Top 12 Contemporary music albums 2005-2006

The albums that I'm proposing for this ranking allows us to get close to some of the most relevant composers of contemporary music. Released between April 2005 and May 2006, the recordings on the list were positioned according to diverse opinions and reviews published on specialized media. The following guide intends to provide the listener a decent collection of some the most interesting albums in the genre but also generate an appreciation for the sonorous diversity of our epoch.

O1. Brian Ferneyhough - flurries/string trio/in nomine a 3/streichtrio/incipits
mp3: Streichtrio
mp3: In nomine a 3

English composer Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943) is often branded as a member of the "New Complexity" school, and his music can be described as easily with phrases like "clouds of notes," "streams of gestures" and "masses of sound" as with more traditional terms such as "melodic line" and "harmony." One can listen to just a few seconds of any of his works on disc and hear the Ferneyhough signature: agile, quicksilver figures, sometimes whispering in the distance and sometimes shouting and scraping in the very immediate present. Without a doubt, this music can be harsh, edgy and challenging to listen to; it most definitely doesn't reveal itself on the first listening.

The album presents three substantial instrumental works from the 1990s by Brian Ferneyhough interspersed with a couple of miniatures, the In Nomine a 3 and the Streichtrio. All the music is typically dense and impacted, yet equally typically there's always a latent romantic impulse detectable under the highly wrought surfaces and the equally intense verbal explanations. [Jason Royal]

02. Osvaldo Golijov - Ayre
Deutsche Grammophon
mp3: Tancas serradas a muru

This music jumps out of the speakers in a way that classical records seldom do. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, delivers an electrifying performance in which she assumes a half-dozen vocal guises.
If a modern classical work could ever crack the Top 40, this is it: Golijov has created a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage. [Alex Ross]

03. Morton Feldman - string quartet
mp3: (I'm sorry, the sole piece of this work clocks at 79 minutes (the original 1980 premiere even clocks at 100 min!) and I wont upload it because i'd practically be giving away the whole album. Although long lenghted, it's a beautiful, flowing piece of work, so if you get the chance, I'd strongly suggest you to pick either the first release from 1994 or this Naxos reissue.)

Pulse, when it is felt, is intermittent and prone to vary. At first the music seems emotionless, but as one comes to accept that the String Quartet may in fact be "life, but not as we know it," drama reveals itself in the music's dogged moments of insistence, awkward conversations, temporary alliances, and unusual timbres. Petulance, whining, nagging, stoicism, acceptance, beauty, and peace all are present in this work, for those who care to find them. [Raymond Tuttle]

04. Pascal Dusapin - Perelá: Uomo di fumo (The man of smoke)
mp3: The black womb - scene 2

Perelà, Uomo di fumo is the fourth and most ambitious of Pascal Dusapin's operatic works to date. Aldo Palazzeschi's enigmatic novel Man of Smoke (1911), faithfully adapted by Dusapin, recounts the appearance and 'Passion' of a Man of Smoke, who becomes an incredulous and involuntary observer of an archetypally corrupt and decadent society.
Even more than a demonstration of his mastery of every aspect of operatic art, he offers us here a complex, generous fable of spiritual and political intolerance - and assuredly the masterpiece of his career so far. [Frank Cadenhead]

05. Luciano Berio -Sinfonia/Ekphrasis
Deutsche Grammophon
mp3: Sinfonia - II O King

Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1968) is one of the most celebrated works of the avant-garde, and it will be remembered much longer than many other large-scale experiments of its time. The collision of its materials -- philosophical, literary, political, musical -- reflected the welter of ideas clamoring for attention in the 1960s, and Berio's gigantic collage for the Swingle Singers and the New York Philharmonic seems a near-perfect embodiment of the period's Zeitgeist. However, much of Sinfonia's fame also has to do with its recording history; thanks to two landmark recordings by Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, it became established as a classic. This 2005 Deutsche Grammophon release with the London Voices and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Eötvös, presents the work with intensity and vivid color, and many details hard to hear on the Columbia and Erato recordings are delightfully clear here. [Blair Sanderson]

06. The Balanescu Quartet - Maria T
Mp3: Wine's so good

This album re-connects Alexander Balanescu with his Romanian roots, as it pays tribute to one of his earliest musical influences, the iconic folk singer and actress Maria Tanase. For the release, he took the works of Tanase and then re-imagined them through his own eclectic musical perspectives, and the result is easily some of the most stunning work ever from the group. Maria T is a release that shows off the power of a group of musicians who refuse to be bound in by simple genre definitions. Much like the Kronos Quartet, the Balanescu Quartet have often shrugged-off many expectations one may have of a string quartet, and with this release will hopefully finally garner even more of the attention they deserve. [Aaron Coleman - almostcool.org]

07. Arild Andersen Group - Electra
Mp3: Electra song

Arild Andersen's Electra was composed for the Spring Theater in Athens for their production. These "18 Scenes," as they are subtitled, represent various cues and serial music for the production of Sophocles' deeply moving classic. It's not "jazz" but then, it isn't anything else either, because it holds so much more inside than mere classification. This is simply a wondrous piece, darkly haunting, yet utterly beautiful for what it leaves out as much what is here.
[Thom Jurek]

08. Elliott Carter - the music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 7
mp3: Dialogues (mp3 sample)

This highly anticipated recording, a Bridge co-production with the BBC, presents first recordings of four major Elliott Carter compositions, all composed within the past six years. Conducted by the distinguished British conductor, Oliver Knussen, these recordings tell the amazing tale of an American composer, well into his nineties, composing at the peak of his powers. Malcolm McDonald writes that “Carter is not far short of his own centenary, and continuing to produce highly complex, sophisticated scores with an energy that would hardly be conceivable even in a much younger man.” The composer traveled to London and Amsterdam to oversee the performance and recording of these four works.

09. Unsuk Chin - Akrostichon-Wortspiel/fantaise meanique/Xi
Deutsche Grammophon
mp3: Das Beliebigkeitsspiel

The music of Korean-born Berlin composer Unsuk Chin has had some local exposure, thanks to the Berkeley Symphony, which hosted last year's U.S. premiere of her remarkable Violin Concerto. The four large pieces on this disc, in vivid performances by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, give further evidence of Chin's fierce virtuosity and vivid imagination. The most far-out offering is the title work ("Acrostic Wortspiel"), an exciting, overheated jumble for soprano and orchestra consisting of syllables, solfege, alphabets and more (the sources are children's books). Just as beguiling are the "Fantaisie mécanique," with its industrial brass and percussion textures, and a phantasmagorical, rhythmically urgent Double Concerto for piano and percussion. Only "Xi," an extended study for electronics and ensemble, is on the dull side. [Joshua Kosman]

10. Steve Reich - You Are. Variations
mp3: Act 1: You are-wherever your thoughts are

You Are is prime Reich, using choral and orchestral elements similarly to older pieces like Tehillim and The Desert Music, but seeming as rhythmically driven as anything he's done in years. Harmonically, he sticks to majors and relative minors (that is, a minor key that utilizes the same notes as a major one, but starts from a different point in the scale)-- a common Reich device-- thereby blurring the line between different tonalities. He uses a choir to impart text translated from Hasidic mystical verse: "You are wherever your thoughts are", "Explanations come to an end somewhere," and the idea of saying "little and do much". Words are repeated and spread out over great lengths, so the end effect is not one of narrative but of words as purely musical ingredients. [Dominique Leone]

11. Arvo Pärt - lamentate
mp3: Minacciando

This is a major recording of a top-drawer composition by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Those who only vaguely know of Pärt, or who know his name but none of his music (a not uncommon phenomenon), will think: ah yes, more holy minimalism. Emphatically not so with LamenTate, a large-scale, 40-minute edifice of musical splendour for piano solo and orchestra, inspired by Pärt's first encounter with Anish Kapoor's massive sculpture, Marsyas, at Tate Modern. [Michael Tumelty]

12. Brian Eno - Another Day on Earth
mp3: And then so clear

There are grand, sweeping choruses here that insinuate themselves deep into the memory, but also moments of whispering intimacy that seem to have been recorded in extreme close-up. This is a wistful, haunting record that runs warm with understated emotion - perhaps what one might expect of a man in his late fifties who surveys the beauty and the terrors of the world around him and wonders how it's all possible. [Matthew Collin]

List of some of the reviewers with links (when possible) considered to the ranking: Alex Ross, Jason Royal, Raymond Tuttle, Frank Cadenhead, Michael Tumelty, Dominique Leone, Blair Sanderson, Almostcool, Thom Jurek.


  • At 3:48 AM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Loki said…

    awesome stuff... well, i'm saying that without the downloads finishing yet but...


    and i second the stuff about Morton Feldman - someone sent me some cds of his stuff ages ago and it's been my midnight sleepy drone music ever since...

  • At 6:42 AM, July 16, 2006, Blogger mersenne_twister said…

    ahh, a first class example to how mp3blogs are one of the best ways to promote unheard beauties. Great selection and great writing Moka. ;)

  • At 9:26 AM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Seidrik said…

    The Balanescu Quartet...
    Je tombe...me relève et remercie grandement !
    Que c'est beau...

  • At 11:36 AM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Emanuelle Moustaki said…

    this is possibly the most interesting ranking I've ever read on an mp3 blog. I bought Ayre back on February and I couldn't agree more on the 2nd place, beautiful album.
    Thank you for as mersenne twister says, all these unheard beauties.

  • At 12:00 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Moka said…

    Loki: I'm glad you've heard the morton feldman quartet, I sometimes play it at midnight too while finishing some work and falling asleep.

    Concerning the downloads, for the ferneyhough album I only uploaded the short 1-2 minute pieces but I think flurries and incipits are more representative of the caleidoscopic quality of his music (didn't upload because they're 20 and 18 minutes long) it does get a while to get used to it, though... I had to listen to it live without any interruptions to start obsessing about it.
    Ayre on the other side is a very diverse album, so before buying I'd recommend listening to more of this album's songs, anyways I bought the album a month ago and I don't regret the purchase and I wouldn't recommended if I didn't think it's good, half of it are golijov's pieces and the other half are a collection of berio's folk songs, upshaw's performance on this one is truly impressive, possibly the best I've heard of her.

    I'm very glad you're enjoying the ranking, thanks for letting me know and cheers!

  • At 12:02 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Moka said…

    "and I don't regret the purchase and I wouldn't recommended if I didn't think it's good, "

    hehehe... wrote without checking my spelling and just noticed the amount of linguistic mistakes on this part :P

  • At 10:30 AM, July 17, 2006, Anonymous janine said…

    thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I second mersenne_twister comments - i don't know any other way I could discover such wonderful life-enhancing music. there are not enough blogs which would consider these types of work. Moka - you rock!

  • At 11:29 AM, July 17, 2006, Blogger Makrugaik said…

    Hey thanks Moka, this is really interesting stuff.

  • At 11:33 AM, July 18, 2006, Blogger wenndann said…

    thank you SO much! i stumbled upon your blog through a note of gorilla vs bear and i'm really stunned. this entry is especially perfect!

  • At 6:48 PM, July 28, 2006, Blogger Eric said…

    Fantastic post Moka!!! This is such a great and necessary list. I'm searching out more than a few of these records!

  • At 1:32 PM, August 11, 2006, Blogger Tony Hall said…

    Wonderful, what a wonderful collection to consider and contemplate - and thanks for a great blog Moka .. as Mosquito, Necks plays in the background.


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