It’s that time of year again. End-of-year lists in various digital and print media.. The only one of them that I really bother with nowadays is that put together by The Wire (or is it just Wire, which does run rather less trippingly off the tongue?), which I have dutifully poured over, in the fortnight or so just before Xmas, ever since I first subscribed to the magazine in 1985. When it was mainly a jazz/improv publication (i.e. from its inception in 1982 through to around 1990/91), I was on fairly solid ground, knowing most of the artists featuring in the lists, and having a good idea as whether I would enjoy the ones that I hadn’t heard. It was also, of course, well before the internet and listening platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. Nowadays, I haven’t heard, or even heard of, many of the groups and individuals, but can at least get hold of their albums (if still appropriate to use such an anachronistic term) to give them a once-over before investing in buying them in a hard copy format.
This year, 2018, represents a new milestone (or should that be millstone) for me, in that I have finally hardly heard of any of the artists in the ‘Releases of the Year’ List, apart from some usual suspects such as Jim O’Rourke, Low and Yo La Tango. There are at least 30 that I have never come across, let alone listened to. Some would say this is exactly as it should be, a 63-year old man feeling ‘;out of touch’ with modern music, especially marginalised ‘underground music’. Now, I can remember when that term was first bandied about, in 1969/70, when even such now- sacred rock bands as Led Zeppelin and King Crimson were shoehorned into this most vague of genres. The burgeoning counterculture demanded such a ‘heavy’ epithet to describe for it’s sounds, but the term soon became meaningless as the scene soon became commodified and commercialised to the point of absurdity, before the advent of punk rendered it redundant. This current generation’s ‘underground’ is certainly below ground as far as this ageing listener is concerned, hence I felt it incumbent on myself to have a good old proper extended listen to at least one of the top ten to see what I might be listening. But which one? My favorites this year have been Death Grips’s latest, Year of the Snitch, and Current 93′s unusually coherent autumn release, The Light Is Leaving Us All, neither of which feature anywhere in Wire’s formulations.
I thought about Sons of Kemet and Your Queen Is a Reptile. A great title, and a vehicle of one of English Free Improv’s ,most promising young players, but in the end I plumped for editor Derek Walmsey’s individual fave, and number 3 in the main list, Ben LaMar’s Downtown Castes Can Never Block the Sun. Gay is/was a member of Chicago institution the AACM and plays cornet and a plethora of samples. Most reviewers focus on his eclecticism and sheer stylistic variety. Stewart Smith opined in June’s Wire that “Gay constructs a cosmic pan-American music that dissolves temporal and spatial boundaries…covers a huge swathe of territory while being remarkably cohesive”. I’ve put the record down as a potential present for myself in our family Secret Santa list (it’s a wee bit expensive for an impulse buy), but have given it a few prior listens on YouTube. It’s too early by far to say whether this is an album of ‘remarkable cohesion’ or a clever mixture of genres in which the whole fails to rise above the sum of its parts. Initial impressions are certainly of a carnivalesque mix, and there are instant reminders, for me, of the AACM diaspora (shades of the Art Ensemble with Lester Bowie, Henry Threadgill, Braxton); the Black Artists Group of St. Louis (Oliver Lake, Olu Daru, Julius Hemphill); the early-80s ‘Mutant Disco’ sylists such as Material and Coati Mundi; the herky-jerkiness of ‘Math-Jazz’ (if I am allowed to coin a genre name!); Tropicalia from Brazil, where Gay lived for a time; electronic soundscapes; and a few short spoken word pieces that put me in mind of Tom Waits.
It’s a lot to be getting on with, so I just hope that Santa can fit the vinyl copy down our modest chimney on the day in question.