Okay, maybe there's no pop this time. My dozen picks plus three additional categories are definitely a Cardi B-free zone. But only five artists here could be characterized as old-timers; there IS plenty of good new music from good new groups that aren't constructed in Sweden via algorithms. [Note: (BT) at the end of a paragraph means the text was was first published in the print edition of The Big Takeover.]
1. Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside)
I could list this on my jazz best-of-2018 with just as much justification; this is an instrumental record that draws from many musical strands. This supergroup of drummer J.T. Lewis, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and guitarist Brandon Ross came together in the '90s, made two albums, then went silent for a decade. When it reappeared in 2011, its next two releases included guest musicians, but here it's just the core trio, and there's something about the focus on these three giants that's special. Gibbs (known in the mainstream for membership in the Rollins band, but so much more active than that) works with lots of effects and frequently seems like a co-lead instrument; the power ad timbres of his lines sometimes puts me in mind of King Crimson, another rock band with a penchant for improvisation beyond the rock norm, but just as often sparks comparisons to Jamaaladeen Tacuma's work in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time. Ross, also a masterful user of effects, still has an instantly recognizable set of tones that ranges from gauzy atmosphere to coruscating leads, and both Ross and Gibbs also have a compelling sense of melody. Lewis spins out some of the most amazing polyrhythms you'll hear, but can also dig into a groove. The multiple talents of these men cohere in a dazzling display of tasteful virtuosity and blinding power.
2. David Crosby: Here If You Listen (BMG)
This is not nostalgia. This is a vital and innovative songwriter going through the most productive half a decade of his storied 56-year career. He's also been touring a lot; here he works, very collaboratively, with the core of his tour band: Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League (Snarky Puppy). With no drums, it's an intimate album, and though some political points are made, it's also highly personal, especially "Your Own Ride," where the 77-year-old Crosby ponders his looming mortality. Forget about the stereotype, listen to the music.
3. Glass Traps: s/t (s/r)
This Cleveland quintet featuring singer Sarah Paul (ex-Terrorcake) and guitarist Chuck Cieslik (Obnox) reminds me of Pretty Girls Make Graves (the 2000s Seattle post-punk band, not the Smiths song) minus the keyboards. It's the headlong momentum of the gritty riffs and pounding rhythms, the incredible tightness of the arrangements and playing, and the frontwomen's voices, though Paul's immediately gripping tone is tougher and lower in range. The songs are never rote or generic; a couple listens and they stick in the mind. There's an intriguing sense of mystery to the lyrics here; I usually have no idea what's going on, yet am riveted by their aura. Striking album art by Kristina Kuhn is added incentive to buy the vinyl LP. (BT)
4. Ebony Bones!: Nephillim (1984)
Ebony Thomas got her stage name from Damned drummer Rat Scabies; this is the British actress/musician's third full-length album. It deals with racism in the U.K., but the sentiments transfer all too easily to the current climate in the U.S. I have no idea what musical genre this fits into, but it's the most haunting album of the year, mixing minimal martial rhythms with brooding orchestration (the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra is frequently heard here). A children's choir delivers a chilling rendition of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," while infamous British racist Enoch Powell's notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech is sampled on "No Black in the Union Jack."
5. Ruby Karinto: s/t (HoZac)
This Victoria, BC (Canada) quartet's debut LP is a No Wave/electronica/psych hybrid that actually lives up to the oft-used but rarely accurate phrase "sounds like nothing else." (That said, this 25-minute record includes a cover of Section 25's "Always Now," though it is rather different from the original.) Synthesizer bleeps and whooshes and dissonant keyboard chords abound, but simple drumbeats and angular bass lines keep things danceable in a Sprockets kind of way. Japanese vocalist Ai recites, bleets, expostulates, etc. over it all, sometimes in English, other times in Japanese. I'm glad it's on vinyl because I'm going to deejay the heck out of this whenever the crowd starts looking too comfortable. (BT)
6. Aorlhac: L'esprit des vents (Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions)
Why do I like French black metal so much more than other black metal? Perhaps because it is sonically cleaner; perhaps it carries less cultural baggage; perhaps it has better riffs. Anyway, there is a whole Occitan concept behind the series of albums of which this is the third, but I don't understand a damn word (and since it's got black metal vocals, it's not a language barrier), though when the bagpipe bit kicks in on "Infame Saurimonde," that is a universal language. Mostly I enjoy the classic combination of power drums and tensile guitar riffs.
7. Ezra Feinberg: Pentimento and Others (Stimulus Progression)
This co-founder of Citay goes ambient instrumental on his first solo album, with lots of guitar patterns (possibly loops at times) and electronic treatments but also tastefully deployed Fender Rhodes keyboard by himself and fellow Citay co-founder/Fucking Champs member Tim Green. Keenly balancing repetition and development, soothing and stimulating, the seven tracks here cross several subgenres. The label above is for the cassette tape; Discogs shows there's also vinyl on Related States.
8. Buffalo Tom: Quiet and Peace (Schoolkids)
It may not be fair to call this a comeback, given that this band has stayed active (with the same three members) and never made a bad album. Yet by virtue of the group's best sound this decade, thanks to production by David Minehan and mixing by the legendary John Agnello, frequently the effect is a triumphant return to the full-bodied tone of their glory days -- and it is their first album since 2011. Though the basics of their arranging and songwriting largely unchanged, there are a few new developments -- female harmony vocals -- including from main lead singer Tom Janovitz's daughter -- and there is a cover song (!), an effective reimagining of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York" (which is where Lucy Janovitz can be heard). So yes, it's a comeback, and a successful and welcome one. (BT)
9. Michelle Malone: Slings & Arrows (SBS)
This veteran Americana rocker wields her slide guitar like a deadly weapon and her gritty voice with expressive agility (and she also plays harmonica, mandolin, and acoustic guitar). It's not easy to work in this style and not sound like some roadhouse cliché, but after 15 studio albums she still sounds only like herself, rawer and realer than ever (I was going to compare "Sugar on My Tongue" to the Rolling Stones because the riff recalls "Beast of Burden," but the Stones haven't written anything this good in decades). Her words are not fancy, but neither are they hackneyed, least of all on "Love Yourself," which is more a plea for tolerance and unity than the new-agey advice the title suggests. If you have any affinity for this style, you have to hear this. (BT)
10. Jesse Ainslie: Only in the Dark (Epifo)
The Castanets/Phosphorescent/Virgin Forest guitarist decamped to California and finally made his solo debut album, which shows him to also be an excellent songwriter with a riveting voice (the latter being something Brooklynites witnessed, pre-move, in sadly undocumented local ensemble Friends Band). The gruffness of his singing fits perfectly with the '70s-centric production and arranging, making for a classic sound that never falters its timeless appeal. In both music and lyrics, he's operating on a less-is-more aesthetic; the words in particular have subtle depths in their plainspoken way, with simple sentiments made poignant via his aching delivery and his profound knowledge of folk and rock tradition (which can be heard more directly on his three-song 2018 EP City of Sorrow, which includes covers of "Rambling Man" and "Black Is the Color").
11. Kamaal Williams: The Return (Black Focus)
After the split of Yussef Kamaal, Williams continues in much the same vein (imagine a British Flying Lotus), mixing modern beats (which I'm too unhip to know the exact genre names of) with funk bass and jazz-influenced improvisation. The results are simultaneously danceable and mood-creating instrumentals that suggest what Herbie Hancock might be doing now if he were still interested in moving forward.
12. Arkhtinn: VI (Fallen Empire)
The metal/ambient intersection has been a thing for over a decade, but rarely is it as explicitly presented as it is on this cassette/download release: one side (a single, though definitely sectional, 20:47 track) of unbridled black metal presented as a wall of sound in which the vocals function as another instrument amid the forcebeats and power strums, and the flip side (also one track, 21:39) of much quieter and beatless yet equally intense ambience.
Best Live Band: Garcia Peoples
Their release this year, Cosmic Cash (Beyond Beyond Is Beyond), might be here if I'd done a longer list, but pales beside their exuberant concert performances. Their name makes them seem like a Grateful Dead tribute, but there are other '70s influences in their sound, not least the Allman Brothers Band. Nor are their reference points all that obvious; their ripping set at Union Pool in December included an Agitation Free cover.
Most Insanely Ambitious Album
Fucked Up: Dose Your Dreams (Merge)
I think we can stop referring to Fucked Up as "hardcore" at this point, no matter how much it sounds like Damian Abraham's throat is trying to commit suicide. This is a psychedelic concept album/rock opera that ropes in saxophone, string arrangements, a variety of rock styles, and a passel of guest vocalists offering a break from Abraham's raspy screaming -- though often, listening to the smoother voices, I immediately miss the rough texture of his. I can't summarize this album's plotline, but it seems like somebody's been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick. And yet, what carries this album, and will make me listen to it again, are the intricate yet epic sonic constructions that overshadow the story with their sheer unpredictability but compelling musicality.
Best Archival Release
Prince: Piano & a Microphone 1983 (NPG/Warner Bros.)
Yeah it's just demos, and not even band demos. But the man immediately sets up a groove on "17 Days" with just his piano and his tapping foot that's as funky as anything that got released this year. This is the master in his workshop, and we are privileged to be able to eavesdrop. Plus songs we never before got to hear him sing (unless your bootleg collection is really good), not least Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You, albeit not all the way through as he free-associates through a medley.
My jazz list will follow tomorrow.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer who also runs the ESP-Disk' record label. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.