2010 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 1

Remember a year ago, when so many people and media organizations fell over themselves to declare the “end of the 21st century’s first decade”, and publish their “best of the decade” music lists? And remember that they were wrong about 2009 concluding the century’s first decade? (Here’s that discussion…)

Well now it’s new year’s eve, 2010, and we really ARE at the end of the 21st century’s first decade. I’ve yet to see a single “best of the decade” list. Odd. I’m not going to create one either, I’d rather share some of the sounds I encountered and enjoyed the most over the past year. Just like last year’s list, I don’t know how many we’ll end up with: it’s not a “best 10′ or ‘best 20’ just to keep the list at a tidy round number. The music will guide the discussion and we’ll see where it takes us.

Here’s the first handful of the recordings I found the most compelling in 2010. Please share yours too – leave a comment below!

Michèle Choinière: “La Violette” –  You like to dance? I mean, really dance? It’s OK if the answer is ‘no’, because all you really need to do is listen to “La Violette” to join the party. The dancing will take care of itself. “La Violette” is the new recording from Vermont-based Franco-American singer Michèle Choinière. I couldn’t stop listening to it this year. It’s the long-awaited followup to her soulful 2003 debut release “Coeur Fragile“.  The songs on “La Violette” are mostly (not entirely) traditional French and French-Canadian, many arranged by Choinière herself and performed with great energy, ease, and classy style. From the catchy song Tant Mon Mari (including exciting traditional French-Canadian fiddling technique) to the Edith Piaf classic Tu es Partout (You are everywhere), this is a warmly melodic recording with a lot of heart. Yet while the songs of “La Violette” may be rooted in the past, the performance is irresistable and spirited, infusing the whole recording with fresh, contemporary relevance. Special nod to Lane Gibson at Gibson Recording in Charlotte, VT  for “La Violette”‘s terrific production. I’m ready for Michèle Choinière’s third recording – any time now!

Gorillaz: “Plastic Beach” -This is one of the first new recordings I heard this year, it premiered in Australia and the UK in February and then on March 1st National Public Radio streamed the whole album. Two days later is was released to the public. I was immediately struck by the continuity and textural richness of “Plastic Beach” – and how I kept getting more from it, the more I listened. Nearly a year later that’s still true. “Plastic Beach” is the third studio release from musician Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) and animation artist Jamie Hewlett. The album creates a fully realized sonic world of disillusionment, wonder, and some sadness with a long list of special guest including Lou Reed, Mos Def, Snoop Dog, and Lebanon’s National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Highlights for me include “White Flag”, “Broken”, and the title track. Sometimes the transitions between the album tracks or musical grooves seem abrupt or disjointed, but that effect seems to be an intentional aspect of the aural topography being described in “Plastic Beach”. This is an unusual, engaging and repeatedly rewarding album. Notable quotes: “all we are…is stars.”

Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI: “Istanbul” – Jordi Savall is a viol player, an early music scholar, and the tireless leader of ensembles like Hesperion XX, Hesperion XXI, and the Concert des Nations. I’ve come to expect the unexpected from any project he’s involved with, and yet this year’s recording “Istanbul” still surprised me. First of all, there’s the pedigree: the title on the recording says “The Book of Science and Music and the Sephardic and Armenian musical traditions”. Really? OK, then, so maybe we can expect to hear Sephardic and Armenian music from Turkish sources. But who is Dmitrie Cantemir (also noted in the album title) and what does he have to do with the music being played here?  Turns out he was a 17th-century intellectual and Moldavian Prince who had some musical skill. He wrote a few pieces, but his greater contribution is probably his “Book of Science and Music”, a collection of some 350+ pieces of music popular in 17th-century Turkey, all preserved in his own unique notation format. This is a collection that Jordi Savall encountered while doing research for his earlier album, “Orient-Occident”, and he decided there was enough material to create a whole other album. This is that album. Add to the Cantemir collection a few Savall originals that serve as preludes to the Cantemir contributions, AND a small assortment of Sephardic and Armenian songs in contemporary versions by Sephardic scholar Isaac Levy. Interesting background, but does it all hold together to make for good listening? It does. In fact, it’s on the purely musical level where “Istanbul” works best. This is a rare instance where the backstory doesn’t necessarily enrich the experience by providing context for the music. Once we’ve navigated through the tangled patch-up of the program’s various source material, we can simply listen and be delighted by the lively inventiveness of Hesperion XXI, and the exotic tunings and instruments this spirited, beautiful music requires. When you listen to this – just listen. Leave the booklet alone until you’ve heard the recording a couple of times all the way through and had a chance to enjoy it on a musical level. It doesn’t need anything else.

Myra Melford & Be Bread: “The Whole Tree Gone” – (Be Bread is: Stomu Takeishi, bass; Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Cuong Vu, trumpet; Matt Wilson, percussion; Brandon Ross, guitar) Another year, and (thankfully!) we have another Myra Melford recording to show for it. I’ve mentioned before I appreciate Myra Melford’s artistry without reservation. And I have enjoyed her various solo or chamber music outings in recent year, but what a joy to hear her return to her role as the leader of the Be Bread ensemble in the 2010 release “The Whole Tree Gone”. It’s a programmatic album, featuring eight pieces inspired by Rumi verse. Each piece is self-contained, but one listens to the collective result differently to realize that the pieces were written as part of a suite (supported by a 2004 Chamber Music America grant). Be Bread is a capable, incredibly creative ensemble grounded by Wilson and Takeishi and tastefully accented by Goldberg, Vu, Ross, and Melford herself in playing that ranges colorfully from meditative and introspective to punctuated, and explosive. Thrilling playing (individually AND as an ensemble) – “The Whole Tree Gone” is undoubtedly one of my top faves of the year.

2010 in the rearview, part two coming up…stay tuned…and tell me about your 2010 favorites! Leave a comment here.

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