Rolling Stone, the New York Times and Spin picked “Dear Science” from TV on the Radio as album of the year, while the music news website Pitchfork and NPR listeners went with the debut from the Fleet Foxes. Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver are also popular choices on year-end polls, which often include a fair number of albums that, during the year, floated along considerably under the radar.
Every year there is a collection of albums that impress upon release but somehow disappear once critics and listeners fill out year-end favorites lists. I came up with nine records that deserve a shot at landing on a list of some sort, nine albums that deserve a second listen. (Two of them actually secured Grammy nominations).
Debashish Bhattacharya “Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey” (Riverboat/World Music Network). Nominated for the traditional world music Grammy, Bhattacharya’s latest collection of Indian slide guitar music has far-shorter songs than his other work, which allows him to aerate the music and expand the range of his ragas far beyond Sufi traditions. Technically staggering, the instrumentals of “Calcutta Chronicles” are highly personal, an emotional dialogue between Bhattacharya and his brother, tablaist Subhasis Bhattacharya.
James Blackshaw “Litany of Echoes” (Tompkins Square). Brit guitarist goes beyond the dazzling John Fahey/Leo Kottke style that made his first five albums breathtaking displays of technique. With occasional accompaniment on bowed instruments, Blackshaw, 27, has elevated the sense of composition in his stunning pieces, adding conceptual depth and a connective tissue to composers such as Steve Reich and Erik Satie.
Anthony Braxton “The Complete Arista Recordings” (Mosaic Records). In the 1970s, it was a shock that Braxton recorded for the same label as Barry Manilow. Braxton took the brush of Abstract Expressionism, applied it to everything from Scott Joplin through late-period Coltrane and then notated it in mathematical terms, suggesting a science behind the art. Compiled according to recording dates (1974-80), the eight-CD set moves between his solo works, intense quartets and astonishing 20-piece bands. (Album is available at http://www.mosaicrecords.com.)
The Break and Repair Method “Milk the Bee” (Bluhammock). Matchbox Twenty drummer Paul Doucette switches to piano and makes a pop-rock gem. Standout track “Calling All Electrical Prints” is a brilliant balancing act, an example of a musician sinking his teeth into an influence (late-period R.E.M. balladry) and producing music that’s inviting and riveting without cliché.
Karen Dalton “Green Rocky Road” (Megaphone/Delmore). Before the late Karen Dalton made folk-rock records, she sang old-timey music and played banjo in the Greenwich Village coffeehouses frequented by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk. Recordings of Dalton that date back to 1962 and ’63 make up this haunting and otherworldly collection rooted in blues, cowboy songs and tunes that Pete and Peggy Seeger recorded; her voice pure and the accompaniment divinely naive.
The Explorers Club “Freedom Wind” (Dead Oceans). It’s one thing to absorb the influence of the Beach Boys’ music from Brian Wilson’s peak songwriting periods. It’s quite another to create a logical successor to “Smile,” ignoring pop music’s history of the past 40 years to create a collection of breezy SoCal pop that beats the pants off most of the Beach Boys’ late-’60s records.
William Parker Quartet “Petit Oiseau” (AUM). It’s unlikely anyone owns all of bassist William Parker’s albums as leader — it appears he has released 30 in the past 13 years — but few of his titles possess the start-to-finish cohesion and brawn of “Petit Oiseau.” Trumpeter Lewis Barnes, drummer Hamid Drake and saxophonist Rob Brown excel at Parker’s request: Engage in a four-way conversation that sounds like one voice without one speaking over the other “except when greatly inspired.”
This is Ivy League “This is Ivy League” (Twenty Seven). Alex Suarez and Ryland Blackinton pay their rent as members of Cobra Starship, but turn toward the lilting pop of Belle & Sebastian and Peter Bjorn and John in this side project. Observations on life’s emotional buffers abound in their lyrics, perfectly matching the breeziness of the frothy melodies.
Norma Winstone “Distances” (ECM). Sparse accompaniment has been Winstone’s trademark since the Londoner singer’s days in Azimuth. “Distances,” her second album with Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on woodwinds, warmly elevates those minimalist touches. Every note is carefully placed; it’s subtle jazz singing with a sense of swing inferred. Disc has been rewarded with a Grammy nom for jazz vocal album.