Sunday, January 21, 2024

Favorite Tracks of 2023 (Double) Playlist

Earlier this week, I shared my favorite albums of 2023. But, per usual, I have curated a playlist of favorite songs from 2023 that aren’t on those albums. I did not notice until after I put the list together, but none of the main artists in these songs are white men. I guess that is one overarching theme, but I'm also pairing the tracks together in 7 separate themes. Here we go:

1&2: Things are changing

Sampha: “Spirit 2.0” from Lahai – This song by British artist Sampha bottles the feeling of hope in a new situation, even when things didn’t go great last time.

Sen Morimoto: “Feel Change” from Diagnosis – This song from Japanese American artist Sen Morimoto, is about not liking change but knowing that it continues to happen whether we like it or not. I love the musical irony of the constantly changing meter below the lyrics “nothing will change.”

3&4: Modern Spanish flamenco

Israel Fernández: “Despierta (Bulería)” from Pura Sangre – A bulería is a particular type of flamenco song or dance with a particular kind of rhythm, and often features improvisation from the singer. This bulería is telling us to “look forward, wake up”; in other words, don’t dream about the past, but plan for the future. The song also features some non-traditional effects and instruments.

María José Llergo: “Rueda, Rueda” from ULTRABELLEZA – This flamenco-influenced song is even less traditional, with the chorus sounding more pop than flamenco. “Rueda” means wheel and in this song refers to a cycle of party/touring life that this singer has found herself in, which is working out okay for her now, but if she stops what she is doing, she is worried that there will be bad consequences.

5&6: Chicago black girl power

Noname: “beauty supply” from Sundial – From the iconoclast Chicago rapper Noname, a song about how maybe standards of beauty—even if they are in protest of other standards of beauty—maybe are still not healthy. Strangely, Spotify tags this song as having explicit lyrics, when the same (single) word is featured multiple times in the “clean” version of one of the Olivia Rodrigo songs from GUTS.

Jamila Woods: “Boomerang” from Water Made Us – The masterful Chicago songstress and powerful lyricist with a track about feeling excited yet trepidatious that your ex wants to get back together, and is asking—is it really going to be different this time?

7&8: Classic Celtic, new twists

Claire Hastings: “Ca’ the Yowes” from Lullabies from Scotland – A beautiful old Scots song about a shepherd from an album of Scottish lullabies. Like Claire Hastings, who dreamed up this album while caring for her child, I think we should all sing songs in 5/4 to kids.

Nuala Kennedy: “Whirlpools: The Lighthouse Polka” from Shorelines – Did you know that polkas are considered traditional dances in Ireland and have been played there for 200 years? This one is by Kennedy, though.

9&10: What the heck is going on?

Genevieve Artadi: “Black Shirts” from Forever Forever – Maybe the title of this track lured me in. It's a fun, quirky jazz-influenced song about missing someone before they’ve left (on a business trip?); I don’t really mind that the words don’t scan well. “Black shirts” are what the singer is wearing until their significant other gets back.

Carly Rae Jepsen: “Aeroplanes” from The Loveliest Time – A prolific songwriter, Jepsen often comes out with a “Side B” album not long after a “main” album comes out. This album was the Side B of The Loneliest Time, one of my top albums from 2022. Usually, I’m not that excited about Side Bs, but this one has a higher percentage of great tracks, including this one, which thematically is really more about loneliness (unrequited love) but is also very weird harmonically, has three-bar phrases in the chorus, has a 2nd verse that pretends to be a bridge—and then the song transitions to an unexpected outro.

11&12: Not sure what is going on here, either…

Samaïa: “Avlanskani Cuneli” from Traversées – In this album, this French female folk trio sings songs from a lot of different cultures and languages. I think this track is in Laz, a language spoken in modern-day Turkey and Georgia. The song is also in mixed meter: 3 + 3 + 2 + 2.

Tricot: “Oool” from Fudeki – This song was actually from late 2022, and is actually a lot less weird (especially metrically) than many songs from this all-female Japanese band often labeled as “math rock.” You can hear their complex layered approach. I’m not quite sure what it is about, from what I can find—maybe an office romance, but they find out they are different outside the office, like Severance?

13&14: Been away

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: “Alice in Bluegrass” from City of Gold – What do you get when you cross Alice in Wonderland and bluegrass music, and then throw in various references to drug use? This song.

Haim: “Home” from Barbie: The Album – There are quite a few noteworthy tracks from this movie album, but this one from sister trio Haim is the best—though it is quite a bit more earnest than, for example, Lizzo’s ridiculous “Pink” acrostic poem (K is kool?).

In the words of Ben Folds: “But wait, there’s more!” I had a hard time paring down my list of great songs from this year, so I created a 2nd list of favorite tracks of 2023. I’m calling it “Yes White Elephant” because there are a lot of varied tracks and I’m giving you no background—just put on shuffle and enjoy whatever you get.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

My Favorite New Albums of 2023

First, I want to apologize for not getting this list out sooner—I had a setback in mid-December, prime list making time, when I got a double ear infection and all music sounded muffled and out of tune for 3–4 weeks. My ears eventually recovered (though still not quite back to normal) and I was able to narrow down my favorites from the crowded field. I thought for sure that because of certain life events this year, I would listen to less new music than normal this year. But it turns out the number of 2023 albums I listened to was pretty typical: 61. Here are my top 6, which for the most part manage to combine great music with lyrical content that are not just simple love songs, but resonate with our social condition in 2023.

What Matters Most by Ben Folds – I wasn’t expecting Ben Folds to be relevant in 2023, but this may be the most timely album I heard this year. The album is (mostly) a beautiful and earnest evaluation of what is important in life. And while Folds deals with the darker side of humanity, he also shows a halo of hope. Definitely check out the expansive and classically-inspired “But Wait, There’s More” (a phrase that cuts in several ways) and the conversational “Kristine from the 7th grade.” One warning: “Exhausting Lover,” a story of a bad decision, is for mature listeners only.

Celebrants by Nickel Creek – This album, written on a grand scale, works better as a whole; not many singles here. Honestly, I’m still working out the meanings of this album, but I can say that it is a post-pandemic album that deals with what happens we are used to meeting and seeing each other, but suddenly that all changes; “Celebrants” refers to people who are taking part in a party (celebration), though normally it is applied to religious ceremonies. If you want some entry points, I’ll pick a favorite song from each member: “The Meadow” (Chris), “Stone’s Throw” (Sean), and “New Blood” (Sara). The pair of instrumental tracks “Going Out…” and “...Despite the Weather” are instant classics.

The Sorrow Songs (Folk Songs of Black British Experience) by Angeline Morrison – Morrison loves the power of British folk song, but realized that there aren’t many songs from that tradition about the experiences of British Black people like her. So, she researched historic Black British experiences and wrote her own folk songs to document. She interspersed the songs with a few short quotes from non-Black folks. A powerful album from a great voice. For a taste, check out “The Hand of Fanny Johnson,” inspired by a mummified hand buried by an English family in 1996 that had been passed down for 200 years, claiming it was from the family’s black servant. You should really check out the beautiful album liner notes, which you can read or download here.

Dusk Moon by Rura – This all-instrumental album from this Scottish quartet is great from start to finish; if you want to dip your toes into some smoking yet nuanced trad music, try “Dusk Moon,” “The Grove” or “The Crossing.” Or just put the whole album on as some background music.

This is Why by Paramore – Like other albums on this list, this one is channeling post-pandemic angst and anxiety. I feel like the band watched The Good Place as a starting place for their research of modern moral quandaries. But no song tackles too much—each has a laser focus. It is hard to pick an entry point because every track is good, with a mix of driving, danceable, catchy music and clever lyrics. But why not start at the beginning, the title track “This is Why”? “Running Out of Time” is funny, sad, and serious all at the same time. “Big Man, Little Dignity,” one of the slower songs, draws from the ‘80s in a good way (and is maybe about Trump?). Bass clarinet fans, like myself, keep your ears open!

GUTS by Olivia Rodrigo – My favorite album of the year may be the sophomore album from Rodrigo—it is musically catchy and lyrically memorable; it’s got ballads and bangers. Besides deftly channeling some big feelings (love, jealousy, anger, disillusionment), Rodrigo shows she is a master of musical irony. For example, the first track “All-American Bitch” ping-pongs from a controlled, measured arpeggiated guitar to a frenetic punk song, while using music and contradictory lyrics to emphasize the impossible expectations heaped on young women. Another favorite, “Get Him Back,” is a master class in double meanings. I’m posting the clean version of the album here, but you can easily hear more expletives, if you want to feel the anger more—anger at mostly the patriarchy; but also herself.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

My Favorite Tracks of 2022 (and late 2021) Playlist: I Can't Go Back/Birdsplosion

Last week, I featured my top albums of 2022, but as usual there are a lot of other individual songs from 2022 (and late 2021…) not on those albums that I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I decided on a theme—“I can’t go back,” taken from a line in “Rosy” by The Regrettes. These songs all could be about going forward and not being able to return to where you started, which is always true—but especially true post-pandemic.

But wait, there’s more! I didn’t create just one playlist this year—I made two. This year I listened to so many songs inspired by birds, featuring birds, or sampling birdsong, that that theme needed its own playlist, “Birdsplosion.” One example of on-theme music released this year was the 5-part mega-album For the Birds: The Birdsong Project, which was conceived of during the pandemic and benefits Aududon. The physical version of this album fills 20 LPs. There were all types of content, including poetry read by celebrities, ambient music, songs by artists you’ve heard of and by many you haven’t heard of. You can listen to it yourself, if you like (or if you can just watch a video of Andrew Bird imitating birdsong to videos of birds here), but I’ve included a small sample from the collection below, interspersed with tracks from other artists who featured birds in their music this last-year-and-change. Anyway, from my listening, I decided it's really hard to write compelling music based on birdsong—the source material is often too repetitive and lacks direction. The songs that succeed take the source material and manipulate it to bring some direction; hopefully, you will hear that in some of these selections. Of course, another path is to write about birds without using their songs at all, of which there are several examples here.

I’ll say a little about all of the tracks from both playlists below.

“I can’t go back”

  1. Momma: “Speeding 72” from Household Name – Not a great artist name, though the title pun is funny; but nonetheless a great song to play while driving fast in a car.
  2. M.I.A.: “Puththi” from Mata – I’m not sure many people noticed that M.I.A. came out with a new album this year. This particular track appealed to me with more South Asian mixed in to the hip hop than other tracks on the album.
  3. Phoenix: “Season 2” from Alpha Zulu – A light bopper from the veteran French Band. Their English words don’t always make sense.
  4. Sylvan Esso: “Alarm” from No Rules Sandy – I’m usually not a huge fan of loop-based music, but this track keeps me unsteady on my feet at the same time I want to be dancing. I love how the main refrain sounds like an alarm, especially the word “alarm.” And when you’ve heard an alarm, you can’t go back.
  5. Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: “The River Knows” from Crooked Tree – A haunting story about a sexual assault from a childhood friend, culminating in situation that no one can go back from. Guitar prodigy Tuttle is a rising star in folk and bluegrass scenes.
  6. The Regrettes: “Rosy” from Further Joy – A song about changing your mind about a relationship, moving from friendship to love. This album's style is a departure from previous punk Regrettes' albums, moving in a more pop direction.
  7. Perfume: “Spinning World” from Plasma – Japanese idol group Perfume has been making music together since 2001, lasting far longer than many J-pop idol groups. And they’ve still got it. If you want to be a little freaked out, watch the music video (even though the video has a translation, I’m still not sure what the song is about).
  8. Regina Spektor: “One Man’s Prayer” from Home, Before and After – This song seems to start okay, but you gradually realize that the male singer persona is a poster child for toxic masculinity, and as the audience, we become more and more alarmed. Alarming, but also kind of true. I do think the heavy production takes a little away from the songwriting.
  9. Muna: “Anything But Me” from Muna – A breakup song with a very real message for those who should really step away from toxic relationships (like the one in the previous track?); I love the one-liners, especially the first one.
  10. Heal & Harrow: “Cutty Sark” from Heal & Harrow – At first, I thought this track from Scottish musicians Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl was about the famous clipper ship on display in Greenwich, England. But it turns out this song is about the witch for which the ship was named. The whole albums is about Scottish witch trials from the 16th–18th centuries.
  11. Raveena: “Rush” from Asha’s Awakening – I’m not going to go into the Punjabi space princess concept, which in my opinion doesn’t really hold up, but New York musician Raveena still does a great job melding South Asian and pop music (though the 13-minute guided meditation is not for me). This track perfectly characterizes joyful anticipation.
  12. Lizzy McAlpine (featuring Jacob Collier): “Erase me” from five seconds flat – Although this song is from Lizzy McAlpine’s second full-length album, she was new to me. I didn’t listen for very long before I figured out that the multi-instrumentalist jazz-pop prodigy Jacob Collier was also on the track. I think the song is about someone who is in too deep in a relationship and can’t see how to exist without the other person.
  13. Mattiel: “Boomerang” from Georgia Gothic – I encountered this album trying to keep track of Georgia musicians, and this track won me over with its off-kilter meter. Also, by pairing “party in the USA” with “party in the Hudson Bay.” I’m not sure exactly what the track is about, but perhaps it is about trying to go back and failing?
  14. Gwenno: “Kan Me” from Tresor – I first featured Gwenno, a Welsh musician who sings her recent albums entirely in Cornish, in my 2018 year-end list.  “Kan me” means May song, and it celebrates the beginning of summer.
  15. Robert Glasper, esperanza spalding, and Q-Tip: “Why We Speak” from Black Radio III – This is the third album in which pianist/songwriter/producer Glasper has collaborated with a lot of different artists; this song (in which spalding sings more French than English) is an anti-capitalist plea to remember the real reasons for living. You can watch the lyrics video (not translated, though) here.


  1. Aoife O’Donovan: “Sister Starling” from Age of Apathy – Birds as metaphor.
  2. Seu Jorge and Flor Jorge: “Good to See” from For the Birds, the Birdsong Project, Vol. 2 – Birdsong as compositional material (I wish I knew the bird!).
  3. Ingrid Henderson: “Reels: The Dance of the Storm Petrels & Swallows of the Sea” from Message in a Bottle (Brath sa Bhuideal) – Birds as inspiration.
  4. Rudresh Mahanthappa: “Oreals” from For the Birds, the Birdsong Project, Vol. 1 – Birdsong as compositional material.
  5. Rachel Newton and the Spell Song Ensemble: “Swifts” from Spell Songs II: Let the Light In – This once seems to actually be about the bird.
  6. Les Mamans du Congo and RROBIN: “Loango Weaver” from A guide to the Birdsong of Western Africa – Birdsong as compositional material. This is just the latest albums in a whole regional series featuring songs based on birdsong—separate from the Audubon album.
  7. Shabaka Hutchings and esperanza spalding: “Morning Rituals” from For the Birds, the Birdsong Project, Vol. 5 – I think bird as inspiration, but there could be some borrowed birdsong compositional material here, in addition to the birdsong in the background. spalding is the only artist featured in both playlists!
  8. Olivia Chaney: “The Hawk and the Crow” from For the Birds, the Birdsong Project, Vol. 2 – Birds as metaphor.
  9. El Búho and David Rothenberg: “SupercurlU”  from Simmerdim: Curlew Sounds. I think a little of bird as inspiration and birdsong as compositional material. This track is from an entire album based on curlew birdsong. Also, birds and bass clarinet? How could I not like it? That's like like my brand.
  10. Woodkid: “Altamira Oriole” from For the Birds, the Birdsong Project, Vol. 3 – Birdsong as compositional material.
  11. Lyre Lyre: “Sam’s Chicken” from Gin and Strathspey – Birds as inspiration, and a fun way to end the Birdsplosion with this Scottish fiddle/cello/guitar trio.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

My Favorite New Albums of 2022 (and Late 2021)

In additional to listening to several podcasts focused on new releases, I spend a lot of time listening to whole albums of new music (often more than once). In 2022, I did more album listening than ever—I listened to 43% more new albums than in 2021, for a total of 73 new albums. Also, I decided that it was unfair of me to not consider late 2021 albums that I didn’t learn about until 2022, so that brings the total to 83 albums under consideration. From those 83 albums, I picked my favorite 6 to highlight for you; curiously (or not), all but one of the artists I’m highlighting have showed up in my previous favorite albums lists in the past four years. One note: although my final highlight list does not include any albums by People of Color, about 30% of the new albums I listened to were by People of Color—many of those that I loved, I included in my yearly playlist, which I will post next week. Here are my 6 picks, listed in the order I heard them:

Hell on Church Street by the Punch Brothers – The Punch Brothers releases often make my top albums (last time for All Ashore in 2018, I think), but this is a strange (yet familiar) project where they covered not just one song, but an entire album by Tony Rice, Church Street Blues (1983), which itself was an album of covers. Of course, they put their own spin on the songs. Check out the first and last tracks, “Church Street Blues” and the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

El Sur by Girl Ultra – Spanish electrodance/pop singer Girl Ultra was a new discovery for me this year, but I might actually join a dance party if this album was on; it has great production and catchy melodies. “Bombay” is the off-balance hit from this brief album, but I can imagine that the whispering and repeated “zzz” in the chorus could be annoy for some people—I decided I like it. Check out El Sur if you are looking for an alternative to more stereotypical Spanish-language music. Warning: some explicit (Spanish) language (at least Spotify says there is; I haven’t been able to figure out where).

Emotional Creature by Beach Bunny – Their previous album, Honeymoon was one of my favorite albums from 2020, and Beach Bunny caught my attention again with even more alt-rock, tightly-constructed musical vignettes. This album is more upbeat than their first album, with more happy moments describing the first sparks of love—but digging into the lyrics, there is always something more complicated. While the chord progressions aren’t novel, the band finds lots of ways to make the arrangements interesting. I especially recommend “Entropy” and “Weeds,” but all the songs are solid writing.

Expert in a Dying Field by The Beths – The New Zealand group’s previous album, Jump Rope Gazers, was also one of my favorite albums from 2020, but this albums is even better. They combine catchy melodies, smart lyrics, clever insights, and charming harmony vocals. The memorable title track takes an academic saying and applies it to a long-term relationship that is about to end. Also check out the very loud track “Silence is Golden,” but all the songs are good.

Sleeping Spirals by Hannah James and Toby Kuhn – Even though Hannah James’s album The Woman and Her Words was one my top albums of 2019, I somehow didn’t find out about this late-2021 album until sometime in 2022. James is working with a smaller ensemble this time with some overdubbing, but you’d never guess that just two people made the mix of cello, accordion, foot percussion, and voice. I love her new (“The Giant”) and traditional (“There Ravens”) folk-y storytelling songs, even if it is cryptic sometimes; there are also several beautiful purely instrumental (include voice-as-instrument) tracks. If you want the best of storytelling and instrumental, you could try “Jealousy,” treating a timeless theme that also is pointedly about today's social media.

The Loneliest Time by Carly Rae Jepsen – Jepsen’s Dedicated made my 2019 favorite album list. This album doesn’t quite rise to that level, but I will say this—this album came out on the same day as Taylor Swift’s Midnights (one of the biggest albums of 2022) and I listened to them both back-to-back on a road trip. This album was hands-down better than Swift’s—Jepsen keeps coming up with original and surprising song ideas (both musically and lyrically) and then expertly executes them (maybe she is better at working with collaborators...?). You might think from the title that this was a pandemic album, and much of it probably was made during the pandemic, but that theme doesn’t take front seat. I think my favorite tracks of this stuffed album are the very funny “Beach House,” about a string of very bad dates where first impressions didn’t always match up with reality; the breezy and cheerful “So Nice”; and the trippy “No Thinking Over the Weekend” (maybe it is the flutes that won me over?), one of the three “bonus tracks.” But there is really something for everyone here.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Two 2021 Celtic album recommendations

Sometimes I come to albums in the next year after they were produced, and regret not putting them on my end-of-year lists (we really need to come up with a better system for this—maybe this year, best of 2022 and 2021 albums I finally heard?). This post features two albums from Fall 2021, both of them folk music. I'd say this was a St. Patrick's Day post, but neither of the albums I'm recommending are really connected to Ireland, though they might broadly be considered Celtic.

The first is Message in a Bottle by Ingrid Henderson, a Scottish harpist. No, it doesn't have anything to do with Sting's "Message in a Bottle"; instead, the album is inspired by an event in 2008, when "a nine year old boy from Armagh placed...a message in a bottle off Northern Ireland and ten years later it washed up on Canna [Scotland]" (there's your Irish connection). Henderson mixes her music with natural sounds, like the sea, and the rest of the album soothes like those natural sounds. Birds, sailors, and mermaids are featured topics. Besides instrumentals, there's singing in Scots-Gaelic and English, too. My two favorite tracks are dance music, though: "Jigs–Port na Culaidh & Port an Luig Mhòir" and "Reels–The Dance of the Storm Petrels & Swallows of the Sea." Also available on Bandcamp.

The second album is Reclaim by Mishra, a group from Sheffield, England. While their style is "traditional," their use of Indian tabla, banjo, low whistles, bass and clarinet (and sometimes bass clarinet) puts them solidly in the realm of "fusion." But it is not just the instrumentation; the melodies occasionally borrow from Indian music (and other traditional music). The songwriting might vary in quality, but the arrangements are always inventive and unexpected. Also available on Bandcamp.