40 favorite albums of my 2022
Octogenarians and Zoomers rule the Year of the Bunny
The top story of the music year (narrowly beating out every single album being about trauma, according to critical consensus) was the press realizing a couple of years late that Bad Bunny was the biggest pop star in the Western hemisphere. Bunny and Noah Assad, head of Ritas Entertainment (currently the world’s most successful indie label on the back of one artist), were well-aware of this and made Un Verano Sin TI an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink superstar album, a Like a Virgin to YHLQMDLG’s Madonna. It thus wasn’t as consistent as YHLQMDLG (still can’t type that without looking it up) because nobody’s good at everything except Beyoncé, but it was the right album for a superstar to make since streaming data confirms that nobody but aging tragics listen to albums all the way through.
As an aging tragic, the top story of my music year was a breakthrough with Latin American music. After five years of wrestling with Brazil Beat Blog’s new music picks, I bothered to go back through Rod’s old music picks and a bunch of things clicked into place. Meanwhile a deep dive into Mon Laferte, whom I’d long admired, helped me to finally come to an entente with Spanish-language singing that not even that Rosalía album could disrupt for long. In a year where I liked my top half dozen albums similarly, it thus seemed like an appropriate if safe choice to let my favorite living semipopular musician (Youssou’s too popular, jazz isn’t popular enough) top my year-end for a second time. Though a spring chicken compared to Willie (who gets edged out of the top ten by Miranda on degree of difficulty), he’s more than twice the age of the second- and third-place finishers—Pretorian possible cyborg, Newarker indie songwriter moonlighting as a possible cyborg—combined. They’ll have their chances.
The list goes to forty because I only set aside time to relisten to fifty-something albums. Reviews for the top ten are recycled (lightly edited for howlers and topical jokes) except the one with the ass jokes is new.
Tom Zé: Língua Brasileira
Hy-Brasil, per Irish folklore, is an Atlantic island whose name, per Wikipedia, has no linguistic connection to actual Brazil. Zé strengthens his “Hy-Brasil Terra Sem Mal” with the force of another popular story by singing the moniker to a minor-key version of the Jesus Christ Superstar title melody, before leaping to the Roman Empire to ponder the meaning of Pompeiian graffiti. This is just the opening to his soundtrack to a play about the Brazilian tongue, and if there’s little reason to think it an accurate account of the linguistics, well, neither is Chomsky’s work and we still put up with him. Thematic and geographical detours abound—Zé takes the old saw about singing the phone book literally, as he doubles up regular and falsetto voices to inform us of the contact information of the New York Fire Department borough by borough, before contrasting them with Brazilian emergency numbers that lack the childish memorability of the FDNY Manhattan’s 212-999-2222 when the services exist at all. There’s still no one who sings or rocks out quite like him—this time there are more programmed beats than his usual, but the guitar and sense of groove remain liquid Zé. If the album’s scholarship doesn’t match some of the Estudandos, it’s as fun as anything he’s done in his 30-year second act; I’d have it in my top five Zés. I suspected the multi-movement 9:42 “A Língua Prova Que” might be some kind of summation of everything he’s ever said about life and death and Afro-Brazilian music. After spending an age trying to find lyrics before thinking to click on the Discografia section of Zé’s website, it turns out to be about a Yoruban myth in which deities cook the best worst meal on record since “Rapper’s Delight”: tongue (i.e. língua) with a hint of bay leaf. There are also a lot of nonsense syllables. Macum-micum-macum-mi.
DJ Black Low: Uwami (2021)
Awesome Tapes from Africa might’ve had to explain what “tapes” were to digital Pretorian Sam Austin Radebe, born in the twenty-first century a year or two after Mandela’s presidency. He takes futuristic tendencies in African electronic music and twists, exaggerates, deconstructs them to create a sound-language of his own—one that might be difficult for any other flesh-based being to translate, even as they acknowledge it feels like it makes sense. Keyboard tunes progress according to rules Western theory can’t summarize, yet always with a sense of internal consistency. The synth drum grows ten legs and skitters away from you. Squelches that could’ve come from a Hyperdub clear vinyl release arrange themselves into logical melodic and percussive patterns. The vocals sound like he set GPT-3 to flip between various South African languages and got randos like the superbly named Licy Jay to grunt the output. Only amapiano’s familiar log-donk, which drops in every now and then, anchors the music at particular coordinates in space-time. Perhaps it’ll turn out the historical moment that machine intelligence started to emerge was when a kid from the townships played around with FruityLoops. He may be our best chance of solving the AI alignment problem, so throw him some money, billionaires.
c0ncernn: Dariacore 3… At Least I Think That’s What It’s Called?
I know only us old cishets care about “musicianship” and “accomplishment” (you’re lucky I’m not bringing up “maturity”), but the musicianship and accomplishment on the third and final Dariacore record is up a level again from its predecessor, with the mash-up skill of c0ncernn (a/k/a Jane Remover a/k/a well we don’t time for all their a/k/as) rivaling the best Girl Talk joints—this time there’s, like, pacing! All the greatest dance music tricks of the last three decades are repeated: up-pitching, Skrillex drops, big square slabs of sound, the “oh shit” from Fergie’s “London Bridge”. Sometimes the samples are building blocks for trance-alarm beats characterized by density of bleep and shrillness of screech. Sometimes they’re destinations in themselves: if we have to sit through the Weeknd to get to Britney’s “Till the World Ends”, well, us old cishets have sat through countless bad opening acts in our time. Patience is one thing we matures have.
Sudan Archives: Natural Brown Prom Queen
I know that everybody hates jokes now, but you’d think reviewers would pay a little attention to how funny she is. “NBPQ (Topless)” uses “assplants” as a plural noun, and right, Pitchfork bringing up Toni Morrison is not irrelevant, but while it would be possible for the themes of violence and dysfunction to dominate while she repeats “I just wanna have my titties out”, that’s not going to happen when she sings the line with such, no really, poise. I’m also impressed by the way she gets distinctive lines out of her violin—I only have a fraction of her knowledge of Sudanese music, but I can hear that the ascending hook on “Selfish Soul” connects to African scales without being a direct rip-off. Though she feels as zeitgeisty as anyone this year—many songs sound close to any number of recent art-synthbeat compositions—she avoids mistakes made by artists all over the bell curve by focusing on old-fashioned narrative and formal unity. What holds “ChevyS10” together for over six minutes? Why, the repeated syllable “ass”. Even when she’s topless, she’s never bottomless.
Billy Woods: Aethiopes
Despite his bandmate Elucid’s talent, Woods’s solo albums have a higher ceiling than Armand Hammer’s because his ideas can take their natural forms and lengths. Sometimes that’s conventional verse-chorus, whereas on “No Hard Feelings”, he constructs a monstrous first verse that descends from an exploding space shuttle to the furnace in the basement of an unevenly heated apartment building, appends a perfunctory coda, and calls it a song. Producer Preservation creates, in quite a different way from Kenny Segal on Hiding Places, a very New York soundscape out of samples decontextualized beyond recognition, simulating the experience of emerging from a random Bronx subway station and having no idea what combination of languages the surrounding chatter is in—what I was sure was an Ethiopian Moog sample on “Remorseless” turns out to be Polish. It’s an intriguing contrast to Woods’s very Black-centric words, by default delivered in a matter-of-fact flow that lets his occasional emotive moments stand out more, that display enough knowledge of failed juntas and Wole Soyinka adaptations to make Tumblr explicators run up frightening word counts. Woods creates this pan-African, pan-diasporic description of reality as a strategy to distract from his near-future pessimism by constantly looking back, to the point of namechecking “Those Were the Days”, which, he will tell you, played over the PA during a 1969 mass execution in Equatorial Guinea’s national stadium. His guests provide sonic variety, yet fellow conceptualist Mike Ladd aside, they prove difficult to integrate into his vision: they distract from the best rapper alive.
Emperor X: The Lakes of Zones B and C
I’ve been willful about much of the previous output of fortysomething lapsed physicist/avant-jazz booster/train nerd/leftist with complicated feelings about leftism Chad Matheny, because, I dunno, mirrors, man. In his work circa Western Teleport, Matheny observed bits of the world as they blew past him and interpreted them through his idiosyncratic weirdnesses. Now not only has the world met him halfway by getting weirder, he’s made his theoretical apparatus sticky so he can cling to news chryons and second-hand Eastern Bloc histories like a Marxist Katamari with a knack for a tune and a gaggle of pet Germans to join in on the choruses. If the lyric sheet resembles revolutionary pomo poetry written by someone who’s written too many music reviews (which describes a decent proportion of revolutionary pomo poets), the music makes the ideas at least theoretically more accessible to a sax-solo loving semipopular public. Freedom remains his major topic: while it may not be any closer, his vision of it has become clearer, more detailed, more humane. The specter of mass death may be everywhere, but there’s freedom in being able to stare it in the face and chant “we’ll die, we’ll die”. You bet he gets his Germans to sing along to that one.
The Jeffrey Lewis/Peter Stampfel Band: Both Ways (2021)
TO YOU FROM WE: SIDE THREE
Readers of this column will be aware that Peter Stampfel is the man with the encyclopedic mind, filled with decades of ad jingles. Here he passes on his knowledge of orgone energy—that’s “ghost juice”, for people who haven’t watched Dragonball—and of countless old ditties, some his own and/or Antonia’s and/or e e cummings’s. The recordings are from just before his bout with dysphonia, and, howling and replicating some asshole’s fake orgonasm from decades ago, he manages one more release of ghost juice into the digital ether.
FROM US TO YOU: SIDE TWO
You might be surprised to learn that the driving force behind the very 2017 and hence at minimum retrospectively cringe “True Tax Forms” and “Song for the Women’s March” is the guy who makes cartoons of Communist history for fun. The thing is, cringe succeeded, at least electorally, although it was touch and go at times. Would the Soviet Union have endured if Eisenstein had put the comrades on the Odessa Steps in pussy hats? I dunno, it deserves its own animated exploration.
WANT SOME MORE? SIDE FOUR
What cringe is, maybe: shared culture that’s close to but not quite on one’s wavelength, often because the idiosyncrasies that make art interesting become irritations when others partake in them. It follows that the best way to get over one’s discomfort is to cover “Marquee Moon”. It feels so much less silly singing “life in the hive puckered up my night” when everyone else is singing along too. The band acquits themselves well, especially Stampfel (“I saw them live back in the day and wasn’t knocked out”) on fiddle and whichever mandolinist that is. Get in? Get in.
STARTING THE FUN: SIDE ONE
Like the best semipopular forms (and like capitalism tbh), the lower Manhattan freak folk tradition that Stampfel, Lewis, and their multigenerational retinue were formed by is extremely adept at having it both and more ways, at absorbing influences high, low, and subterranean. Their process is sort of a cringe dialectics, engaging with a seeming antithesis and banging away and reshaping it until you’re comfortable with it, regardless of whether anyone else is. This amounts to a kind of optimism: that anything, even Sonny Bono, has the potential to be revolutionary, that wasting your lives could be a step towards utopia. Yet I’m glad they haven’t.
Wild Up/Christopher Rountree: Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine (2021)
Celebrated by New York’s downtown scene, then so lost that nobody knew about his 1990 death until his disciple Kyle Gann wrote up an obit for the Voice eight months later, Eastman has received a push, extending into the non-classical world since Jace “DJ /rupture” Clayton revived “Evil N—” and “Gay Guerrilla” in 2013, to be recognized as one of the great American composers. Since then there’s been a spate of recordings of Femenine, a 1974 composition similar to but more malleable than Reich and Riley works from that era, and this one is more fun than anything I’ve heard in its vein besides Music for 18 Musicians itself. The repeating 12-note pattern and the even simpler two-note hook (an E flat and an F, if you’re playing along at home) is stately from a distance, but focus on your favorite four or eight bars and you’ll find some beauty-for-the-sake-of-beauty asserting itself. The LA ensemble Wild Up emphasizes the clockwork beat while giving saxes and horns space for natural, characterful solos, with the low, flatulent baritone on “Hold and Return” a peak of individual expression. Occasional vocals and a piano that starts hammering out sixteenths in “Eb” prevent things from getting too nature-y. There’s even time to break out into the Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” (who art thou?) The best news is that this is only the first entry in a planned seven-volume set. May Eastmania run wild up on us for some time.
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten: (Exit) Knarr (2021)
The subtitles refer to places important in his life, from alpine village Oppdal to sprawling megalopolis Mexico City. As in any good bildungsroman, there are diverse tones and moods, though Eivind Lønning’s prominent, oft-muted trumpet makes the default vibe somewhat ’70s Davisy, especially when guitarist Oddrun Lilja Jonsdottir assists by playing Pete Cosey (though the “Miles Avenue” that’s the opening track’s namesake refers to Flaten’s pre-pandemic address in South Austin.) The bassist-composer, however, permits un-Milesian moments of orchestral grandeur that the drummers are tempted to one-two-three-four their way through; elsewhere, saxophonists Mette Rasmussen and Atle Nymo will play free at a nod. In the three decades since he came down from the mountains to go to jazz school in Trondheim, Flaten’s played with everyone (not least as the Thing’s bassist) and absorbed many discrete conceptions of beauty. Here he smooshes them all together, and while the joys are thrilling, there’s often a deep sense of peace at the center of the compositions, even in Amsterdam. In his life, he’s loved you all.
Miranda Lambert: Palomino
Working out whether she’s wrested back the title of finest American singer-songwriter of the era would require more math than I want to do, so let’s just remind you she’s up there. A consummate pro, she gives you fast ones and slow ones, the B-52s and rampant heterosexuality, Geraldene-not-Jolene and Carol Jean the Chicken Egg Queen. Three of the best songs on The Marfa Tapes are fuller and more meaningful here, as one would expect when she has a crack band led by former CUNY prof Luke Dick (editor of The Rolling Stones and Philosophy) and the best session players in the South (Al Perkins!) on call. Their apparent ease contributes to this feeling like her least ambitious album, but the last time she was ambitious I pretended it wasn’t a double, so I won’t protest. In contrast, almost every song here holds attention for its designated three or four minutes, and even the unnecessary Jagger cover would make for an interesting chapter of Miranda Lambert and Philosophy if “Tourist” didn’t supersede it. While these days she might not be hitting the dive bars after her shows, she doesn’t have to. She’s been there, and she still gets around.
Willie Nelson: A Beautiful Time
África Negra: Antologia Vol. 1
Scorpion Kings (Kabza De Small & DJ Maphorisa) x Tresor: Rumble in the Jungle (2021)
Montparnasse Musique: Archeology
Sélébéyone: Xaybu: The Unseen
Tommy Womack: I Thought I Was Fine (2021)
Blackpink: Born Pink
Kimberly Kelly: I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen
Megan Thee Stallion: Something for Thee Hotties (2021)
Homeboy Sandman: I Can’t Sell These
Amyl and the Sniffers: Comfort to Me (2021)
Mary Halvsorson: Amaryllis
Phelimuncasi: Ama Gogela (2021)
Joshua Ray Walker: See You Next Time (2021)
BTS: Proof (disc 1 only, I ain’t listening to the rest of that)
We Are the Union: Ordinary Life (2021)
Quatour Ébène: Round Midnight (2021)
Rizomagic: Voltaje Raizal (2021)
Celestine Ukwu: No Condition Is Permanent
Criolo: Sobre Viver
Big Thief: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
James Brandon Lewis Quartet: Code of Being (2021)
Hayley Williams: Flowers for Vases/Descansos (2021)
The Paranoid Style: For Executive Meeting
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Great list, Brad! Happy to see the wonderful (Exit) Knarr on the list and written about (as always with you) with precision!