his own memory for almost 70 years. Morrison recorded them shortly before he died, and those recordings, along with newly orchestrated versions from some very accomplished composers, are what we have here.

      The dead walk among us, beautifully.