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Monday December 19 2022
2022 in music, part one
In the course of eleven normal months and one very compressed December, I encountered about 150 albums that seemed noteworthy. I wrote blurbs for them and they’re all available here through the good people at Shfl. Some of these appear below, along with writing from friends and colleagues. (If it’s not one of mine, the author’s name appears after the text.) Tomorrow, the second half goes up. No organizing principle here—it was just too much to read in one go.
Bigger news: this shebang will be subscriber-only from now on. I had a week to think about it after Bookforum was unexpectedly shut down. My conclusion was that I can either close this down or ramp it up. We’re going with the latter: more essays and interviews, more than once post a week, etc. This Substack has been open to everyone for almost four years, so you probably have what you need to make the call. Why not subscribe now and avoid a puzzling absence? No, I didn’t think I’d ever put this behind a paywall, but then I never seriously thought Bookforum would be shitcanned.
The remaining 2022 posts—these two music roundups and a big juicy year-end buddy coming next week—will be in front of the paywall, so if you are somehow brand new today, the rest of the year functions as a free trial.
soliloquy for brian caroline mckenzie: The concept is simple—McKenzie made this for a friend she lost—and the larger description is mundane: synth music in a roughly ambient style. But what McKenzie does here is no small feat, using repetition and echo and stacking to create a robust whole. This kind of music doesn’t usually have such finely turned melodies in its folds or such a magisterial sense of time.
azurescens ssabæ: There are three strains that come together here, approaches linked to some intense work in the last few years: hauntology, ambient, and ASMR. I love these impulses but hate all three of these terms, and have been working (perhaps to no better end) with these terms: “flickering,” “softness,” and “references.” The close-up world of the smartphone’s mic and speaker and screen has brought this activity to a froth. The references here are soundtracks and weedy parlor room psychedelia like Broadcast, and the flickering happens in both timbre and harmony. The softness is that of the falling patient, only partially anesthetized, beginning to speak as she descends into a negotiated state of suspended sleep. Bandleader Irwin sent me this statement via email after I asked who they all were, really: “ssabæ is really just friends from very different horizons improvising together in very different settings; sometimes high sometimes low sometimes inside sometimes outside basically listening together to what some sounds have to say.”
Living Room Roméo Poirier: The base layer is clarinet and organ, and the whole is doggedly aquatic in operation. This music confuses and caresses and leaves you adrift on memory’s failure. Eventually, a pulse enters, but that’s not the point here. If the idea of “liminal space” hadn’t been ruined, we could use it here.
East Portal: Bassist Patrick Taylor lives in LA; musician and digital processing whiz John Atkinson lives in New York. During the pandemic they sent each other files, collaborating for the first time in a decade of friendship (partially centered on a fantasy basketball league). What they created is a non-repetitive sprawl of upright bass and clarinet and electronics. There are few matchings of live musicianship and in-the-box processing that work this well, that are so fruitfully unlooped and deliciously tactile.
Butterfly DNA Yunzero: This spooked out world is my kinda thing and it comes from an Australian named Jim Sellars. The feel is nonlinear and the tools are equally digital and concrete, depending on the track. World is the operative word, in that Sellars isn’t that interested in establishing a sound or a narrative or a specific pull—what he makes on Butterfly DNA is a fully formed space with its own rules and tendencies. Some of the citizens have definitely been to a club, a few like watercolors, and maybe some of them know how to build furniture. It’s not an anxious place but things do fall apart and get crushed and flare out in the occasional sunlight-through-lens fire.
Sent from My Telephone Voice Actor: Noa Kurzweil (voice and music) and Levi Lanser (music) made these 110 tracks over the course of three years, sending them to Ziggy at Stroom as they went. (Kurzweil has released some bits under the name Supertalented, and Lanser has gone by Luddites). Lasting slightly less than five hours, Sent From My Telephone is exactly that—the sound of riding around town and listening to music and talking to your friends and thinking all through one device. The overall feel will be tagged repeatedly as ASMR and ambient, which isn’t 100% wrong, but it doesn’t capture the juicy range here. This is club music left in a thin takeout bag on a train platform, soundtracks copied out and replayed on a dot matrix printer, notation transmitted into space and captured by omnidirectional surveillance cams as heat maps.
Järnnätter Civilistjävel!: A man who lives in the Swedish countryside (or suburbs, depending who you ask), the person behind Civilistjävel! has been using the same analogue synth gear for years and has made a gang of fantastic records under this name. Järnnätter is Swedish for “iron night,” a long winter night when the frost builds up. This album is on a delivery path of the gods, the same route that dropped off something with Joy Division’s Closer and donated to Rhythm & Sound’s first few twelve-inches. This is north country dub, the sound of a lonely soul trying to pray with frozen hands.
Bajascillators Bitchin Bajas: There is a point where all dance music and trance music and minimalism converges, and it is in the middle of this Chicago trio. The Bajas use keyboards and mallet instruments and woodwinds and various software intervention to set up fractal patterns and beautiful math, ways of creating mind-freeing repetition. They are some cosmic buddies, able to punch holes in a drone and smooth out an ostinato until it coos. Hypnosis now!
slicing space-time into objects xu: Italian musician Nicola Fornasari is xu, and he made two great albums in one year. (Also try the equally good Something More Beautiful Than Perfection.) As he wrote to me, “I make intensive use (here and on other recordings) of an iPad application called Samplr that I have used since its release. It is an awesome live looper that takes advantage of the touch interface, transforming it into a real musical instrument rather than a mere program.” This is true. Imagine Eno’s Reflection app with a three-day beard and the ability to speak for itself, the legs to run wild in the mini mall and buy appliances it will never use. That is this, a meditative generative quiet joyride around the parking lot behind the app store, sending bell tones out to bloom above the library.
Music For Four Guitars Bill Orcutt: A bootleg rewrite of King Crimson’s Discipline or the national anthem of a place with non-functional government, this music has a celebratory vibe and a firm spine. Orcutt’s four guitars are wide awake and barking—this is not music with chill, or even music with a pleasant tone. His Telecaster is the cutter, sparing nobody, and his compositions are built to clear the brush.
Repeater Water Damage: This Austin band has seven members three of which are drummers. They play until the tape runs out (I think it is actual tape) and their overall approach is to grind a single note until it starts to musk the room with its essence. They remind me of the mighty Australian trio, feedtime, who did not play long drones at all but had a similar love of the rude, flappy chord and the dark liquor of the feedback shell.
Deep in View Cola: Ought’s Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy left Ought and found drummer Evan Cartwright, and that trio became Cola. Darcy keeps getting compared to Mark E. Smith, which is what happens when an English person talks more than they sing in a rock band. Darcy has more in common with Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales, though. Cola feel very C86 to me, a bright and anxious guitar band trying to twist melody and lyrics into the least obvious braids.
Aethiopes Billy Woods: This is the realization of a dark dry dream born somewhere inside the old Fat Beats store on a hungover Sunday. That idea was to find something that tapped into the speckled spray paint panic of Cannibal Ox (friends of Woods’s) while keeping the emotional heft of songwriting and and the aleatory whiplash of live improv. Woods with producer Preservation made it with a vivid bag of ammonia raps, adding original cast appearances and making it work where a hundred albums like it have not.
You Belong There Daniel Rossen: I love Rossen’s 12-string and nylon reimagining of Fantasia, his semi-symphonic sled run of Romantic reveals. I would buy 20 more albums that sound exactly like this, even if he’s just reciting the TOS of an exercise app and getting all fake classical on my dumb ass.
Live at Commend, NYC Carlos Niño & Friends: What could have been a well-meaning train wreck turned into a coordinated peace jam. Percussionist Carlos Niño gathered a crew at the late, beloved Commend shop in downtown Manhattan: Laraaji, Surya Botofasina, Photay, and Will Logan. Floral and accretive.
The Ruby Cord Richard Dawson: Dawson has spent years recording a series of albums about a bad future in which the verdant mother is superseded by the evil computadora crew, and this might be the concluding piece of the trilogy. I mock lightly not because I don’t love nature or hate screens but because I cannot track what is happening, for example, when the narrator smashes the “screens” to rescue “Mam and Dad’s earthen vessels.” It doesn’t matter. Dawson and his small ensemble, including the radiant harpist Rhodri Davies, create a loose prog rock tarp that more than justifies its size. Just hop on and tumble down the hills with Dawson.
Two Sisters Sarah Davachi: A genuine achievement in composition and arrangement, Two Sisters is a sort of celebration of the past without a hint of nostalgia. Vocal arrangements for small ensembles alternate with long organ tones tuned to quarter-comma meantone temperament and the resonance of carillon bells (one weighing twelve tons). A Sunday service reconfigured as a benevolent marathon, Two Sisters is holy in a genuine way, committed to a spiritual stillness and requesting deeper focus.
The Parable of the Poet Joel Ross: At some point this year I formed an obsessive attachment to a track by Joel Ross called “Wail,” by which I mean not just that I played it many times but also that for a while I told everyone I talked or emailed with about it or sent them YouTube or Spotify links. So a half dozen or a few more times than that I explained: Ross is a vibraphone player. Both his parents are Chicago police officers. He shifted to vibes when his twin brother beat him out for the drum chair in the middle school band. He sets up a thing in this track where the horns and vibes repeat a pattern while the drums and sax go wherever they want. I was a few months away from understanding this last bit was a strategy shared with Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti” and I never added how extraordinarily beautiful I found the track, because I worried if I did no one would listen. But my vibe was generally, as the old song puts it, “Come join us in a prayer. We’ll be waiting, waiting there. Everything’s ending here.” Because of course everything’s ending. Everything always is, and always has been, since it all began. But this year didn’t it seem like it was ending, I don’t know, differently? Not differently than we expected, but maybe sooner? Maybe it didn’t. Maybe that’s just me. Still this track, the way it moved both circularly and linearly, the way it mapped (as all jazz has, since it started) a heterophonic multiplicity of ideas as beauty rather than conflict, the way it resonated (for me) with cantorial Jewish wailing and jazz pentatonics — it all felt like a reprieve, if not a solution. Anyway: Have you heard Joel Ross? Both his parents are Chicago police officers. He shifted to vibes when his twin brother beat him out for the drum chair in the middle school band. He sets up a thing in this track called “Wail” . . . (Joe Levy)
Born At The Disco Jennifer O’Connor: A remarkable entry into the catalog of one of our greatest songwriters. The latest from O’Connor seamlessly embroiders synths and programmed drums on to several tracks, her genius level craft buttressing the brash ambition of her Joni-fronting-New Order design. Elsewhere there is the wry and buoyant Pet Shop Boys-adjacent crypto-Marxist thrill of “Your Job Is Gone,” the skewed-confessional, weird-tuning gospel of “Tell the Truth” and the slow burn catharsis of “Carrying You” which carries that weight far enough that true redemption feels briefly possible in this wicked world. (Elizabeth Nelson)
Here are some 2022 lists, many of which I consulted: Jace Clayton at Artforum, The Fader, The Quietus, Caleb Wright at Shfl, Kieran Press-Reynolds, Aquarium Drunkard, Bleep’s favorite compilations and reissues, Zik Zak, Marc Masters’s best experimental music, Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, and 2 OZ of Plastic.
Thank you to Heidi DeRuiter, Joe Levy, Caleb Wright, Nikola Tamindzic, Elizabeth Nelson, Dina Litovsky, Marianela D’Aprile, Andy Zax, and all the readers who suggested albums: Mary Kate O’Sullivan, Sabina Stent, Kate, Jasmine Sun, Diana B., Lauren Kim, Sara Campbell, Joan, Courtney LeSueur, Jillco, AvB, Timofey, Chrissy Ruch, Sebastian Hassinger, Jake Thomas, Roz, Kevin Alexander, Dustin Brown, Alec Hanley Bemis, Nigel Spencer, Brennan McCracken, Jesper Nørbæk, Jeremy Beaudry, Rosalind Reed, Jason Currie, Abe Burmeister, Jacob Long, Russell Edwards-Simpson, BB, Dan Wever, Scott Belluz, William Pacholski, Jeremy Shatan, Peter, Brian Alter, Michael Cloud Duguay, Cadence Weapon, Owen Zoll, Robert Cronister, Graeme Stonehouse, Adam Voith, and Olaf Westfeld.