Casual Listening

A review of cool new music

By Jeff Pinzino

December 12, 2010

As you've probably realized, I've stopped publishing the weekly reviews, at least for now.  Life changes have left me with a new set of priorities, and I just haven't found the time to continue the music writing.  To those who have loved the reviews and even bought the music, I give you my deepest gratitude for allowing me to be your musical guide over the last three years, and my sincerest apologies in not being able to continue.

Consider this a parting gift.  I've been listening as much as I can this year, and have come up with a list that ought to last you through the holidays and beyond.  A couple of these are as good as any album I've ever reviewed.

One bonus - Steve McManus has sent along a powerful analysis of Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" upon its reissue.  Whether you're familiar with this album, or it's your first time, Steve's the boss when it comes to The Boss.

But without further ado:

Best Albums of 2010

1. Kenny Werner - No Beginning, No End (jazz)

Beneath crusted layers of commercialism, cultural tradition, and familiarity lies the beating red heart of music itself.  To feel its pulse is to feel fully alive, and feeling it is reason to live for any of us who chase sound across the hours.  Maybe once in a generation, an artist will find themselves cradling music's beating heart in their cupped hands, and give such expression to it as to inspire the ages.  Beethoven held it when he wrote the ninth.  John Coltrane held it when he wrote A Love Supreme.   Kenny Werner holds it with No Beginning, No End.

The piece is Werner's coming to terms with the death of his daughter in a car accident.  Wrenching chords and lines searching for any point of stability give way to deeply peaceful passages, an awareness that the most horrible of tragedy opens up a window on the vastness of divine order.  The presentation is expansive, with a full orchestra and chorus alongside jazz soloists.  This is a masterpiece among masterpieces.

Listen to Kenny Werner - "Visitation: Waves of Unborn"

2. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz (rock)

A simple song of heartbreak begins with a simple guitar, and three minutes later an electronic tornado lifts up the whole house and drops it in the technicolor land of Adz.  The music winds its way through the universe of ray guns and prophets as painted by outsider artist Royal Robertson, an electronic and orchestral expression of an epic self that seventy minutes later dissolves back into a still life of heartbreak with guitar.  It's an extraordinary piece of music from one of the most creative minds in music today.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens - "Too Much"

3. The Chieftains - San Patricio

The idea to mix Irish and Mexican musical styles could only come from a musical mastermind such as Ry Cooder.  The combination is seamless, with both cultures employing variations of harps, guitars, flutes, and fiddles.  It’s a boisterous album of reels and corridos, one that should carry you through the drinking season with St. Patty’s and Cinco de Mayo on the horizon.

Listen to The Chieftains "La Iguana" featuring Lila Downs

4. Jubilant Sykes - Sings Copland and Spirituals (classical)

NPR currently has a great series on 50 Great Voices - most achieved their fame decades ago.  If there's a rising artist who deserves to be on that list, it's Jubilant Sykes.  The material here is classic American - a set of spirituals and Aaron Copland's American Songs.  Jubilant earns his name - there's a joyous energy here that carries through all the songs.  His take on Copland's Songs is definitive, which is quite a feat considering the other well-known recording of it was conducted by Copland himself.

Listen to Jubliant Sykes spirituals: "Were You There"
Listen to Jubilant Sykes' Copland: "Ching-A-Ring Chaw"

5. John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up! (R&B)

Legend finds a vocal power beyond anything he's done previously, with strong material and one of the tightest backing bands in music today.  The Roots' reinterpretations of 60's and 70's soul are excruciatingly funky, and the social message behind each of the songs gives an urgency that rebukes our national political stalemate.    

Listen to John Legend & The Roots - "Compared to What"

6. Listener's choice - Jazz 2010

It's been one of the best years for jazz in recent memory.  I'm going to give you seven titles, starting with the entry-level stuff and moving toward the most adventurous.  Your choice, but don't finish out the year without hearing at least one of these.

James Moody - 4B (sax-driven standards) Polka Dots & Moonbeams
Abdullah Ibrahim - Bombella (big band) Bombella
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis - Vitoria Suite (Ellington or Davis-Evans orchestral) Mvt. II: Smooth in the Night - Suave en La Noche
Dave Holland Octet - Pathways (lush modernism) Sea of Marmara
Chucho Valdez - Chucho's Steps - (Latin fusion) Zawinul's Mambo
Esperanza Spaulding - Chamber Music Society (impressionistic classical-jazz) Knowledge of Good and Evil
Absolute Ensemble - Absolute Zawinul (fusion) Good Day

7. Semi Precious Weapons - You Love You (rock)

Attitude:  The definition of rock & roll.  The Rolling Stones built an empire on it, and punk proved you barely needed to play if you had it.  Semi Precious Weapons have it, more than any band I’ve heard in years.  Hedonistic, destructive, and supremely self-assured.  From the opening line “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m f***ing gorgeous!” you feel the exhilaration of setting fire to the whole bookful of social etiquette.  The music itself is phenomenal – big, dirty guitar riffs, crashing drums, and biting vocals.  Don’t miss this band.

Listen to Semi Precious Weapons - "Semi Precious Weapons"

8. Buddy Guy - Living Proof (blues)

With every blues album by this living legend, the refrain has been "good, but it can't match his energy playing live."  No more.  This album is greased lightening in a bottle.  Screaming guitar, shiver-your-spine vocals - don't miss this one.

Listen to Buddy Guy - Skanky

9. Natalie Merchant - Leave Your Sleep (folk)

Folk music used to belong to all of us – traditional melodies and lyrics from whatever folk you happen to descend.  If Merchant in the past has been part of the movement that redefined folk as introspective coffeehouse balladry, consider this album payment-in-full of her karmic debt.  Twenty-six musical settings of classic poems by e.e. cummings, Ogden Nash, and others show how much music is on the printed page if we’d only take the time to listen.  Add to this a different band on every track to spin us around the world, with styles from China, Eastern Europe, Ireland, New Orleans, and more.  Merchant’s voice is deep bittersweet, and despite the title, I’m expecting this to be the lullaby album of choice for our family in the foreseeable future.

Listen to Natalie Merchant - "Bleezer's Ice Cream"

10. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - I Speak Fula (world)

How do you say “guitar god” in Fula?  The ngoni is an ancestor of the banjo native to Mali, and Kouyate leads a band full of them.  The rhythms are devastating, and multiple vocalists give elegant contrast to the furious strings.  This album puts Kouyate at the top of the heap in Afropop this year.

Listen to Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba "Musow (For Our Women)"