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30. Fay, Din (Time No Place) The solo debut from the former singer and keyboardist in Chicago's Pit er Pat is a head-rattling assemblage of stammering beats, vocal cut-ups, and twitchy, terse synthesizer licks. Now based in LA, Fay Davis-Jeffers collages the various fragments to construct hypnotic, almost tribal settings for her abstract vocal incantations—but she never lets the music glide or settle into anything predictable. A dozen listens in, the album still keeps me on glorious edge.
29. Mika Vainio/Kevin Drumm/Axel Dörner/Lucio Capece, Venexia (Pan) This unusual improvised confab of breath-oriented horn men (German trumpeter Dörner and Argentine clarinetist Capece) and electronic noise merchants (Chicagoan Kevin Drumm and Fin Vainio, formerly of Pan Sonic) is a smorgasbord of small sound interactions punctuated occasionally by visceral loudness. Whirs, whinnies, whistles, and whooshes across an entire spectrum of gray emerge in a constantly changing shuffle of textures, layers, and densities that reveal high-level listening and off-the-charts give-and-take.
28. Deerhoof, Breakup Song (Polyvinyl) Deerhoof has always played with the tension between sweet melodies and jagged post-Beefheart art-rock, but with each recording the band has changed not just the surfaces of its sound but also the approaches and tools used to create it. Here they embrace shiny synthesizers, warped samples, and brittle, distorted riffs. For my money I don't know if there's been a more consistently great art-rock band over the last 15 years.Josh Berman & His Gang, There Now (Delmark) Five long years after starting this project to put a new spin on the music of Chicago's Austin High Gang, cornetist Josh Berman strikes gold, using that material as a launchpad for contemporary improvisation that seamlessly blends contrapuntal styles seven decades apart. The lineup is packed with players who've internalized traditional sounds into contemporary styles, so that they can dig into and transform standards such as "Love Is Just Around the Corner," "Liza," and "I've Found a New Baby"—they might scramble the original structure, write a new section based on a solo from a vintage recording, or slyly introduce a song's familiar opening theme only after some fresh material or improvisation.
26. Oren Ambarchi, Audience of One (Touch) The fantastic Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi released a slew of terrific albums in 2012, but none matched the staggering range and beauty of Audience of One, conceived as a four-part suite. There's a beautiful art song with dolorous singing by Warm Ghost's Paul Duncan, epic shape-shifting drone, delicate frictive chamber sounds, and a wholly unexpected, richly layered cover of an Ace Frehley song.
25. António Zambujo, Quinto (World Village) Women like Mariza, Ana Moura, and Malfada Arnauth usually get all of the attention when it comes to Portuguese fado, but this male singer has quietly been doing more to push the traditional style forward than any of them. On his fifth album António Zambujo retains fado's fundamental elements—the mix of standard acoustic and Portuguese guitars and deeply emotional singing—but he widens the instrumental palette with meticulously incorporated clarinets and some electric guitar. He also lightens the melodic palette and continues to develop connections with contemporary Brazilian music, working again with the great Rio songwriter Rodrigo Maranhão.
24. Keith Fullerton Whitman, Occlusions (Editions Mego) Keith Fullerton Whitman knocked it out of the park this year, and few of his efforts hit has hard as Occlusions, on which he applied his custom-designed digital-analog hybrid synth to create a kind of electronic simulacrum of free-jazz drumming, inspired by the music of the great Eli Keszler. The results are totally electronic, but the music's thrilling energy and spontaneity feel completely organic.Cate Le Bon, Cyrk (The Control Group) Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, as protege of Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), is often compared to Nico, presumably because they share a kind of exaggerated enunciation. But that's as far as the similarities go—whether Le Bon's sanguine songs sound like 60s punk (the jackhammering "Falcon Eyed") or a trippy waltz ("Julia"), there's nothing icy about them. She somehow manages to merge folk singing of the British Isles with articulate garage rock and make it sound thoroughly contemporary. I don't know why she's not a star.
22. Cairo Gang, The Corner Man (Empty Cellar) For years guitarist and singer Emmett Kelly has been making other musicians sound better, particularly through his longtime role as the key foil for Bonnie "Prince" Billy. While this isn't his first solo release under his Cairo Gang moniker, it's the first to fully establish his mastery as leader and vocalist. His songs are uniformly beautiful, mixing elements of British and American folk-rock with a plangent sophistication both gorgeous and deep.Avishai Cohen, Triveni II (Anzic) Trumpeter Avishai Cohen—not to be confused with the bassist of the same name—is the brother of the celebrated clarinetist Anat Cohen, and a leading figure in the bustling Israeli-expat jazz community in New York. But the second album by his trio Triveni—with Nasheet Waits on drums and fellow Israeli Omer Avital on bass—obliterates any attempt to slot the music into one school or another. It takes protean chops and energy for a trumpeter to lead a trio with such power and agility, and Triveni is as sleek and mobile as any working jazz group, fueled by dexterous swing, melodic buoyancy, and dazzling interplay.
Read numbers 20 through 11.
Alexander Turnquist, Hallway of Mirrors (VHF)
Le Trio Camara, Le Trio Camara (Frémeaux & Associés)
Sonny Rollins, On Impulse!/There Will Never Be Another You (Impulse)
Bo Diddley, Road Runner: The Chess Masters, 1959-1960 (Hip-O Select/Geffen)
Suicide, Suicide (Demon)