Making a list of any year’s most memorable recordings is about as quixotic a venture as any you might want to undertake. There’s the simple fact that no one ever will hear all the recordings that come out in a calendar year, not even all of the “significant” ones. Sure, if you’re a full-time classical-music or jazz specialist, you might come close to surveying many or most of the critically cited albums in a given calendar year… but so what? Is consensus what we’re after? Isn’t discovery more important, more useful, more compelling?
If you’re inclined to venture outside of some specific small slice of musical territory… well, forget about it.
Last year I made two relatively straightfoward lists: “Classical Music” and “Other Music.” Each list included 10 picks and as many runners up. This year, well… that didn’t cut it. For starters, I couldn’t even make myself rank living composers against those who’ve crossed the rainbow bridge; it felt absurd to stack Éliane Radigue or Jennifer Walshe up against Florence Price—or, you know, Beethoven. I also thought long and hard about what projects genuinely warranted consideration, favoring thoughtful, labor-of-love physical productions—vehicles for artistic expression in their own right, somehow, rather than mundane documents.
I wasn’t happy mixing jazz-oriented releases with pop and rock and whatnot this time—nor could I find a good term that encompassed all those idioms I just mentioned. And, unlike last year, I felt compelled to survey reissues and archival recordings anew. There were a lot of excellent offerings in 2019, many of which did not involve Bob Dylan or John Coltrane.
So: five categories: Contemporary Concert Music; Canonical Concert Music; Jazz and Improvisational Music; Pop, Rock, Hip Hip, etc.; and Reissues and Archival Recordings. Exactly 10 titles in each category, with one cited as a No. 1 pick and the rest listed alphabetically. (A second post of additional noteworthy recordings almost certainly will follow.)
My labels of the year for 2019 – some of which are cited with individual entries here; others of which are not – are Another Timbre, Astral Spirits, Elsewhere, New Focus, and Pi Recordings. Each is a wisely curated imprint that consistently releases a wide variety of fascinating projects; follow their work and you’ll never be bored. Edition Wandelweiser had an outstanding year, and the dozen new CDs the label released in December, as yet unheard, are eagerly anticipated.
A final note: I’ve linked wherever possible to a Bandcamp page, which usually will allow you to hear the music I’ve cited. In some cases, a link leads to a label site, or an artist’s own page. In a few instances the link goes to Amazon: such links, where used, do not imply endorsement of that particular vendor.
All of which, let’s spin…
Contemporary concert music
☆ Anthony Braxton – GTM (Syntax) 2017 – Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble (New Braxton House)
In a year filled with brilliant, engaging recordings – not least the ones by Nathalie Joachim and Éliane Radigue listed below, which otherwise would have fought it out for the top spot here – one project stood alone. This beautifully produced, thoughtfully presented compendium of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music compositions for vocal ensemble, brilliantly performed by a consort assembled expressly for the task, is an audacious milestone. The collection treats these idiosyncratic and often outright zany pieces with the dignity and respect their creator deserves.
John Luther Adams – Become Desert – Seattle Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot (Cantaloupe Music)
John Croft – Seirēnes – Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Diego Castro Magaš, Alice Purton, Séverine Ballon, Marij van Gorkom (First Hand)
Sarah Hennies – Reservoir 1: Preservation – Phillip Bush, Meridian (Black Truffle)
Nathalie Joachim – Fanm d’Ayiti – Spektral Quartet (New Amsterdam)
Catherine Lamb – Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque – Ensemble Dedalus (New World)
Michael Pisaro – Nature Denatured and Found Again – Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Marcus Kaiser, Radu Malfatti, André Möller, Kathryn Gleasman Pisaro (Gravity Wave)
Igor Levit anticipated the Beethoven birthday bash on the near horizon with a scintillating cycle of the composer’s complete sonatas, Florence Price was honored with a crucial recording from the state of her birth, and both Robert Palmer and James Tenney found expressive champions. But this imposing five-CD collection of piano works by Morton Feldman mandates special notice: not only because it includes pieces never recorded previously, but also because the patient poetry of Philip Thomas’s playing is enhanced by an exemplary recording. The ethereal magic in this music has never been captured more ideally.
Ludwig van Beethoven – The Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Johannes Ockeghem – Complete Songs, Vol. 1 (Blue Heron)
Robert Palmer – Piano Music – Adam Tendler (New World)
Florence Price – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 – Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter (Naxos)
James Tenney – Changes – 64 Studies for 6 Harps – Alison Bjorkedal, Ellie Choate, Elizabeth Huston, Catherine Litaker, Amy Shulman, Ruriko Terada, Nicholas Deyoe (New World)
Mieczysław Weinberg – Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 – Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (Deutsche Grammophon)
Jazz and improvisational music
☆ Art Ensemble of Chicago – We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi Recordings)
“Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future”—the longtime slogan of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which in recent seasons has celebrated its 50th anniversary, came alive on this vibrant two-CD release. One disc of this Janus-like collection features polished studio recordings; the other highlights exuberant live performances. Throughout, the band’s surviving members, Roscoe Mitchell and Famadou Don Moye, are joined by a phalanx of guests (including Moor Mother and Tomeka Reid, whose own new releases appear elsewhere in this year-end survey), illustrating how the Art Ensemble’s stylistic wanderlust set the stage for so much of what’s happening in jazz and improvised music today.
It’s evident at a glance that this caption was more personal and idiosyncratic than the rest, a heavy rotation dominated principally by personal taste. (How might one go about comparing Caterina Barbieri, Little SIMZ, and Tomb Mold, anyway?) Pressed to name the one album to which I turned more than any other this year entirely for pleasure and uplift, I’ll plug Chris Forsyth’s All Time Present, a clutch of evolved guitar-hero music featuring a band as steady as a heartbeat and as flexible as breath, playing tunes that carve out common ground among Lou Reed, Richard Lloyd, Rhys Chatham, Manuel Göttsching, and more.
☆ Toshiya Tsunoda – Extract from Field Recording Archive (Erstwhile)
A matchless aural observer whose work is meant to depict (his own term) the presence and persistence of vibrations in their natural settings, Toshiya Tsunoda revisits his past literally in this set, the first-ever archival release from the restless Erstwhile label. The first three CDs in this characteristically beautiful box replicate three early albums of field-recording studies issued from 1997 to 2001, sometimes with extended takes from the original digital tapes. A fourth disc presents unreleased material from the same time period; on the fifth, Tsunoda literally revisits locations where he’d previously recorded, searching for a continuity that might elude all but the most attentive ear.
Various artists – Black Composers Series 1974-1978 – various soloists, ensembles, and orchestras/Paul Freeman (Sony Classical)
Steve Smith is director of publications at National Sawdust, and editor and lead writer for National Sawdust Log. He contributes regularly to The New Yorker, previously worked as a freelance reviewer for The New York Times, and was an editor at the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
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