The most memorable piece of music criticism I read this year was Dan Warburton’s Time, gentlemen, please. Warburton acutely describes the sheer impossibility of listening to, much less reviewing, the onslaught of avant-garde albums coming his way. (I would call it Sisyphean, but his rock never seems to make even temporary progress.)
Next to his valiant efforts, it seems silly for me to construct a best-of list from the paltry number of albums I heard this year. But I figure I’ll still use my small soapbox to boost my subjective and non-authoritative favorites out of what did cross my way.
I did much of my listening in the subway this year, and consequently heard a lot more pop, jazz, and classical music, and a lot less of anything requiring attention to timbral subtleties or the layering of sounds. Next to the uppercase sounds of the trains, especially the far louder older models, it seemed pointless to listen to music that wasn’t primarily melodic. There are some improv musicians I still intensely follow–Otomo Yoshihide, Günter Müller, Tim Berne, Franz Hautzinger–but in general I pursued that scene much less than in prior years.
So here’s the (unordered) baker’s dozen:
Tetuzi Akiyama/Martin Ng: Oimacta Ng on turntables, Akiyama on filthy, metallic acoustic guitar. Dirt and drone.
Autistic Daughters: Jealousy and Diamond A sentimental choice, actually. I haven’t been a fan of Dean Roberts’ noisier, more experimental work, but somehow when playing pop songs, he uncannily summons up the sounds and spirits of Kiwi music of the 80’s, music that I have loved since I was 14. Roberts is from New Zealand, but I’ve never heard him sound like this before. In that context, Martin Brandlmayr’s intricate, precise drumming (his sounds remind me of Tony Oxley, but not the way he uses them) is totally anomalous, but enjoyable anyway.
Bach: Mass in B minor (cond. Celibidache) A very late addition to the list. Since I don’t especially care for HIP performances, my tastes for choral Bach are more in line with Karl Richter and even Otto Klemperer. Celibidache’s lush, flowing version has already become my favorite performance of recent years. For Celibidache detractors: this is surprisingly one of his less eccentric performances, with fairly normal tempi.
Dungen: Ta Det Lugnt Totally derivative psych-pop, but the most well-crafted thing of this sort since the heyday of the Olivia Tremor Control and the Green Pajamas. Near-perfect production even when the material is weak.
Frog Eyes: The Folded Palm/Ego Scriptor Blackout Beach: Light Flows the Putrid Dawn Three short records from Carey Mercer, one solo, one with his Frog Eyes band backing him, and one with just his wife on drums. What can I say? I heard a lot of undifferentiated pop music this year, and Frog Eyes immediately jumped out at me. Mercer’s histrionics (see David Thomas, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Russell Mael, that sort of thing) come off shockingly well, and the music absorbs a lot of influences without getting showy or self-conscious about it. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, I adore their publicity shot.
Milford Graves/John Zorn: 50th Birthday Vol. 2 I like Zorn the most when he drops the conceptual baggage (or most of it) and turns into a reconstructed free jazz player. With Graves as the ideal partner, here we go.
Jason Kahn/Günter Müller: Blinks Fellow ex-Angelino Kahn (late of overlooked LA rock bands like Leaving Trains, Trotsky Icepick, Universal Congress Of, and Slovenly) was responsible for unearthly, ringing percussion work in Repeat with Toshimaru Nakamura. Here he meets the more energetic and restless Müller for eight short series of textures that portray tensions between stasis and motion. Kahn moves more than usual, Müller less.
Thomas Korber/Erik M/Toshimaru Nakamura/Otomo Yoshihide: Brackwater Guitarist/electronician Korber is one of the most interesting younger improvisors. Not so much for his sounds, but for his overriding sense of macrostructure. It’s most noticeable in his solo work, but even here, the sounds that Korber makes at any time seem to be made with as much reference to the distant past and future of the piece than to the present, and usually more. Korber can sound less “in the moment” as a result, unwilling to abandon a larger plan and join in a spontaneously arrived-at communal direction, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of that in improv. Korber’s careful sense of placement and organization puts me more in mind of Georg Gräwe, Anthony Braxton, and Fred Van Hove, and it makes Brackwater stand out from other (often excellent) recordings that it superficially resembles.
Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet: Tails Out Their fourth album. I really liked their first, was puzzled by the second, and bored by the third. This is as good as the first, and it’s a progression from all they’ve done before. It includes tunes by Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, James Blood Ulmer, and the Beatles, all in varying styles. On the last two tracks, they add electronics and drift off into more experimental ether. I’m still not sure what to expect from them next, but Otomo is enough of a musical genius that I have high hopes, especially now that crazy saxman Alfred 23 Harth appears to be in the group.
Radian: Juxtaposition The apotheosis of rhythmic, repetitive, geometric “post-rock.” Martin Brandlamyr again on drums, again amazing.
Keith Rowe/Axel Dörner/Franz Hautzinger: A View From the Window Hautzinger, who plays trumpet primarily with percussive breathwork, continues to be my favorite of the crowd of aggressively experimental trumpeters (Dörner being another). I loved Hautzinger’s Absinth album with John Tilbury, Sachiko M, and Werner Dafeldecker, and here he brings unusual textures to the fold again. The album also gets points for its two tracks sounding nothing like each other: one is a comparatively normal exercise in interplay and texture, the other is a monolithic, compressed, seething rumble.
Mark Wastell: Vibra #1 Up until this, my favorite music of Wastell’s was his overtone-laden cello-scraping in “Fermage” on Quatuor Accorde’s Angel Gate. I haven’t followed his recent, quieter work, but Vibra #1 is a twenty-minute drone on a gong-like tam-tam, with much richer variation than I expected. It made me think of the early portions of “Omaggio a Giacinto Scelsi” by Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanza (off of their Musica su schemi album), a piece I like far more than any of Scelsi’s own work.
Robert Wyatt: Cuckooland I was late to hear this one, but it’s Wyatt’s best since the 70’s. Unlike his recent albums, this is a collection of songs, not just moods.
REISSUES Can: the first 4 albums in vastly better sound
DNA: DNA on DNA
Dumptruck: the first 3 albums Eno: the first 4 pop albums in notably better sound The Homosexuals: Astral Glamour The Prefects: Amateur Wankers Sviatoslav Richter: Russian Archives 5cd Max Roach/Anothony Braxton: One in Two, Two in One Cecil Taylor: One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye
ALSO WORTHY Tim Berne + Big Satan: Souls Saved Hear Sabine Ercklentz/Andrea Neumann: Oberfl์henspannung eRikm/Gunter Muller/Toshimaru Nakamura: Why Not Bechamel Mission of Burma: ONoffON Andy Moor/Yannis Kyriakides: Red v. Green David Thomas and 2 Pale Boys: 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man’s Chest Shannon Wright: Over the Sun
These and other fine recordings are available in various combinations at Erstwhile Records, Squidco, Aquarius Records, Verge Music, and elsewhere.