Top Ten New Releases
David Greenberger & Shaking Ray Levis
Tramps That Go Think in the Night
Pahl, Palmer, Stagner
Fishers O’ Wufmen
Go ahead, call it cheating, call it a conflict of interest, whatever. Objectivity has limited purpose in music criticism, and if this writer is going to be absolutely honest with you and himself, his favorite new recordings of 2013, by a wide margin, are ones that feature the late keyboardist (and friend) Dennis Palmer, with David Greenberger’s humorous and poignant storytelling and vibrant, colorful music from multi-instrumentalist Frank Pahl and percussionist Bob Stagner. Maybe you won’t have such an emotional connection to this music as this writer does, but with Palmer’s intensely expressive, uniquely organic synth alchemy imbued with affection and a sense of purpose, maybe you will.
Long Story Short
This monstrous, overflowing 6-hour collection documents the German hard-blowing free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s 70th birthday festival with large and small ensembles featuring young and old international improvisers representing hotspots including Chicago, Sweden and Japan; it’s a dream lineup, featuring reedists Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark and John Tchicai, wild guitarist Keiji Haino and many more.
The Handsome Family
Nobody in the world writes songs quite like Rennie Sparks—strange, macabre, vivid, imaginative and unforgettable stories with elements of fantasy and horror—and her husband Brett offers his deep baritone voice and fitting country-folk arrangements; this loose concept album about animals spins tales of death, insanity and shape-shifting.
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba
Recorded in the midst of a violent conflict, this album by Kouyaté of the African nation Mali features his virtuoso playing on the ngoni (a stringed lute-like instrument) with a jaw-dropping surgical precision and impossibly swift speed, enhanced by impassioned singing from his wife Amy Sacko for a potent and impressive expression of discontent.
The Japanese duo of vocalist Yako and manic guitarist Agata concocts the aural equivalent of cartoon violence with staccato projectile barking, unbelievably sick-sounding guitar work and an over-clocked drum machine; fast, precise, demented, inspired, perfect.
The hardest working band in West Africa, Tal National delivers entrancing polyrhythmic guitar music that is rich, complex and full of vigor, with numerous details to savor and a propulsive rhythmic momentum.
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, John Tilbury
Invoking a special kind of dread, this spooky and disquieting free-improv album features the expertly nuanced sax playing of John Butcher, the fascinating electronic atmospherics of Thomas Lehn and the balanced, abstract elegance of London pianist John Tilbury.
Future Bible Heroes
Featuring songwriter/vocalist Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) at his most cheeky, with vocals from Claudia Gonson and synth-pop arrangements by Chris Ewen, Partygoing is a wickedly irresistible collection that celebrates alcohol abuse, Satanism and general irresponsibility, with tongues firmly planted in cheeks.
Waiting for Something to Happen
The second album from the London quartet hits that indie-pop sweet spot on every track with girl/boy vocal harmonies, impeccable jangle-guitar timbres and solid, unabashedly catchy melodies; it’s charming, hormonal and just a little bit twisted.
Like a sonic version of a long voyage through the galaxy, this outstanding synth-heavy instrumental album from the San Francisco duo features ultra-concentrated, sculpted, cosmic pieces, sounding majestic, dark, eerie, revelatory and epic.