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2022 in music
So much good stuff
I could bend your ear about Elon Musk vs. the Twitter journos, boy could I ever. Legal teams are submitting final arguments at the Rouleau Commission on the feds’ use of the Emergencies Act. So there’s stuff to write about in my usual wheelhouse. And I’ve got friends wondering why I don’t simply take some time off. Honestly after the year we’ve had together, I think that’s a fair choice, and I do plan to throttle back until the new year.
But I’ve been writing about music as long as I’ve been writing about anything else, and if I don’t spread the word about some good sounds I heard this year I won’t feel right.
Here are 10 albums released in 2022, from assorted genres, in roughly descending order of preference. I considered counting up to #1, but suspense is overrated.
Links are to the albums on Bandcamp, where available. On Bandcamp, music lovers pay reasonable prices and artists get most of that money, which to me is the way these things should work. But almost everything is available on the cheaper streaming services too. Of those, I prefer Tidal to Spotify and Apple Music, because Tidal comes at least a little closer than they do to paying musicians properly.
1. Jenny Berkel, These Are the Sounds Left From Leaving (Outside Music)
At year’s end, nobody else is talking about this singer-songwriter-poet from, variously, Montreal, London, ON, and points east and west. But it’s my newsletter. I know little about Berkel except that she released another EP later in 2022, but to me These Are The Sounds Left From Leaving is close to a masterwork. Melancholy and knowing in the manner of Roy Orbison, kd lang, Cowboy Junkies and assorted other currently unfashionable balladeers, Sounds sets allusive lyrics to thoughtful string arrangements and acoustic guitar, and I couldn’t get enough of it all year. Another track:
2. Julian Lage, View With a Room (Blue Note)
The California-born guitarist, now 34, was a child prodigy (he was the subject of a documentary when he was 8). He radiates the joy and gratitude of someone who’s doing what he was born to do. He’s an instrumental virtuoso. The notes flow like water. But if all he had to offer were speed I wouldn’t bother you with him. In recent years, and especially on his two most recent albums on Blue Note, he’s reached a new level of eloquence and clarity.
It helps that he’s found the right band, a simple trio with drummer Dave King, the burly trucker-looking guy from The Bad Plus who matches Lage’s spontaneity and his love for the various conjugations and declensions of the American pop idiom. Lage (it’s pronounced to rhyme with garage) used to work harder to sound like a jazz guitarist. Now he more freely admits to himself that his influences come as often from country and rock as from jazz. I spent a few weeks doing archival research to get a better idea who those influences might have been. I came up with Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Joe Maphis, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
On View With A Room, Lage’s breakthrough insight was that he could achieve fuller orchestrations with a second guitarist, if that guitarist was nimble enough to keep up with him. That’s how Bill Frisell, a legendary guitar eccentric more than twice Lage’s age, came to appear on most of the album’s tracks without playing a solo. Frisell thickens the harmonies, comments on Lage’s lines in a lowkey manner, never gets in the way. (For that reason alone, the excellent Youtube videos Lage has recorded to promote the album fall short of conveying all its pleasures.) The tunes themselves, often built on drawn-out cadences that withhold harmonic resolution only to bring it crashing down in satisfactory waves, pay off in pleasurable ways. Guitar heroes, too, are unfashionable these days. I wasn’t sure I’d have another, after Frisell and John Scofield and Pat Metheny defined my developing musical tastes a generation ago. Lage is in their league.
3. Destroyer, Labyrinthitis (Merge)
At last my tastes come closer to the zeitgeist. The lastest from Dan Bejar, the Vancouver bard who records as Destroyer, is on a few other year-end lists I’ve seen. He’s made a lot of albums and to me they’re all expressions of the same decadent genius. This one might represent some sort of apotheosis. Bejar is the guy on the next barstool who’s constantly prattling on, insistent, hilarious and evocative without ever quite making sense. He’s Brian Ferry or Robyn Hitchcock, but funnier. On ‘June,’ the tune illustrated in the video above: “A snow angel's a fucking idiot somebody made in the snow…. You have to look at it from all angles/ Says the cubist judge from cubist jail.” The musical accompaniment is one decent step up from Leonard Cohen’s dimestore Casio keyboards and drum-machine castanets. Bejar doesn’t need more.
4. Tyshawn Sorey, The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism (Pi)
Now we’re getting into the heavy stuff. Sorey’s a drummer, percussionist, composer, increasingly prominent in areas closer to contemporary classical music. He rethought Morton Feldman at New York’s Park Avenue Armory this year, drawing admiring coverage. But unlike a lot of musicians who straddle idiomatic boundaries he’s also a really persuasive jazz drummer.
The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism offers a quartet playing a bunch of jazz standards — ‘Out of Nowhere,’ ‘Three Little Words,’ ‘Chelsea Bridge’ — and warping them almost beyond recognition. Tempos shift, harmonies extend or collapse, structures fold into vamps or drift without quite vanishing. The model is Miles Davis’s second quintet from the 1960s, but all hands make the language their own. The album is nearly four hours long. No track lasts less than seven minutes, four extend past 15.
Greg Osby, the iconic alto saxophonist from the 1980s, is on hand, and the album serves as a kind of sequel to Osby’s underground classic from 1997, Banned In New York. This later session is less fervent, more ironic than its predecessor. Everyone’s older and wiser. The surprise, and perhaps the most valuable player, is pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s usually heard in far less adventurous settings. He clearly loves being pushed.
5. Bartees Strange, Farm to Table (4AD)
Singer-songwriter fare with layer on layer of surprise and fresh perspective. Strange, who was born Bartees Leon Cox Jr., is a military brat who’s lived everywhere and who spent time in church choirs. He switches idiom on a dime, so there are moments of hip-hop and a serious drummer under these often-tender songs about, well, all this: “There’s reasons for heavy hearts/ This past year I thought I was broken,” he sings, in perhaps the most of-the-moment opening couplet of the year.
6. Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song (Nonesuch)
I’m delighted that Samara Joy is nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, but she’s still very young and just figuring stuff out. In an age of extraordinarily promising young American jazz singers — Veronica Swift, Jazzmeia Horn — Cécile McLorin Salvant is, at 33, perhaps the leading light. Ghost Song is an early candidate for her magnum opus.
She’s not really easy listening, though she has a glorious treble-y voice and is more than capable of expressing simple beauty and joy. There’s too much musical theatre and cabaret in her choices for her music to be entirely relaxing, but those complicated influences multiply her dramatic options. (This unfussy duet session with her frequent musical partner, pianist Sullivan Fortner, is one of the best indications on video of what she can do.) She demands, but rewards, concentrated attention. I saw her twice in concert this year and wrote up one of those encounters for the Globe and Mail. She’s an astonishing bandleader, encouraging exploration but drawing a unified vision from disparate co-conspirators. If she’s this ambitious and this persuasive at 33, one hesitates to speculate about what might lie ahead.
7. Doug Wamble, Blues in the Present Tense (Halcyonic)
A diligent student of the history of the guitar in American music, Tennessee-born Wamble is often spotted near Wynton or Branford Marsalis. Here he assembles two veterans of Branford’s bands, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and bassist Eric Revis, for a set of blues tunes performed in a style familiar to anyone who’s heard Branford’s bands. Also on hand is Prometheus Jenkins, an elusive and mysterious saxophonist who fits this style well. Wamble’s an unremarkable singer of his own original tunes, but who cares. He highlights the blues roots in this strain of modern jazz, he is absolutely qualified to play guitar in this august company, and this is a quirky, listenable outing.
8. Assassins (The 2022 Off-Broadway Cast Recording) (Broadway Records)
9. Into The Woods (2022 Broadway Cast Recording) (Craft/ Concord)
Stephen Sondheim died in November 2021 and here are recordings from two new productions of his most distinctive musicals. Assassins was running at Classic Stage Company when he died. Into The Woods came a few months later. The recordings deserve to stand alongside earlier recordings of both plays. Lines of bitter irony and intricate wordplay that earlier casts tossed off, nonchalantly, here get pauses and careful attention. Which isn’t necessarily better, but it suggests the actors were assaying the significance of the material Sondheim left them.
Sondheim is the American poet of ambivalence. The thread runs through most of his memorable songs. You’re always sorry/ You’re always grateful. Somebody love me too much. Into The Woods is about what happens after you live happily ever after. The second-act opening line: “Once upon a time — later.” It was the first thing I ever saw on Broadway, in the original run. Sondheim was getting into trouble for its awkward structure, which is a laugh because it came after Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park With George, which were structurally nearly un-fixable. But everyone loves to keep trying.
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Assassins was conceived to be problematic. It’s a musical about the people who have shot American presidents. So yeah, dark humour. The second scene is about John Wilkes Booth, the last about Lee Harvey Oswald. To Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, it’s about the American dream breaking. “There’s another national anthem/ And it’s not the one you cheer/ At the ballpark.” It doesn’t have much to say about race but it takes a good hard run at most of the other American pathologies. I’ve always thought of it as a love letter, skewed but heartfelt.
10. Donovan Woods, Big Hurt Boy (End Times)
It’s scale alone that made me put this last: It’s an 18-minute EP from my fellow Sarnia native, whom I’ve never met, though I won’t mind if that changes. Mostly I’m catching up to friends who’ve been saying for years he’s the next great Canadian songwriter. They may have a point. Of course that depends what you’re looking for, but, well…
“Hope there was clarity in making your decision
I hope a heavy weight feels lifted off your shoulders
I hope everything you were suspecting turns out to be right
And I hopе you change your mind.”
Thank you for spending time with me this year. You’ve helped make this one of the best years of a long career. I really was not expecting that. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.