Part three of this week’s countdown:
20. Cairo Gang, Tiny Rebels (Empty Cellar)
My pick for Chicago’s best rock band last year released its second straight gem. Leader Emmett Kelly just seems to increase his lush harmonizing with bassist Ryan Weinstein and lead guitarist Sam Wagster, eclipsing the highs achieved in 2011 on Corner Man. The mid-tempo title track opens the record with ringing guitars that recall vintage Byrds, but the vocal harmonies carve out their own gorgeous space. There’s an excellent cover of “Shivers,” a tune Rowland S. Howard wrote as a member of the Boys Next Door with Nick Cave, but the originals are even better. I’m a little concerned that the Cairo Gang has had a scarce presence for the last half-year or so—I’d hate for a band this killer to vanish. My fingers are crossed for the future, especially with a record like this to remind of what I’d be missing.
19. Peter Evans, Zebulon (More is More)
The superhuman agility and mad-man chops of trumpeter Peter Evans have been well established for years now, but the dude manages to keep knocking me on my ass. This record, named for the defunct New York venue where it was recorded with bassist John Hébert and drummer Kassa Overall in March of 2012, is sort of his straight-ahead record in that the four extended pieces are built on changes—the opener “3625,” for example, deploys and is named after one of the most widely used progressions in jazz, but here and on the other pieces, Evans pushes the structures to the breaking point, embracing their use as jazz building blocks, but refusing to be hemmed in by them. He uses some of his prodigious extended technique here and there, but ultimately this is a blowing record on steroids, yet one that never grows predictable.
18. Lucas Santtana, O Deus que Devasta Mas Tambén Cura (Mais Um Discos)
Lucas Santtana is a genuine auteur of Brazilian popular music, using every new album as a kind of stylistic or procedural exercise. He’s made deep excursions into funk and dub, and on his previous record all of the sounds were generated by acoustic guitars—including the beats. With his latest record he made a straight-up modern Brazilian-pop record with slick full-band arrangements wrapped around his typically gorgeous melodies and seductive singing.
17. Cate Le Bon, Mug Museum (Wichita)
I have no idea why this remarkable Welsh singer—who plays Schubas on January 23—isn’t a star. With every record she gets better and better, and this latest effort is no exception. Her Nico-like clarity and surface nonchalance are still in place, mixed with the chill austerity of a vintage British folk singer, but her tunes are insanely infectious, with their nifty, efficient arrangements packed with criss-crossing guitars and keyboard lines.
16. Cave, Threace (Drag City)
Chicago’s finest trance merchants moved on from Krautrock reinventions to ultra-lean, dry funk. No one will confuse Cave with Cameo or anything, as the rhythmic propulsion is less about fat bass lines than meticulous guitar licks intersecting in precise constellations. Of course, the machine-like drumming of Rex McMurry gives Cooper Crane and new guitarist Jeremy Freeze plenty of leeway. The band used the 70s recordings of Miles Davis as a reference point, using the studio as a scalpel to pare down to the bare minimum—the results sound nothing like Davis in the end. While the five pieces are fanatically distilled, as each one progresses, an ever-changing array of microscopic details allows the music to suck the listener in beyond its hypnotic power.
15. Samuel Blaser Consort in Motion, A Mirror to Machaut (Songlines)
The first album Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser made with his Consort in Motion was named in part for the participation of drummer Paul Motian in a project that inventively recast the Baroque music of Monteverdi, Marini, and Frescobaldi in a chamber jazz setting—sometimes the pieces were merely rearranged for the quartet, while on other pieces the original material was practically invisible. The group’s follow-up features Gerry Hemingway trying to fill the shoes of Motian, with pianist Russ Lossing and bassist Drew Gress joined by new member Joachim Badenhorst on reeds. This time out the repertoire is built around French medieval composers Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay with even better results. The group has settled masterfully into this interpretive context, taking more chances.
14. R. Andrew Lee, Dennis Johnson: November (Irritable Hedgehog)
This stunning four-disc set matches its historical import with beauty, rigor, and hypnosis. Originally composed in the late 50s by Dennis Johnson, a colleague of pioneering minimalists La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, critic and composer Kyle Gann painstakingly recreated and teased out an adapted score from a six-page manuscript and cassette recording he got in 1992. Denver pianist R. Andrew Lee, who’s emerging as one of America’s most incisive and focused interpreters of experimental music, gives a phenomenal performance of a work that demands ungodly concentration and precision.
13. Joe Lovano Us Five, Cross Culture (Blue Note)
Joe Lovano has long been one of the most skilled, tasteful, and versatile saxophonists in jazz, but this excellent quintet has allowed his adventurous side to come out. It’s hardly a free-jazz record, but stoked by twin drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, his harmonic genius and rhythmic ingenuity are on full display. The group’s original bassist Esperanza Spalding only appears on a handful of tracks, but her replacement Peter Slavov has no problem getting the job done. My favorite mainstream jazz record of 2013.
12. Okkyung Lee, Ghil (Ideologic Organ)
It seems like the Korean cellist Okkyung Lee focuses on a remarkable side of her rich musicality with every record she makes, and this one, a bracing collaboration with Norwegian sound artist Lasse Marhaug, captures her at her most ferocious. Using a primitive old cassette recorder, Marhaug recorded Lee’s astringent improvisations in a wide variety of contexts to create shifting levels of ambience, tonal purity, and distortion. You can hear the lines she’s playing on her instrument beneath the layers of noise and grime, but the thrill is experiencing the richly varied transformations.
11. Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle (Ribbon Music)
It’s scary to think what the British singer and songwriter Laura Marling might do when she reaches her 30s or 40s, because at 23 she’s leaving the competition in the dust, writing a beautifully personal, observant song cycle about the life of a relationship with the wisdom of a person several times her age. Her beautiful voice is husky, quietly forceful, and gently sensual, and in combination with the resourceful arrangements, she dissolves the need to determine whether she’s playing rock or folk music.
Read about the top ten.
Michael Bates’ Outside Sources, Live in New York (Greenleaf)
Hilary Hahn, Bach Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon)
Mills Blue Rhythm Band, 1936-1937 (Chronological Classics)
Alexander Tucker, Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey)
Various artists, Os Ossos do Barão sound track (Som Livre)