Here is a list of my favorite music — songs and records and that brought me joy and comfort during a year of great change. I hope you find something new to dig. Best wishes for a peaceful, healthy, and music-filled 2022.
First, some self-promotion…
In September, I joined Dust City Opera, a wonderful band with an original sound that is expansive without losing focus. Building on a dark folk-rock base and moving into orchestral rock, the songs call to mind artists from Tom Waits to Chris Cornell, Gogol Bordello to The Killers. Heaven, the 2019 debut, is very good, and the singles released in the last two years point the way to Alien Summer, the new record that be released nationally on March 4. I joined just in time to play on the last two tracks we recorded.
Ten Favorite 2021 releases (in alphabetical order)
1. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Minimalist post-punk with spoken word lyrics full of droll observations of British life. Their two debut EPs made my 2019 list, and this is an excellent follow-up.
2. Feu! Chatterton – Palais d’Argile
I’d never heard of this Paris-based band until they opened for U2 on a YouTube concert. I loved their songs, energy, and full-on Frenchness: the lead singer was like Pepe Le Pew come to life complete with a sweet orange tweed suit and a mustache, and the lyric translations in the captions felt like lines from a liberation manifesto pamphlet found in a Parisian Cafe in the 50s. I have to think that Bryan Ferry would approve.
3. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
My goodness, this record is so beautiful. Floating Points composed a nine-movement suite and had it composed with the London Symphony Orchestra. Legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders improvises throughout. While Pharoah is more known for his free, out-there playing, his playing here is beautiful, spiritual, thoughtful.
4. Joan As Police Woman, Tony Allen, and Dave Okumu – The Solution Is Restless
Joan met the legendary Tony Allen – the father of Afrobeat drumming and the man Brian Eno calls the greatest drummer of all time – through Damon Albarn. That led to an improvised jam in Paris that Joan and Dave cut up into songs that recall Cate Le Bon and Radiohead at their mellowest. Tony passed away in 2020 so this record is especially bittersweet for hearing a new batch of his tasteful, understated grooves one more time.
5. Larry Goldings – Earthshine
Larry is an incredible pianist/organist best known for his work in jazz (collaborations with Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Steve Gadd, among others) and pop (artists as varied as Norah Jones, Beck, John Mayer, and James Taylor). It’s reasonable to expect a record full of shredding from such a gifted player, but that’s not the case here.
Earthshine is hard to categorize, landing somewhere between Radiohead, quiet jazz, and ambient. It’s the second release by Colorfield Records, a new label based out of Pete Min’s Lucy’s Meat Market studio in LA (a go-to for great sound where artists from Meshell Ndegeocello to The Strokes have recorded). The Colorfield records are based in improvisation and real-time collaboration between Pete and the artist. As the Colorfield site notes, “Much of the music is created in the studio. Chaos and chance are a big part of the process.” [Back story courtesy of Mark Guiliana – I was fortunate to hear his fantastic new record that will out on Colorfield in early 2022.]
6. Mark Guiliana – Ancient Practice
Mark is one of the best drummers in the world, best known in jazz for his own quartet and collaborations with Brad Mehldau, Donny McCaslin, and Avishai Cohen, and outside of jazz for his work with David Bowie and St. Vincent. He’s also a Grammy-nominated composer and, I’m thrilled to say, my teacher.
The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier is a critically acclaimed book by former NYT writer Ian Urbina about the outside-the-law world of international waters. Urbina invited musical artists to write new music inspired by the book’s themes and using sounds from his field work. Ancient Practice is part of that series and a fabulous record, an inspired work that draws on electronic, dub, and Eno-like mystery – it sounds like you’ve tuned into a shortwave radio station at 3am and you suspect you might be the only person in the world hearing it. [Not currently available online due to a label issue.]
7. Portico Quartet – Monument
If I had to pick a favorite record of the year, this would be it. Portico Quartet are a Mercury Prize-nominated, hard-to-categorize quartet from London who draw equally on jazz, ambient, classical minimalism, and electronic music (are you seeing a theme by now?). Landing somewhere between GoGo Penguin and Aphex Twin, it’s just beautiful – go listen.
8. Prism Bitch – Perla
Ok, back to the rock and roll. Prism Bitch is an Albuquerque-based band that delivers it in spades, creating a compelling mix of classic alt-rock with women leads (Belly, Breeders), 80s New Wave (the vintage synth sounds rule), and a touch of grunge. The rhythm section of Teresa Cruces (who also drums for Built To Spill) and Lauren Poole is rock solid. They’re also a blast live — here’s a clip from a Wiliamsburg show in 2020.
9. The Ordinary Things – Big Machine + Doom EP
Also hailing from Albuquerque, The Ordinary Things are a great trio highlighted by drummer/lead singer Jackie Chacon’s vox. Taken together, the album and EP vary from ethereal Sharon Van Etten/Phoebe Bridges territory to the dreamier side of the Velvet Underground with brief forays into prog. So good.
10. Wet Leg – Chaise Longue + three other singles
Wet Leg are a new British band that exploded with their debut single, “Chaise Longue.” Their debut won’t be out until April 2022 and they’ve already debuted on American TV with an excellent performance on Late Night With Seth Myers (as my good friend Neal noted, they have a “cat ate the canary” vibe about them). Landing somewhere between Dry Cleaning and The B-52s, they’re a blast.
Alejandro Escovedo – La Cruzada – The Spanish-language version of his 2018 release The Crossing, which made my best of that year.
Bomba Estereo – Deja – A Columbian band described as “electro tropical” or “psychedelic cumbia.”
Foo Fighters – Medicine at Midnight
Gang of Youths – tend the garden EP – Big-hearted, Springsteen-esque rock from down under. (Hat tip to Neal Weiss.)
Neil Cowley – Hall of Mirrors – Meditative piano from the composer of one of my favorite records of all time (his trio’s Spacebound Apes).
Paul Weller – Fat Pop – The Modfather continues to be productive and innovative at 63.
Princess Goes To The Butterfly Museum – Thanks For Coming – A heady electronic/house/etc. trio led by actor Michael C. Hall that has its roots in the band members’ earlier collaboration on Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Sault – Nine – A mysterious British collective that makes a dark mix of funk, house, and R&B. This is their fifth record since 2019 and they’re all strong.
Sedatø – self-titled – experimental electronic project by bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner, best known for their brilliant playing on David Bowie’s Blackstar. This would probably be higher if I’d had more time to spend with it – I’m just a few listens in.
The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness – Songs From Another Life – A duo from Madrid who sound a lot like The Go-Betweens (hat tip to Andy Hittle).
The Royal Arctic Institute – Sodium Light – Instrumental, cinematic music that draws on post-rock and jazz (h/t to Andy again).
You Am I – The Lives of Others – Legends down under and one of the best rock bands on the planet make a triumphant return with their first new record in six years.
Favorite live music moments (in chronological order)
- A one-night only stream of the London production of Lazarus, the musical that Bowie wrote, and which debuted just a few weeks before his death.
- Mark Guiliana – monthly improve livestreams + a Beat Music show from Bayfront Jazz Festival
- Ghost Man on Second – my last shows in Cincinnati with my musical brothers
- Baracutanga – Canteen Brewhouse, Albuquerque
- Foo Fighters – Isleta Amphitheater, Albuquerque – first big show in the pandemic era
- Psychedelic Furs and Royston Langdon (ex-Spacehog) – The Lensic, Santa Fe
- Dust City Opera – my first shows with the fabulous band I joined in Albuquerque
- The Ordinary Things at Canteen Brewhouse, Albuquerque
- Prism Bitch and Crime Lab at Sister, Albuquerque
Most plays by artist (via Last.fm)
A bit skewed, as many of the top artists are for relaxation or work as well as artists I put on for enjoyment.
- GoGo Penguin
- Miles Davis
- Los Lobos
- Neil Cowley Trio
- John Coltrane
- Latin Playboys
- David Bowie
- Augustus Pablo
- Thievery Corporation
- Bill Frisell
- Pell Mell
- Tony Allen
- Sonny Clark
- The Police
- Brian Eno
- Dry Cleaning
- Mark Guiliana