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Music

Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: The Exchange Session Vol. 1

Electricity and drum will change your mind? You better believe it.

Free improvisation and the electronic production of sound aren't as odd a couple as some might have you believe. Though the concept of creating music in the moment of performance without pre-determined structure has deeper roots in the jazz tradition, there's currently more than enough history of music freely improvised by folks with sequencers, effects pedals, and mixing boards to rival the output of cats with saxophones, trumpets, and pianos. Even so, rarely the twain shall meet: bulletin boards and websites continue to hotly debate the merits of one approach at the other's expense, with only a select few embracing and understanding the role each has played in the overall continuum of freely improvised music.

Such complications make what Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid have achieved on The Exchange Session Vol. 1 that much more intriguing, if not downright brilliant. It came as curiosity-arousing news for fans of his work as Four Tet that Hebden would be contributing his electronics to Reid's ensemble on 2005's Soul Jazz release, Spirit Walk, but also caused plenty of speculation as to how his sound would integrate into an otherwise standard jazz lineup. The results were somewhat inconsistent, making it difficult to know what to expect from a proper duo session -- surely not more of the noisy beatnik ramblings offered on that disc's lone performance by Hebden and Reid without the ensemble's accompaniment?

On these three lengthy pieces, the two musicians very much meet at a stylistic middle ground, but no amount of imagination could prepare a listener for how well it actually works. Hebden sounds as if he relishes the freedom he's afforded by someone else taking sole responsibility for the rhythmic aspects of the music, expertly implying an orchestra's worth of instrumental tones over the course of the disc. As for Reid, the closest comparison to his drumming style is his contemporary Rashied Ali, whose pulsating, expansive approach to timekeeping propelled John Coltrane's later groups to glorious heights. Reid has employed a similar methodology in his work over the years as both a bandleader and in collaborations with Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, and Sun Ra (talk about a trifecta of former associates) -- and what he offers up here is no exception.

The three tracks move from shortest to longest, as if the duo found it had more to say each time the tapes began to roll, no edits or overdubs required. On "Morning Prayer", Hebden approximates a chorus of flutes and double-reeds, slowly adding layers of drones and electronic noise in a gradual shift from organic to alien, while Reid keeps it all afloat on a wash of spiritual jazz percussion. "Soul Oscillations" extends the vaguely Eastern tonalities, with Reid mixing a hypnotic drum pattern with African thumb piano while Hebden loops a harmonium-tinged line around it -- and the results are as capable of inducing a trance as a cyborg Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Finally, the shimmering vibraphone loops that commence "Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind" gradually lose form, as Hebden chops them up to allow room for static and distant muezzin-like saxophone samples to slip through; over its more than 15-minute duration, the music gains and discharges momentum until finally evaporating into the ether with spectral echoes of electronic tones and authentic cymbals and bells.

There's a serenity at work in much of this music that also exists in the best of what has come to be known as electro-acoustic improvisation, but Hebden and Reid offer a bit more traditional melody and rhythm than one will find in the music of, say, Keith Rowe or Toshimaru Nakamura; here, electronic "noise", like a good expletive, is used for emphasis instead of a modus operandi. Which returns the focus to just what a remarkable feat The Exchange Session Vol. 1 is -- in just under 40 minutes, Hebden and Reid offer one of the most thrilling documents of real-time improvisation you're likely to hear this year, regardless of instrumentation or imposed micro-genre. So while it's arguable that electricity and drum has been changing minds since the advent of rock and roll, this unlikely duo proves that it doesn't need the attendant electric guitars and posturing to get the job done.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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