From country to the Caribbean: notable music releases of 2013

Memorable music provides a path into other worlds. Anne Helmond

The oceans of music, much of it free, that most of us have access to continued to expand unabated in 2013. I’ve plucked the following from the seemingly endless tides because they said something to me about the larger musical cultures of which each is a part. Few of these artists or productions are household names, but that shouldn’t make any difference. They have been my paths into other worlds this year.

I’ve picked one songwriter, one producer, one download and one compilation/reissue.

Surrounded, by Richard Buckner (Merge Records)

US singer-songwriter Richard Buckner has made continuously magnificent music since his 1994 debut, Bloomed. His words are elliptical, his vocal delivery both heavy and fragile.

His songs seem familiar enough but always elude tangible explanation and obvious association. In a era in which the craggy-voiced, country-tinged, singer-songwriter is thought by some to be a distant memory, Buckner shows us what invention there still is to be wrought from a voice and a guitar:

Sometimes he doesn’t even need the guitar:

Colonial Patterns by Huerco S. (Software)

For many, 2013 was the year “the producer” broke through. The seemingly sudden prominence of the electronic music producer has been fuelled by the combined efforts of small record labels seeking out talent and reliable music blogs getting the music out.

Huerco S., the stage name of American producer Brian Leeds, has been one of this year’s beneficiaries. Leed’s first full-length album, Colonial Patterns, moves in cyclical patterns, with tracks that gradually grow in dynamic range and rhythmic complexity while remaining eerily self-contained.

His mix for online music and culture magazine XLR8R from last September is an engaging example of his practice. He merges heavily rhythmic ambient music with some oddly understated, occasionally austere beats and techno tracks harvested from a seemingly endless number of specialist labels and artists’ websites. The result, like his album, is subtle and haunting.

The Soul Sessions (Pragmatic Theory)

Of the many wonderful, wonderful things the internet has afforded us is the free, legal download. The Soul Sessions from Pragmatic Theory, an international collective of musicians, was one such download.

The Soul Sessions by Pragmatic Theory.

Created to push the work of the members of this artists’ collective, this collection eases us from one beautiful evocation of classic soul to another, yet still maintains its contemporary edge. The looped fragments of unidentified recordings manage to capture the messy grooves and ecstatic slow burn of good soul tracks.

At the same time, the well-established links between classic soul and hip hop are pervasive, provided here by a diverse group of DJs from all over the world.

Mirror to the Soul: Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean, 1920-72 (Soul Jazz Records)

Soul Jazz Records

Britain’s Soul Jazz Records is a special place, producing some of the better compilations and reissues on musical subjects ranging from New York No Wave and Delta Swamp Rock to German electronica and recent dubstep.

Mirror to the Soul: Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean, 1920-72 is a compilation of music from across the Caribbean dating from the 1950s to the present is one of their more impressive achievements.

One of the tracks included in the compilation.
Another track from the compilation.

The set includes two CDs of music as well as a full-length documentary about British Pathé, a newsreel company active in the British Caribbean from the 1920s to the 1960s.

The documentary is particularly interesting as it is constructed entirely from Pathé’s newsreel footage, revealing the extent to which Pathé was a colonial enterprise. The accompanying booklet gives important context to Pathé’s work and provides insightful criticism about the company’s inability to represent the full breadth of life in the colonial Caribbean, focusing, for example, on “happy labourers” rather than colonial subjects and exploited workers.

The CDs focus on two broad periods, the mid-50s to the early 70s and the late 90s to the present. The songs from the first disc are entirely from the commercial end of the scale providing a broad, loose survey of styles and traditions.

The second disc focuses on what the compilers call Afro-Caribbean Roots Music, relying on more than a hint of exoticism to sell us traditional music from across the region.

However, just past the surface you will find a collection of contemporary recordings of many of the more long-standing musical traditions of the African musical diaspora. These two discs provide substantial evidence of the extraordinary musical history of this complex, diverse region.