The Best Things I’ve Heard This Year

15 Musical Discoveries From 2017

What are end of year lists for? In the introduction to a list for Esquire, music writer Ben Ratliff makes his feelings clear. Numbered lists are absurdity-laden “hate-reads,” he argues. How can you possibly rank albums from radically different genres without drastically compromising your judgement, and why would you want to? The subtext to a list should be: listen to this and this, not this over and above that. A list should prompt further inquiry. It should imply “etc.”

I agree with all of that, and I’d second Ratliff’s advice to consult genre specialist publications and to read as many lists as you can. But I would also add that the reasoning behind the choices on a list – why those pieces of music deserve a place – is the most important thing of all. Why is the ultimate “etc.” It makes you hear things differently, as the author of the list hears them. It encourages you to re-listen, or to go off and make new discoveries to confirm or challenge what you’ve been told. It makes a list useful and informative even if you don’t agree with anything on it. And that’s the strange thing about Ratliff’s list. There’s no why. He just dumps a load of Spotify links to albums (15 of them, arranged in alphabetical order) at the foot of his firebrand introduction and leaves you to sort yourself out. It’s a bit of a let down.

To be clear, why isn’t the same as a review. This is not the time for description heavy, blow by blow accounts of tracks. An end of year list is a chance to zoom out, to reflect, to think about context and about the long view. Maybe even to change your mind about things.

This is a best of 2017 list with a difference. It’s unnumbered and it isn’t just albums. On it are 15 things from the past year that I think are important – radio shows that have made me sit up, tracks I’ve listened to obsessively and gigs that have changed the way I think about music – along with the reasons why. Whether you like them or not, I hope they give you pause for thought and lead you to some exciting discoveries of your own.

 

DNA.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN isn’t a masterpiece like To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s not epoch defining. But it’s still one of the best albums of 2017 and probably the one that I’ve obsessed over most. Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of all time. That’s no longer in doubt. His mastery of language – of word play, assonance, phrasing and above all rhythm – is something to behold. I hear a lot of similarities with jazz in what he does – in the way he pulls the beat around and manipulates the sound of his voice as if it’s an instrument. He’s experimenting and pushing boundaries. It’s really not that far-fetched to describe him as the John Coltrane of Hip Hop.

‘DNA’ is the album’s standout track. It was produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, the Atlanta-born super producer behind ‘HUMBLE’ and ‘XXX’ as well as Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’, the best track on Lemonade by a “never take the country out me” mile. Trap is taking over the world and Mike Will is a big part of the reason why.

On ‘DNA’ we hear the Atlanta sound at its darkest and most disturbing – all warped basslines and needle-sharp 808s. There’s so much tension and urgency wound into that final minute. Lamar is spitting fire, battling glitchy vocal samples as a series of lurching sub-bass suspensions pull the whole thing so tight it feels like it’s going to self-destruct. It floods your body with adrenaline, but it also captures the mood of 2017. It’s a perfect distillation of anger and fear, pride and determination – the soundtrack to deeply troubled times.

 

Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

The horrors of contemporary politics — yawning wealth gaps, Brexit and the social rifts it has exposed, the election of Donald Trump and the ongoing battle for civil rights — have stoked a fire in jazz, as well as hip hop. The spirit of protest is raging with an intensity not seen since the days of Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. Many artists, including Christian Scott and Shabaka and the Ancestors, whose set at this year’s Love Supreme Festival peaked with a defiant “we will not forget Grenfell” have responded directly — and with the same attack dog ferocity as Lamar. Others, notably flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell (a former leader of the AACM), have harnessed the power of Afrofuturism, using imagined worlds to comment on our present day reality. Read my paragraph on Mandorla Awakening II, #7 in EZH Mag’s best releases of 2017.

I can’t mention the Chicago scene and the AACM without also recommending Hear In Now, a string trio featuring violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. Their latest album, Not Living In Fear, is exquisitely played and powerfully political too.

 

Robert Wyatt on BBC Radio 3 Late Junction

Much as I enjoyed listening to Robert Wyatt’s music selections, especially that stunning Rahsaan Roland Kirk track (‘Alfie’ from Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith), this programme was really all about the wisdom – hearing the thoughts of someone who has spent a lifetime making music and defying expectations along the way.

Wyatt is the darling of the alternative music world, but he was refreshingly free from edge. There was none of the tedious iconoclasm that so often accompanies that scene – the rubbishing of anything remotely popular or mainstream. Quite the opposite: Wyatt does high low. I particularly enjoyed hearing him talk about his love for pop, and the art that it demands, and his quoting of Charles Mingus: “The further popular music gets from song and dance the further it gets from relevance to anything.”

I often struggle with humour in music so his comments about Ivor Cutler’s musical absurdism hit home (“people think if it’s funny it can’t also be high art”). And I appreciated his advice for creatives of all kinds: in the moment of creation, block out the intellectual part of your brain (that’s useful later, when the time comes for analysis) and let your instinctive, animal side take over.

 

Bill Frisell’s Music for Strings at JAZZMI

When you watch great musicians perform their instruments seem less like instruments and more like extensions of their bodies – vehicles for self expression. So it is with guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman, viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts. Their set at Milan’s new jazz festival this November was a masterclass in subtlety and understatement. There was no gratuitous flash. Not a whiff of ego. No one was trying to impress. They were just making music together – playing beautiful tunes, exploring and improvising from the heart. Frisell took one thirty second solo in the whole gig and it was glorious. As Trevor Tomkins, one of my music college tutors, loved to tell us: “it’s not about how much you play, it’s about how much you say.”

 

David Virelles, Gnosis

With Ḿbọ̀kọ́ (ECM, 2014), Cuban-born pianist David Virelles unveiled a whole new take on “Latin Jazz”. Gone were the sunshiney montunos, dancing salsa grooves and flashy solos. Virelles’ Cuba was filled with the flinty sound of contemporary classical piano, sparse percussion and chant-like vocals drawn from the shadowy world of Abakuá ritual. On Gnosis he continues to explore that sound world, drawing on a broader palette of colours that comprises cello and woodwinds, along with percussion instruments I’ve never heard before, including a giant thumb piano called a marimbula. Some of the tracks are expansive, others are more like sketches – scampering atonal piano studies, or brittle percussive fragments. The beautiful two-part ‘De Ida Y Vuelta’ starts like a study, becomes a dissonant nocturne and then incorporates a distorted Cuban traditional style that could be danzon in super slow motion. ‘Del Tabaco y el Azúcar’ features the most leftfield use of steel pan you’ll ever come across. This is the music of the Caribbean, but not as you know it.

 

Rhodri Davies at Borealis Festival

Back in March I went to Borealis, a festival of experimental music held in the Norwegian city of Bergen, and posted a series of short instagram reviews which I’ve collated here. There were many memorable performances, including a meteorological sound art piece held in an abandoned Second World War military installation out in the fjords. One of the most thought-provoking was a solo set from Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies, a respected name on the experimental and contemporary classical scenes, who unleashed a barrage of tensile, acoustic noise, wrenching at the strings of his harp until every single one of them had snapped. I’m not sure what the takeaway is with this one. I’ve just never seen someone do that before and it struck me as an ingeniously simple (if unorthodox) way to structure a set – to play until you’ve exhausted yourself or the instrument, until you physically can’t play any more.

 

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the London Jazz Festival

There are very few composers around these days writing world class material for big band –  true innovators who are taking the music forward. Gil Evans’ protégé Maria Schneider is one of them. Another is the Vancouver-born Brooklyn-based bandleader Darcy James Argue. At this year’s London Jazz Festival Argue and his Secret Society Big Band proved their metal with an atmospheric performance of Real Enemies – a masterpiece of contemporary big band repertoire inspired by conspiracy theories and the politics of paranoia. As the music seesawed between nagging unease and hysterical panic, Argue conjured an astonishing array of colours and textures from the ensemble, exploiting the raw power that comes from massed ranks, but also proving just how agile a big band can be. Real Enemies is available on Bandcamp, along with Argue’s previous release, Brooklyn Babylon, another outstanding suite that incorporates classical minimalism, alt rock and Balkan brass band music. Following the LJF gig I’ve been doing some more digging into the contemporary big band scene. Check out LA bandleader Jacob Mann and John Beasley’s MONK’estra. And, if you don’t know them already, Manchester band Beats & Pieces.

 

Despacito

I know, I know. It’s total trash. The lyrics make this year’s Bad Sex Award winner look like a masterpiece of poetic titillation. (“I want to sign the walls of your labyrinth and make your whole body a manuscript.” WTAF, Luis Fonsi?) But bear with me. Earlier this year I went to a Barbican exhibition about vulgar fashion. It touched upon vulgarity in many different senses of the word, from vulgar meaning sexually explicit or over the top, to vulgar as in popular (the word derives from the Latin vulgaris, ‘as used by the common people’). Many of the exhibits were so ludicrous or revolting they were actually really fun, and Despacito made me realise that the same could be true of music. It’s so full of shit and unrefined sugar that it’s sort of great.

It also helped me remember just how much lies behind our appreciation and enjoyment of music. My love for ‘Despacito’ has a lot to do with nostalgia and association. Reggaeton and horrifyingly cheesy Latino pop was the soundtrack to a golden time of my life: the six months I spent travelling in Latin America. Sometimes it takes Justin Bieber to remind you that critical objectivity is a myth.

 

Ambrose Akinmusire at Ronnie Scotts

Oakland-born trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the great instrumentalists of our time. He’s a sound painter who can produce an incredible range of hues on the trumpet – stinging voluntaries, bugle calls, fragile whistles, rasps and bestial snuffles – and his emotionally raw compositional style, which blends bracing abstraction and heartfelt tenderness, is strikingly distinctive. He’s been touring with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown for years and the interplay between them is at a level most groups can only dream of. Their latest release, A Rift In The Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard is one of this year’s best. Hearing them live live at Ronnie Scott’s back in July was thrilling.

 

I Called Him Morgan

Kaspar Collin’s documentary tells the story of the great trumpeter Lee Morgan from the perspective of his common law wife, Helen – a fascinating character, who helped Morgan rebuild his career after a struggle with heroin addiction and then shot him dead in Slug’s Saloon one snowy night in 1972. It’s a deeply affecting film that explores passion and forgiveness. The interviews, not least some tape of Helen recorded towards the end of her life, are compelling. And the soundtrack, full of lesser known Morgan cuts along with classics like ‘The Sidewinder’, is a joy. I listened to Search for the New Land and Live at the Lighthouse on repeat for several days afterwards.

 

Jazz and Grime

I’ll remember 2017 as the year I properly got into grime, and the year I started to notice grime influence creeping into UK jazz – particularly in the skanking dub grooves and disgusting sub bass grot doled out by brilliant young tuba player Theon Cross. At a time when RnB and hip hop fusion is dominating jazz output and 80% of young keyboard players sound like Robert Glasper, jazz n grime feels refreshing. It ticks the accessibility box, but it’s unique to the UK. It’s our own distinctive contribution to the burgeoning jazz crossover scene.

One of the best moments of this year’s Glastonbury coverage was Kano’s ferociously energetic set, complete with a stage invasion from Cross and his brother Nathaniel, on trombone. As part of a full band, which also featured Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner on drums, they lifted ‘New Banger’, ‘P’s and Q’s’ and ‘3 Wheel-ups’ to new heights. To Pimp A Butterfly gave US jazz a huge boost and it would be great to see more grime world heavies linking up with jazzers here in the UK. The two styles are a natural fit.

 

Vijay Iyer’s Wigmore Hall Jazz Series

US pianist Vijay Iyer’s series as jazz artist in residence at Wigmore Hall is the best I’ve seen so far. I wrote about his first performance, a fractious musical conversation with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, for Jazzwise. His trio set, which I reviewed for the October issue of the Wire, was made all the more memorable by Tyshawn Sorey, an astonishing drummer and composer breaking new ground where the contemporary classical and the jazz worlds meet. Sorey has had a busy year. He features on Roscoe Mitchell’s magnificent album, Bells For The Southside, and his own release, Verisimilitude, is another of this year’s strongest. I was out of town for the final gig in Iyer’s series, featuring his new sextet, and I’m still kicking myself. They sound storming on record.

 

Field Recording

The art of field recording has been a major discovery for me this year. I came across it via the work of American field recordist Alan Lomax, who travelled the world in the mid 20th century documenting everything from spinners’ songs on the Orkneys to the work songs of prison farm chain gangs in the southern United States. Armed with a little handheld, I’ve recorded raucous rara carnival bands in Port-au-Prince and Balkan brass bands at Serbia’s Guca Trumpet Festival, and discovered rich music scenes that I knew next to nothing about in the process.

One of the great joys of field recording is the way it re-enchants the world. Many field recordists record ambient sounds as well as music. When you do that, it wakes you up to the beauty and the interest in everyday sounds of all kinds – hissing charcoal, the clatter and scream of the Tube, the whir of a flywheel — and the sounds within those sounds. Your ear latches onto interesting sonic juxtapositions, in the same way a photographer develops an eye for composition.

Two musicians doing interesting things with field recordings are drummers Jaimeo Brown and Sarathy Korwar. For anyone interested in Haitian music, I’d recommend recent rara and vodou releases on Soul Jazz Records as well as sax player Tom Challenger’s wonderfully chaotic Brass Mask Live album. It features two tracks, ‘The Bague’ and ‘The Merman’, that are heavily inspired by Haitian rara.

 

Not Quite Music:

Laughter Meditation with Laraaji

At this year’s End Of The Road festival I took part in a laughter meditation workshop led by zither wizard and new age mystic Laraaji. Laughter meditation is all about harnessing the “healing, mood-enhancing power of laughter” and using it to stimulate different areas of the body. Being a cynical Brit, I wasn’t sure if it would work for me. When it came to the freestyle laughter session at the end, I thought I’d have to force it. I didn’t think I’d laugh for real. But there I was, laying on the grass in the glare of the late summer sun, laughing so hard my muscles ached. Properly, uncontrollably shaking with laughter. Catching my breath, hearing someone else go and starting all over again. By the end you’re drunk on endorphins. It’s the strangest, giddiest feeling.

 

Definitely Not Music: 

The Invisible College

This isn’t music (although it does touch on the musicality of speech). It wasn’t even made this year, but I only discovered it this spring and I love it so much I have to mention it. Cathy FitzGerald is one of the UK’s most creative radio producers. For this BBC Radio 4 series subtitled “little lessons in creative writing”, she’s spent hours mining archive interviews with great writers of the past (everyone from Ted Hughes to Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou) for pearls of wisdom. Topics range from writing dialogue to dealing with writer’s block. It’s thought-provoking, whimsical, comforting, inspiring and beautifully made – a series to be treasured and one I know I’ll listen to over and over again, whenever writing seems daunting or I feel as though I’m stuck in a rut.

 

— Thomas Rees

Image Credits: Luca Vantusso (Bill Frisell), Tim Dickeson (Darcy James Argue), Andrea Ruffini (rara band Follow Jah)