20. Kaja Draksler Octet, Gledalec (Clean Feed)
Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler has blossomed as an improviser since moving to Amsterdam in 2013, developing a stunning solo practice and playing in bracing duos with the likes of Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, Dutch drummer Onno Govaert, and French pianist Eve Risser. Her beguiling 2017 double album Gledalec represents a huge artistic leap, and not just because it’s an octet recording—her sophisticated harmonic sense and structural elegance have always suggested a deep understanding of European classical music, but here she makes it much more explicit. Her compositions blur together free jazz and chamber music, and she’s enlisted two vocalists—Björk Níelsdottir and Laura Polence—to alternate between spoken word and sung delivery of texts by Pablo Neruda and contemporary poets Andriana Minou and Gregor Strnisa. Breaking up these art songs are improvisations by different groupings of ensemble members: Govaert, reedists Ab Baars and Ada Rave, violinist and violist George Dumitriu, and double bassist Lennart Heyndels. As ambitious as Gledalec is, I’m at least as excited about what Draksler has yet to do, both with this group and with a growing number of other projects.
19. Pan Daijing, Lack (PAN)
No electronic album thrilled me or creeped me out more in 2017 than this jarring, richly imagined salvo from Berlin-based Chinese artist Pan Daijing. She weaves a sumptuous fabric from seething feedback, floor-rumbling bass, harrowing industrial noise, internal piano scrapes, operatic singing (from soprano Yanwen Xiong), her own processed screams and guttural vocal fry, and a kaleidoscopic range of ethereal, harrowing electronic textures. An underground electronic record of unusual depth and grit, Lack throbs, floats, and corkscrews in taut, surprising ways.
Malian singer Oumou Sangaré has generally embraced a traditional sound, even when her lyrics challenge antique patriarchal mores, but she takes a thrilling turn on Mogoya. She made the album in Stockholm with French production crew A.L.B.E.R.T., whose members have worked with pop artists such as Beck, Air, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Normally I’d get nervous reading a sentence like that, but Mogoya is one of the best things Sangaré has ever done. Her rich, authoritative voice has always required very little support to convey its power, and the producers seem to understand that—they’ve simply added subtle electronic textures and enhanced some of the rhythms. Sangaré grew up in Bamako, Mali’s urban capital, but her music has consistently drawn on the hunter songs of the Wassoulou region, in which women sing call-and-response melodies over a rustic blend of kora, n’goni, and hand percussion. Over the years Sangaré has added electric bass and electric guitar, but traditional instruments have remained the core of her sound—and they dominate on Mogoya as well. In her subject matter, though, she’s been bolder: she’s increasingly challenged traditional practices such as polygamy, genital mutilation, and the suppression of female sensuality.
17. Danish String Quartet, Last Leaf (ECM)
The Danish String Quartet has earned its sterling reputation largely by interpreting the modern classical music of its homeland. The group’s first recordings tackled work by the great Carl Nielsen, while subsequent efforts have focused on younger composers—its terrific self-titled 2016 album, for instance, included material by fellow Danes Per Nørgård and Hans Abrahamsen. I was bit skeptical when I heard about Last Leaf, which adapts rustic traditional Nordic folk music for string quartet—the example of the Kronos Quartet has convinced many similar groups that they too can widen their audiences by adapting material from outside the classical sphere, but often the results sound bloodless and generic. Thankfully the Danish String Quartet delivers performances that suggest not only familiarity with Nordic traditional music—including Christmas tunes, dance numbers, and funeral hymns—but also a commitment to arrangements that preserve the source material’s rhythmic vitality and bittersweet sonorities without dumbing down the group’s virtuosity. Last Leaf is as beautiful as anything I’ve heard all year.
16. Kendrick Lamar, Damn (Top Dawg/Interscope)
On his latest album, Kendrick Lamar strips down the layers of samples and beats that usually support his complex rhymes, leaving behind something simpler and more direct, with more overtly head-nodding grooves—but otherwise his music remains as dense, confrontational, and lyrical as ever. I’m not proud to admit that I haven’t kept up with hip-hop’s rapidly changing landscape—in part because I’ve been so repelled by the part of it that draws inspiration from shitty pop and/or emo—but among the records I’ve managed to hear, none comes close to matching the nuance, richness, and creativity of Damn. In this job I often listen to a record in a concentrated burst, but I never did that with Damn—instead I kept coming back to it, and each time I was surprised anew, discovering new details and ideas. It feels like an album that will keep rewarding me far into the future.
15. Tom Rainey Obbligato, Float Upstream (Intakt)
Drummer Tom Rainey belongs to a dying breed—he’s a hard-core improviser who still has a foot planted in jazz tradition. He appears on the terrific recent album Lucille! (Delmark) by bass clarinetist Jason Stein, and at Stein’s release party at Constellation in September, I sat closest to Rainey’s spot on the floor—and it was revelatory to hear how he maintained an imperturbable, swinging pulse while regularly upsetting the apple cart. Rainey reminds me of Han Bennink, but not because they sound anything alike or because Rainey shares the Dutchman’s absurdist sensibilities—it’s how they’ve both inextricably entwined the tasks of playing it straight and making surprising shit happen. Rainey leads several bands these days, but the quintet Obbligato—with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Kris Davis, and bassist Drew Gress—thrills me most because it heightens that duality by setting a bunch of free improvisers loose on a repertoire rooted in mainstream jazz tradition. Obbligato’s fantastic second album, Float Upstream, consists almost entirely of time-tested standards such as “Stella by Starlight,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and “There Is No Greater Love”—Rainey tosses in only one original (the collectively composed title track) and a brisk, astringent take on the overlooked Sam Rivers classic “Beatrice.” The band’s cool assertiveness, biting edge, and devotion to swing suggest a classic Blue Note session from the 60s, when much of the label’s roster was cutting inside-out postbop on the regular. But that’s not to say their performances sound the slightest bit nostalgic—instead Rainey and company demonstrate the seemingly bottomless reinvention that characterizes the best jazz musicians.
I’ve long been a fan of Arabic music, whether traditional folk or urban pop, and this year I discovered a new thread of experimentation that combines those disparate sounds. Many musicians from the Arabic world, among them Lebanese improvisers Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, have made unabashedly experimental work that barely refers to their homelands, but Cairo’s Nadah El Shazly uses a mixture of shaabi (a form of working-class street pop) and the classic songs of legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum as the foundation for her explorations—she heaps her elegant melodies and loping grooves with bits of noise and dissonant harmonies, digitally dicing and refracting her voice and adding electronic textures. El Shazly collaborated with a fellow Egyptian, composer Maurice Louca, and with Libyan guitarist Sam Shalabi (who spent many years living and working in Montreal and led the postrock group Shalabi Effect) to build dazzling, layered arrangements around songs she wrote and constructed at home on her computer. But what differentiates Ahwar from other recordings that experiment with traditional music from the Middle East is her stunning voice. Louca also appears on the excellent recent trio record Lekhfa (Mostakell) with singer Maryam Saleh and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, which further suggests that an exciting new aesthetic is emerging.
I don’t think I’ve ever compiled a year-end list that included albums by two different Norwegian Hardanger fiddle players. Neither Nils Økland (who appears on yesterday’s portion of this list) nor Erlend Apneseth plays the instrument in the pure folk fashion for which it’s best known, but each taps into its lush harmonic possibilities, applying its rich, grainy timbre and natural overtones to wide-ranging original compositions. Like Økland, Apneseth adapts approaches and techniques from jazz and improvised music, but Nattsongar has a distinctive spectral depth thanks to his band—specifically the kaleidoscopic guitar and electronics of Stein Urheim. The pieces on the album were commissioned for a Norwegian folk festival, and they often incorporate traditions from other parts of the world as well (“Oasia” has a Chinese flavor, for instance), but the borrowings don’t feel glib, artificial, or insincere. Apneseth has wide-open ears, and his excellent bandmates—Urheim, Atomic drummer Hans Hulbækmo, double bassist Ole Morten Vågan, and nyckelharpa player Erik Rydvall—help him draft sumptuous, shape-shifting grooves, soaring melodies, and dense atmospheres. This year Apneseth also released the wonderful trio album Åra (with guitarist Stephan Meidell and percussionist Øyvind Hegg-Lunde), but Nattsongar edges it out for a place on my list with its breadth and tuneful splendor.
Yamataka Eye is famous as the restless driving force behind the Boredoms, but for more than three decades the band’s drummer YoshimiO (aka Yoshimi P-We) has proved herself a visionary as well, with a seemingly unquenchable wealth of ideas. I was a bit surprised to learn that she had a “new” band called Saicobab, which has existed in one form or another for several years—you wouldn’t think she’d need another outlet, given that her long-running group OOIOO can change so radically from album to album. (OOIOO’s brilliant 2013 album, Gamel, puts a unique spin on Indonesian gamelan while retaining the combo’s terse rhythmic drive.) On Saicobab’s first album, Sab Se Purani Bab, YoshimiO is joined by double bassist Akita Goldman, sitar player Daikiti (aka Yoshida Daikichi), and percussionist Motoyuki “Hama” Hamamoto (who specializes in an Arabic tambourine called a riq), but the most arresting thing about this nimble ensemble is YoshimiO’s idiosyncratic singing—a bizarre style halfway between ecstatic chanting and manic screaming. Her vocals provide the songs with melodic structure, but the sound of Saicobab is nonetheless alienated from any tradition or era—not least because of the studio production, which subtly but effectively accents the wriggling, scuttling sitar with stereo-field effects and unexpected vocal harmonies. Few musicians can create new idioms while maintaining an instantly recognizable identity, but YoshimiO seems to pull it off every time—I’d say she can do it in her sleep, except that might sound like an insult to this rigorous and exciting music.
Few things turned my head around last year like the launch of the Canadian Composers Series by peerless British label Another Timbre. The five titles that came out in 2017 were consistently fantastic, forcing me to reckon with an emergent depth in the Canadian contemporary-music community—I’d known only a few pieces by some prominent composers. This series has helped me make connections among folks such as Martin Arnold, Marc Sabat, Chiyoko Szlavnics, and Linda Catlin Smith, all of whom were featured in the initial batch of releases (along with much younger composer and percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli). The double CD Drifter collects pieces Smith wrote between 1995 and 2015, and the sometimes serene, sometimes unsettling beauty of her pensive music is underlined by performances by members of England’s adventurous Apartment House (in various solo, duo, and trio configurations) and by Montreal’s ravishing Quatuor Bozzini. Like much of the music in the series, Smith’s work is contemplative, its sorrowful melodies unfurling slowly and never arriving at clear resolutions. In its lack of tidy endpoints, it feels like an act of exploration.