Friday, December 19, 2008

The best new (to me) music of 2008

Ojos de Brujo. No es el flamenco de tu papá. Image found here.

Beginning this afternoon, I will basically be away from "here" until after the New Year, so I thought I would post some links to things I ran into during the year that some of you might like.

Times being what they are, I didn't buy very much music this year. Instead, I perused the 'Nets whenever I'd run across something musical that interested me. For those who don't yet know about it, is an extraordinary resource in that regard: it's the very rare artist for whom it does not have at least a snippet of his/her work. So, with the exception of Esperanza Spalding's album, Esperanza, I don't think I bought anything that was first released in this calendar year. The trade-off, though, was that I grew in appreciation of what the Internet can offer those who don't mind doing a bit of link-chasing. It's distressing that the larger labels in general are very stingy with free music, as are labels specializing in jazz and world music. I'm happy to report, though, that Nonesuch, a label that doesn't seem to know how to put out a bad record, is now offering some few free mp3s (though let's just say they don't make it easy to find them); the other day, I found them for Sam Phillips, Kronos Quartet, Bill Frisell, and the East Asia: Koto Classics album from their Nonesuch Explorer Series of indigenous and folk musics from around the world. But counterintuitively, it's the smaller labels that are more generous with free full-length mp3s. But not so counterintuitively, perhaps: as my wish list for new music has grown, the sources of growth have been those smaller labels.

The selections below are all over the geographical and musical map: music from 5 continents; jazz, "world" (whatever that means these days), blues, guitar-pop, ambient and post-rock. I hope you might hear something you like.

Merry Christmas, all. Best wishes for a happy and safe holiday, and thanks as always for reading.

(A note on links to pieces: At the links you've find the player at the upper-right-hand corner of the page. The Rapidshare links permit 10 downloads and then become inoperable. If you're number 11 and/but you'd like to hear the piece anyway, email me at "blogmeridian AT sbcglobal DOT com" and I'll be happy to send it on to you.)

Esperanza Spalding. I first heard of Spalding on an NPR story back in the summer: A 24-year-old female jazz acoustic bass player and singer. Equally adept in singing in Spanish and Portuguese as well as English. At age 20, became the youngest instructor in the history of Berklee College of Music. All pretty unusual--even more so is the fact that, musically, she is much more sophisticated than you'd think she'd be at her age. Give a listen to the straight jazz of "The Peacocks" from Junjo. Her current album, the one I actually have, is Esperanza. What's extraordinary about this music is that it's clearly jazz and very much the sort of music one thinks of generically when one hears that term, but she sounds freed by its tradition rather than treed by it. It's like she's just discovered jazz and it's the coolest music ever.

More below the fold.

Ojos de Brujo. A Spanish group whose name means "Wizard's Eyes." They fuse flamenco, gypsy and hip-hop(!) into a style that shouldn't work but does. Flashy and precise and, after a while, as bewitching as their name implies. "Sultanas de merkaillo" (from Techari), is a good representation of their sound.

Hukwe Zawose: A Tanzanian singer and multi-instrumentalist who died in 2003. Deeply rooted in the traditional musics of the region, his music nevertheless sounds like it could have been composed by a minimalist. This is hauntingly-beautiful music. In "Chilumi", the combination of tight harmonies and the bowed instrument at first sounds discordant but soon acquires a haunting musique concrète quality that, if you're into someone like Steve Reich, will knock your aural socks off. Meanwhile, at 10 minutes in length, "Mateso" will require some time of you. Less frenzied than "Chilumi," but with considerable space for both singers and those incantatory percussive and bowed instruments. Absolutely gorgeous music.

The Sundays, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. I suspect all of us have bands or singers we like not because they're all that essential to anyone's understanding of the musical cosmos but because they just sound so damn good. The Sundays are one of those bands for me: their guitar-based dreamy pop sound and Harriet Wheeler's expressive, slightly-moody voice go down easily like the best frothy pop, but with their ever-so-slightly-unexpected key changes and at times edgy lyrics, they're more substantial than that. Reading . . . is the Sundays' first album of their three albums, but I bought my copy of it only this year. It's been interesting to listen to within the context of having known well their other two albums for some time now: in their debut they're more surprising musically, more willing to do things like suddenly, thrillingly shift into a minor key in the middle of a song, such as they do in the bridge of "A Certain Someone". "I Kicked a Boy," meanwhile, is one of the odder love songs I've heard this year. The later albums, Blind and Static & Silence, each have fine songs on them, but they're a little more monochromatic in their sound. True, it is a beautiful sound . . .

Luciana Souza, Brazilian Duos. I have liked Brazilian music for a very long time now; some day I hope to post some recommendations because it seems to me that we are suddenly awash in great music, both traditional and variations on the traditional, that some of you might like to know a little more about. And besides, 'fess up: Is there a sexier genre of music--not just some songs, the entire genre--than the bossa nova?


I just recently learned about Souza, a woman equally at home with traditional Brazilian music, jazz, art-song settings of poems by Pablo Neruda and Elizabeth Bishop, and classical pieces. In Brazilian Duos, Souza, accompanied only by a single acoustic guitar, sings a selection of traditional and more recent songs by Brazilian composers. Both the playing (by three different guitarists, one of whom is Souza's father) and Souza's singing are exquisite, approaching jazz at times but, just as often, adhering pretty closely to straight readings of the songs. Here are a couple of selections: A fast piece called "Baião Medley," and the very sad and pretty "Pra Dizer Adeus" ("To Say Goodbye").

The Silent Ballet. The 'Nets are awash in free music, much of it legally-so via artists' and record labels' websites, and some of it actually good even if you haven't heard of most of these people before. The Silent Ballet is a site that is one of the more extreme examples of this free music stuff. Focusing on reviewing and promoting the music of groups that sit at the musical intersection of post-rock, ambient, psychedelia, noise and "experimental," The Silent Ballet regularly makes available for free download compilations of songs that groups have sent in to the site's editors. At present there are nine compilations and two live recordings. All are generous: each has well over an hour of music, with many of the pieces stretching to seven or eight minutes or more. Alas, there's no way to preview individual tracks, but--especially if you like this sort of music--it does these collections no disservice to say that, for the most part, they all sound pretty much alike. Besides: it's free. I've not listened through all of them, but I will go ahead and recommend Volume IV because of its inclusion of two Austin-based groups, Balmorhea and Signal Hill.

R. L. Burnside (1926-2005). A bluesman very much in the style of John Lee Hooker. Have a look at the Wikipedia article, then give a listen to "Bad Luck and Trouble," "Georgia Women," and "Snake Drive." You'll know what to do--or, if you don't know, your feet and hips will.

UPDATE: I completely forgot to mention Jorge Drexler's Eco. Drexler is a Uruguayan singer whose song "Al otro lado del río" was used in the film The Motorcycle Diaries. Drexler's music is musically a sophisticated pop, I suppose, but is lyrically straight out of the art-song tradition. Elegant: that's the word I'm looking for.


Ariel said...

I love end-of-the-year music lists, John. Yours is the most off-the-beaten-tracks one I've found yet...I'll spend some time tracking these artists down. Thanks for putting in the time to compile this post.

Paul Dryden said...

great list.

judging by your taste, i think you'll really enjoy a lot of albums off nacional records -

nacional is home to artists like manu chao, nortec collective, aterciopelados, etc

Pam said...

Fun list! Thanks - and have a nice holiday.

John B. said...

A belated thanks to all of you for stopping by and giving a listen. Paul, welcome and thanks for the link to Nacional Records. You are correct in your assessment of my tastes.