I don’t mind making year-end lists, and in some cases I even enjoy reading them—but anybody who bothers arguing about them is a fool. It’s impossible to hear everything released in a year, and the “consensus” picks—the albums that show up on list after list—say more about how widely available and heavily promoted a piece of music is than they do about its quality. On the day I wrote this, the ten records below stood out in my mind as the best of 2010. Ask me to choose again in a week, though, and I might come up with a different list.
10. Seu Jorge and Almaz Seu Jorge and Almaz (Now-Again/Stones Throw) A lot of people first heard Brazilian singer Seu Jorge thanks to his David Bowie homage in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but even at the time I thought it was the least interesting thing he’d done—so I certainly didn’t expect this spontaneously recorded collection of covers to be the highlight of his career. Jorge and Almaz (a nimble trio featuring two members of Nacao Zumbi) reinterpret Brazilian classics by stars like Jorge Ben, Tim Maia, and Martinho da Vila, familiar English-language tunes from Kraftwerk, Roy Ayers, and Michael Jackson, and a heavy obscurity from a group called Tribo Massahi. The scrappy band borrows from dub, psychedelia, and rock to inject its loose, suave arrangements—whether of sambas, bossa novas, or R&B hits—with electric vitality.
9. Koboku Senju Selektiv Hogst (Sofa) This year my favorite album of free improvisation is by Japanese-Norwegian quintet Koboku Senju, which consists of Tetuzi Akiyama (guitar), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board), Eivind Lonning (trumpet), Espen Reinertsen (saxophone and flute), and Martin Taxt (tuba). The familar vocabularies of the horns and guitar are nowhere in evidence, and the music trafficks in no identifiable genre—even the pieces that sprang from prompts like “death metal” or “funeral march” called out by band members sound nothing like those styles. Koboku Senju makes its own road, finding a calm through-line across the turbulence it creates and lending an austere and meditative beauty to a profusion of details and textures that easily could’ve been dizzying. It’s useless to try to identify foreground and background; the pleasure comes from how the parts fit together and morph en masse.
8. Ideal Bread Transmit: Vol. 2 of the Music of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform) Though soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was one of the first jazz musicians to launch a repertory band—in the early 60s he played the music of Thelonious Monk with School Days—he’s hardly an easy subject for such a group. (Of course, the same thing could be said of Monk.) Lacy’s exploratory aesthetic and dry, austere tone—a huge departure from the soprano’s usual sweet sound—are so inextricably linked with his material that it’s hard to do anything that doesn’t sound either imitative or disrespectful. But Ideal Bread—baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—have done Lacy proud again. Whether synthesizing ideas from several different Lacy arrangements of the same tune or extrapolating solos from sections of the written score, they play the master’s music with a thoughtful, focused rigor that’s on par with his.
7. Atomic Theater Tilters Vols. 1 and 2 (Jazzland) This Scandinavian quintet seems to turn up in my top ten every time it makes a record. Atomic has evolved constantly since forming in 1999, and over the past few years they’ve pushed their bold postbop toward a much more open and spontaneous sound—making their music more exciting and challenging without losing a bit of its satisfying soulfulness. I’m cheating a little here, as these excellent 2009 live recordings are spread across two releases, but either one would’ve made my list alone.
6. Khaira Arby Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music) Malian singer Khaira Arby, a major figure in her homeland for more than a decade, released her first U.S. album this year and followed up with a stateside tour that included two knockout performances at Chicago’s World Music Festival. Ali Farka Toure was one of her cousins, and the kind of spindly, cyclical guitar licks he made famous turn up all over Timbuktu Tarab, interwoven with terse n’goni and fiddle parts; the music also has affinities with the so-called desert rock of bands like Tinariwen. What sets it apart is Arby’s searing, powerful voice, ironclad pitch control, and regal bearing. This is not only the best African record I heard in 2010 but one of the best I’ve heard in many years.
5. Marc Ribot Silent Movies (Pi) For this gorgeous solo album, mercurial guitarist Marc Ribot recorded music he’s scored for films both real and imaginary, abetted on a few tracks by subtle atmospheric noise from Keefus Ciancia (credited with “soundscapes” on the sleeve). As much as I’ve enjoyed the recent outpouring of technically dazzling fingerstyle guitar records, I like the rough-edged power of these electric-guitar pieces even more—they favor raw emotion and dark, harrowing beauty over hypnotizing intricacy. With his off-kilter style and jarring stabs of dissonance, Ribot has always been great at ugliness, but he’s never made it sound as graceful and vulnerable as he does here.
4. John McNeil and Bill McHenry Chill Morn He Climb Jenny (Sunnyside) On their second album together, trumpeter John McNeil and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry carry on their convincing reappraisal of the “cool” west-coast jazz of the 1950s. Prodded by the spiky swing of drummer Jochen Rueckert and bassist Joe Martin, they resurrect tunes by overlooked pianist Russ Freeman and bring subversive humor to 40s pop tunes like “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Aren’t You Glad You’re You.” The classic west-coast sound isn’t particularly aggressive, but it’d be a mistake to write it off as lightweight or insubstantial because of that—and McNeil and McHenry demonstrate exactly why, bringing a stunning rapport to the exhilarating multilinear improvisations typical of the style.
3. Alasdair Roberts & Friends Too Long in This Condition (Drag City) Alasdair Roberts started his musical career in the mid-90s as leader of the Will Oldham-worshipping Appendix Out, but since then he’s committed himself to Scottish folk. On this powerful album, which consists of nine traditional tunes and one original instrumental, he brings contemporary vitality, parched soul, and spontaneous, unmannered beauty to his interpretations, distinguishing himself from just about everyone else I’ve heard sing this repertoire. He’s joined by a stellar support cast, including English folk singer Emily Portman on concertina and backing vocals and Trembling Bells guitarist Ben Reynolds on lap steel.
2. Parker/Guy/Lytton + Peter Evans Scenes in the House of Music (Clean Feed)
The trio of reedist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy, and percussionist Paul Lytton is a paragon of European free improvisation, carrying on the first-wave style of brutally intense radical abstraction. Every member has a profoundly individual vocabulary, deployed in the service of rigorous full-ensemble interaction—no soloing over changes here—and the group’s energy and inventiveness haven’t flagged after nearly 30 years. It’s a testament to the wizardry of young trumpeter Peter Evans that he can step into this lineup of titans and improve it—his sensitivity and musicality place him in the uppermost rank among improvisers the world over.
1. Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note)
Pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits have played together as the Bandwagon for a decade, and the title of the trio’s latest album, Ten, is a tip of the hat to that fact. They’ve been one of the best bands in jazz for that entire stretch in part because of the allegiance the rhythm section shows Moran, which results in a rare kind of ensemble drive. Ten complements Moran’s sturdy, consistently surprising originals with pieces by fellow iconoclasts Thelonious Monk, Conlon Nancarrow, Leonard Bernstein, and Jaki Byard, but despite the pianist’s dominant role in determining the group’s repertoire, its roiling, cohesive performances are never less than collective creations.