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Nonesuch Albums Abound in Year-End Best Lists

  • Wednesday, December 24, 2008
    Nonesuch Albums Abound in Year-End Best Lists

    While 2008 may go down as one of the more turbulent years in recent (or distant) memory, or, more optimistically, a time of change, there is much to celebrate in the year in music. Nonesuch artists across all genres have contributed to that and, accordingly, have made their way onto many critics' lists of the year's best. For the final Nonesuch Journal article of the year, here is an overview of just some of that year-end critical praise.

    POP/ROCK

    Though it was released early in the year, The Magnetic Fields's January release, Distortion—Stephin Merritt's fuzzed-out paean to Jesus & Mary Chain—was impossible to forget nearly 12 months later. It's No. 25 on Rolling Stone's list of the Top 50 albums, and the magazine's critic Christian Hoard places it in his own Rolling Stone Top 10; it lands at No. 10 on Robert Christgau's Top 25 in Slate. Time Out New York's Jay Ruttenberg also places it in his Top 10, writing that "it takes more than feedback to drown out Stephin Merritt’s old-fashioned pop wit." It's No. 23 on Atlanta Journal-Constitution sportswriter David O'Brien's Top 50, and the Chattanooga Pulse puts it at No. 2 on its Top 10, describing the album as "drenched in delicious feedback" and finding Stephin's lyrics "at their most droll, painting mischievous song portraits strewn with sex and violence."

    One track off the album, "The Nun's Litany," made Pitchfork's list of the year's 100 best songs. The site's Douglas Wolk calls it "a great song about longing to be perceived as a sexual being, and an even better joke, because Stephin Merritt knows how ludicrous that longing can be."

    Distortion was also nominated for the All Songs Considered listener's poll of year's best from NPR, as were Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, Punch Brothers' Punch, and The Black Keys' Attack & Release.

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    That last, The Black Keys' latest album, which hit stores in April, placed 17 on the final list of poll winners featured on All Songs Considered. The albums was cited for "its arresting mix of crunchy guitars and thundering rhythms" along with the Keys' "more thoughtful side ... making it the band's richest and most diverse recording to date."

    The Independent's Andy Gill, in his review of the year in music, says The Black Keys produced an album "of startling impact" with Attack & Release. Time Out New York music writer Colin St. John names Attack & Release as No. 3 of the year's best albums. "Balls-out blues-rock from Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (not to mention producer Danger Mouse)," says St. John, "grabbed you by the throat: a ton of attack, not much release."

    The New York Post places it at No. 6 on its list of the year's ten best, exclaiming:

    With a little help from Gnarls Barkley knob twirler Danger Mouse, this Akron, Ohio, band delivers a stylistically diverse record that owes debts to countrified blues, Southern rock and Who-like power chords. This is a raw, sparse guitar 'n' drums disc reminiscent of the best White Stripes and, in the more elaborately arranged tunes, the Raconteurs.

    The Associated Press's Jake Coyle concurs, putting Attack & Release at No. 8 in his list of the year's Top 10 rock albums. "The Black Keys could be anyone's favorite band," writes Coyle. "Two goofy dudes from Akron, Ohio, who make some of the rawest, most soulful blues. This is their most dynamic and full album yet, which can be partly attributed to producer Danger Mouse."

    Stereogum has it at No. 36 on its list of the 50 best albums of the year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O’Brien hast it at No. 30, and NME at No. 45.

    Rolling Stone places Attack & Release at No. 15 on its list of the 50 best albums of the year. The magazine also has the album track "I Got Mine" at No. 23 in the Rolling Stone list of the Top 100 Singles of the Year, exclaiming that the "duo pack an epic blues jam into four hard-rocking minutes of bliss."

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    One spot away from Attack & Release on Rolling Stone's album list is Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, at No. 16. Also in Rolling Stone, critic Christian Hoard includes it in his own Top 10 of the year.

    Time Out New York's Jay Ruttenberg places it at the very top of his list. "The master songwriter unveils a casually ambitious record that flaunts contemporary America in all its shame and glory, pathos and humor," writes Ruttenberg of his No. 1 pick. His colleague, associate editor Hank Shteamer, puts it at No. 9, saying, "The sly showman’s latest drew you in with caustic politics and kept you riveted with plainspoken tenderness."

    Bloomberg contributor Mark Beech's year-end review says that "for all the commercial hype of rock’s household names, the finest recordings of 2008 came from unexpected sources," including Newman, who, with Harps and Angels, was among the "veteran stars showed the youngsters how to do it in 2008 ... providing understated excellence by songwriters who don’t have to try too hard."

    His Bloomberg colleague Douglas Lytle agrees, placing Harps and Angels among the Best American CDs for 2008. "Newman’s non-film work is getting rarer, writes Lytle. "We can only marvel at many of the 10 tracks, including 'A Piece of the Pie' and 'Losing You.'"

    That latter song, "Losing You," has struck a chord both with critics and with fans, many of whom have left their comments here on the Nonesuch site. New York Times critic Nate Chinen picks it as one of his favorite songs of the year, as does the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dan DeLuca, who includes it in his annual mix tape, stating: "Harps and Angels is full of vintage, caustic Newman. This is the heartbreaker." (The album made honorable mention on DeLuca's year-end Top 10 list.)

    CNN’s Marquee Blog, while refusing to call its year-end wrap-up a best-of list, offers its three favorite records of the year, including Randy’s Harps and Angels with TV on the Radio and Bob Dylan, and seeing in it "the sharp observation of his best work."

    Slate didn't shy from the best-of list: Robert Christgau places Harps and Angels as the No. 6 album and the album track "Potholes" as the No. 8 song of the year. (He also adds Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" as the "Obama song of the year.")

    PopMatters includes Harps and Angels at No. 8 among the Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008. "What’s great about Randy Newman," writes reviewer Ron Hart, "is that he’s possibly the only artist in American pop who can offer the most touching, gushing scores for films and then deliver what could very well be the most controversial album created by a white man in 2008. Harps and Angels belongs up there with 12 Songs and Sail Away as one of Newman’s greatest works.”

    The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot includes Harps and Angels at No. 19 of records he returned to most in 2008. Q magazine includes it among the 50 Best Albums of the Year, as do the pop editors at All Music. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida puts the album at No. 1, with writer Sean Daly calling it "sad, funny and, in the end, hopeful. Just when we needed it most." Uncut places the album at No. 14 of 50, MOJO has it at No. 25 of 50, and Blender has it at No. 9 of 33.

    For a unique perspective on the year-end's best list, Entertainment Weekly turned to bestselling author Stephen King, a regular contributor to the magazine, who places Randy's new record at No. 9 of his Top 10 Albums of 2008. "This bitter, smiling satire is Newman's best album since Good Old Boys (released way back in '74)," writes King. "The lead track feels like biography, and songs like 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' gleam with ironic good cheer."

    The Onion's A.V. Club, as one might expect, goes for a less horror-hued angle, asking "Weird" Al Yankovic for his favorite. And that would be Harps and Angels. "His biting wit and formidable musicianship never fail to amaze and delight me," says "Weird" Al of Randy.

    The Independent
    in the UK also turns outside the critic's circle, listing records of the year "by the people who should know," namely other artists. Singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson picks Randy's album as well. "He's still better than anyone else at writing those witty, conversational songs that make you nod and laugh out loud when you listen," Thompson says. "Newman is a real composer and the inventiveness that goes into every song puts us 'pop' musicians to shame. An old-fashioned big production."

    Other contributors to the Independent's list include Amadou of Amadou & Mariam, who goes for Akon's Freedo; Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, who picks a collection of global music from the first half of the 20th century; and Emmylou Harris, who picks Levon Helm's new record.

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    Speaking of Emmylou Harris, her latest album, Stumble into Grace, makes Q's list of the 50 Best Albums of the Year, and her fellow singer-songwriter k.d. lang makes the Teletext Top 50 with her latest, Watershed. Emmylou also lands at No. 8 on PopMatters' unusual category of Best Records of 2008 by Women 45 Years Old and Over. "Can this really be Emmylou Harris’s 21st studio album on a major label," the site asks rhetorically. "Her work ethic is only rivaled by her talents and concern for the world in which we live."

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    Topping that PopMatters list is Sam Phillips and her latest, Don't Do Anything. Explaining its No. 1 pick, the site says:

    The disc reveals her eclectic pop sensibilities in a mysterious, incandescent way. Sometimes she invokes the spirit of the Beatles ("My Career in Chemistry") and other times she digs into gospel ("Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us"); but no matter what muse she conjures, the music seems taken out of the blue sky and the storm clouds and finds itself transformed into some ethereal place where we all live and listen for signs and wonders. There’s a delicacy to the whole project with the tensile properties of stainless steel.

    Don't Do Anything lands on another list from PopMatters, as well: its Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008. Placing the album at No. 4, the site's editors cite "its intriguing abstractions and the singer-songwriter’s balance between Zen philosophy and precise control."

    NPR's Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered, declared himself a fan of Sam's work earlier this year, hosting her in his office for a Tiny Desk Concert in June. He places her at No. 5 of his picks for 2008's best music. Says Boilen:

    Sam Phillips makes the records I'd always hoped Paul McCartney would make, with haunting pop music and the perfect band: drummer Jay Bellerose and Erik Gorfain, who lends guitar and violin and banjo and mandolin and baritone guitar. Phillips is just about the best pop-music songwriter there is: I wish she weren't so sad, but then her songs might lose their longing and their ache.

    WORLD

    The next slot on Boilen's list, at No. 6, is Toumani Diabaté's The Mandé Variations. Boilen writes:

    Some musicians conjure up music that's so beautiful, it transcends comprehension. I have been listening to kora player Toumani Diabaté for 20 years, and his playing on this harp from Mali is always otherworldly. There are a few musicians I'd love to interview, but my question for Diabate would be a simple one: Where does your music come from? It simply can't be this planet. The Mandé Variations is his first solo record in 20 years. It is this music—this kora music, all alone, with no singing—that I first fell in love with, and it slays me all over again here.

    Boilen's colleague at NPR, Banning Eyre, agrees, placing The Mandé Variations at No. 5 on his list of the Best African Music of 2008. On the new album, says Eyre, Toumani "returns to the solo format that launched him internationally in 1987, and he lives up to his star billing. These profoundly poised interpretations of Mandé traditional repertoire cast a deep spell with understatement and subtlety."

    On NPR affiliate station WNYC, John Schaefer includes Toumani's album in his "list for the Age of the iPod Shuffle," Genre Mix: Top 10 Albums of 2008. Says Schaefer, "These exquisite compositions use the traditional but highly sophisticated tuning and interplay of the instrument's dual sets of strings to masterful effect."

    The New York Times's Jon Pareles places The Mandé Variations at No. 3 on his list of the year's best. Pareles says the album "brings a world of ideas to his tradition. Playing ancient West African pieces and his own compositions, he plucks complex yet transparent counterpoint, sometimes urgent, sometimes serene, in meditations that never flaunt how cosmopolitan they are."

    The album is at No. 9 on the Top 10 from the New York Post, which says of the kora mastery on display that "nobody plays this ancient instrument as well as Diabaté. While his skills have been employed by the likes of Damon Albarn and Björk, The Mandé Variations is a solo record that that is intricate and meditative."

    The Observer Music Monthly has the album at No. 17 in its list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year. "Toumani Diabaté's lush and layered solo album emphasised his extraordinary ability with the 21-string harp-like kora," writes OMM's Peter Culshaw. "Like Hendrix or Ravi Shankar, he has rare authority over his instrument but while the virtuosity was astounding, Diabaté offered more than mere technical brilliance. The Mandé Variations ventured into African classical terrain, though a playful quote from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly betrayed a mischievous attitude mixed in with the meditative grooves and scintillating runs."

    The Mandé Variations also makes No. 15 from the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and No. 35 from Uncut magazine.

    And as the Nonesuch Journal posted earlier this week, CBS Sunday Morning's Bill Flanagan includes the album among five musical gift ideas "that haven't gotten the attention they deserve." Flanagan recommends this "beautiful new album" during the hectic holiday season to "bring you back to a spirit of peace on Earth."

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    Two very different recordings emerged from Toumani's home of Mali, to differing degrees via London and Paris. Both, Rokia Traoré's Tchamantché and Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali, were released in Europe in 2008 and will make their way to the US in early 2009 from Nonesuch. The Guardian's Robin Denselow includes all three as examples of Malian stars dominating the move of African musicians into the mainstream, citing Toumani's and Rokia's as "the year's two best albums" in world music.

    Denselow says The Mandé Variations has been "rightly hailed as an African classic. Solo shows and an appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra further boosted his reputation, and Barack Obama revealed that Diabaté's earlier album Kulanjan is one of his favourites."

    The writer goes on to say that Rokia's new album demonstrates "her startling new interest in electric guitars" and contributed, along with her fellow Malian musicians listed above, to the Africa Express series of concerts, "the most intriguing live events of the year."

    The Independent's Elisa Bray picks the Africa Express concert at the Liverpool Olympia in March, with Amadou & Mariam, as the year's best gig, featuring "a stunning line-up" and "many unforgettable moments ... that could never be recreated."

    Her colleague, Andy Gill, in his year-end review for The Independent, also lists Toumani and Amadou & Mariam as examples of "Mali's continuing pre-eminence as the most fruitful source of non-Western pop."

    Mariam Doumbia, of Amadou & Mariam, is among the "hot artists" asked by The Observer to name their favorite albums of the year. She chose Tchamantché, Rokia Traoré's follow-up to 2004's Bowmboï, calling it "serene and beautiful." Says Doumbia of her label mate, "Her singing is intimate and her guitar style combines traditional Malian with modern, which is the kind of thing we do. Her music reminds me of my mother singing to me as a child."

    Tchamantché is No. 4 on MOJO's best world album list and No. 7 on a similar list from The Times (UK). In the Sunday Times, reviewer Clive Davis writes: "A wash of understated electric guitars brings a contemporary sheen to the Malian singer’s mesmerising soundscapes."
     
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    Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali places No. 2 on the Observer Music Monthly's list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year, just after Bon Iver's much-loved For Emma, Forever Ago. "Welcome to Mali couldn't have been more inviting," writes OMM's Caspar Llewellyn Smith. "[T]he marriage of Mariam's childhood love of French pop with her husband's fondness for Jimmy Page, the influence of indigenous traditions and guest spots from the likes of 'East Coast' rapper (the Somalian) K'Naan all added up to a joyous, modern album that demanded to be blasted on stereos from Bamako to Birmingham."

    Drowned in Sound contributor James Skinner picked the album's opening track, "Sabali," as a favorite song of the year, writing: "Synthesizers and contrasting vocal takes combine to extraordinary effect on this wholly exuberant, Damon Albarn–produced lead-track and highlight of the Welcome to Mali album."

    Pitchfork concurs, placing the song at No. 15 on its list of the 100 best tracks of the year. "At once futuristic and crushingly nostalgic, this blind couple from Mali's first collaboration with Blur's Damon Albarn is a haunting electro-pop experiment that drips with soul," writes Pitchfork's Joe Tangari. "It's honestly hard to pin down a song that has as many emotional currents running through it as this one, but it's truly a song for any state of mind, no matter where you are."

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    Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar, a West African album of a very different sort, was also released to great critical acclaim this year. The Senegalese album makes Rolling Stone critic Christian Hoard's Top 10 Albums of 2008, as it does that of the Boston Globe's Siddhartha Mitter, who writes, "Sweet guitars, deft harmonies, the midtempo assurance of rumba: In its 21st-century incarnation, the classic Senegalese band of the 1970s has lost none of its elegance, only deepened it with the wisdom of middle age."

    NPR's Banning Eyre places the album at No. 6 on his list of the Best African Music of 2008, describing this as "a strong year for African music." He writes:

    This vintage Senegalese band has trafficked in a blend of salsa, West African traditional pop and psychedelia since the early '70s. Its second release since a 2001 reunion finds the veterans in top form. One highlight is a reprise of the 1972 hit "Nijaay," which touts fine clothes and perfume as secrets to a successful marriage, and includes a cameo by Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.

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    Another long-awaited album to arrive this year was Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall, which captured the famed Cuban group at the unforgettable 1998 concert in New York City.

    The Times (UK) includes the album among the best in world music, with Sunday Times critic Clive Davis writing: "While [Rubén] González, [Ibrahim] Ferrer and [Compay] Segundo may no longer be with us, we finally get to savour that famous 1990s date in Manhattan."

    PopMatters has Live at Carnegie Hall at No. 13 on its list of the Top 60 Best Albums of 2008. The site's Thomas Hauner asserts that this live recording "trumps anything put out under the Buena Vista moniker. This has to do entirely with an indescribable aura enveloping the musicians, audience members and historic concert hall all captured on the recording." He goes on to say:

    The music is vivacious and visceral, tugging at one’s emotions in inexplicable ways. Most symbolically, though, this enthusiasm is all directed at Cuban nationals whose very performance mitigates the idea of diplomatic tension: tacit cultural diplomacy at its finest.

    The Latin Music Examiner's Ian Malinow places the new record atop his list of the five best albums of the year. "Long overdue, this double CD live set is packed with electrifying performances by the legendary Cuban ensemble," writes Malinow. "A must-have album in any serious collection of Latin music. Kudos for the band—and Ry Cooder."

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    Kudos go to Ry Cooder as well for I, Flathead, the third and final album in his California trilogy as well as a companion to the novella of the same name, which accompanies the deluxe version of the CD. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Nick Cristiano includes the album among the year's best in country/roots selections. Writes Cristiano: "The virtuoso guitarist and roots aficionado completes his ambitious album trilogy about a bygone Southern California with a typically quirky and colorful saga that involves a journeyman country singer and a space alien."

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    A rather unexpected world-music accolade comes from Patrick Varine, recapping the year's best for the Gatehouse News Service. He picks as the world-music song of the year Stelios Katzantidis's "Efuge Efuge," which was reissued as part of "... and all the pieces matter," the soundtrack from HBO's The Wire. Incidentally, that show, which ended its run earlier this year and is now available in a complete, five-season DVD box set, makes New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley's list of the year's best.

    JAZZ

    The year in jazz on Nonesuch got off to a stellar start with the January release of the Pat Metheny Trio's Day Trip, featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez. NPR has two lists from member stations exclaiming the year's best in jazz, and both include Day Trip.

    KPLU's Nick Francis describes the albums on his list as sharing "a generosity of spirit ... where the artists seem to want to reach out to your world, rather than demand that you reach into theirs." He calls them all "a delight to listen to while living your life, whether it's doing dishes, driving around town, syncing into your iPod or just plain kicking back and relaxing." Francis calls Day Trip "a 68-minute excursion for guitar, bass and drums: ever-changing in mood, texture and emotion."

    Gary Walker of member station WBGO, Jazz88, calls 2008 "a remarkable year for jazz" that left "room for enthusiasm and optimism about the state of jazz and its ability to inspire musicians and listeners alike." Walker knows Pat's trio records are "few but memorable" and says the current trio iteration "shoot off sparks from the first notes. Just try to keep from moving to the energy of 'Son of Thirteen.'"

    Later in 2008, the Trio released Tokyo Day Trip, a live EP that All About Jazz's John Kelman describes in his Best of 2008 list as "41 minutes of pure gold from the best trio of Metheny's career." It was also featured in the Jazzwise contributors' lists of the year's best.

    This year also saw the re-release of two Metheny albums: Upojenie, originally released just in Poland, and 1990's Question and Answer, which Kelmen includes in his favorite reissues of the year and calls "one of the best discs from that period" in Metheny's career. The album "finally sounds the way it should," he writes, "revealing itself to be deserving of even greater accolades than it received when first released in 1990."

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    In March, another acclaimed jazz trio, Brad Mehldau's group featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, released its own Live set, from recordings made during a 2006 residency at New York's Village Vanguard. It makes the Jazzwise contributors' lists of the year's best, and that of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Karl Stark, who writes that "Mehldau proves he can weave a groove as well as anyone. He finds intense lines in some remote corner of a long tune or piles on one note repeatedly."

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    Jazzwise and Stark both include another Nonesuch release, Into the Blue, Nicholas Payton's label debut, on their best-of lists. "The first poignant tones make it clear that trumpeter Nicholas Payton is hitting a sweet spot, with a quintet that sounds as if it should be coming from the FM dial, late at night," Stark exclaims in the Inquirer. "The CD combines dreaminess with some serious playing."

    The Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich concurs, placing Into the Blue at No. 6 on his list of the year's best in jazz. He writes:

    Like anyone who survived the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, trumpeter Payton has endured more than his share of troubles. He gives them haunting voice in the most melancholy album of his career. The tenderness of his phrases in "Drucilla" and the bent-note expressiveness of "Chinatown" distill Payton's art to its essence.

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    Bill Frisell's two-disc History, Mystery rounded out the year's new jazz releases, coming in at No. 9 on the Jazzwise list and recommended by The Times (UK) as among the best Christmas gifts for music lovers. "No other artist in jazz can make music that is deeply serious and yet playful at the same time quite like this shy guitar virtuoso," says The Times, calling the new album "an elegant set of surreal, gently off-kilter pieces for octet."

    DEBUTS

    Mandolinist/singer/composer Chris Thile was involved in two projects this year that were as difficult to categorize as Thile himself. The first, released in February, is Punch, the Nonesuch debut of his new band, Punch Brothers. The album made The Word's list of the Ten Best CDs of 2008 and landed at No. 2 on the Chicago Tribune's list of the Best Folk/Bluegrass albums. "Chris Thile and his band of young acoustic string wizards apply abstract lyrics to music as demanding as Newgrass gets," writes reviewer David Royko for the Tribune. "Their breathtaking virtuosity isn't about soloing but complex ensemble unity, with a cumulative power that leaves the listener pleasantly rung out."

    Punch Brothers are featured in an article in The Guardian music blog written by Will Byers, examining the current phenomenon of "progression" in music, in which pop musicians, once content to rest on the laurels of a recent hit record, now insist on pushing the boundaries of their field. Thile and his bandmates are considered the epitome of this sort of expansionist creative thinking. In the article, Byers concludes:

    Progression, rather than an inevitable sense of forward motion, seems to be embodied more these days as a questing spirit. There is perhaps none more progressive a statement than the description of the Punch Brothers as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the structures of modern classical." And they actually live up to it. Let's hope that the future also holds a long career for them ...

    In that vein, up next for Thile was another debut, his first duo record, released in September. With a longtime mentor and frequent performing partner, bassist Edgar Meyer, he released a self-titled album that found a place on NPR's list titled Invoking Improv: Best Classical CDs of 2008, from American Public Media contributor Fred Child. He describes the pairing this way:

    The finest classical double-bass player in the world joins the young mandolin phenom for 12 duets that fall somewhere between art music, bluegrass and free-range country. Thile's playing redefines fast, clean and tasteful for mando-philes. Meyer's writing, as ever, jumps genres as quickly and effortlessly as a jackrabbit overtops fences on the lower 40. The writing has Stravinsky's rhythmic jabs with Copland's open harmonies. When they improvise, it seems that one playfully devious mind is controlling both the bass and mandolin.

    NEW MUSIC

    The year 2008 was a banner one for the new-music world. Jonny Greenwood's score to There Will Be Blood, though it was released at the tail-end of 2007 in the US to coincide with the film's domestic theatrical release, made its way to Europe at the start of the new year, leading MOJO to list it as the year's No. 1 soundtrack album.

    The Observer, in its gathering of the year's best according to "hot artists" in the know, includes the album upon the recommendation of Charlie Fink, the singer from the band Noah and the Whale, who calls it "amazing" and "a masterpiece." "At times, it's like Shostakovich," says Fink. "I went to see the film five times; there's one moment where they first strike oil that's accompanied by a huge, percussive sound and it's absolutely incredible."

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    Another "hot artist" recommendation in The Observer comes from composer Nico Muhly, who chooses Steve Reich's Daniel Variations as his pick. He describes the piece as "dark, but energetic, and, in a sense, hopeful. It juxtaposes sentences from Daniel, in the Old Testament, with fragments from Daniel Pearl, the American journalist murdered in Karachi in 2002. I listen to it when I'm running."

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    This fall, Nonesuch released a special collection of works by Muhly's mentor, Philip Glass, in the aptly named Glass Box, a 10-disc retrospective of the composer's Nonesuch recordings. WNYC's John Schaefer puts the collection at No. 7 on his Top 10 list for NPR, Genre Mix. Schaefer calls it "a terrific, comprehensive overview of one of the most influential and controversial composers of our time." He adds: "From the genuine Minimalism of the early works to the landmark operas to the lush symphonic and cinematic scores, this 10-CD extravaganza also sports portraits, photos and essays that add to the appeal."

    The Miami Herald counts as No. 4 on the list of the area's best moments in classical music this year a visit from Glass at the University of Miami. The school's Frost Opera Theater hosted the composer for a two-night celebration of his work, kicked off by a performance of his Hydrogen Jukebox.

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    The Herald's No. 1 slot goes to John Adams, who "displayed an infectious mastery with the baton" when conducting the New World Symphony in a performance of Slonimsky's Earbox, The Dharma at Big Sur, and the Doctor Atomic Symphony.

    This fall was a busy one, to say the least, for Adams, who also saw his Metropolitan Opera debut with the New York premiere of Doctor Atomic (and the related live film-theater screenings around the world); the release of the documentary Wonders Are Many, about the making of the opera; the publication of his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, and the release of the companion two-disc Nonesuch collection of the same name; and the Nonesuch release of the first recording of his latest opera, A Flowering Tree.

    Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein puts the recording of A Flowering Tree at No. 2 on his list of the year's best in classical music. "In his latest opera, John Adams turns away from his usual hot-button political subjects to the simple beauty of an ancient folk tale from southern India about hope, renewal and magical transformation," writes von Rhein. "Luminous, lyrical and accessible, the score receives a brilliant performance under the composer's baton."

    In a related article in the Tribune, Von Rhein also includes as evidence of 2008's being "a banner year for classical music in Chicago" the Chicago Opera Theater's production of the "luminous A Flowering Tree" and the Chicago premiere of Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur, "wonderfully played by violinist Leila Josefowicz" in Grant Park.

    The New York Times names Adams's memoir, Hallelujah Junction, among the 100 Notable Books of 2008. Says the Times: "Adams’s wry, smart memoir stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."

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    And finally, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini includes in his list of "the most memorable classical music presentations of 2008" the Carnegie Hall concert earlier this month celebrating Elliott Carter's 100th birthday. The birthday concert, by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Daniel Barenboim, featured the world premiere of Carter's Interventions. The composer's "ingenious, formidably complex music has always presented outside-the-box challenges," writes Tommasini, "with comparable rewards to listeners willing to follow him on his visionary journey." Nonesuch will release a four-disc collection of the composer's Nonesuch recordings early next year.

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    In the mean time, we at Nonesuch wish everyone a very happy holiday and a happy, healthy, music-filled 2009.

nonesuch's picture
on December 23, 2008 - 6:25pm
Excerpt: 

While 2008 may go down as one of the more turbulent years in recent (or distant) memory, or, more optimistically, a time of change, there is much to celebrate in the year in music. Nonesuch artists across all genres have contributed to that and, accordingly, have made their way onto many critics' lists of the year's best. For the final Nonesuch Journal article of the year, we offer an overview of just some of that year-end critical praise.

Copy: 

While 2008 may go down as one of the more turbulent years in recent (or distant) memory, or, more optimistically, a time of change, there is much to celebrate in the year in music. Nonesuch artists across all genres have contributed to that and, accordingly, have made their way onto many critics' lists of the year's best. For the final Nonesuch Journal article of the year, here is an overview of just some of that year-end critical praise.

POP/ROCK

Though it was released early in the year, The Magnetic Fields's January release, Distortion—Stephin Merritt's fuzzed-out paean to Jesus & Mary Chain—was impossible to forget nearly 12 months later. It's No. 25 on Rolling Stone's list of the Top 50 albums, and the magazine's critic Christian Hoard places it in his own Rolling Stone Top 10; it lands at No. 10 on Robert Christgau's Top 25 in Slate. Time Out New York's Jay Ruttenberg also places it in his Top 10, writing that "it takes more than feedback to drown out Stephin Merritt’s old-fashioned pop wit." It's No. 23 on Atlanta Journal-Constitution sportswriter David O'Brien's Top 50, and the Chattanooga Pulse puts it at No. 2 on its Top 10, describing the album as "drenched in delicious feedback" and finding Stephin's lyrics "at their most droll, painting mischievous song portraits strewn with sex and violence."

One track off the album, "The Nun's Litany," made Pitchfork's list of the year's 100 best songs. The site's Douglas Wolk calls it "a great song about longing to be perceived as a sexual being, and an even better joke, because Stephin Merritt knows how ludicrous that longing can be."

Distortion was also nominated for the All Songs Considered listener's poll of year's best from NPR, as were Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, Punch Brothers' Punch, and The Black Keys' Attack & Release.

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That last, The Black Keys' latest album, which hit stores in April, placed 17 on the final list of poll winners featured on All Songs Considered. The albums was cited for "its arresting mix of crunchy guitars and thundering rhythms" along with the Keys' "more thoughtful side ... making it the band's richest and most diverse recording to date."

The Independent's Andy Gill, in his review of the year in music, says The Black Keys produced an album "of startling impact" with Attack & Release. Time Out New York music writer Colin St. John names Attack & Release as No. 3 of the year's best albums. "Balls-out blues-rock from Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (not to mention producer Danger Mouse)," says St. John, "grabbed you by the throat: a ton of attack, not much release."

The New York Post places it at No. 6 on its list of the year's ten best, exclaiming:

With a little help from Gnarls Barkley knob twirler Danger Mouse, this Akron, Ohio, band delivers a stylistically diverse record that owes debts to countrified blues, Southern rock and Who-like power chords. This is a raw, sparse guitar 'n' drums disc reminiscent of the best White Stripes and, in the more elaborately arranged tunes, the Raconteurs.

The Associated Press's Jake Coyle concurs, putting Attack & Release at No. 8 in his list of the year's Top 10 rock albums. "The Black Keys could be anyone's favorite band," writes Coyle. "Two goofy dudes from Akron, Ohio, who make some of the rawest, most soulful blues. This is their most dynamic and full album yet, which can be partly attributed to producer Danger Mouse."

Stereogum has it at No. 36 on its list of the 50 best albums of the year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O’Brien hast it at No. 30, and NME at No. 45.

Rolling Stone places Attack & Release at No. 15 on its list of the 50 best albums of the year. The magazine also has the album track "I Got Mine" at No. 23 in the Rolling Stone list of the Top 100 Singles of the Year, exclaiming that the "duo pack an epic blues jam into four hard-rocking minutes of bliss."

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One spot away from Attack & Release on Rolling Stone's album list is Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, at No. 16. Also in Rolling Stone, critic Christian Hoard includes it in his own Top 10 of the year.

Time Out New York's Jay Ruttenberg places it at the very top of his list. "The master songwriter unveils a casually ambitious record that flaunts contemporary America in all its shame and glory, pathos and humor," writes Ruttenberg of his No. 1 pick. His colleague, associate editor Hank Shteamer, puts it at No. 9, saying, "The sly showman’s latest drew you in with caustic politics and kept you riveted with plainspoken tenderness."

Bloomberg contributor Mark Beech's year-end review says that "for all the commercial hype of rock’s household names, the finest recordings of 2008 came from unexpected sources," including Newman, who, with Harps and Angels, was among the "veteran stars showed the youngsters how to do it in 2008 ... providing understated excellence by songwriters who don’t have to try too hard."

His Bloomberg colleague Douglas Lytle agrees, placing Harps and Angels among the Best American CDs for 2008. "Newman’s non-film work is getting rarer, writes Lytle. "We can only marvel at many of the 10 tracks, including 'A Piece of the Pie' and 'Losing You.'"

That latter song, "Losing You," has struck a chord both with critics and with fans, many of whom have left their comments here on the Nonesuch site. New York Times critic Nate Chinen picks it as one of his favorite songs of the year, as does the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dan DeLuca, who includes it in his annual mix tape, stating: "Harps and Angels is full of vintage, caustic Newman. This is the heartbreaker." (The album made honorable mention on DeLuca's year-end Top 10 list.)

CNN’s Marquee Blog, while refusing to call its year-end wrap-up a best-of list, offers its three favorite records of the year, including Randy’s Harps and Angels with TV on the Radio and Bob Dylan, and seeing in it "the sharp observation of his best work."

Slate didn't shy from the best-of list: Robert Christgau places Harps and Angels as the No. 6 album and the album track "Potholes" as the No. 8 song of the year. (He also adds Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" as the "Obama song of the year.")

PopMatters includes Harps and Angels at No. 8 among the Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008. "What’s great about Randy Newman," writes reviewer Ron Hart, "is that he’s possibly the only artist in American pop who can offer the most touching, gushing scores for films and then deliver what could very well be the most controversial album created by a white man in 2008. Harps and Angels belongs up there with 12 Songs and Sail Away as one of Newman’s greatest works.”

The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot includes Harps and Angels at No. 19 of records he returned to most in 2008. Q magazine includes it among the 50 Best Albums of the Year, as do the pop editors at All Music. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida puts the album at No. 1, with writer Sean Daly calling it "sad, funny and, in the end, hopeful. Just when we needed it most." Uncut places the album at No. 14 of 50, MOJO has it at No. 25 of 50, and Blender has it at No. 9 of 33.

For a unique perspective on the year-end's best list, Entertainment Weekly turned to bestselling author Stephen King, a regular contributor to the magazine, who places Randy's new record at No. 9 of his Top 10 Albums of 2008. "This bitter, smiling satire is Newman's best album since Good Old Boys (released way back in '74)," writes King. "The lead track feels like biography, and songs like 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' gleam with ironic good cheer."

The Onion's A.V. Club, as one might expect, goes for a less horror-hued angle, asking "Weird" Al Yankovic for his favorite. And that would be Harps and Angels. "His biting wit and formidable musicianship never fail to amaze and delight me," says "Weird" Al of Randy.

The Independent
in the UK also turns outside the critic's circle, listing records of the year "by the people who should know," namely other artists. Singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson picks Randy's album as well. "He's still better than anyone else at writing those witty, conversational songs that make you nod and laugh out loud when you listen," Thompson says. "Newman is a real composer and the inventiveness that goes into every song puts us 'pop' musicians to shame. An old-fashioned big production."

Other contributors to the Independent's list include Amadou of Amadou & Mariam, who goes for Akon's Freedo; Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, who picks a collection of global music from the first half of the 20th century; and Emmylou Harris, who picks Levon Helm's new record.

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Speaking of Emmylou Harris, her latest album, Stumble into Grace, makes Q's list of the 50 Best Albums of the Year, and her fellow singer-songwriter k.d. lang makes the Teletext Top 50 with her latest, Watershed. Emmylou also lands at No. 8 on PopMatters' unusual category of Best Records of 2008 by Women 45 Years Old and Over. "Can this really be Emmylou Harris’s 21st studio album on a major label," the site asks rhetorically. "Her work ethic is only rivaled by her talents and concern for the world in which we live."

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Topping that PopMatters list is Sam Phillips and her latest, Don't Do Anything. Explaining its No. 1 pick, the site says:

The disc reveals her eclectic pop sensibilities in a mysterious, incandescent way. Sometimes she invokes the spirit of the Beatles ("My Career in Chemistry") and other times she digs into gospel ("Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us"); but no matter what muse she conjures, the music seems taken out of the blue sky and the storm clouds and finds itself transformed into some ethereal place where we all live and listen for signs and wonders. There’s a delicacy to the whole project with the tensile properties of stainless steel.

Don't Do Anything lands on another list from PopMatters, as well: its Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008. Placing the album at No. 4, the site's editors cite "its intriguing abstractions and the singer-songwriter’s balance between Zen philosophy and precise control."

NPR's Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered, declared himself a fan of Sam's work earlier this year, hosting her in his office for a Tiny Desk Concert in June. He places her at No. 5 of his picks for 2008's best music. Says Boilen:

Sam Phillips makes the records I'd always hoped Paul McCartney would make, with haunting pop music and the perfect band: drummer Jay Bellerose and Erik Gorfain, who lends guitar and violin and banjo and mandolin and baritone guitar. Phillips is just about the best pop-music songwriter there is: I wish she weren't so sad, but then her songs might lose their longing and their ache.

WORLD

The next slot on Boilen's list, at No. 6, is Toumani Diabaté's The Mandé Variations. Boilen writes:

Some musicians conjure up music that's so beautiful, it transcends comprehension. I have been listening to kora player Toumani Diabaté for 20 years, and his playing on this harp from Mali is always otherworldly. There are a few musicians I'd love to interview, but my question for Diabate would be a simple one: Where does your music come from? It simply can't be this planet. The Mandé Variations is his first solo record in 20 years. It is this music—this kora music, all alone, with no singing—that I first fell in love with, and it slays me all over again here.

Boilen's colleague at NPR, Banning Eyre, agrees, placing The Mandé Variations at No. 5 on his list of the Best African Music of 2008. On the new album, says Eyre, Toumani "returns to the solo format that launched him internationally in 1987, and he lives up to his star billing. These profoundly poised interpretations of Mandé traditional repertoire cast a deep spell with understatement and subtlety."

On NPR affiliate station WNYC, John Schaefer includes Toumani's album in his "list for the Age of the iPod Shuffle," Genre Mix: Top 10 Albums of 2008. Says Schaefer, "These exquisite compositions use the traditional but highly sophisticated tuning and interplay of the instrument's dual sets of strings to masterful effect."

The New York Times's Jon Pareles places The Mandé Variations at No. 3 on his list of the year's best. Pareles says the album "brings a world of ideas to his tradition. Playing ancient West African pieces and his own compositions, he plucks complex yet transparent counterpoint, sometimes urgent, sometimes serene, in meditations that never flaunt how cosmopolitan they are."

The album is at No. 9 on the Top 10 from the New York Post, which says of the kora mastery on display that "nobody plays this ancient instrument as well as Diabaté. While his skills have been employed by the likes of Damon Albarn and Björk, The Mandé Variations is a solo record that that is intricate and meditative."

The Observer Music Monthly has the album at No. 17 in its list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year. "Toumani Diabaté's lush and layered solo album emphasised his extraordinary ability with the 21-string harp-like kora," writes OMM's Peter Culshaw. "Like Hendrix or Ravi Shankar, he has rare authority over his instrument but while the virtuosity was astounding, Diabaté offered more than mere technical brilliance. The Mandé Variations ventured into African classical terrain, though a playful quote from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly betrayed a mischievous attitude mixed in with the meditative grooves and scintillating runs."

The Mandé Variations also makes No. 15 from the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and No. 35 from Uncut magazine.

And as the Nonesuch Journal posted earlier this week, CBS Sunday Morning's Bill Flanagan includes the album among five musical gift ideas "that haven't gotten the attention they deserve." Flanagan recommends this "beautiful new album" during the hectic holiday season to "bring you back to a spirit of peace on Earth."

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Two very different recordings emerged from Toumani's home of Mali, to differing degrees via London and Paris. Both, Rokia Traoré's Tchamantché and Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali, were released in Europe in 2008 and will make their way to the US in early 2009 from Nonesuch. The Guardian's Robin Denselow includes all three as examples of Malian stars dominating the move of African musicians into the mainstream, citing Toumani's and Rokia's as "the year's two best albums" in world music.

Denselow says The Mandé Variations has been "rightly hailed as an African classic. Solo shows and an appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra further boosted his reputation, and Barack Obama revealed that Diabaté's earlier album Kulanjan is one of his favourites."

The writer goes on to say that Rokia's new album demonstrates "her startling new interest in electric guitars" and contributed, along with her fellow Malian musicians listed above, to the Africa Express series of concerts, "the most intriguing live events of the year."

The Independent's Elisa Bray picks the Africa Express concert at the Liverpool Olympia in March, with Amadou & Mariam, as the year's best gig, featuring "a stunning line-up" and "many unforgettable moments ... that could never be recreated."

Her colleague, Andy Gill, in his year-end review for The Independent, also lists Toumani and Amadou & Mariam as examples of "Mali's continuing pre-eminence as the most fruitful source of non-Western pop."

Mariam Doumbia, of Amadou & Mariam, is among the "hot artists" asked by The Observer to name their favorite albums of the year. She chose Tchamantché, Rokia Traoré's follow-up to 2004's Bowmboï, calling it "serene and beautiful." Says Doumbia of her label mate, "Her singing is intimate and her guitar style combines traditional Malian with modern, which is the kind of thing we do. Her music reminds me of my mother singing to me as a child."

Tchamantché is No. 4 on MOJO's best world album list and No. 7 on a similar list from The Times (UK). In the Sunday Times, reviewer Clive Davis writes: "A wash of understated electric guitars brings a contemporary sheen to the Malian singer’s mesmerising soundscapes."
 
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Amadou & Mariam's Welcome to Mali places No. 2 on the Observer Music Monthly's list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year, just after Bon Iver's much-loved For Emma, Forever Ago. "Welcome to Mali couldn't have been more inviting," writes OMM's Caspar Llewellyn Smith. "[T]he marriage of Mariam's childhood love of French pop with her husband's fondness for Jimmy Page, the influence of indigenous traditions and guest spots from the likes of 'East Coast' rapper (the Somalian) K'Naan all added up to a joyous, modern album that demanded to be blasted on stereos from Bamako to Birmingham."

Drowned in Sound contributor James Skinner picked the album's opening track, "Sabali," as a favorite song of the year, writing: "Synthesizers and contrasting vocal takes combine to extraordinary effect on this wholly exuberant, Damon Albarn–produced lead-track and highlight of the Welcome to Mali album."

Pitchfork concurs, placing the song at No. 15 on its list of the 100 best tracks of the year. "At once futuristic and crushingly nostalgic, this blind couple from Mali's first collaboration with Blur's Damon Albarn is a haunting electro-pop experiment that drips with soul," writes Pitchfork's Joe Tangari. "It's honestly hard to pin down a song that has as many emotional currents running through it as this one, but it's truly a song for any state of mind, no matter where you are."

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Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar, a West African album of a very different sort, was also released to great critical acclaim this year. The Senegalese album makes Rolling Stone critic Christian Hoard's Top 10 Albums of 2008, as it does that of the Boston Globe's Siddhartha Mitter, who writes, "Sweet guitars, deft harmonies, the midtempo assurance of rumba: In its 21st-century incarnation, the classic Senegalese band of the 1970s has lost none of its elegance, only deepened it with the wisdom of middle age."

NPR's Banning Eyre places the album at No. 6 on his list of the Best African Music of 2008, describing this as "a strong year for African music." He writes:

This vintage Senegalese band has trafficked in a blend of salsa, West African traditional pop and psychedelia since the early '70s. Its second release since a 2001 reunion finds the veterans in top form. One highlight is a reprise of the 1972 hit "Nijaay," which touts fine clothes and perfume as secrets to a successful marriage, and includes a cameo by Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.

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Another long-awaited album to arrive this year was Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall, which captured the famed Cuban group at the unforgettable 1998 concert in New York City.

The Times (UK) includes the album among the best in world music, with Sunday Times critic Clive Davis writing: "While [Rubén] González, [Ibrahim] Ferrer and [Compay] Segundo may no longer be with us, we finally get to savour that famous 1990s date in Manhattan."

PopMatters has Live at Carnegie Hall at No. 13 on its list of the Top 60 Best Albums of 2008. The site's Thomas Hauner asserts that this live recording "trumps anything put out under the Buena Vista moniker. This has to do entirely with an indescribable aura enveloping the musicians, audience members and historic concert hall all captured on the recording." He goes on to say:

The music is vivacious and visceral, tugging at one’s emotions in inexplicable ways. Most symbolically, though, this enthusiasm is all directed at Cuban nationals whose very performance mitigates the idea of diplomatic tension: tacit cultural diplomacy at its finest.

The Latin Music Examiner's Ian Malinow places the new record atop his list of the five best albums of the year. "Long overdue, this double CD live set is packed with electrifying performances by the legendary Cuban ensemble," writes Malinow. "A must-have album in any serious collection of Latin music. Kudos for the band—and Ry Cooder."

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Kudos go to Ry Cooder as well for I, Flathead, the third and final album in his California trilogy as well as a companion to the novella of the same name, which accompanies the deluxe version of the CD. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Nick Cristiano includes the album among the year's best in country/roots selections. Writes Cristiano: "The virtuoso guitarist and roots aficionado completes his ambitious album trilogy about a bygone Southern California with a typically quirky and colorful saga that involves a journeyman country singer and a space alien."

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A rather unexpected world-music accolade comes from Patrick Varine, recapping the year's best for the Gatehouse News Service. He picks as the world-music song of the year Stelios Katzantidis's "Efuge Efuge," which was reissued as part of "... and all the pieces matter," the soundtrack from HBO's The Wire. Incidentally, that show, which ended its run earlier this year and is now available in a complete, five-season DVD box set, makes New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley's list of the year's best.

JAZZ

The year in jazz on Nonesuch got off to a stellar start with the January release of the Pat Metheny Trio's Day Trip, featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez. NPR has two lists from member stations exclaiming the year's best in jazz, and both include Day Trip.

KPLU's Nick Francis describes the albums on his list as sharing "a generosity of spirit ... where the artists seem to want to reach out to your world, rather than demand that you reach into theirs." He calls them all "a delight to listen to while living your life, whether it's doing dishes, driving around town, syncing into your iPod or just plain kicking back and relaxing." Francis calls Day Trip "a 68-minute excursion for guitar, bass and drums: ever-changing in mood, texture and emotion."

Gary Walker of member station WBGO, Jazz88, calls 2008 "a remarkable year for jazz" that left "room for enthusiasm and optimism about the state of jazz and its ability to inspire musicians and listeners alike." Walker knows Pat's trio records are "few but memorable" and says the current trio iteration "shoot off sparks from the first notes. Just try to keep from moving to the energy of 'Son of Thirteen.'"

Later in 2008, the Trio released Tokyo Day Trip, a live EP that All About Jazz's John Kelman describes in his Best of 2008 list as "41 minutes of pure gold from the best trio of Metheny's career." It was also featured in the Jazzwise contributors' lists of the year's best.

This year also saw the re-release of two Metheny albums: Upojenie, originally released just in Poland, and 1990's Question and Answer, which Kelmen includes in his favorite reissues of the year and calls "one of the best discs from that period" in Metheny's career. The album "finally sounds the way it should," he writes, "revealing itself to be deserving of even greater accolades than it received when first released in 1990."

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In March, another acclaimed jazz trio, Brad Mehldau's group featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, released its own Live set, from recordings made during a 2006 residency at New York's Village Vanguard. It makes the Jazzwise contributors' lists of the year's best, and that of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Karl Stark, who writes that "Mehldau proves he can weave a groove as well as anyone. He finds intense lines in some remote corner of a long tune or piles on one note repeatedly."

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Jazzwise and Stark both include another Nonesuch release, Into the Blue, Nicholas Payton's label debut, on their best-of lists. "The first poignant tones make it clear that trumpeter Nicholas Payton is hitting a sweet spot, with a quintet that sounds as if it should be coming from the FM dial, late at night," Stark exclaims in the Inquirer. "The CD combines dreaminess with some serious playing."

The Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich concurs, placing Into the Blue at No. 6 on his list of the year's best in jazz. He writes:

Like anyone who survived the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, trumpeter Payton has endured more than his share of troubles. He gives them haunting voice in the most melancholy album of his career. The tenderness of his phrases in "Drucilla" and the bent-note expressiveness of "Chinatown" distill Payton's art to its essence.

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Bill Frisell's two-disc History, Mystery rounded out the year's new jazz releases, coming in at No. 9 on the Jazzwise list and recommended by The Times (UK) as among the best Christmas gifts for music lovers. "No other artist in jazz can make music that is deeply serious and yet playful at the same time quite like this shy guitar virtuoso," says The Times, calling the new album "an elegant set of surreal, gently off-kilter pieces for octet."

DEBUTS

Mandolinist/singer/composer Chris Thile was involved in two projects this year that were as difficult to categorize as Thile himself. The first, released in February, is Punch, the Nonesuch debut of his new band, Punch Brothers. The album made The Word's list of the Ten Best CDs of 2008 and landed at No. 2 on the Chicago Tribune's list of the Best Folk/Bluegrass albums. "Chris Thile and his band of young acoustic string wizards apply abstract lyrics to music as demanding as Newgrass gets," writes reviewer David Royko for the Tribune. "Their breathtaking virtuosity isn't about soloing but complex ensemble unity, with a cumulative power that leaves the listener pleasantly rung out."

Punch Brothers are featured in an article in The Guardian music blog written by Will Byers, examining the current phenomenon of "progression" in music, in which pop musicians, once content to rest on the laurels of a recent hit record, now insist on pushing the boundaries of their field. Thile and his bandmates are considered the epitome of this sort of expansionist creative thinking. In the article, Byers concludes:

Progression, rather than an inevitable sense of forward motion, seems to be embodied more these days as a questing spirit. There is perhaps none more progressive a statement than the description of the Punch Brothers as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the structures of modern classical." And they actually live up to it. Let's hope that the future also holds a long career for them ...

In that vein, up next for Thile was another debut, his first duo record, released in September. With a longtime mentor and frequent performing partner, bassist Edgar Meyer, he released a self-titled album that found a place on NPR's list titled Invoking Improv: Best Classical CDs of 2008, from American Public Media contributor Fred Child. He describes the pairing this way:

The finest classical double-bass player in the world joins the young mandolin phenom for 12 duets that fall somewhere between art music, bluegrass and free-range country. Thile's playing redefines fast, clean and tasteful for mando-philes. Meyer's writing, as ever, jumps genres as quickly and effortlessly as a jackrabbit overtops fences on the lower 40. The writing has Stravinsky's rhythmic jabs with Copland's open harmonies. When they improvise, it seems that one playfully devious mind is controlling both the bass and mandolin.

NEW MUSIC

The year 2008 was a banner one for the new-music world. Jonny Greenwood's score to There Will Be Blood, though it was released at the tail-end of 2007 in the US to coincide with the film's domestic theatrical release, made its way to Europe at the start of the new year, leading MOJO to list it as the year's No. 1 soundtrack album.

The Observer, in its gathering of the year's best according to "hot artists" in the know, includes the album upon the recommendation of Charlie Fink, the singer from the band Noah and the Whale, who calls it "amazing" and "a masterpiece." "At times, it's like Shostakovich," says Fink. "I went to see the film five times; there's one moment where they first strike oil that's accompanied by a huge, percussive sound and it's absolutely incredible."

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Another "hot artist" recommendation in The Observer comes from composer Nico Muhly, who chooses Steve Reich's Daniel Variations as his pick. He describes the piece as "dark, but energetic, and, in a sense, hopeful. It juxtaposes sentences from Daniel, in the Old Testament, with fragments from Daniel Pearl, the American journalist murdered in Karachi in 2002. I listen to it when I'm running."

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This fall, Nonesuch released a special collection of works by Muhly's mentor, Philip Glass, in the aptly named Glass Box, a 10-disc retrospective of the composer's Nonesuch recordings. WNYC's John Schaefer puts the collection at No. 7 on his Top 10 list for NPR, Genre Mix. Schaefer calls it "a terrific, comprehensive overview of one of the most influential and controversial composers of our time." He adds: "From the genuine Minimalism of the early works to the landmark operas to the lush symphonic and cinematic scores, this 10-CD extravaganza also sports portraits, photos and essays that add to the appeal."

The Miami Herald counts as No. 4 on the list of the area's best moments in classical music this year a visit from Glass at the University of Miami. The school's Frost Opera Theater hosted the composer for a two-night celebration of his work, kicked off by a performance of his Hydrogen Jukebox.

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The Herald's No. 1 slot goes to John Adams, who "displayed an infectious mastery with the baton" when conducting the New World Symphony in a performance of Slonimsky's Earbox, The Dharma at Big Sur, and the Doctor Atomic Symphony.

This fall was a busy one, to say the least, for Adams, who also saw his Metropolitan Opera debut with the New York premiere of Doctor Atomic (and the related live film-theater screenings around the world); the release of the documentary Wonders Are Many, about the making of the opera; the publication of his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, and the release of the companion two-disc Nonesuch collection of the same name; and the Nonesuch release of the first recording of his latest opera, A Flowering Tree.

Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein puts the recording of A Flowering Tree at No. 2 on his list of the year's best in classical music. "In his latest opera, John Adams turns away from his usual hot-button political subjects to the simple beauty of an ancient folk tale from southern India about hope, renewal and magical transformation," writes von Rhein. "Luminous, lyrical and accessible, the score receives a brilliant performance under the composer's baton."

In a related article in the Tribune, Von Rhein also includes as evidence of 2008's being "a banner year for classical music in Chicago" the Chicago Opera Theater's production of the "luminous A Flowering Tree" and the Chicago premiere of Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur, "wonderfully played by violinist Leila Josefowicz" in Grant Park.

The New York Times names Adams's memoir, Hallelujah Junction, among the 100 Notable Books of 2008. Says the Times: "Adams’s wry, smart memoir stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."

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And finally, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini includes in his list of "the most memorable classical music presentations of 2008" the Carnegie Hall concert earlier this month celebrating Elliott Carter's 100th birthday. The birthday concert, by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Daniel Barenboim, featured the world premiere of Carter's Interventions. The composer's "ingenious, formidably complex music has always presented outside-the-box challenges," writes Tommasini, "with comparable rewards to listeners willing to follow him on his visionary journey." Nonesuch will release a four-disc collection of the composer's Nonesuch recordings early next year.

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In the mean time, we at Nonesuch wish everyone a very happy holiday and a happy, healthy, music-filled 2009.

Publish date: 
Wednesday, December 24, 2008 - 12:00
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2008 Nonesuch "Best of" Covers

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akenataa hammagaadji's picture

ARICAN MUSIC REVIEW: THE BEST [AND WORST] OF 2008. WVKR 91.3 FM AND FIRST WORLD MUSIC

This past year saw some great African music released. The variety of fine releases in different genres and from many countries was a bountiful pleasure to wallow in and more than made up for the tremendous amount of flushable ceedees which also slipped through the cracks last year. So, from one to ten, here is WVKR's list of the best African music in 2008.

1] TOUMANI DIABATÉ--- THE MANDÉ VARIATIONS. NONESUCH.
The best recording of solo instrumental African music ever. Here is a korafola of the highest order, at the zenith of his powers, who has by dint of maximizing his God given talent into a peerless technique, brought forth this ancient royal instrument of Mandé into contemporary settings, demonstrating the limitless possibilities of the instrument, all without severing the origins of the instrument to dièliya. From first to last note, whether by the employment of breathtaking glissandi played with concentrated force or by deceptively disarming movements or by calming melodies, Diabate's skill on this recording holds the listener in thrall with an endless cascade of roulades that levitates the spirit. The best of 2008 and a classic in MUSIC. No doubt about it.

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