Part two of this year’s countdown begins below. You can read about picks 40 through 31 here.
30. Laura Marling, Semper Femina (More Alarming)
Most mentions of Semper Femina note that singer-songwriter Laura Marling addresses only women in its nine songs. It’s hard to tell if those women are friends or lovers, but Marling’s sharp observations and plainspoken language render the ambiguity irrelevant. The title comes from a line in Virgil’s Aeneid, “Varium et mutabile semper femina” (“Fickle and changeable always is woman”), and in just about every song a doubtful narrator wrestles with a relationship at a crossroads. On album opener “Soothing,” to the accompaniment of a stuttering groove and a pair of bass lines that fall in and out of sync, Marling rebuffs a caller with whom she has a troubled past—though even her dismissal is generous (“I banish you with love”). On “Don’t Pass Me By” she seems uncertain about breaking it off with someone: “I can’t get you off my mind / Can you love me if I put up a fight?” On the gorgeous “Wild Fire,” where she harmonizes beautifully with herself, she reaches the end of her patience with a complicated relationship, alternating between support and contempt for the woman in question. In recalling a backhanded compliment from her, Marling sneers, “Well maybe someday when God takes me away / I’ll understand what the fuck that means.” Guitarist Blake Mills produced the record, alternating between sparse postfolk and biting electric arrangements where he tends to foreground a defining element (the aforementioned twined bass lines on “Soothing,” for example, or the stinging slide guitar on “Nothing, Not Nearly”). Of course, nothing in the arrangements can compete for our attention with Marling’s remarkable singing, which has never been stronger or more magnetic.
The second quintet album by innovative Norwegian Hardanger fiddle master Nils Økland reinstates the grain and heft sanded away on the group’s otherwise gorgeous 2016 ECM debut, Kjølvatn. Økland plays conventional violin and viola d’amore on a few tracks, but he’s best known as a Hardanger player, with roots in traditional Norwegian music that he transforms and updates with drama, tension, and originality. His quintet recorded Lysning in the same old stone church as Kjølvatn, so there’s once again plenty of room reverb, but this time out the production seems to put the listener in the actual space. His mesmerizing lines and viscous double stops have more of their resonant tang and delicious burr, and they pick up some lovely low end when he braids them with the arco bass of Mats Eilertsen and the deep drones of harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland. The ominous opening of “Blåmyr” creates a feeling of solemn portent, simultaneously evoking a church and a dark forest. Økland’s quintet, which also includes brilliant percussionist Håkon Stene and versatile reedist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, creates music that feels both ancient and modern, rippling with meditative beauty and conveying a sense of place more vividly than almost any other record I heard this year.
This stunning quartet recording, trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s long overdue debut as a leader, knits together several threads in her music—laser-sharp improvisatory exploration, ebullient melodies, and a deep feeling for groove. She made it with a band of high-level players, all of them former Chicagoans: bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Chad Taylor. Fly or Die opens with a brief abstract flourish that demonstrates Branch’s mastery of extended technique—an unpitched column of abraded wind titled “Jump Off”—and quickly opens up into a wonderfully loose, irresistible groove from Taylor, longtime partner of cornetist Rob Mazurek in the Chicago Underground Duo. Reid shadows Ajemian’s sturdy bass lines with piquant accents and driving arco patterns that recall the simpatico accompaniment fellow cellist Abdul Wadud provided alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. Meanwhile Branch leaps back and forth between pithy composed melodies and improvisations distinguished by tonal richness, rhythmic agility, lyrical imagination, and timbral variety. She’s had those gifts for a long time, but she’s never put them all together so convincingly.
Björk’s lyrics on this sumptuous album convey an optimism missing from her previous few records, but she hasn’t arrived at that outlook by simplifying anything about her approach. She pursues her growing fascination with the rhythms, motion, and cycles of the natural world, and in order to translate them into music, she’s developed a highly idiosyncratic aesthetic for Utopia: the synthetic rhythms of her current creative partner, Venezuelan producer Arca (aka Alejandro Ghersi), surge and recede not to obey the dictates of the dance floor but rather to follow the irregular patterns of the outdoors. Other than Björk’s voice, the dominant melodic sounds atop Arca’s slithering, clambering beats are the contrapuntal lines of a 12-member flute ensemble and samples of riveting birdsong. The music bears Björk’s imprint, of course, but it also feels like something new—more intuitive, spontaneous, unpredictable, and slippery. Few contemporary artists have devoted themselves to reinvention and exploration as fiercely as Björk, and that makes every one of her new endeavors an adventure.
26. Alexander Hawkins, Unit[e] (Alexander Hawkins Music)
On this double album, British pianist Alexander Hawkins covers just as much ground as you’d expect from someone of his erudition and curiosity. It consists almost entirely of Hawkins compositions, rendered by an inventive sextet on the first disc and a 13-piece band on the second. The sextet disc opens with a funky, hurtling treatment of “For the People,” an overlooked tune by idiosyncratic percussionist and Chicago native Jerome Cooper. Reedist Shabaka Hutchings uncorks a wonderfully jagged, halting solo over stabs and licks from Hawkins as well as from violinist Dylan Bates and guitarist Otto Fischer. Many of the original tunes bring to mind the multipronged melodic approach of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band—on “[C]all (Part 1)” drummer Tom Skinner and bassist Neil Charles play a driving postdisco beat that the other four players layer with a series of related but independent melodies. On the relatively subtle ballad “[W]here,” Hawkins plays spacious, Sun Ra-like chords behind probing, tender lines by Bates, Hutchings (on bass clarinet), and Fischer. On the second disc (with the larger band), the wonderfully loose arrangements give the players more latitude—the pieces usually build in open sections, and even during passages that Hawkins has charted out, he lets the group personalize his writing with improvisation. Unit[e] is one of the most exciting, idea-packed albums of the year, and curious listeners would do well to make note of the musicians bringing it to life.
I somehow missed the self-titled 2016 debut album by this stunning Tuareg band from Niger, but its follow-up has stopped me in my tracks. One of the first groups to popularize the music of the Tuareg in the West (as well the cultural and political plight of these Saharan people) was female-led group Tartit, but the style’s appealing, bluesy guitar playing has traditionally been handled by men. When Sahel Sounds proprietor Christopher Kirkley noticed a Tuareg woman playing guitar in a YouTube video in 2014, he set out to find her, eventually tracking her down in the tiny village of Illighadad. The first record by Les Filles de Illighadad featured just that guitarist, Fatou Seidi Ghali, accompanied by a second vocalist, her cousin Talamnou Akrouni. It’s a casual session among family—at the time, neither musician had any real public performance experience—but on the remarkable Eghass Malan, the band’s first studio recording, Ghali leads a road-tested foursome with her brother on second guitar. Les Filles de Illighadad use the same sort of clopping calabash rhythms and churning, hypnotic single-chord guitar patterns as the raft of male-led Tuareg groups—including Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa, and Terakaft—but their music stands out thanks to the absorbing, nasal harmonies, call-and-response vocals, and unison chants of Ghali, Akrouni, and another cousin, Mariama Assouan. Their demonstrative singing provides something thrilling and new, loaded with potential.
Over the past few years, Canadian sound artist and composer Sarah Davachi has demonstrated a broad command of a variety of instruments and synthesizers, using sonorous long tones that slowly undulate, coalesce, and resonate to create gorgeous, constantly evolving drones. Her aesthetic sensibility seems shaped largely by the exquisitely patient work of French electronic music composer Éliane Radigue, but Davachi has her own style, occasionally moving more rapidly or reaching her destination quicker. Though she’s worked extensively with synthesizers, on the remarkable All My Circles Run she coaxes similarly rich textures and mesmerizing sounds from electronically manipulated acoustic instruments, with wisps of melody and harmony billowing from each work. On “For Voice” sustained, wordless vocalizations surge and overlap to create haunting shapes, while on “For Piano” Satie-esque fragments are slowly subsumed by a buzzing drone that grows steadily more serrated.
Icelandic quartet Nordic Affect perform contemporary music on Baroque instruments—though admittedly you’re only likely to notice anything unusual about the instrumentation when Gudrún Óskarsdóttir plays harpsichord. The ensemble’s repertoire consists of new work written for it by other Icelandic composers, many of them women (like all four members of Nordic Affect). Raindamage deploys electronics with greater effect than the group’s strong 2015 debut album, Clockworking, reinforcing the denser, more aggressive timbre that the quartet adopts for these recordings. On the title composition, written by Valgeir Sigurdsson, the string players switch frequently among techniques—bowing, plucking, scraping, and striking their instruments—to build a dazzling world of sound. The piece isn’t quite five minutes long, but in that time Nordic Affect shift their attack from serene to harried and morph their drones into elegantly crawling melodies, while electronics provide subtle shading and occasionally a single instrument rises to the surface with stunningly lyrical utterances. The piece is as beautiful as it is mysterious.
22. Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (Pi)
Percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey recorded Verisimilitude with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, and it’s this trio’s greatest peak yet. Sorey has routinely downplayed his drumming in this group, but two of the pieces on this album are commissions premiered at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival, so it’s not surprising that the opening track, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” foregrounds Sorey’s elegant, dramatic, subtly surging playing—he lifts up Smythe’s simple, meditative figures and offers his own focal point, mirroring the pianist’s tumble of sound. “Flowers for Prashant,” written for the late Chicago filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, is a gorgeous duo for Smythe and Tordini—shimmering, rapidly cycling low-end piano notes mesh with hydroplaning arco bass. As it tapers off, it morphs into “Obsidian,” where Smythe uses electronics to expand both his piano and Tordini’s strident bowed figures into billowing clouds of astringent sound. The piece then moves into somber explication of written material, with each halting passage spelled out with impressive precision—a shift away from the dissonance and turbulence of Sorey’s Feldman-esque compositional tendencies and toward something more sparse, varied, and thrilling.
The world (myself included) is catching up with the music of Swiss composer Jürg Frey, a veteran minimalist and key figure in the post-Cagean Wandelweiser Collective, which has lately been producing music of unalloyed beauty and simplicity at an impressive clip. This year Frey’s work appeared on a bunch of new recordings, but this double album is the one that demanded the most of my listening time—a series of chamber pieces and one extended solo piano work (“Le Presence, les Silences,” played beautifully by Dante Boon), all of which seem to slow down time, exquisitely stretching out pretty melodies to the point of unrecognizability. The pieces are all efforts by the composer to respond to the writing of Swiss-French poet Gustave Roud, though only “Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind,” with soprano singing by Regula Konrad, features any text. As Frey has explained: “It’s a unique poetry that speaks from beginning to end of searching for the essence. I would like to compare his mode of work with that of a painter. Every day he went out, not with an easel, but with his notebook, and he wandered through the landscape as a flaneur, observer, writer, laying the foundations of his work with his notes. For me his work constitutes a kind of ‘field recording,’ not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense.” The composer masterfully translates Roud’s methodology into the domain of sound.
Harriet Tubman, Araminta (Sunnyside)
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Aruán Ortiz, Cub(an)ism (Intakt)
Michael Chapman, 50 (Paradise of Bachelors)
John Zorn, The Interpretation of Dreams (Tzadik)