Category: Music

two zero two two tunes

tomas fujiwara’s triple double — march

Is “Life Only Gets More” a musical nod to “Everything happens so much“? Is the whole album? The hyper-bent guitar notes, the clacky, creaking percussion—this album is untamed from start to finish. Even when the temperature drops here and there like on “Silhouettes in Smoke,” the trumpets play around with runs and dissonances to avoid real lulls. I didn’t hear anything quite as fiercely engaging as this album all year, and I probably wouldn’t have with any more digging.

wolfram schmitt-leonardy — scarlatti sonatas

Definitely not the Scarlatti of your weekly piano lessons. The repeats receive tasteful ornamentation—never over-the-top showy—that keeps everything fresh the second time through, and (a bit like Simone Dinnerstein has done with her Bach recordings) there’s enough reverb in the production to transform pointy, Baroque notes on the page to something almost early Romantic in the ear. It’s a welcome invitation to think of and appreciate Scarlatti musically, not just pedagogically.

jóhann jóhannsson — drone mass

Inspired by the “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians,” this album sounds like something sacred-adjacent, with a dash of film score and a pinch of contemporary classical. The sustained “drone” sounds throughout (e.g., on the final track) glue the 45 minutes together, but the mix of glitchy electronics in tracks like “Take the Night Air” make the texture more interesting than just long notes and stable harmonies. I especially enjoyed revisiting this album in December when this oratorio and that mass were back on the radio waves.

danger mouse and black thought — cheat codes

A little reluctant to include this album on my list to avoid pulling a David Brooks, but when it’s good, it’s good. Cheat Codes could have come out of the “conscious hip-hop” of thirty years ago, but even so, it doesn’t force itself to be serious at every turn—has an album ever opened with a reference to Harry Potter? The middle tracks of the album include an appearance by Daniel Dumile who died in 2020, so it really does feel like this one dropped out of an earlier era.

tyshawn sorey trio — mesmerism + the off-off broadway guide to synergism

Cheating a bit here by including two albums, but I hear these two releases as two halves of a single project. Mesmerism includes Great American Songbook standards but all lightly rehearsed, so the tracks still incorporate stretches of adventurous improvisation. Pianist Aaron Diehl builds some really interesting architecture for several minutes on one four-note descent in “Detour Ahead,” a stand-out track. Things are more boldly improvisatory on Off-Off, but the three sets on the triple album nevertheless have a lot of coherence. (Does Sorey float “Jitterbug Waltz” back into several tracks?) String all four of these rich discs together and before you know it, you’ll be in 2023.

zoomtunes 2021

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra, Promises — By tossing an ambient producer, a storied jazz saxophonist, and the LSO into the musical Vitamix, this album runs the risk of becoming auditory sludge. But its nine “movements,” better understood as a single 46-minute track, avoid melting into sonic mush by keeping a tight structure around the same theme from start to finish. It’s a real feat of composition. This album has captured the attention of jazz reviewers, thanks to Sanders, but it mostly reminds me of piano solo works like Chopin’s Berceuse and this short piece by Reicha that explore, with virtuosic inventiveness, the possibilities of a minimal, unchanging foundation.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Elliott Carter: Ballets — I taught a Greek survey lecture course this fall, so perhaps my brain was already tuned to the Cretan Bull and the myth of Theseus. But these early ballets by Elliott Carter are gems of early 20th-century modernism: sometimes evoking Stravinsky’s jarring Rite of Spring, sometimes evoking Copland’s cinematic sweeps. They were entirely new to me, as was the in-house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is worth checking out.

Jaubi, Nafs at Peace — Producers have been excavating samples from world music for decades. The Pakistani instrumental group Jaubi turns this relationship on its head, building on a North Indian core with foot-tapping percussion and slick synth chords. Sometimes it echoes the Ethiopiques series—not that all world music sounds the same, especially with the more modern production of Nafs at Peace. But for both, the integration of instruments and harmonies is simultaneously effortless and rich.

Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg — There was a microtrend of spoken-word music this year—or maybe just a microtrend in my listening—from driving lessons on the Henry Hudson to an anthem for millennial male friendship. But Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg is the standout, hands down. It layers Florence Shaw’s deadpan, droll lyrics—“Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?”—over instrumentals that are half Sonic Youth, half early B-52s. Shaw herself gets right to the point: “She’s definitely in a league of her own.”

Smirk, LP — The most insufferable thing about people who have lived in New York is their fanatical nostalgia for neighborhood establishments that no longer exist, but hear me out: this album is the Upper West Side’s Ding Dong Lounge, circa 2011. Guitars never tuned; speakers muffled; punkwave, leather-jacket hand claps. Now that so much of life is mediated via webcam, there’s a powerful draw to music (and its long-gone venues) that shuns glossy production. I mean, aren’t we all tired of checking “Touch Up My Appearance”?

the year all music was house music

Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy — Rameau: A couple years ago Ólafsson recorded a clear, warm Bach album (which in turn spawned a bizarrely Nordic music video). I think I like his new album of Debussy and Rameau solo piano works even more: it’s a rewarding across-the-centuries tour of French harmonics. And of course, it comes with its own quirky music video, this one for a sublime, suspended-in-air piano transcription from a Rameau opera.

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Reviews of Waxahatchee’s new album have often compared it to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an all-time favorite album from my early adulthood spent driving across the Mississippi River. Those comparisons draw not just on the Southern-ness of the two albums, but on the foregrounding of “placeness” in both. Instead of Lake Charles, here we get West Memphis; instead of imagistic lyrics for a Delta juke joint, here we get “folding chairs, American flags, selling tomatoes at five bucks a bag.” Saint Cloud is the road trip you didn’t take in 2020.

Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown: I wrote about Parker’s album earlier this year and its opening admonitions to “Build a Nest.” We’re still nesting, almost a year on, but this album hasn’t grown stale one bit. My old roommate summed up its ten-minute closing track as “underworld music for some impossibly hip” Super Mario game, and Parker saturates almost every track with harmonically rich guitar work. One track (“Metamorphoses”) could have come straight off an old Tortoise album, too.

Artemis, Artemis: It was an especially good year for Cécile McLorin Salvant, but this all-female jazz super-group (whose seven members include her) shares joint responsibility and joint praise for this debut album. On some tracks, you can hear how one of these world-class musicians takes the lead—Allison Miller’s drumming on “Goddess of the Hunt,” for example, and Anat Cohen’s clarinet on “Nocturno.” But even if each member of Artemis could headline a concert herself, we get an album that miraculously balances seven heavyweights in equipoise.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple launched her career from the piano bench, but her latest albums have shown her knack for the percussive tap and clang. This last album’s title song, which layers noise upon noise upon upright bass, came at the just the moment when the whole country had already learned to mumble her lyrics, “I’ve been in here too long.” And the final track, too, captures our appetite for bursting out of collective restlessness. In 2021, we will all “move to move.”