Time is up, year is done, and once again it is time for the only remaining recurrent feature of this dusty and neglected blog, "Listening Listfully", my annual catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy.
I am particularly struck this year by how permeable the membranes continue to become between modes and genres, and how much I enjoy that multivalent intercursive flow. Jazz splashes on to folk, pop leaks through the interstices of whatever Classical may mean in these times, chocolate gets into peanut butter, "dogs and cats: living together!", and on and on. As Mr. Twin Sister would have it in the opening track of Salt [Number 6, infra]:
Keep on mixing, mix all people
Swirl enough and we'll all belong
This seamless web of musickes fascinates me. Historically, there has been a lot of contemporary classical/New Music at the upper ends of these lists, but this year there is no pure example in my Top 10, despite it having been a perfectly good year for such music. Nordic Affect, at Number 12, is the highest ranked straight-up example of the type - though you can make a good argument for Chris Kallmyer at Number 11, and there are elements and hints and implications sprinkled through the ostensible nonClassics above that. [I remarked eleven months ago that the entry point to John Hollenbeck's All Can Work, my eventual Number 1, "is not obviously a jazz piece at all: brass and winds sweep[ing] slow chords across chittering tuned percussion, in a manner akin to that of many a contemporary chamber group." Similar instances abound in the selections below.]
That said, all my old biases remain because heck! they work for me. The ruling biases include
- a preference for music arranged into "albums" or their equivalent
- a preference for buying and owning music (in the hope its creators might actually be compensated for their creations) over smash-and-grab streaming.
I feel more strongly than ever on that second point. I have a definite bias for music that can be accessed and purchased through Bandcamp, for the simple reason that it is the least intrusive middlething between listener and creator. Whenever possible, I have provided Bandcamp links to the music on this list. When there is no Bandcamp access, I have reluctantly embedded Spotify players because, while wicked, it provides ease of access to the listener. Anything Bandcampable can be bought through those Bandcamp players. For the rest, I've slipped in links to [cough cough] Amazon or, in some cases [Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Joe Garrison] to the musicians' own choice of independent distribution. However you choose to operate, I urge the rule, paraphrasing Dr. Frank N. Furter, "Don't stream it: Buy it."
The number and arrangement of the List is in constant flux. This year, I've numbered sixty choices, then added in an alphabetical listing of twenty or so more. As I said in 2016, "the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end." I am always one who hopes the music plays forever.
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.
For many of the selections on which I commented during the year via Twitter, I have embedded copies of some of those tweets. Others receive brief commentary here. Where that commentary is especially brief, it is a result of the desire to Get This Done so that it might post while it is still 2018 (at least in North America).
The same flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory thing as it ever was, here begins the thirteenth edition of The List:
1. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - All Can Work
In a post in late January, I touted All Can Work as "The First Great Record of 2018," adding that it was "all but guaranteed a high-ranking spot on my personal List when the year is old and done." The prophecy is hereby fulfilled. As highly as I regard the other collections collected below, on returning to All Can Work after several months in which I had not listened to it I found that it remained my clear choice as the most roundly, fully, and firmly satisfying album of the year.
2. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
The token Big Popular Success on this year's List, Dirty Computer needs no recognition from me, but will get it anyway. Funky, filthy, free; bracing and embracing. Listening just once is not really an option. I do not think I played anything else on this page quite so frequently as I did Dirty Computer over the course of the year.
3. Aidan O’Rourke – 365, Vol. 1 [featuring Kit Downes]
In 2013, author James Robertson set himself the task of writing one story each of the 365 days of the year, each story consisting of 365 words. Scottish fiddler/composer Aidan O'Rourke set himself the task of responding to one of those stories with a new composition each day for a year. This set of 22 pieces is the first of two contemplated releases of samplings from the result, on which O'Rourke shares in the harmonisation and playing with keyboardist Kit Downes [described by O'Rourke as drawing on "jazz and Ravel and church organ" which is plenty good enough for me]. It's a labyrinthine wonderment in which to get lost.
4. You Are Wolf – Keld
You Are Wolf is composer/singer Kerry Andrews' solo project, messing about with folk and traditional material and squeezing it out through a mesh of contemporary and avant- techniques. The first You Are Wolf album drew themes from bird life. Keld is steeped deep in bodies of water of all sorts. Gorgeous and occasionally unnerving.
5. Gabriel Kahane – Book of Travelers
The only album on this list that received a post of its own here this past year is sitting up there at #1. What has proven to be my only other musical post of 2018 went up roughly a week earlier, when I reported my thoughts on Gabriel Kahane's live performance of the songs that eventually saw release in August as Book of Travelers. I did not do a follow-up post when the recorded version appeared, though I certainly made mention on Twitter. Rather than reproduce one of my own tweets on this one, I will defer to Alex Ross of The New Yorker:
6. Mr. Twin Sister – Salt
First of two Unqualifiedly New York City bands in our top 10. I hear this music as the current iteration of that great NYC tradition of smart, if gawky, streetwise rock, following on from the likes of the Velvet Underground and [particularly] Talking Heads. I love this stuff. Note that the ordering between them is arbitrary; could easily have been vicey versey.
7. Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak
I have been posting about Sweet Billy Pilgrim since at least 2005, and at least two or three SBP albums would place among my favorites of this wacky 21st century. As a band, Sweet Billy Pilgrim is now a duo: Tim Elsenburg, the permanent participant, now writes, plays, and sings with Jana Carpenter, who first appeared two albums back. The instruments are fewer, and more likely to be acoustic, and the production is less esoterically prog-inclined than once it was [no dishwasher samples], but there's no harm done: the less flamboyant atmosphere serves to reemphasize that quality songwriting has always been the band's strongest suit. The harmonies are frequently evocative of Richard and Linda Thompson, and they are well suited to the wistfully morose material.
8. Ava Luna – Moon 2
Second of two Unqualifiedly New York City bands in our top 10. Cf. Mr. Twin Sister, supra, op. cit. I hear this music as the current iteration of that great NYC tradition of smart, if gawky, streetwise rock, following on from the likes of the Velvet Underground and [particularly] Talking Heads. I love this stuff. Note that the ordering between them is arbitrary; could easily have been vicey versey. I repeat myself when under stress I repeat myself
9. The Gloaming – Live at the NCH
The very word 'gloaming' reverberates, echoes - the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour - carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.
--Joan Didion, Blue Nights
That quotation was intended to open an unfinished post about The Gloaming that has been hanging about among my drafts for nearly five years, in which time the band has released two additional albums. Now at least it won't go to waste.
The Gloaming is an Irish-American supergroup of sorts, containing Iarla Ó Lionaird, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Thomas Bartlett. They work principally with Irish traditional music, buffed and polished with a combination of intensity, energy, not-quite-standard instrumentation, and random interjections of non-standard styles. Piano is, for example, not the most common of Irish traditional instruments (which tend to be more practical for the musician to carry from place to place), and Thomas Bartlett's piano is occasionally 'prepared'.
This set, produced by Bartlett, draws on recordings from the band's annual sold-out residences at Dublin's National Concert Hall. It is a grand jam.
10. Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
11. Chris Kallmyer – Juniper
12. Nordic Affect – H e (a) r
13. Nicole Mitchell – maroon cloud
14. Daníel Bjarnason – Collider
The latest collection of orchestral music from Daníel Bjarnason, including "Blow Bright", commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Bjarnason is very good at this orchestral writing thing.
15. Sam Wilkes – Wilkes
Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes – Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar
I first became aware of saxophonist/guitarist Sam Gendel in 2017, via his appearance on Sam Amidon's The Following Mountain. These two selections feature him with bassist Sam Wilkes, in a duo setting and as the abundantly featured player on Wilkes's own band-based release. Swirling, austere, spiritual jazz grooves from L.A.
16. MeShell Ndegocello – Ventriloquism
17. The Industry; Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group – Lou Harrison: Young Caesar
Lou Harrison's 1971 opera Young Caesar might well be subtitled "There and Back Again: a Roman's Holiday." It follows the teenaged Julius Caesar as he works to advance in Roman society, under the tutelage of his aunt Julia, by way of arranged marriages, public priestly service, and eventually a position as a staffer to a general. On the eve of his first battle, from which he hopes to gain a reputation for bravery and perhaps some valuable salvage, Caesar is dispatched to the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, to press for the delivery of some promised ships. In Bithynia, however, Caesar's diplomatic mission is temporarily forgotten as he becomes in short the boon companion and lover of the wealthy and attractive King. In the end Caesar accomplishes his mission and reluctantly parts from the Nicomedes, knowing he will likely never return, and sails again for Rome. It is a tale of love, duty, power, sacrifice, regret, and freedom: in other words, perfect for opera.
In June, 2017, the Los Angeles Philharmonic staged a single, revelatory performance of Young Caesar, in an edition and production devised by Yuval Sharon and The Industry, preserved in this live recording. The opera had never had a really successful performance previously, often as not because of backers getting cold feet over the controversial (read: overtly gay) nature of the work and its themes. Earlier versions of the libretto are also reputed to have been dramatically or structurally turgid. The Industry/LA Phil version proved eminently performable, musically and dramatically, confirming Young Caesar as a major 20th century American opera.
For all the serious matters on its agenda, Young Caesar is also shot through with humor, particularly in the person of Bruce Vilanch as the narrator, and in the production's embrace of florid gestures toward camp, particularly in the "eroticon" staged for Caesar by his Bithynian host - complete with flying phalloi, which are not in evidence on the recording. What will be plainly evident to listeners is the marvelous invention of Lou Harrison's score, and particularly his incorporation of Asian percussion and gamelan tunings to contrast staid Establishment Rome with exotic, intoxicating Bithynia.
18. Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Vol. 1)
The first new Jon Hassell release in nearly a decade, collecting recent exemplars of the diverse global paths he has trod over the decades.
19. Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
20. Field Music – Open Here
21. Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly – Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music
The grain of sand in the pearl here is a set of three dual piano transcriptions of Balinese gamelan music by Colin McPhee, which he completed and played with Benjamin Britten when both were expatriates in Brooklyn circa 1941. Composer Nico Muhly and singer-songwriter/producer Thomas Bartlett [Doveman] play the McPhee pieces,as well as nine other songs musically and harmonically inspired by them. As a practical matter, this is three-quarters of a Doveman album in all but name, and welcome for that.
22. Joe Garrison – The Broken Jar
23. Gavin Gamboa – 1685: Shadow Owes Its Birth to Light
Gavin Gamboa – Urgency Apparatus
Gavin Gamboa – Lipolysis
24. Anthony Roth Costanzo – ARC
25. Steve Reich – Pulse / Quartet
26. Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen
Ambitious orchestral singer-songwriterness, with echoes of Minnie Ripperton and more.
27. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest
Genre defiance of the best kind, combining Akinmusire's jazz trumpet and small jazz group with the Mivos Quartet and rapper Kool A.D. This was a late and recent discovery, and might well have wound up higher on the list with a few more listens.
28. Foresteppe – Maeta
Samples derived from the forest and steppes of Siberia, abstracted and diffused and etherealized.
29. Donny McCaslin – Blow.
From Bowie's last sax player. Rock-leaning New York jazz, to be played loud.
30. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Kamasi and friends doing what they do. Pssst: Some of the most interesting material is on the hidden third disc.
31. Elvis Costello – Look Now
A very good mature period Costello album, with strong ties back to his Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted from Memory.
32. Leverage Models – Whites
Synthpop agitprop, kicking paradigms and taking names.
33. Richard Swift – The Hex
Final release of the late Richard Swift. Sad pop made sadder by his loss.
34. Scott Worthington – Orbit
A little bit Wandelweiser, a little bit drone.
35. Psychic Temple (feat. Cherry Glazerr) – Houses of the Holy Vol. 1
First in a promised series of lightning speed collaborative recordings between Psychic Temple (Chris Schlarb) and a range of other bands. Just a shade darker and more savory than my tweet might suggest.
36. The Lazy Lies – Less Talk More Action
Everything old is new again Brit Invasion-styled pop tunes, straight out of Barcelona.
37. Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed
38. Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp – Sauvages Formes
A jazzlike orchestra, with strings, incorporating plenty of world music and club beats.
39. Niechęć – Live at Jazz Club Hipnoza
Prog-Jazz from Poland. These live versions are enhanced in some cases by the presence of a King Crimson-emulating cello.
40. Hilja – Cucina Povera
Sounds like Iceland – spaces expanding into spaces, wind strewn and cinder blown – but it's Finno-Glaswegian. Layered voice, field recordings, subtilectronica, and a relationship to language somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Sigur Ros: a mystic sophistic blend.
41. Beachglass – Sunroom Sanctuary
Something in a tasty psychfolk vein, from Montreal.
42. Aaron Martin – Touch Dissolves
Atmospheres and moonbeams.
43. My Brightest Diamond – A Million and One
Shara Nova, now with 32% more beats and danceability.
44. Philip Glass – Symphony No. 11
Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass. Most everything he has learned about orchestration over the years - which is a great deal - is on display here. Symphony No. 12 ["Lodger"] premieres January 2019 in Los Angeles.
45. LeStrange Viols – Æternum - Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 31390
Viols! Elizabethan repertoire! What more do you need to know?
46. Clarice Jensen – For This From That Will Be Filled
Cello and electronics and drones, oh my.
47. International Contemporary Ensemble – Aequa
A survey of recent works by Iceland's Anna Þorvaldsdóttir.
48. Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light
Angelique Kidjo re-appropriates Talking Heads' Remain in Light for Africa, to excellent effect.
49. Duo Odeon – Specter: The Music of George Antheil
Although he was in fact American, I persist in thinking of George Antheil as French, largely because he composed the score to Fernand Leger's 1924 Dada film "Ballet Mécanique". I learned of my error when I tweeted about this recording. Although I got his Frenchness wrong, I otherwise stand by my assessment of Antheil's fine music.
50. Marc Mellits; New Music Detroit – Smoke
Groovy Fun with Minimalism.
51. Astronauts, etc. – Living in Symbol
Sophisto bedroom pop from Oakland.
52. Tammy Evans Yonce – Dreams Grow Like Slow Ice
New music for solo flute, much of it utilizing the glissando headjoint.
53. Simon Jermyn + Ben Goldberg – Silence
A meditative jazz excursion.
54. Olden Yolk – Olden Yolk
Freak folk meets Belle & Sebastian? I dunno, but I like it.
55. Olivia Chaney – Shelter
Luxe contemporary folk, from a zone somewhere between June Tabor and Laura Marling, with a surprise cameo appearance by Henry Purcell. Arranged and produced with unfailing subtlety by Thomas Bartlett.
56. Subtle Degrees – A Dance That Empties
Abstract and expansive new music from the duo of tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante [Battle Trance] and percussionist Gerald Cleaver.
57. Sergey Akhunov – Victor Hugo’s Blank Page
A survey of new and previously released compositions from the Russian composer.
58. The Hands Free – The Hands Free
59.The Nouveau Classical Project – Currents
New York based contemporary quintet offers up new compositions from David Bird, Olga Bell, and [my personal favorite here] Isaac Schankler.
60. Marc Ribot – Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018
I am conflicted about this set, which likely accounts for it landing way down here at Number 60 while having induced from me a longer Twitter thread than anything else on the card.
Les mentions d'honneur. Chevaliers de l'ordre alphabétique:
Aizuri Quartet – Blueprinting [rising contemporary music string quartet with chops so sharp you may cut yourself just by listening]
Alex Crispin – Open Submission [lovely ambient ambiences]
Arooj Aftab – Siren Islands [woven drones and atmospheres of mystery]
Baeilou – Inside Under EP [Singing cellist draws musical tools and styles from a list at least as long as your arm; hoping to hear more from her, soon.]
Brad Mehldau – After Bach [Mehldau plays Bach, and constructs Bach-like structures of his own, to fine effect]
Crash Ensemble, et al. – Andrew Hamilton: Music for People
Eiko Ishibashi – The Dream My Bones Dream [uncategorizable really I can't even]
Etienne Jaumet – 8 Regards Obliques [clubland takes on classic jazz tunes]
Jacob Greenberg – Hanging Gardens [exploring the connective tissue between Debussy and Schoenberg]
John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once  [the "lost" album]
John Lindaman – Let the Power Fall Again [A revisitation/recreation of the core 1981 Frippertronics recordings, with the sort of rigor and exploratory respect typically reserved for, say, the Bach cello suites.]
Mammal Hands – Becoming EP [contains sweetly melanchoolic jazz-like substances]
[Medeski, Martin & Wood w/ Alarm Will Sound – Omnisphere [a live collaboration between the brainy witty jazz trio and the brainy witty new music orchestra; features a super rendering of Caleb Burhans' "o ye of little faith (do you know where your children are)"]
Padma Newsome – The Vanity of trees [songs from the wood]
[Robbie Lee and Mary Halvorson – Seed Triangular [Two fine musicians exploring and improvising on instruments old and obscure to the point of being nigh hypothetical.]
St. Vincent – MassEducation [stripped down piano versions, with Thomas Bartlett, of the songs from Masseduction]
Sunda Arc – Flicker [an EP of lushly twitchy electronica from a member of Mammal Hands]
The Necks – Body [goes quite satisfyingly to 11 for a bit, but ultimately thinks better of it]
The Righteous Yeah – Goodbye [From a subidentity of New Zealand guitarist Michael Morley, crepuscular symphonic loops somewhat in the vein of William Basinski]
The Righteous Yeah – Unknown Album [likewise]
Yoko Ono – Warzone [at 85, the artist revisits her music, including taking her own run at "Imagine"; produced by Thomas Bartlett]
Zeal and Ardour – Stranger Fruit [black metal field hollers, not because they are easy but because they are hard]
Lagniappe: favorite song of 2018 not on an album that made it on to the List.