The selections below cover both classical and rock/folk/electronica, in the hope that many of you will want to browse the lot. However - here's a brief digest for purists, with my album(s) of the year in bold type:
Classical: Hans Abrahamsen / Barbara Hannigan, Mahan Esfahani, Jamie Barton & Brian Zeger, Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau, Ian Bostridge & Xuefei Yang, Copland / John Wilson, Ruby Hughes & Joseph Middleton, Pavel Kolesnikov, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Roderick Williams & Iain Burnside.
(I had to pick joint 'winners' for the classical recordings as the Sampson/Middleton recording is so recent. I think, however, that I've already played it as much as all of the others.)
Rock/folk/electronica: Baltic Fleet, Brian Eno, The Handsome Family, The Olympians, Jo Quail, Raf and O, Sieben, Silver Apples, Trembling Bells, Wolf People.
(One last thing - I appreciate that some people prefer not to use Spotify, and I can be ambivalent towards it myself: for me, it's strictly a 'try before you buy' tool. I have only used Spotify links below where I reached the 'tearing my hair out' point trying to find suitable audio on YouTube, Bandcamp or similar.)
Hans Abrahamsen, Paul Griffiths: 'let me tell you' - Barbara Hannigan with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons
Although BH is without doubt a fearless and at times showstopping performer, it was interesting that two lower-key recordings emerged this year that were just as powerful as her more flamboyant enterprises. I love her Satie disc with Reinbert de Leeuw, 'Socrate', but this new Abrahamsen song cycle just had me spellbound. (And given its success in end-of-year lists and awards, many other listeners, too.) The text, adapted by Griffiths from his own novella, paints an alternative portrait of Ophelia using only her words from 'Hamlet'. But it's Hannigan, waving rather than drowning amid the orchestra, who gives her three dimensions.
Bach: 'Goldberg Variations' - Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord
ME is a champion of the harpsichord in all senses of the word. He must be one of the greatest players in action today - however, he also speaks eruditely and engagingly about the music during his recitals, which often have a touch of the 'evil genius' about their programming. Refusing to limit the harpsichord to past glories, he airs recent and contemporary material, sometimes using double tracking or electronics to realise his ambitions. So, after a wide-ranging debut disc for DG, it was fascinating to hear him tackle one of the great works from start to finish on the follow-up. I have a few Goldberg recordings and this is rapidly becoming my favourite: so consistent is the sound that it feels as if musician and machine are one entity. Once I put it on, I can't stop it until it's finished.
Baltic Fleet: 'The Dear One'
Paul Fleming (the one-man band behind Baltic Fleet) returned with a third album of soaring instrumentals which seem to combine several of my favourite things: excellent deployment of synthesiser buzz and squelch, skyscraping melodies and tight, relentless beats. As much as I love 'high-end' electronica (Jean Michel Jarre, say, or Vangelis), the Baltic Fleet sound - somehow dense and wide-screen simultaneously - allows you to hear the painstaking assembly of the thing, and is all the better for it. 'Lights of Rock Savage':
Jamie Barton, Brian Zeger: 'All Who Wander'
This CD is almost self-recommending. Anyone lucky enough (like me) to be at JB's debut recital at Wigmore Hall this year will recall its real 'event' atmosphere - and that exhilarating feeling of a glorious voice barely contained by the venue is brilliantly captured on this disc. A great choice of repertoire: JB proves majestic in Mahler, dramatic yet agile in Dvořák and - in perhaps the highlight sequence - radiating a stately beauty in Sibelius. BZ is a robust and reactive partner. Sibelius's 'Flickan kom ifran sin alsklings mote (The girl returned from meeting her lover)':
Florian Boesch, Malcolm Martineau: 'Schubert'
After recording the three great song cycles, these regular recital partners produced a magical disc of 'stand-alone' Schubert lieder. Boesch gives a carefully calibrated performance, not quite the caressing tone of, say, Christian Gerhaher's 'Nachtviolen' disc, but brilliantly controlled: sometimes the ever-versatile Martineau takes the 'dramatic' lead over FB's conspiratorial tone. Then, when the voice is fully unleashed - for example, in 'Der Zwerg' - it's phenomenal. A spirited 'Fischerweise' aside, the mood is largely measured, the cumulative effect formidable. 'Am Tag Aller Seelen':
Ian Bostridge, Xuefei Yang: 'Songs From Our Ancestors'
A strong year for IB, with the 'Shakespeare Songs' collaboration with Antonio Pappano (and others, including lute genius Elizabeth Kenny) also something of a winner. But this recording has the edge - and it's certainly one of my discs of the year. It's the first release on a label run by Shakespeare's Globe, confusingly enough, to showcase music performed in its Sam Wanamaker Playhouse indoor space. In such an intimate arena, IB seems to find almost a new voice - not exactly relaxed, but miles away from his 'I'll get through this if it kills me' setting - and it's XY who punctuates his notes with a lively, kinetic accompaniment. In fact, at times it's The Xuefei Yang Show, as her solo guitar pieces astonish (especially the marvellous 'Sword Dance'). The programme, ranging from early music to newly-commissioned works, really satisfies. It's as if the duo, wondering if they'd ever get to do this again, threw as many elements in as they could to represent their two worlds. But this isn't their first recording together (see the excellent 'Britten Songs' CD) and I hope it's far from the last. Dowland's 'Come again, sweet love doth now invite':
Copland: 'Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 - Ballets' - BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Wilson
I realise that I'm such a song/opera person that it's quite rare for an orchestral disc to barge a few contenders out of the way and lodge itself in my end-of-year rave... but this recording is irresistible. While JW is surely now best known for his Orchestra's revivals of great US songbook/musical material, his affinity clearly extends to American classical and he brings the same 'brio' to this selection of some of Copland's best-loved works. I couldn't find a studio extract, but here's a concert with the same personnel, marrying much of the disc content with some Barber and Bernstein:
Brian Eno: 'The Ship'
I don't know if Brian Eno actually woke up one morning and thought, 'I know - what if I made an album of songs, but recorded it as if it was one of my ambient ones?' (Or vice versa.) But that appears to be exactly what he's done with 'The Ship'. Restful, enveloping, but somehow sinister, the title track stretches out to the length of a side - in old money. Appropriately enough, it manages to be both beautiful and eerie in the way the shipping forecast itself can be (as befits a lyric inspired by the Titanic). The multi-part track taking up the second half of the album, 'Fickle Sun', features a computer-generated poem read by Peter Serafinowicz, then morphs into a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground's 'I'm Set Free'. Eno hasn't sung on an album in some time, but here he marries his rich, elder-statesman vocal with the tracked harmony approach reminiscent from some of his production work (particularly with the band James). An album to lose yourself in:
The Handsome Family: 'Unseen'
It's hard to know what to say about husband-and-wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks that I haven't already. They have been such a constant, consistent presence in my listening life for so long. I can't imagine a situation where every couple of years, another ten or twelve perfectly-wrought, haunted short stories set to stealthily catchy Americana doesn't arrive - but luckily, as yet I haven't had to. Two decades or so into their career, they suddenly came to wider public consciousness when their song 'Far From Any Road' was chosen as the theme to series 1 of 'True Detective'. (And the album that track hails from, 'Singing Bones', is an absolute belter.) But this latest record is right up their with their best - the deceptively gentle country-ish sway is actually swinging you over the edge of the abyss. Here's the lead track, 'Gold':
Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton: 'Nocturnal Variations'
JM - of whom more later - seems to have a habit of collaborating with singers to produce superbly-programmed recital discs. These 'songs of the night' sit together superbly - starting with Schubert's melodicism but progressing through Mahler, Berg and Britten to take us into a rather more disturbed, agitated dreamscape. Astonishingly, this is RH's debut song CD as solo singer: I love the regulated drama of her tone and her mastery of dynamics - as well as a real sense of control which unifies the selections, however stormy or serene. If anything, the Britten songs carry the day, where JM is clearly in his element - it's no wonder that the partnership also shine (along with other fine singers) on JM's album of Britten's Purcell Songs (also 2016). Schubert's 'Abendstern' features in the promotional clip for 'Nocturnal Variations':
Chopin: 'Mazurkas' - Pavel Kolesnikov, piano
I don't yet know as much about PK as I would like - I've yet to hear him live (hopefully fixing that in 2017), so my experience is limited to his two CDs for Hyperion: Tchaikovsky's 'Seasons' and now this. I feel there's so much to like about this collection - it's certainly confidently and winningly played. However, I can identify two aspects of the disc that explain why it appeals to my tastes so much. First, in the performance, I feel that PK never forgets that the pieces are rooted in dance, and even the more measured numbers reflect that rhythmic lilt. Second, the recording is just glorious. Thanks to whatever sonic alchemy occurs between the recording technicians and PK's left hand, there's a terrific 'bottom end' in the sound that really keeps the motor running. 'Mazurka in A minor', Op 68 no. 2:
The Olympians: 'The Olympians'
If I have a prejudice or bias in choosing this album, it's perhaps that I have a planet-sized soft spot for house bands. Stax had Booker T and the MGs, Studio One had Sound Dimension... and the great modern soul label Daptone Records seemingly has a whole host of musicians that have come together in various combinations - including the Budos Band and the Menahan Street Band, who have made superb instrumental albums in their own right. The Olympians project - the name seems to belong to the band, the album and the concept - brings together a large collective of these folk for more vocal-free goodness. I particularly like the way (and this might appeal to fans of, say, early Lambchop) that such a sizeable gathering plays with such discipline and restraint to make an undeniably funky, but laidback, sound. A modest triumph. 'Mercury's Odyssey':
Jo Quail: 'Five Incantations'
JQ may not need an introduction to many Specs readers, but for those unfamiliar: she is a cellist and composer who uses looping technology to perform her incantatory creations live. That's a massive over-simplification of her accomplishments, though - equally adept on both acoustic and electric cello, her body of work ranges from her solo recordings and performances to longer-form classical arrangements and compositions for multiple musicians: a recent highlight being the 20-minute 'This Path With Grace', for strings and choir. Always open to keeping pieces alive with onstage collaboration and improvisation with guest musicians, by contrast JQ finally achieved another contrasting ambition on disc: a solo suite of linked sections, playable note for note from start to finish by her alone. It's an enthralling work: taking the elements as inspiration, for every soaring rush ('White Salt Stag', and especially the unstoppable, yet unpredictable rhythms of 'Salamander'), there's calmer contemplation ('The Breathing Hand', 'Between Two Waves'), all building to the unforgettable climax of 'Gold', which brings all the moods of the album together magnificently. Here's an edit of 'Gold', but really you need the full version, so I'd buy the album without hesitation if I were you:
Raf and O: 'Portal'
Sometimes, it feels to easy to type: 'Here's a band that doesn't sound like anybody else.' But here's a band that doesn't sound like anybody else. Duo Raf and O are the closest I've heard a group come to embodying the phrase 'ghost in the machine'. Raf's vocals might be otherworldy but her voice can convey worlds of frailty or fortitude. Supporting her electric guitar caresses, 'O' drums on a kit that is, in turn, fed through electronics that turn him into a futuristic percussion ensemble - as if a drum machine wanted to play in the style of a real human. As a result, their music - especially on the perfectly-named 'Portal' - sits on some kind of border between pop as we know it, and pop as we don't. Magical, enigmatic. 'Sonnet 62':
Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton: 'A Verlaine Songbook'
CS made her entry into the world of art song - aided and abetted by the redoubtable JM - early last year with 'Fleurs', my favourite classical disc of 2015. Clearly toying with me, they've unleashed the follow-up just before the end of this year, so I haven't had that long to live with it. No matter. Arguably, it's even better than its predecessor: this time, there's a more completely realised overall mood - as all the texts are by Verlaine, we're more or less wholly in the sensual, seductive world of the 'mélodie'. What better guides than that beautiful, endlessly flexible and nimble voice, supported by such versatile, responsive accompaniment? I've already played this more times than I care to count - it seems to afford limitless listening pleasure. Sadly, I can't find any evidence at all of a CS/JM Verlaine performance online - the closest I can get is this live rendition of a Fauré song from 'Fleurs',
'Les roses d'Isaphan', which will at least give you some idea of their approach:
Sieben: 'The Old Magic'
Sieben is the songwriting/performing alias of Matt Howden, another artist who I already feel hugely evangelical about - and who then routinely justifies that faith by releasing ever more brilliant records. One reason MH is so good is his restlessness and innovation: using a violin and loop station (and yes, he is a kindred spirit and collaborator with Jo Quail, mentioned above), he adds precision lyrics to persuasive grooves: rejecting, revisiting, revitalising themes and concepts - and sometimes entire songs - moving them on, refining them as he wrests more and more sonic possibilities from his set-up. Embarking on a series of EPs that, in the words, resurrected both past societies, and at the same time, past themes that he had purposefully buried, MH excavated on, honing the EP tracks themselves into an emerging, coherent whole. As a result, 'The Old Magic' album is a work crafted with extraordinary commitment and care, bolstered by its companion CD 'The Other Side of the River', which features original EP versions and what, in old money, would be 'B-sides', covers of older Sieben tracks in 'Old Magic' style. Still a one-man band, he is now the master of an electronic string orchestra thanks to his pedals, singing with great range and greater confidence, creating a sound that's memorably heavy, knotty, organic and immersive. Unmissable. Here's the title track:
Silver Apples: 'Clinging To A Dream'
I don't know too many details about the history of Silver Apples, except that they go back some 50 years, and the founder - and now sole - member is a chap called Simeon. The band - or at least the band name - has survived record company collapse, years of inactivity, serious injury and even death. Woozily psychedelic with a backbone of motorik oomph, this new record was his/their first in nearly two decades, and arrived not a moment too soon. The lovely opening track, 'The Edge of Wonder':
Trembling Bells: 'Wide Majestic Aire'
One of the UK's finest bands continued their full-on, at-the-top-of-their-game and hopefully infinite imperial phase by releasing this more folk-orientated companion CD (some say mini-album, but there are enough ideas on this for a box set) to 'The Sovereign Self', their rockier, genre-defying epic album of 2015. The title track (video below) feels like a standard of tomorrow, while songs like 'England was Aghast' demonstrate TB's perfect-storm combination of complex, winding melody and exquisite turns of phrase. There's always a joyous friction between Lavinia Blackwall's vocals - by turns angelic and earth(l)y - and the band's combustion engine of twin guitar, keyboards, bass - plus drummer and songwriter-in-chief Alex Nielson's jazz-inflected insistence on playing his kit like the lead instrument.
Roderick Williams, Iain Burnside: 'Schubert Lieder: Der Wanderer'
The second in pianist IB's series of Schubert discs on Delphian (following the wonderful 'Nacht und Träume' with Ailish Tynan) places the excellent RW centre-stage. As the name suggests, the track selection reflects the recurring 'wanderer' theme in a number of Schubert songs, perfect for the singer's rich, but never overpowering, baritone. There are moments of righteous gusto (the CD begins at a great clip with 'Wilkommen und Abschied' - see the extract below, filmed by Katherine Cooper of Presto Classical) - but perhaps the disc scales its greatest heights at its most tender and contemplative: a delicately hymnal 'Wandrers Nachtlied II' and a beautiful version of one of my personal favourites, 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen'.
Wolf People: 'Ruins'
Wolf People are one of the best live bands I've seen in recent years. Sometimes, it's hard to believe they're actually current: they appear to have beamed in from a far longer-haired, wider-trousered time when an entire record could be sustained by a riff and a sense of wonder. Catchy and tuneful, but also a mite spooked - and devoutly respecting the occasional need for a 'wig-out' - it's a pleasure to report that new album 'Ruins' more than matches past glories. Here's 'Ninth Night':
As a post-script, I wanted to quickly mention a few 2016 reissues - so, not part of the main list, but worth a look:
Dead Can Dance: 'Garden of the Arcane Delights / Peel Sessions'
4AD are reissuing their DCD catalogue on vinyl. To bolster the re-release of the 4-song EP 'Garden of the Arcane Delights', they have added the band's Peel Sessions. In a fan-friendly move that does them great credit, they have also put this title out on CD, so that non-vinyl buyers can also have access to the Peel recordings. They are well worth acquiring for that 'live in the studio' feel that adds a bit of extra energy to some of the album versions - this thunderous version of 'Threshold', for instance:
Herbie Nichols: Four Great Albums
A woefully-underrated jazz pianist, Herbie Nichols seemed to slip under the radar and - unless I'm wrong - his Blue Note recordings simply went out of print for well over a decade. Reissue label Avid to the rescue, with four lovely albums on a 2CD package. Looks a bit primitive, but the musical contents are anything but. Here's 'Step Tempest':
I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the reformed Pentangle at what might have been one of their very final gigs before the death of the great Bert Jansch. (Now, of course, his sparring partner John Renbourn has gone, too.) I had no idea any of those late concerts were taped, or that some years later, we would now have the permanent record - a great memory, and fine performances. This is 'Hunting Song':