Rhapsody Streamnotes: December 31, 2014

This wraps up the year 2015. Last year I resolved to spend less time on music and more on writing my book projects, and I've pretty much been a complete failure on that. I did manage to cut some ties with music publicists, and my incoming mail is certainly down. But this year's grades list still lists 1045 records. Compared against previous years' "frozen" files -- i.e., copies saved off at roughly the end of the year -- that is the shortest since 2008 and second-shortest since 2005. Sure, the file is down about 100 lines compared to 2013, about 50 lines compared to 2012. Still, that represents a lot of records, and a lot of time.

I've tried to do several things here: to clean out my own unplayed queue, to listen to the handful of good prospects that only came out in December, and to check out some of the more interesting things on other people's EOY lists. I've depended more and more on streaming services like Rhapsody to have any chance whatsoever to cover a broad range of more/less popular music. Aside from pretty much completely ignoring metal, I feel like I've done a fairly good job of that. Checking against this year's metacritic file (limited to EOY lists, I've heard 41 of the top 50 (and less impressively 71 of the top 100). Unheard thus far:

  1. Taylor Swift: 1989 (Big Machine)
  2. Ty Segall: Manipulator (Drag City)
  3. Scott Walker + Sunn O))): Soused (4AD)
  4. Goat: Commune (Sub Pop)
  5. Royal Blood: Royal Blood (Warner Bros)
  6. Ariel Pink: Pom Pom (4AD)
  7. Alt-J: This Is All Yours (Canvasback/Infectious Music)
  8. Andy Stott: Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
  9. Warpaint: Warpaint (Rough Trade)
  10. The Black Keys: Turn Blue (Nonesuch)
  11. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold (Columbia)
  12. Owen Pallett: In Conflict (Domino)
  13. Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters: Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar (EastWest)
  14. Mogwai: Rave Tapes (Sub Pop)
  15. Interpol: El Pintor (Matador)
  16. YOB: Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)
  17. Mastodon: Once More 'Round the Sun (Reprise)
  18. Shellac: Dude Incredible (Touch & Go)
  19. Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
  20. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art)
  21. Liars: Mess (Mute)
  22. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
  23. A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos (Kranky)
  24. Behemoth: The Satanist (Metal Blade)
  25. Morrissey: World Peace Is None of Your Business (Harvest)
  26. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks)
  27. Hozier: Hozier (Island)
  28. Iceage: Plowing Into the Field of Love (Matador)

There are a few items on the unheard list that I looked for but didn't find (Swift, Segall, Plant, Shellac, Stott, Williams), but most are records I have little personal hope for -- judging from reviews and/or experience. I don't have time to sort through the data again, but in the past there has been virtually no correlation between list placement and my grades. One little spot check here: of 970 new records I have graded, 94 are B, for 9.6%; of the 71 top-100 records I've graded, 10 are B, for 14.0%; I have 44 B- grades (4.5% of all graded), including 6 in the top 100, for 8.4%. That suggests that bad records are if anything more likely to appear in the top 100.

At the other end, I've rated 142 records A- or A this year -- probably an all-time record -- for 14.2% of my rated total. I have 10 of the top-100 at A- or A, an almost identical 14.0%. These numbers don't disprove the hypothesis that there's no correlation between quality (in my view) and list placement. The discrepancy on lower grades is probably because I'm more likely to listen to bad records on the list than off -- something that should be clear from the declining numbers of lesser grades on my list (94 B, 44 B-, 8 C+, 3 C -- a random sampling of available records should produce relatively constant numbers in each of those grades; although it could also be that I'm just not a very tough grader in that range).

No resolutions for 2015, although it is likely that I will cut back on music reviews, and possibly much else.

By the way, for another analysis of year-end list data, see Rob Mitchum: The Rock-Critic Hive Mind. He's able to draw out some basic points from a spreadsheet of 35 lists -- presumably you can download his spreadsheet and play with it (although personally I've never found spreadsheets to be all that useful; by the way, you can download my data files -- new albums, reissues/comps, legend -- and write some fairly trivial awk or perl or whatever to hack them into your favorite database or spreadsheet format). My own data is a good deal broader and deeper (his 35 lists refer to about 600 albums; my 200+ refer to about 3000 albums), although if you're only interested in the top of the lists that may not matter. I do get some slightly different results; e.g., a larger lead for FKA Twigs and much less suggestion of a UK-bias.

I've written several comments along these lines already, but will recap a bit here. My prediction is that the Pazz & Jop winner will be Run the Jewels 2, followed by St. Vincent, FKA Twigs' LP1, and War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream -- although the order of those four is actually pretty uncertain. Aphex Twin's Syro and Flying Lotus' You're Dead are certain to finish top 10 and either could break into the top-four. D'Angelo's Black Messiah is a very late-breaking entrant (release date 10 days before P&J ballot deadline). It's a good record (see below), and has received a lot of very favorable review attention very quickly, so it's clearly Mitchum's "December surprise" -- combine that with relatively soft support for the big four and the example of Beyoncé's surprise 4th place finish last year and you get a lot of wishful thinking that Black Messiah might be the upset winner. I have to say there is little chance of that, although I'd put odds of a top-five finish at about 15% and a top-ten at about 40%. The other records with an outside chance of some sort of upset are Taylor Swift's 1989 and Miranda Lambert's Platinum -- the former (unheard by me) has broader support but maybe no stronger than Lana Del Rey, the latter more intense support among a smaller sample -- and P&J became more "female friendly" during Maura Johnston's reign (though I was never able to prove she stacked the voter list).

Closer to home, Odyshape is running a poll for Robert Christgau's Expert Witness readers (ballot deadline midnight tonight). Overwhelming favorite there is Wussy's Attica!, which has a better than 50% chance of cracking P&J top-40 only because about a dozen critics overlap both polls. I ran a similar poll in 2002 and 2003, the former won by Sleater-Kinney (5th that year in P&J), the latter by Buck 65 (not in the P&J's top-40) -- so I have an idea how far Christgau's followers have diverged from the rest of criticdom. Still, usually in the past there have been a couple albums that bridged the gap -- Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, like that. This year I think the highest ranked (by my EOY list file, up to 150) albums that Christgau has graded A- or higher are:

  1. Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Warner Bros)
  2. Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)
  3. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?)
  4. Miranda Lambert: Platinum (RCA Nashville)
  5. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (Matador)
  6. Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class (Saddle Creek)

That's not a lot of common ground -- offhand, looks like the least amount of convergence between Christgau's A-list and P&J top-40 ever (although it's probably too early to tell: Christgau got a late start with Expert Witness this year and has more A-list records not yet published). Some spreadsheet wizard should work out a formula for comparing the two sets of lists and plot them out over time. I suspect the long-term trend slope would be divergent, probably since the early 1980s, but I'll leave that task to someone else. What it looks like to me is that critics who are satisfied with many of the EOY consensus picks are just lazy: for every War on Drugs, FKA Twigs, Caribou, Beck, Sharon Van Etten, etc., it shouldn't be hard to find a matching group that is more obscure but every bit as worthy -- especially if you follow the fringes and turn over a thousand or so albums along the way.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on December 11. Past reviews and more information are available here (5778 records).

New Releases (More or Less)

Yemi Alade: King of Queens (2014, Effyzzie Music Group): Singer from Nigeria, won one of those talent shows in 2009 and landed a record contract, and now this long debut album. Mixed bag, some African grooves and choruses, but other parts try to fit snugly into the western neo-soul mold, including the occasional nod toward hip-hop. Worthy single: "Tangerine." B+(**)

Melissa Aldana: Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (2014, Concord Jazz): Young tenor saxophonist from Chile, leads a trio with Chilean bassist Pablo Menares and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela. B+(*)

Alvvays: Alvvays (2014, Polyvinyl): Not the only band that's discovered the cute typographic trick of replacing "w" with "vv," but probably the best known one: an alt-rock group from Toronto which gets pop kudos for their female singer (Molly Rankin) and a good deal of jangle mixed in with the guitars. B+(*)

Arca: Xen (2014, Mute): Alejandro Ghersi, from Venezuela, first LP after various EPs and mixes. Fairly glossy electronics, but that's just one facet of a fairly broad dramatic spectrum. B

Banks: Goddess (2014, Harvest): Singer-songwriter Jillian Banks, from California. Album gets slotted as soul but she doesn't have that post-Aretha diva complex, just a preference for slow songs, which she keeps simple enough they have an interesting charm. B+(**)

Battle Trance: Palace of Wind (2014, New Amsterdam): Sax quartet, just the four of them, with Travis Laplante the leader, plus Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner -- pretty sure they all play tenor, so this isn't an exercise in Hemphillian harmony. It's more like an attempt to amplify the distinctive sound of circular breathing into something deeply trance-like. B+(**)

Rubén Blades: Tangos (2010 [2014], Sunnyside): Back in the 1980s he seemed like a good bet to take the world by storm -- he was even touted as a future president of his native Panama -- but his acting career settled into character parts, his Elektra contract gave way to Sony Discos, and when the elder George Bush deposed Panama's long-time dictator (former CIA stooge Manuel Noriega) Bush looked elsewhere for a new Quisling. So much later the phenom hangs on crooning classic tangos, backed by the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra. B

Michael Blake: Tiddy Boom (2014, Sunnyside): Tenor saxophonist, joined the Lounge Lizards after their prime in 1991, started recording his own projects in 1997. Quartet with Frank Kimbrough (piano), Ben Allison (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums). Very much a sax player's album -- all original material includes titles like "Hawk's Last Rumba" and "Good Day for Pres." A-

Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions (2014, Capitol): Twenty-some years after What's the 411?, I've never been much of a fan but have to admit she's developed into a seasoned pro, as consistent as anyone needs to be. And offhand I'd say this is a tad above her norm, not so much because the guest Brits help as she's pro enough to overcome them. B+(***)

Dean Blunt: Black Metal (2014, Rough Trade): Roy Nnawuchi, from London, previously recorded as Hype Williams, moves from dance beats to darker and more dramatic gestures. B+(*)

Fiorenzo Bodrato: Travelling Without Moving (2012 [2014], CMC): Italian bassist, from Turin, website shows five records but not this one. Spoken word vocals, including poems from Borges and Dryden, and something original by Ciro Buttari, impress like hip-hop, while the instrumental wind-down is rather sublime. B+(***) [cd]

Benjamin Booker: Benjamin Booker (2014, ATO): Rookie singer-songwriter from Florida, gets classified as blues (no doubt) because he's black but he's such a straight-up rocker he cites Jack White as his main influence. Actually, fuzzier and crankier. B+(***)

Patrick Breiner Double Double: Mileage (2013 [2014], Sulde): Tenor saxophonist, also appears as Vartan Mamigonian and plays in Battle Trance. Quartet with drums and two basses. Rough and scratchy, but sometimes the energy level lifts it up. B+(*) [bc]

Peter Brötzmann/John Edwards/Steve Noble: Soul Food Available (2013 [2014], Clean Feed): Avant-sax trio, part of the label's "live in Ljubljana" concession, may seem like old hat given that Brötzmann has been bringing the same noise for nearly fifty years, but he's not as harsh as way back when, and the rhythm section is tuned in. B+(***) [cd]

Malonie Carre: Forever (2014, self-released): Singer-songwriter, eight originals plus two jazz standards. B [cd]

Charli XCX: Sucker (2014, Atlantic): Second album, big beat dance pop with postpunk sneer and swagger. The song that cinched it for me was "London Queen," where she comes to America because it's the only country big enough for her, even though she can't quite believe it. And no, it's not because I'm flattered by the portrait. It's the perfect flipside to "I'm So Bored With the USA." A-

Jimmy Cobb: The Original Mob (2014, Smoke Sessions): Drummer, b. 1929, side credits start around 1956 with Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and the list only grows from there. Hornless quartet, with guitarist Peter Bernstein taking most of the leads, pianist Brad Mehldau comping and knocking off his own impressive solos. B+(***)

Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin (2013 [2014], Columbia, 3CD): Recorded five years after his career-redefining Live in London, the bait here is more -- three discs instead of two, plus a DVD for those who feel they have to watch music. (I'm not one, but would probably check it out if I had a copy.) His intervening album was a good one but had little impact on the songbook. The pace may be a bit more subdued but it's basically the same concert -- he's in fairly good voice, his use of backup singers remains masterful, he runs a masterful band, and he's a most gracious impressario. I'd grade it higher if it weren't so redundant. A-

J Cole: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014, RCA): Third album, title refers to address of Cole's childhood home in NC, lots of free association on where he came from and where he's going -- the beats quasi-underground, the stories real life, way too much N-word for my taste. I do approve of the lecture on copyright law (including the aside on Ferguson). B+(***)

Ian William Craig: A Turn of Breath (2014, Recital): Trained as an opera singer, Craig builds fairly abstract pieces out of voice samples and tape loops. B+(*)

D'Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah (2014, RCA): Not what you'd call prolific -- a well-received debut album in 1995, a near-classic follow-up in 2000, and now this. Aside from an exhortation about "the Jesus of the Bible" the words melt into the fractured funk grooves, which could just as well do without them (though maybe the voices should stay). Oblique and mysterious. A-

Jeff Davis: Dragon Father (2013 [2014], Fresh Sound New Talent): Drummer-led conventional postbop quintet, with Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Oscar Noriega (alto sax, clarinets), Russ Lossing (piano), and Eivind Opsvik (bass). All Davis originals, lead from the rear, but what really kicks the rhythm up is Lossing's frenetic comping -- he pretty much steals the show. B+(***)

Duduvudu: The Gospel According to Dudu Pukwana (2009 [2014], Edgetone): Dudu Pukwana (1938-90) was an alto saxophonist from South Africa, played with Chris McGregor's integrated Blue Notes before and after exile. Straddling avant-jazz and South African folk/pop, he sometimes fell down on either side, but his 1973 album In the Townships (reissued on Earthworks in 1990) is the jazz take of township jive -- a great album and a longtime personal favorite. I'm having trouble sorting out the credits, and only the initial November 2009 date is given. As far as I can tell, there were at least three sessions (one in London and two in California) with little overlap and no clear idea who's driving the project -- the only names I recognize are Harry Beckett (the late trumpet player, from Trinidad but loosely associated with Pukwana), Pierre Dřrge (guitarist-bandleader, a protege of Blue Notes bassist Johnny Dyani), and Wayne Wallace (Bay Area trombonist). Still, the music fits and flows, the waves of township jive larger than ever. A [cd]

Donald Edwards: Evolution of an Influenced Mind (2013 [2014], Criss Cross): Drummer, second album after one in 1998, leads quintet with a voluble Walter Smith III on tenor sax, both guitar (David Gilmore) and piano (Orrin Evans), and Eric Revis on bass. B+(**)

Chet Faker: Built on Glass (2014, Downtown): From Australia, singer-songwriter/electronica producer Nick Murphy (aka Atlas Murphy), pays tribute to Chet Baker's vocal style without in any significant way capturing it. Still, an improvement over Beck's latest, partly because it doesn't seem so pat. B+(**)

Kevin Gates: By Any Means (2014, Bread Winners Association): Rapper from Baton Rouge, has been prolific lately with mixtapes that play like albums, albums like mixtapes, and a side of crime fiction named for Luca Brasi. This is his most official LP, as oblique as any. B+(**)

Ghostface Killah: 36 Seasons (2014, Tommy Boy): A story teller, always a problem for me -- I don't follow these things well, and I'm not even a fan of the art, not sure I can tell a good one from a bad one. This one seems to pivot on "It's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate," where he finds the cost of mistreating his woman is her dumping him in a hospital bandaged from head to toe. That starts a stretch where the more pedestrian things I judge hip-hop on -- strong beats and sharp turns of phrase -- snap together. Then the Revelations return. B+(***)

Brantley Gilbert: Just as I Am (2014, Valory): Like a gecko, determined to pump up his sound to make him look like a bigger Nashville star than he is. Live, you might be swept away with the energy without realizing how rote the riffing is. B-

Sax Gordon: In the Wee Small Hours (2013 [2014], Delmark): Tenor saxophonist Gordon Beadle -- side credits go back to 1990 and are mostly with bluesmen (Champion Jack Dupree, Jimmy McCracklin, Smokin' Joe Kubek) -- backed with organ and drums. Goes more for ballads than honk this time, and doesn't have a world-class ballad tone -- back cover suggests Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, and Willis Jackson, and he falls way short, especially of the first two. Still, this hits my sweet spot. B+(**) [cd]

Grouper: Ruins (2014, Kranky): Liz Harris used to use electronics to create her ambient murk, but this time strips down to one-note piano figures and whispered vocals -- at least until the 11:24 closer, a shimmering mirage. B+(**)

Hard Working Americans: The First Waltz (2014, Melvin): As near as I can tell, the only real talent here is Todd Snider, so I suppose you can credit modesty (or even comradeship) for how he blends into the background -- all the more so on this live sequel to the group's eponymous debut album. B+(*)

Hildegard Lernt Fliegen: The Fundamental Rhythm of Unpolished Brains (2013 [2014], Yellowbird): Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer's project, introduced with an eponymous 2007 album. The group, with three horns (primarily alto sax, baritone sax, and trombone, although all play other horns and recorders) and guests on banjo and bandoneon, forces lots of contortions, while Schaerer navigates them artfully. B+(*) [bc]

Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers (2014, Merge): Singer-songwriter Michael Taylor, from North Carolina, starts singing much like Dylan but tones it down over the album. Pleasant enough, but didn't notice many words -- I assume they're unimportant, as I most often noticed Dylan's. B+(*)

Sam Hunt: Montevalo (2014, MCA Nashville): Nashville rookie, writes at least a share of his songs, sounds like he's trying to sneak in behind Luke Bryan at the party, probably because he's not naughty (or dumb) enough to break down the door. Jotted two sample lines down: "I fell in love in the back of a cop car" (he likes bad girls); "I just want your ecstasy" (that's why he likes them). B

I Love Makonnen: I Love Makonnen (2014, OVO Sound, EP): Makonnen Sheran, first impression is that he's Atlanta's answer to Das Racist with his offhand, loosely disjointed sound. Seven cuts, 28:28, with Drake guesting on a breakout single ("Tuesdays"). B+(*)

ICP Orchestra: East of the Sun (2014, ICP): Initials stand for Instant Composer's Pool, a Dutch avant large band -- usually around ten pieces -- that dates back to 1967, led since its founding by pianist Misha Mengelberg, although I see that the piano credit here goes to Guus Janssen (Mengelberg, who is getting close to 80, has five composition credits here, to one each for Janssen, Ab Baars, and Michael Moore). Some very fine stretches here, especially the rousing "Moten Swing," but also more rough patches than I like -- even understanding their knack for turning chaos into beauty. B+(**) [dl]

Anthony Jefferson: But Beautiful (2014, self-released): Standards singer, from New Orleans, has a rich and subtle voice that eases through troublesome songs like "Lush Life" and "Black Coffee," romps over "My Favorite Things," hits an eloquent note on "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans." B+(**) [cd]

Paul Jones: Short History (2014, Blujazz): Tenor saxophonist, graduated from MSM and this seems to be his first album. Sextet, with an alto sax, both guitar and piano, bass and drums. Postbop, like they teach you, and livelier than you'd expect. B+(**) [cd]

Jungle: Jungle (2014, XL): Sort of a British Earth Wind & Fire, if I may be excused to use stereotypes to plot out limits -- the falsettos less fluid, the beats a bit grimey, none of the expansive sweep of huge pop hits. Still, not a bad formula. B+(**)

Oliver Lake Organ Quartet: What I Heard (2013 [2014], Passin' Thru): Alto saxophonist, with Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Jared Gold on organ, and Chris Beck on drums. Lake is often terrific, and Gold shows promise in setting him up, but this slips up a bit. B+(**)

Link of Chain: A Songwriters' Tribute to Chris Smither (2011 [2014], Signature Sounds): Smither is a singer-songwriter, folkie division, turning 70 this year, with a steady stream of albums since 1970, a large cache of songs that fuel this tribute. Unfortunate, the songs aren't all that memorable, nor are most of the songwriters. B+(**)

Loscil: Sea Island (2014, Kranky): Scott Morgan, from Canada, has ten albums since 2001, this one (at least) mild ambient electronics, with perhaps a gentle sea breeze. B+(*)

Colette Michaan: Incarnate/Encarna (2014, self-released): Flute player, has a couple previous albums. runs most of this over Latin beats (proven camouflage), sometimes blending in with Gregoire Maret's chromatic harmonica or Mireya Ramos' violin, offset from Reut Regev's trombone. B [cd]

Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint (2014, Young Money): In earlier emails about the near shutout of US hip-hop albums on EOY lists, the prospect of this album's late-season drop was held out as some sort of "great black hope" -- no doubt recalling the precedent Beyoncé set last year, finishing 4th in P&J after being released too late to make nearly any other poll. I don't expect that to happen here: sure, it's a better album than Beyoncé, but it's a bit of a letdown after the expansion of the last two studio albums, nor is it as safe a crossover. I'm tempted to dismiss it as padded, but most of her padding doubles as sex appeal -- a point the disjointed "Anaconda" drives home uproariously. A-

Ludovic Morlot/Seattle Symphony Orchestra: John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (2013 [2014], Cantaloupe): One 42-minute piece, commissioned by the Orchestra and composed by Adams -- unrelated to the John Adams who composed Nixon in China. Minimalism even if not done with electronics, has a nice shiny texture, shimmering even. Won a Pulitzer Prize. B+(***)

Paal Nilssen-Love/Terrie Ex: Hurgu! (2013, PNL): Guitar-drums duo, one half of Ken Vandermark's Lean Left group. Terrie took his name from his longtime Mekons-like rock group, the Ex, but he's dabbled in free jazz (or free noise) for years, and slices up four improvs here. The drummer has a ton of duos to his credit, largely because he's so adept at them. B+(**) [bc]

Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit: Erta Ale (2014, PNL, 3CD): An eleven-piece group but not conventionally shaped: with only two reeds and three brass (cornet-trombone-tuba) the horns move independently, as does electric guitar and Lasse Marhaug's electronics, their options expanded by doubling up on bass and drums. Way too much to swallow in one sitting. B+(***) [bc]

Objekt: Flatland (2014, Pan, 2CD): TJ Hertz, born in Tokyo and raised in the UK, gets a lot of drive out of his beats, with this never missing a step, at least until he tries ambient for a closer -- and that, too, is splashier than the norm. A-

Arturo O'Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: The Offense of the Drum (2013 [2014], Motéma Music): Cuban pianist, got his big band through the patronage of Lincoln Center -- may have helped that his father was a reknowned big band arranger -- and draws an impressive array of guests -- I prefer Chito Cajigas' inspired rant on Puerto Rican history to Antonio Lizana's sombre vocal, but even that grew on me. B+(**)

Sonya Perkins: Dream a Little Dream (2014, self-released): Standards singer, third album, opens with "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and closes with "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me"; nothing wrong with that, nor with the piano trio band, and Warren Vaché guest spots certainly help. B

Noah Preminger: Background Music (2010 [2014], Fresh Sound New Talent): Tenor saxophonist, leading a trio backed by bass (Masa Kamaguchi) and drums (Rob Garcia) playing standards and not-yet standards -- Jarrett, two Colemans, title song comes from Warne Marsh, closer from Chris Cheek, but you also get Monk, "My Old Flame," "Moonlight in Vermont," "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," and an original by the drummer. A-

Quraishi: Mountain Melodies (2014, Evergreene Music): "Rubab Music of Afghanistan" -- first album in some time from the master -- relocated to US in 1982 -- whose previous album was titled Pure & True Rubab. Kind of like a sitar but poorer, although the simplicity grows on you. B+(**)

Diane Roblin: Reconnect (2014, self-released): Pianist, from Buffalo but based in Toronto, clasically trained but described this group as "a funk-jazz band." Accurate for the most part but some breaks suggest something else. Saxophonist Jeff King is a plus. B+(*) [cd]

Scurvy: Fracture (2010, Johnny Butler Jazz): New York avant-fusion group led by Johnny Butler (saxes, electronics) with trombone, guitar, bass, and drums. B+(*) [cdr]

Shamir: Northtown (2014, Godmode, EP): Debut EP (5 cuts, 19:58) for a 20-year-old soul man. The lead single shows promise (with dividends for his post-EP single, "On the Regular"), while the closing ballad ("Lived and Died Alone") is touching in an unpolished way. B+(*)

Sleaford Mods: Divide and Exit (2014, Harbinger Sound): British duo, Andrew Fearn is responsible for the punkish music, often just bass over drums, while Jason Williamson spews profanity occasionally laced with social criticism, often incisive, sometimes not ("it's all so fucking boring"). A- [bc]

Sleaford Mods: Austerity Dogs (2013, Harbinger Sound): Last year's album, in the UK anyway: the first with Andrew Fearn providing the music, a more minimal punk mix until the guitar on "Bored to Be Wild"; lets Williamson free associate more, which is a plus. A- [bc]

Chris Smither: Still in the Levee (2014, Signature Sounds, 2CD): Celebrating his own career -- 50 years as a performer -- the folksinger plunders his own songbook, remaking as many years of songs with whatever wisdom (and wear and tear) he's accumulated, which includes some friendly guest spots. B+(*)

Michael Snow & Thollem McDonas: Two Piano Concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2014, Edgetone): As the title says, but complex verging on difficult. Snow goes way back (b. 1929 in Toronto), working with the avant-garde group CCMC from 1978 on, was involved with Albert Ayler even earlier (among other things, he designed album covers), and was enjoying "a retrospective exhibition of the artist's photographic works" at this time. McDonas is an avant-jazz pianist I've run across more often. B+(**) [cd]

Jesse Stacken: Helleborus (2014, Fresh Sound New Talent): Pianist, always regarded him as a smart postbop guy but he tops that here by hiring tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby to front his quartet -- Malaby often does his best work on other people's albums, and on the upbeat pieces here he's really on a tear. Slower, he fades out and you start to hear the nuance in the piano. B+(***)

Subtle Lip Can: Reflective Drime (2014, Drip Audio): Trio from Montreal: Joshua Zubot (violin), Bernard Falaise (guitar), Isaiah Ceccarelli (drums). Second album, an abstract turmoil of soft sounds, nothing jarring but definitely abrasive. B+(**) [cd]

Joanne Tatham: Out of My Dreams (2014, Cafe Pacific): Standards singer, third album, favors Harry Nilsson, Bob Dorough, and Dave Frishberg over Berlin and Porter but does include a token Jobim. Gets professional help with Mark Winkler producing, pianist Tamir Henderson arranging, John Clayton on bass, Bob Sheppard on sax. B [cd]

Ana Tijoux: Vengo (2014, Nacional): French-Chilean rapper, third album, presumably in Spanish (imagining I'd recognize more of it in French) so she gets by mostly on her rocksteady groove. Could very well be more to it. B+(**)

Leon Vynehall: Music for the Uninvited (2014, 3024): English house producer, second album, calls this a "mini-LP" but it's long enough (7 cuts, 39:18), the beats becoming more engaging along the way. B+(*)

Scott Wendholt & Adam Kolker Quartet: Andthem (2011 [2014], Fresh Sound New Talent): Trumpet and tenor sax, backed by Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. The trumpeter recorded for mainstream labels in the 1990s but hasn't been evident since then. All four contribute pieces, and they cover Monk and Parker -- the two horn split on "Green Chimneys" is impressive. B+(**)

Holiday Music Special

Many years ago I read that Christmas music outsells jazz -- a factoid that helped harden a prejudice against the stuff into a grudge. There are objectively worse things about the music, like the compulsions retailers feel to play it nonstop during the four (or more) weeks of the "season," as if doing so triggers Pavlovian reflexes to spend. I get some quantity of it every year. Sometimes I review it and pack it away, but mostly it piles up, and I have way too much of that. So this year I'm making an effort to clear the decks. Hopefully this won't encourage anyone to send me more next year.

Two ringers in the list below. Ezra Weiss' children's music doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, but was buried in the same pile, for similar reassons. However, Weiss' Before You Know It: Live in Portland made my A-list this year, so I figured I should give the older record a spin. The other is Eugene Marlow's Celebrations -- the only record below I can actually recommend. I was expecting a Jewish slant on the holidays, but the record didn't try to be ecumenical at all -- and was no doubt better for that. You can play it alongside Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah, but you can also play it any other time of year.

Hanukkah here is mostly an excuse to throw a latke dinner -- which we did last week. The way I make them is:

  1. Finely chop two onions. Put in a big bowl. Add three eggs.
  2. Peal and soak five baking potatoes, then grate them. (I use a coarse shredding food processor attachment, then chop them up further with the knife blade.) Mix them in with the onions and eggs, and add salt and black pepper.
  3. When your dinner guests arrive, use a couple large frying pans, and a mild vegetable oil. (I used corn oil this time.) Heat the oil, drop in a small scoop of potato, flatten it out. In a couple minutes, when they start to brown around the edges, flip them over. Serve them hot, with sour cream, applesauce, salted salmon, and chopped scallions. Repeat until you run out.

I make my salmon and applesauce. For the salmon, take a nice filet with skin on, sprinkle both sides with kosher salt, put in a bag and refrigerate at least 12 hours. Rinse, pat dry, slice thin. I think it's three tablespoons of salt for two pounds of fish.

For applesauce, I took three green delicious apples, peeled, quartered, and cored them, and put them in a saucepan. I added juice from half a lemon, plus a few drops of water. Covered the apples, and cooked until soft enough to mash easily with a fork. Then I added one tablespoon of brown sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon.

For Christmas Eve, I'll be cooking again, for what's left of my family here. Planning on what I call "Mom's Chinese" -- basically, the meal I made for her birthday shortly before she died: Szechuan fried chicken, dry-fried string beans, strange-flavor eggplant, fried rice, maybe some spare ribs braised in black bean sauce, something for dessert (probably date pudding). When I was growing up, Christmas was many things, but there was always lots of food, including various kinds of homemade candy. Big meals. Lots of people. Since she died, it's never been the same, and never will be.

One thing for sure: we won't be playing Christmas music.

Eddie Allen: Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (2009, DBCD): Actually no name credit on the cover, but Allen is the leader and arranger, plays trumpet along with Cecil Bridgewater, and is backed by French horn, trombone, bass, and drums. Song selection so standard it could be a high school assignment. Not sure if stating the head then improvising off it works as jazz but it does break the holiday tedium. B-

Chris Bauer: In a Yuletide Groove: Harmonica Jazz for the Holidays (2011, self-released): "Seydel harmonica artist," has two albums, the other Straight Ahead. Quintet with keybs, guitar, bass, and drums, plus a guest vocal from producer Rob Poparozzi. Standards, favors pop like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" but works in "My Favorite Things" and "Ave Maria." The very definition of chintzy, but the harmonica is a versatile lead instrument. B- [cd]

Alexis Cole: The Greatest Gift: Songs of the Season (2009, Motéma): A jazz singer with at least eight albums I've never heard, credits this "with family & friends" and throws in a plug for World Bicycle Relief. The friends include some names I've heard of (Don Braden, Alan Ferber, Jon Cowherd, Ike Sturm, Zach Brock). Climactic pop move: "Jesus is the best part of Christmas/365 days a year/Jesus is here." C+ [cd]

Nathan Eklund: Craft Christmas (2011 [2012], OA2): Trumpet player, leads a basic keyboard-bass-drums quartet, song credits range from Trad. to Guaraldi with one original. The trumpet leads are eloquent, but the two vocals detract. B- [cd]

Tobias Gebb Presents Trio West: Plays Holiday Songs, Vol. 2 (2009, Yummy House): Drummer-led piano trio, with Eldad Zvulun on piano and Meal Miner on bass. Short song list, but several tunes get two passes, with "We Three Kings" recast as a waltz, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" done in samba, and "O Tannenbaum" in funk and salsa variants. B [cd]

Milt Hinton/Ralph Sutton/Gus Johnson/Jim Galloway: The Sackville All Star Christmas Record (1986 [2014], Sackville/Delmark): Bass, piano, drums, soprano sax, listed roughly in what I take to be the rank order of their fame, although Galloway -- the only one still alive -- is a first-rate trad jazz player. (Or maybe it's just left-to-right to caption the cover picture.) Standard fare, not as rowdy as you'd hope -- seductively subtle, even. B+(*) [cd]

The Hot Club of San Francisco: Hot Club Cool Yule (2009, Azica): Group -- motto is "What Would Django Do?" -- has a dozen albums since 1993. Violin leads over the guitars, sometimes slipping into something pleasantly innocuous, but the guest vocals snap you back, even on the generic "Baby It's Cold Outside." B- [cd]

Knoxville Jazz Orchestra: Christmas Time Is Here (2012, self-released): A full-fledged big band, arranged and conducted by Vance Thompson, also listed as fifth trumpet. More listenable than most, at least until they add the choir(s). B- [cd]

Elisabeth Lohninger Band: Christmas in July (2011, JazzSick): Singer, has an appealing voice ready to swing and fluent in uncounted languages, backed by Axel and Walter Fischbacher (guitar and piano). Twelve songs from nearly as many countries, with a Mel Tormé tune from the US and "Stille Nacht" from Austria. B+(*) [cd]

Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble: Celebrations (2010, MEII Enterprises): Subtitle "interprets festive melodies from the Hebraic songbook," so not our usual Xmas album, but it does start with "Chanukah, O Chanukah." Pianist Marlow is a New York Jew who specializes in Afro-Cuban/salsa/bossa nova and his group spreads out the ethnic polyculture, including the marvelous Michael Hashim on sax. Ends with a 6:37 lecture on philosophy that bears repeating. A- [cd]

Ellis Marsalis: A New Orleans Christmas Carol (2011, ELM): A pianist from New Orleans, anyway, although not one particularly noted for the style. The patriarch of the Marsalis clan, his jazz career only emerging after his sons became famous, he decorates the usual tunes with marching drums, son Jason's vibes, and two singers I've already forgotten. B- [cd]

Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship: Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey (2012, self-released): Scruggs, from Atlanta, plays tenor and soprano sax, called his first album Jazz Fellowship and kept that as his group name. He explains: "Using ancient canticles, hymns, and folk melodies, I chose eleven pieces to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical biblical story of the birth of Christ." Sounds ambitious, and I enjoyed the absence of trad Xmas fare . . . until it got woven in. B [cd]

Donna Singer with the Doug Richards Trio: Kiss Me Beneath the Mistletoe (2012, Emerald Baby): About half originals, mostly co-credited to husband Roy Singer (assume he's the uncredited duet partner on two songs), and I must admit I was touched by bassist Richards' song about leaving donuts for Santa Claus. The other half is split between spirituals and classic fluff like "Let It Snow" with something of a fetish for mistletoe. B [cd]

The United States Air Force Band: Cool Yule (2009, self-released): Big band, plus strings, some extras like oboe, a female vocal trio called the "Andrews Sisters" (quotes included), and a male barbershop quartet called the "Crew Chiefs" (again, quotes obligatory). Makes you wonder if they hadn't faked the death of Glenn Miller and kept him working at some "dark site" all these years. I'm tempted to slag them on principle, but frankly they could keep this band running for decades for less than a single F-35, and it would be a better use of the money. Highlight: the cha-cha "Auld Lang Syne" (and yes, that's as good as they get). B [cd]

Ezra Weiss: Alice in Wonderland: A Jazz Musical (2009, Northwest Childrens Theater and School): Been sitting on this, something I'd never expect to have any interest in, and still don't. But the story has a few touchstones I recognize -- mad hatters and decapitating queens and such -- and the music is not without interest. B [cd]

Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries

Bring It On Home: Black America Sings Sam Cooke (1959-76 [2014], Ace): The liner notes -- by the way, the best I've seen in years -- note several previous "Black America Sings" discs: Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Bachrach & David, Otis Redding. Those strike me as novelty concepts, but Cooke's murder -- Trayvon Martin wasn't the first young black man killed by a confused and stupid white person with a gun, ya know -- left a hole that the covers helped fill. So while Cooke's originals remain indelible, his legacy deserves something more -- like this. A- [cd]

Chris Butler: Easy Life (1970 [2014], Future Fossil): Later went on to write witty pop songs for Akron new wave bands Tin Huey and The Waitresses, in 1970 Butler was one of the students at Kent State the National Guard didn't kill -- although the guy he sold his drums to was one of the dead. Butler had a rock band, and his juvenilia is pretty tuneful -- could be more ragged, and takes a turn in that direction after 13 seconds of gunfire. For an extra buck, you can get a second copy without the narration. But for me the history rings true: sure, I wasn't there, but I was then. A- [bc]

Lewis: L'Amour (1983 [2014], Light in the Attic): Canadian singer-songwriter Randall Wulff cut two albums 1983-85. Obscure, quiet and haunting, but not much of a find. B

Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul & Psych From Peru's Radical Decade (1968-74 [2014], Tiger's Milk): Obscure bands, more interested in putting their inevitable Peruvian twist on Anglo rock than in developing an indigenous pop music -- Jeriko's "Hey Joe" is the obvious example that you can hang most of the rest off of. B+(*)

George Van Eps: Once in Awhile (1946-49 [2014], Delmark): A legendary jazz guitarist (1913-98), influenced by Eddie Lang, worked with Benny Goodman and Ray Noble in the 1930s, didn't record much until Concord picked him up in the 1980s his protégé Howard Alden started recording with him. These radio shots fill a gap, and also spotlight two forgotten musicians, boogie pianist Stanley Wrightsman and tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller -- especially fine here. B+(***) [cd]

Old Music

Phil Driscoll: Drops of Praise (2006, Jordan/Koch): Initially a trumpet player, also sings and plays keyboards; b. 1947, has a couple dozen albums, AMG classifies him under Religious and New Age, but initially sounds like a soul man here, knocks off a competent funk track, reverts to form, then evolves. Hard to feel blue when you believe in "guaranteed salvation." B [cdr]

The Gang Font: The Gang Font feat. Interloper (2007, Thirsty Ear): Part of Matthew Shipp's "Blue Series" from back when it was a genre-busting concern, a group with Husker Du bassist Greg Norton, Eric Fratzke (Happy Apple) on guitar, Dave King (Bad Plus) on drums, and Craig Taborn on electric keyboards. Who (or what) "Interloper" is isn't clear. B+(*) [cdr]

Arthur Russell: The World of Arthur Russell (1980-88 [2004], Soul Jazz): Played cello but most importantly a disco producer, died obscure in 1992, and much of his material was released posthumously. This career summary comes with a 24-page booklet, but no one (to my knowledge) has bothered to post dates for half of these 11 pieces (two each attributed to Dinosaur L and Loose Joints, one each to Lola and Indian Ocean). The beats are effective, the vocals a bit on the wan side, which has its own peculiar attraction. B+(***) [cdr]

Arthur Russell: World of Echo (1986 [2004], Audika): The only full-length album released by Russell before his death in 1992; also his most personal one, forsaking the dancefloor beats he made his living with for solo vocals and cello -- crude and slapdash at first, achieving a surprising musicality over the long run. B+(**)

Carl Hancock Rux: Apothecary RX (2004, Giant Step): First distinguished as a poet, playwright, and novelist, Rux released a debut album in 1999, and followed it up with this. Hard to pigeonhole this: both lyrics and music are complex and surprising, but also not clear whether it's worth sorting it all out. B+(*) [cdr]

Revised Grades

Sometimes further listening leads me to change an initial grade, usually either because I move on to a real copy, or because someone else's review or list makes me want to check it again:

The Green Seed: Drapetomania (2014, Communicating Vessels): [was A-] A

Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (2014, Lightning Rod): [was B+(**)] A-

Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suites (2012 [2014], TUM, 2CD): [was B+(***)] A-

Wussy: Attica! (Shake It): [was A-] A


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd
  • [cdr] based on an advance or promo cd or cdr
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [sc] available at soundcloud.com
  • [os] some other stream source
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, may be a bootleg someone made available, or may be a publicist promo