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Sound Grammar: the Best Albums of 2015

Kamasi Washington: The Epic (Brainfeeder)

LA tenor man Kamasi Washington’s daringly encyclopedic record, backed by a big band and choir, struck me with the same force that Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew did the first time I dropped the needle on that revolutionary album. The Epic isn’t just a sonic statement, it’s a funky manifesto, a three-hour long panorama of the ways in which jazz of the past, particularly the 1960s recordings of John Coltrane, shape the sounds of the Now.

Amir AlSaffar and Two Rivers Ensemble: Crisis (PI)

Amir AlSaffar is a Chicago-born trumpet player of dazzling talent, whose father is Iraqi. In 2002, with the neo-con invasion of Iraq looming, AlSaffar traveled to Baghdad to study the traditional maqam modal music of Iraq. Since then AlSaffar has been seamlessly integrating the microtonal structures of Iraqi maqam with post-bop jazz. The result, as heard on the deftly played Crisis, is lush, complex and hauntingly melodic.

Myra Melford: Snowy Egret (Enja)

Keyboard virtuoso Myra Melford has done the impossible. She has transcribed the spirit of Eduardo Galeano’s Memories of Fire into a bluesy, intimate, convention-defying dreamscape. Probably the most original recording of the year.

Seasick Steve: Sonic Soul Surfer (Bronze Rat)

Sleazy surfer blues recorded in a living room somewhere in rural England on primitive equipment with a fleet of top-notch players sitting in, then dropping out, including Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Star. The music sounds as raw and bloody as if you were dancing on Steve’s porch while he sharpens his axe and slides down for the kill.

John Trudell and Bad Dog: Wazi’s Dream (Sobeit)

Released a few months before Trudell died, Wazi’s Dream may be the spoken word master’s most intense and visionary record since AKA Graffiti Man. Powered by the hard-driving blues of Bad Dog and Quiltman’s traditional chanting, Trudell digs deep into the nature of identity, love and the struggle for a meaningful existence on a wounded planet.

Kurt Vile: b’elieve i’m goin down (Matador)

Vile recorded much of this dazzling double-album out in the Mojave near Joshua Tree and the songs bear down on you with the austere sonic force of desert blues: dry, stony and a little mystical, as if he’d communed down in the rocks with the dusty spirits of Gram Parsons and Woody Guthrie.

Paris: Pistol Politics (Guerrilla Funk)

Don’t look for the groove-oriented emotional empathy of Kendrick Lamar’s much-accoladed To Pimp a Butterfly here. Paris, the political conscience of hip-hop, returns with this mammoth recording that unfurls with the urgency and immediacy of the streets in a kind of rap verité. An uncompromising, angry and surprisingly lyrical portrait of life-on-the-edge in post-Ferguson urban America.

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch)

Ostensibly the soundtrack to Anderson’s luminescent documentary about the death of her remarkable rat terrier Lolabelle. But this album stands on its own artistic merit, as an exquisite and emotionally condensed suite of songs about love, death and absence, with the spirit of Lou Reed floating behind every chord. Anderson’s most coherent and humane record.

Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

Dense, enthralling, trippy and beautifully strange. This shape-shifting record by Congolese stalwarts Coco Ngambali and Theo Nsituvuidi is like hearing a new idiom of music being born, born fully-formed.

Protoje: Ancient Future (Overstand)

Protoje, a leader of the Conscious Reggae movement, provides nothing less than a kaleidoscopic history lesson on the last 50 years of Jamaican music, charged by deep grooves and politically militant lyrics.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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