Favorite Music of the Year

End of the year is list-making time, and who am I to buck a trend? Well . . .

But, anyway, whenever the calendar turns over, it is a special, if minor, moment for me to get that first recording with a copyright date of the new year. And now it’s time to look at all those 2008 recordings I have and promote the ones I think are the best, for a variety of reasons. And so, broken down into personal, artificial categories for easier organization (except that they are in no particular order!):

Project(s) of the Year – One is complete, the other in progress. Naxos, under their American Classics imprint, recorded and released the complete songs of Charles Ives in six different volumes. They made the interesting choice of presenting the songs in alphabetical order, which confounds picking and choosing only one recording, but the bargain pricing makes this not only great music but great value. The cast-of-thousands young singers, mainly from the Yale School of Music, are able performers.

Still ongoing is Valery Gergiev’s Mahler cycle, comprised of live recordings with the London Symphony. After a flurry of releases, symphonies 1, 3, 6 and 7, there’s been a pause, but the 2nd is on schedule for release early next year. Gergiev is a fabulously talented, incredibly overbooked musician, which means you never know what you’re going to get – at his best he’s passionately enthralling, and that’s the quality captured so far in these recordings. Gergiev has his own ideas about Mahler, they are creative and apt, and the pieces are conveyed with great concentration and expression.

Classics, New and Old – I must admit here that my own library is pretty extensive, and few release of the standard repertoire cross my path, but there are certain composers and performers who are always interesting, even in work I’ve heard hundreds of times. Pierre-Laurent Aimard does bring new expression to Bach’s Art of Fugue. Aimard is one of the finest living pianists, and one of the smartest. He made his name playing the most demanding contemporary music, but powerfully demonstrates that he’s no specialist. His Bach is fluid and pellucid and full of the balance between intellectual and emotional passions that is the key to that composer’s art. Like the great Gould recordings, there the sense of depth of understanding, density of ideas and the constant pull of time. It seems to me there is an inherent tragedy to all of Bach’s work, the quality that time is always running out on life before all can be accomplished. Perhaps it has something to do with the development and the pendulum clock during his epoch, a visual metaphor of the endless, unstoppable flow of the invisible.

A true reminder of tragedy is another release of a recital by the late, great and sorely missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She was a towering artist, absolutely unforgettable if witnessed in person – she pierced and abraded her audiences. The program on this recording is the Brahms 8 Lieder Op. 57 and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben. The singing is more glorious than can be described, and the emotional effect is simply beyond the confines of music. This is rare, rare art preserved for posterity.

But we could all use some good news too, and there is music that brings that as well. Jordi Savall’s leadership of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks makes these worthy, but overexposed, pieces fresh and pleasurable. The Alia Vox packaging is a joy in itsef. There’s more great Ives songs in the second volume of Gerald Finley’s selections from the catalogue; Finley is a master of this music. I have never been a big fan of Lully, the leading French composer of his age (I prefer Charpentier), but there is a recording of Armide by the Washington, D.C. Opera Lafayette that is excellent. While some of the singers are a bit stiff in their French, the quality of the voices is lovely, and the playing is engaging to the ear. All of these recordings are highly recommended.

I’m always grabbing music that is closer to our own times, and I’ve got a nice stack of excellent 2008 recordings at hand; the Pacific Quartet began the centenary year of Elliot Carter with a superb released of his String Quartets 1 and 5 – I have seen this group perform more than a few times, including a concert of the complete Carter Quartets, and they are arguably the finest string quartet I’ve seen, and that list includes, the Emersons, the Borodin and the Takacs. Ending the year is a collection of Carter’s piano music, performed by the great Ursula Oppens. In between was the completion of a 10 Quartet commission from Naxos for Peter Maxwell-Davies. And since Naxos keeps release good music, and good American music, there is this fine survey of works by David Lang, including his masterpiece Cheating, Lying, Stealing. Again, all recommended.

Ranging further afield, there was a fascinating release of Xenakis’ piano music played via computer control, the fifth volume of Sub Rosa’s indispensable a-chronology “An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music”, and important collections/reissues of The League of Automatic Composers and Musica Elettronica Viva on New World records. Also on that label, and one of the most interesting and satisfying recordings this year, is Wayne Horvits’ “Joe Hill: 16 Actions”, a musical narrative of the life and times of Hill, featuring the guitar of Bill Frisell and the talents of the extraordinary, iconoclastic performer Rinde Eckert. It’s sweet, muscular, charming and powerful.

Finally, since the classical companies are making the best use of digital downloads, there is the St. Louis Symphony’s terrific life performance of John Adam’s great Harmonielehre. The classic recording is still the first, but this one, after a relatively subdued start, builds tremendous power. The work itself is an ideal introduction to this composer.

Music with a Beat, and Words! – I’ve previously written about Corey Dargel’s wonderful “Other People’s Love Songs”, and Nick Cave’s new record, still two of my favorites. There are an additional good handful of recordings from this year that keep giving me a lot of pleasure; Matmos’ “Supreme Balloon”, which was a lot more coherent and interesting to the ear than their previous releases; a dense, fascinating live set from Brad Mehldau; a sublime collection of concerts from Sun Ra, featuring Lester Bowie, Don Cherry Archie Shepp, Phillie Joe Jones and other “All-Stars;” an exemplary, funky hard-bop set from Freddie Redd reissued by Blue Note; and the wonderful complete record from Flight of the Conchords. They are neither a gimmick nor a ‘band’ meant only for television – this is genuinely funny and accomplished music. They have a command of various pop styles and the lyrics, of course, are smart and hilarious. For value, you can’t beat “The Slip”, which is not only free but pretty damn good.

But the record of the year, one that stands well above and beyond everything I’ve listened to this year in terms of ambition, accomplishment and sheet unique expression, is “Shining Darkness” by the San Francisco “old-time” band The Crooked Jades. They are old-time in terms of instruments, style and provenance, but there is nothing old about this record of all new songs. Like the best music, the record resists description. The sound is familiar; guitars, banjo, ukulele, fiddle, string bass, singing with a twang and close harmonies, comforting rolling rhythms – it sits amidst a field made fecund by a century of country blues, folk and bluegrass. There are songs about lost young girls, two-steps ready for a social dance, a waltz . . . and there is also a quasi-choral interlude, that fades without resolving, which is a variation on the opening track, an acoustic rockabilly number, a very threatening atonal instrumental and a palpable atmosphere of seekers attempting to penetrate a dark, atavistic mystery that lies within themselves, and within all of us. This is great American music, conveying a slightly grim and almost Biblical sense of perseverance. It is beyond authentic, in fact it makes a mockery of that term, which is about accepting a basic theatrical lie – it is real music, made by real musicians with real ideas, who are completely assured and unselfconscious in themselves as American artists, making American art. The Crooked Jades are standing both at the foundation and outside of the long line of American music, using bricks and mortar salvaged from decay to build an edifice that is entirely new in design even as the elements of its construction are recognizable.

“Shining Darkness” is almost overpowering emotionally. It is not a happy record in the usual pop music terms, but it is a deeply satisfying record. The band brings along on their journey, their seeking, an experience that is mysterious and plangent and inchoately moving, and they do something I find rare, difficult and admirable – writing songs in a identifiable popular idiom that escape the trap of definitive meaning that most lyrics fall into. The songs offer many suggestions but defy settled meaning, bringing them closer to more abstract (wordless) music. As listeners, we are never certain of what the seek, what they experience, what they find, but at the end of this bewitching and beautiful record, we are offered the generous sensation of musical and emotional resolution. That we do not know what has been resolved means that we will come back to this music again and again. A complete triumph, brilliant, exceptional. The record of the year, of many, many years.

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