Here’s a round-up of a few of my favourite albums from 2017 across contemporary classical music and experimental pop. Enjoy!
Alarm Will Sound/Meet The Composer: Splitting Adams
(ft. Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams)
April 2017, Cantaloupe Music
This innovative collaboration between Q2’s Music’s Meet the Composer podcast and ensemble Alarm Will Sound was definitely one of my highlights of the year. The podcast sections with contributions from violist/host Nadia Sirota, AWS conductor Alan Pierson and John Adams himself provide witty, well-paced introductions to the complex soundworlds of the two chamber symphonies, complete with cartoon music clips, scraps of Arnold Schoenberg and anecdotes from the ensemble members. The recordings sandwiched between these commentaries have an unbelievable energy, zapping Adams’ ‘caffeinated’ (to use Pierson’s favourite word) music to life. The slower movements shine as well, in particular ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’s sultry second movement. A must-listen not just for John Adams or Meet the Composer fans, but really anyone looking to listen their way into contemporary classical music.
New Morse Code: Simplicity Itself
September 2017, New Focus Recordings
Simplicity Itself was this year’s release from cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, featuring a host of new works for this intriguing combination of instruments (plus the occasional violin and piano). Patter by Boston composer, Robert Honstein, amuses with its delicate, shifting lines. The album’s central work, Hush by Tonia Ko, winds Virginia Woolf fragments around expressive flourishes of sound. The second and third movements are deeply atmospheric; a longing cello solo leading the former, the clear singing voice of cellist Hannah Collins guiding the latter. A real stand-out on the album is Caroline Shaw’s Boris Kerner, to me it seems like a whistlestop tour of the different music roles the cello can play. Starting with a stately ground bass, we get hurried on through supportive pizzicati to jammy, folky chords – eventually landing back where we started. The moment when the percussion (struck flowerpots, in reference to Rzewski’s To the Earth) begins chiming over the opening ground bass is exquisite, a crisp clash of style and texture. An album of clarity in musical expression: most definitely simplicity itself.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid
October 2017, Western Vinyl
A buzzing, trippy second album from Smith, full of special sounds. Head over to this post to read some thoughts on the album and a review of Smith’s recent The Kid performance in Berlin.
Roseau: Muscles and Bones
March 2017, Tape Club Records
East London producer and singer Kerry Leatham, aka Roseau, followed up her 2015 debut album Salt with the release of this year’s Muscles and Bones. A soulful record, it makes for a really enjoyable listen. Opening track ‘Foundation’ ticks on from its slightly creepy, off-kilter beginning into a lush chorus. The slow groove of ‘Start Again’ is inviting, almost danceable, while ‘Oh, Honestly’ fades out the short record dreamily, swimming out ‘in navy blue’. My personal favourite is ‘Light’, a gorgeous poppy cut that builds into a passionate rework of the refrain from the earlier track, ‘Disintegrate’.
November 2017, One Little Indian Records
Björk’s ninth studio album was a pleasant surprise this year. I had enjoyed 2015’s Vulnicura but found it a little directionless, lacking the conviction and concept that drove such milestones as Biophilia, Volta and Medúlla. Utopia feels exhilarating, opening with the buzz of light and sound that is ‘Arisen My Senses’. ’The Gate’ has a kind of gripping intensity to it, breaking out eventually into its desperate call of ‘I care for you, care for you’. ‘Body Memory’ is an epic rush of overblown flutes and heavy bass; leafy, pulsating and dense. Against this, tracks like ‘Claimstaker’ and the floaty ‘Future Forever’ are a little more thinly scored, allowing Björk’s voice to take centre stage. The album is often lyrically shaky, and not just in that quirky way that Björk often is (what is ‘Features Creatures’ about…?), but thanks to its rich, varied sound design it nonetheless soars.
Jasper String Quartet: Unbound
March 2017, New Amsterdam Records/Sono Luminus
A colourful album of new commissions for this virtuosic young string quartet, which takes the listener expertly through the many facets of contemporary string quartet music. Mizzy Mazzoli’s swooping Death Valley Junction and the hushed layers of Donnacha Dennehy’s Pushpulling are performed with a breathless, delicate urgency. This contrasts the delightful energy and swagger the versatile quartet brings out for Caroline Shaw’s juicy Valencia and Judd Greenstein’s up-tempo Four on the Floor. A riveting release and one of the strongest new music albums of the year.