My Favorite Albums of 2022

 My Favorite Albums of 2022
by Dave Heaton

In 2022 most of my writing ambitions crashed against the tides of real life, but my listening exponentially grew and accelerated. That meant breadth at the expense of depth, or more like selective deep-diving while keeping one ear open to the ocean. Here are my favorite 10 albums of the year, give or take another hundred….

1. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – Topical Dancer (Deewee)
Music for dancefloors, nice, and with this level of humor and critical thought? This duo from Belgium – “club provocateurs”, The Guardian called them – are playful and clever over sleek sounds, dissecting language and what it does and doesn’t do for us, and the ideas, assumptions, prejudices, inherited systems. Music to provoke discomfort and comfort at the same time, like life in 2022.

2. Anteloper – Pink Dolphins (International Anthem)
Here the duo of trumpeter Jaimie Branch (RIP) and  drummer Jason Nazary pushed their playful jazz/electronics/beats blend further, into a new amalgamation that has free-jazz and hip-hop-oriented grooves, the messing-around-with-gadgets style of beat scientists, a punk-rock rebellious attitude and the loud immersive qualities of dub. As Branch herself wrote, “This is the shit that we want to be playing on big ass systems!” The ambling “Earthlings”, with Branch herself singing “we are not the earthlings that you know”, over producer Jeff Parker’s guitar, has rolled around my head all year like a personal anthem.

3. Rema – Rave & Roses (Mavin Records/Jonzing World)
Nigerian pop music has taken over the world – in 2022 a steady stream of singles hit high on charts across the globe, from an increasing array of superstars. Rema begins Rave & Roses with a birth story, imbued with the feeling that he’s destined for greatness. The next 15 songs are his showcase of that star quality – an edgy sweetness – within songs about love, broadly speaking (sex jams, songs of devotion, mantras of dedication), several starting with his tagline “another banger”. As much as it’s a star turn for Rema (with the mega-single “Calm Down” one of the jams of the year) it’s also one for Nigerian producer Michael “London” Hunter and a variety of collaborators, working within the over-expanding world of Afrobeats, with tentacles reaching out towards UK grime, US hip-hop, and more.

4. The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Summer at Land’s End (Slumberland)
The prolific indie-pop one-man act The Reds, Pinks & Purples (Glenn Donaldson) took his approach in a new, perfectly melancholy direction on Summer at Land’s End and its instrumental companion Mountain Lake Park. “You fell into a new way through”, Donaldson sings at one point, and he could be singing about death, or heartbreak, but his voice suggests some delicate hope to transition to something better. Song to song there’s that duality of deep sadness and a striving for something different and transporting.

5. Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time (Interscope/School Boy/604)
 “After studying musical theatre for most of her school life and while in university…”, her Wikipedia entry starts. That theatrical angle to her emotional pop sound has never been clearer than on The Loneliest Time, which stands as a chronicle and dream-diary of the lovelorn and isolated. It’s her most diverse album, musically, like she’s changing sets and costumes with each song – starting with a statement of emotional courage (mantra: “I wanna be brave enough for everything….”) and ending with a fanciful Rufus Wainwright duet. In between are Western sojourns, a beach romp/dating app satire, the most perfect synth anthem to not hit the radio airwaves in the ‘80s, and so much more.

6. Porridge Radio – Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky (Secretly Canadian)
The Brighton, UK band Porridge Radio has the sort of building, driving sound that makes each song feel like an emotional journey leading to catharsis. This is the only kind of rock music I want to hear anymore, the kind where each word and sound is expressed like everyone’s life depends on it. On each of Porridge Radio’s albums, Dana Margolin and band have been constructing that approach (a kind of emo that’s actually listenable, and not whiny) – now it feels huge and stadium-ready even as the songs speak in an intimate way to everyone listening.

7. Tapani Rinne & Juha Maki-Patola – Open (Hush Hush)
I imagine the last few years of turmoil has led more listeners than just me to have go-to albums of stillness, quiet, a sense of enveloping calm and restoration. In 2022 my go-to was perhaps a more unlikely source than the epic experimental soundscapes I’m drawn to. Open is an hour of meditative ambient jazz from two Finnish musicians with decades-long careers who connected online during the pandemic and recorded this in their separate home studios. The feeling is that of pure beauty, sometimes completely still and then other times with busier but still feather-light melodic action from Rinne’s saxophone and clarinet, against Mäki-Patola’s arrangements of piano, organ, synthesizers and guitar.

8. Omah Lay – Boy Alone (Sire)
Nigerian singer Omah Lay is in a singular state of mind for much of his debut album, and it’s a dark one – fighting off depression, inner demons and the addictions and temptations they spawn; suppressing the scars of childhood to try and show the world a happy face. The smoothness and tenderness of his singing is what makes the feelings hit even harder, over of-the-moment production by a host of Nigerian up-and-comers.

9. Asake – Mr Money With the Vibe (YBNL Nation/Empire)
The debut album of Asake, a rising Nigerian star who hit new heights in 2022, has a let’s get-down-to-business efficiency that matches the stylized punchiness of his songs. All 12 tracks were produced by Magicsticks, who expands the Afrobeats palette by incorporating other dance music styles (amapiano, for one) into the sound while keeping a focused sense of spotlight on Asake’s eccentric, generous musical personality.

10. Kalia Vandever – Regrowth (New Amsterdam)
On her second album, Kalia Vandever brings a soft touch to the trombone that resembles a centering, healing force within a fast-moving flow of energy. Her compositions have a compelling sense of melody and space; she and her cracker-jack ensemble light fire with their playing.

Other 2022 albums I love and wholeheartedly recommend (roughly by category):

Ambient-experimental-atmospheric: Anja Lauvdal – From a Story Now Lost (Smalltown Supersound); Astrid Oster Mortensen – Skaergardslyd (Discreet Music); Billow Observatory – Stareside (Felte); Carmen Villain – Only Love From Now On (Smalltown Supersound); Dania – Voz (Geographic North); Dawn Richard / Spencer Zahn – Pigments (Merge); Dominic Voz – Right to the City (Beacon Sound);Kali Malone – Living Torch (Portraits GRM); Oren Ambarchi – Shebang; Rachika Nayar – Heaven Come Crashing (NNA Tapes); Rauelsson and Tatu Rönkkö – Myriadi (Beacon Sound); Taranoya – Flying (Sound as Language).

Blockbuster albums everyone’s already talking about as best of the year, and should be: Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (4AD); Kendrick Lamar – Mr Morale and the Big Steppers (TDE); Rosalía – Motomami (Columbia); Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen (Stones Throw); SZA – SOS (TDE); The 1975 – Being Funny In a Foreign Language (Dirty Hit).

Country: Ingrid Andress – Good Person (Warner Music Nashville); Jillian Jacqueline – Honestly (self-released); Kelsea Ballerini – Subject to Change (Black River); Maren Morris – Humble Quest (Columbia Nashville); Willi Carlisle – Peculiar Missouri (Free Dirt).

Folk: Anais Mitchell – Anais Mitchell (BMG); Jake Xerxes Fussell – Good and Green Again (Paradise of Bachelors); Joan Shelley – The Spur (No Quarter); The Weather Station – How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars (Fat Possum).

Hip-Hop: Babyface Ray –FACE and MOB (Wavy Gang/Empire); Denzel Curry – Melt My Eyez See Your Future (PH/Loma Vista); Earthgang – Ghetto Gods (Dreamville/Interscope); J.I.D – The Forever Story (Dreamville/Interscope); Rico Nasty – Las Ruinas (Sugar Trap); Vince Staples – Ramona Park Broke My Heart (Motown).

Indie-Pop: The Beths – Expert in a Dying Field (Carpark); Crystal Eyes – The Sweetness Restored (Bobo Integral); Darren Hanlon – Life Tax (Flippin Yeah); Florist – Florist (Double Double Whammy); Flowertown – Half Yesterday (Mt. St. Mtn.); Fortunato Durutti Marinetti – Memory’s Fool (Bobo Integral); Free Time – Jangle Jargon (Bedroom Suck); Friendship – Love the Stranger (Merge); Galore – Blush EP (Paisley Shirt); Gordon McIntyre – Even With the Support of Others (Lost Map); Grace Ives – Janky Star (True Panther Sounds); Hatchie – Giving the World Away (Secretly Canadian); Lande Hekt – House Without a View (Get Better); Nervous Twitch – Some People Never Change (Reckless Yes); Pete Astor – Time on Earth (Tapete);  Seasoning – The Condensation EP (self-released); Stella Donnelly – Flood (Secretly Canadian); The Stroppies – Levity (Tough Love).

Jazz: Anna Butterss – Activities (Colorfield); Binker & Moses – Feeding the Machine (Gearbox); I Am – Beyond (Division 81); Immanuel Wilkins – The 7th Hand (Blue Note); Jose Arimatea – Brejo Das Almas (Rocinante); Leo Genovese – Ritual (577); Luke Stewart’s Silt Trio – The Bottom (Cuneiform); Makaya McCraven – In These Times (International Anthem/Nonesuch); Nduduzo Makhathani – In the Spirit of Ntu (Universal); Playfield – Stepping Out (577); Tommaso Moretti – Inside Out (Bace); Tumi Mogorosi – Group Theory: Black Music (Mushroom Hour Half Hour/New Soil).

R&B: Amber Mark – Three Dimensions Deep (PMR/EMI); Ari Lennox – Age/sex/location (Dreamville); Ella Mai – Heart on My Sleeve (10 Summers); Syd – Broken Hearts Club (Columbia).

Reissues: Ana y Jaime – Dire a mi gente (Munster); The Leaf Library – Library Music: Volume One (wiaiwya); Lining Time – Strike (Hot Salvation LTD/Shadow World); The Pyramids – Aomawa: The 1970s Recordings (Strut); The Stark Reality – …Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop (Now-Again); Tinariwen – Kel Tinariwen (Wedge); Travesía – Ni Un Minuto Mas de Dolor (Vampisoul).

Surprise ‘best album yet’ candidates by alt-indie types who’ve been around: Craig Finn – A Legacy of Rentals(Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers); The Mountain Goats – Bleed Out (Merge); Rhett Miller – The Misfit (ATO); Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong (Jagjaguwar).

Zigzag/ragtag list of more favorites: Beach House – Once Twice Melody (Sub Pop); Bruno Morais – Poder Supremo (Sony); Charles Stepney – Step on Step (International Anthem); Claude Cooper – Myriad Sounds (Friendly); DJ Travella – Mr Mixondo (Nyege Nyege Tapes); Dorian Concept – What We Do for Others (Brainfeeder);Hagan – Textures (Python Syndicate); Iceboy Violet – ­The Vanity Project; It Was All a Dream – Never Forget You Are Free EP (Some Other Planet); Kyle Kidd – Soothsayer (American Dreams); Moor Mother – Jazz Codes (Anti); Nancy Mounir – Nozhet El Nofous (Simsara); Phelimuncasi – Ama Gogela (Nyege Nyege Tapes); Pongo – Sakidila (Universal); Rae Morris – Rachel @ Fairyland (RCA); Raveena – Asha’s Awakening (Warner); Sault – Today & Tomorrow (self-released); Say She She – Prism (Karma Chief); Sessa – Estrela Acesa (Mexican Summer); Tekla Peterson – Heart Press (Geographic North); Waajeed – Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz (Tresor); Wizkid – More Love Less Ego (Starboy/RCA).

Happy new year, one and all….

2022 music, five at a time pt. 4

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Nduduzo Makathini – In the Spirit of Ntu
When his quartet came through Kansas City a few months ago, South African pianist Nduduzo Makathini was wearing a jacket covered with stars that might have been flowers. That mystical, beauty-focused, looking into the unknown feels right for his musical compositions and his approach to them. On his 10th album In the Spirit of Ntu, post-bop is informed by his Zulu culture and philosophical ideas, expressed through sound and themes, plus occasional chants that come from healing traditions. Ntu, in the title, represents a force of oneness and harmony. He’s described in interviews his quest for embodying these concepts through improvised music (“creating homes for them”). If that makes the music sound bohemian-dreamy, it might be, but not without built-in pain and struggle. There’s an anguished sense of space throughout the album, articulated vocally on the second track through somber singing by featured guest Omagugu, Nduduzo’s wife. Later in the album, another guest singer, Anna Wideauer, describes in English a journey towards healing, being put back together bone by bone, which feels not just personal but historical. For all Makathini’s thoughts of galaxies, the music is as driven by historical trauma and the striving for collective action born from it.

Omah Lay – Boy Alone
Boy Alone is a literal title for Nigerian singer/producer Omah Lay’s low-key pop songs, which are driven by a feeling of being out-of-step with everyone else, and down about it. There’s the song where he overthinks and overdrinks (Cognac shots), the one where he’s too depressed even to post photos on Insta, the one where he and Justin Bieber sing, “Lately I’ve been losin’ my mind”. A worried feeling is present in the air even when Omah Lay is singing straightforward love songs, like a dedication to his “Woman”, or late-night sex jams that leave nothing to the imagination (“Bend You”). He always sounds sad, and like he’s in an empty room where the rhythms ricochet off the floors and ghostly tones and voices (not to mention ‘sensitive’ guitars and warped melodies) float in and out. Sadness is in the music and overall vibe, but he also situates himself as an empath, a pop star who wants to reach out and heal. Perhaps he wants to be an optimistic, feel-good presence (like two Nigerian pop songs Omah Lay references midway through the album, Patoranking’s “Wilmer” and Kcee’s “Limpopo”). But there’s an inescapable, albeit infinitely pleasurable, darkness hanging overhead.

PhelimuncasiAma Gogela
Most of my knowledge or awareness – can’t call it knowledge, really – of the myriad of African dance music styles comes from the always exciting Ugandan label/youth movement Nyege Nyege. It’s a wild world of booming bass and unexpected rhythms. Ama Gogela is the second album from the Durban, South Africa trio Phelimuncasi, who are part of the gqom scene. Gqom, as I understand it, is a rougher, DIY expansion and explosion of a slicker style of South African house music called kwaito. The energy here is strength, rebellion, with excited call-and-response vocals over the steady, somewhat skeletal, intense beats of a handful of known and emerging gqom producers. The last four tracks, produced by DJ Scoturn, especially showcase the playfulness of the music, the way strange sounds are utilized and woven through. The final track has a repeated vocal tic that leads in the last couple minutes to some glorious cacophony of squeaks and squeals over free drums. Phelimuncasi’s anarchic impulses translate into not just soundplay but protest – there’s the urgency of action here. Plus, far as I can tell given my language deficiencies here: progressive/activist lyrics.  Correctly or not, Google translated some of the Zulu song titles to English words in that general direction – one was “I Dream Things”, one was about falling and rising again, and the closing track title was about being powerful. (Another title translated to “Play With the Butt”, for what it’s worth.)

Slikback – Incarnate
The Nairobi, Kenya-based futuristic electronics artist Slikback (Freddy Njau) is prolific. His 2022 releases so far include Lossless (with the French artist Brodinski), Condense (with various collaborators from across the globe), Intersect, Tier¸ My Imaginary Friends and You, and 22122. Most are in the 10-20-minute range, but make you feel transported to somewhere different. Incarnate, a 4-song EP from April, is the perfect demonstration of the sleek but overwhelming ‘dance’ music he makes, with an intergalactic/industrial. He seems to be on his own aesthetic and existential journey, trying to build and develop (and develop and develop and develop) his own cyclone of sound that’s anti-trend, separate from particular scenes, and intense in its explorations.

Tumi Mogorosi – Group Theory: Black Music
Collective action is integral to jazz, and many other types of music. Group Theory: Black Music comes from that place of communal coming-together. It’s in the music’s themes and concepts – from the emphasis on black music as decentralization to the South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng’s words on the final track (“revolution in black music”, a representative phrase) and the two different versions of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. And it’s woven into the sound of the music itself, in how it was created. Drummer/composer Tumi Mogorosi (of The Wretched, Shabaka & the Ancestors, and his own solo works) is the quiet leader behind this work that unites a group of musicians (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, alto sax and piano are all prominent) with a 10-person choir. The voices play a historic role as well, echoing the history of jazz group vocals. The whole affair seems tied into the history of music and thriving, alive

2022 music, five at a time pt. 3

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Flowertown – Half Yesterday
Half Yesterday is an on-brand title for a Flowertown record; time and its haziness are at the forefront in the DIY dream-conversation pop music made by the duo (Karina Gill of Cindy and Michael Ramos of Tony Jay). In the title song, the phrase “half yesterday” refers to the moon – how can it look so full today, when it was a half-moon yesterday? Observations, questions, intimate conversations flow in natural harmony with the measured melodies and whispery vocals. Magic is real.

The Growth Eternal – Parasail-18

LA-based artist Byron Crenshaw, aka The Growth Eternal, plays progressive spaced-out soul music reflective of the inner whirlwind of a life. “Within Me”, one song is called, and the album seems to live there. Vocoder-heavy, moody songs shift in and out of melodies, memories and dreams, blurring through both the weight of life and varied personal attempts to escape that weight (the metaphorical parasails of the title). The vinyl and cassette versions add six songs and switch around the tracklist, adding some more directly hip-hop elements, while heightening the feeling of an artistic shape-shift, perpetual change.

John Carroll Kirby –
Dance Ancestral
Renaissance man with ever-flowing locks (featured in painted form on the album cover), L.A. producer/musician John Carroll Kirby has a broad approach to ambient/jazz fusion/mellow soul/New Age-leaning instrumental music. Highly collaborative in his approach, Kirby this time teams with Yu Su (see her 2021 debut Yellow River Blue) for a metaphysical exploration of the moods of a day, in the form of enveloping fantasy vibes with lush grooves and soft-funk elevator jams.

Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

Epic therapy session, chronicle of internal conflict, angsty exploration of grief/confusion/family legacy, purposeful disruption of any expectations we have for him as a social leader/positive force…the lyrics have been dissected to death over the last few months. So, can we talk about the music for a moment? Damn’s richly textured R&B, with an abundance of deep hip-hop allusions and light flirting with current-day hardcore beats, hasn’t been set aside. At times it’s doubled down on in rewarding ways (“Die Hard”, album-closer “Mirror”, and “Purple Hearts” with its inspired, lightning-in-a-bottle Ghostface Killah verse and playful Summer Walker appearance). For most of the album that sound is present but more skeletal and strange – it’s a minimalist extension and twisting of the last album’s sound, with abrasive moments and creepy ones. Percussion is a constant, partly through the stepper sounds alluded to in the title. Piano adds both emotion and strangeness. The album has been treated like either memoir or op-ed piece but there’s a musical theatre side to much of it, from the intro through “We Cry Together” (a song, resonating with classic hip-hop of the past, but easily mistaken for a skit, with an actress as duet partner) and beyond. Kendrick’s always had a theatrical side but here it’s part of the structure. Fitting for an album trying to tell a personal story in a big-statement way; the music just as capably, sometimes maybe more capably, tells a story of healing and conflict.

The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Summer at Land’s End

Is there a descriptor for when a musician with their own distinctive sound finds a way to take it in an even melancholier direction? Because if there is, that’s my favorite kind of music! Prolific creator Glenn Donaldson has played in many indie bands over the years – including overtly atmosphere-focused projects. As The Reds, Pinks & Purples, he’s released a few albums and a scattering of other songs – all swoony San Franciscan guitar-pop with a bittersweet air (think ‘jangly’ guitars, simple drums or drum machine, soft, matter-of-fact vocals filled with longing). Sometimes it’s like the melodic version of the thoughts a lonely city dweller has while going about day-to-day life; other times like a gentler one-man version of The Smiths with less “woe is me” drama. Summer at Land’s End has blown me away for how it takes that sound and one-ups it, on the lush sadness afloat, the brittleness of the singing, the way everything hangs on a precipice. Its gorgeous apocalyptic vibe pairs well with ‘our times’, it’s my soundtrack for 2022.

2022 music, five at a time pt. 2

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Anna Butterss – Activities
From the description ‘jazz bass instrumentalist’s debut solo album”, what do you hear in your mind? Probably not this. Unless you’re thinking in a broad, more freewheeling-creative-spirit direction. Or if you know, for example, that Butterss has played not just with Makaya McCraven, Jeff Parker and Josh Johnson but also Aimee Mann, Phoebe Bridgers, and Jenny Lewis. Activities is an interesting title choice; the music suggests a multitude of settings and actions. There’s a vibe of busy-ness, of the disparate activities and emotions that make up a life – some frenetic, some restful. There’s a song called “Doo Wop” with an intro that resembles, yes, doo-wop. “Blevins” has an almost cocktail-lounge vibe, but is also melancholy. “Super Lucrative” is like a little science-fiction pop jam, perhaps a video game theme. “The Worst Thing You Could Do For Your Health” is a funky synth jam with hints of UK jungle. Activities is eclectic, but it’s not a rollercoaster ride from one sound to another. Its impulses and reference points have been blended into something new and multi-faceted. The melodies and moods linger.

Dustin Lynch – Blue in the Sky
All the macho visions of current country radio music are here, on Dustin Lynch’s fourth album. There are parties in boats, trucks and open fields. A Chevy waiting to take us through the backroads of Tennessee, to the small town that stays the same forever, populated with “homegrown” beautiful women as static and unreal as the town itself. The biggest stadium-ready hook is tied to the image of “Stars Like Confetti”, a beautiful night that he can’t ever get back to, if it even existed in the first place. The whole album starts feeling like the shell of a man’s ego, populated by ghost lovers and missed opportunities. He’s in “party mode” because he’s “running from the truth”. His wish that “Summer Never Ended” will never be a reality. The beach itself resembles a Chesneyesque totem for the promise and cruelty of summer; teasing infinite pleasure yet failing to hide the inevitable heartbreak lurking behind the empty lifeguard stand. “I go back there all the time in my mind” (about “Pasadena”) might be the most representative lyric. The fuel within the songs is a man’s inability to create the world he wants, and control it. At album’s end he’s trying a different tack – re-writing the cowboy image as a domestic, suburban, monogamous one and using it as a pickup line, hoping to write himself a happy ending.

Euglossine – Some Kind of Forever
Sometimes I feel like I’m listening to a children’s fairytale storybook; other times it’s like a dream I’m having, wherein I’m lying on the floor of a recording studio after a Steely Dan session wrapped up but the session musicians kept playing through the night. Maybe there’s no difference between those two feelings. Tristan Whitehill’s 15th or so release as Euglossine is a new-age/muted jazz fusion album that meanders and bops along with the spirit of either interminable escapism from the harshness of the world or a more idealistic reach for a kinder, gentler world. The rustic ghostliness of “Grandfather Clock” slows down time and envelops me the most, breaks me free from the distracting tendency of pondering which ‘70s studio nerds would have been a better reference.

The Furniture, The Furniture
The debut album by the Baltimore-based experimental duo The Furniture might be as inconspicuous as actual furniture. You feel unsettled — or the opposite, calm — and you’re not sure why. Synthesizers are why…. and drums, taunting with their near-invisibility. There’s an industrial, factory mood here but it also feels like we’re listening within a fog.

Tekla Peterson – Heart Press
Press by Tekla Peterson (aka Madison, Wisconsin-based musician Taralie Peterson) spelunks in the darkest regions of the heart on these brutal songs processing the burning-out of a love relationship. These same songs sung over acoustic guitars in a plaintive manner might have me running for the hills, but an ‘80s electro-pop setting (action-movie vibes) and dramatic post-punk vocals do wonders for the material. This is a personal apocalypse, and she leans into that side of it to a Goth/doom extent. The chorus that lingers is, “God, take me from this beautiful garden of pain!

2022 music, five at a time, pt. 1

by dave heaton

An ongoing series, pondering 2022 music, five releases at a time.

Alabaster DePlume – Gold
“To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1” by Alabaster DePlume was a 2020 highlight of serenity and grace. Its title tells two things: instrumentals are not usually what he does, and he has a theatrical ‘stage name’, befitting a poet or charlatan. Which is he – poet, charlatan, instrumentalist? Yes. And guru, activist, instigator, bandleader, provocateur, and more. The evidence stretches out over the hour that is Gold. “Do You Know a Human Being When You See One?”, a song asks, and it’s a million-dollar question. Leading a gaggle of sharp collaborators through recording sessions, for Gold he mapped out a plan and spliced the music together to suit it. With recurring themes of frailty and justice, and darkness layered onto the bittersweet tones, Gold tackles the messiness of being alive in 2022, tries to channel the goodness from within it, and begs us to dissect what it means to be good and carve our own collective and individual path towards it.

Babyface Ray – FACE
File Babyface Ray under “rappers who sound like they’re about to fall asleep”, whether the topic is sex, money, hard-knock lives or overall swagger. Mostly the last two: hard-knock-life-informed swagger, wrapped up in a MoodTM, pensive and hurt. Melodies sketched out to echo off city streets, while ‘Face walks alone, on an existential journey: “Ain’t nobody hold my hand, had to walk by myself / I got hunger in my face, I got diamonds on my chest.”

Black Flower – Magma
Belgian jazz-fusion group starts out creeping towards a hip-hop vibe, with haunted-mansion organ, before hitting the flute hard and taking off in high, funky-‘70s skies. Soaring with an intentional and at least somewhat self-conscious globe-trotting flair, with occasional detours to a circus. If this is Epcot World Showcase jazz, that doesn’t make it not groovy.

Drake – Honestly, Nevermind
Drake might think he’s made a late-night club masterpiece but it’s more like nice mood music when you’re working from home in your depressing basement office and need to put on something with light energy and pleasant grooves where you can tune out the lyrics (the ravings of a heartbroken stalker with the maturity of a teenager, far as I can tell), treat the vocals as part of the aesthetic, and let it carry you through your Monday-morning doldrums. (Saving the hardest raps for the last track = “wake-up, zone-out time is over”.)

Hater – Sincere
“A stretch to be myself”, is a relatable feeling these days. Wrap it up in shoegaze-rock, crank it loud, and Sincere is off to a good start. From Malmö, Sweden, Hater is a band that keeps things simple, as their name and the album title indicate. The feeling is the thing, and these songs are full of it – that impending, something is about to happen feeling of romance, doom, or most likely both together. (Like the song title says, “Summer Turns to Heartburn”.) The lyrics, best as I can decipher, are an intense conversation with oneself, or with another person who’s become so physically, psychically, or theoretically close it’s hard to tell the difference.

Fingers Crossed, Artsick

by dave heaton

On January 21, Slumberland Records released two fast-and-furious, under 30-minute records, that at the right volume buzz your ears and thrill, like you’ve spent the evening in a packed, dark, possibly smoky basement bar watching band after band blaze through a rough-around-the-edges type of noisy guitar-pop.

Very few of us have been spending our leisure time that way the last couple years. We’ve been at home, worried, nervous, fretting about things we should be worried about, things we probably shouldn’t, and things that we’re not sure we’re even really worried about. Anxiety is the keyword, for our era (can we call two years an era? sure feels like it) and for Artsick’s debut album Fingers Crossed, one of those two records (Kids on a Crime Spree’s superb Fall in Love Not in Line is the other, with its own loud guitars and romantic bike-gang vibe).

Singer/guitarist Christina Riley (Burnt Palms, Boyracer) starts the first song like this: “So restless, I don’t know what to do / nothing I try makes me feel good.” The fourth song starts, “Just a ghost of myself / haunting me and my own house”.

That song, “Ghost of Myself”, begins with the “Be My Baby” drums (sort of). Two songs later comes a hand-clap intro that feels similarly retro. Mostly, though, this music is punkish indie-pop, with loud guitars and fast drums, and hooky melodies sung somewhere between casual and atonal, with variety not as prioritized as immediacy and ‘honesty’.

There’s a couple songs about spurned would-be love, but most of it is a raw dose of the worry we’re already feeling – cathartic when played loud. The songs have titles like “Dealing With Tantrums” (aren’t we all?), “Stress Bomb” (aren’t we all?) and “Be OK” (will we be?).

The album ends with a song called “Fiction”, where the bass player seems to be playing “Time Is Tight” by Booker T and the MGs while Riley tells us that she “overthinks almost everything” and reveals her thoughts are killing her.

Welcome to the club!

Good and Green Again, Jake Xerxes Fussell

by dave heaton

That Jake Xerxes Fussell plays folk music is a biographical fact. Other the other hand, thinking of his music strictly as “folk music”, in genre terms, might cover up the versatility and transformative power of it. The son of a folklorist, he grew up steeped in the music history of the South. His music is built on respect for tradition while evolving his own welcoming take on it.

There’s beauty and a sense of uncertainty, a strange air, in his songs. That feeling is pronounced and visceral on Good and Green Again, from the title on down to the arrangements, with additional instruments and voices honed towards cultivating an atmosphere that is affecting yet never simple. His singing – never too shackled to the songforms themselves – feels more open and delicate this time around.

The songs themselves are slippery – like history and memory and place and time. A song might seem to tell a story, about a ship for example, or lovers distanced by the sea, or George Washington. But the words as sung and played by Fussell and his collaborators are elliptical, resonant but not fixed with one meaning.

Specific images linger in my mind each time I listen to the album. The title image in “Breast of Glass”, the final narrative turn, is one: a man with a breast of glass where his pined-for lover could see her name written on his heart. On the opener “Love Farewell”, I can’t get over the roaming lover, possible solder’s strange description of collective wandering – “we’re all marching around very well”.

Then there’s the 9-minute song about a ship that called “The Golden Willow Tree”, with the repeated descriptive of “the low and lonesome water … the lonesome sea”.

That song’s sense of melancholy permeates the whole album. It’s a restorative type of melancholy, with a sense of natural progression. Like in that album title, we’re left feeling good and green, perhaps, though not settled.

2021: My favorite albums

Happy New Year! Maybe some year I’ll figure out how to integrate writing-about-music back into my everyday life. Meanwhile, here is a list of my 30 favorite albums of the year 2021, with a few sentences standing in for the 5,000-word love letter each of these deserves.

by dave heaton

  1. Chvrches – Screen Violence

 Turns out I’m not the only one who’s been binge-watching horror movies during the pandemic. Also turns out Chvches were Goths all along, who knew? It’s an album perfectly tuned to our moment – feminist reads on slasher films and ghost stories, filtered through our own 2021 reality (isolation, screen dependence), but also beautiful synth-pop infectious enough to hook even my 7- and 11-year old kids.

  1. Erika De Casier – Supernatural

Whispery come-ons and regrets with a late ‘90s/early ‘00s R&B vibe – but can we talk about her singing style for a minute? I can’t think of anyone who sounds as casual/conversational while also mostly expressing an interior monologue (eccentric tics and inside jokes intact). When music nerds talk about “headphones albums”, it’s usually something with layer upon layer of bells & whistles… but I could listen to Supernatural on headphones until infinity.

  1. Domenico Lancellotti – Raio

Flashback to 2018: Kansas City, Missouri puts on an ambitious arts festival called Open Spaces that’s seen by some as a boondoggle and by others of us as a miracle, a treasure of riches. Me and my family explore an empty parking lot that’s been turned into an installation of color and sound (see photo above), with music by the Brazilian musician Domenico Lancellotti, whose album The Good Is a Big God is one of my highlights of that same year. The music from that installation formed the roots of his 2021 album Raio, but like all of us it went through quite a journey from 2018 to 2021. The end result (“a record about permanent transformation”, he says) is rich and unique, rooted in his home country’s musical traditions but also playful and eccentric, and nothing short of stunning in each listen. The title means “lightning” in Portuguese, and this is its sound.

  1. Cindy – 1:2

One of the few groups I can think of now that is working with the standard pop-rock approach and doing something that feels breathtakingly new, the San Francisco band Cindy follows up their splendid 2020 album Free Advice with 1:2, a beautiful advancement. Their sound lies somewhere among your late-night surrealist version of a ‘50s pop ballad (thanks, David Lynch), an observational poet’s internal monologue/sketches on notepads she keeps while riding city transit, ‘slowcore’ ‘90s indie-rock, slow-motion versions of Phil Spector hits, and hymns with the solemnity of church but the vibe of a bohemian get-together. All of that means gorgeous and supernatural music that’s also touching, humorous, and completely relatable.

  1. Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates

Protest poet Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother put out the brilliant Black Encyclopedia of the Air album this year as well, but the third Irreversible Entanglements album displayed her radical energy in especially distilled form. It helps that the group has some of jazz’s finest, whose other endeavors are just as worthy of exploring — Keir Neuringer on sax, Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, Tcheser Holmes on drums, plus synthesizer contributions from a few of them. Their past albums are exciting but without the clean, clear, directed impact of this one, from the opening title anthem (a call to action if you’ve ever heard one) through multiple extended melancholy meditations on the lingering legacies of colonialism, imperialism and slavery.

  1. Ashley Monroe –  Rosegold

Perhaps the most purely joyous album on this list, earned joy. After being dropped from her longtime label, country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe pivoted from the sad songs she’s mastered on past albums to embrace positivity, and back it with a layered, more varied pop sound that plays with rhythm and texture in glorious ways. She’s long been one of the sharpest songwriters in country, and that’s true here too even as she’s singing less about pain and more about human connection, love, birth and rebirth. The album’s sound is that of floating in the clouds (what the song “Flying” describes – “Feels like I’m floating with no ceiling / Heart in the clouds / I’m not coming down”), yet the songs are tactile and visceral.

  1. Ngaiire – 3

The Papua New Guinea-born, Australia-based singer Ngaiire is one of the most interesting pop artists in the world right now, without the fame or attention yet to match it. There’s a weight to her songs based in real challenge, sorrow, hurt, that she never fails to channel into release and optimistic striving. The songs speak of history, tradition, the ties that bond families and humans together over centuries – even when she’s singing what could be a simple love song. That dynamic is even more true on her third album 3 than on 2016’s Blastoma (one of my favorite albums of the past decade). One song starts, “my heart is heavier than what my body weighs”; another, “Oh I never thought you’d come to see me / ‘cuz I’m blinded by the noise and the mess / of the city trying to kill me.” These are love songs, in a general human way, yet complicated. Her singing is powerful, always, and the music can’t be pinned down too simply in genre terms.

  1. James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet – Jesup Wagon

Everything saxophonist James Brandon Lewis touches is gold lately; see this year’s Code of Being or last year’s Molecular for more evidence. As a NY Times headline put it, he “embodies and transcends tradition”. Tradition is built-in with Jesup Wagon, thematically linked to George Washington Carver. Carver had multi-faceted interests, as does Lewis, and as does this album, where the skilled quintet (including 2021 heavy-hitters William Parker and Chad Taylor) take us surprising places and well-placed spoken-word elements heighten the power.

  1. Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take

Angsty, edgy pop-rock, with a clear ‘90s alt-rock influence – yet have you ever heard angry music that’s this beautiful? On her second album, Indigo de Souza doesn’t let any genre form hold her back from brilliance – the songs go many places. And what first sounds like angst is more tender than that – a pursuit of honesty and transparency above all else. Facing the ugliness of life, your own and everybody else’s, with eyes wide open. ”When pain is real, you cannot run”, she sings in a song that breaks down into chaotic, collective screaming and yelping towards the end.  An album that has room both for that and for one of the sweetest love ballads of the year (“Hold U”) is one oriented towards open emotional expression of all types.

  1. Rachika Nayar – Our Hands Against the Dusk

My 2021 was filled with transporting ambient music but you won’t see much of it on this list. Rachika Nayar’s spellbinding debut is a good representation, and also its own shining diamond. If you can’t guess from the title or the album-cover image of hands entwined, there is deep feeling at work in each of these eight tracks. It comes from many places, flowing together. The music is never doing just one thing, if that makes sense – wavering, exploring guitar is at the heart of it, but integrated in with vocal harmonies, with synthesizers, with strings and more. If it always feels like the work of one individual, it’s also a gorgeous coming-together of a variety of sounds, feelings, even styles, with a monumental impact. 

  1. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future

There’s just one pure hip-hop album on this list, but hip-hop as the global musical language of our era runs through much of this list one way or another.  Sons of Kemet, the fiery Afrocentric UK jazz outfit featuring the prolific saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, brings in rappers, poets and musicians from the UK and US for a compact distillation of progressive politics within a collective sound rooted in the music of the African diaspora.

  1. Anika – Change

Intentionally or not, most of the albums on the list resonate with our current era – the pandemic, extremism, hate, overall social anxiety. For this album, the second in 11 years from the Berlin-based musician/artist Anika, that feels especially the case. Minimalist art-pop loaded with ideas and reactions to the turmoil, confusion, and demons of our time, it also carries a clear, beautiful thread of struggle and hope within it, in its persistent beats and Anika’s at least as driven way of singing. The title track is my motivational anthem of the moment, filled with the hope that people can listen to each other, learn from other, and change.  

  1. Anthonie Tonnon – Leave Love Out of This

Elegant ballads from a New Zealand pop singer with a thoughtful experimental bent. These are some of the most moving songs of the year, with beautiful arrangements (piano, acoustic guitar, drum machines, whatever fits a given song). The songs ask human questions – about nature, history, work, love, community — without suggesting that the answers are simple or even knowable.

  1. Massage – Still Life

How can you not love pop-rock this hushed and pretty, sounding like various bands from across music history at once? Massage’s 2018 debut album Oh Boy was a gem and this outdoes it by far. The second track is called “Made of Moods”, and I like that phrase as a theme for the album – this is that melancholic, sensitive style of guitar pop that generates moods upon moods. Also, hooks upon hooks, melodies upon melodies, pleasure upon gentle pleasure.

  1. Jamire Williams – But Only After You Have Suffered

 Jamire Williams’ 2016 debut album ///// Effectual was an avant-drumming album you could lose yourself in. That free drumming sensibility is somewhere in this one too, but far from the first thing you’ll notice. The first thing I felt was haunted – the multi-layered, deluxe music feels both disembodied and like it’s taking over our bodies. There is a collective spirit here, in the overlapping styles and sounds, and in the assortment of guest rappers, singers and players who helped bring Williams’ vision for this type of autobiographical art-pop-jazz-hip-hop experimental statement to life. 

  1. William Parker – Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World

William Parker is the jazz MVP of 2021, over four decades into his career. This spot could have easily been taken up by the gorgeous trio album Painters Winter or the guitar-led, fiery Mayan Space Station. But the 10-disc Migration set – truly ten separate albums – is a treasure chest of varying approaches and rewards that will likely take years to fully exhaust.

  1. Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning

One of the most underrated rappers of our time returned from years of personal turmoil with his third project, which has its own distinct style from the others. A riveting presence always, he’s as likely as ever to alternate jokes and playful brags with chronicles of tears and pain. Through samples and style reference he pays overt homage to the legacy of Southern hip-hop on The House Is Burning, while conveying the inspiration he draws from music to make it day-by-day when things feel on fire.  

  1. Jennifer O’Connor – Born at the Disco

Singer-songwriter O’Connor has a way of cutting straight to the heart of things, always, and on this minimalist reinvention of her sound, that’s especially true.  The instrumentation is spare, and chosen carefully to bring out the emotion of each particular song — drum machines and synth for songs looking back to childhood and coming-of-age; piano for heartfelt confessions and love letters. “Your Job Is Gone”, a would-be dance jam, and some of the others crystallize turning points in a life, those moments of trying to figure out who you are and what to do next.

  1. Maurice Louca – Saet el Haaz (The Luck Hour)

The Egyptian guitarist Maurice Louca always seems to be approaching his art from a different angle. This one involved a Lebanese improv group called ‘A’ Trio (prepared trumpet, prepared guitar, prepared double bass), and custom-made instruments – a guitar and a Serang – modified to be played microtonally. Oh there’s a harpist and a cellist involved too. The result is a six-movement composition that’s playful and cacophonous – a wild, beautiful ride.

  1. Fine Place – This New Heaven

Like a few other albums on this list This New Heaven’s approach looks to the past (in this case, early ‘80s post-punk/synth-pop) but sounds like the future, or at least our dystopian present. Fine Place, the duo of Frankie Rose and Matthew Hord, pile on the atmosphere, before ending with a stunning cover of an obscure piece of gloom (“The Party Is Over” by Adult Fantasies).

  1. Jason Nazary – Spring Collection

The jazz drummer/electronics improviser Jasaon Nazary (also in the duo Anteloper with Jaimie Branch) made this music during pandemic lockdown – trying to recreate the spontaneous feeling of missed live opportunities by integrating his own playing with computer-made sounds and the home-recorded playing of other musicians. The result is a creative junkyard of sounds and surprises, sometimes almost an abstract assortment – randomness alive — and other times something like a tune or put-together passage will emerge. It’s all the while riveting and exciting.

  1. Ian Sweet – Show Me How You Disappear

On the first song, Jillian Medford aka Ian Sweet tells us her favorite cloud is the “the kind that’s in disguise and makin’ everybody cry”. Which feels like this music to me – emotional in so many deep ways, a journey of self-healing, but it’s in disguise as something light, fun, full of bouncy melodies and sounds that get caught in your head.

  1. Modern Nature – Island of Noise

With Modern Nature, guitarist/singer Jack Cooper (formerly of Mazes and Ultimate Painting) has been quietly advancing his songs in a more atmospheric, open, varied direction. On the Tempest-inspired, nature-oriented Island of Noise the songs stretch out and insinuate themselves into your psyche, with help from guest jazz musicians. Not just an album but a project, its physical release was as a vinyl boxset with an artwork to accompany each song.

  1. Carly Pearce – 29: Written in Stone

2021 was somewhat of a void in the area of well-written, well-put-together mainstream country music, but don’t overlook Carly Pearce’s brilliant third album – a no-nonsense, emotional collection about a post-divorce search for meaning and understanding, rooted in ‘90s country sounds. 

  1. Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O – Umdali

I’m no expert on the South African jazz scene, but the power of this particular album sneaks up on me every time. Trombonist Malcolm Jiyane leads his group through some tender, perhaps melancholy, jazz which grows in power and expanse — voices and instruments pile on together and the whole thing becomes ecstatic, transcendent, overpowering with emotion.

  1. Rochelle Jordan – Play With the Changes

Sleek, rhythmic pop/R&B with a sound inclusive of a variety of styles of past and present – UK techno, ‘90s US R&B, and much more. Somehow the familiarity of these various then-progressive styles comes together with Rochelle Jordan’s tender, multi-faceted singing to sound like the future.

  1. Men I Trust – Untourable Album

An awkwardly named album representing an awkward year (and I think they toured it, anyway!) The Montreal trio Men I Trust are reinventing soft-pop in their own idiosyncratic way, with atmosphere and heart. 

  1. White Flowers – Day by Day

On their debut album, the UK duo White Flowers’ dark dreampop is harrowing and lovely at the same time – music that takes over and pulls you under its spell. The song titles reflect the shifting moods driven by time and place – “Night Drive”, “Daylight”, “Different Time, Different Place”.

  1. April Magazine – Sunday Music for an Overpass

There’s a lo-fi indie-rock quiet-revolution afoot in San Francisco. The enigmatic April Magazine play fuzzed-up daydreams perfect for your afternoon nap or late-night whatevers.

  1. Lionmilk – I Hope You Are Well

Originally hand-delivered as care packages to friends during the initial days of the pandemic, the meditative synth lullabies on I Hope You Are Well fully contain and carry across that intention, the kindness and generosity of it.

EC 30: my favorite albums of 2020

by Dave Heaton

“I used to think the world was true and now I’m not so sure” – Katie Pruitt, “Searching for the Truth”

2020 was a horrific year and if we’re pretending otherwise, God help us all. It was hard to find time to write about music in a year when “hanging in there” became the default answer to “how are you?”. The end-of-year horse-race feels so irrelevant when friends, family and fellow humans are struggling, hurting, dying. When the very fabric of ‘ordinary life’ is crumbling around us.

Yet it was an extraordinary year for music, at least as good as any recent year I can remember.

Generalizing, from my POV, 2020 was:

  • Yet another year where women made the best music but received less of the promotional/industry attention (in some genres especially).
  • A year dominated, again, by forward-thinking jazz centered around Chicago, London, and a handful of other major metropolitan areas. Jazz, old and new, was one of the best balms during this rollercoaster year.
  • The year of disco. The pulse of disco ran through several of 2020’s best pop albums. Was it the absence of in-person community this year that made music about physical, communal connection so attractive?
  • A year to look beyond the US, for exploring new music. While my list, tastes and life are US-focused, I went down many rabbit holes of music from around the world – especially African pop music.
  • Yet another year demonstrating how hip-hop has replaced rock as the underlying spirit beneath our musical language, across genres, globally. Even if I had fewer-than-usual straightahead ‘rap albums’ on my list, it’s in the air throughout the list.
  • A year where I had less time for nonsense. The best music felt sharpened to its own point, connected at every step to its purpose, no matter the genre or style it came wrapped in.

My favorite 30 albums of 2020 are below, with short descriptions. Albums beyond the 30 are grouped together thematically, bringing the total to 141 if I did my math right. This is not an all-inclusive list, I cut a good 50-100 more favorites for the sake of ‘readability’.

I also haven’t taken the time to do a singles list in 2020, though a list of great songs not on these albums would also be incredibly long. (I’ll sneak in 5 songs for good measure – Suboi “Bet On Me”; Lil Baby “The Bigger Picture”; Pongo “Wafu”; Iris DeMent “Going Down to Sing in Texas”; 70 Shine x Nacho “Domino.”)


1. Katie Pruitt – Expectations

Genre descriptions like singer-songwriter, folk, country, etc. will go nowhere towards describing: 1)how precisely written these heart-baring songs are 2) her stunning singing 3) the powerful, timely themes about societal repression of individuality and the way that’s internalized by families to horrific impact… 4) …and the way our systems and traditions reinforce all of that repression and lack of mutual understanding 5) how touching and tender the songs describe human connections in the face of that axis of repression 6) how self-analytical and perceptive songs on the verge of sentimentality can be 7) the rebellious spirit within traditional song structures 8) the way a great singer can feel like a friend, confidant, supporter during the course of a simple song 9) how forcefully it introduces Katie Pruitt as a star/anti-star-in-the-making (one can only hope).

2. Cindy – Free Advice

The San Francisco-based band Cindy makes patient, whispery pop that seems to be speaking its own language. Songs that feel wrapped in mystery, almost code-like, but underneath are simple observational stories and letters. Its music that seems easily dismissed with labels or comparisons (‘slowcore’ and similar) but spend much genuine time with it, and its charms and puzzles will win you over.

3. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle

A Cleveland Ohio collective probing the inherent injustice of America, and current end-times mood, within heady, murky soul-funk-electronics-etc workouts that also double as complicated love/betrayal songs. However you describe it, it’s powerful stuff doing deep work on listeners’ minds, bodies and hearts. They describe themselves as, “a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.”

4. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

Disco ‘returned’ in 2020, — providing a virtual sense of body-focused, visceral community during a year lacking it – and this album from the UK pop singer Jessie Ware was its apex. Self-consciously in tribute yet fully, vitally living up to any standards those stylistic references might set. Transcendent, beat to beat.

5. Luke Stewart – Exposure Quintet

A quintet album wrapped up the language and philosophy of free improvisation, which delivers in a diverse and energetic manner all of the listening pleasures which that creative freedom sparks and offers. It starts amped-up and spreads out along the way, as if meant to demonstrate how far focused, creative improv can take us.

6. Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has been behind much of the best music of the past few years – this time leading his ensemble through Afrocentric, spiritual jazz oriented towards looking back at what’s been lost and forward at what’s possible.

7. Luke Schneider – Altar of Harmony

Steel-guitar ambient – taking sounds you think you might recognize and stretching them out to be meditative, beautiful, patient yet also impatient, unsettled, unsure.

8. Alabaster DePlume – To Cy and Lee: Instrumentals, Vol 1.
The best balm for anxious nerves in 2020 was this collection of elegant jazz reveries, inventive and surprising within a placid sunrise/sunset sort of atmosphere.

9. Little Big Town – Nightfall

Fleetwood Mac harmonies within sentimental, carefully crafted now-country sounds has been Little Big Town’s way for a long time now, but here they’ve reached an apex, transcending the intellectual and emotional limitations of their genre’s current state and displaying a well-rounded, almost-wisdom.

10. Fenne Lily – Breach

On her second album Fenne Lily expanded her sound far beyond the ‘indie-folk’ label she’s been given. A gorgeous album, with a layered pop sound. Lonely songs wrestling with anxiety, isolation, and memory — essentially the world we’ll all living in right now – handled with panache and guts.

11. Moses Boyd – Dark Matter

Led by drummer/producer/composer Boyd, another funky London jazz masterwork – this one especially eclectic, with big-band buoyancy melting into almost trip-hop club music. Moody poetry, electric guitar and complex rhythms are all in the mix.

12. Ariana Grande – Positions

The pop superstar’s latest – her best — is personal and playful, its erotic wordplay and subtly experimental melodic forms lending the album its own individual style. Trauma is woven throughout as a theme, the creativity a form of healing.

13. Keeley Forsyth – Debris

Debris is a title and a mood (opening lyric: “the streets are filled with debris”). Forsyth’s voice pierces in stunning but also unsettling ways, while the songs traffic in the same feeling, embodying and arising from depression.

14. Azana – Ingoma

The young South African singer Azana has an elegant way with pop/soul ballads evocative at times of ‘90s R&B, at others of something smooth like Sade. Ingoma means “song”, and beautiful songs, sung well, is the clear focus.

15. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brotherhood – Live

A raw, powerful live album, recorded in Berlin – channeling deep rage against racism’s pervasiveness, at home and abroad.

16. HHY & The Kampala Unit – Lithium Blast

The Uganda underground/electronic label Nyege Nyege Tapes’ releases tend towards beyond-hyper eclecticism. Lithium Blast is smoother yet at least as exciting – a futuristic vibe among vibes, and full of surprises.

17. Killah Priest – Rocket to Nebula

Beatless hip-hop, intergalactic meanderings from a cult hero and one-time Wu-Tang affiliate who is off on his own trajectory, always and forever

18. John Carroll Kirby – My Garden

Kirby has worked with Solange and Frank Ocean, among others; on his debut album the music’s perhaps more in step with ‘70s R&B that those two newer artists draw from. My Garden is sneaky in its persistence, the soul-jazz grooves that take a simple melody and mood and keep on it until it’s hard to shake.

19. Taylor Swift – evermore

Less of an ambitious showpiece than her other 2020 album Folklore, but low-key better, evermore is Swift at her most comfortable yet precise.  

20. Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red

Tongue-twisting hip-hop stylist with a vampire-punk demeanor amps up the gloom and the disavowal of convention, in service of playful nihilism. His music seems so dumb, until you realize the loss and emotion within the anger – which he only lets you see if you keep with him through each track of this uncompromising epic.

21. Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy & Happiness

A ‘90s “one-hit” pop-soul singer I don’t remember returns close to three decades later with a stunning collection of stylish, strangely sci-fi songs chronicling human pain. “My Mind Is Out of Its Mind”, reads one representative title.

22. Lewsberg – In This House

This Dutch band lives in the VU-Feelies zone of a locked-in electric guitar groove that serves as a platform for their noncomformist, anti-rock sort of rock, tied to ‘small’ stories and musings about life.

23. Caitlyn Smith – Supernova

Heartbreak anthems and detailed portraiture, from a singer who marries songwriter-y precision to belt-it-out showmanship; country music, but always resistant to getting too comfortable.

24. Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico

New Mexican bohemians playing UFO pop daydreams.

25. Tiwa Savage – Celia

Longtime, accomplished African singer breaks worldwide, on Motown, with a personal album (named after her mother) where the melodies and beats are light and bubbly, yet the subject matter goes deeper than is at first apparent.

26. Josephine Foster – No Harm Done

Mystic/folk singer with an extensive discography and fairytale voice records in Nashville, puts some gorgeous depth and form around her songcraft, tilting it in a grounded, almost-blues/country direction. One of her best.

27. Jamael Dean – The Ished Tree

Delicate almost to an extreme, this is a gorgeous solo piano jazz album teaming with not just skill but a distinctive, calming atmosphere of its own.

28. Koney – Koney

A crackerjack power-pop band (The ACBS) has turned into a creator of minimalist, enigmatic soft-pop.

29. Caleb Landry Jones – The Mother Stone

Pretentious art-rock s**t from a pretentious movie actor/bohemian. Nightmarish circus music that I love and then want to shut out of my mind forever.

30. The Growth Eternal – Bass Tone Paintings

The title says it all – bass that chases itself into a blissful oblivion, meditations on the world around us, messy as it is.

ALSO RECOMMENDED (in b.s. groupings vaguely by genre, topic or keywords)

‘AMERICANA’ [US mythology exposed]

  • David Dondero – The Filter Bubble Blues
  • Kahil El’Zabar – America the Beautiful
  • Lonnie Holley – National Freedom
  • ­Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band – Just Like Moby Dick


  • 42 Dugg – Young & Turnt Vol 2
  • Boldy James and The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China 
  • Boldy James & Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols
  • Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
  • Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats – Unlocked
  • Father – Come Outside We Not Gone Jump You
  • Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
  • Gunna – Wunna
  • Mozzy – Beyond Bulletproof
  • Polo G – The Goat
  • Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation
  • Roy Kinsey – Kinsey: A Memoir
  • Shabazz Palaces – The Don of Diamond Dreams
  • Rod Wave – Pray 4 Love
  • Run the Jewels – RTJ4
  • ShooterGang Kony – Red Paint Reverend
  • Yhung T.O. – Jupiter

SHINY AND RUSTIC (country-ish)

  • Ashley McBryde – Never Will
  • Ashley Ray – Pauline
  • Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
  • Cam – The Otherside
  • Hailey Whitters – The Dream
  • Indigo Girls – Look Long
  • Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
  • Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross
  • Jerry David DeCicca – The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures
  • Joe Ely – Love in the Midst of Mayhem
  • Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels
  • Taylor Swift – Folklore


  • Ambrose Akinmusire – On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
  • Anteloper – Tour Beats, Vol 1
  • Asher Gamedze – Dialectic Soul
  • Carlos Nino & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Chicago Waves
  • Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure
  • Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again
  • Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
  • James Brandon Lewis Quartet – Molecular
  • Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
  • Jeremy Cunningham – The Weather Up There
  • Kamaal Williams – Wu Hen
  • Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings Sides E & F
  • Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Failing
  • Nubya Garcia – The Source
  • Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

MOOD (instrumental/ambient/experimental/etc)

  • Asa Tone – Temporary Music
  • Bing & Ruth – Species
  • David Bird – Mirrors
  • Ezra Feinberg – Recumbent Speech
  • Frankie Reyes – Originalitos
  • Gabriel Birnbaum – Nightwater
  • J. Pavone String Ensemble – Lost & Found
  • Jonas Munk – Minimum Resistance
  • M. Sage – Blessing Redux (vivo relief)
  • Pole – Fading
  • Sarah Davachi – Cantus, Descent
  • Sarah Louise – Earth and Its Contents
  • Windy & Carl – Allegiance and Conviction

POP! (of various stripes)

  • Andrew ‘Hotdog’ Kaffer – Head Band
  • Anna McClellan – I Saw First Light
  • Astrid S – Leave It Beautiful
  • Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
  • Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
  • Demae – Life Works Out…Usually
  • Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
  • Ego Ella May – Honey For Wounds
  • Georgia – Seeking Thrills
  • H. Moon – Trustblood
  • Haim – Women in Music Pt III
  • Jessy Lanza – All the Time
  • Kabza De Small – I Am the King of Amapiano
  • Katie Dey – mydata
  • Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
  • The Legends – The Legends
  • Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately
  • Pia Fraus – Empty Parks
  • Sarkodie – Black Love
  • Terry vs Tori – Heathers
  • Thibault – Or Not Thibault
  • The Very Most – Needs Help

“ROCK” (or maybe these are still pop, I’m not sure…)

  • 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit
  • The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
  • Gum Country – Somewhere
  • Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree – Names of North End Women
  • The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin
  • Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else
  • Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
  • Porridge Radio – Every Bad
  • Shopping – All or Nothing
  • The Stroppies – Look Alive
  • Stutter Steps – Reeling
  • Torres – Silver Tongue
  • Wednesday – I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone

SONGS (“Singer-songwriter” aka intimate music by solo artists not already above)

  • Adam Selzer – Slow Decay
  • Allegra Krieger – The Joys of Forgetting
  • Angelica Garcia – Cha Cha Palace
  • Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming
  • Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part
  • Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners
  • Darren Hayman – Home Time
  • Emma Kupa – It Will Come Easier
  • Jeff London – Trouble Trust
  • Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season
  • Kath Bloom – Bye Bye These Are the Days
  • Mac Miller – Circles
  • Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer
  • Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming
  • Sweet Whirl – How Much Works


My 100 Favorite Albums of 2019.

Favorites from all genres (that I listen to). Not a catch-all list; many enjoyable albums were excluded (the list was double the size when I started). All albums were listened to many times (not by streaming, for what it’s worth). I have no time to write about each album, or look up the record label names. Reach out if you want to talk about any of them, I’ll talk your ear off. Best wishes…

  1. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
  2. Cate Le Bon – Reward
  3. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
  4. J Macfarlane’s Reality Guest – Ta Da
  5. Burna Boy – African Giant
  6. Cassadee Pope – Stages
  7. Wand – Laughing Matter
  8. Steve Gunn – The Unseen in Between
  9. Clipping – There Existed an Addiction to Blood
  10. Sarah Louise –Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars
  11. Earthgang – Mirrorland
  12. DAWN – New Breed
  13. Angel Bat Dawid – The Oracle
  14. Boogie – Everything’s for Sale
  15. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
  16. Modern Nature – How to Live
  17. Sigrid – Sucker Punch
  18. Tayla Parx – We Need to Talk
  19. Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium
  20. Hatchie – Keepsake
  21. The Stroppies – Whoosh!
  22. Parsnip – When the Tree Bears Fruit
  23. Little Simz – Grey Area
  24. The Leaf Library – The World Is a Bell
  25. Junius Paul – Ism
  26. Davido – A Good Time
  27. Theon Cross – Fyah
  28. Doja Cat – Hot Pink
  29. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
  30. Joan Shelley – Like the River Loves the Sea
  31. Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code
  32. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
  33. Kim Gordon – No Home Record
  34. Maurice Louca – Elephantine
  35. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
  36. NKISI – 7 Directions
  37. Michael Nau – Less Ready to Go
  38. Solange – When I Get Home
  39. Patience – Dizzy Spells
  40. Men I Trust – Oncle Jazz
  41. Lana Del Rey – Norman F_g Rockwell
  42. Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
  43. Mark Mulcahy – The Gus
  44. The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Anxiety Art
  45. Lloyd Cole – Guesswork
  46. Meernaa – Heart Hunger
  47. Seablite – Grass Stains and Novocaine
  48. Dreezy – Big Dreez
  49. Jake Xerxes Fussell – Out of Sight
  50. Rina Mushonga – In a Galaxy
  51. Isasa – Insilio
  52. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
  53. Joe McPhee & Jon Butcher – At the Hill of James Magee
  54. Jeanines – Jeanines
  55. Lauren Jenkins – No Saint
  56. Big Thief – Two Hands
  57. Taylor Swift – Lover
  58. French Vanilla – How Am I Not Myself?
  59. Business of Dreams – Ripe for Anarchy
  60. Garcia Peoples – One Step Behind
  61. Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
  62. Hand Habits – Placeholder
  63. Loren Connors & Daniel Carter – The Departing of a Dream Vol. VII
  64. Fenella – Fenella
  65. Claude Fontaine – Claude Fontaine
  66. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Tracing Back the Radiance
  67. Frankie Cosmos – Close It Quietly
  68. Living Hour – Softer Faces 
  69. Ludovic Alarie – We’re a Dream Nobody Wrote Down
  70. Polo G – Die a Legend
  71. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
  72. Monnone Alone – Summer of the Mosquito
  73. Hallelujah the Hills – I’m You
  74. Possible Humans – Everybody Split
  75. Elva – Winter Sun
  76. Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich – A Tangle of Stars
  77. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
  78. Yhung T.O. – On My Momma 2
  79. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
  80. Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage – Bad Wiring
  81. Simon Scott – Soundings
  82. Sampa the Great – The Return
  83. Ings – Lullaby Rock
  84. Chance the Rapper – The Big Day
  85. Lisa Prank – Perfect Love Song
  86. Jon Pardi – Heartache Medication
  87. Eluvium – Pianoworks
  88. Jay Mitta – Tatizo Pesa
  89. The Catenary Wires’ – ‘til the Morning
  90. Sean O’Hagan – Radum Calls, Radum Calls
  91. Jay Som – Anak Ko
  92. Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats – Anger Management
  93. Guided by Voices – Zeppelin Over China
  94. Randy Houser – Magnolia
  95. Martha – Love Keeps Kicking
  96. Moon Diagrams – Trappy Bats
  97. Mammoth Penguins – There’s No Fight We Can’t Both Win
  98. MelodieGroup – Being & Nothingness
  99. 2 Chainz – Rap or Go to the League
  100. Pure Sounds of Michigan