When sifting through my favorite records of the past year, I struggled with how to incorporate genres that for whatever reason fall outside the current sphere of popular music. Although the albums included in this listed were once a “dominant” form, they’ve receded into “classical” or niche status. What unifies many of these records is a focus on instrumental music over lyric based songwriting (with two exceptions). Being a non-practitioner, I tend to struggle with describing anything other than a general feeling these compositions bring me. Therefore, the following is a rather brief post of those albums you are unlikely to hear on the radio (unless of course you listen to NPR or some hip college DJs) but deserve a listen. (Who knows maybe you’ll impress the older folks.) Enjoy a.a.
Atomos by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (File Under: minimalist classical meets soundscape) – From the first listen, I was awash in feelings of awe and enjoyment. AWVFTS compose epic pieces of atmospheric instrumental music. Borrowing from all sorts of genres including minimalism, classical, chamber, noise, and, even, Downtempo, Atomos is a blissfully mind-altering and pacifying journey through extended spaces of soothing reverie and meditative introspection.
Classics by She & Him (File Under: Standards) – Okay, fine, technically every single one of these songs was a “pop” song back in the day. However, with a couple of exceptions, standards have largely disappeared except in your grandparents or parent’s record collections. I am and have always been a sucker for Zooey and M.Ward’s brand of backward looking pop. While each iteration of the She & Him project includes a couple of covers, this is a whole collection of them and they are about as perfectly done as possible. Only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t melt hearing Zooey’s dreamy rendition of “Teach Me Tonight” or haunting take on “Unchained Melody”. And, M. Ward’s melancholic, jazzy riff on “She” makes you want to comfort his lonesome seeming pining.
The Ambassador by Gabriel Kahane (File Under: Experimental and Classical Piano, theatrical storytelling) – Whether he will appreciate this or not, The Ambassador reminds me of a far more melodic, gorgeous, and sumptuous version of Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner (one of my all-time favorites) because of his unique ability to meld literary storytelling and popular music conventions. (Wait, didn’t you say this was a non-pop post? Shh… it is my list I get to make the rules.) Unlike the nameless and often perspective-less nature of most traditional song narrators, Gabe arms his with back stories and histories giving them a life beyond just the fleeting 4 minutes of the song’s duration. These songs are lyrically rich and deftly constructed to convey varying emotions of longing, sadness, nostalgia, existential ruminations, and comical musings. The Ambassador is the rare sort of album in the 21st Century where full-fleshed storytelling drives the albums existence and it paints a brilliant picture of a disappearing world just on the outskirts of our collective unconscious. Aside from the heartbreaking brilliance of the title track, make sure not to miss the epic “Empire Liquor Mart” or the amusing 80s inspired “Villains”.
Music For Heart and Breath by Richard Reed Parry (File Under: Contemporary Classical) – I discovered this record because Bryce Dessner of the National plays on it. (For National fans, aside from being an amazing indie-rock musician, Bryce also does a fair amount of contemporary classical composition, including a great album with Kronos Quartet.) I’ve spent countless early mornings and nighttime travel by plane and train falling into the dream inducing and cinematic embrace of these pieces. Another perfect companion for winter…
Emmaar by Tinariwen (File Under: Malian Rock) – Hailing from the West Africa, Mali to be precise, Tinariwen blend traditional West African sounds with more Western instrumentation (electric guitars and drums). To say this record is unlike anything you’ve listened to this year, is an understatement. It is spellbinding and enrapturing. For fans of traditional Blues you can hear how much West African tradition inspired and gave life to the blues.
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything by Thee Silver Mt. Zion (File Under: Indie-Instrumental, Avant-Garde, Experimental) – From one of the founding members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (one of this guy’s favorite bands), this is yet another band whose music has transcendental and expansive power. Definitely the loudest and musically aggressive of the albums on the list, Thee Silver are not for the faint of heart or those seeking a calm ambient sound. Extended dirge-like guitars jams are interspersed with moments of dramatic space cowboy ballads. If you are a fan of Godspeed, Explosions in the Sky, Broken Social Scene, or Arcade Fire (the less pop moments), this is a must listen.