“Art of the Improviser”
Jazz pianist Matthew Shipp has a distinctive, instantly recognizable style that is deliciously complicated—at times forceful, explosive and dissonant, but always calculated; this double-album reveals him at the top of his game, featuring a disc with Shipp’s trio and a solo disc, demonstrating his adept quickness, both of the mental and physical kind.
The aggressive, white-hot jazz trio—comprised of cornetist Rob Mazurek, Tortoise drummer John Herndon, and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz—inspires energy with its fierce, all-acoustic approach; it’s stimulating but not a chaotic free-for-all, with focused playing, like guided missiles screaming articulately and tearing through the atmosphere.
The revival of 1980s pop music has reached a point of ridiculous and often insufferable ubiquity, so it’s that much more impressive that Destroyer’s latest—an amalgam of new wave and ’80s soft rock—manages to distinguish itself from the glut, with an air of sophistication, enigmatic lyrics, and a compelling narrative flow.
The most lyrically complex and oblique album of the year is this hip-hop excursion from former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler. With unusual beats and sliced-and-diced jazz samples, it’s an invigorating listen with magnificently dizzying wordplay.
“Bad As Me’
The junkyard, avant-hobo art-blues, gruff-cabaret-beatnik misanthropic stylings of Tom Waits are in a category of their own, and Waits’s latest—his first of new studio material in seven years—is up to his usual high standards; he shifts gears frequently, going from sentimental ballads to death-march war stomps, with vivid, twisted rhymes.
The year’s boldest expression of existential despair comes in the form of a hip-hop concept album from the unstoppable Philly outfit The Roots; this ambitious release follows the fictional character Redford Stephens in reverse chronology, and it’s quite possibly the band’s most affecting and penetrating album yet, which is saying a lot.
Perhaps the most overlooked and underrated pop album of the year is by this Fargo, N.D., trio, full of nostalgic pleasures, oozing with carefully placed flourishes and recorded with a cozy home-spun studio eccentricity. Charlie Gokey and Marie Parker trade off vocal duties with a distinct sweetness and charm.
The superb double-album from Liz Harris, aka Grouper, is full of foggy lullabies with a low-fidelity aesthetic, using guitar fuzz, soothing noise and Harris’s gorgeous (yet indiscernible) vocals to transport the listener to an alternate, placid universe.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
“The Coimbra Concert”
The intense NYC jazz quartet has a sly sense of humor, unloading a constant barrage of classic hard bop references and playing a four-way game of tug-of-war using jet fighters tied together. This live release is a playful, yet rigorous full-on fire hose of an album with skillfully executed transitions between wildly disparate moments.
Some of the most exciting rock music today comes from north Africa, and the latest album from the west Saharan outfit Group Doueh, led by skillfully frenetic guitarist Doueh, is a sterling example, with an unfiltered, raw energy, flowing melodies, hypnotic rhythms and passionate vocals.
‘This May Be My Last Time Singing”
This three-disc set of raw African-American gospel music, culled from obscure seven-inch singles in collector Mike McGonigal’s stash, is an overwhelming compilation centering on the 1960s and ’70s, with dozens of spirited and moving performances with soul, pop and funk influences. It hardly matters that these are often rough, non-professional recordings—the unfettered vitality is infectious.
“The Total Groovy”
Going from oscillator madness to hauntingly gorgeous space-druid, free-improv ceremonies to uneasy post-punk/industrial explorations, this mind-bending set compiles the entire output of Groovy Records, co-founded by Buzzcocks member Pete Shelley, plus a bonus disc of unreleased material.