The best music I heard in 2018

I listened to roughly 200 recordings for the first time this year; here are my favorites. As with previous iterations, this list is a purely personal choice not restricted by what was commercially released in 2018. But more new and recent releases did make their way onto my list this year – perhaps I am starting to catch up?

  • Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings. Rarely have I heard music that from the first listen is both so immediately appealing and so obviously different from anything else. Groove-oriented free jazz would be one way to describe it; “organic beat music” is his preferred term. More background on this sprawling masterpiece is in Giovanni Russonello’s profile and Nate Chinen’s review.
  • Thumbscrew – Theirs. I can’t keep up with all of Mary Halvorson’s projects, but I really enjoyed her trio’s fresh takes on other people’s jazz compositions (not quite “standards”). The moody version of Jimmy Rowles The Peacocks is a highlight; by coincidence I also heard the original with Stan Getz for the first time this year, and it is well worth seeking out.
  • Alice Coltrane – Transfiguration. Her more spiritual 1970s work has been getting a well-deserved reassessment, thanks to some recent reissues. But this monstrous live album with Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes is my pick for her best from that era.
  • Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Smith’s music was one of my great discoveries this year. It’s hard to single out one recording in particular but this duet with Vijay Iyer is a perfect showcase for his gorgeous long tones and masterful use of space.
  • Ergo – If Not Inertia. A gorgeous jazz tapestry featuring trombone, electronics and prepared piano, as well as a couple of guest turns by Mary Halvorson.
  • Jeremy Steig, Flute FeverOn this 1963 recording, Steig seems like he is setting out to prove that the flute is just as powerful a jazz instrument as the tenor sax. He succeeds brilliantly.
  • Don Ellis – Essence. The modernist trumpeter spent most of his career fronting a big band, but for me his most interesting work was a series of small-group albums from the early 1960s. This quartet with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock is my favorite; their trio Out Of Nowhere is also worthwhile.
  • Joe Venuti & Earl Hines – Hot Sonatas. An absolutely delightful duet between two giants of early jazz. It was recorded in 1975, very late in both their careers, but you will hear nothing but tremendous vitality.
  • Johnny Dodds – Blue Clarinet Stomp and New Orleans Stomp. Dodds was the clarinetist in Louis Armstrong’s classic Hot Fives sessions. These small-group recordings, made under his own name from 1926-1929, capture some of that same primal jazz magic.
  • Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues: Volume 2, 1926-33. Bessie Smith is part of the bedrock of American popular music. If like me you had somehow skipped that part of your musical education, this collection is an excellent way to hear her incredible voice.
  • Various Artists – The Keynote Jazz Collection 1941-1947. A massive and wonderful collection highlighting the transition from small-group swing to bop. There is some great Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie here, and some surprising early avant-gardism from Lennie Tristano, but mainly lots of work by less well-known journeymen.
  • Albert King – I’ll Play The Blues For You. An absolutely ripping live album, fusing King’s searing blues guitar with the funk of the Bar-Kays (at the time, Isaac Hayes’ backing band).
  • Errol Brown – Orthodox Dub  & Yabby You – Beware Dub. Brilliant-yet-obscure reggae albums should in theory be a finite resource close to exhaustion, and yet somehow the crate diggers keep finding more to reissue. These are both masterpieces of dub and instrumental reggae.
  • Pierre Fournier – Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello. I don’t listen to a lot of traditional classical music, but I do find myself often going back to Bach. This year I rediscovered these mindblowing, heartbreaking compositions through this classic 1961 recording.

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