The introduction, in which claims are made
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the vest of dimes, it was the thirst of crimes, it was the crest of limes, it was the first of chimes, it was the West of climbs, it was the Patty Hearst of rhymes.
Noted run-on sentence enthusiast Charles Dickens wrote those words. (Well, at least some of them.) He is also the unwitting muse for the words that follow in at least two respects: 1) like nearly all Dickens, there are far too many words in this article; and 2) the bit about foolishness. Dickens frames the idea as would most dictionaries: wisdom and foolishness are opposites. But I – perhaps for very selfish reasons – would like to find the wisdom in foolishness. This is not a treatise on foolishness. I am not going to talk about King Lear.
Instead, I will be blunt: I feel foolish writing this big year-end article. It happens every year: I spend a lot of time every year listening to new music. I keep a list of what I listen to, and what I intend to listen to. I add things to my Apple Music library. I buy CDs and records and tapes even though I am constantly running out of storage space. My Bandcamp wishlist is practically a zip code. Google Docs abound. And then I sit to write this. I spend a lot of time writing it. I fret about which album goes in which spot. I feel guilty when an album gets bumped from the list. I inevitably fall into a spiral of self-recrimination: “Why do you do this? Whose approval are you seeking? What is the matter with you? Are you really so vain?”
There’s a way to look at the world that would say it is foolish, in the face of more serious problems, to spend your time making music. That it is far more foolish still to spend your time writing about other people making music. And then to write about writing about other people making music? Foolishness cubed.
And… that’s not wrong, really. But I would like to reframe the negative connotation of foolishness. Have you ever met someone who was completely serious all of the time? Isn’t that just a total drag? I think foolishness is what the brain needs, like a pressure release valve; without foolishness, we lose our capacity for joy and playfulness.
I think foolishness keeps us alive.
The chosen avenue for my foolishness is music. Hearing it. Writing about it. Thinking about it. Kicking myself for not being able to stop doing those things. What’s yours? What’s your desperate joy that you beat yourself up about because it seems foolish? And how can you turn that around and learn to be kind to yourself? Whoever you are out there, I love you.
The best metal albums of the year, numbers 50-21, in which exclusion is proved painful and difficult
Each year produces a whole mess of outstanding music. Here are 30 records that, if I were to assemble this list another time, might each lay their own claim to move into the top 20.
The Really Very Good:
50. Palantir – Chasing a Dream 49. Whoresnation – Dearth 48. Epitaphe – II 47. Bhleg – Fäghring 46. Mortuous – Upon Desolation 45. Skumstrike – Deadly Intrusions 44. Miscreance – Convergence 43. Pharmacist – Flourishing Extremities on Unspoiled Mental Grounds 42. Ripped to Shreds – Jubian 41. Artificial Brain – Artificial Brain
The Really Very Quite Good:
40. Caustic Casanova – Glass Enclosed Nerve Center 39. Grima – Frostbitten 38. Morbific – Squirm Beyond the Mortal Realm 37. Phantom Spell – Immortal’s Requiem 36. Nechochwen – Kanawha Black 35. Voivod – Synchro Anarchy 34. Amorphis – Halo 33. Beyond Mortal Dreams – Abomination of the Flames 32. 8 Kalacas – Fronteras 31. Stray Gods – Storm the Walls
The Really Very Quite Certainly Good:
30. Besvärjelsen – Atlas 29. No/Más – Consume / Deny / Repent 28. Exocrine – The Hybrid Suns 27. Ateiggar – Tyrannemord 26. Avantasia – A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society 25. Dekonstrukt – Mentally Trapped 24. Undeath – It’s Time… to Rise from the Grave 23. Sanhedrin – Lights Out 22. Devin Townsend – Lightwork 21. Static Abyss – Labyrinth of Veins
The best metal albums of the year, numbers 20-11, in which nonchalance is feigned
20. Inexorum – Equinox Vigil
“Setting aside for a moment the airtight songwriting and overflowing melodic invention, the pure tone of the guitars is one of the most enchanting things here. If you crank the volume up and really sink down into the texture and the movement, it feels like a meticulously assembled, jewel-encrusted machine, as if you dove into the deep ocean or summited the clouds to find a whale of burnished chrome or an eagle of metallic emerald – just as fluid and instinctual as nature, but arcing gracefully as if driven by a city of pistons and circuitry.”
19. Author & Punisher – Krüller
“Krüller is a fantastically moody album, stomping and stumbling around at a dejected and doomed snail’s pace, but shot through with heavy, wistful synths that make it possible to envision a hulking mechanical giant traipsing through Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack. Shone builds his songs around big, upfront riffs that are enveloped by layers of bone-rattling percussion, but equally impressive on this album is the array of vocal styles, from a stentorian bellow to a reserved croon, and from an acidic snarl to a high, impassioned scream.”
18. The Chasm – The Scars of a Lost Reflective Shadow
Death metal comes in all sorts: blasting, grinding, grooving, brutal, technical, doomy, thrashy, scattered, smothered, covered. Although the Chasm’s death metal moves through many of those spaces, the primary and everlasting attribute of their death metal is: magic(k)al. There’s an indefinable mysticism, an unwavering fervor and conviction, that undergirds each album. Following two albums of almost entirely instrumental, time-stretched, contemplative metal, Scars of a Lost Reflective Shadow is a return to major speed and aggression, but even as it departs from the band’s recent output, it burns with the same core intensity. With so many bands, the different jobs of the guitar are clearly separate: this is a melody, this is a riff, this is a lead. With the Chasm, all of those elements bleed together in Daniel Corchado’s guitars, so that the line between riff and lead, principal theme and brief aside, rhythm and melody is no line at all, but the red-hot blur of the horizon at dawn.
17. Heaving Earth – Darkness of God
Czechia’s Lavadome Productions had one hell of a banner year in 2022, with intensely excellent releases from Continuum of Xul, Altars Ablaze, and Beyond Mortal Dreams. Best of them all, though, is the second album from Prague’s Heaving Earth. Darkness of God is a dense and bewilderingly technical album that possesses an almost suffocating weight while remaining paradoxically light on its feet. The churning approach of Immolation and Ulcerate collides with the fret-punishment of Gorod, Obscura, Nile, Suffocation, or late-period Gorguts. Darkness of God is a little like passing through a black hole and coming out the other side as a set of sentient dark-matter fractals. It will demand and reward your attention in equal measure.
16. Immolation – Acts of God
Acts of God is business as usual for Immolation. That may sound like an insult, but when your business involves reigning as the most simultaneously punishing and atmospheric death metal band ever, business is always good. Acts of God continues much in the same vein as the absurdly good Atonement, and although it is the band’s longest album, it flows beautifully from strength to crushing strength. Immolation moves with ease from blasting and hammering to swerving churn, making equal space for eerie, skin-crawling melody and house-flattening pummel. The ebb and flow of Acts of God – as an album and as individual songs – is like the breath of a foul creature. First, you hear it rustling the distant trees. Next, you feel its humid maw over your shoulder. And then… Immolation thrives right at that tension point: the calm before the killing blow.
15. Cult of Luna – The Long Road North
Cult of Luna has been so good at what they do for so long that it is easy to take them for granted. Compared to Neurosis’s earthen tumult, Cult of Luna can feel distant, austere, detached. This, though, has become an even greater strength over the course of their career, and on The Long Road North their chiseled, harrowing, tumble-down dirges feel more than ever like pieces of architecture. The ominous synth that leads off “Cold Burn” summons a vision of the concrete monoliths of Brutalist design, while Colin Stetson’s guest saxophone on the climax of “An Offering to the Wild” hurls quivering javelins against a crumbling cathedral. This is a colossal and engrossing album that you will take for granted at your own folly.
14. Autopsy – Morbidity Triumphant
“…Autopsy continues a streak of consistency that is admirable for how it never feels like treading water. Throughout Morbidity Triumphant, sassier, head-bash-ier tunes like “Knife Slice Axe Chop” and the punked-up “Maggots in the Mirror” sit comfortably along such sensitive, Sinatra-style crooners as “Skin by Skin” or “Tapestry of Scars.” “Slaughter of Souls” even pulls out a neat little slow-motion boogie thing, but across the board, Autopsy’s greasy, manic death metal is just as tooth-spittingly satisfying as it was more than thirty years ago.”
13. Stangarigel – Na Severe Srdca
As a new project from one of Malokarpatan’s members, it is unsurprising that Slovakia’s Stangarigel plays a rich, atmospheric style of black metal. But where Malokarpatan splices their folklore-inspired black metal with traditional heavy metal and first wave black metal influences, Stangarigel’s vision is one that echoes through the same mental landscapes of mountains and forests as early Satyricon, Ulver, Isengard, and others. Na Severe Srdca is a peculiar yet addictive album, equally ghoulish and enticing, with simple melodies that run just sideways of center and drums that nag and clatter. It’s a bewitching take on the kind of black metal that knows the past is alive because it lives that past while breathing it into the future.
12. Darkest Era – Wither on the Vine
“Darkest Era’s music is one of those things that will bring out of you what you bring to it. Your own musical history and memory will likely find its own echo, but to these ears, Wither on the Vine is a perfect meeting of voices as disparate as Thin Lizzy, Atlantean Kodex, Primordial, Solstice, and Slough Feg. Hell, if I listen in just the right light, I can find some My Dying Bride in there. But what I find at the core, however and whenever I return to this darkly glittering, immensely warm and welcoming album, is Darkest Era.”
11. Ares Kingdom – In Darkness at Last
“War metal, the subgenre, can be (beyond several crucial cornerstone albums) a sloppy mess. Ares Kingdom does not play war metal in the subgenre sense, but in a more just world, the only thing permitted to be called war metal would be Ares Kingdom. That is, only music that summons the whipping heat and deafening thunder of war and mythic violence as well as Ares Kingdom does deserves to claim such a mantle. On their fifth full-length, In Darkness at Last, Ares Kingdom continues their unbroken winning streak, absolutely tearing through ten songs of blazing, searingly sharp death/thrash that melds utter savagery, gruesome melodicism, and impeccable songwriting into the kind of display of supremacy that, to be frank, cannot be fucked with. Rabid, ravenous, regal death/thrash of the highest order.”
The best metal albums of the year, numbers 10-1, in which earnestness is sorely overused
10. MOTHER OF GRAVES – WHERE THE SHADOWS ADORN
Indianapolis, Indiana’s Mother of Graves followed up last year’s well-received debut EP with a full-length album that is frankly astonishing. Where the Shadows Adorn is an absolutely masterful take on the pioneering doom/death of the 90s, particularly Brave Murder Day/Discouraged Ones-era Katatonia and Shades of God/Icon-era Paradise Lost. Brandon Howe’s vocals are almost a dead ringer for Mikael Åkerfeldt circa Brave Murder Day or Edge of Sanity’s Crimson, though the elegant drapery of Ben Sandman’s and Chris Morrison’s guitars are perhaps more akin to the style of contemporary luminaries like Daylight Dies or October Tide. Mother of Graves, however, is not here for simple homage or pastiche, because beneath the familiar melancholy lives a set of beautifully crafted songs that stake their own claim in this fertile ground.
9. WORMROT – HISS
When Wormrot first hit the scene internationally (when Earache picked up their incendiary debut Abuse), there was a great deal of jaw-flapping about grindcore’s past. Now, with their incendiary fourth album Hiss, there has been a great deal of jaw-flapping about grindcore’s future. And that’s fine, I guess. Sometimes I also flap my jaw about this and that. But with all the preoccupation about grindcore as a Thing and Wormrot as a part of a Bigger Thing, sometimes it’s easy to forget to just dig your face into these songs and enjoy the sensation of being blasted to bits by a phalanx of tiny rubber hammers. Hiss is, from a tonal standpoint, strikingly different from Wormrot’s prior albums, but despite the more unusual elements (chanting clean vocals, squealing violins, jangly guitars with more similarity to Kvelertak or Beaten to Death than Insect Warfare, shades of post-black metal melodics), it is primarily a great goddamned grindcore record. A song like the utterly shit-kicking “Voiceless Choir,” for example, packs more diverse musical payoff into 2.5 minutes than plenty of bands can muster in 30. Hiss is entirely uncompromising and completely exhilarating.
8. DARKTHRONE – ASTRAL FORTRESS
You know Darkthrone, right? I really like Darkthrone. One of the many things I really like about Darkthrone is that I think they really like heavy metal. I also think they do not really think a lot about what you or I think about them. I’m pretty sure they also like Celtic Frost. Do you like the cover art for Astral Fortress? I am pretty sure I like it, but I guess that’s not very important. Did you like last year’s Darkthrone album Eternal Hails……? I liked it okay, but not as much as many of their other albums. Astral Fortress, the thing is, is pretty much the same kind of album as Eternal Hails, except it’s also a whole lot better. Do you think that’s weird? We can find reasons, if you want. One reason is, the riffs are great. If you listen to the song “Stalagmite Necklace,” I really like that song. (I really like that song even if you don’t listen to it.) The riff at the end of it is very good, I think. Do you think “The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea” is one of the strangest songs Darkthrone has made? I think so, but I also don’t think so. I like it very much, especially the part where it uses a couple of different riffs a lot but not too much. Did you know that the first Darkthrone album has a song called “Eon”? I think that is what they are talking about with the song on this album called “Eon 2.” Do you think so 2? Another reason is, the riffs are really great, and the songs are very interesting, and the mellotron and synths and other little odd bits are a lot cozier with the songs than they were last time. Do you think that was actually three reasons? I think you should really like Darkthrone, too.
7. A SOUND OF THUNDER – THE KRIMSON KULT
“The generally darker tone throughout The Krimson Kult means that it pairs beautifully with recent albums from other American metal heavy hitters like Sanhedrin’s Lights On or Pharaoh’s The Powers That Be, but A Sound of Thunder is also an absolute no-brainer for fans of bands like Helion Prime, Tanagra, Unleash the Archers, or Seven Kingdoms. The Krimson Kult is both a fascinating left turn and a continuation of the band’s core strengths. More than any of that, though, it’s just a tremendous heavy metal album. Isn’t heavy metal great? A Sound of Thunder thinks so, and I hope you do, too.”
6. THE OTOLITH – FOLIUM LIMINA
In the wake of SubRosa’s seemingly premature breakup, four of that band’s five members regrouped to form the Otolith. Their debut album Folium Limina is a direct continuation of the aching, richly atmospheric doom of SubRosa, with increased touches of neofolk, darkwave, and minimal industrial elements. At its core, though, the Otolith is built around patiently cataclysmic guitar riffs and the rhapsodic interplay of Kim Cordray’s and Sarah Pendleton’s violins and voices. Album opener “Sing No Coda” climaxes in a movement that expresses both deep lament and community-building: “Sing no coda by the stream / Instead, my friends, wait, wait for me.” The album is full of both sadness and stridency, acknowledging grief and loss while refusing to be cowed by them. It feels like the Otolith has left a seat at the table for each of us, an invitation to help sing these lullabies to a world on fire.
5. BLIND GUARDIAN – THE GOD MACHINE
It seems almost painfully obvious in retrospect, but prior to the release of The God Machine, I don’t think I ever expected Blind Guardian to return to such a fiery, relentlessly aggressive version of their titanium-clad power/speed metal. Perhaps having pursued their update on Imaginations from the Other Side to its towering apotheosis in 2015’s Beyond the Red Mirror and then loosed the long-gestated, all-symphonic outlet Legacy of the Dark Lands in 2019, our disarming Deutsche felt free to cast a broader eye into their past. While songs like “Violent Shadows” or “Blood of the Elves” could almost have strolled out of 1990’s Tales from the Twilight World, the expansive “Life Beyond the Spheres” and “Secrets of the American Gods” reflect all the eras of Blind Guardian’s unimpeachable career. The God Machine is a ridiculously good album from the greatest power metal band of all time.
4. INANNA – VOID OF UNENDING DEPTHS
The Chilean band’s third album is a jaw-dropping display of death metal wizardry. Inanna draws plenty of influence from Immolation, but these spacious, progressive songs feel somehow aquatic, roiling like the choppy sea and undulating with untold depths beneath. At times, the heady, mystical atmosphere of Void of Unending Depths resonates on a frequency similar to Morbus Chron’s Sweven or Venenum’s Trance of Death, where rounded edges and psychedelic flourishes add an otherworldly sheen to the clenched-jaw riffery. But then again, on a song like “Among Subaqueous Spectres,” the band drops into a flattening mid-song breakdown with a heavy/thrash gallop. Exploratory, expressive, essential.
3. AUTONOESIS – MOON OF FOUL MAGICS
“Exile,” despite its sound, is not a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude.” “Raise the Dead,” despite its name, is not a cover of Bathory’s “Raise the Dead.” Autonoesis’s second album Moon of Foul Magics, despite what you might have heard about it, is even better than whatever you have heard. Is this a band of one person? Ten people? Several sentient robotic swans? Maybe all of the above! Autonoesis throws icy black metal, melodic death metal, mellow acoustics, the drawn-out progressive architecture of early Opeth, thrashing breaks, and well-placed shred into a blender, but what comes out the other side is composed with such grace and windswept drama that this hour-plus album absolutely flies by in a flurry of “holy SHIT” moments. Moon of Foul Magics is overflowing with melodic invention, bristling with punch and drive, and carves out a truly epic scope. An instant classic.
2. MESSA – CLOSE
“If you happen to be the type who salivates about dissecting genres (hi hello of course you are), to call Messa’s sound doom is both accurate and incomplete. They do spend plenty of time carving out riffs thick as stone slabs, but their doom is cut through with a rich, wide-ranging blend of other sounds, from progressive rock to jazz to post-rock to desert psychedelia. This means you are equally likely to hear echoes of The Devil’s Blood/Molasses or Witchcraft as you are Sólstafir or Fields of the Nephilim, and just as likely to hear a Grant Green-like solo on “Suspended” as you are a hypnotic, psychedelic desert trance (drawing from both North African and Middle Eastern musical traditions) on “Orphalese” and “Pilgrim.” That last style offers some of the album’s richest surprises, with the use of instruments such as the oud and the duduk providing textures not often heard in this type of music.”
1. SIGH – SHIKI
“Shiki is an utterly magnificent album that, for Sigh at least, seems almost deceptively simple at first. The reason for that is mainly that the songs are built up from the ground level of riffs, but despite that scaffolding, the additional instrumentation feels just as necessary for the full emotional coloring of the music. If you’re a long-time fan of the band, Shiki is equal parts righteous and cozy; if you’re a first-time visitor, this is a fantastic entry point into the world of one of the greatest progressive metal bands ever.”
I wrote a fair number of words in my review of Shiki, and I still mean them all. Perhaps these more than any others: “Maybe, like death itself, it’s not so much important that we know where we’ll end up, but about what we do before we get there.”
Shiki has been a friend and a balm this year, a provocation and an invitation, an opening without a close.
The best metal EPs of the year, in which musicians achieve the brevity which the author cannot
10. Dressed in Streams – लड़ाई का मैदान
I don’t know who Dressed In Streams is/are, nor do I know anything about the context of their focus on (South Asian) Indian history. What I do know is that the two 10+-minute songs on this demo/EP are ferociously good. The black metal on offer here is both intensely raw and thoroughly epic and melodic. When the drums whip into a clattering blast, the whole thing sounds like Ildjarn playing drums for Hate Forest’s Battlefields on top of a freight engine about to jump the rails. I hope it is clear that I mean this as a great compliment. This is incredible stuff.
9. Striborg – The Uncanny Valley
Tasmania’s spookiest son Sin Nanna had a busy 2022, but his most potent offering this year is the 26-minute Uncanny Valley EP. Overflowing with eerie keys, hellishly reverbed black metal demon vocals, industrial/darkwave synths, and electronic beats, Striborg may have moved on from the haunted forest lo-fi black metal that initially brought the project to prominence, but the malevolently off-kilter spirit is still alive and kicking.
8. Deliriant Nerve – Uncontrollable Ascension
This 9-song, 11-minute improvised explosive debut from Washington, D.C.’s Deliriant Nerve is a thickly slathered, hairpin-tight missive of death-tinged grinding that is perfectly suited for fans of Nasum, Assück, Napalm Death, factory fires, and extreme caffeine abuse. Slick, vicious, lean, and mean, Deliriant Nerve is the real business.
7. Qrixkuor – Zoetrope
“On Zoetrope, Qrixkuor have added an important new facet to their Cerberus-like mien with an increased use of subtle symphonic elements. Symphonic death metal, if we’re being honest, can be a dicey proposition at best, but rather than descend into clicky, action movie-sampling schlock, Qrixkuor weaves the symphonic elements deep into the fabric of their dense, lurching death metal. The effect is more like early Therion, Samael, or Hollenthon, with a touch of the sepulchral vapor of Necros Christos’s interludes.”
6. Prehistoria – Cursed Lands
Cursed Lands is 4 songs, 20 minutes, all power metal, zero bullshit. Color me just as surprised as you that this top-notch EP comes from the not-exactly-known-for-power-metal state of Indiana, but Prehistoria absolutely rips through these tunes with steel-tinged speed and aggression, all crunchy, pummeling drums, tightly wound guitar interplay, and a bonkers-great performance from powerhouse vocalist Alonso Zo Donoso. A fierce, fully formed first salvo.
5. Dark Forest – Ridge & Furrow
“Ridge and Furrow follows directly in line with Dark Forest’s wonderful 2020 album Oak, Ash & Thorn, presenting another five songs of triumphant, power metal-undergirded heavy metal. Dark Forest doesn’t sound anything like Skyclad, but there’s a spiritual kinship in the way that both bands weave British history, folklore, and pastoralisms into storming heavy metal. For Dark Forest, this means that each song resonates at the same rambunctious, exuberant frequency, whether it’s the golden strut of “Skylark,” the wistful swing of “The Golden Acre,” or the countryside folk melodies of “Under the Greenwood Tree.” Do you want heroically melodic heavy metal, or do you want to continue being a sad-sack idiot? The choice is clear; quit furrowing your brow and get the hell over that ridg-[author is crushed by a falling suit of armor].”
4. Sleeper Ship – The Gateway
Sleeper Ship is the solo project of Unleash the Archers’s Andrew Saunders, and on the tremendously accomplished new EP The Gateway, he channels much of the same wall-of-sound progressive metal approach as Devin Townsend. You might hear whispers of other notable power/prog artists like Threshold or Turilli/Lione Rhapsody, but the Townsend influence is unmistakable, from the operatic vocals to the incredibly fluid guitars and keyboard lines and the occasional Strapping Young Lad intensity of the riffing and programmed drums. Far more than just a promising start, The Gateway is riveting and unmissable.
3. Moonlight Sorcery – Piercing through the Frozen Eternity
Moonlight Sorcery’s debut EP is a barnstorming display of frigid, symphonically melodic black metal. The style is heavy on Nightside Eclipse-era Emperor, as well as early Limbonic Art and Nokturnal Mortum, but the burnished lead guitar tone and high-flying solos/arpeggios give the songs an occasional flare of both neoclassical shred and power metal. With a follow-up EP already released as well, this young Finnish band is one to watch.
2. Worm – Bluenothing
“Although Bluenothing’s 26 minutes make for a seamless, engrossing listening experience, they don’t necessarily construct a singular narrative arc, and in that sense, the use of the EP format is smart. It doesn’t feel like a grab-bag of leftovers, but it also doesn’t represent a uniform or fully realized change in direction. Instead, especially given the differences in personnel across these four songs, Bluenothing feels like an interregnum that caps a period of thrilling expansiveness while also clearing the way for a new chapter.”
1. Defect Designer – Neanderthal
“In truth, Neanderthal is a sort of meticulous chaos, and one gets the sense that the experience of listening to it would not be appreciably different if you played these seven tracks in a random order each time. Does this mean that Neanderthal is structureless? No; shut up. Does this mean that Neanderthal’s structure invites you to question whether you understand it? Yes; shut up. Does Defect Designer sound like if Darkthrone’s Soulside Journey somehow landed on Relapse Records in the early 2000s alongside Cephalic Carnage and Agoraphobic Nosebleed? Yes; no; shut up; fuck you.”
The best ELECTRONIC music of the year, in which there are bleeps and bloops
“Electronic” music is one hell of an umbrella, right? Still, it works better (for me) than “dance.” I am not a dancer. But the thing is, I often get a particular phrase stuck in my head: If you sing, you’re a singer. If you write, you’re a writer. If you dance, you’re a dancer. These are the 15 electronic releases this year that most often turned me into a desk chair raver, a steering wheel drum machine, a grocery store beat-boxer.
15. Lav – A New Landscape
Sweden’s Lav turns in a set of understated, ambient-leaning electronica. The backdrop to each song is either gently shifting synth chords or slow-burn ambient drone, but the top layer and focal point is a highly detailed but soft-touch style of beat programming. A New Landscape has bits and pieces of glitch/IDM, downtempo, and even microhouse, but the overall feeling is one of satisfied placidity.
14. µ-Ziq – Magic Pony Ride
Planet Mu label boss Mike Paradinas, under his µ-Ziq alias, had a prolific year. Not only did he reissue his landmark Lunatic Harness album in a deluxe 25th anniversary edition, but he put out an EP (plus a remixes companion) and two separate LPs. Magic Pony Ride is the first of those two LPs (though the more recent Hello is just about equally worthy), and it showcases Paradinas’s trademarks: earworm melodies, skittering, hyperactive drill & bass beats, huge, swinging bass lines, and a feeling of plucky melancholy. Highlights include “Galope,” “Uncle Daddy,” “Don’t Tell Me (It’s Ending),” and, well… pretty much all of it.
13. DJ Python – Club Sentimientos vol 2
Following the wonderful Dulce Compañia, I was not particularly fond of DJ Python’s second album Mas Amable. His latest EP, however, is a delightful return, particularly the ten+-minute lead track, “Angel,” which breezes through gently tropical rhythms, shuffling percussion, warm pads, and almost trance-tone synth overlays. Plus, if you had acted early, you could have ordered the 12” alongside a custom candle and perfume, which is… cool?
12. Kompakt – Total 22
I make a pretty shabby house listener on account of my general allergy to vocal-heavy electronic music. The latest installment of Kompakt’s annual techno compilation, as you might infer, is relatively heavy on vocals, but in a dizzying array of styles that offers more than a little something for everyone, from Matias Aguayo’s menacing “The Tiger” to Perel’s disco-inflected “Matrix,” and from Barnt’s heavy trance “This is for Decor Only” to the shimmering Michael Mayer remix of eee gee’s “All or Nothing.” Now more than perhaps ever, Kompakt can easily refute the early critics who saw their pioneering microhouse as faceless and monochromatic.
11. Schönfeld & Kadent – Rain is Falling and Flowers are Blossoming & Mountain Dub
Is this cheating? Sure. But technically the label is presenting both albums in a single Bandcamp (and double-sided cassette) release. Schönfeld’s Rain is Falling side is alternately aquatic, shuffling, synth-cascading, beat-heavy, twinkling, hallucinogenic. A fascinating, constantly shifting sound with no defined center other than good, peripatetic vibes. Kadent’s Mountain Dub side is nearly the reverse, with a set template of deep bass, house/dub snare and kick work, and submerged chords. The late-album pair of “The Orbbreak” and “Doctor Ballerton” offers a couple curveballs of garage/drum and bass and almost slow-motion trap/synth, but the album maintains an unwavering forward momentum. Both sides are deep, adventurous, and rewarding.
10. Skee Mask – A
Hot on the heels of 2021’s massive triple album Pool, A is a set of unreleased tracks made between 2015-2019. The range on these ten songs is similarly sprawling, touching on everything from ambient to breakbeat to acid to techno to glitch. Skee Mask is one of those rare producers who can put a unique fingerprint on a broad array of styles, while also making the history of each style sing.
9. J Majik – Burning Light
This new 4-song 12” from the drum and bass legend J Majik, Burning Light is 20+ minutes of exactly what I want from the style: airy synth chords, quick-cut slamming drums, and wild, strutting bass lines. “Under the Ice” is a particular highlight, but each track swerves, dips, and speeds with that cutting, come-correct energy.
8. cv313 – Stained Glass
cv313’s Stephen Hitchell is one half of Detroit’s Echospace label, and the Stained Glass 12” comes to us from another great Detroit label, Modern Cathedrals (primarily the home of the excellent Altstadt Echo project). Stained Glass is classic Echospace, with a self-mythologizing fetish for analog equipment and hazy atmosphere. “Stained Glass” is given three reworks by Hitchell himself, plus a bonus digital remix from Uun, all of which sift through murky undertow, crackling static, subterranean ambient/dub kicks, and a general mood of weightlessness.
7. Xinobi – Balsame
Balsame is the most global-sounding album on this list. Portugal’s Xinobi makes house music cross-pollinated with Afro-Cuban and Latin rhythms, French pop, downtempo, lounge, and straight-ahead techno. A fascinating, rewarding, and joyously danceable travelogue.
6. Lynyn – Lexicon
Recording as Lynyn, Conor Mackey has made a glitch-heavy cyber symphony on Lexicon. Although neither as abstract as Autechre nor as anarchic as Aphex Twin, Lynyn is clearly informed by classic IDM. The programming is consistently hyperactive, but the intent is not necessarily to assault the listener. (Well, okay, maybe a little…) With a touch of the indie-leaning ambient vibe of Four Tet or Telefon Tel Aviv and a fair helping of Squarepusher, Lexicon is a dazzlingly accomplished album that would have been completely at home during the classic run of Hymen or Ad Noiseam Records.
5. ASC – Eye of the Storm
Eye of the Storm finds veteran producer ASC in relatively classic drum and bass mode, although these tracks tilt to the airier, atmospheric side of the style. Although not as diaphanous as Illuvia’s zero-gravity drum and bass, Eye of the Storm yields a similar result, which is a meditative plateau rather than a vision of sweaty jungle clubs. The digital version of the 12” is also backed with three ambient interpretations from friends and Past Inside the Present labelmates (with Christina Giannone’s choral chant “Unsaid Mix” a particular highlight), so there’s really no excuse not to indulge.
4. Pantha du Prince – Garden Gaia
It’s too tidy to suggest that Garden Gaia merges the two facets of Hendrik Weber’s music as represented by the previous Pantha du Prince album Conference of Trees and 2021’s 429 Hz Formen von Stille (released under Weber’s own name). And yet… Garden Gaia continues the organic tones and natural world-focus of Conference of Trees with even more of the pure sonic meditations of 429 Hz. These songs are not at all built for dancing, but for watching the natural world unfold, as birdsong, bells, and drums that sound more like wood-chimes than techno beats harmonize with the vibrations of the universe. It is unerringly lovely.
3. Ricardo Villalobos & Samuel Rohrer – Microgestures
There is no title better suited for this album than Microgestures. Villalobos’s and Rohrer’s four long pieces here are almost completely absent of melodic content. There are occasional backing tones or tuned drums, and “Lobule” has a vaguely acid-like bass line, but these skittering, involuting, inside-outting songs are almost maniacal investigations into the possibilities of pure rhythm. The funny thing is, although that description makes it sound like a chore, Microgestures is playful, light, and engrossing.
2. Gimmik – Sonic Poetry
Sonic Poetry is either synthed-out ambient with techno aspirations, or downtempo electronic with an ambient heart. The programming here flirts with the gentler end of IDM, but there are elements of downtempo/trip-hop, modular synth, acid (“Liquid Reality”) and even big beat-esque squared-off drum and bass. Occasionally things get a little saccharine (e.g., “Fluffy Jones”), but overall these elaborate, diverse, richly satisfying songs explore a number of avenues and take the time to really stretch their legs.
1. Misha Sultan – Roots
This terrifically unhurried album feels both modern and throwback, forward-looking and timeless. Roots is a warm, inviting album where all manner of styles are welcomed, examined, folded in. Sometimes the music is billowy New Age, and at other times it explores Eastern-scale guitar psychedelia. Field recordings merge with world music-inspired percussion, and you are just as likely to encounter Tangerine Dream-like synth pulses as the motorik drive of krautrock. Some of the closest comparisons might be the spaced-out ambient/dub of the Orb or the early progressive chill-out electronica of Banco de Gaia, but Misha Sultan’s omnivorous music feels even less reducible to one particular thing. If you close your eyes and open your mind, Roots will take you places – maybe to distant plains where the sun shines on an untouched landscape, or maybe forward, inward, back home.
The best AMBIENT music of the year, in which there are whooshes and hums
Sometimes it’s tempting to evaluate ambient music on a spectrum of active to passive, but those values aren’t inherent to the music itself. We can choose to engage actively or passively with music of all kinds, and ambient is no different. Personally, I find that this kind of music is the one that I feel most physically engaged with. Sure, the best heavy metal can feel like it’s grabbing hold of your body and shaping you to its own purposes, but with ambient music I often feel as if physically enmeshed in the sound. Like wading through a sea of sand, hiking a forest of fog. These were my 15 favorite full-body immersion albums this year.
15. Innesti – Folding, a Study
Ambient music is easy to caricature: a couple synth pads here, some gauzy texture there, maybe a low-slung drone. Urbana, Illinois’s Innesti uses all those elements, but what separates Folding, a Study from so many other ambient albums is the depth of its detail and compositional sophistication. Rather than simply float a tone and let it hang there, Innesti’s songs have narrative movement, deploying sparse field recordings, patient chimes, and distant washes of static. The result is a deep, immersive experience that is anything but a caricature.
14. øjeRum – Reversed Cathedral
The sounds on Reversed Cathedral are sourced entirely from a harmonium, which yields a ghostly palette, as if of a pipe organ half-frozen and left to thaw in a sodden field. These drone pieces sigh, wobble, and resonate on a plane of haunted calm.
13. Anthéne – Listening Air
Brad Deschamps is one of the busiest people in ambient. In addition to running the Polar Seas label, he released two albums this year as Rosales (a duo with Home Normal label boss Ian Hawgood) as well as two other collaborative albums (one with Simon McCorry and another with Stijn Hüwels) and (at least) three albums under his solo Anthéne moniker. All three are understated jewels, but Listening Air stands out for its tactile elements, as low wooden tones like a marimba softly thump and far-off sounds hiss and scratch like a thin underbrush. These are slow sounds for wide-open spaces.
12. Raum – Daughter
Raum is the duo of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Grouper’s Liz Harris, and on Daughter, they have made an album of almost painful quiet. It’s an album that seems to process both the dull ache and sharp pain of deep longing. Plaintive guitar, high washes of synth, and tape loops meet with bird song, jarring silences, and processed noise to pull the listener is close enough to hear a whisper. The album culminates in the haunting, devastatingly lovely “Passage,” which loops its piano and ambience across 20 minutes of angelic chill that feels inspired by William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops.”
11. Zakè & 36 – Stasis Sounds for Long-Distance Space Travel II
This is a follow-up album to the first volume released in early 2020. By virtue of its timing, that album became my most sought-out respite from the anxiety of the early pandemic. Volume two is a direct continuation of the sound and vibe of the first album and is thus just as adept at evoking a feeling of weightlessness and suspended time. This album is like a flotation tank for your brain.
10. Tyresta & Ruan – Deep Time
The latest collaboration between Chicago’s Tyresta and Seattle’s Hang Ruan feels playful, in the modular synth fluttering of “Path of Creation” or the saxophone-like tones on “Before Language.” The chittering percussion of “Compassion” yields to the beatific calm of “Infinite Flow,” where deep pads foreground a synth that sounds a little bit like a metallic clarinet offering a homing beacon like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Deep Time works perfectly for both active and passive listening, and is just as likely to lift your mood as it is to help you slow down.
9. Pjusk – Salt og Vind
Norway’s Pjusk makes detailed, heavily processed, pointillistic music that nevertheless flows organically. Salt og Vind’s music is just as evocative as the album title (which translates to “Salt and Wind”), leading the listener on a chilly journey of slow pulses, pattering percussion, wind-carved erosion, and glacial chords. The sparse drumkit work on “Uro” provides a haunted jazz atmosphere, while the hints of dub on “Febertanker” recall Pole or early Loscil. This is perfect music for watching ships skate the fjords under a concrete sky.
8. Sanr – Ramak
Ambient music is often typified by airy synths and pure bell tones, like bathing in pillowy clouds. Sanr’s Ramak, built and manipulated from a short, unstudied recording session with a contrabass, is all reedy drone and rattles and thumps, like tripping through a tangled, tree-fenced thicket by slivered moonlight.
7. Toàn – Phonolite
Without lyrics or other narrative elements, it is sometimes helpful for an ambient album to have a conceptual frame. The French artist Toàn’s latest album centers around stones and minerals, which provides a skeletal canvas to paint these delicate, refractive pieces on. The album focuses on microsounds and vanishing textures, at times sounding like a harp, occasionally bringing in a vocal fragment (“Calcedoine”), often living in the space between rhythms.
6. Heather Woods Broderick – Domes
Warm, sculpted drones built from layers of cello suspend the listener in a meditative trance. Imagine hearing Stars of the Lid while living inside a maple and spruce cello body, watching sunlight splinter off a glaciated landscape.
5. Field Works – Stations
The latest project from producer and instrumentalist Stuart Hyatt’s Field Works uses audio recordings of seismic activity (gathered in partnership with scientists from the NSF-funded EarthScope project), which are interleaved with an ensemble of musicians on upright bass, guitar, modular synth, drums, vibraphone, electronics, and voice. As with all Field Works projects, the concept and source material are fertile terrain for the imagination, but the music builds beautifully on the low hiss and swoon by layering a steady pulse and criss-crossing melodic elements atop it, tracing the thought of geologic time and continental drift. Even divorced of the scientific reference, Stations is propulsive and lovely, with Hanna Benn’s multitracked vocals providing some kinship to albums such as Björk’s Fossora or Tim Hecker’s Love Streams.
4. Zakè & City of Dawn – Tape Hymns
The finest of Past Inside the Present label boss zakè’s collaborative releases this year (and there have been quite a few) is Tape Hymns, with City of Dawn. The album title summarizes it as plainly as one could hope: these are warm, resonant, open-toned drones arcing above a bedrock of fine-grain, analog tape hiss. Each song creates a different state of suspension, with gentle pops and clicks trailing like lazy streamers. Small touches swell up here and there – the birdsong on “Hymn 1,” the forest-floor thud reminiscent of Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas on “Hymn 3” – but the album is an unbroken peace ritual, generous, clear-eyed, full of love.
3. Tomasz Bednarczyk – Windy Weather Always Makes Me Think of You
Taylor Deupree’s label 12k has been home to a vanguard of experimental music for more than 20 years, from ambient to glitch to minimalism and contemporary classical. Tomasz Bednarczyk’s Windy Weather Always Makes Me Think of You is 12k’s finest release in a year stacked to the rafters with high-quality albums. Windy Weather is a dense, saturated album, with each song’s title giving a nod to the primary field recording or sample that informs its creation. “Underwater Kalimba” and “A Man with a Bagpipe” are true to their names, while titles like “Unknown Memories” and “Playing Stairs” are evocative but more abstract. Bednarczyk’s distillation and processing of specific sounds makes this album something like an experimental ambient counterpart to Yosi Horikawa’s beat-making. Windy Weather is diverse, tactile, and inquisitive.
2. Gylden – Island Friend
Alongside synth, Island Friend’s primary instrumentation is the contra-alto clarinet (a large, deep-toned reed instrument tuned a fifth below the more common bass clarinet). The soundscapes recede even as the ear follows them, like the evaporation of morning dew, while the clarinet’s tactility adds the rustling of the breath and the gentle clacking of the keys. Gylden dedicated this sparse, intimate album to his deceased father, and the music’s low murmur is an unhurried lament, a call spoken into the wind.
1. Patricia Wolf – I’ll Look for You in Others
Patricia Wolf’s debut full-length album is grounded in grief and loss, but it reaches out rather than turning in. I’ll Look for You in Others is achingly beautiful, and although each song is a focused palette, the full span displays a wide diversity of approach. “The Culmination Of” features Wolf’s wordless vocals in a slow-moving fog mottled by insect song, while the synthesizers on “Funeral” mimic a pipe organ unspooling a lonely elegy. Her tones travel to cosmic atmospheres (“Recombination”) and dark, unsettled noise (“Severed”), and from chiming highs to rich, low-sawing drones. At times (as on the title track), Wolf’s approach feels like a meeting point between Julianna Barwick and early Silver Mt. Zion. And yet despite the different moods and stylistic shifts, I’ll Look for You in Others is a holistic journey, soft and thorough, searching and immense. Come lose yourself in this album, and you might also find yourself looking back.
The best JAZZ music of the year, in which there are skronks and licks
Jazz can be intimidating, right? Sometimes you just want them to play the right notes. Plus, there always seem to be legions of cravat-wearing boneheads yakking about how it’s the true American art form* or whatever. But the thing about jazz is that, because it can be almost anything, it is never just one thing. It can be music for laughing or crying, protesting or celebrating, dancing or contemplating. And although jazz is often cast as self-serious “conversation with the canon,” mostly it’s just conversation. People sitting in, raising a hand, leaning in, settling back, reaching out. Here are 15 of the conversations I most often wanted to sit in on this year.
*Please keep this in mind when reading the blurb for number 1 below.
15. Steven Lugerner, Garret Lang, and Albert Tootie Heath – It Takes One to Know One
This is straight-up back porch music. Sunshine, sweaty drinks, toe-tapping, shit-talking. Heath’s drums stretch back on the beat, Lang’s bass walks and sings, and Lugerner’s bass clarinet purrs and swings. Hey, “Jazz Is Serious Art” nerds, it’s okay to smile, and it’s okay for jazz to be simple without being simplistic.
14. Fred Hersch – Breath by Breath
Hersch’s nimble, reserved melodicism is just the right tone for this lilting album. His piano trio is joined by the Crosby Street String Quartet for a cycle of reflective, rubbery songs influenced by – and perhaps designed for – the practice of mindfulness meditation. Whether you hear this as closer to contemporary classical than jazz is beside the point; Breath by Breath greets everyone with a warm-hearted spirit.
13. Anat Cohen – Quartetinho
The brilliant clarinetist Anat Cohen’s quartet clocks a playful, loose, almost free-rhythm set of lilting tunes on Quartetinho. A big part of that looseness is the absence of traditional or heavy-handed drums on most of these songs; James Shipp does play percussion, but just as often the rhythmic movement comes from Tal Mashiach’s bass, Shipp’s vibraphone, or Vitor Gonçalves’s impressionistic piano chord sketching. (Gonçalves also plays accordion here and there, as on Malshiach’s enchanting original “The Old Guitar.”) These songs are about a half and half mix of originals and loving versions of classic Brazilian composers (Gismonti, Jobim), but perhaps the most strikingly unusual choice here is “Going Home,” which is an arrangement of the first movement (the Adagio) of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. With the accordion, vibraphone, bass, and Cohen’s bass clarinet, it turns into a slow-motion, New Orleans jazz funeral. This album bursts with invention and camaraderie.
12. Charles Lloyd – Trios (Chapel)
The saxophonist Charles Lloyd is now well into his 80s, but this year he released not one but three albums on Blue Note, each featuring a different trio configuration. Each is worthy of your attention, but Trios (Chapel), featuring Bill Frisell on guitar and Thomas Morgan on bass, is a favorite. This is a pensive album, melodic and searching, with Lloyd’s saxophone (and occasional flute, as on “Beyond Darkness”) carving out deep canyons of fully explored themes that echo with a wisdom that understands that continuing to ask questions is the only real wisdom.
11. Matthew Muñeses – Noli Me Tángere
Chicago-based saxophonist Matthew Muñeses’s Noli Me Tángere is a beautiful quintet album that draws from the music and poetry of late 19th century Filipino revolutionaries. On the four-part title track suite, Muñeses is also joined by Miguel Zenón on second alto sax; the two of them bob and weave on the particularly fiery “II. Cruelty and Injustice,” but it’s just one example of the inspired yet meticulously melodic approach of this lovely album.
10. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – EP or Demo
The main thing about the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, friends, is that they are just hot shit. Lamarr’s jazz organ, Jimmy James’s guitar, and Dan Weiss’s drums kick out funky soul jams all over this album. Although the name doesn’t hurt, the waaaaaaay laid-back-on-the-beat blues of “Big TT’s Blues” is surely providing the soundtrack to questionable decision-making in some ‘70s roadhouse strip joint as we speak. The Lamarr trio could play with Khruangbin; they could play in a time machine with Booker T or Jimmy Smith; they could play with Detroit’s red-hot garage-heads the Dirtbombs; but what the hell, man, if you just get your ears on this booty-shaking record, they can play with you right now.
9. Jasmine Myra – Horizons
Jasmine Myra’s tranquil debut album Horizons arrives via Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records, which should already do much of the cognitive lifting in setting expectations. The saxophonist leads a deeply reflective set of spiritual jazz, with key contributions from Alice Roberts on harp and Anna Chandler on soprano sax. Myra’s nine-piece ensemble is also backed by a string quartet, which adds to the blissful calm.
8. Tuba Skinny – Magnolia Stroll
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “11001001,” a computer-generated bombshell tells Cmdr. William T. Riker that she “love[s] all jazz except Dixieland,” because “you can’t dance to it.” All due respect to the lovely Carolyn McCormick, but that’s some horseshit. The New Orleans collective Tuba Skinny returned this year with another tremendous paean to ragtime, stride, Dixieland, and other early folk-jazz forms. It’s got horns, clarinet, guitar, sousaphone, washboard, and basically the whole gosh-darn kitchen sink of feel-good sounds. And maaaaaan, I dare you NOT to dance to this.
7. JD Allen – Americana vol. 2
Saxophonist JD Allen taps into the elemental sound of America on his second Americana album. Returning with longtime partners Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, Allen’s trio is joined this time around by guitarist Charlie Hunter, whose contributions are essential to fleshing out the low blues moan of these thick, patient songs. Allen’s mournful, insistent melody on “This World is a Mean World” is a perfect example, tracing out straight, blocky notes that hang ever so slightly back on the beat. Watching Hunter and August trade licks on the melody of “Hammer and Hoe” is seeing two dancers who know each other’s moves so well they can’t help but try to shake the other off, while Hunter and Allen trade beautiful, long solos on the tender torch song “You Don’t Know Me.” Royston pops his slow-motion marching drums perfectly off the beat in “Irene (Mother),” and his rustling brushwork hushes the quieter songs along. What a rich, expressive album.
6. Immanuel Wilkins – The 7th Hand
Immanuel Wilkins’s second album on Blue Note (after 2020’s excellent Omega) is an often through-composed, suite-like set that alternates between complex simmering and roiling, feisty melodicism. The alto saxophonist leads a quartet of Micah Thomas (piano), Daryl Johns (bass), and Kweku Sumbry (drums), but they are joined at critical moments by a West African drum ensemble and by Elena Pinderhughes on flute. The album is frontloaded with lighter, somewhat more placid pieces, but by the time you get to “Lighthouse,” Sumbry’s drums are absolutely on fire, surging and tumbling forward impatiently. The capstone is the 26-minute “Lift,” where things get really wild and free. The last few minutes crest into a backdrop of Thomas’s hammering, chunky chords while Wilkins squeals and wails at high register like he’s chasing the (late, spiritual) ‘Trane. A bold, ambitious, wildly successful album from the shockingly young Wilkins.
5. Brad Mehldau – Jacob’s Ladder
So, yeah, the banner headline is true: Jacob’s Ladder is Mehldau doing ‘70s prog. I mean, sort of. Jacob’s Ladder is one of those “Did that really happen?” sort of records, where the virtuosity and ambition on display are so wild as to overween the senses. Mehldau leads a meandering path through songs that feature spoken word, fusion heaviness, and lofty meditations on faith and God and life, the universe, and everything, and that also interweave song fragments by Rush, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Gentle Giant. Oftentimes I can’t tell if it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard or the most insane thing I’ve ever heard, but you have got to listen to it either way.
4. Binker Golding – Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy
Binker Golding is British, but this album sings like the same America we think we’re collectively imagining when we hear Robert Johnson or Springsteen’s Nebraska or Hank Williams. Sure, it happens to be jazz, with the tenor saxophonist leading a genre-flexible quintet, but these songs are chasing after country, blues, and wide-open spaces. (In this sidelong way of approaching jazz, the outfit has more than a few similarities with Charles Lloyd and the Marvels.) This might come across as pastiche if it weren’t for the fire and commitment in each alternately racing or dug-in stomping melody. Do they have buffalo-dotted plains in London?
3. Nduduzo Makhatini – In the Spirit of Ntu
In the Spirit of Ntu is the South African pianist’s tenth album and second on Blue Note. Makhatini’s music is deeply spiritual, though not in the way many of us think of “spiritual jazz” (in the lineage of Alice Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders). The repetitive, layered percussion across most of these songs (provided by at least three people on drums, vibraphone, and percussion) results in a trance-like suspension against which the players sometimes solo but just as often settle together in small phrases and interactions. Vocals also play a key part here, sometimes murmured invocations from Makhatini himself, but from guest vocalist Omagugu on the transporting stillness of “Mama.” Makhatini’s piano is often strident and percussive itself, not quite as out there as Andrew Hill or Cecil Taylor, but he goads the ensemble along with fleet runs and repeated fragments like chanted prayers (as on “Unonkanyamba” and “Omnyama” in particular). The album closer “Ntu” is mostly a solo piano piece, circling the low octaves with a spritely blues flirtation that feels a little like Oscar Peterson murmuring a long prayer. Essential.
2. Gerald Clayton – Bells on Sand
Bells on Sand is smooth and calm throughout, even as its moods shift like desert sands. Pianist Gerald Clayton has a style that feels both modern and classic, and the small ensemble that plays in different configurations on these ten songs never strays beyond a tight focus on the melody and feeling of each piece. Clayton’s father John plays bass, using a bow on several songs to take the melodic lead, and guest vocalist Maro’s voice is hushed, slightly husky, and deeply felt. Charles Lloyd provides his classically searching, clarion saxophone on “Peace Invocation,” but some of the album’s most potent magic comes from Clayton’s two solo takes on “My Ideal,” which resonate with a Bill Evans energy.
1. Makaya McCraven – In These Times
With his typical practice of post-production and cut-up edits, Makaya McCraven is just as much a beatmaker and producer as he is a drummer and bandleader. In These Times, however, is McCraven’s most seamless, gorgeously rendered album to date. With a full cast of collaborators from across the Chicago-based International Anthem family, McCraven engineered sessions that touch on light-touch funk, spiritual jazz, simmering ambient passages, mathy drum breaks, and soulful soloing.
Brandee Younger’s harp adds a celestial sheen (especially on the hushed majesty of “Lullaby,” which features a string quartet playing pizzicato and Marquis Hill’s foggy, muted trumpet), vibraphonist Joel Ross plays an undeniably catchy lead on the thumping “So Ubuji,” and Jeff Parker (also of Chicago post-rock mainstays Tortoise) adds restrained guitar twang throughout (plus a scene-stealing solo on “The Knew Untitled”). McCraven’s drums are an incredible force, pushing and pulling these songs with inventive, cross-meter rhythms and an assured yet light-touch busy-ness. Check out how his drums layer with the additional percussion from bassist Junius Paul on “High Fives,” or the lightspeed breakbeat style that forms a fast-moving slipstream on “Seventh String.”
If jazz is the quintessential American musical Constitution, Makaya McCraven is about the farthest thing imaginable from an originalist. Jazz is by definition a living document, co-created again and again each time people enter into conversation, argument, cross-talk, suspension, resolution, evolution. Isn’t it time to join this conversation and get lifted?
The best EVERYTHING ELSE music of the year, in which are contained multiple multitudes
If you thought “electronic” was an unworkable big-tent, you’re going to love this one. Especially because I would hazard a guess that the music most people listen to most of the time does not fall into any of the prescribed genres of the lists you’ve traveled through so far. It does a real violence to styles as disparate as folk, hardcore, goth, prog, indie, rock, and whatever else to shove them in this catch-all, but one of my personal joys in writing these year-end lists is the feeling of just diving headlong into all the music. It’s a gesture of abandon and surrender to the overwhelming power of music. Here are 15 albums that walked with me as teachers and companions this year.
15. Gospel – The Loser
A frenetic, knotty exploration of the outer reaches of hardcore, post-screamo, raw garage-prog, and whatever else, New York’s Gospel returned from a long hiatus with one hell of a statement, bringing nervy instrumental freakouts into a declarative hardcore setting. The Loser is a wild showcase for guitar skronk and synthy invention, plus it features one of the best drum performances of the year in any genre. Imagine a festival held in the aqueduct from the semi-truck chase scene in Terminator 2 featuring Fugazi, Circle Takes the Square, the Murder City Devils, Fucked Up, and ‘80s Rush. Pretty great, right?
14. Mythic Sunship – Light/Flux
Light/Flux is the inverse of Mythic Sunship’s 2021 album Wildfire, the lunar Sea of Tranquility to Wildfire’s unstable solar flares. The Danish psychedelic rock band has hardly dropped their cosmic aspirations, but Light/Flux presents a generally more reserved, contemplative face of their sound when compared with the frenetic, tautly punishing Wildfire. “Decomposition” is an exception, with its skeletal riff and primal saxophone howl, but on the whole Light/Flux is like a wind coming in off the desert at night: it still carries a suggestion of menace and mystery, but the chaotic energy has been tamed, shaped, momentarily mastered.
13. Belle & Sebastian – A Bit of Previous
Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands I can’t really be unhappy when I’m listening to. The Scottish indie champions have been crafting perfect pop songs for more than 25 years, and A Bit of Previous is another triumphant collection of winsome melodies, surprising danceability, and magnificently complex yet addictive choruses.
12. Menace Ruine – Nekyia
It has been eight long years since the last new album from Québec’s Menace Ruine. Nekyia returns seamlessly to their uncanny, inimitable style that blends darkwave, goth, neofolk, industrial, martial ambient, and drone into siren songs for a silently disintegrating world. The grinding, teeth-rattling churn of the opener and the tabla-esque drums that accompany a hauntingly magical melody on “Pigeon Rain” set an early tone, but Geneviève’s voice is always the star of the show. Her tone is like no other singer, and her plaintive, piercing vocals are the perfect counterpart to the sometimes harrowing noise. Despite the rough edges, Nekyia is never harsh for harshness’s sake, and although Menace Ruine might call to mind artists like Dead Can Dance, Anohni, Laibach, or SPK, at times they also sound like Nico singing for the Austrian black metal atmospherists in Summoning. And to cap it all, the closing song drifts in the same heartbreaking zone as Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3.
11. Darkswoon – Bloom Decay
Bloom Decay is darkly seductive, thoroughly addicting, and immaculately produced. Darkswoon takes influences from goth, post-punk, synth-pop, and industrial, and comes out the other side with a beautifully unified album that transcends its individual reference points. Nonetheless, Bloom Decay is a no-brainer home run for fans of early Ministry, Joy Division/early New Order, Nine Inch Nails, Zola Jesus, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Chvrches. Some songs retreat into languid melancholy while others lunge forward with the bristling punk drive of early goth; each one aims for the same pool of mirrored darkness. All lovers of velvet misery, gather in.
10. Lathe – Tongue of Silver
“With their pursuit of the kind of earthy, country heaviness that so readily evokes the heat mirages and broad skies of the American west, Lathe is hardly working on completely untrodden ground here. You may hear echoes of Earth’s Hex, as well as shades of the work of artists as disparate as Red Sparowes, Across Tundras, Journey to Ixtlan, Locrian, or Horseback, but Lathe earns that illustrious company with an individualistic drive and robust compositional chops.”
9. Spiritualized – Everything Was Beautiful
Spiritualized’s space rock symphonies are a study in extremes. Each song is painstakingly simple at its core, with straightforward rock/pop progressions and plainspoken lyrics, and yet each one is also slathered in so many layers of cosmic, spiritual, psychedelic exultation that they each become miniature galaxies, explosions of joy and longing and the life-affirming power of beautiful sounds played at ear-splitting volume. Rock and roll can’t change your life, except for all the times when rock and roll can definitely change your life. Plug in and check it out.
8. Mason Jennings – Real Heart
Folk singer-songwriter Mason Jennings’s songs take up exactly zero wasted space. There’s no fat, no pretension, no dressing up these simple words and direct melodies with extravagant ornamentation or melodrama. The production by Regan Hagar and Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard (also Jennings’s bandmate in Painted Shield) is upfront and unfussy, allowing Jennings to sing to you as if sitting in the room. The songs lilt and sway (“The Wonder,” “Tomorrow”) or drive and shuffle (“On the Brink,” “How Many Days,” “The Demon”), and even when Jennings’s lyrics are abstract or elliptical, he sounds like nothing but the truth.
7. Muse – Will of the People
Muse is not built on subtlety. Will of the People is a vibrant, bursting, maximalist album of brash, progressive, dramatic, arena-sized rock. These songs bristle with the ghosts of Queen and ELO (especially on “Liberation”), sharp-edged synth, explosive guitar shards, vocal histrionics, plus the “Thriller”-by-way-of-Danny-Elfman instant holiday classic “You Make Me Feel Like Halloween.” “Kill or Be Killed” has a crunching modern metal breakdown and some System of a Down-ish vocals, and then the album closes on the not-to-put-too-fine-a-point-on-it “We Are Fucking Fucked.” If the world is going down, Muse is throwing one hell of a party.
6. Colour Haze – Sacred
Much like 2019’s We Are, Colour Haze’s latest album is a relatively tidy affair – seven songs in just 42 minutes. Sacred is primarily mellow, finding the German veterans utterly self-assured in their ability to ride a breezy instrumental jam just exactly as far as it needs to go. “Turquoise” layers some Rhodes under the teeth-buzzing fuzz riffs, while “Goldmine” blows the doors off with one of the most perfect desert rock riffs you’ll hear this year (or any other). “See the Fools,” meanwhile, is a great cruising song, with Mellotron and the album’s best vocal turn. Colour Haze are revered members of the psychedelic/progressive rock scene with good reason, and Sacred is another convincing display of their supremacy.
5. King’s X – Three Sides of One
It has been a LONG time since we’ve seen new King’s X music, but Three Sides of One finds the beloved yet perennially underrated trio slipping back into their most comfortable groove as if no time at all has gone by. In fact, this is such an economical and focused album that early listens almost made it seem slight. These tunes have surprising depth, though, and the album has only gotten better with each return trip. The fuzzed-out stomp of “Flood, Pt. 1,” the bluesy swoon and glorious guitar solo of “Nothing but the Truth,” the downcast earworm of “All God’s Children,” the sassy strut of “Swipe Up,” the classic Beatles closing harmonies and positivity of the album closer (“The whole world is crying for love / every, everywhere”); pure prog/blues/pop power trio goodness; pure King’s X.
4. Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin – Ali
Texas’s Khruangbin are possessed of a nearly effortless cool, and their laidback psychedelic funk is a sexy, simmering, addictive rush. On this album they partner with the Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré for a set of reinterpretations of songs from Touré’s late father, the great Ali Farka Touré. The desert-jam blues of Touré’s guitars blends perfectly with the American trio, and the album serves as both loving tribute and demonstration of the universal power of musical communication.
3. Marillion – An Hour Before It’s Dark
2022 is the year I really dipped my toes into Marillion’s universe, and on the strength of An Hour Before It’s Dark, I chose a great time to do so. Now decades removed from their earliest, most Genesis-like prog, Marilion now makes equally intricate but more emotionally grounded and resonant music. With more similarities to recent Anathema and some of the more Floydian elements of modern Scandinavian prog (e.g., Soup, Airbag, Giant Sky), An Hour Before It’s Dark is engaging, moving, inviting, beguiling, and simply marvelous.
2. Hot Water Music – Feel the Void
Gainesville, Florida’s Hot Water Music have been keeping the punk rock faith for close to three decades, and Feel the Void might just be their best album since 2001’s A Flight and a Crash. Cutting their bruising, melodic punk with elements of emo, post-hardcore, and twitchy post-punk, Hot Water Music might hit similar to early Alkaline Trio or mid-period Thrice, but they have stayed far truer to their roots than either of those fellow travelers. Chuck Ragan’s and Chris Wollard’s vocals sound, miraculously, like they haven’t aged at all (perhaps because they always sounded like three packs of smokes at an after-hours combination bowling alley/dive bar sweatbox gig), and on these twelve combative, celebratory, impassioned songs, defiance and regret mingle in equal measure. Front to back, this is a fist-pumping, shit-kicking, goddamned triumph of an album, with particular highlights “Habitual,” “Hearts Stay Full,” the bouncy “Turn the Dial,” the goosebump-inducing “The Weeds,” and the glorious gang vocal choirs of closer “Lock Up.” This is not the hardest hard or the fastest fast or the toughest tough or the punkest punk you’ll hear in 2022, but this is the realest fucking real. Feel it.
1. The Smile – A Light for Attracting Attention
I am as guilty of this as anyone, so I have to admit the frustration of not knowing how much to listen to the Smile’s debut album as a Radiohead album. Apart from the basic fact of Thom Yorke’s and Jonny Greenwood’s uniquely recognizable talents, there are so many moments across these thirteen songs that recall other branches in the Radiohead family tree: “Speech Bubbles” could have waltzed its way off of A Moon Shaped Pool; “A Hairdryer,” with its skittering drums and beats backed by saturated strings, is very Hail to the Thief; the achingly direct “Free in the Knowledge” is clearly in the tradition of “True Love Waits” or “Fake Plastic Trees”; several of the nervier, more minimalist songs point to Thom Yorke’s solo work or the Atoms for Peace project.
All of this is true, but none of it is the point. Rather than simply outlining the kinship of this or that moment to Radiohead (or, on the opposite side, jumping through absurd hoops to point out the ways in which, hey, no, this totally isn’t like Radiohead at all), the best approach is simply to dive fully into the beautiful, anxious, confident, questioning, elliptical world of A Light for Attracting Attention. Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner is a perfect match for the group, adding an easy subtlety to quieter moments but also bringing a bigger use of a twitchy, sideways-jazz funk into the picture (e.g., the almost slow-motion breakbeat drums on “Thin Thing”).
A Light is simply overflowing with riches, from the slinky smooth bass line on “The Smoke” to the creeping shuffle of “The Opposite,” and from the agit-punk of “You Will Never Work in Television Again” to the hard-driving climax of “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.” Every one of these songs inhabits a particular space, taking its time to paint the corners, dust the sills, let the afternoon light in. Whether it’s a one-off, a dead end, a step ladder to greater heights, or the future of Radiohead, well… we don’t know what tomorrow brings. This album – this day, this life – is all we have.
In Memoriam – Mimi Parker (in which that’s how she sang Amazing Grace)
When an artist whose work you admire dies, there is an odd kind of grief. It’s a grief marked both by embarrassment at its surprising intensity, and by shame and self-reproach about trying to lay some emotional claim to the life of a perfect stranger whose own family and friends are truly grieving.
I have been grieving the loss of Mimi Parker, the drummer and vocalist of the Minnesota band Low who died of ovarian cancer in early November at the age of 55. Low is a band that has meant a lot to me for a very long time, but I am wary of lapsing into a type of performative grief that can seem attention-seeking or insincere. Because really, if the band means that much to me, shouldn’t I just hold my sadness to myself and let the rest of the world get on with its business?
I think the impulse to share with you how sad I am that the world has lost Mimi Parker, though, is the same impulse that makes me want to share with you all the great albums I’ve written about here. I think it is good for us to know that it is possible for music to touch us so deeply that we would mourn someone we did not know, and to share those personal connections with each other.
Low released a short but perfect Christmas album in 1999, and it is by far the most frequently played album in our household every year around the holidays. The first few times I tried to put it on this year, though, it felt painful, indecent, almost voyeuristic. And yet, I think often of the message from the band written in the liner notes:
“Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you. Best wishes.”
Low’s music has been a gift and a constant in my life. “Over the Ocean” is the first song of theirs I remember hearing, but it was “Sunflower” that really sank its teeth in. Or maybe “Like a Forest.” Or “Two-Step.” Or “Violence.” Parker’s voice was beautiful, but in an unfussy, unpretentious way. Her harmonies around her bandmate (and husband) Alan Sparhawk’s voice never made any more movement than necessary, but they were heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
Parker and Sparhawk were married more than 30 years, and made music together for nearly as long. One of their children, as an infant, was credited with “squeaks and yells” on Things We Lost in the Fire. As a Minnesota native myself, Low’s home of Duluth, Minnesota was a large part of my childhood. I sometimes felt, in following their career, that I was watching the unfolding lives of extremely distant relatives.
In the last few weeks I have kept coming back to HEY WHAT, the 2021 album that was not only the best album of that year but also one of the very best albums in Low’s career. My initial impulse was selfish and dramatic: it is a loud, visceral album, and I thought its violence could work on some of my grief like an exorcism. Instead, it keeps drawing me in more and more, and even its most abrasive aspects feel more like celebration.
I don’t know the recording and production details, so I can’t know how or if Parker’s cancer diagnosis in December 2020 affected HEY WHAT (which was released in September 2021), but it influences how I will hear it going forward. In an interview with Stereogum around the album’s release, Sparhawk said: “I think the older you get, especially as an artist, you recognize the opportunity and the privilege you have to say something becomes more sacred. I think every writer has a bit of this fear in the back of your head: This might be the last chance you have to say something. It might be the last time you have to express what’s inside you.”
In light of that idea, the sentiment of “Don’t Walk Away,” with the wife and husband singing as close to a soul hymn as they ever did, jolts me like an electric current, a feeling so bare and real and raw I can’t look away from it:
“I have slept beside you now, /
For what seems a thousand years; /
The shadow in your night, /
The whisper in your ear, / so don’t walk away.”
I have no claim on Mimi Parker’s music or life or death, but her music and life and death have laid claim on me. That’s the true magic of music, and even of living: we touch each other’s lives in ways we can’t always see. We lay claim to each other.
“Lullaby was not supposed to make you cry. /
I sang the words I meant; /
Because Mimi Parker sang, she was a singer. Because she wrote, she was a writer. Because she loved, she spread love. Because she loved, I have felt love. That is a gift I will not forget.
Mimi Jo Parker, 9/15/67 – 11/5/2022
“Every time I see that ship go out / it feels like everything’s complete. /
But somebody, somewhere, is waiting, / another ocean at her feet.”