Life, death and cosmic jazz: 2018's best contemporary classical albums

From Jóhann Jóhannsson to Laurie Anderson, via Poliça and Nils Frahm, musicians of all ages contributed vital music to the genre

Jóhann Jóhannsson was proving himself to be Hollywood’s most fascinating and effective soundtrack writer when he died this year, aged only 48. There have already been three very different posthumous soundtrack releases. Mary Magdalene is a respectful, stately score, written with compatriot Hildur Guðnadóttir; The Mercy is both more strident and more highly textured; while his soundtrack to Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic horror movie Mandy is perhaps the most interesting to hear in isolation – a piece of dark orchestral gothic that harks back to the post-punk and electronica world from which Jóhannsson emerged.

His death came in a year when many pioneers of contemporary music were making superb, groundbreaking albums as senior citizens. Lonnie Holley’s MITH saw the 68-year-old Afrofuturist forging links between ancient plantation chants and cosmic jazz. Landfall saw Laurie Anderson, aged 71, narrating the effects of Hurricane Sandy in her quizzical, meditative voice, while the Kronos Quartet’s shivery, ominous string arrangements brought her nightmarish visions to life. Listening to Pictures saw sound sculptor Jon Hassell still pushing at musical boundaries at the age of 81, burying his FX-laden trumpet under layers of African drums, distorted choirs and ambient electronic drones.

Meanwhile the new album by the 70-year-old Ukrainian-born pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, Fallen Trees, is filled with what he calls “continuous music” – his rattling, rolling, RSI-inducing piano arpeggios, which sound like a high-speed typist rattling through the same sentence over and over again, or like a single bar from a Chopin étude sampled at double-speed. These exhausting, hypnotic meditations are given a layer of intrigue by the ghostly, multi-tracked voices of Japanese vocal artist Hatis Noit.

Nils Frahm performing All Melody at London’s Barbican.
Nils Frahm performing All Melody at London’s Barbican. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Melnyk’s labelmate Nils Frahm sold out huge arenas globally this year, while his LP All Melody saw him welding string sections, glitchy electronic burps and filtered disco beats to his muted piano solos. Some of the most interesting music this year also explored similar fusions. Bristol outfit Mesadorm are fronted by singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino, and their LP Heterogaster saw Pepino’s soulful electronic and piano-led miniatures given grand and ethereal orchestrations by a band featuring cellist Jo Silverston, drummer Daisy Palmer and producer Aaron Zahl. A similarly spooky orchestral fusion project came from Minneapolis quintet Poliça, fronted by singer Channy Leaneagh. Their album Music for the Long Emergency saw them collaborating with Berlin-based chamber orchestra Stargaze, whose icy, shivery strings gave an emotional heft to Poliça’s slo-mo soul and gothic electronica.

John Lewis’s Top 10 contemporary albums of the year

1. Lonnie HolleyMITH

2. Arp – Zebra

3. Phil France – Circle

4. Szun Waves – New Hymn to Freedom

5. Kasper Bjørke Quartet – The Fifty Eleven Project

6. Yonatan Gat – Universalists

7. Chilly Gonzales – Solo Piano III

8. Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet – Landfall

9. Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures

10. Poliça & Stargaze – Music for the Long Emergency

Contributor

John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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