2012 In Review: The Year In Instrumental Music
In 1959, Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz To Come, a record with content almost as audacious as its title. Forty-seven years later, Coleman at least partially fulfilled his own challenge with the fearless and fertile Sound Grammar. But even that 2006 effort might not have crossed jazz boundaries as much as one from this year: Karriem Riggins’s Alone/Together.
Technically two LPs (Alone and Together), the 34 tracks are a sonic odyssey, informed as much by Coleman, Coltrane, and Corea as Dr. Dre, Diamond D, and Dilla. (Riggins was friends and collaborators with J Dilla and, like the late beat maestro, is from Detroit. He closes Alone/Together with the track “J Dilla the Greatest.”) Riggins, himself, is a journeyman, having drummed in jazz groups led by Ray Brown and Diana Krall while producing hip-hop for the Roots and Common, among many others. In a tacit acknowledgment of the line he toes, Riggins pops a sample of a critic into “Water,” the voice identifying Riggins as “at the intersection of hip-hop and jazz.”
Alone/Together is, ultimately, not a jazz record. But it’s not just a beats compilation, either; the songs, which range in scope and length, are rhythmic wonders, crafted by MPCs and more traditional pop devices (guitars, drums, et al.). The second track, “Round The Outside,” ushers in the affair and, in a short minute and a half, shows off Riggins’s heavy-handed side — the beat is fierce and propulsive. Later — after giving proper daps to the Motor City — tracks like “Africa,” “Summer Maddness S.A.,” “Back In Brazil,” and “Matador” take an aural trip around the world, drumbeats always standing firm as backbone. Thirty-four songs take on the air of little treats, a bag of candy with different flavors, gone before you know it.
Riggins’s standout debut is bound up tightly with Clams Casino’s recent efforts. Clams, a.k.a. New Jersey producer Mike Volpe, released my favorite album of 2011, his Instrumental Mixtape. (Last year’s Rainforest EP was also wonderful.) This year, he goes to the next round with the Instrumental Mixtape 2, a collection of beats and remixes. Volpe’s process is different from Riggins’s, constructing structures designed for specific MCs like A$AP Rocky and Squadda B. But the results are much the same: Both Riggins and Volpe imbue their fully formed songs with so much movement, vocals are made superfluous. Mixtape 2 isn’t quite as outstanding as its predecessor but — like Riggins — Volpe still forges fluid, brilliant hip-hop with no rappers. (And let vociferous praise be showered upon Volpe for sampling Gerard McMann’s theme from The Lost Boys, “Cry Little Sister,” for Lil B’s “Unchain Me.” It’s at once tongue-in-cheek and well-played.) The forefathers of jazz experimentalism would be proud of Riggins and Volpe, concocting a shape of jazz to come that isn’t jazz at all.
A slew of other wordless (or nearly wordless) records peppered 2012 with electronic and instrumental artistry. Two shorter discs — Burial’s Kindred EP and TNGHT’s self-titled debut EP — borrowed from Polonius, allowing that brevity might just be the soul of wit. William Bevan’s efforts as Burial continue to push the boundaries of what dubstep is supposed to be: Kindred is tightly wrapped in his trademark swirling rimshots and fulminating samples. Typical of Burial, it’s also absolutely foreboding.
If Burial would make for a timely spin on Halloween, TNGHT is primed for New Year’s Eve. Lunice Fermin Pierre II (a Canadian who is known by Lunice in the production game) and Glasgow’s Ross Birchard (who goes by Hudson Mohawke) combine as the duo presiding over a semi-reckless party. A track like “Higher Ground” goes hard and should please first-pumping bros on both sides of the Atlantic.
Across that proverbial pond, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm crafted the finest club-ready electronic album of 2012 — apologies to Skrillex and the rest of the EDMers. And Smalhans is a set of tracks you wouldn’t mind listening to outside of the Ministry Of Sound’s walls. It gets the Daft Punk vibe right, with more streamlined, jumpy energy than a P90x ad: perfect music for an exhausting run or a long drive. Pop “Fāār-I-Kāāl” on and cruise; you’ll feel more like you’re in Tron than anything Homem-Christo and Bangalter could muster a couple years ago.
Another banger came from an unexpected corner in VCMG’s SSSS — courtesy of Erasure and Depeche Mode vets Vincent Clarke and Martin Gore (hence “VCMG”). And even with that pedigree, the record doesn’t strictly hew to a 1980s sensibility, even if it bleeds European.
So, what else? It’s hard to even touch briefly upon the overabundance of instrumental and computerized riches from the past 12 months. How about Four Tet’s Pink? It flew under the radar for much of the year, despite its adroitness. On it, Kieran Hebden expands on his earlier, spare material. The tracks on Pink are drawn-out; he makes you linger, waiting for subtle turns. “Locked” is one of the most thorough compositions he’s ever crafted, a tune that marches on for nearly nine minutes with tailored and tinkered sounds dropping in and out along the route.
Even more ambient noises dripped from Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin (Instrumental Tourist) and Richard Villalobos (Dependent And Happy), cementing a place for pensiveness in 2012’s electronics. Meanwhile, Nico Muhly integrated classical sensibilities into his Drones and Sir Richard Bishop exhibited his dexterous guitar work on Intermezzo and on Rangda’s Formerly Extinct. And Carlton Melton added a metal edge to the climbing movements of Photos of Photos.
Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems is evocative of both Four Tet’s repetition and Burial’s suggestive haunts. (Speaking of Four Tet and Burial, the two collaborated for a trippy slow-burner on “Nova” this year, piano strokes eventually winning the day.) Stott layers his pulsating, industrial dub with harrowing vocals by Alison Skidmore. There are words, to be sure, but they’re nebulous and besides the point as far as meaning — not intonation — is concerned. It might be the edge of a slippery slope to include Luxury Problems in this rundown, but Daniel Snaith eschewing his Caribou moniker for upbeat work as Daphni on Jialong also merits praise. Check out vibrant album opener “Yes, I Know,” which uses a stellar Buddy Miles sample for a hook.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor begins its latest, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, with words, too. But it’s a sample typical of Godspeed and sounds like the recording of a megaphone-armed, frightened innocent, which was later recovered in the rubble of a bombed-out village. “With his arms outstretched,” a Canadian-accented man exhorts, and then the group slowly unfurls its lengthy missive before letting you have it on “Mladic.” It’s all epic builds and brilliantly infused interjections from the genre behemoths. (For a lesson in spare post-rock, seek out the Land Observations record; don’t look to the goliaths of Godspeed.) Here, the Montreal troupe is just as it should be: huge and clamorous when called for, slight and reticent in anticipation. Allelujah! — like Riggins’s Alone/Together and many other instrumental efforts this year — proves that, oftentimes, you can say a lot without saying anything.