20. Rudresh Mahanthappa, Samdhi (ACT) Alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa has spent lots of energy exploring rigorous fusions of jazz and Indian music, most notably on Kinsmen (Pi), his 2008 collaboration with saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. On this explosive new album, he merges funky electric jazz with Indian modes just as convincingly.
19. Nico Muhly, Seeing Is Believing (Decca) Wunderkind composer Nico Muhly continues to live up to his reputation with this collection of pieces, all of which have some sort of connection to British religious-music traditions—he created new arrangements of works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, and his own "Motion" adapts fragments from the same Gibbons piece ("This Is the Record of John"). Thomas Gould is terrific as the featured soloist on electric violin—and Muhly's sensitive writing helps the instrument sound utterly natural playing 17th-century religious music.
18. Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway) I don't think Lucinda Williams can really make a bad record, but until Blessed—her best since 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—it had been years since she'd made a really great one, where she seemed fully invested. In the past her best stuff has been driven by misery, but she wrote this album from a position of happiness—so I'm hoping she'll stay on a roll.Pandelis Karayorgis Quintet, System of 5 (Hatology) Boston's Pandelis Karayorgis is one of jazz's best and most underrated pianists, and this may just be his high-water mark thus far. His knotty originals recall the earliest work of Cecil Taylor, with elegant, swinging propulsion from bassist Jef Charland and drummer Luther Gray, and the front line of saxophonist Matt Langley and trombonist Jeff Galindo brings smart, contrapuntal sparring to the indelible themes. Karayorgis leads a band of Chicagoans on Sat 1/14 at Heaven Gallery and Sun 1/15 at the Hungry Brain.
16. Cave, Neverendless (Drag City) I've heard people say that Cave's excellent new album can't compete with its live shows, but that misses the point. Yes, their hypnotic performances use power and volumne to cast a spell, but their records—especially Neverendless—foreground a dynamic precision and an attention to ever-shifting detail that get lost onstage. Cave's music is fantastic either way—the mark of a band that's figured out exactly what it wants to do.
15. Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-) These trailblazing Tuareg greats reclaimed a primarily acoustic sound on their latest album, recording in a makeshift tent studio in the Algerian desert, but they also worked with big-name guests—including Nels Cline, members of TV on the Radio, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The cameos work perfectly, subtly enhancing Tinariwen's earthy grooves without drawing undue attention to themselves.
14. J.D. Allen Trio, Victory (Sunnyside) The third album tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen has made with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston arguably establishes them as the best jazz-oriented sax trio going. Allen's consistently attractive themes and focused improvisations gracefully connect the early-60s sound of Rollins and Coltrane to the present, with crisp, in-the-pocket rhythmic support that never gets fussy. This is one of those bands that reminds you why you got into jazz in the first place.Phaedra, The Sea (Rune Grammofon) Even more uncategorizable than the Julia Holter album I listed in the first installment of this countdown, the debut of Norwegian singer Ingvild Langgård (performing as Phaedra) had me practically pulling my hair out trying to come up with reference points. There's a clear folk influence, and I hear medieval madrigals too (if they were adapted by Nino Rota), but this is ultimately Langgård's own haunting sound. It's also the most beautiful music I heard all year.
12. Marcelo Camelo, Toque Dela (Universal, Brazil) On his gorgeous second solo album, the former singer of popular Brazilian indie-rock band Los Hermanos is backed largely by members of São Paulo's Hurtmold. The arrangements are lovely, filled with space and gentle details, and Camelo's beautiful voice elucidates his pretty melodies perfectly. I understand what a big deal language barriers can be in music, but it's still tragic that almost no one in the U.S. is going to hear this stunner.São Paulo Underground, Tres Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform) On its third album, this project of Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek makes a huge leap, largely by involving its Brazilian members as composers to a much greater extent—particularly Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado (both founders of Hurtmold, who also play behind Marcelo Camelo on album 12). The first two SPU efforts didn't reflect Brazilian music too much, but here it's front and center, providing a plush harmonic and polyrhythmic foundation for Mazurek's warm, melodic improvisations.
Mamadou Diabate, Courage (World Village)
Yoni Kretzmer Trio, Nevertheless (Hopscotch)
Tim Maia, Tim Maia (1973) (Polydor, Brazil)
Josephine Foster & the Victor Herrero Band, Anda Jaleo (Fire)
Rodrigo Amado, Searching for Adam (Not Two)