Cosmogony can be described as a model constructed to study the origin of the universe. In this case, I wanted to put together a mixtape for charting the path of fourth world jazz, new age, ambient, and kosmische synth music from its origins in the 1970s on up through today. This stuff is kind of my bread and butter, the music that’s always looping between new releases and old favorites alike. Press play and close your eyes.
2017 was easily the most definitive year of my entire life. This year, I became a father. I got married. Everything changed, including the way I appreciated music.
It wasn’t my tastes; I didn’t suddenly drop my love for techno and weird jazz to become a dad rock connoisseur, despite in fact making a dad rock mixtape. No, it was a subtle shift in weight, a slight refocusing on what aspects most affect what I love about music. I’m still largely into the same genres and artists as before, but I now feel drawn to facets of sound and meaning that I shied away from before. I’m more interested in peeling back the meaning behind what I’m loving, searching for a thread to pull, an arc to follow. Slowly but surely, I recognized the colors emerging from the stories that built these pieces of art.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the behind-the-scenes or the history before becoming a dad; it’s simply that I now find myself automatically working recursively when I’m emotionally struck by something, running down the fibers of time that brought it to my attention, trying to work out a map for my own journey forward in this new life role. I’m living for more than myself finally, and although it feels vulnerable to have my heart living outside my body, it’s incredibly rewarding. I’ve felt more energized, more creative than I have in years. I made five new mixtapes between winters. I began running for the first time. I started writing fiction again. Oh and, along with my wife, I’ve been raising a child pretty successfully for half a year so far. Even more than ever before, I can’t wait to experience what happens next.
Speaking of my wife, that’s her in the header picture above. I thought the image of her, pregnant, hiking in the late winter sunset, encapsulated the way I felt about 2017. All that nervous possibility and raw beauty surrounding the long shadow down the path ahead, feeling real warmth after too many frozen months.
This year, like every year, was bursting full of new, exciting, brilliant music. It only takes some effort and desire to find it all. In another first, I barely read any music journalism, kept up with no major release schedules, and missed out on most of the hype 2017 had to offer. I have only the faintest ideas about what other people hold up as the best music of the year. To me, these 50 albums mattered more than anything else I heard all year, give or take a few. For a more comprehensive picture of the year, be sure to check out 50 more must-hear albums of 2017.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 50 best albums of 2017.
Today is Don Cherry‘s birthday. He would have been 79 years old. To celebrate the inimitable jazz explorer’s life, I’m sharing my favorite album of his.
Here’s Brown Rice streaming in full. It’s one of the most warmly engaging releases of the entire free jazz universe and, as such, is a great entry point for those who have yet to experience the furthest reaches of the genre.
Who is Kamasi Washington? He’s the guy who made all of the fantastic sax sounds that you loved on both recent (and brilliant) Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar releases. Albums You’re Dead and To Pimp A Butterfly would feel utterly lacking without Washington’s input; his freewheeling tones form the sharp jazz edge cutting through both masterpieces.
This 14 minute tune is but a small piece of the upcoming, appropriately-titled debut album The Epic – it looks to be a sprawling, three hour affair aiming to throw down the gauntlet for modern jazz. In a genre valued for innovation and stratospheric ambition, the traditional live jazz band has been laying in stasis for a couple decades now. Real innovation has come from beyond left field, from electronic artists playing with jazz forms and ideals while never really touching the live band setup. Washington could change that perception.
As Flying Lotus himself put it, “everybody is trying to do the same shit. I don’t want to hear ‘My Favorite Things’ anymore.”
As a hardcore fan of the genre myself, I couldn’t put it any more plainly. This tune, along with a new exclusive song featured on Revive (I hope to have a copy streaming here soon) have jumpstarted my hopes for a new generation of the kind of wildly psychedelic, expansive, weird jazz that sits near and dear to my heart. Fans of later John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and especially Pharoah Sanders are highly encouraged to listen right now.
One last thing: Washington has been featured on this site before, as part of the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson ensemble. The band included Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Rebekah Raff, and Chris “Daddy” Dave, some of the best jazz musicians alive today. Their live take on Drips//Take Notice is one of the greatest live jazz performances recorded in the past few decades, if that’s any indication of this man’s talent.
This is a glowing gem known only to those who have burrowed deep enough into the inimitable catalog of jazz legend Alice Coltrane.
“Divine music is the sound of true life, wisdom, and bliss. This music transcends geographical boundaries, language barriers, age factors; and whether educated or uneducated, it reaches deep into the heart and soul, sacred and holy…” – Alice Coltrane
Transcendence is my favorite Alice Coltrane album. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, by anyone. I’ll try to concisely extol the many virtues of this wonderfully titular-promise-fulfilling album.
“Transcendence is the key that unlocks the indelible mystery of Alice Coltrane’s music. It is the unerring creative mission statement, the irresistible driving force that pushes her soul towards your own.
Reaching the listener emotionally, psychologically and spiritually is an essential part of the endeavor but the act of going beyond conventional forms of communication, of acceding to a higher state of consciousness, is the ultimate raison d’être.”
Since the liner notes in my handy CD reissue lay it out so succinctly, I feel the need only to briefly describe the music itself. Divided into two distinct phases, the album starts off with meandering cloud shimmers of Alice’s effortlessly magical harp. At first nearly traditional sounding, emulating the first rumblings of a symphony, the amorphous harp-centric sound winds through the second, more abstract tune, before gathering into a purposeful rhythm by the ending of the third track. The final echoes softly give way to the low end hum of Coltrane’s sublime organ workout, which drives the rest of the album along a hand-clapping gospel singalong evocation of the various names of the gods.
This western gospel/eastern philosophy mashup feels so comfortably entwined that it comes across like the most natural progression of this idea possible. The sharp tonal divide would stand out more if it weren’t the perfect combination of contrast and duration: the buildup feels like meditation, being lost in thought and nothingness, before a moment of clarity snaps the world into focus. The local cohabitants emerge and reach towards the outer edges of the world as the gods’ names are chanted in the communal practice of Sankirtan, Alice’s favorite sacrifice. It’s an elated ride from introspection to vocal providence; such an enjoyable trip that we’re nigh unaware of the spirituality fueling the journey. Turn this on and let it get you high – or get high before turning it on. Transcendence is all that matters.
Pharoah Sanders may be regarded as, without reservation, one of the greatest modern jazz musicians. His saxophone has graced the heights of recorded music, including his work with John Coltrane on the revolutionary freakout Ascension and Alice Coltrane‘s spiritual jazz masterpieces. He’s played with nearly every major jazz artist you love and he’s appeared on more records than you own. Probably.