1) Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette: My Foolish Heart — The ultimate jazz trio releases their finest recording to date. My Foolish Heart finds the group going deeper into the American songbook with three novelties from the Swing era, played idiomatically without a hint of mockery, as reinforced in Jarrett’s liner notes. In fact, two of those spur-of-the-moment tracks, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” have bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette playing most convincing solos, the latter with boisterous floor tom and snare drum rolls, the former with a short, sprightly chorus. Like an aging Grand Cru, the trio retains plenty of complexity for full appreciation.
2) Café Tacuba: Sino — Café Tacuba has earned its reputation as Mexico’s most visionary rock band precisely because there has never been much that’s traditionally rock about it. Its previous homages have skewed less toward The Who and more toward the Mexican ranchera legend Chavela Vargas and the Dominican merengue-pop star Juan Luis Guerra. For the past two decades it has treated rock as a genre worth sustaining only if it could be exploded, repeatedly.
3) Terence Blanchard: A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) — Jazz history isn’t exactly littered with great albums featuring string orchestras. There have been a few — tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s Focus (Verve, 1961) and British reed player Tim Garland’s If The Sea Replied (Sirocco, 2005) are both masterpieces, but precious few others were recorded in the 44 years that separate them. New Orleans’ trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) is one of the genre’s infrequent successes. A majestic and emotionally charged disc, it employs the sonic grandeur of the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia to convey the magnitude of the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans in 2005, without at any time compromising the fundamental jazz character of the music. And it does so without bombast — its layered and nuanced character avoids literal evocations of raging wind and water, suggesting instead measured grief, and a quiet determination to rebuild and move on.
4) David Torn: Prezens — David Torn has always been an unrepentant anti-guitarist. As good as Torn is at creating otherworldly aural landscapes that reference everything from improvised music and jazz to progressive rock and world music, none of his previous records have represented his full capabilities. Until now. Prezens is the record that Torn fans have been waiting for, the most fully realized of his career. By enlisting Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, Prezens might appear to be a different slant on Berne’s Science Friction band. But this largely improvised album bears little resemblance to that group, focusing, as it does, on Torn’s penchant for extreme sonic manipulation where sound and ambience trump melody and simple form.
5) Miles Davis: The Complete ‘On The Corner’ Sessions — If Bitches Brew was the first bombshell Miles dropped on the jazz world, this surely was the second. It’s a unique and unprecedented recording that was savaged by many of the critics of its day. They blasted Miles for creating a new anti-jazz that violated the genre’s integrity. Davis spits out wah-wah-distorted licks of fire, and he grinds on the organ like a cheap date. This explosive session is anything but harmless, as it still remains the album that the purists most love to hate. Essential.
1) Wax Fang: La La Land — The exciting disc by the exciting band is now available for everyone to discover. I’m talking to you, scouts at Sub Pop or Merge or whomever else can help this trio spread their sound around the world. (We still owe the world a giant apology for Days of the New, anyway.)
2) Radiohead: In Rainbows — For the first time in 10 years, they play to their strengths — a bunch of really good songs, played extremely well.
3) Palm Pictures: You’re Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson — I don’t know why Daniel Johnston gets more lip service from the kids today (Is Kurt Cobain’s influence really still felt? Or is it Bright Eyes now?). Roky was and still is the much more musical, fascinating Texan crazy freak. You don’t love him yet? Watch this inspiring, bewildering story unfold.
4) Battles: Mirrored — Older and younger dudes joining forces, melding heavy rock and weird electronics. It shouldn’t work but it does, uniting trendy girls who just wanna have fun and awkward guys with no social skills who want the girls to appreciate how smart they are, god damn it.
5) Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Water — Suddenly elvish girls who do the opposite of rock are everywhere, and most have already been sent back to their local Ren Fair. Marissa Nadler pulls off sounding ancient and modern simultaneously, can compose songs that offer lovely substance over hip attitude, and can even cover a Leonard Cohen song without embarrassing herself.
1) Queens of the Stone Age: Era Vulgaris — Didn’t care for this one at first listen, but after a few repeated spins, its undeniable charms become apparent. Killer kuts like “I’m Designer,” “Make It Wit Chu,” “Turnin’ on the Screw,” “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “3s & 7s” all demonstrate that Josh Homme has finally restored the balance to QOTSA after they dumped bass playing wildman Nick Oliveri back in 2004.
2) White Stripes: Icky Thump — There’s something to be said about consistency (besides it being the hobgoblin of little minds), and the White Stripes have yet to make a bad album. Icky Thump has it all: fierce garage scuzz rock that threatens to devolve into metal (“Icky Thump,” “Little Cream Soda”), a brilliant Blonde on Blonde pastiche (“You Don’t Know What Love Is”), slide-drenched Zep-style blues (“Catch Hell Blues”), a mariachi-themed cover tune (“Conquest”) and even bagpipes, for God’s sake (“Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn”) — and there’s not a lemon in sight.
3) Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — The worst thing about this album is its title — everything else is top-notch. There’s way too much indie and not enough rock in the indie rock ghetto, but the boys in Spoon know how to do it up properly. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is rife with angular, sinewy pop.
4) Justice: † — Some say that French duo Justice is just Daft Punk without the robot fetish, and while that is not too far off the mark, their debut album † (pronounced “cross”) is a dance/electronic record rockers can get behind. You’d be amazed how far you can go with power chords and sturdy riffs, no matter how funky the backbeat.
5) Radiohead: In Rainbows — The new Radiohead disc got much more publicity for its business model than its actual, you know, music and shit. Traditionalists need not worry; In Rainbows will have a standard CD release, but once you remove the novelty factor from the equation, what you’re left with is a strong Radiohead record. They’re still using lots of skittering electronic rhythms and pulses, but they’ve upped the gorgeous guitar textures (one song is even called “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”) back to OK Computer levels. Good stuff.
1) Rilo Kiley: Under the Black Light — I was awestruck by this group’s fourth release. Pop music today is gross, I thought. Predictable. Over-produced. Robotic. Until … Rilo Kiley showed me what they discovered under a black light — fresh, appealing lyrics in bed with funky, raw beats and a naughty spanking from Amy Lewis’ mesmerizing, unrefined vocals. Turn off the radio and give your ears this much-needed respite from the same old, same old.
2) Uh Huh Her: I See Red — It’s a sad day when bands break up. It’s a happy day when disbanded band members find other disbanded band members and learn how to make sweet, sweet music once again. As is the case with this group, which formed when Camila Grey (of Mellowdrone) met up with … uh huh, her … Leisha Hailey (of The Murmurs). Although neither had frontman experience — Grey played bass and dabbled in production (Dr. Dre, Kelly Osbourne) and Hailey has been on a five-year music hiatus doing time on the boob tube (as Alice in “The L Word”) — both have effortlessly stepped up front and center with this electro-pop EP. It’s edgy without being loud. Surreal without being cryptic.
3) Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger — He’s an asshole, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make great music. Adams defies music-industry rules, molds and etiquette. He always has. I’ve got friends who are still bitter over his overly short stint closing out this year’s Non-Comm. Of course they didn’t bother to fork over some dough for his make-up show a few months later, which was amazing, being that most of the playlist came from Easy Tiger.
4) The Fervor: Bleeder — I’m gonna put this out there: The Fervor is Louisville’s version of Rilo Kiley. Which is neither a knock nor a surprise that both are on my Top 5 list. Bold female vocals (courtesy of Natalie Felker), innovative melodies and solid subject matter make for a refreshing 10-song drag from an inhaler. Loosen it up. (BTW: LEO music editor Mat Herron plays the drums in this band, but that didn’t influence my pick, I swear. But the drumming is quite good.)
5) Bruce Springsteen: Magic — Remember when music was just music? No bling. No frontin’. No celebrity. Just music. Pure and simple music. Bruce Springsteen does.
Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.
1) Miles Davis: The Complete ‘On the Corner’ Sessions — This is the shit! When the original LP came out in 1972, it confounded even some of Davis’ fans who did not label him a sellout for his pioneering electric music. On the Corner dug deep into funk, Indian music, rock and swirling crosscurrents of multilayered percussion. This six-disc set presents Davis with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and others in more than six hours of exciting, challenging music, much of it previously unreleased. Not for the faint of heart.
2) Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: Metheny/Mehldau Quartet — Pat Metheny’s trio concert was a highlight of the past year’s live jazz events, and several of the compositions came from this beautiful album, co-featuring pianist-composer Brad Mehldau, along with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. A follow-up to the album of duets these artists released the previous year, this CD documents a special musical partnership, equally at home with ballads and harder-edged material.
3) Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage — Saxophonist Michael Brecker, one of the most influential, versatile and respected jazz artists of his generation, passed away prematurely this year from leukemia. What could have been a maudlin or over-hyped last recording, Pilgrimage, instead, is an offering that stands as a tribute to his musical vision. Recorded in August 2006, with pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Patitucci, this CD eschews the pop/funk orientation of the Brecker Brothers in favor of an intense journey through often-tricky compositions.
4) Sonny Rollins: Sonny, Please — Saxophonist Sonny Rollins has achieved legendary status not due to age alone, but as a result of more than 50 years of first-rate improvisational prowess. Sonny, Please is the initial offering on his own Doxy label. It comes closer to capturing the excitement of his live performances than any of his studio albums for many years, and it augurs a rejuvenated career for this master musician.
5) Trio of Doom — Bassist Jaco Pastorius named this jazz power trio, and finally its entire studio and live recordings have been issued. John McLaughlin’s guitar is on fire, and Tony Williams’ drumwork is phenomenal. Their cuts on the vinyl-only Havana Jam compilations, ostensibly live, were actually studio tracks with dubbed applause. The real concert material comprises the first half of this CD; studio works, the second. Although the repertoire is basically the same (except for an unduplicated “Are you the One, Are You the One?”), the rawness of the concert takes is carried over into the studio versions five days later. Essential for any fan of “old school” fusion.
1) Liars: Liars — The first half of Liars mixes jangling guitars and keyboards with hypnotic beats before the mid-album “Freak Out,” when the whole thing speeds up and collapses in on itself in a glorious mess. It’s dance-punk that you’re not really supposed to dance to, dark and disconcerting but so well-composed that you just want to sink into your chair and absorb the entire thing.
2) Okkervil River: The Stage Names — Will Sheff brings his vivid imagery and emotionally and physically malformed characters from dirty dungeons to dirty hotel rooms. The at least partially autobiographical Stage Names sounds deceptively more upbeat than previous efforts, but the lyrics and themes are every bit as dark and self-conscious as they’ve ever been.
3) Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — Spoon’s new album with the terrible Dadaist title takes off in directions only hinted at on 2005’s Gimme Fiction. The breakdowns are more energetic and more interesting, the lyrics more inscrutable, and the sound more fleshed-out. The band clearly enjoyed themselves while making this album, and they really want you to enjoy yourself while listening to it. “The Underdog” and “Don’t Make Me a Target” lend themselves to dancing around your room by yourself.
4) Beirut: The Flying Club Cup — Zach Condon ditches his trademark horn for most of his latest album, only to prove that he’s just as adept at arranging strings and percussion. The sound is more varied and the lyrics more intelligible, but you still feel completely absorbed in Condon’s idyllic European vision.
5) Sunset Rubdown: Random Spirit Lover — Loud, manic and fanciful, Spencer Krug’s favorite side project takes the energy of Shut Up I’m Dreaming and channels it through more exotic instrumentation. Krug’s arrangements are as wild as his magical and mythological lyrics. “The Mending of the Gown” easily takes Favorite Track of the Year honors.
1) Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha — There aren’t enough adjectives for wonderful in the thesaurus to cover Andrew Bird. From his mellifluous voice to his otherwordly whistling to his virtuoso violin playing, Bird is a one-man powerhouse of musical talent. Armchair Apochrypha continues his trend of sophisticated, delicate songs that leave you wistful yet sated.
2) The National: Boxer — The National’s fourth effort is a charming array of sweetly sad songs brought to life by the dark tones of singer Matt Berninger. The enchanting “Fake Empire” stands out on this lovely disc and is one of my new all-time favorite singles. I’m reminded, in splendid ways, of Tindersticks and Peter Murphy. But I heart The National all on their own.
3) Air: Pocket Symphony — Air consistently makes interesting records, soundtracks to the cool lives we lead in our heads. Reminiscent of Pink Floyd one minute and Steve Reich the next, Air changes the atmosphere around you with every outing. Pocket Symphony is another blend of haunting sounds coming to you from distant worlds. Or, you know, France.
4) Wax Fang: La La Land — Some props for the hometown boys. After seeing numerous Wax Fang shows last year when they opened for My Morning Jacket, I was impressed and delighted every time they played. I’ll admit to some skepticism about the cover art, but the disc is well produced and does an admirable job of capturing the raw energy of their live show. We should all be converts to the house of Fang.
5) Arcade Fire: Neon Bible — On the whole, Arcade Fire doesn’t completely excite me. Their live shows, though inspired, tend to come off like self-indulgent university drama majors putting on a spring musical, and their songs, at times, are repetitious. However, “No Cars Go” is brilliant and scrappy enough to put Neon Bible on my Top 5.
1) Wilco: Sky Blue Sky — The single best musical performance this year was by Nels Cline, the guitarist who made Jeff Tweedy’s vision stronger with ingenious lead parts that thread carefully but confidently into a brave new world of folk-rock.
2) Arcade Fire: Neon Bible — Their sophomore album is much more cohesive, focusing on everyman-meets-the-apocalypse scenarios. It’s almost too single-minded, but Win Butler’s expanding vocal skills, a variety of strong melodies, and the large ensemble’s willingness to adapt to a more singular vision led to fabulously detailed and painterly mini-epics that daringly sidle up to bombast.
3) Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime — The musical story of the year, except her last record was “the big comeback,” so this one’s only received “sloppy seconds” instead of the attention it merits. A seen-it-all soul singer who just keeps getting better hooks up with an inspired Drive-By Truckers, and she makes fabulous song selections (perfectly tied together by the one she wrote herself).
4) Wax Fang: La La Land — Playful, punchy, prophetic. Scott Carney & Co. give dimension and resonance to a series of outrageous and clever choices. Is Louisville gradually becoming the go-to scene for reinvented big-rock?
5) Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter: Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls of the Soul — Anyone who knows Sykes’ challenging voice (think Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithfull’s love child) must realize that an album of hers that makes this list must have sympathetic, flawless production and mesmerizing songwriting. Contrast with Matt Berninger, who oversold his mumbling affectations and dropped The National’s very intriguing record off this list.
1) Little Brother: Getback — Grown up hip-hop with a great sense of humor and production that is both modern and aware of the genre’s history. Many had written off the group when producer 9th Wonder and Atlantic Records jumped ship. Instead, they turn in the best record of their career.
2) Pharoahe Monch: Desire — After being out for several months, this still gets play like a brand new album for me. Intelligent rap music doesn’t have to hold its nose up in arrogance when you have examples like this.
3) Joe Henry: Civilians — Not hip-hop, in fact, this is as far away as one can get, but I adore this album. “Our Song” should be shouted from rooftops. There hasn’t been a song that has affected me like this since Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You.” A masterpiece.
4) Meshell Ndegeocello: The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams — The retrofuturisticfunk of the singer/bass player sadly still known to most as “the chick from that Mellencamp video,” this is her most adventurous album in years, playing with an energy I didn’t know she was capable of. Hey promoters, bring Meshell to town! The Jazz Factory was built to house talents like hers!
5) Christian Scott: Anthem — I’m usually pretty harsh on new jazz players (not named Roy Hargrove), as there’s still so much from 50 years ago that I still don’t own, but Scott is an amazing talent whose album borrows as much from Miles as it does Radiohead, and is still fantastically original. Play this next time it rains.
1) Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend — Lead singer Ezra Koenig describes their sound as “prep rock.” This is not entirely accurate, though you might be fooled by their seersucker shorts and top siders. With titles like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and lyrics detailing the quad at Columbia University, Vampire Weekend’s debut album is sure to impress all breeds of indie rockers, not just reformed country clubbers.
2) Okkervil River: The Stage Names — Although Will Sheff and friends may never manage to produce anything as flawless as Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You Meet again, The Stage Names has more than enough to offer listeners. Each song is something of a miniature biographical sketch, replete with cultural references of all levels of brow. Is he the next coming of Jeff Mangum? The Stage Names brings us that much closer to finding out (hint: the answer is “maybe with a strong leaning toward ‘yes’”).
3) Justice: † — Finally, Daft Punk doesn’t have to stand around awkwardly by itself at all those French-electro-house conventions. New kid on the block Justice delivers with an amazing collection of songs that are at once well conceived and infinitely danceable. If there’s not enough awesome here, check out one of the 10,000 remixes he’s put together that are floating around on the blogosphere.
4) Kanye West: Graduation — “Stronger” is so good that, upon first hearing it this summer, it brought a tear to my eye. Unlike previous albums, which were studded with winners as well as losers, Graduation almost entirely consists of solid, if not good, tracks. Sparse, slickly produced and eclectically inspired, Graduation is Kanye’s most mature album to date and leaves fans eager for his next release.
5) Les Savy Fav: Let’s Stay Friends — Their first new release in six years, Les Savy Fav proves that they’ve still got it. Let’s Stay Friends rocks out just as hard as 3/5 and then some. Uncompromising, fun and complete, Les Savy Fav is still badass enough to throw down to.
1) Miles Davis: The Complete ‘On The Corner’ Sessions — This was Miles at his most controversial and experimental. Either people love it or they hate it. For me, anything that sounds like Karlheinz Stockhousen scoring “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” deserves to be a candidate for the national anthem. Twelve of the tracks are previously unissued — five others have never previously been heard in their entirety. Six-and-a-half hours of improvised acid funk may sound like an endurance test. It’s not for sissies, but I know you’re strong enough to belly up to it.
2) Robert Rich & Daniel Colvin: Atlas Dei — A 60-minute audio soundtrack CD is available, but I recommend the full 90-minute DVD that features five channel-stereo mixes of Robert Rich’s electronic compositions set to Daniel Colvin’s surreal visuals. It put my daughter to sleep in like 10 minutes; therefore, it is awesome. I also suggest investing in some planetarium-style seating or at least a couple of beanbag chairs and some Tylenol PM.
3) Amon Tobin: The Foley Room — Named for the studios in which sound effects are constructed, Tobin utilizes field recordings and found sounds as building blocks for his noir-inspired pseudo soundtracks. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds on paper, even if it does sometimes dangle dangerously over the pit of Playstation soundtrack territory. Listen to this while you are pretending you are a hitman.
4) The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker: Kaboom! — The name Charles Walker should ring a few bells for a select few. He was a moderately successful R&B singer in the ’60s and ’70s. He recorded a few sides for Chess and Decca, but met little success. London’s Northern Soul scene latched on to those same early sides and gave him the audience that eluded him in the states. After several successful years in Europe, he returned to the states, settling in Nashville sometime in the ’90s, where he hooked up with The Dynamites. Kaboom! is the band’s debut album, and it throws all kinds of heat from the very beginning. The band, led by guitarist/songwriter Leo Black, is tight, gritty, funky and professional — it provides the perfect support for a singer of Walker’s pedigree. If this doesn’t encourage parts of you to oscillate, then you are inert.
5) Betty Davis: Betty Davis — Very rarely is an artist capable of producing a vicarious sexual thrill in the listener. Janis Joplin managed to convey an onanistic dervish in the first couple of seconds of “Cry Baby.” Betty Davis, one-time model and former Mrs. Miles Davis, took that momentary catharsis and stretched it into two LPs of throbbing funk and guttural promises that really sound more like threats. Of the two, her 1973 self-titled debut is the stronger. From the opening moments of “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” through the warning If you don’t give it to me right, you won’t feel this good in the morning in the previously unreleased “You Won’t See Me in the Morning.” Lord. Have. Mercy.
1) The Snake, The Cross, The Crown: Cotton Teeth — Hook-laden, anthemic folk-roots-Americana sounds from this fast-developing Alabama group. This is a stunning and mature narrative rock record that far and away transcends the group’s humble emo roots. I love every song here.
2) Amiina: Kurr — This Icelandic group’s debut full-length release is a stunningly original set of playfully naïve and innocently beautiful tunes that, using mostly nontraditional instruments (wine glasses, xylophone, harp, glockenspiels, bells, accordion, zither), create a mystical, earthy and almost ancient vision. It’s really lovely music, all full of chimes, wispy pluckings and antique music box melodies. Kurr is a captivating journey and a gorgeous collection of pure music.
3) Aereogramme: My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go — Relinquishing their previous forays into heavy-duty primal scream therapy, Scotland’s Aereogramme shied away from the noise to focus on the lovely, sad and cinematic sort of songwriting that made aspects of their earlier work so moving. Working from strength to strength, Aereogramme’s collision of sublime melody, heart-rending lyricism and masterful sound-sculpture won’t soon be forgotten. If you like both Mogwai and Arcade Fire, here you go.
4) Explosions in the Sky: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone — Texas’ EITS bring their finest moments yet with All of a Sudden. The positively transcendent “It’s Natural to be Afraid” rises from a miasma of quiet contemplation to erupt into a supernova of life and triumphant energy. Seldom has an instrumental indie-guitar act been so astute at crafting genuinely warm post-ambient reflections, as well as crushingly heavy crescendos. EITS emblazon their chiming melodies-meets-epic noise with a tangible air of distant hope and light.
5) Lichens: Ohns — Guitarist Robert Lowe’s Ohns is a cloudy fog of improvised guitars and effects — a drony and mystical set of opaque sounds that reflect as much of an interest in ritual and trance as they do in conventional songcraft. Lichens seems to be a vehicle for the subconscious channeling of sound and spirit, and his recordings are testament to the power of the unspoken and intuition. The attached DVD is a recording of a 30-minute live show, and it’s an eye and ear-opening experience, watching Lowe conjure primal states with little more than a guitar, a microphone and some effects pedals.