My favorite albums of 2012, numbers 40 through 31

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Starting today I'll be counting down my 40 favorite albums of 2012. The usual caveat applies: I truly love all this music, but take the rankings with a grain of salt—and please bear in mind that I'm not trying to be definitive.

40. Mike Wexler, Dispossession (Mexican Summer) Another strong effort from this overlooked Brooklyn psych-rocker, who keeps his music modest and restrained. There's more than a touch of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd embedded in these delicate, slow-moving, slightly queasy grooves and subtly expansive arrangements, but their intimacy and beauty belongs solely to Wexler.

39. Jeremy Pelt, Soul (HighNote) For the last few years this quintet led by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (with tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer Gerald Cleaver) has been the best straight-ahead working band in jazz, and on the moody, ballad-heavy Soul they proved that no contemporary group had so flawlessly internalized the pin-drop aesthetics and intuition of the classic Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter. Alas, Soul also turns out to be the group's swan song, but what a way to go out.

38. Ivar Grydeland, Bathymetric Modes (Hubro) On his first solo record, Huntsville guitarist Ivar Grydeland elegantly combines his love of drone and American Primitive guitar in delicate multitracked hybrids that hypnotize and dazzle. A few guests turn up, including the French clarinetist Xavier Charles, who beautifully limns the zigzag lines on "Bounce," but the Norwegian guitarist has more than enough resourcefulness and chops to make it work alone.

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37. Kevin Drumm, Relief (Editions Mego) After churning out a slew of limited edition releases through his website over the last couple of years, Kevin Drumm returns with a widely distributed knockout. Relief leaps out of the gate with churning, upper-register noise squalls, but lurking beneath the violence is an unswerving layer of meditative beauty that's always just out of reach. Is it some kind of psychoacoustic byproduct of the noise? Is it a phantom creeping in my own head? I don't know, but I hear it and it gives this 37-minute scorcher an extra layer of richness.

36. Eivind Opsvik, Overseas IV (Loyal Label) This project led by New York-based Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik (with saxophonist Tony Malaby, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and pianist Jacob Sacks) has been one of my favorite jazz groups over the last decade, but on its fourth album the group shakes things up in a big way. Sacks switches primarily to the harpsichord and, with the inclusion of wonderfully cranky guitarist Brandon Seabrook, the band is now a quintet, leaving its loose postbop in the dust in favor of elliptical grooves, jagged counterpoint, and fascinating timbre that together evade any easy categorization, even though the jazz-grade improvisational fire remains.

35. Neneh Cherry & the Thing, The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound) Neneh Cherry made the comeback of the year, partnering with the powerhouse Scandinavian free jazz group the Thing. Driven by shared aesthetic interests, rawness, and a fiercely exploratory spirit, The Cherry Thing tackles tunes by Ornette Coleman and Cherry's stepfather Don with the same go-for-broke soul they brought to proto-punk tunes by the Stooges and Suicide.

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34. J.D. Allen Trio, The Matador and the Bull (Savant) The superb tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen keeps up a winning streak with this rugged trio, featuring bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, making its fourth great album together in the last five years. All but two of the 12 tracks on The Matador and the Bull are shorter than four minutes, yet Allen and his cohorts have plenty to say within those confines, and they've never sounded more tapped into one another than they do here.

33. Aaron Dilloway, Modern Jester (Hanson) The onetime Wolf Eyes noise miscreant serves up his magnum opus. Tape is Aaron Dilloway's medium and he uses it to transform all kinds of elusive sounds from field recordings, in-the-red synthesizer passages, backwards percussion, and alien voices. It's impossible to nail down the provenance of anything here and it hardly matters—for Dilloway it's all raw material.

32. Dr. John, Locked Down (Nonesuch) Although Mac Rebennack failed to fully reclaim his Night Tripper persona on this record produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, he nonetheless made his best album in decades, charged by Ethiopian grooves, psychedelic soul, and natural Crescent City vibes. It's rare that a veteran musician allows an upstart to give him a jolt, but in this case it seems simply to have reminded Dr. John how to do what he does better than anyone else.

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31. Henry Threadgill Zooid, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (Pi) Drawing a sixth voice into Zooid—Henry Threadgill's dense, laterally stacked band where for each tune the players are assigned clusters of intervals within which they can range freely—was a risk, but on its first album since cellist Christopher Hoffman joined the fold it pays plenty of dividends, adding extra color, texture and melodic counterpoint.

Go here for numbers 30 through 21.

Go here for numbers 20 through 11.

Go here for numbers 10 through 1.

Today's playlist:

Erkin Koray, Elektronik Türküler (World Psychedelia)
Juusk, Juusk (Talik)
Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Øyvind Brække, Migrations (MNJ)
Jon Mendle, L'Infidele (In a Circle)
Stefano Battaglia Trio, The River of Anyder (ECM)

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