Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra, Promises — By tossing an ambient producer, a storied jazz saxophonist, and the LSO into the musical Vitamix, this album runs the risk of becoming auditory sludge. But its nine “movements,” better understood as a single 46-minute track, avoid melting into sonic mush by keeping a tight structure around the same theme from start to finish. It’s a real feat of composition. This album has captured the attention of jazz reviewers, thanks to Sanders, but it mostly reminds me of piano solo works like Chopin’s Berceuse and this short piece by Reicha that explore, with virtuosic inventiveness, the possibilities of a minimal, unchanging foundation.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Elliott Carter: Ballets — I taught a Greek survey lecture course this fall, so perhaps my brain was already tuned to the Cretan Bull and the myth of Theseus. But these early ballets by Elliott Carter are gems of early 20th-century modernism: sometimes evoking Stravinsky’s jarring Rite of Spring, sometimes evoking Copland’s cinematic sweeps. They were entirely new to me, as was the in-house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is worth checking out.
Jaubi, Nafs at Peace — Producers have been excavating samples from world music for decades. The Pakistani instrumental group Jaubi turns this relationship on its head, building on a North Indian core with foot-tapping percussion and slick synth chords. Sometimes it echoes the Ethiopiques series—not that all world music sounds the same, especially with the more modern production of Nafs at Peace. But for both, the integration of instruments and harmonies is simultaneously effortless and rich.
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg — There was a microtrend of spoken-word music this year—or maybe just a microtrend in my listening—from driving lessons on the Henry Hudson to an anthem for millennial male friendship. But Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg is the standout, hands down. It layers Florence Shaw’s deadpan, droll lyrics—“Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?”—over instrumentals that are half Sonic Youth, half early B-52s. Shaw herself gets right to the point: “She’s definitely in a league of her own.”
Smirk, LP — The most insufferable thing about people who have lived in New York is their fanatical nostalgia for neighborhood establishments that no longer exist, but hear me out: this album is the Upper West Side’s Ding Dong Lounge, circa 2011. Guitars never tuned; speakers muffled; punkwave, leather-jacket hand claps. Now that so much of life is mediated via webcam, there’s a powerful draw to music (and its long-gone venues) that shuns glossy production. I mean, aren’t we all tired of checking “Touch Up My Appearance”?