I really like top ten lists, this time of year I find myself seeking them out (if you happen to read this and you have your own, please leave a link in the comments). This time of year I graze on them like a series of giant, cultural julebords, sampling all the tasty things I missed. It feels fitting for the Christmas season during the darkest days of the year. So it only seems fair to reciprocate. This is the fifth of these lists that I’ve made (here’s 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021). Over the years, I’ve broadened the categories and dispensed with the rankings, but I always limit my choices to things that were put out in the previous calendar year. So, by its nature this list will give a false sense of my cultural consumption. I listen to A SHIT-TON of Brahms, can’t help myself. But you’d never know it from what follows.
10 Albums Presented in Alphabetical Order
I’m not sure how else to put it…
(Writing descriptions of music feels a little pointless in 2022 when you can very readily hear the recordings in a variety of ways. That’s why my comments tend to be more about how I feel about an album and less descriptive).
Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Heart I Believe in You
Hopefully we’re all used to the brilliance of Big Thief by now. It’s shameful how the Boomers who opine about how no one writes or records good music any more fail to acknowledge how good this band is. The interplay of these musicians, Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek in counterpoint, the humor and the seriousness… I don’t know where to start or where to end with them. They are as good as anything.
Andrew Bird, Inside Problems
I’ll stipulate that there is something precious about Andrew Bird and that this is not his best record. But I got to see him play a gorgeous set at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado in June and that put him square in my line of sight for the first time since probably the last time I saw him play. I’ll admit, I want to come back in my next life as Andrew Bird. The guy can play, wow. I heard these songs live before I heard the LP and now I know that the recordings are merely the starting point. And they’re good songs, “Make a Picture,” was in my top five for the year.
The cover of this album feels like a manifesto. An abandoned husk of a building is explored, except I suspect the building is actually sounds. It’s like they walked onto a stage and found the shreds of the past 60 years of popular music abandoned on the floor. How do the pieces fit together? Do they fit together? It’s more a vibe than a collection of song. I’ll give the opining Boomers a pass on this one. This is post post post post everything. I’m dying to see this band play live.
Johnny Gandelsman, This Is America, An Anthology 2020-2021
Since seeing Brooklyn Rider perform live several years ago, I’ve been interested in violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s solo career. I’m obsessed with his bow hold (that’s the kind of nerd that I am). After exhausting much of J.S. Bach’s solo repertoire… the Cello Suites, the Solos and Partitas, etc. he’s now released a collection of mostly solo violin pieces that he commissioned from composers all over the world, asking them to reflect on 2020 and 2021. I have unlimited respect for Gandelsman’s musicianship, but more importantly by how he practices being a classical musician in the 21st century. You can hear (or purchase) this collection at Bandcamp.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth
I’m taking great pleasure in following Alynda Segarra’s evolving musical project. I first came to know them for the more traditionalist Small Town Heroes. And I loved their voice, their songs, and how the album hung together. I bought The Navigator on pre-order without having read anything about it and was blown away. The revolutionary Puerto Rican politics? The Post West Side Story of it all? But this current eco-punk reincarnation? I’m very on board for this.
iLe first appeared on this list in 2019 with Almadura and I spent 3 years impatiently waiting for the follow-up. I was not disappointed. I have to admit though that I don’t understand Spanish well enough to penetrate the meaning of this album. But for me that was part of the point, I began listening to Spanish language music in 2019 because I was studying a lot and needed music whose lyrics wouldn’t distract me. I experience this purely in terms of its beauty and mystery. This record provides a lot of that. Love it.
All I can say is that our civilization must be doing something right to have produced this glorious freak of a musician. Rosalía’s Los Ángeles appeared on my 2020 list and I wrote about the fusion of it all… I was and am impressed. But I wasn’t prepared for this record. Can she really just keep on doing this? What could possibly come next? People, we need to keep the world from collapsing long enough just to give this human being (& 8 billion others) space and time to keep doing THIS.
An album of afrofuturist, classical-inflected instrumentals from Sault? That it fits squarely into their ongoing project speaks to the strong, strange, and beautiful construction of what they’re doing. While their most recent slate of releases (11, Earth, AIIR, Untitled (God), and Today & Tomorrow) felt a little unfinished, AIR does what it set out to do. The membranes that hold it together—seemingly made from celestial choirs—are permeable and it’s fun to listen to what comes through.
Seal Party, MMXXII
Seal Party is an outfit out of the Bay Area helmed by Kevin Seal and Chris McGrew—best known in that part of the country for their band Griddle. (Kevin’s a close friend). I love their new project. The songs didn’t really grab me until I made them the sole focus of my attention. And then I saw the love, the craft, the kindness, the intelligence, and the art behind them. They mostly play in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you have a chance to see them, do. For now, I’ll link to their Bandcamp page and encourage you to take a listen.
Nilüfer Yanya, Painless
Strong rhythms, fun strong structures, catchy choruses, a bass player who’s having a great time, and lots of MOMENTS (I seem to be using ALL CAPS a lot today) where the density of the arrangement gets thin and something emerges: an acoustic guitar, an unadorned voice compelling for its flatness. This is another record that rewards deep listening. And she’s 27? We get to enjoy this person’s music, if we’re lucky, for decades?
5 Books Also Presented in Alphabetical Order
Conveniently I only read five books in 2022 that were released in 2022, so I don’t need to narrow this list in any way. I can recommend all five of these.
Pekka Hämäläinen, Indigenous Continent
The story that we’ve been telling ourselves about the European settlement of North America erases centuries of indigenous resistance. Yes, of course, we all know about the “Indian Wars,” and the aspects of the history that were dramatized in Western films. But that is only part of the story. There were many occasions where indigenous power was dominant, where Europeans had to accommodate native networks. I read this book with great interest because there was something about the prevailing historical narrative that never sat right with me. This book makes the native peoples of North America a co-equal protagonist in a shared history rather than a victim or a “savage.” It’s interesting that it took a Finn to do that. This is a wonderful book and everyone should read it.
Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man
Earlier this year I walked into my friend Amy’s bookshop (Lion’s Mouth, Green Bay) and she basically told me to buy this book. I’m inclined to listen to my friends, particularly when they have a granular knowledge of what’s coming out and what’s good. I really enjoyed it (enough that I ordered a used copy of Exit West). This is kind of like Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, but in reverse. Instead of one man waking up in an absurdist world in which everyone else has transformed into a rhinoceros, in Hamid’s world a white man has transformed into a black man, slowly everyone else does too. It’s an absurdist device that’s handled completely realistically and by doing so becomes an interesting examination of how people think about race. I only wish this book had been longer.
Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties, a Book
My kids, who are 14 and 16, talk about the nineties the way we used to talk about the sixties—as if they were a coherent thing. To me, “the nineties” was high school, college, and a couple years I spent on the East Coast, ending on 9/11. There’s nothing coherent about any of that and when people talk about nineties style or culture, I don’t really know what they’re talking about. I can’t see it objectively, I guess; the decade is my baseline. So I picked up this book, maybe, to begin to wrap my mind around it. And I was entertained. Chuck Klosterman writes a great cultural essay. And while I don’t think I’m going to wallow in it (I’m not going to rent Singles or Reality Bites), I am ready to admit to a little nostalgia. I’m sad that no one writes letters any more, that we all had to quit smoking, that screens dominate our lives… Not that I’m going to hop into a car and drive West with a Rand McNally atlas and a box of cassette tapes any time soon. But you know, I did.
Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
I just wanted to say that I hovered over this wondering whether this would alphabetically go under ‘s’ or ‘m,’ so I clicked on Mandel’s website and the first line on the first page says “St. John’s my middle name. The books go under M.” Emily, if by some chance you happen to read this, this is exactly why I appreciate you: Clarity. You write with great clarity. It’s what you bring to a world that doesn’t have enough of it.
Wendy Wimmer, Entry Level
I was an early reader on this one, Wendy’s a friend. I first read most of these in, I think, 2018 or 2019. So this is a re-read and I’m doing it slowly. I don’t think I’ve every read a short story anthology all the way through—at least as an adult. I’ll pick this book up and read a story and then digest it over a month. Wimmer doesn’t pull any punches about what it’s like to be human. These stories can be a little horrifying. They’re dark, they’re funny. You know, like people. There are magical realist elements to many of the stories that help to reveal something about what life is like. Quite a few of them are also very based in the geography of the Midwest, (including places I’ve been), so for me that’s part of the appeal.
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