Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2017’s New Releases, Part One

Diversity of tradition, experimentation, instrumental vigor, and protest help shape our best new releases of 2017. Here’s the first half.

Find them all for purchase from our friends at Discogs at the links below, or at your local mom and pop, indie record shops via The Vinyl District Record Store Locator app—free for your iPhone here, free for your Android here.

10. Saz’sio, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me (The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song) (Glitterbeat) + Shilpa Ray, Door Girl (Northern Spy) One of the sweet byproducts of music fandom is getting introduced to various new styles, often from far-reaching regions of the globe. Such is the case with the debut album from Saz’sio. While the group’s sounds are new to my ears, for the residents of their home country, the recording’s vitality is part of a long, rich tradition.

At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me is a doorway into the Albanian musical form Saze, which the notes for the album describe as one of the world’s least recorded folk styles. Dynamically executed both vocally and instrumentally, the emotional range is as wide as the title’s parenthetical suggests. Produced by Joe Boyd and recorded by Jerry Boys, folks attuned to Balkan and Turkish folk and even klezmer should waste no time getting to know this one.

Even without knowledge of her previous work, making Shilpa Ray’s acquaintance brings an immediate sense of the familiar, as she oozes a distinct swagger that’s simultaneously old-school and up to date. Indeed, her fourth full-length (there have been two fronting Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, and now two under her own name), Door Girl is a record chronicling life in NYC, and as the selections unwind Ray’s confidence is palpable.

Throughout, she makes good choices, particularly the doo-wopish elements established right off the bat in “New York Minute Prayer” and later the assured pop-rock of “Rockaway Blues,” but she also takes chances; attempts at rap-rock usually stink up the joint, but she pulls it off with “Revelations of a Stamp Monkey” (the song and album title reference her time working the door at Lower East Side bar Pianos). Ray occasionally recalls Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, but on “EMT Police and the Fire Department” she belts out a wall-pinning punk rager and references Allen Ginsburg to boot. Brilliant.

9. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid (Western Vinyl) + Nadia Sirota, Tessellatum (Bedroom Community) When executed with ingenuity and verve, the myriad stylistic variants of pop and rock can still provide the necessary aural punch, but there’s just so much of it out there, and a high percentage is just sorta okay, connecting as inoffensive but ultimately nothing special; if I had to base my musical diet on pop and rock alone, I’d no doubt become restless for aural nourishment relatively quickly.

Thankfully, that scenario’s far from a reality, and the work of composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has played no small role in a well-balanced listening habit. She’s one of the few instrumentalists currently tapping into the possibilities of Buchla modular synths, in particular the Music Easel, and her prior stuff has given off a somewhat post-New Age vibe (especially her 2016 collaboration with electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani). The Kid continues this scenario, but the increase in vocals brings an even more accessible, and dare I say pop, sensibility to a four-part concept album on the human lifespan.

The viola is Nadia Sirota’s instrument, and along with her two prior albums, ‘09’s First Things First (a great name for a debut) and ‘13’s Baroque, she’s contributed to recordings by Arcade Fire, My Brightest Diamond, The National, Richard Reed Parry, Dirty Projectors, Beth Orton, Nico Muhly, Beck, and Meredith Monk, amongst others.

If that list suggests a straddling of the line between the neo-classical/ chamber zone and the contempo indie scene, there’s no evidence of the duality on Tessellatum, which is both an album and a film, with Sirota and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne performing a work by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy that soundtracks animation by Steven Mertens. And if the inclusion of moving images leads you to think they’re dressing up a standard neo-classical/ chamber thing (whatever that thing is), forget about it; these sounds hold up beautifully on their own.

8. Diamanda Galás, All the WayAt Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem (Intravenal Sound Operations) + Nazoranai, Beginning to Fall in Line Before Me, So Decorously, the Nature of All That Must Be Transformed (W.25th) Of course, pop and rock fatigue is no new malady. A quarter century back, when an overabundance of regular guy indie bands could really run a person down, there was nothing like a plunge into the work of Diamanda Galás to recharge the batteries.

But Galás is a helluva lot more than an alternative to the alternative. A vocalist of uncommon ability and emotional ferocity, her ’80s avant-garde excursions gained an unusually high profile, partly due to the auspices of the Mute label, though she also possessed largeness of personality that will leave most pop artists experiencing pangs of inadequacy. Later, she began deconstructing, deforming and rebuilding pop, jazz and blues standards, and that’s the mode she’s exploring on these two sterling new efforts, singing and playing piano with undiminished clarity of vision. The cumulative effect is stirring.

Although they are stylistically distinct, Diamanda Galás and Keiji Haino have a lot in common. Both flourish in the avant-garde and are highly proficient artists having built bodies of work that are aptly described as uncompromising. Additionally, the weight of their personalities, if unique, is intense; Galás rarely collaborates (a noted exception is her album with Led Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones), and while the opposite is true of Haino, his norm is to engage with heavyweight players that can hang with and benefit from the hugeness of his essence.

Take this album from Nazoranai, for example. Well-tagged as the supergroup of Haino, here on vocals, guitar, and hurdy-gurdy, and the rhythm section of Aussie electro-acoustic composer Oren Ambarchi and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, for their third effort they push the boundaries of what’s possible in the heavy rock trio format and never set a foot wrong, which is impressive given that their union is a live-recorded collab. There is drone (the hurdy-gurdy is magnificent) and abstraction, but this still hits with the power boot of which rock is still sometimes capable.

7. Laura Baird, I Wish I Were a Sparrow (Ba Da Bing!) + House and Land, House and Land (Thrill Jockey) For well over a half century now, significant numbers of listeners and musicians have been looking to history and tradition for inspiration. When it comes to listening, that’s cool; hey, I’m accurately pegged as belonging in that category. But on a musical level, specifically when current musicians seek to embody the sounds of old, the results can be mixed, with the downside a forced sense of the homespun or a reverence fit for museums, as just two examples.

It’s much better when a love for the music carries an artist beyond the surface and into the spirit that makes the songs and playing endure, leaving behind hang-ups over imitation and originality and simply extending the tradition with an individual stamp. That’s the case with Laura Baird, whose debut is fortified by her superb vocals and banjo, song choices that are personally meaningful rather than based in obscurity, and smart production that amongst other strong points, leaves no doubt that I Wish I Were a Sparrow was recorded in the here and now.

House and Land also avoid a purposely antiquated atmosphere, with Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise Henson offering a plunge into the vastness of Appalachia that’s robust and distinctive. While this self-titled effort is their debut as a duo, both are experienced players, Moran playing fiddle in the Black Twig Pickers and Henson releasing a string of guitar albums, including volume 12 in VDSQ Records’ Acoustic Series.

Although deft of bow and pick, the adroitness is arguably not the duo’s strongest attribute here, as they trade off lead vocals and harmonize to striking effect. Another central ingredient is the Indian Shruti box, which is used to create drones in a handful of tracks, the element insuring against throwback while registering as totally natural. If intrinsically tied to tradition, House and Land is more likely to appeal to folks into Henry Flynt than say, Chris Thile.

6. Object Collection, cheap&easy OCTOBER (Infrequent Seams), It’s All True (Slip) + Irreversible Entanglements, Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem – Don Giovani) We’re navigating through an era that’s ripe for protest, and it’s a stone inspirational gas when an example emerges that exceeds the parameters of what protest is expected to sound like. Formed in 2004 by writer/director Kara Feely and composer/musician Travis Just, the ensemble Object Collection combines performance, experimental music, and theater into a conceptual whole that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is cacophonous.

For It’s All True, the group has delivered an opera based on Fugazi’s 1987-2002 Live Archive; not the songs, but all the incidental music, dialogue, speeches, heckling, etc., though guitar, bass, and drums are still prevalent. What might read like a gimmick is simultaneously anarchic and cohesive and in the end logical, carrying the spirit of resistance in Fugazi’s body of work forward not through well-intentioned cover-song homage but as a living, breathing, heaving, immersive thing that also manages to intensify the already potent qualities of their earlier 2017 release cheap&easy OCTOBER.

Object Collection reinforce that conceptualism and protest aren’t an oil and water situation, but on their first LP, Irreversible Entanglements are more direct of message, if no less powerful. Self-described as a liberation-oriented free jazz collective, they are saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Tcheser Holmes, and poet Camae Ayewa.

Although the music will be recognizable to anyone familiar with ’60s free jazz, it’s the contribution of Ayewa, who also records as Moor Mother (in a non-jazz musical context) that brings the protest element to the foreground. The group began in 2015 (as a trio of Neuringer, Stewart, and Ayewa) to perform at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event in NYC, and this recording transpired a few months later, bringing the spirit of Archie Shepp, Amiri Baraka, and Jane Cortez hurdling into our precarious moment. To borrow the title of a book by Valerie Wilmer, it’s as serious as your life.

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