My favorite albums of 2013, numbers ten through one
10. Craig Taborn Trio, Chants (ECM)
Perhaps the most versatile, mercurial pianist in jazz, Craig Taborn delivers another stunning statement. He’s led his fantastic trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver since 2007, and you can hear that shared history in how thoroughly Taborn and his bandmates seem to have internalized the material on Chants. His shape-shifting compositions add to the fluid complexity of the songs—despite their many interlocking parts, they never feel halting or mechanical, and their constant destabilizing motion is offset by meticulous construction that allows each player great improvisational latitude.
9. Bill Callahan, Dream River (Drag City)
Bill Callahan has long been the most taciturn of songwriters, and he’s gained strength by paring down his music. On this austere effort he grapples with the most basic concerns of this life we’re stuck in, combining sparsely strummed, phase-treated electric guitar, lean grooves on bass and percussion (which often consists only of congas or claves), extrapolations and interjections by guitarist Matt Kinsey, and occasional embellishments of sweet flute or mournful fiddle. His songs remain mostly cryptic, but that said, they’ve never been so forthright—it’s not hard to arrive at the meaning of the ballad “Small Plane,” which uses flying an aircraft as a tender metaphor for devotion and trust (“Sometimes when you sleep while I take us home / That’s when I know / We really have a home”).
8. Pandelis Karayorgis, Circuitous (Driff)
Great Boston pianist Pandelis Karayorgis made this quintet record in Chicago with a killer local band, though bassist Nate McBride has since moved back the leader’s hometown. The group also includes Frank Rosaly on drums and an excellent yin-yang pair of saxophonists, Dave Rempis and Keefe Jackson. Karayorgis has discussed the fact that he used the classic Tony Williams album Spring as a model for the instrumentation here, but the sound is all his own, with punchy, angular tunes, a wide dynamic range (from soft rustling to juddering blasts), and ingenious arrangements that color in the oblique melodies and provide plenty of suspense. As strong as the solos are throughout the record, I almost enjoy the composed sections most.
Rokia Traore, Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)
Malian singer Rokia Traore is one of the most instinctive, original musicians working in African traditions. In the past she’s brought a surprisingly effective softness and finesse to her work, adding a delicate folk flair that owed as much to Joni Mitchell as to Baaba Maal, but on her latest album she radically shiftsd gears, working with British producer John Parish, a guy best known for his long association with P.J. Harvey. Backed by malleable British kit drummer Seb Rochford and biting electric guitars (played by Italian experimentalist Stefano Pilia, among others), Traore switches easily to a hectoring attack, singing in Bambara, French, and English, offering pointed observations on Africa’s troubles but also expressing unswerving love of her homeland. She brings infectious, electrifying conviction to every gesture.
6. Alasdair Roberts & Friends, A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)
Alasdair Roberts’s masterful mix of British folk and modern folk-rock puts him in the company of groundbreaking syncretists such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span—another way of saying that, despite great work from the likes of Waterson: Carthy and the Unthanks, nobody in the past decade or so has done nearly as much to advance the cause of British Isles folk as this Scotsman. His excellent liner notes break down the sources for his original spins on timeless folk conventions—both their story lines and the influential versions that inspired him—and many pieces combine his own tunes with thematically linked traditional songs in seamless medleys about death, sex, desire, or history that make the century of their origin irrelevant.
5. Fredrik Ljungkvist Yun Kan 10, Ten (Hoob Jazz)
Best known as the protean yet thoughtful reedist and compositional voice in Scandinavian quintet Atomic, Sweden’s Fredrik Ljungkvist turns to this agile ten-piece band to reveal another side of his music. Though improvisation is a key ingredient in Yun Kan 10, the ten pieces on Ten’s two discs rely much more on notated music and elaborate, contrapuntal arrangements. The wordless singing of Sofia Jernberg, who gave a knockout performance as part of Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Seval at the Cultural Center in November, dances with the deft front line—Ljungkvist’s saxophones, Mats Äleklint’s rubbery trombone, and Katt Hernandez’s violin—while the springy-then-clattery propulsion comes from twin drummers Jon Fält and Raymond Strid, bassist Mattias Welin, and tuba player Per Åke-Holmlander. It’s like nothing else I heard in 2013.
4. Richard Dawson, The Glass Trunk (Richie’s Own Label)
No album hit me out of the blue like this epic project from English singer and guitarist Richard Dawson. I only discovered The Glass Trunk toward the year’s end, but once I heard it, the music wouldn’t release its grip. Terse improvised exchanges between Dawson’s lacerating electric guitar and the amplified harp of improviser Rhodri Davies alternate with a cappella vocal pieces whose lyrics are derived from materials Dawson found in the holdings of Newcastle’s Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum. He built gorgeous yet bruising melodies for narratives borrowed from or inspired by personal correspondence, yellowed scrapbooks, and old photographs—they have all the tragedy, romance, and yearning of the best British folk music, from which Dawson’s vocals take their inspiration.
3. Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot)
There are many good living songwriters. But then you hear a new Robbie Fulks record, and you can’t remember who they are. Most of the songs on Gone Away Backwards meditate on small-town life, but without the hokum that usually infects Nashville’s treatments of the subject. In a just world, Alan Jackson or George Strait would hit number one with “That’s Where I’m From,” a story that counts You Can’t Go Home Again among its ancestors—the narrator splits town and does his darnedest to build a life of his own, only to realize after it’s too late that the community he left defines who he is. While it may not show off Fulks’s full range, this album is the most focused, meaningful, and beautiful recording he’s ever made, with his best singing yet.
2. Nate Wooley Sextet, (Sit In) the Throne of Friendship (Clean Feed)
New York trumpeter Nate Wooley is well regarded for his command of extended technique, unexpected free-improv gambits, and rigorous experimental projects. But here he delves into his roots in jazz—a sensibility that always lurks in his playing, but that he’s never before given such a glorious platform. Though Wooley certainly employs free-jazz vocabulary, both in certain voicings and in his judicious solos, the eight original compositions here develop from the excellent arrangements he crafted for this nimble ensemble—reedist Josh Sinton, tuba player Dan Peck, vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and drummer Harris Eisenstadt. The line between composition and improvisation is impossible to trace—they go hand in glove as the music moves from elegant swing to raucous throwdowns. Perhaps it’s due to the key role given Peck’s tuba, but the timbre of the music makes me feel like this is Wooley’s answer to Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. It doesn’t sound much like that record, but its meticulous, orchestral opulence achieves the same kind of feeling.
1. Julia Holter, Loud City Song (Domino)
With her third album, Los Angeles composer Julia Holter has found her sweet spot, balancing the songcraft of prerock popular music with daring arrangements and found sounds that reflect her background in experimental music. As much as I love her two previous albums, Tragedy and Ekstasis, Loud City Song is a huge leap past them. Her writing is stronger, her melodies are more sophisticated, her singing is much better, and in contrast with the first two records (which she made by herself) she’s joined by a stellar cast of sympathetic, agile musicians. It felt like a classic out of time from the first moment I heard it, and its gorgeous harmonies and solid tunefulness have only grown more resonant since. For her next record I imagine Holter won’t refine this sound but move onto to some new mode, and I can’t wait to hear what it is.