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The 10 best albums of the year.

MusicThe 10 best albums of the year.

Neil Gaiman and the FourPlay String Quartet are featured in Signs of Life.

FourPlay, a string quartet from Australia, play versions of the music of various rock and jazz artists, but they have also collaborated with the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman for more than a decade. Here they give a series of wonderfully quizzical, meandering accompaniments as Gaiman recites poetry and prose about Joan of Arc and the "casual genocide" of Indigenous Australians. His verse can be hilarious, like Mbius Strip, or terrifying, like The Wreckers.

Styzens plays hammered dulcimer and classical guitar in this outfit which also features Rob Clearfield, a British cellist and the Atlys String Quartet. If you describe the music they make as minimalist, it would be grating, but if you said it was lush and comforting, you would be right. Unorthodox is what the picture depicts.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is led by Thomas Ads.

The British composer Thomas Ads created a piece that was so ambitious that it could have been performed in a ballet. The second section, Purgatoria, set Middle Eastern musical stereotypes against distorted recordings of singers from Jerusalem's Great Ades Synagogue. These are pastiches that are done brilliantly.

The opening track of the collaboration between the Scottish composer and the London-based string quartet is a nod to rave culture. The string section is pushed to its limits by the tracks of Honeyed Words, Chorale, and Shill. The Ligeti revives the piece A Short Tribute to Teenage Fanclub, which features a series of downward scales that become increasingly, and joyously, shambolic as the piece progresses. The Ligeti Quartet was photographed by Louise Mason.

Galya Bisengalieva is from Polygon.

The lead violinist in Robert Ames's London Contemporary Orchestra, as well as her work with a number of famous musicians, is known as Bisengalieva. In her second album as a composer and leader, she tells the story of a facility in her native country where the Soviet military tested hundreds of nuclear weapons, poisoning the population and destroying the ecology. Similar to Hildur Gunadttir's soundtrack to Chernobyl, it recreates echoey chambers and the sound of geiger counters, but the string arrangements are both lush and terrifying.

A born in Japan and based in Sweden, pianist Sakata plays with a striking fierceness and energy. She moves from the low-end rumbles to the high-end flourishes and from the freakouts to the jabbering. It is released on a label run by the organist Anna von Hausswolff, and on a label called Sakata, which shares Von Hausswolff's sense of gothic. There are patterns for auto-tuned voices and delay.

A piece of chamber music for the human voice has been created by the American singer, who goes by the name Lisel. It is haunting and beautiful, from the babble of One at a Time to the Gregorian chant-goes-Dilla minimalism of Plainsong. There are fundamental questions about whether a voice is still human after being treated digitally.

The photograph is by Tonje Thielson.

Matthew Halsall is an ever changing view.

Halsall has made his name as Manchester's answer to Sun Ra, his spiritual jazz melding ecstatic freakouts, swirling harps, modal piano flourishes and exotic instrumentation, all melded by Halsall's Don Cherry-style trumpet. He retreats to rural north Wales and moves in a more contemplative direction. The harps have been replaced by thumb pianos and assorted percussion, which are woven together with piano, fender Rhodes, ruminative flute and sax solo recordings of birdsong to create an ethereal piece of chamber music. Read the full review.

If you are so smart, why aren't you rich?

The music of the Black, gay, impish and provocative American composer Julius Eastman has been much more appreciated in the decades since his death. The LA collective Wild Up have been painstakingly recreating his compositions in an ongoing series of albums. The title track contains a series of rising and falling scales that are slowly ripped apart, and The Moon's Silent Modulation is a piece of surrealistic art. The music of the Evil N****r seems to have finally found its place.

Les Jardins Mystiques Vol 1 is written by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

One of the most important musicians working in the US is California's Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who has worked on more than 600 albums, arranging, conducting or playing violin, viola, cello, Flying Lotus and the percussionist. He recorded three-and-a-half-hour triple LPs from sessions he has recorded over the last decade, and it is his debut as leader. A masterpiece.

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