Starting today I’ll be counting down my 40 favorite albums of 2013. The usual caveat applies: I truly love all this music, but take the rankings with a grain of salt. And please bear in mind that I’m not trying to be definitive.

40. American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Joseph Byrd: NYC 1960-1963 (New World)
This enlightening effort from an exemplary New York-based new-music ensemble (which includes violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, pianist Timo Andres, violinist Caleb Burhans, and violinist and Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw) tackles the early experimental music of eccentric composer and thinker Joseph Byrd—probably best known as the brains behind the great psych-rock band United States of America. (I was recently reminded of another aspect of his bizarre, circuitous career when some friends gave me an all-synthesizer Christmas record he made for John Fahey’s Takoma label in 1975.) The pieces collected here, written when Byrd was enmeshed in the burgeoning Fluxus movement and friendly with folks such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, have rarely been heard since they were first performed, and they bristle with energy and ideas.

39. Alasdair Roberts & Robin Robertson, Hirta Songs (Stone Tape)
The second of two excellent albums made by Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts in 2013, Hirta Songs is a collaboration with acclaimed poet Robin Robertson, who provides lyrics he wrote about St Kilda, a remote, unforgiving archipelago in the British Isles thought to have been inhabited by humans for at least 2,000 years before its last permanent settlers abandoned it in 1930 (only military personnel go there now). The band includes Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band on hardanger fiddle as well as a cast of regular Roberts cohorts, and the acoustic-oriented arrangements are staggeringly beautiful. On a few tracks the band sits out and Robertson recites a longer poem, accompanied by the lovely harp playing of Corrina Hewat.

38. Ryan Muncy, Hot (New Focus)
Ryan Muncy, executive director of Chicago’s fearless Ensemble dal Niente, makes a convincing argument for expanding the classical literature for saxophone with his first album. Whether playing alone or with high-caliber guests such as Claire Chase and Ben Melsky, he refines and creates new shapes and sounds for the instrument. While some of the extreme-register playing and extended techniques on display here are heard in free improvisation, rarely have they been assembled into ingenious structures as in these compositions by Marcos Balter, Anthony Cheung, Franco Donatoni, Georges Aperghis, Aaron Cassidy, and Chaya Czernowin.


37. Necks, Open (Northern Spy)
This majestic Australian trio returns with a single 68-minute improvisation fueled by inventive, resourceful elaboration on the most basic elements of musical language, initiated here by pianist Chris Abrahams mucking about inside his instrument. Berlin-based percussionist Tony Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton soon join in, and the Necks embark on another fascinating, richly interactive excursion. Aside from the sparse use of overdubs (including some electric guitar from Buck), this music was all invented in the moment: these three musicians transform, embellish, and reimagine the tersest of melodic material to create a patient, elegiac symphony.

36. Cian Nugent & the Cosmos, Born With the Caul (No Quarter)
On previous efforts, remarkable Irish guitarist Cian Nugent has displayed a sophisticated grasp of the American Primitive guitar style pioneered by John Fahey, but he made huge leaps on Born With the Caul, surrounding his ornate playing with rich, shape-shifting full-band arrangements. The three multipartite pieces cover lots of stylistic turf, morphing seamlessly and efficiently from one idea to the next without ever sounding overstuffed or forced.

35. Hush Point, Hush Point (Sunnyside)
Over the past decade or so I’ve become a huge fan of New York trumpeter John McNeil, who deploys the timeless verities of pianoless west coast-style jazz in a thoroughly contemporary, incisive way. He’s made a slew of killer albums with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, but in Hush Point he joins forces with an even younger partner, alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden—a distinctive thinker who’s incorporated the wide-open twang of Americana in postbop settings with more energy and originality than anyone since Bill Frisell. There’s no twang in Hush Point, just fantastic multilinear improvisation and gentle but insistently swinging grooves.


34. Duane Pitre, Bridges (Important)
It’s bizarre enough that onetime skateboarding pro Duane Pitre has become an autodidact proponent of just intonation, but it’s even more unlikely that his music would end up so beautiful and mesmerizing. He’s achieved a new peak on Bridges, for which he reconfigured recordings he made of a handful of string players both in London and in New Orleans, where he lives, using software that allows him to conduct and arrange those long tones in real time. The resulting resonance is downright rapturous, changing shape, density, and attack without surrendering its enveloping atmosphere and addictive, buzzing warmth.

33. Fire! Orchestra, Exit! (Rune Grammofon)
In recent years Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson has found a sweet spot with bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin (Wildbirds & Peacedrums) as Fire!, a nimble trio that stops short of the full-frontal brutality of the Thing but that can summon reserves of power as easily as poignant delicacy. Gustafsson expanded the group outrageously to form a 28-piece orchestra featuring a who’s who of Sweden’s most exciting instrumentalists (including members of Atomic, singers Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg, noise maven Joachim Nordwall, and a four-strong percussion section). This fearsome, furiously seething big band blows up his rising-and-falling compositions to a magnificent scale.

32. Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, and Ben Street, Tootie’s Tempo (Sunnyside)
This is the second project in which Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson has joined forces with an established elder drummer to create something incredibly fresh. He’s a member of a quartet led by Billy Hart that’s brought Hart renewed acclaim for his almost symphonic range, and now he’s done the same for the crisp, fuss-free playing of the great Albert “Tootie” Heath. I can’t say whether Iverson has pushed these veterans to take more chances or simply provided them the space to explore ideas they already had inside them, but I don’t care. Most of the tunes here are standards, but they’ve rarely sounded this bright and new.


31. Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)
In the second installment of her projected ten-part musical genealogy project, saxophonist and composer (and former Chicagoan) Matana Roberts works with a completely different band than she did on the first, shifting away from Montreal experimental-rock musicians to an adventurous crew of first-rate New York jazz players. Roberts weaves in the operatic tenor singing of Jermiah Abiah, as well as her own sung-spoken performances of texts from an interview with her maternal grandmother and from a famous speech by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer. While on the surface Roberts’s fluid mix of bebop, free jazz, swing, gospel, elegant blues, New Orleans polyphony, and Mingus-style breakdowns might seem more conventional than the hybrids she created for Chapter One, the beautiful music is no less arresting and powerful.

Read about numbers 30 through 21.

Today’s playlist:

Hot Sauce Featuring Rhonda Washington, Good Woman Turning Bad (Stax/Ace)
Richard Youngs, May (Jagjaguwar)
Adalberto Santiago, Adalberto Featuring Popeye El Marino (Fania)
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (Columbia/Legacy)
Paul Bley, Ballads (ECM)