These days in the endlessly onrushing music slipstream, it’s always doom times (the music industry is on the verge of collapse!) and it’s always the best of times (look at all these indie phenoms making music on laptops!). There’s so much going on, in terms of sheer output, that it’s impossible to generalize about anything – except that there’s no shortage of galvanizing work at our fingertips. Here, in no particular order, are the records that sustained me in 2013.
The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD). Each new thought on the opening track “I Should Live in Salt” gets its own punctuation, in the form of the solemn and accusatory responsorial phrase “You should know me better than that.” Sad and hypnotic, this mantra opens the curtain on an album-length meditation about how little can really be known about love, while it’s alive and when it’s in embers.
Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear). Every few years, there comes a record that obliterates entrenched preconceptions about sound and rhythm. Dysnomia is this year’s model. Starting with traditional instrumentation (acoustic piano, bass, drums), this trio builds dizzying spikey Steve Reich polyrhythms, and uses them as the basis for sprawling explorations into improvised rhythmic displacement. The conceptual contrast is striking – the core sounds say “jazz trio” while the sensibility derives from electronica – but this is never just an odd mashup: It’s a fully developed environment that grows more hypnotic as it unfolds.
Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (Blue Note). Leave aside the semantic question of “Can this be the Roots if there’s no Black Thought?,” and focus instead on the challenge Elvis Costello faced here: Telling his sharply observed tales of love and honor over the elastic and endlessly shape-shifting backbeats of the Roots. Not only does he master new and different cadences for his talky lyrics – see “Sugar Won’t Work” and “Tripwire” – in several places, most notably the trenchant and multi-dimensional “Come the Meantimes,” he seems to morph into a completely different being. The year’s best Mashup Life selfie.
Vieux Farka Toure: Mon Pays/My Country (Six Degrees). The son of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has been making records for a few years now, and this one – which obliquely comments on the political turmoil in his homeland (the hardline Islamists there have said that under their rule, music will be banned) – is easily the most entrancing. Toure specializes in repetitive hooklike chants that please the ear immediately, and his band, which includes the son of kora master Toumani Diabate, bolsters the calls for peace with some fluid-yet-muscular groovemaking.
Dom la Nena: Ela (Six Degrees). Cellist, singer and songwriter Dominque Pinto works within several distinct vocabularies: She knows the bossa nova and samba traditions of her Brazilian homeland, the many twisting turns in the classical cello repertoire, and the vast ambient realms of Tangerine Dream and others. On Ela, those references combine into sublime and disarmingly beautiful sounds, carrying traces of Juana Molina and other collage artists but occupying their own space on the spectrum of magic. Recommended especially for those who think that Laura Mvula’s tediously unexceptional Sing To The Moon was the debut of the year.
Chris Thile: Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch). It was a nice year for Bach, what with Jeremy Denk’s wiley tour of the Goldberg Variations and this astonishing adaptation of the great master’s sparkling violin music for mandolin. Even those who appreciate Punch Brother Chris Thile’s deep talent were probably not prepared for this – somehow, on an instrument that can’t “sing” or slur lines or sustain notes like the violin, Thile creates breathy, shapely, thoughtfully original phrasing that opens up new vistas on this old music.
Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domin0). Devonte Hynes can sound like a hormonal diva on a bender, or a tortured ‘80s rocker with distressed hair, or a Human League wannabe noodling in the basement. All those personas (and others) are integral to Cupid Deluxe, his first offering as Blood Orange. Slightly campy and deliriously hooky, this is a kind of meta synth-pop – all blithe fun on the surface, with unsettling confessions and sly musical complexities lurking, Prince-style, underneath. Look out for whatever multi-instrumentalist Hynes does; he’s a huge talent, and so is his vocal foil, the awesome Samantha Urban.
Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings). When Vampire Weekend first appeared, I was fairly lonely in the Underwhelmed camp. Where many critics praised the bubbly indie rock-goes-to-Africa conceit, to me it felt bottled up and studious, mostly because in live performance the band struggled to create the momentum that comes naturally to African musicians. The New York band did some conceptual re-arranging of the furniture for this third album, creating an arrestingly nuanced set of pop songs adorned with groove, grit and surprisingly apt orchestral flourishes.
Sigur Ros: Kveikur (XL Recordings). At once the most accessible and unsettling album ever from Icelandic progressives Sigur Ros, Kveikur dwells in a kind of mottled darkness – its shadows have their own subsidiary shadows, and its dissonances come bathed in their own echoey afterglow. Stupendous.
Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net (Blue Note). This has little in common with live jazz as practiced by most mortals – it’s a spectacularly intricate four-way conversation that shows not merely how far Shorter’s haunting songs can be stretched, but how their resonances can change in the course of a rangey and sometimes free-associative conversation.
AND A DOZEN MORE….. Jim James: Regions of Light and Sound of God; Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran: Hagar’s Song; Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969; Iron & Wine: Ghost On Ghost; Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door; Elton John: The Diving Board; Albert Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street: Tootie’s Tempo; Jonathan Wilson; Fanfare; Arcade Fire: Reflektor; Pat Metheny: Tap – John Zorn’s Book of Angels Vol. 20; Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest; MIA: Matangi.