All artists are poachers, thieves and cannibals. They pinch ideas, polish up different facets and call them their own. The malaise into which music of all stripes has been sliding for 30 years is that cannibalising what has gone before is now just about all that happens, with precious few people have the daring and imagination to innovate.
Listen to most 2017 albums and you can say, “Oh, that sounds like…” Wasn’t it always so? No. Throughout the twentieth century seismic shifts occurred decade by decade, whether in the spheres of classical, jazz or rock. When was music last turned on its head as it was by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Charlie Parker’s bebop revolution, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s, the Maytals Do the Reggay or DJ Kool Herc’s two-turntable hip hop? What is lauded as innovation these days is usually someone doing what any cook does in a kitchen: combining a little of bit of this with a little bit of that.
But if we haven’t had a Beethoven, a Coltrane or a Hendrix for a while we are still blessed with some highly original music-makers, St Vincent, Kendrick Lamar, Burning Ghosts, Hollis Taylor, Bela Fleck and Julian Curwin among them.
Lamar’s Damn is Exhibit A in the case for huge commercial success and a little audacity not being mutually exclusive. He juggled the tricky double-act of making hip hop appeal to mainstream audiences while expanding its horizons rather than dumbing it down. His brilliance lies in his ability to consistently subvert expectations both lyrically and musically.
Lyrics are probably the year’s real story, as evidenced by the work of five female singer-songwriters of artistic and/or commercial significance. That celebrity remains an infinitely more powerful marketing tool than quality is proven by the success of Taylor Swift’s Reputation. Even in places that don’t otherwise sell CDs you find Ms Swift’s album atop the counter, her facial expression almost challenging you not to buy her latest collection of songs that are clever, petulant and disposable in equal measure. As Fairfax reviewer Catlin Welsh observed: “It is an album about a very famous young woman on the defensive… Intimate, self-serving, seductive and wildly uneven.”
Contrast this with St Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION, which revels in its own intelligence and sophistication; that uses enigma to thicken meaning amid her striking juxtaposition of ethereality and sassy honesty, while eschewing Swift’s grating petulance. Annie Toller summed up the songs as “meticulous constructions that shudder and quake, veering expertly between poise and volatility”. St Vincent’s confluence of lyrics, delivery and sound-worlds makes her certainly original and damned near innovative.
Lorde kept the world waiting for four years before proving that Pure Heroine was no fluke. The spectacularly precocious 16-year-old of that album has now documented her transition to adulthood with almost brutal candour on Melodrama. Writer In the Dark, for instance, traces the peril of romantic involvement with artists who might exploit it – detail it, even! – in their work. (Long before revenge porn, after all, writers, painters and poets routinely exposed all on an artistic whim.) And as Lorde’s emotional range has broadened so has her sonic palette.
Barry Divola described Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights as “a stark triumph” on which Baker “retains her gift for looking in the mirror and reporting exactly what she sees”. Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness has her voice floating in an ether high above the worldly concerns of which she sings; as if, courtesy of an out-of-body experience, she gazes down on the riddles of her heart with soft-focus detachment.
Andrew Stafford’s Australian stand-outs were Jen Cloher (Jen Cloher), Paul Kelly (Life Is Fine) and Gang of Youths (Go Farther in Lightness). It wasn’t an album, but I’ll add Luke Escombe’s enthralling ABC radio documentary about his father’s rock career. Google “rock and roll dad”. You’ll kiss me for suggesting it.
The year’s disappointments included Miguel’s War and Leisure, U2’s Songs of Experience and Jaden Smith’s SYRE. Making the lists of both best and worst was Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy – which beats the hell out of drawing no reaction at all! Meanwhile fans of something with more grunt can look ahead to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club releasing Wrong Creatures in January…
Jonas Kaufmann further burnished his reputation as a tenor of wondrous versatility with two releases. On L’Opera he concentrated on 19th-century French repertoire, often highlighting a lighter elegance in his timbre, while the darker side of his singing made for a consummate realisation of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
Another tenor, a certain Luciano Pavarotti, was further immortalised with the release of the 101-disc Complete Operas, which was only upstaged by the 356-disc Karajan: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, worth a cool $1399!
Pianists featured prominently among the releases that delighted reviewer Barney Zwartz, including the extraordinary Daniil Trifonov’s Transcedental, an album of Liszt etudes, which Zwartz acclaimed as “pianism as close to perfection as I can hope to encounter”. He also enthused about the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman’s tone, clarity and intensity on Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas D 959 & D 960.
Enchanted by the virtuosic song of the pied butcherbird, local composer Hollis Taylor’s transcribed and partially recomposed the birds’ melodies for her startling Absolute Bird. With beaks replaced by human hands and mouths she nudged the listener closer to answering a question that is partly philosophical and partly artistic: is birdsong music? YES!
Trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom’s Burning Ghosts released Reclamation, a bastard child of jazz and thrash metal exploring sonic density. When they did indulge in rests they were sharp-edged and savage, as if someone had just sliced the music with a machete.
Chick Corea has been capable of both the exceptional and the silly, so one approached The Musician – three live CDs and a Blu-ray documentary – with some wariness. I doubt it could have been done better. The film shows that the playfulness often defining his art is also embedded in the process of making it, and collaborators include John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, Concha Buika and Gary Peacock.
Peacock’s own Tangents had the bassist’s lines in constant dialogue between sinewy propulsion, tender lyricism and deep mysteries. Mystery is the very essence of pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s art, and much of the music on his solo opus An Ancient Observer is so airy that were it a sculpture it wouldn’t even cast a shadow. His distinctive array of influences – pop/rock, Armenian folk, classicism and French Impressionism – bring him close to genuine innovation.
Locally saxophonist Sandy Evans released the absorbing ROCKPOOLMIRROR, a series of duets with artists including Satsuki Odamura and Bobby Singh. The music is by turns chilling, exultant, soothing, moving and mind-expanding.
Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, widely considered the hippest thing around just now, followed 2015’s The Epic with Harmony of Difference. I remain bemused that he is heralded as something of a prophet. The truth is closer to his being an exciting player who pens engaging compositions and has a fine band.
Much of the most interesting music made now lies in the thick fog that cloaks and even erodes genres, exemplified by the eponymous debut from Perth trio My Name Is Nobody. With most of us clinging by our fingernails to this continent’s seaboard, this album amplifies the sense of the vast desert emptiness creeping closer at our backs, via an unnerving marriage of country and ambient music.
Perhaps the year’s finest release was Blue Maqams by the great Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. Although rooted in Arabic classical music, his composing transcends idiom. Bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette bring superlative elasticity to bear, while pianist Django Bates casts auras around the oud.
Australia’s own oud master, Joseph Tawadros, crafted mesmerizing duets with his percussionist brother James on Live at Abbey Road, and the diverse sound worlds on Julian Curwin’s Mango Balloon Volume 4 were realised with an impeccable blend of flair and restraint. Ngarukuruwala’s Ngiya Awungarra – I Am Here Now, a marriage of eras and cultures preserving the songs of the Tiwi people, was a coup conceptually, artistically, morally and in terms of enlightenment.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s Echo in the Valley was the year’s pick in the tangled wilderness of folk and Americana, the combination of her luminous vocals with the grit and virtuosity of their twin banjos proving irresistible.
Biggest surprise? Goldenhair. This had Irish pianist/composer Brian Byrne setting 21 of James Joyce’s poems to wide-ranging music, the enchanting verse variously sung (including by Kurt Elling) or read (including by Glenn Close).
Perhaps 2018 will bring some major innovation, buttressed by the desire to stimulate, touch and move. Almost anything beats cautious artists repeating themselves and/or their heroes, and meanwhile appeasing the even more cautious bean-counters and marketing strategists controlling the major corporations. Such artists may grow rich, but they don’t grow.