(in no particular order)
1. Jim O’Rourke - Simple Songs
I bought this on vinyl and don’t have a digital version. So I listen to it more rarely than some other recent discoveries, and when I do, I listen more lovingly. I don’t listen to it in the car, or while I’m working on other things. My record player is in my living room, not in my studio. The music literally, physically, fills a different space.
2. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil - You’ve Been Watching Me
I caught this band live at the Outpost in Albuquerque in May and it fired me up for a heavy summer of practicing. I sat in the back and scratched excited thoughts in my notebook the whole set. Great furious band with the rhythmic energy of small-group contemporary jazz and the contrapuntal intensity of Schoenberg.
3. The albums I made this year
Axle of the World (with Rabbit), the debut Grant Wallace Band LP, gets top billing here, because its creation occupied a major part of my late twenties. It was a saga, and it represents the best effort and thought of me and two of my best friends, who also happen to be two of the most brilliant, restless, and imaginative musicians I’ve ever met, over the course of three years. This album means a whole lot to me.
We also made an EP this year, Four Songs, which is sort of the anti-Axle. Axle was a drawn-out, multi-year, multi-season, days-of-our-lives, hermetic and heavily thought studio project; Four Songs was a quick and dirty two days in front of the mics, and I’m as proud of it as Axle, for totally different reasons. Four Songs has lots of group singing and real chamber music, and not a lot of cuts or overdubs. It’s a document of a working band.
There is also the recently released Mountweazel Songs, which I actually wrote and recorded and mostly produced in 2014, with beautiful, lonely cover art by Shawn Cheng: nine piano-trio postcards from apocryphal places, made with help from several enigmatic, ostentatiously Norwegian collaborators.
Also: the forthcoming Kong Must Dead LP, Psychopomp, CA, which underwent an Axle-length incubation in Ben Hjertmann’s mind, culminating in a band-camp-summer-camp intensive week of recording in North Carolina this past July. Ben’s songs are rich, chewy, devastating. Ryan Packard is a composer at the drumset. Chris stayed up all night writing pedal-steel parts. It’s a love letter to songs, songwriting, and playing music with your friends. You’re really going to like this album. It’s coming out on Two Labyrinths Records in early 2016.
4. Danny Clay - Glacier Park (2014)
Ok, this came out in 2014, but who can keep up? They say you never escape the music you loved when you were sixteen. Well, Glacier Park makes me feel like I’m sixteen, sitting in a red minivan outside a high-school football game, listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor with Tim King. It is some of my favorite things in music: it’s otherworldly, it’s transporting, it’s irresponsibly beautiful, and I can’t stop listening to it. Also, he made it with a Game Boy.
4. Anna Webber - SIMPLE (2014)
Ok, we’re still back in 2014, but Anna Webber’s compositions are spiraly and sinewy and her triomates here are the wild and imaginative Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck, and it’s a headspinner and a great driving album.
5. Joni Mitchell - Hejira (1976)
Ok, so Hejira is several decades old, but this was the year I finally took a long swim in the deep waters of Joni Mitchell, and this event must be recognized. Jaco’s electric bass and Joni’s loose-phrased singing are like two kites in the summer sky. I have begun to treasure Joni Mitchell above other lyricists for the specificity of her writing, which is pointed and colorful and free of bullshit. She makes me grin when she sings about things people don’t usually sing about—going to Staten Island to buy a mandolin, playing bingo at a church, sitting at a coffee shop eating scrambled eggs.
6. Songs: Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)
This is actually a perfect rock-and-roll album, for those who’ve ceased to believe in such things.
6. George Lewis - A Power Stronger Than Itself (2007)
Ok, this isn’t an album, it’s a book, but I read it this year, and nothing in the last half-decade or so has so sharply influenced the way I think about music-making. Especially the early chapters, on the AACM’s formation and precedents. Meeting minutes are quoted. The artistic and social contexts of these musicians’ efforts are widely and deeply conveyed.
6a. Art Ensemble of Chicago - People in Sorrow (1969)
On a related note, and actually an album, is this beautifully restrained piece by Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell. It’s a great entry point to the massive discography of the AACM.
6b. Anthony Braxton - For Trio (1978)
After you’ve fallen in love with People in Sorrow, you might go to this one next: two recordings of the same composition by two different trios.
7. The songs that Harold Arlen wrote (1905-1986)
I spent a lot of time this spring and summer studying jazz standards, including some by my old idol Richard Rodgers, but this time around I fell deep into the melodic and harmonic sophistication of Harold Arlen’s songs. Just to name a few: “Ill Wind,” “When the Sun Comes Out,” “Stormy Weather,” “Over the Rainbow”…some great lessons in how to gracefully change keys…and then there’s “I Never Has Seen Snow,” which trades the adventurous ii-Vs for a basically pandiatonic construction with the forward motion all resting on the melodic line. Just top-level musical craft.
8. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber - Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa in A major (1696)
Ok, not an album, and three hundred years old, but wow! Fire and elegance! Biber calls for a retuned violin, which sounds open and earthy like a banjo, and writes some dazzling counterpoint pretty well unlabored by any Bachian chromaticism. The chaconne just makes me smile so hard my cheeks hurt.
7. Adventure Time (2010-present)
Now I’m actually counting backwards, and clearly this isn’t an album, but how could I make any sort of cultural list regarding 2015 and leave off Adventure Time? This show is beauty and imagination. There’s never a wasted moment. Every line is an opportunity for linguistic play, every tableau is a chance for visual whimsy and invention. As the seasons progress, the plotlines and structures diversify hugely, and every character gets shading. They’ve also got a serious mastery of adolescent psychology, always applied with a light touch. The things they manage to get done in ten-minute episodes! Stunning.
6. Mozart Fantasy in C Minor, K. 475 (1785)
I studied this piece in high school, and this year I was reading through Mozart’s Sonatas when I found it again. At first I thought it was kind of stodgy and tight, but then I realized this is like 1785 Vienna’s version of the Grateful Dead, and now I’m fascinated with it. It’s Mozart’s back-catalog free-improv EP that he released on a tiny now-defunct tape label one summer. One of the highest possibilities of music is a sort of world-building; you see it in Feldman, in Stravinsky, in Ravel and Bartók and Debussy and Wagner and Liszt; and here it is, in well-mannered old Mozart.
5. This video about North Carolina hollering
Not at all an album, but hey, a couple of these guys are divine musicians who happen to work in an incredibly narrow medium that they don’t actually consider music, but I think it is! How about that? and the whole thing gives you a little faith in the vitality of local cultures, which can still matter, and which I want to believe in.
6. Lucy Lippard - Undermining
Ok, another book, but speaking of local cultures, this book uses a lot of mostly New Mexico case studies (and lots of images) to draw a vivid portrait of the New West. It’s very troubling. It’s also my home. Forward.
6a. This NOLS backpacking video from 1970
Just to contrast Lucy Lippard’s vision of the New West with the preexisting dream, what I might call the Medium West (itself not to be confused with the fictional conceit popularly known as the Old West).
7. Sam Amidon on WBEZ’s Morning Shift back in November
I just always appreciate Sam’s presence, wide listening, quirky sense of humor, and consistent enthusiasm. He is one of the best musicians to follow on Twitter.
8. TIGUE - Peaks (2015)
Just to return quickly to actual albums that actually came out this year: I know these people and they’re good eggs and a blast to hear live and they’ve made a record that’ll be a joy to any other former indie kids who have become new music musicians. And really to anyone who likes drums, and/or Yo La Tengo. (That’s everyone.)
9. Andrew Weathers Ensemble - Fuck Everybody, You Can Do Anything (2015)
I found Andrew’s music at the bottom of a social media rabbit hole the same day he happened to be playing a house show in Santa Fe. I gave him a copy of Open and he gave me a copy of Guilford County Songs. He’s a kindred spirit, and his music is warm and real; I always enjoy hearing what he’s up to.
8. Charles Bowden’s maybe last essay, about Ives, Abbey, and the Border
Because, as Anne Lamott wrote, maturity might be about “the ability to live with unresolved problems.”
9. Anna Thorvaldsdottir episode of “Meet the Composer” podcast
I want artistically curious everyone to listen to this podcast, so people’s eyes will stop glazing over whenever I mention the word “composer”; and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is a gorgeous challenge.
10. This interview with Vijay Iyer, in which he calls a number of spades spades
Honorable mentions: Inside Out; Sibylle Baier - Colour Green (197? / 2006); Madeleine Peyroux singing pretty much anything; the Manzano Mountains; this interview with Steve Coleman; this video about cowboy poetry; this recording of Billy Strayhorn singing and playing “Lush Life”; Will Mason Ensemble - Beams of the Huge Night; the first eighteen seconds of this video about the Subaru BRAT; this video of the “black pyramid” outside Green River, Utah; Tristan Perich's Compositions series; this wild and mystifying 1965 solo piano performance by Lennie Tristano; and Broad City, particularly the wisdom teeth/Whole Foods episode.
“When first to this country a stranger I came / I placed my affection on a maid who was young / She being warm and tender, her waist small and slender / Kind Nature had formed her for my overthrow”
A few years ago I bought a vinyl record of John Fahey’s music at the famous Princeton Record Exchange. Later that night a strange man in Carhartt overalls told me, with great solemnity, that there are two types of people in the world: those who appreciate John Fahey, and those who don’t. I suppose this statement is true, though that is perhaps its only virtue. But then, I’ve always loved Fahey’s music in part because it’s hard to explain why.
When I lived in Chicago I occupied a one-bedroom apartment as lightly as I could; it was furnished, but if you looked carefully, you could see that subconsciously I wanted the ability to break camp at a day’s notice. I did have a record player, though, and Ben Hjertmann and I used to sit in there with the windows open at night, listening to albums. Nick Drake. Captain Beefheart. One time we were playing Spades, listening to Fahey, and Ben looked up from his hand and said, “it seems like it’s just a guy playing a guitar.” Now, Ben was in graduate school at the time and listening to more Scelsi than may be strictly healthy, but he was right. It’s just a guy playing a guitar. So why has it always struck me as more? Again, the point may be the lack of a point; the gimmick is the lack of a gimmick.
“On the banks of the Bann, where I first beheld her / she appeared like fair Juno or a Grecian queen / Her eyes shone like diamonds, her hair softly twining / Her cheeks were like roses, or blood drops in snow”
One day recently, out for a run, mind wandering, I started listing musicians and associating them with an element. Bach: water; Beethoven; fire; Mozart; air; Brahms, earth; Bartók, earth; Stravinsky, earth; Richard Rodgers, water; Miles Davis, air; Steve Coleman, fire; Maurice Ravel, water; Peter Garland, air; Ben Hjertmann, fire; Chris Fisher-Lochhead, water; Eric Malmquist, air; Brian Baxter, earth. Myself, I’m a Taurus born near the Aries cusp, an earth sign with an affinity, maybe a desire, for the air. And that’s what I get from Fahey, too. He’s playing you a folk song at the same time he’s abstracting it. The answer exists contemporaneously with the question. Experimentation is just another plant coming up in the garden.
I used to listen to The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death driving between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I grew up, and Bloomington, Illinois, where I went to college, and I still associate Fahey’s music with the Mississippi River, and with bridges. Let me say, I have much better ears than I did back then. Fahey’s music is melodically folksy, harmonically simple. Lately I’ve been practicing piano by running jazz standards through all twelve keys and learning Bud Powell solos by ear and memory. I have a much enhanced ability for linear hearing; and I’m just as impressed with Fahey now as I was then, if not more. Such melodic fecundity. Such textural freshness. Such confidence without showiness. Such authority as a performer.
“It was her cruel parents that first caused our variance / All because I was poor and of a low degree / But I’ll do my endeavor to earn my love’s favor / Although she is come from a rich family”
At the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies in 2011 I met an artist from Belfast named Phil Hession. Phil didn’t look straight at you, he spoke through a sideways grin, and he smoked a lot of hand-rolled cigarettes. I would see him at the Maclab Cafe, picking up burgers to take back to his studio. Phil was in the Leighton Colony, the fanciest-ass realm within this fancy-ass arts center, a quiet area set aside in the woods where you’d walk down snowy paths to a set of individual studio buildings, each built by a different prominent Canadian architect. The Leighton residents were off on their own, not part of a larger program within the Centre, and they both lived and worked in those gorgeous studios of theirs. Phil occupied a visual artist studio, though it wasn’t totally clear what he was up to all day. Sometime in January he invited me, and a few other folks from around the Centre, to take part in a singing project. He was going to teach us the Irish folk song “Banks of the Bann,” and we were going to sing it along with a video of some other people singing it. There were three people on the video. The fourth was missing. We’d be the fourth, that night. He had done similar presentations in other countries.
We’d meet at Phil’s studio on cold, packed-snow afternoons. He’d roll some cigarettes and crack some jokes, and eventually we’d get down to singing. A few of us in the room were professional musicians and learned the song quickly. Nonetheless we managed to spend a great deal of time at it, returning week after week to practice “Banks of the Bann.” Finally one night he invited a bunch of people to his studio for a presentation of the song. Some brought guitars and fiddles and such, and we drank beer and whiskey, played songs together, sang “Banks of the Bann” along with a video of some Irish people in a stone tower someplace, people we’d never met, singing “Banks of the Bann.”
This was, so far as I could tell, the culmination of Phil’s residency. Ostensibly he had received some sort of grant funding to travel across the world and live in Banff for a couple of months and do this thing. I’m still not clear on how he kept busy, day to day. And I didn’t feel particularly impressed with the work he presented, but then, maybe that isn’t the point. Here I am, still thinking about it. And I’ve never forgotten the song.
“My name is Delaney, it’s a name that won’t shame me / And if I’d saved my money I’d never have roamed / But drinking and sporting, night rambling and courting / Are the cause of my ruin and absence from home”
That night was February 20, 2011. It had been a big day; some of the Banff musicians had presented an outreach concert in nearby Canmore. I played a piano piece called Prelude and Blues, a work-in-progress that I never returned to; I’ve since lost the score. On the way back we stopped at a big frozen lake. We walked out in the middle of it and looked at the mountains. Then we returned to the Centre, for beers and dinner and more beers and Phil’s party.
My journal from late that night: “Friday I felt like great music is worth all the bullshit. It is. But I’m starting to recognize that I don’t need to move constantly to achieve. I could pick a place and be excellent there. That happens. Sometimes art is great, and sometimes it is about love, but love is not art. Love is way, way bigger.”
I haven’t seen or heard from Phil since then. I wonder if he’s still off someplace, rolling cigarettes, cracking jokes, teaching people “Banks of the Bann” with luxuriant slowness.
About a year later, Nick Phillips commissioned me as part of his American Vernacular project. He was looking for a piano piece based on some aspect of American vernacular musical styles. I might have cheated by selecting Fahey. He plays guitar; that is a classic instrument of American vernacular music. But his music is instrumental, and immediately there he leaves the sphere of American pop music, wherein the fundamental unit, the mp3 file in your iTunes library, is the “song.” Speaking literally, if there’s no singing, it’s not a “song.” But in 2015 America that’s the understood medium: we are conditioned to hear not music, but song. Singing is of the air. We aspire, easily and often. Instrumental music is of the earth. We don’t look down there much.
In 1967 Fahey made an album called Requia. He wrested the requiem from Mozart and Brahms, excised voice and text, removed the proceedings from the church and set them down someplace grittier. He wrote a few solo acoustic guitar pieces and called them “Requiem for John Hurt,” “Requiem for Russell Cooper,” and “Requiem for Molly.”
The piece I wrote for Nick is called Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey, based on the form and textures of “Requiem for John Hurt.” The whole Requia record is just gorgeous. By the time you get to “Requiem for Molly” you know you’re dealing with abstraction. But what about “Requiem for John Hurt”? What about “When the Catfish Is In Bloom“? Is that the earth, or is that the air? I suppose that's all of us, with our feet in the dirt and our eyes toward the stars.
“Had I all the money that’s in the West Indies / I’d put rings on her fingers and gold in her ears / We’d live on the banks of the lovely Bann River / And in all kinds of splendor I would style her my dear”
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues