(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.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts