By: Alex Brown
Welcome to 2015. Already forgot class starts at 10 after?
Let’s take a look at some of the best albums of 2014.
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
This list is in no particular order, except for Black Messiah. If you haven’t been inducted into the craze, let me break it down: D’Angelo records Voodoo, hailed as a genre-defining soul masterpiece, in 2000 and this is the long awaited 15-year follow up, released with only a few day’s notice. And regardless of any doubtful expectations, this album is KILLIN’. This is the late-night-chillin’, baby-makin’, tell-all-your-friends-about-it kind of album that only comes once every few years. D embraces a harder funk sound for most of the album, like on “Sugah Daddy,” featuring the legendary James Gadson (drums, Still Bill). Sprinkles of his Voodoo sound fill the second half, on tracks like “Betray My Heart.” The ensemble on the album features the most talented musicians in the game, including longtime collaborators Questlove (The Roots) and Pino Palladino (John Mayer Trio, The Who). This is music that speaks across generations and will be as classic as What’s Goin’ On: where relevance is discovered with time, and still never sounds fresher than the moment you’re listening to it.
Adult Jazz – Gist Is
This is a beautifully brainy debut from a four-piece group from Leeds. Gist Is delivers unconventional pop song structure with raw precision that makes you wonder, in a band with only four musicians, “Just where is all this sound coming from?” It’s this attention to execution that makes the album opener, “Hum”, completely accessible as it blossoms over its seven and a half minutes. Songs like “Donne Tongue” constantly shift the groove from right under your feet, allowing you to understand exactly where you are in the music, without quite knowing where it’s going next. I won’t lie – it took me a few listens to really grasp the feel of the songs since many songs are through-composed. Sections don’t repeat as many of us are used to in a top 40 hit. But give Adult Jazz your patience, and Gist Is will keep your ears plenty occupied.
tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
If you haven’t gotten a chance to catch this music project live, lead by Merrill Garbus (vocals) and Nate Brenner (bass), take a moment and catch up here. In Merrill we find a front person with the allure of a dance artist who simultaneously displays enough lyrical range to be unabashedly honest. In “Real Thing” she writes “why are you afraid about pants size ten? / they’re chosen girls / while you worry about dress size 6 / they’re winning the tricks“, while a listen to “Hey Life” highlights the chorus, “hey life, I am calling your name / but all I hear’s an echo / unless your voice and mine sound the same”. This wordplay depth, combined with gut-punching production from John Hill and Malay, will leave you asking “Why do we dine on the tots?” long after the album’s 45 minutes.
Snarky Puppy – We Like It Here
In their eighth album, the genre-bending fusion band strays from the sound of their last groove-oriented album, GroundUp, and succeeds. Don’t get me wrong, We Like It Here still jams PLENTY hard — but contrary to past albums, here we see main composer/bassist Michael League pushing the band to explore previously unused timbres and rhythms. “Outlier” features a nasty electric baritone guitar riff played by Chris McQueen, riding below the band like its his freakin’ job. “What About Me?” is a tune for the rocker in everyone, with unreal shredding on the guitar (Bob Lanzetti) and drums (Larnell Lewis). After seeing a few performances of material from the new album, I came to realize that this album really works by showing that Snarky Puppy can slap, rock, and still get their crowd moving in a great latin dance tune, “Tio Macaco,” with screamin’ horn lines to boot. I’m definitely looking forward to this year’s Family Dinner Vol. 2 with Laura Mvula, Charlie Hunter, and Jeff Coffin.
Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
“From the first beat, we’re exploring together,” notes Ambrose Akinmsuire on his latest project. He’s known most of the collaborators that comprise the primary quintet on the album for about 8 years, but it’s his first collaboration with Savior’s vocalists and the Osso String Quartet. It’s the juxtaposition of these musical relationships that allows the music to breathe and blend together. Featured singer/songwriters, such as Cold Specks (“Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child (Cyntoia Brown)”) and Becca Stevens (“Our Basemend (Ed)”), contribute their own lyrics, embodying each track’s fictional characters created by Mr. Akinmsuire. There’s plenty of impressive technical playing, but the real mastery is how Ambrose prioritizes each composition’s mood, often brooding, while constantly blossoming. He has an acute instinct for knowing when to give ensemble textures preference over shoving solos or fast lead lines in your face. It’s these tendencies that leave the 32 year-old bandleader unparalleled by few other jazz musicians of his generation.
Richard Reed Parry – Music for Heart and Breath
Music for Heart and Breath is a fantastic classical album from Parry, a core member of Arcade Fire, and multi-instrumentalist. The composer explains that he wanted to approach the album in a way where your body “relinquishes control” over the music. Here we experience a fascinating juxtaposition between the control that classical musicians spend their lives refining, with the involuntary parts of the musicians’ bodies. Every musician is hooked up to stethoscopes, allowing each player to convert the internal rhythm of the beating of their hearts, and breathing to their performance. It may sound gimmicky, but take a listen and you’ll find yourself unwinding into every breath.
Luluc – Passerby
Passerby is one of those albums that I’ll turn on, and realize I’m just not getting up off the couch until its over. I often wonder, “Where else is there for folk music to go?” and it’s albums like Passerby that keep proving the effectiveness in the genre comes from directness in delivery. It’s the 1-2 punch of well-executed arrangements and lyrics throughout the record that drive every nuance straight to your heart. You can’t help but melt when you hear Zoë Randall’s first line in “Tangled Heart” (“In New York City trying to find our own feet / two tangled hearts in the mis en scene”) and lose whatever you had left inside you in the chorus, sung over a horn arrangement that make you feel right at home in a 70’s George Harrison hit. When taken out of context, the lines “I walk slow / down where we’d go / where we’ve gone for so long / where you and I come from,” in ”Star” could be the obviously simple chorus of a teenager’s first song. But it’s Passerby’s lyrical nuance, mixed with the simplicity of Zoë Randall and Steve Hassett’s melodies that really knocked me on my ass.
Low Leaf – AKASHAALAY
“My intention was to write for the Filipinos,” says LA-based artist Low Leaf, speaking on her most recent release. A quick visit to her website at http://www.creatordiy.com/ and you’ll find yourself presented with passages like “All creation in the universe is a single note in the symphony of life’s eternal song. You are vibration. You are energy.” Like woah, man, that’s deep. But let’s give our stoner teenager-selves a timeout for a moment, and let’s put on our adult thinking caps. Maybe, simply calling her music “deep,” completely subverts what she aspires to accomplish. Tracks like “Set Me Free” and “As One” feel like you’re listening to an electronic remix of Alicia Key’s As I Am. But, dig into “Slaveless Master” and you’ll see the full extent of Low Leaf’s tasteful singer/songwriter-vibe, mixed with electronics, harp, and piano.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra, John Luther Adams – Become Ocean
The 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by Adams. Become Ocean gorgeously unravels over its 42 minutes, and is a great entry into contemporary classical music for listeners of any level of interest. But don’t be fooled, Adam’s ocean is at times calming, and at times raw and exhilarating. The composer structures the piece by splitting the orchestra into three primary sections – strings, woodwinds, and brass, with percussion, piano, harp, and celesta playing intermittently throughout. At times, crescendos between specific sections align, and when they don’t, you know they’re going to sooner or later. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, where you’ve gone over the first big drop, and gone through a corkscrew, but you just know that there’s gonna be a combination corkscrew-drop comin’ up. And even though you’re the person who brags about not holding on to the guardrail, you’re already giving your macho mindset a second thought.
Alex also recommends: Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – The Offense of the Drum, And The War Came – Shakey Graves, Bass and Mandolin – Chris Thile / Edgar Meyer, The Ambassador – Gabriel Kahane, Wood Works – Danish String Quartet, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – The Roots, Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!, Hozier, St. Vincent