2015 in Music

This page contains my music reviews for music originally released in 2015. Due to my podcast, I have not been listening to as much new music as I’d like.

1. Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance: Synovial Joints (10/10)

Though Coleman has been making music for my entire lifetime, I only came upon him about half a decade ago, thanks to one of his solo albums, the excellent Invisible Paths.

And now, confronted by this strange amalgam of many different ideas from the jazz tradition, and which pairs supposedly spontaneously improvised sax lines (and other solos) with a string quartet, Latin percussion, and other unexpected instruments, I find it rather hard to contain my enthusiasm.

This record reminds me, at times, of Mike Westbrook’s Citadel/Room 315, not in how it sounds, of course, but in how it seems to contain the breadth of contemporary jazz expression within itself.

Despite the rather esoteric explanations Coleman gives for how he comes up with this music, I have a hard time imagining another record that manages to both touch upon so many different strands of jazz while sounding of one piece.

This is the best jazz album I have heard recorded in the 21st century. That may say more about what I haven’t yet listened to than what I have, but I can’t praise this highly enough.

2. Vijay Iyer: Break Stuff (9/10)

No, this is not a set of piano jazz covers of Nu Metal, yuk yuk yuk.

Rather, it’s stuff about breaks in music, sudden breaks in playing, as it were. And it’s so refreshing to hear a pianist like Iyer who doesn’t sound like he’s stuck in the tradition. Sure, some of tracks sounds very much of the jazz piano tradition, and some of his solos and fills do too, but a lot more often he sounds like he isn’t really a pianist, he just happens to be playing piano. (And this makes sense as, apparently, he’s not a trained pianist, but rather a violinist or something.)

I love stuff like this:

  • it’s forwarding thinking but it’s so accessible;
  • many of the melodies feel familiar
  • and Iyer’s rhythms feel contemporary, not in a jazz sense but in a greater musical context – the rhythms are not jazz rhythms, much of time, or so it feels.

It’s really great stuff and I want to go see this band live.

Really just fantastic.

3. The Visit: Through Darkness Into Light (9/10)

This is some pretty spectacular stuff: a huge range of sounds created by just a cello and voice. The range of musical influences is rather broad, with various “eastern” musical ideas complementing more traditional – and not so traditional as I heard the influence of minimalism and even metal…seriously – western ideas, all presented as what we might call progressive folk.

Really, really cool.

4. Mary Halvorson: Meltframe (8/10)

Halvorson’s first solo guitar album is everything I could have wanted: radical re-interpretations of famous and not-so-famous tracks from jazz’s past – from all over that past, actually – played in her signature style which, in this case, at times borders on the volume of hard rock, and, at other times, can be quite peaceful.

For me, she continues to be the most interesting jazz guitarist I’m currently aware of and I continue to look forward to all her ventures.

5. Wilco: Star Wars (8/10)

For just over a decade (between the mid ’90s and the mid ’00s) Wilco was one of the most interesting “indie” rock bands in the world – they changed their sound (nearly) every album, from roots rock to pop to post rock to classic rock revival. And then they got comfortable. For the last decade or so, they’ve been making very pleasant pop rock with only the odd hints of their more interesting past. (This is different live, where they remained edgy.) I have felt like the last few albums were the first time the band settled for something.

Read the full review.

6. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (8/10)

I saw these guys just the other night and found them significantly more traditionally jazzy than a few years ago.

With Redman, they appear to be forced into playing more conventionally. That’s not to say that this is all that conventional jazz, but they do seem to stay far more within tradition this time around.

That’s not a bad thing: they move from post bop so ballad-heavy and melodic it’s borderline cool to moments that are borderline avant garde. Most of the rock influence appears gone, but it’s not a bad thing that they are changing their tune this far into their career. That’s admirable.

They are significantly more abrasive live, which makes this album a bit of a let down – most of the tracks here were included in the most recent set I saw)- as everyone, particularly Redman, seems to be behaving themselves a little too much.

But this is still great music made by fantastic musicians. It’s just not as unique as the band at its earlier peak. But that’s okay.

7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: ‘Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress’ (8/10)

To my ears, this is a more aggressively difficult record than the last one. It’s less obviously melodic and there is lots of time for noise. And though I welcome the change in some ways, I find it kind of less appealing than the stuff from their prime.

But the sound is absolutely massive – as it should be for a larger version of the band – and though the music is less immediate, it’s still compelling. It’s hard for me to fault them for being slightly less accessible given that they don’t do accessible anyway.

But still, I’d say this is a fans-only album. Not going to convert anyone who isn’t already on the bus.

Just a note: apparently these four tracks are actually a slight change to a big piece called “Behemoth,” that they have been playing for years. I have only seen GY!BE twice, and they only played this on their most recent tour, so I am not sure how true that is.

8. Rabbit Rabbit Radio Vol. 3 – Year of the Wooden Horse (7/10)

The third edition of Rabbit Rabbit Radio is different in conception than the first two. This time out, Kihlstedt and Bossi asked twelve guitarists to submit riffs to them, and then they’d build the songs.

Read the full review.

9. Faith No More: Sol Invictus (7/10)

When I was young I hated reunions, I felt like they were cash-grabs, things only sell-outs would do. I had a hard time thinking of musicians, particularly my musical idols, as people. I had an idea of artistic integrity and I thought that musicians should stick to it (or face my wrath, I guess). But another reason I hated reunions was because I was a fan of (mostly) “classic” rock. And the vast majority of those bands which reunited…well, those reunions went badly. And my favourite band at the time had never reunited. And the band that took over that role form them only reunited for one off concerts every few years. Both “preserved” their legacies.

Read the rest of the review.

10. Battles: La Di Da Di (7/10)

By this point Battles has their niche pretty down pat. The only other band I can think of that sounds like them is Adebisi Shank, and for whatever reason, Battles seems to have won that public relations, ahem, battle.

I missed their last album, for some reason – the one with the guest vocalists. And I don’t know that things were noticeably different there. But here, on this record, Battles sounds like, well, Battles.

I don’t what it is exactly, but I feel like they’re treading water a little bit. I don’t mind the record, I just feel like I’ve heard it before.

11. Desaparecidos: Payola (6/10)

Read the review.

Not Ranked: Stephen Hough: Sonatas and Poems (8/10)

Read the review.