Given the proliferation of year-end Top 10 lists, it seems only fair that Shadow Classics — which gives shelter to under-loved and overlooked music — would feature its own list of the 2006 recordings that appear most likely to become Shadow Classics years down the line. Don't let these gems go unnoticed.
Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Stoa
This was one of the most visionary jazz records of 2006, though that says as much about the form — which often remains mired in pointless rituals of tradition-mongering — as it does about this music, which uses Steve Reich-style pattern pulse phrases as springboards for improvisation. The Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bartsch put together a slow-boiling soundtrack of recurring themes for his small group, then choreographed brief solo outbursts and unusual orchestrations of acoustic instruments. Stoa suggests that there are plenty of open pathways available to adventurous music, particularly those acquainted with the polyrhythmic intricacies of electronic dance music. This is consistently surprising, not to mention mind-blowing on headphones.
Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de L'independence
This record was largely overshadowed by Savane, the last release from the tremendous late guitarist Ali Farka Toure. While that disc offered a nice summation of the African blues style Toure had refined for years, Boulevard represents a whole new thing — an explosion of possibility. Kora master Diabate puts his spry, skittering instrument-of-1,000-strings (actually 21; it just sounds like 1,000) in the middle of a large, unlikely ensemble, and together they seek out musical realms far from Africa: the roar of big-band jazz, the churn of heavy-backbeat progressive rock, and so on. It's quite a maelstrom, made more intriguing because at the center of it lies Diabate's endlessly nimble kora, which resonates sweetly no matter what surrounds it.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead doesn't bust any new moves on this airtight laptop-tronic solo foray, which offers further thoughts on alienation and dislocation. As a result, many longtime fans considered it less than a smashing success, and more like a between-courses diversion. History may wind up concurring: The Eraser does utilize drum sounds and patterns that carry a clear date stamp. Still, the intimacy of the surroundings yields some intensely reflective Yorke lyrics: thoughts on political intimidation ("Harrowdown Hill"), the haunting nature of a relationship ("The Eraser") and general deception ("Black Swan") that bury all traces of seething below the surface. Just hearing Yorke mutter and twitter through multi-tracked vocal percussion riffs — and corresponding pattering percussion — is one powerful lure. But then there are his lead vocals, which sound mussed and sleepy, intentionally low-aspiration, and still somehow dramatic. Can't wait to hear where he goes next.
On the tours to support Eye to the Telescope, British singer-songwriter KT Tunstall showed how a solo artist could create towering masses of sound using loop pedals — by sampling brief snippets of audio and stacking them endlessly. Argentinean singer Juana Molina has been doing this for several years, and on Son created a haunting atmospheric gem that pushes, ever so gently, into radical terrain. Molina thinks about harmony in strange clusters: On "Las Culpas," the title track and others, she layers her voice until a simple theme becomes an angry knot, then surrounds that primary idea with cascades of counterlines, each one pulling the tune farther from the conventional. Someday, we'll evolve ears sophisticated enough to appreciate this.
Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond
'Bach: Violin Concerto No. 2 in E, BWV 1042'
J.S. Bach wrote music with the knowledge that some of his ideas would be messed with, that future interpreters would change at least some of the notes — to personalize his pieces or suit them to particular occasions. This improvisatory aspect of classical music has subsided in recent decades, but Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero intends to bring it back. What's interesting is her method: Rather than dash all over the place and dazzle by piling Bach-like inventions one atop the next, she concentrates on subtle shifts of harmony. Sometimes, she'll resolve a phrase the way Bach intends but slip in a different chordal quality to change the "color" of the line. And sometimes she'll move to a higher elevation, where the Bach theme grows in a different way altogether. Amazing if you know Bach, and amazing if you don't.
Okay, so how far will we go with the freak-folk thing? Back to communal living? To the lutes and druids and witches of Steeleye Span? Espers, an incredibly inventive sextet from Philadelphia, continues its brave revival of Fairport Convention-style hippie prog-folk with this feedback-drenched, sonically expansive sophomore effort. It's more musically assured than anything recent with a folk tag attached to it, and more inventive besides — the rare case where songs that begin with breathtakingly beautiful melodies go soaring far from their points of origin, taking journeys that are beautiful in themselves.
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian
Given that sound-warping guitarist Bill Frisell has released at least one (and sometimes two) titles a year since the turn of the century, it's understandable if a degree of "Frisell Fatigue" has set in among hardcore fans. But it would be a shame if that prevented listeners from hearing this lively trio date, which stands among the year's most provocative jazz statements. Working with the veteran rhythm team of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Paul Motian, Frisell charges through an impressive range of tunes, from old-timey Americana ("You Are My Sunshine") to bluegrass ("Pretty Polly") to Thelonious Monk ("Raise Four," "Misterioso"). Solos flow into each other, melodies rise out of nowhere, and everything is guided by vivaciousness and a shared sense of humor. While the date is primarily sculpted by Frisell, the guitarist occasionally creeps into the background so he can listen to Motian dust those cymbals, transforming percussion into melody.
Heartless Bastards: All This Time
The award for most improved songwriter of 2006 goes to Erika Wennerstrom, the leader of the Ohio trio Heartless Bastards. When the group first appeared in 2005, it was a proudly ragged, blues-loving rock band with lots of heart and few original ideas. This second album represents serious evolution: Wennerstrom still relies on the rhythmic churn of blues-rock, but utilizes a pseudo-psychedelic vibe when she sings, a haze that blunts her most direct pronouncements. This gives even sing-song melodies like "I Swallowed a Dragonfly" and the resolute love-trouble ode "Into the Open" a spooky sense of mystery.
This was a good year for hip-hop from deep left field, much of it under-loved. The Roots issued its most politically outraged statement, Game Theory, while Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco used detailed scenarios to make ghetto politics personal. It was also the year we lost Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla, a.k.a. James Yancey), a beatmaker who'd influenced generations of DJs and producers, among them Kanye West. The Detroit producer died in February after a long illness, leaving behind a crate full of riveting rhythm beds and sample-chopping exercises, some created while he was in the hospital. The instrumentals are collected here, and while they don't add up to his best work (see the early Slum Village releases, Shadow Classics all), they're still terrific: smart, upheaval-minded beats that can make an ordinary rapper sound like a genius.
The Thermals: The Body The Blood The Machine
Hutch Harris, the lead singer and primary instrumentalist of the Oregon punk band The Thermals, begins this thing by screaming out against idol worship and organized religion. These turn out to be recurring interests, and Harris can sound as if he's just been set free: He's unburdening himself after years of silent seething. Fortunately, Harris isn't at all one-dimensional as a songwriter: He spices his polemics with powerful, unexpectedly catchy refrains, and when he simmers down a bit, on "St. Rosa and the Swallows," he's not afraid to let a radiant hook-sense reign. A most skillful balance of rants and craft, this deserves to be heard by everyone who thinks about punk in the present tense.
The Wood Brothers: Ways Not To Lose
Most tunes here revolve around Chris Wood's beefy bass (which will be familiar to fans of Medeski, Martin and Wood) and his brother Oliver's guitar and road-weary voice. The vibe is aw-shucks acoustic Americana, with a touch of Mose Allison and a spot of Chris Whitley. And even though Oliver's lyrics sometimes sound like the thoughts of a doleful, dejected soul, the music feels sturdy and earthbound, safe harbor for a restless seeker. These gracious little songs, with their common-sense truths and affirmations, sound like they were born on a front porch during a beautiful sunset.