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30. Thalia Zedek, Liars and Prayers (Thrill Jockey)
Well into the third decade of her career, the former front woman for Come keeps getting better. Pianist Mel Lederman and violist David Michael Curry lend the blustery rock songs new textures and depth, and Zedek's husky, powerfully affecting voice, both warm and bleak, perfectly complements her lyrics about the doubt, directionlessness, and cynicism that seem ever present in post-9/11 life.
29. J.D. Allen Trio, I Am I Am (Sunnyside)
Detroit native J.D. Allen walks the tightrope of the sax trio--all alone on the front line, with only bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston for company--and comes through not only with his reputation intact but sounding more fluid and powerful than ever. He's obviously influenced by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but with his hard-swinging attack and impressively lean lines--he reduces things to their essence here--he also makes his own skills and ideas clear.
28. Morton Feldman, The Viola in My Life (ECM)
Morton Feldman stepped away from avant-garde techniques like graphic notation and indeterminacy for his 1970 composition The Viola in My Life, one of his most darkly melodic pieces. Violist Marek Konstantynowicz renders it beautifully, in deeply burnished tones, with the support of the Cikada Ensemble and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (conducted by Christian Eggen).
27. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
This is one of the few albums on my list that lots of other people seem to love.
Jason Justin Vernon recorded it while spending the winter alone in a remote Wisconsin cabin, overdubbing his somewhat ramshackle vocal harmonies (most in a gently cracking falsetto) atop a foundation of driving acoustic guitar and insistent foot tapping.
26. Mostly Other People Do the Killing, This Is Our Moosic (Hot Cup)
Led by bassist Moppa Elliott, this New York quartet--trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and drummer Kevin Shea--demolishes the distinctions between shtick and sincerity, homage and satire, humor and bad taste. The band absolutely kills it, and their playing communicates a deep love and appreciation for every musical style and trend they tackle and obliterate--they have a blast doing both, and they don't care who gets his nose out of joint about it.
25. John Ellis & Double Wide, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena)
With this record saxophonist John Ellis a quantum creative leap. Though he definitely draws on his years in New Orleans, the group--with Jason Marsalis on drums, Gary Versace on organ, and Matt Perine on tuba--not only massages familiar second-line grooves but pushes them to the breaking point. Instead of churning out another feel-good Crescent City retread, Ellis proves the town's musical DNA can still mutate.
24. Fernando Otero, Paginas de Buenos Aires (Nonesuch)
Argentinean pianist and composer Fernando Otero, based in New York since the 90s, makes a strong case for himself as the inheritor of Astor Piazzolla's mantle. Whether playing duos or performing with an orchestra, he crafts nuevo tango of the highest order.
23. Eliza Carthy, Dreams of Breathing Underwater (Topic)
The daughter of guitarist Martin Carthy and singer Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy is herself a veteran of the British folk scene, and she complements her thorough knowledge of the tradition with a determination to update its context. Here she pulls off that trick with the freshest, most natural-sounding album of her career.
22. Andrew Hill & Chico Hamilton, Dreams Come True (Joyous Shout!)
Recorded in 1993 but unreleased until this year, Dreams Come True captures a dazzling collision: brilliant, introspective pianist Andrew Hill and energetic, timeless drummer Chico Hamilton. Their interactions are full of respect and understanding, but neither yields easily to the other--the resulting tension makes this record crackle.
21. Emilíana Torrini, Me and Armini (Rough Trade)
Wonderful Italian-Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini (pictured), based in England, follows the subdued, folksy 2005 album Fisherman's Woman with this more upbeat collection. The arrangements are fleshed out better, but not at the expense of the gorgeous, insinuating melodies, and Torrini's delicate articulation makes each song feel as intimate as an a cappella performance.
Benga, Diary of an Afro Warrior (Tempa)
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare: Volume 1 (Aagoo)
Philip Jeck, Sand (Touch)
TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
Charles Lloyd Quartet, Rabo de Nube (ECM)