Sunday, July 03, 2022

The Best Of 2022 (So Far)

While the news keeps finding new ways to be terrible, music keeps finding new ways of bringing joy,  inspiration, energy, calm, and even a satisfying dose of mirrored despair, to our lives. Here are 25 of the best ways its done that in 2022. Much gratitude to all the artists pushing through and delivering these remarkable albums to my ears!

As usual, anything that's been reviewed previously is linked to those earlier words. You can listen to selections from most of these albums in this playlist or below. Otherwise, find them on Bandcamp - and consider paying for the privilege of listening.

1. Angel Olsen - Big Time This magnificent album is a dream come true for me. Pairing Olsen's glorious voice and incisive, informed songwriting with the genius production of Jonathan Wilson is an idea so delicious that I never even thought to hope for it. They both outdo themselves, too. Olsen cuts to the bone over and over again as she processes the recent grief of losing both her parents, the painful process of becoming ever more herself, and the overwhelming joy of finding true love. When she sings "Never thought the day would come/When I would find someone/To love me only," it's impossible not to believe her and root for her new relationship with Beau Thibodeaux, who also co-wrote the soaring title track. Wilson, who plays drums on every song, marshals some of the same deep knowledge of Americana he displayed on his last album, Dixie Blur, even lending a "countrypolitan" grandeur to some tracks, like This Is How It Works with its weeping pedal steel. But Olson and Wilson are not tied to any particular genre, giving each song just what it needs. When they bring on Drew Erickson and Dan Higgins, for string and horn arrangements respectively, the widescreen approach is reminiscent of All Mirrors, Olsens's 2019 epic. There's no better example of this than the stunning Go Home, which starts out dead simple, just two chords from Erickson's piano and Emily Elhaj's bass, and Wilson's ticking percussion. Olsen first enters quietly: "The world is changing/You can't reverse it," but soon pushes her voice into the stratosphere: "I wanna GO HOME/Go back to SMALL THINGS" and the music gathers itself to catch up, with sweeping strings, stentorian horns, and Wilson's fuzz guitar bringing the hammer down. When the song returns to earth and Olsen sings, almost to herself, "Forget the old dream/I got a new thing," all you can do is agree. It's a wonderful thing, too.

5. Hollie Cook - Happy Hour When someone's mission statement is pure delight, each new album becomes more and more like a high-wire act: how can she keep it up? Which makes Cook's big, bold fourth album even more thrilling. While still sticking to her patented blend of lovers rock and sunshine pop, she does expand that fabulous formula a little. Whether it's the strings on Gold Girl, which should be the next James Bond theme, the guest spot on Kush Kween from Jah9, whose florid style shows off Cook's clean soprano perfectly, the hints of dancehall on Love Is A Losing Game, or the 90s dance rhythms of Move My Way, she pushes the envelope with aplomb. My favorite characters on the recent Pistol miniseries were Paul Cook's parents, who were loving and warmly supportive of their son's musical ambitions. With them as her grandparents, Cook's bounteously beauteous spirit must run deep in her blood. Get a transfusion here.

10. Jascha Narveson - Flash Crash + Remixes According to his notes, Narveson "...crafted Flash Crash especially for internationally acclaimed cellist Ashley Bathgate out of raw stock market data culled from high-frequency trading bots" - a sentence that tickles my mind the same way the music here excites my ears. The main piece finds Bathgate carving a gorgeous line through Narveson's electronics, like an expert skier cutting through the trees. It's a rich, deeply involving piece on its own, then all hell breaks loose - in the best way - when Narveson's collaborators get their hooks into things. And the word "hooks" is especially appropriate for Lorna Dune's remix, which finds catchy bits in the original and bolts them to a four-on-the-floor beat, cooking up a killer groove. It's the perfect follow up to Matthew D. Gantt's take, which adds percussion and clarinet samples to create a type of artificial chamber music. Lainie Fefferman manipulates the sound of the cello to create a character study she calls Repairbot Q Sent To Engine Room 3, Working Through The Loneliness, which is as good a description as any for the fun and feeling to be found throughout the album. Angelica Negron sends Bathgate deeper into space, with pulsing beats moving through like debris from a dead satellite. Then Vadislav Delay - a "Finnish electronic music legend," apparently - drops the hammer with serrated power chords and breaking glass, treating Narvson's original like a trash compactor treats a robot. What a way to go! 

11. Horsegirl - Versions Of Modern Performance Smashing debut from a Chicago-based trio (Penelope Lowenstein (guitar, vocals), Nora Cheng (guitar, vocals), and Gigi Reece (drums)) who know exactly what they want from their sound. Picking up on 90's alt, 80's indie, 70's post-punk, and even a touch of 60's psych as they blast through their songs, their division of labor finds guitars acting as basses and (maybe) basses acting as guitars. Occasionally, they pause for an artfully fractured instrumental but with Reece pummeling away in the engine room, it's a very unified sound. Veteran producer John Agnello may have helped give the guitars a burnished quality that comforts even as it energizes. Deadpan but melodic vocals complete the picture to deliver lyrics that are allusive, elusive, and often mantric, like the repetition of "How does it breathe?" from Beautiful Song. Pleased to meet them and I think you will be, too.

12. Sarah Plum - Personal Noise In 2015, I worried that I would have trouble keeping up with Plum’s boundless curiosity and tireless efforts to expand the violin repertoire. Then I had to wait seven years for her next album, although she has been busy as a performer, teacher, and commissioner of new works. Thankfully, this colorful, varied, and passionate album was worth the wait. It kicks off with Eric Moe’s Obey Your Thirst (2014), which opens with a synthetic exhalation as if to say, “Now, where was I?” before launching in to a spiky dialog between Plum’s strings and his electronics. It’s a rhythmic piece, with digital percussion that seems to be driving the violin at a breathless pace. Eric Lyon’s Personal Noise With Accelerants (2015) follows, continuing the jagged rhythmic feel and high tempo. It’s fully acoustic, but features a structure determined by white noise. Kyong Mee Choi’s Flowering Dandelion (2020) slows things down a bit, filling the space with starlit electronics that occasionally remind me of the transporter on Star Trek. Sarahal (2013) by Mari Kimura adds Yvonne Lam on second violin and interactivity to the electronics for a flight into even deeper space. Several of these pieces were written for Plum and are featured here in their world-premiere recordings, including After Time: A Resolution (2013) by Jeff Harriott and Il Prete Rosso (2014) by Charles Nicholls. Both works also feature interactivity and a bit of randomness but feel fully realized in these performances even as they search for resolution. Mari Takano’s Full Moon (2008) literally ends the album with a bang, or at least several explosions of pounding sound. Plum sails through it all flawlessly, once again proving that close collaboration with composers and deep engagement with the work is a recipe for artistic success.

14. String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Enfolding String orchestras of America! Those intrepid folks at the String Orchestra Of Brooklyn have given you your season-opening program right here! You don't even need to add the Barshai Shostakovich arrangement, which I'm sure you've played hundreds of times - and I love Shostakovich! First you get Scott Wollschleger's Outside Only Sound, specifically commissioned by the orchestra to be ready to play with minimal rehearsal and to work well outdoors. With each player operating semi-independently and added spice from percussion instruments, this live recording from Fort Greene Park works a treat, with "outside" noises - laughter, chatter, sirens - integrating but not interfering with the skirling storm of sound. There's no reason why it can't be played in the concert hall, however, so don't try to worm out of it that way. Then you get Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s expansive With Eyes The Color Of Time, which was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Composition. Based on pieces in The Contemporary Museum in her native Honolulu, there is a strong narrative thrust to the eight parts. Starting with the long, exhaling lines of The Bronze Doors and taking you through the dense scrapes and scratches of Les Sortilèges and on to the warm resolution of Enfolding, it adds up to a very satisfying whole. With both pieces coming in at a little under an hour, this program will leave you enough time for cocktails with your subscribers, who will throw money at you for the next season. Just don't try to claim bragging rights for the world-premiere recordings - the String Orchestra Of Brooklyn already beat you to it on this excellent album.

15. Tomberlin - I Don't Know Who Needs To Hear This... Who knew sonic adventure could be so quiet? In the four years since her debut, At Weddings, Sarah Beth Tomberlin has maintained utter control over the dynamics of her songs, but manages to fill them with exquisite details that deepen the experience. A perfect example is Tap, with its ticking percussion (Kenny Wolleson, from Sylvie Courvoisier's trio), plucked cello (the great Gyða Valtýsdóttir), and gentle woodwinds (Stuart Bogie and Doug Wieselman), all combining into a little miracle of a musical engine. Tomberlin coproduced the album with Philip Weinrobe so I don't mention all those notable musicians to remove any agency from her achievement here, but rather to add to it. The strength of her songwriting is what attracts players like that and the strength of her vision is what has them combining to make such specific sounds. Her voice is even more wondrously light and supple than in the past, delivering the deeply felt poetry of her lyrics with a gossamer ease. The words will repay your attention, too. This line, also from Tap, is one of my favorites: "Do you think about the trees in the breeze/How they swing and scream and talk and breathe/I wish I was so tall and green/ Swing my branches only sing for me." Thank goodness Tomberlin sings for us, too.

17. Soccer Mommy - Sometimes, Forever Sophie Allison, who records as Soccer Mommy, pushed the sound and passion of her indie rock into new places on her last album, 2020's richly dynamic Color Theory. Rather than repeat herself on this, her third official album, she made the genius decision to work with Daniel Lopatin, who records electronic music as Oneohtrix Point Never and also made the brilliant soundtrack for Uncut Gems. This doesn’t mean Allison has made an electronic album, however, although there are more synthetic textures woven in than in the past. Rather, the collaboration has created a sleek and powerful album, gleaming with sonic jewel tones, where every sound seems placed deliberately in the mix. "...I want perfection/Tight like a diamond," she sings in Unholy Affliction, putting her cards on the table. Yet even if nothing here is casual, there's still plenty of heat generated by Allison and her band mates, especially drummer Rollum Haas, who pushes and pulls the rhythm in original ways. The key track for me is Darkness Forever, which has some of the hypnotic wash of I Want You (She's So Heavy) from Abbey Road but addresses the seduction of suicide as a relief from the pain of mental illness rather than the search for an elusive lover. Images of fire and water throughout the album lend elemental strength to the struggle within, but the ultimate triumph - ambiguous as it is - is the transformation of all this hurt into art. As long as she can keep doing that, she'll keep the devil on his leash - and keep us listening, raptly.

18. Revelators Sound System - Revelators There was a taste of this new project from Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor on last year’s The Sounding Joy, a selection of dub versions from his anti-holiday-album holiday album. O Come All Ye Faithful. That collaboration with Spacebomb magus Cameron Ralston slowed and stretched the songs, creating a warm bath of healing music that doubled down on the premise of the album itself. Rather than building on previous recordings, however, the four long tracks here make their own way, meandering in a most wonderful way through the minds of musicians who have absorbed the atmospheric majesty of Lee “Scratch” Perry and Miles Davis. But everything here is infused with the distinctive tang of Richmond, VA and Asheville, NC, adding a wonderful dimension to both the Hiss and Spacebomb projects, and creating a place of comfort where ever you happen to be.

19. Wilco - Cruel Country I'm not sure Jeff Tweedy has thrown down a songwriting masterclass like this since Sukirae in 2014. Across the 21 songs here he finds words and melodies that make classic themes seem new. The album is filled with gentle acoustic sounds and some songs have a strong country music inflections, the title is a clever feint incorporating the band's insider/outsider relationship with America and American music. "I love my country," Tweedy sings in the title track, as the band plays jauntily, "Stupid and cruel." While Tweedy wrote the songs, the arrangements were ginned up live in the studio, with all players contributing in a way that hasn't happened since The Whole Love in 2011. So, while there's lots of breezy strumming, and even pedal steel, the old adventurousness is still there in subtler form, as in the psychedelic shimmer of Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull or the slightly dissonant French horn in Darkness Is Cheap. Lyrically, the songs mostly address either national politics or personal politics, which can each serve as metaphors for the other. But there are also a number of literally cosmic moments, such as The Universe and Many Worlds, which center the album in bigger themes. The song I keep going back to, however, is Falling Apart (Right Now), which might just be the best song Buck Owens or Roger Miller never wrote. Witty and perfectly constructed, it features stellar playing that would rival any Nashville session band. On their 12th album, Wilco has offered up quite a feast and even if Tweedy is preaching to the choir on songs like Hints, with its refrain of "There is no middle when the other side/Would rather kill than compromise," I'm happy to sing along.

23. Bakudi Scream - Final Skin Albums like Barry Adamson's Moss Side Story pioneered the soundtrack in search of a movie. Now, Rohan Chander, under his new Bakudi Scream alias, has given us a soundtrack in search of a video game, not unlike what Phong Tran gave us on The Computer Room. The first hint of what was to come on this startling, immersive, and, heartfelt new collection came at the height of lockdown, when pianist Vicky Chow premiered The Tragedy of Hikikomori Loveless on one of many spirit-rescuing online marathons from Bang On A Can. The video confused and delighted viewers as Chow triggered synthetic sounds from a MIDI-enhanced piano and voices popped in and out of the mix. Unsurprisingly for a COVID-era piece, a central theme here is loneliness, building on documentary Chander watched about hikikomori, a form of extreme withdrawal which has young Japanese people living reclusively with their parents, unable work, attend school or participate in society in any meaningful way. Just as the bad guys get all the best lines in movies, a villainous character called Somnus has some of the richest music in a three-part piece that's the heart of the album. Part 1, Nightmusic, sparkles and shimmers seductively, sucking you in to a reverie only to boot you out of the game with the sampled voice of a blues singer saying: "What I wanna know, is why don't you love me like you used to do?" It's just one of many moments where Chander stuns you with his deep humanity, putting real flesh and bone under this final skin. 

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