Well, here we are at the end of another year and it's time again for everybody who critiques and reviews music to stick our necks out and name our favourite listens of the past year. Being as it's the last year of a decade some are even being brave enough to try and come up with a "best of the last ten years" list. I've still not decided on whether or not I'll give one of those a stab; it was difficult enough choosing ten from this year's crop of releases that the prospect of sifting through ten years of music leaves me chilled.
This is by no means any sort of definitive list of the last year's best music — that would be impossible for any critic to come up with no matter what he or she might claim. First of all there's no way anybody could listen to all the music that's released over the course of a year — I alone must receive two or three press releases a day announcing some new CD, half of which are for bands and musicians I've never even heard of let alone plan on listening to. For all I know I could have missed out on some brilliant piece of music without knowing it. Heck, I probably don't even listen to half the music that comes through my door, let alone the press releases that end up in my in box.
So for what it's worth, and in no particular order, are the ten CDs of goodness knows how many I listened to over the past year that stood out the most. It's a pretty diverse group of recordings which seemingly have very little in common. However, what they all share is an extra something that made them stand out from the pack in my mind. I've provided links back to the original reviews and what passes for the band's or individual's web site so if what you read is intriguing you can check them out in more detail. However, if you really want to understand why they meant more to me than anything else I listened to over the last three hundred odd days, I'd suggest giving them a listen and reaching your own conclusions.
Songs Unrecantable – Ersatzmusika: This album is as hard to describe in a few sentences as the disc's title is obscure. Sultry-voiced lyrics roam over the top of a mix of European-sounding folk and the occasional jarring guitar, capturing the mood of unease and uncertainty facing displaced persons everywhere. The majority of the band are Russian-born and now make their home in Germany, and while they don't speak directly about that experience, the sense of loss and confusion that imbues so much of their work captures the state of mind of stateless people everywhere. This is folk music from the concrete blocks of apartments where we segregate our immigrants, of the people who have no home to go back to, but who aren't yet at home.
House Of A Thousand Guitars – Willie Nile: As comfortable sitting down at the piano to play a ballad as he is searing the paint off the walls with burning guitars, Willie Nile's music marries the street smarts of New York City to a troubadour's sensibility to create intelligent, boisterous, and emotionally charged music. One of the great mysteries of pop music is why he's someone you think you might have heard of, while far lesser talents garner headlines. New York City's best kept secret for nearly 30 years — isn't it about time you heard of him?
Renegades – Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings: Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is one of the foremost musicians of her generation. Band leader, innovator, composer, and superlative performer, she is constantly pushing her music to the boundaries of what's been done before and beyond. However her willingness to experiment never overreaches her musical abilities so the results are as lyrical as her instrument of choice. Here she is joined by her string ensemble and her flute soars over the textures they create. Any hesitations you may have had about listening to avant-garde jazz can be put aside as Mitchell makes it approachable without watering it down.
Siwan – Jon Balke: The music of the Andalusian region of Spain has its earliest roots in the Sufi poetry of the ninth century. For Siwan, composer Jon Balke has gathered together some of today's most innovative musicians alongside those steeped in the history of music to create a series of modern interpretations of traditional songs. Using poems and song lyrics dating back to the tenth century representing the three major cultures that thrived in the region — Islam, Sephardic Jew, and Spanish — they bring the music to life using modern instruments while retaining its traditional essence. A timely reminder of just how much Western culture owes the Islamic world when it comes to music.
Saints & Tzadiks – Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg: If anyone had told me that you could combine traditional Celtic songs with old Yiddish folk songs successfully before I listened to Saints And Tzadiks I would have thought they were nuts. Yet after hearing this collection of songs sung in English, Gaelic, and Yiddish it's hard not to believe they weren't written to be sung together. The interplay between McKeown's alto and Sklamberg's tenor make for some of the most beautiful harmonies you'll ever hear, and their version of "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" will give even the most fanatical war monger pause for thought.
Let It Go – State Radio: Every once in a while it's good to be reminded that popular music can be a tool for social change without the music's power or artistry being compromised. To do this with sincerity and yet still create music that's honest and fun is far more difficult to do than you'd think. Not since the heyday of The Clash has a group managed to mix politics and pop music in as seamless a manner as State Radio. Listen to one song and you feel empowered, listen to a whole album and you feel anything is possible. They definitely give you hope for the future.
Estes Mundo – Rupa And The April Fishes: Singing in French, Spanish, and English, Rupa and The April Fishes take you on a whirlwind tour of musical influences. One moment you're listening to the sounds of a Paris cafe, the next Mexico. Infectious and inspired, they not only make it impossible to sit still while listening, but stop for a moment and read the translation of their lyrics and you'll hear stories that will open your eyes to the world in a way you've not heard before.
Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth – Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth: New York City is a place of excitement, creativity, and dark secrets. Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth have created an album that not only brings all those aspect of life in New York City alive, they do so in a manner that doesn't gloss over the good or the bad. Not only that, it's also some of the best rock and roll music you'll hear this year.
Imidiwan: Companions – Tinariwen: From the Northern Sahara desert, Tinariwen are the leaders of a rebellion being conducted by electric guitars and pulsing rhythms. The Tuareg nomads of the Sahara have gradually seen their traditional territories eaten away by uranium mining and the encroachment of urban sprawl. While armed rebellion has been somewhat successful, their music has opened the world's eyes to their plight in a way no gun ever could. Compelling and irresistible, their music carries you deep into the heart of the desert and reveals the stark beauty of their lifestyle. They're not asking you to live like them, only to let them live the life they want — and they do it with such passion and love it's hard to argue their right to do so.