A Closer Listen’s Best Rock, Post-Rock, Folk & Jazz Albums of the Decade

We notice two recurring themes in this end-of-decade list: disaster and hope.  On one angle, we encounter a remembrance of the Great East Japan Earthquake and a symphony about the end of the world.  On the other, we find artists working with each other across boundaries and nations; a daydream about the cycle of life; and a harrowing, healing album for returning veterans.  One can intuit these threads at the end of the decade, with humankind dangling on the precipice.  Will we choose despair or hope?  Will we give in to our fears or conquer them?  Will we band together or break apart?  No matter what their outlook, these artists seem to have one plea in common:  choose well.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents the Best Rock, Post-Rock, Folk & Jazz Albums of 2010-19!

Anoice ~ The Black Rain (Ricco, 2012)
In 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake caused not only a tsunami, but meltdowns in Fukushima; in all, over 10,000 died.  This horrible tragedy continues to have a hold on the public consciousness.  Anoice was involved in fundraisers immediately after the event, and their sorrow led to these compositions; their closeness to the event is palpable.  By fusing great drama with great sensitivity, the band provided a definitive score to the events of 3/11/11, making The Black Rain one of the most important post-rock albums ever produced.  A bookend, Ghost in the Clocks, was released in 2019.  (Richard Allen)


Dawn of Midi ~ Dysnomia (Thirsty Ear, 2015)
I first heard this 2013 record performed live in a small venue, and as soon as that frankly perverse kick drum entered nonchalantly during the first minutes of “Io”, I was transfixed until the end. Moving dramatically from their debut of free-form jazz, the Brooklyn-based trio of piano, contrabass and drums offer 46 continuous minutes of the most restrained composition possible within the pantheon of that genre. Does it even belong? Unless you count two-note ostinatos, melody is minimal to barely-there and scales are almost wholly ignored; instead, African rhythms rule with a wooden fist. And like a voracious organism, the three musicians constantly evolve from the established meter or tempo on their own growth trajectories, their individual lines undulating with varied accents and syncopation, until they end up meeting again by apparent (yet entirely calculated) happenstance. The hypnosis induced renders this set less jazz and more spiritual trance, as your corporeal extremes seem to repel each other ~ feet magnetised to the ground on which they (unwisely) wish to dance; head leering up at the stars. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)


Esmerine ~ Dalmak (Constellation, 2013)
A mere two years after 2011’s La Lechuza, the ever-evolving Esmerine delighted with a fourth LP that has transpired to be my favourite post-rock record of the decade. But to call Dalmak ‘post-rock’ is to do it a disservice. The then-expanded Esmerine line-up took inspiration from a temporary residency in Istanbul, and the city’s influence looms large, casting a richly woven pall over proceedings. And so a meditative atmosphere prevails across the nine tracks, most of which were recorded in Istanbul itself in collaboration with four local musicians. Eastern instruments such as the darbuka and saz add an exotic layer over the stalwart marimba and cello (plus the additions the extra members bring). Even at its most pulsating and layered, however, as in the intoxicating groove of “Barn Board Fire”, the composition is disciplined and the production spacious ~ somehow drawing from the many the band’s defining sense of minimalism. It is the band’s sensitive assimilation of eastern and western instruments that begets the album’s richness and allure. As implied by the middle track, “Hayale Dalmak”, to listen to it is truly to fall into glorious daydream. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)


Kamasi Washington ~ The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)
Few albums are as accurately named as The Epic, Kamasi Washington’s triple-disc album from 2015. Perhaps the only alternate title would have been Jazz Odyssey, and Derek Smalls got there first. Pushing nearly three hours, The Epic taps into the spiritual jazz vein, but in a manner that could be described as ‘maximalist’. Centring his arrangements around a versatile octet, Washington throws a choir and orchestra into the mix for added impact rendering the results suitably, er, epic. This album wasn’t ushered out on a mainstream jazz label, either; rather, it appeared on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder, more typically the home of instrumental hip-hop. It placed The Epic outside the traditional jazz channels which, added to Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar and Erykah Badu, made it more approachable to a fresh audience. Crucially though, this is an album that didn’t alienate older jazz fans either: if the genre as a whole was in danger of getting a little bit sleepy in its 11th decade (or thereabouts) The Epic was a shot in the arm. (Jeremy Bye)


Scott Walker & Sunn O))) ~ Soused (4AD, 2014)
It took a while, but it seems that Scott Walker finally found a record label that understood him when he signed to 4AD. It benefited both sides: 4AD were able to underline their status as an artist-focused rather than profit-driven label and Walker enjoyed his most prolific creative outpouring since his first five releases. Having seemingly settled into a pattern of one album every 11 years, Scott released an unprecedented four albums and three soundtracks between 2006 and his death in 2019. Soused is arguably the highlight of this run: for the newcomer, it’s certainly the most accessible with Sunn O)))’s barrage of drone metal guitar drones replacing the orchestrations of previous albums. Walker’s voice, which had evolved into an enthralling register, leaving his crooner days far behind, fitted the Sunn O))) sound more effectively than the arrangements on some of his other solo work: it seemed a match made in experimental rock heaven. Walker’s lyrics remained abstract, but there is less need to leaf through the lyric book when your brain is being gently pummelled by Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars: rather than delving into the life of Zercon or the death of Mussolini, let the drone do the heavy lifting. The real shame is a mooted second collaboration never got off the ground: Soused stands as a creative high point for two remarkable artists. (Jeremy Bye)

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd ~ Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project (Pi Recordings, 2016)
What happens after war? Peace? Or does violence hunker down in the unconscious and resurface in dream? These are among the questions tackled by Holding it Down, one incarnation of a larger audio–visual–performance project. I’ve been game for any Mike Ladd project, since I first heard his breath-taking Welcome to the Afterfuture (2000). But Holding it Down is a high-water mark for everyone involved. Nine American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are represented on this disc: Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill deliver their own poetic interpretations of their dreams; seven others have their dreams transformed by Ladd, Pamela Z, and Guillermo E. Brown. Underneath it all, renowned jazz pianist Vijay Iyer blends in with electronics, guitar, drums, and cello. This is not a jingoistic, pro-military record; but neither does it make a specific anti-war statement. This is a record about trauma and guilt, but also about a shared humanity and an extending of empathy.  (Samuel Rogers)


William Tyler ~ Modern Country (Merge, 2016)
The title could not be more distinct and appropriate— William Tyler’s Modern Country is desolate, beautiful road trip music for solitary passengers in the American West. With a five-piece backing his deceptively tricky acoustic guitar work, Tyler supposes a future of instrumental Americana that gets its essence from evocation and meditative passion. “Highway Anxiety” seems to be titled more after the terrifying, awe-inspiring big sky than claustrophobic traffic. “Gone Clear” turns krautrock repetition into rhizomatic explorations of wordless storytelling that can rival any contemporary folk singer. The record aims high, and nearly reaches the pastoral ideal that it assures us does exist in the wild, wild country. 


World’s End Girlfriend ~ The Last Waltz (Virgin Babylon, 2016)
The end of the world has never sounded as good, or as large.  Everything here is super-sized.  At the final trumpet, choirs, guitars and electronic beats march into battle; lovers race to find each other; children cry in the arms of their mothers; and angels fly above, brandishing fire.  Armageddon has found its soundtrack.  The drama is pushed to the Nth degree in Earth’s final hour.  If this is the last waltz, it’s all been worth it; we’ll be dancing as the magma erupts.  (Richard Allen)


Wrekmeister Harmonies ~ Then It All Came Down (Thrill Jockey, 2014)
The collective project directed by JR Robinson that is Wrekmeister Harmonies has produced some of the most gut-wrenching music of the decade. Then It All Came Down, based on the Truman Capote interview with Charles Manson-affiliate Bobby Beausoleil, is perhaps the harshest album among them (which is saying something, considering the topics include genocide and pederasty). Its contrasts are executed with utmost precision, eliciting emotional responses as extreme as the material that demands them. Robinson’s ten-year-long exploration of the transitions between dark and light is consistently embodied here in the deliberate, yet intense pace, the intervention of a great many talents of very different sorts coming together to perfectly perform profoundly horrifying music. Dispel all illusions: we are the product of unimaginable acts, and we must face them with the fear they are due, for if we fail, all we will produce is more misery. This is metal at its life-affirming best. (David Murrieta Flores)


Yowie ~ Synchromysticism (Skin Graft, 2017)
Contrasting as they may sound, post-rock and math rock are collaborators in the dismantling of rock’s bloated cadaver. Post-rock pulls on the textures and timbre until they unravel into a wide-open space. Meanwhile, math rock meddles with the underlying structure. At the noisiest and most visceral extreme of math rock, the bones of rock are painstakingly reformed into the exoskeleton of a bizarre creature. The creature’s name is Yowie. With just two guitars and a drumkit, Yowie twang, crash, and squeal their way into a stop-start barrage of noise. A language of paradox is needed to describe them. The music is disjointed, yet fluidly progressive; it is a repetitive pattern, yet it rewrites its DNA multiple times per track. On first listen, this record sounds like far-out free jazz. However, its sounds emerge not from improvisation, but from the premeditated exactness of an algebraic equation.  (Samuel Rogers)

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