Listening Listfully 2017
December 31, 2017
Time is up, year is done.
July 3 of 2018 will mark the ostensible 15th Anniversary of this blog. There were giants in those days, and I stared enviously up at their scabby brilliant knees. Who knows what I may push myself to do with this dear weary site in the coming year. I suspect there will be more poetry; I hope there will be something more frequently appealing as well.
So here we are again with "Listening Listfully", my catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. Old school preferences underlie the thing: a preference for music arranged into "albums" or their equivalent, and a preference for buying and owning said music (in the hope its creators might actually be compensated for their creations) over smash-and-grab streaming. A random quantity of numbered choices in the mid-forties this year, followed by an unquantified miscellany because, as I said in 2016, "the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end."
I style this blog as an index of enthusiasms. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. The rankings become increasingly imprecise with each step down the line. I have provided commentary, of sorts, for the first fifteen on the list; it is a random stopping point, driven mostly by a desire to post this while it is still 2017 (at least in North America). There are inevitably many recordings of quality omitted, simply because I have yet to listen to them.
Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins the twelfth edition of The List:
1. Michael Vincent Waller - Trajectories
This is a beautiful recording. To hear it gives pleasure. Great, if quiet, pleasure. This music engages the lived and living world, and particularly the acts of receiving that world through the senses and of sifting through it in the mind, in dreams, or, if one insists, in the soul, and finds the essentials of that world to be, if only impurely, good and deserving of the engagement, and the engagement good and deserving of being shared. This is hardly the only task that music, or most any art, can choose to take on itself—this List, in any given year, is something of a demonstration of how many different things music can attempt to "do", including choosing to do nearly nothing—but it is a task that has always appealed to this particular listener. When I wrote about Michael Vincent Waller's first major collection, 2015's The South Shore, I invoked Baudelaire's phrase: luxe, calme et volupté. That still fits.
This collection focuses principally on works for solo piano, plus a pair of mid-length pieces for piano with cello. The pianist is R. Andrew Lee, best known for his recordings of adventurous minimalism and composers of Wanderweiser group. on the Irritable Hedgehog label. The cellist is Seth Parker Woods. The style and sensibility of the music is Waller's own, but it is easily associated with pianistic forebears such as Erik Satie (in particular), Harold Budd, and John Cage's "In a Landscape", with a dash of Gavin Bryars' string writing. Although it is not in general circulation (it was shared with supporters of one of his commissioning projects) Andy Lee has recorded a delicious collection of Satie and Satie-influenced piano, and that portion of his repertoire serves him well here.
At the time of release, the composer and players presented a handful of live performances, including one I was able to attend in Santa Monica. The balding back side of my head is, blessedly, out of frame in this video of "Lines" from that set:
2. Sam Amidon - The Following Mountain
In the opening moments of "Ghosts", Sam Amidon bellows "I'm all out of ideas!" He is mistaken. His work has been a fixture of this list for nigh on a decade now, and the ideas never stop. Built largely on gleanings from a single long guardedly improvisational recording session, the album is a slurry combining the folk, trad, banjo, fiddle, and shape note material one expects with Sam's longstanding interest in new music and in experimental and avant corners of jazz, with drummer Milford Graves as emissary and conduit. Sam Gendel [#6, below] and his saxophone bring additional savor. At this time, my personal favorite among Sam's albums, and a good précis of what makes all of them so rewarding.
3. Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Bjarnason - Recurrence
The best full-orchestra album of 2017. Accept no substitutes. Composer Daníel Bjarnason conducts works by the current generation of Icelandic composers, including his own darkly surging "Emergence". (There is a superb version of that piece on his Bedroom Community debut, . This new version is better.) Bjarnason co-curated (with Esa-Pekka Salonen) the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Reykjavik Festival in spring 2017, and most of these pieces turned up on one program or another. If any doubt remained, that Festival and this recording serve as compelling testimony to the creative variety and strength of Icelandic music at this time.
[Both Daníel Bjarnason and Anna Thorvaldsdottír also have pieces on Los Angeles Percussion Quartet's Beyond, #8 below.]
4. Miles Mosley - Uprising
Miles Mosley plays bass in Kamasi Washington's band, and much of this material comes out of the West Coast Get Down sessions that eventually resulted in Washington's epic Coltranesque epic, The Epic. In Washington's band, Mosley does most everything one can with an upright bass: plucking, bending, bowing, and more. Rather than a jazz-jazz album, Uprising is a floor-shaking contemporary soul/R&B session. Mosley is an appealing singer, on the lines of Stevie Wonder's grittier side. Just when you wonder where all the bass is, you realize that what you may have thought was electric guitar, including the Hendrixy solos, is the bass. Plenty of bottom here, in every sense. [More West Coast Get Down-adjacent music appears below, from Kamasi Washington (#9) and Natasha Agrama (#11).]
5. Slowdive - Slowdive
I rediscovered a hitherto unrecalled fondness for shoegaze this year. This, the first new Slowdive album in 22 years, sealed the deal. Bathe in it.
6. Sam Gendel - 4444
and Sam Gendel - HAT TRICK
and Sam Gendel - Double Expression
Sam Gendel, largely on saxophone, is an important contributor to Sam Amidon's The Following Mountain [#2, above]. On 4444, his first album under his own name (largely featuring his trio previously recorded under the name of Inga), largely foregoes saxophone in favor of lithe, swirling, bossa nova flavored guitar songs. It remakes any space quite attractively while it is playing, and the occasional gesture toward sociopolitical concerns led me to characterize it on Twitter as "José González, with thorns".
The vocal-free HAT TRICK and Double Expression return the saxophone to the foreground. The former is a three-track EP of Gendel solo improvisations, with loops and electronics, very much in the vein of Jon Hassell; the latter is nearly two and a half hours of material recorded live, in duo and trio formats, on a single afternoon in an apartment and on the sidewalks of L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood. In all of these settings, Gendel's groove is true.
[Although he does not, I believe, appear on Aromanticism (#10 below), Sam Gendel also plays in Moses Sumney's touring band.]
7. Aaron Roche - HaHa HuHu
Recommended, for recondite strangeness, for grit & sparkling lint, for indwelling beauties.
8. Los Angeles Percussion Quartet - Beyond
There is a good argument to be made that the U.S. is currently in something of a Golden Age of Percussion Ensembles. In composition and in performance, the music on this two-disc set is roughly as good as contemporary percussion music gets. Chris Cerrone's "Memory Palace" never fails to move me as a solo piece, and this rearrangement for quartet is my favorite version yet. Andrew McIntosh's disc-long "I Hold the Lion's Paw" is an quietly immersive amble through a vivid series of interior landscapes, a trip unto itself. I strongly suspect that I will look back someday and decide I have underrated Beyond in this ranking.
9. Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference
A six-part jazz suite with Washington and band building and trading themes and solos, the whole structure bursting to accumulated glory in its final long segment. Supremely satisfying.
10. Moses Sumney - Aromanticism
Moses Sumney's falsetto. Draperies of diaphanous sound. Love and sex and happiness and their alternatives, stewed, steamed, and seasoned in yearning. Harp. Did I mention that falsetto?
11. Natasha Agrama - The Heart of Infinite Change
Although Natasha Agrama has West Coast Get Down connections, and has sung with Kamasi Washington's band, there is no sign of Miles Mosley (#4 above) on bass. Instead, one must make do with Thundercat or with the singer's stepfather, Stanley Clarke. The bass chair nicely signifies the heady mix of youth and experience on this record. The other old lion on hand, in his final session, is the late George Duke. A beautifully spare version of "In a Sentimental Mood," with just Clarke and Duke and an occasional fingersnap for accompaniment, is the second best thing here. Best is a reworking of Joni Mitchell's reworking of Charles Mingus's homage to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," expanded into a tribute to the song's entire line descent, its focus shifting from New York to Los Angeles, to dazzling effect.
12. The Knells - Knells II
Progressive rock. Medieval polyphony. Two great tastes that continue to go great together in the hands of Andrew McKenna Lee and band. Really, you should try this.
13. Donny McCaslin - Beyond Now
David Bowie played saxophone himself in the early part of his career. Donny McCaslin has the distinction of being Bowie's last sax player, as part of the jazz-based band assembled for Blackstar. McCaslin's latest with his own longtime band includes two Bowie-Eno covers: "A Small Plot of Land" from Outside and a gripping and granitic version of "Warszawa" from Low, the latter seemingly filtered through the lens of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." The blowing and swinging and escalating choruses on the remainder of the album are also of top blowing and swinging quality.
14. The Mynabirds - BE HERE NOW
Laura Burhenn, rocking the #Resistance. Quite aside from its politics, this album satisfies in ways one used to be able almost to take for granted in American Rock Records.
15. Psychic Temple - IV
Another waking dream narrative of Southern California musics. Chris Schlarb is a wizard at this.
Further in the way of item by item commentary affiant sayeth not, at this point in time. Affiant reserves the right perhaps to return and scribble post hoc commentary on some or all of the entrants below, all of which are worthy of your attention.
16. R. Stevie Moore & Jason Falkner - Make It Be
17. World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
18. Nadia Sirota - Tesselatum
19. ensemble, et al. - The Slow Reveal
20. The National - Sleep Well Beast
21. Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF - Cascades
22. Jasper String Quartet - Unbound
23. Del Sol String Quartet - Dark Queen Mantra
24. Scott Wollschleger: Soft Aberration
25. The Tape Disaster - Oh! Myelin!
26. Qasim Naqvi - FILM
27. Theo Bleckmann - Elegy
28. Amir ElSaffar/Rivers of Sound - Not Two
29. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Courtenay Budd - David Del Tredici: Child Alice
30. William Basinski - A Shadow in Time
31. Kovtun - Infernal
32. Choral Arts Initiative - How To Go On: Choral Music of Dale Trumbore
33. Casey Dienel - Imitation of a Woman to Love
34. The Dan Ryan - Guidance
35. Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh - Expedition: Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations
36. Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister - Planetarium
37. Liew Niyomkarn - Nº 3
38. Conrad Winslow: The Perfect Nothing Catalog
39. Daniel Corral: Refractions
40. Flower Crown - GLOW
41. Herod - Herod Plays Kraftwerk
42. Crash Ensemble - Ghosts
First, a selection of electronics, drones, and declamations, with a cover photo by ... me.
Gavin Gamboa - La Bibliothèque Fantastique
Next, the late Julius Eastman, whose rediscovery continues apace, in a 1974 live performance by himself with S.E.M. Ensemble, and in a hotchachacha 2017 cover version by Horse Lords.
Julius Eastman: Joy Boy
Horse Lords - Julius Eastman: Stay On It [from Horse Lords' Mixtape IV]
Some more Brazilians (to go with #25 and #31 above).
Dialeto - Bartok in Rock
Devilish Dear - These Sunny Days
Juna - Marina Goes to the Moon
Some single-piece [i.e., non-album release] new music in the somewhat classical vein.
Jonathan Morgan - Nick Norton: Elegy II
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet - Matt McBane: For Triangles
A handful of further jazz-related choices.
Morgan Guerin - The Saga II
Dwight Trible - Inspirations
DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski, Scofield - Hudson
And no musical year can end well without a pair of Gabriel Kahane releases: three solo piano pieces, featuring Timo Andres, and two new songs.
With that, this blogger wishes for you all a fine and musical 2018. As the sage says, things can only get better.