Best of 2013: Album of the Year

Winner: Sarah Neufeld- Hero Brother – Hero Brother (Constellation Records / review)

Runner-up: Yukiko Kojima – Akira Miyoshi: Piano Works (Odradek / review)
Runner-up: Dobrinka Tabakova – String Paths  (ECM Records)  

Fitting that in choosing the album of the year it was narrowed down to the biggest surprises and least expected nominees.  Against more established heavy hitters in the genre, both Dobrinka Tabakova’s String Paths and upstart pianist Yukiko Kojima’s interpretation Akira Miyoshi’s works were  harmonic gems that took the critics by storm.

The genius crafting of Tabakova’s compositions area not just great contemporary works – they were INSTANT CLASSICS.  Tabakova’s works are alluring to say the least and emotionally one of the most humbling records for even the most staunch listener.  String Paths pieces together delicate, fragile movement that are beautiful at every turn.  Tabakova is far above in a class of composers to herself and very rarely do audiences see a living legend develop as it happens.  String Paths is Tabakova’s first super milestone vibrant with imagination and color that will set the bar incredibly high for all classical composers going forward.

Meanwhile, Kojima’s handling of Miyoshi with such delicateness and precision is pure art in motion. Its almost striking to realize how such softness and boldness could come out of such petite fingers.  As the year progressed, our editorial staff began to realize how much Kojima’s album resonated upon additional listens – discovering new intricate details with every key.   Kojima’s technique comes with a tightened control at an extremely high level of senses.   If you were to choose the album of the year based upon difficulty and intelligence, nothing even comes close to being in the same league as Yukiko’s surprise hit. There’s a subtle pull that Kojima brings to Akira Miyoshi’s Piano Works and that firm grip is what in turns creates a sublimely gem of sonic craftsmanship.  You’d be hard-press to find a reason not to instantly fall in love with Kojima’s performance and even harder-pressed to find another record this year treated with such devotion.

Both Tabakoba’s String Paths and Kojima’s Akira Miyoshi: Piano Works are deserving of the title album of the year.

However our end decision, while peculiar to many as it may seem as a surprise out of left field, goes to Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld’s Hero Brother  for reasons that go beyond craftsmanship and technique.  Hero Brother is far from perfect, at times screetchy and gnarly in so many odd nuisances during the record.  But its that rawness and unforgiving candor that gives Hero Brother ones of its many shining lights.  Neufeld’s atmospheric blender of a record is the balance sought out by so many between boundary-less creativity and melodic undertones.  From top to bottom, Hero Brother is a record that has you consistently on the “edge.”

Neufeld is no stranger to rhythmic chords and the manipulation of her strings in echoing, bellowing manners is striking.  Hero Brother is the most fearless record of the year, with Neufeld coming out downright vicious.  In fact Hero Brother is probably the angriest the violin has ever sounded but ever so hypnotic.  Neulfeld moves in such chaotic motions with demanding velocity, the beauty of the LP is comparable to the reverberation and glass-shattering voice of Björk (think “controlled chaos”).

Predictability is practically thrown out there window here.  Even when you thought you grasped the flow of a track, Neufeld is quickly there to turn her pacing into complete 180 degree turns.  Neufeld’s non-linear approach only adds to the mystique of the record and provides a bigger thrill than anyone could ever expect.

The lost feeling of redemption resonates strong on Hero Brother and lingers well beyond its 41+ minutes. Like Kojima’s Miyoshi: Piano Works, Neufeld’s Hero Brother gets even more addictive with every new listen. With so much frantic piecing together, you’ll discover new details not based on careful intricate study, but on the sheer amount of aggravated, adrenaline sound being bombarded on your ears.  Pieces such as “Foreclessness” and the title track “Hero Brother” are absolute dynamite with explosive repetitions that are hard to forget (nor would you want).

The ability of Neufeld to “isolate” her violin and almost stop time and gravity with every teeth-pulling string is mesmerizing and drifting in the most gratifying way. Because Hero Brother is so full of contradictions, the interpretation of the record is wide-open.  But make no mistake, any competent listener will realize the boldness Neufeld brings to the table.  Hero Brother represents the risk and challenge that all musicians, classical or not, seek and what separates the skilled from the fledgling.  The album is uncharacteristically difficult to define yet welcomingly navigable.

The haunting resonance that Hero Brother possesses is distinctively unique and fresh.  Neufeld strays Hero Brother from being too “indie” or “atmospheric” and maintains a “lost” aura that keeps listeners seeking for a profound discovery.  Its Neufeld’s ability to keep stringing along the listener to “get lost” that keeps Hero Brother captivating on so many levels.  And while the record is a bit on the harder edge, there is an undeniable fighting spirit to be had here (key tracks “Dirt” and “Sprinter Fire”)  and not a single unenjoyable moment to be heard on Neufeld’s triumphant solo debut.

Heart-racing but with slow steady breaths. A complete mind-opener.

Hero Brother. Album of the year – without question.

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