Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2016’s New Releases, Part Two

In the rearview is 2016—and we won’t really miss it. We’re counting down the new releases you shouldn’t have missed; the platters that easily got us through it. Here’s the second installation of our favorites spun. Part one is here.

5. Noura Mint Seymali, Arbina (Glitterbeat) + Maarja Nuut, Una Meeles (Self-released) With Arbina, Mauritanian griot Seymali follows up her stunning 2014 Glitterbeat debut Tzenni with an equally impressive excursion into funky-psychedelic desert blues, her rising international profile benefiting from a multifaceted approach; the songs’ expansive toughness can easily satisfy adventurous rockers (particularly the guitar of her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly) while the grooves (and there are many) should engage those desirous of body shaking.

It’s a combination that’s nicely doubled by Seymali’s blend of newness and tradition (she plays the ardine with a deft hand). Her vocals, heartfelt yet precisely delivered in accord with the music’s thrust, accrue emotional heft vaulting the barrier of language, though English lyrics are included; it’s just one gesture among many elevating Glitterbeat to the apex of contempo global sounds. Those currently digging Tinariwen and Tamikrest would do themselves a great solid by scooping up Seymali’s latest.

Estonian violinist and vocalist Maarja Nuut’s Una Meeles is also a sophomore effort, and one that seems to have flown largely under the radar of 2016. It’s a self-released item, so this situation isn’t terribly surprising, but as the contents, which offer a truly solo yet multidimensional experience via looping and layering (of both voice and violin), are such an intriguing pleasure that the neglect of the disc (its title translating to In the Hold of a Dream) is something of a bummer.

The inclusion here is not a favor, for it compares well to Seymali’s album as they essentially sound nothing alike; Nuut’s CD springs from the traditional foundation of Estonian folk tunes as her considerably more novel method achieves hypnotic results. Some of her ingredients might lead some to suspect a measure of indie-ish preciousness on hand, but that’s off-target, as Nuut leans toward the avant-garde. By no means is Una Meeles a difficult listen; to the contrary, as stated above it’s quite compelling.

4. São Paulo Underground, Cantos Invisíveis (Cuneiform) + V/A, Every Song Has its End: Sonic Dispatches from Traditional Mali (Glitterbeat) São Paulo Underground is Rob Mazurek, Mauricio Takara, Guilherme Granado, and Thomas Rohrer, a leaderless combo of multi-instrumentalists specializing in the estimable intersection of cultures and genres.

Mazurek comes from jazz (he’s a master of the cornet), but along with his Brazilian cohorts (Rohrer by way of Switzerland) they ditch boundaries by embracing Sun Ra, potent fusion, post-rock moves, and elements reminiscent of street festivals and parades; Cuneiform dubs them post-jazz and the terminology feels just right. We are currently living through a rough patch of intolerance bubbling up in the USA, UK, and other regions of the globe, a distressing tide that can breed festering pessimism. Cantos Invisíveis makes clear the bigots and exploiters are doomed; this is the sound of the future.

Noura Mint Seymali, Maarja Nuut, and São Paulo Underground combine old ways with aspects of the new to diverse effect, but as the full title of Every Song Has its End explains, this second volume in Glitterbeat’s Hidden Musics series dives deep into the sounds of traditional Mali. Recorded by Bamako-based producer and educator Paul Chandler, the fruits of his curiosity are wide-ranging and often gripping as they come with an elucidating DVD.

Records of trad sound-collecting can sometimes ooze indifference to listener enjoyment as they tackle their admirable historical aims, and that’s no great crime; not everything in this world need be packaged as entertainment. But as said, Chandler’s recordings are so varied that a high level of interest is all but assured even without the credits and DVD, and if traditional, the music is never old-fashioned; for instance, Super Onze’s “Houmeïssa” hacks out a guitar tangle that’s roughness will be the envy of many a young Brooklyn upstart.

3. Lambchop, FLOTUS (Merge) + Ariana Delawari, Entelechy I & II (She King) Whenever it seems like Kurt Wagner might choose to settle into a fertile niche, he changes up the program. Starting out with a disheveled but ambitious strain of alt-country, after a few releases Lambchop adjusted into an unexpected but totally jake form of country-soul that ebbed and flowed until reaching an apex of large-ensemble smoothness. Then came a shrinking and honing of the group into an at-times astonishing unit as Wagner hung up his falsetto for deeper tones.

The key was to always sound like something fans would identify as Lambchop, and the same method applies here as Wagner instigates his largest adjustment in approach yet. Helping matters is his immediately recognizable voice, as does knowledge of previous forays into electronica, and with time spent the daring makes room for deeper charms. The dictionary definition of grower, at least for folks who really dug the elevated instrumental interplay of the last few discs, FLOTUS ultimately isn’t much stranger than Leonard Cohen (RIP) cutting albums with synthesizers or Bowie (RIP) doing Branca.

A double set of the same songs in different contexts, Entelechy I & II is just the second full-length release by Afghani-American multi-media artist Ariana Delawari, but it reinforces her as an immense talent. A quadruple-threat in fact (musician, film-director, actress, photographer); unlike some multifaceted creators, she hasn’t spread herself too thin here, writing an album adaptable to both a non-gimmicky electronic setting and a scaled-down mode featuring her in tandem with tabla player Salar Nadar.

Delawari fruitfully collaborates with producer Butchy Fuego on Entelechy I. While the disc is assuredly of the moment, they don’t lose focus by trying to sound utterly up to date. Entelechy II finds her and Nadar avoiding the opposing pitfall, coming off as neither quaint nor like a callow imitation, in part due to the retention of contempo production warmth from the first disc but more so through the sturdiness of Delawari’s intent. Plus, her “In the Snow” is a beauty of advanced pop construction in either version.

2. Lee Fields, Special Night + Lady Wray, Queen Alone (Big Crown) 2016 was a strong year for neo-soul, an impulse still occasionally burdened with the rep of being merely a throwback; in fact, the genre was cleared of retro charges a long while back, largely through the work of Sharon Jones (RIP) & the Dap-Kings. Interestingly, Jones’ emergence on the scene sprang form a gig singing backup on a Lee Fields recording.

Active since the late ’60s, Fields isn’t a neo-soulster but a survivor from the old days. After time spent, his latest album with the Expressions feels like his best, loaded with energy, grit, and perhaps most importantly, range. Like many of the stronger examples of current classic soul, Special Night straddles the line between pure ’60s gusto and broader ’70s innovations, occasionally blending the sides to powerful effect. Fields’ rough edges have long been a part of his appeal; here they’ve been sanded down a bit but not polished. Inspirational lyric: “we can make the world better/ if we come together.”

Sharon Jones is irreplaceable of course, but of the belters following in her footsteps the artist known as Lady Wray is one of the best. Receiving a break in the ’90s and cutting a contempo R&B disc as Nicole under the tutelage of Missy Elliot, a promising start fizzled without a follow-up. Wray’s subsequent association with producer Damon Dash also stumbled but resulted in work with the Black Keys; bringing her closer to the sound of Queen Alone was the short-lived duo LADY with vocalist Terri Walker.

Akin to Fields’ struggles through the ’80s-’90s, Wray’s difficulties resulted in a sharpened musical focus. With the style that first brought her attention in the rearview mirror, she chose to build upon her work in LADY with the backing of the El Michels Affair; her long-delayed full-length follow-up to Make It Hot is a knockout of brightly-hued neo-soul, combining just the right amount of Southern oomph and sass with songs likely please fans of Gladys Knight. Increased listens only raise Queen Alone’s value.

1. Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) + Daniel Bachman, S/T (Three Lobed Recordings) Music regularly eludes or exceeds expectations, and it can sneak up on a listener as well, sometimes in combination with personal circumstances or just as likely the unpredictable turn of world affairs. In 2016 this scenario feels all but inevitable; the disturbing nature of current events intersects with the inspiration for Wadada Leo Smith’s latest release and basically ensures that America’s National Parks’ expansive rumination on history, preservation, and memory resonates even more strongly.

Smith emerged from Chicago’s AACM, and his skills as a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader have been honed through decades of performance and recording in a variety of settings. He also picks a fine ensemble, expanding the Golden Quartet of himself, pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff to include cellist Ashley Walters, whose contribution is one of the set’s highlights, especially in the lengthy pieces devoted to New Orleans and the Mississippi River. But it’s Smith’s artistry that shines brightest; Ten Freedom Summers is his masterwork, but this isn’t far behind.

From America’s National Parks to the American Primitive. ‘twas a great year for the enduring guitar style, with records by Nathan Bowles and Glenn Jones almost making this list. Bachman usurps their inclusion and shares the number one spot through resounding fingerstyle made even more powerful by a desire to experiment in combination with non-standard tunings harkening back to the young Fahey at his edgiest (the stings sound especially loose during “The Flower Tree”).

Much recent Guitar Soli exudes a relaxed feel that can only be achieved by an expert picker, and that’s cool. But Bachman sounds restless in his expertise; the experimentation is immediately apparent, with the opening “Brightleaf Blues” possessing an abrasive texture conjuring images of the young John Cale having a particularly bad day. The second “Brightleaf Blues” (track one, side two) extends the drone textures to exemplary effect; elsewhere Bachman’s playing is faultless but never audibly cautious, with the bold Cooder-ish slide of “Watermelon Slices on a Blue Bordered Plate” sealing the deal.

It’s been a troubling year, and tough times lie ahead; community, both local and global, will help get us through. Here’s to a better 2017.

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