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.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

Favorite Tracks of 2021 Playlist: Things Aren't Quite Right

Last week, I featured my top albums of 2021, but there are a lot of other individual songs from 2021 not on those albums that I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I again noticed a theme—this year, all these songs are about subjects and situations that aren’t quite right. I guess that is a pretty good general theme for 2021.

I’ve organized my 2021 playlist into six pairs of songs:

"Anthony Kiedis" by Remi Wolf and "Jealousy, Jealousy" by Olivia Rodrigo are both songs from young debut artists that are insightful commentaries about problems they are encountering—and the older generations can relate, too. The former is about dealing with the 2020 pandemic shutdown, and the latter is about the effects of social media. Both also feature fresh, fun, humorous music despite the heavy topics. FYI, Anthony Kiedis is the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in case that helps.

"Savage Good Boy" by Japanese Breakfast (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner) and "Fly as Me" by Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak in a 1970s throwback project) are both satires on toxic masculinity, throwing a light on how ridiculous it can be by inhabiting that space. Great lyric writing in both songs—as the songs go on, each character gets more ridiculous. Japanese Breakfast has some great production, and Silk Sonic somehow call back the 70s and update the sound at the same time.

"The Tradition" by Halsey and "Bloody Soil" by Northern Irish band The New Pagans are both about the exploitation of young women—no shortage of that still going on. Like Silk Sonic, both find inspiration in older musical genres to help tell their points—"The Tradition" uses English ballad melodies and form (though with some added production and off-key creepiness) and "Bloody Soil" calls back to early 80s U2 rock crossed with Sonic Youth noise rock.

"Harmony Road" by Sting and "The Princess and the Clock" by Kero Kero Bonito are both about escaping a bad circumstance not of the protagonists’ creation (or at least wishing to escape). I’m sure many of us can relate to feeling trapped and isolated. While "Harmony Road" isn't one of the best Sting lyrics, I’m always there for weird meter Sting and folk-inspired Sting (plus a Branford Marsalis sax solo). "The Princess and the Clock" is typical KKB quirky electropop, with a fantasy story. A fairly typical form is spiced up by three pregnant instrumental interludes.

"Make it right." by Tune-Yards and "Reach Out" by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine are about fixing things that have gone wrong in the past. Tune-Yards are also into quirky production, and you can hear it here, along with some unexpected repetition. "Reach Out" is loosely based on the 1987 German fantasy-meets-romance film Wings of Desire (The German title is better: Der Himmel über Berlin, the Heaven/Sky over Berlin) where angels listen to the thoughts of Berliners. It features the light, airy Sufjan production you’ve probably heard before. While the song definitely feels like a whole, a melodic section does not repeat until almost 2.5 minutes into the song. For those counting at home, the sections look like: ABCDEDBA. So that’s cool.

"Indigo" by Katherine Priddy and "Homeward Bound (For Ana Grace)" by Johnathan Blake and Pentad are both about going home after a terrible experience. For "Indigo," the experience was a beloved tree breaking in the storm—though I think also a hard life. Those chord changes and the folk-inflected (and sometimes overdubbed) vocals get me every time. "Homeward Bound" is dedicated to the daughter of two other musician friends of Blake; the daughter died in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. It’s not that often that the drummer of a group is the bandleader, but if more weird 5/4 meter jazz are a result, I’m all for it. Also: I can’t get enough of the vibraphone in small ensembles like this.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

My Favorite New Albums of 2021

2021 has been a strange year. A year in which there were new albums by Sting, Chris Thile, and Imagine Dragons, and none of those made my list of favorite albums. I picked 6 out of the 51 new albums that I listened to from 2021 to highlight, in no particular order:

Screen Violence by Chvrches – The Scottish electropop trio’s best album since The Bones of What You Believe (2013), its songs deal with the (mostly bad) effects of living your life through screens—which many of us have been doing. Try out “Asking for a Friend,” which is about how easy it is to say things online that you can’t take back, or “Good Girls” (explicit language warning) about living up to unequal gender expectations. Pretty much every song has a great melody and thoughtful organization.

La Grande Folie by San Salvador – This was my top discovery for the year. A six-person vocal-and-percussion group who sing folk-inspired music. They all grew up in the small French town Saint-Salvadour and perform in the Occitan language, the historically traditional dialect in their region (though they learned it as a second language). Try out “Fai Sautar” and you’ll probably be hooked and listen to the rest of the album.

Star-Crossed by Kacey Musgraves – While I agree with most critics that it is not as good as Golden Hour, my favorite album from 2018, I still thought Musgrave’s "divorce album" had a plethora of well-constructed, well-produced, great tracks. She has some insightful minute, emotional observations along with a few empowering sing-alongs. Musgraves continues in a country fusion style; you can have a good cry while having a dance party. Check out: “Good Wife,” “Breadwinner,” or the out-of-this-world flute solo in “There is a Light.”

I Know I’m Funny haha by Faye Webster – An Atlanta native signed to a hip-hop label, this indie album took me by surprise with its musicianship. I know this album isn't for everyone; it’s definitely a downer and Webster's vocals are often more breathy than necessary. The album's strengths are in the songwriting and the instrumental hooks, often in the chorus; these hooks take the album from good to great. Try: "Better Distractions," “Kind of,” or "A Dream with a Baseball Player."

Blue Heron Suite by Sarah Jarosz – Jarosz’s World on the Ground made my top album list last year, but I think Blue Heron Suite is a better album (well, technically EP, I think). It was written and recorded back in 2017–2018, and I’ve been waiting for a commercial release for a long time! The suite looks back at happy morning childhood walks with her mother on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas—written at a time when both her mother and the town were not doing great. The blue herons in the suite are a symbol of hope for Jarosz, hope that we all need. Also, herons are objectively cool. Jarosz has a talent for songwriting, mandolin and guitar-picking, and atmospheres. It should be listened to from start to finish (no shuffling!), with musical themes interwoven and re-orchestrated throughout, but if you must pick, try “Morning” or “Blue Heron.”

Pressure Machine by The Killers – I’ve never really been a Killers fan, but this album struck closer to home than anything they’ve ever done. And when I say closer to home, I mean it’s a homage to Brandon Flowers’ childhood growing up in Nephi, Utah, about an hour south of where I grew up (also, Flowers and I are the same age). Flowers’ characters are not blameless nor pristine, but pitiable, struggling to make ends meet, and under the shadow of the opioid crisis. The sound is more acoustic and Americana-inspired than previous albums. Almost every track starts with an interview from a Nephi local (though I wish these soundbites were separate tracks). “Quiet Town” or “Sleepwalker” are good introduction songs.