Pop and Indie Music
Simmer down, Fox News. If anyone’s waging a war on Christmas, it’s Spotify. Ever since the
Swedish music-streaming service set up shop on American soil earlier this year and started
offering its degenerate, pagan, gay agenda of bottomless free music with limited commercial
interruption, it’s made it even harder to justify giving Target that $15 for the new Ke$ha record.
Just as the pop/indie genre designation becomes less meaningful, the act of purchasing digital
records becomes more and more abstract. And yet, Santa’s elves continue to cobble ones and
zeros together in some icy workshop north of Björk’s recording studio for the listening pleasure
of the good little boys and girls.
Speaking of Björk, the Icelandic nymph recently released Biophilia, a hugely ambitious
science-oriented record complete with an iPad app for every track. The interactive nature of this
package is one new way in which recorded music is beginning to transcend its easy disposability
and return to the level of durability that could make for a great gift—that is, if you’re a Björk fan.
The project has been panned by critics, but then this isn’t a list of year-end critical picks. Look
out for those in a couple weeks.
Looking at my list here, the most economical, if discriminatory, way of breaking down
my suggestions in the pop/indie umbrella category is by gender. Let’s start with the ladies.
Annie Clark just might be all things to all people. Performing as St. Vincent, Clark has
managed to craft songs that highlight both her sweet, seductive vocals and absolutely menacing
electric guitar playing. Strange Mercy is destined to top year-end lists and is a safe bet for both
conventional and experimental musical tastes. It’s something to dance, rock and swoon to. On
the vocal end of things, Clark owes a debt to Leslie Feist, who also has a new record. The former
Broken Social Scene singer is virtually the archetype of the contemporary indie songstress, as
powerful in her vocal approach as she is innocent at times. Adding to the physical appeal of the
CD, fans were asked to vote on the cover art for Metals. Julianna Barwick’s debut album The
Magic Place was originally filed under the new-age and ambient genres when it first came out,
but don’t let that prevent you from checking it out. The singer is a one-woman choir, using loops
and effects to stack her crystalline vocals into gorgeous, pastoral blankets of sound.
On the male end of the vocal spectrum, James Blake (the British musician, not the
American tennis player) has crafted one of the most distinctive records of the year with James
Blake. The former dubstep artist rebranded himself as a singer-songwriter, drawing on a
toolbox of electronic effects—namely, vocal delay and window-rattling bass—to complement
his icy, atmospheric songwriting. On his debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon also went the cold,
lonely route, but with Bon Iver things took a turn for warmer climates. With detours into ’80s
production values, the record goes for a big, swallow-you-whole sound, padding Vernon’s
gorgeous falsetto with plenty of horns and guitar. Robin Pecknold completes the triad of
distinctive male voices. Fleet Foxes’ debut absolutely bulldozed the industry a few years back,
and this year’s Helplessness Blues was one of the year’s most anticipated. It was worth the wait.
Here’s a record you can get for the 20-something indie rocker and 60-something classic rocker in
your life. Just make sure it’s on vinyl.
But, wait: Tom Waits has a new record too. Most Waits fans would be content to listen
to him sing the Betty Crocker cookbook (which I’m sometimes convinced he’s doing on certain
tunes) and Bad as Me doesn’t disappoint. There’s as much jukebox growl on this record as on
anything he’s ever put out.
So, I’m tempted to weigh in on the hip-hop side of the equation, but be careful here.
You don’t want to go giving an Odd Future fan that Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration. They’ll be,
like, “swag?” Watch the Throne was rivaled only by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV and Drake’s
Take Care this year in the realm of larger-than-life mainstream rap. It’s no wonder, then, that
so much independent stuff spilled out from under the radar. There were about six dozen Odd
Future releases, but the single strongest freestyle-oriented record came from A$ap Rocky in
LIVELOVEA$AP. However, if you like your beats with a strong dose of weird, Shabazz Palaces’
Black Up is a ranking record-of-the-year regardless of genre.
Jazz has always been a genre for collectors, and as many of its perennial heroes age, we haven’t
yet witnessed a wholesale shift away from the physical product. This is good news for both those
who like to stack their jewel cases to the ceiling and those who love to wrap jewel cases in fancy
Speaking of aging heroes, it was with sadness that we learned last month of legendary
drummer Paul Motian’s death. No less than six new records came out this year that featured
Motian’s playing, but the one for the fan and collector was The Windmills of Your Mind, his
last recording as a bandleader that came out the day he died. The one that might capture his
improvisational chops best, though, is Live at Birdland, a set he recorded with Lee Konitz, Brad
Mehldau and Charlie Haden.
Keith Jarrett has always been at his best at a piano and without a net. Fans could spend
hours of their lives on his live solo improvised recordings alone, but that doesn’t make his new
one Rio superfluous. Critics are calling it the new standard for his work in this mode. Following
in a similar vein is pianist Matthew Shipp, who released four records this year exploring the outer
limits of improvisation. The ones worth looking into are Night Logic, with Sun Ra’s Marshall
Allen and Art of the Improvisor featuring legendary bassist William Parker.
There was plenty of good funky stuff that came out under the jazz banner this year.
For True has been earning Trombone Shorty a lot of attention lately, and for good cause. The
high-energy, trombone-playing bandleader has become one of the day’s great ambassadors of
New Orleans music. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has always been a shape-shifter, building and
dissolving ensembles to do his bidding. The Millenial Territory Orchestra has always been one of
his most exciting, and this year they put out one of their most distinctive records. MTO Plays Sly
is just what it says: a record of Sly and the Family Stone covers. It’s one fun surprise.
With lots of jazz musicians adopting the rock band ethos to record and release group
records, it was only a matter of time before Joshua Redman got in on the action. James Farm
is the name of the group he co-leads with Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland. And
James Farm is the name of their first release, a record that trades solo showboating for collective
Albany High grad and celebrated vibraphonist Stefon Harris has a new record with a trio
including David Sanchez and Christian Scott. Ninety Miles is an exploration of Cuban rhythms
recorded in Havana with a number of different backing quartets.
Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic Music
As the number of CDs on retail racks dwindles as inexorably as the daylight hours at this time
of year, it’s ever more difficult to find the right gift disc for the roots-music fan. That’s why I’ve
been prowling around the electronic ethers of the Web, scoping out prime releases in the folk,
blues, bluegrass and Celtic music genres for you. Here’s my hot list.
The earliest blues song we know of is “Joe Turner’s Blues,” heard in New Orleans in
1890. That and other traditional Crescent City tunes are performed on Wynton Marsalis and
Eric Clapton Play the Blues (Warner Bros.). This pairing of the Nawlins trumpet virtuoso
and the British guitar god represents the origins and evolution of the blues, respectively. Here
they’re backed by a Dixieland combo consisting of clarinet, trombone, piano, banjo, bass, drums,
keyboards, and second trumpet. Taj Mahal guests on two sweet tracks.
Along with the late William Clarke, harmonica ace Rod Piazza was a protégé of Kansas
City bluesman George Smith, and subsequently an architect of the West Coast swing sound.
Another fine CD to consider is Piazza’s latest, Almighty Dollar (Delta Groove Productions).
For this outing, Piazza, hailed by Downbeat magazine as “a superior diatonic and chromatic
harmonica player with style,” is joined by guitarist Rusty Zinn, fellow harp player Johnny Dyer,
bassists Norm Gonzalez on electric and Hank Van Sickle on upright, and sax man Jonny Viau.
For bluegrassers, Grammy winner Alison Krauss and Union Station have Paper
Airplane, their first record together since 2004. Krauss’ mellifluous vocals, rather than her fiddle
playing, are center-stage here, and while the album breaks no new ground, the picking is flawless
and the song choice satisfying. Dan Tyminski sings lead on three tracks, and Dobro king Jerry
Douglas contributes peerless twanging. For more hillbilly jazz, local heroes the Gibson Brothers
live up to their laurels as 2010 IMBA winners with their new disc, Help My Brother (Compass
Records). Framed by their masterful close harmony singing, the songs look at family, lives gone
wrong, and the need for love. The brothers also serve up fine covers of Jim and Jesse and the
How many Celtic bands can draw a crowd of a quarter-million? The Irish group Dervish
did at the Rock in Rio festival. Originally formed to record the richly ornamented traditional
music of their native County Sligo, they pushed on to earn supergroup status. Live at Johnny
Fox’s (Emtee Music) is taken from a 1996 show at Glencullen, near Dublin, where the sextet
fire off swirling dance tunes and sing Ireland’s mournful songs, here often performed in Gaelic.
Ireland alone has a musical instrument for a national symbol. Masters of the Irish Harp, an
anthology of leading Irish harpers, includes the playing of Grammy winners and Riverdance
troupe members who have entertained U.S. presidents. The music here spans up to five centuries;
harp tunes by the Baroque-era bard Turlough O’Carolan are mingled with jigs and reels and even
a 21st-century composition for harp, flute and trumpet. This one’s a delight.
Next year marks the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Note of Hope—A Celebration
of Woody Guthrie (429 Records) offers unpublished lyrics by the Dustbowl balladeer set to
music by Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Lou Reed, Madeline Peyroux, Pete Seeger, Tony
Triscka, and others. Readings of Guthrie’s critically acclaimed prose are included, most
notably by Studs Terkel. While it’s unlikely to be the occasion’s sole tribute to Guthrie, it will
nonetheless be hard to beat.
Gillian Welch and longtime musical partner David Rawlings ended an eight-year
songwriting hiatus this summer with The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony Records). The two
reportedly spent considerable time tweaking their old-time-flavored material, and critics have
lauded the 10-track, sparely textured album as some of their best work. With its dark Appalachian
themes of heartbreak and tragedy, this is must-have Welch.
If you followed my suggestion last year and purchased the 103-CD Jascha Heifetz box set,
your investment is now appreciating. The set is out of print and its price is climbing. All the
more reason to consider the forthcoming Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection.
With 144 CDs, packaged in miniatures of their original LP releases, two DVDs and a hardcover
book, it’s selling on Amazon right now for $259, a price that surely will climb by the Jan. 31
release date. Its predecessor, a Complete Rubinstein in jewel boxes, was released for $1,600, and
the expense of producing the set pretty much killed the RCA Red Seal division. Evidently the
original jackets approach is more economical.
It’s been a good year for great pianist. Martha Argerich turned 70 and was celebrated by
EMI with three multi-disc sets: Solos & Duos (6 CDs), Concertos (4 CDs) and Chamber Music
(8 CDs), much of it drawn from her Lugano Festival collections—to which was added another
excellent installment, Live From Lugano 2010, which includes Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 and a
charming quintet by Granados among its three discs.
Gould, Glenn: In Concert 1951-1960 (West Hill) is an elusive six-CD set that features
a fascinating array of broadcast recordings, including yet another Goldberg Variations and such
other Bach works as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Keyboard Concertos 1 and 5; also
works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and others.
You can see Gabriela Montero in concert at the Troy Music Hall in early May in a recital
featuring her amazing improvisations. There’s a healthy taste of them, along with a number of
neglected Latin works, on Solatino (EMI).
A couple of young violinists made a splash this year. Ray Chen performed at Union
College in the same program as his self-titled debut recording (Sony Classical), featuring sonatas
by Franck and Tartini (“Devil’s Trill”). And even without the brooding, GQ-esque cover photos
of the handsome fiddler, Charlie Siem should be selling CDs on the basis of talent. His self-
titled collection of short pieces (Warner Classics) includes works by virtuoso violinist-composers
Wieniawski, Kreisler, Paganini and Sarasate, and features Bazzini’s finger-busting “Round of
the Goblins.” His recording of concertos by Bruch (No. 1), Wieniawski (No. 1) and Ole Bull on
Warner Classics affirms his place in the realms of interpretive skill.
The incredibly prolific and fascinating Jordi Savall continued to release recordings
old and new. Among the latter: The Sublime Port: Voices of Istanbul, a follow-up to last
year’s Istanbul, this time exploring the multinational realm of song over the centuries with an
appropriately multinational ensemble. Rereleases included Mozart’s Requiem and five discs of
the five books of Marin Marais’s Pieces de Viol, reminding us of Savall’s million-selling success
with the soundtrack recording of the film Tous les matins du monde (all on AliaVox).
Two of the 20th century’s bad boys of classical music were Conlon Nancarrow and
George Antheil. Ensemble Modern tackled Nancarrow with As Fast as Possible (Wergo),
collecting a number of transcriptions of his tough, fascinating pieces for player piano, among
Antheil’s horribly neglected one-act opera The Brothers, his version of the story of Cain
and Abel, got a good recording in Germany (cpo), while his four fascinating, widely varied violin
sonatas (including one for solo violin) were nicely recorded by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist
John Novacek (Azica).
What’s the Mahler news this year? Valery Gergiev’s symphonies cycle with the London
Symphony finished with the release of Nos. 5 and 9 (LSO Live), as hot-blooded and dynamically
rugged as the rest of the set. Meanwhile, Simon Rattle returned to the Symphony No. 2, this time
with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and soprano Kate Royal and mezzo Magdalena Kozena.
It features a far more expansive reading of the first movement than he’s given before, but Rattle
makes it make sense.
Kate Royal put together A Lesson in Love (EMI), a gorgeous, melancholy look at the arc of a love affair threading together songs by Schubert, Wolf, Copland, Brahms, Duparc, Bolcom
In other vocal recommendations, Nikolaus Harnoncourt tackled Brahms’s German
Requiem with soprano Genia Kühmeier, baritone Thomas Hampson, the Vienna Philharmonic
and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir (Sony Classical) in version that’s deliberate of tempo but filled
with excitement in a showcase of what a good recording should sound like.
Another favorite Requiem is that of Gabriel Fauré, newly recorded by Paavo Järvi in
his new position of Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (EMI). With baritone Matthias
Goerne and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, it’s a lovely performance of the full orchestral
version, and the disc is filled out with such Fauré rarities as Super Flumina Babylonis and
Cantique de Jean Racine.
Fauré’s chamber music also gets its due in a new five-disc Virgin Classics set featuring
the Capuçon brothers, Renaud (violin) and Gautier (cello), the Quatour Ebène and others.
Here are the two violin sonatas, the two cello sonatas, a piano trio, a string quartet, the two piano
quartets and the slightly forbidding piano quintets.
Finally, local favorites the Emerson Quartet are newly arrived on Sony Classical. Their
debut there is a revisit of Mozart’s three Prussian Quartets, his last works in this form. Typically
with the Emersons, they avoid the sentimentality that can creep into pieces like this, and instead
give us music that’s crisp and scintillating and ageless.
While music is a constant in people’s lives, the album era is all but gone and shuffle play has
become the intermingled soundtrack to all manner of other activities. Great albums are still being
made (or, in some cases, reissued), but they are quite easily missed. Here then are some gift
suggestions for your musically inclined friends and family who may have been distracted when
these all quietly landed in whatever is left of the marketplace.
At the top of the list is Ry Cooder’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch).
Even erstwhile Cooder fans didn’t seem to know about this one. He revitalized and expanded his
recording career over the past half-dozen years with a trilogy of albums that found him, for the
first time, flexing his muscles as a songwriter. Having been a great interpreter of songs composed
over the past century, he learned his lessons well. With this year’s release he’s brought forth
a formidable set of protest songs. They’re rich with character; he’s pulling no punches as an
armless soldier ponders an empty Christmas, or a high roller wonders how he’ll get by without
his maid. Potent stuff, and some richly supple playing with his usual gang of musical cohorts.
With his Yo Miles! Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith released two double albums (Sky
Garden is 2004, Upriver in 2005) devoted to Miles Davis’ ’70s funk-based music. Heart’s
Reflections (Cuneiform) is the second with his band Organic. The extended pieces are comprised
of far brighter colors than what Davis was creating 40 years ago. It’s a rich tapestry of electric
guitars (including the legendary Michael Gregory), keyboards and bass, drums (Pheeroan akLaff),
saxophones and a violin on a few, and Smith’s stunning trumpet throughout.
Ray Bonneville’s Bad Man’s Blood (Red House) is a new peak in his 30-year career.
Born in Canada and living in Texas, he writes rich vignettes suffused with the stuff of life: love,
regret, hope, and loss. One cannot listen to this album’s “River John” and be unmoved. The
performances are built around his acoustic guitar, his tapping foot and some judiciously deployed
accompaniment by sympathetic players. As with Greg Brown and Chris Smither, Bonneville
doesn’t fit easily into categories, being neither folk nor blues, but falling into both those camps,
while always delivering with a soulful honesty.
On the reissue front are an important pair by country soul songwriters. Harlan County
by Jim Ford (Light in the Attic) was released in 1969. Sly Stone called Ford “the baddest white
man on the planet,” and there is quite a tale to read, but suffice to say songs and performances
of this caliber were never going to go away. A contemporary reference point of sorts would be
the stripped-down approach that Nick Lowe has adopted over the past 20 years of his career.
Bobby Charles achieved greater success as a songwriter during his life than did Ford, but he also
released a singular classic. Now expanded to a three-disc set, Bobby Charles (Rhino Handmade)
contains the perfect original album along with a couple dozen additional numbers, demos and
other fully recorded songs. People often already know his songs without knowing his name
(“Tennessee Blues,” “Small Town Talk, “Walking to New Orleans,” “See You Later, Alligator”),
or may remember his appearance with the Band in their Last Waltz.
Ho ho ho! What new holiday music does Santa have in his bag?
At the top of the list there’s the duo She & Him with the appropriately titled A Very She
& Him Christmas (Merge). Zooey Deschanel’s blank-sounding, 3 AM-and-the-bar’s-closing
vocals prove perfectly suited to traditional seasonal tunes. “The Christmas Waltz” will make
you wistful; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” will make you sad; and “Baby It’s Cold
Outside” will make you laugh, because Deschanel and M. Ward switch gender roles on what has
become known among the younger set as “the date-rape song.”
The weirdest holiday release, by far, is Scott Weiland’s The Most Wonderful Time of
the Year (Atlantic). Weiland’s singing has always had an appealingly mannered side, but it’s hard
to know how to take the STP and Velvet Revolver dude as a flat-out crooner. Some of the songs
work well, including a reggae arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but on others, Weiland sounds,
well, distracted. (And heavily auto-tuned, of course.) But since that’s part of his MO, this is a
good bet if you know someone who likes Christmas music and whacked-out frontmen.
In a more traditional mode is sometime fiddler, sometime violinist (see what I did there?
) Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas (OMAC Records). O’Connor has a lot of cool
friends, and a bunch of them show up to sing and play on this lovely album: Renée Fleming, Jane
Monheit, Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor and Alison Krauss. The various genres they represent should
give you a good idea of the album’s musical range.
If you know someone who likes old-school Nashville-style singers (and if you don’t, why
not?), then Mandy Barnett’s Winter Wonderland (Rounder) has a classic honky-tonk sound that
pleases. Really, she’s terrific—and she’s the only person other than Brenda Lee you’ll ever want
to hear sing “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Lyle Lovett just released Songs for the Season (Lost Highway), a three-song EP that’s
available via download only. There’s one wry original, “The Girl With the Holiday Smile,” and
two covers, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here.” Lovett is
joined on the covers by the very fine Texas-based jazz singer Kat Edmonson.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a couple of worthwhile reissues. Tony Bennett’s
The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia Legacy) is a “greatest hits” culled from his many
holiday records recorded for Columbia over the last six or seven decades. All the usual holiday
suspects are included; his version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of the most
Finally, the 1960s were a golden age of slightly nutty, overarranged instrumental music
and a golden age of Christmas records. A prime example of both is Sony Classical’s reissue of
Andre Kostelanetz’ 1963 album Wonderland of Christmas. Swirling strings, eccentric solos and
a devotion to melody: It’s all there is this very tasty, rum-soaked musical fruitcake.