Sunday, May 08, 2022

Best Of 2021: Out Of The Past


According to a report in Music Business Worldwide from January 2022, consumption of "catalog" music (i.e. stuff older than 18 months) is not only the majority of listening overall, but actually increased  between 2020 and 2021. They speculate that some of this might be due to older listeners flocking to streaming services during COVID and staying in their comfort zone when they get there. As someone who is constantly in a state of near-overwhelm trying to keep up with new releases (and filter the best stuff to you), I get it! But, perhaps ironically, my consumption of reissues was lower than usual in 2021, which makes it easier for me to create a more concise list of what rose to the top. So here are a mere dozen of the best releases from out of the past. Two of them you'll have to find on vinyl, but you can listen to tracks from the others here or in the playlist below. 

REISSUE OF THE YEAR

Bob Dylan - Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16 / 1980-1985 Just in case you think I’m a total Dylan Stan, take note that not only didn’t I buy the last two volumes in this series (More Blood, More Tracks and Travelin’ Thru), I didn’t even review them. I listened, of course, and found them wanting. It could be that I was just still rushing on that run from Volume 13: Trouble No More, which was my 2017 reissue of the year. That ecstatic sound continues almost unbroken on the first two discs here, which bring to light the sessions that led to Shot Of Love, revealing that what became a good album could have been a great one. With the same core band that made Saved and toured that album and Slow Train Coming (most notably Fred Tackett (guitar), Tim Drummond (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and backup singers Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, and Regina McCrary), these recordings find a well-oiled machine able to respond to Dylan's every wish and whim with passion and professionalism. This leads to jaw-dropping moments like Price Of Love and Borrowed Time, where Dylan makes up songs as he goes along, the band follows, and you nearly get a master take - if he had bothered to record them again, they might have become classics. Dylan also assays a number of covers, dispatching classics like I Wish It Would Rain and Fever with casual mastery. He even has a run at Sweet Caroline, investing that crappy song with more feeling and depth than Neil Diamond possesses on his best days.

Discs three and four jump ahead to the making of Infidels, it's ultra-clean digital soundscape a world away from the road-hardened greasiness of the earlier material. But a band with Mark Knopfler, Mick Taylor, and Sly & Robbie (guitars, bass, and drums respectively) is incapable of doing wrong, even when the songs go awry, like Julius And Ethel, a tuneless and tone-deaf tribute to the Rosenbergs. But most of it is magic, especially the spine-tingling full-band version of Blind Willie McTell, recorded on the first day of the sessions. Singers, songwriters, and musicians might be ready to sell part of their souls to be involved with something like that. For Dylan, it was just another day at the office. There are other revelations here, including great versions of Foot Of Pride, Lord Protect My Child, and a storming live take on Enough Is Enough, a song that never made it into the studio. The only complaint I have about this phenomenal set is that the compilers didn't include all three songs Dylan played with The Plugz on Late Night With David Letterman in March 1984. But that's a minor quibble about a major achievement.

JAZZ REISSUE OF THE YEAR

Lee Morgan - The Complete Live At The Lighthouse I know, I know, there was that great John Coltrane discovery last year, which was certainly a more than worthy document that needed to come out. But this Lee Morgan material is so furiously, gloriously, compelling and alive that I just keep coming back to it. My relationship to the original Live At The Lighthouse double album started over 30 years ago with some very personal crate digging: in my brother's collection. I was looking for anything early 70s that rode the line of fusion, progressive jazz, spiritual jazz, what have you. I was partly on a mission for Mike D., who was in constant need of new grooves to mine for the Beastie Boys. So anything of interest I would tape twice and send him a copy. While I'm not sure what he thought of LATL, I became obsessed, listening to the tape on repeat. Auto-reverse was definitely employed. I could not get enough of each long, luxurious track, with sparkling interplay between Morgan's fluttering and soaring trumpet and his genius band of Bennie Maupin (sax/flute/bass clarinet), Harold Mabern (piano), Jymie Meritt (bass), and Mickey Roker (drums). All of the compositions were new and had great introductory sections and chord changes that inspired the best from everyone. The music was much knottier and explosive than the soul jazz Morgan was known for, approaching free jazz at times, such as the oozing majesty of Maupin on  Neophilia. I even got hooked on Morgan's laconic introductions: "This is one composed by Harold Mabern...very bright, busy, and the title is The Beehive." 

I never spotted that album in the wild but one day in 1997, I was walking past Academy Records and did a double-take: there in the window was a three-CD set of Live At The Lighthouse. I did a U-turn, walked in, and snapped it up. I was in pig heaven with that thing, which had more songs than the original four, all of which were as good as the ones I had been listening to for years. But it quickly became clear that Blue Note had used different takes at times; intricate solos that I knew as well as my own soul were different - as was the intro to The Beehive. But it was only slightly frustrating as the music was so fantastic, especially the Latin-tinged and exquisitely melancholy I Remember Britt. But now, finally, we have it all, 12 sets of music recorded over three days - over seven and a half hours of music, and not a half-hearted note to be heard. Sometimes I dive in and listen to an individual set, or swap through different recordings of the same song, never tiring of any of the variations. I have even worked eight-hour day listening to nothing else and been a happy man, cursing only the interruptions of meetings and phone calls! - thank you, Blue Note. Thank you, Lee Morgan.

VINYL REISSUES OF THE YEAR

Sonny Greenwich - Sun Song I'm fairly convinced that there is no better fan community than that of the Beastie Boys. The most recent "Exhibit A" being that of Fred Heff, someone I met online through that world who has now turned me on to the extraordinary, Montreal-based reissue label Return To Analog by sending me a stack of recent releases. All of them were distinguished by masterful pressings, gorgeous remastering, and quality design and packaging. These are the kind of LPs you invite people over to listen to and this 1974 album by Canadian guitarist Greenwich may have been the best of the lot, a dose of spiritual jazz that really delivers on the promise of the genre. Greenwich's questing single-string solos, played with a fat tone just this side of distortion, are perfectly accompanied by the warm pool of sound created by Don Thompson (piano), Rick Homme (bass), Terry Clarke (drums) and Clayton Johnson (percussion). I fell in love at first listen and now give the album pride of place alongside things like In A Silent Way by Miles Davis and Journey to Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane. You'll likely never find an original copy - and this one probably sounds better - so consider this a public service from Return To Analog.

Nico - Drama Of Exile Long out of print and still absent from streaming services, Nico's penultimate album gets a much-needed reissue from Modern Harmonic. Don't kick yourself for missing the translucent red and black marble limited edition, just get the black vinyl and be happy you can listen to Nico's brilliant entry into post-punk. Angular guitars, pumping bass and drums, icy keyboards, and occasional sax create perfect frames for her songs, which are typically dark, but more melodic than some of her other stuff. She also covers I'm Waiting For The Man and Heroes, attacking both with iconoclastic energy, as if she actually could better the originals - the fact that she gets as close as she does is a minor miracle. 

REGGAE

Carroll Thompson - Hopelessly In Love (40th Anniversary Expanded Edition) Available on vinyl for the first time since its release in 1981, this reissue throws a spotlight on one of the greatest lovers rock albums of all time. In fact, the whole genre, a romantic, British-born offshoot of reggae, could be explained by Thompson's sweet voice floating over these languid grooves, which have just a touch of the burgeoning sound of digital dancehall. The expanded version adds material from various 12" singles, including Make It With You, a divine duet with Sugar Minott from 1983. If you're unfamiliar with Thompson or lovers rock, press play and fall hopelessly in love.

Various Artists - Different Fashion: High Note Dancehall, 1979-1981 This collection of 33 early dancehall 12-inches (11 released here for the first time) came out last December, when barbecue season seemed but a dream or a half-forgotten memory. Now, the time to fire up the grill is here, and this expert overview of Sonia Pottinger's High Note singles is here for you to provide the perfect soundtrack. Featuring some familiar names, like Ansel Collins and Marcia Griffiths, and many that are less so - Zara, Tony Tuff, Lee Van Cleef, Sonya Spence, etc. - singing over killer cuts by The Revolutionaries, Roots Radics, and others, this is a nonstop groove-a-thon. After all, who wants to keep picking the music, when there's BBQ to tend to?

Bob Marley & The Wailers - The Capitol Sessions '73 After being removed from their opening slot on a tour with Sly & The Family Stone - for being too good - BMW made use of their time on the west coast by booking an in-studio set, which was recorded and filmed in front of a small and extremely lucky audience. Finally coming to light (at least officially), it's another precious - and smoking hot - document of the band just on the cusp of Peter Tosh's departure. Bunny Wailer was already home in Jamaica, having found that life on the road was not for him. As on Talkin' Blues, the 1991 collection which included material recorded a week later at The Record Plant, Joe Higgs sits in for Bunny Wailer and sounds great, although Marley and Tosh are front and center. But perhaps the true stars are the Barrett brothers, Aston and Carlton, whose bass and drums provide a ceaselessly inventive and intricately funky foundation for everything that transpires. 

FAB FOUR FINALE?

The Beatles - Let It Be (Super Deluxe) Everything you need to know about this forensic and deeply moving document of the Beatles semi-last album (and the accompanying Get Back documentary) can be found here. Where will the Fab Four reissue train stop next? 

WONDERS OF THE WORLD

Ike & Tina Turner - The Bolic Sound Sessions This collection of alternate takes, previously unreleased songs, and live material from the closing years of Ike & Tina's musical and personal partnership, is a pointed reminder of the musical alchemy they created together. Ike named their studio Bolic Sound in tribute to Tina's maiden name, Bullock, and perhaps also to her hyperbolic power as a singer and performer. While there are a few unnecessary moments (there was no need to remake their versions of River Deep-Mountain High or Proud Mary), much of this is furiously funky or hypnotically bluesy stuff. The backings show Ike's skill as an arranger as they manage to meet Tina's unholy power without ever pushing her to the background. There is no debate that Ike was an often reprehensible person, but we likely would never have had Tina as we knew her without him.

Leslie Winer - When I Hit You - You'll Feel It This is one of those axis-correcting collections, detailing the last 30 years of a unique career by an artist last compiled a decade ago. A literal black-market baby, Winer carved her own path from the beginning, turning a provocative way with words and her intense appearance into friendships with William S. Burroughs and Jean-Michel Basquiat - and a notable modeling career. As the 80s came to a close, she began recording, completing Witch, her first album, in 1990. While it was ahead of its time in its combination of spoken word, samples, programmed drums, and dubbed-out bass, Witch was delayed for three years and subsumed on release by music Winer had anticipated, like Portishead and Massive Attack. But Winer was probably never going to fill stadiums or soundtrack your local Starbucks; she's just a little too edgy for that. But her commitment and strength of personality (or even personhood) shine through every fascinating track here. Naturally, Light In The Attic do a wonderful job with the packaging, so you might want to track down the vinyl - Popmarket has it for a reasonable price. 

Perrofláuta - s/t First digital release for the 1998 debut by this Spanish band, which featured Gecko Turner alongside Markos Bayón and C´sar Inn. Five years before Gecko's epochal Guapapasea!, you can hear his blissful blend of south-of-the-equator sounds in nascent form. As we approach the eighth year without a new record from him (save for a compilation), this is doing a nice job of filling in the gaps.

Hailu Mergia & The Walias Band - Tezeta Awesome Tapes From Africa once again live up to their name with this reissue of an album originally released on cassette in 1975. All instrumental, it features those wonderfully watery Ethiopian harmonies at full strength, led on by Mergia's fanciful organ playing, which is supported by mesmerizingly mellow rhythm tracks and beautiful horns. Though expertly remastered, there's still a trace of evocative murkiness - and if you want to amplify that you can buy it on cassette!

For more reissues and excavations from 2021, dig into this playlist, and keep up with with what 2022 brings to light here

You may also enjoy: 
Best Of 2020: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2019: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2018: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2016: Reissues
Best Of The Rest Of 12: Out Of The Past

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Best Of 2021: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Of all the genre-based lists, only classical exceeds or comes close to this category, which both accurately reflects my listening and the general ferment among creators in those spaces. I wrote about plenty of rock, folk, etc. albums during the year, 14 of which landed on my top 25. As usual, the other previously covered releases will come first below and new reviews will follow those. Listen to a tracks from all of them here or in the playlist below.

Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music
Shame - Drunk Tank Pink

Record Roundup: Sonic Environments
Steven van Betten & Andrew Rowan - No Branches Without Trees
Anika Pyle - Wild River

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful
Jeffrey Silverstein - Torii Gates 
Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin

Record Roundup: Rock'n'Pop Adjacent
The Muckers - Endeavor
Acid Dad - Take It From The Dead
Bachelor - Doomin' Sun
Lael Neale - Acquainted With Night
UV-TV - Always Something
Palberta - Palberta5000
Ganser - Look At The Sun 
Lucy Dacus - Home Video

Record Roundup: Rooms Of Their Own
Anika - Change 
My Tree - Where The Grace Is
(Eli)zabeth Owens - Knock Knock

Record Roundup: Plugged In
Freak Slug - Slow Down Babe
Scott Hirsch - Windless Day
Matthew E. White - K-Bay
Colin Linden - bLow
Amyl And The Sniffers - Comfort To Me

POST-PUNK TRAJECTORIES

Dummy - Mandatory Enjoyment This doesn't sound like an L.A. band, more like Brooklyn or London, except they are less single-minded in their pursuit of art-rock nirvana than say, Stereolab or UV-TV. Unafraid to go from sleek to noisy - sometimes in the same song - their combination of churning guitars, spacious synths, and driving rhythms is remarkably assured on this debut. 

Spud - Spud Rather than being a couch potato during lockdown, Holly Findlay (bass player of Australian band, Stonefield) cooked up a synth-heavy EP of micro-anthems, each one unexpectedly hooky. If you've got the cash, you can still score it on a limited-edition 10" pressing from stalwart label Greenway Records.

Tamar Aphek - All Bets Are Off If this is an example of what's going on in the Israeli rock underground, I say give me more. Aphek, who can be serene or stentorian, sails over edgy art-punk songs that stick under your skin like needles that hurt so good. She and her band of atmospherically inclined noise-rockers do not put a foot wrong, except for a cover of As Time Goes By, which ends the record on a note of retreat after eight songs of attack. No matter, just hit repeat after Nothing Can Surprise Me and continue to be surprised.

Church Girls - Still Blooms My favorite YouTube discovery last year was Jarrett Wolfson's channel, documenting his obsessive New York City concert-going with very conscientiously shot videos of all the shows I would be going to if I were going to shows - and some I wouldn't have known about, like this band. Hailing from Philly, which must have a scene rivaling Brooklyn's by now, Church Girls platforms the catalytic talent of Mariel Beaumont, a singer/guitarist who wrote or co-wrote all the songs here. On paper, she might not be doing anything entirely new - a blend of pop, punk (without exactly being pop-punk) with a bit of new wave sheen - but it's the passion with which she does it that puts it over the top. Predicting big things for Beaumont, whether with Church Girls or not. 

Geese - Projector The first thing that struck me when I heard Disco, the first single from Brooklyn-based Geese, was style. Singer Cameron Winter has style and swagger to burn, grabbing you by the throat with his range and variety of approaches. I wasn't even sure I liked it right way, but his no-fucks attitude, plus the splashy guitars and dance-punk rhythms, kept me listening as more singles and then the album came out. I'm glad I did, as Projector is an excellent first step for this young band. Their original but historically-informed post-punk update is full of twists and turns, at times white hot, at others contemplatively cool. A bright debut from a band that sounds like they can go the distance.

Sleigh Bells - Texis Of all the twists and turns in 2021, a return to relevance for this electro-clash (or hyper pop? who cares!) duo was certainly among the most unexpected. After hitting my top ten in 2010 (and my Best Of the 2010's list) with their explosive debut, Treats, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller seemed to gradually run out of steam over the next three albums. How many different ways could they combine Miller's buzzsaw guitars, a drum machine, and Krauss's sugary vocals? Well, somehow they've figured out a new path - or maybe that debut was more about the songs than the sound after all. They seem to have found their spark again, in any case, with adrenalized melodies delivered by Krauss with roller-girl swagger, and more dynamics in the musical backing, even including the occasional acoustic guitar. Highly enjoyable.

Foyer Red - Zigzag Wombat A meeting of messed-up minds, including Mitch Myers, whose 2020 cassette Turn Tail (as "Sreym Hctim") I speculated could be "the end of all music." Apparently not, because he has found a brilliant way forward, with helping hands from Elana Riordan, who sings and plays clarinet and Omnichord, and Marco Ocampo, responsible for drums, bass, and percussion. Myers contributes guitar, bass, vocals, and percussion, and somehow the end result is delightfully intuitive, sounding perfectly natural, as angular and odd as it is. This 19-minute EP has me eager for more.

POP ART

Alice Phoebe Lou - Child's Play Breezy and just a touch hazy, this effortlessly tuneful album showcases Lou's airy voice beautifully. Drawing on 60s pop and 90s bedsit indie, its an intimate visit with a great songwriter. A South-African-born prodigy who has been making music since the age of 14, this is her fourth album since 2016. Her third album, Glow, was also released in 2021, and features a more sophisticated, even sultry, sound, with sparkling keyboards and insistent bass lines. Once I've had my fill of these two albums, I'm looking forward to catching up with those earlier ones, which I unaccountably missed!

Jordana and TV Girl - Summer's Over Brad Petering's gift for catchy tunes, inflected by both hip hop and 60s pop, hasn't deserted him since I discovered TV Girl years ago. Putting his production and songwriting skills in service of Jordana Nye's airy voice is a winning combination, and when they sing together it's even more pure pleasure. Jordana also put out an excellent single with Magdalena Bay last year and has her own album, Face The Wall, due in May. Pre-saving!

FPA - Princess Wiko Released on Justin Vernon's 37d03d label, this second album from Frances Priya Anczarski finds her assaying pop, folk, R&B, and art-song with equal aplomb, earning that regal pose on the cover. Between her enveloping and lovely voice and the cinematic sweep of the songs, you will swear twice the amount of time has passed when its 25 minutes are up.

Laura Wolf - Artifacts Arty and airy synth-pop EP that somehow hits some of the same buttons as Bill Nelson's club singles from the 80s, meaning they are highly melodic, quirky, and follow their own internal logic in how the sounds are assembled. Unexpectedly, it all comes together in delightful ways.

Alice TM - Little Body In Orbit When I saw her perform with Ethan Woods, Alice Tolan-Mee's serene confidence - along with her expert musicianship - made her a captivating presence. Then, the two of them put out an album of sexy, weird electro-pop as Hyperion Drive, which seems to contain some of the seeds of this debut solo album. Hoeing a row that might be termed synth-art-song, Alice TM uses a lot of the shiny textures of pop to present her imaginatively meandering melodies, which gain more inevitability with each listen. 

Lily Konigsburg - The Best Of Lily Konigsburg Right Now and Lily We Need To Talk Now Even if she had just released Palberta5000 (see above) with her bandmates in Palberta, Konigsburg would have had a great year as it was their best album yet. But her songwriting cup runneth over, apparently, as she also put out her first solo album, the sprightly Lily We Need To Talk Now. While some of the songs sound like they could be on a band record (and drummer Nina Ryser makes several appearances), the best material explores more layered pop production to support songs that seem a little more introspective. Sweat Forever and That's The Way I Like It are great arguments that Konigsburg could play in the same arena as Clairo or Lorde - and have more fun doing it. The Best Of..., which collects several singles and EPs going back to at least 2017, is even more terrific, with every song hitting the sweet (or bittersweet) spot in the best indie-pop tradition. The a cappella of Rock and Sin and perky autotune of It's Just Like All The Clouds are earworms you will actually not want to shake! If Konigsburg wanted to be the opening act for her own band, I guarantee you that no one would feel oversaturated with her quirky brilliance by the end of the night. 

Lorde - Solar Power I was maybe one of the few that found Lorde's second album, Melodrama, to be mostly overwrought and overthought, the anxiety of her surprise success with the song Royals and ensuing album Pure Heroine all too apparent in its conception and execution. At the time, I blamed producer Jack Antonoff whose "magic touch" usually makes sounds that turn me off. Four years later, it seems I was only partly right. While she's once again working with him as a co-producer and co-songwriter, she's made clear in interviews that this time around, she's in full control. And thank goodness, as this is the tuneful, sun-struck pop album promised by the title but so unexpected by an artist who usually shades on the darker side of things. Singing in a fluttery higher register than before - and often double-tracked (or shadowed by Clairo) - the focus is firmly on her voice, which has never sounded more natural, surrounding it with acoustic guitars, sinewy bass lines, and sensitive keyboards. There is very little of the hip hop influence shown on her earlier work, but the drums (by the great Matt Chamberlain) give oomph when needed. It's almost like having a whole new artist to listen to - and I like this Lorde a lot!

Clairo - Sling Speaking of Clairo and Antonoff, when I included her in the 2019 edition of this list, I celebrated the fact that she hadn't gone the "full Jack Antonoff route" for her debut, Immunity. Now we know what that sounds like, as Antonoff co-produced Sling and co-wrote half the songs - fortunately, it's not the obnoxious disaster I predicted. But neither is it the bright success of Solar Power. In fact, it leans over a little too far in the opposite direction, with one hushed, drum-less song blending into another. Not unpleasant, but I was hoping for more. Amoeba, however is a massive highlight, perhaps her best song yet, as she digs into a Steely Dan/Boz Scaggs groove circa 1976 and completely commands the sleek ship at it sails into AM radio glory. The lyrics throughout show a maturity and self-empathy that are sure to give comfort to many, I just wish the musical surround was a little more distinctive. If she's looking for her next collaborator, can I suggest Nate Amos, who helped Lily Konigsburg make some of the magic mentioned above.

Dora Jar - Digital Meadow Blending acoustic, electric, and electronic textures to frame her assured songwriting and flowing voice, this 20-minute EP showcases a burgeoning talent. Not surprised Billie Eilish tapped her to open some shows. 

Historian - Out Of Season Chris Karman continues to expand on his chamber-pop approach - working with nearly a full orchestra's worth of musicians to realize his melancholy songs on this, his ninth album as Historian. While he still wears his love of Radiohead on his sleeve, the Historian sound is its own thing, and embraces new tributaries all the time, such as the 1920s ballroom resonances of Transitions, with its woozy sax and upright bass. His singing is more confident than ever, too, stepping away from the reverb-laden approach he often uses. While he wonders if he is "out of season" on the title track, I would say his time is just beginning.

FOLK-INFUSED

Rebecca Tilles - Oh Sister This folk-pop debut from a Swedish-American singer/songwriter has a light touch that gains weight as it goes on. The trilogy of songs that end the album, starting with the wry melancholy of Endless Days, moving through the bittersweet I Don't Even Miss You, and ending with The Beginning, may be the finest here. Sensitive production from Robin Applewood adds just the right touches to the acoustic strumming, whether accordion, mandolin, or organ, and keeps things varied yet consistent. Rebecca was a member of one of my writing groups and it was always a highlight when she contributed - now she's here for the world to hear.

Marissa Nadler - The Path Of The Clouds For her ninth solo album - and first of all-original songs since 2018's stunning For My Crimes - Nadler throws up her folk-infused songs on the widescreen, blowing  them up with rich layers of guitar, droning underscores, starlit keyboards, and Mary Lattimore's harp. This has the effect of lending her dark tales of love, loss, and murder even more gravitas. I expect the movie and TV sync requests are coming in even more fast and furiously now. Nadler also found time to showcase her interpretive gifts on the cover album Instead Of Dreaming, especially on versions of King Crimson's Moonchild and Metallica's Nothing Else Matters.

Le Ren - Leftovers It's a self-effacing title, that, and an understandable defense by an artist who appears very much exposed on this spare, stately, and drop-dead gorgeous album of folk songs. There's a toughness here, however, reminiscent of those bedrock artists from America's past, who would work the fields and then meet Alan Lomax on their front porch to make a field recording. In short, these are sturdy yet delicate songs by someone who sounds fully engaged with the life of the earth and workings of her heart. A stunning debut.

INDIE-ISH

Snail Mail - Valentine I felt there was a coiled ambition contained in the emotionally-connected indie-rock of Lindsay Jordan as presented on her debut, Lush. But then I found myself taken aback by the nearly Kelly Clarkson-esque uplift of the huge chorus on the title track of this second album. I soon got over myself and marveled at the wide range of places she was taking her voice, both as a singer and songwriter. I never would have expected something like Forever (Sailing), which samples an obscure 70s R&B jam (by Madleen Kane) she heard at Starbucks, from Jordan, nor that she would pull it off with such organic ease. Then there's the string-laden Glory (arrangement by Spacebomb's Trey Pollard) that finds new sonics in which to embed her passionate lyrics and delivery. Overall, there's a little more gloss than I would expect from a Brad Cook production, but there's still enough tooth here to grab me along with the thrill of self-discovery that is a through-line from Lush. If she keeps moving this fast, she'll have to change her name to Email.

Laura Stevenson - Laura Stevenson Distinguished by her literate lyrics and well-developed melodic sense, Stevenson's sixth album is a winner throughout. Adding a little 90s-influenced loud-quiet-loud cannily reflects the mysterious trauma that underscores the storytelling. 

Hand Habits - Fun House For their third album, Meg Duffy has conjured up a richly textured collection of what at one time might have been called "soft rock," with each drum hit and acoustic strum burnished to a warm glow. However, she avoids all the pitfalls of what made that genre artistically bankrupt - the shallow solipsism, mainly - and continues to develop her introspective and complex songwriting. While I wouldn't have minded a little of the straight-forward indie rock of their debut, but the restraint only makes a song like Concrete & Feathers hit harder. Piece by piece, Duffy is assembling an impressive and nourishing discography.

Field Music - Flat White Moon While I might still recommend Tones Of Town (2007), Measure (2010), or Plumb (2012) to any under-rock dweller not yet familiar with the smart and funky art-rock of the Brewis brothers, this is their must unfetteredly joyful release since that latter album. So if it's easiest, feel free to start here and lap up all the jabbing angular guitars, sunny harmonies, catchy choruses, and perfectly pocketed drums on offer. 

Pip Blom - Welcome Break A band from the Netherlands that's ever more expert at channeling the sound of Boston college rock circa 1995, but with their own energy and European spin. Guitars chug, jangle, and soar over propulsive rhythms while the band's namesake lets her sweet-tart vocals tell stories of coming of age and interpersonal thrills and spills. I was even more convinced by their live set (as seen on Jarrett Wolfson's YouTube channel) and it may be that the stage is even more a natural habitat than the studio.

MIND-ALTERING

Triptides - Alter Echoes Lysergic, sun-drenched rock, with sixties echoes in evidence, from garage rock to The Byrds. Like Levitation Room, their light touch injects a fresh taste of the surreal into their sound.

Boogarins - Manchaca Vol. 2 Another compilation of "memories, dreams, outtakes, and demos" from Brazil's finest rock band. Recorded both in Austin, TX and Sao Paulo, the 12 tracks mainly showcase their weirder, more studio-bound side, with plenty of sonic manipulations amidst the melodic invention and guitar fireworks. There are also two songs in English: Basic Lines, an early song they never recorded, and Far And Safe, a rework of Te Quero Longe from 2019's Sombrou Dúvida with Erika Wennerstrom (Heartless Bastards) on vocals. The latter is a heavenly listen and suggests further collaborations, with her or others, could be yet another avenue of exploration for this most exploratory of bands. 

Crumb - Ice Melt Some of the murk has been stripped away and there's a little less of that distinctive wobble to their sound - but Lila Ramani's vocals have grown ever-dreamier and they're only more expert at making the studio their canvas for their sweet and slightly off psych-rock. And I would imagine they're still great on stage!

CLASSIC RAWK

Neal Francis - In Plain Sight On his second album, Francis invites you for a jam back at his place with the ghosts of the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, and ex-Beatles John and George. And they're all having a blast because he brought a briefcase full of tasty songs, most notably Alameda Apartments, Can't Stop The Rain, and Sentimental Garbage. Rain is an instant classic, slotting in next to similarly named tracks by the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and others. I'm having fun thinking of how much juicier this could have been if Jonathan Wilson had been behind the boards, but it's early days yet for Francis - more goodness will come.

Israel Nash - Topaz Nash has been living off the land for a while now, ingesting nourishing meals of cosmic country and funky soul, which he has now digested for us in a widescreen collection of heartfelt tales, aided by an array of driving horns, sweeping keyboards, sky-scraping guitars, and a locked-in rhythm section. Don't be concerned that Adrian Queseda of the Black Pumas is on hand to produce and play guitar. Nash never stoops to the crowd-pleasing, award-show clamor of their stuff. 

LIVE AND DIRECT

Jeff Tweedy - Live Is The King As I noted in my review of Love Is The King, the Tweedy album from which these songs are taken, it offers few surprises. However, these live versions do at least add some spark - and occasional fire - mainly thanks to the guitar of James Elkington. There's also a fine cover of Neil Young's The Old Country Waltz, making for a satisfying and heartwarming listen.

Fleet Foxes - A Very Lonely Solstice Recorded alone during 2020's lockdown in St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, Robin Pecknold does sound a little lonely on this album, except for the first and last songs featuring the Resistance Revival Chorus. But the solo performances also allow us to appreciate the songwriting, not to mention his honeyed voice, with new acuity, while noting the quality he has maintained across four Fleet Foxes releases. A moment in time perhaps, but one we're having difficulty shaking, so I'll be keeping this close to hand.

Killing Joke - Total Invasion (Live In The USA) Relentless, uncompromising, and, at just nine songs, over far too soon. But what other legendary band would be humble enough to go out on the road as an opening act (for Tool) more than 40 years into their career? So what if this is something like their dozenth live album, let them have their victory lap - and enjoy this bracing listen.

MAXIMUM HEAVIOSITY

Big Paul Ferguson - Virtual Control And so it was that as the fifth year passed since Pylon with no new music from Killing Joke and the Gatherers had grown restless. But one arose from the drum set at the back of the stage, conscripted Mark Gemini Thwait (The Mission, Peter Murphy, etc.) to co-write and co-produce, and took on the dusty mantle of tribal rhythms, skirling and grinding guitars, atmospheric keyboards, and doom-scrolling lyrics - and it was good. Not exactly Killing Joke, and not quite as scary good as Pylon, but more than enough to light the torches once again and let the fire dances begin.

PJ Sykes - Fuzz My erstwhile Off Your Radar colleague has been busy during the pandemic! Among other things, he founded a creative agency and put together these 10 punked-out songs, layering fuzzed guitars over slamming rhythms and adding anthemic vocals for a blistering album. While he had a little help from guitarist Jeff Roop, he did everything else himself and perhaps the most impressive thing about his solo proficiency is the fact that it sounds like he's banging these tracks out with his best friends, rather than working alone. Putting Fuzz on will fill your room with an instant crowd and togetherness, even virtually, still feels in short supply these days.

Soen - Imperial My son listens almost exclusively to prog metal so he's become an important filter for a genre in which I like to dip a toe on occasion. This fifth album from a Swedish band was a quick favorite, with melodies that soar, guitars that are heavy yet sleek, and rhythms that aren't afraid to swing a little. The vocals, so often a deal-breaker in this style, are passionate and clear, if not overly distinctive. Some fans find their approach too straightforward here, so I'm looking forward to investigating their potentially knotty past.

Mastodon - Hushed and Grim Over 20 years into their career, by now we know that Mastodon is at their best when they have a concept as big as their sound and ambition to hang an album's worth of songs on. Except that is for The Hunter, their extraordinary 2011 album. While they don't reach those heights on this, their eighth album and first double-disc collection, as an exploration of their strengths as performers, Hushed and Grim is a thrilling ride. Even without a concrete story to tell, they have an emotional core to work off of, paying tribute to their longtime manager, Nick John, who died from cancer in 2018. That loss forms a white-hot magma from which sparks and sorrows shoot off, with echoes of Pink Floyd at their most elegiac or King Crimson at their most aggressive. Incorporating French horn and strings, including the Indian Sarangi, in totally organic fashion, Mastodon are continuing their evolution as a hard rock band that can go anywhere and do anything.

If you think that's everything, you couldn't be more wrong, believe it or not! Find more 2021 albums of note from these genres in this playlist and keep up with what this year has to offer here.

You may also enjoy:
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.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Best Of 2021: Jazz, Latin, and Global


Most of what I covered in these categories ended up on my Top 25 - for global, Raoul Vignal (France) and Arooj Aftab (Brooklyn via Pakistan), and for Latin, Mallu Magalhaes and Domenico Lancellotti (both Brazil), while for jazz the closest thing was Pharoah Sanders' beautiful blowing on his collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. But several favorites in contemporary jazz returned and delivered as did some new discoveries - their excellent albums are below, along with two others from the realms of Latin and global. 

Listen to tracks from most everything (a couple are Bandcamp only and believe me, I get it!) in this playlist or below.




Irreversible Entanglements - Open The Gates Hard on the heels of their 2020 masterpiece, Who Sent You?, and foregrounded by the declarations of the tireless Camae Aweya (aka Moor Mother), this expansive quintet returns with another hard-swinging set. Even as they churn in constant motion, the rhythm section of Luke Stewart (bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums) sets up a rock-solid foundation for the sax and trumpet of Keir Neuringer and Aquiles Navarro, who engage in duets reminiscent of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, creating a conversation that communicates as powerfully as Aweya's words. Even when they slow things down on Water Meditation, every note crackles with energy.

Artifacts - ...And Then There's This I became an admirer of the "ancient to the future" ethos of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians back in the 80s, digging on albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago among others. But never did I imagine that some 40 years later along would come such a perfect exemplar of that ethos. A supergroup consisting of Tomeka Reid (cello), Nicole Mitchell (flute), and Mike Reed (drums), Artifacts create an interplay so engaging that you can practically hear them listening to each other as they play. Reid's dexterity and creativity on the cello, beautifully captured by the exquisitely alive recording, is astonishing on its own. But combine it with Mitchell's songful flute and Reed's precise and funky percussion and the results are sublime. 

Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour Informed as much by jazz as by modernist chamber music, this is a wildly imaginative collaboration between pianist Courvoisier, who can go from swinging to knotty on a dime, and guitarist Halvorson, who can both pick delicately or generate webs of sound. Each track uses a combination of repetitive sections and sharp left turns, either in dynamics or density - from quiet and spare to loud and busy - to keep you on your toes. 

Sylvie Courvoisier/Ned Rothenberg/Julian Sartorius - Lockdown Courvoisier finds more playmates on this very different album, which only occasionally showcases Rothenberg's more self-indulgent side on reeds and shakuhachi. Usually what seems wayward snaps into focus, especially when percussionist Sartorius gets more involved. Courvoisier is content at times to lay back and gently comp, but then she'll take command - sometimes from the inside of the piano. Not surprisingly, over half the album is made up of group compositions - a sign of the democratic nature of the sessions, a moment in time brought to us by the pandemic.

Tyshawn Sorey & King Britt - Tyshawn / King  Even before this came out in October, drummer/composer/conductor Sorey was having quite a year both on the stage and on record. But this series of improvisations between him and producer/DJ/synth-whiz Britt is far more than icing on the cake. Drums, cymbals, and electronic sounds intersect and diverge in a series of playful and groovy explorations, made only more scintillating by Sorey's absolute control over every touch of a stick to skin or metal.

Tim Chernikoff - Pieces Of Sanity Working with drummer Kenneth Salters and bassist Jakob Dreyer, it's not that Chernikoff takes the piano trio anywhere radically new, rather it's that he is so damned good at what the form does best. For sheer beauty, I'm not sure if any recent jazz record betters it, although its not just about being pretty. There's a striking emotional honesty to the chord sequences and melodies that reminds me of Steely Dan at their most reflective. Chernikoff has been at it as a leader, accompanist, composer, and educator for over 15 years - it's about time he put all that experience, skill, and love onto a record. This one captures his confidence and mastery perfectly.

William Parker - Mayan Space Station I'm overwhelmed by this bassist-composer's output, which includes at least three other albums from 2021 with which I still need to catch up. But that's partially his fault for making this one so crushingly GREAT that I have yet to move on from it. And part of that is due to the towering performance of Ava Mendoza on guitar. Her searing tone and alternately soaring and jagged structures take us on a thrill ride extraordinaire, with Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver her willing co-conspirators. The recording is earthy and rich, too, with a physicality to Parker's bass that makes every buzz a thing of beauty. Stunning - and when I need more Mendoza I can turn to New Spells, her exploratory album of solo guitar.

fluke-mogul / Liberatore / Mattrey / Mendoza - Death In The Gilded Age And when I need EVEN more Mendoza, I can buckle in for this fabulously fractured collective, which also includes the great Matteo Liberatore, who can do the unthinkable with an acoustic guitar, along with gabby fluke-mogul on violin, and Joanna Mattrey on viola. Another completely original release from Tripticks Tapes, who also gave us the Tak Ensemble/Brandon Lopez collaboration among many others, this one is a celebration of texture above all. Strings are bowed, plucked, and strummed to their very limits, in an almost unrelenting - and wonderful - cacophony, which can take abrupt turns into something adjacent to folk music. While it was the unique stressors and opportunities of the pandemic that brought these four together, let's hope that rising vaccination rates and the coming endemic don't prevent them from gathering again. 

Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber - Angels Over Oakanda Greg Tate was such a force of nature as a music critic and journalist - someone I had been reading way back when you had to pay for the Village Voice (when there was a Village Voice) - that it's hard to believe he was taken from us by a heart attack last December. He was also one of the few writers to put his critical beliefs into action by co-founding the Black Rock Coalition and, later, Burnt Sugar. This, their first album in four years, is conceived as a suite about Oakland, CA, where "Black Culture is appreciated and nurtured," but I think I will be forgiven for hearing it now as a eulogy for Tate. A sprawling epic in the mode of Miles Davis circa 1969-75, it accomplishes both tasks with all of his flair, sense of drama, and intellectual integrity. Conducted by Tate and anchored by the bass of Jared Michael Nickerson, these are jams with focus, insistent rhythms carrying you along while the solos - on flute, sax, synth, etc. - hurl splashes of color on the canvas. I will not be surprised if there is more where this came from in the vault, but this is plenty to chew on while we wait.

Antonio Neves - A Pegada Agora É Essa (The Sway Now) Neves was the arranger responsible for some of the quicksilver turns on Ana Frango Elétrico's wonderful Little Electric Chicken Heart from 2019. On this, his second solo album, he acts as a ringleader for a cast of nearly two dozen of Brazil's finest, including Eléctrico, who lends her voice to the expansive and slinky Luz Negra. I used the word "ringleader" intentionally as the album opener sounds like a circus, with people shouting unintelligible exhortations and Neves' trombone making some comical noises. There are also hard-driving tracks like the cinematic Fort Apache, which somehow gets away with having Hamilton de Holanda solo on mandolin over the churning rhythm. There are plenty of other highlights, like the sparkling piano of Eduardo Farias, the atmospheric guitar of Gus Levy, or the questing bass clarinet of Joana Queiroz, but there's a strong sense of a collective at work to realize Neves' vision. His sense of play and feel for funk across a variety of Brazilian forms is such that if I ever get to Rio I'm going to find out where he's playing - it's sure to be the best party in town.

Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime Everything I said about Moctar's previous album remains true here, in bigger, bolder fashion. His electric guitar gets ever closer to touching the sky, the rhythms find new invention in Tuareg traditions, and the songs draw from an ever deeper well of emotion, whether the romantic desire and longing of songs like Ya Habibti (O My Love) and Tala Tannam or the political rage of the title track. A true epic with searing guitar that seems to teeter at the edge of control, it sets a new standard not only for Moctar but Nigerian music in general.

There's more from these genres in the archived playlist and you can follow along with what I discover in 2022 here

Monday, February 28, 2022

Best Of 2021: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

Last year, I only reviewed two hip hop albums, which must be a record low for me. Both of them - Madlib's Sound Ancestors and Tyler The Creator's Call Me If You Get Lost - were on my Top 25, too. But that doesn't mean I wasn't listening broadly and finding much to love in the genre, which, as Dr. Dre and company further proved on the recent Super Bowl Halftime Show, is as much American music as anything else. RnB and reggae also had their moments, with the former at its best when it didn't sink into cliché or pop cheesiness, and the latter always struggling mightily with its own past. Here, then, are the releases that stood out from the pack. Listen to the mix here or in the playlist below.

Atlas Jenkins - The Doomsday Device The cover announces the ambitions of this album to be nothing less than a hip hop Dark Side Of The Moon, an epic mind movie about the human condition - and it comes very close to succeeding. Kicking off with a monologue from My Dinner With Andre that ends with the warning, "Escape before its too late," Jenkins then proceeds to provide that escape through spacy grooves, a few questing raps, including some standout rhymes from Jack Harlow, and more monologues from the likes of astronaut Frank Borman (which seems to cast back to another progenitor, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing) and Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. There's also a cover of the Beastie Boys' Flute Loop cooked up with sax/flute maven Benny Reid. Another collaborator is Preston Crump, known for contributing gooey bass lines to records by Outkast, Raphael Saadiq, and others. But overarching it all is the vision of Jenkins, who in his day job as an ICU nurse is pursuing the intersection of music and medicine. Take a dose of The Doomsday Device - it's over the counter but strictly prescription strength.

81355 - This Time I'll Be Of Use Pronounce it "BLESS." Indie hip hop from Indy, brought to my attention via Justin Vernon & co.'s 37dO3d (pronounced "PEOPLE") label. Production by Sedcairn Archives is both spare and sparkly, underpinning moody, reality-grounded raps and soaring sung choruses by Sirius Blvck and Oreo Jones. Their struggles and joys seem to become my own - pop music transference.

Kanye West - Donda While Donda continues the troubled trajectory of releases since 2013's Yeezus, West's last true masterpiece, this is more coherent than The Life Of Pablo, more varied than Jesus Is King, and better in every respect than Ye. It's also less approachable than Pablo and lacks JIK's concision. Filled with broad-stroke minimalism that has simple, repetitive structures blown up to arena size, there is an almost operatic or cinematic scale to everything here. In a sort of musical imperialism, some songs overstay their welcome or recur in alternate versions barely distinguishable from the originals. That said, there are more than a couple of real winners here, including Jail, Hurricane, Believe What I Say, Jesus Lord, Keep My Spirit Alive, and Lord I Need You, all of which have emotionally-connected raps and memorable melodic elements. As much as I loathe some of the people involved here (Da Baby and Marilyn Manson, to name two), perhaps there's a message in their inclusion about not being judged only by your worst acts. Musically speaking, they're essentially unnoticeable among the overall grandeur. If there's one thing West seems to have lost since 2013, it might be a ruthlessness toward his own art - something none of his collaborators have been able to inculcate again. Still, an utterly fascinating listen from a man whose talent remains formidable despite the surrounding chaos.

Isaiah Rashad - The House Is Burning "Weed couldn't settle my fire/Couldn't cover my pain," Rashad raps over the melancholy backing of Headshots (4r Da Locals), a standout track from his long-awaited third album. Unlike the tentative moves of 2016's The Sun's Tirade, this one finds him confident in himself, embracing joy, sorrow, anger, and lust in equal measure. He also displays a dazzling variety of flows, from staccato spitting to relaxed rhyming. While the gap between albums slowed his momentum, there's nothing stopping him now.

Conway The Machine and Big Ghost LTD - If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed
Conway The Machine -
La Maquina  
The problem with this Buffalo-based rapper/producer is not that his rapid output dilutes his talent, but that he so damned consistent that he demands you keep up. Even as I write this, he has another great album out. That said, there are matters of degree and even by his standards, La Maquina is ahead of the pack. Whether chewing the mic on Blood Roses or uplifting the crowd on Grace (both featuring Jae Skeese, another product of Buffalo), Conway is fully in command. Don't be turned off by the long list of guests, there's no doubt who is calling the shots. Along with work for Conway, Big Ghost also produced The Lost Tapes by Ghostface Killah, and while If It Bleeds... is not as monumentally scuzzy, it's hypnotic and dank, giving the rappers plenty to work with, and they take full advantage for a thrilling ride.

Mach-Hommy - Pray For Haiti and Balens Cho (Hot Candles) Even more so than Conway The Machine, with whom he is connected through the Griselda collective, this NJ-based, Port Au Prince-rooted rapper is building a world of his own. Mostly working in obscurity (his real name is still unknown) since 2004, he emerged big-time with these two albums in 2021. Featuring woozy beats, off-center punchlines, and highly personal reflections alongside outlandish boasts - sometimes in Haitian Creole - both albums display a tight integration of words and music, like a soloist jamming over a jazz band that follows their every move. While the air of mystery might draw you in, you'll stay for the originality and a backstage pass to a place where the rules don't apply. And don't miss his bittersweet track $payforhaiti alongside songs with H.E.R. and Thundercat on Kaytranada's Intimidated EP.

Paris Texas - Boy Anonymous Neither from Paris, Texas, or Paris, Texas, this LA-based duo's debut is a completely assured introduction to their talents, which include making self-produced electronic beats that are are infused with a rock sensibility and pop smarts. The vocals, spoken and sung, are sometimes obscured to tantalizing effect like half-heard conversations from another room. At just over 20 minutes, it's guaranteed they will leave you wanting more.

Brockhampton - Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine "America's greatest boy band," as they like to call themselves, announced an "indefinite hiatus" to begin after their Coachella appearance later this year. Whether this proves to be their last album or not, there are no signs of flagging energy as they trade verses among themselves and a slew of notable guests (A$AP Rocky, JPEG Mafia, etc.) in trademark style. The music is full of color and catchy hooks, adding to the exuberance - and another reason they will be missed. 

Moor Mother - Black Encyclopedia Of The Air In which Moor Mother makes an album completely recognizable as hip hop while also sounding as if she's inventing a new genre as she goes along. Whether wielding an acoustic guitar, a modular synth, or a drum machine, everything she does has a ritual power. If you're seeking a point of entry into her distinctive universe, look no further. Also nice to hear Orion Sun on a few tracks. 

Pinkcaravan! - Pink Lemonade While I appreciate the "more is more" philosophy of some of the artists included above, Pinkcaravan!'s little gems brighten up my year with candlepower disproportionate to their length and frequency. This one charming song is what she gave us in 2021 and I savor every delightful second.

Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams Often lighter than air, Parks' songs are only occasionally in danger of disappearing entirely. But her strong pop sensibility - and that of her main collaborator, Gianluca Buccellati - lodges several choruses firmly in your ears and her emotional engagement gives the songs staying power. Is she capable of something utterly devastating like Cranes In The Sky by Solange, one of her inspirations? Unknown, but I'm pulling for it!

Secret Night Gang - Secret Night Gang While their fealty to the wonders of Stevie and the elements of Earth Wind & Fire is sometimes oppressive, that's more a result of me thinking too hard than anything they should be concerned about. While the psych-folk-soul epic of The Sun is still their strongest song, the album is proof that there is nothing they can't do in the jazz-funk-gospel-R&B arena and no limit to the sunshine they can bring to your life.

Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic Well, goddamn if Anderson .Paak doesn't have me listening to Bruno Mars without cringing! The two are having so much fun in their Motown/Philly Soul (with a touch of Outkast) fantasies that it's almost impossible not to join in. The songs are strong, if not especially original, and the production gleams with .Paak's usual flair. Collaborating seems to have brought out the best in both of them so join the party or be a stick in the mud.

Stimulator Jones - La Mano It's been three years since his debut and Jones' music has only grown more organic, shading closer to jazz, but the grooves and gently left-field approach make it a nice fit among contemporary RnB, too. There are no vocals this time, just quietly dazzling virtuosity on a variety of instruments, including organ, synth, piano, guitar, drums, and bass. New vistas, including tv and film soundtracks, are opening up for the stimulating Mr. Jones.

New Age Doom - Lee "Scratch" Perry's Guide To The Universe An unexpected blessing from the now departed Perry, who answered the call from this Vancouver-based drone-jazz-metal collective and set them on a path to the dub side of the moon - and all the other planets. Led by drummer Eric J. Breitenbach and multi-instrumentalist Greg Valou, the album features a big cast, including two members of Bowie's Blackstar band, Donnie McCaslin on sax and Tim Lefebvre on bass. Perry's presence is appropriately spectral yet somehow fully in charge, like a Jamaican Gandalf goading his band of explorers ever onward. Not for dub purists and all the better for that. 

Pachyman - The Return Of... Another unexpected success, as Pachy Garcia of synth-punkers Prettiest Eyes indulges in his dub obsession with almost eerie fidelity to the original masters, most notably King Tubby. What keeps it from being a rote exercise in studio craft is Garcia's ultra-light touch, a sense of play that is infectiously delightful. 

Etana - Pamoja Occasionally you discover an unheard gem among the Grammy nominations, which is how I found the free-flowing joys of Etana as exhibited here, on her seventh album. Resolutely contemporary, but with an expansive gaze that takes in roots as much as dancehall, she lavishes everything with vocals that are both soulful and elegant. The lyrics could be sharper, but I'm not complaining - positivity and uplift are in short enough supply these days. There are also a number of guests, including the dancehall stalwart Vybz Kartel and the now iconic Damien Marley, who is too infrequently heard from (his last album, the excellent Stony Hill, came out in 2017). Marley is in fabulous form on Turn Up Di Sound, which only makes me wish harder for more from him. Etana's generosity with the mic leads to the album's only stumble, on a song called Fly, which features an execrable vocal from a character named Fiji. It's easily avoided, however, but don't skip this album. I'll be pulling for Etana on April 3rd, when they hand out the Grammys - it's about time a woman took the prize.

Find more beats, rhymes, grooves, and rhythms in the 2021 archived playlist and follow the 2022 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
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, February 13, 2022

Best Of 2021: Electronic


From playful abstraction to sleek sound baths, and from abrasive to soothing, the world of electronic music is filled with limitless variety. Here were a few releases that rose to the top in 2021, starting with those I already covered and then moving on to new reviews. I should point out that four records in my Top 25 would fit nicely here, namely albums by Jane Weaver, Elsa Hewitt, Wavefield Ensemble, and Ben Seretan. Make sure you don't miss those either! Listen to tracks from nearly everything here in this playlist or below.

Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music 
Amanda Berlind - Green Cone
Foudre! - Future Sabbath

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough
Various Artists - A New Age For New Age Vol. 3

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful
Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)
Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure

Record Roundup: Plugged In
Matt Evans - Touchless
Luce Celestiale - Discepolato Nella Nuova Era

Phong Tran: High Tech, High Emotion
Phong Tran - The Computer Room

Adam Cuthbert - Transits Modular synths, field recordings, and a trumpet like liquid gold make up most of these sublime soundscapes by the founder of the Slashsound label, now based in Detroit. Every track is a highlight, but Yin, which features the questing violin of Kelly Rhode, is sheer heaven. Perhaps being in a strange new city led to the reflective yet powerful concision of these pieces, as if Cuthbert had to be most fully himself so he wouldn't get lost in an unfamiliar environment. But it's not for me to psychoanalyze what makes this album so fantastic - I just know that it is. Part of a banner year for the label, too, alongside terrific releases from Phong Tran (see above), Daniel Rhode (see below), and Miki Sawada & Brendan Randall-Myers (see here). More to come in 2022 - keep an eye and ear out. 

Daniel Rhode - Electrical Interaction Systems With three works of generative electronic music, this latest from Rhode finds a series of happy intersections between Terry Riley, Brian Eno, and Cluster. The title piece is four movements of immersive minimalism - think Baba O'Riley if the rest of The Who never started playing - while Gen1 is an atmospheric conversation between an irregular heartbeat and a witty, squirrelly synth that gains excitement as it goes on. The album closes with the wistfully titled What If We Had More Time, which matches that mood with gently pulsating clouds of electronic sounds that traverse a slow-motion melody for you to drift along with. 

Dylan Henner - Amtracks This four-track EP takes a "memory journey" across Pennsylvania, propelled by Henner's beautifully balanced blend of percussion, electronics, and field recordings. Whether despite or because of his UK origins, Henner seems to have sincere appreciation for the natural beauty of the land he saw from his train windows, lending his music an aura of hope and optimism. It's a lovely trip.

Ibukun Sunday - The Last Wave Like the Henner album above, this is part of Phantom Limb's Spirituals series, but the emotional impact couldn't be more different. Hailing from Lagos, Sunday takes a dark view of the changes he sees around him in Nigeria. Titles like Burn It All Down and Last Earth give the general idea yet the austere drones, sometimes incorporating field recordings and viola, are also languidly seductive, like slipping under black water and just drifting. Don't worry, however, you'll come up for air - at least long enough to hit "play" again.

Arushi Jain - Under The Lilac Sky This divine interweaving of modular synthesis and Indian classical music, tied together by Jain's flowing vocals, sounds as if it has always existed. Richer Than Blood, the opening track, serves as the perfect overture to her project, with her voice soaring over spacious clouds of sound, vibrating woodpecker-like sounds tickling the back of your neck. Look How Far We Have Come, one of the longer tracks, also shows Jain's abilities to through-compose, taking us through moods, modes, and textures in a musical narrative that will keep you riveted. Trust me, you will not want to press pause throughout this marvelous debut.

L'Rain - Fatigue I admit to being a little put off by L'Rain when I saw her open for Crumb back in 2018, partly because she asked us all to sit on the floor and partly because what followed did not seem to justify that imperiousness. She was the opening act, after all! But the buzz over this, her second album, was too intriguing to ignore and I am so glad I bent an ear, if not a knee, to listen. The opener, Fly, Die, is a dazzling rush through phantasmagoric electronics, air horn, spoken word (the powerful Quentin Brock), and chopped up beats - all in exactly two minutes. Jangled nerves are then soothed by Find It, a mantric piece of near-pop that could almost come from an Alice Coltrane cassette - until it abruptly changes to a rhythmless but no less hypnotic exploration of synth clouds, horns, and wordless vocals. A third section is a bit of haunted-house gospel, Travis Haynes reaching for the sky on vocals and organ. With all the sheerly protean talent on display on this occasionally overwhelming album, the end result is the opposite of fatigue and instead, pure energy. I'm expecting a symphony, or maybe an opera, next time - and I will happily sit on the floor to hear it.

Christine Ott - Time To Die If you're like me, you might have heard the title to this spoken in the voice of Roy Batty, the murderous yet noble cyborg played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, even before knowing there was a direct connection. The album also has a dark, rainswept, cinematic sweep, combining electronic sounds of various vintages (including the ondes martenot, a cousin to the theremin) with piano, harp, and percussion. Voices appear on some tracks, including a recitation of Batty's "I've seen things..." speech by Casey Brown on the throbbing, dramatic title track. By beginning at the end of Blade Runner, the album could be seen as an exploration of an alien afterlife, but its attachment to languorous beauty is all too human - and gloriously so. Moreover, there's is no need to be a sci-fi fan to fall for this album - my wife is living proof of that! Also highly recommended is Inner Fires by Snowdrops, Ott's more collaborative effort with multi-instrumentalist Mathiu Gabry, who also plays on Time To Die. Both albums were recorded over several years before final mixing in 2020 and release in 2021 - catch up with them before they catch up with themselves.

Alex Rainer - Harbor When I last reviewed Rainer, I noted that he was an "exceptionally fine folk singer/songwriter," and that Time Changes, his 2020 album, was "loveliness itself." That's all still true, but there's an entirely different side presented here, on this collection of "ambience and soundscapes." Each brief track is a snapshot, catching a mood rather than an image, skillfully interweaving electronics, percussion, and field recordings. There's a sense throughout that Rainer is an observer of the world around him and that to listen is an act of witness. 

Various Artists - Music From SEAMUS 30 These collections from the Society of Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States are always worth a listen, but this one is especially scintillating. Whether the  comic-book inspired bombast of Christopher Biggs' Monstress (2019), with Keith Kirschoff's virtuosic work on piano and Seaboard Rise MIDI-controller, Joo Won Park's cheeky Func Step Mode (2019) for no-input mixer and drum machine, or Heather Stebbins' unsettling Things That Follow (2018), commissioned and played by percussionist Adam Vidiksis, there's a kaleidoscopic selection of approaches, methods, and emotional impacts here, mapping out a broad range of territories for electroacoustic music. There's no better guide to a fascinating landscape.

For similar noises, check into this archive playlist with much more where these came from and follow the 2022 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy: 
Best Of 2020: Electronic
Best of 2019: Electronic
Best of 2018: Electronic
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic