Sunday, December 26, 2021

2021 in review

First, a bit of a disclaimer: Keeping up with new music in any kind of orderly way was pretty much an impossibility for me in 2021. Between work obligations and personal pursuits (guitar, etc.), there just wasn't a whole lot of time and space left over. So I heard what I heard. Categories fell by the wayside — as did the hope of putting together an informed genre-oriented survey, as I've done in recent years for new jazz releases. 

I'm fortunate to be in a position where people (publicists, label folks, the artists themselves) often send me new music. I'm grateful for every submission. I also try as best I can to manage expectations. I make no promises re: coverage — ultimately, I'm an editor by trade, and each year, I'm only able to take on a select amount of writing projects — and in 2021, the gap between the amount of music that made its way to me and the amount I was able to publicly acknowledge seemed wider than ever. 

Still, I heard a fair amount and some of it really connected. And though, as I pointed out around a decade ago now (!) on this very blog, I identify much more as an all-purpose music lover than as a partisan of any particular genre, I stayed as current as I could re: jazz, metal and other areas I've often gravitated toward, while taking in whatever else happened to call out to me. The bottom line is that if music hits you, and, especially, if it sticks with you after making an initial impact, it doesn't really matter what kind it is — the important thing is that it lingers, intrigues and ideally makes you want to go back. And in the arbitrary parameter of a year, you never (or at least I never) have time to go back to everything that grabbed you. So you do your best and then, come December, you see what you've got to work with. Whatever your taste profile, I hope you find something below that interests or excites.

Lastly, I just want to say that if you've engaged with anything I've worked on this year (writing, music, podcast), I sincerely appreciate it. Attention is at a premium for all of us, and I don't take it for granted that anyone would expend a bit of theirs on something I've had a hand in. Thank you.

By the way, just stating for the record that the most gratifying projects I worked on this year were this Spiderland feature and this Journey in Satchidananda podcast. Check 'em out if you haven't! And now, on to the lists and annotations.


Overall 2021 top 10 [w/ a few links to prior coverage where applicable]: 

  1. Turnstile, Glow On 
  2. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
  3. Mastodon, Hushed and Grim 
  4. Assertion, Intermission 
  5. Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Superwolves 
  6. Willow, Lately I Feel Everything 
  7. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You  
  8. Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me 
  9. Leo Nocentelli, Another Side 
  10. Carcass, Torn Arteries

An annotated version of the above can be found here, alphabetized within Rolling Stone's annual collection of staff lists. I'll just say that aside from Promises, which is more like a holistic sound bath, with every one of these — from the Amyl to the Willow to the Leo, Bonnie/Sweeney, Mastodon, Assertion, Carcass, Moran and of course the Turnstile — what did it was the songs. An abundance of tracks that dug in and stayed put.

The two records not listed above that came closest to making the cut were Bo Burnham's Inside (The Songs) and Mustafa's When Smoke Rises. The former was an odd case: the soundtrack to a Netflix tragicomedy special that doubled as a one-man musical. Ultimately I elected to leave it out of the running, but really only on a technicality (it didn't seem quite fair to stack up a multimedia product against other audio-only albums; or put another way, even when listening to Inside as an album, I still felt like I couldn't separate it entirely from its visual counterpart). The truth is that, song for song, the Burnham stuck with me as much as anything I heard this year aside from the Turnstile LP, which rarely left my heavy rotation after an initial spin. (I had a new favorite song roughly every week, from "Holiday" to "New Heart Design" to the brief but brilliant "No Surprise") If you haven't seen Inside, I recommend it wholeheartedly, and if you do watch it and don't spend weeks or months with its tunes rattling around inside your head — well, to quote one of the special's best songs, "Welcome to the Internet," "If none of it's of interest to you, you'd be the first…" (The Phoebe Bridgers cover of "That Funny Feeling," honestly probably better than the original, really drives home how strong Burnham's writing is here.) 

And the Mustafa record is just lovely and intimate and quietly devastating. It's all there in the opening track, "Stay Alive." This Pitchfork interview from 2020 offers valuable context, and this review of When Smoke Rises by my RS colleague Mankaprr Conteh eloquently sums up what makes it so special.  

I also participated in an RS metal list for 2021, where I wrote up the Mastodon and the Carcass, as well as King Woman's Celestial Blues, an immersive opus that drew me in immediately once I checked in with it late in the year. I wholeheartedly second the votes on those Maiden and Converge selections as well — both bands are legacy acts who are still out there pushing.

2021 jazz top 10 [w/ Bandcamp links where applicable]:

Note: This is the list I submitted to the annual Jazz Critics Poll, hosted by Francis Davis and Tom Hull. Full results should be online within a week or so can be found here

  1. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You
  2. James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Code of Being 
  3. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
  4. Dan Weiss and Miles Okazaki, Music for Drums and Guitar
  5. Francisco Mela, MPT Trio Volume 1
  6. Artifacts, …and Then There's This
  7. Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor, Long Tall Sunshine [physical/digital available here]
  8. The Cookers, Look Out! 
  9. William Parker, Mayan Space Station 
  10. Chris Potter, Sunrise Reprise  

Jason Moran stood out this year as something of an MVP, an honor he's almost always in the running for. The duo albums with Shepp and Graves (mentioned in the afore-linked RS staff round-up) were handsome mementos of exemplary intergenerational collabs, but the solo record sounds to me like a career highlight to date. Absolutely gorgeous and entirely beyond category. As for Promises, I wondered for a second whether it even made sense to classify it as a jazz record — maybe "minimalist classical work with improvising soloist" would be more accurate — but I feel alright about using Pharoah's presence as a loophole there. It's a spellbinding record that frames a legend in an entirely new light. James Brandon Lewis is just a full-on star at this point. He puts out a lot of music but phones nothing in. I've loved his duo discs with Chad Taylor from the past few years, and their work together in JBL's larger bands is just as impressive. The quintet album Jesup Wagon earned a lot of well-deserved praise this year, but Code of Being hit me even harder. There's a gravity and intensity to this one that really makes it feel top-shelf. In a jazz bandleader, you want to hear a highly developed instrumental and compositional vision and JBL is simply there on both counts. I'll be listening for whatever he does next. The Weiss/Okazaki is a high-order musical brainteaser and a memento of a deep, longstanding mind-meld between these two. The Mela really stood out to me from the jump.

I'm still digesting this one in full but re: this particular tune… wow. I wrote to a friend that it sounds a bit like the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio with Milford Graves sitting in for Paul (nothing wrong with the original of course, but I loved hearing this spin on their approach). Fascinating and singular stuff. Cannot wait to catch this band live at some point. The Artifacts disc impressed me as a document of a band really growing into itself, and I could say the same of Chris Potter's Circuits Trio with James Francies (also a key presence on Pat Metheny's debut Side-Eye record and a second-time Blue Note bandleader with his own Purest Form) and Eric Harland, and Barry Altschul's ass-kicking inside-outside 3Dom Factor band with Jon Irabagon and Joe Fonda. The Cookers remain simply one of my favorite active bands in jazz, and anything they put out is going to have a shot at my year-end list, esp. if it's as strong as this latest disc — master player and composers, beautifully showcased. Don't know what more you could ask for from a new jazz record, really. And amid the slew of music that William Parker put out this year (I still need to make time for Cisco Bradley's bio!), the sizzling Mayan Space Station disc with Ava Mendoza and Gerald Cleaver stood out immediately as a fresh spin on the guitar trio — in some ways a spiritual cousin to the classic Gateway records. 

Speaking of slews of music, I felt like I only scratched the surface of the many worthy box sets that came my way: Wadada Leo Smith's Chicago Symphonies (w/ Henry Threadgill, whose own latest Zooid disc was typically enigmatic and alluring; John Lindberg; and Jack DeJohnette) and Sacred Ceremonies (w/ Bill Laswell and Milford Graves)— just two of three multi-album sets he released via the Finnish Tum label to commemorate his 80th birthday year, along with another trio disc featuring DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer (sadly, all these seem to be entirely absent from the digital marketplace; really would love to see Tum on Bandcamp one of these days); Anthony Braxton's 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017, a sonic world unto itself — don't miss the visual documents; and Matt Mitchell and Kate Gentile's weird and wonderful Snark Horse. I came away from each of these highly impressed and hoping to immerse more in 'em going forward.

And on the live front, the jazz highlight of the year for me had to be seeing Darius Jones play his moving, exacting new solo album Raw Demoon Alchemy in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetary. Unforgettable.

Then, history-wise, we got that marvelous A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle set; Alice's magical, centering Kirtan: Turiya Sings; a generous Julius Hemphill trove from New World; a vividly recorded live companion to Cecil Taylor's classic Winged Serpents (Sliding Quadrants) LP from '84, via Polish label Fundacja SÅ‚uchaj, which has been issuing a steady stream of archival Cecil since the master's passing; that illuminating, long-thought-lost Hasaan Ibn Ali date (as well as a solo one that I only just learned of, also via Omnivore); and maybe most impressively, a reissue of an all-star 1970 Roy Brooks date, previously unknown to me, that sounds like it's propelled by rocket fuel (my lord, Woody Shaw on this...).


A few other stray mentions of albums or songs that spoke to me:

Two albums from the Chicago label American Dreams left strong and immediate impressions: Lamplighter, a luminous and enveloping trio disc from guitarist Matthew Rolin, hammered-dulcimer player Jen Powers and drummer Jayson Gerycz that struck me as something like "if Takoma met FMP"; and Patrick Shiroishi's masterful overdubbed saxophone opus Hidemi, which brought to my mind a one-man World Saxophone Quartet.

The new Dinosaur Jr. album is a delight. You could play "I Ran Away" for someone who'd never heard them and their core charms would all be readily apparent.


Whereas Dinosaur Jr.'s genius lies in never fixing what ain't broke, the Flying Luttenbachers have always been about restless forward progression, esp. since their reboot a couple years back. Their new one, Negative Infinity — their first where founder/leader cedes drum duties; Sam Ospovat simply destroys in the role — is an absolute monster, reminiscent at times of the rigorous savagery of the band's Cataclysm era but challenging and overwhelming in all its own ways. I hear there's another new one due soon from this lineup and I can't wait to hear it.

This Heart Attack Man song is an emo-punk-pop mini masterpiece. The video is also a blast. 

As with "Pitch Black" above, every moment of Pom Pom Squad's "Head Cheerleader" is a hook. Songwriting excellence.

More monster hooks here, courtesy of some guy named Lindsey Buckingham:

And still more, courtesy of some of the guys also responsible for the Turnstile masterpiece:


(Note: The Angel Du$t track above first turned up on a 2020 EP, but makes a return appearance on the band's great 2021 album YAK: A Collection of Truck Songs.)

And who could deny this velvet juggernaut of the airwaves?

The best band I saw on a stage in 2021 — close call with the mighty likes of Sheer Mag, Harriet Tubman and Jaimie Branch's Fly or Die — may very well have been Gospel. Study up and get ready for the follow-up due soon. 
And lastly, goodbye and thank you for everything, Milford Graves, Greg Tate, Chick Corea, Sonny Simmons, Bobby Few, George Wein, Rick Laird, Barry Harris and Phil Schaap.

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