A short round-up of five great albums released in 2017 which may have been easy to overlook if you weren’t necessarily looking for them. As per last year’s list, these albums are not necessarily ‘the best’ of the year. They are perhaps deserving of wider appreciation though. Also, hopefully you’re okay with instrumental music…
Track Pick: “Restrictus”
Have you ever wondered what Philip Glass might have sounded like if he wrote for the accordion? Or perhaps if Colin Stetson favoured the squeeze-box over the sax? Then look no further than Swiss accordionist Mario Batkovic. His debut album of solo compositions is filled with the hypnotic arpeggios and pulsating melodies that you might expect to hear from either of those artists.
Batkovic is not just a mere imitator though. He is an innovator. His complex pieces feel almost like love letters to the accordion as they make use of every sonic possibility that the instrument offers; ranging from the deep, expressive drone of the bellows to even the rhythmic patter of the instrument’s buttons. The album reminds me a lot of Béla Fleck and his contribution to the banjo as an instrument: both artists have selected what some may consider to be a kitschy instrument and taken it beyond what many may have previously thought to have been possible. Of course, Fleck has been around for several decades now, whereas this is Batkovic’s first solo album. It shows a lot of promise for the future of accordion music though.
Trip to Walden Pond
Track Pick: “Trip to Walden Pond”
The American writer Ambrose Bierce defined the fiddle in The Devil’s Dictionary as “an instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat”. Although not entirely true (catgut is a bit of a misnomer), he was right about the tickling part and Hanneke Cassel’s latest album of fiddle tunes doesn’t disappoint in that respect.
Cassel is a prolific fiddler based in Boston who specialises in the Scottish fiddle tradition. She is certainly a talented player. More importantly though, Cassel makes this list because she is a very gifted songwriter. Trip to Walden Pond includes seventeen new tunes composed by Cassel for this album and they are consistently brilliant. As good as traditional folk music is, the genre can sometimes feel a little stale when it gets flooded with centuries-old tunes. The new compositions on this album are completely alive though. They manage to feel fresh and contemporary while remaining true to their traditional roots. Some of the tunes were also commissioned to support the Kenyan-based non-profit for children’s education Many Hopes. This will continue into 2018, with several tunes already commissioned as part of her annual fundraising event for the cause.
Track Pick: “Sky Could Undress”
One of the most humbling aspects of keeping on top of new releases throughout the year is how I am constantly reminded of how little I know. So often I will come across an incredible new release by an artist or band that I have never heard of, only to discover that they have been quietly (at least to me) releasing interesting music for a while. Balmorhea are one of many such bands that I discovered this year.
Balmorhea (pronounced bal-mə-ray) had a productive beginning and released five albums between 2007 and 2012. Clear Language is the duo’s first full-length album in five years and it reveals an understated maturity in the songwriting skills of the two multi-instrumentalists Michael Muller and Rob Lowe (no, not that Rob Lowe). The ten tracks on this album are, in many ways, quite simple. At least, on the surface they are. The strength of this release does not depend on complicated movements or wildly dynamic song structures which might distinguish a lot of other post-rock music. Rather, it is the lush textures and rich soundscapes evoked in each little vignette that make this a memorable album. This is the perfect music to listen to on a misty spring morning while watching the sun rise through your window.
Otto A Totland
Genre: Modern Classical
Track Pick: “The Lost”
If Clear Language is ideal for a spring daybreak, then The Lost is the album to pull out on those winter mornings when you want nothing more than to just stay in bed. This is the follow-up to Otto A Totland’s 2014 debut solo piano album Pinô and it is every bit as stunning as that release. These fifteen new piano pieces continue in much the same style introduced on Pinô: soft, spacious, unhurried. You can almost feel this music breathe. Totland’s quieter pieces remind us that we, too, should perhaps spend more time to slow down and just breathe.
It has also been an exciting time for music of this type. Dutch pianist Joep Beving has become a breakout success in the last couple of years with his similarly contemplative piano music (Beving’s excellent sophomore album Prehension was also released earlier this year). Hopefully Totland gets to share in with some of this attention, because both composers write music that is equally gorgeous.
Track Pick: “Still”
Hidden Orchestra is not actually an orchestra. Rather, it is an imaginary orchestra by the multi-instrumentalist composer/producer Joe Acheson. For his third release under this moniker, Acheson imagines an orchestra built primarily around birdsong. Each track of Dawn Chorus is built upon a dawn chorus recorded by Acheson on his morning walks. The sound of birds bookends each track and their songs often interact with the rhythms and melodies of Acheson’s compositions.
This is not a nature recording album though. While the use of field recordings provides a unifying thematic device, it is Acheson’s orchestrations that helped this album to make this list. He uses dense layers of both acoustic and electronic instruments to assemble his ever-evolving pieces. The percussion is also a highlight. The beats driving this album are intricate yet never too busy and they complement the rest of the music perfectly. And that drop on the track pick “Still” manages to get me every time.
It was difficult to settle on a final five for this list. If you are looking for more hidden gems from 2017, then you might also like to check out:
- Noam Pikelny’s solo banjo album Universal Favorite
- Jenny Scheinman’s collection of American fiddle tunes Here on Earth
- Brazilian guitarist Fabiano Do Nascimento’s Tempo dos Mestres
- Hisato Higuchi’s ultra-mellow Kietsuzukeru Echo
- Shalosh’s jazzy sophomore Rules of Oppression