Monday 31 December 2018

Retrospecstive 2018: recorded

Happy new year to you all, with my very best wishes for 2019.

Before all that, though, here is my first round-up of 2018 - this post covers recordings, while a follow-up in the near future will look at live performances.

I'm all too aware that people fall in and out of love with lists, so I have deliberately avoided ranking these selections or choosing 'albums' of the year, whatever the genre. There was just too much I wanted to enthuse about and recommend: 30 titles this time.

As a bit of a guide, I have set them out here at the top, in two groups - classical, and 'everything else' - then alphabetically, within those groups. However, what I really hope is that those of you who have time will range across the main body of the post and try out some choices you may not otherwise have discovered or listened to. (One caveat: the epically loud / extreme metal stuff is at the end. Just before Clutch, there's an imaginary glass door, like they used to have in the Virgin and HMV megastores, which listeners of a sensitive disposition may not wish to pass through!)

A final mention in passing for one of my favourite ever bands, Trembling Bells. Regular readers may have expected me to include their 2018 release 'Dungeness' in this round-up - and I thought about it. But the truth is: you really don't know what you've got till it's gone. I didn't have time to write properly about the album, or catch them on the latest tour. Now, as we reach the end of the year, the Bells are no more. The good news is that the split seems amicable enough, and the various members are stretching out into multiple separate projects that will carry the torch. In the meantime, I want to write a proper appreciation of their whole career, including that blazing final album: they had never made a record that was anything less than excellent, and with the exit sign lit up, they weren't about to start. Watch this space.

But in the meantime - off we go...


Classical: John Adams, Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Colin Currie Group, Thomas Dunford, Mahan Esfahani, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw, Kim Kashkashian, Anja Lechner & Pablo Marquez, Viktoria Mullova, Rebeca Omordia, Sandrine Piau & Susan Manoff, Jo Quail, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton.

'Everything else': Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Matt Berry, Anna Calvi, Neko Case, Olivia Chaney, Clutch, Drudkh, Barb Jungr & John McDaniel, Heather Leigh, The Necks, Parquet Courts, Pig Destroyer, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Sieben, Richard Thompson.


My favourite recital duo with a disc devoted to my favourite composer - I'm sure I had unreasonably high expectations but it lived up to them all. The all-Schubert focus may have unified the mood more than on their previous titles, but the flair for inventive programming remained, with the sequence charting the perfect course for CS's voice. Just brilliant.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' (track - 'Gretchen am spinnrade')

Cellist-composer Jo Quail is essentially carving out her own genre, with her latest stunning record combining an avant-garde classical structure with intense, percussive melody (created and built with only JQ's cello and loop station) - and guests providing metal guitar and vocalese heroics. It's unpredictable, addictive and wholly original.

Jo Quail: 'Exsolve' (track - 'Mandrel Cantus', video edit)

Mahan Esfahani's latest release is the kind of CD which, if money was no object, I would just press into people's hands. (And as it's on Hyperion, you can't hear the whole thing on Spotify.) A great place to start (or continue) if you're curious about the harpsichord, or even if you aren't. The album is like one of the artist's recitals - programmed and performed with audible, robust joy and enthusiasm.

Mahan Esfahani: 'The Pasinge Mesures' (track - excerpts video)

Two albums from two guitar geniuses. One I was excitedly waiting for - I've been a fan of Anna Calvi since her debut. It was thrilling and fascinating to hear how, after the carefully controlled simmer of her earlier music (and image), the new record was like an explosion - thunderous songs like 'As A Man' and 'Don't Beat the Girl out of my Boy' as total declarations of intent.

The other came out of nowhere. I had heard of genre-straddling pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh, but first heard her in her duo partnership with free jazz sax wielder Peter Brotzmann. But her solo material is something other: 'Throne' creates a bath of sound, abstract but mobile - you can hear on the track I've selected how the pedal steel warp/weft is used to such great effect - which cradles her beautiful vocals: I've heard Kate Bush used as a reference point - useful, perhaps - but to be honest, this is a unique brew: wild agility, yes, but intimate, confident, with elements of both a 'correct' folk voice with a bluesy sensuality. Again, something special is going on here: rich, tense, feminine, uncompromisingly personal music - profoundly affecting.

Anna Calvi: 'Hunter' (track - 'Hunter')

Heather Leigh: 'Throne' (track - 'Days Without You')

Barbara Hannigan can give such gloriously extreme performances that it's easy to forget she's prepared to travel as far inward. Her partnership with pianist Reinbert de Leeuw seems to yield such delicate results - I thought 'Vienna' was a particularly lovely compendium of art song.

Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw: 'Vienna: Fin de Siecle' (track - 'Irmelin Rose', composed by Zelimsky)

I love it when jazz bands lock into a groove - any kind of interactive improvisation between musicians always impresses me, but nothing beats those moments when they seem to telepathically reach a point at the same time when they all let rip. It's always remarkable how the Necks sustain their album-length pieces, but this year's 'Body' was a pure rush to the head and heart (the 'track' I found on YouTube is the whole album - if you like it, for pity's sake, buy it!). Ronin - following their leader Nik Bärtsch's maxim of 'ritual groove music' - don't stretch out at quite the same length but 'Awase' was still full of satisfying rhythms.

The Necks: 'Body' (track - 'Body'!)

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: 'Awase' (track - 'Modul 36')

Dextrously played, unusual piano rhythms actually leads me onto my next classical choice - a recital of solo piano pieces written by Nigerian composers, little known or performed within Western musical circles. Clearly a labour of love for the artist, who is half-Nigerian herself - but there is no sense of self-indulgence or sentimentality. The playing is so alive, and the pieces themselves so infectious: certainly a window into another area of classical music for me, and I'm sure for fans of 'world music' in its more familiar guises (such as Afrobeat or 'desert blues').

Rebeca Omordia: 'Ekele' (track - 'Ya Orule', composed by Ayo Bankole)

Nostalgia for old themes and soundtracks often feels rooted in a kind of 'coolness' that surrounds the music - the frequency with which the themes belong to crime/SF/horror films or shows, or even the enigma of much of the 'library music' itself. I love all that stuff. But Matt Berry's homage album of theme tune covers seemed to subvert all that. 'Doctor Who' might have been a predictable choice, but elsewhere you might think some of the selections slightly deranged: 'The Good Life'? 'Rainbow'? Brilliantly, MB spends the half-hour painstakingly world-building, even including covers of the LWT and Thames Television idents (for non-British or, let's face it, younger readers, these are now-defunct commercial broadcasting companies based in London). And now and then, after reproducing an aural past, gently spices it up - among other delights, you have the dub sections of 'Are You Being Served?' and 'Sorry' to look forward to.

Matt Berry: 'Television Themes' (track - 'Picture Box')

Two records which remind me of one of my favourite countries I've ever visited: Estonia. On the Pärt album, understandably, this orchestra and conductor seem to be breathing as much as playing the music, and VM sounds spectacular. Being 'artist-led' (no doubt my ground in pop/rock music), I sometimes find out about releases that might otherwise pass me by. This is true of the disc of Schumann works, which features both Carolyn Sampson and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. I will gladly follow where these artists take me: in this case, a world premiere recording of Schumann's 'Adventlied' (and more besides) - a lovely discovery.

Viktoria Mullova, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra / Järvi: 'Arvo Pärt' (track - 'Fratres')

Schumann's 'Adventlied' and 'Ballade vom Pagen und der Königstochter' / Bach's Cantata BWV 105, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra / Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Hakkinen (track - 'Adventlied: II. Allmächt'ger Herrscher ohne Speere')

For someone so obsessed with song, I have this seemingly contradictory leaning towards records where the band supply much of the musical 'snap' - melody, rhythm, 'body' - and the vocals almost tumble out, untethered. Early Springsteen, where the words just pour out of him; Dylan's endless versifying; John Lydon's collapse into anger; Mark E Smith's Speaker's Corner rants. Here, RBCF have come up with a gorgeous debut full-length album with dazzling, dizzying guitars, and stream-of-consciousness vocals providing extra verve on top (I was really reminded of the energy of the Blue Aeroplanes). For a noisier alternative, the barely hinged punk band Parquet Courts made an album with Danger Mouse (the producer, not the cartoon super-rodent) - an interesting collaboration, as DM seems to supply a laidback funkiness to everyone he works with. On this occasion, he's certainly put a spring in their step.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: 'Hope Downs' (track - 'Talking Straight')

Parquet Courts: 'Wide Awake!' (track - 'Freebird II')

I've no doubt it's reductive (now, if not before) to place these US 'minimalists' in a group, but I was interested that a release from each made it comfortably into my list. Fantastic to have the recorded counterpart to the brilliant Doctor Atomic performance finally arrive on disc. Anthony Roth Costanzo marries Philip Glass's music with Handel on a bold debut CD - again, anyone who watched and listened in awe at his performance in 'Akhnaten' (I saw the ENO production at the London Coliseum) will rejoice in 'Hymn to the Sun's inclusion on the album. And Colin Currie launched his record label in style with a taut, exciting rendition of Reich's 'Drumming'.

John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic', BBC Symphony Orchestra / Adams (track - 'Batter my heart', performed by Gerald Finley)

Anthony Roth Costanzo: 'ARC' (track - 'Liquid Days' by Philip Glass, lyrics by David Byrne)

Steve Reich's 'Drumming', performed by Colin Currie Group (track - part 1, excerpt)

Olivia Chaney and Neko Case have little in common, perhaps - but after recent work by both in a band context (Chaney teaming up with the Decemberists as Offa Rex, Case as a long-standing member of the New Pornographers), they seem to have followed up with extraordinarily powerful solo records that distill the strength of their personalities. OC has a classically crystalline folk voice but harnesses it to wilful, insistent originals. Meanwhile, NC's songs lead you through a labyrinth of her design, modern shapeshifters under her timeless vocals.

Olivia Chaney: 'Shelter' (track - 'Roman Holiday'

Neko Case: 'Hell-On' (track - 'Gumball Blue')

Ian Bostridge singing Schubert at the Wigmore Hall is an invariably exciting recipe - so much so, that the venue's label released a fourth CD taken from his sequence of recitals programming lieder choices freely (rather than cleaving to a particular song cycle, say). Of course, the high-octane angst is there, but he is equally commanding when not at Defcon 1 - as shown by this selection.

Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert - 4' (track - 'Nacht und Traume')

'Anger is an energy', as the PiL song goes, and nowhere more than on this set of releases. A period of personal disquiet provoked Richard Thompson to produce his most keenly-felt assemblage of guitar fireworks in years... While violin/loops maestro Matt Howden - a.k.a. Sieben - whose work has been continually gaining in focus and precision, unleashed his rage at the current political climate. Never has his ability to sound like a one-man orchestra (with added punk and jazz trimmings) been more effective or necessary.

Richard Thompson: '13 Rivers' (track - 'O Cinderella')

Sieben: 'Crumbs' (track - 'Sell Your Future')

Another art song album that (for me) unearthed some buried treasure - another carefully themed and sensitively performed recital... in particular, please pay close heed to the fantastic playing of Susan Manoff: swinging, rhapsodic.

Sandrine Piau & Susan Manoff: 'Chimère' (track - 'Solitary Hotel', composed by Samuel Barber, using text from James Joyce's 'Ulysses)

This is an album of Sting covers. While this may seem a suprising choice to some, that Jungr wanted to tackle the Sting songbook is itself a benchmark of quality - she doesn't so much interpret as inhabit any material she takes on. With the aid of master arranger McDaniel, she finds new angles and approaches while enhancing the enduring appeal of the originals.

Barb Jungr & John McDaniel: 'Floats Like a Butterfly' (track - 'Fortress Around My Heart')

By coincidence, three of the classical recordings I've most enjoyed this year involve adapting works to different instruments - and two of these involve the Bach Cello Suites. Both Thomas Dunsford and Kim Kashkashian create versions that, on their 'lighter' toned instruments, sound magically fleet. Perhaps more out of leftfield come Lechner & Marquez, adapting Schubert lieder (and more) for cello and guitar. This creates some arresting effects - for example, the 'voice' carrying more heft than the accompaniment: it gives a faster track like 'Fischerweise' a whole new perspective, the guitar 'out-dancing' the cello.

Thomas Dunsford: 'Bach' (track - 'Chaconne', adapted from Violin Partita, no. 2)

Kim Kashkashian: 'Bach - Six Suites for Viola Solo' (track - 1st suite, Prelude)

Anja Lechner & Pablo Marquez: 'Franz Schubert: Die Nacht' (track - 'Fischerweise')

And to finish - the very loud section. Just when you think Clutch must surely have carved out every riff from the rock of, er, rock - they come along every year or two with another 12 or so 'bangers'. 'Book of Bad Decisions' is no different - 'weaponised funk', indeed. Pig Destroyer (I know, I know) - for many years a borderline-feral trio of voice, guitar and drums - now flesh out the sound with bass and electronics - as a result, 'Head Cage' is slightly more accessible than usual, the sound feels a little more anchored. But the aggression and release still burst from the speakers. Finally, the ultra-mysterious Ukrainian black metal band Drudkh (no website, no interviews etc) produced one of their best albums in years - five long tracks of atmospheric, expansive fury.

Clutch: 'Book of Bad Decisions' (track - 'In Walks Barbarella')

Pig Destroyer: 'Head Cage' (track - 'House of Snakes')

Drudkh: 'They Often See Dreams About the Spring' (track - 'Za Zoreyu Scho Striloyu Syaye')

(To be continued...)

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