There are times when you put a CD into your computer to rip it into iTunes, and it shows up in your library as the genre Unclassifiable. The databases behind iTunes are pop oriented so they’re easily confused by something that might need an artist and a composer in the tables. But there are times when the music has a slippery style, with familiar elements but a quality that can’t be succinctly pinned down. That’s when music is often at its best.
Genre categories are both meaningless and useful: they tell us little about the music but give us a way to frame the idiom. This is a list of music from this year that I think is great but that doesn’t either fall into the large categories of jazz and classical. There are familiar pop styles, and it’s something like the “beyond’ category that downbeat magazine has us critics vote on. In my case, this is music that I tend to listen to with broadly similar ears, with the expectation that there’s going to be the type of direct, physical impact that is an essential part of good rock music.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B008DWFZOI 1. Tin Hat, the rain is handsome animal. The artists formally known as the Tin Hat Trio, augmented with great Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg, have put out a record of songs (with instrumental interludes) that set poetry of e.e. cummings. The poet’s work has been popular with twentieth century composers, including John Cage, Ned Rorem, Leanord Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Luciano Berio; a formidable group of and an equally formidable body of work. It may initially seem unfair to add this record to that company, but I’m sure the legacy of those composers will survive, because these are the finest settings of cummings I have ever heard. This is a record of vernacular art songs, a rare combination of coherent poetic abstraction, musical lyricism and a physically pleasing and exciting sound. Any reader not familiar with Tin Hat should not imagine the music as stiff and structurally complex. These are songs in the pop sense but with the highest musical and intellectual sophistication: counterpoint, swinging tango rhythms, hot solos and plangent emotionalism. Smart, strong and often deeply beautiful, especially “Buffalo Bill,” which has the power of a rock anthem, with Carla Khilstedt singing from new heights of richness and confidence. Not only the top recording on this list, but the best recording I heard of any kind in 2012, bar none. Fantastic in every way.
2. The Crooked Jades, Bright Land. A very close second. One of the finest bands in the country, their new record is on the same high level as 2010’s exquisite Shining Darkness. Bluegrass of a very free style, with more than a little post-punk rockabilliy, the band makes music that carves out paths to the future, which is sorely needed in a landscape of indie-groups enthralled by a mythical past of ‘authentic’ white roots music. Bluegrass itself is a synthetic style that was created in the middle of the last century, and that is the true roots of American musical culture, creating something out of nothing other than the confidence that anything is permitted. By writing their own material and seeking to discover the things that might be possible, Compared to the wan ‘lite’ beer of their idiomatic peers, Wilco, this band is fine, high-proof rye whisky with a dash of tabasco. One of the great American bands and an excellent record.
3. Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane, Sky Road Songs. Simply no drop-off in achievement with this modern blues record, which I admit is in this arbitrary spot to satisfy a vague notion of fairness, as Sharp has a record in my top ten jazz list and will have one in my top ten classical list as well. Modern in the same way that Bright Land is modern: music that has a foundation of a familiar, even clichéd style. but is made by terrific musicians who also know how to play, and love, rock and jazz and funk and punk and even experimental music. The music has Sharp’s rare balance of muscular power, wit, love and irreverence and absolute clarity. There’s a great, satisfying swagger to the playing, a lot of it coming from Tracie Morris’ hard-edged vocals. Excellent as well.
4. Iron Dog, Interactive Album Rock. This trios’ previous record, field recordings 1, showed up unbidden in my mailbox a year or so ago. That this is the first I’ve written about it is because of how unusual and strong it is, and the excellent of the new disc has confirmed and clarified my initial response. This is an improvising group, with Sarah Bernstein playing violin and singing, Stuart Popejoy on bass guitar and Andrew Drury at the drums. They play with a specific kind of freedom, unchained by pop and even jazz notions of melody, harmony and phrasing, but their is a structural and sonic focus, a point, to every sound they make, and that point usually goes straight for the gut. It’s clear they listen closely to each other and think both quickly and imaginatively, and it’s also clear that they absolutely know what they are doing and what they indeed, there’s no existential angst. But this is all fancy talk, you have to hear this for yourself, because the music they make is a platonic ideal of experimentalism and punk-rock attitude. They start where Sonic Youth leaves off, and actually they start far beyond where Sonic Youth leaves off. Some of the most exciting and accessible abstract music you’ll find.
5. Neneh Cherry and The Thing, Cherrything. A close companion in a way to Interactive Album Rock, further proof that avant-garde jazz musicians (see: Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Conjure) make the best pop music. A set of mostly covers that put the originals to shame: there is literally no comparison between the electronically overproduced pop and the gutty, sweaty, swaggering, sexual swagger of Neneh and the raunchy, raucous funk of The Thing. A dangerous record for dangerous times that are normally inundated with the safest kind of faux-transgressive pop.
6. Public Image Limited, This is PiL. My feelings about this great new PiL record are much like the ones above, just replace the sex with a deep and necessary irreverence for the faddish musical consumer product that is the commercial arm of the ruling Establishment class. Music for those disaffected but still with hope and determination, tinged with adult loss and regret, built on that classic heavy beat.
7. Luce Trio, Pieces, Volume 1. John Potter’s Downland Project CDs have always beguiled and frustrated me. I love the tradition of idiomatic improvisation, and the possibility of approaching Dowland’s songs as if they are ‘tunes,’ with a fine singer and musicians who can do creative things within the possibilities of Elizabethan forms, yet with a modern sensibility, hints at a new universe of music-making. The results are constantly disappointing, though, as Potter, Barry Guy and the rest end up indulging in little more than atmospherics — they sound like a band that’s faking it. The Luce Trio is not faking it. This seemingly modest record is a real accomplishment, and the difference is that this group understands the music they are playing, whether it’s Bach or John De Lucia’s originals, and they maintain a clear musical focus. The players are secure in their idiomatic styles and say things that are surprising and make sense. Instead of wallowing in an infantile enthrallment to Bach, they make Bach new.
8. Maya Duneitz, John Edwards, Steven Noble, Cousin It. An appropriate bookend to the Iron Dog Interactive, this is another disc of refreshing, surprising improvisation. Acoustic where the other is heavily electric, and with a quiet and impish sense of subversion as opposed to aggressive iconoclasm. It sneaks up on you quickly and grabs your attention with it’s spaciousness, focus and wit. Admirable in every way.
9. William Brittelle, Loving the Chambered Nautilus. You can call this contemporary classical music, and you would be right, but I like this disc a lot, and I like it on this list even more because Brittelle is so interested in, and successful at, setting up the context of a formal and stylistic convention for his work and then demolishing that context before he gets to the final bars. Full of life, intelligence and questions, it’s out-of-the-ordinary music. And there’s a good song too.
10. Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin, Instrumental Tourist. A given for fans of both these musicians — and I’m a fan — this is a wonderful record of electronic music. The structures and abstract and without beats, but full of pulsations and physically palpable sounds. Each is an accomplished solo artist already, and they each bring a particular quality to this collaboration beyond their distinctive sonic signatures: Lopatin adds the plangent melancholy, and Hecker the sensation that the sounds begin in your brain-stem and explode, slowly, outward.