40. Allen Toussaint, Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)
On Bright Mississippi songwriter, producer, pianist, and arranger Allen Toussaint, a key architect of New Orleans R & B, indulges his love for an earlier form of Crescent City music: traditional jazz. Producer Joe Henry enlisted a top-flight roster of players, including Nicholas Payton, Don Byron, and Marc Ribot, to recast both early standards like “St. James Infirmary” and “West End Blues” and classics by Ellington and Monk, and Toussaint’s near encyclopedic knowledge of American music makes the performances so rich it’s as though every development in jazz and R & B over the past century were happening again and all at once.
39. Thee Oh Sees, Help (In the Red)
Thee Oh Sees, an ever-morphing combo led by Bay Area garage-rock savant Jon Dwyer, reached new heights with Help, writing their most accomplished batch of tunes and then slathering them with guitar fuzz and injecting them with primal rhythms. Dwyer digs into old-timey sounds and AM radio pop while staying rooted in 60s protopunk, and no matter what influences he’s kicking around from one song to the next, his melodies have a new strength that helps them hold up to the band’s trashy energy.
38. Lucas Santtana, Sem Nostalgia (YB Music)
Over the past decade Rio’s Lucas Santtana has been one of Brazil’s most adventurous musicians, allowing his powerful love for samba and bossa nova to lead him into all kinds of unexpected territory, from funk (covering James Brown’s “Doin’ It to Death” with lead berimbau) to heavy, spaced-out dub. On his latest record he created all the beats without any standard percussion instruments, instead using digitally chopped samples and manipulated guitar sounds (not just strumming but beating on its body). He also matched his conceptual daring to one of his strongest, most indelible collections of original tunes.
37. Streifenjunko, No Longer Burning (Sofa)
Trumpeter Eivind Lønning and reedist Espen Reinertsen, two young Norwegians performing as Streifenjunko, knocked me out with their unassuming debut album, delivering one of the most potent and original spins on free improvisation I’ve heard in years. Both players have mastered the full range of extended techniques common to the genre, and in their meticulous performances they communicate a clear compositional logic even as they avoid falling into any clearly identifiable idiom, shaping the most abstract sounds and textures into unexpectedly pretty melodies.
36. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
Some fickle listeners have turned their backs on Wilco, branding them “dad rock,” the band has continued to grow and thrive. Never as experimental as some commenters declared them upon the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy and crew manipulate tradition in their own image, drawing their strength from a sure grasp of American music that few artists of the past two decades can equal. Tweedy’s songwriting and singing keep improving, and the musicians supporting him, especially guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, make for a pretty much peerless band.
35. Staff Benda Bilili, Très Très Fort (Crammed Discs)
The latest Congolese discovery from Belgian producer Vincent Kenis (the man who introduced Konono No. 1 to non-Africans) is Staff Banda Bilili, a crew of homeless paraplegics living on the grounds of Kinshasa’s zoological gardens. The back story is good, but the music is better: the rugged, propulsive songs borrow the liquid, melodic guitar work (if not exactly the brisk polyrhythms) of soukous masters like Franco, and 17-year-old Roger Landu, who built an instrument called the satonge from a single string and a tin can, contributes wild, infectiously ecstatic high-pitched lines and tender harmony vocals.
34. Alela Diane, To Be Still (Rough Trade)
On To Be Still Alela Diane dropped the freak-folk affectations of her debut to emerge as one of the finest young singer-songwriters in the U.S., crafting gorgeous, easygoing melodies touched with sorrow and delivering them in a voice colored by tasteful vibrato and loaded with warmth. The arrangements are pitch-perfect, fleshing out the tunes with a mix of folk-rock and country that avoids the cliches of both genres. And she earns extra points for bringing in Michael Hurley to duet with her on “Age Old Blues.”
33. Josh Berman, Old Idea (Delmark)
Cornetist Josh Berman, a fixture on the Chicago jazz scene in bands like Fast Citizens, Chicago Luzern Exchange, Rolldown, and the Lucky 7s, finally made his first album as a leader at age 36, and it was worth the wait. In his original pieces he braids postfree jazz techniques and threads of prewar styles into sturdy postbop vehicles. The band now includes reedist Keefe Jackson, bassist Anton Hatwich, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and drummer Marc Riordan (replacing Nori Tanaka, who played on the recording), and when I saw them a couple of weeks ago, they sounded even better than they do on this undeniably impressive album.
32. The Unthanks, Here’s the Tender Coming (EMI, UK)
On their latest album this superb British folk group changed their name (from Rachel Unthank & the Winterset) and broadened their sound. The contrast between the gorgeous voices of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank—the former is clear and direct, the latter ethereal and airy—is still my favorite thing about their music, but the arrangements here are much grander than anything on their previous albums, with strings, horns, and drums shaping the elegant yet rustic melodies of both traditional and original songs. And as good as the Unthanks’ albums are, their charming live show outshines them by an order of magnitude.
31. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Beware (Drag City)
Will Oldham seems to thrive on change—he’s constantly tweaking his stage name, the lineup of his band, and his arrangements—and Beware is yet another demonstration of the way this instability fuels and complements his creativity. Backed by a killer band drawn in large part from the local jazz and improvised music scenes—including Nicole Mitchell, Michael Zerang, Josh Abrams, and Dee Alexander—Oldham sounds stronger than ever, his voice whirling and floating through some of the most ambitious and ebullient arrangements on any of his records.
30. Håkon Kornstad, Dwell Time (Jazzland)
On his second solo album this daring and boundlessly curious Norwegian saxophonist devises new possibilities for his already novel electronically enhanced approach. Kornstad improvises until he hits upon a phrase he likes, sets it to loop, and then carries on adding loops, layer by layer, until he’s built a structure to improvise over at length. He has such a strong compositional mind-set that this process never feels spontaneous, but its melodic richness and fascinating explorations of color and texture are reward enough.
29. Lars Myrvoll, The Island (Safe as Milk)
I still know little about this Norwegian guitarist, but I can say for sure that The Island captivated me from my first listen. Myrvol created these beautifully intimate bedroom recordings over the span of six years, leaving in the ambient sounds behind his stark, hauntingly beautiful guitar playing, which somehow combines folk, Morton Feldman-style minimalism, and post-Derek Bailey tangles into a unified whole. His repetitive figures are rich with atmosphere, and his nimble single-note runs and leisurely arpeggios ring with unusual harmonies.
28. Warsaw Village Band, Infinity (Barbés)
This Polish band draw their repertoire from regional folk traditions that the old communist leadership tried to blot out in favor of a nationalist monoculture. For years they’ve traveled the countryside collecting songs in danger of extinction, and on their albums they reinvent those tunes as profoundly contemporary and furiously energetic music, with slashing strings and glassy hammer dulcimer surging beneath the piercing unison vocals.
27. Seabrook Power Plant, Seabrook Power Plant (Loyal Label)
The debut album from this unusual New York trio, named after a nuclear facility in New Hampshire that shares a name with bandleader Brandon Seabrook, knocked me out with its peculiar mix of abstract improvisation, jazz, heavy metal, and numb funk. Seabrook plays both electric guitar and tenor banjo, an unforgiving instrument in contexts like this because it has virtually no sustain. Using amplification, electronic effects, bowing, and techniques like tremoloing—a staccato repetition of a particular chord that approximates a sustained tone—he coaxes a sublime range of sounds from the instrument, and the piledriving support from drummer Jared Seabrook (his brother) and bassist Tom Blancarte makes this one of the most striking records I’ve heard in years.
26. Tyondai Braxton, Central Market (Warp)
Battles member Tyondai Braxton delivered the art-rock album of the year, a sprawling, twitchy collection of songs that managed to be mercilessly jarring and complicated yet richly entertaining. He taps into modern classical music for unexpected string-instrument passages that careen through the rigorous, baffling drumming of Ian Antonio of Zs; Braxton himself plays guitar and sings in a giddy, manic, fluid style that’s all his own.
25. Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things, About Us (482 Music)
On their second album this local quartet shifted their focus from overlooked late 50s postbop nuggets to contemporary material written both by band members and by three accomplished associates (Jeff Parker, David Boykin, and Jeb Bishop). Despite this change, their modus operandi remains much the same, with the saxophones of Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman swooping and screaming, independently and in unison, over the fiercely swinging grooves sculpted by drummer Mike Reed and bassist Jason Roebke.
24. Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara, Tell No Lies (Real World)
British guitarist Justin Adams, a regular collaborator of Robert Plant, is one of the few non-African musicians to persuasively demonstrate a link between the West African traditions popularized by Ali Farka Toure and American blues music. On his second album with Gambian griot Juldeh Camara he all but erases the distinctions between those two musical territories. Despite a few missteps where he spells out the connections too literally, Adams is mindful of his virtuosity, using it mostly in service of rhythm and texture, and Camara sings with easy, tightly coiled soulfulness while unfurling beautifully droning lines on an ancient type of single-string fiddle called a riti.
23. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (Warp)
Veckatimest is art-rock of the highest caliber, a bizarre amalgam of heavenly pop harmonies (think Beach Boys or vintage Phil Spector productions) and constantly shifting instrumental textures and patterns. Hotshot composer Nico Muhly created choral and string arrangements on a few tunes, but he was mostly expanding on ideas already embedded in the music: reverbed-out guitar parts, sweetly sensual vocal leads, and shimmering backup harmonies all move in different directions and modulate at different rates, so that the songs seem to hover and billow rather than drive and rock. I’m still a bit perplexed by their decision to enlist Michael McDonald to sing lead on the single version of “While You Wait for the Others,” but there’s no point trying to dissect the whims of Brooklyn fashion victims.
22. Jeremy Udden, Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent)
One of the most distinctive jazz records I heard this year, Plainville delivers a pastoral, rural feel within beautiful compositions and lush harmonies. Brandon Seabrook (also of Seabrook Power Plant, above) plays twangy banjo and taut electric guitar, while Pete Rende alternates between warm keyboard textures (both on pump organ and Fender Rhodes) and well-placed pedal-steel licks. The overall feel is one of pretty lyricism and all-pervading calm, but leader and saxophonist Jeremy Udden injects his painterly improvisations with a quiet intensity.
21. Cryptacize, Mythomania (Asthmatic Kitty)
On Mythomania Cryptacize set their sophisticated melodies, part Tin Pan Alley and part Brill Building, amid shimmering, manic detail and odd instrumental flourishes. The songs are straightforward at their core—the simple strumming of former Deerhoof guitarist Chris Cohen, the spazzy drumming of Michael Carreira, the sturdy but ethereal voice of Nedelle Torrisi—but they’re fleshed out with a shape-shifting tissue of overdubs, including autoharp, organ, hand percussion, and vinyl field-recording samples, plus more layers of Cohen’s harsh-but-sweet guitar, sometimes sped up or slowed down like Les Paul’s early tape experiments. Torrisi is a stunning singer, shaping the melodies with precision and vigor even when her voice climbs so high the air must be getting thin, and her forthright lucidity plays nicely against the album’s itchy background bustle.
20. Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics, Inspiration Information 3 (Strut)
Veteran Ethiopian composer, keyboardist, vibist, and arranger Mulatu Astatke—whose tunes you’ve heard if you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers—hooks up with avant-garde UK hip-hop/funk crew the Heliocentrics and creates an unexpectedly simpatico hybrid. I’m usually suspicious of calculated cross-generational or cross-stylistic experiments—Inspiration Information 3 is part of a Strut series that’s also paired Tony Allen with Jimi Tenor and Horace Andy with Ashley Beedle—but this one works perfectly. Haunting pentatonic melodies tussle with the kind of grooves Sun Ra might have written if he’d been born six decades later.
19. Vic Chesnutt, At the Cut (Constellation)
Adding another layer to the tragedy of Vic Chesnutt’s suicide is the fact that he’d just released what might be the most powerful album of his career. A combo including Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and folks from Montreal’s Godspeed/Silver Mt. Zion crowd wrap up his singing in arrangements both tender and harrowing—the opener, “Coward,” is easily the most unsettling rock song I heard all year. “Flirted With You All My Life,” a breakup note to death, stings much worse if you know about Chesnutt’s previous suicide attempts (to say nothing of the one that succeeded), but even if you’re completely ignorant of the details of his troubled life this record can clobber you emotionally.
18. J.D. Allen Trio, Shine! (Sunnyside)
J.D. Allen has been leading a growing reinvestment in the saxophone trio on the New York jazz scene. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins remain clear points of reference, but this group—with the sturdy rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston—has a no-nonsense concision and lean architecture all its own. Shine! puts the spotlight on some of the most fundamental aspects of jazz—subtle group interaction, focused improvisation, and infectious rhythmic buoyancy.
17. Liam Noble Trio, Brubeck (Basho)
Thanks to the metrical experiments of his ubiquitous landmark album Time Out, pianist Dave Brubeck has long been dismissed by some jazz fans as a square, clunky player, but terrific British pianist Liam Noble flies in the face of that prejudice with this superb homage. Noble is wonderfully flexible, equally at home in free-jazz settings and mainstream contexts, and his scrappy trio manages to be both sincere and revisionist in its precise, energetic interpretations. Nothing here is too outre, and I doubt the music will provoke much reconsideration of Brubeck’s work—but it certainly would be nice if it did.
16. Tinariwen, Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)
The original Tuareg rockers pull back on the power, reverting to the stabbing intensity of their earliest work, which conveys emotion through nuances in its lilting vocals and floating matrix of guitars. Tinariwen’s style of musical hypnosis hasn’t varied much over the years—even the change on Imidiwan is of degree, not of kind—but when a band consistently casts spells like these, who cares?
15. David Sylvian, Manafon (Samadhisound)
For his latest album, veteran art-pop singer David Sylvian surrounded himself with a heavyweight crew of free improvisers and experimentalists—Christian Fennesz, Evan Parker, Otomo Yoshihide, Keith Rowe, Franz Hautzinger, Sachiko M, and John Tilbury among them. Within meticulously calibrated improvised settings he sings his elliptical lyrics with rhapsodic splendor, shaping grandiloquent melodies that contrast radically with the stark, spiky, sometimes even menacing music.
14. Mario Diaz de Leon, Enter Houses Of (Tzadik)
This stunning album by young New York composer Mario Diaz de Leon features members of the International Contemporary Ensemble—a superb new-music collective based here and in New York—who bring crisp, bracing technical rigor to de Leon’s mind-melting pieces, which draw liberally from noise, free improv, and the work of modern composers like Xenakis and Ligeti. He’s fluent enough in the languages of his various influences that his work never sounds like an arbitrary pastiche. In fact in “Mansion” the transitions between pure acoustic sound—the flutes of Claire Chase and Eric Lamb—and lacerating electronic feedback are as organic as they are abrupt. Enter Houses Of portends great possibilities for new “classical” music.
13. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Délivrance (Leaf)
When American musicians catch a fever for some faraway regional tradition, it usually ends up as a fleeting obsession, but Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost (aka A Hawk and a Hacksaw) have proved themselves an exception to the rule. They’ve not only stuck with their love for Roma fiddle music, they even relocated to Budapest, Hungary, for a year and a half, where they studied with bona fide practitioners and eventually formed a band with some of them. Lots of great players help out on Délivrance, where Barnes and Trost maintain a distinctly American artsy feel amid the wildly sawing fiddles, sprightly cimbalom (played by the great Kalman Balogh), and pumping accordion. And as they proved at the Empty Bottle in September, they can also pull off a great show without the European ringers.
12. Buika & Chucho, El Ultimo Trago (Warner Music Latino)
Remarkable Spanish producer Javier Limón strikes again, pairing Buika—a powerhouse black flamenco singer from Mallorca—with brilliant Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés for a program of songs made famous by Mexican ranchera icon Chavela Vargas. It might seem like some kind of postmodern bricolage, but everything here sounds utterly natural. Valdés has such an authoritative rhythmic drive that he can’t help but give the whole endeavor an Afro-Cuban feel, but Buika has the kind of smoky, malleable voice that can traverse any style—the music they make together feels almost nonidiomatic.
11. Christian Lillinger’s Grund, First Reason (Clean Feed)
Ubiquitous, flexible German drummer Christian Lillinger has made his first album as a leader, and it’s a knockout—not least because his impressive band includes saxophonist Tobias Delius, bassist Jonas Westergaard, and pianist Joachim Kuhn. Lillinger’s tunes are both distinctive and open enough to allow for potent improvisation and lots of interactions between members, particularly the jabbing exchanges between Delius and horn man Wanja Slavin, and second bassist Robert Landfermann gives the bottom end extra movement and muscle.
10. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (Domino)
No record I loved from 2009 irritated me more than the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. Bandleader David Longstreth’s confoundingly loopy, falsetto-heavy singing is so thickly ornamented with cloying curlicues it’s enough to make my teeth ache—if it weren’t for the music’s impressive ambition and surfeit of ideas, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. Some songs are noisy and abrasive, others smooth and funky, and the beguiling arrangements thoughtfully combine chamber-music influences with almost proggy grooves. Bubbly, fluid electric-guitar lines and clustered polyrhythms jostle against blocks of choirlike vocals and elaborate melodies that often seem to move independently of the rest of the band—and for the most part the warm, ultraprecise singing of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle balances Longstreth’s excesses on the mike.
9. Martial Solal, Live at the Village Vanguard (CAM Jazz)
Even in his 80s, French pianist Martial Solal displays an undiminished creative drive. His dynamic performances are packed with fleet excursions—his mind is clearly still sharp and lucid, and his fingers are still nimble. For years Solal has been compared to Art Tatum, and he shares some of Tatum’s uncanny ability to spin florid, detailed right-hand asides. Solal never simply discards the essential kernel of a tune—this set includes familiar standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “‘Round Midnight”—but he frequently renders it almost unrecognizable. He’s quick-thinking and spontaneous, able to follow his own impulses—a quote from a familiar bebop number, a brief but intriguing tangle of notes like the one that opens “Lover Man”—wherever they lead, but no matter how dramatic the tangent he always maintains a logical through line.
8. Otto, Certa Manhã Acordei de Sonhos Intranquilos (Nublu)
On his excellent fourth album, Brazilian singer Otto draws liberally from reggae, electronica, and surf rock, energizing all of it with a full complement of Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms. Meanwhile his songwriting continues to gravitate toward the Brazilian romantic pop style called brega, though the music’s muscular grooves tend to subvert its sentimentality. He gives the bombastic “6 Minutos,” which easily could’ve been a mawkish power ballad, a no-nonsense treatment that makes it flat-out exhilarating, and on two gorgeous duets with Mexican pop star Julieta Venegas he modulates his bearish voice to blend perfectly with the raspy sweetness of hers.
7. Steve Lehman, Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi)
There’s more than a little of Steve Coleman’s metrically complex futuristic bebop in the music of fellow alto saxophonist Steve Lehman—the trumpeter on Travail, Transformation, and Flow, Jonathan Finlayson, cut his teeth with Coleman—but that influence is rubbing elbows with hip-hop and spectralism. On this stunning octet album, which transplants the sound of Blue Note’s 60s avant-garde records into the 21st century, a dense matrix of cross-cutting rhythms (courtesy drummer Tyshawn Sorey, bassist Drew Gress, tubaist Jose Davila, and vibist Chris Dingman), rigorous melodic patterns, and unusual harmonies give the wonderful soloists, who also include saxophonist Mark Shim and trombonist Tim Albright, plenty to chew on. But even more exciting than the solos is the ensemble sound, with its constant permutations and resourceful ranginess.
6. Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Secretly Canadian)
In jazz, woodshedding refers to time spent out of sight, practicing, brainstorming, and developing one’s craft. But Califone seem to have done their woodshedding in public as Red Red Meat, which evolved from an excellent Stones-flavored narcotic rock band into a quasi-improvisational enigma. Califone has benefited from those years, when RRM always took the path of most resistance. Tim Rutili has always been a striking songwriter and singer, and his unforgettable melodies, sometimes rickety, sometimes tender, unfold through gloriously untidy arrangements that develop so organically they seem invented on the fly; the band’s spaced-out, broke-down postblues sound world is undeniably all their own.
5. Die Enttäuschung, Die Enttäuschung (Intakt)
This quartet from Berlin continues to write pithy postbop swingers and uncork concise, biting solos whose vocabulary draws from jazz’s entire history. The lean, craggy grooves of bassist Jan Roder and drummer Uli Jennessen give the music a buoyant drive without treading on the front-line action of bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall and trumpeter Axel Dörner. In both their individual solos and their knotty but airy multilinear improvisation, the horn men are exquisite in their focus and bracing in their tone.
4. Radian, Chimeric (Thrill Jockey)
Viennese instrumental trio Radian continue to build on the singular noise-and-rhythm excursions of early This Heat (though without obvious imitation or even significant borrowing), delivering with Chimeric their most searing, visceral piece of work. Stefan Nêmeth provides the foreground elements, finding a kind of dry funk and abstruse melody in coruscating foreground noise; he’s largely switched from synthesizer to electric guitar on this record, with even richer, more arresting results. And as always the remarkable drumming of Martin Brandlmayr—a twitchy, counterintuitive barrage of sparse grooves and electroacoustic textures—makes sense of the racket. Radian sound like no other band on the planet.
3. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Anti)
With every new record Neko Case seems to make a quantum leap—as a singer, as a songwriter, as an arranger—and Middle Cyclone is no exception. Yet as beautiful and precise as every facet of the music is, for me it’s all about the vitality in her voice. Her lyrics are also superb: she tackles troubled love more directly and personally than she has in the past, at one point coming right out and saying, “The next time you say forever, I will punch you in your face.”
2. Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity (ACT)
Pianist Vijay Iyer has been turning out ambitious, daring records and giving bracing live performances for years now, but on Historicity everything came together. Though it includes a handful of his brooding, tangled originals, most of the record consists of reshaped covers, both from jazz heavies like Andrew Hill and Julius Hemphill and from pop stars like M.I.A. and Stevie Wonder. Iyer and his rhythm section—bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore—turn the usual MO of the piano trio on its head, with all three players stretching and molding tempo, density, phrasing, and groove like clay, creating a wonderful tension between the audience’s expectations for a familiar song and what actually unfolds.
1. Henry Threadgill Zooid, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi)
Former Chicagoan Henry Threadgill kept a low profile for most of the aughts, but his return with the quintet Zooid proved he wasn’t idle all that time. The scientific meaning of the band’s name—a cell that can move independently within an organism—is reflected in the band’s methodology, where for each tune the players are assigned clusters of intervals within which they can range freely. That might sound a bit heady, but the music itself is pure pleasure. Guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer Elliot Kavee, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, tubaist-trombonist Jose Davila, and Threadgill sculpt elaborate pieces, generating a constant flux of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic juxtapositions, but despite the surfeit of detail and information, the arrangements stay airy. Most important, the parameters Threadgill has established for the band’s improvisations—intended to push players out of their habits and vocabularies—result in music that’s uniquely and beautifully idiosyncratic.