As ever, blood, sweat, tears and several industrial-strength mugs of tea have gone into this year’s round-up. Even while the ongoing impact of the pandemic continues to make musicians’ lives uncertain at best and hellish at worst, they have still managed to do us listeners proud. I have already written about some of the below on ArtMuseLondon, but I also really welcome the opportunity this feature gives me to highlight some of the great releases I couldn’t get to in ‘real time’.
I hope you find something new and intriguing in my 25 selections, and if so, I urge you to buy that record and support the artists – with likes, shares and goodwill, for sure, but also with money. Most of the titles are readily available. For any classical discs (or downloads), I would recommend Presto Music (https://www.prestomusic.com/classical). Where the best route to purchase is through the artist’s Bandcamp page, I’ve provided a link.
Thank you for reading throughout the year. Wishing you all a happy – and healthy – festive season.
Kate Arnold: ‘Rota Fortunae II’ EP
Arnold’s wholly original brew combines the ancient sound of the hammered dulcimer (plus violin and hand drum) with looping/electronica, creating a kind of early music of the future. Add her erudite, elusive lyrics and pure, forthright vocals and you hear one of our best songwriters in action.
Buy directly from the artist on Bandcamp – both this and 2020’s first ‘Rota Fortunae’ EP are warmly recommended: https://katearnolduk.bandcamp.com/
Ilker Arcayürek & Simon Lepper: ‘Franz Schubert: The Path of Life’
The duo renew their collaboration – and exploration of Schubert – with this second collection of thoughtfully-chosen and beautifully performed lieder.
Daniel Bachman: ‘Axacan’
Bachman re-tools his American Primitive guitar prowess into a masterpiece that, in marrying acoustic folk stylings with manipulation of found and recorded sounds, achieves a stunning, wordless eloquence.
Nik Bärtsch: ‘Entendre’
A solo outing for the Swiss pianist, normally leading one of his bands (Ronin or Mobile) through his self-styled ‘ritual groove music’. This album loses none of the angular funkiness of the group records, while perhaps providing a great entry point for any piano lovers drawn to Monk through to Jarrett or even Glass.
Claire Booth & Christopher Glynn: ‘Modest Mussorgsky: Unorthodox Music’
This captivating partnership continue to champion some less-frequently performed repertoire by shining a torch into the nooks and crannies – particularly in the nursery! – of Mussorgsky’s catalogue. Their rapport leaps out of the speakers, Glynn’s robust yet sensitive playing laying the foundation for an absolute tour-de-force from Booth.
Ian Bostridge & Saskia Georgini: ‘Respighi Songs’
Hopefully, this is now a collaboration we can expect to run and run. ‘Respighi Songs’ sounds like a true labour of love for both performers. The recording is sumptuous and it’s great to hear Bostridge – so readily associated with ‘Winterreise’-wracked anguish – deploying a deft, lyrical power.
Ben Chasny: ‘The Intimate Landscape’
Chasny – who normally records guitar-led psychedelic folk as Six Organs of Admittance – was invited by library music label KPM to record some acoustic miniatures for their vaults. The results were sublime, deserving release as an album proper in their own right.
Marianne Crebassa: ‘Séguedilles’
Crebassa has put together a brilliant programme with a personal connections and an irresistible theme: French composers under a Spanish influence. Utter luxury in audio form, her rich mezzo accompanied in turns by orchestra, piano and guitar.
Richard Dawson & Circle: ‘Henki’
Dawson’s freak-folk background makes this joint venture with metal legends Circle a complete surprise – at least at first. But his wild, spooked presence makes perfect sense once the riffs kick in. A modest monster.
Dead Space Chamber Music: ‘The Black Hours’
This inventive, unpredictable ensemble are impossible to classify, given their penchant for early music, avant-garde improvisation and site-specific recordings that aim to capture a literal ‘surround-sound’. Incredibly, this enigmatic approach makes it to the studio unscathed on their second full album.
Full write-up on ‘The Black Hours’ coming soon.
The Hermes Experiment: ‘Song’
More of this sort of thing. An actual band, operating within classical music. Four individuals who clearly ‘click’ naturally, but present such an unusual mix – soprano voice, harp, clarinet and double bass – that they have to create, commission or arrange their entire repertoire. This formidable, wide-ranging second album is entirely new songs, or new versions of songs – an exciting listen; a wild ride.
Anna Lapwood: ‘Images’
My album of the year. The organ could not have a more dedicated or capable ambassador than Lapwood, who has curated and performed her debut solo release with equal parts care and flair. I suspect that whether you are pulpit-deep in organ recordings or a complete novice, you’ll recognise this as an astounding achievement.
Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper: ‘Heart & Hereafter’
Another composer who deserves to be more widely known and performed – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – meets his perfect match in Llewellyn and Lepper, both able to summon the subtle flavours of swing and spirituality in his art songs.
Mastodon: ‘Hushed and Grim’
Mastodon have always married extremely gnarly, hairy metal with grand lyrical concepts and prog leanings. But their latest album – a double CD, no less – is a proper head-spinning assault. Their secret weapon is perhaps their drummer Brann Dailor, who plays as if he can hit his entire kit simultaneously.
Mdou Moctar: ‘Afrique Victime’
Not so much ‘crossing over’ as arriving at a truly seamless hybrid, Mdou Moctar follows in the footsteps of desert blues pioneers like Tinariwen, placing the unmistakeable Touareg sound in the centre of the rock band format.
Hannah Peel: ‘Fir Wave’
A composer and performer across multiple genres, Peel was invited to rework and reinterpret early electronica pieces by Delia Derbyshire (famous as the main creative force – if not the official composer – behind the original Doctor Who theme) and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A thrilling mix of analogue sounds and modern sensibility results.
Pye Corner Audio: ‘Entangled Routes’
Ghost Box Records, a cross between a record label and an alternative universe, has a roster of artists who capture (usually with atmospheric electronic instrumentals and evocative sleeve art) a time-warp world trapped in the 70s(-ish) of public information films, pre-watershed eerie TV programmes and synthesised incidental music. My favourite of these is Martin Jenkins (a.k.a. the ‘Head Technician’ of Pye Corner Audio) who brings some groove to the grit.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: ‘Raise the Roof’
So ‘Raising Sand’ wasn’t a one-off after all. 14 years after their first record together, Plant & Krauss somehow make the gap seem more like 14 days. Together, they leave their stereotyped image behind (no Led Zep grandstanding, no bluegrass purity) and create a mellow, shimmering country-rock that absolutely defines them as a duo. This second record is somehow spacier, a little more laidback than before (hey, everyone’s older, right?) and even better for it.
Linda Richardson, Sinfonia of London, John Wilson: ‘Italian Opera Arias’
John Wilson’s latest collective of crack musicians – assembled to focus on studio recordings of interesting, elusive rep – spread their wings even further in 2021, not least on this knockout recital supporting Richardson, a soprano of vast stage experience yet mystifyingly under-recorded – until now, one hopes.
Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: ‘Album für Die Frau‘
As we’ve come to expect from this duo, heartfelt performances and creative, intriguing programming characterise this thought-provoking account of work by the Schumanns. A nuanced, rewarding listen, it gathers and reassembles songs and pieces by the couple – speculative world-building emerges, but no simple conclusions. And as ever, the emotional commitment is there in every note and syllable.
Sean Shibe: ‘Camino’
Capable of anything from the utmost acoustic delicacy to squalling, amplified sheet-metal noise, Shibe is a fearsomely versatile guitar player and formidable live presence. Here he focuses on French and Spanish classical repertoire, ravishing throughout.
Georgia Train: ‘Needles & Pinches’
Train is a highly-individual singer-songwriter who, both solo and as part of the duo Bitter Ruin, has never been afraid of unleashing honest emotion in cathartic performances. Much of this album reflects, and confronts, her experience of infertility and miscarriage. Even leaving aside the importance of the record as an awareness-raiser, the irresistible power of Train’s vocals against the varied song styles and bravura production make the album as exhilarating as it is harrowing.
Buy directly from the artist on Bandcamp: https://georgiatrain.bandcamp.com/album/needles-pinches
Vanessa Wagner & Wilhelm Latchoumia: ‘This is America’
Ironically for a ‘minimalist’ album, there is an embarrassment of riches here. A perfect opportunity to hear Adams, Glass and Reich in one place, performed by a duo with the near-telepathic precision this music commands – as well as brio and balance in the Bernstein dances.
Alexandra Whittingham: ‘My European Journey’
This immaculate debut recording by the guitarist feels audibly fresh: without sacrificing any expressiveness or sensitivity, there is a sure, robust touch that makes the album fizz with energy. Can’t wait to hear more.
Solo artists Lavinia Blackwall and Laura J Martin teamed up to form this ‘super-duo’, which I hope remains a long-term concern. Both highly-distinctive vocalists, they provide ghost-in-the-machine harmonies over a ‘chamber folk’ setting – imagine someone running a few volts through the Penguin Café Orchestra. Unsettling, and utterly beguilng.
Buy directly from the artist on Bandcamp: https://wyndow.bandcamp.com/album/wyndow