Reader staff writer Peter Margasak's picks
Here are my ten favorite albums of 2011, with number one at the top and number ten at the bottom. Of course, this is just how I feel right now—everything could change tomorrow.
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant) Polly Jean Harvey has always been unpredictable, and she's reinvented herself even more dramatically than usual with this meditation on her homeland's inglorious decline. Made mostly with longtime collaborator John Parish and Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds, the music is sparse, darkly melodic, and restrained in its dynamics; the tightly coiled songs cast a beautiful spell with their depictions of the brutality of power.
Atomic, Here Comes Everybody (Jazzland) This Scandinavian quintet is arguably the most exciting group in jazz, and on its latest album the rigorous, incisive compositions of reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Havard Wiik make galvanizing shifts in tone and attack that require the players to operate at peak engagement—which they do. It's like watching a crew of tightrope walkers on intersecting lines.
Roscoe Mitchell, Before There Was Sound (Nessa) In 1965 reedist Roscoe Mitchell made his first recording—a killer quartet session with bassist Malachi Favors, drummer Alvin Fielder, and trumpeter Fred Berry—and 46 years later, it's finally been released. The album captures a composer and improviser bursting with new ideas but still rooted in postbop—a tradition he would begin exploding the following year, with the classic Sound.
Azita, Disturbing the Air (Drag City) In this devastating song cycle, Azita grieves for a failed love and wrestles with its meaning. Though her complex compositions rely almost exclusively on piano and voice, they grab you by the throat all the same—she brackets patches of beautiful, meticulously sung melody with jarring intervals and changes in mood in tempo. With every album, Azita gets better as a performer—and for this masterpiece, she definitely had to.
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (Constellation) In the first installment of the 12-part opus Coin Coin, composer, reedist, and singer Matana Roberts delivers a powerful meditation on slavery and self-determination, inspired by her research into her own ancestors. She calls her approach "panoramic sound quilting," and she worked with 15 experimental and improvising musicians from Montreal to create the album's rich, multitextured fabric.
Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge) I'm skeptical of supergroups, but this band blew away my reservations and won me over completely. Guitarists and singers Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein work seething riffs and twitchy melodies from across rock history into an infectious hybrid, driven furiously by drummer Janet Weiss and splashed with color by keyboardist Rebecca Cole—it swings, stomps, and stutters with hyperactive energy and nonchalant eloquence.
Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble, Inana (Pi) On the second album from his Two Rivers Ensemble, Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santour, vocals) adapts several Iraqi maqams concerning the "insatiable and headstrong goddess of fertility, sexual love, and warfare" after whom the disc is named. The band navigates ElSaffar's still-fresh fusion of jazz and maqam with such masterful technical power and vivid lyrical imagination that you almost immediately forget to be engrossed by the novelty of the sound.
Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (LL/Atlantic) Swedish singer Lykke Li surrounds her dark but ebullient melodies, washed-out girl-group harmonies, and stinging postbreakup lyrics with a Phil Spector-style wall of sound built from surprisingly few elements—mostly drums and loads of reverb. This is pop music, plain and simple, but its daring, inventive minimalism marks out a new path for the future, whether anybody follows it or not.
Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming (Dunham) This 63-year-old former James Brown impersonator makes his debut album count. Featuring the Menahan Street Band and meticulously produced in the Daptone style by that group's guitarist and founder, Thomas Brenneck, No Time for Dreaming is throwback soul that boldly leaps across the decades separating 2011 from the style's late-60s golden age.
Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM) Very few musicians who are as hard to pin down stylistically as pianist Craig Taborn are also as ensemble oriented as he is—he's spent decades dramatically improving every group he's played in. His first solo album—only his fourth under his own name—is an austere, dazzling recital that combines impressionistic improvisations and propulsive elaborations on prewritten sketches. It's one of the best showcases I've heard for Taborn's unique harmonic genius and rhythmic intensity.