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20. Sonantes, Sonantes (Six Degrees)
This Brazilian group is a studio side project, but it doesn't feel like one. True, it's just a producer (Rica Amabis of Instituto) plus a bassist and a drummer (Dengue and Pupillo of Nação Zumbi), fronted by one of a roster of dynamic guest vocalists (including Céu, Bnegão, and Siba). But the instrumental settings are far more diverse and intriguing than the loose rhythmic frameworks dressed up with samples that such a lineup usually produces, and the vocal melodies create a memorably dark and sensual mood.
19. Lafayette Gilchrist, Soul Progressin' (Hyena)
Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist has already turned heads in David Murray's Black Saint Quartet, but on his latest record, cut with an eight-piece called the New Volcanoes, his own sound is just as attention grabbing. At first it reminded me of the austere jazz-funk created by the M-Base crew in the 80s, but after a closer listen I'm pretty sure he's riffing on go-go grooves, not hip-hop beats like they did--either way, the music is fun as hell.
18. Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch)
On her first self-produced album, Sam Phillips proves herself an excellent student of her ex-husband, T-Bone Burnett, who was behind the boards for most of her previous records--she gives the music the same kind of unraveling, broken-down sound that he did. Her songwriting betrays her love for the Beatles and, to a lesser extent, Kurt Weill, and her husky, molasses-thick voice manages to make even her darkest lyrics (which are plenty dark) sound somehow soothing.
17. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Though it's hard for me to countenance the mellow-70s-beardo look these these Seattle indie rockers favor, once they start singing I don't so much care. Leader Robin Pecknold has written some very pretty tunes, which the band plays with an appealing looseness, but it's the exquisite vocal harmonies that make this record great. The Beach Boys and country-music sibling acts are obvious inspirations, and on the opening track they approach the wild, eerie sound of shape-note singing--I still get a chill every time I hear it.
16. Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kinsmen (Pi)
Indian-American reedist Rudresh Mahanthappa has made some terrific records, both on his own and with pianist Vijay Iyer (see below). But with Kinsmen he reaches a whole new level. The music here is like an Indian analog to the brilliant fusion of jazz and Iraqi maqam that trumpeter Amir ElSaffar hit upon last year with Two Rivers, which Mahanthappa played on--it's a rigorous hybrid that gains energy and depth from the marriage. His band, drawn from the worlds of jazz and Indian classical music, includes terrific saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath.
15. Marcelo Camelo, Sou (Sony/BMG, Brasil)
Former Los Hermanos singer Marcelo Camelo hooks up with São Paulo post-rockers Hurtmold to create simple, beautiful art-pop, marked by spacious arrangements and progressing with delightful patience. Camelo's singing is fabulous as well--his sensitivity and range remind me more than a little of Caetano Veloso.
14. John McNeil & Bill McHenry, Rediscovery (Sunnyside)
Two overlooked postboppers from New York get together for a quartet session with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jochen Rueckert, summoning the chill demeanor of 50s west-coast jazz without a whiff of formalin-scented nostalgia. As the album's title suggests, many of the tunes--by Russ Freeman, Gerry Mulligan, George Wallington, and others--are lost gems from five decades ago, but McNeil and McHenry's bold harmonies and extended instrumental vocabularies are thoroughly of the here and now.
13. Umalali, Umalali: The Garifuna Women's Project (Cumbancha)
Aside from the great Andy Palacio, who died early this year at 47, few people have done more to preserve and promote the musical culture of the Garifuna than producer Ivan Duran. Having noticed that nearly all the Garifuna records available outside Latin American were by men, he spent ten years chronicling some of the culture's best female vocalists, recording them in a thatched hut on the Belizean coast and then adding the lilting, polyrhythmic arrangements at his studio. The five excellent singers presented here sound sanguine and sorrowful, their melodies sublimely pretty whether on a ballad or a midtempo song. The group's April tour was supposed to be supporting Palacio, but instead those shows became a moving homage to his vision of a revived Garifuna culture.
12. Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet, The Breadwinner (Erstwhile)
The first collaboration between former Shadow Ring mastermind Graham Lambkin and New England experimentalist Jason Lescalleet generates strange power and mysterious beauty with tape loops, lo-fi samples, and junk from around the house. If you still think experimental music is self-indulgent, boring, and heartless, here's a record that could change your mind.
11. Vijay Iyer, Tragicomic (Sunnyside)
Reedist Rudresh Mahanthappa (see above) is a crucial foil for pianist Vijay Iyer on this burning quartet session, driven by drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stefan Crump. As a composer Iyer continues to refine both his stylistic ideas and his extramusical notions about politics and social identity--by now they're razor sharp, and his band brings them to life in high-velocity workouts that flash by like lightning.
Lee Konitz and Minsarah, Deep Lee (Enja)
Majid Al Muhandis, Enjaneat (Rotana)
King Khan & the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines (Vice)
William Parker Quartet, Petit Oiseau (Aum Fidelity)
Sonora Ponceña, El Gigante Del Sur (Inca/Fania)