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“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.
The Beach Boys
The Smile Sessions
Brian Wilson’s 2004 version of the legendary unfinished album was a valiant effort, but this set is the real deal and the best version assembled, as Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” with reverence and humor, thanks to Van Dyke Parks’s lyrics. The massive deluxe version includes several discs full of studio outtakes, providing ample insight into Wilson’s painstaking recording process.
“Fabulous Notes and Beats of the Indian Carnatic: Jazz”
Practically unknown on this continent yet an acknowledged musical genius in his native India, prolific film score composer T.K. Ramamoorthy created an under-recognized jazz-fusion masterpiece in 1969, merging Indian and western instrumentation with an animated spirit and countless slickly performed transitions and turns.
Miles Davis Quintet
“Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1”
This stunning three-CD, one-DVD set documents Davis’ second “great quintet” with a mix of new compositions and radically different takes on his repertory classics, with the formidable lineup of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock on piano, bassist Ron Carter and Tony Williams on drums.
“La Formule du Baron”
The brilliant 1969 album from the French recording engineer Bernard Estardy is a strange, innovative and unique album brimming with ideas, employing experimental recording techniques, sound effects and flawless studio musicians. Estardy favors funky rhythms and bold arrangements, impeccably recorded with his mischievous off-kilter vision.
This compilation from the Magnetic Fields brainchild is a wealth of rarities and unreleased tracks, showcasing Merritt’s “songs about songs” writing approach and his rich, deep, eternally sad baritone voice. Among the gems are tracks from the unfinished musical, “The Song from Venus” (including “Forever and a Day,” a perfect first-dance wedding song) and the beautiful country number “Plant White Roses,” featuring vocalist Shirley Simms.
The Art of Noise
“Into Battle with the Art of Noise”
The sample-heavy debut release from the London art-minded group was its blueprint, featuring two of its most enduring tracks: the old-school beat-driven “Beat Box” and the exquisitely sensual “Moments in Love;” fans are treated with the inclusion of the entire unreleased album, “Worship”—a fascinating, daring listen—as a bonus.
“Funky Tramway and Soul Impressions”
These two previously out-of-print 1975 albums from the Montenegro-born composer and pianist are masterful slices of jazz-funk with high production values, deep grooves, inventive uses of synths and countless moments that are ripe for sampling; it’s easy to hear why vinyl collectors and library music enthusiasts scoured the crates for these.
“Tago Mago: 40th Anniversary Edition”
Possibly Can’s finest, the adventurous German band’s mind-blowing double album earned a spot in the Krautrock pantheon with a unique avant-rock, meticulously edited studio creation, marked with Jaki Liebezeit’s funk-inflected drumming and Damo Suzuki’s wild vocals; this edition includes a bonus disc documenting the group’s live improvisatory sprawl.