The lauding of the subjective is upon us. Best of this, most popular of that. It’s list-making season. Here comes mine in the realm of music, probably with a few side trips and digressions. Last year was choked with the goods, so I’ll offer a scatter-shot of the year’s ear candy with clues.
Eastern European rhythms, easy escalating prog-rock riffology, maypole la, la, las, and injections of shadowy lyric simmer and furiously boil from the Brechtian cauldron of Cosa Brava’s The Letter. Leader Fred Frith’s bag of tricks is a world that his cohorts inhabit beautifully. You can feel the well-deserved pride in this work. Theatrical, fun, scary, pyrotechnic, and poetic. Nobody does this better.
Now hail all things Ty Segall and his album,Twins. (He also had fantastic albums in Hair, Slaughterhouse, and Putrifiers II). This cat drops records like Chris Rock f-bombs. A genuine rock and roll heart powers every release. Driving, dreamy, classic-infused super rock. Raw or slathered with psychedelic garage gravy, Segall either pounds or eases a mushroom nail into your alligator brain.
Maybe I should just list some favorites of the last orbit in an abbreviated form. If I yap on too much about each one this could get tedious.
Cate Le Bon, CYRK (and CYRK II): Syd Barrett reincarnate as a Welsh chanteuse.
First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Tastes like moss—and sunshine.
Chelsea Wolfe, Unknown Rooms: The gorgeous kind of creepy.
Bill Fay, Life Is People:Cult figure returns after 40-year absence; spare and beautiful.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Mature Themes: Future Legend’s perfect pop.
Liars, WIXIW: Fevered dream; post-punk-electro-beat.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing, The Cherry Thing: Raw, cool, and edgy (not like sushi).
My Jerusalem, Preachers: File with Bad Seeds and Morphine.
Goat, World Music: Afro-inflected psychedelia from Sweden—really.
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light: J Spaceman’s crumpled majesty returns.
Tame Impala, Lonerism: This band is one album away from being the new reference point.
Still want some bests of 2012? Sound design is the vague designation for the isotopic combination of Brian Eno-defined ambience, field recordings (real or conjured), and the use of strings in the classical tradition. Valgeir Sigurðsson does this brilliantly with Architecture of Loss. Minimal slow-moving character studies of deftly dynamic, perfectly sculpted music. What else do you expect from the producer of Bjork, Nico Muhly, Ane Brun, Ben Frost, and Feist?
Didymoi Dreams by Sidsel Endresen and Stian Westerhus is another adventurous soundscape. Endresen has built an impressive blend of language and glossolalia that spans narrative to other worldly. She is without doubt my favorite vocal improviser and, I think, without peer. Westerhus is a guitarist of the über process school and brings it to great effect on this live recording from Bergen, Norway’s Natt Jazz Festival.
I can’t decide if the term jazz is more anachronistic or useless. From its early use it owned and codified swing, but the swing of Lincoln Center and the ecstatic jazz of now peer at each other with a weary argument. Where I find most of the former to be reconstituted Wyntonian pap, the players that take hammer and tongs to the form and recontextualize the vocabulary feed my brainpan. Here’s some jazz stuff.
Mary Halvorson’s recordings with her own band have an angular cool and her compositions still read jazz in a space marked by Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Anthony Braxton. Her guitar on “Bending Bridges” has a real Linc Chamberlin/Joe Pass tone offering less rock than prior outings. Not to say that she doesn’t up the crunch every once in a while. Working in a trio with Weasel Walter and Peter Evans on Mechanical Malfunction, she brings a boatload of technique, extended and otherwise, and the trio builds empathetic art music.
Eivind Opsvik’s Overseas IV is jazzishness with arrangements that evoke Bernard Herrmann, Van Dyke Parks, and later-day Jim O’Rourke. Opsvik, a Norwegian transplant to Brooklyn, is a crazy-talented bassist and composer that you will undoubtedly hear more and more about.
John Zorn’s promiscuous output for his Tzadik label has become more miss than hit for me, and I find myself yawning at the more Klezmer-inflected and gravitating to the darker pieces like Templars: In Sacred Blood featuring the croon and strangulations of the iconoclastic Mike Patton or Rimbaud with it’s tasty pastiche of Schoenberg/Ives-isms. It’s not jazz but it somehow hits the flavor buds with a similar intrigue.
It’s always a good year for music if you know where to listen. Last year was spectacular and I could go on, but I’ll save some for next time. So deep you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it … I’m out.
Rick Morris was once the arbiter behind the bar at Asheville’s preeminent punk rock think-tank, Vincent’s Ear, where he pushed his would-be cognoscenti ideals on anyone in earshot. While in Asheville, Rick has been a rock ‘n’ roll drummer-singer, a front-man for a funk-rock extravaganza, a boy back-up singer for a female band, an improvising guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist, and even held forth with a singer-songwriter set once. Music is his life-blood and he keeps it transfusing constantly.