21) Rhymefest Blue Collar (J) Maybe not the smartest or most original hip-hop album of the year, but something intangible kept me coming back. And while I usually prefer a degree of lyrical sophistication, I can’t resist the silliness of “Hot like hot sauce” in “Fever.”
22) Ab Baars Quartet Kinda Dukish (Wig) The great Dutch reedist Ab Baars applies his improvisational mindset to the repertoire and arrangements—not to mention the glorious solos—in this fantastic program of Duke Ellington tunes, where his band engages in a continual act of reinvention.
23) Romulo Froes Cão (YB Brasil) This young Brazilian singer uses the hushed articulation of bossa nova within the dance rhythms of samba on this stunning collection. Lovely harmonies, original arrangements, and wild dynamic variation—to say nothing of some killer lead guitar from one-time Tropicalia instrumentalist Lanny Gordin—suggest the emergence of a major new voice.
24) Boban Markovic The Promise (Piranha) The giant of Gypsy brass-band music returns with his best, most direct album in a decade, focusing on propulsive tunes written by him and his son Marko. No campy covers, no jacked-up beats, no celebrity guests—just full-on Rom soul music.
25) Von Freeman Good Forever (Premonition) 84-year old tenor great Von Freeman shows no sign of slowing down on this razor-sharp, emotionally generous collection of ballads and slow blues featuring drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Richard Wyands.
26) Lupe Fiasco Food & Liquor (Atlantic) My colleague Miles Raymer has copped to sitting through the nine minutes of shout outs in “Outro” twice, which I think says more about his masochism than Lupe's talent. But this is a treasure of post-Kanye big-think, a strain of hip-hop with wide ears that doesn’t need to prove itself with foolish ambition.
27) Candi Staton His Hands (Astralwerks) Lambchop associate Mark Nevers helms his second killer comeback project—the first was for Bobby Bare—crafting a warm, intimate setting for southern soul singer Candi Staton, whose maturity infuses these tunes (including one by Will Oldham) with a gripping assuredness and full-bloodedness.
28) Marcus Schmickler Demos (A-Musik) This brilliant composer and electronic musician from Cologne has made a habit of shifting radically between artistic models—including techno and electro-acoustic improvisation--and here he presents three stunning pieces with a choir, a chamber quintet, and rigorous electronic manipulation.
29) Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa Raw Materials (Savoy) This pair of Indian-Americans has been working together for 25 years now, so it’s natural that they anticipate one another’s moves as if they shared a brain. This striking, austere set of duets employs certain facets of their ancestral traditions, but ultimately they find a sound all their own.
30) Kayhan Kalhor & Erdal Erzincan The Wind (ECM) The great Iranian kemence (spike fiddle) player meticulously connects his own tradition with another, that of Turkish baglama master Erdal Ercincan. The compositional framework is slight, affording extended, beautiful improvisation.