Saturday, March 11, 2023

Best Of 2022: Rock, Folk, Etc.

I won't claim that any of the artists below are saviors of rock & roll as that would imply a genre on life-support. Only people who confuse music with the music business might make such a claim. As long as one person is listening, a genre is alive and the ripples outward from that individual's experience are unknowably vast. That's not to say, however, that everything I cover here (or in my Top 25) is obscure. Artists like Wet Leg, Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Björk, and Father John Misty all have millions of listeners, after all. As for the ones that count their fans in the hundreds or thousands, perhaps they're meant to be more of a boutique or niche experience - and who doesn't love being part of an exclusive club? So, push past the velvet rope and find your own V.I.P. listening room among the releases below, starting with ones previously covered. Press play on this playlist or below to hear a track from most of them.

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part Two)
Laney Jones - Stories Up High
Father John Misty - Chloe And The Next 20th Century Katie Dey - Forever Music (See also The Kraken EP, featuring songs based on Tennyson, etc.)
Dexy - Sleeping Through Summer
The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention (See also Live At Montreux Jazz Festival, July 2022)
Spoon - Lucifer On The Sofa (See also Lucifer On The Moon, Adrian Sherwood's dub remix of the whole album)

The Best Of 2022 (So Far)
Soccer Mommy - Sometimes, Forever

Record Roundup: Evocative Voices
Ethan Woods - Burnout
Billie Eilish - Guitar Songs

Record Roundup: Songcraft
Björk - Fossora
The Soft Hills - Viva Che Vede
Tchotchke - s/t

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 2
Rachael Dadd - Kaleidoscope
Bonny Light Horseman - Rolling Golden Holy
Frankie Cosmos - Inner World Peace
Winter - What Kind Of Blue Are You?

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 3
The Stargazer Lilies - Cosmic Tidal Wave
Pale Dian - Feral Birth 


Starcrawler - She Said On their first two albums, the trajectory of this L.A. band, from the "sloppy, grinding" filth of the 2018 debut to the "intoxicating" blend of primal urges with a bit more sophistication of 2019's Devour You, was a total thrill ride. On album three, we find a leveling off, with much the same variety they gave us on Devour You, delivered with plenty of conviction but without the sense of discovery. Still, there plenty of the short, sharp shocks we expect, like Roadkill, which opens the album in blistering form, and True (original title: Deranged), which blasts past like a roaring train. Midnight and Better Place are both more reflective, with guitarist Henri Cash showing off his skills at layering acoustic and electric textures. The anthemic Stranded and bouncy Thursday come closest to pointing in new directions, for an album that satisfies but never quite hits the transgressive heights singer Arrow de Wilde shows off on stage. Once they figure out how to inject more of that back into their studio material, watch out!

Lifeguard - Crowd Can Talk Like their Chicago compatriots Horsegirl, this trio of high schoolers seems to have heard all the best indie/art rock records and have the skill to combine noise, melody, and a rhythmic drive into something that feels fresh. These four songs definitely have me eager for more, which is why I hope to catch them opening for Horsegirl at House Of Independents in Asbury Park, NJ on July 22nd. Look for a date near you.

Bodega - Broken Equipment and Xtra Equipment While I found it "kind of thrilling when they flex their pop muscles" on their 2019 EP, Shiny New Model, had it been an album I think I would have missed their sharper edges. I'm delighted to report that they've figured out how to salt the high energy, angular sound of their classic debut with the clever and catchy tunefulness of the EP. Lyrically, they're still pursuing their critique of modern society from an ironic distance that can be witty and inspiring ("This city’s made for the doers. The movers shakers. Not connoisseurs./This city’s made for the doers. The movers shakers. Health food reviewers." - from Doers) but can also be so obvious that it feels almost condescending ("Craven is the island that we all come from. New York was founded by a corporation." - from NYC (Disambiguation)). In fact, if not for that quality, this likely would have been in my Top 25 like the first one. Once they remember that their audience is likely as smart as they are, classic status will be once again in their grasp. Xtra Equipment, a collection of B-sides, leftover tracks, alternate takes, and covers, finds them expanding their palette yet again, with the sweetly reflective doo wop of Memorize w/ yr Heart and the electro of Post yr Kilimanjaro (Doers 2.0) pointing to an exciting future. 

No Knuckle - S/T On their second self-titled record, this Portland, OR post-punk trio has their take on the sound down to a science, all taut bass lines, jagged guitars, driving drums, and quirky vocals. But the sheer adrenaline and canny songwriting keep it fun instead of rote. Also, at nine songs in 20 minutes, there's no chance they'll overstay their welcome.

2nd Grade - Easy Listening While far more straightforward than Palm or Empath, this vehicle for the songs of Peter Gill is another fine example of how vital the Philadelphia scene is these days. With ringing guitars, bittersweet melodies, and lyrics to match ("You’re one step ahead of me/And I’m one hundred steps behind/Where I oughta be/But I’ll go there some other time," as Gill sings in Strung Out On You), 2nd Grade will slot nicely into your collection near Big Star and The Replacements. Guitarist/vocalist Catherine Dwyer, whose voice adds a nice counterpoint to Gill, is one secret weapon that sets them apart, but the songs are strong enough to do that on their own.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Endless Rooms After the new heights of 2020's Sideways To New Italy, it would be greedy to expect another leap from this Melbourne band, but I'm happy to report that their songwriting, employment of dynamics, and guitar layering all continue to advance. The inclusion of  field recordings is an original touch, too, lending a true sense of place - and time, i.e. the late pandemic. Making this record helped get them through Australia's many lockdowns, now its here to help you with whatever challenge you need to power through.


Princess Chelsea - Everything Is Going To Be Alright If you, like me, are not one of the millions of people who streamed or watched Chelsea Nikkel's 2011 song Cigarette Duet, this latest album, her fifth, might actually be a better place to start. While the title track keeps her twee cred intact, The Forest embraces power and repetition in a heavy yet controlled way that makes the building apotheosis truly cathartic. As a second track, it's slightly oddly placed as where do you go after catharsis? But her charming, well-constructed songs just win you over each time, whether the baroque pop of Time or the draggy lysergia of Dream Warrior. Score another win for New Zealand!

King Hannah - I'm Not Sorry, I'm Just Being Me I had already spent some time with this Liverpool Band's sepulchral folk-blues before seeing them at Indieplaza. That performance cemented my impression that Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle were on to something, with Merrick's moody, haunted vocals perfectly complimented by Whittle's spare, rattling guitar. A few songs feature Whittle singing and his voice is less distinctive than Merrick's, but the mood is sustained throughout. Don't be surprised if you hear a song like The Moods That I Get In or Foolius Caesar in David Lynch's next project - they'll work a treat.

S.G. Goodman - Teeth Marks While most of my knowledge of rural Kentucky comes from binging episodes of the classic series Justified, this second album rings out with the same absolute authenticity as her first. Perhaps even more confident than on 2020's marvelous Old Time Feeling, her range is powerfully on display between the searing a cappella of You Were Someone I loved and the working-class blues of Work Until I Die. The latter makes a great pair with Food For Thought by Mattiel, another artist incapable of singing a false note. 

Charlie Reed - Eddy Not a person, but a six (or seven?) piece band led by cosmic Americana dreamer Luke Trimble. There's a touch of late Beatles here, too - like, really late, think Real Love or Free As A Bird. Assured and very sweet, let yourself get pulled in by their sunny melodies and wide-ranging sound, with pedal-steel coexisting with mellotron, all yoked to some truly fine expressions of the bittersweet nature of existence. 

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Dear Scott The last album by this near-legendary Liverpudlian songwriter, Adiós Señor Pussycat, was one of 2017's most delightful surprises. A five-year wait dampened some of the momentum and may be the main reason I struggled to connect with this one. But it really is nearly as good, with songs either breezy and sparkling or dreamy and reflective creating jewel-like settings for Head's hard-won, yet still optimistic, wisdom. Never one to pontificate, his philosophy might be best encapsulated in the refrain from Gino And Rico: "Life is for living and living is for life/It's all in a day's work, tonight." Words to live by and tunes to match is what you can expect from this latest gem from the magical world of Michael Head.

Gabriel's Dawn - s/t Like The Clientele, this English band wears their influences on their (striped) sleeves, with a deep love for jangly, harmony-drenched, Laurel Canyon folk pop coming through loud and clear on this debut. But it's not just their enthusiasm that vaults this above mere revivalism, it's the songs, which breeze by in a rush of emotions like first love, first disillusionment, first sorrow. Fresh, is what this is, with ingeniously layered guitars and keyboards, swinging rhythms, and blissful harmonies. Kudos to guitarist Leon Jones for his production, which shaped these lockdown sessions, with band members often recording separately, into something warm and cohesive. 

Thus Love - Memorial This band from Brattleboro, VT, are not shy about presenting themselves as "self-identifying trans artists," but even more germane to the listener is their absolute adoration of 80s post-punk and dream pop. Bizarrely enough, I might prefer their take on the sound, with its heavily chorused guitars, atmospheric synths, melodic bass, and splashy, driving drums, to some of the original. Call me a philistine...but blazing enthusiasm like that shown by Echo Mars (guitar, vocals, cello), Lu Racine (drums), Sophia DiMatteo (bass), and Nathaniel van Osdol (synth) is a rare thing indeed - and completely contagious on this beautifully recorded album.

Miro Shot - Loot Box Their debut album, Content, slotted into 2020's Electronic list quite nicely, with its focus on forward-thinking sonics created with an eye on their eventual realization in VR-enhanced performances. This immaculately-recorded acoustic EP, however, puts the focus on what I called Roman Rappak's "trademark vocals, alternately wry and bruised" while also pointing up the sturdy song structures and emphasizing the melancholy core of Miro Shot's concerns. 

The Orielles - Tableau Jumping into a band's career on their third album, especially one as accomplished as this, can feel a little like cheating. After all, not being there to support them through their growing pains do you deserve to reap the rewards of their current mastery? Sure. Life's too short to deny yourself the pleasure of a richly immersive and flowing series of songs like this one. Intriguingly, this Manchester-based band calls Tableau their first "truly contemporary album," which makes me curious about their first two, and also detail the myriad processes used throughout its creation, from Leo Wadada Smith's graphic scores to Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. Additionally, they expanded their sound with strings and electronics, although even a new listener can tell that the trio of vocalist and bassist Esmé Hand-Halford, drummer Sidonie Hand-Halford, and guitarist Henry Carlyle-Wade remains the core of what they do. The results take you on a journey, from driving songs like Chromo II and Television to abstractions like The Improvisation 001 and Some Day Later, to others, like The Room and Transmission, which combine both impulses. I'm glad I discovered the Orielles, albeit belatedly, but if you miss this opportunity to start becoming a fan, that's on you.

Turnover - Myself In The Way The striking, die-cut cover, painted by bassist Dan Dempsey, caught my daughter's eye at Rough Trade, leading us to investigate further. We were pleasantly surprised to find a an album of sweetly melancholy pop songs, often disco-inflected and occasionally psychedelic. Mountains Made Of Clouds is a perfect example of the latter impulse, with watery strumming, birdsong, and a shuffling beat adding up to a transporting result. Bre Morell of Crushed, whose Extra Life EP just came out, duets with singer Austin Getz on Ain't Love Heavy, which cranks up the string synth, hands the hi hat to Isaac Hayes, and lets the dance floor fill with couples on their way to breaking up. Judging this consistently great album by its cover turned out to be entirely appropriate. We would have been even more surprised by how good it is had we been aware of the band's beginnings over a decade ago, when they were on some kind of emo tip. But we won't hold that against them!

Historian - Light Goes Out Ten albums in and Chris Karman keeps refining his dreamy chamber pop template. While this one has the now requisite strings and other orchestral touches, he also adds James Paul Mitchel's pedal steel, adding even more starlit grace than we've come to expect. Recorded at the same time as 2021's Out Of Season, this shares all the virtues of that earlier release. Since Shelf Life in 2013, Karman has been a supremely reliable source of decorous and resonant song craft. Let him decorate and resonate in whatever space you listen.

Living Hour - Someday Is Today It took three albums for this Winnipeg-based band to reach my ears. Maybe that's because they're from Winnipeg or it could be that they just hooked up with the excellent folks at Riot Act Media, who dropped this expansive indie-rock gem in my inbox. Although, working with such worthies as Melina Duterte (AKA Jay Som) and Jonathan Schenke, who has collaborated with indie gems like Parquet Courts, Snail Mail, and The Drums, and released on Kanine Records, from whence came the perpetually underrated Coasting by Honey Cutt, I think I would have got here somehow. But all those bona fides would count for nothing if the songs weren't so good and delivered with such assurance. Hump is just one example from late in the album, a slow-burner that gains force without ever gaining volume or tempo, guitar, bass, and drums in an inexorable but airy lockstep, while the vocals grow ever more hypnotic. Come under the power of Living Hour, not someday but today.


Grace Ives - Janky Star There is nothing janky about the solid melodic architecture Ives employs on song after song on this short, sweet, and tart project. Take Angel Of Business, with a verse that moves up by half steps, seemingly leading you to some kind of nirvana that never quite arrives, a stairway to...a few flights below heaven. But that kind of tease just makes the repeat button command to be struck. Then there's Lazy Day, as blissful and swinging as an early Madonna song, yet without the hard sell baked into every gesture. The musical underpinnings she builds are also sturdy, little engines of programmed drums, synth bass, and electronic keyboards, with occasional guitar or piano. She sings all these songs in an airy soprano, as natural as breathing, and often as relatable as your best friend: "Wait/I just wanted to relate/It only took me like 300 tries/Just to motivate," as she notes on Angel Of Business. However much effort it took for her to get here - and this is her third album - it all sounds delightfully easy peasy.

Automatic - Excess This electro-pop trio from L.A. was one of many bright discoveries at last year's IndiePlaza Festival and their taut bass lines, motorik drumming, swooping, burbling, and buzzing analog synths, and deadpan vocals are equally diverting on this terrific record. And, in contrast to the title, there's no fat on these carbon-steel bones.

Sofie Royer - Harlequin As a fan of her marvelous curatorial skills, I wasn't quite convinced by Cult Survivor, her 2020 debut as an artist, and I was even less sure after a tentative performance of mostly newer material at IndiePlaza. Fortunately, all of that is dispelled by this far more assured collection, with her 70s-cabaret-disco-decadence approach coming fully into focus. Baker Miller Pink, with its effulgent keyboards, tart rhythm guitar, handclaps, and four-on-the-floor rhythm is a standout, and is sure to reduce any hostilities at your next party as effectively as the "drunk-tank pink" to which the title refers. But any of these clever confections will liven up a playlist while adding a touch of European sophistication.

Mitski - Laurel Hell I'm not a die-hard, so I haven't ridden the rollercoaster with her fans around the announced retirement in 2019 then the (inevitable?) comeback with Working For The Knife in 2021. That song, which seemed to grapple with her career fears ("I used to think I'd be done by twenty/Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same/Though maybe at thirty, I'll see a way to change/That I'm living for the knife.") over a brick-hard beat, doomy synth, baroque piano, and dramatic guitars, now finds a home on what may be her finest album yet. Or at least the one that appeals to me the most. Tracks like Stay Soft, Heat Lightning, and I Guess show her complete mastery at assembling arresting (mostly) electronic environments for her introspective songwriting. The last track, That's Our Lamp, goes a bit overboard, but it almost sounds like she's having fun, which is refreshing. And since I'm not a die-hard, I'll try not to read too much into lyrics like "I guess, I guess/I guess this is the end/I'll have to learn/To be somebody else." After all, she's already very good at being Mitski.


Skyway Man & Andy Jenkins - Nothing No. 1 It's been a long wait since Jenkins's sublime Sweet Bunch in 2018, a hiatus that was slightly softened by The Garden Opens, a fine EP from 2019, so just hearing his voice on this collaborative release is a balm to the soul. As a bonus, Molly Sarlé, who got a bit of play around here with her excellent Karaoke Angel album in 2019, also lends her dulcet voice to the project. And Skyway Man? He seems to fit right in with the cosmic, soulful Americana for which Jenkins and other Spacebomb artists are known. Holding onto this like a little life raft until the next Jenkins opus. Let it be soon.

Patrick Watson - Better In The Shade This brief (21-minute) collection is a reminder of what makes Watson so special: the voice like a cloud, the Satie-esque piano, the existential attitude of a chain-smoker of Gauloises. Even better was seeing him in full flight with the Attaca string quartet in Central Park last summer, but this is as lovely a calling card as I could hope for.

Caroline - s/t In this day and age, few bands have the patience to wait five years to put out a debut album. But getting eight players to gel, as they do so beautifully on this album, takes time, as does arriving at a sound that has a familiar warmth but doesn't sound precisely like anything else. There's some of the (mock?) solemnity and fireside minimalism of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra here as well as a touching relationship with a current strain of UK post-rock - think Black Country New Road, yet pursued more profitably. It's arty, it's folky, and, even at its oddest, it creates a palpable sense of friendship while you listen, something ever more valuable in these times.


Girlpuppy - When I'm Alone While Becca Harvey's sound is very different from that of Faye Webster or Mattiel, it's great to hear another sign of life from Atlanta on this richly produced series of songs. Over tunes that sometimes opt for a 90s guitar chug and at other times drift into more dreamy territory, Harvey's sweet voice delivers some bitter pills about the pitfalls of modern relationships. As she sings on Revenant: "i’m waiting for you to leave/now, sick of checking my phone and seeing your name/i wish i knew how to forget everything/that’s ever happened to me." The sound overall is detailed, with layers of guitars, keyboards, and strings adding up to a polished yet personal result. Multi-instrumentalists Samuel Acchione (who also produced) and John Michael Young put in most of the work creating those layers and it was time well spent on these fine songs.

NoSo - Stay Proud Of Me As proven by a quick dive on YouTube, Abby Hwong is a guitar virtuoso who has wisely learned to turn down all the tricky stuff they used to play and let the focus be on the songs. And fine songs they are, dealing with the ups and downs of identity and romance in a tuneful and deceptively breezy fashion. "I'm envious of straight hips/Jangling nerves, simple limbs/Oh, I couldn't swim/fFast enough/But I made it out/Halfway done," Hwong sings in I Feel You, covering a lot of ground in a few words before the song switches to a coda that calls you to the dance floor. With sleek production, a beautiful voice, and wise pop songs, NoSo has put together a remarkably assured debut album that will have you marveling at their craft while never drawing attention to it.

C. Duncan - Alluvium The title refers to a deposit of silt, gravel, etc., left behind by running water, which might be slightly ironic as this fourth album is all running water, flowing gently past my ears and continuing through to the ether. This does mean it took me longer to connect to it than his last, 2019's Health, which featured tunes "as catchy as heck" and hit my Top 25. But there are few hoeing the row of sophisticated, synthetic pop better than Duncan these days, so grasp these diaphanous wisps of optimistic song as tightly as they'll let you. 

Faye Webster - Car Therapy Sessions This orchestral EP of one new and four reimagined songs is pop in the sense that Julie London or Joni James would easily recognize. And with Spacebomb's Trey Pollard behind the arrangements, the surroundings are not only as rich and lush as a room full of whipped cream but also phenomenally tasteful. The older songs, including Kind Of (here called Kind Of (Type Of Way)), a standout from 2021's brilliant I Know I'm Funny HaHa, slot perfectly into this expanded sound world, and the one new song, Car Therapy, takes advantage of them from the start. A gorgeous consolidation of all that makes Webster special, I'm now dreaming of her take on James' version of Little Girl Blue.

Beabadoobee - Beatopia The buzz for Beatrice Kristi Ilejay Laus's 2020 debut album, Fake It Flowers, was tough to ignore but I found it sounded too...familiar, with pale echoes of 90s bands that had limited appeal in the first place. But at my daughter's urging I tried again with Beatopia and it was totally worth it. The leap between albums is quite extraordinary to my ears, with her intimate, slightly child-like voice now assaying everything from string-laden folk (Ripples) to bossa nova (The Perfect Pair) to some orchestral pop of her own (Lovesong). While I listened, I kept saying to myself, "How did she get so GOOD?" She put in the work, that's how. Now it's up to you to make the effort to listen.

There's more goodness of this sort to be found in this archive playlist - plus, keep up with 2023 here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2021: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2019: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Best Of 2022: Jazz, Latin, And Global

Seeing L'Rain, Sons Of Kemet, and Makaya McCraven in a spectacular concert last summer was a powerful reminder of the ability of jazz to electrify a crowd and unite them in a journey though the unknown. On a record, the trajectory is more intimate but can be equally thrilling. Latin music, in the form of pop crossover from the likes of Bad Bunny, is more popular than ever but true fascination may be found more in the niches. As for music made beyond the US/UK hegemony, Africa is still a strong source, but Europe - especially when cultures blend, as on Topical Dancer - can still bring much to the table. Beyond Charlotte Dos Santos, who has at least as much jazz in her musical DNA as anything else, and Jimmy Delgado, I didn't find as much of the many Latin varieties as I have in other years. That will likely change in 2023, but in the meantime  discover some of the best recent releases in these genres below, beginning with those few albums I previously covered. Give a listen to tracks from each in this playlist or below.

22 For 22 (Part Two)
Jimmy Delgado - A Mis Mentores...To My Mentors
Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul - Topical Dancer

Autumn Flood (Part 3)
Charlotte Dos Santos - Morfo


Amanda Whiting - Lost In Abstraction It takes a certain boldness as well as a light touch to traverse ground trod by such greats as Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, both avatars of the jazz harp, not to mention stunning contemporary talents like Brandee Younger. Whiting, a classically-trained player from Wales, rides that line perfectly on her second album. Whether sweeping the strings with a seductive flamboyance in Venus Fly Trap or plucking delicately around the groove of Suspended, she seems to always know just what's required by a song. Sensitive and engaged backing from Aidan Thorne (bass) and Jon Reynolds (drums) is enhanced by Chip Wickham's flute and sax and Baldo Verdú's percussion for a blend of lush and spare textures that is very satisfying indeed.

Chip Wickham - Cloud 10 Wickham himself is in fine form on this swinging set of soulful spiritual jazz - or is that spiritual soul jazz? - with an expansive sound courtesy of his compatriots, including Whiting on harp, Ton Risco (vibes), Sneaky (bass), Jon Scott (drums), Jack McCarthy (percussion) and  Eoin Grace (trumpet and flugelhorn). Informed by the past but not indebted to it, Wickham is keeping jazz moving forward in a fashion that is accessible and full of integrity.

Makaya McCraven - In These Times I'm still buzzing from that explosive Central Park show so I have trouble seeing this finely wrought if a bit too chill album as mostly a placeholder for the next time. What a huge talent, though, and an essential part of the story of jazz in our time.

Tyshawn Sorey Trio with Greg Osby - The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism I remember watching these Jazz Gallery gigs take place from afar - i.e. Instagram - in March 2022 and wishing I could be there. This triple album is a damned good consolation prize, however, with the energy of Sorey's drums, Aaron Diehl's piano, Russell Hall's bass, and Osby's sax fairly leaping out of the speakers. The sets are filled mostly with standards from the likes of Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn, but there are also two killer takes on Ornette Coleman's Mob Job and a fine version of Miles Davis's Solar, both of which should be considered standards by this point anyway. Sorey is fully in command throughout, conducting the band with drum hits and cymbal crashes rather than a baton. Next time I hope to get there in person! 

Timuçin Şahin's Flow State - Funk Poems For Bird Spiky, fractured, and often witty, this Charlie Parker-inspired collection is a perfect showcase for Şahin's unique guitar playing, with plenty of push and pull from Cory Smythe (piano), Reggie Washington (bass), and Sean Rickman (drums). Şahin uses a custom-built double-neck guitar with one fretless neck, which gives him an infinite palette of colors and textures to deploy. Must be fun to watch live, too. And what a delight to hear Smythe, who I'm mostly familiar with from his work with the International Contemporary Ensemble, let his fingers fly in an improvised setting!

Brandon Lopez - Ingrid Laubrock - Tom Rainey - No es la Playa Just as he collaborated so well with Tak Ensemble in 2021, bassist/composer Lopez inserts himself seamlessly into the duo of Laubrock (saxes) and Rainey (drums). The word "seamlessly," however, doesn't convey the excitement the trio generates, a swirling interaction built from deep listening and the vast array of experiences the three bring to the studio, from free jazz to contemporary chamber music. More fun can be had in the latest from Laubrock and Rainey, Counterfeit Mars, with the drummer pushing her to be her wittiest while still full of sharp angles. Laubrock also shines on Fragile, another duo album, traversing between poles spiky and contemplative with pianist Andy Milne, who even injects a bit of blues into the mix. What a year for Laubrock, who continually proves herself to be one of the most exciting players in jazz and classical music today.

Nate Wooley - Ancient Songs Of Burlap Heroes As he put on full display in 2021's Mutual Aid Music, trumpeter/composer Wooley has the gift for assembling a sound world out of perfectly chosen groups of players. In this case, an impressionistic, almost cinematic world arises from Mary Halvorson's electric guitar, Susan Alcorn's pedal steel guitar, and Ryan Sawyer's drums, with an occasional assist from Mat Maneri's viola and Trevor Dunn's electric bass. The group roils and retreats, like the stormy tide heard in the four interludes, making for a deeply absorbing experiences. Wooley is great thinker, too, and as he explains it, "A burlap hero is one who marches—consciously or not—back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit." So wear your burlap proudly and let this be the soundtrack to wherever you march.

Sam Gendel - BlueBlue I was recently chatting with an old friend of mine and we got to talking about Gendel, remarking on how he can play just about anything and find his way in a staggering variety of musical settings. In this case, he's putting guitar to the foreground and duetting with himself on breathy woodwinds and synths for a quietly radical set of pieces based on ashiko, a traditional style of Japanese embroidery. The relationship is mostly in his own mind, as pieces like Amime (網目, fishing nets) bear no obvious relation to that particular pattern. But no matter - whatever it takes to get him going! He also invited percussionist Craig Weinrib into the fold, who virtually jams with Gendel, adding a stylish, if still restrained, swagger to the album.


Etran de L'Air - Agadez While this Saharan family band shares some of the hallmarks of other Tuareg artists such as Tinariwen, Tamikrest, or Mdou Moctar, there is an overall air of celebration that sets them apart. It came as no surprise to learn they're the most popular wedding band in Agadez, their home city in Niger. The percussion also feels a bit more progressive than on other "desert blues" releases, with touches of arty disco (think Dennis Davis on Bowie's Fashion) and dance-rock underscoring the high-flying guitars. Bring the party to your house, wherever that may be.

Vieux Farka Touré - Les Racines Somehow I lost track of this Malian guitarist and singer after putting his superb sophomore album, Fondo, on my top ten in 2009. Correcting that record starts here, with his first solo album since 2017. Hypnotic, meditative, and deeply engaged in the sound world of his legendary father, Ali, it's both a beautiful tribute to, and a continuation of, that legacy. While on Fondo, he had to be deliberate about escaping his father's shadow, here he can confidently embrace all that that shadow encompassed. Between Ali and Vieux, the Touré name is synonymous with Malian music and all it has to offer, which you can find here in abundance. If you use a streaming service, don't be fooled by the algorithm that wants to serve you with Ali, Vieux's unfortunate collaboration with milquetoast try-hards Khruangbin, which has, on average, more than 100 times the streams as Les Racines. That's a goddamned shame and hopefully a few of those listeners will find their way to the real thing.

Various Artists - A Guide To The Birdsong of Western Africa In a testament to the power and importance of going to record stores, I only discovered this series, which has been going since 2015, when my daughter spotted the cover on one of our trips to Rough Trade. The color, variety, and sheer artistry of the illustration is an accurate reflection of what can be found within. Each artist was given the birdsong of an endangered species from their country and asked to incorporate it into a new song. Vieux Farka Touré is here, jamming with the call of the Black Crowned Crane, alongside nine other less familiar names. The collection opens with the airy delight of Les Mamans du Congo & Rrobin paying tribute to the Loango Weaver with a synth-based groove and plenty of call and response. Another highlight is the charming Nimba Flycatcher by Ruth Tafébé, propelled by delicate acoustic guitar, clicking percussion, and her bittersweet voice, but there are no weak tracks. Ask your local store to stock it!

Black Sherif - The Villain I Never Was Here's one case where the algorithm worked in my favor, as the one track that has a guest (Burna Boy) landed this Ghanaian singer-songwriter in my Release Radar. And I'm glad it did, as the album is sleek and canny combination of the deeply rooted genre of Highlife and contemporary Afrobeats with touches of reggae and hip hop. In a further quest for universality, Black Sherif sings in English, offering his reflections on his life, country, and status in a strong tenor, occasionally distorted with autotune. While there is a mournful, haunting quality to many of the songs, he never falls victim to cloying sentimentality, which can sometimes mar music from the region. Give a listen and raise a hand in welcome to an important new voice in the music of Western Africa.

Burna Boy - Love Damini In 2019, I praised this Nigerian Afrobeats pioneer's African Giant for being "suave, smooth, and funky," elements that are still in place on several songs here. On a whopping 19 tracks, the best stuff is front-loaded, with tracks like Science, with ticky-tack drums, brooding horns, and sensual vocals, Cloak and Dagger, with its sharp feature from J. Hus, and Kilometre, a choppy slice of dancehall, as strong as anything from his catalog. But things go awry on the back half, where nearly every song has a guest, including regrettable appearances from bards of bland like Ed Sheeran and J. Balvin. In his quest for ubiquity, Burna Boy is in danger of leaving behind what made him so popular in the first place. Hopefully next time, he'll leave the grabs for Pepsi-commercial pop stardom on the cutting room floor because when he's at his best, as on at least half the tracks here, he's a special artist indeed.

Florence Adooni - Yinne I've written before about the joyful, intricate sounds of Ghanaian Frafra before, as presented by the German label Philophon. On the first song on this latest single from the label, "Gospel Queen" Adooni sails her lighter-than-air voice over a delightfully busy arrangement, all blaring horns, swirling guitars and synths, burbling bass, and precise percussion, barely breaking a sweat as she sings in praise of Yinne, the Creator. For Yelle is more contemplative, with an almost folky melody and arpeggiated guitars. Here's hope for an album from Adooni - as well as a follow up to #1, Guy One's extraordinary album from 2018.

There's more from these genres in the archived playlist and you can follow along with what I discover in 2023 here.

You may also enjoy:

Best of 2021: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Best Of 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global 
Best Of 2018: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Best Of 2022: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

Hip hop continues to dominate popular music, whether as itself or as an influence on production and songwriting. But there is great depth to the field as well, far beyond the commercial frontier. The same can be said for RnB, which now incorporates hip hop, pop, and the old DNA of soul and funk into its makeup. As for reggae, I've stopped worrying about where Jamaican music would go after dancehall and just listen for the sounds that hit my sweet spot. See below for what I discovered in these intertwined genres, starting with the releases I already covered. Find a track from each (except Isaiah Rashad) in this playlist or below.

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part 1)
FKA Twigs - Caprisongs
Pusha T - It's Almost Dry
Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Record Roundup: Evocative Voices
Moor Mother - Jazz Codes See also the powerfully skeletal Nothing To Declare by 700 Bliss (Moor Mother with DJ Haram)
Lizzo - Special

Record Roundup: Songcraft
Steve Lacy - Gemini Rights
Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen


Isaiah Rashad - Music 4r Da Vibers Given that his best album included the word "demo" in the title and his second album was about writer's block, it's obvious Rashad sometimes gets in his own way. Following up last year's The House Is Burning with this leaked collection of demos and snippets may point a new way forward for him because it's even better than that excellent album. Warmth, immediacy, and a cutting self-examination are just some of the characteristics that have had me coming back to this over and over, along with the smeared, grimy beats. 

Megan Thee Stallion - Traumazine Wildly entertaining, vulnerable, and intricately assembled, Megan's second album proves her staying power. The best songs feature not only her sharp flow but also a kind of vocal counterpoint going on the the background, breath sounds, random words, and vocal tics creating an atmospheric tapestry. Ending with Anxiety ("They keep sayin' I should get help/But I don't even know what I need/They keep sayin' speak your truth/And at the same time say they don't believe, man"), the first 11 songs alone would have been enough to get Traumazine on this list. Things get a little patchier after that, with the pace slowing down and Megan becoming almost a guest on her own album. But when she's ON there are few others who can do what she does. 

Conway The Machine - God Don't Make Mistakes and Conway The Machine & Big Ghost Ltd. - What Has Been Blessed Cannot Be Cursed While this Buffalo-based rapper seems to be working all the time, God Don't Make Mistakes is only his second album proper after 2021's excellent La Maquina - and he's raised the bar significantly this time. When he ends Tear Gas with the line "I keep the guns and the drugs just for the paranoia," I couldn't help but think, "And for the lyrical content." But by the time you get to the extraordinary title track you realize there's nothing sensationalist about the gritty noir that defines his style. Over a grimy track by the Alchemist, Conway runs through a series of questions about the life-changing aftermath of getting shot ("Sometimes I wonder, if this Bell's Palsy didn't paralyze my grill in/Would there still be murals of my face painted on side of buildings?") ending with his mother praying over his grievously injured body in the hospital. It's a haunting finale that will have you hitting repeat so you can try to grasp how he pulled a new beginning out of that near ending. While God Don't Make Mistakes represents Conway's major label debut, What Has Been Blessed... finds him back with Big Ghost and showing no sign of losing touch with his roots. As he raps on Bodie Broadus: "I'm the main source of the culture, I'm love's professor/The one that every major label wanna all get next to/And that's just from recordin' pressure, all it cost was effort/Bars so electric, shit might could charge your Tesla." All never truer than on these two albums.

Freddie Gibbs - $oul $old $eparately After the haymaker one-two punch of Bandana, produced entirely by Madlib, and Alfredo, produced entirely by The Alchemist, I had some trepidation when I heard Gibbs was going the major label-multi-producer route. I was at least a little bit right to be concerned as there is definitely a more diffuse, diluted vibe to this collection. Even the concept - Freddie locked up in a Vegas hotel trying to finish his album - is not quite enough to make it cohere. But Gibbs is never less than committed when comes to the microphone there's nothing slack about his raps. The concept also imposes a number of skits on the album, which are amusing, but when you have a song as hot as Gold Rings, with its killer Pusha T feature, I kinda wish it didn't end with 30 seconds of tomfoolery, i.e. Jesus leaving a voice mail. They should at least put those on their own track so you can weed them out if you want to.

Prodigy - The Hegelian Dialectic 2: The Book Of Heroine While this collection is uneven, it's good to see Prodigy's planned trilogy finally coming to fruition. Following 2017's darkly elegant The Book Of Revelation - the last album released during his lifetime - this one addresses lighter concerns of "sex, drugs, and partying" as opposed to apocalyptic, political themes. Some of the beats feel demo quality but Prodigy's voice is always strong, rapping with intent. As on the romantic Low from the last Mobb Deep album, Prodigy actually, er, rises to the occasion of discussing sex and love on I Heart You: "Candle-lit rooms, shadows on the wall kiss/Her silhouette shape on the wall so thick/The flames on the wick dancin' to the music/Make our hearts melt like wax into each other palms." It's hard to know what he would have done differently, but I imagine he would be proud to have Big Daddy Kane, D.J. Premier, Faith Evans, his old running buddy, Big Noyd, and others on the project. Perhaps even more importantly, Prodigy's estate was finally able to resolve the business tangles that kept his work off of streaming services, making his indelible legacy available again. The final album in the trilogy, promised to confront death itself, is coming out later in 2023.

They Hate Change - Finally, New Even though their set was cut short at IndiePlaza last fall, at least the festival succeeded in turning me on to this Tampa-based duo. Vonne Parks and Andre Gainey combine tag-team, high energy raps with an eclectic landscape of beats that incorporate dub, drum & bass, and all manner of electronic dance grooves - sometimes in the same song. No dilettantes here, however, as they take full ownership of every sound. While they are aggressive in making it clear they stand apart from much of the hip hop universe (As Gainey raps in Blatant Localism: "It’s funny how y’all get excited about crime/I can’t deny, I thought them rhymes was really true to they lives"), it's less clear where they do stand lyrically - but the words sound good nonetheless, making for an assured package. No surprise, as they've been working their way up to this album since 2015 - hence the "finally" in the title. 

Pinkcaravan! - Bananaz and Eazy Bake Since 2018, when her delightful EP 2002 came out, we've been lucky to be gifted one or two songs a year from this unique artist. These two tracks do nothing to stop me from wanting more of her candy-coated hip hop confections. Perhaps 2023 will make that happen.

Saba - Few Good Things While nothing here quite matches the cinematic sweep and emotional depth of Prom / King, the standout track from his 2018 album, Care For Me, this third album is also more consistent. You can learn a lot about what he's giving us here just by the picture of his seemingly indomitable grandfather on the cover - and the ambiguity of the title. There is no bitter without the sweet, and vice versa, in Saba's universe. As he noted when describing the short film attached to the project, "An empty glass is full of air. An empty bank is full of lessons. An empty heart is full of memories." But this album is full - full of heart, soul, anger, humor, not to mention juicy beats, mostly cooked up by Saba and his Pivot Gang cohort. As Saba tries to just live life, I think you'll find him enriching yours.

Vince Staples - Ramona Park Broke My Heart While his last two projects didn't connect with me, in 2017 I highlighted Big Fish Theory for its "high tech" feel and Staples' "gritty and compelling" raps. Now, on his fifth album he's caught me again, although he's in a much more reflective mood. As the title hints, he's exploring his relationship to the Long Beach neighborhood that raised him. An example of the complexity and depth of his approach is When Sparks Fly, which uses Havoc's echoing beat from Mobb Deep's More Trife Life to provide atmosphere and drive for a love song between a man and his gun, playing with the many ways the language of romance can have a double meaning: "She said, "Baby, keep me closely, love it when you hold me/Know that I'm a real one, I don't do no ghostin'/I know that you love me, you don't gotta show me." Sampling the chorus from Lyves' yearning 2016 track No Love, with its "Lovers in arms" line, is yet another clever feint, making the song sound even more romantic. Of course, there's a subtext about why a young Black man in Long Beach would need a gun. As a bit of of autobiography in the otherwise bloody Magic notes: "Momma met my daddy, then they had me in the ghetto/Handed me a thirty-eight and told me I was special." Touches like that are what makes these songs, and the album, so haunting.

Billy Woods - Aethiopes and Church It's not uncommon for hip hop to come across as cinematic, the words making pictures in your mind that move with the music. Aethiopes, with a textured background by producer Preservation coming from a realm of deep knowledge of many musics of the African diaspora, comes across with the electric, intimate immediacy of an Amiri Baraka play. The Doldrums, for example, stitches together harpsichord stabs, Ralph Towner guitar fragments, throbbing drums, and brooding bass as Woods barks out a tapestry that links the slave trade with the drug trade, both of which can leave people stranded in the doldrums: "Thick mist, piff smoke, draw straws from clenched fists/Sinkin' ship, human souls in thе hull/He got the whole world in his hands, ice cold/Open them palms up, turned black as a ghost." Church features production from Messiah Musik and feels murkier and less coherent than Aethiopes, but still compelling.

Elucid - I Told Bessie Elucid is Billy Woods' partner in the long-running avant hip hop duo, Armand Hammer, and Woods appears on four songs and executive produced I Told Bessie. But as tribute to the love and support Elucid received from his grandmother, Bessie, who died in 2017, it's clearly very personal to him. The album is filled with languid, minimalist beats from a variety of producers, all of whom hew to Elucid's vision and give him space to spin his impressionistic rhymes. Impasse is one highlight, with Elucid interrogating his mortality over an off-kilter drum track and nocturnal horns: "Who will close the book, who ain't write my name down?/Who gon' hold the torch, what the cards say now?/Last good kiss, last call, the lights up/It's where the road splits, asphalt shakedown." With this album, Elucid has definitely written his name in the book of hip hop.


In 2017, I praised SZA's "versatility and burgeoning mastery" on her debut, CTRL. Five years and, by all accounts, hundreds of songs later, we get more of the former and evidence that the latter needs no qualifiers. Of course, versatility can become a liability when you have trouble recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, which leads to some longueurs on this 68-minute album. But for every miss, like the rote pop of F2F, you get three hits, like the delicious revenge fantasy, Kill Bill (complete with Tarantino-esque video), the yearning Nobody Gets Me, or Ghost In The Machine, which finds power in sisterhood with Phoebe Bridgers, who guests on the song. Hopefully next time she doesn't feel the need to be all things to all people - after all, as proven by the best songs here, she's already perfect at being herself.

Kehlani - Blue Water Road While the first three tracks on this third album are in no way unpleasant, they feel unfocused, like a warmup. But when the rounded weight of the beat from Slick Rick's Children's Story drops on Wish I Never (one of a few well-deployed samples on the album) the momentum kicks in and doesn’t let up. Even Justin Bieber can’t interrupt the flow of song after song of sleek, emotionally engaged R&B. The ballads, like Melt, which starts off with little more than an acoustic guitar and a drum machine, have an urgency and a melodic inevitability that keeps you listening. When the burner is lit, Blue Water Road is a triumph for Kehlani and their main collaborator, Pop Wansel. The son of Philly Soul legend Dexter Wansel, Pop is in nobody’s shadow by now - and neither is Kehlani.

Phony Ppl - Euphonyus Over a decade into their career, it would be easy to take this Brooklyn-based R&B group for granted, but the fact is there aren't too many like them around anymore, such is the focus on solo acts in the genre. But that would all be immaterial were it not for the many varieties of charming tunes here, from upbeat electro-dance tracks like Dialtone and Warmest Winter, neo-disco like To Get Home (feat. Leon Bridges and The Soul Rebels, who lay down some nice horns), or a creamy ballad like Been Away, which rises to a glorious guitar-driven crescendo. Then there's Fkn Around, another electro track that airlifts Megan Thee Stallion in for a signature rap, complete with counterpoint, which only adds extra juice to the quintet's classic tales of infidelity. 

Yaya Bey - Remember Your North Star Bey comes across as self-effacing, with those lower-case song titles and that sweet voice, which assays jazz, reggae, soul, R&B, and hip hop with equal ease, but don't be fooled. The first words we hear are "Fed up bitch/I just won't let up bitch/I take my foot up off your neck when I feel like bitch," which clues you in to her steely resolve to realize her music and express her feelings, which center around the "deep wound" Black women have around finding love and being loved. Self-produced with assists from Phony Ppl’s Aja Grant and DJ Nativesun, the music ranges over all those genres in which her voice feels so at home. With 18 songs from 16 seconds to 4:25, there's almost a sense of cracking the code of someone's iPhone and scrolling through their voice notes. The vocal sound on a song like Street Fighter Blues only reinforces that vibe. Intimate, vulnerable, and powerful, you won't soon forget Yaya Bey or her music.

Michelle - After Dinner We Talk Dreams Having been lucky enough to catch this charming sextet in concert I am happy to report that everything you hear on this second album is real - the harmonies, the unity, the tunefulness, the grooves, the sheer delight they have in making music together, a feeling they seamlessly translate to the listener. It's also a remarkably consistent album so don't trust those Spotify play counts and only listen to the first four songs. Also give an ear to the Side Dishes single, which has two more great songs. There's a deep well here, so drink up.

Stimulator Jones - Round Spiritual Ring On his debut and subsequent instrumental album, Sam Lunsford displayed his dazzling, somewhat off-center facility at many forms of R&B and dance music. On his latest, he gives us another mix of related styles, from hearkening back to Shannon's Let The Music Play on Pain Inside to paying homage to the mid-70s Isley Brothers on Love Will Light Your Dreams, complete with a smoking hot guitar solo. The album's dreamy trajectory gets goosed by the uptempo rock of Peace, Love, Respect & Adoration, connecting him with other traditions. And it is all about connection - the album title may have originated in a misheard Prince lyric but is a good metaphor for the interchange between creator and listener and between inspiration and creativity. 

Lady Wray - Piece Of Me Twenty-four years on from her debut as a protege of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, nearly everything about Nicole Wray has changed - not just her professional name. Her voice is stronger and her artistic vision more her own, just to name two things. Some of what you hear on this third album was evident on 2016's Queen Alone, when she reemerged in the soul-revival orbit of Leon Michels, Lee Fields, and Charles Bradley. But while she's still recognizably in that world, the sound of Piece Of Me injects much that is new - whether a folk-like directness on Come On In or hints of dub and lovers rock on Through It All - into what can quickly become formulaic. This is also her most personal album, with her father and daughter making appearances, lending even further warmth. Follow her lead: invite the family, then put this record on.


Kabaka Pyramid - The Calling It took not only a 2023 Grammy nomination but an Instagram post from Damian Marley, who produced this third album, for this artist to gain traction in my eardrums. Granted, his output has been slow, with his debut coming over a decade ago. But this rich 15-song collection is a great showcase for his songwriting and toasting. Even if nearly every song has a guest, starting with the opening track, which features an effective sample of the late Peter Tosh,  Kabaka is a commanding presence more than able to hold his own with anyone in contemporary reggae. Grateful is a great showcase of his rhythmic flexibility, with verses seamlessly transitioning from rapid fire flow to stop-start segments. The song has a sweet hook sung by Jamere Morgan, grandson of Denroy Morgan, too, lending an additional sense of legacy to the track. For anyone waiting for Damian Marley's next album - his last, the excellent Stony Hill, came out in 2017 - this fills the gap very nicely.

Koffee - Gifted Nearly twice as long as her fine 2019 EP, Rapture, this gives us a chance to get to know Koffee's breezy, winning style better. Opening with X10, which has her casually singing over Bob Marley's Redemption Song, was a bold move, and many tracks have spare backing to keep the focus on her voice. Whether toasting intensely over Where I'm From or sweetly starting the party on West Indies, where she tosses in a hint of Lionel Richie's All Night Long, she's effortlessly versatile. 

Horace Andy - Rockers & Scorchers One of reggae's most legendary voices, Andy released two albums in 2022, Midnight Rockers and Midnight Scorchers, both brilliantly produced by UK dub magus Adrian Sherwood. This deluxe edition compiles both of them with two bonus tracks, giving us a cup that runneth over with passionate roots reggae. Several songs are updates, like This Must Be Hell, originally on his classic 1978 album, Natty Dread A Weh She Want. But he sounds so engaged, you won't hear complaints from me. He also covers Safe From Harm, the Massive Attack song, in convincing enough fashion that I wonder why he didn't do it in the first place. With so many of the great voices now gone, having Andy nearly at full strength is a gift indeed.

Dubokaj Meets Lee Scratch Perry - Daydreamflix With Perry's death in 2021, I was sure we would be inundated with subpar scraps from the master's workbench. Maybe they're out there - but this is not one of them. Recorded in 2017, Daydreamflix finds Perry working with Swiss-based dub scientist, Daniel Jakob, on a series of spacious, spacey dub tracks, heavy on the electronics and full of atmosphere. Jakob is not too reverent either, processing Perry's voice and treating it like just another color on his palette. A fitting addition to Perry's vast discography with the only mystery being why it took five years to reach fruition.

Dubmatix Meets Future Dub Orchestra - Frontline Dub Smooth, expansive, and never without forward motion, this collaboration between the Toronto-based producer and the Bristol, UK band is an object lesson in dub, if not quite as titanic as the Sly & Robbie connection from 2018.

Find more beats, rhymes, grooves, and rhythms in the 2022 archived playlist and follow the 2023 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2021: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Best Of 2022: Electronic

My interest in this genre leans closer to soundscapes that create an imaginary environment or persona rather than the more popular beat-driven expressions. But there are still a few jams to be had here, where songs emerge out of the synth-based constructions. At the top are previously covered releases followed by pocket reviews of other things that caught my ear and demanded repeat listening. Get the flavor of each album in this playlist or below. 

Ben Seretan - Sandhills Music As he proved on 2021's wonderfully immersive Cicada Waves, singer/songwriter/guitarist Seretan also has a gift for putting a structure around the sounds of nature by combining them with electronics. Ambient music, then, and worthy of the legacy of Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land. Whether viewed as landscapes in sound or travels in the mind, these pieces, recorded both in Sanford, NC and Troy, NY, have a way of redefining the space around you.

Nick Storring - Music from W​é​i 成为 Made up of layers of piano sounds (both from an old upright and a computer-controlled Yamaha Disklavier), Storring's latest album is marvelously evocative. Nearly symphonic in scope, each emotionally-driven track leads to the next with a steady inevitability. The level of invention in Storring's approach is quietly astonishing, with plucking, preparations, E-bow, and other techniques deployed with remarkable assurance - never more so than in movement VI, when things really take off! The Chinese characters in the title relate to the verb "to become" so maybe that's a clue to the story being told, but any interpretation that meshes with your life is valid and may change over time. Either way, it's an album that has continued to reveal itself over many listens - compelling stuff, indeed. 

Amanda Berlind - Mousemilk As on her delightful debut, 2021's Green Cone, this EP often combines hazy atmospherics with off-kilter rhythms, for an experience not unlike standing between rooms playing different radios - but it works. The longest track, Wand, is 13 languorous minutes of piano, guitar, wordless vocals, and reverb, perfect for staring at the rain or the inside of your eyelids. While this is only available on streaming services (including YouTube) it seems it may be forthcoming as a cassette, which would be the perfect medium for these rich but low-fi audio collages. Berlind is also a witty and wonderful visual artist so be sure to keep up with her on Instagram.

Sophie Birch - Holotropica There is a lush, almost humid, enveloping quality to Birch's work here, created with electronics and occasional sax, flute, and harp, that connects it to those "rainforest" cassettes you used to find in crunchy stores in the 70s. But that reference does little to reveal how musically astute Birch is as a composer and sonic sculptor. Birch, who hails from Denmark, also collaborated with Polish vocalist Antonina Nowacka on Languouria, which has a bit more forward motion than Holotropica on some tracks and features the voice as another instrument, sometimes soothing, sometimes startling, always wordless and expressive.

Various Artists - A New Age For New Age, Vol. 5 Launched in 2019, this series has become a durable fixture on the electronic scene, with each volume having something to offer. Expanding their brief, they collaborated with the University of Michigan's Modern Percussion Lab to have students create the eight tracks featured here. From Paul Puleo's Non-Frontation, which opens the album with Harry Partch-like resonating percussion, to the space-station corridors of Chris Sies' Radiant Streams, the collection is compelling and fresh throughout - yet another new age for new age!

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Emile Mosseri - I Could Be Your Dog/I Could Be Your Moon I seem to have lost track of Smith since I noted the "rich and rewarding" experience of her album, The Kid, in 2017. But this collaboration with Emile Mosseri, a composer known for soundtracks for such excellent movies as Kajillionaire and Minari, caught my attention quickly. A two-part collection that feels like a story, the first few songs seem to transit us gently through the clouds, as if on a butterfly’s back, and when we finally touch down during the sun-kissed groove of Shim Sham, it’s a marvelous sensation. Smith's latest solo album, Let's Turn It Into Sound, also has a sense of narrative, if in a more oblique way. A venture into near hyper-pop, it's full bright textures and sunny moods. Dazzling and entertaining in equal measure.

Yeule - Glitch Princess Opening with a haunting and halting spoken word piece that seems to come over a fraying ethernet cable, this remarkably assured debut introduces us to Nat Ćmiel, a creature of the internet who is looking for love, acceptance, and community. Or is Yuele the creation? In their bio,  Ćmiel calls Yeule "a portal or riff" created to "communicate their art to the outside world..." The mind-bending conceptual underpinning only adds a kick to the album. The songs are indeed glitchy, and very artfully so, conveying nuanced emotions and fractured melodies. And when they go full pop on Bites On My Neck, it's wonderfully celebratory and conjures a vision of Bowie's Earthling-era self dancing in the wings. It's an immersive album, like a trip to the metaverse without a headset, and the digital and streaming versions end with a nearly five-hour bath of dreamy ambiance, the perfect way to process everything that's come before. 

Claire Rousay - Everything Perfect Is Already Here Rousay is prolific enough that it almost seems as if the steady flow of albums and EPs may be acting as some sort of diary for her. There certainly is a lived-in quality to the the two 15-minute pieces that make up this album, which not so much creates an environment but comes from one, and a Cageian dwelling at that. It feels like entering a sprawling apartment filled with musicians, but as pure consciousness, allowing you to hear all sound as music and all music as sound, without making any noises of your own. Joined by Alex Cunningham (violin), Mari Maurice (electronics, violin), Marilu Donovan (harp), and Theodore Cale Schafer (piano), Rousay maps out a place of memories you never had or haven't had yet. Captivating, witty, and utterly unique.

Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn - Pigments As much as I wanted to love 2021's Second Line, Richard's sixth album since making her name as a member of Danity Kane, the intrigue created by her trajectory from pop star to indie artist was not enough to counter the frequent nods to convention on the record. But there was the kernel of something that made me keep trying, an effort that was finally rewarded by this spacious, drifting collaboration with Zahn. While Zahn's bass, vibes, and keyboards underpin everything, the mix also includes guitar, strings, sax and flute, with the clarinets and bass clarinets of Stuart Bogie and Doug Wieselman are nearly as prominent as Richard's strong yet diaphanous vocals, creating a blend of jazz, chamber, and electronic musics. Zahn has also been busy on his own and I'm looking forward to delving into his solo work, including Pale Horizon, a delicate series of pieces for bass and piano with some of Vince Guaraldi's wistfulness, which came out in May 2022.

Snowdrops - Missing Island Featuring Christine Ott on Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, harmonium, and piano, Mathieu Gabry on piano and electronics, and Anne-Irène Kempf on viola, this album continues the marvelous thread from 2020's Volutes more so than the darker and occasionally explosive Inner Fires from last year. Over 41 minutes, the players build up velvety layers of sound, creating a space for reflection just structured enough to avoid collapsing under its own weight. I note that this was recorded in 2020 - what more wonders does their seemingly bottomless archive hold? I can't wait to find out!

Finneas O'Connell - The Fallout OST From his work with his sister, Billie Eilish, you could guess that O'Connell understands how to create drama and emotion out of minimal gestures, which he does throughout this elegantly melancholy score for the 2021 film about the aftermath of a school shooting. With treated piano leading the way, you can hear echoes of the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson, which is not bad company to be in on your first outing as a soundtrack composer. There are also a few sweetly hymn-like songs sung by Maisy Stella with and without her sister Lennon. While his own pop music is hamstrung by his all-too-obvious lyrics and all-too-anthemic choruses, this would seem to be a worthy direction for him when he's not producing the next blockbuster for Eilish. 

Transport yourself further into these realms in this archive playlist and keep up with 2023's excursions here.