Making a year-end list is a terrifying thing — it’s a thought that has been incessantly rattling around in my head since early January of this year. Having never been a music editor before, I had never felt the journalistic pressure to carve out a definitive list of my “tops.” But this year, I’ve felt an almost martyrish burn — a desire to present to Ann Arbor my name-stamped list of 2009’s finest releases. I sometimes worry that I’m just a narcissistic elitist who naively thinks he has really good taste. But what does taste even mean? Who determines the quality of taste? Is it completely subjective, or is there a sort of fuzzy logic to it, a sort of Taste God who governs a naturally occurring set of rules for listening to music? It’s probably best not to think about these things too hard — I’m just making a list, y’know.
But, for whatever reason (probably my self-awarded burden of social responsibility), I have been working like a hog to compile an unbiased, well-informed list of this year’s musical releases. And it has been very difficult, because I don’t personally know most musicians. So I have to rely on this phenomenon called “word of mouth,” that I acquire from (at least in my personal little media outlet-bubble) either websites or friends and from print resources like The Michigan Daily.
But in this process of trying to dig deep into 2009’s entire music catalogue — by lamely checking out Best New Music on a few different sites and by having a friend who is obnoxiously good at rummaging around and finding obscure albums — I have stumbled across a few gems that my Spider Sense tells me most people probably haven’t heard, but probably should (if they want).
Most of these albums are pretty strange. A few of them are so strange they’re even jazz! I employ this sarcasm because I feel like jazz carries around a bit of a stigma — it’s “big,” it’s “bulky,” it’s “meandering,” it’s “difficult.” While the quintessential college audiophile tends to dabble in established forces like Mingus and Coltrane, the hipster-pop-culture bubble has been largely impermeable to modern jazz releases. In my time here, the Daily has not once reviewed a jazz album. And while Pitchfork does an excellent job breaking indie bands and making it very convenient for everyone to browse through what they deem hot shit, they have basically tiptoed around the contemporary jazz current (sure, they’ll vaunt their appreciation of a Miles Davis reissue, but they’ll never touch anything by fresher virtuosos like Dave Holland or Dave Douglas).
While there is surely a wealth of jazz-devoted websites that have answered to this cultural segregation, many of them don’t even offer any quantitative measure of albums’ worth. Jazzreview.com and Allaboutjazz.com both provide album descriptions, but refuse to dole out letter grades or stars. Perhaps it’s all part of a human collective fear to objectively assess the value of jazz. Jazz is rarely cliché or half-baked in the way that a “bad” pop album is. It’s supremely difficult to decipher what constitutes “bad” jazz, because the musicianship is consistently airtight and the arrangements are predictably unpredictable. Jazz is rarely in-your-face bad; it’s usually a simple matter of how viscerally engaging the experimentation is. And for this reason, it’s incredibly difficult to review — a condition that has rarefied the genre in the realm of popular music criticism.
And, ultimately, we’re missing out. According to my ears, there are a few jazz records from 2009 that would have crossover potential if only they managed to bust through the blockage in our generation’s information hotline. Take, for example, saxophonist Chris Potter. Ultrahang, his latest release, is harder than most modern day hip-hop LPs, snarkily subverting the bad rap that pedicured schlock like “smooth jazz” has unfairly netted the genre. Stuffed full of angular, sucker-punching hooks that snake sharply around time signatures, reforming and deforming over funky, crackling rhythm sections, the album’s aesthetic is almost like a jazz-fused version of math rock. And while there’s a heavy drizzle of foregrounded musicianship throughout — the group often sounds like a jam band with rabies — the songs avoid the stuffy back-and-forth soloing of straight-ahead jazz, slip-sliding along on jagged but cohesive song structures.
A couple of the year’s best “jazz” releases have actually been jazz-electronica hybrids. While there may be a gaping generational spilt between the heyday of these two genres, their fusion actually makes perfect sense. Jazz, a genre that’s always been about pushing the boundaries, is practically tailor-made for the synthesized sonic infinity that electronic production provides.
Genre-mutants like this year’s Moodswing Orchestra by jazz drummer Ben Perowsky take the improvisation and instrumentation of jazz and immerse these elements in exotic studio-produced worlds. On “1972,” the album takes an ethereal flute composition reminiscent of a beatnik nightclub and digi-crunches it eerily with tweaked game show noises over a limber trip-hop beat. And trumpeter Ben Neill has smudged these generic boundaries with his invention of the “mutantrumpet,” an instrument that blends brass with silicon, employing an analog processing system that allows him to digitally alter his music on the fly. Night Science, his broodingly minimalist 2009 release, sounds much closer in spirit to dub-step than to jazz.
So while it’s almost a given that none of these albums will find their way onto any of this year’s standard-issue year-end lists, they are certainly worth knowing about (Double Booked by Robert Glasper and O’o by John Zorn are also work checking out). The only issue: These albums are not readily available for illegal downloading. Long live capitalism!