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The Industry Source for New Age, World, Ambient, Electronic, Solo Piano, Relaxation, Instrumental and many other genres of Music

PROLOGUE

As is always the case, I look forward to my compiling a "best of" list with equal parts elation and dread. I love spreading the word about what I consider to be the best recordings of the past year, but I dread having to do the actual selecting, always fearing of omitting someone worthy. Unlike last year when I skipped this ritual, for 2010 it was "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Some of these CDs are yet to be reviewed here at ZMR (most have been reviewed at New Age Retailer, though) but reviews will be written and posted for any albums below for which none currently exists. As in the past, rather than have the hubris to declare these recordings to be "The Best…" I simply say these are my FAVORITE RECORDINGS OF 2010, with the exception of the two-way tie at the top. Onward, then!

- Bill Binkelman - 2010
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ALBUM OF THE YEAR: A TWO-WAY TIE

Ground Swell

Ground Swell - Artist: David Mauk ,   Label: Thera Records   Review

Mauk didn't just erase the sophomore slump myth with this CD. He took off and nuked it from orbit (Hey, it's the only way to be sure). In a year with many solid catchy chill-out and electronica releases, Ground Swell rose above them all with a fantastic assortment of moods and styles, as if a multitude of different artists collaborated on this amazing CD. And, if the music alone wasn't enough, the DVD included with the album brought the music to life set against collages of images from the period during which the artist who inspired the album, Edward Hopper, lived. Ground Swell was, indeed, the whole kit and caboodle.

Another Place and Time

Another Place and Time... - Artist: Heidi Anne Breyer,   Label: Self-released   Review

This absolutely stunning recording (only her second) from pianist Breyer put me in mind of Tim Story's best music (e.g. Beguiled and The Perfect Flaw) more than a few times. A melancholic masterpiece, this was the finest 2010 recording from the highly regarded production team of Will Ackerman and Corin Nelsen and it marks the emergence of 2010's most promising artist. An intimate and intensely personal CD and, arguably, the best piano release this year as well.

 

THE REST OF THE TOP TWENTY - IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BY ARTIST
(and yes, I know, technically, it's a top twenty-one)

 

Heavens

  Heavens  - Artist: Paul Adams,  Label: Lakefront Records  Review

Uniting his prodigious talent on a variety of flutes with his equally adept skills at ambient keyboards and percussion, Heavens should finally bring much deserved recognition to Adams, an artist who has been around for a long time. Certainly among the best Native influenced flute recording of the year.

Spirit of the Flute

  Good Sign  -  Artist: Davol,  Label: Spirit Hawk Records  Review

Keyboardist Davol can craft an electronica/chill out hook better than anyone else. Good Sign is chock full of catchy melodies, infectious rhythms and so much cheeriness that it could probably chase stormclouds away just by someone playing it, so strong are the positive feelings from this release. Pop this one in your car's CD player and hit the open road under a sunny sky!

GAIA

  GAIA Artist: Michael Brant DeMaria  Label: Ontos Music  Review 

A tour de force performance wherein flutist, percussionist and keyboardist DeMaria takes the listener on a tour through the many musical heritages of planet Earth's cultures and peoples, featuring one hauntingly beautiful track after another. The album is a jaw-dropping one-man effort with an abundance of virtuosity on display.

The Lotus Room

  The Lotus Room  -  Artist: David Gordon,  Label: Sequoia Records

While David (and brother Steve) Gordon has forayed into the global-electronica genre before on previous Sequoia Records' releases, I was still unprepared for the full-on chill assault and late-night martini-lounge vibe of The Lotus Room. From the album's way cool artwork (a break from normal Sequoia style) to the sexy beats and sassy yet sensual melodies (with an abundance of vibes, which I LOVE), this album is the CD to grab when you need to get yer mojo workin'!

 

Glacier Soundscapes

  Glacier Soundscapes -  Artist: Jill Haley,  Label: Self Released  

Frequent Imaginary Road studio accompanist, oboe/English horn player and pianist Haley steps into the spotlight (joined by guitarist/bassist David Cullen) and deservedly so. Comparing favorably to the many fine works of Tingstad and Rumbel, Glacial Landscapes offers proof of Haley's considerable talent and shows she can more than carry an album on her own as these beautiful and soulful melodies attest to at every turn.

The Crossing

  The Crossing   -  Artist: David Helping & Jon Jenkins,  Label: Spotted Peccary Music    

Whether they are pounding out powerfully dramatic progressive fusion on guitars, drums and keyboards or sketching out cinematic ambient soundscapes of depth and emotional complexity, these two ace musicians continue to blaze a trail where few contemporaries dare to tread. Superbly engineered, the CD refuses to be pigeonholed yet is never less than highly accessible.

Round River

  Round River   -  Artist: Mike Howe,  Label: Real Music  

While it may seem absurdly premature, after just two albums, I am ready to anoint Mike Howe the second coming of Bruce BecVar. Round River, his second album (it is now officially time to put the sophomore slump myth to death, doncha think?), once again underscores (as did his debut last year) his incredible talent in composing and playing gentle instrumental guitar music that seems to flow almost effortlessly, carrying the listener away on soothing waves of melodic and catchy tunes.

The Mandarin's Garden

  The Mandarin's Garden   -  Artist: Kevin Kendle ,   Label: Eventide Music

Having conquered nearly every subgenre of keyboard-based New Age music, leave it to this English mastermind to inject world music (i.e. Asian) influences on this, his latest release. The music on The Mandarin's Garden was originally conceived on piano by Kendle when he was a mere 13 year old! Whether you are a Kendle newbie or a long-time fan, his trademark musicality on his multitude of keyboards is in ample supply throughout.

Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles

  Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles   - Artist: David Lanz,  Label: Moon Boy Music Review


  Who woulda thought that Lanz, Gary Stroutsos, and Walter Gray could take the unassuming idea of a Beatles tribute album and turn it into something so unique, enjoyable, and, well, jazzy? I sure didn't. This is definitely not just for Beatles' fans. Some tracks have a nostalgic jazz fusion sound to them, reminiscent of the acoustic version of Return of Forever's classic recordings.

Summer Suite

  Summer Suite, Vol.1   - Artist: Chad Lawson,  Label: Hillset Records   Review

The first in a series of planned "seasonal" releases with different guest accompanists, Summer Suite unites pianist Lawson with percussionist Jim Brock in a series of improvisations that can best be described as magically simpatico. Unraveling like a broken-apart Moebius strip, the pair pirouettes like veteran dancers, each step revealing a new wrinkle and a new delight.

Simple Beauty

  Simple Beauty  - Artist: Bill Leslie, ,  Label: Capitol Broadcasting Company Music

Taking up the mantle of the ground-breaking ensemble Nightnoise, true multi-instrumentalist Leslie and his accompanists spin out some of the sweetest, most sincere, and ear-grabbing Celtic fusion music released in the last few years. Simple Beauty is Simply Beautiful - 'nuff said!

Walking with Merlyn

  Walking with Merlyn  -  Artist: Llewellyn,  Label: Paradise Music 

No other artist I know of so perfectly merges the essence of New Age electronic keyboard music with an electronica/chill-out-based rhythmic sensibility than Llewellyn does. He owns this particular subgenre and his latest effort certifies that opinion easily. Superb engineering and production quality are, of course, present rhroughout.

Embers

  Embers   -  Artist: Helen Jane Long,  Label: BLE Music Group

Reminiscent of Brenda Warren's reflective, impressionistic release (As Years Go By), yet more grounded in a classical sensibility, this is supremely satisfying piano and orchestral ensemble music for quiet introspective times. Immensely personal and reflective melodies played with nuance and an attention to the smallest detail, the CD is one of my favorite piano releases of the last few years.

Offerings

  Offerings  -   Artist: Parijat,  Label: New Earth Records   

One seldom associates the guitar with "classic" New Age relaxation music (usually that is the purview of keyboards), but when it comes to Parijat, one must overcome one's preconceptions (granted, some keyboards are present as well). This is supremely relaxing music, suffused with flowing melodies and a warmth and grace that embraces the listener with comfort and serenity.

Prismatic

  Prismatic  -   Artist: Stephanie Sante,  Label: Sante Music   Review

Guitarist and keyboardist Sante hits it out of the ballpark on her latest excursion into "NuJazz" and chill-out. Whether playing out sexy licks on her axe or peppering the music with snazzy beats (and a strong boss nova influence), the last time I heard something this cool and hip was from Richard Bone - a huge compliment from yours truly. Few CDs last year had me hitting the "repeat" button on my CD player more than this one.

Many Paths

  Many Paths  -   Artist: Lorrie Sarafin,  Label: Lizard Dance Productions

Flutist Sarafin draws influence from her native desert southwest yet again on her second release - an album which more than justifies the praise I heaped on her debut, Second Wind. Cutting a swath across assorted soundscapes, Sarafin (assisted by a few choice accompanists) echoes both the primal tribal territory of vintage Roach and the vast cinematic desertscapes of John Huling, while always adding her own personal touch, of course.

Within Memory

  Within Memory   - Artist: Craig Urquhart,  Label: Heart Earth Music  Review

This is quite possibly the best "quiet" piano album of the year. Subtle and restrained yet evocative and heartfelt, Within Memory is Urquhart at his finest. The CD is the perfect blend of soft melancholy and warm romance with nary a trace of faux sentimentality anywhere.

Gateway

  Gateway   - Artist: Erik Wollo,  Label: Projekt

No album this past year had its cover image and song titles so perfectly capture the essence of the music contained within as the latest CD from Norwegian Wøllo. Using his arsenal of guitars, keyboards and percussion, Wøllo explores dark, shadowy otherworlds, sometimes powerfully, sometimes subtly, but always with an air of alien mystery wedded to pristine yet icy beauty.

Portals to Heaven

  Portals to Heaven  - Artist: Ken Wood,  Label: Self Released   Review

I don't know that I heard more beautiful music this past year than Irish whistle player Ken Wood's Portals to Heaven. His gentle, lilting yet soul-stirring melodies enhanced with impeccable string orchestrations are the epitome of fusing Irish influence with neo-classical sensibilities.

TEN HONORABLE MENTIONS

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The Grace of the Green Leaf

 The Grace of the Green Leaf  - Artist: Liz Addison,  Label: Self Released

An orgiastic explosion of rhythm, voice, and melody that epitomizes energizing music and celebrates dance and movement like few other CDs did last year. Addison's vocals and her talent with her electronics are equally impressive.

Radiant Sky

 Radiant Sky  - Artist: Scott August,  Label: Self Released

Flutist/multi-instrumentalist August's most ambient/soundscape-ish release takes the listener deep into the desert night as few albums have done.

Les Amusements

 Les Amusements  - Artist: The Batteries Duo,  Label: Self Released

Granted, this CD is not for everyone, but The Batteries Duo (two trumpet players: Gareth Flowers and Josh Frank) inject their mellow horn tone poems with liberal amounts of glitch and electronica and the resulting hybrid of musical elements is both fascinating and ingratiating. Wholly unconventional but also fresh and exciting, I simply couldn't resist its idiosyncratic charms.

Across the Water

 Across the Water  - Artist: Eric Chapelle,  Label: Hamsa Music

Pianist/keyboardist Chapelle's return to recording after a twelve-year hiatus reveals a new depth and breadth to his composing and performing talent and signals the re-emergence of an artist to keep an ear/eye out for.

A Day Within Days

 A Day Within Days  - Artist: Darshan Ambient,  Label: Lotuspike - Spotted Peccary

This latest offering from Michael Allison (aka Darshan Ambient) just barely missed cracking the top 20 and I still waffle on not putting it there. This CD showcases both his pastoral soundscapes and bubbly effervescent rhythmic ambient music. He is truly one of a kind in a cookie-cutter genre.

The Poet - Romances for Cello

 The Poet - Romances for Cello  - Artist: Michael Hoppe and Martin Tillman,  Label: Teldec

You can't bring these two highly regarded artists together and not get musical magic and that's what you will hear on this album, which is the latest in a series which features music influenced by photographic images from Hoppé's relative E.O Hoppé (the series originated with 1996's The Yearning with flutist Tim Wheater).

Hybrid

 Hybrid  - Artist: Bruce Kaphan,  Label: Wiggling Air Records

Kaphan's superb pedal steel guitar playing is set against a myriad of musical backdrops, from progressive fusion to world to ambient and beyond. This CD should conclusively prove that this instrument's versatility extends far beyond its normally associated country music affiliations.

Doorway to a Dream

 Doorway to a Dream  - Artist: Ann Licater,  Label: Cul de Sac Mystic Productions

Ambient flute soundscapes that transport the listener to shadowy realms of imagination and beauty, this recording should elevate Licater to the upper reaches of her genre alongside folks like Dean Evenson and Terry Oldfield.

Pyramid Call

 Pyramid Call  - Artist: Buedi Siebert,  Label: Cul de Sac Mystic Productions

As Paul Horn did way back in 1977, flutist/wind instrumentalist Siebert took his artistry (and some recording gear) and journeyed inside the pyramids of Egypt, playing and luxuriating in the sonic reverberation characteristics of the space itself as well as the mystical intangibles of these ancient landmarks.

How the Light Gets In

 How the Light Gets In  - Artist: Wise-Magraw,  Label: Red House Records

Quasi-Indian meditative music featuring tabla player Marcus Wise and guitarist Dean Magraw in as symbiotic a recording as was released in 2010 by any two musicians. The CD invites deep explorative listening to extract all its many intricacies, but also functions equally well in the background.

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